UNBOUNDHere on Unbound, our plot follows four different timelines, set throughout the canonical history of the Dragon Age. The events following Trespasser, the time of the Inquisition, the rise of the Champion of Kirkwall and the quest of the Warden against the Fifth Blight.
And So is the Golden City blackened
With each step you take in my Hall.
Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.
You have brought Sin to Heaven
And doom upon all the world.
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“You don't belong here.”
She had tensed her jaw, shoulders stiffening in the unfamiliar Warden garb. Her best efforts at avoiding eye contact as she had walked the corridor shared by another was to no avail. He had taken a second glance at her and Neassa knew those were never good. Still, as he had passed her without incident she had allowed herself to breathe a sigh of relief until a wide hand closed over her upper arm. A voice of caution echoed in her head, but it wasn't her own. She heard Cassie, telling her not to do whatever it was she was thinking of doing...and Neassa almost listened to it.
Almost took it as a guideline for how to behave.
Almost was just short of the right hook that found the Wardens face after she had told him he was merely dreaming. He hit the stone floor like a sack of...of...stuff and things that weren't as cliche as potatoes. Nuts and bolts, to account for the armour.
His clatter was disconcerting but she was too slow to react well enough to catch him as he fell. These clothes were not her own and that fact alone made them feel restrictive. The fact that the sleeves were a little too short didn't help. She grimaced, body relaxing back from her offensive stance as the Warden slumped at her feet.
She shimmied her shoulders, pulling at the fabric of her ‘acquired,’ robes to try and loosen the seams that seemed to grip her too tightly in the arms and shoulders.
That was then.
Several feet down the corridor, a Warden slumped against the wall, nose and chin crusted with blood as his limp hand hung around the neck of an open bottle of whisky. It wasn't her best cover up, but considering the circumstances...it was pretty spectacular. Her heart had ached at the departure of her (Cassie’s) whiskey, but she had eased the pain of the separation with one last messy swig. A lesser poison to dull the pain of the lyrium rooted to her cerebrum. The hallucinations were less and her ability to differentiate was greater but Neassa had been hoping on a quick fix and it was clear to her now that her withdrawal would be a lengthy affair.
She supposed it made sense when she considered how deeply she had traveled through her descent into madness. With the whisky burning a trail down her throat, she had stood by and pondered a moment, caught in nostalgia as she thought of those times. Some of the best times. All but one of the worst, but all in all, it was a matter of perspective.
Neassa still recognised parts of her present self in the lyrium guzzling, mage murdering, wild eyed memory of her past self and perhaps, she always would. She could only blame the lyrium for so much. If she had been a mage, possessed of some cabal of demons, she would be entirely blameless but no matter the excess, Neassa was still the driver.
This was now.
She wandered the halls of the keep aimlessly with intent.
Cassie, as her ungracious host, hadn't ever given her a tour of the place and so Neassa was left to fumble through the Keep in search of...well half of her said she just wanted some fresh air and to stretch her legs. The other half was actively in search of the lyrium stock.
All was well until she opened a door and found a mess hall on the other side. She was so thoroughly entrenched in her own thoughts that she hadn’t even heard the voices filtering through the hall on her approach. When faced with the absolute worst case scenario with the most probability of leading to her discovery, Neassa somehow didn’t miss a beat.
To falter would be to invite suspicion.
She collected her wits immediately and cleared her throat as she strode into the hall as if it was exactly where she wanted to be. Her addiction was slowly leaving her system but the paranoia it had birthed remained still. She swore she could feel eyes on her, staring deliberately and muttering among themselves over their stew. Neassa casually moved her hair to mask one side of her face as she continued with purpose. She had always been adept at looking like she knew what she was doing, even as she walked into the unknown and she could tell that talent hadn’t left with her mind.
Absently, she noted a number of Wardens with ruddy cheeks and noses and in an instant, she wanted to go outside.
Between Cassie and the sickness keeping her from wanting to move out of the foetal position, she hadn’t left that room in days that felt like months. It had been a sizable room in the beginning, but she had paced the length of it so many times now that it may as well have been a cupboard.
At the far side of the mess hall, a door opened wide and, caught on a strong wind, slammed against the wall as a number of cloaked Wardens came in from the night. She locked onto it with renewed focus and cut through the hall as if she was back in the Seekers barracks.
