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rocketfic | wrong number

Title: Wrong Number by Rocketchick
Rating: 15+ Pairing: f/f
Notes: Written for National Novel Writing Month, 2001.

To whoever finds this letter:

Sorry for the mess, I needed something quick. Tell 'em to donate whatever's left to science. Maybe they can figure out why I turned out so fucked up.


She reread the note and laid it carefully on the table. Her service issue revolver was sitting there, newly oiled and cleaned. A single hollow point bullet was already loaded into the cylinder.

Zoe took one last look around the darkened apartment, flicking her long dark hair away from her face. With any luck, the gunshot would attract the neighbors' attention quickly -- she'd already decided didn't want to lay around for days and stink up the whole building.

She drew a deep breath and picked up the gun. She rechecked the cylinder, the bullet was still securely loaded in the top chamber. One final breath, and the barrel was between her teeth, angled up at the top of her head. Interesting... the trigger was awkward to pull at this angle.

The sudden shrill ring of the telephone startled her, and the gun clattered to the tabletop.

As the phone continued to ring in the background, Zoe struggled to get control of her raging heartbeat. The answering machine picked up on the fourth ring.

**Hey, leave a message.**

Hello, Mr. Harrington. My name is Raphael. I know where your son is. If you want to see him alive again, you will do exactly what I tell you.

Be at the payphone at the corner of 6th and Washington at 11:17. I will give you your instructions there - no cops, or your son ends up a floater in the river.


Zoe stared blankly at the phone.

"You've gotta be fuckin' kidding me," she breathed.

For about twenty minutes Zoe sat in her chair and fixated on the blinking red light on the answering machine, willing her hands to stop shaking. She'd come so close to ending it, so close just being done with it all. With that damned phone call she'd lost all her nerve.

She had to admit that the call itself was intriguing, though. She stood slowly, and crossed over to the phone. The caller ID display indicated it was a call from a pay phone, and she jotted down the number. She listened to the message again.

11:17... It was nearly eleven o'clock already. Zoe sighed, grabbed her jacket, and bounded out the door.

The phone was on its third ring before she reached it, running down the darkened street at full tilt. She yanked the receiver off the cradle.

"Hello?" she panted.

"You have two options," a calm male voice answered her.

"Who is this? Are you Raphael?"

"Your first option is to do everything I say, and the little brat will be returned to his family."

"Dammit, you got the wrong number!" Zoe roared into the phone.

"Your second option is to ignore what I say, or make up your own rules," the voice continued placidly. "If you do that, the boy will die."

"I'm not who you think I am," Zoe insisted.

"You are exactly who I think you are. And you will do what I say. Do you understand?"

Zoe slapped her hand against the side of the phone booth in frustration, exhaling loudly. "Yeah, I understand," she growled.

"Good. I will be in contact again. I'd suggest you refrain from telling the authorities."

The phone line went dead. Zoe hung up the receiver in disbelief. As she did, a black sedan squealed out of an alley a block away and sped past her. She broke into a run after it, but slowed when she saw it lacked a license plate.

She bent over, standing in the middle of the dark road with her hands on her knees, taking deep breaths and trying to figure out what the hell she should do next.

"A kidnapping? I'm not the guy you wanna report this to," Homicide Detective Walter Gerard mumbled around a large bite of danish.

"I'm not reporting this to you, Walt. I can't 'report' it to anyone. I just need some help," Zoe said. She raked her hand through her hair impatiently.

From across the table, Walt studied his old friend. They'd met up in the Police Academy longer ago than either cared to admit. For a time they'd been partners, then a bit more than partners, then they'd transferred to different precincts. Walt had been forced to watch sadly as Zoe had been drummed off the force in an oddly confidential scandal that had shaken up the department a few months earlier.

Zoe had ridden the fast track in the department, dazzling her superiors with her both investigative skill and her physical prowess. Not two months before her fallout with the higher-ups she'd earned a medal for bravery under fire in a foiled drug bust.

He chewed on his breakfast thoughtfully. "Tell me again why you don't just wanna call the department? It could be an anonymous tip... Let the desk jockeys chew on this one, Z."

Zoe shook her head and leaned forward, hunching over the table. "Nah, it's... I've got a bad feeling about this. You gotta trust me here. I can handle it, I just need an in to the department resources."

"So now you've turned vigilante?"

She glared at him. "Are you gonna help me or not?" Zoe growled.

Walt shrugged and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "All right, all right," he relented. "It's cool by me, you handle this the way you want. But be careful, okay?" He pulled a card out of his coat and scribbled a name on it. "This is a PI friend of mine that's been looking for a bit o' work. She's got cred, just not a lot of experience. She'll help you out."

She took the card and stuffed it in her pocket. "Thanks, Walt. I appreciate it."

He nodded, noticing the dark circles under her eyes "No problemo, my friend. Is stuff going okay otherwise?"

Zoe looked away abruptly. "Everything's fine. Just... tough, since leaving, you know?"

"Yeah. You know, I still think you got a raw deal, Z. The department needs badasses like you."

She shrugged. "Shit happens, Walt. Thanks for the lead on the PI. Keep all this under your hat, will ya?" She stood abruptly and stalked out of the coffee shop.

Walt watched her go, then signaled the server for his check.

Emma was having a very peaceful dream about walking on the beach and being circled by seagulls when one of the birds suddenly divebombed her and shrieked in her ear. She took off running, but the bird followed, screeching oddly electronic racket at her.

She awoke with a jolt, realizing that the shrieking bird noise wasn't actually a bird at all, but her cell phone ringing away next to her pillow. She grabbed the phone and made a few sleepy stabs at the buttons, then put it to her ear.

"Yeah?" she mumbled.

"Emma Frazier?"

"Yeah?" she repeated, sitting up in bed and pushing tousled blonde hair out of her eyes.

"My name is Zoe Winston. Walt Gerard gave me your phone number. He said you might be able to help me out with a... problem that I have."

Emma rallied her wits, trying to wake up fully. "What kind of problem?"

A pause. "It's not really something I'd like to discuss over the phone. Can I meet you somewhere?"

"Uh, sure. How about my office? It's on 3rd and Broadway, in the Walker building."

"Great. I'll be there in 20 minutes."

A click as the line disconnected. "Wait! Hang on..." Emma said into the unresponsive phone, then thumbed the button to end the call. She dropped the cell and looked piteously at the chaos in her bedroom. "Damn, I don't even have any clean clothes..."

She hopped out of bed to get going and meet her new client.

It took Zoe a few minutes to find Emma's office once she got into the dilapidated Walker building, and when she did it was apparent no one was even there. She tried the door and found it unlocked, then let herself in.

The office was a study in chaos, with photos and files stacked on every horizontal surface. Zoe looked around curiously, then sat down to wait.

A few more minutes had gone by and Zoe was beginning to feel distinctly twitchy. She needed something to fiddle with - a nervous habit she'd picked up sometime in school that had never left her. She rose and walked impatiently over to the desk in the corner and picked up a brightly-colored yo-yo sitting atop the clutter. After idly toying with the knot at the end of the string, she plopped into a leatherette chair and launched the yo-yo forward. It rebounded satisfyingly, and for several more minutes she lost herself in the distracting motion.

Emma noticed her office door was open, and the lights inside were on. She made a mental note to yell at the janitor for leaving her door unlocked again. As she peered inside, she saw a tall dark haired woman performing complicated acrobatics with her favorite yo-yo. For some reason she couldn't identify, when she saw the woman's profile a flash of recognition passed through her. She took a deep breath, smoothed imaginary wrinkles out of her shirt, and slipped into the office.

The petite woman had entered the office unnoticed, and she approached the slouched figure. "Ms. Winston?"

Startled, Zoe jerked upright and out of the chair, tossing the yo-yo to the desk. "Yeah, Zoe. That's me," she said shortly as she looked the woman over. This was a PI?

She was petite, probably eight inches shorter than Zoe herself, and she had long strawberry-blonde hair drawn back in a loose ponytail. She looked like a kid... but what really disconcerted Zoe were the moss-green eyes that twinkled gently up at her from under short bangs. Zoe blinked. Walt never mentioned this friend of his was so damned cute.

The PI extended her hand, which Zoe took. "I'm Emma Frazier. Nice to meet you. You said you needed some discreet help?" She gestured to the chair Zoe had been sitting in before, and took a seat across the desk.

Zoe sat and explained the bizarre phone call she'd gotten the night before.

"And you went to the payphone?"

"Yeah. Phone rang, I answered. I tried to tell the guy he'd got the wrong number, but he said I was exactly who he'd expected. Told me not to involve the cops, and then hung up."

"You said you talked to Walt about this?" Emma asked, looking up from her notes.

"Yeah... I just wanted his advice. I didn't give him details."

"Why not?"

Zoe shrugged. "I dunno, somehow I think if the cops got involved this guy would know. Just a bad feeling, I guess."

"Okay." Emma put down her pen and gazed steadily at Zoe. "What do you need from me?"

"Look, I used to be a cop. I used to have the databases and the tools to investigate this kinda thing, but now I'm locked out. I need someone with more access than I have, but who won't draw attention."

The blonde woman nodded. "Did this Raphael say when he would be in contact again?" Zoe shook her head. "All right. I have this phone number from your caller ID, and I can start looking up Harringtons in the city directories. Let me see what I can shake out on call records to that pay phone on Washington."

Zoe sighed in relief. This PI clearly had a handle on what she was doing. "I'll go back home and wait for another call, then?"

"Yup. We'll sit tight until we figure out what his next move is."

They agreed to meet up later to exchange information and left the office. Emma carefully locked it behind her, cursing the carelessness of the custodial staff under her breath.

Together they walked out of the building into the fading afternoon light. As they crossed the avenue, the hair on Zoe's neck prickled, warning her of some kind of imminent danger. Her eyes swept the street warily, trying to pick out the source of the unease. It was a somewhat run-down part of downtown, and there were more boarded windows than intact ones. Something told her that she was being watched from behind one of those boarded-up storefronts.

At her side, Emma was making idle small talk, blithely ignorant to the danger her companion sensed. She talked animatedly about being a PI, about the mysterious phone call, and about their mutual friend Walt. She didn't choose to voice all her thoughts on that particular subject to Zoe, as she had a suspicion Walt's interest in her was just a tad more than friendly. While she was certainly flattered by his attention, privately she wished he catch the message that she wasn't interested and back off a little.

She was still happily chatting away when they passed a shadowed alley. From the dark recesses a hand shot out and grabbed Emma, dragging her back against the brick wall of an abandoned building. Before she could even cry out in alarm a knife was pressed to her throat.

Zoe had been anticipating some kind of danger but couldn't react in time to get between Emma and the mugger. She saw Emma's eyes widen in alarm as the knife's edge pressed menacingly into the skin of her neck.

"Your pretty friend here is gonna make my day," the attacker rasped. As Zoe squinted into the shadows, she could see he was a heavily scarred homeless man in ill-fitting clothes. The reek of cheap rum rolled off of him in waves. She saw Emma swallow convulsively.

"Asshole, you got no idea what you're doing. Just let her go, and no one leaves here with a limp," Zoe growled. She bounced a little on the balls of her feet, getting ready for a fight. Emma could see her large hands flexing at her sides, as if itching to pound this guy senseless.

Behind Zoe, Emma could see two more shadowy figures emerging slowly from the condemned building. They were closing in on Zoe and one was flipping a crowbar between his hands. The knife digging into her throat had effectively disabled her speech, but she tried to signal Zoe of the impending menace with her eyes, frantically looking between the two hulking men as they drew nearer.

Zoe affected complete unconcern, glaring only at the unwashed scumball who held Emma prisoner. "Whaddya want? Money? Too bad. We ain't got any."

"'Sokay, this little girl's gonna get me all the money I need."

Emma's felt her temper flare. She hated being called "little."

Several things then happened at once. The man with the crowbar took a vicious swing at Zoe's head, which she somehow anticipated and ducked, grabbing his arm as it over-reached her, then disarming him and sending him head-first into the brick wall.

Emma sent a sharp elbow into the solar plexus of her captor. He let out a startled "oof" and dropped the knife. She whirled around and punched him solidly in the jaw, sending him reeling. By this time the third attacker was trading blows with Zoe, and she neatly sent him flying across the alley with a swift kick to the backside.

When it was all over, Zoe and Emma found themselves back to back in the alley, catching their breaths and carefully watching the three unshaven, bruised men to make sure they didn't get up and try for round two. A lot of pathetic groaning from the alley floor told them they had been successful, and they backed out into the main avenue.

Once back in daylight, Zoe took Emma firmly by the shoulders. "Are you all right?" she asked, looking the smaller woman up and down in search of injuries.

Emma nodded, touching her throat to see if the knife had broken skin. "I'm okay, just a bit shook up. Think we should we call the cops?"

The taller woman threw a glance into the alley, then looked back at Emma, seemingly unaware that her hands were still resting on the blonde's shoulders. "This whole street is making me itch. I don't wanna stay here any longer that we have to."

"Yeah, okay, those guys aren't gonna hurt anybody anytime soon. Let's book."

They turned and strode down the street, away from the alley. Emma looked up at her companion quizzically. "You knew that was gonna happen, didn't you?"

Zoe was still looking around the street, feeling the lingering tendrils of danger following them. "Yeah, I guess so... I've always had a sixth sense about stuff like that. Sorry that guy grabbed you, though."

"That wasn't your fault. And besides, I wasn't even scared."

The dark head jerked around to stare at her. "You weren't scared at all?" Zoe asked with just a hint of sarcasm.

They had just reached the Metro station, and passed through the gates to the train platform. Emma hopped up to perch casually on the platform rail. "Nope, not even a little bit," she confirmed airily. "I knew you'd protect me."

Zoe snorted a bit, wondering fleetingly if she was being flirted with. "You didn't need much protection at the end there, I noticed."

"Hey, not my fault the guy made the mistake of calling me 'little."

They grinned at each other, both a bit disconcerted by the odd familiarity they seemed to share. The PI's eyes twinkled charmingly up at Zoe, and she found herself hard-pressed to fight the urge to reach up and brush a wayward strand of blonde hair out of the young-looking face. At something of a loss, Zoe ripped her gaze away and leaned against the railing that Emma was seated on, glaring down the narrowing path of the Metro rails and willing the train to hurry up and get there already.

The ghostly memory of perceived danger stuck with her though, and distracted her from feeling the feather-light touch of Emma's hand brushing down her back. She had sensed some kind of dangerous presence in the street, she was sure of it. But what had tickled her instincts seemed far darker and more menacing than the run of the mill muggers they had encountered. Someone had been watching them, she was convinced. But what did they want?

For her part, Emma found herself staring at the dark profile at her side in fascination. She could almost feel the pensive edginess radiating off of Zoe, and found herself unconsciously touching the other woman's back in comfort. There was something about this woman, something that triggered feelings she didn't understand or even have words for... something that had made her trust Zoe instantly. Something that had compelled her to automatically take this odd case without even a clear promise of compensation, though Emma could definitely use some cash.

The train arrived and they boarded together, both too lost in their own thoughts to notice the hooded eyes watching them from the other end of the train platform.

When Zoe arrived at her apartment, there was a manila envelope leaning against her door. She picked it up cautiously, and peeked inside to see a small stack of photos. They were snapshots of her and Walt sitting together in the coffee shop earlier that morning. At the bottom of the stack was a scrawled note:

**I said no cops. You should pay more attention.**

Zoe swallowed against the sudden sick feeling in her stomach and stepped into her apartment.

A few hours later, a soft knock at her door startled her out of her vigil of staring at the phone. She saw Emma Frazier through her peephole and opened the door.

The blonde smiled up at her. "I called Walt to find out your address... Hope you don't mind."

Zoe found herself smiling back. "Not at all, come in."

Emma settled herself on Zoe's couch, looking surreptitiously around the apartment and noticing the stark lack of personal knickknacks. The apartment was very dark and very clean, almost sterile, as if the owner wasn't planning on staying there very long.

Zoe set a mug of coffee on the table in front of Emma and took a seat on the adjoining loveseat. Emma spread her file out on the table, pointing out the new information she'd gathered.

"This took me a while, but I gathered all the Harrington listings that are local and compared their phone numbers to yours. James and Lynn Harrington live on the south side of town. They have a son named Michael, who was reported missing late last week. And if you transpose the last two digits of their phone number, you get your phone number."

The dark-haired woman considered this information and took a sip of her coffee, her thoughts wandering to the photos in the envelope on her desk. "So it could have just been a stupid mistake."

Emma studied her for a moment. "You don't think it was a mistake?"

Zoe shrugged, not yet sure how to voice her true concerns, or if she should bring up the photos left outside her door.

"Well, from what I can tell, the Harrington's aren't exactly loaded, so I'm not sure what the motivation is for grabbing the kid," Emma continued. "I also did a reverse lookup on that payphone number, and found out it's a diner in midtown."

She flinched as Zoe snatched the paper out of her hand, scowling at the scribbled address. Then the taller woman practically leapt off of the loveseat and grabbed a coat. At the abrupt movement Emma jumped up too. "Wait, do you know something about this diner? What's wrong?"

"I have to go."

"Zoe, wait!" Emma reached for her arm, only to have it yanked quickly out of her grasp.

"Don't follow me," Zoe growled menacingly, then left her apartment.

Emma stood there alone in Zoe's apartment, completely at a loss. On the desk in front of her was a small stack of photos, with a note. She flipped through them, swore loudly, then grabbed her coat and charged out of the apartment.

Zoe stalked down the ill-lit midtown streets, drawing the collar of her jacket up over her neck to fend off the winter chill. Emma darted behind cars and buildings a few dozen feet behind her to keep her in view. When Zoe opened the door of the diner and slipped inside, Emma was only a few paces behind.

Inside the diner Zoe squinted in the harsh fluorescent light and looked around. A woman behind the counter looked up at her arrival, and was making her way through the crowded space to get to her. She was shorter than Zoe, with similar ice-blue eyes and salt-and-pepper hair.

The woman stood in front of Zoe for a moment, assessing her. Then her hand swiped through the air in a backhanded slap across Zoe's face. The taller woman recoiled with the blow with a roll of her head and a half-step backwards.

Emma saw the slap through the diner's windows and was in motion before she was consciously aware of it. She threw open the door of the diner and took two steps angrily inside before stopping dead at Zoe's words:

"Nice to see you too, Mom."

Walt rubbed the bridge of his nose with a tired sigh. He'd been staring at microfilm for hours since Emma had called him, asking him for some archival information that she was "just curious about." He knew that was bullshit, that it had something to do with the case that Zoe had been so cryptic about earlier. But he trusted Emma, and he trusted Zoe, and figured if they'd asked for his help it was for a valid reason. He was actually flattered in a kind of sideways way that he'd been asked to participate in this little cloak and dagger venture, and he appreciated their trust in him.

What he didn't appreciate was Emma's thinly veiled joke at him being the only one who could "find the pattern in the chaos." He knew full well that there were wise guys on the force that referred to him as the "High Priestess" because of his unconventional and occasionally eerie method of gathering evidence. Emma herself had joked about it ever since they'd met a month earlier when their work collided on the same case.

"I'm not that eccentric, I just happen to clue into odd coincidences faster than most folks."

He stopped short as he realized he'd said that aloud, and looked furtively around the microfilm storage room to make sure no one had heard him. Talking out loud to a microfilm reader wasn't something he needed enhancing his already oddball image.

Walt sighed and revved up the microfilm machine once more. He'd been at work a full three hours past his scheduled shift, all on some wild goose chase that Emma had thrown his way. If he was completely honest with himself, he'd admit that he had a raging crush on Emma and would take any opportunity to impress her. But at the moment, he was convinced he was acting in the interests of duty. Impressing Emma was just a nice fringe benefit.

Emma stood rooted by disbelief as the woman who was apparently Zoe's mother glared at the taller woman with unmitigated bile. "Mother, I need to talk to you," Zoe said somewhat plaintively.

"I don't need to talk to you," her mother snarled, and she reached out and grabbed Zoe's sleeve to spin her around. She reached under her coat to the waist of her pants and pulled out the service issue revolver she had correctly anticipated being there.

Zoe's mother turned away and walked back behind the counter, slamming the gun on the shiny formica surface. "Firearms aren't allowed in my diner."

Emma looked around and noticed the diner's patrons looking between Zoe and her mother uneasily. Finally, Emma approached the taller woman's side. "Zoe? What's going on?" she asked quietly.

Zoe didn't seem in the least surprised to see Emma there. "My mother's diner. This is the address that Raphael called that payphone from."

Emma took a half-step closer to Zoe and lowered her voice a bit. "Why did your mother slap you?"

The dark head bowed under some unseen weight, and Zoe closed her eyes with a sigh. "Old history." Emma had edged even closer, and Zoe briefly realized she didn't mind the invasion into her personal space. She took a deep breath, noticing incongruously that the light scent of Emma's shampoo nicely counteracted the pervasive greasy smell of fried food in the diner. Zoe shook her head, trying to reorder her thoughts.

Emma frowned and threw a glance over her shoulder at the hostile woman working behind the counter. "Hang out here, let me see if I can talk to her." She turned slowly away from Zoe and approached the counter, palming Zoe's revolver and slipping it unobtrusively into her pocket. A couple of the diner's patrons scurried away toward the unoccupied tables in the back.

"Mrs. Winston?" she hazarded, seeing the older woman flinch. "My name is Emma Frazier, and I'm a private investigator."

Zoe's mother ceased her furious scrubbing of the countertop long enough to snap at her. "What do you want?"

"Your daughter and I are investigating a kidnapping," she continued, noticing the murderous glare the woman turned onto Zoe.

"My daughter is not welcome here. Nor are her friends."

Emma swallowed with sudden grief, somehow aware that this cold treatment was torture for Zoe to bear. She looked over and saw the dark-haired woman slouching in the front of the diner, staring out the window into the street, and pretending to be casually unaffected by the conversation going on behind her.

"Ma'am, a man used your payphone around 10:30 last night. He might have identified himself as 'Raphael.' Does that ring any bells?"

"A lot of people use my payphone. And no one tells me their name," Mrs. Winston snapped.

Emma nodded and placed a business card on the counter. "Well, thank you for your time. If you remember anything or if anything suspicious happens in the near future, please feel free to give me a call."

She quickly turned to leave to avoid seeing Mrs. Winston tear up her card as she'd anticipated. As Emma walked out of the diner, she stopped and gently touched Zoe on the arm to get her attention, then handed over her gun. Zoe started a bit, holstered the weapon, then yanked open the glass door to allow Emma to exit. Emma saw Zoe cast one last look back at the woman behind the counter before they turned together down the street.

They'd made it a full block down the road before Emma's curiosity got the better of her. "What was all that about?"

Zoe pushed out a deep breath, watching it condense and turn into vapor in the chill night air. She weighed the possible answers to Emma's question, and ultimately decided to take it mostly out of context. "This case is starting to worry me."

Emma was disappointed at the evasion, but decided to go along with it. "What worries you about it?"

"Don't you think it's an odd coincidence that this kidnapper guy calls me mistakenly from my own mother's diner?"

The blonde woman considered that. "Well, it does seem a bit far-fetched, but that doesn't mean it can't be just a coincidence." She thought a bit longer. "Who sent you the photos? The ones of you and Walt?"

Zoe winced. "You saw those? I dunno who sent them, they were just at my door when I got home this afternoon. That's what's really got me worried."

The blonde sighed and kicked at a bottle on the sidewalk as she passed it. "So you think these guys could be targeting you specifically? Still seems a little weird they'd go through the trouble of kidnapping someone to get to you just because your phone numbers almost match."

"I don't understand that either, but I can't help thinking there's something else going on here," Zoe replied.

"Well, whatever it is, we'll figure it out, Winston," Emma said with confidence. She didn't see the amusedly grateful look Zoe flashed at her.

They walked on in silence a bit longer after that, nearing the Metro station where they would part ways to their respective apartments.

"Yeah, so... My mother thinks I got my brother killed," Zoe murmured out of nowhere, her head bowed under some unseen weight.

Emma immediately drew closer to her side, their arms brushing together lightly. "Why does she think that?" she asked, matching Zoe's quiet tone.

Zoe hesitated, then drew a deep breath. "We joined the force together, went through the academy together. Mom wasn't real thrilled about him following after me, but I promised I'd look after him." Zoe paused, looking off into the distance. "One night while I was handling an undercover op on southside, he ended up in a gang firefight. Took three bullets to the chest. The doctors put him on a respirator, but said he'd never wake up. My mother told them to pull the plug a couple days later."

They'd slowed to a stop, and Emma was standing directly in front of Zoe, coaxing her with a gentle look to continue.

"At the funeral, she told me that she'd always feared that my brother would get himself killed trying to keep up with me. She said I'd failed, I hadn't taken care of him like I said I would, and because of that her only son was dead." She took a hitching breath.

"Zoe... Zoe, it wasn't your fault, you couldn't have been in two places at once. I don't think your mother really meant that..."

"She did, she meant it," Zoe exclaimed with oddly naive certainty. "I told her that since I was such a miserable failure as a daughter I'd never bother her again, never remind her again of how horribly I screwed up."

"She was hurt, and she said something she didn't really mean."

"Well, whatever. I've kept my promise this time. I've stayed away from her. Until now." She was furious to find tears streaking down her face, and she swiped them away with impatient fingers.

"So why did you go see her tonight?" Emma pressed gently.

"I've been asking myself the same question," the taller woman sighed. "This guy... this case. I get a really bad feeling off the entire thing."

"You wanted to make sure she was okay," the blonde ventured.

A heavy sigh. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess."

Emma forced a reassuring smile, sensing that Zoe's abrupt moment of self-disclosure was about to come to an equally abrupt end. She looped an arm through the crook of Zoe's, pulling her toward the Metro station, not really even consciously aware of the liberties she was taking with this virtual stranger. "We should get home. Check your messages, see if there's any new information. Give me a call on my cell the second you hear from Raphael, okay?"

Zoe agreed, then hopped on the Metro to get herself home.

There were two messages on her machine. The first terse recording was the voice she recognized as belonging to Raphael.

**Be at the Main Street park, at the bench overlooking the south creek bridge. Eleven PM, night after tomorrow. Otherwise something unpleasant may happen to the kid.**

Zoe wrote down the instructions and sighed, sending a brief thought of well-wishing toward that boy, wherever he was being held.

The second message made her hair stand on end.

**Zoe? It's Walt. Listen, Emma had me doing some searches on a guy named 'Raphael' in the microfilm records, looking for a possible connection with you. What I found was pretty spooky. There's a guy named Raphael Alexander that's been surfing around some of the local gangs. Unofficial scuttlebutt in the department is that he was behind that bust that went bad a few months ago. Other folks think he might have some kinda in with the department higher-ups. I don't know what you're involved in here, but you need to be careful, okay?**

She exhaled. She had instinctively known there was something bigger going on than just a simple kidnap for ransom, and apparently Emma had suspected it too. Damn. She made a mental note to talk to Emma about this new information first thing in the morning, then headed to her bedroom for a fitful sleep.

Zoe awoke the next morning to the sound of her phone ringing. She threw herself bodily out of bed to grab the receiver on the third ring. "Yeah?"

"Zoe? It's Emma. I have some more stuff for us to look over. Can you meet me tonight?"

"Yeah, sure. Raphael called, I have to meet him tomorrow night, late. So we have a bit of time to figure out what's up."

Emma gave Zoe directions to her apartment, and they agreed to meet that evening. Zoe even offered to bring dinner along, figuring they'd be up late working.

"So are you a writer or something?" Zoe nodded to indicate the messy piles of half-filled paper next to an old-fashioned typewriter on a desk in the corner.

They were sitting on either end of Emma's loveseat, facing each other in the middle. Their legs were tangled carelessly together, and balanced upon them was a pile of assorted fast food wrappers and bits of dinner.

Emma blushed a bit and sucked on her straw. "Well, sorta. I dabble for fun..."

"For fun? Whatchya working on now?" Zoe filched a french fry off of Emma's lap, and the blonde slapped her hand away.

"Stop that!"

Zoe grinned unrepentantly. "Let me guess. You're working on a deconstructionist essay on post-modern theology with a splash of feminist sensibility. Sort of a Gone With the Wind meets Harry Potter meets Xena: Warrior Princess."

Emma snorted a startled laugh. "Um, actually, it's one woman's struggle against a patriarchal hierarchy of parochial architecture. Set against the backdrop of a Bryan Adams video. At night."

By now Zoe was laughing too. "The heroine of the story looks like Nancy Kerrigan. With pink hair, a leather bodysuit, a Bronx accent, and a love of tunafish. She's every woman's woman."

"A surrealist piece, but with suburban overtones."

They laughed uncontrollably for some time after that, thoroughly enjoying the ridiculous conversation.

Sometime later, Emma was wiping tears from her eyes. "I cannot believe you just used the word 'deconstructionist' in a sentence."

"Why, did I use it correctly?" Zoe smirked, stealing another french fry.

The blonde woman smiled fondly at her with an oddly wistful expression. "Actually, the most recent thing I was working on was a romance. A kind of soulmate-quest undying-love story." She shrugged. "It wasn't really going anywhere."

"Why's that?"

Emma ducked her head and played idly with a crumpled napkin. "I dunno. I guess it's hard to write about something you've never actually experienced. You know, the whole 'write what you know' rule."

Zoe gazed steadily at the top of Emma's head until she peeked up at her, smiling a little. "I think you'll be able to write that someday," Zoe murmured.

