Title: Here Is Gone
Fandom: Dragon Age Origins: Awakening
Theme: #24, Love and Hate
Characters and Relationship: Nathaniel Howe/Moira Cousland, romantic (though not quite yet)
Rating: PG for minor language and angry Wardens
Disclaimer: Dragon Age and its characters don't belong to me. Property of the good folks over at BioWare.
Summary: Of all the arlings in all of Ferelden, he had to break into hers.
Moira Cousland's first instinct when she realized who was sitting behind the bars of the dungeon was to run as fast as she could the other way. Out of all the people in Ferelden, why did the thief her guards had captured have to be him?Unfortunately, she couldn't afford the luxury a quick retreat offered, so she straightened her spine and collected her scattered thoughts as best as she could. This was not the way we were supposed to meet again, she thought bitterly, staring at the man. He'd changed since the last time she'd seen him; the tall, lanky boy she remembered had filled out into a rangy man with broad shoulders and a body that spoke of experience on the battlefield. The scowl on his face was familiar, even if the way that he seemed to be boring holes in the floor with his eyes wasn't.
"Leave us," she said quietly to the guard, who nodded silently before departing. He did so without question, which left her with a strange taste in her mouth. For the first time, she realized that she was in command here, not just some guest who might be important to Ferelden yet still lacked power under her host's roof. The thought terrified her and Moira suddenly wished that she had thought to bring Oghren along, if only for moral support. Not for the first time that day, she wished that Alistair was with her, that she could have persuaded him to at least spend the evening before he continued on into the Bannorn. She was still trying to decide just what to say to her prisoner when he spoke.
"Ah, my father's murderer decides to grace me with their presence. Strange; from what I've heard of you, I had expected you to stand ten feet tall and have fire shooting out of your eyes," Nathaniel said quietly, not once looking up past Moira's boots as she came closer. Even though his posture was relaxed, Moira could sense a sort of tension within him, like a trap ready to spring at a moment's notice.
Moira gripped the iron bars with her bare hands until her knuckles turned white. He sounded so much like his father then that she felt the hair at the nape of her neck stand on end and ghosts whisper in her ears. Bryce Cousland's little spitfire, all grown up and still playing the man. "So, you have heard of me," she replied, ungluing her tongue from the roof of her mouth, her tone of voice matching his. The room blurred momentarily, but she quickly blinked her eyes. Take a page out of Morrigan's handbook, she admonished herself. Show no weakness. "How does the real thing fare in comparison to my reputation?" She stared at Nathaniel, watching him flinch as he recognized her voice.
Slowly, as if he were trying his best to fight it, he raised his head and his eyes locked onto hers. "Moira?" He swallowed hard, emotions flashing quickly across his face – disbelief, relief, shock, grief, anger - before once again smoothing out in a mask of indifference. "I hadn't pegged you as a murderess." His eyes were as flat as his voice, chilling Moira to the bone. In all the years that she had known him, Nathaniel Howe had never looked at her in that manner before.
Her fingers tightened on the bars and she had to almost physically push back memories, the coppery stench of blood and burning wood coming back with a vengeance. "You don't know the whole story." Little Oren bleeding in my arms, Rory pushing me away, having to leave my parents to die… Over the years, she had tried to repress her memories of that horrible night, but she still woke up from nightmares every once and a while.
Nathaniel stood up and walked towards her. "What? That my father was killed in cold blood in Denerim by someone – apparently, you – just because he wouldn't support Alistair's bid for the throne?"
His tone of voice made something in her snap. "Rendon Howe butchered my family!" Rage that she thought long buried bubbled to the surface and she hit the flat of her palm against one of the bars. "My father never would have supported Loghain so he was taken out of the equation. Your father stole lands and titles that were not rightfully his; his death was nothing less than what he deserved."
Nathaniel glared at her, his hands bunched into fists at his sides. "Your father was a traitor to the kingdom, selling his allegiance to the Orlesians. What he got was nothing less than what he deserved."
Her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits as red clouded her vision. "How dare you…"
Nathaniel arched an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. "And it seems as if you've decided to return the favor," he sneered. "Tell me, my love, did your precious King grant you the title of Arlessa before or after you stabbed my father in the heart?"
