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When You're Good to Maman [Closed]

Nicolette O'Hara

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#1
[[OOC: Morning, mid-Justinian, 9:41]]

Fortunately, it had taken only a couple of days to find a safe place to dock. While the captain of the guard at the Cumberland docks had been enraged by the reminder of his past follies, he had either been too embarrassed to circulate a description or it had yet to reach the small town of Wyburg, where they fetched up. Nobody placed them under arrest on arrival; Nicolette and Celeste were able to saunter off and negotiate the hire of a pair of horses to carry them back towards the city.

The last few days had been the happiest of Nicolette’s life, nightmares notwithstanding. The crew had welcomed her back like a lost member of the family, and that was how she had felt. The days had been spent reacquainting herself with every part of the ship and what the other members of the crew had been up to, the evenings dedicated to song and food, and the nights wholly to Celeste. She had not paid much mind to what waited for them when they did return to Cumberland and to her other family’s reaction to her sudden departure.

She had time to think about it on the ride. What had been a couple of days on the water would take them less time cutting directly over land, but they still had most of the day. The plan was for them to stay more than one night, but Nicolette, having been reunited with the Wicked Grace, was not of a mind to stay on land for long.

Most of their travel had been engaged either in playful flirting, or more trading stories – they had both built quite a store in the last six months – but as they drew closer to their destination, Nicolette turned the conversation towards what waited for them.

“I am not sure what Maman will say,” she admitted, candidly. “She will likely be cross that I left so suddenly, although as I return unscathed that will help. I imagine by now she heard about us being chased out of town.” She smiled a little. “She is fairly broad minded, but the story of the cross-dressing quanri and a guard with a grudge might be a bit much even for her.”

In truth, Maman had been furious when she first gave her story, in the days following her exhausted arrival on the doorstep. Not at her, however; she had blamed Celeste for abandoning Nicolette. She had stopped mentioning it in front of her when it became apparent how much it upset her, but she was not sure if that meant her temper had cooled.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#2
To be perfectly clear, Celeste was not afraid of horses. She’d just never been fond of them. They were large, hairy, smelly, and generally didn’t want to do what she wanted them to. She’d never even been in a saddle until she had started accompanying Nicolette on her inland excursions on occasion, and the complaints from muscles she had been unaware that she possessed afterward had not markedly increased her interest in that particular mode of travel. If she had to leave the ocean and the deck of her ship, her own two feet suited her just fine.

But Nicolette was anxious to reassure her mother that she was safe, and given the distance that they had been required to sail to escape the ire of the Cumberland guard, horses would be a necessity. Celeste would have tolerated far worse to stay beside her lover; waking next to her each morning still felt like a miracle, and she had every intention of keeping the promise that she had made so long as Nico wanted her along. Fortunately, her minstrel was quite aware of her limitations, and selected a mount for her that, while still large, hairy and smelly, was quite willing to plod docilely along wherever she directed him. Her. It. Whatever.

This left Celeste free to admire the easy way that Nicolette sat astride her more spirited horse, as graceful there as she was on the ground, and clearly enjoying herself, gently teasing the sailor for her own clumsiness in the saddle and promising a massage to soothe aching muscles later. Maker, but she was beautiful, and Celeste was not going to tire of drinking in the sight of her any time soon, but she also noticed the subtle tension in the lines of her face and the set of her shoulders as the day wore on.

“I am not sure what Maman will say,”
she said at last, trying to sound casual but not quite succeeding. “She will likely be cross that I left so suddenly, although as I return unscathed that will help. I imagine by now she heard about us being chased out of town. She is fairly broad minded, but the story of the cross-dressing quanri and a guard with a grudge might be a bit much even for her.” She smiled a bit at that, but her golden eyes were shadowed with more than a touch of worry. She had been reticent on the subject of her family since her return, which might not have been remarkable save for the stories that she eagerly told of her other experiences during their separation. The only other things that she did not speak freely of were the moments of terror, of horror, of aching loneliness. Those were reserved for her time alone with Celeste, and the first nightmare had by no means been the last, though none had been quite so intense.

Celeste didn’t think that Nicolette’s time with her family had been as traumatic as some of her experiences alone, but she suspected that she knew why her minstrel was reluctant to speak of it. “It won’t be the first time I’ve scandalized someone,” she remarked mildly, her eyes searching her lover’s face, “but I’m guessing she’s not too happy with me anyway.” She didn’t blame Clarice in the slightest; she was still a long way from forgiving herself for leaving her gentle minstrel behind in a world gone mad.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#3
Celeste did not like horses. Nicolette, despite herself, found this mildly amusing. Her captain sat in the saddle like a sack of potatoes and even the most mild-mannered of horses seemed to become capricious under her reins. Fortunately on this occasion they had managed to find one that had no inclination to bolt, although he had stopped on a few occasions for a relaxed period of grazing while steadfastly ignoring Celeste’s instructions. Not so much that they would have to delay their journey and camp overnight, at least.

As for Nicolette, she was finding it a joy to be riding without the threat of demons, bandits or starvation snapping at her heels. She missed Arminio and hoped the people she had sold him to were treating him well; he deserved it after everything she had put him through. Her current mount was a dappled grey mare which would clearly rather be going at a fast clip than the gentle trot they maintained, but she was biddable enough and Nicolette relaxed in the seat, savouring the breeze across her face.

It also helped that she was not riding under the dark shadow that Celeste’s absence had caused. She still found herself glancing over at the captain from time to time during the occasional moments that conversation ceased, and the warming sensation in her chest never failed to occur each time. They had only gone some of the way towards making up for the months apart, and Nicolette could have carried on kissing her until the skies caved in; but familial obligation called, and she resisted the urge to suggest they delay their arrival for a day and enjoy a night together under the stars.

Also cooling her ardour was the thought of the reception that likely awaited them. Haltingly, she warned Celeste that it might be on the frosty side.
Maman had mostly approved of Celeste, the first time they had been introduced. She had seemed to find her entertaining, and had not been shy in stating that Nicolette had had far worse choices of lovers before. But an undercurrent of concern had run throughout; fear for the situations her daughter might be placing herself in. Having had most of those fears realised following Nicolette’s near-collapse on the front step, she was likely to be distant.

Celeste took it on the chin. “It won’t be the first time I’ve scandalized someone. But I’m guessing she’s not too happy with me anyway.”

Nicolette released the reins to squeeze her lover’s hand. Try as she might, she had not yet managed to assuage Celeste’s guilt over ‘abandoning’ her. “It is not as though you are my keeper. But…no, she is not. However, I did explain – repeatedly – that staying would have condemned the crew. And Saul and Michel understood.”

Saul had actually been easier to talk to than her mother, which had made Nicolette feel a little treacherous. In his study, two days after her return, he had poured her out a long drink and simply listened, with no interruptions. At the end he had hugged her, and simply expressed his gratitude that she had made it back in one piece. He would never replace the memory of her father, but she did love him nonetheless.

The house was coming into view now. It was not a huge house by the standards of some merchants, but it was still a respectably-sized rambling country estate, and therefore had a few guards posted here and there around the edges of the gardens. One of them, on seeing the women appear, immediately ran back towards the house. “Messere Saul! Lady Clarice! Your daughter’s returned!”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#4
To be perfectly clear, Celeste was not afraid of Nicolette’s mother. Exactly. But there was no denying that Clarice’s existence had presented her with a dilemma that she had never before encountered. For her entire adult life, Celeste’s world had started and stopped upon the Wicked Grace. Friends and allies could be found elsewhere, of course, but Daniel and the crew had been her family, and that had been all that really mattered to her.

Nicolette had another family, and even if she only visited them every few months, she clearly loved them dearly, and they loved her enough to let her live the life that she chose, despite their very obvious worry for her. Celeste wasn’t jealous. Exactly. But the knowledge had unsettled her in a way that she found hard to define, and it had taken a couple of years before she had accepted her lover’s offer to accompany her on one of her visits to them.