"You think so, huh?"

"Yeah." The dark-haired woman snagged one last french fry, waggling her eyebrows playfully before munching it. Emma smiled and crumpled up the fast food wrappers, then tossed them neatly in the garbage can across the room. She briefly raised her arms in an "It's good!" gesture before settling back into the couch.

"So what made you decide to be a PI?" Zoe asked. She was actually startled with her own talkativeness this evening. Somehow she figured if she kept the blonde talking Emma might not mind spending time with her. And somehow spending more time with Emma seemed critically important.

Emma grinned. "Well, there's not a lot of money in deconstructionist essays, you know? I kinda figured this might be a good way to help people out." A shrug. "And I wasn't exactly helping a lot of people with my writing either. What about you? Why'd you become a cop?"

"Heh. You want me to say 'because I wanted to help people too.'" Zoe's eyes twinkled at Emma mischievously. "Nah. I just liked shooting things."

The blonde chuckled, and poked the long leg bent next to her. "Bet I know different. You wanted to be a hero."

All amusement suddenly dropped from Zoe's face. "Yeah, maybe."

Emma immediately remembered the story Zoe told her the night before about her brother, and nearly kicked herself for being so insensitive. "Zoe, I'm sorry..."

"No, it's okay. I actually think you're right. I did wanna be the hero, swoop in and save helpless folks in danger, that kinda thing. It just didn't work out, I guess."

"Can I ask you a personal question?" Emma murmured, leaning toward Zoe and capturing her cool blue eyes with her regard.

"Sure," Zoe whispered.

"Why'd you get kicked off the force? I read the newspaper stories, Zoe. It doesn't make any sense. They never conclusively proved anything, and I know if you say you did everything you could to save that child, you did."

Zoe took a long breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it. She looked down and studied her hands. "They needed a scapegoat. The entire city looked bad after that bust, Emma. Someone needed to fall for it. If not me, the captain, or the commissioner, or someone on the city council. The entire operation was sour from the beginning, I just happened to be the most convenient person to blame. When word came down from on high that I was gonna be the target of the investigation, I told my captain that I'd just resign, save everyone the hassle. Just seemed like the best thing to do at the time."

They gazed at each other in silence, both apparently giving that information its due respect.

Emma suddenly shook her head. "Bullshit," she stated with venom. "You wimped out."

The dark head jerked as though struck, and Zoe stared at Emma in shock. "What?!"

"You caved because it was the path of least resistance. You had no business taking the blame for that child's death, and you know it. You saved the city a black eye by taking the hit for them, even though you know full well the entire battle could have been fought in the press and you would have gone untouched. I think you wanted an out."

"Being on the job was my life..." Zoe stammered angrily.

"No, it was your excuse for not having a life."

The taller woman reeled, so stunned she couldn't even think straight. "How DARE you presume..." she sputtered, then continued. "Goddammit, you don't know me, you don't know what happened to me, and you have NO FUCKING IDEA what you're talking about!" Zoe launched herself off the sofa, whirling to look down at the other woman. She was breathing heavily, her anger readily apparent in wild eyes.

Emma stood calmly, drawing herself to her full height, which, though she barely reached Zoe's chin, she used to her best advantage. "You blame yourself for your brother's death, and I think you used the bad bust to exact the punishment you thought you deserved in the first place," she observed quietly. "You condemned yourself because you think you failed him."

Zoe stared down at her, seething in barely restrained rage. Then she took a step away, and Emma instantly recognized the mask of studied indifference that came over the taller woman's features. Zoe took three quick steps, and had slammed the apartment door behind her.

Emma sank back down onto the couch, fighting sudden tears. Their new, tentative rapport was effectively shattered to bits, but she just couldn't stand watching the other women beat herself up. She replayed the conversation in her head, and sighed raggedly. "Oh, Zoe, I'm so sorry..."

Zoe was so angry she could hardly see straight. She pounded out her rage on the sidewalk, feeling the jarring steps rattle all the way from the soles of her shoes to her shoulders, which were flexed so tightly she could hardly breathe. Who the hell did that goddamn PI think she was?

For that matter, who did Zoe think she was? She felt so stupid... It had all been too good to be true. Emma was attractive, had seemed interested, seemed comfortable with Zoe, and boom. She spews out some obnoxious psychobabble analysis crap based on two stupid stories about her life, almost random events that had happened months or years earlier.

How *dare* she.

That thought gave Zoe pause. How dare she what, exactly?

She growled in frustration as she continued to stalk blindly through the city streets, her head and her heart in turmoil. How dare that damned blonde have those damned green eyes and be able to see so damned clearly. No one was supposed to figure her out like that, and certainly no one was supposed to have the balls to say it all to her face.

She slowed to a halt, having walked for some unknown amount of time, finding herself in front of the darkened facade of her mother's diner. How did she end up here? And how long had she been walking that it was late enough for the place to be closed?

Zoe sat heavily on the sidewalk's edge, kicking her bootheels into the street. She was almost panting, and as she pushed her hair back from her face she discovered it matted with sweat. Had she been running all this time? She slouched, burying her head in her hands. Crying too? The evening got better and better.

Behind her, the door of the diner opened and shut, and she heard the sound of someone turning the key to lock the business up for the night. Zoe knew it was her mother without turning around, though she fully expected that the woman would ignore her presence and disappear into the night.

She didn't hear the expected sound of footsteps as they receded into the distance, and could still feel the familiar gaze on the back of her neck. Finally, Zoe stood up, turning to face her mother.

"Zoe?" Carmen Winston rasped, clearly frightened by both her presence and her appearance.

"Mom," Zoe began. She felt hot tears well up and spill down her cheeks. She took a hesitant step toward her mother, suddenly yearning for the long forgotten comfort of being a child in her mother's all-protecting arms. "Mom..." she began again. "I'm... I'm so sorry. I never meant..." Finally, she cracked, bending under the weight of too many years of undying pain, and she fell to her knees on the sidewalk, weeping.

Carmen stood at a complete loss, seeing the woman she'd denied as her daughter crumple before her. But something inside stirred, some dormant maternal urge to comfort her offspring, and in an instant she found herself kneeling next to her daughter, holding her tightly as she shook with pent up anguish. "Oh, Zoe... I'm sorry too..." She began to cry as well, and they knelt there for long minutes, mourning everything lost to them and between them.

Eventually Carmen managed to get Zoe inside the diner, giving her daughter a few moments of relative privacy to compose herself while she prepared two strong cups of coffee. Zoe snuck into the bathroom in the back, dousing her face liberally with cold water and pressing a damp paper towel to swollen eyes. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and shuddered, but gathered her courage to venture back into the main room to face her mother once more.

Carmen met her on her way to a table, handing off a blessedly steaming cup of coffee. Zoe sipped it gratefully, and they sat in awkward silence for a few minutes.

"Zoe," Carmen's voice cracked a little, and she cleared her throat. "I saw on the news awhile back, about you and that child who got shot."

Her daughter closed her eyes to hide an automatic wince. "Yeah, about that..."

"I knew it wasn't your fault, Zoe. I knew you wouldn't have let something like that happen if you could have prevented it."

It was an odd sort of vindication, hearing this from the woman who had once said Zoe's ambition had robbed her of her only son.

"Thanks Mom." Zoe stared into her cup of coffee.

At that moment, a light tapping on the front door caused both of them to look up. Emma Frazier was standing outside, looking almost as emotionally beaten up as Zoe herself did. The blonde was staring plaintively into the diner, almost faint with relief that she had finally located Zoe.

Carmen looked between the blonde at her door and her daughter, seeing the anguish communicated between the two. She filed that bit of information away for later maternal contemplation, and rose to open the door. "This is your friend, the private investigator, right?"

Zoe could do little but nod, and she stood up as her mother admitted Emma. The blonde hesitated, trying to interpret what she was seeing. Zoe looked physically okay but exhausted, and her mother... well, who knew what was going on there?

Zoe's mother studied the two younger women a bit longer, then decided to break the tense stalemate. "Ms. Frazier, wasn't it? My name is Carmen Winston." She held out a hand, which Emma shook with mechanical politeness.

"Please, call me Emma."

It was once again silent until Carmen suddenly announced she would make another fresh and wholly unnecessary pot of coffee, deftly excusing herself to the bowels of the kitchen.

Neither Zoe nor Emma really noticed her leave, they merely stared at each other in bleak silence for several more moments. Finally, Emma took a step forward. "Zoe, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean..."

"No, don't apologize. You were right, I just didn't expect you to be."

The blonde nodded a little, her hands wandering at her sides. "Are you all right? I've been trying to find you for hours." What might have sounded accusatory in another context in this case sounded instead both deeply sad and desperately sorry.

Zoe tried to answer a couple times, but couldn't for some odd reason. So she settled on the only other thing she could think of, closing the distance between them and opening her arms.

It was all the invitation Emma needed, as she practically threw herself into the taller woman's embrace, wrapping her arms around Zoe's waist and squeezing with all the strength she had. The force knocked the air from Zoe's lungs, but in an altogether pleasant and achingly tender way she had never before experienced. She returned the hug gently, bending her head to rest her face on Emma's damp hair.

Zoe found herself at a complete loss, holding this woman so tightly, so intimately. They had become so close so fast, and just this one heated argument had torn her so wide open she thought she might never heal. But with just a heartfelt hug from Emma, her shattered feelings mended. The raw emotional impact this near stranger had on her scared her in a profound way.

Dimly, she realized she'd never needed or wanted a hug this badly in her life.

A rattle from the direction of the kitchen alerted them to Zoe's mother's approach, and they disengaged from their embrace reluctantly, avoiding each other's gaze in some disconcerted embarrassment. Zoe gallantly pulled a chair out for Emma to sit in, and then sat gracelessly next to her, even more exhausted than she had been minutes before.

Carmen peeked out of the kitchen cautiously, not wanting to interrupt what was obviously a very private moment. When she saw them both seated decorously at the table, she pushed the steel door open with her hip and emerged with a steaming pot of coffee and another mug for the new arrival. She sat down, poured them all tall mugs of the strong brew, and began to talk.

After a few minutes and several sips of strong coffee between them, the younger women loosened up just enough to make small talk as well. They chatted pleasantly for nearly three hours, long enough for the first rays of dawn light to illuminate the city skyline. Carmen noticed her daughter casting several shy glances at the attractive young blonde woman, and nodded approvingly when Emma would casually lay a hand on Zoe's forearm to make a point. By the time Carmen shooed them out of her cafe she and Zoe felt almost like friends, if not quite like family again. It was a promising start, and more than she could have hoped for when the night began.

Zoe was in too much of a daze to pay much attention to where Emma was leading her, so finding herself at the door of Emma's apartment was something of a surprise. Emma unlocked the door and slipped inside, grabbing Zoe's arm and pulling her along. Zoe stood uneasily in the front hallway of the apartment, digging her hands deep into her pockets, listening to Emma rustle around in her bedroom. She wasn't sure what was expected of her right at the moment, but her brain was so fried she thought she'd probably just go along with anything the blonde woman suggested.

Emma emerged from the bedroom carrying an oversized t-shirt and sweats. "Here, you can wear these and crash here..." She held out the change of clothes, then peered up at Zoe when the taller woman didn't accept them. Zoe had a somewhat peculiar look on her face that reminded Emma vaguely of a frightened animal.

"Zoe?" No answer. "Listen. I know you've had a rough night, and I was kinda hoping you'd let me keep an eye on you for a while." Emma dropped her gaze shyly. "I know we hardly know each other, but I care about you, and I want to make sure you're okay."

By now Zoe had snapped out of her trance and managed to process what Emma was talking about. She felt moderately embarrassed as she relieved the blonde of the spare clothes she was carrying. "Thank you," she answered quietly. "I appreciate that."

Emma squinted up at her and grinned. "You thought I was gonna take advantage of you or something, didn't you?" she asked with mischievous glee.

The taller woman's face turned a shade of red heretofore unseen in nature, and she struggled to find some means of answering Emma's question that didn't involved a lot of stuttering.

The blonde smiled impishly and poked Zoe in the shoulder. "Believe me, Winston, if I was planning to take advantage of you, you'd know." She turned lightly and sauntered back into her bedroom.

Zoe was shocked to find out that her head hadn't actually exploded after that comment. She shook off the blonde's stunning effect and padded into the bathroom, changed into the t-shirt and amusingly short sweat pants, and collapsed face-first on the couch in her living room.

Emma scooted back out of the bedroom. "You wanna take a shower or anything?" She quieted when she saw Zoe already fast asleep on the couch, and tiptoed closer. She grabbed a warm fleece blanket and smoothed it over the long figure, then indulged herself in a brief moment of being able to watch Zoe unguarded. The former cop was beautiful, no question. She was troubled, certainly. But for some reason they had connected, and Emma had an overwhelming urge to take care of her, to soothe the anxiety and the hurt she saw stirring behind that expressive dark brow.

Emma bent and placed a gentle kiss on Zoe's forehead, then tucked the blanket a little more firmly about her sleeping form, and retreated into the bedroom to catch some sleep as well.

Zoe vaguely recognized that she was dreaming, but she didn't move to take control over the subconscious wanderings. Instead, she found her dream-self lying peacefully on her back in a forest glade at dusk, with her arms folded neatly under her head, listening to the cheerful popping of a campfire nearby. She could smell something cooking, something that smelled delicious. She could hear the distinct noises of leaves moving and trees bending in the gentle breeze. And she could sense that she wasn't alone.

She turned her head to look across the fire, over a bubbling pot of whatever was generating that heavenly smell and saw Emma sitting there, bent over what looked to be a partially rolled piece of parchment, scribbling in it frantically with a feathered quill. Emma stopped writing, sticking the end of the quill in her mouth and chewing absently as she reread her words. As if sensing Zoe's gaze on her, Emma looked up to meet her eyes and grinned.


Though the dream-Emma had said the word, it also seemed to come from somewhere else.

"Hey, Zoe?"

Zoe jerked awake, looking up into the eyes of the real Emma, who was gently shaking her awake.

"Zoe, you with me?"

A deep breath, followed by a sleepy stretch. "Yeah, yeah, I'm awake. Sorry. Had kind of an odd dream." Zoe pulled the blanket tighter to her chin and smiled in a kind of drunkenly half-awake way up at Emma, whose face instantly warmed in response. "What smells so good?"

Emma's smile broadened a bit more. "I'm making dinner. You like pesto?"

Zoe's eyes widened. "Dinner?" She looked around the apartment, noticing it was already after dark. Damn. She'd slept away the entire day.

"Yeah, I figured you could use all the sleep you could get. We've got that appointment with Raphael at eleven, remember?" Emma sidled back into the kitchen, stirring the pasta.

"Right, right." Zoe ordered her fuzzy thoughts as best she could, then sat up. She pushed herself out of the comfortable couch to meet the blonde in the apartment's small kitchen.

Emma turned to see the tall, rumpled figure lean against the doorframe. The sweatpants barely hit mid-calf on the impossibly long legs, and her ebony hair stuck out in about ten different directions. When Zoe folded her arms and closed her eyes, obviously talking herself into actual consciousness, Emma nearly bit her lip in two. The woman was inordinately cute. That thought sent a warm rush of affection through her, and she deliberately turned back to her dinner preparations to distract herself.

Zoe smacked her lips. "You know, I really appreciate you looking out for me last night - today - whenever."

"No problem. I'm glad you're okay," Emma answered, busily chopping vegetables for a salad and carefully feigning casualness. She missed the look of slight disappointment on Zoe's face.

"Well, I just wanted to say thank you," Zoe murmured, then turned and headed into the bathroom to splash some cold water on her face.

"Anytime," Emma answered quietly, unheard over the sound of running water.

Zoe had eaten three helpings of the pasta and was munching happily on her salad. Emma had finished her own meal and was spreading out her file on the coffee table to give her a better view of the information they'd gathered so far.

"Okay," the blonde began. "So far, here's what we know. Michael Harrington is missing, this guy Raphael claims to know where he is. He calls you from your mother's diner, ostensibly misdialing the Harringtons' number. Then he catches you talking to Walt. Then he calls again. I tracked last night's call to the payphone one block away from 5th precinct station house, where you used to work."

Zoe slumped back into the couch, pleasantly stuffed. "Wow, can you cook."

Emma scowled at her. "Zoe, this man is clearly after you personally, and is also willing to go to great lengths to screw with your head."

The taller woman shrugged. "What does he get by coming after me?"

"That's what I want to know." Emma stood up and paced a bit.

"Walt said he found some information about a Raphael Alexander that may have been involved in the situation that got me busted."

Emma stopped pacing, glaring down at her. "Why didn't you tell me that before?" she snapped.

"Sorry, slipped my mind." Zoe folded her hands on her stomach.

"Dammit, Zoe, why doesn't it bother you that some nutjob is out there targeting you?"

Zoe sighed and pushed herself upright on the couch's edge. "Same question as before - what does he get by coming after me?"

The blonde sat back down next to her. "Okay, well then how do you want to handle this thing tonight? He might try something, try to hurt you..."

"I'll be armed, and you'll be far, far away. Nothing to worry about."

"I don't want you to do this alone," Emma murmured.

Zoe smiled a bit, and found herself pinned by Emma's earnest regard. "Look, if he'd wanted to hurt me, he had ample opportunity to do that before now. There's something he wants, something he thinks I can give him, but I have to meet him to find out what that is." She reached out and squeezed Emma's arm. "I'll be okay."

Emma frowned, but seemed to accept her logic. "All right. But you're going in wired, so I can hear what's happening, and I want you to be armed."

A fearless grin. "I'm always armed. Do you have a wire we can use?"

"Can't be a private detective without one."

The Main Street Park was bleakly devoid of much greenery since winter had kicked in full-force, which left precious little place for Emma to watch the creek bridge without being obvious. She perched behind a small evergreen, pulling her binoculars to her eyes to check her view.

They'd entered the park several minutes apart, giving Emma the chance to hide unobtrusively before Zoe took her position to wait. They now only had five minutes before Raphael was scheduled to arrive.

"Hey, if you can hear me, nod a little, okay?" Emma murmured into her mike. Through the binoculars, she could see Zoe's dark head bob subtly. "Great, now tap your mike or something to see if I can hear you."

Zoe shifted a bit on the bench, reaching up to her chest scratch at the microphone attached to her bra strap. Emma heard the muffled friction of fabric rubbing against the mike. "Okay, I think we're good."

For her part, Zoe affected nonchalance, but inside was twitching anxiously. Despite her words to Emma to the contrary this entire situation made her quite nervous. The idea that some guy was hunting her, for lack of a better word, using some poor kidnapped kid as a means of getting her attention... It just made her skin crawl.

"You're fidgeting," came Emma's low voice burring in her small earpiece. Zoe's lips quirked in a tiny smile, and she forced herself to relax. She was profoundly glad of the blonde's watchful presence somewhere in the trees, close enough to keep an eye on the action but far enough away to remain out of danger. The woman was such a bundle of contradictions. A creative spirit bent on finding a practical way to help people, and a will of iron concealed behind that sweet, sweet face.

She was preoccupied with her thoughts about the private investigator and distracted enough not to notice the solitary figure approaching her from the north end of the bridge. "Zoe, look sharp," came the terse electronic whisper in her ear, and she jerked her head around to see the man coming toward her. She stood, her muscles tensing as he stopped about five feet in front of her.

"I have been looking forward to meeting you," the man said with oozing charm. Emma winced as his booming voice transmitted loud and clear through to her wire.

Zoe cocked her head to study him. He was tall and burly, with dark skin and black hair cropped short. A long black leather coat billowed around him, making him look even bigger.

"You're Raphael?" she asked in apparent disinterest.

"Yes, I am." He smirked.

"Well, my name isn't Harrington."

"Yes, I know." He smirked a bit more.

Emma was watching intently through her binoculars, only barely staying rooted to the spot and not dashing down to the bridge to kick the infuriating man in the shins.

Several long seconds dragged by.

"So. What do you want with me?" Zoe drawled, folding her arms over her chest.

"You're going to help us."


"My associates and myself."

An impatient sigh. "Cut the cryptic crap, Raph. What the hell do you want?"

Though Emma couldn't see it, the man's smirk morphed into a distinct sneer.

"Several months ago you were involved in something of a scandal in your place of work, were you not?" Zoe didn't answer, instead staring him down with steely malice in her eyes. "Your untimely resignation was..." He paused to consider his words. "Inconvenient to my associates' work. We'd like you to correct that error."

"So you grab a kid to get my attention?"

"In a manner of speaking."

In her ear, Emma's voice growled at her. "Kick his ass." Zoe just barely kept herself from smirking.

"Let the kid go, Raph, then we'll talk about whatever it is you wanna talk about."

The large man smiled magnanimously. "Done. We will meet again." He inclined his head a bit, then spun around and left the way he came. Zoe and Emma both watched until he was out of sight, then Emma slowly left her hiding spot to approach the meeting spot. Before she was even in earshot, they were having a small electronic conversation.

"What the hell was that all about?" Emma mused.

"I dunno, but my bad feeling about this case just got a whole lot worse," Zoe responded wryly.

"I still think you shoulda kicked his ass," the blonde retorted, now just a few steps away.

Zoe grinned. "I almost did when you suggested it."

"So what now? We call the cops, or sit on this or what?"

A sigh from the taller woman. "Buy me a cup of coffee, we'll talk about it."

This time it was Emma's turn to grin. "Deal. C'mon, partner," she said, as she lead the way out of the park.

Partner? Zoe shook her head dumbly and jogged after the PI. Okay, whatever works...

They were seated in a quiet booth of a late-night coffee shop, sipping at steaming mugs. Emma noticed there was a TV above Zoe's left shoulder, which she silently cursed for the "Oooh, bright shiny!" effect that kept distracting her from what Zoe was saying.

"I guess in one way it's a relief, knowing these guys were actually after me all along. That enigmatic stuff was driving me crazy," the dark-haired woman said, watching Emma's eyes track off hers to the TV she knew was behind her. She took a long swallow of the strong brew, hoping the caffeine might give her some sort of brilliant insight into what they should do next.

Emma sluggishly returned her attention to Zoe's words. "You're relieved? I'm not. Zoe, this stuff is scary. What does that guy want with you anyway? What did he have to do with the stuff that got you in trouble with the force?"

Zoe pursed her lips and considered the question. "He said my resignation was 'inconvenient.' Maybe he had intended for the investigation to hit higher up in the department." The blonde woman was staring off over her shoulder again, her jaw slack. Zoe chuckled and waved a hand in front of her face. "Earth to Emma?"

Emma jerked, meeting Zoe's eyes alarmedly. "Zoe, look." She pointed back at the TV. Zoe twisted around in her seat, squinting up at the blue-tinted screen. It was a local newscast with a reporter speaking earnestly to the camera. Over his right shoulder was an inset picture of a small child, with the name "Harrington kidnapping" printed across him.

Zoe leapt from her seat, shouting at the shop cashier. "Hey, turn up the sound, wouldya?" She stared hard at the screen while the cashier rushed to comply, trying to read the reporter's lips.

" we had reported, two year old Michael Harrington went missing late last week, apparently snatched from a local daycare facility. According to his parents, he was returned late this evening, miraculously unhurt."

The screen switched to a shot of an obviously overwrought woman. "I just thank God that he was brought back to us safely. Whoever did this, thank you for making sure he wasn't hurt."

Zoe felt herself go numb as the newscast switched back to the desk anchor, who promptly launched into another story. She turned around slowly to face Emma, who had also sprung from her seat.

"I'll be damned," they whispered simultaneously.

The next morning found Zoe lying flat on her back on her sofa, idly tossing a football straight up into the air and catching it, then lofting it upward again. She was still mentally jogging through the events of the night before, trying to piece together the reason this Raphael character was so interested in her.

Her cordless phone rang shrilly on the arm of the sofa above her head, and she reached up with a lazy arm to answer it, at the same time deftly catching the falling football with her other hand and dropping it to the floor.



A genuine grin split Zoe's face. "Lou! How are you?"

Lou was a dear old friend from college, even an old flame before they'd both sorted out their respective sexual preferences. Ever since then they'd remained close, even though he lived in far off Chicago where he taught at a Catholic boys' high school.

"I'm great, my friend. Is everything okay there?"

Zoe hesitated a bit, not quite sure how to answer.

"I take that as a no, then," Lou said, correctly interpreting her silence.

She sighed. "Things are complicated right now."

"You know, I had a feeling they were," he answered. "A few days ago I got this sudden impulse to call you, but I couldn't grab any time. I had this horrible premonition that you were hurt, or about to get hurt..."

Zoe shut her eyes tightly, remembering the bleak despair that had driven her to sticking the barrel of her gun into her mouth, and at the same time irrationally annoyed that Lou knew her as well as he did. "I had a rough time a few days back. Real rough." She drew in a shaky breath. "I'm okay now. Some other stuff has come up to distract me."

"How bad was it?" he asked gently.

"I was saved by the bell," she answered wryly. "It was the same old shit. You know... ex-cop out of work, disgraced, can't see any way out..."

"I wish you would have called me. I woulda reminded you that you had a reason to keep going."

"Thanks." She breathed steadily in and out a few times, trying to rein in the sudden sadness that she'd kept at bay for the past days.

As if sensing the need for a change in subject, Lou launched into a new set of stories from his job, regaling her with some of the sillier aspects of being a high school teacher. Zoe gratefully let her be distracted by the lighthearted prattle.

"... And then this other student said, 'I need an *angry* penguin. Like with the wings flapping.' And he totally flapped his arms all over to demonstrate."

"You're kidding," Zoe laughed.

"No, that's actually what he said. He needed an 'angry penguin.'"

"That's really weird. You know that, right?"

Lou laughed. "Of course I know that. Have I mentioned I love this job?"

"Not in so many words... but I get the drift."

"So listen, what's got you so distracted these days?"

Zoe considered how best to answer that query. "It's kind of a kidnapping case, I'm working with this PI. Her name is Emma, she's really on the ball."

"Oh *really*?" came a sly response from Chicago.

Zoe pulled the phone away from her head to stare at it briefly. "Yes, *really*."

"So tell me about her."

Zoe curled a stray strand of dark hair around her finger and folded her long legs under her on the couch, allowing herself the opportunity to stall. "Nothing much to tell, really. She's an aspiring writer, who took up private investigation to pay the bills and help some folks out along the way. She cooks a mean pesto."

"Is she cute?" Lou asked.

"Well, yeah, actually."

"Uh huh, I bet," came the smug answer.

Zoe frowned. "Excuse me?"

Lou laughed. "Zoe, in the all the bazillion years I've known you, your new acquaintances never ever have actual names when you tell your friends about them. It's always 'the homicide detective I work with,' or 'this chick I met in the bookstore.' The first thing you tell me about this woman is her name. That's gotta be significant."

"Okay, okay," she conceded with a groan, flopping backwards onto the couch. "She's very cute, she's very smart, and I have a totally ridiculous crush on her. Happy now?"

"Yep. She trip your gaydar?"

She scratched her head. "I don't know... kinda? I can't tell. I think maybe she's been flirting with me, but it's hard to pay that much attention to the subtleties when she's around."

Lou laughed heartily. "She must gorgeous then."

Zoe stared off into space a bit dreamily. "Yeah... But she's also so damned *nice*, it's really unbelievable. You know, because of her I actually sat and talked to my mom again a couple nights ago."

"No way! Zoe, that's amazing! How'd it go?"

"Better than I'd expected. I think my mother might not hate my guts anymore."

"That's wonderful. I'm thrilled off my ass for you." A happy sigh. "You're so cute when you're smitten."

"Don't use the 'c' word," she growled.

"Terribly sorry," he responded, clearly not sorry in the slightest. "Seriously, I'm glad you've found someone to spend time with. Maybe you should just try kissing her and see what happens."

Zoe considered for a moment. "I don't wanna screw this up, you know? For all I know she thinks gay people should burn in hell." Even as she said it she somehow knew that wasn't true, and she felt a sudden ache inside that made her want to find Emma grab hold of her for a long time.

"I doubt that. I bet there's not a thing about you she wouldn't like to know more about. Give it a shot."

"Well, there's some other stuff going on right now. We'll see."

"Okay, that's cool." His voice gentled. "Listen, if you can't tell me about what was hurting you so badly a few nights ago, maybe you can tell her? She sounds like she could be a good friend, if nothing else."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Think about it, my friend. I gotta go. Love you, Zoe."

"Love you back. Take care."

Zoe disconnected and set the phone down, then scooped up the football to launch it into the air once more. Lou had a point; if nothing else Emma was a kind, caring person who would certainly lend a sympathetic ear if asked.

Thoughts of the pretty blonde and that incredibly charming smile warmed her. As she let herself become thoroughly distracted by the up and down motion of the ball she was throwing she felt that roaring depression tuck itself back in the dark corner of her heart where it normally lived, out of the way and mostly unnoticed.

It had been a long time since she'd tried to write. Too long. Emma had dusted off her typewriter that morning and loaded it with paper, then proceeded to stare at it blankly for several minutes before getting up to do something else. But her gaze kept returning to her writing desk, no matter how she tried to distract herself.

The real problem was that she had the urge to write, but not the faintest idea what to write about. This was not usually how it happened. Usually she'd have these great ideas and grand plots already conceived in her head, but no energy at all to try to commit them to paper.

Stories had always come easy to her. Emma sometimes felt that she lived two lives, the one in the real world and the fictional one in her head, where character motivation was always clear and the special effects were especially vivid.

