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Warden Tabris

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“Adaia,” his father says, “was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. The elders chose me to be her husband because I think they were hoping I would calm her down. I tried so hard to be a good husband, and I think she did love me, in her way, but I couldn’t make her happy.”

These moments when his father is drunk and speaking of his mother are some of the few left that they don’t fight, so he sits close by and says nothing. His own memories of his mother are growing hazier by the year. Father will only speak of her when he’s drunk. He remembers the little tricks she taught him, how to spring a lock, how to hide a small knife, but sometimes he finds he can’t remember her voice or how she used to wear her hair.

“You are exactly like her,” his father says, and then sometimes, on bad nights, he cries a little and clings to him and says, “My son, my son,” like a prayer for mercy.

His father is afraid. He understands that and he hates it. His father is strong and wise and proud and he fears so much that he will never go anywhere or do anything but serve in the house of a nobleman who doesn’t even bother to learn his name.

On good days he can keep his bitterness at bay, or at least locked away where his father doesn’t have to see it and they don’t have to fight. In the evenings he’ll help Father with dinner and tease Shianni about her complete inability to cook and run with Soris and the other boys through the alienage, while Valendrian shakes his head fondly and warns them to stay out of trouble.

There aren’t many good days anymore. He fights with his father and Shianni is always drunk and the boys he and Soris used to run with are dropping off one by one, to marriage and adulthood or to the rougher gangs that Soris is afraid of or out of the alienage entirely, seeking out the Dalish or just… leaving.

He hates the alienage. He hates the mud and the stench and the humans who come in like they own the place, barging into people’s homes looking for trouble or drunk and slumming, calling them all filthy knife-ears even while they leer and grope at all the women and girls.

He climbs up to the roof sometimes at night and stares out over the lights of Denerim and the docks beyond and dreams about leaving.

He doesn’t know where he would go. Into the woods to find the Dalish, maybe, though he’s never set foot outside the city and doesn’t know the first thing about surviving in the wilds. Or maybe onto a ship to see faraway lands across the sea.

Alarith lets him read the few books he gets in his shop without buying them, so long as he’s careful and doesn’t take them anywhere. Antiva, Rivain, Orlais. Somewhere in the world, there must be a place for an elf, where he can aspire to something higher than a lord’s favored servant, where he can do and be something more.

But… he loves his family. He loves his cousins, even when Shianni is drunk and Soris is being puffed up and petty. He loves Valendrian, even when he lectures, loves to help him set up for the meeting every month and at the orphanage, fixing it up and turning it into something almost nice in the middle of all the ugly of the alienage.

He loves his father, even when they fight. He knows Cyrion wouldn’t stop him if he decided to go, but knows also that it would break his heart, and so he stays.

 

Valendrian comes to the house one evening to tell them he and the other elders have begun searching for spouses for him and his cousins. They are getting older, he says, and it’s time for them to start leaving childhood behind.

That part isn’t so bad—he doesn’t want to be a child in his father’s house forever, but part of him quakes at the mention of marriage.

He doesn’t want to get married. He can’t imagine himself as anyone’s husband, much less a girl, and especially a girl he doesn’t even know. The girls around the alienage are all more or less like Shianni and he thinks of them the same way. Like family sometimes and like nuisances getting in the way of him and the other boys other times.

Some of the boys have sweethearts and they go to the elders to ask if they can be married to them. Father asks him, once, casually, if he would like being married to his friend Nissa, but he reacts with such bewildered disgust that the notion is never raised again (and it occurs to him later that that might be why Nissa doesn’t talk to him for over a month).

Nissa is… alright. For a girl. She can throw a stone harder than almost anyone and she’s smart about figures and sums. But she has a bewildering tendency to ramble on about dresses and ribbon and she once asked him if he liked Anaris for a baby name if it was a girl and got really angry when he asked her why he should care.

He asked once, a few years ago when he was much younger, if he couldn’t just marry one of the boys instead of some girl, and they laughed at him, and then later the older boys had come looking for a fight when they heard. He gave back as good as he got, but there were more of them.

“A wife will give you children and help keep a house with you,” Cyrion had said seriously as he patched him up that night.

He didn’t say that he didn’t want children or a house, and he didn’t say that boys were more interesting than girls and he could talk to them more and they were usually prettier, too, and no girl had ever made him feel the way he did when he was thinking about his friend Tyrin. He understood by then, after being laughed at and the fight with the older boys, that some things weren’t meant to be said.

He still doesn’t say anything about that when Valendrian says they are looking for a wife for him, but he does protest the marriage. He doesn’t want to stay a child, but… getting married, starting his own house…. He’ll never leave, then. The alienage will swallow him up, just like his father. Just like his mother.

The wedding plans go forward anyway.

 

Part of preparing for marriage, for young men, is learning to provide for a family. So, while Soris starts an apprenticeship under Alarith at the store, he goes with his father to the estate where he works as a servant.

He hates it.

He hates the lord who pays them pennies and acts like they’re bleeding him dry, he hates the lord’s wife who treats them like slaves instead of servants and accuses them of stealing her silverware, and he hates their bullying son and their rough, ugly guards.

Probably more than anything, though, he hates the other elves, their averted gazes and tucked chins and subservient yesser-nomum bootlicking attitude toward the humans, while acting so superior to other elves. They kiss a lord’s ass and that makes them better, because it’s the best an elf can do for himself, and he hates it so much he can’t think straight.

Then he’s placed in the stables, where the household doesn’t have to be bothered by his scowling face and muttered curses—as far from any potential trouble as his father can get him, he’s sure—and he discovers on his first day that, no, actually he hates horses most of all.

For one thing they’re way too damn big. How do the shems even ride the things? No creature should be so large. And then there’s the matter of horse shit, the foulest thing he’s ever had to shovel through, and in such massive quantities that he’s half convinced the beasts are ill and then horrified to learn that it’s all too normal.

They don’t even endear themselves by being pleasant to be around. They smell, they bite, they kick and are generally nasty and bad tempered. They seem to hate everything but especially elves, and he hates them right back.

To make matters worse the lord’s son dotes on the animals like pets.

“You watch what you’re doing, knife-ear,” he snaps. “This charger’s worth ten of you, so don’t you dare skimp on his oats, you hear me?”

It would be impossible not to hear him, but he thinks of his father, grits his teeth, and keeps his head down.

That works for a while. He can feel it grinding away at him, and the minute he can leave for the day he bolts, running through the dirty alleys with the street dogs until he feels like himself again.

Every day it takes longer, and his father watches him with sad, desperate eyes.

“Maybe this isn’t the best career for you,” his father suggests gently one morning as they’re preparing to go in. “The stables, I mean.”

He just looks at him blankly. He’s taken to drinking with Shianni at night so he can be numb when he goes to work in the morning, Not thinking when he’s at the stables is a good thing, but it makes it difficult to follow a conversation. The other workers are starting to think him slow.

“…This is what you wanted,” he says at last. It’s the only thing Cyrion has ever wanted for his son, a good honest position in a lord’s household. Something that will keep him safe and in the alienage.

His father winces, hesitates, but ultimately says nothing, not wanting to fight.

He is mucking out the stall of the worst beast the lord owns when he hears the lord’s son cornering a woman. They don’t know he’s there, haven’t heard him somehow.

“They say elf girls have no hair on their quims,” the lord’s son says. He sounds slurred, like he’s been drinking. “Is it true?”

“M-my lord,” the woman stammers, voice high and frightened.

“Show me.”

“Please! You’re hurting me!”

“Show me, you knife-eared little bitch!”

He doesn’t really think about it, just flings his shovel as hard as he can over the wall of the horse’s stall. Horse shit flies in a satisfying arch, and then splatters.

A roar tells him he’s hit his mark, and he freezes a moment then runs to hide.

The stable master finds him. Tells him not to come back. The girl, spattered with shit but honor intact, glares at him when he asks if she’s alright.

 

He ends up working as a server in a tavern by the docks rather than let his father find him a position at another estate. His father doesn’t press the issue much, even looks relieved, but he’s not sure what that means.

The tavern is… busy. Less soul-crushing. He gets to know some of the regular patrons—sailors, mostly, from all over the world. The tavern keeper doesn’t care if he runs his mouth so long as people are buying drinks, and the patrons seem to like him because he’s quick and witty and smart.

Sometimes when he’s wiping tables he can get some of the nicer ones to tell him stories of their travels, warm, exotic Antiva, beautiful Orlais. The old longing swells up in him again—to go, to travel and see the world.

There are dangers by the docks, and his father worries and frets. The alienage whispers of illegal slavers and smugglers prowling for lone elves easily snatched up and whisked away, never to be seen again. Elves are forbidden from carrying blades, but he gets a knife and carries it under his clothes anyway, and a heavy wooden club. He even uses them once or twice on his way home at night. He doesn’t know if they are slavers, but when they attack him he defends himself then spends the rest of the day with a pounding heart and shaky hands, convinced that the guards will be coming for him.

