The explosion that accompanied the archdemon's death knocked them all off their feet, slamming them onto the hard slates of the rooftop. In truth, Zevran was astonished it didn't blast them all clear off the roof of the fortress; he heard screams as those nearest the edge of the roof were flung over to plummet to their deaths. When he regained his footing, there were darkspawn, panicked and disordered, but still a threat. With furious roars, Sten charged them, the former regent limping into the fray after him, but he and Alistair ran together to Rìona's side, where she lay in a crumpled heap beside the archdemon's massive corpse.

Zevran could not recall a time since he was a child when he had known panic, and yet he knew it in that moment. Her stillness and pallor as Alistair rolled her over with frantic hands were terrifying. ¡Sangre del Hacedor! Had the witch played Alistair false? Had something simply gone awry? Why was she not moving, when everyone else had regained their feet?

"Riona!" Alistair's voice caught on a desperate sob as his hands fumbled at her throat, searching for a pulse. In the flickering light of the burning city, an earring in his ear glittered. Zevran had given it to him last night, after Morrigan had gone, as Alistair sat stunned and silent in his tent, unsure he had done the right thing, paralyzed by self-doubt. It glinted as he gathered Rìona up and pressed his other ear to her chest, listening.

Hopeless, despairing, hollow, Zevran dropped to his knees beside them. For once, self-preservation was the farthest thing from his mind. All around them, the darkspawn still fought their allies, but it did not matter. All Zevran knew was that if she was gone, after what Alistair had done to save her, he would lose them both.

He felt as if the gates of the Black City were slamming shut behind him in that endless moment of fear, until she gave a cough, her body heaving, wracked with convulsions in Alistair's arms as she fought for breath.

Piedad de Andraste, gracias. Gracias," Zevran found himself whispering as Alistair clutched her to his chest, weeping intermingled with astonished, exultant laughter. He touched her face with a shaking hand, as though in disbelief.

"Thank the Maker," he chanted, over and over, rocking her and pressing kisses into her hair, sweaty and matted to her skull. The force of the explosion had knocked her helm off. "Thank the Maker."

The sounds of battle around them began to fade, as the last of the leaderless darkspawn were slain or fled. Some were so mindlessly panicked they hurled themselves over the edge of the tower rather than fleeing down the stairs. Rìona lay limply across Alistair's lap, moving weakly, not yet conscious but clearly alive.

Uneven, armored footfalls approached slowly, and Zevran and Alistair lifted their heads in tandem to see the former regent limping toward them, the shaft of an arrow still protruding from his ankle.

"Is she dead?" he demanded shortly.

Alistair shook his head. "No."

For some reason, the former regent looked annoyed by this news. "How is that possible? I was given to understand that the Grey Warden who slew the archdemon died."

"And just how do you know—? "Alistair's voice trailed off, his eyes widening. "You're a Grey Warden. She made you a Warden."

Loghain gave a brusque nod. "Yes."

"She..." Alistair looked down at Rìona, then back up to the former regent, frowning in confusion. "She meant you to take the killing blow?"

He blew out an irritated breath. "That was the idea, yes. Until she went mad."

Alistair's indignant response was cut off as Rìona began to stir in his arms, her eyes fluttering open to peer up at Alistair. Confusion furrowed her brow as she glanced from him to Zevran to Loghain, and back.

"I'm not dead."

Alistair gave a jagged, slightly hysterical chuckle. "No, love. You're not."

"A state of affairs I'm sure some of us would like to have explained," Loghain interjected with an edge of impatience.

"Yes, well, you'll pardon me if your preferences aren't my concern right now," Alistair muttered. He shifted their position, and Rìona cried out in pain.

Zevran began to cast about for Wynne, seeing her already making her way toward them, pausing to check on wounded guardsmen and soldiers as she passed. Like all of them, Wynne looked drawn and exhausted. She up-ended a vial of lyrium potion and knelt down at Rìona's side, her hands glowing. The rictus of pain on Rìona's face began to relax.

As Wynne healed her, Alistair looked up and around, and then glanced at Zevran.

"Zev, will you take care of her, see that she gets back to the palace?" He gave a helpless shrug, lying her upon the slates. "I imagine I'll be needed here for some time, overseeing things."

"Of course." Zevran gave a brusque nod, and Alistair stood, striding away as though a backward glance would weaken his resolve. After a moment, the former regent growled and followed him.

