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The Keeper and the Curator

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Chloe’s not a stalker. She’s not.

But there comes a time in life when subtlety needs to be thrown out the window, and hands have to get dirty, in order to see results.

Case in point; a coffee shop down the block that Chloe frequents nearly every morning, ungodly early—the things she does to appease her caffeine addiction—and the gorgeous woman she catches glimpses of there, once or twice a week, if she’s lucky.

Chloe’s seen the mystery woman maybe five times in all. Usually, the woman will be just leaving the shop as Chloe approaches from further down the street, already turning the corner before Chloe can speak or call out. Once, Chloe saw her in the distance, walking towards the shop with her head down, but that morning Chloe was in a hurry and literally couldn’t stop. Tragic, she knows. The one time they were in the shop at the same time, it was during morning rush and the woman was waiting in line a dozen people ahead of her. All Chloe could do was stare at the back of her head, unable to justify cutting through the crowd just to chat her up.   

Because, again, she's not a stalker, and that seemed an awfully stalkerish thing to do.

Not particularly short or tall, the mystery woman is, but physically imposing nonetheless, with broad shoulders and thick arms filling out the sleeves of her jacket in a way Chloe finds terribly intriguing. Of the bits and pieces Chloe’s caught of her face, it seems hard and stoic, with beautifully freckled brown skin and dark hair. Chloe’s never seen her smile or heard her laugh. A serious one, her. Not Chloe’s usual type, but there’s a first time for everything, hey?

Still, it’d be nice to catch more than just a glimpse of her every week or so. Chloe’s anxious for any sort of contact, really—a friendly nod, maybe, or even just a pointed look. An actual name would be even better.

But again, Chloe’s not a stalker. So, she certainly doesn’t hang around in the coffee shop longer than necessary, several times a week, hoping to run into this mystery woman again. 

And, after recognizing the logo on the back of the woman’s dark blue jacket as belonging to the popular-in-its-own-right Shoreline Zoo (London has no shortage of zoos for tourists, but Chloe’s heard good things about this one… Not that she’s been asking or anything), she most definitely does not make sure to purposefully walk by the entrance of said zoo and perhaps linger for several minutes while on her own way in to work every morning. 

She also doesn’t, under any circumstances, spend a lunch break or two doing the same, either. 

Nope. Chloe Frazer, who has never had a problem getting a date or charming any man or woman into coming home with her, would never resort to something as sad and pathetic as that.

And, okay, maybe it’s been awhile since her last date. So what? It’s not like she can’t find anyone. London is big. Plenty of blokes and birds if you’re looking, and Chloe is. Sort of. Well, not so much or as casually as when she was younger, anyways. But that’s her business. She’s closer to forty than she’d like, now, and things are slowing down on her end. Goals are… changing. 

And who cares if they are? Who bloody cares if she wants to maybe find a steady partner instead of having the occasional good-sweaty-fun-but-emotionally-empty one night stand. Or if she wants to maybe settle down and—and get a dog or something domestic like that. It doesn’t make her old, or boring. If she wanted to be old and boring, she’d do like Nate, and have a bloody five-year-old already. Chloe, at least, isn’t that stupid.

Still, doesn’t look like mystery woman is showing up today, so more’s the pity. Chloe’s not exactly disappointed, just resigned, and wonders how much longer she’ll keep this up. She hadn’t wanted to come off as desperate, but maybe she’s too late for that.

She sips her coffee while it’s still warm, casts another glance at the Shoreline Zoo’s busy entrance, a steady stream of people filing inside, and heads for the nearest crosswalk. 

London, as always, is blustery, dreary and cold on a good day, and she wishes for a nice warm jacket rather than the sharp-cut tweed coat she’s put on this morning in an attempt to fit the image of a proper museum curator, thank you very much. Got her favorite red shirt on underneath, for luck—too bad it didn’t work, as mystery woman is still a mystery. The jeans probably detract from her professional image, but hey. You can’t have it all. 

Still, Chloe’s confident she looks the part of newly-minted Senior Curator at the Sir Frances Drake Museum of Natural History and Culture, a massive grey-bricked building with five sprawling floors and two sub-basements. Nathan Drake, Assistant Director and fellow Senior Curator, offered her the job when another curator moved on, and today is Chloe’s official first day. She isn’t particularly nervous—she’s worked with and for the museum for several years now, even given expert input on an exhibit or two, and while she owes Nate big for the favor, her own knowledge in numerous areas of Eastern history and anthropology certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s a big museum with lots to choose from—they have exhibits spanning the Americas, Africa, most of Europe and Asia—and Chloe’s proud of her place there. She’s earned it. In the early days, it was her out there in the field, digging through the dirt, finding some of those artifacts now on display. Since then, her life’s gotten calmer. More predictable, in a way younger Chloe would’ve hated. Today Chloe doesn’t mind so much.

Getting the opportunity to head up her specialty—South Asia, with a specialization in India—was a dream come true. India’s history, culture, and mythology are her bread and butter, a story she’s lived and breathed for years. Chloe’s excited for the control this position will give her, the different exhibits she can produce. Anyone else would just get it all wrong.

“Morning!” she calls out as she enters the bullpen. Or, the bloody big room at the back of the museum’s first floor where most of the curators, staff, and other employees gather in the mornings to chat, sip coffee and gird themselves for the day ahead. Nate’s already there, working on a donut, tie wrinkled and done up crookedly. Talk about unprofessional.

“Cutting it a little close, Chlo,” he says, eyeing the clock. 

“Not late,” Chloe announces, and sips at her cooling coffee so she won’t roll her eyes at her good friend. 

“Five minutes early is late, according to Marlowe,” Nate grouses, taking a big bite of his donut. Their boss, Museum Director Katherine Marlowe, is a worldly, highly respected and educated woman, but also a stickler for being on time, following the dress code, and just about every-bloody-thing else that Chloe has a hard time adhering to.

“Were you stalking the coffee shop again?” asks Elena, Nate’s wife, head of the museum’s public relations and outreach, as well as the star of a weekly television show featuring short documentaries based on artifacts housed in the museum. “Or was it the zoo this time?”

“I am not stalking,” Chloe insists. “The zoo is practically right across the street. Literally have to walk by it from the tube to get here.”

Elena laughs and takes a moment to help Nate fix his tie before taking the rest of his donut and eating it herself. “Still don’t know her name, do you?” she teases.

Chloe ignores her. “I’m taking my time.”

“Sure thing,” says Elena with a wry smile. Chloe can’t help but give one back. Sunshine’s like that—you can’t be angry with her. Even if she is bloody right.

“Shouldn’t you be somewhere else right now?” Chloe asks pointedly. “Shooting a bit for your show, or…?”

Laughing goodnaturedly, Elena kisses Nate, hugs Chloe, grabs her bag and heads out. Chloe finishes her coffee, throws out her cup, and walks with Nate to the nearest elevator.

“Nervous?” asks Nate.

Chloe scoffs. Her? Nervous? Never. She’s been a regular curator for long enough. Senior Curator can’t be that much of a difference. Today might be her first official day with such a title, but Chloe feels she’s been one for a long time already. “Very funny.”

“Want to go see the new exhibit later?” Nate asks when the elevator stops at the second floor, stepping out and keeping a hand on the doors so they won’t close on him.

“There's a new one?”

“Yeah. Third floor. They made it especially for kids. It’s got, like. Extinct animals and stuff.”

Chloe shrugs. Not like she can do much else before her own projects make their way out of the tangle of bureaucratic red tape and onto the museum floor. “Sure. Why not?”

Nate nods and waves as the doors close behind him. Chloe hits the button for her stop, the fifth floor. Upstairs in her new office, she eyes the already intimidating pile of paperwork on her desk—real nice first-day welcome, there—and decides they can wait for another day, though she does take the time to weed through a bit and sign off on a few minor exhibits run by junior curators who are now under her supervision. Museums can get boring for visitors if it’s just the same thing every day, so it’s up to people like her to try and keep things exciting by switching out smaller displays every few months. Chloe appreciates the effort, just not the bloody paperwork that goes along with it.