Working at the tavern is where he first really realizes that humans find him attractive. He’s known all his life in a distant sort of way that some humans think elves are pretty, learned from the way they would leer at Shianni and the other girls, but he’d never been so viscerally confronted with the knowledge until they were drunkenly leering at him, or pawing under his apron as he passes.

The other servers (girls) laugh when he asks them about it.

“Just give ‘em a smile and flirt a little and they’ll tip you best,” they assure him with a shrug. “Maybe wear your pretty hair down. No harm done, is it?”

He supposes not, but… he doesn’t like it. When the shems tell him how pretty he is, it doesn’t make him feel attractive and desirable, it makes him feel like a thing or a pet. Even the ones who are kind about it, he knows they aren’t really attracted to him. They’re attracted to his ears, or his big “elven” eyes, or his smaller frame or whatever elvish thing they’ve worked up as desirable.

They think elves are naturally docile and sweet and submissive, and it makes him want to spit in their faces and claw their eyes out.

But… the tips are better. When he wears tighter pants and lets the rough, drunken sailor women paw at him and smiles at the men who tell him he’s pretty enough to be a girl. He takes their money and tries to ignore the rage in his belly, and on his walks home he almost wishes someone would attack him so he’s have an excuse to fight. But he keeps his hair pulled back tight.

Then one night he breaks a mug on the head of a handsy drunk who pushes him against a wall and drools on his neck, hands bitingly tight around his waist.

The tavern mistress slaps him hard and tells him it’ll be coming out of his pay, which is already next to nothing.

“He grabbed me,” he tries to defend himself. “He tried to… touch me.”

“Why the fuck do you think I hire you knife-ears?” she sneers. “You keep my customers happy or you can say goodbye to this job, and if you do take a trick I expect ten percent of whatever they pay you.”

 

He doesn’t go back to the tavern, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell his father he lost another job, so every day he puts on his apron when he leaves in the morning, then ducks into an ally the minute he’s out of sight to strip it off and shove it in his pack.

He starts taking odd jobs for the gangs that run through and around the alienage. There’s a barkeeper at the Naughty Noble who can always be counted on to have a few discreet jobs that pay well enough. If his father ever knew it would break his heart completely, but he’s careful and determined that Cyrion will never find out.

He runs messages, delivers packages, and eventually gains a reputation as something of a scrapper. He learns to pick pockets and locks and he works on perfecting his already smooth tongue for those situations where violence might actually get him killed. Someone once tells him he can lie like a priest, with complete and utterly convincing conviction.

It’s… something. Better than the stables, and at least he doesn’t get groped or leered at.

He doesn’t hate it, but he isn’t proud. He hates hiding it, and he still wants. Wants more, wants better. Knows he’ll never get it in the alienage.

Shianni is the only one who knows. He drinks with her at night, passing a bottle back and forth and trading outlandish dreams for the future.

“I’ll have a hundred dresses and a hundred servants whose only job will be to help me take them off and put them on. That’s all being a lady is, putting on clothes and taking them back off.”

“Sounds like being a whore.”

“Being a whore is more work, I’ll bet.”

“No one would pay to kiss you.” When other people say such things to her he starts a fight, but when he says it she laughs so hard she spills some of the wine.

“I’ll just be a lady, then. I’m not the one the pimps are after.”

He rolls his eyes at her teasing. He should have never told her about the mistress of the Pearl offering him a job when he was there delivering something. “No one would pay to fuck me. I’m too much trouble.”

That makes her laugh again.

He knows Shianni drinks too much, knows she doesn’t necessarily mind as much as he does when the shems say she’s pretty. Knows that Father and Valendrian have been having trouble finding a husband for her and when they do she will most likely have to leave Denerim and travel to an alienage somewhere else in another city. Highever maybe, or even as far north as Amaranthine. If that happens he’ll never see her again. All he can do is hope the man they find is at least kind.

He thinks that if he could marry a girl like Shianni, someone he could talk to and laugh with and share things with, he might be able to stand it, even if the thought of the marriage bed fills him with a sort of… dread? Uncertainty? He’s not sure he could lay with a woman.

Valendrian takes him and Soris aside and explains as briefly and as clinically as he can about their upcoming wedding nights and what will happen and what their new wives will be expecting. The elder stresses how important it is to be careful and gentle.

“She will be just as nervous as you, perhaps even more so. Starting a family comes with more expectations for girls, so go slowly and be kind. Your wife will be your partner in all things as you begin your lives together. Talk to her. Talk things through with her. And you’ll be fine.”

Soris has more questions, about babies and specifics and rumors he’d heard from other boys that make Valendrian turn red and shoo them out.

The part about being partners doesn’t sound so bad. It would be nice to have someone with him, someone he could rely on to be there and to aid him and watch his back if he needed it. But it would have to be someone he knew, someone he liked. Someone he chose, not a stranger picked out by his father.

But then one day his father tells him they have found brides for him and Soris. They are coming from Highever. They will be there in a week. The wedding will be that same day.

The week passes in a blur.

More than anything he hates how his life is a thing happening to him, but he can’t see any way out, not when leaving would break his father’s heart.

But then the day of the wedding comes.

And the arl’s son is in the alienage.

And he just can’t stomach one more indignity. Not this. Not Shianni.

So he takes the stranger’s sword and makes Soris take the crossbow and promise to hang back.

And then the arl’s son is dead.

And then the guards have come for him—and he lies to protect Soris—and the stranger has conscripted him, and he’s finally leaving the alienage after all.

Aeoin Tabris is going to be a Grey Warden.

Chapter Text

It’s a long road from Denerim to Ostagar, especially for an elf who expected to live in the alienage all his life.

He’s not sure yet what to think of Duncan. He’s clearly trying hard to make them feel comfortable, but he just as clearly has not spent time among non-Wardens for a very long time, and there are things he won’t or can’t tell them yet. And Aeoin has questions.

He wants to know more about the darkspawn and about the order he’s apparently been conscripted to join. He wants to know if the stories about the gryphons are true (and is deeply disappointed to hear that the beasts are extinct) and if he’ll really be allowed to keep the dagger and long sword Duncan loaned him.

Duncan answers pleasantly but vaguely. They are traveling to meet the rest of the Wardens and the king’s army at Ostagar. A hoard of darkspawn has been spotted and armies are gathering to drive them back. The rest would have to wait until after their Joining—but he won’t tell them any more about that except that it's an initiation.

Aeoin thinks he might actually like Duncan, which he’s a little surprised by. At least he treats him with proper respect, unlike their other traveling companion.

Duncan recruited one other person in Denerim. Gusten was either a noble or a knight or a guardsman because he has his own sword and his own armor, and he eyes Aeoin with distrust, like he’s not sure what he’s doing there and suspects he’ll try to pick his pocket any second.

Aeoin tries to ignore him. They’re going to the same place and they’re joining the same order. As far as he’s concerned that makes them equals.

He keeps waiting for Duncan to tell Gusten what he did to get recruited—conscripted—but he never does. He only says that they have left their old lives behind and their pasts are no longer relevant.

Which is a relief. No one will have to know that he killed the arl’s son. Not that he’s ashamed and not that he wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat. Humans just don’t like it when they get the impression that an elf can be dangerous.

But on the other hand, Gusten seems to have settled on a belief that Aeoin isn’t a recruit at all but rather there to be a servant, and that isn’t acceptable at all.

They stop to make camp after the first day of traveling. Aeoin is aching in entirely new places, utterly unaccustomed to even the easy pace Duncan set, and his only thoughts are of sleep before even food.

Duncan says he’ll rustle up something for their dinner and leaves them to get camp together.

Gusten looks around, frowning with distaste, then dumps his pack by Aeoin’s feet and says, “Set up that tent, elf,” before turning away.

Aeoin sees red, suddenly not tired at all.

It’s not that he doesn’t think he should help with camp, and it’s not that he’s lazy or doesn’t know how to set up a tent (he doesn’t, having lived in a city his entire life, but he’s willing to learn). It’s just that they all have their own packs and he’d been given to understand that they would each be setting up their own tents. It’s Gusten’s tone, and how he didn’t even bother to ask before ordering.

A week ago Aeoin might have swallowed it all the same, kept his resentment to petty mutterings and purposefully putting the shem’s tent on rocks. A week ago he hadn’t (almost) single-handedly stormed the arl’s estate to rescue the women of the alienage. A week ago he hadn’t run a man through with a borrowed sword or had to help Shianni walk as they made their way back home, the woman who would have been his wife crying softly at his side. A week ago he hadn’t been on the road to join an army and be inducted into an ancient order of darkspawn-battling warriors.

He picks up a rock and throws it at Gusten’s head.

“Treat me like a servant again, shem,” he says when the human turns, sputtering with shock and indignity.

