Trigger warning for a (very brief) discussion about rape at the end. Author's note is to find at the end of the chapter this time. Thx to Suilven for her never-ending beta work of this chapter and story. You, and all who are still reading, are the best.

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I'm beyond tired. I'm beyond scared. I stay on the mouth of hell and it is going to swallow me whole. And it will choke on me.

Buffy Summers; BtVS, Bring on the Night

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Chapter 108: Running Out Of Time

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Lenya endured the visits of her companions and their relief at her survival with blank-faced indifference. It certainly was not a grateful, nor fair attitude toward her friends, but she couldn't work up the energy to care. The stream of well-meant words and curious looks she tried to avoid – because they felt too much like pity – only ended once Wynne managed to usher everyone out.

As the door closed with the last visitor behind it and silence descended upon the room again, Lenya let out a sigh, relieved to be free of their scrutiny. "Thank you."

Sitting down next to her bed, Wynne chuckled lightly. "You are quite welcome, dear. While I'm very happy to see you up and about like the rest of them, I'm also keen on insisting that you still get some rest. So, getting the lot of them out of here was in my interest as well." She inched closer, pointing at her back. "May I?"

Hesitantly, Lenya nodded and pulled her tunic up to give the healer better access. Yet, despite her mental preparation for it, she still flinched as she felt the mage's probing touch. Though, oddly, the contact wasn't as bad, nor as unbearable, as Alistair's. Probably because she was well-aware of the touch belonging to an elderly woman instead of a human man, and done with the intent to heal, instead of hurt. "N-no, I mean for everything," she remembered to say, her shoulders tensing. "I thought I would die for sure this time."

"And you would have..." Wynne trailed off, ceasing all movements for a moment. "...if not for Morrigan's refusal to remain with us as we hurried through Fort Drakon to your rescue. She reached you first and treated you long before I was able, due to her ability to shape-shift. I may not condone her often haughty and callous behavior, nor the way she looks upon and uses her magic, but I'm actually grateful for her impatience that night."

Only now, Lenya noticed that Morrigan hadn't been in the constant stream of visitors. Then again, it wasn't her way to stand patiently and smiling next to her bed like Leliana did. The witch would rather scowl and call her an idiot for her actions, and perhaps even smack her upside the head with her staff. Lenya's mouth twitched into a smile at this thought, however brief. "Yeah, me, too."

"The rest," Wynne continued, both with words and her inspection of the healing process, "was just me doing my job, though I thank you for your kind words all the same. I confess it wasn't easy to keep you alive at times, but you, my dear, did your part in it as well. You are a fighter through and through and I understand better with each day why Duncan recruited you into the Wardens, instead of leaving you to your mortal fate."

"Which is actually ironic," Lenya swallowed and shifted uncomfortably, "because hope is a fickle thing and I had none left anymore of escaping alive. I... tried it on my own, but I failed, and was taken back to... to–" Her voice broke, and she was unable to speak. Pictures of that place intruded on her mind once more, including the cruel sounds of screaming prisoners and the stench of death. Her whole body shook, trembled like a leaf, and she hated how she just couldn't stop.

"Ssh," Wynne hushed softly; the hum of healing magic lingered in the air, then blessedly diverted and scattered the images again. Lenya breathed out in relief, well aware that Wynne's usage of magic hadn't been for healing purposes, but to distract her. "In fact, I'm impressed how well your many wounds have healed already," the mage said, probing Lenya's shoulders, arms, and hands for mobility. They ached with the movement, yet otherwise felt as flexible as if none of the bones within had ever been broken, much to the Dalish's amazement.

"Perks of being a Warden, I guess. One of the very few. We... heal much more quickly, which is direly needed, by the way."

"Indeed." Wynne nodded. "Though some scars will remain, I'm afraid, and with that I don't mean only these on your skin."

Immediately, the Dalish tensed, arms wrapped around herself in protection. "Don't worry," Wynne added, her voice soft. "I will refrain from asking you for details about the ordeal you endured," her tone took on a sad nuance, "for I have already seen enough, considering your injuries. I'm so sorry."

"Yeah..." Lenya shrugged halfheartedly, unwilling to say more. And, with the mage, she didn't need to either. Like Wynne said, she had already seen every cut, lash, and burn, every blow they'd etched into her skin in the name of their so-called 'interrogation.' She wasn't sure how she should feel about that, but was grateful for the mage's tact all the same.

"It is just... I look at you sometimes, and you are so young." Wynne sighed, her brows furrowed into a worried frown. "You face death every day and you know you are unlikely to live long... does it frighten you? To tell the truth, I do not know if I could do what you do."

Lenya laughed out loud in surprise at the question, without mirth, growing angrier with each word. "I'll deal. Somehow. It is not as if I have a choice, right? There is simply no time for me to curl into a ball and pity my crappy life. I have to march on until we face and kill the archdemon, easy as..." She halted to inhale, to calm her tone and nerves. It didn't help much. "Perhaps after that, I will have time to rest, whether in death or otherwise. I don't know. It just seems pointless to think about the future right now." I'm not allowed to, her mind added, annoyingly blurring her sight. She averted her gaze from the elderly mage and blinked the tears away. The thought of Alistair, and the words spoken between them, only added to the despondency that was so rapidly taking hold of her.

"Yes, things are coming to a head fairly quickly, aren't they?" Wynne possessed the tact to not comment upon her outburst. Instead, the mage rose and stood a bit away from her, and began grinding herbs within a mortar to a fine paste at a nearby table. "Everything we've worked for, for almost a year, will come to fruition soon, for better or worse." She filled a cup with the mixture, poured water inside, and heated it with her magic. "Here, drink this, my dear."

Leaning forward, Lenya sniffed at the concoction and wrinkled her nose. The bitter-sweet smell of elfroot wafted toward her, among a multitude of fragrances she didn't recognize, none of them pleasant. "It is a herbal potion meant to neutralize the poison used on you; well, mostly herbal. Zevran and Morrigan helped me in creating the right mixture."

"Great." She arched both eyebrows at the mage. "And, seeing I'm obviously not poisoned any longer, I should drink this...why?"

"Simply as a measure of caution, if you will. Poison can have nasty after-effects, even long after the last dose was given. And, the one in your bloodstream was a quite strong one."

"Nothing as strong as my taint, I'd wager." Shrugging, she took the cup and started sipping carefully. She made a face. It tasted as awful as it smelled. "You should know by now that she is a jealous bitch, not tolerating any other poison besides her own in my blood."

"A small blessing in this case then," Wynne humored her. "Besides, it should have a calming effect on you as well, for better sleep. Maker knows you need all of your strength for the Landsmeet tomorrow."

Lenya snorted. "I need much more than foul-tasting tea for that."

"So, I suppose you have spoken with Alistair?"

There was no beating around the bush with the mage as there were no boundaries to her curiosity, as always. "I have, at last," Lenya admitted, shoulders slumping. "Apparently, we have developed different directions for our future in a matter of a few days. …If there even is such a thing for me at all, that is."

"Alas, I can't say I'm very surprised to hear this," Wynne said, bestowing her with a sympathetic look. "Yet, I'm very sorry indeed to see it happen."

"Yeah." Her fingers clasped tightly around the cup, as if wanting to use its warmth to dispel the chill suddenly taking hold of her whole being. She knew its sensation well enough, having felt its iron grasp around her heart far too many times already. It was the one of impending loss, haunting her again with its presence. "Me, too."

