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Safety in Numbers

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As far as Chloe’s concerned, having her quaint, cozy little apartment—located in a quieter spot on the south side of London’s far-reaching urban sprawl—gifted with the distinct privilege of being firebombed to bits and then posthumously shot up in a haze of bullets is, objectively, the best thing that’s happened to her in months.

Now, hear her out.

First off, it’s not like she dies or anything from the aforementioned fiery explosion or subsequent rattling hail of gunfire. Luckily for her, she isn’t actually inside the apartment when it happens, see. Whoever has it in for her’s got some pretty unfortunate (for them, not for her) timing, and Chloe is merely in the outer hallway, rifling through her coat pockets for her apartment keys with one hand and playing distractedly on her phone with the other, mid-text with her business partner, Nadine Ross, about tentative plans for their next job, when everything, well… When everything goes to hell, or just about.

Secondly, nobody else dies or gets hurt in the blast, thankfully, since Chloe has no neighbors on either side or above—the building she lives in is old and secluded, hidden far from London’s heart. The empty, struggling coffee shop a few floors below probably felt it, tables or chairs knocked over and whatnot, maybe a shelf or two of supplies lost to the sprinklers, or to the aggressively growing flames before the authorities arrived. Chloe hopes they have insurance. It’s late, too, when it happens, nearly midnight—literally nobody else is there in the building. Just Chloe, narrowly missing getting herself exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces.

And, third of all, Chloe’s always considered herself an immaterial sort of person. In that, the things that matter to her most aren’t physical. She’s a free spirit, untethered by earthly possessions. ‘Course, that’s before she actually sees her ‘earthly possessions’ burning up right in bloody front of her. Still, to her relief, the most important of her belongings are with her, at the moment—her precious little figure of the Hindu god Ganesh, her one and only memento of her late father, is safe and sound in her front jeans pocket, and, as previously mentioned, her phone, filled with priceless photos, emails, text messages, research, you name it, is quite literally at hand.

There’s no warning at all, when it happens. Not even a noise—or maybe it’s just so loud, Chloe’s brain fails to compute it into actual sound. One moment, Chloe’s grinning down at her phone, thumb tapping across the screen as her writes, her other hand groping about in her coat pocket, seizing her keyset with a muted jingle. The next, she feels a sudden rush of air against her face and looks up just in time to see her front door flying out at her, blown right off its hinges from the force of the blast, which Chloe later guesses was from a detonated charge either tossed through her bedroom window moments before her arrival, or planted earlier that day. Neither option is favorable, though Chloe considers the second a bit creepier than the first.

Her front door—a solid thing, not aluminum or glass but solid hardwood—hits her head-on, bashing her left cheek and ribs and knees hard enough to make her shout, and (at the very least) spraining the wrist she instinctively raises in the way, as if to stop it—like that was going to help any. Sends her slamming to the opposite wall of the hallway in a dazed heap, her back and shoulderblades screaming in pain from the impact, her skull making an audible THUD as it rebounds against the paneling.

Chloe doesn’t pass out, then, but it’s a near thing. Her vision swims. Her body sags. Something tickles her upper lip—her nose is bleeding. It might be broken. Nadine’s punch, back in India—this is like a dozen of them, all at once. More. She can’t even push the door off of herself, the weight of the old hardwood smothering and hot, but that’s fine, since a split second later it protects her from the roiling wave of flames belching from her open doorway that follows the initial explosion.

Again, none of this is why it’s the best thing that’s happened to her. But she’s getting there. Be patient.

So.

To recap, she’s not dead but a little banged up, alone in a building with nobody else in harm’s way—which, honestly, if this were to happen to her (nevermind that it is currently happening), is exactly how she’d want it to be, with only herself at risk—all of her earthly possessions on fire or blown to smithereens, and the dull, distressingly familiar ache of a concussion rising behind her eyes.

Not exactly the best situation she’s ever been in, but not the worst, either. She is Chloe Frazer, after all.

Instinct takes over. Fighting through the soupy fog that’s descended over her brain, she goes through a mental checklist of her injuries—nothing life-threatening, though the wrist will slow her down and her knees are aching something awful, which will make running difficult—and makes the obvious deliberation that someone’s just tried and failed to kill her. Which, you know, has happened before, a few times. Nothing new, there.

First time someone’s actually targeted her home, though, and ruined all her things. Ah, well. Rent was getting a little high, anyways.

It takes her a minute, but Chloe manages to collect herself enough to wriggle her way out from beneath her now-broken-in-half front door, and then just sits there in the hallway for a moment on her knees, slumped against the far wall, staring at her flame-filled doorway. She can’t even tell what’s what anymore. Is that her fridge or her stove, over there? That bit there looks like her kitchen table, but she’s not sure. The twisted mass of metal across from it, she hasn’t the faintest.

For about half a second, she’s tempted to dive in there and grab at least some of her things. A spare shirt, at least. Or, underwear. Maybe her work laptop, too. Surely not everything’s on fire just yet. Dazedly, she glances about, and spots her phone, where it’s been knocked from her hand and skittered under some debris. She crawls over to it. Swears. The screen’s cracked to hell from the blast, but, miraculously, it powers on, somehow still functional. Thank god.

As well as she can with a shattered screen—which isn’t very well at all—she sends a single text to Nadine.

SOS

She’s waiting for the confirmation of its delivery when the bullets come.

Distantly, she hears the familiar popping, like fireworks from a neighbor, then the high-pitched whine of bullets pinging off her rapidly flame-engulfed furniture and appliances. As if whoever is responsible for this mess isn’t entirely confident in their ability to render her life inoperable.

Chloe’s already half-deaf from the explosion, but she can tell the guns are being fired from outside the building; probably, if she had to guess, from the rooftop next door, which is just about level to the windows of her apartment. Someone really, really wants her dead, it seems. How flattering.

Her broken door serves as a decent blockade, so she ducks (falls) back behind it until the bullets stop, which, thankfully, isn’t terribly long, as the hallway is rapidly filling with a noxious black smoke and the flames are creeping across the carpeted flooring a bit too close than Chloe would prefer.

She checks her phone for the time, squints at the broken screen. It’s been about three minutes in all since her apartment blew. Already, she can hear the piercing beginnings of a fire siren wailing a few blocks away. She needs to go. Where exactly, she’s not sure yet, but away from here. Answering questions all throughout the night at the nearest precinct and potentially being locked up for talking back to police officers is not her idea of a nice evening, second only to oh, maybe, getting her bloody apartment blown up.

She leaves, hobbling her way down to the ground floor, wary of an ambush in the rain-slicked alleyway, wishing for a pistol she’s never gotten into the habit of keeping on her person. Nadine’s going to kill her, if whoever’s got such a rotten grudge on her doesn’t get there first.

After a moment’s consideration, she decides not to go to her car, parked nearby in an underground garage. The chances of it similarly being rigged for explosion or simply monitored by her newfound enemies are high. Still, leaving the poor thing behind—her baby, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter—almost physically hurts to do, but she can’t risk it.

Her clothes are soot-stained and singed, her hair in disarray, blood still dripping from her nose and split brow, face tight and no doubt bruised and puffy from the impact of the door, but it’s still London, so catching a taxi isn’t particularly hard. The driver doesn’t comment, just follows Chloe’s directions across town to a decrepit, hole-in-the-wall motel probably nobody’s ever heard of, where, for the past few months, she’s been paying with cash to anonymously rent a dirt-cheap unoccupied room. A bug-out room, Nadine calls it. She’s the one who made Chloe get it. Just in case, she said. Chloe’s never seen the need before. Only did it so her partner would stop bothering her about it. How many years in the business, and none of her enemies have ever been bold enough to come after her in public?

Until today, that is. Figures.

She’s grateful for it now, the room, pathetically so, especially once she remembers the first aid kit stashed under the bed, the extra passport and IDs slipped under the rug, and the compact pistol she’s hidden in the bathroom.

Operating on pure instinct, she arms herself the moment she enters the room, then begins tending to her injuries, which seem to be mostly comprised of bumps, scratches, and lots of bruising. The split on her left brow needs a butterfly bandage to hold it closed. She puts two, just to be safe. Then she finds a light brace for her wrist, puts it on. She can move her hand and all her fingers, so it’s not broken, but might be fractured. Lingering adrenaline helps with the pain, but she knows it won’t last forever, and downs some pills for posterity.

