A/N: Spoilers up to the end of the game in this chapter. See part 1 for disclaimers, but more sexy times herein... and still no dragons. Thanks to everyone who's read and reviewed, and I hope this is a fitting follow-up for our hero, the Warden...
It's quite a sight.
The last rays of the sun stain the snows a delicate, blushing pink, and the massive fortress stands brooding and shadowed upon its peak, thrusting arrogantly into the darkening blue sky. Sparse bursts of yellow and orange mark the torches of the sentries on the walls – from this angle, on the road below the barbican, it's impossible to see any light from within the walls.
I never imagined my path leading me here. Somehow, when I've thought of my homecoming at all, it's always in Val Royeaux. Kicking in the doors of the Grand Cathedral, perhaps, bedecked in shining armour and silver samite, riding a prancing white charger length of the nave, and sweeping my beloved onto my saddlebow for a chaste, chivalrous kiss.
Or so the tales my bard loves to spin would have you imagine. But my horse is not white, my armour is tarnished and battered, and I'm decidedly not interested in chaste kisses. Grinning at the thought, I nudge Carinus into a weary trot up and around the final bend; both of us are ready for our journey's end.
There's a lone sentry at the gate. Doubtless he has friends on the battlements of the barbican, but I'm a little too tired to care about the disposition of the Inquisition's forces at this juncture.
"Who goes?" the sentry calls, levelling his pike and grounding the butt against the flagstones.
"I have dispatches for Sister Nightingale," I reply.
"The dawn has come." Leliana has been leaving the pass phrases with Nathaniel ever since I saw her in Valence, in the hope that I might have need of them.
The sentry relaxes, lifting his pike, and nods permission to continue. "Pass, friend. You've perfect timing – the party's in full swing."
"Best news I've heard all year," I allow, urging Carinus past him before he starts wondering why one of Leliana's agents would be riding a pureblood Orlesian warhorse. "Maker's blessing, friend."
As Carinus steps out onto the low-walled bridge that leads to the fortress proper, I suppress a shudder at the hollow clop of his hooves on the stonework. The chasm beneath is deep, plunging away into the darkness, and I've crossed too many such structures under attack, or fearing for their soundness, to really trust our footing. A memory of the Blight stirs, wrestling the hurlock alpha that has knocked me down, vertigo upending my senses as we slide together towards the gaping maw of the abyss below, armour squealing as it scrapes against the stone. Getting in a lucky blow and pitching my adversary off the edge. Fleeting triumph, then blood-chilling panic as I realise I can't stop my own slide over the lip. Fingers scrabbling fruitlessly for purchase on smooth dwarven flagstones as I flail around in a futile bid to ward off death.
Leliana's horrified, helpless scream of denial pealing through the air. "Aryn!"
Shale's thick fingers catching the edge of my breastplate, the golem hauling me bodily back from the brink at the last moment. The fading echoes of the hurlock's shriek as it plunges into the unimaginable depths.
Maker, I remember it like it was yesterday.
Carinus, fortunately, is of steadier disposition, ambling across the bridge without any need for direction. The second sentry repeats the challenge issued at the barbican, and the pass phrase gains me a smile of welcome and access to the courtyard. Dismounting, I lead my tired horse into Skyhold, stretching my legs gratefully after too many hours in the saddle.
I'm finally here.
And I'm nervous.
I was sure the confrontation with Corypheus would come before Avernus succeeded with his experiments, that I would find Leliana returned to Val Royeaux. I think I would have preferred that; the anonymity of the city would have suited me. Here, there's likely to be no place to hide from Leliana's curious colleagues, no time for me to adjust. Still, there's some comfort in the fact that not many people are likely to recognise me, and everyone's attention will rightfully be focused on Sam Trevelyan and her glorious victory.
The Maker is quick to remind me he has a sense of humour as I walk Carinus into the stables, disturbing the dozing of the elderly man stretched out on the hay bales. He starts awake with a shout, then blinks at me blearily. "Andraste's sacred tits, you gave me a right fright," he grouses.
I grin, feeling my nerves ease somewhat; what odds would a bookmaker have given on the first person I encounter being an old acquaintance? "My apologies, Master Dennet. I would have been quieter if I'd realised."
He frowns at me, studying my face carefully, then his jaw drops open as recognition dawns. "Maker… milady Aryn!" He bobs a quick bow. "I'm sorry, for a moment I didn't recognise you."
"I'm in disguise," I retort dryly.
"It's not a very good disguise," Dennet chuckles, stroking Carinus' muzzle as he looks the stallion over. "Not one of mine, this fellow, eh?"
"Regrettably not," I admit. "He was a gift from the Empress of Orlais for quelling the Blight."
"He's magnificent," the horsemaster observes in an admiring tone. "I'll get him settled, milady."
I whistle the four-note cadence he's trained to respond to. "Remember those notes, Horsemaster, and he won't try to kill you."
Dennet nods as he takes the stallion's reins. "Leave him to me, milady. I'll see he behaves."
"I've no doubt. How is it you're not at the celebration?"
Dennet laughs; all around, horses whicker in response. "I'm far too old and grumpy for that kind of thing, milady." He waves at a crude plank door behind him. "My quarters are back there if you'd like to wash and change." He winks. "And if you want to leave your gear here, I'll see it's sent along."
A grateful smile tugs at my mouth. "Thank you, Master Dennet. For being so kind as to remember me, and for such a warm welcome."
"Not likely I'd forget you. Pretty girl who showed up in the village in our hour of need with our prodigal king-to-be and kicked the arse of all those undead. You certainly made a lasting impression."
I chuckle. "One my mother would have been horrified by, I'm sure. Farewell for now, Horsemaster."
I strip my weapons, cloak, gauntlets and mail, fish the ill-fitting, formal tunic I bought in Orzammar and my last clean pair of breeches from my saddlebags and take Dennet's offer of a place to wash and change. Clean and dressed in fresh clothes, I feel better, less tired.
Dennet directs me to the keep, and as the sentry opens the door for me the noise of a celebration floods out, washing over me in a disorienting wave. My nerves return in force; it takes me all of my willpower to take the steps that will allow the guard to close the door against the night's chill. There are so many people, laughing, talking, rejoicing, all in a cacophonous din that hurts my ears. I'm no longer used to being around people, not in such large gatherings. For nearly three years, the only souls I've spent any time with are a crotchety, dying old man too wrapped up in his research to talk much, a taciturn dwarf with a sense of humour blacker than ogre's blood, and a darkspawn abomination who only speaks when directly addressed with a question or detailing what he wants brought back for his research. I've grown used to weeks passing with barely a conversation, hunting in the deep dark where an ill-judged sound can bring an army of spiders, or a patrol of darkspawn swarming down upon you. I prefer the spiders. They're harder to fight, but at least all they can do is kill you. I run my right thumb reflexively across the base of my fingers, feeling for the poison ring I always wear now. My last line of defence. Sigrun has one too; we never speak of them. We don't have to.
My thumb finds the ring, empty at the moment, but the feel of the band, the conditioned reassurance, is enough to ground me. I close my eyes, focus on my breathing until it evens out. My heart rate slows, and I mop the sweat from my brow with my sleeve, resulting in an uncomfortable tug across my shoulders; the damn tunic is far too tight. I can do this. It's simply a party, and most people are far enough along in their revels to be focused on their immediate companions. If I can just find Leliana…
I lean back against the wall beneath a splendid mosaic and study the crowd, but I can't see my beloved anywhere. I can see Cassandra Pentaghast, and Sam Trevelyan, both surrounded by throngs of well-wishers, and the memory of being the centre of such attention brings a wry smile to my lips. The parallel is not lost on me; at that gathering, I wanted nothing more than to sneak off with Leliana as well.
I notice Cassandra looking around with a slightly desperate expression as she tries to disengage from an unwanted conversation. The opportunity to help her and myself at the same time should not be passed up, so I steel my nerve and step forward into the crowd, only to inevitably lose sight of the Seeker as a new group of people arrive in the hall from one of the side entrances, flooding past me in an unwelcome flurry of brushing limbs and boisterous laughter. "Maker's balls," I curse, halting and studying the floor for a moment to centre myself.
A whistle from my left attracts my attention. A slight, blonde elf with bright, sharp eyes looks me up and down appraisingly from where she's standing with a massive, grinning qunari. It's a disconcerting sight; the most I ever remember seeing from Sten was a slight smirk.
