DISCLAIMER: Nikki & Nora are the property of Nancylee Myatt and Warner Bros. Television. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Trial By Fire
By Inspector Boxer


Part 14

Nora sighed and leaned back from the computer. Her left hand massaged the back of her neck and she rolled her tight shoulders in a vain effort to ease some of the pounding headache throbbing behind her eyes. A short, quick breath lifted her bangs away from her forehead and she shivered in the air-conditioned room.

It was more than cool air making her cold, though.

This was hardly the first time she'd watched someone kill. Watched someone die. She'd held victims in her arms before as the life had fled from them, as their blood soaked her clothes and stained her hands.

A flash of Castillo's eyes came to her, the shock in them when she'd shot him in the chest. The disbelief. The abrupt vacancy of what little soul he had a second before he'd gone over the rail. Even though he was trying to kill her… kill Nikki… she'd taken no pleasure in his death. No satisfaction. Not pulling the trigger had not been an option. That knowledge helped her sleep at night, but she knew those eyes would always haunt her, coming back into focus when she least expected them.

Another sigh. Nora picked up her Mountain Dew, hoping the caffeine might help with the headache. So far she'd watched Margaret Hainey die three times – each sickening rerun from a new angle. The one thing Castillo knew how to do as well as murder was finding ways to record it.

Unfortunately the mental and emotional torture she was putting herself through wasn't paying off. Other than solidifying her opinion of Castillo as a sick fuck, the images weren't yielding anything new.

She glanced back at the door. Nikki was across the hall. It had been almost four hours since they'd parted, stepping inside their respective rooms with all the enthusiasm of patients on their way to a root canal. She itched to check in with her partner, to see how Nikki was handling what had to be a new kind of horror for her.

With a snort she realized this was probably the longest she'd been away from Nikki and been awake since they'd become partners.

Nora rubbed her hands over her face then stared at the blank screen for a string of heartbeats. Finally she reached over and picked up the DVD with Delana Archer's name scrawled in thick black letters across the surface. She popped the disc in the tray then took a slow breath before hitting play and watching another woman die.

But this time what she witnessed told her something. It told her that idea whispering to her from the back of her brain had merit. It told her that she knew deep in her now churning guts who had hired Castillo to kill Delana Archer. The truth brought unexpected tears to her eyes and made her throat tighten. Nora pressed the space bar to stop the image. She put her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands, knowing that if she was right she had just discovered a new, desperate low that a person could sink to. The thought made her sick.

The only thing to decide now was when to share the disturbing idea with Nikki.

What little she'd forced down at Sweeny's had made a very unwelcome return trip.

Nikki rinsed out her mouth then splashed cold water on her face. The liquid was icy enough that it shocked a startled gasp out of her and sharpened her senses. Her whole body was quaking hard, making her muscles tighten and ache. She took several deep breaths, trying to get her physical reactions under control.

There seemed to be little she could do about her emotional reaction, however.

It had been so close. Castillo could have blown Nora's brains all over the fire escape just like he'd killed Thomas Mangold when he'd tired of playing with the banker. Her partner's beautiful face could have been…

Nikki whimpered as another wave of nausea rolled up and almost out. She swallowed hard and willed it back. Moving away from the sink she got as far as the wall and slid down it onto the cold tile floor. "God, what the hell is wrong with me?" she whispered. "Get it together, Beaumont." She ran her still wet hands through her hair, feeling them shake. She hoped like hell no one would come in and find her there, especially Nora.

The thought of Nora dying… it did something to Nikki on such a visceral level she barely knew what to do with herself. She wanted nothing more than to seek out her partner at that moment, prove to herself that Nora was still breathing.

A hard shudder racked through her and she clamped her teeth together doggedly. No. She wasn't going to show weakness, not to Nora. She was finally where she'd always wanted to be, in a position where she could do the most good. She wasn't going to screw that up by making the best damn detective in the precinct think that she couldn't handle it.

"But you're not," Nikki hissed to the empty stalls. "You're not handling it." The knowledge nearly made her sick again. She dropped her head back, banging it slightly against the wall, and stared up at the aged ceiling. Taking several slow, measured breaths she finally felt her stomach settle.

