Actions

Work Header

Safety in Numbers

Chapter Text

It gets easier after that.

After her... well, Chloe doesn’t want to call it an outburst or a breakdown even though it kind of was—after her… moment of indiscretion, Chloe eases slowly back into her old self over the course of the next few days, making sure to let herself have moments, here and there, when she feels off or scared or just a little jumpy. Because feeling that way, as Nadine had previously insisted, is okay, and perfectly understandable for someone of Chloe’s fortitude. Tries on her life, out there in the field during jobs, is entirely different from what happened to her a few days ago now. It was more personal. And much, much ruder.

Still, she and Nadine are working on a suitable response, together. It takes time, though—it’s quickly become apparent that whoever they’re up against is at least a semi-professional, and more than adequate at covering their tracks. Chloe doesn’t despair, and takes strength in her partner, in her unfailing support. They’re together in this, through thick and thin. Like India, Chloe doesn’t have to deal with it alone.

The nightmares stop. Chloe is thankful. As the days unfold, she gets herself into a routine of sorts, here at Nadine’s, though she is somewhat limited in her activities, as she is still forbidden from going outside. But, that’s fine—there’s plenty to do in here, once you know where to look.

Mornings, Chloe will sleep late, usually till about 9 or 10AM. If she’s lucky, she’ll wake to the sounds of Nadine exercising in her fitness corner—an area of the apartment which is quickly becoming Chloe’s favorite, the second being the kitchen. Chloe will grab a quick breakfast and then watch for a bit if she can, or take some well-posed pictures with her phone of her partner mid-flex or wonderfully sweat-gleamed. Nadine doesn’t seem to mind the audience, or, at least, doesn’t tell her to find something else to do. She just ignores her, single-minded in her exercise as she is in practically everything else.

Eventually, Chloe will get out of bed, and trade spots with Nadine for some tentative yoga—her back is getting better, as is her wrist, and the poses in the routine really help to stretch herself out. Every time she finishes a round, it hurts less. Once she feels satisfied, or she’s grown sufficiently sweaty enough, she has a nice long shower.

Afterwards she’ll read or play with Poeksie, and later, if Nadine lets her, she’ll help with lunch, which Nadine always cooks from scratch. Doesn’t matter what it is, either—it’s never anything but fabulous.

There’s even a day they have homemade pizza. Nadine lets her knead the dough for the crust, and it’s arguably the most fun Chloe’s had in a kitchen in years. It doesn’t turn out as good as the pizza they had with Meenu and Sam in India (Chloe suspects no meal will ever top that one, the warm feeling of victory and accomplishment swelling in her chest mixed with the delicious taste of oily cheese and tangy tomato sauce) but Chloe still practically proposes, right there at the dinner table.  

With lunch finished, the afternoons, for Chloe, are dedicated mostly to work. Whatever leads Nadine has drawn up in her own searches, Chloe will try to delve deeper into. Between the two of them, they have a large array of connections, and Chloe knows it will only be a matter of time before they find out who’s responsible for the untimely demise of her apartment. Their enemy is wily, but it only takes a single slip to fall—a name of a black market contact, a seller for the explosives used, gun merchants whose weapons were purchased for the attack. And someone will slip. They just have to wait.

And, well, waiting is hard for Chloe. She can do it, sure. She just doesn’t like it. Having Nadine around helps, as it’s easy for Chloe to be entertained, and her partner makes for a very good distraction to their situation. But, understandably, her partner has to duck out often. She has her own private connections to meet with and coordinate plans. The apartment is safe enough without her, Nadine assures. The warehouse lot has multiple security cameras and alarms, never mind Nadine's Fort Knox of a front door. It was, she explains, a necessity for survival when Shoreline forcefully exhumed her, more than half a year ago now.

Still, it’s boring without her. Chloe tries not to mope, but it’s true. There’s not much to do, just by her lonesome—or, in Chloe’s opinion, nothing fun, since her wrist and her back still hurt a bit too much for that. Plus, she has very little privacy here—sure, Nadine goes out, but she also returns at differing times—and Chloe’s not a quiet person when it comes to that sort of thing, so probably it’s best she just go strictly without for now.

Some evenings after Nadine has returned from the market or a meeting with some former employee or another, they watch movies. Nadine usually lets Chloe choose. She has a Netflix account, which Chloe is delighted to see is filled to bursting with queued-up animal documentaries and even more littering the watch history. Nadine rolls her eyes at the teasing, but Chloe insists on watching a choice few again just so her partner can start relaying facts about the animals alongside the host’s voice over. Once Chloe tires of that—it takes a while—they branch out, watching old favorites and finding new ones.  

(Poeksie, on her part, takes to her new roommate at once. She follows Chloe around the apartment constantly. Nadine seems a little irked that her cat prefers Chloe over her now, but doesn’t attempt to coax the animal back to her side. Chloe, meanwhile, is simply amused. She’s never been much of a pet person, but hey, this one’s pretty cute, and so is her owner. During evenings together on the couch, she plays with Poeksie’s fuzzy little ears, relishing the hearty purr she gets in response. Sometimes Poeksie will put her paws on Chloe’s thigh and knead away, claws pricking through the material of her pants, eyes closed in contentment. Chloe feels her heart melt a little bit, every time that happens.)

When it’s time for bed, Nadine doesn’t even attempt to use the cot anymore. Her and Chloe each have sides now, in her massive slab of a bed, and Chloe’s gotten used to the sound of her partner’s breathing and rustling around as she settles in. Sometimes, if sleep is elusive, they’ll talk a bit in the dark of random things. Things others might find fleeting or silly. Things Chloe’s never really talked about with anyone else, things she didn’t think anyone would care to hear about.

It’s, quite honestly, just about the most domestic situation Chloe Frazer has ever been in. Fifteen years ago, such a thing would have terrified her. Here and now, she finds she likes it, very much. In fact, she likes it enough to be concerned, which, in turn, spins right back around to terrifying, so go figure.

She prefers not to think about it too much—just follows her routine; sleeping, yoga, cooking, eating, working. She does her stretches, reads books on Nadine’s shelves, plays for hours on her phone, bothers her partner incessantly whenever she’s around. Christ, give her another week and Nadine just might be begging this fellow to come and put them both out of their misery.

And yet, Nadine is nothing but kind and accommodating as the days come and go. She isn’t guarded or cold. She’s unabashedly herself, whenever the two of them are alone. As a result, Chloe now knows little things about her partner she never would have learned otherwise—you know, if her place hadn’t been blown to bits.

(Little things like… like shoes, for example. Chloe’s noticed that when Nadine ties her boots, she does her laces up in bunny-ears—bunny-ears! Like a kindergartener! It’s beyond adorable.)

Nadine even lets Chloe explore the entirety of the apartment, allowing her to paw through some of her personal belongings, which Chloe does with unbridled glee, feeling almost like she does when she unearths forgotten tombs or priceless artifacts. One afternoon, she discovers a collection of battered Ross-family photo albums from Nadine’s younger days, and pores over them for several hours.

There aren’t any pictures of Nadine when she was a small child, so Chloe makes do with several pages of a reticent, teenage Nadine—much skinnier than she is now but with that same tight-lipped, determined look on her face as always. Her clothes are neat, her posture rigid. She appears, in general, a very clean-cut and disciplined young woman, not at all like Chloe was as a rowdy teenager intent on rebellion.

Eventually, Nadine grows tired of Chloe yelling questions across the apartment at her, where she’s been hunched over her laptop for some time, and joins her on the couch to look at the photos as well and narrate stories. The albums include pictures of random Shoreline men (no doubt retired or dead by now) as well as Nadine’s late father, a sturdy man with close-cropped hair and a hard face, dressed in fatigues with the Shoreline logo on the shoulder and chest. As Nadine grows older in the photos, her limbs thickening with muscle, so too does her father, his hair growing white at the temples and brow. Chloe catches Nadine looking fondly at him and doesn’t ask if her partner misses him, since it’s so obvious she does.

They move on to another album. This one, Chloe can guess Nadine made up, as the first thirty or so photos are nature shots of landscapes, plants, and then animals, probably spotted during Shoreline jobs after Nadine joined the ranks herself. Eventually, there are pictures of Nadine in fatigues with a gun either on hand or at her hip, looking young but far from naive or inexperienced. By the middle of the album, the scar on her neck has appeared. Chloe leaves it as a question for another time.

On the next page, Chloe’s breath catches. Smiling up at them is a seemingly out-of-place picture of Nadine with her arm around a young, attractive woman Chloe doesn’t know. She looks about Nadine’s age and is very pretty. The woman is looking at the camera, while Nadine is looking only at her. She’s very obviously smitten. It’s an expression Chloe has never seen on her partner’s face before, and seeing it now makes her feel strange. Not jealous—not exactly—but somehow… bereft.

“Who’s that?” she asks, because she’s a glutton for punishment, if nothing else.

Nadine quickly turns the next page over. “Nobody.”

“She’s pretty,” Chloe ventures, as she pretends to look at several pictures of monkeys in trees.

Nadine doesn’t reply, so Chloe drops it, though it does bother her a little, the mystery of it all.

Five minutes later, while they’re admiring pictures of random ruins from a Shoreline trip in Nepal, Nadine says quietly, “She’s my ex.”

Ah. Figures. Beautiful woman like that. Chloe’s suspected but never pried about her partner’s sexuality. She’s happy it’s being trusted with her now.

“Her loss,” she says succinctly.

Nadine snorts. After another minute, she proffers, “Didn’t like my work.”

“Shoreline work, or… you and me work?” It occurs to Chloe then that Nadine might very well have been seeing this woman during their time in India and the Tusk. The photo didn’t look very old. Could Nadine have kept her relationship hidden for whatever reason? Chloe would understand if this is the case. A little envious, sure, but it’s Nadine they’re talking about here. Anyone would be envious. The bloody Pope would be envious of this mystery woman.

Nadine shakes her head. “No, she—it was during Shoreline. She didn’t like that… That I hurt people.”

Chloe wants to protest. Saying it like that, so bluntly—hurting people—that’s just boiling everything down to black and white. What Shoreline did, and what her and Nadine do now, is so much more than that. Yes, it’s an unfortunate side-effect of their occupation, because the things they deal in are expensive and anytime a certain amount of money is involved, there are cruel people who want to take it from you, and defending yourself is a must.

“I don’t like it either,” Nadine says, before Chloe can speak up. “Hurting people. But it’s something we have to do, ja? And I’m good at it, so why not?” She pauses. Chloe waits it out. “Made me feel like I was horrible, when she said it. Like I should be ashamed of myself. Of the things I’ve done, to get where I am now.”

Chloe waits a beat, then says, “Well, I like you just the way you are.”

Nadine grins at her. It’s small at first, and then it grows. “Good to know.”

 

 

One morning, a bit more than a week since moving into her new accomodations, Chloe wakes around 9AM. She wobbles her head upright and makes her usual groggy glance-about and deduces Nadine is out, as she can’t see or hear her anywhere nearby. As that isn’t an unusual (though still disappointing) occurrence, Chloe dozes for a while longer until her phone buzzes loudly under her pillow.

Stirring awake, she fetches it and rolls onto her back, stretching against the residual soreness still lingering there. She taps her phone on and laughs reflexively; Elena’s sent a video clip of baby Cassie wiggling about and babbling something that almost sounds like mama with both her and Nate cooing like idiots in the background, egging her on. It’s entirely adorable and Chloe plays it about five times, the smile on her face growing wider each time.

A moment later, she hears keys in the door and a chirping chime that means the correct code has been entered into the security keypad, and rolls out of bed, phone in her hands, already smiling at the thought of showing this to Nadine.

“China, c’mere, you have to see this—”

She looks up, jerks to a halt. It’s not Nadine.

