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Nicolette O'Hara

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Featured Thread #21
Gideon rained praise on Oscar, who was shifting his feet nervously on the deck. This was by no means the biggest crowd he’d been in, but they’d only been on one boat journey since he had joined her and Thibault. The Wicked Grace was a bigger ship and she was not sure how he might take to the ocean. As Celeste turned to get the venison, Nicolette crouched by him to fondle his ears and pet his chest until some of the tension drained by his muscles, murmuring soothingly at him. He had saved her life and probably scared away a few people who intended trouble without her even knowing during the course of their travels. She hoped that now she was back on the Grace, she could offer him a less stressful life than the one he had been living with her so far.

He was not so proud or nervous that he did not immediately swallow the venison that came his way, and Nicolette chuckled, ruffling his ears one more time before standing up. Thibault had accepted his treat with the appropriate amount of tail wagging and was now making his rounds amongst the rest of the crew, to receive his own pats and adulation. As he did so, the young boy or girl came forward at Celeste’s request.

The sharp jut of her chin and suspicious cast to her eyes did not distract Nicolette from the small vest with extra pockets, or the bright bandana holding back sea-frizzed curls. They were not unusual accoutrements for a sailor, but she suspected she knew who had inspired them, and it was easy to smile as they were introduced. “This is Nicolette O’Hara, ship’s minstrel. Nico, this is Charlie, our cabin girl.”

Charlie’s frown deepened. “Ship’s don’t need minstrels.”

“Nobody really needs minstrels.” Nicolette’s tone was light; she was already curious about this one. She seemed younger than somebody Celeste would usually taken on, and her demeanour sat at odds with that of most of the crew. A refugee, perhaps? She gave her a conspiring smile. “But I am told we’re fun to have around.”

“She can also man the helm, raise the sails, keep watch from the crow’s nest-” Nicolette’s favourite duty on board – “and tie every knot there is.” Celeste winked. “She was a landlubber not too long ago, though. You could learn a lot from her.”

Nicolette did not know about that, but it seemed to thaw Charlie a little, and she held out her hand. “Pleased t’meetcha.”

Nicolette took it, shaking with the grip she used with sailors and workmen rather than the soft press of palms used for nobles or people she thought she might earn work from. “The pleasure is mine. How did you come to join the Wicked Grace?” She nodded at Charlie’s attire. “I like your vest, by the way.”

The fact that every part of her was yearning to touch Celeste again was not going to ruin her manners.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#22
Nicolette crouched to reassure Oscar, who settled enough to bolt down the meat that Celeste tossed to him. Thibault needed no such urging, readily accepting his own treats and then lumbering around the deck to collect pats and praise from the rest of the crew. Even the Thing emerged to briefly sniff noses; he and Thibault had reached a truce over the years, but his single green eye narrowed, his tattered ears flattened and his crooked tail lashed as he regarded Oscar, and after a moment, he turned and stalked back below, trailing curses in his wake.

Charlie didn’t appear any more welcoming of Nicolette, which annoyed Celeste a bit, because the girl knew that they’d been looking for the minstrel all around the Waking Sea. But she had faith in Nicolette, and her lover did not disappoint.

“Nobody really needs minstrels,” she agreed in response to the girl’s challenge, smiling in the manner of one confiding a secret. “But I am told we’re fun to have around.”

“A good shanty makes the work on deck go faster,” Gideon offered, putting a friendly hand on the minstrel’s shoulder. Charlie adored the first mate (who didn’t?), and his endorsement, along with Celeste’s pointed look, was enough to get a grudging greeting and an extended hand.

Nicolette gave it a firm shake. “The pleasure is mine,” she replied graciously. “How did you come to join the Wicked Grace? I like your vest, by the way.”

Charlie had started to frown at the question of how she had come aboard, but mention of her beloved vest softened her up nicely. “Neat, in’t it?” she preened with a smug smile. “Kali made it for me. Lots a pockets for stuff.” She jammed a hand into one, and Celeste prepared herself to intervene; the girl was very much like she had been at that age, which meant that she could be reaching for anything from a pretty rock to a live animal, but what she presented Nico with was a three inch section of jawbone lined with a row of sharp, peglike teeth. “Found it on a beach coupla weeks ago,” she told the minstrel, eyes widening a bit as she added, “Nobody knows what it came from! D’you?”

Possible, though if even Brannigan and Young Torgun hadn’t been able to identify it, unlikely. Anyone who had sailed the seas of Thedas for any length of time knew that many mysteries remained hidden in the lightless depths, and fishermen brought up new and bizarre looking specimens that no one had seen before every year or so. Whatever it was would have had a nasty bite, though it didn’t look to be large enough to be truly dangerous.

Celeste glanced about; they were clear of the harbor, and nobody seemed to be giving pursuit. “Be right back,” she told Nicolette, touching the minstrel's arm lightly before stepping away, trusting that Gideon would keep Charlie in line.

“That was invigorating,” she remarked as she climbed up to the bridge.

Brannigan chuckled. “That it was,” he agreed, “but I think it turned out quite well.”

“No argument there.” Celeste glanced back to the deck, confirming that yes, Nicolette was there, she hadn’t imagined her. Even this distance between them felt like too much. “Let’s take it east a few leagues to that bay we found and drop anchor for the night,” she suggested. “Nico’s family is living just outside of Cumberland; she sent a note, but we’ll have to head there in a few days so that she can get her things and her mother can kick my ass.”

“You couldn’t have done anything but what you did,” the healer told her.

Celeste shook her head. “I could have gone ashore after her,” she disagreed. And that was what she would be doing, in the unlikely event that they wound up in the same situation again. “You want me to send Gid up to take the helm?” Sailing conditions were good, but Brannigan’s joints had been troubling him more and more over the past year.

“I’m good for a bit longer,” he told her. “I assume you’ll be retiring to your cabin?”