In the quiet, Nikki admitted something to herself. There was something about Detective Nora Delaney that was under her skin. They hadn't known each other a week, but her connection to her partner was something Nikki was already afraid to lose. She was beginning to crave the sight of Nora, found herself hard pressed not to touch her. Nikki had never been this distracted by another person before. She knew she was going to have to take the time to honestly analyze her feelings and how disturbingly deep they seemed to already be running but this moment wasn't it. She had a killer to catch. Her damned nerves and feelings needed to wait.

With a shaky sigh she got to her feet. Satisfied that she was steady for the moment she headed back out into the bullpen. She grabbed a breath mint from her desk and sucked on it unenthusiastically. She'd have paid almost anything not to have to go back into that room and watch the rest of the recording, but there was no choice. She opened the door and stepped back inside.

And froze.

Nora was standing there, her green eyes glued to the still image of herself on the floor of the fire escape with a gun to her head. She turned and looked at Nikki when she heard her partner gasp. All shock at seeing herself like that evaporated when she got a look at her partner's ashen features. "You okay?"

"Fine," Nikki lied quickly. She brushed past Nora and snapped the monitor off.

They were both quiet a moment.

"Did…" Nora swallowed, completely thrown and unnerved by what she'd seen. "Did we get his confession on tape?" She cleared her throat.

"Yeah," Nikki confirmed in a faint voice, her gaze fixed worriedly on Nora's profile.

Nora cleared her throat again. "Sorry. Just wasn't…"

Nikki shook her head, dismissing Nora's needless apology. "It hasn't been fun for me to watch, either," she promised.

Pulled by a need she couldn't define, Nora came closer, stopping well inside Nikki's personal space. She glanced up into shadowed brown eyes, trying to imagine how she would feel if the roles were reversed. The thought of watching Nikki with a gun to her head made her nauseous. "We can hand these DVDs off to Georgia. Swap with her."

Nikki stared into deep green eyes, taking comfort at the spark of life in them. She shook her head. "I don't think it would be any easier for her to watch."

Nora opened her mouth to say something only to realize she had no answers. "What a bitch of a case, huh?" she finally offered.

Nikki's head dipped but when she looked back up through her bangs she was wearing a soft, lopsided smile. "This is all some sort of Special Crimes hazing ritual, right? First the body at the morgue. Then a hit put out on me. Then nearly getting whacked… my partner nearly getting whacked…" She went silent when Nora's hand clamped playfully over her mouth. She pretended she didn't feel tingles all the way to her toes from the touch.

Nora smiled, feeling some of the day's tensions drifting away in the wake of her partner's infectious grin. "You're so inappropriate."

A dark eyebrow lifted as Nora's hand dropped away.

"You're making me smile after I've been watching people get murdered. There is something wrong about that."

"I'd say there is something very right about that," Nikki disagreed with sudden intensity. "What are partners for?"

Nora studied her for a moment, charmed by the response. It was strange how much better she felt just being around Nikki. She sighed. "I watched a few more of the DVDs."

Nikki thought that was obvious but didn't say so. "And?"

"That idea I told you about? The one that hit me when we were in Castillo's hidden room?"

Nikki's heart skipped a beat. She could see that Nora was hesitant to share but was obviously making an effort with her. She hoped like hell she didn't screw this moment up. "Yeah?"

"I think I know who hired Castillo to kill Delana Archer."

"Who?" Nikki took a deep breath.

"Delana Archer."

Her initial reaction was less than supportive so Nikki kept it from stumbling past her lips. "I don't get it," she drawled, her accent playfully thicker than normal.

Nora's lips twitched. "How many murders did you watch?"

"Two and an attempt." Nikki motioned at the now dark monitor.

"Castillo kept his victims alive in each case, right? Kept their mouths free so he could enjoy their screams?"

Nikki considered the questions and what import Nora was trying to convey. She cocked her head then her eyes widened marginally when the answer came to her. "He drugged Del. Why?"

"What if Delana drugged Delana? What if she gave herself that massive dose to make sure she'd feel nothing?" Nora felt her heartbeat pick up as she realized Nikki had already hopped on her train of thought almost effortlessly.

