His heart beat slowly, steadily under her ear. Sometimes it would speed up as some adrenaline-inducing thought came to him, but even so, it was a constant, lulling sound. She had never had the chance to listen to anyone’s heart but her own, usually as she sprinted from – or, as these days would have her doing, towards – danger. His hand kept pace, running through her hair. Sleeping so close to someone was usually a cause for concern. Instead, his leaving would be the cause for concern. How backwards it all was…
Her limbs weighed themselves down, curling around Casidhe’s chest. Gheris was all but limp, struggling to stay awake. One of her legs tangled with his, a single vine knotted with itself. His fingers brushed her ear every time his hand combed through her hair.
Half-remembered movements made her fingers twitch from time to time. She didn’t mind him so close. She didn’t mind at all. So tired of being alone, but unable to help with the discarding of evidence, she had removed herself from the camp for a while. At the very least, she reasoned, she could stay out of their way as they cleaned up her mess. Casidhe had come by to let her know they were done, and all she could do was clutch at the hand she’d nearly lost and fumble at an apology, one she never really got out of her mouth in its entirety. This time, random fears came out in bursts without him needing to ask, sometimes related, sometimes not. She did not really wonder if he wanted to hear it or not. It just felt better to finally speak. There was less yelling. He listened. And this time, she initiated contact – tentative, but when he did not resist, she poured her fear into it. And oh, oh, it was worth it.
People were put off by her demeanor. She was so sure that that’s the way she liked it – those around her at an arm and a blade’s length. He ignored that and braved the storm of her fear and anger. She wondered just how much abuse he’d had to endure to so easily sit through her own.
Guilt stirred her from her drifting state. She adjusted the ear pressed against him.
“I feel tired.” It was partially a complaint, but she sounded very much surprised. So rarely was she left without energy.
“I should hope so,” Casidhe replied. “You’ve certainly worn me out.”
She smiled slightly. “I couldn’t tell.” Hesitantly, she added, “Are you planning on leaving?”
“What?” His fingers stopped brushing through her hair.
She didn’t raise her head, her voice still tight. “That’s what you do when you screw up, isn’t it? Lift your skirts, kick off your heels, and run for the hills? Right?”
He exhaled. “Running away has only brought me more and more trouble. I’m through with it.”
“Then put your damn hand back, my head is getting cold.” She clung to him even more tightly, nose pressed into his body. Perhaps he was right about a hat.
His arm swept over the side of her head, palm pressed to her forehead. “Besides, I’m not really convinced that I’ve made a mistake.”
A silent chuckle made her shoulders shake against his stomach. “Oh, you screwed up, alright.” Playful words spilled out of their own accord, and she had no desire to stop them.
He smiled down at her, if only for a moment. “I know your people would never approve… and I know I can’t be with you… but it doesn’t feel like we’ve done anything wrong.”
She fidgeted slightly at the direction of the conversation. There was no need to think of that, surely? “Are you dumb?” she demanded, sighing with exasperation. “I’m trying to be funny. You know – screwing, messing up, sex. LAUGH.”
The duelist laughed, though it did not seem to be at her joke, but rather at her need for his approval. She flushed. “What about you, then? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard you laugh, unless it was at someone else’s expense…” His fingers found the tip of her ear and lingered.
She sighed again, this time more in mock wistfulness. “Only if they deserve it.” She tilted her face towards him and grinned.
“Sure, that’s always funny.” He grinned back with an impish glint in his eyes. “But sometimes you should just laugh because it feels good.”
With that, he grabbed the leg she’d draped over him, moved his hands down to her foot, and ticked her sole without mercy. She squealed, jolted upward. “What…?!” she began, before spasms of laughter made her breathless. She swatted at him vaguely, but could find no way to wriggle out of his grasp. There had been tickling before, of course, but not on her foot, and not like this! No manner of command would stop him. He kept at her until she couldn’t breathe, then released her foot and threw his arms around her until she calmed once more.