She plunked down in the chair in front of the typewriter once more. Write anything, said a little voice inside her head. She instantly cowed under the weight of that command. Anything. Too broad. Okay, write *something*. She cocked her head a bit. That was more manageable.

Her fingers hovered over the keys, willing herself just to hit one, just to make the first stroke. That sound of keys typing always inspired her to type more, it was just mostly impossible to get started.

Her hands dropped off the keys to smack limp and heavy against the desk, and she sighed loudly. Her gaze wandered to the window, to the cold winter wind whipping brown leaves around in the street below, to the salt-stained road. She was typing before she was even really aware of it.

**Winter was created for the sake of the poet.

Below ground life swells in dormancy, merely marking time until it can bloom again.

And the snow falls from the heavens. Inexorable, silent, working upon the world whether you notice or not -- like love.**

Emma paused in her typing, then reread the words, fairly pleased with the imagery. In the back of her head she was mocking herself for the excessive romanticism, but decided to ignore it and just go with the feeling.

She typed away, focused on nothing else, for almost four hours, until she suddenly ran out of paper.

Would it be too weird to call Emma?

Zoe had asked herself this same question almost a dozen times in the past hour, trying to invent an excuse to call her new friend, even though nothing new was happening in the case, and she had no amazing sudden insights to share.

She just wanted to talk to her. Zoe sighed in frustration, annoyed by her own helplessness in the face of a stupid crush. However, she was also grateful for the distraction that allowed her not to think about the weird case she'd somehow gotten involved in.

Inspiration suddenly struck, and she grabbed the phone, dialing Emma's number from memory.

"Hello?" came the warm voice on the other end.

"Emma? It's Zoe. We should talk to Walt and the Harringtons, see if we can get any more information about that Raphael dude."

"Yup, you're right," Emma agreed instantly, her smile apparent in her voice even disembodied over the phone. "Call Walt, we'll meet up in my office."

A little less than an hour later, Emma Frazier was strolling through her beat up old building, tossing her office keys lightly in the air and humming to herself. Since having spent the morning writing she was refreshed and energized, and now looking forward to seeing Zoe again.

She approached her office, noticing that her door was ajar. Once more she cursed the janitor's carelessness roundly, and walked in, tossing her briefcase on the desk and stripping off her coat, which tangled and promptly got wrapped around her boot and then clamped uncomfortably around her wrist, effectively binding her. She struggled to free herself for several seconds before she froze at the sound of a warm chuckle issuing from the doorway.

"Need some help with that?" Zoe asked, leaning lightly against the office doorframe and raising an eyebrow in obvious amusement.

Emma hopped around on her free foot to face the taller woman, blushing slightly and trying to look as dignified as possible with both hands and one foot pinned behind her by her tangled coat. "Thank God you're here!" she exclaimed. "It just... attacked me, and I could barely hold it off..."

"Of course, these things are very dangerous. You can never take your eyes off 'em," Zoe agreed gravely, stepping forward to assist. She walked around Emma, studying the predicament, then reached in to tug one of her arms free.

As the binding hold of the coat suddenly loosened, Emma over-balanced and found herself tipped neatly into Zoe's body, headfirst into her cleavage. "Urk," Emma mumbled, trying desperately to right herself.

Zoe laughed lightly, helping Emma regain her equilibrium and remove her forehead from its perch on her chest. Emma looked up into pale blue eyes, her forgotten coat hanging limply from one hand. The gaze intensified, aided by their proximity and enhanced by the lingering salt-laced scent of winter air they both carried. Zoe finally gave in to impulse and reached up with one hand to push away the stubborn lock of blonde hair that constantly seemed to get in the way of her view of Emma's face.

The sound of a throat clearing at the door snapped them out of their mutual trance, and Zoe jerked her head around to see Walt Gerard standing at the door, looking distinctly uncomfortable.

"Hey, Walt," Zoe said, affecting as much casualness as she could muster. She stepped reluctantly away from Emma to shake her old friend's hand.

Emma took a couple seconds longer to snap back into reality, but she too shook Walt's hand, ignoring her own fierce blush as she indicated her friends should sit down.

"Okay, so Zoe said you had some information on this Raphael guy?" Emma said, forcibly turning her brain to professional mode.

Walt produced a small stack of microfilm reproductions, and some file photos. "Yeah, just a few odd mentions of him in department records. Nothing since the big online file update last June. But I did find a couple pictures of him."

Zoe took the stack, handing Emma the microfilm printouts. She flipped through the photos. "Yeah, that's him."

"You saw this guy?" Walt asked.

Emma and Zoe glanced at each other, both trying to decide how much information they should share with Walt. Zoe shrugged. "Long story, Walt. You don't wanna know."

Walt sagged a bit deeper in his chair and rubbed at the faint stubble on his chin. "You're still not gonna tell me what's going on?"

Emma smiled gently. "If you knew you might be in some kind of danger. We're not sure yet."

Suddenly Zoe remembered the snapshots she'd received of her and Walt in the cafˇ the day after she'd first been contacted. "Walt, were you followed?"

"What? Of course not!" Walt sputtered.

"Someone saw us together at the cafe, that someone may have followed you here."

"No one was following me!" he stated, sounding slightly less sure than before.

They were quiet after that for a short time, before Zoe spoke up again. "Walt, look..."

"Wait, wait. You're gonna tell me to get the hell outta here, I know," Walt grumbled, standing and pulling on his coat. "I get the picture."

Zoe stood too. "It's not like that. We're just not sure what might happen if they find out I'm talking to a cop, is all."

"You used to be a cop, Z," Walt said pointedly, arranging his coat collar. "And working with a PI isn't the same thing?" he said, gesturing toward Emma. He knew Zoe had no response for that question that he wanted to hear, so he turned toward the door.

"Thanks for all your help," Emma said quietly, stopping him.

He turned around and spared her a small smile. "Yeah, you're welcome." He looked back at Zoe. "I woulda noticed if someone was following me, Z. I swear."

"Yeah, I know," Zoe murmured.

He turned and stalked out the door.

Zoe sat heavily. "Wonder what crawled up his shorts and died," she muttered.

Emma winced, leafing through the printouts he'd left. "Well, he did kinda catch us in a compromising position..."

Zoe blushed and studiously avoided looking at the blonde. "Innocent as it was..." she equivocated.

"Right," Emma agreed instantly. "It's just that, well, I think he has a little crush on me, is all."

This prompted a snort from the taller woman. He can join the club, Zoe mused. Aloud she said, "That's not hard to believe."

Her response charmed Emma, who smiled. "Thank you."

Zoe looked up, once again caught up in the friendly sparkling eyes. She coughed a little. "How about we take these photos by the Harringtons', see if they recognize our friend Raphael?"

"Great. Then how about we take 'em by your mom's place too? Then we could grab some dinner."

"Sounds perfect," Zoe agreed, and stood to put on her coat. She watched Emma shuffle all the files together into her briefcase, then gallantly held open the blonde's coat to assist her. As she settled the coat onto Emma's shoulders, she leaned in to whisper in her ear, "Can't take your eyes off 'em." She allowed herself a self-satisfied smirk as she saw the blonde shiver.

They left the office together, and Emma double-checked to make sure the door was properly locked, grumbling about the janitorial staff again. She turned and walked down the hallway, not noticing that Zoe had hesitated, looking thoughtfully at the office door. After a couple seconds Zoe shook her head and followed the blonde down the hall.

"But we've already spoken to the police," Lynn Harrington insisted.

"Ma'am, we're not actually with the police department, we're investigating some other information we've received about your son's disappearance," Emma patiently explained, aware of Zoe's growing twitchiness behind her.

"All right, come in," the woman capitulated, allowing Emma and Zoe passage into the house.

A high pitched squeal greeted them, as a joyous two year old boy charged across the room to grab hold of his mother's pant leg. When he caught sight of the two strangers he instantly shied, hiding behind his mother's legs and peeking out at them only to stare in fascination at Zoe's tall form.

They sat together in a living room littered with colorful plastic toys. Lynn Harrington gave her son a small push on the bottom to encourage him to go play, but he didn't seem to want to leave her side.

"Mrs. Harrington, had you received any kind of ransom information regarding Michael?" Emma asked.

"No, none at all. That was probably the scariest part," she answered. "If someone wanted money for Michael that would have meant he was okay. We were terrified of the alternative." She was obviously still quite distressed by the entire incident.

By this time Michael had overcome his initial shyness and given in to his fascination with Zoe. He toddled slowly over to her, placing a small hand on her knee and staring directly into her face. Zoe had never actually been around a child at this age, and wasn't real sure how to act. She smiled at him. "Hi," she said quietly.

Her low and vibrant voice triggered a slightly startled reaction from the toddler, then a sudden grin. He scrambled up onto the couch next to where she was seated and commenced playing with her long ebony hair.

"Have you ever heard of a man named Raphael Alexander?" Emma asked.

"Michael, honey, don't stand on the couch," his mother said distractedly before returning her attention to the blonde private investigator. "Um, no, the name doesn't sound familiar."

"Maybe your husband might know him?" Emma persisted.

Mrs. Harrington shrugged a little. "I'm not sure." She turned in her seat and raised her voice to carry across the house. "James? Can you come out here for a second?"

Emma looked over at Zoe, barely stifling a giggle at the sight of Michael Harrington climbing over her lap as if she was his own personal jungle gym. Zoe was clearly at a loss, holding her hands up to protect the kid from falling off of her, but obviously not sure what else to do. He placed a tiny hand on either side of her jaw, studying her face intently.

A tall man entered the room from the back of the house, dusting flour off his hands. He nodded to the two visitors. "Hello."

"These are private investigators looking into Michael's kidnapping," his wife temporized.

"I'm Emma Frazier, this is my partner Zoe Winston," Emma said, gesturing to indicate the taller woman being mauled by the toddler.

James Harrington waved a little apologetically, indicating the flour on his hands. "So what can we do for you?"

"Have you ever heard of a man named Raphael Alexander?" Emma repeated.

James tilted his head to think for a moment. "No, I don't think so."

Emma pulled the stack of photographs that Walt had found from her briefcase and handed them to Lynn. "Do either of you recognize that man?"

Lynn flipped through the photos, and James leaned over her shoulder to look as well. She shook her head and looked up at her husband, who shrugged. "Sorry," she said as she handed the photos back.

By now Michael was firmly seated in Zoe's lap, but when Emma got the photos back he leaned over to take a look at them. "Bad!" he exclaimed suddenly, pulling himself off of Zoe and scooting closer to Emma. He smacked the photograph soundly.

Emma looked over at his parents, then held out the photos so he could look at them more closely. "Sweetie, do you recognize this man?"

Michael scowled and slapped at the picture again. "Man bad!"

"Where did you see him?" Emma asked. Michael gazed up at her, not quite understanding. She reconsidered her question. "Michael, was this man taking care of you when you were away?"

Michael scowled as he thought about that, then nodded.

"That man took my son?" Lynn said, her voice trembling with sudden horror.

Emma gazed at her with compassion. "Ma'am, we don't know, but we'll find out."

A few minutes later, as Lynn Harrington was showing them out of her home, she touched Zoe briefly on the arm. "Are they going to try to take Michael again?"

Zoe turned around, pinning her with a steely blue gaze. "Not if I can help it," she said almost fiercely.

Behind the woman she saw Michael watching her carefully from across the room. Her face instantly softened into a smile and she raised her hand and twitched her fingers in a little wave goodbye. He grinned and enthusiastically waved back. "Byeeee," he warbled as the door closed behind her.

They were walking down the street, heading toward Zoe's mother's diner.

"Cute kid," Emma said with an impish grin.

"Yah," Zoe agreed offhandedly. "I think he drooled on me." She made a show of wiping imaginary drool on Emma's coat.

Emma bumped her hip into Zoe's, and they both laughed. Before she was even aware she was doing it, Zoe had reached one arm up to rest across Emma's shoulders. By the time she noticed, she couldn't retract it without embarrassing herself, so she left it there and hoped Emma wouldn't react poorly.

The blonde grinned and wrapped her own arm around Zoe's waist. She was slowly starting to become convinced that her attraction to Zoe was mutual, and that little things like Zoe's unplanned and unguarded touches were the taller woman's subtle flirtation. It was exhilarating, this feeling that every time she saw Zoe she was floating, and every time they touched her skin felt like it was on fire.

She was also glad Zoe was starting to initiate contact a little more, because she was beginning to feel like she couldn't keep her hands to herself. Part of her balked at the notion that her feelings were far surpassing what was appropriate for the length of time they'd known each other, but mostly she was aware that she had never felt more content or safe with another person than she did with Zoe.

Like watching Zoe play, albeit awkwardly, with little Michael. The sight had filled Emma's heart to the point of bursting; it was so intensely beautiful. The boy had clearly latched on to what Emma herself had seen from the beginning, the internal honor and decency that shone through Zoe's entire being like a beacon, even though she mostly tried to hide it.

Emma tightened her hold a bit on Zoe, pulling her closer as they drew nearer to the diner. "Hey, are you okay with this?" she asked, tilting her head to indicate the diner, then looking up at the dark profile.

"Yeah, it'll be all right. Besides, I think my mom likes you," Zoe responded, returning the glance with a grateful smile.

They disengaged from each others' embrace only long enough to enter the diner.

"Okay, you were right, your mom does make the best chicken and dumplings ever created in the history of food," Emma laughed, pushing her plate away.

Zoe grinned, still digging her fork into her own serving. "Toldya. Want seconds?"

"Oh no, no thank you." As Emma had hoped, Zoe's mom came through and greeted them both cautiously but with enthusiasm, insisting that they enjoy dinner on the house and continually stopping by their table to drop more food on it while they were eating. Zoe looked more relaxed than Emma had yet seen her, and suspected that the estrangement from her mother had taken more of a toll than either woman cared to admit.

Zoe finally finished her own meal and leaned back in her chair happily. "I'd almost forgotten how good she can cook. Whew."

"Is it always this busy in here?" Emma asked, indicating the noisy bustle of late-dinner traffic.

"Yup, pretty much. Mom has her regulars that have been coming here since I can remember. Some of these folks probably remember me losing my first tooth right over there." Zoe pointed to one end of the bar.

"You lost a tooth here?"

"Yup, I was chasing my brother, and I tripped on a chair, then cracked my head on the bar. Bled like a son of a bitch."

Emma chuckled. "I bet you were a real hellraiser."

"Oh, yeah," Zoe agreed instantly. "When I was sixteen I pulled up front there on a motorcycle that I had saved months and months for. My mother almost clubbed me senseless and sold the thing behind my back, she was so furious." She smiled wistfully, her eyes drifting to the large windows up front as she looked out and saw dozens of old memories.

Right then her mother plopped into the empty chair at the end of their table. "You ladies get enough to eat?"

"Yes, ma'am," Emma answered. "You're an amazing cook."

"Tch. Don't call me 'ma'am,'" Carmen retorted, poking Emma in the arm. Emma grinned at her, then looked over at Zoe, who had an odd wondering smile on her face.

Zoe shook herself a bit. "Mom, we brought some photos we'd like you to look at."

Emma nodded and dug into her briefcase, handing over the stack of photos to Carmen.

Carmen wiped her hands on her apron and took the photos, flipping through them slowly. "Zoe, these people are here at least once a week."

"All of these people? Here?" Zoe asked in alarm.

"Yes, this man," Carmen answered, pointing at a large bearded man standing behind Raphael in one of the pictures. "He's in here all the time, and he brings his cronies in here too. I think they call him Mar... Marius, Mario, something like that. Really bad tippers."

So Raphael wasn't the ringleader. Interesting. Zoe pointed at Raphael. "Was this guy in here the night before I first came to see you?"

Her mother considered the question, trying to recall. "Could have been. I don't really remember." She cocked her head to look her daughter square in the eye. "Zoe, what's this all about?"

"I don't know. I just know these guys are bad news. If you ever see them in here again, you gotta call me or Emma right away, but don't let them know you suspect anything, okay?"

Carmen nodded and pointed to the picture again. "This woman they're with, she's a real looker. She threatened old man Herbie at the counter the other day because he kept leering at her. I didn't think much of it at the time..." She shook her head. "Bad news, huh?"

"The worst," Emma agreed. "They're after Zoe."

Zoe frowned and shook her head, trying to wave Emma off.

Carmen studied her daughter. "These people are trying to hurt you?"

Zoe sighed. "I dunno, Mom. I don't know what they want."

"Hmph," her mother muttered, patting her daughter's hand before starting to pile up all their used plates and silverware. "Well, I should get back to work. Take care of yourself, kiddo. Let me know if you need anything." Even as she said it, she knew they were both aware of the extreme irony of that offer. Zoe's lips quirked a bit in response. Carmen turned to Emma, her eyes twinkling. "And you look after her, okay?"

"You bet," Emma agreed, grinning back.

The older woman turned and trudged off, precariously balancing the load of used dishes back into the kitchen.

"I was right," Zoe declared, turning her attention back to Emma.

"You mean besides about the chicken and dumplings?" the blonde responded, still grinning.

"Mmm-hmm. My mom likes you."

Emma shrugged good-naturedly. "That's okay, I like her too. I know you and she had a rough time recently, but I really don't think she meant to hurt you."

"Yeah," Zoe agreed, looking down at her folded hands on the diner table.

Emma could see the taller woman's typical melancholy creeping up on her again, so she decided a change in venue was in order.

"Hey," she said, poking gently at Zoe's joined hands. "It's late. Wanna walk me home?"

Flurries had begun to drift through the city skies as they made their way home from the diner, chatting mildly the entire time.

"So what about your parents?" Zoe asked as they were sitting facing each other on the Metro. She noticed as Emma's mood darkened instantly.

"Ah, yeah. My parents. I haven't talked to them in a very long time," the blonde answered in a quiet voice.

Zoe berated herself for causing that sad look to cross Emma's features, wishing for all the world she could fix whatever memories she'd stirred by asking that question.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

"No, no, it's okay," Emma said, smiling a bit sadly. "It's just hard. They kinda disowned me when I got out of school." She sniffled a bit.

"Disowned you? Why?!" Zoe exclaimed.

"I told 'em I was gay," the blonde responded, keeping her eyes glued to the Metro window to avoid seeing Zoe's reaction. "I told them I couldn't live with lying any longer, and that since being honest I'd been so much happier with myself." She was surprised to find tears coming to her eyes; she thought she'd cried them all out years ago. "They hit the roof. My father threw me out, cursed me and my college for putting 'ideas' into my head, and said if I ever wanted to see them again, I'd have to get counseling to get 'fixed' for whatever was wrong with me." At this point she chanced a look at Zoe, who had a look of indescribable sympathetic pain on her face. "I haven't spoken to them since."

Zoe was in shock. These people, these idiots, had the audacity to turn their backs on this woman? This woman, who had single-handedly altered her life for the better in a manner of days? This woman, who only wanted to help others? She felt her fists clench in anger as Emma told her story, then felt herself absolutely helpless to look away from the blonde's anguished tear-stained face when Emma turned to look at her.

"Oh, Emma, I'm so sorry," Zoe murmured.

Emma shrugged a bit. "It could've been worse. I still get Christmas cards from my little sister. She's not really supposed to talk to me at all, but it's her yearly act of defiance."

Acting on impulse, Zoe shifted from her seat across from Emma to sit in the empty seat next to her, then gathered the smaller woman in her arms. "I'm so sorry," she said again, this time whispered into the soft blonde hair. Emma instantly responded to the embrace, wrapping her arms around Zoe's torso and squeezing her tight. She cried gently for a time, banishing the pain of her family's rough dismissal with the warmth of her new friend.

Guess she doesn't have a problem with it, Emma thought wryly. She was well aware that they'd become increasingly flirtatious over the past couple days, but she didn't want to presume that that indicated anything about their respective preferences.

As if guessing her thoughts, Zoe suddenly said, "My mother was more concerned that I would end up killing myself in a fiery motorcycle crash than that I didn't end up liking guys. She really took it in stride." She sighed and tightened her hold on the blonde a little bit. "I guess I never really knew how lucky I was."

Emma snuggled a bit more comfortably in Zoe's arms, suddenly feeling more at peace with her family's rejection than she ever had before. "The real bitch of it was that I didn't even have a girlfriend to introduce them to," she said with a little laugh.

"If you want, I could go get another motorcycle and we could visit," Zoe offered with a little smirk.

"Tempting, Winston, very tempting."

Zoe insisted on seeing Emma all the way to her door, instead of simply dropping her off near her building and continuing on her way home. She stood on the stairs up to the second-floor landing while Emma fumbled with her keys, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet. The blonde got her door unlocked and pushed it open, casting a shy look over at the taller woman. She cocked her head curiously.

"Why am I suddenly the same height as you?"

Zoe smirked. "I'm standing eight inches lower than you are, short-stuff."

Emma blinked incredulously, and stepped closer. "Did you just call me 'short-stuff?!'" she huffed.

Zoe reached out and snagged her wrist, pulling her closer. "Yup," she breathed, before reaching up to cup Emma's cheek, then ducking her head to bring their lips together for a brief but heartfelt kiss. It was impulsive, and probably unwelcome and even mostly inappropriate, but at that moment, Zoe didn't care. She had simply resolved to take Lou's advice and see what happened next. What did happen scared the bejeezus out of her, as the contact caused small sensory explosions to ricochet throughout her body in a completely unexpected barrage of sensation.

They parted, and Emma blinked her eyes back open, gazing into the earnest blue pools that were conveniently at the same level. "Wow," she breathed.

"Yeah," Zoe agreed hoarsely.


"Yeah?" she repeated.

"Remember how I told you that if I was planning to take advantage of you, you'd know?"

"Uh huh?" Something about that kiss had decimated her vocabulary.

"That'd be now," Emma whispered, leaning in for a second slightly more heated kiss. After she broke off, she studied Zoe's face carefully. "If that's okay," she equivocated.

Zoe grinned. "Oh yeah, I'm good with that." She let Emma pull her into her apartment and shut the door behind her.

Emma was dreaming again, about walking on the beach. The birds were circling overhead, and the sun was setting. But this time she wasn't alone. She looked over her shoulder at the sound of rapid hoofbeats, seeing Zoe approach quickly on a palomino mare. She stopped walking, instead folding her arms in feigned impatience for the other woman to arrive. When Zoe drew nearer, she slowed the horse slightly and held a hand down to the blonde. Emma grabbed the hand and found herself pulled up smoothly behind Zoe in the saddle. She wrapped her arms tightly around Zoe's waist as the taller woman kneed the horse into a full gallop, and echoed Zoe's joyous whoop as they charged through the surf.

The exhilaration of the ride, the scent of the sea air, and the contact of her body against Zoe's stayed with her as she rose slowly to consciousness, pillowed on the naked shoulder of the very woman she'd dreamed about. One arm was thrown casually over Zoe's waist, the other was tucked under Zoe's shoulder with her hand curled around it. Zoe's arms were clasped tightly around her, and she could hear the taller woman's steady strong heartbeat under her ear.

She suddenly had a wistful longing to wake up like this every morning for the rest of her life.

"Good morning," came a burred voice above her head.

Emma pulled her head up a little to meet the sleep-blurred blue gaze. "Hi," she answered, completely unable to restrain the beatific smile that split her face.

It sparked an answering smile that banished a clearly nervous expression from Zoe's features. She reached out with one hand to stroke Emma's soft cheek. "How you feelin' this morning?"

The blonde had turned her cheek into the tender caress. "I feel amazing," she answered, stretching happily next to Zoe's body. "How about you?"

"Amazed," Zoe whispered. She couldn't tear her eyes from Emma's face.

Emma smiled and returned the gaze, seeing unfathomable emotion floating in Zoe's eyes and deciding not to press her on it. She ducked her head to place a kiss on the well-defined collarbone just below her chin. "Can I interest you in some breakfast?"

"I was just going to ask you the same thing. You cooked dinner the other day, do you dare try my version of breakfast?" Zoe asked, her eyebrows quirking mischievously.

"Ooooh, she's beautiful, smart, and can cook?"

"Well, you might want to reserve judgment on that last one until you try my omelettes." Zoe smirked.

"Go for it, Winston. But first, we're gonna shower."

Emma ducked her head and kissed her gently, then extricated herself from the bed, pulling the somnolent Zoe along after her, not even giving her the opportunity to retreat behind that endearing shyness.

"Would you get outta here?" Zoe laughed, shooing Emma out of her own kitchen for the fifth time.

"You're driving me crazy," the blonde pouted. "That smells amazing."

"Gimme five minutes, and you can try it, okay?"

A few minutes later, she presented a plateful of fresh omelette and a glass of orange juice to the not-quite-patiently waiting blonde at the dining room table.

"Can I try it now?" Emma squinted up at Zoe.

"Yes, please do," Zoe laughed.

The blonde narrowed her eyes and grabbed a fork, hacking off a small piece of the omelette and shoveling it in her mouth. Her face instantly melted in obvious pleasure. "Oh, Zoe... this is *good*."

The taller woman grinned, enjoying Emma's reaction thoroughly. "I'm glad you like it. You've now experienced the extent of my cooking skills."

Emma had already taken a second bite, savoring it. "'Sokay, we can eat this for forever." She stopped chewing and looked up at Zoe. "Do you have your own?"

"Yeah, it's cooking," Zoe chuckled, as she retreated back into the kitchen. She smiled at the content yummy noises the blonde was still making. "Okay, Winston, you're doin' okay here," she muttered to herself, flipping her omelette over in the small pan. She shook her head. "Listen to me, she's got me calling myself 'Winston.'"

They were nearly finished with breakfast, and Emma took a long draft of orange juice and sighed happily. "So how are we gonna hunt the bad guys today?"

Zoe wiped her mouth with a napkin. "I've been thinking about that. What about we take a day off from fighting the good fight and just goof off? I mean, we've been mugged, I've reunited with my mother, we've become embroiled in some odd conspiracy involving the police department, and we've spent one - no, two - nights together, but... we haven't exactly been on a date, yet."

Emma laughed. "Okay, what would you like to do?"

The taller woman's steel blue eyes pinned her with a warm gaze. "I want to know more about you," she said quietly, surprised at her own boldness. "I want to talk with you, maybe do something painfully date-ish and go ice skating, and then watch you over a candlelit dinner and be absolutely mind-boggled that such a beautiful woman is sitting with me."

Emma found herself nearly choked up. "I'd like that," she answered, her voice suspiciously rough. "And if you're extra good, I'll read you some of the story I wrote yesterday."

"Deal," Zoe agreed, reaching across the table to intertwine her fingers with Emma's.

"Did you really want to go ice skating?" Emma asked after they'd cleaned up the breakfast dishes.

"Sure, it's fun. Why?"

"I've never been, actually," Emma admitted with a slight blush.

The taller woman stared at her incredulously. "Well, you then you simply *must*," she declared with an imperious sniff. She noticed Emma's look of vague disbelief. "No, really, you'll love it. Trust me."

Emma just shrugged, indicating she'd take Zoe's word for it.

"Listen, I should probably go home and change," Zoe said, indicating the too-short borrowed sweatpants she was wearing, the same she'd borrowed a few nights previous.

They quickly made arrangements to meet up at Zoe's favorite old ice skating rink just before lunch. She had a hard time actually leaving Emma's apartment, as they kept indulging in languorous kisses and drawn-out bouts of touchy-feely.

Zoe finally escaped, but paused on the steps of Emma's apartment building to catch her breath. "Whoooooo," she breathed, wearing an utterly indelible grin. She shook herself and jogged off.

On her way to meet Zoe, Emma stopped by at her office to grab her files for later perusal. She was whistling as she practically skipped down the hall, still on a high from the amazing night she'd spent and the equally surprising morning. She was falling hard and fast for Zoe, she knew it, but she cheerfully ignored every voice in her head that warned against it. A date... Zoe wanted to go on a date. Emma was completely charmed by the entire proposal, but mostly she was warmed by the idea that Zoe wanted to pursue their relationship seriously.

Emma approached her office, noticing that the door was ajar yet again. "Dammit," she muttered, pushing the door open with her hip.

She stopped dead on seeing a bleach-blonde woman holding a flashlight and prowling through her desk drawers. "What the hell are you doing?" Emma snarled, dropping her briefcase and bristling at the intruder.

The blonde looked up at her with big hazel eyes in apparent unconcern. "Oh, the private investigator. You know, you really should keep your office neater."

"Who the fuck are you? Get away from there!" Emma demanded, her voice rising in alarm and annoyance.

"Listen, dearie. You don't want to use that kind of language around me. I might take it personally."

Emma rounded the desk, not even considering the possible consequences as she shoved the blonde woman bodily away from the drawers.

The woman straightened, her eyes flashing dangerously. "That was a bad idea, Ms. Frazier," she said almost mockingly. Emma realized too late that she recognized this woman from the surveillance file photos that Walt had given them the day before. She didn't even see the hand with the flashlight swing around her left side before she felt a splitting pain in her temple and the world went black.

Zoe was pacing in front of the ice rink, waiting for Emma to show up. The blonde was only about ten minutes late at this point, but some nebulous feeling that Something Was Wrong was making Zoe distinctly itchy. She bounced on the balls of her feet and whirled around to make another circuit of the city block.

A black sedan suddenly appeared, slowing a bit as it passed her. The driver's side window rolled down, and Raphael Alexander looked out at her, sketching a little salute as he smirked and drove by. Zoe's eyes widened in alarm, and she stopped her pacing dead. The sedan's tires squealed, and it disappeared almost as suddenly as it appeared.