It had gone surprisingly well. Celeste had been on good behavior (for her), regaling Michel with tales of life at sea without touching on the details of the most dangerous aspects … or the illegal ones. Clarice had accepted her, but something in her manner had suggested that she did not expect Celeste to be around for long. Which had been fair enough, since at that time, both Celeste and Nicolette had still been clinging - albeit tenuously - to the notion that their relationship was simply one of convenience and mutual pleasure. That the day would come when she would be ready to forsake her ship to find the minstrel had not even breached the furthest horizon of her thoughts, but she had agreed readily enough when Clarice had pulled her aside briefly as they were leaving to bid her to take care of her daughter, and she would have agreed even without the unspoken ‘or else’ hovering in the background of one mama bear’s eyes.

As the years went by and Celeste had continued to appear alongside her daughter, Clarice had grown steadily warmer toward her, but each visit always closed with that same private admonition and the same unspoken ‘or else’. And now, she was pretty sure she was about to find out what that ‘else’ was.

“It is not as though you are my keeper,” Nico assured her, seeing the disquiet beneath her attempt at insouciance and reaching out to give her hand a reassuring squeeze. “But…no, she is not. However, I did explain – repeatedly – that staying would have condemned the crew. And Saul and Michel understood.”

“She’s your mother.” Celeste was not one to miss what she had never had, but since meeting Nicolette’s family and seeing how different Reginald was with a wife to raise his children, she had on occasion wondered what her life would have been like if her mother had survived her birth. Boring, most likely. She would never have known her ship … or Daniel … or Nicolette. Definitely not worth the trade off. “Hopefully Saul can talk her out of doing anything permanent to me.” She was joking. Mostly. Saul was a good sort, kindhearted and levelheaded, but having seen Clarice in a temper a couple of times, Celeste knew quite well where her minstrel got the fire that flared on occasion, and knew also that Nico was not easily calmed when her blood was up.

They passed the borders of the estate; this section of Nevarra had largely been spared the chaos that roiled much of the rest of Thedas, and bees buzzed lazily among blossoms on apple and peach trees in the small orchard, while seedlings stood bright green against dark earth in the gardens. As soon as they were spotted, one of the guards on duty ran calling for Clarice.

“Thar she blows,” Celeste muttered under her breath at the sight of Nicolette’s mother bustling out the front door. Then, “Nonono. Stop! Belay that! Avast! Whoa, dammit!” Neither her words nor her hauling back on the reins were enough to dissuade her mount from veering away from their course to a path of its own choosing: a patch of clover. “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed in exasperation as it came to a halt and buried its nose in the prize, tapping her heels against the barrel of a chest, not really expecting a response. “Go! Forward! Giddyup!” Whatever the hell that meant, not that it worked.

Fuck this. Scrambling out of the saddle, she narrowly avoided falling on her ass as muscles protested the sudden change. Recovering, she left the damn horse to his snack and strode - okay, limped - forward to meet her fate.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#5
Clarice Vivain, née O’Hara, tended to make an impression on those who met her. One of Nicolette’s earliest memories was her father describing how he had first seen her mother; sweating over his forge, he thought that he had been struck dizzy by the heat. Tall and graceful, with a curling fall of dark hair and faintly impish green eyes, she had come over to inspect the piece of armour he had been shaping. And then, most startling for an Orlesian woman, she’d spoken to him with no hint of censure, voice merry and light. And they’d carried on talking, and talking, and the forge went cold, and they went to a tavern to continue talking.

Nicolette suspected that part of the ‘talking’ was a metaphor for something else.

Either way, they had eloped together within days. Richard O’Hara abandoned his entire life for Clarice, and she did the same for him; her family did not approve of the match, and when they had settled in Val Chevin, it had been to build a life from the ground up. Clarice’s classical education had covered dance and music, so it was that she had turned and showed a knack for. It later served her well on the road – as did a practiced imperious gaze and an ability to bargain with even the most steel-backed of merchants without breaking a sweat. Many people had fallen in love with her while she and Nicolette travelled together – others had hated or envied her.

Time had carved lines around her eyes and mouth, but not especially deeply, and she was still as dignified as ever as she swept out onto the steps. Nicolette slipped off her horse as Maman headed towards her, pointedly ignoring Celeste’s struggles with her own mount, and swept Nicolette into an embrace. Shortly after, a long, gangly pair of arms joined in as Michel reached them, and then Saul’s bear-like hug swallowed them all.

“Nihu.” Maman clasped her face. “It is good to see you well! I heard all sorts of strange things, following your sudden departure.”

“Yes.” Saul grinned overhead, including Celeste in the smile. “I heard that the local guard-captain was led on a merry chase over half the docks.”

“Is it true your first mate kissed him?” Michel was all eyes, excited for gossip.

“He did.” Nicolette chuckled.

“Perhaps the captain would not have felt the need to chase the crew out of town, and you with them, had that not occurred,” Clarice pointed out, tartly.

“I think he would have done so anyway,” Nicolette pointed out. “There was a fight-”

“I heard. With the crew in the middle, was it not?”

“One of the other patrons started it. He pulled painfully on my arm to get me away from Celeste. They were defending us so we could get away.”

“Well, good for them, then,” Saul rumbled. “It’s a shame you had to dash away so suddenly, but at least you managed to get us the note so we didn’t have to worry too much.”

Maman looked as though she was about to say something else, then let out a breath, and smiled. “Yes. You are well and safe; that is all that matters. Come on in. You’ve arrived in time for dinner.” The iciness had faded somewhat, although she then looked around at Celeste. “Afterwards, Celeste, perhaps you and I could speak? I have some questions I would ask of you.”

“You could ask them of both of us.” Nicolette reached for Celeste’s hand. “She has filled me in well on what has been happening over the last few months.” And she was not letting Celeste take the brunt of what was likely to be a dressing-down alone.

“After dinner!” Saul held the door open for them as they approached, and patted Celeste on the shoulder as she went by. “You both need feeding up a bit, looks like.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#6
Celeste hung back a bit while Nicolette’s family greeted her. Even now, her relationship with her own father was more collegial than familial, and embraces of any kind were not exchanged, let alone the bear hugs that enveloped her lover as first Clarice, then Michel and finally Saul threw their arms around her. She let the barbs that Clarice aimed in her direction slide off, allowed Nicolette to answer them. She had dealt with the older woman in similar moods, knew that riding out the storm was the only real option and that anything she had to say would be ignored until Clarice was ready to listen to her.

Which, apparently, might be sooner, rather than later. After inviting them both in for dinner, Clarice finally addressed her directly. “Afterwards, Celeste, perhaps you and I could speak? I have some questions I would ask of you.”

“Of course.” While she might not exactly be afraid of Clarice, she definitely wasn’t going to let the woman think she was afraid of her. Besides, it was unlikely that she could say anything to Celeste that the sailor hadn’t said to herself repeatedly.

Nico jumped to her defense anyway. “You could ask them of both of us,” she suggested, twining her fingers with Celeste’s. “She has filled me in well on what has been happening over the last few months.”

“It’s all right, querida,” Celeste murmured, giving her lover’s hand a squeeze. Not being actively suicidal, she wouldn’t interfere between mother and daughter unless Clarice lashed out at Nico, but she was quite capable of withstanding a tongue-lashing on her own. If Clarice thought the Wicked Grace had been anchored in Antiva Bay with the crew sunning and swimming all this time, Celeste was quite willing to set the record straight … respectfully, of course.

“After dinner!” Saul admonished them gently, giving Celeste’s shoulder a pat as she stepped through the door that he held for them. “You both need feeding up a bit, looks like.”

