It didn't surprise Leliana in the least bit to walk into her private quarters and find Isabela waiting for her. The nudity was a bit unexpected, perhaps, but even that wasn't particularly shocking. It was Isabela, after all. Some things would never change, no matter how much the world shifted around them.
"I remember it didn't take much to make you sing."
Leliana felt a shiver go down her spine, a mixture of pain and something else entirely, but she didn't let it show on her face. She'd learned the hard way not to show her weaknesses to anyone.
"Admiral," Leliana said politely, nodding her head as she stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. She carefully unsheathed four of the daggers she wore on her sides, putting them down on a small side table in clear view. She left the other six on her person.
Judging by the way Isabela's eyes flickered down her body, the pirate was well aware that she was still armed. She didn't say anything, though. She just smiled at Leliana, her eyes somewhat in shadow thanks to the large hat that she wore. The only thing that she wore, as far as Leliana could tell, not that she thought Isabela was unarmed by any stretch of the imagination. The monstrosity she was on her head was more than large enough to hide a weapon or three, and she wouldn't discount Isabela having at least one weapon elsewhere on her person.
Besides, Leliana was well aware that some people didn't need weapons to be dangerous. That was a lesson she had learned a long time ago, one that she had taken to heart.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was a lesson that had broken her heart. Both were equally true.
Isabela smirked at her. It was just a little bit too casual, a hint too forced to be natural. "Sister Nightingale," she said, her eyes moving up and down Leliana's body again. Maybe she was enjoying the view. Maybe she was trying to find the best place to stick a dagger. Either was entirely possible with Isabela. "You don't seem that surprised to see me."
"I wouldn't be much use to the Inquisition if I was easily surprised," Leliana pointed out mildly. "It's my job to know where people are."
Isabela laughed. It sounded real, like bells chiming in the wind. Leliana didn't trust it for a moment. Sirens didn't just live on the sea. Their call was just as dangerous on the land as it was in the water, perhaps even more so in that on land it wasn't expected.
She gasped, Isabela's mouth on hers as her Warden pressed kisses along her inner thigh. There was a hand between her legs, rubbing circles in just the right place as fingers dipped inside her, and she didn't know whose it was but she never wanted them to stop.
Leliana made a show of ignoring Isabela as she knelt down to pull off her boots. She bowed her head, kneeling in repentance at Isabela's feet as she had done so many times before at statues of Andraste. It seemed appropriate, all things considering. Judging by the sharp intake of breath that she heard above her, Isabela had noticed the symbolism.
It had been four months since Hawke had been lost to the Fade. The only thing that surprised Leliana about Isabela's arrival was that it had taken her so long to show up in Skyhold.
"The Inquisitor isn't here," Leliana said, looking up from the floor to meet Isabela's eyes. She pointedly didn't let her gaze linger on anything else, although a distant part of her mind couldn't help but make comparisons between the woman standing before her now and the one she'd known for a memorable night back during the Blight. Time changed everyone in a variety of ways. "But you already knew that, of course."
Isabela raised her eyebrows, a hint of a smirk still on her face. "What makes you think that?"
"You'd be surprised how far my eyes reach," Leliana said simply. "Your ship docked over two months ago. You arrived in Skyhold exactly when you wanted to arrive."
It took a moment, but the smirk on Isabela's face faded. She looked older than she had the last time Leliana had seen her, in Kirkwall before everything had gone so wrong. Harder. Angrier. Then again, Leliana wasn't one to talk. She'd changed over the years as well.
She knew from experience just how much loss could change a person, for better or for worse.
"Varric sent me a letter," Isabela said. Her eyes flashed. "I expect you know what was in it."
Leliana nodded. Then she pushed herself to her feet, the stone floor cold under her bare feet. "My birds delivered the message."
She didn't say that her birds didn't deliver anything unless she knew what was in it. She didn't have to say it. Both of them knew exactly who, and what, she was for the Inquisition.
"I told her years ago that I didn't want to get feelings involved," Isabela said. She clenched her fists at her side. "I should have known better than to fall in love with a hero. Their stories never end well."
Her eyes burned with unshed tears as her Warden pressed a kiss against her lips, heedless of who might be watching and what they might think. The sounds of battle echoed around them, mixed with the cries of darkspawn and the screams of people dying as Denerim burned.
"Don't forget me. If I don't... no matter what happens, don't forget me."
Isabela's eyes were sharp. Her tongue was sharper. "But you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?"
For just a moment, the world shifted in place. Leliana was in Denerim again, hundreds of miles and a decade away, her heart in her throat as she stumbled towards the much too still body curled up on the ground beside the archdemon's remains. She'd known even then that it was too late, that her Warden would never smile at her again, but there was a part of her that couldn't help but hope that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance—
"Yes," Leliana said, only years of practice keeping her voice steady. "Yes, I suppose that I would."
There was a long pause as the two of them stared each other in the eyes, a million silent conversations happening in a single silent breath. Then Isabela slowly exhaled. "You're wearing too many clothes, Nightingale."
Leliana forced herself to breathe, suddenly aware of an ache in her breast that she hadn't even noticed until just then. She didn't think it was from lack of air.
"Am I?" she asked quietly. Her mouth twisted into a smile that she knew didn't reach her eyes. "I suppose you should do something about that then."
Maybe it should have hurt, hearing Isabela call out Hawke's name as she came. But it didn't, not this time or any time before. Leliana had known from the beginning exactly what both of them were getting out of these liaisons, and nothing about that had changed in the past month or so.
She'd had ten years to learn how to live with grief. Isabela had only had a few months.
Besides, Leliana knew exactly what it was like to pretend that nothing had changed, if only for a moment. She'd done the same thing once.