She crooked a grin at him. “You assume correctly,” she confirmed, making her way back down to the main deck, hoping that no one had talked Nicolette into performing for them. That she could wait a little longer to have her minstrel to herself didn't mean that she wanted to, and the arm that she slipped about the slender - too damn slender - waist was more than a bit proprietary.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#23
Gideon came over and rested his hand on her shoulder. Nicolette leaned into it, resting her hand over his; the warmth and weight made her feel safer, more secure, than she had been in a long time. It would be difficult to admit out loud, but returning to the Wicked Grace felt more of a homecoming than reaching Saul’s house had. It was a lovely place, and well tended, and she had slept on mattresses far more comfortable than the hard earth that had formed most of her beds over the last few months, but it was neither where she had grown up nor where she had felt at her best; a waystation more than a home. The moment she had stepped onto the Wicked Grace she had been folded in a warm comfort better than she had ever known.

Although she knew by now that no matter how familiar a place was, there would always be changes, and in the case of the ship this came in the form of the cabin girl who was obviously unimpressed by her. Nicolette looked for an opportunity to compliment her and found it in her vest; the girl’s fiery expression quenched almost immediately. “Neat, in’t it? Kali made it for me. Lots a pockets for stuff.”

The girl ferreted amongst her various pockets for a moment, and withdrew what appeared to be a bone with several long, sharp teeth sit in it. “Found it on a beach coupla weeks ago.” Curiosity was strong in this one; her eyes widened as she held it out. “Nobody knows what it came from! D’you?”

Celeste brushed Nicolette’s arm on the way over to the helm, presumably to issue orders to Brannigan. It took all Nicolette’s strength not to follow her progress with her eyes; Charlie was new, and Nicolette always considered it worth her while to be friendly towards the crew, especially those who did not know her. She did not move to take the bone, but trailed her fingers across the jagged bones.

“I do not know enough of the sea to give a definite answer,” she admitted, “But I am inclined to think it may belong to a mermaid of the deep. The further down you go, I am told, the large the life in the ocean becomes; why would it not be true of merfolk? Perhaps there are some down here as large as our whales.”

She could have spiralled on that theme for a while yet, but Celeste had returned from her conversation with Brannigan, and the arm around Nicolette’s waist sent a clear statement. Gideon grinned at them before turning away, offering some task to Charlie to distract her, and the others found various things to occupy themselves; within a few minutes, all eyes were turned away from them.

Nicolette turned in the circle of Celeste’s arms, and kissed her, drawing her back in the direction of the cabin as she did so. If Celeste needed her to stop, she would comply immediately, but she got the impression that her captain did not want her to stop.

The moment the door closed behind them, however, she found it difficult to continue as though the last few months had not happened; with that breath of space between them and the outside world, she felt every second that she had been separated from the other woman, and suddenly she could do nothing more than cling to her, immediately and deeply terrified that this might somehow be an illusion.

“Promise me this is real.” Her voice was almost shaking as her fingers traced the outlines of Celeste’s face; she could be certain in herself, but she struggled, the vivid images that previous nightmares had left her with as clear as ever. The still sore points on her arm where the brute in the tavern had gripped her offered further proof, but she needed to hear it aloud. “Please…if I wake up tomorrow and you are gone again, I do not know how I will bear it…please tell me this is not another dream.”
 
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Celeste Monroe

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#24
Celeste caught Nicolette’s mention of mermaids as she approached and hid her smile as Charlie’s eyes went huge. She’d be combing the shoreline for mermaid remains every time they dropped anchor now. Which beat the shit out of scavenging food from garbage heaps and stealing coppers from passed out drunks like she’d been doing in Highever. The seas of Thedas were far from safe, but the kid would learn a trade and have a crew on her side when things got rough. And this crew was better than most.

Whether her expression gave away her mood or because it was that much of a no-brainer, as soon as Celeste put her arm around Nico, everybody on deck suddenly found a task that needed doing, leaving them to return to their cabin. It wasn’t the usual way of things - normally this captain was on deck for a good while after they left port, particularly when the departure had been as lively as this one. But today was anything but normal, and when Nicolette kissed her and led her in that direction, Celeste followed without a second thought.

Thibault and Oscar trailed them inside; the old man made a beeline for his bed, turning around twice and sinking down with a happy groan. Oscar began sniffing about curiously, but any concerns that Celeste might have had about him lifting a leg were knocked aside when Nicolette stepped into her arms and held on tight.

“Promise me this is real.” Her voice quivered and the glorious eyes were on the verge of tears again as fingertips brushed over the sailor’s cheeks as though fearful that they would vanish. “Please…if I wake up tomorrow and you are gone again, I do not know how I will bear it…please tell me this is not another dream.”

Celeste shook her head. “Not a dream. See?” Trying for a bit of levity, she dropped her hand to lightly pinch her lover’s backside, but the anguished expression tore at her, and she kissed her minstrel, fierce and tender, wanting nothing more than to undo the last few months. “It’s not a dream,” she said again when they parted, smoothing dark hair away from damp cheeks, her gaze going to the scar beside Nicolette’s eye, the nick in the curve of one ear, fingers moving to touch them, as gingerly as if they were still fresh. Small, perhaps, but the hurt in the amber eyes spoke of much worse endured by a gentle spirit that had never sought conflict.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, her throat feeling nearly too tight for speech. “So damn sorry.” She pressed kisses to Nicolette’s cheeks, her forehead, her eyelids, the tip of her nose, her lips once more, lingering to savor the sweetness for a moment before drawing back again, just enough to breathe, not wanting even that much space between them. “I should never have left.” She’d never been one to allow herself regrets, but that one had haunted her relentlessly from the moment she’d made the choice. “Never again,” she promised, green eyes steady on amber, feeling the resolve settle into place like an anchor. She knew that as surely as she knew her own name.
 
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Nicolette O'Hara

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#25
When Celeste pinched her Nicolette jumped slightly, a small squeal turning to a laugh escaping her. It was her captain, without further doubt. The sound was still choked, though, and Celeste quickly smothered it with a deep kiss that was passion and care all at once. Nicolette sank into it, fingers winding in Celeste’s hair, trailing down her neck when her captain pulled away just enough to end the kiss and examine her scars, but no further. Calloused fingertips gently explored the scar by her eye, the notch in her ear. Nicolette returned the examination, her attention held by the line that dashed through Celeste’s eyebrow and continuing to the cheek below.