After lunch, she finds Nate and they head to the third floor and walk together into the thick-milling, newly-opened exhibit. Apparently, it’s big news that the museum has a section built specifically toward youngsters—it’s packed. Kids run about excitedly. Adults snap pictures and try to corral their children. Keen-eyed security guards wait, poised on tip-toe to halt any reaching hands. Probably, if Marlowe were around, she’d have an aneurysm.

Still, there’s a palpable buzz in the air, something the old museum hasn’t had it awhile. And no wonder; moving from one display to another, Chloe’s impressed by the design. In each separate area, detailed models of long-extinct animals have been constructed in life-size replica with large information plaques placed conveniently nearby.

In one, woolly mammoths tower, almost twice Chloe’s height. At another, a saber-toothed tiger snarls ferociously, posed in mid-roar, while at the next, a doofy-looking Dodo gets a few laughs from the kids. She and Nate ooh and ahh appropriately at each.

“You should bring Cassie to see these,” Chloe says.

“She’s seen it all ten times already,” Nate laughs. “You know the kid. Practically lives here when she isn’t at school. Elena let her in while they were setting up. She had a blast. Now she won't stop quizzing us about it.”

Chloe laughs, charmed. Nate’s daughter has an ear for knowledge, and a knack of wandering throughout the museum, exploring the exhibits and asking questions to any of the curators nearby, soaking it up like a sponge and spouting it back out, practically verbatim. Chloe isn’t terribly fond of children, but Cassie is her exception.

They stop at the next display. Posed on a section of fake rock is just about the ugliest dog Chloe’s ever seen in her life; skinny, striped, with a jutting, overlong jaw that doesn’t look at all real.

“Jesus, Nate, get a load of that one,” she says, pulling her phone out for a pic. “Ugly bugger. What even is that?”

“Uh,” says Nate, glancing awkwardly at the nearest parent, giving them the stink eye, probably due to Chloe’s cursing and lack of volume control. “Isn’t it, like, a tasmanian devil, or something?” He fumbles for the information plaque while Chloe takes another picture.

“What, like the cartoon?” she laughs.

“Actually,” an accented voice breaks in behind them, “it’s a thylacine.”

Chloe and Nate turn. Chloe is fully expecting to see a fellow curator or perhaps even a professor from the nearby University, come to visit the display. It’s neither.

It’s a woman younger than her, mid-30s, maybe, her dark, thickly curled hair scraped back in a tight ponytail. She’s wearing a smartly fitted dark blue polo tucked into a stiff pair of well-ironed beige slacks, a clunky black radio clipped to her belt and a pair of sensible work boots on her feet. 

“Er,” says Nate, and glances at Chloe, who realizes she’s probably staring, and it’s definitely rude, but can’t seem to stop, because something about this woman is very familiar. Her eyes are a soft golden brown color, lips full but thinned, face stern but lovely. Chloe’s struck by how attractive she finds her—she’s never been one to fancy the serious sort, and those clothes would look frumpy on anyone else, but on this woman it highlights the hard cut of her body, lean with muscle; her tapered torso, her thick thighs. The way her sleeves strain around her rigid biceps is especially interesting.

And then she spots the tri-colored logo on the shirt’s breast pocket, and feels like she’s been suckerpunched. 

Shoreline Zoo.

It’s her. It’s Chloe’s mystery woman, in the flesh.

“Thyla-what?” she blurts before she can stop herself, struck a bit dumb by the sudden appearance of the very woman she’s been not-stalking for several weeks now. Talk about fate. Maybe mystery woman is stalking her. Ha! Now there’s a thought.

“Thylacine,” says the woman. Her accent is, if Chloe’s not mistaken, South African. “Commonly known as a Tasmanian Tiger. Or, was. It went extinct in the 1930s. Native to Tasmania, New Guinea, and mainland Australia.”

“Guess you were half-right, mate,” Chloe jokes to Nate, who gives her a grouchy little glare. Chloe turns her grin on the woman, impressed that she’s standing nowhere near the information plaque, yet seemed to know all that information offhand. Feeling a bit cheeky, she jerks her chin at the next display, which looks sort of like a funny-looking penguin. “How ‘bout that one?”

The woman glances at it. “That’s a Great Auk. A flightless alcid. Lived in the North Atlantic. Went extinct around the 1840s or so.” 

The smile on Chloe’s face widens. She points to the next. “That one?”

“Pyrenean ibex, related to wild goats. Endemic to the Pyrenees. Lasted until about the year 2000.”

And, okay, Chloe was impressed the first time. Now she’s borderline enamored. Grinning, she sticks out her hand, not one to let a good opportunity go to waste. “You certainly know your animals. Chloe Frazer. Pleasure.”

The woman blinks. Her eyes flick up and down Chloe in a way she most definitely recognizes—she’s being sized up. Or, if you’re feeling frisky, checked out. Slowly, the woman extends her own hand to shake. “Nadine Ross. Nice to meet you.”

And now mystery woman has a name.

 

 —

 

Zoochosis.

A term used to define the stereotypical behavior of animals in captivity; stereotypical behavior being defined as a repetitive, invariant pattern with no obvious goal or function. A common example was relentless pacing—a continuous walking back and forth or in a circle, a following of the same path, again and again.  

Sometimes, Nadine feels as though she may suffer from a similar affliction, despite the fact she is not an animal, nor is she confined to a cage. Her life is a quiet, humble one, and for the most part she enjoys it. Work is fulfilling, and she feels appropriately challenged, but outside of that… 

It’s hard to explain. Sometimes it feels to Nadine as though she’s missed something, or stagnated somehow. While she isn’t entirely miserable, she isn’t quite happy, either. Nothing changes, and like a neglected animal in a zoo, she seems stuck in the same pattern of repetitive behavior, an endless pacing and circling.

Not that any of her animals are showing signs of such degradation—Nadine makes sure of it, through close monitoring with her crew and the teams assigned to each separate enclosure. It takes a great deal of work and coordination to do so, which is why she chooses to ignore such petty things as her own restless unhappiness, and instead focuses on work, and the several-hundred animals she must care for, every day.

Any animal housed in London’s well-reputed Shoreline Zoo is here only because they have no chance of surviving in the wild, and are thus guaranteed a safe, quiet, relatively stress-free life within their walls. Many were born here, incapable of re-entry to their home habitats, or were found being sold on the black market, or injured, or rescued from captivity. Under the care of dozens of keepers, the animals are well-tended, checked regularly for sickness and disease, fed special diets, mentally enriched at every opportunity, and kept in their properly structured environmental enclosures as often as possible. 

Nadine is one of the zoo’s Head Keepers. She is also the youngest and the most hands-on when it comes to her work in supervising the other keepers, their staff, and the assortment of animals within the zoo’s different exhibits. As such, it’s not strange to find her right there in the trenches with the workers, elbow deep in a gutted cow or horse carcass, carving out sections for the lions, or helping clean out the pens for the zebras, or even assisting in live births. Nadine finds the hard physical labor refreshing. Sometimes, when the paperwork mounting on her desk becomes too much, or the phone calls too loud and frequent, she walks through the different sections of the zoo and visits the animals to find a moment of quiet.

Today, Nadine is in the West Indian exhibit. The grey langurs get excited when they see her now, probably because she always makes sure to keep some diet-friendly nuts and fruits in her pockets when she visits. 

One leaps from his lofty perch above in the enclosure’s spindly-branched trees to rest on her shoulder and beg for treats. His name is Frank. Nadine knows him and all the others. Most have silly titles; Sally or Rufus or Fred. All of them are curious and bright and lively. One has recently given birth, and Nadine likes to sit and watch the mother, named Molly, dote on her tiny infant, clinging to her torso like glue. When she wanders close, Nadine holds out her hand and Molly delicately takes the food from her palm. Nadine smiles as she skitters away. Feeling that soft touch, listening to their chitter in the branches above, never fails to give her peace. In fact, only one other place in the zoo has ever given her more.

Bolstered, she heads back to her rounds, checking on the keepers under her purview, and finishes up some paperwork in her office until around noon. Her lunch break is for an hour, but after only fifteen minutes, she’s already finished eating, and sits there behind her desk, feeling that familiar rising sense of unease that has been hounding her for some time now. 