In the doorway is a South African woman in her late fifties. She’s not terribly tall and is on the slim side, a bright blue scarf wrapped around her head, bulging around a thick knot of dreadlocked hair. Her skin is the exact same color as Nadine’s, only without the freckles. Her face is open, laugh lines pronounced. Her eyes are a warm, golden brown.

This, Chloe realizes with sudden clarity, is Nadine’s mother.

Then it hits her, exactly, what Missus Ross is seeing right now:

Chloe has very obviously just gotten out of Nadine’s bed, where it’s clear by her lack of proper clothing and loose, sleep-mussed hair that she’s spent the night. She’s also in a t-shirt that belongs to Nadine, sans bra, while below she has on a bright red pair of panties that ride low on the bare curve of her hips, and absolutely nothing else, not even socks.

Well. Hell of a first impression, here.

Nadine’s mother doesn’t glare, or shout, or demand to know who she is. Instead, a small but kind smile appears on her face.

“You must be Chloe,” she says. Her voice is beautifully accented with that familiar South African drawl, only much thicker than Nadine’s, to the point that Chloe has to concentrate to understand her.

“M-Missus Ross!” Chloe gets out, quite embarrassed all of a sudden, despite being nearly forty, and having a good reason for being here besides. Jesus, why hadn’t Nadine warned her that her mother was coming to visit? “‘Scuse me a sec.” She casts about, looking for something to wear, and finds her jeans from yesterday kicked under the couch, and quickly puts them on. “Thought you were Nadine,” she says, then pauses, because, well, that doesn’t help any.

Missus Ross smiles again. Her eyes are bright and teasing. “Do you always greet my daughter in such a state?” She laughs lightly. “Should I be worried you are trying to seduce her?”

Chloe balks. Then blurts, almost unconsciously, “I mean, have you seen her?”

There’s a moment of utter silence. Chloe stomach plummets. She did not just—

Nadine’s mother bursts into delighted laughter. Chloe practically sags with relief, then finds herself joining in the humor of it all, chuckling along with growing confidence. Shaking her head ruefully, Missus Ross toes off her shoes and comes further into the apartment. For the first time, Chloe notices she has several bags in her hands, and steps forward to help her, which Missus Ross graciously allows—unlike a certain stubborn daughter of hers.

“Oh, you are a clever one, aren’t you?” Missus Ross grins. “My poor daughter. She does not stand a chance.”

Chloe laughs at that. “I dunno. I’d say she can hold her own, when she wants to.”

“True.” The other woman looks Chloe up and down. Then, as though coming to some sort of conclusion Chloe isn’t privy to, she politely extends a hand to shake. “As I am sure you have already guessed, I am Nadine’s mother, Aia Ross. Please, call me Aia.”

“Sure, Miss—ah, Aia. Chloe Frazer. Nice to finally meet you.” Chloe can’t help but add, “Thought maybe Nadine was making you up, with how secretive she is about you.”

“You know my daughter well,” says Aia, waving a hand. With Chloe’s help, they set the bags on the kitchen table. “Nadine is a very private person. She holds those she cares for very close to her heart, for fear of losing them. I could get just as little about you out of her, so I know the feeling.”

Chloe balks again, unsure if she’s heard Aia correctly—something about Nadine holding Chloe close to her heart, maybe, but perhaps she’s mistaken—

Unfortunately, Aia interrupts her train of thought, and sets work-weathered hands on her hips to give Chloe a look stern enough to make her spine instinctively stiffen. Ah. So that’s where Nadine gets it. It’s almost as though Nadine herself is standing here—not so much muscle but that same radiating intensity, just in a slightly smaller and more mature body.

“When my husband ran Shoreline,” says Aia, “I served as their medic on occasion. I have come to give you an exam and make sure you are improving since your accident. Nadine has assured me she is checking you properly, and while I do trust my daughter, I would prefer to do it myself, just for peace of mind.”

Accident is an interesting word for it, but Chloe’s not about to argue. She has no idea just how much Nadine has revealed to her mother about their current situation, so she just nods and, under Aia’s direction, sits on the couch with her hands at her sides to wait as Aia rifles about for her heavy-looking medical bag.

Aia gives her a quick, painless, relatively perfunctory exam—complete with a stethoscope to listen to her breathing, a light to peer into her mouth, eyes, and ears, and one of those little hammer things to check Chloe’s reflexes—and comes to about the same conclusion as Nadine did, a week earlier: that Chloe is incredibly lucky to be alive and for the most part unharmed. Her bruises are splotchy green-and-yellow smears now, the split on her brow healing up nicely, just starting to seal itself with white scar tissue. Her wrist is practically back to normal and with the rigorous yoga she does every morning, her back is close to being as supple and flexible as ever.

All in all, Chloe would give herself an A for effort.

Similarly satisfied, Aia puts her things away and then pats Chloe on the shoulder as she takes the bags they’ve left on the table—full of groceries, Chloe’s noticed, fresh vegetables and meats from the market—and heads to the kitchen. “Come here, dear. I am sure you must be hungry. What do you say we start on an early lunch?”

Lunch sounds great. Chloe’s famished, having skipped breakfast, and with Nadine still out, she’d figured she might have to settle for leftovers alone. This is an unexpected, but very much welcome bit of company. “I’m no sous-chef, but I can follow directions pretty well.”

Aia laughs, hands her a knife, and they get started.

Within five minutes, the apartment smells like heaven. Chloe feels like she’s in a dream. Aia is entirely in her element—this, too, must be where Nadine learned how to cook so well. Where her partner is skilled from years of practice and everyday experience, Chloe can see that Aia is a born natural, throwing spices and ingredients together in combinations Chloe has never fathomed before. It’s amazing to witness. She guesses it’ll be even better to eat.

They chat as they cook. For Chloe, it’s especially nice, getting to talk to someone new. Not that she’s getting sick of Nadine or anything, it’s just—sure, she’d told Nadine she wasn’t so good at the whole people thing, but that’s other people. Not the ones who matter. This is her partner’s mother, and Chloe desperately wants the woman to like her, as she finds herself quickly becoming incredibly fond of the older woman in turn. Helps that she’s funny and witty as all get out—everything out of her mouth is either a clever joke, a thoughtful anecdote, or an endearing or humorous story from Nadine’s childhood. Chloe can’t get enough.

Then Aia asks Chloe about her own adventures with Nadine, and the floodgates open. She doesn’t get to talk about her partner often with others—Nate and Sam are still wary of her, and Elena listens when she can but she’s so busy with her new baby and her show. But Aia is a fantastic listener. As Chloe relates several notable encounters on their past few jobs, she cuts in to ask questions, gasps when things get exciting, and laughs at punchlines with a ceiling-bouncing chuckle that seems to shake throughout her whole body and makes Chloe feel warm inside to hear.

Before long, they sit down with their meal and dig in. Chloe can’t help but groan. It’s like Nadine’s cooking but on another level, something she didn’t think was humanly possible. Aia laughs kindly at Chloe’s sheepish expression afterwards.

“Sorry,” Chloe says, “just—I need to marry into your family. The cooking is divine.”

Aia’s smile turns slightly sly. “I would not have a problem with that.” She chews and swallows her own spoonful, then says thoughtfully, “I can see why my daughter is so taken with you.”

Chloe coughs on her mouthful, then sits up a bit straighter. Sure, her and Nadine get along, but Nadine? Taken? With her? “Oh?” is all she says, afraid of looking too eager.

Aia sighs, raises a napkin to her mouth. “When Nadine called me, last week, after she’d heard what happened to you, I—it scared me, the way she sounded. As if her world had ended.” A watery look comes to her eyes, and she blinks back against them. Chloe is taken slightly aback by the sudden emotion. “I have only heard her so one time before, when her father died.” She pauses here, stirring her food about for a moment, then goes on. “Nadine told me in no uncertain terms that she was going to London to get you at once, and to watch her place until she returned. I am glad you came back with her. She wants nothing more than to keep you safe.” Abruptly, the motherly look on her face transforms into something far more dangerous, and she raises a finger warningly. “Whoever did this has made a very powerful enemy. The Ross family is not to be trifled with. They will know this, soon.”

Chloe can’t help but smile, touched that this older woman is so resolute about protecting her. Is this what Nadine will be like in a few decades? Will Chloe still be around to see it for herself? She hopes so.

Aia’s face returns to its usual softness. A hopeful light grows in her eyes. “Perhaps, once this problem has been fixed, you and Nadine can—”

Just then, the door whirrs open and Nadine herself steps in, pocketing her keys. She seems alarmed at first, walking in to find company there, eyes darting from her mother—Aia’s sentence cut off as though she’d never spoken at all, patting her mouth again with her crumpled napkin, a wry smile edging onto her face—to Chloe, who beams back at her, pleased by her return.

“China! Nice of you to join us.”

Ma, I told you not to come over today,” Nadine chides, though gently. Aia ignores her, even rolls her eyes, then grins at Chloe as though they have a secret between them now. Chloe grins delightedly back. She’s never seen anyone brush her partner off like that. It’s a thrill, like jumping off a bridge or a speeding car.

“What, I cannot see my daughter when she has a friend over? Are you embarrassed of me, bokkie?” Aia stands and puts her now-empty dish in the sink. She fetches a clean one and serves some of the steaming food onto it.

“No,” Nadine says quickly, walking over to join them at the table.

“Good. Now, sit.” To Chloe’s further amusement, Nadine immediately obeys, sitting beside Chloe with her hands clasped in her lap like the most obedient child. Aia slides the dish in front of her. “I hear you have been feeding your partner properly, but still, I wanted to give you a break. You are working too hard again.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling her!” Chloe chimes in. Nadine turns her head a fraction and narrows her eyes at her, as if in betrayal. Chloe can barely stop a giggle from escaping her throat.

“And have you been getting your rest?” Aia presses in a stern tone.

Nadine doesn’t cower, but she does lower her head a bit, as though in deference. She hesitates. Chloe is positive Nadine would never lie to her mother, not even under duress. “...I am now.”

Aia grunts in displeasure. “Eat,” she says. “You must take proper care of yourself. How else can you protect those who matter to you?”

Nadine simply picks up her spoon and says, “Yes, Ma,” with sincerity. Then she begins to eat. Aia smiles sweetly at the two of them, then turns to clean the stove, putting the dirty pans in the sink for later.

Chloe tries not to goggle. She’s literally never seen Nadine submit to anyone before. That her mother holds such sway over her makes her a very powerful woman, indeed. A force to be reckoned with.

Aia stays for a bit longer after they’ve all eaten to talk to Nadine and drop off several more things she’s brought along—books for Chloe, which is sweet, along with some market delicacies and sweets. Eventually, she bids them both farewell. Chloe, she hugs in the doorway, and then pulls Nadine outside with her for a word alone.

A few minutes later, a harried-looking Nadine walks back into the apartment to find Chloe with her chin propped on her fist and a smug, dreamy smile on her face.

“Your mum likes me,” she announces.

Naturally, Nadine scoffs. “She likes everyone.”

“Does she?” Chloe replies. If anything, the smile on her face grows. This has been the greatest lunch she’s had in a while, for many reasons. “Fancy a trip to Australia, once this is all over, so you can meet mine? I mean, since we’re at that stage now, where we’re meeting each other’s parents.”

Refusing to be baited, Nadine studiously ignores her. Chloe laughs.

 

 

The next day, Chloe’s lazing about, playing on her phone, sprawled back in bed although it’s past lunch. Nadine’s been out again, but returned a short while ago to work quietly on her laptop. Now, however, she stands suddenly and approaches the bed.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Fine?” Chloe ventures, a bit distracted. She’s trying to clear some space in her rapidly filling phone storage, and debating between two nearly identical photos of Nadine in mid-pushup position from two mornings ago, a visible bead of sweat clinging to her partner’s firm jaw. After a few agonizing seconds, she decides she needs them both and then looks up at her partner, still hovering nearby. “Why?”