Leliana closed her eyes and let her mind float, giving into the physical sensations as the building pleasure crested over her in a wave. Still, she was careful to stay silent. Years of practice had ingrained that much in her.
The world narrowed. Leliana wasn't entirely certain how much time had passed, although it couldn't have been too long. The sweat trickling down her bare chest was only just starting to cool, a clear indicator of the passage of time... or lack thereof.
Beside her, Isabela let out a quiet huff that might have been laughter. Or it might have been something else entirely.
Leliana glanced over at her. Isabela had shifted at some point in the last few minutes, moving beside her instead of on top. She was sprawled out on her side of the bed, her arms and legs spread out in a way that would have made Leliana blush once upon a time. No, that had made her blush once, years and years earlier.
"Do you like what you see?" Isabela asked, a husky tone to her voice that sent a flare of warmth between Leliana's legs.
Her Warden laughed, leaning against Leliana's side as she looked at the scene in front of them. "I've seen better," she said, her eyes darting over to Leliana for just a moment.
If anything Leliana felt her face grow even warmer.
Isabela let out a peal of laughter, her own gaze moving up and down Leliana's body. "We'll just have to see about that."
"I got a letter today," Isabela said casually. Too casually.
Leliana stilled, carefully holding a neutral expression on her face. "Is that so?"
"Yes, that's so," Isabela said. The façade cracked for a moment, a hint of annoyance – or possibly even anger – slipping through. "We both know what your job is with the Inquisition. Do me a favor and don't insult either of us by pretending you don't know what I'm talking about."
"If you insist," Leliana said with a small nod.
Isabela narrowed her eyes, staring at Leliana as if she was trying to solve a mystery. Then she sighed. "Why?"
Leliana raised her eyebrows. "It seemed prudent," she said. "Would you rather your ship not be there when you returned?"
For a moment, she thought Isabela might actually argue with her. Not that it mattered. They were both well aware that Leliana had done the right thing in the long run. Her contacts had made it clear that Isabela's first mate had gotten tired of waiting for her to return, so Leliana had stepped in. It had been the best decision: for her, for Isabela, and for the Inquisition in general. That was how she had justified it to herself, at least.
What kind of admiral would Isabela be without a ship?
Isabela sighed. "Did you have to threaten him with castration?" she asked finally. "I'm never going to convince him to work for me again."
If anything, Leliana's eyebrows rose even higher.
"What?" Isabela asked, pushing herself up into a sitting position and stretching a little. "Yes, he's an ass, but he does good work. And I can't blame him. If he hadn't at least considered stealing my ship, he wouldn't be much of a pirate. I'd have wondered about his intentions."
Leliana felt the corner of her mouth twitch, and she had to rather forcefully push back a smile. It honestly caught her by surprise. She couldn't remember the last time she'd even remotely felt like smiling. Months? Years? Before the Conclave and everything that had happened afterwards, at the very least. Before Kirkwall? She truly didn't know.
Beside her, Isabela tilted her head. She didn't say anything, but there was a knowing look on her face.
"You should go," Leliana said quietly. "It's getting late, and I'd rather no one see you slipping out of my quarters."
Isabela let out a thoroughly unladylike snort. "We both know that ship has already sailed," she said. "Your people see everything."
Leliana's eyes flickered up and down Isabela's body. She was unabashedly nude, her skin almost glowing in the dim candlelight of the room. It was a rather exquisite sight.
Isabela smirked. "Well," she amended, "maybe not everything."
"My people also have discretion," Leliana pointed out, "and they answer only to me."
Isabela shook her head, but she didn't argue as she slid off the bed and started gathering her clothes from the floor. And the chair. And the table. And the windowsill.
Leliana's gaze flickered towards a red mark on Isabela's lower back, just above the cleft of her buttucks. She couldn't see the teeth marks that she had left in her skin, not in the dim light, but it was clearly going to bruise.
She let herself smile, just for a moment.
Isabela pulled her top over her head, shimmying it down over her body. "You just don't want to be the main character in Varric's next book," she called over her shoulder, not glancing back. "Not that I can blame you. Hawke hates—" She cut off abruptly, like she usually did when she slipped up and used the wrong tense. "—hated. She hated it. Being the hero of the story."
"I'd much rather live as a nobody than die as a hero," her Warden said, a bittersweet smile on her face as she rolled over to look at Leliana. "I'm just not sure I'm going to get a choice."
Leliana shook her head. "You're not going to die," she said. "The Maker will protect you. I know that He will."
A flash of doubt flickered across her Warden's face, but all she did is smile. "I'm sure you're right."
Leliana let out the breath she hadn't even realized she was holding. "Many people would rather not be the hero," she said, "but other roles in the story have their disadvantages as well."
Isabela shot her a knowing look but stayed quiet. She was good at that, at least when it mattered.
"Goodnight Admiral," Leliana said softly, her hair falling loose around her face and framing it in shadow.
Isabela tilted her head, just a little, as if she was looking for something. Then she slowly nodded. "Goodnight Nightingale," she said. "Same time tomorrow?"
Leliana hesitated for only an instant before nodding.
A smile flickered across Isabela's face, there and gone so quickly that Leliana almost thought she had imagined it. Then she was gone herself, slipping out the door without another word.
Leliana reached down to absentmindedly rub at her collarbone. There was a bright red mark there, a match for the one she had left on Isabela.
She closed her eyes as her hand trailed lower, playing a little with her still tender breasts. A face flashed in her mind for a moment, laughing eyes and a mouth turned upward in a smile.
For the first time in a very long time, it wasn't the face she was expecting to see. Leliana wasn't quite certain how to feel about that.
"Tomorrow," she whispered quietly, more to herself than anything.