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~V~

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After Wynne had left, Lenya spent a long while pacing around the perimeter of her room in a hectic, restless manner. While she felt the herbal concoction buzzing pleasantly within her system, it wasn't enough to take away her nervous energy, nor those thoughts. She needed the movements to be able to breathe, to realize for herself that she was no longer bound in chains. There was anger, too, seething inside like a flame ready to burst and devour everything in its way. Lenya didn't know how to deal with this rage inside of her, found herself wanting to smash something. And, to break down or cry or lament about the injustice of life, possibly all at once.

Finally pausing, Lenya stared out of the large, arched window in her room. She had opened it in the hope of fresh air, though only the stench of garbage greeted her, mixed with the swelling heat of summer. She hated this city, and everyone inside of it; she still felt as caged within its sea of endless stone as she had before her confinement. Being in Denerim had brought her nothing but pain and sorrow, not to mention the tedium of shemlen politics. Even the only good memory of spending her first night with Alistair in the Pearl would get besmirched by the Landsmeet and his impending kingship tomorrow.

Lenya was sick of staying here, and wanted none of it, though no one, not even Alistair, seemed to care about this fact. Their far-reaching plans already made, she was confronted with a fait accompli, with no other options possible.

...Or, was there?

This sudden thought caused her to halt, her eyebrows knitted into a frown.

"I'm so glad to see you up and about," a voice said, catching her attention. Looking up and shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun, Lenya saw Evelyn standing next to the entrance, smiling. A Cousland she was, human and noble, everything Lenya was not. The surge of frustration and hatred following this thought, both unwelcome and unfair, caused her to lash out at the unexpected visitor.

"Will you be the one to marry him then?"

"What?" Confused, Evelyn stared at her. "What in the Maker's name are you talking about, Lenya?"

"Alistair, of course!" Lenya snapped at her, then paused a moment. Closing her eyes, she counted to five to get her temper back under control. It wasn't fair toward the human, nor was it her fault. As she reopened them, Evelyn stood in front of her, still wearing the same bewildered expression.

"This is about the Landsmeet, I suppose?"

"Yeah..." Lenya breathed out, dispelling her anger. At least momentarily. "And, sorry, I shouldn't have..."

"What?" Evelyn arched an eyebrow, her mouth twitching upward. "Be angry that your fellow Warden has turned around his stance on kingship in a matter of days? I say you damn well have a right to be."

"No. Snapped at you, I mean."

"Oh..." Rounding on Lenya, she leaned herself against the windowsill, covering most of the sunlight with her lean and tall frame. "I see. Don't worry. No offense taken." Evelyn crossed her arms. "Do you mind me asking where you got the ridiculous idea from that my goal in life is to become Alistair's wife and queen? No offense, since he seems nice and all, but no. And, no." She paused, for good measure. "By the way, did I mention no?"

The disarming way of how Evelyn denied any interest in an engagement with Alistair made Lenya smile, though it vanished all too quickly. "I'm Dalish, but I'm no daydreaming fool detached from the reality of your world. Being a Warden for almost a year during a Blight does that to you, I guess. And, thanks to Arl asshole, I learned early enough that a human keepe– …king has to have an eligible bride to bond with, for his heirs. Eligible means–" She fell silent, biting the insides of her mouth. Since when had that shemlen's words had any meaning for her? And, most of all, when had she started to feel shame instead of pride about her heritage? It was getting more absurd with every minute that passed, thanks to the pesky humans with their fucking rules and politics.

"Not Dalish, nor elven." Not a question, but Lenya still nodded weakly." You know what? Fuck him."

She looked over at the human, frowning. "Not that I don't endorse this notion, but haven't you promised Eamon your vote?"

"No." Evelyn shook her head. "I promised to vote against Loghain in the Landsmeet, and that is a given, considering his involvement with Howe. And while my family traditionally always supported the crown, I don't give a damn who is sitting on the throne in the end." She shrugged, smirking. "After surviving almost a year on your own achievements means that you couldn't care less about petty politics any more, you know?"

"Creators, you are probably the first sensible human I have met outside of my companions." After a little pause, the Dalish added, "As far you can count them as sensible or normal, that is."

"As far as I can tell, your companions are great. They care a lot about you; all of them, even the golem who, by the way, blocked Alistair's door with its giant frame to hinder him from running after you and to his certain death, because, and I quote, 'The clown-knight's demise would make the painted Warden Elf sad'." Falling silent, her eyes widened. "Oh Maker, please don't tell it that I blurted that out."

"Yeah," Lenya smiled, fondly. "That sounds like her. And, yes, the golem is a she, or more like, was. Long story… Anyway, your secret is safe with me. Shale will have enough other heads to squish soon and will forget about yours."

"That is a relief, since I like my head where it is, thank you very much." Evelyn wrinkled her nose in jest and the many freckles on her face danced with the movement. The human looked even more youthful than a few days ago; the dark circles under her eyes and the harshness in her expression had finally vanished. Only the scars crisscrossing her cheeks and lips told of the hardships she had suffered, though these were a trait they (now) both shared, as well as the many scars which remained invisible, she supposed.

"However," Evelyn continued, "I hope you are aware that the support of my brother – the rightful heir as Teyrn of Highever – and mine, is for you, not Eamon. It is a small, but important difference. I... owe you a lot, you know?"

Lenya perked up at that, oddly relieved to hear this. "So, your brother is okay?"

"Well, he obviously still needs time to recover, but he'll live." Evelyn smiled at her. "Thanks to you."

"More like thanks to Wynne. She saved both of us, your brother and me. In fact, without her healing arts, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now." Sighing, Lenya's eyes shut closed, momentarily thrown back to that place, with its dirt, darkness, and pain. Taking a deep breath, shefought against the imagery intruding her vision with every fiber of her being. No. No. No.

"Yeah. I saw you... " The human bit her lip, unsure. "I mean... I'm sorry for what happ–"

"I don't need your pity!" She cut her off, her temper flaring.

"Good," Evelyn replied curtly, the warmth gone from her voice. "I'm not here to give you any." Then, as to get rid of the shift in mood, she shook her head. "Never mind. By the way, what do you think of Anora Mac Tir?"

"The human queen?" Lenya wrinkled her forehead, bewildered at the sudden change of topic. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, Alistair's opinion of the queen isn't exactly the best – to put it mildly. So, I wanted to hear what the other half of Ferelden's Wardens thinks."

"I don't mind Anora, actually," Lenya said, shrugging the question off though she was secretly pleased to be actually asked for her opinion for once. Everyone else lately, including Alistair, had only presented her with facts, without wanting or needing her input. "Then again, I would put a Mabari on the throne if it would finally end this tedium, and I could return to hacking darkspawn to pieces. I'm more than done with this shemlen nonsense."

"Duly noted." Evelyn chuckled, seeming to truly understand her frustration. "Not exactly a glowing endorsement for the queen, though."

"Nah. From what I gathered during my five minutes at her side, she is okay. Bit stilted perhaps, but I would be, too, if I had to deal with assholes like Eamon on daily basis." Lenya narrowed her eyes, feeling a surge of anger bubbling up. "Has the Arl already asked you to bear Alistair's heirs or will he actually manage to wait until after the coronation, I wonder?"

