"I say we kill them all and good riddance," Kallian said as soon as they were far away enough so the werewolves wouldn’t hear.
Alistair frowned. "Isn’t that a bit... drastic?"
"I agree with Alistair," Aedan said. "I understand Zathrian’s position, but three centuries is a long time to carry a grudge, and the curse has no meaning anymore. The people who hurt him and his family have long since died."
"So you’re siding with the humans. Typical." Kallian snorted. "You know nothing of what elves have to endure at the hands of your race. Should he have lowered his head and let their atrocities go unpunished?"
"I said nothing of the sort! Why must you twist everything I say?" Aedan took a deep breath and went on only when he was certain he could maintain a calm tone of voice. "What happened to him and his family was horrible. I understand his thirst for vengeance, but these creatures are innocent and he’s only damning his own clan if he’s willing to persevere with this madness."
"They aren’t innocent! They attacked his clan!"
"Because they wanted him to lift the curse!"
Alistair was suddenly between the two of them - and when had they got so close? He closed a hand on Kallian’s clenched fist and made her lower it. "Now, now," he said with a nervous chuckle. "Let’s not fight amongst ourselves."
Aedan sighed. He really wished he could have taken Leliana with them instead of Kallian, but it was Grey Warden business as Alistair has pointed out. "Convincing Zathrian to lift the curse is the best course of action," he said. "If we kill the werewolves, all the infected people in the camp will die."
"I agree with Aedan on this one," Alistair said, but Aedan didn’t miss the apologetic look he gave Kallian. Of course, it wasn’t like he wasn’t wrapped around her little finger.
Aedan glared at the back of her head, but it soon became obvious it was a lost cause as she was busy scowling at Alistair as if he’d done something particularly unpleasant to her. Alistair smiled sheepishly at her and seemed to cower a little under her glare.
"What say you?" Aedan asked, turning to Morrigan.
She just rolled her eyes and threw her hands up. "‘Tis of no importance to me," she sighed. "As long as we come to a decision before this Blight is over."
Apparently Alistair took that as a cue to intervene. "You think the Darkspawn will just get bored and leave if we don’t show up to provide a little excitement in their lives?" he said.
Aedan rolled his eyes. "Oh yes, sure," he snorted. "I’m sure the Archdemon will just decide to try its luck in Orlais if the three Grey Wardens left in Ferelden don’t show up at the party."
"Can you blame it?" Alistair sighed. "I hear Grey Wardens are just so tasty."
Aedan chuckled. He heard Morrigan mumbling something about fools and possibly cursing her mother for getting her involved with them.
"So, what do we do?" Alistair asked both him and Kallian. Aedan understood that he preferred following, but sometimes he wished he would just choose one leader, instead of complicating matters by asking for both of his and Kallian’s opinion.
Two captains leading the same group of men - and women - only resulted in wasting time they couldn’t afford to waste as well as influencing the troops morale.
"We find Zathrian and lift the curse," Aedan said before Kallian could intervene. "We need the Dalish people’s help to fight this Blight, but I’m not willing to humour a man’s madness just because he can’t see past his desire for vengeance and understand that he’s hurting others." He hoped his words didn’t sound as obviously hypocritical as he heard them. He swallowed, finding his mouth suddenly dry.
Kallian rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath something he couldn’t make out. In the end, though, she sighed and nodded. "Yes, whatever you say oh great leader."
Aedan mentally counted to ten. "All right, let’s go," he said.
After everything was over and they were left alone with the bodies of Witherfang and Zathrian, Kallian turned to him. "Hope you’re happy now," she said, her eyebrows raised as if she was actually asking him.
She ignored him and shoved past him, actually causing him to take a step backwards, the leather of his armour only partially deflecting the force of her shoulder painfully digging into his chest. One thing Aedan had to concede, she was actually stronger than she looked.
In the end they had managed to get the Dalish people’s help anyway. Kallian didn’t seem to have forgiven Aedan, though, and it wasn’t like he could really blame her. This small victory tasted particularly sour.
He only hoped they would fare better in Redcliffe, but the knight they had met in Lothering certainly hadn’t had good news regarding Arl Eamon’s health. The Arl was a powerful ally, and losing his support now meant losing any chance they had in opposing Loghain.
With these thoughts occupying his brain, his already poor appetite disappeared and he stared down at the bread and cheese in his plate, unconvinced. When he raised his eyes he caught sight of Kallian’s glare and sighed.
Yeah, it wasn’t like she wasn’t one to hold a grudge.
He felt a nudge against his ribs and turned his head to find Alistair crouching next to him. He nodded towards Aedan’s half-eaten food. His face was strangely focused; really the obsession the man seemed to have for cheese bordered on creepy. "Are you going to finish that?" he asked.
"Help yourself," Aedan said, handing him his whole plate.
Alistair grinned sunnily at him and Aedan couldn’t help but return the smile. He found Alistair’s moods quite infectious, it was impossible to be sad around the man when he smiled like that. Over cheese nonetheless.
Aedan chuckled and Alistair narrowed his eyes at him. "What?" he asked with his mouth full of bread and cheese. "Have I got something on my face?"
This time Aedan laughed out loud and shook his head. "You never fail to cheer me up," he said.
Alistair raised his eyebrows. "I didn’t do anything," he said, a few crumbles of bread fell down on his armour. Aedan brushed them off, absent-mindedly. "Oh I get it," Alistair went on. "Look at Alistair making a fool of himself eating bread and cheese like a pig. Oh, how hilarious."
Aedan snorted and shook his head. "Not at all," he said. "You are just- I-" he trailed off not sure how to continue without betraying too much.
Alistair munched on and his eyebrows kept rising up high on his brow questioningly as the silence stretched.
The scabbard hitting him on the back of his head took Aedan by surprise. He turned and found Kallian looking down at him with a look of distaste.
"There," she said. "You said you wanted that."
They had found the sword, scabbard and all, in the werewolves’ caves and being quite lighter than Aedan’s current sword he had thought it might suit his two-weapon fighting style better. Kallian had been the one to find it and of course she had decided she absolutely needed that sword, despite the fact that she favored bows and daggers.
Aedan took the sword before she could change her mind and massaged the back of his head. As light as the sword was, it was still a bar of metal and those didn’t agree much with skulls. "Thanks, I guess," he said. "I see your manners have quite improved."
"What do you expect from a dirty elf?" she snorted. "I’m sorry my manners don’t meet your undoubtedly high standards, My Lord."
"Why do you keep-" he cut himself off with a growl. "You know what, whatever. I’m too tired to argue right now."
She smirked at him and left.
Alistair had watched the whole exchange without intervening - probably the wisest course of action, but Aedan couldn’t help but glare at him. "Coward," he said.
Alistair grimaced. "I may not be the most perceptive of men, but I don’t think she’s very fond of you."
Aedan snorted. "You’re right, you’re not very perceptive." Alistair blinked up at him, confused. "She hates me."
"No, she doesn’t!" Alistair laughed, but he stopped abruptly. "I just think that Zathrian’s story hit a little too close to home. You know she’s from Denerim, right? From the alienage."
Aedan nodded. "I was with Duncan in Denerim when we picked her up."
In fact, he had been quite impressed with her passion and her stubborness at first. She had killed an Arl’s son to protect herself and her friends. While that might have been lacking in foresight, Aedan had seen her as a kindred spirit so fresh from his own tragedy as he had been.
He’d been disabused of that notion quite early in their acquaintance, as she seemed to despise him for some reason he couldn’t quite fathom.
"Oh, right," Alistair blinked. "Of course. Then you know about what happened to her, with the Arl’s son."
Aedan nodded. "Yes, I-" he sighed. "I suppose what those men did is still too fresh in her mind, and Zathrian’s story... I hadn’t realized. I guess I should apologize to her, then." He sighed again and rubbed his face. Maker, he was just so tired.
"Aedan," Alistair said and didn’t go on until Aedan had raised his head to look at him. "I’m not saying you made the wrong decision, but..."
"It was personal for her."
"So she told you about Denerim, huh?"
"Yes," Alistair said. He handed Aedan’s plate back to him now that he was finished eating his dinner. "She’s constantly asking question about how was life in Chantry, and what it means to be a Grey Warden, and where was I born, so I just figured it was time I asked some questions."
"Uh-hu," Aedan nodded. "So, how was life in the Chantry? Somehow I can’t imagine you as a Templar. Most of the few I’ve met weren’t very... nice."
Alistair groaned and shook his head. "What is it with you two and your strange fascination with me?" he muttered, and Aedan was only glad he was looking the wrong way to notice the blush spreading on his cheeks. "I have to say it’s getting rather creepy."
"Well, I’m sorry then," Aedan said, rolling his eyes. "You just seem like an interesting person."
Alistair blinked at him as if he’d just said something outlandishly absurd. "Oh not at all, I assure you," he told him with a sheepish grin. "I’m just, you know, Alistair. I’m the guy who kills stuff and likes witty banter. And cheese."
Aedan grinned widely. "I stand by my opinion."
"I guess it must be your upbringing," Alistair said with a shrug, then he grinned. "I’m sure being a teyrn’s son must be a very boring and uneventful life compared to the daily trials and tribulations of commoners such as me."
Aedan’s grin faltered, the sour taste in his mouth was back at full force, and the little he had managed to eat had trouble staying inside his stomach for a moment. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "I- Yes, I’m sure it’s because of that."
Alistair had been looking elsewhere, so he hadn’t noticed his change of behaviour, but he must have heard the dull tone of his voice, because turned to frown at him. "Are you all right?"
Aedan nodded. "I’m just tired," he said. "I guess I’ll go to bed early."
"Don’t worry about watch tonight," Alistair reassured him. "There are enough people to keep watch without having to wake you. Have a full night of rest, you earned it."
"Thank you," Aedan said, and he meant it. A full night of sleep seemed like a luxury right now, despite the possibility of nightmares. "Good night."
Alistair nodded, and he looked like an otherworldly creature, with the light from the fire painting strange shadows on his face. His eyes shone brightly and Aedan had to swallow the words trying to force their way past his lips.
"Thank you," he repeated and he made his way to tent.
Despite all the hatred Kallian seemed to have for him, she was certainly quite taken with Aedan’s dog. He watched as she threw Fergus a stick, waited for him to fetch it and then the whole game began a new.
"She certainly seems to like your dog," Alistair commented, echoing his own thoughts.
"Animals do not have prejudices," Morrigan said. "It also is quite intelligent for a beast. More intelligent than at least one person here. As you can see that leaves little choice as she despises the other one."
"Hey!" Alistair exclaimed, angrily.
"There’s still you, Leliana and Sten," Aedan pointed out, then he frowned. "All right. Leliana and you. Why not spend time with you, then?"
Morrigan gave him a long look. "The Chantry sister is Orleasian. As for me, she does not understand me," she said. "I am human, yet I do not fit what she knows of humans. And she does not trust mages, I do not think she has ever seen one before."
"Or maybe she just doesn’t trust you," Alistair said, glaring at her. "Oh yes, I know. Why would she even think that?"
Aedan looked between the two of them; Alistair was still glaring, while Morrigan had chosen to adopt a look between unconcerned and amused.
He sighed. "I swear I can’t say whether you two are destined to end up finding your deaths at each other’s hands, or simply sharing the same bed."
Alistair made gagging sounds. "Don’t even joke about it!" He exclaimed with a panicked light in his eyes. "Are the nightmares about the Darkspawn not enough that you are willing to give me more? I won’t be able to close my eyes for weeks. And then where would we be?"
Morrigan snorted. "I’d rather invite your dog in my tent," she said. "At least the stink would be bearable."
Aedan’s grin - which had been only an impression on his lips at the start of the exchange - bloomed wide and genuine.
"You know what I like about you, Morrigan?" Alistair asked, and then continued without waiting for her reply. "Your winning personality. Oh, wait. On second thought I don’t like you at all. And you!" he pointed an accusing finger at Aedan. "Why are you smiling like that? Stop smiling!"
Aedan’s grin froze and fell off his lips as soon as he raised his eyes and saw that Kallian had stopped to talk with a strange woman.
"Is there a problem?" he called out, signaling for their group to catch up.
"She said their wagon was attacked," Kallian explained.
"Attacked? By whom?"
The woman didn’t deign him with a reply, she just turned and ran back the way she had come. "Please! Help us!"
"I don’t like this," Kallian said, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"As much as it shocks me, I agree with you," Aedan said. His eyes took in the narrow road the woman had taken. It ran between two small slopes. The perfect place for an ambush.
"But what if she’s telling the truth?" Alistair pointed out. "We can’t let innocent people get hurt."
"Here we go again," Morrigan sighed. "With all these good deeds it’s a wonder you’ll have any time left to fight the Blight."
Aedan ignored her. "We’re going, keep your eyes peeled," he said. "Leliana, Sten. Wait a few seconds and then follow us."
Leliana nodded. "Be careful," she said, drawing her bow and reaching for an arrow.
"Let’s go," Aedan said, reaching for his swords and pushing forward.
"Yes, oh fearless leader," Kallian said with a mocking snort, but she had her daggers out. Aedan saw her move swiftly towards where the grass was higher, almost as tall as her, and then she disappeared from his sight as if she’d never been actually there.
She might have been unpleasant, but Aedan had no complaints about her skills.
They followed the woman into a small clearing, at the center of which stood some men next to a wagon. The woman went straight to a blond elf and nodded to him. There was the sound of wood snapping and Aedan jumped out of the way just in time to avoid being crushed by a tree trunk.
They were trapped.
"Well, I guess there is a wagon at least," Alistair shrugged.
"The Grey Wardens die here," the blond elf said.
A small fiery globe swished by Aedan’s right ear - missing him by only a couple of inches - and sailed through the air to explode right at the feet of the blond elf, exploding in a mass of flames and sending all the man sprawling to the ground.
Aedan turned to glare at Morrigan. "That was too close."
Morrigan sighed and already she was preparing the next spell, blue sparks of electricity were popping around her hands. "It’s all so predictable," she said, bored.
Aedan sprinted towards the fallen men. They had evaded most of Morrigan’s fireball, but it had been an effective diversion, buying him and Alistair some time to reach their opponents. He made a bee-line towards the blond elf, who he had guessed to be the boss, and just at the last moment he jumped sideways and rolled past him, dodging a few arrows in the process.
Alistair was right behind him and the elf had no chance, taken as he was between two enemies; the metal shield slammed into him with all of Alistair’s strength, which Aedan knew to be considerable. The elf went down without a sound and, most importantly, stayed down.
The men in the clearing closed in on them and Aedan went back to back with Alistair. He cursed as he saw the woman who had lead them here start casting a spell. "Morrigan!" he called out, but he shouldn’t have worried, really.
A boulder of rocks smashed into the woman, sending her crashing down and interrupting the spell. Fergus pounced on her to finish the job.
Only the man remained now and Kallian chose the right moment to join the fight. She sneaked behind one of them and stabbed him in the back. There were still the archers to worry about, though.
"Think you two can manage?" he asked Alistair.
"Two against three?" he smirked. "Piece of cake."
Aedan nodded and rushed towards the archers on their right. He avoided a bear trap by pure chance, the metal teeth snapping shut mere inches from where his ankle had been just a second before. Six archers, four men armed to the teeth and a mage.
Someone had gone to great lengths to have them killed.
He dodged an arrow and stabbed the first one as he was still running. He crashed into the second archer and using him as a shield he killed the third one with the hand-crossbow he kept strapped to his belt.
His dagger took care of the last man.
His part done he turned to survey how the other were faring. Morrigan had shapeshifted into a giant spider and was chasing one of the assailants. Kallian had gotten rid of another man and Alistair made quick work of one as he kept the other at bay with his shield.
On the other side of the clearing he saw that Leliana and Sten had joined the fight, she provided cover fire while he cut down anyone who remained standing.
In a matter of seconds it was all over.
Aedan joined the others, this time making his way down carefully to avoid any other traps that might be hiding in the tall grass.
"Everyone all right?" he heard Alistair ask.
When Aedan reached Fergus, he was baring his teeth and snarling down at the blond elf. He groaned and muttered words in a language Aedan didn’t know.
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Kallian approaching, her intentions clearly stated by the look in her eyes and the dagger clutched tightly in her hand.
"Wait," he said, halting her with a hand on her arm.
She shrugged him off and glared at him defiantly. "So to this elf you show mercy," she said. "He’s here to kill us!"
Aedan frowned. "Killing him when he’s defenseless is nothing more than murder."
"The elf has a point," Morrigan said. "He wouldn’t have shown us the same kindness."
"Maybe killing defenceless people sits well with you, but I have a conscience," he growled. "And I want to hear what he has to say."
Kallian rolled her eyes with a snort, but she put her dagger away. "You must think so highly of yourself."
The elf decided to regain full consciousness at that point. "Oh, ow," he groaned, sitting up. He took in Fergus growling at him and stilled. He looked up at Aedan and Kallian. "I rather thought I would wake up dead. Or not wake up at all, as the case may be. But I see you haven't killed me yet."
"Apparently someone has a conscience," Kallian said. "And some questions."
"Ah, so I'm to be interrogated," the elf chuckled. "Let me save you some time. My name is Zevran, Zev to my friends, I am a member of the Antivan Crows, brought here for the sole purpose of slaying the two surviving Grey Wardens, which I have failed at, sadly."
Aedan frowned. "Two? We are all Grey Wardens," he said.
"Well, except Morrigan over here," Alistair said, pointing at her.
"And the stinky mongrel," Morrigan added. "The dog, I mean, not the one carrying the shield."
"Ha ha ha," Alistair deadpanned.
Zevran frowned. "It seems my employer had faulty information, then," he said. "I was sent here to kill a blond Templar," he nodded towards Alistair, "which I take to be you, and a lovely elven lass. There was no mention of any blue-eyed handsome men such as yourself."
Aedan raised an eyebrow. "I’m afraid flattery will get you nowhere."
"We’ll see, won’t we?" Zevran leered quite unashamedly. "I am still alive, am I not?"
Kallian’s dagger made a reappearance. "We can fix that quite easily."
"As fierce as she’s lovely," he went on, seemingly not caring about his impending death by an angry elven lass. He glanced at Alistair, openly checking him out. Aedan couldn’t certainly fault him for that, and despite the fact that this man was sent here to kill all of them he watched, amused, as Alistair squirmed a little under the scrutiny.
Zevran grinned. "I must ask, are all Grey Wardens required to be as gorgeous and as... enticing as you all are? Because if that’s the case, I think I’m in the wrong line of work."
"Is that an Antivan accent I hear?" Leliana asked, joining their little get-together.
Zevran craned his head to look at her, then he studied Morrigan and finally Sten. "And the company you keep is certainly pleasant," he said. He frowned at the sight of Sten’s greatsword, the blade still carrying the blood of his fellow assassins. "Some of it at least," he amended. Aedan didn’t miss the calculating look, though. Maker, this man was shameless.
"The Antivan Crows, huh?" Aedan mused. "I have heard of you people, someone has gone great lengths to have us killed."
Zevran nodded. "A rather taciturn fellow in the capital, Loghain I think his name was, yes that's it."
Alistair snorted. "Great," he muttered. "Is he even pretending to be sane anymore?"
"So, what now?" Aedan said, studying the assassin carefully.
"I have a proposition," Zevran replied. "Of sorts."
Aedan narrowed his eyes. "Make it quick."
"Well, here's the thing," Zevran started, clearing his voice. "I failed to kill you so my life is forfeit, that's how it works. If you don't kill me, the Crows will. Thing is, I like living and you are the sort to give the Crows pause. So let me serve you instead."
Kallian barked out a laugh. "How stupid do you take us to be?" she said. "What’s to stop you from finishing the job later?"
"To be completely honest I was never given much of a choice regarding joining the Crows, they bought me on the slave market when I was a child. I think I paid my worth back to them plus tenfold. The only way out, however, is to sign up with someone they can't touch," Zevran shrugged. "Even if I did kill you now, they might just kill me on principle for failing the first time. Honestly, I'd rather take my chances with you."
"What a sad story," Kallian said. "It could even be true. Too bad I’m going to kill you now."
She was fast, maybe even faster than Aedan, being smaller than him, but he was closer to Zevran and she had to get past him. He grabbed her wrist and twisted it to disarm her. She went with him though, and managed to break free of his hold, landing a glancing blow against his side that luckily didn’t do anything more than cut a new slash on his leather armour.
"What the hell are you doing?" she exclaimed.
Around them everyone had gone very still, Zevran too.
Aedan ground his teeth. "I said no killing."
"Oh, so you want to accept his offer, then?" she snarled.
"I thought you of all people would have been more sympathetic," he said.
"Why? Just because we’re both elves?" she barked out a laugh. "Hardly. He’s nothing like me. So he was sold to the Crows, so what? He should have just killed them and escaped, or died trying."
"Why must you be so contrary all the time?"
"Me? Who the hell died and made you leader, huh?" she growled.
"Pretty much everyone!" he yelled back at her. The vehemence of his own words took him by surprise and he let go of her as if recoiling.
Behind Kallian, Alistair drew in a stunned breath. "I- I didn’t mean-" Aedan started. "I-"
"Good for you." She took a step backwards and spat at his feet. "Just don’t come crying when he stabs you in the back," she said at last, angrily walking away.
There was a long, heavy silence. Aedan had his eyes squeezed shut, but he could feel each one of his companions staring at him. Judging.
Yes! he wanted to scream right then. I’m just a fucking eighteen year old boy whose main concern one month ago was to guard his castle while his father and brother were away. Yes! I have no idea what the hell am I doing either!
He took a deep breath.
"It seems I have come at a bad time," Zevran mused.
Aedan glared down at him. "I may have a conscience, but my patience has limits," he said, but he offered him a hand up nevertheless.
"You... are not seriously considering this?" Alistair asked.
Aedan took hold of his arm and lead him a few paces away.
Zevran dusted himself off and grinned at Leliana, as if the fact that they were discussing whether to kill him or not didn’t concern him at all.
Aedan sighed, suddenly very tired. "Are you suggesting I kill him?" he asked. "Or should I call Kallian back?"
"No, but," Alistair shook his head. "Do you think it wise? The man did try to kill us."
"We need all the help we can get," he replied. "And he can’t be much worse than Morrigan, can he?"
Alistair grimaced. "I surely hope not," he said. He continued after a moment. "Very well. Still, if there's a sign we were desperate I think we just knocked on the door and said hello."
Zevran turned to them when they were finished and looked straight into Aedan’s eyes. "I hereby pledge my oath of loyalty to you, until such a time as you choose to release me from it. I'm your man, without reservation. This, I swear."
He concluded the whole thing with a small bow.
"Well, at least he has manners," Alistair commented. "Unlike someone I know."
Aedan was feeding Fergus after his own dinner when Alistair joined him. He crouched down next to them and eyed Fergus with a mix of distrust and hesitation.
"He won’t bite you," Aedan reassured him. "He didn’t know you back then, but now you’ve been fighting together for quite some time."
Alistair blinked at him, but he recovered quickly and scratched Fergus behind the ears. When he rolled over on his back and presented his belly to Alistair, he grinned openly. "Is that really dignified for a war hound?" Fergus whined. "Now, now, I was only joking."
Fergus barked happily and sprinted away, sniffing a trail that lead him to the bushes surrounding the small clearing they were camped in.
"Isn’t naming your dog after your brother a little... offensive?" Alistair asked after a moment.
"On the contrary," Aedan said. "I got him when I was a child, and my brother was my hero. Fergus - my brother, that is - thought it was quite amusing. My mother-" he cleared his voice. "My mother always said that of the two, the dog was the one with the best table manners."
Alistair made a face. "I’ve seen him eat," he said. "I’ll be sure not to invite your brother over for dinner."
"A moot point now," Aedan sighed. "He’s probably dead, anyway."
"Hey, now. You know I didn’t mean-" Alistair stammered. "I wasn’t implying- I mean, he was in the Korcari Wilds and the place must crawling with Darkspawn and all by now, but- I’m not very good at this comforting thing, am I?"
Aedan smiled a little despite himself and shook his head. "No, you aren’t."
"Thank you for the honesty," Alistair frowned. "Look, I know I might have been a little... self-absorbed lately, but-"
"It’s fine," Aedan said, waving his concerns away. "I know everyone has their problems around here, I don’t presume mine are more important than everyone else’s."
"I know, but I guess all I’m saying is-" Alistair sighed. "I’m here if you need anything. I mean, it’s not like I can offer much, but I’m willing to, should you need it."
Aedan glanced at him. "You shouldn’t sell yourself short," he said. "You’re a good man, and a good friend."
"Sure," Alistair’s smile assumed the self-deprecating note that Aedan had by now learned to expect every time he paid Alistair some kind of compliment. "Wait until you get to know me better, then it’s all ‘you’ll sleep with the dogs Alistair, it’s not like anyone would notice the difference anyway’ or, ‘your hair is ridiculous Alistair.’"
He grinned. "No more cheese for you, Alistair."
"A-ha! See?" Alistair exclaimed, pointing at him. "It’s already started! The next thing you know, I’ll be left in a tavern of ill-repute with no recollection of how I came to be there, surrounded by strangers and wearing someone else’s underclothes as a hat."
Aedan blinked. "You certainly don’t lack in the imagination department," he commented.
"It’s not like I had much else to do when I wasn’t training," Alistair said with a shrug. "I guess it’s a habit that stuck."
What could Aedan reply to that? Saying he’d be always there for Alistair or something on that note not only would sound like an empty promise - ‘always’ held no meaning when their quest and their very lives seemed to hang on such a tenuous balance - but it could also reveal too much about his personal feelings in the matter.
Thankfully, Fergus came back right then to save him from the awkward situation they’d talked themselves into. He could have kissed the stupid mutt.
Fergus nudged Alistair’s side with his head and let something fall into his hands. He sat back on his hind legs, looking up at him with an eager expression.
"Oh, what do we have here?" Alistair held the object - a ruined book it seemed - between his thumb and index finger. He made a face. "Thank you, Fergus," he cleared his voice. "It’s a very... nice book. All... covered in slobber."
Aedan laughed softly and earned himself a glare from Alistair. "He likes you," he said, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "See? He brings you presents."
"Oh, good." Alistair rolled his eyes. He reached down for one of the smaller sticks among the wood they had stacked for the fire and threw one far away. It landed near Morrigan’s tent. "Go fetch," he instructed Fergus.
The dog barked happily and went after the stick.
"His life must be so easy," Alistair mused with a sigh. "Eat, sleep, bite some Darkspawn and get your belly rubbed."
Aedan shot him an amused glance. "Was there something you wanted to talk about?" he asked after a long moment.
"Ah, yes," Alistair said and then noticed he still had the book. He made a face and put it on the ground, as gingerly and as far away from him as he could, as if it would suddenly explode if he weren’t too careful. "Am I that transparent?"
"Not really," Aedan shrugged. "It’s just you don’t usually come to me unless we’re on watch duty."
"It’s all right, I don’t mind," he said. As soon as Alistair had finished taking care of his armour, his shield and his sword, he usually spent the time talking to Kallian, ignoring Morrigan or playing with Fergus. It was true that Aedan didn’t mind, though; their late night talks when there was no one else around at least granted him the illusion of intimacy if nothing else. "Anyways."
"Anyways," Alistair cleared his voice. "So, um. You know how I was raised in the monastery and all. Right, of course you know. I’ve only mentioned it like, a dozen times," he trailed off, muttering to himself.
Aedan didn’t like at all the turn the conversation was taking, but he waited patiently for Alistair to go on. He was going to regret this, he just knew.
"Thing is, between the monastery and the Grey Wardens it’s not like I had many chances to... interact with-" he cleared his throat, "ah, women. Did I mention there weren’t many women in the Grey Wardens?" he furrowed his brow. "Isn’t that strange?"
"Women?" Aedan echoed, frowned. Oh yes, regretting this already. "Are you asking my advice... on women?"
"Er, yes?" Alistair shot him a glance. "Isn’t that- I mean, I’m sure you have more... experience than me."
"I’m not sure you should ask me about relationships with women," Aedan said.
"Oh. I mean, I figured you’d be," Alistair’s cheeks reddened slightly, and if he kept on coughing like that he’d end up swallowing his own tongue. "Not, ah, not a stranger in the ways of..." he trailed off.
"Sex, you mean?" Aedan asked, taking him out of his misery. The blush deepened. "You’d be right, but- Wait. Who is it?"
"W-what do you mean?"
Aedan narrowed his eyes. "It’s not Morrigan, is it?"
Alistair squawked in a rather unmanly manner. "No!" his horrified expression was a sight to behold and Aedan couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped him. "No," he repeated after a moment, more quietly. "No, that’s just- no."
"Leliana?" Aedan asked then, but he already knew the answer. "It’s Kallian, isn’t it?"
Alistair took a deep breath. "I know you two don’t always see eye to eye-"
Aedan snorted. "That’s an understatement."
Alistair lowered his eyes. "Right," he sighed. "I’m sorry."
"No, hey," Aedan bumped their shoulders together. "It’s all right," he said, his voice didn’t waver in the slightest and he sounded almost convincing even to his own ears. "Just- ignore me. She just- rubs me the wrong way sometimes."
Alistair gave a nervous laugh. "I guess that’s all the better for me, then?" he said. "Right?"
Aedan rubbed his face with his hands, grimaced at the roughness of his leather gloves against his skin. He suddenly felt hypersensitive, Alistair was too close, not even touching, but his body was acutely aware of him just a few inches away. "Yes," he finally manage. "You’re right."
"Good," Alistair chuckled lightly, but it didn’t do anything to hide his nervousness. "Because I don’t think I’d be able to... compete with you on that front."
"Oh, rest assured, there’s no such front at all," Aedan said with a snort. He got up, feeling the sudden need to be away. Far, far away.
Alistair appeared confused by his hostility - which surely had to appear uncalled for in his eyes - by he recovered quickly, standing up himself. "So not an expert in relationships, huh?" he remarked. "You just seduce them and leave them, eh?" he frowned. "I’m sure in your position, a relationship would have certain... political strings attached. Nobility works differently from us commoners, I guess."
Aedan gave him an incredulous stare. "I-" he blinked. Great, of all the times Alistair wasn’t actually playing dumb- "That’s not-"
"What?" Alistair raised his eyebrows at him, questioningly.
He actually had no idea.
"Never mind," he sighed. "I’m tired, I’ll turn in early. I know I said I’d sit watch duty tonight, but would you mind..."
"Sure, not all," Alistair grinned at him. "Just have some rest, you deserve it."
Aedan just nodded and started on his armour buckles as he made his way towards his tent.
"Hey," Alistair called out, and when Aedan had turned to face him, "are we, you know, all right?"
