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Nicolette O'Hara

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#1
[[OOC: 19th Firstfall, morning]] Celeste Monroe

Nicolette turned around the deck, measuring her stride from bow to stern, around the boxes and tools that were in use, ignoring the worried glances from the crew that remained. Her pace had slowed in the last few hours. The agitated energy that had driven her through most of the night was beginning to wear thin, leaving her with little but a tetchiness – no, an anger – as sensitive as the skin over a boil. She had held her tongue, afraid of what she might say to somebody who did not deserve it, but the thoughts in her head were enough to be going on with.

She had returned to the ship the previous day late into the evening; normally she would have found a room rather than risk the streets, but she had been playing at the Hanged Man and knew there was more than one pair of eyes looking out for her wellbeing. That was fine. What was less fine was this whole situation.

Celeste was gone when she had returned, which was not unusual. Nicolette would have assumed she was out on an assignment for the Jennies, had Piotr not jumped a foot in the air when she greeted him. The nervy young man had become less twitchy around her over the last week or so, so his reaction caught her attention, and then sharpened her focus when he stumbled and stuttered as she asked where Celeste might be. He had been panicking so badly that she thought he might actually jump overboard rather than face the conversation, and it had taken her some time to calm him down to a point where he could tell her the truth.

An agent for the underground had come calling. Worrying enough that they had come directly to the ship, but Celeste had decided to take matters into her own hands and carry out the task in Nicolette’s stead. She had not even waited to tell Nicolette what was happening, or to give her the choice; she had simply taken it right out of her hands. It felt, simply, as though after the events with the landlord, Celeste did not trust her not to make a mess of things.

It hurt.

Even Thibault had stopped trying to stay in stride with her, although he did wander over sometimes to whine and tug at her sleeve as she looked out over the docks, searching every shadow for the sign of the captain. Frustration turned to worry turned to anger turned to panic, almost to boredom before going right around again. The cycle of emotion was almost as exhausting as the steps she had taken, but still she could not bring herself to rest until she saw the captain. Stubby had tried to tempt her to sit with food; Kali had strongly advised it. Nicolette had leaned against the rail for a few minutes before resuming her walk again, utterly unable to sit still.

The sun peeked over the horizon, then rose in full. Nicolette’s steps dragged along the woodwork.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#2
Well, it definitely hadn’t been boring. The fight with the Tal-Vashoth hadn’t gone too badly; June could do something besides look disapproving, and Harmon had proven a decent hole card, as well as someone fairly useful to know, now that he was in Kirkwall. Celeste flexed her right hand; Brannigan’s salves had let her use it with a minimum of discomfort, but now the bruises and swelling were gone completely, as were the bruises on her neck and the injuries she’d sustained in the fight. Brannigan might scoff at magic, but she suspected that he might be interested in the opportunity to chat with Harmon.

The docks were already thrumming with activity: late night arrivals unloading cargo, other ships loading up or taking on passengers. Celeste and Dax wove through the sailors and landlubbers, Celeste not quite suppressing the bite of envy. Every day was one day closer to the masts and freedom, but it was also one day longer than she’d ever been forced to stay in one place since she’d met Daniel. Last night’s adventure had been a welcome diversion, but it was no real substitute for the roll of the deck beneath her feet and salt spray in her face. And warmth; every passing day, it seemed that the sun overhead lost more of the fight against the chill bite of the wind. There would be snow soon, and that was going to suck mightily.

“Tell me we’re going to make it out of this shithole,” she muttered to Dax as they passed a three-masted barque casting off lines and raising sail.

“We’re going to make it out of this shithole.” There was no trace of doubt in Dax’s voice; he and Gideon shared the same imperturbable calm, both of them rock steady regardless of circumstance, providing vital ballast to their captain’s restless energy. The Wicked Grace came in sight now, and despite her current mastless state, Celeste felt her spirits lift. She was still the best looking ship on the docks, and she was hers; a few more weeks for the masts, and they’d be sailing north to warm sun and beaches.

“Cap’n.” The note of caution in Dax’s voice brought her mind back from thoughts of showing Nicolette those sea glass beaches. Piotr was leaning over the rail in the stern, waving frantically at them. Celeste’s eyes quickly swept the length of the ship, then along the docks, finding nothing else amiss, and a knot of concern tied itself in the pit of her stomach; had something happened to Nico? No, there she was on the deck, but Piotr seemed to be pointing toward her.

“Wonder what that’s about?” Dax murmured, his forehead furrowed in curiosity and mild concern.

“Better find out,” Celeste replied as they both quickened their steps to cover the last of the distance to the ship.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
Nicolette had entered a state of exhaustion. She could not rest, not until she knew Celeste was safe, and the bitter churn of her thoughts would have prevented her from sleeping properly anyway. But she had been awake for close on two days now, and as desperate as she was to stay upright, it was becoming a harder struggle with every step. She had even stopped glancing over at the docks every few seconds, more and more of her attention paid to moving her feet. So it was under a heavy fog of tiredness that she eventually noticed Piotr windmilling his arms and pointing at her.

She had enough energy to rush to the side of the ship. Dax and Celeste were approaching, both clearly unharmed to any significant degree.

For a moment, the rush of relief was so strong that Nicolette swayed and had to grip the rail to stay upright. Not only was her vigil over, but Celeste was safe; that was almost enough to swamp the other reason she had been tetchily describing a circle around the deck all night. But not quite.

She did not go down the gangplank to them, not trusting herself to avoid simply flopping over the side and going in the water, and the rail gave her some support that her aching legs had been crying out for. So she stayed, watching Celeste’s ascent, fingernails digging into the wood.

She so hated to be angry. Even worse was losing control. But the moment Celeste came within earshot, she was utterly unable to prevent herself from lashing out at her. “What were you thinking? I was worried sick!”

Piotr was churning his hands, apologising frantically to Celeste; Nicolette spoke over him. “Why did you go? Why did you not wait for me to return? Do you think I am utterly incapable?”

She had an embarrassing feeling the answer might be yes. The stunt with the landlord had proven she needed much more training before she could take on tasks for the underground on her own which were more than ferrying messages. What had stung was that she thought that they would carry out any further assignments together, so she could learn. Instead Celeste had just gone off on her own.

Nicolette’s voice cracked a little. “Why did you leave me behind?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#4
Nicolette was leaning heavily against the railing … and she looked like shit: eyes reddened and ringed in shadow, complexion paler than Celeste had seen her, and an expression of such distress on her face that the knot of worry in Celeste’s gut pulled tight. Had that bastard tracked Nico down, caught her alone? She ran the last few steps up the gangplank, Dax on her heels. “What hap -”

“What were you thinking?” the minstrel lit into her before she could get the words out. “I was worried sick!”