She stands, thinking maybe she’ll have a walk through the different sections again, or visit another enclosure. Then, on a rare whim, she decides to instead leave the zoo and go to the museum across the street. Two days ago, she heard about some sort of opening of a new exhibit about animals, marketed toward children. Maybe it will be interesting. At the very least, it will be something different for her.

The museum isn’t terribly crowded, once she crosses the busy, typical-London-traffic clogged street and heads in the main entrance, but there is a palpable hum of activity as she takes the stairs to the third floor. There, it’s busy, children running amok and families trying to herd them along. Nadine almost leaves, telling herself she can come back another time when it isn’t so hectic and crowded, but something makes her stay.

Taking her time, she wanders the displays in turn, impressed by the details of the extinct animal replicas. For most, she has only seen pictures in books, or on the television, and to witness the sheer size of some of these animals in person is amazing. After only a few minutes, she’s glad she’s come. Perhaps she should do spontaneous things like this more often. 

“—ly bugger. What even is that?” she hears in an oddly-inflected husk, and looks over to see a dark-haired woman snapping photos of a thylacine with her phone. Her friend, a messy-looking man with a wrinkled shirt, mumbles something about a tasmanian devil, making the woman laugh, and Nadine can’t help but correct him.

“Actually,” she says, before she can think better of interrupting, “it’s a thylacine.”

The woman turns. She’s beautiful; blue-grey eyes, dusky skin, a proud nose and a teasing mouth. Her face is warm and inviting, the small grin at the corner of her lips infectious. The woman’s eyes dart up and down Nadine, and her expression goes blank. She looks stunned for a moment, leaving Nadine wondering if maybe she’s overstepped. But then the woman smiles—beams, even—and Nadine feels herself flush.

And that’s how she meets Chloe Frazer. To have gone to the museum on a whim during her lunch break and somehow gotten herself a new friend in the exchange is surprising, to say the least. Nadine can say with certainty it’s never happened to her before.

Chloe shoos her friend away shortly after they introduce themselves, declaring she’d rather take a tour with a, quote-unquote, expert. The man—Nate, Nadine thinks he’s called, or something like that—leaves amicably enough. Nadine is flattered. She likes animals, so she knows a lot about them. She wasn’t trying to impress Chloe when she intruded upon her conversation, yet it seems that’s just what she’s done.

For the rest of Nadine’s allotted lunch hour—and a bit extra, if she's being honest—she allows Chloe to lead her throughout the displays, relaying what information she can for each. Chloe seems delighted by her vast knowledge, pulling her excitedly from one to the next, eyes bright like a child. Nadine’s a bit stunned to find out she’s a Senior Curator there, and not just a visitor.

She leaves the encounter somewhat baffled, and almost half an hour late to her shift, though her coworkers laugh away her profuse apologies, insisting it’s fine and she should relax more, as she’s virtually never been late in all her time at the zoo; Nadine thinks maybe she will try to, from now on. 

It’s only then, back at her desk with a pencil in her hand and a stupid little smile on her face, that Nadine notices the usual feeling of relentless circling and pacing within her has… not stopped, exactly. But lessened, almost to a point where it’s unnoticeable. Only now that she’s realized it’s dissipated does it slowly begin to return. Strange.

Before they parted, Chloe had practically insisted on exchanging phone numbers with Nadine, and already, as she works through some paperwork, there is a buzz from her back pocket. She waits until she’s finished the paper in front of her before retrieving her phone.

On the screen is a text message. That was fun! it says, Let’s do it again sometime, followed by a smiling emoticon.

Nadine, who doesn’t have many friends, and likes Chloe enough to want to see her again but also doesn’t want to seem overbearing, takes a while to think of what to write in reply. Finally, she decides on a simple, Sure.

Several minutes later, it doesn't feel like enough, so she pulls her phone back out and writes, Come to the zoo sometime. I can show you around, if you like. It’s a bold offer, for her, and a part of her thinks maybe Chloe won’t be interested—in the animals, but also in Nadine. Who would be, with someone so formal and awkward when it comes to friendship?

Her phone buzzes within seconds. Really??? it says. Nadine blinks, unsure of the tone. Is Chloe appalled or delighted? Her phone buzzes again. I’m going to hold you to that, Ross!

Nadine allows herself another small smile and puts her phone away, not sure why seeing those words makes her feel a combination of nervous, excited, and sad. Perhaps Chloe really will take her up on her offer, and perhaps not. If she’s being honest, though, Nadine thinks someone like Chloe Frazer surely has a great deal of friends. Too many to know what to do with. Probably, in a day or so, she will forget all about Nadine and her collection of animal facts and go about her life as usual, as Nadine will go about hers. Still, she’s glad they met, if only for that one time.

Then, not two days later, as she’s helping power-wash an old warehouse space for feed storage, her radio blips.

“Ma’am.” It’s Orca, one of the keepers; a gruff man who listens to orders well enough, so long as Nadine keeps him in line.

She shuts off the loud machine and unclips her radio. Her face is damp from the washer’s wafting spray. “What is it?”

“There’s, ah—someone to see you?” Nadine jerks upright, feels her pulse stutter. “A Miss… Frazer?”

For a moment, Nadine is frozen. She was sure—it didn’t seem—she isn’t—

“I’ll be right there,” she says.

As she walks toward the zoo’s main entrance—having stopped at her office to change her wet shirt and shoes, though all she can do for her hair is leave it loose to dry—her heart is beating faster than usual, and she wonders why. It’s not like she hasn’t ever invited acquaintances to the zoo before. 

And yet that word—acquaintance—doesn’t seem to fit Chloe at all, now that Nadine thinks about it. Friend suits her better, though Nadine won’t deny she’s attracted to the other woman, and Chloe certainly wasn’t shy the other day at the museum, flirty quips dropping out of her mouth like pearls. Still, that doesn’t mean anything. As far as Nadine is concerned, this is just a meeting between new, casual friends, not anything like, like a date. Nadine’s never been good with first dates, anyways. She’s too stiff. Too blunt. It’s why she’s never the one to give the tours around the zoo. Chloe, though, seems somehow different from the rest of the crowd.

When she steps into the Welcome Center—the heart of the zoo, the walls and kiosks lined with information pamphlets and directions, tickets exchanging hands, tour guides assembling their boisterous groups—it’s busy, yet somehow Nadine spots her visitor immediately, standing by a harassed-looking Orca. Chloe’s teasing smirk blooms into a full-fledged smile when she sees Nadine.

“Hi,” says Nadine, not sure how else to greet her. Certainly not with a handshake, or a hug. She nods at Orca in dismissal. Looking relieved, he departs.

“You look surprised to see me, love,” says Chloe. If possible, she looks prettier than she did the other day. Her hair is in a loose ponytail, eyes dark. Her casual shirt and black jeans match well with the rest of the zoo-goers. If Nadine had not met her the other day, she’d never think the woman was a Senior Curator at a reputed museum at a glance.

“I didn’t really think you’d come,” Nadine admits. Now that she’s alone with Chloe—or, as alone as they can get, surrounded by nearly a hundred milling zoo patrons—she feels a mixture of relieved and happy.

Chloe frowns in disapproval. “Why wouldn’t I? The chance to spend more time with my new favorite person, and see some cute animals as well? Why, be a fool not to.”

Nadine does her best not to react to that. “What do you want to see first?” she asks.

Chloe shrugs, impartial. “Well honestly, I’ve never been, so… Surprise me?”

Initially, Nadine blanks. There are many areas of the zoo. Literally hundreds of animals to choose from. She has no idea which Chloe might like to see. 

Then she knows just the one. “Follow me,” she says.

When they walk through the staff-restricted back entrance and into the grey langur enclosure, the monkeys chitter loudly in excitement as soon as they spot Nadine. Chloe cranes her head back and looks up at them with wonder in her eyes, mouth hanging slightly open as they dash from branch to branch, high in the trees above.

“Wow,” she breathes, then smiles widely at Nadine. “Bit different, seeing them like this, rather than through the glass.” Molly makes an appearance, her tiny baby clinging to her back, and Chloe coos, taken. Watching her watch the langurs, Nadine is glad. Sharing one of her precious peaceful spots with Chloe was the right choice.

“So, you work in the monkey exhibit?” Chloe asks a few minutes later, as they hold out treats for the bolder monkeys in their hands.