Had she had that when they first met, Nicolette would have thought it fetching, with its insinuation of danger and bravery. Now, it was just something else she had missed. They had so much to talk about, but it was hard to even speak.

Celeste was suffering the same trouble, judging by the tightness in her voice. “I’m sorry. So damn sorry.” Her lips pressed against almost every part of Nicolette’s face, ending at her mouth once more, distracting her from giving the response she wanted to give. “I never should have left. Never again.”

Green eyes locked intently on her own; Nicolette could have stared into them forever, but the grief and guilt in Celeste’s voice was something that needed to be assuaged. She caught Celeste’s hands. “No. You did the right thing, to leave when you did.”

She swallowed, and drew Celeste in the direction of the bed, sitting down on the edge. “When the Breach opened, I was with a caravan. We were already running slow and I was going to miss our connection anyway; then we were hit by demons. They cut through the guards in seconds. I can still see...one of them just pushed its hand clean through a man's chest. One of the merchants threw me and Thibault onto his horse and sent it running. It fled in blind terror, and I could only hold on.” He had saved her life, without a doubt. Losing everything she was travelling with, apart from her vielle, daggers and Thibault, was a small price to pay. The nightmares had been worse.

“After he had run himself tired, and we all recovered from the flight, I rode as fast I could for the town to try and reach you. Celeste…” the horror of the sight rose up in her mind as fresh as when she had first seen it. “The whole place was on fire. I could hear the screaming as I approached. Not all of it was human.” She squeezed Celeste’s hands. “I did not even come inside the town walls. I…stole from a farmhouse that had been abandoned, and rode to the next meeting point. Which was also overrun. Had you waited for me, I would never have arrived; you and the whole crew would likely have died.” She met Celeste’s gaze, squarely. “You did what you needed to do, for them. And it did not take me long to learn that you still sailed. I imagine it was worse for you than for me; at least, between dealing with robbers and demons, I knew for sure that you lived.”

She had held Celeste’s image in her head like a talisman on many a cold night camped on the dirt road, and it had helped. Nicolette reached into her collar and pulled out the little chunk of amber that Celeste had given her so long ago. She smiled at her captain. “I never took it off.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#26
Celeste knew that she probably should not have voiced her determination to not leave Nicolette to wander alone again. She knew what her minstrel’s reaction would be, but the fragile expression on her face had the sailor aching to do something - anything - to reassure her.

“No,” Nico responded at once, taking both of Celeste’s hands in her own. “You did the right thing, to leave when you did.” Celeste let herself be led toward the bed, sitting beside Nicolette when she settled on the edge and listening as the minstrel told her tale: the slaughter she had witnessed; the man who had saved her life, all but certainly at the cost of his own; the terrified flight only to find herself cut off by fire and demons. "Had you waited for me, I would never have arrived; you and the whole crew would likely have died,” she concluded, holding tight to Celeste’s hands. Which was true, but not what Celeste had meant. “You did what you needed to do, for them. And it did not take me long to learn that you still sailed. I imagine it was worse for you than for me; at least, between dealing with robbers and demons, I knew for sure that you lived.”

Releasing her grip with one hand, she reached up and withdrew the necklace from beneath her blouse, amber and silver gleaming faintly in the dim light. “I never took it off,” she said, smiling so sweetly that Celeste felt her heart clench in her chest. She’d dreamed of that smile every damn night, and it felt as though she couldn’t look away. She wrapped her own fingers around hand and amber alike.

“Thought about doing that with the saartoh nehrappen, but walking around would have been a bitch,” she joked, but the smile faded as she looked around at the cabin that had remained untouched. “Not knowing,” she said quietly, “that was the hardest part.” A remnant of the agitation that had been a near-constant companion these last weeks seeped back into her blood, and she came to her feet.

“I knew you could take care of yourself under normal circumstances,” she explained, pacing the tight confines of the cabin, Oscar edging away and watching her warily, “but this -” She raked the fingers of one hand through her hair, barely noticing when the bandanna was dragged off. “Day after day, we saw people slaughtered, and not just by demons.” Her expression hardened into hate, and she moved to the window, staring out into the deepening night in their wake. “The fucking bottom feeders came out to take advantage,” she snarled. “Bandits, raiders … preying on people who’d already lost everything. We saved the ones that we could, but it was never enough … not by a long shot. We weren’t exactly safe.” Nicolette would see the worst scars soon enough, and she was far from the only one who bore them. Celeste drew a breath, let it out, stepping to the desk and leaning on it. “We lost Nordstrom two months ago.” The quiet man had remained just as much an enigma in death as he’d been in life. In the bottom of his seabag, beneath his clothes and a few trinkets, they’d found an old rag doll with a lock of fine, pale blonde hair tied around its neck. They’d buried it at sea with him. “But we fought together, and we could at least sail away, but every damn time we did, all I could think was what if you were at the back of that crowd of people that we were leaving behind to die because if we tied up, they’d all try to get on board and capsize us? What if you were just beyond where I could see you, needing help, and we were leaving?

“I chose the ship every time,” she admitted, drawing a ragged breath, not able to look at Nicolette as she said the words, “and every damn time I did, I got a little crazier." She shook her head, trying to dispel the churn of memories. "I can’t do that again. I won’t. The crew can look after the ship.”

Returning to the bed, she knelt before Nicolette, wrapping one arm around the other woman’s waist and lifting the other hand to cup her cheek. “I love you,” she said softly, “and if anything that crazy ever happens again, I’d a thousand times rather be with you looking for this ship than on this ship looking for you.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#27
Celeste had always had a gift for making Nicolette laugh, and she exercised it now, teasing her with the idea of having worn the stiff leather rod Nicolette had left for her around the place. The image was enough to amuse, but the air was not yet clear. Celeste still carried the weight of guilt on her shoulders, despite Nicolette's assurances that Celeste had done the right thing for herself and her crew to escape while they could.

And it was not as though Celeste had doubted her capabilities. She ensured Nicolette knew that first, before explaining what had given her reason to doubt that Nicolette might have survived. “Day after day, we saw people slaughtered, and not just by demons. The fucking bottom feeders came out to take advantage. Bandits, raiders … preying on people who’d already lost everything. We saved the ones that we could, but it was never enough … not by a long shot. We weren’t exactly safe.”

