Disclaimer: These characters and this narrative are mine, so there is nothing
to disclaim in this here story. Besides, if you are still reading my stuff, you
already know the drill - you will need an open mind to read it. If you find
something you think needs disclaiming, you are more than welcome to let me know.
It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn
you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To my truly awesome Beta Team – Phil, Mac and Jeanne – they do such an incredible job for me story after story because God knows I never make it easy and this one came in right under the wire. Thanks, ya’ll... this would have been much more difficult process without your efforts. You guys ROCK!
Author’s Notes: I started this in April when I needed a break from Angel and it blossomed and morphed until it became a Halloween story of sorts... just in time for the Annual invitational. Thanks to the Boss for inviting me to play again!
The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect.
Made For You
The house was small, not quite a hovel but only just. It was austere to the point of being bleak, and that was only exacerbated by the yelling that could be heard coming from the front room. In the bed, a small figure huddled beneath the thin covers, as much for warmth as to hide from the furious sounds emanating from the other room through lightweight walls.
A character walked out of a dark corner and tucked a thick, warm blanket over the bed, then patiently waited for the individual in the bed to cease their shivering and venture out from beneath the darkness in which it had been hidden.
A dark head emerged first, followed by cautious blue eyes that tracked slowly around the room until they landed on the person standing patiently at the end of the bed. The eyes widened almost comically, and the full, red baby lips couldn’t contain the gasp of surprise.
“Who are you?” demanded a small, childish voice. “What are you doing in my room?” The figure smiled and the child gasped again... this time in delight. “You look like an angel.”
The being laughed, and the sound was like music to the child’s ears. “I am, Zane. My name is Urim, but you can just call me U; that’s easy to remember, right?” Zane nodded, enthralled that such a beautiful creature was talking to her. “May I sit?” Urim asked, and Zane nodded again, charmed beyond words. Urim smiled and took a seat, looking at Zane as she studied him carefully.
“If you’re really an angel,” she asked guilelessly, “where’s your wings?”
Urim chuckled again and patted her hand. “I put them away because there isn’t a lot of room for them in here – would you like to see them?”
“Oh yes, please,” Zane responded with enthusiasm, and Urim nodded and offered her a smile.
“Very well,” he said and stood, backing up to give himself room enough to spread his wings. Then he extended his wings and watched her face light up. Urim extended his hand, and Zane took it without hesitation, letting him guide her movement until she was touching the soft feathers that made up a majority of the wing. She gazed at him in astonishment.
“Wow!” she finally commented. “You really are an angel.”
“I really am,” he assured her with a gentle smile. He saw her shiver and took her hand, leading her back to the bed and tucking her in before taking a seat beside her once more. When she was settled, Urim looked at Zane seriously and she held his eyes with hers, sensing the seriousness of his demeanor.
“Zane, I have a question for you, and I want you to think about your answer before you speak, okay?”
“’Kay!” she agreed as firmly as a five-year-old could.
“Good,” Urim replied with an approving nod of his head. “Now, if I told you I could take you away from all this,” motioning around the room, “and make you rich and famous and successful, what would you say? Would you like that?” Zane nodded vigorously and Urim gave her a beneficent smile. “What if it came at a price, Zane? Would you be willing to give up love so you would never be cold or hungry again?” Zane hesitated this time – sometimes her mommy told her she loved her, but then there was all the yelling and the hitting that came between those times. Urim was patient – this was too important to rush, and it had to be Zane’s choice... done of her own free will.
After a time, Zane looked at Urim and nodded. “Don’t let them hit me anymore,” she whispered.
“I won’t, Zane,” he vowed. “When you wake up tomorrow, everything will be new and different, and I promise, you will never know cold or hunger or the sting of your mother’s hand again, all right?” Urim smiled and Zane smiled in reflex. He rose from the bed, pulling the thick blanket up to her chin and smoothing her hair back tenderly. “Go to sleep, Zane. Everything will be different in the morning, and I’ll be here to help guide you through it, all right?”
“Goodnight, U,” Zane mumbled as she dropped off to sleep.
“Goodnight, Zane,” he replied, allowing his smile to become sadistic and cruel. Stage one was off to a smashing start.
Part The First
The conflagration was massive, flames reaching high into the night sky and lighting the neighborhood better than the sun itself. The fire was burning hot and fast and by the time the fire department arrived, much of the house engulfed in flames. Still, they had a duty, and while some set up the trucks and hydrants and started running hoses and water, a small contingent geared up to check inside.
Within moments they were soaked down and moving into the mouth of hell, and their comrades aimed the spray to keep the fire from spreading. A crowd had gathered, and it was then that the firefighters learned that there were two, possibly three, victims in the house, and with this in mind, they went searching inch by inch as quickly as they could.
They found two adult bodies in what was presumed to have been the living room. Then they got word of the presence of a child and they pressed on with heightened urgency. Several minutes later, a female firefighter stepped from the house with a lumpy, scorched blanket in her arms. When she was well clear of the house, she pushed the blanket back to reveal Zane’s smoke-smudged features. Zane looked around carefully – then her eyes lit on a familiar figure.
“U!!” she screamed and struggled to get down. The firefighter looked around to find a tall, broad shouldered man making his way towards them. “U!!” Zane yelled again, and the woman headed in his direction. “U!!” Zane said again when they were close enough for her to reach for him and he opened his arms as a matter of course.
“Zane! Oh, thank heaven you’re all right!! When I heard....”
The firefighter looked between them. “I take it you know one another.”
“My niece,” Urim replied without missing a beat, keeping the blanket wrapped protectively around Zane’s small body as he accepted her from the woman. “Thank you so much, ma’am. I don’t know what I would have done if something had happened to this precious little girl. My sister and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but we agreed Zane is pretty special.”
The firefighter smiled. “Well, I can see Zane is in good hands, so I’d better get back to work,” gesturing to the blaze that was still burning hot and high. “You may want to take her over to the ambulance and get her checked over before you leave, and I’m sure they can give you a blanket that won’t smell like smoke.” She looked at Zane. “It was nice to meet you, Zane.”
“Thank you, lady,” Zane offered with a smile. The woman tapped her on the nose, then turned and went back to helping put out the flames. Urim looked at Zane.
“Are you all right, Little One?” he asked gently.
“I was scared, U,” Zane whispered softly.
“I know you were, Sweetheart, but that part of your life is behind you now. Remember what we talked about earlier? No more cold or hunger or getting hit... ever again.”
“Good,” she agreed emphatically, tucking her head into his neck.
“C’mon – let Uncle U take you over to be checked out by the nice paramedics and make sure everything is okay. Then we can go to my house, all right?”
“I can stay with you?”
Urim smiled soothingly. “Of course. You can live with me from now on if you’d like, Zane.”
“I’d like that, Uncle U.”
Zane settled into life with Urim as though she had always lived with him. Her room was exactly what a five-year-old girl would love – lavender with thick, warm blankets and pretty curtains and a soft, clean bed covered with plush snugglies. Every possible toy or doll she could want or imagine occupied the shelves and there were games and movies at her disposal as well. It didn’t take Zane long to forget she had ever lived anywhere other than with Urim.
Years passed, and as Urim had promised, Zane found success and fame and fortune. Not long after she came to live with him, she was ‘discovered’ and was put into commercials and modeling, then moved into television. From there, Zane went into movies, gaining acclaim and popularity wherever she went. And always in the background, Urim hovered... guiding, shaping, molding.
There was no bad press to be found – Urim saw to it that there was nothing bad to report. Zane was happy and successful... and as she got older, her successes and happiness seemed to spill over into her personal life. She was always smiling when she was out with her various escorts, even though she never seemed to form a lasting relationship with anyone beyond friendship.
And so things went until Zane’s eighteenth birthday, when she and Urim sat down together to discuss her life thus far.
“Are you happy, Zane?” Urim asked kindly as they were seated at the best table in the most renowned restaurant in the city. She gazed at him, giving him the smile she was famous for and hearing the cameras click as quickly as they could in the hopes of getting a money shot. Zane and Urim ignored them, having both lived with the paparazzi for the past thirteen years.
“You know I am, Uncle U,” chuckling when he laughed aloud at the title.
“I think you can probably call me Urim now, my dear.”
“Yes, but why? You’ll always be Uncle U to me, Urim.” He laughed again and spread his hands in surrender.
“As you wish, Zane.” He cleared his throat. “So I have delivered everything I promised you all those years ago then?”
Zane’s brow furrowed. “Yes, of course you have, U. Why? Are you leaving now that I’m legal?”
“Do you want me to?”
“NO!! Of course not!” lowering her voice when she realized they were attracting unwanted attention. “Why would you think that? You’re my family, U.”
“I think of you as my own, Zane... you know that. But that doesn’t change the fact that you are now legal and solely your own responsibility. If you’d like me to continue to manage and direct your career – and your life, to some extent – then you’re going to have to sign a sheaf of papers that will allow me to do so.”
“Of course, Uncle U. You give me whatever papers need signing and I’ll put my signature on them.”
“I trust you, U. I’m sure.”
Urim nodded. “We’ll take care of them when we get home.”
Zane looked at the stack of papers, then back at Urim. “You do realize I’m liable to die from a paper cut here, right?”
Urim smiled and shook his head. “There really aren’t that many to sign, and I have to sign the same ones you do.”
“Fine,” Zane agreed with a longsuffering sigh, “but I want all my assets to go to the Firefighter’s Charity if I bleed to death from a paper cut.”
Urim rolled his eyes, but chuckled good-naturedly. “I’ll make a deal with you, Zane – if you cut yourself, I’ll cut myself and we can sign with bloody thumbprints. We can start a new trend.”
Zane glared at Urim balefully, and he struggled not to laugh aloud. It didn’t take long before Zane snorted; then Urim snorted; then they laughed together and took up their pens to sign the multitude of papers it was deemed necessary to keep everything legal between them.
“I cannot believe I cut myself on the last damn document,” Zane groused. “I was almost home free.”
“At least you didn’t have to stick yourself with a knife point,” Urim complained genially. “My thumb is going to be sore for days.”
“Is the lawyer going to complain about that – the bloody thumbprints, I mean? I didn’t really expect....”
“I promised you I would, Zane, and I have never not kept a promise to you. Besides, what’s he going to say? For all we know that will make things more binding than just a plain signature would.”
“Oh God... I hope not. He might take to asking for them on everything.”
Urim grimaced. “That would be unpleasant.” He turned to smile at Zane. “Are you sure there isn’t somewhere else you’d rather be tonight?”
Zane shook her head. “The girls and I are leaving for Europe in two days. I wanted to have a little time with you first. What you’ve done for me....”
“Zane, anything I’ve done for you, I’ve done for myself as well. Having you in my life has been nothing short of magnificent. I’m proud to be part of your life.”
“Me too, Uncle U.”
Urim watched her go upstairs to her boudoir, waving when she turned to him before disappearing around the corner. His grin was that of a satisfied snake. Stage two was complete.
Part The Second
Europe was enlightening for Zane... and liberating as well. Everything was so different from what she had known previously in her life. Gone was the structure and the rules and the stability Urim had always provided for her. Instead, she found society and attitudes to be much more relaxed and casual, and it made her go a little crazy at first.
She tried alcohol – that was an enormous amount of fun right up until she woke up from her first major hangover, and Zane decided there was no amount of fun worth that sort of outcome. She spent two days in her room, alternating between spending time in front of the porcelain goddess hurling her guts and laying in the bed wrapped around a pillow praying to die.
Then she discovered drugs – nothing hard, so she thought... just a little laced marijuana. And she decided almost immediately she didn’t like being dizzy. And no high was worth the crash that followed.
Then Zane found sex – sex with men; sex with women; sex with multiple partners. Finally, she’d found something she could enjoy with no compunctions and no regrettable repercussions. After all, everyone understood the rules – it was just pleasure... a good time – a way to feel good without puking or crashing or commitments.
So Zane loved her time in Europe – not only for the beautiful sights and interesting places she saw, but also for the freedom it afforded her and the beautiful people she fucked. Because she knew when she returned home, she would have to be much more discreet. But here – no one cared, and she reveled in the wealth of opportunities afforded her.
After several months, Zane and her friends came home from Europe, and Urim picked her up from the airport. “Uncle U?” she asked when she spotted him in the back of the car that had been sent to pick her up.
“Zane, my dear – how was Europe?”
Her grin was its own answer, but she slid into the vehicle and waited for the door to close before she deigned to answer him verbally. “Europe was fantastic, Uncle. I could very easily live there.”
