A/N: …yeah, this one's pretty much sap. Antagonistic, love/hate sap (hey, it's me and it's Raph/Cass), but sap nonetheless. It was also an utter bitch to write, so constructive criticism will be warmly welcomed.
Were she pressed, there were several traits Cassandra would begrudgingly admit she found rather attractive in Raphael—his charm, his intelligence, even his exaggerated arrogance. He was, if nothing else, a vastly entertaining companion, endlessly engaging her in long bouts of witty repartee and verbal warfare that ended as often with a swordfight as an impassioned kiss. He tested her patience, yes, and he was at times utterly insufferable; there were innumerable days in which she could honestly declare that she didn't even truly like him, and she felt certain that he would respond in kind.
Just the same, however, in the months she'd been surreptitiously running from home to vacation here in the dark shadows of this mountain fortress, she and Raphael had formed a delicate bond predicated upon little more than a brash rivalry turned oddly-affectionate friendship. He was dangerous—that much was clear, when she witnessed a sudden flash of malevolence in his cursed-red eyes or his emotionless gaze as an enemy soldier fell before him and begged for mercy, only to find a sword carelessly speared through his heart. Yet with Amy, his beloved foster daughter, there was an eternal sense of calm, of trust. With Cassandra as well, he seemed strangely at peace, easily guiding her through the gardens on his arm or silently holding her for long hours by candlelight in the library.
Yes, there were many things she admired about Raphael, things she would be forced to admit were she directly questioned. Nonetheless…
"Tell me of your past suitors in Athens."
…his uncanny ability to hit so precisely upon at least one of her sorest spots in casual conversation was one trait whose absence she imagined she would welcome quite warmly.
"How would you like me to ask you about all the women you slept with back in Rouen?" Cassandra groused, frowning at Raphael in annoyance from where she lay sprawled by the fireside of his private library.
"I suppose you could, but we do have precious few hours before sunrise. I suppose it all began in my fourteenth year, as I was graced with the company of the youngest daughter of the Delacroix family…"
"Okay, I get it, you were popular." Cassandra sighed and rested her head against the thick carpeting. "Why would you even want to know about my romantic history?"
"Idle curiosity, I suppose." Raphael nudged her prone form with the toe of one boot-clad foot. Cassandra responded with a series of muttered epithets but nonetheless came to settle against him, sitting half-turned in his loose embrace, tucking her head under his chin. "You are, of course, rather pleasing to the eye," Raphael continued as he wrapped one arm around her waist. "And certainly of marriageable age…well past, some might argue. I've no doubt you've met your share of suitors."
"Must you be so contrary, you wretched thing?"
"It's not exactly a pleasant subject, okay?" Cassandra irritably turned in the loose embrace so that her back was pressed to Raphael's chest, her eyes staring stubbornly into the glowing embers of the dying fire. "My sister," she began, voice tight, "was lucky enough to marry someone who not only believed in the gods but was crazy enough to believe her stories about the Evil Seed. So she has this fabulous domestic life, husband and two kids, and our parents could not be happier for her."
"Certainly understandable for those of a certain class. I do fail to see how this in any way relates to your own romantic exploits."
"I was the only one who believed sis's story right from the beginning," Cassandra explained. "Some people thought it was just a little quirky, and it didn't really hurt business at the bakery, but, well, most of the mothers in town weren't exactly beating a path to our door in an attempt to marry their sons to the Alexandra girls."
"And more fools they. To wed their sons to simple village maidens when such a fierce, pure of heart warrior lies unclaimed…a companion such as yourself should be in great demand among those of discerning taste."
"I guess that's why you keep me around."
"One of many reasons, I assure you."
Cassandra felt a helpless grin tug at the corners of her lips. She had no doubt that in a few moments he'd once again be referring to her as a meddlesome brat or some such sort, but for now, she was content to savor the subtle affection underlying his words. "To be fair," she continued, "not all of them were so wary of us. I even had a boyfriend at one point."
"His name was Cyril—his father's one of the most successful merchants in Athens. I heard that they've started exporting linen all the way to the African colonies these days. Cyril came into the bakery one day with a bouquet of asters and asked if I would accompany him to the Midsummer festival. Turns out I'm allergic to asters, and I ended up spending the next three days in bed covered in hives, but it was a really nice gesture just the same." Cassandra smiled lightly at the memory of the shy young merchant boy who had held her hand at the festival and hesitantly offered her a kiss on the cheek at the evening's end.
