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“You know you are truly a crazy person when you’re running into a burning building while everyone else is running out,” thought Grace Alvarez as she dodged between throngs of panicked Detroitians, all of whom were screaming and running in the opposite direction.

The Industrial Banking and Loan Building rose on the horizon, three blocks distant, belching smoke and flame. Squad cars and ambulances were already screaming to the scene and a small phalanx of news helicopters were buzzing over the needle thin tower at the top of the building to film the devastation.

Interrupted from their day of seminars at the FBI’s Investigative Techniques Conference by the news of a bombing at the IBL building, the members of the VCTF had been pressed into service to aid the rescue efforts of the under-funded and under-staffed Detroit Police Department. They were running down the sidewalk with a group of fellow conference attendees from other police departments and task forces from across the nation, all of whom were ready to give aid to their fellow comrades.      

Leading the VCTF group was Rachel Burke, the lead profiler. She ran full out, even in high heeled black boots, her long legs eating up the pavement as she kept pace with John Grant, the devastatingly handsome detective. Grace wasn’t more than a few steps behind Rachel and John, her medical bag thumping against her hip. George Fraley, their computer guru, was at her side, rolling up the sleeves of his dress shirt as he ran. Bailey Malone, unit chief, was at the rear of the group, shouting into his cell phone.

As the burning building grew larger in front of Grace’s eyes her thoughts drifted, unbidden, to another burning building on another city skyline. Fifteen years distant, the debris from that day’s bombing still pelted her dreams. She’d gone into a burning building with the desperation of someone who knows that she has the ability to save lives when seconds are precious. She’d been dragged out screaming to watch the rubble fall on the body of her best friend.

=====

His name was Alexander Marshall but he insisted that everyone call him Zane. Alexander was too pretentious, Alex far too common. Even Xander (a name that would become popular years after his death by means of a quirky TV character) didn’t suit his personality. He wanted his name to be as unique as he was, as prominent as his bright green eyes and his sandy hair.

Zane had been the first person to call her Gracie, though most times he shortened it to Gray. They had been best friends since middle school, when Zane had moved onto her block and Grace had beaten him up for stealing her bike. They were inseparable from that day forward, sharing the kind of friendship for which the titles of sisterhood and brotherhood are usually reserved. Each considered the other the sibling that he or she had never had and they bullied and teased and loved each other with the same sort of ferocity.

Grace was the more serious of the two of them– when it came to her grades, that is. She wasn’t the class clown that Zane was but she never hesitated to make her presence felt when she felt the situation warranted it. Her fresh mouth and dry sense of humor were constantly getting her in trouble, both in school and out of it.

Zane had started school with his only ambition in life to eventually be a stand-up comic or a pastry chef. Finally, tired of watching Grace do all of the work in their science labs, he started to get serious about his studies and found, much to his surprise, that he had an aptitude for lab sciences and a curiosity that was absolutely insatiable. His career leanings took the same direction as Grace’s and he decided that what he really wanted was to go to med school outside of Florida.

They went off to Columbia together, vying for the top of the class through four years of caffeine binges and marathon study sessions. The Terrible Twosome– as their friends called them– graduated valedictorian and salutatorian, with Grace coming out a hairs-breadth ahead of Zane. They moved into a loft apartment with two other med students and scored internships in the same medical complex in downtown Manhattan, where they spent their breaks and off-hours reading aloud from the DSM-IV and the Merck Manual, desperate to move on to bigger and better things.  

After two years post college in Manhattan and a year at the FBI Academy, they moved back to their hometown of Miami where they took a house with Morgan, Grace’s high school sweetheart, and Chase, Zane’s girlfriend from Columbia.

In 1991, Zane and Grace were both members of the EMT squad in Dade County, waiting out the state and federal hiring freeze. They were partners, making runs to the college parties for alcohol poisoning, onto the A1A for car accidents, and to the occasional house-fire, in-home medical emergency, or labor and delivery calls that cropped up during the 11-7 graveyard shift.

Chase and Morgan both dealt with the absences of their significant others with good humor. The two of them spent their evenings catching up on work from their respective jobs– Chase was a high school math teacher, and Morgan was the newest member of an accounting firm. Their common love of numbers lead them to start playing rounds of poker each night after dinner while Zane and Grace were just getting ready to go in for the 11 to 7 shift at the firehouse.

Life in their rented house worked out just fine, even with four conflicting schedules that had to be accommodated. Chase was up before all of them, getting ready to go to work at 5am. Morgan was up next and out of the house by 7:30, right around the time Zane and Grace were coming in the door. The two EMTs slept during the day or simply sacrificed sleep to run errands and study. Zane woke up when Chase came home and by the time Morgan arrived two hours later, Grace was starting to fix dinner.

Then there was time for all of them to do something together, whether it was a round of poker, a movie, or just sitting around doing nothing. Morgan and Chase went to bed at 10:30pm, Grace and Zane went to work at 11 and the cycle continued the next day. It didn’t leave much time for any of them to be together as a couple, but they all made adjustments and life went on the way it always had.

That is, until one morning in February when everything changed.

======

The building was crumbling before their eyes. John plunged into the smoke and chaos, shouldering his way through the crowd, directing frantic people through the exits and into the street. Grace ran toward the front doors and then stopped, assessing the situation.

“You going in?”

A tall, good-looking man who reminded her very much of Nathan Brubaker in the face and eyes was standing next to her, rolling up the sleeves of his sky-blue dress shirt. Grace recalled that he was one of the featured speakers at the Investigative Techniques conference-- Lucas Fontaine, an expert in hair and fiber analysis.

Grace nodded. “I’m just trying to figure out what kind of bomb we’re dealing with here. If it’s a dirty bomb we’re going to need face masks.”

