Aedan could not quite get over the effort it cost him to get to Highever. He had walked the road between Denerim and his childhood home many times and never had it seemed so long. But the company had been patient and not once had they suggested he ride in the cart with the children. He did not know if that had been out of fear or respect, but either way he appreciated it as much as he had valued the days of rest provided him. The extra sleep had helped to not only restore his trembling limbs, but had given him precious moments with Leliana. By the time they walked through the gates of Castle Cousland their love had been fully restored. He held her hand and felt worthy of it, and her.
He paused outside his family home as memories assailed him. He remembered the night of Howe's treachery, but found it overshadowed by the day of his wedding. He had begun life here and he and Leliana had begun their future here. Those two things outweighed the dark times, he held fast to them as beacons of light.
Though he no longer felt as if he had lost or might lose the love of his life, his Leliana, Aedan knew he still needed to be here in Highever for many reasons. His body was weak and his mind still wandered. He had accepted the mantle of Teyrn of Gwaren, but did not yet feel ready to take it on. He could not yet hold a sword without a mixture of fear and sadness. But to him the most important reason was his family. He wanted to spend his days and his nights with his brother, his wife and his children, endlessly, until they begged respite from his company. He wanted to make up for the time he had lost. Aedan knew he could not recapture the days and the years, but he could replace them.
"Welcome home, little brother."
Aedan turned from his contemplation of the keep to clasp his brother's arm. "Thank you, Fergus."
"I do not need to tell you that you can stay as long as you like, this is your home too. It always will be."
Aedan nodded quietly. Then he blinked at both Fergus and Leliana in surprise. "I am still standing."
They gave him quizzical looks and he tried to explain, a flush taking his cheeks as he admitted his fear. "I expected to drop into a fit at the sight of the castle, for the memories to assail me more strongly. I thought I'd be weak from the road, but I am not." A smile replaced his confusion as he continued. "I am tired, though. Maker, I feel as if I could sleep for a week."
He very nearly did. Once he experienced the soft embrace of a real bed he found it hard to leave it and so he did not, for three days. He did not sleep the entire time; he indulged the silence for some of it, when Leliana was otherwise occupied. At other times he played with Rory and Grace, the three of them sitting cross-legged amongst the twisted bed clothes dealing cards and playing with a collection of rocks his son had collected from the garden. Simple games. Luke sat with him for hours one afternoon and they exchanged battle stories as two seasoned warriors. When Leliana visited they locked the door.
That those three days would comprise some of his happiest memories, Aedan had no doubt. He could have got up, got dressed, stepped outside for more than a visit to the privy, but he did not and did not feel as if he had to. He simply rested and enjoyed his family.
The day he finally did decide to dress and appear in the dining room for breakfast, having missed the meal by a couple of hours, Fergus looked up from his solitary place at the table and laughed at him. Quirking a brow, Aedan looked down to see if his shirt sat back to front or his pants had come undone. Fergus pointed to his head.
"You look sixteen again, Aedan. Before you noticed the opposite sex and actually started brushing your hair."
With a rueful grin Aedan reached up to smooth his hair and chuckled as he felt the unruly points and strands. "Leliana doesn't seem to mind."
"Oh, I am sure she minds, little brother; she is just too polite to say so." Fergus winked.
Aedan felt a flush taking his cheeks and he grinned. Of course that would be Leliana all over. She indulged his wrinkled shirts and his short hair, but always made a point of complimenting him when he made the effort to appear tidy.
Helping himself to a chair, Aedan sat and looked at Fergus's breakfast. His stomach growled and complained and he moved his gaze down there instead.
"Why are you eating so late, and where is everyone?"
"Leliana and Luke took the children to Highever. I am heading there myself soon, will you join me? I have a meeting with Bann Kyle, it shouldn't take long. Then perhaps we can take the little ones to see the ocean?"
Aedan nodded. The thought of the ocean beckoned. The endless expanse would be a good place to rest his eyes. Nan brought him a proper breakfast, something other than the sandwiches and apples he had subsisted on for the past three days, and Aedan tucked in heartily, causing Fergus to chuckle again.
"You are perhaps the only Warden who cannot blame your taint for either your appetite or your manners."
