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A Life Worth Living

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Kate’s lost track of how many times she’s glanced in the rear-view mirror, waiting for the inevitable glimpse of a black Range Rover. She can’t push the Defender past 70mph without it starting to judder in protest, even with her foot to the floor, and every time she’s forced to brake, it takes an eternity to build up speed again. She hasn’t driven a stick shift for years and the Land Rover feels like a tank compared to her Audi. It’s cumbersome and clunky to manoeuvre and she’s still adjusting to the wide-set pedals and their sluggish response time, but she’s grateful for the Defender’s sturdiness when she has to hastily correct her steering after misjudging a hairpin bend.

She knows the winding country roads are prime hunting ground for the OCG – minimal traffic, no witnesses, plenty of surrounding woodland to conceal their vehicle….and their bodies, if it comes to it. The roads are narrow - only wide enough to accommodate single file traffic - and while the OCG might have a hard time overtaking her to force a hard stop, there’s no room for escape or evasion, either. It’s not going to be difficult for them to drive her off-road and while the Defender might prove more useful in that scenario, she doesn’t fancy her chances carving out a pathway through the endless expanse of trees.

There’s a Citroen heading towards them, but the driver quickly infers that Kate isn’t about to give way to him. She winces when he’s forced to pull sharply into a passing place to make way for her and, even though Kate raises her hand in gratitude, he still beeps his horn furiously as they speed past, and Kate curses under her breath, knowing the noise could draw unwanted attention.

She finally sees a sign with a name she recognises - Preston - and inwardly breathes a sigh of relief. At least in a bustling city, they’ll have more luck blending in with the crowd - if they can stay under the radar for the 25 miles it’s going to take them to get there.

“It looks like a straight run if we take the B5269, but we stand a better chance of losing them if we stay on the back roads,” she observes, weighing up the pros and cons.

“But then we risk getting lost ourselves. It’s nothing but wilderness out here, Kate. If they intercept us, we’re not going to stand a chance, and if we end up driving through a lot of farming villages, it’s going to slow us down even more. They won’t expect us to take the direct route. You should take the B-road.”

Jo’s right. At least then, they’ll be amongst heavier traffic and it’s easier to play a game of chess when there are more pieces on the board, when there are more witnesses around to act as a deterrent. The OCG are fleeing from a murder scene, after all. They’re not going to want to get caught, either. Or, at least, that’s what she hopes, because the prospect of them opening fire and causing pandemonium on a main road doesn’t bear thinking about. Kate just hopes they don’t know she’s driving an SUV almost as old as she is, because unless there’s a classic car show happening somewhere around here, they’re going to spot them from a mile off.

Jo’s eyes are focussed on the road ahead of them and it’s like Kate’s back in the car with her boss, the woman she used to look to for direction, the woman who was unfailingly calm in a crisis. Kate was expecting terror, panic, that same wild look she saw in Jo’s eyes the night she shot Ryan, but instead, Jo looks more like she did after her initial interrogation, like someone who’s resigned to her fate and doesn’t have the energy to fight it anymore. The only outward sign of stress is the way Jo’s arms are crossed tightly over her stomach. Kate doesn’t know whether she’s still feeling sick or if it’s a futile attempt at self-comfort but, either way, it makes the guilt that’s been gnawing at her since Steve’s phone call even worse. She thinks about all the hours she spent holding Jo, telling her she was safe, and now it looks like she was making empty promises, now it feels like she’s perilously close to joining the long list of people who have let Jo down.

She didn’t expect Brian to be one of them, though. She only knew him for a few days, but she could see he was one of the good guys, someone who went above and beyond the call of duty to make the lives of vulnerable witnesses more bearable. She knows he wouldn’t have given up their whereabouts without a fight, that he would have waited until it was his only remaining option, and her stomach roils as she imagines what they must have done to him to extract the information. What they’ll do to Jo, if they get their hands on her. But she can’t let that happen. She won’t.

“Kate – ”

They’re approaching a farm and she can see a tractor chugging down the gravel driveway towards the road they’re travelling on. She knows once it gets there, she’s not going to be able to drive around it, so she presses her foot even harder against the accelerator, hoping she can push it to 75 before the Land Rover gives up on her completely.

