Have another portion of the sort: Life sucks and (almost) everyone's miserable. Part II of too many to come, if you will, heh. But, joking aside, I didn't want to rush to the Alienage plot asap and instead took time for the characters to cope. I thought, after the last chapter, everyone needed to stop to breathe. So, have another chapter in between with moments that would have fallen out otherwise due to not fitting in elsewhere. Alienage's next, promised. We might even reach the Landsmeet this year, whoohoo xD

Thanks to Suilven for the always excellent beta read, and everyone still reading and commenting my never-ending thing. All the hugs :)


Some humor here
To fend off fear
And I'm a little more lost.
So to save face
I'll hold my place
So I may safely feel alone

Poets Of The Fall, Shallow


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Chapter 105: Save Me

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Wood. That was all that parted him from her. A small barrier in the form of a closed door, nothing more.

Alistair hated it, for the distance felt so much greater, adding in more agony with every moment spent waiting. Rationally, he knew he would only be in the way, and could comprehend why Wynne had kicked him out, though he'd felt all but sane ever since she'd descended into the estate without him at her side. The need to reassure himself of her being alive, to hold her and never let go again, battled with the increasing amount of guilt, of it being all his fault; for letting her go, for failing to be there when it mattered most. More than the door parting him from Lenya, he loathed himself. In spite of him having taken the lives of the filthy creatures hurting her, the rage still simmered inside, now directed at himself instead. Shaking, he slumped down to the ground; angry about everything and nothing, unable to sort out this feeling, being unwilling even. Alistair wished he could do the same with this cruel certainty festering within like a parasite but, each time he refused to think about it, it only reverberated louder.

He'd almost lost her.

In a world without magic, without Wynne's... aid, she would have been dead, gone to a place where he couldn't follow. And, even with magic, it had been so close. Much too close. His head fell into his hands, still grimy with sweat and blood. He had barely shed his armor, no heed given to this triviality when there had been Lenya, his fierce and bright love, so broken and hurt. He gasped; the memories of her in that cell, together with this certainty of nearly losing the only person who could see, and even love, his true self, hit him like a battering ram, rendering him momentarily unable to breathe. The oxygen he inhaled felt leaden, as if stuck halfway to his lungs, suffocating him. He tried to reason that she was safe now, that he had helped to ensure her rescue and killed everyone in his way, but it wasn't enough. It never would be. For he had been too late to shield her from the damage that had already been done, and this failure loomed large over him. Worst of all was the notion of her having calculated this risk, and that, undoubtedly, this was her reason for leaving him behind. He understood now and wished he could not, because this truth hurt, tasted bitter. Lenya had protected him, where he had failed to do so in return. Not only that, she had taken the fall for a literal stranger, to enable her to escape. Loghain's daughter. Balling his hands into fists, he nearly choked on the breath rippling through him as a sudden surge of wrath took hold, replacing the helplessness. Of course. Loghain. Everything came back down to this traitor, every loss marked w—

"Man, ya look like shit, boy." A flask was thrust into his face, causing his thoughts to come to a screeching halt. "Take it, seems to me ya soddin' need it." As he failed to react, the owner of the flask shrugged and sat down on the ground next to him. He took a deep pull from his beverage and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, belching. "I know I do."

"Oghren..." was all Alistair managed toward the unexpected and unwanted company beside him. He was neither in the mood to talk, nor to receive pity, least of all from the dwarf. He seemed to notice, for he remained silent and yet lingered, his gaze fixed on the door like his.

"Don't ya worry," he huffed out, offering him the flask a second time. Alistair took it this time and stared at it while the dwarf spoke. "Missy is resilient like a bronto. And equally as stubborn." Oghren fell silent, seeming to contemplate his words, before letting out a snort. "Look at me, using fancy words. Pity ya ain't impressed, boy. Can't blame ya, though. Stinking nugpile of a day, huh?"He couldn't muster more than a sigh, but it seemed enough for the dwarf. "Know what ya must be thinking, though. Maybe ya could have prevented her fate, could have been faster, stronger, or simply there. Tell ya what, boy, blaming yourself for what happened doesn't make it any better. Not for ya, nor for Missy."

"Huh..." he uttered, surprised that Oghren, of all people, wanted to share advice. "Speaking from a place of experience, are you?"

"Aye," the dwarf answered quietly with a sigh, looking away. "Ya remember Branka, I'm sure?"

"Hard to forget her, really."

He snorted. "That much is true. Soddin' nutshot of a bloody woman." Then all humor disappeared from his voice. "I failed her." Alistair's head shot up. Blinking in shock, he didn't even recognize how the dwarf had reclaimed his flask to take another long pull. "Ya see, in the beginning I tried to reason with her, tried to get the idea of the anvil out of her mind. But the whole Paragon business had already gone to her head and got stuck there. She didn't listen at all, no matter what I told my stubborn bronto of a wife. So, eventually... I stopped. It was easier to let her rant and rave, to let her have her way. Thought she would calm down in time anyway. She always did before." He scoffed, with scorn in his tone. "Big sodding surprise that she didn't that time, aye? When I came home one morning from the tavern, she was gone without a further word. Even took my whole house – my family – and most of our possessions with her, leaving me behind as a sodding laughing stock for everyone else."

Alistair wasn't sure how to react to the unusually honest words of a man normally hidden behind ale and crude jokes. Though, perhaps, this was the reason why he felt more willing to engage in talking than just minutes ago. He knew most of the story by now, of course, yet Oghren had never mentioned these... details. He simply wasn't the type to bare his soul in front of others, so hearing it now was more than a bit surprising.

He noticed his lingering gaze and acknowledged it with another snort. "Spare ya pity, boy."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to—"

"Yeah, whatever." Oghren interrupted him, grunting in disapproval. "Bottom line here is that I gave up too fast, stopped caring... I shouldn't have."

"You didn't give that impression upon meeting you, if I'm honest. With the way you constantly bothered the guards to search for Branka. And, also..." He swallowed, her name heavy on his lips. "...Lenya."

Yeah, Missy." He laughed out loud. "Tough nut to crack that one. To actually make her take me with her, I mean. But, little elven girl or not, I just saw the chance and took it. Anything to find out what happened to Branka, and make me feel better about the whole damn situation. Another big sodding joke that it didn't, in the end, eh?"

