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
Nora shot up from an uneasy sleep, heart slamming against her sternum, at Nikki's soft cry. Her partner was thrashing next to her, caught in some kind of subconscious hell as her mind dealt with the day's events in the only way it could.
"Nikki." Nora rolled up on her side, wincing a little as a spasm tore through her still sore ribs. "Nik, wake up."
Nikki was under too far and didn't respond. She made another tiny sound that caused Nora's heart to feel like it was ripping in two to hear. Nora sat up further then grabbed her partner's hands, trying to keep from getting inadvertently punched.
The thrashing instantly ceased, leaving behind Nikki's harsh breathing. A soft, wounded sound came from the dark haired woman. Nora bit her lip and let go of Nikki's hands. She could tell her partner wasn't fully awake but at least she was out of the worst throes of the nightmare.
Nora heard Nestor whine from Nikki's side of the bed. "Shhh. It's okay, boy," she promised.
As Nora watched, Nikki curled into a fetal position. The seasoned detective didn't know what to feel as she watched her partner. A part of her felt like crying at the sight, another wanted nothing more than to get dressed, go find Richard Archer and kill the bastard.
There was no concern on her part that this moment was a sign of weakness in Nikki. Nora knew she still had plenty of nightmares of her own. It was when those dreams stopped, when the job no longer affected her, then Nora would know it was time to walk away.
Nora eased her fingers through Nikki's bangs, brushing them away from her partner's damp forehead before raking her hands through her own hair. She watched Nikki sleep, troubled to see the furrow still in place on Nikki's brow. The worst of the nightmare might have relinquished its hold, but Nikki's dreams were still obviously far from sweet.
Nora bit her lip again. What she was contemplating was not a good idea. It was taking another step up to that line she swore she wouldn't cross. She scooted a little closer and looked down into Nikki's features, seeing the drying tears on the other woman's cheeks. The sight twisted her heart so hard she could barely breathe.
With a sigh, Nora shifted and settled back down on her side. Her mind made up, she didn't hesitate as she slowly and carefully spooned against her partner, her left hand easing around Nikki's waist. Their bare legs came into contact and the heat from the touch caused chills to chase their way up and down Nora's skin. Nikki sighed in her sleep and the tension in her frame relaxed as she slumped back into Nora's body with relief.
Nora swallowed hard. This close, she could smell the lingering traces of Nikki's perfume on her partner's throat. Nikki was soft and warm and felt sinfully good in her arms. The sensations coursing through her, the feel of Nikki's body against her own Nora knew she could get frighteningly addicted to both.
She closed her eyes and prayed for sleep to come quickly.
When Nora opened her eyes again it was to the sound of purring. She took in the gray, early morning light filtering in past her closed blinds before glancing down and discovering Reba curled behind her legs. The familiar sight brought a fleeting smile to her face. She reached back with her left hand and scratched the cat idly on the head. The purring ramped up to near obscene levels. Nora's smile widened as she leaned back and glanced over the side of the bed when she heard snoring. Nestor was lying on the floor. His feet kept twitching as he chased some imaginary critter through his doggie dreams.
No longer able to put off the inevitable, Nora rolled back over and looked at her partner. She wasn't sure what she would have done if she'd woken still wrapped around the other woman. Nikki was now facing her, one hand curled under her chin as the dark haired woman slept.
She looked utterly beautiful.
Nora closed her eyes and mentally cursed herself for the thought.
With a sigh, Nora checked her watch and saw she only had about fifteen minutes before the alarm. Deciding it was pointless to try to go back to sleep, she slipped from the bed and quickly changed into a pair of sweats and her tennis shoes. She was still in no condition to run after her tussle with Castillo, but she could take the dog out for a nice long walk. She shut off the alarm before quietly beckoning Nestor to follow. He trotted after her happily.