"Sure," he replied, forcing a smile. It’s just that sometimes you are an idiot.
"Great, indeed," he muttered and ducked inside the tent.
He had resigned himself to sleep coming to him quite late into the night, but he had underestimated just how exhausted he was, and his head had barely touched the backpack he used as a pillow when he fell deeply asleep.
He woke up with a startle and for a moment he couldn’t understand why his bed was so hard and lumpy, and why his room suddenly felt so small and cold. And then he realized he was sleeping on the ground, in a tent, and that his room probably didn’t even exist anymore.
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and shivered, partly because of the cold and partly because of the nightmare. He didn’t remember much of it, except vague images of a fire and the distant sound of screaming, until it had become quite vivid and real.
It seemed like he wasn’t destined to get any sleep tonight.
He dared a look outside, maybe it was still Alistair’s turn to watch and he wouldn’t mind some company.
As it turned out it was and he didn’t. Too bad Aedan was late to the party. He watched as Alistair and Kallian sat together near the fire, their backs to him. They were talking in hushed tones, and judging by the blanket Kallian had around her shoulders she must have been sleeping until only minutes before.
She’d likely had the same nightmare as well, minus the fire and the screaming; Aedan had the suspicion that was all Arl Howe’s doing. Not that she probably didn’t have nightmares of her own, he hadn't seen enough to fully grasp the situation of the alienage in Denerim, but he had doubts it was anything different from the one in Highever. Some of the stories he had heard... It wasn’t surprising Kallian despised humans that much, really.
Only she seemed to reserve all her hatred specifically for Aedan, she didn’t act that way around the other humans in their company, certainly not around Alistair. Not the way she was bending her head as if to better hear whatever Alistair was telling her. The light of the fire outlined their dark profiles in a deep orange and he could barely see the occasional glint of a smile.
He had to admit they didn’t make a bad couple, aesthetically at least. Kallian was pretty enough, although she’d probably emasculate any man who’d dare say that to her face. Judging from his earlier talk with Alistair, Aedan had a feeling he wasn’t looking for a pretty face to have a good time with, though.
He wasn’t sure telling Alistair he was setting himself up for a big disappointment would be a good idea, it felt too much like wishful thinking on Aedan’s part and anyway he couldn’t certain claim to be the best judge of character, or an expert in relationships, be it with men or women.
He sighed and ducked back inside before they could accidentally see him. He fell back against his sleeping roll and contemplated the empty space next to him right before the entrance of the tent. Fergus usually slept there, and despite the fact Aedan had to endure the good-natured mocking of his companions he wasn’t going to give up the only thing he had left to remind him of home.
"Where is he, anyway?" he asked to the thin walls of the tent.
Predictably, he got no reply.
The last he had seen Fergus he had run to fetch the stick Alistair had thrown him. Near Morrigan’s tent.
He really, really hoped Morrigan hadn’t turned his dog into a toad, or otherwise altered his current state of being. Who knew what kind of spells she had up her sleeve. So to speak.
The sound of soft laughter coming from outside dispelled any wish he might have had of investigating the fate of his dog.
He hoped he had made a valiant last stand, at least. Slobbered all over her spare clothes, used her staff as a chew toy. Or something.
Fergus seemed to have a soft spot for Morrigan, as well.
Aedan found them the following morning, glaring at each other. Or rather, Morrigan was glaring, Fergus was looking up at her, wagging his tail.
"What’s going on here?" he asked, frowning at the scene. Then he noticed the bloody mess that Morrigan was carrying. It appeared to be a small animal, its fur missing in some places. It could have been anything from a big rat to a cat. And it seemed to be tangled with some kind of cloth that might have been white once upon a time.
"Look at what your fool dog placed in my pack," Morrigan said with a disgusted twist of her mouth. She didn’t seem to have any qualms about carrying whatever it was around. She turned to Fergus. "A putrid half-eaten hare is not something a woman wants to find in her unmentionables."
Fergus whined and lowered his head. "I’m sure he meant it as a gift," Aedan told Morrigan.
"Well, he can have it back," she said. "I do not want it," she carefully enunciated, tossing the dead hare in front of Fergus.
It landed with a sickening squelch. Aedan’s breakfast did an unpleasant somersault in his stomach.
"Good morning everybody," Alistair walked over to them with a big grin. "Oh, and I guess to you too, Morrigan," he frowned at the dead hare. "Maker’s breath! What’s that? Or rather, what was that?" his head whipped around and he narrowed his eyes at Morrigan. "What have you done?"
Morrigan gave him a scathing look. "It has a quite close resemblance to what I’m going to do to you if you don’t get out of my way," she said, pushing past him.
Alistair frowned at her retreating back. "What got her smallclothes in a twist?" he asked. "And so early in the day."
Aedan considered the dead hare, he grimaced. "My dog, apparently," he replied. "Quite literally as it stands."
Alistair frowned down at the dead animal, at the cloth twisted around it, then he studied at Fergus. "Good dog!" he grinned at him and patted his head.
"Please," Aedan sighed. "Don’t encourage him."
Redcliffe was a small clutter of houses in the distance, on the shores of Lake Calenhad; the Arl’s castle rising on top of the cliff and watching over the village. A pretty sight, Aedan had to admit, it would have made a nice painting, even if his appreciation towards arts tended to lean more on the written word.
He turned his eyes away and they were once again drawn to another sight, this one not so pretty in his opinion. Alistair had dragged Kallian away from the group to have a ‘private word’, so far they had managed to keep their voices down, but judging from Kallian’s body language pretty soon said word wasn’t going to be private anymore.
"Whatever!" Kallian exclaimed, finally, dismissing Alistair with a wave of her hand. "Do as you wish."
"I will, thank you!"
"Is she always like that?" Zevran asked.
The grin that followed had nothing to do with humour and possibly a lot to do with sex. "Feisty one," Zevran said. "She must be quite a handful in the sack."
"I wouldn’t know," Aedan said, before he could stop himself.
Zevran’s leer was suddenly turned to him. "Of that, I had no doubt, my friend," he chuckled. "None at all."
"Does this usually work for you?" he said, making a vague hand-gesture. "All the leers and the lewd suggestions, I mean. Bragging is never attractive."
"Oh, my dear Warden, but it’s different in my case."
"Oh really?" Aedan snorted. "How so?"
"It’s not bragging when it’s the truth, is it?" Zevran grinned. "I’m a professional, after all."
Aedan blinked and quickly looked away when he felt his cheeks getting hot. He scowled when he heard Zevran’s soft laughter.
By then, Kallian had rejoined the rest of them and she was frowning so much that he had to wonder what had Alistair said to her. She looked almost as angry as she always was with Aedan.
"What is it?" he asked, hoping he wouldn’t get mauled.
"Ask him," was the icy reply.
And indeed Alistair was coming over. "Aedan, a word?"
"Are you done with your little Grey Wardens-only secret meetings?" Morrigan asked with a heavy sigh. "One would think with a Blight so imminent upon us, you’d want to hurry things along instead of stopping for idle chats every few moments."
Alistair glared at her. "Would it be so wrong for me to strangle her? Just a little." he turned to Aedan. "Please, tell me it wouldn’t be."
"Ha!" Morrigan snorted. "As if you could even get within ten feet of me without tripping all over your own stupidity."
When they were a safe distance from the others Aedan turned to Alistair and waited patiently.
"...So?" he prompted, at last.
"So, ah, there’s something I might have neglected mentioning," Alistair started. He scratched the back of his head and looked everywhere but at him. "It didn’t go well with Kallian, so..."
Aedan sighed. "No, don’t tell me," he said, putting up his hand as if to halt him. "I’m going to eventually grow horns or something and feel the irresistible urge to feast upon the blood of virgins."
Alistair stared at him. "...what?"
"Never mind," he said. "It’s just that the last two ‘I have to tell you something about being a Grey Warden’ speeches have included me having terribly vivid nightmares and a shorter life-span."
Alistair shook his head. "This has nothing to do with the Grey Wardens," he said. "It’s- It’s about me."
"Well, I suppose it can’t be worse than feasting upon the blood of virgins."
Alistair smiled slightly and shook his head. "I guess not," he conceded. "I told you how Arl Eamon took me in, right?" Aedan nodded. "Everyone thought he did it because he was my real father, but he wasn’t. I was- I am a bastard, but my father was King Maric."
Aedan blinked. All right, that was unexpected. "Oh," he said. "So it’s true, then."
"You- You knew about me?" Alistair asked with a frown. "I thought only Arl Eamon and Duncan knew about it. And Loghain too, I guess."
"Well, not you specifically, but there always have been rumours floating around that King Maric had a bas- er, child from another woman," Aedan explained. "Some said the mother was a servant girl, others said she was a mage, others Andraste herself, so you understand I didn’t put much faith in it."
"Andraste...?" Alistair echoed with a frown, then he shook himself. "Well, anyway the servant girl one is true. My mother was in service in the Redcliffe castle, but she died giving birth to me, so Arl Eamon took me in."
Aedan nodded, letting everything sink in. Prince Alistair. That sounded quite weird. "So... Cailan was your brother, then," he said, at last.
"It’s not like we had much of a relationship, really," Alistair said with a shrug. "I think I only saw him once, and I was all ‘Greetings, your Highness’ and he went all ‘Oooh, swords! Shiny!’ So, you know..."
"Still, your loss was far greater than that of Ferelden," he said. "We all lost our King, but you also lost family."
"Many people died at Ostagar," Alistair sighed. "Not just Duncan and Cailan, my loss is no greater than anyone else’s. At least I gained something from it."
Aedan nodded. "Thank you for telling me, I appreciate it."
"I’m planning on telling everyone soon," Alistair explained. "If we’re going to see Arl Eamon, it’s a topic that’s bound to come up. I just hope the rumours about his illness were greatly exaggerated," he frowned. "Anyway, I thought you and Kallian needed to hear it first."
Aedan grimaced. "She... didn’t take it well," he said.
Alistair cocked his head. "Actually," he said, narrowing his eyes, "I think she took it too well."
She certainly hadn’t seemed too thrilled from what Aedan had seen. He frowned. "How so?"
"She suggested I should just march down to Denerim and demand my rightful place on the Throne," Alistair said, his voice deepening in a mock-solemn tone towards the end as he made a swift gesture with his right hand, as if miming to chop the head off somebody who had dared impugn his birthrights.
Aedan’s eyebrows climbed his on his brow. "That’s... certainly going to cause the whole Court to explode with gossip," he said.
"And while it might be worth it just for that," Alistair said, "I most definitely do not want to be King."
Aedan laughed out loud. "Oh yeah, I hear you."
"What? Really?" Alistair stared at him. "I figured people - I mean, people other than me - would jump up at the idea of becoming King."
"Are you kidding?" Aedan snorted in disbelief. "Take it from someone who wa- is the second son of a noble family. Inheriting the title, marrying into another noble family, producing heirs, all that boring politics stuff, that’s a first-born privilege. So to speak. All I had to do was hunt, play with swords and occasionally stand there and look pretty," he shrugged. And guard the castle while my father and brother are gone, he didn’t say.
Alistair blinked at him then he shook himself out of his reverie. "Quite the hardship for you, I imagine," he snorted.
"Well, I don’t have any sisters, so I had to accompany my mother to see her friends, occasionally," he conceded.
"Long afternoons of gossip and knitting, then," Alistair grinned. "Poor Lady Aedan."
He narrowed his eyes. "Hardly," he bit out. "My mother had military training, she knew the value of a skilled fighter. Mostly she used to organize private sparring contests so she could show me off to her friends," he smiled at the memory, despite himself.
And then the image of Dairren’s body struck down by arrows hit him like a sucker-punch. He felt it in his stomach, his vision went blurry around the edges and he almost bent double.
Alistair was talking to him. "-huh? Aedan?"
"Are you all right?" Alistair asked. When Aedan nodded silently, he didn’t seem very convinced, but he went on anyway. "So, did you usually win?"
Aedan arched an eyebrow at him. "What do you think?" he said. Alistair just grinned and raised his hands in surrender. "My brother always used to tease me saying that after I had pounded them in public, they’d-" he cut himself off just in time, his face heating. ‘they’d pound me in private.’
"They’d what?" Alistair prompted. "Shed bitter tears of resentment? I know I would, being beaten by a scrawny little thing like you. The shame would kill me."
"They’d, uh, they’d become my best friends," he finished lamely, then he realized what Alistair had said. "And just because I’m not made of nothing but muscles and very little else like you it doesn’t mean I’m scrawny."
"Oooh, did I hit a nerve?" Alistair laughed, easily dodging the punch Aedan aimed his way. "Why, I think I did." He laughed again and Aedan couldn’t help but join in. "I’m... glad you took it well," Alistair said at last, turning serious.
Aedan shrugged. "Well, it’s not like anything has really changed, right?" he said, but when he noticed Alistair’s nonplussed expression. "Has it?"
"No, no it hasn’t!" Alistair exclaimed quickly. "That’s my point."
"Well, all right," he nodded. "Let us go then, before Morrigan decides she has waited enough and decides to zap us with lightning."
He was stopped by Alistair’s grip on his arm. "Hey," he said. "Thank you. I really mean it. All my life was shaped by this... Prince thing," he closed his eyes with a sigh. "Even Duncan protected me because of it, I’m glad it doesn’t affect at least one thing."
"You’re welcome," Aedan replied, honestly. "If there’s one thing I learned from all that standing around and looking pretty..." Alistair snorted. "The title doesn’t make the man. Templar, Grey Warden, Prince. You’ll always be Alistair, first. At least to me."
Alistair stared at him wide-eyed, as if he’d been struck. He cleared his throat. "I-" he started, then he tried again, his mouth opening and closing with no sounds coming out.
Aedan finally decided to take pity on the poor man. "Cheese-Obsessed Weirdo, Actually-Think-He’s-A-Funny-Guy, Muscle Man," he said, solemnly. "Still Alistair first."
Alistair gaped at him. "Hey!" he exclaimed, swatting him on the back of his head.
Aedan ducked and laughed, because Alistair was grinning too. The second swat he wasn’t able to evade, so he just decided to get his revenge by elbowing him in the ribs. It didn’t have much effect beside the dull sound of something hitting metal, as Alistair was wearing his plate-mail.
"If you two fools are quite finished..." Morrigan’s theatrical sigh was accompanied by an equally theatrical eye-roll.
"Aw, but Mom!" Alistair whined. "He started it!"
Morrigan shot the two of them a withering glare and then stomped away, fuming. Rather than her wrath being a deterrent, it only caused Alistair to laugh louder.
And that was how they arrived in Redcliffe, he and Alistair both smiling, his arm a welcome weight around Aedan’s shoulders.
Too bad their smiles didn’t last long.
The secret passageway leading to the Castle was damp and smelled of mildew, but Bann Teagan had been right and they hadn’t encountered any resistance so far.
"Ah, this reminds of the good old times," Zevran sighed happily behind him. "The first lights of dawn, sneaking up the rear entrance..."
Aedan choked and almost tripped over his own feet. When he had regained his balance and a modicum of dignity, he glared back at him.
"What?" Zevran’s innocent smile wouldn’t have fooled an idiot.
The secret passageway seemed to have lead them to the Castle dungeons. "Right," Kallian said. "Building the escape route in the prisons seems like a wise idea."
Despite himself, Aedan couldn’t help but silently agree.
They didn’t have much time to dwell on it, when as soon as they opened the door, four rotting corpses charged at them with an inhuman growl.
"More walking corpses," Zevran raised his eyebrows. "A Warden’s life is certainly not boring."
"You’d be surprised," Aedan told him. "It’s actually not the first time we’ve fought the undead."
"Ah, yes," Alistair heaved a resigned sigh. "This is getting so mundane," he said, chopping the head off of the undead trying to claw at him.
They made quick work of dispatching them.
"Here’s hoping they don’t get up again," Zevran muttered, making a face. "Ugh, the stench!"
"H-Hey?" came a voice from one of the cells. "Is there anyone out there?"
Aedan exchanged a confused look with his companions, before seeking out the owner of the voice. It turned out to be a young man, covered in blood and grime, looking worse for wear - but then again, he was stuck in a cell of a dungeon crawling with undead.
The man was wearing the robes of a mage. "My name is Aedan," he said, then he pointed to the others. "Alistair, Zevran and Kallian."
"I am Jowan," the man said. "The... apostate Lady Isolde hired to teach her son."
"An apostate?" Alistair raised his eyebrows. "Why would she hire an apostate for her son?"
"Connor is a mage," Jowan replied. "Or at least, he showed the signs of being one, but the Lady wanted to keep it a secret, so apostate it was."
"A mage, huh?" Zevran blinked. "The plot thickens."
"I-" Jowan sighed. "I’m a blood mage, actually." Aedan didn’t miss Alistair’s sharp intake of breath. "And before you say it- no, I have nothing to do with the walking corpses."
"You think maybe it was the Arl’s son?" Kallian asked.
Jowan shook his head. "Maybe," he said. "It’s possible that his powers tore the Veil without him even knowing."
Aedan frowned. "Does this have anything to do with the Arl falling ill?"
"Ah," Jowan scratched the back of his head, grimacing. "That might have been my doing."
"What?" Alistair took a step forward, his features screwed up in a mask of rage.
Jowan took a step back, despite the bars separating him from Alistair’s fury. "Teyrn Loghain told me if I did that, he’d settle my problems with the Circle of Magi," he explained. "He said the Arl was an enemy of Ferelden, but... now I’m not so sure," he sighed. "I was desperate!" he added, when Alistair didn’t seem to settle down.
"So, what do we do now?" Zevran asked in the silence that followed.
"I said we should have taken Morrigan," Kallian said for what had to be the tenth time. "We need a mage."
"We needed a small group," Aedan said. "Stealthy and quick. And Alistair," he added after a couple of seconds, "because he knows the castle. Morrigan will join us with the others as soon as we reach the gates."
"Hey!" Alistair exclaimed. "I can be stealthy and quick when I want!"
"I- I can help," Jowan cut in. "I understand you can’t trust me, but I’m not a bad man! I want to set things right."
"No offence, man," Kallian told him. "But, yeah, we really can’t trust you."
"How can you help?" Aedan asked him anyway. "Can you cure the Arl’s illness?"
Jowan shook his head. "I was told there was no antidote for the poison," he said. "But then again, I’m not an expert in that field."
Alistair grabbed Aedan’s arm and turned him around. "You are not seriously considering this!" he exclaimed. "Not only did he poison the Arl, he’s a blood mage."
"We need his help," Aedan said. "He poisoned Arl Eamon, yes, but he’s the only one who knows what poison he used and he’s the only one who knows what Connor is capable of."
"We really don’t have much, right now, we need all the help we can get," he said. "Alistair..."
Alistair sighed. "No, no, I get it," he said, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture. "But... a blood mage."
Aedan gave him a long look and only when Alistair nodded at him did he turn toward Jowan. "I’m letting you out," he told him. "Do not make me regret this."
"Thank you," Jowan said with a small, unenthusiastic smile. In spite of everything, he seemed at least sincere. "I’ll do the best I can."
Aedan nodded and looked around for the keys to open the cell. Of course there were none to be found. "All right, then," he said, dropping down to a crouch to start on the cell door lock.
Apparently, he was taking too long for Kallian’s liking as only a few moments later, she pushed him out of the way and took out her own lock-picking tools. Aedan didn’t even waste his energies glaring at her.
With a click, the door finally opened and Kallian stood up with a triumphant smile. "A-ha!" she pointed at him. "Beat you! Again."
Aedan breathed a long-suffering sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. "For the last time," he said. "This is not a competition."
Kallian rolled her eyes. "You’re just sore you’re only second best."
Aedan raised her eyebrows at her. "It’s not like I ever needed the skill before, as I usually had the keys for whatever lock I wished to open in my house."
She glared. "Oh, yes of course," she snorted. "I am nothing but a dirty elf from the alienage. I must surely be a thief!"
"What? No! I wasn’t implying-"
Their little dispute was interrupted by a grunt and the loud crash of wood splintering under a great force. They whirled around and found Alistait standing next to what had been the door leading out the dungeons. It had been locked, too, but now it swung open, the lock broken by what Aedan assumed had been a very powerful kick.
"Ha! See?" Alistair said with a triumphant smile. "I can open locks, too!"
Zevran laughed out loud. "What happened to ‘I can be stealthy, too’?"
Mundane, indeed. The walking corpses they encountered weren’t really a threat, they weren’t armed like the ones they’d fought in the Brecillian Forest, nor they had any armour. They probably had been servants and inhabitants of the castle before the whole madness had started.
He watched as Alistair cut his way through several undead with an ease that was almost disturbing.
"Why is it that they seem so attracted by me?" he wondered out loud, as he used his shield to sever the head off of a gurgling decomposing corpse. "Is is my shiny armour? Or maybe I’m just tasty?" he said with a grin.
Aedan scowled. "How can you be so..." he trailed off, trying to find a suitable word.
"Tasty?" suggested Alistair.
"Cheerful," he growled. "These were people! We’ve just broken into the Arl’s Castle and we’re killing people."
Alistair froze for a second, not enough to give the last abomination standing a chance against him, but enough so that Aedan noticed. A clean cut from Zevran’s swords ended the threat.
Aedan’s scowl didn’t ease off. "Let’s go," he said, refusing to look at any of them.
"Hey," Alistair said softly, as he bumped his shoulder into his. He was covered in blood, and he stank of the smell of death. Or maybe that was only this place. Aedan couldn’t help taking a step away, though, his stomach churning in revulsion.
"Hey," Alistair tried again. "These aren’t people anymore," he said. "There’s nothing we can do for them, all we can do is help those who are still alive."
Aedan looked down at the corpses; their wounds didn’t bleed like a living being’s would have, the little blood there was was almost black and clotted. They had nothing human except the shape. "That doesn’t make it right," he muttered.
Kallian paused in looking for any of her arrows that might be reused. "I’m so sorry this offends your noble sensibilities," she said, widening her eyes in a mock-surprised face, "but shouldn’t we move on?"
"For once!" he growled at her. "For once, would you shut up and leave me alone? What have I ever done to you?" He pointed to a closed door. "I’ll check that room."
"That’s the Arl’s study-" Alistair started.
Kallian laughed. "Touchy."
Aedan pushed against the door with all of his strength and he stumbled inside when it gave away easily under his weight. He slammed the door and leaned back against it, his knees barely keeping him up, the way they were trembling.
Alistair and Kallian were right of course, they were nothing more than abominations. It wasn’t like Aedan had felt any remorse in cutting down the skeletons and the walking corpses they had encountered in the werewolves’ lair.
To see them roaming the halls they had inhabited as people was- monstrous.
He took a deep breath and let his head fall into his hands. He had to keep it together and was failing rather badly at it.
The first view he had of the Arl’s study was through his fingers. There weren’t any monster in there, at least. The room wasn’t very big, keeping in line with the rest of the Castle, compact and functional. Fereldan architecture was built to resist to attacks and to protect the people inside.
Too bad it didn’t protect from treacherous bastards that called themselves your friends.
The others were probably waiting for him, wondering if he hadn’t got killed by an undead. He should have just gone.
There were papers and books on Arl Eamon’s desk, as if he had left only momentarily to pick up his work at a later time. Nothing strange in that, he supposed, death and illness usually struck when one was busy living.
The lock on the desk drawer wasn’t a regular one, it had been built to withstand most lock-picking attempts. Aedan knew because his father had had one like it in his desk. He had tried many times, and once his father had even caught him in the act. He had never cared about stealing, it seemed pointless as he had always had everything he could have ever wanted. And certainly his father’s personal papers had never interested him.
But Aedan liked challenges.
He crouched down in front of the drawer and took out his tools. He had the lock open so quickly that he wondered how he had possibly failed in the first place all those times.
"Aren’t you proud of me now, Father?" he asked the empty room.
The drawer contained nothing but some papers, a few coins and a medallion. He frowned and picked it up. It looked old and it had the symbol of Andraste. Alistair had said something about shattering his mother’s amulet in a fit of rage when he was a child, but this couldn’t possibly be it. And yet, looking closely he noticed the small cracks across the surface of the medallion.
He was so absorbed in his finds that he jumped up, startled, when the door swung open. "Hey, Cousland," Kallian poked her head in. "You still alive in there?"
"Ah, yes," he stood up.
"Fantastic," she deadpanned without much enthusiasm. "Because we have to save a Castle?"
"Coming," he pocket the amulet and closed the drawer.
He just hoped they had better luck at it than the last time.
"You don’t really think the legend about the Ashes is true, do you?" Zevran asked as they got ready to leave for the Circle of Magi.
"What alternatives have we got?" Aedan sighed. "You said it yourself that this poison has no antidote."
"That is true indeed," Zevran nodded. "But do you think it fair for the Lady to have her hopes lifted because of a legend, when she might lose her child as well?"
"I don’t think she asked Alistair and the others go after the Ashes out of hope," Aedan said after a long moment. "Out of desperation is more likely."
Zevran laughed softly, but it was without humour. "I think she might not be alone in that," he said.
Aedan froze in the act of saddling his horse. He swallowed and shot a sideways glance at Zevran. "What do you mean?"
"Our brave Alistair," Zevran replied with a small smile. "He sees the Arl as one would a father, doesn’t he?"
Aedan let go of the breath he hadn't noticed he'd been holding. "He never said as much but yes, I think so as well," he said. "You think they shouldn't go, then?"
Zevran seemed to think about it, frowning. "I think sometimes desperation is even better than hope," he said, at last. "When one has nothing left to lose, they are capable of the most unbelievable tasks."
The noise of steps came from the stables entrance and Aedan turned to see Alistair and the others as they arrived to get their own horses. Time was of the essence and Lady Isolde had graciously conceded them the use of the few horses left in the stables.
Aedan tried not dwell on the fact that they had to saddle the horses themselves because the stable boys had probably been among the walking corpses they had killed while storming the castle.
"So have you got any ideas where to start from?" Aedan asked to no one in particular as he moved to saddle another horse.
Alistair shrugged. "Apparently the only one who knows anything about the Ashes is a Brother Genitivi," he said. "Last seen in Denerim, or near the Circle Tower, depends on who you’re asking."
"That's a little... random," Aedan frowned. "Either way I doubt you'd be able to come back in time to save the Arl."
"For a change, we happen to have been quite lucky on that front," Kallian cut in. "One of the Arl's guards found an impostor in Genitivi's house in Denerim. We now have a possible location, Haven."
Aedan frowned. "Never heard of it."
"Yes well," Alistair sighed. "In a shocking twist of fate, our stroke of luck ran out pretty quickly. Not even the most detailed maps mention Haven. That would have too easy. All we have are Genitivi's notes. Hopefully they'll be enough."
Aedan handed Alistair the reins of their horses. Alistair thanked him with a tired smile. Aedan just nodded without returning it and started on another horse.
Alistair seemed to want to say something, but Aedan pretended not to have noticed. What could he have told him, anyway? 'I'm sorry, but this reminds me of my own family getting slaughtered in their sleep. Oh, didn't I mention that? My bad.'
Aedan studied his companions. "So, how many of you people know how to ride a horse?" Everyone but Morrigan and Kallian raised their hands. "Good."
Kallian shrugged. "It's a horse, how hard can it be?"
Aedan gave her a long look, Alistair silently handed her the reins of the most docile looking horse they had. "I'm sure you'll get the hang of it in no time," Aedan said, very diplomatic.
Kallian narrowed her eyes at him, but she didn't comment.
Unsurprisingly, Morrigan went for a black horse, the most elegant of the bunch. "More smelly beasts," she said. "Oh joy."
Alistair shot her an amused glance. "It's a wonder you lived in the Wilds all your life."
"I do bathe regularly," she said. "Sadly the same can't be said for you." Morrigan was the only person he knew that made you feel guilty for getting insulted in the first place, and Aedan admired her somewhat grudgingly for that. It was a combination of her voice and mannerism, he guessed.
"And deprive you of a chance to insult me?" Alistair snorted. "Never!"
"You think you are so clever, you probably will note down this day on your journal. ‘Today I was clever’, you’ll write," she arched her eyebrow, her expression implying that Alistair was thoroughly checked and found lacking. If anyone could do that with just an eyebrow, it was Morrigan.
"Kids, kids," Kallian cut in, "keep the foreplay to the bedroom, please."
Alistair sputtered and protested loudly, and even Morrigan lost some of her cool façade. Aedan had to laugh at Kallian's smug smile, despite himself.
Alistair cleared his voice. "So," he started, clapping his hands together, "I guess it's time we get started." He turned to Aedan, "good luck and Maker be with you."
"You too, you'll certainly need it more than me," Aedan said. "I'm not the one riding towards the unknown with three dangerous women."
"Oh, you funny, funny man," Alistair said, but he looked a little nervous now.
"Good luck," Leliana said with a grin. "Don't worry about Alistair, we'll take good care of him. Very good care."
Alistair shot her a worried glance. "Is it too late to switch groups?"
"I'll gladly take them off your hands," Zevran said. "So to speak."
"Purely out of the good of your generous heart, I imagine," Alistair deadpanned.
"I will never understand the need for such chatter," Sten suddenly spoke, startling them.
"It eases off the tension, I guess," Aedan told him. It might have been rhetorical, but when it came to Sten one never knew.
Zevran arched his eyebrows. "You don't talk much, do you?"
Sten gave him a long look. "No."
"Sten is right," Aedan said, leading his horse outside."Come on, Kallian, I'll teach you the basics."
Kallian blinked at him in surprise, but she followed him without saying anything.
Getting her on the saddle was no problem at all, her horse was so calm and unconcerned that Aedan had to wonder if it was Connor's. He handed her the reins and gave her the quickest lesson in horse-riding ever given.
"That's not much," he said finally, "but at least you won't fall off. Hopefully."
"I guess you are good for something, after all," she remarked with a smirk.
Aedan gave her a look and decided that slapping the horse would be a rather childish thing to do, but a lesser man wouldn't have been able to exercise the same restraint.
He watched silently as she lead the horse in a circle around him. "All right," she said finally, "I got this horse thing."
Aedan gestured towards Alistair, Morrigan and Leliana who were waiting by the gates. "You better join them, then," he said. "Sten was right, we really can't afford wasting time."
She nodded and sank her heels in the horse's flank. The horse made a noise very much like a long-suffering sigh, but it moved. Very, very slowly.
Kallian frowned at it. "I think mine is broken," she said.
Aedan grinned. "Be gentle, if you can manage it." She glared.
"Hey, wait," he said, then, almost as an afterthought.
"What now?" she growled. "I thought we were pressed for time."
"Here," he said, giving her the amulet he had found in Arl Eamon's study.