"Hey, big girl!" the elf calls, beckoning me. "You sound like you need company. I can help with that. Name's Sera."
Well, any help has to be better than none, and at least she hasn't recognized me. "Aryn. I'm looking for Sister Leliana," I reply.
"What, Sister Scary?" the elf exclaims. "You one of her knifey-shiv-dark people? Don't look much like one. But you'd have to be, right? I mean, no one else wants to go near her, yeah?"
I frown at this revelation, and the qunari lets out a gruff chuckle.
"Red's not that bad, Sera. In fact, of late, she's been a lot more relaxed. Happy, almost, in her own way."
"I wouldn't know – I don't go near that bloody bird's nest she skulks in. Not even for a dare, right?"
"It's been the talk of the castle," the qunari observes. "No one's quite sure why."
Sera grins salaciously. "Maybe she found someone brave enough to give her a good hard shag. I mean, shite, she bloody well needs some sort of outlet. What d'you think, big girl? Reckon your boss got herself diddled witless?"
I push down the snarling urge to spring to Leliana's defence, product of embarrassment at the observation being a bit too close to the mark for my comfort. "I wouldn't know."
"Yeah, maybe got some big strapping hulk to tie her up and ravish her," Sera says gleefully. "Bull, you're not holding out on me are you?"
"Course not," the qunari says amiably. "But I don't think I'm Red's type, somehow."
Sera leers at me. "Wonder what her type'd be, eh?" She cocks her head, considering. "D'you think she does like it a bit kinky? Straps and whips, maybe a good hard spanking? She's so bloody bossy, makes you wonder, yeah?"
I shrug, trying to stay calm as a memory needles my temper, Leliana standing in the doorway of Howe's torture chamber, shaking so much I can hear her armour rattle, deep-rooted fear twisting her expression to a grimace, tears running steadily from her terrified but determined blue eyes. I stretch my arm out, offer my hand. "I won't let anyone hurt you, Leliana," I swear. "On my life." She squeezes her eyes shut, takes a trembling breath, then grasps my hand tightly and steps over the threshold.
"Oi! I said, what do you think, big girl?"
"I think I don't want to know," I say curtly. Sera isn't to blame, she has no idea, but anger is building in my chest regardless.
"Oooh, touchy," Sera exclaims in a childish, sing-song tone. "All right, what about you, then? D'you like strapping great hulks, girl your size? Or little delicate boys? Or maybe you prefer women, eh?"
Maker, I really am out of practice with this kind of conversation. Discomfited, I throw a plaintive glance at Bull. "Is she always this direct?"
Bull nods, grinning. "Pretty much. Though I think that's the subtlest proposition I've heard her make to date. She must really like you."
"Oh, I do," Sera drawls. "All them muscles – you're busting out all over. So how about it, eh?"
"How about what?"
"You and me, big girl. No point beating about the bush, yeah? Not when you could have your fingers in the…"
A pointed throat-clearing cuts the elf off, and she turns with a scowl to confront whoever interrupted her. "Bloody hell, just because some big fancy hats decided you're on speaking terms with the shitting Maker's no reason to go pissing in my conversations!" she complains.
Cassandra steps to my side. "Be quiet, Sera," she commands coolly. The elf puffs up with outrage, but Bull's hand on her shoulder settles her back as Cassandra turns to regard me, a wry smile quirking the corners of her mouth. "I thought that was you. You took your time getting here," she remarks blandly.
"Better late than never, Most Holy," I reply, grinning as she rolls her eyes in consternation. "I heard the proclamation on my way here. Should I curtsey?"
"Oh, Maker, please. I'm not Divine yet." The Seeker catches me in a rough bear hug, which I return gladly. I've always liked Cassandra. Her practical, blunt nature is a good foil for Leliana's appetite for elaborate intrigue and risk, and she's kept my love from harm on many occasions when I could not. I owe her much, not least for accepting the position of Divine. Deep in my heart, in the dark centre of my soul, I'm desperately relieved Leliana wasn't asked.
"I'm not sure if I should congratulate you or commiserate," I observe when Cassandra lets me go.
Cassandra arches a wry eyebrow. "Both would likely be appropriate." She leaves a companionable arm around my shoulders. "It's very good to see you, my friend. Dare I assume that you bring good news?"
"You can assume that, yes."
"That's wonderful," Cassandra says, simply and sincerely.
"It is that," I agree. "So much so that I can still hardly believe it myself." The taint is still there, I can still sense darkspawn, and other Wardens, but it feels different. Less… filthy. And the Calling – the Calling will not come for me. We tested Avernus' cure on three of our brothers already in the Roads, and all of them swore on their oaths that it stopped the dreams and the whispers outright. I was the first one to take it after them. I haven't had a taint dream since. Avernus and the Architect were confident enough that the change is permanent; only time will tell, but I am at last able to be hopeful about my future. It's still a little too new and life-changing for me to fully comprehend. "For right now, though, the best thing is that I'm out of the blasted Deep Roads."
"The Deep Roads?" Sera squawks as Cassandra relieves a passing steward of an ale mug. "You're not one of them bat-shit crazy Wardens, are you?"
"If I am, is your proposition withdrawn?" I ask, halfway between amused and offended now that I have an ally.
Sera looks torn. "Shit! I don't know. You're still pretty, and all muscles, the way I like, but…"
Bull roars with laughter, and I grin, suddenly much less embarrassed. "Well then, you should also know I'm already spoken for."
"What, I'd have to fight someone for you? Easy. Who do I have to carve into little bloody strips to get you up against the wall?"
I take the tankard Cassandra offers and tap it against hers with a wink, taking a deep gulp of the crisp, cool ale before replying. "Leliana."
Sera gawps at me as Bull guffaws again. "I think that might be too much even for you, Sera."
"I could take her," Sera asserts, a slight sulking edge entering her tone.
"I very much doubt that," Cassandra snorts derisively. "And even if you managed it, I hardly think Aryn would then be inclined to reward you."
I shrug carelessly. "I would feel compelled to take vengeance."
Sera frowns at me. "Hang on… Leliana? Sodding hells, you're the bloody hero of Ferelden, intcha? The warden that killed off the Blight? And you're a noble…"
Sensing a possible disengage, I offer a florid bow. "Lady Aryn Cousland, Hero of Ferelden and conqueror of the Blight, Seneschal of Fort Drakon and Vigil's Keep, Warden-Commander of Ferelden, heir presumptive to the Teyrnir of Highever, and occasional dragonslayer, at your service."
Sera wrinkles her nose. "Ugh, forget I said anything. Far too much bloody baggage. C'mon Bull, let's go find some better people."
Cassandra bursts out laughing as Bull winks at us and follows the now-surly elf into the throng. "Maker forgive me, I've been waiting for that opportunity for months. Thank you, my friend, for ensuring it came along in time for me to be able to enjoy it."
I raise my tankard. "I'm sure it's the least I could do. So… Divine?"
"Yes." Cassandra waits, smirking slightly.
"Is it what you wanted? Or did you feel compelled?" I take another sip. "I'm not judging, mind, I'm just curious."
"It's what I want," she admits. "I have often thought of how I would change things if I had the opportunity. The Chantry has done terrible things, things it must condemn if it is to fairly represent all the people of Thedas. Change must come, and I would see it happen. I am willing to try, at least."
"I can't think of a better person to change the world than you, Cassandra," I say, and I mean it. The Seeker, for all her fiery temper, her impatience, and her legendary singleness of purpose, is perhaps the noblest soul I have ever known. She does what she believes to be right, no matter the personal cost. I can't say I could do the same; I'm happy to gamble my life for a cause, but I'm not sure any force in heaven or on earth could make me sacrifice Leliana for the greater good. Wynne, Maker bless her spirit, was right. I told you so, her kind, wise voice whispers smugly in my ear.
Cassandra blushes slightly at my words, a faint pink hue chasing over her cheeks. "You are kind to say so, but I wonder in my heart if Leliana would have been a better choice."
"Different isn't necessarily better," I offer, "although I'll admit to being selfishly overjoyed that she didn't have to make that decision." I look around. "Speaking of our adorable Nightingale, do you know where she is? It's not that your party isn't fun, but…" I've had enough of this, already. I need to see her. Touch her. Hold her. Tell her. I'm free. I don't have to leave you ever again. I won't ever leave you again.