Nikki leaned back against the desk and crossed her arms. She ran the scenario in her head out loud. "Tracy tells Del that Richard has threatened her. Del feels powerless to do anything even though she could go to the police and have Archer nailed on any number of counts. Obviously a classic case of Battered Women's Syndrome."

"And let's say that Del actually had feelings for Pettit. Maybe that finally, finally got through to that part of her soul that was still left. It made her scared. It made her angry."

"She knew about the other murders. Probably had the whole time. Maybe she was keeping track. Hoping someday to tell someone." Nikki shook her head in disbelief. "So she protects Pettit, gets away from her husband, and points the finger at him all in one very sick and sad way."

Nora felt giddy. She'd never clicked with another partner like she was with Nikki at that moment. "She knows he's got cops in his pocket."

"So she has to do something splashy. Something that will get major media attention." Nikki was entranced with the glint in Nora's eyes. Nora was excited and she found the emotion was contagious. And she sensed she'd just passed a massive test with her partner with flying colors.

"So she hires Archer's own man to do the deed. The only thing that stands out is the drug. He was brutal with her but if you watch the tape it's methodical. He gets very little out of it."

"I'll take your word for it," Nikki muttered.

Nora smiled. "Do you think I'm crazy?"

Nikki's gaze skimmed the angles of Nora's face. "I think you're freakishly brilliant."

The smile got wider. "The only problem is proving it."

"That will be a toughie," Nikki agreed. "Seeing how the only person who could corroborate that is dead."

"Do you think Archer knows his wife set him up?" Nora stepped around Nikki and leaned against the desk with her. Their shoulders touched.

"I think he suspects. I think that's why he had Castillo killed. His man sold him out for money. I'll bet you anything Castillo blackmailed him, too."

"That was Castillo's biggest mistake. If he'd kept his mouth shut no one would have been the wiser."

"And he'd still be breathing and brandishing tacky tattoos."

Nora stifled another smile. She glanced sideways at her partner. Nikki's color looked better than when she'd walked in. In fact she looked pretty damn good all things considered. She shook off the thought but this time there was an odd twinge in her subconscious about her random musings. "So now what?"

Nikki looked at her. "We tie Archer to the other murders. It's what Delana wanted. I'm kinda inclined to do it for her."

"Damn," Nora mused quietly, her mood darkening a little. "How desperate do you have to be to let someone do that to you?"

Nikki looked down at her loosely clasped hands. "I think we have the answer to that question, unfortunately."

"I could be wrong," Nora reminded her.

Nikki snorted.

That made Nora chuckle. She gave her partner a soft smile. "I'm an idiot, you know."

The strange comment had Nikki's gaze jerking back to Nora's face. "What?"

"For thinking we wouldn't work as partners."

It was ridiculous, some part of her decided, how Nora could affect her so easily with mere words. "I knew you'd come around eventually," Nikki affected in a bored tone.

"Don't tell Dan, but you're way smarter than he is." Nora bumped her partner playfully in the side with her elbow.

Nikki bumped back. "Tell me something I don't know."

Nora glanced at her watch. "I don't know about you, but I need a break. We can come at this fresh in the morning."

Reluctantly Nikki agreed. She tested her reserves and realized she now felt well enough to eat. "You hungry?"

"You haven't spent enough time with me, yet?" Nora teased, pleased by the offer.

Not nearly enough, Nikki's thoughts readily replied. "I'm hoping your brilliant detective skills will rub off on me."

Nora draped an arm around Nikki's shoulders and she gave her a quick squeeze. "I think you have more than a few of those skills without any help from me. Come on. I'm buying."

The club was called Orange. Nikki wouldn't have thought twice about it except it was a blues club. Warm fingers intertwined with her own as they stepped inside and Nikki twitched at both the contact and the now expected tingles that skittered up her arm. She rolled her eyes at herself as Nora led her through the packed room. Something smelled heavenly and the drinks she saw nearly everyone sporting made her mouth water. More than one person gave her a speculative glance as she passed and, with a start, she realized Nora had apparently dragged her to meat market night.

