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A Life Worth Living

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As always, Jo’s first thought when she wakes up is one of self-recrimination. You said you weren’t going to let this happen again. But here she is, curled into a ball, and Kate’s coiled around her; knees tucked behind her legs, face nestled against her neck, boobs sandwiched against her back. Jo’s clutching the arm around her waist so tightly, Kate couldn’t move even if she wanted to, but she hasn’t made any effort to free herself since they fell asleep.

It feels like the closest thing to intimacy Jo’s ever experienced, even though that’s ridiculous, because she’s woken up next to women whose fingers have been buried inside of her, whose tongues have explored every inch of her. But none of them ever kissed her like Kate did last night – like their actions were motivated by something other than lust; like they saw all of the damage, all of the ugliness, and still wanted her regardless. Jo can barely bring herself to consider what that kiss meant, because then she feels the faintest glimmer of hope, and hope has never been kind to her.

Jo’s used to being alone - she even prefers it that way, sometimes - because at least when she’s by herself, she can stop pretending to be someone else, stop suppressing all of her emotions and remember that she’s real. But last night, shutting the world out didn’t hold its usual appeal, because it felt like maybe she didn’t have to hide anymore. And when Kate’s eyes lingered on her bedroom door, Jo wanted to let her in so badly.

She didn’t, though, even when she sank onto the bed, cold water dripping down the back of her neck, and realised she could still feel the warmth of Kate’s goodnight hug. It occurred to her, then, that Kate was no longer this impossible fantasy for her to enjoy from a safe distance; she was sleeping two doors down and invading every aspect of her personal space. And Jo wanted to let her in, wanted it more than she’s allowed herself to want anything since she was too young to know any better, but she knows the risk is never worth the reward, that the pleasure is never worth the pain.

Patrick Fairbank, Bobby Johnson and a battering of bad memories may have been the reason she couldn’t sleep last night, but they weren’t the reason she ended up tiptoeing down the stairs at 2.15am, trying to escape from Kate’s omnipresence, trying to put some distance between them so she wouldn’t find herself knocking on Kate’s door, asking for help with exorcising her demons.

The living room didn’t feel far enough, so she ended up outside, and the beauty of the night sky offered a momentary distraction from her turbulent thoughts. She sat there staring up at the stars – the stars she gave up wishing on a long time ago - and wondered why, after all these years, some perverse part of her still believed in fucking fairy tales. A couple of honest conversations, an idyllic afternoon by the lake, and suddenly it felt like Kate was her knight in shining armour, like maybe she could save her from her Shakespearean tragedy of a life and give her a Disney ending. It was delusional and, like Ryan had so cuttingly observed, pathetic.  

And then, of course, Kate appeared, like her self-appointed saviour, and Jo’s stomach reacted the way it always does whenever Kate enters her line of sight, and she felt this sudden, irrepressible need to make her go away, so she told Kate to shove her blankets, her concern and her well-meaning words up her arse. It almost felt satisfying at first, until Kate’s anger started to slice through her defences, until she saw the hurt in Kate’s eyes and it made her feel queasy, until Kate walked away and Jo’s only thought was, “please don’t leave me.”

Then she’d had this irrational urge to try and explain, to try and make Kate understand, but she’d ended up saying a lot more than she intended to.

And that’s how she ended up here and now she doesn’t know what to do, because she’s sleeping –snuggling - with a woman she hasn’t even had sex with, deliberating over whether that kiss changed anything, or everything. It might have turned her world on its axis, but maybe Kate only meant for it to be a one-off, maybe she just wanted to console her in the moment - and now that moment’s gone. Or maybe now they’ve crossed that line they can erase it completely, maybe she can just roll over and kiss Kate again, but she knows she doesn’t have the bottle, not without knowing for sure.

“For fuck’s sake,” she mutters under her breath, because it seems like the most accurate way to appraise the situation, and she doesn’t even realise she’s said it out loud until she feels lips curling into a smile against her shoulder.

“Should I be offended?” Kate asks, and Jo freezes for a moment. She’s cried herself to sleep in Kate’s arms for two nights in a row and after everything she told Kate last night – after letting Kate see a part of her she’s never shared with anyone else - rolling over to face her shouldn’t feel so intimidating. But it does.