Afterwards, she collapses on the nearest flat surface and tries to figure out what to do next, which is hard, what with her skull heavy with a concussive squeeze and throbbing painfully to the beat of her still-racing heart. She can’t sleep, she reminds herself. Not right away, not with this concussion. Shit.

First and foremost, she decides, she will not put anyone else at risk concerning this… attack. This is her problem, clearly. Whoever bombarded her apartment has an issue with her alone, making it personal, and that’s how she’ll solve it. Which means Nadine’s out, as well as any other friends—Nate, Cutter, all of them—or business acquaintances she has in her lengthy list of contacts.

Still, she can’t plot out an adequate rebuttal to her anonymous attacker(s) here. The room is bare bones, lacking even a strong wifi signal. She’ll have to move, eventually, and to a place where she will have the advantage, the proverbial high ground. But, where to?

Not Nate’s, that’s for sure. Out of the question, really. Way too dangerous, especially with his family around. Chloe won’t put Elena or Cassie in harm’s way for anything. She does send him a quick text about the situation—she leaves out the explosion and gunfire and near-death parts because he doesn’t really need to know that, and simply warns him to take precautions in his next few jobs, because who knows how big of a bloody grudge this unknown assailant has with her. Is it just Chloe who’s gotten on their bad side, or do they want a piece of everyone who’s ever been involved with her, professionally or otherwise? Chloe prefers to err on the side of caution, here.

Sam might be an option for temporary shelter if she trusted him more, or if he could stay in one place longer than a week at a time (he can’t, jumping from rumor to rumor and treasure hunt to treasure hunt, more often than not ending up down on his luck than anything). Another realistic option is Sully, but, well, Chloe doesn’t want to give the poor guy a heart attack. Been through enough, him. If someone’s going to pull the old man out of his well-earned retirement, it sure won’t be Chloe and her problems.

She scrolls through the rest of her mental contact list, discarding them one by one. She may have lots of casual friends who could put her up for a night or two, or have places she could hunker down in ‘til this blows over, but, when it comes down to it, can she really say for sure that any of them aren’t involved with this or not? She trusts some of them, but none to such a degree as complete loyalty. Besides, most of them are based here in London, and Chloe gets the feeling she’s going to have to get as far away from here as possible, and soon.

What should she do, then? Run back home to mum? Ha! Australia’s big, sure, with plenty of places for Chloe to lay low for a while, but if whoever’s after her finds out where her mum lives and get it in their head to go after her, too, Chloe will never, ever forgive herself. Plus, she’s given her mum enough trouble over the years, mostly through her teens. Like Sully, Chloe would rather not give the woman a heart attack.

Not that she’s entirely out of options. She could go on the lamb alone, find a hovel or an empty warehouse in the middle of nowhere and just wait it out. Everyone gets tired of searching for something or someone after a while, don’t they? Revenge is best served cold, as they say, but Chloe’s willing to wait until it’s lukewarm, or room temperature. She can be patient, if she has to be.

Jesus, her head aches. Her ribs twinge with every stuttered breath she takes. Her wrist is swollen and tender. She feels like… well, like she’s just taken a door to the face. With a groan, she sits up, covers her eyes with her good hand, and tries to decide what to do next.

The decision, turns out, doesn’t end up being hers to make.

 

 

Something like thirteen hours have passed since the incident. It’s now past noon of the next day, and Chloe has not left her bug-out room. She’s wired and tense, drinking shitty k-cup coffees nonstop from the machine in her room to stave off the need to sleep, eating stale granola bars she stashed months ago in one of the nightstand drawers, feeling terribly vulnerable in her one poorly furnished room and growing more paranoid by the second. It’s hit her, only in the past few hours, the reality of the situation; that someone has actively attempted to kill her. ‘Course, she’s gone through many people trying to kill her over the course of her life—her line of business calls for it, really—but this time, it seems different. Intimately so.

She spends the hours in an exhausted daze, pecking around on her phone for leads until her battery dies around 6AM, then watches television in a fugue state, and sneers at the news coverage of her apartment’s explosion, which is reported as being caused by a, quote-unquote, gas leak. Right.

Every time she thinks she’s ready to head out the door, to get started on her half-baked plan to find out the identity of her would-be assassins, to create a scenario for a counterattack, her infamous bravado quails, and she stays put, as if frozen in place by her own trepidation. Nothing she does can dispel it. She’s not sure why.

Tailing the cloud of growing uncertainty is another feeling, which is harder to explain. She feels almost as though she’s waiting for something, but isn’t sure exactly what. There is an palpable energy in the air. A crackling force. She can feel it. Taste it. It feels like… inevitability.

At 1:08PM, there is a firm knock on her room door.

Chloe goes still when she hears it, and stares at the door from where she’s been pacing the stained, cigarette-burned rug for almost an hour. Only later will she realize she is not afraid nor surprised by the sound in the least. As if maybe she were expecting it.

It occurs to her, just then, in a faraway portion of her brain, that while just over thirteen hours have passed since the incident at her apartment, thirteen hours is also roughly the amount of time it takes for a non-stop flight from South Africa to London if one were to, say, immediately get on a plane right after Chloe sent her text, late last night.

"Frazer,” comes a stern, muffled voice, confirming Chloe’s suspicions, and for the first time since her front door came flying out at her in a halo of fire and ash and caught her ‘cross the face, Chloe breathes. “Open up. Now.”

And, well, Chloe sort of has to, at this point.

Nadine Ross strides in with an underlying fury radiating throughout her stiff form, face hard and grim. She does not look like she’s been on a plane for over twelve hours. Her clothes are pristine. Her hair is pulled smartly back. Her eyes are bright and clear and focused, snapping around the room with a lethal alertness, checking for hidden threats. Finished, she turns to Chloe, gives her a quick but thorough up-and-down to assess how much damage she’s taken, then growls out, “Get your things. We’re leaving.”

"Er,” says Chloe, because she’s a bit loopy from all the caffeine and her head is still pounding. “Leaving…?”

"You’re coming with me.”

Chloe tries to protest. Like she said before, she does not want anyone else involved in this. It’s her mess, she’ll pick it up. That’s how it’s always been for her. “I—”

"Now!” Nadine thunders, and Chloe jumps despite herself. Jesus, that tone. In a different setting, it would turn her knees to mush.

In seconds, she ready; she picks up her busted phone, the extra Passport and IDs, and then grabs her sooty jacket from where she’d thrown it earlier on the bed. “This is all I have.”

Nadine takes that in, her face going through several stages of varying emotion—anger, mostly. She swallows it down and steps up to Chloe, removing the gun at her hip with finality and tossing it on the bed. “Leave that. We’ll get you some things at the airport.”

Airport? Again, Chloe puts up a fight, but it’s like a sleepy child arguing with a strict parent. “Nadine, listen, you don’t—”

"Be quiet.” Nadine opens the door, looks up and down the hallway, then holds it open for Chloe. “Let’s go.”

Chloe goes.

It’s a tense ride in a cab to the airport. Nadine doesn’t speak, just glares out the window at everything and everyone as though the power of her gaze alone can drop people dead where they stand. Chloe closes her eyes and tries to get ahold of her headache. She feels awful. Like she’s been run over. Yet, with her partner sitting here, next to her… They’re not touching or anything—Nadine’s arms crossed rigidly over her chest, Chloe’s folded protectively in her lap around her dead phone—yet she still feels safer, somehow, just by her being there.

“Where are we going?” Chloe asks, once they get to the airport, because she’d sort of like to know where she’s being ferried off to so vehemently.

“My place,” Nadine replies gruffly.

Chloe’s a bit taken aback. She’s never been to South Africa, and certainly never to Nadine’s apartment. She knows of it—has seen it in flashes during their random video chats or in pictures—but the idea of going there, of witnessing her partner’s inner sanctum, as it were, is sort of… intimidating? Which makes no sense. Chloe Frazer doesn’t do intimidating.

“But—” she starts. Nadine’s not having it. She fixes Chloe with a furious look which seems to say, Would you just be goddamned quiet and let me do my job?