Fontaine nodded. “Good call. Hadn’t thought of that.” He sniffed the air, peered at the flame and smoke. “Can’t tell from here but it’s not setting off any of my internal alarms. Think we can go in?”

“We can’t waste any more time,” Grace said grimly. She scanned the smoky haze drifting from the building and saw several people stumbling out of it and into the outside air. “We’ll have to risk it. You coming?” Before she could lose her nerve, Grace ran into the burning building, Fontaine at her side.

Flames were licking at the walls in the lobby. Frantic employees were still stumbling out of the staircases, crying and screaming. Smoke poured out of the bank of elevator shafts and through the heating and cooling ducts, thick and greasy. The flames were eating up the good air, feeding off the oxygen, the smoke intensifying each second. Grace pulled in a breath of air, held it, looked around for her companion. She could see him making his way toward the elevators, both of which were jammed open.

Grace ran toward a woman who had fallen at the end of the stairwell, overcome by the smoke. Coughing out the breath she was holding, she grabbed the woman around the waist and hauled her to her feet, yanking her toward the shattered front doors.

Debris was raining down outside, glass, dust, stones, and bits of metal. The fresh air stung her lungs and she fought the urge to cough. The woman was nearly comatose in her arms, a dead weight that was pulling Grace down.

“George!” she shouted, spotting her friend through the smoke, pulling the woman with her. “George, help me!”

George came running, his shirt smudged with soot, ash dusting his hair. He dodged falling debris as he ran, making a half-hearted effort to cover his face and head from the bits of crumbling stone.

“Is she alive?” he asked, taking the woman into his arms.

“Barely,” Grace coughed, looked back at the building. “One of the men from our conference is still in there. I need to go back in.”

“They’re saying the building looks like it’s going to come down. You don’t have much time.” He met her eyes, his normally calm face lined with worry. “Be careful.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve done this before.”

The smoke was thickening. The chemical fumes in the air were making her eyes and throat burn. She stumbled around the lobby, scanning for bodies, though it didn’t do much good. She couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of her.

A tremor rent the air. A horrible roar accompanied the tremor, the sound of the supports in the building starting to give way to fatigue and damage. The floor shifted under her feet. Debris tumbled and a new shower of white dust filled the air. She knew that feeling– she’d felt it before the West tower of the Amnesty Building came down. Grace intensified her search, scanning the room with eyes practiced at spotting minute details.

The door to the stairwell was half open. She could make out a crumpled form lying just inside the hallway, a tall form wearing a sky-blue shirt. Fontaine.

She ran, feeling the floor shifting under her feet, mentally gauging the amount of time she had before the building collapsed altogether. Adrenaline made her heart pound and her blood scream as she shoved open the door and found her comrade from the conference lying at the foot of the stairway. Grace felt for his pulse, then heaved him up into a sitting position. He was unresponsive. She got a firm hold on his upper arms and started dragging him across the floor.

She was halfway across the lobby when the tremors intensified. The walls were crumbling around her, tile and stucco, marble and plaster falling in a shower of fine dust. Her muscles screamed as she lifted the man over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry. She was halfway across the lobby when a piercing pain shot across her head. She watched dazedly as a rock the size of a golf ball bounced across the floor in front of her. Blood trickled down her face and she had to fight the impulse to put a hand on her forehead.

The shattered front doors materialized in front of her. She stumbled toward them, arms and legs trembling from effort. She could make out firefighters swarming outside.

A metal girder came crashing down inches from her feet and she couldn’t slow her momentum. She fell in a tangle of limbs, Fontaine heavily on top of her, pinning her legs. Her head was pounding, her lungs burning. She pushed to her knees, tried to stand up, before her vision tunneled and blackness swept in from all sides.

======

Grace and Zane had just come back into the house after a killer 11 to 7. Miami’s version of Mardi Gras had started the previous night and the calls had been copious. The most unusual call of the night was from a member of a sorority house who thought that someone had spiked their Mardi Gras punch with acid– whole rooms of party-goers were tripping in the Alpha Zeta Psi house.

“What a nightmare!” Grace groaned, sinking down on the sofa. “120 acid-tripping frat students constitutes a descent into hell.”

“Never ever again.” Zane pulled off his sweaty t-shirt and tossed it into a corner. “When the hell are we going to get the A.C. fixed? It feels like a fucking greenhouse in here!” He grabbed a cold beer from the fridge and downed it.

“Zane, drinking beer at 7:45 am clearly constitutes alcoholism.”

“Fuck off, Doctor Alvarez. Beer is my very best friend right now ... even more so than you.”

“Toss me a water. I’m too tired to get up.”

Zane obliged and Grace laid the cool bottle against her forehead. “Next paycheck,” she said, in response to his query. “Next paycheck we’re springing to get the AC fixed even if we have to live on spaghetti for the next month to do it. Comprende?”

“No argument here.” Zane cracked open another beer. “What do you think about a cold shower?”

“I think you’re insane. I’m not moving from this couch.” Grace pulled off her own t-shirt to reveal a tank top underneath. She mopped her forehead with her t-shirt and pulled her hair into a ponytail using the elastic band around her wrist. “Can you believe it actually snows in some parts of the country in February?”

“You’d never know it living here.” Zane flopped down on the sofa next to her. “Want me to carry you out back and spray you with the hose?”

“If you’re carrying me anywhere it’s to bed. I’m exhausted.”

“Shower first, Gray.” He leaned close to her and smiled winningly. “Come on, make my day. Let me turn the hose on you.”

“As long as I don’t have to walk to get there, fine,” Grace answered, not moving.

True to his word, Zane lifted her up and carried her out the sliding glass door into the back yard. There was a small pool that they filled up on particularly hot nights. It was big enough for the four of them to sit in and relax with a cold beer each.