After rummaging around for five minutes, Nora finally found a leash that she still had from her beloved dog Sam. He'd passed away years ago and she was glad she'd held onto the memento. She snapped the leash on Nestor's collar, wrote a quick note for Nikki, and they were out the door.
It had rained again during the night. The air still smelled of it as Nora took a deep breath. The sidewalks were wet and she felt the occasional drop splatter on her clothes or face as they fell from the trees and heavy hanging Spanish moss above.
Nora walked the dog for nearly half an hour, trying to wake her mind up while putting her inappropriate thoughts of Nikki Beaumont to sleep. She wasn't much successful at accomplishing either.
She stepped back inside with the dog, but rather than go upstairs Nora sat down on the steps. Nestor came closer, bumping one of her hands in mute request. Nora scratched him under the collar. "You're a cute one, you know," she whispered.
"Thanks for saving your momma last night." Nora took a moment to push remembered horror to the back of her mind. When she'd seen Nikki's brownstone she hadn't felt fear that intense in a long time. Not even the encounter with Castillo on the fire escape had scared Nora like that. She looked at the dog again and found Nestor watching her with seemingly knowing eyes.
"What?" Nora asked. "Just because I think your mom is " She hesitated. "Cute," she confessed after a reluctant moment. "It doesn't mean I'm going to do anything about it."
Nestor tilted his head and looked at her.
"She's my partner. It's not going to happen."
Nestor sneezed again.
"Although I wish " Nora shook her head. "No. I don't wish anything. Scratch that."
A sound from the upstairs landing made Nora turn her head and look up. Nikki was standing there, her shoulder leaned up against the wall. She was still wearing the jersey, her long legs very much in evidence. Nora felt her throat go dry at the angle and view she was presented with. "How long have you been there?" She winced when her voice cracked.
Nikki merely smiled.
Nora felt herself blush then cursed inwardly. She got to her feet and trudged up the steps with Nestor in tow. A sleepy smile was waiting for her when she arrived and for a brief instant Nora almost chucked caution to the wind and kissed her. They stared at each other for a moment, but it was Nikki who looked away first, returning inside Nora's apartment.
"So " Nikki swallowed and turned to look at Nora as her partner entered the room. She took an unsteady breath as Nora simply looked at her. The heat between them was thick and heavy this morning, and Nikki wanted nothing more than to yield to it. She wanted to take Nora's hand, lead her back to the still warm bed and explore every inch of that toned body. She shook her head a little. "Um thanks," she finally managed. "For letting me stay over." She wanted to thank her partner for being there during the night, but Nikki suspected Nora wouldn't want her to mention it.
Nora eased to her knees and unclipped Nestor's leash. She watched him trot to the water bowl she'd put down the night before for him. "Not a problem." With a breath she looked up at her partner, trying to ignore the long legs in front of her.
They stared at each other for another moment.
"This is hard," Nikki said after a silent minute caught in Nora's intense regard. She watched as Nora got to her feet.
"We'll get past it," Nora promised. "It's " she shook her head. "It's just a physical thing, right?"
Was it? Nikki wasn't so sure and the knowledge scared the hell out of her. She didn't fall in love. In lust, hell yes, but love was not something she allowed herself. It didn't last anyway. It either faded or was taken from you. "Right," she answered slowly.
Nora took another unsteady breath. "I You're " She closed her eyes then shook her head, a tiny, rueful smile on her features. "I know we've only been partners a week here but "
"Yeah," Nikki agreed.
Nora nodded. "We we can't be selfish."
"Selfish, right." Nikki licked her lips and looked down at her bare feet.
"The job comes first," Nora added, knowing that Nikki believed the same thing. The job always came first. At least it was supposed to
"I just um " Nikki decided that the room suddenly seemed to possess too little air. "So no pressing you up against any walls and kissing you breathless. Got it."
The image made the breathing in question arrest. A tiny noise emerged from the back of Nora's throat and Nikki looked at her again. This time a devilish smile graced her features.
