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swallow the key so nobody knows how they beat

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Chloe wakes up early, disoriented. It's all dark, the blackout curtains still drawn. The room smells like ashes, like burning. Not yet bombed, and still alive. She can feel Beca breathing by her side, the blanket moving with each slow, steady movement of her chest. She sinks into the rhythm for a few seconds. Chloe extricates herself carefully to climb out of the bed, the mattress dipping beneath her shifting weight. The floor is a cold shock against her bare toes. She feels her way across the room to the window, pulling the curtains back. Outside is still tinged with blue pre-dawn light. Yes, early.

She climbs back into the bed, curving herself around Beca. Chloe turns her face into the back of Beca's neck, pressing her nose against the nape and breathing Beca in. She smells like sleep -- milky and dense -- and her tangled hair of the scented soap Aubrey brought to share with Chloe last week. Chloe kisses the top of Beca's spine, curving her hand around the hard jut of Beca's hip and slips her fingers lower, tracing Beca's abdomen. It's hot between Beca's legs, and Chloe closes her eyes, working her index and middle fingers together, stroking, finding slickness.

"Mmm," Beca murmurs. Her mouth parts, and Chloe tips Beca's chin to kiss her.

Beca's kisses are hungry, wolfish, even when she's mostly asleep. She kisses as if to devour, and the desperation on her tongue always surprises and thrills Chloe. Beca says little to Chloe in words, but there's a sense of fever in her actions, the way she fucks. Chloe likes to watch Beca's face -- her tight, intense expression that breaks apart at orgasm, her eyes glittering. It's a familiar sight now, and Chloe is breathlessly taken by how wonderful it all is. Every time.

"Harder," Beca breathes, a whisper, against Chloe's cheek.

The noise pulled from the back of Chloe's throat is involuntary, a groan of acknowledgement. Beca tucks herself between Chloe's neck and shoulder, panting damply, her hips arching beneath the sheet. They move together as the morning dawns, casting everything in the little room in watery gray light. Beca falls apart with a keen, high whine in Chloe's arms. She shivers, and curls her hand around Chloe's neck, pressing their bodies close. Chloe thinks she can hear the thudding of Beca's pulse if she's quiet enough. Beca strokes the back of Chloe's neck lazily.

"Lovely surprise," she murmurs, her eyes hooded.

Chloe laughs. Her arm's falling asleep from where Beca's lying against it. "Good morning."

"Morning," Beca says, turning for a kiss.

 

*

 

It's raining when they first meet. Rather, when Chloe first notices Beca. Not a surprise, but it's still raining. Chloe remembers it clearly -- the sound of water hitting her umbrella, cold rivulets running down the back of her neck where she's forgotten to turn up her collar. She ducks into the steamy little restaurant around the corner from the boarding house, just for a quick bite and a cup of tea, and she ends up lingering. Because in the corner, scribbling in a notebook, is a woman -- girl, really -- in a fraying men's jumper and trousers. She has the look of a skittish colt, huddled by herself, writing furiously. The jumper is swallowing her whole, on such a small frame, the sleeves rolled up several times to her elbows.

There's something about her Chloe wants to ask about. Maybe it's her dark hair, pinned back, little strands escaping and framing her thin face. Maybe it's her hands, curled on the tabletop. She has a sandwich and a cup of tea, but she pays no attention to them as she writes.

Chloe observes her for the better part of an hour before leaving.

She comes back the next day, the same time, and the girl is at the same table. She's got an unironed blouse this time, tucked messily into a skirt. But the disorder suits her somehow. Chloe sips her tea slowly, and when she reaches the dregs, she puts down her cup. It's always been a problem, her incessant curiosity.

"Hello," she says, crossing the room.

The girl's head jerks upwards. "What? I -- oh. Hello?"

"I'm Chloe. Do you mind if I sit?" She sits down before there's an answer. "What are you writing? I was here yesterday. You're always writing."

"Nothing," the girl says immediately, her mouth set. She angles herself across the notebook. Her fingers are dark at the tips, smudged with pencil. "I'm sorry, who are you?"

There's something charming about the way she says it -- almost rude -- and impatient. "Chloe. I've said already. What's your name?"

"Beca."

Chloe waits a beat, but nothing further is offered. "It's a pleasure to meet you." She tries to peek between Beca's fingers. "So what is it? A novel?" She lowers her voice, grins. "Wartime secrets?"

