Note: Posted this at LiveJournal on March 21, 2011, and finally posted it here too.

The harshest curse words have been bleeped out (mainly the F-word), since this is the PG-13/TV-14 version. The uncensored version is at LiveJournal under the same title/same user name. This story is a modern AU story and I'm thinking that I may have this Cara and Kahlan mentioned in Flaming Dead. The reasons? Well, it has to do with parallel universes, which is something Flaming Dead may touch on later. In Flaming Dead, as you know, Cara and Kahlan are reincarnated in the modern world. But what if there are other universes existing at the same time, and with their own Cara and Kahlan? That's where the idea for Fire Ignited came from. Well, that, my desire to write Cara as a firefighter, and the fact that a real-life fire is the inspiration for the beginning fire scene. This story was going to be a one-shot, but that clearly changed.

Summary: (Sci-fi/Romance). When a mysterious old woman — Shota — is saved from certain death by one of New York's finest firefighters, Cara Mason, she offers to do the same in turn, telling the young blond that there are other universes all existing at one time. And that, in this one, Cara Mason is destined to die. In order to prevent this fate, Cara will be given the choice of three potential love interests showing up on her doorstep and must choose the right one. In succeeding order, they will appear - Leo Dane, the alluring Dahlia from down the street, and finally...Kahlan Amnell. Cara must choose once, not twice, or even attempt a thrice, for making the right choice will ensure escape of the spoken issued demise.

IIII

"Hurry. Please hurry." A male voice is amplified over the Brooklyn 911 dispatch line at 3:30 p.m., June 28th. "I'm at Big Ben's Auto Repair Shop on Kings Highway," the man screeches, clearly panicked. "A huge fire has engulfed the 331 elevator building near here. Hurry."

After that, the calls become more incessant against the switchboard, people asking to get the firetrucks over there are and to please hurry.

Danger emanates throughout the atmosphere as black smoke curls into the hot, humid air over Kings Highway. Cars honk. Some passengers get out to view the burning building. The building is comprised of 16 units and 7 floors. It features a grand main lobby, a land-scaped court yard, an indoor and outdoor recreation area for building residents, and an indoor heated garage space available for purchase, among other things. And now, most of that is being devoured. Abolished by the red monster which feeds on air and expels gray puffs of destruction in its place. People can be seen hanging from the windows, trying to escape; some do, some don't.

Rush hour wanes, but not before traffic floods the four-lane area lined with mediocre food stores, item shops, and drug stores.

Close by, there is Big Ben's Auto Repair Shop, one of the area's best auto repair businesses. The building occupies almost two acres of land, an outreaching mass of stucco and steel. Inside, there are items so highly combustible that they burn like gasoline. Among all its impressive constructions, it makes no sense why no one thought to install a sprinkler system. It and other close-by buildings have now caught on fire, the wind helping to carry the fiery beast.

At the time of the calls, and as alarms sound at Engine Co. 11 of the Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) , some of the crew share sandwiches with two veteran commanders, Assistant Fire Chief Tony Starvos and Battalion Chief Edward Dawson. The men part with their meals, grab their gear and head for the door.

The men on Ladder 5 and Engine 10 trail closely. Two miles separate them and the fire.

Firefighter Cara Mason rides aboard Ladder 5. "Ladder work" is not her usual line of firefighting, and she wishes she had jumped aboard Engine 11, but this will do for now. She likes to "change it up," and as long as she is praised for her work, like so many other times before, it will more than do.

Cara has been fascinated with fire since she was age 12. And with work, her reputation for being "one of Brooklyn's finest" proceeds her. Many have praised her firefighting skills, and many more have elevated her to "role model for young girls and women everywhere" for showing that firefighting has female faces as well as the males ones dominating the field. Her golden hair, stopping a little past her shoulders, blue-green eyes, and amazing beauty have landed her on the covers of various local men's magazines — mostly without her permission — and she has done numerous interviews, local and abroad, all of it solidifying her hometown celebrity status. And now, at age 24, she is already considered "a veteran," by way of compliments from Fire Chief Kenneth L. Gates at least. Just one year of training and two years on the job, and here she is today — a self-described "car-loving, lover of women" who lives to fight fires. Near her, close friend Adam Raymond, a potty-mouthed man of faith, runs the truck's pumps. He's a decent-looking fellow with sandy brown hair and a boyish charm, and Cara knows she can always count on him.

Engine 11 arrives blaring, red paint finish polished to a high shine. For some reason, the truck pulls up to the back of the elevator building, and crew members race there, before learning they need to get to the front. It's the front of the building that has been hit hardest. They scramble to relocate to the front entrance as Engine 10 swings around the southern side of the building.

This fire is calling Cara's name, she feels, and instead of staying put on that damn ladder, she works her way down it, grabbing necessary items — rope, her lucky axe, etc.

The smoke is thick; not just in the air, but near lower ground as well. Some of the victims are looking up at the building screaming for their loved ones who are still trapped inside.

"The fire," one woman cries profusely, "it blocked their paths," she shakes with sobs wracking her body. "And...and... Some didn't get out. They just didn't get out."

A man lunges forward. "There are women and children up there, in the recreation center. For the love of god, do something!" he yells.

Other firefighters usher the victims and onlookers back, to a safe distance. Some spray water at the covered walkway, and then higher, into the open windows on the lowest level.

"I need men on the mechanic store over there; it's burning fast. Just as fast. And a few other stores have already caught fire," Battalion Chief Dawson reports. "We haven't even done anything yet."

"I'll hurry." Cara steps out from behind a truck, daring flashing in her eyes. It's the daring Dawson has come to recognize right before she does something stupid. As Cara turns, Dawson knows what those stupid actions will be in this case.

"F**k! We don't have time for your heroics, Cara! The few times you went into burning buildings by yourself before, you were lucky. But that luck is bound to wear out. You can't keep doing this. There are more important things than your 'fearless title,' like your life. Now get back to the ladder. We need to start hitting the higher floors."

"I wasn't aware that you were in command of my actions." Cara doesn't turn back to him.

Dawson sneers.

Cara continues. "You're right. There are more important things... Those children screaming their lungs out in that building right now come to mind." She runs toward the doors that have been sprayed down with water and allow for somewhat of an entrance.

"Cara! Damn it... Cara!" Dawson screams. "You're being reckless! Damn reckless!"

Inside Engine 10, Adam, her close friend, looks on with worry. At times like these, he always wishes Cara were rationale. "No, Cara...not again," he barely breathes.

As the highest ranking officer on scene, Starvos assumes command. He's a good-looking, stoned-faced veteran with dark hair and an intimidatingly deep voice. He and Cara have an "intimate history" and he would love to pull Cara back and demand that she see the strength in assistance, but it is too late, and there is a wider picture. A wider picture he must take care of.

Starvos sighs. Who is he kidding? That "wider picture" includes Cara. He cannot bear to let her do this...again. Risk her life so carelessly. And because of this, he throws on his protective coat and helmet, but leaves the rest of his gear behind as he marches toward the front door, set to get a hose ready.

Starvos knows this building. He had dropped off his brother, and his brother's girlfriend, here a few months ago when the two had needed a place to stay and had refused to take him up on his offer to remain with him for as long as they needed. He had also led a team through a similar building a few years back to plan how firefighters would battle a blaze in such an atmosphere. Firefighters refer to these as walk-throughs 'pre-plans.' They are supposed to provide crucial information that crews need to know in the event of a fire: the building's layout, potential hazards, the location of exits and hydrants, and the amount of water needed to douse a blaze.

Starvos has a layout, what he feels will get them through this, and shows a few of the men. But it is not a true layout; he'd only ventured a little inside the building the day he dropped his brother off. The "layout" is just a drawing of the building, with the huge lobby area he'd seen with his own eyes and a few locations he was only told about. It doesn't inform of the fact that the grand main lobby is now packed with furniture, making it one of the most extravagant "lounges" around. The drawing doesn't tell him about the enormous amount of water that will be needed for these combustible chairs and couches if they continue to burn or if all catch fire. The drawing also doesn't indicate that a potentially dangerous steel truss system partially supports the roof over the lobby, and especially the massive indoor recreation area right above the lobby — the nearest floor. The design allows for concealed spaces where fire can grow undetected over the heads of firefighters. As such, extreme heat can cause a steel truss to collapse within 20 minutes. Firefighter-language refer to these as 'widow-makers.'

Starvos now sizes up the situation and decides to lead a group of men inside the building to assess their chances. As he moves in, despite federal standards that call for incident commanders to remain outside burning buildings to coordinate firefighting, he thinks of Cara and how she disregards these standards. He hopes they find her and any potentially trapped victims before it's too late. He has faith in the woman's survival abilities, and skills to protect others, but like Dawson stated, it's only a matter of time before her luck runs out.

As the men have cleared most of the doorway with water, Starvos and his group of assistants find no fire there at the immediate entranceway, but there is enough fire eating away at the lobby's furniture and demolishing the ceiling. The lobby is a marvelous area, with displays of winding staircases and an overview of the elevator floors which seem to reach to the Heavens. But fire burns most of it. Pieces of designs and debris falling from the area, and flames tearing at the floor.

There are two people trapped near a deteriorating staircase, under what looks to be a large, heavy, steel pole having collapsed during the stampede of people falling over each other to escape the flames licking at them; and one, a male, screams when the fire reaches his arm.

A few firemen run to the two in an attempt to extract them.

True, the fire department has a high-tech thermal imaging camera available that can see heat through walls and ceilings and pinpoint fire inside. But it lies unused in the back of a fire truck outside. And there outside, other firefighters have arrived on the scene now, enough of them focused on extinguishing the fire at Big Ben's Auto Repair Shop, as well as the other buildings that have been victimized by the blaze.

From inside the elevator building, Starvos opens a rear door to the area between the lobby and some fancy corridor. The fire immediately pulls the door from his hands as it sucks in fresh oxygen like a flue opening on a chimney. He can't shut it. Flames billow inside the lobby. "Cara!" he screams.

IIII

Cara has no idea why the fates have put her into this predicament. That she was forced to leave two people back in the lobby; the pole structure was too heavy to lift on her own, and she had heard screams from above. Children's screams.

