DISCLAIMER: All "ER" characters and institutions are the property of Warner Bros., ConstantC Productions and Amblin Television. This is written strictly for entertainment value, no infringement of copyright or ownership is intended, and nobody is making a profit on this piece. As always, any errors in continuity, characterization, or common sense are entirely my own fault.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: Up to "Bygones".

By Scott J Welles

Part One...

In the dream, it's all fucked.

The oxygen mask's failed, she's lost in the smoke, and the burning ceiling's already at the point of collapse.

She yells for her comrades, if any of them can hear her and guide her out, but they're all gone. Either out safe, or lost like her. Or dead.

The floor groans under her feet, cracking and crumbling, and her leg sinks through, pinned. It's all over now. She's not getting out alive.

And the worst part is, it's not just her. The kid in her arms, the one who's counting on her, the big, brave firefighter...he's going to die, too.

This is something every firefighter knows: the Bible has it wrong. Hell isn't reserved for the sinful. It reaches up at random to claim guilty and innocent alike. You don't have to be evil to go to Hell. Just unlucky.

Burning beams fall above her, crushing her against the floorboards with their weight. She can feel the heat of the flames even through her protective coverings. They won't protect her for long.

The flames roar louder, licking against her skin, charring the flesh from her bones...

"Ooughh...!!" She shudders, convulses, jerking herself awake. The soft sheets seem to grate against her skin like sandpaper. She's drenched, swimming in her own sweat, soaking the sheets. And she can't stop shaking.

"Shhh..." whispers the softest voice she's ever heard. Gentle arms wrap around her, holding her close, quieting the violent tremors running through her body. She's a mess, but the woman in bed with her doesn't care. "It's okay," her bedmate whispers. "I've got you. You're safe, now."

And, just like that...she is.

Nobody's ever been able to do that for her before.

As a portion of her consciousness focuses on the waking world, Sandy realizes that Kerry is lying on her left side in order to hold her. Kerry hates sleeping on her left side; she wakes up stiff and sore, and she's crabby all day. But she's making that sacrifice for Sandy.

That's the thing about going to bed with someone; it's more than sex. You learn more from sleeping with someone than just about anything else you do together. You find out what she's like behind the front she puts up when she's awake. You get to know the way she shifts and turns in the middle of the night, the way she mumbles and sighs, the way her elbows fit your ribs. Of course, she's getting the same scoop on you; how you drool on your pillow, how your breath rasps...how you kick and squirm when you have the dreams. Whether you've trimmed your toenails recently...

In your fantasies, the perfect woman doesn't have these little quirks, or at least doesn't mind yours. But in reality, it's surprising how you get to appreciate them, in the right woman.

Sleep comes again, and with it, different memories. Memories of the woman beside her...

Hollywood calls it the "Meet Cute": Boy meets Girl through some silly coincidence, and they fall in love. But in their case, it was Girl meets Girl, and there was nothing cute or silly about it. More like a "Meet Catastrophic". Crashed ambulance, arcing electrical wires, pregnant woman in labor, and pissing down rain to boot. Any firefighter worth their salt, no matter how experienced, would think twice before diving into the middle of that. But this crazy doctor -- this crazy disabled doctor, mind you! -- jumped in like she'd been thinking it over all week. Literally, fucking jumped into the ambulance, in the middle of an electrical shit-storm, and then called her rookie student in after her!

And the damnedest thing of all? She pulled it off. Did a C-Section right then and there, got 'em all out alive again, and went right back to work.

Sandy admires that kind of guts in a woman. In anybody, to tell you the truth, man or woman.

She didn't know the doctor's name at the time, of course, just some overaggressive ER doc who happened to be in the neighborhood when the call came in, but she remembered the woman vividly: hair slicked back by the rain, water streaming down those perfect cheekbones and the clear forehead, skin pale as alabaster in the flickering light. Not too tall, built slim, but not skinny. High, upper-register voice that could crack out like a whip when it had to. You never get a really good look at someone under conditions like those, but you definitely see what they're made of. And Sandy liked what she saw.

It wasn't until later, when the Shift Commander was reconstructing the events for the report, that she learned the doctor's name: Kerry Weaver. It might not have meant anything in the long run, but she filed the name away in her subconscious, just out of respect for a courageous woman who got the damn job done right.

They met properly a few days later. Sandy ran into her at the hospital, and they got their first good look at each other in daylight. Sandy was in uniform, of course, but without all the firefighting gear hiding her face and body. And Kerry -- she was already thinking of her as "Kerry," rather than "Dr. Weaver" -- Kerry's lab coat didn't so much hide her body as hug it. Define and display it.

It was odd how attractive she was. Not exactly a Jennifer Lopez body or a Penelope Cruz face. Dressed a little on the stodgy side, manner was abrupt and curt, and she could stand to do something with the hair. Either trim and shape it a little more, or grow it out longer, one or the other. Then there was the limp; not something Sandy would normally find sexy, and yet...all the pieces that, individually, might have put her off, all somehow came together in a package that was kind of appealing.

Not really Sandy's type, of course. One of those bookish librarian types, or like the school principal who'd called Sandy a discipline case, way back when. Her idea of a big evening was probably a book, a cat, and a cup of tea.

But damn, she sure hadn't moved like no librarian that night!

They talked, in passing, just making friendly noises at each other. Happens sometimes, with any two people who happened to have gone through some intense, potentially deadly experience and lived to tell the tale. Doesn't mean anything, she told herself.

And then Kerry asked her out.

It was the clumsiest proposition Sandy had ever heard -- though she herself was not exactly Casanova, being a basically up-front, straightforward person by nature -- but there was a slightly charming quality about its very clumsiness. Like Kerry wasn't used to being the one to make the first move. But the fact that she'd made it anyway was flattering, from Sandy's point of view. She accepted readily enough, if only for the thought of spending more time with this strangely interesting woman. Hell, she decided she'd even try her hand at ice fishing, if Kerry turned out to be serious about it. You only live once, right?

Or so she thought. Kerry didn't call. Not that Sandy was the sort to wait by the phone and moon about "why doesn't she call? why doesn't she call?" all day. But, y'know, someone screws up the nerve to ask you out, you figure she's gonna follow up, right? Sandy began to think that Kerry had changed her mind; maybe she'd decided Sandy wasn't her type, either.

But then, about a week later, she found herself strolling around with Kerry, as they played the "where shall we have lunch" game. Most of which, of course, is Dating Code for "do you like the same foods I like? Are we compatible enough to share a meal, let alone anything more important?"

They compromised: Sandy's apartment was closer to County General than Kerry's townhouse (ironically, the townhouse was closer to Sandy's firehouse), so they ended up there. Kerry insisted on preparing lunch, although the slim pickings in Sandy's fridge hardly leant themselves to pheasant under glass...

"Mmmph," Sandy mumbled around the last bite of her sandwich. Swallowing, she elaborated, "Okay, so you definitely pass the tuna sandwich test."

"That's a relief," Kerry replied, eyes still on her plate. Her nervousness was obvious, despite the forced cheer.

" 'Cause that's important, you know?" Sandy wished she'd look up and smile or something. "Sandwich quality can make or break a relationship, sometimes. I saw it on Oprah once."

Kerry barely reacted to the humor, lame though it was. This woman jumped into an electrical deathtrap the night they met; what was she so scared of now?

Sandy reached over and nudged her elbow. "Yo, Chef Weaver? Earth to Kerry?"

When Kerry finally looked up at her, there was a tightly controlled quality about her face, like one of those tense 'disarming-the-bomb' scenes in the action movies. One wrong word and she'd cut the red wire instead of the blue wire, and... "I want to kiss you," she said, suddenly. "I want to kiss you, and I have absolutely no idea how to make that transition." Then she clammed up, as though she'd spoken heresy and expected to be prosecuted for it.

Wow, Sandy thought. She's really out of practice at this. Okay, well, we can make it painless.

She moved to Kerry's side and gently turned her by the shoulders so they faced each other squarely. Then, cupping the doctor's face in her hands, she brought their lips together, softly but deliberately.

It was a searching, questioning kiss, Sandy knocking at the door of her lips and asking if the passionate, fearless woman she saw in the rain that night could come out to play. For a long moment, Kerry began to respond...and then she pulled away. Hands on Sandy's shoulders, easing her back.

"I-I'm sorry," she half-whispered. "I just got out of a really serious relationship a while back..."

Oh for God's sake, not that old excuse. "Hey, if you don't want to do this--" she began.

"No, I do," Kerry was quick to protest. "It's just..." She swallowed. "Here's the thing, Sandy, I...I'm still very new to all this, and I don't really know what I'm doing."

Sandy found that easy to believe, somehow.

"Just be patient with me, please," Kerry added, managing to look her in the eye. "If I run a little hot-and-cold on you...please just bear with me, okay?"

Sandy regarded her silently. Part of her said to just dump this neurotic chick right now; it was already looking like she had too many issues to deal with. And Kerry wasn't the kind of girl she usually went for anyway; it wasn't worth the headaches just to get laid. Like the old saying: Never eat at a place called Mom's, play cards with a man named Doc, or get involved with a woman who has more personal problems than you do. But then, Sandy had been known to play cards with her Mom, and Kerry had eaten at a place called Doc's, so maybe...

A quick flash of Kerry's face came to her, glistening wet, lit by the flash of lightning. Determined not to give up, no matter what...

"You like Chinese?" she asked Kerry.

Kerry nodded.

"I'm working the late shift tonight," Sandy said. "How about dinner, back here, tomorrow night?"

A long pause, and then Kerry nodded again with the ghost of a smile.

Sandy timed it well, calling in the order from the firehouse just before she left, then managing to get home just ahead of the delivery guy. The toughest part wasn't traffic, but dodging questions from the guys at the station. Firefighters have a nose for gossip that any sewing circle would envy; your buddies often know you've got a date practically before you do.

She was just out of the shower, dried off, and into shorts and oversized tee shirt when Kerry knocked on her door. Even though she was expecting Kerry, Sandy found herself relieved and delighted. Some part of her had expected Kerry to back out again, and then she'd end up with way too much leftovers. Probably end up eating them cold in front of the Late-Late-Movie on TV or something. But Kerry's knock rescued her from such a pathetic fate.

"Hi," Kerry said, standing in the doorway, looking even more nervous, but determined.

"Hey," Sandy said, beckoning her in. "You hungry?"

"Starved," Kerry admitted. "I didn't get a chance to eat a real lunch today."

"Good," Sandy said. "Take your clothes off."

Kerry laughed nervously, until she saw the look on Sandy's face. "You're kidding...right?"

Sandy just smiled and turned to walk to her bed, carrying the still-warm sack of Chinese food. She set it on floor by the bed and stripped off her own clothes, sitting cross-legged on the bed, naked.

Kerry just watched her, hesitating.

"I got this theory about relationships," Sandy explained, opening the sack and removing cartons. "You meet someone, and you spend a lot of time and effort trying to impress them with how special and romantic you are. You know, dinner and a movie, then sleep together, then..."

"I'm not sure I get it," Kerry ventured.

Sandy finished emptying the paper sack, removing napkins, plastic utensils and chopsticks. "Sooner or later, the romance and the mystery of it all fades," she went on, "and that's when you find out if things are going to work. When it's just two people doing ordinary things together."

Kerry nodded tentatively.

"I figure, if you really want to know if it's gonna work with someone, you jump straight to the 'ordinary' stage. If you can spend an evening just eating Chinese food naked in bed together and feel comfortable without a lot of chitchat, then she's a keeper." Sandy opened the shrimp in lobster sauce; it smelled great. "Then, after that, you can always go back and fill in the whole getting-to-know-you part, with the dinner and dancing and stuff." She raised the sweet and sour pork container. "Hungry?"

"Famished," Kerry said.

"Well, then...?"

For a moment, she thought Kerry was about to turn and flee...and then the redhead shrugged out of her jacket and pulled her shirt over her head. Sandy watched her remove the rest of her clothing and take a seat on the bed, her eyes on Sandy's. She took the pork and a pair of chopsticks and began eating. "So, no talking?"