Chloe’s jaw clacks shut and she backs off. That Nadine seems to think it’s her duty to protect her is a little flattering, though, in her opinion, unnecessary. She can take care of herself. Nadine seems resolute, though, like she believes that clearly no one else is as competent or capable as her when it comes to making sure her partner is unharmed.

Not that Chloe’s complaining about any of this, really. She gets it. The whole, safety in numbers deal. And, really, this is sort of great. Nadine’s place? Sure. They’re going to be roommates, technically. She’ll see a side of Nadine she’s only imagined. An intimacy she’s dreamed of. So many questions will be answered. Does the infallible Ross sleep? Floss? Do her dishes?

Suddenly, having someone after her life is almost an afterthought, at this point.

Nadine finagles their tickets without much fuss, handing over more money than Chloe is comfortable with—she’ll pay her back, once she’s able to get all her things replaced, like credit cards and the like—and after security and while they wait for their flight to board, Nadine brings her to a terminal shop and buys her a new change of clothing. Chloe swaps them in the bathroom, checks herself quick in the mirror. She looks like hell. Like someone beat her up—her left brow and cheekbone aren’t terribly swollen anymore, but have turned a dark, ugly purple. The split is crusted with dark blood. Jesus. No wonder people are staring. To hide at least some of it, she slides a pair of cheap sunglasses Nadine insisted upon up her tender nose, mentally thanking her partner’s ingenuity. She tosses the partially-charred, soot-smelling shirt, pants, and underthings in the wastebasket on the way out. Her skin still feels grimy, her hair greasy, but it’ll have to do for now.

They walk to their gate, Chloe the slightest bit unsteady with fatigue, Nadine hovering only inches away, like some sort of overly-enthusiastic bodyguard. She makes Chloe sit while they wait to board, and spends the entire time glowering at anyone who so much as breathes in their direction. Chloe would love it if she weren’t so out of it.

Finally, their plane is called, and they file on. Nadine, for her part, seems ready to personally fistfight the flight staff once it becomes apparent there’s a snafu in the seating and she and Chloe will not be sitting next to each other. Chloe blames the last minute tickets and harried airport staff. Nadine’s seat is midway up, in Business Class. Chloe’s is in Economy, a polite term for Coach, in the very back of the plane, second to last row.

Chloe sighs. She dislikes flying in general, preferring to be in control of her own vehicle for travel, but doesn't have the energy to care much, and resigns herself to a relatively uncomfortable 12 hours to South Africa—or, if she’s being honest, a downright miserable 12 hours, if her seatmate is especially chatty.

She finds her seat easily enough, Nadine walking her there with an unnecessary but appreciated protective hand on her elbow. By the window is an elderly woman already nose-deep in a sappy romance novel. Chloe sits beside her without fuss, then glances up at Nadine, still hovering nearby, a look of acute distress on her partner’s usually stoic face.

“Ma’am?” says a nearby flight attendant, and Nadine stiffens.

Before her partner can do something stupid like demand the seating assigment be changed and get herself thrown off the goddamn plane, Chloe quickly turns to her seatmate and says in a loud voice, “Sorry, can my girlfriend sit with me? I’m terrified of flying and it makes me feel better when she holds my hand. You can have her seat. It’s closer to the front.”

Nadine’s face pinches at the public announcement but she wisely stays silent. The old woman looks doubtfully between them—the flight attendant goes a little red and pretends to help someone with their carry-on—then shrugs and gives a reedy, “No problem, dearie” before slowly vacating her seat and tottering off toward the front of the plane.

Chloe grins and scoots over so she can have the window seat. She’s not looking forward to the flight, but, like the cab ride here, as soon as Nadine drops into the seat next to her, she feels a bit better. Safer. She…

Shit. Just like that, her head is already drooping. She barely catches herself from bonking her nose on the window.

“Alright?” says Nadine. At least she doesn’t laugh. With obvious care, she reaches over and takes the sunglasses off Chloe’s face. Her expression goes blank at the sight of Chloe’s bruises.

Chloe looks away, rubs her eyes with a wince. “Um. Yeah. I haven’t slept since…” She pauses. “I think I might have a concussion, so I didn’t want to—”

Nadine takes her by the chin and turns her face up, then leans in—so close their noses are only inches away, so close Chloe can smell her clean-scented breath, so close Chloe’s heart abruptly leaps into her throat—and looks deep into her eyes. Just as suddenly, she releases her and leans back.

“Your eyes aren’t dilated, and you’re holding a conversation,” Nadine states with conviction. “You also didn’t have any trouble walking earlier. You can sleep.”

"...Oh,” says Chloe in a small voice. She didn’t know that. Hadn’t the rule always been, don’t sleep after a concussion? Immediately, she yawns. Sleep sounds great, right about now.

"You must be tired,” Nadine says, stating the complete obvious as the steady thrum of the plane around them becomes a loud rumble as the engines begin to power up.

"Mm,” says Chloe. Her head sways. This time, she really does bonk her nose against the window. “Ow!”

"Eish.” Nadine glances around the plane, as if checking for any last minute threats, and then proffers her shoulder for Chloe’s personal use. “Here. Try to get some sleep.”

"Just a little,” Chloe protests, angling herself toward her partner and resting her unbruised cheek on Nadine’s firm shoulder. A nap, that’s what she’ll have. Just a short nap. Then she’ll be ready to plan their counterattack, which, now that Nadine is involved, will no doubt be wildly successful.

Then her eyes are closed and she’s out.

 

 

A while later, she rouses. Awareness comes back in a crawl. Her mouth is dry. Her back is stiff. Her face is pressed against something firm but warm and smells faintly familiar. Her lower lip is wet, so she might be drooling a little, but she’s not entirely sure. She’s not in her own bed, that much is for certain, because her own bed was blasted to pieces, and her apartment is gone now, up in flames, and—

She startles, jerking upright. Her heart is suddenly pounding.

"Easy, Frazer,” says Nadine, who is still sitting next to her, fingers laced in her lap, looking as calm and focused as ever. The plane around them in bustling. People are unbuckling their belts and standing like, like they’ve landed, or—

"Are… Are we here already?” Chloe asks incredulously. Did she really just sleep through the entire twelve hour plane ride? Jesus. She must’ve been more tired than she realized. It was supposed to be a nap! And how the hell is she still so tired?

Nadine affords her the tiniest of lip quirks. It can’t quite be called a smile. “Sleep well?”

"I guess.” Chloe groans, tries to stretch and winces. Everything hurts. She feels like one big bruise. She puts her sunglasses back on, then shoves at Nadine’s legs. “Move. I have to pee so bad.”

Once she’s finished, they join the rush of travelers off the plane. Someone accidently bumps Chloe with their carry-on—they say a quick “sorry” politely enough but Nadine still gives them a soul-searing glare—and afterwards, Nadine stands closer to Chloe than before, guiding her down the aisle with a firm hand on the small of her back that doesn’t leave after unboarding or even before they reach the parking garage. Chloe knows she’s being spoiled and absolutely loves it.

They find Nadine’s car with little trouble, a sleek, sexy-looking Toyota Rav4 Limited, black. Chloe is tempted to see if her partner will let her drive it, but doesn’t make any fuss when Nadine commands her to get in the passenger seat, then hands over her own cellphone to play with as some sort of consolation. Chloe’s is still dead, so she takes Nadine’s happily enough, flicking through London news sites to see if there have been any more unexplained apartments exploding. Maybe she was just a random victim in a string of a dozen.

(There aren’t, and she isn’t.)

They leave the parking garage and enter heavy traffic almost at once as Nadine navigates clogged city streets to the freeway. It’s dark out. Late. The time on Nadine’s phone is past 3AM, but the city lights are bright and plentiful. Chloe puts her window down, looks around. Even so early in the morning, it’s hot, here in South Africa. Much warmer than London. She can smell the sea.

“Where are we?” she asks, curious, and opens GPS maps on the phone, pinching and zooming at the screen.

“Cape Town.”

"Cape Town?” Chloe repeats, incredulous. How on earth did she not know her partner’s apartment was in Cape Town? “I thought you were in Johannesburg.”

“I was. Shoreline was based there. It’s where I grew up. But I wanted some fresh air.”