Gusten’s face is red and snarling. He stalks forward and Aeoin holds his ground, curling his hands into fists and wondering with a cool detachment if he should draw the weapons strapped awkwardly to his back.

“What’s going on here?” Duncan frowns at them. He’s holding a pair of unlucky rabbits, freshly killed, and a crossbow loosely at his waist.

“This little knife-ear is throwing rocks at my head!” Gusten says.

“Tell him to set up his own damn tent,” Aeoin counters, and stalks off to find firewood before he can be ordered to.

When he gets back Gusten is… somewhere else, and Duncan is cleaning the rabbits. He indicates with a bloody knife where Aeoin should put the wood, but otherwise doesn’t take his attention from his grizzly task.

Aeoin sits nearby for lack of anything better to do and waits for Duncan to start reprimanding him. He wonders what punishment will entail. Wonders if he can make it back to Denerim on his own if he has to. Wonders if any other company in the army will take him if he should choose to go on to Ostagar by himself. Nissa and her family mentioned the army calling for laborers. It wouldn’t be ideal, but maybe if he does a good enough job he can convince someone to let him be an actual soldier or something.

“Gusten is digging our head,” Duncan says pleasantly after a while.

“…What’s that mean?” Aeoin asks reluctantly.

Duncan chuckles. “You really have been in Denerim your whole life,” he remarks. Aeoin isn’t sure if he should take offence or not, but Duncan continues to explain, “Think of it like the chamber pot while we’re at camp.”

Aeoin blinks then grins at the thought of the duty being given to Gusten.

He eventually realizes Duncan won’t be punishing him at all. Instead he teaches Aeoin how to make a fire out of the wood he collected and then how to spit and roast the two rabbits. Gusten eventually returns but remains sulky and bitter, saying little while Aeoin takes advantage of the opportunity to pepper Duncan with more questions.

“So when did you join the Wardens?”

“Oh, many years ago now. In Orlais.”

“You’re not from Fereldan?”

“There were no Grey Wardens in Fereldan for many generations. King Maric allowed the order back less than thirty years ago.”

“Why were there no Wardens for so long?”

“In the years between Blight it is unfortunately common for people to… forget the necessity of the Grey Wardens. Especially in a country such as Fereldan, with such a colored history with the order. Our numbers, therefore, are regretfully few. I’ve been on the road for some weeks now, searching for recruits to pad our numbers against what’s to come.”

“And you found me. And him.”

“And a few others. You’ll meet them at Ostagar.”

“But what is to come? You still haven’t really said.”

Duncan considers his words carefully, staring into the fire for a long time. “Normally the darkspawn are relatively few in number, and the fact that there are so few of us isn’t as much of a problem. But… right now we are going to meet the army, which King Cailan has gathered to fight a hoard. Historically, when the darkspawn gather in such large numbers it has only been a precursor to one thing.”

A Blight. Aeoin feels a shiver run through him and shifts closer to the fire. All that time in the alienage wishing for More. Well. A hoard of darkspawn was certainly more than he’d ever anticipated.

That was what Grey Wardens did, though. That was what they were. And he could be that, too.

“Can’t you tell me anything more about the Joining you mentioned?” he asks. “I just want to be prepared.”

Duncan smiles. “Your eagerness is a credit, my friend, but I’m afraid the Joining isn’t something that can be prepared for. What you can prepare for is tomorrow, for which you will need plenty of sleep.”

 

Two days later they wake up and Gusten is gone. Duncan is disappointed but not terribly surprised. “Better now than at the Joining,” is his philosophical view. “Come along. If you don’t mind eating breakfast as we walk we should make it to Ostagar by midday.”

Aeoin also isn’t sad to see Gusten go. Things never improved between them and he’d taken to sleeping with one hand on his dagger, certain he’d wake up with a knife between his ribs.

“Wouldn’t want to be in an order with that asshole anyway,” he remarks. “So, what so you look for in a recruit? I mean… what makes you think someone would be a good Warden? What made you think Gusten would?” What makes Duncan think he, Aeoin, would?

Duncan takes his time in answering. “The skills you will need as a Warden, how to fight, how to track a genlock or take down an ogre, how to survive in the wilds, all these things can be learned or taught. But what we cannot teach you, what will be much more important, is your will, the strength you carry, not of your body but of your spirit. You will need the strength to walk into the dark without succumbing to it. The will to fight against all odds, because you can and someone must or else all is lost. In peace, vigilance; in war, victory; in death, sacrifice. That is the Grey Warden creed.”

Aeoin stops walking. He feels terribly small. “You really think that I…. Why just me, then? Why not my cousin, too?” Soris had been there. Soris went to the arl’s estate same as him. And Shianni. Shianni walked back out again. Weeping softly and limping a little, but she’d walked out all the same.

Duncan’s eyes are kind. Aeoin is grateful. He could easily be mocking, but he isn’t. “Your cousin followed you. He went because you were going. I don’t fault his bravery, but you led the way. You would have gone to the arl’s estate regardless of any help anyone else might offer.”

“It was suicide! And it probably caused more trouble for everyone!” There had been riots in the alienage before. Not for many years—Valendrian did a good job of keeping the peace. But Aeoin remembers fires and shouting, and someone with a soft voice and strong hands hiding him beneath some empty sacks in their cupboard just before soldiers broke down the door. More shouting, a loud thud, a pool of blood spreading across the kitchen floor.

Duncan is a fool if he truly thinks simply conscripting him and taking him away will satisfy the humans of Denerim—the arl’s son is dead and it was an elf’s hand that held the blade.

The Warden is still watching him. Concern, compassion, and something else, something he’s not used to seeing from human eyes. “We’re almost to Ostagar,” he says gently. “Should you choose to turn back, I won’t be able to guide you. You will have to make your way on your own.”

Turn back? Aeoin frowns at the thought. After coming so far?

No.

He has his mother’s boots on his feet, and the unfamiliar weight of a sword on his back. “I’m not turning back.”

Duncan smiles. “Onward to Ostagar, then.”

“And we’ll do the Joining there?”

“There are a few things to prepare beforehand. But… tonight.”

“Tonight.” Tonight he becomes a Grey Warden.

Chapter Text

He isn’t sure what to make of Alistair at first. As first impressions go, walking up to find him getting yelled at by mages isn’t the best, probably. But there’s something to be said for how patiently he takes the abuse, and he’s funny in a sarcastic way that Aeoin appreciates, and then there’s the way he handles the other recruits on the mission they are sent on.

The other two leave collecting the blood to Aeoin, but he finds he doesn’t really mind. Alistair helps him, showing him how to fill the vials without getting the disgusting black stuff all over himself, and he chatters almost constantly. Aeoin quickly realizes that he actually says very little between irreverent sarcasm and bland understatement, but he doesn’t mind the noise. Duncan is a good man, but hard to talk to; he doesn’t feel real sometimes, and not wholly present other times.

He wants to dismiss the big blond warrior as just another shem, but… he finds that he just can’t. The man is huge and muscled and… well, gorgeous, frankly. And when he says he’ll have your back you can believe he really, really means it. Behind the sarcasm and the quips, Alistair seems to really, really mean everything he says. It’s odd. And… cute.

Aeoin understands the need for secrecy around the Joining now, even though it probably cost Jory his life—if Duncan had told him up front that he was going to have to drink darkspawn blood he would have run off into the night, conscripted or not. But… Alistair got through it, and Duncan, and through them Aeoin can see the necessity of what they do, maybe even a righteousness.

He’s never been righteous before, except in fury and that mostly impotent.

And anyway, he’s already dead, or as good as; there’s no going back to Denerim for him. And so he drinks and Joins.

He doesn’t know how to describe it. The blood burns its way through him while turning his insides to cold, fragile stone. At one point he’s sure he must be dying, like poor fucking Daveth, who isn’t even cold yet. Bizarrely, his thoughts go to the battle in the morning. Duncan went through all that trouble to find more recruits, and all three of them are going to die without even becoming Wardens. It’s not just unfair it’s a fucking waste—if it does become a Blight where are they going to find fools enough to fight it?

And… and it pisses him off that he’s going to die here, now, when he’s survived the alienage and the assault on the arl’s estate and leaving Denerim and darkspawn in the wilds and meeting fucking witches and everything else. Today he spoke to a king and a damned cup is what kills him.

 And then the Vision comes to him and knocks him off his feet, darkness and monsters and teeth and glowing green eyes staring right at him Maker it sees him

When he opens his eyes, Alistair, grimly kneeling over him, is the first thing he sees.

Duncan says, “It is finished,” with the solemn finality of a death knell.

Alistair says, “You made it, ah… brother?” and awkwardly tries to smile (doesn’t quite manage, but Aeoin appreciates it all the same). And he holds out a hand that is steady and strong and effortlessly pulls Aeoin to his feet.

