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Through Thick and Thin [Closed]

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#1
[[9:41, Wintermarch, three days after ‘The End of the World As We Know It’, morning]] Cauthrien

The compound was not a good place for convalescents right now. A manic energy had followed Sofia and Cauthrien’s return to the city, as the city guard was scrambled and a detachment of templars and Wardens were sent with them to pick off demons from a distance while frantic missives were sent off to the Circle tower begging for a solution. With Cauthrien confined to her room, Sofia had given herself little recovery time before rising the next morning and attending to the requests for help that had poured in. Technically the Wardens should only be getting involved in matters of darkspawn, but to borrow a charming Fereldan idiom, bugger it. She might even have headed back out herself if Muriel hadn’t threatened to relieve her of command if she did.

And all the time it was going on, she was worrying over Cauthrien. They’d both been exhausted upon the completion of their mad flight back home, but Sofia’s injuries amounted only to a few bloody scratches along her face. Cauthrien had many broken bones, bruising, and Maker knew what she’d done to herself when she’d tried to turn a smite on the rift. Sofia had wanted to check in on her as often as she could, but everything else that needed doing had kept her away, and Muriel had been tending to the Constable in her stead.

This morning, however, the tide of requests and queries had ebbed. For now, the city and outlying farms were being kept safe, and there was nothing more that could be done until the mages of the Circle came back with a solution.

Sofia was still exhausted. A day previously, a rider had spread the news throughout the city; the source of the rifts had been a massive explosion at the Conclave. The meeting of mages and templars, which Sofia had been thinking of with cautious optimism, had ended in calamity, and the Divine was dead. That had felt like the end of everything. There would be no peace between the warring factions now, and the Divine - oh, that had ripped at Sofia’s heart. Divine Justinia had been somebody she deeply admired, who had actually tried to come to an agreement that didn't end with all mages totally supressed, and now her peaceable presence was gone. Sofia had spent most of that night in the chapel, praying for the souls of the departed, and allowing herself the space to weep.

But a new day dawned, and the dead needed nothing from her now. The living still very much did, and she wanted to focus on one in particular. In the kitchens, the servants were preparing the tray of food for Cauthrien’s breakfast. Sofia took charge of it, stating that she would deliver it to the Constable’s quarters herself. Nobody argued. She could see some of them watching her cautiously on the periphery of her vision. Perhaps her eyes were still a little reddened.

No matter. She had other people to focus on beside herself.

Tray loaded with food and a potion that should wipe away any lingering pain in Cauthrien’s head, Sofia headed upstairs. When she got to Cauthrien’s door she knocked gently, then stepped into the darkness of the room.

“Cauthrien? Good morning. I brought you your breakfast.”
 
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Cauthrien

Warden-Constable of Ferelden
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#2
‘Patient’ had never been an apt description for Cauthrien during any type of convalescence. When sick or injured, she had always pushed herself relentlessly, generally returning to duty days ahead of schedule. The headaches that resulted from her use of her templar abilities had presented a frustrating exception; trying to force herself to recovery all but guaranteed a relapse very nearly as agonizing as the initial episode. The most recent had been the worst by far, and it had taken nearly two days before she had been able to raise herself from a prone position without feeling as though her head was going to explode, with the sounds of booted feet echoing on the stones of the corridor outside an added agony on two very different levels.

The pain had mostly receded now; Cauthrien could still see the bright spots of light dancing at the edges of her vision, warning her not to rush things, but she was on the verge of doing it anyway, perched on the edge of the bed and forcing herself to look up at the faint light that filtered around the edges of the heavy curtains over her window. She’d had no visitors apart from Muriel, but after she had threatened to get up and go in search of information, the healer had agreed to provide her updates (while also calmly informing her that she would be sedated if she tried).

None of the news was good. The rifts were widespread, evidently caused by a catastrophic explosion at the Conclave that had opened a massive breach in the sky above Haven and killed Divine Justinia and countless others. Nobody knew what had happened or who caused it. Mages blamed templars, templars blamed mages, and the demons killed without regard to faction. At least those fighting the demons had learned to engage them well away from the rifts, keeping them from being overwhelmed and slowing the pace at which more demons emerged.

It was a holding action at best, even with the assistance of the templars. And if she was going to end up flat on her back for three days after every fight -

Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself to her feet and stood swaying in the darkness, feeling the pain pulsing at the base of her skull, reaching fingers around to press threateningly at her temples, the flares of light growing brighter and reaching farther into her field of vision. She sank back to the bed with a groan, elbows resting on her knees, head drooping in defeat. Adding to her vexation were the assortment of lingering aches and pains in the rest of her body, ruthless reminders that she no longer healed as quickly or as completely as she had at twenty. Or thirty. The memory of Beorlic, sitting in darkness with only his memories and an old hound for company, haunted her thoughts every time she was forced to recuperate from one of these headaches, but it had never loomed larger than these past days.

She did not lift her head at the knock on the door, resigned to being scolded by Muriel and sent back to bed.

“Cauthrien?” She looked up in surprise as Sofia entered, nudging the door closed with a hip. “Good morning. I brought you your breakfast.”

