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It’s early yet, so the bar is nearly empty, with only a few of the owner’s acquaintances in the corner booth. You had been working at Letty’s Bar for over four years now, and you knew three things--It paid way better than any other job you’ve ever had, no one ever fucks with the staff there more than once, and the owner is definitely a criminal. But he hadn’t ever been untoward or unprofessional to you or the other staff, so honestly, you had no problem with the unspoken rule of ’don’t be nosy and keep your mouth shut.’

It’s not hard for you, the tips are great on top of the pay, and you’ve been able to keep up with your bills throughout undergrad and now into grad school. There are worse gigs.

As you stock glasses on the shelf, a couple of customers enter and take seats at the far end of the bar. You look up and grin. One of them is Nilah, a relatively new regular, however temporary it may be. You were hooked from the moment you first saw her, and you two had been flirting for a couple months now whenever she came in. Her friend, Jonas, is also wildly attractive, with dark curls and a killer smile, but he is also a he, and, therefore, not your type. She had two other associates who came in with her sometimes, a tall guy with an accent and piercing eyes and a woman you definitely did not want to pursue. She was gorgeous, but in the way that a lioness is before it kills you.

You did not survive a lone move from a rural southern town to a gigantic northern city without instincts and the good sense to pay them mind.

Which is ironic considering where you work.

You finish with the glasses and set the container out of the way before making your way over to them.

“What’ll it be, my dears?” you ask, placing down two drink napkins in front of them and grinning. Nilah grins back.

“Whatever you got new on tap, please,” Jonas asks, a knowing smile gracing his lips as he looked between you and Nilah. You nod at him without really looking at him, and raise your eyebrows at Nilah.

“And for you, gorgeous?” Nilah laughs and shakes her head. You had been putting it on thick as of late, knowing that their security job in town would be wrapping up soon and hoping that the flirtations between the two of you would end in something pleasurable for both of you.

“I’ll have the same, please,” she asks, still chuckling. You grab their drinks, but before you can say anything else, one of the boss’ associates waves a hand at you for refills. You throw an apologetic glance at Nilah and grab a tray and fill it with refills. You hear a snippet about something ‘moving out in three days’ before they notice you in earshot and go silent. You give them all a polite smile, trade out empty glasses and bottles for full ones, and accept the $50 dollar bill tucked into your apron with a nod. You understand the message. Keep your mouth shut.

When you turn to head back to the bar, both Nilah and Jonas are watching you casually, but not idly. Nilah looks away when she sees you notice, but Jonas doesn’t. It strikes you as strange, but all seems back to normal after you set the tray down and approach them once more.

“So, how long do you guys have left in town?” you ask, internally praising the nonchalant tone you keep.

“Heading out in a couple days, probably,” Nilah offers, taking a sip of her beer and keeping eye contact the whole time. The heat there isn’t imagined, as you often wonder as the weeks keep going with no obvious signs that anything will happen.

“That’s a shame,” you smile. “I’ll miss you.” Nilah’s eyes drop briefly from your eyes to your mouth and back up again. You keep her gaze and try to quell your brain’s insistence to say that now is the time, that the break room is a great place to relieve some tension or that you just went grocery shopping yesterday and your kitchen is fully stocked for the in-between orgasm times, but just as you’re about to say whatever words are going to tumble out, you hear the door open. Her face goes slightly disappointed, and yours probably matches because Jonas just snorts quietly into his beer. A few more customers enter, the dim light of the bar temporarily cut with swathes of light from the street outside before the door closes, and you head over to serve them. It gets busy for a time, with only you on the floor until the later shifts show up, but you can feel Nilah’s eyes on your back as you work. Jonas leaves with a wave and a wink some time later, and when you look over to Nilah, her gaze is dark and full of promise.

“When are you off?” she asks as soon as you get within earshot.

“Eight.”

“I’ll pick you up.” She smirks at whatever face you’re making, and follows Jonas out the door.

The rest of your shift is a blur, slinging drinks, making idle chit chat, and using the smile you can’t help but wear for bigger tips whenever someone tries to flirt with you. You do appreciate money. Eight o’clock finds you in the backroom, tucking your apron into your locker and quickly shoving all your tips into your wallet, hoping the zipper will hold until you can smooth them out. Which will probably be tomorrow since you have plans to be busy tonight.