"If I tell you, will you leave?"

"Maybe."

"Then maybe it's wartime secrets." Beca glares through a dark fringe of hair.

Touché. But Chloe doesn't give up so easily. "I think it's a novel. About spies."

Beca gives sharp bark of laughter. "How original. I bet no one's had that idea."

"I think you're going to tell me," Chloe says, leaning her head against her hand, studying Beca's features.

"How optimistic of you." But the corner of her lip twitches.

"Alright. Let me buy you a cup of tea."

Beca hesitates, and for a second all Chloe can see is the caged look on her face, but her shoulders drop a little. She tilts her head to her cold cup of tea. "Fine. One cup."

One cup turns into an early dinner -- hot watery soup with not much substance -- and Beca walks her back to her building, their heels clicking against the pavement. They talk on the stoop, heads bowed close together, stamping their feet for warmth. Chloe doesn't realize they're about to extinguish the lights for the blackout until Beca whips around, remembering.

"I'll have to run," she says, frowning down the street, already taking a step back.

Chloe feels the sharp pang of missing her already. "Stay," she says. "Go home when it's light out again."

Beca shivers in the brisk September wind. She squints up at Chloe, her expression unreadable. "Okay," she replies, and Chloe feels a spark of anticipation leap up her spine.

Later that night, Chloe kisses Beca in the tense darkness of her room, and they fumble each other's clothes off beneath the covers. Chloe learns the angles of Beca's body by touch and taste and smell, is guided by her small, whimpering sounds. Beca runs her hands over every part of Chloe, tracing her, and when she slips her fingers into Chloe, Chloe drops her head against Beca with a gasp. It feels like a dream, the pitch black of the room, the taste of this girl on her tongue, her bare legs against Chloe's. It feels unreal.

"It's not a novel," Beca whispers when they finish, lying curled together.

Chloe's eyes are heavy with sleep. "What is it?"

"It's music."

"About spies?" Chloe asks after a minute.

Beca laughs -- genuinely -- and it lodges itself, warm, in Chloe's chest. "If you want, sure. It's about spies."

"So what is it about?"

"Love," Beca says, softly, and Chloe doesn't ask for a clarification.

 

*

 

She's never done this before, been with a woman. It's surprisingly easy, against a backdrop of chaos. No one is paying attention to them because everyone is paying attention to the Blitz. But Chloe is consumed by this girl -- every piece of her -- and she must be the only person in London who forgets sometimes about the burning fires around them (except, of course, that it's impossible to forget altogether). Beca is a mystery, all of her. She doesn't talk about her family, not even when Chloe nudges. She doesn't speak about what she was doing before moving to London. Chloe meets none of her friends, never sees where she lives. Beca spends most nights in Chloe's bed, burrowed into Chloe's side, listening to air raid sirens in the distance.

Aubrey disapproves, of course. Aubrey disapproves of many things. She has the right kind of severity for wartime -- a flattened out exhaustion. Not like Chloe. But Aubrey works changing shifts as a nurse, and Beca slips in and out of Chloe's room often without having to deal with that.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Aubrey asks bluntly in the dim lamplight of her room, one of the rare nights Beca isn't over and Aubrey isn't at the hospital. They're drinking vinegar-like wine out of tea mugs. "That the two of you are going to set up house? In the middle of a war?"

People talk as if the war will extend forever. It's hard not to in the midst of it all. Sometimes it feels like Chloe can barely remember before. None of them know what it will be like after. All Chloe wants is to live in the present, where Beca sings to her in the dark -- snatches of things she's written.

"Your voice is beautiful," Chloe says, and she can feel Beca blushing.

"It's fine," Beca concedes.

Chloe puts on the wireless a few days later, after dinner, and she forces Beca into dancing with her. She kicks off her shoes and twirls Beca around on creaking floorboards. They dance through three songs, and when Chloe starts singing along to the radio, Beca's eyebrows knit together. She joins in, harmonizing, and when Chloe turns the music off, Beca stares at her.

"I didn't know you could sing," she says.

Chloe shrugs, smiles. "You never asked."

Beca crosses to her and leans up, kissing, urgent and hot. She walks Chloe backwards to the bed and they fall onto the mattress, Beca straddling Chloe's hips, her hair wild. Chloe sighs, pleased, and slips a hand beneath Beca's jumper.

