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With Treasure Close at Hand

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“This is nice.”

“Frazer.”

“What? Just stating the obvious. Never figured you to be the clingy type is all. Say, can I take a picture of us? I’m gonna take a picture of us.”

Nadine closed her eyes and began a slow count to ten. She felt Chloe lean in, smelled her, felt a warm, slightly sweaty cheek press briefly against her own, and heard the subtle yet ever-irritating click of a cellphone camera. When she reached ten and opened her eyes again, she was just as angry as before. “Look, would you call Drake already?” she ground out, jaw flexing, and felt a vein begin to throb in her neck. Christ, this was stupid.

Chloe laughed, because she would, even in a situation like this. Or, rather, especially in a situation like this, since Nadine was, apparently, the only one concerned about their current predicament. Her right hand, holding Chloe’s left forearm, clenched briefly on reflex, as if in reminder—like she’d possibly forgotten about it in the past hour or so. At least the tingling had stopped.

"Alright, alright.” Chloe dialed, and then put the cellphone to her ear. She had not moved away from Nadine at all—though it wasn’t as if she could. While she waited for Nathan to pick up, Chloe began to hum a short tune under her breath. Nadine had to remind herself she was upset with her. Standing so close to Chloe was infuriatingly distracting. Her hand on Chloe’s arm clenched again.

The line clicked audibly. Chloe frowned. Voicemail, she mouthed to Nadine, who glowered. “Nate!” Chloe said in a bright voice, once it began to record. “How’s it? So, good news, we found Misson’s house—er, manor? Whatever. Bad news, I can’t read anything on these papers we got, so they must be in code or something. I’ll let Sam have a look at them when we meet back up. ‘Course, that’s only if you two aren’t hung up somewhere. Either way, Nadine and I are gonna head back to town. Should see you, oh, day after tomorrow maybe? Keep your heads up. Alright, see you, mate.”

Nadine stared at her incredulously. She raised her right hand, still gripping Chloe’s forearm, and gave it a pointed shake.

“Oh. Right,” Chloe said, as though it’d only just occurred to her, what had happened to them. “Ah, Nate. Something funny’s going on here, but…” She paused, then continued, “Y’know, it’ll probably be better to just show you when we see you. Tell Sam hi. Ta.” She hung up, ignoring Nadine’s low-browed glare. “There. That should do it. Fancy a walk back to the jeep now? Offer’s still on the table to hold hands.”

“I’m going to kill Drake,” Nadine announced with distinct sincerity.

“Which one?” Chloe asked, sounding unconcerned.

Nadine closed her eyes, and began another slow count to ten. “Both of them.”                   

 

 

Nadine Ross, former head of the now-collapsed and thoroughly ousted PMC Shoreline and current full-share partner to Ross-Frazer Acquisitions, LLC—the official name order argument had been solved, ultimately, by a single coin toss—was, frankly put, not what anyone would call a people person, nor someone who was overly tactile by nature.   

In the most basic of terms, she liked her space.

For a child of her upbringing, it seemed a normal development. She had not been neglected—far from it, in fact. While her father had been a firm, stoic man, Shoreline’s leader through and through, preferring a manly clap on the shoulder to a tender hug when it came to showing his daughter any sort of familial affection, Nadine’s mother had taken up the slack with aplomb, and hugged and kissed her only child at nearly every available opportunity. Nadine could remember, for the most part, bearing this in silence. She had wanted desperately for her distant father to approve of her, and strove, even as a young girl, to behave like him in nearly every aspect.

In her drive to become him, she ignored the other children in school. She had little to no friends. Her father was an unapproachable figure, a man who seemed to stand above and apart from everyone else, and so she wanted the same for herself. The older she grew, the easier it became to use her foundling maturity as a shield between herself and anyone willing to bestow warm affection—with her mother most often playing the role of the hapless culprit. Ma, please, I’m fourteen now, you can’t keep kissing me like I’m five. Ma, I’ve got to get to work, I’m going to be late and pa will be angry. Ma, please, my men are watching, can’t you do that later?

Then, as a grown woman, Nadine had found that having her own well-established and respected personal space was important to her. In her few, yet undeniably busy years of running Shoreline, it had suited her well. Her men learned quickly to keep their distance—one incident involving an overly-friendly bear-hug resulting in a mercenary’s broken nose and a black eye had been more than clear.

Nadine had figured; why initiate unnecessary physical contact with a client or a hired mercenary when a quick but firm handshake would do? It was much more professional. To the point. Plus, if Nadine did not like whoever she was dealing with at the time, she could easily bruise fingers or crack knuckles with a particularly hard squeeze.

Later, as her company struggled to regain its legs after her father’s passing, and his poorly-thought-out involvement in several civil wars, Nadine had learned how to use the touch she so determinedly avoided as a weapon, most often in her dealings with men, to gain even more power. She’d told herself that if it was to help her company, to dominate, to take control, then it was alright.

Still, touching that trust-fund brat Rafe Adler, soothing him with a gentle pat to the chest here or a stroke on the cheek there, had nearly made her ill—she’d greatly preferred the knee-watering gut-punch she’d given him at his betrayal, or the surge of righteous indignation she’d felt when she’d finally aimed her gun at his head. It had been the same with Asav, years before. Men were stupid—powerful men, even more so. She hadn’t even had to sleep with either of them. Not that she would have, given the chance. Still, it had left a sour taste in her mouth, and made her all the more averse to contact than before.

Naturally, in time, her romantic relationships suffered for it. She liked women, and sex with them, but displaying thoughtless tokens of affection—kisses on the cheek or lips before partings, or even just holding hands—was difficult for her to enact without prompting. A born and raised soldier, Nadine had felt fake doing them, as if she were only pretending to be a normal person. Before long, girlfriends complained she was cold, or stuffy. Eventually, they left her. She never put up a fight. Perhaps, she’d thought more than once, it would be easier to stay as she was—hard, and unapproachable. A figure to be respected or feared amongst her peers, but never casually approached, even in friendship.

Her new treasure-hunting partner, however, had clearly not heard the news, or, if she had, chose to blatantly ignore it, as she did nearly everything else.

Chloe Frazer, thief, partner, and cohort, didn’t know the meaning of the words personal space. She hugged Nadine anytime they were apart more than a day, and, when they were together, on jobs or out in the field, conducting research, she was constantly touching Nadine, patting her on the back, squeezing her on the shoulder, or slinging an arm around her neck like they were schoolgirls. And the flirting. Just thinking about it made Nadine want to groan in frustration.

It wasn’t that she disliked Chloe. In fact, Nadine liked her too much. It’d been so easy, their first few weeks working together, learning each other’s methods, formulating their initial plan and then entering India’s Western Ghats in search of a legend. In a matter of mere days, it became almost second nature for Nadine to laugh with Chloe, and nudge her with a teasing boot, or touch her on the shoulder or the back in a gesture of solidarity and support. Something as simple or stupid as an almost-failed high five had made her go warm and soft and weak. For the first time in quite a long time, she’d wanted that casual intimacy with someone, craved it, innocent as it was. It had made her feel… good. Normal.

But then that innocence had gone afoul the day she’d balled up a fist and, filled with a dark, uncontrollable fury, struck Chloe in the face. Chloe, she knew, had forgiven not even a minute afterwards, yet, months and months later, it was hard for Nadine to leave behind, let alone forget entirely. When she was tired or upset, the memory was always there, lurking—the snap of her arm at the thrown blow, the crack of her knuckles against the hard bump of Chloe’s nose, the steady throb of her hand afterwards from the solid impact. How she hadn’t felt satisfied at all, afterwards, seeing Chloe slumped on the muddy ground, holding her face. It’d just made Nadine sicker, and madder than ever, only with herself this time.

She’d retreated from Chloe, since then. Not emotionally—that’d be impossible after everything they’d shared—but in the only way she could; physically. Chloe now initiated all friendly contact between them, and Nadine bore it in silence, as she had when she was young. In a way, she was afraid of getting close to Chloe again, but for many reasons. She was scared of hurting Chloe a second time, accidentally or intentional, or of liking the way they touched too much, enough to grow greedy for more, and then do something stupid and ruin what they had, what they’d built, on a lusty whim, or a fleeting want.

But it was hard, because, even now, that urge was coming back, but stronger than before; the need to stand close to Chloe, to touch her so casually in return, and perhaps even hold her or kiss her. But, no, that was something that could never happen. Not between them. Nadine wouldn’t let it. A romantic entanglement—with Chloe, her partner, of all people—was, simply put, far too much of a risk. They were a professional partnership, nothing more, one far more successful and precious to her than Shoreline, and she refused to destroy what they'd worked nearly two years for so carelessly. She could be happy with what they had, here and now. She could keep her distance.

But what would happen, she wondered sometimes, if she, quite literally, couldn’t?

 

 

If Nadine never had to work another job involving pirates again, she would, in all honesty, die a very happy woman.

Unfortunately, her choice in the matter had been redacted by one Chloe Frazer, the other half of Ross-Frazer Acquisitions, LLC, her treasure-hunting business partner of what was now quickly approaching a moderately successful run of two full years—“moderately” successful because even if they didn’t make off with their intended payday every single time, Chloe—clever, resourceful, determined Chloe—always managed to track down some trinket or another to get them by until their next venture. Nadine, personally, was just happy they only got shot at about a fourth of the time as her previous occupation.

Then came their present job; a week ago, Chloe received a call from Nathan Drake, retired thief and proud owner of a budding but already reputable salvage company (which was basically just a fancy window dressing for what he’d been doing all along—stealing artifacts and solving silly riddles). He and his brother, who worked for him from time to time, needed help.

After the mess with the Drakes and Rafe several years ago, Nadine felt ill any time she heard the word pirate. And so, naturally, not only did the job Nathan propose involve said pirates, it was also located back at King’s Bay, Madagascar, a place Nadine had hoped and sworn never to return.

As the story went, in the founding of Libertalia and the gathering of infamous pirates that followed, another swarthy captain had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Though not part of the initial group Avery and Tew had murdered for their share of the fortune, Captain James Misson had been a successful marauder in his own right, known to amass a modest sum before retiring somewhere near the port-side town of King’s Bay. Misson, strangely enough, had been a renowned family man, with a loving wife and a brood of over six children, which was considered odd for his trade back then. Misson’s riches had never been found, kept separate from Avery’s hoard, and now Nathan and his brother believed they had the capability to find it.

Hearing that bit of information, Nadine had attempted to snatch Chloe’s phone out of her hand and hang up on him. They argued about the job for almost an hour. Finally, just before Nadine was ready to storm from the room, Chloe pleaded, “Nadine, he’s my friend,” with such quavering sincerity Nadine had been forced to give in. Still, she was very far from happy about it.

To make the impending trip to Madagascar easier, Nathan invited the two of them to stay overnight at his place on the west coast of the states, a newly-bought beach-house with a spectacular view of the ocean. Chloe was more than happy to agree, having never been. Nadine only agreed because Sam would not be there until the day after.

They flew commercial to the states. After an ungodly amount of time in the air, sleeping when they could during layovers at odd airports, they finally landed for the last time and found their way to a car rental. Chloe asked for a 4x4 with a winch for no other reason than wanting one. Being in America, they got stuck with a sedan instead. Chloe, at least, was satisfied it was red.

Traffic was light, and Nathan’s house was far from the main road, so the drive was quiet and uneventful, Chloe filling the silence with her usual unrelenting banter and witticisms. They arrived only twenty minutes late to dinner, something that would normally have irked Nadine, who strove to be early to all engagements, professional, casual, or otherwise. Since working with Chloe, however, she’d loosened up slightly, and only rolled her eyes when Chloe checked her phone after parking in the drive with a triumphant, “Right on time, china!”

They rang the bell, and a few moments later, Nathan Drake answered in a garish Hawaiian shirt and board shorts, grinning broadly. “You made it!” He and Chloe hugged with the ease of old friends. Nadine kept her expression neutral while she waited for them to part. Nathan didn’t extend a hand for her to shake—neither did she—but managed a polite, “Nadine,” with no inflection.

“Drake,” Nadine replied evenly. She’d had just about enough involvement in her life from the Drakes, and could do without seeing or working with them for the rest of her professional career, but if Chloe wanted to help them, Nadine would do it for her. Plus, Chloe had promised minimal involvement with the brothers, which was good, as Nadine’s patience for Sam had drained to a record low lately.

Elena Fisher, she discovered, only a short time later, she liked very much. Though Nadine had been a frequent watcher of her show, years ago (Elena showed animals most episodes) and she knew Chloe talked about her to Elena over the phone, this was the first time they would be meeting in person. Elena was kind and smart and funny, a down to earth sort of woman Nadine had always admired. She could not fathom how Elena had ended up with a Drake. Probably, he’d tricked her into it.

Elena was also, at the moment, enormously pregnant. Chloe had to hug her from the side. Still, once they were ushered inside and pleasantries exchanged, she moved about the house with a surprising spryness, flitting here and there in a quick tour of the rooms, Nathan and Chloe commenting idly in the background. Nadine was quiet and pointedly did not stare at Elena’s stomach, poking out from under her filmy summer dress. She’d never touched a pregnant woman’s stomach before—and wouldn’t now. The odd urge was fleeting, at least. She would not even ask.

Afterwards, they wandered their way back into the kitchen, and sat to eat dinner. Nadine acknowledged that this would be the longest she’d spent in the company of Nathan since that near-disaster with Avery’s treasure—and now they were going back there, to King's Bay. Willingly. Or, semi-willingly, in her case. The thought alone made her nauseous. Both Nathan and Chloe had assured her of the precautions they’d taken this time around, yet Nadine couldn’t shake a certain sense of foreboding.

The meal, though only slightly staled by an undeniable but not stifling air of tension, due to the very obvious elephant in the room—most notably, that she’d beat Nathan up several times in the past, and thrown him out a window—was still delicious; shrimp scampi, with still sizzling grilled meat-and-vegetable kebabs and a hearty salad on the side. The smell alone made Nadine’s stomach growl.

The very first thing Chloe did once they sat down was sweep all the shellfish off Nadine’s plate and onto her own. Nadine, for her part, took Chloe’s beef kebabs in exchange, knowing they’d be similarly uneaten, and then topped up Chloe’s glass of water with her own, knowing her partner tended to grow thirstier in the evenings, especially after a long day of travel. Nadine was always on her to properly hydrate. Meanwhile, Chloe stood and sorted through the salad dressings displayed nearby for the particular kind Nadine liked, found it, and set it in front of her.

They began to eat, and only once her first bite was in her mouth did Nadine realize how quiet the room had gotten. She looked up. Across from her, Nathan was staring at them with an unsure look on his face, while Elena appeared equally puzzled.

“Sorry,” Elena said to Nadine. “Do you not like shrimp scampi?”

“She’s Jewish,” Chloe supplied through a mouthful, as though it were obvious.

“It’s fine,” Nadine said quickly. “I should’ve mentioned it. I can eat everything else.”

Now Nathan was goggling. “I didn’t know you were Jewish,” he said, sounding bewildered.

Nadine was silent. It wasn’t something that came up in everyday conversation, and certainly never with him. “Forgot to mention it last time I saw you. Think we were too busy pointing guns at each other, eh?”

Nathan looked panicked for a moment at the unpleasant memory, then cut his eyes toward his wife and chuckled awkwardly, his tense shoulders lowering. “Right.”

“You can tell you guys have worked together for a while,” Elena commented. Her tone was light, but it still made Nadine a bit self-conscious. “Like you were reading each other’s minds. Sometimes Nate and I still bump into each other when we’re walking down the hall at the same time.”

Imagining it, Nadine laughed quietly. She glanced over at Chloe, who was watching her thoughtfully.

“Maybe we’re just special,” said Chloe to Elena, giving her a teasing wink before taking another bite of her meal.

Surprisingly, the evening didn’t get worse after that, but better, Chloe and Nathan taking up the brunt of the conversation with a friendly banter. Nadine ate slowly, trying to savor a good, home-cooked meal. MREs were for scarfing, out in the field, so you didn’t taste too much of it. This, you had to draw out to really enjoy. Elena—or quite possibly Nathan, if he cooked—was a decent chef.

Halfway through, Chloe automatically got up and fetched a napkin for Nadine without her having to ask, fingers gone greasy from the kebabs. Nadine wiped her hands and mouth and felt a sudden prickle, as though she was being watched, and glanced up to find Elena fixing her with an odd look, like she was trying to figure out something. Nadine politely averted her eyes and did not glare back. There was nothing wrong with a little curiosity.

Afterwards, they helped clear the table, and protested when Elena began to fill the sink with hot, soapy water.

“Let us wash, you two cooked!” Chloe insisted. “Shouldn’t you be putting your feet up? Nate said you’re due in something like three weeks. This could induce labor.” She went a bit pale. “Oh god. Please don’t pop it out while I’m here.”

“You’re our guests,” Elena replied. “Guests don’t do dishes.”

