"You could have waited for me."
Celeste watched Nicolette storm back to her berth, the dog on her heels with his head down and tail tucked. “What in the fuck was that?” she asked of no one in particular.
“That was you being an ass and her being exhausted,” Kalindra informed her acerbically.
Celeste’s teeth came together with a click. “I’ll give a half share of my portion of the next job to the first person to say something - anything - that makes fucking sense.”
“She hasn’t slept since she came back to the ship and found you gone,” Sorcha spoke up.
“Couldn’t even get her to eat,” Stubby said. “I even made fisherman’s pie.” Shepherd’s pie with the meat replaced with flaky pieces of cod; there wasn’t a member of the crew who ever turned it down.
Celeste shook her head, still confused. “She was that mad at me for going without her?”
“She was that afraid,” Kali corrected her. “Afraid for you, that something might happen to you.”
“For fuck’s sake … why?” Celeste demanded irritably. “Didn’t you tell her we could handle it?” She gestured to Dax, who nodded, looking less than enthused to be brought into it.
“Wasn’t any big deal,” he muttered. “Fight wasn’t that hard.”
“Fight?” Kalindra’s eyebrows shot up, and Celeste gave him an exasperated look.
“We ran into some Tal-Vashoth,” she said with a shrug. “Like he said, it wasn’t much of a problem. We had a mage and a templar on our side.”
“Former templar,” Dax corrected her.
“She’s still got the stick up her ass,” Celeste grumbled, “and I still don’t see the problem with me doing what needed doing.”
“You’re going to have to talk to her to find out why,” Kali told her, “but take our word for it -” She gestured around at the crew. “She was very upset.”
“Yeah, I noticed that,” Celeste snapped, layering on the sarcasm, “and the rest of you are mad at me because …?”
“Well …” Bailey squirmed a bit. “We like her is all. Her singing and playing while we work makes it more fun -”
“And she’s easy on the eyes, too?” Sorcha finished, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Well, yeah,” he admitted sheepishly, giving Celeste an apologetic look. “Sorry Cap’n … I know she’s your girl and all, but we don’t want her to leave.”
Leave? Seriously? She might leave because Celeste had gone and done something without asking her permission? The stubborn defiance that had manifested in her almost as soon as she could walk and talk reared its head. “She’s not ‘my girl’,” she informed him in a clipped tone. “She’s free to bed who she wants and do what she wants, and that includes leaving if she wants to.” She glared at them. “And anybody who doesn’t like the way I run this ship is free to leave, as well.”
Spinning, she stalked to the bridge, muttering curses about the absence of the mainmast and the crow’s nest that had always been her favorite spot to sit and stew. She stood at the rail, looking to the south, but she couldn’t even see the mouth of the harbor for all the sodding ships. Damn this crowded, stinking city -
“I know you’re tired of being landlocked.” Kali’s voice behind her, and her nails dug into the wood of the railing, “but you shouldn’t be taking it out on the crew. Or Nico.”
What? “Take what out on her?” Celeste demanded, whirling around. “In case you weren’t paying attention, I was the one who got my ass chewed! It’s none of her damn business what I decide to do when she’s not around, and if she can’t handle that, then maybe she does need to leave!” Maybe it had been a mistake, inviting her to stay on board the ship.
“Is that what you want?” Kali asked her.
“That … has nothing to do with anything.” She turned back to the rail, trying to push down the unease that was trying to rise. She had no more business telling the minstrel what she could or couldn’t do than the other way around. “What she does is up to her.” They were friends with benefits, nothing more. Maybe more frequent benefits right now than - say - she and Isabela, but that was just because -
“It is.” Kali stepped up beside her, studying the harbor. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t want something else.”
Celeste huffed an irritated sigh, watching the gulls screaming and diving as a sailor dumped something over the rail of a passing ship. Rats with wings, that’s all they were. “Why are we having this conversation?” Don’t want what you can’t have was a rule that she had lived by for most of her life, and if Nicolette wanted to leave -
“Because you’ve been more content these last few weeks than I’ve seen you in two years,” the other woman replied evenly.
“Content?” Celeste snorted incredulously. “We’re stuck in the ass-crack of Thedas with a busted ship, this fucking city has everything in it I don’t like, including Qunari, for fuck’s sake! I had to send my first mate to fucking Antiva to keep him from getting picked up by one of their press gangs, so what in the fuck do I have to be contented about?”
“Exactly,” Kalindra pointed out. “All of that, and you haven’t broken out and done anything really crazy.” She cocked her head, brown eyes probing gently but relentlessly. “She calms you.”
“I -” Celeste turned away from the question in those eyes. “She’s a diversion,” she muttered. “We have sex, we have fun. Nothing I haven’t done before. She’s not Daniel. She’s not even like Daniel.”
“You don’t need to tell me that.” Kali’s hand rested on her shoulder, squeezing lightly until she turned back. “You miss him; we all do, and we know you’re not trying to replace him. But you can’t tell me that he wouldn’t want you to be happy … and you can’t tell me that he wouldn’t approve of her.”
“He would,” Celeste conceded with a sigh. Her husband would have been thoroughly charmed by the minstrel’s gentle nature and adventurous spirit ... not to mention her beauty, and Maker, the fun they would have had!