“What?” Celeste pulled to a stop, regarding her lover in bafflement. “I’m fine! I’m better than fine!” She lifted her right hand to show the lack of bruising, pointed toward her neck to indicate the same.

Piotr cringed forward, the progress he’d made all but gone in his distress. “Cap’n, I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to -” Celeste made a calming gesture to him; nothing he might have done was going to get him put ashore, but reassuring him was going to have to wait, because Nicolette blew right over his words, as well.

“Why did you go?” she demanded, almost shaking with anger now. “Why did you not wait for me to return? Do you think I am utterly incapable?”

“What?” For a moment, Celeste could only stare at her incredulously. “You weren’t here! I didn’t know how to find you!” The idea of waiting had never even crossed her mind, to be honest; it had never been one of her strong suits. “They needed someone to escort a couple of people to KIrkwall.” The word mage was not crossing her lips; not on the docks at midmorning. She dearly hoped that Nico wasn’t too distracted by whatever had crawled up her butt to remember, as well. “It wasn’t any big deal!” she looked around her for support … and met stony gaze after stony gaze, except for Piotr, who looked like he was hoping a hole would open in the deck beneath him. Great … she was apparently in shit with her entire crew, and she had no fucking idea why.

She was getting pissed.

“I do that kind of shit all the time!” she snapped irritably, glaring around at them all. “I don’t need a damn nanny!” Even Daniel had never hovered over her; he and Gideon had let her take her lumps, though they’d been there to step in if things got too dangerous. But this hadn’t been anything like that. Not even a caper, really … just a -

“Why did you leave me behind?”

The plaintive waver in Nicolette’s voice and the suddenly forlorn look in those lovely eyes yanked the rug right out from under Celeste’s anger, leaving her teetering and unsure where to put a foot down.

“I came back,” she offered uncertainly. “I’m right here.” She took a step toward the minstrel, held out her hand and stopped, unsure how it would be received. “I’m right here,” she repeated, impatience edging the words, because she still had no idea what she had done to hurt her lover … or anger her … or whatever the fuck was going on.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
Celeste looked almost as worried as Nicolette was, although after the first volley levelled at her it quickly switched to confusion. "What? I'm fine! I'm better than fine!" She indicated her neck and wrists, where the bruises the landlord had given her had stood out for a short while. Seeing them had given Nicolette a jab of guilt every time, and being reminded of them now only compounded Nicolette's upset. She had been the one who had actively tried to help the mage underground and her foolishness caused Celeste to be hurt. She had wanted to help further, and she had accepted that she needed more training to be able to do that, but she had not expected Celeste to simply take a mission and go off on her own. What if something worse had happened this time?

Panic and anger bought each other to the boil and she could not stop her volume from rising as she voiced the other matter that had kept her up all evening. Why had Celeste left her behind?

"What? You weren't here! I didn't know how to find you!" Celeste seemed utterly lost. "They needed someone to escort a couple of people to Kirkwall. It wasn't any big deal! I do that kind of shit all the time! I don't need a damn nanny!"

Nicolette hated arguments, loathed any sort of confrontation. She felt not quite herself, which had to have been partly brought on by tiredness, but her usual ability to tamp down irritation and walk away from a bad situation had deserted her. Balling her fists, she put the main question to Celeste.

First her mother, then Eward, and then various well-meaning friends throughout her life, had expressed their frustration with her tendency to explore, and sometimes get herself in danger. Celeste had been the first not to call her some variation on the word 'stupid' - she had even encouraged her, promised further training. Nicolette had taken hope in that, so the concern that Celeste might have taken on the task to avoid Nicolette being involved at all stabbed at her.

Her voice shook a little, and Celeste's anger seemed to dissipate, at least for the moment. "I came back. I'm right here." She stepped forward, holding out her hand. Nicolette almost swayed, almost stepped forward to fall into the other woman's arms; it was not an answer, but it would be a way out of this situation. And then Celeste repeated herself, but this time Nicolette heard the terse edge of impatience in her tone. She stepped back, and as Celeste looked around at her crew, Nicolette did the same.

Faces caught between worry and stony glares turned between her and Celeste. Nicolette had spared little thought for anybody else as she had waited for the captain to come back, but she realised now what it would have seemed like, especially without context. The deranged pacing, the refusal to rest, and the sharp attack on their captain. It would seem as though she had lost her mind, and over something relatively trivial, at that. Heat prickled at her neck as embarrassment stole in to add its noise to the cacophony already occurring in her head.

She fired one more shot. "You could have waited for me."

But she had not. Perhaps she was not so different from the others who had not trusted Nicolette, either.

Nicolette turned on her heel, unable to bear the stares any further, and fled in the direction of her cabin.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#6
"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.

“What?”

“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 -

Because what?

“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:

“Bullshit.”

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 ...”

“I’m sorry.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
Nicolette reached her cabin and shut the door behind her so quickly she almost caught Thibault’s tail in the door. Her hound skittered quickly into the room, and immediately pawed at her leg with a soft whine. He might not have a mabari’s intelligence, but he knew when she was distressed, and right now there was no better word to describe Nicolette’s experience.

She had almost certainly angered the whole crew, first with her bizarre behaviour and then by yelling at the captain they all adored. As for Celeste, she had to think she had made a mistake in letting her stay on board. Or offering her a place on the journey to Antiva. Nicolette pressed her back to the door, and then slid down it to the floor, arms hooking around her knees.

Skies, why had she done that?

The exhaustion and the fear chewed at her. She wanted to sleep but the embarrassment – not a sensation she was particularly familiar with – would definitely prevent that now, as did the knowledge that at any moment there might be a knock at the door and a request for her to leave the ship. Maybe she should leave. Whatever was doing on had evidently affected her so badly that she had completely lost her usual composure. Pressing her face to her hands, she palmed away tears, and then looked around the room.

Her room, although she had no right to think of that. Once they set off for Antiva, she could well be sharing it with another passenger. And she did not usually leave her stamp on the rooms she stayed in; they were places to sleep or entertain herself with companions, little more than that. But in the few weeks she had been on board, she had wound dried flowers around the columns of the bunks, and a peacock-patterned scarf had been pinned over the small vanity mirror. There was no porthole, so in its place was a small painting she had found of, amusingly enough to her at the time, the view from a porthole, looking out over star-backed mountains looming above a dark sea. She had started making the space her own.