She didn't pick it up, instead frowning down at it as if it was about to jump at her and bite. "What’s this? A gift?" she asked with a snort. "For me? What, is it going to explode when I touch it?"
Aedan shook his head. "No, it’s- I found it in the Arl's study," he explained. "I think it may have belonged to Alistair’s mother."
"You found it? Stole it more likely. How the mighty have fallen," she smirked. "Why are you giving it to me, anyway?"
"So you could give it to him."
Kallian arched her eyebrows. "Don’t you have legs? I’m not your personal delivery girl."
Aedan grimaced, scratched the back of his head. "The way I acted earlier, I think it’s best I'm not the one."
"When you acted like the spoiled brat you are and threw a tantrum in the middle of a fight, you mean?" she said, but she took the amulet anyway.
"I didn’t-" he sighed. "I don’t have to explain myself to you."
"Oh, but you do," she said. "If your behaviour is going to endanger us all or put our mission in jeopardy, well then maybe it’s best you sit this one out."
"Sit this one-" he started angrily, but he cut himself off, took a deep breath. "I’m a Grey Warden, Kallian, I can’t ‘sit this one out’," he continued after a moment.
"Then it’s time you started to act like one," she told him. "Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and in my experience if arseholes are involved then it’s more than ‘sometimes’. I know it's shitty, but that's the way it is."
He glared at her. "I know that, I’m not naïve."
"Then toughen up, kid."
"Kid?" he snorted. "I’m older than you!"
"We elves grow up quicker than you humans, especially privileged, sheltered humans like you are," she said, simply. "Just ask Zevran."
Aedan tried to cool his features so he wouldn't give too much away. From the way Kallian looked at him, he wasn't very successful. "Even us privileged, sheltered humans know hardship."
Kallian laughed. "Oh, yes. Sure," she rolled her eyes. "Oh dear, there’s only one fork, how will I ever be able to properly eat my lunch."
"Oh, stop it!" he hissed angrily, surprising Kallian and even himself with his vehemence. "I know I can’t even begin to understand what you went through in Denerim, but at least when this is all over, you’ll have a place to-" he cut himself off just in time, swallowing the rest of the words that were trying to push their way past his teeth. "Just- just leave me alone, please," he finished, quietly, looking away.
"Aedan?" she asked, after a long moment; he could hear the confused frown in the tone of her voice.
It was the first time he had heard calling him by his name, instead of just 'Cousland' or some epithet.
He shook himself. "Give the medallion to Alistair, say you found it. I don’t care," he sighed. "Be careful, and keep an eye out for him."
"Alistair, you mean?" she asked. "He’s a big boy, despite the way he acts sometimes." After a few moments, she continued and Aedan didn't like the note of suspicion in her voice, he didn't like it one bit. "You seem awfully... intense when it comes to him."
"He’s my friend."
Aedan cleared his voice. "You should go," he said. "They're waiting for you."
She gave him one last glance, her eyes narrowed to the point of becoming two thin slits. She didn't comment, though, and spurred her horse forward.
Zevran reached Aedan's side, he handed him the reins of the horse Aedan had chosen for himself. "Shall we go as well, my handsome leader?"
Aedan arched an eyebrow. "Didn't I tell you to stop that?"
"Are you saying you don't appreciate compliments? That would make you a liar, my friend," he grinned. "What can I say, I'm drawn to authority figures."
Aedan gave him a deadpan look, but he had to give in and laugh at the outrageous leer Zevran was aiming at him. "We should go, yes."
The heavy doors closed behind them with a hollow sound that echoed ominously in the empty hall. Then came the sounds of the Templars on the other side locking and barring the door for good measure.
"Just once," Aedan sighed, "I would like for something to go smoothly. It’s not much to ask for, is it?" Sten remained impassible, Zevran shrugged and Fergus just looked up at him. "Right, that’s what I thought."
The absolute silence was eerie, and the only break was provided by what Aedan thought were screams. He couldn’t be sure, though, as they seemed to come from far away. No one spoke, and even Fergus seemed to be uncharacteristically silent. He tried to suppress a shiver and failed.
Fate seemed to have it in for him, forcing him to remember and relive the assault on his castle. As if he could ever forget the screams, the blood, the bodies.
They moved, crossing the hall carefully. They had met abominations before, but if what the Templars had said was true, they could expect every mage inside the Tower to have turned into one. Aedan didn’t know how many mages used to live in there, but if the Circle of Magi was the destination for all the mages of Ferelden...
"Suddenly climbing up a mountain to go look for a bucket of legendary ashes doesn’t seem so bad," Zevran said. "And I hate climbing mountains."
They turned the corner and found themselves inside another wide hall, but there were people here. Mostly children, Aedan noticed. No one appeared to be older than him, save for the woman who was standing in front of what seemed to be shimmering blue glass. Except it rippled and shone, like a small vertical pond.
He was about to announce himself, when something crossed the ‘pond’. It was almost shapeless, with only two limbs that could have been described as arms. It was nothing human, though, it rather looked as if someone had decided to trap a fire inside a sack as black as a starless night.
Aedan cried out in warning and sprinted forward, his hands already reaching for the swords strapped to his back. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his companions draw their weapons as well; Fergus zipped past him to charge the monster.
He shouldn’t have worried, though, the older woman made a wide gesture with her hands and the monster was frozen by magic ice. It shattered in tiny million pieces and the elder mage took a step back, catching her breath.
When she turned, Aedan gasped in recognition. "I know you," he said, lowering his swords. "You were at Ostagar," he frowned, trying to recall her name. "Wynne?"
She smiled, a little tiredly perhaps. "Very good," she said with a nod. "And you are the young Cousland, if I recall."
Aedan looked away. "Just Aedan, please," he said. "I’m a Grey Warden, now."
"I did tell you, didn’t I?" Wynne said. "I was sure you’d be able to succeed."
"So you did," he conceded, smiling despite the situation. He gestured at his companions. "You remember Fergus," he said. "These two are Zevran and Sten."
"I’m Wynne, Senior Enchanter of the Circle of Magi," she said, bowing her head a little. "Now, young man, do not think you are an unwelcome sight, but why are you and your friends here?"
"We are here to seek the help of the Circle," Aedan replied. "The son of the Arl of Redcliffe has been possessed by a demon."
"That is terrible news," Wynne sighed, lowering her head. "Made even worse by the fact that we cannot help him as we are trapped in here. As you are now."
"We know," Aedan nodded. "That Templar, Gregoir?", at Wynne’s affirmative nod he went on, "he said they have called for the Rite of Annulment."
"Yes, I was afraid of that," Wynne nodded.
Aedan took a deep breath. "I told him we’d check if there were any survivors," he told her. "How bad is it?"
"Bad," she said, "but not hopeless. We might have time to find the First Enchanter and end all this in the best possible way."
He nodded. "I know next to nothing about the Tower," he said. "Not to mention what we should expect."
"I’ll come with you," Wynne said, causing a ripple of unease go through the apprentice mages that had been listening to their exchange. "I put up this barrier to protect the children, but I can take it down."
"Are you sure you’re up to this?" he asked, giving her a long, searching look.
"Are you saying I’m too old?" she laughed softly. "Don’t let it deceive you, I’m still quite capable, I assure you."
He blinked. "No, I didn’t-" he cleared his voice. "I meant, what about them?" he asked, pointing at the apprentices. Some of them hardly even appeared to be in their teens.
"I believe I got rid of the worst of them," Wynne explained. "Petra is more than capable enough of protecting the children."
Petra - or at least Aedan supposed it was her - nodded, but she was a little pale and she didn’t look at all convinced. He really hoped Wynne was right and the girl was really as good as she believed. Then again as Zevran had said, desperation made people to the most unbelievable things, he should have known.
"I’ll leave Fergus here, just in case," he told her.
Fergus didn’t seem to like it at first, but he did as he was told at last and took his place next to Petra.
"Shall we go, then?" Wynne asked, her hands holding her staff with a white-knuckled grip.
Aedan nodded, and with a gesture and a couple of whispered words from Wynne, the blue barrier disappeared, presenting them with another empty corridor. It curved, following the circumference of the Tower, and Aedan saw a couple of closed doors on the right.
"Come on," he said, stepping through the threshold. "We don’t have much time."
It had become quite the theme lately.
Aedan hated the Fade.
He had come to that conclusion as soon as he found himself trapped in there. Between the nightmares that came from being a Grey Warden and those that came from surviving the destruction of his home, he really could have done with keeping the whole Fade thing restricted to his sleeping hours.
Being conscious in the Fade wasn’t... natural.
He had heard that mages were the only one able to do that regularly, and if that was true, he certainly didn’t envy them.
He looked down at himself. He didn’t recognized his arms, his hands, his legs. His whole body had been replaced by charred flesh and clothing; flames danced on what was left of his - or at the very least, what was now his - skin. The fire didn’t burn, though, and Aedan was almost pathetically grateful that his senses seemed not to be working properly. He remembered the smell of burning flesh, and he didn’t care to repeat the experience.
He turned the corner and found himself face to face with some mages. He’d learned at his own expense that in this strange place there was no space for talking, that he had no friends, save for Niall and those who had gifted him with their abilities and their forms.
Aedan could have sworn he felt the energy leave him and become focused, flames erupting from his fingers. He hadn’t even thought about it, it was instinctive, much like when he was in the heat of battle and dodging and parrying became as natural as breathing.
Maybe this was what it felt like to be a mage, to have all this power at his fingertips. He shuddered. It was no wonder people feared mages. A good warrior armed with a sword could kill ten, maybe twenty people before falling under an enemy’s blade. But a mage could wipe out an entire army before he could even look at his opponent in the eye.
The mages screamed in pain and horror, despite the fact that the flames hadn’t even seemed to have touched them. They disappeared like everyone and everything else Aedan had fought and defeated in this realm.
They didn’t leave any bodies behind, they just faded into thin air.
When Aedan woke up and opened his eyes he found himself staring into Niall’s empty gaze. He had been trapped in the Fade too long, he had told Aedan; but how long had that been? Hours? Days?
After what had felt like days living in a place without smells, the stench of death and decomposing flesh assaulted his nostrils, making him gag and cough. He sat up quickly, his left hand slipping on a dark stain that he really didn’t want to know the origin of. He looked around and watched Wynne, Sten and Zevran groaning and standing up as well.
He caught Zevran’s eyes, saw the sheepish smile on his face and quickly looked away. Aedan kept his eyes glued to the floor as he waited for the others to get their bearings.
"The Litany..." Wynne said.
Aedan nodded and crouched next to Niall’s body. He found the pages clutched in his hands, stained with blood. He closed his eyes and whispered an apology - for arriving too late, for not being able to save him from the Fade, for destroying all those spirits whose bodies were probably abominations he’d slayed on his way there.
"I have it," he said, standing up.
For a long moment nobody moved, they were all staring at him. They were waiting for him to lead them, maybe, or they were just catching their breaths after their little encounter with the Sloth demon.
Aedan swallowed and grimaced at just how loud it sounded in the absolute silence.
Dreams and nightmares and memories were something that no stranger should ever lay eyes on. Not even a friend, although Aedan doubted any of these people would describe him as a friend.
He made his way, silently, to the door leading out of the room.
The others followed, the sound of their steps in the empty hall echoed haunting and eerie.
The whole matter hadn’t taken more than a few hours, and despite the fact that Aedan felt both physically and mentally exhausted, he suggested making their way back to Redcliffe as soon as First Enchanter Irving and his mages were ready.
The others weren’t faring any better, but no one protested when Aedan announced his plan.
The one who worried him the most was Wynne, though. She had insisted on joining them, and while Aedan didn’t dare voice his doubts aloud - at least not when she could hear - it was obvious the whole ordeal had taken a lot out of her.
"Shall we go then?" First Enchanter Irving asked, approaching him. "A child’s life is in danger."
Aedan nodded. "We only have three horses, though," he said.
"Knight Commander Gregoir can spare only two Templars to come with us," the First Enchanter said. "And I believe we still have some horses in the stables. The abominations only spread from the first floor upwards."
Aedan shot a glance at Wynne. "Are you sure..."
"I believe I have proven that, despite my age, I can be quite handy in a fight," she said before he could finish the question.
"That’s not what I meant," Aedan said. "As it stands, the Circle of Magi will need all the help they can get to repair the damage done here."
Wynne smiled softly. "It is true that the Circle is my home," she said, "but so is Ferelden. I am not afraid to do my part to help, I answered the King’s call at Ostagar, after all."
"We have been declared outlaws by Teyrn Loghain," he said. "It won’t be easy."
"Doing the right thing seldom is," she said. "And I find sometimes there is a certain... peace in sacrifice."
Aedan gave her a long look. "I can’t say I share your viewpoints," he said. He sighed. "On the other hand I can’t and I’m not going to stop you from doing what you want."
"Thank you," she said with a small nod of her head.
"And so another another fine specimen joins our little group," Zevran said, giving Wynne a long look. Aedan tried to ignore the way his gaze lingered on her chest area. "Every day I find joining your cause was indeed a lucky occurrence."
Wynne raised her eyebrows and Zevran countered with one of his smiles.
"Please ignore him," Aedan said with a roll of his eyes. "He likes to think he’s irresistible."
"Oh but my dear Warden, you’d find that statement to be true if you only gave yourself the chance to try me."
"I’m not listening to you."
"I can tell this adventure will turn out to be rather... interesting," Wynne said, her smile not quite dispelling her bemusement.
Redcliffe Castle was more or less in the same condition they had left it. Bann Teagan told them there had been a few other walking corpses sightings, but the guards had been able to keep them at bay with the help of Jowan.
Everyone was in the Main Hall and judging by the bedrolls laid on the floor, they had been living in there for the whole time Aedan and the others had been away. He supposed that had been the smart thing to do, with Connor still free in the castle.
Jowan stood away from the rest, in a corner, and Aedan didn’t miss the mistrustful glances the guards shot his way once or twice. Mostly, though, he was ignored.
As soon as they came in, with the mages and the Templars following, everyone seemed to freeze.
"I recognize you," one of the Templars said. "You are that blood mage who destroyed his phylactery."
Jowan paled and took a step backwards, but short of fusing himself with the walls he had nowhere to go.
Aedan raised his hands. "Jowan is here to help us," he said. "I will have no harm come to him. I expect you all to behave civilly and do what I called you here for. If you force my hand I will have to exercise the Right of Conscription."
He swallowed, hoping they wouldn’t call his bluff. He knew nothing about the Joining, and if he was asked to go through with it at once Jowan’s life would be forfeit.
There was a murmur of unrest around the people, and the two Templars had their hands on the sword hilts, but no one moved.
Jowan was staring at him pale, his eyes wide. "What?" he asked, his voice strangled. "You want to make me a Grey Warden?"
Aedan reached his side and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "Not really," he whispered. "At least, not before consulting with Alistair and Kallian; but as it stands, this is the only way I can assure your welfare," he shot him a look. "You said you wanted a chance to set things right and I’m giving you one. Just don’t do anything stupid."
"I-" Jowan swallowed and stood straighter. "Thank you, Warden. I won’t disappoint you, whatever happens after this is over, you’ll have my eternal gratitude."
"Don’t thank me," he said. "What you did to Arl Eamon- if he dies-"
Jowan nodded. "I understand," he said, resigned. "And I thank you nonetheless."
"So!" Zevran exclaimed, clapping his hands together and startling everyone out of their glaring. "Shall we get this party started?"
In the end, with the help of the mages, they were able to save Connor’s life.
Aedan watched as mother and child reunited with a hug that looked a little too tight, but he had to look away as Lady Isolde started crying and whispering something in Orlesian to her child.
"All is well that ends well," Zevran mused, softly.
Aedan thought about the people who had lost their lives in the Redcliffe village, and the abominations that had roamed the castle. "Yes," he said, gritting his teeth so hard that his jaw hurt. "I suppose."
Zevran looked sideways at him. "In these dark times it seems like a life spared, as small a victory as it is, would be something to celebrate about, no?"
Aedan shook his head. "It’s not over, yet."
"One thing I learned from working for the Crows," Zevran said, "is that nothing ever is."
The mages and the Templars went back to the Circle, Jowan went back to the dungeons and Arl Eamon remained unconscious.
And there still was no trace of Alistair and the others.
"Small victories, huh?" Aedan said. "I think I need to get some rest."
Zevran chuckled. "I think you need to get drunk."
No more abominations and no more demonic possession meant Lady Isolde had given them the guest rooms in the Castle. Aedan hadn’t slept in a real bed for so long that he had stared at it for a long moment, as if he had forgotten its purpose.
He had no idea how long he’d slept, but the light coming in from the window had changed from the pale rays of the early morning to the warm red of the sunset. He had been given a small respite from his nightmares, at least, and he was so grateful he felt like crying.
Fergus was curled at the foot of the bed, much like he used to do in Aedan’s own bedroom, but he was awake and alert now, his head turned towards the door and his ears poised as if he were listening to something.
The knocking on the door revealed the cause of Aedan’s waking. Fergus jumped down from the bed and ran to the door, barking and wagging his tail excitedly.
Aedan was halfway through the room before he thought of checking if his appearance was anything even remotely respectable. He usually slept naked if the climate allowed it, and this time had been no exception. His clothes were strewn all over the floor, but they were bloody and dirty and they reeked with the smell of sweat, so he went to the chair where he had left some clean clothes he had borrowed from one of the guards.
The knocking resumed and Aedan shouted a ‘coming!’ as he put on the breeches and nothing else, that was all the respectable he was willing to be so early in the morning. Evening. Whatever.
He padded barefooted and shirtless to the door, yawning and rubbing the last of his sleep from his eyes.
When he opened the door all he got was an impression of Alistair’s wide smile and hazel eyes, before Fergus rushed past him, almost knocking Aedan over and managing to pounce on Alistair and lick his face thoroughly before Aedan was able to rescue the poor man.
"Talk about a warm welcome," Alistair chuckled as he stood up. He cleaned his face with a hand and made a face. "I missed you too, buddy," he told Fergus, "but you don’t see me covering you in slobber."
Fergus barked happily.
"He’d probably take it as a sign of affection, anyway," Aedan said with a shrug. "So, you’re back."
Alistair’s grin was back full force. "Quite a while now," he nodded. "I should have probably come straight to you, but I was told you were sleeping and I didn’t want to wake you up. You needed it, judging by how long I’ve been here knocking."
"Sorry," Aedan said, yawning again and leaning against the door frame. "I had to find some clothes that wouldn’t knock a person out by smell alone."
"Yes, well," Alistair cleared his voice. "At least you bothered with clothes. Unlike Zevran."
His grimace was so genuinely disturbed that Aedan had to laugh. Alistair glared at him. "Oh yes, laugh all you want," he said, darkly. "But don’t come to me when he pulls that trick on you."
"I assure you I’m entirely capable of defending my virtue," Aedan said. "And he’s not really my type, anyway."
"You say that now, but I’d watch my back if I were you. He’s sneaky."
Aedan shook his head. "I’ll take that under consideration," he said. "Judging by your mood everything went well?"
Alistair nodded. "It was even more than we hoped for," he said. "I wish you could have been there. You cannot even imagine-" he trailed off, his whole face shining with excitement as well as disbelief. "I can’t even describe it. I saw Her Ashes! Andraste’s resting place! There was even a high dragon!"
Aedan laughed out loud. "You fought a high dragon?" he exclaimed.
"Of course not," Alistair said. He puffed out his chest. "We bravely snuck past it."
"You snuck past it."
Aedan smiled, feeling light for the first times in the last week. His crush on Alistair might have been bordering on pathetic by now, but there was no denying being in his presence made him feel content like nothing else could these days.
"What about the Arl?" he asked.
Alistair frowned, serious. "The healer used the Ashes," he said. "There’s been no change for now, but he’s hopeful."
"That’s good," Aedan sighed. "I guess legends are sometimes true."
"Anyway, I came here to tell you dinner is served," Alistair said, clearing his voice. "And if you are even a bit hungry as I am, I figured you’d want to know."
Aedan snorted. "No one is hungry as you are."
"Hey, it’s a Grey Warden thing!"
"Keep telling yourself that," Adean smirked. "Just give me a minute to put some more clothes on and I’ll be with you shortly."
"Oh, I don’t know," Alistair said with a small smile. "I’m sure Zevran would surely appreciate the show."
Aedan scowled, his good mood suddenly gone. "I told you I’m not interested in him."
His growl seemed to startle Alistair and he raised his hands as if in surrender. "Hey, just a little joking between friends," he said with a nervous chuckle. "Nothing personal."
Aedan threw on the borrowed shirt and sat down on the bed to put on his boots. He shot a glance to his armour, but in the end he decided against it. He had learned the hard way that danger lurked behind every corner, but Alistair wasn’t wearing his and sitting down to a table and having dinner without having to worry about fighting for his life sounded nice for a change.
"Are you done dressing up, My Lord?" Alistair asked, a mocking smile playing on his lips.
"Lead on, My Prince," he deadpanned.
Alistair rolled his eyes. "Fine, fine, I get it," he said.
He followed Alistair to the dining room where the huge table in the centre of the room had been set to accommodate their group as well as Lady Isolde, Connor, Bann Teagan and the Mayor of Redcliffe. The place at the head of the table was conspicuously empty.
On the way there Aedan had noticed that any traces of the battle that had taken place inside the Castle had been wiped clean. Everything looked normal, and for once he appreciated the illusion.
When they entered the room, Kallian was standing and relating what Aedan supposed had been their adventure. She had the attention of the whole table as she mimed her way through her story.
"...and then we had to strip down naked and walk through the fire," she finished.
Aedan blinked. He shot a glance at Alistair, but he was staring resolutely ahead, his whole face flushed red.
"I knew I should have gone with you!" Zevran exclaimed, his voice actually sounding regretful. He turned and caught sight of them. "Ah, and here is the sleeping beauty!" he said with a wide grin.
Aedan glared at him and, ignoring the knowing glance Alistair shot at him, he took his place at the table.
Halfway through dinner Arl Eamon walked in, he looked tired and weak, but his steps were sure, if a little slow. A hush settled around the table, until Lady Isolde and Connor stood up and went to him, embracing him, laughing and crying at the same time.
Aedan met Alistair’s look from across the table.
It was the first time he’d ever seen him so unguardedly happy.
The elation over Arl Eamon’s quite literally miraculous recovery didn’t last long, though. After dinner he invited Aedan, Kallian and Alistair as well as Bann Teagan into his study to discuss.
"I understand Orzammar is your next and last stop," he started without preambles.
Aedan nodded. "Hopefully we’ll be able to obtain the dwarfs’ help without much difficulty."
Arl Eamon’s face darkened and Aedan felt a weight settle in the pit of his stomach. Suddenly the delicious food he had just consumed made him nauseous. "I’m afraid that won’t be the case," the Arl said. "My men have met several merchants who said Orzammar is currently closed to outside visitors."
Aedan sighed. "Right. Or course."
Just once, he would have liked things working out for them. Just once, was that really so much to ask?
"They’ll make an exception for the Grey Wardens," Kallian said. Aedan wished he shared her resolve.
"I hope so as well," Arl Eamon nodded, but it was clear by the tone of his voice that he wouldn’t be taking that wager any time soon.
"What’s going on, anyway?" Aedan asked. "Is it because they fear the Blight?"
Alistair shook his head, frowning. "I don’t think so. Dwarfs are more worried about the Darkspawn coming out of the Deep Roads," he said. "It has to be something else."
"That is my guess as well," Arl Eamon said, "but I’m afraid I don’t have any idea as to the nature of the current situation in Orzammar. As you well know I was... indisposed, and my men have been busy finding a cure for the poison that was administered to me."
"We have no choice but going, anyway," Aedan nodded. "We have the treaties and dwarfs are honourable people. They’ll respect them."
Kallian arched an eyebrow at him. "I thought you didn’t judge based on race."
"Lord Cousland is right," Arl Eamon said.
"Just Aedan is fine," Aedan interrupted him, his face tight. "I am a Grey Warden now."
Arl Eamon nodded. "I will provide you with water and food for your journey, but I’m afraid I can do little else," he said. "All I can promise you is that I’ll send my men to Denerim to gather as much information as they can in preparation for the Landsmeet."
Aedan took a deep breath. "So we’re decided on that," he asked more than stated.
"Opposing Loghain outright would be a suicide as well as foolish," the Arl said, shaking his head. "No, the only way to do this is to expose his crimes to the Landsmeet and await for the judgement of the people."
"Of the Banns and the Lords you mean," Kallian said with a snort. "And what happens when we lose? Do we get executed? Do we run away and let the Darkspawn kill everything in their path?"
"I cannot promise a victory, that’s true," Arl Eamon conceded. "As it stands Teyrn Loghain has the approval of most of the Lords and Banns, but I’m confident we can convince those who haven’t formed a firm opinion yet. He had me poisoned, I will make sure they at least listen to what I have to say. Then there is the matter of the Throne, of course."
Aedan saw Alistair go rigid out of the corner of his eye. "What do you mean?" he asked. "You intend to name Alistair as the rightful heir to the Throne?"
"He has Theirin blood," Arl Eamon nodded.
"But- But- I don’t want to be King!" Alistair exclaimed. He cringed when they all turned to look at him. "I mean- Ferelden already has a Queen, and I don’t know the first thing about leading a country. I can barely find my way to the lavatory!"
"Queen Anora is Loghain’s daughter," Arl Eamon said. "I don’t know where his influence ends and her autonomy begins, but I’m not willing to risk it."
Aedan nodded. "Then it’s decided."
"Don’t I have a say in this?" Alistair exclaimed. "I am a Grey Warden, I don’t want to be King."
"It’s your duty, for the good of Ferelden," Arl Eamon said.
Aedan lowered his eyes. As much as wished he could tell Alistair that no, he didn’t have to be King, Arl Eamon had a point. Alistair was of royal blood and while Aedan could sympathize, he knew all too well the duties and responsibilities that came with being nobleborn.
His brother was likely dead and Aedan was the last of the Couslands, with all that it entailed. He was probably going to become Teyrn once all of this was over, provided he wouldn’t die and Highever was freed from Howe’s clutches.
"I- I suppose," Alistair sighed, lowering his head.
"That matter is closed for now," Bann Teagan said. "Now onto the business of that blood mage, Jowan."
"Right," the Arl nodded. "Teagan tells me you wish to invoke the Right of Conscription."
"What?" Alistair asked, startled. "You what? He’s a blood mage! And he poisoned Arl Eamon."
Aedan shook his head. "A couple of Templars came with me form the Circle of Magi, I just wanted to avoid further bloodshed. I have no intention of making Jowan a Grey Warden, and I believe he doesn’t want it, either."
Arl Eamon narrowed his eyes. "I see."
"I believe the most qualified here to decide his fate would be you, My Lord," Aedan continued. "I only wish to remind you that while he poisoned you, yes, he did under Loghain’s coercion and he did help protect your Castle while we were away and he risked his life entering the Fade to save your son."
"Were it not for him, all of this wouldn’t have happened, though," the Arl retorted.
"With all due respect, My Lord, Lady Isolde is partially to be blamed as well," Aedan countered. "She kept Connor’s powers a secret and hired an apostate to teach him. And if it hadn’t been Jowan, Loghain would have sent somebody else to kill you. Maybe somebody with less scruples."
Arl Eamon pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath, and Aedan was reminded once again that he had only just recovered from a deadly poison. He looked very tired. "I understand," he said. "But I can’t let him go. I will send word to the Circle of Magi, I will specify that his life is to be spared, but that they should deal with him as they see fit."
Aedan nodded. "Thank you, My Lord."
"Now I believe we should all have a good rest," the Arl continued. "A tiring journey awaits you tomorrow."
Aedan had slept most of the day away and even if Arl Eamon was right and they did have a tiring journey ahead of them, he felt too restless for sleep now.
They all murmured a ‘good night’ to each other and Aedan watched as Alistair followed Kallian in the direction of the guest rooms. He let his eyes linger for a moment, then he turned and went the other way.
Maybe Fergus felt like playing in the courtyard for a while.
If nothing else, Fergus sure had seemed to appreciate the idea.
Aedan watched from his vantage point on the steps as he ran to and fro in the courtyard. So far, he had brought back a stick, what looked like a ball of yarn and a dead pigeon. He had graciously accepted all the gifts, except the dead pigeon which Fergus had proceeded to bury somewhere in the tall grass.
"Can’t sleep either?" asked Zevran, his voice so close that Aedan jumped in surprise.
Wide-eyed, he whipped his head around and found himself staring at Zevran’s knees. He raised his eyes and glared when he saw the little smirk playing on his lips.
Aedan cursed. "Make some noise next time, would you?" he barked out. "You almost gave me a heart attack."
Zevran’s grin widened and he sat down a few steps above Aedan, which brought them face to face. The whole movement was made noiselessly and smooth like silk, despite the fact that Zevran was wearing armour. "I would be a very poor assassin wouldn’t I, if I alerted my victims by making noise."
Aedan arched an eyebrow. "So you’re here to kill me," he deadpanned.
"Not precisely," Zevran replied. He leaned forward, close but not yet uncomfortably so. His right hand went to rest on Aedan’s knee.
"That’s your nefarious plan, then," Aedan said. "Seduce the three of us and then kill us at our most vulnerable."
"I am very sneaky," Zevran said, leaning even closer and Aedan let him. Partly because he wanted to see how far Zevran was willing to go, partly because doing nothing was the easiest thing to do.
Zevran pressed their lips together, his mouth was warm and Aedan let him do as he pleased for a moment. He studied Zevran’s eyes, closed, the long lashes almost like a woman’s, his tattoo, the few strands of hair that had escaped from his braid.
And then Zevran opened his eyes and looked into Aedan’s. He drew back. "It is impolite to keep one’s eyes open during a kiss."
"It is quite foolish to close one’s eyes in the presence of an assassin," Aedan countered. Zevran clenched his jaw, it was only a slight shifting of the shadows the moonlight cast on his face, but Aedan noticed anyway. He lowered his head. "Forgive me," he sighed. "I did not mean it."
Zevran waved his apology away.
"Look, I’m flattered, but..." Aedan trailed off. He stood up.
Zevran stood up as well, once again without even the smallest noise. He was standing a few steps higher than Aedan and it made them more or less the same height. "You misunderstand my intentions, my dear Warden," he said.
Aedan gave him a long look. "You kissed me," he said. "Somehow I doubt that was an uninterested gesture."
Zevran chuckled. "Oh, I’m interested all right," he said, letting his eyes openly roam along Aedan’s body until he was once again staring straight into his eyes. "I understand your interests lie elsewhere, but I am merely proposing we-" he paused just for a brief moment, for effect. "have some fun, so to speak. No strings attached."