“I mean, are you still sore?”

Chloe rolls her shoulders experimentally, then her neck. She stretches her arms high over her head, arches her spine, feels her shirt lift from her stomach (Nadine’s eyes flicker, only for a moment). While she still feels a very slight pull in her muscles from the action—the stretch, not Nadine staring, she feels something else entirely from that—it’s nothing like it was a week ago. “A little, I guess. Not too bad. Yoga’s helping.”

“Good.” Nadine reaches out and abruptly takes her phone away. Chloe squawks and jerks up onto her elbows.

“Hey!”

“Get changed. You and I are practicing your self defense.”

“What? Why? I’m great in a fight,” Chloe protests. “I don’t need lessons.”

“Against someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, maybe,” says Nadine, in an infuriatingly patient tone. “This isn’t a brawl. We don’t know how dangerous this person or persons could be. They could be trained assassins—” Chloe muffles a laugh at the absurdity and swallows it down when Nadine’s glare intensifies “—or martial artists. Someone much more capable than you in hand-to-hand combat.” She goes to her bureau, puts Chloe’s phone on top, and throws a pair of sweatpants and a sports bra onto the bed. “Here.”

“Oh, please,” Chloe scoffs, collapsing backwards onto her pillow. “Why do I need to practice when I have you around to beat everyone up? You’re practically my bodyguard already. If I need to fight, that just means you’re not doing your job.”

“This isn’t up for discussion,” Nadine says, coming to stand over her by the bed. Chloe feels her heartrate spike and keeps her eyes on Nadine’s chin, where it’s safe. “Get changed.”

She hesitates, just for a moment.

Now, Frazer.”

Chloe jumps at her tone, glances up. Nadine is glaring down at her with that imperious expression on her face, shoulders square, one hand on her cocked hip, the other arm hanging by her side, thick with muscle, veins at her forearm and biceps painfully visible in the afternoon light.

Yes, ma’am, she thinks, and snatches the clothes to take with her to the bathroom.

They meet in Nadine’s fitness corner, where Nadine’s laid out some blue mats, the kind they use in gym class, sometimes, for wrestling. They smell of plastic and faint sweat. Chloe notices Nadine is barefoot and removes her socks to copy her.

“Are we really doing this?” Chloe gripes, tying her hair into her usual loose, low ponytail and looking up just as Nadine shucks her shirt over her head, leaving herself in a tight black sports bra to go with her low-slung sweatpants. The rest of her complaint disappears along with about half the blood in her brain as it’s immediately rerouted to other, more notable areas of her body.

“Don’t worry, Frazer,” Nadine says, taking a moment to similarly tie back her hair with an elastic from her wrist. Her biceps knot and swell with every twist. Her stomach tightens and flexes into a perfectly formed six-pack as she breathes. “I’ll go easy on you.”

“...Okay,” Chloe says faintly. Already, she’s forgotten why they’re standing here.

Nadine adopts a loose boxer’s stance. Chloe’s fight-or-flight instincts, which have served her well so far in life, snap her attention back to the present, and she copies her partner, though she’s sure her own stance needs work.

“Give me your best shot,” Nadine goads. Chloe gives her a teasing smile.

“Sure about that?”

Nadine is cocky now, bouncing a few times on the balls of her feet, muscles primed for action, a confident, sure smile edging onto her mouth. It’s incredibly sexy. Chloe wants to grab her by the ears and wipe that smirk right off her face. “Positive.”

“Alright, you asked for it, Ross.”

Chloe doesn’t wait—waiting will only give Nadine more time to prepare a riposte. Fast as she can, she darts forward, digging her toes into the mats for leverage and using her smaller frame to her advantage.

It doesn’t work—she’s quick, sure, but Nadine’s quicker, the other woman instantly reading her motions and jerking to the right and then back, out of her immediate range. Rather than take the bait and chase after her, Chloe similarly backs off. Nadine nods, pleased by her decision. Chloe assumes that means it was the correct one.

They both pace a bit, circling like animals, waiting for the other to move first. Finally, Chloe gets fed up with the cat-and-mouse shtick, and makes another attempt to get past her partner’s solid guard. She lunges. Again, Nadine dodges right, but this time, Chloe’s ready for her, her leg already pivoting to follow. She aims, swings. It’s sloppy, and her heart isn’t in it, and Nadine predictably blocks it with a brutal chop of her forearm. Chloe staggers from the force of it and backs off once again. Guess they’re not pulling their punches. Fine.

She tries again, and again. Every time, Nadine seems to read her movements before she even makes them and is already blocking before Chloe can even swing. It starts to get frustrating. Then, annoying. Is this how Nate felt, that time in the auction house in Italy? Least she knows Nadine won’t be throwing her out a window afterwards, but still…

Chloe stops actively trying to hit her partner and goes back to circling, trying to figure out a new plan of attack. Her back is prickled with sweat. She’s a little out of breath, unused to such activity. Nadine, of course, appears entirely unaffected. Chloe grits her teeth, thinks about it. Nadine is bigger, stronger, and faster than her. A normal direct assault will not work.

So, Chloe decides to try something that will. Something a bit more her style.

The next time she rushes in, she lets Nadine block her incoming blow, once, twice, and then flinches theatrically, as though her partner’s injured her recently-healed wrist by accident. Immediately, Nadine freezes, looking momentarily horrified with the prospect of hurting her. A second later, she’s realized it’s a ruse and is trying to backpedal, but Chloe’s already thrown herself forward and aimed an uppercut at her partner’s vulnerable jaw. Time seems to slow as Nadine reels back to dodge it.

The very point of Chloe’s knuckles brush Nadine’s chin just before she jerks her head out of the way. It’s a clipping blow, nothing big. Still, she can tell Nadine feels it, and counts it, to herself, as a semi-sort of victory.

They jump back from one another, Nadine chagrined with her mistake, Chloe giddy that it actually worked.

“Proud of yourself?” Nadine asks, eyes narrowed, rubbing with her thumb at the faint red mark Chloe’s left behind.

“A little, yeah,” Chloe replies, a husky laugh rising from her throat.

“Try it again, then.”

Chloe doesn’t want to, not really, but she does anyway—because she doesn’t back down from challenges anymore, remember?—and, ultimately, pays for it.

This time around, Nadine spins away from her left hook, catches her by the good wrist so she can't fake it again, twists her arm around into a lock, kicks her ankles out from under her, and slams her none too gently to the mats, all in the space of about a second. Chloe feels a bit like she’s been thrown in a washing machine, all tumbled around, and, as a lung-cramping weight settles over her chest, is abruptly made aware of the fact that her partner is now quite literally on top of her.

A warm flush rolls through her. Down, girl, she tells herself. To Nadine, she gives a cheeky grin, to pretend everything’s fine. “Happy?” she pants.

“Again,” says Nadine. She stands, and helps Chloe up. Chloe tries again for a hit, and for the second time in thirty seconds, finds herself facedown on the matted floor, the warm, heavy weight of her partner driving down on top of her. This time, Nadine doesn’t let go right away, as if trying to see if Chloe can somehow get herself free. Chloe does try, squirming impotently about as she tries in vain to escape the hold. For a moment, she feels Nadine’s grip slip, and thinks maybe she’s succeeded, but then Nadine shifts and catches her leg up with Chloe’s own, twisting their ankles together and stretching them both out into a whole-body press until Chloe literally can’t move an inch.

The warm flush is back, stronger this time. Chloe grits her teeth against it, valiantly attempting to ignore the sudden throbbing between her legs. This is just… beyond juvenile. And, ok, it’s been a while since she had a good rough and tumble like this, but she should not be reacting so strongly. She has standards.

Thankfully, Nadine lets her up a few moments later. Chloe hopes she puts the flush on her face to the exertion and not anything else.

“Let’s work on some throws,” Nadine says, and then starts walking Chloe through several defense moves, step-by-step. Chloe pays as much attention as she can, which isn’t alot, but is still better than nothing. This is fine, she tells herself. She can handle this.

 

 

Two days later, Chloe’s decided she can’t handle it. This is torture.

The sparring, which Nadine now insists they work on every morning and afternoon for at least an hour, if not two, is getting to her. Like, really getting to her. Nadine may be trying to save her bloody life by training her in the valuable art of self-defense, but all Chloe can goddamn think about is sex.

Can you really blame her, though? Brain-numbingly gorgeous as Nadine is, she isn’t exactly the most tactile person Chloe’s ever met. Not that she’s cold or anything, either—she’s friendly enough with Chloe, and isn’t shy about casual contact, either while helping her up with an outstretched hand from a cliff or a rope, or a quick pat if she’s worried about her after an ambush or a bad spill down a slope, or high-fives and half-hugs during their moments of comraderie when they’re riding a high from some victory or another—but those are different.

This, basically, is Nadine tossing Chloe around like she’s nothing, then, at some point, either picking her up and throwing her bodily to the mat, or tripping her and holding her down with her bodyweight, using specialized holds to keep her there. There’s grunting, sweating, and an occasional bout of swearing, too, so for Chloe, it’s pretty much sex without the fun part, which makes it not very fun at all.

Not to mention Nadine’s attitude, when they spar. That cockiness on her face, in her whole body, like she just knows Chloe won’t ever pull one over on her again like she did that first time. Like she’s daring her to try. Seriously, that ever-pervading confidence is going to be the death of Chloe, the way it just does things to her.

Sexual frustration is not a problem Chloe Frazer is used to having. She has an itch, she scratches it, either with a helper or alone. Sex, for her, has always been a good way of dealing with any growing tension she may find herself subject to, but at the moment, unfortunately, it’s not exactly an option.

One morning she wakes up painfully early—something ungodly like 5AM, or thereabouts—from a particularly nice dream and feels a sleepy curl of arousal working its way down her belly to coil deliciously between her hips. What happens next is pure instinct. She doesn’t even think about it, just rolls over onto her stomach, presses her face into her pillow with a sigh and slips a hand over her abdomen and into her underwear, cupping herself with her palm. She’s warm and soft, down there, a lovely, familiar feel. A soft, wanting purr husks out of her mouth, and when she slides a finger down through her trimmed patch of pubic hair and parts herself—

Beside her, something moves.

Chloe’s eyes snap open. She’s abruptly and entirely awake, like someone’s thrown a bucket of ice water on her. Slowly, she turns her head to regard the pillow next to her, perhaps a foot away—Nadine sleeps a bit closer now, something Chloe finds equal parts endearing and titillating, as it increases the chances of them tossing and turning and finding each other throughout the night—where a familiar thicket of dark brown curls rest on a wonderfully muscled set of freckled shoulders, Nadine’s face turned away, her chest rising and falling in the slow, steady rhythm of sleep.

Jesus Christ. Just like that, Chloe’s forgotten—forgotten everything. Again. How many times does this make now? She is not at home, in her cozy apartment in downtown London, in the privacy of her own bed. She’s at Nadine’s place, in Nadine’s bed, with her partner, who she trusts with her life and cares for more than anyone else she can recall, right there next to her—and there are many, many levels of wrong with this situation, and this is definitely one of them.

Her hand is out of her underwear in a flash, the warm damp on her fingertips going cool in the air of the apartment. She sits up, feeling a little panicked, and hears Nadine grunt in sleepy confusion as she hops out of bed and dashes into the bathroom. She locks it after her, then shuts the lid on the toilet and sits, head in her hands, trying to get herself together. She feels like she’s just sprinted a mile. Her heart is pounding. She stopped herself, but it still almost happened—she almost masturbated with Nadine right beside her. Christ. If Nadine had seen her, if she’d woken up at just that moment—

There’s a knock on the door. “Chloe? You okay?” comes Nadine’s no-nonsense tone, gone rough with sleep.