Listlessly, she started reaching for her clothes with the half-formed thought of starting to put them in her pack. No time to escape her humiliation like the present, and the action would keep her from searching her reasons why. It took picking up one tunic for her to fall back against the door, gasping a little as she tried to will the water back into her eyes. Why did it hurt so much?

Why had Celeste leaving her behind hurt so much? Under normal circumstances, it would have been gratefully received – after all, the last mission had only ended up going well with Celeste’s intervention, and anything else that smacked of run-ins with violence she would have gone to the captain anyway. But she did not like having the choice taken away, as though she was a child too naïve to know what was good for her.

She was not sure how long she had wallowed before footsteps came to a halt outside her – the – cabin. Nicolette waited, almost holding her breath. As though being silent would save her from questions about what in the Fade that had been about.

Instead, there was a long pause, and then a quiet voice. “I didn’t think about waiting.”

Of course. A simple answer. She just had not thought of it. And she had come back safe. So why did Nicolette did feel like she was carrying a pound of ground glass in her chest?

“I wasn’t thinking about leaving you behind, I just…did it. I don’t understand why it upset you so much, but…I’m sorry.”

How often had people said that to her? So often, it was blame laid at her feet. For not thinking of the consequences of what she was doing, for not exercising caution. For causing fear in others on her behalf. Nobody ever said sorry to her for something of this magnitude.

She stood, leaning against the door, not opening it just yet. She could not quite bear to look into Celetse’s eyes as she talked. “I thought you might have been doing what others have done before. Kept me away from it, for my ‘own protection’. Because I – do not know what is best for me.” Her breath rasped in, long and shuddering. “Because I am an idiot, who lands herself in danger again and again. But you did not lecture me. You said you would teach me to be better, instead. You – called – me – brave. Nobody has ever done that.”

Oh Skies, her throat was hurting. She wanted to keep hiding, because she was still ashamed of how she had behaved. Instead, she screwed up her courage. That, at least, she would apologise for face to face. She unlatched the door and opened it slowly.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#8
Celeste could hear the faintest scuff of a foot on the wood of the deck, felt the weight shift off the door, heard the unsteady cadence of her breath. She was there, not asleep, so damn close, and when the door remained closed and silence greeted her words, a dull weight settled in her chest. Another moment, and she was about to push away from the door and slink off when Nicolette spoke.

“I thought you might have been doing what others have done before.” The words were thick with tears, and Celeste closed her eyes at the hurt that laced every syllable, leaning into the door, palm splayed on the cool, slightly rough surface of the wood as the minstrel continued. “Kept me away from it, for my ‘own protection’. Because I – do not know what is best for me.”

Celeste’s brow furrowed, and she mouthed the word, No, shaking her head slightly. But she felt a twinge of shame, as well, because she had been intending to keep Nico away from the unknown hazards presented by a mage on the run. Not for the reason that others apparently had, but she was the one who had hurt her lover this time, charging off without thinking. Or maybe she’d wanted to show off a bit? Introspection was not something that she bothered with often, but right now, understanding why she had fucked up as badly as she had seemed urgent, because the self recrimination in the words that followed a tremulous breath had her heart clenching in a way that was both completely unfamiliar and utterly intolerable.

“Because I am an idiot, who lands herself in danger again and again.” Maker’s balls, life was danger, unless you wanted to wrap yourself in wool and sit by the fireside knitting, and someone like that would never have gotten a second glance from Celeste, no matter how attractive.

“But you did not lecture me. You said you would teach me to be better, instead. You – called – me – brave. Nobody has ever done that.” The soft wonder in her voice was all too clearly undercut by betrayal, and Celeste felt the lead weight in her chest simultaneously trying to lift and plummet at the click of the latch being disengaged. She shifted her weight back, heartbeat kicking into doubletime as the door swung open to reveal Nicolette, face damp with tears and drawn with trepidation, set in resolution. Maker, she was beautiful, but seeing her hurting like this was doing things to that lead weight in Celeste’s chest that would have had her running, if she was the running type, because it was scary as fuck, this feeling protective and angry and guilty and tender and -

What are you afraid of?

Not a damn thing.

She wasn’t running, damn it. Daniel would cross the Veil himself to kick her ass if she did.

“You are brave,” she said softly, reaching out to trace the softness of a cheek with her thumb, intercepting the shining track of a tear, wanting to wipe them all away, wanting to go back and pay attention to the warning look that Kalindra had given her. But she couldn’t change it, she knew that, so she had to make it right somehow. “The ones who couldn’t see that -” Oh, she knew well enough. They saw the beautiful face, the sweet curves, heard the enchanting voice, and decided for themselves what lay behind them: a damsel in imminent distress, someone to be cosseted, protected, put on a pedestal … possessed, like some shiny, fragile bauble. “They were fools.” Fools to catch a glimpse of that bright, adventurous spirit and think it was something to be repressed, caged.

“You live the life that you want to live,” she said, letting every bit of the admiration that she felt touch her voice, her face, letting her thumb brush down the line of her jaw, then follow the swell of her lower lip, careful to keep that the only contact between them, her heart hammering in her chest. “Do you not know the kind of guts that takes? How sodding rare it is?” She opened her mouth to say more, couldn’t, shook hr head and held out her arms, hoping. “C’mere? Please?” The need to hold her was almost overwhelming, but the choice had to be Nicolette’s to make.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
Opening the door to Celeste felt like reaching her hands into her own chest and peeling back the flesh from her ribcage. The door had helped alleviate the sense of exposure, but now it was out of the way and it was just her, staring at the captain, breath still juddering around the lump in her throat.

At least now she had a sense of why she had reacted so badly, although watching herself from a distance, even she would think her reactions a little extreme. And now Nicolette had no idea if what she had said would suffice as an explanation.

Celeste reached out to touch her face. “You are brave. The ones who couldn’t see that…they were fools.” The touch was light, but not as some other gentle touches she had received, as though she was something fragile that might shatter in an instance. “You live the life you want to live.”

The captain traced her jawline, and then her lip, and Nicolette leaned into it like a touch-starved cat. Even for all their adventures together, after her display on deck, she had not expected understanding, and the painful sensation in her chest was sharpening.

“Do you not know the kind of guts that takes? How sodding rare it is?”

That appeared to be the end of it, for the moment; Celeste visibly held back further words, but then stretched out her arms. “C’mere? Please?”

It had been some time since somebody had offered their embrace to Nicolette as a source of comfort. A quick hug here and there as a hello, yes, but not this. Nicolette took one step forward and then stretched into Celeste’s arms, locking her own around her lover, face pressed against her shoulder. “I am so sorry for shouting. I thought…I thought…”

They had already covered what she had thought. She wanted to explain further, but something about the way she was being held now robbed her of the ability for a minute or two. She could almost have fallen asleep right there, standing up as Celeste held her.