To her left...is the indoor recreation center, where children scream and cough for dear life; some scream that it hurts; others scream to help; and most others simply cry. Through the open blinds covering the windows, Cara can see that the children range in age from 3 to 10. Possibly even 12. There is one baby, shielded by a woman in her arms, and Cara almost cringes at the sight. A few of the adults — all women — stare at her pleadingly, and all Cara can do is stare back. She has an axe in her hand, and has already chopped the door off its hinges, but the fire is blocking her path. It licks at the ceiling, both in and outside of the room and has enclosed the women and children in a circle, slowly but surely creeping up on them. Cara has considered running through the flame, but it is too intense, too big. And even if she were to do so and remain unharmed, the fire would be even bigger by the time she managed to grab — what, one kid? — and pull him or her back to safety.

For a moment, Cara wonders how this fire started and how it got so out of control. But she banishes these thoughts from her mind quickly. Such thoughts take away from focusing on the matter at hand, and a firefighter must be focused at all times. There are often no found answers to such questions, she knows this from experience, and there is no point in dwelling on it. She doesn't know how many other people are trapped in this building or where to even start to look for them, but there is a matter to her right.

To her right, in a some sort of room she cannot quite identify, a woman has been asking for help for the longest now. Strangely, the woman hasn't, and still doesn't, sound panicked or horrified. It is just a simple, "Help me, dear one. Help me." She'd started speaking when she heard Cara yelling to the women and children. Cara had focused on the woman briefly before hearing the room of tormented children. And now, forced into what seems like the hardest decision she will ever have to make in her life, she turns away from the recreation center, catching one last glimpse of the women pleading after her.

She makes her way to the other room. "Hello?"

"Yes, I'm here," the voice replies back.

"Okay, stand back. We don't have much time. I need to get this door off its hinges."

"I understand," the woman replies again. And Cara takes the axe to the door, quite aware of the desperate eyes boring into her back.

IIII

Inside the room, the woman simply known as Shota looks around the smoky area caused by the flames flickering out from all sides. The fire by the door is not the worst, but it is intense enough that it blocked her attempt to try and escape through it, the handle too hot to the touch.

She is an old woman, gray-haired and wrinkled, but her eyes somehow convey a youthful appearance. Her brown and black clothing looks as though it is merely a combination of cloaks, all wrapped around her as though a shield from the flames. And as the axe starts to chip away at parts of the door, she wonders just how she wound up here. Judging by the fire and voice on the other side, it is one of the realities she saw in her visions before jumping dimensions. She had been trying to avoid this universe, among others, and needed to get back to her destined one... Back...and in time, where her youth awaits her. But maybe it is fate that has landed her here in this moment. True, she didn't see herself in this particular vision, but her visions are not always complete in what they relay. What the visions had relayed... They included this woman on the other side of that door.

IIII

"The fire in the lobby...it's out of control," Starvos radios to Dawson. "It's walking all around us. Fire and smoke has already blocked the doorway."

Twelve minutes have passed since the first report of fire.

Dawson scowls and calls for a team with a 1 1/2-inch-diameter hose to travel deep into the back of the building to begin battling the fire from inside. The fire in front of him grows, but he will do what he must, and calls in a second team with a larger, 2 1/2-inch-diameter hose line. The same for the back of the building. Among the first teams in the building are the men from Ladder 5. They rush into the front to help Starvos and his men and start spraying water on the spreading blaze.

Engines 16 and 19 arrive, and Engine 16 carries two more veterans, and a captain. On Engine 19: Another captain, and an engineer. The crews from Engines 16 and 19 join the men at the back of the building. Smoke grows thicker inside the building, but everything seems under control to Dawson, as well as to Starvos.

Two minutes later, Fire Chief Kenneth L. Gates pulls into the parking lot outside and grabs his gear from the back of his vehicle. "Where's Cara?!" he yells. He'd been having lunch with his daughter when the call came in, as his main men, and main woman Cara, felt he needed a little alone time with the daughter he hasn't seen in two years. He'd objected at first, not wanting to leave the station. And now he knows it was surely a grave mistake. He's middle-aged and gray-haired, with a good build to his body — other than the somewhat extended gut — and has a "bit of country" to his voice. He also wastes no time to looking for Cara among all the men in gray and yellow. "Where is she?!" he yells again.

"Gone inside, sir," Cara's friend Adam approaches. "As is typical."

"Goddamnit." Gates barks commands into the radio — redeploying trucks, monitoring water supplies, coordinating incoming aid and checking the status of other station houses around the city. Many of these tasks should be farmed out to other commanders on the scene so the chief can focus on the larger goal. Gates has no intention of doing this, however. He's already pissed that Cara is again not playing by the rules. If it's anyone who can get away with not playing by the rules, it's him.

Off-duty firefighters show up as the fire grows. Some have so little bodily protection, only in casual clothing, that it's a wonder why they're there at all. One off-duty firefighter feels lucky, for he has his gear stashed in his car as he drives for the fire destination, eager to arrive and battle on the scene. Once there, he is approved past the police barricade after providing identification. Before he can get inside the building, however, another firefighter urges him to connect a hose to a ladder truck that needs water.

Demands for more water are rampant, here and there on the radios. Firefighters are without sufficient water to get the fire under control, and cars are trampling over the hoses.

Inside the building, the fire grows in intensity, eating up oxygen. Heat builds in the steel truss system above the firefighters' heads. At Starvos's order, some are looking for Cara; they must find Cara.

IIII

It is four minutes later. The door Cara chopped away at was harder to fall than others, but eventually did, and Cara was greeted by Shota smiling up at her. As the woman is shorter than herself, and somewhat hunched over, Cara had almost felt the need to cradle her. They'd been able to jump through the fire in front of the doorway, as Cara had covered the woman and herself well enough with material especially made for such instances. But the path Cara had come through was now blocked, and they'd needed to hurry back to the room.

The room being right across from the burning flesh of the innocent, Cara had tried her best to block out the agonized screams, and had advised Shota to do the same.

And now they are making use of Cara's rope. Luckily, the room had a window. And Cara had reacted quickly, tying the rope to a solid drawer, then securing it around herself and Shota and moving out the window.

The rope is long enough to ensure their destined descent, but the way down is not easy as they must maneuver past fire whipping out, especially from close-by windows.

"It's Cara Mason!" yells one bystander, a victim of the fire, as he and others watch her move down the rope with an elderly woman tightly within her grasp.

Upon calls for more water, more crews speed to the scene, including the crew of Engine 6. Some tackle the surrounding fires with hoses, especially Big Ben's Auto Repair Shop. A few blocks from the elevator building, five firefighters from a neighboring fire department leave lunch when one receives a call from a friend about the blaze. They plan to join the scene to see if there is anything they can do.

Once Cara is helped to the ground by fellow fighters, she is brutally scolded by Chief Gates.

Other firefighters try to pull Shota away to the waiting paramedics, but the woman will not budge before talking with Cara. "Let me properly thank the woman who saved my life first," she states. Two firefighters look to Gates as though for orders, and he nods his approval to let the elderly woman have her say.

"Alone," says Shota, her almond eyes sending penetrating death glares the men's way. As Gates has already moved back to barking orders, and more pressing matters, the two firefighters are left looking to Cara.

"I'll get her checked out," Cara assures, looking toward the burning building. "You two are needed. Go," her eyes relay the sense of urgency and the men agree before their abrupt departure.

Cara's eyes are still focused on that building — that fire — and she wants nothing more than to get over there this very second...to kill it. But the old woman swiftly turns her around so that they face each other. "Listen to me, child," she speaks with a rough cough, and looks Cara in the eyes. "You have shown great courage today, saving me from certain death... And for that, I am thankful."

As Shota did not have enough power to jump through dimensions again in that moment, she means this. She would have died back there in that fire, and quite possibly have upset the balance of certain universes even further than she already has. "This is also why I must repay you," she continues.

"That won't be necessary," Cara becomes impatient, looking back toward the fire and the various men battling it.

"No, you must listen!" Shota turns the woman back to her. She doesn't know if her presence is part of this young modern-day Mord-Sith's demise, but she must try. Try to warn her. To save her. "There are other universes, dimensions, not just this one... Other Caras, all sharing one soul... And the Cara of this world — you — do not have long."

"Lady, I -"

"I said listen!" Shota starts to cough even more roughly, choking on her still smoke-filled lungs. Cara attempts to pat her on the back, but her hand is slapped away. "I have seen what will lead to your downfall, what has already caused it as we speak. But there is a way around it, my dear." Cara furrows her eyebrows together, and Shota sees the opening..." You must love, Cara Mason... Love."

Cara looks alarmed by the utterance of her name, but Shota smiles knowingly. "Most people here know who you are. You think I would not?"

"I..." Cara's attention is again called toward the flames. "I need to..."

"You need to help... I know." Shota takes Cara's hands into her own, gaining the blond's attention once more. "Just as I need to help you with these next lines." Shota pauses, and Cara seemingly braces herself, though she doesn't exactly know why. What she does know is that this old woman is senile.

"There is a spell," Shota begins, "that will allow love to save you, I cast it now. But it must be up to you and only you to choose how. Who you choose and do not choose will be a vital piece, after the time in which three strangers show up to beg you 'please.' One will be your true love, and the others stand-in lies, so make sure to choose wisely if you hope to spare your life." Shota's grip tightens, and her eyes convey a sense of hopelessness. "Choose once, not twice, or even attempt at thrice, for making the right choice will ensure escape of the spoken issued demise."

Her words final, Shota drops Cara's hands, breaking into terrible coughs; they wrack her body and cause her to double over. Hearing this, nearby firemen look to the old woman. And just as concerned, Cara exchanges a look with them that says "Get her out of here."

The men hurriedly approach. "She's not making any sense," Cara relays, "Possibly delirious."

"I'm not..." Shota tries to speak, and Cara figures the woman either breathed in too much smoke beforehand or is simply "very old."

"We've got her," the other men state and pull Shota off to waiting paramedics to be checked out.

Cara immediately moves over to her friend, Adam, who is busy pulling an extra hose. "Where's Starvos?"

Cara and Starvos often make a good team, at work and in bed, and she needs the most accurate description of what is going on inside. Especially with Chief Gates angry with her.

"He's inside," Adam replies, and Cara's face falls. "Partly went in there after you... Partly to save victims."

Cara watches the burning building in barely restrained horror.

The firefighters from a few blocks down had already arrived two minutes ago, having pulled up to the side near the loading dock, where Brooklyn firefighters still struggle to contain the fire. Gates tells them to move to the back of the building, where the fire has gotten worse, and battle it from there. They are not his men, but they are willing to put their lives on the line, and Gates knows his team needs all the help they can get. One of the men radios their station for more help.

