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 17

"You have got to be kidding me."

Nora and Nikki exchanged looks as Dan slumped in his chair behind his desk.

"You think Delana Archer hired this Castillo guy to kill her as a way to point the finger at her husband?" Dan continued before either of his officers could speak. They both looked tired and wrung out and for some reason that only made him angrier. "When were you going to mention this?"

"Right now?" Nikki offered with an innocent smile.

"This is not a joke," Dan fired back, hotly. "There was an attempt made on your life last night," he reminded her. "Another woman didn't get off as lucky as you. I've got Archer's bodies stack up left and right, and now you tell me the one that started it all wasn't one of his?"

"It was," Nora added. "He just…" She shook her head. "He killed her, Dan. He just didn't pull the trigger, so to speak."

Dan's jaw clenched as he slapped a folder onto his desk. "This guy is pissing me off."

"Welcome to the club," Nikki drawled. She rubbed her face with her hands, feeling the still healing scabs on her palms where Nora had pushed her down onto the street. They were both bruised and emotionally battered by this damn case, and Nikki wanted nothing more than to close it, to put it behind them and move on.

Dan laced his fingers and put them behind his head before leaning back in his chair. "So what's next?"

Sleep was what Nora wanted to suggest, but she shifted and eased forward in her chair. "We've got everyone we can spare beating the bushes to find Pettit. Archer is flaking. He's losing it. All of this is a game to him, and he's not going to stop until he finishes off those he perceives he's playing with."

Dan's gaze shifted to Nikki. "You know he considers you one of those people, right?"

"Him burning down my house was a pretty big clue," Nikki admitted. She dropped her hands and sighed. When she blinked open her eyes she found Dan and Nora both looking at her. "Sorry. I get a little punchy when I'm this tired." She saw Nora stifle a smile and couldn't help a tiny one of her own forming.

"I'm more worried about Pettit at the moment," Nora admitted. "I think he'll save Nikki for last."

"What a comforting thought," Nikki drawled.

"Not really," Nora replied readily.

Dan looked from one woman to the other, impressed with the already easy familiarity that seemed to exist between them. "All right," he sighed. "Get out of here and find Pettit before Archer does. Can this Shriver woman you mentioned help?"

"She's making some calls," Nikki told him. "Their paths crossed occasionally, but they don't typically run in the same circles, though."

Dan frowned. "What about Progressive House?"

"Huh?" Nikki asked.

Dan shrugged as he brought his hands back down onto the desk. "Have you checked there, yet?"

Nikki and Nora looked at each other again. "It's an abused women's shelter," Nora said as if that explained everything.

"No shit," Dan replied. "But didn't she do a lot of fundraising for it? Isn't it supposed to be like freaking Fort Knox when it comes to keeping out violent husbands and boyfriends?"

Nora wanted to slap herself for the oversight. It was proof that the fatigue and pressures of the case were getting to both of them. There was no guarantee that Tracy Pettit would go to ground there, but there was a good chance someone there might know where she was hiding and could get her a message. "Good point," she conceded as she got to her feet. "We'll check it out."

A few minutes later they slid into the car and sat there for an absorbing moment.

"I can't believe we forgot…" Nikki started.

"Don't remind me. Dan's a good cop, though. That's why we have these chats, he can see the bigger picture when the rest of us are too tired or too close to a case."

"And we're both," Nikki muttered as her head crashed back against the headrest. "Still. I feel like an idiot."

"We would have remembered," Nora consoled her. "We had to check out the family and friends connections first. They made the most sense."

"Not after talking to all of them. I wouldn't have gone to my family for help if those homophobes had been my parents." Nikki stuck her tongue out at the memory of talking to Tracy's mother and father. They hadn't seemed terribly worried a serial killer was after their perverted daughter.

"Don't get me started." Nora cranked the ignition. "We would have opened up Pettit's file and seen Progressive House at the top of the list," she said returning to the original subject as she tried to convince herself she wasn't the dumb cop she felt like right now.

"True," Nikki agreed. If they'd ever even gotten back to their desks today. She slipped out her cell phone and checked to see if she'd missed any calls as Nora eased them out of the parking lot and onto the street. It was nearing nightfall at this point, and there was no end to their day in sight.

"Anything from Darius?" Nora asked as Nikki flipped her phone shut. The brunette shook her head. "He's been oddly quiet today."

"He must be working some angles," Nikki answered. "He'll call if and when he has something he knows is solid." She looked at Nora, unhappy to see how tired and worn she looked. "When this case is over…"

Nora glanced at her as they stopped at a red light.

"I'm buying you the best damn dinner from Nola's ever."

Nora smiled. "You don't have to keep buying me dinner, Nik."

"I know. You buy the booze. We're going to get hammered."

Nora chuckled for the first time in hours. It felt good and some of the heaviness of her mood lightened. She thought about having dinner and getting drunk with Nikki Beaumont. It almost sounded like a date.

The seasoned detective tried not to think about what might happen between them if they were alone and their inhibitions were impaired. Once the suggestion had taken root in her brain, however, Nora couldn't seem to think of anything else. "I'll… uh… put it on my calendar."

Nikki smiled, wondering if Nora's thoughts were running parallel to her own. Considering the blush that was rising on Nora's cheeks, she guessed so.

"So tell me about security in this place," Nora said as Nikki returned from the front office with a passkey. Progressive House was quiet when they arrived, none of the hustle and bustle they'd heard previously.