Oh, she did want to sleep. She wanted to pull the captain over to her bunk, pass out, and wake up wrapped around her in a few hours, when her mind was not so muddled by exhaustion. She could probably have done it, too. She lifted her head, gaze a little bleary as she met Celeste’s eyes.

“I loved a man, once.” The words came out as a rush. “So much. For two years. I thought we would be together forever, but he decided he wanted to settle down, and for me to settle with him. I loved him so, so much, but I could not…do that. He got annoyed with me. He said I would be safer with him than on the road, and he was right, most likely. But that is not my way. And I have met so many like him, who try to get me to behave as they wish because they fear for my safety. You are – you are the very first, who has not tried to command me against it. And I am sorry if it sounded like…I was trying to do the same to you.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#10
Celeste had thought it possible that Nicolette would reject her apology, pull away from her touch. She wasn’t sure yet exactly what she’d done wrong, but she had clearly hit a very sensitive nerve, for the normally easygoing minstrel to be this upset. It was possible that this was simply her true nature rearing its head, that she was high strung and demanding … but it didn’t feel that way.

Between their adventure atop the Chantry, their prank on Sterling and their first encounter with the Mage Underground, she had shown herself to be resourceful, fun loving, up for a challenge, and yes … brave. It had admittedly been unexpected at first; her kind nature and gentle spirit shone bright, and it would be all too easy to think that was all there was, to want that and her beauty, if that was all that someone was looking for. If that had been all there was to her, though, Celeste wouldn’t have balked at a tumble or two, but she wouldn’t have taken it beyond that, and she certainly wouldn’t be standing here with her arms open and her heart racing, hoping that she hadn’t inadvertently screwed things up beyond recovery.

It was a startling realization. Normally any lover making demands on her was immediately set aside; only for Daniel had she been willing to temper herself in the slightest, though never because he had demanded it. What she would do if Nicolette wanted something that she could not give … she didn’t know, but as she had done with every other risk in her life, she took it head on, though with considerably more trepidation than she normally felt.

Nico hesitated for the briefest moment before taking a halting step forward and melting into her embrace, holding on tight. “I am so sorry for shouting,” she murmured, the words muffled by her face hidden against the soft leather of the vest. "I thought…I thought…”

“Hsssh.” Celeste rubbed gentle circles over the minstrel’s back, feeling the breakneck pace of her heart, the softness of her hair against her cheek. “It’s all right.” She pressed a kiss lightly along the curve of an ear. “It’s all right.” Talking could wait; right now, just holding her was enough.

She could feel her lover trembling with exhaustion, and the eyes that lifted to hers after a bit were blurred by more than tears. “I loved a man, once.” The words tumbled out in a flood: the lover who sought to make her what she was not, others like him, and her shame that she might have done to another what they had done to her.

“It’s all right,” Celeste said again when she was done. “I understand why now.” They would need to talk, because a lifetime of habit was not going to be changed overnight … or likely ever. But not now, when Nicolette could barely stand and her own fatigue was beginning to make itself felt after an all-night hike with a few grumpy Tal-Vashoth thrown in for the sake of variety.

“How about -” Her fingers traced lightly along Nico’s spine, feeling the tension in the muscles, “I treat you to a massage in my cabin … the bed there’s a bit better for that.” Not to mention more comfortable than the simple bunks. “And then, I don’t know about you,” she added, resting her forehead against Nicolette’s, brushing a bit of stray hair away from her cheek, “but I could use a nap.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#11
Nicolette had occasionally reflected that Celeste had a nicer scent than a sailor had any right to have. She breathed in as she balanced herself against the other woman, inhaling soft leather, a faint undercurrent of soap and the sea and something that was akin to hot stone beginning to cool as evening settled in. It soothed, even as Nicolette rattled herself again by talking about Eward. He had been more in her thoughts in the past few weeks than he had been in some time, although not with any lingering nostalgia.

In fact, she had started to finally let go of the guilt she had felt about leaving him, and felt instead irritation over how he had tried to manipulate her. She had not liked that at all, and she knew fretting over that feeling had definitely not helped when Piotr told her where Celeste had gone.

Thank Skies that Celeste had not been doing the same.

“It’s all right. I understand why now.”

It had been a while since Nicolette hugged somebody; an actual, full embrace, instead of the quick press of arms between friends or the moment of pulling close before a kiss. She wrapped herself around Celeste, feeling not far different from somebody who found themselves holding for dear life to the rock they thought they might be dashed against. Celeste’s hands pressed against her back, earning the captain a soft sigh of relief.

“How about – I treat you to a massage in my cabin…the bed there’s a bit better for that. And then, I don’t know about you-” Celeste pulled away just enough for them to touch foreheads. “But I could use a nap.”

Nicolette surprised herself with a soft, hiccupping laugh. Nothing sounded better right now. “Skies, yes. To all of that.”

-

At some point, Celeste had apparently removed Nicolette’s bones. She woke feeling so relaxed she could not actually move; nor did she particularly want to, curled up against Celeste as she was. Only a few minutes into the massage and she had slipped into sleep, and by the light coming through the window she could tell quite some time had passed. She shifted just a little, enough to press against Celeste even more closely.

This was very comfortable. It was also quite new. Nicolette usually demonstrated her willingness to give Celeste space by slipping back to her own berth after they had been intimate (and she got the feeling back into her legs). Once or twice she had dozed off, but she had not woken up almost lying on Celeste like a pair of cats.

She was in absolutely no hurry to move; she purred slightly, brushing Celeste’s cheek with her nose. “I think you could almost pour me into a bowl right now.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#12
After Daniel’s death, it had been several months before Celeste had taken a lover into the bed that had once been theirs; she’d known in her head that he would have wanted her to go right on living life to the fullest, would have been cross with her for moping about as she had, but she’d indulged in it anyway. He’d been the first to accept her as she was, love her as she was, and encourage her to do the things she’d always dreamed of doing. He’d given her a whole ship of the kind of family that she’d never even known she needed, and even though she’d still had them, she’d known that Daniel James Monroe was a singularity that would never be matched in her life, and she’d never tried to. She grieved and moved on, had lovers aplenty, but when she slept, apart from the occasional light doze in the languorous aftermath of a tumble, she slept alone.