"No, he hasn't, or I wouldn't have stopped laughing yet, I ensure you." Her mouth twitched upward, amused. "Maker, what is it with you and your attempts to set me up with the man you so obviously love?"

Her gaze strayed into the distance, to the sparse trees in the courtyard hued in the orange of the descending sun. The lump forming in her throat made it hard to speak. "I don't want Alistair to be alone, if he becomes king. He will need friends like you at his side, someone honest, without ulterior motives like Arl asshole."

"But, what about...? Oh. Oh." She heard the human gasp beside her, but didn't turn to her. "You are not staying then, are you?" While posed as a question, it really wasn't one, since Evelyn was smart and perceptive enough to already know the answer to it. Lenya watched a large bird soar into the slowly reddening sky, and wished she could do the same; to be away and free of all the many burdens and complications which did nothing but rip away every bit of her being with each moment that passed, until nothing was left anymore, and she was a lifeless husk giving in to her fate.

"Or," Evelyn spoke up and tore away the silence which had settled in between them, "you could support Anora's claim to the throne instead. You know, just as a crazy thought."

Hastily, Lenya blinked some tears away to be able to face her. "What?"

"Like I said a while ago, Alistair isn't the only option." Smiling, Evelyn stepped away from the wall by the window. Using this momentum, she walked quickly across the room to its entrance. Stopping at the door, she turned to her again. "However, whatever you decide to do, Lenya, you have to do it quickly; for the Landsmeet will be tomorrow. I might not know you well, but I have noticed you aren't normally the type to give up just like that. If you were, we wouldn't even be having this conversation right now."

A pep talk. How ironic and odd it was to receive one from a human, and a noble to boot. Normally, this combination would be someone who would only ignore or belittle Lenya. Not Evelyn, apparently. "So, this was the reason for your visit?"

Evelyn snorted, her shoulders heaving into a nonchalant shrug. "Told you I wasn't here to pity you." For a moment, it looked as if she would leave, but then she paused once more. "Oh, one more thing: I used the last few days to find out everything I could find about the history of your journey."

"Okay." Lenya made a face. "A tad creepy, that."

The human laughed out loud, rolling her eyes in good humor. "To be adequately prepared for the Landsmeet, idiot. Thus, I know of Loghain's retreat at Ostagar and how he officially blamed the Wardens – you – for Cailan's demise. And, while Loghain is no politician, he might try to use this against the both of you to discredit the trustworthiness of your words. So, it would be better if you limit yourself to the facts and proof that has been gathered and don't mention Ostagar at all in the Landsmeet tomorrow."

"Oh, believe me, if I face this shem'alas tomorrow, " Lenya threw her a dark glower, "Ostagar will be the least of his problems."

"Yeah." Evelyn sighed at her suddenly aggressive tone and manner, all humor gone. "I noticed that, even without the latest events, there is a lot of history betw—"

"History?" Lenya let out a sneer, her hands closed into fists at her sides. "I think you have to look up its fucking meaning. History is when you part with someone on good or bad terms and then see them again after a long time. However, 'history' is not to be thrown at the feet at these..." Her voice cracked, their jeering ringing in her ears again. "These... monsters, who were too bored to even keep up their charade of questioning long enough to satisfy their master's paranoia!"

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have–"

"No, you fucking shouldn't have!" She had intended to push herself past the human but, in doing so, she swayed on her feet, all dizzy from the voices and laughter replaying in her head. Hands, belonging to Evelyn, steadied her and hindered her fall, unprompted. Unsure of whether to hold on or let go, they lingered in between, while Lenya attempted to resurface from yet another panic attack.

Was that her life now, was that what they had reduced her to?

The nails from her balled fingers bit fiercely into her flesh, so hard that she was pressing them together in the search for control. "I'm fine," she brought out in between gasps, her heart still hammering. With a few slow breaths, the cruel images at the edges of her vision finally retreated.

Lenya shook herself sharply and straightened up, away from the human. "I'm fine!" she repeated with all the defiance she could muster. It was not much, nor enough, if the undisguised pity in Evelyn's eyes was any indication. Creators, she hated that look, and had been at its receiving end ever since awakening from certain death, or, what she had thought and expected to be her end, more like. Now, up and about in this laughable caricature of what had once been her life – or a resemblance of it – she wasn't even sure anymore if a mortal outcome of her imprisonment wouldn't have been better. Easier, certainly.

Lenya was tired, so fucking tired, of standing up again each time after being roughly put down by yet another absurd and hurtful complication that the world loved to throw at her on a daily basis. It was such an asshole, that world. It had already been so hard to go on after running into the twisted version of what had once been her best friend. But, now? Impossible didn't even begin to describe it. Then again, she had always had a knack for the impossible, to bend and twist the rules, and... fuck. Her eyes narrowed at the woman still looking at her, now openly befuddled. Curse her. And, her damn words were now coursing through her veins like the pesky taint did, yet another life-ruiner. Though, on Lenya's long list of misery and problems, dying young due to taint poisoning was currently way, way down there, long past shithea– Loghain still drawing breath, the archdemon with its huge-ass army of darkspawn, and, oh right, the king thing.

Which reminded her.

"If you will excuse me now, I must go talk with the queen." Not caring for a reaction, nor an answer out of the noble, Lenya stormed out the door.

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~V~

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Great. Now... what?

Once out of her door and within tangible reach of Anora's room, Lenya started to doubt the grandness of her half-baked plan; not that she really had any other bullet points on her list beyond 'talk with the queen.' Perhaps, also: to not be seen by Alistair, nor by any of Eamon's goons. Wait, when had she started to think of him in that term? Lenya didn't know, but guessed it must have been somewhere in between her being unconscious and him wanting to decide the future for both of them. Hence, it would only be fair of her to return the favor, or to at least attempt it, consequences be damned.

Evelyn – curse that perceptive human – had been right; she wouldn't sit idly by and twiddling her thumbs while others played their games with her life. Shitty as it was, it was still hers. And, as long as she had a heart, and a mouth to steer its direction, she damn well would. Which, brought her to the problem of what to tell the queen, exactly. After nearly a year at his side, Lenya was well aware of Alistair's unmatched ability to hold a grudge. She had already surmised he had used his free time, after ensuring himself that she would live, by doing a complete turnaround on fucking everything they'd discussed before, and letting the queen know of his utter disdain for her. Fen'harel, she wouldn't even be surprised if he had declared that he was going to present her with Loghain's head on a platter.

It was not that Lenya objected to the notion of that pesky shem paying for his crimes but, considering the fact that he was Anora's father, this would be more than just a bit morbid of a declaration. Plus, it would be so not helpful in getting the queen's support for the shitmee– Landsmeet. Gods help her, all of them, but if she could just manage to get through this whole ordeal without slaughtering the entirety of Ferelden's nobles, she could live with any outcome.

Well, almost. Which, was the reason why she was here in the first place.

Turning the corner, she paid heed to stay in the shadows, to not be seen. Lenya had to suppress a sigh, which certainly would have given her away. Of course the queen's door was guarded. A human man, almost as tall as he was broad, clad in armor with a sword at his hip, was blocking the entrance.