Back there, most people had sense enough to move. Those without, got bashed. She did not bend or weave to fit the spaces in between. Neassa barreled.
Cassie sat back from the table with a sigh, kneading her forehead and making sure no one was listening in. She, Jorren and Cair were at the end of one of the long tables, and everyone else was engaged either in their own conversations or by their food. Glad for the loud rumble of chatter to disguise their quiet conversation, Cassie gave a weary shrug. ‘Better than she was. She’s not hallucinating as often, which is a relief. She is starting to go a bit stir-crazy in that room, but I don’t see what else I can do when she isn’t even supposed to be here.’
Isolde knew Neassa was here, of course, under the flimsy cover of ‘my half-sister Aurelia’, but outside of her only Cair and Jorren knew Neassa was even in the fortress. Cassie had trusted the pair of them with the truth, since they had met Neassa before. They’d helped Cassie keep Neassa a secret – each of them smuggling a small portion from the dining table, under the pretence of an increased training regime and appetite. Not that anyone taking extra food needed much excusing in the Wardens, which was a relief.
Harder things to explain were why Cassie hogged one of the baths for so long nowadays, when she was having to try and get them both clean while maintaining some measure of privacy – often a foreign concept to Neassa, particularly when the withdrawal and hallucinations were at their worst. She had resorted to using magic as a short-cut to help empty and re-fill the bath quickly so they both had clean, hot water, but getting Neassa to stay both in the room and on the other side of the wooden partition Cassie had set up was nothing short of a nightmare. Locking the door and hiding the key solved the first half of the problem, but Cassie had had to use her force magic more than a few times to get a measure of privacy when Neassa was in the grasp of one delusion or another. Or pretending to be, as she had done on at least one occasion because she thought it would be funny.
‘Anyway, I’d better get this up to her or I’ll be hearing complaints of starving her for the rest of the week,’ she said, sliding several chicken drumsticks, slices of beef, a wedge of Nevarran cheese and a bread roll into the bad she’d slung across her shoulder. Cair grabbed a flagon of ale while Jorren found an empty one and surreptitiously poured some gravy into it. The three were about to rise when Cair paused, looking out across the dining hall.
‘Hm?’ She was collecting her staff from the wall she’d propped it against.
‘Is that who I think it is?’
With a rising sense of foreboding, Cassie followed Cair’s nod across the hall to a tall woman with dark hair in... in her robes, the too-narrow shoulders pulling the sleeves several inches short of her wrists, marching through the hall and Wardens alike with single-minded determination.
‘I’m going to kill her.’
Cassie didn’t wait for a response from either of them, choosing instead to stride down the length of the tables, weaving between Wardens to try and intercept Neassa at the door. Cair and Jorren hurried in her wake, lagging behind after her surprise lunge into movement and people generally moving out of a Senior Warden’s way more readily than for them.
Quite what Neassa was thinking, Cassie didn’t know. She’d been improving so much lately, to the point where Cassie hadn’t been rushing back to the room every spare minute to check on her or worrying about locking the door. She thought[i] they’d had some sort of understanding, that keeping her a secret here generally involved not being seen. But no, Neassa comes waltzing out in [i]her robes and wanders blithely through the busiest room in the keep. She couldn’t know where she was going, Cassie could hardly take her out on guided tours of the place, but the door she was barrelling towards led out to the courtyard. Was she trying to leave? With no supplies or winter clothes or weapons? Or was she trying to find the lyrium stocks? Given she’d often been demanding lyrium during the worst throes of her withdrawal, it wasn’t an unusual conclusion to draw. At least she was going the wrong way if that were the case, though Cassie’s shoulders were tight and her skin was prickling, just waiting for the shout of a stranger to go up and wondering how in the world she was going to explain this after she’d promised Isolde she’d keep Neassa under control.
Just get to Neassa, then deal with everything else. The sooner we get back to the room, the better.
She was nearly at the courtyard door, but with a last burst of speed Cassie swept into step beside her, moving to link her arm with Neassa’s to both deflect suspicion away from her and to have a hand on her in case she did something stupid, like running away or trying to hit her.
‘So glad to see you’re feeling up to walking around, Aurelia,’ she said through a smile, drawing on all those times at home when she’d had to play nice with the other girls her age when all either of them wanted to do was set the other on fire. ‘Where is it you were heading? I can direct you,’ straight back to bed, she added silently as Cair and Jorren caught up, looking very nervous and confused with their mugs of ale and gravy.