“Whatever you’ve been feeding this young giant should do admirably,” Celeste joked, reaching up - way up - to ruffle Michel’s hair. He’d nearly reached his father’s height, but not his bulk, and he was all arms and legs, nearly tripping over a chair as he moved to help his mother set two more places at the laden dinner table. “Anything that’s not fish will be welcome.” While not so gaunt as Nicolette, she had definitely lost some weight, though not from lack of sustenance. The sea’s bounty had remained reliable, but she seldom had much in the way of appetite. They’d both eaten well over the past two days, but not nearly enough for Nicolette to have lost the hollowness to her cheeks and the prominence of her bones. Small wonder Clarice was pissed.

“We can bring you some, if you’d like.” The cove they had anchored in was teeming, and much of the down time had been spent by the rest of the crew fishing, with Stubby set up on the beach drying and salting their catch. The past few months had made it plain that they couldn’t count on being able to resupply in the ports they visited, and would often even need to distribute some of what they had to folk with even less. She wasn’t precisely tired of fish, but the smell of roasted chicken, herbed vegetables and freshly baked bread - a treat on board a ship even in times of plenty - was enough to have her mouth watering.

“Have you seen any demons?” Michel asked eagerly as they sat.

“My fill and plenty beyond that,” Celeste replied simply, not needing the warning look that a certain mama bear was shooting her over the potatoes. Clarice couldn’t keep the boy anchored here forever, but he wouldn’t be leaving on the Wicked Grace, and Celeste wasn’t going to make the business of fighting demons sound like anything but the grim, joyless and highly dangerous slog that it was. “I’m glad to see no rifts around these parts; not much can live where they’re at.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#7
Celeste had by now seemed to accept that Nicolette did not blame her for leaving her behind. What she had yet to do was absolve herself of guilt for it, and it appeared that Maman was not about to help her along the path. Clarice Vivain was loving, and kind, but having lost one family member to forces beyond her control, she was not taking well to almost having lost another. Nicolette attempted to ensure that Celeste did not have to take the brunt of her mother’s rage alone; Celeste attempted to assure her that it would be all right.

A brief exchange of eyebrow semaphore between Nicolette and her mother reached a conclusion. She would respect Maman’s wishes to speak to Celeste alone. Nicolette did not indicate that she would be outside the door, ready to burst in if she felt her mother was overstepping the mark. But first, something far more welcome; Saul’s call to dinner set her stomach rumbling. After months with little appetite, hers had come roaring back in the last couple of days, and she had been hard pressed not to keep shoving food in her mouth until she got a stomachache.

Celeste further endeared herself to Michel by referring to him as the ‘young giant’. It was odd to Nicolette to see her younger brother now almost a man, but he had yet to lose the puppy-ish look to his eyes. Always hungry for stories, he had doted on Celeste from the first time she visited. On previous visits, Nicolette had noted the wistful expression on his face as she described the things she had seen and done. She doubted it would be long now before he started asking permission to go off exploring himself, assuming he had not done so already.

Saul clapped a hand on Celeste’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you, Captain.”

They sat at the table and Nicolette was aware of both Maman and Saul eyeing her as she reached for the meat, before settling back with looks of relief as she heaped her plate high. Absorbed in exhaustion, lingering fear and misery, she had failed to notice the depths of their concern before, and a frission of guilt shimmered through her. She should not have made them worry so.

As she set to, properly eating instead of just picking, Michel decided to pick on an awkward topic to start. “Have you seen any demons?”

Nicolette could feel Maman prickling, but Celeste was ahead of her. “My fill and plenty beyond that. I’m glad to see no rifts around these parts; not much can live where they’re at.”

Saul nodded, his usually cheerful countenance now grim. “I’ve heard a lot of disturbing stories recently through some of my contacts. Others have gone completely silent, which is more alarming. Everything here is set in case one should appear nearby; we can be gone within minutes.”

Maman had relaxed enough to smile slightly. “It took a little time to advise on what ‘necessary’ covers in the case of an emergency. Running back in to claim a tapestry while the grounds are burning would not be wise.”

Saul grinned sheepishly. “I’ve been off the roads too long, I think. It’s easy to become accustomed to certain comforts and think of them as vital, until they’re gone and you carry on living.” Panic touched his eyes, and he backtracked. “Material things, that is…objects. Not people.”

His floundering couldn’t help but bring a smile to Nicolette’s face. He was a thoughtful man, and it had been his sensitivity to Maman’s needs that had brought her approval of him. He had even asked Nicolette before he approached Maman if she would be all right with him courting her mother. Maman touched the back of his hand, a gentle gesture, reassuring rather than chastising.

Michel looked nonplussed by all of this. He had clearly been expecting swashbuckling tales of taking on a dozen demons and walking away with a laugh. “Oh. Okay.”

“Demons are terrifying things, Michel.” Nicolette spoke softly. “Even from a distance. The people fighting them effectively are armed with far more than swords.”

“Like the Inquisitor.” Michel’s interest had fortunately found another target; his eyes gleamed. “Merrow says he saw her once, at the docks in Antiva. She’s a qunari! Seven foot tall and with horns! And she fights with a greatsword as tall as I am!”

Nicolette chuckled. Between Michel’s enthusiasm, and the food, and having Celeste at her side, the knot of tension in her chest was beginning to unravel. “I meant magic, but I imagine that would do it.” She canted her head towards her lover. “Celeste saw her once, I believe?”

Michel turned round eyes in Celeste’s direction. “Is it true?”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#8
A silent clash of wills ensued between Nicolette and her mother; Celeste wasn’t about to get in the middle of it, but Saul was bolder, breaking the tension with a well timed summons to dinner. Celeste filled her plate without hesitation, but held off on digging in until she saw Nico begin to eat. The minstrel’s appetite on board the ship had been good, but she was still far too thin for Celeste’s liking, nor was she the only one worrying. Clarice and Saul watched until she had piled generous portions onto her plate and begun to eat.

That was enough of a relief that Michel’s question about demons didn’t blunt her own appetite in the least, but she could feel the weight of his mother’s gaze on her in the moments before she responded. The silent warning was needless; if the boy wanted adventure, she wasn’t about to point him in a direction that would get him killed within a week. The family had found a haven here, with no rifts nearby; hopefully, that would continue to be true.

“I’ve heard a lot of disturbing stories recently through some of my contacts,” Saul agreed somberly with her warning. “Others have gone completely silent, which is more alarming. Everything here is set in case one should appear nearby; we can be gone within minutes.”

“It took a little time to advise on what ‘necessary’ covers in the case of an emergency,” his wife observed with an affectionately exasperated smile. “Running back in to claim a tapestry while the grounds are burning would not be wise.”

“I’ve been off the roads too long, I think,” Saul admitted with an abashed smile. “It’s easy to become accustomed to certain comforts and think of them as vital, until they’re gone and you carry on living. Material things, that is…objects,” he added hastily. “Not people.” He was plainly worried that he’d misspoken, but Clarice was quick to lay her hand on his, her expression as tender as Celeste had seen this visit. He wasn’t the handsomest of men, decidedly on the plain side when compared to his wife’s beauty, but he had one of the best hearts that Celeste had ever encountered, and that had clearly won him his lady.

“You definitely learn what matters,” Celeste concurred quietly, her free hand reaching out to brush along Nicolette’s leg beneath the table. A few years ago, the notion of forsaking her ship for anyone would have seemed as outlandish a prospect as joining the Chantry; there had simply been no place she would rather have been than on the deck of the Wicked Grace. Now … well, she still loved her ship, but if it ever came down to a choice again, she knew beyond doubt what her decision would be.

Such sentimental displays were quite evidently not what Michel had been looking for. “Oh. Okay.”

“Demons are terrifying things, Michel,” Nico told her brother, her beautiful face touched with a rare gravity. “Even from a distance. The people fighting them effectively are armed with far more than swords.” She had seen them - fought them - up close and personal, but Celeste didn’t know how much she had told her family, and with a private interview with Clarice imminent, the sailor wasn’t about to bring it up.

Fortunately, Michel’s enthusiasm had found another target. “Like the Inquisitor,” he suggested eagerly. “Merrow says he saw her once, at the docks in Antiva. She’s a qunari! Seven foot tall and with horns! And she fights with a greatsword as tall as I am!”