Gheris released one last giggle – a giggle! – before resting her head back against him. She held up a stern finger. “You are far too comfortable with this. Abusing your touching privileges.”
“If it bothers you so much,” he said, running his fingers across her stomach, “you could tell me to stop. I’m damned sure you could make me stop.” Her stomach twitched of its own accord, tensing excitedly.
Her smile faded slowly. “I guess…I could. I probably should.” She sighed and rubbed her face. Clearly, there was no avoiding the subject. “If Grandmother knew what I was doing…” She shook her head. “Like she needs more of a reason to be disappointed.”
“I know how important your clan is to you. But tell me, truly…” He turned her face to his. “Am I the monster you’ve been taught to see in all humans?”
She swallowed and attempted to turn her face away, but his gentle hold was firm. “No,” she whispered. “You were right.” She lowered her eyes as far as she could without turning her head. “I was…afraid. About being wrong. About humans. Because if I were wrong…” She trailed off, uncertain.
“You might end up like this,” he said quietly. “Like your mother did. This is what you’ve been afraid of your whole life…” His thumb ran along her jaw. “And if it ends your future with the clan, where does your future lie?” Her nose felt uncomfortably stuffy and her eyes warm. She nodded mutely into his palm, not trusting herself to speak. “I’m sorry,” he said, “that I’ve put you through this. I know it’s not much comfort, but this… what’s between us isn’t meaningless to me. If things were different, I would be yours alone.” His voice barely rose above a whisper, sending a tremor down her spine.
The idea shook her. Hers? Was that what she wanted? For him to have seen her smile before Teresa’s – whatever it looked like – and remembered hers best? Oh, what she wouldn’t give to make him an elf! But it still felt wrong. He was gentle when dealing with her, where all others balked and yelled back, yes, but guilt colored the image darkly. Perhaps the first time had been as much his doing as hers – though she had not said no where she could have, should have – but this, this was her fault entirely. His goal was Teresa. She had no place distracting him, though how that had happened still eluded her. The fact that he was aware of all this made it so much worse…and impossible to hide. But to go one better, she didn’t even want him to think of her as he thought of Teresa. It was just new and wonderful to have someone listen and understand. Gheris wanted him physically, wanted him because he made the effort. Could that grow, given the chance? She would not put it past herself. But she was not sure she wanted that.
She gritted her teeth, blinking, willing her eyes to stay dry. Slowly, after a long moment reigned by silence, she nodded. “I know. I…don’t want to have to give you away. But…it doesn’t hurt. Is that strange? What does that mean?” she asked honestly.
“I’m not sure. Maybe we just know that it isn’t meant to be. That it was…unfortunate. Like you told yourself from the beginning not to fall in love.”
She flopped one foot, digging her heel into the ground. “Of course it’s not love!” she protested, relieved to have something else to focus on. “That’s far too tragic and painful. I don’t intend to be tragic.” She gripped his hand, lacing her fingers with his. “This is…nicer. H-happier. Newer. Better? I…didn’t think there was anything like this to be found. Certainly not outside my duty.”
He made a small noise, as if to protest or to correct her, but seemed to think better of it. Alas! It would be so much easier if she could argue. But perhaps that was exactly why she shouldn’t – making it easy did not make it better, did it?
“That’s as may be, but I can’t carry on with you… not while I still have a chance with Teresa.”
“I know!” she cried, rising slightly. “You’re Teresa’s. I know that.” She sighed, tired of herself, and relaxed and settled back. “But…why?” She furrowed her brow. “Why twice? With me? Not that I’m not…appreciative.” A small smile flitted through her lips and was gone just as quickly. “If you value Teresa so much…” What was she looking for? “I don’t…understand. And that…causes problems,” she finished lamely, frowning thoughtfully.
“Because you’re beautiful, Gheris. And I’m weak. Temptation is my only weakness. And… I don’t know. I feel sure she’s going to turn me away. Maybe I want to deserve that more.” The sadness in his voice… she wanted it to disappear. But what could she do? She could not magically redeem him in his own eyes, nor could she make Teresa appear, nor undo what she had just done. Twice within a week. They should’ve just kept apart – she should’ve sent him away! Rid herself of the temptation.