Alistair shuddered at the remembrance of the Deep Roads and its gruesome revelations. To distract himself, he looked at the dwarf with a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "The way you tell it, is not not caring, actually."

"Ain't ya a smartass?" Oghren raised a thick eyebrow at him, scoffing. "Not sure if there is a moral to my story is or some shit like that, but Missy... aye, she is a good one. Took me out of the stinking hole of Orzammar and gave me more than a fighting chance. Made me into the warrior I once was before I stopped caring, and gave me a new purpose. Like ya, I wish we could have been there sooner to save her, but blaming yourself won't change any of that, boy."

Alistair sighed. "It is not that easy, Oghren."

"Aye, I know." He nodded, seeming to truly understand. "Tell ya what: For all your whining, ya are actually a good lad. Because ya care and, unlike me, never stopped. A good trait, that."

"Thanks... I guess."

Oghren let out a grunt, sounding a bit embarrassed even. "Don't mention it. Guess all this sodding business of Missy nearly dying tonight made even me sentimental." He fell silent again and fixed the door with a stare. Not knowing what to do or say, Alistair did the same.

"I still don't want to become king..." Alistair blurted out after a moment of stretched silence. "But, it seems I have to regardless."

"Says sodding who?"

"I suppose this is a no-brainer with Anora, Loghain's daughter, being the only other option."

"Ah, so ya blaming her for what happened to Missy?"

He didn't hesitate to answer. "Yes." Anger coursed through his veins, causing his fingers to tighten into fists. In spite of the killing spree tonight, so much of his rage remained yet unspent. "It is all due to her that Lenya got captured in the first plac—"

"If the bronto hadn't taken a shit there, I wouldn't have stepped into the pile."

He stared at him, peeved by this kind of interruption and comparison. "What?"

Oghren shrugged with one shoulder, uncaring at his glare. "Same argument as yours, boy. Doesn't change what happened though. Missy is a big girl and can make her own decisions. Even if it was a sodding stupid one like this one."

"And I nearly lost her because of that!" he snapped, tears stinging at the corners of his eyes. He let his head fall back into his hands to keep his jumbled emotions from overcoming him. It was all too much. The hours of forced waiting before her rescue, the disgusting taunts of the guards he'd encountered, and the image of finding her in the filthy cell, like she were dead. It all crashed down on him, mixed together with the old fear of always losing the people he dared to care for; to be left behind, like it had already happened in Ostagar, and countless times before that. Lenya... she'd had to endure all that she had, simply because of one man's paranoia. It was yet another event with Loghain as its catalyst, yet another reason for him to seek revenge, adding to the already existing pile. But, for now, he couldn't bring up enough energy to hate, not when he was too consumed with the fear of their–her–very possible mortality. "I... can't lose her. It would kill me, too."

"Now ya being sodding dramatic." He shoved the flask back into his face. "Drink more, whine less. Ain't helping anyone with it, boy."

Alistair drew in a gasping breath in a feeble attempt to regain his bearings. The dwarf was right in a way, as rudely as he had expressed it. He thumbed the flask and exhaled shakingly. "...Right." Before he could take even a gulp, the door sprang open and Wynne appeared in its frame. Alistair was at his feet at once, hating and glad to see the elder mage at the same time. "...Can I see her?"

Wynne leaned her weight against the door frame with a sigh. "Why am I not surprised to find you here?" She looked pallid, as if she had aged a few years in the last hours. He wouldn't be surprised if she had, given the chaotic events and the exertion needed to save Lenya's life. The mixed scent of blood and herbs emitted from the room behind her, causing his heart to hammer in his chest.

"She needs rest, Alistair. Her wounds were... grave, as you have seen." His stomach clenched at her words. How would he ever be able to forget that? Seeing her like this would be an eternal reminder of his failure, and of their endless cruelty. Even if he made them pay for hurting her with their lives, it didn't undo the damage they had caused. "At this point, I'm not even certain she will awaken in time to attend the Landsmeet in a few days. She needs time, which we so direly lack right now. But, at least I was able to neutralize the remaining poison inside her, which caused the internal bl—"

The mage stopped herself and omitted the remaining details, for which he was glad. Her gaze however, lingered on him, and her stern expression softened. "You are still dirty. So, if you want to sit at her side for a while, you need to clean yourself first. I won't let my hard work get spoiled by your bloodstained hands causing an infection. And, you need to promise me to get some rest yourself. " She reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. "You look terrible, dear. Understandably so, given the circumstances, but you are helping nobody in this state."

"See, that's what I was telling him, too, hah," came smugly from Oghren beside him.

She ignored the dwarf. "There is fresh hot water left, next to the washstand. Use it to clean yourself at least a bit. And, use the soap. Especially, the soap. I will try to take some rest now myself, but I will be back in a few hours and kick you out once more. Understood?"

"Yes, of course." Alistair nodded hastily, eager to get to Lenya's side where he belonged.

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~V~

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Soap, rinse, repeat.

There was something oddly comforting in this simple pattern, which helped him to shut down all the thoughts that had been tormenting him ever since her capture, and which had not stopped with her rescue. At least, it helped him to forget them for the tiny moment of its duration. Purposely and fully focused on his task, Alistair hadn't dared to spare a glance at Lenya's sleeping form yet. He wasn't keen to see the vast extent of her injuries in the bright flickering light of the hearth fire, and yet he knew he owed it to himself to confront his failure. Had Oghren been right, and her fate been unavoidable due to her very own choice of surrender? He refused to believe that and couldn't help asking himself what could have been different, if he had been there with her. Perhaps nothing, and then they would have captured and tortured them both but, at least he would have been at her side then. He never should have left it in the first place. Frowning at his own exhausted reflection in the mirror, he took a linen towel to rub over his face, and threw it heedlessly to the side when he was done.