“I’m Head Keeper. I work wherever I’m needed,” Nadine replies. Shyly, she adds, “But this is one of my favorite areas.” 

“That’s cute,” says Chloe, not in a condescending way, though Nadine still bristles on reflex.

“I like monkeys,” she says, trying not to sound too defensive.

“Like I said, cute,” Chloe emphasizes, and shrugs. “Just, y’know, pegged you for a predator sort of woman. I mean, you look like you could wrestle a bloody rhinoceros.”

Nadine snorts, not sure if that was a compliment or not. Before she can speak, Frank jumps to her shoulder and takes a treat from her hand. Nadine smiles at him and hears a click. Chloe has her phone out and winks at her.

“Sorry, but you looked so nice, just then, and—ah!”

Nadine blinks. Frank’s leapt onto Chloe’s head and is looking very proud of himself, up there. Chloe’s eyes are wide. 

“He’s not going to pee on me, right?”

“Shouldn’t.” Nadine waves a piece of fruit to try and tempt him from his new perch. Frank ignores her. “I think he likes you.”

“I liked him too, back when he was on you and not me.”

“Want me to get a picture?” Nadine jokes. Chloe sputters out a laugh and Frank bounds away, spooked. Smiling at each other, they feed the langurs until their hands are empty.

“Say, got any roos?” Chloe asks as they leave the enclosure.

They don’t, but Nadine leads her to another section of the zoo anyways. This one, they won’t be able to enter, as the animals are a bit more sensitive to new faces, but through the glass, they still get a clear view of what’s inside. Visible within the constructed jungle-like foliage are two moderately-sized cream-and-red furred creatures with hooked claws and long tails, nibbling on leaves.

“What is that?” Chloe asks, instantly enamored. “Almost looks like a… a kangaroo-lemur-red panda hybrid.”

“You’re close, sort of,” Nadine says with a small laugh. “It’s a Matschie’s tree kangaroo.” 

“Tree kangaroo? That’s a thing?”

“Ja, but their habitat is threatened. They’re native to New Guinea.”

“Geez,” says Chloe. “How’d I not know that? I’m from bloody Australia.” 

“Figured,” Nadine says. “What with the accent and all.” Chloe grins at her mischievously.

“Haven’t been there in years, love, but if I ever go back, I’ll definitely be on the lookout for these adorable little buggers.” The female tree kangaroo has a pink-faced joey in her pouch, his fur just barely grown, and when she turns around, his little head and a clawed foot poking out from her belly, Chloe practically squeals with delight.

They watch the tree kangaroos for a bit longer, chatting about different things. Where they’re from, how they got to London, and what they do now. The longer they spend with one another, the more Nadine finds herself relaxing, growing at ease with herself, and, after Chloe assures her she has the afternoon off and all the time in the world, leads the other woman around to several more of her favored enclosures. 

In each area, the keepers and staff greet Nadine as they always do, then trade sly looks and give her goodnatured elbows or nudges when they see Chloe following after her. “Well done, ma’am,” says one. Nadine ignores them, though she’s pretty sure Chloe hears it. Thankfully, she doesn’t comment.

Chloe universally adores every animal Nadine shows her. She asks questions—“He can’t jump all the way up here, right?” to the tiger prowling his deep-set enclosure—and makes jokes—“Wow, something smells fishy!” she declares, when Nadine procures a bucket of fish to feed the penguins with, to which Nadine replies, “Not funny, Frazer,” though inside, she’s laughing—and listens attentively to all the animals facts Nadine can think of off the top of her head—“So bats aren’t like big rats with wings?” she confirms after a visit with some curious fruit bats. “They’re closer to primates and lemurs,” Nadine explains, though Chloe still looks dubious. “‘Kay, well, I’ll look it up,” she says, and laughs.

“Thanks, love. That was amazing,” says Chloe, hours later, cheeks flushed from all the excitement and her grey eyes bright. Nadine swallows hard. Beautiful women have always been difficult to handle for her. They make her self-conscious, which makes her curt and gruff. Still, she can’t remember the last time she had so much fun with someone. Chloe makes it easy to forget her uncertainties.

“Glad you enjoyed yourself,” she says, and hesitates. “We can do it again anytime, if you like. Just give me a heads up, ja?”

“Lovely. Won’t say no to that.” Chloe's face lights up. “Hey, how ‘bout in exchange, you come to the museum sometime, and I give you a walk-around, yeah? I mean, unless you’ve seen everything—”

“No,” Nadine protests quickly. “The other day was actually the first time I’ve gone. I—I heard about the animals, and…”

Chloe gives her a knowing grin. The way her eyes gleam makes Nadine swallow thickly. Eish, she’s in trouble.

“Animals, eh? Hmm.” Chloe puts a finger to her lips. “Museum doesn’t have a ton of those, unless—do dinosaurs count?” 

At this point, Nadine would go with Chloe to an exhibit on torture devices, just to be around her a bit longer. 

As far as first dates go—Nadine is still unsure if this counted as one or not until they are saying goodbye and Chloe waves, and then suddenly turns back around and puts a hand on Nadine’s shoulder, leans in and kisses her quickly but firmly on the cheek—this was probably the best Nadine’s ever had, bar none.

 

 

Several days later, Chloe’s still on Cloud 9 when she gets a text from Nadine, wondering if it might be alright to visit the museum later today. Chloe just about knocks everything off her desk, grabbing for her phone to answer. She’s been trying not to seem too clingy, or overeager, or stalkerish, but it’s hard when Nadine is so cute and kind and smart and wonderful and Chloe just wants to bloody marry her already. 

They agree to meet around 2PM, when Chloe’s got some free time in her schedule, but by 2:24PM, when she hasn’t seen nor heard from the other woman, Chloe starts to worry.

At 2:36PM, there’s a knock on her office door. It’s Nadine. Her hair is down and her face is flushed. Today she’s wearing a dark green safari shirt unbuttoned down the front, exposing a thin white tank top dark with sweat. Bits of sawdust cling to her gleaming forearms and the hem of her pants. A bolt of warmth shoots through Chloe at the sight of her so un-put together. She swallows through the sudden lump in her throat, at once entirely aware of just how attractive Nadine is to her.

“Sorry,” says Nadine, looking harried and annoyed and disappointed. “I had to help move one of the lions to another pen because she was fighting with the male, and she started waking up halfway there.”

“That’s ok,” says Chloe, standing from her desk. “Glad she didn’t take a bite out of you or anything. I kind of like you the way you are.”

Nadine gives her a small, hopeful smile. “Can we still see the displays? If you don’t have the time anymore, we can do it another day—”

“No,” says Chloe. “It’s—my whole afternoon’s free.” It’s not, but to hell with it. Hopefully Marlowe isn’t around. She grabs her phone and her lanyard so she can look appropriately curator-ly if a coworker sees her, and steps out into the hall with Nadine.

Nadine shies back. “Sorry,” she says again, and looks down at herself. “I know I must smell like a barn.”

“Please, like I don’t smell like old books and dust. We’ll make a pair, the two of us. No one will dare approach.”

“Ja,” says Nadine with a laugh.

They start off in the natural history wing and quickly find the dinosaurs, as Chloe had promised the other day. Nadine is quiet, marveling with wide eyes at the towering beasts of ancient bones and teeth. Afterwards, they wander to whatever exhibit piques their interest. If Chloe knows a thing or two about the subject, she’ll share tidbits and facts, just like Nadine did with her animals. It’s nice, she realizes, to be taught something by someone, and then have the opportunity to teach them in return.

(Luckily, they don’t see Marlowe, and even luckier, they don’t see Nate or Elena, either. Chloe’s not quite ready for that round of ribbing just yet.)

When Nadine leaves, she thanks Chloe sincerely, hesitates, and then leans forward with a determined expression and hugs Chloe quickly with one arm. Charmed, Chloe bites her lip and watches as the other woman jogs down the museum’s front steps, crosses the busy London street, and disappears into the distant zoo entrance.

They make a habit of it, after that; every few days, she and Nadine takes turns visiting each other’s respective workplaces and explore. Chloe is impressed by Nadine’s far-reaching knowledge of the animal kingdom, and tries to respond in kind with her own expertise of history, anthropology, and even mythology. Nadine seems interested in the rich resources the museum holds, and Chloe loves learning about and seeing all the fuzzy critters the zoo has to offer. Being able to spend time with the other woman certainly helps, too.

