Maker's breath, what have I done? I wondered as Leliana collapsed in my arms, weeping, muttering strings of sentences in incomprehensible Orlesian. I held her close to me, my lips still stinging from her kiss, and stroked my hand up and down her back, feeling her muscles quivering from tension and over-exertion and…and…whatever I had said that had catapulted her into this state.
She…forgave me. I struggled to comprehend the truth of it. She looked into my eyes and gave me nothing but the truth. She still loves me…even after what I have done. Even after what I have become. The ring she had placed back on my finger solidified her words, her kindness…her love. I will make myself worthy once again, Leliana, I promised her, silent. I will prove that I am worth your love, that I am deserving of your trust.
Leliana sagged against me and my heart bled at her exhaustion. She looked as though she had not slept in days. Small, angry red wounds dotted her neck and her left cheek, remnants of what must have been a terrible battle.
And still she did not fault me for overtaxing her with my confession. How beautiful you are, Leliana. How beautiful and strong and gracious. Once again, you have proven to me the goodness that remains in the world. Once again, you have given me the strength to go forward. I do not know how this is possible.
I lifted her in my arms and carried her to the bed, wincing as I realized how light she felt in my grasp. Her words had quieted and she looked at me with imploring, devastating eyes, as though begging me to understand something she could not give voice to.
"It is all right dear heart." I sat down, holding her in my lap, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"It isn't." she whispered, chilling me to the bone. "It might never be again, Salem. Do you understand?"
I smiled, wondering if she had poured out her soul to me in the language that I could not understand, if her confessions would shatter my world as surely as mine would sunder hers. So much lay unsaid between us, but here, in this moment, she was tired, she was hurting, and needed care. Something that she had given to me so often, without asking for it in return.
"I will attempt." I promised, smoothing her hair away from the face. "Later. For now, dear heart, let me care for you. Tell me what you need, anything at all, and I will provide it."
She leaned her head into my shoulder and sighed, a sound of contentment that startled me. That you could find comfort in the arms that almost betrayed you, strength in the hands that caressed another…your grace is unfathomable. You are…truly divine, Leliana. How is it that you asked for my name, when it is you who have ever been stronger, more passionate, more caring than I could ever fathom.
"I am so tired, Salem." she breathed against my neck and I cradled her closer, inhaling her scent, basking in her mere presence. "Tired of this world, and what it has done to the both of us. They take us from each other, they attempt to steal our very identities; they torture us and laugh at us and…and treat our blood as gold…as though we are currency to be bartered."
I kissed her forehead, not understanding the "they" that she referenced, but empathizing with the feeling that lay behind her words. The loneliness. The exhaustion. The thousand voices ringing in my ears from dusk through dawn, accusing me when they needed nothing…demanding things of me when they did have need.
"I…Salem, I never knew." Leliana spoke, and her eyelids fluttered as she valiantly clung to the waking world. "I could only sympathize before but I never understood…forgive me for that, my love."
"There is nothing to forgive." I whispered, trying to impart comfort, attempting to follow the thready traces of her beleaguered thoughts.
"You must have been so lonely." she breathed, and I felt the warmth of her tears soak into my shirt. "How could you endure…how could you survive…I love you so much and I never…never understood."
"Understood what, dear heart?" I asked, wondering if she would be able to give me a coherent answer.
"The burden of an entire world." the tension in her body gave way as she surrendered to her fatigue. "Carrying it when our god was silent…so strong." her fingers clumsily rose to my face, whispering over my scar.
"Hush now, dear heart." I smiled as I lifted her once more and set her gently on the bed.
I walked to the window and drew the curtains, darkening the room. I returned to Leliana and began to remove the few pieces of armor that she still wore. I pulled off her boots and removed her socks, attempting to make her more comfortable. Her sleeves were soaked to the elbows with old, dried blood, and I frowned.
What did that damn harpy do to you? I wondered, grateful that I had beaten Cassandra within an inch of her life.
I grasped the hem of her shirt and gently eased it upwards, keeping my eyes averted, still hesitant to look at her skin, to indulge my own desires. I would not do so with her in this condition. Leliana shivered and gasped as my hands grazed her ribs.
"Am I hurting you?" I asked, pulling away.
She reached out, taking my hand in hers and drawing it back to her shirt. Her eyes opened with great effort and she smiled. "I love…your hands." she mumbled. "So tender…so gentle…never, Salem…never hesitate…to touch me."
Tears sprang to my eyes as I looked at my hands, callused and worn, covered with scars…unworthy of touching someone so beautiful.
But that is the beauty of love. I pulled her into a sitting position and eased the shirt up over her head. Its forgiveness, its acceptance, its ability to see beyond the superficial. At the end of days, it will be love alone than can redeem mankind. It will be love alone that saves us.
I cast the shirt to the floor and caught her by the shoulders, easing her head down onto the pillow, leaning forward and ghosting her lips with a kiss.
It is your love that has saved me, Leliana.
I pulled the blankets from beneath her and covered her, admiring the spray of red hair on the pillow, the color as rich as the setting sun. I ran my fingers through it, grateful that she had not turned me away, amazed that she had found it within her heart to forgive me, to continue loving me…to not hold my misdeeds against me.
So lovely. I will love you beyond time itself, my beautiful, beautiful wife.
"Sweet dreams, dear heart." I rose from the bed, intending to leave, to give her peace, to let her sleep.
"No." she reached out and grasped the edge of my sleeve. "Stay, Salem…please stay."
I blinked rapidly as tears fell, but I returned to the small bed and lay down, feeling my heart begin to heal as Leliana drew closer to me and flung her arm about my waist, pulling me into her embrace.
"There is," she mumbled, "so much I have to tell you."
"It will keep." I pressed my lips to her forehead as I turned her and pulled her into my arms, shielding her with my body. "Sleep, dear heart. I will not leave you."
She sighed, contented, the last of the tension fleeing her. "Promise?"
I kissed her hair. "Yes, dear heart. We will have time."
No matter what I know now, no matter that my life has been cut so horrifically short, I will make time, Leliana. I will walk into heaven and tear it down for you. I will give you all that I am, for as long as I may. Neither hell nor heaven, nor god nor men, nor demon nor divine will ever tear me from your side.
"Thank you, Leliana." I whispered, kissing the bare skin of her shoulder. "I love you…with all my heart…I love you."
Author's Note: Thank you, everyone, for coming on this journey with me. I hope that you have enjoyed this story, and that I have not overtaxed you with the roller coaster that this little fic became. I must confess, I hardly knew where it was going when it started, and I have the deepest appreciation for all of those who read, followed, favorited, and reviewed. I have discovered some truly beautiful, intelligent people on this site, and I thank you for all of your encouragement. It has helped me to become a better artist, and I feel privilged that my contributions to this fandom have been so well received. A special thanks to Hotcutii3, Ellwyndara, Violent-Flames, artsytechy, bojangles25, and Miranda le Ginger for all of your thoughts and observations, as well as your encouragement behind the scenes. You are all wonderful people, and I am privileged to have met you.
As ever, if you would like a continuation, to see Salem and Leliana in further adventures, please let me know via review or private message. I would be more than happy to continue detailling their adventures, but have no desire to bore my readers or waste anyone's time. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, thanks to all of you.