He inhaled deeply, mentally steeling himself to turn around and toward her. Lenya lay perfectly still in the same bed they had shared in nightly passion mere days before. It was a disconcerting thought, the mutual happiness then so unreal and distant now, like in another life. Tentatively, he approached, to give himself a bit more time, and yet could nothing prepare him for the sight of her, vulnerable. The cuts and welts marring her skin had been healed away by magic, but the swelling and bruises remained, making her face nearly unrecognizable. Her breath rattled in her lungs as she inhaled and exhaled, to the point when Alistair questioned their normal functionality. Though, she seemed far away, caught in a deep slumber, and hopefully unable to feel any pain. He noticed the bucket at the end of the bed, its water dyed crimson by the blood that had been washed away. The filthy clothes next to it gave away how she lay bare underneath the sheets. Only a multitude of bandages covered her frame. Shame washed over him as he saw how the bandages reached down to and covered both of her hands; the same hand he had so carelessly taken into his hours ago, with no heed of any injuries. Now, he didn't dare touch her in the slightest, for fear she would crumble underneath his fingertips like the ashen remains of firewood. An absurd thought in itself, for she was such a strong woman in mind and battle, and no delicate flower to be stowed away from the world.

But, in spite of being fully aware of this and of his inability to touch her, Alistair wished nothing more than to pull her into his arms and never let go again; to be her shield from the severity of pain and agony which had already ruled over her life so constantly, and yet found its destructive way to her once again. Somehow, this situation seemed to be a mirror of her disappearance in Redcliffe after Tamlen's death. With days spent in uncertainty of Lenya's fate or whereabouts, and him ending up sitting at her unconscious side next to the bed. Though this time it had been only hours–a day at most–but it still felt so much worse than back then. Because this time, he knew. He knew what had happened to her and what they had done to her. It was etched on every inch of her skin; the scars both visible and more, deeper within. And this knowledge, these apparent signs of the hours of torment afflicted upon Lenya was crushing him to the ground, keeping him there. "I'm sorry, love. I'm so very sorry."

His fingers fisted into the sheets beside her head as his legs buckled, unable to remain standing any longer. The despair, his anger and regret about everything, was given voice in a strangled outcry, which quickly devolved into heaps of sobs that seemed as if they would never stop again.

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"Zevran, wait!"

Brasca, no matter how much he hurried, or stayed in the shadows, this bloody woman would just not give up on following him.

"Where are you going?"

Away, he wanted to scream at her. Just away. But his throat was too tight for any word, and the tears stung like fire in the corners of his eyes. He didn't want to face her, nor be seen like this, vulnerable and raw. And so he fled, away from her, to some place where he could feel safely alone. His need for solitude was also a feeble attempt at distancing himself from the emotions and pictures flooding his mind, unbidden.

The long corridors of Eamon's estate flew by as he ran like the coward he was; an interchangeable, gray mess to his blurring sight of impending tears. Crying, him! Such a preposterous and unthinkable notion for a man having learned all his life to control and suppress his emotions, no matter the situation. Cutting around the corner, Zevran nearly jumped into the room given to him, closing the door behind him. Letting out a shaky breath, he leaned his head back against the cool wood of the door. Unfortunately the relief found through isolation was only short-lived. Of course she still followed, her footsteps audible on the marbled floor nearby, ever approaching. He should have known that Leliana wouldn't give up on him, she never did. Accepting her stubbornness, however, also meant having to face her in spite of his overall unwillingness to do so.

Sighing in defeat, he took a step away from the door; almost in sync with it opening, and her appearance. Her gaze lingered upon him, and not even the shadows hiding his face could hinder the sense of utter nakedness in her presence.

She noticed his lack of reaction. "Do you want to be alone?" Her teeth grazed her lips, unsure. "It is just... you bolted so suddenly, and... it scared me."

"That wasn't my intent, amora." Zevran shifted on his feet, hesitating. Eventually, he stepped slowly toward the single source of light in the room. "I'm simply no good at this."

Slowly, Leliana moved toward him until the warmth of her presence consumed him, even without a single touch. She looked at him, her voice as soft and gentle as her eyes upon him. "At what?"

"At this!" he managed, feeling unusually at a loss for words, to express himself. "Caring. Everything was easier when I didn't. I never learned, it was never allo—"

"I know, dear. Yet, you are doing a fine job in doing so nonetheless." Her arms wrapping around him allowed him to cease the flurry of jumbled half-words about things too hard to give in to. Too tense, he didn't dare to move, nor to breathe for a moment, in fear of the whimper that was stuck in his throat breaking free. Zevran didn't whimper. He joked and waved matters off until they were forgotten, until everyone believed in his nonchalance, and in his act perfected over the years: intimacy without bonds; the art of taking what he could; without dwelling on emotions weighing him down. Though, like Rinna, Leliana looked effortlessly through him and his casual act, could read him like an open book. "There is nothing wrong with caring for something, nor someone. Without it, life would be easier, perhaps, but also very empty, meaningless."

Maybe she was right. He could see the truth within her words, at last. It was just still so hard to face them, rather than to simply turn and run away; another art he had perfected over the years, and a habit difficult to give up. She noticed his hesitance–of course she did–and, without further words, embraced him tighter, understanding. Wrapped in her arms, in her comfort and warmth, the whimper broke free at last. Zevran ceased to feel regret or shame about this sign of weakness. Tears followed–a few at first, then more– as his thoughts drifted toward Lenya and yet another near loss of a person he cared about. For him, caring had been so long equated with pain, loss, and regrets, but, in this moment, it meant being held and consoled by the woman he'd come to love. Unexpectedly, this was something good in between the clutter of bad experiences and the need to hide and conceal himself underneath so many layers. He could let go and, still, Leliana wouldn't judge him. She would just be there for him. No one had ever done this for him, not since Rinna. The sound of her name in his mind still stung, though it had lost its severity in the face of the comfort and warmth Leliana gave, not only to his body, but also his soul.

Trembling, he leaned into her hand cupping his cheek, savoring the solace hiding there. She brushed his tears away, ever so softly, and he planted a kiss into her palm, tasting the salt lingering there. Zevran looked up at her, marveling at the sight of her face bathed in the glinting silver of the moon shining through the window close by. Mixed with the sparse light of the candle, it was enough to see her apparent beauty but, even more so, the love and concern written in her expression. For him. His heart ached at the realization of this fact though, this time, the pain wasn't one of sorrow. Slowly, he touched her lips with his own, in the need to show her his gratitude for her being there. Lust or passion was not his motive for initiating the kiss, though the way she instantly molded her body against him so perfectly–as if belonging there–made it hard to swallow the sigh of pleasure rippling through him. As his tongue slipped between her lips, she responded enthusiastically, and he knew that he didn't have to hold back. Not with her. Not anymore.