Nadine, Chloe learns early on, is a reserved, private sort of person. Yet she is also intelligent, kind, and driven. Chloe, who’s already head over heels for her, has to force herself to tread slowly. She knows the steps well to the tentative dance they’ve fallen into—a sort of maybe, a what if—but she’s used to skipping all of them to get to the good parts and missing the rest. With Nadine this doesn’t seem an option, and Chloe finds she likes that. For the first time, Chloe wants to take it slow. Wants to relish it. 

(Christ. Maybe she is bloody old and boring. She should just go get that dog already.)

For a time the museum is terribly busy—something about a big celebration coming up for the one hundred year anniversary of its founding. Chloe’s visits peter out until she hasn’t seen Nadine in more than a week, leaving her grouchy and in poor spirits. They still text occasionally, but Chloe can tell Nadine prefers face to face contact, her texts curt to the point of rudeness, though rather than be put off, Chloe finds it endearing.

A knock sounds on Chloe’s office door. At her desk, Chloe makes a noise she hopes will be interpreted as an invitation, lost in her ever-growing pile of paperwork. Inventory, release forms, notice for approval, more bloody inventory. Ugh.

Her door opens, and Nate sticks his head in, looking rumpled as always.

“I need a favor,” he says at once.

“Geez, mate. Not even a hey how are ya?” Chloe quips, attention already back on her stack of papers. “You’ve got to work on that.” She glances up, rubbing her tired eyes, and then sees the ‘favor’ Nate’s talking about as he steps further inside her office. In his arms is Cassie, his five-year-old daughter, fast asleep.

“Chloe, I’m so sorry,” Nate stage-whispers. “I didn’t realize I had a meeting and Elena’s interviewing someone across the city for her show, and so I’d bring Cassie with me but Marlowe will freak, d’you think—?”

“Course, mate,” Chloe says at once, perking up. She’s always got time for her favorite little niece. Or, well. Her only niece, really.

Nate sags with relief. His shoulder jostles and Cassie wakes with a murmur. She sees Chloe and lights up like a flower to the sun.

“Auntie Chloe!” she squeals, and starts kicking so Nate will set her down, racing over into Chloe’s arms.

“Cassie! How’s my little adventurer?” Smiling, Chloe shoos Nate out the door and puts the girl in her lap, giving her a pencil and paper to doodle as she listens with half an ear to the girl’s wild tales of exploration and exhumation of an old spoon and some pennies at the park a few days ago. 

Soon enough, however, Cassie’s interest in paperwork begins to wane. Chloe’s having a hard time about it, too. Stupid, to think this would entertain a five year old.

“Hey, let’s walk around,” she suggests. Cassie’s eyes light up. She tries to run off, but Chloe grabs her around the waist and throws her upward with a heave—god, this girl is getting way too big for this—making her squeal before setting her comfortably on one hip.

Only ten minutes later, Chloe realizes her second mistake. Cassie has seen just about every exhibit in the museum about five times now, courtesy of her work-addicted father and mother, who usually let her run the grounds like she owns them. Even the extinct animals on the third floor are old news. 

Time for Plan B, then.

“Where’re we going?” Cassie asks curiously, when Chloe makes a jump decision and steers her downstairs and toward the main entrance.

“It’s a surprise,” says Chloe. She covers Cassie’s eyes playfully as they cross the street, then counts to three before revealing their destination.

Cassie’s face goes slack with wonder. “The zoo!

“The zoo!” Chloe echoes, and can barely keep the little girl contained as she begins yanking on her hand, trying to get her to move faster. As they enter the Welcome Center, she can’t help but glance around for Nadine, though she’s sure the other woman is plenty busy herself. Still, she misses her, and maybe a small, selfish part of her hoped to run into her today, but oh well—

“Auntie Chloe, we need our tickets, please, please, please!” cries Cassie, holding Chloe’s hand and hopping up and down as the ticket lady smiles at them sympathetically.

“Yes, yes,” laughs Chloe, and checks her back pocket, only to come up empty. “Ah, shoot. Hold on, kiddo.” Did she really forget her wallet back at her office? Must have. Damn. Now she’ll have to—

“It’s fine, Sarah,” says that low, familiar voice, tinged with an accent Chloe’s really begun to like. “I’ll cover them.”

Chloe turns, smiles. Nadine is in her usual outfit, blue polo stretched taut over her muscular arms and shoulders, thick hair done up tightly, face calm, eyes kind. She looks good. In her element. Still clinging to Chloe’s hand, Cassie gawps up at her, awestruck. Chloe knows the feeling.

“Who’s that?” she whispers loudly to Chloe, who hides a laugh and sees Nadine do the same. Holding the girl by the shoulders, she makes introductions. 

“Cassie, this is my friend, Nadine. Say hi. Nadine, this is Cassie. Nate’s little girl.”

“Hi,” says Cassie, looking shy.

Nadine goes down on knee so she’s eye level with the girl and extends a hand for Cassie to shake, which she does excitedly, thrilled to be treated like a grown up. “Hello, Cassie. Welcome to the zoo. Tell me. What’s your favorite animal?”

Cassie’s eyes go wide. Chloe can imagine her scrambling to narrow it down from a list of a couple thousand. Finally, the little girl blurts, “Polar bears.”

“Polar bears?” Nadine repeats thoughtfully, and then nods, as if in approval, and stands. “Really? How lucky. We have polar bears here in the zoo, you know.”

“You do?” marvels Cassie. “Just one?”

“One? No. We have three.”

Cassie’s jaw drops. “Three?” she squeals, practically vibrating with excitement.

Nadine smiles at her. “We do. Would you like to see them?”

The look Cassie shoots Chloe is so desperate it’s almost comical. Chloe pretends to think about, just to tease her, then grins. “Go on, then.”

Cassie shoots to Nadine’s side, quick as a blink, snatching up her hand and tugging it with both of hers, beside herself with the need to go see these polar bears already. 

“Now, Cassie,” says Nadine patiently as she leads the little girl off, Chloe following a short distance behind, just so she can watch the two of them interact, “what do you know about polar bears?”

Cassie, of course, knows plenty, and bursts out fact after fact, rapidfire. Nadine listens with sincere attention and catches Chloe watching them fondly, phone already out for a picture. Rather than look away, Nadine smiles, and, just from looking at her in the screen, Chloe’s heart flutters. Jesus. It shouldn’t be such a surprise that Nadine is a natural with children. Really, is there nothing this woman isn’t good at?

Several minutes later, the three of them stand in front of a massive glass wall dark with water. Inside, through the swirling gloom, swims an enormous white shape, paddling like a dog.

“He’s so big!” Cassie screeches, hopping up and down at the glass as the polar bear paddles slowly over to investigate.

“Would you look at that,” Chloe murmurs, similarly impressed, and takes a pic of the bear’s long white face peering down at tiny Cassie before sending it off to Nate.

“Did you know,” Cassie says, speaking so quickly her words trip on the next, “polar bears—they have black skin, under their fur? And—and their fur isn’t really white, it’s just hollow—”

“To reflect the sunlight,” Nadine finishes. “That’s right. You’re a smart little girl, Cassie.”

Cassie smiles up at her, adorably gap-toothed from her growing teeth, and Nadine’s face goes utterly soft. Chloe knows that look—Nadine Ross is besotted.

(It’s stupid, being jealous of a child, right?)

She leans in while Cassie tries to coax another bear over, feeling a bit guilty for taking over Nadine's work day, and whispers to her, “Listen, if you’re busy, you don’t have to escort—”

“I want to,” Nadine says firmly, and gives Chloe a look that seems to say a great many things at once. Chloe swallows and nods, appreciative and touched by her generosity.

Once Cassie’s attention begins to falter—it takes a while, but eventually the polar bears wander off for a feeding—Nadine takes them to several more enclosures, mostly intended for children. Along the way, Cassie holds both their hands, swinging herself happily between them, and then skillfully cajoles her way onto Nadine’s impressive shoulders, a spot Chloe’s been eyeing for herself practically since the day they met. Nadine lifts the little girl there without protest, holding Cassie’s ankles to make sure she won’t fall as Chloe watches enviously. 