“Only if you learn to be much more discreet,” Urim replied. Zane blanched.
“Zane, I fully expected you to stretch your wings a little – you are an adult, after all. And you have been sheltered for much of your young life. But you must learn to be a little more discretionary in your choice of partners. Personally I don’t care if you sleep with men, women or a three-headed goat.” He paused. “Okay, the three-headed goat would bother me on a number of levels, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s perfectly okay to be someone who enjoys sex, and as far as I’m concerned it’s perfectly okay to enjoy multiple partners in multiple positions with multiple implements.”
“Uncle U!!” Zane’s face flushed red with embarrassment. Urim smirked.
“Zane, if you’re old enough to do it, then you’re old enough to discuss it like a rational adult human being.”
“How did you know...?”
“My dear, I have eyes and ears everywhere. I hear things even when I’m not trying to. And that is my point. As relaxed as the European attitude is about sex, the American attitude isn’t even close to catching up. And since you live here and your career is your image.... Do you see where I’m going with this?” Zane glared.
“That sucks. I like sex!”
Urim laughed. “I’m not telling you to give it up. I’m just saying to be a little more careful in choosing potential partners.” He cleared his throat. “There is a service network for people like you to utilize that is safe.”
Zane narrowed her eyes. “What’d you mean... people like me?”
“Famous people,” Urim replied drolly. “People who like unstructured sex, but because of their image or their job or their *other* commitments, can’t afford to have those things known about them.”
“And how do you know about them?”
Urim smiled benevolently. “With the circles we travel in Zane? I’ve known about these networks for years. I just never had the need to mention it before now.”
“And how do I become part of this... network?”
“You tell me what you want and when you want it. Then I just have to make a phone call. When you find someone that suits you, then you’ll be able to make your own arrangements from there.”
Zane nodded, but she didn’t speak for a long time. When she did, her conversation was so far afield of their previous discussion that Urim took several minutes to catch up.
“Excuse me? Would you mind repeating that? I think I missed something in translation.”
“Considering we’re both speaking English here, I’m not sure how that happened,” Zane grumbled. “What I said was – I want to go to college.”
Urim blinked. It was an unexpected request and it took him by surprise. Still, he rallied to the idea as quickly as he could and nodded his head approvingly. “Very well. Do you know where you’d like to go or what you’d like to study?”
Zane shook her head. “Not really. I’d just like a chance to try it.”
Urim bit his lip and considered. “Well, we can’t get you in to the current fall semester – classes have already started and you start filming your next movie in four days.” He brought his fingers to his lips and blew out a breath thoughtfully. “Would you like to try for something in the following semester or wait until the fall semester rolls around again and start school when most freshmen do? We could probably schedule your appearances around a school schedule if we need to and that would still leave your summer free for other projects.”
“I think I’d like that... the second option, I mean.”
Urim nodded slowly. “I’ll do some checking, but you need to do the same. Try to get some idea about what you’d like to study towards. You don’t have to commit to anything right now, but it would be good for you to know your options.”
“Thanks, U. I’ll think about the other too.”
“You do that, Zane.”
Deciding on a course of study hadn’t been that difficult once she started researching the options available to her. Zane had no desire to study something she was already supremely successful in, which negated most of the arts. She did choose creative writing as a minor – it was the one art she felt she could accomplish with success that she hadn’t actually attempted. Besides, this way she could write her own material if she took a notion.
For her major, Zane chose applied sciences. It was so different from everything else in her life, and there was a restful beauty in the order she found in it.
Her sex partners were chosen with the same care and deliberation – a well-hung, strapping young man for the times she craved penetration and a slightly older woman when she wanted more intimacy - both willing to indulge her penchant for multiple partners with one another and both sensitive to her need for discretion. And both eager to expand her horizons and broaden her experience... something she was quite zealous about in her desires.
Zane found college to be interesting and challenging, and it took up much more of her time than she had anticipated. Still, she enjoyed it – and it was nice to be with other people her age, especially once they got past her notoriety. Soon, she was just one of the many, and she discovered she appreciated the anonymity in a way she hadn’t expected to. It was particularly gratifying to make friends of her own choosing – people whom she found interesting on their own merit, and not just because they were people to be seen with.
And so four years passed with Zane making new friends, earning her degree and exploring and learning more about her sexuality. It came as very little surprise to her when she realized she was infinitely more attracted to sex with her female lover than she was to her male one. Although her male lover was gentle or forceful by turn, depending on Zane’s need, her female lover spent hours simply holding her; hours more teaching her... coaching her on the importance of touch and the skill of cunnilingus and penetration. She showed her the art of having sex with another person, focusing on the best and most satisfying ways to pleasure a woman - as well as intimacy in all its forms. And when graduation time came, the older woman set Zane down and offered her own goodbye.
“But why?” Zane asked plaintively. “We’re good together.”
“We are,” the woman agreed. “But you’re young, Zane,” cupping her face gently. “So young; your life is really just beginning. It’s time for you to go out and live – time for you to find the love that will make you complete.”
“I don’t need love; I have you.”
The older woman sucked in a pained breath. She felt more for Zane than she should for a customer, hence one reason she was calling it quits, because she knew without a doubt that Zane certainly didn’t feel the same. “You say that now, Zane, but the day will come - maybe sooner, maybe later, but it will come and you’ll want love in your life.”
“I still don’t see why that means we have to stop seeing one another... especially right now.” Zane huffed. “I like sex with you!”
The older woman chuckled sadly. “I like sex with you too, Zane. You’re one of my most passionate patrons, but you are still just a customer,” feeling Zane’s gasp. “Wouldn’t you like to be more than a customer? Wouldn’t you like to have more than just sex with someone?” Zane didn’t answer and the older woman sighed. “I’ll still come if you call me, Zane – you’re one of my best clients, and I’ll miss you when you do fall in love and finally share your bed with the woman of your dreams. But I think in your best interests, we should cool things off between us.”
“I think you’re crazy,” Zane replied with a hint of heat in her tone, “but I won’t force you. There’s no point in you being here if you don’t want to be.”
“Oh, Zane... you have no idea just how much I want.”
“Take me to bed then, lover. Show me.” Then there were no more words between them.
Time marched on and over the next few years, Zane was so busy she practically met herself coming and going. Urim kept an eye on her of course, always at the periphery of her life except on the rare occasions when she invited him into her inner circle. It wasn’t that she was pushing him out of her life; it was more that her life was so hectic and demanding that she barely had time to breathe. Zane sporadically utilized the services of the network of paid escorts when she needed some stress relief, but only rarely did she see her teacher, because sometimes it was a little awkward between them – and Zane had no desire for her rare venture back into the world of what for her was strictly pleasure to be hampered by any sense of discomfiture.
Otherwise, success continued to roll her way as though she had the golden touch. Every project she attempted was hailed as a triumph, and as her twenty-fifth birthday approached she had finally decided to take a little time away from the spotlight and focus on her writing. She was confident she had a story to tell if she could just get the time to actually sit down and write it.
With that in mind, she disappeared from public life and found herself setting up house at a secluded resort. And that is when Zane first met Valeria.
Part The Third
Valeria was part of the household staff in the resort Zane had chosen for her sabbatical, and Zane was pleasantly charmed... enough to ask that Valeria be assigned exclusively to her. While it was not possible for Valeria to maintain only Zane’s rooms exclusively, it was quite feasible to ensure that no other staff member was allowed within the confines of Zane’s living space. So it was arranged that Valeria became the sole caretaker of Zane’s rooms.
For the first few days, Zane merely observed Valeria as she worked, not attempting to engage her in conversation beyond a greeting. After a few days of that, Zane tried to involve Valeria in discussion, but even easy topics like the weather required more effort than Zane was comfortable with. Valeria tried, but it was almost as though she was unused to any sort of human interaction.
So Zane’s focus returned to her writing and other than welcoming Valeria every morning and spending a moment or two in idle chitchat with her, Valeria was left alone to do her work in peace. When she was finished, she would always inquire if Zane desired anything else, and when the response was negative, she would leave to go to her next assignment.
Thus went their interactions during the first three weeks of Zane’s stay. Then things got... interesting.
Urim knew where Zane was by necessity – he needed to be able to reach her in case of an emergency. So when he recognized the number that flashed across his screen, he picked up the phone immediately, thinking something dire must be wrong.
“Zane, my dear... is everything all right?”
Zane chuckled. “Everything’s fine, Uncle U. I just thought I’d let you know everything is going well.”
“I see,” he commented speculatively. “Have you met anyone of interest in your reclusiveness or have you been entirely focused on your writing?”
“I’ve met a few people, but most of my concentration has been on my writing. We’ll see if anything actually comes of it.”
“Have you so little faith, Zane... even after all the years and successes you’ve celebrated?”
“Mostly because of that, Uncle. The odds are on my eventually screwing the pooch, so to speak. I’d really rather not have it be in this particular venture.”
“It means so much to you then?”
“Yes. This is the most personal thing I’ve ever done.”
“Well then... perhaps we should take steps to ensure its success. Leave things to me, my dear. I’m sure we can make this extraordinary for you.”
“Maybe,” Zane commented unenthusiastically, but before Urim could inquire further, Zane changed the subject on him. “Uncle, do you know if the network has people available here? I’d rather not bring my regulars into this place, but I find myself in need of some stress relief.”
Urim rolled his eyes, glad Zane could not see his initial reaction. It grated that so much of her time and energy seemed to be dedicated to such carnal pursuits. And he was so close to claiming his final right to her that this just jumped on his last nerve. Still, the truth was she had quite a healthy libido – he was actually surprised this particular request had been so long in coming. So Urim modulated his tone when he replied.
“I’ll make some phone calls, my dear. Is there anything... *particular*... you covet?”
Zane shrugged. “A woman my age... pretty. Someone who is open-minded enough to play.”
Urim shook his head and cleared his throat. “All right, Zane; I’ll see what I can do. When do you want her?”
“As soon as possible. And see if you can get someone who’d be willing to stay if things work out between us.”
“I’ll give you a call back shortly then.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
It was much later that night when a knock sounded on Zane’s door. Urim had called to let her know that someone would be by in the evening for her decision, but otherwise he hadn’t offered any details about her newest sex partner. She removed the glasses she wore and set her laptop aside, then rose from the chaise she’d been lounging in to answer the door. When she looked in the peephole, she hesitated, not expecting what she was seeing on the other side. It was only when she saw the arm rise to knock again that she opened the door to prevent the action. Then she leaned on the doorjamb and cocked an eyebrow in query. She looked around slowly, noting the absence of a housekeeping cart, then turned back to the woman who stood in front of her.
“Val? Is something wrong?”
“No, Miss,” said demurely with her eyes on the ground in a subservient position. “I was sent by the Agency. I am your companion for the evening.”
Now the second brow shot into Zane’s hairline and her mouth dropped just enough to convey her shock. “Excuse me?”
This time Valeria looked up, green eyes meeting blue squarely for the first time, and the lust and sex that oozed from the very pores of Valeria’s being set a fire burning deep in Zane’s belly. “I think we should move this discussion inside, Zane, unless you’d like to share all of your proclivities with your neighbors.”
The change in Valeria’s demeanor was intoxicating, and Zane threaded her hands gently into the long, blonde hair that Valeria had left loose and tugged Valeria to her. “I don’t care about the neighbors or their interests in my sexual pursuits. However, what I have in mind is not for public consumption, so....” Zane brought their lips together and was thrilled when she was met passion for passion by Valeria’s entire being. She walked backwards, dragging them inside and smiling when Valeria kicked the door shut behind them without ever breaking the kiss.
“How shall we do this, hmm?” her voice breathless and thread with need.
“I am yours to command, Zane,” Valeria’s voice low and sultry. “You’re the client – tell me your desires and I’ll make your dreams come true.”
And Valeria hadn’t lied – she had done everything Zane had asked and more that she had never imagined. But when Zane woke up mid-morning, Valeria the seductress was gone; she had been replaced by Valeria the domestic.
Once more their conversation was reduced to platitudes and inane chatter, and Zane wondered what had happened to the fiery, passionate woman who had fucked her until she begged for mercy the night before. Nothing she said got the response she was looking for, and she knew better than to cross the line. Valeria wasn’t on Zane’s time now and she had no right to touch.
So a very frustrated Zane watched as Valeria took care of her housekeeping chores. Then before she left, Valeria turned to Zane with a very wicked twinkle in her eyes and inquired, “Is there anything else you desire, Miss?”