Oh, this was going to be just splendid. She could already tell.
It spoke of freedom and imprisonment both in the same breath. She could only remember one other time in her life in which she had put so much thought, feeling and effort into reaching a door. Her Seeker training, the blurred months of her life spent in a haze of isolation, locked in a windowless room and deprived of all things until her mind created a window of its own so that she might survive it. In the beginning, she could barely fit her hand through that tiny slither of light. It grew in the days that went on until the darkness of her imprisonment was not only abated, but obliterated by the light.
The clarity she had felt then had evaded her every day since. In its place there were only questions.
The world was far less than what she had imagined and she was forever left feeling hard done by. Where were the soft edges that had blurred the harshness of the world she had seen then? Where was the warmth and the completeness? It was absent and became even more so the harder she looked for it. The only way she knew of to replicate it was in losing herself to the lyrium.
It was a poor imitation even then, but at least she had been closer to it with it. Now, she was alone. A Seeker stripped of her faith and a now, a Templar stripped of her addiction.
Where did that leave her? What was she without those two things that defined her as who she was?
There was no routine outside of the knots that tightened in her stomach each moment of each day. Neassa was becoming attuned to the things that made those same knots worse, and what made them better, but even then, it was not an exact science.
In a short space of time, Cassie had come to share the centre of her universe along with her persistent need for lyrium and that was a dangerous thing indeed. Neassa was obsessive in nature, that was why she had come to find herself so addicted to lyrium in the first place. Other than Lyrium, she had made Cassie her only other focus and Cassie herself had reinforced this by keeping her cooped up in her room.
The only human interaction Neassa had was with Cassie in the morning before she left to fulfil her Warden duties and then again in the evening when she returned from them.
And then there were the baths.
Neassa fixated on the door in front of her while there were a bunch of other locked doors within her. Most required a key, but at least one had caved in beneath the sheer strain of what it had contained and now it was irrevocably open. Cassie had been behind that door and once it was open, she was everywhere. It was a difficult thing to face, even for someone who had faced Dragons and all kinds of Demons.
The Seeker had never had to try very hard to achieve anything before, mostly, because she had never truly wanted anything that had required more than basic effort to achieve. Her issue here was that Cassie already knew her. She already knew the worst aspects of her and the poison that lay at her core. Her appearance alone could not sway her, especially as it had never seemed to do the trick before. Why would it now? When she was at her worst?
There were uncharted mountains in the Frostbacks that would be easier for her to conquer in full plate armor before she came to terms with her surfacing feelings for Cassie.
Those same feelings that been little more than whispers in her dreams and figments of the imagination were now present in every moment she spent with the woman. She longed for the time in which Cassie was just another thorn in her side to grin and bear. In her worst moments of withdrawal, the Warden had instead been the only source of light, an anchor to the reality that had slipped straight through Neassa’s fingers.
She was becoming far too attached.
She had to end it. The best way she knew how to do that was by cutting off the head...but then that would be murder and Neassa was trying her very best not to murder.
All these concerns of hers were outweighed by the immediate need she felt to be outside the moment she had clocked the ruddy cheeks of the returning Wardens.
Eyes were on her, as they often were, but for once she was unaware of them until an arm looped through hers.
Neassa broke her stare with the door and looked to her side to spot what fresh hell was afflicting her and found Cassie.
She made a small effort to distance herself from the woman before she felt her exits on all sides obstructed by Cair and Jorren who came to join their Senior Warden.
”You don’t seem glad...” Neassa whispered through grit teeth as she quickened her pace, hoping Cassie would falter. She reached for the flagon of ale Cair was carrying, snatching it from his grasp and chugging it back as she pulled herself and her unexpected entourage to a halt. ”In fact, I’d go so far as to say you seem...the opposite of glad-” she had looked, hopelessly, to Jorren for an answer. It was handy having those two around, not just for the extra food they could sneak her, but for limiting the time she spent alone with Cassie. She’d invite them round for a sleep over if she could, at least then there would be something else to focus on.
At the same time, their presence infuriated her. If Neassa could ever find the strength enough to explain herself, it certainly would not be amidst the audience they provided.
“I don’t know, Cassie. I don’t take direction well.” This, The Warden should have known by now.