IIII

Inside the building, one of the residents crawls very low and gasps for air as black smoke curls above her. Flames block the only door to the small exercise room where she had been working out alone when the fire broke out. She's trapped, and no one knows she's there. She can hear the tortured screams of others, though unsure of where, and her throat burns from the heat. She frantically stabs at the buttons on her cell phone, trying to dial 911. The metal of the area makes it difficult for her phone to pick up a signal.

But the woman's call finally goes through. Twenty-two minutes have passed since the first report of fire. "I need help," she cries, "My kids..."

"We'll help you, okay?" the dispatcher assures. "Hang on," he coaches. "Can you use something to help alert where you are?"

The woman uses the end of a chair to pound against the wall, hoping that her rescuers hear her. The sound, however, is faint, distant amid the sirens and chaos outside.

"Keep doing what you're doing," the dispatcher encourages. "You will be rescued."

Two firefighters are informed of the woman's predicament from a police officer and hurry toward the back of the building, hoping it will help them get there sooner and easier, based on her location. On their way, they come across a third firefighter, who has also heard the call and races to help. Fast, and with axes ready, the men stand in the building chopping at an area which is said to lead to the room. The fire isn't as intense at this area, and, since the woman's location is a bottom level room, and thus they are optimistic. With much frustration, faint clanking comes from behind a piece of the rippled metal wall where the men furiously hammer for their lives. The men slam their axes into the metal siding and carve out a small, jagged hole. The woman, coughing and gagging, appears through a cloud of black smoke and wriggles through the small opening. The firemen yank her from the hole and whisk her to paramedics waiting in front of the building.

IIII

For the men inside the building, the air in their tanks is running dangerously low. The entrance is blocked with flames again, the fire having somehow worked its away around them as they battled what was before them. Twenty-seven minutes have passed since the initial report of fire, the atmosphere in the building having deteriorated rapidly. Dense smoke roils through the lobby, blotting out light. The air becomes toxic, the heat ferociously intense. All the men had to do was back out the door moments earlier, but this is what firefighters do — give their lives so that others may survive — risk everything so that others may live.

Encouragingly, more than a dozen firefighters wave hands through the coal-black smoke inside, and struggle to hold the fire back and keep their bearings in the building's maze-like layout. With any move backward, they hit all sorts of furniture. And while the sun still shines brightly outside, in here it is dark as midnight.

IIII

Cara has tried to go back in, but has been convinced and ordered to work on the outside This is one of those times where Chief Gates will not be reasoned with. "Besides," one firefighter had scornfully said to her, "You've done more than enough."

Now, in this moment, splintered transmissions sputter over the radio. Shouts, moans, incoherent words. And the sound of muffled, heavy breathing breaks in. Air hisses as a voice shouts from behind a face mask: " I... The connection with the hose has been lost!"

That's bad news, firefighters know. Trained to follow their hoses to safety if they become disoriented in a fire, it is like a trail of bread leading them back to their safehaven. Back home.

Soon, there is a call every firefighter dreads coming in over the radio. "Mayday!" a voice cries out from inside.

Then Starvos radios his dying wish to Chief Gates: "Cara... Tell her I love her. She made it out, I know it. She always does."

Cara stands beside the chief and has heard the message. "Starvos..." Emotion is threatening to spill from her lips, from her eyes, from her very being, as she watches the building burn to rubble.

Gates yells for everyone to stay off the radio, his only link to the men fighting the fire. As he does, a voice from inside the building cuts in, reciting the end of a prayer: "In Jesus's name, amen."

Gates knows that on a large fire scene, commanders are taught to carry out periodic radio checks on their men to determine their location, but now twenty-eight minutes into the fire, no one is sure how many firefighters remain inside the building or, with the exception of Starvos, who they are. Gates screams into the radio to his commanders: "The men... Are they all out at your locations?"

Battalion Chief Dawson, replies, "No sir. Men are still in there."

Loud and commanding, Gates shouts again for radio silence. "Count your own men. Make sure they're all there."

Inside, one of the fire fighters spins through the smoke and around the furniture looking for a way out. He is lost, has gotten separated from the others. And not willing to give up any time soon, he catches sight of another firefighter's flashing emergency beacon and follows the light toward the front of the lobby. He pounds the inside of a window from a room behind them.

A dispatcher radios Gates, saying that the engineer of Ladder 5's emergency button has been activated. Alarm devices attached to the firefighters' air packs ring through the darkness inside the building, which indicates they are in danger. The alarms are intricately designed to go off automatically if a firefighter goes down for 24 seconds or longer.

Cara joins some other men trying to chop a large hole in the side of the building to let out smoke and create a pathway in for water. She's hoping they can get to Starvos as well, and plants her axe in the siding again and again, adrenalin surging through her system.

At the front of the building, smoke rises and has the appearance of thick, black cotton candy, a sign that the lobby is becoming superheated and could spontaneously ignite. Firefighters will not give up, and should not give up, and thus, with available water, have a swollen hose line snake through the front door. One fighter grabs hold of the line and follows it into the building, while another grips his jacket with one hand and swipes the air with the other, searching for some sign of the fallen. They can see only a foot beyond their faces. About 20 yards in, they come upon a FDNY firefighter; he is on his knees crying. One man pulls the firefighter to his feet, then proceeds to follow the hose line like the others, the heat enveloping them all.

Outside the building, Gates keeps calling on his radio for the men who just entered.

Only silence.

Gates screams into his radio: "Out! Everyone out of the building!"

Around back, a captain from another fire station has also ordered his men from the building. He watches the fire in awe. The fire is so hot the metal siding literally glows red, translucent.

Soon, the lobby and its contents explode into flames. Closing in on the front door that has been cleared with water again, the men who had been following the hose back out steal a backward glance as sprinkles of fire leap from one couch to the next in succession. Pow! Pow! Pow! A tidal wave of flame roars through the room and belches from the front windows. The men are able to stumble from the building into the parking lot, steam floating from their singed gear as they look around. The firefighter they'd found on his knees and were trying to save is gone, lost somewhere in the inferno.

"Starvos?" Cara's face lights up with hope at the men escaping the building, but there is no Starvos with them.

"I said exit that damn building!" Gates shouts again. Firefighters keep arriving, parking wherever they can. They scurry about, desperately using whatever hose they can get their hands on to spray water on the fire, and, as they do, some move forward and try to hold back flames with small, red hoses normally reserved for tiny trash fires. Other firefighters wander dangerously close to the flames with no helmets, air packs, or protective gear. Off-duty men in casual clothing cart hoses. Voices mingle and blend together over the radio, and yet still the calls come for more water pressure.

Big Ben's Auto Repair Shop and the previous surrounding fires are under control, but not this one. Not the one at the 331 elevator building.

One firefighter is beyond furious, tired, and many other things: "It's these people - the cars - trampling over the water supply. It's killing our men."

Firefighters are helpless as fire crackles from the building. But no one gives up, and Cara helps in what way she can. The men inside, including Adam who now helps beside her, are the only family she has. They are her brothers even.

One chief from another station makes one last attempt to charge the flames and get inside to save these men, but he reels back as his hands burn. And he stumbles into the parking lot, scowling and hurling his helmet at the building in frustration. "Why were so many men in there in the first goddamn place? And an Assistant Chief of all people?"

Cara cannot help but feel that all eyes are on her when that question is asked, and indeed she sees that some have directed their gaze her way. A few of her fellow firemen don't even attempt to hide the venom in their eyes. And victims of the blaze are still close by, though protected, screaming for their babies, their children, their loved ones; a good number asking why Cara couldn't save them, why she only came away with one person. An elderly person at that.

Cara looks behind her, and is alarmed to see Shota sitting in the back of an ambulance, eyeing her carefully and seemingly mouthing something. What is she still doing here? Cara wonders, turning away. The woman's words from earlier, however, meet her once more: "I have seen what will lead to your downfall, what has already caused it as we speak. But there is a way around it.. it must be up to you and only you to choose how. Choose once, not twice, or even attempt at thrice, for making the right choice will ensure escape of the spoken issued demise." She turns back, but the elderly woman is now gone.

It is too late for the firefighters inside, the steel beams in the roof twisting and sagging and then and collapsing in a crush of smoke and flames. And the list of the missing men slowly takes shape. One name. Then three. Six names. Then nine. And finally...fourteen in all.

Forty-one minutes have passed since the first call. Now 4:11 pm. And Cara suddenly wishes she was among the names on that list.

IIII

It's night — seven, maybe eight — and Cara strolls into her down-town home, closing the door behind her with a lost look in her eyes. She tosses her dirty and ruined firefighter jacket on the coat rack, and immediately heads for the fridge. It's a typical home. A nice home, and she has not had to struggle to hold on to this one — rent, etc. — as she has had to do with other homes in the past. But this home, like all the others, is missing something. Warmth and all the good stuff that makes a home a home.

Cara grabs a beer from the fridge, immediately popping it open and gulping it back. After a good swig, she moves into the living room, and just stands there, wondering how she wound up like this — alone, and with her only joy predicated on extinguishing fires. A job where she is forced to hear the rantings of old people who have clearly lost their minds. Watch people die — friends, acquaintances... Children.

She is used to seeing people dying, no doubt, and has long since schooled any emotions of grief, sorrow, guilt...regret. But she feels those things this day... The day Starvos and other men, and women and children, have lost their lives. And she doesn't even want to think about turning on the news, for aggravation of what they may say.

The visions of the children from earlier in the day, their screams, run rampant through her mind. She's experienced similar images before, but never a room full of children. A room with mothers clinging to those children to protect them from both the emotional and physical pain, as well as the reality of death. This brings Cara back to her own childhood, how her parents had often tried to protect her with that same fierce look in their eyes. That is...until they'd shunned her once discovering her attraction to women. They'd kicked her out at age 16, and Cara was surprised it had taken them that long to find out. "Damn idiots," she mumbles under her breath.

Cara had only managed until 18 because of school friend Adam, who had convinced his parents to take her in. Harboring a minor might have gotten them in trouble if anyone had discovered her homeless state, but the same could be said for kicking a minor out when you're their parent/and or legal guardian, and Cara was not about to snitch on her family; if they wanted her gone, she was gone, and that was that.

Besides...even at Adam's, she had still mostly been alone, staying and leaving every few days, sometimes a week or two, because she "didn't want to impose." She had other places to stay, even if shelters. But Adam's parents had always welcomed her back into their home with open arms.

Cara takes another swig of her beer, raking her fingers through her ash and debris-covered hair. Her parents probably would have liked Starvos. Not only was he decent, smart, good-looking and well-educated, but he was also male. A male Cara figures she could have grown to love. "Love," she spits bitterly, and moves toward the wide window in the living room, which, while not matching its width, almost matches its length from top to bottom; this allows for a great view of the outside. Cara looks up at the stars there, thinking of the elderly woman's words: Choose once, not twice, or even attempt at thrice, for making the right choice will ensure escape of the spoken issued demise."