“Fine,” Chloe replies, hoping she doesn’t sound too frantic. “I’ll—I’ll just be a minute.”

“...Alright,” says Nadine skeptically. Chloe can hear her move away from the door and lets out a breath. She splashes water in her face and glares at her own reflection. She is not a prepubescent teenager. She can control herself.

Or, barring that, she can let herself have it in the shower, later. The sound of the water running will surely muffle her moans. Maybe. Or, whatever. She’s beginning to care less at this point.

She leaves the bathroom to find Nadine’s put on a lamp and is waiting up for her.

“Good?” Nadine asks from the bed, her back propped against the headboard.

Not looking at her, Chloe stiffly slips back into her own side and turns away. “Peachy.”

Nadine hesitates, then lays down as well without turning off the lamp. She shuffles a bit closer to Chloe, who does her best not to react. A foot touches hers. Then, a knee. Chloe closes her eyes and relishes the sensation of closeness, despite the havoc it’s wreaking on the rest of her. Trust her partner not to pry but offer a bit of human contact as way of support. And to have no idea how badly it's affecting Chloe at all.

Later, though, her prospective shower time doesn’t happen. Nadine is hovering a bit too close, as though still concerned about this morning. She even goes slightly easy on her during their training. By the time Chloe gets into the bathroom after her regularly-scheduled hour and a half of getting her arse kicked on the mats, she feels too paranoid to try anything, despite being wound tighter than a spring. But, that’s okay. She can manage. Nobody ever died of sexual frustration, right?

Right?

 

 

Then—because of course it does—it happens again, a few nights later. Probably because of how Nadine has been acting lately, looking at her so soft and concerned at times, and sitting nearer during evenings on the couch. When they’re in bed, she now sleeps right behind Chloe, so close she can feel the warmth of her partner’s breath against her nape. It’s slowly but surely driving Chloe absolutely insane.

This time around, she wakes just past midnight from a steamy dream of a wet, hungry mouth and rough, familiar-looking hands holding her still, and one squirm is all it takes to notice she’s soaking wet and throbbing. Her nipples are pricked, straining against the thin material of her t-shirt, the bottom hem twisted around her ribs. She’s kicked the sheets off some time during the night and now they’re tangled up in her shins, her bare stomach and legs covered in a field of goosebumps despite the warmth in the apartment. She feels, in all honesty, about two seconds away from climax.

There is also, she notices a dazed moment later, a warm, heavy arm slung over her side, rendering her quite unable to move.

So… Shit.

She quivers, knowing for the sake of her business-slash-friendly relationship with Nadine that she needs to slip out and duck into the bathroom to collect herself but ultimately trapped in place. Maybe if she just lays here and holds her breath, nothing will—

Behind her, there’s a soft inhale by her ear, the arm hanging across her stomach flexing and growing slightly heavier, and she knows at once that Nadine’s awake. She can hear Nadine’s eyelashes brushing against her pillowcase as she blinks against the dark around them, the apartment faintly limned in red from the glow of the city lights shining through the windows.

“Chloe?” she murmurs—as though it could be anyone else, here in bed with her, getting spooned. Still, it’s sort of cute, that she’s checking to make sure it’s her, saying her name like that. Kind of sexy, too, but Chloe really shouldn’t let her mind go there right now.

“Mm-hm,” says Chloe shortly. She doesn’t trust anything else out of her mouth at the moment.

“You okay?” Nadine rumbles, throat husky with sleep. Chloe shivers, feels her nipples tighten even more at the sound.

“...Yup,” she gets out, strained.

“You sure?” The heavy arm on her abdomen slides up, inadvertently pushing Chloe’s shirt with it until Nadine’s broad palm rests on her bare side. A thumb absently strokes the curve of her rib. Jesus, Nadine really must be half-asleep. There’s no other reason she’d touch Chloe like this. Her resulting flinch has absolutely nothing to do with the memory of recently bruised, tender flesh there and everything to do with the aroused panic currently coursing through her veins.

Nadine feels the flinch and goes still, as does the hand on Chloe’s side. Slowly, she can hear Nadine’s head rise from her pillow.

“Chloe?” she says again, this time in askance. She sounds much more awake than before.

Chloe swallows, glad she’s turned away, so Nadine can’t see her face. She clears her throat, tries, “Uh huh.” Great. Now she sounds like she’s being strangled. Why couldn’t Nadine just go back to bloody sleep?

“Did you have another dream?” Nadine asks, sounding faintly concerned. The hand on her side clenches briefly.

Chloe feels an illicit flush at the memory of exactly what kind of dream she just had, then realizes that’s not what Nadine is referring to. The nightmares, she means.

And, really, at this point she should just lie, say yes, I did, so I need a moment, but that’d be cruel; she doesn’t want to make Nadine worry. “...Ah, no.”

The tension in Nadine’s body remains. She doesn’t believe her. “Chloe.”

“Different kind of dream,” she squeaks before she can stop herself.

She hears Nadine’s breath catch. Call her partner one thing, call her quick. No further explanation neccessary. Chloe turns her face into her pillow and tries not to squirm again, eyes tightly closed. How rude, exactly, would it be to throw Nadine’s arm off and bolt into the bathroom to finger herself to completion? Maybe then she could actually relax.

“I, uh,” she says haltingly, before Nadine can speak. “I’ll be right back—bathroom—” but when she tries to sit up and do just that, the hand on her side doesn’t budge. If anything, it resists.

Chloe, quite suddenly, is purposefully being held down on the bed.

And, well. If her underwear wasn't ruined before…  

The reaction of her body is immediate. A wave of heat travels from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet. Her nipples, impossible as it may seem, harden even more. She bites her lip, releasing a soft, quick whimper. Her heart is pounding, picking up speed. There’s no way Nadine can’t feel it under the spread of her palm, hammering like a caged animal against Chloe’s ribs. No way she can’t feel how Chloe’s skin is heating up, either, gone the slightest bit clammy with excitement. No way she can’t hear her staggered breaths, muffled by the pillow but not entirely, sounding overly loud in the quiet of the room.

Neither of them move. Chloe waits.

Slowly, Nadine brushes her thumb up until it rests on a sensitive divot on Chloe’s side, then presses with intent. Chloe feels it, as if through a haze, and only when Nadine pushes harder does she realize her partner wants her to roll over, onto her back. She obeys.

Supine, she dares a quick glance upward. Nadine is hovering above, propped on her elbow, gazing imperiously down at her, her loose curls splayed across the flex of her shoulders, eyes glinting in the faint light of the apartment. Chloe looks down, and sees it—the faint shape of Nadine’s hand, resting there on her heaving abdomen. This is real, she tells herself. She isn’t dreaming.

They don’t speak. Chloe can barely breathe. Together, they simply watch as Nadine’s hand drags itself downward, torturously slow, until it’s splayed just beneath Chloe’s belly button, right above the hem of her underwear.

What are you doing? she wants to demand of herself. What are we doing? The rest of her is screaming to just shut the hell up and enjoy it while she bloody can.

“Tell me to stop,” Nadine breathes into her ear, so close Chloe can feel her skin grow damp from her warm breath.

Chloe shudders, squeezes her eyes shut and swallows thickly. She doesn’t say anything.

Message received, Nadine’s fingers dip lower, into Chloe’s underwear. Just like Chloe did the other morning, she cups her in her palm and simply holds her for a moment, though really, there’s nothing simple about it—Chloe’s whole body hitches excitedly, her hands clutching at the sheets beneath her. She wants to rock back hard against that hand, to grab that wrist and rub herself against those fingers to a messy completion. But she’s not the one in control right now.

Something touches her ribs and Chloe flinches in surprise, releasing a quiet gasp. Nadine is pivoting her other hand to pull her shirt up. Chloe has a moment of helpless confusion before thinking maybe she should help, and aids Nadine in pushing the material up to her armpits, baring her naked breasts to the room. Her nipples are aching fiercely.

Still cupping her firmly below, Nadine lowers her head to Chloe’s neck. Her hair falls in thick curls across Chloe’s face, soft and fragrant. Chloe whimpers again, still in disbelief that this is happening. She hears Nadine inhale deeply, as though scenting her. Her lips brush down Chloe’s throat, her collarbone, then press lightly against the flat of her sternum. Chloe’s breasts are tingling by the time she crests one.

A single finger parts the seam of her, finds her already sloppy wet and swollen, then retreats, dragging upward through her mess to the hard little knot above, where it begin to rub her in slow, steady circles. Nadine mouths her breast in tandem, sucking harshly before pulling away and blowing a stream of cold air over her sore nipple. Chloe makes a guttural sound deep in her throat, feeling ultra-sensitized by the stimulation after so long without.

Nadine switches breasts. Her mouth is rough. The finger rubbing at Chloe's clit is joined by a second, circling faster, rougher. A hard callus on Nadine’s trigger finger catches at her, again and again. Chloe tries to concentrate on breathing properly and fails. Her hips rise shakily from the bed. Her stomach starts to clench. A ball of trembling pressure forms in the pit of her stomach and swells, until it’s about to snap.

Nadine abandons her breasts, the air in the apartment, cooler than the warmth of her mouth, making Chloe's nipples prick all over again. Chloe glances up—Nadine is watching her, her expression thoughtful, bordering on blank. Chloe feels a desperate, wanton thing, gazing up at her like she is. Their eyes meet.

And it’s—Jesus, it’s enough, more than, even though it’s been two, maybe three minutes tops, what the hell—

She makes a soft, surprised whimper and jerks spastically, stunned by the force of her climax. It’s strong, but relatively quick, and soon she goes limp and sweaty, vaguely mortified with herself for how quickly she’s come. Her head, neck cricked from arching back into her pillow, sags as she gasps for air, the clench of her body finally going slack. A bead of sweat rolls down her side. More gleams between her breasts. It’s stifling in here, suddenly.

The hand between her legs stirs, brushing her slick, sensitive folds, and Chloe gasps huskily at the feel. Already, she wants it again, as much as Nadine will allow. Nothing new there; Chloe’s always been a bit on the greedy side in the bedroom. She’s also not above begging.

But, turns out, she doesn’t need to.

Nadine reads her expression, the hand still inside her underwear pressing that much harder against the heat of her. Their unspoken agreement of utter silence is broken as Chloe looses a loud, wracking moan at the feel.

“Shhh,” says Nadine in her ear, and fucking hell if that just makes it all the worse.

Chloe’s hips swivel and buck—she’s always been like this with a second orgasm, on the bare edge of exploding, almost too sensitive to function. She tries to spread her legs to encourage Nadine to slip her fingers inside but that just tightens the material of her underwear against Nadine’s hand, making it harder for her to move.

“Wait—wait—” Chloe hisses, tearing at the sheets still tangled around her shins and then at the underwear twisted at her hips, shoving them down her thighs until they dangle from one ankle. Good enough. The humid air in the room somehow feels cool against her wet, superheated skin, and she shivers at the cold glide of it against her swollen folds as she parts her legs and cants her hips upwards in askance.

The thoughtful look is back on Nadine’s face, partially hidden in the gloom. She returns her already damp hand to Chloe’s wetness, the rough pad of her thumb brushing the tender skin where inner thigh meets groin, and then firmly slides two fingers inside her all the way to the third knuckle in a single movement, and then keeps them there for a few breaths before drawing back, and beginning to thrust.

Chloe gasps, and flails, grabbing at the flexing arm of the hand working between her legs, but not to pull it away. She just needs to—to hold on to something, anything, so she won’t fly away. Beneath her palm, she can feel the raw power of the limb itself. The strength within the coiled muscle. The shift of it as it bunches and squeezes each time Nadine drives her fingers in and out of her. That such a strong, deathly-capable woman is touching her this way brings a heady rush to her face and neck.