“Good morning.” She sat up straighter. “How are you doing?” Muriel had assured her that the mage had recovered from her injuries, but Cauthrien still felt guilty knowing that her second had likely pushed herself in order to see to the duties that should have been fulfilled by the commander of the compound.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#3
Sofia was not altogether surprised to see Cauthrien sitting on the edge of the bed rather than lying down. In fact it was more of a surprise not to come in and find her trying to escape out of the window. Judging by the slump of her shoulders, however, it appeared to be regretting the attempt at movement. Not altogether healed, then.

She sat up a little as Sofia approached. “Good morning. How are you doing?”

Her voice sounded a little hoarse and she was still somewhat pale. By now Muriel’s magic would have mended the worst of the more vicious wounds, but three days wouldn’t be enough time for even the most skilled healer to make a complete job of it. Sofia put the tray down as quietly as she was able on the bedside cabinet, attempting to cause as little noise as possible.

“I am as well as I could be.” Despite her injuries, Cauthrien had been briefed a little on what had happened - she would therefore likely be aware of what Sofia had been dealing with over the last few days. “No demons have made their way to Denerim so far, so there’s hope that they can be kept at bay long enough for somebody to find a solution.”

She sat on the bed by Cauthrien - a move that might have been overly familiar, if she hadn’t already patched up the other woman many times over the previous years, and had her return the favour on a few occasions - and pulled free the stopper on the potion vial. “But I’m not going to go into much detail about that yet. First things first.” She handed it over. “This won’t cure the last of the pain completely, but it’ll numb it for a while. And give you a little respite. I’m sorry we weren’t able to give it to you earlier, but it would have interacted badly with some of the other potions Muriel was giving you.”

Her manner to this point had been orderly - first reporting as Cauthrien’s second, then concentrating on her role as physician. Now, as her friend, she took a moment to squeeze the other woman’s hand gently. “How are you doing?”

She didn’t mean just physically. The damage the other woman had sustained would traumatise even brave warriors and could leave them wary of ever lifting a sword again. Sofia sincerely doubted that would ever happen to Cauthrien, but it couldn’t have been a good experience, regardless.
 

Cauthrien

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#4
“I am as well as I could be,” Sofia responded quietly to Cauthrien’s query, but her steps lacked their usual briskness as she moved to set the breakfast tray on the nightstand. The scents of ham, eggs and butter wafted in the air, and the Warden-Constable felt her stomach give a faint gurgle of interest. For the last three days, she had subsisted on broth and porridge; anything more substantial or aromatic would trigger the nausea that always accompanied the worst phases of the headaches. Muriel had evidently decided with her usual deftness that it was time for a real meal, but hunger was a distant second in Cauthrien’s concerns at the moment as she watched her second-in-command. Her friend.

“No demons have made their way to Denerim so far,” Sofia reported, “so there’s hope that they can be kept at bay long enough for somebody to find a solution.” She sank to the edge of the bed beside Cauthrien, and even in the dimness of the room, the warrior could see that her eyes were swollen and reddened from tears and shadowed from lack of sleep. “But I’m not going to go into much detail about that yet. First things first.” The mage pulled the stopper on a small bottle and gave it to Cauthrien. “This won’t cure the last of the pain completely, but it’ll numb it for a while. And give you a little respite. I’m sorry we weren’t able to give it to you earlier, but it would have interacted badly with some of the other potions Muriel was giving you.”

Cauthrien nodded and tipped the vial up, letting the cool liquid roll down her throat. The taste was faintly bitter, but she would have taken it without complaint even if it had not promised a relief from the last nagging pain in her skull. Sofia did not need the burden of a recalcitrant patient added to the other difficulties that she had been dealing with. The coolness pooled in her belly and spread outward; almost immediately, the pain eased up, the flares of light faded further back in her peripheral vision.

She loosed a sigh of relief. “Thanks.” At the height of the headaches, the normal painkilling potions were like pissing on a bonfire. Anything strong enough to touch the agony made her feel drunk and out of control, a condition that she found even less tolerable than the pain. Sleep had been her only escape until time did its work.

“How are you doing?” Sofia asked, reaching for her hand.

“Besides feeling as useless as tits on a bull?” Cauthrien grumbled, then shrugged. “Feels like I’m on the backside of this one. Should be gone by tomorrow.” She glanced sideways at Sofia. This close, the marks that sorrow and fatigue had left were even more plain. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, turning her hand in Sofia’s and lacing their fingers. “Muriel told me about the Conclave.” The mage was a devout Andrastean, and Justinia’s death had to have hit her hard. Cauthrien was agnostic at best, but she had respected what she knew of the Divine. The woman had seemed both practical and compassionate, willing to admit to the past errors of the Chantry and to work toward solutions. The Conclave had been the best hope for ending the conflict between templars and mages, and Cauthrien hadn’t needed Muriel to tell her that the death of the Divine and countless others in the explosion that had occurred would make that schism well-nigh unmendable. And that wasn’t even the worst of their problems.