Lenya was still pondering what to do about the unexpected and annoying appearance of Mr. Tin Man when there was a suspicious flash of movement down the hall; suspicious for the guard, that was. He was not the brightest fellow either, for he immediately left his post to check out its source. She kept to the shadows and waited for the human to pass her by. When he did, he didn't even notice her presence, nor anything amiss beyond the mysterious sound down the hall. Creators, the security here certainly was lousy. Lenya hoped the queen had ordered the guard to stand there for some other reason other than the protection of her life, or else she might want to reevaluate the so-called abilities of the people guarding her. With the man momentarily gone, Lenya slipped into Anora's room.

Now that had been the easy part.

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~V~

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Eamon's estate was eerily quiet.

It was the kind of stillness that only happened before a life-altering event, Anora knew. One way or another, everything would be decided and settled tomorrow. A gathering of nobles for a Landsmeet had become routine for her in these past five years of ruling, but the situation right now was anything but normal: the Blight, and a civil war on top of it; her father gone mad and she at the mercy of Maric's bastard and his relentless supporter in form of Arl Eamon. Wonderful. It was no surprise that she felt some resemblance of apprehension about the day to come, in spite of her obvious experience. Sighing, Anora leaned back in her upholstered chair and silently mulled over the possibilities and plans she had developed. None of them was ideal, but she was certain if she only –

"We need to talk."

Anora blinked once, then slowly a second time, before the recognition of the person suddenly standing in front of her finally kicked in. "Warden?" she managed, caught in between disbelief and astonishment at seeing the elf appear in her room.

"Yeah, glad you haven't forgotten about me," the Dalish said, and blew a now non-existent strand of hair out her face – probably an old habit. Her prior long, blonde hair was now cut short, and tousled. She wore only simple linen instead of her armor, and the oversized fabric hung loosely over her small, but wiry form. The residual hue of multiple bruises still marked her face, as well as scars that hadn't been there before.

Her gaze, however, spoke of a determination and defiance not unlike her fellow Warden, yet somehow different. Her eyes were haunted and wild, like a person who had seen and experienced too much for her young age. 'A child playing at war,' her father had called the Dalish once, though her brief encounter with her at Howe's estate, and her unlikely survival in Fort Drakon, had already proven to Anora that she wasn't to be underestimated… which still didn't explain the Dalish's impudent intrusion into her chambers. And where, by the Maker, was that blasted guard?

"As relieved as I am to see you on your way to recovery, Warden," her eyes narrowed at the elf, "I'm certain there is nothing we have left to discuss. Your... fellow Warden made this abundantly clear."

"I'm not Alistair," she simply stated, waiting.

"I'm well aware of that, and yet you share his presumptuous manner in barging into my room, unasked. Is this lack of respect for personal space some basic requirement of becoming a Warden, or rather part of the initiation?"

"Nah. Mostly it is just drinking darkspawn blood and hoping not to die, but thanks for asking."

The Warden's flippant manner and the utter lack of respect toward her and the situation at hand threw Anora off-guard for a moment. Finally regaining her bearings, Anora whipped her head toward the door. "Gua—"

"I don't want Alistair to become king." The Dalish cut off her words, effectively stopping her. It was a tactic well-known to the Warden, for she stood in front of her, hands on her hips and smirked. "Got your attention, haven't I?"

The oaf of a guard stumbled into her room not a moment later, in spite of her unfinished call for him. "Your Majesty?" Much to Anora's surprise, the place where the Warden once stood was now empty. She frowned. How did she move tha – Anora shook the thought off and decided to play the role of the innocent monarch scared of her own shadow for the man, who still waited for an order. "I-I was wrong. I just thought there had been... something. Must only be my nerves." She waved him away. "Return to your post and see that I'm not disturbed."

"As you wish, my queen." The man nodded and, very loudly, turned to leave.

Anora let her gaze roam through the vastness of her private room, yet still couldn't find the hiding place of the Warden. How in the Maker's na–

"You truly ought to select your guards better." Stepping out of a shadow Anora hadn't even considered to be one, the Dalish grinned lop-sided at her startled expression. "He is a total idiot."

"Shht," she chastised the Warden, pulling her to the furthest corner of her room. "Or do you want him to return?"

Her grin broadened, but at least she lowered her voice. "So, I really got your attention, huh?"

"Let's say, I'm willing to... humor your notion, absurd as it may be," Anora said, doubting her intent. "How can I be certain you are telling the truth, especially after Alistair's dramatic and hostile scene?"

"You don't." Her non-committal shrug and ease toward her was maddening. "But, I'd heard somewhere that this is what politics is about; taking a risk, making allies with unlikely partners to achieve a common goal. Well, I'm not sure about the weight of my voice within a hall of shemlen bickering, but I'm all the more certain about the common goal thing. I want you to stay on the throne."

"And I'm certain this has nothing at all to do with the kind of relationship you have cultivated with your fellow Warden..."

With an odd satisfaction, Anora observed how her cool facade slipped at that. The Dalish was playing a role and wasn't doing too shabby in keeping it up, either. Yet, Anora was too experienced with such a display to fall for it. "My reasons are my own, but I can assure you that I plan to put as much distance as possible between me and shemlen politics once this is over. " She turned around, facing away from the queen. With the motion, Anora noticed the very slight limp in one leg, and the way she favored the opposite shoulder. Considering this new piece of information, her quick movement out of the sight of the guard had been all the more impressive. "If..." she put emphasis on the word, "I can take Alistair with me, then I wouldn't complain." Anora heard her swallow and take in a sharp breath. "He is all I have left."

The Warden fell silent then, struggling with the ensuing emotions of her unexpected admission. Anora took the moment to evaluate the veracity of her words, and decided she could not have enough experience or guts to pull off such a display as merely an act in order to get her support in court. Besides, there was a genuine and desperate note within her tone that the elf couldn't even hide under layers and layers of rehearsed nonchalance. Love was obviously the Warden's biggest and most glaring motivation to seek her out for an alliance, even against the wishes of her fellow Warden.

Or because of those wishes.

Anora liked her sense of realism. The Dalish must be aware of the role she would have, were Alistair to ascend to the throne. Then again, she never took her for an unworldly dreamer, who might think of herself as the first elvish queen, or some other foolish impossibilities. Warden or not, the rules of politics and society were narrow, often frustratingly so, especially for someone of her kind. Not only was she elvish, but she also followed another belief other than the Maker. They were two traits which would make life at court a great hardship for her, which she apparently didn't want in the first place. Intriguing.

"Neither do I plan to spend my life as a thing on the side," she continued, equally honest and unexpected, and confirming Anora's suspicions about her motivations, "or as the other woman beside some human queen he'd need to take. Hence... it is all or nothing for me."

The other woman...

Anora shouldn't sympathize with her wish to not share her lover's bed with another woman, but she had. While she had officially been the first woman, his queen, Cailan had always had his fair share of affairs and mistresses; more than often, shamelessly so, since discretion had never been Cailan's strong suit. She suppressed the wish to frown, instead deciding to keep her tone light. This wasn't the place, nor the time to curse her dead husband. And, as impossible as he had been, she still missed him. Maker, had it really been a year already?

"Maric's boys are charming, aren't they?" she said, testing the water. "And happiest when they have a woman to dote upon."