It galled, to allow Loghain to live. He didn't deserve it. He should have been executed the moment Alistair returned to Denerim. But Alistair couldn't bring himself to kill another Grey Warden, much less one who had knowingly volunteered to give up his life to end the Blight.

And so, in the days following the Battle of Denerim, Loghain's sentence was commuted in recognition of his service to the realm. If Alistair had found the time, he would have spent the evening after making that decree getting well and truly soused, but he didn't. Instead, he gritted his teeth and began writing correspondence to the Grey Wardens of Orlais, seeking a posting for Loghain there. It might have been petty, but it was the only retribution left to him.

Days spun into weeks, in which he and Rìona barely spoke. She was still busy setting the city to rights alongside Arl Oswyn, which Alistair was occupied commanding the army as they drove the darkspawn back to the Deep Roads. A troubling number of the remaining horde were fleeing north, rather than back south, toward Amaranthine. If they weren't stopped soon, their rampaging would blight desperately needed farmlands just in time for the spring planting.

Then there was the matter of the famine. Crops had been less last year, due to the spreading of the Blight, and would continue to be so this year, with so much of Ferelden's fertile farmland corrupted. Refugees continued to seek passage away from Ferelden's shores, their lands and livelihoods destroyed, hoping to find new opportunity in the Free Marches and beyond. While Alistair dealt with military matters, Rìona worked with the bannorn to organize ways to move surplus foodstores from unaffected holdings to those most in need, and she was beginning the painstaking process of selecting ambassadors and conducting correspondence with Orlais and other nearby countries, who would seek aid, banking on goodwill toward Ferelden for sparing the rest of Thedas from the Blight to serve in lieu of steeper payments for whatever aid the other nations rendered.

When Rìona wasn't working she was in the nursery, often for hours at a time, with Ella. Alistair knew she was there, because dozens of times he set off with the determination of finding and confronting her, only to flinch back and change his mind before passing through the door.

She never came to him, never demanded an explanation for why she was still alive. Loghain did and, unable to expose what he had done, Alistair had lied to him and claimed not to know what had happened. But Rìona didn't seem to care how she had survived.

Arl Eamon took the planning of the coronation into his own hands, and Alistair knew he and Rìona must speak before that day came. Ella's Naming ceremony was supposed to be immediately afterward, in which he would declare the babe his heir. Alistair would need to know whether to present Rìona as the future queen at the coronation, or whether she was still determined that he not wed her. Time was dwindling, and she seemed to be avoiding him. Alistair had half-expected Zevran to do the same, taking a position of conscientious neutrality until Alistair and Rìona could find their footing once more, but he didn't. Each night, Zevran came to Alistair's bedchamber. For whatever reason, Zev didn't go to Rìona. Indeed, she seemed as distant from Zevran as she did from Alistair.

Finally, a week before the coronation, Alistair could take no more. He strode into the nursery and ordered the wet-nurse and nursery maid out.

Almost as soon as they were gone, inevitably, Zevran appeared. Alistair was so used to the way Zev managed to slip unnoticed passed the palace personnel and into his private chambers that he barely gave it a second thought, but Rìona seemed surprised.

"We need to talk," Alistair declared, his jaw clenching angrily. Rìona glanced down at the sleeping babe in her arms and nodded once, gravely. Silently, Zevran stood leaning against a pillar, his arms crossed and his posture watchful.

"There's no need to say anything," Rìona said tiredly before he could speak again. "Even if you could forgive me for not telling you about... how the archdemon is slain, I know you will never forgive me for making Loghain a Grey Warden. I understand. We'll break our betrothal, and after the coronation, I'll retire to Highever to begin rebuilding."

Fury flooded Alistair, so intense it took a moment of effort to speak.

"Fine. You can go. But Ella stays here."

"What?" Rìona stared at him, aghast, and even Zevran looked slightly startled.

"You go ahead. Do what you always do. Give up on us without a fight. But if you leave, Ella stays. I won't have her carted around like baggage while you turn tail and run."

"You can't possibly be serious!"

"Can't I?" he asked bitterly, pacing to the far end of the nursery and back in long, agitated strides. "You think this is about Loghain? Maker's breath, I was relieved when I realized what you had done, making him a Warden!" His voice was escalating to a shout, and he knew he should stop, rather than risk waking Ella, but he couldn't "I was relieved! Because it was the first time since I've known you that I've seen even the slightest indication that you actually want to live!"

Rìona's eyes grew huge and filled with tears, her face draining of color. "How dare you?"