“How long since you’ve slept?” Cauthrien asked, already knowing the answer. If both of them had been up and about, they’d have kept watch on each other for signs of overwork, switched out when needed, but with Cauthrien out of commission, Sofia had done what the Warden-Constable would have done, had it been her. Frustration gnawed at her, along with the first nibbling of what she refused to call fear. Up to this point, the aftermath of her use of templar abilities had been nothing more than an occasional inconvenience, but with demon-spewing rifts scattered across Ferelden, those skills would be called upon more than had they had ever been. Sofia had put her own life at risk to save her when she’d been incapacitated in the midst of battle and exhausted herself to provide leadership to the Grey Wardens in Denerim while Cauthrien had been bedridden. She couldn’t allow that to happen again.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#5
Sofia had mixed the potion herself, in the few spaces she’d had to breathe over the last few days, so she knew it would work. Nonetheless she still watched Cauthrien closely as she took the medicine, and let out a soft sigh of relief as some of the tension gradually dissipated from the other woman’s face. The last few days had been difficult, and hadn’t been helped in the least by not being able to check in on Cauthrien. Her imagination had taken too great a freedom in imagining her commander in pain. Not to mention, knowing Cauthrien as well as she did, being aware of how several days trapped in the same room would be affecting her. At least now she could ask.

“Besides feeling as useless as tits on a bull?” Cauthrien’s mildly pungent language was enough to raise a smile from Sofia. If she was using similes then she had to be feeling better. “Feels like I’m on the backside of this one. Should be gone by tomorrow.”

“Good.” The mental structure of support Sofia had built for herself over the last few days started to waver. She’d kept herself upright because she’d had to, but knowing that Cauthrien would be all right - there was no evidence she’d lost any of her facilities - allowed her to relax, only to be made aware of how fragile she felt without the armour. It had clearly shown on her face, as Cauthrien gently squeezed her hand.

“I’m sorry. Muriel told me about the Conclave.”

A hot, uncomfortable thing was trying to hatch in Sofia’s chest. She knew if she let it she might instantly start crying. It was easier to hold it back by looking at their joined hands rather than meeting Cauthrien’s eyes. “It’s…” She stopped the lie. It wasn’t ‘fine’, and she wasn’t going to pretend it was. She and Cauthrien rarely tried to pull the wool over each others’ eyes. “It’s hard. I know the chances were slim of an agreement, but they were all trying, and that gave me hope, and...oh, Cauthrien. It’s all such a waste. There would have been so many good people there, trying to find a peaceful solution.”

And somebody, or multiple somebodies, had deliberately ruined it. There was no chance that given the location, the timing, and the size of the explosion, that it had been an accident.

Sofia tried to pull herself together. “Reports are - still muddled. Apparently one possible culprit’s been found but it seems unlikely that anybody could have done it alone.”

“How long since you’ve slept?”

Cauthrien’s words saved her from trying to work out what to say next. Exhaustion had lain over her since their escape like a damp quilt, heavy and inescapable, and it wouldn’t be long before she started making mistakes. Each thought seemed to stroll slowly from her mind to her mouth, meandering the whole way, and she often lost the sense of it before she could even say anything. Direct honesty was best. “Not since I woke up following our return.”

She’d been unconscious in the infirmary for about four hours, and in any other circumstances she would have confined herself for longer (or Muriel would have), but with Cauthrien out of action and herself the only other direct eyewitness in the compound, she’d hauled herself off the cot and into work.

Now she leaned against Cauthrien, her eyelids drooping. Despite the friendship that had grown between them over the years she normally would have never taken the liberty she did now, of leaning against the other woman and resting her head on her shoulder. “I can manage one more day,” she murmured, “until you’re fully well. Then I fear I may have to take a day to rest myself.”
 

Cauthrien

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#6
Arguing with healers was a waste of time and breath, and foolish besides. Cauthrien had butted heads on occasion when one of them sought to restrict her actions following an injury or illness, but she never refused treatment or potion, regardless of how vile the scent or taste. Even had she been so inclined, the exhaustion and sorrow etched into every line of Sofia’s features would have kept her from it in this instance. The pain that remained in her head was a pale shadow of the thundering agony that it had been at its peak, but it was still a relief when all but the faintest echo faded. She wasn’t fool enough to go charging back to full duty; she’d learned the hard way early on that trying to rush recovery all but guaranteed a relapse. But she could at least focus on whatever Sofia had to tell her with a clear head.

But sitting beside her on the bed, the mage let the twin mantles of healer and Warden-Lieutenant slip from her, and the woman beneath looked to be on the edge of foundering, slumping wearily with the expression of one still trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. She made a weak attempt at deflection when Cauthrien expressed sympathy, but raw emotion rippled across her features, threatening to break free, and she abandoned the effort.

“It’s hard,” she admitted, red-rimmed eyes focused on their linked hands. “I know the chances were slim of an agreement, but they were all trying, and that gave me hope, and...oh, Cauthrien. It’s all such a waste. There would have been so many good people there, trying to find a peaceful solution.”

And they were all dead now, with virtually any chance of that peaceful solution dying with them.

Anticipating her question, Sofia went on, “Reports are - still muddled.” Her voice was low, the words paid out sparingly, as though even talking required the act of a will nearly spent. “Apparently one possible culprit’s been found but it seems unlikely that anybody could have done it alone.”