When she finally looks at the perfectly sculpted face resting inches away from hers, she expects to see pity, avoidance, regret. But Kate’s eyes are warm and unflinching.

“Carmichael would have a conniption fit if she knew she was paying for a two-bed and we’re only using one,” she notes wryly, and just like that, Jo feels at ease again – well, as at ease as she can be, when Kate’s proximity is making her head spin.

“I don’t think she’d be thrilled if she knew we were supping wine and admiring the scenery, either.”

“Well, I’m not complaining.”

Kate reaches out to tuck a loose strand of hair behind her ear, thumb caressing her cheek in the process, and Jo feels her whole body flush. Maybe that kiss changed something after all. 

“Let me get the kettle on and make a start on breakfast,” she proclaims, because if she stays here much longer, she might do something impulsive, something reckless, something that could make living under the same roof even more difficult. She can see Kate hesitating, like she doesn’t want to put her to any trouble, so she hastily adds, “I don’t mind.”

“OK, but only if you let me make dinner tonight,” Kate capitulates, and Jo manages a small smile.    

“You’ve got yourself a deal, DI Fleming.”

She moves to get out of bed, but then Kate’s hand lightly grasps her shoulder, thwarting her attempt to escape.

“I’m sorry for losing my temper last night,” she says, and when Jo turns to look at her again, Kate’s good humour is gone, her expression suddenly solemn.

“It’s fine,” Jo responds automatically, dismissively. She thinks about how many times she lashed out at Kate when she was her DSU, how many harsh words she hurled at her, knowing Kate was powerless to do anything about it. Jo would leave her standing there, jaw twitching with anger, scuffing her feet against the floor, safe in the knowledge that Kate couldn’t speak the words that were clearly on the tip of her tongue because she was her boss. She can't blame Kate for seizing the opportunity to tell her some home truths now. 

“No, it’s not,” Kate objects, “I shouldn’t – ”

“Kate,” Jo interjects sharply, “I deserved it. You were right, I was sat there feeling sorry for myself and I took it out on you.”

“But if I’d known where it was coming from…” Kate hesitates, then, like she’s deliberating over whether to say something else. “I know it must have been hard for you to tell me about Max, but I’m so glad you did, Jo.”

The shame of laying herself bare is still there, making her cheeks burn, and so is the hollow sadness that never really seems to go away.

“Well, I think I’ve regaled you with enough sob stories for one week.” Jo tries to keep her tone bright, but it comes out sounding bitter, so she makes a conscious effort to soften her voice. “Thank you… for being there for me,” she concludes quietly, and now Kate’s doing that thing again, where she rubs her thumb against the underside of her wrist, and Jo’s mouth goes dry, because now she can’t not think about that kiss.

“I just…” Kate falters for a moment, but then her eyes bore into Jo’s, “I don’t want you to feel like sharing your past with me is going to change the way I feel about you, because it doesn’t,” Kate reassures her, like she somehow knows how much Jo needs to hear it.

“And how do you feel about me, Kate?” The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them, but then she wishes she’d never asked, because she’s not sure she wants to hear the answer.

Kate slumps back on the bed, grabbing a pillow and burying her face in it.

“Come on, Jo, look at where we are. I don’t make a habit of cuddling up to other women and spooning them while they sleep, you know. And I definitely don’t make a habit of kissing them.”

The words are muffled, but heartfelt, and Jo reaches out, gently tugging the pillow away from Kate’s face, which is a shade of pink she’s never seen before.

“Good,” she says simply, but she can’t contain the delighted little smile that springs to her face, because Kate acknowledged the kiss and maybe that means she doesn't want to pretend it never happened.

“They’re cows, Kate, not bloody rhinos,” Jo points out dryly, careful to maintain her balance as she climbs over a stile and jumps down into the second field they’ve traversed this morning.

Kate continues to hang back, eyes darting towards the herd of cows congregating well over 20 feet away from them. “Well, they don’t look very friendly to me.”

Jo regards her with amusement. “Do you want to see this waterfall or not?”

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Kate asks, squinting into the distance. “I haven’t seen a signpost for a while.”

“I’ve been a detective for a couple of decades, Kate, I think I can follow a woodland adventure trail.”