“We’ve been on planes all day and spent three hours in the car. I’m dying to wash some dishes. Really.”

“Not a chance,” said Elena. “Nate, would you help me shoo them out of the kitchen, please?”

Nathan got that I-think-I’m-being-clever look on his face. “Alright, tell you what, Chloe. You really want to do the dishes? Play us for it.”

Chloe frowned suspiciously at him. “Play? Play what, exactly?”

“Oh, here it goes,” Elena groaned in the background, while the childish look in Nathan’s eyes grew brighter.

“Elena’s TV game thing. C’mere.” He walked across the living room to their television and pressed a button on a small grey box that whirred to life, then grabbed an odd-looking plastic controller resting atop it. “If you beat Elena’s high score, we’ll let you wash the dishes.”

“You’re on, mate,” Chloe grinned, snatching the controller from him and collapsing backwards onto the couch. “This’ll be fun.” Nadine made no comment, already quite aware that in the time it took for Chloe to play for the right to do the dishes, Elena would probably finish them.

"Oh, Nate,” Elena called from the kitchen, sounding only slightly exasperated. “If she tries for my high score, she’ll never win. Do yours. Then she might actually have a chance.”

Chloe laughed loudly, delighted by the challenge. “Oh, you’re both in for it. I’ve got my lucky charm here. I can’t lose when china’s around.” She winked at Nadine, who only rolled her eyes in response.

Nathan threw his hands up. “Oh, whatever. Fine, if she beats my high score—which isn’t that far from yours,” he directed to his wife defensively, “you win. Sound good?”

“Sounds great,” said Chloe, peering down at the controller in her hands. “How’s it work?”

“Well, first you have to wait for it to load.”

Load?

“Don’t ask.”

On screen, a logo appeared and faded. A badly rendered digital animal that looked a bit like a fox in pants came running at the screen, then ducked under a swinging title. Crash Bandicoot.

“The hell is a bandy-coot?” Chloe muttered as she hit start, and then worked out the rest of the buttons by trial and error, twitching the orange fox-thing—well, bandicoot, though Nadine had never seen one this color before—this way and that.

“You should know. It’s a marsupial from Australia,” Nadine replied.

Chloe scoffed. “Right. I’ve seen plenty of dingos and roos, but never a bandy-coot.”

Bandicoot,” Nadine corrected. “And probably because they’re a threatened species. And they’re usually in the northern rainforests, and New Guinea.”

"Huh.” With growing confidence, Chloe started jumping over pits and spinning at boxes. Nadine frowned. Bandicoots did not spin. “They always run around in sneakers and pants, or is it just this one?” Chloe joked. On the screen, a boulder began to roll after her.

“Pretty sure that’s not typical of their species. Or any species, ever.”

“Do they eat fruit?” On the screen, the little orange character was collecting what looked like red, floating apples.

“They eat bugs,” Nadine said flatly.

“Ew.”

It didn’t take long for Nadine to lose interest in the children’s game. It was far more entertaining to watch Chloe instead, and the kaleidoscope of expressions her face passed through as she played; comical panic as she nearly fell into pits or got crushed, unbridled glee when she beat Nathan’s high score, and rising frustration when she couldn’t get anywhere close to Elena’s. Nadine refused when Chloe demanded she take a turn. She’d never played a video game in her life, and she certainly wouldn’t fail spectacularly at something so silly while a Drake was nearby. Luckily, Chloe was happy to keep playing after only a few attempts to get her to join, and Nadine spent the rest of the evening paying practically no attention to what was happening on the screen, keeping her eyes instead on Chloe.

Again, she felt a prickling sense of being watched. She cocked her head and caught Elena eyeing her a second time, though in a much more friendly way than before. She even had a soft smile on her face. Nadine kept her own expression schooled. Even if Elena were to make an assumption of her and Chloe’s relationship, professional or otherwise, Nadine was rather confident it wouldn’t be brought up here and now. Not when they’d only just met. At least, she hoped so.

Almost an hour later, once Chloe discovered she’d been tricked—she was outraged at first, then fondly amused—Nathan stepped outside to call his brother and then Victor to make sure everything was still on schedule for the next day while Nadine retreated to the den to send a few delayed texts to her mother, who she always made sure to check in with every two or three days.

Her mother was doing well, but predictably missed her. Nadine sent her a few pictures from her and Chloe’s most recent venture in supplication. Finished, she stepped back into the hall and heard voices coming from the living room. It was Elena and Chloe, on the couch, Chloe holding a sweating bottle of beer while Elena drank water. Nadine hesitated around the corner, unsure if she should join them or not. She didn’t like small talk.

Just then, Elena said, in a loud voice, “Oh, come on Chloe, seriously? When’s the last time you, I don’t know, went on an honest-to-god date?”

Nadine froze. Suddenly she felt very awkward, and out of place. This was girl-talk, something she’d never learned nor participated in. If she moved, though, one of them might see her. Absurdly, she kept still, as though trapped in place.

Chloe scoffed and took a sip of her beer. “Date? Chloe Frazer doesn’t date. Chloe Frazer seduces. She wines and dines. She conquers—”

"Yeah, pretty sure Chloe Frazer hasn’t ‘conquered’ anyone for a while, from what I’ve heard,” interrupted Elena. Nadine could practically hear her smug grin.

Chloe winced and muttered bitterly, “Christ, Nate needs to learn how to keep some things to himself.” She took another sip of her beer. “Well, fine. It’s out, then. No, I haven’t dated anyone recently. Happy?”

“Really?” Elena sounded skeptical. “You’re not seeing anyone at all?”

“Like I have the time?”

“You’re that busy?”

There was a pause as Chloe hesitated. “Look, these past two years have been crazy, between finding the Tusk and starting the Ross-Frazer company, and—”

It’s been two years?” Elena nearly shrieked. Chloe scrambled forward and shushed her with a flailing hand against her mouth.

“Would you keep it down, sunshine?” she hissed. “I’d rather the entire west coast didn’t hear about my love life, thank you very much. And it has not been two years.”

“How long has it been, then?” Elena challenged. “And I’m not just counting, you know, getting laid. I mean, even just… drinks?”

It was quiet for a long few moments. Nadine waited, feeling strangely nervous, and then realized the silence was because Chloe was thinking hard. Chloe honestly didn’t know the answer.

“I…” Chloe began, sounding uncharacteristically flustered. “Look. Just because you’re big as a house—” Elena laughed sharply, unoffended “—does not mean you get to live vicariously through me and my supposed adventures.”

“I’m not judging,” said Elena, with humor in her voice. “I’m just saying. The Chloe I know had a new, um, friend, every couple weeks and then some, back in the day. It’s just… different, is all.”

“I’m still me,” Chloe replied, sounding faintly defensive.

Luckily, they changed the subject after that. Nadine waited, still feeling profoundly uncomfortable, until they were discussing Elena’s pregnancy woes before walking briskly past them and out the front door, wanting some fresh air. What she’d just heard had put a knot in her stomach. She didn’t like to consider why Chloe was supposedly not acting herself, especially if it turned out to somehow be Nadine’s fault. Had it really been two years since Chloe was last with someone? Nadine hadn’t dated since their partnership formed, either, but that was typical of her. Chloe was so different, so free. Was something wrong? Did she think Nadine would disapprove of her habits? Why?

Nathan was down by the dock, playing with the lines of a small but sturdy sailboat. Nadine very much did not want to speak with him. She walked down the beach a ways, enjoying the lingering moonlight dashed across the water and the quiet hush of the waves against the sand.

When she finally went back inside, it was nearly 10PM. Elena showed them to their rooms; Chloe was directed to a temporary day bed in the soon-to-be-nursery while Nadine got the futon couch in the den.

“Oh,” said Chloe, sounding faintly put off by the news. “We would’ve been fine sharing.”

Nadine's face, held impressively still at that comment, grew ferociously warm, even more so when Nathan chuckled nervously. Sharing a bed with Chloe was something she studiously avoided. Her resoluteness to keep away from her partner, to not allow herself to want more, could only take so much duress. She swallowed her irritation at Nathan and her frustration with Chloe long enough to thank Elena politely for the meal and the room, and then, left alone, undressed and climbed into bed.

She got a text, just before she turned her lamp out. It was from Chloe, who could’ve just as easily poked her head in to wish her goodnight, but wanted to be a brat about it instead.

It's lonely in here! Sweet dreams, china, said the text, followed by a parade of random emojis.

Though Nadine rolled her eyes, she sent back, Night.

 

 

When she woke, just before 5AM, it was still dark. Despite a bit of jetlag, she’d slept well, and felt refreshed and energized—too energized to just sit in another plane all day, so she got up quietly as she could, dressed in running shorts and an old t-shirt, and headed outside. Already, the sun was peeking over the horizon and the temperature was warming, though the sand beneath her bare feet was firm and chilled. She started with a slow jog and worked herself into a steady, pounding run.

On her return the temperature quickly grew sweltering, so she stripped her t-shirt off and held it in her hand as she ran, beads of sweat rolling down her back and sides. The last half-mile, she sprinted. When the Drake home appeared in the distance and grew larger, she slowed, breathing hard, chest and neck dotted with sweat. Her feet were pleasantly sore, toes aching. She spotted a lone figure by the dock. It was Chloe, doing her usual round of morning yoga, sitting on a mat rolled out on the sand, her body framed by the rising sun. She looked up and grinned when Nadine came close.

“Hey there, early bird,” she said in that low, husky voice she always had in the mornings.

“Hi,” Nadine replied quietly. Feeling self-conscious in her sports bra and shorts—not because of Chloe, but rather if Nathan came out of the house at that moment, she’d deck him—Nadine shrugged her shirt back on, ignoring the way it clung to her sweaty shoulders and abdomen. She watched in silence as Chloe went back to her yoga, moving through her forms by graceful rote.

A few feet from the yoga mat was a steaming cup of tea on a saucer, which Chloe didn’t like to drink in the mornings, meaning it was for Nadine. She fetched a beach chair from nearby, pulled it over, and sat, sipping her tea with gratitude and watching Chloe do her yoga as the sun rose and the world woke up around them.

 

 

Less than an hour later, the house had become a bustle of activity. Already re-showered, dressed and packed, Nadine sat on Chloe’s still-unmade bed to wait. Only a few minutes later, Chloe burst in wearing only a bra and half-buttoned jeans, and started throwing her things in a bag at random.

“Seen my shirt, love?” she asked, toothbrush poking out of the corner of her mouth, threading a belt into her pant loops and hunting down one of her boots. Nadine toed a pile of clothes and a wet towel over and fished out Chloe’s signature red shirt, freshly laundered. “Thanks,” said Chloe, taking the shirt and pulling it over her head. She gathered her damp black hair in her hand, then floundered, looking about for a hair tie, but Nadine had already rolled one off her wrist. Chloe took it, tied her hair, and grabbed the rest of her things in a big armful and jammed it all into her bag. “Well, I think I’m ready.”

Nadine checked her watch. Only running forty-five minutes late this time. Not the worst she’d seen, when it came to Chloe.

Sam Drake and Victor Sullivan arrived shortly after, heralded by the droning roar of Victor’s approaching seaplane. Nathan kissed his wife goodbye, Chloe hugged her warmly, and Nadine thanked her for hosting them, and was glad when the other woman forwent a hug and instead held out her hand for a polite but friendly shake.

“Take care of her, will you?” she said, nodding at Chloe, who was laughing and joking with the Drakes and Victor, heading toward the waiting plane, bobbing in the waves by the dock. Elena had that knowing look on her face again, the one that made Nadine inexplicably nervous.

“She can handle herself just fine,” Nadine replied.

“Oh, I know she can. But everyone needs somebody to watch their back, right?”

“Ja,” Nadine agreed, and felt the resolve within her harden. “I won’t let anything go wrong. Not on my watch.”

“If you have to toss Nate out another window to do it, I’ll understand. Just don’t kill him.”

Nadine laughed at that one.

 

 

And then they were off. Almost before Nadine could truly prepare herself, they had arrived in King’s Bay, back where it had all began and ended, where the old Nadine had gone missing and this new Nadine had been born.

The second it came into sight—the narrow towers choked with vines, the vibrant jungle surrounding the small, colorful bay-side town—bad memories crowded forward at once. Her failure, Rafe’s betrayal. Nadine felt on edge, as though waiting for a smart comment from Sam or Nathan, but none came. The two brothers seemed too preoccupied by their newest adventure, chatting excitedly through the flight and smooth landing, with Victor chiming in every once in a while. Chloe, who had predictably slept through most of the lengthy flight, perked at the thriving port through the window.

“You gonna show a first-timer around, china? Show me all the good spots?”

Nadine avoided the obvious come-on deftly. “I’ll pick you up a pamphlet at the tourist center.”

Victor bade his farewell with little fanfare, promising to stay within a general vicinity while they did their work. Probably, he’d use it as a small vacation. Nadine and the others caught a ride from a seller at the local market, hopping into the back of his rusted truck bed, bouncing along the pothole-riddled road to town.

King’s Bay still bore the scars from the last time the Drakes had visited—stray broken buildings reduced to rubble from RPGs, walls and streets pitted by wayward bullets of their firefights, and, looming there on the hill, the shattered skeleton of the clock tower Nathan had ineptly destroyed, solving Avery’s riddle. Yet the town had recovered remarkably otherwise, a steady hum of shoppers, tourists, and locals filling the narrow streets and stalls.

They checked in at their hotel—an older brick-layed building ten stories tall, not so popular with tourists but sufficient to their needs. Their rooms were on the seventh floor. Nathan and his brother each had a single, while Nadine and Chloe shared a double with two beds, for which Nadine was silently grateful. They each took several minutes to settle in, then Nadine and Chloe went to Sam’s room to talk the plan over once again. Again, they were assured this was simply a reconnaissance mission—James Misson had lived in a massive house somewhere near the bay, but had kept no actual treasure there, mitigating risks to ‘virtually nothing.’

“It’s gonna be in and out,” said Sam, sounding awfully cocky about it, cigarette already dangling out of his mouth. “Hard part is finding the house. Then it’s just a couple puzzles, maybe a riddle or two, and then bam, hopefully a map or something that points us to our next destination, and Nathan and I can handle that just fine.”

“If it’s not dangerous, why are we splitting up? What’s the rush?” Nadine asked, suspicious. She wouldn’t trust a Drake if they paid her to.

“Look, I’m flattered you wanna work with me—” Sam started obnoxiously.

“It’s a big area we’ll be searching,” cut in Nathan, showing her an old, battered map of King’s Bay, where a large swatch of jungle surrounding the town was circled. “It’ll take forever if we don’t split up. Once we find our next clue, I can radio my guys—” his salvage company, Nadine figured “—to where the treasure actually is. And you and Chloe will get a cut, whether there’s any or not. Alright?”

Nadine reluctantly consented. As they were reconvening the meeting, Victor called on the Drake's handheld radio. Nadine ignored it, unconcerned, until Nathan said in a rising tone, “What do you mean we have a problem?”

Instantly, Nadine’s hackles rose. She put a hand over Chloe’s phone, thrust in her face to try and show her the pictures Chloe’d taken during their ride here. “Put that up.”

Nathan adjusted the volume so they could all hear as Victor said, “—isten. You guys aren’t gonna like this, but I just found a little bug on my plane. The kind that doesn’t just get there by itself, understand?”

A bug could mean anything—a GPS tracker, or a listening device. Either way, they hadn’t even begun this stupid job, and already, they were compromised.

“Victor,” she said, after shouldering Sam aside and taking the handheld from Nathan. “Describe this bug to me.”

“Well,” said Victor slowly. “It’s, ah, small. Kinda blackish. There’s a tiny antennae—”

“What’s the brand?”

“Christ, my eyes are not what they used to be… Hold on…” There was a pause over the line. “Raptor. Then there’s a bunch of letters and dashes and stuff. Guess that’s the model number?”

Nadine wasn’t listening anymore. A wave of rage-tinged nausea swept through her. She nearly crushed the handhold in her grip. She took a moment to get ahold of herself, then snarled aloud, “Shoreline.”

“What, are you serious?” said Nathan, his voice sharp with concern.

“How can you be sure?” Sam interjected.

“That’s the type we used on all our jobs. We had a contract with the company that manufactured them. Can’t say they kept up with Shoreline after I left, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had these in stock for an emergency.”

“But how is Shoreline even still a thing?” Sam pressed, either not noticing Nadine’s growing temper, or unwisely choosing to ignore it. “Didn’t we get rid of all their goons in India? Without you or Orca or Asav, who the hell’s running them?”

Knot, Nadine guessed, her third-in-command, but didn’t say, because it wasn’t an absolute. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“What do they want with us?” Chloe asked, her tone quiet, subdued. Probably, she was the only one who truly knew how torn up Nadine was about this revelation. “Like Nate said, there’s no real treasure here. Just riddles and clues.”