At the farm animal exhibit, Nadine gives Cassie quarters so she can buy feed pellets from the machine for the bleating goats and sheep, the little girl giggling as they eat from her hand. “It tickles!” she declares. Chloe gets a good picture of her patting a poofy-headed alpaca and shows it to a smiling Nadine.

Then, after all that, Nadine takes them to the nearby food court and treats Cassie to an ice cream. ‘Course, after that sugar comes the crash, and it’s not long before Cassie’s head is drooping. Chloe picks her up and follows Nadine back to the zoo’s entrance.

“Sorry,” she says. Nadine opens her mouth to protest, and Chloe keeps going. “Not about this—this was wonderful, really—but that I—I’ve just been so busy lately with the museum. It should slow down soon and maybe we can start meeting up again. I mean—if you like.”

“Ja,” says Nadine, gaze firm, intent, and steady. “I’d like that.”

Chloe pretends to focus on shifting Cassie into a better position so Nadine won’t notice her knees quivering, just then. Confidence sort of does that to her. She prepares to say her goodbyes—really, this was the nicest sort of surprise, running into Nadine today and getting to spend time with her—then stops, an idea quickly forming and taking control of her tongue. “Say, are you doing anything Friday night?”

Nadine cocks her head, looking suddenly nervous. “No?”

“It’s—the museum’s having a—like a celebration. Some silly thing. Hundred years since the founding or something like that. D'you think you'd want to come as my plus one, maybe?”

Nadine blinks, surprised. “Me?” Her disbelief is evident, and Chloe gets the feeling that maybe Nadine Ross is a little bit dense. 

“Um. Yes, you?” She grins disarmingly. “We’ll have a good time, you and me. Promise. Free food, and wine, if you’re into that.” 

The unsure look returns to Nadine’s face. Chloe is almost afraid the other woman is about to turn her down when she says quietly, “Ja, alright. I’ll come.”

Chloe beams. “I’ll text you the details. And thanks, love. For everything.” Glancing down at Cassie, fast asleep with her head on Chloe’s shoulder, she grins and then gives Nadine a wink. “You made two girls very happy today.” Nadine smiles at that, and Chloe waves as she heads back across the street to the museum.

Nate shows up an hour later with Elena to pick up their daughter. Chloe gently places the still sleeping girl into his arms. 

“Now, I’m not really a babysitter, mate,” she jokes, “but if I was, my rate would be double what you’re used to paying.”

“Everything go okay?” asks Elena.

Chloe rolls her eyes. “Fine, just—look, I love your kid and everything, but to be honest I think she’s trying to steal my woman, so I’d appreciate a heads up next time, yeah?”

Nate narrows his eyes, confused, while Elena bursts out laughing. 

“Pretty sure you actually have to ask her out for her to be your girlfriend,” she says.

“For your information,” Chloe retorts smugly, terribly proud of herself, “I did.”

Now she just has to make sure not to cock it all up.

 

 

Nadine can’t remember the last time she’s worn a dress, or gotten herself ‘all dolled up’ as her mother might say. It’s with some trepidation that on the night of the museum’s celebration, she picks out something from her closet that she knows she’ll be comfortable in and still look nice—a rich, dark red sleeveless top and silky black pants with kitten heels. Her hair, she leaves down, curls tight and bouncing, make-up subtle. Earrings and a simple bracelet complete the ensemble. When she looks at herself in the mirror, she’s impressed, and stops feeling like she might make a complete fool of herself tonight.

After hours, the museum is dark but for the first floor, lit up and filled with bodies, buzzing with conversation. There’s quite a crowd, and Nadine has to wait in line to get in. Chloe had explained earlier she probably couldn’t greet her at the door—sorry love, she texted, it’ll be busy, promise I’ll find you soon as I can—so once a security guard takes her name and waves her in, Nadine stands for a moment at the edge of the massive room, feeling small and a bit overwhelmed by all the ruckus.

Everyone is dressed to the nines. Waiters circle with champagne flutes and glasses of dark wine. A small orchestra plays in the corner. Nadine is at once aware she is very, very out of place.

But then she hears a quick patter of feet and feels a tug on the hem of her shirt, just as a shrill voice shouts, “Mommy, Daddy, this is the one who showed me the polar bears!

It’s Cassie, wearing an adorable sky blue dress and matching Mary Janes. Nadine blinks, surprised to see her there, and then spots a familiar man and a blonde woman nearby, presumably Cassie’s parents. The man—Nate, if she remembers correctly—is staring. He elbows his wife hard enough for her to jump and scowl, but then she sees Nadine too and her mouth falls open. Her lips move slightly—it looks a little like she says, “Wow”—and then she grabs Nate by the wrist and drags him over to make introductions.

They chat politely. Nate seems strangely nervous, while Elena appears flustered. Nadine isn’t sure why. Has she underdressed, or made some faux pas she isn’t aware of? Cassie makes up for their odd behavior with her sheer childish exuberance, recounting every animal she saw or fed during her visit at “Nadine’s Zoo,” or so she calls it. 

Elena’s eyes stray over Nadine’s shoulder. “Chloe!” she cries, and Nadine’s heart stutters. “Your guest is here!”

Nadine turns. 

Chloe is wearing a deep red cocktail dress that somehow perfectly matches Nadine’s shirt, her long black hair done up in an artfully lazy bun, exposing the delicate slope of her neck and the lovely cut of her light brown shoulders. She is, for lack of a better word, absolutely stunning, and looking at her now, Nadine feels a little breathless.

“Hey there, stranger,” purrs Chloe, switching her almost-empty wineglass into her left hand and tucking her right into Nadine’s elbow, leaning in—the heels she’s wearing tonight puts them of height with each other—and brushing her lips across Nadine’s cheek. It’s not the first time she’s done it, but it still makes Nadine’s pulse go a little out of control. “You look spectacular,” Chloe hums. Nadine manages a polite smile back, self-conscious with the crowd around them.

“So do you,” she murmurs, and Chloe glows.

She lets the others dictate the conversation after that, tongue-tied at the prospect of having such a beautiful woman on her arm, flattered that Chloe is even standing here with her, rather than milling with the rest of the crowd, many of whom appear to be highly-educated historians or respected fellow curators. Every time she sneaks another glance at her, Chloe is looking back, eyes low-lidded and slightly glassy from the wine being handed around like party favors. Nadine is tempted to find her own glass, just to get over her nerves, but decides against it. When she looks again, Chloe winks and smirks, and Nadine swallows hard.

Eventually, the celebration ceremony begins. A dignified-looking older woman—Chloe’s boss, Nadine guesses—gives a speech, thanking the curators and their teams for all their hard work throughout the years. A few others speak after her. Nadine is patient, and ready for a lengthy wait—these types of ceremonies always go on far longer than necessary—but then the hand on her elbow tightens, and pulls. Surprised, Nadine resists at first, giving Chloe a questioning look.

“What—?” she whispers, trying not to be rude.

“Shh!” says Chloe, finger to her lips. She’s refreshed her glass of wine and her cheeks have gone rosy with the alcohol. She pulls again. This time, Nadine follows without protest as Chloe sneaks them through the crowd and into a back hallway.

“What are we doing?” Nadine whispers as Chloe hits the button on the elevator.

Chloe gives her a mischievous smile and drains the rest of her wine, setting the empty glass on a nearby table. “It’s a surprise. Come on.”

Together, they take the elevator up to the fifth level, Chloe leading them down a dark-lit corridor past her office. During Nadine’s previous visits, they hadn’t often explored this floor—Chloe had claimed it too boring, having to see it all day anyways for her work. That she is bringing Nadine here now seems meaningful.

They enter a large room. Chloe flicks on a few lights, enough for Nadine to see an array of extravagant exhibits.

Western Ghats of India, says one. Hoysala, says another. Halebidu. Belur. The Tusk of Ganesha. 

It’s… magnificent.

Chloe smiles at her when Nadine looks over in askance. “I’ve been wanting to show you this for a while. It’s my very favorite exhibit. Where I go when I need to think, or feeling a bit unsure about myself.”

“Did you do all this?” Nadine asks, awed, as they walk among the different displays. There are dozens of artifacts encased in glass; a trident in one, an axe in another. Some look old and delicate. All of them are incredible in one way or another.