She looked around frantically, trying to find a payphone. The closest one was a couple blocks down the road, and she sprinted down to it. She threw in some change and dialed Emma's cell number. "C'mon, c'mon," she growled, waiting for the rings and willing the blonde to answer. The cellular service responded that the phone was "out of calling area" and forwarded her to voicemail.

"Goddammit!" Zoe spat, hanging up and charging down the road. She vaguely remembered between shared kisses that morning that Emma mentioned she needed to stop by her office.

She hoped to God she could get there in time.

Emma's office door was halfway open, and Zoe busted through with her revolver drawn, her eyes scanning the room automatically. Emma's briefcase was on its side on the floor near the door. The desk drawers were open and clearly had been rifled through, and there were papers and files scattered wildly all over the floor.

Zoe holstered her weapon, looking more closely at the desk. There were spatters of blood across the papers littering its surface, and she felt her stomach drop. There was a note scrawled across several papers in thick marker:

**Now we've got your girlfriend. Come and get her.**

Emma awoke with a violent headache, which pounded in nauseating waves from the left side of her head down to her extremities. She even could feel her fingernails throbbing. She tried to blink open her eyes, then squeezed them shut again at the painful invasion of light that threatened to split her head in two. She briefly catalogued what she could of her situation without opening her eyes. She was sitting in a rough chair, her arms bound tightly behind her. She could feel a cold winter breeze stirring her hair, and it felt wonderful against her heated skin. Not good, she realized. She probably had a fever. Her mouth was dry, and she moaned a little in discomfort.

"Does the little girl have a headache?" came the annoying sing-song voice Emma recognized as belonging to the woman in her office.

"Go to hell," Emma rasped.

"Such spirit!" the voice crowed. "I'm impressed. We're going to have fun, you and I."

Emma thankfully lost consciousness again.

Walt Gerard found Zoe standing in the hall outside Emma's office, tension written in her every feature. Her arms were crossed and her eyes indicated her thoughts were clearly focused elsewhere.

She'd called the cops as soon as she'd pulled herself together, abandoning her boycott of the police department in the face of the helplessness of missing her partner. The crime scene unit was crawling over the office with cameras and fingerprint kits, occasionally casting nervous glances at the misfit former detective who had summoned them there.

"Zoe?" Walt murmured, leaning close to her. She didn't respond, so he touched her on her arm gently. She started, and slowly tracked her eyes over to meet his.

"Hey, Walt," she said listlessly.

"Hey. Sorry 'bout Emma," he responded, his voice compassionate. She jerked her head in a short nod. "Any idea what happened here?"

"They took her," she whispered, her eyes lost.

"Who did? This Alexander guy?"

"Yeah." She nodded toward the crime scene crew. "They're not gonna find anything."

"Let 'em do their thing, and we'll just see what happens. How about we go for a little walk?"

Zoe nodded and followed after him.

They headed into the brisk air and Walt immediately shivered, drawing his coat closer around his neck. Zoe kept walking, listlessly ignoring the chill and keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead. Walt cast the occasional glance her way to make sure she was all right, but kept silent.

Mostly she felt foolish, being so attached to someone after just a few admittedly intense days spent together, and that one astounding night. But something about Emma rang a chord deep inside her. Somehow the blonde's presence filled a space she didn't even know was empty.

*Maybe it was love.*

She snorted at her own pointless sentimentality and abruptly turned a corner, hearing Walt's footsteps as he jogged to keep up.

She no more knew what love was than what family was; her family had been screwed up since the second her father disappeared on them when she was five. She was glad her younger brother had no memory of the bastard, as her own memories were pretty ugly. Unconsciously, she picked up her pace, eating the length of sidewalk in long strides.

Then there was this oddly timed reunion with her mother. What on earth had sparked that?

Okay, so the answer was easy: Emma. Emma had inspired her sudden need to restore the limited, if only mildly functional family ties she had left.

Emma made her want to be with her family. Emma made her want to spend time making a friend. Emma made her want to help the good guys. She wanted to be a better person because of Emma's smile.

God, she hoped Emma was okay.

She swiped angrily at tears suddenly making their way down her face. What if Emma wasn't okay? What if she never saw the blonde again?

The thought made her heart drop.

Well then, came a mildly mocking voice from deep inside. *Maybe it's love after all*.

She abruptly stopped on a street corner. Walt stopped too, watching her carefully. They'd made a full circuit of three city blocks, and she could see the squad cars still parked in front of the Walker building. She remembered something... sort of. She was missing a detail. Something...

"Z?" Walt asked nervously.

She turned to him, her brows drawn in thought. "Yeah?"

"You wanna tell me what's going on here?"

She sighed. "Yeah, okay. You got some time?"

He smiled back at her, happy to see her familiar focus restored.

They stood there together on the street corner while Zoe told him everything, starting with the first time she met Emma at her office. All the details about the kidnappers, all the weird threats they'd made against her personally, the information she'd acquired speaking to the Harringtons. Out of deference to his own nascent crush she left out some of the more intimate details, but hoped she'd made it clear that they'd become involved.

She got all the way up until that morning, when they'd arranged to go ice skating, and that bad feeling she'd gotten when Emma hadn't arrived.

Walt absorbed all of this in silence, his face betraying nothing. Finally, when he realized Zoe was done telling her tale, he ventured to ask, "So Emma's gay?"

Zoe barked out a sudden laugh. "Figures that's what you'd pick out of that whole story," she said.

He blushed, clearly embarrassed. "I just... I didn't... aw, hell. I musta drove her crazy. I wish she would've just told me."

"Don't worry about it. She was flattered by your interest," Zoe responded, distracted again by the niggling thought that there was a detail she was overlooking. What was she missing?

Walt watched her attention focus again on something he couldn't see, and allowed his own thoughts to wander. The ringleader was a guy named Mario, Zoe's mother had said. Mario... He'd come across the name in those files he pulled searching for Emma's "pattern in the chaos." He would have to think about it some more.

Zoe literally snapped her fingers in revelation. "Hey, remember that old warehouse down the street from the station house?"

He had to forcibly derail his own train of thought to consider her question. "Oh, yeah, sure. We still do the weekly wino bust in there."

"There's a payphone in front of it, isn't there?"

"I think so, why?"

"When's the next wino bust?"

When Emma woke up her head still hurt almost unbearably, and her body was shaking alternately between the cold air breezing over her and the fever wracking her body. Added to that discomfort was the stiffness of her arms tied tightly behind her, and a new blindfold covering her eyes. Things were definitely not looking up.

"Are you awake, little girl?"

"Don't call me 'little,'" Emma growled back.

"Wonderfully persistent attitude you have there."

Emma chose not to respond, swallowing hard and trying not to shake.

She heard another person approaching loudly from behind her. "You shouldn't have brought her here," a deep male voice boomed.

"Aw, I just wanted to have some fun," her kidnapper whined. "It's not like they won't find her. They sweep this building all the time."

"I do not want Winston turned against us," the male voice growled, now much closer.

"She won't be, her girlfriend won't be too terribly damaged."

Emma heard the distinct sound of a sharp slap, and a body collapsing to the floor. "Do not defy me again," the man snarled, and she heard heavy bootsteps fade off into the distance.

She heard the light scrape as her kidnapper pulled herself sinuously off the floor, and stalked over to where Emma was seated. Emma's head suddenly jerked backward, pulled harshly by her hair. Emma refused to give her captor the benefit of any reaction.

"You're a lucky little dyke," the voice hissed in her ear. The body jerked, and Emma gasped as a searing pain burned through her gut, then twisted a bit. "Better hope your girlfriend is smarter than she looks and manages to find you soon," her captor said, then pushed her head back down. Emma grimaced around a pained moan. The lighter steps of her captor faded away as Emma felt the blood from the stab wound bubble up and stick sickly to the fabric of her shirt.

She wanted nothing more than to fall back into blissful unconsciousness, but knew she needed to stay awake as long as possible, if in fact her captor's assumption was correct and people were going to come looking for her soon.

*Come find me, Zoe*, her mind called, praying her new lover would somehow hear.

The squad car pealed around a corner, nearly taking out a few pedestrians as they sped toward the warehouse. Walt was keying his radio with one hand and steering erratically with the other, summoning EMS units and backup, all the while praying Zoe was right and that Emma really was being held in the warehouse.

They pulled to a sharp stop in front of the condemned old building, and Zoe was bounding out of the car before it was even really done moving. She drew her revolver and stormed into the building, leaving coordination of the arriving backup units to her old friend.

Zoe pounded up six flights of steps, not trusting the old rusty freight elevators in the back of the building to actually get her anywhere. She felt like she was being drawn, almost pulled to the top floor. The door out of the stairwell was jammed shut, and she growled in frustration, slamming her body-weight against it again and again until it finally burst open in a shower of splinters. She fell into a heap of crates and boxes that were obviously put there to slow her progress.

She scrambled upright, keeping her revolver trained on the dark hallway. This floor of the building had been dedicated to offices, so it was generally the favorite floor for vagrants and homeless people to pick as temporary shelter, since the smaller walled-in spaces afforded more of a wind-break than the wide open floors below. Most of the office doors were off their hinges, and they let in faint traces of neon and amber from the city lights outside. The entire hallway seemed to creak with her presence, and she hoped the ancient building wouldn't choose right this moment to collapse around them.

Zoe padded quietly down the hall, casting quick looks into open doorways and ducking into closed ones for cover while she visually scanned the hallway ahead of her. Her ears detected a sound out of place, almost a rasping... maybe breathing. Breathing?

As she zeroed in on the source, she was careful not to let her guard drop, well aware that Emma's captors could be hiding in the shadows, lying in wait for her attention to be diverted. Finally, she neared the office at the end of the hall, peeking in cautiously.

It was Emma, slumped in a wooden chair and obviously struggling to breathe. She was bound and blindfolded, but at the sound of Zoe's approach, she lifted her head a little.

"Emma?" Zoe whispered.

"Zoe," the blonde responded weakly, slumping again in obvious relief.

Zoe crossed the room quickly, holstering her weapon. She pulled off Emma's blindfold first, her heart nearly breaking at the sight of Emma's bloodshot green eyes blinking up at her. Zoe laid a tender hand against the smaller woman's jaw and looked down at her for a brief wordless moment, then set to work untying the bonds that kept Emma fastened to the chair.

Emma instantly collapsed forward, nearly smacking into the ground before Zoe could catch her. "You're really warm," Zoe muttered, gingerly righting the woman in her arms.

"Not feeling so good," Emma slurred, inhaling sharply as Zoe's gently probing hands found the knife wound.

It had started to clot, but her movement had reopened it, and it was now oozing sluggishly. Zoe cursed loudly, staunching the flow with one hand and holding the blonde's shivering body as close to hers as possible with her other arm. "Hang on, Emma, just hang on," Zoe murmured before throwing her head over her shoulder and yelling as loud as she could for help.

The emergency crews were probably still sweeping the lower floors, not automatically heading to the top floor as Zoe had. She had no way of knowing when they'd even get into earshot. She looked around briefly, hearing Emma's teeth chatter, then made a quick decision, scooping the wounded woman up into her arms and walking rapidly down the hallway.

She met the SWAT team members on the third floor, but insisted on carrying Emma down to meet the EMS guys outside personally. She exited the building and laid Emma gently on the waiting gurney, hardly noticing that her arms were trembling from the exertion. The paramedics got to work on Emma and Zoe ran a weak hand through her hair, smearing blood on her forehead while pulling the damp tendrils away from her face, exhaling in relief and exhaustion.

Walt Gerard bounded up next to her and grabbed her arm. "You need to sit down, Z," he said quietly in her ear.

She wordlessly complied, sitting heavily on a nearby crate but not tearing her eyes away from Emma's small form as paramedics applied bandages and got her hooked up to IV fluids. "Is she gonna be okay?" She didn't even recognize the voice as her own, it was so weak and strained in fear.

"I think so," Walt answered. "She's tough, and they didn't do too much damage. That was a good call, by the way, finding her in the offices upstairs."

Zoe nodded, not really processing what he was saying. Her heart and mind were fully occupied with the woman being loaded gingerly into the ambulance.

Walt eyed the blood on her clothes, hands, and face. "Let's get you cleaned up, then I'll take you to the hospital, okay?"

When Emma came to again she was chiefly aware of the sterile antiseptic scent that all hospitals seemed to possess, and of a warm pressure on her wrist. She pried her eyes open, finding that her vision was partially obscured by white gauze on her left side. She lolled her head around a bit until she spotted an obviously exhausted Zoe asleep in a chair at her side, with one hand resting firmly on Emma's arm.

The sight caused her lips to tug upward into a gentle smile. Zoe had clearly been there for some time, folded into an uncomfortable position in the hard plastic chair for God knew how many hours as she'd kept vigil over Emma.

The blonde tried to speak, to wake Zoe so she could see those amazing blue eyes, but her throat was too dry, and the effort made her cough weakly, in turn causing her abdomen to pull uncomfortably at the new stitches there.

The cough conveniently woke Zoe instead, and the dark head jerked upright as she returned to consciousness. After a brief moment of disorientation her eyes tracked over to Emma's, and she cracked a very relieved, very heartfelt, very tremulous smile.

"Hi," Zoe said quietly as she leaned closer, chafing Emma's forearm with a warm hand.

Emma grimaced and tried to answer, then gestured a bit toward her throat.

The blue eyes narrowed a bit as she followed the motion. "Oh! You want some ice chips?" She saw the relieved nod, then reached behind her to retrieve a cup of half-melted ice that a nurse had left there earlier. "Here you go," she announced, dutifully shoveling a spoonful into Emma's mouth.

The blonde nearly laughed at the utterly serious solicitousness of Zoe's attentions. It was profoundly cute, in a sweet, overprotective and caring kind of way, and it warmed Emma's heart. A droplet of cold water escaped the spoon and slipped down Emma's chin, and Zoe instantly nabbed it with a quick swipe of her finger. Soon the ice was gone, and Emma felt a great deal better.

"Thank you," she whispered, as Zoe replaced the cup and spoon on the tray behind her.

"You're welcome. How do you feel?"

"Like I got knocked in the head, kidnapped, and stabbed," Emma joked faintly. She noticed her attempt at levity did nothing to ease the serious look on Zoe's face, so she tried a different tactic. "Actually, I feel pretty good. Just a bit sore."

Zoe nodded and tangled her fingers with her lover's. "I'm so glad you're okay," she whispered, ducking her head to avoid the sharp green eyes.

"I knew you'd find me," Emma answered, squeezing Zoe's fingers gently. "And besides, they didn't want me seriously hurt. They thought it might 'turn you against them' or something."

The taller woman's jaw clenched painfully. "The second they laid a hand on you I was against them," she spat. "God, I'm sorry, Emma. None of this would have happened..."

"Hey, stop that," Emma interrupted. "I'm gonna be okay here. And none of this is your fault, okay? These people are whackos, and you can't be responsible for that."

Zoe studied their joined hands, digesting her lover's words. Of course she knew Emma was right, but... "I was so afraid I was going to lose you," she whispered.

Emma's breath caught in her chest. "I was pretty scared too," she responded, pulling Zoe's hand upwards to lay a gentle kiss on her fingertips. "But I'm okay, Zoe. I'm gonna be just fine. And I'm making you keep your promise to teach me to ice skate." At that, Zoe looked up at her and grinned.

A pretty young doctor came in, bustling in a crisp white lab coat and an armful of charts. She tossed all but one of the charts on the spare bed across the room, and swooped onto the stool next to Emma's bed. "And how is Contestant Number One this morning?" she asked while checking Emma's vitals.

"Getting better every minute," Emma answered cheerfully.

Right about then was when Zoe noticed with some embarrassment that their hands were still clasped. She tried to gently extricate herself from Emma's grip, but the blonde steadfastly held onto her, unwilling to relinquish the warm contact.

The doctor caught the small tug of war out of the corner of her eye, and smirked into her chart. Then she pinned the dark haired woman with her fiercest doctor's scowl. "I thought you were going to tell someone when Ms. Frazier awoke? Wasn't that the condition for us letting you stay here all night?"

Zoe's eyes widened guiltily. "Um."

"I just woke up a couple minutes ago, doctor," Emma volunteered smoothly. "She was just on her way to find a nurse when you came in."

The doctor raised a disbelieving eyebrow, then turned back to her chart. "Mmhmm. Well, I guess it's too bad, really," she said. "I was planning to introduce Ms. Frazier here to my roommate. She's a sucker for blondes."

She snapped the chart shut in time to see Emma chuckle, and smiled herself. "Ms. Frazier, we're going to need to keep you here for at least another day. We'll want to keep you on IV fluids and antibiotics and make sure that knife didn't leave behind anything nasty. But we'll see how you're feeling tomorrow afternoon, and maybe you'll be good to go, okay?"

Emma nodded and thanked the doctor. Zoe still seemed somewhat embarrassed and kept her eyes cast downward until the doctor left the room.

"Hey," Emma said, squeezing her hand. "It was a joke, we didn't freak her out or anything."

"Yeah, I know," Zoe murmured.

The blonde sighed, suddenly realizing how tired she was. "I'm gonna take a nap, okay?"

"Okay." The taller woman stood and disengaged her grasp to adjust the pillows and blankets around Emma, then reached out to softly stroke her hair before sitting back down and reclaiming Emma's hand.

Emma closed her eyes and let herself drift off. "For someone who doesn't want people to notice that we're lovers, you sure don't give them any reasons to think otherwise," she murmured indistinctly as she succumbed to her fatigue.

But Zoe heard the mild barb, and clenched her jaw in frustration once more. She'd explain, she decided, when Emma was safe at home and feeling stronger.

"So how'd you find me, anyway?" Emma asked between bites of green jello and mashed potatoes. The nurse had cleared her for whatever kind of dinner she wanted, and she went straight after her favorite mushy comfort foods.

Zoe just barely restrained herself from snagging one of the jiggly green cubes for herself. "That second phone call Raphael placed was from the payphone in front of that warehouse. It was a long shot, but it seemed like a pretty logical place for them to hide you."

Emma cocked her head. "Why?"

"Well," the darker woman considered how to answer. "Mario and his guys seem to want to bother me, get under my skin. My bet is they're using that warehouse as a base of operations sporadically between patrols, betting that it would drive me nuts that they're working spitting distance from the place I used to work."

"Does it?" came the muffled question around a spoonful of jello.

"Does it what?" Zoe asked, eyeing the jello jealously.

"Does it drive you nuts? And would you just have some jello already?!"

Zoe had the good grace to look sheepish, but snagged a cube as commanded. "Sorry, I didn't want to steal food from an injured person." She evaded a poke from a blunt hospital spork for the comment. "I guess it does bother me, a little. I don't like thinking they're so close to the precinct and no one's caught them yet. Anyway, I just had a feeling that's where you'd be." She shrugged.

"Well, thank you for coming to my rescue," Emma said, cheerfully finishing off her dinner.

*If it wasn't for me you wouldn't have needed rescuing*, the dark thought raced unbidden through Zoe's mind.

Emma saw her lover's expression falter and had guessed why, but resolved to have a long talk about it later. For now...

"Hey, can I ask a favor?" she asked.

"Anything," Zoe answered immediately.

"I could really use a backrub."

"Um, sure - can you sit up a bit?" Zoe pulled Emma carefully upright and away from the pillows. Emma bit her lip at the strain on her stitches, but was determined to loosen up both her back and her girlfriend.

After a few somewhat awkward moments spent jockeying for position on the small hospital bed, Zoe simply settled right alongside Emma and reached her long arms around her back to begin a gentle kneading pattern, targeting the distinct knots she found.

Emma instantly relaxed, letting her head drop forward onto Zoe's shoulder. She moaned a bit in pleasure as the lingering tension in her back relented under Zoe's sure touch. She turned her head a bit to nuzzle Zoe's neck, feeling the taller woman stiffen a bit in surprise as her hands stilled. Emma curled a hand around Zoe's ribcage, feeling the fabric of her shirt warm with their combined bodyheat.

"Emma," Zoe said hoarsely, beginning to pull her hands away from Emma's body.

"Zoe," the blonde moaned in response. "Please don't stop. Feels so good."

Zoe's hands dropped and clenched in the crisp hospital sheets. "I really don't think..."

"I sat in that building, knowing you were coming for me, and that's what kept me going. I just wanted to feel you touch me again." She let her hand wander up the taller woman's side, stroking gently. "Please?" she asked, letting her voice break with need.

Zoe pulled away slightly, looking deeply into the soft green eyes. "God, Emma," she whimpered, ducking her head to meet Emma's lips in a heated but gentle kiss.

The door to the room opened, and Emma's doctor took two steps in with her head buried in a chart, then she looked up and stopped dead as the women broke apart from their embrace. She coughed a little. "I swear, my roommate's going to be crushed," she said with a smile. "Ms. Frazier, I take it you're feeling better?"

"Much," Emma answered with an impish grin and a faint blush.

"Great. Go home. Take it easy, and don't tug out those stitches. Come back next week for a checkup. And don't scandalize the nurses on your way out, okay?" The doctor winked and slipped out.

Emma chuckled and met Zoe's sheepish gaze, aware that their blushes matched. "C'mon Winston, take me home."

Emma stubbornly made her way up the stairs to her apartment, taking the stairs slowly so as not to pull her stitches. Zoe followed impatiently, tempted to just pick up the blonde and carry her up the stairs. She refrained, noticing Emma's mood having grown more prickly as they neared her apartment.

Emma was annoyed because of the lingering stiffness left over in her gut, and the headache and blurred vision left over from her head wound, and because she'd felt exhausted as soon as she'd gotten wheeled out of the hospital to the cab. And though she didn't care to admit to it, she was also dreading the moment Zoe would give her some tylenol, pat her on the head, then take off, heading back to her own existence.

Of course, had she asked, she would have discovered that Zoe herself was dreading the moment when Emma asked her to leave; she simply didn't care to let the blonde out of her sight. So she trudged up the stairs, carrying the bag with Emma's washed clothes and an assortment of drugs the doctors had given her and hoped she could at least tuck her in.

Emma unlocked the door with a sigh and limped into her apartment, with Zoe close behind. Zoe flashed briefly back to the last time she'd been in this apartment a few days previous, after they'd spent the night together. The mere memory made her body tingle. She shivered and closed the apartment door behind her.

The blonde made her way straight to her bedroom, gingerly stripping off her clothes.

"Emma? You need some meds? Or like soup or anything?" Zoe called from the kitchen as she unpacked and arranged the prescription bottles on the counter.

"No, I'm just tired," Emma grumbled, then yelped as she twisted while removing her shirt, which sent alarming bolts of pain shooting from the knife wound all over her body.

Zoe was at her side in a moment. "You okay?" she asked, seeing the woman tangled in her shirt.

"No, goddammit. Ow!" the blonde answered, waiting for the pain to subside.

"Here," Zoe said mildly, gently pulling the shirt over Emma's head, then smoothing her ruffled hair back from her face. Her thumb brushed over the bandage on Emma's temple. "You sure you don't want any drugs? Drugs are goooood," Zoe coaxed, subtly admiring the woman in just her bra and sweatpants.

Emma couldn't even smile, she just turned stiffly to the bed. "No," she snapped, bending to turn down her covers, then hissing sharply when the pain struck again.

Zoe's hands were immediately steadying her, gently turning her around and settling her in the bed. "Sit tight, okay?" she said, hurrying back to the kitchen. She grabbed a couple pills and a glass of milk and returned to the bedroom, where Emma had her fists clenched in tense pain.

"Here, take these," Zoe said, relieved when Emma didn't protest. She sat there, stroking Emma's hair gently and murmuring meaningless soothing words, waiting for the drugs to kick in.

Slowly the tension in Emma's body relaxed, and she lay limp on the bed. Her eyes opened sluggishly and tracked over to Zoe, and her face lit up in a drunken smile.

"Feel better?" Zoe asked gently, still running her hand rhythmically over Emma's soft hair.

"Oh, yeah," Emma slurred, casting an adoring look up at the dark-haired woman. She gasped. "You are beautiful," she announced, as if surprised by the revelation.

Zoe laughed. "Must be good drugs."

The blond head shook a bit. "Not the drugs. You're gorgeous." A happy sigh. "You're my hero."

"Glad I'm someone's," Zoe's low voice rumbled ironically.

"No, seriously. You're so nice, and patient, and you take care of me..." Unaccountably, tears were welling up in the soft green eyes. "I love you," she murmured, then closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

The words jarred Zoe, and her hand hovered motionless over Emma's head. She couldn't have meant that. She's just drugged, is all. Meaningless. Just rambling. Yeah.

She tucked the covers tightly around Emma's small body, and bent to press a kiss to the blonde's forehead. "Sleep well, Emma," she whispered. And then, very quietly and deliberately: "I love you too."

Several hours later, she was sitting on Emma's couch, staring at a book but not really reading it. The apartment was mostly dark, with the errant light thrown in by a passing headlight.

After Emma had gone to sleep, Zoe had called her mother to let her know what had happened, knowing her mother was quite fond of her new friend. Carmen Winston stopped by sometime later with a large pot of her chicken soup, knowing from vast experience that it healed all ills.

Zoe left the pot to keep warm on the stove, and now the past few days were flying through her mind in a blur. She'd started out this week with a gun barrel in her mouth, wanting life to be over. And now she was falling in love.

She was quite convinced that the memory of Emma saying "I love you" was going to stay with her the rest of her days. Whether the sentiment was drug-induced or not, at the moment it was said it was honest and heartfelt. Someone loved her.

And perhaps more incredibly, she loved someone back. She'd had long hours of watching over Emma in that hospital bed to analyze her feelings, to try and quantify the intense emotion the blonde provoked deep inside, and by now it was painfully obvious.

Zoe had had a few relationships in her past, and only once previous had she gotten to the "big L word" with another person. Strangely enough, that person had been her best friend Lou, who she'd never even kissed. As kids they'd both assumed that a strong emotional connection like theirs could really only lead to a sexual relationship, when in fact they were both using the relationship to avoid uncovering their sexual identities.

Lou would laugh at her right now. He had totally predicted this would happen. Sometimes she hated that he knew her so well.

"Hey," came a sleepy voice over her shoulder.

Zoe started, slamming the book shut. Emma was standing behind here, still in her bra and sweats, rubbing her eyes.

"Hey," Zoe said, jumping off the couch. "How you doing?"

Emma smiled lopsidedly. "If I had a nickel for every time you've asked me that in the past two days, I'd be rich," she complained good-naturedly. "I'm okay. Sorry for being grumpy before."

"Don't worry about it," Zoe said instantly, not sure if she wanted Emma to remember their exchanged profession of love or not. "My mother brought over some soup for you, you want some?"

"Oh, definitely."

They shared a quiet dinner, then sat together on the couch, talking in low tones.

"So now the cops are looking for Raphael and crew?" Emma asked.

"Yeah, I told Walt everything about the case, now that the kiddo isn't in any danger. He's written up a report, and now the detectives are on it."

"Do you think that'll complicate things? They didn't want cops involved before."

Zoe shrugged. "They can bite me. I'm sick of playing by their rules." Emma smiled, then captured her hand and squeezed it gently. "Seriously, Emma. They came after you, so all bets are off." She drew Emma's hand upward to place a lingering kiss on her palm.

Emma's eyes darkened perceptibly as she gazed steadily at Zoe's blue eyes. *She loves me*, she thought in amazement, knowing Zoe thought she hadn't heard the quiet confession. "Would you mind staying with me tonight?" the blonde asked huskily.

"Not at all," Zoe responded. They spent the night curled warmly around each other in Emma's bed.

"You are an idiot. Winston cares about this investigator, and now you've risked turning her against us."

"You worry too much," the cajoling voice responded. "Little Emma Frazier is safe and sound with tall, dark, and moody, and soon you'll have what you want."

"You defied me."

A sigh. "Mario, you really need to relax."

He grabbed her biceps roughly and shoved her up against the nearest wall. "You will not defy me again!"

The blonde gave him a grim smile, completely unfazed by his hostility. "Seriously, this stress can't be good for you." Her arms were still mostly pinned, but she reached between them to unbuckle his belt and began to undo his fly. "I think I could help you... relieve... some of that tension." She leaned forward and snagged his lower lip with her teeth.

He growled and whirled, flinging her across the room onto the low couch in the corner. He finished undoing his pants and stepped over to her. "I bet you can," he answered, seeing her lick her lips in anticipation.

Zoe awoke the next morning to the sensation of a frustrated blonde nipping gently at her collarbone. Emma's hands were already wandering with purpose under her shirt.

"You're feeling better," Zoe laughed a bit, just before her lips were claimed in a searing kiss.

"Oh, yeah," Emma growled, shifting so that she was straddling the taller woman's hips. The movement drew only the slightest wince as the healing wound in her stomach twinged in protest. She bent to kiss Zoe again and got about halfway before the wound protested a bit more insistently, and she froze, hissing in pain.

Zoe instantly sat up, meeting Emma's lips and eventually pushing her back upright, gently cradling the small of her back as they leisurely bid each other good morning. In this position most of their bodies were pressed together, and they slowly moved with each other, increasing the contact.

Several long moments later they had to break apart for air, and Emma rested her forehead against Zoe's, curling her hands around her ribcage to secure her hold. "Hell of a way to wake up," Zoe murmured.

"It's about to get better," Emma countered, stealing another quick kiss.