Fingers trailed up Aedan’s arms, barely brushing the exposed skin of his upper arms, to settle at the back of his neck, curling in the hair at his nape. Zevran leaned forward and kissed him again, but this time it was only a brief touch, an impression, at least until the idea of a proper kiss seemed to be abandoned altogether and Aedan felt the sting of a bite on his lower lip.
He gasped and closed his eyes, despite himself.
Zevran drew back, his hands coming up to cup Aedan’s face, one of his thumbs lightly brushing Aedan’s lips as if to apologize for the earlier liberties taken by the mouth. "Do not tell me you have never engaged in encounters such as the one I’m suggesting," Zevran said. "I know you are no liar."
Aedan met his eyes evenly. "Oh, so I have no secrets for you."
Zevran shook his head. "Everyone has secrets, and you are no different."
Aedan looked down and away. Zevran’s thumbs stroked the corners of his mouth, his cheeks. He turned away, but Zevran had proved to be relentless before and he certainly lived up to it now. His hands travelled down Aedan’s neck and shoulders in a long caress, and they continued their journey down, fingers fleeting over his elbows, to finally set on his hips.
Zevran took a step closer to him, bringing their bodies in contact. He nuzzled the back of Aedan’s neck, behind his ear. Aedan didn’t move, a strange sense of detachment settling over him. He felt the other body close to him, he felt its warmth, but those sensations were coming as if from far away.
In a way it reminded him of when he’d been trapped in the Fade.
Zevran chuckled next to his ear. "We could even throw a little roleplay in it. I could play the Templar and you the mage," he whispered. "Or maybe I’ll be the prince and you my loyal teyrn."
Aedan stiffened and took a step away, and then another. Zevran’s hands lingered as long as they could until the distance was too great and fell back to his sides. When Aedan turned, he found himself subjected to a confused frown.
He snorted. "Wow, thank you for that moodkiller."
After a moment Aedan called Fergus over and brushed past Zevran, who didn’t move nor say anything.
Aedan took the steps two at a time, almost stumbling on the last one as he caught sight of Alistair. "What are you doing here?" he asked, entirely too calmly.
Aedan figured the panic would kick in as soon as the shock of seeing Alistair here was over.
"I came looking for you," Alistair replied. His eyes settled on Zevran who was still standing where Aedan had left him, but was now looking up at them with a sheepish smile. Aedan didn’t miss Alistair’s glare. "I thought he wasn’t your type."
"He isn’t," Aedan said. "Though I hear he likes to play good Templar, bad mage, if he’s yours."
Alistair blushed and Aedan hurried back inside, ignoring the startled sputtering he’d left behind.
Saying that the morning after was a chilly and awkward affair was like saying that dwarfs were partial to ale. Zevran seemed to be the only one unaffected by the night’s events. Well, unaffected in a negative way, to be sure. He kept shooting Aedan and Alistair knowing glances and small smiles, up to the point that Aedan was actually worried Alistair would suddenly go off on a killing rampage.
Thankfully, Alistair seemed to be able to keep his anger in check. He just fumed the whole day, glaring at Aedan and Zevran at regular intervals.
The others were clearly confused by their behaviour, but Aedan decided the thing to do was keep his head down and ignore it until it went away. Some might have said it was the coward’s way out, but Aedan really didn’t want to deal with it.
Unfortunately, it was taken out of his hands.
It was his turn on watch duty, and everyone was sleeping soundly leaving Aedan blissfully alone in the silence broken only by the cracking of wood in the fire.
Unlike Zevran, Alistair wasn’t exactly inconspicuous when he moved.
Aedan scooted to the right, making place for Alistair on the log he was using as a seat. Alistair nodded in thanks and sat down with a grimace, his armour clinking with his careful movements.
"How’s your side?" Aedan asked, frowning at him. Alistair had received a bad hit in a fight that morning, but it had seemed nothing serious.
"Nothing broken," Alistair said, waving his concerns away. "I’m just a little sore."
"You should have Wynne take a look in the morning," Aedan said. "Better safe than sorry."
Alistair nodded. They remained in silence for a while, until Aedan heard him take a deep breath and he braced himself for the discussion he really didn’t want to have any part in.
Alistair, though, took him completely by surprise. "I forgot to thank you," he said, "so I’m doing it now. Thank you."
Aedan blinked uncomprehendingly at him. "You’re welcome, I guess," he said. "For what?"
"For how you handled the situation in Redcliffe," Alistair said. "We helped the village, despite the fact that it was outside our duties, and we helped the Arl’s family. Had I still been in the Templars, we would have not hesitated in killing Connor, but you didn’t. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things, but at least we were able to save something, no matter how small."
"It was the right thing to do. I couldn’t-" Aedan stopped abruptly. He took a deep breath. "Have you ever done something that seemed like a small and harmless thing at the time, but then turned out to be the biggest mistake of your life? Something you’ll regret for the rest of your days?"
Alistair raised his eyebrows. "All right, now you’re scaring me," he chuckled, nervous. "I told you about my mother’s pendant, but you and Kallian returned it to me."
"She told you?"
"She did," Alistair smiled. "I guess I have to thank you for that, as well."
Aedan shrugged. "It was nothing," he said. "I figured you’d want it back."
"Yes," Alistair said. He reached for the leather cord around his neck and took the pendant out from under his armour. He stared at it for a moment, his thumb stroking over the cracked surface. "I suppose some things can be mended with time."
Alistair gave him a long look. "You’re a good man, Aedan," he said. "I doubt you could do anything so bad that cannot be undone."
"It’s not just bad men that do bad things," Aedan told him. "Sometimes it only takes a bad choice, and anyone can make those."
"All right, now I’m curious."
Aedan looked away, his eyes going to the fire. He stared into the flames and gone was the cheerful camp fire, replaced by the one that had raged inside his castle. Castle Cousland walls were made of stones, but doors and furniture burned. People burned.
He heard himself speak, as if it wasn’t his own mouth at all. "I- I put my desires before everything else," he said. "It was a stupid thing to do. It was only harmless fun with a friend, but I was distracted and people paid the price. People I love."
Alistair frowned. "By ‘harmless fun with a friend’ you mean..."
"Yes, I mean sex," Aedan shot him a look.
Alistair was silent for a long time. "If this is about Zevran, I want you to know-"
"It’s not about Zevran," Aedan cut him off, quickly. "I didn’t sleep with him."
"Oh, good!" Alistair exclaimed, then he flushed, seemingly embarrassed by his obvious relief. "I mean- I guess it’s all right if you want to- I mean. That is-"
"Shut up, Alistair."
"Shutting up!" Alistair exclaimed. "Then what is this about?"
Aedan screwed his eyes shut. "Never mind," he said, after a moment. "There’s nothing I can do about it, anyway. Best not to dwell on it."
"If you say so," was the reply. Alistair didn’t sound very convinced, though.
Aedan decided a change of topic would be ideal at this point. "What is it with you and Zevran, anyway?" he asked slyly, hoping Alistair would be too distracted by his own embarrassment to ask Aedan any further questions.
"W-What do you mean?" Alistair stuttered. "There’s nothing between me and Zevran! I should be the one asking you that."
"Zevran is not my type."
"So you’ve said," Alistair snorted. "And yet you let him do- things to you!"
Aedan raised his eyebrows. "Are you jealous?" he asked, surprised.
"No! I-" Alistair scowled. "So if it’s not Zevran, what is your type, then?"
Aedan swallowed. He tried valiantly not to give anything away, but the question had taken him by surprise and his eyes betrayed him by glancing down to Alistair’s lips. It was only for a second, but they were sitting very close, and the movement didn’t go unnoticed.
"Oh," Alistair said, softly. "I-"
Aedan looked away, his face burning. "For all the times you have played dumb, you chose this one to be perceptive," he sighed. "Leave it, it doesn't matter."
"No, it’s-" Alistair cleared his voice. "It’s not that I don’t like you, but-"
Aedan rolled his eyes. "You just don’t like me that way," he sighed.
"No, that’s not it either," Alistair said, quietly.
Aedan whipped his head around so quickly, for a moment he thought he had caused himself a permanent injury. He gaped, stunned.
Alistair was blushing.
"There’s Kallian, and-"
"Right," Aedan scowled.
"And you," Alistair went on. "I’m not- I’m not used at receiving so many... attentions." He gave a weak laugh and started toying nervously with his mother’s pendant.
"What?" Aedan snorted. "Have you been surrounded by blind people all your life?"
Alistair glared. "Well, you know," he said, sarcasm dripping from him words. "Good looks aren’t everything."
"No," Aedan agreed, "but they are something."
Alistair sighed. "Thank you. I suppose. But I-"
Aedan appreciated stealth and catching enemies by surprise, sneaking up on a target was his style as well after all, but he most definitely hated it when it was his companions doing the sneaking up. As it was, they noticed they weren’t alone anymore only when they heard the cough behind them.
They quickly turned around to find Kallian looking down at them, her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"And what do we have here?" she said. "You certainly seem cosy enough."
"H-Hey! Kallian!" Alistair said a little too loudly. "How are you? It’s a clear night, we’ll probably have a nice weather tomorrow." His smile, which had already started out as not very convincing disappeared completely by the end of the sentence, leaving a grimace in its place.
Kallian’s eyes narrowed even further and Alistair flushed under the scrutiny. "What are you two doing?" she asked, coldly.
Alistair raised his hands. "Nothing!"
She wasn’t convinced at all, but she let the matter drop. "Would you mind coming over here, Alistair?" she asked, sweetly. Too sweetly to be innocent. "I have to discuss something with you."
Alistair shot a nervous glance at Aedan, but did as he was told. They walked to the other side of the camp, well out of Aedan’s earshot, but still very much in his sight.
He watched as they talked for a while, Alistair’s body language betraying his uncomfortableness. Kallian stood determined, her stance wide and her arms crossed over her chest. Then she said something that made Alistair go rigid for a moment, until his pose relaxed and he stared down at her, stunned.
Aedan should have seen it coming, but it still felt like being punched in the gut when Kallian took a step forward, stood on her tiptoes and laid a small kiss on Alistair’s lips. He should have averted his eyes then, given them their privacy, but he felt mesmerized, like under a spell.
Alistair blinked, but he got over his surprise quickly, and he bent down to return the kiss.
Aedan scowled angrily at them, but it was unlikely they even remembered he was there. He turned away, looking out towards the trees surrounding the clearing they were camped in, and wished really, really hard for something to attack them.
Even just a bear or a pack of wolves would have been welcomed right now.
His shift was over without any attacks by wild animals, though, and when Leliana came out of her tent to relieve him, Aedan looked where the happy couple had stood kissing under the moonlight and found them long gone.
The Frostback Mountains certainly lived up to their names.
Aedan breathed into his cupped hands, trying to bring back some feeling into his fingertips. Cut-off gloves were practical when you had to open locks or dismantle traps, but they didn’t offer any protection from the cold.
Nor did his leather armour.
"How can you go around like that?" he asked Morrigan, his tone part frustration and part disbelief.
Morrigan wore her usual clothes, and while she might be protected from the wind and the cold from her waist downwards, she was practically naked in her upper body.
She raised an eyebrow at him and extended her hands. Small flames appeared in her palms, dancing in the wind. "I am a mage," she said. "I could strip all my clothes and not feel even a little cold."
"We’d certainly appreciate it if you did," Zevran said. "Speaking personally, even just conjuring that image is warming me up rather quickly."
Morrigan snorted in disgust. "Go warm your dear Warden, elf," she said. "Unless you wish for me to accelerate nature’s course and freeze you at once."
"I wouldn’t want you to waste your magic on someone of no consequence like me," Zevran replied.
"‘Tis no burden," she said, graciously. "For you, I would do it gladly."
"It’s nice not to be the target of Morrigan’s annoyance for once," Alistair confided, falling in steps with Aedan. "How’s it going?" Aedan glared at him and his stupid heavy armour. Heavy and lined. And warm. Alistair laughed. "Now, don’t look at me like that! When it was warm and sunny it was me sweating like a dog in here. A little change is fair, isn’t it."
"I would reply to that," Aedan told him slowly, trying to keep his chattering teeth in check. "But I think my tongue is freezing."
Alistair grinned widely. "Right" he said. "Keep telling yourself that."
They walked on in silence, Alistair’s stupid grin stuck in place the whole time. He couldn’t see Kallian, as she was keeping up the rear with Leliana and Sten, but Aedan hadn’t certainly missed the triumphant smile she had aimed at him that morning.
Next to him, Alistair started talking about something of no consequence, and Aedan grunted and hmmed in all the right places. With the cold and his sour mood, he really hadn’t the will to listen to his babbling.
He really, really hoped once they were in Orzammar it wouldn’t be as cold.
Then again, sitting on a block of ice wouldn’t be as cold.
Orzammar was built inside a mountain on top of what looked like a sea of lava.
It was both an humbling and grand sight, Aedan had to admit, even if walking too close near the edge made him nervous.
Sten reached Aedan’s side and looked down. The stone wall separating him from a very long fall and a fiery death was even shorter compared to him. "One would think that with their average rate of alcohol intake, they’d have higher walls," he commented.
"It’s certainly a breath-taking sight," Aedan said.
"It’s convenient," Sten went on. "Living under a rock leaves one with very limited space when it comes to getting rid of what is obsolete."
"So you’re saying a lake of lava is very useful when you have to chuck out the trash?" Aedan snorted, then he frowned. "I really hope that’s what you meant."
Sten had nothing more to say, though.
"Right!" Aedan cleared his throat and turned around to face his companions. "I guess Alistair, Kallian and I need to go see this Steward Bandelor, but you don’t have to come if you don’t want to," he handed some coins to Leliana. "I don’t know how long we’ll be staying here, but I guess it’s better safe than sorry. You should find us some lodgings while we’re busy."
"Preferably away from drunken dwarfs," Kallian added. "If such a thing is possible."
The three of them watched as their companions went their ways. Fergus gazed longingly at Morrigan - or rather at Morrigan’s pack where Aedan knew she kept the biscuits she fed to his dog when she thought no one was looking.
Fergus was a Mabari war-hound, though, and in the end loyalty to his masters won over Morrigan’s treats, as delicious as they might have been. He whined forlornly, though.
Aedan sighed. "Let’s hear what this Steward has to tell us," he said. Though he didn’t sound very enthusiastic, even to his own ears.
The spectacle that had greeted them when they had first set foot in Orzammar certainly hadn’t been uplifting. Aedan didn’t know much about dwarven politics, but politics were similar enough across all cultures and lands for him to know that disputes for power left a nation weak and divided and they couldn’t afford that right now.
The Tapster's Tavern was loud and filled with drunk dwarfs and dwarfs who were about to get drunk. All in all, it didn’t seem like the optimal location to discuss strategies, but Kallian had been adamant.
One thing Aedan could say in her defence was that, with the crowd being as loud as it was, they certainly didn’t risk their words being overheard.
Aedan leaned on the table with his forearms and instantly regretted it when he remained stuck to the wooden surface.
"I really hope that’s just beer," Alistair said, giving him a pitying look. He didn’t sound very convinced though.
Aedan sat back with a grimace. "So now we have a king to choose," he said at length. "I think our bad luck might be another curse of the Grey Warden package."
A waitress came by and dropped three tankards filled to brim with dwarven ale on their table. "With the compliments of that one there," she said, pointing at a dwarf on the other side of the Tavern.
"That’s Dulin," Kallian said. "He works for Harrowmont, he accosted me. He knew who we were as soon as we entered Orzammar. News sure travel fast."
Alistair looked down at his ale with a distrustful frown, then he pushed it away from him with just the tip of two fingers, rather as if involving more of his hand in the action would have made him physically ill. He straightened up when he noticed both him and Kallian were looking at him, puzzled.
"I’ve had a bad experience with dwarven ale," he said. "Don’t ask."
Aedan almost let his head rest on the table, but then he remembered the sticky surface and he simply let it hang down. He sighed. "I don’t get it, what do they want from us? How can we be possibly the best judges in this matter, I barely know anything about the government system of dwarfs!"
"Boo-hoo," Kallian rolled her eyes. "Poor little leader, crushed under the weight of so many responsibilities," she said, and then she drank her ale. She took no more than a little swig before putting the tankard down and glaring at it. "Bloody awful!"
"Told you," Alistair said.
"If you have something constructive to add to this conversation, Kallian, say it," Aedan told her, "Otherwise, shut up. I don’t need another headache on top of the one I already have."
Alistair shrugged. "We could flip a coin?"
"...Actually, that’s not a bad idea," Kallian said.
Aedan snorted. "Maker’s breath, at this point I’m finding that appealing as well."
"No, wait," Kallian shook her head and leaned over the table. Her voice lowered in a conspiring tone, "I have another idea. Neither of these two guys convince me at all. I say we play both teams until we find who’s the better choice."
Alistair raised his hand and nodded. "I’m all for the lesser evil."
"Sod it," Aedan huffed an exasperated breath. "I’m tired, I’m cold and frankly right now I couldn’t care less if they elected Zevran as the new king of Orzammar."
"That would be... interesting to say the least." Alistair said, then he frowned. "Electing a king... Dwarfs confuse me."
Kallian grinned and pinched his cheek. "A lot confuses you, sweetie," she said.
Aedan didn’t miss the pleased blush that spread over Alistair’s cheeks. "We go with Kallian’s plan," he glowered. "I don’t care how much I’m going to regret this in the morning."
Fergus barked from under the table and Aedan felt him move around until he was able to come out. His excitement was obvious and the cause was revealed when Aedan saw Leliana making her way to their table.
"I found us some rooms," she said, handing a key to Aedan. "Upstairs."
A room on top of a Tavern filled with loud drunken dwarfs didn’t sound very appealing, but he took it gladly when the alternative meant having to witness Alistair and Kallian’s little lovey-dovey show any further.
He took the key and thanked Leliana with a grunt. It wasn’t fair being rude to her when she wasn’t the cause for his sour mood, he knew, but he was a spoiled child after all and he acted accordingly.
With a sharp whistle he called Fergus to his side and went in search of a waitress to have her show him the way to his room.
"This is getting ridiculous," Aedan said as they approached the entrance to the Deep Roads. "We fight in the Proving, we do their dirty work getting rid of some crime lord and now we have to go look for a woman who’s very likely dead."
"Grey Wardens: the mighty and brave lackeys of Ferelden," Kallian said, throwing her arms wide as if stating a solemn truth.
Aedan snorted. "All right, that’s actually a good one."
"Why, thank you," she deadpanned.
"Branka isn’t dead!" came the indignant shout from behind them.
They turned to see a red-haired dwarf making his way - stumbling, really - towards them. Aedan remembered vaguely seeing him in the Tapster's the previous night. Mostly, he remembered the smell of his breath.
He looked somewhat angrier right now, but maybe that could be just the sobriety.
"Branka isn’t dead," the dwarf repeated as soon as he reached them. "She’s too stubborn for that."
The guards standing at the entrance to the Deep Roads laughed loudly and unpleasantly. "Oghren!" one of them exclaimed. "Should have known it was you by the smell. Still searching for your stray wife?"
Aedan frowned down at Oghren. "Branka is your wife?"
"Ran straight off to the Deep Roads, rather than stay with him," the guard continued. "That should give you an idea of our... friend’s sparkling personality."
Oghren glared viciously at them, but didn’t reply to the insults. He turned to Aedan instead. "Take me with you if you’re going to find her," he said. "I have a score to settle."
"I don’t think-"
"Look, lad," Oghren scowled. "I’m coming, whether you want it or not. I’ve been down there before and it’s your choice if you want a dwarf along. I bet you can read all the runes by yourself, can’t you?"
Alistair raised his hand. "I’m quite good with runes, you know."
Oghren glared at him. "I’m warrior caste, I can chop ‘em down like nobody can."
Aedan had seen the massive double-edged axe Oghren had strapped to his back. It was so huge that it was a wonder he could carry it around, much less swing it around and kill any enemies without cutting the heads off his allies.
"I think we’re full up of raving lunatics swinging around pointy and sharp stuff," Kallian said.
"Perfect!" Oghren laughed. "I’ll feel right at home."
Aedan pinched the bridge of his nose. "All right, come on if you want," he said, not as much because he wanted the smelly, drunk, crazy dwarf to tag along, but because he didn’t care much for arguing and this whole dwarf business was starting to piss him off.
Also, Zevran was turning out to be a good friend, if a little sleazy, who was to say Oghren wouldn’t be the same?
"Glad to see there someone reasonable in your bunch," Oghren said, then proceeded to blow his nose with his gloved fingers, and then he belched loudly at the end of the lovely display. "Let’s go then!"
Aedan and the others stared at him.
The silence was broken by Morrigan’s sarcastic voice. "‘Tis a grand day for you, Alistair," she said. "You are no longer the foulest smelling thing around."
Oghren looked at her from her to toes, his eyes lingering on the chest area. He elbowed Aedan in the ribs. "Nice little set-up you got here," he leered and winked at him.
Aedan sighed, rolled his eyes and steeled himself for another leery companion. At least this one wouldn’t be too liberal with his person, he supposed. "All right," he said, clearing his voice. "So that’s me, Kallian, Alistair and Oghren."
The others didn’t seem very happy at the prospect, but he put his hands up before any complaints could be raised. "It’s best you stay here, this is Grey Wardens territory and we will travel faster the fewer we are," he said, then he glanced down at his dog. "And yes, that means you as well."
Fergus whined but lowered his head in submission.
"Isn’t this whole matter Grey Wardens territory?" Morrigan asked, then she nodded towards Oghren. "And correct me if I’m wrong, but he doesn’t look fast nor a Grey Warden."
"As he said, he’ll be your guide."
Morrigan snorted. "The only place I’d trust him to guide me to is a brewery," she said. "Or a whorehouse."
Wynne stepped forward. "Take me, at least," she said. "It sounds like you’ll be facing a difficult task and my healing magic can help you."
"Fine, we’ll take you," Kallian said, throwing her arms wide. "Now, can we go?"
Aedan didn’t share Kallian’s eagerness, but he could understand the desire to make it quick. Even if they weren’t in the Deep Roads yet, he could feel the presence of the Darkspawn in the back of his mind, like an hammer slowly chipping away at his concentration.
"We all set, then?" he asked.
When no one objected, he nodded and lead them towards the entrance to the Deep Roads.
"Maker watch over you," he heard Leliana call out to them.
Aedan shared a look with Alistair and Kallian, but they seemed as uncertain and nervous as he was.
"I doubt the Maker’s gaze can reach so far down here," Kallian said, at last.
If one ignored the Darkspawn and the general atmosphere of death and decay, the Deep Roads weren’t at all bad. In fact, the architecture alone was magnificent. Aedan had never seen such elegance expressed with such power and practicality, not even in what remained of the Tevinter Empire.
The ceilings were high above them, much higher than any building Aedan had been to topside. He guessed it came from living underground, the eye instinctively longed for space, otherwise one would feel cramped and claustrophobic.
"Let me get this straight," Kallian said. "Not only there is Darkspawn and other deadly creatures down here, staying here too long will give us lyrium poisoning unless we’re dwarfs."
"I’m sure we won’t be here long enough for that to be a problem," Wynne told her.
"That still leaves the Darkspawn. And the spiders," Kallian said. "I hate spiders."
Alistair grinned. "I think everybody hates giant man-eating spiders."
Kallian rolled her eyes, apparently annoyed, but Aedan saw the smile tugging at the corner of her lips. Alistair smiled down at her and bumped their shoulders.
Next to him, Wynne chuckled softly. "Ah, jealousy," she said.
Aedan blinked and mentally shook himself. He looked away from Alistair and Kallian, guiltily. "It’s that obvious, isn’t it?" he smiled bitterly.
"I admit I was confused at first," Wynne said after a long moment. "You two certainly seem to be quite brash and- violent in your interactions, but sometimes that only conceals a deeper passion."
Aedan stared at her, speechless for a couple of seconds. "What? Kallian, you mean?" he barked out a laugh."Yeah, right."
Wynne frowned. "I’m afraid I don’t under-" she started, then her face cleared. "Oh. Oh, dear child."
"It’s fine," he said, shaking his head. "Really. It’s certainly not my first unrequited crush, but I just wish-" he sighed and lowered his head. "I just wish she’d leave him alone. Can’t she see he’s not a toy? He’s not one to have a quick tumble with, can’t she see she’s just going to hurt him?"
Wynne didn’t seem to have anything to say to that, and when Aedan looked at her, he found her staring at him with something he couldn’t quite place in her eyes. "What?" he asked, maybe sounding a little too defensive.
Wynne smiled sadly. "I don’t think this is merely a crush, child."
Then it hit him. It was pity.
Aedan had never been completely sold on the whole Grey Warden thing, but it wasn’t until they encountered her- it, that it finally sank in just what he had set himself up for when he had drunk from that cup.
The Broodmother was something out of his wildest nightmares, not even the Archdemon had instilled such feelings of terror and repulsion in him. In his head he heard Hespith’s words as he sneaked a look sideways at Kallian and saw the same horror he was feeling plain and unguarded on her face.
For the first time, he wished he had died during the Joining.
As soon as Alistair had dealt the fatal blow to the Broodmother, the tentacles that had been attacking them from all angles fell to the ground, lifeless. With a cry that made Aedan’s skin crawl, Kallian tossed her daggers away.
She walked backwards until her back hit one of the stone walls. "Fuck Duncan! Fuck the Grey Wardens!" she screamed.
Aedan winced. She was crying.
Alistair was instantly at her side, his right hand extended as if to settle on her shoulder to give some comfort. It hovered in the space between the two of them, though, until Kallian abruptly stood up and pushed him away.
"And fuck you too!" she yelled. "You knew!"
Alistair gaped at her, opened and closed his mouth a few times before he could actually say anything. "No!"
Aedan snorted. "We are the Grey Wardens, we’ll do anything to stop a Blight," he whispered. "Maker’s breath. Anything but this." He crouched down and covered his face with his hands, ignoring the blood and grime that dirtied his palms. It wasn’t like he wasn’t already tainted with Darkspawn blood anyway.
Kallian laughed out loud; echoing in the cave it sounded hollow and terrifying. Hopeless. "Oh, but you’re the lucky ones," she said. "You only get to go crazy and die."
"Not to impose on your little freak out," Oghren cut in, "but we still have a job to do."
"You’re right," Kallian said after a long moment, making an effort to calm down her sobs. She went to retrieve her weapons. "When we find Branka, I’m going to kill her, Paragon or not," she spat on the ground and glared at Oghren, as if daring him to say otherwise. "What she did- I can’t let that pass, and I need someone to blame for all of this."
Privately, Aedan couldn’t help to agree with her.
Nobody talked as they went on, but Aedan could feel Wynne’s eyes boring into his back.
They greeted the Anvil of the Void and Branka with their hearts heavy with rage and confusion and their sorrow locked inside their mouths.
With the Anvil destroyed and Oghren now a widower, they made their way back to Orzammar. The fact that the Deep Roads suddenly seemed void of Darkspawn was a mixed blessing all in all. They really could have used some way to vent their anger.
Kallian was the worst of them. She stood by herself, and Aedan caught Alistair looking at her forlornly a couple of times. In the back of his mind he was perversely glad to see the two of them like that, but he couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her. She was right, he and Alistair got the better end of the deal, when the moment came in a few decades, they’d just go crazy and maybe succumb to the taint and turn into Darkspawn if they didn’t die before that. What awaited her, though... Maybe it wasn’t a chance that there weren’t many female Grey Wardens.
Wynne had been staring at him as soon as they had settled down to rest halfway back to the city. Aedan was doing his best to ignore her, and at this point he really didn’t care if she had caught up on that. As kind as her words might have been, she really couldn’t understand what it was like for him. For all of them.
Alistair dropped down next to him. Aedan didn’t really want to talk to him, either, but he supposed he’d been kind of a shitty friend lately and as understandable as it was under the circumstances, he guessed Alistair needed to talk to someone who knew what it felt like when everything you believed turned out to be a lie.
"I’m sorry," said Alistair.
"What for? The taint?" Aedan shook his head. "You didn’t know either."
"No, but-" he sighed. "I don’t mind. Much. I had nothing to lose when Duncan recruited me, and dying crazy and possibly Darkspawn is probably a better prospect than ending up as I would have, had I stayed with the Chantry." Aedan stared at him. "I know, I know. My life sucks."
Aedan raised his hands. "Your words."
"What I mean is- I’m sorry you and Kallian got involved. You probably had better things to do."
Aedan snorted. "Kallian is an elf who killed an Arl’s son, what makes you think she would have been better off with prison in Denerim?" he sighed. "And I- Well. I didn’t have much of a future anyway."
Alistair frowned. "What? I know you’re the second son, but-"
"I don’t want to talk about it," Aedan cut him off, angrily. "And it’s none of your business."
"Well, I am sorry. I was only worried about my friend, after all."
Aedan scratched the back of his head, sheepishly. "Sorry, it’s just- it’s a lot to take in." He nodded in Kallian’s direction. She was scowling down at her piece of dried meat. "How is she taking it?"
Alistair sighed. "Not... well. Not that I blame her."
Aedan nodded absently. "What are you doing?" he asked.
Alistair looked at him and then he frowned down at his food. He looked up again. "I’m... eating?"
Aedan shook his head. "What are you doing with Kallian?"
"I’m not sure," Alistair sighed. "I- We kissed. And you know I like her," his smile was a little goofy. "She’s beautiful and passionate. And strong. Let’s not forget the strong part."
"Right," Aedan grimaced. "Alistair, I know this is possibly the worst moment ever to talk about this..." he trailed off with a sigh. "I want to make clear that I’m fine with you and her. Being together, I mean."
"I sense a but in there."
"Have you really thought it through?" Aedan asked, looking at him straight in the eyes. "You’re both attracted to each other, but I don’t think she’s taking this thing between you two as seriously as you are."
"She what?" Alistair laughed, surprised. "Are you jealous?"
"What? No!" Aedan shook his head quickly, but he could feel his face heating.
"Yes, you are!"
"I’m not!" Aedan scowled. "I just worry for you."
Alistair smiled openly. "Aw, thank you," he said.
He leaned close to him and circled Aedan’s shoulders with his right arm, effectively trapping him into a half hug. Aedan’s face got smashed against his neck, where the armour gave way to skin. They all needed a bath after two days in the Deep Roads fighting Darkspawn and various critters; Alistair smelled of sweat and blood. It was sharp, but not unpleasant. It was as if his... Alistairness had been heightened and it stirred something deep down in Aedan’s belly, a feeling of longing he thought he’d managed to suppress.
And then it stirred something below. Something Aedan most definitely didn’t want stirred right now.