Cara grins painfully. "Senile old woman." She closes her blinds, turns off the lights and heads for the shower upstairs. Like every other thing eating away at her in the moment, she will bury this too.

Or at least try.

IIII

Cara awakes in the morning to a sound of the alarm clock by her bed. Not that she needs one; she's never needed one; never been a deep sleeper, or even one to sleep for long hours of the day. But she figured the nightmarish day of yesterday would've likely put her into a coma-induced reality for long enough.

She turns over, sitting up in the bed and just looks around. She always does this — just looks around, as if she's never seen this stuff before. The huge LBGT poster, decorated with rainbow colors to her left, along with the various sports ribbons, pendants, and trophies she accumulated from the time of first grade to high school. The dresser which the trophies rest on top of, full of jeans, slacks, T-shirts, and tanks tops. Not to mention her boxers and perfume. Even men's cologne for the days she feels a little androgynous. The closet is full of all sorts of clothing she hardly ever wears, such as dresses and skirts, but she does wear them on occasion.

Her floor is littered with a few sports materials as well, but other than that... it is fairly clean.

Cara looks at all this stuff, in the same way every day, as though it doesn't belong to her. As though this life is not hers. As though there is another her imposing this existence.

A line from the elderly woman's words from yesterday run through Cara's mind: "There are other universes, dimensions, not just this one... Other Caras, all sharing one soul... And the Cara of this world you do not have long."

Cara sighs, getting up to grab a pair of jeans and T-shirt as she makes her way out the door. Today is going to be another long day.

IIII

As Cara descends the stairs, she hears the phone ringing by the stairway. She is hardly pressed to answer it once she finally reaches the stand; after all, anyone important calling her has her cell number. And other than that, it's just people trying to sell her something. That, or "the bill people." But Cara groans, deciding to answer the phone anyway. "Yeah?" she says, biting on her bottom lip before throwing her jeans and shirt over her other shoulder.

It's Fire Chief Gates.

"Sir?" Cara's brows furrow together.

There is a pause.

"What do you mean you want me to take off for a few days?"

Another pause, and Cara's frown increases with every word.

"Sir! I know you think me more delicate than the others because I'm a woman, but... " Another pause, and Cara grinds her teeth... "Television?... You know I hardly watch it... And I can only imagine what those reporters are -" Cara nods. "Yes, I agree, it's best not to look at it. But, sir - about coming in to work today."

The doorbell rings and Cara turns to the front door with a scowl, Gates's ramblings still going loud in her ear. "That's an order?... You can't order me to just stay home, sir."Cara laughs, but it is an incredulous one. "You'll seriously punish me?"

Another pause, and Cara's face falls.

"Starvos..." She takes in a deep breath. "Yes, but..."

The chief hangs up, nothing but the dial tone left sounding in the air.

Cara slowly puts the phone on the hook. "...But I'm okay. I really am," she'd wanted to say.

The doorbell rings again.

Cara releases another deep sigh.

Frowning something fierce, she quickly regains her composure and heads for the door. "What?" she yells, yanking it open to find a tall, good-looking man with light brown hair standing in her doorway. He's dressed in a light blue shirt, goofy-looking shorts and the tackiest looking foot-wear known to man — aka, sandals with socks.

He is also quick to turn away after spotting Cara in her bra and boxers. "S-Sorry," he says, turned to the side and looking to the grass with a deep blush to his cheeks.

"You can look. I don't mind," grins Cara, starting to dress to spare the man further embarrassment.

"Ah, no." He turns to her fully, hands waving, all while keeping his eyes diverted. "A gentlemen never looks."

"Never?" Cara arches a brow, a curve marking her lips as she pulls on her jeans. Her top is already on. "What are you doing on my doorstep?"

"I..." the man starts.

"You can look now." Cara appears bored.

The man smiles nervously, looking up with his most apologetic face. "Leo," he holds out a hand for acceptance.

"I didn't ask for your name." Cara leans against the door, folding her arms. "I asked, 'What are you doing on my doorstep'?"

Leo points over his shoulder. "It's my car... ... Flat tire." He smiles wide, as though getting a flat tire is the best thing that could have happened to him. "Basically...I need to use a phone."

A sharp pain suddenly hits Cara, making her wobbly in the knees, the vision of a woman in red, skin-tight leather...carrying some kind of rods...flashes through her mind. The woman looks like her.

"What the f**k was that?" Cara places a hand to her head, confused.

"What?" asks Leo.

Cara looks to him as if really seeing him.

Leo frowns. "You okay?"

A line from the elderly woman echoes in her ear: "Other Caras, all sharing one soul..."

"It's nothing," Cara says, shaking her head. She tries to rid these feelings, and moves a little past Leo. "A flat tire, you say?" She spots his car pulled up on the sidewalk in her front yard. "Then let's see what we can do about that."

"What?" Leo's eyebrows raise.

Cara grins. "That's right, guy with the silly shorts. You've just found yourself a mechanic."

Leo assesses his shorts while Cara moves toward the door. "C'omn. I've a spare someone in here."

IIII

It doesn't take long for Cara to change the tire, and before the two know it, they are sitting on the sidewalk, laughing and conversing.

"I didn't know a girl could change a tire like that. You put me to shame... Like really."

"Well, there's your mistake, Leo Dane..." Cara drawls out the name. "Basing your opinions on little girls..." She stares him deep in the eyes. "I am a woman."

Leo's eyes glide over Cara's form. "That you are."

"Careful." Cara points a finger.

"Why careful?" Leo leans in with a flower in his hand.

"Because..." Cara looks him over. "And I thought I told you to get rid of that thing. You're lucky Ms. Chilling didn't see you pick it."

"You really don't like it?" Leo examines the plant.

"I really don't," Cara stands, dusting off her hands. "Look, your car's ready to go. And I really don't know you, so -"

"- Let me take you out to breakfast. Right now. As...as repayment for helping me... I know this great waffle house close by."

Cara looks to the grass.

"I'll let you hold a knife to my throat the whole way there... You know, what you said about me possibly being a serial killer? A tacky shorts-wearing serial killer?"

Cara laughs.

There is a pause, and then she shrugs. "Oh why not. I don't have anything better to do."

IIII

Cara and Leo discuss various topics, mostly staying on the generic and away from the personal. But at some point, mention of the big fire that took place at the 331 elevator building comes up.

"I thought I recognized you. You're like a big celebrity here in Brooklyn."

"I don't want to talk about it," states Cara, taking a bite into her inadequately-drenched waffles. She prefers pancakes, but, hell, hunger doesn't allow for pickiness. "So what do you do?" she stuffs her mouth with eggs.

Leo thinks this is his kind of woman — one that's not afraid to eat.

"I'm pre-med."

"So you're looking to be a doctor? ... How old are you again?"

"25," Leo smiles, "cutting into his sausage. "I'm a little late in making this career choice, I know."

"Hey, at least you know what you want to do," Cara waves her fork. "Some people waste their whole lives never knowing."

They nod their agreement, all awkward smiles and shrugs.

And then the silence envelops them. Silence...save the voices of customers and cooks busying themselves in the kitchen.

Cara hates silence.

"You wanna f**k?" she asks.

The sausage in Leo's mouth drops to his plate, eyes wide.

"Well, do you?" Cara smirks.

IIII

Cara and Leo don't end up f**king, as Leo had gone on and on about respecting women...about respecting Cara...even though they'd just met. He did, however, assure her that he's open to f**king one day.

Just in less crude words.

IIII

The next morning, Cara is determined not to spend another day being bored. After breakfast with Leo, she'd spent the whole day cleaning. Yeah, that's right — cleaning. And cleaning is something Cara Mason simply does not do. She's never had to play housemade. And why do that, when she can (and does) call the house-cleaners?

But...seeing as she didn't, and still doesn't, have a job to go to, and seeing as she agreed that watching television, the news in particular, would/will do her no good, that had left cleaning. The house really needed it, though, and it wasn't like she was up for going out. She barely goes out anyway. Not unless to work, a fast food joint, or a night club — preferably a gay one. It's also better not to go out alone. And other than Adam and a few others, she has no one.

Besides...they'd been busy.

Cara descends the stairs in her bra and boxers, clothes thrown over her shoulder as before. She likes men. She really does. Likes them a lot. But she loves women. Getting ass hadn't truly been on her mind when she'd made Leo the offer; it's just that Cara has always found sex to be a good cure for boredom.

She is thinking about heading down to the station and demanding that the chief put her back to work, just as the doorbell rings. Already by the damn thing, she yanks it open with a scowl."What?"she barks.

She is stopped cold of any further unpleasantries.

On the other side of the door stands a very attractive woman with dirty blond hair. Her eyes are blue and lips bright red. Her hair is pulled back in a loose ponytail, and she has on the tightest shirt, as well as shortest shorts, Cara has ever seen.

Cara much prefers this look to Leo's tacky attire.

"You're Cara Mason," the woman says.

"I..." Cara seems at a loss for words, which is strange because she's never at a loss for words.

"And I see the tales of your excellent physique are true," the blonde's eyes rake over Cara's form.

Cara suddenly feels undressed...exposed...naked.

Again, uncharacteristic of her. "Just..." she blushes. "Let me get dressed real quick, and I'll be right with you."

Cara closes the door just enough to stand behind it and get dressed. As she does, the blonde on the other side tries to stifle giggles.

"What's your name?" Cara asks, eager to meet the other woman face to face once more.

"What does it matter, since I'm a stranger?"

"It matters because you're on my doorstep," replies Cara.

"Well, that's only because I've got a flat fire... If you would be so kind as to allow me to use your phone, I'd be out of your hair in an instant."

A sharp pain suddenly hits Cara, making her wobbly in the knees, the vision of a woman in red, skin-tight leather...carrying some kind of rods...flashes through her mind. The woman looks like her.

A line from the elderly woman echoes in her ear: "...after the time in which three strangers show up to beg you 'please.'"

Cara shakes her head. "It can't be," she mutters under her breath. Two strangers... Asking for help? The exact same kind of help? "What in the hell?" But, wait... It's only two so far. You don't really believe that old woman, do you?... Even if she's psychic, it doesn't mean what she said - those words about death and true love and all that sh*t - should be taken seriously... Seriously, Cara, get a hold of yourself. It's goddamn insane.

