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Dopamine

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Delle stood on her apartment balcony, overlooking the Hudson River, and sipped her coffee. The morning rays of light lit up the horizon vibrantly. The city shimmered with heat, and was bathed in a deep blood orange. The virus had been raging for six months by this point.

She sipped her rich, smooth cappuccino—made from her very expensive cappuccino machine, but found it to be worth the price to get that delicious cup each time—and felt her phone pulsate. Then pulsate again. And again. And again . Her eye twitched in irritation. She had been expecting a relaxing Sunday, not an explosive flashpoint at the office.

Delle, now suddenly being bombarded by frantic phone calls, hadn’t expected this on her Sunday morning. She quickly got dressed and answered in as timely a manner as possible. Both of her cousins and business associates had left numerous voice messages, texts, and missed calls, which filled her lock screen. 

Jesus ,” she groaned. Were they so incompetent they couldn’t handle things for one day without it falling apart? Clearly so.

What ?” she spat out as they answered on the first ring. They sounded relieved on the other end. At least she knew she got things done . Thus, a vicious tone usually scared anyone on the other end to get to the point as quickly as humanly possible.

“Delle,” Liam started, his tone carrying a nervous warble,  “We really need you down here, as soon as possible. Please.”

“What is so important you had to call me on my first day off in months?” Delle asked, her irritation lacing her tone like razors. Her cousins were lucky it was only her voice, lest they be forced to deal with a very angry Delle.

“You know the Ladiara vaccine we had begun mass production and distribution of?” Liam said in a distressed, trembling voice, “There have been signs of… unforeseen side effects .”

“What...” she said in a tone of tired, cold disbelief. Her face suddenly felt hot, and adrenaline shot through her body as panic began to set in. “WHAT!?” she screamed, “WHAT side effects !? WHY didn’t this appear in the human trials we did!?”

She ran a hand down her face, “I’ll be there soon. Don’t. Do. Anything . Or I will kill you, Liam.”

This was a terrible turn of events. She began to pace nervously through her penthouse. This is really bad continued to repeat in her head as she attempted to find some solution as soon as possible. If there were side effects not seen in their trials, it was even worse. Mass production for people and governments. Distributed to people everywhere . It was a lawsuit waiting to happen; she wasn’t going to let this happen.

Delle ended her phone call quickly, and sent a few texts as she quickly left to get to their office. It was a prestigious piece of property in New York City, and their main headquarters. They also had an office in D.C. and one up in Quebec.

She was currently underdressed for their office climate, but it made her no less authoritative and intimidating while she tried to wrangle the problem as quickly as it had started. Delle was in a short pencil skirt, a ruffled button up undershirt, a basic black blazer which was tossed over on her passenger seat causing unfortunate wrinkles, and a pair of long stockings.

Once she parked, she began the short march to her office, not knowing what to expect.

 

***

 

Aneela was pacing about in the hospital hall. She had been for the past twenty minutes. The sunday afternoon was slow, and as such they were left mostly alone.

“Gods, Neely!” Dutch exclaimed, “Sit down and relax . Wearing a hole in the hospital floor isn’t going to fix anything!”

“I’m sorry, Yala,” Aneela sighed, rubbing her temples, “I’m just terribly stressed. I can’t focus.”

Don’t apologize,” Dutch replied, placing a hand on her twin's shoulder, and felt a brewing wave of emotion within her, “ I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m stressed, too.”

They both took a deep breath, before Aneela finally spoke, “Let’s go see Mother, okay? We can talk more afterward.”

Dutch nodded, “Okay.”

They slowly walked through the door, and took in the scene before them. It was a drab, piercingly white room, with a small set of machinery by the bed. Beside her bed was a small vase with flowers, made by Dutch—it’s terrible quality was a testament to this—and a stuffed animal from Aneela. Along with a framed photo of their family;Dutch and Aneela standing side by side with their mother, Yalena, and father Khlyen.That photo was nearly eight years old now.

Doctor Simms examined a clipboard with many pages of documents stacked atop each other. She turned to look up at the twins, and spoke, “I’ll leave you three alone for now, we can finish this another time.”