Aedan hastily pushed him away. "Stop it," he hissed.
Alistair made a noise of surprise, taken between a snort and a laugh. "So you can take all kinds of liberties with my personal space, but I can’t express my appreciation for you?"
Aedan screwed his eyes shut. "I said stop."
"You really are jealous," Alistair whispered in awe.
Aedan looked down and away. "Go away," he said through clenched teeth. "I don’t want to talk to you."
"Hey, I just-"
With a growl, Aedan stood up and left, making a bee-line for Oghren, who was the only likely candidate if he didn’t want to talk about his feelings.
Alistair didn’t seem to give up that easily, though. Aedan heard him call out and then a strong hand closed down around his wrist and tugged, making him turn around. Aedan stumbled and almost bumped into him, but Alistair steadied him with his other hand.
That’s when Kallian reached the little scene, the two of them engaged in what looked like an aborted hug. From the glare she directed at Aedan she didn’t seem at all pleased.
And from the punch she aimed at Aedan’s face, she really wasn’t.
Alistair cried out and stepped in between the two of them.
The punch made him stumble a couple of steps backwards - she really was strong - but Aedan managed to find his footing, with anger bringing everything into sharp focus. He raised his eyes and glared at her from above Alistair’s shoulder.
She growled. "So, now you try and steal my man."
"Oh, for-" Aedan rolled his eyes. "He’s not ‘your man’, and I’m not trying to steal him."
Kallian didn’t back off, though. "What is it that annoys you the most about it? That I managed to best you?" She narrowed her eyes. "Or maybe you’re just one of those people who think that elves are good enough for whores, but perish the thought they should have an equal relationship with humans? I heard you people in Highever were even worse than those in Denerim, I guess sometimes rumours are true."
Aedan gaped at her for a moment. "What the fuck, Kallian?" He exploded at last. "When have I ever given you any - any - reason to think that I treat elves any different than I treat humans? I don’t expect everyone has to like me, but you’re taking this to a whole new level!"
"Why, thank you for giving me the permission not to like you! I feel better now."
"Will you shut up?!"
Alistair put a hand on each of their shoulders and kept them at arm’s length from each other. He shot a sideways glance to Oghren and Wynne who were watching the scene with interest by now. "Keep it down, both of you."
Aedan glared at him and shrugged off his hand. "You too," he told him, and then he turned back to Kallian. "I don’t know what you think you’re doing with Alistair, but you better not be playing around with him."
"Right, talk as if I weren’t here," Alistair snorted. "Alistair is just a child who needs protecting."
Kallian scowled. "I don’t even understand why you keep- He likes women and as much as you proved time and time again you have no balls, that doesn’t make you one."
"Kallian, stop," Alistair said, his voice low. "That’s enough."
"For someone who likes to repeat this isn’t a competition, you sure don’t like losing."
"It’s not a competition!" Aedan growled, frustrated. He turned to Alistair with a sneer. "Congratulations. Don’t come crying to me when she decides she’s bored with you."
Alistair stared at him, stunned, for a couple of seconds, then his face distorted in an angry frown. "You know what I think?" he said. "I think she’s not the only one with preconceptions around here."
Aedan was about to answer tone for tone, but then he suddenly deflated, all the anger leaving him at once. He sighed. "Fine, just- I really hope you’re right," he said. "For your sake."
"So noble." Kallian snorted and rolled her eyes. "Because of course your feelings for him are chaste and pure."
"I can’t believe this," Aedan threw up his hands and walked away.
He heard Kallian call out a "So glad we have your blessing!" after him, followed by Alistair’s disapproving "Kallian..."
Aedan ignored them and reached Oghren’s side, dropping down next to him.
Oghren sneered at him. "You’re quite the entertaining group, I’ll give you that."
"Oh, shut up," he growled.
Once they were back they went straight to the Assembly. By some sort of tacit accord, they didn’t speak of what they had uncovered during their journey in the Deep Roads, not even with their companions and friends. Aedan was sure they had cottoned on the fact that something big had gone down, but even Morrigan managed to keep her curiosity at bay.
Shocked gasps greeted their news of Branka’s death and the destruction of the Anvil, but all the whispering and grumbling stopped at once when Kallian produced Caridin’s crown.
Time seemed to stop, everyone’s attention focused on the masterpiece in Kallian’s hands.
At this point Aedan really didn’t care who would be the next king of Orzammar. Both Harrowmont and Bhelen seemed to have their pros and cons, depending on who you were asking. It wasn’t the Grey Wardens’ place to solve everybody’s problems, and as long as the new king would grant the help of the dwarfs for their cause, Aedan was going to consider it a victory.
Still, when Kallian expressed her choice, passing it off as Caridin’s, Aedan wasn’t at all surprised that she went for the one Aedan wouldn’t have touched with a ten-feet pole.
Kallian had gone to the Royal Palace to have her audience with the new king and the rest of them had gone back to the Tapster's Tavern to pack their things so they could leave as soon as she was back.
Aedan was engaged in a staring contest with Fergus. "I don’t care," he told him. "We have to go, get off my bedroll."
Since the Tapster's had a limited number of rooms, they had decided to get only two rooms and share them. In the ‘boys’ room’ - as Leliana called it - there were only three beds, and of course Aedan had drawn the short straw and had to sleep on the floor on his bedroll. Bedroll which was currently occupied by Fergus.
"Look, I’m sorry I didn’t take you with me," Aedan sighed. Of all the things that he certainly didn’t need right now, his dog holding grudge figured in the top five.
"I don’t know what’s stranger," Alistair commented. "You talking to your dog as if he were a person, or your dog actually listening to you."
Fergus whined, but he finally got up from Aedan’s bedroll and went to sulk in a corner of the room. Aedan thanked him graciously with a little bow and all, making Alistair laugh.
"No, all right," Alistair said, shaking his head. "You are stranger."
Aedan snorted and proceeded to stuff his backpack. He paused for a moment, sneaking a glance at Alistair. "We’re really doing this, then." he said. It wasn’t a question.
When he looked up Alistair was staring down at the swords he had in each one of his hands. He tested their balance and after a moment of silent contemplation he tossed one on the bed and sheathed the other. "I think I’ll sell that one," Alistair muttered to himself, and then he blinked up at Aedan as if he’d just registered what Aedan had said.
He sat down on the bed heavily. He scrubbed his face with a hand and sighed. "Yes, I suppose so," he said. "We have our armies. I just hope the three of us will be enough."
"Hey, the Archdemon is only one dragon, right?" Aedan sat down next to Alistair and bumped his shoulder. "And we faced Morrigan’s mother."
Alistair chuckled softly. "Well, all right," he said. "Flemeth is definitely worse than any Archdemon." His new-found good mood was short-lived, though, and he frowned down at his hands.
"What is it?" Aedan asked.
Alistair shook his head. "I can’t believe she chose Bhelen. He had his brother killed."
Aedan snorted. "Oh, I can totally believe it."
Aedan wasn’t looking at him, but he didn’t need to when he could hear the disapproving frown in his voice. "Aedan..."
Aedan shook his head. "Look, you made it clear that you chose her, but I don’t have to like it."
"I didn’t..." Alistair contorted his face in a grimace, "choose her over you," he said. "It’s not the same. She and I- and me and you, I mean, we’re friends," he frowned. "Aren’t we?"
"It’s not so different, either," Aedan pointed out.
Alistair chuckled nervously. He scratched the back of his head. "I guess you’re kind of ah, attracted to me," he said, blushing.
"Attracted to you. Right," Aedan echoed, evenly. He shook his head. "You really are an idiot, sometimes."
"Oh, right of course," Alistair snorted. "And here I was wondering if you had been delivered that message. Alistair is an idiot. Apparently everyone knew but you, I’m so relieved now."
"I’m in love with you," Aedan said quietly.
"Even Morrigan likes to- you what?"
Alistair seemed to have been struck mute by his words, and Aedan really couldn’t resist, he smelled good, of the leather of his under-armour and his hair was still wet from the bath he had taken earlier. His lips were dry and parched from the cold winds of the Frostback Mountains.
When Alistair leaned into him and started responding to the kiss, though, Aedan pushed him away hastily and stood up.
"Stop," he said, then more forcefully when Alistair grabbed his wrist, "I said stop!"
"What?" Alistair exclaimed, confused. "You started it!"
"I figured you wouldn’t reciprocate," Aedan said, taking a few step backwards and establishing some space between the two of them. "I figured you’d leave me alone!"
"Sure," Alistair snorted, falling back on the bed. "I usually go around kissing people when I want to be left alone. I may be an idiot and inexperienced when it comes to things like this, but even I am not that stupid."
"I thought you didn’t like men!"
"When have I ever said that?" Alistair sighed and laid back on the bed, his right arm coming up to cover his face. "Look, I- I’m confused, all right?" he said quietly after a moment.
Aedan snorted. "Well, that much is clear," he had meant it to be harsh, but it come out desperate.
It was irrational, Aedan knew, and unfair as well, but Alistair wasn’t supposed to be like this. Aedan had made his peace with his crush- attraction- whatever being unrequited. He was prone to outbursts of jealousy every now and then, true, but he had been on the road to acceptance. But now, knowing he maybe had a chance and not even trying to seize it-
Alistair threw his hands up and then let them fall down, his arms bounced on the bed. He gave out a hollow laugh. "Fine, be like that," he said, obviously frustrated. "The both of you seem so sure you know what I want and what’s best for me, but no one has stopped to ask me my feelings on the matter." He shook his head. "Sometimes I think she’s right in thinking I’m nothing but a little prize to be won by either of you."
Aedan sat down on the bed that had belonged to Sten. He studied Alistair’s profile carefully, but his friend was staring up at the ceiling, as if it held some kind of solution. "So I’ll ask now," he said after a moment. "What do you want, Alistair?"
Alistair pondered the question at length. "I’m attracted to her," he said finally. "She’s beautiful and her passion burns brighter than the sun. Sometimes I think I’ll get burned if I stand too close to her."
Aedan looked away. The truth in Alistair’s words was made obvious by the open expression of his face. "So you’ve said," he said. "Please spare me the details."
"But I feel good when I’m with you, too."
Aedan blinked, stunned. When he raised his eyes, he found Alistair was looking at him earnestly. It wasn’t the words that surprised him the most, though, nor the fact that they were said in honesty - Alistair was an honest man, after all - it was something else, something that Aedan saw in his eyes.
Alistair truly was conflicted.
"You feel... 'good'?" Aedan repeated, stupidly.
Alistair nodded and went back to contemplating the ceiling. He smiled softly. "You make me laugh," he said, and then he frowned. "No, let me rephrase that. You make an effort to make me laugh, and believe me when I say that very few people have bothered with the task before."
Aedan believed him. He was aware that Alistair had never had many friends - much less close friends - in his life, at least prior to joining the Wardens. As to the why, it was a mystery to him: Alistair was a good man and a funny one at that; but they weren’t here to discuss of the stupidity of Alistair’s past acquaintances.
But rather the stupidity of his present ones, Aedan finished his own thought with a self-deprecating smile.
Alistair hadn’t noticed Aedan’s being lost in his own musings and went on. "And with you it can be... quiet, but not boring," he finished.
"‘Not boring’?" Aedan laughed, but it was an honest, good-natured laugh.
Alistair scowled at him. "Shut up, I’m not good with words," he said defensively. Then his eyes softened and if it was even possible, Aedan found him more handsome than ever. "You make me feel grounded. I- I need both of you."
The last words were like a bucket of freezing water for Aedan’s wandering mind. He shook himself and stood up. "I’m sorry, but you can’t have both of us," he said. "Not the way you want. It’s not fair to her, and it’s not fair to me." He pinched the bridge of his nose, his thumb pressing down hard at the corner of his right eye. "I will always be by your side, as your friend, but you have to make a decision, Alistair, and you have to make it by yourself."
Alistair sighed. "You aren’t making it easy on me, you know," he said, it wasn’t a denial or a refusal, his tone was merely resigned.
"Weren’t you the one to say that no one stops to ask what you want?" Aedan said. It was probably cruel and unfair of him to toss Alistair’s own words back into his face; but as he had said Alistair’s own behaviour wasn’t fair either. "Ask yourself the question and give yourself the answer. I’m good with either outcome; at least I won’t feel like I have to watch every step I take anymore."
He waited a few moments to see if Alistair had anything else to say, but when nothing more was added, Aedan bent down to retrieve his backpack. He reached for the sword Alistair had left on the bed. "I’ll take this to Morrigan, she’ll get a better bargain than you will," he said.
"By threatening poor merchants you mean?" Alistair snorted.
"A little of that and a little of leaning down and distracting them with her cleavage," Aedan replied, causing Alistair to bark out a laugh. "And the fact that she won’t be fooled by some made-up tragic story about having nine mouths to feed and an ill mother at home."
"Once!" Alistair groaned. "That happened only once!"
"Yes, but only because since then we let Morrigan handle all the trading while Sten looms from behind her," Aedan pointed out.
He dodged the pillow just in time.
"Have I hit a nerve, I wonder?" Aedan asked Fergus, who barked excitedly in reply.
"Leave, both of you," Alistair said. "I have two other pillows, and then I’ll start tossing heavier things. Like my shield."
The effect of his mock-angry frown was ruined when Fergus jumped onto his bed and licked a stripe from his neck up to his forehead. Alistair squirmed away with a squeak that wasn’t often heard coming out of the mouths of grown men.
"Your dog is disgusting!" Alistair exclaimed, but he was laughing.
"Come, Fergus," Aedan called. "Leave the man to his thinking, he needs the quiet as you well know."
"Ha bloody ha."
Aedan grinned. "I’ll see you downstairs."
Fergus barked happily at Alistair and licked him again for good measure before jumping off the bed and following Aedan outside.
The mood on the journey back from Orzammar was even bleaker than when they had left Redcliffe, if that was possible. They had successfully completed their quest to gather the armies, but after the things they had seen and the truths they had uncovered, it didn’t feel like a victory at all.
The talk he’d had with Alistair hadn’t made matters easier, either. The tension on the road and in camp was almost palpable. Alistair had taken to avoiding both him and Kallian, but he behaved normally enough with their other companions. Well, except the fact that he sometimes willingly talked with Morrigan.
Even with their responsibilities weighing heavily on his shoulders, Aedan couldn’t help but be amused by Morrigan’s poleaxed expression each time one of those weird conversations ended without death threats or scathing sarcasm.
Kallian seemed to have cottoned on the fact that he somehow had something to do with Alistair’s change of behaviour, and Aedan was subjected to her glares every waking moment. He had to admire her persistence.
The apparent quiet couldn’t last though.
They were on the last day of their journey back to Redcliffe and as always they set down camp when the sun was just starting to set. Their destination was only half a day away and there was no point in going on in semi-darkness when they could have an early start and be at the Arl’s castle by midday.
After the tents were settled and the fire was cheerfully crackling away, they sat down to have their dinner - a hot one for once, courtesy of Morrigan. The only one who wasn’t sitting by the fire was Alistair. He had mentioned some excuse about Morrigan’s cooking not agreeing with him and was sitting several paces away from them, eating dried meat and stale bread.
While Aedan wouldn’t argue the fact that it was entirely possible that Morrigan would slip something into Alistair’s plate, he hadn’t missed the longing looks he sent the smoking pot every once in a while.
"What the hell did you tell him?" Kallian said, suddenly.
Everyone froze and eyed Aedan warily. Everyone except Morrigan who kept stirring her stew. Aedan took a sip of water from his cup and cleared his throat.
"I don’t know what you’re talking about," he said.
"Like hell you don’t!" Kallian growled. "I leave you two alone for two minutes and suddenly he has to think!"
Morrigan snorted. "You have to understand that’s certainly not an easy task for him," she said. "Even just the sound someone breathing might break his concentration."
Aedan gave her a look. "Aren’t you taking this a little too far?"
"I believe not," Morrigan replied. "I seem to remember we were doing some kind of important task. What was it? Oh, that’s right. Something about... a Blight?" she laughed softly. "How silly of me to presume such trivial matters are more vital than your little drama."
"I agree with the witch;" Sten said. Sandwiched between Zevran and Oghren he looked comically huge. "A Grey Warden shouldn’t be distracted from his duty."
Aedan sighed. "We’re all very new to this kind of thing. Even Alistair."
"It is not an excuse," Sten said with a disapproving frown.
"I understand sometimes distancing yourself from your own feelings is a difficult task," Wynne told Aedan, gently, "but in turn you have to understand that a lot of people depend on you. All of you."
Kallian barked out a laugh. "No pressure, right?"
Busy as he was being judged by everyone, Aedan didn’t notice Alistair had joined them until he centered all the attention on himself by clearing his throat loudly. "They’re right," he said. "We should resolve this situation once and for all, we have more important things to worry about."
"The fool speaks sense," Morrigan muttered quietly to herself, but not so quietly as to o unnoticed by Alistair. "I must be going mad."
Alistair ignored her and instead gestured for Kallian and Aedan to join him away from the others.
They stood in a small triangle, Alistair as the vertex. Kallian hadn’t lost her scowl, but it was somewhat mollified by the expectation written all over her face. Aedan turned to Alistair as well and watched as he fidgeted nervously for a few moments.
Alistair took a deep breath and raised his eyes from his feet to look at them in the eyes. "You have to know that I care very much about you, both of you," he said. "We are the last of the Grey Wardens, but even if that weren’t the case I’d still consider you my closest friends." He nodded to himself. Aedan wouldn’t be surprised if he had rehearsed the speech a couple of times in the privacy of his own tent. "I’m very flattered that you both seem to be attracted to me. I mean, you both are very ah- attractive persons," he winced and coughed. "Moving on-"
Kallian interrupted him. "You aren’t suggesting what I think you’re suggesting," she said, her tone low and bordering on scary; her eyes were dangerously narrowed.
Alistair blinked. "I- What am I suggesting?"
Kallian pointed at him. "I might have agreed with anyone else but him," she said, "but there’s no way I’m participating in a three-way thing with him."
Aedan gaped. "...what."
"A three-way..." Alistair repeated, his eyes going wide and glassy for a moment, then he shuddered and shook himself. "No! That’s not what I- No!" He stopped his flailing and took a deep breath. "What I’m saying is, the others were right, we have a mission to attend to and we don’t have time for this now."
Kallian scoffed and gave out a surprised laugh. "So you’re telling us, what?" she raised her eyebrows. "Thanks but no, thanks? That’s not a decision, that’s abstaining from one."
Alistair shook his head. "That’s all I can offer you at the moment," he said, his tone was conciliatory, but Aedan heard the underlying uncertainty. Trust Alistair to deny himself something he wanted for the sake of not hurting anybody’s feelings.
Kallian shook her head. "It’s very easy, Alistair," she said. "Are you attracted to me?"
"Very well, then," she nodded. "That’s settled."
Alistair coughed and sneaked a sheepish glance at her. "Not really," he said, causing both Aedan and Kallian to raise their eyebrows at him. "I, um, I appear to be attracted to him, as well."
"I thought you liked women," Kallian said after a moment. Her eyes narrowed. "Exclusively."
"Have I ever told you that?"
The disbelief was plain in Kallian’s laughter. "So now Mr. High and Noble - oh, excuse me Lord High and Noble - comes around and you suddenly chase dick, too."
Alistair made a face. "You don’t have to be so- crass."
"Well, excuse me," Kallian shook her head, "I’m a little shocked over here, I wasn’t aware he would be a rival in this aspect as well."
Alistair frowned. "‘A rival’..." he echoed, then he shook his head. "The point is, I may be a-" he flushed and stuttered, "a virgin, but I’m not naïve, nor innocent. I know what sexual attraction is, and I think I can tell if I’m attracted to men as well as women."
Kallian sighed, exasperated. "Fine, whatever," she said, dismissing both of them with a vague wave of her hand. "You want to keep on not having sex, that’s your choice."
"It’s not about sex!" Alistair exclaimed, then he widened his eyes and blushed. He lowered his voice and went on, "not exclusively, anyway."
Aedan took a couple of steps back. "You obviously need to discuss this between the two of you, so-"
Both Kallian and Alistair turned to glare at him. "You shut up," they said, in perfect unison.
Aedan shut up.
"Then what is it about?" Kallian asked Alistair. "Riding off into the sunset and happily ever afters?" she snorted, her voice cracking slightly with bitterness at the end. "I’m so sorry to disappoint you, but that only happens in fairy tales."
Alistair remained silent for a moment. "So, what did you have in mind?" he asked softly, at last.
"You’re nice enough to look at and I like you," she said by way of explanation. "You’re not a dickhead like most men I’ve known."
"Thank you," Alistair said, not wholly convinced. "I suppose."
Aedan motioned towards the others, who he was sure were trying to listen in. "I’ll just-" he started.
"So what’s wrong with the two of us having a good time?" Kallian exclaimed. After a moment something seemed to occur to her, suddenly. She narrowed her eyes at Alistair. "You were already naming our children in your head, weren’t you?"
Aedan left quickly before the situation could get any worse.
Aedan was startled awake by his tent shaking. He blinked in the darkness trying to make sense of what was going on. Next to him Fergus whined and snorted in his sleep.
"Your amazing skills as a guard dog never fail to impress me," Aedan told him.
The tent shook again and this time Aedan managed to make out a silhouette in the shapes of the shadows of the tent walls. After a couple of moments, Alistair’s head poked in and he finally managed to stumble inside Aedan’s tent - as opposed to into, quite literally, as it had happened the first two times.
"Hello," Alistair said with a wide smile. He blinked stupidly.
"Are you... drunk?" Aedan asked with an amused chuckle.
He was either drunk or he had taken a long bath in what Oghren called ale but Aedan was pretty sure was some sort of acid.
"Oghren gave me something to lift my spirits," Alistair replied, confirming Aedan’s supposition. "Or so he said," he gave a little burp and then he groaned, his face contorted in pain. "I think I might be dying of alcohol poisoning. Hold me?"
Aedan attempted to keep up a serious face, but he shouldn’t have bothered, really. Somehow, he guessed Alistair didn’t notice when his resolve failed and he laughed. "You should know better than put anything of Oghren’s in your mouth," he told him.
Alistair made a disgusted face. "Mental images!" he flailed. "You evil, evil man."
Aedan shook his head. "Not that I want to kick you out, but... why are you here?"
Alistair pouted, it was quite cute if a little ridiculous. "I’m sad," he said. "Kallian is angry at me."
"Kallian is angry at everybody."
Alistair shook his head a little too forcefully. He stopped after a moment, falling back and almost out of the tent. "Kallian is only ever angry at you," he said, then he leaned forward as if to tell him a secret. "Don’t tell her, but I think she’s jealous," he whispered loudly.
Aedan snickered. "You are so very drunk."
Alistair burped and moved towards Aedan’s bedroll on all fours. He stumbled over Fergus, waking him. "Whoops," he patted the dog on the head. "Sorry, Fergus-the-dog-not-the-brother-"
Fergus grumbled angrily, but he seemed to accept the apology and he went back to sleep.
Alistair finally managed to conclude his journey; he knelt next to Aedan and leaned what felt like his whole weight against him. It was quite an impressive weight and Aedan almost toppled over.
"Now Kallian is angry at me, too," Alistair said. The smell of his breath almost made Aedan gag.
"She is?" Aedan said, but his sarcasm evidently didn’t make it past the veil of alcohol muddling Alistair’s senses. "I can scarcely believe it."
"She took her words back!" Alistair said, seriously. "Said I was a dickhead. And an arsehole. And an idiot," he frowned. "Idiot I’m used to, but no one ever told me I was a dickhead. Or an arsehole."
He tried to sit down, but he somehow lost his balance and ended up falling down on Aedan, sending both of them sprawling to the ground. Aedan hit his head and got the wind knocked out of him. Alistair’s right elbow jabbed into his chest when he moved around, trying to settle into a comfortable position.
"Do you think I’m a dickhead?" Alistair asked, apparently not noticing Aedan’s valiant tries in getting his breath back. "Or an arsehole?"
"No, Alistair," Aedan gasped out, after he had finally managed to dislodge Alistair’s elbow. It hadn’t proven to be the right thing to do, though, because without his support Alistair slipped down and ended up kissing him.
Or rather, their mouths ended up colliding together quite painfully.
Alistair sat back up without missing a beat, while Aedan was left blinking and massaging his hurting lips.
"Maybe she’s right," Alistair mused, then he frowned. "What was I saying?" he looked around himself until his eyes fell on Aedan and he blinked as if he just now had noticed he had an audience. "Oh, hey Aedan," he grinned.
Alistair waved a hand and almost smacked him in the face. "Don’t kick me out, please. It’s cold outside," he said, pitifully. "I know I stink, but you already sleep with the dog."
He had barely finished talking when he started snoring, lying across the tent floor, half on Aedan. He was heavy.
Aedan gave him a couple of minutes and then tried moving him, but to no avail. He sighed and gave up after several tries.
At least he wasn’t wearing his armour.
Aedan was awaken the morning after by a low groan and the by now familiar feeling of an elbow jammed into his solar plexus. He blinked and was greeted but the sight of a very sorry-looking Alistair. He sat up and looked around himself as if he couldn’t quite fathom how he had ended up in Aedan’s tent.
By the amount of alcohol he had drunk last night, Aedan wasn’t surprised he didn’t remember much.
"You. Oghren. Ale," he told Alistair by way of an explanation.
Alistair grimaced. "I hoped I had dreamed that part," he said. He frowned down at Aedan and at the space he had been lying just a few moments before. "I didn’t do anything... untoward, did I?" he asked, wincing.
Aedan raised his eyebrows. "That depends on your definition of ‘untoward’," he said. "I mean, I’m all for trying anything once, but bringing all that rope into bed activities seems a bit too much. Have you been talking to Zevran lately, by any chance?"
"W-What?" Alistair exclaimed, horrified. "I did not!"
Aedan chuckled openly at the look of naked horror on his face, and Alistair lared at him. "Oh, you’re joking," he said. "Right, ha ha. Watch Alistair squirm, how hilarious. You got me."
Aedan shook his head and sat up as well. He stretched his arms and winced when his back popped. "Relax," he said, giving Alistair a friendly pat on his shoulder. "You were drunk out of your head, even if you had ‘anything untoward’ in mind, I doubt you would have been able to go through with it."
Alistair gave him a look. "Thank you for the vote of confidence," he said. "I don’t remember getting that drunk, but I can feel it, believe me."
Aedan shrugged. "You kissed me," he said, and before Alistair could give himself a stroke with all his stuttering, he quickly added, "but I think that was more a case of you falling down and hitting my face with yours than a real kiss." He paused. "And then you started snoring."
Alistair’s momentary embarrassment was suddenly forgotten. "I do not snore!"
"You snore louder than the dog," Aedan told him. "In fact, Fergus had to leave. I would have too, but you fell asleep on me, and you are very heavy when you’re unconscious."
Alistair sighed and shook his head. Apparently that wasn’t a move that agreed with him, as he clutched his head and groaned pitifully. "Can I stay in here?" he asked.
"For the rest of my life?" he added, hopefully.
"With my luck everybody is already up," Alistair said. "And if they see me coming out of your tent... There will be talking."
"If you suddenly disappear after what happened last night with you and Kallian, there will be talking anyway."
Alistair sighed and hung his head. "You’re right," he said.
"And if Morrigan gives you a hard time just stay silent and give her a mysterious smile."
Alistair snorted. Then he groaned. "Please kill me," he said.
"There is a lesson to be learned in all this, you know," he told Alistair. "Never trust the advice of a drunk dwarf."
"I changed my mind, I’m going to kill you," Alistair said. "I hate you."
Aedan chuckled. "And yet here you are."
Alistair gave him a long look Aedan couldn’t quite decipher. "Here I am."
Suddenly, all of Aedan’s good humour left him.
As Alistair had predicted there was talking - behind their backs, mostly - and a lot of staring. Kallian, he saw, was mostly ignoring the two of them and Aedan was glad for that unexpected turn. He almost felt bad as he witnessed Alistair being subjected to Zevran’s light teasing and Morrigan’s not so light sneering, but there was no way he was getting involved in that.
Of course, that had only left him wide open for Wynne’s assault.
"You're quite taken with each other, aren't you?" she asked, but Aedan wasn’t fooled by the fondness of her tone. She was a tricky one, he had learned.
"It’s not what you think," he said quickly. "There’s nothing between us."
"I hardly believe that’s true," she said, with a small smile. "I believe we all have noticed the tension between the three of you and the fact that he didn’t come out of Kallian’s tent this morning."
Aedan grimaced. "I was under the impression that the situation was far too serious to waste time on gossip."
Wynne frowned at him. "There’s no denying you seem to have a... fondness for each other," she said. "I just wanted to ask where do you think this is going."
"I don’t even know if ‘this’ is going anywhere," he replied. "And I’m not sure it concerns you, anyway."
"You are both Grey Wardens," she said. "You have a responsibilities which supersede your personal desires."
Aedan snorted. "You all seem awfully fixated on that point," he said, perhaps more harshly than he should have, judging by the way Wynne blinked at him, startled. "And you seem fond to repeat the same things over and over. I know we’re Grey Wardens, I know we have responsibilities, but sometimes I wish you wouldn’t remind us every two minutes." Wynne seemed about to say something, so Aedan quickly went on. "Just a few moments of peace, every once in a while, is that too much to ask?"
Wynne smiled sadly and shook her head. "Of course not," she said, "but you have to understand one thing in return. Love is ultimately selfish. It demands that one be devoted to a single person, who may fully occupy one's mind and heart, to the exclusion of all else. A Grey Warden cannot afford to be selfish," she said.
"You always seem to be full of advice," Aedan said, "but you should not judge something you don’t know anything about."
"I may not be one of you, but as a mage I understand that better than anyone else," she said. "You may be forced to make a choice between saving your love and saving everyone else, and then what would you do?"
"We’ll have to see then, won’t we?" he replied, brusquely and quickly brushed past her, taking point of their little traveling party alongside Alistair.
They exchanged a brief look in silence, Alistair grimacing in sympathy. Aedan shook his head to tell him that no, everything was all right, when in fact it wasn’t.
Wynne had a point, Aedan knew, but her choice of words had left him deeply unsettled. He was sure she couldn’t have known what effect they would have on him, but she was right. He wasn’t going to let anyone get hurt because of him.
Not even if it meant giving Alistair up.
He sneaked a sideways glance at him and frowned.
All those stupid romance novels his mother used to read were wrong, to have loved and lost wasn’t in any way preferable to the alternative and unrequited love would have been easier than whatever was going on between him and Alistair right now.