Nicolette nodded, slowly. "I encountered a few of those myself." She had made it out intact, sometimes by persuasion, sometimes by dint of what Celeste had taught her, but most of the time by sheer luck and a fast sprint away from danger.

"We lost Nordstrom a few months ago." Nicolette covered her mouth, horrified; not just at the loss of the man, but the fact that she had not noticed him missing when the crew had gathered around to welcome her back. Or rather, she had simply assumed he would be hanging back, as was his way. He had always been nice to her, if distant. Celeste had nothing to say on how he had died, simply gratitude that they had fought together. “But we fought together, and we could at least sail away, but every damn time we did, all I could think was what if you were at the back of that crowd of people that we were leaving behind to die because if we tied up, they’d all try to get on board and capsize us? What if you were just beyond where I could see you, needing help, and we were leaving?"

The horror in Celeste's voice was clear as a bell, and Nicolette could see her reliving those moments as she paced, as frantic as though she was still searching for her in a crowd of the desperate. She kept her face turned away, and Nicolette ached to get up and go over to her, but feelings like this were like stones, and you needed to let them roll out before you interrupted them. She stayed where she was, letting Celeste spill out her guilt. “I chose the ship every time, and every damn time I did, I got a little crazier." She shook her head. "I can’t do that again. I won’t. The crew can look after the ship.”

Now Nicolette drew in a breath. For Celeste to even suggest being willing to part with the Wicked Grace - simply to find her - was enormous. This ship was her home. Both of their homes, now, and Nicolette had felt her separation from it every day, so for Celeste to suggest walking away from it purely on her behalf was as startling to her as the first time they had managed to admit aloud that they loved each other.

Now Celeste was kneeling before her, one hand reaching up to her cheek. Nicolette leaned into the warm, calloused palm, letting Celeste cradle her face for a moment, as she tried - not very well - to dam the river of tears that were threatening to flow again. "I love you. And if anything that crazy ever happens again, I’d a thousand times rather be with you looking for this ship than on this ship looking for you.”

"I think I would prefer that too." The jest fell a little flat - the memory of their separation still too raw. "I love you too. Almost beyond words." Nicolette leaned down, wrapping her arms around Celeste's shoulders. "I am here now, my love." Kisses chased her words, she wanted so desperately to ease the pain her captain had been through, and only touch seemed as though it would help. "I missed you, so deeply - it pained me to wake in the morning and realise you were not there."

Her fingertips ran over each of Celeste's scars, gentle and loving. "I missed your smile, your caring. The way you live every second to the full. Your temper, the way you make fighting almost an art, the way you light up when the sun paints the sea and the sails catch a good breeze. Your refusal to let shitheads-" a word wholly borrowed from Celeste, not one she would usually utter herself - "ruin your day. I thought of you and borrowed your mannerisms on occasion, to help me feel brave, when I could not be brave myself."

She drew Celeste up towards her, into a long kiss. "And now I have you back." She smiled. "And I do not think I have been happier in my life, than when I realised it was you in the crowd tonight."
 

Celeste Monroe

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#28
Celeste heard Nicolette gasp when she finally managed to make her intentions clear. It did not seem like such a drastic step to the sailor; she had faith in her ship and her crew, and after nearly twenty years with some of them, they knew each other well enough that she felt sure that she could anticipate where they might go. Admittedly, it was not a notion she’d ever entertained before, but after spending most of the previous half year feeling ready to crawl out of her skin, there was little in the way of doubt in her mind: if the world tipped sideways again, she knew where she wanted to be. Where she needed to be.

"I think I would prefer that too." Nico’s smile wavered, and the eyes that met Celeste’s brimmed with emotion. "I love you too. Almost beyond words. I am here now, my love." She reached out, and Celeste drew her in, words and tears falling between kisses "I missed you, so deeply - it pained me to wake in the morning and realise you were not there."

Fingers brushed feather light over the sailor’s face, and Celeste closed her eyes, reveling in the touch and the sweet sound of her lover’s voice telling of how she had been missed. Celeste’s own words exhausted, she met each kiss hungrily, hands roaming in ardent caresses, feeling the warmth of the minstrel’s skin beneath the shifting fabric of her blouse, and when Nicolette pulled her up, she went willingly, pressing the other woman back onto the bed, erasing the last of the distance between them.

One hand slipped beneath the minstrel’s braid to cup the back of her head, drawing her deeper into the kiss as her other hand drifted down, over the curve of hip and thigh and past the hem of the skirt, fingertips grazing along the smooth skin of the calf, pausing as they encountered the puckered flesh of a scar. Celeste lifted her head, angling to examine the healed wound as her touch shifted to the other side of the leg to find its mate, recognizing it for what it was.

“Did he do that?” she asked, tipping a nod toward Oscar, who had settled down near Thibault, golden eyes meeting Celeste’s stare.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#29
No more words, for now. They kissed, again and again, and Nicolette slipped her hand beneath Celeste’s shirt, revelling at the warmth beneath her fingers, here and there the familiar scars she had missed tracing. The kisses became ardent, needier, and Nicolette pulled Celeste up and Celeste pushed her back on the bed, and the weight of the other woman settling over her awoke something that Nicolette had been trying to ignore for months. She had gone to bed with others, while they had been separated, but it had never felt right, and after a while she had stopped trying to find traces of her captain in other people. Now Celeste was here and Nicolette wanted her so badly that she was tempted to just claw the clothes straight off her.

Celeste’s thoughts seemed to be following a similar path. Her fingers found the hem of Nicolette’s skirt, and then slipped beneath it, fingers tracing a slow path up her leg – and then stopped, and Nicolette shivered as Celeste touched her scar. It had long since healed over, but the skin was more sensitive there. She felt her captain explore the damage, finding the other half of the scar, then shifting to look down at it.

“Did he do that?” Celeste nodded towards Oscar.

“No.” Nicolette cleared her throat. She had been hoping not to share the full details until later. “It was Thibault.”