Cassandra grimaces as she looks around. "Maker's breath, she is supposed to be here. The Inquisitor ordered her to attend."
"Since when has that been an effective tactic?" I wonder incredulously, and Cassandra chuckles.
"Sam is a kind, thoughtful, and loving person, and a dear friend, but she can sometimes be just a little… slow to learn," the Seeker remarks wryly. "I expect Leliana will still be working. Let me just…"
"Cassandra, darling, you absolutely must come with me. The Vicomte de Lusignan is positively beside himself with excitement at the thought of meeting you." A strident, confident voice with a refined Free Marches accent cuts the Seeker off, and I bite down on my lip to keep my expression impassive as First Enchanter Vivienne flounces up in an extravagant rustle of silk. "Oh," she sniffs with grandiose contempt as she sees me. "Crawled up out of your rat hole, my dear? Come to share in the spoils of a victory won in spite of your order's malfeasance?"
"Charmed, as always, Madame de Fer," I reply coldly, unwilling to give her the satisfaction of snapping at the bait.
Cassandra scowls. "Vivienne, that is not fair. Aryn is…"
"Don't waste your breath, Cassandra, really," I cut her off wearily. "Go, attend to your guests. I'll catch up with you tomorrow."
Cassandra glares at Vivienne to forestall any further comments. "My apologies, my friend," the Seeker says ruefully. "Until tomorrow, then." She grabs the mage by the arm and hustles her forcefully away.
"Bitch," I mutter sullenly at the enchantress's back. There are few people in this world that I can honestly say I can't stand, but the so-called Iron Lady, passing her sneering, bon-mot judgements on those less fortunate than herself from her position of impossible privilege, is most certainly one of them.
The crowd shifts again, opening a clear path to Trevelyan, and I start forward with the intent of inserting myself into the group of Orlesian nobles she's engaged with. She looks round at the movement in her peripheral vision, and her expression brightens into a genuine smile as she cuts off her conversation and threads through the crowd to meet me, dragging a somewhat mortified-looking Antivan woman in elaborate, ruched yellow silks along with her.
"…Have any idea how much I'm going to have to grovel to them to make up for your rudeness?" the petite Antivan is complaining in a resigned tone as they move within earshot. Trevelyan ignores her, stepping forward and offering her hand.
"Welcome to Skyhold, Commander. It's so good to see you again."
I clasp hands with her warmly. "Thank you, Inquisitor. Congratulations on your victory. The world is a safer place with Corypheus's evil vanquished."
For a moment, as our gazes connect, Sam Trevelyan looks impossibly beaten down and worn as the horrors that she's contended with, the trade-offs made between her conscience and necessity, the sacrifices and the bloodshed required to win her war swamp her recollection. The pain in her eyes is raw, and my hand tightens on hers in reflexive sympathy; I know exactly how she feels. "It eases," I promise quietly. "You carry it ever after, but the load lightens with time."
She nods resolutely, and I gesture to the surrounding hall.
"It's quite a place you have here."
Her smile re-ignites. "Now, yes. Maker, you should have seen the mess when we arrived," she chuckles. "We were camped in the courtyard for two weeks." Curiosity blossoms in her expression. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"We did, thank you."
"Congratulations yourself, then. I imagine Leliana is overjoyed."
"I haven't told her yet," I admit. "I wanted to do so in person." I wave a hand at the gathering. "She doesn't seem to be in attendance, however."
The Antivan woman sighs in exasperation. "She will be working, no doubt. She never stops. And since your manners seem to have been drowned in wine, my love, I fear I must intercede on my own behalf." She offers her hand. "Josephine Montilyet, at your service."
"Oh, Andraste's blood," Trevelyan groans. "I'm sorry, Josie." She kisses the Antivan's cheek. "Let me make amends." She clears her throat ostentatiously. "May I present Lady Josephine Cherette Montilyet, Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Inquisition to the nations of Thedas, and the most beautiful, charming, and sophisticated woman I've ever met. My darling Josephine, I have the honour to introduce Warden Commander Aryn Cousland..." She trails off with a chuckle as I wave my hand to dismiss my other titles.
Josephine's smile lights her beautiful, blushing face, even as she slaps her lover across the shoulder in rebuke. "Please forgive the Inquisitor, my Lady. She can be quite the ass when she's drunk." She dips into an elegant curtsey. "It's an honour to make your acquaintance, finally; Leliana has told me so much about you."
I offer a polite bow, catching her fingers and raising her back to her somewhat diminutive height. "Likewise, my Lady Josephine. Leliana has spoken of you often with great warmth. I'm only sorry it's taken so long for us to finally meet. You are well, I hope?"
She exchanges a fond, forgiving glance with Trevelyan. "Very well, thank you. But if you have not seen Leliana yet, you must certainly hurry. She will be in the rookery. Find her and bring her down, please. I should very much like to see her smile for a change. "
Trevelyan nods agreement. "This is her victory as much as anyone's. She should be able to truly enjoy it now. Second door on the left there, then up to the top of the tower."
"Why is it always at the top of the tower?" I sigh theatrically, throwing a wink at Josephine, who has the grace to laugh.
"Tradition, my dear Commander," she answers. "Where else would one look to find the maiden fair?"
"Your logic is irrefutable, my Lady." I bow again. "By your leave, Inquisitor, my Lady Montilyet?"
Trevelyan gives me a broad grin and a gentle push.
My mounting impatience grants me the fortitude to begin to work through the crowd, but it takes me less than four strides to run into my next obstacle; a pair of decidedly tipsy dwarf women.
"It's you!" one of them squeals in excitement, bouncing up to me and throwing her arms exuberantly around my thighs. "Oh my goodness, I never imagined I'd see you again! How wonderful!"
Somewhere in the depths of my memory recognition stirs. "Dagna?" I ask tentatively.
"You even remember my name! By the ancestors!" Dagna's hold tightens and she bounces up and down so much she's in danger of upending me. The other dwarf, laughing, gets a fistful of Dagna's tunic and yanks the over-enthusiastic smith back before I can overbalance, but not before my half-full ale tankard clatters to the floor.
"Oops! Sorry! But… it's just so good to see you're still alive," Dagna grins. "Hey, Harding, this is my friend from the Wardens, the one who got me a place to study at Kinloch Hold." She blushes. "I'm sorry, I don't even know your name."
"You're kidding!" Harding nearly chokes on her ale as she tries to speak and drink at the same time. Wiping her mouth on her sleeve, she shakes her head, laughing as she does so. "This is the Hero of Ferelden!"
Dagna's eyes go very wide. "You are?"
"I am." I look over at Harding. "How is it that you recognise me?"
Harding blushes. "I grew up in Redcliffe," she explains. "I was just a kid during the Blight. When the undead came, my family hid out in the Chantry. I remember you and the others arriving to speak to Bann… Arl Teagan, and you bringing Bevin back. And then afterward, when it was over…" the blush spreads, "you and King Alistair played musical statues with all the children on the lakeshore, kept us busy while the grown-ups wrapped the bodies for burial. Your mabari kept knocking everyone over."
I laugh as I recall the moment; Alistair and I, ganged up on by a small army of exuberant urchins convinced that we're cheating. Rufus bowling over anyone who weighs less than him, tormenting his victims with wet, slobbery licks. Leliana perched on the jetty with her lute, her hair flaming in the bright sunshine, her music and her voice soaring over the water in song. "That's right. Leliana played the lute for us, didn't she?" I look more closely at the dwarf. "I do remember you. You were the one that tripped me into the lake, weren't you?" Leliana, crying with laughter, nearly dropping her lute into the lake as I emerge from the water, covered from head to toe with blue algae, only to be knocked right back in by my joyfully boisterous war hound.
Harding' blush intensifies to a furious shade of purple, and I pat her shoulder reassuringly. "I never did catch your name. Thank you for reminding me. That was a good day, one of the few days of the Blight that I truly treasure the memory of. It's good to see both of you again. I'm glad you played a part in this victory."
Dagna beams at me, and Harding offers a bashful smile. "Sister Leliana's in the rookery," she offers. "It's good to see you again, too."
I step carefully around Dagna and resume my course. I'm just ten blighted steps from the door when a very familiar voice stops me. "Ah, me, a little lost Warden. Looking for your sly little songbird, perchance?"
