She waited for the pull, the harsh grab that would drag her to the table or onto the floor. She waited for the boot to the stomach or the head. She waited for the draw of a bow.
His grip loosened by degrees and he at last looked away, down and with an odd sort of smile on his lips. Embarrassment, she realized with a shuddering exhale. There was a blush forming on his cheeks, and, finally, he released her.
"Excuse me," he said. "I only meant..." His fingers flexed a moment around nothing, then wrapped around the bottle. With a jerk, he pulled it to his lips and took a long pull.
Her heart stumbled towards something steady again, and with his eyes closed for a moment she sagged forward in her seat, rubbing at her jaw. For a moment, he had given her a shivering flush of comfort. And for a moment, he had set her nerves and heart on edge and left her trembling from the fear of it all.
And for a moment, he gave her stillness, a space to collect herself.
The thunk of the bottle against the table made her glance up.
"I'm sorry," he said. "That was- presumptuous of me. I only meant that if you would help me put the few facts I do have into some meaningful order that I'd..." He shifted. "Appreciate it. And if you'd work beside me." His hand splayed against the wood, and she found herself leaning forward, fear and nerves forgotten in the halting flow of his words. His lips were pursed in thought and his eyes, when he looked to her, were bright. "I have nothing but respect for you, and faith in your abilities, and I'd be honored to have your assistance, no matter how limited you think it will be."
He was sincere, each word carefully chosen and delivered with a steady gaze. Her breathing rattled. Here was a man who had to know what she had done during the war, who had to know, too, that she had not stopped the Warden from killing his father- and yet he looked straight at her and told her he wanted to work with her, regardless of if she knew anything at all about the killings.
And the way he had touched her wrist-
She wanted to help him. In that moment, she would have hunted herself, if only to have hunted at his side. It was an impossibility, and she knew it, but it didn't stop her from nodding. For the first time in months, maybe longer, somebody had reached out to her not out of necessity or of anger, but out of interest. Concern.
"You have my aid," she said, and impossibilities didn't keep her from settling her hand over his. He was warm through the leather, and slowly she curled her fingers around him.
His flush was back, darkening his pale skin as his throat bobbed. His steady gaze became markedly less so, and she caught the pale tip of his tongue peeking out to wet his lips as he looked down at their hands. "Cauthrien?" he murmured, and she closed her eyes to the sound of it, the questioning warmth in it.
She couldn't imagine how they all would have laughed, everybody in Maric's Shield and back in Denerim, to know that she could lean in towards such comfort the moment it was offered by Rendon Howe's eldest son. Her fingers curled more tightly around his, and he turned his hand beneath hers, lifting it to his lips and brushing a kiss across her knuckles.
She could have sobbed from the contact, something so unfamiliar and so desperately needed after months of being alone, months of feeling only desperation and hopelessness.
Instead she only leaned in, opening her eyes. She gently guided their joined hands back to her. Her fingers slid around to cup his hand and she returned the light kiss, tasting the leather and oil of his gloves. His exhale shook, and then he stood, the scrape of his chair loud and final as he leaned forward and touched his lips to hers.
"This is okay?" he whispered against her, and she answered with a firmer kiss, a searching one, one that led him stumbling around the small table and her out of her seat. His hands came trembling to rest on her waist, then slid around until his arms encircled her. Her fingers threaded into the fur at his collar, then up his jaw to tangle in his hair. A moment's gentleness turned to a needy pull, and she arched against him.
If for just a minute, an hour, she could forget- if for just that long, he could make her feel like nothing at all had gone wrong-
The fire crackled in the hearth beside them, full and warm, and when Nathaniel moved to step away, she gave a leading tug that had him settling with her on the floor. He groaned softly against her mouth when she released him long enough to undo the toggle of his cloak. He reached up and caught her hand in his, holding it still as he pulled away just enough to rest his brow against hers.
"Tell me this is okay," he said, voice hoarse and throaty and lips parted. "This isn't what I came here for- but tell me this is okay, and-"
"It's okay. It's more than okay." Cauthrien smiled as she dragged a shaking hand down his front. "Trust me."
She needed this more than she could put into words, more than she should, and she sighed in relief and need when he kissed her again, his hands fumbling with his cloak to spread it out beside them. He pulled her with him down onto it, pressing kisses to her lips and jaw, and she countered by nuzzling against his nose, fingers fumbling with the closures of his armor. His quiver rattled and arrows threatened to slide free, but he had it off in a breath, set haphazardly aside as his hands dropped to the worn fasteners of her clothing. He tried them only a moment before he pulled back enough to tug his gloves off and cast them aside.
A laugh bubbled from her, and his answered, a slow smile and a low chuckle as he dropped his head to her neck, leaving kisses in a line to her shoulder.
She had learned in the last four months how to shed her clothing quickly, how to leave it all behind as the change came over her. Then, there was only panic. Now, the frantic energy of it all was stoked by the cracking and popping of burning logs, the path of his lips, the feel of his heartbeat against hers once he put his stiff leather jerkin aside. She twined herself around him as their clothing fell away, the slide of skin on skin becoming the only goal.
Her fears were forgotten. The itching beneath her skin stilled where he touched and where he kissed. The exhaustion was set aside in favor of something exultant.
