"I'm glad you didn't die today," Nadine said. She looked up at Chloe from her perch on the hotel bed with dark, deep eyes.
Chloe pretended her fingertips weren't trembling as she pressed the bandage into place at Nadine's brow, and forced a weak chuckle. "Me too," she agreed. "A few close scrapes, there." She turned away and fiddled with the first aid kit for the sake of having something to do with her hands.
Nadine stood slowly, then stretched abused muscles with a wince. "Asav's remaining forces will turn on each other when they eventually realize he's dead. Shoreline, though... We'll be hunted."
Chloe nodded. "A problem for tomorrow," she said quietly. "I've hit my limit on mortal peril for today." Unable to use the first aid kit as a prop any longer, she sealed it shut and turned, aware that Nadine was standing extremely close, effectively pinning her against the small side table.
Those dark, deep eyes watched Chloe, looking for injury, for reassurance that they were both actually alive and mostly intact. "Would you mind if..." Nadine began, before trailing off with a frown. "I'd like to..."
Chloe only waited, intrigued by Nadine's uncharacteristic stammering.
"Can I hold you for a bit?" Nadine said finally. She wilted at the awkwardness of her own question, and cast her hands wide in frustration. "It's been a ridiculous fucking day and I almost watched you die a dozen different ways and I just..."
"Sure, love," Chloe interrupted with a tiny smile. She shuffled closer and held her arms out, and was about to crack a joke about how no one had ever asked her formal permission for a hug before, but then Nadine's arms folded around her in an impossibly gentle embrace and all words fled her.
Chloe's hands wound around Nadine's waist, and she tilted her chin into a broad shoulder.
Nadine's strength and powerful physique were more than obvious, and aside from a well-deserved punch in the face, Nadine had only ever used her strength to protect them both. This... was different. Different, and warm, and incongruously soft, and so very, very inviting. Chloe heaved a sigh and settled in a little closer, twisting her fingers into the fabric of Nadine's shirt and holding on tight.
By the time Nadine disengaged, Chloe was half-drowsy in the moment, and blinked owlishly at Nadine's tiny smile.
With a soft stroke of fingers across Chloe's cheek, Nadine finally stepped away. "Really glad you didn't die today, Frazer," she murmured.
Chloe Frazer, who had a sarcastic quip on hand for literally every occasion, just stared back blankly until Sam pounded on the door demanding that they go get some damned pizza, already.
Meenu was quite charming, even when she was brutally strong-arming Chloe into buying a stuffed monkey at twice its actual value.
"Your friend likes monkeys," Meenu said, insistently. "And you like your friend. So you should get her a monkey." She held her hands out as if that conclusion was entirely obvious.
Chloe sighed. "Well, I can't argue with that flawless logic," she declared, with wry acceptance of her fate as she dug bills out of her wallet.
Meenu danced across the stall to hand the stuffed toy to Nadine, who grinned and obligingly held it to her chest.
"You buying souvenirs for the team?" Sam asked as he stuffed the last slice of pizza into his mouth. "'Cause I'd like one that looks like an elephant tusk."
"Hush, you," Chloe replied.
She ruffled Meenu's hair and promised to return the next day. Meenu preened under her affection and waved goodbye as the exhausted trio headed back to their hotel for the night.
There had been absolutely no question the two women would be sharing a room. Chloe found herself musing on that as she eased herself gingerly onto clean sheets and emitted a long, heartfelt groan.
"I very much agree," Nadine said simply. She peeked around the curtain at the window, scanning the street below.
"Anything out there?" Chloe asked.
"No," Nadine reported. "I don't think we've been noticed or followed."
"That's good," Chloe said. "Because I'm not sure I could move right now even if I had to."
Nadine snorted, disappeared into the washroom to fill a glass of water, then brought it to Chloe along with a small handful of painkillers.
"You're a goddamn miracle, Nadine Ross," Chloe said in gratitude. She gulped down the pills and flopped back on the bed once more. "So, I want to make sure you don't feel obligated..." she began, keeping her eyes shut so she didn't have to see Nadine's reaction right away. "When we get our payoff, you're welcome to go your own way."
Nadine frowned and sat on the other bed. "If you're so opposed to my company..."
"Not opposed," Chloe said firmly. She opened her eyes and turned her head toward the other woman, though not without a wince. "Just surprised."
Nadine nodded, then leaned backwards on the bed, propping herself on her elbows. "I suppose I'm surprised as well." Her mouth tipped in a sardonic smile. "Not how I was expecting this job to go," she added.
