A/N: OK, so the Dragon Age thing is clearly not out of my system... I got to wondering (always dangerous) as to the evolution of Leliana from happy-go-lucky scamp to badass spymaster over the course of the time between Origins and Inquisition. And also just what exactly she and Cassandra were getting up to as the Divine's personal enforcers. And lo, a series of half-formed one shots presented themselves. So here we go. I've set this in the same head-canon as Canticle of Transfigurations, so my Warden, Aryn Cousland, will be guest-starring now and again. Bioware own Dragon Age and all it's legends and lore, and I am most certainly just doing this for fun. Ladies sexytimes in various chapters, including this one, so if that's not your thing, proceed no further.
Also, thanks to BA Tanglepaw and OriginalAlcy for encouraging this trip to pastures new, Snafu1000 for a shoutout (check their stuff, it's awesome), and all you lovely folk who asked for more...
With Passion'd Breath
9:31 Dragon – the outskirts of Denerim, Ferelden
Leliana takes a deep, fortifying breath, and ducks into Aryn Cousland's tent, uninvited and unannounced. She is, she has decided, monumentally fed up with being ignored, hurt, and bewildered.
The warden, her warden, does not look up, focused upon the task before her, drawing a whetstone with slow deliberation down Starfang's razor-sharp edge. The whistling scrape drags across Leliana's nerves – she's heard it far too often in the past few days. "If you sharpen that sword any more, it will wear completely away," she remarks by way of declaring her presence, though she's sure Aryn knows she's there.
Aryn doesn't reply, drawing the stone methodically down the back edge of the blade. Irked, the bard takes one more step, drops to her knees and clamps her hand around both stone and weapon. "Stop," she says, more forcefully. "It's sharp enough. You're wasting your time." You're wasting our time.
Aryn's hand stills, but she remains passive, mastering the trained instinct to jerk the blade free and cut Leliana's fingers from her hand. Leliana can't account for the anger that has begun to smoulder in her stomach and chest, but as she looks around the tent every laid-out piece of Aryn's gear, meticulously polished and whetted, adds another coal to the embers. Seeing her own equipment, cleaned and prepared with equal fastidiousness, sparks a blaze.
"Makers' breath! You've shut me out all evening… for this?" she demands hotly. "For days now, ever since the night we left Redcliffe, you've been avoiding me! And don't try to deny it, it's apparent even to Rufus!" The mabari has not left Leliana's side since they marched, determinedly dispensing the affection he normally reserves for his mistress. "For the love of the Maker, Aryn, why can you no longer look me in the eye, or even speak to me?" Aryn has stayed up late every night on the march across the Bannorn, ostensibly conferring with Alistair, Riordan, and Arl Eamon; coming to bed long after Leliana has sought their mated bedrolls, and gone again in the morning before the bard rises. She only knows the warden has been there at all from being woken each night by Aryn's unconscious screams and spasms; the closer they get to the Archdemon, the worse the taint seems to affect her. "Why will you not let me in?" Leliana reaches out with her free hand, grasps her lover's shoulder, and nearly recoils when she feels how tense, how rigid, the younger woman's muscles are. "Why will you not even look at me now? Please, my love, mon coeur… talk to me."
Aryn swallows hard, but does not look up from where Leliana's hand rests on her blade. "I need to finish this," she says, almost inaudibly, her voice as flat and calm as a mill pond in spite of the tension radiating from her body.
Wounded by the rebuff, Leliana snatches her hands back. "Fine," she snaps, her temper in command of her tongue, "you finish that. No doubt the Archdemon and the darkspawn horde will run screaming when they see how clean and sharp our weapons are. And to think I thought that Grey Wardens wielded some mysterious power beyond the grasp of simple squires!"
She gets to her feet, hunching over to avoid hitting the top of the tent, and stalks toward the flap. Behind her, there's a muted clatter as the sword hits the ground.
Aryn's voice is drenched with tears and terror.
"Please… don't go."
The bard turns, and what she sees drives every emotion except heartbreak from her consciousness. Her warden is crying.
Grief has stripped every last one of Aryn's defences, laid bare the frightened, bereaved girl who lurks beneath the titles and the accolades; warden, noblewoman, champion, hero, Cousland. Eyes wide, tears streaming down her face, dressed in a simple shirt and breeches, she looks her age, a mere eighteen years, scarcely old enough to be shouldering such a weight of expectation.
Leliana sinks to her knees, crawls back, and pulls Aryn into her arms, embracing the sobbing warden and tucking her head beneath her chin. Her heart aches for her beloved, and for fear of what might have terrified her fierce, brave girl so. "Oh, Aryn, dear heart," she murmurs against her lover's bright gold hair, "it's all right. I'm sorry. I spoke in anger, but I'm worried about you. You've not been yourself for days."
Aryn shifts in her grip, burying her face in Leliana's tunic, weeping unabashedly as she cuddles closer to the bard. "Please, Leliana, hold me."
"For as long as you need me," Leliana promises, "and longer."