“Not everything,” says Chloe. “But some. Okay, most.”

As the party drones on somewhere beneath them, she and Chloe explore every inch of the exhibit. They take their time—the floor is theirs to share, quiet but for the clack of their footsteps and Nadine’s murmured questions. Seeing everything gathered here in one place, Nadine is terribly impressed. She has always known Chloe was an amazing woman. Now she can see just how much that is true. The dedication, intelligence, and talent that arranging this sprawling collection would take is mind-boggling.

When she tells Chloe this, the other woman just laughs, brushing her off. Nadine tries again, determined to impress upon her how incredible her work is, when she realizes why Chloe is so giggly—she’s drunk, or close to. Probably, she hadn’t eaten before starting on the wine earlier, and it’s caught up to her now, though she isn’t sure why Chloe drank so much in the first place. Maybe she had been… nervous about tonight, and gone to the wine for support? No, that doesn’t make sense. Why would someone like Nadine make someone like Chloe nervous?

They stop by a display of a strange golden artifact shaped like a large coin and carved with the figures of a bow, axe, and trident. 

“Are you alright?” Nadine asks, putting a hand on Chloe's back to keep her steady. She’s certainly never experienced a drunk-Chloe before, and isn’t sure what to expect.

Chloe’s face is pink from the wine. She grins rakishly up at Nadine.

“You,” she says, with only a slight slur, “are the prettiest thing here tonight, you know that?”

Nadine feels herself flush. She’s never learned to take a compliment, and tonight is no exception. “Thanks.”

“Really,” Chloe continues. “There—there should be an exhibit here that’s… That’s just you. Or maybe there should be two. One for you, and another for those arms.” She laughs bawdily at her own joke. The husky sound of it ricochets throughout the room and down the empty halls. Nadine is grateful they’re alone. Not because she’s embarrassed—well, she is a little—but because this moment is just for them.

“Alright,” she jokes. “If I’m an exhibit here, where shall I put you in my zoo, then?”

“Oh, you can put me anywhere,” Chloe purrs suggestively, sending a tingle up Nadine’s back. For all the half-hugs and cheek-kisses they've given each other so far, this is a bold step forward into the uncharted territory that has slowly been forming between them, and suddenly Nadine feels awkward and even a bit vulnerable, like when she has to enter the tiger enclosure after the animal has been tranquilized, but not sure if the dosage was correct.

But then Chloe stumbles slightly, and Nadine remembers this is a beautiful woman in front of her now, making herself just as vulnerable as her, not some wild animal out for blood, and the fear fades. 

“Maybe we should go back downstairs,” Nadine suggests with a fond little laugh, catching Chloe by her elbow. Really, she'd prefer to stay with the other woman here a bit longer, but probably they need to get some food in Chloe’s stomach before she got sick. Not to mention the party they're missing, the coworkers who will be wondering where Chloe's gone off to.

“Thanks for coming with me tonight, china,” Chloe mumbles, and smiles dopily up at Nadine, who smiles back, only slightly exasperated. 

“Of course,” she replies softly. “I would go anywhere with you.”

Of all things, that seems to be the one to make Chloe blush. As though suddenly dizzy, she sways forward. For a heart-stopping second, Nadine thinks maybe the other woman is about to kiss her, and feels a surge of battling emotions—anticipation that it’s finally happening, despair that Chloe’s drunk for it, relieved happiness that Chloe wants to kiss her at all—but then Chloe’s lips hit her cheek, and she sags against Nadine’s chest. 

“Whoops,” Chloe laughs, and attempts to pull away—maybe to try that again—but trips on her own heel and almost falls backward, right into the display. Nadine scrambles to catch her, and suddenly they are grappling at each other and laughing at themselves like teenagers, the heavy mood lost, trying not to be too loud though there is nobody on the floor but them.

“I swear,” Chloe says, as Nadine guides her back to the elevator; the moment is broken, and they really should get back to the party, “I’m usually a lot smoother than this.”

“Oh, are you?” Nadine replies, half-amused.

Eyes half-lidded, neck flushed, Chloe grins wickedly at her. “You’ll see," she purrs. It sounds like a promise.

 

 

Chloe’s not exactly… embarrassed by her behavior last night, per se, though she is quite irritated with herself. She really hadn’t intended to drink so much, or so quickly. Drunk Chloe has no filter, nor any sense of self-preservation. Drunk Chloe surely made an arse of herself with Nadine, and now Dead-Sober Chloe has to be the one to pick up the mess.

God. What must Nadine think of her now? Chloe wonders. Needless to say, she’s not exactly looking forward to their next meeting.

It’s almost 11AM by the time she rouses from her hungover stupor—it’s Saturday, so give her a bloody break—stirring from where she’d fallen, still fully-dressed, onto her unmade bed last night. Her mouth tastes foul. Her head is spinning. She might be sick. God, she’s an idiot.

As soon as her basic motor functions return, she sends Nadine a tentative text. Hope I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself last night! seems safe enough. Groaning, she puts her head back down, and then jumps when her phone buzzes only a minute later. 

You were fine.

And well, that’s it. Now Chloe knows she was an arse. Probably, she said something a bit too forward to the other woman, pushed a little too hard. Came on stronger than she’d wanted, acted like the bloody stalker she keeps telling herself she isn’t. Dammit!

Five minutes later, her phone rings. Groaning, she flails for it and answers—only one person calls her on Saturday mornings, and he’s about to get an earful.

“Nate,” she says at once, “I cocked it all up. I was so nervous and I drank too much and she was so bloody gorgeous and wonderful and—”

“Chloe,” says a voice that definitely isn’t Nate. Chloe sits bolt upright, squeezing her eyes shut as her head thunders in response. God, she really is going to be sick.

“Er, Nadine,” she says shrilly. “Was talking about some other gorgeous, wonderful woman, just now.”

“Ja?” Nadine laughs softly, sounding sympathetic. “Good for her. How are you feeling?”

“Peachy,” Chloe lies. Just thinking about peaches makes her want to hurl.

Nadine hmms. “Listen, can we meet up today?”

“Ah—sure,” says Chloe, already lurching to her feet to get showered and dressed and maybe brush her teeth three times at the minimum. 

It doesn’t occur to her ‘til she’s toweling off that maybe she should be worried why Nadine wants to see her so soon after last night.

As she takes the tube to the zoo, the dread piles up. It’s obvious Chloe’s made a proper mess of things. Maybe Nadine doesn’t want to see her anymore—which begs the argument of why she’d call and ask to see her in the first place if she didn’t bloody want to see her, and this is all just so stupid and Christ, does her head hurt—

It’s a Saturday, so the zoo is busier than ever. Chloe waits by the less-than-popular flamingo exhibit, stomach all in knots. It’s a cool day, typical London weather, and she shivers in her little red shirt—which, yes, she's worn for luck—wishing she’d thought to grab her coat before rushing out of flat like she had—

“Hi,” she hears, and jumps. It’s Nadine, looking harried.

“Hi,” Chloe replies.

“I need a bit longer,” Nadine says apologetically. “There’s a problem with some of the feed bags. Something about mites in them. I've got to go get everything sorted, but I’ll be quick, promise.”

“Go on, then,” says Chloe, fine with waiting just a bit longer to get her heart broken. Nadine nods, grateful, then seems to hesitate before taking off her dark blue Shoreline-emblazoned jacket and sliding it over Chloe’s shoulders. It’s a little big on her, but the warmth is brilliant. The gesture itself is even better. It’s also a good sign that maybe she didn’t totally cock everything up last night.

“Good?” asks Nadine.

“Great,” Chloe husks, touched. Nadine takes a couple steps back, looking a little sorry to leave, and then departs.

Chloe leans against the exhibit's railing and holds the jacket tightly around herself as she waits, soaking in the warmth and breathing in the subtle scent of soap, faint sweat, and something that's perfectly Nadine. Christ, this thing’s cozy. She may not give it back. 

Ten minutes later, she hears an excited, "Wow!” and glances over to see a little Indian girl with pigtails dragging an older man—probably her father—along by the hand, rushing over to the railing beside Chloe, going up on tip-toe so she can see the milling birds in the shallow pool beyond. “Flamingos! Look at them! Daddy, why are they pink?” she asks.