Aeoin reflects later that that moment, feeling the bulwark of Alistair’s strength, their hands clasped together, Alistair’s blue eyes and blond head and scruffy chin the first thing he sees after glimpsing the utter Void—that is probably the exact moment he is lost.

 

Alistair doesn’t take their assignment for the battle with the best grace, but Aeoin can understand. The thick of battle is probably exactly where a warrior like Alistair would want to be.

As for him….

“I’ve never been in a battle,” he says to Alistair as they make their preparations. He’s been given a set of rough leather armor. It’s light and easy to move around in, which is good, and what the quartermaster said a rogue fighter like him would want (actually the quartermaster’s exact words were “scrawny little fellow” but it’s hard to hold a grudge when he’s had to crane his neck up to talk to practically everyone since arriving). But it feels painfully… flimsy next to Alistair’s splintmail. Like the first real blow is going to carve him in half.

“I mean, not unless you count, like, street brawls and bar fights and things,” he continues, “but none of that’s anything like… like this.”

Alistair pauses and looks over at him, broken out of his scowling. He shifts his grip on his sword and clears his throat. “Are you frightened?”

Normally being asked that would make Aeoin scowl and blister. But yesterday he drank darkspawn blood and today he’s facing a hoard and his light armor feels too light. “Yes.”

Alistair’s hand on his shoulder makes him jump, and the man’s face is serious and solemn. “You don’t have anything to worry about. The real fighting will be down on the field—our job is simple. All we have to do is light the signal for the main army to attack.”

“The king shouldn’t be down there,” Aeoin blurts. “It’s too dangerous, what if something happens to him?”

Alistair’s hand tightens minutely on his shoulder. “King Cailan is a seasoned veteran,” he says. “And besides—he’ll have Duncan with him.” That is a comfort, though Aeoin worries for the older Warden as well. “But you’re right, it will be dangerous. That’s why you and I must not fail to light the signal.”

“Right.” Aeoin nods. “No problem.”

Alistair’s hand is heavy and warm and his smile is bright. “No problem,” he repeats.

Of course it doesn’t go like that at all.

There are darkspawn at the tower, as if they knew all along. He and Alistair go forth, killing the fiends as quickly as they can, fretting the entire time that they’ll be too late, that the king’s army will be overrun before they can light the signal.

The mage fighting with them (he never catches the man’s name) uses a spell to make their weapons blaze with fire and it’s the most fantastic thing Aeoin has ever seen. He plunges one flaming dagger into the pitch and the signal lights with a great roar—they’ve done it! but there are still more darkspawn.

He kills an ogre (an ogre!) by leaping onto its chest and slamming his blades in to the hilt and it’s the most exhilarating and terrifying thing he’s ever done.

The ogre’s death earns them some breathing room, and he realizes they have an almost perfect view of the battlefield below.

Aeoin feels his breath stop short.

The hoard is so much bigger than he’d thought. There are so many… and the flash of the Wardens’ armor seems so few.

“Where the devil is Loghain?” Alistair curses, and Aeoin starts, half turning to check that the signal is burning after all. The army should be charging by now…. “I don’t see the king.” Alistair’s voice is half frantic. “His banner—do you see it?”

Too much happens all at once. More darkspawn burst onto the roof of the tower—too many darkspawn for them to handle. One of the soldiers screams as he dies. The flames on their weapons gutter and die as the mage directs all his attention and spellcraft to sending a blast of fire at the creatures, but there are too many and then he falls as well.

Alistair yells and Aeoin plunges in desperately after him.

They fight. Their weapons and armor grow caked and tacky with vile black blood.

There is a curious rhythm to the battle, he finds. He can feel the taint within himself and in Alistair beside him. It’s surprisingly easy to stop thinking and trust his instincts, to know where and how his companion will be and move around and with him, to know where the enemy will come at them.

He’d been worried that his lack of training would show in battle, that tricks picked up in back alleys wouldn’t be enough, but there’s no art in this fight, not now. Now there is only the rise and fall of weapons and the clash of steel on steel and leather and flesh. He’d been worried about his armor—the key, apparently, is to not get hit. Simple. Easy to remember.

He does not remember falling.

His dreams are shadowy and uncertain things.

He sees King Cailan on the battlefield, standing with Duncan. He sees the ogre charge and snatch Cailan up then toss his body aside like a broken toy. He sees Duncan charge in with nimble feet and sword and dagger, only to fall, defeated.

He sees a monster in the dark, with gnashing teeth and terrible jaws and wings stretched wide to block out the burning light.

 

Waking up in the witches’ hut is a shock, mostly because he thought he was dead. To hear that everyone on the battlefield is gone, the king—Duncan…. Seeing Alistair alive is like seeing a lifeline in a storm, something he can grab onto and maybe keep from drowning, proof that he is not entirely alone.

But Alistair….

Aeoin comes to the realization that what they have lost is hitting the other man much harder. It makes sense. Duncan is the only other Warden Aeoin knew and even his death is difficult to comprehend. There was so little time between his Joining and the battle—he was supposed to meet the others after. Now he never would.

Alistair is also a new recruit, relatively speaking, but… he strikes Aeoin as the type of man who makes friends quickly. Like a puppy eager for praise.

Aeoin isn’t sure what he can do, but Alistair is the one who needs the lifeline, so he lashes them together with as much determination as he can muster and sets about trying to find their way out of this storm.

The witches… want something. That much is apparent even before Flemeth insists on Morrigan accompanying them on their mad quest to stop the Blight somehow using the treaties they retrieved. Flemeth in particular seems to know what they’ll say before they say it—and worse seems amused by everything they do. It sets Aeoin on edge; he doesn’t know if he can trust them but at the same time the idea of him and Alistair trying to do this all on their own is terrifying. They’re going to need allies, and Morrigan is at least capable.

He promises her that she won’t have to cook for them (though who will be doing the cooking is a damned good question) and then all that’s left is to decide where to go.

“Redcliff?” he asks Alistair, who nods.

“Let’s face it—neither of us is really equipped for this. Eamon will at least be an ally. He’ll be able to help us with the Blight, and he’ll know what to do about Loghain.”

Well. At least it’s a start. “Let’s get to Lothering first.”

 


 

 He has the dream again in camp outside of Lothering, those huge evil eyes glaring out as all around him monsters and demons and darkspawn surge forward out of the shadows. He thought the hoard at Ostagar was huge, but this—this is completely overwhelming. This is what Duncan felt, he realizes dimly. This is what he was afraid of when he tried to warn the king about the archdemon and the coming Blight.

He comes awake with a shout, fumbling to rise and reach for his sword. He’s certain they’re being attacked but the night is quiet and still. Beside him, his dog briefly lifts its head and eyes him warily, huffing out a small chuffing woof as it scents the air and assesses the threat. But then Mange yawns and puts his big head back on his paws and goes instantly and effortlessly back to sleep the way that animals do.

Aeoin, meanwhile, is still gasping and struggling to order his thoughts.

“You’re alright.” Alistair’s voice makes him jump, but the other man is just sitting in front of the fire, perfectly at ease. He was on watch when Aeoin went to his tent. He must not have been sleeping for very long at all.

“You had a nightmare, didn’t you?” Alistair continues. “About the darkspawn? His voice is steady and grounding and Aeoin moves closer with only slight hesitation, settling in front of the fire at the larger man’s side.

“It felt so real,” he says quietly. None of the others seem to have stirred and he’s wary of waking them. Morrigan would be mocking of course, but the qunari they’ve picked up is… unsettling, and he’s not sure how he feels yet about the Chantry girl.

“Well. It… likely was,” Alistair says just as quietly then gestures to the amulet Aeoin wears. “It’s the taint in you. In us. We sense the darkspawn. Duncan says—” He breaks off, then swallows hard and takes a deep breath before soldiering on. “Duncan said that they can sense us as well. Not sure if it’s true. But the nightmares… apparently the first few months of being a Grey Warden are the worst. They’ll stop after a while. For a time.”

“For a time?”

Alistair hesitates for a moment, then takes a bracing breath and tells him the toll the taint will eventually take on his body and mind. Aeoin appreciates that he doesn’t try to sugarcoat it or make it easier.

He supposes he should feel betrayed or even frightened—this wasn’t part of the picture he’d gotten in his head about being a hero and defending the world from evil, and thirty years is not a long time. It’s a hell of a thing to keep from someone until it’s too late to change their mind.

And yet… he doesn’t feel like Duncan tricked him or lied, really. That the Joining and the life of a Grey Warden would eventually kill him he’d been very upfront about, never trying to disguise the dangers or conceal the risks and sacrifices. And anyway… it hadn’t been Aeoin’s choice. He’d already made his choice when he took that sword and went to the arl’s estate and killed his son.

He was on borrowed time anyway. Thirty years wasn’t long, but it was longer than he would have had without Duncan, and not without perks.