Zane growled and Valeria’s lip quirked though she didn’t actually twitch enough to call it a smirk... much less a smile. “Not at the moment, thank you. Although this evening....”
“You know how to reach me, Zane,” the voice once more filled with lust. But before Zane could reply, Valeria was out the door. Zane immediately snatched up her cell and dialed a number from memory, not even offering a hello when it was answered.
“I don’t care what it takes – you get her assigned to me exclusively for the remainder of my stay.” Then she disconnected the call and sat back to ponder all the things she and Valeria still had left to try. It was turning out to be a fabulous retreat.
And somewhere, some distance from where Zane sat assessing this new turn of events, Urim cackled in sheer, evil delight. Obviously he had underestimated Zane’s cravings – this would keep her off balanced until it was too late. Things were playing out much better than he had anticipated. This was going to be one for the history books.
Part The Fourth
That night when Valeria arrived, Zane was prepared, and before they got down to business, Zane decided they needed to be clear about a number of things. So her address of Valeria at the door was curt, dragging her inside before Valeria could even speak. At the middle of the room, Zane loosened her clasp and turned towards the glass doors that led to the balcony.
“Did I miss something?” Valeria queried brusquely, rubbing her wrist while glaring at Zane’s petulant profile. “I thought we were both supposed to be aware of the game and its rules before we started.”
Zane blinked, suddenly realizing how her actions could be misinterpreted. She reached for Valeria’s hands, scowling when Valeria moved them from her reach. “Val, stop. We’re not playing a game; I’m trying to see what I did.”
“Nothing much,” Valeria replied, holding out her wrist so Zane could see the faint red marks she’d left. “You startled me mostly, and I don’t like that.” A beat. “Now why did you feel the need to drag me in here and then ignore me?”
“I thought we should talk – settle things between us before we move on to the fun portion of the evening.”
“What’s to settle, Zane? You’re the client – you tell me what you want and I make it happen. Simple, clean... no muss, no fuss.”
Zane sighed and scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. It had been a long time since she’d invited anyone new into her bedroom, and she’d forgotten how much she hated this part of the sex-for-hire network. On the other hand, Valeria had a point – they both knew what was expected of them in their roles here... it wasn’t like they were part of the dating scene. Zane winced, grateful for small blessings – that could easily turn into a nightmare. Still, Zane did have expectations and aspirations, and it was up to her to articulate them for Valeria’s benefit.
“Did the Agency tell you what I wanted?”
“Only that you were looking for someone open-minded and willing to play. And since things went so well last evening, as of tonight I was to be available to you exclusively for the duration of your stay.”
“Do you understand what that means?”
“Do I look stupid, Zane?” Valeria snapped. “It means that every evening you desire my company, I will be here for your enjoyment, and the evenings you don’t, I will still not be available for anyone else’s use.”
Zane recoiled at Valeria’s matter-of-fact statement. She’d never had one of her partners describe herself so impersonally... as though she was merely a piece of equipment to be utilized on someone else’s whim. Zane took a deep breath. “Not exactly,” she answered calmly. “You’re correct about not being available to others while I’m here; what it really means is that you will be here every night regardless, as well as during the day if I require it.”
“I have a day job, Zane, or did you forget that fact?”
“Why do you?”
“Why do you have a day job? Val, you’re an exceptional network agent,” refusing to call it anything else. “Why do you do such menial labor during the day?”
Zane had never known green eyes could burn someone to cinders, but she felt the heat of Valeria’s defiance incinerate the very marrow of her bones. She started to rescind the question, but Valeria beat her to the punch.
“I do that menial labor,” Valeria growled through clenched teeth, “because it is honest, steady work that pays the bills.”
“Okay,” Zane agreed reasonably. “So why do you do this?” motioning between them.
“That’s none of your business.”
Zane was taken aback by the vehemence in Valeria’s tone, and she decided to let it go in favor of taking things down a notch. Later, she would pursue the answers she sought with single-minded relentlessness. “All right,” she agreed affably. “How long does your day work take?”
“I am scheduled to work eight hours every day.”
“That won’t work,” Zane commented. “I’ll take care of it in the morning. Meanwhile,” cutting Valeria off before she could protest, “I would like us to be on relatively even footing when it comes to having sex. If there is something you enjoy or something you hate, tell me. I like trying new things and I want you to get pleasure out of this arrangement as well. There’s no point in doing anything if there isn’t some enjoyment for both of us.”
“Are you serious?”
“Do I look like I’m joking? What kind of question is that??”
“An honest one – you’re the first client I’ve ever had to ever talk this way... consider my needs or desires.”
“That’s just how I roll, baby. My only request is that you no longer refer to me as a client.”
Valeria shrugged. “I don’t see a problem with that. Is there something else you prefer?”
“Yeah... my name. Failing that, it will depend on the game we’re playing or where we happen to be. We’ll worry about it when the time comes.”
“All right, Zane. What would you like to do tonight?” For answer, Zane captured Valeria’s lips passionately, pulling her by the hips until they were flush against one another. She reached for the zipper on Valeria’s dress and slid it down slowly. When the dress was pooled around Valeria’s feet and she stood naked against Zane’s gaze, Zane licked her lips and smiled rakishly.
“I figured we could start here,” Zane replied, stroking her fingers across Valeria’s lips and down the side of her neck, “and kind of see where we end up,” letting her touch trail across Valeria’s curves until she reached the juncture between her legs.
Valeria sucked in a breath and cleared her throat awkwardly before she was able to speak. “I approve of your plan, Mistress, but aren’t you just slightly overdressed?” gesturing to Zane’s fully clothed body. “How can I service you if I cannot reach the areas of your body that crave my touch?”
Zane’s nostrils had flared at Valeria’s use of a title, and the reminder that she wanted Valeria’s lips and fingers stroking her flesh made her clothing chafe against her skin. “I’m sure you’ll find a way, my slave.” Then she pulled Valeria back to her lips and began fondling her with intent. That ended the verbal discussion for a very long while.
Despite Valeria’s protestations, Zane arranged to have Valeria removed from the housekeeping rotation and assigned to her on a round-the-clock basis. Zane was more than a little surprised at how easy it was to arrange, especially given the fight she’d been given when she’d demanded Valeria be assigned exclusively as her housekeeper. She chanced to wonder if Urim had once again interceded, then decided she didn’t really care as long as Valeria was assigned to her on a permanent basis for the remainder of her stay.
The first day or two was awkward – even a healthy sexual appetite didn’t make it physically possible to have sex twenty-four seven and Valeria was still stewing about the machinations Zane had instigated on her behalf. Besides, Zane did have a pressing need to work on her book, and slowly she drew Valeria into taking an interest in what she was doing. So gradually they started learning about the people behind the sex and the games, and they began to lay a solid foundation of friendship.
Into the midst of all this, Urim arrived, and once again the world as Zane knew it changed.
Part The Fifth
Urim looked around the lodge in approval as he stepped into the vast lobby. He could see why Zane was so enamored of the place. That wasn’t his main concern with being there, however, and after a brief moment, he made his way to the desk to inquire after her... only to find himself unexpectedly stonewalled by the clerk behind the counter.
“I’m sorry, sir – she’s asked not to be disturbed by anyone. Only her... companion... is allowed in her rooms presently.”
Urim frowned. He could do this the old-fashioned way, of course, but he preferred not to give himself away this close to the finish by utilizing those particular skills if he didn’t have to. He bit his lip thoughtfully, then turned to the young man behind the counter. “Would it be possible to speak to her companion then? It is vital that I reach her and I’m on the clock. It wouldn’t take but a few minutes.”
The man took a long moment to study Urim, but there was nothing threatening or off-putting about him. Satisfied, he dipped his head as he reached for the house phone. After only a few words, he hung up and nodded at Urim. “Valeria will be here momentarily if you’d like to have a seat in the lobby,” gesturing towards the seating area. Urim took the hint and bowed his head slightly in thanks before walking away to wait for Valeria’s appearance.
Urim watched Valeria approach the front desk, rising when the clerk pointed him out and Valeria turned in his direction. She didn’t offer her hand and Urim waited for her to speak. Valeria looked him up and down first – only then did she address him.
“You wanted to speak to Zane?”
“I actually need to see Zane,” Urim corrected gently. “Allow me to introduce myself – I’m her Uncle Urim. I have some papers she needs to sign.”
“And they can’t wait, Urim?” deliberately not giving him her name.
“Not if she wants to get that book published in a timely manner, no.”
Valeria hesitated. She knew the writing Zane was doing was important to her. It had been one of the things they had discussed at length. “Wait here,” Valeria instructed imperiously, before turning and walking back the way she’d come. Urim remained standing, and in a few minutes his patience was rewarded. “Come with me,” she beckoned when she was within hearing distance. Urim hurried to her side, and soon they were standing in front of a set of double doors. “Wait here,” Valeria commanded again, then disappeared into the room hidden by the doors, giving Urim only the briefest glance at the sumptuous interior before he was shut out once more.
When the doors opened again, Zane was standing in front of him with only a flicker of impatience in her eyes before she smiled and opened her arms for a hug. Urim obliged her briefly, then gestured at the room behind her.
“May I come in?”
“Of course,” stepping back and opening the door wider. Urim gave a fleeting glance around the room, idly noting the understated opulence as well as the absence of the woman that had so abruptly escorted him here.
“Nice,” he said with a smile. “I chose well.”
“You did indeed, Uncle. But what was so urgent you felt compelled to interrupt my sabbatical with a visit?”
“You said you wanted this venture particularly to be successful. I have the papers in hand to ensure that happens. You need only sign them.”
Zane sighed and shook her head. “Urim... not that I don’t appreciate your efforts on my behalf, but I....” she sighed again. “I wanted to do this on my own.”
“Zane, everything you’ve done has been on your own merit,” he assured her. “I just take care of the paperwork to make it legal. But if you want to wait....” Urim shrugged. “It will delay things on the production end immensely, but it is certainly your choice, my dear.”
Zane shook her head. “You’re already here and it’s already done,” extending her hand for the paperwork Urim had brought with him. He opened the portfolio he carried and withdrew the appropriate contracts, looking over them once more before nodding in satisfaction and passing them to her. She held her hand out again and he gave her his pen.
“Are you certain you don’t want to read them over, Zane?”
She gave him a droll look. “Uncle, I have never read a contract you’ve had me sign. I trust you. It’s not like you’ve ever steered me wrong, right?”
Urim nodded his acceptance of the truth of her words, then watched with a smile as she signed everywhere he pointed out to her. In moments their business was done, and Urim scooped up the papers and placed them neatly back into his portfolio. They weren’t sealed with blood like the last ones were, but they were satisfactory enough. Her success was assured for the rest of her life and his assignment was finally complete. He looked around again.
“Where is your companion?”
“On the deck. I asked her to give us a few minutes. Would you like to meet her... properly, I mean?”
“I don’t think so,” Urim demurred. “I don’t think she approved of me interrupting your time together.”
Zane chuckled. “She didn’t.”
“Then we should wait for another time perhaps?”
Zane nodded. “Perhaps. You know the way out?”
“Of course. Enjoy the rest of your holiday, my dear,” walking towards the door.
“Oh I plan to,” Zane replied with a leer. She remained sitting at the desk while Urim made his way the door. “Bye, Urim.”
He smiled and waved, opening the door and pulling it closed slowly – but not so slowly that he missed Valeria reentering the room or Zane pulling the other woman into her lap before taking possession of her mouth. He allowed himself to enjoy a long, indulgent look before finally closing the door and walking away. It had been a good day.
Part The Sixth
For the next several weeks, Zane’s time was equally consumed with writing and spending time with Valeria. And it wasn’t simply about the sex anymore, though there was certainly plenty of that and it was extremely satisfying. Zane found she anticipated their talks and taking walks along the shore and cooking meals together. The closer she got to finishing her book, the more Zane recognized she and Valeria needed to discuss the future.
So just a week out from Zane’s planned departure, she decided to bite the bullet. They had just finished sharing dinner and were sitting on the deck listening to the waves crash on the nearby beach.
Valeria turned her head, but didn’t speak... uncertain if they were at the beginning of one of their usual sex games or if it was something else. Something in Zane’s tone made her believe it was the second, but she didn’t want to take the risk in the event she guessed wrong.
Zane shook her head. “No games tonight, baby. Just you and me here.”
Valeria smiled lustily. “In that case,” she said, slipping into Zane’s lap and wrapping her arms around Zane’s neck before kissing her passionately. Zane was only human – she let the kiss play out to its logical conclusion before attempting to speak again.