"Oh, come off it!" Alistair snapped, then drew himself back in, calming himself as he turned to look away from her. "I didn't really understand what it was you had been doing all this time, until I realized you hadn't told me the truth about the archdemon. Then, suddenly, it all made sense. All those stunts you've pulled since Ostagar. Provoking Loghain's men in Lothering into beating you. Letting Jowan bleed you for his and Morrigan's ritual in Redcliffe. The abominations in the Circle Tower, the mercenaries here in Denerim, fighting the high dragon over Haven, confronting Flemeth rather than leaving her be. Always, always you had some perfect rationale for why it was the best way, the only way, but it wasn't. You've been courting death since I've known you, and when you weren't trying to get yourself killed, you were always so quick to sink into melancholy the moment things went awry in any way.

"Were you like this before you lost your family?" Alistair shrugged. "I certainly can't say. But knowing you recruited Loghain to take that killing blow gave me hope that maybe, just once, you'd fight to stay alive, fight for us. But you couldn't even do that, could you? No, instead you backed out at the last moment and tried to get yourself killed one last time. If I hadn't—"

In flat tones, he told her what he had done, why she was still alive. Rìona clutched Ella closer as he told her why Morrigan had wanted her to abort her babe so badly.

Alistair hung his head as he concluded his tale. "After I talked to Zev about it, I turned to go back to my tent, to agree to Morrigan's plan. But before I got there, I froze, no longer sure I should do it. I didn't hesitate for fear of the repercussions, but because for a moment, just an instant, I thought, you'd finally found a way to get what you've been seeking all this time, and maybe I should just leave you to it. Maybe me and Zevran and Ella won't ever be enough for you to be happy."

His eyes burned as he approached her, squatting before her as he had that day in the Brecilian Forest when he had offered her a rose. He searched her blotchy, tear-stained face for some spark of hope or will.

"I love you," he whispered hoarsely, reaching up to stroke her cheek. "And I want you with us. I want us to be a family. I sold my soul to give us one last chance. I'm begging you, love. Don't make that bargain have been in vain."

Rìona's face crumpled as she began to weep brokenly, but Alistair found he could not take her in his arms and comfort her. Instead, he took Ella and laid the sleeping babe gently in a cradle so that Rìona's distress need not disturb her. Then, he paced to the window and stared out while she wept quietly.

"And what of you, Zevran?" he heard her ask after a time. "Do you agree?"

Alistair looked over his shoulder as Zevran unfolded himself from his leaning, watchful position by the pillar to approach her.

"I have seen it many times in the Crows, querida." He spoke gently, tracing the track of a tear with one gentle fingertip. "I have even done it myself, once. Until I found something worth living for. Can we not be enough?"

"I don't know!" she said desperately. "I've been... haunted, afraid, overwhelmed so long, I can scarcely remember a time when this, this misery hasn't been hovering over me constantly, ready to drag me under. I've been so certain I would die, I'm not sure if I even know how to live."

Zevran gathered her into his arms, soothing her almost as one would a child. After a moment, unable to hold himself apart, Alistair followed, wrapping around her from behind. She felt small and frail between them, and for the first time since his realization of her latent death wish, Alistair recalled just how young she was. Eighteen, when her family had been slaughtered and the fate of the world dropped on her shoulders. It was a wonder she had borne it at all.

They stayed that way until Rìona's tears dried, and until Ella began to cry in her cradle. Wiping her face, Rìona rose, smoothing down her crumpled skirts and went to retrieve the babe.

The look of peace that came over her face when Ella was in her arms was heartbreaking. No wonder she spent so much time in the nursery, if it soothed her this way. If anything gave Alistair hope for her, wounded as she was, it was that. If she were entirely lost to them, she wouldn't be seeking that sort of comfort.

"She's hungry," Rìona said after a moment, a shadow of grief crossing her face. "Send for Aeda. I can no longer suckle her. My milk dried as I was preparing for—"

Her eyes dropped. "As I was preparing to die."

She had lost that, too. That simple act in which she had taken such joy for too short a time. She wasn't entirely without cause for her melancholy, Alistair thought with a grimace. Zevran slipped away, and Alistair rang for the wet-nurse.

Rìona paced her chambers, hugging her dressing gown tightly around her, torn with nervousness and indecision.