“For Christ’s sake, come on!” she exclaims, but it’s like flogging a dead horse. The driver of the tractor can see her coming now and she half expects him to wait to let her pass, but she’s still far enough away for him to safely pull out and so he does, right in front of her, almost like he’s making a statement about her speeding.

“Wanker!” she fumes, as she’s forced to brake to a virtual standstill, and she scans up ahead for any sign of the road widening or a grassy verge that’s wide enough for her to mount to get around him. There isn’t, and she can’t risk the OCG gaining ground on them while they’re tailgating a tractor, so when she sees another farm up ahead with a driveway nestled between a thicket of trees, she pulls into it and follows the driveway around to the left, far enough to prevent them from being seen from the main road if the Land Rover’s army green exterior goes some way towards camouflaging them, but close enough for them to monitor passing traffic through the small gaps in the trees. Then she cuts the engine.

“Kate, it’s private land,” Jo warns her, but their options are limited, so Kate pays little heed to the ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ sign.

“Then let’s hope nobody’s home.” And that the owners don’t call the police, she silently adds.

They hear the convoy of approaching vehicles before they see it and then three Range Rover Sports are whizzing down the road at breakneck speed. Kate waits to see if they turn back around when faced with the tractor – or if they stop the driver to ask if he’s seen them - but the tractor’s further along the road now and Kate watches the OCG do what she couldn’t and mount the verge on the right-hand side of the road to overtake it, forcing the tractor to swerve to the left to accommodate them. They’ve probably just given the driver the fright of his life, but she’s feeling a little more forgiving now, because if he hadn’t forced her to pull off-road, the OCG would’ve spotted them by now. Caught them.

They both expel a bated breath and when Kate looks at Jo, she finally sees a glimpse of fear. She reaches for the phone, opting to text Steve instead of ringing him in an effort to preserve more battery power. She hastily reels off a message with details of their current location and their near-miss, and then she lays a hand on Jo’s knee.

“We’re OK,” she murmurs, but she knows her reassurances probably don’t count for much anymore.

“For now,” Jo points out, and she looks like she’s half-expecting the OCG to double-back on them.

“At least they think we’re ahead of them and not behind them. I’m going to hang tight for a minute. Get some more distance between us.”

Jo nods her agreement, and Kate rolls her shoulders in a futile attempt to work out some of the tension from her rigid frame.

“I’m sorry, Jo,” she says softly, trying to rein in her anger. “This never should have happened.”

“It’s not your fault.” Jo’s fingers briefly glance over her hand, but then she pulls them back again, like she’s suddenly afraid of touching her. “But they’re not going to stop until I’m dead, Kate, and we can’t keep running forever.”

And even though a part of her knows that Jo’s right, Kate doesn’t want to hear it, and she definitely doesn’t want to think about it, so she tries to find a solution instead.

“I just don’t understand why they’re so hellbent on hunting you down,” she muses, her brow furrowing. “I know they’re pissed off about Ryan and Bobby and, OK, maybe they just want revenge, but based on their MO to date, they go after people who know more than they should, people who are in a position to name names or blow the lid on their whole operation. They know you’re in witness protection, they know you’ve given us everything you have, but taking Bobby out of the equation – and don’t take this the wrong way, Jo – it’s nothing we didn’t know already; nothing we can actually use against them.”

Jo’s face falls, and Kate hates that she has to do this, but she presses ahead regardless.

“There must be a reason why you still pose a threat to them, Jo, why they’re investing so much manpower in finding you. Tommy’s been dead since 2014, so it doesn’t matter how much dirt you give us on him,” she reasons, “Not unless they think you know the information that got him killed in the first place.”

“Well, I don’t,” Jo informs her flatly. “I know he was threatening to expose a network of corrupt police officers, but he never told me who they were. Everything Tommy and Patrick ordered me to do was on a need-to-know basis, and they didn’t want me to know much.”

“I know they intimidated you, Jo, but I saw you work the Gail Vella case – I saw you trying to do the right thing even when you were being asked to do the opposite. You’re not the type to take anything at face value, so you must have asked questions? Wanted to know why?” Kate ventures, because she knows that, regardless of how she ended up in the profession, Jo’s a detective at heart, and a damn good one.