“Thirty years,” he mused. “Better hurry up and finish this Blight, then, yeah?”

Alistair, surprised, grins and it’s like a sunbeam through a window pane. “I suppose so. Besides! Odds are we’ll both die way before then!”

“So there’s a positive side! Excellent—what are we even worried about?”

“You should get some sleep,” Alistair offers kindly after a while. The fire is dying down and the others are all quiet and still if not sleeping themselves. “I’ll keep watch out here.”

Aeoin thinks about his lonely tent. He’d slept within whispering distance of his cousins for most of his life. Mange is warm but it isn’t the same. “I’ve lost my taste for sleep for tonight, I think,” he says, shaking his head.

“Long day tomorrow,” Alistair warns, but Aeoin meets his eye steadily.

“What about you then?” he counters, and Alistair shrugs.

“Life of a warden, I suppose. Lots of food—not a lot of sleep.”

“Better things to do than sleep anyway.” The words are out before he can think better of them and Aeoin feels his face heat when he realizes what he’s said. It’s a line better suited to his old friends at the Pearl and completely mortifying.

Alistair, however, seems oblivious to the suggestive nature of his words. “Like…?” he drawls invitingly, and Aeoin casts about for an answer innocent enough for him to accept.

Or better yet—an answer that will make the still-grieving man laugh for real, not the sarcastic chuckle he adopts when concealing his real feelings.

“Oh… a midnight stroll through darkspawn infested territories, perhaps?”

“Or we could have a moonlit book club meeting,” Alistair enthuses, warming to the topic. “Except—oopsie—we have no books.”

“Invite a passing Hurlock over for tea and cakes.”

“Braid each other’s hair and swap recipes!”

“Be. Quiet!” Both Wardens flinch and glance in the direction of Morrigan’s tent on the very edge of camp.

After a moment Aeoin rolls his eyes expansively for Alistair’s benefit and says, “Sorry, Morrigan.”

“Hate to interrupt her beauty sleep,” Alistair offers in an undertone.

Aeoin snickers.

The silence from the witch’s tent somehow manages to be ominous.

“…I know a lovely recipe for a spice cake, if you are interested.” Leliana’s cheerful offer makes them both laugh, and not even Morrigan’s fire abruptly springing to wrathful life can quiet them.

 

The next day, Morrigan takes her revenge as the whole troop of them walks down the road.

A motley crew like theirs might be easy pickings for bandits, and they do run into a few, but mostly they are alone on the road, too obviously penniless for all but the most desperate bandits and too strange and obviously armed for the more innocent travelers to join up with.

The two dwarven traders they’ve picked up are generous enough with the use of their cart, but there isn’t enough room for all of them so they take it in turns. Right now it is Alistair and Leliana, Alistair chattering away like he does when he’s nervous and Leliana smiling like she finds him amusing.

Aeoin finds he doesn’t really like that, though he can’t really pin down why. Except that, well, Leliana seems pretty enough. For a girl. For a shem. And she might wear those robes, but she’s not from the Chantry, not originally. And Alistair, well, there is a good Chantry boy for you. All honor and purity and more honor, never so much as licked a lamppost, and… well. Alistair jokes, but he is surprisingly sensitive, isn’t he. It hurts him to be laughed at, hence all the jokes, Aeoin is sure.

Leliana doesn’t strike him as the cruel type, but… still. A man like Alistair is… rare. Special. She could have a care.

“They certainly seem cozy.” Morrigan’s voice, so close, startles him, and he glances at her quickly, clearing his throat. “Picture straight from the Chantry, aren’t they? The knight and his lady—how sweet.”

“She’s not his lady.” Aeoin is aware that he’s scowling but can’t seem to stop. “And anyway, she’s like a nun or something, vow of chastity and all that.”

Except, Leliana had said something, hadn’t she, about how she wasn’t confirmed or something. Not a nun. Not sworn to the Maker. Free to do whatever she likes.

He watches her laugh again, but Alistair seems pleased with himself. He’d made a joke, then. Wanted her to laugh. Wants her to find him funny and charming.

Not fair. Aeoin already thinks he is funny…. Oh. This isn’t alright, is it?

“She’s certainly the type someone like him would go for, though, isn’t she?” Morrigan continues airily. “So… pretty. And she talks like a lady. An Orlesian flower, wouldn’t you say?”

Aeoin would not say. He does not say.

Morrigan smiles anyway. It’s a dangerous expression. “Of course, Alistair is handsome as well. If you like that… muscular… blond type.” Aeoin has always had a thing for blonds, but he honestly hadn’t seen this coming.

“For a shem,” he says faintly, going for dismissive non-concern and missing the mark entirely judging by Morrigan’s smirk.

“Oh, not attracted to humans?” she asks sweetly.

“Not in general, no. We used to get elf-chasers around the alienage, all… panting and cross-eyed over our ears and all. Makes me sick.”

For a moment Morrigan’s mocking smirk slips and she regards him seriously and… with something that might have been understanding. “I see. Yes, I suppose… humans can be disgusting.”

“Not all humans,” he assures her, but she merely gathers herself and the smirk is back.

“No,” she agrees mockingly. “Alistair isn’t like that.”

He isn’t. He has never doubted nor assumed based on Aeoin’s race, yet he also does not merely pretend that he is just a really short human, either. He asks about the alienage, but as a friend would ask questions about another, where did you grow up what is your family like. It’s… wonderfully freeing.

“Of course… he’s not like that, either,” Morrigan continues slyly.

Aeoin grits his teeth. Doesn’t ask how she knows about him. He knows, he knows.

“Still, no harm in looking, is there?”

Darkspawn attacking them is a relief.

Chapter Text

“So,” Aeoin says slowly, “you’re a prince?

“No.” Alistair’s voice is firm but there’s a touch of hysteria in the way he keeps shaking his head and repeating, “No, no, no, no, no. Absolutely not. I am a Grey Warden.”

“But… you just said your father was King Maric.” Even Aeoin knows who King Maric was—hell, he’d even seen the man once or twice, growing up in Denerim. The king passing through was a good excuse for a parade and a parade was a good place for clever little fingers to find—well, all sorts of things. And if you were especially quick and wily and could avoid getting crushed or trampled, you could even wriggle your way to the front of the crowd and see royalty pass just feet away from you.

When Maric vanished the entire city was draped in mourning, even down to the alienage.

“And my mother was a washer woman,” Alistair says, sounding a little cross. “Look, I’m only telling you this because, well, we’ll be in Redcliff by morning and it might… come up.”

That… makes sense. Aeoin’s understanding of human politics is slim—beyond the basic concept of ‘if the shem has a title he’s probably got his head up his own ass and wants you to kiss it with him.’ But passing titles through bloodlines is important to a lot of people. And if the nobles are having trouble accepting Loghain as ruler or regent or whatever he’s calling himself, they’ll be casting about for a suitable replacement. And with Cailan dead….

Aeoin looks his friend over with new eyes and wonders how he never saw it before. He remembers Cailan from the two times he’d met him. Alistair has a stronger jaw and bluer eyes, and his nose looks like it has been roughly introduced to a fist or a shield at least once, but other than that…. If Aeoin had ever had a chance to see them side by side it would have been obvious.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Alistair snaps and paces away. “This is exactly why I don’t ever tell anyone. Everyone always… looks at me differently after.” He crosses his arms over his chest and glares at the ground.

Aeoin inwardly curses. “Alistair,” he says hesitantly. “This doesn’t change anything between you and me, I’m just surprised. You don’t exactly scream royalty, you know.” That’s not entirely true. The man has an innate nobility about him; Aeoin had simply assumed it was just… Alistair.

His goodness. The light in him. Maybe it is. No, Aeoin is sure it is—he’s seen the man bleed, after all; it’s not royal blood that makes him… special.

“Hell, I’m an elf,” Aeoin continues, edging closer to his friend. “You think it makes a single fucking difference to me who you shems call king? My people get treated the same either way, so what does it matter?” He’s close enough now to touch Alistair and he does, laying a hand on his broad back because he is too short to comfortably reach his shoulder.

“You’re still just Alistair to me, so don’t be expecting me to call you Your Highness or something.”

“Maker—that’s the opposite of what I want.” Alistair turns and eyes Aeoin carefully. Aeoin meets his gaze steady, owes him that much at least. “You really mean it, don’t you,” Alistair says, sounding uncertain.

Aeoin crosses his arms and tilts his head to the side. “It’s like you said. You’re a Grey Warden. I’m a Grey Warden. That makes us equals.”

“Right. Right! Exactly!” Alistair smiles and Aeoin smiles back, unable to resist his relief and joy. Oh, he is in such trouble. “So… where does that leave us now?”

Aeoin shrugs. “Exactly where we were, I guess. Like I said, I don’t give a shit who runs the country, my only concern is stopping the Blight.”