I turn, offering a genuine smile, my pleasure at seeing this woman again heartfelt. "I wondered if I would find you here. It's good to see you, Morrigan."
Morrigan inclines her head, gracefully accepting the compliment. "Thank you. 'Tis likewise good to see you.
"You look well." She looks magnificent, clad in a deep purple formal gown that would easily grace the high court in Val Royeaux. The sneaky witch-thief is much changed, it seems.
"And you…" She considers me for a moment with pursed lips, "have looked better."
I chuckle. "I know. Skulking around underground is apparently not all that healthy if you're not a dwarf."
"Indeed." The witch smiles wryly as she surveys the festivities. "I see Leliana has absented herself, as usual. While her newfound seriousness makes her presence far easier on one's nerves – and ears – I must admit that it does not suit her." She flicks a seemingly disdainful glance over me, but I can see her pleasure behind it. "I imagine you will do everything in your power to help her revert to more irritating behaviour?"
"I don't think that's exactly how I would describe it, but yes," I agree. "That's the aim."
Morrigan affects a despairing groan. "Ugh. Well, at least this time there are stout walls between us instead of canvas, and I may be assured of an uninterrupted rest."
"You don't fool me even a little, Morrigan," I chide with a grin, and to my surprise, she reaches out and hugs me.
"There's so much I should like to tell you, my friend, so much that your courage and trust has enabled me to do," she whispers in my ear. "Will you speak with me, privately, sometime soon?"
"Of course," I nod. "But you realise I may be tied up for a while first."
"I do not wish to hear the sordid details of your mating rituals." Morrigan heaves an ostentatious sigh. "Just be sure not to make the knots too tight, and change positions frequently to avoid injury."
"I'll try to remember that," I chuckle, then I take a deep breath, assessing the route to the door and seeing at least two people who know me or can infer who I am between the portal and my current position. "Morrigan, could you do something for me?"
"Could you make sure I get to the stairs without anyone else interrupting me?"
Morrigan follows my gaze, then chuckles wickedly. "With magic, all things are possible." She gestures, her hand glowing briefly with actinic blue light. "There. The spell will wear off within a few minutes. What you do with that time is entirely up to you."
"Thank you." Grinning a farewell, I walk confidently across the hall. No one stops me, and I slip into the room at the base of the tower with a relieved sigh.
My relief, however, is short-lived. There's someone in the room, a blonde boy sitting cross-legged on a desk, face partly shadowed by a floppy hat. "You're glowing," he says as he stares straight at me.
"I am?" He must be another mage.
"Yes. It's Morrigan's magic. Amethyst and obsidian, like her aura."
"You can… see auras?" I ask uncertainly.
"Yes. The Inquisitor is sky blue and aurum, the Seeker is white and dragonbone, and the Left Hand is crimson and gold…" He looks at me soulfully. "She hurts," he says quietly. "She misses someone."
His gaze sharpens, becomes piercing. I fancy for a moment that he's looking inside me. "You," he says, his face brightening. "You're the one she yearns for. Grey and silverite."
"How could you know that?"
He ignores the question, continuing to study me for a few seconds, then smiles happily. "I like you," he says shyly. "You're kind. Loving. Lionhearted. You match her, though few here see her truly. She hides herself well."
"That she does," I agree.
The boy reaches out, touches my face, then bounces to his feet. "She'll be so happy. No need to put honey in her wine any longer. Go to her quickly. The magic wanes." And with that, he skips past me, back toward the party.
Nonplussed, I walk quietly up the stairs, through the deserted library and up again to the rookery. Morrigan's enchantment masks my presence even from the birds, and I wonder again how the boy downstairs noticed me. But as I clear the top of the stairs and round the support post, the sight of my love drives all other considerations from my head.
Leliana sits at a plain wooden table, head bowed over whatever missive she's working on, hood shadowing her face. I lean against the nearby post, fold my arms, and just watch her, enjoying the opportunity to simply appreciate her presence.
Maker, she's beautiful. There's a quality of stillness, a poise about her when she's focused that fascinates me. When first we met, it was rare to see, only manifesting in battle. At other times she was so vibrant and lively, so full of hope and kindness. My wounded, bereft spirit had desperately needed solace, and I'd found it in her. She had lifted me from my grief with her laughter and her songs, calmed my fears with her soft voice and gentle touches… I wake up screaming, the Archdemon's shriek echoing over and over in my mind. Gasping, sobbing, I try to sit up, but a soft embrace restrains me. "Shhh, it's all right, cherie," a silken, soothing voice comforts me. "I'm here." She's here. I'm safe. Relaxing, I let the warmth of her body and presence calm me as I slide back into sleep, the only thing I can hear now the lullaby she's begun to sing.
She brightened my days with her simple presence and grace. In a time when my world had been turned to ash, she was the one thing I came to want to live for, the one soul that saved me from existing simply for vengeance.
She looks so sad now, labouring in her lonely eyrie. Sera's words flit across my mind – no one else wants to go near her – and they make me ache with pity. Bull's revelation that she has become more approachable recently is scant redress – I want all the world to understand how loving, carefree, and kind my bard can be. That the people of this bold, brave movement are afraid of her is beyond my comprehension, and breaks my heart into the bargain.
"Oh! It's one of those subterranean bunny pigs! Oooh, look at him!" Leliana practically squeals, delighted, as she drops to her knees. "Come here, you," she entreats the nug, running her fingers lightly down its back.
"Careful," I advise, unable to restrain my smile. "He nips." In the background, I hear Morrigan snort in disgust, and Oghren cackling like a lunatic, but I pay them no mind. All I'm concerned with is Leliana's reaction.
"He's probably just hungry," the bard defends her new pet, giggling as the nug pushes its wet, whiskery nose against her bare lower thigh. "Ooh, he's snuffling me!" She strokes the nug's ears, talking to it in a baby voice as she does with Rufus; curiosity piqued, my mabari lopes over to investigate, and I shoo him away.
"It's not for you, boy," I tell him sternly. "We'll go hunt some rabbits later, all right?"
He whines, lays back his ears, and slinks over to Sten with calculated mournfulness; he knows the qunari is always good for a crunch or two.
Leliana gets to her feet, grinning from ear to ear. I've never seen anyone so overjoyed by a gift in my life. "Thank you so much," she says, throwing her arms around me and kissing my cheek. "You've made my day."
In those few months where there were no cares laid upon her, in spite of the terrible danger we were constantly in, she was happy. But she let herself fall in love, deeply and without condition, and love, for my poor Leliana, has ever ended in pain. Everyone she has ever loved has left her or betrayed her. Her mother and Cecilie, both gone too early to their graves. Justinia, murdered. I abandoned her. No matter that it was for the best of intentions, spurred by my desire to find a happy ending for both of us: the desertion still hurt her. The Maker has ever rewarded her faith and her sacrifices with loneliness and grief. And Marjolaine… Marjolaine almost destroyed her, twice, and her death, even as an enemy, was no easier for Leliana to bear…
Marjolaine offers me a sultry smile. "If I were you, I would believe nothing she says, not a one. You look at her and you see a simple girl, a… friend." There's a vile insinuation in the bardmaster's voice, and I feel the first flush of anger heat my cheeks. "Trusting, and…warm," Marjolaine leers. "It is… an act."
"I am not you, Marjolaine." Leliana's voice trembles with repressed emotion. "I left because I did not want to become you."
"Oh, but you are me," Marjolaine purrs. "You cannot escape it. No one will understand you the way I do, because we are one and the same."
Leliana recoils, guilt suffusing her features.
"Do you know why you were a master manipulator Leliana?" the older woman prods, a cruel, vulpine smile stretching her lips. "It is because you enjoyed the game – you revelled in the power it gave you. You cannot change or deny this. And now you have wrapped this poor fool, this simple hero, round your little finger. Does this warrior child believe you love her, Leliana? That your heart flutters in your pale breast only for her? That her clumsy, unskilled hands on your womanly flesh quicken you more than any other's ever have? How touching. How romantic." A peal of cynical laughter cascades from the bardmaster's lips, her eyes glittering with malice as she watches the blood drain from Leliana's face, the barb sliding deep beneath her guard.
Wounded and at bay, Leliana's ocean-deep eyes seek mine, abject with grief, fear, and crippling doubt. Marjolaine's tactics are brutally effective; she knows Leliana well. But for all that, she's mischaracterized our relationship. It isn't yet what she assumes. Though Maker, I think I want it to be.