She rested her hands on the small of Celeste’s back, looking up at her. “About a month or so after we were separated, I came across a farmstead where a slaughter had taken place. I found myself drawn to it – I could not prevent my own steps from taking place. When I tried to shake the influence that gripped me, a demon appeared.”

Having Celeste here, right above her, made this easier to bear, so she did not move. “I did not have time to get away from it. It showed me every nightmare I ever had, the worst of my fears, one after another, and every bad thing that ever happened to me. I could not…I could not break free.”

Her breath shuddered. “I do not know how he knew to do it. But Thibault bit me hard enough that it shattered the illusion, and then he launched himself at the demon. It – swatted him aside, as though he was nothing, and then Oscar came out of nowhere, and tackled it. Together they held it back long enough that I could get my bow and shoot it dead.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#30
Celeste’s question had the immediate effect of bringing Nicolette’s attempts to get her clothes off to a screeching halt, but of greater concern to the sailor was the suddenly haunted look in her lover’s eyes as she responded.

“No. It was Thibault.”

“Thibault?” Celeste shifted her astonished gaze to the old hound, who drooped his head onto his bed, looking decidedly abashed. The wound wasn’t even that bad, but that it was there at all because of Nicolette’s faithful companion made it certain that there was a tale behind it that Celeste wasn’t going to like, one way or another.

“About a month or so after we were separated, I came across a farmstead where a slaughter had taken place,” the minstrel began, her arms holding tight about Celeste’s waist and amber eyes looking into her own, anchoring herself in the present as she revisited the past. “I found myself drawn to it – I could not prevent my own steps from taking place. When I tried to shake the influence that gripped me, a demon appeared.”

“Sonofabitch,” Celeste breathed. It was exactly the scenario that had haunted her imaginings, and only the fact that Nicolette had survived made it bearable.

“I did not have time to get away from it.” Nicolette’s gaze grew distant, caught in the horror of the memory. “It showed me every nightmare I ever had, the worst of my fears, one after another, and every bad thing that ever happened to me. I could not…I could not break free.”

Her breath hitched in her chest, her body drawn as taut as a bowstring and quivering with agitation. Celeste dipped her head, pressing a tender kiss to her lover’s forehead and smoothing her hair away from her face. “It’s all right, querida. It’s over now. You’re safe.” She’d clashed with enough fear demons to know what it was like to be caught up in the nightmares that they called forth, and too damn many of her own had unspooled almost exactly the way that Nico was describing.

Except this telling had a much better ending. “I do not know how he knew to do it. But Thibault bit me hard enough that it shattered the illusion, and then he launched himself at the demon. It – swatted him aside, as though he was nothing, and then Oscar came out of nowhere, and tackled it. Together they held it back long enough that I could get my bow and shoot it dead.”

Relief washed through Celeste, and a fierce pride. “That’s my brave girl,” she murmured, hugging her lover close. The minstrel seldom seemed to believe it of herself, but Celeste had seen the other woman’s quiet courage come forth time and again when needed. It was rare that it sparked on her own behalf, though, and it was heartening to know that, while her worst fears had been realized while they were apart, her hopes had been, as well. Thibault had protected his mistress. “Good boy,” she praised him, then looked to Oscar. “Good boys, both of you.”

Thibault’s tail thumped on the wood floor, and he started to rise, but settled back at a gesture from Celeste. “Not just yet, pup,” she told him, her attention shifting back to the woman in her arms, all focus now devoted to driving the pain of the past away from those glorious eyes, shifting and squirming until clothing was shed. She noted the new scars in passing as lips and fingers re-mapped every plane and curve, finding every spot that made her minstrel shudder with pleasure, call out her name, arch against her in a hungry bid for more. It was more than a joyous reunion, though it was very much that; the restless yearning that had embedded itself in her soul for so long was finally stilled. Nicolette had been the one away, but having her here, now ... it felt as though they had both come home.

Later, as she floated on the verge of sleep with Nicolette nestled snugly against her, Celeste felt the bed shift slightly as one heavy weight, then another, settled across the foot. She shifted her legs to make room, making a mental note to ask Torgun in the morning about adding a foot or so to the length. These two would always have a place on this ship.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#31
Nicolette still remembered the first time Celeste had called her brave. She had carried around that moment and cherished as much as she did any physical gift - it had been unexpected, and valuable, as remembering it and believing it from time to time had saved her life. She had not felt brave when the demon had come roaring towards her, but if she had run it would have killed her or Oscar and Thibault, if not all three. Even then, that memory had managed to keep her safe.

The fear the demon had planted in her had yet to bleed out entirely, though. Nightmares had formed a regular part of her sleeping patterns since, although she had not been sleeping too easily anyway, fraught with worry for Celeste and her other friends with everything that was going on. More than once Thibault and Oscar had woken her by poking her face with their noses, and she had realised she had been crying in her sleep.

Now Celeste called her brave again, and gently chided Thibault to return to his bed, before turning her full attention on Nicolette. This time, no memory intruded to bar them from pulling away clothing, and instead of sharing stories of each new scar as they found them, they both explored each other. When Nicolette felt Celeste tremble under her fingertips and her body pull tight, a whisper of worry in her head was silenced forever; and when Celeste paid her back in kind, every other thought disappeared. From tender to hungry and back again, it was a long time before they were finally completely spent, and as Nicolette melted against her captain, she drifted into sleep far more easily than she had done in a long time.

While one of her stories might have ended there, her mind had other ideas. As she drifted, senseless but comfortable, she heard a familiar, deep chuckle that made her heart skip a beat. Was she still trapped? Had this all been imagination? The comfortable surface on which she lay became softer and softer still, and strangely cold. Nicolette opened her mouth to call for Celeste and felt water rush in; the bed disappeared and she sank beneath the surface.

It was dark, and something was winding around her, squeezing her tight. The harder she thrashed against it, the tighter it held. She thought she could hear somebody calling but it sounded so far away; all she could do was cry out uselessly into the water.

