"Am I dreaming?"
The question echoed in the marble halls, the white of the room nearly blinding as he turned, trying and failing to locate a point of reference.
It was an optical illusion, that much he knew. It wasn't possible for a place to really be this big – his mind was just trying to process the complete lack of reference points.
"In a way."
The reply startled him and he turned towards the voice, fists raised, only to draw up short.
"Ma'am?" He greeted and questioned in the same breath, cocking his head to the side as he stared at the small, compact elderly woman in front of him.
She was wearing a dress with a leather corset type vest over the top. Her hair was braided in an intricate mess and she had coronet of silver resting on top of her head.
As odd as she looked, however, she practically breathed power – he could feel it in his bones.
"Son," her lips quirked with the words and he found himself blinking at the show of amusement.
"Come," she ordered without pause, turning and walking in one direction leaving him with either the choice of following and gaining some understanding or staying and remaining lost.
Obediently he followed.
She did her eighty-eighth push-up, her eyes unfocused as sweat ran rivets down her trembling arms, her body coiled tight with tension despite the grueling workout she'd forced herself through.
She couldn't sleep. She'd spent the last three hours trying but every time she closed her eyes the silence seemed to close in on her, trapping her.
She tried for her eighty-ninth and just managed to catch herself before she could land face-first on the mat.
The gym was empty for the night – everyone else was either asleep or out doing better things, which was exactly why she'd chose to be here at this hour.
"This isn't going to help you."
She sighed, closing her eyes for a brief second before rolling over onto her side to face Chai.
Chai cocked his head slightly to the side, his lips twitching upwards under the bush of his beard.
"You know the answer to that."
"Do I?" she pressed, sitting upright in a smooth motion as she let her gaze focus on the wall opposite her. "Do I really know anything?"
"You know enough," Chai replied. "The rest is out there, waiting for the two of you to discover it."
"He has nothing to do with this," she shot back, jerking her head around, eyes flashing and teeth bared in an angry snarl.
"He has everything to do with this," Chai shot back, his expression a warning unto itself. Throughout the empty years spent away from this place she had forgotten that once and forevermore Chai had been a power unto himself.
The fact that he had married the Matron only added to it.
"I apologize," she shook her head slightly, closing her eyes and breathing as she struggled to regain control of herself.
"As well you should," was his surly reply as he glared at her.
"Don't be stupid, child. If you wait too long…"
"What?" She twisted slightly to face him in the doorway, not rising to her feet but staring at him, a mixture of defiance, fear, and resignation in her gaze.
"Bad things," was Chai's reply after a few moment of long silence before turning and disappearing as quietly as he'd arrived.
"It's always bad things," she murmured, her gaze returning to the wall. "Why is it always bad things?"
"What is this place?" he found himself asking as he followed the woman through one of the long hallways.
"Home," was her bittersweet reply.
"Home?" He couldn't keep the questioning note from his voice.
"Not yours," she replied, turning and offering him a quirked smile that hardened slightly with her next words. "Not yet."
He didn't know what to make of that, so he lapsed back into the silence.
It may have lasted minutes, it may have been hours, but eventually the silence was broken by a new sound.
It was so loud and sudden he turned instinctively, his brain already trying to process the source of the noise.
"What is that?" he asked as a third beat followed the first two, thumping a steady rhythm that was almost familiar.
"What is what?" the woman asked, turning towards him.
He wanted to ask if she was serious – the sound was so loud it was almost deafening, and yet the woman seemed entirely unfazed. Alert and intensely focused on his answer, but not even her ears twitched as the steady beat continued to thrum around them.
"That beating noise – the thump."
"A thump?" Her eyebrows arched slightly as she blinked at him, an expression of pure surprise dashing across her face in an instant before her expression smoothed into an almost amused look.
"A heartbeat," she murmured and he found himself nodding.
"Exactly." That was exactly what it sounded like…except…
"No – " he shook his head as he frowned and listened closer.
At first sound it seemed to be a simple echo, but the more he listened, the harder he focused…
"Two?" Her expression smoothed over at that. "Two heartbeats?"
"Yes." He nodded his head, satisfied with that being the answer, before turning his attention to her, eyes bright with curiosity and a sudden burning need to know.
"What does it mean?"
It started like a drumbeat in her head – an intense pulsing rhythm that morphed from a simple noise to a full body vibration that left her wide awake and staring up at the ceiling as it seemed to twist in on itself.