“We can’t do that on our own, though, and the country’s too divided right now fighting itself to fight the darkspawn.”

“Fucking nobles,” Aeoin sighed. “Fucking Loghain. What did the hell did he think would happen?”

Alistair is frowning again, his arms tight over his chest, but like he’s trying to hold himself together. “He can’t—he needs to face justice. For what he did. I don’t want the crown, but I… I won’t leave the country in his hands. He needs to be stopped.”

King Cailan was his brother, Aeoin remembers again. And Duncan…. He claps a hand on Alistair’s arm. “Don’t worry. I don’t intend to leave that bastard anything, including his head.”

Eyes grim, Alistair nods.

“Anyway,” Aeoin says, moving away before he can pledge anything else to Alistair, like his undying love and loyalty, or something else embarrassing. “It’ll be nice to get to Redcliff. Maybe get some fucking breathing room. You can show me around, yeah? It’ll be great.”

 

“So… things are a bit different now, than the last time I was here.”

Aeoin rolls over to glare at Alistair. He’s exhausted. He’s covered in grime and gore and soot.

“The undead in particular,” Alistair continues dryly. “Those are relatively new. And when I was a boy the gates to the castle weren’t locked. Monsters never came out of them. At least, not hardly ever.” He heaves a dramatic sigh. “It’s true what they say—you can’t go home again.”

“You’re not funny,” Aeoin informs him, because he feels that it’s important for him to know.

“Lots of people think I’m funny!” Alistair protests, fully affronted.

“Name one.”

“Mange.”

The mabari in question lifts his head, pants at Alistair a few times, and then lies back down. Aeoin is mildly concerned that chomping on undead body parts all night was bad for him. Then again, it probably isn’t any worse than biting down on blighted flesh.

“Mange is a dog. His humor is limited to cat jokes, I think.”

“Alright….” Alistair visibly casts about for a second example. Leliana is off somewhere helping the Redcliff Chantry wind bandages or something, and Morrigan is… well, Morrigan isn’t really a candidate. “Sten.”

Liar.”

“It’s true! Yesterday I told him a joke and his mouth twitched. It was a smile!”

“He probably needed to burp.”

“No!”

“What was the joke?”

“…I’m not actually sure it was a joke. But he still smiled and that means I’m funny.”

“Funny looking is not the same thing.” In spite of himself Aeoin is smiling. Which was doubtless Alistair’s intent. The night was long and bloody, but they’re still here, and so are the villagers. At least one township in all of Fereldan will know the Grey Wardens are not the traitors and cowards Loghain has painted them, and maybe that will spread enough that they’ll actually stand a chance against the Blight.

“Who is funny looking?” Leliana's voice freezes the smile on his face.

“…Alistair,” he mutters, and grunts when Alistair kicks his leg.

“Kidding!” Alistair says. “Just… you know, just… joking.”

Leliana raises a skeptical eyebrow, but her pretty, generous mouth is bent into a lovely bow of a smile.

Alistair coughs. “How is Mother Hannah?”

“Grateful. No one here thought they would survive the night, and yet here we are. Thank the Maker.”

“I mean,” Aeoin says. “We did help.” He can taste the acid in his voice. It burns the back of his throat.

Leliana just smiles, as beatific as a saint. “And thank the Maker we arrived when we did, no?” There’s something teasing in her voice, but Aeoin can’t decide if she’s mocking him or just playing, just like he and Alistair were just doing. Common sense says the latter, but his own bitterness insists on the former.

He settles for rolling his eyes, but is saved from having to scoff out loud by Morrigan doing it for him. “Should we not be moving on?” the witch drawls pointedly. “We came here to speak with this Eamon, did we not?”

“No one’s getting in or out of the castle,” Alistair points out. “Except undead and demons.”

Aeoin heaves himself to his feet. “Me and Alistair will go talk to Teagan, see if he has any ideas,” he declares. “There’s always a back way in, we can poke about a bit.”

He ignores the voice that points out that this isn’t the kind of job that Alistair is best suited to. The warrior has many strong suits, but subtlety isn’t one of them. And ‘poking about,’ in Aeoin’s experience, tends to involve things like picking locks and telling lies, all things that make Alistair blush and go all jittery.

He also ignores the voice that points out that Leliana, against all odds, would be the best suited to accompany him. There’s roguish know-how under all that Chant nonsense, obvious in the way she handles a bow, and Aeoin would know.

“Come on, Mange.”

 

“Leliana is… don’t you think?” Alistair says as they trudge up the hill to the mill.

Aeoin shoots him a flat look. “What? Crazy? Sure.”

“Oh, come on!”

“Alistair, she thinks the Maker talks to her.”

“…Still.” The man’s cheeks are pink. Aeoin determinedly looks elsewhere. Alistair coughs. “Ah. Anyway. Just… silly. She wouldn’t be… anyway.”

Aeoin stops walking. It takes Alistair a few steps to realize. “What the fuck are you talking about?” he demands when the warrior turns around.

The pink on Alistair’s cheeks deepens miserably. “I just mean, you know, she wouldn’t be interested, probably. I’m just being silly. Forget I said anything!”

That is… just unacceptable.

“Alistair. You’re not… smart.”

Wait. What?

Thank you, Tabris, you’re a great friend!” Alistair’s face has gone completely red, and Aeoin shakes his head a little desperately.

“No, no, I mean—I just mean that’s fucking stupid.”

“Honestly, I’m touched, but you can stop at any time. Feel free. I can’t take this much loving support. You’ve been spending too much time with Morrigan.”

Normally he’s good at this sort of thing, Aeoin reflects. He’d once talked an angry old woman who caught him sneaking through her parlor into sharing tea with him instead of calling the guards—the woman had been mostly blind and lonely enough to be willing to believe he was her grandchild come to visit, but still.

So what the hell is happening now? Perhaps it’s just harder because it isn’t a lie.

“Let me start over.”

“You did miss an opportunity to insult my hair as well, so fire away.”

“Alistair!” Exasperated and embarrassed and feeling hopeless and stupid, Aeoin groans and covers his face with his hands. “You are great,” he says, slowly and perhaps a little louder than necessary. “The idea that… someone wouldn’t want—well, you is fucking stupid. That. That’s what I meant.”

Alistair says nothing and Aeoin puts his hands on his hips (because he suddenly doesn’t know what to do with them) and glares at the weeds they’ve stalled beside. Mange, bored with the conversation, is industriously sniffing out new and exciting things to pee on.

“Aeoin,” Alistair says hesitantly.

“You know,” Aeoin interrupts loudly, “other than the fact that you snore, and you can’t cook for shit, and your hair does that weird thing. You’re a catch.”

“What—what weird thing?!”

“You know. It… sticks up.”

“It’s the helmet!”

“It’s weird.” He bends down and snatches up a flower, thrusts it at Alistair’s chest. “Here.”

“Um,” Alistair says, eyes wide.

“Give it to Leliana,” Aeoin explains patiently, rolling his eyes.

“Oh! Are… are you sure? I mean, you really think so?”

“She’s a girl, girls like flowers. Common sense.”

Alistair still hesitates, twirling the flower uncertainly, like how he rubs his thumb over the groove on his worry stone. “Mm. Maybe,” he mumbles at last.

Aeoin shrugs and starts moving again. “Your call.”

“…Did Mange piss on this?”

 

“You don’t… really know Leliana,” Aeoin says quietly some time later. When Alistair glances at him he refuses to meet his eyes, focusing intently on the lock he’s working open. “Just… be careful. Yeah?”

“…You’re probably right,” Alistair answers quietly, then sighs a little wistfully.

Aeoin shoves a pair of steel bracers at him. “Here. Found these. Too big for me, too small for Sten.”

“Oh. …For me? Wow!”

Chapter Text

“May I sit with you?” The softly accented words take Aeoin by surprise and he looks up from fiddling with the dagger he’d found.

Leliana politely waits for his permission to sit, a softly troubled smile on her pretty face.

Aeoin drops his eyes back to the blade in his hands and shrugs. “You can sit wherever you like,” he mutters as if it makes no difference to him.

The dagger is wickedly curved and fits well in his hand. He’d found it in a chest somewhere in Redcliff castle, and since they’d already gone through so much trouble for those people he’d assumed no one would mind if he just kept it, since it had clearly been sitting around unused for a long time. It needs a bit of attention, however. The edge has gone dull and the hilt needs to be rewrapped.

He focuses on sliding the whetstone down the blade smoothly, just like Alistair showed him, and tries to ignore the girl sitting down beside him.

“I know you don’t like me much,” Leliana says at last after watching him for a while. “But I’m not sure why.”

“What makes you think that?” Aeoin murmurs in response, frowning. Maybe he should just sell the knife?

She laughs a little, a beautifully musical sound. “Please. Give me some credit, I am not a fool. Have I done something to offend?”