"I take it," Raphael's voice cut through her reverie, "that the relationship was not entirely successful?"
Cassandra shrugged lightly. "He needed a wife—someone who was ready to cook and clean and raise his children. I was barely sixteen at the time, and the thought of being tied down into that kind of life before I'd even set foot outside Athens was terrifying. So we went our separate ways. He's married to a wealthy shopkeeper's daughter these days; their sons are always playing with my niece and nephew."
"Do you ever regret spurning his proposal?"
"You ask too many questions, you know."
Cassandra tilted her head back to cast an annoyed glance in Raphael's direction before settling against him once more. "Sometimes," she began, "I do wonder what could have been. I don't regret it—I've seen and done more than probably any other woman in Athens, excluding sis, of course—but maybe it would have been nice to not worry about evil demons and cursed swords…" Her tone became quiet, contemplative. "I guess it would have been a nice enough life…Cyril certainly could have provided well enough…"
"So you do regret your decision."
Cassandra paused for a moment before pulling Raphael's arms around her waist. "Not a chance," she said, resting her left hand upon his. "Being a merchant's wife would have meant a lot less time in the company of arrogant, infuriating noblemen."
"You failed to mention, among other things, 'handsome,' 'debonair,' and 'utterly charming'."
"You should just be grateful that I failed to mention, among other things, 'obnoxious,' 'self-absorbed,' and 'completely hopeless'."
"Most gracious of you, my dear."
Silence stretched between them for some time then, shadows creeping along the cold stone walls as the fire grew ever-dimmer within the hearth.
Finally, Raphael spoke.
"A textile merchant." He observed this in the same tone as one might describe a spate of maggots or damp undergarments. "Cassandra Alexandra betrothed to a textile merchant. What an utter waste such an arrangement would have been."
Cassandra rolled her eyes. "That 'textile merchant' happens to be a very kind and successful man; he still brings my parents his best fleece from the spring shearing."
"Personally, I would have seen you betrothed to a man of noble birth, if at all," Raphael continued without acknowledging her interruption. "I shudder to think of your indomitable spirit condemned to a life of pricing wool and flax at some roadside stall."
"It probably wouldn't be that much different than rolling out dough for stuffed pastries. By the gods, stop being such an insufferable snob."
"I was under the strict impression that any such traits were why you adore me." Cassandra felt Raphael's self-assured smirk curve against her neck and irritably pinched his leg.
"I would never be married off to some nobleman, anyway," she muttered. "Do I have to remind you that I come from a family of merchants myself? I'm a lifelong member of that 'wretched underclass' you're always insulting, you know."
"While in my presence, you most certainly are not."
"Then enlighten me, O noble one—what exactly am I?"
"Ah." Here he paused, lazily tracing an abstract pattern along her arm. "That is a most difficult question to answer. Companion, friend, enemy, lover, housemaid, caretaker, wretchedly intrusive child…how I identify you depends greatly upon the situation—and, of course, the individuals present. To your sister, perhaps, you are my sworn enemy, and I will stop at nothing to destroy the girl who dared raise her sword against me. To some sympathetic nobles, it is easier to explain your presence as that of an attentive maid; others regard the richness of your beauty, and through swiftly-moving chatter you become my consort."
He stilled his fingers before moving to take her chin firmly in one hand. "You are not merely some faceless member of the peasantry—your soul burns more brightly than any of their number could ever dream. That some…boy failed to recognize this fact and sought to condemn you to a life of husbandry is to his utmost discredit. Never again shall I hear you dismiss yourself as little more than a merchant girl of no consequence. Understood?"
Cassandra could only nod weakly against his penetrating gaze. Seemingly satisfied, he released her.
"It's not often you get so…passionate about something like this," Cassandra offered hesitantly after a moment's silence.
"It appears this boy of yours has drawn my ire."
"He's not 'my' boy."
"Nonetheless." Raphael had moved one hand to lie flat against her abdomen, and he began idly stroking the soft skin with his thumb. "You disregard your inherent worth far too often without reinforcement from ignorant peasants. In time I hope you will come to realize that only a woman of the highest caliber would be allowed to remain within my presence for such an extended period."
"Keep it up and I'm liable to start thinking you actually like me."
"My dear Cassandra, surely by now you must know how much I both utterly loathe and adore you."
