"Thank you." I murmured to the servant girl as she emptied the last bucket of heated water into the tub.
My skin felt too tight, as though my bones would burst through it at any moment. Dorian told me four days had passed since they'd brought me to Skyhold, bleeding and ripped apart and feverish. He said I was healing well, but that was little encouragement. I could see the worry in his eyes, and the little upward quirking twitches of his moustaches. It was getting difficult to pacify the people. There were no reports from Crestwood, and those I'd left with had been seen, but there was still no sign of me.
There are days when being a damned figurehead of something this large is just…awful. My back got filleted by a dragon and I've been laying on my stomach for four days straight, haven't bathed in seven, and all they care about is seeing me. As if they need my physical presence to let them know all will be well. I have needs too, but do any of them see that? Might be nice to be called "Rulien" for once, instead of "Inquisitor" or "Herald." I never thought I'd miss my own damn name, but I do.
I stared at the tub, watching the steam rise from the water within. I'd ordered everyone out, insisting that I could do for myself. I was uncertain if that was the truth. In spite of the copious poultices, endless succession of tonics and potions, and more than enough magic, I still felt like seven shades of health. But I couldn't stand the tightness of my skin anymore, or even the smell of myself, covered in dried sweat and dead blood. And I needed to return to the people of Skyhold. I could be in pain and even let them know I was injured. As long as they saw me walking, speaking, interacting, it wouldn't cause a panic.
Steeling myself for the movement, I got my arms under me, feeling the fresh scar tissue across my back pull uncomfortably. Gritting my teeth against the eerie sensation of foreign skin that I was not yet accustomed to, I pushed myself up and swung my legs over the edge of the bed. Sweat broke out on my forehead from even that slight exertion and I paused, holding myself up with trembling arms. I caught my breath and twisted, sitting up for the first time in a week.
"Small victories." I muttered an encouragement to myself. "It's the small victories that matter, right?"
My words lacked conviction. Since the damned mark had been stamped in my hand, I'd known many impressive, large victories over our enemy, Corypheus. But I had failed in other arenas. There was a war I fought within myself, my heart, my mind, my soul, and I could not gain ground. I could not make myself let go of a dream that had already been denied. No matter how I tried to debate myself, to let my heart know that my mind had moved on and forward and beyond…my heart wanted as it would.
I clenched my teeth together until my jaw ached. It would do me no good to think of Cassandra now. Dorian said she'd been to visit me, but I only remembered her from the first time. I wondered if it was merely bad luck that, when she came to her room, which she had loaned me for my recovery, I was asleep. The cynical side of me couldn't believe that. Cassandra had been my friend, even after the disastrous evening when I laid my heart at her feet and she stamped it into the ground. But she had been less my friend since that day. We no longer sought each other's company in the evening for quiet discussion. We no longer went on horseback rides through the mountains to escape the people of Skyhold.
I miss her, I thought, finally free to do so. I wasn't surrounded by the throngs of people who were entirely too talented at reading my face, even when I didn't speak. I loved them dearly and cared for them, but I wanted my own damn mind and privacy back. No one understood that better Cassandra. There were days when we'd shared each other's company, spending the entire day together and not exchanging a single word. It was perfect.
In Skyhold, I was the Herald. I was the voice of wisdom and judgement and ruling. I enjoyed the company of others. I drank with Bull and his Chargers. I played pranks with Sera and spent many pleasant hours with all of the others, filled with talk and plans and words. So many words. Cassandra understood my soul. She understood that I craved the quiet, that I lost myself in books, that I could spend an entire day in complete silence and be happy. And, best of all, she didn't care. She didn't ask if I was all right, she didn't try to peel apart the layers of my mind to attempt to understand its inner workings. She didn't question and analyze my expressions, or read my soul through my eyes, which Leliana was entirely too fond of doing, and well.
I fell in love with someone I can never have. I thought, miserable once again. I was born in the wrong body, in the wrong place and wrong time. She told me as much and I am too stupid to let it go. There are so many here…so many who would be willing to be with me, to love me as I am, to care for me and I could do…no. I laughed at myself. I could not do the same for them. My heart belongs to another. Another that I shall never possess.