Aeoin sighs, feeling terrible, and puts the dagger down. “It’s nothing you’ve done. Look, I just—I’m not big on the Chantry, right? I’ve missed a few sermons. So, you, coming out of nowhere with a vision from the Maker—I just don’t think I can believe it. And I also don’t think I can really trust you—there’s too much you aren’t telling me.”

She says nothing for a while, sitting very stiffly, and Aeoin sighs. He’s offended her.

“Do you not believe in the Maker?” she asks carefully, clearly choosing to address the least of his objections to her.

He rolls his eyes. “These truths the Maker has revealed to me,” he recites, rattling the words off swiftly by rote. “As there is but one world, one life, one death, there is but one god, and He is our Maker. They are sinners, who have given their love to false gods.” He finishes the verse by thrusting a hand into the air and saying, “Bread, please.”

A glance shows him that she doesn’t understand and he sighs deeply once more.

“Chantry sisters used to come into the alienage and pass out food, whenever more elves were starving in the streets than normal,” he explains quietly, bitterly, “but you had to recite some of the Chant to get any. Fucking bullshit. If you’re gonna do charity then you should just do it, yeah? Pass out food because people are hungry if that’s what you’re gonna do. If they gotta prove they deserve it it’s not fucking charity anymore.”

He picks the blade back up and runs his thumb absently over the edge. “Anyway. Point is. I know the Chant, and the Maker and all that. Doesn’t really seem like it matters much if it’s real or not, at least not for elves.”

“What do you mean? The Maker’s light shines on all living peoples, elves included.”

He shakes his head. Typical shem. “Do you know the elven histories?”

She frowns a little. “As much as anyone. I know much knowledge was lost with the elven homelands….”

“And even more with the Dales. I remember stores my mother taught me when I was very small. The elves marched with Andraste because they believed she would help them reach freedom. And she did. But then the Chantry founded in her name led a Holy March against the Dales anyway, so what was the point?”

Leliana frowns a little deeper, and Aeoin knows she is lining up her arguments—that the elves of the Dales were hostile and worshiped false gods, probably, or that the Maker couldn’t be blamed for the actions of human beings—even His own church, fucking bullshit—so he forged ahead quickly, uninterested in hearing again what various Chantry folk had been rehashing to converts since forever.

“What I’m saying is, maybe the Maker is real—hell He probably is, the Blight is real enough. But He doesn’t much care about elves, so I don’t much care about Him.”

They fall silent for a time and Aeoin fiddles with the dagger some more, trying not to feel too guilty. The reasons he’d given are true enough, but they aren’t the real reason he doesn’t like her, and he knows it.

He doesn’t like her because she is pretty and soft and feminine and she makes Alistair blush. Which is completely out of line and Aeoin knows it. He needs to get a grip.

With a sigh he puts the dagger away and turns to face her properly.

“Look, I’m sorry. None of that is your fault or has anything to do with you, and I don’t mean to make you feel unwelcome, really. You’ve been a lot of help so far and I’m glad you joined us, whatever your reason.”

“No apology is necessary,” she assures him graciously though still frowning. “I know a great many songs and stories of history, but I must admit I’ve never really considered things from an elven point of view.”

He picks up a stick and pokes at the fire. “Of course not. You’re shemlen. And those songs and stories were written by shemlen. The elven stories burned with the Dales.”

“History is written by the victors. I should have remembered that.”

For a while they both stare into the fire. Aeoin wishes he could let go of his pointless jealousy. She seems nice and she’s fascinating to talk to. He would like to be her friend, since they will never be proper rivals for Alistair’s affection.

“So, I suppose you have a particular connection with the Dalish?” she asks eventually. She is clearly trying to build bridges between them, and he appreciates the effort. Unfortunately he has no idea what she is talking about.

“…I’m from Denerim.”

“I thought those were Dalish marks,” she explains, gesturing to his face. “Are they not?”

“…Oh. You mean the tattoos.”

“I have heard that the Dalish tattoo their faces with sacred ink.”

“I mean, I guess that’s true, but that’s not what these are. If this ink is sacred, I’m Andraste. I got drunk with my cousins and woke up three days later with them on my face. According to Shianni I was very insistent.” Father had been beside himself.

“I’ve been wanting to ask you about that,” Alistair puts in, coming up behind them and juggling three bowls. “Bad news, by the way, Morrigan made dinner.”

“Thank you, Alistair,” Leliana says, accepting a bowl of what might be stew. Aeoin feels whatever good will toward her that might have been growing shrivel at the sight of how pleased Alistair looks. He takes his own bowl silently.

“Did it hurt?” Alistair asks, and it takes Aeoin a moment to realize he is speaking to him.

“What? The tattoos?”

“I hear they use needles!”

Aeoin shrugs. “They do, but I couldn’t really tell you if it hurt or not. I was skunk drunk, don’t remember a thing.”

“The needles don’t hurt that badly,” Leliana offers thoughtfully. “But I think it depends on where you get it—and it is important to go to a professional, of course. One that can give you potions to heal your skin quickly. Otherwise an infection might mar the design.”

“You have a tattoo?” Alistair says, sounding shocked. “But I’ve never seen it.”

The Orlesian girl smiles teasingly. “I suppose that is because it is in a… private place. No?”

“Private….” Alistair turns pink.

Aeoin heaves himself to his feet. “I’m going to… find something else to eat,” he mutters.

“Ah, I don’t blame you,” Alistair says, peering intently at his dinner. “I think Morrigan does this on purpose so we don’t make her cook more—no one can actually be this bad at it.”

“Says the man who served up charbroiled squirrel the last time it was his turn to cook,” Leliana teases playfully, and Aeoin slips away.

He has to get over this somehow….

 

“I think I understand now,” Leliana says quietly they next day as they walk.

Aeoin glances at her, and her eyes are so kind and so pitying that he doesn’t have to ask what she means. “Oh—Maker’s balls,” he mutters. “Look, it’s not… what you think. Alistair isn’t like that, it’s not a big deal.”

“Do you love him?”

Aeoin… honestly isn’t sure. “He’s a remarkable man,” he says. “Probably the best friend I’ve ever had, and we haven’t even known each other that long, really.”

“You never know. Most people, I’ve found, aren’t as… single-minded as you might think—”

“No,” Aeoin interrupts firmly. “I don’t… I don’t want that.” He thinks of the drunken sailors at the tavern he once worked at, leering at him and telling him he’s pretty enough to be a girl, just because that was how elves were built. If Alistair ever did something like that Aeoin would punch his nose in.

And it would break his heart.

“It’s not like that,” he says again, faintly. “Alistair is just….”

“…Well, he’s certainly very attractive,” Leliana says after a while, clearly not understanding yet wanting to make peace. “All those muscles….”

Aeoin frowns. “Do me a favor,” he says slowly. “Don’t… don’t flirt with him unless you mean it.” She frowns, but he cuts her off with a shake of his head. “I don’t think you would try to be cruel, but… he lived in a monastery since he was ten for Andraste’s sake! He’s… sheltered.”

She hesitates, then sighs and chuckles a little. “I think I know what you mean.”

“I just don’t see him as the type for casual flirting is all. I mean. I could be wrong, just… be kind to him.”

“You are a good friend to him,” she remarks.

“I try to be. Like I said, he’s a remarkable man.”

“It makes me jealous.” When he looks at her askance she smiles cheekily. “I would like to be your friend, too. It would be nice to be looked after with such care.”

He laughs without really meaning to. “Something tells me you don’t need much looking after, but… I’d like to be your friend as well. There’s still a lot you’re not telling me though, isn’t there.”

She looks away and he sighs.

They would reach the Tower by nightfall.

 


 

The sun is shining through the trees and Alistair’s laugh is boyish and infectious. In the field below them their fellow Grey Wardens are lined up for drills, but he and Alistair have stolen away for the afternoon, and for the moment it is just the two of them, sharing a meal of soft bread and good cheese and passing a bottle back and forth. Aeoin puts his mouth were Alistair’s lips had just been and the wine or the thought of a kiss makes him dizzy.

“It’s nice to have a break for a change, isn’t it?” Alistair says, stretching out on the grass. He’s taken off most of his armor, leaving him in the soft linen he wears underneath. Aeoin struggles not to stare and wonders if he is imagining the way he almost seems to be… posing seductively. Normally the thought of Alistair doing anything “seductively” would be too ridiculous to imagine, but the sun is bright and dazzling and the wine is… very good.

“Wasn’t there something… we were supposed to be doing?” he wonders out loud.” The summer breeze is slow and warm and his stomach is full and being with Alistair is comfortable and soothing. It’s hard to focus, but… he is sure. There is something he is forgetting. “Duncan. Duncan wanted something, didn’t he? He needed us to do… something….”

Alistair’s big hand smooths down Aeoin’s arm. “It can wait.”