Zane set her down inside the pool and grabbed the nearby hose. Grinning, he turned the water on high and proceeded to pelt Grace with blast after blast of cold water.

“Ack!” Grace shrieked and laughed helplessly. “Okay! I’m awake! Mercy! Truce!”

Zane continued to douse her in cold water, laughing hysterically. “There shall be no mercy!” he yelled in his most dramatic voice. “None, I say! Nor shall there be truces! Truces are for wimps and sissy girls!”

“Sissy girls! Oh, brother, are YOU asking for it!” She leaped out of the pool and began chasing him around the yard, grabbing for the hose. She finally managed to wrest it from him and sluiced him with jets of cold water.

Finally they both landed on the grass, giggling hysterically and completely soaked.

“Truce,” Zane wheezed. “Truce, I call truce. I swear to god, Gray, you’ve got a right hook that could rival any man I’ve ever met.”

“I thought truces were for sissy girls.”

“Sissy girls and tired EMTs.”

Zane flopped onto his back and turned his head to look at his best friend. She was lying beside him on the grass, soaking wet, grinning, her eyes closed as she took deep breaths of air and let herself relax. She was beautiful to him then, as beautiful as any woman he’d ever met, and the little stirrings of lust that he’d been trying to deny for so long started squirming in his belly.

“Gracie,” he started to say, then gave up and leaned over to kiss her.

She expected it to be just like the time they’d tried dating in high school. Any second one of them would burst out laughing and they’d joke about this for days afterward. The first time they’d tried making out in his small basement room they’d ended up giggling so hard they swore they’d never try it again. But this was nothing at all like his usual friendly kisses. It was deeper, darker, and decidedly more serious.

Zane had a mouth that was soft and skilled. He tasted of cinnamon gum and smelled of water, grass, and fresh air. Grace kissed him back and found her arms wrapping around him, much of their own accord.

They rolled over the grass, all frenzied movements and hot kisses. To Grace, who had been consistently dating and sleeping with Morgan since high school, Zane’s body felt different but, somehow, not unfamiliar. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she knew he was the man she was dreaming of when she was lying underneath Morgan’s groping hands at night.

Zane’s body moved over hers, into hers, and she arched off the grass, moaning. With both their significant others at work and a wall to block prying neighborhood eyes, there was no reason to move indoors. So they tumbled on the lawn, half clothed, wet from water and sweat. They were frenzied, both desperate to finish and yet wanting to never bring it to an end.

Zane was a skilled lover. Grace recalled the days and nights in college when he went out to taste Manhattan’s nightlife instead of studying. At the time she’d been quietly resentful of the fact that she’d have to carry him on the tests and quizzes and study guides when he’d been too busy partying to study. Now she was thankful for the practice she was sure he’d been getting as he used his hands and mouth to start a fire in her belly. She wondered briefly if she was disappointing him, having only been with one man and having grown used to his own particular wants and needs. As Zane continued to caress her and kiss her, though, she completely forgot about her own insecurities and gave herself over to it.

He brought her to a fierce climax, digging his fingers into her hips as she sank her teeth into his shoulder. He pulled out just before his own finish, coming into his hand with a groan.

“Jesus, Gray!” He flopped onto the grass at her side, face flushed, warmth radiating from him in waves. “How did that happen?”

“I don’t know.” Grace stared at the sky, breathing hard. She felt limp and completely sated, her body warm and relaxed. “I think I’d like to do it again, though.”

Zane looked over at her and smiled with relief. “You would? Really?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” She smiled shyly at him and, though she felt like she was betraying a confidence, quietly said, “Morgan hasn’t been able to get me off like that in quite some time.”

Zane sat up, eyes gleaming with mischief. “Really?”

“You heard me,” Grace said. “I’m never repeating it again.”

“Hmmm.” Zane leaned back on his elbows, looking terribly pleased with himself. He reached down and began to stroke her hair, a tentative gesture that was oddly endearing coming from the man who’d had no compunction about ravishing her body only moments before.

“I was afraid you were going to get pissed off or something.”

“Why would I? It takes two, you know, and I had just as much to do with it as you did.” She leaned back on the grass and stretched. “You didn’t have to pull out.”

“Yes, I did. No condom.”

“Morgan never uses them.”

“Birth control?”

Grace shook her head and leaned on one elbow to look at him. “I can’t get pregnant. I’m infertile.”

Zane stared at her. “Gracie! Holy cow! Why didn’t you say anything to me? When did you find this out?”

“College,” she replied. “Remember the week of class I missed around Thanksgiving our last year? I had to borrow all your notes and spent my whole vacation getting caught up.”

“Yeah, I remember. You told me you had the flu all week.”

“I lied.” Grace looked up at the sky, shading her eyes with her hand. “I’d been having these awful cramps and heavy bleeding for months and months on end. It got so bad in November that I actually passed out in the hallway in my dorm. I went to an Ob/Gyn and they ran some tests on me. Turns out I’ve got a malformation in my uterus. Even if I could get pregnant the chances of being able to carry a baby to term are slim to none.”

Zane stared at her, hurt that Grace had never shared this with him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, Zane, come on. A woman’s got to have some mystery,” Grace teased.

“Seriously.”

“Seriously? Okay. It hurt too much then to share. It still hurts too much, in some ways. I’ve never told Chase. Never told my mother or my aunts. I’d just rather not talk about it.”

“But I’m your best friend.”

“I know.” Grace gave him a quick, sad smile. “But some things are just too much to share, even with you.”  

                                                           =======

An elephant was sitting on her chest– at least that’s what it felt like when Grace became aware of her body again. Her chest was as tight as if she’d been laced into a too small corset. Her lungs felt as if they’d been scalded in boiling water. Her vision swam and blurred. Something was in her eyes– blood? Tears? She opened her mouth and gulped for air that wasn’t there.