"Zev..." Leliana pulled away, searching for his eyes."Are you sure..."

"Shh..." No words, no talking. He wanted to forget, to get lost in the comfort that was her presence, her whole being. For a few hours, the world would be all right without them taking part in it. Zevran kissed her again, this his answer, one mingled with passion now. His fingers fumbled with the buckles of her armor, and felt unusually clumsy in removing her from it. Smiling, Leliana assisted him while getting rid of his own, and stumbled together with him toward the bed to lie down; their lips never parting.

With the bothering space and fabric in between them finally gone, Zevran's nose and mouth went to her throat and buried themselves there. He breathed a song of her scent, of the warmth and taste of her skin; the soft sighs he elicited from her better than any music. He ran his hands down her back, a feather-light touch that sent shivers through her and made her arch even further into his touch. It was wondrous how different laying with her seemed to him now. He felt lost and found, everything and nothing at once. Confusing it was, and yet wonderful, this pure need for her that left him raw. Feeling as clumsy and nervous as he'd been before his first time so long ago, he relinquished his lead and surrendered completely to her caresses, to simply feel. For so long he had avoided sharing a bed with her for more than mere sleeping, had been afraid of the intimacy tangled with the emotions within. Now, with her in his arms, around and underneath her, he could no longer fathom why. Perhaps, due to its all-consuming nature, he'd feared it because, no matter how much he could reach of her skin with fingertips and lips, it never seemed to be enough. He yearned for more. Leliana shared his notion, since she had abandoned the slow rocking rhythm for a feverish tempo, teetering on desperate. Sobbing and shuddering she moved above him, the most beautiful he had ever seen her.

She crushed herself against his chest, almost painfully, lips bruising his mouth in need. She breathed him in, her body melting against his; teeth marking him as hers by biting on his bottom lip, and oaths of breathless moans replaced any coherent words and thoughts he'd left. Her fingernails dug into his shoulders and, while his teeth grazed her neck, he listened to her spiraling upward. Oh, such a sweet sound. Under the rush of emotions and sensations flooding him, Zevran came undone with his normally apt hands at a loss of how to hold or where to touch her. It was new and frightening, this loss of control, of forgetting everything the Crows had taught him, in more ways than one. Her body trembled and then momentarily stilled as relief washed over her, as her heart thrummed in rhythm with his, moaning. Her inner tide called to him, pulled him under with its heat and fire, and, for a wonderful, endless moment, nothing else mattered. He groaned, more loudly than he meant to, pulling her to his chest as her grip became weaker.

There were no words for a long time still, both too busy with catching their breath and holding onto each other; perhaps, with trying to comprehend its meaning as well. It had shifted, that much was clear; the intimacy no longer casual and without strings. Maybe it hadn't been for a long time already, with both of them only now fully aware of this change. Zevran felt no remorse for its loss, since he had found so much more in its absence, despite his initial fear of it. Curled up against his side, ever so warm, she watched him, perhaps waiting for him to speak. So, he did.

"I... feel better now," he started lamely, instantly regretting his choice of words.

Her lips curled into a slight grin. "Well, I would be surprised if you didn't."

Ah, so she took the opportunity for banter. Of course. Zevran shook his head and let out a mock sigh. Then, all humor from his expression faded as quickly as it had arrived. "That... wasn't what I meant..."

Threading her fingers into his, she placed a kiss on the backside of his hand. Like always, she understood. "I know."

Not much earlier, it had been a horrible night with the slaughter in Fort Drakon and Lenya laying on the ground, her body near broken. A part of him felt selfish for breaching this topic amidst all the misery surrounding them, however clumsily. "Ah, I already told you I'm no good at this, haven't I?" Zevran tried to keep his tone light, though the tremble within his voice belied him. "And, I possess terrible timing on top of that. But, I... still have the earring. I would like to give it to you... as a token of affection. Will you take it?" In truth, he had no idea where the jewelry was right now, nor had any inclination to move, wrapped up in her warmth like he was. Still, he needed to know. "All I need to know is if there might be some future for us, some possibility of... I do not know what. "

"Terrible timing, indeed, Zev." Leliana laughed out loud and, for a moment, he feared she mocked him, but her smile was too radiant for mere jest. "And I already told you that I would take it, once Lenya is safe. Soooo..." she drawled, her fingertips wandering down his muscled forearm and across his shoulders, down to his back, "does this mean we are married now?"

"Not unless you wish it," Zevran replied and the conviction within his voice didn't only surprise her, but him as well in equal part. "Ah, but one step at a time, no?" he quickly added as her astonishment found no end.

Leliana shifted, not in embarrassment, but in need to shake off the surprise, it seemed. He couldn't fault her for this reaction, even if it stung a little. A life beyond the Blight was an abstract concept in itself, with the way they cheated death time and time again. With saving Lenya in the nick of time, he was more aware than ever of how everything could be over so very soon. Death was as much a part of his life as an assassin as breathing, and yet he couldn't help but wish for something more, beyond this. A foolish notion, perhaps. "Hmm, why not? It seems a terrible mistake to get rid of you, once this is over."

...Or not.

His heart skipped more than a beat at her words, then raced to catch up on the missed ones. "A terrible one, indeed, amora. And, we can't have that, no?" She knew how much easier humor and banter fell from his lips than oaths of love, and he was grateful how much she humored him in this regard.

For a while, a comfortable silence settled in and the need to sleep vied for his attention. Zevran was inclined to follow its call until Leliana's drowsy murmur startled him awake again. "Remind me to speak with the Arl, once we are awake."

"But I know much more pleasant activities once we are awake than having a conversation with that old fart."

She swatted his arm, giggling. "I'm serious. While I was sneaking about in the palace–which has terrible security by the way–I needed to hide from sudden... visitors, who then used the vacant room to discuss certain deals I'm sure the queen wouldn't have sanctioned. Perhaps this was the reason Howe tried to get rid of her?" She paused, thinking. "Or, maybe that is exactly what Anora wanted us to think, while she is covering up her own involvement? I'm not sure; she was sincere with her information about the map and thus assisted us in freeing Lenya, after all."

"Ah, sweet ol' politics, I see." Zevran chuckled. "I sure hope Alistair has need for a handsome assassin like me though, should he become king."