“Harder,” she lets out in a feverish breath. Somehow, over her moans and gasps, Nadine hears her. Chloe feels her hips shift sideways as she crooks a knee under herself for better leverage—oh Jesus—and then lets out a strangled cry when the fingers inside her start to fuck her so hard her entire body slides further and further up the bed every time she bottoms out, until Chloe’s in danger of hitting her head on the slats of the headboard above. Nadine solves that by pinning Chloe in place with a clothed leg hooked around her bare thigh in a grappling hold she used earlier that day, during their training. Just remembering it makes Chloe spasm wildly inside. Nadine makes a sound, as if in approval, and Chloe feels herself do it again, only harder this time. Tighter.

She glances up quickly. Through half-lidded eyes, she can see Nadine watching her again. It sparks a heat deep inside, and she feels herself clench. Nadine’s fingers never stop, and adopt a curl, hitting that spot on her front wall that turns everything in Chloe’s head white. Her body seizes tight, and she bears down around that hand, her own fingers clutching at the sheets beneath them.

“Fucking—fuck—

Nadine doesn’t shush her, but Chloe can still feel her eyes on her, the whole time she’s coming. That alone does it for her—that it’s Nadine doing this to her, it’s Nadine watching her come with that unreadable expression on her face—and already, without even coming completely down from the first, she’s climbing again, riding another searing crest, heels digging into the mattress as she jolts against Nadine’s hand and those wonderful fingers.

Afterwards, she collapses bonelessly to the bed, gasping for air. It feels as though her entire body is throbbing. She’s a mess; her inner thighs are smeared with her own wetness, dewy strings snapping as Nadine pulls her hand away. Nadine doesn’t seem to mind, just stares intently downward as her own hand plays with Chloe one last time, sliding through her slippery-soft folds almost curiously, before wiping her fingers on the sheets.

Normally, Chloe’s stamina would demand another hour or two of activity before falling asleep—Chloe Frazer is anything but selfish when it comes to the bedroom—but give her a break, she’s been through some recent trauma, and sadly, her eyelids are drooping. She makes a halfhearted attempt to roll herself on top of Nadine to give her a very well-earned reward, but the other woman gently holds her in place and utters a soft, “Go to sleep, Chloe,” to which she manages a singular protest of “But—” before passing out.

 

 

She wakes late morning to a muzzy head and sticky thighs, like she’s had a wild night out on the town, invited someone over for a good time and is only just now regaining consciousness. Then she feels the soft, satin sheets beneath her cheek and a tickle at her bare foot—Poeksie, probably impatient for a bit of attention, batting at her toes—and remembers with startling clarity that last night Nadine held her down, put her mouth on her breasts and fucked her twice with her fingers (three times, if you count the double at the end) before finally letting her rest. Or, pass out. Same difference.

She sits up, dazed, the single rumpled sheet that was placed over her sometime during the night sliding off her torso. Her shirt is still halfway on, shoved up to her armpits, the light brown skin of her bare breasts littered with faint bruises and marks from Nadine’s lips and teeth.

So it wasn’t a dream, then, or some half-baked fantasy. As the memory of last night becomes more and more clear with each second that goes by, her nipples go tight and hard and aching. Other than the shirt, she’s entirely naked, and between her legs there is a faint, residual soreness from the roughness of Nadine's wonderful hand. It makes Chloe want to rub her thighs together and press herself down against the mattress to try and relieve it.

In the apartment’s far corner, Nadine is completing her usual exercise circuit, pumping a barbell loaded with weights above her chest in tandem. Chloe fumbles for something to say, pausing to pull her shirt down over her chest, not sure, exactly, if she should acknowledge what happened last night, or perhaps make an off color joke to break the ice. Maybe she could coo out, morning lover? or something of the like? Just roll with it? Or should she say nothing at all, pretend it never happened, and merely count herself lucky that it did?

Nadine, at last, notices she’s up. She glances over briefly, then returns her focus to her weights. “Morning,” she grunts between sets.

“Morning,” Chloe responds automatically, and then waits. Nadine goes on with her routine as though nothing’s wrong, so eventually, Chloe stands and finds a discarded pair of sweatpants, kicked under the bed, and pulls them on, feeling as though she is waiting for… something.

After another fifteen minutes of silence that isn’t terribly stilted but to her, is still noticeable, she accepts that if Nadine were going to say something about last night, she would’ve already.

So, then. That’s fine. Chloe’s not surprised, not exactly. A little confused as to why it happened at all, sure. Maybe it was Nadine’s way of apologizing for keeping her here (though it hasn’t entirely been against her will or anything), or a way to keep her calm and complacent, in line, so she doesn’t do something stupid like try to leave the apartment and track down this psycho herself without a proper plan.

Soon as she thinks that, she feels horrible. Like she’s betrayed her partner, somehow. Nadine, she’s sure, would never do something so underhanded, and certainly would never use sex in such a manner, as a tool for her own machinations. Nadine must have her reasons for what happened last night. Maybe they’ll even talk about it later. Then again, maybe not.

Either way, Chloe’s not too upset about it. Her body feels less tense than before, and the way things are looking—the air between them thicker but not forebodingly so—their work relationship will recover from it just fine. She does have to quash a rising sliver of disappointment that the encounter most likely won’t be repeated or lead to something more, telling herself to be happy it happened, and that it’ll make for a very nice memory in the future when she’s feeling particularly lonely, at night in her own bed, once this is all over and done with.

 

 

Chloe has no warning, that night. The rest of the day had gone on like normal—or, mostly like normal. The only awkwardness lingering between her and Nadine had been on her own part, caught at random intervals while training, eating, or working in vivid daydreams of the feel of those hands on and inside her body. Thankfully, Nadine made no comment about these moments of dazed pause, just threw Chloe to the mats like usual, cooked with her usual flair of confidence, and worked diligently on her laptop as ever.

Nadine doesn’t even say anything this time, once they’ve both laid down for the night. She simply switches the lamp off, rolls over and looks at her. The second those eyes are on her body, Chloe feels a desperate rush of anticipation and desire ripple through her limbs and pool between her legs.

Jesus, is she that hard up for it? Apparently so. Or maybe it’s just something Nadine does to her, because Chloe doesn’t think she’s ever—ever—wanted it so bad, so fast.

Literally, all Chloe does is let out a shaky breath and cant her hips the slightest bit toward her, and then Nadine is leaning in, hovering over her as she did last night. And just like that, Chloe’s thighs are falling open, hopelessly wet in a matter of seconds. It’d be embarrassing if she had any shame. With Nadine, she doesn’t in the least.

Last night had been quick and quiet, for the most part. Other than a few hushed words before it’d actually happened and hissed curses throughout, they hadn’t spoken at all. Chloe lets herself be a little louder tonight, quavery moans and breathy sighs making their way out of her throat and into the air around them. Nadine is reticent as always, projecting a frustrating air of indifference as she pushes Chloe’s panties down past her hipbones and stops mid-thigh. Her folds are already swollen and wet, her pubic hair damp and sticky. Nadine cups the whole of her in her hand—Chloe’s back arches at the feel, the inescapable pressure that makes her toes curl.

Then, as Nadine’s fingers pierce her so sweetly, scissoring together and then spreading apart inside of her, Nadine does the unthinkable, and lowers her mouth to Chloe’s ear and husks, “I like how wet you are for me.”

Chloe’s reaction is instantaneous. Her insides clamp. Her lungs seize. The wetness between her legs doubles until she can hear herself squelch the next time Nadine's fingers pierce her. A flush of heat barrels into her head. The noise that erupts from her mouth is something between a cry of surprise and a lust-addled moan.

Nadine doesn’t stop, either. She fucks Chloe relentlessly with two fingers, then three, all the while whispering absolutely filthy things into her ear, things like, “Good girl,” and “Are you going to come for me?” and what the fuck, Chloe Frazer is not a bottom, she’s not, but Christ if this isn’t killing her in all the right ways. She feels as if she’s literally going out of her mind. Never in her life has she imagined Nadine Ross being a connoisseur of dirty talk, nevermind being so bloody good at it.

She comes in less than five minutes, turning her head to the side and moaning loudly into Nadine’s warm neck, the hot-soaked clench of her insides squeezing hard at the fingers inside of her. Nadine gives her a minute to relax, then draws them out, slowly, covered in her slick, and rubs the hard knot of her clit in messy circles until she comes a second time, hips jerking unsteadily, throat gone sore from all the gasping and groaning.

And, as Chloe did last night, she tries to reciprocate, really. She’s tired, sure, but not to the point of unconsciousness like before. Feeling warm and goopy and happy, she kisses the line of Nadine’s jaw daringly, then asks in her roughest sex-voice, “Ready for your turn, love?”

But Nadine only gives her that thoughtful look again, and then, to Chloe’s surprise, eases the clever hand edging its way into her sweatpants away and holds it in her own, her grip loose and gentle. “I’m alright.”

Chloe hesitates, wondering if maybe Nadine thinks she won’t be able to look after or protect Chloe so well if she’s having an orgasm too, which is just, well, stupid. Chloe doesn’t like to be selfish when it comes to sex. She wants to share. That Nadine seems so intent to keep her from touching her is a bit frustrating. Chloe is used to being the one who does the work, not the one held down and fucked within an inch of her life. Not that she doesn’t like that, mind.

“Nadine,” she says, imploring. “I want to.”

Nadine gives her a soft, affectionate look. “I know you do.” She looks down, away. Then back, and meets her eyes firmly. “But I’m alright, ja?”

...Oh.

Chloe gets it, sort of. That, with sex, there are people in the world who like the doing very, very much, but aren’t so keen on the getting done part. There are also some people who want to have sex all the time, and some who don’t want to have sex at all. She won’t lie—it’s a little disappointing, not being able to show her partner exactly what she’s capable of, but she’s not insensitive enough to force the issue, or pitch a fit about it. If Nadine doesn’t want a turn, then Chloe won’t make her have one. Chloe has plenty of other ways to show her growing adoration for her partner.

Only...

It occurs to her, just then, that though they’ve now had sex several times, they haven’t actually kissed once.

“Will…” she begins to ask, and then stops, suddenly and stupidly shy. For Christ’s sake, this woman just fingered her twice, and now Chloe feels silly for asking for a kiss. Nadine looks down at her expectantly, her wet fingers resting on the outside of Chloe’s thigh. “Nevermind.”

“Tell me.” It’s not a command, but it’s close, and Chloe quivers at the sound.

“I wanted a kiss,” she mumbles.

Nadine seems to consider it for a moment. Then she leans slightly forward. Chloe’s heart leaps into her throat. Nadine’s mouth is solid and warm and open. She kisses Chloe firmly and thoroughly in a way that has Chloe’s eyelids fluttering and her head dipping back like they do on those stupid romance movies. Nadine’s tongue sweeps across hers and Chloe whimpers, not yet desperate enough for air to pull away. Just as she’s getting lightheaded for several reasons, only one being the need for oxygen, Nadine retreats, their lips parting wetly. Chloe collapses back on her pillow, breathless and tingling. Put it to her partner to be bloody amazing at kissing, too. Above her, Nadine doesn’t look smug, exactly, but it’s a near thing.

 

 

Things go back to normal after that, for the most part.

Really, the only difference from before is now she and Nadine are having sex practically every night. Or, if Chloe had to put a certain way—and her partner sure knows how to put it a certain way, let her tell you—Nadine is fucking her to bits, practically every night, and it’s bloody wonderful.