”And between you and I-” she paused so that their children (Cair and Jorren) could either cover their ears or pretend not to listen, ”...Fuck.” in the time it had taken to look at Cassie and think of her scathing retort, she had forgotten the latter. In the view of Cassie, words often came to fail her. She really had to sort this shit out, it was making her look stupid...and Cassie would never go for someone so thick.
Of what little she knew of the woman, Neassa has come to see that Cassie appreciated honesty, or, at least seemed to. Internally, Neassa doubted she would appreciate the kind of honesty she could give her-but that was beside the point right now.
”Cassie, I just….” what she had to say next came designed as a secret as she turned into Cassie and addressed only her. ”I just need to go outside.” She made it sound like it was but a small request but even Neassa was aware of the implications of her presence here, she had never meant to find herself stuck in the heart of the Keep. ”Remember the Circle...then imagine it all took place in one room.”
She had hoped Cassie could empathize with that at least. Neassa leaned down, again to ensure that only Cassie could hear her. “I’ll stay in my side of the baths.”
She wouldn’t, but as Cassie would learn, that was a problem for tomorrow.
She might have an excuse. Neassa’s thought processes weren’t exactly predictable at the best of times, and the uprooting of the stability lyrium provided had made her harder to figure out than ever. This might be something simple, something reasonable, even.
Not that Neassa was known for ‘reason’, Cassie thought as she smoothly tightened her grip on Neassa’s arm, smile increasing when the taller woman gave up with Cair and Jorren’s appearances. Cassie matched her pace while trying to steer her through the crowd rather than into everyone remotely in their path, at the same time fully prepared to dig her heels in and drag Neassa to a stop if the need arose.
She gathered frost to her fingertips when Neassa snatched at the flagon, half-expecting her to upend the mug over her and make a run for it. When all she did was yank everyone to a halt and knock it back, Cassie relaxed marginally and tried to nudge the group over towards the wall so they weren’t blocking the path entirely. Standing in plain sight in the middle of the dining hall was hardly ideal, but if she ushered everyone out quickly it would look even more suspicious. Better to trust that her fellow Wardens were too interested in their evening meal to pay attention to their motley little group.
‘Only a little concerned that you’re up to being around so many people at once,’ she said as Neassa looked to Jorren, who was anxiously clutching his mug of gravy and looking thoroughly out of his depth. Beating the taint out of darkspawn, no problem. After nearly being crushed by an ogre, not much scared him on the battlefield anymore. Dealing with a crabby Neassa who was hiding from the Warden-Commander inside his own keep? Not so much.
‘Clearly,’ Cassie grumbled under her breath, while idly scanning the mess hall for anyone who might realise Neassa was out of place – or worse, the Warden-Commander in one of his rare forays outside of his quarters. She hoped they looked casual enough, a small group standing out of the way chatting amongst themselves. She was an optimist at heart.
She left her observations in order to raise a quizzical eyebrow at Neassa’s verbal fumbling. What began as a rather sceptical expression shifted as she watched Neassa’s near-silent struggle. The hold on her arm became gentle rather than restraining as she gave the ex-Seeker her full attention.
A month ago, such vulnerability on Neassa’s part would have not only surprised her, it would have Cassie convinced that what stood in front of her was an envy demon impersonating the woman and doing an absolutely appalling job. Now, it was... not common, but hardly unprecedented. Stranger was to have Neassa lucid at the time.
This would be the perfect time to throw all of Neassa’s petty punishments in her face. All the times she’d denied Cassie simple pleasures or made her life difficult in the Circle. Were their positions reversed, the old Neassa certainly wouldn’t hesitate to take that from her as well.
The old one.
‘I can understand that,’ she said quietly, starting to turn with Neassa, to gently urge them both towards the door. She paused when Neassa leaned down again, wondering if this would be another request or an elaboration or – shock, horror – thanks-
Taking a deep breath in through her nose, Cassie stuck a smile back on her face as she started to walk them both towards the door. Cassie had begun to forget what the word ‘privacy’ even meant since Neassa arrived. ‘And for that... boon, Aurelia, I’ll even show you a door near our room that leads out onto the battlements. No need to come wandering all the way down to the mess hall.’ The one she'd undoubtedly walked straight past to get here.
They were nearly at the door, the air temperature still a few degrees cooler from when it had last opened when-
When had that happened?