“I asked for the details at first - of course I did - but it never ended well for me,” Jo admits, and Kate can tell from the look on her face that she’s talking less of a dressing down and more of a beating down. “It got to the point where I realised knowing the answers would just make it harder. I might have been living with Tommy, Kate, but I wasn’t cooking up plans with him or listening in on all of his conversations. I was trying to keep as far away from him as possible. If he thought I was sticking my nose into his business, he would have killed me.”

“I know,” Kate assures her, and it worries her that she’s not even sure whether Jo’s speaking figuratively or literally anymore. “I’m just wondering if there’s something we’ve missed, that’s all. You thought Fairbank was running the show - and he probably was up until his retirement - but we never managed to get him to admit to anything and he’s a dead end now. So maybe there’s something else?”   

“I’m a rat, Kate, that’s reason enough. You still think I’m holding something back?” Jo asks, and the wounded look on her face makes Kate’s heart clench.

“Not intentionally,” Kate rushes to reassure her, “But maybe there’s something from your past, an acquaintance of Tommy or Fairbank’s? Was there anyone else on the scene back then – any other police officers who visited the house? Someone who could’ve sent you those messages?”

“Don’t you think I’ve gone over and over this in my head already?” Jo asks her, and she sounds angry now. “I might not have told AC-12 everything about my past, Kate - not the kind of things I’ve told you these past few days - but I gave them everything that was relevant to their investigation. There’s nothing more, I promise.” Jo hesitates, glancing at Kate out of the corner of her eye. “I know I didn’t tell you everything about Bobby, but that was because - ”

“You don’t have to explain yourself, Jo,” Kate interjects, because she’s not ready to revisit that conversation. Not now. Not when she needs to focus. She reaches out to brush away a strand of hair that’s fallen across Jo’s face, stroking the pad of her thumb against her cheek in the process. “I believe you, OK?” she tells her, and she doesn’t have to force the conviction into her tone because, in spite of everything, she does.

Jo looks relieved. Grateful. Then she lapses into silence and it looks like she’s mulling something over.

“We both know the force is overrun with bent coppers, Kate, but once you move away from the top ranks, I don’t think they’re working as a network. Not in the traditional sense of the word, anyway. I never got the impression that they’re all in cahoots with each other. Tommy called in favours based on an officer’s rank, their skillset and the level of access they had, but he rarely asked them to work together unless there was a pre-existing connection. Aside from Ryan, I had no idea who was bent and who was straight.”

Kate listens intently, nodding her agreement. “It makes sense. If you all knew about each other, it would only take one person to talk and then the whole operation would come crumbling down.”

“Either that, or we could have all banded together to fight fire with fire. Because you have to remember, Kate, if they’re anything like me, a lot of them won’t be doing this voluntarily,” Jo points out, “All they have to do is make one mistake - whether it’s in their personal life or their professional life - and that’s enough for the OCG to blackmail them into making more.”

They’ve waited for long enough now, so Kate re-starts the engine and inches out of the driveway, scanning her surroundings before she pulls out onto the road. The engine already sounds like it’s straining and she glances anxiously at the fuel gauge, dismayed to see it’s drinking diesel like water. They should have just about enough to cover the distance to Preston but beyond that, they’re going to have to improvise. One step at a time, she reminds herself, as she finally turns onto the B-Road and prays the OCG didn’t do the same minutes before them.

“Trust me, Jo, I know how they work,” Kate assures her, jaw clenching reflexively. “This job would be a hell of a lot easier if we could separate everyone into heroes and villains, but I’ve seen enough to know they can often be two sides of the same coin.”

Jo flinches a little at that, like she thinks Kate’s referring to her - but she isn’t. She’s seen more than her fair share of colleagues fall foul of the OCG - some, like Maneet, through no real fault of their own - and she wonders whether it would help Jo to know that, to realise how strong she was to withstand their influence for so long, to avoid going to the extremes that Tony, John, Danny and Dot had to.

“I mean, look at Dot,” she volunteers, because Jo mentioned him in her interrogation and Kate knows she’s familiar with his past, “He was as bent as they come - a pathological liar, a murderer, someone who was willing to throw his whole team under the bus and make them suffer for his sins - but even he wasn’t all bad. When it came down to it - him against me - he had every opportunity to pull the trigger, but he couldn’t do it. He ended up taking three bullets for me. Saved my life. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him. And you,” she reminds Jo softly.