"Um, hello?" the voice on the other side questions.

Cara almost slaps a hand against her head. "Right. Sorry about that." She pulls the door open to reveal her now dressed state.

"I think I prefer you the other way," the woman grins.

Cara just stares...quite blankly.

"Kidding," the woman extends her hand. "I'm Dahlia."

Cara reluctantly accepts the exchange, shaking the blonde's hand slowly, savoring the contact. "I would say 'I'm Cara,' but you've demonstrated quite clearly that you're already familiar with me."

"I am," Dahlia smiles, placing her hands in her pockets once the lingering handshake is over.

"No, you're not," Cara retorts. "If you were, then that would include you in my bed." Cara's eyes twinkle with mischief. And she's glad that she's gotten over whatever shyness she'd initially had in front of this Dahlia woman. If the woman is going to so openly flirt with her, then she is most definitely going to flirt back.

Dahlia watches Cara for a moment, as if contemplating something, a bit of amusement playing on her face.

"But since you claim to know of me," Cara continues, "Don't bring up the 331 elevator building fire, okay? Because I really don't -"

"- I understand," Dahlia cuts her off.

Cara nods at this. At least the woman seems sincere in that regard. She looks past Dahlia, to the car parked on the sidewalk of her front yard. "A flat tire?" She looks back to Dahlia. "Don't you people ever have cell phones?" Leo had apparently left his behind.

"You people?" questions Dahlia.

"A guy was in the same predicament as you just yesterday. Here on my doorstep."

"You're kidding," Dahlia's eyebrows raise.

"Nope,"

"Well, I...I live right down the street."

"Then the question begs," Cara folds her arms across her chest, "why are you at my door? Don't you have a phone of your own? I see you didn't even deny having a cell."

Dahlia raises her hands midway into the air. "Okay, you caught me. I just wanted to meet the legendary Cara Mason." She smiles sheepishly. "I didn't even know you lived on this street until I spotted you the other day just lounging in your front yard. I think with that guy you mentioned. And, really, seeing you in the news made me -" Dahlia feels herself going into forbidden territory and stops.

Cara unfolds her arms, and moves close to the woman, pinning her with her most seductive stare. "Why, Dahlia...if you wanted to meet me, all you had to do was show up... Without the pretenses." She turns to enter through her doorway and then looks over her shoulder at the woman. "Are you coming or not?"

"Coming where?"

"If you're hoping I'll say 'between my legs'...relax, Dahlia. I only mean to retrieve a spare tire."

Dahlia blushes something fierce, and Cara moves into the house with a laugh. Serves the woman right. You don't flirt with "Cara f**king Mason"...without getting burn marks.

IIII

Cara finishes fixing up Dahlia's car, and, using the rag to wipe down her hands, heads back toward the front door of her house.

Though flirting with the blonde has been fun, Cara figures she is straight (hetero), or at least bi-curious, as are the majority of beautiful women Cara has taken an interest in.

"Come to my house?... For breakfast?"

Cara stops in her tracks and turns to look back at the woman. "Did you just..." ...Just like Leo...except for the "my house" bit.

"I did," Dahlia grins.

IIII

Cara has breakfast with Dahlia, and they discuss different things than she did with Leo, such as hobbies, gay life, political beliefs.

Dahlia's gay, and though Cara's surprised, she certainly isn't shocked. Not with the flirting they'd been doing.

As for political beliefs, Cara's generally neutral, neither republic or democratic. Dahlia's democratic, but Cara is not surprised there.

It turns out Dahlia is 22, and is a ballet instructor. While Cara feels that 22 is a little young for such a profession, she also wonders just how flexible Dahlia is.

Cara doesn't ask if Dahlia would like to f**k... But she does get the blonde's number before she leaves.

IIII

The following morning, Cara doesn't even try to pretend to be optimistic about her day being a good one as she descends the stairs. She has no idea how people live like this — staying home all day, nothing productive to do except clean. And as the house is already spotless, disregarding the items still splayed out on her bedroom floor, she is feeling even more out of her element. She has always kept busy, doesn't like to relax, doesn't like to think there is nothing more that needs to be done. That her life makes no difference.

If she had kids to take care of, like many housewives, then that would be another story. But as it stands, she's alone. With nothing but the television and computer to choose from when it comes to "letting loose," and she doesn't have a radio...doesn't particularly listen to music.

Unlike working people who would kill to be relieved of their duties for a few days, Cara finds this to be a death sentence.

So when the doorbell rings this time, Cara is no uncertain terms...pissed off.

She heads to the door with a scowl, disbelieving that it could actually be the third stranger — the third stranger the old woman spoke of.

Cara opens the door to find a stunning brunette standing in her doorway. The woman's eyes roam over her half-dressed form for longer than they need to. But that is nothing new to Cara. While in only her bra and boxers, she always receives that gaze. She always receives "that gaze" regardless.

The brunette is tall, pale-skinned...and sporting an alarming pair of blue eyes. Those eyes, they say something that Cara cannot quite grasp. They're alluring, sure, and quite vulnerable, in the moment at least, but they are also dangerous...and something else altogether.

The woman also has a great rack, Cara notices — the kind of breasts a person could bounce a coin off of. And her tight, gray and white top is all too eager to show this off, assisted by an open, gray blazer, before trailing down into her matching gray slacks. The woman doesn't have on high heels, but those dressy black shoes combined with the rest of her attire scream "lawyer." And Cara hates lawyers. She also hates freckled-faced people, for reasons traced back to her childhood. During those years, Cara had learned that freckled-face people are nothing but trouble — dishonest, vile, annoying creatures. And if the few freckles gracing the face of this woman before her are any indication, she is the same as the others.

The brunette is pretty, yes. Stunning, as first observed. But Cara is not impressed. Not impressed in the least. Not by those perfect breasts, that perfect hair, the perfect shape of the female form. No. Cara is not impressed. Not impressed at all.

The brunette is simply not her type.

"I..." the brunette starts.

"...Your car broke down and you need to use a phone," Cara finishes for her. "Yeah, yeah."

"How did..." the brunette looks perplexed.

A sharp pain suddenly hits Cara, making her wobbly in the knees, the vision of a woman in red, skin-tight leather...carrying some kind of rods...flashes through her mind. The woman looks like her.

Shaking her head, Cara moves away from the door, turning her back on the woman and heading for the base of her stairs. "The house phone is right there," she points to the stand by the staircase. "Hurry up and do what you gotta do. I can't stand to look at freckled-faced people for more than a minute."

"Excuse me?" States the brunette, frowning in the doorway, a hand to her chest as though she's been stabbed. In all her life, she has never been talked to this way before, and certainly not by a stranger, someone she just met. She wonders just what type of hell hole she has found herself in. "All I wish is to use the phone. If you didn't want me to, all you had to do was turn me away. Not become rude." She finally enters and moves toward the object, looking up at the blonde. "And do you just invite anyone into your home?"

"Unimportant people don't matter."

"You... I've done nothing to you!" the brunette angrily grits her teeth. "Who are you to feel you are so much better than me? To address me in such a way?"

Cara pauses halfway on the staircase, to peer down at this woman who dare question her. "I am Cara Mason, the best female firefighter in all of New York. And don't you ever forget it."

Cara continues her ascent upstairs.

"I won't," the brunette says with a sneer, then picks up the phone.

IIII

Cara is halfway asleep in her room when she hears a loud scuffling noise behind her. Turning over on her back, she sees the dark-haired woman from earlier tripping over a bat and then immediately straightening up.

Cara sits up with a scowl, "What in the f**k are you doing in my room?"

"I..." the brunette, for her part, looks apologetic for her actions, straightening out her clothing before settling her gaze on Cara's. "I don't have anyone to come and pick me up and -"

"- and so you thought it was a good idea to enter a stranger's bedroom without warning?" Cara wonders how many rooms this woman had mosied on into before finding this one.

"You didn't seem to mind people roaming your place earlier," the brunette's eyes drift toward her right, to all the sports trophies lining the wide dresser, and the big LGBT poster behind them. "You're...gay?" She turns back to Cara.

"Mostly," Cara shrugs. "And what of it?"

"So am I," the brunette nods.

"Want a cookie?" Cara rolls her eyes.

But though Cara does this, she wonders what are the odds that two women who are gay or otherwise bi would show up on her doorstep. Of course...she also wonders what are the odds that three people, man or woman, would show up in successive order due to the same circumstances and needing the same assistance. She hears Shota's words ring in her ears again: "Who you choose and do not choose will be a vital piece, after the time in which three strangers show up to beg you 'please'."

Cara frowns, realizing by now that shaking her head does nothing to rid that voice.

The brunette moves toward the poster and other objects as though in awe.

Cara emerges from her bed with a growl, walking to the brunette to cease her odd petting of the trophies. "Stop that."

"You've played sports," states the brunette.

"You're very observant," retorts Cara. She stands before the window next to the dresser. And as she grabs the brunette's hand, the other woman seems to marvel at how the sunlight plays over her face.

"What color are your eyes?" asks the brunette.

"Sea-green. Sometimes they appear blue. Or gray. That is, with the right light." Cara has no real idea why she's even saying this. This entire exchange is surreal.

"I see," states the raven-haired beauty, brushing her thumb along Cara's cheek.

As if burned, Cara quickly steps back, putting a respectable distance between them. "Pretty touchy-feely there," she watches the other woman with curiosity.

The brunette immediately blushes. "Sorry, I..."

"What's your name?"

"Kahlan."

"Well, Kahlan..."Cara moves over by her bed, picking up a blue pair of jeans and top lying near the end. "You couldn't just call a cab?"

Kahlan tries her best to look dignified. "Ever since I was a child, I've hated them." She looks to the floor under the scrutiny. "Long story."

Cara starts to pull on the jeans, and Kahlan turns her head, thinking how marvelous the blond's legs are.

"You've got a flat tire, right?" Cara hurries into a tight, sleeveless T-shirt, and slips into some tennis shoes.

"How did you -"

"Let's go then," states Cara, moving toward the door. "As I'm not driving you anywhere, not spending any amount of time alone with you in a car, that leaves changing your tire so that you can get the hell off my property." She exits with a huff.

Kahlan stands there watching for a moment. And when she finally exits after the blonde, she is now certain she has landed in some special form of hell.