“Very unlikely,” Cauthrien agreed with a frown. People tended to seize upon easy solutions, quick scapegoats, and if they chose to assign sole blame to the first suspect to come to light, they risked leaving what was likely a sizable network of conspirators that wanted southern Thedas in chaos and conflict. But that was nothing she could influence at the moment, so she set those concerns aside in favor of one within her purview: how long it had been since her second had last slept.

The question took her a moment to answer, her brow furrowing slightly as she marshaled her thoughts. “Not since I woke up following our return.”

“You know better than that,” Cauthrien scolded her with no real heat, knowing that she would have done much the same, had their positions been reversed. She had gone days at a time without sleep before, during the Blight, when dealing with the darkspawn and a civil war had stretched manpower and resources thin, but she was a soldier, trained to endure such exertion. The mage’s stubborn tenacity surprised her, and the need for it shamed her.

“I can manage one more day,” Sofia asserted in a voice barely stronger than a whisper, “until you’re fully well.” She leaned against Cauthrien, her dark head tipping to rest on the Warden-Constable’s shoulder. “Then I fear I may have to take a day to rest myself.”

“More than a day,” Cauthrien countered, regarding her worriedly. They’d been friends for several years, fighting darkspawn and bandits side by side, but the Antivan’s energy and pluck generally seemed inexhaustible, regardless of what they face. Cauthrien had never seen her so spent … so dispirited. “Why don’t you try to catch a nap here?” she suggested, nudging her companion in the direction of the vacant pillow. The room was dark and quiet, and there would be no one risking Muriel’s wrath by pounding at the door. “Just a couple of hours. The compound won’t fall apart in that span of time. I can delegate routine matters from here without straining myself, and if someone absolutely requires that a decision be made outside this room, I can wake you.”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#7
Cauthrien’s attempt at a rebuke over her lack of sleep only raised a small smile from Sofia. She knew full well that with positions reversed, she would right now be chastising Cauthrien for the same. They were two very different women in terms of sensibilities and skills; but neither of them would surrender an inch of stubbornness where they felt it was needed, which had been the cause of both clash and deepening friendship over the years.

Still, her friend didn’t forbid her from carrying on for one day more, although she insisted on more than a day’s rest. She could feel Cauthrien’s eyes on her and knew without looking up the worry that would be puckering the other woman’s brow. She’d been exhausted many times before, drained of energy, magic and even health, but this was the first time events had struck so deeply to the core of her that each thought felt like wading through waist-high mud. She was amazed she could even string a sentence together, but she could hold herself long enough to cover Cauthrien one more day.

Cauthrien had other ideas. “Why don’t you try to catch a nap here?” A gentle push at her shoulder urged her towards the pillows, which right now seemed the most comfortable she’d ever seen. “Just a couple of hours.”

It was a sensible suggestion, and Sofia had enough faith in Muriel to keep everything ticking over until she awoke. The only issue was doing so in Cauthrien’s bed. At some point, Sofia had realised she found something compelling in her friend, and in idle moments had allowed herself to dream upon acting on it. But only ever dreamed, not wishing to ruin what they had - besides, she had never caught a hint of interest from the other woman. Nonetheless, dozing off here seemed to be courting danger. What if she woke up wrapped around Cauthrien?

“Just a couple of hours. The compound won’t fall apart in that span of time. I can delegate routine matters from here without straining myself, and if someone absolutely requires that a decision be made outside this room, I can wake you.”

Oh good, Cauthrien was intending to stay in the bed with her. Sofia considered leaving on the pretext of needing to carry on with work, eyed the cushions for a moment and then four days of exhaustion caught up with her all at once. She simply let herself flop backwards, canting her head to the side, eyes already lidding and smiling in a slightly dozy manner at Cauthrien.

“Apparently my body has made the decision for me.” She squirmed around until she was lying against the pillows, toeing her boots off as she went, and let out a long sigh as she sank into the mattress. It wasn’t the comfiest she’d ever been on, but right now it might have been made of feathers. “Just a little while. Then I’ll get up and continuare la lavorare...”

She caught Cauthrien’s hand. Something usually hidden under layers of caution, was working its way to the surface, born up on the same waves of tiredness pulling her conscious mind below. “You were magnificent. As you always are. But I’d rather you stayed with me. I would not see your end so soon.”
 

Cauthrien

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#8
For a moment, Sofia seemed ready to reject Cauthrien’s suggestion of a nap, which would not have surprised the Warden-Constable. She was quite prepared to turn suggestion into command, but before she could do so, the Antivan gave the pillow another sidelong glance and toppled gracelessly in that direction.

“Apparently my body has made the decision for me,” she murmured with a sleepy smile that made Cauthrien’s breath catch unexpectedly in her chest.

“It has good sense,” she replied gruffly, catching the mage’s boots as Sofia nudged them off and setting them at the foot of the bed.

“Just a little while,” Sofia promised, shifting around a bit before settling in with a blissful expression. “Then I’ll get up and continuare la lavorare...”

“No hurry,” Cauthrien assured her, tugging the blanket up a bit. Not tucking her in; that wasn’t in the job description. Just pulling it to where Sofia could pull it over herself if she chose. She started to rise, stopped at the feel of Sofia’s hand curling around her own, and met the mage’s gaze, ready to reinforce the admonition that she should rest as long as she needed to.

