First, she was a secret revealed, a hushed whisper in a private cloister. The contact Justinia had been hiding from her Right Hand, as they both became used to Justinia's ascension; the reason the Divine herself had ducked away every few months from her closest councillor and bodyguard. But, now, brought into the light - how could Cassandra think of that?
Leliana was known across Thedas: one of the great heroes of the Fifth Blight, whose bow was carved from dragonbone, and whose arrows never missed; a holy sister blessed with visions of the Prophet herself, which had led the Wardens to the ashes of the Maker's own Bride. What's more, she was an old friend of Justinia, when she had been Mother Dorothea, and bonds and debts and confidences lay between them. Cassandra was in awe, humbled. Next to her, who was Cassandra, to be the Right Hand of the Divine?
But, then, second? A disappointment. When Justinia finished her whispering, when she brought Cassandra to meet her hero, the truth did not change, but it showed a new side to itself. They met at a grand Imperial ball in honour of a year since the Divine's ascension, and Leliana stood in the shadows with dark-dyed hair and a smiling silver mask. A bard, a player of the Game, a mistress of secrets and stealth. She was not the new Right Hand - Cassandra would have rejoiced in that, gladly stepped aside to be only Seeker Pentaghast once more - she was a Left Hand, holding an assassin's knife. Cassandra saw the Sister of the Sacred Ashes - scars covered with cosmetics, wearing a beautiful dress made to flatter, and delicate shoes - and her heart sank and her teeth ground together.
Cassandra was grim afterwards. She co-operated fully, but grudgingly, with her new colleague, and felt worse for the fact. Leliana couldn't fail to notice Cassandra's dislike: on her side, she was a social animal and perceptive to boot; on Cassandra's, she was renowned for being unable to hide her feelings, and had little enough willingness to try. It only made Cassandra feel farther apart from the Left Hand, more like the blunt instrument waved in an enemy's face before the jewelled dagger struck from behind. She had to admit, though, Leliana was entirely professional in her turn: whether she was hiding any dislike for her clumsier and bad-tempered counterpart, or genuinely didn't care what Cassandra thought of her, the Seeker couldn't tell.
So it was that, two months after they first met, Leliana slipped into Cassandra's rooms within the Grand Cathedral. Cassandra, who'd been reading a novel wholly unsuitable for her pious surroundings, fumbled her book and stuttered, but the Nightingale took no notice (pointedly, Cassandra was sure). She handed Cassandra a bundle of papers, told her that the Left Hand had gone as far as she could with them, and then left without even a quirk of her red-lined lips. (The papers detailed intelligence, providing a perfect key to a puzzle of heretical cells whom Cassandra had been trying to get at for weeks. The perfection, her third glimpse at Leliana, relieved and irritated Cassandra simultaneously).
Baffling. The Left Hand was utterly baffling. And infuriating. Cassandra had just stormed away from what had gradually turned into a blazing row, and her head was aching with anger and confusion.
She'd forgotten - or not quite forgotten, but left to one side - that Leliana was more than casually faithful. How that was reconciled with what she did as Justinia's Left Hand, Cassandra was yet to understand, but she couldn't exactly deny the force of Leliana's faith after the argument they'd just had. Leliana had been a Chantry Sister; she'd found the Sacred Ashes of Andraste herself; she'd been rumoured to talk of holy visions, though Cassandra had never heard it from her.
And so, of course, she'd have her own opinions on doctrine, and on which groups were dangerous heretics that she and Cassandra should keep an eye on, and which were only interpreting the Chant in newer ways. Cassandra could have anticipated that, if she'd thought about it a bit more carefully, and hadn't been so quick to write off Leliana's belief.
But that hadn't really been what they'd fought over. Cassandra was in line, more or less, with Justinia: the Chantry needed to return to the real meaning of its holy songs; it needed to remember its duties to the poor; it needed to remember compassion and why the Sword of Mercy was one of its greatest symbols. They were considered liberals, even radically so, but no one would have accused them of heresy even if they weren't the Divine and her Right Hand.