"Yeah," Nikki drawled. "The idea has crossed my mind."
Nora cleared her throat. "You should probably keep ideas like that to yourself," she suggested in a weak voice.
Nikki just smiled, her eyes twinkling.
Nora's phone trilled into the sudden, intense silence. The two women looked at each other for another long moment before Nora turned and walked away.
The blonde snatched up her phone and flipped it open. "Delaney," she answered. Her green gaze darted to Nikki as a frown suddenly formed. "Where?"
"Archer has been busy," Nikki muttered. She shouldered open the car door and stepped out into the morning sunlight. The smell of smoke and charred wood greeted her and both brought back an intense rush of memories from last night.
"You okay?" Nora asked over the roof of the car as she climbed out as well.
"I will be when he's behind bars," Nikki practically growled.
Nora's left eyebrow elevated but she made no further comment as she shut her door. They both came around the front of the car and took in the scene as they leaned against the grill.
All that was left of Vange's Art Gallery was smoldering cinders. The place where they'd first encountered Tracy Pettit was beyond saving and Nikki felt a trace of sadness for the loss of the beautiful artwork that had been inside. There were two fire trucks nearby along with several police cruisers and an ambulance. It was the coroner's wagon that made Nora wince.
"You think it's Pettit?" Nikki asked softly. She hooked her thumbs in the jeans Georgia had been so kind to drop off before they'd left. Nikki brushed a piece of lint from the soft, red sweater the other detective had provided. She had the passing thought of wondering if they were Georgia's clothes or if the other detective had gone shopping for her.
Nikki suspected the latter since she was sporting new undergarments as well. She noted Charlie making his way over, a bagel stuck between his lips and a cup of steaming coffee in his right hand. The food looked less than appealing but she knew she'd offer him a grand for that coffee if she wouldn't get a nasty look from Nora.
"I think it was supposed to be. Let's find out." Nora pushed off the car and started for Charlie. Nikki scrambled after her.
"Morning, ladies," Charlie called to them as they approached. He put the bagel on the lid of his coffee cup. "Too bad the rain couldn't put this one out." He shook his head. "Not that it would have made much difference for the victim."
"Why is that?" Nora wanted to know.
"She was already dead. Someone bashed her skull in then doused her in accelerant. I'll know more when I get her back to the morgue."
"Her?" Nikki asked with growing dread.
"Yep. Definitely female."
"Damn." Nora rubbed her forehead wearily. "Show us what you've got."
"You think you know the victim?" Charlie asked as they all turned and started walking toward the coroner's wagon.
"Tracy Pettit. Delana Archer's lover. This was the address she gave us. Apparently she had an apartment in back." Nora stepped around a chunk of melted glass. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of death and destroyed dreams.
Charlie looked at Nikki. "Heard someone torched your place last night as well."
"Don't remind me," Nikki drawled, but she gave Charlie a wink.
"Glad you're okay." He gave her a bump with his shoulder, nearly losing his breakfast as it started to topple off his cup.
Nora caught it then stuck it back in Charlie's mouth. "We got it from here. Go eat."
He smiled around his food then turned and walked away.
Nikki and Nora exchanged glances then rolled their eyes in unison.
"I covet his coffee," Nikki confessed as they drew even with the bagged body resting on the gurney next to the coroner's wagon. She could already smell the charred flesh and her stomach rolled. "On second thought "
"Yeah," Nora agreed, wincing at the unforgettable smell. "This case has not been good for my appetite."
Nikki snorted then braced herself as she watched Nora slide down the zipper on the body bag. They both stared at what remained of the victim.
"Jesus," Nikki whispered then turned away, swallowing the sudden bile at the back of her throat.
Nora stared at the body for another moment before zipping it back up and giving the nod that it was okay to load the deceased onto the wagon. She stepped back and gave the two men from the coroner's office some room.
"It's not Pettit," she murmured.