IIII

Kahlan is mesmerized by the sweat dripping from Cara's arms as the blond uses the lug wrench to replace the lug nuts on the bolts and tighten them, but not too tight...just enough to hold the tire in place before she lowers the car. That sweat, those wonderfully well-defined arms, remind Kahlan of the rain that dripped from a statue years ago. The brunette had been in France, thinking of becoming a photographer. There, she stood in the rain for a whole hour just to get the right set of shots of some statue. That statue, of what could only be described as an Adonis, had captivated her, much the same way this Cara woman is doing now. Kahlan has never known a woman to be so good with her hands. Not unless it encompassed cooking or some other "womanly duties."

Kahlan suddenly smirks. She knows what this is, has heard about it — these so-called butch women. Gay women who pretty much take on the role of men. With the way Cara acts like a brute, with the way her room is like a sports shrine, and with the way she knows how to change a tire so efficiently, the title must apply to her as well. "You're a butch, aren't you?" asks Kahlan, arching one eyebrow at the woman kneeling before her.

Cara laughs, lowering the car with the jack until the car is again resting on all four tires. "You did not just seriously ask me that," she looks up at Kahlan.

Kahlan shrugs.

Cara tightens the lug nuts, starting with one, then moving to the one opposite it, and so on. "You think I'm butch because I play sports, don't dress in girly things the way I'm sure you do, and because I know how to fix cars?"

"Well, aren't you?"

Cara cannot believe this. The gall of this woman. The sheer ignorance. "Have you even met a butch woman before?" Cara carefully inspects her work area, making sure everything is secure, and then starts putting her tools away.

"I..." Kahlan leans back against the car, looking off into another yard, the way the tree sways in the wind there.

Cara stands, dusting off her hands and then wiping them against the towel. She looks to Kahlan with much distaste. "Your silence tells me all I need to know."

Kahlan's head snaps back around, eyes flashing at Cara. "I've seen enough of them on the Internet, and on dating sites. So I know exactly how your type is."

"Dating sites? Well, somebody's lonely." Cara smirks.

Kahlan frowns.

"Don't worry, lawyer girl. I'm not butch."

"I'm not a lawyer."

"You look like one." Cara looks her over.

Kahlan's mouth drops open.

"See? Doesn't feel very good to be stereotyped, now does it?"

Clarity seems to dawn on Kahlan about what she's just done. "I didn't - Didn't mean -"

"- Oh, and I'm known to wear dresses on occasion," Cara drags the flat tire to rest at the base of her yard, dropping the lug wrench there as well. "And I wear lipstick quite often." She moves back toward the car and scoops up her toolbox. "You should read up on LGBT culture if you're going to be identifying as one of us... I'm done here." Cara starts to walk off.

"But wait!" Kahlan moves off the car, holding up a finger in the air. "I want to thank you."

Cara is almost to the door. "The fact that you want to thank me is thanks enough. Now go."

"At least allow me to take you out for breakfast."

Cara spins around by the door. "Look, I don't like you! Is that so hard to understand? You have freckles, and I hate that about you too. "

Kahlan appears flabbergasted, a mix of shock, as well as hurt, passes over her features.

Cara sees the hurt there, and likes it. She wants her words to sting. For this bitch to drop dead, if possible. "Yeah, I don't even know you and I hate you already. Now go. You're just not the type of person I could ever see myself spending time with...lest I puke within the first twenty minutes of doing so." She looks to her watch. "Speaking of," she steps into her doorway, eyes still on Kahlan's verbally-wounded face, "I've already spent about nineteen minutes with you... The sight of your pasty white skin must have distracted me from performing faster... Now, peace." She slams the door.

Cara is furious as she stands by her staircase, and she isn't exactly clear why. All three of them, she scowls - their car breaks down, they ask to take me to breakfast, but this one...

Sure, the brunette is annoying, insultingly oblivious to her own rudeness, naive even, and doesn't seem to have the slightest idea about LGBT culture...even while identifying as part of it, but that alone isn't why Cara is angered. No, there's something else irritating her about this woman — about this encounter. Something she cannot quite pin down.

Cara has no time to ponder these thoughts further, however, for a lug wrench comes flying through her window, sending glass shards flying just about everywhere, but luckily not at her.

Cara drops her toolbox and moves in front of the window in her living room. She sees Kahlan standing there on the other side, chest heaving with ferocity and seeming to match the same anger exploding from her face.

"What the f**k, you psycho bitch!" Cara screams, stepping so close that all she has to do is walk through the window in order to reach the woman. "What the hell did you do?!"

"What does it look like I did?" Kahlan's expression fades from one of anger and is replaced by an almost-smug one...one full of malice. "Your window went bye-bye."

"Why you - " Cara steps through the glass, not caring for whatever remaining shards may fall on her, intent of strangling this dark-haired wench to an agonizing death.

Kahlan has already taken off running, and has reached the passenger side of her car.

"Wait!" Kahlan holds up a finger, and Cara uncharacteristically halts in the walkway.

What is this sh*t? Cara halts for no one.

"You said I didn't have to pay you back before. That you didn't want to see me again... Well, now I have to. And you have to see me as well."

"All I have to do," Cara grinds her fist into her palm, eyes sparkling with outrage, "is call the police on your ass. You could have killed me, you stupid wench! In fact, I oughtta forget them and beat your ass right now." Cara is seeing red behind the eyes. "Seriously, I fix your car, and this is how you repay me?"

"I doubt you'll try to sue me," Kahlan says, very matter-of-fact, pulling out several hundred dollars and tossing them to the ground near the sidewalk. "This should make up for a new window. And because I acted reprehensibly, I'll have to make it up to you beyond this. Perhaps dinner sometime." She moves away from the car to head for the driver's side, getting in...all while never looking away from Cara.

Cara, for her part, is stumped, and doesn't know how to respond. "You don't know what I'll do," is all she can say.

Kahlan starts the engine and smirks. "And by the way...I could see where you stood through the window... I knew the right amount of pressure to apply so that no shard would hit you and certainly not the wrench... So suffice it to say, I wouldn't have killed you."

And with that, the brunette focuses on the road ahead and jets off, leaving Cara slack-jawed.

Cara reluctantly walks to the money near the sidewalk and swipes it up, watching a few bills float into the air after the retreating vehicle. "What is she, rich?... This is more than enough to pay for the window." Cara examines the cash, and has the urge to go after the bit floating down the street. But Cara also has her pride to consider; such pride has often kept her in check, kept her from doing foolish things — like looking desperate and weak by accepting money this way. There are eyes on her now, for some of the neighbors have stepped out onto their porches to observe the incident, she notices. They'd obviously heard the window break, the screaming, the rest. Hell...a few, with as nosy as they are, had probably even witnessed the whole thing.

Sh*t.

Yes, Cara has her pride. But this is money. Money she deserves. Money she has every right to keep. Her pride is many things, but it will not get in the way of her accepting the dollars in her hands this day. Now the cash floating down the street? Her pride has every right to keep her from looking like a fool there.

IIII

Kahlan enters her home and closes the door with a self-satisfied grin on her face. The place still has that "new home" smell, and it is exactly what Kahlan needs to help rid herself of these aggravating thoughts — these aggravating thoughts of the even more aggravating Cara Mason.

But do you really want to rid yourself of her? her mind supplies. After all, it is you who made it so that she now has to see you again... Except wait... Will she see you again? Now that you paid her? And if you see her again, will it be from behind bars?

"Yes, I want to be rid of her!" Kahlan yells to her surroundings. "She's rude, uncouth, completely insensitive, and seems to have an odd prejudice against freckled-faced people."

She's also quite attractive... Very attractive. Kahlan nearly growls. Alluring even, her mind continues on.

"The only reason I insisted that I repay her is because it is the right thing to do... And the only reason I forced it on her is because I couldn't let her get away with treating me like that. Talking to me like that." Kahlan moves into her living room. "If she wants nothing to do with me, having to deal with me is the best payback, is it not?"

Not very convincing.

"Shut up!"

Kahlan sighs, looking around her decent-sized home. "Get a hold of yourself, Kahlan. You're doing it again... Talking to yourself."

Kahlan rakes her hands through her long raven-hair and really takes time to examine her surroundings. The carpet is blue and red, and the living room walls are a rainbow mix of green, blue and orange, with various types of birds depicted in "very erotic" manners. Not that Kahlan finds birds "erotic." It's not as though she's been so long without sex that she'll find just about anything "erotic" these days. No, that's not the case at all.

The place is simply weird in its design. Over in the kitchen, which can be seen through the slitted double doors to her right, the cabinets and walls are painted pink and yellow; the yellow are the many polka dots defacing it. And the ceiling there? Impossibly bright red. All of it makes Kahlan wonder if this home was previously preoccupied by circus clowns. Maybe rodeo clowns even. But it was all she could acquire on such a short notice, wanting a place especially close to her school of choice. From what she'd learned, the previous owners had recently redesigned the home just two months ago. Why someone would put effort into something they were just going to abandon a short time later, Kahlan doesn't know. Or how, seeing as this is an apartment and apartments don't really belong to the occupants, they were even permitted to do such a thing.

Kahlan walks toward her couch and plops down. At least the living room ceiling and fan are made up of "normal colors" typical of a home; the ceiling colored an "off-white," and the fan brown and beige.

She reaches for the cell phone resting on the table, and dials up a number. If only I'd taken this with me earlier, I'd never have met that rude Cara woman. That's for damn sure.

In the next moment, she sighs, biting on her bottom lip. But would you really have wanted that?

Someone answers on the other end, and Kahlan eagerly welcomes the distraction. "Hi, mom..."

There is a pause.

"Yeah, I'm okay."

Kahlan nearly giggles. "No, mom... Mom... Mother, slow down." There is another brief pause, and then... "I made it here earlier this morning..."

Kahlan looks over her shoulder to the stacked boxes behind her, and then back to the table. "I would have called then, but I was just so excited to see everything. It's...It's amazing here, mom. I had to check out the area. I barely even looked at the apartment before I left. But the men you hired had all my stuff here already. And then...my car broke down..."

Kahlan winces. "Now, c'omn. I know how to take care of myself, and it was just a flat tire. That's another reason it took so long — contacting you... Mom, I left my cell and was forced to ask a stranger for help."

Another pause.

"No, no...it was a woman. And while she helped, she was extremely rude... Mother, I don't think I've ever met anyone as vile as her."

Another pause.

"What?" Kahlan props her feet up on the table. "No, I did not lose my temper..."

Stops to reconsider.

"..Okay, maybe a little, but, mom, she deserved it, and..."

Kahlan eyes her nails as her mother interrupts yet again.

"Yes, I know I need to learn to control it. But... It's just that -"

Another interruption.