It was ridiculous. She was hardly some shrinking maiden on her wedding night. No, the wedding was some months off yet, the coronation just accomplished earlier that afternoon. She had been presented as the king's future bride, and Ella Named and acknowledged as his heir. It was everything they had planned for, dreamed of. Even better had been the fact that she now knew Fergus to be alive. He had arrived at court several days ago, having spent many months of the Blight among the Chasind after he'd been wounded in the Korcari Wilds. He had been there, today, at the coronation. Her family was not entirely destroyed.

There was no reason for her nerves. And yet, as she girded herself to make the short walk to Alistair's chambers—where she knew she would find Zevran as well—for the first time since that night in the Cousland manor before the Landsmeet, she felt fearful. Not that she believed they would reject her, for all that she had not informed them that she planned to come, but because taking this step somehow felt like...

A new beginning, perhaps? A dismissal of the past and an acceptance of the future?

She didn't know, couldn't say with any certainty. All she knew was that it felt significant. Momentous. They had given her space, since that day in the nursery, but it was time. Time to begin this new life they were going to attempt to build together.

It was odd to no longer feel as though everything was on the brink of crashing down around her. She kept looking around for danger and finding none. It should have been a relief, but she'd lived under that burden so long, it was a bit frightening to be without it.

She didn't know who she was anymore, when she wasn't in the middle of a crisis.

She wasn't the woman she had thought herself, back in Highever, that much was certain. She wasn't the self-assured, cultured courtesan she'd been raised to be. She wasn't that charming, glittering creature who knew her own power and was always in control. Perhaps she never had been. Perhaps that had always been a façade.

Enough, she told herself impatiently, and only then realized she'd spoken the word aloud. "Enough."

If she delayed any longer she'd think herself into paralysis, and continue to delay until any chance of claiming a future for all of them from the pain and wreckage of the past was gone. Jerking the sash of her dressing gown tighter about her waist, she strode from her chambers and made her way the short distance down the hall to Alistair's.

There were no guards along the hallway. They were posted outside the family wing, to ensure privacy. And Zevran, at Alistair's insistence, had his own chambers in the family wing. That had astonished Rìona, for it would no doubt cause gossip, in that discreet Fereldan way. Then, she realized, that was the point. Alistair had undertaken to promote the impression that Zevran was his lover, so that no scandal would attach to Rìona. It would go a long way to explaining why he was so insistent upon having Ella as his heir, and also why he and Rìona might never produce any children of their own.

Never would Rìona face scrutiny or censure for not producing an heir, as Anora had. When Fereldans gossiped around their king and queen—protesting all the while that, of course, it was no one's business what the royal pair got up to in the privacy of their own bedchambers—the scandal would be upon Alistair, never on her.

It wasn't perfect. But it was as close to it as they could ever come.

All that remained was for Rìona to make herself a part of the contented existence Alistair and Zevran were trying to build for them all.

She did not rap upon the door. She considered it, and decided that no, to do so would be too tentative, too uncertain. She would not ask permission to be with them. They were hers, and she theirs, however estranged they all had been. Instead, she turned the handle and let herself into the sitting room of Alistair's chambers. In the bedchamber, beyond the antechamber, she could hear their voices raised in conversation; drawing her shoulders back, taking a deep breath, she walked toward them.

Ah, Maker! The joy in Zevran's eyes when he noticed her standing there, clutching her dressing gown around her. The relief in Alistair's face! How could she have doubted that she would be welcome?

In an instant, while Alistair was still setting aside his goblet of warmed wine, Zevran was upon her, snatching her body to him. His lips possessed hers roughly, one hand fisting in her hair while the other impatiently shoved her dressing gown from her shoulders and tore at the sash that belted it.

It wasn't the welcome she had expected. She had thought they would be sweet, tender. That they would make love to her with gentle poignancy as they had that night before the Landsmeet. But... perhaps it was better, that they did not. That time had been about endings, about partings. This was something altogether different.

Zevran's hard hand jerked her head back, and his teeth nipped painfully at her neck. With her dressing gown pooled at her feet, his free hand sought her nipple. His thumb stroked over it for a moment, before it took it between his fingertips and pinched, hard.

"Too long you have been alone with your burdens, your fears, your doubts, querida," he growled, biting her ear hard enough to draw a pained sound from her. "You will let us take that from you."

It wasn't a request.

"Yes," she whispered, and found herself shoved backward abruptly, into the hard bulwark of Alistair's chest. He caught her in arms that closed around her like iron bands, his calloused hands seeking out her breasts, cupping them, testing their weight and heft.