Aryn clings to her, venting her grief, sobs racking her body over and over as the pain she has been carrying for too long floods forth. Leliana, privy to some of the most intimate moments of the younger woman's life, has never seen her so despondent, has never seen her so completely undone by sorrow. But the bard knows too well there are moments that go beyond courage, beyond endurance, beyond will, and this storm has been brewing ever since Riordan took his fellow Wardens aside to discuss their plan for dealing with the Archdemon. Leliana knows the task appointed to the army and their comrades – make sure the Wardens reach the dragon at all costs – but how the endgame unfolds is a mystery to all save three.
Eventually, Aryn quiets in her arms, her supply of tears spent. Leliana sits back a little, searching the scared silver gaze of her love intently. "Tell me what troubles you so," Leliana pleads.
Aryn shivers. "I'm going to die," she whispers. "And Maker forgive me… I'm afraid to."
"You're not…" Leliana can't make herself speak the guarantee, although she desperately wants to. "Why are you so sure of this? Why now? All this time, you've been so hopeful, so brave, no? What has happened to make you despair so?"
"Riordan…" She almost spits the name. "He told us why only the Grey Wardens can end the Blight. An Archdemon can only be slain if the killing blow is given by a warden." Her voice is gaining volume and power. "And the warden who strikes that blow? They die with the Archdemon - their life is a necessary sacrifice to end the Blight. So you see, our mysterious power, as you call it, is simply to die at the right moment, our vaunted service nothing more than a drawn-out death sentence." She manages a bitter chuckle. "If the Archdemon doesn't get you, the taint does, one way or another. The Blight always wins. And they don't tell you that before you join." Anger smoulders beneath her anguish as she sniffs. "No, they prefer to wait until you dare to have hope, until you summon the audacity to dream of a future beyond the nightmares, and then they crush you."
"But why does that mean you have to be the one to strike it down?" Leliana demands, nausea and a creeping horror of comprehension rising in her belly. "There are three of you."
"Alistair's the king." Aryn ducks her head, scrubs a hand through her hair tiredly. "After all we went through to put him on that damn throne, he can hardly be allowed to sacrifice himself, except as the last, desperate resort." She snorts softly. "So it must be Riordan, or me. And if the order is to be rebuilt in Ferelden, they'll need a veteran to train people. I know nothing about being a Warden beyond that I am sworn to kill darkspawn. I'm the most expendable. It's an easy choice."
"No," Leliana whispers, stunned. In the blink of an eye, everything she has dared to dream has been rendered to ash.
"You know what the worst part is?" Aryn continues, almost conversationally. Leliana shakes her head, all of her eloquence, all of her breath stolen away by the tight, hard knot of pain in her chest. "Duncan made my father promise…," the anger spikes through Aryn's voice now, and for a moment, the lion-hearted warrior is in the ascendant, "he made my father promise – while he lay sodding dying – that he could recruit me in exchange for saving my life. And he knew recruiting me would kill me – I could have died during the Joining, I would have died at Ostagar if not for Flemeth and Morrigan. He betrayed my father's trust as much as Howe did." She bows her head, as her voice cracks again, as the apparition of her battle-mien fades. "He should just have left me to die defending my mother. It would have been kinder."
"Don't say that," Leliana begs, finding a broken, plaintive breath. "You've done so much good, saved so many lives, brought such hope to so many since that dark day." She kisses Aryn's tear-weighted eyelids tenderly. "Your mother and father would be so proud of you, as I am. You heard your father say so, at the temple."
"I miss them so much," Aryn whispers. "I want them back. All of them. I just want them back. I want to sit with my father, listen to him talk about strategy and tactics, argue with him and Fergus and Oriana about politics. I want to fight with my mother about what I wear, and talk to her about you. I want to teach Orrin how to fight." She looks at Leliana and squeezes the bard's fingers. "I want to take you home to them."
There's nothing Leliana can say that will ease the ache of bereavement, but she feels compelled to try. "I would have liked that. If they were anything like you, I would have loved them."
Aryn closes her eyes for a moment, biting her lip. "Maker have mercy," she groans. She opens her eyes, and Leliana sees agony within the welling pools of silver. "What hurts the most… is that I'm hurting you. You don't deserve to be left alone again. I… Maker's grace, I wanted a life with you." Aryn's voice lowers and lowers until it is barely audible. "I wanted you to show me Orlais, I wanted to show you Highever. I wanted to make you happy, and now... now I'll never be able to. I'm so sorry, Leliana," she chokes. "If I'd known this was what awaited me, I would not have… I would have…"
"I would still love you," Leliana assures her fiercely. "And you would still love me. We were meant to find each other, Aryn. I believe that with all of my heart. The only difference would be that there would be more distance between us, since I would have no claim upon you had our feelings remained unrequited." Clarity struck. "That's why you've been ignoring me, no? You were trying to drive me away, protect me?" She cups Aryn's face lightly with her palm as her love nods guiltily, the barest fraction of a movement, mouth trembling. "Oh, my poor, brave girl, you are far, far too late for such a strategy to work." She leans in, takes a kiss from the quivering lips. "I love you, so very much."