Chloe grunted out a noise of vague agreement, then struggled upright long enough to kick off her shoes and get under the bed covers. "Just toss a pillow at me if I snore," she said.
"I'm not giving you my pillows," Nadine argued. "Get your own." She likewise got up, stripped off grimy outer layers of clothing, turned off the bare lightbulb in the ceiling, then climbed back into bed.
If she'd happened to bring a stuffed monkey with her to tuck alongside her under the covers, she damn well wasn't going to admit it.
A few minutes dragged by in the dark. Eventually, Chloe spoke up. "So what's his name?" she asked.
"Whose name?" Nadine said.
"The monkey," Chloe replied.
Nadine could hear the grin in the other woman's voice. She heaved a sigh and didn't answer.
"I'm glad you like him," Chloe added after a moment, abandoning the opportunity to tease.
"Ja," Nadine replied softly. "Thank you."
While both women went quiet after that, neither found sleep easily.
With only minor complaining, they managed to get up just after dawn, catch up with Sam, and get to the local Ministry of Culture.
There, it took an hour to explain to various skeptical audiences that they'd uncovered a priceless cultural artifact, and that they'd like to negotiate its delivery to the Ministry. They'd be introduced to some official of such and such, Chloe would rattle off her very practiced story, and then they'd be left to wait.
They were wandering around the Ministry's exhibit hall, where Nadine was busying herself reading all the informational cards on all the fragments of historical pottery, when Chloe breezed by.
"Well, hello, beautiful," Chloe murmured under her breath.
Nadine blinked at her in some surprise, then watched as Chloe crossed the hall to a large bronze figure displayed under dramatic lighting. She could hear Chloe muttering - to the artwork, it seemed - and she cast a look over at Sam. "Hey. Does she always do that?"
"Do what?" Sam asked.
"Talk to the statues," Nadine said. "She kept asking their pardon while climbing on their faces out in the Ghats."
Sam only shrugged, entirely preoccupied with calculating the value of every rare artifact in the room.
Nadine shook her head and wandered over toward Chloe. "Shiva again?" she guessed.
Chloe turned around and beamed at her. "Twelfth century," she confirmed. "He's performing the Ananda-Tandava, the dance of creation."
"It's beautiful," Nadine said, unable to restrain a smile at Chloe's joyful reverence.
"The gestures represent the entire cycle," Chloe continued. "Destruction and eventual re-creation. From fire," she explained, pointing to the flame in one of Shiva's hands, "Comes rebirth and redemption." She took a careful look around, noting the NO PHOTOGRAPHS signs printed in many languages. "Cover me," she whispered.
Nadine tensed. "What? Frazer..."
Chloe slipped her phone out of her pocket and took a few photos, bending to catch the most dramatic angle. "There we go, mate. I promise no compromising shots will end up on the internet," she murmured, patting the statue's outstretched foot as she tucked her phone away.
Nadine relaxed with a faint grin. "Wasn't that was Asav was after?" she asked idly. "'Rebirth' from fire?"
Chloe scowled and turned back toward her. "I wouldn't read too far into the symbolism. Asav was just a murderous asshole willing to slaughter thousands for his own gain. He fancied himself a king, not a god." She leaned in to whisper conspiratorially. "Besides, gods don't wear fake glasses."
Across the exhibit hall, a receptionist summoned them with broken English, directing them to yet another minister's office upstairs. Sam wandered off without waiting, and Chloe and Nadine followed in thoughtful silence.
"Well, maybe the destruction and rebirth wasn't for him," Nadine mused after a bit. "Maybe it was for you."
"It's just a metaphor," Chloe sighed in frustration.
"And it's just a nine-hundred-year-old statue of an ancient Hindu deity," Nadine replied. "Yet you respect it, and the story it tells. You seek its relevance in your existence."
"I wouldn't go that far," Chloe said, as they finally reached the designated office.
Nadine only shrugged, and hung back while Chloe finally negotiated the transfer of the Tusk for a modest fee, enough to get the three of them comfortably away from India and on their way to some new adventure.
"Of course we'll need our experts to verify the piece's provenance before any transfer of funds can be approved..." the minister pronounced in an officious tone.
Chloe plucked the Tusk from her satchel and set it carefully on the desk, followed by the maps and documentation she'd lifted from Asav's collection.
To his credit, the minister immediately stopped speaking, and instead leaned in to stare at the artifact in wonder.
"I'm sure you'll agree it suits all involved parties if we expedite this transaction," Chloe countered in a low voice. "Our request is more than fair." She folded her arms and waited, all confidence and well-earned swagger.
Nadine rubbed her nose to hide a grin.
