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and i was running far away (would i run off the world someday?)

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Nico frowns at her reflection in the small, polished silver mirror hung in her cabin, or more accurately, she frowns at the small patches of burnt red skin on her cheeks.
She tentatively pokes the skin just under her cheekbone, hissing the moment her finger makes contact, watching the indent slowly turning from white to the red lobster her cheeks now resembled. Fuck if that hurt.

Then again, if she didn’t want to be sunburned, she should have chosen another career that wasn’t so prone to it. Not that she had exactly chosen to become a pirate queen- not her definition of the job, the credit for that lovely qualification goes to Molly, but Nico liked it enough to use it in her own head- she had just kind of… fell into it.

If running away from her home, stealing a ship and her mother’s staff, allying herself with the ragtag team of her parents’ business partners’ kids and deliberately attacking their parents’ ships could be categorized as falling into something.

(Running away, running towards… same thing, really, if you think about it.)

She sighs, poking her red cheek again, before sucking the pain through her teeth- because, apparently, she had not learnt her lesson the first time, or maybe she’s just a masochist.

She really should steal a better hat- probably something less black and more drapey- but hats that actually manage to shield Nico’s face from the sun also manage to look absolutely ridiculous on her.

And what kind of pirate wears straw hats anyway? Then again, what kind of pirate complains about sunburns?

She lets out another, longer sigh, tying a bandana over her black braids and pushing her bicorn hat- stolen from that annoying navy official that kept following her ship and then vandalized with Alex’s best rendition of a jolly roger on the front- on her head.

She steps outside to the smell of the salty sea air and the sound of about two dozen people commanding a ship.

And yeah, sunburnt or not, on the run or not, she couldn’t live apart from this.

She scans the waters absentmindedly as she walks over the deck, the salt glittering in the harsh sunlight in the usual familiar patterns before a weird glint disturbs it. It looks like a dolphin swimming near the surface, but smaller. Before Nico can take a better look at it though, it disappears.

She shakes her head and continues walking.

She finds Molly dangling from one of the shrouds looking way too much at home with her feet that high off the floor for someone who wasn’t a bird, or an equally feathered thing.

“Anything in sight?” she yells up at her.

Molly doesn’t give her any satisfaction as she swings down Nico’s way without a care or a startle. “Nothing, Nico.”

“Captain.”

“Captain,” Molly amends with a mock bow, reaching for a hat she doesn’t have and bending so low so high off the ground Nico has vertigo for her, but she knows better than to shout for her to be careful- Molly never fell.

She swallows her laughter, falls back in her pretend reprimand. “God, where you raised in a circus?”

Molly laughs and Nico almost cracks.

“Yeah, I was! You knew that already, Nico- captain,” she adds on quickly, cheekily. Nico shakes her head. She’s much too fond of her. She knows it will bring her nothing good, too.

“Where’s your sister?” she asks, changing the subject before she does something stupid like smile in front of her crew.

Molly smiles back as if she knows.

“Bent over a map, of course.”

“Of course,” Nico agrees, her lips betraying that smile despite her will.

She turns on her heels before Molly can start giving her shit about it. She can hear Molly laugh again as she does.

“Captain!” Chase calls for her before she can move much farther, waving a spoon in the air, “You want to try this, believe me.”

Nico rolls her eyes at her boy-man cook. She still brings the spoon to her mouth, though, already in a good mood enough she isn't in need of Chase’s pout to cheer her up.

She reluctantly swallows the red mixture. Her eyes widen.

“This is good!”

Far better than it should be after weeks of being too far from any port to get fresh supplies, Nico doesn’t say. The boy already has a big enough ego without her help. Not that it makes a difference, her small praise making his whole face glow.

“Thank you, captain. Flavour favours the braves,” Chase winks at her, and Nico honestly, truly, doesn’t know how the hell this man-child from London’s posh suburbs had managed to become one of her best friends, and a member of her crew, and of her family.

“That’s…” she frowns as she scans his grin for any tell that he is only joking. She finds none. “That’s really not how it goes.”

Chase frowns back, before nodding with finality. “I’m pretty sure it is.”

“I…” she frowns again, deciding against arguing for a point he’ll never concede, “Am going to check our route.”

Before she can, though, Chase thrusts another food sample into her arms.

“Bring this to Gert.”

She thrusts it back with a roll of her eyes. “Do it yourself, I’m not going to be your cupid.”

“What? Cupid? Nah, I--”

“Spare me,” she says as she turns and leaves the spluttering dumbass- who was, surprisingly, more out of touch with his feelings than Nico was with her own- behind her and climbing the few steps to the helm.

She finds Gert curled over a map with Tandy, arguing as usual about their course. And Nico could read maps, and stars, and charts, but Gert seemed to have a gift for drafting the swiftest ways around the seas.

Now, if what they sought was easy to find on maps, Nico wouldn’t have a headache each day as her two crew members argued against each other. Unfortunately, Nico’s life had stopped being so easy the day she turned sixteen.

She sighs as she hears the last of Gert’s sentence. “We’re headed too down west; we’re going to get—”

“What to the end of the world?” Tandy snarks back, instantly, her eyes almost sparkling with amusement.

“Good news, Gert, that’s exactly where we’re headed.”

“Nico.”

“Captain,” she corrects- as she has corrected Gert every day for over five years.

“Yeah, no dice,” Gert answers- as she has answered every day for over five years.

Nico sighs and rolls her eyes. One day she will find a better cartographer, and one day she will finally demote Gert. She likes to think of that day often. But, until that day…

“So?” she curls her hand around her sword’s hilt, “Are we on the right course?”

Tandy laughs. “Feeling useless in the light of day, captain?”

Nico trips her with her sword scabbard. Then avoids the light dagger Tandy throws her.

(Amateur.)

She’s about to sneak a fist in when Gert steps in between them. “If you mean the course towards a ship that doesn’t exist, then sure.”

Tandy’s face is as plain as always as she observes Gert. It used to unnerve Nico- if she were honest- when she first met Tandy and Ty. Now, it’s as familiar to her as the rolling underneath her feet.

“You don’t believe in the stories about the Dutchman still?” Tandy finally asks her.

Gert eyes narrow. “I believe we’re on a ghost haunt. And the crew isn’t happy about all the other, real ships we’ve let us pass by in the pursuit of your legends.”

“Let me handle the talk of the crew,” Tandy says, her eyes all too dangerous.

“And the crew knows we don’t attack just any ship,” Nico continues, “Besides she shoots light from her fingertips. Her boyfriend disappears in shadows. I have a magic staff. Is ghosts really where you draw the line?” she watches Tandy open her mouth from the corner of her eyes, “Do not say anything about magic staffs or I’ll find myself a new, new quartermaster.”

Tandy’s mouth shuts with a very satisfying clack.

A flash of silver in the water catches Nico’s eyes for the second time that morning, gone so quick she starts to doubt it’s even there. She keeps her eyes on the water as Gert keeps talking, her voice softening towards what Nico has now found herself unable to listen to, pity.

“I’m as upset as you are that we lost Alex but--”

At that, Nico’s eyes flashback to Gert. “We didn’t lose him.”

She doesn’t like that way of phrasing, and Gert knows that, and it irks her all the more.

“He went down,” Gert says using her reasoning voice- Nico hates it when she uses her reasoning voice, “We couldn’t find him, you have to accept he’s go—”

Nico cuts her short before her words could even start to feel tempting. “I still have to try. He’s my quartermaster. My brother.”

And just when Gert seems about to reply with something Nico doesn’t want to hear, Tandy cuts them both off.

“See, now it just seems you don’t want me as a quartermaster anymore.”

And just like that, the bomb is defused.

(Nico’s sometimes in awe of how easy Tandy makes social interactions look.)

“Should I tell her, or will you?” Gert theatre whispers in Nico’s direction.

Nico huffs a laugh despite herself. “Just stay on course, pilot.”

She ignores the chorus of ironic ‘Aye aye, cap’ and walks back into her quarters without offering a reply.

She hears the meowing first before she feels soft fur circling her legs.

Rufus the cat brings good luck, or so Molly says- it rhymes Nico, how can it be a lie if it rhymes? Nico only kept him around for the hunting rats in the galley aspect.

She certainly does not like him.

Rufus paws at her legs and she cracks. She smiles and picks the grumpy black cat in her arms. He looks at her, the crescent moon on his face reminding Nico of better days.

She sighs as she takes off her boots, before laying on her bed. Rufus curls around her arms, purring softly as she strokes his fur. The boat rolls and lulls her into what will soon be sleep- if she lets it. But there’s still maps to be charted, and notes to be filled.

But Nico is tired, and she sleeps.

She wills it to be a dreamless one.

(It doesn’t work.)

**

There’s a woman wearing a dress of black feathers.

There’s a long knife with a golden hilt.

There’s a boy, almost a man.

There's Nico’s shadow growing longer and longer until everything became a pool of darkness and then, there are his screams.

**

Nico wakes in a jolt, sitting up on her bed and almost falling off of it, Rufus making a disgruntled noise as he jumps off her.

She’s so aware of her own frantic breathing that for a moment she doesn’t realize that the shouts had followed her out of her dreams, too.

She tries standing up, but the ship rolls under her sleepy legs, and she falls back into her bed, hitting her head against the stained wood. She curses, finally standing to her feet and finding her boots.

When she steps out of her cabin, it’s hell.

She smells the ozone in the air, so strong she could taste copper in her mouth- though maybe that is her own blood, as she bites on her cheek. The sky is almost black, the only light left in the intermittent flashes of lightning.

She smells sulphur and ashes too, and she knows it is no coincidence that the storm had hit her ship.

She rushes to the ropes tied to the mainmast, throwing one to a panicked Gert.

“Molly!” Gert shouts to her, grabbing Nico by her forearms, her grip almost unbearable, “Nico! Where’s Molly?”

“I’ll look for her,” she shouts back, “You stay here.”

Gert grip doesn’t slacken. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’m not losing another member of our family!” Nico yells, thrusting the rope in Gert’s shaking hands.

Nico makes her way almost blindly, as the rain falls dense all around her. She stumbles over a forgotten bucket and god she will yell at Molly for leaving it there the second she’s safe back in her arms.

“Molly!” she shouts, trying to see anything that resembled the young girl. She’s not losing anyone else. She can’t.

She hears her name shouted back from the heavens. She looks up, the rain falling on her face and into her eyes, making everything into a blur of blacks and greys.

“Molly,” she shouts again, finally locating the girl some feet down from the lookout, but still too many feet into the air.

“Nico! I’m scared!”

It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine. Molly never fell. They had never tested this theory while they faced a storm, though. “It’s alright, just jump. I’ll catch you.”

“I’ll crush you!”

“We’ll be fine. Trust me,” Nico yells, her desperate tears mixing with the rain. She’s not losing anyone else.

She swings around, grabbing Molly’s arm as she fell, using her momentum to bring her back into the ship. Molly is safely there. Nico falling and falling and falling.

And Nico was used to ships that were much lower into the sea, shorter, squarer, she didn’t know how to catch herself while falling off a galleon.

Her last thought before hitting the cold water like a dead weight is to how she did catch Molly, before that too is swallowed by the darkness below.

She tries to fight against the current bringing her down, the problem is, she doesn’t know which way was up and which way was down anymore. She doesn’t know anything other than this darkness and the weight in her lungs like lead. She tries to push upwards, maybe? She doesn’t know.

There’s salt in her eyes, in her nose, in her mouth.

She attempts one last kick, but her legs are lead, her clothes a weight unbearable.

So she lets herself go.

She wonders if this is how she finally reunites with Alex.

**

When Nico wakes up, it’s to the sound of crashing waves, rolling over and under her as she lies on the wet sand, rubbing uncomfortably over her exposed skin. She crushes it beneath her fingers as she stands straight.

She groans, her throat on fire from the saltwater, her stomach the same, and it’s weird realizing that she could have drowned, hadn't she been so lucky. No, that’s not right. She knows she should have drowned.

Why hadn't she drowned?

Her mind is hazy like she had just gone toe to toe with Molly on a drinking game. She thinks she remembers the storm, the waves pulling her under, and a… a something appearing before her just as she had started to slip away, but that’s impossible.

A something pulled you under, not helped you break the surface.

She opens her eyes, regretting it the moment she gets blinded by the sun. She tries again, endlessly grateful when she notices that the sun was past its highest point already.

She already knows her skin probably resembles peppers where her clothes have gone askew, she can feel the tightness in her cheekbones, in her chest, pulled like the skin on a drum.

She almost smiles.

(She doesn’t understand why her body feels more hers when she’s hurting.)

She hopes the others are alright, she doubts anyone else of her friends had been thrown overboard, though, she had seen all of them either tied to the mast or below deck.

She tries opening her eyes again, this time shielding them from the still too white-hot sun and the flickering lights reflected in the shallow waters. She looks around herself, not recognizing the small island she had washed to.

Great.

No human beings in sight, only a few seagulls screeching and contributing to Nico’s headache. Plenty of trees to build a pyre, though she still has to decide whether she’s going to throw herself on it or just use it as a signal.

She does a mental check of her supplies.

She did have her knife, safely strapped to her thigh, and her cutlass too had survived the jump, and her staff… was impossible to lose.

No water, no food, no gun, though- she hadn’t had it on her on board and would have been useless even if she did, with all the water in it after a missed drowning. At least there are trees, and where there were trees, there was water- if you knew how to look.

That’s when Nico’s eyes fall on the seal.

What the fuck was a seal doing so far south? is Nico’s first thought.

Nico’s second thought goes along the lines of, what the hell was a seal doing so far south?

It’s big. Much bigger than any seal Nico ever recalls seeing. Its coat silver and spotted with black spots in places, like an inverted night sky, its eyes two pits of darkness and trained on Nico.

It was destabilising. She had always thought that seals’ eyes were too much like humans, but this seal's are even more so. They glinted with something akin to human intelligence. They feel strange… she shakes the thought away.

Her hand goes to the knife strapped to her thigh automatically, already mapping the fastest way to cut and where before she stops it.

There’s no worse luck than to harm a seal, or so every old sailor from the northern seas had told her. Warned her, she should say.

(They said it boded ill to save a drowning man, too, but Nico was no man, so she supposes that doesn’t truly count.)

She watches as the seal seems to smile, tilting its head, its intelligent eyes fixed on Nico as she carefully steps back and away from the waves splashing at her feet.

Nico may not be an expert marine biologist, but she knew enough about seals to know there were rows of teeth in its mouth and that it was much, much faster than Nico could ever dream to be in the water.

But, for as strange as it seemed- and it was strange, it was fucking weird is what it was- Nico had the uncanny impression that the seal had saved Nico from drowning.

So, she swallows her fear.

She takes a deep breath before bending forward in thanks, head straight and eyes looking forward, bowing to the seal as her elders had once taught her.

The seal honks and Nico’s head snaps back up, finding it much closer than before, sitting on one of the rocks by Nico’s left. Its eyes are still very fixed on Nico’s form, like it was more hawk than seal, after all.

“I’m not sure which is the proper way to thank you,” Nico starts, because she has found after enough years at sea that respect was the way to behave when the sea spoke to her, even when it did so via seal, “But I do thank you for saving my life.”

Each word burns her throat raw, and she wonders how much salt she ingested before she was saved.

The seal just looks at her, but before Nico can feel quite stupid about what she had just said the seal honks again, before bowing her head seemingly mimicking what Nico had done before.

Nico swallows again, her throat already dry from almost drowning only getting even more parched when the seal seems to smile at her again. She’s going mad. Too much sun. Gert was right, she needed a better hat. It’s only when her hands go to adjust it that she fully realizes it’s not there anymore.

(Another piece of Alex lost.)

She doesn’t like the thought, so she tucks it away. The seal is more pressing anyway.

“Do you understand me?”

The seal doesn’t answer her- because it is a seal. And seals can’t talk. No matter how intelligent its eyes may seem, or how it had saved you from drowning.

Until it isn't a seal anymore.

(Here there be monsters, the map had said, and Nico had sailed her way to one of them.)

The seal, the girl, stands there, same curious and intelligent eyes as before but not black anymore instead the deepest blue, like the sea during a tempest, like the deepest waters she had ever seen, and Nico is enthralled. Her hair is long, the colour of the sand beneath Nico’s feet, falling down to her slender back and over her gold tanned chest and, oh.

Oh, okay.

The girl is very naked.

Nico feels her cheeks heat up, then her neck, eyes unable to move from where they fixated on the girl very, very naked chest. She swallows, her eyes snapping back to the girl’s face.

The girl doesn’t seem embarrassed, or self-conscious- not that she should be, Nico thinks, because damn, alright- she just keeps looking at Nico like she was the drop-dead gorgeous girl that had just appeared in front of her naked as the day she was born.

Only that wasn’t right, because she wasn’t truly naked, a silver coat wrapped around her shoulders, shifting and glinting with the waves. It looked like it’d be coarse to the touch, yet soft. Oily, too, if Nico had to guess from past experiences with sealskin. But that’s not just sealskin. It’s something else. Something beautiful.

“You know… it’s quite rude to stare.”

Nico can feel her cheeks turn red, averting her eyes once more. Sailors’ tales mix in Nico’s brain, as she tries to find one that could be applied. She wishes she had paid more attention when her crew members gathered around the fire with their tales.

In her defence, she never had thought she would end up in one of them.

“You’re… you’re the sea,” Nico whispers in awe because there’s nothing else the girl, the woman, could be. The woman- though she doesn’t look much older than Nico herself, then again looks are nothing more than smoke and mirrors when at sea she knows that, too- frowns, lines crossing her brow.

“Yeah, no. Sorry.”