The Dalish whirled round to her, confused. "What?" To Anora's surprise, a snort followed. "And, yes, to answer your question. But, more often than not, I feel the wish to strangle his stubborn, human ass with his frustrating black and white view and his newly developed savior-compl–" The tips of her pointed ears actually turned beet red as soon she caught herself rambling on. Then the blush gradually continued to spread over both sides of her neck, reaching her cheeks last. It was something she had only seen with Erlina once, long before the elf had mastered the needed countenance as her lady-in-waiting. Unprofessional perhaps, but disarming in a way.

Maybe this was also why Anora couldn't help a smile. "That notion, I understand. You see, Cailan was reckless, impetuous, and charming. Had he not been king, he would have made a dashing rogue for a band of players." Then, clearing her throat, the smile vanished. "However, let us not digress too far. The night is short and the Landsmeet is closing in." Anora wanted to return to the initial topic, for this here, right now, was increasingly becoming too personal and too close for comfort. And while she trusted Len– the Warden's sincerity concerning her motives well enough now, it could be a fatal mistake to let her guard down.

Obviously, she didn't get the message. "For what it is worth, I'm sorry for your loss."

Sympathy. Anora searched for an intent beyond that in her words and tone, but came up empty. It was such an odd notion to receive it in the midst of all the chaos and the factions that had formed. The Dalish seemed to be somewhere in the middle of it all, and perhaps the truth of her words was also to be found there. "It was more than just my own loss," she managed, "but, I thank you all the same."

"You still believe this is some trick, do you?" the Warden said and, for once, Anora was the one under scrutiny. Her head cocked, emerald green eyes sized her up and observed her form, with some amusement glinting within. "If you believe I want to gain your sympathy and support with honeyed words and pity, then you really overestimate my subtlety. Besides, I don't peg you as stupid enough to fall for it, either."

"I see." Anora nodded, her lips twisting upward. "Yet, you can't fault me for being cautious after your fellow Warden made such a scene. You two are very close, after all."

"Doesn't mean we always share the same sentiment, or I wouldn't be here. What happened..." Her voice faltered subsequently like the lightness within her expression, and she struggled to continue. "Surrendering, in order to buy time for everyone else to escape, was my decision. Unlike Alistair, I don't blame you for anything that happened to me."

"Who do you blame then?" Anora prodded further, already surmising the answer. The Warden's uneasiness increased once more, her gaze straying away into the distance. With the facade gone for good now, it was too easy to recognize the lie about to form on her lips, or at least her unwillingness to answer.

"My father." It came out as a sigh, weary in its length. "It was unjust of him to keep you imprisoned and I understand your anger, but he–"

"Then spare me your words or reasoning for his deeds, Your Majesty." With narrowed eyes, her tone suddenly grew cold and distant. "I don't want to hear that all that shem did was for the good of Ferelden, nor that he hasn't been always like this and was a loving father once. I don't want to hear it!" Stopping herself, the Dalish breathed out, in an attempt to curb her temper, no doubt. "You know, long ago, upon my unplanned return to a destroyed Lothering, I found a survivor within the chaos, hidden down in a cellar. A human child, to be exact. She couldn't have been more than five or six years old, at most. She'd hid from the darkspawn ravaging her village for days, possibly a week or longer. All alone. She called me a hero upon finding her and knowing me to be a Grey Warden." The elf swallowed, her breath hitching. "She was also sick with the Blight."

"I... don't follow. What does this have to do with my father?"

Wrapped up in her story, the Warden continued her monologue as if Anora hadn't questioned its intent at all. "My duty – Creators, how I loathe that word – as a Warden was to end her suffering, because it would only get worse, I knew. So, it would be a mercy, right?" She scoffed, her eyebrows creased to a pained frown. "But, for all my good intent, after killing her, I didn't feel less a murderer. I learned on that day, how the end doesn't justify the means."

"I see what you mean now, even if your story was a bit abstract to illustrate your point. It is what my father does, because he believes he is right. Like he thinks he is the only one who can see Ferelden out of its current crisis, despite it being one he helped engineer." Anora smiled wanly, feeling more than a pang of remorse about the rapid downfall of her father, who had once been a hero. She still loved him, always would. "My father is capable of remarkable blindness, but it stems from his love for Ferelden... That is the saddest part of all, I think."

"To some point, I even... get it. I'm not going so far as to say I understand shem –" She caught herself and used his name, though it came out through gritted teeth, "Loghain's actions, but I get the intent of it. Somewhat." The Warden looked up and fixed her with her stare, intense and pained. She couldn't pinpoint the purpose of her gaze, beyond her being dramatic, though the slight shiver running over her back told her that it hadn't missed its effect. "And, you must excuse me here for not being neutral when talking about your father since, by his hand, I have been forced to fight for my life – every day, for nearly a year, with only one other Warden left in Ferelden." Pausing, she trembled with the effort to continue, "And, then again, ironically branded a traitor and alone... in Fort Drakon."

Now, Anora comprehended the reason for her intensity, and the emotions within. The Warden had talked about Ostagar, about the loss of all her fellow Wardens who could have aided her in this war, which was now left to her responsibility alone. A heavy burden, indeed. She doubted that the elf was even trying to gain pity or sympathy from her with this story. Emotions notwithstanding, there was an unshakable conviction in her voice, presented as a fact. And, a fact it was, intertwining with her own loss there. At best, her father's retreat at Ostagar would be interpreted as a treasonous act by the Landsmeet; at worst, regicide, with him intending to kill Cailan. Despite all her inquiries toward him, she would never know his reasons for sure, given how withdrawn and single-minded Loghain had become. Another fact, one which hurt. "I will always be my father's daughter, but even I know he must pay for his crimes." Then quieter, she added, "It will not make me glad, even so."

"That, I understand." She nodded, no lie within, and then bit her lip, unsure. "Though I'm not certain it is up for me to decide your father's fate, nor how much weight my voice will have tomorrow, even with Cousland's help."

Anora raised an eyebrow and silently digested the new piece of information that had been given. Once their title was restored –unjustly taken from them by Howe in the first place– the Cousland siblings would return, and certainly thrive as the most powerful family in Ferelden besides the crown. The Warden seemed to not be aware of the influence her allies would have in the Landsmeet, despite, or because of, what they had suffered through Howe's lies and intrigues. While she had quickly learned to respect the Warden as a force on her own, this fact swayed her even more toward the decision of supporting the Warden's voice in the Landsmeet, which would mean, in return, going against her own father, who would certainly try to bring up her kidnapping as yet another heinous crime planned and carried out by the Wardens. It would be another of his lies, entangled and entwined with the ones he believed to be the truth. Yet, for all his faults, it wouldn't be easy for her to speak against him, from an emotional standpoint, emotions she couldn't and wouldn't let stand in the way of what she must do as a queen, not a daughter. For the good of Ferelden.

"Don't undersell your worth," Anora eventually said, and meant it. "You're a Grey Warden, the one who gathered many forces against the Blight on her own. And, despite the fact that my father will paint himself as the only one who can protect the country from the Blight, it is not so." She stopped for an intake of air and perhaps a little for dramatic effect. "Secondly, you saved Arl Eamon from a plot that no doubt had its origins in Howe's sick little mind. People will not forget that. You are competent and powerful, and in the right place at the right time. Used to your advantage, these things could bring you far."

"Flattery, your Majesty?" The Dalish's mouth twitched upward, the prior uncertainty forgotten. "Shall I return it now? You must excuse me, I'm not well-versed in the customs of humans and the court– heathen and uneducated as I am."