“Val, I want you to leave here,” seeing green eyes widen in confusion. “I want you to come home with me.” Without a word, Valeria moved out of Zane’s grasp and inside so she could curl into a straight-backed chair some distance from where Zane still sat... stunned by her reaction. “C’mon, baby... we’re SO good together. I want you with me permanently.”
“Zane, despite the informalities we’ve adopted here, you’re still a client. In a few days, you’ll go back to wherever it is that you call home, and I’ll move on to my next client. That’s how this business works.”
“That’s what this is to you... business??”
“Of course,” Valeria answered without a hint of emotion in her voice. “That’s all this has ever been.”
“I don’t care where you go or what you do, but I want you out of here now.” Valeria rose from the chair and moved towards the door. “Leave your key,” Zane instructed, her eyes never leaving the darkness beyond the deck. Valeria dropped the key on the counter and left, closing the door soundlessly behind her. Only when Zane heard the latch click did she allow the tears to roll down her face.
A knock on her door early the following morning made Zane flinch, but even though she was confident that she knew who was on the other side, she still got up to answer it. She had expected Valeria to return, if only to retrieve the belongings she’d had to leave behind in her abrupt departure. She swung the door open and motioned Valeria inside without ever actually looking at her.
“Your things are where you left them,” she said sharply. “Please be quick,” walking away from Valeria to stand on the deck and watch the water roll to the shore. Valeria nodded unseen and moved into the bedroom, collecting her stuff as fast as she could. When she was done, she walked to the door, turning to look at Zane’s profile before she opened the door.
“I’m sorry, Zane. I wish things were different. You’re the most considerate client I’ve ever had the pleasure to entertain and the only one I’ve ever been a companion to. But I can’t feel anything for you. I can’t feel anything at all... except for pleasure and pain. Everything else is off-limits to me.”
It was a long time before Zane turned to look at the doorway where Valeria had been.
Zane spent hours writing feverishly, desperate to finish writing her novel so she could return home. Perhaps she would call her teacher – if anyone could make her forget Valeria, it would be the woman who had taught her about loving another woman all those years ago.
Zane froze as she realized the direction of her thoughts. When did it become about love and not just sex and pleasure? I thought.... She picked up the phone and Urim answered on the first ring, as though he had been sitting by the phone waiting for her call.
“Zane, my dear... how lovely to hear from you. How are things going?”
“I’m almost done,” she replied dismissively. “Look, Urim... I have a question, and I don’t know who else I can ask.”
“Of course, my dear. Anything for you... you know that.”
“Right. Um... what does love feel like?”
“In your case? Hopelessness, my dear. You’re not allowed to have love in your life, remember?” savoring Zane’s gasp as it traveled across the phone and into his ears. “You gave up love so you would never know cold or hunger or the pain of being hit again. You gave up love so you could have success and wealth. So while you can feel love for someone, however unlikely that possibility is, they will never, EVER return that love,” grinning as the taste of victory washed through him.
“But... but why, Urim? Why?”
“Because, my dear – you wanted to be warm and fed and safe. I, on the other hand, needed to guarantee you would never know love.”
“I don’t understand,” Zane cried and in that moment, Urim felt enough compassion for his charge to offer her an explanation.
“It was foretold, long before your birth, that when you came into the world you and your companion would be able to destroy MY world... eradicating our powerbase through the love you would share with one another and the rest of humanity. I was privileged to have been given the assignment of ensuring you would never have that love. And I have in my possession the contracts that you signed agreeing to it.”
Silence was its own answer and Urim felt compelled to continue. “Come, Zane – it’s nothing to be unhappy about. After all, your success is safeguarded for the rest of your natural life.”
“And after that?” Zane asked. When there was no answer forthcoming, Zane changed the topic. “Urim, was Valeria supposed to be my companion in this love venture you managed to derail?”
She heard him shrug over the phone, the rasp of shifting material loud in her sensitive ears. “Honestly, Zane – I couldn’t say because I really don’t know. Your companion was never in my purview; you were my assignment and thus my focus.”
“I see,” Zane responded casually, though her mind was racing a thousand miles a minute. “So what happens now?”
“That is totally up to you, my dear. The world is your oyster – you may make of it what you will. As for you and me... nothing need change unless you desire it so. I am happy to continue looking after your interests, but it is no longer necessary.”
“Can I think about it for a few days?”
“Take whatever time you need, Zane. I’m not going anywhere until you say otherwise.”
A dial tone was her reply. Urim simply looked at the phone and then shook his head, turning his attention back to the tasks at hand.
And somewhere distant, Zane sat assessing this new turn of events – pondering her options and wondering if Valeria would even talk to her now.
Part The Seventh
“I need to see you... NOW,” Zane demanded before slamming the phone off. Valeria glared at the phone she still held, more than a little outraged with Zane’s presumptive tone. Unfortunately, Zane had bought and paid for Valeria’s company for the length of her entire stay, so Valeria had very little voice in the matter. She didn’t, however, have to be at all pleasant about it.
“What do you want, Zane?” she challenged as soon as Zane had opened the door. “You made it quite clear the other day you were done with me and our arrangement.” Valeria crossed her arms over her chest and glowered at Zane.
“Be that as it may,” Zane replied calmly, though she was speaking through clenched teeth, “I have paid for your time and attention until I leave here and the fact is that I now require it.”
“You should have been more specific in your demand to see me then, baby. I’m not prepared for anything beyond regular sex at the moment,” her voice changing and taking on a husky tone even as she released her arms from their defensive posture and began unbuttoning her shirt. “If that’s not your desire, Zane, you’ll have to tell me what you want and give me a few minutes to get things ready.”
Zane shivered in response even as she reached forward and grabbed Valeria by the hand to drag her into the room. “STOP!” she growled. “Just stop, please,” running frustrated hands through her hair.
Valeria looked at Zane in disbelief. “If not this, Zane, what do you want from me?”
Zane led Valeria to the couch and released her hand before she moved to the other end and took a seat. She gestured impatiently at Valeria to do the same, watching with sad amusement as she did so slowly, obviously confused about what the hell was going on. Not that Zane could really blame Valeria – she was more than a little confused herself, and she had at least some idea of what was happening. She sighed deeply.
“I want to talk.”
The look of incredulousness that flitted over Valeria’s features would have been comical if Zane hadn’t been so deadly serious in her intent. “Talk?? *Now* you want to talk??” Valeria closed her eyes and consciously slowed her breathing, forcing herself to a calm she really didn’t feel. When her eyes blinked open again, she turned a burning green gaze in Zane’s direction, but her voice was completely tranquil. “Very well, Zane – you’re still the client. What would you like to discuss?”
Zane flinched visibly when Valeria called her a client, but she didn’t correct the term. Instead, she plunged into the conversation she felt compelled to have. “You mentioned something the other day – you said you can only feel pleasure and pain,” seeing Valeria’s eyes widen. “Can you explain that to me... why you think that? Because I’ve seen you feel more, Val. You were most certainly angry when you came here today, and I’d like to believe you were at least content in the time we spent together.”
“What do you want to know?”
“I want to know why you think that!” Zane growled impatiently.
Valeria sighed. This really wasn’t any of Zane’s business, but it wasn’t like she had anything to be ashamed of either. It just was what it was, and maybe if Valeria shared her story with Zane, they would be able to look back at this time together fondly. Because she certainly had no confidence that they would ever be more than a memory to one another in a few days’ time.
“My mother was a crack head,” Valeria said in a low monotone. “I don’t know who my father was – there were so many men in and out of my mother’s bed, she couldn’t pinpoint which guy it was that knocked her up with me. Doesn’t matter really... not to this story anyway. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t particularly wanted by either of the people who created me.
At some point, though, right after my birth, a man approached my mother. In exchange for me, he would take me away and provide her with all the drugs she craved. According to Donny, she didn’t even let him finish speaking before signing me over to him.
I wasn’t mistreated or abused – not physically or sexually anyway. Donny was a good provider of material things; I had the best of everything money could buy. I never did without anything except emotional connection. And to be honest, it’s not like I miss it – I mean, you really can’t miss something you’ve never actually had and I’ve seen what emotional entanglements do to people.” Valeria shrugged and accepted the bottle of water Zane offered, swallowing about half of it down before setting it aside to continue her tale.
“When I turned sixteen, Donny sat me down and explained in detail about my mother... about what she had done and what that meant for me. Until that point, I had only known that she gave me up in exchange for enough drugs to kill her quickly.”
“You mean there’s more?”
“Of course,” Valeria replied sardonically. “What kind of a bard would I be if there wasn’t?”
“Is that what you wanted to be?” Zane queried. “A storyteller?”
Valeria shrugged. “I never thought about it. I was never given a choice.”
“Hush and let me tell this. I promise it will all make sense shortly.” Zane nodded and Valeria resumed her story. “When my mother signed me away, she didn’t just give me up – she made me responsible for her debt, and when I turned sixteen, Donny told me it was time for me to learn the skills I would need so he could collect.” Zane’s brows went high on her forehead, but she kept silent by biting her lips together. Valeria nodded her approval and took a deep breath.
“Donny introduced me to Naamah, who became my teacher for the next two years. She taught me every way possible to please a lover – man or woman; vanilla or kinky; singly or with partners... it doesn’t matter. I am acquainted with them all and I was an exceptional student,” Valeria said without a hint of braggadocio in her demeanor. In her mind, she was merely stating fact, and remembering what they had shared, Zane was inclined to agree with Valeria’s assessment.
“So that’s why all this is just business?” Zane asked. Valeria held up a hand. Zane closed her mouth and waited.
“Before I was released from training, Naamah and Donny sat me down and offered me the choice to do this without emotional entanglements. I could still feel pleasure and pain as those serve me well in this profession; I can get angry because there are some clients who feed off that; and I can be content as that keeps clients from feeling guilt. But love and hate were removed from my emotional repertoire – I don’t need the complication of love in this trade and hatred would do nothing but cause me untold grief. It wasn’t a hard decision to make.”
Valeria stopped speaking and Zane sat silent for a few minutes after that. Finally, “So that’s why everything is just business to you,” she said flatly. Valeria nodded.
“It’s nothing personal, Zane. It really is just business.”
Zane sucked in a breath. Even knowing the circumstances surrounding them didn’t make it easier to hear again. She bit her lip in thought. “Did you sign papers?” Valeria looked at her with confusion and Zane huffed impatiently. “When Donny and your teacher took love and hate out of your life... did you sign papers?”
“Yes,” Valeria replied with a frown. “I had to. It stipulated what was required of me and how long my services could be compelled to pay off the debt I owed.”
“And once that is complete, do you get your feelings back?”
“No – I didn’t want them; emotions would just get in the way of what I do. Besides, since I never had much use for them before I’m not really sure what I would do with them if I suddenly had them now.”
“So you’ve already paid the debt you owe?” seeing Valeria nod. “Then why keep doing it??”
“I like sex and I’m good at it – and I make a lot of money doing what I do. I’m setting that money aside; one day I’ll be able to go and do without having to answer to anyone ever again.”
“So you would rather spend the next few years of your life being paid for sex by multiple people who don’t care for you than settle down with one person who does right now?”
Valeria’s brow furrowed in confusion. “I... I don’t know. I’ve never... it’s never been a possibility for me, so I’ve never considered it.” She met Zane’s eyes. “Why?”
Zane blew out a rough breath, fluttering her bangs in frustration. “Let me tell you my story.”
Part The Eighth
“Okay,” Valeria drawled slowly when Zane was done with her story. “So you basically made a deal with the devil to be the success that you are?”
“Apparently. It wasn’t like I understood the implications of my agreement with Urim at the time – I was five. By the time I signed anything, I trusted him completely. He was all the family I knew.” Zane clasped her hands together between her knees and kept her head down.
“At least someone else didn’t sign your life away,” Valeria stated with only a hint of bitterness in her tone. After all, hatred was still beyond her realm of possibilities. Still, it was enough to cause Zane to tilt her head thoughtfully. “What?” Valeria asked when the silence droned on too long. “What are you thinking?”
“Not... thinking as much as wondering.” Zane huffed out a breath in frustration. “I wish there was someone we could talk to about this. Surely there’s something we can do to change... this.”
“Zane... no offence, but I’m not really sure I *want* to. My life really isn’t all that bad... especially when you consider what it probably would have been if Donny hadn’t interfered.” Valeria glanced into Zane’s blue eyes and found a depth of pain there she didn’t understand, but that made her want to do something for Zane to make it better. “Look - I have a client... a regular. She’s... she claims to come from old gypsy stock and she’s into the whole voodoo culture thing. Maybe she could... she might be able to offer some sort of insight into your situation – maybe even find a way out of it.”