"What?..." Kahlan sits up straight. "No, I don't think she's cute... I... Yes, I understand that you and father think I become infatuated with anyone who teases me enough and or angers me immensely, so long as they're cute... But ...It's more than that, mom."

Another pause.

"... Yes, I'm still on 'this gay kick'... And it's not a 'gay kick.' I'm really attracted to women, mom, I've told you before. Both of you."

She looks up to the ceiling, blows hair out of her face. "...Alright, true, I may not be one hundred percent, but -"

Kahlan taps her feet together. "Okay, fine... She is cute."

IIII

Cara needed to head down to the fire station after the day she'd just had — the twenty or so minutes she'd wasted on that annoying brunette.

Immediately after dealing with Kahlan, she'd decided to screw the chief's orders about "taking time off" and to just get there. She'd waited some hours, of course, debating with herself the pros and cons of disobeying her superior.

The chief had said "a few days," but Cara figures two days are more than enough. Experienced firefighters are needed. The best, in fact. And Cara prides herself on being "one of the best." Not just "one of the best female firefighters," but one of the best firefighters period. If she had not worked with a few others who are just as good at the job as she is, if not better, she would have called herself "the best" by now.

Cara is again about to go over all the possible reasons for why Chief could have kept her from work for two days already, but she soon has no reason to ponder when she pulls her car up to a sidewalk, right in front of a crowd of reporters, civilians, and by-standers seemingly anxiously awaiting her arrival right outside the Fire Department City of New York (FDNY). Some of her fellow firefighters — Adam, for example — are also there, along with Chief Gates, apparently trying to fend off the crowd.

"F**k off, and let us do our job. You've kept this up for two days now. Can't you see she isn't here?" Cara hears the chief state as she exits her car, and slams the door hard. The chief looks worn-down, his gray hair appearing grayer than ever, and the bags, as well as strained lines, under his eyes, making him look beyond his 50 years of age. He is a good guy, a hard worker with many years of experience at all levels of firefighting, as well as superior management skills, especially under the stress of emergency situations. And the fact that he is now cursing, something he hardly ever does, makes Cara's blood boil with fury. For three years, this man has been like a father to her, and he does not deserve this. Not because of her mistake. It is easy to see that that's why the reporters are here — Cara's mistake at the elevator building. Cara is certain that the only reason the annoying pests have yet to swamp her yard is that where she lives is not exactly public knowledge. Her fame, and "Public Record," be damned. Cara has made contacts with all sorts of important people, and is constantly protected by/changing homes thanks to those connections. By the time people discover a former resident of hers, she's already at her new resident. Well-settled and content. And if anyone dare try to follow her home, they'd be spotted and taken care of. Not murdered, but "taken care of."

"It's Cara Mason!" yells one reporter, finally spotting her, and soon Cara is swarmed, backed into the door of her own car. "Ms. Mason, is it true that you chose to save an elderly woman over children?"

"You killed my child!," screams one civilian, pointing Cara's way. His hair and eyes are dark, so dark that Cara is thankful she has the sunlight to illuminate his features. He isn't an ugly man, but he currently displays the ugliest expression Cara has ever seen. His skin is tan, lips curved in a sneer, and the expression on his face now can only be described as "scary as f**k." Downright serial killer even.

"What kind of hero are you?" he continues. "You choose an old hag who is quite arguably close to death anyway...over my child?" he yells. "I hate you. I hope you burn in hell!" he rages even more furiously. "You don't deserve the praise you have!"

The man is pushed aside and further into the background by more reporters trying to make their way to Cara. "What do you make of that, Ms. Mason? Any response?" one asks.

"Is it true that some firefighters lost their lives because they went into the building after you in particular?" asks another.

"Why didn't you wait for others to assist you, Ms. Mason?"

"Call the police," Chief Gates advises Adam. "These buzzards aren't going anywhere by themselves." Adam runs off into the station, and Chief Gates makes his way through the crowd toward Cara. "That's enough! Enough!" he yells.

"What do you have to say regarding some of your fellow firefighters blaming you for the loss of several of their 'brothers'?" questions another reporter, holding the microphone toward Cara's face.

Chief Gates knocks the microphone away, but not before Cara catches the faces of a few of her firefighting partners, almost certainly confirming that they blame her for some of the lost lives. "I said enough," Gates continues. He turns to Cara. "I'm sorry. This..." he gestures toward the crowd, "this is why I didn't want you here... You see that? You understand that now?"

Cara nods.

"Go," Gates adds. "We'll handle this...I'll call you when its safer to return to work."

Wanting nothing more to do with this scene, and feeling quite sick to her stomach, Cara wastes no time getting into the car, Gates and his men clearing a path for her departure.

She drives off, toward the setting sun.

IIII

The following night, a few of Cara's firefighter buddies have joined her in the living room for a game of poker. The area is partially cleared to allow for the wide table. Beer cans and cigars sit beside card decks. And soft drinks, chips and other treats line the sofa behind them. The flat screen television is placed to their right, channel on the fanciest sports network.

Cara's window is fixed, and she's told the guys — these three only — about how it came to break; the silly old woman, three strangers, the brunette in particular. They'd laughed, and encouraged her to laugh about the incidents as well. In fact, they'd invited themselves here tonight, saying she needed something to take her mind off of the "blame game" going on. That Starvos had decided to drag men in there after her, and that it wasn't — isn't — her fault.

"Screw those traitors," says Nathan, puffing on a cigar, a deck of cards in his hands. Sitting across from Cara, Nathan is an earnest-looking fellow with bright blond hair and a killer smile. The lines on his face are quite rugged, making him appear mid to late thirties, while he is only 28. Still, they enhance his "all-American" male appearance. "The damn bastards," he mumbles under his breath. "They got nothing better to do than to help the media sensationalize stories," he adds loudly. "They're just jealous of all the favoritism so many show you."

Next to Nathan sits Tanner, who is your typical scrawny guy; the only thing distinguishing him is the thin, long mustache he twirls around just like those cartoon villains of past decades. He apparently agrees with Nathan.

And Adam? He is seated beside Cara watching her carefully.

"Not much favoritism going on right now," says Cara, dragging her thumb along the side of the table. She clearly is in a somber mood.

"Hey, tell us more about the old lady and her prophecies." Adam smiles, nudging Cara in an attempt to cheer her up.

"Oh, yeah," Tanner adds, putting his stack of cards down and sit backs. "We're not playing much poker anyway. Tell us more about these alternate dimensions."

"I bet Cara is a zombie slayer in one, and Adam a drag queen in another," states Nathan, putting his cards down as well.

Adam reaches behind him and hurls a bag of chips Nathan's way. "Not funny, man."

"Cara probably wields d**dos battling those zombie creatures," Tanner says with a grin.

"You'd be surprised," Cara utters above a whisper, visions of the blond woman in red, skin-tight leather wielding similar tools bouncing around in her head.

"Okay, how about a joke," says Adam.

"Your jokes suck," Nathan and Tanner agree, throwing cards at his face.

"No, no..." Adam waves for the card-throwing to stop. "This one is good."

"Go ahead and tell it." Cara shrugs, drawing circles with her fingers on the table.

"Okay, this woman in a dazzling dress arrives at work and heads for her office. On her way to the office, a man says, 'Nice ass.' She says thank you for the compliment, and proceeds to her destination. The next day, the same woman in a dazzling dress arrives at work and heads for her office. On her way to the office, the same man says, 'Nice breasts.' She says thank you for the compliment, and proceeds to her destination. The day after that, the same woman in a dazzling dress arrives at work and heads for her office. On her way to the office, the same man approaches yet again, but this time he gets real close and says, 'Your hair smells good.' The woman says, 'How dare you?' That's sexual harassment. I'm reporting you to the boss.' She goes into the boss's office and says, 'I've just been sexually harassed. Do something. This man just said the most vile thing to me.'... The boss says, 'Well, what did he say?' The woman says he told me my hair smells good. The boss says, 'So?' The woman says, 'He was a midget.'"

Just then, Nathan bursts out laughing, grabbing at his chest for dear life, and Cara smiles a bit too. "That's so wrong," she replies.

"That's f**king hilarious," assures Nathan.

Tanner shrugs. "I don' t get it."

Nathan pops him in the back of the head. "The guy's a midget. She was wearing a dress."

"Ohhhh," clarify finally dawns on Tanner.

"Glad you guys liked it," states Adam leaning back in his chair. "I mean, I don't like using the word 'midget,' but I thought it was worth telling."

"You got a pretty damn potty mouth for a man of faith," Nathan laughs.

The others chuckle.

Their good-hearted atmosphere is interrupted by a report on the news speaking of the fire at the 331 elevator building, of Cara in particular. Adam quickly shuts off the television. "Cara..."

The doorbell rings, and Cara quickly jumps up at the opportunity to distract herself. "I'll get that," she points over her shoulder.

"Did somebody order pizza?" asks Tanner. "Did you order pizza?" he looks to Nathan, and Nathan again pops him in the back of the head.

Cara opens the door, and is shocked to find Kahlan standing there. The brunette's hair is straight instead of wavy like the day before, and she is in some kind of ruffle bow blouse; it's V-cut, black and pretty and all that, but Cara's attention lingers on the woman's beige skirt...those legs. Those pretty feet in the open-toe beige sandals.

"I just heard about the fire." Kahlan starts, and Cara looks up at her. "I thought you could maybe use some time away? That this may be an okay time to repay you?"

Cara just stares, unsure of what to say. Why this woman feels it is okay to show her face here again, Cara is not sure. Even more perplexing is the fact that the woman even cares to show up.

"That the crazy one who broke your window, Car?" asks Tanner.

"Shh," states Nathan.

Adam just grins.

All three men are now on the couch trying their best to get a glimpse of this Kahlan woman. "Is she hot?" asks Tanner. "I don't know," replies Nathan. "Move your head."

"Yeah, she's hot," Adam answers.

Cara looks to her side at the men, then back at Kahlan. "Let's go." She doesn't know why she's agreeing to go anywhere with this woman...except that she needs to get away. Away from friends who care so much that it hurts.

IIII

The car ride is silent, neither attempting to say a word as Kahlan drives ahead.

Though they do steal glances every now and then — Kahlan focusing on Cara's face; Cara focusing on Kahlan's legs.

IIII

"Where the f**k are we?" questions Cara, sitting opposite Kahlan and taking a hefty bite into the sub sandwich before her.

"Where does it look like we are?"

"A second-rate diner," Cara looks around, seeing a few people staring her way. "Why'd you bring me here? It must have been like an hour's drive."