"Aryn," Leliana begs fearfully, "I…."
I lock my eyes to hers, will her to understand, to trust me as I trust her. I try to pour all of my affection, my faith, my confidence into my gaze as I look back steadily, assuredly. Then I turn to the bardmaster, smirking cockily as I rest my hand on my sword hilt. "I trust Leliana," I declare with all of my conviction, "and nothing you say will change that." Beside me, Alistair tenses, prepared to move with me. I can't see Wynne, but I know she's ready; the hairs on the back of my neck are prickling.
Hope and gratitude flare in Leliana's eyes. "Thank you," she whispers, then, confidence restored, she confronts her tormentor, thrusting out her jaw. I let my smile broaden; I recognize that look, and I've never seen her fail to get her way when she deploys it. "You will not threaten me, or my friends again, Marjolaine. I want you out of my life. Forever."
Marjolaine's mask finally slips, hatred twisting her face into an ugly rictus. "I made you, Leliana," she snarls. "I can destroy you just as easily."
I'm ready. As Marjolaine strikes, I lunge in front of Leliana. The bardmaster's poniard, driven with force enough to puncture Leliana's light leather armour, glances off the angled plane of my breastplate, squealing as it scrapes impotently across the burnished red steel. Throwing my elbow up, I knock the dagger from her grasp, but Maker only knows how many more she has. I must be swift – if Marjolaine has reflexes as quick as Leliana's, I can't allow her time to recover. Not bothering to draw my sword, I bash my shield against her arm to open her guard, then snap a punch to her face. The blow, augmented by my gauntlet, crushes her nose, staggers her back with a scream of rage and pain. Stooping, I snatch up her dagger and ram it as hard as I can into her eye. She collapses, instantly unstrung, her shriek cutting off abruptly.
I twist round, leading with my shield, reaching for my sword hilt, but Leliana, Alistair and Wynne have already dispatched the ambush. Leliana drops her knives, the clang of steel on stone loud in the sudden stillness, gaze riveted to Marjolaine's body. "It's over. She's… dead," she says, sounding almost surprised. "She's dead… because of me."
"Not because of you," I object emphatically.
She turns, meets my gaze, her sapphire eyes awash with grief and uncertainty. "I… I need some time to myself, Aryn. Please? We'll talk later." It's a promise, not a brush-off, and as I nod, she reaches up to caress my cheek with her thumb, then turns back to her contemplation of the body on the floor.
She does not return to camp till long after dark, till all save Shale and I have sought their blankets; I'm too worried for Leliana, and the golem takes the watch every night now, as she requires no rest. I sit by the fire before the bard's tent, polishing the scratch out of my breastplate to pass the time; I don't want her to be reminded of what happened every time she looks at me.
"It's late," she says quietly when she finally arrives, setting the saddlebags and weapons she's carrying down with a relieved sigh.
"I couldn't sleep," I shrug, looking up at her as I set my armour aside. "Not without knowing you were safe."
Leliana drops to her knees in front of me, rests her forearms on my thighs and looks up at me with a pained, wondering smile. "I do not deserve this. I do not deserve you," she says softly. "You are such a good, kind person, and I… What you learned today…"
"Changes nothing," I assure her. "I meant what I said to her. I trust you." I reach out to rest my hand against her cheek, and she nuzzles into the touch, her eyes fluttering closed for a brief second as she sighs.
"Then I am truly blessed," she replies, shifting around to sit next to me, resting her head on my shoulder. "Thank you, Aryn."
"My pleasure." I drape my arm around her, squeeze her lightly, and she shudders, a sob bubbling up. Instinctively, I draw her onto my lap and she throws her arms around my neck. I wrap her up in a hug, and hold her until her grief drains, her body relaxes, and she falls asleep in my arms.
I'd carried her to her tent, fallen asleep still holding her, and it was the first time since that fateful night in Highever that I'd slept without dreaming. It was the night I realized I was totally, utterly, irrevocably in love with my beautiful bard.
As I look at her now, my whole being seems to resonate with joy. Melancholy as she appears, just being in the same room lifts my spirits, and the knowledge that my presence will be enough to make her happy amplifies my feelings.
A cool sensation washes over me, and the raven in the nearest cage fusses, flapping its wings in alarm at my presence. Morrigan's spell is exhausted. She'll notice me at any second.
I've imagined this reunion in a thousand daydreams, a thousand different scenarios, and the enormity of it rushes in, dangerously close to overwhelming me. In a desperate attempt to stave off the building paralysis that will leave me stuttering like a fool if she looks up, I take a deep breath and adopt my best impression of Zevran's impish humour.
"So what are you doing hiding up here? Couldn't you find a suitable pair of shoes for such a momentous occasion?"
Leliana starts, knocking her ink pot across her carefully scribed correspondence, and as her wide-eyed gaze settles on me a riot of emotions scroll across her features; alarm, confusion, comprehension, and then, slowly, finally, joy. A smile kindles at the corner of her mouth, igniting as she shoves her chair back and launches herself at me. "Aryn!" I brace myself, catch her, and swing her off her feet, thrilled by the weight of her body in my arms.
As I set her down she cups my face between her hands, gaze searching my expression anxiously. "Maker, I don't know if I dare believe this. Tell me… tell me I'm not dreaming, mon coeur."
"You're not dreaming." I rest my hands against her waist. "And neither am I."
She kisses me, her mouth hot and demanding, and my back thumps into the post as she leans into me. Closing my eyes, I reciprocate, my tongue duelling with hers until neither of us can breathe.
"You found it, no?" she queries huskily, staring hopefully into my eyes. "It's done?"
"It's done. I'm free," I affirm, laughing as a huge smile breaks over her flawless features. She throws herself back into my arms and showers me with kisses.
"I missed you, my love," she whispers between kisses. "These past… few months have… been worse… than torture. Ever since I saw you… I've been waiting. Hoping."
"Going back to that damn hole in the ground after seeing you…" I pull her closer, trying to brand the feel of her presence into my awareness. "Maker's grace, I almost couldn't do it." I place a kiss in the middle of her forehead, feeling tears threaten. "I'm so sorry, Leliana."
"Hush," she chides gently. "We've been over this, no? It's in the past. What matters is now, and the future. You're here, you're with me, and that's all I care about." A momentary uncertainty knits a frown into her brow. "You are staying this time, yes?"
"I am," I assure her. "If you'll have me?"
She smirks, confidence bolstered by my guarantee. "Oh, I'll have you, dear heart. In as many ways as I can." She nips at my lip with her teeth, slides her knee between my thighs. "Starting right now."
Arousal hammers into me like a charging bronto, floods every corner of my senses. "Maker, Leliana, I..."
"Shhh," she cuts me off again, smiling a slightly predatory smile as she shakes off her gauntlets and runs her hands up into my hair. She shoves me back against the post as she closes in and demands another feral, combative kiss.
Touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing. All of my senses are filled with her presence amid the whirling maelstrom of feelings her kiss provokes. Our tryst in the Chantry is months gone, our last real lovemaking years past. The memories that have sustained me are a pale wisp, a guttering candle next to the inferno of her passionate presence, and oh, Maker, I want her...
Disoriented momentarily by my fast-rising desire, it takes a little time for me to realise her hands are undoing my belt, pulling loose the lacing of my breeches. Her fingers burrow beneath my smallclothes, and alight assertively upon my sex. "Andraste's blood, Leliana," I gasp plaintively, shivering, my knees almost buckling at the sensation of her sensual caress "I can't…"
It's been too long. Raw instinct uncouples my body from conscious command. My hips thrust helplessly into her hand, seeking her most intimate of touches, tension pulling the muscles of my belly almost painfully tight.
"It's all right," Leliana breathes in my ear, nipping at the lobe as she sheathes her fingers inside me, runs her free hand under my tunic to grasp my hip, "just let yourself feel."