Sliding over two chairs, they sat next to their mother, who was now bed ridden. Her face was sunken in at the cheeks, and her eyes looked tired but still had that warm glimmer when her children came into view. She smiled, and took their hands in her own.

Aneela noticed how small she seemed to be in the bed, and a tight lump in her throat made it difficult to speak. She took a deep breath in a feeble attempt to steady herself, but it was all too much for her. “ Mom ,” she said in a shaky voice, “How are you feeling?”

Yalena smiled, knowing her daughter was trying her best to not project her worrying, and failing miserably in the process. She held her daughters’ hand tightly as a show of strength, but her hands still occasionally trembled. “I’m good, Dear. Feeling better these past few days,” she smiled again, always enjoying every moment with her daughters for fear of missing out on time together, “How are you ? How’s that fancy new job of yours?”

It was a simple redirect so they’d focus on their recent events instead of worrying, but an effective one nonetheless. “Good… it’s good,” Aneela said, “I just moved into my apartment in Quebec, it’s a quick drive to the Institute.”

She was referring to the North American Institute for Microbiological Anomalies: or NAIMA. Although that title was misleading. She was also well versed in biochemistry, virology, and microtechnology for future endeavors. It was a multinational backed, state-of-the-art laboratory built through hundreds of millions of dollars and a landmark agreement by Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It was an impressive feat, and one she knew inside and out. Their father, the late Khlyen Kin Rit, had spearheaded the program to the United States Congress, the Canadian Parliament, and the Mexican Congress. It took many decades of work to draft the framework and have each superpower pass it, but by 2004 it had finally succeeded.

She had been working there for three months now, but had also begun looking for a way to cure her mother since she’d fallen ill. Days had morphed to weeks which had morphed to months and she felt at a standstill. A cure began to seem less and less possible, especially for a disease so ingrained within her body. It destroyed her from the inside out, and Aneela couldn’t stand to see her in such pain. It was sickening .

The symptoms created a negative feedback loop which made her state worsen. Thankfully the geniuses at Westpoint Hospital in New York City had managed to stabilize her. Even if it cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for their treatment, it was top of the line and Aneela wouldn’t have anything else. Her father's assets post-mortem meant they could afford to keep her there for years if need be.

“I’m glad, Dear,” her mother's thumb traced against her own, and that swell of feelings in her made her choke up, “You have a wonderful life ahead of you.”

Thank you ,” she said softly, “And you’re going to be there to see it, I promise you, Mom. I just need a little more time.”

Dutch looked away, perhaps not disbelieving in Aneela’s affirmative words, but worrying that time simply wouldn’t be on their side. The thought made her feel guilty, but if Aneela was unable to make substantial progress, it would become reality. That made her spiraling anxiety and stress even worse.

 

***


Once Delle had gotten to her office, she draped her dark black jacket haphazardly across the back of her chair, and rolled the sleeves of her shirt to her elbows. She pushed her pair of glasses up the bridge of her nose and flipped through the dozen plain manila envelopes on her desk, which were stuffed with hastily copied data and personal accounts. Her ideal Sunday morning was sitting on the couch with ice cream and a soap opera. Not dealing with this bullshit!

The vaccine had unexpected side effects that had not shown in their phase three human trials. The chance that these symptoms did not make an appearance in their trails should’ve been close to zero. There were contradictory factors which should not have caused the presented symptoms, and it had filled her with a sudden terrible panic.

Fuck , she kept cursing at herself, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck !

Liam was pacing around the public office uselessly and Fancy sat in the spare chair in her private office reviewing the same documentation. The official report forms were making her bleary eyed already, and it had been less than an hour since they’d started. Of course, this wasn’t surprising. She had hoped to sleep in, and take time for self-care and relaxation. This was quite a shock to her system, and it was already beginning to affect her.

“What’s our current theory?” she asked Fancy, who paused from reading a document on the confirmation of the mass production at one of their two dozen facilities across the United States. This one in particular was located in Ohio.

“For the stage three trials we manufactured each vaccine at a single facility with complete quality control,” he started, as he scratched his chin and looked over the paper again, “Perhaps there were issues getting it stabilized and it went unnoticed before we began rolling them out?”

“Do we know where a majority of these reports came from?” she asked, and rubbed her forehead stressfully.