"It's impressive," Nikki admitted as they made their way down the corridor lined with portraits. "Aside from the fact most of these women are trained to kick a man's ass at this point, there are panic alarms on every floor. Two, in fact. Whole sections of the building can be locked down to keep someone inside if need be. Any of those alarms go off and the police are here in minutes."

They stepped inside the theater, their footsteps muffled on the carpet.

"Who has access to this place? If Pettit did come here seeking protection, how would she get in? I imagine there are only so many rooms…"

"There are," Nikki admitted sadly. "And most of the time this place is at capacity. But they would never turn someone away in an emergency. There are safe houses where people can go." She smiled. "My daddy's guest house is one of them."

"You're shitting me," Nora blurted as they walked into the gym.

Nikki laughed. "My mother's wishes, not his," she admitted.

"I get the feeling your mom had a sense of humor."

"That she did, sugar."

The gym was empty except for Cat Sullivan, the self-defense instructor Nora met on their last visit. She was lazily shooting hoops, the basketball sounding unnaturally loud as it impacted the floor with each dribble. Cat turned their way and smiled when her gaze alighted on Nikki.

With one last shot that swished through the net, Cat left her solo game and met them halfway. "Evening, officers," she said with a grin. "What brings the long arm of the law by here tonight?"

"Looking for Pettit," Nikki admitted. "Have you seen her?"

Cat's face grew more solemn. "I heard what happened to that gallery owner." She shook her head. "And your house, girl! What the hell is up with that?"

Nikki stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans. "We think someone is tying up loose ends."

"You mean Archer." Cat sighed. "Yeah. I saw Tracy."

"When?" Nora demanded instantly.

"About an hour ago. She was in here shooting hoops, actually."

"Dan is gonna be insufferable, isn't he?" Nikki asked her partner.

"Is she staying here?" Nora continued without answering her partner's question.

"I think so. Probably bunking with one of the other women here for the night," Cat replied.

"Why in the hell didn't someone call us?" Nora asked, her voice turning harsh. "Her face is all over the damn news!"

"Nora," Nikki started as she wrapped her fingers around her partner's bicep, feeling it flex and expand as Nora's anger worked its way through her body.

"This is a safe place, Detective Delaney. We protect women from whatever threat they face."

"We're not a threat," Nora retaliated.

"Obviously never had a boy in blue beat on you then hide behind that shiny shield, have you?" Cat said without rancor. "If someone doesn't want to talk to the cops, we don't make them."

"It's about trust," Nikki interjected. "They have to trust that this is a safe place, Nora."

Nora's teeth gnashed together, but she kept any further arguments to herself. Besides, Cat did have a point. "Fine. Where is Pettit now?"

"I'll ask around. See if she wants to talk to you," Cat promised. "You can wait here."

"Cat," Nikki let go of Nora to catch the shorter woman's elbow as she passed. "This may not be a safe place for Tracy. Archer seems to have developed a thing for arson. No amount of locks or panic alarms can stop fire."

Cat hesitated and looked from one woman to the other. "What are you suggesting?"

"Let us at least beef up patrols, have a few officers here on the inside."

"I don't…" Cat started to shake her head.

"Nora and I can take a shift, and we'll make sure the other officers are all female," Nikki assured her.

Cat sighed. "Let me run it by a few people. I'm telling you, though, Archer can't get in here without a passkey and there is no way anyone would give the bastard one."

"Does Tracy have a passkey?" Nora asked.

Cat nodded. "Yeah. She helps out from time to time, but she's been fully vetted. I might not agree with everything the woman does, but she does do some good for this place."

Nikki and Nora watched as Cat left them. Nora licked her lips then jerked her head at the door.

"Why don't you go with her?"

Nikki hesitated. "I trust Cat, Nora."

"I know you do. It's Pettit I don't trust. You know the place and the women here know you. You're… non-threatening." Nora smiled.

"I can be plenty threatening," Nikki replied with a mock huff of irritation. "But I get your point. What are you gonna do?"

Nora picked up the discarded basketball. She twirled it playfully on her finger. "What?" she asked at Nikki's look. "Look at these things," she pointed at one of the goals. "This place is like an arena. I feel like I'm going to shoot hoops with the Hornets."

Nikki rolled her eyes but made no comment, pivoting on her heel and leaving her partner to her fun and games. Her stomach fluttered when Nora's sexy chuckle followed her out the door. She'd just stepped into the lobby when she came face to face with the last person she expected to see. "Daddy!"

Arthur Beaumont's head came up from where he was reading a magazine. He beamed when he saw his daughter. "Nikki!" The councilman got to his feet and embraced her. "What brings you by here? You aren't staying here…"

"Course not," Nikki replied. "A lot more women need beds than me. I'll stay at Nora's for a few more days until I find a new condo."

Arthur frowned. "I have that whole house you know. You still have a room."

Nikki smiled and winked at him. "I know, but this is giving me the golden chance to find out all kinds of stuff about my new partner."

Arthur regarded her, suspicious of his daughter's real motives. "Uh-huh," he drawled unconvinced.

Nikki's giggle didn't make him feel any better.

"So what are you doing here?" Nikki asked curiously.

He slipped his checkbook out from inside his jacket pocket. "I'm meeting Megan for dinner." Nikki recognized the name of Progressive House's director. "She wants to wine and dine me in order to get one of these slips of paper out of here." He put the checkbook back. "Why are you here? And where is Detective Delaney? She should be watching you like a hawk."

"She has been, trust me." Nikki pointed toward the doors that led back to the gym. "She's shooting hoops if you want to go say hello."

A chance to talk to Nora Delaney alone about his daughter seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up. He motioned at the door. "You'll have to buzz me back."