“OK, OK, I’m coming,” Kate concedes, and Jo watches, thoroughly entertained, as she clambers over the stile and proclaims, “Jesus Christ, I’ve not had to cock my leg this high for a while.”

Jo snorts out something resembling a laugh, and then she reaches out a hand to help Kate down, even though it’s clear she doesn’t need the assistance. If Kate realises she’s looking for any excuse to touch her, she doesn’t seem to mind.

Kate’s still eyeing the cows warily. “You’re sure we’re not trespassing?”

“I didn’t go on the run from organised crime just to get shot by a farmer.”

Their eyes lock for a moment and Kate’s grinning at her, carefree and confident, and Jo finds herself smiling back, easily, effortlessly. Then she spots a signpost up ahead of them, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief when it says they’re just over a mile from their destination.

“See,” she says, trying not to sound too smug. “I told you this was the right way.”

“All right, Bear Grylls, lead the way.”

They hear the waterfall long before they actually see it and the sound of rushing water gets progressively louder as they approach through the surrounding woodland. When they finally emerge into a scenic clearing, they’re looking down on the waterfall from the ledge above. It’s not quite the Fairy Pools, but it’s close enough, and the sight of the crystal-clear water cascading over twenty feet of rocks, breaking off into miniature waterfalls on the way down before tumbling into a plunge pool that’s glittering in the dappled sunlight, is breath-taking. They just stand there for a moment, soaking it all in, but then Jo glances around, disappointed to see there aren’t any steps leading down to the base of the falls. 

“What do you reckon? Shall we risk it?” Kate points at a spot further along the path where the surrounding greenery has been flattened by footsteps and the soil’s eroded into a pathway that meanders through the rocks.

“So you’re petrified of a couple of cows but now you want to go abseiling down a ravine without a rope? So much for safety first,” Jo teases, but she doesn’t need any encouragement, she’s already negotiating her way off the beaten track.

“Careful,” Kate warns her, hand hovering over Jo’s lower back as she gingerly tackles the steep descent, checking her footholds before she commits to them. She makes it three-quarters of the way down before her foot slips on some moss, but she barely has time to gasp out, “whoah, shit” before Kate’s gripping her around the waist, helping her to regain her balance.

“OK?” Kate asks, and her voice is low in Jo’s ear.

“Yeah.” Jo has to clear her throat to get rid of the sudden hoarseness. “I thought I was going to be sliding the rest of the way down on my arse for a minute there. Thanks.”

She finds a flat rock that’s wide enough to accommodate both of them and then sets down the bath towel, breathing a contented sigh as she appraises the waterfall from a new angle, close enough to feel the spray gently hitting her face. 

“Now this is what I call a picnic spot,” Kate declares, tilting her face towards the sun. It’s cloudier than yesterday, but still warm enough to risk venturing outside without a coat, and Jo knows she’s going to have to relocate to the shade soon or she’ll end up burning to a crisp. At this rate, Brian’s going to have to add some Factor 50 to their list of essential provisions.

“It sure beats the hell out of a crime scene,” she agrees amiably, and she sneaks another glance at Kate, only to find that Kate’s watching her, too.

“Fancy a dip?” Kate asks, tilting her head towards the plunge pool, and Jo’s eyebrows nearly fly off her forehead.

“You must be joking,” she exclaims, looking around for a “No Swimming” sign but failing to find one. “It’ll be bloody freezing. And last time I checked, swimming costumes weren’t on our itinera...” she trails off when Kate gets gracefully to her feet, kicking off her walking shoes, peeling off her socks, and reaching for the buttons on her jeans.

“Kate…” It comes out like a croak, and Jo realises she’ll have to speak more loudly if she wants to be heard over the pounding water, “Have you lost your mind? What are you doing?!”

“The last time I was knee-deep in water, I was fishing Terry Boyle out of a reservoir,” Kate points out, as if that’s explanation enough. “Come on, Jo, when are we going to get a chance like this again?”

Off come the trousers, and then the T-shirt, and then Kate is stood there in the plain cotton underwear that was waiting for them when they arrived - white granny knickers that are a bit too baggy on her ridiculously pert ass and a thin white sports bra that Jo can practically see her dusky nipples through.

“Don’t laugh,” Kate warns her, “I know it’s less La Perla and more prison issue.”