“He saved me, too,” Jo points out. “From Tommy, I mean. I know he did it for his benefit, not mine, but I’m not sure how much longer I could have gone on like that, or where I’d be today if he hadn’t orchestrated that ambush.”

“Before he sold us all down the shitter, there were times where I almost felt sorry for him,” Kate admits, remembering how Dot’s face had lit up when she agreed to go back to his flat for some dinner, how he’d poured his heart out to her about his divorce and gambling problems. “And there’s a small part of me that still does, but Steve would never forgive me if he heard me say that out loud. Not that I can blame him,” she hastens to add. “Dot did a right number on him.”

“That’s why we need to get the bastards at the top of the food chain, not the people being forced to do their dirty work,” Jo observes, and Kate can see why it’s a cause she feels passionately about.

“The gaffer reckons it’s Osborne.”

“It would make sense given his position, but I never heard Tommy mention him - never saw him at the house - so I don’t know.”

The burner phone buzzes and Kate tosses it towards Jo, hardly daring to take her eyes off the road.

“What does it say?”

“They’ve dispatched the NPAS and a team of AFOs from Lancashire Constabulary to try and intercept them. Steve hasn’t shared any information about us or the witness protection arrangements, he’s told them Brian was an undercover police officer forced to go to ground and the OCG were hunting him down,” Jo informs her.

“Hopefully they’ll get to them before they get to us,” Kate adds needlessly, and knowing they’ve got back-up helps to relieve some of the pressure making her head pound, until she risks a quick glance at Jo and realises she looks anything but relieved. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

“It’s going to cost a hell of a lot of money to dispatch the air service, Kate. Not to mention bringing another force on board. They’re not going to blow West Mids’ entire witness protection budget on keeping me safe when they could just as easily see me rot in prison. You said it yourself, I’ve not given them anything substantial to work with and they’re well within their rights to cancel or vary witness protection arrangements if they’re not cost-effective.”

“Yeah, well if witness protection were doing their jobs properly, we wouldn’t be in this position in the first place,” Kate retorts, because she doesn’t want to acknowledge that Jo has a valid point. “I know the gaffer. He’s a man of his word. He won’t let them waive your immunity, Jo.”

“It’s not up to him, though, is it? It’s up to Osborne, so if he is behind all of this, I’m screwed,” Jo points out, and Kate hates how defeated she sounds.

“It’s not going to come to that, but even if it does, no jury in their right mind is going to convict you, Jo - not once they hear what you’ve been through,” Kate assures her, and she’s not just telling Jo what she needs to hear, she means it. “You can plead duress. You’ll have all of AC-12 vouching for you. And we’ll make sure you get out on bail. After what happened to Jimmy Lakewell, we can make a strong case against putting you on remand.”

Kate has to drop down to 45mph when they encounter their first throng of traffic and she hardly dares to blink in case she misses something. She can hear the police helicopter circling above them and she jolts against her seat when the burner phone starts ringing.

“Can you put it on speakerphone?” she asks Jo.

“Steve, we’re heading southbound on the B5269. The last sign I saw was for Chipping and that was about three miles back. I reckon we’re about 15 miles away from Preston.”

“You’re OK for now, mate. The NPAS have got obs on the OCG and they’re still on the road you turned off. The AFOs are closing in on them as we speak. They should be able to bring them in before they get anywhere near you.”

“And they’ve got eyes on all three vehicles? They haven’t split up?” Kate confirms, hardly daring to hope.

“Yeah, all three of them.”

Kate feels like crying with relief, but she opts for blowing out a shaky breath instead. “Things got a bit hairy there for a minute, Steve, I’m not going to lie.”

She glances sideways, and she can see all of the emotions Jo was trying to repress are suddenly in danger of spilling over. She wants to park up at the side of the road and hug her, but she can’t, so she settles for squeezing her hand instead, hating that she has to pull away moments later to shift gear.

“We can’t risk putting you in another safehouse, mate,” Steve’s telling her. “Not if there’s a leak in witness protection. A hotel’s out of the question, too, because all it’s going to take is a bent copper showing up at reception with a couple of photographs and they’ll be handing over your room number.”

“I’m guessing Carmichael won’t stretch to a hut in the Maldives?” she jokes, prompting a tut from Jo and a laugh from Steve. 