Dark eyebrows shot up nearly to Zoe's hairline. "Oh, really?"

"You know that my stitches can't get wet?" the blonde panted, bending her head around to nibble on an inviting earlobe.

The warmth made Zoe's nerves fire in an entirely distracting way. "Yeah?" she ground out.

"You get to give me a sponge bath," Emma whispered. She heard Zoe's very audible gulp and smirked.

"I should really head back to my place and change my clothes soon," Zoe said a very long while later, as she contemplated which of Emma's clothes she was going to pilfer next.

"You could just walk around naked. I'd be fine with that," Emma answered blithely.

The dark head cocked a little as she studied Emma with some surprise. "Ya know, I was never expecting that you'd be this... forward."

Emma paused, blushing just a bit. "God, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come on so strong."

"No, no - I like it," Zoe said quickly, resting her forearms on Emma's shoulders. "It's a very pleasant surprise," she added.

The abashed green eyes peered up at her. "Well, I think you inspire it, Winston," she said wryly. "I meant what I said last night. You are beautiful."

Zoe's jaw clenched nervously. "You remember that, huh?"

"Yeah," came the whispered response.

"Do you remember anything else?" Zoe asked in a strained voice. Her heart was hammering so loudly that she was certain Emma would be able to hear it from across the room.

"Yeah," Emma answered again with a trembling smile, making an abrupt decision. "And I meant every word, Zoe. I do love you."

The taller woman felt her knees turn to water, undone by the profundity of it. She felt Emma's hands wind their way around her, and she dropped her head to the smaller woman's shoulder.

"God, Emma, I love you too," she rasped, feeling the arms squeeze around her convulsively as they embraced with almost fierce emotion. After she felt her shakiness subside, Zoe pulled away a bit to look into Emma's eyes. "This is so not what I expected to happen this week," she murmured.

Emma smiled and reached up to tangle a hand in Zoe's soft dark hair. "You mean you didn't intend to get pulled into some city-wide police conspiracy, save me muggers, reunite with your mother, save me from kidnappers, and fall in love along the way?" she joked.

The taller woman chuckled faintly. "I didn't expect to live long enough to see any of that stuff," she responded.

"What do you mean?"

Zoe sighed. "When I got that first phone call, I had my revolver in my mouth, ready to blow my head off," she answered grimly.

"You what?!" Emma jerked back in alarm.

"I was done, Emma. I had run out things to live for," Zoe explained, grinding the words out as she misread Emma's reaction as reprehension. "I had the note written and everything. That phone call saved my life."

"Oh, Zoe..."

"I've been living off my aunt's old inheritance since leaving the force, and I'd arranged with the bank for the remainder to be donated to cancer research," she was vaguely aware she was babbling, hoping to forestall Emma's inevitable response of disgust or pity.


"But instead I suddenly had a mission, and there was this kid in danger, and I had to save him, and forgot all about wanting to die. Then I met you, and all I could think about was wanting to live, to spend more time with you. A week ago, Emma, I had nothing, nothing to keep me going. Now I've got you, and my mother back, and my life back too..."

She was silenced as shaking hands fastened behind her neck and pulled her down into an insistent kiss. She responded instantly, wrapping her arms around the blonde and kissing her back for all she was worth.

"Zoe, I'm so sorry," Emma murmured, hugging her tight. "I'm sorry you thought you'd run out of reasons to keep living. But I am glad beyond measure that that phone call saved your life and brought you into mine."

"Me too," Zoe responded, noticing for the first time that her cheeks were wet with tears.

Emma chuckled a bit. "And here I was wondering how it was you were living with no income for all this time."

The taller woman smiled in response for a moment, then her face fell. "God, Emma, you're spending all this time on this case and we never talked about you getting paid, I'm so sorry."

"Nah, don't worry about it. My cases are kinda few and far between, but I make enough to survive between payoffs. Besides, you sitting there in my office, looking so damned gorgeous? If it'd come up, I would've agreed to do the work for free. And I'm not taking your money now, so just relax."

Zoe frowned in consternation. "I'll figure out a way to make it up to you, I promise."

"This isn't about money, Zoe," Emma answered. "Now it's personal. These people want something from the woman I love. I'm gonna figure out what that is, and I'm gonna stop them from hurting you."

Zoe laughed. "I also wasn't ever expecting you to be this protective."

"Or possessive?" Emma supplied helpfully.

"Yeah, that too."

"Mm. Well, you're mine, Winston. Those punks are just gonna have to stand in line." Emma followed the claim with a gentle kiss.

Zoe felt her natural self-prepossession rear a bit in protest, but Emma's lips soothed away the brief resentment. "I'm yours," she murmured between kisses, sealing the deal.

A week passed in relative peace. Zoe and Emma spent almost all their waking hours together, indulging hedonistically in their mutual attraction and adjusting to the growing friendship that had blossomed alongside. Emma's wounds were healing nicely, and she was due to have the stitches removed from her stomach in a few days.

And that meant it was time for Zoe to keep a promise.

"Is that tight enough?" Zoe asked, kneeling in front of Emma and tugging at the laces on her rented ice skates.

"How can I tell?" the blonde responded, eyeing the expanse of cold hard ice a little nervously.

"If it feels too tight? Then you know it's tight enough." Zoe yanked hard on the laces, causing Emma to yelp and bap her lightly on the head.

"Too tight, Winston," Emma whined.

The dark head lifted a bit, and Emma saw a distinct smirk. "Then it's perfect," Zoe responded, tying the laces securely.

The taller woman shifted to sit next to her and put on her own skates.

"I dunno if this is such a good idea," Emma said, watching as a small child pancaked hard on the ice and began to cry.

"I'll be right next to you the whole time," Zoe responded, pulling on her second skate. "Trust me. I won't let you fall."

"If you do, I'm taking you down with me," the blonde pouted. She dug the sharp heel of one skate into the rubber mat under the bench.

Zoe stood and found her balance easily on the metal blades. "C'mon, Frazier. Let's do this thing," she said, offering Emma her hand.

After a bit of wobbling, they made their way to the rink's edge. It was the middle of a school day, so there weren't many people on the ice. Zoe stepped out first, turning to steady Emma as she apprehensively scooted onto the ice, clinging to the wall.

"Okay, there's nothing to it," Zoe began. "You want to put your weight on the inside of the blade and push off, like this." She glided forward a few feet, then reversed neatly. "Don't try to skate with your toes, 'cause the toe pick at the front of the blade will trip you up. Just keep your feet angled outward and lean forward, then take a step."

Emma's brow scrunched in concentration, and she dutifully scuffed her skates along the wall toward her lover.

The taller woman flashed an affectionate grin. "It works better if you don't hold onto the wall, sweetheart."

"Well, dammit, I'm holding onto *something*," Emma growled in response.

"Okay, let's try this." Zoe swept directly in front of Emma, planting her hands on the smaller woman's hips. "Like we're dancing, right? Just follow my lead."

Emma extricated her grip from the wall, teetering a bit before planting her hands on Zoe's shoulders.

"Watch my feet," Zoe said, smiling at the top of the blonde head that was suddenly presented to her. "Try to match my steps." She pushed off gently with her left foot, then her right, gliding slowly backwards.

After a few steps, Emma joined in, and after a few more questionable moments they were moving easily around the rim of the rink. Zoe peered around and noticed a couple people looking askance at them, but for the most part they were ignored. "There you go, you're doing great," she murmured, smiling when the blonde head lifted and Emma grinned at her.

"This is fun," Emma declared.

"Toldya." Zoe subtly increased the power of her strides, notching up their speed a little. Emma deftly followed suit. They made a couple more laps in this fashion, until Zoe finally indicated they could stop and try something different.

"Okay, you've got the hang of it. Would you like to go solo for a while?" Zoe asked, admiring the flush the exertion and the chill air of the rink had brought to her lover's fair cheeks.

"Um..." The green eyes widened. "I guess so."

"I'll be right next to you, come on."

Hand in hand, they began to skate again, building up comfortable momentum before Zoe disengaged her hand and Emma was on her own.

After a brief moment of wobbly panic, Emma realized she was truly enjoying the sensation, gliding smoothly on the frictionless surface and feeling a breeze tug at her hair. She decided to experiment, pushing off harder with each stride until she was zipping around the rink, with Zoe keeping effortless pace alongside. She turned to her lover and laughed.

Zoe grinned back, then whipped around and maneuvered in front of Emma, skating along backwards to keep her eye on the blonde. It really was like they were dancing, Emma realized, keeping their movements in synch, hugging the curves of the rink without effort. Tendrils of dark hair blew into Zoe's face and toward Emma, beckoning her closer. She put on a sudden bust of speed and grabbed hold around Zoe's waist, laughing as the taller woman led them into a graceful spin that brought them to a halt at one end of the rink.

By now Emma was breathing a bit harder, her body not quite used to this kind of exertion, especially after her recent injury. Zoe smiled down at her, and ran her fingers through the long blonde hair to order it a bit and pull it away from Emma's face.

"Okay, you were right, this is fun," Emma said breathily.

"Yup. You wanna sit down for a bit? I'd like to see if I can remember some of the fancier stuff I used to do."

"Sure thing. I'll get us both some cocoa."

Emma settled in the bleachers next to the rink with her two cups of steaming cocoa, watching her lover stretch out near the side of the rink. She'd never seen Zoe deliberately show off her athleticism before, only the subtle displays of strength and dexterity that came in so handy when they were alone, or when Zoe was rescuing her from certain peril. But Zoe's body and her past hinted at some latent extraordinary skill, and Emma was looking forward to seeing it in action.

Zoe pushed out to the middle of the rink, reserved for the power skaters, the would-be Olympians and their coaches. Today it was empty, for which she was silently grateful. Her skills weren't exactly what they used to be, and if she went flying she didn't want to hurt any innocent bystanders.

She slid to a stop, looking up to unerringly locate Emma in the stands, who waved cheerfully at her. *This is pretty stupid*, she thought to herself, closing her eyes and trying to psych herself up. *You're just showing off for your girlfriend, and you're gonna make a fool out of yourself*.

But she pushed off anyway, making a few quick strides to build up momentum before executing a quick jump and 180-degree turn and landing solidly, now going backwards. Okay, so maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.

Emma sat mesmerized on the bleachers, watching her lover warm up slowly, feeling her heart leap to her throat everything Zoe's skates left the ice for some deft turn or jump. It was amazing, the sleekness and beauty of the moves, and she couldn't tear her eyes away.

Zoe was lost in the motion, feeling her heart rate accelerate as she worked into some more complicated moves, swinging into the air to execute a double loop before landing on one blade and sweeping her other leg out behind her, then starting a dizzying spin that left her breathless.

She wasn't the only one. At her rink-side perch, Emma felt her jaw drop, watching the awesome power and grace of the casual routine going on before her. She was starting to wonder if Zoe had ever thought about going pro.

Zoe wrapped up her impromptu routine, subtly pleased at her own performance. It hadn't been nearly as embarrassing as she'd feared. She made her way back to the rink entrance, startled when she suddenly found herself with an armful of cute blonde PI. "Hi," Zoe greeted her with a touch of wry amusement.

"Hi. That was..." Amazing. Powerful. Sexy. Beautiful. "That was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."

Zoe snorted, relieving the blonde of her promised cup of cocoa. "Not exactly Olympic material, Emma," she said, taking a sip.

Emma shook her head in disbelief. "I've never seen a human being do that in person, you know? On TV, it all seems kinda made up and special effect-y. Zoe, that was incredible."

Zoe laughed and wrapped an arm around Emma's shoulders, utterly charmed by her response. "Well, if it was incredible, it's only because I wanted to impress the gorgeous woman up in the bleachers watching me." She pulled her close to steal a quick kiss.

"Has your mother ever seen you skate?" Emma asked with sudden inspiration.

"Um, no, not that I remember. She always thought it was just a 'bunch of pointless going around in circles.'"

"Next time we do this we gotta bring her along," the blonde declared.

"Next time, huh?" Zoe grinned, sipping some more at her cocoa.

"Yeah, next time. Can we go out for another few laps?"


They spent the evening giving each other playful rubdowns, which then lead to a long bout of intimate exploration in front of Zoe's fireplace, a scorching combination of heat and slick friction that left them both breathless in its wake. Afterward they curled up in a blanket, peering together into the cheerful flames.

"Hey, Emma?" Zoe murmured into the pink ear conveniently next to her chin.

"Mmm?" Came the sleepy reply.

"Someday, could I read something you've written?"

The blonde head jerked in surprise. "What?"

"You know, one of your stories or poems or something?"

"Zoe, honey... I know I said I'd read some to you, but I've never really let anyone see that stuff before," Emma answered plaintively.

"Oh, okay." Zoe was a little disappointed, but she decided to let the subject drop.

But by now the small body in her arms was quite agitated. Emma squirmed around in the embrace to look Zoe directly in the eye. "Why would you want to read my stories?" she asked quietly.

The taller woman sighed, not sure of the answer to that question herself. "It's just... until today, I'd never deliberately shown someone how I can skate, never even really told anyone that I enjoy it. But I wanted to share that with you."

"And you were hoping I'd share something that personal about myself with you," Emma finished, finally understanding the magnitude of the risk her lover had taken that day and seeing the dark head nod a bit in acknowledgment.

"If it's not something you're comfortable with, I understand," Zoe said, somehow managing to do a perfect impression of a kicked puppy.

Emma pursed her lips, then snuggled a bit closer Zoe's body. "I'll dig through and find some of my best stuff in the morning. But you can't read it while I'm around, okay? That would drive me crazy."

The taller woman grinned, hugging her back. "You don't have to..."

"Yes, I do. You shared with me, now it's my turn. I didn't realize until just now what a big thing that was for you to do, Zoe. I do now, and I love you for it so much it hurts. Just... let me leave, go shopping, or whatever, first."

"Deal," Zoe murmured, kissing her soundly.

Emma left Zoe's apartment early the next morning, anxiously setting off to pick out some reading material for her lover. Zoe was still half asleep when the blonde hopped out of bed, kissing her quickly and saying she had "stuff to do." Zoe smirked and went back to sleep, amused by Emma's jumpiness. Had Emma stuck around, Zoe would have tried to explain that she herself had never been a particularly verbal person, so people who had the ability to express themselves in writing automatically impressed her, and therefore Emma had nothing at all to worry about.

Later that morning while Zoe was padding around in her kitchen waiting for Emma and trying to decide what to eat, she heard the blonde's distinctive light footsteps in the hall outside her door. Instead of a knock, there was the rather odd sound of a very full envelope being wedged under her door, and the footsteps scurried away again.

Zoe smiled and immediately went to the door, picking up the envelope and seeing the note attached to its front:

**Sorry to be nervous and lame about this. Give me a call when you're done.

Love, E.**

She vaulted over the back of the couch, settling in and tearing into the envelope.

Inside she found a pile of notebook paper, a few typed sheets, and a lot of notes Emma had written to herself along the way. It was fascinating and oddly intimate work, picking through her lover's creative expressions. There were, predictably, a lot of love poems that charmed her with their poignancy, but she was most captured by the underlying loneliness, the unspoken desire to actually experience that which she wrote about.

Most of the writing was dated from Emma's college days. There was a definite break in tone between older work and newer, which Zoe guessed was due to her lover coming out to her parents, and the unexpected trauma that wrought. Zoe smiled sadly, hurting for this Emma she never knew, this woman who wanted so much just to share with someone the profound love she held inside.

The last page was dated that very morning. Zoe very carefully set aside the rest of the pile and held the verse aloft with trembling fingers.

**We were each once told that there is One for whom you would fight and live and die, that back to back you would discover your Truths together. This is how a soul mates: once, for life, to a single companion in the wild sky.

All hope rests in the knowledge that we live but once, fearing the darkness, but eventually clasp hands with another, to lead and be led by turns toward the coming dawn.

Trust only one, and fear none, for the Truth is out there, waiting for us both.**

"Soulmates, huh?" Zoe murmured, reading the passage over again. She felt her eyes misting as she read and reread the words she knew had been crafted solely for her benefit.

She carefully replaced the notes back into the envelope, and picked up her phone, dialing Emma's phone number with slow, deliberate motions, knowing she had to talk to her lover, but not at all sure at what she would say.

Emma picked up on the first ring. "Hey," she said, clearly anticipating the call.

"Hey," Zoe answered hesitantly.

"So. What did you think?" Emma was biting her lip, not at all sure what reaction to expect from her lover.

"You believe in soulmates, huh?" Zoe asked quietly.

"Yeah, I do," came the sure response. "Do you?"

"I don't think I did until today."

Emma's breath caught, and she paused to savor the sweetness of that statement. "Yeah?" she said, her voice cracking just a bit.

"Emma, you have such a gift, thank you for sharing it with me."

"Aw, thanks." Her blush was even apparent over the phone.

Zoe hesitated, not quite sure how to express what she was feeling, or even if it matched what she thought Emma's feelings were, based on that last poem. "Listen. Can I ask you something?"

"Anything," Emma answered.

"No, wait. Actually, I take that back."

"Okay." Zoe could very clearly picture Emma's pensive brow at that moment as she tried to figure out what Zoe was talking about.

Zoe sighed heavily, covering her eyes with her hand. "God, I'm so in love with you, Emma," she whispered, hearing the faint catch in the breathing coming from the other end of the phone line. "You said, in one of your poems, something about the rest of your days. Do you..." She paused, inhaling loudly. "Do you really want that? Maybe with me?"

"Yeah, I really do. And definitely with you," Emma responded, unable at this point to prevent the tears from streaming down her face. At least, I think so, her brain appended silently.

"My whole life, I thought the whole 'til death do us part' thing was just for other people, you know? I never thought it'd be something I'd be offered, something I'd even want." Zoe was babbling and she knew it, but couldn't stop. "I feel like such an idiot, like I barely know you, but I can't stand the thought of being without you, Emma." She laughed at herself. "God, listen to me, I'm practically proposing over the phone."

Emma laughed a little too. "That's okay, 'cause I think I'm accepting."

For a while they were quiet, simply sharing the sweetness. Then Zoe said, "You know, I could use a hug right now."

Emma laughed again, wiping at her eyes. "I'll meet you halfway, Winston."

Sergeant Jervis was pissed off. He'd been assigned desk duty for disciplinary action, something that was reserved for green cadets who couldn't tell their ass from a hole in the ground. He'd been on the force for eighteen years, and he deserved better. Stupid paperwork screw-up anyway, it wasn't his fault that gang banger slimeball accidentally got released before his arraignment.

He slurped at his terrible coffee and stared resentfully at the clock. Another week of this crap. After the years he'd given this place, he deserved better, dammit.

A large man walked in with a long black leather coat sweeping dramatically behind him, surveying the lobby as if looking to make a purchase. He walked directly up to the desk, smiling in an oozingly charming way that made Jervis want to throw his coffee at him.

"Can I help you?" Jervis asked, in the most patently unhelpful of tones.

The man leaned down a bit, placing his palms flat on the desk surface. "Probably. My name is Raphael Alexander. I understand you've been looking for me?"

It was snowing, the first real snowfall of the season, and the sidewalks were slick with it as Zoe pelted down them, charging headlong toward the woman who was her heart, soul, past and future all in one.

She was running so fast that she didn't notice that Emma was hurrying along the other side of the street. Fortunately the blonde caught sight of Zoe as she flew by, and she laughed before calling out to get her attention. "Zoe!"

Zoe's head jerked around to locate the source of the summons, and she missed seeing the large icy patch directly in front of her on the sidewalk. She slipped almost violently, careening down onto the hard concrete with an undignified thud. She screwed her eyes shut and groaned a bit before her muscles relaxed and her limbs fell at her sides.

"Zoe?" came the voice again, this time quite alarmed. Emma hurriedly crossed the street and knelt at Zoe's side, laying a gentle hand on the cold-burnished cheek. "Zoe?" she asked again.

"Hi," Zoe responded, intending to keep her eyes shut but completely unable to restrain the urge to see her lover's soft green eyes. She grinned a bit, and could feel the wetness from the sidewalk begin to seep through her hair to chill her scalp.

"Are you okay?" Emma inquired, casting her gaze over Zoe's body to do a visual inventory.

"Do you still love me?" Zoe asked.

The blonde frowned a bit in confusion. "Of course I still love you," she answered breathily.

"Then I am immeasurably better than 'okay,'" Zoe answered with a twinkle. "And my ass will probably make a full recovery too."

Emma made a sound halfway between a laugh and a sigh, helping to pull the taller woman to a sitting position.

"Ow," Zoe said gingerly, reaching behind her to brush slush and bits of sidewalk debris off her back. Emma gently helped and raked her fingers through her lover's dark hair to pull out some of the windblown tangles. Then she leaned backward a bit to see Zoe's face, which bore a wry self-deprecating smile. "Hell of a way to get around to professing undying love, huh?"

"Well, hey -- it got me on bended knee," Emma responded, looking down at herself with a nervous grin.

A sigh, which turned vapor in the chill air. "This is all pretty crazy, isn't it?"

"Yup," the blonde agreed gravely. "But I love you," she said, almost as it trying to convince herself of that very fact.

"I love you, Emma," came the unfaltering response.

"Didn't you say something about a hug?"

"Yeah. I should probably get up first."


They stayed there on the sidewalk for several seconds, staring into each other's eyes and not showing the slightest inclination to move. Finally, Zoe broke the stalemate and bent forward, letting Emma help pull her upright and groaning just a bit.

"Okay, that's gonna bruise," she said, straightening to her full height with a wince.

"I'll kiss it and make it better," Emma answered, industriously brushing off Zoe's clothes.

Zoe captured her lover's wandering hands, looking down at the blonde woman with a fathomless expression. "C'mere," she murmured, folding her arms around Emma's shoulders and pulling her close.

Emma immediately complied, returning the embrace with a force that stole the air from the taller woman's lungs, even though her light brow was furrowed with some unspoken worry.

"Alexander? Never heard of you," Jervis muttered, eyeing the man leaning on the desk with resentment.

The man's face twisted into an evil version of a smile. "Trust me. Someone here wants to talk to me."

Jervis heaved out a coffee-tainted long-suffering sigh. "Fine. Siddown." He jerked a hand at a set of chairs against the far wall and pushed himself out of his chair, muttering under his breath as he went to find one of the detectives.

Alexander settled himself into a chair with a flourish and a small smirk.

"That's an awfully goofy grin," Emma observed as she ducked into the kitchen to investigate possibilities for dinner.

Zoe could hardly argue. She trailed her lover playfully, bumping into her at intervals and generally acting like a big kid.

Emma bumped her back with a snort. "You're practically giddy." She turned and buried her head in the fridge. "God, you'd think we were planning a commitment ceremony or something."

The answering silence spoke volumes. Emma nearly smacked her head into the freezer door as she jerked upright to look at her lover. "You were, weren't you?"

The taller woman flinched. "I was thinking about it..." She misread the mildly panicked look from her lover as one of blank disinterest. "Yeah. Never mind. Sorry," Zoe stammered. She turned and left the kitchen.

"Zoe, wait," Emma said quickly, slamming the refrigerator shut and following the taller woman into the living room. She scooted in front of Zoe, trying to capture the hooded gaze. "Zoe..."

"Just forget it, okay?"

"No, now hang on. I just wasn't really expecting that you'd go in for all the usual trimmings, you know?" She wrapped her hands around Zoe's wrists and chafed the exposed skin a bit. "I'm sorry."

Zoe tilted her head a bit and blew out a sigh. "I don't know why I'm being so weird about this."

"'Cause you're in love and you want people to know it." Emma squeezed her hands onto her lover's. "It's very cute."

Zoe woman winced automatically, even as she smiled. "Don't use the 'c' word," she mumbled, daring again to meet Emma's eyes. They shone up at her with compassion and love, though she missed the mild touch of apprehension. Zoe breathed in relief, reassured she hadn't made a horrible mistake after all.

"So, Alexander, let me guess. You had a sudden attack of conscience and just *had* to turn yourself in?" Detective Leonard asked, sitting across the table from the large man and folding his arms in obvious disbelief.

"You have no idea what's going on here," Raphael responded darkly. "This is larger than you've imagined."

"Oh, good. Cryptic gibberish. I'm so glad I skipped dinner for this."

"You are an idiot," Raphael declared, leaning forward over the table. "This city is under attack, and you don't even know it."

"Bet a little kid grabber like you is gonna have a good time upstate."

Raphael leaned back in his chair and exhaled loudly, favoring the detective with a condescending glare. "Is there any one of you who actually has two braincells to rub together?"

Leonard stood impatiently. "I'll see who I can find," he muttered, pushing his chair hard into the table and stalking out of the room.

Raphael folded his hands and rested them on the table, the pose of a man utterly untroubled by the world.

Outside, Captain Denise Moreland stared hard through the one-way mirror that viewed into the interrogation room. "What a nutjob, huh?" Leonard asked his boss, jerking his head toward the mirror.

"I don't know," Moreland murmured, clearly distracted. "Get Gerard over here, maybe he can help."

"So you really liked my writing?" Emma asked, curled up in Zoe's arms after having thoroughly tended to her bruised posterior as promised.

"Mmm, yeah. The poems especially. Beautiful," the taller woman responded through a yawn, stretching lazily around her lover.

"You know, I almost feel like I should go find your mother and ask for your hand."

Zoe chuckled and buried her nose in soft blonde hair. "I bet she'd like that." She closed her eyes, letting herself doze off, overwhelmed by the bliss of the moment.

Emma felt the breathing next to her deepen, and she sat up, looking down at her lover's face. This was all pretty much insane, wasn't it? They'd only known each other for two weeks. Granted, it was the most intense fortnight of her life...

She sighed. What was wrong with her? Zoe was smart, and beautiful, and funny, and extraordinarily giving and kind in her own adorably gruff way. She definitely loved this woman, definitely felt wonderful with her, and they were definitely compatible in so many ways.

Truth be told, Zoe's utter and immediate willingness to commit made her a little nervous. Not that the sentiment wasn't appreciated or returned on Emma's part, but that a woman who was otherwise so slow and careful to open up would be suddenly talking about getting married? She had anticipated some reticence, some hesitancy, some caution. Instead they were practically on a plane to Vermont for a civil ceremony.

Then again, wasn't that what Emma had intended when she'd left those poems earlier that day? Didn't she want to talk about forever? She sighed again, frustrated with herself. This woman asleep before her was everything she'd ever thought she'd wanted in a companion, in a romance, in a lifelong relationship, and far more. But all of a sudden she couldn't figure out what she wanted at all. She carefully disentangled herself from Zoe's sleepy embrace and padded out of the bedroom, pulling on her clothes. After jotting down a quick note in case her lover awoke, she slipped out of the apartment and closed the door quietly behind her.

Walt greeted Denise Moreland cordially. "What's up, Captain?"

"Heard you've been doing some extracurricular research on this guy," she answered, jerking a thumb at Alexander in the interrogation room.

"Holy shit - you found him?"

"He found us. Just walked in and said he heard we'd been wanting to talk with him. Do you know what his malfunction is? He keeps talking apocalyptic weird shit that none of us can make heads or tails of."

"I dunno, but I can talk to him if you want," Walt offered, pulling off his coat.

"Yeah, you do that. Then translate for the rest of us mere mortals, okay?"

Walt grinned, loosened his tie, and strode into the small room. He pulled the chair away from the table, spun it on one leg to face backwards and straddled it, folding his arms over the back.

"Finally," Raphael purred, leaning toward Walt. "The High Priestess himself."

Walt was caught off-guard by his use of the nickname, but carefully schooled his expression to hide it. "Finally," he said in droll response. "Mario Durrand's lackey."

Raphael's expression hardened. "Be cautious, Detective."

"You came here to spread some doomsday garbage about your boss? Spill it already, Alexander, I got places to be."

Raphael didn't answer, but glared daggers at Walt.

"Mario Durrand - he is your boss, right? C'mon, man, you wanted to talk to someone with a clue. Here I am. Talk."

"I don't work for Mario."

"You don't? You just hang out with him and take orders from him?" Though appearing quite oblivious, Walt was watching the larger man carefully, aware his questions were baiting him in a potentially very dangerous way.

"I do not work for Mario," Raphael repeated, in a menacing growl that erupted from his barrel chest. His large hands flexed in tight fists on the table.

"All right, who do you work for?"

"No one. I serve my own purposes."

"And those just happen to line up with Durrand's?"

"We have a common vision."

"Vision, huh? Great." Walt picked idly at a scratch mark on the desk, appearing for all the world to be supremely uninterested. "So was grabbing the kid your 'vision' or his?"

"His. And I did not kidnap that child."

Walt blinked, feeling the sincerity in that statement with some surprise. "And stalking Zoe Winston?"


"So which part of this 'vision' here is yours, exactly?"

"Again I advise you to be careful, Mr. Gerard," Raphael rumbled, his brow furrowing with evident anger and frustration.

"Am I supposed to impressed that you know who I am?"

There was no response, merely loud, tense breathing as Raphael clearly struggled to rein in his temper.

Walt paused, and met Raphael's eyes for the first time since entering the room. "The kid was just an attention-getter, wasn't he?"


"Why'd you bring him back?"

"I never had intention to harm an innocent."

Walt thought about that for a long moment. "It was your idea to return him, not Durrand's."

Raphael tilted his head a little in acknowledgment. "Mario would have rather dumped the kid in a river."

"Probably pissed him off when you brought him back, huh?"

"That it did," the large man answered, cracking a genuine smile for the first time.