Leliana - Leliana, the bard, the shadowy figure who worked in whispers and spread terror in the night - went far beyond even that. Love, she said, was the Maker's greatest creation, infinite in its extent. Everyone deserved it, she said, every kind and every country and every race, and the Maker would not return to the world until his children understood that. When Cassandra had demanded how she squared that with what she had to do, with her duty as the Left Hand of the Divine and an agent of the Chantry, she'd looked just a little sad, just for a moment. Then her eyes had lit up, had blazed with passion, and she had said that love was what spurred her on in her duty. It wasn't an impediment: it was a binding and a steeling, entirely intertwined with what she had to do.
It was a hypocrisy and damn near a heresy, and it was wholly at odds with anything Cassandra could have imagined.
Cassandra was aggravated.
She was a serious woman; more than that, she was the Right Hand to the Divine. Fun wasn't really something she was meant to be having. Certainly, there was the satisfaction of doing her duty, and of making Thedas a better place alongside Justinia. There was the diversion she found in her novels, but they defined the term "guilty pleasure".
But right now? She was having fun. That shouldn't have been on the cards. It certainly shouldn't have been on the cards when Leliana was involved, especially since Justinia had insisted that the two of them ought to spend a little time together without their mind on business. (Leliana's own doing, Cassandra wondered, or had she also been gently guided into this?)
But, by the Bride, this was fantastic. Leliana was a full-blooded challenge, the likes of which Cassandra hadn't met among anyone she sparred with since she'd arrived in Orlais. She fought filthily, which Cassandra took as a compliment to be repaid in kind, because there wasn't anything too nasty to try when you were in a proper fight. The Left Hand's daggers sought gaps here, there, and everywhere in Cassandra's guard: twisting and feinting and demanding she open up.
Cassandra didn't know how long they'd been at it. She'd stopped counting the points a while back, just revelling in her aching limbs and the flashing thoughts of parry, cut, move, kick. Leliana, she reckoned, must be same: she was glistening with sweat, and the corded muscles of her forearms were tight with strain. But she wasn't showing the slightest bit of desire to stop - only the unrelenting drive to keep going, to challenge, to fight for everything she was worth.
Cassandra realised she was smiling.
Threats to the Divine never ended, and her Hands were called into action more and more as Justinia pressed harder to reform a Chantry grown fat and lazy on its worshippers' offerings. The worst of it - or so Cassandra thought at the time - was a brazen attempt on Justinia's life as her carriage took her to a retreat: a humble chapel in the village of Valence, where the Reverend Mother Dorothea had once ministered before her abrupt elevation to the peak of the Maker's Church. Leliana and Cassandra, both worried by what little they'd managed to pick up in the way of rumours and had pieced together with each other, had insisted on accompanying her. The ambush came hard and fast in the middle of the night: a sudden cacophony of men screaming as daggers found their marks, and mages' fireballs exploding over the tents of the Divine's entourage. Leliana and Cassandra fought their way from opposite sides of the camp to Justinia's side, and stood there before her Holiness, ready to give their lives for her.
As Cassandra lunged and hacked, as she broke weapons and bones with her shield, she heard the Chant of Light behind her. Justinia, she thought for a second, but though the accent was Orlesian, the voice was high and young. Leliana, even while she loosed arrow after after from her bow, even as her shafts found their marks in chests and throats and eyes, even as she killed men and elves and dwarves and a Qunari - what was going on here? - sang Andraste's hymn to the one god of the world. And Cassandra wondered at it. Here was Leliana - not the "real" Leliana, because she had no doubt that the Left Hand in the dark made up just as much of the woman as did this warrior blazing with faith - revealed again to her. She was the same fighter who'd helped carve a way through armies and darkspawn and dragons alike. Just as she must have done during the Blight, she moved and she fired in perfect sync with the warrior to her fore, never missing an opportunity Cassandra opened up or failing to intercept a threat to her. She was, as she had been for all the time they'd known each other - in spite of Cassandra not wanting to acknowledge it - a hero.