"No gentle wooing for this one, tonight, cariño," Zevran stated, meeting Alistair's eyes over the top of her head. "She has held herself apart from us, and will suffer the consequences."

Rìona's knees weakened, and if Alistair had not been holding her, she might have sunk down upon them, unable to support herself. Tense heat coiled deep in her belly, sending out tendrils of aching arousal to tug at her sex.

"That sounds just fine to me," Alistair answered in gravelly tones, catching the mood. His hand wrenched her head aside and his mouth dipped down to suck and bite on that sensitive junction between her shoulder and neck. Zevran's hand cupped the side of her jaw, his thumb sliding across her lower face to press insistently at her lips. Rìona parted to him, and his thumb thrust inside. Rìona closed her eyes and sucked upon it, twined her tongue around it, let it press down until she was forced to open her mouth under the pressure, at which point Zevran's mouth came forward, his tongue flicking at her lips, joining his thumb in occupying the recesses of her mouth.

It was not a kiss. A kiss she could have returned, made some effort to control. It was about possession, about demonstrating his control. Rìona found herself sinking under the spell, found herself softening, yielding far more readily than she had ever done before.

Trapped between them, bound by the thews of Alistair's arms and the press of Zevran's body, Rìona moaned softly. Her body became liquid, pliant, sinking into Alistair's. There was a hard and not entirely comfortable bulge pressing against her back at her waist, and when she sank against it, he pushed with his hips, meeting the pressure and friction of her bare body through his fine linen breeches.

Zevran's thumb trailed moisture from her mouth down the length of her torso. His hand thrust between her thighs, his fingers hooking unerringly up into her slick channel as his palm ground against her wet curls. He leaned his brow against hers, his breath slashing across her face, and drove his fingers in deeper. A few thrusts of his fingers, a few presses of his palm, and she quivered on the edge of disintegration, bucking and keening in their arms.

Zevran withdrew his hand, and offered his fingers to Alistair, and Rìona moaned abjectly as that shining precipice of release receded.

Alistair took Zevran's fingers into his mouth and sucked, lapping her essence from them, as Zevran gave her a chiding look.

"Did you think it would be so easy, querida? Do you think I jest, when I say you shall suffer the consequences of making us wait?"

They had played this game of denial before, so long ago here in Denerim. That day Zevran had taken her outside herself, relieved her of her burdens, driven her beyond herself until she had dissolved into sobs and tears in his arms. It was the day, she knew now, that she had begun to fall in love with him.

Was that why Zevran had chosen it tonight, to welcome her back?

Rìona shook her head in answer for, suddenly, speaking seemed presumptuous.
Alistair lifted his head, releasing Zevran's fingers with a final stroke of his tongue. Rìona found herself wondering what exactly Alistair's role would be tonight, for he had always been aggressive in a way that never quite stepped over into actual dominance.

She was soon to find out, though, as Alistair's hands landed on her shoulders and pressed, compelling her to her knees.

"I want to see your mouth around Zev," he rasped as she sank, and Rìona wanted to grovel for immediate release at the force of the pang the command sent through her. Before her face, Zevran's hands pulled at his own laces, drawing his hardened shaft out from his codflap.

Her mouth slid over Zevran's length with more energy than artistry, urged on by that savage note in Alistair's voice that seemed to preclude the patience for pretty demonstrations of skill. His large hands rested on her head, making her keenly aware of her vulnerability, of the fact that at any moment he could shove her, force her beyond her own pace. He didn't, but the fear and anticipation that he might kept her body tense as her hands rested on Zevran's narrow hips and her mouth worked up and down his cock.

At length, Zevran's hands joined Alistair's, and he did push her, his hips thrusting, taking her to the very edge of what she could endure before she began to struggle. Once his seed had surged across her tongue, Alistair drew her to her feet, spun her about to face him, and kissed her. Roughly, deeply, his tongue thrust into her mouth, tasting Zevran from her.

She didn't notice Zevran disrobing, so lost was she in Alistair's hungry kiss, until his bare body pressed against her back, his relaxed shaft nestling against her backside. He drew her hair off her neck and began covering the back of it with a series of firm bites, until Rìona gasped and drew away from Alistair's mouth to whimper. As Alistair's hands had done before, Zevran's came around her front, sliding up from her waist, past her ribs, to her breasts. Suddenly, Rìona's body went rigid as he crushed them within his hands. She cried out in pain, jerking and struggling, but there was no escape from between the bodies pressed against her.