Nilah is leaning against the brick wall out front, hands in her leather jacket pockets and jeans practically painted on. You walk over and let your eyes wander a bit, pleased when you look back up that she has done the same. You’re wearing a low cut red halter and tight black jeans, with your flat boots that nearly reach your knees. When you realize that a few seconds have passed with no conversation, you decide that bold is the best course of action.

“So, are we going somewhere for pretense first or are we going straight to a place with a bed and privacy?” She chuckles, low and sultry, and your mind wonders how many other noises you can pull from that throat before the night is done. There has been a two-month lead up to this, and if you don’t get to take your time, you might weep.

“I think our dance has gone on long enough. Your place or my hotel?”

“Mine has thin walls, but I also have a kitchen for afterward. Or between rounds,” you offer. Her resulting grin is all the affirmation you need. “Okay, then. You got a car?” She points across the street to a rental car and you head toward it, slipping into the passenger seat and grinning uncontrollably.

You have very few things in your life that make you genuinely happy. Your plants, daydreaming about after-graduation plans, your two best (only) friends, and good sex. As for the latter, you’ve been having a dry spell as of late. You shake your head a little and try to dislodge the smile just a bit, but the conspiratorial grin that you share with Nilah shows just how unsuccessful you are.

Not that she seems to mind your giddiness.

You give her directions and barely have time to latch onto the door handle and dash before she’s off. Maybe you aren’t the only one desperate to get off with another person.

“Look, I want to be clear, I’m not looking for anything but sex right now. I know we’ve been flirting on the reg for a couple months, but…”

“But you’re here for a job, which is ending soon, and will be leaving to go back to wherever you live. I get it. I’m not under any illusions here, Nilah,” you interrupt. She sighs gratefully, and shifts up a gear.

“As long as we’re on the same page.” You nod and she reaches over and trails her fingers down your cheek and over your chin. You let her but keep one eye on the road as well. She’s driving well but about twenty miles an hour quicker than you’re comfortable with.

“God, I need this,” she sighs, letting her hand drop and placing it back on the shifter.

“You’re telling me,” you reply, pulling a laugh from her. The car gets quiet again, but it’s comfortable. You don’t say ’I’ve been focusing solely on my thesis for the last five months, and if the review board rejects me again, I might jump off the roof, or ’I’m pretty sure my boss doesn’t do anything truly evil, but I do suspect he’s disappeared a few people in an attempt to make conversation, so you congratulate your stupid brain on being slightly less stupid tonight.

Unfortunately, while you’re talking to yourself in your head, Nilah, a real person, is also speaking to you.

“Sorry, what?”

“I asked where I should park,” she repeats. You look up and realize that you are outside your apartment building. “The garage is fine, I don’t have a car, so you can park in my spot. 315.”

You two exit the car, and you lead her to the elevator where you stand closely, but refrain from kissing her senseless in the corner while the ancient thing climbs three stories. The second you let her into your apartment, though, she is on you.

She presses you against the wall next to the door and kisses you with all the intensity of a two-month build up. You moan when she slips her tongue into your mouth, and press yourself closer to her, as close as you can get without becoming a part of her. You reach up and tangle your hand in her braids and gently pull her head back as you run your mouth and tongue down the side of her neck until you reach the skin stretched over a collarbone you can suck a mark into. She moans this time as you find a good spot to make her squirm.

You’ve always laughed about the people in movies or TV who leave a trail of clothing all the way to the bedroom, but you’re going to have to reconsider your point of view now. As you walk her backward toward the living room and then into the hallway past that, you lose your shirt and jacket in one go, your pants, one sock, and your bra. Nilah loses her jacket, which is heavier than it looks, both socks, and her jeans. Her shirt falls victim on the floor near your bed, and suddenly, she’s only in a bra and panties, and you are left in half that. You take your other sock off so you don’t feel unbalanced.

“What do you want, baby?” she asks as she kisses down your neck. The pulsing between your legs has been intermittent and low-key since she’d come in at the top of your shift, but it is anything but low-key now.

“I’d love for your mouth to be on me. Like. Now,” you ground out as she presses her thigh between your legs. You gasp as the both of you fall into your bed, her on top and grinning like a maniac.