Cassandra smiled weakly and raised her eyes to the gods in mute supplication. Raphael certainly was adept at ensuring that any affection he expressed was carefully counterbalanced with an insult. She found herself only mildly surprised at the thought that she wouldn't have it any other way. "The feeling is mutual," she offered, hiding her amusement behind a slight air of disdain. "I can't stand you."
"And yet it is you, not I, who continually traverse mountainous terrain to retain our relationship."
"For all you know I'm just using it as an excuse to skip work."
"Several weeks' hard journey just to avoid a few hours in the Alexandra bakery?"
"Oh, well, and to annoy you, of course. That's always a bonus."
"You do so very well indeed." Raphael tugged lightly on the ends of her hair, pulling her head back to rest against his shoulder. He dipped his head low to plant a warm, open-mouthed kiss against her bare shoulder.
"Just so we're clear…" Cassandra swallowed hard as he darted his tongue against her skin. "You can't stand me either, right?"
"Of course not. I despise you, you infuriating child."
"Mm-hm. That's why…ooh…you're always so damn protective of me."
"Naturally," Raphael responded nonchalantly. He brushed his lips along the smooth column of her neck, nipping lightly at her pulse point. "The thought of some Greek peasant besmirching your character rather infuriates me—really, love, I do so consider that my job. Allowing another to do so without repercussions…why, it almost seems adulterous."
"Adulterous?" Cassandra bit her lip against a sudden swell of laughter. "I'd hate to see what your reaction would be if I'd actually married Cyril."
"It would be irrelevant, I'm sure." Raphael's tone was strangely inscrutable. "Our paths never would have crossed. You would be off frolicking with sheep and bearing children…or whatever it is merchants' wives do…instead of crossing Europe and raising your sword against the former scion of the Sorel estate."
"I might get married yet, you know. Maybe to a farmer instead of a merchant. Who knows?"
"If you dare," Raphael tilted her head back once more to meet his gaze, "I'll come to Athens myself and personally escort you back to my castle."
"I would catch you."
"I'm faster than you are."
"I doubt it."
"I'm cleverer than you are."
"I highly doubt it."
"And then you'd never get rid of me."
"More's the pity."
Cassandra finally allowed her laughter to quickly bubble over, then shifted in Raphael's embrace so that her head rested upon his heart. His heartbeat sounded in her ears, steady and even, and she found herself strangely at peace. For a moment, she allowed herself to bask in the feeling, her breath measured and tranquil, eyes soft and half-lidded. "You'd go through all that trouble," she murmured, "just so I wouldn't end up as some housewife."
"I would, as you so eloquently expressed, 'go through all that trouble' to keep you by my side and prevent your spirit from being prematurely dimmed by a life of mundane housework. Why, I've yet to even teach you how to dance the minuet."
"I think you just like having me around."
Cassandra had expected a sharp retort about his genuine dislike for her, but Raphael was strangely quiet for a long moment. He ran a swift caress along her cheek with the back of one hand before finally observing, "I would hardly threaten to steal you from the altar if I found your presence entirely unbearable."
"Maybe you would. You don't make a lot of sense most of the time."
"You are aware that I've killed men for lesser insults."
"Try it and you'll be on the wrong end of a wicked shield uppercut."
"If you could ever hope to move swiftly enough to inflict it."
"Let's find out, then—courtyard. Five minutes. Best two out of three."
Cassandra's eyes narrowed as she realized that Raphael had made no move to procure his rapier, but rather was openly chuckling at her enthusiasm. "That," he stated, "is the fire I would so hate to see extinguished. Your family and friends, well-meaning though they may be, all appear to have such great expectations of you that threaten the flame of your soul. I dread the day when you will no longer raise your sword against me in righteous indignation but demurely set aside your weapons in favor of a loom or kettle—indeed, I will do all that I can to ensure that day never comes, including spiriting you away from a marriage to a simple-minded village boy should the need arise."
"You do realize that means you have your own impossible expectations of me, don't you?" Cassandra asked irritably.
"Ah, Cassandra…" Raphael heaved an overly-dramatic sigh and lightly ruffled her blond hair. "You ask such foolish questions." He came to his feet before offering his hand and pulling her to stand beside him. "You are expected to be so many things. The valiant warrior, the baker's daughter, the gentle housewife. Your family expects certain things of you, as do I far too often. Here, however, in these moments between us—" He brushed his thumb over the high contour of her cheekbone, watched her unconsciously lean into his touch. "Here, you are simply expected to be my Cassandra. And that alone, love, is worth far more than most could ever dream."