"Ah.” Understandable. Chloe glances at her borrowed phone, poking around on the map. “...Nothing to do with the nature preserve and monkey park an hour down the road, right?”

Nadine snorts lightly. Chloe counts it as a laugh.

Half an hour later, they arrive at what Chloe guesses is Nadine’s place, though it takes her a minute, because really, it’s an enormous dark warehouse surrounded by about twenty others of identical design. Nadine hits a button on her visor and drives into the opening doors of a double-size garage. She closes it after them, then gets out and leads Chloe to a side stairwell and tramps up to the second floor, unlocking her front door—a massive slab of metal, meant to slide to the side on wheels like a bloody barn door—with no less than three sets of keys and a keycode. Nadine makes Chloe watch her put the code in, just in case.

Finally, the door is open, and Nadine ushers Chloe inside, closing up after them with a hollow clang! and a metallic whirring of locks. Chloe whistles, impressed. Trust a former Shoreline head to know how to keep something safe and protected. Maybe a little over the top, all this, but if anything, it’s damn well secure. More secure than Chloe’s old place, at least.

Nadine’s flat, Chloe takes in a moment later as her partner flicks the lights on, is bigger than she expected, though still somehow low-key, if that makes sense. It’s big, furnished as a kind of studio apartment, with everything scattered about in a single, enormous room, warehouse windows—the glass thicker than normal, making it bulletproof, surely—stretching lengthwise on either side. Seriously, it’s so big Chloe could do laps in it—might have to, since, the second they’re inside, Nadine announces:

"You’re not to leave this apartment until we find out who put the hit on you. Stay away from the windows. Stay off your phone. Don’t contact anyone until you run it by me, first. Understand?”

Chloe scoffs, a little overwhelmed. For now, she settles on her first protest—the others will come later. “Whoever put a—a hit on me? You really think that’s what this is?” That they might be dealing with trained professionals as opposed to a bully with a grudge is not something she wants to acknowledge. Really, what did she do to deserve this?

"I won’t leave anything to chance,” says Nadine.

"Now, look—” Chloe starts, then hears a soft mrawr and feels something bump her ankle. Startled, she looks down to find a sleek tri-colored cat rubbing its brown-and-black speckled head on her booted feet in greeting.

"You have a cat?” she asks in shock.

"Ja,” says Nadine, throwing her keys in a bowl by the door and striding further into her apartment, removing her light jacket along the way. By the looks of it, her partner left her place in a hurry, and now starts to pick up, putting dirty dishes left on the table with food still on them into the sink and then hefting and moving several heavy-looking duffel bags to the side with ease, the muscles in her arms bulging. Chloe allows them to distract her for a moment before returning her attention to the cat, who is now threading itself between her calves, tail straight upright and curled at the tip.

“How did I not know this about you?” she wonders aloud.

Across the room, Nadine harrumphs. “Never asked.”

“What’s his name?”

"Her name is Poeksie.”

Chloe guffaws, delighted. Nadine studiosly ignores her, intent on tidying up, though she’s pretty much done at this point, her place already far more immaculate than Chloe’s ever was. Chloe kneels to give the cat a perfunctory ear scratch, then watches surreptitiously as her partner lowers herself to the couch and, for the first time since she appeared in London to whisk Chloe away, closes her eyes and sighs.

Chloe looks away and feels a sharp pang of guilt. Nadine must be utterly exhausted. She’s taken two twelve hour flights in a little over twenty-four hours and probably has not slept at all for longer than that because of her. Not that Nadine will complain, of course—she never does. Not before, and not now. She just unties and takes off her boots one by one with slow, methodical movements, and then leans back on the couch and stretches her neck from side to side, a few soft pops hitting the air.

Poeksie quickly abandons Chloe and treads over to her owner. She stops between her splayed feet and gives an inquisitive-sounding mrrrrrp? then plunks her head down to the floor and rolls over onto her back in an acrobatic flourish, legs akimbo and furry belly bared in obvious invitation. Nadine’s weary face brightens slightly, and she obliges, leaning forward and reaching down to give her cat some loving attention, making soft noises in the back of her throat all the while. Chloe practically implodes. Really, just when she thinks her partner can’t get any more adorable.

"What?” says Nadine, when she notices Chloe staring, though she doesn’t stop petting Poeksie. Chloe can hear her purring from the door. Probably, Chloe would purr too, if Nadine were petting her like that.

"Nothing,” Chloe lies. “Just pegged you as more of a dog person, I guess.”

Nadine sighs again. “If I was around more, sure. Cats are better at taking caring of themselves. Don’t have to worry so much about her when I’m away. Or if I am, my mother can come feed her.” Before Chloe can pester her further about that—Nadine’s mother lives around here, too? Chloe’s never met her—Nadine stands, as though speaking about her mother has suddenly reminded her of keeping good manners. “Here.”

She takes Chloe’s coat, rendered relatively unnecessary in the South African heat, and then walks her further into the apartment, pointing to different sections of the open layout as she goes. “Kitchen, here—” Nadine’s appliances are modern, functional black and steel, kept immaculately clean “—dining room—” her table is a solid slab of dark-stained wood, chairs tucked neatly to the sides “—living room—” a plush black couch and an enviably sized flatscreen television bolted to the wall “—my weight room—” an entire corner of the apartment dedicated to fitness, with a large rack of barbells, dumbbells, a weight bench, and a pull up bar “—the bathroom, over there—” just about the only room with walls for necessary privacy and, as Chloe gives it a cursory glance, what looks to be a stand-up, glass-doored shower, which she appreciates “—and bedroom.”

Chloe pauses. “Jesus. That’s your bed?”

It’s huge. A King-size, or whatever’s above that. A small continent, by the looks of it. Chloe’s always imagined Nadine slept on a piece of cardboard atop a boxspring, or maybe just a pile of bricks, if she did actually sleep at all. This is a nice surprise. Probably, it’s Nadine’s one indulgence in a life of hardship and military-esque discipline.

"Which side is mine?” she teases.

Nadine doesn’t bite. “Whichever you want. I’m on the cot.” She nods toward a tiny cot squashed in the far corner, by the stacked washer/dryer combo. It’s pathetically thin and just looking at it makes Chloe’s back twinge.

"Room for both of us in here,” Chloe presses, nodding back at the bed. “More than.”

Again, Nadine brushes her off. “I want to give you your space. Especially after what happened.”

Disappointed but not exactly surprised, Chloe kicks her boots off and under the bed and sits down to test the mattress out. It’s a bit firm but the sheets—black, naturally—are wonderfully soft and cool, and despite all the sleep she got on the plane, she suddenly feels ridiculously exhausted.

"Look,” she mumbles, rubbing at her aching face with both hands, wincing when she scuffs her tender bruise with her palm, “I know we should probably talk about what happened and I should have a shower and get checked by a—a doctor or whatever, but I’m bloody beat. Can I take a quick nap, and we can deal with all that when I get up?”

Nadine checks her watch. Chloe can guess it’s so late it’s early, approaching 4AM. “Give me your phone.”

Chloe finds it in her back pocket and hands it over.

“I’ll have the screen repaired and get it checked for any other damage,” Nadine says.

This touches Chloe almost as much as Nadine coming all the way to London to fetch her. Only her partner would know just how much something like her phone would matter to Chloe. “Thanks, china.”

Like a puppet with its strings cut, she lays back on the bed and melts. Nadine’s sheets are satin. It’s like heaven. She squirms until her head hits a pillow and turns the uninjured side of her face into it. Probably her hair and skin still reek of soot and smoke from the explosion a full day ago, but right now, Chloe can barely keep her eyes open. 

"Are you sore?” Nadine asks. Chloe groans in answer. “The second day is always worse.” Chloe groans louder. “Sorry. Just warning you. If you need to borrow more clothes, you can use some of mine. And I’ll show you the shower when you wake up.”

“Thanks,” Chloe mumbles, feeling her body go slack and heavy. “Nadine… Thank you.” Her words begin to slur. This is entirely different from the hotel room, the frantic pacing, the knotted pull in her stomach, the sick churn of shitty coffee in her guts. Nobody can hurt her, here. She isn’t afraid anymore. Nadine won’t let anything happen, she’s sure of it. She can finally relax.