“Do you promise to return the favor?” she asks, kissing down your chest and flicking a nipple between her fingers as she goes. You can’t stop running your hands across her back, the skin soft and smooth beneath your fingertips. Touching her just feels so damn good after so long without this.

"I'll go first if you prefer." She grins but just slides your panties off and bends your knees up and out.

"No, I think this arrangement will work just fine for me." And that's the last thing you're conscious of beyond her tongue and fingers.

She licks broad stripes from your pussy to your clit, sucking on it when she reaches it, pulling moans from you as you curl your fingers in her braids. She continues to fuck you with her tongue and, later, her fingers until you are seconds away from toppling over the edge.

“Come on, baby. Let me have it,” she whispers, mouth still working your clit with unrelenting pressure. Her fingers crook upward and catch your g-spot just so, and you’re coming so hard you see stars. She strokes you through it until the overstimulation is too much and you nudge her shoulder with your foot. She gets the message and chuckles a little, swiping at her mouth and pressing a kiss to your inner thigh before sliding up the bed to lay next to you. You roll on your side and, still a little breathless, pull her into a kiss. You try to show her how you feel after more than two months of barely disguised sexual want with your lips and tongue and teeth. You taste yourself on her lips and tongue, and it just makes you want to explore deeper. You’ve got your hand around the angle of her jaw, thumb resting lightly just beyond the point of her chin. She breaks the kiss and pants against your collar bone, and when she finally looks back up, her pupils are blown wide, her already dark eyes darker still.

“Holy shit, do you kiss like that all the time?”

“Only when I’m made to wait for months on end.” She lays back against the pillows and you stay on your side, walking your fingers up her abdomen and reaching into the cup of her bra when you get there. She arches against your hand and you slip your other hand behind her to unsnap her bra. In two movements, she pulls it off and drops it on the floor. You take that to mean that she’s ready, and you roll over on top of her to kiss down her neck, biting gently at the spots you mapped earlier by the door. You kiss across the tops of her breasts and tease one of her nipples with your tongue before sucking it into your mouth and laving it with attention. Her gasp and subsequent moan spurs you on, and you move to give the other side some love as well.

Her abdomen is tightly toned and flexing with every touch, and you take time to rightly congratulate her on all the hard work, biting at muscles as they bunch and move under her skin, and soothing them with kisses after. You throw all of your attention into her and her alone as you catalog every gasp, every flinch, and every groan, filing it away for later use. You don’t have to be at work until two tomorrow, and you plan to keep her here as late as possible.

By the time you make it to her hips and to the top of her mound, she is a babbling mess, soaking her panties and rolling her hips into your touch. You pull her panties down and toss them in the same direction as her bra, and you have to squash the urge to jump right in. One of the perks of coming first, is that you have all the time in the world to devote to your counterpart, urgency free.

“Oh my god, please,” she pants, and you give her a sly smile, keeping eye contact as you flick at her clit with your tongue.

“Give me some room,” you whisper, giving her another light lick as she spreads her legs more and bends her knees up. You keep teasing lightly, pressing more and more as you go, before getting started in earnest. You slide your tongue inside of her as far as you can, using your thumb to rub circles over her clit. You lick and suck and slide your tongue through her folds, using your fingers at the same time so that no spot goes neglected. When you seal your lips around her clit and suck, she squeezes around your head with her thighs, trapping you against her. After a few seconds, you lighten back up to kitten licks, and she relaxes her grip in kind.

“Sorry,” she breathes, pressing her hands across her eyes. You huff out a laugh against her thigh, and she twitches at the sensation.

“Don’t be. In fact, if you’re tired of being teased,” you grab her arm and rest her hand on your head, “show me what you want.” A few beats of silence pass as she locks her gaze on yours, but that’s all the affirmation she needs, apparently, as she presses your face back against her and goes back to squeezing you with her thighs. You lick harsh strips across her clit as she grinds against your face, your hearing only catching snippets of sounds as she presses her thighs tightly against your ears. The slight pull of your hair in her grip makes you growl against her, and you thrust two of your fingers inside of her as she starts to moan, muffled to your ears, of course.