“Is that the problem?”
As if she was that stupid. “There is no problem,” Celeste countered. “At least, there wasn’t until she decided that I needed to check in with her before making a move.”
“You followed her two days ago when she left alone,” Kali pointed out.
“If I hadn’t, she’d have been in deep shit,” she growled. “Those assholes were willing to risk her life to do their dirty work, never mind if she had the skills or not, and then they wanted her to do it again yesterday! What the fuck would she have done against a bunch of Tal-Vashoth? She doesn’t even like to fight!”
“But wasn’t that her choice to make?” Kali persisted, never raising her voice. “A choice that you took from her?”
Celeste opened her mouth, snapped it shut and glared at the other woman. “Dammit,” she grumbled, shifting to lean against the rail, arms crossed defensively over her chest.
Kali settled beside her. “Hoist on your own petard?” she suggested, her expression more amused than sympathetic. “Do you honestly think she would have gone alone again if they had approached her first?”
“How should I know?” Celeste demanded, and Kali’s eyebrows arched. “All right, no, probably not.” No ‘probably’ about it, really, but she wasn’t going to admit it. “But why did she get so damn upset?”
“As I said, you’ll need to ask her to get an answer to that question,” Kali told her. “But I’ve got another question: why are you so upset?”
“I’m not.” She knew that wasn’t going to fly before Kali called her on it:
Celeste rolled her eyes. “Because I don’t like anyone telling me what to do?”
Kali chuckled. “Better, and undeniably true,” she agreed, “but if that’s all there is to it, why not just let her leave if she wants?”
“Did I not say exactly that?”
“You did,” Kali agreed. “But is that what you want?”
That question again. Celeste asked it of others often, because so damn many people were afraid to even think of what they wanted, let alone go after it. Five years ago, she’d asked it of a young woman sewing dresses and turning tricks in the Pearl, and gained a damn good crew member and a damn good friend.
What do you want?
She’d never been asked it herself before, never even asked it of herself, because she didn’t need to ask. Don’t want what you can’t have, but if you want something, go after it. The two sides of the coin that she lived by, and Kali knew that. Knew her. Maybe not as well as Gideon or Brannigan, but damn close, and Celeste knew her well enough to know that she wasn’t going to let her slide out with a glib answer.
“I thought I knew,” she replied with an awkward shrug. “I have fun with her, and I thought she felt the same, but -” She gave Kali a questioning look. “She’d really leave over that? Did she say she was leaving?” The thought of it had a totally unfamiliar feeling of disquiet gnawing in her chest. She didn’t like it. Didn’t know what to do about it.
“She didn’t,” Kali replied, adding in response to the accusing glare that she got, “but I’ve never seen her that upset before. I’ve not seen too many people upset enough to walk the deck of a ship all night for the sake of a casual bedmate.” She cocked her head, considering for a moment. “Actually, she’s the first.”
“Shit.” Irritation was giving way to guilt as the realization of just what kind of exertion that had required seeped in. No wonder she had looked like death warmed over. “I should apologize.” It wasn’t really a question, but she found herself looking to Kalindra for some kind of guidance. Apologies weren’t exactly a specialty of hers. Never do anything you’ll regret and never regret anything you do. Another rule that she lived by, leaning heavily on the latter half.
“That’s a start.” Not exactly the approval she’d been hoping to get, and she eyed the brunette in frustration.
“What?” she demanded heatedly. “You want me to propose marriage to her?”
“Is that what you want?”
“Why do you keep asking me that?”
“Because you still haven’t answered me. What are you afraid of?”
“Not a damn thing!” Celeste flared. You could take that to the sodding bank.
“Well then?” Kalindra crossed her arms, regarding Celeste expectantly.
“I want …” Celeste made a vague gesture in the air with one hand, trying to put words to it. “I want her to want to stay.” It was nothing she would force through her own will. The freedom to choose was something that she prized over nearly everything else, and she wouldn’t try to take it from someone else.
Kali sighed, shaking her head and looking at her in affectionate exasperation. “Was that really so hard? Now you just have to tell her.” Without waiting for a reply, she turned and made her way back down to the main deck where, Celeste couldn’t help but notice, the rest of the crew had been busying themselves with a variety of nonessential tasks while staying in earshot.
“Bitch,” she muttered, but she was smiling. They were her crew, they were her family, and they knew who to send to kick her ass when Gideon wasn’t handy. The smile faded a bit, because she knew what was expected of her now, but she still wasn’t sure how to go about it. Well, not like that ever stopped her any other time, right?
She descended the stairs and ducked into the passageway for the passenger berths. She stopped outside the one that Nicolette had claimed, raised her hand to knock … and lowered it. She’d been up all night; what if she was asleep? What if she didn’t answer? What if she told Celeste to fuck off?
What are you afraid of?
Not a damn thing.
She raised her hand again, then sighed, resting her forehead against the door, fingertips pressing lightly into the wood. “I didn’t think about waiting,” she admitted, her voice low but clear. “I wasn’t thinking about leaving you behind, I just … did it. I don't understand why it upset you so much, but ...”