Nadine began to pace. “Maybe they’re desperate. Maybe they’re looking for an easy score, and think highjacking some wayward Drake adventure is the way to go. I don’t know. And I don’t care. We’re out.”

Out?” Sam cried, with the gall to sound outraged.

"Nadine,” Nathan started. She cut off him with a hard shove of the handheld to his chest, dropping it a second later, as if burned.

“You said this job was ours for the taking. It’s not. You said it was secure. It’s not. You said it’d be easy, and it’s just taken a hard turn into downright dangerous. I agreed to this because Chloe wanted to help you, and I thought she—we’d be safe. I don’t know about the two of you, but I prefer not to be shot at.”

Nathan was silent, looking pensive but not about to argue with her, while Sam stepped forward, until they were nearly chest-to-chest. He was taller, but Nadine did not back down, meeting his derisive sneer with her own.

“So, what, you’re gonna cut and run, just like that?” he growled.

“Just like that, Drake,” Nadine growled back.

“A bug in the plane doesn’t mean we have to scrap everything,” Sam went on. “We worked for months on this. Nathan put a shitload of money into it. We can’t just give up.”

“Watch me,” Nadine snapped. Beside her, Chloe remained conspicuously silent.

“We can’t do this alone,” Nathan said quietly, spinning his wedding ring around on his finger. Thinking of Elena, no doubt, and the baby soon to come. If this job didn’t pan out, he’d have to scramble fast for another, and, this time, without her and Chloe to help, who were probably the only ones capable of handling themselves…

Her temper fought valiantly with her conscience. She stepped away for a moment to breathe, hands on her hips. Someone touched her back, and she flinched away on reflex.

“Sorry,” said Chloe. Nadine was quiet. She hated when Chloe saw her so angry. She didn’t want to seem weak, or vulnerable. Or that Chloe might get frightened of her. Nadine wanted, at that moment, to rant and rave and stew. She wanted to punch Sam in the face, grab Chloe, and leave. Yet there was also a part of her that wanted to stay, and help, and make her partner happy. But the only thing worse than her hurting Chloe was someone else doing it. She refused to let that happen.

“Are you cool?” Chloe asked in a soft tone. After India, she used the phrase as a way to ask so much more than the obvious. It'd become more of, I know you’re angry, and frightened, and upset, but can you keep us alive if we stay? Can you give me your all, despite everything? Nadine knew then, if she were to refuse this job, completely, that Chloe would walk away with her, even if it meant ending a friendship over a decade long. She also knew, immediately after, that she could never make her do something like that.

Nadine took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. She turned and glared at Sam, then Nathan. “If I find out later that either one of you already knew about this, I’m going to think long and hard about ever working with a Drake again, no matter what Chloe says. And then I’m going to break your legs.”

“Um,” gulped Nathan.

“Great,” said Sam, returning his cigarette to his mouth. “Let’s get this done already. Jesus.”

For Chloe, Nadine told herself, even as she felt her partner’s concerned eyes on her nape. She would do this for Chloe, and no one else.

 

 

Of course, the dense, steaming jungle surrounding King’s Bay was simply too large to traverse by foot, so Nathan and his brother rented two 4x4s, divided the search area in half, and took the eastern side, leaving Chloe and Nadine to search the west.

It was, at first, somewhat peaceful. Nadine liked recon, the focus it involved. Exploring the unknown was Chloe’s element, where she thrived and was her happiest. Following the map and their wits, they drove around the highlands for several days, searching every pile of rubble they could find. At night, they slept in the jeep. For meals, MREs were eaten (mostly) without complaint. Though still on edge from the news of Shoreline’s involvement, Nadine found herself relaxing in the company of her laidback partner. She liked being with Chloe, striving to solve a mystery, just the two of them and their instincts and nothing else. Every few hours, they radioed the Drake brothers for updates and adjusted their search accordingly.

On the fourth day of their search, Nathan sent Chloe a text of an old manuscript Sam found in one of the numerous towers scattered across the bay. It was a letter from Avery to Misson, inviting him to forget his woes and join them in Libertalia. Though Misson had apparently declined the offer, the letter bore an ancient address of a long-forgotten town. Sam had pinned it on the GPS—it was located less than ten miles from where Chloe and Nadine currently were.

Chloe drove them deftly to the site. Draped in glistening green vines were the remains of a small gathering of ramshackle buildings, wooden boards rotted soft and stone-built walls crumbled to dust. Together, they left the jeep with a plan to search the houses, starting, of course, with the largest.

Decrepit as it had become, the biggest structure was a mansion in its own right. Chloe declared at once that it had to be Misson’s. Inside, it was damp, hot, and unbearably humid. Sweat rolled into Nadine’s eyes almost immediately. It was dark, but Chloe popped out her flashlight and they made their way deeper inside. The décor, though destroyed by time, had once been unspeakably lavish, almost gaudily so; elaborate chandeliers filled with rust and dirt, massive gilded shelves housing decayed decorations. Misson may not have kept any actual treasure here, but he had still been a very, very rich man.

They reached what looked to be a once well-furnished bedroom on the rickety second floor. On the sagging bed was a small shape. Nadine recognized it for it was immediately, and stopped. Chloe bumped against her back and peeked around her shoulder.

She wrinkled her nose. “Suppose that’s Misson,” she said.

“Ja.” Nadine looked about. “He died like that. In his bed. Old age? Sickness?”

Chloe made a quiet sound. “Not sure. Sam would know. But Misson was a family man, remember? Why would his wife and kids leave him like that? Why not bury him?”

Nadine stepped closer. Misson’s hands, stripped of flesh, were folded on his chest, clutching a scrap of paper in brown, skeletal fingers. She went closer still, Chloe following just behind, and, with care, pulled the paper from his dead hands. It was an envelope, and—

Without warning, the rotten floorboard beneath her left foot broke, throwing her off balance and sending her flailing backwards. She twisted, and her hip struck the rest of the boards, and then those broke too under her weight, and she fell. She heard another snap and then a shout as Chloe came down after her. For a second she was weightless, and then she hit something, hard—the first floor, but it was too dark to see and she’d hit her ribs and couldn’t gasp in air to yell to ask Chloe if she was alright—and then Chloe crashed right on top of her, and under Nadine’s back the wood gave a fierce crack! and that level gave way as well with a shuddering groan. Then the boards were gone and there was nothing to stop them, and she and Chloe plunged down, down, down, into darkness.

In the four or five seconds she spent falling, Nadine noticed several things; the air was cooler here, and it smelled dank, like wet dirt. She could hear flowing water, and a distant, pained cry from Chloe. Then the back of Nadine’s head caught a rock, and she couldn’t stop a similar bark of pain, curling up on instinct as she landed—at last—with a thick splash in a shallow pool of frigid, foul-smelling water. A second later, a heavy body landed halfway on top of her, Chloe letting out a sharp huff and a loud swear on impact.

Fighting to breathe, Nadine sat up on her knees, hair and clothes streaming water. She felt strange. Sick. Not from the fall, but something else, something she couldn’t describe. Her palms were tingling madly, like they were sunburned, or moments from bursting into flame. In her left hand she still gripped the now-soaked envelope from Misson’s corpse. With the other, she reached out and, without conscious thought, touched Chloe’s bare arm, her light brown skin warm and beaded with water.

Immediately, the itchy, burning feeling stopped.

“Shit,” groaned Chloe. Looking up through a tangle of black hair, dirty water droplets quivering off her chin, she managed a rueful smile, and took hold of Nadine’s elbow so she could sit up in the muck. “Thanks, china,” she said, sounding breathless. She was soaked through and already shivering madly. Beneath her palm, Nadine could feel a rise of goosebumps. Chloe looked around, squinting in the gloom, then peered up at the high-above hole from which they’d fallen, the daylight weak and swirling with dust motes. She whistled lowly. “Goddamn. Now that was a fall. You alright?”

Nadine took a moment to catalogue her own injuries. Her hands were feeling better now, though still tingling now and then, and her head was throbbing fiercely where she'd hit the rock. She was soaked as Chloe, but hadn’t started to shiver yet. They’d need to get out of this foul water, the sooner the better.

“Ja.” She looked up. They’d fallen almost twenty feet. “Think that was a trap?”

“Nah,” said Chloe. “We’re just unlucky, and that house is ancient. Let me see.”

Nadine handed the envelope over. Chloe opened it and frowned, biting her lip. Inside was four or five scraps of paper. She shook her head. “Shit. I can’t read it. Must be pirate code. Looks like a letter, maybe. Hopefully it’s what we were looking for.” She tucked it into her belt bag and let out a short breath. “So. Any ideas how to get out of here?”

“Follow the water,” Nadine decided. Maybe Misson didn’t know there was a fetid cave under his house, but she doubted there was no way out. She stood, hating the way her cold pants clung to her thighs, water up to her shins and in her boots, and helped Chloe slosh toward what she hoped was an opening back into the jungle.

Thankfully, it was. The second they stepped back into the sunlight, they began to steam from the humidity. So, at least they wouldn’t freeze.

“Er, Nadine?” said Chloe, sounding strangely tentative. “Everything alright, love?”

Nadine grunted an affirmative, and then realized with a start that she had yet to remove her hand from Chloe’s arm, and felt suddenly self-conscious. It occurred to her, dimly, that she was purposefully touching Chloe—not to barrel her out of danger, or to haul her up a cliff—but simply as a means of comfort. She hadn’t done that since India, maybe. The thought nearly made her panic. She was too close. She needed that distance back, now. Quickly, she pulled away—or, tried to.

Her hand didn’t move.

Somehow, though Nadine’s brain was giving the command to her fingers to let go of Chloe’s arm, they weren’t budging. Which… what?

“The hell?” Nadine muttered, and tried again, flexing her arm and jerking her elbow back with the effort. Chloe’s arm jerked with her, and she gave an affronted, “Hey!” They both went still, confused. Oddly enough, it was as though Nadine’s palm was covered in invisible glue.

“I can’t let go,” Nadine said calmly, forcing herself to think rationally.

“Really?” said Chloe, sounding intrigued—it would only occur to Nadine later that Chloe instantly believed her. “Let me try.” With her right hand, she attempted to gently pry Nadine’s grip from her arm. When that didn’t work, she tried a bit harder. Nadine could feel the prick of her blunt fingernails, and the pressure as she tried to move her, but her hand, otherwise, did not budge.

They went still again, as though unsure of what to do next. Nadine bolstered herself and stepped closer, so she had better leverage, and braced her free left hand on the wrist of Chloe’s captured arm, to hold her stable. “Tell me if I hurt you.” She widened her stance slightly, and then yanked

—and almost yelped as her stuck hand released immediately, making her stumble backwards a step. She turned her hand, palm up, and they both stared at it. It looked no different than usual.

“That was weird,” Chloe chuckled.

“Ja,” replied Nadine, feeling shaky but relieved. That could’ve gone very badly.

“Well, since that’s out of the way,” said Chloe lightly, “let’s say we find the jeep now, hm? Maybe some cell service, too.” She grinned at Nadine, then looked about to get her bearings, started forward—and stopped short.

Oh, Jesus. Now Nadine’s other hand, the one she’d used to brace herself on Chloe’s wrist, was fastened to her partner. A spark of panic lit in Nadine’s chest, and a cold sweat began to form down her spine.

“Chloe,” she said, unable to keep the worry from her voice. “What’s going on here?”

“Um,” said Chloe, looking appropriately puzzled but not frightened, which was only slightly comforting. She took Nadine by the wrist and tugged a few times to no success. “Honestly? I haven’t the bloodiest idea.”

“My hand is stuck.” Stuck to you was the unspoken follow up.

“I can see that,” Chloe snickered. “Kind of hard to miss, actually.” Nadine’s temper flared.

“I’m glad you find this so amusing. When we get ambushed by Shoreline and I’m down a hand, you won’t be laughing so much.”

Chloe rolled her eyes. “Pretty sure you being down a hand will just even the playing field for them, love. Give ‘em a fighting chance.”

Frazer.”

Chloe threw her arms up, forcing Nadine’s to flop with her. “What do you want me to say? I can tell you what I think it is, but you’re really not going to like it.”

Again, Nadine attempted to remove her hand from Chloe. Nothing. She calmed her rapid breathing and put her free hand on her hip, trying to calm down. “…Well?” she said at last.

“Okay. Honestly? It’s probably a curse.”

“A…” Nadine was struck by a powerful urge to burst out laughing. At the same time, her stomach cramped with anxiety. “A curse? That’s… That’s goddamn bullshit. Don’t mess with me—”

“Listen,” Chloe interrupted, with such force Nadine’s mouth clapped shut. “I’ve seen some things with Nate, and, and he’s told me things—things that you can’t just explain, alright? El Dorado—I told you about that.” She had. Nadine hadn’t believed a word of it. Savage mutants, cursed by a statue? Right. “And Nepal, and Shambala, and that creepy sap.” Hallucinogens, Nadine had concluded at the time. Now… Now she wasn’t so sure. “So when I say it’s probably a curse, then you know what? It’s probably a curse, and you should be happy this is all we got, because it could’ve been about a hundred times worse than your hand just sticking to me.”

“Right. Sorry for not appreciating this as much as I should be,” Nadine bit out. “I knew this was a bad idea.”

Chloe sighed. “Figures, really. Pirates do love their booby traps.”

“So, what?” said Nadine. “Are you really going to tell me this is some goddamn pirate curse?”

Chloe shrugged, appearing not very concerned this could be the case. Nadine wanted to scream. “You got me. But, I mean, it’s possible. Then again, I don’t know enough about pirates to really say. Sam’s the expert here, remember?”

Sam. Who was on the literal other side of the bay, with Nathan. Because, of course, this would be the fault of a goddamn Drake. When they met back up, Nadine was going to literally kill them. Elena and her unborn child would just have to understand.

What was worse, a part of her believed it. She’d been there, in that pirate ship of Avery’s as it burned and sank beneath the ocean, filled with untold riches. She’d seen the skeletons inside, and known only more and more people would die, doomed to such a fate, trying to claim that tainted treasure. What was that but a curse of its own?

“Maybe there’s a loophole or something,” Chloe said, prodding at Nadine’s fingers, splayed on her wrist.

Nadine let out an exasperated breath. Their situation had shortened her patience significantly. “It’s a curse, not a legal clause.”

“Oh, so it is a curse now. Glad we agree. And, please. I’m the queen of loopholes.”

“You mean you’re a cheat.”

Chloe shrugged, unoffended. “Same difference. Here, let’s just try a few things, shall we?”

 

 

They were nothing if not thorough; for the next thirty minutes, they tried everything they could to separate Nadine’s hand from Chloe’s body. While they most definitely did not succeed, they did learn a few choice things.

Boiled down, the ‘curse’—Nadine was still in denial at this point, though she knew she’d have to accept it eventually—meant Nadine needed to have at least one of her hands on Chloe at all times. While she could swap her hands at will—one released as soon as the other landed—the curse did not extend to touching Chloe’s hair (she tried holding the end of Chloe’s ponytail), or her clothes (neither her belt nor the tail of her shirt worked). Not only did Nadine have to physically touch a part of Chloe’s body, it had to be on bare skin; touching her through a layer of clothing, no matter how thin, did not work. Also, once one of Nadine's hands was pressed to Chloe, it could be moved around so long as contact was not entirely lost, such as Nadine sliding her palm from Chloe's elbow down to her wrist, or vice versa.

Quite effectively, and infuriatingly, they were stuck together.

To make it easier for them, Nadine wanted to simply pick a spot on Chloe's body and keep her hand there for the indeterminate future. She picked Chloe’s shoulder—or, as Chloe referred to it, the most boringly neutral part of her body—while Chloe kept insisting they just hold hands. They argued for another ten minutes to decide the best way back to the jeep so entwined. In the end, Nadine kept her grip on Chloe’s wrist and practically pulled her along, stalking through the brush with her lips thinned and one fist clenched, while Chloe laughed and joked the entire way, utterly unfazed.

For Nadine, it was, perhaps, the worst kind of situation imaginable. She had been devout in avoiding contact with her partner for nearly two years. Now, she simply could not stop touching her.

Misson could, in all honesty, go fok himself.

 

 

After calling Nathan and leaving a voicemail, they took a quick moment to re-enter Misson’s house to make sure they’d left nothing behind, cautiously moving through the rooms together, wary of more weak floors. They found nothing that seemed involved with either Misson’s hidden treasure, or the curse that now gripped the two of them. Only an hour in, and Nadine’s head was spinning with Chloe’s proximity. She had not realized how badly she’d missed being so close to her. How much longer would they have to stay like this? She wanted, no, needed it to be over, now.

“Guess this is it,” Chloe lamented, retrieving the ripped, wrinkled envelope of Misson’s she’d stashed in her belt bag. The paper had since dried, the ink smudged but legible enough, but they still could not read the coded message. “Hopefully it’s all Nate needs. And, hey, Sam’s gonna get us out of this mess, alright? Don’t look so worried, china.”