“I’m gonna, oh god, almost,” she pleads, pressing your face tighter still against her. You can barely breathe, but she is glorious as she comes, bucking her hips against you and moving your head in little circles as she rides it out.

She releases her hold on you, body going lax even as her pussy throbs rhythmically around your fingers. You slide them out and suck them into your mouth as she watches, heavy-lidded and panting.

“You didn’t get enough?” she asks, breathless still.

“I’m greedy,” you shrug, wiping your mouth with your arm and collapsing next to her once more. You go back to stroking her skin with your fingertips, up her arm, across her chest, down her abdomen, as her breathing returns to normal. You trust that she will tell you if she doesn’t like something. She moves like a soldier, recognizing it from your entire family, from years of watching dangerous people move through the bar, and people like that are typically direct.

She has proven to be very direct. She stills your hand with her own and presses it to her chest where her heart is returning to its normal rhythm. You look up at her, and she’s gazing out the window, eyes unfocused. She blinks a few times and her eyes return to you, something soft and vulnerable in them. You don’t know what to do with that, having always been better at sex than feelings, so you allow the moment for as long as you can, but ultimately lean in to kiss her on the cheek.

“How about a drink before round two?” You sit up and stretch the tension out of your back, before standing and looking back down at her on the bed. Her eyes return to the present, and you smile at her.

“Alright,” she smiles back.

“Any requests?” You head through the doorway toward the kitchen.

“Do you have a strap?” she calls after you.

“I meant for drinks, you heathen,” you yell back, grinning like a madwoman. She cackles as you make your way to the kitchen around all the clothes left on the floor.

***
You wake slowly, your arm hugging something warm but smaller than a torso. You rub your face against whatever it is anyway, not wanting to open your eyes yet.

“Good morning,” Nilah giggles, and you smile into her skin. When you do open your eyes, you realize that you’ve been cuddling her thigh as she was sitting up against the headboard and flipping through one of the books you’d left on your nightstand.

Developmental Biology of the Axolotl?” she asks, squinting at one of the pages.

“I’m writing my thesis on axolotls’ limb regeneration. Well. Kind of. It’s more complicated than that. Like, seventy-five pages-and-I’m-no-closer-to-getting-approved-for-research more complicated.” You groan and hide your face back against her leg. She lays the book down and goes quiet.

“I think I’d like to go to school one day,” she says after a few minutes. You’re stroking your fingers across her skin again, enjoying the chance to be tactile with someone.

“For what?” you ask, voice matching the quiet of the moment.

“Art history, maybe? It’s what I wanted to do before…” she trails off. You take a stab at the rest of the sentence.

“Before going into the military?” you offer. She visibly tenses under you and you finally sit up.

“How did you know that?” she asks, slightly alarmed. You raise your hands, palms out, confused but calm.

“You have a look. It’s the same look most of my family has. The ones that came back alive, anyway,” you shrug and lower your hands. She relaxes back against the headboard again and rubs her face with her hands.

“Shit, sorry,” she mumbles. You settle back into the bed next to her.

“It’s fine. Things happen and they fuck you up. I haven’t experienced it, but I’ve seen it.” She drops her hands and looks at you, really looks until you’re squirming under her gaze uncomfortably. You look down. When she lifts your chin with a finger, you almost can’t take whatever look she has in her eyes, but she breaks eventually and kisses you like a tidal wave, crashing over you with an intensity you were unaware was possible from a kiss. Her hands are suddenly all over you, and you let her drag you back down in the bed for another round. This time when you come from only her fingers and her lips attached to your own, it feels final.

You make her eggs, and she’s back to the light-hearted, smiling girl you met in the bar. By eleven, she’s out the door with a wink. You shower and bask in all the aches that come from good sex, and by the time you walk into work, even the cloudiness of the day and the promise of walking to the bus stop later in the rain can’t dampen your mood.

Your boss is there, standing behind the bar and talking to someone seated at the far end. Although, not in a professional manner, if the light tone and grin is anything to go by. He nods at you as you come out of the break room, and you take up your spot behind the bar, unloading the stacks of glasses waiting for you. You feel eyes on your back, and turn to see Nilah’s associate, the one with the piercing gaze and typically inscrutable face, a soft smile on the edges of his lips.