She feels a warm palm delicately brush against her brow and smiles dopily up at her partner, hovering somewhere above. The worried look on Nadine’s strained face fades slightly.   

"Sleep,” Nadine commands, and Chloe obeys.

 

       

She wakes to the sounds of subdued exertion—harsh panting, muffled grunting. The soft, repetitive clank of metal on metal. It sounds, to Chloe, a bit like someone having some real fun, but when she lifts her head groggily and squints through the tangled curtain of her hair, she discovers it’s actually Nadine, over in her exercise corner, in the midst of working out—which, for Chloe, is basically just as good.

There’s a short moment of confusion as to exactly why Nadine is here in front of her, glistening with perspiration, dressed in a loose pair of mesh shorts and a sweat-drenched tank top, pumping what looks to be a staggeringly heavy-loaded barbell above her chest, again and again. Is Chloe still dreaming, maybe?

Then she remembers; she’s not in London anymore. Her apartment is gone, her things burned to ash. She’s in South Africa; Cape Town, to be exact, in Nadine’s apartment, because her partner got on a plane and traveled over eight thousand miles (twice!) and spirited her away without asking, all to sweep her from danger.

Lying there in bed, Chloe stays quiet. Watching Nadine exercise is inspiring in all the best ways. Her body is remarkable and terribly attractive. Her muscles aren’t simply for show, either, but for practical use, earned not through rote machine-work or supplements but by hard-earned experience out in the field, fighting tooth and nail beside mercenaries and Chloe herself.

Nadine doesn’t notice her staring, pumping the weights with single-minded focus. The barbell is so loaded down it almost seems to sag a bit on the sides. Near the end of the set, Nadine’s muscles flex and pull with just as much discipline as her first. The wideset windows along the sides of the apartment let in golden beams of sunlight to fill the cavernous space of the room around them, turning her partner’s skin to a shimmering golden-brown. Chloe can barely stop a warm flutter growing rapidly in her lower belly at the sight.

At last, Nadine racks the bar with a clang, then sits up from the weightbench and wipes her face with a stray towel, breathing harshly from her last set. Sweat drips down her neck. Chloe swallows reflexively, suddenly parched. Unaware, Nadine stands, giving her arms and chest a few quick stretches, then crosses over to her pull up bar. With seemingly little effort, she hops up, crosses her ankles, and hauls her chin up and over the bar in steady pulses. Her back swells impressively with every lift, straining against the damp material of her tank top. Her triceps pop and flex. Chloe feels herself start to sweat, too.

After thirty pull-ups—Chloe counts every single one as if her life depends on it—Nadine drops from the bar, wipes her chin with the back of her hand, and glances distractedly over toward the bed, as if just to reassure herself that Chloe is still there.

Their eyes meet. Nadine goes still for a moment, as though surprised to find her partner suddenly awake, then looks away nonchalantly, and continues over to her stack of hand dumbbells, where she seizes a pair, 10kg each.

“Morning,” she says, and then proceeds to complete a cycle of bicep curls, followed by shoulder flies.

Chloe grins back at her broadly, not feeling particularly guilty about being caught spying. “Morning,” she croaks back, still groggy but feeling much more rested than before. A digital clock on Nadine’s nightstand reads 11:43 AM. So, she hasn’t slept away the entire day, at least. “Didn’t miss anything too important, I hope?”

"I went out, earlier,” says Nadine, her voice not the slightest bit strained by her rigorous exercise. “Then—”

"Nadine, did you sleep at all?” Chloe protests. Contrary to popular belief, her partner is not a machine. Yet, here she is, exercising when she should be taking a proper rest.

"I’ll catch up on it tonight,” Nadine says flippantly.

Chloe tsks, but drops the subject. There is much more important things for her to be doing right now. Like admiring the rigid cut of Nadine’s deltoids.

A small shape jumps onto the bed and Chloe flinches—but it’s just Poeksie. The cat bats playfully at her toes a few times, hidden under the sheets—Chloe wiggles them enticingly for a laugh—and then jumps nimbly over her thighs to curls up by her stomach, purring faintly. With care, Chloe works an arm free of the sheets and reaches down to pat her with increasing pressure.

Nadine eyes them both with an unreadable expression on her face, then goes back to her workout. Chloe watches as long as she can, then finds herself falling back into a light doze, lulled by Poeksie’s thrumming purr. A bit later, she hears water running and then stop, and blinks her eyes open to see Nadine leaving her bathroom with her hair down and damp and her feet bare, wearing a soft white t-shirt and grey sweatpants.

Chloe starts, feeling a bit like the rug’s just been taken out from under her. She’s quite literally never seen Nadine in such casual clothes before, looking so entirely comfortable with herself. It’s not so much off-putting as it is incredibly endearing. She’s beautiful.

"Hi,” she says, feeling, for some odd reason, bashful.

Nadine doesn’t seem to notice her sudden discomfort, and holds out her hand. “Here.”

It’s Chloe’s phone, screen pristinely restored. Chloe could kiss her.

"Thanks, love.” She takes it, sits up. Or, tries to. She really is sore, she’s just beginning to notice, and is forced to move more gingerly than before. Her phone powers on without a problem.

"I had it checked for bugs, too, just in case,” says Nadine. “It’s clean. You can answer all those messages you have, so they can stop bothering me about it. I don’t need to remind you not to give up your exact location, ja?”

"Messages…?” Chloe notices then with widening eyes that she has about a hundred missed texts, calls, and voicemails waiting for her in her inbox. She blanches, and Nadine makes a sound of vague amusement at her expression.

It’s all from Nate, Elena, Sully, and Sam, as well as a few other friends and business acquaintances and the like. Figures they’d find out what happened. It was on the news and all. Not just that, but word of mouth spreads terribly fast in London.

Chloe sets about soothing the lot, though she can’t go into much further detail than, I’m alive, and, Someone blew my bloody place up. Any idea who? When Nate texts, Where are you Chloe? Are you really okay? she just sends back, Safe. And yes.

"Want something to eat, or do you want a shower first?” Nadine asks, a good twenty minutes later, once Chloe’s finished with the brunt of her messages.

Chloe thinks about it. She’s starving, sure, but undeniably filthy. “Shower,” she decides.

Nadine gets her a towel and some clothes and leads her to the bathroom, which is still damp and warm from her own turn. It smells strongly of the soap she’s always caught whiffs of off her partner’s clothes and hair, and Chloe immediately favors it. That she’ll smell the same in a few minutes is a nice thought.

"Let me know if you need help,” says Nadine, and then pauses, as though realizing exactly what she’s just said. Chloe’s eyebrow starts to climb, a wicked grin spreading across her face. Nadine ignores her and simply walks out of the bathroom, closing the door curtly after her.

Alone, Chloe takes in her surroundings. There’s a toilet, a glass-walled, stand-up shower, a sink, and a mirror, all clean and crisp in design, modern-cut. Simple. Efficient. She likes it. It’s very Nadine.

For a long moment, she regards herself in the mirror. The swelling on her face is down, but the bruise on her cheek is black now, like old blood. Her split brow is the same. Her lips are chapped. Her hair is a natural disaster. Her eyes are bleary. Her skin is washed out and pale. She looks, quite honestly, bloody awful.

A shower will help, though.

Then she tries to get undressed, and is immediately and brutally reminded of her present helplessness when she can’t even do that.

Nadine was right about being more sore the second day. Chloe’s back is tight as a wound-up spring. She can feel the muscles trembling, as if about to snap. Her wrist is not better, aching sharply as she rolls it back and forth. Just getting her hair untied is an ordeal. Unbuttoning her pants is a little easier, but she only gets them down to mid-thigh before she has to stop and abandon them for later.

By the time she moves on to her shirt, she’s sweating with the effort, teeth grit against the pain. Slowly, she draws one arm through the shirt sleeve and worms it downwards, out the bottom hem, then tries to work the shirt up and off from there, and, well—she gets stuck.

Shit.

She takes a breath, decides to just go for it. One movement, over her head, fast. Get it over with.

And she does do it, but at the cost of a wracking spasm across her back. She can’t help it—it hurts too badly—and, once the shirt’s up and over her head and whipped to the floor, she lets out a sharp, unconscious, “Shit!