He held her that way until something within her relaxed, accepting the pain rather than fighting against it. Her breasts ached when he released them, and she thought it entirely possible she would wear large bruises in the morning. That thought sent another cramping surge of arousal through her belly.

Zevran's fingertips found her nipples and clamped down in a merciless vise, pulling them out and up, drawing them as far from her body as they would go, suspending the entire weight of her breasts by his hold on her nipples. Again, Rìona cried out and fought, and again, he persisted until struggle gave way to surrender. Then he released his grip and his palms rubbed soothing circles over her abused nipples.

When Rìona's eyes opened, she saw Alistair looking down, watching Zevran's hands, before flitting up to inspect her face. From the way his eyes darkened, he liked what he saw.

"What do you think, cariño?" Zevran's voice purred to Alistair from behind her ear, his palms still tracing those circles that were now less soothing and more maddeningly chafing. "Do you wish to sample the delights of her mouth as well, before we move on?"

"Hm. No, I don't think so." Alistair frowned thoughtfully, studying her face with a near-frightening intensity. He continued to stare as Zevran's hands stilled, one holding Rìona's breast cupped, while the other seized her nipple between fingertips again in a brutal grasp. Rìona emitted a small scream, and Alistair's nostrils flared.

"I never realized before how much she looks like she's in pain when she comes," he remarked to Zevran in considering tones. "Sounds the same, too, though I realized that back in Orzammar."

"You wish to explore this further?"

Alistair nodded, still intent upon Rìona's face. "She's to be punished, after all, right?"

"Sí. Did you have something in mind?"

Dear Maker, it was both humiliating and deeply arousing to be discussed as if she wasn't even there, as if her wishes mattered for naught. Zevran's other hand did to the opposite nipple what his first had done, pinching cruelly, wrenching another strangled cry from Rìona.

And still Alistair stared, as though she were a riddle he was trying to decipher. There was a hint of uncertainty in his gaze, his brow furrowing for a moment. Then he nodded, slowly, his lips quirking into a small smile that was more frightening than reassuring. "She told me you whipped her with a belt, once. I admit, I was a bit appalled at the time. Now, I think maybe I'd like to see that."

Oh, Maker, she had told him about that night. She'd told him how peaceful and transcendent it had been. Was he doing this for her benefit, then?

The bulge digging into her belly seemed to indicate not. Or at least, not entirely.

"An excellent idea," Zevran murmured, his voice heavy with satisfaction. "You may be her ropes so that we need not bind her. Unless you would rather wield the belt—?"

Alistair shook his head. "I don't think I could pay proper attention to her face if I did."

The empty ache between her thighs continued to pulse, the air cool whenever it brushed her slick folds, as Zevran took her by the hair and propelled her toward the side of the king's massive bed. He thrust her forward, bending her over the high surface so that her feet rested on the floor and her torso lay upon the bed. Alistair quickly shed his clothing and mounted the bed from the other side, crawling toward her, his muscles flexing and gleaming in the firelight. Then he knelt before her face, his cock thrusting out from above his hard thighs, and took her wrists in his hands, drawing her clenched fists against his chest. The position stretched Rìona out and left her with no leverage to move her upper body.

"That should do it," he murmured, and for no reason she could discern, Rìona pulled a bit, not quite struggling against his grasp, but testing it. Alistair's hands tightened on her wrists. Not enough to be painful, but enough to make it clear his grip was unbreakable. And then, for just an instant, he squeezed a bit, causing the bones of her wrists to grind slightly, as if to send the message that yes, he could grip hard enough to hurt her, hard enough to bruise, if she made him do so.

"Mm," Zevran said approvingly behind her, dragging his blunted nails down her back from her shoulders to her waist. Her nerves came alive where they passed, becoming more sensitive, tingling and singing. He did the same to her backside, harder, livening her skin, leaving lines of warm, aching sensation in the wake of his fingers from the flare of her hips to the point where her rump curved down into her thighs.

Over and over, he did that, until it became discomfort in its own right, an excess of sensation, her skin beginning to burn from the abrasion. Rìona squirmed, rocking from side to side with her hips to get away, but there was nowhere she could move. Alistair's grasp upon her wrists was unyielding.

There was a slithering sound behind her, and the cool leather of a strap brushed her backside. With snaps firm enough to make her give a startled yelp, it cracked down once on each side of her rump, and then it was gone. Zevran's fingers delved between her thighs, plunging into her moisture effortlessly, and Rìona closed her eyes in abject humiliation at the fact of his finding her so desperately wet.