Nico opens her mouth once, twice, before any sound manages to come out. And when it does, it’s chocked out partly for her dry throat and partly for the fact that the woman is still very much nude.

“No?”

“No,” the woman repeats, threading in the water until she stands in front of Nico, feet in the water still, “I’m not the sea.”

The waves don’t still at her feet or curl against her shins, so maybe the woman is telling the truth. Instead, the waves crash over her legs, licking at the hem of her coat- or maybe pelt is more accurate a term.

The woman is only more stunning up close, and Nico finds it suddenly harder to breathe. “Oh. What are you then?”

“I’m not a what. I’m a who.”

Nico’s eyes widen. “Of course, of course! I didn't mean to--”

The woman laughs and Nico stills.

“I’m sorry, but you’re too easy. I’m a selkie.”

Selkie. A sound foreign to Nico’s ears, just like the word is. “You’re far from home,” Nico’s voice betrays her thoughts before she can finish thinking them.

“I’m never far from home as long as I am by the sea.”

“Oh,” Nico swallows, unsure how to continue this conversation with the woman- the selkie- only knowing that she must, “Well, thank you.”

“You said that already.”

“I was thanking the sea. Now I’m thanking you.”

The woman laughs, her head thrown back to reveal a long pale neck, freckles littering her skin where the sun touched the skin most, a few droplets of water clinging to the skin impervious. Nico swallows for different reasons than before.

“You’re very polite, for a human.”

“Nico. My name’s Nico.”

“Nico,” the woman repeats, her throat bobbing up and down with the sound, and her name sounds melodic in her mouth, like the verse of a song, “Pleasure to meet you, Nico.”

Nico doesn’t know what else she’s supposed to do, now. She could ask for her name, but it feels presumptuous to ask for the name of her saviour when it wasn’t freely given. She wishes she knew more stories about selkies.

She offers her hand and hopes it isn't taken as a sign of war for the selkies. The woman takes it in hers- it’s kind of wet, and that was to be expected, but it’s also warmer than she thought it’d be- before bringing it to her lips.

“Karolina.”

Nico ignores the shivers as the girl keeps her eyes trapped in the ocean of her gaze. “Thank you for saving my life, Karolina.”

“Are you very polite or is this the only thing you learnt how to say as a child?”

Nico’s pretty sure the only thing that’s saving her from becoming a red blubbering mess is the fact her skin is already sunburnt to a crisp. She swallows the thick knot she feels in her throat. “I don’t know what else to say.”

“Are you thirsty?” Karolina asks.

Nico really is glad that her red, burnt cheeks can’t muster a blush right now.

“I found freshwater not far away from here,” Karolina continues, her face devoid of pink so Nico is glad to know she’s the only one with her mind in the gutter, “If you think you can walk.”

At the mention of freshwater, Nico’s throat aches like it was suddenly reminded of its dryness. “I can do that.”

“C’ mon then,” Karolina turns on her heels, her feet staying in the shallow waters, “I’m feeling thirsty, too.”

“You drink?”

Karolina barks out a laugh, a silver thing that hangs in the air like a hook bobbing on the ocean’s surface, and Nico suddenly understands why so many fish take the bait, if it’s as taunting, as haunting, as this.

Thankfully Karolina seems more amused with her question than offended. “I mean, I kinda need to.”

“I-- I never saw a seal drink,” is what Nico blurts out next, because she’s oh so fond of digging her grave deeper, “Ignore that, please.”

“Okay. I’m sure you’re much more charming when you haven’t almost drowned,” Karolina says confidentially, all crinkled eyes and hidden laughter.

Nico decides that the best course of action is to nod and let her keep believing she’s capable of smooth-talking beyond the snarky comments she lashes against her enemies.

“Sure.”

They keep walking in silence, she doesn’t know if the woman- Karolina- had noticed the wince that had come with every word, or if she was simply content to walk quietly. Karolina threads in the saltwater, and Nico on the shore, tripping over the sand at times.

She wonders why she’s letting this woman help her. She isn't used to letting people help her. She’s not used to people wanting to help her.

The silence doesn’t feel stifling, or awkward, and that too leaves Nico wondering. Because Karolina feels familiar like they had met once before in a dream- and she definitely looks like someone that belongs in one of Nico’s dreams.

But now that she can actually think better, now that Karolina wasn’t looking at her anymore, now that Nico could ignore the way her breath caught under her eyes…

She supposes the woman could still be a trap from Morgan. Though she did save her from drowning. Though that could also be part of the sea witch’s plan.

She ignores the voice in her head that sounds an awful lot like Chase that she is technically also supposed to be a sea witch.

(She forgets who she’s supposed to be at times.)

(Or maybe it’d be more accurate to say she forgets to pretend to be someone else.)

Karolina leads her to the mouth of a small river that hardly fit the description. Rivulet, Gert would say. The whole thing would feel at home in an old idyllic painting hung in the homes of the people Nico is so fond of robbing.

She looks for singing cherubs for a second before her throat reminds her of her thirst. She’s a bit embarrassed by the way she leaps in the water, kneeling down into small pebbles and taking big gulps of fresh water. And then she hardly has the brainpower to spare for embarrassment, too busy feeling the cool on her skin.

She rubs the salt out of her hair and skin, careful around the patches of dry red skin that she knows from experience will be even more of a pain come morning, raw and itchy under the midday sun.

Karolina looks at her, mostly. Quiet eyes seemingly scanning her.

“Why do you have drawings on your skin?” Karolina asks in the end, her eyes trained on the small black spots dotting her wrist.

Nico tugs down instinctually her sleeve, before sighing and tugging it back up. It’s harmless, after all, her seal curiosity. She frowns at the thought of calling Karolina hers- not in its weirdness but because of how right it feels to do so. She’s truly going mad.

“They’re tattoos,” she says and then, because she’s tremendously curious in a way she never was in her life, she asks- “Don’t you have those in the sea?”

“Not like that.”

“They’re star charts,” Nico explains, pushing her shirt’s sleeves even higher up on her forearm. She feels a bit silly, under Karolina’s attentive stare. Some more when she knows there are people who would kill to see the stars Ty had carefully placed on her skin.

“Why?”

She doesn’t begin to understand why Karolina seems so intrigued by that, she just forces her body not to react under her careful scrutiny. “Why what?”

“Why star charts?”

Nico turns towards the shimmering shifting water again, before she starts rambling about things she shouldn’t want to tell a woman she has just met. And that’s another thing she can’t begin to understand, how Nico knows deep in her bones that she’s safe with her.

(Is it because she saved her? Is it because she’s what the tales of so many sailors are made of?)

“I’m a captain,” and she only barely refrains to control the wince that comes with realizing she had just revealed another important detail, “I know stars.”

(She wonders how much Karolina would believe, a story herself.)

Karolina crinkles her nose- Nico refuses to think the gesture cute. “So much you wanted them on your body?”

“They’re… special stars,” she finishes lamely- and ok Nico really isn’t bringing her top game here.

Karolina nods but doesn’t say anything else.

“What are the tattoos of your people like?” Nico asks as they make their way back, already missing the relief of the cold water against her badly burned skin.

She tells herself she asked out of some sort of sense of equality. She tells herself she asked out of curiosity. She tells herself she didn’t ask out of the sheer need to know everything about this ethereal woman she had just met, because that’d be absurd.

“Blue,” Karolina answer simply.

It surprises Nico enough to make her stop in her tracks. “Uh?”

“We make them from a yellow flower that gives blue dye.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” Karolina smiles, making a sweeping motion towards her body, “Though I don’t have any proof other than my word.”

Nico’s eyes follow the moment until she remembers that the girl is still very much naked. She pretends to be much interested in the small rocks near her feet, hoping once more that her blush wasn’t visible.

She starts walking again, before asking: “What are they like?”

“Spirals. Knots. Lines that flow into each other like rivers into lakes, lakes into other rivers, rivers into the sea.”

Karolina’s voice sounds so fond, so proud, that Nico wishes she could see the art she speaks so softly of.

(She thinks Karolina could sell saltwater to a pirate, with a voice like hers.)

“That sounds nice.”

“It is,” Karolina agrees, her eyes crinkling in a way that makes Nico’s traitorous heart skip a beat involuntarily.

She looks away again.

“So why don’t you have one?”

“It’s a long process. You have to be away from the sea for a long time.”

“And you don’t like that,” Nico deduces easily- she doesn’t even need to look at the way Karolina’s shoulders tense up. She can hear it from her voice.

(Karolina feels so familiar like they’ve met before.)

(But that’s ridiculous and Nico doesn’t believe in those kinds of fairy-tales anyway.)

“No.”

“Why?”

“This is a good place to camp, wouldn’t you say?” Karolina asks, stopping in place.

So there was a limit even to that sunshine smile. “Sure.”

Karolina smiles, tight-lipped. “I’ll go find us something to eat.”

Nico half expects her to turn back into a seal, but she doesn’t. She just watches as Karolina wades in the shallow parts of the shore, still and waiting, before moving lighting fast and throwing a fish on the white sand by Nico’s feet.

Nico watches her work for much longer than she cares to admit, before starting collecting the driftwood lying around the beach. By the time Karolina will come back on dry land, a fire will be burning.

Nico had always been good at fires. She doesn’t need the Staff for it. She never did.

She wonders if she should try it anyway, a spell to summon her friends. Then she thinks of the drop of darkness that comes with it. ‘Not until a hundred spells’, and Nico is so quickly running out of them.

She’s still unsure of the deal she had made, but she can’t bring herself to regret it, not when she can still see so many thin white lines littering her skin.

There will be time, she decides, for her last resort. But not now.

She hadn’t noticed until then, the way the sun had curled all around her, making each shadow longer. Nico used to love pretending to be a giant when she was a kid. And then she had grown up, and she didn’t no longer.

Shadows meant the dark. The dark meant sleep and uncomfortable dreams.

Nico grew up, but she still wishes to be a giant that holds the skies aloft. She wonders how long she can hold them up before it all comes crashing down.

Then again, she’s stranded and separated from her family. Maybe it had all come down already.

Karolina brings back with her five fishes, brandishing them high in victory, just as Nico had started laying some banana leaves she had found on the ground. Not the best insulation against what will be a very cold beach, but beggars can’t be choosers.

They eat quietly and then feed the last of the driftwood to the fire. Nico falls asleep before she can think of how tired she feels.

(She really hopes Karolina isn’t a follower of Le Fay.)

(She would hate to die in her sleep.)

**

The man is laying on the ground this time, his dark skin slick with sweat. He glows almost blue, under the moonlight streaming from the small cell window, and Nico is reminded of when she had fallen for him when they were just children.

She wishes to open her mouth to speak, but the man turns and speaks in her stead. “Where are you?”

And if that hadn't already broken Nico’s heart, the way he turns away from her without another word would have.

**

She wakes up.

There are tears streaking down her face, and she’s never been gladder to be facing away from the fire. She wipes them away with a sigh and rolls onto her back.

At least, she thinks, there are still the stars.

There're always the stars.

“You sleep curled in onto yourself,” Karolina says in lieu of a greeting, her eyes piercing Nico’s own the moment she looks over the fire. Like she was implying more than just an innocent observation on the way Nico slept.

Nico’s left unsure on how to answer, words caught up in her throat under her stare. The fog from sleep certainly doesn’t help on that front either.

“It’s cold,” Nico settles on in the end, “At night.”

Karolina makes a face like she knew Nico had known she had meant to say something more.

“Do you not get cold?” Nico keeps on deflecting.

“Not really.”

Nico’s eyes travel from Karolina’s face to her shoulders, where her pelt had shifted into a hooded cloak, left open on the front. It glimmers in the rising sunlight, silver against Karolina’s golden locks.

She swallows. She has to get used to this girl being naked all the time. “Uh. Right. Guess you don’t.”

“Why are you awake?” Nico asks when Karolina stays quiet.

“It’s so noisy at night. I had forgotten the sound of the leaves. You?”

“I—” Nico’s sure sleep is clouding her mind because for a moment she’s contemplating answering truthfully. “I heard a noise,” she continues, glad for the excuse Karolina had given her.

And Karolina says nothing else after that, so Nico doesn’t either. They just look at the stars, quietly. Eventually, she falls asleep, and no dreams visit her in the night.

(She doesn’t know if the weight on her heart is relief or loss when she doesn’t see Alex again.)

**

When she wakes up in the morning, Karolina is gone.

Nico pretends not to feel the pang in her heart when she notices.

She cannot be that attached to someone she has no reason to trust, apart from having been saved from her. Usually, enemies don’t save you from drowning.

She sighs, as she stands up. She guesses she now has to think about the situation she is in. She can hardly procrastinate anymore. Unfortunately, the situation she is in is fucking poor.

There are only so many options she can choose from, and all of them are risky in different ways.

She could light a beacon, but there are as many foes in these waters as there are friends.

She could also use her staff, which could still not go her way, considering the words she can choose from. She had used up most of the teleportation spells already, and she’s afraid of the vagueness other words might entice. And she doesn’t want…

Stupid.

She’s being stupid.

She sighs.

Better to fend off a few goons or the navy, than to risk further indebtment- to either Karolina or the staff.

So she stands from her makeshift bed in the sand and gets to work.

**

It doesn’t take much for her to wish for her staff against her better judgment.

Nico was a strong fighter, yes, but she wasn’t built for this sort of manual labour. She won’t cut herself, though. She’s going an extra mile to avoid it, actually, had been extra careful as she stacked the wood in on itself.

Karolina hadn’t come back, yet- Nico didn’t even know if she was coming back ever, but she still… she doesn’t want for Karolina to know as of yet, about her staff.

She won’t admit to it out loud, but it had been nice to not be looked at with frightened eyes. Even though Karolina may not look at her like that if she came to know, she too the stuff of myth and legend, but there’s some part of Nico that doesn’t want to risk it.

And, if she were to be honest completely, she doesn’t want to pay the toll to call for it. Not if it wasn’t necessary.

Nico can deal with a few splinters.

“What are you doing?” she hears a voice ask as she lays down the last of the wood, some half an hour later.

She doesn’t turn around; she doesn’t need to. God knows they’re the only ones on this godforsaken island.

She sets down another log, sand flying around with the impact. “Building a pyre.”

“Why?”

“To signal my position,” Nico sighs, wiping the sweat off her forehead with her shirt, before taking it off completely- it wasn’t like Karolina seemed to be bothered by nudity, and she had her undergarments still- “Even though it’s risky.”

“Why?” Karolina asks again, but this time it sounds a bit choked. She doesn’t turn to investigate why too busy kicking the log in place.

“The wrong people could see it,” Nico sucks air through her teeth and she can’t help but wince as she says, “Let’s say I’m not very well loved ‘round these parts.”

“Why?”

“You have many words for someone who lives in the ocean and can’t talk for half the time.”

Karolina sounds amused as she replies. “You have very little for someone who travels by wind.”

That startles a laugh out of Nico’s lips, and she finally turns to her.

She’s almost blinded by Karolina in the sunlight. Her hair glimmering gold, her eyes grey one moment, the deepest blue the next. She swallows quietly and she sees Karolina’s eyes track the movement of her throat.

“Wind? Do you mean by sail?” Nico muses when her brain stopped its rebooting, enjoying the way Karolina’s grin gets bigger and bigger.

“The wind carries the ship, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose,” Nico concedes, “Though it’s hardly only that.”

“There’s more?”

And there they go again, making a conversation into something else. Nico doesn’t know what she’s answering to when she says: “There’s always more when the waves crash against you in a storm.”

Karolina brows furrow, the expression weirdly suiting her face, Nico could notice it if she were to pay attention to the fact- not that she was- but she could notice how Karolina’s lips look like the perfect kind to form a pout. Nico shakes her head to rid it of the inane thought.

“Thrill? Is that your reason?”

“My reason?”

“For being somewhere you aren’t meant to be.”

That stings a bit, Nico’s not going to lie. “And why shouldn’t we be there?”

“I saved you from drowning,” Karolina says matter-of-factly- and Nico has to give it to her, she has a point there- “I believe that’s reason enough not to.”

“Never been too good at doing what people thought I should.”

Karolina laughs, and it seems to Nico that she could mend the skies when they broke in half, rain pouring from the wound. And just like that, they’re back on steady ground. “That I can relate to.”

“Do you sing?” Nico blurts out, her lips moving faster than her brain.

“What?”

“Mermaids sing, in the stories. Do you?”

Karolina lifts only one eyebrow. “Do I look like a mermaid to you?”

“No.”

“Then…”

“You don’t?”

“I do.”

Nico can barely suppress her eye roll.

Karolina smiles then, and it glints something silver and sharp. There’s an edge to it that Nico’s unpleasantly surprised to discover she actually likes.

(She wonders if Karolina knew the effect it had on people.)

(She wonders if she did it on purpose.)

“Do you believe in stories, Nico Minoru?”

It feels like a more than loaded question to Nico’s ears.

She tries her hand at vague mystery as she answers: “Some.”

Most, she doesn’t say, I have no other choice but to believe in.

And Karolina laughs.

“Why?” she finds herself asking in return, her voice tilting on defensive the more Karolina’s laughter hangs around them, “Do you?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because most are just stories. Tall tales.”

“Was I not just a song before you met me?”

And well, shit, that’s a good arguing point, Nico will give it to her. “That doesn’t mean…”

“Stories are powerful, you should know that better than most, Nico Minoru.”

She can’t help the frown that overtakes her features each time Karolina says her surname- something she thought she had left behind her long ago- a surname she shouldn’t know. “How do you—”

“I know who you are, Sea Witch. You’re the captain of the Grimm, you sail under the black, you’re the scourge of the sea,” Karolina says, her tone staying kind even if her words weren’t.