"Madeline Steel," Nikki agreed. "Too short to be Pettit." She recalled the tiny art gallery owner, how she'd mistaken her and Nora for a different kind of partners. Bad enough Archer was out to kill her and Pettit, but getting innocents caught in the crossfire made Nikki almost shake with fury.
"Shit," Nora hissed. "The body count just keeps climbing with this one."
"That could have been me last night," Nikki said unexpectedly. "It was supposed to be me." She didn't sound upset. She sounded pissed.
Nora watched as the wagon door closed and she shuddered. She didn't want to think about how close she'd come to losing her partner like that. "We need to find Tracy. Archer is tying up loose ends."
"And doing a really lousy job at it," Nikki groused. She turned and went shoulder to shoulder with Nora as the coroner's wagon pulled away. "And he doesn't care who he hurts in the process."
"Who was Steel's partner?" Nora asked softly.
"Let's run by and ask Stephanie. I'm sure she would know." Nikki looked at Nora then tilted her head when Nora looked reluctant. "What?"
"What if she gets on that whole photo shoot thing again?" Nora had liked the dress designer but she felt oddly terrified of her as well.
Nikki shook her head. "She's going to take one look at our bruises and postpone, I'd imagine."
The thought seemed to cheer Nora up.
Nikki flipped her phone closed as she and Nora stepped up on the curb in front of Stephanie Shriver's exclusive boutique. "Dan says the uniforms on Pettit lost her last night around three."
"Explains why they weren't around when someone was torching her apartment." Nora yanked on the handle but the door didn't budge. She glanced at her watch. It was nearly nine. "She's not open?"
"Probably not until ten," Nikki murmured. "Try the back. I'm sure she's here."
They wandered around and discovered a delivery van dropping off a few boxes of what appeared to be coffee. Both detectives stuck their heads in the open door and took an appreciative sniff.
"I think I just died and went to coffee heaven," Nora declared.
"Can't be," Nikki answered. "No pastries."
The two detectives turned and smiled as Stephanie Shriver came bustling over. She was in a flattering red suit this morning, delicate silver earrings catching the light as she hurried over in sensible red heels. Nikki hugged her as Nora looked on, but Shriver released the first detective only to embrace a startled Nora as well.
"Nora! So good to see you again."
"Likewise," Nora murmured as she gave the short woman an awkward pat on the back. She really didn't get why all these rich people were so touchy feely, kissy-kissy.
"So I heard you caught Delana's killer. Something about some nasty dock worker named Castillo?" Shriver stepped back and looked at them both. The designer frowned when she got a good look at them. "What the hell happened to the two of you?"
Nikki shot a glance at Nora and almost kicked her for the inappropriate smirk on her partner's face. "Taking Castillo down wasn't exactly easy "
Nora jerked in surprise when Stephanie abruptly grabbed her chin and drew her face down for closer inspection. She had aunts that would take such liberties with her person but never a relative stranger. The detective had to suppress the urge to shove the woman away and only just managed when she felt Nikki's steadying touch on her back.
"Oh dear. Is the rest of you this bruised?" The dress designer asked.
"Um " Nora leaned away. "Afraid so."
Stephanie clucked her tongue unhappily. "I guess we won't be having a photo shoot on Tuesday."
"Yeah," Nora said with so much sincerity Nikki would have believed her if she didn't know better. "Shame."
"It's not a problem. We'll just reschedule for three weeks from Tuesday." Shriver clapped her hands together and spun on her heel. "Come on, girls. I need coffee." She hustled off, leaving a speechless Nora in her wake.
Nikki just smiled. "Coffee sounds great," she said as she followed her friend inside the shop, shooting a coy look over her shoulder at her partner.
Nora screwed up her features before grunting in frustration. With a sigh, she trudged after the departed women, muttering obscenities under her breath.