Aedan didn’t like tackling problems head on, it just wasn’t in his nature. He preferred resolving his issues by going around them and stabbing them in the back, like he did with unsuspecting Darkspawn. Either that or ignoring them altogether.
The issues he was ignoring were stacking up, however, and sooner rather than later he’d have to resolve at least some of them.
Apparently Alistair, for all his façade of being an indecisive, overgrown child, could do enough tackling for both of them. He gave Aedan a long look - long enough that Aedan started wondering if he had anything stuck into his teeth - and then said, out of the blue, "I seem to have lead both of you on, but you have to believe it wasn’t my intention. I would never do that to people I care."
Aedan blinked and scrambled for something to say. "Mistakes were made by everyone involved," he said, going for the most diplomatic reply he could muster up. "Let’s pretend nothing happened and let’s start over. Slate clean."
Alistair smiled a little and nodded, then he started humming a song Aedan didn’t recognize.
No, that was wrong.
"It’s just-" Aedan started and then grimaced a moment later. Adding to the issues wasn’t an answer, but Alistair was looking at him now with a questioning frown, and that man was like a dog with a bone, Aedan might as well finish what he had started. "I was under the impression you wanted a family," he said finally.
Alistair gave a quiet, humorless laugh. "I guess all my babbling about Arl Eamon, the Chantry and the Grey Wardens kind of gave it away."
Aedan shook his head. "I mean- It’s only natural. And despite my ghastly behaviour recently, you
know I would have stood by you no matter what, right?"
Alistair seemed to brighten up at that. "Yes," he said with a grin. Then he shrugged. "Anyway, family. Well, I have a sister and what’s left of the Grey Wardens. And Arl Eamon too, I guess. That’s more than some people have."
"Wait, hold up," Aedan came to a sudden stop. "You have a sister?"
"Goldanna," Alistair explained. "Didn’t I mention- Oh, right. I told Kallian when we were in Haven," he grimaced. "Sorry, with everything that’s been going on I kind of... forgot to tell you."
Aedan waved his concerns away. Issues, ignoring them. "I thought your mother died when she had you."
"She’s my half-sister. I’ve never actually met her, but I know she lives in Denerim."
"Oh," Aedan nodded and when he looked up, Alistair was looking at him apprehensively. "We could go and see her, when we are in Denerim?" he suggested. "I imagine we’ll have to get there. At some point."
Alistair broke into a huge grin. "Yes, I’d appreciate that," he said, then seriously, "thank you."
"You’re welcome," Aedan said, then his own smile fell from his lips. "Anyway, what I meant was... kids." He swallowed. "I figured you’d want to have children. If you really want to be with me- I mean, as hard as we can try, there’s no way that’s happening with me being, you know, a man."
Alistair widened his eyes and gaped at him in the most obviously fake innocent expression Aedan had ever seen. And he’d been brother to Fergus, who couldn’t lie to save his life.
"What’s that got to do with babies?" Alistair said. "I thought you just wished really, really hard and the good Fade spirits brought you one." And then he openly laughed at the glare Aedan threw him.
Alistair sighed. "Look, even if I wanted children... Well, it’s very hard for Grey Wardens to have one. Nigh impossible, even."
"Great," Aedan snorted. "Are there even any perks about becoming a Warden?"
"I don’t know, the fame and glory?" Aedan gave him a long look. "What?"
"They got kicked out of Ferelden two centuries ago and now Loghain made us into the enemy."
Alistair made a show of thinking very hard about it. Then he attempted a, "griffons?"
"Oh sure," Aedan rolled his eyes. "Me, I got in just for the griffons. Imagine my disappointment when I found out there were none anymore."
"Such is the life of a Grey Warden. Sacrifice, horrible nightmares, sterility and an early death."
"And no griffons."
Alistair sighed dreamily. "Those were the good old times."
"At least we wouldn’t have to walk everywhere."
"Ah-ha!" Alistair pointed an accusing finger at him. "I told you we could buy some horses. We did all right when we had to go to Haven."
"Yes, right. Horses," Aedan snorted. "With whose money? And will you be the one talking Oghren into climbing on one? Providing he’d be able to stay in the saddle once there, as drunk as he always is."
Alistair frowned. "If only Bodahn would agree to carry some of our stuff..." he said. "Or I guess we could ask Morrigan if she could shapeshift into a bear and carry it, instead."
Aedan gave him a long, incredulous look, then he burst out laughing. "Please, please, tell me beforehand when you’re going to ask her, I wouldn’t miss it for the world."
Alistair’s only answer was a huge grin.
Redcliffe was faring better than when they had left, there were guards to greet them when they entered the castle. Ser Perth was at the head of the group.
"Welcome back, Wardens," he said, with a smile. "There are refreshments ready for you, but the Arl will hear the news you bring as soon as you are ready."
They all dismounted, some with more difficulty than others, and somehow Aedan ended up holding all the reins. He stood there for a moment, staring down at them befuddled.
Alistair laughed out loud and slapped him on the shoulder. "Come on, stable boy," he said with a huge grin. "I’ll give you a hand."
When they reached the stables they found another guard, this one dressed in lighter armour, who was tending to the remaining horses. He hastened towards them as soon as they crossed the threshold.
"I can take it from here, Wardens," he said, nodding at them.
"Are you sure we can’t help you?" Aedan asked, uncertain. There were nine horses and just one man.
The guard nodded and relieved them of the reins. "I’m sure you need your rest, My Lord," he said, "and the Arl wants to talk with you."
Next to him, Alistair threw his arms wide and stretched. "Well, I for one would sure appreciate stretching my legs."
Aedan shot him a look and then he turned to thank the guard. He followed Alistair outside; he stood in the middle of the courtyard, blinking up at the sky as if he hadn’t ever seen the sun in his life.
"Have you seen Fergus?" Aedan asked after a moment.
"I think he rushed inside as soon as refreshments were mentioned," Alistair replied. "Smart dog."
Aedan sighed. He hadn’t missed Alistair’s smirk, nor the look he sneaked his way. It had been the last of many that day alone.
"All right, out with it," he said, exasperated.
Alistair blinked at him. "What are you talking about?" he asked.
"You’ve been giving those weird looks all day," Aedan said. "And don’t bother denying it."
Alistair scratched his forehead. "Uh, I suppose," he said. "I was thinking about that- thing you said."
Aedan gave him a long look. "I say a lot of ‘things’."
"That does narrow it down a little bit," Aedan nodded. He turned to look at Alistair expectantly. "Is this a guessing game?"
"You’re in love with me," Alistair said, and Aedan wished he wouldn’t have heard the little note of wonder in his voice.
He looked away. All things considered, his revelation hadn’t been as terrible as he had feared at first. Having it out in the open had lifted a weight from him, it was out of his hands and as childish as it might have been, he was glad the responsibility of his feelings was now on Alistair.
"Yes, I am," he said.
Alistair seemed suddenly uncomfortable at Aedan’s openness, despite the fact that he had asked. He chuckled, maybe a little too loudly for it to have been genuine. He elbowed Aedan in the ribs. "So all those times you clashed with Kallian over me... you really were jealous," he smirked, quirking his eyebrows.
Aedan rolled his eyes. "I suppose," he conceded with a sigh, "but it is true that I was worried about you, as well. I mean as a friend; I didn’t want to see you hurt."
Alistair grinned. "Aw, my hero!"
Aedan glared at him, but it seemed to have the opposite effect of what he’d intended. Alistair’s grin kept on widening. "However," he said, "it is also true that I could have acted less like-" he grimaced, "a dick."
Alistair laughed. "Careful, My Lord," he said. "I’m afraid the company you keep is having repercussions on your vocabulary."
"You obviously haven’t met my mother," Aedan countered. "I swear she actually made the Captain of the Guard blush once."
Alistair shook his head and motioned for him to follow as he made for the castle’s main entrance. Aedan went after him and he didn’t miss the way Alistair was smiling, kind of like a fool actually. The couple of times their eyes met Alistair’s grin became wide and open.
Aedan sighed. "Look, Alistair," he started. He scratched his forehead. "Just because I- just because you’re not with Kallian anymore, it doesn’t mean that you have to be with me."
Alistair just shook his head and stared at him, smiling like he knew a secret.
He held the door open for Aedan and followed him inside.
Aedan had been assigned the same room and a warm bath and clean clothes were waiting for him when he got in. He actually teared up when he plunged into the water.
Fergus barked happily and for a moment Aedan was afraid he was going to join him inside the bathtub. He pointed at him and glared for good measure. "We may share our bed on occasions," he said, "but I draw the line at bathing together."
Fergus whined pitifully, but Aedan saw straight through his act and ignored him, content in splashing around in the water, which was starting to turn an unpleasant colour by now. He grimaced and glanced at the clothes he’d left on the floor. He would have never figured he’d have seen the day the phrase ‘I have mud everywhere’’ would turn out to be true.
When the water became a brown sludge it was usually the sign to get out; it was getting cold anyway. He dried himself quickly and put on the clean clothes. They looked like something straight out of the Arl’s wardrobe, or maybe his brother’s, maybe a bit outdated in fashion but still quite rich in manufacture.
Aedan much preferred comfortable armour to dressing in a manner accustomed to his social status, but they were clean and you never look in the mouth of a gifted horse.
"Don’t even think about it," he told Fergus, who was contemplating the bed. "You need a bath too." Fergus whined. "Now don’t look at me like that."
As soon as he was clothed, he poked his head out in the hallway. He spotted a maid and waved at her. He hadn’t seen her in the castle before, but when she came closer he recognized her as the daughter of the blacksmith.
"Yes, My Lord?" she asked.
"Valena, right?" he tried, when she nodded he went on, "just call me Aedan, please. So you work here, now?"
She smiled slightly. "Yes, My- Aedan," she said.
"That’s very brave of you."
She ducked her head. "Thank you," she said. "My father wasn’t very happy, but I wanted to help."
"Ah, good," he nodded.
She nodded in reply, and they fell silent. Valena looked up at him, expectantly. "Was there anything you needed?" she asked then.
Aedan blinked. "Ah, yes," he pointed back to the room. "My dog, Fergus, is in need of a bath. Do you think you could find someone-" Fergus whined plaintively, "maybe several someones to chuck a couple of buckets of water at him?"
Valena chuckled and nodded. "I’ll see what I can do," she said. "Everyone is in the Arl’s study, My L- Aedan."
"Ah yes, no rest for the wicked," he smiled slightly and motioned to the door. "I’ll leave you to it, then," he said, but then he frowned. "No wait, I’ll tidy it up first."
"Don’t worry about it," she said, smiling again. When she actually fluttered her eyelashes a little, Aedan knew it was time to leave.
"All right, then," he said, chuckling nervously.
When he glanced back and saw that she was still looking at him, he quickened his pace. He turned a corner and smacked right into Kallian.
She stumbled back and glared up at him. "What’s the rush?" she asked, sneaking a look around the corner. "Oh, running away from girls. Very brave," she snickered.
Aedan sighed. "Of all the people I had to run into..."
"The universe clearly hates you, My Lord Cousland."
"But wouldn’t that be too self-centered of me?"
Kallian gave him a deadpan look, then she grabbed his arm and half-pulled, half-dragged him towards the Arl’s study. Alistair had been right, she was strong.
The door was open, and when they came through both Alistair and Arl Eamon raised their eyebrows at the strange display.
"I found him bravely hiding from one of the maids," she said by way of an explanation.
Aedan glared at her. "I was on my way here," he said. "We’re all here, shall we start?"
The Arl came around the desk to shut the door, then he turned to Aedan with a strange look in his eyes. Tentative, Aedan would have said, but it wasn’t just that.
Arl Eamon laid a hand on his shoulder. "Before we start," he said, "I understand condolences are in order." His eyes went sad and gentle.
"Condolences?" Alistair echoed, surprised. "You mean Aedan’s brother..." he trailed off. He came to Aedan’s side and he too laid a hand on his shoulder. "I’m sorry, Aedan," he said then, sadly.
With the two of them so close Aedan felt caged. His body went rigid and his mouth wouldn’t work. He just wanted to be left alone.
He couldn’t breathe.
Arl Eamon frowned at Alistair’s words. "We have yet to receive news of his brother," he said. "But the men I had sent to Highever didn’t come back and those who went to Denerim brought back disturbing news."
Aedan’s mouth finally decided to get on with the plan, but his jaw muscles were so tight and rigid, it actually hurt to push the words past his gritted teeth. "I don’t want to talk about this."
Arl Eamon went on. "I’m deeply sorry, I don’t presume to understand what you must be going through," he said and Aedan wanted to tell him to shut up, shut up and leave him alone. "But I came very near to losing everything I hold dear and-" finally he seemed to understand there was something wrong and he trailed off, noticing Alistair and Kallian’s puzzled faces and the way Aedan seemed about to scream and bolt. "Do they know?" he asked, then.
Alistair frowned. "Do we know... what?" he asked, turning to stare at Aedan.
Aedan shook his head and took a step back, getting away from their hands. "It’s not important, nothing can be done anyway," he said, darting his eyes around to check for a possible way out. He knew it would have happened soon, but he wasn’t ready. Not that he thought he’d ever be ready.
The Arl sighed and looked at him with so sad and sympathetic eyes that Aedan almost hated him for a moment. "My Lord- Aedan," he started. "We will leave for Denerim for the Landsmeet in a few days and I won’t lie to you, our chances of winning are very slim. We cannot afford our personal feelings to cloud our judgement."
Aedan nodded curtly. "I understand."
"That is why I’m telling you this: Arl Howe is under Teyrn Loghain’s protection."
For a moment Aedan thought he hadn’t heard properly, the words alien and incomprehensible to his ears. And then his brain fully registered the meaning. "What?"
Arl Eamon said something else, but his voice was drowned by the roaring in Aedan’s ears. He felt cold, detached, and then suddenly he was hot and burning and his jaw hurt from gritting his teeth and his fingers hurt from clenching his fists.
He’d always thought ‘boiling with rage’ was nothing but an hyperbolic metaphor.
"I don’t care," Aedan interrupted whatever the Arl was saying. He had spoken with a low voice, but the room was small and everyone was shocked into silence for a moment. "I don’t care," he repeated, "I don’t care if he’s under the Maker’s protection himself, I’m going to kill him."
Alistair looked stricken, possibly more about the promise in Aedan’s words than the blasphemy in them. "Aedan, what-" he started, but he trailed off when Aedan cut him off with a glare.
"As I said, I cannot begin to understand what you went through," Arl Eamon said, slowly, "but I know that the Landsmeet is the only tool we have to gain the upper hand without causing a civil war."
"No, you don’t understand," Aedan agreed. "I can still hear their screams every time I close my eyes. My family, my friends and the people who were mine to protect. My nephew was eight years old. He slaughtered them. All of them."
And just like that, it was out.
Aedan's vision went gray around the edges and the roaring of blood felt almost like it was going to deafen him. He swayed, nauseous, and caught himself against the Arl's desk before his knees could give out.
"Well. Shit." Kallian said.
It was only when he felt the cold on his cheeks that he noticed he had run outside. He was close to a panic attack and his eyes were burning but remained thankfully dry. He rubbed his face and let himself fall down to lie in the tall grass. He took a few deep breaths to calm down.
The sky was a startling blue, not a cloud in sight.
He swallowed hard around the tightness in his throat, but the tears didn't come. He hissed a curse through his teeth and almost had an heart attack when he heard the dry chuckle coming from above him.
He cursed again, this time because he should have known better than letting his guard down and glared up at Kallian. "Yes, I know," he rolled his eyes. "Look at poor, little Aedan hiding like a coward."
Kallian snorted and shook her head. "He’s looking all over for you, you know," she said, her face an unreadable mask.
"You found me."
"I'm faster and I know how to follow a track," she said. "Not that you were particularly careful in not leaving one. Or keeping an eye out for threats."
"I was otherwise occupied," he said. "At least I’m not crying like a baby," he added.
"There is no shame in crying," Kallian said. "Hiding like coward, on the other hand."
Aedan snorted and sat up and after scrubbing his face one last time, he finally stood. "I guess there's no running anymore. I'll better find Alistair," he grimaced. "And apologize to the Arl."
Kallian sidestepped to let him pass, but as he brushed past her she stopped him with a hand on his arm. "For what it’s worth," she said. "I’m sorry. About your family."
Aedan looked down at her. She was as serious as he'd ever seen her. "Thank you," he said. "For what it’s worth I’m sorry about your wedding, too."
Kallian gave a little chuckle. "Thank you," she said with a courteous nod. "Now come back inside so we can go back to cordially hate each other."
Aedan snorted and they started to make their way back. When they were on top of the stairs he glanced at her. "I did steal your man, after all."
"So what?" she frowned. "Are you going to apologize now? We both know it wouldn’t be sincere, so spare me." She shook her head. "I wasn't planning on keeping him, anyway, he came to me. So congratulations on being second choice, I guess."
Kallian turned around and swiftly made her way back into the castle, leaving Aedan to frown at her retreating back. The day he would understand her was the day Templars and mages would be dancing in the streets hand in hand accompanied by sunshine and puppies.
He heard Alistair before he saw him. Aedan stopped before turning the corner into the hallway leading to the guestroom appointed to him and leaned against the wall.
"Where is your master?" he heard Alistair ask. Fergus just whined in response.
Aedan took a deep breath and walked around the corner. Fergus barked happily and ran to him. Alistair was only a few paces behind; the relief on his face was soon replaced by a frown, though.
"Aedan..." he started, but Aedan interrupted him before he could go on.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Alistair's frown deepened and his mouth turned down in a displeased line. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked then, sounding more hurt than angry, after all.
"All those things I said about a Teyrn's son's life being easy... What a fool I must have sounded."
Aedan shook his head. "No, you- you didn't know."
"Because you never told me!"
Both he and Alistair blinked, surprised at the vehemence of the tone. Aedan sighed and averted his eyes, looking past Alistair's shoulder and staring longingly at the door of his room. Right now, he wanted nothing more than to hide under the covers of his bed and sleep for a whole day.
"What could have I said?" he asked then, softly. "There never seemed to be a proper time. It’s not something you slip into a conversation, ‘could you pass the bread, oh and by the way Rendon Howe slaughtered all the inhabitants of Castle Cousland in their sleep.’"
Alistair gave him a long look, but he had the good grace of not pointing out the obvious excuse. "You should have told me, anyway," he said. "I thought we were friends."
"We are!" Aedan said, placing his hands on Alistair's shoulders. His fingers traced the lines and the scratches of his armour, then they traveled upwards to reach Alistair's neck and draw small circles on the warm flesh. "We are," he repeated, softly. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."
Alistair leaned in and kissed him. Aedan had only the time to feel the warmth of his lips before he drew back. It had been so brief that he might have just imagined it if not for the blush spreading on Alistair's cheeks.
"I'm sorry," Alistair said. "I wish the circumstances were-"
Aedan cut him off with another kiss. It was longer this time, and when the tips of their tongues touched Alistair's breath caught in his throat and he made a small sound, almost pained.
Aedan cursed softly and took a step back. "We really shouldn't start something we won't be able to finish."
Alistair grinned. "Irresistible, am I?"
"Don't let it go to your head," Aedan told him, but he was grinning back. He traced Alistair's cheekbones with his thumbs, his brows with his fingers, like a blind person trying to see. "I suppose I should go apologise to Arl Eamon now."
Alistair took his hands and tangled their fingers together. "I suppose you should," he said. "Or we could keep on providing the servants with juicy gossip, if you wish."
Aedan shook his head. "Duty first, my mother always used to say."
Alistair gave him a smile, small and encouraging, and Aedan couldn't help to reply with one of his own. They said a pain shared is a pain halved; Aedan wouldn't say the loss didn't feel any less painful or overwhelming, but it sure didn't feel as shocking or as raw as before.
"Denerim," Alistair said to himself. "It's been a long time."
Kallian snorted and darted her eyes around. "Not bloody long enough." She was obviously nervous, her hands halting just as they were about to go for her daggers a few times.
"How long has it been? Nine months? Ten?" Aedan mused out loud. "You think you left that lasting of an impression?"
She gave him a long look. "You tell me, My Lord," she said. "I killed the Arl's son."
Zevran whistled loudly. "Way to go, my friend," he clapped her on the back. "You would have made a fine Crow."
"From what you told us, it's not like he would be missed," Alistair said as he took in the market square.
Business seemed to go on as usual, as if there wasn't a civil war on the brink of happening on top of the threat of an imminent Blight.
"So any suggestions as to where to start?" Aedan asked out loud. Better to get to business soon, their heterogeneous group was starting to draw many stares and even the city guards were looking at them closely, hands casually wrapped around the hilts of the swords.
Zevran laughed out loud. "Where else? To the nearest tavern!"
"I like the way you think, elf!" Oghren said, smacking him on the back. "You have my vote for group leader."
"As you well know, my dwarf friend, I am more comfortable with following," he leered. "Bending to the will of another more... capable person, so to speak. Or persons."
There was a snort of disgust from Oghren, but Leliana interrupted before things could degenerate further. "I know of a place near here, we could start there."
Aedan nodded at Kallian. "You guys go ahead," he said. "I have to find my dog before he does something irreparable."
Kallian rolled her eyes. "Just follow the screams and the path of property damage."
"Or the smell," Morrigan put in.
"I’ll come with you!" Alistair said.
Aedan frowned at his overeager tone, but he waited for the others to leave before he turned to him. "I can find Fergus on my own, you know," he told him. "He’s kind of big and noticeable."
Alistair pointed at a cluster of small houses. "That door," he said.
Aedan observed it carefully and frowned. There was nothing noticeable about it. "What of it?"
"It’s Goldanna’s house," and there was something in Alistair’s eyes that made Aedan uneasy.
"Oh," Aedan went back to look at the door. "We could go now, if you want."
"I- Sure," Alistair said, but from his tone and his whole demeanour he seemed more eager to take a swim in a lake of lava.
He had taken only a few shuffling steps, before Aedan stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Alistair, listen," he said, "whatever happens in there- You have a family already, you said it yourself."
Alistair blinked, then he nodded.
"Shall we go then?"
Alistair hadn’t said anything, apart from the few words they had exchanged outside of his sister’s house. It had almost been an hour now, and Aedan was frankly getting worried. It wasn’t like he could totally blame her, anyway, she had every right from her point of view, but Aedan knew Alistair and he couldn’t figure why anyone would think any of the things she said about about him. That was the problem, though, she didn’t know him.
"Alistair..." he tried, but the man in question marched on towards Arl Eamon’s estate, not even acknowledging Aedan.
Even Fergus seemed to have gathered that it wasn’t time for his usual antics, nor for a game of fetch, and he followed Alistair meekly, as if to keep an eye on him.
When they got inside they found everyone huddling in the hall. Whatever conversation they might have had seemed to have reached a lull just as he, Alistair and Fergus came in. They stopped talking altogether and Aedan found himself studied by six stares.
"Hi?" he tried. "How did the information gathering go?"
"We met a dashing pirate," Kallian deadpanned.
"We thought we might have lost you," Zevran said, grinning.
"We hoped you would have lost that smelly beast," Morrigan said, arching an eyebrow. "And the dog, as well," she added, but Alistair ignored the jab.
"No matter," Kallian said. "It’s just as well you weren’t here with us."
Alistair blinked. "Gee, thanks," he said. "Feeling the love, here."
Kallian glared at him and then pointed at Aedan. "I meant for him," she said. "Well, and us too, I guess since he probably would have caused a mess," at both Alistair and Aedan’s questioning frowns she continued. "Howe was here with Loghain."
Aedan’s whole body went rigid.
"Oh," was Alistair’s only comment.
"And that’s not all," Kallian said. "The Arl wants to see us in his study."
Aedan blinked awake and didn’t recognize his surroundings. He was cold and numb, and very possibly lying on a stone floor. He frowned and tried to sit up but fell back with a groan when a sharp pain in his side made itself known. Instinctively he checked with his hand and it came away wet. He looked down and found he was bleeding. The flow was slow but steady.
The fight had been almost anticlimactic in its swiftness. He couldn’t even remember much of it, the words Howe had spoken, his mind had tuned out every sound and his vision had focussed on nothing else but the murderer of his family. Howe had fallen quickly to one of Leliana’s arrows and Aedan’s own daggers, but not before getting in one of his own blows.
And then he remembered Ser Cauthrien and the soldiers. He was in Fort Drakon.
"Shit," he said, as his head thudded back against the floor.
"Ah, he lives," came Kallian’s voice off his right. "Nice underpants, by the way."
He turned his head as much as he could and saw that she was the only other occupant in their cell. She was also half-naked. "The others?" he managed to groan out.
"Cauthrien let them go. They’re probably mounting a rescue as we speak," she said. "You don’t remember?"
He did as soon as she mentioned it, but his mind felt strange, clouded, and his mouth felt as if he had been eating cotton for the past hour. It could’ve been the blood loss, but Aedan wasn’t so sure. "I think Howe’s blade was poisoned."
He heard Kallian’s sarcastic ‘great’ and then she was suddenly hovering above him. Her features blurry.
"Did I hit my head?"
"No, the guards managed to keep you upright when you passed out," she said.
"Definitely poisoned, then," he grimaced. "Help me sit up."
She didn’t seem to agree, but she helped lean him against the wall anyway. "Yep," she said. "That explains while you’re still bleeding even if they bandaged you."
Aedan looked down to check and only then saw the bandages around his chest. "How nice of them," he said, evenly. "Considering they’ll probably try us for treason and execute us anyway."
"I thought so, too," Kallian said and sat next to him. "They could have left us a blanket, it’s bloody cold in here."
"You can snuggle up to me, if you want," Aedan said. "I promise I’m a gentleman."
Kallian snorted. "The only reason I’d snuggle up to someone is if they weren’t a gentleman."
Aedan’s chuckle turned in a weak coughing fit. "‘Just a small group’ we said. ‘A small stealthy group’." He groaned. "Next time I vote for to hell with stealth and let’s bring a mage with healing spells and someone wearing heavy armour to stand between us and the sharp blades."
Kallian grinned. "You’re actually quite likeable when you’re delirious. How am I not surprised?"
Aedan frowned at her, but his eyes crossed and he closed them to prevent the vertigo from making him puke all over himself. "Why am I suddenly suspi-" he swallowed, "suspicious you’re going to do bad things to me now?"
"I admit I am not above hitting you over the head a few times to make you more bearable. But you can rest assured I’m not going to assault you when you’re bleeding all over the floor."
"That’s- that’s mighty good of you."
"Isn’t it? See, I can be nice too," she said, but her tone was absent-minded and she kept checking every movement in the room outside their cell.
"You think they’ll be here soon?" Aedan asked, quietly.
"Leliana and Zevran likely didn’t even get to finish reporting," she said. "They probably only got to the part where you got wounded and Alistair ran out all sword, shield and righteous anger to rescue his prince in distress."
Aedan frowned. "You got it wrong," he said. "He’s the prince. I’m a teyrn’s son."
Kallian shrugged. "I can never get it right with shemlen fairy tales."
Aedan nodded, accepting her answer and leaned his head back. "I’m going to close my eyes, the spinning room is giving me a headache," he said. "Tell me when he gets here."
"Sure," she said.
Not even a second later the door exploded inwards and Alistair rushed through and cut down the alarmed guard without even a second thought. "Aedan!" he cried out. "I’m here!"
"He’s here," Kallian said.
"Oh. Good," Aedan said, and then he promptly passed out.
Aedan would have liked to say that Alistair’s face was the first thing he saw when he finally regained consciousness, but in truth he woke up with his face smashed up to Fergus’ hairy side. He groaned and spat out the dog fur he had stuck to his lips. Fergus yapped happily and licked a long stripe along his left cheek.
"I love you too buddy," he said, pushing his dog away. "But you smell, I’m sorry there’s no better way to tell you this."
"Aedan!" came the sudden, excited voice and then the bed dipped and Aedan was hugged as if his life depended on it.
"Hey," he said softly and tried to turn his head to get a good look at Alistair. "I wouldn’t-" he started to warn him, but Alistair was already kissing him gently, his hands stroking his face and his neck.
"-do that. Fergus just licked me and-"
"Don’t care," Alistair said and kissed him again and again.
The kisses soon lost their initial gentleness and soon enough there were little bites, and tongues and hands in interesting places got involved as well. At least until Aedan tried to sit up and groaned.
Alistair jumped off of him and went to stand next to the bed so quickly that Aedan almost wondered if he had just imagined their impromptu snogging. "I’m sorry!" Alistair exclaimed, flushing a deep red. "Your wound! Wynne said you were completely fine, we just had to wait for the antidote to take effect, but I should have-"
"You’re babbling. Stop."
"It’s not the wound," Aedan explained. "Just- pins and needles."
"Oh," Alistair blinked. "Well, I guess lying up in bed for a day and a half will do that to you." He shuffled his feet. "Are you- how are you feeling?"
"Well, let’s put it this way. Waking up with a mouthful of dog fur wasn’t stellar," Aedan said, cocking his head with a smirk. "But then you and your frontal assault made an appearance and the day is looking up."
Alistair blushed even redder. "Er, sorry."
"Don’t be," Aedan grinned. He sat up against the headboard and lifted his shirt to check out his wound. There was nothing more noticeable than a thin, pink healing scar. Wynne was a busybody sometimes, but she certainly knew her stuff when it came to healing. "Looks good," he said, observing Alistair from the corner of his eye. "Could you do me a favour?"
Alistair’s head snapped up. "Anything!"
"Could you let Fergus out and then close the door and come back to sit with me for a while?"
"Ah." All of Alistair’s previous boldness seemed to have suddenly left him. "Wynne said I should call her the minute- the second you woke up."
"I’m fine, Alistair," Aedan sighed. "Just- Let the dog out and come back here."
Alistair did as he was told, his movements slow and mechanic as if he were in some kind of trance, until he awkwardly lowered himself to sit next to Aedan. He cleared his throat and played with the hem of his shirt. "So."
Aedan sighed. "So. Did the others tell you what happened?"
Alistair went absolutely still at Aedan’s words, and even if he never replied, that was enough of an answer. "Yes," he said after a long moment.
"I killed him," Aedan said. Then he repeated it louder, "I killed Rendon Howe. I avenged my family."
"You did good."
Aedan nodded. "It’s strange. I thought I’d feel... free. And instead I just feel tired and I can’t- he’s dead. I killed him. They’re dead. They’re all dead." He let his head down and was surprised to find he was actually finally crying.
After a moment Alistair spoke quietly. "They aren’t all dead, you know."
Aedan’s snapped his head up. He swiftly dried his eyes. "What?"