Her father shakes his head. “I don’t know, Meenu.” He points to Chloe. “Why don’t you ask the nice lady? Perhaps she can tell you.”

Chloe balks. What would make this man think she knows anything about flamingos? Then she realizes she’s wearing Nadine’s Shoreline jacket, so of course they would. As the little girl looks up at her expectantly, Chloe fumbles through all the facts Nadine’s ever told her during her visits here.

“Er,” she says, already preparing to make something up on the spot, “they’re pink like that because—” that moment, she remembers, and blurts in triumph, “—because of their diet, and the type of shrimp and algae they eat. It dyes their feathers. Otherwise they’d be white. So they—we have to make sure to feed them the right foods, here, or else they wouldn’t be pink like that.”

“Wow,” says the girl, impressed. “Thank you, miss!”

Satisfied, father and daughter move on. Chloe sags, relieved, and then notices Nadine caught in mid-step a bit further down the way, watching her with an odd look on her face. Almost like she’s... proud or something.

“You saw that, didn’t you?” says Chloe as the other woman approaches, giving her a self-deprecating smile. Of course Nadine would see her fumble. Chloe’s just got that sort of luck.

In answer, Nadine just smiles. She doesn’t take her jacket back, just slips her hand into Chloe’s and murmurs, “Come here.”

Together, they walk to a section of the zoo Chloe has never seen before. Several signs along the way warn that only staff can enter, and she begins to wonder what all the fuss is about. Through a locked metal gate they enter one of the largest enclosures Chloe’s ever seen; more of a huge, expansive field than anything else, littered throughout with trees, brush and foliage and ringed by a massive fence.

Nadine stops only a few steps in, near the slotted fence. Chloe stops with her, aware they are still holding hands. For a long moment, nothing happens. Chloe peers through the fence but doesn’t see anything. She gives it another minute, and is about to ask Nadine what they’re doing here—

—when suddenly she feels a deep, earth-shaking rumble and watches, mouth falling open in awe as a herd of elephants trundles out of the thick brush, trumpeting to each other in sharp, air-rending blasts, as if in friendly conversation.

There are six adults in total, enormous creatures all, and even a little baby tottering along, practically hidden in the thick forest of their legs. While they don’t directly approach the fence where Nadine and Chloe stand, they do stray close, swinging their long trunks about and flapping their ears with great gusts of air. Every step is a mini-earthquake. Their calls vibrate deep within Chloe's chest. The adults coddle the baby, stripping leaves and grass with their trunks and handing it over with care.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things Chloe has ever seen.

“This is where I come when the world is too much,” says Nadine softly. Chloe can hear the passion, the sincerity in her voice. Her face is open and inviting when she meets Chloe’s eyes. “You showed me your favorite exhibit last night. This is mine.”

Chloe is quiet, taken aback. That Nadine is sharing this with her means—well, everything.

Nadine’s look turns wry. “So, in case you’re still worried you’ve ‘cocked it all up’—”

Chloe kisses her. She’s kissed alot of people in her life, but she’s never kissed Nadine Ross, and pity on that, because it’s lovely; shy and stoic as she may be in other regards, the woman is fantastic at it. When Chloe tries to pull back, Nadine’s hand lifts and cradles her jaw and holds her there so they can have a second kiss, and then a third. 

“I like you,” Chloe blurts when they finally part, and then laughs. “You know. In case you, ah, couldn’t tell or something.”

“I like you, too,” says Nadine. 

“Oh,” Chloe jokes. “Glad we got all that figured out, then.”

They kiss again. Nadine’s smile is tender. “So, I make you nervous enough to drink yourself silly, ja?”

“Now, look,” Chloe huffs, trying to seem annoyed when really she’s walking on air. “I already told you, usually I’m a lot smoother than I was last night.”

“Ja, alright,” Nadine says, and laughs. Rather than fight her about it, Chloe just gets herself another kiss.

Smiling at one another, they watch the elephants for a time, their hands still threaded at the hip. 

“Been a while,” says Nadine suddenly. Chloe frowns.

“Since what, love?”

Nadine shrugs. “Since I was someone’s girlfriend.”

“Well,” Chloe says, abruptly breathless. “We should do something about that, shouldn’t we?”

 

 

Winter in London is cold. In all her years here, Nadine has never entirely gotten used to it; the bitter chill, the cutting wind. Days like today make her miss the all-encompassing, bone-deep warmth of South Africa, the heat that soaks into your skin and radiates outward. Perhaps she’ll plan a visit home in a few weeks, during these long, slow months for the zoo. Maybe Chloe will want to come with her—Nadine’s mother has been asking to meet her lately. It would be a shame to disappoint. 

Today, she waits for her girlfriend with her hands tucked deeply into the pockets of her work-issued jacket, pacing the museum’s front steps. Chloe wants to see the langurs later, and the elephants, if they can. Busy as their schedules always seem to be, they still make time to visit each other’s work. The museum and the zoo are big places, after all. Who knows how long it will take to explore everything?

Only yesterday, Chloe told Nadine she loved her. It had been a flippant thing, said over the phone before bed—they are still living apart, wary of moving too fast, but Nadine is tired of sleeping without her at night, especially now that she knows what it’s like to hold her in her arms. Nadine isn’t sure the other woman realizes exactly what she said, yet. Probably, it will hit her in another day or two, and then Chloe will have a mild panic attack as she always does when emotions are involved. Nadine is ready to be there to calm her.

Some days, Nadine wakes up and can’t quite believe a woman like Chloe Frazer is her girlfriend. Beneath her layers of bravado, wit and charisma is the most intelligent, inspiring woman Nadine’s ever met. Though, that’s not to say Chloe isn’t without her quirks—

(“Why is your place filled with artifacts?” Nadine asked, the first time she visited Chloe’s box-crowded flat, a week after their kiss and confession at the elephant enclosure.

“Well, I didn’t steal them, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Chloe snarked back.

Nadine had given her a dubious look. “Does the museum… know you have them?”

“Are you calling me a thief, Miss Ross?” Chloe challenged, drawing her forward by the front of her shirt. “I’ll have you know I’m a renowned collector of antiquities.”

Nadine hadn’t much argued after that. She’d been busy with other things.)

—or flaws—

(“I drive!” Chloe insisted, practically shoving Nadine out of the seat of her own motorized cart at the zoo, used for transportation through the warehouses and feed storage lots. “It’s a control thing!”)

—but every moment with her, strange or scary, is worth it, to Nadine. She doesn’t feel as if she is relentlessly circling her life anymore, but walking steadily in a certain direction. What waits for her at the end will be worth the journey, she’s sure.

She hears a clatter and looks up to see Chloe in her little tweed coat racing down the museum steps toward her, skipping the last few and jumping with a little cry right into Nadine’s arms. Nadine grunts but holds her easily enough, something Chloe has always seemed to enjoy throughout their relationship.

“Chloe,” she chides warningly, though her voice is soft.

“Hey,” says Chloe brightly, as if everything is fine and she didn’t just hurl herself into her girlfriend’s arms. Nadine gently settles her on her own two feet, though Chloe doesn't pull back an inch. “Thanks for waiting, love. You ready to go?” 

Nadine lets out a chuckle and ducks her head down for a quick kiss. Chloe hums in approval. “Can’t go anywhere when you’re hanging onto me like that, ja?”

“Can’t help it,” Chloe groans, unzipping Nadine’s jacket the rest of the way and burrowing herself under it, arms threaded around Nadine’s torso. Oversized as her jacket is, it almost fits over the both of them. “You’re so warm.”

Nadine smiles. She’s tried to give Chloe the jacket a hundred times already, but she always refuses, claiming she prefers when Nadine’s wearing it so she can use the excuse to cuddle for warmth. Nadine far from minds. Holding the ends closed over Chloe’s back, she soaks in the feel of the other woman in her arms. Now this is the sort of standing still she could do for a good while.

“Say,” Chloe pipes up suddenly, pulling away and taking Nadine’s hand as they head for the crosswalk, “do you like dogs?” 

Nadine frowns, momentarily confused, then gives Chloe a fond look. “Dogs? I love them.”

"Really, now?" Chloe smiles. "Imagine that.”