“You were magnificent,” Sofia told her softly. “As you always are.” Respect for each other’s abilities had grown between them fairly quickly, but this was something that felt quite different, and the warmth in her friend’s blue eyes sent an answering prickle of self-awareness to Cauthrien’s cheeks. “But I’d rather you stayed with me. I would not see your end so soon.”

“I -” Cauthrien started, then stopped, wondering if there had been something besides a painkiller in that potion because her wits suddenly felt wrapped in wool and her tongue as thick as a block of wood … impairments that she could ill afford right now. It had been easy to ignore the casual flirtings that the Antivan had directed at her over the years, easy to simply pretend not to recognize them at all. She’d figured it was just an Antivan affectation, a national pastime of sorts; Zevran still hit upon her unfailingly in their infrequent meetings, seeming neither offended nor deterred by her continued refusals, and since she didn’t have to interact with him often, she could be direct.

It was more complicated with Sofia … more dangerous, because her feelings for her fellow Warden went far deeper than those that she had for the insouciant elf. Friendship had never come easily to her, her rank keeping her separate from both those under her command and those above her. Her friendship with Nathaniel had nearly been destroyed by their ill-advised attempt at romance; it had taken long months for the awkwardness and wounded feelings to even begin to heal, and she had been quite determined to never allow a repeat of that debacle.

But Sofia had slipped past her barriers without seeming to try, navigating the sometimes delicate boundaries between professional and personal interaction with almost negligent ease. The woman that she had initially taken to be a silly, self-absorbed and ambitious noble scion had proved to be intelligent, compassionate, courageous, and yes, ambitious. But she made no secret of her ambition to rise in the ranks of the Grey Wardens and had been quite willing to earn her advancement on her own merits. Respect had given way to friendship, and that had been gift enough that Cauthrien's own growing attraction to the mage had been easy for her to set aside.

Because playful flirting aside, there was no way that Sofia could feel the same way. No way that the beautiful and outgoing mage, who had her choice of lovers, could have any serious interest in a scarred and aging warhorse, and definitely no way that Cauthrien wouldn’t botch things up royally if she did act on those feelings, ruining a friendship that meant far too much to her to risk on a flight of fancy doomed to failure.

Sofia was exhausted right now, her reason clouded by lack of sleep, grief at the incalculable losses inflicted by the explosion at the Conclave, and the lingering aftermath of their battle against the demons. Seeing her friend come so close to death had admittedly sharpened Cauthrien’s awareness of her emotions; in her younger years, she’d wound up sharing a bed with a comrade more than once in the exultant aftermath of such close calls, and if they hadn’t both been more than half dead four days ago, emotion might well have overcome cold reason - on Cauthrien’s part, at least. She’d had the benefit of rest and solitude to allow reason to reassert itself; Sofia just needed the same.

“I was desperate.” Cauthrien found her words on the heels of that realization and corrected her friend with a wry quirk of her lips. “And I’m hard to kill.” She had more than proved that by now. Time and again, she had survived while others - some of them better than she would ever be - had fallen, many of them due to her own actions or lack of action. She had been pardoned by King Alistair for her role in Loghain Mac Tir’s treasons, recruited into the Grey Wardens by the son of Rendon Howe, brought back from the dead by the Warden mages in the Deep Roads. She would have died in the fight against the pride demon if not for Sofia and the two Blackstone Irregulars, one of whom had paid the blood price in her stead.

“Sleep.” She gave Sofia’s hand a gentle squeeze and slipped free of the mage's grasp. “I’ll keep watch.” Standing, she moved to retrieve the tray with her breakfast and took it to her desk, settling down to eat. The food had cooled, but that made little difference to the hunger that had returned after being held at bay by the pain for the last few days.
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#9
Cauthrien stumbled over her words for a minute, and while Sofia tried to remain attentive, the bed was swallowing her up; she could feel herself falling into the soft embrace of sleep, and she only vaguely heard Cauthrien’s response. A gentle, reassuring squeeze pressed her hand, and then, for perhaps the first time in a decade of friendship, she heeded Cauthrien’s orders without a quipped response. The last thing she was conscious of was the sound of a scrape as Cauthrien took a seat at her desk, and the soft clank of the plate. Satisfied that Cauthrien was eating, Sofia let herself drift away.

Dreams could be dangerous for mages. Beautiful images at any point could turn out to be temptations from a demon. And it was so easy to accidentally accept an offer if one’s words were not chosen carefully. Especially if said mage was suffering the effects of exhaustion and grief.

Sofia was unsurprised to find herself on the grounds of her childhood home. It was the first port of call for most entities trying to lead her astray; the memories of that era shone brightest, back when she was a beloved child with no hint of the Maker’s gift. Images of her family crowded around; the beautiful gardens melted away to form the dining hall, laden with a long spread of her favourite dishes.

A desire demon, most likely. She didn’t need to wonder at what might have attracted it to her at this moment.

She simply walked away, out through the doors, ignoring the entreating cries of her family. As a younger woman, the sound had torn at her heart; now it merely provided mild irritation. Her real family would be furious to see themselves being used as weapons against her.

Beyond the door was a familiar courtyard. The sun had baked the earth, during the top layer to yellow dust, but as she stepped forward a few cooling drops of rain were beginning to fall. She tilted her face towards them, enjoying the sensation for a moment, before turning her attention towards the figure that had appeared in the center of the yard.