She’d been quite ready to sleep when she’d returned to the ship after getting Harmon and June to their destination, but Nicolette’s unexpected distress had caught her by surprise, and the need to fix what she’d broken had taken precedence. A proper massage took work, but it had been quite worth the effort. She’d been lulled into a bit of a trance by it: the glide of her hands over the soft skin, the feel of the muscles beneath easing from coiled tension into loose-limbed relaxation, the sound of the minstrel’s slow, steady breathing as she fell asleep almost immediately. Celeste had kept at it until she was satisfied that every last knot had been found and loosened. Slipping out of the last of her clothes, she had tumbled into bed, pulling the blanket over them both before sinking into a deep sleep. She hadn’t given much attention to where they were in relation to each other at that point, but drifting towards wakefulness now, she felt for the first time in a long time the warmth of a body nestled close to hers, the soft cadence of another’s breathing in counterpoint to her own.

She found that she didn’t mind it in the slightest.

Nico made a contented, sleepy sound that sent a pleasant frisson chasing down her spine and nuzzled a bit closer. “I think you could almost pour me into a bowl right now,” she murmured.

“Hmmmmm.” Celeste shifted and stretched a bit, feeling oddly satisfied and pleased with herself, considering she hadn’t gotten laid. “You certainly smell good enough to eat,” she quipped, not entirely in jest. The rich scent of the coconut oil she’d used in the massage lingered, combining with the faint smell of the cinnamon soap that Nicolette favored in a manner reminiscent of an exotic Antivan dessert. Slipping an arm about her lover’s waist, she drew them even closer together, the kiss gentle but unhurried.

“Feeling better?” she asked when they parted. Desire was simmering, yes, but for the first time in a long time, something else mattered more.

She realized that she didn’t mind that, either.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#13
Celeste stretched a little, pulling already taut muscles even tighter and rousing Nicolette a little from her torpor. “You certainly smell good enough to eat.” Nicolette gladly mirrored her when she rested an arm around her waist, and luxuriated in the long, slow kiss. There was the promise of more to come in the kiss, and while Nicolette was currently still a little too relaxed to initiate things further, it could not be long until she was. Celeste had learned how to get the best responses from her faster than any lover had done in some time, and half the time she did not even need to try. There was a particular crooked grin she had, which when accompanied by a certain look in her eyes could have Nicolette responding almost instantly before Celeste so much as actually touched her.

It might have worried her if she did not enjoy it so much.

“Feeling better?”

Nicolette stole another quick kiss, her hand coming up to rest against Celeste’s cheek. “Considerably so. Thank you.” Her fingertips traced a scar along Celeste’s jaw. “I am sorry I could not return the favour. It was my intention, once you were done with me, but you were too skilled for me to resist.”

Nicolette wound her leg with the other woman’s, but did not give in to the desire to do more just yet. Now that the massage and a thorough, deep sleep had put some space between herself and her embarrassing reaction the previous day – earlier the same day? She was not sure how much time had passed – she felt as though she could talk about it without incinerating from the force of her own shame. In fact right now she could not imagine feeling bad about anything ever again.

“And…I am sorry, for yesterday. For shouting at you in front of the crew.” She pressed a little closer, the hand that had been on Celeste’s jaw now slipping down to trace over her breast, smiling apologetically. And maybe also a touch saucily. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#14
“Considerably so.” Nicolette’s expression of sleepy contentment echoed her words, and she leaned in for another kiss. “Thank you.” Warm fingers followed the line of a scar that Celeste had received in a bar fight in Llomerryn. Or was it Wycome? There was no shortage of them on her person, though Brannigan’s skill had kept any from being overly disfiguring. “I am sorry I could not return the favour,” the minstrel apologized, looking mildly chagrined. “It was my intention, once you were done with me, but you were too skilled for me to resist.”

“That was sort of my plan,” Celeste replied with a soft laugh, turning her head to nuzzle at Nico’s fingers. “You needed the rest, and helping you relax relaxed me.” Not that she didn’t enjoy getting a massage, but generally some good sleep took care of any lingering tension in her muscles, and she had slept quite well indeed; the sunlight filtering through the drapes indicated that they were well into afternoon … probably of the same day.

“And…I am sorry, for yesterday,” the minstrel went on. “For shouting at you in front of the crew.” She nestled in a bit more, her hand moving from Celeste’s face down her neck and lower, gliding along the curve of her breast. “Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

A pleasant shiver chased down Celeste’s spine. The touch felt heavenly, yes, but it was the playful smile curving the full lips and the touch of vulnerability in those lovely amber eyes that had Celeste’s breath catching in her chest a bit. “You can do anything to me you want,” she replied, her voice husky with desire, “but you don’t need to apologize.” She caught the minstrel’s hand and lifted it to press a kiss to the center of the palm. “And you don’t have to make anything up to me.”

She laced their fingers together, a whimsical smile touching her mouth as she added, “I’ve been driving people up the wall and around the bend all my life.” She was silent for a moment, regarding their joined hands and considering. Explaining herself was something she never did; people could take her or leave her, and she’d always been fine with that. What made Nicolette different, what made Celeste want her to understand and not blame herself for what had happened, she didn’t know, but -

“My mother died giving birth to me,” she began, adding quickly, “It’s all right.” She knew what the tender hearted minstrel’s reaction would be. “I never knew her. Never knew anything about her, besides her name: Elysabeth Victoria Cantwell. I suppose Reginald - that’s my father - loved her, because he got rid of all of her things and never talked about her, and that was his way when anything actually made him feel.

“He loved me, I think, but he wasn’t ready for me,” she went on. “He had planned to be a doting husband and father to a lovely wife and child. He planned everything. He got up at the same time every morning, no matter what time the sun rose. Breakfast was always coffee with two lumps of sugar but no cream; two eggs, poached; three rashers of bacon - crisp but not burnt in the least; and two pieces of bread, lightly toasted but not buttered, and orange marmalade. Only orange marmalade.”

A hint of nostalgic amusement gleamed in her eyes as she went on. “One of my earliest memories is hiding all the jars of orange marmalade to see if I could get him to use the strawberry jam, which was my favorite. He ate his toast dry, with his mustache bristling. That’s how I knew he was upset,” she told Nicolette. “He never raised his voice to me, never struck me. But when anything disrupted his plans, he would clench his jaw until his mustache bristled. He wasn’t a bad man; he just needed his life to be predictable and orderly.” She paused, then went on with an impish grin, “You can probably guess how often that happened with me around.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#15
Nicolette felt Celeste’s chest rise a little beneath her fingertips, and she caught her own lip between her teeth at the look in her lover’s eyes. They seemed to find it equally easy to kindle desire in each other and Nicolette loved watching Celeste’s breath catch as she gave her that heavy-lidded look. “You can do anything to me you want.” Nicolette felt the timbre of Celeste’s voice all the way down her spine, and she was about to roll the other woman onto her back and pin her shoulders when Celeste continued. “But you don’t need to apologise.”