If you had shame, you’d blush. You also wonder why your boss is speaking with one of Nilah’s work buddies, but you don’t follow that thought anywhere. You aren’t here to make judgements. You’re here to sling drinks and get paid.

At midnight, you step out back with your umbrella and backpack, ready to sneak a smoke before your bus runs. It’s not a habit you indulge often, a pack will last you about a month, but it was a long shift, and even your exhilaration from your indulgences last night hadn’t helped your mood in the end.

The rain is light now, the puddles in the alleyway showing that it had been much heavier earlier, and it’s not so bad. You’re halfway through your cigarette when someone enters the alley, the streetlight behind them obscuring their face from view. You’re about to turn and head back inside when another form makes itself known from the shadows behind you, and gets an arm around your neck, tightening immediately.

You instinctively grab at the wrist and elbow around your neck and pull, trying to get a full gasp of air and to keep blood flow going, thanking your father for making you take those classes once he was resigned to you leaving for somewhere much larger and far away. You lean to the side as you’re dragged back and slip your head out, pushing as hard as you can at the person as you try to get back in the door. There’s not enough time, though, and they regain their balance too quickly. You kick at the door hard as you’re hauled backward again, hoping someone notices, preferably your boss or one of the guys always around him. You were late at reacting this time, not able to efficiently wedge your hands between the arm and your neck, and you can feel yourself waning, the pressure building behind your eyes from a lack of blood flow to your brain and the rising panic because of it. You kick backward at the shins of your attacker, hoping to loosen his hold a little, throw an elbow, throw your head back, trying to connect with his face, but it’s all to no avail. Your vision dims, and your arms go slack. The next thing you know, you’re falling forward to the ground, your forehead connecting with the ground and bringing your awareness back in one swift, painful impact.

Suddenly, Nilah is in your face, calling your name, and noises of impact are coming from all around you. You see a figure approach, and before you can call Nilah’s name, a bullet hits her from behind, throwing blood and other bits onto you as her chest becomes a bloody ruin. The figure is promptly cut down from behind, and before you have a chance to do anything, before a scream can even work its way out of your throat, Nilah is slumped forward on top of you, and Jonas is coming into view, soaked from the rain and clothes stained with blood.

He pulls Nilah off of you, lays her on her back on the ground, and crouches next to you, taking your face in his hands.

“Can you hear me?” he’s saying, but you can’t stop looking at Nilah laying behind him, lifeless and still. “Hey, look at me, look at me,” and you do, his kind eyes in sharp contrast to the blood splattered on him. “Good, I need you to go with Nick and go back inside, okay?”

You just look at him, not comprehending how he isn’t reacting to his friend, dead on the ground behind him. He shouts your name, shaking you a little. All of this had to happen in less than a minute, but it feels like an impossibly long one. You nod, but you don’t speak. You can’t.

And then Nilah sits up and coughs. You can’t help it. You scream. Jonas covers your mouth, and his hand tastes like rainwater and blood. It makes your stomach churn, and you shake your head to dislodge it. Nilah’s eyes snapped to yours when you screamed, and now she’s approaching you as well. You flinch when she reaches for you.

“I’ve got her, take Nicky and call Andy.” Jonas nods, hands her his jacket, and says something in a different language, and then he and Nick, Nicky your brain hysterically provides, jog past you and out of the alley.

“Let’s go inside, okay?” Nilah pulls you up, but her hands leave you as soon as you stand. Her shirt is still a mess, so she slips Jonas’ jacket on over her own and zips it up all the way. It dwarfs her, but she doesn’t look like she just got shot anymore. She grabs you again and ushers you through the back door. Your brain is making connections you didn’t dare think about before. The number of meetings your boss had been taking in the last few months, starting about a month before Nilah and her crew showed up. How one of them had been at the bar nearly every day since they arrived. The security job that always seemed to change the subject when you brought it up in conversation.

Your boss is on the phone in the backroom as you’re led back in, but he abruptly ends the conversation when he sees you.