"No talking." Sandy took a plastic fork and dug into the shrimp.

Kerry made a questioning gesture toward the other cartons.

"You can talk to say stuff like 'pass the duck sauce'," Sandy told her. "We're not under a vow of silence."

"Pass the duck sauce," Kerry said.

Sandy passed it and opened the steamed rice. "It's just that the idea's to get used to being in a room with someone and not have to charm or impress them or anything, just be okay just hanging out with them. You know, so you don't feel like anything's wrong if you're not filling the air with small talk about your day, or stories about when you were a kid, or--"

"Sandy," Kerry interrupted.


"Shhh." Kerry raised her chopsticks to her lips in a shushing motion.

Oh. Right.

They ate quietly, occasionally trading cartons and exchanging curious glances at each other's nude bodies. Once, they caught each other looking, and laughed. Kerry's cheeks flushed slightly, but she didn't look nervous anymore. She looked exactly right, eating with the chopsticks like they were a natural part of her body.

"Damn, girl," Sandy muttered. "My hand hurts just watching that."

Kerry smiled.

"You know, there's another fork here, if you want it."

She shook her head. "You ought to try using these. It's really pretty easy."

"No thanks." Sandy didn't want to spill all over her bed. If her sheets were going to get all wet and sticky, she preferred it to happen a different way.

"Come on, try it," Kerry urged her. "Thousands of people used chopsticks for hundreds of years."

"Yeah, and then some genius went and invented the fork, and we could all breathe easier."

Kerry rotated her hand, chopsticks upraised between her fingers in a 'screw you' gesture.

Sandy chuckled and finished the cashew chicken.

An easy silence hovered over the rest of the meal. Sandy was gratified at how natural she felt being naked with Kerry. There wasn't a pressure to be interesting or attractive, just themselves. On the surface of things, she and Kerry made an odd pair; she wouldn't have pictured herself dating someone like Kerry, but she couldn't deny that they'd found something important; that elusive comfort zone that allowed two people to be together. You couldn't plan on it or determine who you'd find it with by the numbers; either you found it with any given person or you didn't. And now, against all the odds, here it was. Maybe if more people tried this first, the divorce rate wouldn't be so high.

Collecting the empties and stuffing them back into the bag, Sandy set it on the floor and sat back beside Kerry. They reclined together, both pleasantly full. "So what do you think?" she asked.

"I think there weren't enough eggrolls," Kerry said. She looked at Sandy. "Next time, we should order more."

That brought a smile to Sandy's face. So she wants there to be a next time...

They looked at each other for a while without speaking, and then Kerry slipped a hand behind Sandy's neck, under her hair, and drew her closer. This time, the kiss was not a question, but an answer.

No matter how likely it may seem, or how inevitable it looms in the immediate future, the moment when sex begins always thrills Sandy. Even when she knows it's coming, there is something about the exact instant when hopes and fantasies become the real thing. She can't entirely describe it, or prepare for the effect it has on her. It's like stepping through a shimmering curtain of warm water and into pure, blissful "now".

Kerry's lips caressed hers, enfolding, exploring, embracing. Sandy took it a step further, ever-so-gently levering Kerry's lips apart with the tip of her tongue, sliding it inside. It was met at the entrance to Kerry's mouth by the redhead's own tongue, the moist, agile surfaces sliding silkily around and against each other. A dance of greeting, of invitation and introduction. This was the real 'getting-to-know-you' part.

Kerry's arm tightened around her neck, pulling their bodies together, and Sandy slid one arm behind Kerry's shoulders in response. Her other hand found Kerry's breast, fingers filling with the pliant, milky flesh, nipple pulsing against her palm with each breath like a ripe fruit. Kerry sighed, the sound muffled by Sandy's mouth, resonating through her teeth. Sandy carefully squeezed and kneaded the breast, at once demanding and promising satisfaction.

Without breaking the kiss, Kerry took Sandy's hand from her breast and moved it lower. Down to her abdomen.

Sandy shifted, lowering Kerry from her half-seated position to lie on her back, covering Kerry's body with her own. She was privately proud that she managed to do this without their lips parting. Her own breasts melded against Kerry's as she adjusted position, one leg slipping between the doctor's. Resting on knees and one elbow, Sandy's left hand cupped the back of Kerry's head, red hair sliding through her fingers. Her right hand continued its advance, tracing through short, curly hairs -- yes, she was a natural redhead! -- and into the valley of the promised land. Her middle fingers slid inside without resistance.

Kerry's back arched, her mouth pulling away with a tremulous gasp. Her entire body was quivering with anticipation.

"Is this what you want, Doc?" Sandy whispered against her cheek.

Kerry nodded breathlessly, both hands engulfed in Sandy's hair, clutching her head. Her legs wrapped around Sandy's leg tightly, trapping Sandy's hand in place.

"Relax," Sandy urged her. "I'm not going anywhere." She resumed her stroking motion, coaxing, teasing, slowly drawing the inevitable climax out of Kerry's trembling form. She let Kerry's hands guide her head downward, to her chest, catching a nipple between her lips, lathing it with her tongue, circling the areola. All the while, playing Kerry's body like a musical instrument.

Kerry's moans were steady, almost rhythmic. They increased in frequency and pitch, rising and tightening until Kerry shuddered, a sudden frisson of air escaping her lips. Sandy felt the sudden wetness against her hand.

Slowly withdrawing her fingers from the limp woman's entrance, Sandy regarded her with skepticism. "Is that it?" she asked. "Oh, come on, you can do better than that."

To her surprise, Kerry seemed to take her seriously, looking almost ashamed. "I'm sorry," she whispered, turning her face away.

Regretting her choice of words, Sandy used the same hand to carefully turn Kerry's face to look at her. "Hey, Kerry, I was kidding," she assured the distraught woman. "I just meant that the next one will be even bigger." Her fingers left smears of Kerry's own wetness on her cheek.

"Sandy, I..." Kerry didn't look so confident. "I don't...know if I can..."

"Well, I do. Trust me." It amazed her how self-conscious Kerry seemed to be about sex. She'd expected that a spirit of lightning lurked beneath that frosty exterior, waiting to be unleashed, as Sandy had seen it unleashed that night in the ambulance. But if she was in there, something was holding her in tightly. Buried beneath the ice.

Best way to fight ice is with fire.

Sandy kissed the point of Kerry's chin, then her neck, then the hollow of her throat, then the center of her breastbone...leaving a trail of soft, but determined kisses, down to the juncture of her legs. Kerry writhed as Sandy's mouth neared her sex, her moans resuming as she felt the firefighter's tongue trace the cleft between her lips.

"Say my name," Sandy said.

"Sandy..." Kerry gasped.

"Don't stop," Sandy warned, parting those sweet lips with her fingers, "or I will."

"Saanndy," Kerry repeated, forcing her moans into the shape of her name. "Sannndy..."

The younger woman smiled, adjusting the motion of her tongue to match the rhythm and pacing of Kerry's repetition. Slowing as Kerry's voice did, picking up as Kerry's did. Letting her control the speed of things. Giving her just a hint of control before Sandy took it away again.

"Sandy..." Kerry said it faster, as Sandy's thumb stroked her clit. "Sandy, Sandy, Sandy...!"

"Almost there, Kerry," Sandy assured her, barely sparing a moment for the words before driving her tongue in again to wallow in Kerry's unique flavor. She loved eating pussy more than just about anything she could think of; the thrill of bringing a woman to orgasm was equaled only by the rush of bringing someone safely out of a burning building, alive and well.

"Sandy! San-- OH!" Kerry broke off suddenly, a shivering tremor running through her frame as her head arched back. Then it dissolved, like a fever breaking, and she let out a slow, shuddering breath. "Ohh-hh-hh...."

"There, you see?" Sandy swept her tongue around the perimeter of Kerry's sex, lapping up the residue of nectar, kissing and licking to sustain the afterglow of orgasm.

Kerry was crying softly when Sandy returned to her eye level.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Sandy asked, concerned.

The doctor shook her head. "Nothing," she said. "After I broke up with Kim, I...I felt like..."

Sandy stroked her face. "Like you'd never have that feeling again?"

Kerry nodded, silently.

Wiping away the tears with her fingertips, Sandy said, "She was your first, wasn't she?"

Kerry nodded again, her face composed. "Thank you," she whispered, a little smile crossing her face.

Sandy kissed her lips. "S'okay," she said. "Just one rule, though."

"What's that?"

"First time, it's free. No charge." Sandy put on her stern face. "Next time, though, you've gotta pay your own way."

Kerry looked her quizzically in the eye. "Meaning, next time we have sex, I have to make you come, too, is that it?"

"Uh-huh." Sandy nodded. "Is that a problem for you?"

"No, but..." Kerry did something, out of Sandy's view, and suddenly she felt a strong, confident hand at her cunt, fingers thrusting easily into her. "Why wait until next time?" Kerry finished.

Sandy gasped in surprise as Kerry's hand stimulated her expertly. "Oh Jesus, Kerry..."

"This what you had in mind?" Kerry asked, licking at the side of Sandy's neck.

She closed her eyes and nodded, biting her own lip to keep from crying out. "Mm-hmm..."

"Don't come yet," Kerry instructed her, while apparently doing everything she could to make Sandy come quickly. "I want to taste you."

Sandy felt herself flush with excitement, inside and out, as Kerry slid down on the bed, bringing her face to the level of Sandy's pelvis and pulling her down onto Kerry's mouth. "Shit, girl," she gasped. "What are you doing to me?"

Kerry's eyes met hers. "I'm fucking you," she replied. "Now shut up."

Sandy had only a moment to feel surprise at the suddenly aggressive turn Kerry had taken, and then that surprise was washed away by elation as she felt Kerry's arms wrap around her hips and Kerry's lips and tongue engulfing her clitoris. She lost track of time after that; it could have been seconds or hours before she exploded into a delicious climax, liquefying into Kerry's mouth and collapsing, all but spent, onto her back.

"Is that the best you've got?" Kerry provoked her, mockingly.

Opening her eyes, Sandy felt a sudden thrill as she recognized the flashing eyes of the woman from the ambulance. The Lady of the Lightning. Unleashed at last.

"Come on," Kerry repeated her words, bringing her mouth again to Sandy's cunt. "You can do better than that."

And she did.

It's a good memory, and a good part of the dream. Sandy sighs in Kerry's arms, and wants to stay here forever. But even now she can tell that the good dreams never stay; they always shift into the bad ones, sooner or later.

The ones where it's all fucked...

Part Two...

She shifts and rolls, settling into Kerry's embrace and trying to dispel the queasy feeling running through her. It's always like this after a bad one, where she nearly didn't make it out. Sometimes even weeks or months after. Memories don't go away, they just get buried for a while. Until they dig themselves up.

Kerry understands; she has her bad nights, too. They've both held and comforted each other as needed. But this one's worse than most.

Sandy dreams, remembering...

Waking up with someone the morning after you first go to bed with her is a process of discovery in itself. It's the moment when you look at each other and find out whether the passion you shared is out of your system, or out of hers, or if you both want to keep going.

Sandy awoke before Kerry did, but she could tell that Kerry's waking mind was just beneath the surface. A gentle touch might be enough to rouse her.

She kissed Kerry's bare shoulder, spooning behind the redhead, and moved her hands up to gently cup and caress her breasts. Warm, whispery contact, easing her softly into daylight. Kerry sighed, mumbling something formless. Wake up, honey, I'm right here.

Sandy continued her kisses, slowly, down across Kerry's shoulder blade, along the length of her spine, toward her alabaster buttocks, over their smooth curve, to the joining of her legs. Kerry stirred, her hands covering Sandy's.

Twisting and infiltrating between Kerry's legs, Sandy eased her onto her back, wordlessly asking her to spread her thighs once more. Kerry obliged, eyes still closed dreamily, and Sandy repeated her exploration of Kerry's sex, lips and tongue covering ground that they had memorized the night before. As far as she was concerned, anyone worth tasting once was worth tasting twice.