“And yet you somehow still manage to look like a Victoria’s Secret model.” 

Jo drinks in the sight of Kate’s endlessly long legs, perfectly proportioned hips, sculpted stomach and… no, she’s not going to look at her boobs again, because then she might actually start to stare, and that would be embarrassing.  

When she finally drags her eyes back to Kate’s face, she’s greeted with a smirk of amusement.

“Probably a good thing you’re not my boss anymore, if you’re going to look at me like that,” she jokes, and Jo knows the sudden heat in her cheeks isn’t from sunburn. “Sure I can’t persuade you to join me?”

Yes, Jo thinks, you can, but words failed her a couple of minutes ago, so she just primly shakes her head and watches Kate submerge herself in the water, underwear becoming even more see-through in the process. Jo knows from the way she sucks in a sharp breath that it’s cold – she can see that it’s cold – but Kate doesn’t seem to care, and the muscles in her arms ripple as she effortlessly treads water. And Jo’s left watching a scene from her late-night fantasies play out right in front of her and she can’t do anything about it because she’s sitting in a public place in broad daylight.

“We’re supposed to be keeping a low profile,” she shouts at Kate, “Not auditioning to be the next Bond Girl.”

“For your eyes only,” Kate shouts back, glancing around the deserted clearing, and Jo tries her best not to laugh.

“I thought you wanted to live a little, Jo?” Kate taunts her, edging closer to the waterfall, and Jo wishes she had a camera right now, so she could immortalise this moment - a day she wants to remember, instead of forget.

“It’s not as cold as it looks,” Kate assures her, and she’s rapidly wearing down Jo’s resolve.

“For Christ’s sake, Kate, we’re not a pair of bloody teenagers.”

But Kate’s right, she does want to live a little, so after a quick glance around to make sure there’s nobody watching them from above, she hastily strips down to her underwear, even though she feels ridiculously self-conscious next to the resident Elle MacPherson.

“I can't believe I'm doing this,” Jo mutters, but she wades in up to her ankles, gasping as the icy water seeps between her toes.

“You liar! It’s fucking freezing!” she exclaims, and she flicks a handful of water in Kate’s direction to punctuate her point.

Kate laughs, barely managing to dodge the attack, and holds out her hand as she moves closer.

“Come on. It gets better, I promise.”

And with Kate standing this close to her, Jo’s not sure she’s capable of saying no, so she lets Kate tow her further into the water. They swim to the middle of the pool, Jo’s breath coming in short spurts as she adjusts to the cold, but Kate’s right, it does get better, or maybe it’s just the way Kate’s looking at her that’s warming her from the inside out. Her feet find purchase on the rocks below, and it’s still shallow enough to keep her head above water, so she turns to face the waterfall, feeling its force in the currents rippling around her. For the first time in a long time, everything else fades into insignificance and she remembers what it’s like to feel alive, instead of half-dead.

“Happy now?” she asks Kate, but then she realises Kate’s eyes are trained on her left shoulder blade, at the circular pink scar that stands out in stark relief against her pale skin. Farida’s the only person who’s ever asked her about it - the only person who even noticed it - but she didn’t bat an eyelid when Jo informed her it was from an infected insect bite. It’s only small, just over a centimetre in diameter, and if she had a tan, you’d barely be able to see it. But Kate sees it and Jo can tell she knows - somehow she just knows - what it is.

Tommy only did it once, but she was always waiting for him to do it again. It was the middle of the summer holidays and so oppressively hot, she’d finally relented and put on a strappy top, something she would never usually wear in the presence of Tommy or his friends, but she mistakenly thought she was home alone. She was stood at the kitchen counter, eating a sandwich, and he’d come into the kitchen with a cigarette in his mouth, contaminating everything around him, as per usual. All she did was ask him, very politely, if he would mind smoking outside while she finished her food and the next thing she knew, he was pinning her to the counter and stubbing his cigarette out on her shoulder, twisting it around and around until it burned through layers of her skin. Don’t you ever fucking tell me what to do, Joanne. She’d managed not to make a sound, not to give him the satisfaction, but she never wore a strappy top again.

“Not today,” Jo whispers, and her voice is barely audible over the sound of the water, so she sends a silent plea with her eyes instead, because she doesn’t want to talk about it. Not now.