With firm caresses of his fingers, he brought her once again to the very brink of release, thrashing and bucking against Alistair's grip as she climbed toward the precipice. She wailed and begged shamelessly, but as before, his fingers withdrew, trailing her wetness across her backside as he chuckled behind her.

"Not yet, querida." he taunted. "Not until you are truly chastised shall you have your reward."

And then the belt came down. As he had done before, over a year ago now, he gave her little time to adapt, only a very short while of gentler strokes to warm up to the whipping. He was not teasing her, doing this for her pleasure, but to break her down, to drive her hard and mercilessly beyond thought, beyond control, to a place of utter surrender and catharsis.

Sensation became pain, pain became agony, agony became torture, and still he drove her, slashing one line of liquid fire after another across her rear. When her rump was ablaze, he turned his efforts to the tender, sensitive backs of her thighs, welting them as Rìona screeched and flailed, fighting against Alistair's unbreakable grasp. Her entire body thrashed until Zevran began to miss his aim, at which point he moved to her side, placed one hand on the small of her back, leaned his weight upon it, and continued to whip her with the other hand.

Tears began to stream from her eyes, and she ducked her head to hide them from Alistair's keen, searching gaze, but he forestalled her with a quickly snapped command, taking both her wrists into one of his large hands to cup her chin with the other and force her to look up. She gazed into the tender determination and fierce love in his eyes and something within her ruptured, spilling out the malignant despair in which she had been mired since the night Highever fell, making room for cleansing, healing.

Her tears came faster, harder, escalating toward sobs, and still that gentle, relentless gaze held her prisoner. She wasn't even aware of the fact that his erection had flagged somewhat, as she swayed helplessly in his grasp and wept as though her heart would break.

Rìona felt herself begin to let go. Her body twisted and writhed, her voice screamed, but her mind began to float, adrift, detached from the ordeal her physical self was enduring. Beneath her sobs and wails, her spirit surrendered, accepting what her body could not, and there was peace in that. Bliss.

So lost was she in the wild tumult of agony and euphoria that she failed to mark the moment Zevran cast the belt away. Alistair dragged her bodily up onto the bed and into his arms, cradling her like a child even though she whimpered in pain as her flaming backside settled into his lap. Zevran wrapped around her from the other side, and between them she wept piteously, releasing months of toxic anguish and hopelessness. Her fingers dug into the muscles off Alistair's back as she clung to him, and they both murmured reassurances to her, peppering her hair and skin with soft kisses and strokes of their hands.

"I'm sorry!" she mewled against his shoulder, soaking his skin with her tears. "Maker, I'm so sorry!"

She wept as though she would never stop, until her muscles ached with the force of her sobs. Just when she was certain she couldn't bear anymore, her tears began to ease, tapering slowly off into ragged hiccoughs and whimpers. Alistair's hands pushed her hair back from her damp face, carefully prising wet strands away from the skin where they clung. Zevran's hand ran soothingly down her shoulder and arm, down the length of her body where she was still curled into Alistair's lap, and slipped between her thighs.

She opened to the touch, letting her thighs part, aware of Alistair's shaft growing firm once more beneath her welted backside. Zevran's fingers toyed in her moisture, sliding oh, so very easily over her folds. Even now, with pain riding her nerves and the exultant catharsis of spent grief bringing hitching little whimpers to her lips, her body hummed with unsatisfied arousal. The gentle, careful touch of Zevran's fingertip to her nub was nearly agony in its own right, so exquisitely over-sensitized was she. And so he drew back to a less direct touch, pressing the pads of his fingers to the flesh just above her nub and rubbing in soft circles.

She let herself fall back, her weight supported by their arms behind her, her head dropping to rest against Zevran's shoulder. Almost immediately, soft shudders wracked her, gentle ripples of pulsating pleasure spreading through her lower belly. It didn't seem like a release so much as a precursor to something greater, however.

With a groan, Alistair spilled her from his lap, flipping so that he was above her as she tumbled onto her back onto the bed. Rìona cried out in renewed pain as her welted and abraded backside was chafed by the motion and the fabric of the coverlet. She wound up with her head nearly in Zevran's lap, her hair spilling over his groin and thighs, tangling around his rising shaft.