Chloe starts to anticipate it, to look forward to it with a great amount of excitement. By 7 or 8PM, she’s usually soaking wet and trying with all her might to pretend she’s not, since Nadine always seems so infuriatingly unaffected, glancing over at Chloe with a blank expression as she squirms on the couch beside her during their evening movie, or while they’re readying for bed. Chloe doesn’t buy it—her partner’s diffidence. Acting like she doesn’t know and doesn’t care about Chloe’s state of almost perpetual arousal. Jesus.

And why does that do it for her, anyways? The confidence, the nonchalance, something like neglect but nothing so severe. Chloe’s almost forty. She was sure she’d discovered all of her sexual interests and fantasies already. This one is surprising. It’s needy and juvenile and fuck her, but it works. The kicker is just how excellent Nadine actually is at it, without any apparent effort on her part.

Tonight, Nadine seems intent on trying something new once they’ve gotten into bed, and after making eye contact with Chloe—seeking permission, it seems—she draws off her already damp underwear and, without preamble, slides herself down to lower her face between her thighs.

Chloe nearly jolts off the bed just from the sight alone. Then those hands are at her hips again, holding her down with force. Chloe reaches down and curls her fingers into Nadine’s thick hair and just hangs on for dear life. Nadine doesn’t even use her fingers, just licks and sucks at her with a hunger of someone starved. When Chloe comes, she tries her best not to suffocate her partner in the warm, sweaty clamp of her thighs. Nadine licks her through it, then sits up on her knees for a moment, her lips and chin visibly wet, eyes gleaming ferociously, and flips Chloe over so she can fuck her from behind, using her hips to help piston her fingers with such force Chloe has to brace herself with her arms so she doesn't fall onto her face in a heap.

Afterwards, Nadine lies back and puts Chloe into a kneeling position above her so Chloe is basically sitting on her face. By that point, Chloe stops trying to be so goddamned quiet and just howls. She can’t even last a few minutes. It’s just—too much. Nadine doesn’t let her go that easily, either, and works her again and again until Chloe is too boneless to continue.

As she catches her breath, Nadine looming above her as always, decorating her sweat-dotted shoulders with light, playful kisses, Chloe is struck with an aching need, and plucks at Nadine’s shirt until she looks up.

“Can you… I won’t touch, but—can I just, see you?”

Nadine is quiet. Chloe is scared she’ll be denied, but then Nadine sits up and slowly draws her shirt off over her head. The lights from the warehouses outside gleam red against the furrows of muscle on her arms and shoulders. She is not wearing a bra. Her breasts are the only soft thing about her. The waistband of her sweatpants cling to the curve of her hips, the ridge of muscle where thigh meets abdomen begging for Chloe’s attention.

Her breath catches as Nadine eases off her sweatpants, leaving herself in the sexiest pair of lady briefs Chloe’s ever seen in her life. She resolves to sit on her hands so she won’t reach out or get too grabby. Nadine notices her struggle and smiles fondly, taking both those hands into one of hers and pulling them above Chloe’s head. Then she removes the string from her cast off sweatpants and ties her hands there. Chloe practically implodes.

The rest of the night is a delirious blur of pleasure and screams. Chloe has a sore throat the next morning, but it's nothing a little tea won’t fix.

Still, it gets her thinking, this thing that’s happening between her and Nadine. Makes her wonder what’s in it for Nadine (other than the obvious satisfaction of making a woman scream in pleasure for hours at a time). Does Nadine even want her that way? Chloe thinks she does. Or, maybe she just hopes. But why would Nadine touch her, if she didn’t? Chloe may blatantly stare when Nadine’s over in her fitness corner, sweating and grunting away, but Chloe’s caught her partner a few times peeking at her when she has her turn, straining and contorting herself into tricky poses for her yoga. So perhaps the attraction is mutual.

One time, Chloe’s in the shower after a sweaty round of yoga, considering getting herself off once or twice while she’s in there so she won’t be begging for it so badly by tonight and embarrassing herself. There’s a knock on the door.

“Chloe. Forgot my phone in there.”

Through the steamed up glass door, Chloe can see it, sitting on the corner on the sink. “Come in,” she says, without thinking too hard about it. She hears the door open, and then a moment later feels a hot prickle sweep up her back, and looks over her shoulder to find Nadine staring intensely at her naked body through the foggy shower walls. Chloe freezes. In less than a second, she’s wet in a way that has nothing to do with the spray from the showerhead above.

Nadine has that look on her face again, the same look she had the night they first had sex. Chloe recognizes it now—it's the look her partner gets when she’s deciding whether a certain risk will be worth it or not. Chloe finds she can’t move for anticipation, the hot water pounding down on her head and chest, hair slicked to her neck and shoulders, her knees already going a little weak at the prospect of Nadine joining her in there. Nadine looks like she’s sorely tempted. She even sways a bit closer, then seems to realize what she’s doing and stops. She turns smartly, snatches her phone from the sink, and leaves.

She gives it to Chloe that night, though. Several times, as if in payback.

So, there is attraction. But, this thing between them—it’s not just lust. Chloe can feel it. It isn't some one-off, casual thing. It goes deeper. Nadine cares. It’s really sort of obvious, once Chloe thinks about it. Why else would her partner come all the way to London at the drop of a hat and then spirit her off to Cape Town, over eight thousand miles away? Why else would she seem so terribly intent on protecting Chloe, personally, trusting only herself to keep her safe? Why else would she hold her as she cried, let her bloody live with her, cook for her, sleep in her bed? Honestly, if all that doesn’t mean Nadine Ross loves her, Chloe doesn’t know what will.

It takes a bit, for that to really hit Chloe—that Nadine Ross, her business partner and much-more-than-friend, loves her—and when it does, the timing could’ve been better.

They’re in bed, working on Chloe’s third orgasm of the night when it happens; one moment, Nadine’s looming over her and fucking her so good, the muscles in her arms standing out like steel cords in the faint light, Chloe’s head thrown back, ragged moans ripping up her throat as her hips start to jump—and the next, a bowling wave of emotion sweeps through her to settle and build in her chest, pressing down at her lungs until she can barely breathe and pricking the corners of her eyes with burning tears.

Nadine, of course, notices immediately. She stops what she’s doing, even tries to snatch her hand back from between Chloe’s legs before Chloe squeezes them together to keep her there.

No-no-no—

“Chloe,” says Nadine, sounding worried.

Chloe shakes her head, buries her face into the sweat-damp crook of Nadine’s neck and shoulder. “I’m fine, I’m fine, please—” She swallows against the tightness in her throat, begs, “Keep going, please.”

And Nadine does, but softer now. Slower. She wrings the pleasure from Chloe’s body with patience and care. Chloe can feel it, in the tender press of her fingers, in the subdued force of her kisses; Nadine’s love, ignored before yet now terribly apparent. It shakes her. She clings to Nadine’s neck and buries her face into her soft hair as she comes with a breathy little whimper.

Eventually, Nadine pulls gently back and leans up on her elbow, looking down at Chloe with a soft, affectionate expression, like she knows exactly what Chloe is thinking. Like she understands. She doesn’t ask for Chloe to explain herself, to return the sentiment. She just smiles at her in a way that makes Chloe’s heart pang, then leans down and kisses her sweetly, tasting of that same love and sweetness and everything else Chloe is so terribly grateful for.

Boy, is she in trouble now.

 

 

“I found them,” says Nadine.

“Them?” Chloe repeats, caught off guard from her lazy spot on the couch, reclined against the cushions, phone in hand.

It’s now been three weeks since her apartment got torched and all her things destroyed. Though she still has to deal with random bouts of restlessness every so often, Chloe has, for the most part, settled into her new, mundane life with Nadine happily enough, following her routines of eat, sleep and work religiously, to the point of them becoming almost second nature. Hearing those words, I found them, is like a suckerpunch to the back of the head, a crash back into reality from the dreamstate where they’ve existed throughout the past few weeks. Despite having only just that afternoon clicked about on her laptop to do exactly that—find the ones responsible for creating this situation in the first place—Chloe’s brain struggles to make the connection.

“The ones who tried to kill you,” Nadine clarifies, as if Chloe’s forgotten about them or something. Which, okay, maybe she sort of has. All the sex recently has been a little distracting. Sue her.

Nadine skirts the side of the couch and comes to stand in front of Chloe. She’s dressed to go out, Chloe notices with increasing alarm, despite the late hour—combat boots and heavy trousers, t-shirt and a light, fatigue-green jacket, gun holster strapped to her left hip. Her hair is up, eyes dark. Nadine seems calm, but Chloe can sense an underlying fury, a tremble to her partner’s hands, tucked within the crooks of her elbows, arms crossed and flexing subtly over her chest.

Chloe puts her phone down and sits up, intrigued by the news yet feeling a creeping sense of dread crawling up her spine. “Well, don’t keep me in suspense, love. Who is it?”

Nadine’s tone is hard. Blunt. “Shoreline.”

...Shit.

“Shoreline?” Chloe guffaws in disbelief. “Shoreline’s dead. Twice-dead. We got rid of the rest of them back in India, what, six months ago, at least?”

“Orca died, and a great deal of my men. His men, at that point.” Nadine grimaces. Then her face goes blank again. “But another of my lieutenants escaped, with a small force. Less than a dozen, from what I can tell. They retreated back to Johannesburg, and since India, they’ve been plotting for a counterattack. Revenge, I guess.”

“Revenge? For what, making them look like idiots back there? Seems a bit extreme to blow my place up for.” Chloe sighs. “What exactly is their problem with me, anyways?”

The hands tucked under Nadine’s elbows clench into fists. “That’s the thing. They don’t have a problem with you.”

Chloe scoffs again, trying to keep her own tone light and careful, wary of upsetting Nadine—her previous reaction to learning that Shoreline was working against them had not been one of her best. “Pretty sure my burnt belongings would argue with you there. I mean, what did I ever do to them, other than ruin all their plans and work with their ex-boss? If anything, you’d think they’d want to go after you.”

“That’s why they’re gunning for you.” Nadine’s jaw tightens. “To get back at me.”

What…?

“Why would hurting me get back at you?

“Because they know.” The fists under Nadine’s arms are white-knuckled now. “That you matter to me. My men know me, Chloe. They’ve worked under me for years. They can tell. They’re fighting dirty—they can’t get to me themselves, so they've decided to go after you instead.”

And, ok, Chloe’s not sure if she buys that or not, but either way, she can see where this is going, in Nadine’s head. Right now, her partner is thinking, This means it’s my fault that Chloe was targeted and hurt. It’s my fault her apartment was destroyed. It my fault she was so scared she couldn’t sleep for the nightmares. Because that’s textbook Nadine Ross—blaming herself for the faults of her partner. Making herself into the bad guy, just so she has someone to be upset with. And Chloe can’t stand it.

She’s off the couch in a flash. “Show me,” she says.

Nadine turns it over—all of the research she’s gleaned in the past three weeks, either by her own hand through her online searching or scuttled by her numerous contacts in the area. Where Chloe’s come up empty on nearly every avenue—who, what, when and how did any of this happen—Nadine has it all laid out, clear as day. She has names, ranks, years of experience of all those involved. She has a list of guns and munitions bought on the black market, vehicles rented, everything.

By the looks of it, this motley crew of former Shoreline men have cobbled their skills into something approaching a semi-threatening force. Among others, Chloe sees two specialists, a medic, and more than one hacker in the bunch. The rest appear to be little more than hired muscle.

“So, what’s the plan, then?” Chloe asks, once she’s seen her fill.

For the first time in recent memory, Nadine appears faintly trepidous. “I’ve found where they’re based, in lower Johannesburg. I’m going there to meet them. Tonight.”

Chloe hears the pause. The unsaid, And you’re staying here. Her temper, rarely roused, flares.

“So am I,” she says briskly.