“Celeste!”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#32
Exhaustion had become almost as constant a companion to Celeste as worry and guilt these past weeks. Sleep meant dreams, and dreams meant seeing Nicolette die and worse a thousand times while Celeste watched helplessly from the deck of her ship or fought her way through endless crowds or swam through towering waves that pushed her ever farther away. Almost as cruel had been the ones where she made love to her minstrel, or danced with her, or simply held her hand as they walked together on a beach; if they didn’t turn without warning into the terrifying variety, then in the hazy moments of early waking, she could almost believe them, only to find an empty space in the bed beside her. She’d kept herself on the edge, grabbing a few hours of shuteye when her fatigue threatened to make her a danger on deck, hoping that she’d worn herself out enough that she wouldn’t dream, rarely getting what she hoped for.

Joy and desire pushed weariness to a distant last place while she and Nicolette lost themselves in each other, the initial urgency giving way to something more languorous and deliberate as each of them understood that it was no longer a dream that might end or turn ugly at any second. Neither of them could get close enough, touch often enough, and they drifted off still holding on, the warm reality of her lover’s presence enough to launch Celeste into the deepest slumber she had enjoyed in months.

It didn’t last, and when she jolted awake, the emptiness of her arms brought back the now familiar sinking despondency. It had been another dream, damn it. An extended, incredibly detailed and erotic, wonderful dream, but -

“Celeste!”

Her eyes popped open, but the exultant rush at the sight of Nicolette within an easy arm’s reach shifted to concern at the realization that her minstrel was caught in the grip of a nightmare, limbs thrashing beneath the blanket as she struggled and the moonlight shining through the aft windows illuminating a face contorted in terror.

“Nico, wake up.” Reaching out, Celeste caught her lover’s shoulders and shook her … lightly at first, then a bit harder when she didn’t wake. Oscar whined and Thibault looked anxiously to Celeste, but neither of the dogs seemed greatly alarmed; not a new occurrence, then, and given even the little bit that Celeste knew of what Nicolette had endured, not a surprising one.

She kept shaking and nudging her, staying close but not wrapping her in a tight embrace as she wanted to, because she had no idea what sort of dream Nicolette was caught up in, talking to her in a low, soothing cadence as she waited for amber eyes to open and focus on her.

“Just a dream, querida, it’s all right. It’s not real. You need to wake up, love. I’m right here, just wake up, Nico.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#33
Nicolette was sure this had to be a dream. She could not remember how she had come to be in the water, or make sense of what held her, but it did not cause the terror to disappear. She had to fight, in case it was not. If something was turning her mind against her again she had to struggle against it as well. But something fastened tightly on her shoulders and the thing that gripped her was shaking her. Far away, she heard her name being called, and she doubled her efforts, she had to slip free, one gap in the hold and she could try and squirm her way out -

“...querida, it’s all right.”

Celeste’s voice, without doubt. The chains or ropes seemed to loosen as the words echoed through the water. “You need to wake up, love. I’m right here, just wake up, Nico.”

She was almost free; Nico managed to pull an arm free and flung it out, grasping towards the surface of the dream -

And felt it connect with something as she burst upwards with a gasp, body knotted in the blanket, disorientated until the moonlight streaming through the window provided the outline of Celeste’s cabin. There was no question this was real now; the sweat on her forehead attested to it, as did the stinging pain in her knuckles - her knuckles?

She sat up quickly, suddenly realising what she had done, and pulled Celeste to her immediately. Her flailing fist had caught the other woman square on the nose, and although there did not appear to be any damage, Nicolette made a mournful noise as she cradled her captain. “Amante! I am so, so sorry!”
 
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Celeste Monroe

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#34
Celeste had been through nightmares with Nicolette before on the rare occasion, but nothing this bad. Usually when she woke to find the minstrel whimpering or moaning while stirring restlessly in her sleep, stroking her back and hair while murmuring reassurances was enough to banish the bad dreams without ever waking her. She had never seen the other woman this distressed and agitated; trying to soothe her without rousing her didn’t seem to be an option. Celeste tried to be gentle about it, but Nico still came up fighting, one fist connecting squarely with the bridge of Celeste’s nose.

She fell back, stars dancing before her eyes in the darkness of the cabin, as Nicolette jerked upright with a harsh gasp, looking about wildly and uttering a cry of distress. “Amante!” she struggled free of the twisted blanket and flung her arms around Celeste. “I am so, so sorry!”

“No harm done.” Celeste embraced her lover, feeling the tension that still lingered in the slender body. “It’s all right.” She smoothed the sweat-damp hair away from the minstrel’s face, kissed her forehead, her cheek, her lips, then drew back just a bit without letting go. “See? You didn’t break anything.” No blood, and while she might have a bit of a bruise in the morning, it was a small enough price to pay for this moment.

“Just a bad dream, love.” She kissed Nico again, the circle of her arms tightening protectively at the thought that it might not have been just a nightmare, but a reliving of some terror that Nicolette had actually been through. “Do you remember anything?”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#35
Nicolette had no idea how Celeste could punch people as hard as she did; her knuckles were smarting after the contact with her lover’s face, and that was only a tap in comparison to what she had seen Celeste dole out. It was secondary to the fact that she had hit Celeste in the face, and she carefully traced her fingers over the other woman’s skin, checking for bruises as she apologised over and over.

There was no blood, and Celeste was quick to reassure her. She pressed light kisses to her until Nicolette’s heart stopped racing quite so fast, letting her see that whatever hurt she had caused would pass quickly. “See? You didn’t break anything.”

Celeste wound her arms around Nicolette, and Nicolette slipped her arms about the other woman’s waist, one leg winding with hers as her breathing began to approach normal. This was the upside; for too long she had woken from her terrors with nobody beside her, Oscar and Thibault unable to do more than whine softly and curl up close by. Now Celeste guided her back to reality, wonderful, warm, soft reality. Although her captain’s hold was firm, Nicolette found comfort in it. It helped when Celeste asked the inevitable question.

“Do you remember anything?”

All too vividly. She nodded. “It is...a dream I have had, over and over, since I first saw the town burning.” She would not say when I realised the ship was not there. “Then it became worse after the demon. Something winds around me and drags me beneath the water, holds me tight, I cannot fight it. I see you trying to reach me, sometimes, but I could not even cry for help.”