“You really think so?”
“I think it can’t hurt to talk to her.” A beat. “You want me to call her?”
Zane sat quietly considering Valeria’s words. Then she nodded her head. “Yeah.”
Valeria got up and headed for the door, pausing only when she saw Zane’s confusion. “Her number is on my phone and I left my phone in my room. Be right back.”
True to her word, Valeria was back moments later, setting her phone on the desk. “She’ll be here in just a few minutes,” Valeria replied to Zane’s unspoken question. “She lives just down the beach.”
A sharp rap on the door and Valeria was guiding a striking, dark-skinned woman into the room. Zane rose with an inexplicable sense of nervousness, rubbing her hands down her legs before accepting the hand the woman proffered. The woman flinched when their hands touched, but before Zane could jerk hers back in reaction, the woman covered the hand she was clasping with her other hand.
There was silence for a long moment while the woman studied Zane’s eyes, then her brown eyes closed. After another moment, they opened, and Zane couldn’t contain the gasp when she saw the previously dark eyes now glowed almost amber. The woman turned to Valeria and waited.
Valeria cleared her throat. “Zane, this is Ayida. Ayida meet Zane.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Zane. Ria tells me you’ve got a problem I might be able to help with.” Ayida looked at Valeria. “You didn’t tell me it was so serious.”
Valeria shrugged. “How should I know what you think is or isn’t important, Ayida?” Ayida just glared at Valeria until Zane spoke.
“I don’t know if you can help or not,” Zane said frankly, trying to reclaim her hand without jerking it from Ayida’s grasp. “But I’d be willing to try anything at this point.”
“Anything? Are you so certain?” Zane tilted her head and waited for Ayida to continue. “You would give up the life you know now – your success and fame – and risk it on a possibility? Because that’s what it will take for you to have a chance of claiming the love you seek.”
“How did you...?”
Ayida held Zane’s blue eyes with glowing amber. “I see many things, Zane. I know the past you come from, and what that past could have been had Urim not stepped in when he had.” She reached out a hand to Valeria without releasing her grip on Zane, then turned her head to meet Valeria’s green eyes. “I see what Ria was born into and the many paths she could have taken had she been left to grow up in that place. I see that you were made for her and she for you in every timeline available to me... even when you were apart from one another. Oh yes, Zane... I see many, many things.”
“And what do you see in the future?” Ayida shook her head.
“The future is not as clear as the past because it has yet to be.” Ayida sighed. “So tell me, Zane – would you jeopardize what you have for what might or might not be?”
“If I risk... doesn’t that mean Val has to gamble her past and future as well? Because I love her, Ayida; I want *her*... not someone else. So doesn’t she have a say in all this too?”
Ayida nodded. “Of course – you were made for her and she for you.”
She turned to Valeria who looked at both of them as though they were just the other side of crazy. “Maybe you should tell us exactly what the stakes are, Ayida. Because I want all the facts before I make a decision... especially if it’s going to change the course of my entire life.”
Ayida nodded again – only this time, she seated them side-by-side on the couch without ever relinquishing her hold on them. She stared at each of them for a long moment, measuring them carefully before taking a deep breath to speak. She never even acknowledged when they reached for one another.
“You were never supposed to meet in this reality,” Ayida began. “Once you were removed from your original circles, you were never to cross paths. However, once you both gave up love as a viable commodity in your lives, Urim and Abaddon relaxed their vigilance. They figured they had a lock.”
Ayida shrugged delicately. “That is up to the two of you. Because your original agreement with Urim was made when you were a very young child, Zane, and you unwittingly trusted him during the most influential years of your life, I am able to offer you a single opportunity to renege on your agreement with him. The same goes for you, Ria – you were placed into a position of duress to accept Abaddon’s terms through decisions not your own. So you have the same choice that Zane does. However,” she cautioned before either of them could speak. “It is a decision you must make together. Because as Zane so aptly pointed out... this would be a gamble that affects both of you.”
“So what’s the deal?” Valeria asked with little inflection.
“What you have – everything you know – will be taken away and you will be put into one of the pasts you would have lived through had not Urim and Abaddon interfered. You will have all the memories and all the experiences you would have known in that life had you actually lived through it.”
“Will we remember each other? Will we remember the lives we have right now?”
Ayida paused and looked down, and when she looked up a second time, her eyes glowed almost white in their intensity. “That I cannot say,” she replied softly. “You will have until Halloween to find one another, fall in love....” She broke off, unable to reveal any more.
“If we succeed?”
“Then your agreements with Urim and Abaddon will become null and void. If you fail, however.... The future is unclear - I cannot predict what your reality will be for the rest of your lives.”
“So we risk safety and success... for what? Some fleeting emotion that does nothing but cause misery and heartache eventually?” Valeria asked incredulously. “I don’t think so.”
Ayida freed the hands she held, immediately placing one over Zane’s heart and the other over Valeria’s. “This,” she hissed. “This is what you are missing, Ria,” letting the joy and wonder of Zane’s love flow into her soul for the first time. “This is the two of you together. And why Zane wants you to make the choice that’s best for you. This,” shifting her hands minutely until Valeria could feel Zane’s pain and emptiness, “is why Zane needs you to choose what is best for you both. Because this is all she will ever know for the rest of her life if you decide not to accept the chance you’ve been given to change your lives. And you will never find the fulfillment you seek.”
“Do we have a chance in hell of succeeding?” Valeria asked wearily.
“A chance in hell, a chance in heaven, and every chance on Earth,” Ayida assured her. She looked between them, noting they were still holding hands. “You two talk it over, but you need to decide quickly. Today is Summer Solstice, and we have one opportunity to act. We have a very small window before Urim and Abaddon discover their mistake. After that, there will be little I can do to alter your realities to give you the chance you deserve.”
“*IF* we do this,” Valeria said slowly, “what about Urim and Donny? Will they be around to interfere in the lives we have?”
“They will have to find you first. Since today marks the longest day of the year, you will disappear into the light; it will take them a little while to notice you are gone. After that...?” Ayida shrugged. “Well, that will depend on the outcome of your situation. If you succeed, you will be rid of them for good. If you fail, they will likely torment you until such time as you die.”
Zane snorted. “You’re not making this particularly appealing.”
Ayida shrugged again. “My job is to give you the facts as I know them and hope you’re willing to make the hard decision anyway.”
“You want us to be together,” Valeria stated prosaically and watched Ayida nod. “Why?”
“Because, Ria – some things in life are meant to be. And the two of you?” She held out her hands and waited for them each to clasp one. She moved Valeria’s smaller hand on top of Zane’s larger one, then covered them so hers formed a shell around theirs. “Close your eyes.”
They did so and Ayida waited a long moment before she followed suit. Taking a deep breath, she hummed low in the back of her throat, and when she could see what she needed, she blinked her eyes open slowly. “Can you see them... your auras? They are deep, strong – that is your soul strength. The turquoise... that is Zane; the green belongs to Valeria. Now watch what happens when they bond... when you become the people Urim and Abaddon were sent to prevent.” Slowly, the auras melded until they were, of all things, pink and blue woven so closely together they appeared to be lavender. Two sets of eyes popped open and gazed at Ayida curiously.
“Pink and blue, actually,” Ayida corrected with a smile. “The two strongest auras that can be achieved intertwined so tightly they are indicative of perfect balance.”
“And that’s what we can have?” Valeria asked. Ayida shook her head.
“No. That’s what you will be,” letting them feel the rare sensation that lavender was flow through them. Ayida released their hands once more and stood to move away from them. A hand on either arm prevented her from moving and she watched in fascination as Zane and Valeria held an intimate conversation without words. With barely a nod of acknowledgment between them, they turned back to Ayida.
“We want this, Ayida. We want to be lavender.”
“Then close your eyes and rest. I need to prepare, but when I return, it will be time to become the people you were truly meant to be.”
Part The Ninth
“Asshole!!” Zane growled as she blocked a blow aimed at her face. Without pausing, she kicked the perpetrator in the nuts, smiling viciously at the keening sound he made as he sank to the floor. She slammed her fist into his face, grunting in satisfaction at the crunch of bones created by the impact of her knuckles against his nose. He didn’t even have time to bemoan the damage Zane had done – he was out like a light. Zane didn’t hesitate, but jerked his arms high up his back before locking the cuffs around his wrists. Only then did she expel a deep breath, and wipe the blood from a cut above her eye. “Jackass,” she muttered again, wincing when she put too much pressure on her wound.
“Damn, Zane,” her partner snorted, unable to keep the laughter from his tone. “Did you know this prick or somethin’?” Zane offered him a smirk.
“No, but he stinks like he hasn’t see a shower in six months. He was making my eyes water, and that makes my mascara run. And I know how you feel about me having to fix my makeup while we’re on the clock.”
Her partner laughed out loud at her words. Zane may have been as tough as any of the guys and someone he trusted to watch his back, but she was definitely all woman where it counted. Still, they’d had to come to an agreement about make-up breaks – which had actually helped him to quit smoking since she’d forbidden him to have smoke breaks in return. It was an odd partnership, but it worked.
“Fair enough,” he agreed. “You up for a drink after work?”
Zane shrugged and replied, “Sure. Not like I’ve got a reason to rush home since Mike and I are taking a break again. And don’t say it,” she instructed with a glare. “I don’t want you setting me up with any more of your old Army buddies, Paulie. I dunno where they grew up, but they need some manners beat into them or something.”
Paulie just snorted. “Nah... you just scare the crap out of them, Zane. You’re a threat to their manhood, I guess. Mike’s too, I’m betting,” digging a little because he really didn’t like Zane’s ‘on again, off again’ relationship with the bartender. Paulie felt she could do a lot better.
“But not yours?” she asked with a smirk, ignoring the gibe. Paulie laughed.
“Not mine – I’ve got nothing to prove at this point.”
“This is true. Let’s take the trash to the stationhouse, then you’re buying the first round.”
Zane looked around her tiny, cramped apartment much later that evening. It had been a strong, clean collar and there had been plenty of good cheer and camaraderie at the bar. Now, however.... It wasn’t that she was unhappy here or even discontent. Instead it was more a feeling of unfulfillment... of missing something that she couldn’t even identify. She shook her head, determined not to let her thoughts become maudlin. If her life wasn’t perfect, at least it was hers – something she’d created for herself after crawling out of the gutters of abuse and neglect she’d suffered during her growing-up years. She had a roof over her head and food in her belly; she had a partner she trusted and the respect of most of her fellow officers; she had a job she mostly liked and was good at; and sometimes, she had the pleasure of someone’s company in her bed. All in all, it wasn’t a bad life.
On those occasions that she acutely felt like something was missing in her life, she usually made a phone call to Mike, and he helped relieve the stress or satiate the need or whatever Zane required of him. He was a good guy and she cared a lot for him. But she couldn’t say with absolute certainty that she loved him; hence the reason they were taking a break.
Mike had proposed marriage just a few days prior, and not only had she not accepted immediately as he’d expected her to, Zane had actually turned him down. She hadn’t been cruel or heartless about it... simply honest.
I can’t, Mike. I can’t make that kind of commitment to you right now... maybe never. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I’m not gonna lie and pretend to feel something for you I’m not sure is really there. That would be worse than being upfront about things and it would only make us both miserable the longer we played house together.
He’d been angry and embarrassed and had walked away without looking back at her. Zane wasn’t going to act like she wasn’t hurt by his leaving her – she did care for him after all, and he’d been an attentive, steady influence in her life for years. Still, she couldn’t help the relief she felt about it either. And relief made her feel guilty which in turn made her realize that something more than Mike’s presence was missing from her life. So she looked around her apartment and decided it was time to see if she could find what she was searching for. The first thing she was going to do was to get rid of the clutter. The rest she’d figure out as she went along.
“Val,” a soft voice called. “Valeria... are you up dearest?” Green eyes blinked open slowly. When they focused on the clock beside the bed, they popped open wide and Valeria sat up as though she’d been jolted by electricity. She jumped from the bed and started pulling on various bits of clothing whether they actually were meant to go together or not.
“Holy crap!! I’m sorry, Granny. I must have overslept. I mean, I did oversleep... obviously,” Valeria babbled, hopping around as she tried to get dressed and losing her balance when she gestured to the clock. Fortunately, her face-first landing was cushioned by the thick mattress of her bed and she rolled over onto her back just to find Granny leaning over her with a twinkle shining out of her merry green eyes. “You’re laughing at me,” Valeria accused flatly.