Cauthrien was going through a series of forms, sunlight dazzling off her sword, her expression focused in the fierce concentration that Sofia had enjoyed watching so much. Sweat gathered on her forehead, followed her jaw as attentively as a lover, each movement throwing the muscles lining her arms into sharp relief. It was an exact image of what she’d seen before, but in no event had Cauthrien caught her gaze during the forms as she did now, a knowing smile spreading across her face.

Oh, this was low.

It wasn’t Cauthrien, but knowing that couldn’t suppress the jolt that Sofia experienced as their eyes met and the vision kept running through the forms, but more slowly. Deliberately. Showing off everything to greatest effect, before finally lowering the sword and crooking a finger towards her. “Come here.”

The voice was Cauthrien’s, but with a low second note to it, almost beyond hearing. Nonetheless it was an effective enough double that Sofia almost took a step forward anyway, before resisting. “I’m fine over here, thank you, demon.”

The unsettlingly alluring smile on the demon’s face remained in place. The higher levels of arcane creatures tended to try and change tactics when they were caught, rather than immediately resorting to violence. That came later. “Are you sure? I can think of a few things I can offer that might make that true.” Not-Cauthrien stepped closer; Sofia turned her face away. “It’s been a long time to carry a torch, Sofia. I can make it an easier burden.”

“You’re wasting your time. I won’t carry you into the world.”

There was a long silence. Sofia resisted the urge to look back at the demon; only when the ground melted away beneath her feet, into the familiar curving green-and-grey rocks of the Fade, did she turn about again. She doubted the demon was done trying, but hopefully she would have a little peace for a few minutes.

Or not. Up ahead was a crumpled figure on the ground, the Warden blue of her uniform dyed dark by blood. Above her was the shimmering image of a pride demon, fists raised to deliver a final blow. A voice whispered behind her ear. “I can help you save her. I could make you so powerful she wouldn’t even get hurt, next time.”

It took more than Sofia had expected to turn her head away, to not immediately run towards the illusion. It wasn’t just a vision. She heard it when the pride demon brought its fists down, a horrible scream hot on the heels of a dreadful crunch. “You could save her.”

After a moment, Sofia risked a peek, to see if the image had dissipated; instead she found herself staring into Cauthrien’s dead, empty eyes.

Enough!

She needed to wake, because that, somehow, had been more than she could bare, and she jerked away from the image, somehow falling and rising all at once, before jerking awake sharply on the bed, Cauthrien’s name on her lips.

The light in the room had shifted; by the look of it, she’d been out for at least a few hours. Knuckling her eyes, she shook the last of the dream away, and cast around to see if her friend was still in the room.
 

Cauthrien

Warden-Constable of Ferelden
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#10
Sofia’s breathing quickly deepened and slowed into the cadence of slumber, and Cauthrien turned her attention to her meal with relief. Some much-needed slumber would clear her friend’s head, a bit more rest for herself would banish the last dregs of the damned headache, and they could both turn their attention to how the Grey Wardens fit into this new disaster. They could fight the demons that strayed away from the rifts, but unless something could be done about the rifts themselves, it would be a holding action, at best. And if she couldn’t properly utilize the skills that would be the most effective against the demons -

The careful turn of the knob brought her attention to the door, and she raised a finger to her lips as Muriel stuck her head in. The healer glanced toward Sofia’s still form on the bed, gave Cauthrien a silent thumbs-up and eased the door closed once more. She would keep a lid on things for a bit and would know if an issue was serious enough to warrant rousing the other mage. She’d have done it before now if Sofi had let her; Cauthrien regarded her sleeping friend with an expression caught between affection and exasperation. Stubborn woman … but that was a trait they shared, and the faint smile faded.

Sofia hadn’t run then, and she wouldn’t run in another such situation. The mercenary had died because Cauthrien hadn’t been good enough; the next time, it might be Sofia or another of the Wardens under her command. That she could not allow. She had spent years trying to hone her templar skills as she had her fighting abilities: through discipline and rigorous practice. She had succeeded well enough to let her function within the limited range of a Grey Warden fighting darkspawn during a Thaw, but in a world suddenly awash with demons, those limits would no longer suffice.

The prospect of using lyrium, becoming addicted to the stuff, unsettled her deeply. She had seen the agonies that Lucien and the other templar recruits had endured while withdrawing from the substance, heard tales of the steady deterioration of the mind that followed years of use. It was a prospect only slightly less daunting than physical debilitation; that specter had begun to make itself known in the first delicate scrape of claws that would eventually sink deep: the ache in joint and muscle when she first arose, the slight lessening of her stamina. She was getting older; there was no escaping it. Dying in battle would be her preferred end, but she might end up with no more say in the matter than Beorlic had been given, and to spend her final years crippled and mindless? She shuddered.

She could let her templar abilities go, relying only on her martial skills in fighting the demons, but that would mean ignoring an edge that could mean the difference between victory and defeat, life and death. Her own mortality was something that had long ago ceased to trouble her, but -

Sofia shifted restlessly in her sleep, and Cauthrien glanced toward her, expression softening in a way that she would not have permitted if she weren’t unobserved. She would not lose Sofia - or Nate or any other Grey Warden - because of cowardice. She would speak with Lucien as soon as she was released for duty.