“I meant magic,” his sister corrected him with an affectionate laugh, “but I imagine that would do it. Celeste saw her once, I believe?”

“Is it true?” he immediately wanted to know.

“We gave her a ride to Val Royeaux to meet with the Chantry,” Celeste confirmed. “Height, horns and sword sound about right, but her biggest weapon against the demons is the mark on her hand.” Celeste held her own left hand up, tapping the palm. “It glows like it’s on fire, but there’s no heat. I touched it,” she admitted, knowing that would thrill him. “It didn’t hurt, but it felt strange; set my teeth on edge a bit. I didn’t ever see it working, but Varric says that he’s seen her close rifts with it.” That was the key. The demons could be killed if the holes that kept spitting them out were sealed up. “Not sure what to make of the latest stories going around,” she admitted, “but it sounds like she’s still alive and fighting, and the Inquisition is still behind her. She's a good sort, with a good head on her shoulders. Not puffed up at all." And with a moniker like 'Herald of Andraste' around her neck, that was noteworthy.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#9
The pressure of Celeste’s hand on her leg soothed Nicolette. She was happy to be back here, in a much merrier mood than before, with the knowledge that tonight she’d sleep curled up next to her lover, but then tension of wondering how her mother would address everything that had happened kept her on edge, and the conversation regarding demons wasn’t helping. The warm presence of Celeste’s touch kept her from plunging into dark memories, and she rested her hand over her captain’s for a moment, before taking the opportunity to warn Michel against getting any ideas of fighting those monsters.

Fortunately he was enamoured of the idea of the Inquisitor, as most of Thedas seemed to be, these days. Official opinion was wildly between the pragmatic - accepting the help the Inquisition offered, when needed - and outright denial that the Inquisitor could even seal the rifts. Nicolette had largely ignored the debates as to whether she was sent by Andraste or not. Not being Andrastean herself, it wasn’t a subject for her to mull over. Apparently she was impressive regardless, judging by Celeste’s description of her, and Michel immediately jumped on that, wanting to know about her.

“We gave her a ride to Val Royeaux to meet with the Chantry. Height, horns and sword sound about right, but her biggest weapon against the demons is the mark on her hand.” Nicolette was now listening with about as much fascination as Michel - Celeste had already described Sati Adaar to her in some detail, but the mark on the hand captured her imagination. “It glows like it’s on fire, but there’s no heat. I touched it.”

Michel bounced in his seat. “You touched it? She let you?”

Saul and Maman also looked a little taken aback.”That was rather...daring.”

“The Inquisitor offered.” Nicolette could see where Maman’s mind had been going then, thinking this another example of Celeste being reckless, and she moved to head it off. “Apparently she feels that people will be less scared of it if they know it can’t harm them.”

“What did you hear of her, after the attack on Haven? There were so many rumours - not all of them hopeful.”

“Not sure what to make of the latest stories going around,” Celeste admitted, “But it sounds like she’s still alive and fighting, and the Inquisition is still behind her. She’s a good sort, with a good head on her shoulders. Not puffed up at all.”

Saul smiled, face returning to its usual benign state. “Well. That’s good to know. Once this is all sorted out she’ll be in charge of an army without a purpose, and knowing she’s not the dictator type gives me some peace.” Saul was unshakeable in his belief that everything would turn out all right in the end; that sort of blitheness that came with always having had enough coin to buy his way free from most troubles, combined with the good nature that prevented him from winding up in bad situations in the first place. It could have been irritating, but instead was somewhat reassuring.

He could be quite deft, as well, and smoothly moved the subject onto how trade was flowing, the mapping of new routes to avoid the worst trouble spots, occasionally sprinkling in praise on Maman. She was still a musician at heart but had always been quite silver-tongued when she wanted to be, and applied that skill on behalf of Saul’s business. Between the good food, the good wine and the turn of talk to more gentle matters, Nicolette began to relax fully, almost to the point of being sleepy.

Right up until the last plates had been cleared away, and silence had fallen, and Maman finished off the last of the wine in her glass. “Very well. Now we have all been fed and watered - Celeste, perhaps you might join me, to give your account of the last few months?”

Nicolette straightened up, ready to argue, but then Maman turned a firm gaze on her. “My daughter. Please. This is for my peace of mind.”

Nicolette held her gaze for a long moment, then nodded, slowly, and squeezed Celeste’s hand before reaching in to kiss her cheek, murmuring in her ear. “I’ll be outside the door.”

She wouldn’t interrupt if it was as simple as wanting to hear Celeste’s doings over the last few months, but if Maman started getting angry, Nicolette was not going to put up with that.
 

Celeste Monroe

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#10
Talk of Sati Adaar and her now-legendary mark provided sufficient derring-do to distract Michel from thoughts of fighting demons. “You touched it?” he asked incredulously, eyes wide. “She let you?”

”That was rather...daring,” Clarice observed, disapproval hovering at the edges of her expression, but her daughter stepped in.

“The Inquisitor offered,” she explained, her tone reasonable. “Apparently she feels that people will be less scared of it if they know it can’t harm them.”

That seemed to appease the matriarch. As with most of the rest of Thedas, they had heard much of the exploits of the Herald of Andraste, and heard also of the attack on Haven that had at first seemed to signal the end of the Inquisition. Fortunately, that hadn’t been the case, and Celeste was able to provide the reports that she had gotten from her contacts. The Inquisition survived and had found a new base of operations deep in the mountains; she hadn’t been there herself, and until three days ago, had figured she never would. But she’d seen the gleam of interest in Nicolette’s eyes upon hearing the name Skyhold; her minstrel would undoubtedly want to see it for herself. Which meant that Celeste would be traveling further from the ocean than she’d ever been in her life, a prospect that she found herself oddly okay with.

Saul deftly moved the conversation on to less tension-prone topics, and Celeste readily shared what she had learned in the past months on the safest routes for trade caravans to avoid the rifts and which ports remained accessible. Commerce had not yet fully recovered from the upheaval that the Breach and rifts had caused, but it had come a long way; the profiteering and price-gouging of the early days had largely subsided, though the increased danger and sometimes roundabout paths needed to avoid the rifts had kept prices higher than they had been.

Dinner ended and servants cleared the plates from the table. “Very well.” Clarice set her wine glass on one of the departing trays, her expression purposeful as her gaze settled on Celeste. “Now we have all been fed and watered - Celeste, perhaps you might join me, to give your account of the last few months?”

Nico tried again to protest, but her mother would not be swayed. As Celeste rose, her lover kissed her cheek and whispered, “I’ll be outside the door.”

Celeste smiled, turning her head and kissing her lover gently. “I’ll be fine, querida,” she promised. She had survived demons and pirates, blood mages and rogue templars. There was a flutter of anxiety in the pit of her stomach that had never been present when facing the aforementioned foes, but her face gave no hint of it as she followed Clarice into the study, leaning back against the desk as the older woman closed the door.

“Ask away,” she said calmly, her gaze steady on Clarice’s face. If Nicolette’s mother came up with a rebuke that Celeste hadn’t hammered herself with over the last few months, it would be surprising, but she was ready to accept it as nothing more than her due.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#11
Even before the loss of her father, Nicolette had always been a wilful child. She was not to be dissuaded from swimming in the docks, vanishing for hours to strip bramble hedges free of fruit, or taking up conversation with total strangers on the basis that they seemed interesting. But she had always been so joyful that Clarice had simply accepted that each adventure of her daughter’s would add to her collection of grey hairs, and hadn’t attempted to curb her free spirit. Music had given that energy a direction. And although Nicolette had protested being pulled away from Val Chevin, she’d adapted well to a life on the road.

Too well. Even in the midst of her grief, Clarice had envisioned settling down elsewhere, a place in which not everything reminded her of Richard. She didn’t find it until she met Saul, and by that point it was clear that Nicolette would continue to wander, letting stories guide her. Clarice would not use guilt to fetter Nicolette, so she accepted that she would enjoy her daughter’s visits when they occurred and try never to let her know how much their parting pained her.