I closed my mind off to my thoughts, instead focusing on the bath that awaited me. The light silk robe Dorian insisted I wear chafed at my skin. I wanted out of it. I wanted to be clean again. Maybe then I might think a little more clearly. However, I was so bloody weak I couldn't stand myself. The muscles in my arms were still shaking just from hoisting myself up. I didn't know if I could walk to the damn tub, much less make it into the water. I would try though. I couldn't just lie here for the rest of my recovery and do nothing.
I gripped the sides of the mattress with my hands and bit back a cry as I forced myself to stand. I felt lightheaded and the world tilted a little bit. I tried to remember the last time I'd eaten something more substantial than the broth the kitchens kept sending. I couldn't recall. With the lack of solid food, coupled with the relative newness of my injuries, I felt weaker than a day old kitten. It took all of my resolve to take the first step. I privately rejoiced as I remained on my feet, taking one halting step in front of the other.
Halfway across the room, my legs began to tremble. I was breathing hard, and sweat ran down my face, dripping off of my nose. I closed my eyes, trying to steady myself, but it did not work. My knees buckled, sending me crashing to the floor. I landed on my kneecaps, biting my lip as they bruised against the stone. I would not cry out. I did not want the hovering, the worry, the persistent anxiety that hovered over my healers. I did not know if they were worried for Rulien Trevelyan, or the Herald of Andraste. I wanted to be myself for half a day, take a bath like a normal human, and eat some decent food.
But I can't. I loathed myself. I cannot even get up off of this floor. I don't have the strength to go any further and Maker above I hurt.
Tears of rage at my helplessness filled my eyes and I loathed myself as they dripped down my face, mingling with my sweat. I could not even have this. I could not have a moment of quiet when injured and barely over my illness. If not at this time, when would I ever find peace? I parted my lips, preparing to humble myself and call for help when I heard the hinges of the door creak.
"Rulien?" Her voice washed over me and I almost collapsed as my heart leapt in my chest with joy and my mind cursed with rage. I wanted Cassandra here more than anything, but I did not want her to see me as I was, collapsed in the middle of the floor, unable to stand under my own power.
Even so, it meant everything that she had entered the room and said my name, not my title. I expected to hear a harsh cry, an exclamation over my state, a summoning of others, but it did not come. Instead, I heard the door lock back into place and the sound of quick, quiet footsteps. Cassandra's presence washed over me and it made me ache. I could feel her quiet strength and stoic caring. I knew that she worried for me, but it didn't blanket me and cloister me and suffocate me with its presence.
"Rulien?" Her hand rested on my shoulder and even though it hurt, she was touching me. I would not dare ask her to remove it. "Rulien, are you all right? Do I need to call Dorian? The surgeon?"
"No." I shook my head. "Please, no." I begged her. "I just…want to take…a fucking bath."
She chuckled, low, but I knew it was in commiseration, not mockery. "Very well, then." She spoke, low. "Would you like me to help you?"
Yes. No. I don't…you're so strong. You shouldn't have to see me like…but I…Maker, yes.
Cassandra moved in front of me and took my hands. I avoided her whiskey eyes that drew me in, intoxicating me, drowning me until I couldn't muddle my way through to clear thought. I merely accepted her strength as she guided me to my feet. I wavered, unsteady, hissing in pain as her arm laced around my back, pulling me to her and supporting me with her strength.
"Is this all right?" She questioned, and I thought the inquiry odd, for there seemed to be a frog in her throat. "Or would you rather I carry you?"
No. I cannot be that weak in front of her. She denied me once already, I will not have her despise me for my weakness.
Step by step, we made it to the tub. As soon as I could, I rested both of my hands on the metal surface, using it to support myself so that I did not have to torture myself by aligning my body with Cassandra's. She felt so right beside me, against me, but I knew it could not be. I knew in my soul that I could be the sum of all of her desires, save for one. I was born a woman. I was born something she could never desire. I was born lacking.