She had a habit of kissing the very center of Nicolette’s palm, a gesture that was both inciting and surprisingly sweet at the same time. She did it now. “And you don’t have to make anything up to me.” She entwined their fingers. “I’ve been driving people up the wall and around the bend all my life.”

There was enough of a pause there that Nicolette could have followed through with her impulse, but she heard the pause at the end of Celeste’s words. She seemed to be considering saying something else, and Nicolette let her decide whether she would or not.

“My mother died giving birth to me.”

Nicolette half-rose, eyes widening in sympathetic horror, but Celeste stalled the words before she could think of them. “It’s all right. I never knew her. Never knew anything about her, besides her name: Elysabeth Victoria Cantwell. I suppose Reginald - that’s my father - loved her, because he got rid of all of her things and never talked about her, and that was his way when anything actually made him feel.”

Reginald was a man of routine. To a fault, it seemed; a playful attempt of Celeste’s to have him use strawberry jam had resulted in his stubbornly eating dry toast. Nicolette chuckled at that. She could just picture Celeste as a child, squirreling orange pots out of sight. “He never raised his voice to me, never struck me. But when anything disrupted his plans, he would clench his jaw until his mustache bristled. He wasn’t a bad man; he just needed his life to be predictable and orderly.” Celeste grinned at her. “You can probably guess how often that happened with me around.”

Nicolette had relaxed enough in the course of the story to chuckle; now she pressed a kiss to Celeste’s hand, still wound with hers. “I imagine your vivacious nature may have clashed with his somewhat. I cannot imagine you doing the same thing, day in, day out. Or me, for that matter.” It was a rare thing just waking up in the same bed two weeks in a row. Less rare at the moment, of course.

She doubted that was the extent of Celeste's story, and she held her tongue from further comment for the moment.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#16
Celeste’s first impulse when she had a beautiful woman in her bed generally wasn’t talking. That the rules seemed to be changing where this beautiful woman was concerned was more than a bit unsettling, but the sailor had never been one to ignore the prod of imperative. Trusting her gut might be foolhardy or downright dangerous at times, but it was almost never boring.

The minstrel listened, sympathy giving way to amusement as Celeste described her earliest years. “I imagine your vivacious nature may have clashed with his somewhat,” she observed with a soft laugh after being told of Reginald’s rigid breakfast rituals, brushing a kiss across the back of Celeste’s hand. “I cannot imagine you doing the same thing, day in, day out. Or me, for that matter.”.

“I was lucky,” Celeste admitted. “As much as I frustrated him, he kept me with him when he traveled. Tended by nannies and tutors, of course, but I still got to spend a lot of my childhood at sea, and I loved it. I was climbing the rigging almost as soon as I could walk. The stealing …” she shrugged. “That started as a way to get his attention. I’d come to him with all the things I’d lifted during the day, and his mustache would bristle, and he’d send out payments to the merchants and lecture me about the proper behavior for a well bred young lady.”

She snorted, releasing Nico’s hand and draping her arm over her waist, fingertips tracing idly along the spine. “I got some version of that lecture an average of once a day for the first sixteen years of my life. ‘Well bred young ladies don’t steal’. ‘’Well bred young ladies don’t climb the rigging like monkeys’. ‘Well bred young ladies don’t run … or laugh too loudly … or sing too loudly - though since I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, he was probably right on that one … or gamble … or swear … or - She shrugged, her thin-lipped smile mirroring the tightness in her chest. “You get the idea. The older I got, the more I wasn’t supposed to be doing, the more I was told how grateful I should be for the advantages I had. And make no mistake, they were advantages.” She shook her head slowly, her eyes distant, “But at the same time, it felt like I was being buried alive, rule by rule. I was living a life most girls my age would have envied, and I was suffocating.

“By the time I was sixteen, Reginald had decided that he’d done his duty as a father, and it was time to make me someone else’s problem. He tried the Chantry first.” A wicked chuckle escaped her, green eyes dancing with mirth. “The revered mother in Ostwick knew me quite well at that point, and the endowment he would have had to offer to get them to take me on made him choke. He figured that I was pretty enough that he could marry me off easily, and he tried to make a decent match for me at first, but after I’d run off three or four handsome and wealthy young men who also happened to be boring prigs, he was willing to settle for whoever would take me. Fortunately for me, I met Daniel first.”

Her eyes drifted closed, a bittersweet smile curving her lips. “He was helping load cases of Antivan brandy onto the Wicked Grace when I first saw him: tall and broad-shouldered, with curly brown hair, blue eyes and a smile that could charm the fishes from the depths and the gulls down from the rigging. My father had hired him to smuggle the booze past customs in the Marches; I figured out the timing of the runs and started meeting the ship when it docked. He was ready to do it right and meet my father’s bride price, but I didn’t want to be bought and sold like a brood mare. So he left that last shipment of brandy on the docks and took me instead. I never heard that my father tried to get me back; he married again a couple of years later, and this wife stayed alive and presented him with an heir and a spare, so he finally has the nice, orderly family he planned on all along.”

She opened her eyes, smiling at Nicolette as the good memories chased away the tension from the not so good ones. “Meanwhile, just like that, I went from everyone around me telling me what I shouldn’t be doing to a lover who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, try whatever I wanted to try, and a crew that was always ready to back me up if things went pear-shaped.” She chuckled, shaking her head ruefully. “Went straight to my head, I’m telling you.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#17
Celeste’s father had tolerated her shenanigans, up to a point. She had travelled with him, and continued to frustrate him with her ways. Nicolette giggled softly at the image of Celeste not-so-contritely returning her ill-gotten gains to her victims, and then at the soft dance of fingertips along her spine, and she arched into the touch with a purr as Celeste described the lectures that usually formed her punishment. Everything appeared to be based around what well-bred young ladies were not supposed to do. As Celeste rattled off the list, her smile became tighter. “You get the idea. The older I got, the more I wasn’t supposed to be doing, the more I was told how grateful I should be for the advantages I had. And make no mistake, they were advantages. But at the same time, it felt like I was being buried alive, rule by rule. I was living a life most girls my age would have envied, and I was suffocating.”

Nicolette could sympathise. After she had got past the resentment held against her mother for uprooting them from Val Chevin, she had thoroughly enjoyed the freedoms her life offered, and the idea of being constrained in her entertainments by social decorum was an uncomfortable one; her mother had been quite lenient, although they had clashed on a few occasions. She just listened, however. The words were flowing from Celeste in the same fashion as if she had been carrying a heavy jug of water and now finally got to tip it out.