Aedan tried to look offended but failed. "I was second son, Fergus. I didn't need your refinement."
"Not according to mother."
With a grin Aedan recalled his mother's tireless efforts to coach him in more gentlemanly manners. "Shall I tell you Leliana doesn't mind my atrocious manners?"
"Shall I tell you she is too polite to comment?"
In fact, Aedan did watch his manners around his wife and he usually did not indulge as he had done this morning. But a youthful feeling gripped him, he felt almost like that sixteen year old Fergus had described. He felt as if for once his manners did not matter. But with Leliana on his mind, he slowed down, put aside his silverware and paused for breath. Fergus laughed at him again.
Later, when he contemplated his dress for their outing, he chose a nice shirt, one Leliana had picked out for him, one she liked. He checked his pants for wrinkles and stains and before he dressed he bathed, he washed his hair, he brushed it. He stood in front of a mirror with his eyes closed and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes.
Aedan flinched from his reflection. He had resolutely not looked at himself since the rescue, not in a mirror. He had looked at his body, he had felt for his new scars. Now he looked at his face and it took his breath away. As he'd discovered since the Blight, he did not like to gaze into his own eyes, did not like to read the shadows in their cool blue depths. Leliana always told him she could read everything in his eyes and he knew she spoke the truth. Even as a child he'd been a poor liar. He remembered practicing in front of a mirror, trying to keep his gaze steady and his eyes from widening. Much to his brother's amusement he had even asked to practice in front of him.
His blue eyes looked calm, but he could see the pain, the anger and the sorrow there. He wondered if it would ever fade. Tentatively he felt at the new profile of his nose, the extra bump that did not change his looks so much as it might have. He touched at the faint line across his cheek, one that would probably fade with time. He touched at another mark on his jaw, one that would not fade. He felt the old scar on his forehead. He looked so very different to what he remembered, particularly considering where he now stood.
Aedan thought back to the day of his wedding and the time he's spent before the mirror then. He remembered a more youthful aspect, more colour, more flesh. Now he looked tired and older than his twenty eight years. He also realised he looked more like Fergus and his father than he had previously realised. Thinking of Fergus, of the shadows in his brother's eyes, Aedan felt sad and selfish. He was not the only Cousland to have suffered loss. Part of his mission here in Highever would be to be a brother, a proper brother to Fergus, he decided.
The light exercise of walking into town and then accompanying his family to the beach felt good and Aedan reveled in the fresh air and sunshine. Leliana blinked at him when he first approached and then she grinned widely. "You washed your hair, you brushed it!"
Aedan felt his cheeks colouring and then she took in his neat clothes. Before she could open her mouth, Aedan grabbed her hand and said, "I know, I know. I am a terrible example to my children." He glanced at Luke and noticed the young man also had on a decent shirt and his hair looked brushed. He laughed and Luke rolled his eyes. "We are doing it for Leliana, right?"
Luke chuckled. "Right. And to set that good example for the next generation." He ruffled Rory's hair and the little boy who, as always, had been dressed immaculately by someone with more taste than his father, automatically reached up to smooth his short, thick hair.
Aedan could only laugh again. He did not have to worry about Rory picking up on his habits, it seemed. Grace caught the mood and added her high pitched giggles and they all laughed again. Aedan felt buoyed by the high spirits, he glanced at his family and he wanted to hug them all at once, they made him so very happy. He laughed all afternoon and he did hug them all, more than once, even his brother who seemed bemused by his mood.
The numbness found him the next day and Aedan spiraled into despair. Questions found their way into and out of his silence. Had he used up all the good humour allotted him in one day? Would his moods continue to fluctuate from day to day or week to week? He felt annoyed with himself and subsequently depressed.
Leliana seemed to sense his melancholy and left him to his own devices for the morning, returning after lunch to find him sitting in the same chair, still in the pants he'd slept in, staring dumbly at the window. He'd been thinking about the night Jean and his accomplice had taken Leliana out through that window as he lay poisoned beneath the bed, powerless. He felt powerless now, almost as if he'd been poisoned again.
Her hand fell upon his shoulder and he managed to turn his head and looked at her. He didn't apologise, he simply shrugged and slumped further in the chair, feeling loss and at a loss.