The smell and heat of the water called to me and, feeling steadier on my feet, I relinquished my grasp on the tub. I attempted to extricate myself from the robe I wore, but all it did was cause pain to slice up my back. I gasped and my arms dropped down to my sides, again, useless. Cassandra's heat hovered behind me, and her fingers grasped the robe from behind.
"Drop your arms." She told me, and I obeyed.
Gentle, careful, she removed the robe, leaving me naked before her. I knew she saw the scars stretched across my back like a legend of incompetence and failure. I also knew that she did not desire what she gazed upon. It broke me and embittered me and within my soul I gnashed my teeth at the cruelty of the world.
"You can look away if you like." My words were crisp, edged and harsh. "I know you garner no enjoyment from seeing this."
"I garner no enjoyment from seeing my friends wounded." Cassandra replied, that same frog in her throat. I grew curious about it. Why was it there? What made it happen? She'd never spoken with such a tone before, with such hesitance, such…insecurity? "I garner no enjoyment from seeing those I care for in pain. But I will not use that as an excuse to look away, Rulien. I have done such a thing for far too long."
What in all the realms of Thedas does that mean? I wondered.
I did not have time to question further as Cassandra took my elbow, supporting me as I climbed into the tub. I sank down into the heated water, moaning in relief as it began to wash away the dirt of injury, the pain of rest too long endured, and the sweat of exertion. I closed my eyes and drifted away into the pleasure of the heat, the sense of weightlessness, almost forgetting Cassandra's presence until she announced it once more.
"How are you feeling?" She asked, and I quirked an eyebrow upwards.
"You just found me in a puddle on the floor." I replied, injecting snark into my tone. "How would you say I feel?"
She pursed her lips, but somehow the gesture softened the severity of her features, implying vulnerability instead of ire. Her whiskey eyes appeared haunted by something, some ghost of a strange dream, some word said askance that troubled the soul. I knew the faraway expression upon her countenance, for I had gazed into its mirror image in my own reflection.
"I am attempting to have a civil conversation, Rulien." Cassandra turned her eyes to mine, and I flinched from what I saw within them.
A storm of confusion burned behind her eyes. I saw a hundred thousand unanswered questions, the integrity of Self crumbling to pieces. I witnessed a battle in her gaze and found myself entranced by the intensity there. I knew that pain. I knew that sorrow. I knew those questions. I could lend her my sword, I could give her my aid, I would hand her my heart if only I knew that she would take it. I could not bear it being crushed again. Not again.
"You don't want civility." I replied, knowing that I spoke true. "Though you do want conversation. What would you say to me?" I inquired. "Here I am, naked and vulnerable before you. Say what you will. I am unarmed."
Her lips lifted in a lightning-flash, all too rare smile. I gloried in it as she schooled her features back into their normal stoicism. Her lips were turned down at the corners, her eyebrows furrowed, and I knew that she would speak when she was ready. I did not know, however, what she would say. I knew only that I, not only wished to, but needed to hear it.
"I have wronged you, Rulien." She murmured, and I stared at her, aghast.
How could she say such a thing? In every way, in ever thing, she has never wronged me.
"How so?" I asked, eager to hear this explanation. "In what way have you wronged me?"
Cassandra unfolded her arms and began pacing back and forth in front of the tub, looking like a newly-caged wild animal. I followed the lines of her body, all svelte, seamless grace, the grace of a true warrior, not someone who was still learning to use a sword. My eyes followed her movements and ignited once again the irrational lust of an irrational heart. I could not have her and I wanted her. I wanted her, not in the way of a greedy man craving gold, but in the way of a Seeker finding the one and only truth they would ever need.
"I have…I have looked at you wrongly." She spoke around the frog that had reappeared in her throat. "I have seen everything from an angle all askew, because my mind has always been my own. I have always thought thus and so, have always done thus and so, and therefore have never looked beyond the limits of thus and so."