She couldn't remember the last time somebody else had dragged their hands along her skin, had slipped fingers between her legs to make her gasp and sigh and rock her hips. She couldn't remember the last time somebody had kissed her, and kissed her deeply, and intently. She couldn't remember the last time somebody had clasped her hand with theirs and brought it to their lips, even as she arched and groaned and whispered their name in a plea for more. But if she couldn't remember it, she also didn't care, and when Nathaniel did each of those things she felt it as if for the first time bolstered by an unshakable certainty.
Her hands were clumsy as she pulled him close, as she curled her legs around his hips and opened herself to him, kissing at his brow and nose as he rocked forward, eager for her and searching. He palmed her breast a moment before reaching lower to help position himself, and then with a nudge of his hips and a roll of hers, he was inside of her, drawing another moan from her throat and another kiss from her lips. They tangled together on their sides, facing one another and tracing paths with their fingers and mouths, rising in the firelight to nip and laugh and breathe names and wordless whispers. She lost herself in him, groaning with each thrust and answering it with a tightening of her legs, a twitching of her hips.
Her fingers dug hard into her skin. For all the heady glory of the moment, there was a thread of urgency in her, and she drew it out of him in turn. His lips closed on her pulse and he bucked his hips, and she dragged her nails across his scalp and forced him deeper until he was twitching out of rhythm, on the edge and dancing there.
It was a conquering, then, a fight, a triumph, and she rolled on top of him, nipping at the column of his throat as she slowed each movement to the very barest curl of her stomach. He whined her name. She grinned and jerked her hips in a hard thrust, hard enough to make him arch up and groan. Her hands stayed tangled in his hair and she kept him down, working herself until it was she who crested first, who gasped, "Nathaniel-" and lost the rest in a low and breathless growl, twitching until he took hold of her hips and pulled her down against him.
She felt his pulse where they joined as he surrendered to it all.
They must have slept. It was dark when she noted the time, stirring beside him and hissing at the ache of her knees and hip from the hard floor. The cloak had only done so much, and as she pushed herself up, she felt every place where he had marked her.
It was comforting.
But it was also a reminder that she couldn't fill her end of the bargain. She had promised him aid, but the only aid she could give would lead him straight to her. An arrow through the throat might have been a mercy, but looking down at him, drowsy and still flush with pleasure, she couldn't bring him to it.
No, the aches in her body were the warnings of what he could do if she didn't run.
She reached for her clothing, pulling it on with the quick and efficient movements of a woman raised in the barracks. It was best, she thought, to treat what had happened as another giving in, as allowing another beast to take her skin. It had been enjoyable, but wasn't the hunt? She could never remember it clearly, but she remembered ecstasy and satisfaction.
It sounded close enough, close enough to make her thoughts spiral towards claw and fur. Her skin began to prickle.
She turned, startled and staring with wide eys.
Nathaniel pushed himself up and watched her with a quirked brow. "... Are you going out?"
He was all muscle and scar with shoulders uneven from years of drawing a bow. Rendon Howe's son. A part of her whispered that it didn't matter, that there was something and had been something when their lips met, or even before. The other part whispered that it was only a death wish, and a foolish one at that.
She turned away and began putting away the food he had left almost completely untouched.
"Cauthrien." She could hear the confusion in his voice, masked by a sudden imperiousness that she flinched to refuse. For a moment, he sounded almost like Loghain, and it sent shivers through her.
The memories it dredged up made her head begin to pound. She could smell the sweat on him, the sex - and hear his pulse.
It was close. As close as it had been in the market square. A distraction could only save her for so long, and no longer, and the longer he stayed- the longer she stayed-
"Get out," Cauthrien said, eyes fixed on the cupboard she stood had. She could feel it building, the urge to hunt, the urge to rend and tear and feast. She had to make him leave, so that when she left he had no trail he could follow. "Get out, Nathaniel-"
She heard him stand, heard him grab clothing from the floor. There was the rustle of fabric and the flex of leather, and she could smell it all. It made her head spin. She rested her weight firmly on the cupboard door, palms splayed. There- the buckles of his jerkin. And there, the slide of foot into boot. A rattle - the quiver.
"I said get out," she said.
There was no answer but the sound of footsteps. He crossed the room and took her wrist, and she could feel the wolf in her already, in how she snapped and snarled and rounded on him. His eyes went wide, then narrowed again to harsh slits. He bared his teeth in turn. "No," he said, and his voice was low, lower and a different kind of low than when he had taken her wrist before. "I want to know what's going on. With you. With us-"
"Let go of me," she growled, and then broke away. She stumbled for the door. The beast was coming back faster than she could banish it, and the panic settling in her gut urged it on. If he stayed, if she stayed, people would die.
And he would know her for what she was. That, more than anything else, drove her forward.
But his lips on her skin, the feel of his hips beneath her hands-
She stopped, hand on the latch. "I can't," she said.
"Tell me why," he said, and it was barely more than a whisper. "You told me to trust you, Cauthrien-"
When she moved again, her feet took her not to the door but to her trunk, and she opened it with shaking hands. Inside- yes, there. An old jar, crusted with age, but she dragged it out and opened it. Dry. She spit into it, then stuck her fingers in to mix to paint.
Kaddis. The smell was pungent and unmistakable for anything but what it was. "Put this on," she said as she smeared a line down her nose with shaking hands. "Put this on and then get me into the woods."
He stared, and she shoved the jar towards him. "You trust me, right?" she said, fighting the urge to run or to attack him, fighting to trust him in turn. An arrow through the throat would be a kindness, she reminded herself, and he had come here looking for an answer. And he would find it.
This way, at least, she wouldn't kill him.