"Fergus is alive," Alistair said. "I mean your brother, not the dog. I mean, obviously the dog is alive too, but-"
"News came while you were unconscious," he said. "He survived Ostagar. He’s wounded and back in Highever, but he’s fine. One of his men arrived yesterday and promised Arl Eamon your brother’s support."
Aedan fell back against his pillows and laughed. "Fergus is alive."
"Yes," Alistair said and he was smiling.
Aedan was finally able to return the smile in full. "This day is definitely looking up."
"Also Kallian got to unleash her anger over some slavers in the Alienage," Alistair continued. "We fought against what I think was Zevran’s ex-boyfriend or possibly just a disgruntled... colleague, killed a group of mercenaries who was out for Grey Wardens’ blood and slayed an ancient evil with too many consonants in its name."
Aedan stared. "Just how long was I out?"
Alistair chuckled and leaned over to kiss him, but Aedan pushed him away after only a few moments. "I don’t think we should-" he started.
Alistair cut him off with a glare. "I don’t care what you and I or anyone else said, Aedan," he said with an underlying anger that surprised Aedan. "The Landsmeet is tomorrow and two days ago you almost died. Arl Eamon wants to make me King, and we still have the Archdemon to fight. That means that whether we survive or not, this is probably the last chance we get to have this."
Aedan’s eyebrows raised steadily all through the tirade and by the end of it he could barely manage to keep a straight face. "Alistair."
"What?" Alistair barked out, angrily.
"I was merely about to point out that I haven’t had a bath in a long time and that my mouth feels like something died in there," he said.
"Oh," Alistair said, quietly. "Then you aren’t-"
"I’m not saying no," Aedan reassured him. "I’m saying ‘later’. After Wynne has had the time to nag at me, after I’ve let the others make fun of me for fainting during your daring rescue and after a long bath, possibly with you."
"Oh, good," Alistair said. "Because, well- Frankly, I tire of being a- a virgin," he gave a little nervous chuckle, his whole face one big, red blush. "And- And I wasn’t going to say anything you know, I don’t want you to take me for some kind of pervert or-"
"What? No, I wouldn’t. It’s only natural."
"After all you go around in that- thing! It’s very distracting, especially during a fight."
Aedan frowned. "Wait. Are you talking about my armour?" he blinked. "It’s light, I wear it for practicality."
Alistair blushed up to the roots of his hair. "I know! It’s just-" he made some vague, aborted gestures with his hands. "You have thighs!"
Aedan gaped incredulously at him for a long moment and then he burst out laughing so hard that he fell sideways on the bed.
Alistair let out an enraged shout. "Stop it! There is nothing funny about it!"
"Thighs!" Aedan gasped. "I have thighs!"
Alistair crossed his arms over his chest and kept glaring at him. "Fine. Be that way, see if I join you in that bath."
There was a chuckle from the direction of the door. "I came to see if you were up," Zevran said. "But oh, how I wish I had arrived in time to hear the beginning of that conversation."
Aedan was still chuckling, and Alistair’s subsiding blush came back full force. He got up stiffly. "I’ll go call Wynne," he announced. Then to Aedan he added, acidly. "Try not to choke on your own tongue while I’m gone," then he glared at Zevran suspiciously. "Or his, for that matter."
With a few snorts, Aedan finally got his laughter under control.
"Thighs, huh?" Zevran said. "I have lots of interesting stories about thighs."
"So now that our precious prince is awake we should discuss business," were the first words out of Kallian’s mouth as soon as they got together after dinner for their Grey Warden meeting. Well, minus Riordan since he had gone out to ‘talk to his sources’.
Aedan rolled his eyes with a sigh. "I keep telling you, he’s the prince."
"And that brings us to the first issue of the evening," Kallian said. "Arl Eamon wants to make you King."
"Thank you, Kallian," Alistair said. "I’m sure I would have forgotten by now if everyone didn’t keep reminding me every two minutes."
Arl Eamon had given them one of the spare rooms as a sort of War Room expressively for their use. It wasn’t very big and it took Aedan only a few paces to measure it in all its length.
Finally, he stopped and turned to face Kallian and Alistair. "I know I said I was in favour when we last spoke with Arl Eamon about this, but- I don’t think making Alistair king is a good idea," he put up a hand to prevent Kallian from interrupting. "And before you say anything, no it’s not because Alistair and I are... involved."
"‘Involved’?" Kallian repeated with a snort. "Oh, yeah. I heard how ‘involved’ you were, I have the room next to yours, you know. I think I’d rather hear the dog bark all night."
"What! No!" Alistair exclaimed, flailing his arms around. "It was the dog’s fault, you see. We were undressing to go to bed and then my trousers went missing and then we found-" Kallian’s eyebrows climbed high on the forehead while Aedan was wildly gesturing for him to just shut the hell up. Alistair seemed to get the hint a moment too late, though. "Right! Anyway. Nothing happened!"
Aedan pinched the bridge of his nose. "Alistair, please shut up," he begged just as Kallian said, "what, is he saving himself for the wedding?"
"Moving on!" Alistair exclaimed.
Aedan cleared his throat. "Right. What I mean is, Alstair is a Grey Warden, he renounced whatever rights he had to the Throne once he joined. Arl Eamon wants him crowned just because he’s Theirin blood, but that’s not going to do any good, since he can’t have children."
"Now don’t faint from the shock, but I changed my mind too," Kallian said. "I agree with you."
"So we’re all agreed on the ‘Alistair isn’t going to be King’ motion," Alistair said, sighing in relief. "And I’d have made a terrible king."
"I think you would have made a good king, actually," Aedan said.
"You really think so?"
Kallian snapped her fingers. "Hey, hey! Guys!" she exclaimed. "Grey Warden meeting right now, mushy feeling and sappy love confessions later."
Aedan made a few kissy faces at Alistair just to annoy her. It had a somewhat mixed effect, though. It annoyed Kallian, who just looked away with a roll of her eyes, but it also confused Alistair who looked at him as if he had grown horns.
Aedan sat back with a sigh. "Anora seems to be on our side as long as we support her staying on the Throne," he pointed out. "And if what she said is true and she was the one actually ruling Ferelden up until now, she’s actually a good Queen."
Kallian grinned. "She’s devious, I like her."
"You would," said Aedan, rolling his eyes. "Still, her father is one big blind spot for her, we should be careful tomorrow at the Landsmeet."
"And that brings us to the second item on the list," Alistair said. "The Landsmeet. What are our chances?"
"While you were sleeping it off Cousland, the rest of us did some actual work," Kallian told him.
Aedan refused to take the bait. "Alistair informed me," he nodded. "Had fun with those slavers?"
Kallian grinned and it wasn’t at all pleasant. In the flickering light of the lanterns and the fireplace, it rather looked as if something feral and dangerous had suddenly taken a elf-shaped form. "Oh, like you wouldn’t believe," she said.
"And Howe was behind that too, apparently," Alistair put in.
Aedan sighed and let his head fall into his hands. "He was my father’s friend," he whispered. "We let him into our house. I don’t understand."
"People are dicks most of the times, what’s there to understand?" Kallian said, matter-of-fact. "Shit happens. We move on."
Aedan snorted. "And we take out our anger on slavers?"
"Sometimes," Kallian nodded. "To get back to the subject at hand... Arl Eamon says that if we play our cards right we might have a chance. That means avoiding making the whole thing personal, despite what feelings we may have on the matter," she finished then, giving both Aedan and Alistair a long look.
"Such as?" Alistair asked, his eyes narrowed to small slits.
"No mentioning Ostagar," she said and at Alistair’s outraged cry she continued before he could interject. "We have to focus on the stuff we have proof of."
"Everyone died at Ostagar! That’s all the proof you need!"
"That’s exactly my point," Kallian said. "Only the three of us remain, and we’ll be seen as biased since we’re all Grey Warden. It would be our word against the Hero of the River Dane. How do you think it’ll go?"
"She’s right," Aedan told him with a sigh.
"Then what do we do?" Alistair exclaimed, shooting up. "He betrayed his people and ours, left them to be slaughtered and we aren’t going to make him pay for that?"
"As I said, we go with proof," Kallian said. "We can prove Howe had dealings with slavers," she sneaked a glance at Aedan. "And we can prove that Howe killed Aedan’s family, very possibly under Loghain’s orders. And if that shouldn’t be enough, Loghain tried to have Arl Eamon poisoned. I received news that Jowan was made Tranquil and since they can’t lie, he’ll be a reliable witness when he testifies receiving the order from Loghain."
"And we have Anora," Aedan added.
There was a long moment of silence, then Alistair sighed. "It seems to be pretty black and white."
"I wouldn’t let down my guard down, though," Kallian said. "Something tells me he’s not going to go quietly."
Alistair shrugged. "It all just seems so... unsatisfying," he said. "All the people who died because of him, and all we can pin on him is having bad taste in friends and trying to kill Arl Eamon."
"If it makes you feel better he’ll probably be tried for treason and executed anyway," Kallian said.
"It’s just- politics," Alistair spat the word as if it were the most insulting thing he had ever heard. "I’d sooner take on an army of Darkspawn."
"You soon will be, if that makes you feel better," Kallian said. "We’ll even throw an Archdemon in to make you happy."
Alistair grimaced. "I feel better already."
As much as Aedan - and he suspected Alistair as well - wished they could skip the Landsmeet, the morning came as mornings usually came. It was sunny and warm, as if Fate or possibly the Maker had quite a nasty sense of humour.
Queen Anora was there to see them out. "I’ll be joining you shortly," she said. "I have to get there unnoticed."
"We’ll see you there then, Your Highness," Aedan said, with a small bow.
"Remember, let Lord Cousland do the talking," Anora said. "They’re more prone to listen to people of noble blood. Not being nobleborn myself, I understand this might be frustrating but we have to win in the Landsmeet by every means necessary. A civil war could shatter us."
"Yes, Your Highness."
"And do not announce Alistair as Cailan’s brother unless it’s strictly necessary," she continued. Then her eyes went to Kallian and they lost some of their steel. "The Landsmeet might not listen to an elf, either," she said and raised a hand before any of them could protest. "Do not mistake my meaning, Warden. I understand your value does not depend on your race, but others may not see it as I do."
Kallian was silent for a long moment, but then she bowed respectfully. "As you said, my Queen," she said, raising her eyes and meeting Anora’s, "we have to win by any means necessary."
"Very good," Anora finally said. "Good luck, Grey Wardens, may the Maker bless you on your venture."
"And you, my Queen," Aedan said.
With a nod to all of them, she left, followed by her faithful maid.
"So this is it," Alistair said.
"Landsmeet, here we come," Kallian said, clapping both of them on the shoulder.
"Woot," Alistair said without much enthusiasm.
Everything went smoothly and according to plan. So much so that Aedan was sure something bad was about to happen, but the Landsmeet was overwhelmingly in their favour and by the time Anora had announced her presence Loghain had started raving about how Cailan had been about to betray Ferelden to Orlais and how the Blight wasn’t the real threat.
Aedan had heard all about the Hero of the River Dane growing up. His parents and his brother had felt nothing but admiration for the man and up until a year ago, Aedan as well would have been honoured to be in the man’s presence, as he had felt the day he had arrived at Ostagar. But now, seeing him like this, destroyed by his own paranoia he wasn’t sure he should have felt hatred or pity.
Aedan took in all the people gathered around them and spoke loudly and more steadily than he actually felt. "This man was a great general and a hero in the war against Orlais, but those days are in the past now. He says his actions were to protect Ferelden from Orlais, but the greatest threat we face today comes from the Blight," he said. "My Lords and Ladies of the Landsmeet I bow to your wisdom and the rule of our Queen Anora as I stand here and I accuse this man of treason and attempted murder of Arl Eamon." He bowed then, as deeply as manners required.
"Nice speech," he heard Kallian’s snide remark. "A little more arse-licking would have been ideal, though."
He ignored her and raised his eyes to gauge Anora’s reaction as it soon became clear that Loghain was going to come out as the losing party. She seemed to have no reaction at all, though, watching impassively as her father railed against the assembled nobles at large.
And then she lowered her head and looked away.
"The Landsmeet is against you Loghain, step down peacefully," Aedan said with all the gentleness he could muster up.
Loghain looked straight at Aedan with a frown that was more of a glare, but he deflated after only a moment. "Then let us end this," he said. "I suppose we both knew it would come to this. When we first met at Ostagar, I would have never thought so. But Ostagar seemed like it happened in another lifetime, to someone else."
Aedan swallowed hard, but the words didn’t seem to come. He looked back to Alistair, who seemed barely able to keep his anger in check, and then Kallian who held his gaze silently, something unreadable in her eyes.
Surprisingly Loghain submitted to the terms of the Landsmeet regarding the duel. Or maybe not so surprisingly, when the alternatives were dying a traitor or dying in a duel with his honour intact, Aedan knew what he would have chosen himself.
"Alistair," Aedan said. "It’s your fight."
And then Kallian stepped up and it all went to hell. She spoke loudly and clearly in the silence of the Landsmeet. "I hereby invoke the Right of Conscription."
It felt as if all the air in the room had been sucked out and everything and everyone went utterly still and perfectly silent. Then between one moment and the next the room exploded in a cacophony of shocked and angry shouts, cries and Alistair was shouting and Aedan was staring at Kallian and he didn’t understand. Couldn’t.
Through it all Anora remained calm, as if she had known.
Aedan grabbed Kallian’s arm and turned her to face him. "You had planned this!" he gritted out. "You had this in mind all along!"
"Lords and Ladies of Ferelden! Please!" Anora said loudly. "My father is one of our best generals and a hero," she said. "His crime was great, but it was done out of love for his country and its people. Let him atone by becoming a Grey Warden so he can pay his debt in full."
Riordan emerged from the crowd and joined them at Kallian’s side. "Let him be of use. Let him go through the Joining.," he said, addressing Aedan and Alistair. "There are four of us in all of Ferelden and there are... compelling reasons to have as many Wardens on hand as possible to deal with the Archdemon."
"Absolutely not!" Alistair roared. "Riordan, this man abandoned our brothers and then blamed us for the deed. He hunted us down like animals, he tortured you! How can we simply forget that? Joining the Wardens is an honour, not a punishment!"
"The Joining itself is often fatal, is it not?" Anora said. "If he survives you gain a general, if not, you have your revenge."
Aedan turned to her. "And just how do you know that, Your Highness?" he asked. "The ritual is only revealed to Grey Warden recruits."
"I told her that," Kallian said, looking straight into his eyes. "When I decided we should conscript her father into our ranks."
Aedan gaped at her. "We almost never agreed on anything," he said when he finally found his voice, "but I respected your opinion and the sense that guided your choices. It seemed I was wrong."
She snorted and pushed him away with a sneer. "I am deeply sorry I have offended your morals, My Lord Cousland," she said. "It’s so easy to judge when you never have to make the hard decisions, isn’t it?"
"No! No!" Alistair rushed up, and only Aedan’s reflexes made it possible to grab his wrist as he went for the sword. "I understand that anything has to be done to end a Blight, but this is- this is immoral! I had hoped we could rebuild the Order after this Blight was over, but I’m not going to call a treacherous bastard like him my brother!"
"Alistair!" Aedan tugged him a few steps backwards with one hand getting a firmer grip on Alistair’s sword arm, while his other arm had sneaked around his chest to immobilize him as well as he could.
"I can’t- I won’t stand for this!"
"Alistair!" Aedan hissed into his ear. "Calm down, I have an idea." Alistair instantly went slack and stopped resisting, his hand letting go of the hilt of his sword. "You were the one closest to Duncan, and Cailan was your brother," he whispered. "Your honour demands it. I’m sure the Landsmeet will see your reason."
When Alistair didn’t say or do anything after a few moments, Aedan slowly released him and looked up at him.
Alistair was staring him with his eyes wide. "Are you serious?"
Aedan gave him a long look. "If you’re sure," he said. "I cannot promise you’ll feel better after. What he did cannot be undone."
Alistair nodded. "I understand."
"What did you tell him?" Kallian asked. "What the hell did you tell him?"
In lieu of an answer, Aedan backed away and Alistair advanced towards Loghain until they were about three paces apart. "Loghain Mac Tir," he said. "Your actions caused the death of my brothers and a man I greatly respected, as well as the death of my brother in blood, King Cailan Theirin." There were a few gasps and a stir of unrest at Alistair’s revelations. "You said you’d be willing to end this now. I am here, Loghain. Let’s end this."
"No, you idiot!" Kallian tried stepping between the two of them, but Aedan stopped her before he could reach them.
"It’s his right," he told her.
"That doesn’t mean he’s not a bloody idiot! As you are!" she pushed him away. "Good, fight like children with sticks over people who are already dead while you lose sight of the bigger picture. See if I care." She elbowed past him and disappeared into the crowd.
"I beg you," Riordan said, his eyes going from Alistair to Aedan and back again. "Please consider the option of having Loghain join us."
"No," Alistair said, drawing his sword. "Let us fight, Loghain."
Loghain had the benefit of experience over Alistair, but Alistair fought with a focus and a quiet, terrible calm Aedan had never seen in him. Everything that had happened in the past year had been leading up to this and now that it was happening, Aedan knew that it was going to be over in just a matter of seconds.
Loghain pushed back against Alistair with his shield, unbalancing him and almost sending him crashing to the ground, but Alistair held on. He shifted most of his weight on his left leg and gave himself a boost with his right, his sword arm sprang forward and aimed for the only vulnerable spot left in Loghain’s guard. Alistair’s blade sank in the flesh just above the hip, between the junctures of the armour and went deep.
It was a killing stroke.
Loghain fell back, clattering to the floor; he lost his sword and remained lying and gasping in the growing pool of his own blood. Alistair remained still, standing over him. Around them the Landsmeet was silent.
Aedan waited only a couple of seconds before reaching his side. "It’s over," he whispered, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Come."
Alistair nodded, came away with him and that seemed to broke the spell. There was a clamour of voices, and Anora rushed forward to her father’s side.
"I hope your honour is satisfied now, Warden," she said, her voice cracking only slightly at the end. There wasn’t contempt in her words, though. She was the daughter of a warrior and a true warrior herself as well as a politician. Aedan figured she thought this was a fitting end for Loghain Mac Tir.
She stroke her father’s brow with a gentleness that made Aedan avert his eyes until Loghain’s gasps became softer and far in between, until there were none more and it was over.
Only giving herself a moment to take a deep breath, Queen Anora rose to her feet. "And now, Lords and Ladies of Ferelden," she said, her voice strong and carrying over in the halls of the Royal Palace, "there is still a Blight to defeat and armies to gather, the Grey Wardens will lead us to victory. We will not allow this land to be further threatened by the Archdemon. Gather your forces and await their command."
She turned to look at Aedan and Alistair for a moment, then she took in the crowd gathered for the Landsmeet. "On the morrow, we shall begin our struggle against the greatest threat Ferelden has ever faced. And we shall triumph over it, for we are Fereldan!"
Aedan and Alistair left, followed out by the sound of cheering.
When they got outside, Kallian was nowhere to be found.
They didn’t see her for a couple days and Aedan thought she had disappeared altogether, but when Riordan called them to his room on the eve of the battle, there she was just outside of his room as if she had never left.
"Kallian-" Alistair started.
"Spare me," she spat. "I don’t want to talk about it."
Aedan looked between the two of them, trying to decide if getting between the glares they were aiming at each other would be detrimental to his health. In the end he went for his favourite tactic: ignoring the issue. "Do you know why Riordan asked to-"
She cut him off. "Actually, no," she said. "Let’s talk about it!"
Alistair crossed his arms over his chest. "Very well. Go on."
"Oh, no!" she barked out a laugh. "You do not get to judge me. Loghain was misguided. In his eyes we were nothing more than a mythical order who said we were the only hope of ending a mythical calamity, he thought he was protecting his country," she suddenly turned to look at Aedan, acknowledging him for the first time since they had arrived. "I know you thought so yourself, Cousland."
"It’s true, I did," Aedan said, sending an apologetic glance at Alistair. When he was about to protest, Aedan hastily continued. "That doesn’t mean, however, that he shouldn’t have paid for his crimes. That doesn’t mean you should have tried to invoke the Right of Conscription."
Kallian shook her head in disbelief. "You don’t get it, do you?" she said.
Aedan exchanged a confused glance with Alistair, before going back to look at her. "What?"
"What do you think would have happened had he become a Grey Warden?" she said. "He would have seen he was wrong! He would have understood the reason of our existence and the truth of our sacrifice! What do you think would have been the proper punishment? Dying in a duel thinking he was a misunderstood hero, or living with the burden of having slaughtered hundreds of men for nothing weighing down on his shoulders?"
Aedan swallowed. "When you put it like that..."
"You and Alistair spoke of honour, when all you did was vengeance," she spat. "I was speaking of justice!"
"Kallian, I- we-" Aedan lowered his head, not sure what he was trying to say. He probably should have apologized, but it wouldn’t have been honest, and even if it were, Kallian wasn’t the type to accept apologies.
He was saved by Riordan’s door opening and the man himself poking his head out. "I thought I heard yelling," he said with a smirk. "Come inside, we need to talk."
Twenty minutes later they were once again outside in the hallway, in awkward silence, waiting for one of them to speak the uncomfortable thought they all were thinking.
In the end, Aedan shouldn’t have been surprised it was Kallian.
"So," she said. "Making Loghain a Grey Warden. Bad idea, right?"
She snorted and left, muttering what Aedan was sure were curses and their names.
"I-" Alistair started after a long moment, then he stopped and looked down at his feet. He swallowed audibly. "And suddenly this has very possibly become our last night together, huh?"
"I have to get something from my room," Aedan said. "You go on, I’ll be with you shortly."
"I- sure," Alistair said, but he remained standing there, his eyes wide.
Aedan leaned over and kissed him softly. "Go," he said and watched as he finally turned and walked away. He stared at his retreating back until he went around the corner, and then Aedan made for his own room.
When he was at his door, he leaned his forehead against it, took a deep breath and finally allowed himself to understand the meaning of what Riordan had told them. The Grey Warden who killed the Archdemon died, and while Riordan had offered himself as the one to deal the final stroke, there were so many things that could go wrong.
Suddenly he understood the ‘compelling reasons’ Riordan had to make Loghain a Grey Warden, despite the betrayal and the torture.
There really weren’t any perks to being a Grey Warden, but then again no one had ever said anything about perks. All Aedan had learned of them from the history books - before meeting Duncan and then the others at Ostagar - was the honour; how honourable they were and the almost reverential respect they used to inspire all those centuries ago.
No wonder they had to institute the Right of Conscription.
Alistair’s words echoed terrible like a prophecy. Their last night together.
He finally mustered enough courage to turn the handle and open the door. As soon as he got in he was thrown off the dark path his thoughts were taking by the unexpected presence in his room.
"Morrigan," Aedan said, but it sounded more like a question.
"Aedan," she greeted him in return. "I have a proposition for you."
As soon as Morrigan had left, he couldn’t get out and run to Alistair’s room fast enough. When he got there, Alistair wasn’t in, the only company his room could offer was the cheerful cracking of the fire.
Aedan took off his armour and clad only in his breeches and undershirt he crawled under the covers for warmth. He settled in and waited for Alistair to come back.
He realised he had fallen asleep only when he was being shaken awake. He blinked and stared up at Alistair’s frowning face. He rubbed his eyes and sat up, making room for Alistair. "Hey," he croaked, his voice still heavy with sleep.
"Hey," Alistair twisted his lips in a pale imitation of a smile. "Have you been waiting long?"
"I don’t know, I fell asleep."
"I was maybe an hour," Alistair said. He blushed slightly and looked away.
Aedan frowned. "What took you so long?"
Alistair’s blush intensified. "I- Er, I took a bath," he said, then. His hair were still wet, now that Aedan noticed.
"I took a very long bath."
Aedan chuckled. "Nervous?" he asked with a grin, but when Alistair looked away. "If you don’t want, we can..." he trailed off when Alistair shook his head vigorously.
Alistair shook his head hastily. "You’ve had the patience of a saint with me," he said. "It wouldn’t be fair to you."
Aedan sighed and fell back against his pillows. He threw his arm over his eyes. "At the risk of sounding corny," he said, "if you don’t want, we don’t have to have sex because it wouldn’t be fair to me."
His arm was moved out of the way and then Alistair kissed him softly, almost tentatively. Like all their kisses lately, though, it turned desperate and left them panting pretty quickly. He bit Alistair’s lower lip and dragged him down, until he all but fell down on him.
Lying like that, it soon became obvious that they both were definitely excited and willing.
"Ah," Alistair said, the blushing coming back at full force. "This is awkward."
"First times usually are," Aedan informed him. "Don’t let anyone else tell you any different."
"About that, I-" Alistair looked away and swallowed. He drew up on his arms so that now he was hovering over Aedan, their legs still tangled together.
Aedan frowned. "Alistair?"
"Nothing," Alistair shook his head with something in his self-deprecating smile that Aedan didn’t quite understand. "You know what else they say?" he said then, his voice taking the light tone Aedan recognized as the one when Alistair was about to say something he knew was foolish.
"What do they say?" he asked, smiling.
"Better to have loved and lost-"
"If you finish that sentence, I’ll have to punch you."
"-than never to have never lo- Ow!"
Aedan’s punch to his shoulder was light, but it made Alistair lose his balance and fall back down on him. Alistair made a big show of massaging his shoulder and moaning pitifully.
"You big baby," Aedan snorted. "I saw you get almost chewed by a dragon and a punch from silly little me drops you, how the mighty have fallen."
Alistair dropped his act and Aedan found himself suddenly subjected to one of those intense looks of his. "Alistair."
"I’m just-" he shook his head. "We both could die tomorrow, and I love you."
Aedan swallowed and was about to answer in kind, but he was silenced by a kiss.
When he drew back, Alistair continued. "I want to have sex with you. The man I love. Because I love you." Aedan raised his eyebrows and chuckled. "Yes, I know. Babbling. But I love you and you are sexy. And you have thighs."
This time Aedan flat out laughed. He cast his voice in a conspiratory whisper, "I’ll tell you a secret, Alistair."
"Come closer," Alistair did and Aedan took the opportunity to kiss him. "You have thighs, too."
The battle before the gates was pure and unadulterated chaos.
Aedan had fought Darkspawn for the whole past year in various places and situations. He had fought them in the Deep Roads and out in the fields, he had fought them outnumbered, while wounded, at day, at night. This battle shouldn’t have been that different then, but looking at Denerim now, burning all around him and lying open like a gutted animal, Aedan realized they weren’t just fighting Darkspawn.
They were at war.
He watched helplessly as his friends and the soldiers chased around the straggles of Darkspawn that had managed to slip past the barricades. He had lost sight of Alistair a couple of times, and he hadn’t noticed he had been searching the faces with his heart in his throat until he always spotted him a few moments later.
Alistair always looked back at him and smiled, the same smile he had smiled last night and that morning.
And then Aedan spotted her.
He forgot his worries for a moment and ran to her, slashing through anything that wasn’t man or woman anymore on his way. He lost sight of her, when she was surrounded and seemed to be swallowed by the horde.
It was only a few seconds, though, there was an explosion and the Darkspawn fell down dead and dying, still burning from the fireball.
"Morrigan!" he called out.
She turned sharply towards him. "Aedan," she said, as if she wasn’t at all preoccupied with the battle raging around them.
He stared at her. "I thought you said you were leaving."
Morrigan laughed and aimed a lightning bolt at a snarling hurlock that was charging towards them. It felt over with a sizzle and the disgusting smell of burnt flesh. "I do not have to explain myself to fools like you," she said.
"I explained why-"
"I did not care then," she said, raising one elegant eyebrows in disdain. "Why do you think I would care now?"
"But-" Aedan was interrupted by the cheering and turned to see that all the Darkspawn had been killed and that everyone was gathering together.
"The Archdemon has been sighted circling around Fort Drakon," Kallian was telling the others as he and Morrigan reached them. "And the Darkspawn army is just outside this gates. We’ll split into two groups," she pointed at Alistair and Aedan. "We’ll have to move swiftly and reach the fort as soon as possible so one group will have to be small and composed of us Grey Wardens and possibly just another person. All the others stay here and protect this gates with all you have."
"I’ll come with you," Wynne said, stepping forward at once. "I expect you’ll encounter many enemies on your way to Fort Drakon, my spells will be useful."
Kallian shook her head. "They’ll be more useful here. We’ll take Morrigan with us," before Wynne could protest, she continued. "She knows enough healing magic to do Wynne’s part and she has more offensive spells. As I said, we need to be quick, and that means killing everything in our path as fast as possible."
Aedan shot Morrigan a sideways look. It was possible that she had reached an accord with Kallian, they had never seemed to be close, but they both appreciated practicality over morality. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Morrigan had gone to her after Aedan’s refusal and that together they had managed to convince Riordan.
He shuddered at the thought of those two conspiring together. Aedan would have probably agreed out of sheer terror.
He nodded at Kallian. "Then it’s decided," he said. "Maker be with you."
"And with you, Wardens," Wynne replied.
Their mutual goodbyes were quick as the situation warranted, but as Aedan made to follow Kallian, he was stopped by Alistair’s hand on his arm.
"I love you," he said, with such an air of finality that it broke Aedan’s heart. "I wish you could stay here out of harm’s way, but Kallian was right, we need all the Grey Wardens up there."
"How is staying here to fight off a horde being out of harm way?" Aedan asked with only a small smile to lessen the sharpness of his words. "And don’t you think I’d wish the same for you?"
"Then we’re doomed to fight together till the end," Alistair said, smiling himself.
"It seems so," Aedan nodded.
They stood for a moment and then they both moved forward so their mouths could meet in a short kiss. "I love you, too," Aedan said. "Let’s go fight an Archdemon."
Alistair laughed. "That’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard."
They were almost to the fort when they all saw Riordan fall.
Maybe Morrigan had done her ritual with him, maybe it would work. But maybe she hadn’t and was here out of loyalty, despite herself; or maybe the ritual wouldn’t work anyway. He couldn’t stake all of his hopes on maybes.
Aedan looked at Alistair and knew what he had to do, what he had always known ever since Riordan had told them the truth the night before.
His sudden clarity and calm as his fate crystallized in his mind almost surprised him, and when Alistair met his stare a moment later, Aedan hoped he wouldn’t be able to read anything in his eyes.
He looked back at the bridge that had crumbled almost under their feet.
Their fate was sealed and the only way was forward.
Aedan woke slowly.
He was aching all over as if he had taken a nasty fall, but he was alive and whole and nothing seemed to be broke. His first thought was that he had been dreaming all along, that he was back home in Highever and his brother Fergus was going to burst through the door berating him for falling from his horse like an idiot or something like that.