“The spread pattern is odd, and I don’t have any obvious conclusions yet,” Fancy said regretfully, “But they do seem to be cropping up in small pockets. One here in Rhode Island, three in Montana, eleven in Texas, and twenty-eight in California. That’s forty-three total cases, but this number could rise if we don’t issue some statement or recall. Unless we can contain the substandard production of the vaccine before it’s widely distributed.”

“That is, if it’s the stabilization process,” Delle mumbled as she shifted through a few other papers, “Perhaps we have deeper issues that didn’t appear during the development and testing phases.”

“That could be a part of the issue as well,” Fancy agreed, “We won’t know more until we can get our hands on a sample and anyone who's taken the dose.”

“If we weren’t able to discover any issues with the vaccine then , we may not be able to now ,” Delle said distastefully, “We’ll have to consult with other laboratories and firms, too. Every available option must be explored.”

A scandal was something she wanted to avoid at all costs;It could destroy their reputation beyond repair.

“Of course,” he said, “We must know where exactly we went wrong, not wild speculation.”

 

***

 

Aneela remembered she needed a status update from Zeph, it had been over a day since she’d called her. The previous day had taken up most of her thoughts, since she’d gone to see her mother. Jogging often took her mind off her mom, and now was as good a time as any to see if Zeph had made progress on their work at NAIMA. Sweat trickled down her forehead, and she was glad for the breathable fabric of her sports bra and leggings. 

She spoke up into her earpiece, “Siri, call Zeph.”

“Hello?” Zeph answered after two rings; her voice distorted through the cellular network.

“Zeph?” Aneela replied, “It’s me, I’m calling in to check the status of the lab and the Greene Trials.”

Ohhh right! Yes, sorry,” she heard the fumbling of papers on the other line, “Yes, the trials are going well. I’ve started preparations for the second phase of trials with the second mixture and base.”

“Wonderful!” Aneela said brightly, her mood slightly lighter. Their current running experiments at the laboratory were quite important, and moving to the second stage of their project thus far made her delighted. “Zeph, I could kiss you!”

Zeph laughed nervously through the speaker, and stuttered out a long string of words that just might be considered a sentence. “Uh... uhm… haha... yes, okay …”

Aneela tormented Zeph just a little every so often once she’d learned she had a bit of a crush on her boss. A bit of a crush on dominant women in general. But before she could reply to Zeph—turning by a corner—she accidentally walked straight into someone. She gasped, eyes wide in shock. How could she not be? In her stupor, brought on by too much stress and too little sleep, she stared down at the woman who was now on the ground. Thankfully the woman’s coffee, although spilled everywhere , hadn’t gotten all over her.

She looked over the woman for what felt like ages. Dark hair that had been done up in a messy bun now fell over her shoulders. Her eyes were narrowed angrily at her as she dusted off her shirt and pants, standing up from the rather dirty sidewalk. Strangely, there was also a hint of what seemed to be... admiration? Lust? 

Aneela was stuck in a paralyzing awe, and felt hot embarrassment burn her cheeks.

 “Couldn’t even help me up?” the woman muttered at her.

“Ah,” Aneela blinked and finally replied, “I’m terribly sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

Aneela wanted to cringe at herself. Ughh, she must think I’m an utter idiot!

“Well, be sure to do so next time you decide to go barreling into someone,” the woman said with a deep frown and turned to walk around her.

“Wait!” Aneela said, and was instantly thankful her tone wasn’t laced with desperation. She was intrigued by the woman, so much that she could barely function, “Let me buy you coffee, please?”

Delle looked at her incredulously, but sighed and rubbed her forehead. “I guess…,” she answered slowly, still unsure, “I can’t say no to a free coffee.”

Aneela hadn’t expected a positive reaction, perhaps even outright refusal, but was pleasantly surprised.

But —” she paused for a moment, glancing at her watch, “—I have an important meeting and I can’t spare any time right now.”

Aneela wilted a little, but accepted it nonetheless. “Of course,” she took out her phone, “Let me give you my number, at least.”

Delle took out her phone and punched in her number.

 “Thank you,” she said rather awkwardly.