Hearing Nathaniel call her by the familiar endearment while putting so much venom behind those two words felt worse than any physical injury she had ever endured. Better in the heart than in the back, Moira wanted to say, but chose to keep her thoughts to herself instead of adding more fuel to the fire. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, praying for calm. Anger had served her well in the past, but she knew that she would lose this battle of words if she let that emotion control her actions now. When she opened her eyes again, she realized just how close he was to her. She hadn't been this near to him since she had been eighteen and confident that the only thing he was capable of at such proximity was stealing a kiss from her. Now she fought to stand her ground, knowing that the bars were spaced just enough to keep him from reaching out and attempting to snap her neck.
"Yelling won't solve anything," she said quietly, her hands trembling against the bars. "What are you doing here?"
"The last time I checked, Vigil's Keep was my home," he spat. "When I heard of what had happened while I was away, I meant to set a trap for you, to kill you and avenge my family for stealing our lands and dragging our name through the mud the way you did." Moira noted that he didn't say avenge my father, but didn't comment on his choice of words, even as she couldn't help from flinching when she realized he had meant to end her life. "However, as I lay in wait, I realized that all I really wanted was something tangible of my past, something to remember my family by. There has been so much death on both our sides. As much as it galls me to admit it, I would hate to continue adding to the body count." He wrapped his hands around the bars, his fingers inches from Moira's, and bowed his head.
Moira let her forehead rest against the metal. There was something broken about Nathaniel's voice that tugged at her, making her wish that there wasn't anything between them so that she could just reach out and wrap her arms around him like she used to so long ago, that she could hold tight and rest her head against his shoulder until everything was once as it used to be. "What will you do if I let you go?" she whispered, suddenly tired beyond belief. Her fingers itched to touch his cheek, to erase the grief she saw behind his eyes.
Nathaniel looked at her with such hatred and she shook herself for dropping her guard. "I would just come back. I said that I wouldn't like to add to the body count, not that I'd necessarily decide to spare you. Next time, you and your guards might not catch me."
When in doubt, do something out of place to distract your opponent. Her old fencing teacher's words came back to her just then and she let go of the bars, threw her head back and laughed because it was far better than screaming at the injustice of it all, far better than breaking down and crying like she desperately wanted to do. The tactic did the trick: Nathaniel took a hesitant step backwards.
She shook her head. Oh Nate, she thought sadly. What has become of us? "I defeated an archdemon, Nathaniel. You are certainly more than welcome to try your hand at what an entire darkspawn hoard failed to do." At least now she had a reason to wipe at the corners of her eyes; the tears that she couldn't quite keep at bay now disguised themselves as tears of mirth. It was clear to her that the boy she had loved so long ago was dead, just as the girl she had once been was, and she mourned for them both. This man in front of her, the one that wore Nathaniel's face and spoke with his voice, was a stranger to her. "Fortunately, I have several choices on what to do with you. I could let you go and risk facing an assassination attempt; it certainly wouldn't be the first I've ever seen, nor would it be the last, so I feel I should warn you that I am fully capable of thwarting such attacks. You say that next time I might not catch you; well, next time I might not be so merciful either. My second choice would be to order your execution right now. What would you prefer: swinging from the courtyard rafters or being left here to rot?" She had never been good at intimidation, preferring to persuade her marks instead, so she didn't quite know how Nathaniel would react. She ignored the agonizing pang she felt at even contemplating his death, pushing that feeling aside until she had a chance to be alone and could afford to wallow in her own misery for a while. And just when will that be, she angrily wondered. You are Warden-Commander now as well as the Arlessa of Amaranthine; you have to put the needs of your people ahead of your own.
"Either way would show fear on your part," he hissed, his head held high. "Yet that would be just par for the course where your actions are concerned. Fleeing your home instead of staying to defend the people in the city below and killing instead of bringing the accused to justice are marks of a true coward."
Moira felt the muscles in her jaw clench and she fought the urge to slap the sneer off his face. "Then I guess that leads me to a third choice," she said, hoping that she was making the right one. "I hereby conscript you into the Grey Wardens. You said that you have lost your name and the respect that went with it; I am giving you a chance to redeem yourself and your family."