She had been eating while she thought, giving little attention to the taste. The tray empty and her stomach full, she stifled a yawn. There had likely been a sedative component in the potion that Sofia had brought her to ease her through these last restless hours of recovery. She could nap as easily at her desk as in her bed - lying down beside Sofia was … not a good idea - but she might sleep through someone coming in to wake her second needlessly. Lifting her chair, she moved to set it carefully beside the door and settled in it with her legs stretched out before her. If the door opened, it would hit her legs, waking her immediately. Deeming the arrangement satisfactory, she crossed her arms and let herself doze.

She seldom remembered her dreams, save those triggered by proximity to darkspawn, but she knew that she did dream, the evidence suggesting that they were best unremembered. The last three days, she had woken several times with her heart hammering in her chest; once, her cheeks had been wet with tears, the pillow beneath damp. Maker knew that battle had given plenty of fodder for nightmares, and when she jerked awake in her chair now, Sofia’s cry in her ears carried with it the hazy memory of Dragon bolting away with her on his back before the mage could mount, leaving Sofia behind to the demons and Cauthrien too spent to halt the gallop of her headstrong horse.

Oh, yes. Shit like that could remain in the Fade, thank you.

She sat upright, realized that Sofia was awake, looking about with an expression that suggested that her dreams had been no more pleasant.

“I think I prefer the darkspawn dreams,” she remarked, her voice rough with sleep. She scrubbed her hands over her face and stood, moving to the pitcher on the washstand, pouring water into a cup and holding it out to her companion. “How are you doing?”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#11
Cauthrien was perched on a chair by the door, the positioning of her legs suggesting she’d been slumped in it not a few moments before. Sofia was too relieved to see her there to feel any tang of guilt for waking her. Knowing that the Fade was nothing but a tissue of illusion didn’t make those illusions any easier to bear. It was maddening that any passing demon could pluck at her mind to find which notes might cause the greatest reaction, no matter how strong her will. Part of the reason the presence of the templars in the Circle had never particularly bothered Sofia was because there were fair more intrusive denizens to be dealt with whenever she slept.

Despite the dreams, the effect of rest on her body couldn’t be denied. Her eyelids no longer felt as heavy as lead, and when she shifted up on the cushions to look at Cauthrien, the ache that had pulsed in every muscle before she settled down had eased somewhat. While still tired, her mind was a little clearer.

Cauthrien scrubbed her face. “I think I preferred the darkspawn dreams.” So Sofia hadn’t been the only one still dealing with the aftermath of what they’d experienced. “How are you doing?”

Sofia stretched. Small twinges of discomfort flitted through her body, but that wasn’t unusual. As she’d got a little older, she’d noticed some part of her were less inclined to spring out of bed than others. “I think I’m well. Still a little tired, but another night of sleep will set me right.”

She accepted the cup Cauthrien proffered, draining it almost entirely, then wincing as a cramp of hunger knitted itself through her stomach. “Although I feel as though I could eat an entire bull.”

The thought of a platter of roasted meat and vegetables set her mouth to watering, but as she shifted on the bed, she remembered murmuring to Cauthrien before sleep had taken her, and her cheeks flamed for a moment.

Although it was hardly more overt than things she’d said before, and Cauthrien had either let them pass by without comment or not realised that some flirtatious comments had actually been an invitation rather than mild teasing. Sofia had resolved not to push the matter before, but apparently her state of exhaustion - and relief that Cauthrien was on the road to recovery - had loosened her tongue a little.

Now she looked at the other woman, and slowly rose to her feet. It wasn’t the first time either of them had come within a hair of losing their lives, but something about this situation had felt even closer than ever, and to something neither of them could have prepared for. Death could come for them at any moment, and they might not even see it coming. Sofia wobbled her way across the room to Cauthrien, and pressed her hands to the other woman’s face, before kissing her forehead softly. She then met her eyes, searching them for any hint of permission or misgivings before she did anything else.
 

Cauthrien

Warden-Constable of Ferelden
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#12
Cauthrien averted her gaze slightly as Sofia stretched, scolding herself as she always did when she found her eyes tempted to linger on the easy grace of the mage’s movements. It had surprised her the first time she had caught herself watching Sofia in the practice yard. It hadn’t happened immediately; her typical Fereldan wariness of foreigners and their early acquaintance had led the Warden-Constable to dismiss the new arrival as a self-absorbed and silly noblewoman who had been protected by her family’s wealth.

The trip into the Deep Roads had quickly corrected that misconception. Respect for Sofia’s skill, intelligence and courage had grown quickly in the lightless caverns, and they had emerged as allies. Friendship had been longer in blooming; Cauthrien was no longer as isolated as she had been as Loghain’s second-in-command, but she still felt the weight and responsibility of her rank keenly. Only after it became plain that the Antivan would not seek to exploit any ties between them, and indeed would call her out as readily as she would challenge Nate, making her opinions known without crossing the line into insubordination, did Cauthrien relax and allow herself to enjoy the growing rapport. And then -

And then, nothing. She had learned her lesson from the disastrous attempt at romance with Nathaniel; it had nearly destroyed their friendship. She would not risk a repeat of that with Sofia. Friendship was gift enough. She’d lived most of her life without romantic ties and gotten by just fine, and if that resolve wavered on occasion, she was quick to shore it back up with reminders of what was at stake and just how thoroughly unsuited she was to such ventures.