And for the first time since she’s known Karolina, for the first time since she’d been saved by her, Nico feels a spark of anger in her heart.

“Why were you playing coy, then, if you knew who I was?”

“I wanted to see for myself if the talks were true. They say you could freeze a man’s heart in his chest, and that you stole the stars from the night sky to navigate even under the most clouded sky,” Karolina’s eyes fly meaningfully to Nico’s wrist, her voice still so light like any threat she was giving was a children’s game.

She covers it with her sleeve quickly, then her hand. “Tall tales. Lies.”

“They say you’re sailing looking for your heart.”

Alex.

Nico wants to fall to her knees and cry. She doesn’t. She had never been good at being sad. She’s very good at being angry.

“Looking for implies I don’t know exactly where I left it.”

Karolina doesn’t frown, or startle, she just stares at Nico with her big ocean eyes, like she was still a seal- but no, that’s not right, because she’s always a seal. Karolina had done a good job of making Nico forget who she was.

Or maybe Nico had wanted to forget, to be reminded only by the stray glint of something unhuman that shone through the façade at times. Like it did now, as Karolina’s teeth seemed to sharpen under the daylight sun. It would be easier- it is easier- to pretend Nico doesn’t notice it happening, but her heart speeds up tell-tale and she knows Karolina notices that.

“Are you sure? I could tell you how to get there.”

“Don’t,” Nico hisses through her chapped lips, and she wishes again she cut a more menacing figure against the gold of the woman in front of her, “Try to fool me.”

Karolina’s back to smiling like there was nothing wrong in this conversation at all. “I wouldn’t dare.”

“What would you gain?”

“Could I not be doing this out of the goodness of my heart?”

“No.”

“It’s a harsh way to live if you truly believe that.”

“You’re a stranger to a cause you have no business entangling yourself with. Yes, you could say I’m suspicious. With good reason.”

“Let’s say I'm not exactly a stranger to your cause.”

And Nico remembers a flash of silver in the water.

“You were stalking my ship,” she says, and realizes the truth as she does, “That’s why you saved me. That’s why you know of me. You were stalking my ship.”

“I-- not intentionally.”

“How can you stalk a ship unintentionally?”

Karolina’s golden skin turns pink- her cheeks and then her ears, a bit, and Nico knows better by now than to check for the colour further down lest she blushed herself.

“Okay,” Karolina huffs, eyes flying around and yet never settling on Nico’s own, “So I was following you.”

“Why?”

“I just wanted to see if you were all that they said you were.”

“And?”

“And nothing. I was curious.”

Liar, she thinks, but she doesn’t let the accusation fly. “And you wanted to go against Morgan with me. Who did you lose?”

“Nobody. And I didn’t say that.”

“Then what did you say?”

“That I could tell you how to get there.”

“You’re very careful with your words.”

Karolina doesn’t say anything else in answer, just stares Nico down. And Nico doesn’t want to admit, she’s tempted by the offer. Stars and charts are already on her side, but she figures there’s nothing wrong in letting the sea help too.

She doesn’t want to admit how much the way Karolina makes her feel has a bearing on it, either.

“Alright.”

“Alright,” Karolina echoes as she claps her hands together, “Now that that’s settled, do you want to eat?”

**

She’s closing her eyes when she realizes she hadn't lit the pyre. Karolina had swept her mind away from the promise of possible salvation, taunting her with an easy companionship that she’s already afraid she’ll miss.

She lets out a breath.

She’ll do it tomorrow.

**

That night, she wakes up to find Karolina staring at the moon. Again.

Two nights in a row, she thinks, is there a prize to be won? Nico is a pirate, after all, and pirates are after treasure. She finds herself staring at Karolina’s lips, dark against the moonlight. It makes her skin itch to touch.

Nico is a pirate, and yet she finds herself wanting to ask for permission.

“Do you believe?” Karolina asks, without ever turning her eyes away. One of these days Nico will ask her how she always knows when she’s awake. Not tonight, though.

“In what?”

Karolina doesn’t answer, and there’s something about the far off look in her eyes that Nico can’t help but be intrigued by, so she stayed silent in return.

“I used to,” she says in the end and she sighs, the sand shifting under her weight as she turns to Nico and the fire, “I used to have so much faith.”

“And then?”

“And then I found out everything I believed in was a lie.”

“What happened?”

Karolina stays quiet, her eyes going to the skies once again. Nico wonders what the religion of something- someone- who already resembled godhood to humans could be.

“So, do you have faith?”

The question startles her. Not only for the thing asked in itself, but also because Karolina had been so still, Nico had almost forgotten they were talking to begin with. “I don’t know anymore.”

“You either do, or you don’t,” Karolina says, and there’s an edge unseen before in her voice, and she doesn’t know if it’s the illusion of moonlight or if she’s still dreaming half of this exchange, but Karolina seems to shift under her eyes, glowing in silvers.

“Then I suppose I do.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know what will happen once I stop.”

And Nico wonders why she’s being so honest to someone who she had only met a day ago. But maybe that sort of thing didn’t matter when said person had saved her from drowning.

“That seems like a good enough reason to keep believing,” Karolina agrees, and she doesn’t know if it’s all Nico but she almost sounds wistful, “The question is in what?”

“Fate?” Nico says, but it comes out sounding more like a question.

“Sure,” Karolina’s voice is strange, defeated? “That’s as good a thing as another.”

Nico doesn’t know what makes her change the subject then, but if she were in the business of honesty, she’d say it was the sadness behind Karolina’s words.

“Would you sing to me?”

“What?”

“You said you knew how.”

Karolina’s eyes spark in the dark. “Do you want me to serenade you under the stars, Nico Minoru?”

“Oh,” Nico feels her cheek overheat all of the sudden, and yet, “So will you?”

Karolina grins, but it isn’t unkind- it makes Nico want to smile back- she seems to brace herself, a steadying breath making her shoulders go up and down slowly, and when she opens her mouth and starts to sing, Nico thinks she might still be dreaming.

Nico had heard many people sing.

Music was part of the routine on her ship, it timed tasks and it helped with the burden of them, shanties meant to make each voice blend into a roar. And then she had heard many women sing in taverns ballads of love lost to the sea or another’s embrace.

She had never heard anyone sing like Karolina does, though.

Drowning felt close to what she’s feeling now.

It takes her more than a second to school her features back into a semblance of her usual poker face.

**

She lights the pyre as soon as she wakes up.

She doesn’t look at Karolina as she does so, afraid that if she did, she’d forget again- forget her crew, forget Alex, forget herself.

It burns bright and tall, the smoke from the damp wood she chose making it visible even in the earliest light. Nico supposes she should be glad about that. And yet…

She turns to Karolina and her mouth tastes of smoke and ashes.

**

It takes close to four days for the pyre to work.

Nico doesn’t know if she’s glad or not to see the lifeboat bobbing its way to shore one day, as Karolina points it out to her. To get back to normal meant also to leave her behind.

She scrambles to her feet, anyway, kicking sand on the fish cooking on the fire. She doesn’t much care- she was getting tired of smoked fish in any case.

And Nico had never been one for physical contact, but she doesn’t shove Molly away when she launches herself at her, Tandy still busy with bringing the small boat to shore.

“Is everyone else alright?” Nico whispers in her hair, before releasing her as she feels her nod.

“We lost a week worth of eggs out of the hens but otherwise, yes.”

“Then you were fine?”

“Didn’t you hear me? Chase complained about it the whole time. Gert tells me to tell you that if you do this again she will skin you alive, by the way.”

Nico doesn’t have time to roll her eyes at the theatrics before a flick of light appears in the periphery of her field of vision. Nico reacts before thinking it through, her hand grasping the white dagger mere inches away from Karolina’s throat. It starts to turn black just as quickly, darkness always ready to spread from her fingers.

“I really wish you would ask questions before shooting,” Nico says, eyes sharp on Tandy.

“She was too close to your back,” is Tandy nonplussed retort, “And you didn’t seem to care.”

“Maybe because I didn’t have to,” she says, punctuating the words by throwing the now pure black dagger back at her.

“Better safe than sorry.”

And she’s right, Nico knows it, but she can’t help the tinge of irritation at her overprotectiveness or Nico’s own.

Karolina laughs from behind Nico’s shoulders, totally unscathed by the whole exchange.

“So, who’s your friend?” Tandy asks, also too nonplussed, though her hand doesn’t stop twirling the black knife.

Nico tries her best not to flinch at the way Tandy says 'friend'. She knows there’s a few choice words she had omitted, probably something regarding Karolina’s state of nudity.

“This is Karolina. She saved me. She’ll come with us.”

(Nico doesn’t elaborate on the how. She would let Karolina keep her secrets if she so wanted.)

“Hi.”

Molly is the only one to return the wave.

“If you are, still coming?” Nico finds herself asking, pretending the reason she feels unsure waiting for an answer is thief’s honour and debt left unpaid, “I know you said you’d help me, but we never discussed if you’d—”

“I’ll come with you.”

Tandy interrupts before Nico can stumble through random words some more. “Can we trust her?”

That’s a question Nico has been trying to avoid, because, well… she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if she can trust Karolina, but the main problem is that she does trust her. And she doesn’t know if it will be a mistake to do so.

But she’s not Nico now, she’s the captain. And she can’t afford blind trust now as she has done until now, but still…

“Yes.”

She doesn’t bother to watch the reaction of surprise on her friends, stalking away to one of the boats.

Karolina follows. “You didn’t tell them.”

“You can if you want to,” Nico says, suggesting, “You could swim to the ship by yourself. But you saw Tandy. You know about me. They wouldn’t judge you for what you are.”

Karolina just looks at her.

“Or you can take this boat with me if you’re more comfortable that way.”

“Guess we’re one on one, on the whole saving each other thing,” Karolina says instead of answering.

Nico swallows, slowly. “Guess so.”

Karolina stays quiet, and for a split second, Nico is taken with the fear that this will mean she won’t help them anymore.

And when Karolina steps inside the small boat with her, Nico refuses to acknowledge the sense of relief that comes with it, that comes with realizing Karolina will stay in her life for a little while longer. But that’s stupid, and so Nico pushes the boat out and jumps in without a word.

**

She steps into her cabin, shedding her now sun-faded black clothes, relishing in the feel of smooth wood under her fingers, in the familiar scent of salt and wax and the simple soap they had bought from a group of monks at their last port near Panama.

She sighs letting her back hit the heavy door.

She couldn’t crumble before, too busy trying to find a means to survive even with Karolina’s help, and she couldn’t crumble when they had finally reached her, not in front of her crew.

She couldn’t crumble under the notion she had almost died, under the notion that Alex could have waited for Nico for centuries, and she would have never come. That she could have broken her promise.

So she lets her body sink under its weight, curl into itself until it disappears in the folds.

She doesn’t know how long it is until she hears the knock on the door, the vibrations of it against her back. She just knows she had taken too much for herself.

“Nico?” the voice travels muffled into the room, but she can still hear the softness with which Karolina handles her name.

(They had spent less than a week together, and already Karolina knew how to say her name better than Nico herself knew how.)

(She asks herself whether Karolina thinks the same, or if she was just another girl in a fairy-tale enthralled by her.)

“Yeah?”

“May I—” Karolina starts to ask, her mouth freezing in a lovely half-whisper when Nico opens the door.

“Hi,” she says, and she hates how small her voice sounds.

“Hey.”

“You escaped that fast.”

“Sorry, I—I needed to wash the island off my skin.”

Karolina lets the lie be, stepping inside barely brushing past Nico.

There’s too much silence, and Nico doesn’t know how to fill it.

Karolina does it for her.

“It’s a peculiar crew the one you have here.”

“You could say so,” Nico says, “Didn’t notice as you stalked us?”

“I said sorry for that,” Karolina pouts, the expression making her eyes seem even bigger and bluer. Nico can’t help but wonder if she ever got in trouble as a child with that kind of expression.

Nico rolls her eyes, before deciding to let it go- very maturely if she can say so.

“Yeah, we’re a weird bunch. And you didn’t even meet Old Lace yet.”

“Who?”

Nico shakes her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it.”

“So…,” Karolina’s eyes flit away in the room, jumping anywhere that wasn’t Nico’s own, “What exactly is Tandy?”

Nico narrows her eyes.

“Annoying,” she elects to say, tiptoeing away from Karolina’s true meaning, “Also my quartermaster. Hopefully temporary.”

“Yes, but that knife—”

“We all have our secrets,” Nico interrupts, her eyes heavy with meaning as they sell on Karolina’s shoulders.

Karolina turns away then and Nico has to ask before it’s too late. She has never wanted to know something more. There’s never been such a pull before. She had never… magnetic isn’t the right word but it’s as close as the feeling gets.

So she has to ask.

“What’s it like, changing?”

She wishes she could see Karolina’s face as she answers.

“I suppose it must feel a lot like your magic.”

And Nico had never been good at asking, never been good at needing, but… “Like what, then?”

“I don’t know, I never…” Karolina sighs, shoulder slumping against the wooden door as she faces Nico once more, “It feels like a tingle in my body, like shivers. Like I’m giving away part of myself to gain something else back.”

“Sounds like the moment before someone kisses you,” Nico says, before flushing. She hadn't meant to say it out loud. She had meant even less to look at Karolina’s lips as she said it.

(Nico is suddenly very aware of the fact that there are less than five feet between them.)

(She could cross the distance in three steps, she’d reckon.)

It takes all of Nico not to shake Karolina’s shoulders violently, then, not to scream ‘what have you done to me?’ in her face and demand retribution for the weird magic she feels every time they are together.

She’s never wanted to kiss someone more, and she’s never wanted to do it so sharply. Not butterflies and blushes but scorching heat and the violent uneven rhythm of her heart.

She curls her nails into her palm, just enough to leave a red indent, but not break skin. Spilling her own blood hadn’t been a commodity she could afford for so long, that even now the habit carried on.

Blood, sweat, and tears.

She spots her reflection in the mirror and wonders how Karolina could have let her pretend nothing was wrong, with her eyes rimmed red and her cheeks so pale she could almost see under her skin.

(Wonders where her reflection goes when she turns away.)

“Why are you still here?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I owe you a debt still, but you don’t seem too keen on collecting.”

“Were you expecting for me to ask for your firstborn? That’s more your line in the story than mine.”

She can’t help but snort at that, eyes rolling as she once more has to face Karolina’s annoyingly good habit of evading direct questions like it’s her job. This time though, she waits for Karolina to actually answer- or walk out.

“I feel like I need to stay.”

“You feel,” she drawls, an eyebrow curling upwards slowly with the word.

Karolina as always doesn’t back down, just smiles back. “Yes, you know those things… emotions I think they’re called.”

“Smartass,” she says-fondly? Nico should start to think about that- but she lets it go.

The silence that follows should be awkward, but it isn’t- another thing Nico should probably think about.

“Who did you lose?”

Karolina looks away. “I told you. No one. Why are you searching for her?”

“Because she has someone I want back,” Nico answers, shaking her head at her own honesty, “I met her before—” she waves a hand, “All this. And I admit I had trusted her at first. She was… she had many answers. And I wanted those answers.”

“I know what you mean,” Karolina whispers so low Nico almost doesn’t hear her. She decides to let that, too, go without acknowledgement.

“But then I found out she only wanted…” Nico hesitates, and it’s for too long, she knows, but she still wants to keep some secrets, “Something of mine. And so I ran away.”

Karolina’s brow scrunches up at that. “But now you search for her?”

Only because she searches for me, Nico thinks, but also because… “She has something I want.”

“Someone,” Karolina corrects, and then continues before Nico can correct her in return- and, well, not like she was wrong in any case- “And how did this someone get caught up with her?”

“He—” she shakes her head, “He fell and didn’t come back up. I don’t accept that.”

“And what if he’s lost to you? What will you do then?”

“I don’t know,” and having to admit it irks her enough she changes the subject, “Will you need to stay here?”

Karolina for her part, plays along, stance relaxing against the wall with the kind of poise that makes obvious she knows the effect she has on people- and Nico is grateful until she actually speaks. “In your cabin?”

“No!” and she wishes she didn’t blush so easily, she wishes Karolina didn’t know, she wishes for so many things, “No. I meant on the ship.”

“I know.”

“God, I take it back. You can take your pelt and go.”

“Then who would save you from drowning?”

“I won’t jump down a storm any time soon,” she finds herself reassuring Karolina, feeling her cheeks burn in a familiar way she’s come to associate with Karolina.

Karolina laughs as she steps out of the door. “Guess I’ll just have to wait around and see.”

Nico slumps as soon as she’s out of her sight. Suddenly the air isn’t as heavy, her chest expanding easily like a pressure had been taken off. Nico doesn’t like that.

Nico doesn’t like that at all.

**

There’s little free time, even as the captain, on a ship, and Nico had never begrudged it. Until now.

Her days are spent training, and plotting, and supervising.

But the nights, those are hers. And, because she wants to, because she seeks her out night after night, those nights are Karolina’s, too.

Nico would lie if she said it had been casual, to follow her that first night at the ship’s bow. By the way Karolina seemed almost to be expecting her, Nico would bet it hadn't been anything other than carefully planned.

She doesn’t mention it that first night, and she doesn’t mention it any other. She just keeps on meeting her, and meeting her, and meeting her.

They don’t talk about it in the morning. They don’t have the time to, in the mornings.

But the nights are theirs.

If Nico were smarter, she wouldn’t let herself be distracted so. Or maybe even then she wouldn’t be able to deny herself this, not when Karolina makes her so aware of how she’s starving.

And one night, when Nico’s more tired than smart, she asks: “Tell me a story?”

“I thought you didn’t believe in them.”

She leaves her eyes trained on the stars. She’s never been as scared to look into someone’s eyes as Karolina’s. She’s never been so scared to drown. She’s never been so scared to burn.