Kerry's hands twined through her hair, pulling her in closer, and her sighs became moans of growing desire.

Sandy found the rhythm, like an erotic mantra, resonating into Kerry's clit and through her entire body. Come for me, baby, let me know you love it. Let me hear you.

Kerry finally came, in an intense, almost two-staged climax, groaning through clenched teeth, then releasing it like liquid becoming vapor. Sandy was already amazed at the uniqueness of this woman.

When the shuddering aftereffects had settled, Kerry finally opened her eyes, locking onto Sandy's. "Come here," she whispered raggedly, and pulled Sandy's body up against her own in a blistering kiss. Her tongue forced its way into Sandy's mouth, exploring every part within reach. Sandy sucked on it gratefully, her arms encircling Kerry's waist and pulling her in tight.

At last, they eased apart with a moist suckling sound. "Good morning, girlfriend," Sandy smiled.

"Ohh, God, yes it is..." Kerry breathed. She stared into Sandy's eyes for a time, as though exploring the secrets of this vivid new presence in her life by force of will alone. Then she said, "Roll over."

Apparently she likes being the boss, Sandy thought, as she obliged. Just can't help giving orders...

Kerry rolled on top of her lover, kissing the rich, brown skin of her throat and chest, marking her territory. She laid claim to Sandy's firm breasts, the upper swells, inner slopes, and the hard peaks of her nipples, one and then the other, engulfing each one in her mouth, teeth entrapping the nub as her tongue grated wetly over the tip. She sucked hard, causing a delirious surge of desire to pulse through Sandy's body. God, and this woman thought she didn't know what she's doing?!

It was as if there were two Kerry Weavers: one conservative, correct, and demure; the other wild, impassioned, and powerful. Both part of her, yet unable to work in concert. One dominated while at work, showing the world the image of civility and stability above all things; the other lurked beneath, waiting to break free and conquer every challenge that lay before her. It was the latter that Sandy had seen that dark and stormy night, leaping into the ambulance, and it was that same Kerry who was now nuzzling at her vulva, penetrating her expertly, even artistically.

She writhed, squirming on the damp sheets, groaning and quivering as Kerry's masterfully gifted tongue drove her crazy in the best possible way. To look at this reserved, bookish woman at work, you'd never have guessed that she harbored a true passion for women beneath that Ice Queen exterior...

Sandy felt herself driven, helplessly, into a real scorcher of a climax, falling and drifting into a plateau that went on forever. She let herself melt, luxuriating in the warmth as Kerry crawled up to cover Sandy's body with her own, kissing her face. "Did you like that?" she whispered, her mouth still against Sandy's cheek. Sandy could Kerry's lips curving into a smile.

"No, I'm faking it," she replied languorously.

Kerry poked her in the belly. Sandy squealed and laughed, Kerry joining in her laughter. They held each other and giggled, rolling over almost to the point of falling off the bed. That just made them laugh more. Sandy liked laughing with this woman.

When they settled, Sandy let her hands glide over Kerry's back, loving the way this woman's skin felt against her own. "Hey," she began. "Do you like to--?"

Kerry suddenly jerked up. "What time is it?" she asked, looking around. Spotting Sandy's bedside clock, she yelled, "Shit!" and rolled to her feet with surprising agility.

"Huh? What's wrong?"

"I overslept!" Kerry replied, tugging her clothes on frantically. "I never oversleep, dammit! I'm late for my shift!"

Sandy rolled to face her, pulling the sheet around herself. "What's the problem?" she asked. "You're the chief, right?"

Kerry threw her a brief, annoyed glance as she pulled on her shirt. "Yes, so I need to set a good example," she explained tautly. "If I start slacking off, I'll never get anyone else to shape up."

Watching the 'other' Kerry reassert herself, Sandy wondered if she was really that uptight, or if this was just an excuse to break things off here.

"You ought to throw that out before it draws the bugs," Kerry said, nodding at the sack of Chinese containers, still where Sandy had set it the night before. She collected the last of her things, grabbed the crutch and stood to leave. Lingering awkwardly in the door, she looked back and said, "Um, listen..."

"Don't worry about it," Sandy told her. "Go to work."

"Thanks." Kerry bit her lip. "I'll call you," she said before disappearing.

Sandy sighed and let herself lie back, staring resignedly at the ceiling. No, you won't, she thought.

But she did. And that night, they made love again.

Every relationship is a little different; no two human pairings have quite the same bond between them. Some are about giddy, wild romance, as sweet as cotton candy, and just about as substantial. Others are deep, enduring bonds formed by shared commitment to facing life's adversities together. Some are fundamental, even spiritual bonds: soulmates, they're commonly called. And sometimes people are together just for the convenience of shut-up-and-fuck-me sex.

Sandy thought that she and Kerry leaned toward the latter, if anything. That wasn't a judgment of value, just an observation. Both women worked long hours; a good day was mindless toil and tedium, a bad day was life and death. Both were practical, realistic women who had little room in their lives for candy and flowers, but both appreciated having someone to crawl into bed with at the end of a long day (work hours permitting, of course).

From there, it all depended on how they were feeling. Sometimes they'd exchange gripes and anecdotes: "You wouldn't believe what a crappy day I've had..." or "This patient did the weirdest thing today..." Sometimes they'd just exchange a few words of greeting before sinking into a tangle of arms, legs, and mouths, finding blissful escape in mutual orgasm. Sometimes, they just slept together without sex, content with a warm skin against their own.

They didn't talk of the past, about family or friends, old loves or childhood dreams. They didn't talk about the future, of aspirations or plans. They didn't talk of love. All that mattered was now, and now was taken care of.

The rare exception was Kim. Kerry's Kim. The name would slip out every once in a while, in passing. They'd be sharing a joke about something, and Kerry would say, "I remember Kim once told me..." without thinking, or, "Kim and I saw this thing on 'Dateline', once..." and then Kerry's smile would dim a bit, and she'd either clam up or change the subject.

Sandy never mentioned it when Kerry did this, but privately, she was forming her own image of this Kim, and she didn't like it. Tall, blonde, yuppie Kim. 'Kimmy'. Probably spent her evenings sipping white wine and reading Jane Austen while listening to fucking Mozart. Wouldn't be caught dead with a blue-collar, beer-drinkin' chica like Sandy, whose idea of music was Melissa or J-Lo (and she kinda liked Pink, though she was embarrassed to admit it publicly), and whose favorite food in the world was firehouse five-alarm chili. 'Kimmy' probably ate sushi and shit like that, unless she was, like, a vegan or something. Fucking Kim, give me a break.

As a rule, though, she never voiced this opinion to Kerry. Whatever Sandy might think of this woman she'd never met, she'd been important to Kerry at one time. She brought out Kerry's Sapphic side, so Sandy supposed she owed Kim for that. Kerry'd loved her, however much she ended up being hurt by her. And it wasn't like Denise had been so perfect, as much as she'd meant to Sandy. Kerry probably wouldn't like Denise, either.

Problem was, Sandy occasionally found herself wondering if Kerry really liked her. Sure, the sex was good -- okay, the sex was total bugfuck, sheet-ripping, twist-again-like-we-did-last-summer GREAT, if you want to be honest -- but she couldn't stop thinking that Kerry was, well, kind of slumming with her. Hangin' with the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. She could more easily see a classy, brainy, upscale woman like Kerry with her little 'Kimmy' (even in her head, the name came out sarcastically) than with a rough-and-tumble, one-of-the-guys kinda girl like her. Would Kerry wake up one day and realize she could do better...?

Sandy always forced such thoughts out of her head. She and Kerry weren't about that shit. They hung out together, ate simple meals on the couch or in bed, no candlelight or violins, traded daily gripes, made each other laugh, and made love like weasels. Lesbian weasels who took breaks to watch ESPN or Lifetime, anyway. It lasted as long as it lasted, that's all.

One morning, awakening before Kerry, she propped herself up on one elbow and watched the woman sleeping beside her, enjoying the way the sunlight caressed the curve of Kerry's cheek and glinted off the red in her hair. There was a relaxed, peaceful quality to Kerry's face that Sandy never saw when Kerry was awake. She saw Kerry happy, angry, tired, sad, playful, pissed-off, and occasionally even a little goofy, but never really peaceful. There was too much of her job in her, even off duty. Except when she slept.

Sandy ran a light fingertip over the cheekbone, down the bridge of her nose to the tip, and along the curve of her lips. This is mine, she thought. This moment when the ice is melted, and she's completely vulnerable. Kim may have had it once, but it's all mine now.

Did Kerry have thoughts like these when Sandy was asleep...?

"What are you doing?" Kerry asked, her eyes opening just a slit, her lips curving up in the faintest of smiles.

"Just looking," Sandy said.

Kerry, on her stomach, drew in a deep breath through her nose, stretching languorously, hugging her pillow with both arms. "Is looking all you're going to do?" she purred.

It was as clear an invitation as any human being had ever received in the entire history of life on the planet Earth, but for once, Sandy had a different thought. "Nah, I'm gonna do something else," she said, slipping out of bed and crossing the bedroom.

Kerry watched her with a puzzled look. "From over there?"

Sandy rummaged in her dresser, her back to Kerry, until she came up with the disposable camera she'd bought for her brother's bachelor party. Ten months ago, and she'd only taken two pictures at the time, so it'd been sitting in her drawer, waiting for another photo occasion. Well, if the way Kerry looked first thing in the morning wasn't a Kodak Moment, she didn't know what was. "Say 'Cheese Whiz'," she said.

"Oh, Sandy, no...!" Kerry buried her face in the pillow. "Don't..."

"Come on, Kerry, let's see that smile," Sandy pleaded.

Kerry pulled the covers over her head and curled into a fetal position. "Uh-uh," her voice came from beneath the blankets.

"You look beautiful, Kerry!"

"Not a chance!"


A hand poked out and flipped her the bird. "Go 'way!"

"I know you're smilin' under there."

"Am not!" There was a quiver of restrained giggles around the words.

"C'mon, pleeeeease?" she wheedled. "For me, honey?"

Kerry growled, deep in her throat, but tousled red hair began to appear above the blanket.

"Come on out," Sandy coaxed, sighting through the lens. "Honey bunny, ducky downy, sweetie chicken pie, little ever-lovin' blue-eyed jelly bean...?"

"Fuck you," Kerry snarled unconvincingly, teeth bright in her shy smile. Her eyes (not blue, by the way) twinkled.

"There she is, I gotcha," Sandy grinned, snapping and advancing the film. "Smile, baby."

Kerry turned her face up to her lover, a sunny smile dominating her face, and rolled onto her back, arms crossed behind her head.

Sandy snapped another one. "Now blow me a kiss. C'mon, gimme them lips, honey."

Kerry tried to comply, but she was giggling too hard. "Did you just say 'gimme them lips'?" she laughed.

Sandy waited until they were through laughing, and Kerry's face had fallen into a relaxed, almost angelic smile. Then she took another picture.

Kerry rolled onto her side, not hiding, but facing Sandy directly, the covers pushed to her waist. Sandy could just make out the peak of her nipples beneath the camisole she often wore to bed. "I don't know when's the last time anybody took my picture," she admitted.

"They should," Sandy said, moving in for a close-up. "You're beautiful."

Kerry rolled her eyes bashfully. The shot Sandy captured, just her face, completely natural and without artifice, was the best she'd gotten. If it came out well, she swore to get it framed. "Can I have it?" Kerry said.


"The camera. Can I have it?" Kerry gestured. "I want to photograph you."

Sandy blinked in surprise. "Ummm..."

"Pwetty pwease...?" Kerry batted her eyes at Sandy...

And Sandy found herself handing the camera over. She got off the bed and turned away from Kerry.

"Don't be shy," Kerry said.

"Who's being shy?" Sandy answered, hugging herself and tilting to look coyly over her shoulder. "I'm just givin' you something to shoot."