Her father had attempted to pass her off on the Chantry. A little of the light in Celeste’s eyes came back as she indicated that she had caused some problems for the Ostwick Chantry before; enough so that even Celeste’s wealthy father had balked at the cost of paying them to take Celeste on. Then he had turned to the traditional method of ridding oneself of an unwanted family member – marriage. Then Daniel had come along, as just the right moment, and Celeste gained her freedom. Her father had started a new family. Nicolette had not missed the pain in the smile. Whatever she had thought of her father, it appeared she had cared enough that his attempting to press her into marriage had hurt. But the memories of Daniel lightened her face again.

“Meanwhile, just like that, I went from everyone around me telling me what I shouldn’t be doing to a lover who encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do, try whatever I wanted to try, and a crew that was always ready to back me up if things went pear-shaped.” She chuckled. “Went straight to my head, I’m telling you.”

“It would likely go to mine, in the same circumstances.” Nicolette toyed with a lock of Celeste’s hair. “When I first set out without the company of my mother, I was certainly reckless in a way I had not been before for a while. What sort of things did you do?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#18
The feel of Nicolette pressing into her touch and the throaty sound of pleasure that she made was a temptation to let all else slide away and immerse herself in the other woman, but the attentive gleam in the amber eyes wove another kind of spell, and Celeste found herself speaking of things that she had shared with no one else. She hadn’t needed to tell Daniel; he had known what Reginald Cantwell was like. With everyone else, when she spoke of her past, she made a joke of the spoiled little rich girl driving her father batty before running off with a handsome smuggler. She’d never before tried to articulate the feeling of being caught in a trap whose walls closed in ever tighter and stole the breath from her lungs. She knew well enough that most folk would think her daft if she tried to voice such things; her father had never abused her, after all, even likely loved her in his own tightly constrained way. All she had to do was conform, obey, and she could have lived a life of comfort and security. Most folk never dreamed of more than that.

But Celeste wasn’t most folk, and neither was Nico. The unexpected tightening in her chest as she stirred up the old memories was countered by the empathy in her lover’s expression when she spoke of rebelling against the constraints of propriety and how the freedom she had found with Daniel and his ship had gone to her head like rotgut whiskey consumed by a teetotaler.

“It would likely go to mine, in the same circumstances,” she admitted, reaching out to twine a bit of blonde hair in her fingers. “When I first set out without the company of my mother, I was certainly reckless in a way I had not been before for a while. What sort of things did you do?”

“Got drunk,” Celeste responded with a laugh. “A lot. Rode the crow’s nest in a storm … not a big storm, mind you, but it was still glorious. Dove overboard to swim with the dolphins off the coast of Rivain; they’re friendly just about everywhere because sailors think they bring luck, so they’ll toss fish overboard when they see them, but the Rivaini people revere them as hosts of benevolent water spirits. They have ceremonies where they play music and sing at the water’s edge and the dolphins sing back. Dolphins around Rivain will come right in and play with you, let you catch onto their dorsal fins and take you for a ride. You’ll love it,” she promised, smiling at Nico, the prospect of the minstrel traveling with them to parts of Rivain that few southerners had ever experienced settling warm in her chest.

“Daniel didn’t let me in on the Red Jenny stuff right away,” she went on, “but when he did, that was like Satinalia every week or so. Getting to prank stuffy prigs like my father, then skipping away free while they fumed and sputtered … I loved it, but I got a bit too full of myself. I wanted to prove to Daniel and the others that I wasn’t just some spoiled rich brat on holiday, that I was fearless and bold and clever. He tried to tell me, and he and the crew bailed me out of a couple of minor scrapes, but I didn’t listen, didn’t want anyone telling me what I could and couldn’t do.”

She was silent for a moment; when she spoke again, the mirth had vanished from her face and voice, and her hand rested on the curve of Nicolette’s waist, the softness and warmth of the skin anchoring her in the present as she reached for another memory that she seldom revisited. “I decided to prank a rival captain that had insulted Daniel. He blew it off, told me to do the same, but I sneaked off the ship and onto the other one. I was going to put itching powder into all their beds, but I wasn’t as sneaky as I thought I was, and I got caught. That’s when I found out that the bastard traded in slaves on the side. He threatened to sell me, used me as bait to draw Daniel into a fight.” Her smile was grim. “Daniel took the bait, and wiped the deck with him, while the crew of the Wicked Grace beat the shit out of his crew. They got me back, but -” She swallowed, shifted her gaze past Nicolette’s shoulder, her eyes focused in the past. “Gideon took a crossbow bolt in the lung. Brannigan saved him, but just barely.” She met Nicolette’s eyes again, as serious as she ever got. “I’d never been the reason anyone had gotten hurt before, let alone nearly killed. Daniel pulled me aside that night, after we knew Gid was gonna make it, as angry as I ever saw him. Told me the same thing he told every crew member that broke the rules and caused trouble for him and the ship: you get one more chance. He said he wasn’t going to tell me what to do, but if anything like that happened again because I was grandstanding, he’d take me back to Antiva City and leave me on the docks.”

She drew a slow breath, let it out and gave her lover a wan smile. “That hurt, but not near as much as seeing Gid lying there bleeding or seeing Daniel afraid he would lose his brother. That’s what got to me. I started listening, started learning, figured out my limits.” The smile quirked into a bit of a grin. “Got better. I know my limits now, and so does the crew, and they know that they can call me out if they think I’m about to do something stupid -” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “Like I did earlier. They’ve gotten quite attached to you,” she added wryly. “They were all very much put out with me for upsetting you. They thought you might leave.” She wasn’t fool enough to put even a trace of derision into the words; she’d seen the bag open on the bed, the tunic lying next to it.

“They don’t want you to leave.” Those were the words that were easy to utter, and perhaps she could have left it at that.

What are you afraid of?

Not a damn thing.

“Neither do I,” she pushed on, feeling her heart start to hammer again, butterflies the size of gulls chasing each other in her stomach. “Not if you don’t want to, but if you do, I’ll understand.” She lifted her hand, fingertips brushing along the curve of the minstrel’s cheek as she tucked a few strands of dark hair behind her ear. “I can’t promise I’ll never upset you again, because doing things that sane people call crazy is something of a specialty of mine.” She drew her hand back down, jawline to neck to shoulder, her eyes never leaving Nicolette’s. “But I can promise that if I do take off on something without you, without talking to you, it won’t be because I’m trying to shield you. It’ll be because that’s what I think needs to be done at the time. And you can call me out, same as the crew, if you think I’m being stupid.” A gleam of mischief danced in green eyes. “Not gonna say it’s always going to work, but you can try.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

Prominent member
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Posts
153
#19
Celeste was a good storyteller in her own right, and Nicolette could just picture her kicking up a storm in a bar, riding a crow’s nest as the ship pitched from side to side on the rolling waters, or swimming with dolphins. Nicolette’s one visit to Rivain so far had taken her in-land almost immediately, so she had not experienced that yet. “They have ceremonies where they play music and sing at the water’s edge and the dolphins sing back. Dolphins around Rivain will come right in and play with you, let you catch onto their dorsal fins and take you for a ride. You’ll love it.”