"I…do not understand." I told her, but I did.
At least, I hoped that I did. What I would not do was guide her to her end. I would not push her in the direction I wished her to go. I would wait and hear her words. I would make her confess every painful word, even if it led to my heart once again being smashed against the cobblestones of Skyhold.
"I had something once." She attempted to continue. "I had something, and it was the sole something I have ever possessed. In the search for…for perhaps having that again, I have searched wrongly. I have searched for that something and made that search, in my mind, restricted to the same image as what I possessed before. I think…I think I might have been blinded by the past, perhaps even inveigled of my own mind so that I could deny…I am not making any sense, am I?"
"No." I shook my head, though my heart raced in my chest like the wingbeats of a terrified bird.
I understood this woman as I understood no other living being. I could feel that her heart, in her own chest, beat as fast and fierce as mine. I could feel the wars inside her psyche, the clash of sword and the screaming of heart attempting to overpower the brilliant tactician's mind that guided her. I believed I knew what she would say, but I would not rest until I heard her say it.
With a disgusted noise, she sat on the edge of the tub, casting her eyes toward the hearth. I could see the fire reflected in them, the flames leaping and dancing as she sought for words.
"When I saw you wounded," She began, "the light went out of my very soul. I began to question everything, Rulien. This journey, this Inquisition, has caused me to question much that I once knew to be true. I have found that even my own Order held secrets from me. I have found that even the Divine did not let her Right Hand know the actions of the Left. I have questioned my faith a thousand times over since beginning this venture to attempt to set the world aright. I thought, amidst all this, that there was one thing I knew to be true. One thing that I could not question, for it was ironclad. I was…I was wrong."
Bloody fuck, woman! I screamed in my silent thoughts. Just say it, please! I do not know how much longer my heart can bear this!
"What were you wrong about, Cassandra?" I asked, breaking my promise not to lead her to her story's end. I needed that ending now. I needed to hear the words. I needed to see it in her eyes and hear it in her voice and watch it settle over her, a mantle of realization.
"Everything." She muttered. "But most especially this. Most especially us."
"What about us?" I could not believe it. No matter how much I wanted to, I could not believe what I wished to be the truth, lest my heart be cast down once again.
"You are kind." She spoke to the fire. "You are strong. You…you make me laugh, Rulien. In a time when all laughter is dying and fear is rampant through all of Thedas, your words, your face, your smile…you bring me joy. I did not think that I could allow you any further than that, because I believed that I knew all of myself, that I knew what I wanted, what my mind and my heart and my body desired. Yet, now, more than ever, I realize what a fool I have been."
I did not say anything. I could not say anything. My throat was too tight, my entire being was held of a precipice in a grasp I was not sure of. It might relinquish it to fall, or bring it back from the edge and cling to it, never to let go. I wanted the latter, so much, so very much. I did not even know if I had the power to breathe until she spoke again and freed my lungs.
"When I saw all the blood…the gaping wounds…felt the heat of your skin…" Cassandra's voice lurched over the words, as though speaking them scraped her throat raw and bloodied her tongue. "I feared losing you. I feared losing you more than I have ever feared anything before. I tried to convince myself that it was because I knew that the Inquisition would fail without you. I tried to convince myself that I was afraid because of the state of this world, and how, if its hero perished, it would fall beneath the power of Corypheus. And I did convince myself of that. As I have ever convinced myself of anything, I made that my standard and planted it in the ground of my mind as my truth and realization."
Ah. I realized where she would go, and I prepared myself for the fall, for the breaking of bones and splitting of skin and, at last, the death of a dream too-long clung to. It is time, is it not? Have I not held to this for too long? I can find happiness elsewhere. I know that I can. I can find joy, and completion, and even love. I will never, however, ever again find in this world, for myself, this perfection. That is a dream that I…I must bid farewell.
I looked up at her, seeing her through the wash of fresh tears in my eyes. She looked like a watercolor painting. A dream locked inside an image that could never be real, never be true. My lips trembled and my heart burned as though consumed by dragon's fire.