"With guards as incompetent as the ones I encountered? You bet."

"And what, my dear, is so important about what you discovered that you need to inform the Arl instead of staying in bed with me?"

"The fact that Loghain has his hands in it, most likely."

"The regent dabbling in sinister transactions?" He snorted, his tone sarcastic. "Now that is a plot twist I wouldn't have seen coming."

"Well, we don't have proof of it yet. And, you know how politics works, you need that to properly dispose of a noble, especially one as powerful as he is.."

"Ah, and here I thought we would revert to bloodshed and backstabbing in his case." Zevran sighed overly dramatically. "Bummer."

She shot him a look, her eyes gleaming wickedly. "That is actually plan B..."

"Ah, how intriguing, and very much expected of you, amora." Smiling, he pecked a kiss on her nose. "Though, are you that certain we will indeed find the needed proof close by, just like that?"

"We have to try. It is the least we can do for Alistair. And... Lenya. After everything that happened."

"Yeah..." he trailed off, thinking of his friend, of all she had been through. While she was a strong, wonderful woman, the endured torture and pain could easily change a person. No one knew this better than himself, having been, more than once, on the receiving end, and alas, even at the giving end of it. He shook the thought off, hoping to be wrong in her case. If Lenya was anything, she was resilient, and a survivor, as she had proven again only hours ago. He turned to Leliana again, remembering how he had only given her half of an answer. "Not an easy task to do so, I'd wager. But, you know, I've always loved your optimism, my dear."

"Oh? Just my optimism?" she teased, half playfully and maybe half in hopes to hear more.

Yet, instead of using the words so appallingly apparent between them now, Zevran only smiled and kissed her again.

.

.


.

Though muffled by the cobwebs of slumber, Alistair noticed the usage of his name and a hand upon his shoulder, shaking him. He couldn't bring up the energy to care, feeling too drained for even the slightest response. But, the attempts to wake him didn't recede, and even became more insistent in their nature. So, he eventually caved in, if only to make the person stop repeating his name and shaking him over and over again. The motion of heaving his head up ached as much as the light of day did in his eyes. Shielding them with his hands, he blinked blearily while trying to regain consciousness and a sense of his surroundings. He was still in her room beside her sleeping form. Somewhere in between bemoaning Lenya's fate and his own inability to change any of it when it mattered, his utter exhaustion must have taken hold of him. And, in spite of promising to kick him out, Wynne had let him stay with her. It was a small gesture, but one that meant the world to him. Stretching himself, he noticed how the ache spread through his limbs, down to his very bones. He was so tired, so damn weary, and, thus, wanted nothing more than to continue sleeping and staying at her side like this. Until Lenya woke up. Until he knew for sure she would be okay. Damn them al

"That doesn't look very comfortable..."

The unknown voice startled him, making him turn around toward its owner. The grizzled Warden from his Joining–Rio... something–stood in front of him and smiled, one arm still in a sling. Well, that explained the sudden jarring buzz of taint surrounding him, at least. Alistair tried to banish the fuzziness from his mind and to remember his correct name, but something entirely else tumbled out of his mouth first. "Why are you here?"

The elder man shrugged with his healthy shoulder. "I was worried about our sister. She saved me, you know?"

Alistair laughed out loud, without mirth. "Like so many of us..." He paused, looking down. "And yet I failed to do the same for her."

"Have you?" Rio–Riordan was his name, he finally remembered–cocked his head. "For she is alive and has the chance to recover from her injuries, thanks to you."

It ain't the physical scars I fear, he thought. "Not soon enough," he said instead, curtly. Unlike with Duncan, talking with this elder Warden felt somehow stilted and less natural than he'd hoped it would be. He rubbed his face to get rid of the dried tears still lingering there. Maker, he must look as horrible as he felt. No wonder Riordan had a certain hint of pity in his voice: he knew all too well. Alistair hated it.

"Using the treaties of old and gathering troops and men against the Blight," he continued, probably noticing the awkwardness between them as well and attempting to break it with further words. "Both of you did an exceptional job in that, really."

"Yeah, no thanks to you. Or any of the other Wardens outside of Ferelden." Alistair paused, puzzled at this sudden bout of bitterness overcoming him. Just a few weeks ago, he would have thanked him and told him that he had only done his duty. He would have been overjoyed by the company of Riordan and the prospect of having some guidance from a more seasoned Warden instead of being left alone with everything. Now, he felt that his presence didn't make a difference. Not anymore.

Surprisingly, Riordan didn't rise to meet his bitterness with a portion of his own, which he had more than a right to, given his own circumstances. After all, the Warden had spent weeks, if not months, down in Howe's dungeon. He certainly had not been a guest of honor there, if his injuries were any indication of his treatment during his captivity. Riordan breathed out, his tone calm. "I understand your frustration, Alistair. Such a task shouldn't have been left in the hands of both of you alone. Not because you aren't capable enough–as you have both proven time and time again–but because it is hardly a task for only two Wardens. Alas, you have to understand that our hands were tied, as Loghain refused us entrance to Ferelden and turned us away at its borders. The political consequences of disregarding his order wasn't something we could risk an—"

"Loghain. Of course," Alistair spat the name out as if it was acid burning him, a burn that lingered in his mouth and wandered down to the pit of his stomach, kindling to a full-fleshed, heated feeling of hatred there. "Every atrocious event involves this... this—" He stopped himself from falling into a cascade of cursing, if only barely. "I'm so fed up of hearing him getting away with calling us traitors, while he is the one responsible for everything that has happened." In this regard, the Landsmeet couldn't come soon enough. His hand balled into a fist, the anger only subsiding to be replaced by regret as he looked at Lenya, the latest victim of the regent's paranoia. "All of it!"

Riordan stayed neutral, didn't feed his ire. "I'm well aware of the events at Ostagar, brother. Hence, I'm all the more relieved that the documents were retrieved from Howe's mansion. Thanks to that, there is a realistic chance of giving our brethren that were lost there their deserved last rest. I had already begun to list their names, yet I fear there won't be time to complete it. Not until the Blight is dealt with."