“We’ve booked you an Air B’n’B. You’ll have the place to yourselves and you can collect the key from a lockbox so you won’t even have to interact with the owners – they live an hour away. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best we can do at short notice. We’ll try and sort something else once all of this has blown over.”

“How far away is it?” Kate asks him. “I’m not sure we’re going to get much further before this thing claps out on us.”

“Let me know once you make it to the city centre. Try and find somewhere without CCTV and I’ll book you an Uber under a dummy account to take you the rest of the way. I’ll put it under the usual name. If they know what you’re driving it’s better to dump it there, anyway.” 

“OK,” she agrees, even though making idle chit-chat with a taxi driver is the last thing she wants to do right now. “We’re going to need food, toiletries and cash, though, Steve,” she informs him, “And another car in case we have to get out of there in a hurry.”

“Preferably one that can do 0-60 in less than thirty seconds,” Jo adds, and Kate wants to laugh, but her blood pressure still hasn’t recovered from the frustration.

“I’ll drive up later tonight with some provisions for you both and then get the train back. They’re going to expect me to head your way to interview the suspects they’ve apprehended anyway,” Steve points out. “We don’t think they’re monitoring your flats anymore, not now they know you’re off-grid, so I might be able to pick you up some clothes, as well, if Jo’s OK with me going into her apartment?”

“You OK with Steve rifling through your underwear drawer?” Kate asks Jo drolly.

“If it means I get to wear clothes that fit, he can rifle through whatever he wants,” Jo retorts, but then her cheeks turn pink and she hastily adds, “On second thoughts, maybe stick to the top drawer, though, Steve.”

Kate lets out a guffaw of laughter, feeling some of the tension start to seep away.

“Bloody hell,” Steve protests. “Maybe I’ll send Chloe around instead.”

“Just make sure you get all of the essentials, Steve – toothbrushes, toothpaste, tampons,” Kate adds mischievously, partly to make Steve squirm but mostly to make Jo smile.

“And some wine,” they both conclude in perfect unison, and even though she can hear Steve making some kind of quip on the other end of the line, suddenly there’s a lump in her throat and she knows Jo feels it, too, because when she glances across at her, her eyes are shrouded in sadness. Brian.

“We’re going to go now, mate. Save what’s left of the battery. I’ll text you when we get to Preston,” she assures him, and then she adds a heartfelt, “Thanks, Steve. We owe you one.”

Kate manages to maintain her jovial façade as she thanks their Uber driver, brushing off his remarks about them travelling light by claiming they gave all of their luggage to a friend who’s driving up to meet them later, so they wouldn’t have to lug it around with them at work. He believes her, just like he believed her when she told him they’d travelled up here from London for a girls’ weekend to celebrate their friend’s promotion. Of course, then he felt compelled to ask them what they were planning to do, and he’d nodded and smiled while she shared their imaginary itinerary. The only way she could stop the barrage of questions was to start asking some of her own, and now she knows more than she ever wanted to about his family and the best places to eat in town.

As soon as they’re through the front door of their accommodation, Kate sinks against the nearest wall. She waits for the giddy surge of relief that usually floods through her when a high-stakes operation is over, when they’ve outwitted the bad guys and lived to see another day. That first sip of beer at the pub always seems to taste a bit sweeter than usual, and the back-and-forth banter flows more effortlessly, but this time, the high that usually comes with the thrill of the chase - or, in this case, evading pursuit - is conspicuously absent.

It should feel like they’re home free, but it doesn’t, and she wonders if this is what it’s like for Jo all the time - living in a perpetual state of fear, always poised to run from an ever-present enemy. There’s no high-tech security system or bulletproof windows here, just a box of welcome brownies sitting on the kitchen counter and a lever arch file with details of local attractions. They’re a lot closer to civilisation than they were before, on a cul-de-sac that runs adjacent to a busy street, with a Co-Op around the corner. It doesn’t feel like they’re cut off from the rest of the world anymore, it feels like it’s ready to burst through the back door, and suddenly she’s aching for the solitude and simplicity of that little cottage in the countryside.

“Kate,” Jo says softly, and she’s handing her a glass of water.