Nikki did. Her father was a well-known figure at Progressive House and one of the few men allowed limited access to the facility. She watched him walk down the hall and stop before her mother's picture. He kissed his fingers then pressed them against the acrylic likeness of her mother's lips before disappearing around the corner.

Tears briefly stung Nikki's eyes as she let the door close. For an instant, she thought of calling her partner to warn her that her daddy was coming, but with a sly smile she opted not to. Nora was a big girl. She could handle him.


Nora glanced up when the door opened. She had expected to see Pettit and her partner returning, but she was so surprised at seeing Arthur Beaumont approaching her she actually missed the ball when she tried to dribble.


"Councilman." Nora caught the basketball and tucked it under her arm. "This is a surprise."

"A pleasant one, I'm sure," Arthur replied with a touch of sarcasm.

"Okay. Sure," Nora answered in kind.

They stared at each other for a moment.

"I just saw my daughter in the lobby. She says she is staying with you for a few more days."

That was news to Nora, but the information wasn't exactly unwelcome. "Is that a problem?"

"Is it?"

"Mr. Beaumont," Nora spoke deliberately. "You know I'm not much for games so why don't you tell me what's on your mind."

"Are you sleeping with my daughter?"

Nora sucked in a breath as an image flashed through her memory, an image of her wrapped around Nikki's body, holding her tight to keep the nightmares away. "That's… none of your business," she surprised herself with her own answer.

"Excuse me. My daughter is most certainly my business."

There was a beeping sound behind her, and Nora held up her hand. "Did you hear that?" she cut him off.

"Hear what?"

"It sounded like one of the passkey locks."

"It probably was. There is door in the back of the gym, behind the lockers."

Nora hesitated for another moment then returned her focus to him. "Nikki is a grown woman, Mr. Beaumont. She can make her own decisions."

"So should I take that as a yes?" His eyes narrowed.

Nora shook her head. "I think you should talk to Nikki, but for what it's worth, I don't fall into bed with the people I work with. "

Arthur almost believed her. He started to argue his point when an odd smell caught his attention. "What is that?"

Nora completely turned around and faced the lockers. No one had emerged, but she'd just assumed they were changing. She took a breath and felt her heart jerk. "Gasoline."

Nikki didn't have to go far to find Tracy. Pettit was scurrying down the steps toward her, no doubt hoping to get away free and clear. She pulled up when she saw Nikki.

"Tracy, just chill. I only want to talk…" Nikki cursed when Pettit pivoted and bolted back the way she came. The detective sprang into motion after her; glad for the tennis shoes she was wearing instead of her usual high heels.

Pettit disappeared through the door on the fourth floor and Nikki followed, ducking just as she exited when something came at her out of the corner of her vision. A vase whipped past and struck the wall, shattering with a bang and bringing women out of their rooms to see what the commotion was about.

"Tracy!" Nikki charged down the hall after her. "We just want to help!"

Pettit entered another stairwell and started down again. She came to an abrupt halt on the second floor and Nikki nearly crashed into her. Neither of them could believe what they were seeing.

"Back!" Nikki ordered. "Back! Hit the panic alarm and clear the damn building!" She grabbed Pettit by the collar and bodily swung the woman around and back up the stairs. There was no way they could go down.

Everything below them was on fire.

Nora jerked when an alarm sounded. Her left hand immediately went to her weapon, drawing it out of the holster with a whisper of metal against leather. She pointed it toward the lockers.

"New Orleans police officer," she announced, feeling Arthur Beaumont wisely start to move behind her. "I know you're back there. Come out with your hands up."

There was a moment when there was no sound but the blare of the alarm pulsing through the building. Nora took another hesitant step as her finger tightened on the trigger.

Something soared out from behind the lockers and Nora jumped back. A red plastic gas can slid across the floor, fuel spilling from its uncapped opening and spreading the pungent liquid everywhere.

"Oh shit," Nora whispered. She watched as fire leapt up from behind the lockers and she suddenly realized she was hearing the fire alarm and not the panic alarm. "Oh shit," she said again with more volume. "Beaumont, get out of here!"

Richard Archer stepped out from behind the lockers. In one hand was a passkey; in the other was a 9mm automatic, which he pointed at Arthur Beaumont. He chuckled. "Well isn't this something," he announced. "I'd prefer your daughter were here, old man," he said to Arthur. "But you two will do."

Nora kept him in her sights, fighting the urge to look at the growing fire behind him. Out of the corner of her eye she saw more flames and realized Archer had already set more fires in other parts of the building. "Richard Archer, you are under arrest for murder and arson. You have the right to remain silent…"

"You're reading me my rights?" Archer laughed. "You're not taking me to jail, Detective. I'm going to hell. And I'm going to take you with me."

Nikki could hear the sirens closing in as she did her damndest to direct the flow of bodies from the building. Around her, women were sobbing, others were cursing, but all were nearly frantic to escape the smoke that was starting to billow in from the stairwell and second floor.

Her eyes went worriedly to the door that led back to the theater and gym. There was no sign of Nora or her father. She hoped Nora had immediately gotten her daddy out of the building, that her partner was on the other side helping the women from the building and waiting to meet the emergency personnel when they arrived. But something in her gut told her that Nora was still in the gym.

Everyone screamed and ducked as one of the doors on the second floor was blown off its hinges and fire came roaring out, flickers of red and orange reaching out for more oxygen to fuel the flames. Nikki withdrew her weapon and stepped back, watching as the women made their way to safety. With a final glance, she decided she had done all she could. She turned and bolted for the theater.