Kate’s expression is troubled, but she nods her understanding.

Then she turns around and scoops up a handful of water, sending it careering towards Jo and hitting her squarely in the face.

Jo’s so shocked, she just stands there and sputters for a minute, but then her eyes narrow.

“You’re going to pay for that, Kate Fleming,” she warns, advancing towards her, and Kate promptly starts swimming in the opposite direction.

“You started it,” Kate yells back at her, “Not my fault I have a better aim than you.”

And then they’re splashing water at each other like a couple of overgrown kids, and the laughter that’s been bubbling up inside of Jo finally breaks free and she squeals and squawks and giggles until her stomach hurts, until Kate catches her around the waist and pulls her close and the skin-on-skin contact abruptly sobers her up. Her nipples are already like bullets and when they drag against Kate’s chest, it’s not the exertion causing her ragged breathing anymore.

Kate glances around the clearing, and then she speaks directly into Jo’s ear.

“How do you feel about public displays of affection?”

The question alone makes her heart hammer against her chest and even the icy water isn’t enough to extinguish the burn that starts low in her stomach and spreads like wildfire everywhere else. She’s feeling brave now, buoyed by the desire she can see in Kate’s eyes, so she answers her question by threading her fingers through Kate’s sodden hair and tugging her forwards. The kiss is soft and tentative at first, slow and sensuous, and Jo’s eyelids flutter shut as she loses herself in the sensation of Kate’s lips melding and yielding to hers; Kate’s hands cupping the back of her neck and then gripping her hips, pulling her closer. For once in her life, the reality is every bit as exhilarating as the fantasy and there’s no resistance - no hesitation - when she slides her tongue into Kate’s mouth. If she thought Kate was driving her to distraction before, it’s nothing compared to the dizzying rush of arousal when Kate moans, low and deep in the back of her throat, and surges against her, water lapping between them. And then it’s intense, insistent, all-consuming, and Jo stops worrying that Kate might change her mind and decide that she’s straight after all, because Kate definitely isn’t kissing her like she’s straight, she’s kissing her like it’s second nature, like she wants Jo to forget about everything else and, for a moment, she does. The fear and the panic and the memories fade into obscurity until there’s nothing else, only Kate.

Jo can’t stop her hands from wandering, from sliding over bare skin and beginning a leisurely exploration, but when she finally lets her fingertips graze over Kate’s chest, glancing over the nipples she’s not been able to drag her eyes away from since they got here, Kate gently grips her wrist and gasps into her mouth.

“Jo…” Kate barely manages to get the syllable out before their lips collide again, but then she pulls back, even though Jo can tell from the look on her flushed face - the hunger in her eyes - that she doesn’t want to. “We need to slow down or else those fishes are in danger of swimming somewhere I really don’t want them to.”

Jo realises, then, that their public display of affection is rapidly veering towards public indecency, and she ducks her head, embarrassed. When it comes to Kate Fleming, apparently she has all the self-restraint of a teenaged boy trying to cop a feel on a first date.

“Sorry if I got carried away - ”

“God, no, don’t apologise, that was...” Kate’s voice is huskier than usual and when she trails off, Jo glances up, and the stupefied expression on Kate’s face finishes the sentence for her.

She smiles then, shyly, and Kate levels her with a lingering grin before she starts wading out of the water.

“You want first dibs on the towel?” she yells, and Jo’s nose crinkles at the prospect of drying herself off with the grubby towel they’ve been using as a picnic blanket for the last couple of days.

“I suppose beggars can’t be choosers.” She reluctantly picks it up off the ground, giving it a shake before she wraps it around her shoulders, knowing that drying herself off is going to do nothing to alleviate the wetness between her thighs. “You really didn’t think this one through very well, did you?” she teases, but her eyes are crinkling at the corners when she says it.

“I don’t know, I think it pays to be spontaneous sometimes.” Kate’s eyes are twinkling and Jo can’t resist closing the distance between them again, kissing her softly on the lips.  

“I think you’re right,” she admits, eyes raking over Kate’s body so she can commit every detail to memory before she hands her the towel.  