Nadine looked away. Chloe smelled overwhelmingly of rank cave water and musky sweat. It was absurdly appealing. She swallowed thickly. “Unless Victor calls again with more bad news, like seeing Shoreline in the bay.”

“Even if they are here,” Chloe said firmly, “we’ll take care of them. Together.”

Nadine blinked a few times, a lump forming in her throat. “Ja.” She eyed the growing clouds above the jungle canopy. “Let’s go. Looks like it might rain.”

“Well, I’ve got worse news,” Chloe announced ominously. “I think I have to pee.”

Nadine just stared. “Really?”

“Really.”

Afterwards, Chloe stood from the bushes and let out a relieved sigh. “Now, see, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Pointedly facing away from her, hand staunchly set on the curve of Chloe’s shoulder beneath the sleeve of her garish red t-shirt, Nadine was silent, as if self-mortification had rendered her mute. Really, though, she was just furious at the situation itself. The sheer stupidity of it.

“Sure you don’t want a turn, while the humiliation’s fresh?” Chloe asked.

Frazer.”

“Alright, alright!”

They walked, without incident, back to their red 4x4, and drove to their camp from the night before, supplies thankfully untouched by wild animals. The clouds had gotten darker, the sun sinking under the far horizon.

As night fell, Nadine couldn’t find the energy to pick out and name animals for Chloe as they flew or scuttled by, as she’d done the past few nights. Chloe seemed to at least respect her sour mood, and though she couldn’t give her space, was quiet, playing on her phone when she grew bored. They ate without much talking—Nadine propped her MRE on her folded leg and swapped her hands so she could eat with her left and Chloe with her right.

Around 11PM, a soft rain began, so they put the top of the jeep on and—after an awkward pause—got in the back seat together. So far, they’d taken turns with one of them in the back to sleep, while the other sat in the driver’s seat for watch; Nadine had figured they couldn’t be too careful with Shoreline nearby. Still, it’d be too uncomfortable if they did the same tonight, with Nadine’s arm stretched between the front and the back of the jeep, cramped up over the middle console.

Chloe cracked a joke. “I usually don’t do this on the first date.”

Nadine didn’t even deign to scoff at that one, just grunted softly, loosening her fetched gun in its holster at her hip and peering out through the window at the encroaching darkness surrounding them. She had brought it, as she always did, just in case. Now she was glad for her precaution. Chloe had her own as well, a revolver she usually kept at her belt. Otherwise, however, they had no weapons. Against Shoreline, it was better than nothing.

“Get some sleep,” Nadine said.

And Chloe did try; first, she made an attempt half-sitting up, her arms crossed loosely over her front, head sagged forward, Nadine’s hand stuck on her elbow. She woke after twenty minutes complaining of a horrible crick in her neck, and groaned aloud.

“Alright?” asked Nadine, more awake than ever. It’d been almost four hours now since they’d fallen through Misson’s house. She didn’t think she’d ever spent so long touching someone without stopping.

“Has this jeep always been so bloody cramped?” Chloe growled, and curled up on her side with her head propped on the door handle, legs folded to her chest, arse jammed into Nadine’s hip. This time, she lasted only ten minutes before rousing with another grumble, jostling Nadine’s arm again.

“Go to sleep already, Chloe,” Nadine said, not unkindly.

“I’m trying!”

Nadine waited for Chloe to pick another position, tense from their proximity, the musky warmth from their bodies filling the stuffy, closed-in jeep, and stiffened when Chloe grabbed her other hand so she could remove the first from her arm, then turned herself around and plopped her head in Nadine’s lap.

“There,” she said, sounding very satisfied with herself.

Nadine squawked. “You’re on my gun!”

“Oh, whatever.” Chloe snuggled her face into Nadine’s hard thigh and sighed happily. She was still holding Nadine’s hand in hers. Her other hovered from Chloe’s side, to her arm, shoulder, and back, unsure what position would make Chloe the most comfortable.

“Put it wherever you want, I don’t care,” Chloe mumbled, half asleep already.

“Bet you say that to all the boys,” Nadine snarked back, in a rare moment of wit.

Chloe came awake long enough to give a cackling guffaw of laughter. Nadine glanced down at her softening face and felt a powerful urge to touch her on the brow, or the cheek. She kept her hand where it was, in Chloe’s. The other, she draped carefully over Chloe’s side. She felt their fingers interlace, and then Chloe’s go slack as she fell asleep, and stared determinedly out the window, trying very hard not to think about what they would do if this couldn’t be fixed.

 

 

At some point—foolishly—she fell asleep. Chloe, of course, didn’t rise for her turn at watch without Nadine shaking her awake, and when Nadine opened her eyes, it was 7AM the next day, Chloe was snoring softly in her lap, the sun was up and already blazing, and a Shoreline vehicle was barreling straight towards them, engine gunning.

She moved on pure instinct. Swapping the hand still in Chloe’s for one on her bare side, she gripped Chloe by the torso and hauled her bodily into her arms, kicking the door of the 4x4 open and hurtling them both out. A second later she was bolting for cover, Chloe jostled roughly awake, shouting, “What, what, what!

The Shoreline truck—not an APC but still so big it was nearly a tank, emblazoned with the tri-color logo on the side—hit the jeep and knocked it aside like a toy. Engine revving, the truck aimed for them, brush and small trees crackling under its tires. A window opened and a mercenary Nadine didn’t recognize poked his head and arm out. Sharp, popping gunfire snapped in her ears.

“Shit!” Nadine ducked and retreated further into the jungle. The truck couldn’t possibly follow them much deeper without getting stuck. They’d have to exit the vehicle at some point. That’d be her chance.

Chloe finally caught on to their dire situation and cried out, “Put me down!” Nadine obeyed, and Chloe fumbled for her gun, but, of course, she’d left it in the jeep. Nadine snatched hers out and then told Chloe, “Get the extra clips from my pocket.” Chloe obeyed and held them at the ready. This would be tricky. Nadine was technically down a hand, making reloading practically impossible by herself. She’d need Chloe’s help.

They hid behind a thick-trunked tree as the Shoreline truck smashed through the undergrowth before it was forced to skid to a halt. Doors slammed. Nadine heard footsteps and tensed. Crouched beside her, Chloe looked worried but ready.

“Ma’am,” came a gruff voice, confirming her suspicions. Knot. Her former third-in-command. Promoted now, no doubt. She grit her teeth at the thought. “Let’s make this easy, eh? Come out. Bring your pretty friend with you, and we’ll make sure it goes quick. Bullet to the head for each of you.”

Nadine saw red. This was it—her revenge, within grasp. Everything she’d buried inside herself since losing Shoreline burst apart at once, filling her with a wild, primal surge of violence. She lunged forward on pure instinct; she’d tear Knot’s throat out, she’d kill him, right there—and then froze when she felt Chloe’s arm jerk under her hand, heard her gasp in surprise. She’d forgotten, in that split second of rage, that they were still connected.

Then it occurred to her—she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t rampage, and murder, and kill like she wanted to, like she needed to. Because Chloe was there. And doing that would put her in serious danger, if not outright kill her. And putting Chloe in harm’s way was the absolute last thing Nadine ever wanted to do.

“Shit,” she hissed again, and shook her head, trying to clear her raging thoughts. She risked a glance out of cover—their jeep was dented, the hood and front bumper crumpled like a tin can, but looked drivable. If they could reach it, she was sure Chloe could get them out and away, fast.

“Back to the jeep?” Chloe guessed, voice low.

“Ja. Get ready to run.”

“More than ready. Shoot that guy, and it’ll just be a bonus.”

Despite herself, Nadine grinned. She waited until Knot and the three other men in the truck had moved away, and then, with Chloe, sprinted out of cover, and, rather than go after the men, went back toward their jeep. When she heard a shout, she whirled and shot several times, but the men were already jumping behind trees or rocks. One fired back. Nadine aimed, fired, and got him in the chest. He went down. She shot at another until her gun clicked, empty.

“Reload!” Nadine yelled, shoving her gun at Chloe, who winced.

"You don’t have to yell,” she said, and slapped a fresh clip into the pistol, which Nadine immediately took from her and began to fire once again. “I can shoot too, you know! And I’ve got both hands free!”

“No,” said Nadine, as they barreled toward the 4x4, heads down, firing every few moments behind them, “you’re going to drive.”

And then the jeep exploded.

They skidded to a halt. A fifth man emerged from the Shoreline truck with a grenade launcher.

“Oh, come on!” shouted Chloe.

“Run!” said Nadine.

Together, they sprinted past their smoldering jeep—nothing inside it had been irreplaceable, really, and Chloe still had Misson’s letter in her belt bag—and headed back into the jungle. The terrain was flatter here, and Nadine felt the back of her neck prickle as the Shoreline vehicle spun and roared after them. Still running, she jerked around to fire off a few more shots.

“Problem!” yelled Chloe. Nadine whipped back and gasped.

They were headed straight for a cliff. Well, it was more of a muddy slope than an actual drop-off, and, after a split second of hesitation, both of them decided to take it the chance. Without even looking at each other in askance, they leapt off together, and landed hard on their backs in the muck, sliding with increasing speed through the wet mess, deeper into the heart of the jungle. Branches and vines slapped their faces. Nadine’s arm wrenched around when she struck a rock and rolled, her hand still fastened to Chloe’s wrist. They twisted and tumbled over each other all the way to the bottom.

Nadine landed chest-first into a mound of mud and rocks and buzzing flies. Chloe oofed and hit just beside her on her back with an audible squelch of wet, sticking muck. They kept still for a second, as if gauging whether they were still alive or not, then slowly sat up. Nadine could hear, faintly, as the Shoreline truck lingered at the clifftop high above before revving off, unable to follow.

She looked down. She was absolutely covered in filth. Her shirt was ripped and plastered to her torso with stinking mud. It was, quite literally, everywhere. It was even in her ears. Beside her, Chloe was no better, mud caked almost all the way up her thighs and back, splattered across the front of her shirt and neck, her dark hair gone wet and heavy with it.

“Well,” said Chloe, sounding extraordinarily upbeat for what had just occurred. “That was exciting.”

Nadine spat out a rancid mouthful of bitter dirt. “Not sure I’d call it that, Frazer.”

“We’re alive, aren’t we?”

They stood, shakily. They were unspeakably filthy. They’d already gone four days without running water, and now this… Nadine ached for a real shower so badly it physically hurt. She imagined how they could manage it now, and pictured Chloe standing outside the opaque curtain with a wicked grin on her face as Nadine stood under the hot spray, and almost groaned aloud in mortification.

"Let’s follow the stream,” Chloe suggested. “Maybe we can find somewhere to wash up.”

Nadine hesitated. “We should keep moving toward the bay. They might come back.”

“I’m not walking all the way back to town like this. It’s going to chafe.”

It probably would. And the smell… “Fine.”

Not far from where they’d landed, they discovered a drizzling waterfall taller than either of them, spattering down on flat, smooth rocks. It wasn’t a hot shower, but it would do. Chloe practically dragged Nadine to it, so eager to get clean, kicking off her shoes as she went. Nadine took the time to unlace her own boots as well, the rocks chill and slippery beneath her bare feet. She noticed Chloe trying to undo her hair and untuck her shirt, and shifted her hand higher to try and make it easier.

“Thanks,” Chloe said, and then pulled her shirt over her head in a flash. Nadine blanched at the sudden sight of her naked skin, and then again when she realized she had to move to free Chloe’s shirt the rest of the way.

Shit. “Do—”

“I need both hands,” Chloe said flippantly, as though this wasn’t strange, her getting naked with Nadine trapped right there next to her, touching her. Because, surely, that was what Chloe was planning to do—get naked. Quickly, Nadine pressed her other hand to Chloe’s bare shoulderblade, and tried not to watch as Chloe undid her belt and then shimmied her way out of her muddy jeans before tossing them, with her shirt, into a good-sized pool of water formed in the rocks. She bent over—Nadine did not look at her arse—and rinsed them quickly, the water turning alarmingly dirty, and then wrung them out and hung them on a nearby branch to dry in the sunlight.

My turn now? died on Nadine’s tongue as Chloe reached behind herself and unhooked her bra with a quick, casual motion. She caught a flash of breasts paler than the rest of her and dark pink nipples before snapping her eyes down, to their feet. Jesus. Her heart thumped in her ears. Despite the cold water, her hand on Chloe’s back felt abnormally warm. Though they’d shared plenty of rooms in the past and gotten dressed together anytime they were in a hurry, she’d never seen Chloe’s breasts before.

And then, because that wasn’t bad enough, Chloe hooked her thumbs into her underwear, the thin cloth already turned translucent in the waterfall’s fine spray, and started to drag them down her hips. Nadine could not stop her hand from clenching suddenly, and Chloe looked up at her in question, her panties caught down around her knees. Her pubic hair was jet black and neatly trimmed.

“Can’t you keep those on?” Nadine asked in a slightly strangled voice. She very determinedly stared at the empty space behind Chloe’s left ear.

“Love,” Chloe chided, bending down again and pulling her underwear the rest of the way off, bumping Nadine’s knee with her elbow as she stepped out of them, “when I say I’m getting all the mud out, I’m getting all the mud out.”

Chloe tossed her bra and underwear in a fresh pool of water, rinsed them, and hung them to dry. Then, completely naked, Nadine’s hand still helplessly attached to her shoulderblade, she ducked under one of the thicker falling streams. The water was beyond frigid. Nadine sucked in a sharp breath at the feel of it, caught partways in the splash, while Chloe nearly shrieked, visibly forcing herself not to bolt back out. She scrubbed her hands over her face and through her hair until they stopped coming away muddy, and then worked her way down. Nadine, though incredibly tense, tried to keep her grasp accommodating so she didn’t get too much in the way while keeping her eyes (mostly) averted. This was, probably, ten times worse than how she’d imagined it.

“Your turn,” Chloe said cheerily a few minutes later, when she’d deemed herself suitably clean.

"I’m fine,” Nadine grunted.

Chloe grinned at her and twisted her wet hair over her shoulder. She didn’t seem the slightly bit concerned with her nudity. “Liar.”

Nadine continued to glare off into the jungle. “Put your clothes back on already, Frazer.”

“Still with the last names, then? You must be really mad.” She chuckled, then said, “You still need to clean up, and if I get dressed I’ll just get wet all over again.”

Nadine tensed, expecting a dirty joke.

“Hurry up, I’m bloody freezing!” Chloe said, shifting from one foot to the other. She was covered in goosebumps, Nadine noticed, and her nipples were pebbled and hard—

“Fine,” she snapped. She untucked her shirt from her belt, then pulled her free arm through and down, gathered the material up at her neck, and switched hands on Chloe’s back to shuck it off the rest of the way, leaving herself in a tight black sports bra. Christ, even that had mud on it.

“Need help?” Chloe asked, very unhelpfully.

No.” Nadine unbuckled, undid, and worked her trousers down with one hand, pulling down one side, then the other. She kept her underwear on, opting instead to soak them through while still wearing them. Chloe had the gall to actually look disappointed at that. When they went under the water again, Chloe let out a short, muted squeal at the temperature. Shivering madly, Nadine cleaned herself as quickly as possible, so cold all of her muscles tensed at once. Wiping her face, she looked up to find Chloe unabashedly watching her.

“You’re staring,” she grunted.

“I am,” Chloe readily agreed, sounding as though she hadn’t an ounce of shame for it. Of course.

Trying her best to ignore her, Nadine moved down her body, washing the mud from her arms, torso, and thighs. When she reached her calves, she swapped the hand on Chloe’s shoulderblade for one on her brown calf so she could bend down. Focused on her task, she didn’t realize the unfortunate position she’d fallen into until she looked up just as Chloe peered down, and they simultaneously froze—Nadine, still in bra and underwear, the material gone dark and shiny under the waterfall’s spray, was now kneeling before a very wet, very naked Chloe.

A hot flush shot through Nadine. She could see everything; not that Chloe was exactly trying to hide herself. Nadine’s hand was still on Chloe’s calf. Beneath her palm, she felt the soft starting prickle of barely-grown leg hair, and the warmth of her flesh against the cold of the water itself. Without soap, they weren’t actually getting clean, and Nadine was sure she smelled as bad or worse than Chloe did, and her palms were itchy now, almost feverishly so, but somehow, all of those things came together in a way that, despite the situation, seemed undeniably erotic.

“Done?” Chloe asked quietly in a breathy voice, as if suddenly embarrassed, though Nadine wasn’t entirely sure why, after everything that’d happened before. Now would be the perfect time for Chloe to break the tension with an off-color joke, but her partner was silent, an odd, arrested look on her face.