Nora licked her lips. There was no way she could take him down before he shot Nikki's father. She had to keep him talking until an opportunity presented itself. "How'd you get in, Dick? Security is pretty tight around here."

He waggled the keycard at her. "Pettit," he snarled. "She was fucking my wife, whispering sweet nothings in her ear and promising her there was a safe place, a place where I couldn't get to her."

Nora added two and two. "So Tracy gave her a passkey to Progressive House, hoping she would use it."

Archer smiled. "How ironic, huh?"

Nora wanted to shoot him. She flinched when something groaned overhead. Sweat was breaking out all over her body as the room heated from the fire raging from the back and above.

"You know what I find interesting?" Nora asked as she eased slowly in Arthur's direction, trying to insinuate herself into Archer's line of fire. "That Delana beat you in the end."

Archer's smiled faded. "That bitch didn't beat anyone."

"Surely you've figured it out," Nora taunted as she took another step. "How she hired your man to kill her. She got away from you and made sure your other crimes were exposed. Seems to me she wins."

The gun shook in his hand as his rage started to get the better of him. "No one beats me!" he declared.

Another step. "You're giving up right now," Nora told him. "Committing suicide instead of getting away."

"I'm taking all my enemies with me."

"All but one," Nora replied. "Where is Nikki Beaumont?" Nora knew where she wanted her partner to be. She prayed Nikki was outside with hopefully everyone else. The fire was spreading and the smoke was getting thicker by the moment. Maybe she would be able to use it to her advantage, Nora decided.

"She's here. I know she's here," Archer shot back. "Her fucking father is."

Now Nora was in front of Beaumont and Archer hadn't even noticed. His wrath was pointed solely at her now. "I bet she's outside with Pettit, helping the fire department."

Archer shook his head just as another loud groan came from above. "I've seen the way she looks at you, Detective. She wouldn't leave you. She wouldn't leave him."

Nora knew he was right, and the knowledge was both sweet and terrifying. She took a breath and prepared to feel the impact of a bullet. She had to take down Archer now before Nikki walked unawares through the door.

A hideous tearing sound made them all look up. Nora pivoted when she saw metal and Plexiglas hurtling at her as one of the basketball goals was ripped from the ceiling. She slammed into Arthur, shoving him out of the way as best she was able.

Then the world came down on top of her. Nora felt agony flare through her right arm a moment before something struck her in the head and drove her without mercy into the wood floor.

Archer laughed when it was over, ignoring the new blanket of flames that had opened up overhead and was now crawling down the wall toward them. The smoke increased in intensity, nearly obscuring his view. He walked toward Nora and Beaumont, his gun pointed at the detective's head. She wasn't moving. He wasn't even sure she was breathing.

The gun lifted and pointed at Arthur who was struggling under the weight of the goal's large, metal supports. "This is for the charity ball, old man."

"Police officer!"

Archer spun toward the door, seeing a figure emerge through swirling smoke. His finger tightened on the trigger and a smile bloomed on his face when he saw Nikki Beaumont.

His joy was short lived as her first shot struck him in the shoulder. Her second punched straight through his heart. He was dead before he hit the ground, disappearing into the thick smoke as it crawled across the floor.

Tendrils of grey curled and undulated around her. Nikki couldn't see the fire but she could feel it, hear it, the heat wafting against her face and arms as she stumbled in the direction she'd last seen her father and Nora.

She heard something crack and give way, feeling the impact of something heavy on the gym floor through the soles of her feet.

"Daddy! Nora!"

There was no answer, only the hiss and crackle of the angry fire as it consumed everything in its path with hungry intent.

Finally a shout to her right made Nikki turn, and she willed her eyes to see through the gray thickness around her. "Daddy?"


Nikki staggered toward his voice, her shins banging into one of the team benches. She saw stars and bit down hard on her bottom lip, but she didn't stop moving. Finally the smoke parted just enough for her to see him.

She couldn't believe her eyes. One of the basketball goals had been wrenched from the ceiling. The metal framework had her father pinned against the wall, but he was moving feebly. She could hear him coughing as she rushed to his side.

Together they were able to shove the metal aside but only barely. Nikki looked up, seeing fire for the first time as it ignited a section of old bleachers. They wouldn't have much time and the smoke was already filling her lungs, making it hard to breathe… to think.

Arthur staggered to his feet.

"Where's Nora?" Nikki shouted as her brown eyes frantically sought out the familiar form of her partner. Before her father could answer, Nikki saw her. Nora was face down, wedged under a corner of the backboard of the basketball goal. She was too still, some faint part of Nikki's brain acknowledged, but her heart wasn't ready to handle what that meant.

"Nora!" Nikki scrambled to her side and dropped to her knees. The air was a little more breathable, but not by much. There was blood on the side of Nora's face, even more pooling under Nora's cheek where it rested on the wood floor. Nikki's hand stroked through thick blonde hair, and her soul nearly came undone when there was no reaction.

"Nikki!" Her father shouted. "We have to go! The firemen will have to get her out!"

Nikki braced herself on the floor and started pushing with all her might, but the backboard wouldn't budge.


"Get help!" Nikki coughed at her father, unwilling to abandon Nora. She met her father's eyes through the smoke and heard him curse when he saw her conviction. She felt relief when he disappeared into the smoke.

"Nora? Honey, come on," Nikki pleaded. "Wake up and help me damn it!"

But Nora didn't move. Nikki yelled as she threw her weight against the backboard. She knew she could cause her partner even more harm, but there was no time for finesse. The smoke was getting thicker, and if it didn't kill them the fire soon would.