Experience had seen that Cassie was quite understanding of the plight set upon her by her lyrium addiction (Neassa still struggled to accept that it was self inflicted). The woman had gone out of her way to help her, despite her immediate murderous response to Neassa’s confessions of Tranquil Massacre. Their agreement stood on the basis that Neassa behave and follow the rules Cassie had set for her. Neassa rarely ever gained from breaking the rules the Warden bound her by and though her reasons might be understandable, she was not permitted to leave the room. Least of all go gallivanting about the Mess Hall in ill fitting Senior Warden gear.
Still, that didn’t mean she was ready for Cassie’s response.
Neassa remembered the inner and outer monologue she had had while struggling with the unknown consequences of impersonating a Warden but had landed on doing so anyway. Surely she would have drawn more attention to herself if she had worn her now tattered and torn travelling clothes, blood stains and all.
Cassie didn’t mention it, but something told Neassa that the other woman wasn’t saying even a third of what she wanted to say right now.
There was a clatter from the far corner that drew her attention as she spotted a bloody faced Warden stumble in through the same door she had used. His breeches were soaked, probably with the whisky that had yet remained in the bottle Neassa had planted on him. Even from here, she could see that he was enraged. His brethren caught the smell of him before they saw him, a table of Wardens turning to look at the state he had seemingly gotten himself into and laughing at the sight of him.
Neassa could see that he was looking about, looking for her and she panicked, thinking Cassie might change her mind if she knew the extent of Neassa’s infractions thus far. So she laughed, surely that would be more distracting than the slight commotion of hilarity and jesting going on in the back. She stepped to slide in front of Cassie and started walking backwards in the hopes of ensuring Cassie’s complete attention by taking up her entire view of the room while Neassa could easily keep an eye on the unfolding catastrophe in the back.
She was too far away to hear them clearly but she imagined it going along the lines of false accusations of bloody nose being drunk on watch and lots of laughing at his expense while he only got more frustrated with why no one was listening to him. “Of course there’s a secret door up there that I walked straight past, that is just the kind of shit that happens to me.”
Whether she had imagined Cassie turning her head or not, she’d never know, because Neassa wasn’t really looking at Cassie. The Seeker shot out her arm and improvised some nonsense to make it seem like it wasn't a sudden, awkward movement by pretending to fix-
”You have something right-” Um. Well it was happening. She was doing it, being weird and touching Cassie’s hair. To top it all off, she was using the same hand she had clocked the other Warden with in the hallway. Her knuckles were crowned with red welts of dried blood that caught the light and her attention in the same instant. “Got it!” Neassa affirmed, snatching her hand back before anyone who had noticed the bloody faced Warden could notice her bloody hand and connect the dots. Improvisation like that came in only two consistencies, smooth and with bits. She knew which one she was.
“Great, let's go-” without further pause and with a renewed fervour as her eyes connected with the furious stare of a wronged Warden across the hall, his nose bent out of shape with his reputation. She grabbed Cassie a bit roughly by the hand and yanked her along the last few steps to the door as Neassa barged it open with her shoulder.
Cassie distantly heard the far door open amongst the clatter of benches being pushed back, plates and cutlery, the chatter of a horde of Wardens. She moved away from the sound, heading towards the battlements with Neassa in tow, though the ex-Seeker seemed distracted, looking back over Cassie’s shoulder.
She was just about to turn and see what was keeping her attention when Neassa laughed – a little too loud – and started walking backwards to the battlements door. What in the world...? ‘N- Aurelia, what are you-’ she stopped, Neassa’s complaining overriding her. Cassie sighed. Partially in agreement - because of course Neassa missed the door outside that didn’t involve going through the whole Keep - and partially because she was trying to figure out if one of Neassa’s hallucinations was starting. It might explain the odd laughter and the strange behaviour, though she wasn’t showing her usual symptoms. If this was a delusion, Neassa was reacting far more lucidly to them than she usually did – and was doing far less shouting than normal.
There was a surge of laughter from behind them – from where Neassa was watching. Not a hallucination then, this was something real- and to do with the Keep or the Wardens in it. ‘Alright, what-’ she was mid-turn of the head to see what was causing the commotion when Neassa drew her attention back – by thrusting her hand into Cassie’s mostly-loose hair.