A jest, of course. And a witty one at that, for this parodied perfectly the way many nobles would see the Warden tomorrow. Anora appreciated her self-awareness. "I'm merely listing the facts of your achievements so far, Warden." She folded her hands behind her back, and started calmly walking back and forth. "If I'm honest, I see only the benefits of a mutual deal, perhaps even more for you than for me. After all, the Landsmeet will see you as my father's enemy and usurper, yet you will be in support of his daughter, which will make them look at you as supporting the interests of Ferelden as opposed to solely those of the Grey Wardens."

"And, you get to keep your throne. So, there is that..." Trailing off, a smirk bloomed on her face. "Besides, it will be a pleasure to wipe that smug grin off of Eamon's face. Now that will be a nice side effect of you staying ruler that I don't want to miss." Anora caught herself laughing out loud at that, though not until it was too late to stop it. The Warden didn't seem to mind. "Now, do we have a deal, your Majesty? Do you want me to sign something? Swear an oath?"

"I'm not certain," she replied, in good humor. "How do your people normally seal a deal?"

"We wait until it is a full-moon, then dance naked around the trees. After we have sacrificed a dozen human babies to our gods, of course."

"Alas, we lack the time to wait until the phase of the next full-moon, as entertaining as the thought might be," Anora said, wryly imitating the Warden's serious delivery of her quip. "So, I suppose a handshake has to suffice."

"Aww, too bad." Shrugging, the Warden made a step toward her and stretched out her hand. "So... deal?" The press of the Warden's hand upon her own was firm and rough; her fingers calloused through years of swordsmanship, most likely.

"Deal." Anora nodded, and hid another smile. The Landsmeet had just gotten a lot more interesting, and in her favor, at that.

.

.


.

Staying in the shadows and watching Lenya sneaking out of Anora's chambers, Zevran couldn't help but smirk. As silent and cautious as she was to not be seen, Lenya was a lot less subtle than she thought.

He fell behind, leaving enough distance between her and him, but without losing her trail. Driven by curiosity, he followed her to the courtyard of Eamon's estate. There, Lenya steered without hesitation toward the small training square of the guards, where she gathered two blunt training blades from a weapon stand, and started furiously hacking away at the thick, wooden dummies.

Zevran observed her relentless movements and noticed the reoccurring little hitch in her otherwise fluent steps. Despite her left being her main sword hand, she favored the other shoulder while whirling around – this was no doubt an aftereffect of her multiple injuries. Though she remained straight-faced and poised, her expression was focused on hitting the target again and again, without any sign of pain or discomfort. Lenya seemed to be working herself slowly but surely into a frenzy, perhaps to still the restlessness and wrath vibrating so very obviously under her skin. He surmised that Alistair was the source of both, her anger and her reason for visiting Anora.

Maybe it would better to leav – The thought was cut short by the dagger whooshing past his head, which bored itself into the bark of a tree behind him with a twang.

"Next time, I won't miss, Zev." Her voice was ragged, cracking with raw ire. "Don't watch me like a fucking creep."

In other times, he would have applauded this blunt act, but, now, her tone and rawness only gave him reason to worry. Shaking off the surprise, Zevran held his hands up, as if this would help to placate her belligerence. "Ah, you knew I was here the whole time?"

"You are less subtle than you think." He laughed out loud at this statement, so similar to his thoughts just minutes ago, though she remained cool and distant. "Creators, I was a Dalish hunter, for fuck's sake," she added, as if this would explain everything. And, perhaps it did, since sometimes he still made the mistake of underestimating her tracking abilities. Of course she would notice if someone followed her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to–"

"What?" Lenya snapped, drawing closer. "Spy on me? Are you that bored? Doesn't Leliana keep you busy enough?"

It was a low blow and, if their situation had been different, Zevran would have taken it for jealousy, though he could hear her challenge within; she wanted to place a jab that would sting. It was up to him to find out the reason why. "No, quite busy. Thanks for asking, however."

"Then why are you arsing around me at a distance? Come to chastise me for speaking with Anora?" Scowling, Lenya advanced yet closer, her gaze wild and furious. "Or, to pity me, like they all fucking do, all the whole fucking day long. 'I'm so sorry, Lenya, for what happened to you.'" She mimicked the others with a high-pitched, mocking voice, and ranted on. "No shit, I only nearly died, but thanks for noticing."

When Zevran remained silent to this kind of provocation, she pressed on, causing him to draw back until he hit the solidity of the tree behind him. Leaning in, the reflection of her and the stars above glinted within the steel of the weapon held to his throat, oddly beautiful in its forlorn, haunted image. This sort of aggression reminded him of his very first encounter with her after she had spared his life, blade on his neck and all. Although, back then, this bare hurt, and more than a hint of weariness, hadn't been present within her all-consuming wrath for the world. As blunt as the blade was, it didn't cut into his flesh, but it ached all the same and made it hard to breathe. Still, Zevran didn't move, didn't dare to. He only lingered and waited for her to continue, to verbalize all the things she clearly hadn't found an outlet for yet.

He was okay with being used like this, aware of how damn hard it must be for her to remain sane, to keep going. It took a special sort of a person to not break under the humiliation and pain suffered under torture. As an assassin, he had seen countless people shatter under its pressure, whereas she was still standing. "I don't need your fucking pity. You hear me?" Lenya screamed, her eyes narrowing. "I'm no weakling. I don't want your sympathy. I don't want to feel obliged to nod and be grateful for you giving it to me. I want none of it, least of all owing you something. Telling you that I'm fine, when–"

"...when you are not," he stated non-committedly, as if there were no blade or murderous Dalish pressed close to him. Again, in another time and place, this circumstance would have even excited him. Right now, it just twisted his heart in all the wrong ways, with plenty of the sympathy Lenya refused to take. Drawing back, she gasped, wide-eyed. The weapon previously held so firmly in her hands clattered to the ground.

"I'm... not," Lenya repeated numbly and whipped around, away from him. Zevran let her, aware of her needing space, though the silence stretched with her standing there, motionless and barely breathing, every moment an eternity in agony. Eventually, he approached and gently laid a hand on her shoulder. She flinched away from his touch, shaking, yet snapped around to face him with another scowl. "Don't touch me!"

Zevran nodded and retreated, and created the space she needed again. He understood, and yet wished, at the same time, to not understand the reason for her behavior. After enduring pain for a long period of time, he knew, even a mere touch could be unbearable, rewired and mistaken by the mind as harm. "When I was a boy and new to the Crows..." He swallowed, hating to stir such old memories, and yet did it, for her. "Or relatively new, that is, I failed my first task. Nothing difficult or major, just a case of pick-pocketing information about a target. You see, the Crows don't take kindly to failure, so I was whipped. Afterward, it took three men to hold me down while a healer tended to my wounds, because I didn't want to be touched." He scoffed. "Never failed a test after that, though it didn't hinder them from punishing me during my training. To steel me and make a true assassin out of me, detached of any emotions, they said. It worked, after I stopped defying them. And this was easier than to deal with than the alternative. I believed emotions were a weakness, until... Rinna. And, even beyond... her." He shrugged, more in the need to shake himself free of these painful thoughts and his past than real indifference. "Well, you know the rest, no?"

"Yeah," she breathed out. "I get it. You win the contest of whose life was shittier, no question."

