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Safety in Numbers

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

Now, hear her out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until today, that is. Figures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You’re coming with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chloe goes.

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

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

“My place,” Nadine replies gruffly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then her eyes are closed and she’s out.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(There aren’t, and she isn’t.)

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

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

“Cape Town.”

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

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

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

Nadine snorts lightly. Chloe counts it as a laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You have a cat?” she asks in shock.

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

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

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

“What’s his name?”

"Her name is Poeksie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Which side is mine?” she teases.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Sleep,” Nadine commands, and Chloe obeys.

 

       

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shower will help, though.

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

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

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

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She attempts a teeth-gritted, “Fine?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gets turned on.

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

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

Or maybe the woman is just really bloody straight.

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

"Let me know if you need anymore help.”

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

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

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

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

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

"Good?” she says.

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

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

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

That, however, is a story for another time.

Her stomach growls. Loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A girl could get used to it, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything is fine.

'Course, that night, the nightmares come.

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

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

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

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

Mrrrp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"No, it’s just…”

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

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

It’s quiet for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good night, Chloe,” Nadine says.

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

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.