Walt nodded, congratulating himself on establishing some rapport with the suspect, though acknowledging his own growing confusion about Alexander's motivations. "So what is it you came here to say?"

"Maybe I didn't have anything to say. Maybe I just wanted to be... somewhere else... for a few days while you figured out how to charge me with kidnapping."

"Wait. You want *asylum*?" Walt asked in disbelief.

"Quite possibly."

Walt leaned back heavily in his chair. "So your 'vision' diverged from Durrand's?"

The suspect didn't respond, nor did Walt really expect him to.

"What does he want with Zoe?"

"Ms. Winston is a means to an end. A tool to help him accomplish his goals."

"Which are?"

Raphael flashed a lazy grin. "What every embittered egomaniac wants. Power, money, and the complete and utter destruction of every person standing in his way."

"He's gonna take down the entire city," Walt breathed.

"Quite possibly," Raphael replied smugly.

When Zoe awoke, Emma was sitting on the rocking chair across the room, watching her. The taller woman sat up, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. "Hey, what's up? Come back to bed."

Emma swallowed hard and looked down at her hands.

"Emma?" Zoe asked, squinting at her lover. "You okay?"

The blonde's jaw worked tensely, but she didn't answer. She clenched her hands together a bit more tightly. Zoe pushed herself out of the bed, taking a few steps and kneeling in front of Emma. She could feel the lingering cold rolling off of the blonde's clothes, evidence she'd been outside recently. She could also detect the odor of alcohol mixed with her lover's regular scent. What the hell had happened while she'd been asleep?

"Emma, what's wrong? Please talk to me."

"I don't think I can do this," Emma finally choked out. Her hands worked in jerky, nervous motions.

Had Zoe not been half-asleep, she would have gone from zero to completely pissed in nothing flat. "'This?'" she asked in confusion. "As in us?" On the blonde's pitiful nod, she rocked backward on her heels. "So what was everything today? You didn't mean it?"

"No," Emma murmured.

Zoe reeled from the sting of that soft syllable. "I don't buy that."

The blonde flinched a bit from the hurt evident in Zoe's voice, and she continued to stare down at her hands, unwilling to see the hurt she'd caused in those clear blue eyes. "Well, I'm sorry."

Zoe was still too muzzy-headed from sleep to summon actual anger, so she stayed mired in hurt confusion. She studied the figure sitting before her, which looked even smaller than usual huddled up in the rocking chair. Emma was literally curled into herself, her feet tucked underneath her, her head ducked almost fetally. She had the exact posture of someone expecting to be hit.

*She's terrified* Zoe suddenly realized, and her building upset of mere seconds before dissipated like vapor in a breeze.

"Where did you go tonight?" she asked, deliberately quieting her tone.

"Some bar."

"Why?" Zoe pressed, lowering her voice to a bare whisper.

"I dunno."

"Well, why'd you come back?"

"I wanted to tell you about my decision. You deserved to hear it in person."

Zoe knelt in front of Emma again, careful not to actually touch her and risk watching her rabbit her way out of reach. "Stuff happened pretty fast today." Emma nodded a bit to indicate her agreement. "I wish you would have told me you were scared."

"I'm not," Emma erupted, jerking her head up, then immediately stopping and looking back down at her hands. "I'm not scared," she murmured.

"I am. I'm terrified," Zoe admitted, leaning a bit closer but still not touching her. "I've never felt for anyone what I feel for you. I think it's making me do some crazy stuff, like talk about getting married of all things without even bothering to find out how you might feel about that." She sighed. "I'm sorry for pushing you."

The blonde sighed and squeezed her eyes shut tight. "You weren't pushing, anymore than I was. I was just... Everything has been so intense, you know? I don't feel like there's any moderation in anything I do or feel with you."

"If you really want, you can stop it right here, and walk away. I won't fight you. I want you to be happy, Emma. I just thought maybe I could be the person you could be happy with."

"I am happy with you. I just... Damn it, I don't know. I just don't understand what's going on with me," she answered plaintively.

Zoe frowned, quite deeply at sea and unable to guess which direction would get them both back to shore. "I don't know either. I don't know how to help you."

"Tell me you love me," Emma whispered desperately.

"I do. I swear I do," Zoe responded with fierce intensity.

The blonde exhaled raggedly and slumped even further down in the chair. She was willing herself to simply believe in her lover and trust that everything would work out. "Zoe?"


"I think I'm gonna throw up."

"All right, Gerard. Who the hell is Mario Durrand, and why does his name sound so familiar?"

Walt, Captain Moreland, Detective Leonard, and three other investigators were crammed into the Captain's small office, waiting for Walt's report.

"He was in county IA for four years, got nailed on racketeering charges about a year ago," Walt answered the Captain's question after settling himself in a chair.

"Ex Internal Affairs investigator starts kidnapping kids? Talk about your PR nightmare," Leonard muttered, shaking his head.

Walt nodded his agreement. "He got sent upstate..."

"Where he met Alexander," Moreland interjected.

"Right, and a woman named Julianne Maxwell, who was doing a stint there as a prisoner's advocate. I think she's the one who abducted both Michael Harrington and Emma Frazier," Walt concluded.

"So you think this Alexander guy's telling the truth? That he didn't grab the kid?" Moreland asked Walt.


"Baloney, that guy's dirtier than a used rubber," Leonard spluttered.

Walt shook his head. "Maybe, but I don't think he had anything to do with either kidnapping."

"Your gut feeling isn't enough to get the guy out of here," Moreland countered.

"That's fine - you heard him, he doesn't want to go anywhere right now. Durrand can't get to him in here."

The captain took a deep breath, considering Walt's insight. "Okay, so he goes upstate, gets released early for good behavior. He comes back here, grabs a kid, and uses the kid to target an ex-cop... for what?"

"I don't know," Walt responded. "I don't think Zoe recognized Durrand from the photos I pulled, but maybe she remembers his name from something she worked on."

"Get her down here, let's figure this damn thing out," the captain pronounced.

"Uggghhh," Emma groaned, sitting slumped against Zoe's bathtub.

"You okay?" Zoe asked, entering the room with a glass of fizzing liquid.

"Put me out of my misery," the blonde uttered painfully, tilting her head back to thunk heavily into the wall.

"Here, drink some of this, it should help settle your stomach." The taller woman knelt at Emma's side, handing her the glass of ginger ale and rubbing the blonde's back gently.

Emma meekly obeyed, sipping at the blessedly cold liquid. "I'm so sorry about the bed, Zoe."

"Eh, this is what washing machines are for," Zoe responded with a faint smile.

"Ugh. Now you know why I don't ever drink," Emma murmured, beginning to feel just the slightest bit better as the ginger ale settled in her gut and soothed her queasy stomach.

"Definitely something to keep in mind," the dark haired woman murmured wryly, still rubbing her lover's back. "You look pretty beat, you want to get some sleep?"

"After what I've put you through today? You should just throw me out of here," Emma retorted, downing the last of her ginger ale.

"Sorry, Frazier, not much chance of that. Come here." Zoe reached around the blonde and lifted her gently, careful not to jostle her already tender insides. She strode out of the bathroom and set Emma down on the freshly-changed sheets, tucking her in with wry affection.

"I do love you," Emma murmured, already half asleep.

Zoe sighed, then leaned in to place a kiss on the blonde's forehead. "If this ain't love, I don't know what is," she agreed quietly as her lover drifted off to sleep. She moved back to the bathroom, cleaning up the remainder of the mess, then left a trash can on Emma's side of the bed just in case. She settled in on the other side of the bed, smiling when the blonde scooted closer in her sleep, seeking Zoe's warmth. The dark haired woman was still quite frustrated and confused by the events of the evening, not to mention exhausted and a bit queasy in sympathy with Emma's illness. She decided to focus on the fact that despite all that, her feelings for this woman warmed her heart like nothing else ever had.

She had relaxed to the point of nearly falling asleep when the phone rang. It was Walt, summoning her down to the stationhouse.

"You look like shit," Walt said, pouring his old friend a cup of coffee.

"Gee, thanks," Zoe responded wryly. "It's been a rough night," she added. "So what's all this about?"

"Ever hear of an IA investigator named Mario Durrand?"

"Nope," Zoe answered, taking a bracing gulp of the strong coffee. She paused as the connection dawned on her. "Mario... Wait a minute. You're telling me that the guy currently in charge of fucking with my life is in Internal Affairs?"

"*Was* in Internal Affairs," Walt responded, smirking unaccountably at the obscenity. "He got busted and mailed upstate about a year ago. Then he came back and decided to fuck with your life."

"What the hell would he want with me?"

"We were hoping you knew."

"Dammit, Walt, I have no idea," Zoe answered with evident frustration. She thought for a long moment. "Alexander said the stuff that happened a few months back was 'inconvenient' to whatever grand schemes they had going, so maybe Durrand had more to do with that bust than we're considering."

"Maybe," Walt acknowledged.

They fell silent for a bit, both digesting this information.

"So how's Emma?" Walt ventured, kicking at Zoe's shoe teasingly. "I was expecting to see her with you."

Zoe managed a grim smile. "She got pretty sick tonight, so she's home sleeping it off."

"'Home,' huh?" the detective teased, waggling his eyebrows.

She sighed. "Figure of speech, Walt."

"Okay, okay. So is everything going all right?" Seeing Zoe's rumpled appearance, somehow he anticipated that the answer would be less than positive.

"I don't know," Zoe answered. "We're... I just don't know."

"You're pretty gone on her though, arentchya?"

"Yeah," she said, ducking her a head a bit in embarrassment.

"Seemed like she was pretty gone right back on you," he pressed.

"Things got complicated, Walt. I think I may have screwed it all up by moving too fast, you know?"

"So she had to lean out the side of the car and puke her guts out?" Walt postulated, grinning at Zoe's sickened wince. "I bet it doesn't change how she feels though, Z. Give it some time, I bet you'll both decide the ride's going just fast enough." He patted her on the shoulder and lead her out of the station, promising to call her if any more information about Durrand's crew came to his attention.

Emma was still fast asleep when Zoe returned, and the dark haired woman gratefully stripped and fell into bed next to her. The blonde murmured indistinctly and wrapped a warm hand around Zoe's arm. Zoe turned to curl closer to the soft body next to hers, inhaling the clean scent of Emma's inviting hair. She fell into a peaceful sleep in mere moments.

Several hours later Emma awoke to find herself virtually wrapped in Zoe's long limbs, and she squiggled a bit closer to savor the sensation. Despite her misgivings of the night before, she realized in this moment that absolutely nothing could dispel the intense longing she had for this woman. It was almost a physical addiction, the burning of skin on skin that somehow communicated directly to her heart. In the light of day her fears seemed ungrounded and selfish, and her heart sunk with the guilt of it.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, sinking helplessly into the warmth of Zoe's sleepy embrace.

"For what?" she heard in answer. Emma lifted her head to see blurred blue eyes peering down at her.

"For being such a pain. You deserve better than my stupid insecurities."

"Well, my stupid insecurities were what prompted this whole mess in the first place. So relax," Zoe murmured, taking the opportunity to press a full-body hug around her companion.

It took Emma's breath away in an entirely pleasant and distracting way. "And I'm sorry for getting sick all over you."

"I would prefer not to repeat that particular experience anytime soon." They grinned at each other and settled comfortably in the mutual embrace. "Listen, please don't ever feel that you can't tell me important stuff like being freaked out or whatever," Zoe continued. "The only reason I said the stuff I said was because I... I've never had *this*, you know?" She waved a hand in the air to gesture a bit between the two of them. "I've never had what we have. I guess the intensity just kinda threw me for a loop. I wanted to make sure you'd never leave me behind."

It might have been the longest string of words she'd heard Zoe put together at any one time. Emma took a deep breath, fighting her sudden tears. "I understand, Zoe, I really do. I don't want to leave you behind, ever. I just freaked a bit, is all. But that doesn't mean I don't want to stop seeing you, or being with you, or that I don't still love you. Please believe that."

"I do," Zoe said, nodding a bit against the blonde hair. "You gotta tell me if I ever push anything too fast on you ever again, though."


They lay in companionable silence after that, though Emma still felt a bit of tension in her lover and ached to soothe it away. Even if it meant just surrendering to the faith that they'd get to the same place at the same time.

"You're always taking care of me," she murmured, as if just having a revelation. She was tracing faint patterns on the skin of Zoe's exposed ribcage.

"Hmm?" Zoe slurred in somnolent peace.

"Nothing, go back to sleep," Emma answered, keeping up the motions of her hand until Zoe's breathing evened and deepened into quiet slumber.

Then she pulled out of the taller woman's embrace to study her own realization. Since the day they'd met, Zoe was constantly throwing herself into unpleasant or potentially dangerous situations for Emma's sake. She fought off muggers, she came charging to the rescue after Emma was kidnapped, she helped Emma recover from that trauma, and she patiently took care of Emma during the rough hours of the previous night while she'd fought both rampant relationship insecurity and alcohol-induced nausea. Zoe was an amazing friend, not just an amazing lover. Emma nearly slapped herself, feeling her remaining nervousness abruptly fade. "You just don't give up someone who has seen you at your absolute worst and still loves you," she declared, gazing at her lover with gentle affection. "Especially not when she's so damn gorgeous." She laughed at herself, and silently promised to make it up to Zoe, every day for the rest of her life.

When Zoe awoke again, she was alone, but could detect the scent of coffee and cinnamon luring her into consciousness. She pulled herself upright and out of bed, stumbling out of the bedroom to discover breakfast laid out on her dining room table. Emma was busily snapping neat folds into the freshly washed sheets from the night before.

"Hey you," Emma grinned, tiptoeing up to her lover to plant a good morning kiss on her lips.

"Hey," Zoe responded, squinting a bit in confusion. "How are you feeling?"

"Damn near perfect," the blonde responded, turning back to her laundry tasks.

The taller woman watched her briefly in bemusement, wondering if the events of the previous night were perhaps just a fevered dream. She shrugged a bit and sat down to the breakfast Emma had prepared. She bit into a piece of cinnamon toast almost blissfully.

"Mm. This is really really good," she mumbled, stuffing her face happily.

Emma finished her folding and flashed her lover a sunny grin. "I wanted to thank you for putting up with me last night."

*Not a dream after all*, Zoe mused. "Freely given, Emma. Please know that."

"I do," she acknowledged with a duck of her blonde head. "I just realized I'm not holding my end of this relationship up too well here. So I'm asking you to please forgive me for that, and let me work on doing better."

Zoe pushed herself upright, walking away from the table to approach Emma. "There's nothing to forgive," she said quietly, resting her hands on either side of Emma's soft face. "This has all been rushed and pretty unreal for both of us. Now we'll take it slow and steady, so neither of us gets left behind -- I'm totally okay with that. I want us to get there together."

Emma smiled broadly, feeling tears well up in her eyes. "I love you, Zoe," she whispered.

"I love you too," Zoe responded, leaning down to kiss her.

It started out gently, but grew more heated as Emma returned for a better taste of the cinnamon and sweet butter from her lover's lips. Her hands roamed up underneath Zoe's t-shirt, hovering warmly over her ribs. Finally Zoe broke it off, propping her forehead against Emma's and catching her breath.

"Amazing, how quickly you can make me abandon any thoughts of 'slow and steady,'" Zoe murmured.

Emma chuckled in response. "Slow and what?"

They stood together for a bit, simply enjoying their mutual contact and warmth.

"Wait, I forgot to tell you," Zoe said suddenly. "Raphael Alexander turned himself in last night. Walt called me down to the station to ask me a few questions."

*Talk about your mood killer*, Emma mused. "Turned himself in? So, what, it's all over now?"

"No, I think it just got more complicated, actually." Zoe sat down on her couch, pulling Emma with her to perch comfortably on her lap. "Alexander wasn't the brains of the operation, he was just the visible henchman. It's his boss, Mario Durrand - he's the guy we gotta worry about."

*We*. Emma savored the offhand reference to their partnership. "So why'd Alexander turn himself in?"

"I think he's playing the system. He sells out his boss, then hides out in a cell for a bit while the cops all investigate. And if his story holds up, they'll release him on lack of evidence or he'll cut a deal with the DA, and he'll walk out the door right about when they put Durrand away."

"But he was harassing you," Emma pointed out. "You've already pressed charges."

Zoe pursed her lips, clearly already having considered that. "Yeah... I'm not real sure what the DA will offer him. He might catch full immunity from any charges even peripherally related to this entire thing." She shrugged. "I'm not too worried about him, really. He's just not that smart. If he ever came after me again I can handle that."

"But Durrand..." Emma trailed off.

A nod of the dark head. "Yeah, Durrand's a bigger fish. He used to work in Internal Affairs for the county."

"He was a cop?"

"Not just any cop, but a cop in charge of digging up other cops' dirty laundry." Zoe yawned. "Speaking of, thanks for washing the sheets."

Emma grinned, using her position fully on top of the taller woman to her advantage and squeezing her hard in a hug. "You're welcome."

The phone rang, and the cordless receiver was conveniently sitting next to the couch where they were curled up together. Emma impishly got in Zoe's way and picked up the phone to answer. "Hello?"

"Um, hi," a deep male voice responded cautiously. "Is Zoe there?"

"Sure thing." Emma cheerfully handed the phone off to her lover. "It's for you," she commented seriously.

Zoe rolled her eyes and took the receiver. "Yeah?"


"Lou! I was meaning to call you soon. How are you?"

"Not bad at all," her friend's rakish grin was evident even over the phone. "So who's your ladyfriend answering the phone? Would that be... oh, I don't know, I'll pick a name at random here..."

"It's Emma," Zoe interrupted smoothly, meeting the somewhat quizzical look from her lover with a sheepish smile.

"Ha! I knew it!" Lou chortled, loud enough even for Emma to hear through the phone. "I'm so doing a happy dance for you right now."

Zoe laughed, trying to be irritated with her old friend and failing miserably. "Thanks, Lou."

"So let me talk to her?"

Uh oh. That could be dangerous . "Um, I dunno about that, Lou."

Emma had been eavesdropping intently, and at Lou's suggestion, whisked the phone away from her lover. "Hey Lou. Zoe's told me a lot about you." She flashed Zoe a mischievous grin and pushed her long hair to rest comfortably over one ear.

"Likewise, Emma," Lou crowed. "It's good to talk to you. Now, listen..."

Zoe's head fell backwards against the couch as she tried to block out the cheerful conspiring between her longtime friend and new lover. Emma was bouncing animatedly on her lap, relaying ridiculously personal details about their relationship, and she knew on the other end that Lou was sucking it all up with glee. All she needed now was for her mother to show up, and she'd really be in for it.

"Peeps? You're kidding. Those god awful marshmallow things you get at Easter?" Emma said in mock horror.

Zoe groaned and shut her eyes.

"THAT SON OF A BITCH SOLD ME OUT!" Mario bellowed, stomping about and tossing furniture around the small motel room.

Naked and draped sinuously across the bed, Julianne Maxwell puffed out a sigh, dropping the remote control as the TV went flying into the nearby wall, showering her with bits of broken electronics and glass. She briefly cursed herself for turning on the news that morning to discover Alexander's defection, instead wishing she'd managed to find out ahead of time and figure out how to share the news with Mario to better control his reaction.

A meek knock from outside the motel door drew Mario's attention away from his destructive tantrum. "Mr. Smith? Is everything all right in there?" came the small, petulant voice of the motel manager.

Julianne rolled her eyes as Mario roared, ripped open the door, and pounced on the weasly little man. She turned over in her bed, completely ignoring the sounds of verbal and physical abuse now coming from just outside the room. She stretched, gazed seriously at the ceiling, and realized that she hadn't given Raphael Alexander enough credit. He'd gotten out just in time, just before things got irretrievably nuts. Now she had to figure out how to keep Mario distracted long enough to get what she wanted and get the hell away from him.

She drew herself up from the bed as Mario re-entered the room, his fists and clothes messy with the manager's blood. "Guess we're outta here," she surmised wryly, looking around at their scant possessions to locate her underwear.

"We've got some time before the cops come," Mario growled, rounding on her with a predatory look.

She submitted like she always did, even feigning some excitement at the rough treatment. And she got through it like she always did, picturing that goddamned dyke Winston taking it in her place.

"Mister Alexander, you have me at a bit of a loss. You have turned yourself in for kidnapping and harassment charges, but you deny you had any involvement in the kidnapping. And you want immunity from all charges before we continue questioning?" Assistant District Attorney Ellen Jacobs was gazing at him in puzzlement.

"That's right."

"And you've waived the right to a lawyer?" she asked for perhaps the third time.

"Yes," he said patiently.

The DA jerked her head over to look at Captain Moreland, who nodded gravely. "Okay, Alexander. Keep in mind the deal is provisional on you telling us everything you know," she said carefully, pulling out a pocket tape recorder and setting it on the table. "Go ahead."

"Where do you want me to start?" he asked pleasantly.

"Let's start with when you met Mario Durrand."

"Right. We were both upstate paying our respective debts to society," he began sarcastically. "I met him in the exercise yard. We started comparing scores, and he told me he had this plan to come back here and take down the entire city, from the top down."

"You were friends, then?" asked the DA.

"You don't have 'friends' in prison, Ms. Jacobs," he replied with mild sarcasm. "We had similar business interests, that's all."

"You want to take down the city? Why?" she asked in alarm.

Raphael didn't answer; instead he folded his hands on the table in front of him and stared intently at her.

Jacobs nodded, cleared her throat, and looked back at her notes. "What was his plan, Mister Alexander?"

Raphael smirked, settling into his chair to tell the long, long story.

It was nearly sunset before Walt Gerard got to the grimy motel, summoned by uniformed officers and the coroner to take a look at the crime scene.

"Looks like the guy just got beat to death with bare hands," one of the young fresh-faced uniformed officers said, leading him under crime scene tape to the walkway where the body was found.

"The door to the room was open?" Walt asked, pulling on rubber gloves.

"Yep. The records say it was for a Mister and Missus Smith," the uniform reported. "They'd been here for almost two weeks, paying cash for five days at a time."

Walt nodded and walked past the covered body to peer into the room first. It was a generically seedy motel room, though most of the furniture had been reduced to kindling, and the shattered remains of the television were piled pathetically in the corner. The crime scene crew was already poring over the room, lifting finger prints and examining for trace evidence.

He ducked back out of the room and knelt at the side of the manager's body, lifting the sheets gingerly. "Oh, man," he breathed, taking in the cruel extent of the damage done to the man's body. He surmised that the uniform was right, that this guy really had been beaten to death by nothing more than a pair of vicious fists. He also guessed that the man hadn't died right away, but probably suffered with hemorrhages and internal bleeding for at least several minutes before finally succumbing. It was just brutal to consider.

"Who called it in?" Walt asked, dropping the sheet back over the body.

"The maid, his daughter in law," came the dutiful response from one of the uniforms.

"This place has a maid?" Walt muttered in disbelief, pushing himself upright.

"Detective!" an alarmed voice came from inside the motel room.


"You'll wanna see this."

Walt pushed his way into the room, through the bustling of the crime scene crew and all the way into the tiny bathroom in the back. "What's up?"

"I just opened the medicine cabinet to dust for prints..."

Walt peered around the mirrored door, which was surprisingly in one piece. On the inside of the cabinet door, scrawled in blood red lipstick, were three words.


"So Lou's a nice guy," Emma chirped after she hung up, snuggling into her lover's shoulder.

"Uh huh," Zoe answered with growing dread.

"Would you relax? It's not like he offered to show me pictures of you in a prom dress or anything."

The dark head jerked upright to look at Emma. "He didn't..." she growled.

Emma just laughed joyously and hugged her partner with abandon. Chatting with Zoe's old college friend had proven invaluable for insight into this complex woman that she'd fallen in love with. He'd also given her a wealth of prime teasing material, and she hoarded the knowledge jealously. That thing about the Peeps, for example. Absolutely priceless. She promised herself she'd remember it for the next Easter.

"I'm doomed," Zoe murmured, returning the hug with equal enthusiasm. They stayed that way for quite some time before Zoe broke the companionable silence. "Hey, think we could stop by and see my mom tonight? She'd want to know that you're feeling better."

"She'd also want to see you," Emma countered, poking Zoe in the stomach. "Yeah, I'd love to go," she said, then yawned and closed her eyes, communicating a clear intention to go absolutely nowhere right at that moment.

Zoe rubbed her back and dozed happily with her lover.

Walt dialed Zoe's number again and tried not to get too worked up over the lack of an answer. He pulled out his little black address book to look up Emma's cell number with the same results. He was sitting in a squad car outside the grimy hotel, watching the sun set over the grim murder scene. The police lights gave eerily illumination to the entire tableau. "Dammit, answer," he muttered, punching in the number one more time.

"'Ello?" a disoriented female voice finally responded.

"Zoe?" Walt said frantically.

"Nope, hang on."

The phone was fumbled around a bit before another female voice buzzed through. "Yeah?"

"Zoe, it's Walt. Are you guys okay?"

"Yeah, Walt. Why, what's up?" Zoe burred, rubbing her face briskly to try to wake up.

"I think Durrand killed a man today. I think they're coming after you. You need to be careful."

All of a sudden Zoe sounded fully awake. "He killed a man?"

A uniform tapped politely on the car window, indicating a witness had arrived for him to interview. "Zoe, I gotta go, but I needed to warn you. I know you can take care of yourself, so just be careful, okay?"

"Got it, thanks Walt."

Walt hung up and climbed out of the car, approaching the distraught woman standing across the parking lot. "Ms. Walsh? I'm Detective Gerard. The sergeant here tells me you're the one that called in?"

She shook her head shakily. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder to turn her away from the intrusive lights, lowering his voice to a more comforting level.

"Can you tell me what happened?" he asked.

"I was putting fresh towels in the occupied rooms, and I found him..."

"About what time was that?"

"A little after one thirty. I always start doing towels at one thirty."

"Okay, then what happened?"

"I... I saw him, lying there, and I screamed. I dropped the towels and ran back down the stairs to the main office to call 911."

"The people that were in that room... 218? Did you talk to them at all?"

"Uh huh. They were freaky."

"Can you describe them?"

The woman took a shaky breath, casting a look over her shoulder nervously. "A blonde woman, really skinny. And a big guy with a beard."

Walt pulled out his worn file photo of Raphael, Julianne, and Mario. "Do you recognize any of these people?"

Her eyes widened in alarm. "That's them!" She pointed at Mario and Julianne. "They paid for their room last night, I'd remember them anywhere!"

He indicated Raphael, standing to the side of the other two suspects. "Ever see this man around here?"

She stared hard at the picture for a few seconds before shaking her head. "No, I don't think so."

"Okay, thank you Ms. Walsh, I'll let you know if there's anything else I need from you."

She eyed him for a moment. "You're gonna get these bastards, right?"

He nodded grimly. "I'll do my best, ma'am."

Zoe had hung up the phone, her heart jumping with the adrenaline charge in her system. Emma peered at her, trying to rouse herself to full wakefulness. "Zoe, what's up?" she murmured.

"We gotta get out of here," Zoe declared, rising off the couch smoothly, taking her lover upright with her and setting her softly on her feet. She strode off into her bedroom, pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt and slipping her revolver into her belt holster.

"Zoe?" Emma asked again, though already pulling together her belongings to get ready to leave.

"That was Walt on the phone. Durrand killed a man. Walt thinks he's coming after me." She re-emerged from the bedroom, hopping a bit as she pulled dark boots onto her feet. "And I'm not letting you out of my sight."

The blonde nodded, blinking the remaining sleep out of her eyes and looking around the apartment for her shoes. "Better check on your mom, too."

"Dammit - Mom!" Zoe exclaimed. "You're right. We'll go see her first." She tossed the blonde her cell phone.

Emma caught it and secured it on her belt. "Then what?"

"I dunno yet," she muttered, pulling on her coat. "If you want, I'll take you by the police station and leave you there, you should be safe."

"Uh uh, partner. I'm with you."

Zoe paused and pinned an intense and unfathomable look onto her lover. "Okay, partner," she agreed quietly.

They headed out of the apartment. Less than a minute later, Zoe's phone rang. Her answering machine picked it up.

**Hey, leave a message.**

**Zoe... We're com-ing...**

Deputy County Coroner Ralph Langthorne pulled on a pair of rubber gloves, looking over his newest arrival. It had been a slow day, so he was glad for something to do. "Subject is a white male, fifty five years old," he announced to the microphone hovering above the body. "Apparent cause of death is internal hemorrhage due to severe trauma to the abdomen." He leaned closer to the body, peering at the mottled bruises covering the chest and stomach. "Looks like several fist-sized blows, roughly a dozen visible prints."

He picked up a camera, snapping photos of the damage done to the man's body. He looked up as the morgue's door pushed inwards roughly, and Walt Gerard practically ran in. "Well?" Walt panted.

"I just got started, Detective. But preliminarily? This man was beaten to death by a pair of really big fists." He made a fist to compare the size of his own hand to the handprints visible on the man's ribcage. "Pretty vicious."

Walt nodded. "Time of death?"

"I'd say between one and one thirty this afternoon." Ralph ducked his head, pressing gingerly on the man's ribcage. "Ooh, but check this out," he murmured, drawing Walt closer. "Whoever did this practically pulped four ribs on the left side. My guess is that the guy's right-handed, and that he's really really sore right about now. Turning ribs to dust isn't an easy task."

The detective considered this information, chewing on his lower lip. He nodded once. "Okay. Thanks, Ralph, let me know what else you come up with." Walt bounded back out the door, leaving it to swing back and forth wildly.