It’s louder than she anticipates, the single word ringing off the bathroom tiles like a gunshot. She goes still, anticipating an angry Nadine to come storming in, demanding to know how she’s hurt herself after two minutes left alone. Ten seconds of silence go by, and she relaxes. Maybe she wasn’t heard.

So, back to business. Shirt’s off. Should she start on her bra, next, or work a bit more on the pants? Bra’s closer, doesn’t entail bending over. Less painful. Right-o. She tries—ow! Christ. Now Chloe wishes she’d had the foresight to get a front clasp (as if it were an option, shitty airport-store-bra that it is). There’s no way she can reach her arms behind herself to unhook it. Well, maybe if she’s careful she can twist it 'round to the front and—

There’s a knock on the bathroom door. Chloe jerks in surprise, hisses when her locked muscles protest.

“Alright in there, Frazer?” comes Nadine’s muffled voice, tinged low.

Normally, Chloe would go for some teasing, here. Why not? It’s her favorite thing to do, especially that she’s partially undressed and her partner is within shouting distance. That’s more than enough to go on. But the pain radiating down her torso sort of throws a damper on everything, including her infamous libido.

She attempts a teeth-gritted, “Fine?”

Obviously, Nadine doesn’t believe her. The shadow under the crack of the door doesn’t move. “Chloe. Do you need help?”

Week-ago-Chloe would die of joy right about now. Today-Chloe just… hurts. Maybe she does need some bloody help.

“Yeah, okay,” she grumbles, only halfway serious. Like her partner really will just—

The door opens and Nadine walks in. Chloe stiffens, a little taken aback that she actually did it. Nadine doesn’t blush, avert her gaze, or even appear flustered at her state of undress. In fact, Nadine looks —she doesn’t leer or anything, but her eyes do lower for a second, landing square on Chloe’s bra-clad breasts, and then politely return to her face. Nadine’s expression is unchanged. Chloe doesn’t know whether to be disappointed or aroused by her indifference.

Without fanfare, Nadine simply says in that firm, confident tone of hers, “Tell me what to do.”

And—Christ, really? Chloe thought she was being tortured before. This is just… borderline unbearable. She’s always imagined Nadine would be shy about this sort of stuff. You know. Intimacy. Her clear disregard is, to Chloe’s intense chagrin, more of turn on rather than the opposite.

“I can’t reach behind me,” Chloe gets out, hoping she doesn’t sound too breathless at the prospect of the other woman undressing her, all the while with that impassive look on her face.

“Turn around,” Nadine commands, so Chloe turns.

A tense, palpable silence enters the bathroom with them. The air goes thick and still. Chloe feels an anxious flutter. What…?

"Nadine—?” Chloe starts, then realizes what’s the matter. Nadine is seeing her back for the first time since the incident, and the no-doubt spectacular motley of dark-colored bruises splotched all across her shoulderblades and spine from the impact of the blast, when she shot across the hallway and bashed against the other wall.

Even with her back turned, Chloe can tell Nadine is angry. Furious, even. Not with her, but with whoever did this. She can feel the sheer menace teeming behind her and shivers when she hears Nadine take a long, steady breath, and then, at last, move again. There is a slight pressure on her spine as Nadine expertly undoes her bra with one hand. The fabric loosens across her chest. Before Chloe can attempt to reach up and remove it completely, Nadine curls her fingers under the limp straps at her shoulders and pulls them down and away, and suddenly Chloe is acutely aware that she is now standing half-naked in a bathroom with her partner, who she is very attracted to both physically and mentally, her skin drawing up into tight goosebumps and her nipples hardening despite the damp warmth lingering in the air.

"This too?” Nadine says, matter-of-factly, and it takes a minute for Chloe’s dazed brain to compute that she’s asking about the frumpy airport underwear she’s still wearing, and the jeans she’s only managed to get halfway to her knees. She nods dumbly—is she really this lucky?—and Nadine turns her around so they’re facing each other and then guides her backwards with a firm hand on her shoulder, ordering, “Here, lean on that.” Chloe’s arse hits the cold edge of the sink, and one arm flails against it, gripping the edge of the porcelain hard, needing at least one solid surface to keep herself tethered because—

—because then Nadine Ross is crouching down in front of her, so close that the gleaming, soft-looking curls of her loose hair brush across Chloe’s bare stomach and thighs. A warm, liquid, completely inappropriate thrill shoots up her spine.

This is not sexy, Chloe tells herself. You’re injured, and your business partner/friend is helping you. That’s all. Nothing else is happening. Do not get turned on.

She gets turned on.

First, Nadine lifts Chloe’s feet one at a time and takes off her socks. Then, she lifts her legs again, but with a palm on the back of her thigh now, so she can shimmy Chloe's jeans down and off one leg and then the other. Her knees are visibly bruised. Nadine frowns at that, then, without any visible trepidation at all, slides her thumbs into the sides of Chloe’s cheap, airport underwear and slides them off. Afterwards, she stands, inches away from Chloe’s very naked body, looking so far from flustered it’s almost cold.

"Thanks,” Chloe says, unable to keep the huskiness completely from her voice. Nadine’s nonchalance is making her want to squirm, imagining just how many naked woman she might have seen or personally undressed before to earn this level of apparent boredom.

Or maybe the woman is just really bloody straight.

Nadine doesn’t reply. Her eyes flicker a second time—so quickly Chloe almost doesn’t catch it, an up-and-down that covers Chloe from toes to crown, so yeah, not straight—and then she nods.

"Let me know if you need anymore help.”

Then she’s gone, and Chloe’s left alone and frustratingly worked up in the bathroom, heart thumping hard, tingling all over like she’s just been missed by a bolt of lightning.

Stepping into the shower, she wonders if it’d be terribly wrong to get herself off while Nadine’s just outside the door, probably with an ear perked to listen for Chloe’s next pained grunt. It’s better not to risk it, she decides, quite maturely. Besides, she’s gotten herself into enough trouble lately, hasn’t she?

Getting clean is glorious. Chloe’s not sure how long she stays in there, under the spray—definitely something close to a half hour—but Nadine doesn’t knock, or ask her to take it easy on the hot water, so Chloe washes her hair twice and then her body, slowly because of her back, the water hot enough to be almost painful. By the time she’s done, she’s pink all over and incredibly refreshed. Her back even feels a little better, and while she’s warm and loose, she does a few stretches to try and ease the soreness.   

Toweling off is a bit harder. She’s tempted to ask Nadine back in for help, but if she does that, she’ll need another shower, much colder than this one, so she does her best and then dresses in the clothes Nadine’s given her—a blue shirt too big in the sleeves and the neck along with underwear that fits well enough to function and a pair of sweatpants she has to pull the drawstring all the way to the ends of and tie in a knot to keep it there. There’s no way that airport bra’s going back on but it’s a sacrifice Chloe’s willing to make. She kicks it over to the hamper in the corner and leaves it there.

She exits the bathroom in a billowing cloud of steam, working the fluffy towel over the dripping ends of her just-combed hair. In the kitchen, Nadine glances over, looking vaguely pleased, and gives Chloe a more thorough once-over with a satisfied nod.

"Good?” she says.

"Very good,” Chloe purrs, feeling a bit more like herself than she has in the past twenty-four hours.

She notices, then, that the apartment smells utterly divine. And then that Nadine is in the kitchen because Nadine is cooking. As in, not just warming an MRE over an open flame, but genuinely cooking. Chopping vegetables. Stirring a pot on the stove. Rifling through some spice jars. Cooking. For her, presumably.

Jesus. If Chloe wasn’t in love with her before today, she would be at that very moment.

That, however, is a story for another time.

Her stomach growls. Loudly.

Nadine hears it, of course, and laughs. Her smile is beautiful.

"Can I help?” Chloe offers, trying to earn back a little dignity.

"Sit,” Nadine commands with that infallible tone of hers. Chloe finds herself sitting at the nearby dinner table before she can really consider it. Two plates with utensils have already been set out opposite each other, along with tall glasses of water. Chloe drinks hers in one go, suddenly quite thirsty, then tips half of Nadine’s into her now-empty glass and drinks that, too.