"Mmm, baby..." Kerry snapped and advanced, snapped and advanced as Sandy pivoted slowly, her slinky smile easing into a full-frontal 'come hither' look. "That's it...now flex those shoulders."

Sandy pulled her hands back to her hips, squaring her shoulders and tensing her biceps, showing off the gym time she'd put in. She pursed her lips in a smooch as the shutter clicked. "You like?"

"Uh-huh..." Click. "Lick your lips for me."

Ooh, this is getting interesting, Sandy thought, slowly running the tip of her tongue over her own lips, clockwise. "Like this?"

"Oh yeah..." Kerry sighed. She twisted onto her front, angling toward her lover, camera propped on her elbows. "More, keep it coming..."

Okay, you asked for it... Sandy took hold of the hem of her tank top and pulled it taut, outlining her breasts sharply (click), then raised it slowly over her belly (click), then up over her head, baring herself to the waist (click). She crossed her forearms under her breasts, framing them (click), and then let one hand slide down under the waistband of her boxers (click). "You want me to take 'em off?"

There was a breathy quaver in Kerry's voice. "Yes..."

Moving to music only she could hear, Sandy drew it out like a striptease artist, rotating her hips, each inch of skin flirting, teasing, revealing itself slowly. She turned in place again, sliding the boxers off her ass and down her thighs, calves and ankles to the floor, stepping out of them, leaving herself nude in front of her girlfriend. She ran her hands back behind her hair and lifted it away from the nape of her neck, revealing the unbroken line of her body from head to toe.

Kerry snapped away behind her.

Without warning, Sandy spun her upper body around on crossed legs, arms crossed over her chest, hiding her breasts as if Kerry was a stranger bursting in on her. Keeping her legs crossed as though to conceal her sex, she slid the hands down her shoulders and upper chest until she held her own breasts in her hands, nipples palmed flirtatiously.

The camera kept clicking, Kerry's hips rising and falling unconsciously on the bed in time with her breath. "Closer..."

Sandy let her hands glide lower, revealing erect nipples jutting out like thimbles, palms flowing like water down over her stomach to her pelvis as she stalked closer to Kerry. She'd never done anything quite like this before, but she loved it. She was burning inside, the flames crackling up along her bones, the heat building in the center of her body, gathering down between her legs. Her face was hot, her skin afire, smoke practically pouring out of her as she knelt on the bed, spreading her labia with both hands, opening herself before Kerry's camera.

Kerry scooted backward to keep her in frame, breathing heavily. "God, so beautiful..."

Sandy let herself sink to hands and knees, then to elbows and knees, then spread her arms and legs until she lay facedown, teeth bared in a jaguar's snarl. She was about two seconds from pouncing on her lover and devouring her...

"Whoa-ULP!!" ...when Kerry fell off the bed with a thump.

"Kerry! Oh shit, are you okay?!" Sandy scrambled to the edge and peered over.

Kerry lay awkwardly on her back, legs tangled in the sheet, in possibly the least dignified moment of her life. "Um... Ow."

And they both burst out laughing. Talk about a mood breaker...

Sandy offered Kerry a hand up and hauled her back onto the bed. She lay back, Kerry nestled by her side, head on her shoulder, hand on her breast, and they just lay there together, as worn out by hysterical laughter as they'd ever been by sex.

"You know we ran out of film about halfway through that," Kerry finally said.

"I don't care, it was worth it."

"Oh hell, yeah."

Sandy breathed in, feeling the warm pressure of Kerry's cheek against her rising chest. She could remember every woman she'd ever had sex with, but she couldn't remember any of them just resting against her like this. Surely some of them had done so, but they had left no memory. Yet Sandy knew immediately that this moment would never be forgotten.

She looked around at her bedroom. She and Kerry had made love plenty of times in her bed. And occasionally on her sofa. And once in her shower. Always, somehow, they had gravitated here, to Sandy's apartment. As wonderful as that had been, she felt a sudden impulse to go somewhere else. Do something else. Would Kerry feel the same? "Hey, Ker?"


"Um...you got next Thursday off, right?"


"Yeah, me too." It was a minor miracle, the first time their days off had coincided. "You wanna, um, maybe...do something together?"

Kerry's eyes opened, and she lifted her face to look into Sandy's. "Do something?"

"Yeah, you know...go out...dinner, maybe a movie..."

"You say 'ice fishing' and I go for your ticklish spots," Kerry warned.

Sandy giggled. "Well, actually, I've got something similar in mind..." she replied, glancing at the triangular banner pinned to her wall...

Kerry looked at her curiously. "Oh?"

"You like hockey?"

The fine eyebrows went up. "Hockey..." she repeated.

Uh-oh, she's not the hockey type. Duh. "But we don't have to," Sandy backpedaled. "I mean, y'know, it was just a dumb idea..."

"No, I like hockey," Kerry assured her hastily. "I do."

"Yeah, right..."

"No, really, ask anybody." It was almost laughable how hard Kerry was clinging to this story. "Ask the ER staff; they'll all tell you what a wicked slap-shot I have."

"Hey, it's okay, we can do something else." She had a vision of Kerry suggesting they go to the opera or something. Personally, Sandy figured that opera was only good if it was under ten minutes long and had Bugs and Elmer in it. 'Kimmy' would probably take her to the opera...

"No, now I've got my heart set on hockey. It's your fault, you suggested it--"

"You've never been to a hockey game, have you?"

"No..." Kerry admitted. "But the last time I tried something different, it worked out pretty well."

Sandy looked closely at her. "You serious...?"

She nodded. "Completely. Can we get tickets?"

"Sure. I know a guy."

"Okay, then." Kerry stroked a finger along Sandy's chin. "I'll make you a deal. I'll go to a hockey game with you if you'll do something for me first."

Sandy arched a brow, intrigued. "And what's that?"

Kerry seemed to uncoil from where she lay, raising herself up until she was half-covering Sandy's body with her own. She took Sandy's chin in her hand and brought it toward her own until the tips of their noses touched. With bare millimeters of space between their mouths, breath commingling, she whispered, "Gimme them lips, honey."

The fire raging to life within her again, Sandy pulled Kerry's face down to hers and kissed her, long and deep.

Pulling back away very, very slowly, Kerry whispered, "Not those lips. The other ones." Her eyes burned into Sandy's with the intensity of raw lightning.

It wasn't long before a piercing scream of joy made Sandy's neighbors jump.

Old Liam Clancy, Sandy's mentor, liked to joke that being a lieutenant in the fire department isn't hard. All you have to do is stay on the job long enough without either quitting or dying. Even if you do make lieutenant, or captain, or whatever, it'll be the same; sooner or later, one way or the other, you end up burned out. If you're lucky, it's just a manner of speaking.

For Clancy, it was literal. He died trying to save a family of four from a fifth-floor apartment in the middle of a conflagration most people couldn't imagine. She's never stopped missing him.

But as much as she'd love to see him again, she hates it when he appears in her dreams. Those dreams, the ones where he puts in an appearance, are the worst. Not because he's burned or anything, but because she knows those dreams are an indicator of how close she's come to joining him on the other side. They hit her at night after things have gone bad, and there was a very real possibility that she might not have come out alive. Or, worse, when someone else didn't.

Those are the worst. Those are the absolute motherfuckers that reach into her stomach, grab a fistful of intestines and try to yank them out in a knot. The ones that wake her up, cramping and shaking like a junkie trying to kick the habit, telling her she ain't gettin' no rest tonight.

She hasn't had those dreams since meeting Kerry; maybe she's been lucky. Or maybe Kerry's presence in her bed has had a tranquilizing effect on her.

Not that she hasn't had bad nights while they were together; there are other dreams, not as bad, but still not good, that have her tossing and turning, whimpering and moaning, and Kerry's hushed her and patted her and rubbed her and held her...and she's gotten through them okay. And, to be fair, she's held Kerry through a few disquieting nocturnal visions of her own. They don't talk about their dreams; they don't need to. Each knows what line of work the other's in, and all the nightmare-fodder that comes with their jobs. It's not necessary to talk about the details of their dreams. They both know.

Tonight is different, though. Tonight, it's a bad one. Clancy, once one of her favorite faces, now the one she never wants to see, is taking center stage in her mind's eye.

He's standing there, in the burning school, as the flames close in on her, where she's trapped between fallen beams and rotting floorboards, her oxygen failing and the boy crying in her arms. Clancy's in full gear, like her, but he makes no move to assist her, to pull her free or lift the boy from her arms. That's not his job anymore, not since he died. Now he's here to let her know her time's come.

And not just hers, or the boy's. It gets worse...

"No, NO...!!" She jerks herself awake, fists clenched, fingernails cutting crescents into her palms, her gorge rising...

Kerry's arms are around her again, pulling her close. Her hands are soft as they ease taut muscles, softening them, relaxing them with a touch. She whispers all the right things in Sandy's ear, guiding her out of the delirium, talking her down from the edge of panic.

Sandy lets out a sob, torn between the urge to hold Kerry close and the impulse to pull away like a wounded animal. The latter wins out, and Kerry doesn't stop her.

The sheets are sweaty and her tank and boxers are soaked, but Kerry stays with her, ignoring the clamminess of her skin or the acrid stench of mortal terror. Kerry's been there. Kerry's staying.

It's okay, she assures Sandy with her body and her voice. It's all okay.

But Sandy knows it's not okay. The worst of the dream is still ahead, just waiting for her to sleep again.

And, in the dream, it's fucked. It's all fucked.

Part Three...

The dream continues. The tapestry of memories unfolds...

She raised her fist, paused self-consciously, and then knocked hard at the door.

"Who is it?" Esme demanded, though Sandy knew she was looking through the peephole.

"Vice squad," Sandy snapped. "We got a report that there's women in there, performing lewd and immoral acts on each other, in defiance of biblical doctrine and common decency."

"Yeah, so?"

"So, lemme in. I wanna watch."

The door flew open and Esme pulled her into a gruff hug. "Hey, you," she growled. "Get in here, bitch." Sandy let Esme pull her in and close the door behind her. "God, girl, you look good," she said with a grin.

"You, too," Sandy said, running her eyes over her friend. Esme was perhaps the most androgynous woman she'd ever known, and everything about her, from her clothes to her haircut to the way she carried herself, was carefully calculated to scream 'DYKE' at everyone who saw her. "Getting fat, though," she added.

"Lick me," Esme shot back, grinning fiercely. She was one of Sandy's oldest and dearest friends, going back before they were old enough to even consider things like sexuality, and even after they'd both come out to themselves, they'd never been lovers. On some level, both knew it would only last long enough to fuck up their lifelong friendship, and neither wanted that.

Janet came out of the bedroom, gesturing them both to silence and easing the door shut behind her. "I just got Aaron down," she whispered, then crossed to give Sandy a sisterly kiss in greeting. "He's been fussy about going to bed lately."

"I'm sorry, Jan, I hope I didn't come at a bad time," Sandy said.

"No, of course not," she said, gesturing Sandy to sit down. "Why don't we see more of you?"

She sat on the couch beside Janet. "Hey, you know, work and all..."

Esme returned from the small kitchen with a beer for her. " 'And all' being this new girlfriend?" she prodded, sitting on Sandy's other side.

"Yeah, when are we going to meet her?" Janet added. Janet was a complete contrast to her life-partner, as femme as Esme was butch. Even most of the other lesbians she met initially mistook her for straight. But they'd been together for almost nine years.

"Um..." Sandy stalled, swallowing a mouthful of beer. "You're not. We broke up."

They made all the usual noises of sympathy, and Sandy would have been happy to change the subject, but they weren't about to let her get away with that. She'd known that before she came here, and it was actually the main reason for her visit.

So she told them. About the ambulance and the lightning, and the way Kerry had shyly propositioned her over stitches. About the kiss over tuna sandwiches, and the Chinese dinner in bed that led to their first night together. She told them about fooling around with the camera (and no, they couldn't see the pictures!), and about how Kerry had talked herself into going to her first hockey game with Sandy.