“…Ja.” Nadine stood stiffly, shifting her grasp to its usual, safer spot on Chloe’s elbow. She was sure Chloe had noticed her staring, and was glad she hadn’t pointed it out. Working around one another, they redressed in slightly damp clothes and soggy boots with only minor difficulty. “We should get going,” Nadine said, though that was obvious. On foot, it would take all day to walk back to anything approaching civilization, let alone King’s Bay. Chloe, who was checking her phone for damage—it appeared miraculously unscathed—nodded absently.

Two hours into their hike, Nadine heard an engine rev, and shoved Chloe into a bush.

“Hey!” Chloe yelped.

“Shhh.” Nadine peered through the low branches, her entire body poised, gun already in hand—and then let out a relieved breath when she caught sight of the Drake’s blue jeep, spattered with mud and pocked with bullet holes on one side. So, they’d had a run in with Shoreline as well. She waved them down.

Luckily, neither of the brothers chose to comment about Nadine’s hand on Chloe as they climbed into the backseat. Chloe launched into a full-blown reenactment of their discovery of Misson’s house and their run from Shoreline before allowing Nathan to have a turn. Apparently, Shoreline had ambushed the brothers not an hour ago before losing them in the winding jungle. Nadine spent the drive back to the bay glaring out the window, almost wishing Knot and his men would come back, just so she’d have someone to shoot.

 

 

They only made it back to the hotel after sunset. After hours in a cramped jeep and foregoing a dearly-needed, no-doubt awkwardly shared hot shower—Chloe, thankfully, complained only once about that—they met up again in Nathan’s room for a status report. With visible glee, Sam took the crumpled, water-stained envelope from Chloe and began to rifle through it.

“Christ, you go swimming with it? Lemme see. Oh, this is just your standard Libertalia cipher,” he said, after scanning one of the pages. “Just gimme a minute…” He wandered off to the other side of the room to concentrate.

“Hey,” said Nathan, standing by Nadine, who sat with Chloe on the freshly-made bed. She was feeling more tired than usual. Sapped. This curse would be the death of her. “Thanks, really. I couldn’t have done this without you guys.”

Nadine grunted. Chloe sat up.

“So, about my message,” she said brightly.

“Yeah, I think you were cutting out,” said Nathan, looking a bit confused. “What’s going on, exactly?”

Chloe gave a short laugh. “Funny story, actually. Nadine and I are, ah, a little stuck, I guess you could say.”

Nathan grinned at them, unsure. “Okay?”

“Literally.”

The smile dropped off Nathan’s face. “…What?”

Chloe lifted her arm, and Nadine’s hand on her wrist went with it. “Now, when I say literally, mate…”

Nathan’s eyes went wide. He opened his mouth but made no sound.

“Check it out,” broke in Sam, holding the pages from the letter in his hands. “Here’s our map, Nathan. Look at this entry. There’s a little island right off the southern coast. Misson left his hoard there, I know it. Let’s call Victor and your boys and get outta here. Thanks, ladies. The check’ll be in the mail.” He lit a celebratory cigarette, failing to catch the mood. When he saw their faces, he paused. “Jesus. Who died?”

“Uh. What else did the letter say?” Nathan asked him, scratching nervously at the back of his neck.

"I dunno. I mean, I just kinda glanced through it. Didn’t really seem…” He paused again. “Okay, really, what’s going on?”

"Show me the letter,” said Nathan. Sam handed it over, looking at Chloe in askance, who grinned like nothing was wrong.

"We’re stuck,” she said simply.

"O…kay?”

Nathan’s eyes scanned down the pages, lips moving silently to the words. “Alright. So, it’s basically a letter by Misson. It’s kind of like his… eulogy. It says…” He stopped, and then read aloud, translating as he went, “I, Captain James Misson, do write these words on the hour of my death. I shall pass from this world heavy with riches yet cold of heart, alone and afraid. My loved ones are gone—my wife has left and my children condemn me for my greed and lust for gold. I failed those who were precious to me, and did not hold them close and cherish them, as I should have. Foolishly, I believed a hoard of gold and jewels to be my true treasure. And so I ‘curse’,” he paused to use air quotes, something Nadine very much doubted pirates had ever used or could even grasp the concept of, then went on, “whosoever disturbs my lonely rest to such a fate. Let them suffer as I should have suffered, with treasure close at hand, and the beloved presence of their heart ever within reach.” Nathan swallowed audibly and gave a weak smile. “I, uh, think he was trying to be clever, maybe?”

“Clever?” Nadine bit out. Her patience was at an end. She wanted an explanation, now.

"The rest of it is just stuff about where he hid his gold. Sounds like he didn’t want it anymore.” Nathan handed the papers back to Sam, who still looked rather lost.

"Any idea what it means?” asked Chloe.

Nathan seemed to have a hard time looking at them. “Which, ah, which one of you found the letter? Like, who touched it?”

"Nadine did,” said Chloe. “We sort of fell through the floor right after. Not recommended, by the way. Wait, does that mean only she got cursed, and not me? I mean, my hand’s not sticking to things, last I checked.” She reached up and slapped Nathan on the cheek playfully, chuckling when he made a face at her. “See? Curse-free, mate.”

The word, curse, send a frigid tremor of fear down Nadine’s spine. While she’d seen what gold and treasure could do to men, what horrors long-dead pirates could raze on those filled with greed, she’d never once believed it was anything… otherworldly. Not until today. For the first time, she allowed herself to believe it was true—that she had been cursed. The idea was horrific.

“So it is a curse?” Nadine asked, feeling ill. She’d rather get shot. Multiple times, in fact. “A real one?”

“I mean, if I had to guess—”

"Is it a curse, Drake?” Nadine snarled.

"Yes,” said Nathan. “I, uh, I think so.”

Sam looked between the three of them, and then, at last, noticed Nadine’s hand on Chloe’s arm. His jaw dropped. “Get outta here. This is a joke.”

“Well,” Chloe said. “Lucky us, I guess. You boys must be on to something big, if there’s a bonafide pirate curse involved. Though, seems like a lousy one. More of an inconvenience than anything, grabbing whatever’s next to you.”

“That’s—” started Nathan.

“No, dummy,” Sam cut in over his brother. “Weren’t you listening? The curse doesn’t mean your hand gets stuck on random shit. It means whoever got cursed has to grab their ‘treasure’ and not let go.” Even he used the air quotes now, something that again, seemed entirely absurd, given the situation. Nadine’s annoyance flared.

Chloe guffawed. “Oh, so, I’m treasure now?” She winked at Nadine. “How much you think you’ll get for me on the black market?”

“It’s a metaphor,” said Sam, with a tone to suggest Chloe was being stupid. Nadine’s temper mounted even further. “It doesn’t mean gold or jewels, like a normal treasure. It means the person that matters the most to whoever got cursed.”

For a moment, there was utter silence. Then, as one, Sam, Nathan, and Chloe turned to look at Nadine, who fought valiantly to keep her expression cold and blank. Within her, however, raged a storm of emotions—panic, humiliation, fury, fear. The air in the room went still and thick as the obvious sunk in. Nadine’s hand on Chloe’s arm had gone slightly clammy, and when Chloe turned to look at her, her expression incredulous, Nadine found she simply couldn’t meet her eye.

They knew. They knew—the truth she’d been avoiding for two years now, what she’d fought so hard to keep herself from happening. How she felt for Chloe; more than a partner, more than a friend. The physical distance hadn’t mattered. And now, it was out. Nadine had never been more mortified, more angry. She felt set to explode.

Chloe, true to form, burst out laughing. “Right, Sam. Good one.”

Sam ignored Chloe, looking at Nadine with a knowing smirk. “So, Nadine,” he drawled. “You, ah, got something to tell us?”

That was it. Nadine was done playing nice. She jerked up from the bed and swung a smart right hook.

“Yipes!” said Sam, ducking back, Nadine’s knuckles glancing off his chin. “Ow!” He fell backwards, into the coffee table, and Nadine went after him, inadvertently pulling Chloe along with a shrill yelp of surprise.

“Nadine!” she cried sharply.

“Don’t need two hands to strangle you, Drake,” Nadine snarled at Sam, his stomach caught under her knee. She got him by the front of his shirt and set to work throttling him with the neck of it, the fabric creaking audibly under her clenched fingers. “What, don’t have another funny comment? Go on. I’d love to hear it.” Sam gargled something out and tried to knock her back.

“Nadine, love,” said Chloe, sounding concerned but not panicked, “let him go.”

“Come on, Nadine, get off him,” said Nathan, grabbing her by the shoulders. Nadine retaliated on reflex, and released Sam only to seize Nathan by the arm, expertly twisting his wrist into a painful hold, one-handed. “Ahh! Mango!

“Stop, stop, please,” said Chloe, her arms going around Nadine’s torso, fingers digging in to her sides. “We need them, if you want to get out of this, you have to stop, please, Nadine—”

Just like that, the fury seeped away, and Nadine felt ashamed with herself. She let go of Nathan and stepped back, breathing fast. She’d hurt him, and his brother. She was no better than she’d been back then, the last time she’d been in King’s Bay—a machine, a gun for hire. She wanted to bolt, to shout, to fight them all over again—but she couldn’t do any of those things, not with Chloe still attached to her. Emotions surged. Her eyes began to sting, and her throat swelled. She was about to lose it in front of the Drakes, goddammit, she—

Chloe took one look at her face and bulled her into the nearby bathroom. “Just a sec,” she called out to the brothers, and slammed the door shut, so she and Nadine were alone. Then, carefully, she moved closer to Nadine, who hadn’t relaxed the slightest in the last few moments. She did not, Nadine noticed, look at all afraid. It was a meager comfort.

Very slowly, Chloe put her arms around her in a breathtakingly tight embrace, turning and resting her face against Nadine’s shoulder and neck. Their fronts pressed together, chests rising and falling as they breathed. She could feel Chloe’s heart beating, slow and sure. Nadine was used to Chloe’s hasty but heartfelt I-missed-you hugs, but this wasn’t the same. It was something else entirely. It felt insanely good.

Though she was still trembling, she closed her eyes and let herself feel it, appreciate it. Chloe, so close there was almost no space at all between them. After a moment, she put her free arm around Chloe’s shoulders, and held her as well. Gradually, her breathing slowed. Her heart-rate calmed. The fragility within her hardened once more.

“I’m sorry,” Chloe murmured into her ear. “I never should’ve gotten us into this. I should’ve told Nate no. I should’ve known you’d be upset.”

“You just wanted to help your friend,” Nadine protested. Her voice was gruff with emotion.

“Nate’s my friend, but you’re my partner. Nadine, I promise you, we’re gonna figure this out. Shoreline, this curse—everything. Alright?”

It was difficult to believe they could possibly resolve this disaster of a situation, but Nadine found herself nodding. “Ja.” She swallowed a few times to clear her throat, and pulled back slightly. Chloe released her at once.

“You cool?” Chloe asked softly. Nadine took a moment to decide if she really was, and nodded.

They left the bathroom, Nadine’s hand held tightly in Chloe’s. Sam was on the bed, cupping his already-swollen chin in his palm. Nathan was by the window, massaging his arm and wincing.

“So,” said Chloe, matter-of-factly, like they hadn’t just spent the last five minutes holding each other in the bathroom. “How do we break it? The curse?”

“Er,” said Nate, lifting and turning the little bits of paper this way and that. “I… uh, I’m not sure.”

“Well, then,” Chloe said. “Let’s figure it out, shall we?”

 

 

It was past 12AM before they called it a night. Nadine was beyond exhausted. The last twenty-four hours or so were catching up on her with a vengeance—the search for the house, the curse itself, Shoreline’s attack, their panicked run through the jungle. She and Chloe stumbled to their room, where it was mutually decided without speaking that they’d be sharing one of the single beds for tonight. Really, they could push the two together, and sprawl out between them, but Nadine was too tired, and Chloe seemed more than happy to crawl up onto the covers with her, nabbing a pillow for herself and propping herself up with her laptop on her chest.

“Not going to sleep?” Nadine yawned, her body already feeling twice as heavy as before.

“I’ve been known to solve a riddle or two in my day,” said Chloe, winking at her. “Get some rest, china. Like I said; we’re going to crack this.”

Nadine harrumphed and closed her eyes. She told herself she was only going to rest for a bit, but then her head drooped, and she felt her temple touch Chloe’s shoulder. She didn’t have the energy to move away. Chloe smelled warm and musky and sweet. Nadine’s hand, fitted to Chloe’s side, under her shirt, so Chloe could type freely, was warm and tingling pleasantly.

She dozed fitfully until perhaps 2AM, when she heard a soft knock on their room door. Chloe shifted, sighed, and sat up, taking care not to jostle Nadine. Probably, she thought Nadine was out for the night. Too weary to fully rouse, Nadine kept quiet and limp, half-asleep but ears pricked.

“Come in,” Chloe called out softly, and the door creaked open.

“She asleep?” came Nathan’s wary voice at a whisper.

“Think so,” said Chloe, and yawned. There was a soft, raspy sound, like she was rubbing tiredly at her face. “S’been a long day. What’s up? You crack the code?”

There was a pause, and Nadine’s heart dropped in her chest. He hadn’t. Then he said, “Um. Sort of,” and her hopes reignited.

"Sort of?” scoffed Chloe. Nadine heard Nathan come closer. “Look, either you did or you didn’t—”

“No—it—look,” Nathan cut in, speaking fast and flustered. His voice lowered until Nadine had to strain to hear him. “The letter doesn’t say it outright, but some of the other pages hint—”

“Hint what?”

“How to fix it. You…uh…”

Chloe let out an exasperated noise. “Just spit it out already!”

After a moment, Nathan did. “You need to, um, to believe it.”

Chloe went still, as if in disbelief. “…Believe it? Believe what?”

Again, Nathan paused. His discomfort was palpable. “That you’re her, you know. Her treasure, or whatever.”

Another pause. “What’s believing in it got to bloody do with anything?” said Chloe, sounding annoyed and far more skeptical than before. She seemed almost… angry for some reason.

“If—if you don’t believe it, and I mean, really believe it, then she can’t—she can’t let go of you.”

There was a long, incredulous silence.

“Are you bloody serious?” Chloe hissed. Nadine fought not to go stiff where she lay on the bed. She hadn’t heard Chloe so furious in a good while. The last time had been during a job in Bolivia, when their own score had been stolen from right under their noses. They’d gotten it back, eventually, and made a good deal of money on it besides, but still. Chloe had been spitting mad then, like she was now.

“Chloe—” Nathan tried.

“No,” Chloe interrupted, perhaps a little louder than she’d meant. It took conscious effort for Nadine not to jump at her sharp tone. “You go back to your bloody room, and you and your brother read that bloody letter again, and you figure out a bloody way to fix this—a real way—you hear me?”

“A-Alright,” said Nathan, audibly dejected. “Sorry. I… Night.” His footsteps moved toward the door, and he left.

Chloe settled back down grumpily. She clicked around on her laptop with a sulky air for several minutes, then sighed again and clapped it shut, setting it on the nightstand before stretching out beside Nadine. Nadine listened as she toed off her shoes, unbuckled her belt, and shimmied out of her jeans, tossing them to the floor with a thump. When she predictably wriggled under Nadine’s arm and settled up against her side, Nadine didn’t immediately pull away. Once she was sure Chloe was asleep, however—her partner’s body gone slack and soft—she rolled herself to the side as much as she could, her arm stretched out between them.

In the dark, she stared up at the ceiling, and tried to get ahold of herself. She could feel her emotions broiling beneath the surface again—fear, anger, worry—and having Chloe so close made them all ten times worse. Lying here, in this bed with her, was almost unbearable. Her heart was pounding. She was feeling that want again, that rising need.

And that was why this had to end, fast, before she broke, and ruined everything. If, that is, she hadn't ruined it already.

 

 

Chloe was strangely quiet the next morning, to the point that it made Nadine slightly nervous, and then concerned. When she asked if Chloe was alright, her partner said a curt, “Fine,” and flipped her laptop open to continue her research from the night before. Then, after only a minute or two, she said, in a low, firm tone, “I want to take a shower today.”

“Alright,” said Nadine, already dreading it. Still, it was the least she could do for Chloe. Nadine might have been the one cursed, but Chloe was just as trapped as her in it. She thought about what Nathan had said last night—that Chloe needed to believe it, believe she was Nadine’s treasure—and felt simultaneously confused and relieved. Why, exactly, did Chloe not believe it? Then again, if she did, and the curse lifted, could they really continue as they were; strictly professional business partners? The realities of each, the consequences of both, made Nadine sweat. She flipped on the television to try and distract herself with a nature documentary. Of course, the only thing on was a special on ancient shipwrecks. She flipped the television back off and tossed the remote away.

By 10AM, Nadine’s stomach was growling, but she was leery to bother Chloe from her work. They had not moved from the bed at all except to use the bathroom earlier—more annoying than embarrassing, now. As far as she knew, Nathan and his brother were similarly embroiled in their own research. Of the three of them, Nadine hoped a solution could be found. A plausible one, this time.