What the hell is she doing?! This was perhaps the oddest interaction Delle had experienced in her life. Yet, she caved to the idea of meeting this person so easily, which was really confusing. This woman’s impressively muscular physique must be clouding her judgement. Delle briefly licked her lips, trying to ignore those thoughts. 

“Of course,” Aneela replied quietly, her heart pounding in her ears with an electric excitement, “I’m serious about that coffee… and I’d like to get to know you more.”

Delle laughs, and Aneela’s cheeks flush deep red in embarrassment. Delle quickly follows up with, “Sorry, sorry. I’m not laughing at you … just the situation. I don’t normally ask for a stranger’s number, but you’ve given me a good excuse to make an exception.”

Gaining confidence, Delle flashed her an alluring smile.

“Good,” replied Aneela, while returning the gesture. “I look forward to being your exception .”

 

***

 

“Sooooo, tell me more about this mystery person you just so happened to bump into,” Zeph buzzed in her ear annoyingly.

“I don’t know, okay! I was in the heat of the moment,” she huffed in exasperation. After her surprise encounter , she found herself quite exhausted. Her time in New York was getting stranger by the hour. “She was really pretty and I was freaking out mentally! I wouldn’t be surprised if I seemed absolutely insane!”

“Well, you did knock her down spectacularly, then offered her coffee. There could be worse ways to meet someone,” Zeph offered sympathetically.

Could ?” Aneela inquired, her voice laced with skepticism. “Could there really be any worse way?”

“Okay, it was pretty bad,” Zeph admitted.

Ugh ,” Aneela buried her face against her arms, “I don’t think this could get any more embarrassing.”

“Don’t say that, things always get worse when you say things can’t get worse,” Zeph warned her.

“Self-fulfilling prophecies don’t actually exist, it’s a psychological phenomenon,” Aneela answered with an eyeroll, although Zeph couldn’t see it.

“I’ll be sure to think really hard about how you can embarrass yourself then,” Zeph replied, “Manipulate the cosmic energies and whatnot.”

Thanks Zeph,” Aneela said, her tone practically dripping with  sarcasm.

 

***

 

Fancy sat down in the vacant chair across from Aneela, and sipped his coffee thoughtfully. The warm atmosphere calmed his nerves somewhat, but still had an edge. The mixture of bitter coffee, the sweetness of sugar, and radiant warmth against his hands was pleasurable. He took another sip, then looked over to Aneela.

It had been quite some time since he’d seen her, considering they weren’t closely related. But he knew of her brilliance , and was hoping to receive some seriously needed assistance. The idea of calling her up had come from D’avin, who suggested he message her since she worked in similar scientific fields. He’d specifically told him not to underestimate her under any circumstances, otherwise he’d end up on the wrong side of her wrath. In that regard, she reminded Fancy of his cousin Delle.

He was hoping to appeal to her, even if just for a future IOU. There was no price too high to fix these mistakes and save lives.

“While I do appreciate seeing you, Fancy, I have a feeling this isn’t a social call,” Aneela said with a smirk, “Unless...you’ve finally decided to propose?”

Fancy blushed, but managed to keep his composure, “No, no, nothing like that yet . I’m afraid this is more business related.”

“Ah yes, you and your cousins’ pharmaceutical and vaccine company?” she replied, as she attempted to recall the finer details of their business.

“Yes, precisely,” he answered, “We’ve been having some trouble with one of our newest vaccines for Ladiara . Some unforeseen side effects have cropped up, and we’ve failed to find the source. That’s why I called you up. You’re the best at NAIMA, and we need it. I’m not asking you to quit or anything like that, just some help getting this straightened out.”

“And what do I get out of this?” Aneela asked curiously, while her finger absentmindedly tapped her chin.

Anything ,” he replied with deep emphasis, “No price is too much, we’re a Fortune 500 with billions in profits. Anything you need, we can provide.”

“I…” she paused, mulling over her thoughts, “I need assistance in curing my mother's ailment. Some funds wouldn’t hurt either, I’d hate to spend so much in savings.”

“Of course,” he said quickly, “My condolences to your mother as well, I heard about her sickness. We will do everything in our power to help her. Come to my office tomorrow and we can make it official.”