Something else gave way close by. Nikki felt the ground shake, and she guessed it had to be the section of bleachers. She could feel the fire beating at her back now licking its way toward them. Water began to drip onto her face and hands, and she realized the fire department was there, hosing down the second floor.

Nikki pushed again, crying out her partner's name as sounds began to echo weirdly around her. She couldn't seem to draw in air and what little she did she felt like she was choking on it.

A section of the ceiling collapsed behind them, and Nikki jumped when it impacted the metal beams that had held the backboard up. The weight was enough that it acted like a seesaw, hefting the goal and giving Nikki just enough clearance to grab her partner by the shirt and drag her out.

She rolled Nora over and clutched her face between her palms. "Nora? Nora, come on. Answer me!"

Her partner didn't stir.

Nikki felt for a pulse and couldn't find one. There was no time for compressions, no time to worry about whether Nora's heart was beating. Nikki began dragging her, hoping she was headed in the right direction.

Bright lights began to dance in her vision, and she stumbled, tripping over something and crashing to the floor. The fire was roaring now, and it seemed to be everywhere. Nikki realized she was out of time. She crawled to Nora's side and looked down into her features, wishing she could have had one last glimpse of those green eyes. She laid her head down on Nora's chest and closed her eyes, fear making her whole body tremble.

She prayed the smoke would claim them before the fire did.

A frantic voice calling her name pulled her up from the darkness. Rain was hitting her features, and Nikki became aware of the scent of plastic and smoke as her eyes blinked open. There was an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose, and she tried to reach up to remove it but hands caught hers and held on.

"Thank God," Arthur murmured when his daughter's dark gaze landed on his. "Hey there, honey."

Nikki swallowed, feeling like she'd eaten a hot poker. She struggled to free her hands. "Nora?" she pleaded, her voice muffled by her mask.

"They're working on her," Arthur promised. His eyes went to the ambulance where a paramedic was trying to save the other detective's life.

Nikki staggered off the gurney, earning a shout from her own startled paramedic. Arthur swore at his headstrong daughter as she freed her hands from his and ripped off the oxygen mask. She was surprised her legs were strong enough to carry her to Nora, but Nikki was prepared to crawl if she had to.

The paramedic did a double take when he saw her coming, and Nikki could only imagine the sight she presented. He hesitated.

"You her partner?"

Nikki nodded.

So did the paramedic. He moved, making room for Nikki at the head of the gurney. She scampered into the back of the rig only to finally feel her legs give way, taking her to her knees when she saw Nora's face.

Her partner's eyes were open.

Nikki laughed in simple relief, clutching Nora's left hand as it reached out for her. "Hey there."

The oxygen mask on Nora's face kept her from talking, but she looked at Nikki with bloodshot eyes. It was clear Nora was not amused by what she saw.

"You think I look bad," Nikki teased as her hand tangled in Nora's hair. It was so soft and felt so good as it slipped through her fingers. "You should see yourself, sugar."

Nora's smile was visible even through the mask.

Nikki looked at the paramedic.

"Broken right arm, concussion, smoke inhalation, maybe some additional damage to her right shoulder… that's just for starters. Who knows what the x-rays will turn up." He knew better than to try to keep another cop out of his rig. It just went easier for all involved this way as long as it didn't put his patient at risk.

Nikki nodded. Her stomach lurched at the list of injuries but at least they were things that would heal. She turned her focus back on Nora as her partner's hand slipped out of hers. Nora grabbed her mask and pulled it down.

"Archer?" Nora asked in a rough voice that made Nikki wince to hear.

Nikki shook her head, not wanting to think about what had happened after the shooting. Had she killed him or had he died burning in the fire? The coroner's report would tell her soon enough. She swallowed as she reached up and deliberately put the mask back over her partner's features. She allowed them both one tiny indiscretion, letting the backs of her knuckles skim down the side of Nora's face.

Nora watched her in silence, but she turned her face into the caress, savoring the softness of Nikki's touch.

"It's over," Nikki promised her.

When Nora came to again it was in the hospital and a whole day had slipped away while she'd slept. She blinked open her eyes and groaned faintly at how much everything hurt.

Someone stood up from a chair and moved closer. Nora's eyes slipped shut as a welcome touch eased through her hair.

"Hey there," Nikki's voice came to the hurting detective, and she smiled in reaction.

"Mmm." Nora swallowed, wincing at her abused throat.

"Open wide," Nikki instructed.

Nora obeyed without question and was rewarded with a plastic spoonful of the best damn ice chips she'd ever sucked on. She grinned. "Thanks."

"Happy to be of assistance," Nikki teased.

Nora opened her eyes again, needing to see her partner. Nikki looked tired but whole, only a few scratches marring her otherwise flawless skin. "What have I missed?" she croaked, her voice still hoarse from inhaling an unhealthy amount of smoke.

"Well…" Nikki leaned her elbows on the bedrail. "Let's see… The press is all over the Archer story and has been driving Dan absolutely nuts. All the women in Progressive House have been moved to safe houses…"

"Are they all okay?" Nora asked. She grinned as Nikki offered her more ice and she took the spoonful gratefully.

"Everyone is fine but Archer," Nikki informed her. She took a breath. "Feels weird."

Nora tilted her head; worried about the barely veiled sorrow she could feel emanating from her partner. "You did what you had to do."