But she trusted Nicolette; her daughter wasn’t wild or foolhardy as a general rule, and always avoided conflict. When times were peaceable, that was fine, and when the Blight had taken Ferelden, Nicolette had come and stayed with them, so there’d never been doubts as to her wellbeing. The appearance of Captain Celeste had given Clairce some pause; she seemed exactly the sort of woman to overwhelm Nicolette’s natural sense of caution, but she was interesting, and Nicolette was clearly besotted. And Clarice was hardly one to dictate on a sensible choice of partners. She’d given away most of her life in exchange for the handsome young smith she’d met in Amaranthine, and she’d never regretted it.

But this - the murder of the Divine, the whole world torn apart by the rift between mages and templars, the vile people who had crawled out of the woodwork to take advantage of the desperate - had made it hard even for her to believe Nicolette was safe. With each day that passed, terror had crawled in at the edges of her mind, infesting her with the thought that her beloved daughter was dead or worse.

The querying message from the Wicked Grace asking if Nicolette had appeared only increased her fear, but also spiced it with anger. Her misgivings about Celeste had been offset by the notion that the captain would protect her daughter if trouble did rear its head, and she’d quite enjoyed the woman’s company eventually. Which made the fact that she’d abandoned Nicolette even more galling.

She was not likely to forget the moment that Nicolette, all but drained of her usual spirit and half-starved, had arrived on the doorstep and collapsed into her arms. The tears shed had been mostly happy, and she’d allowed relief to temper her anger for a while, but then she’d heard Nicolette screaming in the night and realised there were things that occurred that she might never know. Nor could she bring herself to ask. The agitation had only increased with each plate of food Nicolette left half-eaten, and each day she wandered down to the docks only to return looking more forlorn than before. Only when she’d picked up her music again had Nicolette started to look something like her old self.

And then Celeste had crashed back into Nicolette’s life and spirited her away, leaving Saul greasing a few palms in order to get the trouble with the local guard sorted. The note provided little comfort, and she’d half expected neither of them to reappear for a while. She supposed it did speak well of the captain that they’d returned as swiftly as they had.

Now that they were away from the others, and with the captain leaning almost casually against the desk, Clarice wasn’t feeling generous enough to admit that. She checked the door was firmly closed before turning on the other woman.

“Nicolette has given me her version of events. Some of it was, I suspect, softened for my sake. I want to hear yours, and how it was that you abandoned her to a world filled with demons.” Clarice stalked close, her furious gaze square with Celeste’s, all the accusations she’d kept back now roiling in her mind like dark storm clouds. “How my daughter, who I believed was safe with you, turned up on my doorstep having clearly not had a square meal in weeks, and plagued with such nightmares that I thought she might have lost her mind. How she spent almost five months hunting for you along the coast and you managed to miss her every time. Enlighten me, captain. Trust that I am very...very...interested in hearing what justifications you had.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#12
It was easy to see traces of Nicolette in her mother’s features and bearing as Clarice turned away from the door, but even at her most displeased (and Celeste had earned that displeasure more than once over the years), Nico’s countenance had never been like this: the green eyes cool, but gleaming with the barest hint of a fire tightly leashed and ready to be loosed.

“Nicolette has given me her version of events,” Clarice began, her voice calm and quiet, but carrying clearly across the scant distance between them. She had lost none of the performing skills of her time on the road with her daughter, but this was no act. “Some of it was, I suspect, softened for my sake. I want to hear yours, and how it was that you abandoned her to a world filled with demons.”

The older woman approached her now with the deadly grace of a hunting cat, the caged fire slipping loose and beginning to flare in her gaze. “How my daughter, who I believed was safe with you, turned up on my doorstep having clearly not had a square meal in weeks, and plagued with such nightmares that I thought she might have lost her mind. How she spent almost five months hunting for you along the coast and you managed to miss her every time.” The ice and fire gaze raked over the sailor scornfully. “Enlighten me, captain. Trust that I am very...very...interested in hearing what justifications you had.”

Celeste nodded slowly, crossing her arms and meeting those accusing eyes without flinching. She couldn’t begrudge Clarice her anger, but if the woman wanted her account of how it happened, she was going to hear all of it.

“Nico wasn’t due for another three days when the rift appeared,” she began, her voice as low and controlled as Clarice’s. Neither of them wanted Nicolette in the middle of this. “It wasn’t much more than a curiosity at first, and quite the crowd had gathered around it when the first demon emerged.” She drew a slow breath through her nose, let it out, turning her gaze to the window that looked out upon the verdant expanse of the garden, but her eyes were far away.

“I was coming back from the market, so I saw it happen. It was a terror demon: one of the tall, leggy ones. It lashed out with its claws, tearing into the ones closest. Then it screamed.”

She swallowed against a mouth gone bone dry at the memory. “Funny thing about that scream,” she said with a tight smile that held no trace of mirth. “Nobody hears the same thing. It reaches into your head, finds what scares you the most, and drags it out.” And not even for Clarice would Celeste revisit the memory of what those sounds had called forth for her. “Those who could run scattered. Those who couldn’t -” A minute shrug. “That demon, and the ones after it, finished them off.”

“The guards managed to organize, and they killed them, though not without losing a couple of men. They’d scarcely fallen, though, when the rift began to flicker and pulse, and just like that, a whole new bunch of them popped out.” She turned her head back to meet Clarice’s eyes. “It kept going like that. As soon as they killed the demons, more appeared. They ran out of guards about sunrise, and after that, there was no chance of containing them. I’m not sure what started the fire. One of the rage demons maybe - the flaming ones. Or maybe someone throwing a torch at one, hoping it’d do some good. Or maybe just someone knocking over a lantern in a panic. Didn’t matter how, because once it caught, it spread fast.”

She pushed away from the desk, stepped to the window, rubbing damp palms absently on her trousers. “I’d held us there all night, waiting. Most of the ships had taken on some passengers and cast off, but with the town ablaze and the demons out of control, there was a mob on the docks, desperate for a way out. We dumped our cargo, made room for as many as we could, but there were still dozens begging for passage, and when we told them we couldn’t take any more on, they tried to force their way on board.”

Outside, the setting sun lit the sky into a palette of flame, and a lark trilled in the branches of an apple tree. Celeste rested her forehead against the windowpane, letting the coolness of the glass and the song of the bird anchor her in the present, a reminder that Nicolette was alive and safe and waiting for her on the other side of the door. “If we’d stayed, they’d have capsized us,” she said simply. “So I gave the order to cast off.” Gideon had done it; she had been unable to make herself utter the words, even knowing what would happen, but the responsibility was still hers. All of it. “Pretty sure the ones that we left died.” By fire, drowning, demon … did it matter?

“It never occurred to me that it wasn’t a freak occurrence, a local phenomenon,” she admitted with a rueful sigh that seemed to come from the soles of her feet. “We had a backup plan that we’d used before when Nico wasn’t back when it was time to cast off.” She’d never tried to curb her minstrel’s free spirit, never wanted to. It was as much a part of her beauty as her voice or her grace. “She always knew our next two or three ports of call, and she’d always met us at one of them. I never thought the damn things would be there, too.”

She turned back to Clarice, her expression as somber as it ever got. “I love your daughter, and I’d put my life on the line for her in a heartbeat, but as captain of my ship, I’m also responsible for the lives of my crew and passengers. If I had known that what happened was happening across Thedas, if I’d known that there would be places where we couldn’t even tie up because of the demons, I would have left the ship and gone ashore to look for her. But I didn’t know, and I didn’t go, and I spent every day of the past five months regretting it, and searching for her.”