The clear plastic tent of an oxygen mask lowered over her nose and mouth and a pair of hands pushed her into a sitting position. There was a soothing rush of cool air. Grace gulped it, then gagged when her chest spasmed. She clawed at the mask, but a hand held it firmly over her mouth. She struggled against whoever was holding her, a scream that she couldn’t voice welling in her scorched throat.

Then Bailey was kneeling next to her, his strong hands pressing on her shoulders to hold her in place. His voice filled the space around the pain. He was repeating two insistent words– “Breathe, Gracie”– in a voice that brooked no disobedience. His eyes staring into hers gave her the strength to take one breath, then another. He nodded encouragingly and she felt his grip on her shoulders loosening, his hands dropping to rub her back as she gasped fitfully into the oxygen mask. There were other hands on her now, other faces hovering--paramedics.

A moment later she felt herself being lifted and her world exploded in violent streaks of red and black. The pain was intense. Her vision was blurring, Bailey’s face and those of the paramedics swimming in front of her eyes. Her vision tunneled, and for the second time that day, Grace slipped into unconsciousness.

*** 

Zane was there, just as she knew he would be. He had his own resting place behind her eyes and a way of appearing when something cataclysmic happened in her life. The last time she’d seen him was nearly a year ago, on the night her youngest son was born and she’d almost bled to death in labor.

He reached a hand out to her, his fingers long, tanned. The gold class ring from Columbia was on his right hand. He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, the outfit she most loved to see him in. His eyes were shining, his hair stylishly tousled. He looked just the way she remembered him.

It was wrenching to see him, devastating to feel the bruises bloom on her heart all over again. She had never properly recovered from Zane’s death, perhaps because she could never tell Morgan or Chase that he had been more to her than her best friend. She had no one to share the memories of their secret stolen time with, no one who could re-create for her the cadence of his voice, the puff of breath when he leaned over to whisper in her ear, the taut strength in his arms when they held each other on the roof of the firehouse, staring out at the ocean. For that reason alone, it hurt to see him. She was always reminded of what she had lost.

Grace wasn’t sure whether this Zane was one of her own making, cobbled together out of dream and memory and pasted together with a slippery film of desire, friendship, grief, and guilt or if he was a manifestation of something outside herself. She was raised Catholic but her belief in science was stronger than her belief in dogma. She didn’t logically believe that the dead could manifest themselves to the living. But how, then, did it explain why Zane waited for her when she was at her most injured or vulnerable, why he chose moments of great strife to project himself on the inside of her eyelids?

Zane reached out for her and she ran toward him, her arms outstretched. Inches away, their fingers brushed, her hand grasped for his, clutching, but finding only air where there should have been Zane’s warm skin. She fell into blackness until her back hit the grass on their lawn in Miami and she was under Zane, her body arching up to make a conjoined sculpture with his. As they moved together, she felt drips of sweat falling from his forehead onto hers. But when she opened her eyes, it wasn’t sweat falling to cover her skin but wax and blood, covering her in a sticky film that hardened as Zane melted into her. Then he was gone and she was alone, stuck in place by wax, blood, sweat and tears, as the sky went black and the stars wheeled overhead then fell.    

 ***

The falling stars were burning into her in a thousand different places. Grace tried to beat at them with her hands, only to find that made the burns worse. She groaned, tried to roll onto her side, hoping that in rolling she might blot the burns out. She felt a pair of hands on her instead and they kept her from moving.

“Gracie. Grace, don’t move.”

“The stars burned me,” she mumbled. “It hurts.”

“I know it hurts. But it’s going to hurt more if you put pressure on your side.”

It wasn’t Zane. That wasn’t his voice. She battled to open her eyes and when she did she was punished by white walls so bright that it hurt to look at them. She squeezed her eyes shut again.

“Grace, open your eyes. Come on.”

When she opened her eyes this time, it was darker. George’s familiar face slid into her field of vision. As her eyes adjusted she could see there was a smudge of soot on his cheekbone and his hair was powdered with ash. Someone had given him a clean white t-shirt and an EMT’s jacket. There was a long scratch on his cheek, another just under his left eye, surface wounds from falling rock. He was holding her arms immobile at her sides.  

“Grace? Are you with me again?”

Grace opened her mouth to speak and could only squeak out the tiniest rasp of a breath. She put a hand to her throat and managed to whisper, “Why are you pinning me down?”

“Oh.” He let up the pressure on her arms and blushed. “Sorry. You were trying to roll onto your right side. Not a great idea considering that half your ribs are cracked and bruised.”

Which explained the burning throb and answered the question as to whether any of it had been real.

“You’ve got ash on your cheek,” she said, staring at his face and blinking hard to clear her eyes.

“You should see your face.” He stepped back and sat down in the chair next to her bed. “How are you feeling?”

“Like a building fell on me.” She blinked and the room finally swam into clear, if dark, focus. “Is everyone else okay?” She felt as though she had the worst case of strep throat known to man.

George fussed with the blankets on her bed. His hands, she noticed, were covered in scrapes and cuts, some of which were bandaged with steri-strips to hold them closed. A bruise was blooming on his forearm.

“Bailey’s down the hall with DPD and a guy from ATF, checking on a few of the bombing victims. John and Rachel are in the ER.” At Grace’s look of concern he quickly amended, “She’s having her wrist x-rayed. She broke it falling over some debris on the way out of the building. John wanted to go with her so she wouldn’t be alone.”

Grace nodded and was silent for a few moments, trying to become aware enough of herself to mentally assess her condition. There were bandages wrapped around her rib cage. From the spasms of pain when she breathed she could tell that her ribs were definitely cracked, if not broken. She put a hand to her forehead and felt steri-strips, blood, and frayed skin. Her fingers came away tipped in soot.