"And I'd do it again," Nikki agreed. "It wasn't like he didn't deserve it." She sighed. "I've just never…" She jumped a little when Nora's left hand covered one of her own where it rested on the bedrail. The living heat of her felt so damn good it almost brought tears to her eyes. She had to clear her throat. "I wanted him to go to jail. That would have been the best revenge for Delana, for her to know he was rotting in there."

"I know." Nora didn't realize she was stroking Nikki's knuckles with her thumb, but she was coherent enough to know she liked the way Nikki's skin felt. "But she did get justice. Her voice was finally heard."

"Too bad no one heard it before it all came to this."

Nora nodded, her eyelids growing heavy again. She blinked then jerked herself awake.

Nikki slowly smiled. "It's okay, sleeping beauty. You don't have to stay awake."

"I'm okay," Nora boasted. "When are they letting me out of here?"

"Not for a few more days. You got a really good lump on the back of your head, partner, and suffered some smoke inhalation."

"That why it feels like I've been snorting fire through my nose?"

"Eyah." Nikki's nose wrinkled in sympathy. "I didn't get nearly the dose you did, but I feel like I smoked about ten packs in there."

"You probably did," Nora sighed. "How's Dan?"

"He's actually been hovering quite a bit," Nikki answered. "I'm surprised you managed to wake up one of the few times he hasn't been here."

"Just lucky, I guess." Nora was rewarded with one of Nikki's full on grins. "Rather wake up to you anyway," she confessed as her eyes slipped shut again.

Nikki's breath caught, and she wondered if her partner had any idea how that could be interpreted. "Is that right?"

"Mmhmm." Nora's eyes stayed closed, and her head began a slow cant to the side.

Nikki watched as Nora slid back into sleep. She stared at her for a few minutes, a part of her wishing she could crawl up in the bed next to Nora and hold her. It had been hard; sharing the small room with Dan as he'd worried over Nora like a lover instead of a boss. Nikki had been jealous, and the emotion had only gotten worse when she'd seen how Nora's mother and stepfather treated the captain.

"It's a wonder they haven't already bought the wedding invitations," Nikki grumbled. She looked down when she felt Nora's hand tighten its hold over her own. Even in sleep, Nora was finding ways to reassure her. Nikki put her chin down on the bedrail and simply watched her. It was the way Dan found her when he returned an hour later.

"So how you doing?" Darius asked over lunch the next day. He nibbled on a fry and watched as Nikki considered the question.

The detective shrugged. "Nora gets out of the hospital day after tomorrow. She's back for limited desk duty next week. I'm good."

Sweeny's was mostly quiet, the lunch crowd having thinned hours ago. Darius put his elbow on the table and his chin on his fist. "Glad to hear it, but how are you doing?" He pointed a fry at her for emphasis.

"It helps," Nikki confessed after a moment. "Sleeping in her bed."

Darius said nothing,

"I wake up from the nightmares of this case and I can smell her, all around me. I remember that she's still alive."

He took a deep breath. "Girl…"

"I know," Nikki cut him off. "I'm…" Nikki took an unsteady breath. "I'm getting a thing for my partner."

Darius swallowed another fry. "You're in trouble. You know that right?"

Nikki sighed. "I was ready to die in there with her Darius."

Darius blinked not having realized the extent to which Nikki was already attached.

Nikki closed her eyes and groaned. "I don't know how I'm going to do it. How am I supposed to keep working next to her when…"

"When you want to kiss her so bad it hurts?" He said with a tiny grin.

"It does! I swear it hurts not to kiss her sometimes." Nikki shoveled a forkful of pecan pie into her mouth and wished Syd would have brought her a bigger piece.

"Then you should kiss her."

It took Nikki a moment to process the suggestion. "What?"

"You want to stay her partner?"

"You know I do," Nikki answered instantly.

"What happens when you ignore an itch, Nikki?"

She straightened in the booth before licking her lips. "It gets worse."

"It gets worse," Darius agreed sagely before biting into another fry.

Nikki thought about that as they finished their lunch in unusual silence.

"You will do anything to get out of my photo shoot, I declare."

Nora glanced up sharply from her hospital bed. She'd been staring dazedly at a magazine, her pain meds making it hard to focus on anything for long. She blinked when she saw Stephanie Shriver in the doorway. "Huh?"

"Goodness, they do have you on the good stuff at least." Stephanie moved into the room with a tasteful bouquet of flowers, which she set on the window ledge next to many more. She stopped next to Nora's bed and waited for the medicated detective to look at her. "How are you?"

Nora swallowed. It had been three days, but her throat still burned like a mother. So did the inside of her nose and her lungs weren't much happy, either. She knew she'd gotten off lucky, though, with only superficial damage. "I'm… okay." She shook her head a little. "Sorry. These drugs make me a little…"

"It's quite all right, dear." Stephanie fussed with Nora's blanket, and her actions got a slow smile out of the detective. "I just wanted to come by and see how you're doing… and to tell you I will keep postponing my shoot until you're fit to photograph."

Nora opened her mouth to respond only to close it. "Fine," she eventually grumbled.

Stephanie put her hands on the bedrail and leaned in. "Come on, Detective Delaney. You can't tell me you aren't curious to see Nikki in that dress."

Her reaction time was delayed but not by much. Nora's green eyes widened fractionally. "I…" She shook her head again, wincing a little as her right arm protested.

"Relax," Stephanie told her. "I'm not going to interrogate you on the way you look at the lovely Nikki Beaumont while you're under medication."

Nora wondered what excuse she could use to hit the panic button and have the nurse come running. "I would… appreciate that," Nora confessed as if she were playing along. She shifted and winced again. "So what's the decision on Progressive House? They gonna rebuild?" She'd seen the news reports, had been floored at the devastation.