Faces flashed before Alistair's inner eye, of his brothers, and what had become of them. A rotten pile of flesh and bones, misused as darkspawn puppets against him. His eyes pressed shut. At least he would be able to put an end to this, though it made him aware of the reason why it felt awkward to be around another Warden that wasn't Lenya. No matter how much time had passed, the bitter remembrance of Ostagar still burned within him, reminding him all too keenly of what he had lost: the easy camaraderie and a sense of family that he had never known before. It wasn't the same with Riordan and he doubted it ever would be. They were all gone, never to return. Lenya was everything he had left from that time. And he had nearly lost her last night as well.

The elder Warden seemed to notice his distress. His healthy hand clamped Alistair's shoulder in sympathy. "What is lost can be rebuilt. In time. Do not despair. You are not alone and I will help the both of you in any way I can."

A little late for that... Alistair shook off the jaded thought and forced a smile. "I... would like that. Though, what now? Are you... staying?" Honestly, he had no idea of Riordan's plans or his way of supporting them, as used to being on his own as he was.

Riordan looked at Lenya's sleeping form. "Like our sister, I need time to recuperate further before returning to the field. Hence, I will stay with you both until after the Landsmeet. It is time to see this situation finally resolved."

His face fell. "Meaning me becoming king?"

"I've... heard of your lineage." He let out a sigh. "But, the only thing that's important is that we get the support we need in this crucial battle, nothing else. Normally, I would be keen in reminding you how we do not meddle in politics, but the reality and the urgency of the matter does require another approach. I'm certain I don't have to tell you that the archdemon draws closer."

Alistair's fingertips threaded absentmindedly through a wayward strand of Lenya's hair, too afraid to touch her any more than this. Faster than expected, the end was coming, he knew. And, a large part part of him couldn't wait for it to all be over for it would mean finally having the chance to rest and, most importantly, to heal. "No, you don't."

"Which is why I will leave once the political situation has been cleared, to scout ahead. We need to know more about the archdemon's... whereabouts, its plans."

It was a sensible plan, actually. As the older Warden, the taint in his body was much stronger an,d hence, allowed him a closer connection to the archdemon. Alistair shuddered at the thought. It was nothing he envied Riordan for, that was certain. Before he could open his mouth to answer, the door sprang open, with Wynne appearing in its frame. "You are still here?" Her tone revealed a hint of surprise, though it dwindled quickly into sternness in its wake. "You really should take better care of yourself, dear. Not to mention that the Arl has requested to speak with you. As much I want to, for your sake, I can't stall him any longer. It sounded important."

"Apologies, my lady." Riordan gave her a polite nod. "It was me who kept Alistair from leaving. We had certain matters to discuss."

Her eyes flitted to Lenya, knowingly. "I doubt that is the reason for his hesitance, Ser Warden. But I appreciate the sentiment." Wynne approached closer and Alistair felt himself shrinking under her disapproving stare. He flinched slightly as her fingers grasped his chin lightly to make him look up at her. "You still look terrible, dear. Have you slept at all?"

"...A bit." If she noticed his reddened eyes–which he was sure she did–she possessed the tact to not mention it.

"I see," she said instead, letting go. She gave his shoulder a light squeeze, like the elder Warden had before, though this time it felt more like she was probing and prodding at him. He heard the clicking of the door nearby, no doubt caused by Riordan discreetly excusing himself from what seemed to be more of a confidential situation. Alistair was grateful for this gesture, as he wasn't exactly in the mood to bare his soul to a literal stranger, fellow Warden or not. He wasn't even certain if he wanted to do so with Wynne. Yet, like so often, the mage appeared to catch onto his mood, and, thus, remained silent. The hair on the back of his neck raised as the faint blue glow of magic filled the air. Using it, she started unwinding the knots in his muscles without him even prompting her to do so.

"Don't waste your magic on me..." Haltingly, he swallowed. "Lenya needs your aid far more than me."

Paying no heed to his objection, Wynne continued her work, which admittedly made him feel better— at least physically. She smiled. "It is not wasted if it helps you, dear. Besides, I fear it will be a long day for you, so this will ensure you reach the end of it."

"Is it ever not?" Alistair let out a sigh. "So, what is this matter Eamon wants to speak with me about? I'm really not in the mood to discuss politics. Not now, not ever. " Frowning he remembered his last encounter with Eamon, and the heated words he'd used. He regretted none of them, though he wasn't exactly looking forward to facing him again either.

"The Landsmeet is in a few days, Alistair. While I understand your hesitation, you can't keep running away from this responsibility, nor what it means." Wynne let go of him, the flow of magic abating. He flexed his muscles, glad for the absence of pain in his motions.

"Oh, you must excuse me if my attention is slightly diverted from this topic right now, due to–I don't know–Lenya nearly dying last night?"

"Certainly." she replied calmly, ignoring his belligerence. "Which is exactly why I'm kicking you out now. I've got work to do, but so do you."

He huffed out a breath, annoyed. "Fine. I'll go." His expression softened as he looked at Lenya. "Take good care of her in the meantime."

Wynne nodded. "Of course I will."

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Silence wasn't normally something Evelyn strived for, since it gave those thoughts and memories she preferred to remain buried the dangerous possibility of surfacing. But, after the chaos of last night, the slaughter within the fort, and the near loss of yet another person she'd tried to save, she felt herself in dire need for it.

Breathing in, she could smell the scent of burning incense lingering thickly in the air of the chantry. Around her, murmurs of prayers by fellow visitors were the only thing disrupting the holy tranquility of this place. While Evelyn still knelt next to the chantry's pew with her hands folded, she had given up on any attempt to pray. She simply couldn't concentrate enough, and also doubted its overall purpose. She believed in the Maker well enough, yes, but had never been overly pious. Her mother had had to literally bribe her into attending her religious lessons; with sweets when she was little, followed by stern words as she grew older. Once her mother had managed to make Evelyn comply with her wishes, being in their chantry hadn't been all bad. Mother Mallol had always made her feel welcome and had never failed to fill the otherwise empty marble space with a warm smile and kind words. Rather, it had been the too abstract stories of the Maker, and the need to sit still through these tales, which had always kept Evelyn's enthusiasm for the lessons low, not the company provided by it. This, Evelyn missed direly, like so many other things; little things now reduced to dark, empty shells in the back of her mind.

Please, child. Call me "Mallol." I've known you since you were a wee babe, after all.