The memory of their close call, of Sofia’s stubborn courage, had softened the boundaries again, and Cauthrien stepped away from the bed as soon as the mage accepted the cup of water, returning to her desk, putting a bit of space between them and trying not to think of how lovely Sofia looked with her hair tousled and her blue eyes hazed with sleep. Maker’s balls, she needed to get out of this room and back to work!

“I think I’m well,” Sofia reported with an expression that Cauthrien knew well. It was the look of one taking a mental inventory of aches and pains, deciding if any warranted attention. It was a ritual that had not been needed when she was twenty-five, but over the last few years, it had become increasingly necessary, though as yet, none of the complaining joints and muscles did more than slow her rise by a few minutes. “Still a little tired, but another night of sleep will set me right.”

Cauthrien nodded. “Sleep tonight,” she ordered firmly. “Put Roland on duty. I should be good to go in the morning.” After three days of doing little more than sleeping, it would be tempting to think that she could stay awake for a couple of days, at least, but she knew from experience that was not how it worked, nor did it have to. There were enough experienced Grey Wardens in the compound now, and the situation was currently at a stalemate. Unless something changed, they would implement a roster that ensured that everyone got enough sleep readying themselves for when that would not be possible.

Sofia drank deeply, then set the cup aside. “Although I feel as though I could eat an entire bull.”

The Warden-Constable chuckled as a faint gurgling growl punctuated the other Warden’s words. “Everything’s normal, then?” she inquired lightly, feeling a wash of relief. Being hungry was as much a part of being a Grey Warden as sensing darkspawn. Tobias and Cressa kept more than enough food available in the kitchens, on top of the prodigious meals that they turned out three times a day.

Then blue eyes lifted to her, and nothing was normal at all.

Cauthrien felt her mouth go dry and her heart start hammering in her chest as Sofia rose up and crossed the scant space between them, her gaze never wavering. The woman who had charged a pride demon three days earlier briefly considered the two available routes of retreat: door and window, before choosing to hold her ground. Sofia stopped before her, so close that she could surely feel Cauthrien’s heart slamming against her breastbone like Dragon trying to kick his way out of his stall. Hands, slightly callused from years of staff work but soft and so very warm, framed her face with infinite tenderness. She closed her eyes as lips pressed a gentle kiss to her forehead, opened them to find Sofia watching her, waiting.

If the gesture had been more overt and impetuous, she likely would have found a way to turn it aside, but the single, chaste kiss and the way that Sofia regarded her now, questioning and vulnerable, stilled any protest and cut her thoughts adrift in a sea of conflicting imperatives .

She swallowed, unable to look away from those blue eyes, trying to summon enough moisture to unstick her tongue from the roof of her mouth, managed to utter a single word in a rough whisper.

“Why?”
 

Sofia di Castelbuono

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#13
Sofia didn’t miss the look on Cauthrien’s face. She knew it well from battle, the quick assessment of the lay of the land, and how it could be used to her advantage. In this case she appeared to be considering angles of escape, and that almost pulled Sofia up short. If she stopped now, she could pretend to have been going in for a hug - she’d done it a few times over the years, usually to Cauthrien’s visible confusion - or still rendered somewhat dizzy by the nap she’d taken.

But she’d drawn back from that edge more than once over the years, and selfishly, foolishly, she couldn’t bring herself to do it one more time. Not without letting Cauthrien know how she felt, otherwise every interaction between them going forward would feel like a lie.

When she kissed Cauthrien’s forehead, she could feel the other woman shaking, although almost imperceptibly. Or maybe that was her. She searched Cauthrien’s eyes, waiting for a reaction.

“Why?”

Well, it wasn’t ‘what in the flames are you doing’, at least. Sofia brushed Cauthrien’s jawline gently with her thumbs, an unsteady smile pulling at her lips. The urge to give a glib reply - why not? - was resisted, as there were a dozen reasons why not. Besides their respective positions, a Warden’s life was harsh, and fighting alongside somebody you cared for deeply difficult. And they’d already run down quite a lot of the time left to them before the Calling already. Although to Sofia’s mind, that last point was what made her decide that now was the time, or it would be never.

“Because of who you are.” The answer came easily, although speaking it was difficult. “Your honour, your bravery, your strength. That you admit your mistakes and reset the balance afterwards. You’re kinder than you let yourself believe. You were prepared to die for strangers back there, not because of some dictum from on high, but because you wouldn’t let them simply perish.” As Wardens, they could have ridden away, shrugging regretfully - darkspawn, not demons, were their focus. Not that either of them, or most Wardens Sofia had ever met, would have done that. But a lot of them would have pulled back long before Cauthrien had.

“I care for you immensely, Cauthrien. And have, for a long time.” Sofia dropped her hands. “Enough that, at a word from you, I will never mention this again. But seeing you there, so hurt, confirmed to me that I had to say something. We have little enough time left, I would rather spend it with no regrets.”
 
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