"You like me singing?" she asks, teasing.

Beca shifts her hips forward with a tiny groan, her fingers digging into Chloe's arm.

"I'm going to take that as a yes," Chloe murmurs, right before Beca kisses her.

 

*

 

The air raid siren is such a constant. Chloe realizes she's always hearing it in the back of her mind. It's practically background noise. But she still wakes up in the middle of the night when it goes off, her heart racing. It takes her a few seconds to realize how loud it is, how close, and there's shouting down below. They've got to get to a shelter. She shakes Beca roughly, and reaches out with the other hand to switch on the light.

"Wha -- ?"

"The siren, Beca, get dressed. Hurry." Chloe throws back the covers, and they both flinch from the freezing air.

Beca scrambles out of the bed, pulls her clothes from where they're draped over the back of the chair. They dress in quick frantic movements. Chloe's got a bag packed in her wardrobe -- extra clothes and blankets and money. She's added to it since Beca's become a fixture in her life, and her bed.

They find wall space in the shelter, sitting down together. Beca's body is rigid with tension, and she knots her hands together in her lap. Chloe tries to put an arm around her, comfort her, but Beca won't let her.

"There's people," she says.

"No one's looking," Chloe answers.

"No," Beca insists, and puts a few inches of space between them.

In the morning Beca leaves without saying goodbye, darting down the street in her faded coat, and Chloe walks back alone. It's moments like these that remind her that she doesn't really know Beca at all, and the thought of that twists in her ribs.

 

*

 

Beca brings her a jar of marmalade that evening. Chloe comes back to find Beca sitting in the stairwell, hunched over, chewing absently on her thumbnail. She scrambles to her feet and stuffs the present into Chloe's grasp before she even says anything, her cheeks going pink.

"Sorry," she says quickly.

Chloe turns the jar over in her hands. It's tiny, but it's real. She doesn't know how Beca even managed to find any. She hasn't had marmalade in ages -- and she's still stunned by Beca being there at all. "Thank you."

"I didn't bring anything to eat it on."

"I have bread," Chloe says.

Beca nods. "I thought so." She's got her hands in the pockets of her trousers, and that same men's jumper that Chloe first saw her in hanging huge on her frame. She hesitates for a second, and leans in to press a tentative kiss to Chloe's cheek. "I'm not -- I'm not good at this," she says.

"At what?"

"Apologies."

"You didn't do anything wrong." Which is true. Though Chloe is still hurt.

Beca's gaze is shrewd. "I don't know. I feel like I did."

Chloe has nothing to say to that. She was never angry, and even the wounded parts of her can't resist Beca. "What do you do?" she asks, suddenly.

"What?"

"Your job. What do you do?"

Beca gnaws at her bottom lip for a second. "Bookseller," she finally says, short. "I -- I work at a bookshop." She stares at Chloe, her stance unsure.

Chloe likes that -- bookseller. She can picture it. She unlocks the door to her room, and tugs Beca in. "I'll get the bread. You make tea," she says, and Beca makes this little sound -- like a sigh -- and scurries in after her.

 

*

 

They've been doing this for months, hiding, having sex. Sometimes they see films. Once they go dancing. Chloe liked it; Beca didn't. Mostly they stay in Chloe's room, listening to the wireless. Chloe will read aloud from a novel and Beca will write her music. A stack of notebooks has started to take over a corner of the room. More and more of Beca's clothes are in Chloe's wardrobe. On the nights when Beca isn't with her, Chloe feels lost. Almost if she's forgotten how to function without Beca. How quickly someone can come into your life.

"Tell me something," Chloe urges Beca one night as she's mapping Beca's skin with the flat of her tongue. Beca tastes salty, and a little bit bitter.

"Tell you what?"

Chloe listens to Beca's breath hitch in the dark. "Tell me something no one else knows."

Beca's quiet after that -- briefly. "I don't know."

"There must be something."

"I like you," Beca says. It's a little shaky. "No one else knows that."

Chloe kisses the inside of Beca's wrist, her hair falling forward to hang around her face. It's the first time Beca's given any indication of -- well, they just don't really talk about it. They talk about many things, but not much about them and what they're doing. Beca finds Chloe's ear, runs a finger along the curve. She sits up to press kisses against Chloe's collarbone.