"Ah, still needling me, I see," Zevran chuckled, taking no offense. "Shall I agree to a fist fight with you, or whatever might ease this overwhelming wrath inside of you?"

Her scowl warped into a frown, her teeth grazing her lower lip. "I don't know. It is just... I'm so fucking angry and I don't know where and how to direct it. And it won't go away; it is crawling under my skin like a thousand little ants. I feel... powerless in its intensity and yet I have to pretend that I'm fine. Or else, they will never stop hovering around me with this pity in their eyes that only makes me want to rage more. I can't stand the way they look at me, as if I'm a broken thing needing to be fixed." Lenya drew in a sharp breath. "Fuck that!"

"It tends to be annoying, isn't it? All these people with their worrying glances and–"

"Spare me your shitty sarcasm, asshole."

All right, he had walked right into that, unfortunately. "I wasn't being sarcastic, Lenya." Zevran deliberately used her name, to anchor her here with him and make him listen to his words. It worked, for she looked up, confused, but remained silent. "People around you do worry, because they – we– care about you. Very much so, my dear. And if you don't tell them how they should express this concern, they tend to hover and worry in their own way because they don't know how to handle this situation without your directions, so they fall back on the universal and familiar sympathy and pity."

Her shoulders tensed, her breath coming out as an indignant huff. "Now, I am the one to blame? Excuse me, I haven't exactly had any say or contr–"

"Brasca, no!" He cut into her words, horrified at the very idea. "I want you to take care of yourself. To let others take care of you in the way it is best for you... or not, and send them away again. You don't owe anyone an ounce of your time, you hear me?"

"Such a nice fucking thought, isn't it?" Lenya was grinding the words between her teeth, though he noticed the tremble within her breath. "Alas, it isn't feasible with the whole damn country depending on me." He heard the sound of gnashing teeth, and held her hard stare for what felt an eternity. Then suddenly, her eyelids started to flutter, and something seemed to crack within Lenya, within her very self. Shoulders slumping, her whole being traded defiance for weariness and desperation within this single movement. Zevran wasn't sure if he liked this swift shift of mood toward inevitable desolation. "I don't know how..." Her voice was tiny, swallowed in a whimper, and he knew instantly that she meant his request of taking care of herself. "I don't know where or how to work through this overwhelming anger, but... at the same time, I can't let it go."

Zevran made a step toward her, yet still mindful of her personal space. "For the alternative is so much worse, no?"

"Yes." It came out as a hiss, strangled and pressed out with so much more meaning than just a word. It was an admission of the pain dwelling behind the fury; her shield against the gruesome experiences, and the agony suffered, in the hours within Fort Drakon. It hurt him to see such a proud, strong woman falter like that, on her small shoulders weighed the bitter remembrance of that place and the burden of responsibility for a whole country alike. How long would she be able to go on like this, he wondered. Already, was she stronger than him, since when he had been confronted with a similar emotional anguish, he had sought a suicide mission to end the pain. "I can't," she whispered, as if reading his mind. "I can't deal with what lies underneath this... rage. Or else I will drown and never resurface again." Then, with a lot more anger and frustration, she added, "There is simply no time for me to break down and wallow in self-pity, in case you hadn't noticed."

"Then don't!" Zevran shook his head, his voice soft. "Amica, you have been awake for what? Hours, at best. No one is expecting you to be whole and happy again after what happened, nor is anyone pressuring you to deal with these events, except for yourself."

"Because I hate it!" Lenya admitted, the words brought out in a choked outburst. "I hate feeling this way, of being scared of everything, of re-living every fucking moment of what happened to me, again and again. I feel weak, displaced. I hate this... helplessness. I loathe how these monsters were able to get so far under my skin, crawling and crawling, never stopping." Gasping, Lenya sobbed and drowned. Maker help him, it cost him every bit of self-control ever learned to not step forward and take her in his arms, to console her. It hurt, ripping away at parts of his heart believed long dead before being reawakened by a certain bard. "And, I despise the fact that I wasn't the one who killed them and ended their filthy lives. I have been robbed of that, and so much more."

Zevran recalled the charred corpses of the guards within her cell tract, courtesy of Morrigan's magic and wrath. An image he held quite fondly in his heart, to be honest. And, if were possible, he'd have reanimated them once more, only to kill them again. And again. A million times, and in all the viable ways, until his own deep-seated resentment for them would be sated, not to mention Lenya's. Alas, it lay in the realm of the impossible and, hence, was no way for Lenya to regain her lost autonomy and control during her imprisonment. "So, that is why you cut your hair and chose to seek out Anora? A matter of regaining a bit of the control that had been completely taken away from you?"

Lenya scoffed past her tears, still bitter, yet also with a hint of humor. "You are awfully perceptive."

Zevran smiled, warm and honest. He was proud to have distracted her from the depth of her despair, if only momentarily. "Ah, I have my moments, my dear."

Her tear-filled eyes wide and seeking, Lenya looked at him as if he could tell her all the truths of the world. And, in this moment, Zevran wished he indeed that he could, yet his limited knowledge and opinion had to suffice. "Am I a terrible person for not wanting Alistair to become king? To meet and make a deal with Anora in secret?"

"For trying to preserve that small piece of normalcy still present in your life?" He raised an eyebrow at her, incredulous at the absurdity of her question. "You tell me."

"I don't know." She swallowed hard, searching for the right words to continue. "It is just... when I was in that cell, succumbing to my injuries and actually aware of dying, my last conscious thought was of him. How they didn't get him, how he could continue what we started. And... and, I was okay with that, I made my peace. I didn't expect to wake up again, ever." Lenya rubbed her face against her hand and sighed tiredly." So, imagine my surprise when I did, and even more so when I found out how a few fucking days turned around everything Alistair and I ever talked about."

Zevran only hummed his agreement, not wanting to interrupt her thoughts with his own. Truth be told, ever since returning from the Alienage, it seemed as if a switch had been flipped inside of him. Alistair had been a rather excitable little puppy about kingship these past days, and had dove head first into this topic, eager to learn. Oddly so, given his prior reluctant stance toward ruling. Perhaps this sudden wish was his substitution and distraction to postpone dealing with something deeper? For once, Zevran couldn't fathom his motivations, only that it went so obviously against everything that the woman he claimed to love believed in and wanted. Was he too blinded by the prospect and urge to help to recognize this?

"And I'm tired, Zev. So fucking tired." The desperation within her tone made him snap back to attention. "Tired of losing people close and dear to me. I can't... I can't do this again. But, this is exactly what would happen between Alistair and me, should he become king." Lenya snorted derisively, the anger returning. "Because I'm not that person, I'm not the woman who would be complacent with being the little elven fucktoy at the side of a human king. Nor do I want to be within any sort of reach of shemlen politics, which would become a crucial part of my life then. That isn't the life I'd imagine for me, should there even be a chance for one. And I'm... so disappointed that he is unable to notice this, so wrapped up in his fucking savior complex as he is."

"Have you told him that?" It was really the simplest conclusion and nudge he could offer her as a friend to avoid a buildup of drama, one she really didn't need in her life right now. Then again, with them, nothing was ever easy.