"I didn't know what else to do," Aryn admits tearfully, stripped back to the young girl once more. "I'm so sorry, Leliana. I didn't mean to hurt you, but I don't know how to… how to make it better."
"Just love me," Leliana answers, resting her forehead against her love's. "You don't need to do anything else now. We will deal with tomorrow when tomorrow comes, and I will be with you, at your side… to whatever end. I will not leave you alone against your enemies, or with your fears. So please, my love, forget the world that waits outside this tent." She reaches under Aryn's shirt, strokes her fingers delicately across iron-hard muscles that tremble for her touch alone. "Forget the Blight, and the Archdemon, and all of the burdens that wait for you to carry them." She insinuates her fingers beneath Aryn's waistband, seeking a more intimate contact. "Just love me."
Her warden's sudden, desperate kiss is searing.
Their love-making is frantic. Leliana uses all of her trained talents, all of her polished skills, to keep the woman in her arms from thinking, to keep her aroused and inflamed until they finally collapse into a tangle of replete, boneless limbs. Wrapped intricately with the bard in a complex lover's knot, Aryn succumbs quickly to the exhaustion of the sated, her expression relaxed and, at last, peaceful. Leliana strokes her sweat-dampened hair lovingly, trying to soothe her own grief. Their lives have been at risk day in, day out for months. Both of them have suffered wounds that should have been fatal, reprieved only by Wynne's gifts. She has lived with the reality of losing Aryn to the Blight every day, but knowing that tomorrow will bring her death as surely as a condemned prisoner dragged to the headsman…
Her mind reels with a grief too immense to comprehend. A sob wrenches from her, unbidden, unwelcome, and she wriggles free of her lover's embrace, not wishing to wake the warden from the dreamless slumber she so desperately needs. Pulling on her shirt and breeches, she stumbles barefoot from the tent, and runs straight into Riordan.
The older warden catches her, sympathy dawning in his eyes as he sees her grief. "She told you, then?" he asks rhetorically, setting her courteously back on her feet.
"Should she not have?" Leliana retorts acidly, wiping her eyes.
Riordan shrugs. "It was meant to be for Grey Warden ears alone."
"Then cast her from your order for breaking the rules," Leliana snaps, her voice breaking. "Then at least she would be spared such a monstrous injustice."
"Would that I could," Riordan replies dolefully. "She is far too young to have to face this, far too young to have such a demand made of her. I know a little of her past, what Alistair has told me, and you are utterly correct in this assessment." His mournful, dark eyes hold both pity and steel. "But alas, the Archdemon cares nothing for what is just or fair or righteous. And we cannot afford the luxury of fairness, not when there are only three of us." He lays a hand on her shoulder. She jerks away, unwilling to accept his offered consolation, wrapped in Aryn's anger and her own. Unoffended, he lets his hand drop. "Know this. Scant comfort it may be, but it is our custom that the oldest of the Wardens strike down the Archdemon, when possible. Duncan never intended for either of his young charges to have to win this fight."
"I'm certain he never intended to die at Ostagar either," Leliana snipes. "But here we are, nonetheless."
Riordan meets her anger stoically. "Here we are," he agrees. "I will do everything in my power to avoid letting either Alistair or Aryn take that blow. They have done more than we could have hoped, more than anyone would dare ask, to defeat this Blight, and I would spare them this sacrifice, as is my duty as their brother."
"Have you told them this?"
"I have," Riordan assures her. "I do not think Aryn believes, but I cannot do anything more about that. But if I should fall before I get the chance to end it," Riordan sighs heavily, "then one of them must take my place. And you must know that noble girl will never allow her King, her friend, to take the blow before her."
"I do know," Leliana agrees, "but you have given me small shard of hope, at least. It will be enough." Abruptly, her anger drains off, leaving her exhausted. She steps in and hugs the warden apologetically. "I'm sorry. You must think me so selfish. It is…" she smiles sadly, "unjust that her chance at life must come at the expense of yours. You are a good man."
Riordan hugs her back with a smile, then shoos her away. "Je ne regrette rien," he says in their shared native tongue. "I have had a good life, and I would see others able to say the same. Go. She is lucky to have you, and she will need you tomorrow, at no less than your best. Rest well, cherie."
"Thank you, Riordan." Leliana slips back to the tent, pausing to scratch the ever-watchful Rufus behind the ear before ducking inside. Aryn is still asleep, her hand reaching into the space Leliana should occupy. Undressing, the bard rejoins her lover in their bedroll, wrapping herself in the warrior's strong, warm presence. "I will carry the hope you dare not hold," she promises quietly, pressing a kiss to her beloved's forehead. "For both of us."
Sleep takes an age to steal over her, held at bay by sorrow and the need to savour every moment of Aryn's presence, but when the gentle dark finally overcomes her, she is, Maker be praised, still able to dream.