She drew a deep breath, lifted her chin. “I can promise you this, though: your daughter will never travel alone again unless she wants to. My crew knows how to handle the Wicked Grace without me. I’ll go with Nico when she leaves the ship, and I’ll stay with her … until I’m dead, or until she tells me to leave.” A subtle - or perhaps not so subtle - warning in case Clarice was considering trying to order her away. Because that was not happening.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#13
Clarice had wanted to see Celeste flinch. She needed some acknowledgement from the other woman the depth of the danger that Nicolette had been in, and her part in it, and the captain’s steady tone when she began her explanation did little to calm the anger still scorching her head. She itched to shake Celeste, grab her by the front of her vest and drive into her every moment of fear she’d experienced over the last few months - and especially those of the last few weeks, when she both desperately wanted her daughter to confide in her and let whatever poison riddled her mind out, and was terrified of what she might be told. Her sweet, beautiful girl deserved no pain, and the mere thought of what she could have gone through made it hard for Clarice to see reason.

Nonetheless, Celeste left little room for her to find an opening through which her frustration could flow. There was no doubting the horror of what she’d seen. And she’d waited as long as she dared, putting crew and the refugees already taken on board at risk.

“If we’d stayed, they’d have capsized us. So I gave the order to cast off.” Then, with unsettling distance, “Pretty sure the ones we left died.”

Nicolette could have easily been one of those. A vision welled up in Clarice’s mind of her daughter, trapped in the panicking crowds, unable to either move forward or flee, watching the distant mast move away from sight. She pressed a hand against her chest, trying to dull the knife-sharp pain of the image.

“It never occurred to me it wasn’t a freak appearance, a local phenomenon. We had a backup plan we’d used before when Nico wasn’t back when it was time to cast off.” An utterly sensible contingency, even if a part of herself that even Clarice acknowledged was totally irrational wanted to bawl Celeste out over the fact that this wasn’t even the first time she’d left Nicolette behind. “She always knew our next two or three ports of call, and she’d always met us at one of them. I never thought the damn things would be there, too.”

Throughout this, the captain had been pressing her face against the window, avoiding Clarice’s gaze. Now she turned around, and not a drop of anything other than seriousness graced her face. “I love your daughter, and I’d put my life on the line for her in a heartbeat, but as captain of my ship, I’m also responsible for the lives of my crew and passengers. If I had known that what happened was happening across Thedas, if I’d known that there would be places where we couldn’t even tie up because of the demons, I would have left the ship and gone ashore to look for her. But I didn’t know, and I didn’t go, and I spent every day of the past five months regretting it, and searching for her.”

“Easy words.” At least Celeste had had the benefit of a crew supporting her, numbers to fight off demons, some savour for battle. Nicolette had none, beyond Thibault and Oscar. Before she could ramp up further, Celeste had more to say.

“I can promise you this, though: your daughter will never travel alone again unless she wants to. My crew knows how to handle the Wicked Grace without me. I’ll go with Nico when she leaves the ship, and I’ll stay with her … until I’m dead, or until she tells me to leave.”

The hint behind the words did not pass unnoticed. Clarice tensed her jaw. “Were it up to me, I’d advise her to leave this life behind altogether. A solitary minstrel is an easy target even during times of peace, and this is as far from that as it gets. But I know she would never heed me on that.”

She rubbed a hand over her face. “I know, truly, that you are not to blame for the separation. But I find it hard to even look at you without hearing my daughter in my head. The first night she was back, I woke to the sound of her sobbing your name. Begging you for help. I woke her, and on seeing me at her side, her expression crumpled, because I wasn’t you. Your absence broke her heart, every morning.”

Then Clarice steeled herself. “Has she told you much of what happened in the interim? What she has been through? She will not expand upon it with me, which only leads me to fear the very worst. You have the chance to ease my mind.” Or not. But she couldn’t stand another day of uncertainty.
 

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#14
There was not the slightest softening of Clarice’s countenance at Celeste’s; the green eyes remained as cool as chips of jade. “Easy words,” was the dismissive response to the claim that the sailor had tried ceaselessly to find Nicolette.

“Don’t believe me?” Celeste challenged her, still without raising her voice. “Ask the owner of the Sleeping Dragon how he knew to send word to me. Or the bartender at pretty much every tavern at every port town on the Waking Sea. Or the sodding Inquisition. Or don’t.” Nothing about those long months had been easy, but if Clarice didn’t believe her, the words of anyone else were not likely to carry any more weight. She’d admitted to her error, but damned if she was going to grovel.

Nor did the older woman seem placated by her promise to stay with Nicolette on any further forays ashore. “Were it up to me, I’d advise her to leave this life behind altogether,” she informed Celeste, her face set into unyielding lines. “A solitary minstrel is an easy target even during times of peace, and this is as far from that as it gets. But I know she would never heed me on that.”

Celeste knew it, too, and wasn’t feeling bitchy enough to rub it in. She might have little firsthand understanding of maternal love, but she had observed the complex interactions between Clarice and her daughter often enough to know that it was much more than a need for control that would prompt such advise. Her love for Nicolette was different from the love that Celeste felt for her minstrel, but it was no less real, no less powerful, and it predated hers by several decades. As she watched, the first cracks appeared in the stony visage.

“I know, truly, that you are not to blame for the separation,” Clarice admitted, scrubbing a hand across features drawn with long weeks of waiting and worry. “But I find it hard to even look at you without hearing my daughter in my head. The first night she was back, I woke to the sound of her sobbing your name. Begging you for help. I woke her, and on seeing me at her side, her expression crumpled, because I wasn’t you. Your absence broke her heart, every morning.”

Celeste had felt similarly bereft every time she had opened her eyes to the empty spot in the bed beside her, and the memory of those bleak moments was still raw enough to make her want to leave the room now, find her lover, hold her tight. She stayed put, however, because Clarice was visibly working herself up to something.

“Has she told you much of what happened in the interim? What she has been through? She will not expand upon it with me, which only leads me to fear the very worst. You have the chance to ease my mind.”

There was no ‘please’, and there would not be from this proud woman, but a mother’s anguish seeped into her voice and her eyes in a silent appeal.

Celeste could sympathize; she’d spent countless hours agonizing over what her minstrel might be going through. She’d had plenty of firsthand experience on just what the possibilities were; demons were only part of it, and perhaps not even the worst part. The worst atrocities she’d seen had been committed not by demons, but by the denizens of this realm, taking advantage of the chaos to do as they pleased. Templars and mages, caring little for the collateral damage that their fights inflicted as they threw themselves at each other in a fever of hatred. Profiteers charging outrageous prices to folk in need of basic necessities, raiders who stole what little they had, and slavers who scooped up the survivors to sell like cattle.

“Most of it is for her to tell you when she’s ready,” Celeste said, not unkindly, but not leaving room for argument. “I can tell you that I don’t even like thinking about the things I’ve seen, much less talking about them. But she wasn’t raped.” That surely was the foremost fear in a mother’s mind, and with good reason. “Thibault and Oscar protected her well, and as gentle and kindhearted as she is, she does know how to fight when she needs to.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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#15
Celeste had apparently not been idle in searching for Nicolette. It appeared that poor chance alone had been responsible for keeping them apart. Truly, little about the situation gave Clarice the opportunity to lay blame at Celeste’s feet. Which was frustrating, because what she really wanted was somebody she could trace back as the cause of all of this, and then slap them as hard as she could. Because how dare anybody bring suffering to her daughter? That desire was making it difficult to tamp down her temper.

Or her fear. Not only did she not know why any of this had happened, she didn’t even know the full extent of what had happened, and not knowing was keeping her from sleep. Resting or waking, all she could dwell on was her fears. It took more steel than she realised she had to put the question she truly wanted to ask to Celeste, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.

“Most of it is for her to tell you when she’s ready.” Frustrating, and frustratingly reasonable. “I can tell you that I don’t even like thinking about the things I’ve seen, much less talking about them. But she wasn’t raped.”