Nikki didn't mind the looks directed her way, but she glared at more than one person who was eyeing Nora with interest.

Her partner seemed oblivious to the looks she was receiving. Nora threaded her way through the crowd with practiced ease. They came to a spiral staircase and ascended it quickly with only a brief pause where Nora caught the eye of a pretty, petite bartender. The woman waved and Nora returned the gesture before continuing onward and upward with Nikki willingly in tow.

The balcony seating was mostly empty with only a few couples enjoying the intimate setting. Candles lit the small tables for two but there was some castoff from the gas torches lining the walls below as well. Nikki wondered why it was so vacant up here when it offered such a nice view of the stage.

"Come here often?" Nikki was able to ask in an almost normal volume. Below it was too loud to be heard with the music being piped in and everyone talking.

Nora glanced back at her and gave her a kind of smile Nikki had never seen on her before. There was something almost dirty about it.

She liked it.

"Here." Nora got them what Nikki would argue was the best seat in the house.

Nikki was surprised when Nora pulled out her chair for her. Feeling a thread of delicious danger slide through her, Nikki turned and gave her partner a rather dirty smile of her own over her shoulder. She was delighted when Nora paused in reaction, her green eyes sparkling with amusement as they held Nikki's gaze for a string of heartbeats.

Nikki slowly sat, her smile still wide as Nora slid her chair up behind her. She looked up and locked eyes with her partner again as Nora took her own seat across from her. Below them a band was setting up on stage, but Nikki couldn't look away from the green of Nora's eyes or the way the light from the candle cast such interesting shadows over Nora's sharp cheekbones. She looked beautiful.

Nora felt breathless at the way Nikki was gazing at her. She swallowed then licked her lips. "I come here sometimes when I need to unwind," she explained to fill the electric silence between them. "I know the owner. She's cool with letting me come up to get away from all the trollers."

"Ah. I noticed we were being sized up like two slices of prime rib." Nikki glanced around again and realized a New Orleans Saints player was sitting six feet away from them. They were in the VIP section, she realized.

"Speaking of prime rib," Nora replied, both relieved and disappointed when Nikki finally released her gaze. "They have some pretty good food here."

"So I smell."

"Hey, girl." The bartender had arrived. She was a small caramel colored woman with long dreads tied back. "You bring a friend tonight?" Her accent had a trace of the Caribbean to it.

"Imogene, may I introduce my new partner, Nikki Beaumont." Nora offered Nikki a beaming smile.

Imogene turned to face Nikki full on and offered a hand tipped with impressively long blood-red nails. She was barely taller than five three even in heels, Nikki realized as she shook her hand. Nikki put her age around fifty although at first glance she would have guessed much younger.

"Nice to meet ya," Imogene said. "Been awhile since this one has brought in a friend."

Nikki looked at Nora with surprise and noted her partner blushing just a little in the low light. "Nice to meet you, too. Great place you have here."

"Even better music, food, and drinks, pretty thing. Tell the girl what's good here, officer. I'll be back." Imogene patted Nora on the shoulder before giving her a devilish wink that had Nora blushing even harder.

Nikki's face was a full of mischief when she looked at Nora again. "So what's good here, officer?" she teased with an intentionally bad impression of Imogene's accent.

Nora shook her head the scratched the back of her neck, hoping the low light would hide the tinge of red on her cheeks. "The onion rings are a slice of heaven. And Imogene makes a mean Tom Collins."

Below the band began to warm up as the music from the speakers faded off into nothing.

"Sold. Add in some chicken or steak and I'm there." Nikki glanced over the rail. "Favorite band of yours?"

"The Reba Russell Band."

Nikki lifted an eyebrow as she glanced back at her. "As in Reba the cat?"


"Cool." It was, Nikki decided. Nora was sharing this little part of her life with her. The truth of the moment gave Nikki an almost giddy feeling and she flashed a charming smile at her partner. "Can't wait to hear her."

"I wasn't sure I'd be able to make it by while they were in town," Nora confessed. "I figured a meal, a quick drink and some nice music couldn't hurt."

"Not even a little," Nikki agreed. "I've never been here."

"Really?" Nora seemed surprised. "Don't like blues?"