"It will pass, Aedan. I had days like this. I still do. You have slowed down, is all." She waited for him to nod, to indicate he listened or heard. "Would you like me to sit with you?"
Until she'd asked he'd thought he wouldn't, but now he did. "Would you?" he asked, his voice soft, questioning.
She gave him a quick smile and pulled up a chair and sat beside him and took his hand. She didn't speak, she simply rested beside him and it was enough. The warmth of her fingers within his was enough.
And so the days passed. Most of the time he felt well and knew he would get better. He fished with Luke, he picnicked with Leliana and the children, he visited the town and helped Fergus conduct his business. Every now and then a low mood would catch him and he'd either give into it and hide or try to combat it by walking it out. Luke accompanied him on one of the walks, Fergus on another. He tried to take up a pair of blades, a sword and dagger. Though he did not feel the wrenching sadness, he didn't feel like wielding them either. He felt apathetic towards the weapons and after holding them a while, put them away.
A month passed and Luke prepared to return to Denerim. They held an informal party, just the family, the night before Luke left. He would be traveling in the company of some of Fergus's men who had family in Denerim and wouldn't mind the trip. Aedan knew his brother would have manufactured an excuse to send men with the boy, the young man he considered his nephew, had there not been one.
After a meal featuring all of Luke's favourites, Nan had adopted him as one of her own, and a few too many ales, Leliana pulled out her harp and they sang and danced until the little ones fell asleep, almost on their feet. Aedan thanked the Maker he'd had a good day, he'd been anticipating a bad one, not having hit a low ebb in over a week and thinking the sadness of seeing Luke off would erode his high spirits. The next morning he felt sad, not overwhelmed with it, and turned out to see the young Warden off. Leliana hugged her son tightly and kissed both his cheeks and hugged him again. She glanced at Aedan and then looked back to Luke and said, "We'll stop in and see you on our way to Gwaren."
Aedan was not sure when that would be, but he was starting to feel it might be soon.
When his turn to say goodbye rolled around, he took Luke aside and grasped his arm firmly man to man. "I know we didn't talk as you'd liked us to, Luke."
Luke started to say, "It's alright…"
But Aedan interrupted him. "No, it's not. But it's hard to tell some things to those you love." Aedan gazed at the young man and then pulled him into a hug. "Even now I don't want to let you go, Luke. You be careful in Denerim…"
"Zevran will watch over me."
"That he will. You watch over him too, alright?"
Aedan watched his son walking down the road until the figures dwindled from sight. He fought the urge to run after him, to beg him to stay. He kept himself busy for the rest of the day, playing with his children.
As he expected, the low mood hit him the next day. But it caught him differently. Instead of feeling nothing, he grieved for Luke, for the young man he loved as a son. Aedan knew he would see Luke again soon, perhaps within a month, if he could pull himself together. But his leaving signaled the end of something special, a magical time when the five, no, six Couslands had been together, all of them, day after day. They had been as family, sharing their lives, being predominantly happy.
Leliana left him alone for the morning, as had become her habit, and Aedan sat in his chair. But he felt restless, he didn't want to sit in silence and stare at nothing, he felt too sad. He went to look for Leliana, and when he found her, she looked properly surprised to see him. Glancing at the children, she looked back at him and asked, "Did you want me to come sit with you?"
"No, love. I, ah, wanted to come be with you." He glanced down at Rory and Grace and tried to smile, knowing his attempt came across as feeble. "And with these two." Crouching down, he held out his arms and the children stepped forward to be fussed over, as always, delighting in the attention of their father. As he talked with them he felt better, not entirely happy, but better.
Looking up at Leliana, Aedan tried to explain. "I'm just sad."
"So are we." She smiled kindly down at him.
Of course they were, they all loved Luke as much as he did.
It did not turn out the most wonderful day they had spent together, but it was pleasant enough. For the most part Aedan sat next to his wife and watched his children play. He indulged in his silence, but it felt different. He could speak when spoken to and he was there, not somewhere else.
After dinner Aedan sat with Fergus and the pair of them stared into the flames of the small fire that had been set to take the chill out of the evening air. Summer had given way to fall and though the days were still warm, the nights could be quite cool. Neither of them spoke a while and then Fergus broke the silence.