The motion was so odd from Neassa of all people that Cassie froze, train of thought thoroughly if momentarily derailed, mouth working automatically. ‘Um… thank you?’ she said, even as her eyes landed on a strand of her own hair, stuck to Neassa’s knuckles – and the blood on them. She barely had time to register the sight before Neassa whipped her hand away innocently.
‘Neassa-’ she started, tone low and warning – until the woman in question seized her hand and hauled her towards the battlements door, heedless of Cassie growling a protest as Neassa rammed the door open, shoulder-first.
Cassie had time to shoot an exasperated look over her shoulder at Cair and Jorren, holding her hand up behind her to say ‘stay here’, before the sight of the hall vanished behind the door as Neassa dragged her into the cool night air.
She’d done something. Of course she’d done something, it was Neassa. She’d been so much better lately, Cassie had began to wonder just how many of the Seeker’s eccentricities had been down to the addiction. Turns out Neassa had just been on her best behaviour.
Maybe it wasn’t too important. Maker, she could have just punched a dent into a door or smashed a(nother) window and was trying to distract Cassie from finding out for as long as she could. It might be as innocent as that.
So why run from the hall if all she’d done was accost an inanimate object?
She hadn’t had time to see what was beyond her two hapless recruits, but she had a strong suspicion that whatever Neassa had wanted her to not notice in the back of the hall and her bloody knuckles were connected. Once they were outside and a few steps from the door, Cassie yanked her hand from the warmth of Neassa’s and planted her feet firmly, waiting for the other woman to face her. ‘So, care to tell me what was so interesting behind me in there?’ she asked testily, her tone brooking no argument. Not that it usually worked with Neassa, but there was a first time for everything.
Cassie pulled her hand away from hers and dragged Neassa back into the moment at the same time. She blew out a cloud of hot breath and watched it swirl in the air in front of her before finding the will to turn and face Cassie, who she was thinking of nicknaming Consequences so that it might explain how hard it was for Neassa to face her.
They didn’t have time for this interrogation, not now and definitely not here by the door. Last she had seen her victim they had locked eyes across the room, Neassa couldn’t get out of their quick enough but just because she was out of sight, she wasn’t out of mind. He was a man humiliated by his peers, looked upon as an incompetent drunk and the brunt of a joke that would follow him around for the rest of his days. If she was in his shoes then she would burn this place to the ground in search of her perpetrator to clear her name, muddying it in different ways in the effort to do so.
She understood little when it came to others and why they did the things that they did but Neassa understood compulsions and wild things and if she were to try and describe the look in his eyes, she would call it just that; wild.
Cassie demanded an answer, Neassa used the time she spent avoiding eye contact to take in their surroundings, there were steps leading up to the battlements but they wouldn’t reach the top before the Warden burst through the door. The main door itself had torches set in sconces at either side of it, keeping the shadows at bay but there was a large crate and several wooden barrels placed to the left of it that would be easy to hide behind.
“It’s nothing, it’s actually a really funny story-” Neassa moved past Cassie, having to stretch up on her tip toes to claim one of the torches at the edge of the door. It rattled as she pulled it free, the heat of the fire so close to her skin sent her mind back to the sweat inducing fevers that came to her in the night. Neassa repressed the urge to buckle under the hopelessness of that feeling and reared back before firing the torch out into the dark. The orange twirled along the arc it was thrown, whipping in and out of sight until it was fully extinguished by the velocity.
Now the crates were in shadow, the ideal hiding place.
She hoped it was enough to balance out the fact that Cassie was with her, she was not the ideal partner in crime here and Neassa was already certain she wouldn’t take kindly to further manhandling.
But actions were quicker than words.
Neassa grabbed her again, but this time by the upper arm, leaving less room for her to fall out of Neassa’s grasp as she pulled her into the dark behind the crates. “And I’ll tell you that story just as soon as I’m able but first we have to hide.”
Quick to consider Cassie a liability, Neassa pushed her down to crouch behind the crate first before ducking in beside her, an arm stretched out in front of Cassie’s face, palm leaning on the crate. Cassie would have a hard time leaping up or stepping out of shadow with such an obstruction in her way. ”Just trust me that it probably isn’t as bad as you think it is-”
She heard the mess hall door open and saw the light from within pour out across the ground a shadow of a man cut out at the centre as he walked forward in search of the two women. Neassa saw him pace from side to side, heard voices from within beckon him back and swallowed a sigh of relief as he finally turned to head back in after lingering for a moment.