She swallows. “I don’t.”

“Alright,” Karolina says, “A story about what?”

Nico hadn’t thought that far- she hadn't thought at all. She shrugs. “Something of your people.”

“They’re not happy stories.”

“I’m not a happy person.”

Karolina’s laugh echoes in Nico’s bones. “Okay, but it’s your turn after. A story for a story.”

“Okay.”

Karolina falls quiet and that’s when Nico dares look at her.

Her head tilted to the side and a faraway look in her eyes, her eyelashes so low they brushed over her cheekbones, golden. Her breath itches in her chest, but she can’t look away, and Karolina would catch her easily in her staring if she wasn’t looking at the stars again.

“There once was a man,” Karolina starts, and Nico can’t help but want Karolina to face her, to catch a glimpse of that dreamlike quality her voice evokes painted on her face, “And he was a fisherman.”

“They’re always fishermen.”

Karolina laughs, turning to her, and Nico finds herself trapped under her stare like she always is when their eyes meet. “I thought you wanted to hear a story.”

“I’m sorry. Go on.”

“His name was Sean.”

“It means wise,” Nico interrupts the words out of her mouth without her ever intending to speak.

If Karolina is annoyed by the continuous stops, she doesn’t show it. “You seem like the type.”

“The type?”

“The type of person who knows what names mean, where they come from.”

And Nico is. And Nico does. And Nico finds she doesn’t know what to say at that, so she stays quiet until Karolina continues her story, a smile playing at her lips.

“There once was a man named Sean, and he was a fisherman. Not a very good one, but that’s what his father did, and his father before him, so that’s what he was. One day he went out in his boat, and when he came back, he had a wife with him.”

“A wife?” Nico barely has the presence of mind to say, pulled apart and away by Karolina’s voice. She wonders absentmindedly if it was one of Karolina’s peculiarities as a selkie, or if it was simply just Karolina.

“Yes. Or so he said. No one in town had ever seen her, and she was the type of woman people remembered. Eyes as black as coal, and as big as the ones of a foal. She was beautiful, but she didn’t speak much, didn’t go into town much. Not even when her husband was away.”

“Sounds lonely.”

Karolina doesn’t acknowledge the comment past a knowing smile. “Eventually, they had children, weird little kids with black eyes and scars in between their fingers. That’s when the people started to talk.”

“Talk about how the woman was not a woman at all, how Sean had brought her from the sea, tricked her into his bed.”

It takes a second for Nico to connect the dots. She feels foolish the second she understands Karolina is speaking of someone like herself. A selkie.

Then again, Nico had asked for one of her stories.

And she will give this to Karolina, she was an exceptional storyteller. She found herself waiting for the next line of the story like a kid. And when Karolina only kept staring at her instead of continuing, she finds herself prompting her: “Tricked her how?”

Karolina smiles again, and Nico finds herself blushing.

“There is only one way to trap a selkie on land, and it is by taking their pelt away. Without it, they can’t return to the sea. And the man had hidden it in a chest only he had the key to.”

Nico can’t help the way her eyes go to Karolina’s own, this time in the shape of a big, hooded cloak, a shield in the cool humidity of the night. She looks away just as quickly, but she knows Karolina has noticed.

She wonders why Karolina had let her know of her weakness so easily.

“You were right,” Nico says before she can blurt out something more dangerous.

“About what?”

“It isn’t a very happy story.”

“You don’t know how it ends, yet.”

“How does it end?”

Karolina picks the story back up, smoothing her voice again making the night shimmer around her and pulling Nico right back into the song.

“And the rumours grew and grew until one day the woman disappeared, leaving her children behind. And so, the towners knew they had been right.”

She’s ready by now in the pause of the story- there’s a rhythm, a push and pull, she finds herself thinking, like a dance, like a tide.

“How did she find her pelt?”

“Time made the man careless, he thought she wouldn’t leave him, not with the children. But a selkie has to return to the sea, no matter what she leaves behind. And one day she finds the key, and she leaves.”

Nico wonders if that’s part of the story, or if it’s just Karolina. Nico has never been more aware of another’s person unsaid moments like she is of Karolina.

“The fisherman went on his boat, looking for the silver speck of his wife in the water, but she was long gone. And yet he still searches, to this day. This story is as true as you’re alive,” Karolina finishes, the last sentence almost hurried out like she hadn't meant to say it at all, but the formulaic wouldn’t be left behind.

Nico huffs a laugh. “Is this supposed to be a ghost story?”

“Some say it’s a love story, and love leaves all of us a bit haunted, doesn’t it, in the end?”

It did.

Alex had been her shadow, solid behind her and always there. He was her best friend, her first mate. And now he was her ghost.

Before Nico can think of what to reply to, Karolina continues. “So?”

“So?”

“We had a deal.”

“A story for a story,” she nods, understanding. She had agreed after all.

Karolina smiles wide, like a kid the night before their birthday- like anticipation and promise of honey cakes.

“And which story would you like? The one where I was stolen from a convent, or the one where I was the one doing the stealing?”

“The true one.”

“The truth is hardly ever as exciting as the stories.”

“So?”

“So you wouldn’t like to believe it.”

“Try me.”

And Nico finds that Karolina’s gaze burns into her like fire in a way that leaves her much too vulnerable for her liking, so she turns away with a sigh and a denial on her lips. “Not tonight. Please. I’ll give you another story.”

“No,” and Karolina stands up, her eyes to the stars as always, “No. I’ll wait for the right one.”

She doesn’t say if it’s the right night or the right story, but the words weigh like truth and a promise.

And then she leaves Nico to watch the waves crash against her ship.

**

Nico was in trouble.

She won’t even think the word. She won’t be distracted by this feeling.

But Nico was in trouble.

(The worst thing was how she didn’t mind one bit.)

Thankfully, she has many a duty to keep the thoughts of Karolina far away. Writing the log is one of her most hated chores, yes, but a good distraction all considered.

She sighs and pushes back her hair from her face, forgetting her fingers stained black from the ink. She feels the wet streak on her forehead and bites back a groan. Whatever, this was as done as it ever was going to be.

She closes the wet inkstone back in its case and cleans the brush before wetting a rag to get the ink on her face.

There’s a faint blue light coming from underneath her sleeve and she knows that by now the stars had risen in their endless dance with the heavens. She pushes down the cuff and goes to stand by the window.

She spots easily the north star, tracing its ghost on her wrist. She traces the path from Polaris to Orion to the single red dot just underneath it. Morgan changed course- she will need to tell Gert.

And when even that has been done and dealt with, Nico has to accept there’s no more excuses for her delay. She knows Karolina must have been waiting for her for a while, by now. But she had let herself be distracted. So she won’t go to her.

She had never expected her to come to Nico instead.

(That usually didn’t happen to Nico.)

Because when she opens the door, Karolina is there.

Tonight, her pelt is long and sheer and light dances around it like stars in the night. Nico’s own stars burn on her wrist as she steps aside to let her in.

She has to swallow twice before she can manage to speak. “You’re here.”

There’s a bass-thumping in her mind, beat steady. It couldn’t be her heart because that particular part of her body was too busy beating out of turn and right out of her chest. But the drum is steady, and it hammers three words in her mind, so loud Nico’s afraid she might be actually speaking them like a mantra.

(I want to be yours. I want to be yours. I want to be yours.)

“I was getting tired of waiting.”

At that Nico’s cheeks flare. “I’m sorry, I got—”

“Distracted,” there’s a knowing smile playing on Karolina’s lips, “I assumed so.”

Nico had been about to say overwhelmed, but she likes distracted more. It’s less honest. Less desperate.

She watches as Karolina scans the cabin walls; Nico can track each of her thoughts as she takes in the more opulent parts of the décor. Nico isn’t much for the golden wooden inlays or the heavy drapes, but once you rob a ship from the marine you don’t get to pick the way your home looks.

She doesn’t know why she feels so embarrassed. “You’ve been here before.”

“I didn’t get to look around much.”

Karolina sets her hand on the heavy desk, one of Nico’s favourites, and something in her lights up at the sight of Karolina at home in Nico’s space, in between old maps and messily put away clothes.

Her pelt slips slightly over her shoulders, revealing a constellation of freckles Nico hadn't seen since the island, since Karolina had started wearing Chase’s clothes.

The room feels suddenly ten degrees hotter.

(I want to be yours. I want to be yours. I want to be yours.)

“So, why are you avoiding me?” Karolina asks, eyes burning in hers.

She turns her head. “I’m not.”

“Is this about what happened earlier?”

“I never said—”

“You didn’t have to,” Karolina says, and before Nico can recover from that, she asks, “Have you ever asked for forgiveness?”

“What?”

“You carry all this guilt around like a cloak.”

“Like a pelt,” she retorts before she can stop herself.

Karolina looks at her then. “I don’t ask forgiveness for what I am.”

“Then?”

“Then… some things take and take and take and stay the same size. Who can face the sea and not inherit its loneliness?” Karolina says the words like they’ve been passed down to her by another, a shadow of a laugh on her lips.

Or maybe Nico is hoping that she is because her heart shrinks in her chest at the thought of Karolina ever feeling so alone in the world. Nico finds she wants to be the one who stays beside her, if that was the case, so that she wouldn’t anymore.

But that’s a line more befitting of someone else’s story, so Nico says nothing.

(I want you to be mine. I want you to be mine. I want you to be mine.)

Karolina stays quiet too, waiting, and when Nico still says nothing, she stands up from the desk.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” Karolina says as she approaches the door, “I’ll go.”

And Nico is the captain.

Nico is duty.

But Karolina makes her forget all that.

She’s never been more herself and more other than on that island, stranded away from her responsibilities. Karolina makes her believe she’s more than just what’s necessary to survive. More than just an empty shell filled with vengeance and responsibilities.

And Nico is the captain, and she is duty, and. And. And…

And she is so, so tired of being duty.

So she forgets any of the reasons that would usually stop her. Just this once. Just for a while. Just for long enough to warm her bones.

(She’s always known Karolina would be a forest fire.)

“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to hurt you,” Nico scrambles to her feet, her hand finding Karolina’s wrist again, but this time she holds it as tenderly as she can, “Karolina.”

“Captain,” is her only reply, curt and cold and yeah, she deserved that.

That doesn’t mean it still doesn’t sting like jellyfish, though.

“Karolina,” Nico says her name again as soft as a name can become because she doesn’t know how to say sorry- not anymore. The sea robs more and more of her kindness and she’s only ever sorry for it when Karolina’s eyes are reflected in hers.

“Nico.”

“Do you know what Karolina means?”

“No.”

“It means free man. Woman, I guess,” she falters under Karolina’s stare- she’s never been good at being soft- “But.”

Under the soft flickering light of the candles, Karolina’s eyes turn back to their usual oceans, and Nico barely suffocates a gasp as she watches Karolina come back to her.

“I can never step away from the sea.”

“I know,” Nico huffs a poor excuse of a laugh, and thinks of all the secrets she hasn’t shared yet, but at this moment she finds herself more selfish than sensible, “Neither can I.”

“I’ve never loved a human.”

And Nico lets herself think of the word she has been avoiding for weeks.

“I’ve never loved a selkie.”

(Or anyone, really, but Nico is not about to say that out loud to Karolina of all people.)

“We die of it,” Karolina says, but there’s no grief behind the words, just acceptance, “Of love. In all the stories.”

“Not this time.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I'm a pirate we don’t do well with rules.”

Karolina comes closer at that. Close enough Nico’s back hits the wall on reflex. Close enough she could count all her freckles. Close enough she can see her eyes reflected in hers right before Karolina’s flutter shut.

She takes a deep breath, her hand tangling in the soft fabric of Karolina’s borrowed shirt, trapping her against her body. Karolina brushes the stray strand of hair behind Nico’s ear, so soft Nico think she might break after all.

Their noses brush together.

And when Nico finally pushes on her tiptoes, lips colliding, it feels like regaining that skip her heart had done when she first saw her on that glittering beach- dehydrated and delirious but already stepping towards the cliff willingly.

Nico slides her hands upwards until her fingers tangle in Karolina’s long hair- unbelievably soft and some part of Nico feels envious, having been stuck too with only saltwater to wash her own with drastically different results- and then tug there, at the base of her neck until Karolina pushes herself down and grounds Nico like nothing ever felt.

And Nico remembers that strange feeling as she had watched Karolina emerge from the ocean for the first time, something else other than the awe and the fear and the surprise. Something akin to familiarity, something akin to déjà vu. As if she had met her before. As if she had loved her before.

It seems so obvious now.

(Do you believe, Karolina had asked.)

(It seems impossible not to, now.)

She feels Karolina gasp against her lips before her fingers bury themselves in the soft flesh of Nico’s hips. Karolina’s teeth are sharp, and they nick at Nico’s lips in a way that makes them both taste copper. And when neither of them seems to mind, Nico kisses her deeper and deeper.

And Nico lets herself be drowned.

**

She doesn’t dream.

**

When Nico wakes- the moon still high in the sky, pushing any thought of responsibility even further away- she thinks she might have slipped into another story, one that isn’t hers.

Because certainly, it isn’t hers, this happiness, this skip in her heart as she watches Karolina stir in her arms.

Because certainly, it can’t be hers, this…

“Hello,” Karolina whispers.

(And what does Nico care for the moon when she’s holding the stars in her arms.)

“Hi,” she whispers back.

"Your tattoos glow."

"Yeah, they... tend to do that at night."

Karolina smiles, kisses the outermost point of the chart right by Nico's wrist, as she says: "They're beautiful."

She knows she flushes at that. She doesn't find herself minding it.

She watches as Karolina reaches over the both of them, bringing the hem of the blanket back onto their shoulders. Only when the cloth stretches with Karolina’s movement, does Nico notice that it’s Karolina’s pelt.

This is the first time Nico has touched it in full, and it surprises her.

It’s warm. Unbelievably so. Just as warm as Karolina is by her side. She runs her hands down the sides of it, frowns at a small, jagged end she’d never noticed before, and wonders at its softness- soft in a way that nothing can stay for long, at sea. It’s also slightly slimy, and fishy, but Nico doesn’t mind that.

Nico doesn’t have time to think much about what she minds and what she doesn’t, because Karolina lifts herself on her forearms, and softly kisses Nico’s lips. “Tell me your story.”

“It isn’t a happy story,” and then, before she can swallow it, “darling.”

The affection slips through, and she watches Karolina’s face open, warmth pouring out.

“It’s yours, though,” Karolina says like that’s the condition anything needs to become important in her eyes.

“Not many people stuck around to hear it, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m here.”

“You’re here,” Nico repeats slowly, before giving her an apologetic smile, “I’m sorry. I’m not good at letting people see me, I guess.”

“I know.”

Nico smiles again. “Of course, you do.”

“What if I want to, though, would that be alright?”

And Nico is too soft, so soft it breaks her, always. But this time, she thinks she’s going to survive because Karolina smiles back.

“Yeah, I think it would be.”

And so Nico tells her.

“I was fifteen,” she starts, and it’s as much the beginning as it isn’t, “When my sister died.”

She waits for pity to set on Karolina’s face, but it doesn’t come.

“We found her… I found her. I didn’t know why she… we were happy. We could have anything we wanted. Those kinds of things didn’t happen to people like us, I thought. But it did happen.”

She had never spoken about Amy, to anyone. She didn’t think she would have the words for it. It’s a tender spot on her soul. Private in ways she cannot explain. But Karolina feels more part of it than not. More part of her than not.

Then she fills in the rest.

About her parents. About Pride. About a lavish life in what she now realizes was only a gilded cage. About magic, and how her mother had buried a staff, the Staff, deep in between her ribs- how she still doesn’t know if this is what she had intended to do. About tracking down every child of Pride and forming her crew.

She tells her about learning to sail, to use the stars to guide her family, about freedom.

And after everything is said, after she lays as bare as she’s ever been, Karolina just says: “That must have been lonely.” Like she knew the sensation on her skin. And Nico supposes she must have.

“Well, I had Chase and the others,” Nico’s mouth feels like cotton as she thinks the words. She swallows- “And now… well, I have you, now. Don’t I?”

Karolina stays quiet and unreadable for long enough Nico could start to panic, maybe, if she weren’t herself. So, she doesn’t panic. Really. And Karolina stays quiet long enough Nico almost forgets what she had said, her heart beating out of her chest in the silence, in Karolina’s presence.

“Yes,” Karolina says in the end and even just that seems a dream to Nico.

She’s sure her cheeks are on fire. “Yes. Yeah. I—”

“You do have me,” Karolina confirms again, and the words almost make her body tremble.

(And Nico couldn’t fly or hold her breath long enough to swim in the deepest depths, but she’s so sure it feels something close to this.)

(Something close to watching Karolina watching her.)

Karolina’s hand is warm as she cradles Nico’s cheek, so softly, and yet Nico thinks she might break anyway. And yet, Nico thinks she wouldn’t mind if Karolina was the one doing the breaking.

Then, once again, she doesn’t much think of anything that wasn’t Karolina’s mouth hot against hers, Karolina’s skin brushing against hers- as the moon passes them by slowly, but not nearly slow enough.

**

Nico can’t help but feel, well, happy.

Despite her circumstances, despite the fact she’s racing against time and tides to rescue her oldest friend, her first friend. Despite the guilt she feels every time Karolina leaves her with a soft kiss and she thinks of Alex, for a split second.

Nico is happy, and also a bit sad when she realizes she is.

(She’s not sure this feeling is hers to feel, after all.)

She watches as Karolina plays in the waves, following in the ship’s wake with surprising ease even without being in her seal form, occasionally diving down and tossing up a fish at Chase- who manages to both grin in thanks and sulk at the fact his rod isn’t as successful- while Molly yells encouragements at her.