Evelyn's eyes squeezed shut, pained by the remembrance of her words, by the ghost of her presence. A mistake, as it turned out, since it made way for the image of her lifeless, naked body piled on a cart in Fort Drakon, thrown away like garbage. Her mother had hoped until the end that Mallol's absence had meant her successful escape. She died with that hope and the assurance of her daughter's escape, fighting Howe's bastards to her last breath. Little did she know that Evelyn's flight would have found a quick end, if it hadn't been for the second body on the cart, right next to Mallol. Outside the castle, foolish Gilmore had hurried to her rescue like the stupid, wonderful knight he had always been. Even in the face of an overwhelming number of enemies, he hadn't hesitated for a moment to create and provide the distraction needed that eventually ensured her survival that day. And, to this day, Evelyn could still hear his plea, his words meant to shake away her hesitance to leave him behind, to his death.

"Please, go while you have the chance! Run, my lady."

Finally, run she had, without looking back, not daring to. Tears had blurred her sight, making her stumble blindly into the treacherous safety of the dark night. This had also been the point when the first thoughts of revenge had formed in her head; not much later, they had been executed and extended by the first kill she had made in the name of this newly made pact with herself. After that, survival and revenge had become her meaning, and the sole purpose of her existence. The one was a necessary evil to reach and fulfill the other. Perhaps in time, this goal had become as abstract as the stories of the Maker always had been to her. Maybe this was the reason why it had shaken Evelyn down to her very core to discover their bodies there, in Fort Drakon, because it had reminded her of the people she had fought for all this time, and had eventually managed to avenge. Not that Evelyn had ever forgot any of them, but directing her hatred toward Howe had been easier than remembering all the little details and everything she had lost, and so very missed. Less painful. Or, so she had believed, until no—

"Are you in need of aid, my child?" A voice and the touch of a warm hand upon her shoulder brought Evelyn abruptly back into the reality of here and now. Blinking, she gazed into the face of an elder woman smiling back at her, like Mallol always had.

"…Aid?" she finally managed, and belatedly noticed the tears streaming down her cheeks. Ashamed, Evelyn wiped them away.

"I couldn't help but notice your despondency," the chantry sister replied, her voice mellowed by age and tinged with kindness. "These are dire times we live in. Have you also lost people dear to you, like so many others here seeking the comfort of the Maker?"

Too many to count. "No. No, I have not." The lie slipped easily from her lips, almost as effortlessly as the straight expression now masking her vulnerability again. Evelyn smiled at her with practiced ease borne of years of political training. "But, I thank you for your concern nonetheless." Standing up, she hurried toward the exit, fleeing nearly as hastily as she had during her escape from Highever Castle, so long ago.

Though, as she passed a row of candles, Evelyn forced herself to stop her hectic flight, and took a moment to light two of them.

Painful remembrance of their loss notwithstanding, this was the least she could do for them.

.


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"You wanted to talk to me?"

Alistair had braced himself for many things when stepping into Eamon's study—being yelled at, or getting yet another long-winded sermon on how he needed to heed his duties—but certainly not that Eamon would approach him for an embrace.

"You are unhurt. Thank the Maker." Stiff and tense, he waited for the Arl's rare and baffling gesture of affection to be over. Unable to determinate if it was meant in a genuine way, or if it was yet another attempt to mold him to his wishes, Alistair blinked in bewilderment even as Eamon stepped away again. The whole situation felt awkward, especially after the hostile nature of their last encounter. Eamon, however, appeared to be unfazed by it, sat down, and pointed at the upholstered chair next to him. "Please sit down, Alistair."

In spite of everything inside of him struggling against it, he followed suit. The solid feeling of the furniture underneath him grounded and calmed him a bit, yet he could still feel his heart hammering in his chest. Neither of them knew how to start the conversation, if the stretching silence was any indication. "I think we have already established my disapproval of your risky undertaking to save your... fellow Warden," the Arl had finally started talking, and only paused as the door opened and a servant brought refreshments. With his head bowed, the elf placed the tray with tea and pastries on the table and scurried out of the room as quick as he had entered. "You could have been killed, or been captured yourself, and Loghain would have achieved an instant victory."

Of course. He should have known that the Arl would attempt to make this about politics and the impending Landsmeet. For a moment, Alistair had truly believed Eamon's concern had been genuine and directed at his well-being. How stupid of him. "As well, we have established that I don't care about your opinion in that matter."

"Yes, clearly." Eamon nodded, and leaned forward to pour himself a cup of tea. "And, with the distance of a night's sleep, I understand now how this was something you had to do, as foolish as it was."

"...You do?"

"As impossible as it may seem to you, I was once young myself. Hot-headed, even." Eamon smiled. "In a way, you remind me of myself, how I used to go to any length for the people I loved. It is an admirable trait, the way and intensity in which you care."

Alistair shifted in his chair. "Thanks... I guess. But, what is your real intention of needing to talk with me?"

"My real intention?" The Arl laughed out loud. "You make it sound so ominous, boy. I confess there is another pressing matter to discuss, of course, but I felt the need to address certain points first, for we didn't exactly part on friendly terms the last time we spoke."

"To put it mildly."

"Indeed. And, believe it or not, I'm very sorry for what happened to... Lenya. Yet another reason why we need to put a stop to Loghain's activities, don't you think?"

This was the first time the Arl had actually used her name, and it only gave him another reason to be suspicious of his motives. "What?"

"I'm no fool, Alistair. No matter if I like it or not, she is very important to you. If this is all that is holding you back from fulfilling your duties... by all means, keep her."

"Keep her?" Alistair's frown deepened. "Lenya is no goat or thing I possess at will, Eamon. She is a person, something you seem to like to forget!"

"I didn't mean..." Sighing, he put his tea cup down. "It is just... being king doesn't have to be as much a punishment as you make it look like, boy."

"So, that is what this is all about?"

"No, not at all. Please hear me out, before we discuss the other matter." Eamon raised his hands to placate the temper that was threatening to burst through. He only succeeded in part, for Alistair remained tense, distrustful. "You asked me why I was so interested in seeing you taking the throne, remember? I genuinely believe in you, Alistair, simple as that. Yes, you are untrained and, in hindsight, I wish your father would have acknowledged you, since it would have made everything easier now. But, all these things can and will be learned in time, especially with such a driven and hard-working mind such as yours. I'm aware that I have made many mistakes when it comes to you, which I regret now, believe me. And yet, in spite of my neglect, you have grown into a formidable man with a good heart, a down-to-earth worldview, and a great sense of justice. I really believe this is what Ferelden needs in a king, especially after the devastation of a Blight."