The detective's mood improved slightly when she stepped inside the shop and discovered Shriver pouring them all cups of coffee. If it was the Kona from last time then Nora knew she was about to get her first break of the day. She accepted the white mug and took a hesitant sip. It was hot as hell but a welcome jolt to her empty stomach.
"So what brings two of New Orleans' loveliest by my shop this morning?" Stephanie asked.
"Nothing good, I'm afraid." Nikki set her cup on the counter. "Vange's Art Gallery was burned to the ground last night."
Stephanie blinked. "Tracy? Was she inside?"
"No." Nikki took a breath. "But we think Madeline Steel was."
Stephanie's hand flew to her mouth as she abruptly sank onto a stool.
"You know Steel?" Nora asked.
Stephanie's eyes were tearing and both detectives knew that was answer enough.
"I'm sorry, Stephanie," Nikki murmured.
"Dick? Dick did this?" Stephanie demanded.
"We don't know," Nora replied.
"You know he did. You just can't say." Stephanie's voice was bitter. "He hired that dock worker, too, didn't he?"
"No. We don't believe he did," Nikki admitted.
"Madeline was such a sweetheart. How could someone kill her? She was an innocent in all of this!"
Nikki glanced at her partner and saw Nora was just as unhappy as she was by this turn of events. She wondered if Nora felt the same sense of failure she did, wondered if she felt like they'd let Steel down by not stopping Archer sooner. She cleared her throat. "Madeline mentioned a partner "
"Amy Kinley," Stephanie answered, her voice faint.
"Of the cotton exporter Kinleys?" Nikki asked with a groan.
"The very same," Shriver replied. "So don't go through the family to find her."
"The Kinleys?" Nora asked.
"Very rich. Very " Nikki searched for the right word.
"Very bitchy," Stephanie volunteered. "You're better off going through her photography studio. Actually " Stephanie sighed. "Amy was going to photograph you next week."
Nikki glanced in surprise at her partner.
"Small world," Stephanie murmured.
Nora pinched the bridge of her nose. "So you know Amy well?"
Stephanie nodded then her head shot up. "Would it be " She looked at Nikki. "I want her to hear from someone she knows "
Nikki took a deep breath then slowly nodded. "We could drive you over there. We'll need to talk to her."
"I understand. I just "
"You want to be a good friend. It will be easier," Nora agreed. "Coming from you than us. You can comfort her in a way we can't." Her estimation of Shriver rose another notch and Nora grumpily decided that the least she could was pose in a damn dress for the woman for an hour. She finished off the last of her coffee. "We should go. We still need to find Pettit before someone else does."
An hour later, Nikki and Nora slid into the El Camino and sat there, saying nothing for a long, quiet minute. Outside the birds chirped and cars passed them by as people came and went, their lives not on hold because someone had innocently lost theirs.
Nikki swallowed. "That is, without question, the worst part of this job."
Nora took a deep breath and let it out wearily. She rubbed at her eyes, which felt scratchy with a lack of sleep. "Yeah," she agreed. "I think we destroyed Amy Kinley's world this morning." She looked at Nikki then. "You were good with her, though."
Nikki looked at her. "Thanks," she said softly. "I wish there was something more I could do for her. I'm glad Stephanie is going to stay with her for a while."
"We'll catch Madeline's killer. That's all we can do."
Nikki nodded then frowned.
"What?" Nora asked.
"It's just That sound she made when we told her."
Nora had to glance out the window when the memory of Amy Kinley's wail of despair echoed in her memory. She battled back the tears in reaction. "Yeah."
"I don't Have you ever had someone that would care that much if you died?" Nikki wasn't sure where the question had come from but she was suddenly morose over the knowledge that no one had ever loved her like that.
Nora swiveled her gaze back onto Nikki in surprise. "Your dad " she began, sensing where Nikki's question was coming from.
"Not the same," Nikki cut her off gently.
"I guess it isn't," Nora agreed. "And no. Can't say that I have."
They sat in silence for another full minute before Nora started the car and turned it toward the station.
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