But would he have listened? Pushing him away just made him more curious…
She swallowed and carefully untangled her hand from his and sat up, turning to face him. She wanted to say a lot of things and did not try to pretend otherwise, but instead she cupped the side of his jaw with her hand, awkwardly, but with intent. “I don’t know anything about worthiness and love and deserving…least of all worthiness!” She gave a hollow chuckle. “But you try very hard. Sometimes trying isn’t enough. But I think you can do it.” She smiled weakly. “You certainly didn’t seem like a weakling to me.”
Casidhe closed his fingers over Gheris’s hand. “You’re kind to say that.”
She snorted, attempting to dispel the regret. “That’s a new description for me.”
“It’s true, though. There’s more to you than most people see… maybe more than you know.”
“Yes, well,” she said nervously, “We must keep in mind that you’re a liar and a cheat.”
He winked. “Hey, you told me what I wanted to hear.”
She frowned, having missed his wink. He didn’t really think that, did he? “I meant it. You’re strong.” She curled against him again, tightening her arms around his chest. In an ashamed whisper, she added, “Stronger than me.”
Casidhe returned the embrace, burying his face in her hair. “I meant what I said, too. You’re stronger than you think. You’ve just been caught between standing on your own, and standing with those who need you…”
“I can stand on my own and stand with the clan,” she argued, determinedly sticking out her chin…into his collarbone.
“I know you can,” he assured her, gently shifting her chin. “It’s just…”
“It’s just what? “
He took a deep breath. “I haven’t seen much of your clan. Or of elves. But they seem to’ve turned their backs on you already. Do you merit the scorn the Scout-Captain showed you?” The question was hard, but his tone was gentle. “And I can’t believe that you deserved the treatment Grandmother gave you. Even Naessa objected to that.”
“Naessa objects to anything Grandmother does!” Gheris clenched her fists and forced herself to keep still. “Grandmother saved me and saved Geoffrey! I owe her everything! Everything!”
“That still doesn’t give her the right to treat you like that,” Casidhe said calmly, a little sternly, still holding her.
“But… But…” she sputtered. “I’m the daughter of a shem-lover. For the love of the gods, I am a shem-lover! They haven’t run me out, and that’s a blessing in and of itself!” She struggled to contain her voice and her movement, stiffening her body almost entirely. It was so much easier to become still, she noted, when she was stealing something.
“Are you sure they haven’t run you out already?”
“No! I mean, yes, I’m sure that they haven’t run me out! I have been gone for so long because finding Segonal took nearly two years! As soon as we’re done with this…this… searching for… the magical thing, I’ll go back.” She paused, momentarily confused as to why she was saying that. “I’ll go back,” she repeated, less certainly.
“And then what?”
“And then I’ll resume my post! I have a duty there. I’m not entirely useless!”
“I know you aren’t useless. But every day you spend away from the clan makes you more different from them. And they barely seem to tolerate you as it is.”
“I’m not dif-” she began to protest, but cut herself off. Yes. Yes, she was. For better or for worse, she was. She struggled against his hold momentarily before forcing herself at ease once again. “Perhaps I’ve been gone too long. I can tell you now a part of your problem – and that of many others – in three words: too much freedom.” She grabbed at straws, desperately trying to disprove his words – and her suspicions. What was he looking to tell her, anyhow? What was his interest in this? He confused her; why was he so interested in knowing her, and in comforting her? “Going back could fix me…right?”
“It might,” Casidhe said, sounding doubtful, as if he was confused as to what the fixing was for, but humoring her anyway. “But you may need to think about what you’ll do if it doesn’t.” She was silent for a long time, unmoving. “Being this free…I wouldn’t wish on anyone.” More regret in his voice.