The door gave a thunderous sound as it closed behind him. Neassa gave a phew and turned her head to face Cassie with a goofy grin, forgetting she was so close - “That was unrelated, I promise.”
Neassa was distracted, as ever, but this was focused instead of the wide-eyed daze of her hallucinations. This was like the old Neassa, the one who had turned up to drop off her cat before a potentially suicidal encounter with a dragon. The one who had spent the evening trying to trap or bait Cassie, thinking up new and increasingly manic ways to do so. That had ended with the furniture almost entirely re-arranged, half the room frosted, Neassa’s cloak in the fire and a stained-glass window several ages old smashed to pieces.
Cassie wasn’t sure if she trusted this Neassa more or the panicking, unpredictable one she got when Neassa was in the grips of a delusion.
She gave the appearance of replying, while telling her nothing at all – and stealing a torch only to pitch it out over the wall.
‘What are you-’ Cassie demanded, making for the wall to try and look over and at least ice the torch before it hit the grassland below- only for Neassa to seize her by the arm and haul her behind the crates storing the night’s supply of white wine and chilled ale.
Cassie found herself crowded in, crouching down in the corner made by the crates and the wall, hemmed in by Neassa’s arms. Just like when Neassa had pinned her – unintentionally – in the window frame she’d just punched and was seconds away from breaking entirely. ‘Neassa, what-’ she hissed, only to fall silent when the ex-Seeker did.
So she’d done something – to someone. Great. Fucking perfect. Did she not understand the importance of keeping a low profile here? Hadn’t she impressed that upon her repeatedly? Wanting air, wanting a bit of space she understood. But how that desire had led to her being chased down by a fellow Warden, Cassie had no idea.
The door closed, throwing them both into near-darkness, the light from the torch on the far side of the door barely reaching them. Cassie was already glaring at Neassa before the Seeker – if she could even be called one anymore – had turned back to her.
Her glower faltered, just for a second, at her proximity – then doubled in intensity. If Neassa was trying to intimidate her by being so close, it wasn’t going to work. The warmth rising in her face was a horrifically timed hot flush. Had to be.
Don’t think about it. You’ve got more important matters to deal with. Like Neassa’s latest fuck-up. ‘What did you do?’ she demanded, refusing to budge an inch away from Neassa, to prove she wouldn’t be cowed. Even if that meant there was scarcely three inches between their noses.
A fuck up from her was long overdue, she had been holed up in that room long enough for her to lose all track of time entirely. Neassa wasn’t used to staying in one place for very long, even without the addiction she would have been climbing the walls. At first she had taken to reading the many books Cassie had in her room to help pass the time and keep her mind preoccupied with something. But she wasn’t one for a sedentary lifestyle and the books could only hold her attention for so long before she got restless.
In the beginning it had been easier to confine her movements to that one room purely because she was in no fit state to even attempt anything that resembled movement. But she was getting better and more interested in doing something other than shivering under a blanket. She didn’t want to take a guess at how long it had been since she had last lifted her sword, recovering meant getting soft and the potential loss of her combat ability was becoming another ghost that haunted her alongside the hallucinations. Punching that Warden had felt incredible, the sharp pain lingered still in her hand, but it felt like relief more than anything else.
“I met him in the hallway and...well, he has eyes. He didn't recognise me and these clothes hardly fit-” wait, why wasn't Cassie moving away. Neassa squinted in the dim light but it was either too dark to tell or she was too close but it almost looked like Cassie was blushing. She didn't think, just lifted her hand and put it to Cassie's cheek to fill in the gaps her vision couldn't. “I'm sorry.” It wasn’t clear what she was apologising for, punching the Warden and risking discovery or the sudden physical contact, or both.
There were two takeaways from touching Cassie's face, her skin was soft and she was definitely blushing. And the third takeaway was that this was weird as fuck. Why was she touching Cassie's face?! Neassa didn't snap her hand back this time, that would make her internal freak out too obvious. She just slowly lowered it and tried to act nonchalant.
“What are you doing?” Was this...was…was this a challenge?
Then fine, she wasn't gonna move either!