Chloe’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it and then said, flatly, “Nate and Sam are going to look at some old library in town. They think maybe they can find some stuff about Misson there.”

Nadine nodded. She thought about it a bit, then asked, “Want to go with them?”

“Nah,” said Chloe, and Nadine couldn’t help but wonder if she was still angry with Nathan, somehow. If what he had said last night was true, then their answer seemed rather simple, though impossible to control. Chloe was Nadine’s treasure, and all Chloe had to do was accept that. Was it really so hard? At the same time, the possibility of Chloe acknowledging the truth terrified Nadine. She certainly wouldn’t be the one to bring it up, right now.

Say, Chloe, about what Nathan said last night—yes, I was awake, and I heard everything. You’re my treasure, the most important thing in the world to me, and I want you. Alright?

Right. And then Chloe would believe her, and Nadine’s hand would finally release, and she and Chloe would go on with their happy lives exploring the unknown and discovering lost relics in the name of Ross-Frazer Acquisitions, LLC, as if nothing strange had occurred between them at all.

The waiting was torture. Minutes dragged by. Chloe clicked about on her laptop and didn’t speak. Nadine turned the television back on, desperate for some noise, and then fetched her phone to text with her mother.

Everything’s fine, she lied. Miss your cooking. Here’s a picture from the plane ride in. She wanted, quite suddenly, to write, I'm going to hug you, next time I see you, but didn't. Probably, her mother would think it strange.

Finally, a little before noon, when Chloe had done nothing but work on her laptop and Nadine watched television with barely a dozen words passing between them, Nadine blurted, “Want to go out?”

“Thought you’d never ask, china,” Chloe said blandly, clicking through some backwater website or another.

“I meant right now. To—to the market,” said Nadine, making a leap decision.

Chloe looked up from her screen skeptically. “You actually want to go outside? We are still stuck together, you know.”

“It’s better than sitting in here. Shoreline’s not stupid enough to start a fight in public, eh?”

Chloe leveled her with a considering look. “Are they, though?”

Nadine sighed, leaned her head back against the headboard. She was antsy and tense. Going outside might or might not help, but it was something to do, at least. “Look, I’m just trying to be nice, alright? We’ve been cooped up in here all day. Let’s go find something to eat.”

Chloe, who usually would be the first through the door on any outing, still seemed hesitant. “Well…” she husked in her usual smoky drawl, “suppose it wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

Feeling inordinately pleased, Nadine waited while Chloe put her things away and changed her clothes, trying for a smile when Chloe glanced up at her on the way out the door. They didn’t both have to be miserable about this, Nadine figured. She could try to keep Chloe comfortable.

Outside, it was warm and sunny. The heat was pleasant, and Nadine felt lighter, basking in it, rather than hiding in their dark little room. Chloe winced at the initial brightness, then seemed to relax, and look a bit more like herself than before. Feeling strangely shy, Nadine put her free hand into Chloe’s, so they could walk together.

“You were right,” she said after a moment.

“'Course, love. ...About what?” Chloe asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It is easier. Holding your hand.” At that, Chloe laughed, rough and purring, and Nadine felt a thrill go through her at the sound, at her nearness. They’d been stuck like this for nearly twenty-four hours now, and still, she wasn’t totally used to it. Chloe’s palm was soft yet callused. It felt nice in hers. Like before, Chloe interlaced their fingers, and used her phone to find a café they could walk to.

As they moved along the street, nobody looked at them oddly, or commented about two women holding hands, which was nice. The market was before the café, and Chloe made a detour to look through the scattered wares, steering them down the different lanes of brightly-colored clothing and flashy jewelry, probably looking for another precocious girl like Meenu to take in. The stalls changed to ones filled with fresh fruit, stinking fish, and colorful, pungent spices. The riotous smells only made Nadine hungrier, and she pulled Chloe onwards, promising they could return after.

At the café, they ordered and ate with their chairs closely set, hands settled between them, fingers intertwined. Nadine was ravenous, and ate with relish, then watched as Chloe, who was a more distracted eater than her, nibbled her way through her own lunch. Afterwards, they wandered back through the market as promised. Nadine bought herself an apple, wanting something sweet, then handed it to Chloe and fished her pocketknife out to cut it in half. Chloe helped, then took her piece with an appreciative smile.

“Do you want to go back to the hotel?” she asked Chloe through a tart mouthful. Chloe, looking at her own half-apple thoughtfully, shook her head.

“Let’s sit for a while,” she suggested.

Nadine found a bench in the sunlight and sat down, Chloe beside her, their hands still clasped together. It was nice, Nadine realized, as she ate. To sit here with Chloe, in public, holding hands without a care. It almost felt as if they were together. A romantic couple, here on vacation.

But, no, that was just a dream. This, here and now, was a curse, and soon—she both hoped and dreaded—it would be broken, and then—

A soft weight landed on her left shoulder. Nadine stiffened and stifled a delighted gasp. A beautiful Ring-tailed lemur was inches from her face, peering at her with wide yellow eyes lit by a keen intelligence. After a cursory sniff to her cheek—she flinched in disbelief, something she’d never done, not even with a goddamn gun pointed at her—followed by a quick inspection of her pitiful apple core—not enough to hold its interest—it began to play idly with her hair with long, clawed fingers. She kept very still, unable to keep a marveling grin from creeping onto her face.

“Hi there, bokkie,” she murmured, amazed. The lemur flicked its ears at the sound of her voice and changed its grip on her shoulder, its tiny little fingers and toes clinging to her shirt and shoulder in a way that was almost ticklish. She heard a digital shutter click, and looked over to find Chloe taking a picture of her and the lemur, a broad smile on her face.

"Cute little friend you’ve got there,” Chloe remarked, tucking her phone away. She waved her own half-eaten apple about. “Think he’s hungry?” When the lemur looked over, curious, she handed it to Nadine— “Here, I don’t want that jumping on me” —who fed the lemur with a feeling close to pure joy puddling in her chest.

As soon as the apple was gone—crunched down between sharp white teeth—the lemur played with Nadine’s hair a bit longer before bounding away with a flick of its long, striped tail and disappeared into the crowd. Nadine watched it go forlornly, halfway amazed by what had just happened.

“The look on your face…” Chloe said, grinning at her wickedly.

"Shut up,” said Nadine, with absolutely no heat.

"Well?” said Chloe expectantly, chin propped on her palm like a child ready for a gift.

"Well, what?”

"Aren’t you going to tell me some lemur facts now? Like how they’re not monkeys—or, they are monkeys? I haven't the slightest, really.”

Nadine laughed lowly with her. She felt as if she were glowing. “Maybe later.”

Chloe smirked at her. “I can get on your shoulder and play with your hair, too, you know. Just say the word.”

She laughed again, louder than before, deeper. It felt very, very good. It almost made her forget what they were ignoring, sitting just there, between them on the bench—their hands, and the truth, and the real meaning of treasure.

 

 

Chloe headed straight for the bathroom when they returned to their hotel an hour or so later. Nadine, who had been anticipating this moment with a knotted stomach and an iron will, followed her without protest. Really, it wouldn’t be the most terrible thing, showering with Chloe. She could do this, and not completely fall apart or give in. Even if Chloe knew; knew that she was Nadine’s treasure, that she was her everything, and didn’t fokken believe any of it—

The sudden thought brought her up short, as though momentarily stunned at herself. While she wasn’t angry with Chloe, exactly, she realized that she was mildly annoyed, which in itself was strange, because wouldn’t she rather Chloe didn’t believe it, so they could just keep pretending everything was normal, and nothing would have to change—but no, that would never work, because that meant they’d always be stuck together, like this, with Nadine's hand fused on Chloe's body. Maybe what she really wanted was for Chloe to accept it, to fix this stupid curse, and end them as they were, partners and friends. Either way, things would always be different. She just wasn’t sure by which method she preferred.

The moment the bathroom door closed, a palpable energy filled the cool air in the room, making Nadine’s skin tingle and her palms itch. A hasty wash in a frigid waterfall deep in a tangled, humid jungle would not be anywhere close to this, she realized. Chloe was quiet as she pulled the glossy length of her dark hair over her shoulder and undid her loose braid. Nadine had not noticed how long her hair had gotten over the past few months. It was absurdly beautiful like this, untied. Thick, unruly. Perfectly Chloe. She snapped her eyes away, feeling as though she’d overstepped already, despite having done almost nothing at all, and easily swapped her hands about so Chloe could get undressed. Their movements, by now, were automatic, as if they’d become professionals. Nadine listened to the soft, subtle sounds of their muted breathing and the quiet rasp of clothing against bare skin, and, with great concentration, counted slowly upwards to ten.

Naked, Chloe cleared her throat brusquely and said, without looking at Nadine, “I’ll make this quick,” and then made to get into the glass-walled shower by herself. Something kept Nadine’s feet in place, and Chloe, unable to move much further with the ever-present hand on her elbow, made a surprised sound and looked at her over her bare shoulder in askance. “Nadine?”

Eyes down, Nadine made a decision, and began to undress. Soon, she was in her underwear. After a beat, she removed those, too, and stood naked with Chloe in front of the shower door. She could feel Chloe staring, the weight of her eyes dragging up and down her firm, muscled body, but didn’t attempt to cover herself. Fair was fair, after all.

It was tempting to make a gruff, flippant comment—“You getting in or not, Frazer? Hurry up, already”—but she resisted, reluctant to break the heavy moment. Chloe stared for a while longer, similarly speechless, then opened the shower door and stepped inside. Nadine followed. The space was small, enclosed, intimate, but there was enough room for the two of them to stand without having to touch very much, other than the default hand on Chloe’s elbow.

Chloe started the water and put it to hot. Under the pounding spray, she groaned aloud in a way that made Nadine’s back prickle. Nadine waited her turn—Chloe took her time, turning the water as hot as they could stand it until her skin began to redden and the air filled with billowing steam—then came forward when Chloe shifted away. She tipped her head back under the hot pulse while Chloe washed her long black hair. Jissus, it felt wonderful to be totally clean again. She proffered a cupped palm for Chloe to share the shampoo.

“Need help?” Chloe asked, after giving her a dollop. Her own black hair was streaming with suds and slicked down against her lean shoulders. A sweet, floral scent filled Nadine’s nose, nearly overpowering in its intensity. She felt dizzy. Unconsciously, she stared at Chloe’s breasts for a long moment and then looked away. Probably, she could manage washing her hair with one hand, but…

“Sure,” she agreed quietly, and made an initial pass through her curly locks with her shampooed palm, then swallowed tightly as Chloe stepped closer and began to work both hands across her scalp. It felt ridiculously good. She closed her eyes and hummed in the back of her throat, enjoying the strong-fingered massage. Her hand on Chloe’s elbow jostled from the movement, so she shifted her other to Chloe’s side. Her now free hand, she rested casually on Chloe’s opposite hip, so it wasn’t just dangling there between them. Chloe’s skin was soft and slippery and radiating warmth. Lulled by the heat of the water, the rising fugue of steam around them, and the rhythmic dig and press of Chloe’s fingertips in her hair, Nadine swayed, as if entranced.

A minute or so passed—it felt like forever, and not long at all. With a gentle nudge, Chloe pulled her to the side so they could rinse themselves off, her fingers never stopping as they combed through her wet, bouncy locks. Nadine went as meekly as a kitten, dazed and complacent from the attention.

“Nadine,” she heard, faintly. She opened her eyes and felt an abrupt flash of cold panic at how very close they’d gotten; Chloe’s face was directly in front of her own, her eyes half-lidded, full mouth partly open. She looked sensual and wanton and terribly enticing, water droplets dripping off her chin and down her neck. Her naked body was mere inches from Nadine’s; her soft-looking breasts and pink, erect nipples, beaded with moisture, and below, the sharp swells of her hipbones, her flat stomach, and the dark triangle of her pubic hair, framed by her tapered brown thighs.

On instinct, Nadine flinched away—or, as much as she could with one hand trapped at Chloe’s side—then felt badly for her reaction when Chloe’s face, a second ago open and soft, when blank again, like earlier. Her hands retreated quickly from Nadine’s hair. She felt desolate without them, then chagrined, for her own weakness.

"Sorry,” she said stiffly on reflex.

Chloe shrugged and rinsed her long hair off a second time with an air of forced indifference. Her smooth brown back rippled with hidden strength and gleamed with moisture. “For what, love?”

"For…” Nadine shook her head, hesitated. “For this.” A flick of her head encompassed the shower, and the two of them in it. This, she’d said, when really, she meant, everything. She felt, quite suddenly, exhausted by their situation. “I’m done with pirates.”

A fond chuckle rose from Chloe’s throat. “Me, too,” she agreed, then bit her lip and played with the ends of her wet hair for a moment. “No, you know what, I’m sorry,” she said, abruptly serious. Nadine just stared. “I’m the one who got us into this. And I know this isn’t… I know you don’t like letting people get, um... close.”

It was more than that, and they both knew it, but Nadine did not feel the need to point it out, or try to correct her. She simply nodded, and said, “Ja.” She hoped that would be it.

And it was, for a few moments. But then, in a soft, terribly vulnerable voice she could barely hear over the rush of the shower, Chloe asked, “Is it really that awful?”

“What?” Nadine said.

"Being like this. With me.”

Nadine’s chest went tight. A cold weight grew in her stomach and made the hand trapped on Chloe’s side, pressed flat to the curve of her ribs, clench. Is that what Chloe thought? That Nadine was utterly miserable because of this? That she, what, hated Chloe, and didn’t want to be near her? Then again, based on Nadine’s attitude and behavior so far, how could she not feel that way? No wonder, then, that she didn’t believe the truth.

"No, it’s—” Nadine said quickly, and then stopped herself, before she said the wrong thing. She thought for a moment. “I don’t like letting people close,” she confirmed, repeating Chloe’s previous statement. She swallowed thickly, then added, “But not you. You’re different.”

Chloe made a soft noise and looked away. “Make me feel special, eh, Ross?” She laughed, then, and in that laugh, Nadine could hear her scornful disbelief. Chloe was still in denial. It was slightly infuriating, and also why they were still stuck together, why Nadine literally could not let go of her, even though the evidence of her affection was right in front of them, at that very moment, skin to skin.

"So, why don’t you, then?” Chloe asked suddenly.

"Why don’t I what?” Nadine replied. Her heart had begun to race.

"Touch me. If you don’t mind it, like you said.”

"...Do you want me to?” Nadine found herself asking. The thought made her pause—she had not at all considered such a possibility, that Chloe might want Nadine to touch her as much as Nadine did. It almost didn’t seem real, or plausible. Chloe flirted with her, sure, but she flirted with everyone. And—

"Answer me first,” Chloe demanded firmly.

Nadine paused again, and the dark memory of India, of that horrible storm and their fight, reared its ugly head. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she rasped.

"Hurt me?” Chloe looked at her in utter disbelief, her tone admonishing. “Nadine.”

"I did it before,” Nadine reminded her, and once again felt sick with the phantom memory of punching Chloe hard in the face. The sound and feel of it. Her mouth went sour with shame.

"Before…? You— That was two years ago!” Chloe guffawed. She looked horrified, but not with Nadine, not exactly. “Do you seriously still think about that?”

"You don’t?”

"Of bloody course not!” Chloe shouted, the words ringing off the wet tiles, cutting through the haze of steam. “You… You’re still beating yourself up over it, aren’t you? Christ, china. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Nadine was quiet. She was not quite sure what to say. She simply looked at her partner, powerless in her guilt, blinking fast against the sting of the shower’s sharp spray.

"You’re an idiot,” Chloe said bluntly, though her expression had grown soft. “Nadine Ross,” she said. “I know as well as you that you’d never hurt me, not in a million years. So you stop that, right now. You stop feeling guilty. I’m just a person, and so are you. And people make mistakes. Some more than others,” she added with some chagrin. When she smiled, the kindness in her eyes made Nadine’s fill with sudden tears. “And, you know, it’s okay to want to be close with someone. It doesn’t make you weak, love. It doesn’t.”

How did she know, Nadine wondered, amazed and grateful at once—how had she known Nadine’s precise fears, her stifled insecurities? And how had she known exactly what to say, to allay them? A wave of strength chased the nerves from her veins, and she squared her shoulders and set her jaw.

“Then why don’t you believe it?” she challenged, steeling her voice against the fragility beneath. In her chest, her heart ached fiercely. It hurt, in a way, that Chloe continued to deny what was so obvious. “About being my—my treasure?”

Chloe’s head snapped up, her eyes going wide. Nadine realized she’d just revealed herself, and what she’d overheard Nathan saying the night before, when Chloe thought she was asleep. Chloe’s shocked expression changed to rueful acceptance as she made the correct assumption—that Nadine had been listening all along—and she sighed, closing her eyes with a flutter of dark, dewy lashes. When she spoke, her voice was soft but adamant.