"I–" Whatever Alistair had expected to hear from Eamon, this hadn't been part of it. His posture relaxed, at least a little. All these years, he had yearned for acknowledgment from his foster father, yet now, when he had got it, he didn't know what to make of it. "...don't know what to say. Nor do I want to think about it yet."

"Understandably so, after the events of... last night," he nodded, leaning forward in his seat, "though the Landsmeet will take place in a few days, with or without... your fellow Warden. It is impossible to delay it any further. You are aware that we need order and clarity in regards to the throne succession in order to be able to deal with the Blight. And, while Anora is a powerful ally for us now, who can say she won't turn on us later like her father?"

Alistair hated the way Eamon used his words to appeal to him, to his emotions. Even more, he despised the fact of how well he had succeeded. Anora had become the proverbial red flag to him, since Lenya had had to suffer in exchange for the queen's freedom. Maybe it wasn't fair to put the blame on her for this, but he couldn't help doing so. "I know. It is just–" Alistair fell silent with a sigh. It was no use; he wouldn't understand. Obviously, Eamon meant well, and perhaps Alistair had mistaken his intent for some hidden agenda, but the same narrow-minded view of the Arl made a normal conversation impossible. He couldn't voice his doubts and fears without Eamon trying to find counter-arguments and, hence, declaring them invalid.

"As for the matter of the Landsmeet," Eamon continued, unfazed, "we need strong evidence against Loghain, or we will look like usurpers. And, fortunately, we might have found what we need."

"Oh?" he brought out, without much conviction. It was better to resign himself to the nature of the conversation now and get it over with, so he could return to Lenya's side.

"If your rash and dangerous actions yesterday had one good result–the rescue of Lenya aside, of course," the Arl added quickly, "it is what your friend discovered by mere chance."

"My... friend?"

"The red-head with the Orlesian accent, who snuck into the palace for the map?"

"Leliana?"

"Yes, yes." Eamon waved him off, impatient to return to the main topic. "However, while hiding from being discovered, she had the chance to overhear a very interesting conversation containing Loghain's involvement in some shady transactions."

Alistair couldn't suppress his bout of sarcasm, nor the rolling of his eyes. "Wow, what a surprise. And next you will be telling me that water is wet."

"No, don't you understand what that means? If we find these documents proving Loghain's involvement, we have the exact evidence we need for the Landsmeet."

"That is a lot of 'ifs' and 'woulds', to be true," Alistair said, pressing his lips together. "Of course it would useful to have those papers, but I can't even imagine where to start searching for them."

"In the Alienage."

"What?" He blinked, confused by Eamon's prompt and precise answer. "Why?"

"This is actually a lead I got from Anora. She seems quite eager to join forces with us against her father."

"And you trust her words? Just like that?"

The Arl nodded. "Since her reasoning was sound, I do. At least for the time being. I think it is hard to overlook how many people here are angry or grieving. And, according to Anora, Denerim has been in turmoil ever since Ostagar. Strangely, the unrest is worst in the Alienage. And, this is in spite of only a few elves accompanying the army, so normally they should have little reason to be upset about Ostagar's outcome. Anora thinks that Howe and Loghain must have given them reason to rebel. Perhaps it is the same thing connected to what your friend overheard, since the time window of whatever transaction was made would fit in here."

"Not to ruin your fancy theories, Eamon. But, isn't this a very wild guess out of the blue?" Alistair crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. "In fact, I have better things to do than to turn over every stone for some proof we don't even know if it really exists."

"I understand how reluctant you are to leave her side, especially at this point, though you also must see that we can't wait for her recovery to act here." Eamon stood up and started pacing up and down the room, his eyes never leaving Alistair. "Which is why I need you to look into this lead now and, if possible, discover and salvage the evidence of Loghain's involvement. Take your friend–Leliana–and some of your other people with you, for I have no doubt you could need their support."

Here we go again. Though, instead of Lenya, it was now him being commanded around, without much choice or room for his own input or doubts. How frustrating it was to be at its receiving end. He couldn't help but wonder how Lenya managed to deal with this all the time. Eamon took his silence for hesitance. " I know you are well capable to lead, boy. Even without her."

But, I don't want to. The whole without her part bristled deep inside of his guts, felt wrong, and jarred in its meaning. Yet, Alistair was aware of needing something other than his words against Loghain to prove the regent was indeed guilty of his long list of crimes. As annoying as it was, politics needed facts and proof to give words weight and meaning—something he might or might not find at the end of Eamon's given task. Sighing, Alistair resigned himself to his fate. "Fine, I'll go. It is not as if I have any other choice, right?"

"Not if you want to hold Loghain accountable for all that he has done."

Great, yet another attempt of the Arl's to appeal to his emotions. "I will be, at least, allowed time to armor up and gather my people, I hope?"

The Arl chuckled, ignoring the biting tone in his words. "Certainly, Alistair. But, be careful, since we don't know what to expect there."

We? He rather meant me, his mind applied, cynical of Eamon's word choice. "Most generous, really," he said aloud instead and, with an exasperated puff of air, strode to the door. Finally, Alistair could understand Lenya's hesitance toward leadership, now that this task and its full responsibility was being forced upon him. It wasn't a good feeling–not at all–in spite of its obvious necessity. A part of him couldn't help but think of his possible kingship in similar terms and manner, even if the bigger part–borne of years of self-deprecation and doubt–still refused to deal with its mere possibility.

With his hand on the doorknob, he mentally prepared himself for what was about to come. Him. Being a leader. Without her at his side. Alistair imagined Lenya's reaction if she could see him now, right in this moment. She would roll her eyes and make her typical, sarcastic remarks meant to push him just enough to find his own strength buried underneath all these doubts. This was her very own effortless way with which she made him feel capable of anything. The imagery remarks elicited the first smile out of him ever since the last time he'd held her, whole and healthy. Only days had passed since then, but it already felt like a lifetime.

Shaking off this particular thought, but leaving the ghost of her presence at his side, Alistair pressed the handle down.

Yeah, I know, Len. Time to wear the big pants.

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