Stephanie smiled at the change in topics, but she went with it. "The board decided this morning that we would go with a new location and a new building. Bigger and better than the last."

Nora smiled. "Good. It would be a shame for it to close. It does a lot of good."

"It does indeed," Stephanie agreed.

"I'm just glad no one died."

"Except Archer," Stephanie murmured. "And that was no loss there." She fidgeted with the edge of Nora's sheet. "Actually, that's why I came by, other than to see how you're doing, of course."

Nora waited expectantly.

"It's about Arthur."

The detective's eyebrows rose to her hairline. "Beaumont?"

Stephanie's lips twitched. "Yes. He… he is having a fundraiser next week for the rebuilding efforts."

"Ok." Nora was still baffled.

"He wanted me to ask you to come."

Nora could only blink stupidly. "Uh…. I…"

"It's just a little garden party. Nothing fancy."

"Well that's… um…." Nora starting thinking about the panic button again. "I don't think I would really fit in…"

"Dear," Stephanie said with a smile. "You would be a breath of fresh air."

"Why didn't he just invite me himself?" Nora asked.

"The man has his pride. I know you two haven't always seen eye to eye."

"That's an understatement," Nora said slowly. She wondered when Shriver had discussed her with Beaumont. She wondered why Shriver had discussed her with Beaumont. Nora sure as hell hoped Shriver wasn't sharing any of her suspicions about the way Nora apparently looked at Nikki. Or vice-versa.

"But he knows he owes you his life. Let him repay that."

"By going to his garden party?" Nora said with some amusement. "That seems more like punishment."

Shriver chuckled. "By allowing him to accept you into Nikki's inner circle, dear."

Something about that notion made Nora's heartbeat skip. "Nikki is her own woman…"

"She is most certainly that, but she comes from an old family and even older money, Nora. Play along. You'll be glad at some point you did."

Nora considered the request. "What time and what do I wear?"

"Next Friday at 7 and whatever you like."

Nikki sighed.

Her father's soiree was in full swing around her. New Orleans privileged and self-important mingled about the gardens sipping champagne and noshing on canapés. Nikki sat alone on a stone bench near the fountain, which served as the focal point for the whole garden. She raked a hand through her loose hair, its normally wild locks tamed tonight in soft curls.

Nikki hated these damn parties. She was good at them. Good at the socializing. Phenomenal at making an impression. But she hated the falseness of it. The calculating and conniving that went on behind those insincere smiles. Most of all she hated the lame pickup attempts. And there were a lot of them.

Usually it was some noteworthy so-and-so's son. Sometimes it was even the daughter. Tonight one of them had been the wife.

Nikki shook her head and sipped her whiskey and soda. She slipped out her cell phone and regarded it for a moment. The desire to call Nora, to see how she was doing, came on so strong it nearly made her hand shake. They had seen each other most of the week, of course, but Nikki had moved out before Nora had returned home, and their days had been about work and cleaning up after the Archer mess. She missed having dinner with Nora. Missed sitting across from her and talking about something other than murder.

"You trying to make it ring?"

Nikki jumped as the sound of the voice she most wanted to hear drifted lazily over her right shoulder. She turned and looked up, stunned to see her partner standing there in a white short sleeve button down shirt and pressed khakis. Nora looked like she belonged with the upper class of New Orleans society milling around her, until she smiled. There was something very dirty and dangerous about that grin.

"What?" Nikki finally asked.

Nora inclined her head toward the phone. "You were staring at that thing so hard you looked like you were trying to conjure up a police emergency." She sat next to Nikki as her gaze took in her partner's electric blue sleeveless blouse and white pants. She was also wearing white sandals that showed off her adorable little painted toes.

"Actually, I was thinking about calling you," Nikki admitted. She took a breath, smelling a delectable perfume that could only be coming from the woman next to her.

"Well here I am." Nora grinned and took a sip of the champagne she was holding. "You know I've never had champagne at a barbecue before. This must be how the other half lives."

Nikki greedily took her partner in. She had never seen Nora put herself together quite so well, even the cast Nora sported on her right arm looked classy. "You look good."

"Aside from some pretty spectacular bruises, I feel good." Nora tipped the champagne glass in Nikki's direction. "A few more of these and I'll be feeling great."

"Um… does my father know you're here?"

"He invited me." Nora hid her grin at her partner's shocked expression as she turned to a passing waiter and grabbed another two flutes of champagne. She handed one to Nikki. "Drink up. This is some pricey stuff."

"My father. Invited you."

"Those are the essentials, yes."


"Well, actually he invited me through Stephanie."

"Ah. That sounds a little more like daddy." Nikki sipped her champagne and regarded Nora with interest. "I'm surprised you would come. This isn't really your… thing."

Nora turned her gaze on the fountain, watching the multi-hued Koi that swam around inside it. She shrugged. "You're here."

Nikki almost choked on her champagne. She blushed and offered her partner a charming smile. "Want a tour?"

Nora glanced around the expansive garden. "Should we leave bread crumbs?"

Feeling brave, Nikki slipped her arm through her partner's. "I know these gardens like the back of my hand. I played hide and seek in here as a kid."

They began to stroll side-by-side, earning some appreciative looks as they passed.

"What a striking pair they make," Stephanie said as she watched them wandering away from the crowd. She could see Nikki and Nora well from her position on the porch.

Arthur followed her line of sight only to make a growling sound in the back of his throat.

"She saved your life, Arthur," Stephanie reminded him.