Clarice’s mind had skirted around the word, but that was what she had feared. Once Nicolette had returned and put to rest the thought that she might be dead, this new concern had come hot on the heels of the old. Both of them had had near-misses during their travels, and even though Thibault would have ripped a would-be attacker limb from limb before one got anywhere near Nicolette, the thought had persisted. She narrowed her gaze at Celeste, trying to detect anything of a lie in the other woman - and found nothing.

In her relief, she had to lean against the desk a little. Her questions regarding what Nicolette had experienced remained unanswered, but at least she hadn’t been through that. And with an entire crew - or a fiercely dedicated captain - by her side, it seemed unlikely she ever would. Not to mention her hounds, as Celeste pointed out. “Thibault and Oscar protected her well, and as gentle and kindhearted as she is, she does know how to fight when she needs to.”

“She should never need to.” Clarice’s words lacked any sting; she was no longer looking at the captain, but past her, at a point deep in the past. “If I’d never left Val Chevin, she might have had an easier life, a temperment more suited towards stability and safety. But I let my own pain outweigh hers.” She ran her hands over her face. “Much as I’m doing now.”

Her attention returned to the present. “You have my gratitude, for alleviating my fears. It won’t be forgotten. But neither will the fact that my daughter’s entanglement with you has drawn her into dangers far above what she should have faced, from the very beginning.” She wasn’t a fool. Nicolette and Celeste had entertained their table with stories of their adventures before, and Clarice had read between the lines. Because of Celeste, Nicolette had outrun guards, had to avoid traps, and been drawn into combat. “If you truly love her, you would leave her here, in safety-”

Their voices had not been so quiet as intended - or Nicolette had been standing with her ear pressed against the door the whole time. Either way, it flew open, and Nicolette crashed into the room with her eyes blazing in a manner Clarice hadn’t seen in a long time. “That is enough, Maman!”

“Ma fille, this is a conversation between myself and the captain-”

“And now it is my turn.” Nicolette closed the door behind her, and rounded on Clarice, overtly moving herself as though shielding her lover. “Celeste never dragged me into anything. She would hold out her hand and I would choose to take it - and more than once, I did the suggesting. And our separation was entirely beyond the control of either of us. Are you going to blame her for the Conclave exploding too?”

“Of course not! I just fear for your safety-”

“No matter how dangerous it might become-" Nicolette's tone now absolutely implacable, "I would rather die than leave Celeste.” She turned back to the other woman, and there was no missing the softening of her expression. "I love you with the whole of my heart."
 

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#16
It was as though invisible strings that had been holding Clarice steady had been cut, and the older woman sagged against the desk, relief washing over her features, then giving way to something more difficult to read when Celeste reminded her that her daughter was well able to take care of herself, even without the two formidable hounds.

“She should never need to.” There was little barb in the comment, nor did it seem to be directed at Celeste - at least, not completely. Green eyes looked past the sailor out the window, but their focus was somewhere else entirely. “If I’d never left Val Chevin, she might have had an easier life, a temperament more suited towards stability and safety. But I let my own pain outweigh hers.” She lowered her head briefly to her hands. “Much as I’m doing now.”

“I don’t think that she would change that period of your lives if she could,” Celeste offered cautiously. “She speaks of that time with fondness.” One suited to stability and safety would not have lasted long in this world torn asunder. And, had they stayed in Val Chevin, Celeste might never have crossed paths with her, but as that was likely playing a large part in Clarice’s current regrets, it was probably best to leave it unsaid.

The matriarch’s eyes returned to Celeste, no longer flashing between ice and fire, but by no means warm, either. “You have my gratitude, for alleviating my fears. It won’t be forgotten.” That seemed to be as much of a thanks as Celeste would receive; Clarice’s expression hardened once more. “But neither will the fact that my daughter’s entanglement with you has drawn her into dangers far above what she should have faced, from the very beginning.” There was no denying the danger part, and Celeste knew that she and Clarice would never see eye to eye of the levels that Nicolette ‘should’ have been exposed to, so she simply listened, her own face assuming an impassive mien. “If you truly love her, you would leave her here, in safety-”

That was heading toward territory that Celeste was willing to contest fiercely, but she never got the chance. The door flew open, and Nicolette burst through in a whirl of skirts and dangerously flashing eyes. “That is enough, Maman!”

“Ma fille, this is a conversation between myself and the captain-” Clarice tried playing the maternal authority card, but her daughter was having none of it. Slamming the door shut, she stepped between Celeste and Clarice, bristling protectively. She looked utterly magnificent, and dragging her off someplace private was immediately put at the top of the sailor’s to-do list.

First things first, however, and Celeste held her tongue. This battle was between mother and daughter, and while the outcome was a foregone conclusion, if she threw her weight in on her lover’s behalf, she risked widening the rift to the point that further visits would not be possible. Nico loved her family far too much for Celeste to be willing to risk that simply to gloat.

“And now it is my turn,” Nico asserted without a hint of compromise. “Celeste never dragged me into anything. She would hold out her hand and I would choose to take it - and more than once, I did the suggesting. And our separation was entirely beyond the control of either of us. Are you going to blame her for the Conclave exploding too?”

“Of course not! I just fear for your safety-” Clarice clearly knew that she was fighting a rearguard action, and Celeste felt a bit sorry for the woman. Maker knew that the dangers of this world had ramped up exponentially in the past months. She just wanted to keep the ones that she loved safe, no different from so many of the people that Celeste had met and helped. No different from Celeste herself, when you got right down to it.

“No matter how dangerous it might become-" Nicolette cut her off, her voice brooking no opposition. "I would rather die than leave Celeste.”

The words, and the passion throbbing in them, took Celeste’s breath away, and then the minstrel was turning to her, and the tenderness in those glorious eyes nearly finished her. "I love you with the whole of my heart."

Words failed the normally glib sailor for a long moment. She took a step forward, reaching up to brush the hair from her lover’s cheek with a gentle hand, drinking in the sight of her with something close to wonder. She’d been a marvel from the first night they met, and she never ceased to amaze her. “And I love you with all of mine,” she managed at last, catching one of her lover’s hands and raising it to her lips before looking past her to Clarice. “The choice will always be hers to make,” she told Nico’s mother, the words as sincere as any she'd ever given voice to, “but so long as she is with me, I swear to you that I will protect her with everything that I have. Everything that I am.”
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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203
#17
There was a story Nicolette did not know. Six months after Clarice had fled Amaranthine on the arm of the handsome smith who shortly thereafter became her husband, there had been a hammering on the door of the modest home they had made theirs. Her family had tracked her down, and two of her brothers had come to persuade her to return, reassuring her that all could be smoothed over. Friends would be told that she had simply been away visiting relatives, and she could resume her previous life as though this had never happened. She had refused, of course, and then they had pressed the matter, in angrier voices, threatening to drag her onto the ship if need be.

Richard had intervened. Her brothers had been trained at swordsmanship as a formality, and had practiced most of their lives. But Richard had been at the forge for all of his, and was stronger than the two of them put together; after disarming them both sending them sprawling in the dirt, he’d stood back and promised solemnly that he would protect his wife from all harm - no matter where it came from. Clarice recalled it all with vivid clarity as Nicolette and Celeste broke their loving gaze for the captain to turn to her. “The choice will always be hers to make. But so long as she is with me, I swear to you that I will protect her with everything that I have. Everything that I am.”

Clarice’s passions had come with a steep price; she never saw her family home again. When Nicolette had been born there had been letters, but the tone was cool, and reading them caused too much pain. Whether or not she would ever be forgiven remained to be seen. For all her trepidation, she wouldn’t allow Nicolette to feel as though she had to make the choice between her family and her lover. Slowly, she stepped towards Nicolette, who was watching her with an expression halfway between defiance and worry, and cupped her daughter’s face between her hands.

“Ma petit.” She sighed, wistfully, pushing back a lock of hair. “There is too much of me in you, I think. You love as you will, and as long as it makes you happy, that will give me some measure of peace.”

She kissed Nicolette’s forehead softly. “I love you.”

Nicolette dipped her head into the gesture, tension draining away from her shoulders. “I love you too, Maman.”