“I bet I look like hell. I feel like hell.”

George raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I wouldn’t look in the mirror just now.”

He crossed to the sink in the corner of the room and ran water over a washcloth, which he handed to her.

“Here you go … if you want to get cleaned up.”

Grace began sponging off her face, watching as ash, make-up and blood congealed on the washcloth. “Disgusting.” She wiped at her forehead and winced when her fingers skipped over a bump the size of a small egg. “Ouch!”

“Let me,” George said, and took the cloth from her. He began methodically cleaning the blood and soot from her face, his fingers gentle. “I know it sounds crazy to tell a woman with cracked ribs and a nasty bump on her head that she’s lucky but you really are. Bailey ran inside for you before the building came down.” He raised her face just enough so that she could meet his worried eyes. “Grace. I am really glad to see you.”

“Likewise,” she managed to croak out, before a fit of coughing shook her.

“I’ll get you some water.” He stopped his trip toward the door when he felt her hand on his arm.

“Tell me how many.”

“The count is one hundred forty-five. It’s going to go higher.”

Grace remembered the man she was carrying when she’d fallen just in front of the doors.

“What about the man I was trying to drag out? Lucas Fontaine from the forensic conference?”

“We got him out with you. He’s in ICU.”

“And the woman? The first one I pulled out?”

“DOA. Head injury.”

Grace turned her eyes out the window. Clouds of smoke and dust were billowing up from the bomb site. It looked like the whole city was shrouded in fog.

“Let me go get you that water,” George said, and headed for the door. He met Bailey on the way out and ushered him inside.

Bailey looked like a ragged scarecrow. He’d lost his suit jacket somewhere in the chaos and was wearing only his trousers and his blue dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The ash powdering his hair made him look older, more careworn.

“How are you feeling, Grace?”

She was up for the joke that he would be expecting from her now. “Like I was beaten by the entire Redwings line-up.”

“That bad?”

“Hey, I’m the one who’s still standing,” Grace replied flippantly. She pressed a hand to her ribs and winced. “The building isn’t.”

She could never explain why she felt compelled to make light of her condition when it came to Bailey. Their interactions were usually serious when it came to work, but he also expected jokes from her, easy banter. She always tried to oblige by giving them to him, even when the circumstances called for anything but a joke.

He was serious now as he looked her up and down with a stare that made her wish she wasn’t wearing a flimsy hospital gown. “You gave us a helluva scare,” Bailey said. “Thank God one of the firemen spotted you before the lobby caved in.”

“George said you came in after me.”

“Well, I sure wasn’t going to leave you in there.” He turned his face from her, trying to hide the emotion that was playing too openly across his features. Though Bailey tried as hard as he could to play himself off as the ice man, he was really quite tender-hearted when it came to his colleagues. He’d lost comrades before, Grace recalled, and knew how hard he took it when colleagues fell on what he perceived to be his watch.

“Thank you.” When he wouldn’t look at her, Grace touched his wrist. “I mean it, Bailey. Thank you. Truly.”

He looked at her then. There was a mixture of concern, relief, and something harder to define on his face. He touched her hand, his fingers closing around hers in a quick, firm, handclasp.

“Is this where Victims Anonymous is meeting?”

John stood in the doorway, an arm firmly around Rachel, who wore the dazed expression of someone fighting the effects of prescription painkillers. Her hand and wrist were encased in bright white plaster. Unlike the others, her face had been wiped clean of dirt and soot but her clothes and hair told the tale of a day spent digging in dirt and dust to rescue the wounded and dying. Grace was unaccustomed to seeing the tough-as-nails profiler looking so completely run-down.

John helped Rachel into the chair that Bailey vacated then leaned down to give Grace a gentle hug, mindful of her injuries.

“Glad you’re okay,” he whispered in her ear. “My life wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if I didn’t have you around to jab at me.”

Night was falling on the city, attempting to hide the open wounds of a day turned bloody and raw. George stepped back into the room and poured cups of water for everyone. They drank silently, cooling throats that were raspy and hoarse from smoke, chemicals, and particulate matter.

Finally John broke the silence. “DPD is already talking about memorial services. Are we going to stay?”

“I don’t know,” Bailey replied. “They haven’t requested our help on the case yet. We’re just here in a triage capacity for the moment.” He coughed and leaned back in his chair. His eyes were bloodshot from smoke and fatigue.

“Anyone claim responsibility?” George asked, his eyes still fixed on the window. He drained the last bit of water from his cup and threw it in the trash can.

“Not yet. Rescue workers are still working. Investigators won’t move in till later.”

Bailey glanced at Rachel, whose eyes were starting to slip closed. “You need to be in bed.”

“I’m fine,” Rachel muttered, forcing her eyes open. She made a valiant effort to stand up but couldn’t quite manage it. “We need to go back to the bomb site. There’re still people that need rescuing.”

“You’ve done your share,” Bailey told her. “What you need is sleep.” Resuming his role as caretaker, he pulled Rachel to her feet and started to steer her towards the door. “I’m taking Rachel back to the hotel. The doctors said you can go home later tonight, Gracie. I’ll be back for you later.”

John pulled the car keys from his jacket pocket. “I’ll drive.” He put an arm around Rachel’s waist. “Come on, Red, don’t make me carry you.”

“Carry me and I’ll kick your ass,” Rachel threatened blearily. “I’m fine. I could drive if I wanted to.” She made a half-hearted grab for the car keys.

Their voices blended into the hubbub of the trauma ward and then the door closed on the noise of crash carts and nurse’s voices, leaving the room blessedly quiet.

“Want me to leave you alone?” George asked solicitously. “You look like you’re trying not to fall asleep.”