“I need the loo before I even think about drinking that,” Kate informs her, suddenly acutely aware that her bladder seems to have reached maximum capacity. She squeezes Jo’s shoulder and then she heads upstairs to find the bathroom.

It’s squeaky clean, with a plush four-piece suite and a fancy shower, but she’s not really in the mood to appreciate the luxury. As soon as she plonks herself down on the toilet seat, a wave of dread hits her like a sledgehammer and she buries her head in her hands, massaging her temples to try and fend off another skull-splitting headache. Suddenly, all she can think about are worse case scenarios. She’s back in that squalid house, using her bare hands to stem the tidal wave of blood gushing from Danny Waldron’s carotid artery, forced to watch the life draining from his eyes as he expends his dying breath trying to tell her something she doesn’t understand. Except it’s not Danny, it’s Jo, and the throat underneath her hands feels delicate and fragile, like Maneet’s, when they slashed it from ear to ear and left her face frozen in a tableau of terror. And then it’s Tony stepping in front of that lorry because he felt like he had no way out and Dot’s body jerking with the impact of those bullets and what if it was Jo? What if it was Jo?

She pulls the chain and hopes it will flush the memories away, scrubs her hands and hopes it’ll wash away whatever this horrible, sickening feeling is.

Hold it together. Don’t do this now. She needs you to be strong, not scared out of your mind. You’re no good to her like this. Get a fucking grip.

She wonders what they did to get Brian to talk - remembers finding Steve with his arm in a vice after they tried to wrench off his fingers with a pair of bolt cutters, pictures Lindsay’s blistered hands wrapped in swathes of bandages after the OCG arranged for prison officers to pour boiling water all over them. She’d really, really like Jo’s hands to remain in full working order. Especially after what they did to her last night.

“Kate? Are you OK?”

Jo’s outside the door now and Kate realises she must be taking longer than etiquette allows for. But she’s not OK. She’s crying. Hot, helpless tears that she has no right to shed because if Jo can take this in her stride after everything she’s been through, then she should be able to, too. And she always has, until now. And she hates that it’s the prospect of losing Jo that finally makes her realise she’s head over heels in love with her. Completely fucking besotted. 

“I’ll be out in a minute,” she calls, trying to sound bright and breezy. “Wait until you see this bathroom. It’s straight out of a show home,” she adds for good measure, but her tone has a nasal quality she can’t do anything to hide.

She didn’t lock the bathroom door because she didn’t think she needed to. Jo knew where she was heading and obviously wasn’t going to barge in on her and it’s not like she was expecting to have a nervous breakdown while she was in here. But now Jo’s edging open the door and she looks stricken when she catches Kate frantically mopping at her face with some toilet roll, desperately trying to hide the fact that she just crashed and burned.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just having a moment. I’ll be fine,” Kate assures her, forcing a self-deprecating smile.

And it’s easier to regain her composure when Jo’s standing right in front of her. She almost manages it, until Jo closes the distance between them and wipes away the traitorous tear that’s still trickling down her cheek.

“What’s wrong?” Jo asks her softly, and then she offers her a tentative smile. “I mean, besides the obvious.”

“Honestly, Jo, I’m fine. Sleep deprivation and adrenaline just aren’t a good mix, that’s all.”

“I know they got a bit too close for comfort, but they’re in custody now and it sounds like Steve’s on top of everything,” Jo points out, and she’s obviously trying to reassure her – even though it should be the other way around - so Kate does her best to play along.

“Yeah, we got lucky.” This time, she silently adds.

“So, what’s wrong?” Jo asks her again, and Kate wonders when she became so proficient at reading her.

“I just can’t stand the thought of them hurting you more than they already have,” she eventually admits, and now she’s biting the inside of her cheek and scuffing her foot against the floor, because she’s not going to let herself cry again. “I don’t want to lose you, Jo.”

Jo looks taken aback for a minute, like she was expecting her to say something else, but then her expression softens.

“Well, I’m here now,” Jo reminds her, and then she’s reaching out to her, drawing her into a tight hug, and Kate’s clinging onto her for dear life. Her breath catches at first, caught somewhere between a sigh and a sob, but she manages not to break down, because Jo’s still in one piece and holding her like this helps to ground her in the moment. She stops agonising over the past and fretting about the future and just focuses on the fact that they’re still breathing the same air.  