Ralph snorted and returned to his work, then turned his head back up to the microphone. "Record one interruption by the High Priestess."

Carmen Winston was trading mild jibes with her regular customers, refilling coffee mugs and clearing used dishes. The door pushed open with a gust of cold wind, drawing good-natured complaints from those seated in the comfortable diner.

Two dark figures walked in, swathed in long black coats. Carmen looked up to greet them, and her face fell.

Mario Durrand and Julianne Maxwell moved to the back of the diner, barely sparing a glance for the proprietor. Carmen continued her work nervously, eyeing the two suspicious people hovering in the rear of her business. She knew she needed to contact Zoe, but they had effectively blocked her path to the phone. As she bid farewell to the majority of the dinner crowd, she felt her stomach churn in anticipation. Something bad was going to happen.

"Mr. Alexander, your appearance here is somewhat suspicious," Leonard said, kicking his heels up on the desk in the small interrogation room.

"I've already explained my reasons for being here," Raphael responded, taking a sip from the cup of ice water they had conveniently left for him.

"Durrand killed a man."

Raphael froze, then set his cup down very slowly.

"He beat a man to death with his bare hands."

"Why are you telling me this?" Raphael asked through clenched teeth.

"Your buddy's snapped, Raphael. You've told us his 'ultimate plan,' but I think he's just thrown that plan right out the window."

The suspect flexed his large hands idly on the desk's surface. "I don't know what to tell you." Then he looked up, squinting at the one-way mirror. "I've been here for a long time, when do you ship me off to a cell so I can get some sleep?"

"Was there a backup plan?"

"No. Any chance I could talk to a lawyer?"

"Yeah. But are you sure there's nothing you wanna say to us first?"

Raphael swallowed roughly. "No. Get me a lawyer."

From the other side of the one way mirror, Captain Moreland chewed idly on a piece of gum. "Durrand's snapped, gone rogue from his own little plot," she said to Walt Gerard, who was pacing around trying to figure out what to do next.

"But we still don't know what the ultimate goal was." Gerard countered, coming to a halt next to the Captain.

She eyed him critically, noticing the dark rings under his eyes that gave away his fatigue. "C'mon Detective, let's talk in my office." She herded him to her office and closed the door.

Zoe was running down the dark sidewalk, barely keeping herself from sprinting far ahead of her lover. Emma was struggling to keep up on her comically shorter legs, jogging along and panting as they neared Zoe's mother's diner. When they reached it, they could see the storefront was darkened, which was unusual for that early in the evening. Zoe cursed loudly as her footsteps crunched on broken glass strewn all over the sidewalk. The large front windows had been destroyed, and the diner looked like it had been sacked. Zoe stopped abruptly, and Emma nearly collided with her back. The taller woman pushed Emma behind her, against the wall of the front of the building. "Stay here, okay?"

She didn't even wait to see Emma's nod, she just drew her revolver and peered cautiously into the broken windows, trying to see inside the darkened building. Nothing was moving, save a couple swinging lamps from the ceiling. Zoe took a breath, and leapt into the windowpane, landing lightly on more broken glass inside. She swept the interior of the diner and detected no one inside. She threw her head over her shoulder to summon Emma into the building, and asked her to call the cops.

Emma dialed while Zoe managed to get the circuit breakers reset and restore power to the diner. The lights flickered sickly before coming up completely, bathing the destruction within the diner in a harsh glow. Emma gasped and pointed to the countertop. There was yet another message there, this time spread in ketchup, thickly scrawled across the formica surface.

**Third and Main.**

"The skating rink," Zoe murmured, grabbing a napkin and smearing the message beyond recognition. "C'mon." She grabbed Emma.

"Wait, don't you want the cops to see that?" Emma said, following her lover out of the diner.

"No, cops'll spook 'em, we can take care of this," came the grim answer as they ran down the road.

"Ooh, 'Romantic Skate,'" Julianne purred, keying the sequence into the rink's control box and giggling a little as the skating rink's light and sound system kicked in. Spotlights and disco balls lit up, bathing the large arena in dancing white lights.

Carmen Winston sat bound and gagged in the rink's penalty box, and she eyed the new lighting nervously. The man who had abducted her was striding toward her across the ice on unsteady feet.

"Mrs. Winston," he began with insincere politeness. "My name is Mario Durrand. I apologize for the manner of our meeting earlier, and for scaring off all your customers. It's actually my hope that we will be great friends."

She scowled at him the best she could, and flinched when he gingerly ran the back of his hand down the side of her face.

"Now, now. No need for such resistance."

"Mario," came the whining voice of his blonde companion as she traipsed down the bleachers. "Why can you abduct her mother and I can't abduct her girlfriend?"

He jerked his head up to look at her. "Time grows short, Julianne. We don't have time to win Zoe over like I wanted to. It was time to get a little... desperate."

Julianne pouted, lifting herself gracefully over the rink wall to walk over to his side. "Well, do I at least get to kill this one?"

"No," he said firmly. "We still need Winston."

"Winston this, Winston that. I don't understand what you see in her," she groused, moving across the ice angrily.

"Winston is the key, Julianne. You'll see."

"The key," the blonde muttered under her breath. "She's a meddling bitch."

Zoe and Emma were running full tilt now, only a couple blocks from the ice rink. Abruptly, Zoe pulled up to a stop, motioning for Emma to do the same. "Need to catch our breath," she explained, panting out large vaporous plumes.

"Yeah, okay," Emma said, leaning over and putting her hands on her knees, also trying to ignore the lingering soreness in her gut. "Are you sure we shouldn't get some backup here?" she said between gulps of air.

"Not enough time. Durrand's already gone unstable, so who knows what he'll do next. We need to get to Mom before he decides she's expendable."

"That's another thing I don't understand. They were so concerned about getting you on their side - why would they take your mother?"

Zoe shrugged, pulling her companion upright by the arm and beginning to move closer to the rink. "I'm hoping they just took her to get my attention, and that she's not actually hurt," she answered.

Emma accepted that, still breathing heavily as they walked up to the dark building. "So what's the plan here?"

"Figure there are two of them, and two of us. Mario's been trying to get my attention for a while now, so maybe I can distract him and get him talking about whatever grand scheme it is he's been hatching. You stay out of sight, see if you can get to Mom. Try to avoid Julianne."

The blonde head nodded in agreement. "Got it. Be careful, partner."

They paused just outside the rink door, and Zoe cast a fond look at her companion. "Love you," she said quietly.

"Love you back," Emma said with a half-smile.

Zoe drew her weapon and kicked in the door, whirling into the building. Emma snuck in after her, keeping low and in the shadows to try to avoid detection.

"Durrand!" Zoe yelled, her voice carrying easily. "I'm here!" She stepped carefully, keeping Emma in her peripheral vision and squinting into the disco-ball mottled darkness of the rink.

"Zoe Winston, at last we meet," came the echoing response.

Zoe then realized that the acoustics of the rink made it almost impossible to track the voice's source. Durrand could be practically anywhere in the building, counting on the artificial sound reverberations to disguise his location. She ducked against a darkened pillar, surveying the layout of the rink and decided to use his acoustic trick against him.

"Where is my mother?" she called out, deliberately turning her head to bounce her voice off a nearby wall.

"She's in the penalty box, all safe and sound. I do apologize for all these excessive dramatics, but I simply had to meet you as soon as possible. It seemed quickest to bring you here."

"Let her go and we'll talk," Zoe called out, knowing the ultimatum to be futile, but using the leftover echoes of her response to cover her movement under the bleachers. She'd lost track of Emma by now, hoping only that the blonde would be cautious enough to keep her head down.

"No can do, Ms. Winston. We'll talk first, then you and your mother can walk out of here together."

Zoe clenched her teeth, putting her back against a pillar under the bleachers and looking around. "All right. Talk then. What the hell do you want with me?"

"You're going to help me. To explain how I must tell you a story... I had worked very hard to get to my position in the police department. I had oversight, and power..."

"Then you blew it!" she returned angrily.

An impatient sigh answered her. "Please be careful, Ms. Winston. I am not opposed to killing your mother. Or your friend."

Zoe froze. Did they know Emma was here? "Fine, tell your story," she answered.

"Very well. I started out in the department much like you did. My compatriots liked me, they respected me, and I did my job well. Eventually they put me in Internal Affairs. That was a miscalculation on their part. Do you know what they call agents in Internal Affairs?"

"Yeah, 'Weasels,'" Zoe yelled, threading herself through a maze of pipes and ducts that fed the rink's cooling unit.

"Weasels," he sneered. "I'd worked so long and so hard, and they had the gall to call me a weasel."

By now she had worked her way to the far end of ice, and could see her mother's dark head looking around in the penalty box. Out of the shadows, a lithe body pounced on her, knocking her to the floor and the gun out of her hand. There was a brief and quiet struggle as her assailant pelted her head into the floor, dazing Zoe long enough for her attacker to scramble up and grab her gun before taking off. Zoe swore quietly and pulled herself upright, scanning the immediate area and seeing nothing.

"I decided I needed some leverage," Durrand continued placidly, completely unaware of the struggle that had transpired. "One thing about Internal Affairs... they don't pay much attention to what goes on behind the office doors. It's probably the most corrupt division in the department."

"Doesn't surprise me," Zoe yelled, still searching the pockmarked darkness for whoever it was that attacked her.

"I began to realize that punishing the men who had made the grievous error of making me a 'weasel' would be a relatively simple task. An exposed extramarital affair here, planted evidence of drug use there. As you well know, just the implication that Internal Affairs was investigating a certain officer could be the kiss of death for his career advancement. I started picking my targets... and then you caught my attention. You were a wholly unexpected development."

She definitely didn't like where this was going. "You were targeting me?"

"Not at first, Ms. Winston. I was watching you, observing your meteoric rise in the department. You reminded me of me."

It was quiet for a bit, and she realized she was expected to respond somehow to that disquieting statement. "I'm flattered," she called, somehow avoiding sounding too sarcastic. *This dude's off his rocker.*

"You should be," Durrand responded. "I saw in you the potential for great things, potential that was robbed from me by the errors of my superiors. I took it upon myself to protect you, to guide you."

Zoe squinted in the darkness, having seen a flash of blonde hair ducking behind the Zamboni. Was it Emma or Julianne? She tiptoed up silently.

Durrand was still droning on in the background, his voice ringing hyperbolic melancholy with each passing syllable. "I felt you were becoming distracted from your true mission by your concern for your brother. So I arranged with a few colleagues to put him in a situation that would lead inevitably to his elimination."

She stopped moving so fast she nearly lost her balance and fell over. She felt like she'd just been sucker punched in the gut, and could barely regain her breath.

"It was a regrettable sacrifice," Durrand mused. "In the long run he could have been quite useful to us. But at the time I really did need your undivided attention."

Zoe wanted to scream, throw up, and hit something all at once, but found herself rooted to the floor, unable to move, think, or react.

"I was not counting on you taking the loss so personally," he continued, with a disappointed sniff.

Finally she found her voice. "You goddamn fucking son of a BITCH!" she yelled, her throat nearly constricted in rage.

"Temper, temper, Ms. Winston. His sacrifice was all for the greater good. You'll see."

Her fists were clenched so tightly she could feel her fingernails digging into her palms and drawing blood. She slowly forced herself to regain control, to get moving again. She reminded herself she had a job to do here. Her muscles relaxed from their seized-up tension, and she peered into the shadows once more.

"It took me several months to get the next step of my plan into place. I'm sure you remember the bust in midtown a few months ago. Do you know how long it took to orchestrate that? How many favors I had to cash in? I was still in prison at the time, so it took twice as long to pull together as I originally planned. But it went off flawlessly, without a hitch. It fell apart just as I imagined it would." His voice radiated with pride.

Zoe swallowed her rage with pure force of will. She promised herself she could go berserk later and pound this guy's face into a bloody pulp. But first she had to get her mother and her lover out of here unharmed.

"But then, disaster. Utter disaster. You took the fall, Ms. Winston. For something that wasn't your fault, that you would have been exonerated for if you'd only waited for the rest of the plan," he growled. "You have no idea how much you'd disappointed me. I nearly gave up on you. And then, in fact, you gave up on yourself. I was watching you, when I returned from prison. I was watching you spiral into self-destruction. I knew I had to do something drastic to pull you back into the game."

"The *game*?" she spluttered. "You completely fuck up people's lives and call it a *game*?"

"Not just any game, Ms. Winston. Don't think I would treat your fate that lightly. You were to come shining through that disaster unscathed, and soar to power in the department. Then I would reveal myself to you, and you would right the wrongs that made me resort to all this deceit in the first place."

Zoe shook her head. "All because I reminded you of you?" she asked sarcastically.

"You were me," he responded darkly. "I was saving you from humiliation, from the degradation that would inevitably come when they forsook your talents, and your drive. They would have destroyed you, Zoe. I prevented that."

*Zoe*, she thought. *That's the first time he's called me by my first name*. She could hear the tension in his voice, and guessed he was not far from snapping completely. She needed to find him, fast, and make sure he wasn't in a position to hurt anyone when he finally did lose it.

She peered again at the ice, realizing that there was a large, dark figure stalking the rink in front of where her mother was held. It had to be him. She ducked behind the wall of the rink, her dark head peaking through the glass to keep an eye on his movement. "I didn't mean to disappoint you," she said, hoping the echoes of the building and his own clouded judgment would disguise her insincerity.

The figure on the ice stopped, and a dark head tilted backwards as he responded. "Now you know why I had to bring you here, Zoe." He sounded almost like a proud father summoning a beloved child.

She squinted and looked down the segmented wall of the rink, trying to find the nearest door so she could get on the ice. "So Michael Harrington was just a decoy?" She crawled along the wall.

"Of course. Call him a flare I sent up to get your attention. You needed to regain your focus."

"What about Emma?" she found a door and began working the latch quietly.

Durrand sighed. "She will be invited to join our quest, and if she refuses she will be eliminated as well," he said apologetically. "You cannot afford the distraction or the divided loyalties."

By now she had the latch undone, and had pulled the door just open enough to be able to watch him pacing on the ice. "I think I'm beginning to see your point," she ventured. "She was fun for a little while, but I could see that she could get in the way of bigger plans." *Forgive me, Emma.*

"Now you understand," he said warmly. "There is so much opportunity for us, Zoe. We don't need entanglements to distract us."

He had swiveled and turned his back on her position, and she took the chance to pull open the door and roll silently onto the ice. She closed the door behind her, pushed herself upright, and began to walk confidently toward him.

"What kinds of opportunities?" she purred, drawing his attention.

Durrand whirled around, now hearing the proximity of her voice. "They're limitless," he responded in a guttural voice, appraising her with a slow look up and down her body as she drew nearer. "You were wasting your time with that blonde," he murmured. "You deserve someone who complements your beauty."

"I suppose you would be that someone?" Zoe responded, allowing her normally well hidden exhibitionist streak full reign as she drew ever nearer. It lent her movements a confident swagger, and a definite seductive leer.

"To think your talents were nearly wasted," he breathed.

Emma had of course listened to the entire exchange between Zoe and Durrand, and her heart had dropped with sympathy at the revelation that he had been behind her brother's death. She was slowly working her way through the shadows to get into position behind the penalty box, where she could see Zoe's mother struggling against her bonds. She was pulling herself inch by inch on a floorboard on the bleachers, ignoring the odd sticky spots she encountered as she worked her way closer. She saw the moment Zoe had entered the rink, and now saw her standing so close to Durrand that the dark shadows of their bodies mingled together in the dancing lights. She could no longer hear the words they were saying to each other, just the seductive murmurs they shared. Somehow she knew time was drawing short, and that she had to hurry. Zoe was counting on her.

Zoe looked Durrand over, noting the slightly glazed look in his eyes, and the fact that his hands were bloodied and swollen. Out of her peripheral vision she could see her mother, who was valiantly working on getting free of the binds that held her. She was gratified to see that her mother looked scared but otherwise unharmed. She turned her attention back to Durrand. "So what do we do now, Mario?" she murmured.

He almost shuddered with pleasure at hearing her speak his name. "I need a new right hand," he said, holding up his own clearly fractured hand in irony. "Raphael betrayed me, betrayed my trust. I need someone to help me. With careful planning and good timing we could take down every elected official in the city. We could throw the entire county into chaos."

"Why stop there?" she growled, grabbing hold of the lapels of his coat and leaning into his body. "With the local gangs as our army, we could really shake things up."

He closed his eyes in near ecstasy. "I love the way you think, Zoe," he panted.

Emma was only a few feet behind the penalty box at this point, and she was watching the exchange with horror.

"I could lead that army for you," she said with a leer, close enough now to share his breath. "I have... many... skills..." At that she closed the remaining distance between them and kissed him fiercely, fighting her own revulsion with some effort. She pulled away just a bit, capturing his lower lip between her teeth and tugging playfully.

He groaned inarticulately and wrapped his mangled hands around her body.

Emma had finally reached the penalty box, now deliberately ignoring the spectacle on the ice before her. She was squinting at the latch release in the darkness and trying to figure out how to open it. A flash of movement to her left caught her eye and she jerked her head over to see Julianne Maxwell several rows up on the bleachers, holding Zoe's revolver and glaring at the figures on the ice with murderous intent. "NO!" Emma yelled, hurtling herself up at the taller blonde, not even cognizant of the possible consequences.

At Emma's exclamation, Zoe and Mario broke apart, both jerking their heads to look up into the stands to find the source of the noise. Zoe saw Emma bounding up the bleachers and saw Julianne pointing her own revolver in her general direction. She jerked her gaze over at Mario, then at her mother, trying to figure out what to do.

Mario was watching Julianne with a look of horror. "Julianne, don't do it..." he said, moving to put his own body in front of Zoe's.

Emma was only a few paces away, barreling toward the taller woman and preparing to launch herself bodily to knock Julianne down.

Julianne jerked, let loose a blood-curdling scream, and pulled the trigger. Emma's head jerked around to follow the trajectory of the bullet, and saw both Zoe and Mario fall slumped together in a tangle on the ice. Emma's pace didn't slow, but somehow Julianne side-stepped the incoming tackle.

Emma flew a few feet through the air, then landed roughly between benches, her arms and legs getting tangled between the folding metal supports. She heard a clatter as Julianne dropped Zoe's revolver, then heard light steps jogging away.

Suddenly the lights came up in the rink, and Emma heard the clatter of the front doors being forced open. "Freeze, Police!" came a wild yell, as SWAT team members filed dutifully into the building. She pulled herself upright, ready to sprint down onto the ice, but pulled up to a stop when a large man carrying a shotgun commanded her to halt. She remained dutifully still, watching anxiously as the SWAT team approached the slumped figures on the ice.

"Get this son of a bitch off of me," Emma heard her lover growl, and nearly fainted in relief.

"Ma'am, you need to remain still," one of the heavily-armed men advised Zoe, as they began pulling Mario's lifeless body off of her.

Once Zoe was free they helped her to stand, and she waved tiredly up at her lover to let her know she was okay. She looked down at herself and over at Mario, shivering in disgust at the sight of most of his head simply being missing, having been split open by the well-placed bullet. She was aware of the gore that streaked her own skin and clothes, and wiped her face into a shrug of her shoulder.

Emma ducked her head, offering up a prayer of profound thanks, as the man with the shotgun lightly frisked her, searching for any other possible weapons. "The woman who shot the gun, she went that way," she informed him, jerking her head over her shoulder.

"If she's still here, we'll find her, ma'am," he answered, and escorted her down the bleachers.

Walt Gerard strode across the ice, waving the SWAT members away from Zoe with a flash of his badge. "How you doin', Z?" he asked.

"How'd you know where to find us?" she responded.

His answer was an enigmatic grin. "They don't call me the High Priestess for nothing."

By now Zoe's mother had been freed, and Emma was approaching, walking gingerly on the slippery ice.

He looked them all over. "Are any of you hurt?" Vague shakes of the head all around. "Okay. We're gonna have to take you all in for questioning, see if we can figure out what happened here. I'm sorry, guys. You know we gotta take the precaution."

They all submitted agreeably, and were escorted from the building into separate squad cars that were waiting outside.

"Ms. Frazier, please tell us the story again."

Emma sighed, reaching up behind her neck to dig her fingers into the knot of tension she found there. They'd been questioning her for three hours now, and never once had her story faltered or changed. She just wanted to get out of here, find her lover, curl up with her, forget the events of the day and sleep.

"I told you. I was behind the penalty box, I saw Julianne with the gun, I got up and tried to get to her. She pulled the trigger, got out of my way, dropped the gun, and ran off," she relayed again in a somewhat annoyed sing-song.

"You didn't touch the gun at all?" the detective asked.

"I've already told you that I didn't," she growled.

"What if I told you we'd found your prints on the gun?"

She jerked her head up, glaring at him. "I'd say that's not possible, and that you need to get me a goddamned lawyer right ABOUT NOW!" Her voice was rising in agitation, which she knew wouldn't help her case, but she was so frustrated and tired she was helpless to prevent the tantrum.

The door to the small room opened, and Captain Moreland poked her head in. "Ms. Frazier? Thank you for your time and patience. You're free to go. Please do us a favor and don't leave the city for a while, okay?"

Emma sighed loudly and pushed herself upright. "Is it common practice to lie to your suspects to find out what you want to know?" she asked pointedly.

"Yes," the Captain responded with a small smile, holding the door open for Emma as she exited.

Emma twisted her head around, trying to work out the kinks in her neck. She flashed a look at a clock that told her it was almost midnight, and she sighed. She felt herself distancing from the events of the day, not quite able to resolve the image of Mario's dead body splayed brokenly over the pure white ice, not quite able to settle from the shock of the gunshot itself and the fear that her lover had been hit.

Zoe and her mother were sitting together in the reception area, their dark heads bent together in quiet conversation. As Emma approached Zoe's head jerked up to see her, and she stood, immediately wrapping the blonde in a heartfelt hug. "Hey," Zoe murmured into the soft light hair.

"Hey," Emma said back, burrowing into the warm embrace. "Been waiting long?"

"A while," her lover answered. "Let's go home, huh?"

"The rink's surveillance tape shows a blonde woman running out the back of the building just as we busted in," Walt said, fast-forwarding the tape to the correct time to show his Captain.

"How'd we miss her?" the Captain asked.

"Dunno, Cap. Looks like she just barely slipped past the SWAT team."

"So their stories hold up?"

"Yeah, to a T. Zoe's mom didn't really see much, but Zoe and Emma's stories corroborate perfectly. Julianne Maxwell pulled the trigger, dropped the gun, and took off."

"Any prints on the gun?"

"Zoe's and an unidentified set of latents. They don't match Emma's, and Emma wasn't wearing gloves when the SWAT team arrived."

"Okay, so now are we looking for a murderer or a hero?" the Captain asked, heaving a sigh.

"Whaddya mean?" Walt asked uncertainly, sitting back and propping is shoes on a nearby chair.

Moreland thumbed through the coroner's report, which had been newly updated to include the examination of Durrand's body. "The coroner confirms that the damage to Durrand's hands matches the damage done to the victim at the hotel you looked at this afternoon."

"So Julianne killed a killer. Bizarre." He scrubbed his hand over his face. "God. Was that only this afternoon?"

"Go home, Walt. There's plenty of time for us to work on this later. I'll let you know if we catch a lead on Maxwell."

Moreland practically pushed him out of her office, then sighed, and decided to take her own advice and go home.

Zoe saw her mother safely home, then after brief debate with her lover decided to head back to her place. They trudged into the darkened apartment, and Zoe smiled as she smelled the lingering spice of breakfast hanging in the air.

"Rough day," she said idly, watching Emma as the blonde flopped down on the couch.

"Says the mistress of understatement," Emma muttered, curling up into a ball and closing her eyes. "Are you okay?"

"I was just gonna ask you that," Zoe said, pulling off her coat. "Yeah, I'm okay."

"I think I am too. I actually can't really tell right now."

"I think we're a bit overloaded right now. Stuff will make more sense in the morning." Zoe leaned over her lover, scooping her up gingerly and carrying her into the bedroom.

"Zoe?" Emma murmured, as the taller woman industriously pulled off layers of clothing and tossed them in a pile on the floor.


"I'm sorry about your brother."

Zoe clamped her jaw shut, reliving the pain of that particular revelation. "Yeah, me too." She carefully isolated that information and put it out of her mind, then set about stripping her own clothes. She fell into bed, pulling Emma down with her.

"I love you," Zoe said with the last of her remaining consciousness.

"Love you too," Emma murmured in response, already mostly asleep.

The next morning, a court-appointed attorney sat in the precinct's interrogation room with his new client, Raphael Alexander.

The door opened, and Captain Moreland and ADA Ellen Jacobs strode into the room.

The attorney looked at his client, then looked up at the approaching women. "Mister Alexander assures me he will cooperate fully with your investigation."

"Excellent," commented Moreland, as she pulled up a chair. "Where is Durrand's base of operation?"

Raphael sighed, and rattled off an address on Broadway, near the Walker building. Moreland smiled, then left the room to pass along the information to her waiting uniform squads.

Ellen Jacobs sat in the chair the captain had vacated. "Is there anything else you can tell us about Durrand's plans? Or about Julianne Maxwell?"

Raphael snorted a bit. "That crazy bitch? What does she have to do with any of this?"

"She shot and killed Mario Durrand last night," Jacobs replied smoothly.

His jaw dropped. "She what?"

"She's currently a fugitive, but we're hoping that the information you give us will help us to capture her."

He stared dumbly at her, unable to speak for the time being.

"I'll give you a few minutes, Mister Alexander," Jacobs said smugly, then wandered out of the room.

The team stormed into the old abandoned apartment building, searching for the hideout Alexander had reported, also seeking out any evidence that a fugitive Julianne Maxwell had been in the building since last night.

When the initial search was over, they'd found one room that was obviously a sort of base of operations, but no occupants in the building. Walt Gerard had by now made his way to the scene, and was watching his detectives pick the place apart.

"I'll be damned," he breathed, turning in a slow circle to take in the central room. The walls were covered in maps, and hastily scrawled timelines. There were thick file folders lying all over the floor. He kicked a couple of them open, and saw scores of classified IA documents peering up at him. He caught sight of a couple names at the tops of the docs before quelling his curiosity and closing the file again, leaving the evidence undisturbed. The little he did see left no doubt in his mind that the department was going to be reeling over this information for a long time to come.

He turned his attention to the wall, which apparently was Durrand's timeline of information he'd gathered on Zoe to date, combined with the future dates of his plans to come. "Sick bastard," he muttered, squinting at the chart. He found a particularly chilling entry dated for just two days in the future: "Eliminate Impedance Gerard."

Walt forcefully disregarded the threat, and instead grabbed some rubber gloves and a file box, helping the uniforms to cart up evidence and take it back to the station for perusal.

Zoe awoke late that morning, grinning when she felt the now-familiar weight of her lover sprawled mostly on top of her. She was still tired, and was tempted to surrender to the lure of sleep, but her brain got started thinking about what happened yesterday, and she couldn't relax again.

So she stared at the ceiling and tried to figure out what was going to happen next. Julianne had escaped, that was troubling. Her mother's diner had been destroyed, so she'd have to figure out how to help rebuild. And what would happen with Emma now that the immediate danger and lure of their relationship had been resolved?

She sighed. What had started out as a simple misunderstanding and a kidnapping had become so much more complicated. Part of her was irrationally convinced that without the excitement that had initially drawn them together, perhaps Emma would simply lose interest and move on.

At that point, the blonde limpet attached to her side stirred a bit, puffing out a warm breath across Zoe's collarbone and somehow pulling herself into even closer contact with her lover's warm body.

Okay, so maybe Zoe was overreacting. Maybe the attraction between them could flourish even under more mundane circumstances. She was surprised to find herself both anxious and scared to find out.

Emma stirred again, this time pulling her head a bit off of Zoe's shoulder to peer into her face. "Whatchya thinking about?"

"You," Zoe answered immediately.

"That's not a happy face," Emma pointed out, blinking her eyes sleepily.

"It's nothing, go on back to sleep," Zoe responded, pulling Emma's head to rest on her shoulder again. She stroked the blonde hair softly until she felt the wakeful tension slide out of her lover's body, and her muscles went relaxed and limp from sleep once more.

Zoe bent her head to place a kiss on the blonde head, then had a sudden revelation. Maybe she could think of a way to keep stuff from getting boring after all.

As soon as the evidence from Durrand's base of operations got back to the station, IA agents swooped in, pulling the boxes out of the hands of the uniforms and claiming "confidential intelligence."

Walt stormed through the chaos to the man giving the orders. "What the hell are you doing?"

"This is classified Internal Affairs information, Detective. This is not pertinent to your investigation."

"The hell it's not! And how would you know anyway?"

"We will share with you any information that may be pertinent after we have combed through them."

"That could take weeks!" Walt ranted, waving his hand angrily at the pile of evidentiary documents that were now moving into an unmarked vehicle. "This is bullshit! I'm investigating a compound murder here!"

"Detective, there's nothing I can do about it. You'll have to be patient and trust that we will assist in any way we can."

"Right, but first you have to cover your own asses," Walt fumed in response, pushing past the agent and into the station house. "Son of a bitch!" he yelled as he slammed the door behind him.

He ran almost directly into the recently-elected city mayor. "Um, sorry," he muttered, immediately recognizing the man.

"Detective Gerard, is it?" the mayor responded kindly. "I've heard a lot of good things about you today."