“No, stay. I am trying not to fall asleep.”

“Sleep is the best thing for you right now.”

Grace looked out the window at the smoke-filled sky. “Did I ever tell you about my friend Zane?”

“I don’t think so.” George sat on the edge of her bed. “Is he someone I should know?”

“He was--” Grace stopped, trying to come up with the proper term to describe her complex relationship with Zane. “Fifteen years ago, he was the same thing to me that you are now--my partner at work, my best friend, my rock.” She looked up at George. “He was also, for a brief time, my lover. While Morgan and I were having a rough time.”

George nodded, surprised by this new revelation. “Where is Zane now?”

“He died in the Amnesty Towers bombing in Miami.”

“I’m sorry,” George said simply.

The Amnesty Towers bombing had been cataclysmic, the worst domestic terrorist incident up until Oklahoma City.

“I’ve never talked about it since it happened. Not even to Morgan,” Grace said. “It’s not easy to–“

George nodded. “It’s okay.”

“Zane and I worked the bombing as EMT’s. What we really wanted to be doing was crime scene investigation and bomb blast forensics. We’d each done a year at Quantico right after Columbia but by the time we’d finished up the hiring freeze was on and we couldn’t get anything at the Miami field office. We had bills to pay so we took on EMT positions, hoping to wait out the hiring freeze.”

She took a deep breath, forgetting her injuries, and hissed in pain, pressing a hand to her rib cage. George frowned and started to hit the call button but Grace stayed his hand. “I’m okay. There’s nothing they can give me for it anyway. It has to heal on its own.”

“What happened during the bombing?”

“We made a mistake. A big one. They called us to the scene to help triage. Hell, they called everyone within 50 miles with a medical degree and a basic knowledge of anatomy. Zane and I would have missed it if it hadn’t been for the fact that I left my damn radio on.”

=====

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone puke so much in my entire life.”

“Alexander Marshall, give it a rest! You’re making me sick!”

Zane grinned mischievously. “Come on, Gracie, what’s a little bile between friends? It should be nothing to you, the Decomp Diva.”

“That wasn’t just a little bile. That was practically the entire lining of her stomach.” Grace shook her head, disgusted. “God, when will these college kids learn they can’t drink 10 shots and half a keg without dire consequences?”

Zane laughed. “According to the boyfriend downstairs it all started with a bet for $20 stakes. Unbelievable. Hope Mr. Hamilton was worth losing about five pounds and all that laser bleaching on her teeth. ”

“Stop, you’re making me feel sick!” Grace moaned. “Give it a rest.”

Zane grinned. “Speaking of bets, I have one for you.”

Grace raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure I want to take a bet from you.”

“Trust me, you’ll like this one.”

“Okay.” She narrowed her eyes. “Name your stakes.”

Zane ran his hand familiarly along her inner thigh. “I bet that I can make you come three times in the shower.”

Grace pretended to think it over, trying hard not to giggle. She was secretly thrilled by this new side of their relationship. “Just three times? You’re slipping, honey. It was at least four the other night.”

He arched an eyebrow at her. “Three times is all the hot water heater can handle, Gray. Unless you think you’re still going to need a cold shower by the time I’m done with you.”

“God, who knew you were so depraved?”

“Deprived, honey. Deprived. Do you think Chase gives it up for me anymore?”

Grace stared at him, open-mouthed. “You and Chase stopped sleeping together? Are you kidding me?”

“Nope. The old ‘oh, honey, I’m so tired, I had such a long day, maybe tomorrow,’ routine.” He laughed hollowly. “Trust me, she’s good for everything up to heavy petting and then she’s closed for business. Nice to know there’s one female in our little household that likes me to touch her.”

Grace felt something hot and heavy sink in her chest. “Am I just good sex for you? Zane, if I just wanted sex I’d go to Morgan for that. That’s all he wants.”

Zane braked sharply, causing a car behind him to honk and pull into the next lane. He pulled the car over to the side of the road. “Gray. Baby, no.” He took her face in his hands. “You’re a lot more to me than just sex. You’re my best friend, my partner in crime, my study buddy, and my ambulance amigo. Believe me, I haven’t stuck with you this long for nothing.

He traced the line of her jaw with his fingers. “All of this history between us, these years and experiences, that’s more important to me than the sex. I’m just glad that now we have one more thing to share.” He wrapped her curls around his fingers. “It feels ... right to finally know your body. I’ve been staring at it for years and wondering what those curves of yours felt like.”

Grace leaned forward to look him in the eye. “So you’re not just with me for the sex? Honestly?”

“Honestly. Besides–“ Zane brushed his fingers across her cheek, his thumb rubbing lightly over her lips. “It’s not ‘just sex’ with you, mi amore. It’s making love.”

Their lips came together softly at first, then with more urgency. Grace nipped at his bottom lip, ran her fingers through his hair. He groaned against her mouth, murmured her name. His hands skimmed across her torso, slid under her shirt. “Let’s go home, baby. I want to get you in bed.”

“Drive fast,” Grace whispered into his ear. “I want your hands on me.”

They took the anticipated shower and Zane did, in fact, win his bet. They tumbled into his bed, all desperate hands and mouths, and alternated between sleep and sex for the better part of two hours. They were roused from sleep at 9:15 when Grace’s radio squawked out an alarm.

   “All units, report to home base immediately. All units have been activated for a major emergency in Miami. Repeat, all units, including volunteers, report to home base immediately.”

*** 

There were flames shooting from the upper stories of West Amnesty Tower. A huge gash had been torn in the steel and glass frame of the tower ... it looked at first glance as though a giant had taken a bite out of the side. Shattered safety glass, twisted metal, office furnishings, wood, and bodies were scattered in a huge circular diameter around the building.