“No,” Nadine says at once. “I can’t, Chloe. I’m already going in there blind, I can’t bring you with me. You’ve never been to Johannesburg. Even if I let you come and try to hide you nearby, they’ll know. You’re safer here.”

“Right,” Chloe snaps. “Because both of us were safe on that train in India, weren’t we?” She makes herself walk away, caught between wanting to give Nadine her own punch on the nose or put her shoes on and just—just bloody leave. “You know what? Fine. If you want to get your goddamn head shot off without me, I—”

“I’m not going to fight them,” says Nadine. Chloe stops, turns to her, surprised. “I’m going to talk with them. Make a deal. Bargain, if I have to.”

“If you think I’m going to let you trade yourself in for me—” Chloe snarls.

“No, that’s not—”

“No? Sure about that?”

“It’s not,” Nadine insists. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Chloe.”

Chloe can’t help a bitter, “Sure, ‘cause I’m the only one who tells lies here, aren’t I?”

Nadine has the gall to roll her eyes at her. “That’s not what I meant.” She uncrosses her arms and stuffs her hands into her pockets. “Look. The deal I’m going to make it—it’s personal.”

“Personal?”

The hesitation in Nadine’s face is palpable. “I’m going to sign over all my rights to the company to whoever is in charge, over there.”

Right, like that makes any sense. “How do you still have rights for a company that turned against you?”

“My men turned against me. I technically still own Shoreline. My father gave it to me. My name is all over the paperwork. If these men ever want to go legit, stop working for dirty money, high risk, no reward, and try to earn a living doing what they’re doing, they need my name taken off the company, for legality’s sake.”

“And you’re just going to… do that, then.”

“Yes.”

Chloe takes a moment for that to sink in. To save her, Nadine is willing to give up her father’s legacy. To hand it over to a band of turncoats who have tried on multiple occasions to kill her, and besmirched her father’s name besides.

She shakes her head. “I won’t let you do this for—”

“I’m doing it for me,” Nadine interrupts. “I told you, before, that I was done with Shoreline. I meant it.”

Chloe looks into her eyes and sees it there—that Nadine is telling the truth. She really doesn’t care that she has to give her company away. That Chloe might be safe in doing so is just a bonus, at this point. She tries to work the sour taste out of her mouth, swallowing down all her objections.

“Just, doesn’t feel right,” she mutters. “Giving it up without a fight.”

“I’m sure we’ll see them again at some point in the future,” Nadine says, with an expectant gleam in her eye. Chloe can already tell the retribution will be legendary. “We’ll put up a fight, then.”

“It’s your company, love,” Chloe says, “so I won’t tell you what to do with it. But I still don’t want you to go alone.”

“I have to.” Nadine steps closer, until she and Chloe are almost touching. Chloe trembles against the instinctive urge to fall against her. “And I need to do it alone. Please, Chloe.”

Hearing her—the faint warble in those words, a crack in the foundation of confidence—Chloe knew that if she absolutely demanded it, Nadine would take her along. She also knew that, leaving here, Nadine would need to be absolutely sure with not only herself but also Chloe. Forcing herself along would make Nadine weaker. Make her more cautious, more prone to a mistake, for fear of bringing Chloe into danger. Chloe wanted to be with her, but she didn’t want to break the woman. So she helped the only way she could, and gave in.

“Fine,” she says, not bothering to hide the angry edge in her voice. “If this turns out to be a mistake, or a bloody trap, and you die…” She takes a deep breath, lets it out shakily. “I will never forgive you.”

“I’ll come back,” Nadine says, like it’s as easy as that. She doesn’t move, just looks at Chloe expectantly. She wants to say goodbye, Chloe realizes a moment later. She almost doesn’t want to give it to her, wants to walk away and sulk instead, just to deny her something, at least. But, ultimately, she can’t, because if this is the last time she sees her partner, she’ll kick herself for not getting that one last kiss goodbye.

She leans in petulantly. Nadine copies her, her face soft. When they do kiss, she tastes like an apology and a promise in one.

“I love you,” Nadine whispers into her hair as they hug, and Chloe’s throat swells. Of course, she would tell her now.

“You’re a stupid, selfish dickhead,” Chloe whispers back. “But for some reason I love you too.”

They hold each other a moment longer. Then Nadine lets go and steps back. She takes another look at Chloe, as if maybe memorizing her face and body, then turns and leaves the apartment, the door sliding and locking shut behind her.

For the first time since Chloe arrived to Cape Town more than three weeks ago, she goes to sleep alone.

Or, not entirely. Poeksie hops onto the bed with her, meowing for Nadine, and Chloe doesn’t have the heart to shoo her off, despite the anxiety pooling in her veins. She lets the little cat curl up in Nadine’s spot beside her and listens to the soft thrum of her purring as she tries and fails to tell herself that everything will be alright.

She falls asleep despite her nerves, and dreams of her worries made real.

 

 

Nadine’s late.

Very late.

Like, time-to-worry late.

Chloe’s done the math. Nadine left yesterday, past 9PM. A flight to Johannesburg takes a little more than two hours, so round it up to midnight for arrival time, just in case of a delay. Sorting business out would take, if Chloe had to guess, maybe 2 hours in all, if she’s being generous. Surely, Nadine and her men had plenty to talk about—with lots of compromising, threatening, bargaining and the like, or however Nadine planned on getting it done. Actual paperwork, crossing I’s and dotting T’s, would take maybe another hour or so. And that’s only if Nadine decided to find the men and get started immediately with the process of giving up her father's company, and didn’t wait until morning, when it would be more likely that the men were all gathered in one place.

Either way, it’s now past 3PM of the next day, and Nadine, who should have arrived back in Cape Town by now, is nowhere to be seen.

Last night, just after she’d left to head to the airport, Nadine had sent a single text. It had read, Don’t text until you hear from me first. And, ok, fine. Probably, it’s too dangerous to text each other while still unsure of the men who clearly have it in for them. But Chloe would still like to know what the goddamn hell is going on.

At 3:23, her phone buzzes. Chloe practically jumps out of her skin at the sound.

It’s from Nadine.

its done

Rather than feel a surge of relief, Chloe has a moment of uncertainty. Nadine Ross is a stickler for proper punctuation and grammar when it comes to texting, a habit Chloe has mercilessly teased her about throughout their time in business together. The two words currently glowing up at her from her cellphone screen are suspiciously unkempt.

Or maybe Nadine is just tired, and not bothering with such frivolities.

Still, Chloe hesitates. Probably, she shouldn’t answer, or at least wait for another message to arrive and go from there. But she’s worried about her partner, desperate for any bit of news, and what harm could it possibly do, to type something back?

She sends in return a simple message.

You cool?

If it really is Nadine on the other end of the line, she'll answer with a succinct, I’m cool. If it’s not, well, Chloe will decide how to deal with it, then.

Minutes pass without a reply, and Chloe starts to sweat. After an entire hour, Chloe is starting to think something’s gone terribly wrong.

Then she hears the faint, distant sound of tires screeching on pavement outside, and knows something has.

Immediately, she reacts, instinct taking over. She bolts from where she’s been nervously pacing by the couch over to the nearest window, trying to pinpoint the sound. Below, she can see the array of other warehouses and empty stretches of dark pavement between.

And, there. A vehicle. Black. SUV. Chloe doesn’t recognize the plates. It’s stopped across the lot from the apartment. The doors open, and six masked men get out. In their hands are automatic weapons.

Chloe’s heart drops. It’s Shoreline—has to be. Did they trace Chloe’s location from her text to Nadine’s phone? So it wasn’t her partner who sent the message. Meaning, there's no telling how long they've had Nadine captive. Hours, maybe. Enough time to devise a way to trick Chloe, and then organize this attack. She doesn't even know if Nadine is alive or dead. 

Goddamn it!

The men gather in front of the SUV, heads together, talking. Suddenly, they jump, heads jerking to the side. Chloe’s jaw drops as, out of nowhere, another SUV appears and rams into the first one, sending both skidding across the lot. The men scatter. One gets caught up in the crash and is knocked flat to the ground in a painful daze. The SUVs come to a halt, smoke streaming from the hood, and out of the second vehicle comes Nadine—

—no, wait, that’s not Nadine—it’s not her partner, it’s—it’s Aia bloody Ross herself, the heavy knot of her dreadlocks knocked loose around her shoulders, brandishing a pistol. She’s every bit as fierce as her daughter, using her driver’s side door as cover and taking potshots at the men, who duck away and fire back sporadically. Soon the windshield and hood of Aia’s wrecked SUV is pockmarked by bulletholes. The men regroup quickly, and begin to advance on Aia, who is forced to fall back, but not before shooting one of the men in the neck and dropping him dead and winging two others in the leg and arm. The rest pursue her as she turns and flees toward the cover of a nearby warehouse.

Leave her the bloody hell alone! It’s me you want, you goddamn cowards! ” Chloe slams her palms against the window, shouting at the top of her lungs, though she’s sure no one can hear her, up here. She needs to get outside, needs to help Aia, and find out what happened to Nadine, now.

There are no catches or handles at any of the windows, so Chloe dashes across the room and grabs one of Nadine’s metal dumbbells from the corner, then returns to the window and starts hammering at the glass, bashing the pane over and over with all her strength.

It doesn’t even crack. Bloody bulletproof, shatterproof, whatever, she realizes.

“Shit!” She throws the weight down and goes looking for something heftier, intent on trying again, then abandons the idea and goes for the front door instead, inspecting the massive slab of metal for a way out. There are no locks or keyholes to turn on this side—nothing to pick—and plus, there’s the keypad to content with. She is, essentially, stuck in here while Nadine’s mother has a gunfight just outside.

Chloe hears a thud, freezes. She presses her ear to the door and listens hard. Someone’s entered the garage, she thinks. The sound of bootsteps grows louder. Someone is climbing the stairs now, and approaching the apartment door. Chloe backs away warily. Is it the men, or is it Aia?

Also, side note, she’s going to kill Nadine for not leaving a weapon with her, a serious oversight she’s only noticed that moment.

The locks snick without a jingle of keys. Chloe feels a pulse of alarm. Then she hears a blip as the keypad accepts the input code and relaxes, but only slightly. Only Nadine or her mother would have the correct—

The door clunks and slides open.

It’s not Nadine or Aia.

It’s one of the masked man from outside. In one hand is some electrical gadget Chloe presumes he’s just used to hack the door. In the other is a pistol, aimed right at her head.

Chloe immediately puts her hands up and slaps a disarming smile on her face, because what else can you do when there’s a goddamned gun pointed at you and you don't even have socks on? Maybe she can talk her way out of this one. She’s done it before, with worse, and—

The man cocks the gun with a spine-chilling click. He doesn’t lower it, not one millimeter. His eyes are utterly cold. He’s here to kill her. Period.

Well. Shit.

“I—” Chloe starts, just as the man’s finger tightens on the trigger—

—and in a blur of multi-toned fur Poeksie shoots between the man’s ankles with a shrill, terrified yowl as she dashes out the open door. Despite himself, the man flinches. It’s all Chloe needs.

She dives sideways, toward the couch, scrambling to get behind cover. The man’s gun goes off, spectacularly loud in the open apartment. The bullet pops past Chloe’s shoulder and buries itself into Nadine’s floor. Chloe covers her head with her arms, hits the ground and rolls to relative safety.

Once there, she flattens herself against the back of the couch and listens for what the man at the door will do next, frantically try to come up with a plan of some kind. Damn Nadine and this apartment’s open layout! There’s literally nowhere for Chloe to go with walls other than the bloody bathroom. She’ll have to dodge from cover to cover to get there. Then, all she can do is barricade the door and hope the bloke doesn’t shoot her silly in the meantime.