"I lied to myself." Cassandra spoke again and my tears froze in my eyes and shattered, making the picture clear again, a reality standing before me, breathing and real and able to be touched and felt and embraced. "I, the supposed Seeker of Truth, lied to myself. I went to your rooms to rest and I lay my head on your pillow and I breathed in your scent and realized…I realized that I would die if that ever faded. I realized that I was a fool in the eyes of the Maker. This past year I have…I have ignored what stood before me, the blessing that He intended to bestow upon me. In my human pride I ignored the gift of god."
No more metaphors, I begged her. Please, I cannot bear it. Be yourself in this moment, Cassandra, and speak to me the blunt truth!
"I am a stubborn woman, Rulien." Cassandra told me, and a spluttering laugh tore out of my throat.
"You say this as though it is the revelation of the Age." I stared at her and she met my eyes.
"It was, to me." She spoke, so low I could barely hear her over the crackling fire. "I used it to my advantage. I thought that if I could protect myself from all things, from all doubts, then I would be better in service to Thedas. If I myself was protected above all else, with a clear and precise knowledge of all of my strengths and weaknesses, I knew that I could see through the lies of the world and always reach the truth. Justinia warned me that this was unwise, that I risked losing something precious if I continued to see the world in this light. Like a child, I disregarded her warning, for my way had served me well thus far. But it has failed me now. I see that. It has failed you as well."
"You have never failed me, Cassandra." I told her, unashamed. "You have always been there when I needed you."
"You set your heart before me, Rulien." Cassandra's eyes would not leave mine, and I never wished them to. "And I tossed it aside because I believed I knew all of my truths. But I do not know all of my truths, because I know that when I look at you, my heart feels as though it is no longer within my chest, but in your hand. I know that when I listen to you, I hear not just your words, but a beautiful music. Like a child, I ran from foreign things, but I do not wish to run again."
I lost my patience. I knew that if I allowed it, Cassandra would sit here forever, speaking to me in metaphor as she struggled to find the proper words. My heart continued to swell inside my chest and I feared that it would burst if I allowed her to speak further without reaching her conclusion.
"Cassie," I spoke her name in an intimate way, to see if she would allow it, "just say it. Tell me what you wish to or leave me be. I can endure no further roundabout speech."
Cassandra lowered her head and sighed. For a long moment, there was no sound. I felt as though I could not breathe. I grew colder and colder, even in the heat of the water surrounding me. The pain in my chest burned deeper and fiercer than the wounds from the dragon's claws. At last, when I knew I could bear no more silence, Cassandra broke the quiet.
"There has been a bend in the river, Rulien." She looked up, her eyes locked with mine, and within them I saw tears, tears of confusion and sorrow and longsuffering and yet also…also of joy. Of understanding. Of quiet, perfect peace.
She fell to her knees beside the tub and reached out, extending her hand to me as though she reached for a lifeline, a reassurance that I had not moved on and forgotten. She prayed with her eyes and her silence that I meet her hand and show her that I still wanted; that she had not come to me and spoken too late.
I did not tarry. I did not question. I did not ask. I reached out and grasped her hand in my own, holding it with reverence, admiring her dusky skin against my pale complexion. I could feel the calluses across her palm and fingers. I could envision that hand one day wearing my ring. I could envision that hand holding mine for eternity.
"Truly?" I asked, needing one last answer, one last truth from the Seeker thereof.
Cassandra bent her head over my hand and pressed her lips against it. My entire body sizzled as though struck by mage-lightning. She looked up and her lips wore a smile, not the lightning quick grin of laughter, but the permanent expression of fully realized joy.
Author's Note: So, this is the end of this little two-shot. I hope it was enjoyable, and had a decent ending. Kateriel79, I hope that this was everything you wanted for your birthday. It didn't work out exactly how I wanted it to, but I went where the characters led me, and hope that this little gift is good enough. Thank you to everyone who followed, favorited, and reviewed. I appreciate your time and your words.