"I love you," Chloe whispers, and Beca stills. All of her, except for the faint flutter of her breath.

When Beca begins to kiss her again, Chloe is relieved. "Don't," Beca says, and Chloe doesn't know what she's referring to. She doesn't ask. Instead she finds the warmth of Beca's mouth, and loses herself in the familiar comfort of it.

 

*

 

Chloe doesn't know how this will end. No one knows how this will end. They could all be bombed by Nazis. They could survive. Wartime is a different animal, and she is doing the best she can. The nighttime bombings are being spread further and further apart, the sirens no longer so constant. For some reason this makes her feel uneasy. At least they know what the sirens mean. She won't miss the smell of fire though, smoke in her hair and clothes. But she likes it on Beca's skin.

It's spring. Or so they say. It's less cold anyway. Chloe wakes up to Beca's palm curved around her breast.

"I have to speak to you tonight," Beca says.

Nothing about that sounds good. But Chloe holds her tongue, wanting to give Beca the benefit of the doubt. "Okay. Here?"

Beca glances around the room. The little room. "Here."

Chloe finds her sitting on the stairs again, her knees tucked up against her chest. She's been crying -- her eyes are red -- and dread seems to settle around Chloe's shoulders. Once inside the room, Beca pushes Chloe against a wall, her movements unfocused and harried, her kissing messy. She bites Chloe's lip and draws blood.

"Ouch!" Chloe exclaims, muffled by Beca's mouth.

Beca jerks herself away. She looks -- she looks mean, her eyes hard and her cheeks very pale. She takes a breath, folds her arms across her chest. "Shit," she mumbles. "I'm sorry, Chloe."

Chloe touches a hand to her lips. Her fingers come back stained red. "What's the matter?"

"I have something to tell you," Beca says. She's trembling. "I have -- I have something." She draws something from her coat pocket, clenched in her fist. She takes half a step closer and opens her palm.

It's a ring. An engagement ring. Chloe stares at it, and back to Beca's pinched expression.

"I'm sorry," Beca whispers, more air than words. Her voice is tight. "I didn't expect you to -- I didn't expect anything from us. I thought, it's the war, it makes people do things they don't mean."

"I don't..." Chloe trails off. She swallows and leans back against the wall, bracing herself. "What?"

Beca shoves the ring back into her pocket. "I'm engaged. He's at the front. He proposed before he left." She takes a breath. "I hadn't met you. I didn't expect to meet you. I didn't expect anything like this."

"Beca -- "

"He'll be coming home for a few weeks. We're going to get married. That way, if he dies, I have -- I have something." Beca looks away. "I had to tell you."

Chloe is aware of the noises from upstairs, the building settling, people calling to each other. Shouting from the street. It sounds so normal. Not like this conversation at all. This conversation feels surreal. She tries to steady her voice. "I wish you had told me earlier."

"Me too."

"I love you."

Beca's face is pained. "I told you not to."

She did, but Chloe is just that way. Not easily deterred. Stubborn. Faults. It's a list of faults. "It doesn't work that way," she says.

"I know."

"Do you love me?"

Beca shakes her head and steps towards the door. "Don't ask me that."

"Beca," and Chloe grabs her by the arm, holds her in place. "Do you love me?"

"It's not fair," Beca mumbles. "None of this is fair." She wrenches her arm from Chloe's grasp, but she doesn't move. "Stay safe," she says, her voice cracking, and she bolts.

 

*

 

"She's a silly girl," Aubrey says, holding Chloe.

It doesn't stop Chloe from crying or from smoking pack after pack of cigarettes. Until her throat is scratchy and raw and the tips of her fingers are stained. She doesn't even know what part of the city Beca lives in, where her bookshop is. She doesn't know the first thing about finding someone in a place so big, in a time so chaotic.

"I know -- there's another nurse at the hospital -- I think she's -- " Aubrey is poor at this kind of comfort. She's better with the wounded soldiers, changing bandages and administering medication.

"I'm not interested," Chloe answers. "Thank you."

 

*

 

The war goes on.

And, one day, it's over.

 

*

 

Chloe meets Andrew not like the way she meets Beca. She meets Andrew when her brother introduces them, at their parents' house in the country. He doesn't make her feel the same way, but Chloe isn't waiting anymore. She has a life to lead. There's no sense in harping on a wartime infatuation.