Then Jo’s fingers are cupping her cheeks and she’s kissing her with the vigour of someone who’s been given a second chance and doesn’t know if they’re going to get a third, like she’s giving Kate something to remember her by. It’s urgent and desperate and Kate gives every bit as good as she gets because she can feel it, too. It’s like every heightened emotion they’ve suffered through since that phone call this morning has morphed into this frantic, insatiable need. They tug at each other’s clothes until they’re lying in a heap on the floor and it’s nothing like last night because now they can’t afford to take their time. Now they don’t know how much time they have left.

Kate spent most of last night learning what makes Jo gasp and moan and beg for more, so now she puts the knowledge to good use. Her hands and mouth move in a flurry of activity, gravitating to the spots that she knows are going to elicit the reaction she wants, until Jo’s so lost in her own desire that she can’t focus on satisfying Kate’s anymore – but she doesn’t need to, because seeing her like this is gratifying enough. Then Kate nips and sucks and kisses her way around Jo’s shoulders until she’s embracing her from behind, grazing her lips against the column of Jo’s neck, and she can’t think about Maneet now - she won’t - because Jo’s pulse is pounding; racing in response to her touch. She palms Jo’s boobs, teasing and pinching her nipples until Jo’s bucking against her, ass grinding against her hips, back bashing against her boobs. Then she moves one of her hands to splay against Jo’s stomach, inching lower, and Jo’s head lolls against her chest.

“Kate – ”

It’s breathy and desperate and Jo’s tilting her face upwards, fisting a hand in her hair, drawing her into another ravaging kiss. The angle should feel awkward, but it doesn’t, it just lets Kate delve a little deeper; drink more of her in.

She slips a hand between Jo’s thighs, relishing the way Jo’s breath hitches in anticipation and how her mouth suddenly stills, like she’s too distracted to think about anything else. Kate doesn’t ask for permission this time – she doesn’t need to because Jo’s hand is suddenly on top of hers, urging her to continue. She lets Jo set the pace and it’s hard and fast and Kate squeezes her eyes shut, consumed by the sensation of Jo rocking against her hand, chanting her name, flooding with desire. She knows what it feels like now, to ease her way inside of Jo and lose herself in liquid heat, to feel Jo tighten and expand around her fingers, how Jo’s breathing changes when she finds the right rhythm and hits the right spot. It’s intoxicating; exhilarating. She knows, now, that sex was never supposed to feel like a chore, but she had no idea it could be this good. She wraps her arm across Jo’s chest, pulling her closer, until they’re sandwiched together and she can feel every jerk and thrust of her body, until the tension that’s been coiling inside of her is ready to snap. Jo clutches her arm and then twines their fingers together, dragging Kate’s free hand back towards her nipple and then over her stomach while Kate uses her other hand to circle Jo’s clit, keeping the pressure consistent. When she slips two fingers inside of her again, she can feel Jo twitching around her, hear from her breathless whimpers that she’s close.

“Do you have any idea what you do to me?” she rasps, directly into Jo’s ear. She licks a path from Jo’s earlobe to her shoulder and then Jo’s crying out as she comes, trusting Kate to keep her upright as her whole body shudders and then goes slack. And Kate feels better now, like she’s back in control again and her whole world isn’t in danger of collapsing, until Jo drops to her knees in front of her and her hands settle purposefully against the back of Kate’s thighs.

Kate’s eyes widen a little because they didn’t do this last night, and now she’s remembering their conversation from this morning, and she doesn’t want Jo to feel compelled to do something she isn’t comfortable with – something Kate’s not entirely sure she’s comfortable with, given that she and Mark had an unspoken agreement where he didn’t put his dick anywhere near her face and she never expected him to disappear under the covers. But Jo doesn’t even hesitate, and Kate’s reservations weaken a little when she feels warm breath cascading over her, somehow every bit as titillating as Jo’s touch. Jo settles between her legs with an appreciative moan and it only takes a few laps of her tongue for Kate to stop fretting about how she’d really prefer to shower first, given that she’s just worked up five hours of nervous sweat.