Alistair covered her body with his, sinking down onto her. Rìona whimpered in discomfort at the pressure on her backside, but she twined her arms around him, welcomed his weight upon her, parted her thighs to cradle his hips as he kissed her. The kiss was pure Alistair, all earnest tenderness and restrained aggression, starting as a gentle exploration and deepening into hunger. He rocked against her, his erection trapped between their bodies, sliding over her slick nub and crisp curls, and Rìona moaned into his mouth, shifting to to allow him to mold more snugly upon her.

Maker, it felt good. He felt good, his bulk above her safe, not suffocating. Her hand reached out, groping, seeking, and Zevran took it, pressing a kiss to the fingertips before gripping it firmly. A moment later, his other hand claimed her other hand, and held it beside her head. Once again she was restrained, at their mercy.

Once again, Rìona felt herself sinking into them, surrendering her fear, her need for control. Alistair's hands thrust into her hair, engulfing the sides of her head, turning her this way and that into his kiss. Then they moved down her body. He lifted his weight off her, shifted his position just slightly, and guided himself into her.

"Oh, Maker, love..." Alistair moaned into her hair, completing his entry with a push of his hips. Rìona mewled, clutching at Zevran's hands, the intrusion an adjustment after so many months without. It ached, but it was a good ache, a welcome ache. She hitched her knees higher, hooked her ankles behind his thighs, and tilted her hips to welcome him inside.

He started out slowly, perhaps mindful of the abraded skin beneath her, or perhaps simply savoring the reunion. Rìona let herself be rocked by his easy thrusts, moaning softly, luxuriating in the sensation of simply being filled, complete. It didn't seem necessary to strive for more just yet.

She closed her eyes and let her head loll to the side a little, and let herself just feel.

When she opened them again, there was Zevran above her, gazing down with something that might have been wonder, naked in his normally shuttered eyes. She became aware of his erection, so close to her head, still draped in her hair. She barely had time to consider what she might do to make him part of the pleasure, however, then he forestalled her, his hands tightening around hers when she began to pull away.

"No, querida, not now. Perhaps later. Turn your gaze to our Alistair instead, and see how he needs you, how he adores you." Zevran sighed—actually sighed—and though his grip on her hands remained iron-clad, his thumbs caressed her hands. "You must not keep yourself from us again, mi amor. We are not whole without you."

Smiling tremulously, Rìona looked up at Alistair, who had paused in his thrusts and was indeed gazing down at her with adoration. He cracked his boyish grin in response to her smile, and suddenly Rìona was laughing and weeping at the same time, filled with unspeakable happiness and wonder. Alistair's laughter joined hers, and he sank down upon her again to press joyful kisses all over her face. A particularly powerful wave of laughter, however, and suddenly his humor fled, his hips driving him into her once more without volition.

Rìona gasped, arching, laughter dissipating. When she looked up again, Alistair's near-golden eyes were dark, intent.

"If you keep away so long again, I swear I'll whip you myself," he growled, drawing back and thrusting deeper, harder.

"Never!" she moaned, undulating beneath him, seeking a better angle. Alistair hooked his arms under her knees, folding her nearly in half, and drove into her again.

It was glorious, as Alistair released his restraint, his tenderness. He gave in to urgency, unleashing all of his passion upon her. The burning of her inflamed skin against the bedclothes was buried beneath the sensation of his cock slamming into her to the very hilt, driving breathless cries and incoherent babble from her lips. Deep within her belly, she felt the building of unbearable tension, the devastating event heralded by those gentle ripples Zevran had brought her to earlier. She strove toward it, her cries transforming into screams, and pleas, and eventually shrieks as the storm finally crashed upon her, leaving her thrashing helplessly beneath Alistair's weight and the restraint of Zevran's hands.

When she came back to herself, she lay between them once more, sheltered by them, her body aching, her inner thighs wet and sticky, her mind blissfully calm. Zevran brushed her sweat-damp hair back from her brow and kissed her tenderly, as Alistair pulled her closer to nestle more snugly against his body.

It was then that she realized this didn't feel like a new beginning at all.

It felt like coming home.

It wouldn't be easy, she knew, to emerge from the constant fear and sense of burden that had been crushing her for so long. But she owed it to them to try. Alistair had sacrificed everything he held sacred to buy them a slice of joy, a chance at a future. The least she could do was to try to live the life he had made for them.

Happiness, she was discovering, was not something that was fortuitously found, but something that was made, day by day, in a conscious effort to abandon sorrow and move toward the future.

For the first time, lying there surrounded by the two of them, she thought perhaps she could see the way.


ELYSIUM: any place or state of perfect happiness; paradise.