Walt blinked. "Thank you, sir."

"I understand there's some concern over the confidentiality of these documents that are being unloaded right now?"

"Yes, sir. I think they may be able to help us in a murder investigation, since the suspect is still at large and may be dangerous."

The mayor nodded, sharing a glance with Captain Moreland. "Well, Detective, hold onto your shorts."

He walked past Walt, pushed open the door, and walked directly up to the IA agent in charge.

"What the hell?" Walt asked. He cast a confused look over at the Captain.

"Things are about to get interesting, Walt."

When Emma awoke again, she was alone in Zoe's apartment. A note left on the pillow next to her said "Back soon, eat something. Love, Z."

Ah, well. If she couldn't wake up with Zoe, this was a close second. She took a brief moment to stretch happily, burying her nose in the warm sheets that still held the distinctive scent of her lover.

She flopped bonelessly on the bed, staring at the ceiling much the same way Zoe had several hours earlier. Yesterday was mostly a blur in her head, and she didn't clearly remember much about anything that had happened. She figured that was mostly for the best, since the violent, vacant horror of the murders and her terror of losing Zoe had scraped her psyche pretty raw.

She was startled out of her reverie by a knock on the apartment door. Emma bounced out of bed, pulling on a shirt, and cautiously approached the door. She checked the peephole, relieved to see Zoe's mother standing on the other side. She pulled the door open and let the older woman in.

"Emma, how good to see you," Carmen chirped. She was holding a large basket, which she hefted in Emma's general direction. "Brought over some breakfast, if you like."

Emma's stomach grumbled its affirmative response, and she laughed as she relieved her lover's mother of the basket.

A few minutes later they were sitting across from each other at the dining room table, both munching happily at the rolls and sandwiches the older woman had brought along.

"The insurance adjusters were at the diner this morning," Carmen was saying. "They think it's a total loss."

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Emma responded. She laid a hand on the older woman's, giving it a sympathetic squeeze.

Surprisingly, Carmen grinned. "Thanks, dear, but it's not really a bad thing. I'll be getting a couple million in settlement, since the entire block's been purchased by some fool business mogul that wants to build a mall." Her eyes twinkled brightly, and she laughed a bit.

Emma laughed too, not just for Carmen's good fortune but for the sparkle of humor she saw that reminded her so vividly of her lover. She decided to take the risk and mention it.

"Zoe looks just like you when you smile," she said quietly.

Carmen abruptly looked away, instead appearing to study the interior of her daughter's apartment. "Recent times have been hard on my daughter," she said roughly.

"Yeah, they have. But I think they're on their way toward improvement," Emma responded.

"You're in love with her?" Carmen asked quietly.

"More than words can express," Emma responded, feeling more certainty in the words than she ever had before. She felt a smile split her face as she considered what the future might hold.

"And the Lord knows she's in love with you... It practically flashes in bright red neon on her face whenever she looks at you." Carmen shook her head a bit. "Never thought I'd have a second daughter at my age," the older woman mused. "And you must know that you surely are that, Emma."

It caught Emma completely off-guard, and she felt a lump form instantly in her throat. "Does that mean I can call you Mom?"

Carmen turned tearful eyes at her. "I'd be honored."

Emma leaned out of her chair to catch her in a hug. "Never thought I'd have a mother again at my age," she murmured as she felt the embrace tentatively returned.

The apartment door opened, and Zoe walked in, shaking snow out of her dark hair. She saw the two women crying at her dining room table and looked alarmedly back and forth between them. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," Emma answered, wiping at her eyes. "Just family stuff." She stood and crossed the room to hug Zoe, careful to wind her arms under the snow covered coat.

"Family stuff, huh?" Zoe murmured, returning the embrace.

The blonde head nodded against her. "So what have you been out doing this morning?"

"It's a surprise," answered Zoe with a rakish grin, pulling her lover back over to the table. "Hey, Mom," she murmured. "Did you bring this stuff over?"

"Yes, eat up, dear." Carmen then excused herself to the bathroom to regain a semblance of emotional control.

Zoe sat, pulling Emma into a perch on her lap. "What's going on?" she asked quietly.

Emma buttered a roll, then tore it in half to share with her lover. "Your mom said I could call her 'Mom,'" she responded. "She said she never thought she'd have a second daughter."

Zoe munched the roll thoughtfully. "Was a time when she would have denied ever having had a daughter at all," she thought aloud, and shook her head. "Damn."

Carmen emerged from the bathroom. "Did she tell you about the insurance settlement?" she asked.

Zoe looked to her lover, then back at her mother. "No?" she responded with raised eyebrows.

"Mom's gonna be rich," Emma said with a smirk.

"No way," Zoe said, grinning at her mother.

"It's okay, dear, just like I was telling Emma. I think I'll take my settlement and go on a vacation. Or sail the world. Or maybe open up another restaurant and make someone else run it."

"Well, I'm still sorry the place got trashed," Zoe interjected. "I have a lot of fond memories there."

"Me too," her mother said. "But I've been wanting to retire for years now. I've finally gotten a good excuse."

The phone rang, and Carmen plucked it out of its cradle and handed it to her daughter. "Hello?" Zoe said.

"Turn on the TV. Channel Twelve," came Walt's voice smugly from the other end. "And if you can, stop on by the station tonight, okay?"

He clicked off with no farewell.

"Walt says we have to turn on the TV," Zoe said, pushing Emma to her feet and standing up.

She flicked on the TV with the remote, surfing to the channel Walt had requested. It was a newscast. A grave looking local reporter was being handed new sheets of paper from off-camera.

"... approximately a dozen high-ranking city officials have been implicated in charges of drug trafficking, racketeering, and conspiracy. We'll cut now to a live news briefing, where we are expecting to hear the Mayor announce these findings."

The camera jumped a bit, and finally cut to a shot of an empty podium. "What the hell happened?" Zoe murmured. Emma shook her head in response.

Captain Denise Moreland stepped up to the microphone. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming on such short notice. I'll be brief. Recently uncovered Internal Affairs documentation reveals corruption throughout our city's governing structure, including here within the department itself. We have taken five officers into custody, including Commissioner Lawrence and two of his assistants. I'll let the Mayor fill in the rest of the gaps."

She stepped away from the microphone, and in her wake was a flurry of reporter activity, all asking for more information. Mayor Gordon Birdsell then stepped up to the microphone, waving his hands to motion for quiet. "You can ask your questions later. Let's get this over with first. Yesterday afternoon a former Internal Affairs operative named Mario Durrand was murdered. Investigations into his death, led by Homicide Detective Walter Gerard, led us to a secret base of operations, where Durrand had been stockpiling information and weapons in what was an apparent conspiracy to wrest power from the elected officials of the city."

"Go Walt," Zoe murmured. Emma bumped her with her hip and wrapped an arm around her waist.

"Once Durrand's plan had been uncovered, we moved quickly to act on the information he had gathered. There was an evident chain of co-conspirators leading from the police department all the way to the mayor's office itself."

One reporter leapt to the foreground. "Are you implicating former Mayor Rapagnani in any wrongdoing?"

"The former mayor will be questioned," Birdsell responded carefully.

"Who killed Mario Durrand?" another reporter clamored.

"I cannot discuss the investigation as it is ongoing with the police department, but we are pursuing a suspect at this time."

Reporters' hands waved wildly for attention, and the mayor called on another just as Zoe clicked the TV off again. "Well, I'll be damned."

"So they found this guy's stuff, and used it against the people he was planning to blackmail in the first place?" Carmen asked.

"Well, wherever Mario ended up, he's probably pissed off," Emma said with a little laugh.

Zoe tilted her head at her in inquiry.

"He got exactly what he wanted, he just didn't manage to live long enough to see it," Emma replied.

"Well, not exactly what he wanted," Carmen countered, poking her daughter in the stomach.

Zoe raised an eyebrow at them both, and shook her head in tolerant amusement.

"Yeah, I bet he is pretty pissed." *Take that, Durrand*.

It was almost sunset before Zoe and Emma made it to the precinct station house. They'd had to fight snarled traffic and intense media scrutiny as the news of the conspiracy had thrown the entire city into an uproar. Someone recognized Zoe from her brief stint in the spotlight months earlier as the fallen police officer responsible for a child's death, and the reporters swarmed around her. She fended them off as best she could, plowing through them and forging a path for her lover to follow. Eventually they made it to the door and forced their way inside.

Zoe forcibly pulled the door shut, exchanging grim nods with the uniformed officers assigned to guard the entrance into the station. She turned around and nearly smacked face first into Raphael Alexander.

"Ms. Winston," he said amiably.

"Alexander," she responded with narrowed eyes.

"They're letting me out. Seems there's no evidence, and since Mario bit it they don't need me for any more information. Thanks for dropping the charges, by the way."

She regarded him in some amusement, since he was acting as if they nothing more than a couple old friends catching up. "Keep your nose clean, Alexander. And do yourself a favor and stay the hell away from me, okay?"

He grinned rakishly. "No promises, Ms. Winston. Sometimes you just need a worthy opponent, you know?" He bowed his head a little in respect and headed out the door to fend off the reporters on his own.

"What was that about?" Emma asked.

Zoe shrugged. "Nothing of consequence. C'mon, let's go find Walt."

They finally located Walt in the precinct's meeting room. He was in a smart well-pressed suit, undoubtedly in response to the active press presence outside, and he was surrounded by several other officers in uniform. Standing next to him was Captain Moreland.

The officers snapped to attention as she walked in. Emma trailed behind, peering around in fascination.

"What the hell's goin' on?" Zoe drawled.

Captain Moreland stepped forward. "You lost something, Detective Winston. It is my honor to return it to you." She crossed to Zoe and placed a small leather wallet in Zoe's suddenly nerveless fingers.

"Detective?" She flipped open the wallet, and saw her old badge inside. The worn metal shield shone up at her. "What...?"

This time Walt stepped forward. "Part of the pile of evidence we uncovered this morning at Durrand's hideout exonerates you of any wrongdoing in that bust, Zoe. You had resigned in good faith to prevent the department from going through a lengthy investigation. Even in leaving us you conducted yourself with honor and dignity. You're an asset to the badge." He grinned and grabbed her hand, shaking it heartily. "And without your help we never would have brought down Durrand's little ring of conspirators. The department owes you its thanks."

"And since we are officially reinstating your commission," Moreland interjected, "We can present you with this." She handed Zoe a small box, which she flipped open reflexively. It was a bronze star, an award for meritorious conduct. "You're a hero, Detective. Thank you for honoring this department with your service."

The room suddenly filled with applause, and Zoe looked dumbly around at the smiling faces of her former colleagues. "Uh, thanks," she stammered. She could feel Emma's hand at her back, offering warm comfort through the haze of confusion and disorientation she felt at this wholly unexpected turn of events. Walt then presented her with a replacement for her revolver, which was now residing in the evidence lock up. She tucked it into her belt gratefully.

Zoe endured the prolonged congratulations of what felt like the entire police department, which was capped off by a handshake and warm words of personal gratitude of the mayor himself. Eventually she managed to escape, with Emma in tow, and she stumbled out to the street, once more dodging the press, who had by then gotten word of the full-fledged hero in the department.

They were walking down a well-lit downtown street. Emma had her hands wrapped around Zoe's arm, and she was looking fondly up at her lover's face from time to time to enjoy the totally flummoxed expression.

"Hey," Emma finally said. "That was pretty cool, huh?"

Zoe's head jerked around to look at her. "Huh?"

"Getting reinstated, that was pretty cool. I'm so happy for you, Zoe."

"Yeah, I guess." Her brows drew together pensively.

"You're not going to accept it, are you?" Emma asked, already knowing the answer.

"God, Emma, I just don't know. I was never expecting this to happen."


They walked together in silence for a few more blocks. "It might be useful for a PI to have a personal contact in the police department," Emma murmured.

Zoe stopped abruptly, nearly pulling Emma off-balance. "Personal contact, huh?"

The blonde looked innocently up at her lover. "I'm just saying."

"I'll give you 'personal contact,'" Zoe interrupted, wrapping her arms around Emma and pulling her close for a long kiss.

Eventually they had to break for air. "Whoo," Emma said. Her eyes were somewhat glazed as she blinked up at her lover. "See, this is what I'm talking about. This could be very useful for a certain private investigator."

Zoe laughed, then sidestepped and scooped up a handful of collected snow off the trunk of a nearby car. "Oh yeah?" She deftly dumped the entire handful down Emma's shirt, enduring the outraged screech before charging down the road at full speed.

"HEY! Zoe! Dammit! I'll get you!" Emma yelled, bounding after her in hot pursuit.

After a few days, the press furor had died down enough for Zoe to venture back to the station house. She met with Captain Moreland first.

"I bet I know why you're here," Moreland said with a smile.

"I bet you do," Zoe agreed. "I really appreciate the reinstatement, Captain."

"Nothing to appreciate, Zoe. We owe you a debt of gratitude for helping us out so much the past few weeks. It was the least we could do to tell the truth and give you back what you so courageously gave up."

Zoe ducked her head in acknowledgment.

"This Durrand guy. He said he saw potential in you, Zoe. He was right. Who knows how much good you could do here?"

"I don't think 'here' is where my future lies, Captain."

"Ah. Heroism has it's own kind of addiction, doesn't it?"

"Well, I wouldn't know. I just like shooting things," Zoe muttered in protest.

"With all due respect, that's bullshit, Ms. Winston." Moreland smiled openly. "So Walt tells me you've found someone special in that PI."

"Yeah, she's pretty amazing. And in fact, none of this would have gotten solved if it wasn't for her help."

"I know that, and that's why she'll be getting a special letter of citation from the Mayor for her assistance," Moreland responded. "Believe it or not, Winston, I've always liked and respected you. I'm glad to hear you've found your way."

"So you already know that way isn't behind a badge?" Zoe responded.

"I kinda figured. But at least this time you can get an honorable discharge from the department and we can throw you a big party to celebrate the passage of a full-fledged hero from our ranks. Bring your partner along. I want to talk to her."

"Thanks Captain, I appreciate it." Zoe stood and exchanged a warm handshake with Moreland, then handed her badge back over with just a twinge of regret. "Suppose you'll want my weapon too?" She began digging around the holster to free the shiny new revolver she'd grown inordinately fond of in the past few days.

"Save it. We'll get you a license filled out for concealed carry, and you can keep it. Consider it a retirement present."

"What, no cheapass gold watch?" Zoe smirked.

"Watch it, young lady. I'll be getting one of those in a couple years here. Don't spoil it for me."

"No Ma'am." Zoe sketched a sarcastic salute, grinned, and left the office.

"Smartass," Moreland muttered, tossing the shield into a desk drawer.

Zoe had been walking for a couple hours, and was now far outside the city limits, in the almost rural countryside surrounding the city proper. She passed several farmhouses before turning off the main road to follow a well-worn path weaving between the placid fields.

Eventually she came to a small graveyard, marked by ancient granite stones that were toppling over, as well as smaller and newer stones scattered around the small plot of land. It was adjacent to a small white clapboard church that had definitely seen better days.

Zoe paused on the path, taking in the scene.

When she and her brother were little, they would come out to the countryside with their mother for picnics. Off in the distance was their favorite Climbing Tree, where they would race around for hours with typical childish boundless energy, playing tag, and hide and go seek. Eventually they would flop down in the grass and watch the wind push through the leaves above, and they would make pictures out of the clouds. Her brother would talk about how someday they would make enough money to move away from the city, to live in comfort in the country and own their own Climbing Tree. In her mind's eye she saw her mother, younger but still world-weary, smiling wistfully at her children as they took the rare opportunity to play absolutely unfettered by the responsibilities of the world.

It was at that tree that Zoe had decided she was going to be a hero. She was going to become a police officer, and have a sharp black uniform, and help the people who couldn't help themselves. And yes, she would shoot things. Her brother listened wide-eyed to her tales of how the world would be, just as soon as she was old enough and strong enough to change it.

And he vowed to follow her through the portals of hell itself.

When he'd died, Zoe had used every penny of her savings at the time to purchase the plot at this church graveyard, wanting him to have a view of that Climbing Tree for eternity. She'd thought it would be a fitting tribute to the innocent soul she'd known and chased under those branches. Her mother had cursed her for the reminder that his life had been so mercilessly cut short. After the funeral, after her mother's cruel rebuke, she had sat at the side of his grave and watched the clouds, wishing she could see the pictures there again.

It was the first time she'd returned to his grave since that blustery day. Now she stood, gazing sadly at gravestones that had so obviously fallen into disrepair. She made her way gingerly through the overgrown grass to the far corner, where she knew his diminutive gravestone to be. She knelt and pulled the grass away from it so that it was no longer hidden.

**Ryan Winston. Brother, son, protector, dreamer.**

She took a hitching breath, surprised that there were still tears to be shed over this loss. "Hey, bro. I've missed you. Sorry I haven't been by to see you... It's been kinda crazy."

Zoe looked around, letting the wind toss her hair in wild disarray. "So I found the guy who got you killed, and I nearly got killed myself... I almost joined you a few weeks back, actually. But the most amazing thing happened. I fell in love." She laughed a bit and felt tears pool in her eyes. When they spilled over and fell down her cheeks she did nothing to stop them. "I, of all people, fell in love. Damn, I wish you could meet her. She's amazing. She's got me thinking about being a hero again. I was actually thinking about taking her to the Climbing Tree. If I do, I'll bring her by to see you."

She tugged at a long blade of grass, casting her gaze to look at the tree again. "I hope you can see it from wherever you are," she murmured. "Remember that one time when you fell off that branch and broke your arm? I thought Mom was gonna kill us both." She laughed sadly. "I can even see the pictures in the clouds again, Ry. Check that one out - that's a dog chasing a rabbit."

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Anyway. I just wanted to come by and see you. I wonder sometimes if you've ever stopped by to look in on your big sister... I bet you have. I love you, bro. I miss you." She dug into her pocket and pulled out the small velvet box with her bronze star inside. "Got something for you," she concluded, setting the box gently on the gravestone. She pressed her fingers to her lips and then pressed them to the stone, and pushed herself upright, dusting herself off. She wiped at the remaining tracks of tears and turned to leave...

... and saw Julianne Maxwell standing in the dirt path, watching her.

Zoe was momentarily stunned, but shook it off to face the woman in defiance. "Come to finish what you left undone?" Zoe called out over the wind.

Julianne was staring at her with oddly sad brown eyes. Her long blonde hair was blowing across her face, partially obscuring her view of Zoe.

As Zoe studied her adversary, she felt a distinct lack of anger or compulsion for revenge or justice. For some reason, the blonde, clad entirely in black, looked small, even weak against the billowing winter sky. As Zoe looked on, she realized what she felt was pity, an odd lack of contempt that just left her feeling sorry for this woman. With that realization came revelation.

"You weren't aiming for me, were you?" Zoe asked, again raising her voice over the wind.

The blonde didn't respond.

"You didn't intend to hurt anyone, did you?" Zoe pressed, venturing to take a step closer to the blonde. "You shot Mario to protect me, and anyone else he would've hurt."

At that, Julianne finally reacted. Her face twisted in bitter anger, and she drew a gun from below the billows of her black overcoat. She pointed it competently at Zoe. "You already know I have good aim," she declared, directing a murderous glare at the dark haired woman.

"You could have killed me any number of times," Zoe said calmly, taking another step forward. "It was you following us out of Emma's office. I bet you could have blown my head off without even thinking about it."

"I still might," Julianne snarled.

"Why?" Zoe asked. "Why did you kidnap Emma? Why didn't you kill either of us when you had the chance?"

"Maybe I wanted to save her," the blonde answered cryptically. "Save her from what you would make her into."

Zoe shook her head a bit.

"Like you made me," Julianne spat.

"Made you? Made you into what?" Zoe asked. She watched the blonde carefully, and could see the gun beginning to tremble a bit in her grasp, though her finger flexed a bit more tightly over the trigger to compensate.

"God, you really don't even remember, do you? I was just another case to you, just another check mark in your assignment book."

"Julianne, I don't know what you're talking about," Zoe said mildly, watching the gun jerk in reaction.

"My mother. You killed my mother. You destroyed my family," the blonde ground out through clenched teeth. "You murdering bitch, you don't even remember."

Zoe thought quickly, trying to remember. Something about the name... Maxwell... She remembered something about a drug case, a heroin user who'd gotten desperate and dopesick and tried to hold up a liquor store. Christina Maxwell - it had been almost nine years now, that was one of her first cases when she'd gotten out of the academy.

"Your mother was Christina Maxwell?" Zoe asked carefully.

Julianne snorted a bit and tossed her hair out of her face. "So you remember after all."

"I remember we arrested her for trying rob a store."

"You did, you arrested her. But you probably never knew what happened after that," Julianne taunted. "So let me fill in the gaps for you. It was her third offense, and they put her away for good. I was fifteen years old, and I had to watch my mother get sent off to prison!"

Zoe listened intently, but also noticed that Julianne's grip on the gun was faltering.

"I visited her as often as I could, but she refused the methadone treatments. She died, like a dog in a cage, locked up. And you put here there. You made me an orphan at fifteen... You made me sell myself and deal drugs just so I could eat once in a while." Her voice was shaking, and tears were streaming down her face. "I had to fuck men like Mario Durrand because of *you*."

Zoe took another cautious step forward. "I'm sorry your mother hurt you, Julianne."

"Not her! YOU!" she railed, jerking the gun back up to Zoe's eye level once more.

"I know what it's like to lose family," Zoe continued quietly. "I know what it's like to lose yourself. I know what it's like to hate what you are so much that you either want to hurt yourself or anyone else who might happen to get in the way."

One more step, and Zoe practically had her nose in the barrel of the pistol. "And I know it's easy to blame someone else for where you end up in life. But what happened wasn't your fault, and it wasn't mine. And I don't think you're actually willing to destroy me because of it."

With that, Zoe took a deliberate step past Julianne, and onto the dirt path. She walked slowly, calmly, aware that the gun was still pointed directly at her head as she walked away.

She got past the church and decided that her gamble had paid off. Then she heard one last frustrated scream from behind her.

"You're right, Zoe. Maybe I'll destroy your little girlfriend instead."

Zoe stopped and turned, facing the blonde woman with cold fury. Julianne had stuffed the weapon back into wherever she'd had it stowed in her coat.

"I'll see you later, Zoe," Julianne taunted, then turned and bounded away down the path.

Zoe took a deep breath, watched her disappear around the Climbing Tree, then turned and began the long walk back into town.

Zoe wondered if Emma had been practicing ice skating behind her back.

Gone were the tentativeness and the short, careful steps the blonde had initially taken when they first had stepped onto the ice those long weeks ago. In their place were bold strides and confident slashes across the ice that, while a pleasant surprise, still made Zoe wonder when her lover had grown so comfortable on skates.

"Stop looking at me like I've been cheating on you," Emma chided, as she slid to a halt.


"You've been really busy the past few weeks, Zoe. So I figured I'd take the time to learn how to ice skate better."

"Oh," Zoe responded, oddly disappointed. "I guess I thought I'd be there to help you, is all."

Emma leaned up on her toe picks to plant a light kiss on the tip of her lover's nose. "Well, you still gotta teach me all those great spins and jumps."

"Hmph," Zoe grumped, refusing to be mollified.

"C'mon, Winston, she me your stuff," the blonde laughed, pushing her a bit toward the center of the rink. "I'll get cocoa."

The dark haired woman scowled engagingly, but made her way to the center of the ice as requested. She allowed herself a small shudder of recollection when she passed the penalty box, then pushed the dark memories out of her head to focus on what she was doing.

"Hi Mom, have some cocoa," Emma said plunking down next to Carmen on the bleachers. "She didn't see you come in."

Carmen took a styrofoam cup from Emma gladly, and watched her daughter start to warm up in the middle of the rink. "Is that good?"

"Yeah, I think so. I think she'd trip all over herself if she knew you were here."

They sat together and watched as Zoe launched into her impromptu routine, building up speed with leaps and spins that made them both gasp in surprise.

"Goodness," Carmen breathed, watching as Zoe actually left the ice in a full-body flip and landed solidly on the other end.

"I know, I can barely watch sometimes," Emma murmured, mentally cheering her lover for each landed move.

"I had no idea," Carmen said, then watched the rest of the routine in silent wonder.

When Zoe finally swept to a halt in a shower of shaved ice, she was startled by applause originating from the bleachers. She looked up and saw Emma and her mother giving her a proud standing ovation. She blinked in shock, then made her way over to the edge of the rink.

Emma, of course, gave her a hug, saying something about the most incredible thing she'd ever seen, but Zoe wasn't really paying attention. Instead, she was watching her mother, who just kept shaking her head with apparent amazement. Emma looked between the two, then declared she was off to get a refill on her cocoa.

"Zoe, that was amazing," her mother murmured.

Zoe tried to fight it, but the blush came anyway. "Thank you, Mom."

"Your Emma is pretty amazing, too, I think," she said idly, then seemed to come to a decision. "She brought my daughter back to me, after I was foolish enough to send you away... Zoe, I'm so sorry for what happened before, after your brother... I never should have blamed you for that."

The dark head shook a bit in denial. "You needed to blame somebody."

Carmen's lips pursed, and she wasn't sure how to respond to that. She looked off at the ice for a moment. "Emma said you taught her how to ice skate?"


"Think you could teach me sometime?"

Zoe peeked up, seeing her mother's tentative smile. "Only if you don't mind going around in circles." She let her face relax into an actual grin. "Yeah, I can teach you, Mom."

"Good." A curt nod, and a relieved sniff dispelled Carmen's remaining awkwardness. "Now let's go get back to your Emma before she explodes, huh?"

Zoe laughed and put her arm around her mother's shoulders as they turned toward the concession stand, where Emma was, indeed, fairly twitching with anticipation. Carmen hesitated a moment, but returned the embrace, wrapping her own arm around her taller daughter's waist with long-missed affection.

"Can I open my eyes yet?"


"Zo-eeeee," she whined.

"Not yet, I said."

"I hate you. You know that, right?"

"Yep, I know."

"Can I open my eyes yet ?"

"No. Now would you just relax?"

They were on an elevator in an office building in downtown. Emma was standing in the corner with her eyes screwed shut per Zoe's request, and she was pouting quite childishly. Zoe glanced at the other occupants of the elevator with a wry shrug.

Emma cocked her head, listening to the sounds within the elevator. "There are other people in here, aren't there?" she asked suddenly.

"Yes, sweetheart, there are." Zoe answered.

"Oh." She turned her head with her eyes still closed toward the unseen passengers sharing the elevator. "Sorry," she chirped.

The compartment blessedly came to a stop and dinged, and Zoe gratefully pulled Emma out of the elevator. "C'mon."

Emma grinned widely and followed along, bouncing a bit on the balls of her feet as she walked. She had no idea what this surprise would be, but figured that since Zoe had been working on it for so long, it had to be good. Finally they came to a stop.

"Okay, you can open your eyes," Zoe murmured.

Emma complied, then practically had to blink them closed again in sheer disbelief of what she saw.

It was a frosted glass door, set into an unobtrusive cherry-framed facade. Printed on the glass in neat black script were five words: Frazier and Winston, Private Investigators.

She covered her mouth with her hand, as she stared dumbly at the door. Zoe bounced nervously next to her. "Aren't you gonna go inside?" she asked.

Emma stared up at her lover in shock, then forced her hand to reach up and work the doorknob to push the door open. If she was rendered speechless by the door itself, she damn near keeled over when she walked inside it.

The office was huge, and bright, and airy, with large sparkling windows that afforded an amazing view of downtown, from maybe thirty floors up. She took a few steps, then turned to look around in wonder. There were paintings, and leather couches, and beautiful lamps... She stopped. Her desk, her files, her file cabinet, all from her old office.

"How... did you get my stuff?" she stammered.

"I got the janitor to let me in," Zoe answered with a sheepish chuckle.

Emma looked at her in disbelief. "So this is what you've been working on so hard the past few weeks."

Zoe nodded. "Yeah. Do you like it?"

"Like it?" Emma sputtered. "*Like it*?" She threw herself bodily at her lover, who caught her and swung her around in a joyous twirl. "God, Zoe, I love it. I can't believe you did this!"

Zoe laughed, spinning around one more time before setting her partner down. "I was hoping you would."

Emma just peered up at her adoringly. "You really wanna be a nobody PI with little ol' me?"

A slow nod of the dark head. "Yeah."

"Wow. Awesome." She laughed and gave her lover another hug.

"I realized that I don't just wanna shoot things anymore, I want to help people out if I can. And I thought you and I might make a good team."

"The best," Emma agreed, squeezing her in one more joyous hug, then pulling away a bit to make another circuit of the office. She kept shaking her head in disbelief, grinning madly the entire time. She finally turned back to her partner. "C'mon, I think this couch needs christening."

Zoe laughed and let herself be led over to the spacious soft leather couch, then leaned down over Emma's now prone body to plant a soft kiss on her waiting lips. "You sure you wanna work with me?" she asked teasingly. "You'll have to teach me everything you know," she added, working her fingers at the buttons on Emma's shirt.

"Have to take you everywhere I go," Emma agreed before stealing another kiss.

"But I could be very valuable to you," Zoe said, gasping as Emma's hands worked their way under her belt.

"You are already a gift beyond price, Zoe," Emma murmured. "God, I love you."

Another soft kiss. "Love you back, Frazier."

The phone rang, and was silenced by a well-tossed shoe. There was time enough to deal with that later.

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