Some part of her knew that Karolina and Molly would become friends easily. They both defied gravity, even if in very different ways.

“God, could you be any louder?” Tandy asks, slipping beside her like a shadow- Nico guesses she must have picked up something in her years near Ty.

Panic shots in her vein so fast she’s pretty sure her heartbeat can be heard from leagues away.

“Loud?” Nico tries her best to sound disinterested, but her voice chokes around the word and she knows it doesn’t work when Tandy gives her a look.

Nico feels her palm getting sweaty. She finds herself almost praying that this wasn’t about last night because Nico doesn’t think she can survive being heard by Tandy during… god, let it not be that.

“Yes, loud. Just get a room and let us all out of our joint misery of witnessing this mess.”

Nico almost sighs in relief, as she turns away from Tandy. She watches Karolina climb back on the ship, dripping saltwater on her deck, shaking her hair with a hand, and laughing. Something shifts in her gut, and she tries her hardest to pretend it’s only lust.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I was talking about.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about actually,” she says, louder, playing her part, not looking at Tandy and knowing that if she did, the façade would fall into confetti on the ground.

And maybe she could admit to the other night. She could admit to knowing what Tandy means. But there’s so many unwanted and unneeded- no that was a lie, not unwanted, never unneeded, but for sure scary- thoughts twirling in her head.

And some part of her wants Karolina to be hers- only hers- for some time more.

“Nico, let’s stop pretending we both don’t see the pretty girl that looks at you as if you were the moon and the stars.”

And Nico thinks of that morning, of waking up and looking at the myriad of stars scattered across Karolina’s skin. Of waking up and finding the ocean looking back. Of waking up and…

“She doesn’t. Look at me like that.”

“And I suppose it wouldn’t matter even if she did, right?” Tandy says, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Yes.”

“You do realize how ironic it is for me to tell you to stop being stupid about love, too, right?”

“Stop having a crush on me, Tandy, it’s embarrassing how many times I’ve had to reject you already.”

She always enjoys the way Tandy puckers up at that comment. “Oh, you wish I was into you, dark mistress of the sea.”

“Aw, pet names again?”

Tandy bristles and Nico laughs despite herself.

“What are we talking about?” Gert chimes in, appearing out of thin air right behind Nico’s shoulders- and great, Nico really needed another performance of their comedic duo.

“Nico’s dumb refusal to be happy until she saves Alex.”

“Oh, so the usual stuff.”

She rolls her eyes. “I shouldn’t justify myself. I’m your captain.”

“You’re also an idiot.”

“Fancy a few days in the brig, Gert? I’ll even send Chase down for the meals since you’re so in want of love talk.”

Gert flushes to the bone, her mouth thinning into an indignant line as Tandy lets out a hearty laugh, clutching her stomach like a clown.

“Why don’t we do something fun? Give you a reason to stick to your love real close.”

“Tandy…” she warns, low and serious.

“C’mon it will be good for morale, it’s been so long since we had a dance or a play. You don’t want a mutiny on your hands.”

“Yeah, not everyone is so happy about this ‘fool errand’,” Gert chimes back in, the threat of the brig already forgotten apparently.

And Nico knows that’s true, she could see the unrest the more they ventured in the less travelled waters, where there were no ships from their parents’ company to rob. Maybe they should…

She sighs, rubbing the spot between her eyes. “Okay. Let’s have a dance.”

The embarrassment of admitting that both of them are right is worth it just for the way they both turn to her in shock. She can’t help the laugh at the look on their faces.

“Oh shit,” Tandy whispers loudly in Gert’s ears, “I think she’s actually in love with her.”

She rolls her eyes. “Shut up.”

Tandy salutes her. “Aye aye, cap'n.”

**

It had been a while since they last held a party on board. They had used to sing, so loud, each day. So loud, they couldn’t hear the wind howling. So loud, and then they stopped.

(There’s always an ‘and then’ in her story.)

Maybe that’s why it seems so new, to watch all the members of her crew drinking and dancing. She’s sure it has nothing to do with Karolina’s sparkling eyes, and her mouth opens in wonder.

“Do you do this often?”

“There’s little to do at sea at night. Sometimes, we let Tyron act his best Hamlet.”

Karolina smiles in that way that always made Nico shiver- in what she now knows is anticipation. “There’s little to do for your kind maybe.”

“There’s little to do at sea at night whilst unable to breathe underwater,” she rectifies, and Karolina laughs- and Nico stares at her lips. She had wanted to kiss her again since that night, that morning, but life on a ship is busy, and Nico is not the one who can afford breaks.

Nico is saved from Karolina noticing when Chase, dragging Victor to his feet, goes to make Tyrone play something fast and repetitive on his accordion.

They start side by side, holding hands, before Chase does something elaborate with his arms and spins in Victor’s. They glide quickly on the floor, feet moving quicker and quicker, spinning in each other arms like a well-oiled machine.

Nico laughs, clapping along to the music. She has seen this dance before, but it never stops being impressive. She hears Karolina gasps as Chase spins Victor around before they catch themselves chest to chest, spinning so in sinc it looks like flowing water.

“What’s going on?” Karolina shouts over the music.

“It’s a show of strength,” Nico says, smirking when Victor and Chase grab each other by the arm, “You’ll see.”

The music speeds up again and they grab onto each other tighter, before starting the low descent, spinning so fast their feet barely seem to move at all, their knees at times going so low they almost touch the ground.

“What’s this dance?”

“Apparently it’s one danced by strapping young men to try and woo the girls watching.”

Karolina’s amused glance at Chase and Victor, still holding hands, tells everything Nico also thinks of the dance. “Who are they trying to woo then, if not each other?”

“Chase, Gert. Victor, I don’t know. I think he goes along with it because Chase asks him too.”

“Do you dance too?”

She shrugs, trying to hide her awkwardness beneath the casual gesture. “Sometimes. When I know the song.”

“Can’t make the people think the big bad captain has a heart?”

“No,” -yes, but Nico is too proud to admit that, “I just don’t know many songs from this side of the continent.”

“I could teach you,” Karolina offers, eyes turning kind.

Nico’s brows furrow and Karolina catches it before she can smooth them out.

“Don’t be like that, having fun is not a death sentence.”

“I try to tell her that every day, but does she listen to me? No.”

She doesn’t give Gert the privilege of turning around. “Shut up, Gert.”

“Did it work?” Karolina asks her, big eyes filled with mischief and curiosity, too.

“What?”

“Chase’s show of strength.”

Gert blushes to the bone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Nico just told me. About the meaning of what Chase and Victor danced. Do you not know of it?”

Karolina is definitely playing dumb, but Gert doesn’t seem to notice, blushing more and more, stuttering excuses.

Nico huffs a laugh under her breath and watches the dancefloor, one of the crewmembers had produced a fiddle and another a flute, fiddling together until they finally settled on a song to play.

Nico knows this one. More or less.

She knows that there are steps to this melody, learnt by children imitating their parents and watching attentive the crowd of dancing fleet slide together on the dancefloor like a school of fish.

But Nico hadn't had parents who could teach this song, not only because it would have sounded foreign to a young Nico’s ears, but also because she had never seen her own parents dance, not once.

Before she can think of stepping away from the dancefloor, Karolina is already there pushing her back around, holding her hand out in a silent offer with a grin and a glint in her eyes that Nico had grown to fear.

Nico feels bewitched in a way that shouldn’t be possible, not so fast.

(She remembers that Karolina is literally magic and feels a bit better of her own inability to say no.)

She takes her hand.

The song starts slowly enough, the flute blowing a soft melody, the couples of dancers that had slowly filled the floor at the start of the melody picking their respective places, one behind the other.

Nico mimics the boy in front of her, offering her left hand to Karolina, looking straight ahead lest she distracts herself with Karolina’s face. Karolina takes it, her hand soft and big and warm in Nico’s. Nico turns, in sync with the queue of dancers in front of her- she’s glad she can at least get this one down without problems.

She doesn’t have much time to feel glad, though, the music picking up the pace, the fiddle working its way through scales and motifs, the player’s fingers flying from note to note, the melody fast as the mistral. Karolina grins as she steps towards Nico, fitting in her arms like she was always meant to be there.

(A flash of the other night, of waking up in her arms, of chasing her lips…)

They meet in the middle, twirling around each other, hands clasped tight together.

Nico tries to follow the movements as much as she can, but her feet hit the wrong mark more than once, anyway. She doesn’t mind much. Not when Karolina keeps looking at her like that.

The people watching start to clap to the music, in time with the feet hitting the floor faster and faster.

Nico watches from the corner of her eye, as one at the time, the couples start to switch places, feet swiping the floor in time with the music and the rolling of the boat. Nico feels her own face breaking up in a grin, as Karolina spins her over her head, falling to her knees to accommodate for their height difference.

She stands up, wrapping Nico in her arms again, this time her front against Nico’s back as they step together to the rhythm. Her pelt brushes against Nico’s bare skin of her arms, her neck, the smell of her skin pervading Nico’s every sense.

Karolina doesn’t seem to mind, she just hugs Nico’s tighter as they slip together on the floor, before lifting Nico in a spin that leaves her breathless.

The music slows down all of the sudden, the steps becoming softer, more subdued. They bow to each other- and that brings a smile to her lips almost unintentionally, a memory of a meeting and the taste of salt in her mouth.

She has little time to reminiscence, or to think the dance over, as the music starts picking up again, Tyrone’s accordion joining in too, this time. The dancers change the steps Nico had just painfully learned, instead of spinning together arm linked in arm, unsynchronised fun.

Karolina sweeps her in her arms, twirling her around as Nico weighted less to nothing, Nico’s breath annoyingly gets caught in her chest. Again.

Just as abruptly as the music had started, it stops in a sea of claps.

It’s white noise to Nico’s ears.

She can only hear Karolina’s heavy breaths as her lung catch up to her body, hear her own blood rush through her veins. She watches Karolina like she was the light of a million candles, and Nico the moth flying to her demise, watches the slick sweat sticking her blonde hair to her neck in the place that meets the edge of her silver pelt.

Karolina smells of the ocean her eyes remind her of.

“How did you know the steps?” she asks because she cannot kiss her without burning. Because she will not kiss her, under so many stares.

“My mother taught me,” Karolina answers in a whisper, before letting go.

And it’s like plunging into icy waters.

Another dime for the Karolina-is-more-than-she-lets-on jar.

**

It takes her a little more time, to piece it all together.

Things didn’t add up in many ways, and the one that added up the least was Karolina.

She had told Nico she was a selkie, but she didn’t act inhuman- she had knowledge of dancing, and ships, even if she feigned otherwise, even if she slipped from time to time. But she also hated being away from the sea. And everything came into a picture Nico hadn’t wanted to see.

That’s when Nico figure it out. Figures Karolina out. She had always thought it strange, how she had been saved. She had thought stranger how Karolina seemed at the same time completely foreign and utterly familiar.

It shames Nico a bit, how long it took for her to piece it out, and it honestly worries her how quickly had Karolina managed to win her trust.

Was she so desperate for human connection to disregard any good instinct she had? It feels pathetic. Nico hates feeling pathetic.

(If she were to be honest she would admit how she had quieted all the little voices in her head, if only it meant she could keep her.)

So she ignores the hurt and ignites.

She waits for her in what Nico had started to call their place in her mind. That thought fires up another shot of embarrassment tinted with rage. She curls her nails into her palm, this time forgetting to be careful- familiar habits giving way to even more familiar feelings.

When Karolina finally arrives, the candlelight dances on her face, and Nico almost forgets any doubt she has. She’s beautiful, she’s always been, and maybe, that’s why she had trusted her from the start.

Maybe she had done so because when she first saw her, she had believed in destiny for the first time.

And well, Nico was never one much for subtlety, so. “You need to tell me something?”

“Oh, uhm,” Nico watches as Karolina’s cheek go pink at the edges, “I guess…”

And well, Nico had never had any patience for these kinds of charades, so. “Never mind, I’ll go first. Who are you?”

Karolina’s eyes go wide, brows furrowing at her tone.

“What do you mean?”

“Who are you? Truly. And don’t you dare lie to me again.”

“Is that an order, captain?”

She narrows her eyes, her grip tightening around Karolina’s wrist. She wonders why Karolina is letting Nico grip her wrist still. She knows the selkie is much stronger than she could ever hope to be.

“What the hell are you?” she finds herself whispering, her eyes focused on Karolina’s face. She ignores the blurry edges of her vision. She tells herself it’s anger.

She hadn't realized how much she wants for Karolina to say that she’s wrong, that she isn’t… that Nico is just being paranoid. That this is all a misunderstanding because… not betrayal, not from her, not after Nico… no, not from her.

“I’m me,” and Karolina sounds just as desperate as Nico feels.

She’s her.

Karolina, the seal who could shed her skin and become woman.

Karolina, who feigned ignorance of the world of humans, but who also knew more than she let on, knew how to dance and how to start a fire.

Karolina, who had saved her and fed her and helped her but had not asked for anything else in return.

(Nico had offered Karolina her name, once. She wonders if it is enough or if she’s thinking of other fae folks.)

But also Karolina whose eyes bore a tragedy behind them.

“How can I trust you,” and she hates how her voice cracks around her name, and she hates how weak she feels- hates the way Karolina’s eyes soften, too- “When you’ve been lying to me since we’ve met.”

“I haven’t lied to you.”

She can feel Karolina’s pulse, steady and calm still against her hand. But for as much as she didn’t lie, she still…

“You feigned ignorance of the human world. You’ve been acting since the day we met.”

“I’ve never acted, not when I was with you.”

Nico’s heart gives a pathetic little flip at that. She shakes her head. “Who are you, Karolina? Why were you stalking my ship?”

“I—”

“Please,” Nico pleads, because she can’t lose Karolina, too. She couldn’t bear it.

Her fingers slack against Karolina’s wrist, but Karolina doesn’t step away from her.

“You are something else, that you know,” Karolina starts, like it was just another story, and she wasn’t narrating her own fucking life.

“The first time you saw the sea you felt like you were at home and like you were at war, all at once. Your mother doesn’t let you near it. You cry. She tugs your arm as you disappear in the woods that had never felt like home, not once.”

Karolina stops, blue eyes unfocused and almost vitreous, like nothing Nico had ever seen if not in the eyes of those who never come back from a storm- or those left behind.

“You find a pelt one day, hidden in a box buried inside another box. You know it’s yours as soon as you see it, a part of you. You’re thirteen and oh so scared. You hide the pelt back where you found it, carefully folding it back into the box, and resolve never to think of it.”

“Karolina,” Nico swallows whichever words were meant to come out next because Karolina had turned to her with steel forged in her eyes, tempered and unyielding.

“And yet you dream. The waves crashing against each other, against the rocks, a lighthouse and an old stone staircase leading into the sea.”

“You’re nineteen,” Karolina continues, but her voice is stronger, “And you can’t hide anymore. You know what you are. You’ve always known. It’s still scary, and so fucking exhilarating. You take your pelt and come back home.”

Nico doesn’t know how she could have had any harsh words for this woman standing in front of her.

“You wonder why your mother hid you away, when you’re so beautiful and swift and fast, a sliver of silver in the darkness of the ocean.”

“Karolina,” Nico sighs her name out without knowing what else to say.

But Karolina’s not done.

“And then you find the Sea Priestess,” Karolina’s eyes turn dark, like actual black, and her teeth seem sharper, too, the silver of her pelt shimmering and shifting like the waves rocking the boat, “And you understand why.”

She watches Karolina’s body shift and waver with the candlelight, hears the broken laugh breaking from her lips like an arrow. Nico’s chest feels tight at the sight.

“I wasn’t… aware of who she was. She was charming, for a while, and she showed me sides of myself my mother had worked so hard to hide. And I was so lonely. And I…” Karolina’s throat bobs up and down, as she looks away, “And I made a deal.”

“What deal?” Nico asks, even though she knows, even though it grows more and more obvious by the way Karolina keeps on avoiding her eyes.

Karolina doesn’t look in the eye, as she answers. “A piece of her knowledge, for a piece of me.”

Nico tries to contain the gasp at the word, the tears threatening to quake through her body. She had trusted her. Despite her best judgment. Despite her previous experience. Despite everything. She takes a step back, crashes against the wood.

(Karolina made her think of life other than her duty.)

She can’t help the flinch as Karolina reaches out to help her. She can’t help the guilt she feels at Karolina’s look of hurt either.

(She wonders how much that had been exactly her intention.)

“That’s why… you. You–”

“Nico…”

“You were fooling us from the start,” Nico’s voice only gets quieter with each word, “You fooled me from… and I trusted you! God, I trusted you.”

“I was only supposed to keep an eye on you. For her. And then—”

“You saved me,” she finishes for her.

“I did,” Karolina says, so softly Nico has to stop looking at her, hurt spilling all over, “I wasn’t supposed to.”

“You should have let me drown,” she snarls, her nails digging into her palm once again, but this time she lets the beast that never slept slither out of its nesting place between Nico’s soul and Nico’s death.

If Nico had never called for the staff in front of Karolina before, she had done so on purpose, mostly. She hadn't wanted her to know how monstrous she could become- she hadn't wanted, stupidly, to scare Karolina away.

She had forgotten how she had never had to try to scare people.

And she wants to relish in it now, as the staff emerges from her chest as she claws it off herself, as purple cakes her eyes in cracks.

And yet, Karolina’s eyes don’t show fear. Just acceptance. Like a martyr on a pyre.

(Well, I have you, now. Don’t I?)

Nico can’t stand it.

(Yes. You do have me.)

Bondage.