“Look, you need to stay here until I come back, okay?” You nod, not knowing what else to do. The thought of going home alone makes your skin crawl. Even if you don’t know why you were almost taken, you know that you were. “I take care of my own.” He raises his eyebrows at you, and places a warm hand on your shoulder. “You’re not dumb, I know you know what I mean. But you gotta keep your mouth shut, and wait for me here.” He says it like he cares, and you do believe that he does, but there’s also no room to argue with him. You see the steel in his eyes, and it’s not hard to believe that he’s in charge of some criminal organization. He looks to Nilah, nods, and leaves the room.

“Are you hurt?” she asks, sitting you down in a chair at the table. You can still hear the beat of the music from the speakers, albeit faintly, and the muffled chatter and clinks of glasses as the night continues as normal for the bar. It’s surreal, and your brain is having a hard time reconciling what happened with what’s currently happening.

“I don’t know,” you say. A tense silence passes, broken suddenly by you as you gasp, a replay of blood bursting from Nilah’s chest flashes behind your eyes. “You were shot. You died. You were dead,” you whisper, covering your mouth with a shaking hand. Nilah pulls you back up and into the staff bathroom, locking the door behind you. She helps you sit on the counter between the sinks, and unzips Jonas’ jacket, pulling it off and laying it down next to you. You can smell him, the musky scent of whatever product he uses in his hair clinging to it. Her shirt is a jagged ruin of blood and other things, but the skin beneath is whole and unblemished. You reach out and touch her, unable to believe what you’re seeing. You look down at your own clothes, splattered with blood, with her blood, and when you look back up into her eyes, all the emotions you’re feeling no doubt spilling out of your own, hers are sure and kind.

“I’m fine, alright? I can’t tell you how or why without risking myself and my family, but please trust me when I say that I’m okay.” She grabs your hand and presses it to her chest the same way she had done last night. Her heart is still beating strong against the back of her breastbone.

You use her grip on your hand to pull her to you, and you wrap your arms around her tightly, holding on to her as if you’d fall off the edge of the world if you let go. Tears are suddenly falling hot and plentiful down your face, and you realize that you are sobbing into her shoulder. With your body shaking and helpless noises falling from your mouth, you cling to her like she’s the only lifeline in your world, and she allows you this. She squeezes you just as tightly to her and lets you make a mess of her already ruined shirt.

When you pull back, hiccuping but no longer freaking out, you use the bottom of your shirt to wipe your face. She takes a paper towel and wets it, carefully wiping mascara from your face as you get yourself under control.

“Why did they try to take me?” you ask, unable to stop yourself. Nilah sighs. “Nilah, please. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but I need something. Please.”

“Nile,” she murmurs, staring at the floor.

“What?”

“My name. It’s Nile.” You blink at her, not understanding.

“My…friends and I, we are well-suited to certain jobs. Your boss reached out to one of our contacts about a human trafficking ring in your town. He’d been trying to shut them out but hadn’t been able to. So we got called in.” You brush off that you were almost trafficked, hopefully being able to deal with that in a reasonable way later on, and latch onto the rest of the information.

“I knew he wasn’t the worst kind of criminal.” Nilah, Nile laughs.

“I mean. He’s not a great guy, but he keeps the city running in some form of order.”

“He’s killed people, you mean.” Your brain is zeroing in on something else, but you can work and keep up conversation at the same time. Traits of a good bartender, and all that.

“That’s not always a good metric of who’s good and who’s bad.” You take in what she’s saying but you don’t mention it. You switch topics to your other observation.

“You called them your family. Your other associates. They’re like you.” She goes still, but doesn’t back down.

“What do you mean?”

“You didn’t stay dead, and neither do they, right?”

“Everything dies eventually,” she says simply, slipping Jonas’, or whoever’s, jacket back on. So, that’s a wall.

You can let it go. Regeneration isn’t impossible, after all, you’ve seen it before.

“Axolotls,” you scoff, but wave off Nile’s questioning glance. Her phone rings, and she answers quietly, turning away from you.

“Yeah. She’s fine.” A beat passes. “I’ll be there in fifteen.” She hangs up, and turns back to you.

“I have to go help deal with these guys. That’s what we’ve been working on since we got here. We were gonna move on them tomorrow anyway, but they decided to make a move on your boss’ territory by taking you. So our timetable got moved up a little.”

You nod, not knowing what else to do. Your boss and his people and your one night stand and her band of immortals were going to go take out a group of human traffickers who tried to take you.

“Okay.”