“Of course,” Granny admitted. “You make it too easy. It would be a crime against nature not to take advantage of such quality free entertainment.”
Valeria glared, but she couldn’t quite hide the twinkle in her eyes. “Unloved and unappreciated,” she mumbled, smiling when Granny wrapped her in a firm embrace.
“You know better, Valeria. You are the most precious thing in all the world to me, and I thank God every day for bringing you into my life... no matter how unorthodox His methods.”
“I love you too, Granny,” Valeria replied sincerely, turning to return the hug so freely offered. “And so do I,” not elaborating further. “I’m sorry about oversleeping, though.” She frowned and stepped out of the hug to pick up the clock. “I thought I set my alarm when I went to bed.”
“You did,” Granny assured her. “I turned it off this morning when I got up. I know you were up until the wee hours of the morning going over everything one more time, so I decided to let you have a bit of a lie-in. Don’t argue with me,” she instructed. “You needed the rest. But... you do need to get ready now. You don’t want to be late today of all days,” giving Valeria a big smile.
“I know. I’m so excited,” Valeria gushed, her cheeks pinking in her excitement. “I never thought this day would come... or that I’d be valedictorian a second time.”
“I’m proud of you, Val. You’ve worked hard to be where you are. But just remember this is the first step towards bigger and better things.”
Valeria stepped closer to Granny once more and hugged for all she was worth... even when she heard the air rush out of Granny’s lungs. “You’ve always been my number one cheerleader.”
“And what does that make me?” a voice boomed from the doorway. “Chopped liver?”
Valeria released her hold on Granny and moved to the door with open arms, squealing when she was lifted completely off the floor and scooped into a strong embrace. “You have always been my biggest supporter, Gramps.”
“And don’t you forget it,” he charged. “Now what are you girls doing up here lollygagging around? Don’t you know what an important day this is? C’mon now... breakfast is already on the table. So chop chop... let’s see a little excitement and enthusiasm around here. I expect you both to be at the table in the next two minutes, all right?”
“We’ll be right there, Gramps,” Valeria promised. Gramps nodded and walked back downstairs. Granny and Valeria just watched him go before turning back to one another.
“He’s right proud of you, Little Girl. We both are.”
“I’m proud to belong to you two. What you did for me....”
“... we were glad to do, Val. I don’t know how we messed up so badly with your mama; I’m glad we got a second chance with you.”
“Me too,” Val agreed. “Now c’mon before Gramps decides we’ve wasted enough time being mushy up here.” A growl interrupted her words and they both laughed. “Besides, I’m obviously hungry.”
“Let’s go then. We don’t want you growling like that during your speech. You’re liable to scare the diplomas off making that kind of racket.” Laughing again, they headed downstairs together.
Valeria was putting the finishing touches on her outfit when her eyes caught on the cap and gown that hung waiting for her to don them. There was the normal hood that indicated her field of study, but there were also the sashes that paid tribute to her academic achievements.
Valeria stared at them a long time, remembering every hour and effort she’d put into becoming valedictorian – first for high school and then again in college. As Ayida had promised, she remembered growing up with her grandparents – the highs and lows; the love and the disagreements; the laughter and the tears. But beyond that, she could remember who she had been before. She remembered Donny and Naamah and Zane.
She turned back to the mirror and forced those thoughts from her mind. Today was a day for celebration. Tomorrow she could decide if she wanted to risk this present to return to what she had known before. Because despite her doubts and her fears, Valeria was much better off in this reality than she’d been in the other. Was it really worth it to gamble it all again?
Part The Tenth
Zane looked around at her Spartan apartment with a sigh of relief. It had taken an entire weekend of scrubbing and cleaning, but she finally felt comfortable in her surroundings. Gone was the clutter and the extraneous trappings and the crap she really had no use for. Instead, her space now reflected who she was and what she valued in life.
She had done just the opposite with her personal life, however – seeking something outside herself to fill the emptiness she felt but couldn’t rationalize as simply missing Mike. Unlike other times when she and Mike had been on a break, this time Zane had spent a month trolling the bars looking for a warm body to fill the emptiness she felt. There were plenty of men and women who were more than happy to volunteer for that role in Zane’s life. But that existence quickly paled and Zane grew frustrated looking for something she couldn’t even explain to herself... much less anyone else - instinctively knowing what she needed was beyond what she already had and already knew.
So after weeks of unsatisfactory prowling, Zane decided to turn her focus to herself instead. Maybe if she could be satisfied with who she was, the rest would fall into place. And as her apartment slowly began to reflect her new outlook, her mind and body did as well… to the point that Paulie even noticed.
“Hey Zane! You do somethin’ different with your hair or somethin’? You look... I dunno – different, somehow.”
“Good different or bad different, Paulie?” she asked with a raised eyebrow and a smirk.
Rhonda, Paulie’s wife and Zane’s friend, just laughed as she caught the tail-end of the conversation between the two partners as she set the potato salad on the table. “Better be careful, Paulie. You don’t wanna piss off a woman with a gun.”
Paulie snorted. “I don’t wanna piss off Zane, regardless. You haven’t seen her take down a guy twice her size with nothing but her body. I kinda like knowin’ she’s got my back.”
“Avoiding the question, Paulie,” Zane growled. Rhonda smirked and covered her mouth to hide the laughter that wanted to spill over. Paulie glared at his wife, then tilted his head slightly to study Zane seriously for a long moment.
“Good different, I think. You seem more settled.” He shrugged. “Happier maybe.”
Now it was Zane’s turn to shrug. “Maybe.”
Paulie looked at her a moment longer and nodded his head. “Whatever. It’s workin’. You look good.” He turned to his wife. “Don’t she, Rhonda?”
Rhonda met his eyes before turning to stare at Zane contemplatively for several minutes before nodding her agreement just as Zane started to squirm. “Yeah,” Rhonda said. “You do look good, Zane. You think cutting Mike loose mighta given you some peace or somethin’?”
“I dunno. I kinda miss him – I mean he was part of my life for a long time and we had some good times together.” She paused and frowned and Rhonda waited. “It really wasn’t all that bad.” Zane shrugged. “It just wasn’t enough, ya know?”
Paulie chuckled. “Yeah, partner... we know. And you’ll know when it is.”
Zane looked at Paulie with a smirk, but there was a vulnerability in her eyes she couldn’t quite conceal. “You think so, Paulie?”
“Nah, Zane – I know. Just like I know it’ll happen when you least expect it to.”
Val was exhausted. The weeks since graduation had been filled to the brim with work and interning and more work. As hard as she’d struggled to become a doctor, there were times when she wondered if it was all worth it – times when her feet were killing her from being on them for hours and days at a time; times when she didn’t have the opportunity to eat despite her growling belly; times when she was too exhausted to remember her own name.
But then there were other times – when her skill saved a life; when a parent hugged her neck in relief and gratitude; when a child smiled – those times made her glad for the choices she been given... and had made... in this life.
And that train of thought, of course, brought her right back around to the dilemma she’d been having with herself since her arrival in this time and place. Because despite her surety at having grown up in a loving home with Grandparents who cared for her and raised her, Val couldn’t quite dismiss the memories of the life she’d known before this. And she wondered if Zane was plagued by her memories as well, or if she was even aware of whom she had been before she became whoever she was now.
Valeria rubbed her temples as a headache threatened. Thinking about this whole situation always caused a brain melt and today was no different. She was at something of a loss to know what to do about it, though, and she still wasn’t certain she wanted to risk who she was and what she had now to go back to who and what she had been before.
Val wished Ayida had been more forthcoming with details of what was expected of them. Was she supposed to look for Zane? Maybe Zane was supposed to look for her or perhaps they were simply supposed to meet by chance. At the moment, Valeria was leaning towards the chance option, followed by Zane looking for her. In her mind, her looking for Zane was a very, very distant third alternative.
She remembered Ayida’s vagueness... her unwillingness to say whether or not they would retain the memories of their former lives, and Val wondered if that was deliberate. If that was the case, there was every possibility Zane *didn’t* remember, and that left the responsibility for them squarely on Val’s shoulders. She frowned. She didn’t really care for that prospect.
She glanced at her watch and shook her head. It was time to head for the hospital. With it being Friday night and a full moon besides, it had all the makings of a humdinger of a shift.
“Should I ask what happened to him, officer?” Val asked Paulie as he accompanied the struggling suspect currently handcuffed to the gurney into the emergency room. Trauma had been mercifully slow so far... especially considering the Solstice moon was full... and Val had been called in to consult on the GSW when it had been called in.
Paulie smirked. “He was too stupid to understand to stop runnin’ when my partner told him to freeze. Then he resisted arrest.” Val looked at the gunshot wound currently trickling blood out the left cheek of the perp’s ass as well as the contusions and scratches on his face. She arched an eyebrow at Paulie, who shrugged back at her. “That was the resistin’ part.”
“Ya see wad dad bidch did t’me, Doc?” the man on the gurney groaned. “Dis wad p’lice brutaliddy. ‘M g’nna sue.”
Before she could respond, Val’s attention was pulled elsewhere. “Hey, Doc,” a male nurse called from the doorway. Val held up a finger and turned to the nurse in charge of the room.
“Sedate him and prep him for surgery. I’ll be right back.” She turned to the nurse waiting in the doorway. “Let’s go.” He led her to the room next door.
“I thought you might wanna look at the officer who took him down,” jerking his head towards the other room. “He did a number on her ribs, and she’s giving us grief about taking care of them.” Val rolled her eyes and snapped on a pair of clean gloves.
“Don’t they always?” backing into the room, then stopping short when she recognized the woman sitting on the gurney in front of her. “Zane??”
Zane tilted her head, but gave no sign of recognition. She figured the doc had gotten her name from Paulie. “Hiya, Doc,” she replied breathlessly, keeping her hand wrapped around her mid-section. “Can you tell Dave there I’m good to go? I still gotta do the paperwork on that fucker.”
“How about you let me take a look and we’ll see what we can do, all right?” She turned back to Dave who was hovering just within the doorway. “Tell Vicki ‘that fucker’ is going to have to wait until I get done here,” smiling when Zane smirked when Val repeated her description of the suspect being detained next door. “Now, officer – I need you to take off your shirt so I can get a good look at what said fucker did to you, all right?”
Zane snorted. “No need to be formal, Doc. You called me Zane before.” Val didn’t have the opportunity to say anything; Zane’s hiss refocused her thoughts on the wounded woman in front of her. “Probably should call me Zane anyway, Doc. You’re gonna have to help me get out of this,” indicating her uniform. “And people who get that up close and personal call me Zane.”
Val smiled and stepped forward to assist her, completely convinced Zane had absolutely no recollection of their previous lives. Then she focused on what she could do to help Zane recover in this incarnation. The rest she put aside to think about later.
Part the Eleventh
“C’mon, Za... Zan... Zan-e,” the woman on the other end of the line slurred. “Jus’ a li’l bit... nobody’ll even know it’s missin’.”
“No, Ma... NO!” Zane snapped, almost jerking her hair from her head when she impatiently tried to run her hands through it. “I’m a police officer. I follow the law; I don’t break it. I’m not taking drugs from the evidence locker for you.”
“Worthless child!” the woman spat. “Can’t do nothin’ for your mama.”
“It’s not like you ever did anything for me, Ma,” Zane snarled, as hurt as she was angry. “Don’t call me again.” She slapped her phone shut and pulled her arm back to hurl it into the nearest wall... only to find her elbow caught in a strong grip. She turned and glared at Paulie. He kept his face grim, though his eyes shone with compassion.
“Don’t you go bustin’ up that new phone, Zane. We don’t have time to go get you another one and you know how the Cap feels about bein’ able to reach his crew at a moment’s notice. You don’t wanna piss him off now, do ya? Promotions are due out soon.”
Zane snorted. “Paulie, you know and I know it’s not gonna matter. I’ve passed that damn test the last three times I’ve taken it and yet I’m still pounding pavement. He’s never gonna give me the rec I need to get that gold shield and get off the beat.”
Wisely, Paulie decided not to comment on Zane’s words – he knew she was right... to a degree at least. Instead he changed the subject. “Everything all right?” nodding his head towards her phone as he released her arm. She sighed deeply and shrugged, but followed him when he headed to the twenty-four hour restaurant. She needed caffeine as badly as he did at the moment.
“My ma,” she replied succinctly. “Thinks I’m some sort of fucking supplier.” Paulie’s eyebrows shot into his forehead.