Arthur sighed. "I invited her, didn't I?"

The designer chuckled. "Something tells me you'll be seeing Detective Delaney at a lot more garden socials."

Arthur watched his daughter with Nora and found it was a little hard to be upset when his daughter looked so damn happy.

Nikki pulled Nora behind some hedges and the crowd seemed to vanish. "Ugh. Relief."

Nora smiled. "You are such a fraud."

Nikki giggled. "You got that right."

They studied each other in the fading sunlight as the cicadas chirped around them. It was a warm and humid evening, the threat of rain gathering in intensity on the horizon.

"Come on," Nikki invited, taking Nora's left hand and leading her further into the gardens and away from the party. "I want to show you something."

They walked in companionable silence, each very aware that they were holding hands. Nikki finally led Nora around a corner and was delighted when she heard Nora's breath catch.

Gas lamps flickered, lighting the small reflective pool in rippling strands of gold. Nora could see the bright orange and white fish swimming beneath the surface as Nikki led her to an intricately designed cast iron bench. Flowers were everywhere, making the air a delight to breathe.

"It's beautiful," Nora spoke, feeling the need to keep her voice down. She looked up at the overhanging trees, feeling as if nature had just wrapped them both up in a fragrant cocoon.

"My mother loved this spot," Nikki told her.

"I can see why. It's peaceful."

Nora settled against the bench and took another deep breath. This close to her partner, she could smell Nikki's perfume as well. She turned her head and looked at her partner's profile, entranced as the lamplight flickered invitingly over Nikki's features.

Feeling Nora's eyes on her, Nikki smiled before casting a sideways glance in her direction. "Much better than the party."

"Much," Nora agreed, her voice slightly huskier than normal.

Nikki shook her head and had to look away.

"What?" Nora asked.

"You just…" Nikki tilted her head and looked at her again. "You look at me… the way you are right now…"

Nora took a breath.

"And I can't believe you've never been with a woman," Nikki finished with a wink.

"Am I looking at you a certain way, Detective?" Nora asked, knowing full well her appreciation had to have been showing in her eyes.

Nikki narrowed her eyes and Nora laughed.

"I swear," Nora promised. "I have never been with a woman."

"Never?" Nikki teased. "Not even kissed one?"

Nora licked her lips. "Not even that."

A plan occurred to Nikki, and she wondered if she could lead Nora into it. It had to do with itches and scratching… She put her elbow on the back of the bench and put her head on her fist. "Well isn't that a shame."

"Why?" Nora asked with some amusement. "It's not like I've never been kissed."

"But you've never been kissed by a woman."

"There is a difference?"

Nikki rolled her eyes.

"Oh, come on," Nora chided. "A kiss is a kiss. I don't see how it would be any different," Nora replied as she watched Nikki watching her. The light from the lamppost reflected off the softly churning water, bathing Nikki's face in interesting streaks of rippling gold and shadow.

Nikki leaned a little closer. The scent of Nora's perfume reached her and she took it in, smelling the hint of rain on the horizon as well. In the distance thunder grumbled and lightening flashed, but there was still time to savor the moment they were in. Still time before the storm was on them. "Spoken like someone who has never kissed another woman."

Nora tilted her head and looked at her partner dubiously. "I've kissed my mother."

"You kiss your boyfriends like you kiss your mother?" Nikki teased. "No wonder you're single."

Was Nikki offering what she thought she was offering, Nora wondered. "Ha," she answered. Her gaze kept straying to her partner's full lips. Nora wished she'd skipped that last glass of champagne. It was making her contemplate things she normally kept buried in the back of her mind.

"That the best answer you have? Ha?" Nikki's voice had dropped an octave to sound throatier, more sinful. Her partner's face was no more than two inches away, but she wouldn't make the first move. No matter how much she wanted to. "You really, really don't know what you're missing."

Nora felt her breathing grow even shallower as she came to a decision. "Then show me," she dared.

Nikki swallowed hard, and she knew Nora heard her by the wicked gleam that sparked in her partner's eyes. But there was no way she would turn down an invitation like that. Especially one that Nora suspected Nikki wouldn't follow through on. She stared deeply into those vivid green eyes, which were rapidly losing their mirth. With deliberate intent, Nikki eased forward, letting her fingers curl around the back of Nora's neck, urging her closer until the were nose to nose.

"You want to try something, Detective?" Nikki taunted.

She'd had too much to drink, Nora decided. Or maybe not enough. Before she could think anymore, Nora dipped her head and brushed those full, waiting lips with her own. That's all she meant it to be. A brief touch. But the softness of the kiss shocked her, sending ripples of heat and arousal licking through her veins.

Sensing victory, Nikki pressed closer, her other hand sliding into Nora's hair. She tasted so good. Like champagne and something infinitely more intoxicating. Nikki sank into the moment and into her partner, all thought extinguished by the warmth and flavor of Nora's mouth.

Nora's hands threaded through dark hair as the kiss deepened, dragging her down, drowning her in sensation. Jesus it was different. Different and good.

They slowly parted, both of them breathless. They're gazes met and held.

"That…. was a very bad idea," Nora managed to gasp out.

Nikki slowly nodded. "I guess that makes this even worse." She pulled Nora into her again, kissing her thoroughly. This might be her only chance to ease some of the longing, the craving Nora stirred in her, and Nikki was damn sure she wasn't going to waste it. And Nora didn't seem to be minding.

They both knew there would be repercussions. They both knew tomorrow they would have to pretend like this never happened.

But they would take this one moment tonight for themselves and hope it would be enough.

The End

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