"Because… Because I can’t.” She looked up at Nadine helplessly. “I mean, look at me, china. I’m Chloe Frazer. Thief. Heartbreaker. All around piss-poor role model. Maybe I get the guy or the girl for a day or two, a week if I’m lucky, but they don’t stick around for long, and that’s alright, ‘cause it’s always been that way for me. And you, you’re…” She went quiet, as if at a loss for words. “Look at you. You’re everything I’m not, you know? We—we don’t end up together. It just doesn’t work like that. Not for me. I don’t deserve it.”

Nadine’s jaw hung open, speechless. For a woman who acted as though she had all the confidence in the world—in work, romance, or just life in general—Chloe Frazer seemed, in that moment, remarkably unsure of herself. How could she not think Nadine loved her, treasured her more than anyone or anything? How could she simply not believe it, or think she was worthy of it? It was almost… sad.

"You didn’t answer my question,” Nadine said, and felt a strong shiver race down her spine. Chloe cocked her head at her, and Nadine wanted so badly then to just kiss her. She wondered, and felt another shiver at the thought, if Chloe wanted it, too. “Do you want me to touch you?”

In Chloe’s blue-grey eyes, a dark heat flashed, almost too fast for Nadine to see. Then Chloe looked away and smiled wryly. She was about to lie, Nadine knew at once.

“That’s not—”

Her hand on Chloe’s side clenched again, then slid, with deliberate intent, across the slope of Chloe’s ribs to press directly between her breasts, over her sternum. Beneath her palm, she felt Chloe’s heart start to hammer. Her chest and neck, already flushed pink from the heat of the shower, deepened to a rosy red. With her other hand, Nadine cupped the low rise of Chloe’s hip, fingers squeezing at the firm flesh of her arse.

"Nadine,” Chloe stammered out, breathless. “Ah, I—”

Seizing Chloe’s hip, Nadine dragged her forward with a firm hold and kissed her, hard, with an open mouth. After two years of neglect, of self-denial, she nearly swooned at the feel. Chloe’s fast, staggering breaths warmed her lips as she gasped, in and out, as though shocked by Nadine's sudden boldness—and then her wet arms went around Nadine’s neck and she was not holding back in the least, kissing her back furiously. The feeling of it—her hot, hungry mouth, her darting tongue and wicked lips, the wet length of her overheated body rubbing against Nadine’s own—was maddening. After so long of holding back, of telling herself she didn’t want it, Nadine felt powerful, and free.

Chloe pulled away with audible smack of their lips, her mouth already swollen from their desperate kissing. Her ears had gone red. Her nipples, harder than ever, dug into Nadine’s breasts, catching teasingly against her own as Chloe gulped air frantically. She looked caught somewhere between absolute shock and disbelieving amazement. Her tongue flicked out, lapping water droplets streaming down Nadine’s neck and throat. Nadine sucked in a sharp breath and tried not to laugh when she hit a tender spot or two. Her legs quivered at the feel of a hot, insistent mouth working across her collarbone.

"Chloe,” she said, and immediately the biting mouth left her chest and returned to her lips. They kissed under the shower’s spray, and Nadine tasted the faint mineral tang of the running water, and the muted, earthy flavor of Chloe’s warm mouth. She wanted to know what the rest of her tasted like as well.

It was easy to heft Chloe up and into her arms, elbows bent into a supportive cradle under her arse. Chloe made a frantic sound and kissed her hard and sloppy, tendrils of her long black hair catching at the corners of their mouths. Trying to be careful, Nadine walked them toward the shower wall. Chloe’s back touched the cool glass, and she squealed aloud in a mixture of surprise and delight. Then, out of nowhere, she gripped Chloe by the hair at the back of her neck and wrenched her head away, breaking their kiss with an audible smack.

"If you’re doing this just to try and break that fucking curse—” she snarled.

Nadine blinked up at her, stupefied. She’d kissed Chloe because she wanted to, because she was tired of the lie, of holding back. Because she knew now that Chloe wanted it as well. That it might actually work in releasing them hadn’t occurred to her, at least, not until Chloe pointed it out.

"No,” she said. “No, that’s not—”

"Good,” snapped Chloe, and then wrenched her head forward and attacked her mouth like she was starving. Holding Chloe against the glass, feeling the flex of the other woman’s lean legs wrapped tightly around her waist, Nadine freed an arm—Chloe was pleasantly heavy, but not to the point where she might accidentally drop her—and trailed her fingers down the crease of her arse until she touched hot, swollen flesh and drenched folds. Chloe jerked in her arms and threw her head back with a gasp. Her skull hit the glass behind her so loudly Nadine was sure she’d hurt herself, but when she paused to check on her, the arms threaded around her neck constricted painfully tight, as if in warning.

Don’t stop, they seemed to say.

She didn’t, and searched with her fingertips until she found that dripping wetness again, and sank inside. Chloe moaned in her mouth, and then again after pulling away to gasp for air, her cry reverberating throughout the bathroom as Nadine kissed down her wet, heaving chest. She found a nipple to nudge, bite, and suck, all while her fingers played freely between Chloe’s spread legs. Unable to rut back against her in her position, Chloe dropped her face against the top of Nadine’s head, crying out into her hair. Her body was already tensing up, her quivering insides gripping and clamping on Nadine’s fingers.

“Shit,” Chloe breathed out, her voice weak and ragged. “Shit!

All of Nadine’s focus narrowed to what was happening between Chloe’s slippery thighs. Holding her still against the shower wall, she sunk her first two fingers hard into Chloe’s slick heat, curving them forward against her bumpy front wall—every time, Chloe made a strangled sound and bucked so hard Nadine had to readjust her grip—then splaying her fingers outwards and withdrawing entirely to give Chloe’s throbbing clit a hard swirl before sliding back into the hot give of her opening. Again, and again, inside, and out. She didn’t ever want to stop.

Chloe’s back jolted and the arms around Nadine’s neck seized in place as she came with a loud, throaty cry, completely unabashed in her passion. Nadine slowed, but then Chloe came alive in her arms like a wild thing, an insistent hand digging again into her hair to wrench her head back so Chloe could kiss her. Nadine rammed into her then, harder and harder, with such force Chloe’s entire body jumped with each thrust, her breasts bouncing, legs shaking. Nadine was sure it must hurt, and almost let Chloe go, but then Chloe was clinging to her shoulders with a desperate ferocity, fingernails on the verge of breaking skin, saying, over and over in a shaking voice as she gasped into Nadine’s open mouth, “Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop—

She came a second time, louder than the first, making Nadine’s ears ring with it. She went limp a moment later, her full weight bearing down on Nadine’s one arm as her knees released from around Nadine’s hips, thighs flopping open, her forehead dropping to the crook of Nadine’s neck as she panted for air.

"Jesus,” she gasped out. “Fuck.”

Nadine gave her a moment. Her body was on high alert, a sharp ache pounding between her own legs at what had just occurred, but she certainly wasn’t going to doing something stupid like drop Chloe on the shower floor. “Alright?” she asked in a soft tone.

Chloe swallowed against her shoulder, eyes closed. “Don’t put me down. I literally can’t feel my legs.”

A trickle of pride gave Nadine the strength to heft her a bit higher, so she’d be more comfortable to hold. The sore hand between Chloe’s messy thighs diverted around her waist to help, and for a long while, she simply held her, chest-to-chest, heads leaning against one another's, breathing each other’s air, thumping hearts gradually slowing. Chloe make a weak sound, almost a chuckle, and cupped Nadine’s jaw in her hand.

"If that was all with one hand,” she husked out in a growly purr, “I can’t wait to see what you do with two.” They kissed lazily underneath the shower's cooling spray, and though Nadine was happy—deliriously so—her head spinning and body buzzing, she couldn’t help but notice, and feel simultaneously disappointed and yet grateful, that her hand had not, in all their time in the shower, separated itself from Chloe’s body. They were still cursed, which meant, even now, that Chloe didn’t—

With a harsh sputter, the shower went ice cold for a split second and then turned completely off. A moment later, the light in the room flickered and went dark. They both froze in place, and listened as the hotel went utterly quiet around them. The building had just lost power, Nadine realized. A distant siren began to wail, growing louder and louder.

"Well,” said Chloe, sniffling a bit from the water dripping down her face. “That can’t be good.”

 

 

Chloe’s phone was ringing when they exited the bathroom, hastily dried and dressed. Threading her damp hair through an elastic, Chloe picked it up just as it went silent. Her hand back at its accustomed place on Chloe’s elbow, Nadine dragged her over to the window and pulled down a slat on the blinds to peer outside. There was a commotion going on several streets over. She could see a faint streamer of smoke, and the sirens were louder than ever.

“Seven missed calls from Nate,” Chloe said, and Nadine went tense. Her hand automatically went to her gun, holstered at her hip. Something was definitely going on, and she didn’t like it. Chloe attempted to call Nathan back with no luck. She tried again a second time, failed, then checked her voicemail. There were two messages. Chloe played them on speakerphone.

The first was nothing but scratchy static. The second was not much better, which was strange, because since they’d arrived in King’s Bay, reception had not been a problem; then Nadine remembered with a sickening lurch that Shoreline usually installed antennae with signal blockers for cell phones on most of their trucks. Had the Drakes been ambushed at the library? Maybe Shoreline really was stupid or desperate enough to attack the brothers in broad daylight, and in public, no less.

Nathan’s choppy voice rang out on Chloe’s tinny cell phone speakers. “…had to… …here… …run… …Shoreli… …don’t know where… …left… …careful… …back…” Then the line clicked and went silent.

Nadine shook her head. She wasn’t sure what to make of that message. “What do you suppose he was trying to tell us?”

"Well, they definitely ran into Shoreline,” said Chloe. “But then it sounds like they just… left? Why—?”

"Right,” said Nadine. “That doesn’t make sense. Nathan has Misson’s letter on him, doesn’t he? That’d be all they need to find the treasure. Why didn’t Shoreline try to take it? Nathan probably would’ve handed it over without a fight.”

"You got me. This is more your wheelhouse, love,” said Chloe. “If anyone understands Shoreline, it’s you.”

Nadine frowned, rubbed her free palm over the back of her neck. “I…”

Chloe tried to get the ball rolling. “If Shoreline doesn’t want treasure, if they don’t want money, what do they want?”

Nadine opened her mouth, and then jerked her head up. The answer was suddenly and startlingly clear. “They want respect.” Slowly, she turned to face her partner. “And how do you earn respect?”

Chloe shrugged. “I’d say a good heist, but that’s just me.”

"Alright, but that’s only if you’re a thief, and Shoreline isn’t made up of thieves. They’re trained soldiers, mercenaries. They’re not looking for treasure to earn back their reputation.”

"What d’you mean?” Chloe asked. “What else could they want?”

"There are other ways to build your business back up. To get recruits, and notoriety. Easier ways.”

A horrified look crossed Chloe’s face. “Like, say, killing the infamous Drake brothers, maybe?”

Nadine swallowed thickly. “Ja. Or killing their former leader.”

Chloe’s breath caught in her throat. She forced out a shaky chuckle. “Well. Good thing they don’t know where—”

The windows exploded inward with a surge of shattered brick, breaking glass and roaring fire. Nadine had no time to get out of the way—it was all she could do to snatch Chloe and spin, so her own back took the brunt of the force. They both rocketed off their feet and slammed into one of the beds before tumbling to the debris-scattered floor.

It was dark and silent for a long beat. Then Nadine blinked and came back to herself, face-down on the rug, covered in bits of glass and dust and pulverized brick. She’d been unconscious for an indiscernible amount of time. Probably only seconds, she guessed. Hoped. A wave of searing heat pulsed up her back. Almost a full five seconds later, she realized that it was pain.

A thick, choking black smoke filled the air. She could hear Chloe coughing unstoppably, and felt something shoving at her chest. She’d landed on top of her partner, and had at least protected her from the initial explosion. Chloe shoved her off, then began to hit her on the back. Flames. She was putting out the flames. Nadine was very glad for her tactical clothing, made thicker and tougher than normal cloth.

"Nuh-Nadine,” Chloe got out between bouts of hacking. “Y-your back—oh, J-Jesus. You okay?”

Nadine clenched her teeth and forced herself to move. Her back felt tight and stung furiously with every shift of her body. Tactical clothing could only do so much, and there’d be a few first degree burns to treat later, as well as some gashes from the shards of broken window sent flying by the—the what? RPG? Grenade? She wasn’t sure.

"Shit,” Nadine managed, and stood, Chloe shakily joining her. Her ears were ringing, and a streamer of blood had rolled down her right arm from a cut on her bicep. Chloe was covered in dust and soot but looked otherwise alright.

The windows of their hotel room were gone. Christ, the wall itself was gone. So, RPG. Nadine could see the sky, the surrounding buildings, and even a bit of the jungle in the distance from the gaping hole it had left behind. Faintly, she could hear screaming, and the rattle of gunfire, and a dull roar of Shoreline trucks as they screeched across the market, crashing through tables and stalls without care.

This was it, then. Shoreline’s last stand. They were going to throw everything they had at her; no, at them, because she couldn’t tell Chloe to run, or to hide, or go get help—not that she would, anyways. She was trapped in this building just as much as Nadine. There was a definite possibility that they were going to die together in here.

Not on my watch, Nadine remembered telling Elena. Her resolve strengthened until it was harder than steel. She would get Chloe out of here. No matter what.

"Plan, please!” Chloe yelled. Her phone was still in her hand, trying to call the Drakes.

"We’ve got to get out of the building,” said Nadine. “Where’s your rope?”

"Are we seriously going to climb out—”

"Just get it!”

Chloe cast about, then found the coil under one of the splintered beds. It wouldn’t be enough to get them to ground level, but maybe to another floor below. Nadine ran through several different escape plans in her head, discarding one after the other. There was, essentially, two predictable ways Shoreline would attack. They would either storm the building while Nadine and Chloe were still inside, and eventually overwhelm them enough to enter their room, or they would wait outside until Chloe and Nadine either tried a stairwell or attempted to scale down from the gap in the wall, and pick them off from there. Both options looked bad. Still, it was something Nadine could work with.

"Chloe—” said Nadine aloud, just as another RPG hit the wall of the room next to them. The building shuddered and lurched. Chloe fell over with a shout, yanking Nadine down to one knee. Muffled as though from beneath water, there was a distant, percussive thump. Sprawled on the floor, hair and clothes in utter disarray, Chloe blinked up at her owlishly.

"If that’s what I think it is, we are, as the Americans put it, fucked.”

Nadine dragged Chloe to her feet, slapping her hip to make sure her gun was still holstered and not knocked loose. “What are you on about?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say that sounded a bit like a mining charge.”

"Mining charge?” Nadine parroted. Why would Shoreline use mining charges? Probably the only thing they’d be good for was—

—the decidedly unpredictable third option.

Taking the entire building down.

"Nadine!” Chloe shrieked.

The world shifted and turned. Nadine gasped and pinwheeled her free arm as the floor tilted and groaned like a living thing, shaking beneath her feet so powerfully it made her teeth rattle in her skull. The room leaned one way, then the other. Both she and Chloe fell down and then began to slide, shoes scrabbling uselessly on the ash-flecked rug, covered in shattered concrete and broken brick—straight toward the opening in the wall. Nadine’s heart leapt into her throat; they were seven stories up. If they fell from here, they’d die. With her free hand, she clawed for purchase, and felt several fingernails tear and break.

"Shit! Shit!”

Chloe managed to seize something or other, and arrested their fall for a second or two, but Nadine was heavier, and Chloe, forced to hold both of them up, was only so strong. Her grip failed, and then they were sliding again, Nadine dragging Chloe after her towards a certain death. Her feet hit open air, and then she was dangling from the knees down, right over the edge. Her hips followed. Oh shit

She heard a shuddering crunch, and flicked her eyes upwards to see their hotel building leaning so far forward it’d struck another building beside it, slowly collapsing its great weight onto its smaller neighbor. The hotel stopped falling for a moment, and Nadine felt a blast of relief for that, but by now she was dangling almost entirely free with only her hand stuck on Chloe’s arm keeping her alive—

But then whatever else Chloe had grabbed failed too, and suddenly Nadine had nothing at all holding her up, and she was falling now from seven stories high; she’d killed them, she’d killed them both because of this stupid curse, it should’ve just been her, it—

A jolting snap shot through her body so hard she nearly threw up. It was a faintly familiar sensation, as it'd happened only once before, many years ago—her shoulder had just dislocated. She looked up through the pain, and saw that Chloe had thrown her rope on some jut of rebar, and they were dangling from the very end of her coil, holding each other by the wrist. It wasn’t seven stories anymore, but it was still a perilous height. If they fell...

Drop me! she wanted desperately to scream. Chloe was trying to pull Nadine back up so she could grab the rope as well with her good arm, but she wasn’t strong enough. Already, Chloe's teeth were clenched, expression strained. Veins stood out on her neck. She was holding both of them up with the one hand on her rope. Nadine had no idea how they weren’t already dead.