She should enjoy the way Karolina falls to the ground, chains wrapping around her throat. She doesn’t, and it hurts all the more for it.

“I trusted you,” Nico screams, or maybe whispers- her throat feels raw in any case.

“I know,” and Karolina says it like she knew- knew how much it pained Nico to trust someone, knew that she had hurt her in a way Nico hasn’t let anyone hurt her for a long while- “I know. But I had to. She had my word, and… and she had my pelt, and I was bound.”

Nico thinks of the jagged edge, and the careful way Karolina did speak at times. And Nico supposes she should look at Karolina and see herself, a girl fooled by someone she had trusted. Instead, all she can feel is the sting of the betrayal.

“Your kind is so fond of your words,” she bites before she can think about it, pretends the flash of hurt on Karolina’s face delights her.

“I know you have no reason to trust me now. But—”

She doesn’t give her a chance to defend herself. “You’re right. I don’t.”

“But you still did. Because you feel it too, this thread connecting us.”

“I’m sure that helps you sleep at night. Fated encounters and pretty words, just like in your stories.”

“Nico. I—”

“And yet I thought you wouldn’t cross lines like this. That night—”

“Wasn’t a lie,” Karolina rushes out, and some desperate part of Nico wants to believe the franticness in her voice is real, “I… it was never meant to go like this. I was never meant…”

“You never meant to what?”

“To fall f-- Nico, please, let me explain. I never meant to hurt you. But I couldn’t go back on my word.”

“But you could trick me into your bed.”

“That wasn’t a trick.”

“I’m sure showing up to my cabin half-naked in the middle of the night wasn’t a premeditate decision on your behalf.”

“Nico,” and Karolina’s voice soothes, Karolina’s voice is deep waters trying to stifle tinder.

(Nico lets herself burn to ashes.)

“So, I suppose your job was to lead me there.”

Karolina doesn’t answer. Nico doesn’t need her to.

“And she will be there.”

Karolina avoids her eyes then, and Nico tells herself she doesn’t miss the ocean in them anyway.

“And she will know anything I’ve told you.”

“Yes.”

“And you would have never told me. You would have led me and my family in a trap.”

“No! No, I… I could have lied. Now. But I didn’t.”

That’s technically true. She could have. She could have stopped the story short; she could have kept using Nico’s stupidity against her. Nico narrows her eyes. “Why didn’t you?”

“You said you believed in fate,” Karolina jokes, before shaking her head, “Don’t act as if you haven’t felt it too.”

And maybe that too is true. But Nico doesn’t want to admit it. “How sweet the poison from your hand.”

And as Nico sees Karolina’s heartbreaking, all she can think is ‘good’.

“I know you have no reason to trust me or forgive me. But I love you. I’ve fallen for you. I’m not lying about that. I could never lie about that.”

And just like that, rage leaves her like water sliding off properly waxed sails. Nico feels only tired as she stares at Karolina and doesn’t know who she’s looking at.

The staff falls limp from her hands, and she’s already dreading when it will be slid back into her.

(She thinks of how she had just wasted another spell. She thinks of how she had known the moment she had cast it.)

(Nico doesn’t enjoy lying to herself, but just this time she had wanted to.)

She watches as the spell disappears, too. Karolina doesn’t stand up. She stays kneeling in front of her.

Nico thinks of another night, of another time… but that was then. And this is now.

Yeah, she thinks with a sigh, this is now.

“Nico…” Karolina says, and Nico waits, but she doesn’t say anything else, and Nico knows she never will.

That they couldn’t get out of this one because nothing can be built on ashes. And part of her wishes for a second that Karolina had kept lying, kept deceiving her right until the moment she would have died by her hand. It would have been kinder, she thinks.

She sighs, slumps against the wall just for a second. She sighs again and straightens, making her voice harder than she feels: “You should go.”

“I can’t.”

“You will. You don’t want to be here in the morning. This is the last courtesy I owe you for saving me.”

(The blood is spilt, and the debt is paid, and Nico should feel happy about it.)

(She doesn’t.)

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can. One foot after the other, and then you jump. Go back to your witch and tell her I’m coming. And the next time I see you, I won’t be as merciful.”

“I can’t!” and Karolina shout turns into a broken whisper as she continues, “I love you.”

And just like that, she’s angry all over again.

“How can you even say that? How can I trust you again?”

“I don’t know. I wish I knew what to say to make you forgive me, but there’s nothing. I’ve hurt you. I knew I was hurting you, and I couldn’t… I swear I will never again. I swear I will protect you this time.”

“I want to—” believe you, she wants to say, but she can’t, she can’t, hell, she can’t, “I am responsible for more than just me.”

Karolina doesn’t sound anything but completely serious as she says: “I will protect all of you.”

It’s unfair, she thinks, how the words make her heart skip still.

“If you ever did love me,” and it takes all of Nico not to cave- it takes all of Nico not to fall apart, “You wouldn’t have let me fall for you at all. Be gone by sunrise.”

And there's nothing else to say, so Nico walks away, leaving Karolina behind for the last time.

She doesn’t rush to her cabin, she takes it slow, her hand slowly dragging against the still warm wood. She steels her face as she passes by Victor holding on to the mast. She doesn’t let any tear fall until she’s back behind the solid wood of her cabin’s door.

Her vision blurs as she moves closer to her window. She doesn’t bother to wipe them away.

And she watches the stars.

(She couldn’t bear to watch the ocean instead.)

**

She can’t help but think she should have known from the start that Karolina was tricking her.

There was nothing left of her to fall in love with. There’s never been. Just an empty shell of anger and revenge.

She should have known.

She should have…

**

With the rise of the sun, also comes the rise of Nico’s anger. She doesn’t do sad well but rage she’s well accustomed to and she fosters it like a newly born spark into a flame that could burn down Morgan’s whole fleet.

So she summons Gert to her cabin as soon as the light starts to break through the horizon with a spell whispered to a still awake Staff.

(Another drop- but she finds she cares less and less each time.)

Awake and waiting. Always waiting. She hates the black wood, the golden brass, almost as much as she needs it. She hates how it came to be, and how she knows deep in her bones it will be her ending.

She hates it, but she needs it- but she loves it.

She watches Gert slam the door as she gets in, a scowl on her face. “Okay, who dropped you on your head as a child that you're like this?”

She’s half sorry for taking her away, probably, from Chase’s sleeping arms, but she has waited as much as she can. And she has no more time to waste on hurting.

“Karolina’s a spy.”

There's no need to specify, the realization dawning on Gert’s face plainly just as it had Nico.

“Oh.”

She feels a bit better, though, that Gert too had been caught just as off guard as she had. “Yeah. Oh.”

“Is that why I haven’t seen her? Did you throw her overboard without letting us have our fun before?”

She ignores that and turns to her desk, where maps- that Karolina had seen most probably, she thinks with a pang of pain- laid. “We need to plan arou—”

“You didn’t throw her overboard? Is she in the brig then?”

She ignores that, too. “We need to plan for—”

“Back up, back up. Why isn’t Tandy here, too?”

Nico can’t even say it before Gert eyes widen with the sudden realization that Nico is in fact the biggest idiot on this ship.

“Because you let her go,” Gert says, slowly, making every syllable last an eternity, “Because Tandy would be ready with a dagger to carve information out of her, and you let her go. Because you really did love her, didn’t you?”

“Gert.”

“Nico,” and she can’t stand how Gert is looking at her, “You let her go.”

“The damage was done. She knows,” she swallows, and it’s hard, and it’s pain in ways Nico should be used to but still isn’t, “And… she knows, I doubt she hadn't already— anyway the damage was done. No use in torturing her.”

“She could have told us about the Sea Priestess, she could have—”

“I wouldn’t have it cut out of her,” she growls.

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?”

Nico looks away as Gert hits the nail right on the head.

“I—there’s no time for all that. She’s gone in any case.”

Gert’s eyes turn to stone. “So what do we do?”

Nico looks into Gert’s eyes, at the anger in them that tells her that Karolina’s betrayal had cut more than just her. She looks into Gert’s eyes and she sets her jaw.

“We bring hell.”

**

They spend an hour looking for ways to make their surprise attack work without the surprise element. How to bring down a ship of legends when you barely had enough gunpowder to strike a match.

It takes less than five minutes for them to figure out any of their old plans wouldn’t work, but Nico wasn’t ready to say that out loud yet, so they spent the other fifty-five looking at maps.

They will bring one ship and a bunch of deranged pirates. Hell isn’t that far off from that.

Only when they come out, Karolina is right there. Sitting right in front of the door to her cabin. Her pelt in front of her, now laying at Nico’s feet. She spares a glance to Gert, shell shocked too, and deduces she hadn't been there when Gert had come in that morning.

She doesn’t know what to say, and Karolina doesn’t seem to want to help her in any way. She just sits. And more and more of her people are coming out to start the day. And more and more of her people are watching.

“I told you to be gone by sunrise,” Nico says, barely a breath.

Karolina doesn’t answer her.

“Karolina,” she urges in a hiss, before she can stop herself, “I can’t stop them if you don’t.”

“I don’t want you to.”

But I do, she wants to scream, I shouldn’t but I do, please don’t make me do this.

She can see Tandy narrowing and narrowing her eyes at the confusing display, she can see Gert, waiting for her to give the order. She thinks she can do nothing- she will do nothing- but have to watch as Karolina’s heart is carved out of her while Nico bleeds in her place.

She doesn’t know if she can trust Karolina’s feelings, but she knows hers. She knows she wouldn’t survive this.

And she’s faced with the choice she didn’t want to have to make.

(Mostly, because it had never been a choice in the first place.)

She looks at Gert, waits for her to understand her ‘do not speak about the past hour to anyone’ silent order before grasping Karolina’s arm. She shoves the pelt back in Karolina’s arms and brings her to her feet in one movement, before shoving her away from her crew’s prying eyes.

“I told you to go,” she hisses the moment the door closes behind them.

“And I told you I wouldn’t.”

The pelt is still not in its usual place around Karolina’s shoulders. It feels wrong. It feels more wrong when she thinks of the way Karolina had left it there, before, like she had expected Nico to take it. Like she had wanted Nico to take it. Like Nico could ever be a person who could just take it.

Nico stares at that bottom corner she knows is torn now, and in the possession of her greatest enemy, and. And.

She contemplates screaming out loud for a second too long.

She doesn’t.

“Why do you have to be so fucking stubborn?”

“I can’t go, even if I wanted to. I swore to you.”

“Swore what?”

“Myself,” Karolina says. And Nico hates how a single word from Karolina can make her so unravelled, and Nico wishes it didn’t make her heart skip a beat like so.

She turns away.

“I don’t care.”

“I do.”

Nico really, really wants to scream. “What am I supposed to do now, then?”

“Use me.”

Nico swallows the double meaning before she can even think it, but her cheeks darken anyways. She watches Karolina catch on- the way she swallows, once, her eyes dark and looking away…

“How?” Nico asks before she could do something extremely stupid.

“I’ll feed her false information,” Karolina says, her hands frantic and fingers digging into her pelt so tightly Nico almost wants to stop her, to take her hands in hers, to stop the rivulets of blood starting to form around Karolina’s shoulders, in the same place her fingernails are scratching on the pelt.

And then she comes back to the situation at hand, and she remembers she’s not supposed to care if Karolina isn’t gentle with herself.

(But she cares. Oh, if she cares.)

“I doubt you're the only one who’s been watching me.”

“I’ll go back to her, then. Slit her throat in her sleep.”

“And die the second you’d attempt it.”

“I was under the impression I would die anyway if I stayed here.”

“Is this your suicide note?”

“No.”

She brings a hand to her hair, pushing it back. Her fingers get stuck on a particularly stubborn knot, and she rips the hand away with a groan. She sighs and shakes her head. “You say she has your pelt- or a piece of it. I know what that means. You told me yourself.”

“She maimed me so that I can never stray far, she maimed me so that I can never go as deep as I want, she maimed me so that when one of my kind looks at me, they know I'm not whole.”

And despite the betrayal, despite everything Karolina had done to her, Nico’s heart still bleeds for Karolina. She knows all too well that tampering with someone’s soul is the greatest of sins.

And yet.

“What even are you trying to accomplish here then.”

“There’s no other choice to be made.”

Ah.

Nico can comprehend that.

Because before Karolina had held a knife to her throat, Nico had given it to her. She had sharpened it, tended to it, let herself be brought to slaughter as she handed it to her. She hadn't expected betrayal, not quite, but loving someone always meant baring your neck.

And for as much as Nico would like to pretend otherwise, Karolina had done the same.

Nico thinks, she would have preferred if Karolina wasn’t so ready for martyrdom. Nico thinks, she would have preferred Karolina had not loved her at all. It would have made everything so much easier. Nico should know by now that life wasn’t easy.

“Do you understand? To love someone so much you’re willing to let them demolish you, just for them not to destroy themselves.” Karolina looks at her and Nico almost forgets because she does, she did, but she cannot.

So she bites back, instead. “Well, that’s fucking rich coming from you.”

“Let me be better then. Let me build what I broke,” Karolina pleads, and Nico wants to, oh how she wants to, but she won’t- her pride won’t let her.

“Broke?” Nico says instead, “You want to talk of deals you can’t back out of?”

She knows Karolina won’t know this one story. There’s not even a whisper of this in the tales they tell about her. It’s a story Nico had managed to keep from everyone around her.

“Do you know what I give away with each spell? Do you want to know what it used to be?”

“What do you mean?”

She isn’t as good a storyteller as Karolina was.

“There once was a witch who led armies, and there once was someone who stood in her way. And neither one was good, but both of them were cruel.”

She isn’t as good a storyteller as Karolina was, but this one tale she could tell with her eyes closed.

“There once was a witch more powerful than another because that’s what it boils down to, and that witch made the other into her own power, bleeding for it each time she wanted to call for it. And that witch passed the gift- the curse- down to her daughter.”

“And now there’s another witch with the same staff, with the same person trapped in it and another trapped by it. And that witch made a deal.”

Nico is not a good person, she knew that before, but the sick happiness that makes itself present in her heart in front of Karolina’s desperation is nothing but confirmation of her own wickedness.

“What deal?”

She watches Karolina, and for a second, she looks different in ways that make Nico’s skin tremble in shivers. In the dark, eyes icy and right, as they shone from within… Karolina looked alien. She looked deadly.

“This would be so much easier if I didn’t love you.”

“You don’t mean it.”

“No. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

There’s a spark in the air. Something that smells like ozone and sweat. Memories flood Nico’s mind, and her traitorous body starts igniting, her heart drumming in her chest.

It would be so easy, she thinks, to bridge this gap now. It would be foolish, too, but so easy- especially since Nico knows what she has to say now for everything to be over because no one in their right mind would stay once they knew.

But it’s also so hard to force the syllables out of her mouth.

She takes a step back and pretends not to see the way Karolina bleeds in front of her, pretends she’s not also in pieces.

“What deal, Nico?” Karolina asks in a whisper.

“No more bloodlettings, but a drop of power for each spell- until I have nothing. Until I am nothing.”

“Nico…”

“So tell me what is there to love of me? What will remain?”

Karolina staggers back, her legs hitting the table with enough force it makes the ink spill right on Nico’s favourite carpet. Black spreads on it slowly, inch by inch, and if Nico was another kind of person, she would have found it poetic. But Nico is not, and so she can only see the inevitability of it all.

Ink stains and nothing else.

“Give it to me.”

That’s not what Nico thought she would say. “What?”

“Give it to me. I’ll destroy it.”

“This is the reason Morgan wants me, this is how I can bargain Alex back and you want me to give it to you?”

“That was your plan?”

Nico tries not to take offence by the disbelief in Karolina’s voice. It wasn’t, exactly, but it still stings a bit.

“Nico you don’t even know if the contract will continue once she has it.”

That… she hadn't thought that much ahead, Nico can admit that much- to herself, anyway. She huffs, before turning away. “It’s not like I had meant for her to have it anyway,” she mumbles under her breath.

“What you wanted to trick her?” Karolina’s voice is so berating Nico can’t help becoming defensive in return.

She shrugs. “She enjoys games.”

“That’s your soul you're betting on!”

“Haven’t you heard the stories?” she sneers before she can think twice about it, “I don’t own one.”

“Nico you can—”

“I can do whatever the hell I want, actually. You’ll find that your opinion doesn’t much matter here.”

She tells herself she doesn’t care when Karolina’s face turns into a mask of hurt.

“But sure, you can stay,” Nico says, almost smiling, the words forming in her heads as she says them, “You can stay and watch me slip through your fingers slowly. Maybe that would be enough.”

Enough for what, she doesn’t know, but Karolina’s eyes widen, and Nico doesn’t know if it’s the surprise at the permission to stay, or it’s the hurt at the words.

She tells herself she doesn’t care as she walks out and away from her for the second time in two days.

She tells herself it doesn’t hurt.

**

She doesn’t actually realize she trapped herself out of her cabin until she’s already one foot out of the door. And whatever. She has things to do anyway. She can’t just be holed up in her cabin, she has a ship to command.

She’s going to be… functional.

She’s going to be functional because that’s all she has the capacity to be, but that’s something she doesn’t want to think about much.

And she supposes, Nico’s going to be a bit heartbroken, too. She didn’t realize it until now. It’s weird, in all the stories she had no heart to break. She’ll have to track down the minstrels to fill them in on the situation- couldn’t have the wrong ballads flying around about her.

She wonders if they’ll sing of the beautiful selkie that had tricked her into heartbreak.

She wonders what they’ll sing once she rips Morgan’s heart out of her chest.

**

Most of Nico’s nights have been spent looking at maps since she became a captain.