"Never really listen to it much, honestly. Zydeco – sure. Can't get away from that… or jazz."

The singer took the stage; a tall, white woman with dark hair tied back in a ponytail. She received a welcoming round of applause before chatting with the crowd for a few moments. Then the band ramped up and she cut loose.

"I know this one," Nikki said in surprise.

"Take Me to the River. Everyone knows that one," Nora replied in an elevated voice to be heard over the music. "Wait till she gets into her own stuff."

Nikki leaned against the rail and watched the show, only faintly aware when Imogene returned and Nora ordered for them both.

As Imogene walked away, Nora took a moment to simply observe her partner. The light from the gas torches flickered on Nikki's features, casting them in fascinating, shifting shadows. She really was a beautiful woman. She could have done anything… been anything… but Nikki had chosen the police force. She'd turned her back on her upbringing, her money, to try to make the world a little safer.

Nora's eyes followed the path of Nikki's long neck then down the "v" of the electric blue shell she was wearing. No wonder so many people turned their heads when Nikki sauntered by. Nora had even noticed her partner had a sexy swagger she suspected Nikki was completely unaware of.

For just a moment, Nora released the reins on her thoughts, letting them wander where they would as she watched her partner watching the show. Nikki had been honest that she'd found Nora attractive. That if they hadn't been partners… Sitting there now, feeling the undeniable connection she had to this woman, Nora wondered if she would be tempted if they weren't bound together by the badge. She'd never been with a woman before. Her upbringing had been pretty strict on such things so she had never really allowed herself to imagine the possibility.

What would it be like to feel Nikki in her arms? To kiss her? To lie naked, tangled up in her?

Nikki chose that moment to glance back at her and smile. Nora felt her heart lurch and she swallowed hard as a thick and heavy heat flashed through her body. She blinked before smiling hesitantly back.

"She's good," Nikki said, feeling her heart stutter at the interesting look on Nora's features.

Russell ended the song then slid effortlessly into "Send Me Someone to Love." Nora took a shaky breath then looked away as Imogene chose that moment to blessedly return with their food and drinks. Nora thanked her and immediately grabbed her glass, taking a healthy swallow.

Nikki wondered what was going through Nora's mind. It was obviously something interesting if the flushed look on her face was any indication. Nikki licked her lips, feeling that thread of danger again. She wanted to yield to it, to toy with it. "You like to dance?"

Nora gave her a startled glance. The thought of being down on that floor, in that throng of people, moving in time to the slow sway of the music with Nikki's body pressed close made her take another sip of her drink. She wished she could rein her thoughts back in, but they had taken their moment of freedom and run with it. "Yeah," she confessed, her smoky voice huskier than normal.

Nikki noticed. She wasn't naïve enough to assume any other reason for the change in energy between them, either. There was no mistaking the hungry look that had been in Nora's eyes. Nikki just hadn't expected to see it and certainly not directed at her.

Knowing she was attracted to Nora was one thing. Having that attraction returned was another. It made what was happening between them harder to resist. She took a sip of her drink. "Maybe we can go sometime," she finally replied.

Nora watched her in the candlelight, feeling like she couldn't catch her breath. "Sure."

The alcohol warmed her as Nikki took another healthy sip of her Tom Collins. She really needed to stop thinking about Nora like that. It wasn't going to happen. Fantasizing about it was just going to get her in trouble. They worked too well as partners to fuck that up with sex and the inevitable messy breakup. To give herself something else to focus on, she popped a small onion ring into her mouth. "Damn." She chewed with enthusiasm, pleasantly surprised by how good it was.

"Told you it was good," Nora said on a relieved laugh as Nikki made a show of going for another.

"Thanks for bringing me here, partner," Nikki said with a smile. "This is just what I needed after the day I had."

Nora smiled bashfully back. "Thanks for coming with me."

"We kicked ass today," Nikki proclaimed.

"That we did," Nora agreed with a hint of wonder. She held up her glass. "Here is to more ass kicking tomorrow."

Nikki grinned and clinked her glass against her partner's before taking a sip. "We're going to get justice for Delana," she said.

Nora nodded. "You're damn right we are."

Part 15

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