She pressed a knuckle to her forehead. “There were so many times I felt helpless. I saw people being hurt and I could do nothing for them. And people who tried to hurt me.” It had been a long time since Nicolette could have described herself as naive, but she honestly believed that the majority of people were good. That belief had taken a severe beating over the last few months. “I was lucky. And very careful.”

Something that could not necessarily be said for Celeste. Nicolette’s explorations had uncovered a host of new scars, but one in particular had caught her attention; a huge, rippling one on her leg, which had the look of rough or repeated stitching. Nicolette’s hand slid down over Celeste’s hip now, finding it. “What happened?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#36
The tension that had been seeping out of Nicolette’s body returned when Celeste asked about the dream, but after a moment, the other woman nodded and began to speak. “It is...a dream I have had, over and over, since I first saw the town burning,” she said softly. “Then it became worse after the demon. Something winds around me and drags me beneath the water, holds me tight, I cannot fight it. I see you trying to reach me, sometimes, but I could not even cry for help.”

“Shit.” The sailor pressed a kiss to her lover’s forehead. Powerless. Trapped. Alone. All the things that she had never wanted her minstrel to suffer.

“There were so many times I felt helpless,” Nico continued, pushing one hand against her head as though trying to hold back the unwanted memories. “I saw people being hurt and I could do nothing for them. And people who tried to hurt me.” Tried. Celeste hung onto that word, but something ugly still sparked in her chest. “I was lucky. And very careful.”

“Let me know if we run into any of them.” Celeste kept her tone light, but her intentions were anything but. They would die; every last one of them, for every scar on Nicolette’s body, every nightmare that brought her awake in fear, but that was for later. Right now, her minstrel was here, alive and needing comfort, and Celeste needed to keep proving to herself that this was not just another dream. She brushed her lips along her lover’s hairline, her hands moving over bare skin in slow caresses, savoring the warmth, the faint scent of cinnamon, the heartbeat that was beginning to return to a normal rate.

Nicolette’s touch was more purposeful, gliding past her hip to the scar that curved around her thigh. “What happened?”

“Demons,” Celeste replied simply, then, “Early on. We came ashore to refill the water barrels, heard the screams.” She shrugged; getting back into the dinghy and returning to the ship had not been a question. “Rift was in the middle of nowhere, but a group of refugees who’d been run out by another one stumbled into it. We knew by then that trying to kill them all was a waste of time,” she went on. “Draw them far enough away that when you finish them off, the next ones that get spit out don’t notice you. We managed to get them out of there before too many got killed. This wasn’t even all that bad.” She twisted her leg to peer down at the scar, running a finger over the twisted tissue that was still an angry red color. “Just a bad spot. Kept ripping the damn stitches out, fighting, working -” She snickered softly. “Kicking Comte Fuckwits over the rail. That one was totally worth it, by the way, but Brannigan still threatened to tie me to the mast until it healed up.”

She lay back, drawing Nicolette with her. “Few weeks later, we got into it with some raiders and found out that one of the people we were transporting was a mage. Not a strong one, but he healed it up enough that it wouldn’t keep opening back up, and this one along with it.” She guided the minstrel’s hand to the narrow scar that started just below her ribs on the left side and crossed her belly just above her navel. “Trying to fight with a deck full of panicking refugees is a pain in the ass if you're trying not to cut one of them by mistake. The asshole I was fighting wasn’t worried about that. This one looks better than the other now, but it was quite the mess at the time.” If you could call loops of gut protruding ‘a mess’. She wasn’t going to go into too much detail, but Nicolette was bound to hear about it sooner or later, and if she hadn’t heard it from Celeste first, she wasn’t going to be pleased. “You’d think that having the demons to fight would make people pull together more, but the bastards and bottom feeders just kept showing up. Slavers, bandits, pirates -” She snorted. “We did run into Isabela about a month ago.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#37
Nicolette picked her words carefully. She knew that she would only have to say she had been assaulted, and Celeste would hunt the culprit to the ends of Thedas. It had come close, a couple of times - a woman travelling without an escort faced a certain amount of risk even in times of peace, and with the belief that the world was ending some people clearly thought they could do as they wished and they would face no consequence for their actions. Oscar and Thibault between them had seen off a number of people, and being on Aramino had saved her from a bandit attack when she had been able to outrun them. And sometimes a wrong feeling. She had been heading towards a tavern on a main road after days of camping, wanting a bed and a bath desperately - but in looking through the door, there had been a strange air to the place that made her turn around immediately.

It might have been nothing. But better to spend another night in the rain than to wake up to a real-life nightmare.

Still, the close shaves had left her wary, and she did not wish to think on them right now. She was more concerned by the rippling scar her earlier explorations had uncovered. Celeste had fought demons and then kept tearing the stitches, over and over. Although sometimes as a result of amusement rather than fighting, and Nicolette joined her in a smile as she described kicking the Comte over the rail.

Her captain lay back, and Nicolette relaxed into her touch. “Few weeks later, we got into it with some raiders and found out that one of the people we were transporting was a mage. Not a strong one, but he healed it up enough that it wouldn’t keep opening back up, and this one along with it. Trying to fight with a deck full of panicking refugees is a pain in the ass if you're trying not to cut one of them by mistake. The asshole I was fighting wasn’t worried about that. This one looks better than the other now, but it was quite the mess at the time.” Her fingers found the scar that had made Nicolette gasp the first time she touched it, extending from one side of the stomach to the other. She was no physician beyond the basics, but she knew full well that the damage at the time must have been horrendous to behold. And she had not been there for her. Nicolette had drawn fingers and tongue over that area, hoping to replace what must have been a horrible memory with something more pleasant.

“I can only imagine.” Nicolette stroked Celeste’s cheek with her thumb, gazing into those eyes that, at times, she had been afraid she might never see again outside her dreams. “I am sorry I was not there for you.”

Celeste had also experienced some of the unsavoury side effects of worldwise chaos. “You’d think that having the demons to fight would make people pull together more, but the bastards and bottom feeders just kept showing up. Slavers, bandits, pirates -” she snorted suddenly. “We did run into Isabela about a month ago.”