She looked around frantically for a solution. If Shoreline had another RPG, they were done for. She could hear the hiss and whine of random potshots firing at them, but they sounded wild and poorly aimed—so far. They were a good fifteen feet from the closest window of the building next to them. To reach it, they’d have to get a proper swing, and with the way Chloe was looking, and the numbing throb in Nadine's shoulder, they wouldn’t be able to get even one. Nadine tensed her muscles, prepared to attempt to climb up Chloe’s body to get at the rope, and cried out as her back contracted painfully, her dislocated shoulder grinding bone on bone. Shit. Shit!

"Nadine, hold on!” Chloe shouted in a voice strangled with effort. Nadine tried to keep herself still, to help Chloe by not moving too much, and closed her eyes for a brief moment, trying to figure a way out of this as best she could with a racing, panicked mind.

There was no way Chloe could pull the both of them back up or swing them to safety, not at the angle they were in, and not with the building slowly falling apart on top of them. Nadine could not climb up either. The obvious solution was to have Chloe drop her and save herself, but, of course, Chloe wouldn’t—no, she literally couldn’t, because even if Chloe let go, Nadine would still have her own hand clamped down on her wrist because of that goddamn pirate curse.

Unless—

Unless she made Chloe drop her.

If there was no curse, Chloe would drop her. Not willingly, but because yes, she was strong, and yes, she was a skilled climber, but she was also human, and humans had limits, and this, here and now, was it. If Nadine did nothing, this curse would kill them both. But, if she made this one attempt—

Maybe it would only kill one of them.

"Chloe. Chloe, listen to me—” she began.

Chloe’s eyes were squeezed shut with supreme effort, her face pained, teeth bared like a frightened animal. She rasped in air through her clenched teeth and looked down at her, and Nadine saw it in the flash of panic in her eyes—she knew. She knew what Nadine was about to do.

"No,” Chloe rasped pitifully. “No, Nadine, please—”

"Chloe—”

"Don’t!”

“I have to—”

"You don’t, you don’t, because,” Chloe stopped to take a quick breath, and Nadine could see tears gathering in her eyes, “because if you’re telling me this, that means you think we’re about to die, and we are not gonna die here, we’re not—”

"Chloe, please,” said Nadine. She was begging. She did not care. Her shoulder ached fiercely. Chloe’s hand looked like it was slipping, gone bloody by the burn of her fraying rope.

"No!” shouted Chloe, angry now. She blinked down at her furiously as a bullet whined off a chunk of concrete nearby, and a single tear rolled down her scratched cheek. “Don’t you dare! I won't—I won't believe it!"

"I have to—”

"Stop it!”

"I’m sorry,” said Nadine.

"Nadine! No!”

"I’m sorry, Chloe,” Nadine repeated, and then, with everything in her heart, looked into Chloe’s eyes and said, “I love you.”

And then something miraculous happened.

The faint tingling feeling in her palms disappeared. Her hand, clenched in a death-grip around Chloe’s slender forearm, uncurled, finger by finger, and released. Chloe tried to hold onto Nadine's limp wrist, then strained valiantly at Nadine’s slipping hand, nails digging in so hard they drew blood, but, in the end, as Nadine had known and depended on, could not bear her weight any longer. She let go.

And Nadine fell alone, as Chloe reached for her and screamed.

 

 

For a while, there was nothing but the dark, and Nadine was a part of it. She couldn’t feel her body, couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. At least the pain was gone.

Chloe, she thought distantly, and then had to wait until she remembered exactly who Chloe was; her treasure. Her partner, and friend, who she’d saved. At least, she hoped so. Otherwise, she had died in vain.

Suddenly, someone grabbed her by the shoulders—she had shoulders?—and tried to lift her. Nadine’s head lolled back. She could feel almost nothing—no pain, no warmth. The world around her was blurry and indistinct. She felt as though she were in a terrible dream, swimming slowly toward consciousness.

Someone began to speak. It sounded like Chloe; Chloe, the woman she loved, the woman she’d touched so tenderly and roughly in the shower, the woman who’d kissed and yelled at her and then finally believed her and thereby saved her own life in the process. Nadine had never been more thankful.

Chloe’s voice was soft, and faint, as though she were speaking from far away. Nadine had to concentrate to hear her.

“—believe it, I believe it, okay?” Chloe was saying, in a voice pitched with a frantic edge. “Just get up, get up, Nadine, please, I believe you, no no no—” Something soft pressed against Nadine’s slack lips several times. Chloe, kissing her repeatedly. “Please, Nadine, please, get up.” She began to cry, and coughed several times. Through a swollen throat, Chloe croaked, “You’re my treasure too, you know that? I never said anything because—because I’m a coward, remember? I’m a selfish dickhead.” She sniffled, and Nadine began to drift off into the quiet that followed, but then the hands on her shoulders tightened until they nearly hurt, urging her back towards consciousness. Chloe spoke again, and now her voice was trembling steel. Daring and unafraid. “But you know what else? I’m Chloe fucking Frazer, and I always get what I come for, you hear? I never walk away without getting my score. I’m the thief here, not you. You don’t get to steal this from me. You’re mine. So wake up. Wake up right now. Nadine, wake up!”

Nadine wanted to, more than anything. She tried, fighting against the numbness growing throughout her limbs, but the retreating darkness had returned, fiercer than before, and swallowed her up, and then there was nothing.

 

 

A quiet, high-pitched blipping woke her. It was a struggle to open her eyes. Everything was blurry and her thoughts were murky and slow. Her mouth was dry and tasted foul, like smoke. Her left side was almost unbearably hot, and felt strangely weighed down. Her chest was constricted by a firm pressure, and something was tickling her chin. She kept herself still and calm as she gathered her bearings, blinking rapidly until she could discern she was in what looked to be a hospital room. From the lush jungle visible in the distance through the nearby window, they were still in Madagascar. She looked for a calendar, wondering how long she’d been out, and noticed her room door was ajar, and an empty folding chair was out in the hall. So, she’d had visitors, which was a good sign.

She shifted, expecting her back to sting madly, and was relieved with it only itched furiously. Her clothing had saved her from the worst of the burns. Probably, she was covered in scabs and blisters instead—a good trade-off. Her right arm was in a sling. Her shoulder ached like mad. Broken, possibly, by the look of it, unless they'd slid it properly back into its socket. Her left ankle was similarly bandaged. Not the best combination, she supposed, but she was alive, at least. Everything ached, but she found herself smiling.

Tucked tightly against her left side was Chloe Frazer, hale and whole, for the most part. She was covered in band aids and taped on squares of gauze, a purplish bruise on one cheek and another on her wrist, where Nadine had clung to her as they dangled from the rope. She was fast asleep, breathing slowly and steadily against Nadine’s throat, a lock of soft black hair hanging down over one eye. The pressure on Nadine’s chest was from Chloe’s arm, sprawled out over her torso, clinging to her ugly hospital shirt with a white-knuckled grip, and her knee was hooked across Nadine’s thigh, like a koala bear.

The feeling of it, of her, Chloe, pressed up so close to her body, was the most wonderful sensation Nadine could imagine. She closed her eyes, grateful her partner was alive, and herself, too, so she could enjoy this. Her hands, she noticed at once, were both free, lying limp on the starched white sheets. The curse was gone, and for good—Misson may have had good intentions, but he could still go stuff himself.

She took a long moment to just look at her partner. To memorize her face, and the smell of her hair. She thought of what they’d done in the shower, the heat, the intimacy, and then the terror afterwards, when she’d been so convinced they were going to die, and—

Chloe shifted and yawned suddenly, reaching up to rub at her eyes with the hand draped across Nadine’s side. Nadine winced as her ribs gave a twinge. Chloe started and blinked sleepily up at her. Her eyes went wide.

“You’re awake,” she stage-whispered. “You’re awake!” she repeated, louder. She jerked up and, before Nadine could speak, straddled her hips with her thrown-over leg, jostling them both in the bed. She looked abruptly furious, and Nadine actually quailed. “You—!

"Ow!” said Nadine, when her shoulder jolted painfully.

"Be quiet!” Chloe snapped, not moving from her new seat, looming threateningly over her. Nadine clapped her mouth shut and sunk back into her pillow as far as she could. Chloe snarled at her, “How dare you. You are a selfish dickhead, you bloody know that? I can’t believe you. You are just… Just… Ugh!” She raked a hand through her hair, which was loose and tangled and falling around her shoulders in a thick, beautiful curtain—

"I—” Nadine began, weakly.

Chloe physically seized her by the jaw to stop her from talking. “No! You listen, for once!” When Nadine didn’t protest, she released her and barged on. “I had to watch you fall, you understand? I saw it. You thought you were gonna die, didn’t you? And you did it anyways, too bloody noble, too bloody stupid to think about what it’d do to me, having to see that! I heard when you hit the ground. I… I thought for sure…” Her eyes took on a watery sheen, and Nadine swallowed around a heavy knot in her throat. “I don’t know how, but I climbed back up, and then I got out of the building and—and thank god Nate and Sam showed up, I was a bloody wreck by then, absolutely goddamn useless. I wanted to go find you, but then that idiot with the haircut showed up—” Knot, Nadine supplied mentally “—and he kept yelling at us where is she, where is she, and shooting at us and then—” She laughed suddenly, a hiccupping little chirrup thick with tears. “Would you bloody believe a piece of the building broke off and smashed him flat as a pancake?” Nadine couldn’t, really, but was sure it was true. The wry smile slid from Chloe’s scratched face. She slumped in Nadine’s lap, her head hanging like a mournful child. “We had to get to you, before the rest of the building came down. I don’t know what happened to the rest of Shoreline. Didn’t care, then. I just wanted to find you. And then we did, and you were… I thought for sure you were dead, lying there.” Chloe swallowed her tears back valiantly and took a deep breath. “So we grabbed you, and got you in the jeep, and, and here we are, I guess.”

“…Ja,” croaked Nadine. “Thanks.”

"Don’t you ever,” Chloe growled, “ever, do something like that again, do you hear me, Nadine Ross?”

"M’sorry,” Nadine whispered. It was difficult to speak any louder with Chloe sitting on her like that. It was all she could do to just lie there and cringe, so weak and helpless and yet wanting, most of all, to never move away from her, ever again.

Chloe fixed her with a stern glare. “I mean it. You can’t just tell a girl you love her and then nearly die. It’s the most unromantic thing imaginable. You’re lucky I love you, too, you arsehole.”

Nadine’s breath caught at those little-big words. Her heart squeezed. A gentle smile quirked her chapped lips. “Ja?”

Chloe slid off of her, looking abashed. “We’re both so stupid,” she mumbled. “D’you know how much time we wasted? Two years, I could’ve been getting my brains fucked out in the shower. I hope you’re ready to make this up to me.”

More than ready, Nadine thought, and grinned. “Sure,” she said quietly. “Just give me a bit, eh?”

“Suppose I can wait,” Chloe teased, and then sobered. “I’m still so angry with you,” she said quietly. “I can’t believe you just…” She stopped, as though reigning her temper, then repeated, “I’m still mad, but do you think you could… say it again?”

Nadine didn’t have to ask what she meant. “I love you,” she said softly, with all the feeling she could muster at the moment. It was an admirable amount.

Against her, Chloe gave a little quiver, and smiled radiantly at her. “So,” she said. “Want to know the damage?” Nadine hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. “Alright. You dislocated your shoulder and then broke your arm and your ankle when you fell, so that’ll be a fun recovery. You hit your head, too, so you were pretty concussed for a day or so. It’s been…” she checked her watch, “about three days now.” Nadine gaped, but Chloe just kept on. “Um, what else? You bruised some ribs but didn’t crack any. Add on some burns and cuts all over the back of you—and I like the back of you—and that about wraps it up.”

"Shit,” breathed out Nadine. She wasn’t sure of the last time she’d been so banged up. “How about you,” she asked, adding as an afterthought, “or the Drakes?”

"Bumps and bruises for all of us, surprisingly enough. A few glancing shots, too, but we’ve always been lucky like that.” She settled down with her chin on Nadine’s chest, peering up at her with those warm grey eyes of hers. “Doctor said I have to take good care of you and kiss you all better, just so you know.”

Nadine snorted softly. “Really?”

"Yep. So, c’mere.” She leaned up, slid a palm behind Nadine’s nape and pulled her into a firm kiss. A warm thrill shot through Nadine at the feeling of a warm mouth pressed against hers, and then the teasing stroke of a tongue sneaking inside. To have restrained herself from imagining this, denying herself over and over… It was almost too much, and not enough by far. Her heartrate monitor kicked up a notch, and Chloe parted with a laugh.

"How long am I stuck here, then?” Nadine groaned.

"Oh, now that you’re awake, ‘bout another day or two, maybe. Unless I can sneak you out sooner. I’ll tell you, it gets boring here pretty fast.” She winked. “Want to look at all the pictures I’ve taken so far?”

Nadine shrugged, and then buried a wince as her shoulder and the burns on her back pulled unpleasantly. “Sure.”

Chloe excitedly retrieved her phone, wiggling about on the hospital bed to work it out of the back pocket of her jeans in a way that made Nadine’s blood race. She laid her head next to Nadine’s on the pillow and held her phone in front of them, scrolling through her newest photo album. Of course, half of the pictures were of Nadine, who hadn’t even been aware she was being photographed in most of them. Chloe had a selfie of herself on the beach at Nathan’s before they’d left for Madagascar, with Nadine sitting on the folding chair behind her, face upturned to the sun, eyes closed. She had a picture of Nadine on Victor’s plane, her harsh expression softened by sleep, chin propped on her fist, elbow on the window, hair undone and uncharacteristically messy. There was Nadine in the jeep during the days they’d spent exploring the jungle, grinning broadly after Chloe had told some story or another. There was Nadine and the lemur; she looked like a five year old given a puppy on her birthday, grinning unabashedly up at the animal on the shoulder, its long, ringed tail tangled around her arm.

As Chloe flicked to the next one, the words, Nate, Mate appeared on the screen, and her phone started to buzz.

"Oh,” said Chloe. “Nate’s calling.”

"He’s not just outside?” Nadine asked, surprised.

"Nah, Elena’s about to pop, remember? He went home with Sully a day or two ago.”

Nadine frowned, and cocked her head to the empty chair in the hallway. “Who’s that for, then?”

"Sam. Think he went for a smoke. Poor bloke was worried about you. Said he’d be mad if you went and died without breaking his legs first, like you promised.”

"Right,” Nadine grumbled. “This the same Sam who had a gun to my head a few years ago?” Still, she acknowledged, it’d been kind of him to stay and keep Chloe company, and she appreciated his friendly concern, and that he’d had a part in getting her here, to safety. Maybe she wouldn’t break both his legs. Maybe she’d just break the one. “Well?”

Chloe’s eyes flicked between her ringing phone and Nadine several times. She bit her lip. “I can call him back later.”

Nadine rolled her eyes. “Talk to your friend,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Chloe grinned at her again, apparently delighted by the notion, and surged forward to kiss her once, twice, three times. When she pulled away, Nadine was breathless and flushed. Her heart monitor was blipping rapidly.

"Nate!” Chloe cried into her phone. “How—she what? No!” To Nadine, she hissed excitedly, “Elena had the baby early! I’m an aunt!”

"Congrats,” Nadine replied sincerely. She tried to imagine Chloe with a little bundle in her arms and found she rather liked the image.

"Oh, Nate, you must be bonkers,” laughed Chloe. “She—oh, what, she wants to talk? She’s not still loopy on all those pain meds, right? I—well, alright, if she’s sure.” As she waited for Nathan to hand the phone off, she made a funny face at Nadine, as if in exaggerated anticipation. “Sunshine! How was it? Can you see your feet yet? Skip the gross bits, please. …Really? A girl! Oh, what’d you name her? Oh, Elena, that’s a wonderful name.” To Nadine, she said, “They named her Cassie.”

Cassie. A good name for a girl, Nadine decided.

“I’m so happy for you,” Chloe said, grinning down at Nadine before reaching over to idly play with a curly strand of her hair. “Yeah, I’d love to meet the little tyke once we get back to the states. I can’t wait. Get your rest, love, you’re going to need it. And—oh! …Actually,” she drawled in a sly tone, pausing to wink impishly at Nadine, who blinked back at her, lost. “I’ve got news.” A smug grin spread across Chloe’s face, her warm gaze gone heavy-lidded and teasing, trailing over Nadine’s features. To Elena, she said, “I’ve just started seeing someone. We’re dating, you could say. Uh-huh. Oh, don’t worry, I’ll bring her along when I visit again.” She paused. “Now, at first, she might seem like the strong, silent type, but, you know, she’s turned out a bit clingy. Then again, aren’t they all? Oh, you should’ve seen her, love. She literally couldn’t keep her hands off of me.”

Nadine just threw her head back and laughed.