Grace and Zane could only stare at the carnage, struck dumb. They wasted precious moments gaping at the building before there was a rap on Zane’s window. Joe Washington, the head of the 11 to 7 shift was yelling, “get your asses moving!” and they jumped to comply, grabbing their emergency gear out of the back of the car. When Grace stepped out of the car she was assaulted by the smell of superheated metal, gas, smoke, and the smell of cooking flesh. She held down the gag reflex, knowing that the smell was part and parcel of a bomb situation.

“Alvarez, Marshall, you’re on triage,” Washington barked, pointing toward the auxiliary parking lot, where people were lying on coats, blankets, plastic tarps, anything that could offer protection between the ground and their skin.

Grace met Zane’s eyes, dismayed that with all their forensic training they’d been relegated– again– to triage duty. Though it was never a good idea to question her superiors, she decided to toe the line, wanting to do the best that she could with the skill she’d been given.

“Joe, I’d really like to help with the on-site rescue efforts,” Grace ventured. “There’s still people in that building that need help.”

“Yeah, and there’s people out here that need help, too,” Washington replied. “Look, Alvarez, bomb squad’s in the building already and they’ve got their hands full without a bunch of trainees in there, complicating matters.”

“Joe, I’m not a trainee! I spent a summer doing classes on bomb blast forensics at Quantico,” she replied. “I can help you in there, really! We both can.” She gestured at Zane.

“Look,” Washington said sharply, losing patience, “I know you two are the hot shot Columbia kids, all right? I get it. But in this kind of situation, you do what I tell you to do, not what you think you can do. I got a woman over there who jumped from the 4th floor to get out of this building and she needs a lot more help than a band-aid and a pat on the hand. I’m asking you to triage because you’re the best I got. Now as a favor to me, do what I ask you. You’ll get your chance to do your forensics, Alvarez. You, too, Marshall. It just won’t be today. You straight with me?”

“Yeah,” Zane replied, hefting his kit. “Yeah, we’re straight. Where’s your jumper? I can help her out.”

Washington pointed them in the direction of the parking lot and turned to direct the other medical teams that were pulling in.

“I’ll take the left side,” Zane said, all business. “You take the right. Radio if you need me.”

Grace nodded and cut toward the right side of the parking lot where people lay bleeding and moaning. A few EMT’s were circulating among them already but not nearly enough to treat the number of people who were sprawled on the ground.

A man in scrubs approached her.

“EMT?”

“Grace Alvarez.”

“Dr. Martin Field. Glad you’re here. Can you triage for me?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Good. We’re seeing a lot of puncture wounds, wounds with foreign material in them, a lot of broken bones and head trauma. There have been a few jumpers– they’re first priority when the ambulances start arriving. Stabilize, field dress, and move on as quickly as you can. If you need assistance with anything severe, use your radio. We’re on channels 4 and 5.”

Grace nodded, making the adjustment on her radio and hefting her kit. “Anything else?”

“I wouldn’t look up if I were you.”

Despite his warning, Grace’s eyes flickered to the burning building. Amid the chorus of sirens, the crackle of fire, and the groaning of distressed steel, her ears isolated the sound of screaming. One scream, louder than the others, and then she saw it– a body flying through the air. No, not flying. Falling. A tiny black figure, silhouetted against a corona of fire and steel, its arms and legs waving almost comically as it pitched downward toward the pavement.  

She didn’t see it hit. She wrenched her eyes away in time, bile rising in her throat. Her eyes met Dr. Field’s and she saw that his face was twisted into a grimace.

“There’ll be more,” he said grimly. “Keep your eyes down.”

 ***

The bomb went off at 9:00am. Full paramedic and fire teams were out in force within the hour, trying to treat the victims and stoke the fires. At 11:00am, Joe Washington began rounding up a team to venture into the building to look for survivors.

Zane found Grace treating a woman with second degree burns on her arms and hands. Giving the woman a quick smile, he kneeled next to Grace and whispered, “Washington assigned Meran to head rescue teams.”

Grace began winding gauze around the woman’s wrists. “So?”

“So, Meran owes me a favor. He’ll put us on the team if I ask him to.”

“Joe asked us to triage,” Grace said, cutting the gauze and winding tape around the dressing. “There you go. We’ll get you in to a hospital as soon as possible.” She gathered her kit and walked away with Zane.

“Come on, Gray, since when do you ever do what Joe asks?”

“Look, I want to go in there as much as you do. But he has a point. We’re short-handed on triage. They need us out here.”

“They’ve treated most of the major injuries,” Zane coaxed. “There’ve been ten ambulances dispatched out to the hospitals. More personnel and ambulances are on the way. Come on, Gray, when are you ever going to get an opportunity like this again? When are you going to be able to actually use bomb blast forensics in the field?”

“Not often,” she admitted. She looked up at the smoldering building, fingers itching to be digging in the rubble and wreckage, eager to find what had caused so much damage and how to stop it from happening again.

“So come on. Washington’s busy with the press. I’ll talk to Meran, get us on the first team in. We’ll look for survivors, you can work with the evidence teams getting your samples and info.”

It was too tempting to resist. Grace nodded. “Okay. Let’s go.”

***

They searched the ruins methodically, floor by floor, from the lobby up. The chance of finding survivors in the building decreased every hour so the rescuers searched quickly but carefully, entering offices and suites and listening for signs of life, pushing aside wreckage and debris. Grace and several members of the CSI team assigned to the bombing carried evidence bags and containers and spent time combing the debris while the others looked for survivors.

By noon, they’d reached the offices on the fourth floor of the tower. The plexiglass-covered map of the offices on each floor was sooty but intact. Team leader Tim Meran studied it and quickly calculated how to cover the search area in the quickest amount of time.