Nicolette’s eyes were already lighting up before she had even finished the sentence. She adored being in the water, experiencing the weightlessness that she only ever felt on land when she was performing and skimming around on her toes. She rarely got the opportunity to swim, let alone aided by creatures born to it. She looked forward to that almost as much as she was to watching Celeste’s face when they were finally able to leave Kirkwall.

There was more to the story of Celeste’s taste of freedom, though. Her involvement with the Jennies had brought her nothing but joy to begin with, and then had landed her in major trouble – and the clutches of a slaver. Fortunately Daniel had come to the rescue, but a member of the crew had paid a heft price for it. Nicolette had heard enough about Gideon by now to know how serious it would have been. The humour had long since drained from Celeste’s face, and Nicolette’s own expression was serious as the tale unspooled.

“I’d never been the reason anyone had gotten hurt before, let alone nearly killed. Daniel pulled me aside that night, after we knew Gid was gonna make it, as angry as I ever saw him. Told me the same thing he told every crew member that broke the rules and caused trouble for him and the ship: you get one more chance. He said he wasn’t going to tell me what to do, but if anything like that happened again because I was grandstanding, he’d take me back to Antiva City and leave me on the docks.”

Even that threat had been generous, from what Nicolette knew of sea discipline. Some captains would have sent Celeste over the side without a second thought. Either way, it had worked; Celeste began to grow, although had left room for her crew to call her out if they were concerned about how she was handling a situation. “Like I did earlier. They’ve gotten quite attached to you.” Despite herself, a surprised smile touched Nicolette’s face. She knew the crew liked her, a few of them had said as much, but she would have thought they would be annoyed at her for worrying them more than anything else. “They were all very much put out with me for upsetting you. They thought you might leave.”

Nicolette thought of the still-empty pack on the bed. It would go back under the bunk, once she returned to the cabin, but she had no intention of getting up to do so now. Not now, with Celeste looking as though she was about to share something important.

“They don’t want you to leave.” A pause. “Neither do I. Not if you don’t want to, but if you do, I’ll understand.” Celeste tucked some of her hair behind her ear, apparently not aware of the fact that Nicolette’s heart had started beating double-time. “I can’t promise I’ll never upset you again, because doing things that sane people call crazy is something of a specialty of mine. But I can promise that if I do take off on something without you, without talking to you, it won’t be because I’m trying to shield you. It’ll be because that’s what I think needs to be done at the time. And you can call me out, same as the crew, if you think I’m being stupid.” Celeste’s fingers were brushing a distracting line down her neck, and a familiar spark had lit in those green eyes. “Not gonna say it’s always going to work, but you can try.”

A bubble of laughter spilled from Nicolette, and she rested her hand on the other woman’s cheek. “If it is the fun sort of stupid, I will likely be two paces behind you.” She was surprised to find she could meet Celeste’s gaze evenly, and the warm feeling in her chest was reflected in her smile. “So many people have said they do not wish me to leave them, but it has always come with conditions. Do not do this, do not do that, be more careful, or still. With you, I feel – utterly free.”

They had not often spoken directly of the effect they had on one another, except when being intimate and offering directions. So much of it had been a feeling. Nicolette looked at Celeste, at her sparkling dark green eyes, the sun-rich skin, laced with scars, and her breath caught for a moment before she could pull herself together. “You are the most astonishing person I have ever known, Celeste. And I have no desire to leave for a good, long time yet.”
 

Celeste Monroe

Shenaniginstigator In Chief
DAO/DA2 Timeline
Posts
242
#20
If Celeste had needed any other motivation for wanting to leave Kirkwall (she didn’t), the expression on Nicolette’s face at mention of the dolphins of Rivain would have provided it. The minstrel’s unabashed joy and wonder at life stood in stark contrast to the jaded cynicism that most of the world - Celeste included - seemed mired in. The delight that she took in her music, in the people that she met, in a pretty sunset or the promise of a beach made of nothing but colored glass, tugged at something in the sailor’s chest, made her want to be the reason for at least some of those lovely smiles. Thinking she might have fucked it up had unsettled her more than anything in recent memory. The possibility that she hadn’t felt like a breath held tight on a deep dive fighting to be released on the swim to the surface, and in the seconds between when she made her offer and Nico’s response, it felt as though her ribs might burst.

“If it is the fun sort of stupid, I will likely be two paces behind you,” she said with a soft laugh, her amber eyes as warm as a sunset as she lifted her hand to cup Celeste’s cheek. “So many people have said they do not wish me to leave them, but it has always come with conditions. Do not do this, do not do that, be more careful, or still. With you, I feel – utterly free.”

“Good.” Celeste covered the minstrel’s hand with her own, turning her head just enough to press a kiss to the palm. “You are free, and talented and bold and independent and -” She broke off, feeling a rare flush of embarrassment heating her cheeks. She was no damn poet, didn’t really have the words to describe this vibrant woman and the way she made her feel, but she knew one thing without doubt. “Anyone - me included - who tries to cage you doesn’t deserve you.” And if her head ever got that far up her ass, one or more of her crew would surely let her know about it.

Burnished gold eyes regarded Celeste wonderingly, emotion rippling across the lovely countenance. “You are the most astonishing person I have ever known, Celeste,” she murmured fervently. “And I have no desire to leave for a good, long time yet.”

Relief washed through every fiber like the first, sweet breath of air on breaking the surface. Celeste closed the scant distance between them, the kiss fierce and tender, and conversation ceased for a good while.

xxxxxx

“Did you want to hear about the errand the mages sent me on?” she asked a fair bit later, tugging the rumpled bedclothes over them both. While not as cold as it undoubtedly was in Ferelden at the moment, there was a decided chill in the air that had seeped into the cabin. The question was offered in as offhand a manner as Celeste could manage; she most definitely did not want to revive the tension between them, but nor did she want to simply bury the matter and hope it would never recur. She never wanted Nicolette walking the deck all night on her behalf again.
 
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