With a cough, the minister stammered agreement, and hurried out to make appropriate arrangements.
"That's what I thought," Chloe muttered, before turning to flash a smirk at her companions.
"You're a damned pirate," Sam declared, with a distinct note of respect.
"I do have a certain swashbuckling charm," Chloe agreed, blithely studying her nails. "It helps to have the muscle to back it up," she added, with a nod to Nadine.
"Yannow, I did actually help a little," Sam pointed out.
"A little," Nadine allowed, holding up her fingers to describe a minute distance. She looked back to Chloe with a grin, and noticed Chloe watching her with a steady, soft expression. Nadine felt unexpected heat rise in her cheeks, and she ducked her head, managing to completely miss whatever else Sam was prattling on about.
In the bright sunshine outside the Ministry building, Chloe divvied up their reward and gave Sam a quick hug goodbye.
"You guys are okay?" Sam asked dubiously. He leaned toward Chloe with a worried look. "You do know she's terrifying, right?" he asked, tossing a thumb in Nadine's direction.
In response, Nadine only folded her arms and looked at him with annoyed disinterest.
Chloe grinned. "I kinda like her that way," she declared.
He stepped back, and gave them both an appraising look. "Yeah, okay," he said, then shook his head. "I tell ya, Nate's gonna love this."
Before either woman could demand an explanation for that comment, Sam wished them well and wandered off into the teeming city crowds on their usual morning commute. He disappeared completely in seconds.
Nadine actually looked impressed. "He's pretty good," she noted blandly.
"Careful, you don't want him to hear you say that," Chloe replied with a chuckle. She took a deep breath, feeling strangely excited about the unknown future ahead. "So, partner," she crowed cheerily. "Think your boat captain friend would take us out of the city? I'm not feeling up to another train ride today."
Nadine nodded approval. "Good idea. We should get moving."
A few hours later, they had bid farewell to Meenu (after Chloe topped off her data plan for the inevitable text message barrage to come), purchased some snacks in the market, and boarded the boat that would take them east, to the coast. From there, they'd take a merchant ship to Sri Lanka, then a flight to... well, anywhere.
As the city skyline slowly receded behind them, Nadine almost found herself relaxing. It was strange, knowing that all those innocent people had no idea of the danger a few tenacious treasure hunters had diverted, and that she and Chloe had fought so hard only to settle for a mere pittance.
The bone-weary soreness and tug of lacerations under bandages felt absurdly satisfying. She felt like a hero, instead of a hired thug. And for whatever reason, standing at Chloe Frazer's side made her feel like an entirely new life awaited her.
Nadine turned from her view on the aft deck to see Chloe leaning against the cabin door with a smile. "Not really," Nadine replied. "Just used to watching our backs."
"And if I didn't already thank you for your skill in that regard, thank you," Chloe said. She pushed away from the door and wandered to the railing with a contented sigh. "It's a nice evening."
Nadine found herself smiling as Chloe dove into her habitual self-amusing monologue, this time weighing the relative merits of a career in treasure hunting against Sam's suggestion of piracy.
"You'd be the captain," Chloe decided, after a moment's consideration. "I'd be your dashing first mate." She turned to Nadine with a mischievous grin, and the slanting sunlight shone across her cheek, highlighting the deep bruise blooming under Chloe's eye.
All the righteous, self-indulgent pride Nadine had been enjoying came crashing down in harsh realization. She swallowed against the sudden, sick lump that threatened to choke her.
Chloe sensed the shift in mood immediately. "Hey. What is it?" she asked.
Nadine reached up and drew a gentle fingertip across Chloe's cheek, tracing the bruise she herself had inflicted. "Just thinking," she said.
Chloe found herself leaning into Nadine's touch, and almost missed her comment. "Thinking?" she murmured.
"That Asav was a vile animal, but I'm not much better."
Oh. The punch. Chloe had actually managed to forget about that, except to be grateful they'd managed to forgive each other.
For a moment Chloe closed her eyes, easily drawing forth the memory of Asav's hand clamped around her throat, her fist deflecting uselessly off his arm as she struggled, before Nadine flew in from behind to take him down with decisive fury.
"Listen," Chloe said, dropping her voice to its lowest register. "I killed over a dozen mercenaries for money, then risked everything to stop a bomb from hurting thousands of innocent people, then walked away with a fraction of the payday - happily." Anticipating Nadine's retreat, Chloe reached out and snagged the outstretched hand with her own, winding their fingers together and keeping the other woman close.