Staring up at the ceiling, however, he realized the room was the one he had been assigned in Arl Eamon’s estate in Denerim. So it hadn’t been a dream. Why wasn’t he dead then? Maybe it had been a dream, only one induced by Howe’s poison.
He didn’t dare hope that Riordan had indeed agreed to the ritual, and that it had actually worked.
"Well, this is familiar," he croaked out, at once grimacing at the sound of his own voice. His throat felt as if he had swallowed sand without chasing it down with anything to drink. "And unexpected."
A whine came from his right and turning his head slightly, Aedan saw that Fergus was curled on the floor next to the night-table and was now looking at him.
"Shouldn’t I be dead?" he asked him.
"I should punch you, you know," came Alistair’s voice from his left, startling Aedan.
"Alistair," Aedan sat up ignoring his aching muscles and faced him. "You’re here. What happened?"
Alistair went on as if he hadn’t even heard. "And not a punch like you the one gave me," he said. "A real punch." His face was one big, dark frown.
"You’re angry," Aedan said, carefully.
"No, Aedan," Alistair spat. "I’m overjoyed, can’t you see?"
"Fine. So you’re furious," Aedan amended. "What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t let you die!"
"And of course you thought I would have stood by quietly while you went at a huge dragon with a sword all by yourself."
"No," Aedan said slowly. "That would be the reason for the punching."
Alistair snorted. "Right. Of course."
"Look, I’m alive, you’re alive, and since we’re not overrun with Darkspawn that means the Archdemon is..." he trailed off, a sudden suspicion taking shape in his mind. "Kallian isn’t dead, is she?"
"No, she’s fine," Alistair replied. "She called you stupid."
"How is that news?"
"I agreed with her this time."
"No. You listen to me," Alistair interrupted him. "I told you how everyone coddled me and tried to ‘shelter me from harm’ because I was King Maric’s son, I told you. You said you understood and then you went and did the exact same thing everyone did!"
"I wasn’t trying to protect you because you were Maric’s son!" Aedan protested. "You would have died!"
"And you’re immune to death, aren’t you?"
"Well, I am alive, aren’t I?" Aedan shot back and realized in the same moment it was the worst possible thing he could have said.
Alistair’s fury seemed about to explode in a sensational burst of violence, but at the very last moment he deflated with a sigh and seemed to fold onto himself. "There’s something I need to tell you," he said, and that tone of voice couple with the sudden change of his body language suggested Aedan really wouldn’t like what he was about to say. "I would have told you earlier, but someone punched me before I could get a word in."
"Yes, yes," Alistair waved his words away. "You wanted to save me, but guess what, I was the one to actually save you."
Aedan frowned and went over the words trying to discern a meaning he couldn’t find. "I don’t understand."
"Last night, before we..." he trailed off. "Anyway, before. Morrigan’s ritual."
"Alistair, what the-"
"I said yes, Aedan," Alistair met his eyes straight on, there was no doubt in them. "And I wanted to tell you last night, but I was- ashamed. And what if it hadn’t worked anyway? But when the time actually came to kill the Archdemon, I had to tell you, but nooo," he snorted. "Stand aside Alistair, let me sacrifice my noble arse for the sake of Ferelden. Oh by the way, you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life crying over my grave. My magnificent and opulent grave of course, I did mention I’m about to nobly sacrifice myself for the sake of Ferelden, didn’t I? Sucks to be you."
Aedan stared at him, his mouth working in vain to form a reply to the words Alistair had just said that had to be some kind of twisted, terrible joke. "You performed the ritual? I thought maybe she’d go to Riordan, but not- Why?"
"The question is, why didn’t you?"
"Oh, I don’t know!" Aedan laughed, more out of shock than anything else. "From the top of my head: sex with Morrigan, sex with a woman, sex with someone who wasn’t you and, oh,yeah, siring a creature possibly even more dangerous than an Archdemon!"
Alistair frowned and muttered what sounded like ‘siring’ to himself before shaking his head and addressing Aedan again. "Look, don’t think I enjoyed it. Far from that. My first time ever was with Morrigan! I want you to think long and hard about that. They say the first time is always special, and let me tell you, that was special alright," he said. "But you know what? The alternative, losing you, was even worse. What choices did I have? Your plan was to punch me so you could run off to kill yourself!"
"What if the child is a monster, an abomination?" Aedan would have shouted, if his throat had been up to it. "Something even worse than Darkspawn?"
"Hey now! That’s my baby you’re talking about!" Alistair frowned. "And anyway, if there’s any kind of deformity or, or strange stuff going on with him or her I’m sure it’ll be Morrigan’s fault." He shrugged. "Of course if that should happen, she’s going to blame my part of the family even though she is the one who shapeshifts in all kinds of animals and whose mother was a dragon."
"So am I!" Alistair exclaimed, stunning Aedan into silence with his vehemence. "What was I supposed to do?" Alistair repeated, but this time his voice was low and it cracked. Aedan suddenly realized he was trying very hard not to cry. "Kallian came to me and said that Morrigan had another way to do things and that you had refused, that I was your last chance at saving both our lives. Of course, at the time I didn’t know Riordan was going to... and anyway, it wasn’t even certain we’d get to the Archdemon alive, but it was one more chance to add to only one we had." He shook his head and Aedan looked away to give him the time to dry his eyes. After a moment, he cleared his throat and continued, but Aedan didn’t have the the courage to look at him in the eyes. "Morrigan promised me she’d fight at our side and that she’d do everything in her power short of dying herself to ensure all the Grey Wardens would survive. All of us. And I wanted the three of us to survive, but most of all I wanted both of us to survive. So I told her yes." he chuckled a little hollowly. "I’m telling you, the look on her face? Priceless."
Aedan nodded numbly and looked down at his hands clenched into fists. His own eyes burned and he pushed hard against his eyelids with his thumb and forefinger until his vision was nothing but bright spots and the urge to cry was gone.
"I... I understand if you want me to go," Alistair said, "I’ll just-"
"Come here, you idiot," Aedan said finally, patting the mattress next to him. Alistair looked at him as if Aedan would have stabbed him in the back, should he have complied to his request. "Alistair, come here. I won’t bite."
Alistair finally sat down, but he was still looking at Aedan as if he expected to be yelled out of the room. Aedan raised his hand slowly and laid it at Alistair’s eyebrow, his fingers barely touching the fine hair, until they fluttered down in a light caress.
"Alistair," he breathed, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. "I’m glad you’re alive," he said. "I’m glad to be alive."
"Me too," Alistair said.
They kissed, but before it could turn into something more Alistair pushed him away. He smiled, somewhat sheepish. "This isn’t probably the best moment to mention this, but all the others are outside waiting for their turns to tell you how big an idiot you are," Aedan groaned and let his head fall against Alistair’s shoulder. "And to tell you how glad they are you’re alive," Alistair continued, his voice softer.
"Can’t I pretend to be still out cold and ignore them for another couple of days?"
"Huh-uh," Alistair shook his head. "You realise they stuck their ears to the door as soon as they heard me shouting, don’t you?"
Aedan looked around the room. "We could tie the bedsheets together and escape through the window."
"And what of poor Fergus?" Alistair pointed out.
Hearing his name, Fergus perked his ears up and whined. "Oh, shut up you," Aedan glared. "Fine. Let them in."
"Careful," Alistair teased softly. "One might think you’re not so glad to be alive."
Aedan looked up sharply. "No, that’s not-"
"Hey! Teasing!" Alistair raised his hands, chuckling. "Are you sure you’re up to it?"
"Better to deal with it quickly," Aedan said. "Too bad there’s no alcohol at hand."
"Well, there will be as soon as Oghren walks in through that door," Alistair frowned. "Or I guess you could just breathe deeply near him, I’m sure the fumes will be enough to get you drunk."
Aedan grinned. "Just- don’t go," he said. "I might need some cheering up after they’re gone."
"Oh, you’re a right charmer, you are," Alistair rolled his eyes, but he was grinning. "It’s nice to feel appreciated."
"Shut up and let them him before I change my mind."
"As you wish, My Lord," said Alistair as he got up, topping the solemn tone with a deep bow.
Aedan threw him a pillow, but Alistair dodged it easily. "You’re a smartass, My Prince."
The following days were a blur of cheering and slaps on the back everywhere he went. Still, from what Alistair had told him, Aedan had ended up with the best part of the deal. He and Kallian had got a parade, Alistair had confessed with wide eyes and the hushed tone most people used to tell scary stories by the light of campfires. Aedan had laughed and laughed and then he had laughed some more at Alistair’s outraged expression.
Queen Anora had made an appearance as well, congratulating him between a meeting with the nobles and a speech to the citizens of Denerim to reassure them that the rebuilding would begin as soon as everyone was done celebrating. She had been gracious, despite the fact that he had played a part in her father’s death, and she had seemed genuinely glad that he was alive.
And now, three days after he had woken up, and four after the Archdemon had been defeated, he was finally able to spend some time alone in his room. He let himself fall back on his bed, bouncing on the mattress. He threw his arms wide and closed his eyes with a sigh.
Now if only Alistair were there with him.
The door burst open and Alistair rushed in, hastily slamming it behind him after a cursory glance up and down the corridor.
Aedan drew up on his arms. "Oh, hey," he said, blinking. Then he looked up at the ceiling, "if only I had a hundred gold pieces. And some chocolate pudding."
Quite predictably, nothing happened. When Aedan looked back to Alistair he was frowning at him. "Don’t mind me," he said with a shrug. "I was just testing out a theory."
"I... don’t know what that means," Alistair said, then he seemed to suddenly remember something and he glared and pointed accusingly at Aedan. "What. The. Hell."
Aedan frowned. "What have I done now?"
Alistair dragged a chair over to the door and sat down. "As of this morning, Kallian is the new Commander of the Grey in Ferelden," he said, slapping his hands down on his thighs.
"I heard," Aedan replied, vaguely. Suddenly the curtains seemed very interesting. The stark contrast between the gold embroidery and the deep red of the brocade was a bold and unsubtle choice.
"You heard," Alistair repeated, nodding to himself. He shrugged. "Naturally I thought I surely must have been ill-informed. So I requested an audience with our Queen. She had me wait the whole morning, much to her amusement I bet, and when I finally got to ask what the hell was she thinking-"
"I hope you didn’t phrase it that way."
"-she told me she and the Wardens from Orlais had offered you the position, but that you refused. Please, please, please. Tell me she was just- I don’t know! Messing with me."
Aedan grabbed a pillow and attempted to smother himself with it. "She wasn’t messing with you," he muttered.
"Excuse me? I thought you just said she wasn’t messing with me, but I must have misheard."
Aedan sighed and sat up. "Can we please stop having fights about important matters while I’m lying here and you’re over there?" he asked. "I swear if I happen to be Arl Eamon’s guest here in Denerim again, I’m going to ask for a different room."
"No, I’m angry at you right now," Alistair said, as if that explained everything.
Aedan pouted as much as a man of his age and status could get away without losing too much of his dignity.
"Well, fine. I’m mostly confused," Alistair amended, "but I’m angry as well."
"My mother used to say that you should never have to go to bed angry," Aedan told him. "Especially if the one you’re sharing it with is the same person you’re angry at."
Alistair looked at him as if he had suddenly started speaking Qunari. "You realize that if I come over there now, I’ll be going to bed angry at the person I’m sleeping with," he said. "Look at me, being the logical one. The world must be going mad."
"Then don’t be angry."
Alistair sighed and came over anyway. He settled to lie on Aedan’s left side, his head propped up on his right hand while his left arm sneaked around Aedan’s waist in a loose embrace.
"Can I just be confused, then?" he asked, after a moment.
Aedan put his own arm around Alistair and turned on his side so he could face him. He stroked his lips, his chin.
"Do not attempt to distract me with your wiles, Cousland," Alistair said, but the glare was more for pretense than anything else.
"Remember one of the first things you told me about the Grey Wardens?" Aedan asked. "We do whatever is necessary to ensure we end the Blight. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like, sometimes we have to do things we know are bad in the now, but that will be good in the long run."
"And Kallian is all about the necessary evil and the means to an end," Alistair said. "Is that your point?"
"No, I-" he sighed. "I don’t like her, that’s true. We all know that."
"That’s good, acknowledging your feelings," Alistair nodded.
Aedan poked him in the ribs. "Shut up," he growled. "My point is, I never really thought she made bad decisions. Most of the times I didn’t agree with her, but it’s true that her way of dealing with the dwarfs was probably the best. Sure, Bhelen is a ruthless man and he probably killed all the people who stood between him and the Throne, but Harrowmonth had no guts to speak of and right now the dwarfs need a strong king. And what she said about Loghain..." he sighed. "What he did was inexcusable and he had to pay, but I’m wondering if we didn’t offer him the easy way out."
Alistair frowned. "Are you saying-"
"What I’m saying is, I stand by my choices," Aedan interrupted him. "They might have been dictated by selfishness and the idealism of a foolish eighteen year old teyrn son who had never left the safety of his own home before, but..." he sighed. "How could I let the man who left Duncan and our king to die become a Grey Warden and very possibly save all of us and be remembered as a hero? Even if I felt duty and the greater good demanded it, I wasn’t prepared to make those choices... I- I’m not that strong. I’m not Warden Commander material."
"Maybe, but you can’t just-"
"You don’t understand," Aedan shook his head. After a moment, when he was sure he had all of Alistair’s attention, he went on, softly. "I hated him at first, you know?"
Alistair frowned at the non-sequitur. "Who?"
"Duncan," Aedan said. "There I was, with my home and everything and everyone I had ever loved coming apart around me, and my father dying in a pool of his own blood and he had the nerve-" he choked around the words and took a couple of deep breaths until he was sure he could go on without his voice cracking. "I agreed to go with him if he helped me and my mother carry my father to safety. He promised and then he left them to die. In that moment, I- you cannot even begin to imagine how much I hated him."
"But- he was right you know? My father would have slowed us down, and then we would have been trapped and Howe’s soldiers would have killed all of us. I know that now, and I probably knew it back then, I just didn’t want to accept it," he said. "If I had been in Duncan’s place, I’d be dead. But Kallian isn’t like me, she would have done the same thing as Duncan. She understands difficult choices, she knows she has to live with the consequences, but she still does what she knows is best. I could never be that brave or objective. We have to rebuild the Order and I’ll gladly follow her lead as my Warden Commander."
Alistair was silent a long time. "You’ll follow her," he repeated, unconvinced. "Just like that?"
"Well, because of all the things I just said, yes," Aedan said. After a moment he caved under Alistair’s skeptical look. "Yes, fine. And because I want to keep an eye on her, she makes mistakes too. And I don’t trust her when it comes to you." Alistair grinned. "What?"
"You’re still jealous!" Alistair exclaimed gleefully.
"You so are," Alistair said, his hand at Aedan’s waist slowly making its way under his shirt. "And you’re so cute. All jealous. And protective."
"Now who is distracting whom with their wiles?"
Openly groping him under his clothes now, Alistair just pushed the shirt up out of his way and proceeded to kiss every inch of skin he uncovered. "I still," kiss, "mantain," kiss, "that this," kiss, "could be constituted as you distracting me," he concluded as he took off his shirt and landed the next kiss on Aedan’s mouth.
Aedan chuckled. "Careful, my head is going to swell with all these praises," he said, dragging Alistair back on top of him and setting onto taking off his shirt next. "You might end up convincing me I’m irresistible, and then where would we be?"
"I don’t know," Alistair shrugged. "I was kind of counting on your head swelling," he said, and then added with barely a blush colouring his cheeks. "Not the one on your shoulders, I mean."
Aedan gaped at him wide-eyed. "Maker forgive me," he whispered. "I’ve created a monster."
This time Alistair blushed a deeper red. "Hey, I’m allowed to make dirty double-entendres now," he protested. "I’m not a virgin anymore."
Aedan frowned at him. "You mean all that talking about licking lampposts was just a poor worded metaphor?" Alistair pinched one of his nipples in retaliation. "Ow!"
"I will admit to nothing," Alistair said. "Even under torture."
"Fine, Alistair," Aedan sighed dramatically. "You’re allowed to make dirty double-entendres, as long as you warn a guy first."
"Good," Alistair nodded, his hands slipped between Aedan’s back and the bed and they stroked downwards until they stopped just above the hem of his breeches. "I never thought I’d say this, but can we please stop talking and get to the sex now? It’s been almost a day and a half already."
Aedan chuckled and raised his hips off the bed to allow Alistair to finish undressing him. "A monster," he muttered against Alistair’s lips as they curved above his in a small smile. The consequent slap on his ass startled him into laughing out loud. "A kinky monster at that."
"Don’t pretend you didn’t-"
Alistair was interrupted by someone knocking at the door. They exchanged an incredulous glance and then turned to stare at the door expectantly.
The knocking resumed.
"Maybe they’ll think no one is in and they’ll go," Alistair whispered.
"Cousland! Open up!" came Kallian’s voice as if on cue. "I know you’re in there!"
They both groaned out loud.
"What was that?" Kallian shouted from the door.
"Just a moment!" Aedan shouted back.
"What do we do?" Alistair whispered, urgently.
"You do whatever you want," Aedan said, "I’ll just try and kill myself with the pillows." He grabbed his previously discarded pillow and tried once again to smother himself to death.
Alistair batted his hands and the pillow away. "Aedan!"
Aedan sighed. "You go open the door."
"Why do I have to go? It’s your door!" Alistair whispered.
"Because I have to put my shirt back on and try and look as if I wasn’t about to get ravished just a moment ago!" Aedan hissed back.
"But, but-" Alistair sputtered and pointed at his own personal... ‘situation’ in his breeches.
"Just take your shirt out of your trousers or something!"
"I’m kicking down this door in three seconds!"
Alistair flailed a little but Aedan finally managed to push and kick him gently out of the bed. Alistair tumbled to the floor and let out a few curses. When he stood up it was with a hot glare aimed at Aedan.
"Two!" came the shout from the door.
"Go!" Aedan waved him away and scrambled to get his shirt on.
He had just managed to flatten his hair down as well as he could, when Alistair kicked the chair out of the way and threw open the door. "Kallian! What a wonderful surprise!" he said with a huge fake smile and a cheerfulness that was dripping heavily with sarcasm.
She looked between him and Aedan. "Do I want to know why it took you so long to answer the door?"
"Hmm, probably not," Aedan said.
"Can’t this wait?" Alistair asked. "We were kind in the middle-" he suddenly stopped and poked his head out in the hallway. "What was that?"
He cursed and then Aedan heard him mutter something that sounded suspiciously like ‘I thought I had lost them’.
"Alistair? Everything all right?" he asked.
"I have to go!" Alistair announced and in a second he was, in fact, gone.
Aedan blinked. "Well, that was random."
"What’s with him?"
"I have no idea," Aedan said, truthfully. "But it seems he’s on the run from someone."
Kallian kicked the door shut and settled on the chair. "They’re building us a statue, you know," she grinned. "Because we’re the Heroes of Ferelden. They’ll probably write songs about us next."
Aedan sat down at the foot of the bed. "I know, I posed for the sculptors yesterday."
"Well, it seems today is Alistair’s turn," she said and her grin got wider. "He’s bravely hiding from the sculptors."
"And of course you happened to slip up and tell them all the possible places where he could be hiding."
"Of course," she looked around the room, taking in his discarded armour and clothes on the floor, his weapons leaning against the wall, the old sheet Fergus used as a chew toy. "I like what you’ve done with the place."
She gave him a long look, one eyebrow arched and mocking him. "Aedan."
"Haven’t seen you in a few days."
"Yes," she said. "Around the time when you pulled that stupid stunt with the Archdemon, I think?" Aedan groaned. "Did Alistair pass my message onto you? The ‘you are stupid’ one, I mean."
Aedan gave her a long look. "You talked Alistair into doing Morrigan’s ritual," he countered.
Kallian snorted. "Oh, Aedan. What bothers you more about that? That he had sex with someone else, or that he had the guts to do something you couldn’t?" she shrugged. "After I exposed him the facts-"
"What facts?" Aedan spat, cutting her off. "The fact that this is Morrigan we’re talking about? The fact that now she’s Maker knows where with Maker knows what growing in her belly?"
"I simply told him that I had no intention of dying up there, nor was I going to let him sacrifice himself since he’s our back-up King in case Anora goes her father’s route. And since he had killed Loghain in that stupid dick measuring contest, that left you to sacrifice your noble ass," she said. "He couldn’t get to Morrigan’s room fast enough after I told him that."
"Kallian," he sighed. He shook his head, suddenly tired. "My death would have been nothing compared to the possible catastrophe Morrigan’s child could turn out to be."
Kallian stared at him. "I want you to think about what you just said, and then think about Alistair, and then I want you to realize how lucky and how stupid you are," she said slowly.
Aedan opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand. "Do not interrupt me. We’ll just pretend you never meant those words," she said. "As for Morrigan’s child, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it."
"I think the preferred term is ‘cross’," Aedan pointed out.
"Whatever, that wasn’t what I came here to discuss," Kallian said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "First of all, glad you didn’t kick it up there, Alistair’s broken-hearted moping would have been unbearable should you have died."
She surprised a snort of laughter out of Aedan. "Glad to have spared you the headache, Commander," he said.
"Aaand that brings us to the actual reason I’m here."
When Alistair came back it was well into the evening. Aedan had started getting worried when he failed to show up at dinner, but Kallian had assured him with a grin that the sculptors would return him as whole as they had received him.
Aedan really didn’t want to know, but he hoped that Zevran and his ropes hadn’t been involved in any way in Alistair’s capture. He liked his man mostly untraumatized, thank you very much.
Alistair closed the door behind him with the dejected air of a man who had had nothing but bitter disappointments in his life. He even leaned against it and heaved a long sigh. Aedan watched on with amused interest as Alistair crossed the room, making a big show of dragging his feet. He finally reached the bed, sat down and bent over to get rid of his boots.
"Those bloody sculptors had to have a second sight or something like that," he muttered. "There’s no way they could have known I was hiding with the dogs otherwise."
Aedan laughed. "Well that explains the smell." Alistair glared at him over his shoulder. "My brave Alistair."
Alistair tossed his boots away and crashed down on the bed going suddenly limp. "I’m dead," he announced.
"Can I have your sword?"
Alistair opened one eye and glared at him. "You’re a cold, cold man. Cruel even," he said. "I just died."
"I assure you I’m crying on the inside," Aedan reassured patting him on the shoulder. "And I’d be mourning as proper, but I’d still want your sword."
"I’d want it buried with me."
"I’d have you cremated, as it’s proper with brave and honourable warriors."
"Then I’d want it cremated with me."
"It’s a magical sword from ancient times, I’m not sure normal fire would manage to scorch it even a little bit."
In a sudden burst of vitality, Alistair tackled him flat and knocked the wind out of him.
Aedan threw his arms up and cried out, "Miracle! You came back to life!"
"No," Alistair mumbled against his chest. "It’s my spirit, coming back to haunt and torment you."
Aedan chucked and scooted back so they both could lie comfortably. He stroke the back of Alistair’s head, his ear, and carded his fingers through the short hair.
"So, what did Kallian have to say?" Alistair asked, finally.
"Apart from the fact that she’s the one giving pointers to the sculptors on how to find you, you mean?"
Alistair’s head shot up with an outraged shout. "I knew she was implicated somehow!"
"Yes, well," Aedan shrugged. "She came by to congratulate me on my not being dead, it was all very civil." At Alistair’s disbelieving look, Aedan rolled his eyes. "Fine," he conceded, "she called me stupid, but it was mostly civil." The disbelieving look didn’t go away. "We can be civil. Occasionally."
Alistair rolled his eyes. "If you say so, My Lord," he huffed.
"Don’t call me that," Aedan swatted him on the back of the head. "I renounced my title when I became a Grey Warden."
"Well, forgive me, but I’m not really comfortable calling you ‘brother’ right at this moment," Alistair said. "Not when what’s most certainly not a sword you have down there."
"I hate you."
"I can come up with a petname, if you really want," Alistair assured him. "What about snugglekitten?"
Aedan dug his finger into his ribs.
"Ow! That actually hurt!" Alistair protested. "Cutiepie?"
"My little bundle of sparkles and sunshine?"
Poke. Poke. Poke.
Aedan poked him again, but his heart wasn’t in it. "You’re an idiot and a cutiepie and a muffin," he muttered.
"Aww," Alistair smiled. "You’re all mushy under that tough, roguish exterior. I knew it."
"Your brain is mushy."
"Mushy for you," Alistair said with a sigh.
Aedan couldn’t help but laugh. "How do I get dragged into these discussions I don’t even know."
"I’m so sexy and handsome you can’t think straight around me."
"Well..." Aedan started.
Alistair just groaned loudly.
"You walked straight into that," Aedan continued.
"Stop it, that was even worse," Alistair said, taking his turn at poking Aedan in the ribs.
"Anyway!" Aedan gasped, batting away the fingers. "Kallian!"
"No," Alistair said slowly and then pointed at himself. "Alistair." Aedan gave him a look. "Fine, fine. I’m serious now."
"Good," he nodded. "After she finished to call me stupid, she gave me our orders."
"Aww," Alistair groaned. "We’ve been traipsing all over Ferelden for the past year, don’t we get to rest?"
"You mean you actually want to stay here to shake hands and make nice with our Queen and the nobles?" Aedan asked. "And don’t forget the sculptors and all the artists who’ll surely line up for the privilege to immortalise the Heroes of Ferelden in their paintings?"
"When do we leave?" Alistair asked quickly. "Please, tell me we’re going far, far away."
"Howe’s arling, Amaranthine, has been given to the Grey Wardens," Aedan said. "We are to settle in Vigil’s Keep and restart the Order as soon as we can."
Alistair drew up and looked down at him. "She sent us to Howe’s arling?"
Aedan shrugged. "I’m sure she considered it as some weird kind of gift to me," he said. "At least, that’s what I’m going to pretend, the alternative is too terrible to dwell upon."
"That she meant as some kind of weird gift to us," he said. When Alistair kept looking at him with a confused frown, Aedan elaborated further. "You know how it’s customary to give newly-wedded couples gifts and-"
"Stop, please stop," Alistair said and shuddered dramatically. Then he became serious. "Are you going to be all right?"
Aedan thought about it, and he nodded after a moment.
"Good," Alistair said. "How soon do we have to leave?"
"We have to be there by the start of the next month," he said. "That leaves us with more than three weeks. I thought..." he took a deep breath. "I thought we could leave as soon as possible, take the long route and stop by Highever."
Alistair gave him a long, careful look. "Visiting your brother might be a good idea," he said after a moment, hesitantly. "I’m sure you’ve missed each other very much. And I’m sure Fergus would like to go home as well. I meant the dog." He made a face. "That’s going to be awkward when I finally meet Fergus-the-man."
Aedan smiled. "It’s going to be fine," he reassured him. "I thought we could visit Duncan’s family, as well. If there’s any left there," he went one. "Maybe ask my brother about building that memorial in his name."
Alistair blinked and then he broke out in a brilliant smile. "Yes," he said. "I would like that."
"Good," Aedan said. "Now sleep, we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Alistair settled down with his head leaning on his shoulder and one of arms around his waist. "Hey, Aedan?" he asked after a couple of minutes.
"Where’s Fergus?" he asked. "The dog I mean."
Aedan frowned and drew up on his arms. Alistair tumbled off of him with a muffled protest. "Wasn’t he with you?"
Alistair shook his head. "Why would he be with me?"
"Where the hell- Wait," he stared down at Alistair. "What did we have for dinner?"
"How should I know?" Alistair said. "The sculptors held me hostage, remember? All I had to eat was some bread and cheese. Bloody slave drivers."
"I swear if he got into the pantry again-"
Someone knocked at the door.
Aedan got up and went to answer with a feeling of foreboding. "This had better be my dog who has somehow learned to knock," he muttered. "Because if it’s a servant telling me-"
"Ah, Lord Cousl- I mean, Aedan!" Valena said, then she noticed his state of undress and blushed. "I’m afraid there’s a problem with your Mabari Hound."
From the direction of the bed came what sounded suspiciously like Alistair snickering.
"No," Aedan said.
Velana was visibly taken aback. "But, My Lo- Aedan," she said. "He’s in the pantry making quite a mess. The cook... isn’t happy."
"No," Aedan repeated. "Call someone else. Even Oghren. I don’t care. Anyone else but me."
Velana frowned. "The cook has banned Master Oghren from the pantry as well," she said, crinkling her nose as if in distaste. Or as if subconsciously remembering his smell. "He drank almost all the wine."
Alistair evidently couldn’t resist anymore and burst out laughing.
"Fine," Aedan sighed. "Just let me get my shirt."
"I’ll wait right outside," Velana assured him, but it almost sounded like a threat.
Aedan looked for his shirt in the faint light the lit fire bathed the room. It took him five minutes - two minutes in Velana knocked on the door and asked if he had fallen asleep, naturally that sent Alistair in stitches again - but he finally found it behind the night-table.
Aedan looked dumbly between his shirt and the night-table a couple of times. "I don’t even want to know," he decided finally.
"Face it," Alistair said. "You’re a slob."
"Shut up," Aedan growled. "I hate you."
"Don’t laugh," Aedan told him. "I hate you."
He stumbled back into his room about an hour later, Fergus trotting after him with his tongue hanging out as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Aedan closed the door and took off his shirt, flinging it in the direction of the fireplace. Possibly into the fire. He was too tired to care.
"Ah, here comes my love," Alistair smiled and lifted the sheets so he could crawl in. "Victorious."
Aedan rolled over to him, until he was smashed against him."Don’t ever, ever get a dog," he said very seriously to Alistair’s clavicle.
"Why would I? I can share yours," Alistair patted the mattress on the other side from Aedan. "Come here, Fergus."
Aedan raised his head to glare at both of them, but the effort took a lot out of him and he let it fall back down. "I hate you. Both of you."
"Don’t listen to him," he heard Alistair say to Fergus in that stupid voice he used with him. "He says he hates us, but he actually means he loves us," he went on. It sounded more like ‘wuvs us’, though.
"Your master is just a giant mushy cake," Alistair said.
Fergus apparently agreed. Either that or it was the mentioning of cakes that got him to bark excitedly.
Aedan snorted. "Mushy brains," he muttered against Alistair’s throat, but it was hard to fight off the smile now.
"We’re like some weird family," Alistair said.
"Yes," Aedan agreed, seriously.
"Maybe a little smelly," Alistair conceded, but then he hastily added, "but nice!"
"Oh, for-" Aedan groaned. "Just. Sleep."
"Good night, Fergus," Alistair said. "Good night, Aedan."
"Finally," Aedan breathed out. "Thank the Maker."
He fell asleep to the sound of Alistair’s chuckling.