“Dr. Field, Miriam, take the three offices to the left of the elevators. Grace, Zane, and I will take the ones on the right. Ray, Jason, take the back two suites. From the blast pattern it looks like the bomb was located somewhere in or around this floor. I doubt we’ll find survivors so close to the point of origin but it won’t hurt to look.”

They were about to split up when Joe Washington’s voice crackled out of Grace’s radio.

“122 to 415.”

Grace depressed the talk button. “415, go ahead.”

“Discontinue your triage duties and 10-25 me in the west parking lot for a hospital run. I’m short on paramedics and I’ve got two women who need immediate transport to Lincoln Memorial.”

“Copy that, 122. I’m 10-12 to your location.” She placed the radio back on her hip and glanced around at her team. “Sorry, guys. I’ll be back in as soon as I can.” She passed her evidence bags off to Miriam West, the primary CSI. “Don’t start your analysis without me.”

“Trust me, Grace, we’ve got plenty,” West replied. “Make your run. Radio in when you get back.”

Grace headed down the stairwell, hoping she could make it out of the building without Washington spotting her. She’d be up for a reprimand if he knew she’d disobeyed his direct orders and discontinued her triage duties in order to go in with the CSI team.

She was halfway across the lobby when there was an explosion from the elevator shaft, one that knocked her off of her feet and engulfed the walls and ceiling in flames.

=====

“Second wave,” George said softly.

Grace nodded, wiping her eyes. She hadn’t realized she’d been crying until that moment. “The second wave of explosives was located in the elevator shaft in the underground parking garage. They were timed to go off three hours after the original explosion, almost certainly to catch the rescue teams and investigators who’d be in the building.”

“What happened?” George asked. “To Zane and the others?”

“Dr. Field made it out, carrying Miriam West. We never did figure out how he made it down those four flights of steps with a shattered femur. But he came out, Miriam in his arms. She needed 7 rounds of surgery to repair the damage the blast did to her. Of the 10 major bones in the human face, she broke 6.

“Ray and Jason were closest to the elevators when the doors blasted out. The most that was ever found of them were body parts. I named my oldest son after Jason ... he was one of the bravest, most dedicated EMT’s I ever met.

“Tim Meran made it as far as the lobby before he collapsed from shock and blood loss. He lost an eye and needed skin grafts from the glass window that shattered on him. Joe Washington dragged Tim out of the lobby himself.”

Grace took a shaky breath and stared out the window. Night had fallen and the horizon was glowing orange with flame.

“I ran up the stairs on a broken ankle, looking for Zane. I searched all over the fourth floor for him. It didn’t occur to me that he was probably already dead, that he’d died the minute the bomb went off. I couldn’t leave that building without him. If he wasn’t going to leave neither was I.

“Joe Washington ran in after me. He said he found me on my hands and knees, screaming, covered in blood. He carried me out before West Amnesty Tower came down. He told me later he had to strap me to a gurney because I kept trying to run back inside.”

Her voice broke and fresh tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“I went back a few weeks later with Miriam, Tim, and Martin Field. We each took a chunk of concrete from the site, a piece of the building closest to the epicenter of the explosion. To remember.”

“That’s the concrete you keep on your desk in the lab, isn’t it?” George asked quietly.

Grace nodded.

George’s hand went to her hair, brushed a few loose curls away from her face. “If I’d known what it took for you to go in that building today, if I’d had any idea–“

”I wouldn’t have let you stop me,” Grace finished. “I needed today. It’s been fifteen years but I’ve never come face to face with Zane’s death before now. All I’ve ever done is blame myself for agreeing to go into that building with him, for letting him talk me into trying to prove myself as a scientist instead of staying where I belonged and triaging like I was supposed to. If I’d turned him down, convinced him to stay with me in the parking lot and make ambulance runs, he’d be alive. He’d never have gone if I hadn’t agreed to go in too.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” George said softly, though he knew that telling her wouldn’t do any good unless she believed it herself.

Grace stared out the window at the glowing orange sky. “Morgan never found out Zane and I had been lovers. I think he suspected, though. There were times when we were making love when he could tell I wasn’t with him. Chase never knew– well, if she did she never let on. After Zane died she faded out of our lives. It was too hard for all of us to live with that kind of shared pain. We moved to Atlanta and she stayed on in Miami. As far as I know, she got married and still lives there with her husband.” She wasn’t aware that she was crying again until she felt George’s fingers on her cheeks, brushing away tears. “I wonder if she ever moved past him. Sometimes I don’t think I ever will.”

George took her hand and cradled it in his own. She could feel the frayed skin on his palms, the bandages covering the delicate tapered length of his fingers. “There are some things that you’re never supposed to get over, people and events in your life that always pull at your heart and make you feel pain. They make you remember your limitations. They make you remember what it is to be alive.”

Grace shut her eyes. When she opened them she was blinking back tears. “You remind me of him sometimes. Especially when you say things like that.”

George rose and walked to the window. He pulled shut the running blinds to block the view of the smoldering skyline. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep now? I’ll wake you up when Bailey gets here to take us home.”

“Thanks.” She was tired all of a sudden, desperately weary. It would feel good to sleep for a while. “George?”

“Hmmm?”

A hundred questions entered her mind, a hundred things she wanted to say, none of which she could verbalize without sounding emotional, weepy, or just plain trite. George watched her grasp for words and seemed to understand.

“Whatever it is you want to ask me is something you already know the answer to,” he said softly. “What good is it going to do you to hear it all said again?” She felt his cool touch on her forehead. “Close your eyes. I’ll be right here when you wake up, whatever happens.”

Grace looked up into the eyes of her best friend, nodded, and closed her eyes, waiting for sleep to claim her, sure that she would find Zane waiting there.

 

Finis.