"Moral ambiguity is kind of my speciality," she continued. "So I know what I'm talking about. You? You're not evil, not like Asav. I lied to you, and even then I knew that distrust and betrayal are the quickest ways to hurt you." She paused, waiting while Nadine tensed in acknowledgement.
"I'm sorry. It'll never happen again," Chloe concluded, tipping her mouth in a wry smile. "At least, if you trust the word of a thief."
"I trust the word of a friend," Nadine said, quiet and sure. "And I swear I will never hurt you, ever again."
After a moment in which Chloe got just the slightest bit lost in those dark, deep eyes, she smiled. "Well then, that's sorted," she replied in a quiet voice. She turned her back to the rail across the deck and tilted her head back to enjoy the sky above.
Nadine mirrored the pose, bumping against Chloe's shoulder with a grateful smile. For a several minutes, the jungle rolled by on either side while the women engaged in carefully bland conversation, edging backward from their mutual upset.
"That one," Chloe said, pointing at a lanky bird wading through the shallows at the river's edge.
"Sarus crane," Nadine replied instantly. "Tallest flying bird in the world."
"Really?" Chloe said, intrigued despite herself. When Nadine didn't immediately elaborate, she nudged the other woman with her elbow. "C'mon, Ms. Wikipedia. You've got more than that."
"They mate for life," Nadine offered.
Chloe made a thoughtful noise in response, considering it a sign of immense personal growth that she didn't immediately recoil from that notion.
"They do these elaborate courtship dances," Nadine continued. "Circling and arguing with each other."
Chloe hummed, and turned to the other woman with narrowed eyes. "That's a little on the nose, don't you think?"
"No. They have beaks," Nadine said, impassive.
Not for the first time, Chloe couldn't figure out if her companion was kidding. Or flirting.
Damn, it felt like flirting. She'd had this stupid fluttery feeling in her belly for days, now.
She decided to do what she did best: Step out onto the ledge and see if it would hold her up. "Okay. See, now, even for you, that is an impressive lack of subtext," she said dryly. "The courtship dance? Prospective mates arguing with each other? This is not at all familiar to you?"
Nadine canted her head to one side with a faintly mischievous look. "They're birds," she pointed out, before hesitating. "And I'm... not a very good dancer."
Ah. Chloe almost fist-pumped in triumph. "You probably just need the right partner," she said, grateful to spot the answering flush across Nadine's dark skin.
Before Nadine could reply, three gunshots rang out across the jungle on the north side of the river. By the sound of it, the gunfire was distant and almost certainly not directed their way. Still, Nadine reacted quicker than thought, putting her body in front of Chloe's and drawing her sidearm as she searched the riverbank for threats among the scattering wildlife.
"Easy," Chloe murmured. "That was kilometers away." She laid a gentle hand at the small of Nadine's back. "Probably just hunters."
Nadine expelled a ragged breath and shook off some of the sudden adrenaline surge. "Sorry," she said, holstering her weapon before turning back toward Chloe with a sheepish expression.
"'Salright, love," Chloe soothed. "Just glad you're on my side." She took hold of Nadine's arm and tugged her back toward the boat's tiny cabin. "Come on."
She fussed for a moment to toss some tarps into the corner, then kicked over some netting into a vaguely comfortable configuration and sat. "C'mere," she commanded, reaching her hand out.
"What are you doing?" Nadine asked, rubbing her forehead and sounding exhausted but wary.
"We are taking a nap," Chloe said. She settled into her makeshift nest and twitched her outstretched fingers Nadine's way once more. "We've got a few hours and nowhere else to be."
"And we have to do that on the floor?"
"Just get down here," Chloe requested, tilting her head with a pleading expression that previous experience had demonstrated as irresistible.
Nadine was - predictably - inclined to resist. She gave Chloe a dubious look and made no move to comply.
Chloe dropped her hand and heaved a sigh. "I don't know about you, but I've been having a hell of a time sleeping."
"Ja, me too," Nadine murmured.
With a sad, understanding look, Chloe offered her hand again. "So, can I hold you for a bit?"
The tension fell out of Nadine's posture as she processed that request. She dropped to her knees on the surprisingly-cozy pile of netting, then squawked when Chloe grabbed her arm and tugged her into a seated position in between Chloe's outspread legs.
"And there we go," Chloe said, her low voice humming next to Nadine's ear. "Much better." She arranged her arms loosely around Nadine's waist, and waited for the other woman to relax.
Nadine squirmed a bit, then ended up turning and settling in sideways. She tucked her face against Chloe's neck and exhaled a profound sigh.
"Hmm. Never would have figured you for a snuggler," Chloe observed with a mild grin.
"Shut up," Nadine complained faintly.