"It is complicated..." Of course. How could it ever not be, Zevran thought, and suppressed a snort of his own. Maker help him, he had grown fond of both Wardens – especially Lenya – despite every intention not to, but sometimes he just wanted to grab these two kids by their collars and shake them until they could finally see what was right in front of them. Although, regarding his own drawn-out situation with Leliana, he should probably be the last man complaining.

Still, it was frustrating.

"Alistair knows of my stance, one we shared for the longest time, I might add. I told him throughout our journey – multiple times – how far down being a mistress of a king was on my list of goals in life." Lenya pursed her lips in a sneer. "And, still after unexpectedly awakening from what I thought would be my end, and even more unexpectedly being reunited with him, he gives me his grand speech of how he saw the light regarding his kingship, and the bullshit promise of how nothing has to change between us. And, as cherry on the fucking cake, he is completely disregarding my opinion, or that it, in fact, would change everything, for both of us. Given that we survive this massive shitfest of a Blight, after we have traipsed about in the minefield of human incompetence, of course."

Zevran gave her an amused look. "Human incompetence?"

"Yes, humans. These little idiotic twits, who are too busy bickering at each other and crapping their silken pants in fear of the Blight that they need a Dalish Warden to solve their problem of succession. Or problems in general." She scoffed, her tone sardonic. "I do see a pattern here."

"Ah, but as far I remember," he said, humoring her, "the Landsmeet has been called, first and foremost, to remove Loghain from power."

"Oh, believe me, I haven't forgotten about that, " she replied with a glare, and a bit of the old Lenya flickered up in those eyes and expression of hers; the kind of woman and ruthless warrior who was capable of effortlessly shredding someone into a million little pieces for screwing her over, which Loghain had, in more ways than one. And, he was the living and breathing proof of only one of them, hired to kill her and all. The intimidating energy seemed to dissipate from her as quickly as it had come, yet Zevran anticipated its swift return, given her ambivalent mood right now. "Anora however," she continued, "is not the scheming and evil archdemon Alistair makes of her. She is actually a quite sensible woman, not to mention having ruled Ferelden for years already. Everyone who has managed such a feat must be either insane or competent, and she strikes me as the latter. Also... I don't blame her for what... happened to me."

"But, you blame Loghain." It was not a question at all, since the role of the perpetrator had been quite clearly assigned to him, even, or especially, amongst her companions. None of them doubted it for a minute that the Teyrn's demise would happen tomorrow, not least of all Zevran.

Lenya nodded. "And them." Despite the obscuring shadows, Zevran could see the muscle in her jaw jump as she clenched her teeth, hesitating. Night had claimed every ounce of light and the color of dusk for itself by now, and the stars sparkling overhead threw too little light for him to see his surroundings properly, if it weren't for his extended, elven sight.

Though, like him, Lenya didn't seem to mind, nor notice; she was too caught up in painful memories. The agony of it carved into and wrecked her expression; the new scars marking her right cheek and upper chin their silent witness. Her gaze strayed aimlessly into the darkness in front of her, away from him. Her fingers curled around the wood of the tall fence she held onto, and the toned muscles of her arms tensed and bulged with the intensity of her grip. Taking one hand away, she rubbed her forehead tiredly, letting the silence stretch. "You know... of all the things they have done to me, probably the worst of it for me was – aside from nearly fucking dying," Lenya laughed out loud sardonically, bitterness in every bit of its sound, "was how these fucktards managed to mess with my brain after all. Not only the panic attacks, which wonderfully puts me back into their loving hands each time, but the inability to... endure a simple touch."

"Did they..."

He could feel the wave of cold fury coming off her at the question, as she turned her face toward him, trembling. "What? Did they fuck me? Is that what you want to know, possibly in full detail?" Her stare caught his; unhinged, wild, and haunted. She recoiled from the genuine shock within his gaze with a snarl, shifting back to unbridled quivering. For once, Zevran broke her imposed rule of no touches, if only to anchor her here with him, to not lose her to the dark corners of her mind. It had the desired effect fortunately, for she snapped out of whatever nightmare was replaying in front of her eyes. He stepped away then, establishing and respecting her wish for distance once more.

"No..." she managed, hoarse and ragged. In spite of the relief this little word brought, he wasn't sure if he wanted to hear more. "I'd heard these assholes talking about it, of course, but I was only dimly aware of my surroundings at that time, poison and all." Pausing, the Dalish swallowed hard. "I guess this was one of the few times where me being tainted by darkspawn was actually a blessing because these shemlen assholes were afraid their tiny cocks would fall off if they even came near me that way, or something." Lenya was deliberately using profanity, he noticed. It seemed easier for her than to speak in her usual pattern; which was already colorful, but not as colorful normally. She did so probably because it helped her to distance herself from the events, aside from clearly expressing her righteous rage. She threw him a furious glare. "And you ask me why I regret nothing as much as to have missed my chance to shred them to pieces? Creators, I would give up one of my fucking kidneys for the possibility of going back right now and pissing on their filthy corpses."

Zevran held back the quip dancing upon his tongue, preferring to wait until she was done with her rant. Naturally, there was more. There always would be, justifiably so. "I hate them so damn much, and Loghain, for robbing me of everything. I can't even stand to be in the same room as Alistair because, every time I look at him, I keep seeing their revolting shit-faces instead of his." The rancor in her voice mixed with forlornness and plain misery. "And I hate this whole fucking world that keeps telling me how I'm never good enough, yet always makes demands of me to grovel at its feet and fix every one of their fucking problems. I'm so sick of it! When does it stop? When I'm rotting in some ditch?" Lenya blinked rapidly and struggled not to cry, but failed.

"...What about me?"

Only three little words, yet enough to not only shatter his heart, but also to explain why she had gone to Anora tonight. This wasn't about politics, the throne succession, or the Blight; neither was it about the Warden and warrior fighting a war, but about the young woman buried and shackled underneath all the burden of duty and responsibilities. A woman who the world kept breaking open so often that Zevran was starting to wonder if she'd ever manage to stop bleeding.

"For you, my dear," he said, with a sincerity that surprised even himself, "I would willingly storm the gates of the Dark City itself." He took a few steps forward to stand at her side. "Do not doubt it."

Lenya snorted past her tears when he laid his hand on her back, and didn't flinch away from his touch. "You are such a damn softie. No wonder you failed as an assassin."

Zevran clucked his tongue, amused. "Ah, but assassinating you and failing was the best thing that ever happened to me, after all."

Lenya looked at him, a hint of a smile flickered on her face. "Remind me to make you say that again when we meet the archdemon."

He grimaced, if only for good measure. "That... is an excellent point. Perhaps I should reevaluate my life choices then, no? Now, let's see that we first survive the bunch of bickering nobles tomorrow, shall we?" He gave her a friendly pat, and chuckled. "I guarantee you, after that, facing the archdemon will seem like a walk in the park."

.

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A/N²: Sorry for the semi-info dump at the end, but I wanted to clarify once and for all that the reason for Lenya's apprehension at being touched stems from the pain endured, not from sexual violence, because that is just a whole fat neon sign of nope for me, and, hence, I don't want that in my story. Aside from it being a topic which is way too upsetting for so many reasons and already too lightly used in fiction for shock value, of course. Tbh, I'm already apprehensive enough of my usage of 'abuse' and the topic of torture as it is, and debated hours and whatnot with myself whether to go there with my female main character, or not. But, I do hope I treat it with the needed delicacy and tact, which it deserves.