Nadine has a confidence in the kitchen that resembles her confidence in nearly everything else—handling weapons, making plans, strangling fully grown men barehanded. It’s beyond Chloe, who has lived much of her adult life depending on cheap takeout or quickly-grabbed snacks and ration bars for meals. Nadine doesn’t even follow a cook book or a recipe card, tending to her multiple pans in tandem with a practiced flair Chloe can only guess is from years of experience.

It’s almost as good as watching her work out.

Chloe gives up trying to help after her third rebuff, content with sitting there, chin on her fist, eyes half-lidded, as her partner skillfully cooks her lunch. It’s romantic, when she really thinks about it. They chat idly here and there, Chloe reading texts from Elena or Nate aloud or pointing out things in the apartment and asking about them. Nadine is amiable and open, and Chloe marvels at how comfortable her partner is here—and how at home she feels as well, with her.

Before long, the food is finished, and Nadine serves them both sizable portions. Chloe’s mouth is watering already. Her stomach is cramping, she’s so hungry.

"Now,” says Nadine, as she sits across from Chloe, who’s already face-first in her meal and groaning in appreciation from the taste, “You’re going to eat, and then after, I’m going to examine you. Make sure you’re ok. I should have done it last night. Or, as soon as I saw you in London.”

Chloe politely waits until she’s finished her tastebud-melting mouthful before answering. “M’alright, china, honest.” Then she shovels in another enormous forkful, manners be damned. She’s famished, and this is probably the best thing she’s eaten in weeks. No, months.

"Let me satisfy my curiosity,” presses Nadine with all sincerity. “Please.”

Chloe almost chokes. She’s not sure she’s heard that word from her partner before. And certainly never in that soft tone. “Ok,” she agrees.

Nadine lets her eat uninterrupted after that, taking modest forkfuls to Chloe’s heaping bites. It’s just so good, and she’s so hungry. She finishes her plate in record time, and without asking, Nadine stands and fetches her more. Chloe practically swoons, there in her seat. Woman after her own heart, this one. “I’m going to be five hundred pounds by the time I leave here,” she says as she takes her plate back. “That is, if you can even get me to leave.”

Nadine rolls her eyes, but doesn’t comment. Instead, she finishes her own lunch, waits until Chloe is done—the second plateful, she eats slowly, trying to relish it—and then clears the table and puts their dishes into the dishwasher, refusing Chloe’s help once again. Afterwards, she gives Chloe a stern look that says, Don’t you dare move, and goes off to find what she presumes is a medical kit of some sort.

The exam doesn’t take long, and is nowhere near as uncomfortable as Chloe imagined. Nadine simply checks her over, limb by limb, assessing damage and checking bumps and bruises with a hard expression that promises great pain to whoever caused such wounds. She agrees that Chloe’s wrist isn’t broken, just badly sprained, and finds a better brace for it, handing over some painkillers as well. Then she removes any bandaids left over from Chloe’s jittery attempts at wound-dressing that horrible night in the motel and re-treats and re-bandages everything.

The look on her face, the care she takes as she cleans the split on Chloe’s eyebrow, makes Chloe bite her lip so she doesn’t squeal about it.

"That’s going to scar,” Nadine says, her tone subdued.

"Didn’t know you were a doctor,” Chloe teases, to try and lighten the mood.

"Taken care of enough wounds in the field to qualify at least as a nurse,” Nadine jokes back.

Overall, it’s apparent Chloe’s come away from her ordeal ridiculously lucky. She has no burns and no broken bones, just some scrapes, bruises, a bad cut, and sore muscles. Nadine remedies the last with a warming balm she spreads over Chloe’s back that starts off cold and quickly grows hot. Chloe can’t help but moan at the soothing feel, nevermind that her partner’s hand is literally up her shirt.

If this is a dream, or if she really did die when her apartment got blasted to bits…  well, she’s not exactly about to complain.

 

 

For the rest of the day, they lay low. Or, Chloe does. Nadine is busy, making low-toned phone calls and clicking about on her laptop, reaching out to old contacts or mercenaries who’ve worked for her and parted amicably with during her time with Shoreline. Her conversations are short, to the point. Chloe’s not trying to listen in or anything, but she likes Nadine’s gruff, professional demeanor. The sheer command in her voice, like steel. Makes her feel safe, well cared for.

Nadine Ross is on the hunt, so to speak. She’s out for revenge, and isn’t about to be denied. It’s a fabulous look on her, in Chloe’s opinion.

Chloe spends her own time wasting hers. She plays on her phone, chats idly with Elena or Nate—again, can’t tell them where she is, just in case one of them is being secretly monitored, but they calm down once she starts pestering them like she usually does via text message. She checks through her photos, makes sure her phone has no lasting damage. Her massive gallery is intact. She adds to it throughout the day, snapping pictures of Nadine in various poses—unaware, peering intently at her laptop screen, brow furrowed in concentration; annoyed, phone to her ear, a thunderous frown on her face; begrudging, hands on her hips, a long-suffering, Really, Frazer? look on her face, glaring directly into the phone camera.

Eventually, once she notices just how restless (irritating?) Chloe is getting from sitting around, Nadine finds a second, older laptop, and hands it over, so Chloe can start her own investigation, which Chloe does with relish. The two of them, together, working on this, will have their culprit figured out in no time, she’s sure. At least, she hopes so.

Maybe she should take her time, then. Stretch her stay here a bit longer. Ha!

They break when Chloe gets hungry again, and eat a companionable supper together—the food from lunch, in Chloe’s opinion, make phenomenal leftovers. Nadine has the audacity to apologize for it, saying she’ll visit the market first thing tomorrow for more supplies. She starts a list of necessities, including some of Chloe’s favorites foods (which she’s seemingly remembered quite effortlessly without Chloe having to remind her) and other basic staples they’ll need while she’s here.

The rest of their evening is quiet, slow-paced. It’s… nice, Chloe thinks. To be here, with Nadine, despite the situation. She’s being spoiled rotten, she knows, but still. It’s not often she’s been able to get so close to her normally reclusive partner. The only time they spend so long in each other’s space is during jobs, and usually then, she’s too distracted to really appreciate it. And yes, they’d been growing closer lately, opening up to one another after the events in India, six months ago, but at a snail’s pace. This? This is a kick in the pants. A headfirst dive, arse-over-ankles. Not that Chloe minds.

Nadine, for the most part, is amicable enough about sharing her personal space, willingly or not. Throughout the day, she’s attentive, almost intimidatingly so. She’s on Chloe like glue, watching her with the intensity of a new mother in a playground full of strangers. Chloe can’t walk three feet without Nadine hovering nearby. All it takes is a pained grunt or maybe a quiet “ow” and then Nadine’s there, looking stern, not unlike a teacher who’s discovered her student is disobeying a direct command.

A girl could get used to it, really.

Around 11PM, Chloe’s eyes are growing heavy again, and she can see Nadine similarly winding down, closing lights, shutting off her laptop, brushing her teeth and washing her face. Nadine gives her an extra toothbrush which Chloe uses with care—her back cramping against the motion—and then Nadine watches attentively as Chloe slides herself into her landmass of a bed. Then she gets into her rickety little cot—really, where did she get the bloody thing, in the dumpster behind a military supply store?—says a soft, “Night,” that Chloe echoes, and then the apartment goes quiet but for the faint sound of traffic and the far-off blaring of tugboat horns at the docks.

As easily as she slept earlier that day, Chloe struggles to find a comfortable position now. Her back hurts badly, even with the painkillers. The soul-sucking exhaustion from the night before no longer smothers her senses to nothingness, and she keeps hearing tiny, unfamiliar sounds around the apartment and startling awake. She’s pretty sure it’s just Poeksie, darting about, but still. She’s tired, she wants to sleep, but—

"Chloe,” Nadine says suddenly into the quiet of the room, her voice hushed. “I—I didn’t say it earlier, but I’m glad you’re alright.” The high ceiling carries her voice well. It touches Chloe deeply, the words, makes her throat go a little tight. Can’t have that, though.

"Course I am,” she scoffs with all the bravado she can scrounge. “I’m Chloe Frazer. Chloe Frazer doesn’t get blown up.”

"Ja,” says Nadine fondly, a delicate warmth softening her tone. “Still. I…” Chloe waits for Nadine to finish. She does finish, but it’s just a quiet, “Good night.”