Then she turned to Celeste, mouth lifting in a slightly wry smile. “I will hold you to your promise. Should you break her heart, be advised; I have some skill with a crossbow and would not hesitate to turn you into a hedgehog.”

“Maman!”

“Please, it is tradition for a mother to make her daughter’s lovers uncomfortable. Now, then.” She gestured towards the door - she had not missed the look on Celeste’s face when Nicolette had burst in, and with the conversion (confrontation) winding to an end, she decided not to obstruct them for too long. Not all her fears had been allayed, and likely never would be, but there was no doubting that Celeste would never abandon Nicolette. Not in this lifetime. “I am going to have some more wine, and rejoin Saul. We will be in the library if you wish to join us.”

“Maybe later.” Nicolette had reached for Celeste’s hand, fingers curling about the captain’s. “I just need to speak to Celeste first.”

“Mmhm. Goodnight, my darling.” Clarice leaned forward to kiss Nicolette’s cheek, then reached forward and squeezed Celeste’s arm gently, before sweeping out. A glass - or two - of wine, and the comforting presence of her husband, was much desired.

-

There had been one or two moments when Nicolette had wanted to burst in before she did, but had held herself back. It had been a relief to hear Celeste defend herself for not staying behind, given how much effort it had taken to persuade her captain that it was no fault of hers not knowing what had happened. But Maman’s suggestion of keeping them apart had been too much to bear, and she had been through the door before thought cleared in her head. She couldn’t countenance leaving Celeste, and even though she knew she might wander inland again, the desire would not rise again for some time after they next returned to the Wicked Grace. After nearly half a year apart, she did not want to hurry away again.

Nonetheless she had been terrified - as though she was dashing across a rope bridge, unsure if any step would break the whole thing. To lose her mother would tear her apart. But at last, Maman had retreated - even given her blessings, after a fashion. And now as she walked away with swift steps, Nicolette waited until she had rounded the corner before pulling Celeste into a deep kiss.

When she pulled away, she was smiling a little, fingers wound in Celeste’s hair. “I would apologise for having interrupted, but I am not the least bit sorry.”
 

Celeste Monroe

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#18
A myriad of emotions flickered across Clarice’s face on the heels of Nicolette’s defiant outburst and Celeste’s heartfelt declaration: regret, resignation, and a touch of nostalgia misting the green eyes in the instant before she stepped forward. As mother and daughter shared a tender embrace, Celeste released the breath she’d been holding. She hadn’t wanted to be the cause of a permanent breach between Nico and her mother, but leaving her lover behind was not an option that she would accept as long as Nicolette wanted to stay with her. This corner of Thedas might seem safe at the moment, but the events that had shaken the world to its foundations were evidently not done yet. A chance remained that Saul and Clarice might again need to flee for safety, and the notion of another desperate search for her minstrel was not one that the sailor would entertain.

Clarice kissed her daughter’s forehead and turned to Celeste, her smile faintly ironic but the most genuine that the sailor had received since her arrival. “I will hold you to your promise,” she said. “Should you break her heart, be advised; I have some skill with a crossbow and would not hesitate to turn you into a hedgehog.”

“Fair enough,” Celeste agreed without hesitation; this kind of threat she knew how to handle. “Though you may have to take aim at whatever my crew leaves. They’re quite fond of her.” The line to kick her ass, should she be stupid enough to hurt the minstrel, would start with Gideon and stretch across the deck.

“Maman!” Nico protested, but Clarice held firm in this … as she should.

“Please, it is a tradition for a mother to make her daughter’s lovers uncomfortable. Now, then.” She nodded toward the door. “I am going to have some more wine, and rejoin Saul. We will be in the library if you wish to join us.”

“Maybe later.” Nico’s hand slipped into Celeste’s. “I just need to speak to Celeste first.”

“Mmhm.” A knowing look touched green eyes; the woman who had defied her family and abandoned wealth in the name of love wasn’t expecting them any time soon. “Goodnight, my darling.” She kissed Nicolette’s cheek, reached to give Celeste’s arm a light squeeze, then turned to make a dignified exit.

The door had only just closed in her wake when Nicolette was in Celeste’s arms, the warm reality of her a soothing balm against the rawness of memory, and the kiss so very sweet. Celeste willingly lost herself in the contact, loosening her embrace only slightly when their lips parted.

“I would apologise for having interrupted,” Nicolette breathed, the brush of her fingertips along Celeste’s scalp sending shivers of sensation rolling down the sailor’s spine, “but I am not the least bit sorry.”

Celeste shook her head. “You’re not going to hear me complaining,” she murmured, cupping her minstrel’s cheek and thinking that she would gladly drown in those glorious eyes. Another lingering kiss before she managed to pull her gaze away to the window. The last rosy hues of sunset were fading on the horizon; the moon, not quite full, cast a soft, silver light over the orchard, and an array of stars glittered like diamonds in the black velvet of the cloudless night sky.

“Nice night for a walk,” she suggested, tilting her head toward the window with an inviting smile. She didn’t need to be told that they couldn’t return to their ship just yet, but she hungered for the simple intimacies that she had been denied over the long months. Gently disengaging from their embrace, she caught Nicolette’s hand in one of her own, reaching out with the other to flip the latch and swing the window wide, admitting a soft breeze and the scent of apple blossoms.
 

Nicolette O'Hara

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203
#19
Holding Celeste was still a wonder. They had not been reunited long enough to completely quell Nicolette’s fear that her lover might turn to smoke in her arms, product of another desperate dream. The warm skin beneath her fingertips, the velvet edge to the shell of Celeste’s ear, and the soft glory of Celeste’s lips against hers, pushed that fear further into the dark. When their kiss ended, neither of them loosened their embrace, although Celeste moved her hand up to cup Nicolette’s cheek. Nicolette leaned her head into the touch, blissful as a cat in the sunshine, before Celeste claimed another kiss.

Nicolette could have stayed there forever, but Celeste had an even better idea, indicating the window. Beyond, the view from the window cast over the nearby orchard, slowly being swallowed by encroaching night, only to be silvered by the moon. Beyond, the fading sunset was glorious enough to steal away what little breath Celeste had left to her. It was easy enough, for one given to flights of fancy, to imagine that the world had done this just for them, a beautiful closing chapter to the painful story of the last few months.

“Nice night for a walk.”

It was. And they could easily have exited via the front door of the house, but Celeste’s thoughts were in tandem with her own; she slipped over to the window and opened the latch. Nicolette grinned. It was not a far drop to the ground beyond, and an idea drifted into her head. “It is. And there is a place on the grounds I would quite like to show you.”

Having not grown up in this house, it was bereft of small things to show Celeste; where she played as a child, people she had known, stories to relate about growing up. Those were all in Val Chevin. But she had been here for a year during Maman’s pregnancy with Michel, and she had got to know it quite well.

She clambered out of the window in Celeste’s wake, re-taking her hand as soon as they were on the ground, and began a slow, easy amble in the direction she wanted. It was a warm night, the grass rustled gently beneath their feet, and Nicolette hummed softly with quiet pleasure.

The orchard had been cultivated on the edge of a forest; the trees thickened and expanded in their variety, but the canopy never completely blocked out the moon. Nicolette followed the path her feet remembered, and they did not fail her. Eventually, they reached the edge of a clearing, and a sizeable pond opened up before them. With the moonlight slanting through the trees, the water was lit silver. The trees around hung heavy with flowers, great roots arching into the water. And dancing in the air were dozens of dots of warm yellow light - fireflies.

“This was one of my favourite places to come when I was living here. Even in winter, with the water frozen and the trees draped in snow, it could seem romantic. Although I saved swimming in it for the warmer months.” One finger plucked at the thread on her dress, starting to free it.

“We could try it now, if you were inclined. Although if you are not tempted-” the material started to slip away from her shoulders as she grinned at her captain. “I am sure we could find other ways of enjoying ourselves here.”
 
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