Nicolette chuckled softly. “How is she? I imagine she’s benefiting quite nicely from unscrupulous merchants taking advantage of everything to do some price-gouging.” And probably some reasonable merchants were taking a hit too. Nicolette enjoyed Isabela’s company and she had detected a deeply-hidden honourable streak in her some time ago, but she had never quite come to terms with what Isabela actually did for a living. Mind, she had never actively assisted Celeste with her smuggling either, and that had not prevented a long-lasting relationship that neither of them had foreseen the first time they met.

If somebody had told her then that she would become so deeply involved with anybody again, she would have thought them to be joking. Let alone a smuggler, who occasionally broke into people’s houses, who enjoyed a good fight, and who played sometimes vicious pranks on nobles. Celeste was as wild and free as the seas she roamed, and Nicolette had found it so easy to come along with her, feeling a release on the shackles she had placed around her own heart years previously. She cupped Celeste’s face in her hands, resting her forehead against her captain’s, voice low. “I love you. Beyond measure, my captain.”
 
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Celeste Monroe

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#38
Celeste had no wish to frighten Nicolette with the details of the battles that she had missed; it had been brutal necessity, not bravery, that had led to the vast majority of them, and the aftermaths had not been pretty. Brannigan’s skills had been pushed to their limits, and not a single member of the crew had totally escaped injury, though Nordstrom had been the only one lost.

Gentle as she was, though, the minstrel was no innocent; she had seen the pale line across the sailor’s belly earlier in the evening and clearly recognized it for what it had been. Celeste had long since stopped fretting about the marks that crisscrossed her skin, and Nicolette had never seemed put off by the scars, only the circumstances under which they were acquired. She had kissed it tenderly during their lovemaking, and she brushed her fingers gently along its length now, sending a pleasurable shiver down Celeste’s spine, before lifting her hand to cup the sailor’s face, her thumb tracing the angle of a cheekbone and those glorious amber eyes watching her with that expression that could still make her forget to breathe,

“I am sorry I was not there for you.”

The words were sincere, but Celeste shook her head. “That was one fight that I was glad you weren’t there for,” she answered, turning her head to kiss her lover’s hand. “It was … ugly.” Their attackers had fought with a ferocity that had precluded any thought of quarter. After the fight, while Celeste was getting healed up, Gideon had taken a few over to the scow they’d been sailing, found the galley bare and the water barrels dry. Desperate and stupid and dead; the decks of the Wicked Grace had been slick with blood that day, and the sharks had eaten well.

It was nothing that she wanted to share with someone who had just awoken from another nightmare, so she reached for a better tale. It hadn’t been all death and demons, even if she’d been in too bleak of a mood most days to truly appreciate the moments of respite at the time. Mention of Isabela got a laugh from Nico.

“How is she? I imagine she’s benefiting quite nicely from unscrupulous merchants taking advantage of everything to do some price-gouging.”

“She’s an admiral now,” Celeste said with a smirk. “Fancy hat and everything. Still an asshole, though. She recognized the Grace from a distance and came bearing down on us with a black flag flying as a joke.” She snickered, able to laugh at the memory now. “I punched her. Then we got drunk, of course.” Her expression softened. “She told me that we’d find you. She promised to keep an eye out. So did Varric, and the sodding Herald of Andraste, come to think of it. Pretty sure I had half of Thedas looking for you at one time or another.” And if she’d run into the other half, she’d have hooked them in, as well.

Gentle hands framed her face, Nicolette’s face close to hers as their foreheads touched. “I love you.” The words soft and fervent, the warm regard in those eyes touching places within her she’d thought lost to the cold. “Beyond measure, my captain.”

“I love you, too.” She’d not spoken the words aloud nearly often enough before. Then, for months on end, they had echoed ceaselessly in her mind in a plaintive refrain, with no one to utter them to. Perhaps there would come a time when she would lapse back into foolish complacency; being an ass was undeniably one of her occasional talents. But for now, she knew she’d be saying them as often as they came to mind. “I love you.” She captured her minstrel’s soft lips in a kiss. “I love you.” She pulled her lover closer still, burying her face against the curve of her neck, breathing in the scent of her skin, her hair. She was real. She was safe. This wasn’t a dream.

One hand slipped beneath the silken tumble of hair to the nape of Nico’s neck, kneading gently up and down, a touch intended to soothe, rather than seduce. “Think you can sleep again?” Desire wouldn’t take much to stir back to life, but here and now, with the ship rocking gently beneath them and the darkness wrapped around like a blanket, just holding her like this felt incredible.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#39
Isabela in command of a fleet was a thought that brought a smile to Nicolette’s face - and no doubt caused some consternation to her enemies. The smile broke into a gentle laugh as Celeste described how Isabela had tricked Celeste into thinking she was about to be boarded. Likely had she been there at the time, Nicolette would have wanted to punch Isabela too - she still had a small scar from her first tangle with pirates, and the risk that somebody would fire early would have been high.

“I punched her. Then we got drunk, of course.” Of course. Some of the worst hangovers of Nicolette’s life had come after a few rounds with the other two women. She was about to chuckle over that when Celeste’s gaze softened. “She told me that we’d find you. She promised to keep an eye out. So did Varric, and the sodding Herald of Andraste, come to think of it. Pretty sure I had half of Thedas looking for you at one time or another.”

Nicolette definitely wanted to know more about how Celeste had got involved with the Herald of Andraste, but that was not the point of what her captain was saying. She stroked Celeste’s cheek, smiling gently. “They found me eventually.”

It was as easy to tell Celeste she loved her now as it had been difficult the first time. And Celeste returned it, murmuring softly as she pressed her face to her shoulder. Nicolette held her close, almost cradling her. Celeste’s fingers crept up to the back of her neck, the touch just firm enough that she could tell it was not intended as a seduction, but gentle enough that Nicolette purred softly, her eyes lidding. “Do you think you can sleep again?”

“Mmmm. Yes.” Nicolette wriggled down in the bed slightly, nesting herself beneath the warm blankets and close to the warmer woman wrapped around her, eyes now closing. “Thank you, my love.”

Sleep came up to claim her faster than she might have expected, and this time she sank gratefully into it, assured that this time, no nightmares would follow.
 
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