And she told them what had gone wrong at the hockey rink.

The details blurred in her head, washed out by the overall feelings, like looking through a windshield blurred by rainwater. Making their way through the crowd and the souvenir stands, on their way to their seats, laughing and talking about how much fun they were going to have. Sandy looking forward to the game, but more than that, enjoying being out with Kerry. Being with Kerry. Letting the world see how happy she was with this remarkable, unusual woman.

And Kerry suddenly froze, as though punched in the stomach. She stiffened, suddenly pale, and turned away as sharply as if yanked by a leash, hiding herself from sight.

Sandy gaped at her in confusion, unable to fathom what could have this effect on a woman courageous enough to jump into an electrified ambulance. What could induce this kind of sheer, paralyzing dread?

Kerry said something she only half-heard, and then Sandy caught sight of a familiar face passing through the crowd. A black man, laughing and talking with a blonde woman. She sort of knew him from somewhere...from the hospital? Yeah, his name was Malik something, a nurse. From Kerry's ER. What was the prob--?

Then she figured it out.

"She's not out?" Janet said.

Sandy shook her head.

Esme exhaled, swearing under her breath.

Sandy told them how she'd bitterly accused Kerry of being closeted, feeling hurt and betrayed beyond anything she'd anticipated. How she'd stormed away, the hockey game forgotten. Leaving Kerry behind.

"Good for you, babe," Esme told her, hand on Sandy's shoulder. "Life's too short, right?"

"Es, it's not always that simple," Janet said. "We can't automatically say Kerry's wrong in being closeted."

"The fuck we can't," Esme growled. "She's not just hurting herself, she's hurting all of us, saying there's something shameful about us."

"We've had this argument before," Janet maintained. "I agree with you in principle, that every gay person needs to come out, both for their own well-being and for the strength of our community. But I also believe that we can't judge someone else's choices without knowing what her life is like."

"What's to know? She's gay, she's hiding..."

"She's a doctor at County, right?" Janet asked. Sandy nodded, and Janet continued, "Maybe she's afraid of jeopardizing her job, and in turn, her patients' welfare. We've all heard the rumors about County's treatment of lesbians..."

"Then all the more reason for her to stand up and fight," Esme argued. "Otherwise, it's just gonna continue. You think it won't?"

Janet looked at her calmly and said, "It doesn't matter what you think, or what I think, Es. Question is, Sandy, what do you think?"

Sandy had nearly finished her beer, listening quietly to her friends debate the issue. This was really what she'd come for, to let this pair of opposing, yet complimentary, viewpoints argue both sides for her. "Well, you know I...I've never been big on the whole political thing," she hedged. "I just hated seeing her hide like that. It's like finding out Wonder Woman's really a total wuss, you know?" That had hurt, more than she ever could have imagined, seeing one of her personal heroes suddenly become a sniveling coward.

Esme just grunted. It was one of the differences between Sandy and her; Esme was very aggressively involved in the broader social aspects of gay and lesbian politics, while Sandy kept out of it as much as possible. She didn't hide what she was, but she didn't make a big deal about it, either. She gave to gay-friendly causes and charities when she could, but wasn't actively involved much in the community. If there was any subculture she felt intrinsically a part of, it was the brotherhood (and, to some extent, sisterhood) of firefighters. The clarity of danger to life and limb was oddly comforting to Sandy; there was no moral ambiguity, just a battle between life and death. She thrived on that simplicity, relying on it to keep herself focused and level. She'd been certain the same was true for Kerry...

"You need to talk to her about it," Janet said, when it was clear Sandy had nothing to add.

"Fuckin' A," Esme agreed softly.

"Yeah, actually, I did," Sandy admitted.

"So how'd it go?" Esme prodded.

"Not well..."

She told them how she'd gone to County to confront her lover about it, hoping against hope that she could bring Kerry out of her shell. How it was like swimming upstream just trying to get Kerry to pay attention to her, and how Kerry just seemed to withdraw deeper into herself. How some annoying Asian woman kept butting in, flaunting some administrative triumph in Kerry's face, one step away from going "nyah, nyah" until Sandy wanted to deck her just to shut her up. How Sandy had searched her face in vain for some sign of that wild, powerful spirit of lightning beneath the ice, some sign that Kerry wasn't just a small, frightened deer in the headlights, and finding none.

How, in despair and heartbreak, she'd taken Kerry's face in her hands and slowly, softly, kissed her goodbye.

They both looked at her in silence. Sandy finished the bottle.

"You outed her?" Janet's voice was thunderstruck.

"I...I didn't mean to..." She'd been five blocks away before she realized what she'd done to Kerry. She hadn't made a conscious choice to expose Kerry, hadn't given any real thought to the people around them or the effect it would have on them.

Janet looked away.

"Hey," Esme ventured, her voice less certain than before, "it's her own problem now, right? I mean, if she wants to live in the closet, she's running the risk that someone's gonna open the door."

"I'm glad you can dismiss this so easily," Janet hissed, her face tight. Sandy had never seen her like this before.

"Jan, don't start up, okay? Sandy did her a favor in the long run. She gave Kerry the push she needed."

Sandy recalled saying almost exactly the same thing later, when Kerry had come charging into the firehouse, furiously demanding to know where Sandy got off pulling that stunt. Sandy hadn't had time to debate her, piling onto the truck to roll on an alarm, and she'd just yelled the same thing back at Kerry, that she'd done the redhead a favor, whether she knew it or not. Trying to convince Kerry, trying to convince herself...

"I am starting, and it's not okay!" Janet replied, her own voice rising, forgetting about the child sleeping in the next room. "This is different, and you both know it!"

"How is this different?" Esme said.

"I was prepared to agree to differ on the issue of coming out," Janet asserted, "but outing someone else is another matter entirely. That is wrong, no matter what your intentions may be. You don't teach a child to swim by throwing her in the deep end before she's ready to learn. Maybe she learns, and maybe she drowns. Do you want that on your conscience?"

Sandy had a sudden vision of Kerry drowning, her protective wall of ice melting around her, flooding over her head, the crutch dragging her down... "Kerry's too strong for that," she said quickly, as much to herself as to her friends. "She'll survive."

"Maybe she will, but that still doesn't make it right," Janet said. "And even so, there's another reason."

Sandy and Esme looked at her without replying.

"When I got pregnant with Aaron, I could have had an abortion, remember?" Janet continued. "I made the choice to have him, but I thank God I had the power to choose for myself. When you out someone, you take that power of choice away from them, and that's something I can't sanction." She looked at their guest. "Sandy, you know I love you. You're my friend, now and always. If you wanted to break up with Kerry, I'd understand and support you completely. But you shouldn't have done that to her."

She stood up, her piece said. "I'm going to use up the last of the chicken for dinner," she said. "Sandy, would you like to join us?"

"No, but thanks, Jan," Sandy said. "I ought to go home and think about things for a while."

"Okay. That's a good idea." Janet hugged her goodnight and went into the kitchen.

Esme walked Sandy to the door. "Listen," she said quietly, "you oughta go talk to her again."

"To Kerry?" Sandy shook her head. "Nah, it's not gonna work, Es. We're too different."

"Yeah, like me and Jan aren't?"

Sandy smiled, but it was a weak, sad smile. "I think I've really fucked up a good thing here, Es."

Esme hesitated, then spoke in a lower voice. "I thought that, too, when Jan cheated on me that time. I thought that was the end for us. You know, bad enough she slept with someone else, but it was with a man, for fuck's sake."

"Es, don't. You've both put that behind you..."

"That's my point. If it hadn't happened, we wouldn't have Aaron." Esme glanced at the bedroom door. "You know how much I love him, like he's my own kid."

"I know." Janet had confided to Sandy that she had fallen in love with the sweet soul and essential tenderness that lay beneath Esme's thick hide and bitter shell. But it wasn't until Esme became a parent that Sandy began to see it, too. Janet and Aaron had drawn it out of her, just as Janet had discovered a greater strength in herself from being with Esme. Despite all the hardships and hurt the two women had gone through together, they had both come out closer and stronger than ever before.

Sandy considered them both among her best friends. She had a few other lesbian friends, but none as close. Most of her friends were the firefighters that she loved like brothers, the ones who'd walk through fire for her if they had to. She had them all in her life, ready to let her lean on them when she needed them, as she needed Janet and Esme now. Who did Kerry have?

"We got through that," Esme said. "Maybe you and she can get through this, too."

"Yeah...and maybe we'll see Rush Limbaugh join the cast of 'Queer As Folk'," she replied, forcing a smile. "I gotta go. Maybe if you get rid of that light beer and start buying the good stuff, I'll be back, okay?"

Esme kissed her on the mouth, then pulled her into a rib-creaking hug. "You're such a bitch sometimes, Lopez," she said fondly in Sandy's ear.

"I love you, too."

She walked home, locking the door and stripping off her clothes for a shower. Scrubbed herself raw and toweled off, then flopped onto the bed, trying to ignore the lingering scent of the woman who'd shared it with her until recently. What did Kerry's bed smell like? She'd never had the chance to find out. Probably smelled like her precious 'Kimmy'. Unless they'd always slept at 'Kimmy's' place, which wouldn't surprise Sandy. Kerry's place was probably just another closet, where she locked herself away and didn't let anyone in.

God, let her go already. It's over.

Sandy's eye fell on the envelope of photographs, from the photo place, on her bedside table. She'd wanted to surprise Kerry with it after the hockey game, but of course things took an unexpected turn, first. Bet some jack-off had enjoyed developing that roll, she thought.

Yielding to impulse, she scooped up the envelope and shuffled through the pics, watching herself go through some freeze-frame striptease. Stupid thing to do, she thought. Like a twenty-dollar hooker. Fun, though, in its way. "I'd sleep with me," she mused aloud, "but I wouldn't call me the next day."

Then she reached the pictures of Kerry. Soft, smiling, shy, then open, relaxed, simple Kerry. The last picture was the best one, the close-up. Not a cheesecake or boudoir shot, just an image of a lovely woman, framed from the heart.

She stared at it forever, wanting to tear it, shred it, burn it up and erase it from her life. Knowing that she never could.

Sandy dropped the photos and let herself cry.

Clancy used to say that there's one cure for anything, whether it's a bad day at work, or a fight with the wife, or a broken heart. The cure for them all is the same: you get up the next morning and you goddamn well go back to work and start all over again. Maybe you'll have a better day.

So she did. And the next day. And the next. Didn't help, but then Clancy never claimed it would. You just get something done instead of wasting time feeling sorry for yourself. Kerry would probably have liked Clancy. Clancy would probably have liked Kerry. But she'd never know, would she?

Then came the school fire.

And that's when the nightmare became reality.

It was bad. That goes without saying, of course; fires are bad. Fires endangering kids are bad. But even by those standards, this one was bad. She could feel it in her bones; this was the one she wasn't walking out of. All those guys who went into the Trade Center on 9-11, did any of them feel it, too? That the beast they flirted with was about to rise up and swallow them?

People ask her sometimes, why does she do it? And she gives them the answer they want to hear, that it's a job that needs doing, that somebody's got to do it. That's all true, but it's not the whole truth. The part that she doesn't tell anyone, the part that only the other firefighters know, is that she's always lived with fire, inside herself. She loves it and hates it. She'll fight it with everything in her. She'll never be rid of it. When Nietzsche said "battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you," he could have been talking about firefighters. Clancy'd put it more succinctly: "fight fire with fire."

So that's why she was charging into a blazing school, armored in black rubber, lugging a half-empty oxygen tank on her back, a mask on her face, and a helmet on her head as though girded for war. The hoses were her artillery. The portable extinguishers were her rifles. This school was her Viet Nam.

Generally speaking, they were pretty successful in rescuing the kids and staff from the school. What made it bad, at least for Sandy, was that one pivotal moment when she was presented with a split-second choice. When she thought she heard a boy crying, but couldn't be sure, and there was barely an instant to decide whether to plunge into the smoke after him and risk getting lost and trapped, or to do the safe, smart thing and stick with the others, possibly leaving the boy to his fate. No choice at all, really.