“Fuck, that feels good,” she proclaims, although good doesn’t really begin to cover it. When she looks down at Jo and sees Jo looking up at her, eyes hooded with desire as her tongue flicks and swirls over her clit, lips glistening with her ever-increasing arousal, she thinks her knees are going to buckle. Either Jo’s had a lot of practice or the lesbian gods have gifted her with some kind of prodigious talent, because if Kate thought she hit the stratosphere last night, now she’s heading for space. She clamps down on the urge to thread her fingers through Jo’s hair and hold her head in place and then resists the temptation to buck insistently against her face when she hits an especially sensitive spot, because she’s worried it might remind Jo of something else. She settles for stroking Jo’s cheeks and softly smoothing back her hair instead, until the compulsion to anchor herself to something gets too strong to ignore. Then she’s sinking against the towel heater, grasping it with both hands, nearly yanking it off the wall when Jo’s fingers start working in tandem with her ridiculously talented tongue. Kate’s legs are quivering now, but Jo evidently doesn’t realise how much, because she hooks one of them over her shoulder to get a better angle, pinning it in place. Kate’s gasp rapidly evolves into a yelp because now she’s balancing on one shaky leg instead of two and she’s forced to do some kind of ridiculous flamingo dance to avoid crushing Jo underneath her as she loses her balance. She pulls away to regain her footing and then sinks, red-faced, onto the bathroom floor, and then they’re both laughing, and the sound of Jo cracking up is like a panacea.

Jo’s still on her knees and the tiles are cold and hard, so Kate pulls her into her lap, kissing the bright red welts that have formed on her kneecaps. Jo’s still smiling, and Kate hesitates for a fraction of a second when she leans in to kiss her, but tasting herself on someone else’s lips isn’t what she expected; it’s intoxicating, intimate, and she can still taste Jo, too. Then Jo’s sucking on her neck and kneading her boobs and her fingers finally move to finish what her mouth started. It’s delectable in a different kind of way, but still every bit as effective. At least now Jo’s within reach, and soon all of that residual stress and suffocating pressure is building into a burning need for release, and Kate’s hips are arching off the floor and she’s throwing her head back with abandon. And then it’s Jesus Christ and Oh, God and, finally, just Jo. It doesn’t take long for her to explode. Kate gets the feeling that when Jo’s lighting the fuse, it never will.

They sit there, tangled in each other’s arms, daring to let their kisses become more leisurely again, before Kate reluctantly pulls away and clambers to her feet, holding her hand out to help Jo off the floor.   

“We’d better sort ourselves out before Steve gets here.”

Jo moves to pick up her clothes, but then she starts to laugh when she catches a glimpse of herself in the full-length mirror.

“I think we’re going to need those complimentary toiletries,” she observes, reaching for Kate’s hand and pulling her towards her until Kate’s staring at both of their reflections. Kate drinks in the sight of them in all of their freshly-fucked, rosy-cheeked glory - hair all over the place, lips bruised and swollen, and a suspicious-looking blemish starting to blossom on her neck that she’s no hope of hiding without a polo-neck or concealer, neither of which she currently has access to.

“Shit,” she says, because she hasn’t had a love bite since she was a teenager and she knows there’s no way Steve’s going to miss it. “I think someone’s watched ‘The Hunger’ a few too many times.”

Jo offers her a sheepish grin.

“Sorry,” she says, but she doesn’t sound sorry at all. Her eyes are still trained on the mirror and Kate’s wondering if she’s thinking the same thing as her - that they look good together, like they fit somehow. She can’t resist snaking her arms around Jo’s waist and planting a kiss on her shoulder and Jo smiles at her affectionately.

“You were right, by the way. This is a really nice bathroom.”

Kate laughs at that and then moves to retrieve her own clothes, but when she looks at Jo again, her expression has shifted into something more vulnerable.

“I was worried you wouldn’t…” Jo starts to say, but then she falters, and Kate stops buttoning up her jeans, giving Jo her undivided attention.

“What?” she asks curiously.

“I thought you might feel differently about me,” Jo confesses quietly. “After what I told you this morning. That you wouldn’t want to…”

“Jo,” Kate says softly, and she nearly says it then, nearly gives a name to the feeling that seems to bubble up inside of her every time she looks at Jo, but she can’t shake the nagging suspicion that if she does – if she tells Jo that she wants to do this for the rest of her life - it’s somehow going to jinx whatever kind of future they have together. So she just crosses the distance between them and wraps her in a heartfelt hug instead.