Finally, she said petulantly, “Let’s assume that you’re right. Which you’re not! But let’s assume. Geoffrey is gone, and thank the gods and your Maker he’s not here to see all this. My u…uncle is gone. I…” She hesitated and stopped, letting the statement float freely. She had no reason to burden him with this. Really, she should have been telling him to forget it – that was it, to stop her if she ever became weak again. But who else could she ask? There was no one, and it was a very real possibility that…he was right. She had no idea what to do when alone. She shunned company, but had never been entirely on her own.
“There may be someone else in the world who needs you… some place to belong,” he encouraged. “Of course, when I left Denerim I had no reason to stay… but I found a reason to stay in Lothering.” He squeezed his eyes shut, remembering. She let him, though it would not make up for anything. When he looked at Gheris again, he said “You might find some happiness somewhere outside your clan…provided you’re open to it.”
Gheris said nothing for a while, absorbing his words. Silence was getting easier and easier. And he was not far from the truth – she was not very happy there, was she? For all that she protested to being with these humans and Naessa…she did not mind them so much. Perhaps they did not like her, but they did not condemn her and spoke freely, not bound by Grandmother’s rules. And…it was comforting, the touch, the sound, the scent of another. She sighed slowly.
“I suppose I could go back to the city. Look for more than just the shiny things.” She turned her head upwards and looked at him, forcing a grin, putting out of her mind her guilt. It was not such a hard motion, and not unpleasant. It could be easy to adapt into her life. And if he wanted to prove himself deserving of Teresa, perhaps he could practice saying no. “What do you intend to do, once this is done and you’re worthy and you’ve gotten her back?”
He looked up at the stars, his eyes miles away, looking into another’s. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll ask her to marry me. Or go to Orlais. See the Academy. Or both?”
She maintained her smile, more genuine now. He changed entirely when he thought of Teresa. It was nice, but made her uneasy to consider trying to take him from her. Though it added to his face a quality she could not put into words. A glow? A sad, but enduring joy.
She almost didn’t notice her breath coming in a little quicker as she smiled at him and he smiled at the sky. Just for that look on his face, she wanted him to have all the happiness he could get his hands on. But oh, she wanted someone to think of her like that, too. Anyone but Casidhe, anyway; only Teresa could incite that in him.
Maybe the definition of love was not so tragic. Perhaps “to fall in love” was not to fall from duty and reason, but to fall low and be guided back onto your feet. He said he was in love. There didn’t seem to be another word for that expression on his face, nothing in her limited vocabulary, at least.
“Assuming we survive, of course; it’s still a ways away,” she said quietly, smiling.
“You’ll survive.” He shared her smile, eyes turning back down to her. There seemed to be something left of how he had looked at her a week ago and earlier that evening. Her heart skipped a beat. “I’ve got your back, after all. And not just your backside.” As he spoke, his hands slipped from her back, around her hips, and to her rear.
Her grin spread wider, surely spreading beyond the bounds of her face. “If I remember correctly, I said you were trying, but you’re not worthy just yet. Surely that can wait one more day…” Oh, how she hoped that were so. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her forehead to his. He smelled faintly of rosemary, warm and homey. “You and I are already evil and depraved. Just a little bit more wouldn’t make us any worse?”
He didn’t even seem to hesitate. If he had, she’d have taken it back immediately. He kissed her softly between his words. “One last time won’t make any difference in the long run.”
She kissed him again and found a new taste to the duelist’s passion. The kiss was slower than she had grown accustomed to, deeper, and final. “One last time,” she agreed when she could breathe again.
Her guilt was an easy thing to put aside, along with a thousand other feelings she could never really make her peace with. What was done was done. Though she knew it was selfish, she wanted one last piece of him for herself before she would let him go.
“Make it count,” she ordered unnecessarily, shifting slightly. She felt silly. She felt okay. And if he didn’t, she would try to help him to. It was only fair that she did her best to support him as he did her. She didn’t know what good she would be, but neither did he, and that wasn’t stopping him. A river bubbled in her chest for a moment and she tilted her head back. Laughter spilled out, flooding the air.
“All right,” he said, shifting to a more agreeable position, eyes taking her in, “if you absolutely insist. “