“She does know you’re a cop, right?”
Zane snorted. “Yeah. In her eyes, that just means I have easier access to the good shit.”
“You need to cut her loose, Zane. She just gonna keep draggin’ you down til ya got nothin’ left.”
Zane gave Paulie a sardonic look. “I’m pretty sure she’d find a way to screw up my life no matter what I did, Paulie. Hell, even if she died, she’d probably haunt me... just for spite.”
Paulie shook his head, knowing Zane spoke the truth. Of all the changes Zane had recently made for the better in her life, she seemed destined to carry the albatross of her mother and their shared past with her for the rest of her life. He wondered if there was something he could do to help Zane rid herself of the final millstone he knew was keeping her from becoming all she could be. Paulie sighed and decided to talk it over with Rhonda later. Maybe she’d have some ideas.
They got their coffee and nodded their thanks to the boy at the counter. They walked over to the condiment bar and Paulie caught the slight wince Zane made as she reached for the sugar. “Ribs still bothering you?”
Zane grimaced slightly, but shook her head. “Just a little stiff.” She shrugged lightly. “After a couple weeks you’d think they’d be healed, but.... I think it’s the weather, ya know?”
Paulie chuckled. “Yeah, I know. I think we all get those kind after a while.” He finished stirring the creamer into his coffee and threw away the straw he’d been using. “What’d the doc say?”
“Dunno,” Zane replied, crumpling up a napkin. She replaced the lid on her cup and took a satisfied sip. “I didn’t go back and ask.”
Paulie turned around to glare at her so quickly, he sloshed hot coffee over his hand. “Shit! Goddamn, that’s hot!” Zane had already covered his hand with a napkin and turned to catch a couple pieces of ice from the dispenser beside her. She put the ice over the burn and he hissed again.
“You all right?” she asked, taking the remainder of his coffee and handing the cup to the kid who’d come around the counter as soon as he’d heard the male cop start swearing... loudly.
“Yeah,” Paulie grumbled. “That was stupid.” He pulled his hand from Zane’s to look at his reddened skin. “Guess I should be more careful. Thanks, kid,” he said to the boy who’d returned with another full cup of coffee. Zane took it and prepared it the way Paulie liked, deliberately recapping it before she passed it to him. They headed back outside. “Now what do you mean you didn’t go back to the doc? How’d you get released from medical?”
“There wasn’t anything in the restrictions saying I needed to go back. She said to take it easy for a couple weeks.”
Zane shrugged. “That was it. Unless I was in pain, I was good to go.”
Paulie stared at her, but Zane deliberately kept her attention on their surroundings. Finally he grunted and nudged her towards the car. “C’mon. We’re gonna….” But before he could finish, their radios crackled to life and their coffee and everything else was forgotten as they dashed for the car and headed out to cover the call.
Val sighed. Mondays tended to be far less hectic than Friday and Saturday nights, but it also made time drag so badly it seemed to run in reverse. She looked around the trauma unit. It was quiet and the compassionate part of her was thankful for that. But the part of her that thrilled to the adrenaline rush she got when she was able to beat the odds by saving a life – that part was less than happy about her current circumstances... especially since she was stuck working on a backlog of paperwork her Chief was demanding. It didn’t help that her thoughts continued to turn to Zane.
She hadn’t seen the other woman since her visit in the ER a couple weeks previously, and Val had done some judicious investigation on Zane and was torn by what she had learned. On the one hand, from all the reports Val had found, Zane’s childhood had been less than stellar. There were repeated incidents of abuse, and more than once she’d been removed from her mother’s care, though she’d always been returned.
She’d managed to create a better life for herself despite everything – graduating near the top of her Academy class and earning several commendations during her time as a beat cop. She appeared to be on the fast track for promotion, yet even after almost ten years on the force and those commendations, she didn’t appear to be advancing like Valeria believed she should have been. But Val figured Zane could have preferred to remain on the streets – she was good at it, after all.
Truthfully, Val was a little hesitant to dig any deeper. For one thing, she didn’t want Zane to come after her, thinking she was some kind of freaky stalker. For another, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to risk her current present for her past present. She liked who she was here, and she got an enormous amount of satisfaction from her work. It was certainly better than being a housekeeper and a high-priced call girl, despite some amazing sex. And Zane did seem to like her current occupation.
Maybe they didn’t really need more than they had now.
Zane wrapped her arms around her middle, clutching at the side of her torso even as she gasped for breath. What had been stiffness an hour ago had become agony; but she’d gotten her man. The suspect she and Paulie had been chasing was currently sitting in the back of the squad car fighting and cussing as he struggled to escape the handcuffs Zane had snapped on just a shade too tight.
She blinked rapidly, desperate not to let the tears she felt gathering roll out of her eyes. She knew if Paulie saw them, he’d be taking her back to the hospital. Then it didn’t matter – a hand grabbed her around the waist and she whimpered and flinched before she could control her response. The gloved hand of the EMT froze, and the woman eased around in front of her.
“Officer? Officer Rollins? You need to let me have a look,” knowing it was going to be bad when Zane didn’t even bother to refute her words. The EMT led her over to the ambulance and seated Zane cautiously before slowly starting to remove her shirt. When Zane hissed and the color faded from her face, the EMT pulled her to her feet and urged her inside the ambulance. “C’mon – we’re gonna take you to the hospital. They’ll be able to give you something for the pain before taking your shirt off. Because we both know getting that vest off is gonna suck worse.”
Zane nodded. “Thanks, Gregory,” noting the woman’s nametag.
“Alice,” the EMT offered.
“Thanks, Alice. I’m Zane,” said slowly so as not to get too winded. “Can you tell my partner...?”
“Sure, Zane. Marty’ll let him know. Easy now,” pushing her onto the gurney still in the back of the vehicle. “I’m gonna put this on you,” holding up an oxygen mask. “It’ll make it a little easier for you to breathe, okay? I’ll be right back, and then we’ll get you to the ER.”
Zane nodded and closed her eyes.
Part the Twelfth
Val jerked her head up at the address and her frown turned to a smile when she recognized Dave standing in front of her. The middle-aged nurse had looked out for her from the time she’d started working at the hospital and she counted him and his wife among her closest friends. Still, she didn’t generally see him on Monday night; he preferred the excitement and drama of working overnights on the weekends. “Hey, Dave! What are you doing here? Picking up overtime?”
He shrugged but offered Val a tiny smile. “Yeah. I’m hoping to surprise the wife with a trip to Cancun on our anniversary.”
“Oooo,” Val said with a smile. “Lucky lady.”
“Lucky me – it’ll be twenty-five years this year,” he replied with a smirk before turning serious. “Listen, Doc – do you remember that cop we had in here a couple weeks ago? The one with the broken ribs that brought in the GSW suspect?” he added when Val showed no sign of recognition.
“Oh,” feeling the color fade from her face at the thought of something having happened to Zane. “Yeah, I remember. Why?”
“We just got a call – seems she’s on her way in with a re-break.”
“Are you kidding me?” Val growled. “What the hell was she thinking?”
Dave’s eyes widened. He’d never heard Val curse – certainly never about a patient she’d only treated briefly once. “I dunno, Doc, but their ETA put them about five minutes out.”
Val closed her eyes and nodded her head as she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Set up trauma room one for me, Dave. If it’s the same ribs, we’re gonna have to put a plate in and I want to be prepared for the worst case scenario.”
“Already done, Doc. I just wanted to give you a chance to get into your groove before....” Right then, both their pagers sounded an alarm and Dave turned and jogged towards the ER doors with Val just behind him. They were waiting when Marty and Alice pulled Zane from the back of the bus.
Alice started calling out stats and Val let her finish before she started calling out orders. Just as they reached the doors of the trauma room, Alice leaned down and patted Zane’s hands. “You’re in good hands, Zane. You get better soon, all right? I still want to introduce you to my brother.”
Zane nodded, but didn’t try to speak around the oxygen mask still firmly attached to her face. Val watched their interaction but didn’t comment. Instead she focused on getting Zane into the treatment room so her injuries could be taken care of. After that was done, maybe they could talk.
“How is she, Doc?” Paulie asked when Val stepped from the trauma room. He’d gotten there as quickly as he could and had been watching through the windows for the last few minutes.
Val shook her head. “She’s awake. She’s going to be on medical a while for this.” She gave him a dirty look. “What the hell was she doing?”
Paulie held up his hands in surrender and took a step back as his eyes widened at Val’s angry tone. “Her job?” asked as much as answered. “Look, Doc – she said she didn’t need a medical release to be back out on the streets. Maybe you shoulda....” Paulie stopped speaking when he heard Valeria growl.
“I. Tried.” She replied in bitten off words. “She should have gone into the hospital that night, but she left against medical advice.”
“I’ll kill her,” he muttered.
“Me first,” Val answered with a grim smile. “I’ve gotten her put back together again, but it’s going to be a couple days before release is even considered.”
Paulie snorted. “Better make sure you tie her to the bed then. Zane hates hospitals... more than most cops, I mean.”
Val frowned. “Any particular reason other than she’s a female cop?”
“Yeah,” Paulie said, scratching the back of his neck. “But it’s not my place.” He cleared his throat. “Can I go see her?” jerking his head towards the door.
“No. They’re getting ready to move her upstairs. Give us about fifteen minutes to get her settled; I doubt she’s going to want you to see her any more weakened than necessary. I’ll come get you or I’ll send Dave to find you, okay?”
“All right, Doc. I’ll be in the waitin’ room.”
Val nodded and the two of them headed in opposite directions. Just as Paulie reached the double doors that led back to the ER waiting room, Val called out to him.
“Did she at least get her man?”
Paulie grinned big and nodded.
“I’m not staying here – you can’t make me,” Zane growled woozily, jerking at the soft restraints that had been wrapped around each wrist, then whimpering at the pain that ratcheted through her entire body at the motion. The local anesthetic they had used was wearing off.
“He might not be able to,” Val said with a nod towards Dave, who knowingly started the morphine drip, “but I certainly can.” She bore Zane’s stare stoically. “Either you agree to lay here quietly for the next couple days AND stay off work until you heal properly this time....”
“Or I will be more than happy to contact your supervising officer and have them make it an order. I’m confident I could get your partner to give me the details I need, but I assure you I am more than capable of getting them on my own if need be.”
“I hate you.”
“As long as you hate me from that bed and do what you’re told, I don’t care if you hate me or not,” Val returned impassively, though her chest ached from the harshness of Zane’s words. “So what’s it going to be?” Zane tried to draw a deep breath to answer and flinched. Val covered one hand and clasped her chin lightly in the other. “Look at me, Zane – open your eyes and look at me.” Zane slowly blinked her eyes opened as she tried not to breathe. Dave slipped an oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, but she kept her eyes focused on Val. “Listen to me, Zane, okay?” Zane nodded gently, but otherwise gave little indication she was aware of what was being said. “Good girl,” Val muttered and Zane narrowed her eyes in response. “You need to leave the mask in place, all right? You managed to rip the nasal cannula out and you need the help to breathe right now, so leave the mask alone. Don’t be shaking your head or anything to loosen it, okay?”
Zane nodded again slowly and Val nodded her acceptance. She started to move away from the bedside, but Zane grasped for the hand covering hers as best she could. Val turned back to face her. “Zane?”
“Doc, can we lose the restraints? I’ll stay put but... please.”
Val held her eyes for a very long moment before nodding her head at Dave. He untied them from the bed, but left them on her wrists, not wanting to mess up the tubes and wires still running into Zane’s body from various directions. “I’ll go find her partner,” Dave offered and Val nodded without taking her gaze off of Zane.
“Don’t make me regret this, Zane.”
“Why do you care?” Zane asked sluggishly, the morphine finally kicking in. “I know it’s your job to heal, but that doesn’t mean you have to care.”
Val shrugged. “Maybe I’ll tell you some day.”
“’Kay,” Zane agreed as her eyes closed. “Night, Doc.”
Val eased the lights to their lowest level, then walked to the door. “Night, Zane,” she whispered and headed out to finish her shift.
“How’s she doing, Doc?” Alice asked when she and her partner brought in a heart attack patient some hours later. It wasn’t a trauma, so Val wasn’t the attending physician. Alice had made it a point to look the young trauma surgeon up to get a status update on Zane.
“Alice,” Val cautioned.
“Valeria,” Alice countered. “C’mon. She was my patient too for a little while. I just wanna know she’s gonna be okay.”
“If we can keep her still long enough to heal, she’ll be fine.”
