Chapter Fourteen - Epilogue

It was six weeks since the bar manager had laid her assistant in the ground, and the spring sun was just beginning to hit the North's grey city, gently warming the new shoots that would soon turn into primroses and bluebells, as the grass grew green over Max's grave. The change in the weather had not, however, taken the chill out of Nia's heart - although for the first time since the fatal fire, she was beginning to feel a sense of acceptance, if not peace.

She'd taken her friend's death hard, almost getting herself killed by lashing out and screaming blame at everyone she came across. All thoughts of imminent danger were quickly dashed by her implacable grief - and if it had not been for Jake's constant, hovering presence, the remnants of Fire and Ice's controlling gang might quickly have lost patience with their most recent manager. The dark woman became increasingly concerned, seeing the bar manager's accusations for what they were - a fragile veneer for the fact that she really saw her friend's untimely demise as her own responsibility. The memory that Max had sacrificed her life by remaining in the burning building to look for her kept the small blonde awake at nights as it tortured her soul.

The bar had been totally swept away by the force of the explosion - nothing had been salvaged from the rubble. With no job to go to, there was nothing for Nia to do to take her mind off the pain.

The blonde spent weeks locked in her apartment, imagining what could have happened if she'd arrived at the bar a few moments earlier, remembering Max's bloodied body lying in the street, reliving their last moments together. She saw only Jake - the dark woman was her lifeline in the chaos that grew out of the destruction of Fire and Ice, bringing her news of the tug of war between the remaining leaders of Manchester's underworld, and the slow, painful progress of the police investigation. But Nia had no hope that the forces of law and order would manage to turn up a culprit. Even without their extensive contacts within the metropolitan forces, Matt and his colleagues were notorious for their rapid disappearing acts. So the bar manager sat in her flat, refusing to expect good news - and even Rachel found it difficult to gain entrance, inexperienced as she was with grief of this magnitude.

This was Nia's way - despite her easy openness and cheerful disposition, the strongest emotions struck her very core. She reeled from them - and when this occurred, she preferred to deal with the tidal wave alone, knowing it could easily submerge anyone else who came near. Beaten and suffocated by a current of conflicting feelings, she could do nothing but wait for the storm to pass. She emerged eventually, a little more rested and slightly less wan and drawn, and seemed to have found a grudging recognition of her loss - but the tide had gone out in her eyes, leaving a numb emptiness behind. With the confusion on the streets, she was able to slink quietly away from her old life, secure in the knowledge that everyone would be too busy fighting to try and follow her or even notice she was gone. But she still wanted answers - and there was nobody left who could satisfy her demand.

Matt was nowhere to be found. He'd apparently also gone into the bar, in search of Nia - it seemed that he'd known about Max's call to the police, but knew nothing of the radical plan to dispose of the evidence. The fire had been started without his authorisation, by various renegade elements within his team. Or so said the heavies who paid Jake a visit, a few days later. Apparently, he'd last been seen dashing into the burning building - but a body was never found.

With the head gangster's disappearance, Manchester descended into anarchy. The power vacuum that sprung up gave birth to a number of pretenders with lofty ambitions, and in the weeks after the fire, there was constant war between rival factions. Drive-by shootings, bar-room brawls and street-stabbings grew increasingly common, and although more than one civilian got caught in the crossfire, the police refused to intervene.

A few years earlier, Jake might have been tempted to step into the breach and return order to Manchester's disintegrating underworld. But somehow, the prospect of forging her own empire amidst the ruins seemed strangely unattractive - now she had someone else to consider, and a new focus in her life. The small bar manager had assumed an importance she'd never expected, and these days, her first thought was always of Nia.

Surprisingly, it felt right that this was the case.

***

"Well, the University kept my place open." Said Nia, slowly.

She leaned back in her chair, and looked questioningly at Jake, silhouetted against the background of the lunchtime traffic. The warm weather had convinced many of Manchester's bar owners to put their tables and chairs out on the street - and the two women were sharing a cup of coffee on the veranda of one of Manchester's quieter gay bars.

"I can go and start doctoral research whenever I like. They're even going to pay my fees." She finished.

The dark woman gave her a serious, intent look. "Are you ready for that?" She asked.

"I think so." Nia replied.

Her eyes welled with tears, as they always did when she thought of Max.

"I miss her so much, you know." She whispered.

"But going back to school will do me good. She'd want me to."

"Yes, she would." Replied the butch, with a smile.

A ray of spring sunlight glinted off her shades, illuminating the face the bar manager had come to love. She smiled back - reflecting that Jake had been a pillar of strength over the past weeks. After the blaze had died down, explanations had been given, and apologies exchanged, although much still remained unsaid. But Nia was beginning to realise that it didn't really matter - what was important was the fact that her trust in the dark woman had been restored. Jake's heroism in pulling Max out of the burning bar, and going back in to look for her, was something she'd never forget.

For the first time in a long while, the blonde woman felt content. The insecure, wide-eyed girl had disappeared for good since she lost her friend - but in her place had grown a woman who knew pain and suffering, and had triumphed over it, as she realised every time she looked in the mirror at the brand new crow's feet and grey hairs that signified the new maturity.

"Who knows what could happen in the future." She speculated, aloud.

Her companion looked down, surprised. "I certainly don't." She muttered, half to herself.

Nia reached for the butch's hand. "Do you want to stick around and find out?"

And as the afternoon wore on, more than one passer-by stopped to stare up at the veranda, captivated by the tableau of the small blonde in the dark woman's arms, both oblivious to the world around them.


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