Yes, there was a boy, lost and scared (could you blame him?), and she was lugging him under one arm, sharing her oxy mask with him as much as possible, and trying to figure out how she'd gotten so turned around all at once, and how a straight line going in had turned into Dante's Labyrinth going out (just to mix her classical metaphors a bit). The beams started falling, and then her leg went through the rotted, weakened floorboards, and she was pinned. Hollering for the others and not hearing them. The radio was dead, the oxygen was running out, and the flame and smoke just got worse and worse. This was it, she was dead, it was all over.

It was all fucked.

But this was the part, in the dream, where it got worse...

In the dream, it's the same, but when she looks up, Clancy is there, clearer than she's ever seen him since he died. She doesn't bother to call for him to help her; she knows that's not what he's here for.

Clancy hefts his axe, swinging it at the wall with those Popeye-forearm muscles of his, splintering it with one blow. It falls in shards and hunks of burning wood and brick, and outside through the hole in the wall, she can see it's pissing down rain. The arc of fallen electrical wires illuminate the ambulance. Kerry's inside it, hair slicked back, bending over the pregnant woman. Stopping at nothing to help her or die trying.

Sandy cries out to Kerry to help her, help the boy, send someone in, just please help her...but her voice doesn't work. No oxygen, remember?

Somehow, Kerry hears her anyway, and turns to look straight at her, eyes widening in horror. She's got the blood of the woman on her arms, spattered on her face like a Jackson Pollock, and she can't leave her patient now. But Sandy needs her.

Sandy knows, then, what's going to happen, and she doesn't want to see it, but it keeps coming. It doesn't stop.

Kerry stands in the ambulance as if to jump, to come to Sandy's rescue, and then the lightning strikes.

And Kerry screams, her entire body jerking and crackling convulsively as the lightning plays about her, tearing her apart from the inside.

And Sandy screams, unable to move, unable to help as Kerry dies in agony, and then the flames surround her, and the boy in her arms is on fire, and her senses are filled with white-hot flame--

The scream wrenches out of her throat, and it's like trying to regurgitate shards of broken glass.

"Sandy! Wake up!!"

It's Kerry's arms holding her tight, pinning her down when she starts to flail and shake. Holding her fast so she doesn't fall off the world into the screaming void. She has to hold on tight, because every muscle in Sandy's body is bunched, taut, trying to jump out of her skin. Sandy's stronger than Kerry, in the physical sense. Inside, perhaps, it's another matter. Kerry doesn't let go.

"Kerry..." she manages at last, the gag reflex pressing at her throat, "I'm okay...let go, please..."

The doctor's grip loosens, seeing she's really awake this time, and Sandy pulls away, out of bed, stumbling to find the bathroom. She drops to her knees to worship at the porcelain throne, letting it pour out of her into the toilet. Her own fault for drinking on an empty stomach.

"Sandy...?" Kerry's voice, behind her. "Can I help?"

"Just..." She spits. "Just leave me alone, okay?"

"Okay." Kerry goes back to bed without further argument. Sandy knows Kerry desperately wants to hold and comfort her, but Kerry-the-doctor knows when to back off and leave her patients alone. And there's nothing Sandy really needs, medically; she's not injured, she's not infectious. Just barfin' in the bowl. Dealing with that kneeling feeling.

When her stomach is empty, and her head is only spinning one direction at a time, she manages to stand on wobbly legs, turns on the light and squints at herself in the mirror. She looks awful, by most people's standards, but she's alive. The boy's alive. It wasn't like in the dream.

It wasn't Clancy she saw, in the real fire, but Ed Thomasino, catching sight of her and yelling for the others: here, she's over here! They pulled her out, put her in the ambulance with the kid, giving both fresh oxygen. She was lucky; going after a kid that might not have even been there was what Clancy would have called "a total goddamn dumbass bullshit rookie fuckup". But then, he would probably have done the same thing in her place. And when all was said and done, she got the kid out alive. Ain't nobody argues with saving kids.

She and the kid spent some quiet time together on the way to the hospital, until the boy looked at her curiously, as if seeing her for the first time. "You're a girl fireman...?" he asked, confused, like the idea was a new one on him.

"Uh-huh," she said. "You know what else?"

"What?" he said, shyly.

"I'm also a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater."

She could see part of him wanting to smile, but not sure. "Nuh-uh," he said. "You are not."

"Am too," she insisted. "I'll prove it. You ever see any one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people around?"


"You know why not?"


" 'Cause I ate 'em all!"

That made him laugh, if only because a grown-up would say something so silly. But when you find yourself alive longer than you expected to be, a little silliness is not the most unusual reaction.

Neither is being horny as hell. So when the boys went out for a round of celebratory drinks at a notorious pickup joint, she was glad to go with them. There were usually a number of girls who wouldn't mind going home with a big, handsome fireman for the night, particularly one who's hyped up on adrenaline. Nothing like sex after a near-death experience. Most of the girls who hung out at this place were straight, of course, but occasionally there were one or two who had nothing against women. Sandy had spent a wild night or two with women she met there, and if ever there was a night she needed a good fuck...

There was a woman named Simone, a tall, tan blonde who looked like Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" (down to the underwear, Sandy noticed) and who showed every sign of being interested in Sandy. They shared a couple of drinks, and Simone laughed at Sandy's stories, that familiar sparkle growing in her eye. Then, when they ended up in the ladies' room at the same time, Sandy found herself against the wall, with Simone's tongue in her mouth. It was a textbook-perfect pickup, and Sandy knew that absolutely nothing was stopping her from taking this gorgeous bitch home and taking her for the test drive of her life. Nothing stopping her at all, except...


...except she didn't want to.

It could have been great sex, it could have been exceptionally wonderful, mind-blowing sex that epic poems are written about. Or at least epic dirty limericks. But she knew she wouldn't remember Simone's name in the morning, and she certainly wouldn't feel anything like what she'd felt with-- (Nope. Not gonna say the K-word. Not even gonna think it.) Suffice to say, sex with Simone would be just that, sex. And that just wasn't enough anymore.

So she gave Simone a polite brush-off and went back to raising toasts with the guys, long after she'd reached the limit she usually set for herself.

Alcohol blurred her memories of what happened as she swayed back to her car, but certain things burned into her memory forever:

Kerry was there when she left the bar. Waiting for her.

Kerry stopped her from driving.

Kerry said Sandy was right, that she did do Kerry a favor.

Kerry said thank you.

Kerry kissed her. Right out in front of God and everybody. No more hiding.

Kerry pulled her into a warm, gentle hug. No pressure, no demands, no requests. Just held her.

And Sandy's resolutions, her determinations, her barriers and defenses, all crumbled to dust at her touch, and she melted, pulling Kerry closer and breathing in the scent of her.

When Kerry took her home, she didn't resist.

Sandy unwrapped a spare toothbrush she found in Kerry's cabinet, used toothpaste and mouthwash, and drank handfuls of water from the sink, trying to get the vomit taste out of her mouth. She rinsed her face and washed her neck with a washcloth, took one final look at herself in the mirror, and decided she was going to live, for better or for worse. Then she turned off the light and went back to Kerry's bedroom.

Kerry was asleep again, lying on her left side between sheets that were clammy with Sandy's cold sweat. She was already awake, she could have changed them, but she hadn't. Maybe she knew that Sandy had to get through this stage of the post-adrenal shakes, nightmares and all. Maybe she'd been through it in the past, herself. And yet she was ready to go through it with Sandy, to help her through it. If so, it was a greater act of love than all the sex Sandy had ever had in her life.

Then again, maybe she just figured Sandy would sweat through a clean set, too, so why bother changing them?

She stood by the side of the bed, looking down at the sleeping redhead. Just when she'd resigned herself to no longer having Kerry in her life, here she was again. But things weren't the same between them; all the rules had changed. They were in uncharted territory, and Sandy had no idea where they would be going now, or if they would be going there together.

That scared her, almost as much as plunging blind into smoke and flame in search of a lost child. But she hadn't hesitated to do that, had she? Any more than Kerry had hesitated to jump into an ambulance-turned-electric-chair. And look what happened.

So why was she hesitating now?

After a long, nervous pause, she got into bed, snuggling up behind Kerry.

It wasn't long before Kerry stirred, rolling over on her right side, nuzzling into Sandy's neck.

They fell into dreamless sleep, as the first hint of dawn began to lighten the horizon.

Part Four...

Sandy awoke, shaky and stiff. Something moist was nuzzling at her ear, sniffing and licking.

She moaned softly. "Kerry, don't..."

The licking increased, wet and sloppy. Kerry needed a shave, and she smelled weird.

"Wha' the fu..." Sandy pried her eyes open and turned her head slightly, a hideous inhuman visage filling her eyes, right up against her face. "Ugh, jeez...!"

She shoved the furry face away, and heard it let out a whine as it thumped to the floor.

It took her a little while to figure out where she was, before she remembered that Kerry had driven them to her house. They'd spent the night in Kerry's bed, but there was no lovemaking. Sandy had started to feel sick before they arrived, a result of having nothing but beer for dinner, on top of an adrenaline crash. Kerry had stayed with her all through the night; not the most pleasant of vigils, but she hadn't left Sandy's side.

Where was she now? Maybe she had to go to work. Sandy didn't know what time it was.

Sitting up was an adventure in nausea. Her stomach shifted like tectonic plates, and her head...well, Quasimodo's whole family were ringing bells to beat the band inside her skull. Jackhammers, rhinos and drums, oh my.

One of the scruffier, mangier mutts she'd ever seen in her day was sitting on the floor, looking up at her with curiosity. It didn't seem to mind the shove she'd given it, as though it had seen its share of rough treatment in the past and was used to it.

Swinging her feet slowly over the edge, and trying to endure the trauma of reorienting herself in the process, Sandy drew in a slow, ragged breath and hoped she wouldn't puke on Kerry's carpet. That worked out okay, so she elected to try standing. Whup...whoa... Okay, the legs work, if only just barely. These are the mornings that make you swear off drinking forever. Or until next time, whichever comes first. "Son of a bitch..." she whispered.

The mutt perked up with a pathetic eagerness.

"Didn't mean you," she told it.

Where was Kerry?

Sandy stumbled to the top of the stairs, wondering if she could call out without causing her head to explode, but then she heard Kerry's voice. Sounded like she was on the phone. Yes, she was talking to someone about a sick friend...page me if anything...be in tomorrow... Sandy couldn't hear the rest.

She's calling in sick. Or at least taking a personal day or something.

Kerry NEVER did that!

(Ooh, even thinking about shouting hurt...)

She knew that she should call in to the firehouse, but her body had other ideas. Ignoring her mind's instructions, it turned her around and took her, slowly and carefully, back to bed. She wasn't asleep when Kerry came back in, but she wished that she was. The dog reacted to Kerry's presence with little whimpers and whines for attention that knifed through Sandy's skull.

Kerry shushed the dog and got Sandy to swallow a couple of aspirin for her head and a spoonful of something sour for her stomach, and then left her alone. She spoke only in soft whispers and her touch was as gentle as possible. Almost bearable. Why was she being so nice?

The day passed in a semiconscious haze, Sandy's alertness fading in and out. She lay in bed, feeling rotten in a variety of positions, but the symptoms gradually faded into a single gray inertia.

Sleep came and went, blessedly free of the dreams.

Each time she opened her eyes, Kerry was there by her side. Once she was eating yogurt. Once she was reading a book. About midday, she got Sandy to take some tea and dry crackers. She checked Sandy's pulse from time to time and felt her forehead, as if for fever. Sandy occasionally felt Kerry stroking her back and shoulders with soothing hands. Her presence was a quiet comfort to Sandy, but part of her was dreading when they started to talk.

When next she awoke, the light from the curtained windows was lower, sort of orange. Night was on its way.