And then, for a brief time, they weren’t- but now she’s right back at the start, a map on the desk and a glass of whatever moonshine Chase had brought to her cabin with her dinner growing colder and colder next to her quill and ink.

Her eyes ache in the familiar strain, and Nico feels almost relieved how some things never change, not truly.

What she really needs at the moment though, is not maps, or stars.

What she really needs is intel.

What she really needs is stories, and Nico wants to pretend it irks her to ask for Karolina’s help, but a traitorous part of her heart is just happy she has an excuse to talk to her again.

She squishes that part hard beneath her heel.

Karolina is still outside her cabin when she comes out, like a kicked dog waiting on its owner.

(A part of Nico almost likes that simile.)

“I found a use for you.”

She hates how she words it; she hates how Karolina looks when ‘use’ hits her, but she doesn’t stop herself from saying the rest.

“I need you to tell me all the stories you know of the Sea Priestess.”

And Karolina is too smart, recognition sparkling in her eyes like she already knows what Nico’s half-baked plan was, as she says: "You... yes. I will. I will tell you all of them."

"How many do you even have?"

"I listened to them all, before deciding to ask for her help."

“Right. Yes. Okay, I’ll wait for you.”

She tells herself to hate the face Karolina makes at ‘wait’ too.

She doesn’t.

**

It doesn’t take much for things to go back to a semblance of those few weeks Karolina had first come to the ship.

To stories told in the dark, this time to understand another fairy tale that wasn’t the one telling the tales. Though it wasn’t as private anymore, Nico not trusting herself yet for that.

So, no more moonlight lit tenderness for Nico. Not that she wants any. She doesn’t. She doesn’t and she doesn’t miss Karolina at all.

Repeating that in her head isn’t probably helping her case.

Probably.

And yeah, Gert still looks at her like she’s mental even as she keeps on keeping her promise and doesn’t speak of the whole Karolina and the Sea Priestess made a deal thing. Not even to Tandy.

(She doesn’t like that. It hurts not tell her quarter master. But she couldn’t afford liabilities at the moment more than ever.)

She doesn’t know exactly what the crew thinks of their little show that morning, she’s just thankful she still hasn’t been cornered into admitting she’d consorted with the enemy- literally. She doesn’t know what the crew thinks of her relationship with Karolina now, even though she hopes she hadn't been so obvious to the extent that they had even noticed the change now.

(She knows, rationally, that she’s only fooling herself now.)

And Karolina was still here, even with Gert’s cold stares and Tandy’s just as cold- if a bit more confused- ones. Even with the way Nico has been avoiding her altogether. She supposes that the fact Karolina hadn't given up yet should mean something.

Nico, for her part, has decided to believe it just means Karolina’s stubborn.

She doesn’t know how she finds herself staring at Karolina now.

She had been doing her rounds until, before she knew it, her feet had brought her to that same spot of the ship she has been trying- and succeeding- to avoid for more than a week now.

Karolina was still as beautiful under the white moonlight as she had been what feels now like centuries ago. She finds it a little unfair actually, the way she seems to glow pale light herself- she finds old stories in the back of her mind, stories about the seas and the moon as sisters, as lovers, and finds the truth in the loving light kissing Karolina’s skin oh so softly.

Karolina always had this look of deep sadness behind them when she thought no one was looking. But Nico was always looking, even when she didn’t want to be.

And then she comes back to herself, and remembers her own skin, scarred and rough, her palm bleeding still.

She’s a bit ashamed of her theatrics, now, in hindsight.

(She’s a lot proud about them, too, though. Nico never said she was a good person.)

“You know I regret it?” Karolina asks, and it startles Nico out of her skin. She hadn’t thought Karolina could see her, from where she was hidden.

Something we have in common, Nico wants to say, but she’s tired of having this conversation, she’s tired of waiting for another ending that won’t come.

“I’ve regretted it since I stepped on this boat for the first time, and I saw how your crew looked at you. You were the sea witch, and you were loved. I was jealous of that. I am jealous of that.”

I loved you, she wants to say, I’ve loved you since before you stepped on my boat and you looked so at home it made my heart sink. I’ve loved you, probably, since before we even met.

But she doesn’t.

“I regret that I’ve killed both of us,” Karolina says, and finally looks at her, so that Nico can see the moonlight reflect in her eyes, so that Nico can hardly harden her face back. Not that it mattered, she’s more than certain that Karolina could always see between the cracks of her façade.

And Nico can only think that there used to be sweeter things to be done in the moonlight.

“What parts were true?” she finds herself asking.

Karolina doesn’t even pretend to not know what she was talking about. “The parts you want to be.”

It’s a purr and a wink and Nico rolls her eyes without even meaning to and Karolina cringes instantly.

A beat, and then: “All of them. All of me. I made the mask, but I still made it. I couldn’t hide much of me. I can’t hide much of me, with you.”

And it’s too honest, much too honest, for Nico to bear.

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Karolina asks, probably wondering what Nico is agreeing to.

(She wishes she knew what she’s agreeing to.)

“Okay,” she says once more, and strangely doesn’t regret her silent decision as much as she thought she would.

When Karolina smiles, unexpected- like she knew what Nico was struggling to say out loud- it makes her heart do a painful half flip in her chest, and Nico knows she’s lost.

She’s maybe growing up to believe, there was nothing to win at all to begin with.

**

So Nico’s nights are once again booked with folk tales.

The stories Karolina brings, though, do not inspire relief in the slightest. Nico’s realizing now more than ever that maybe they are on a fool’s errand because the stories don’t agree on much, but they agree on Morgan being far older and far more powerful than what Nico rationally thinks her crew can take on.

Not that it matters.

Rationality always had little to do with their crusade, and Nico was more than aware of the impossibility of her task. That doesn’t mean she gets the privilege to moan about it and go about her day.

Sometimes, the stories Karolina tells her don’t seem to be much about Morgan at all.

“They found them on the shore one day, their boat bobbing in the waves behind them- though it was a strange boat, no oars nor sails to be seen. The locals were afraid and tried driving them back to the sea.”

And the boat that doesn't need sails strikes a familiar tone in Nico's mind, of a black ship and her torn sails.

“Not quite. But one woman from the group touched her staff to the shore and freshwater sprung from the sand, and the locals fell back in horror. It was soon enough that the new arrivers started to make their homes just outside the village. Life wasn't peaceful though.”

“A staff?”

“I don't know if they meant yours. There are little details thrown in this one. They say there was the mother of a future king with them. And a powerful priestess.”

“Morgan."

“Yes. I think. The story is fuzzy after that, a battle with another magician, dead rising from their ashes...”

Nico shivers at that. Like she needed the remainder of what Morgan truly was. Of how much Alex was in danger.

“Who won?”

“What?”

“The battle, how did it end?”

“She was imprisoned.”

“She doesn’t look trapped to me.”

“There is,” Karolina suddenly looks away, like she had said too much, but at Nico’s noise of encouragement she continues, “Another story.”

Nico can’t help rolling her eyes at the dramatics. “Which is?”

“It’s getting a bit late for ghost stories.”

Nico looks at her for a moment, head tilting unconsciously. She’s reminded of another girl telling stories night after night, never ending her tale to postpone her execution. But Nico is no sultan, and it is getting late, so she relents.

“So be it,” she says as she stands up and brushes her hands on her pants.

“Nico, I…”

“Yeah?”

Karolina sighs.

“They say her skin burns with iron near. They say her ship is made of wood and copper because of it. They say she’s forever trapped on her ship because she cannot cross the salt of the ocean. And they say,” and Nico knows this is the part Karolina didn’t want to tell her by the way her mouth scrunches up before she continues, “That she’s immortal.”

And yeah, Nico can admit that sounds more than a bit disheartening. “Immortal.”

“Yes.”

“As in she cannot die.”

“Yes.”

“Well, shit.”

That would explain a lot.

“Nico, it’s not too late to walk away from this.”

And Karolina is wrong, because it had been too late from the moment Morgan’s eyes had sparkled when Nico had introduced herself as a Minoru, even though she hadn't known why yet.

“I can’t walk away.”

“Please,” Karolina’s hand reaches for hers, “Please, Nico. I can’t watch you—”

She escapes the touch like she’s been burnt, crossing her arms. “Then don’t. I’m not the one keeping you here.”

“You know I can’t.”

“As you know I can’t.”

And there’s nothing else to say, so Nico walks away.

**

Nico’s brain had been cooking up a plan to take down Morgan and take back Alex ever since she lost him.

At first it involved a lot of swearing and blood and a fist kissing Morgan’s mouth- and maybe Alex’s too. It evolved with the months though, and now it evolved still as Karolina fed her every piece of tale ever found that uttered the name of the Sea Priestess.

It takes some time, before a full-blown, actual plan actually forms in her brain though.

Karolina helps, too- so hell-bent in her martyrdom Nico’s a bit impressed, she’s not going to lie. And when she finally tells her that last piece of the story, Nico knows why she hesitated that night.

And Nico can’t help but think of how she had fashioned this quest a fool’s errand, but maybe it was more a tragedy from the start.

Again, not that it matters at all.

And when Nico has the most important parts down, she brings Tandy, Gert and Victor in her cabin and explains it to them.

It does not go well.

“Wait what was that part again?”

She feels the flutter of Karolina’s fingers to the inside of her wrist, careful and out of sight of everyone. There’s a second where she almost takes her hand away. She doesn’t. She’s so, so tired of denying herself comfort.

And so she tells Gert again what she and Karolina had planned together. And then she adds what they hadn't.

It’s amazing how one sentence can upset so many people at once, Nico thinks, as she watches both Tandy and Gert turn to her with the kind of rage she only ever witnesses the rare times they have sugar stored on the ship.

Karolina, too, moves away from her like she’s been scorched. This time, Nico isn’t delighted by it.

The light dagger goes down on the table faster than Nico can watch it appear in Tandy’s hand. “You better be kidding.”

“You know, ‘the captain goes down with the ship’ should be seen more as a friendly suggestion over suicide note.”

She levels Victor with a look. “I’ve always been looking at my death. I'm not so naïve as to believe I could live forever.”

“Not the time to be a goth overlord, Nico.”

“It’s not like this is plan A,” she tries to brush Tandy’s worried eyes off, “It’s just a contingency plan you need to be aware of. In case…”

Then the voice that Nico wanted to hear more, said the words Nico wanted to hear less. “Let me go, instead.”

It’s a blow to Nico’s heart. One so great she refuses to acknowledge it, both the pain and the proposal.

“No. I’m the captain, and I’m the one she wants. I will—”

Her denial seems just as much a blow to Karolina, as she visually recoils. “You don’t trust me still.”

“Karolina…”

“You don’t. And I should be fine with it but I'm not. What will it take for you to…? I know it’s unfair, I know I can’t ask you to—”

“It’s not that I don’t trust you!”

“Then why won’t you use me? She has a hold on me just as much as she does on you.”

“Because it’s suicide,” Nico says, and bleeds truth.

She’s always red in Karolina’s arms, scraped raw in ways she hasn’t been or has wanted to be in years.

She’s barely aware of Gert shoving Tandy and Victor out of the cabin, unfreezing when she hears the thud of the door being closed behind them only to freeze again at the realization she’s now alone with Karolina. Karolina who seems just as taken aback as Nico feels, her mouth slightly open and her eyes comically wide.

“I thought you didn’t…”

And that makes Nico snort out loud. “Yeah. How could I not?”

“You shouldn’t.”

And Nico wants to laugh because that’s just so Karolina. To keep loving her and yet denying the possibility of being loved back. To keep herself in hell, just to feel warm.

The problem is, Nico was always burning right beside her, for as much she tried to pretend she wasn’t.

“When have I ever done what I should?”

“Nico.”

“So, no. I won’t let you,” Nico says, and for once she lets her feelings change the meaning of the words, lets herself be honest about what she feels for the woman in front of her.

“Well, you’re not going either. You’re not immortal,” Karolina says, the quiet before the storm- grey like her eyes, that make Nico feel stuck in place when she stares at her like that.

(Nico thinks she won’t mind as long as Karolina’s eyes keep being on her.)

And Nico knew that. She’s known that for a long time, and she knows this now- with the Staff’s shadow looming over her every step. “I—you already know what’s waiting for me at the end of the road. But I feel like something close to invincible when you look at me.”

“Then, what am I to you? Your friend? Your enemy?” Karolina says, stepping closer and closer until she was crowding Nico against the desk- and before Nico can think of an answer she continued, “Or are you just that hellbent on turning me into your coffin?”

“I—”

“I thought I could take this,” Karolina pushes back her hair in a angry, stilted movement that makes Nico wince, “But I can’t stand still when you’re so hellbent on destroying yourself.”

“Karolina.”

“What?”

It takes her little to bring Karolina’s down to her level until she could look straight into her eyes if she so wanted, but she doesn’t want to.

(She wonders if she’s making the worst mistake of her life.)

“Kiss me,” she says instead.

It doesn’t take more than a few, terrible seconds, before Karolina closes the gap in a rush of adrenaline- and it’s familiar, and it’s new, and it makes Nico’s toes curl in her boots and her heart speed up and how had she ever denied herself this for so long?

(If it was, it also would be the best mistake of her life.)

She angles her head, their noses brushing together before Karolina’s mouth left hers to leave soft kisses down her jaw, before biting her neck- not quite gently but somehow still softly.

Pain and arousal mix and switch places in Nico’s mind, but still she pushes at Karolina’s shoulder as if only the first pooled warmth deep in her stomach. “Ow, what the hell?”

Karolina just laughs against her skin, before soothing the now probably bright red skin with a kiss that does nothing but add to the warmth spreading through Nico’s body like melted wax.

“Sorry,” Karolina whispers, but Nico can still feel the imprint of her smile against her skin.

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Bully.”

And when the only answer is a laugh, she pushes Karolina back, takes her hand and leads her to the bed.

Her heart is beating out of turn, so loud she’s almost afraid Karolina can hear it through her touch. She pushes her onto the bed, her hand flying to Karolina’s neck on a whim, to see if her heart too was as erratic.

She doesn’t realize what she’s done until she feels Karolina’s throat bob up and down under her thumb. All of Nico’s blood rushes to her cheeks, she’s sure, but she can’t also ignore the rush of power as she watches Karolina’s pupils blow black and wide.

She tightens her grip slightly, testing the waters, and finds herself delighted in the way Karolina’s mouth falls open in a moan. Nico bends down just enough that she can steal it from her lips. And when Karolina kisses her back, fireworks explode behind her eyelids.

And Nico’s body burns of the whitest flame.

She kisses her again, pushing down and down like she could imprint her body into Karolina, like she could burn herself into her flesh a permanent reminder of her presence.

Nico’s hand brush over Karolina cheekbones, tracing the familiar sharp shape only to find it wet to the touch. She opens her eyes. “Wait, are you crying?”

“…No.”

“Liar,” Nico says, and some part of her wants to brush away her tears, and another more fucked up part of her wants to see her cry some more.

“Shut up.”

“Make me.”

And Karolina so sweetly obliges.

(Nico does manage to make her cry again- just a bit, just enough.)

**

“We are still talking about your suicide note contingency plan, though.”

“Later.”

“Yes. But you—”

“Later.”

**

Something strange about the open seas was how the winds carried you at the speed they wanted to. One could do only so little to hurry it along, and Nico thinks only a fool would want to hurry along when sailing to meet an evil witch and a maybe-lost friend.

So she doesn’t curse when the wind quiets down and slows the ship, and she doesn’t curse when it forces the ship to stay still for a whole day.

She’s not stupid. She knows that the only thing that awaits her at the end of this journey is death. Frankly speaking, she’s doesn’t think it would be much worse than using up those last few spells she still has.

But still, that didn’t meant Nico wanted to die.

And looking at Karolina in her bed, naked shoulder looking like spun silver under the soft moonlight, her hair molten gold… well, Nico really wants to live forever- and part of her believes she could if Karolina decided to stay by her side.

“Dance with me,” Nico says, and when Karolina just stares at her, petrified, she asks again, “Dance with me, I beg you.”

“There’s no music.”

“I don’t mind,” Nico says. I don’t need it when I'm with you, she doesn’t say.

And when Karolina indulges her, Nico’s heart soars as she takes the offered hand, as she pulls her closer, as they start to sway.

Nico must say there’s something about dancing with Karolina. Something special. She never liked to dance, never felt the need past the occasional foot tapping along to the beat. But dancing with Karolina felt like the washing of the tide on a shore- thoughtless grace and a pull impossible to resist.

(Tonight it feels like dancing while the sky is falling around them.)

Karolina twirls her before catching her other hand so that Nico’s back is pressed against her front, Karolina’s arms trapping her there for the briefest of moments before she’s released again from the hold. Nico doesn’t stray far, even so. Pushes closer until Karolina has to accommodate for the lack of balance by lifting Nico in a twirl with a laugh.

“You know,” Karolina muses when Nico’s feet are back on the ground, “You never actually taught me any of your dances.”

“I’m not a very good dancer.”

“And yet you begged me for one.”

“I did not beg,” she tries to say in her sternest captain’s voice, but Karolina dips her and the last syllable becomes a half squeak Nico will forever deny ever was uttered past her lips.

“There was a little begging.”

“Karolina…”

Karolina just laughs again, and everything rights itself out in the world at the sound, like silver bells and pearly gates, only better because she could lean up and kiss her.

She doesn’t know how they don’t fall into a heap of bodies onto the floor when Karolina sweeps Nico’s leg back with one hand and dips her to the floor with the other pushed against the small of her back as she kisses her back- not that Nico wouldn’t much care either way.

Karolina tightens her grip against Nico’s waist and brings them back up in one smooth move, lips never straying too far from Nico’s own.