Later, Cassandra apologised for how she'd behaved. She'd been stubborn, and sullen, and Leliana hadn't deserved it. They were flaws in her, flaws she knew were there, but still didn't always remember she should be trying to overcome. And Leliana should have merited Cassandra trying harder. She was worth that respect.
Leliana smiled. It wasn't the polite smile she put on when dealing with functionaries, or the vicious one she brought out in battle (or else when planning one of her particular resolutions to the Divine's problems). It was small, quiet, without any performance to it. She stood from her desk and walked over to look Cassandra in the eye. Then she raised herself just a little on her toes, pressed a light kiss to Cassandra's cheek, and whispered, "Apology accepted".
Cassandra blushed from head to toe.
Panic. That was what Leliana meant to Cassandra now.
Attraction, too, yes. But the attraction meant panic. Really? Was Cassandra honestly interested in the Left Hand? In the spymaster, the assassin, the Nightingale? How could she be? What would it mean for her duty, to fall in - to want to be with the other member of Justinia's most private council. Surely it wouldn't work: they were Left and Right, meant for different things, meant to argue and debate from separate sides. It was entirely the opposite of their duties to, to, to fraternise. It would get in the way ...
And, Maker, even now Leliana's words were coming back to her. She thought that love and duty were the same thing, that they reinforced each other, and bore each other up. Did she mean that? This couldn't have been a long, long play in the Game, some bardic trap, could it?
No, surely not. Surely? Cassandra didn't think Leliana's passion then - the look in her eyes, the straightness of her spine, the tightness of her lips - could have been the slightest bit faked.
But. Even then. So what if Leliana thought that love wasn't a barrier to duty? That didn't mean she was interested in Cassandra one bit. What did she have to go on? That Leliana had kissed her on the cheek? That was nothing in Orlesian manners, a token gesture. Even in Navarra, it would have meant little - a politeness, a token of friendly affection. And still it went and sent Cassandra into this frenzy, this fluster. Some sort of bold warrior, some sort of hero she made, all shaken up over something so small.
Cassandra realised it.
She was panicked by how little she had to go on. She was panicked about what acting on it could mean: whether she'd be rejected, whether she'd be able to do right by the Divine and by her vows.
But one thing she'd already moved past. She wasn't panicking over whether she did want Leliana.
Of course she did.
She sighed, and squared her shoulders.
Time to set about it then.
Leliana looked at Cassandra - presently drenched from head to toe, bleeding from rosethorn-shaped holes in her hand, and scowling miserably - and burst out laughing.
"Oh, Cassandra! I am so sorry: I should never have let you go so far! It was quite adorable waiting to see what you would try next, but I think this means the game is really up."
"You knew? That I ... that I ..." Cassandra was still stumbling over her tongue. That had foiled three separate attempts to confess to Leliana already.
Leliana let her giggles die away. "After a while. You did not, I hope you won't mind me saying, make it quite so easy to understand what you meant. And - and I had to work out what I felt too, even when I knew." A hint of grimness settled around Leliana's mouth: not the seriousness that came with her duties as the Left Hand, but a more personal one Cassandra had only seen very rarely. She disliked it - disliked it intensely, and was suddenly filled with the urge to kiss it away, to set Leliana back to laughter and happiness again.
"You see, Cassandra, I have thought I felt this kind of love before. I was wrong. I was so very wrong, and I am correcting that mistake even today, with Justinia's help."
That set Cassandra's mind whirling. What could have happened? Justinia was involved? How?
"But with you ... no. It is not the same. I do know you, I hope - though it is not everything! And it's no fun without a few secrets for us still to tell each other. But I know enough to feel that this would be right: that I would like to hear your secrets - and that I would like to tell you mine. I want to share these things with you, Cassandra. These things that mean we love each other."
Cassandra couldn't speak. She couldn't move. But Leliana didn't need her to do either. She knew.
She raised her face to Cassandra's, and brought their lips together.