I'm overwhelmed, already, though she's barely begun. It's been years since Leliana has been able to touch me, years where abstinence from all pleasures has been the safest course. Books, the Architect's archaic and priceless library, have been my only vice. Even my scant few mouthfuls of ale downstairs have had a noticeable effect, taking the whetted edge off my reflexes and reactions. It's all I can do to stay standing under her ministrations, clinging to her desperately as she works her fingers within me in a practiced, familiar rhythm. I pull her hood off, releasing her vibrant hair, and bury my face in her neck, revelling in the warmth of her skin, her closeness, her scent. She doesn't tease, doesn't draw things out. Recognising my abject need, she deploys all of her skill, all of her wicked fluency with my body, and before I can even draw breath to beg, my climax catches me and the world goes white for a brief, eternal moment. A hoarse, stuttering cry tears from me, drowned out by the sudden squawking of the ravens as the noise startles them.
Trembling, weak-kneed as a new-born foal, I hold Leliana close, leaning my weight on her slender shoulders as I recover my senses. "Je t'aime," she breathes, nibbling gently at the shell of my ear.
"I love you too, mon coeur," I whisper back. She withdraws her hand and busies herself with re-fastening my clothing, pressing gentle kisses to my neck all the while. I've no doubt she can feel my heartbeat thundering beneath her lips.
"Welcome home," she murmurs, her tone husky, and as she draws back a little, I can see the flame of her desire dancing in the sapphire depths of her eyes.
"Thank you," I reply, running my thumb along her lips as she smooths my tunic down and buckles my belt. "I'm sorry I ruined your letter."
"I'm not," she shrugs. "Having you here means far more than me than my work."
I smile. "I'm given to understand from some of the conversations I had downstairs that such a thing is wholly unbelievable. And your absence from the victory party is… conspicuous."
"I'd wager no one even missed me," she challenges, a flicker of resignation in her eyes.
"They…" I flounder for a reason, any reason, and she rests her fingers against my lips.
"I brought it upon myself, I know that," she acknowledges. "No point in crying over it now."
"They don't really know you, do they?" I ask. "Except for Cassandra, and Josephine. You show them only the bard, the spy, the courtier."
"I show them what I must, and no more," she agrees sadly. "In part because the position of spymaster demands a little fear. And in part because I could not bear for them to see me bleed. Not even Cassandra or Josie. You are the only one to whom I dare to entrust my heart, Aryn."
I tuck her braid tenderly behind her ear. "Your heart is safe with me, always. I would simply have others know the Leliana that I love." I wink at her. "Anyway, your friend Lady Montilyet was adamant that I should come and fetch you. Your Inquisitor seems quite taken with her."
"And rightly so – Josephine certainly is beautiful, and seems utterly charming."
Leliana smiles fondly. "She's a treasure." She looks me up and down with a mildly critical expression. "And she's presentable, too, unlike some people."
"Says the woman wearing armour and a hood in her own keep," I retort with a grin. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
Leliana plucks critically at the deep blue velveteen tunic. "It's a little old-fashioned. And a little tight, though that does mean it shows off your bosom magnificently." She gives me a playful squeeze.
"It was the only one I could find in all of Orzammar's markets that came close to fitting me. Maker only knows how long it was lying on the shelf down there. It's probably a priceless heirloom."
She runs her fingers up and over my collar, then round to the back of my neck to dig into my hair. "Also, you do rather look like you cut your hair yourself in the dark."
"That's because I did," I point out. "Not many Orlesian stylists open for business in the Deep Roads. It was a treat if Sigrun was around to do it for me."
"Couldn't you have asked Avernus?" I don't reply, holding her gaze for a moment, then she chuckles wryly. "No, I suppose not."
"You could lend me your hood, if my appearance shames you so."
"No. I've a much better idea," Leliana decides, the desire in her eyes flaming more forcefully now. "Could I conceivably persuade you to forsake the party entirely?"
I nod emphatically, perhaps too eagerly. "I wasn't looking forward to going back down. Too many people." I feel my shoulders tighten with unwanted tension as I remember the babble, the unintentional brush of arms against me, the constant, flickering movement in my peripheral vision, the watching eyes boring into my back. "I'm not used to crowds." An involuntary shudder rolls through me, and she seizes my hand, kisses my fingers.
"My poor warden," she sympathises. "I'm sorry, I should have thought of that."
"It's all right. Besides," I smirk as I recall some of the gatherings we attended in Orlais, "it's not a real party, not by your standards. No smallclothes anywhere in sight."
Leliana flashes me a return grin that's fully, openly salacious. "Be careful what you wish for. The night is young, still." She laughs and tightens her grip, pulling me forward. "Come, then. We will go someplace more private. You are all mine, at last, and I do not wish to share you."
She leads me downstairs, through the library and around an upper balcony of the great hall that is clear of anyone except sentries. Laughter and music float up from below, accompanying us through the door at the far side and into the crisp evening. We follow the keep wall until we reach a door at the corner of the walkway. Leliana unlocks it, and ushers me inside.
Her bedchamber is spartan, almost soulless; the only indication that anyone even inhabits the space is a small shrine to Andraste, an empty armour stand, and, carefully propped in the corner, an exquisitely carved dragonthorn longbow, the craftsmanship and decoration unmistakeably Dalish. Falon'Din's Reach, Master Varathorn had named it after we'd recovered it from the dragon's hoard in the Brecilian ruins. He'd declared it the finest bow he'd ever handled, and Leliana had badgered him about the story behind the name until he'd surrendered the information. That night, at her behest, I chopped up the recurve taken from Marjolaine's gear, held her tightly as she threw the pieces into the fire, weeping uncontrollably, then walked with her to a deserted clearing in the woods where we'd made love under the stars.
She smiles as she sees what I'm looking at. "I've never found a weapon to surpass it," she says, "though it has not seen as much action as it used to in recent months."
"I was remembering the night we acquired it," I admit, turning to face her. "It sticks in my memory rather vividly, for some reason."
Leliana's smile turns distinctly sultry. "I can't imagine why."
"Something about how lovely you are when you're naked in the moonlight, totally lost in pleasure," I offer, trying very hard to keep a grip on my nonchalance even though the memory of her spread beneath me has my pulse racing and my mouth dry. "If I had to guess."
She advances toward me, her eyes darkened to midnight, reaching up to lace her fingers at the back of my neck. I lower my head until our foreheads touch. "And are you? Guessing?" she breathes.
"No," I whisper. "I'm absolutely certain." And I touch my lips to hers.
Her hands tighten and she pulls herself closer. I rest my palm against her chest, stopping her gently, and reach for the buckles that secure her surcoat.
"You're very keen," Leliana murmurs, amused.
"I am," I agree as I unpin the Inquisition sigil on her chest. "Last time," Maker, the memory of her lying prostrate and pleading on the Chantry altar is branded behind my eyelids, "I couldn't feel you. My armour was in the way." I slide the straps loose of the buckles. "I've missed the feeling of your body in my arms, how warm you are, how soft." The armour comes loose, and she shrugs out of it. "Let me hold you close," I beseech her, turning my attention to the laces of her leather jack. She cups my face in her hands, and the warmth of her fingers seems to almost burn into my skin as she steals a kiss.
The laces come free, and I push the jack from her shoulders, sliding the heavy leather down her arms to drop in a heap atop her mail. She steps in, the swell of her breasts pressing into me, the heat of her body bleeding through her shirt and my tunic, and pushes me down on the bed.
Her boots go next, then her breeches as she strips with graceful efficiency, revealing her long, slender legs and their perfect pale skin. As she slips off her shirt, my breath catches in my throat and my heart skips. Andraste's holy grace, she is so very beautiful. Every last inch of her. The need to touch her is making my fingers ache. "Leliana," I whisper reverently. "You're exquisite."
She smiles at my words, but her smile is timid, and her gaze fixes firmly to the floor even as she drops the shirt. Every line of her posture proclaims a sudden shyness, a nervous vulnerability. Those familiar with her profession would decry this as a cynical pretence, but I know better. I know how much it costs her to stand before me, before anyone, unclothed, the damage that shames her laid bare to the world, her constant reminder of the price of loving unwisely. Opening my arms, I beckon her closer, drawing her in till she stands between my legs and I can rest my cheek against the velvet softness of her belly. Her fingers twine in my hair as I place my hands at her waist, feeling the rough edges of scar tissue beneath my fingertips, and drop a kiss against the protrusion of her hipbone, just beneath the three long, wicked scars that reach round from her back. "You're beautiful, Leliana," I assure her, looking up past her cloth-bound breasts, meeting her gaze raptly. "So very beautiful," I repeat, nodding slightly. "Turn around."