Rising carefully, Sandy found herself weak and trembling, as if she'd run a marathon. But she no longer hurt. Kerry wasn't in the room. The dog was asleep, curled on the floor.

She took a long, hot shower in Kerry's bathroom, making grateful use of the safety bars fastened to the walls. She was so used to Kerry's crutch that she sometimes forgot, athletic as she was in bed, that the doctor was partly disabled.

The shower cleared the last of the haze from her senses, and she felt clean and fresh again when she got out. Still weak, still shaky, but definitely better. Wrapping herself in towels, she made her way downstairs, getting her first good look at Kerry Weaver's home in the process. She liked what she saw.

What she smelled, she liked even better. Breakfast was cooking.

She found Kerry in the kitchen, dressed in a velvety bathrobe, preparing something that made Sandy believe there was a Heaven after all. Strangely, it didn't make her queasy stomach jump or lurch the way she would have thought.

Kerry's back was turned as she cooked, and Sandy watched her without interrupting. But eventually, Kerry turned, catching sight of her and coming to a halt. They looked at each other silently.

"Good morning," Kerry finally ventured softly. "I mean, good evening..."

"Hi," Sandy replied, even more quietly.

They were perhaps six feet apart, and it felt like six miles.

"Are you hungry?" Kerry said suddenly. "I know it's dinnertime, but it still feels like breakfast. I've got some eggs on, and some sausage. I could make an omelet--"

"Why did you do that last night?" Sandy broke in.

Kerry dropped her gaze, as if embarrassed. "I..."

"Wait, lemme try that again, it was the wrong way to start," Sandy interrupted. She took a breath. "I should've started by saying thank you."

"You're welcome."

"But I don't understand. I remember you thanking me..."

"Yes, I did."


Kerry didn't answer.

Sandy shook her head. "You shouldn't thank me for what I did, Kerry. Maybe you should even hate me for it."

"I was angry, for a while," Kerry told her. "But I got over it."

"Got OVER it?!" A slightly hysterical laugh almost escaped from Sandy's throat, but she held it in. Tears were starting to form in her eyes, and she brushed them angrily away.

Kerry stepped toward her. "Sandy..."

"Don't." She stepped back, pulling in on herself. "Don't touch me, please."

"All right. I won't." Kerry retreated, her voice steady but disappointed.

"I don't deserve this," Sandy said, both to Kerry and herself. "I hurt you, dammit. I violated your privacy, your right of choice...whatever. I don't deserve to be here in your house while you cook me fucking breakfast!" She covered her face with one hand, trying to staunch the tears that kept welling up, the other hand keeping her towel from slipping. "I...I don't deserve you..."

Kerry limped over to her, leaving the crutch in a corner, and cupped Sandy's face in both hands. "Look at me, Sandy," she commanded softly.

Sandy lowered her hands, unable to avoid Kerry's gaze.

"You and I have both known for a long time that it's never about what anyone 'deserves'. In jobs like ours, that's the first illusion to go." Her voice was a near-whisper, but no words Sandy had ever heard rang louder in her ears. "People don't get what they deserve. If they're lucky, they get what they need."

Sandy nodded reluctantly.

Kerry leaned closer, her face almost touching Sandy's. "I needed to know you were all right," she went on. "I needed that. Now I know. Now it's okay."

"Just like that...?" Sandy asked, still on the verge of crying. "You're not hurt?"

"Yes, I was," Kerry admitted. "You're right, Sandy. You did hurt me, badly."

"I didn't mean to out you, Kerry, I swear. I made a mistake..."

"I know," Kerry stopped her, removing her hands and clasping them in front of her, stepping back. "You made a mistake, and it was wrong, and you hurt me."

Sandy dropped her gaze to the floor. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry..."

"I made a mistake once, too, Sandy. I hurt the woman I loved, right when she needed me the most," Kerry said. "I lost her forever, because she couldn't forgive me. That was her choice."

She's talking about Kim, Sandy realized.

"Well, this is my choice," Kerry said, every word resonating between them. "I forgive you."

Something in the quantum level of the universe realigned itself, atomic polarities changing partners like square dancers, and gravity lessened its hold on Sandy's heart. "You forgi..." she began, but her voice stalled.

"Yes," Kerry said simply. And then Sandy thought she really would cry.

She didn't remember walking toward Kerry, but the next thing she knew, her body was against Kerry's, holding her with the delicacy of a newborn. "Does...does this mean...we're back together...?" she asked, almost afraid of the answer.

Kerry seemed to tremble, almost imperceptibly. "Do you want us to be together again?" she asked, sounding nervous for the first time.

Sandy almost stalled again, out of a sense of guilt and unworthiness, but then Esme and Janet flashed through her mind; their love and devotion, a hurtful act of betrayal that had resulted in a new, perfect beauty. For the first time, she began to believe that maybe she could share her life with someone the way they did. "I want you," she whispered, "to open your robe."

Kerry pulled back to look her in the eyes. "No," she said. "You open my robe."

Sandy responded by taking Kerry's hands in hers, holding them as if to convince herself that the woman in front of her was real and not merely some sort of mirage. Then she let her hands slide up over Kerry's wrists, forearms, and elbows, into the wide sleeves of the robe, up her arms and over her bare back to encircle her shoulders, pulling her body against Sandy's. Kerry closed her eyes and let out a sigh of pure bliss as Sandy's mouth lowered to her neck. Sandy's towel came loose and fell to the floor.

Sandy leaned Kerry back against the wide kitchen counter, kissing down her throat to her chest, an increasing expanse of pale flesh appearing as she nudged the robe open with her chin. The belt must have loosened somehow, because the robe opened without resistance, falling back off her shoulders as she leaned back over the counter. Sandy's mouth made its way to her breasts, nuzzling between them, licking the inner slopes, then climbing up to the erect peaks, taking first one hard nipple, then the other, into her mouth. She ran the tip of her tongue around each areola, producing ragged sighs of growing desire from Kerry, then dragged the length of her tongue directly across the nipple; uncontrollable tremors rippled through Kerry's body, culminating in throaty moans. "Oh God...Sandy..."

Kerry's leg, the weak one, lifted between Sandy's, wrapping around hers. The feel of their bare skin on each other, Kerry's thigh against her sex, fueled the fire already crackling inside her, threatening to make her spontaneously combust. "Kerry, sweet Jesus, Kerry..." she moaned, pulling her arms free of the robe's sleeves. She put her hands behind Kerry's hips, cupping the fullness of her buttocks, and lifted her off the floor, sitting her on the counter.

Kerry gasped sharply, wrapping both legs around Sandy's back, pulling her closer. Sandy's arms encircled her ribs, pressing her face into Kerry's abdomen, kissing her sternum, her belly, her navel, down over her waist, as Kerry's hands guided her lower, clutching fistfuls of her hair.

Kerry lay back on the counter as Sandy's mouth neared her sex, the intensity of her kisses increasing in urgency, and then she arched her back, letting out a groan of exultation at the first touch of Sandy's lips against her labia. "God, yes, Sandy, please make love to me...!"

Unable to resist, Sandy slowly let the flat of her tongue stroke over Kerry's clitoris, triggering a spasm that scared her in its sharpness. But Kerry's hands clutched at her head, urging her to continue. She yielded to her desire and covered Kerry's sex with her mouth, driving her tongue in deeply, filling her mouth with the hot, rich taste of the most amazing woman she'd known. Kerry writhed and squealed with delight.

Lifting Kerry's knees, she hooked them over her shoulders, opening the redhead to her completely, and ran the palms of her hands up Kerry's body to cover her heaving breasts. Kerry's hands flailed at the counter beneath her, seeking a handhold on sanity, but only succeeded in knocking over the blender. Her cries escalated to short, sharp screams, like a birdcall.

Sandy heard the scrabbling of paws on tile as the dog ran in to see what the commotion was, stopping short at the doorway. But both women were far too engrossed to care about their audience.

Making love to Kerry, something Sandy was well acquainted with, seemed all the sweeter for having lost the privilege for a time. I came so close to losing her, she thought. Don't let that happen again...

Kerry came with a fierce convulsion, crying out unreservedly. Her juices filled Sandy's mouth like molten lava, overflowing over her lips and chin. She trembled and shook uncontrollably for a full minute before settling, flopping back, exhausted.

Sandy pulled slowly back and straightened up, feeling a sudden superiority over Kim. Kerry's ex might be taller, classier, better educated, and probably paid more. But she was dumb enough to let this woman go, and Sandy wasn't. So tough luck, Kimbo.

She looked at the dog, who was regarding her with concern, head cocked as it tried to puzzle out this strange new behavior the humans were engaged in. It's okay, pal, Sandy thought. I'm not hurting her, so don't worry.

Kerry's eyes opened and she reached up. Sandy helped her sit up and get off the counter, and their bodies came together in a kiss like none other in Sandy's experience. It wasn't just an act of sex, but an acknowledgment of something new beginning. A promise that more lay ahead than behind.

They parted slowly, both breathing deeply and heavily.

"So, anyway," Sandy said at last, "you never answered my question."

"Hmmm?" Kerry's eyes met hers curiously.

"Are we back together?"

"ARE WE BAC--?!" Kerry almost choked, her eyes bulging. "Good God, woman, do you need a fucking anvil to fall on you?!"

"I guess that's a yes," Sandy said with a wide grin.

Kerry slid her arms seductively around her neck. "That's a yes," she amended, "on the sole condition that you take me to bed right now."

Sandy weighed her options for a good hundredth of a second (just so she wouldn't seem too easy), and then lifted Kerry in her arms. This was it, the perfect romantic ending she'd waited all her life for, the classic 'Happily Ever After'. Burning love, burning passion, burning eggs...

Oh, shit. "Kerry, the eggs are burning," she said.

"Huh? Oh, crap. Here, let me down." Sandy released her, and she quickly turned off the stove.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to ruin breakfast," Sandy said. "It smelled delicious."

"Ahh, big deal. I can always make more." Kerry waved dismissively, fanning smoke up to the overhead fan. "Why don't you go get into bed, I'll take care of this and be right with you."

"Okay, but, um...do you have any clean sheets?" Sandy smiled sheepishly. "We gotta change those, first, 'cause, you know...damn."

Kerry laughed. "Sure. Linen closet right by the upstairs bathroom."

"Thanks." Going back upstairs, Sandy located the closet and stripped sweaty sheets off Kerry's bed, replacing them with a fresh set. If things went well, they wouldn't stay clean and dry for long, but that was a whole different ballgame.

She paused for a moment, reflecting on the sheer domesticity of the situation: here she was changing sheets, while Kerry puttered in the kitchen. More practical than romantic, but there was something appealing about that; it leant a reality to their relationship, a weight and gravity.

Sandy got back in bed, luxuriating in the feel of fresh sheets against her skin. She was still shaky, both from excitement and from lack of real food, and realized she was running on fumes. Not good. Particularly if Kerry expects sex...

Kerry appeared in the doorway, the dog following behind her. Her robe back on but only loosely belted, and revealing a lot more cleavage than usual. With her free hand, she balanced a tray with boxes, cartons and dishes on it. "I thought about it, and decided you really need to eat something first," she explained. "Nothing fancy, just some cereal and toast."

Sandy let out a sigh. "You read my mind."

"Besides," Kerry added, setting the tray on her bedside table and handing over bowls and spoons, "I have this theory about relationships."

"Oh?" Sandy poured Corn Flakes into her bowl, then added milk.

"If you really want to know if a relationship is going to work," Kerry elaborated, "you try just eating breakfast in bed with them. No Belgian waffles or eggs benedict, just the basics." She offered a small dish of sliced bananas.

Sandy spooned some onto her cereal. "Interesting theory," she said.

"Just something suggested by someone I know," Kerry said, straightfaced.

"She sounds smart." Sandy took some dry toast.

Kerry arched a brow. "Who said it was a 'she'?"

"I'm gonna clobber you when I feel stronger."

"Promises, promises..."