“Thanks, Val. She and her partner seemed like good guys, ya know?”
Val smirked, though inside she was trying to control her jealousy. “You just want to introduce her to your brother.”
Alice laughed lightly. “Mama’d be thrilled if Ralphie brought home a girl like Zane. But there’s something about her....” Alice shrugged. “I dunno.” Her radio squawked. “Maybe I can figure it out later, but it’s time for me to get back to work. Later, Doc.”
Val watched her jog back towards the ambulance bay, but her mind was a thousand miles away. Maybe it was time for her to find out some truths about this reality.
Ayida frowned at the crystal ball where she was watching all the action as it took place, and stomped her foot impatiently as Val walked out of sight. She’d used all the influence she’d had to get them to this reality. What was Valeria waiting on?? Did she not understand what was at stake?? Or how little time they really had to make this reality work??
Maybe it was time to confer with her sisters, and with that thought, Ayida shimmied out of sight in a sparkle of glitter, leaving only a trail of rose petals in her wake.
Part the Thirteenth
“What do you mean you lost them?” the Master growled as his eyes flashed red. “How did you LOSE them?” crossing his arms over his chest and tapping his foot as he waited for an answer. Urim and Abaddon exchanged glances, each hoping the other would reply first. The Master growled. “I’m waiting, gentlemen. And we all know how much I adore waiting.” Urim and Abaddon swallowed hard and looked at one another again. Urim sighed and decided to take the responsibility that was mostly his anyway... as he was the senior agent on this assignment.
“We are still trying to discover where we made our mistake, Master. We do know it hasn’t been very long – I spoke with Zane several days ago,” being deliberately vague about the number of days.
“I see,” the Master replied slowly. “And what was your conversation about?”
“Love,” Urim answered succinctly. The Master waited, but when nothing more was forthcoming, he turned to Abaddon.
Abaddon swallowed hard. He knew he had screwed up by not keeping a closer eye on Valeria, and it was fixing to bite him in the ass. “I haven’t spoken to Valeria in several months, Master,” flinching when flames leapt out of the glowing red eyes when they met his. “I... I’m sorry, Master,” he stuttered, taking a step back in a futile effort to stave off the Master’s rage. “I didn’t see the need. I... I mean – it really wasn’t necessary. The papers have long since been signed, and we did everything by the book. Valeria was of legal age and completely cognizant of what she was choosing when Naamah and I put the papers in front of her. They’re a lock, Master. Valeria is not an issue for us.”
The Master sneered at Abaddon, but moved his attention back to Urim. “And Zane?”
Urim shrugged. “Her contract is as solid as we could make it, Master. There are no loopholes – she signed it of her own free will.”
“Except that she was a child when she signed them.”
“The first time, yes,” Urim agreed. “But not the second - when we signed in blood, nor the third – when everything was finalized.”
“And it didn’t occur to you that there could be a problem with them crossing paths?” the Master’s voice dangerously low. “The entire point of this mission was to keep them apart.”
“I understand that, Master. I was not aware of who Valeria was or was to have been to Zane. My main concern was ensuring that Zane’s contracts remained legal. While the first could be brought into question because of her age, she was perfectly legal and competent when she signed both of the other sets. By the time I was made aware of Valeria’s true identity, I had Zane’s final contract in my hand. Them meeting at this point should be nothing more than a fluke.”
“Um hmm,” the Master said as he stroked his goatee. “Then where are they?” He looked up and glared at Urim. “If their meeting is merely a fluke, where are they? I can no longer find them.”
Urim frowned and looked at Abaddon, who shrugged at him. “Perhaps we should return to our places in the other world, Master. We should be able to contact our charges there and we can alert you to their whereabouts.”
“And if you can’t find them, Urim? What then?” The calm tone of the Master’s voice was more unnerving than shouting would have been. Silence met his question, and the Master glared at both of them with burning eyes. “GO!” he commanded with a bellow, and Urim and Abaddon scrambled out of his presence as quickly as they could move. The Master sighed and dropped into a chair that suddenly appeared behind him. He had some thinking to do, and there were many things to consider before he could choose a course of action. He wasn’t about to allow all their progress to be destroyed by a simple oversight. He was too close to winning.
With that thought, he turned to study the flames that surrounded him, taking comfort in their familiarity. He was looking forward to being done with this particular scenario sooner rather than later. He was ready to move on to bigger things.
“Doc?” Valeria’s head snapped quickly up from her contemplation of the tomatoes neatly piled up in front of her when she heard the address, and her jaw dropped when she realized her ears hadn’t been deceiving her. In front of her stood Zane holding a shopping basket, not dressed in her uniform, but casually clothed in a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie. “What brings you here?” motioning around the neighborhood grocery store.
“Zane,” she replied softly, a smile lighting her face. “How are you?”
“Better,” Zane said with a shrug. “I should be cleared to go back to work next week.”
“So no issues? No lingering pain?”
Zane smirked. “I’ve been told I’ll set off every metal detector within a five block radius, but I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.” She shrugged. “Guess I needed the break. I would have rather spent it in the Islands, but beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. At least my dogs have enjoyed the break from regulation footwear.” Zane cringed. “Sorry... you can tell me to shut up anytime now.”
Val started chuckling. “Why? Listening to you ramble about ‘your dogs’ is much better than having you tell me you hate me,” the last added a little sadly.
Zane flinched and reached out, though her hand fell before she could actually touch Val. Instead, she scratched the back of her neck awkwardly. “Yeah... about that – look, I’m really sorry. I don’t like hospitals and I react pretty badly when I’m medicated.”
“So it was nothing personal?”
“Nah – I’m just naturally bitchy, and you were the closest target.” She took a deep breath. “How ‘bout you let me buy you a cup of coffee? I can apologize properly and you can tell me how you ended up in the neighborhood.”
Valeria tilted her head thoughtfully. “I’ll tell you how I ended up in the neighborhood if you tell me why you hate hospitals so much.” Val was glad she was watching closely, because she would have missed it otherwise – the barely perceptible flinch that was quickly hidden by what she was learning was Zane’s ‘cop face’. Zane cleared her throat.
“I suppose that’s a fair exchange, but I warn you... it’s not pretty.”
Val wondered how bad it could possibly be.
Part the Fourteenth
“So you chose this part of town because it’s close to the hospital?” Zane asked as they claimed a table in the corner. Val shrugged.
“Partly. It’s close to the hospital and not too far from my grandparents, so I can keep an eye on them and visa versa. I don’t see a reason to worry them, and it makes them feel better knowing they can check on me.”
Zane’s brows went to her hairline. “Your grandparents check on you? Aren’t you an adult?”
“Yes,” bitten off with a hint of aggravation in the tone. “But we’ve looked after each other since they took me in as a kid. Gramps has even been helping me restore the old brownstone I bought. It makes him happy and gives Granny peace of mind about both of us.” She shrugged again. “It helps that I like the neighborhood and know quite a few of the local merchants too.”
Blue eyes widened. “How’d you manage that? It took me a couple of years to get to know the people around here... even with a badge.”
“The badge might have been part of the problem,” Val commented softly. “But to answer your question, I volunteered at the clinic while I was in med school. I still do whenever I’m able.”
“That’s pretty cool, Doc.” A pause. “Do you like being a doctor? Is it what you always wanted to be?”
Val hesitated. In this lifeline, her sole goal had been in pursuit of a medical degree. But she still remembered her other life, and while housekeeping wasn’t an exciting career choice, it had enabled her to meet a number of people - many of whom she’d indulged in sex with... including Zane. She couldn’t deny the illicit thrill she got from the power that had given her, and honestly, she kind of missed it. Her schedule didn’t allow for nearly the amount of sex her body was accustomed to, and self-love was far from being as satisfying as intimacy with another person... especially Zane... was. Val finally met Zane’s eyes.
“Mostly, yes. I like what I do and I’m good at it, but I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have chosen something... I dunno. Daring, maybe?”
“Like what?” Zane inquired curiously, linking her hands together and propping her elbows on the table.
“A firefighter, maybe. Or a showgirl,” added with an impish grin that caused Zane to chuckle. “Hey! I’ll have you know I’m a great dancer!! How about a sex slave?” laughing herself when Zane’s eyes bugged out at her. “Or maybe even a police officer. Surely *that* is exciting.”
The amusement fell from Zane’s expression and her features darkened. “Not really. It’s a lot of the same thing, day in and day out.”
“So you’re not happy?” Zane shrugged.
“It’s not what I wanted it to be, you know? But at least I’m part of the solution and not the problem.” There was something in her tone that made Valeria want to press for more information, but before she was able to formulate a question, Zane spoke again. “So you and Alice are pretty good friends, right?”
Val tilted her head as she considered her answer. “Well, we’ve had coffee a few times, but we don’t really socialize outside of work. There hasn’t really been time. Why?”
“Is that why she hasn’t introduced you to Ralphie?”
Val laughed, and Zane just gave her a bemused look. “That’d be one reason.” Val sighed. “Ralphie isn’t really my type.”
“Because...?” Zane looked at her beseechingly. “C’mon, Doc... you gotta give me more than that. Alice has been trying to set me up with him for a month now.”
“Is there a reason you don’t want to go out with him aside from the fact that you haven’t actually met him yet?”
“I’m just not enthusiastic about that whole scene right now. I feel like I need to put me first right now, and I can’t do that if I have to worry about being in a relationship with someone else. Because you have to consider them in everything you do, ya know?”
Val smiled. “Not really. But I do know someone will be really lucky to have you someday, Zane.”
Zane shrugged, but couldn’t stop the blush from staining her cheeks. “Maybe,” she said noncommittally.
“Well, I will tell you that Ralphie is a nice enough guy – good manners, nice looking... he even has a good, well-paid job - but he’s a mama’s boy. And if I’m going to be with someone, I want it to be between the two of us... as adults. I’m not willing to start a relationship that already has three people in it before the first date.”
“Oh... EW. I certainly don’t need any more baggage coming into my life, and somehow a mother-in-law attached at the hip before there’s even a wedding ceremony is way more baggage than I’m willing to accept. I’ve got enough issues of my own to deal with without adding that kind of complication.”
“Is this leading up to why you hate hospitals so much, and why you react so badly to drugs?”
Zane sighed, but held Val’s eyes as she spoke. “If I tell you this, you gotta keep it private – you know... like doctor/patient confidentiality or something, all right?”
Val held up a hand. “Pinkie swear,” she promised. Zane looked at her like she was nuts, but linked their pinkies together.
“Okay... let me go get a couple refills, because this is gonna take longer than half a cup of coffee.”
“So why is none of this in your file?” Zane frowned and Val covered her hand and briefly squeezed it. “Zane, it’s important medical information. It could affect your treatments.”
Zane snorted. “Until the last six weeks or so, I haven’t had to worry about it. I’ve been pretty careful about staying away from doctors and hospitals.”
Valeria sighed. “Val, please. I’d like us to be friends, Zane, but you’re going to have to call me Val first. Doc is just so... formal.”
A smirk. “All right... Val. See, although parts of my history are common knowledge, if the rest got out....” Val tilted her head and Zane sighed and shook her head. “I’ll never get my gold shield.”
“And that’s important to you?”
Zane glared up angrily until she realized Val was asking a legitimate question. “It’s all I’ve worked for, D... Val. It’s the best I can hope for.”
“Can I ask you something?” waiting for Zane to nod. “Have you always wanted to be a police detective or was there something else you aspired to when you were younger?”
This time Zane laughed full out, though there was little mirth in the sound. “Val, the only dream I had as a kid was to grow up enough to get the hell out of the shit hole I was born into. The Police Academy offered me a way out, and Paulie and Rhonda made it possible.”
“Will you do something for me?”
“Sure... if I can.”
“I want you to think about it, and the next time we talk, I want you to tell me about your dreams. What your dreams would have been, if you’d have them – what you’d want them to be now if they could be anything you wanted them to.”
Blue eyes held green for a long time; then Zane nodded. “I’ll try,” softly.
Val smiled. “Good. It’ll be my turn to buy the coffee.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Ayida kept her eyes on her crystal ball, even as she reviewed the conversation she had shared with her sisters only moments before.
The Master knows they are gone, and has instituted measures to ensure their swift return to his fold. The time that you gave them is contingent on him not finding them. If he figures out that you have manipulated time to hide them....
Ayida bit her lip thoughtfully, wondering if there was any way to speed things along. She was playing a dangerous game... and someone was going to get hurt.
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.”
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.
“Your 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 he 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 an 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.”