“You okay here?” She seems genuine, but she’s also halfway out the door.

“Yeah. Go. I’m okay,” you assure her, trying to keep the shaking and hysteria out of your voice. She nods once, and then she’s gone. You go back out and get your spare set of clothes out of your locker, quickly changing into the dry clothes. One of the older bartenders, Virgie, comes and checks on you after a while, bringing you a glass of water and a shot of something strong and dark. She pats you gently on the back before she returns to the bar, and later, after closing, she sits with you at the little table and drags you into a game of five card draw.

Around three A.M., your boss returns, clothes damp, but otherwise okay. He presses a thick envelope into your hands and gives you a significant look.

“If you wanna work somewhere else, I get it. I can get you a job somewhere else. Take a few days off, think about it. Let me know next week.” You nod, hating how much you’re doing that tonight instead of speaking.

“Okay,” you force out past the lump in your throat. He squeezes your shoulder once and leans back.

“Virgie here’s gonna take you home.” You go back to nodding, and look at the floor. Going home alone still makes you want to vomit and it must show on your face. “Hey, look at me.” His voice is sharp, but not unkind. “No one is left to take you. But just in case, I can send someone over to stay with you tonight.”

“Okay,” you repeat.

“Okay,” he confirms, and nods to Virgie.

The ride is quiet, and beyond asking where you live, Virgie doesn’t speak. You don’t want her to anyway. Trying to keep up a conversation would be too much. You try to smile at Virgie when you get out, but it doesn’t feel right on your face.

“Thanks for the ride,” you manage. She smiles warmly and winks at you.

“Of course, sweetie. I’ll see you around.”

When you get to your apartment, you’re surprised to find Nile and Jonas sitting in your living room.

“Hey, we wanted to check on you after...everything.” Nile walks over to you and takes your bag, hanging it up by the door.

“I’m fine,” you lie. No one calls you on it, but they both look worried. Out of the four of them, these were the two you interacted with the most. Jonas walks over and holds his hand out.

“I’m Joe,” he says, mouth turned up in a lopsided grin. You shake it, and then pull him in for a hug.

“Thank you for saving me, Joe,” you say into his chest. He steps back and shrugs. “Thank you, too,” you direct at Nile, realizing you hadn’t said it to her yet.

“Hey, you were doing okay, on your own, actually,” she says, raising her eyebrows in approval. You just shake your head and take your shoes off.

“Do you want us or me to stay here tonight?”

“Your couch is really comfy,” Joe adds.

“Are you the people my boss sent?” you ask, wanting to take a shower more than anything in the world.

“We, um, volunteered,” Nile admits, shyly. “We--I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I just want a shower,” you say quietly, heading down the hall. Nile follows you, and you hear Joe settle back down on the couch. You leave Nile on your bed, she’s already cleaned up, you suppose, and turn the water on, letting it warm up as you strip down. You step in, and numbly realize that the water is too hot, but it feels right on your skin as you watch red water swirl down the drain. The metallic smell of the blood hits you, and you’re on your knees, hugging them close to you and heaving with the sinking feeling in your chest. You hear a weird noise, but realize it’s you, whining a high, wounded noise as you break down once again.

And once more, Nile appears. You look up at her after she pulls the curtain back, and you take barely a second to decide you want her with you. She must see it, because she strips down and gets in with you, holding you close and letting you tire yourself out.

Wordlessly, she helps you stand after who knows how long, and washes you, not mentioning how you keep your eyes closed so you don’t see more red water slipping down the drain. Your forehead stings in the water, and you remember bouncing your head off the asphalt. A giggle escapes your mouth at the thought of you getting out of a chokehold on your own.

The next hour or so is a blur. You’re cold, and then you’re dressed, your hair is being combed out, and then you’re being held in your bed.

“What time is it?” you ask, as the sun starts filtering through the blinds.

“Five,” Nile whispers, stroking her fingers through your drying hair. “Do you want something to help you sleep?” she asks. You’re already being pulled down into sleep, though, so you shake your head, body relaxing against her.

“Will you be here when I wake up?” You’re not sure you want to know the answer.

“Yeah. I’ll be here.” You can feel her breath on your neck as she speaks, and you press back against her a little more.

You sleep.