They ate silently, sitting side by side on the bed. Sandy was careful not to spill, though her hands were shaking. It wasn't until she finished a second bowl that she realized how ravenous she'd been. Carbo-loading certainly helped, as did just having something solid in her stomach.

Kerry cleared everything off, restacking it on the tray, while Sandy reclined with a contented sigh. Finished cleaning up, Kerry lay back down on top of the covers. They lay quietly for a long time.

Kerry shifted closer and took Sandy's hand in both of hers. "I need to tell you something," she said, her voice very serious now.

Sandy turned toward her. "Okay," she replied, concerned and curious.

It took Kerry a bit to get started, choosing her words. "For the longest time, I've been walking around holding my breath," she said. "Like there was poison gas in the air outside, and I've had to wear a gas mask whenever I went out."

Sandy listened intently, unsure where this was going. She thought of herself in smoke-filled buildings, breathing like Darth Vader in her oxygen mask.

"But then, you took my mask away," Kerry went on. "You left me outside, with no shelter, and I just couldn't hold my breath any longer."

"Kerry, I never meant--"

A light fingertip on her lips stopped her. "And so I let it out and took a breath. And you know what I found?"


"There isn't any poison in the air. It's perfectly breathable." She smiled tenderly. "When all is said and done, I'm freer than ever before, because of what you did for me. I'm not afraid anymore." Kerry stroked her cheek. "I love you for that, Alexandra Maria Lopez. Don't forget that." She leaned forward and kissed Sandy's lips, just once, like the faint splash of a raindrop.

Sandy didn't know what to say.

"But," Kerry added, moving Sandy's hand up to the headboard, "that doesn't mean you get off that easily. I'm not through with you by a damn sight."

"What do you mean...?"

Kerry slowly drew the belt out of her robe, tied one end around Sandy's wrist, and threaded the belt through the headboard. She reached for Sandy's other wrist without a word.

"Uh, Ker, I'm not really into..."

A single sharp look from Kerry silenced her. "Quiet," she growled. "Doctor's orders."

Sandy meekly submitted and let Kerry tie her wrists securely. Kerry stood up and slowly drew the covers down to the foot of the bed, baring the bound woman's body.

"Where to begin..." she mused aloud, and Sandy knew that she wasn't going to rush through this. She ran her eyes over Sandy's body, inch by inch, and then her gaze focused on the firefighter's hand. "I know," she said. "We'll start where it began for both of us."

Crawling slowly onto the bed beside Sandy, Kerry brought her lips to the scar on Sandy's palm, kissing it gently. She slowly drew a line of tantalizing kisses down Sandy's arm to her shoulder, then to her neck. Sandy felt the growing heat tingling all through her body, gathering through the center of her body.

Soft hands encircled her face, joined by sweet lips, painting a tactile picture of her features with vaporous kisses and caresses. Kerry kissed her cheeks, her eyelids, her forehead, nose and chin, just barely avoiding her mouth. She wanted to wrap her arms around Kerry and pull her closer, but her wrists were pinned, immovable. And Kerry kept each touch as light as a feather, as elusive as a butterfly's wing. It was deliciously frustrating.

Kerry moved down Sandy's body with incredible slowness, like a snail, every inch an eternity. Each kiss seemed to leave a glowing, shimmering imprint just beneath her skin, like a tattoo visible only in ultraviolet or infrared light. The climb up the slope of her right breast was like the ascent of Kilamanjaro. Only when she reached the top did Kerry let the tip of her tongue reach out from between her lips, ever-so-lightly circling the outline of Sandy's areola, leaving just the faintest layer of saliva across the surface.

Then, lifting her lips away, she blew gently on it. The sweet, delicate chill of Kerry's breath on her moistened, sensitive nipple sent a shiver of uncontrolled delight through Sandy's body. She ached for the release of orgasm, but Kerry showed no sign of obliging her anytime soon.

Kerry resumed her progress down Sandy's body, kissing over her sternum, ribs and stomach, along her right hip and over her thigh, blatantly ignoring Sandy's craving to feel Kerry between her legs. She continued this deliberate torment down the length of her leg, defining the shape of her calf with hands and mouth, and then, only at the ankle, did she lift her eyes to Sandy's. "I don't know, I think I rushed that," she said. "What do you say we slow things down a bit?"

Sandy wanted to scream bloody murder in exasperation, but she held her tongue. If Kerry was determined to put her through this ordeal, she was equally determined to endure it as stoically as possible. They make firefighters as tough in Chicago as anywhere.

That resolution was put to the test, however, as Kerry's kisses resumed, marching verrrrry slowly now, up the inside of her leg. Finding sensitive spots where Sandy didn't know she had any.

After what seemed like forever, she approached Sandy's sex, continuing her teasing, tickling, torment up the inner swell of Sandy's thigh. Sandy writhed in place, her breathing deep and intense, every nerve screaming for sex, suffering through Kerry's inhuman restraint. And then, just when she thought her skin was going to pop like a balloon...she felt the first brush of Kerry's breath against her labia. That caused her to draw in a sharp breath of her own, her back arching. "Ohhh, Kerry..." she moaned.

"Shh," Kerry hushed her. "You've got a ways to go."

Before Sandy could complain, she felt Kerry's tongue delicately tracing the ridge of her swollen lips, brushing with agonizing tenderness over the hood of her clitoris. God, please, no more teasing...

She closed her legs around Kerry's body, trying desperately to pull her in and finish what she'd started, but Kerry pushed her legs apart with surprising ease, holding them down with strong hands while her mouth continued its relentlessly insubstantial flirtation with Sandy's sex. It was sheer torture; sweet, wonderful, exquisite, tantalizing, rapturous torture.

Sandy tried to focus through the sensations, tried mentally reciting song lyrics, old phone numbers, subsections of the Fire Department manual, anything to stop this treatment from driving her insane, but her thoughts just couldn't coalesce. Not with Kerry finding every raw nerve, every defenseless juncture of impulses, and finding the perfect frequency to vibrate through her each time. "Kerry, now," she groaned. "Fuck me now..."

Kerry lifted her mouth away, looking straight into her eyes. "Beg me," she said.

"Kerry, for God's sake..."

"Beg me, I said."

"Jesus, you sadistic bitch...!"

"That doesn't sound like begging to me." Kerry pursed her lips, sending an invisible, inaudible stream of air directly onto the tip of Sandy's clit, like the faintest of breezes.

It nearly sent Sandy over the edge. "Aaohh, God, Kerry...please, please make me come..." she cried. "I need it..."

Kerry cocked her head, as if debating...

"Kerry, PLEASE...!"

...and deciding. "All right," she whispered, and Sandy felt Kerry's mouth close at last on her clitoris, enfolding it between her lips, stroking it with her tongue, coaxing, caressing, stimulating, sliding fingers inside her, stroking, probing, penetrating, filling, licking, sucking, cherishing, exulting, exhilarating, lifting her, engulfing her, transfixing her, transfiguring her, feeding their mutual hunger, bonding them, uniting them, merging them, dragging Sandy deep into the center of a whirling, simmering vortex of orgasm, erupting into a screaming, shattering climax that wracked her body, exploding liquidly, melting and flowing, falling, softening, settling, and finally leaving her glowing in the dark on the bed.

Night had fallen, leaving the bedroom in shadows. Kerry's shape was just visible as she slipped up beside Sandy, skin gliding over skin. She'd shed the robe at some point. Pulling the covers up over their bodies again, she took Sandy's face in her hands and brought their mouths together for a slow, deep, deliberate kiss. "Okay," she said, untying Sandy's wrists. "Now you're forgiven."

A small yip caught their attention; the dog had its front paws up on the bed, watching them again.

"Off the bed," Kerry commanded, and it retreated. "Get your own bitch; this one's mine."

They lay together in the dark for a long time, safe in each other's arms.

When at last she could speak again, Sandy cleared her throat and said, "You never introduced me to your friend."

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Sandy, Stinky; Stinky, Sandy."

"You named your dog 'Stinky'?" She looked at the dog, which had circled around to her side and was nosing up at her again. The name might be appropriate, but she'd have thought Kerry would pick a name that was a little more...literate.

"He wasn't mine, originally, I kind of inherited him," Kerry said as Sandy reached over to pet the dog's head. "Wasn't wild about the name at first, but it kinda grows on you."

That's what I'm afraid of, Sandy thought, smelling her hand. Ewww...

"He's a scruffy, undisciplined, disreputable little son of a bitch who always wants attention and never does what he's told," Kerry mused out loud. "Maybe I'll call him 'Dave'."

"He doesn't look like a 'Dave'." Sandy regarded the mutt with growing affection, then turned her attention back to its master. "Tell me something."

"Like what?" Kerry's voice was soft, like a child's.

"I don't know, anything. Something important to you. Something you've never told anyone."

"Okay, um...I treated a woman once, not long before I met Kim," Kerry said after some thought, "who'd been in a stable relationship with another woman for twenty-seven years."

Sandy looked at her, impressed. "Wow."

"I know. Can you imagine being with someone that long? The cast of 'Dawson's Creek' weren't even conceived yet, and these two were already courting each other." She grimaced. "And I couldn't even face Susan and Malik spotting me at a hockey game."

Esme and Janet were the longest any lesbian couple Sandy knew personally had been together. That kind of duration seemed daunting to her. Sandy caressed her lover's face, strongly aware that somewhere in all the fun and the sex and the laughs they'd shared, a commitment had been made between them, a commitment to something more important and more enduring. This, she thought, is a woman worth staying with. Worth fighting for.

She felt Kerry's fingertips trace over her eyebrows.

"You called me by my full name," Sandy said. "Just before you tied me down. How'd you know my middle name?"

"I have my ways," Kerry replied mysteriously.

"Come on, Ker, where'd you find out...?"

Kerry shook her head. "That's classified," she said. "I could tell you, but then I would have to kiss you."

"Oh yeah?" Sandy rolled over, going for her sensitive spots. "Well, ve haff vays of making you talk!"

"No no no...!" Kerry shrieked. "NOT THE BELLY BUTTON...!"

Stinky jumped up on the bed, trying to join in the fun, and this time they let him. They wrestled and tumbled playfully, joyously, until Sandy found herself on her back again, Kerry on top of her, giggling and breathing hard.

And then their laughter faded into the deep sighs, moans and wails of another kind of clinch.

Stinky rolled over and squirmed on his back, paws waving happily in the air, before jumping down and curling up in his favorite corner.

They made love naturally, thoughtlessly, organically, and finally settled into each other, finding the perfect fit of their bodies that only comes with complete acceptance.

Kerry and me, and Stinky makes three, Sandy thought, much later.

I could get used to this.

The dream returned that night.

Once again, Sandy was pinned between beams and floorboards, the boy in her arms and the oxygen failing. Once again, Kerry was outside in the ambulance, lethal wires crackling all about her. Once again, their eyes met.

And once again, lightning struck.

She watched Kerry's spine arch convulsively as the current lanced through her.

But this time, she didn't scream. She didn't die.

She stood up, lightning blazing and surging through her, and she walked. Free and strong, without limping, she walked out of the ambulance and its ring of death, toward Sandy.

She thrust the crutch under the fallen beams like a lever and heaved them away with ease, freeing Sandy and the boy. Around her, the flames died away, retreating fearfully from her healing aura.

The boy in Sandy's arms squirmed free and ran, laughing, out to the ambulance. The pregnant woman, her injuries magically undone by Kerry's power, reached for him with open arms and lifted him, smiling. Clancy watched over them, promising they'd be all right now.

Kerry took Sandy's hand, pulling her free of the collapsing floor, and helped her to stand. She removed Sandy's helmet and oxygen mask, and the air was fresh and clear of smoke.

Everything was all right, she saw, as Kerry held her close, pulling her in for a kiss. Together, they were all right.

Fire melts ice, water quenches flame. In the smoke and wet ashes, something new forms in the wake of destruction. Lightning ignites the elements, signaling the birth of new life, or of new love.

And, in Sandy's dream, it was all fine.

The End

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