“Alright,” she smiled, “You’ve got yourself a deal. Now tell me more of what you know about this vaccine…”

 

***

 

After Fancy left, her phone had vibrated with a new message.

[???]1:05 PM  I hope this is the right number.

Aneela looked down at the text from an unknown number, and hoped it wasn’t a mistake to give her personal number out to a stranger. She took a deep breath, letting her anxiety go and rolling with it. Even if things don’t turn out well, at least she made an effort.

[Aneela]1:10 PM  Are you the woman I bumped into yesterday?

She nervously hit send. Nonetheless, it was strangely...cathartic to message her. The reply didn’t take too long.

[???]1:14 PM  Yes. Delle, since I neglected to mention my own name. My fault.

[Aneela]1:17 PM  Aneela. It’s good to meet you, even with the odd circumstances. Are we still on for coffee?

[Delle]1:21 PM  The pleasure is all mine, Aneela. Yes, I would like to meet with you soon. Though, I might need something stronger, and alcoholic.

[Aneela]1:24 PM   I’ve got a bottle of Brulot coffee liqueur with our names written on it.

[Delle]1:26 PM  Glad to know we’ve got the best of both worlds all in one drink.

She bit her lip and typed out her response.

[Aneela]1:31 PM  Only the best for our date.

Delle’s response was instant.

[Delle]1:34 PM  A date? Well, I guess that was  your secret plan  all along? Lure me with coffee and alcohol for a romantic evening?

[Aneela]1:36 PM  Thanks for making it sound so ominous. Like I’m a harpy trying to steal your innocence.

[Delle]1:40 PM  That’s something I’ve lost long  ago, I’m afraid. Frankly, I’m offended that you would imply otherwise!

 

***

 

“Alright Delle,” Fancy said as they sat in their office, “I’ve got a few people in mind to help with the vaccine problem. We’ve got some media control of the incident thankfully . Plus, we’ve got our best minds and the perfect outside source to help us get this straightened out.”

His phone pulsed, and he had made the grave mistake of leaving his phone screen face up, which gave Delle the perfect view of it. “My Beloved’?” she said with air quotes and a smirk, “Who knew he would turn you into a romantic?

“Ah, changing the subject away from work, I see,” he snipped back. Fancy wasn’t ashamed of his love for Davin Jaqobi.

“Well, it has been nonstop torture these last few days,” Delle said, refusing to back down and hoping for more ammo to tease him with. That’s when her phone buzzed, and she quickly slammed her hand over the screen.

“Got anything to hide?” he asked sarcastically, with a self-satisfied grin spreading across his face.

 Her quick reflexes had backfired tremendously, and she felt a horrible embarrassment possess her body.

No ...”, she lied, albeit unconvincingly. 

Fancy raised an eyebrow.

Yes ...” she relented, “...It’s private .”

“Ah, a secret ladylove , I should have suspected,” he said with a chuckle. 

Dammit , she thought, he knows me too well .

“It’s… been a while,” she said defensively, wringing her hands together.

Despite the circumstances, she couldn’t get the enigmatic woman out of her head. Those firm abs and strong arms were truly unforgettable. Hot damn! Texting with her was also exciting, as if they’re carefree teenagers again.

“I’m not judging,” Fancy put his hands up in mock surrender, “In fact, I’m glad . You’ve become prickly and mean, and if this helps you loosen up, I’m all for it.”

Prickly and mean ?!” she exclaimed, completely flabbergasted, “That’s how you’re going to describe my attitude? Like a five year old?”

“Yes, please pull that stick out of your ass—” he said in an almost disinterested tone, but if you’ve got half a brain you could tell he was enjoying it, “—and relax. I love you Delle, but you need to chill and get a social life. You’ll burst a blood vessel if you keep up all this work.”

“I didn’t know I was affecting other people so much,” she said in a small voice.

“It’s not like that,” Fancy said quickly, realizing he may have given her the wrong idea, “You’re not hurting anyone, just… It’s not healthy to work so late and put so much pressure on yourself. We do have high pressure jobs but stress management is key. You’ve just been pushing everything down, and eventually it’s all going to come out whether you like it or not. And it’s made you a little bitchy.”

She laughed at his last comment, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.”