Fuck, she had swapped a life of fighting daily with a life of facing awkward situations with Cassie and the latter was definitely harder than any battle she’d fought. The only upside was that this offered Neassa a chance at distracting the woman from her problematic behaviour. “Oh I see what you’re doing. We’re playing a game. Well, I hope you cleared your schedule then, because I can do this all night.” She was a walking disaster and a mess mentally but Neassa’s ability to fake confidence had not yet left her high and dry. “Just know that if you keep this up I’m gonna think you want me to kiss you.”
The confidence was fake, the stupidity was a completely homegrown, genuine Neassa trait and she suffered for it as much as anyone else did. Her mouth was faster than her brain too often.
‘Yes, I’d figured that part out for myself,’ Cassie muttered. What else could have led to them hiding behind a stack of crates like misbehaving apprentices?
She couldn’t help but roll her eyes as Neassa explained. It made sense, it just lacked common sense. Typical Neassa. ‘I understand you want some space, but couldn’t you have asked me to come with you or-’ Quite what her alternative suggestion was going to be Cassie couldn’t recall, seeing as Neassa chose that moment to just... touch her cheek. With her hand. For no discernible reason. If she’d had something on her face Neassa would have left it there, enjoying her making a fool of herself. She didn’t have a cut or anything, which Cassie could just stretch her belief to this new Neassa showing some slight concern over. She-
She was blushing. Flushing. Whichever. Had to be it.
She cleared her throat as Neassa’s hand dropped away. She was going to mutter something about the flush when Neassa questioned her. What was she doing? More like what was Neassa doing, she was the one pinning her in the space!
‘Having a hot flush,’ she snapped, managing to cross her arms in her limited space. ‘What are you doing?’
Game? A game? Seriously?
Fine. She could play it too, stubborn, stupid cow.
‘I’m off duty,’ she shot back, ‘so knock yourself out.’ That... probably wasn’t her best decision. Neassa could and would stay out here in the chill air all night on principle if she had to.
And? You’ve got magic. You can keep yourself warm. Freeze her out.
She was gaping. She couldn’t help it. For a moment she took leave of her senses as she tried to figure out where on earth that had come from.
Come on, Cassie. Pull yourself together, you idiot. It’s not like you want her to.
‘And given your behaviour in the bath, it sounds like you’re projecting to me Neassa,’ she said, mock-sweet, though her comment had made her aware of just how close they were.
Maker, don’t let anyone find us.
Actually, do. Let Cair and Joren come nosing around. That way we can get out of this idiotic situation without losing.
I mean, kiss her. Really!
“Are you ever going to get over that? You need to remember that most of the time, you're the only thing around that I know for sure is real. So...when I can't see you, how am I supposed to know the walls aren't actually melting?” That was how she rationalised it, nothing more than a desperate need to cling to sanity by keeping Cassie in her line of sight as an anchor to hold onto when the hallucinations came to toy with her mind. The overblown ones were few and far between now, it was simple stuff that became skewed now, things she wouldn't notice until she tried to interact with them.
“And I'm sorry I grew up in the Chantry, privacy isn't a thing there ok. Communal living and all that,” Neassa shrugged. She could hear herself and for once it all sounded pretty convincing, at least to her.
They were true too but she omitted any part that supported Cassie's accusations, because fuck Cassie.
No...screw Cassie. No. To hell with Cassie.
There, that was a safe one. She'd settle on that. To hell with Cassie.
Neassa could end this easily, all she had to do was stand up...walk away...give up. But that would mean conceding the point to Cassie and that was just not going to happen. Distantly she knew Cassie could end this even more abruptly by just flexing some of that force magic of hers and sending Neassa backwards to a more socially acceptable distance. There was a third option but there would be no winners, only losers.
Neassa didn't mind losing if everyone lost.
As if to prelude what her next move might be, Neassa licked her lips. That would surely freak Cassie out enough that she would move at the last second. This was fine, it was a bold move but no one ever won a game of chess without a few of those- she just remembered she didn't know how to play chess.
She swore under her breath, ”...for fuck sake,” before leaning in. There wasn't much of a gap between them in the first place but Neassa never actually expected to reach her destination, assuring herself the whole way that Cassie would move or send her flying. Either way she would end this game.
But what if she didn't move? The game would still be going and Neassa would have lost a different game. But most concerning of all, if Cassie didn't move Neassa would end up kissing her right on her stupid mouth.
This was not a good idea. Of all the ideas she'd ever had, including the massacre of Tranquil mages and wearing too many layers under her armour on a summer's day, this was by far the worst idea she had ever had.