"Odd, how it is up to you to decide my fate," he murmured, more to himself than to her. "You must be insane to want someone at your back who just said they had no problem killing you."
She gave him a humorless smile. "It's strange, but I meet most of my friends that way." The offhand comment made her keenly miss Zevran, who to her knowledge was already home in his beloved Antiva. Suddenly, his there are worse things than being at the mercy of a deadly sex goddess was worlds more preferable than the stony glare she was now facing from a ghost from her past. "Besides, not only is there a chance that you'll die instantly during your Joining, but you'll only have thirty more years to live if you do happen to survive."
"So it seems as if you win no matter what."
"Yes, it would seem that way." She wanted to argue that it wasn't she that was winning, but Rendon Howe. It seemed that even beyond the grave he was still taking things that meant the most to her. Would it ever stop, or was she slated to experience loss after loss? "Although if I kill you now, you wouldn't have thirty years to take back your name, now would you?"
He glared at her before taking hold of the bars again. "I accept your offer."
She let go of a breath she hadn't been aware she had been holding. "I'm glad. I need all the Wardens I can get." Three – four, if she counted Alistair – Grey Wardens in all of Ferelden against this new darkspawn threat was not a pleasant thought. Then again, they had ended a Blight with only two; the additional numbers should have comforted her more than they did.
"I am not doing this for you," he said, his voice flat. "I am doing this for my family, nothing more."
"I…" she was at a loss for words. "Very well. Can I trust that you will refrain from killing your Commander, at least before we find out if you make it through your Joining?"
"I don't see how I will have the chance to do so later, not with other Wardens in the area." He stepped back and watched as she unlocked his cell door. "I don't suppose that there's an oath that prohibits me from allowing darkspawn to kill you instead?"
"There isn't, although I have been told on more than one occasion that I'm royally tough to kill." She stood aside as he walked out. "If you would kindly head towards the throne room, we can get this over with." She couldn't help adding a little jab. "I believe you're familiar as to where that is."
Nathaniel looked behind his shoulder. "Not going first? How unlike you; I would have thought you'd want to parade your prisoner about instead."
"Forgive me if I think that you may have a knife hidden somewhere my guards didn't think to check. I didn't get the reputation of being hard to kill by being stupid." She gestured towards the chest. "Take whatever personal items you wish; my guards have assured me that everything besides your weapons have been stored there."
He snorted, but he did open the chest and take out a few things, ignoring the armor in favor for a necklace he tucked unto his tunic so quickly that she couldn't make out whatever pendant had been hanging from the chain. He also slipped a familiar ring onto his left index finger she had rarely seen him go without. Thus outfitted, he went to the door to the dungeon and stepped out into the night. Moira tensed and prepared to reach for the dagger at her back, just in case he decided to make good on his threat.
"You aren't the only one who hasn't lived as long as they have by being stupid," he said without looking behind him. "I don't plan on being anything except the docile lamb being led to slaughter." His words held a sarcastic bite to them that stung just as much as any blade, making Moira wince. She followed after him, watching as he walked with his head held high and his shoulders thrown back, as if there was no question that he belonged here. His actions momentarily cowed her, but she caught herself.
Two can play at this game, she thought, digging down into her own well of reserve, lengthening her stride until she walked alongside him. Vigil's Keep was just as much hers now as it had once been his, and she was determined to show him that he would not intimidate her. The realization threatened to make her step falter, but she didn't allow her emotions to show. It didn't matter that she had told Alistair how much she hadn't wanted this position or how she wished that she would have become Arlessa under different circumstances, this land as well as the town and the lives of the people that lived in it were her responsibilities now. Unlike the fear that she had felt in the dungeon, she felt a sense of purpose. She would lead the Wardens and the citizens of Amaranthine as best as she knew how.
Rendon Howe might have taken everything away from the girl Moira had once been, but she would be damned if he or his son would continue to take away things from the woman who had risen from the destruction he had caused. She would prove him wrong. She would prove them both wrong.