Alright, fine. Forget that idea.

What else is there, then? Try to slip past him and get out the door so, what, he can shoot her in the back? No thanks. Literally, her only other option is to kill him.

And, well. Okay. Maybe she can manage that one.

Need the fellow to get a little closer, though. She can already hear him, edging closer to the couch with slow, unsure steps. Has he lost his nerve already? She’ll need to be quick about this—she really doesn’t want to get Nadine’s place all shot up. Already, those hardwood boards are going to be a pain to fix.

Whoever he is, this guy, Chloe notices at once, isn’t a veteran. As he’s the one who hacked the door, she guesses his style of battle is more behind-the-computer type. Maybe he’s the only one who could make it up here while all his buddies are being kept busy by Aia. Good for Chloe, then.

She barely breathes as she waits for the intruder to come closer. The man’s gun appears, muzzle shaking slightly, turning the corner of the couch before the rest of him does. It’s easy for Chloe to lunge before he sees her. Then, but pure instinct, she executes one of the self-defense moves Nadine drilled into her over the past few weeks—an overhand sweep to the extended wrist to disarm followed by a quick twist and toss to bring your target into your control. Chloe flips the man, who probably weighs at least half again what she does, over her hip and drives him to the floor under her.

They hit, hard. Moving by muscle memory alone, she wrenches him into a submissive hold Nadine’s personally used on her at least a dozen times—a guillotine choke, she believes it’s called—then bears down the way her partner told her to only if she wanted to kill her opponent. The man is bigger but not stronger than Nadine and struggles fiercely. He frees an arm trapped between them and punches Chloe in the ribs, but Chloe just hisses air past her teeth at the pain and bears down even harder. She feels his throat spasm against her forearm. His thrashing slows. Finally, he stops.

She holds the choke until he stops breathing, then drops him, grabs his gun where she knocked it, and quickly pats him down, then tears out the apartment door in her bare feet, soles slapping down the metal stairway to the garage below. The door has been left open. Outside, Chloe can hear the distant pop, whine and ping of an ensuing gunfight. Aia is still giving them hell. She can really see where Nadine gets it now.

Two men are on the ground by the smashed up SUVs—the one Aia hit with her initial ram, and the one she shot in the neck. Chloe makes sure both are down for the count before moving on. A blood trail leads her to another warehouse nearby, where she can hear the remaining three men yelling orders to one another, trying to get around Aia’s cover, where she’s hunkered behind several crates. Each of the men is bloody in at least one spot from stray bullets—Missus Ross is not going down without a fight.

One man stands, a grenade in hand. He pulls the pin and prepares to throw. Chloe aims, shoots him in the arm. The man shouts and drops the grenade. All three scramble just before a thunderous detonation. When the smoke clears, there are only two men up and about.

“Chloe! Go back inside!” shouts Aia from her cover.

“Sure! Right after I deal with these idiots!”

The men, who now realize they’re positioned with enemies on both sides, begin to fire wildly at Chloe in a panic. Chloe ducks away, firing back. She hits one in the shoulder. He shouts and seems to lose his nerve, turning and running the other way. The last man holds his ground. He fires and hits Chloe in the side of the leg. The roar of firey pain nearly knocks her off her feet. She stumbles, and looks up to the find the man approaching with gun outstretched, a cruel, triumphant grin on his face.

The crack of a gunshot echoes across the lot. The man staggers, looks down at the blood that has suddenly appeared on his chest, and falls. Behind him, Aia Ross stands, her lips drawn into a sneer. She nudges the crumpled man with her foot, then goes to help Chloe.

“Here, liefe, let me see that.” She takes a knife to Chloe’s pants so they can see the injury better, then cuts a strip of her own shirt to tie around Chloe’s leg to staunch the bleeding. “You will live. Thank you, for coming to my rescue.”

Chloe smiles up at her dopily. The pain is making her a bit loopy. “Anything for a Ross.” She looks about. “Say, where’d that last guy go?”

Aia nudges her chin off to the side, and Chloe turns to see the last man running across the empty lot. She’s about to ask what they should do about him when she hears the roar of an engine. Nadine’s black Rav4 squeals into view, clips the man in the hip and sends him rolling. The Rav4 comes to a sharp halt, and Nadine gets out. She shoots the man almost flippantly, then casts about, as if feverishly looking for something. Then she catches sight of them, and the murderous look on her face fades. She jogs over.

Ma! Chloe!”

“China,” Chloe replies weakly, still unable to get up, her the leg the way it is.

Aia tsks. “Thought I raised you better than to show up late to a party, bokkie.”

Nadine’s lost her jacket and her hair is lose and tangled. There’s blood on her side, staining her shirt black, and more crusted on her temple, where she’s been punched hard enough to raise a dark purple weal.

“Did you let her out?” she asks her mother with obvious disapproval.

“Ex-cuse me,” Chloe interrupts. “They got in.”

“They—” Nadine groans, as if at her own ineptitude. She reaches down and with supreme ease hefts Chloe into her arms, bridal style, despite her protests about hurting herself any further. “Must’ve run a bootleg program into my keypad,” she muses, almost to herself. “Hacked the lock, picked the rest. I should’ve cut the power, before I left. The failsafes wouldn’t have let the locks unengage. I’m sorry, Chloe.”

“You’re goddamn right you are,” Chloe says valiantly through the pain. Her leg is slick with blood but she finds it hard to care at this point. “C’mere and show me just how much.” She grabs her partner by the ears and kisses her, deeply. Nadine lets her. Chloe hears Aia laugh and then try to disguise it as a cough. It doesn’t work very well, but it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?

 

 

And, so, just like that, it’s over. Or, close enough for Chloe.

Turns out, Nadine never made it to that plane to Johannesburg. Before she’d even reached the airport, she’d been ambushed on a back road—she killed four men before they took her down, impeded by a glancing bullet to the side—and then taken to some unknown location by the docks, where the men had tied her down, roughed her up, and questioned her relentlessly of Chloe’s location. Nadine’s suspicions had been proven true—the men wanted to hit Nadine where it hurt, and killing Chloe was their way of punishing Nadine for India and everything afterwards. Plan was, soon as Chloe was dead, Nadine would go shortly after.

Not even offering the company to the men had worked. None were interested in going legit, just out for for a quick, bloody revenge. Chloe had feared as much, but was happy to learn that, for the most part, the men were idiots, too afraid of Nadine to truly torture her for the information they so desperately needed. After a few punches and some pointed guns, they’d stopped, none of them capable of anything more ruthless.

So, they’d ultimately gone a different route, and texted Chloe with Nadine’s phone. By texting her back, Chloe had indeed inadvertently pinged her location. The men had then left Nadine under guard (stupid) and gone to her apartment to deal with Chloe.

Naturally, it’d taken Nadine less than ten minutes to free herself, kill the guards, and then somehow find a way to notify her mother of the impending attack. Aia had a head start on Nadine and had headed immediately to interrupt their ambush while Nadine got back to her vehicle and gave chase as well.

In the end, they’d gotten just about as lucky as Chloe had, when her place went up in smoke. Nobody was dead, just tired and a bit banged up.

In the aftermath, Nadine makes a few phone calls as Aia cleans, stitches, and bandages the wound on Chloe’s leg, which feels worse than it actually is—but don’t tell her that, it bloody hurts! Twenty minutes later, a team of five men in fatigues arrive. Under Nadine’s stern direction, they take away all of the bodies of the Shoreline men without fuss, and even stay to help clean up afterwards, mopping blood off Nadine’s floor and towing the two smashed SUVs away. Chloe’s seriously impressed.

Aia lingers after the men leave, checking each of their injuries over with a critical eye and applying care to every little bump and scrape with the overbearance of a mother who was very worried and still hasn’t entirely recovered. Chloe relishes her maternal affections, laughing at the admonishing looks Aia keeps shooting at her daughter, as if it’s entirely her fault Chloe was left in such danger and subsequently hurt in the firefight. Eventually, appearing only somewhat mollified by all she's done, Aia hugs both Chloe and Nadine tightly—whispering “Lief vir jou” to her daughter—before bidding them farewell.

“I will see you again soon, liefe,” she tells Chloe, who beams back at her in reply.

Then it’s just them again.

Or, it is, but only until they manage to find Poeksie, curled up in a frightened little ball in the corner of the garage beneath some old boxes, her tail thick as a bottlebrush, pupils dilated wide. Nadine manages to coax her out from hiding and bring her inside. The second they’re in, Poeksie disappears in a blur to hide under the bureau, but Nadine assures Chloe the poor cat is fine, just startled by all the activity.

Nadine cooks them a late supper, moving cautiously so as not to irritate the stitches in her side—really, Chloe’s fine with leftovers, but for some reason, Nadine insists. Propped on the arm of the couch, her injured leg lying flat across the cushions, Chloe watches as her partner tends their sizzling, delicious-smelling meal with her usual air of confidence, and makes the unpleasant realization that this very well might be the last time in a good while that she gets to witness this.

She hates thinking about it, but it’s true. Their entire reason for being in this situation, for living together, has now been resolved. What, exactly, is keeping her here any longer, other than the weak excuse of a bum leg? She came here because someone wanted her dead. Now those people are dead, and she’s safe again, so probably, she should leave, right?

Even the idea seems awful, though. She’s gotten used to this; being with Nadine. She wants it. ‘Course, too much a good thing is bad and all that, but still, Chloe'd rather not be the one to bring it up. Nadine seems just as reluctant, eating in silence across from her.

They turn in early, brushing their teeth beside one another in the bathroom and helping each other change into comfortable clothes. Afterwards, they curl up in bed together, Chloe yanking Nadine’s arm to drape over her waist and pressing herself as close as she can to her partner without jarring her leg too badly, or putting pressure on Nadine’s injured side. The smell of her is like a balm to a wound.

She tugs Nadine closer by the back of the neck, kisses her slowly. “Thank you. For everything.”

Nadine looks deep into her eyes, expression softening. “Ja.” She swallows, then says with visible trepidation, “I’d do anything for you, you know that, right?”

“Same here,” says Chloe, and grins. They kiss again. Chloe’s toes curl. Christ, she’s going to miss this. The intimacy of existing in the same space, and sharing their time together. The bloody amazing sex she’s been having day after day. Plus all those little things, like the sight of Nadine’s bare toes in the mornings before she gets dressed, the way she sings under her breath sometimes when she cooks. The feel of her arm, draped across Chloe’s side in bed, the solid weight of it. It’s so goddamn domestic, sure, but you know what? Chloe likes it. Alot.

“You must be getting tired of me being here,” she says ruefully, looking away when Nadine turns to her with a frown. “It’s okay. I know you value your privacy. It must have been hard, giving that up. But I appreciate it.”

Nadine is quiet for a bit. “I like having you here,” she says quietly. “In my apartment. Using my things. Sleeping in my bed.”

Chloe shivers. That’s all it takes for her now. A little praise and she’s soaked. “Yeah?”

“Ja.” Nadine clears her throat, darts her eyes away. “But you probably want to get back to London soon, now that this is all over. Go apartment hunting, yeah?”

Chloe shrugs, presses her nose to Nadine’s jaw. Murmurs, “I dunno. I kinda like getting spoiled here, right now.” London will always be waiting for her, after all. Why rush back?

Nadine is quiet, giving her an intently thoughtful look. Chloe nearly squirms until Nadine says, softly, “You can stay here as long as you like, Chloe.”

A soft chuckle leaves Chloe’s throat. “Careful, china,” she says, as a happy flush spreads throughout her chest and belly, making her whole body tingle warmly. “Keep saying things like that, and you’ll never get rid of me.” She cups her partner’s face in her palm, her thumb brushing the corner of her mouth.

“Lucky me," Nadine says, and smiles. It's beautiful.