"It may be second-rate," Kahlan folds a napkin in her lap, "but it's still one of the best...from what I read anyway... And I brought you here because it's an hour's drive away. I proposed that you 'get away,' and that is exactly what I meant to do."

"Well, news flash: People seem to know who I am here too," Cara puts down her sub and nods in the direction of a few customers watching her closely from the bar; others from a table. "It's not like we're suddenly in LA. This is still New York. And I am still this city's black sheep."

"Ignore them," Kahlan offers. "You needed to be in an unfamiliar environment. Some place you don't usually go."

"You don't know what I need," Cara sneers.

"So tell me," Kahlan takes a bite into her own sub; it's a vegetarian mix, and she savors the blend of olives and the like.

Cara watches Kahlan for a moment. This woman... She sits backs, relaxed. She can deal with this. Converse for more than a few minutes with someone she detests. "This is how you repay me for breaking my window...for almost killing me?"

"Oh, c'omn, Cara," Kahlan wipes her hands with a napkin. "It's all I could think to do on such short notice." She briefly leans in, whispering, "And I didn't almost kill you."

"So is this the part where we get to know each other?" Cara folds her arms across her chest, having suddenly lost her appetite...for food anyway. "I tell you about me. You tell me about you?"

"We could try," Kahlan grins.

"Why do you even care to pay me back? To know anything about me?"

"I..." Kahlan looks down at her plate. ... Nervous... Excited... "I find you intriguing," she admits, looking back up to meet Cara's gaze. But not before blushing.

Cara cocks her head. Who is this woman who always seems to go out of her way just to be near her? And why does she get under my skin so much? "Okay, are your breasts real?"

"Are your lips real?"

They sit there in a staring match for several seconds, until Cara finally breaks: "Very."

"Same."

"Your last relationship - as in lovers - when was it?"

"Two years ago," Kahlan blushes innocently. "When was yours?"

"Two weeks ago," Cara smirks, watching Kahlan shift uncomfortably at that revelation. "What do you do?" asks Cara.

Kahlan smiles, shyly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Astronomy... It's ... It's the study of the celestial bodies and their compositions, motions, and origins -"

" - I know what astronomy is," Cara interrupts.

" - Do you know all of it?" Kahlan challenges.

Cara waves her hand in defeat, an epic eye-roll threatening to make an appearance.

"Like I was saying," the brunette grins even wider. "I originally wanted to be a photographer, but that's over now." She pauses. "I just moved to New York yesterday to attend a school here. Not a full-blown astronomer yet. Only 24, but I'm getting there."

"And are there different types of astronomers?"

"Are there different types of firemen?"

"There are... But we're talking about you now, not me."

Kahlan sighs. "Most astronomers concentrate on a particular question or area of astronomy, for example, planetary science, solar astronomy, the origin and evolution of stars, or the formation of galaxies... You know, stuff like that."

"No, I don't know stuff like that." Cara arches an eyebrow.

"You said you did." Kahlan laughs.

"I said I'm familiar with astronomy. Meaning...I know of it."

Kahlan smiles some more, but decides to go on. "Observational astronomers design and carry out observing programs with a telescope or spacecraft to answer a question or test the predictions of theories. Theorists work with complex computer models of a star's interior, for example, to understand the physical processes responsible for the star's appearance." Kahlan picks up her glass of soda and takes a sip. "But enough about me. What about you? How long does it take to become a firefighter?"

"Some might only spend less than a year at the process, while others might take 2 to 5 or 3 to 7 years to become a firefighter," Cara shrugs, "– assuming you are putting everything you have into the job. It took me only a year. I'm 24 now. But women are not getting recruited and hired because of an occupational culture that is exclusionary and unequal in employment practices in recruiting, hiring, assigning and promoting women generally...at least according to one critic. So that makes me lucky."

"Indeed," Kahlan eyes the way Cara's folded arms flex across her chest.

Cara doesn't seem to notice. "So how long does it take to become an astronomer?"

"I guess it varies just as much as firefighting," Kahlan selects a chip from her plate, taking a swift bite."Many astronomers majored in physics in college. Physics can give you a more enriched education in the physical sciences. And, um, let's see, in the United States, a typical astronomer has a Ph.D. in astronomy or physics. This can take a long time - six years beyond a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree is common. After earning a B.S., graduate school courses take another two to three years. And by the end of the second year... Well, basically, it takes a long time," Kahlan takes another sip of her drink. "Hey, what do you say we go outside and I teach you a few things? The sky is excellent tonight. Perfect for an overview of the stars."

Teach me a few things? Cara's mind goes places she'd rather it not. She wants Dahlia. Or even Leo. Not Kahlan. Not freckled-faced, obnoxious Kahlan. "You mean out on that hill outback? What is a hill doing in the back of a diner?"

"I don't know," Kahlan shrugs, then stands. "But it sounds fun," she heads for the door, playfully looking over her shoulder at Cara.

Cara is not sure if she likes where this is going. And Kahlan had better not be flirting with her. But she resolves to be strong...gets up and follows.

IIII

Outside, the two sit on a hill some distance behind the diner, Kahlan looking up at the stars; Cara looking at Kahlan.

"Cara?" asks Kahlan. "Why do you hate freckled-faced people?" She looks to her side at the blonde.

Cara almost snorts at that. "Just look at how you reacted after I told you I didn't want to spend any time with you. You people have insane temperaments. Maybe anger management is in order. That especially goes for red-heads."

Kahlan laughs.

There is a pause.

"Maybe," she leans in closer, "you should have just accepted my offer."

Cara looks to the ground at this, wanting to escape the other woman's penetrating gaze and that odd closeness she is putting upon her. "Blame the victim, I see."

"Cara Mason thinking of herself as a victim? Doesn't seem right." Kahlan looks back up to the sky.

"Like you know me."

"I've read enough about you."

"Whatever."

Kahlan looks back to the blonde; Cara is still eyeing the ground.

"Do you think me ugly?" asks Kahlan.

"Yes." Cara says it without hesitation.

It is a lie, and a ridiculous one, no doubt. But what else is she supposed to say? Her eyes find Kahlan's. "But what does it matter? I don't like you... I think you don't like me. And we're only here tonight because you broke my window. After this, I don't ever want to see you again."

"Hmm." Kahlan looks back up at the stars.

"I don't like freckled-faced people," Cara starts, "because when I was five, a little freckled-faced brat - male - stole the teacher's gum, then blamed it on me. When I was seven, a red-headed minion kissed me right on the cheek in front of everyone; she made me the laughing-stock for two weeks. When I was ten, this girl, face full of freckles, wouldn't let me borrow her deodorant after P.E.; I had to sit there in class, musty, for the rest of the day with people snickering all behind me. And, finally, when I was twelve, this freckled-faced girl was supposed to be my first sexual experience. We stopped once I got to her lower region and pulled back a handful of blood — her period was on that day."

Kahlan bursts out laughing.

"What?" Cara turns to her with a scowl.

"It's just...your entire foundation for hating freckled-faced people is based on unfortunate childhood experiences."

"And?"

"And," Kahlan glances over at Cara. "It's time to get over it."

"I'll have you know...those events were very traumatic for me."

Kahlan laughs some more.

Cara growls, turning her back on the woman, pulling her knees to her chest.

"So then you don't like red-headed people either?"

"Quite possibly."

"People with no freckles on the face but on other parts of their body?"

"I haven't thought that far."

"I see."

There is a long pause. Nothing but cars heard coming through and exiting. And then...

"It is impossible to dissect, weigh, touch, smell, or otherwise experiment with a star," Kahlan begins, her eyes raking over the night sky. "For the most part, we learn about astronomical objects indirectly by observing the light they emit or reflect, and measuring the motions they and their celestial neighbors exhibit."

Cara slowly turns back around to watch Kahlan go on and on about "the stars this" and "the stars that." And as she does, she doesn't know how she ever managed to call the woman ugly. In truth, there isn't an ugly thing about her, not looks or personality.

Certainly not looks, Cara thinks eyeing Kahlan's deliciously taunting throat.

"Gains in astronomical knowledge are made through research," Kahlan continues, "a systematic inquiry in which scientists define a question, gather relevant data, formulate a hypothesis, then test the predic -"

She is stopped mid-sentence when she feels a hot, wet tongue on her throat.

Cara's tongue is pushing there, languidly but no less sensually, one hand resting on Kahlan's shoulder; the other at the base of Kahlan's neck.

This... Ahh...This makes no sense. Kahlan is stiff.

Then, as if snapping back to reality, Kahlan jolts to her feet, glaring down at a clearly starved Cara. "What do you think you're doing?" she holds a hand to her neck as though Cara is a vampire who has just taken a bite.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Cara states very matter of fact.

Kahlan stomps her foot. "You were just licking my neck!"

"Was not!" Cara rises to her feet, face just as adamant as her challenger.

Kahlan feels the woman must have split personalities. Either that, or she thinks me stupid. "Do you think me stupid?" Kahlan breathes frustratedly. "I saw you. I felt you!"

Cara growls, turning her back on the woman. She stalks away a bit, kicking grass, and then comes back. "Okay, so I did. But isn't that the point of all this? Of tonight? You want to get laid, right? Why else would you be so insistent on spending time with me?"

"It's called being a good person," Kahlan balls her fists.

"Oh, come off of it," Cara marches to her. Close. Very close.

She eyes Kahlan's cleavage. "You need sex just as badly as I do. Here and now." She runs a hand through the brunette's brilliant mane of hair.

Kahlan does her best not to whimper.

"You don't even like me, Cara."

"So."

"You think of me as ugly."

"People have sex with ugly people all the time." Cara leans in. "I need to forget, Kahlan." She pulls the brunette into her, slowly encircling her waist. "Help me forget... Kahlan... Please?"

She leans in. Ready...eager...to capture Kahlan's lips with her own. "Just spread your legs for me, okay? Just a little?"

"No!" Kahlan pushes Cara away, clutching her chest as if attacked there.

Cara grinds her teeth angrily. "Fine!" She starts to march down the hill.

"Where are you going?" Kahlan queries. "Cara?!"

"Home... I never want to see you again. Just stay away from me. You've repaid me enough." But not nearly enough.

"How will you get home?"

"I'll walk. Hitchhike. Call a cab. Just as long as I get away from you."

Cara doesn't need this. She really doesn't. Not this drama, not this insanity. Not this fire the brunette has ignited in her.

At least Leo and Dahlia are willing to 'put out.'

Kahlan watches the blonde go; her senses are just as frustrated...just as angered...just as aroused. And she cannot help feeling that she's quite possibly made the biggest mistake of her life.