Fancy and Delle didn’t mince words, because they cared about each other.

“Also, don’t let Liam get to you,” he said with a laugh, “He’s an imbecile and doesn’t know what he’s doing, don’t take it to heart otherwise he alone will kill you. Then this job won’t be any fun for me.”

“Is that your way of saying you’ll miss me?” she questioned with a smirk.

“It’s my way of saying you make working here bearable ,” Fancy replied humorously, “Otherwise I could be a stay-at-home dad with D’avin, and  not die an early death from stress.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” Delle said with a laugh, knowing he wouldn’t admit it outright.

 

***

 

Tuesday morning, Aneela made sure to get Zeph up to speed once again. The junior head of their department was pretty much running things at NAIMA, so Aneela needed updates, too. This time Aneela called her through Zoom for a video chat, since the audio quality was infinitely better there than on a cellphone. Her face popped up instantly on Aneela’s phone screen.

“I wish you were here to toss my salad.” Of course, that was the first thing she would say.

“What was that, Zeph?” Aneela pretended not to hear.

“Uhh...err... nothing !” Zeph spluttered, before stuffing her mouth with lettuce. “I’m just here, eating this delicious salad. Alone…”

“Miss me?” Aneela teasingly asked.

“Noooooooooooooooooooooo…” Zeph groaned, “You’re mean !”

“And you’re adorable when flustered,” Aneela laughed, “I do have to go now, though. Fancy wants me to meet the rest of his team and the scientists they’ve got working on their issue , and I don’t want to be late.”

“Oh, invite me up!” Zeph chirped, “I could totally kick some ass, there’s a reason they made us the heads of the virology department here."

“Technically, I’m the senior head of the department,” Aneela reminded her. Zeph having joined NAIMA rather recently, was put in a lower management position. “So they asked for me .”

Zeph made an unintelligible, angry grunt through the phone.

With a snicker Aneela replied, “...But I guess I can see if they’ll let you come over.”

“Do not mess with me like that woman!” Zeph yelled in good humor, “This is hug e! We could get a corporate sponsor to help keep funds rolling in. Sure, we get a hundred million dollars from government appropriations, but if we can get funds directly from this pharmaceutical company, we could double or triple that.”

“That’s a fair point,” Aneela acquiesced with an agreeable tone, “We haven’t done anything final yet, just talks at the moment. You’re welcome to accompany me if you can get plane tickets as soon as possible.”

“Of course! A holiday weekend with you, what could be more fun?” Zeph joked with laughter and genuine excitement.

“I wouldn’t really call it a holiday weekend, since we’ll be, you know, working ,” she made sure to emphasize that last word  quite particularly.

“It’s not work if you enjoy it,” Zeph shot back.

“Yes it is,” Aneela replied with a laugh, “But it is interesting , at the very least. So, anyway… I’m off to work, get here as soon as you can. I think we’re going to need your help.”

“Can do, Boss ,” Zeph said, performing a mock salute, although Aneela couldn’t actually see it.

“Wonderful,” and she ended the call. Time to show these people who’s boss , she thought to herself, We’re going to make a difference .

 

***

 

Once Saturday rolled around, both Aneela and Zeph finally walked into the company’s headquarters for the first time, and right to the main office where they would do most of their paperwork. It had only been a few days since her last meeting with Fancy, and things had seemed productive. With the current issue affecting the vaccines, they want a clear paper trail for every move they make in case of litigation against them. It was in everyone’s best interests to fix this problem as soon as possible.

Fancy stood across the room, flipping through a few manila folders, and couldn’t seem to find what he was looking for. There was also another figure beside him in the black office chair. Her eyes widened in shock once she realized who exactly it was in that chair.

Zeph already had a massive grin on her face when she noticed Aneela’s shocked expression. The gorgeous woman across the room clearly had a huge affect on her. It was amusing for Zeph, who was usually a Dumb Gay Disaster herself. 

Fuck , is she...,”Aneela whispered to herself, suddenly nervous. 

The woman glanced up for a brief moment, before looking away, and then doing a double take.

No ,” Delle gasped in surprise.

Neither of them could believe their eyes, mentally exclaiming, It’s really her ?!

To be continued...