She hesitates, and a memory surfaces…
I lie flat on back, feeling my heart pound against my ribs, trying to catch my breath as Leliana watches me intently. "Maker," I whisper, "I…"
"Shhh," she says softly, smoothing my hair. "I know. It's all right. It was your first time, just take a moment to savour it." She leans down to kiss me, a gentle caress of her lips against mine. "Thank you for giving me such a wonderful gift."
"I don't recall doing much giving," I manage to joke, stifling a groan at the throbbing recollection of her fingers sliding inside me, coaxing pleasure from me that I had never imagined.
"You gave me yourself," she clarifies, her hand tracing down my neck and across my collarbone, "without condition or restraint. And it was beautiful. You're beautiful."
"So are you." I sit up, cup her face in my hands and, daring greatly, kiss her, drawing her still-clothed body against mine. Her arms snake around my neck and she clings to me as I wrap her up in my embrace. "I want to touch you," I confess, a whisper in her ear, blushing even as the words leave my lips. She brought me such ecstasy; I want to return the compliment, to learn how to give her such pleasure in return. I want to undress her, explore her body, feel the warmth of her skin. I want her to cry my name the way I cried hers.
She shakes her head, soothes the refusal with a kiss. "It's not necessary. I enjoyed pleasing you, showing you what your body wanted. You don't have to…"
"But I want to, Leliana," I cut her off. "I want to learn to please you too." She tenses, and an unnerving thought strikes. "Don't you want me to?" I lower my eyes, study the bedroll beneath us, a cold little spike of fear and rejection piercing my confusion. "Would it be so bad?" Marjolaine's poisonous words on my inexperience echo in my mind, amplifying my self-doubt, and all of a sudden I've never felt quite so inadequate. "I know I am… unskilled, but I can learn, if you'll guide me. And I'd be gentle, I promise."
"Oh, Aryn… my dear one…please." She takes my chin in her finger and thumb and forces me to meet her gaze. She's biting her lip, and there are tears in her eyes. "Do not mistake me. I want this, I do. My body, it aches for your touch, you see?" She moves my hand to her breast, and I can feel the hard point of her nipple beneath the cloth of her shirt. "I want you to make love to me, I know you will bring me great pleasure…" She takes a shaky breath, and I realise she's trembling in my arms, pale, uncertain, all of her humour and happiness gone.
She's… frightened. Of me?
"Maker, I never thought this would be so hard," she murmurs, visibly overcome with emotion. "I… I told you… after Marjolaine betrayed me, they tortured me… They did unspeakable things…"
I nod, rocking her gently, trying to offer comfort, fighting down the sudden, impotent charge of fury that makes me want to kill Marjolaine all over again. Anger can have no place here, while she is frightened and upset. "It's all right, Leliana… you can tell me." I kiss her forehead. I'm desperate to reassure the beautiful, wounded woman in my arms, but I have no idea how. "I love you, I swear to the Maker." It's the only thing I can think of to say.
"Oh, dear heart," a sob cracks her voice, "I know. And I love you too. I'm… they left scars, Aryn. I'm marked, forever, by what they did to me." She trails her fingers down my shoulder. "And I'm afraid."
I pull back a little so I can look at her. "Please don't be afraid of me," I beg. "I would never hurt you."
"I don't want to be… I thought I could control it," she admits miserably, "but it's not something I can simply wish away. I have shared my body with no one since that day. In the Chantry, in the dormitory, when the others saw, they flinched away, looked at me with such revulsion…" she bites her lip again, drawing blood this time. "I'm sorry, my beautiful warden, I know you wouldn't be like them, but…"
I place my fingers against her lips. "Then let me see," I implore, blotting the cut gently with my thumb. "Please, Leliana. Trust me. I love you. And I won't lay a finger upon you unless you permit. If all you want is for me to hold you, then that is enough for me." I settle back on my heels, fold my hands in my lap, ceding her total control. "What is your wish?"
She swallows hard, her eyes shining with emotion, and raises her arms. "Undress me. Please," she whispers…
"Aryn?" Leliana's voice, edged with the same anxious uncertainty, draws me back to the present. She's looking down at me, and I plant another kiss on her belly, then run my lips along the ridge of the lowest scar, provoking a tiny, barely audible sigh.
"Sorry, love. Turn around," I repeat, twisting her hips, and she obeys.
Her back is a patchwork of almost solid scar tissue, the weals of whip cuts interspersed with burns and abrasions. There is a small, solitary island of unmarked skin on her right shoulder blade, and somehow the little patch of perfection amplifies the damage that mars the rest of her back. I stretch up and run the tips of my fingers from her shoulders to the curve of her buttocks, one hand to either side of her spine, remembering each welt, each graze, each point at which she is sensitive to touch. She shivers like a spooked horse, and draws in a breath with a hiss. Shifting my feet, I work my legs between hers, then tug her down onto my lap, dragging the tip of my tongue round the edge of the flawless spot on her shoulder as I repeat the caress. She trembles again, the breath sighing out of her softly as I reach around to untuck the end of the cloth that holds her breasts, unwinding it slowly, chasing the fabric I peel back with kisses. When the cloth falls away, I draw her back against me, run my fingers up over her taut abdomen and cup her warm, soft breasts, kissing my way languidly up the line of her shoulder and neck to nuzzle just below her jaw. Maker, she feels so good beneath my hands, beneath my lips. Brushing my thumbs over her nipples, I smile in satisfaction as she tips her head back against my shoulder, her breath sighing from her in a sensual, pleasured whisper.
"Je t'aime," I murmur, nipping lightly at her earlobe, breathing in the clean scents of her hair and Andraste's Grace, kneading her breasts lightly as I tease her nipples to full arousal.
"Oh Maker," she moans softly, arching back against me, "ohhh, that feels wonderful."
She lets me touch and explore for a while, then she places her hands over mine as though to stop me. "No," I protest, "let me do this. Let me worship you as you deserve."
"But I want to feel your skin against mine," she implores me. "It's been so long. Please, my love, let's enjoy this together." She stands up, turns to face me, and tugs at the hem of my tunic. I lift my arms, and she pulls the garment clear. I kick off my boots and tug my breeches down while she unwinds my breastband, and within moments, I am as exposed as she. Her eyes rove over me, taking inventory of new scarring and the altered shape of my body; living in armour and on field rations for years has hardened me, added muscle bulk in some places and planed off some of the softer curves I possessed when I was younger. "I always forget that you've changed," she murmurs, stroking her hands from my collarbone to my navel.
"For the worse?" I joke, and she flicks my nipple punitively; the shock of arousal it provokes drives a gasp from me.
"Of course not. Maker, you were so young." She settles beside me, sliding her fingers under my smallclothes and dragging them down my legs. "So innocent. I often felt as though I was corrupting you."
I reciprocate her actions, relieving her of her underwear. "I'm glad you did. I rather enjoyed you having your wicked Orlesian way with me."
"Oh, you think me wicked, do you?" she purrs, her voice suddenly dark and husky with the promise of iniquity. I run my hand up her leg to the warmth between her thighs, curling my fingers gently in the small thatch of fiery hair that guards her, and she arches into the touch with a whimper.
"Utterly sinful," I confirm, rolling her to her back as I slip my fingers down into her folds, exploring her intimacy, revelling in the feel of her silken, aroused flesh. She hisses and arches her back, fingers locking against my shoulder blades. "You are the source of all my impure thoughts," I continue, shifting so that my body covers hers, giving her the skin-to-skin contact she desires. "Every lustful imagining, every carnal desire, every temptation of the flesh." I punctuate my list by stroking my thumb against the delicate bud of her sex, and she shudders with each caress. "Bless me, Sister," I whisper in her ear, "for I have sinned. Will you hear my confession?"
"Maker," Leliana gasps, hips canting upwards, nails digging into my back, "by your grace and in the name of your beloved Proph…ah… Prophet, hear now the confession of this, your penitent ch-child. Grant her your mercy, and… oh, for the love of Andraste, Aryn, please…" she pulls my head level with hers, locks her lips to mine in a bruising kiss that sucks all the air from my lungs.