It goes silent again, but Chloe can feel the tension lingering. Can still hear the faint pitch of worry in Nadine’s voice. Unnecessary, Chloe decides. Her partner, as always, is overreacting. It wasn’t that bad, what happened to her. Plenty of people get almost blown up. Perhaps for her a bit more than average, but still. She’s fine. Nobody got hurt, and she’s safe now, so there’s absolutely nothing more to worry about.

Everything is fine.

'Course, that night, the nightmares come.

She dreams of fire and the scream of an explosion mere feet away and the whine and ping of barely-missed bullets. She feels the crush of the door smashing against her, the dazzling strike of it against her face, only this time it’s not just one big bang, it’s a constant, unstoppable pressure, and she can feel her ribs cracking under the force of it, the searing heat of the fire creeping round the edge of the splintered wood to leap onto her skin. Then she’s burning, too, only this time, there’s no one to save her, to take her away from the ceaseless agony. It doesn’t stop, just goes on and on and on until—

She wakes covered in sweat and shaking, bolt upright in Nadine’s bed. Her back is once again clenched in a tight fist of pain, her entire body quivering from the agony of it. She’s gasping. It hurts, but she throws the covers off and swings her legs over the side so she can sit on the edge of the mattress, hands clenched white-knuckle at the sheets by her thighs.

Get a hold of yourself, goddammit, she chides, concentrating furiously to stop herself from hyperventilating. How many gunfights have you been in throughout your life? How many bullets have clipped you, or actually hit you? How many bloody explosions, in all your jobs with Nate or Cutter or Nadine, have gone off inches away, and barely missed you? How many times have you nearly died? Why aren’t you bloody used to this by now? You’re fine. Fine. You. Are. Fine.

Still, she can’t stop the churning in her gut, the stutter of her heart in her chest. She couldn’t be in a safer place and yet she’s completely terrified. It makes no sense. She stands, walks over toward the couch, then changes her mind and instead approaches the bayside window. Outside, the sky is reddish-black, the urban gleam of Cape Town surrounding them blotting out the stars. She focuses on one of the lights and wrestles her gasps down to a more manageable rhythm.

Mrrrp?

Chloe jumps—but it’s just Poeksie. The little cat butts her head affectionately against Chloe’s bare ankle, and for some silly, stupid reason, that’s it, that’s what breaks her—she lets out a broken sob, swallowed immediately and then smothered beneath her palm.

She’s not quick enough, though. She hears a quiet inhale, and knows Nadine’s awake. Sure enough, her partner sits up immediately and calls out into the gloom of the room, “Chloe?”

Chloe collects herself as well she can—which isn’t very well at all. The words trip out of her mouth. “Yup. Sorry. I’m—I’m fine. Go back to sleep.”

Nadine, of course, does not go back to sleep. She gets up and walks directly toward her, shoulders tight, unerringly navigating her furniture in the dark. When she gets close enough Chloe flinches away—she doesn’t mean to, it just happens—and Nadine stops. Chloe realizes she’s started shaking and concentrates desperately on making herself stop. It doesn’t work.

“Chloe,” Nadine says, her voice soft and careful.

"I’m fine,” Chloe repeats. The tears are building thick in her throat. It feels like they’re going to choke her.

Nadine doesn’t reply to that. She seems like she’s waiting for something, so Chloe blurts out, again, “I’m fine. I am. I—I dunno what my bloody problem is, y’know? I’m here. I’m safe. Why—why am I being such a baby about this? Nothing even happened—”

"You had your apartment destroyed,” Nadine cuts in, gently. “You lost all your things. You could have died. That is not nothing.”

"Oh, please. I’m Chloe Frazer, love,” Chloe replies scornfully. “I’ve had attempts on my life at least once a month since I was twenty.”

“You’re allowed to be upset about what happened. You went through a trauma. You almost—”

"Stop saying that,” Chloe scoffs, her accent growing warbly and weak with a surge of emotion. “I did not almost die. I didn’t even get hurt. Not really.”

Nadine regards her for a moment. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t leave scars.”

Chloe hears that, and something inside her crumples. She opens her mouth, closes it, and then bursts into tears.

Her hands come up to cover her face. She tries to swallow the sobs back and can’t. Fingers press against her hip, as if asking permission, and she turns and folds into Nadine’s arms and just cries against her partner’s chest.

Really, it’s embarrassing more than anything, to fall apart like this, but Christ does it feel bloody good. Like letting an itchy wound swaddled too tight in bandages out into the open air, at last.

She wonders, idly, when was the last time she cried like this? Did—did she even cry in India? Like, really cry? Maybe a little, when she found out about her dad, or when Nadine joined her in the jeep on their way to certain death. But not like this. Nothing like this. Maybe this, here and now, is everything from India, too, finally released. No wonder she can’t hold it back. It’s grown too large for her to control anymore.

So she does the smart thing, and doesn’t try—she just lets herself go.

Nadine is solid against her. Warm. Real. Steady. She isn’t going anywhere. She’s careful, holding her, making sure not to put too much pressure on Chloe’s sore back, or to push the injured part of Chloe’s cheek too hard against her neck. Chloe cries her heart out and then sniffles the rest of her tears into Nadine’s damp shoulder, feeling pathetic and grateful and frightened and comforted all at once. Christ, she’s such a mess right now.

"Sorry for keeping you up,” she jokes, once all but the dregs are out, and tries for a laugh. It doesn’t come out so well, but Nadine doesn’t give her the fifth degree, or start asking why she’s so goddamn weepy, just gives her a sad, sympathetic look.

"Come on,” she says, and steers Chloe around. “Let’s get you back to bed, ja?”

Chloe lets her partner herd her about like a child ready to be tucked back in after seeing a monster under the bed. Nadine gets her settled, even holds the sheets open for her, then tucks it sweetly around her shoulders. Jesus, if she drops a kiss on Chloe’s forehead, she’s going to start crying all over again, she really will.

But Nadine doesn’t give her a kiss. She also, to Chloe’s surprise, does not return to her cot in the corner. Instead, she circles the bed, pulls down the sheets on the other side, and then climbs in beside her. Chloe, quite smartly, does not protest in the least.

Together, they lie on their backs and stare up at the dark ceiling above them in silence.

"Sorry,” Chloe says again after a minute, because she feels like she has to.

"Chloe,” Nadine says warningly. “You have nothing to be sorry for.”

"No, it’s just…”

Nadine waits, and, when Chloe doesn’t speak, prompts, “Just what?”

"Nothing.” Chloe huffs, frustrated with her inability to express herself. “Just… wish I could be more like you, y’know? Not scared of anything.”

It’s quiet for some time.

“I was scared,” says Nadine in a voice that is quiet but firm. “When I first found out what happened to you. When I saw that text you sent me and imagined the worst.”

A lump forms again in Chloe’s throat. She swallows thickly around it.

"I was scared on my flight to London,” Nadine continues. “Terrified. The whole way. Took the first plane I could. Might’ve threatened some people to get a seat, but I was desperate. I didn’t sleep at all, once we were up. I couldn’t. I was too afraid. Until I got to that motel and saw you.”

"...Well,” says Chloe, a little choked up again. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m peachy. Nothing to worry about.”

Nadine turns her head to regard her over the wide space of mattress between them. Even in the dark, her eyes are intense and filled with purpose.

"I’m going to find who did it,” she says, her voice cold steel. It’s not a promise, or a desire. It’s a sure thing. It’s the goddamn truth. “And I’m going to kill him. Him, and anyone else involved.”

It’s sort of a horrible promise to make—murder with a very possible side of purposely inflicted pain and/or torture—but it still makes Chloe’s heart flutter, the extremes Nadine is willing to go for her.

"Feel better already,” she jokes, and gingerly curls up on her side, facing her partner, who looks at her for a short moment of open affection before rolling away.

"Good night, Chloe,” Nadine says.

“Night, china,” Chloe replies. There’s a good deal of mattress between them in such a big bed, and really, it’s only a difference of about twenty feet from where Nadine had been sleeping before on that shitty little cot, and Chloe has the feeling Nadine isn’t much of a cuddler besides, but she still feels safer than she did five minutes ago. She falls asleep to the sound of her partner’s steady, even breathing, and this time, thankfully, she doesn’t dream at all.