It was a rhythm in counterpoint – two beats nearly as one. It was the echo that really drove her nuts because it didn't seem to make sense. She was a nurse, she knew what the human heart sounded like, and this…this was no a single human heart.
It was two.
And she knew with a bone deep certainty that neither one of those heartbeats was her own.
"It means things are more serious than I perceived," the woman replied with a frown as she stared off into space for a long moment before refocusing in on him.
"Don't worry, my son," she told him with a soft sort of smile that immediately made him feel better despite her words. It was his experience, as a soldier, that when somebody told you not to worry, it was a catchphrase for exercising extreme caution.
"All will be revealed in time," she promised, but her words seemed to be growing fainter – the white of the room was fading and it was with unusual clarity that he realized he must be waking up.
"What?" he asked, the question an almost desperate plea as he struggled to hold this place long enough to get an answer. "What happened to me? What am I now?"
"All will be revealed," was the echoing answer that was both terrifying and comforting. He tried with one last desperate lunge to stay in this place, but it was like trying to grab water – the walls slipped through his fingers and with one last faded thump he –
"Hey man, you okay?" Charlie was standing in his doorway, eating an apple and watching him with worried eyes.
"Fine," he replied, sitting upright and shaking his head slightly before refocusing on his roommate and partner with a frown. "Why?"
"You were muttering in your sleep," Charlie replied, taking another bite of his apple. "Kept saying 'what' 'what'."
"What?" Hector ran a hand over his hair, blinking at his partner in puzzled confusion. "I was talking?"
"Yeah, man," Charlie finished the last bite of his apple carefully, turning to exit and calling over his shoulder, "not a good habit to have."
"Yeah," Hector agreed. Professionally, he was worried. Personally…
Personally, he was starting to get annoyed.
Just what the hell was going on?
She went to work with a serious case of dry mouth and a full on body throb that made her extra irritable and hard enough to deal with that the doctor didn't even bother trying to find something in house for her to do.
"Go poke people," he instructed, sending her down to the training grounds to supervise advanced combat medicine techniques.
Rodriguez, one of the local corpsman, wasn't exactly thrilled to see her.
"You have no field training whatsoever," he lectured as he grabbed supplies and shoved them in her arms. "And on top of that you're a girl."
She didn't say anything in reply, merely rolling her eyes, causing him to pause as he stared at her in disgust.
"And a civilian on top of that. What the hell was Parker thinking, saddling me with you?"
"God, you bitch more than my sister," was her quick reply. "We gonna do this shit or do I have to wait for you to remove the tampon somebody shoved up your ass?"
Rodriguez stared some more.
"Dude, I'm serious," Rodriguez was saying as Hector followed him down to the field where they were supposed to be training the newbies. "She's fucking insane."
"Come on, Rod, she can't be that bad."
"Oh no, you remember Jazz? That cop down in DC?" Oh yes – Hector remembered Jazz. He remembered her very, very, very well.
"Well Jazz ain't got nothin' on this chick." Hector found that hard to believe. Jazz was a no nonsense straight-blunt don't-fuck-with-me kind of girl. Hector had watched her level no less than three full grown men in five seconds with her words alone. He had a hard time imagining anybody breaking that record.
"Dude, three guys quit after three seconds. And then I lost two more when she opened her mouth."
Hector's eyebrows skyrocketed as they reached the field.
"Where is she, man? This I gotta see."
"Over there," Rodriguez stated, pointing towards one of the side tents. "And have fun. She's your problem now – I'm taking my lunch and I ain't coming back. You deal with her."
Hector watched Rod leave with a shake of his head before turning his attention back to the ball buster, his heart giving an erratic beat in his chest as he started forward.
She pressed a hand against her chest as her heart thumped in her chest, her breathing shallow as she skin flushed and that damn noise filled her skull once more.
"Shut up," she muttered, pressing her water bottle against her chest and fighting back a grown when her heart refused to listen.
Over the pounding her heartbeat she heard footsteps approaching and she turned towards them, eager for a distraction only to stop completely short as the man came to a stop in front of her.
"Hello," he greeted with a polite nod of his head and an outstretched hand. "I'm Sergeant First Class Hector Williams."
"Kate," she greeted, completely dumbstruck as she reached out and touched his hand. She had a moment to marvel at the warmth of his skin right before everything went dark. The last thing she saw before consciousness completely escaped her was Hector's surprised eyes, staring from the ground right next to her.