(She doesn't have any photographs, but she can still remember the shape of Beca's lips, the feel of her fingers. She can still see Beca's cramped writing and smell her in the wind.)

"Did you have any sweethearts during the war?" Andrew asks, walking her back from a dance hall.

Chloe smiles up at him, and shakes her head. "Not one," she lies.

 

*

 

It's Andrew who wants to go into the bookshop. He's keen on finding this one rare volume for his Uncle George's 65th birthday, and Chloe thinks she's been to every bookseller's in London by now. This one is particularly unappealing, dark and cramped -- not too far from where she rented her room during the Blitz -- and she's tempted to beg out so she can have a cup of tea instead.

"Last one, darling, I promise," Andrew says, and squeezes her hand, looking hopeful.

"Last one," she says as she follows him into the shop. "We have to get back to the house."

The inside smells faintly like mildew and dust. Chloe wrinkles her nose. Andrew's disappeared into the stacks, without consulting the shop clerk. He'll be occupied for a quarter of an hour -- at least. She steps up to the counter, hoping to expedite the process.

"Excuse me," she says to the back of the woman stacking books. "I was wondering if you could help me."

It's just -- when the woman turns around -- Chloe's heart stops for a beat. She swears, it does. All she can do is suck in a quick breath, bite back a gasp. Beca drops the book she's holding, staring back, equally surprised. Her hair's pulled back neatly, and her face is older, but she still looks the same. Unironed blouse and all.

"Hello," Chloe says.

Beca scrambles for the book she's dropped on the floor. "H-hello," she says, standing up again. "How did you -- ?"

"My husband," Chloe says quickly. "He's looking for a book. We've gone all over."

There's a long pause. "Right. Your husband," Beca says. Her eyes flick to the wedding band on Chloe's hand.

"How are you?" Chloe asks, watching Beca's face for familiar clues -- a twitch of her eye, the faint quirk of her mouth.

"Well. I'm well."

Chloe nods. "Good. Your husband -- ?"

"I'm not -- " Beca swallows, and Chloe sees her knuckles tighten from where she's gripping the counter. "He died at the front," she says, husky. "I'm a widow."

Somehow it's that news that hurts the worst, making Chloe's chest tight. "God," she whispers. "I'm so sorry, Beca."

Beca gives her a small humorless smile. "It's alright. It's been a few years. I've adjusted. We weren't married for very long."

Chloe remembers the way Beca ran out of the room, and her heart aches. "I'm still sorry."

"Darling, I can't find it!" Andrew exclaims, popping his head around a bookshelf. His hair is sticking up in the back.

Beca jumps away, her expression guilty. As if she was doing something she wasn't supposed to. "Um. I can help you -- sir -- what are you looking for?" She gives Chloe one last darting look before following Andrew into the back.

Chloe stares down at the scarred wooden counter. There's a till at one end, and a pile of tumbling books at the other. There's a small pile of paper scraps next to the books, and Chloe takes one, on a whim. She finds a pencil too and carefully writes her address on it. She couldn't say why. When Andrew and Beca come back, him victoriously clutching a small volume, Chloe's pretending to be engrossed in a Victorian novel by the front window.

"Thank you very much, Mrs -- ?" he's saying.

"Swanson," Beca says, ringing him up. "But please, it's Beca."

"Thank you very much," Andrew continues enthusiastically.

They're halfway down the street when Chloe hears running behind them. She turns, and Beca nearly collides into her. She's panting from the exertion.

"You left something, ma'am," Beca says, pressing something into Chloe's hand. It feels like paper.

Chloe can't read Beca's expression, how it's simultaneously closed and desperate. "Beca -- " she says quietly.

"Thank you," Beca interrupts, and she steps away.

"What's that?" Andrew asks.

Chloe opens her hand. It's the paper scrap with her address, all crumpled. She shouldn't have -- she should have expected it. She smoothes it out between her fingers, the words smudging from her touch.

"Just a scrap," she says.

Andrew's flipping through the book, and he makes a distracted grunt of acknowledgement. Chloe turns the piece of paper around.

I didn't expect to fall in love during the war, it says in Beca's spiky script. I'm sorry. Beneath that, in even smaller letters: Please don't come back.

"Are we heading home now?" Andrew says, shutting his book.

Chloe looks back at the bookshop. "Yes," she says, and tucks the paper into her pocket. "Yes, let's head home."