"It's just that you're this big, tough mercenary, and it's the slightest bit out of character for you to curl up like a kitten in a sunbeam..."
Nadine poked Chloe in the chin. "Seriously, stop talking."
"And it would be a damned shame if I accidentally took a selfie right now and sent it to Sam Drake..."
"I will end you," Nadine concluded, with absolutely no venom as she fought off a yawn.
Chloe smiled faintly, and pulled Nadine a little closer. "Yeah, you will," she agreed in a whisper, before closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.
When the boat captain poked at Nadine's foot some hours later, she jerked awake and looked around in profound disorientation. It was dark beyond the cabin, but noisy, with the bustle of a busy dock just before dawn. She waved the captain away as he spoke in increasingly impatient tones, urging them to get the hell off his boat so he could get on to his next job.
She shook Chloe's shoulder gently, prompting Chloe to mumble a bit and stretch, curling more firmly against Nadine's side.
"Come on, Frazer," Nadine ordered, as she disentangled herself and stood, nearly tripping off the pile of netting that had served as a bed.
Chloe uttered a disoriented bleat, then peeled open one eye to look up at the other woman in disdain.
After gathering their small travel packs, Nadine dropped to a crouch in front of Chloe and held out another dose of painkillers with a canteen of water. "Time to go, eh?"
"Whose idea was it to sleep on a pile of fishing gear?" Chloe complained, as she downed the painkillers and raised the canteen in a grateful gesture to Nadine. "Thanks for keeping me warm, though."
Nadine grinned and held her hand out to help Chloe stand. "Likewise."
"Okay," Chloe said, as she surveyed the busy marina. "We pose as naive tourists."
"Tourists who got mugged," Nadine added, gesturing to a few visible scrapes between them.
"Perfect," Chloe agreed. "And once we get to Colombo, we should probably split up. You want east or west?"
"What? No. We go together," Nadine protested.
Chloe looked down and put her hands on her hips, silently willing the other woman to forego her usual stubbornness, just this once.
"Why do you want me to go?"
"Just giving you the chance to part ways gracefully," Chloe said, keeping her eyes pointed at the ground. "No guilt, no worries."
Nadine grit her teeth. "Because everyone leaves, right?" She reared away, angry at all the people who had ever hurt Chloe in that exact way. "And if it's your idea, it hurts less?" When Chloe didn't answer, Nadine took a deep, steadying breath, and lowered her voice. "I need you to hear me, Frazer. I care about you, more than makes any sense at all. I want to stay."
Chloe finally looked up, peering at Nadine from under her lashes.
"For chrissake, I can't even sleep properly without you. What does that sound like?"
"Post Traumatic Stress?" Chloe replied, with narrowed eyes.
"Don't make jokes," Nadine huffed, turning away.
Chloe gave her a rueful look. "I wasn't joking, actually. But it's nice to hear that you care."
"Ja, I do."
Chloe nodded. "I do, too," she said, with a helpless shrug. She growled in frustration as a passing dock worker bumped hard into her shoulder. "Jesus. I'm pretty sure we could have found a less private place to have this conversation."
Nadine grabbed her hand and tugged her along as she forged their way out of the busy morning crowd. The usual commerce quickly thinned out, leaving dingy, barren trading stalls and empty warehouses.
When they turned down an unused alley alongside a rickety building, Nadine looked back at Chloe, who promptly nudged her against the wall, took her face gently in both hands, and kissed her.
She could feel Nadine smile against her lips, could feel those strong arms rest lightly at her waist. It was all rather more delicate than she'd expected, even though she knew Nadine would ultimately meet her stroke for stroke. For the first time in longer than she could remember, she didn't have to seize control or exert leverage to gain the upper hand; she just had to sink into a warm, welcoming body that was soft and safe against her own.
She broke away for a moment, letting her eyes roam Nadine's face, willing her instinctive worry and fear away. "Okay," Chloe said. "So we go together. Where are we going, together?"
"I have an idea," Nadine admitted. "Spanish galleons, lost for hundreds of years."
Chloe pursed her lips, intrigued. "Ooh. Tell me more."
"In Southern California."
"Wait. Really?" Chloe asked, with a grin. "Let me guess. Wikipedia?"
Nadine shrugged. "You said you hadn't been to the States. I figured I'd find a reason for you to go."
Chloe had to laugh, then had to curl gentle fingers at the back of Nadine's neck and kiss her again.
This feeling was familiar, she realized. She'd felt it every time she'd leapt into midair, knowing Nadine would be there to catch her. No fear, just exhilaration. Just trust.
She couldn't wait to start their next adventure.