"It's all right," I pant as we break, as I slip my fingers gently inside her, "I'm not the… slightest bit… penitent… anyway." I work my lips down to her breast, settle into the rhythm of strokes I remember her enjoying best, and give myself over to my desire to bring her ecstasy. "In my heart there burns an unquenchable flame," I paraphrase the chant as she groans beneath me, "all-consuming and never satisfied. I love you, Leliana." I close my lips around her breast, scrape my teeth gently against her nipple, curl my fingers inside her, and she peaks, crying my name over and over as she shudders against me. I hold her close as she shivers through the tail of her climax, and when she finally opens her eyes, they are burnished with tears of joy.
"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me," she says, an echo of my words of ten years past, laying her hand against my face. "My dearest friend, and my love."
Abruptly, the sheer unlikelihood of this perfect moment crashes in on me. After all this time, all the suffering we have both endured, have we truly, finally, overcome every obstacle to be reunited? Holding her close, surrounded by her loving presence, I can barely believe it. There have been times when I've been sure I could never have this again, that we would grow so far apart that our connection would rupture. There have been times I've sat alone in the dark, surrounded by nothing but enemies, miserably lonely and despairing of ever laying eyes on her again. There have been times I've dreamed of returning, only to find her unattainable, gone to serve her higher calling; or worse, in the arms of another, one who will not abandon her as I have, one who truly deserves her. There have been times, too many by far, that I've lain dying…
The world is a fiery maelstrom of pain, red and black flickering across my vision. My blood is pumping slowly between my fingers as I try to hold it back, but I'm losing the battle. The black's getting more prevalent. I try to summon the will to fight it. I don't… I don't want to die. I want to go home, to Leliana…
"Aryn?" There's a rattle of metal next to my ear. "Shit… hang on, boss. Stay with me!" Thick, stubby, competent fingers wrap around my wrist, pull my hand away from my wound. "Aw, shit, shit, shit! Avernus! Avernus, get your undead ass over here now, she's bleeding out!" The powerful fingers press down, and the sharp spike of agony restores some clarity.
"I'm here, yeah. You great stone-blind lummox, what the hell were you thinking, charging them like that? Ah, shit … don't talk. Save your strength. Avernus is coming."
"Sig…" it's getting too hard to move my tongue, "will you…tell Leliana…I loved her? And… I'm sorry."
"I'm not telling her anything, you'll tell her your damn self. Don't you bloody well dare die on me and leave me down here alone with these bastards." The dwarf's voice is thick with tears. "Avernus!" she screams.
The world blacks out.
Juxtaposed as it is against the perfection of the present, the pain of the memory snaps the reins of my self-control, and my long-banked terror overwhelms me, bitter fear tearing at my euphoria, anguish clawing at my ecstasy, indivisible from one another. A wrenching sob rips loose from my chest, then another, then another. I'm so afraid that this cannot last. It's been taken from me before. I'm not strong enough to lose her again.
"Aryn? Aryn, my love, please, don't cry," Leliana begs, alarmed by my sudden distress. "I'm here. I'm here."
She's here. She's real. She's mine. Thank the Maker. My anguish transmutes a little, and I weep for both joy and grief, my tears falling like rain over Leliana's breasts and face. She kisses me tenderly, her lips spattered with saltwater; she holds me close as she rolls us over, switches our positions, assumes command. She slides her fingers within me in a gentle, coaxing rhythm, just as she did when she claimed me for her own that first time, and as she lifts me once more into ecstasy, I throw my arms around her and hang on for dear life. "Please… don't ever let me go, Leliana." I plead brokenly.
"Never," Leliana swears ardently, sealing her vow with a kiss to my temple.
As my climax subsides, we lie in sated silence for a while, entwined in one another until the chill of the night begins to bite at our cooling skin. Leliana rises, stirs up the fire and adds a few fresh logs, then chivvies me off the bed so she can peel back the blankets. "Get in," she commands as she settles herself, and I gratefully obey, tucking myself under her arm and resting my head against her shoulder as she strokes my hair. "So," she says after a few moments of peace, "here we are, then."
"Mmm," I agree, my equilibrium returning as the reality of being here soaks back in, moment by precious moment.
"My duty is fulfilled, and so is your quest," she continues. "Can it truly be that we have nothing to do, you and I?"
"Well, I need to go to Denerim sometime," I answer. "I have some of the cure for Alistair – it will mean he should finally be able to father children." Which reminds me; I still have to tell her about Kieran, but that can wait until I've spoken to Morrigan – a few more days will not hurt.
"I'm sure Queen Alfstanna will be delighted to hear that," Leliana says. "I know she loves him, but it must be hard for her to hear the whispers that accuse her." She twists round so that she's draped over me, staring down at me. "Don't you have to return to the Vigil?" she asks.
"No," I reply, combing my fingers idly through her hair. "As soon as I reached Orzammar I sent a letter to Weisshaupt informing the First Warden that I was taking an extended leave of absence." I stare up at the ceiling for a moment. "I'm tired, Leliana. I have an obligation to the Wardens, and I would not forsake it, but after so long a spell in the Roads… I need a rest. I've handed my duties as Commander for Ferelden over to Nathaniel. He's been doing them for two years anyway, and I think he enjoys it more than I ever did."
Leliana holds me a little tighter. "What you said in Valence, about my being more than simply the Left Hand, or the bard… sometimes, I think that you forget it is true of you as well, yes?" She tucks my hair behind my ear. "You're more than just a Grey Warden. I understand why you had to make that the whole of your person while you were gone, but…" she strokes my cheek tenderly, "you're free to be so much more, now, no?"
"You're right, but… I don't know if I remember how to be more," I admit worriedly.
Leliana kisses me, a slow, sensual kiss that sets my nerves tingling. Eagerly, I reciprocate, teasing her tongue gently with mine, trailing my fingers down her back with tantalising lightness. She squirms, then laughs softly as we break. "You're doing quite well with remembering how to be my lover," she remarks, nipping at my lower lip. "I'm sure I will be able to remind you of some of your other talents."
I wrap my arms around her, revelling in the silken smoothness of her warm skin. "You make a compelling argument."
"You think so? I'm so pleased," she chuckles, then her smile fades. "I know how much your duty means to you. All I'm saying is that now you have time to do more. You will be a Warden until the day you die. And I will be a bard. These things, they are part of us, help define who we are. But they need not be all of us. You have freed the Wardens from their restrictions – the order will be able to change and grow. And you can guard against the Blight just as well from Denerim, from a campsite by the Imperial highway, from here, or even from the court in Val Royeaux."
"Val Royeaux?" I half-protest. "Are you planning already?"
"Not really," Leliana grins. "I'm just… not sure we should leave Cassandra entirely on her own to deal with both the Chantry and the court. Maker, can you imagine her approach to Orlesian court intrigue? Whole swathes of Val Royeaux society could end up in exile."
"That's not necessarily a bad thing," I muse, thinking of a certain enchantress. "In fact, if she's serious about that as a goal, she has my full support."
Leliana chuckles, then frowns, leaning up on her elbow to look down at me inquisitorially. "What did Vivienne say to you this time?" she demands, irritation roughening her voice.
I tip my head back, breaking eye contact as I laugh. "Maker, I'd forgotten how damnably perceptive you are."
I sigh. "Cassandra didn't give her the chance to really get started. She managed to call me a rat and a coward in the elegant, well-turned salvo she got off, though." I slap my palm off the bed. "She's a stuck-up, conceited bitch."
"She is a dreadful snob, and she's terribly conservative, but she was brave enough to join us when we were still struggling," Leliana observes. "And Duke Bastien died just before we took the fight to Corypheus. I can't help but feel sorry for her, actually. She's alone now, and thanks to her political choices, she likely always will be."
"Well, now you're making me feel bad for someone who persists in calling me dog-lord," I complain, and Leliana giggles, tweaking my nose.
"Oh, I'm sorry, my love. I didn't mean to disrupt your tantrum." She sighs as she settles against me, satisfied once more. "We don't have to decide now. There's plenty of time for us to think things through. We should also talk to Cassandra, and Sam, but, beloved…" she nuzzles her lips against my cheek, "if you really do want to leave everything behind us, you need only say the word."
"That has a certain appeal," I admit, "but you're right. We don't need to decide now." The lassitude of contentment is creeping over me, tugging me towards sleep. "World-shaking decisions" I yawn, "can certainly be made tomorrow." I crane my neck and look up at her. "Would you sing for me, beloved?"
Leliana smiles, then lifts her angelic voice in song. The ancient lullaby echoes in the warm dark as I close my eyes and drift to sleep, safe and content in my Nightingale's arms.