Kate’s looking at her like nothing else matters and in that moment, everything starts to feel a little hazy around the edges, like she’s just the right side of tipsy. She wonders, then, if happiness feels surreal to everyone else, or just to her.

When Jo sees two men who look to be in their mid-thirties ambling across the field towards them, she barely manages to control her visceral reaction, until she realises Kate’s not batting an eyelid at their approach. Then she reminds herself that members of organised crime don’t tend to show up in cycling shorts, that they wield guns, not walking poles, and they probably wouldn’t be chatting amiably to each other if they were planning to assassinate them.

As they draw closer, Kate shoots them a smile and tilts her head in acknowledgement and Jo tries to do the same, but she doesn’t fail to notice one of them sneak a glance at the damp patches on their T-shirts which are, mercifully, opaque.

“You ladies look like you might know where we can find this waterfall,” the taller guy announces, holding out a map, and of course Kate rushes to offer her assistance, brushing wet hair out of her eyes as she traces a finger over the paper.  

“Yeah, mate, just keep on following the trail down there, cut across that field on your left, through those trees and then you’re there. It’s well worth a visit,” she adds, eyes dancing with mischief as she glances at Jo, who fails to suppress her smile.

“I just wish we’d timed it sooner,” his friend adds regretfully, and Jo rolls her eyes when he shamelessly eyes Kate up and down, not that she can really blame him. “You staying around here?” he asks conversationally, and Jo’s impatience quickly morphs into anxiety.  

“Just on a day out,” Kate replies seamlessly, and her hand brushes against Jo’s lower back in wordless reassurance.

“We’re in the next village back, about 12 miles away,” he informs them, like they actually care. “It’s got a nice little pub, if you fancy a few drinks later, before you head back? I could give you my number - ”

“Are you fucking serious?” the words are out of Jo’s mouth before she can stop them, and Kate shoots her a placating look.

“Thanks for the offer, but I think we’ll pass,” she informs them, a little more politely.

“Your friend can always make other arrangements,” he actually has the audacity to say, and Kate must be able to see that she’s about to blow a gasket because, suddenly, she’s reaching for her hand, squeezing it gently.

“She’s not my friend,” she informs him, and all the geniality has gone from her tone now. “So how about you take a hint and carry on walking?”

Jo wants to say “no, Kate, don’t tell them that, they’re just going to ask for front row seats to the show,” but she’s too taken aback by Kate’s apparent willingness to not only declare that she likes women to a pair of total strangers, but to intimate that they’re in a relationship. Jo always kept her sexuality hidden from her colleagues, she wouldn’t let Farida anywhere near her in public, she’s never held another woman’s hand in front of anybody else, and it’s taken Kate all of ten minutes to come out of the bloody closet.  

Casanova’s friend starts chuckling heartily and to Jo’s surprise - and relief - Casanova actually looks sheepish. Apologetic, even.

“Oh right,” he stutters out, red-faced. “Sorry, I didn’t realise.”

His friend steps in then, pulling him away by the elbow.

“Cheers for the directions, ladies. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Jo listens to them argue as they walk away: “you fucking tit,” “how was I supposed to know?” “didn’t you see her haircut?”

She waits until they disappear from view before she glances at Kate and then they both dissolve into laughter.

“You looked like you were ready to arrest him,” Kate chokes out, swiping at her eyes.

“Yeah, well, being that obnoxious should be an arrestable offence.”

They’re walking up the hill towards the cottage now, and Jo impulsively reclaims Kate’s hand, giving it a grateful squeeze.

“Thank you for today,” she murmurs, willing herself not to let the emotion clawing at the back of her throat get the better of her, “It’s been perfect.”

“It’s not over yet,” Kate reminds her, tone low and suggestive, and Jo almost grinds to a standstill in the middle of the country lane, until Kate grins impishly at her and adds, “You’ve still got my carbonara to look forward to.”

Jo rolls her eyes, slapping her lightly on the arm, but she's smiling.

“I’ll race you for the first shower,” Kate announces out of nowhere, and then she starts sprinting up the hill before Jo even has a chance to react, but Jo’s never been one to shy away from a challenge, so she legs it after her, rapidly gaining ground. She realises, then, with the sun shining down on her and Kate half-gasping and half-laughing as she closes the gap between them, it’s the first time she’s run towards something, instead of away from it.