"You did well today, little brother."
Aedan raised a brow and turned towards Fergus, a questing expression on his face.
Fergus continued. "It must have been hard to let Luke go. He is so young."
"I, yes… he is." Aedan frowned. He didn't know if it was Luke's age or occupation of the combination of both that made it hard. Or if it was simply a matter of it just being hard to let go. What would it be like to let Rory go when he came of age? Or Grace? A slight pain caught him in the chest at the idea of all of his children being grown and gone. What would be his purpose then? Leliana's?
"Do you remember arguing with father, when you wanted to go to Ostagar, and he would not let you go?" Fergus asked.
The pain grew worse and his breath caught for a moment. Why did Fergus want to talk about this now? Dropping his gaze from his brother's face, Aedan looked the fire again. "Yes. I remember.
"You weren't much older than Luke is now. I argued on your behalf, Aedan. But he stubbornly held on to you, much as you have done with Luke. He blamed mother, of course, but I think she would have let you go. He couldn't."
Aedan felt tears press at his eyes as the sadness escalated and threatened to overwhelm him. He did not know what would have been worse – to have been there that night, to have seen his father so horribly wounded and be forced to abandon him, or to have been on the road unaware, to not know for months.
Covering his face with his hands, Aedan felt the tremble begin and he fought it, he sought to calm himself. To fall away from Fergus now would be to abandon him as he had his parents, and he didn't want to go.
"Maker, Fergus, I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave them. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry."
He remembered screaming in the fade, he remembered kicking away at Duncan's hands and clawing at the stone to try and get back to his mother and father. He remembered the guilt. A pained sound emerged from his throat and he looked up to see Fergus's face streaked with tears.
"I know, Aedan, I know. And I have wished over and over that I had been here. Together we might have saved them, all of them." Oriana and Oren as well.
Fergus had lost so much more than he had. Aedan left his chair and went to crouch in front of his brother, he took Fergus's hands. "Brother, I'm sorry. I don't mean to be so selfish."
Fergus looked down upon him and tried to smile. "None of us means to be selfish. But we have to look after our selves first, don't we?" He paused and took a shallow and shaky breath. "Tell me why you are so sad, Aedan. I know it's not just because Luke is a Warden, or because you had to let him go." Fergus squeezed his hands. "We used to be so close, and now duty so often pulls us apart. I feel almost as if we hardly know one another anymore."
Aedan realised just how many secrets had from his brother. Terrible things, things he kept to himself because he thought either Fergus would not understand, or that his older brother had suffered enough. He sought to protect him. Why did he feel the need to protect everyone? All the time?
He asked Fergus. "Why do I feel the need to protect everyone all the time?"
"Because you are Bryce Cousland's son and he would have done, did do the same. It's you, Aedan, it's just who you are. Despite everything you've been through, in that you have not changed."
They talked long into the night and Aedan told his brother much. He divulged Grey Warden secrets and Fergus shed tears when he learned how Luke might have died during his Joining and how his life had been tragically cut short. Aedan cried with him.
Fergus talked of his son and his wife and how he still missed them, after five years, and how he thought he would never fill the hole in his heart. Aedan hugged him, one of the fierce hugs, and said that he would be there, that he would help fill the hole, that he would be a proper brother.
They talked about Orlais. Aedan did not go into a lot of detail, relationships and politics, he merely reiterated the kidnapping and torture. Fergus wanted to see the scars on his back and Aedan peeled his shirt away from his shoulder, letting him glimpse the still angry marks.
Then they started drinking.
When Leliana finally decided to break them up they were lying side by side on the floor, slurring at each other and poking sticks tipped with slices of bread into the fire, burning them and attempting to eat them. Discarded samples lay about them on the floor next to their empty mugs and a turned over bottle, also empty.
They clung to one another as she tried to encourage them to go to bed and they shed more tears. Aedan saw his wife glance from one to the other with a mixture of confusion and tolerance and he finally patted Fergus's shoulders and murmured, "I love you, Fergus."
"Me too, little brother." Fergus's comment was less enunciated and he staggered about until a servant helped steady him and walked him towards bed.