She doesn’t know how many years pass as they kiss in the stillest of nights, but at some point, they start to dance again. This time with no trained or untrained moves- just the smallest of sways as Nico holds Karolina as close as her body could allow.

“It’s going to be fine,” Karolina whispers in her hair, her breath tickles Nico’s skin but she doesn’t squirm away, only sinks deeper into her embrace.

Some parts of her wouldn’t mind drowning in Karolina’s skin- make a home out of her ribcage and falling asleep next to her heart. But that’s a little more morbid than romantic, so Nico just agrees with her softly.

“It will be,” Nico says, because she knows it won’t be, but she only has this sweet lie to tell Karolina- to tell the both of them.

Karolina straightens up then, one hand on Nico’s cheek directing her gaze right into Karolina’s earnest eyes.

“You’re my fixed star, Nico,” Karolina says, her forehead bumping gently against Nico with each wave crashing against the ship, “I’ll always come back to you.”

And Nico wishes with all her heart, for it to be the only truth in all of these sweet lies.

**

Morgan comes in the night- her ship silent on the waves in such a way that made it all the more obvious the owner of the ship was a witch, if the black wood and black sails weren’t enough of a hint.

She wonders why they ever bothered trying to plan. Sailors don’t plan for storms; they just weather them.

Morgan is a vision of black and green and honestly dangerous necklines. Nico doesn’t know how intentional it is, but it’s definitely eye catching and, if she were being honest, somehow distracting.

“Nico Minoru, at last,” and God Nico had forgotten how irritating her accent was, “Have you come to join forces with me?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Pity,” Morgan drawls the word like it’s anything but.

And Nico doesn’t have the kind of patience needed to have this exchange for much longer. She grips the pommel of her rapier. “Where’s Alex?”

“Ah. You’ve come to trade, then.”

“I’ve come to free him.”

The wind shifts unnaturally, as Morgan considers her words- Nico swears that for a second the shadows shift too.

“I see you’re here too,” Morgan addresses Karolina now, “Are selkies so easily forsworn?”

Karolina, to her credit, stands her ground with barely a shiver. “I upheld my part of the deal in full.”

“You’re standing beside her.”

“I said I would watch over her. I am.”

Morgan visibly rolls her eyes. Nico resists the urge to roll them back. “Between you and me, I really do dislike how literal our kind is.”

A part of Nico hates the remainder than Morgan could have anything in common with Karolina.

“So be it, though it is a loss of talent.”

“You can still avoid being beaten again, if you just give him back.”

Morgan doesn’t seem scared much to Nico’s chagrin. Just curious. “Where did you hear about that?”

“I followed the legends.”

“There’s an older legend still, you know,” Morgan says in her posh idiot accent, “About selkies and the sea, and seven tears.”

Nico watches the panic grow in Karolina’s eyes at the words. She doesn’t know where Morgan is going but she knows she won’t like it one bit.

“You’ve been stretching yourself thin, my dear, shifting when you knew you could only afford one,” Morgan taps at her breast pocket, and Nico knows Karolina’s pelt piece is hidden there and she’s almost surprised at the rage she feels at the realization.

Nico’s mind is going a mile a minute trying to understand what’s been implied. She listened to Karolina spin so many stories to life- about the sea, about the seal folk, about herself- but none spoke of time in it.

Karolina shifts, her pelt shifting with her back into her seal skin form, slipping and pooling around her arms like glittering armour- Nico fears it’s not going to be enough. “I know my story.”

Morgan’s laugh chills the air around them like a spell, and she laughs like she knows exactly what Nico doesn’t- and it breaks her.

Nico can see her own breath fogging in front of her, when two seconds ago she could only feel the sweat down her back.

“Why don’t we skip this,” Morgan makes a circular motion with her hands, “And you just give me what I want before someone gets hurt.”

Nico had made a deal with the devil. And the devil will have her due. Still, that didn’t mean she was going to make it easy for her.

“I don’t have it.”

“Where is it?” Morgan demands, because she doesn’t know of the other deal she struck with another possibly more dangerous devil, and because Nico isn’t stupid and doesn’t tap the place where she hid critical strategy pieces.

“I don’t need it anymore. I’ve levelled up,” Nico says instead of illuminating Morgan on the beauty of playing with cards close to your chest, before adding an important addendum to the statement, “Bitch.”

“You’ve… levelled up,” Morgan repeats slowly, and now frost starts to gather around the hilt of her sword. Nico would be impressed were not she so busy being terrified.

“Yup,” she draws the sword in one hand and grips her pistol in the other, white knuckles stark against her black cuffs, “Want to try getting your ass kicked?”

Another laugh, before Morgan starts her attack.

It’s nothing like Nico could have imagined. A storm of crows and corvids burst fort from Morgan, a black cloud of croaking death launching at them.

Before Nico can start shooting as many of them down as she can, blackness pools in front of them, a cold wall that absorbs the flying horde like it was smoke. Ty falls down by their side, holding his cloak back closed.

She doesn’t have the time to thank him before she has to dodge another of Morgan’s spells, red bolts of lightning striking one after the other, crackling ozone.

The third one hits her, too fast to even think to dodge.

It hits right over her temple, the blow ringing in her ears as she falls down to the deck. The side of her head burns, and her fingers come up red and wet once she touches the spot.

That’s when Karolina tackles the Sea Priestess to the ground.

And well, it surprises the living death out of both Morgan and herself, to be honest. she doesn’t know what she expected from Karolina, or how she would fight, but she did certainly not expect this. Because Karolina fights like a brawler, punches and scratches and teeth.

(It’s kind of hot.)

By the time Nico is back on her feet, gun trained with the ease of one too many boardings, Karolina had already managed to make Morgan’s face a bloody mess, and Nico would not be any prouder was she not also in the way of the perfect shot to the head.

Well, nobody’s perfect.

And then the perfect shot is right in her aim. Had Karolina not been the one thrown off the quarterdeck, Nico would have taken it without a thought. But Karolina had been, and Nico was a fool in love who launched herself after her like a five feet drop was of any relevance for a creature out of fairy tales who could lift her up with one arm- she won’t say how she had found that out, but it did involve four cabin’s walls.

Not that that is of any importance now, as she picks Karolina back up, her golden hair stained pink by blood- and as she catalogues every scrape and scratch, Nico’s rage grows hotter.

She finds herself standing, the skin around her eyes tightening in familiar ways as she snarls: “Duty and honour are good reasons enough, but I will take pleasure in ripping your heart apart.”

“My heart, you say?” and Nico doesn’t like the smile the Sea Priestess wears as she says it, “What about yours?”

It takes her a second to understand the situation, the tight grip Morgan had on a small piece of Karolina’s coat.

Nico’s mind goes a mile a minute, trying to think of why Morgan took that out now, why threaten them now, like there was a time limit to the fight. Her eyes fly to the moon, and maybe… but no, no time to think of maybes when Karolina’s scream pierces her ears.

“Nico,” Karolina chokes on her name in panic.

“I know,” she answers back, and she doesn’t know what to do, she doesn’t-- she can’t-- her blood starts to rush in her ears, making it impossible to think.

She wonders if Morgan had planned all this.

If she knew how Karolina and Nico would gravitate towards each other like magnets. For as much as she hates to admit it, Morgan is more cunning than she lets on, and she knows Nico more than she would like.

Nico could see it, how it could have all worked if Karolina hadn't broken, or maybe how it was still working, and Nico just couldn’t see it.

And well, maybe it was cynic of her, but she hadn't thought it would work before she met her. How odd, she thinks, to find out you’re loved by someone when your neck is being bitten by cold iron and you can see your own desperation reflected in their eyes.

And Nico decides then and there that she won’t let Karolina live through that.

(She will shelter her.)

“Don’t—”

Do something stupid, Karolina would have continued, Nico’s sure, had she not leapt at Morgan as soon as she had watched the tightness behind Karolina’s eyes.

(She never thought Karolina wouldn’t give her the choice to do so.)

**

She has only one thought as she launches herself at Morgan.

She won’t let her take her too.

She summons the darkness around her, like she’s seen Ty do. Nico knows there's only one way to end this, as she calls for her deepest nightmare, and lets it swallow her.

Not until a hundred spells, and Nico knows that there are only so few left.

She doesn’t care.

She sees the spark of recognition in Morgan’s eyes as the staff emerges. “Of course… you bargained with him. Oh, Nico, what did you promise him?”

Nico doesn’t see the point in answering her as she swings for her head with her rapier. She can’t risk a spell with Karolina’s pelt in the way, but she can distract Morgan just with the sight of the staff.

“Did you trade away your firstborn?” Morgan continues, not even bothering with blocking the blow as she sidesteps Nico as if they were partners in a dance, “No, that isn’t the One story. What could you even offer him apart from freedom?”

Nico should be impressed by how quickly Morgan hits the nail on its head. “Be Quiet!”

The spell fires back miserably, feathers falling around her- and of course she had used that one already, being around Tandy in enclosed quarters for long enough makes anyone snap.

“Freedom… oh,” the laughter that comes from the Sea Priestess mouth is delighted, “You offered him yourself! How truly tragic. She could have loved you, you know. And now she can do nothing but watch as you disappear from her grasp.”

And Nico knew that, consciously, but Morgan throwing it in her face doesn’t help.

She wrecks her brain for the right word, the right spell, but nothing seems to come to mind and she’s more and more limited in her choice.

The blessed salt feels heavy in her pouch, and the sword heavier still.

(Salt and iron.)

(She hopes it will be enough.)

She fiddles with the opening of the pouch, until a small rivulet of bleach white salt starts to trickle down on the deck. Morgan doesn’t seem to notice, so she starts to slowly circle around her.

“So what? You think your bargain was any kinder?” she asks, her voice sounding much surer than she felt.

“I offered you a place at my side. That’s not an offer I make for just anybody.”

“I’m not so naïve to trust you.”

Morgan’s smile is unsettling. “No, I suppose you aren’t. And yet.”

“And yet?”

“And yet you believe I haven’t noticed what you’re doing,” Morgan says, right before a bolt of red energy punches Nico square in the chest.

Morgan slowly walks towards her, crouching down where Nico is writhing in pain on the ground.

“I don’t think your crew has understood how hopeless this quest of yours is quite yet. But I reckon you did. And I reckon you also understand you cannot kill me. I’ve had centuries, while you had months to concoct whatever plan you’re attempting right now.”

“You can still be trapped.”

“Why die a foolish death when you could join me?”

And the darkness in her blood sings at that, beckoning the call like moth to flame. But fuck that bullshit. So she can’t kill her. So what?

“I’d choose death.”

“And so you will, Nico Minoru,” says Morgan with too sombre a tone for someone who was about to get a mouthful of blessed salt to the face.

She supposes that if Nico were a more graceful person, she wouldn’t delight as much at the way Morgan screams and recoils back, skin smoking and turning red where the salt had hit her.

She scrambles towards Morgan, fingers grasping at the seal skin trapped in her hands. back on her feet, using the Staff to support her aching ribs.

What Morgan hadn't noticed during her villain monologue was Karolina sneaking behind her, completing the circle of salt Nico had started.

She brings the staff in front of her.

“Do you really think some blessed salt and iron nails can keep me in place, Nico Minoru?” Morgan screams, her body starting to shift around the corners.

“Silent Night,” Nico orders, and her staff responds immediately as Morgan’s mouth moves up and down without making any sounds. That doesn’t slow her down nearly enough, though, and Nico doesn’t expect for the salt to work for much longer.

She doesn’t expect for Karolina to step over the salt and hold Morgan still, either.

“Karolina!” the staff falls to the ground and Nico doesn’t care as she reaches for her, “Karolina, don’t you dare!”

She can’t stand looking at Karolina’s face. She can’t stand to look at anything else.

“You know it’s the only way. Do it.”

Nico supposes it would be easier to ignore the demand if she didn’t know how much Karolina was right. But she can’t… she can’t.

“No,” Nico says, “Step out. Don’t do this.”

“Nico,” and Karolina’s voice had never been softer than this, “It’s fine.”

“There’s always a cost. I knew that. But I was the one supposed to pay it.”

Because Nico had known that when she had started, and she had been ready to pay that toll- when she had started. She isn't so sure now. She doesn’t know if she has it in her, anymore.

While Karolina has nothing but sweet lies.

“No, you’re not. I would have never made you make that choice, Nico. I love you too much for it.”

“Karolina…”

Her eyes are steel grey and stark against the shadows. “Do it.”

And Nico does it. She bends down and picks up her staff, even though it burns, even though she’d rather throw it in the depths of the ocean. She picks up the staff and she says the words and she watches it ignite in her hands again.

Magic swirls around Karolina and Morgan, black tendrils wrapping around them both. And then, they start to fade.

“Just promise you’ll find me. Please,” Karolina says, a prayer lent from her heart to Nico’s, “In the next.”

And Nico understands the moon a little better now, how she waits for the sun to shine on her, how she longs for the sun so much she pulls the oceans in her effort to get closer and closer.

“Karolina, please.”

“You know, my love-” Karolina’s smile is framed by two tears streaming down her cheeks, but the smile is still there, still beautiful- “Where I’m from, there’s little difference between a kiss and a goodbye.”

And Karolina’s smile is the last thing Nico sees of her.

**

Nico finds herself back on the beach of that little island she had once been trapped on, and she doesn’t know how she arrived here exactly. She just knows she’s here.

If only she knew why she’s here.

They had found Alex starved and alone in one of the cells of the brig. He was so cold to the touch it’d scared her, but he was alive. He’s alive. And it should be making everything worth it. It should. It doesn’t. Somewhere along the way, Nico had become just too selfish for that. Too selfish.

Morgan is dead, Alex is back, and Karolina is gone.

Two out of three.

And she doesn’t mean to say that it wasn’t worth it, to have Alex back. But maybe, she hadn't thought too much about what else she could have lost- what else she did lose.

The only thing she doesn’t mind being lost is her Staff- she had thrown that overboard the second after she had finished severing her ties with fire and string in her cabin. She hopes it worked. She hopes nobody ever finds it again, and the One’s forced back in his prison of shadows.

Not that it matters.

Not that anything matters anymore.

She watches the waves bob quietly against the shore. She would give it all, just to see a silver speck dancing in there. The piece of Karolina’s pelt burns against her skin in her pocket at the thought.

She’s so caught up in her regrets she barely notices Alex sitting down beside her in the wet sand.

“So, Tandy stole my job.”

“Next time, try not to fall to your death and you won’t lose it,” Nico says without thinking, wincing when Alex seems to shut in on himself.

Before she can say anything else, though, he pushes on: “They ask what we should do now.”

“I don’t know, Alex.”

What she does know is that at the moment she can barely imagine getting back on a ship, much less captaining one.

“Listen…” Alex sighs, a hand traveling through his hair, and the gesture should feel familiar but it’s like something is missing and Nico can’t even begin to understand what, “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how you got me back, but I know you lost her and that sucks and—”

There’s so much rage left in her bones. But it doesn’t keep her warm like Karolina’s arms did and it doesn’t keep her fed, so really what’s its use?

So she snaps.

“And what? You expect me to talk about her? Mourn her? Forget her?”

What was it all for, if it won’t bring back Karolina and it brought back so little of him?

“Nico.”

She’s so scared to find out what happens when she doesn’t feel it anymore.

“I won’t. I won’t say a fucking thing about her, because I’m getting her back.”

“Nico.”

“I’ve lost enough people to last me a decade, Alex.”

“I just wanted to ask, how can I help?”

And Nico can’t help it then if she falls down against his chest and breaks. The wet sand clings to her knees, and Alex’s still too cold, but he wraps his arms around her, and Nico is so, so tired.

But it isn’t enough.

(Nico worries it might never be enough.)

“I’m sorry,” Nico pushes him away, “I’m sorry, I can’t…”

“Nico.”

“Can you please go? Please.”

And some part of her wants for him to fight back. To stay. But Alex’s eyes are only kind as he acquiesces- that too is familiar and unfamiliar and it leaves Nico dizzy. “Ok.”

She turns away, doesn’t watch him leave. She tells herself she prefers it this way.

She presses the palm of her hands against her eyes, willing the tears not to fall. Nico had given up on crying a long time ago. And yet.

And yet.

Her tears track hot paths through her cheek, but she doesn’t care for the first time in a while. They mix with the water underneath. Salt mixing with salt. It should feel poetic, or cathartic, but it only feels sad.

She squeezes her eyes shut again, and she fully considers never opening them again, when a light pierces through them.

She opens her eyes and watches as the water starts to swirl all around her, glittering gold and silver.

And Nico barely believes in magic, and she owned a magical staff, but this must be a miracle, because Karolina is there and alive and oh, if this is a dream she’ll happily never wake up ever again.

Karolina is here.

“You’re here.”

“I am,” Karolina says, and her smile is blinding.

“How?”

“Morgan was right about the story. About selkies, and the sea, and seven tears.”

“What?”

Karolina laughs and Nico has never loved a sound more. “What if I tell you this one tonight?”

Tonight. Like she’s staying. Like she’s not going anywhere. And now, it’s Nico who’s laughing though she barely recognizes the sound.

“So I found you.”

“You did.”

“And you’re not going anywhere?” she asks, just to clarify.

Karolina’s smile is kinder than Nico could ever think to deserve. “I told you, you were my fixed star.”

And suddenly Nico isn’t standing up in the water anymore, as she throws herself at Karolina. They fall into the waves and Nico is soaked to the bone, but she doesn’t care one bit when Karolina’s lips find hers.

They taste like salt, and all the love she thought had been lost to her.

Later, Nico will hand her back her pelt. Later, Karolina will be whole again. Later, they will fall asleep holding each other.

But now there’s only the desperate need to fill up any gap that may be between their bodies.

And that’s enough.