When Aedan awoke the next day he didn't remember how he'd got there. Leliana sat on the bed beside him, grinning.
"How is your head?"
Aedan felt it with his fingers and it felt fine… until he tried to lift it. Thedas started to spin.
"Ugh," he groaned and dropped it back to the pillow.
Still smiling Leliana said, "You know, I checked on you two last night, a few times. I only decided to come save you when it looked as if you might end up in the fireplace."
Aedan thought about the previous night. "I told him everything, Leliana. Everything. Maker, we must have looked a pair of fools. We sobbed like children… and, oh, Nan is going to find a mess in the kitchen I fear. We couldn't find the bread."
Leliana laughed. "I took care of that, my love."
"Really? Leli, what would I do without you?"
"I do not know." She grinned. Then she sobered somewhat and patted his shoulder. "I am glad you two talked. He had been waiting for the opportunity, for some time, I think."
"We talk, we are close, but I suppose it's hard to tell your secrets to the ones you love. Fergus has been through so much and I didn't want to cause him more pain."
"Oh, my sweet Warden, I understand. I really do. We want to protect our loved ones from the horrors of the world, but we cannot. We cannot even save ourselves sometimes. Life is unpredictable."
They had had this conversation before, about how life pulled you in many directions, not always of your own choosing. Leliana likened it to playing her harp when she did not have a song in mind. When the tune took a life of its own and the unforeseen melodies occurred. "We have to embrace them, these unforeseen melodies, learn to harmonise with them. We do the best we can with what we have. No one can ask for more."
"Thank you for always being there, Leli. Even when you are not." He always had her in his heart. He understood he was always in hers, just as he was with Fergus and his brother was with him.
With a gentle smile, Leliana prodded him. "Come on, lazy bones. Let's get some exercise and clear that head of yours."
Aedan raised a brow. "Oh?" He grinned as he reached for her, growling softly.
"Aedan!" She laughed. "Not that sort of exercise, or, well…"
Leliana succumbed to his charms and then she encouraged him to actually leave the bed and head outside. She took him to the practice yard and handed him a pair of blades. Fergus already stood there, his face pale and sweaty, his sword and shield equipped.
"What took you so long to get out here?" he complained, rubbing his head.
Leliana giggled and Aedan grinned at them both.
"Oh…" Fergus chuckled. "Alright, little brother, no more feeling sorry for yourself. You are a warrior, and a Cousland. Show me what you've got."
Aedan looked down at the blades and he winced at them and then hefted them, and fought with the urge to drop them. Then he lifted them and made a practice swing and started with his forms. He felt stiff and clumsy, but his body remembered what to do and he moved through all of the exercises without missing more than a single step.
He would not be fighting any darkspawn soon; he wouldn't be fighting anything for some time. Not until he regained his strength, but for the first time in weeks, months, Aedan did not worry about his future, he simply concentrated on the here and the now. The future would take care of itself. One way or another, it always did.
To anyone who made it this far: Thank you.
I hope you enjoyed reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
So many of you took the time to leave comments and I loved reading your thoughts and encouragement. Thank you.
To Fly: Thank you for helping me analyse Leliana's motivations and for just listening…
To the Hearties: Thank you for being a collective shoulder to cry on
(and for your support and encouragement!)
To Jeremie: Thank you for being an Orlesian Gentleman. :)
A/N: And I'm done. Wow. This story has been such a journey. Though I had it all plotted pretty much from beginning to end before I sat down to write it, many of the characters reacted differently, to what I expected they might, to the situations I put them in. I wasn't sure at times if I could keep going, or wrap it all up as neatly as I did (I did, right?).
Their stories will all continue, of course. I have one-shots planned for Alistair and Brenna (they will have some news to share), Luke and Zevran (a certain conversation), and Luke and Aedan (they go fishing). Cian will also visit Aedan soon in a dream (just a visit! Flemeth will not find them for a few years yet, my boys need a break). Grace has a story coming up which, at this stage of plotting, will also include Aedan's return to the Grey Wardens. Rory will get a story too, I have a vague idea…
A Perfect Day is set about eighteen months after the end of Unforeseen Melodies.