“Alistair?” The sunlight catches in the warrior’s hair and on his skin, transforming him into a golden idol, and his hand is so warm on Aeoin’s skin as it trails up and threads into his hair.

His hair is loose? He hasn’t worn his hair down in more than a year, not since he started taking rough jobs back at the alienage before—

“The Blight!” he blurts suddenly, urgently. “Alistair, the Blight!”

“What are you talking about, love?”

“The Blight! We were—we have to….” It is so hard to focus for some reason. But ice is forming in Aeoin’s stomach and the cold makes things clearer. “I’m… not your love,” he says slowly.

Alistair frowns and shifts closer. The hand in Aeoin’s hair suddenly feels a lot heavier, pulling him closer. “It’s the heat,” Alistair murmurs. “Just relax, sweetheart….”

For a moment everything is perfect and sweet. Alistair kisses exactly how Aeoin imagined, so… sweet.

But it’s wrong. He tries to pull back but the man kissing him moves with him. Aeoin’s stomach twists and he is suddenly reminded of the drunk who’d grabbed him and pinned him at the tavern where he used to work. He starts struggling, but Alistair is too big, too strong compared to him….

Aeoin snarls and swings his arm around, clocking the man in the temple with a solid fist that sends him sprawling. “You’re not Alistair!” he shouts as he scrambles back. Alistair wouldn’t kiss him without babbling something awkward and silly and self-conscious, without hesitating at all, and he wouldn’t keep kissing him when Aeoin wanted him to stop, and he wouldn’t kiss him, ever.

It’s not Alistair. It’s some sort of demon and suddenly he remembers everything clearly, the battle, the Blight, coming to the Tower to get help for Eamon’s son and finding it overrun with abominations and… demons.

Suddenly his sword is in his hand. He is back in his armor and so is the thing pretending to be Alistair. His hair is pulled back from his face again, and the fact that he found this illusion so convincing is suddenly insulting.

“It seems I’ve miscalculated,” the demon says, no longer using Alistair’s voice. “Pity.

Aeoin roars and attacks.

 

“Are you alright?”

Aeoin looks up and then immediately refocuses on his task of sorting through the equipment they’d picked up at the Tower. “I’m fine.”

Alistair doesn’t argue, though he easy could, merely clambers down in his armor to sit beside him and picks up a shiny green rock. “Maker’s blood,” he mutters, “do you have to pick up every piece of junk we come across?”

Aeoin plucks the stone from his grasp and tosses it in to ‘sell’ pile, which Bodahn is already picking through with a critical eye and a tally sheet. “We need money. Something tells me footing an army is going to be fucking expensive.” That, and, well, Aeoin has sticky fingers. It isn’t enough just to get into a locked chest, he has to take what’s in it, too. His lock picking skills are improving by the day.

“Good point,” Alistair mutters.

“Plus having extra equipment around might be useful if we keep picking up people.”

“Sure. And yet, why do I feel so certain I’m going to be the one carrying it all?”

Alistair,” Aeoin admonishes absently with mock affront. “We can’t make Wynn carry it, she’s old. And besides, you’re so strong.”

“Honestly. Are you alright?” His eyes are so kind and so concerned—so different from that false golden idol.

How did I ever mistake that demon for you? Aeoin thinks.

“You’ve barely said a word since we left the Tower,” Alistair continues quietly. “With everything that happened I just wanted to make sure…”

“So, I can see why you didn’t want to be a Templar,” Aeoin says briskly, bundling together some arrows to be passed to Leliana. “Those guys are sort of assholes.”

After a moment Alistair huffs a small laugh. “Zealots are… encouraged within the order,” he says. “It’s all very holier than thou—I hated it. I suppose mostly because I don’t think of myself as particularly holy.”

“That’s not a bad thing, seriously. Leliana is just about the only ‘holy’ person I’ve ever met I could actually stand to have a conversation with—and I like her a lot more when she isn’t talking about the Maker.”

Alistair sighs and leans back on his hands. “I’ve met a few who weren’t so bad. And it wasn’t all bad. I liked… the discipline. The unity of purpose…. But with the Chantry there’s always so much pressure to be perfect, and if you’re not you’re a disgrace, a disappointment to Andraste herself. I’ll let you guess which category I fell under most of the time. Plus… hunting down maleficarum or finding apostates who would use their power to hurt people is one thing, but… the rest of the time you mostly just stand around, feeling like jailor and executioner for people who mostly haven’t done anything wrong. Kids even.”

“I think I know what you mean. I think if we’d gone through with purging the Tower like those Templars wanted, Wynn would have gone spare, right? I never really thought of mages before—there was one kid in the alienage who turned out to have magic and their parents took them right to the Chantry just like you’re supposed to. I guess they were sad, maybe, but mostly everyone was kind of excited. We figured they had a better chance with the Circle than with the alienage. Less likely to starve, anyway.”

“Any idea what happened to them?”

“No. Their parents moved to Highever a few years after. Can’t even remember the kid’s name—Suran or something, I think. Shit—they’re probably dead, right? I didn’t see any elves there, did you?”

“Maybe they weren’t sent to Kinloch, there are a lot of mage circles.”

“Yeah, maybe….” He picks up an axe and tests the blade. He likes the look of the thing and how it feels in his hand. Alistair tells him it’s impressive how quickly he’s learning to use a sword, but it still feels awkward to him.

“So… what did that demon show you?” Alistair asks after a moment. “You never said.”

Aeoin makes the quick and easy decision to never, ever tell him, between one breath and the next. “Oh,” he says, “it was… Duncan. We’d won the battle and defeated the archdemon and he was… welcoming me into the Order, or something.”

“Ah. How’d you know it wasn’t real?”

“I keep telling you not to feel bad about that—Wynn was fooled for a while, too, and she was even harder to wake up than you were.”

“I know, I know. I’m just curious—how could you tell?”

Aeoin hesitates. “…Every time he spoke to me it hurt,” he says slowly. “I couldn’t figure out why at first, since he was saying everything I wanted to hear, but… turns out it was because part of me knew it wasn’t true. So there you go.”

Alistair claps him on the shoulder in a gesture of solidarity, and Aeoin sighs, smiling a little. It’s enough. It will be enough.

“Dinner,” Wynn announces, approaching with a few bowls to hand out. “It’s porridge.”

Aeoin accepts his portion with thanks and stirs it with his spoon.

Then he stirs some more.

Then he sets the bowl aside. “So, Wynn can’t cook either,” he says to Alistair conversationally.

Alistair grunts glumly as he shovels the thick stuff down, clearly trying not to taste it.

“Why you assumed I could is beyond me,” Wynn says, clearly disgruntled.

“Well,” Alistair hedges.

“You’re old,” Aeoin finishes.

The old mage flaps an irritated hand at them and walks away, scoffing.

Chapter Text

Aeoin can’t really explain why he doesn’t just kill the assassin. Maybe it’s just been too long since he’s seen another elf and something like a vague sense of shared heritage—Valendrian’s old adage of ‘kin and kind’ echoing in his head—stays his hand.

Or maybe it’s because the man had been so calm and accepting as Aeoin decided his fate—to kill him or let him live and owe them a dept. Aeoin is certain he’ll never get used to holding that kind of power, though everyone from Alistair to Teagan to Greagoir at the Tower seems determined to pass it to him.

Aeoin suspects that the real reason he didn’t kill him was simply that, well, Zevran is… incredibly beautiful. He has the distinct feeling that he knows it, and he strongly suspects that the assassin knows that Aeoin thinks so, too.

Or maybe he flirts like that with everyone.

Most of the others of their band don’t approve of Zevran joining them, either because they find his profession distasteful or because they feel he will inevitably betray them, and he seems to respond to their animosity by… pretending he doesn’t notice it. He chatters on the road, leers at Leliana and Morrigan—and even Wynn—and makes suggestive eye-waggling comments to Alistair and Sten—who respond either with sputters (Alistair) or stony disapproval (Sten) that leave Zevran not at all daunted.

He is cheerful, he is friendly, he is flirty, he is… a really, really bad idea. But then again, Aeoin has already proven himself drawn to those, hasn’t he.

“I didn’t expect you to be so trusting,” Alistair says as they watch dinner bubble in its little pot. It’s Aeoin’s night to cook. Everyone is quietly steeling themselves. Aeoin is trying to remember how much salt Shianni puts into her rats-meat-stew. (It’s not actually rats meat. He’s not actually sure what the little creature he killed outside camp is, but he is satisfied that his aim is improving.)

“Why not?” he says cheerfully, giving the pot a stir. The spoon sticks ominously. “So far I’ve taken in apostates, murderers, and a girl who thinks the Maker thinks she’s special. What’s an assassin among friends?”

“I guess you have a point.”

Aeoin claps Alistair on the shoulder, willing him not to press further and knowing he will not. The big guy has already proven himself more than willing to follow Aeoin’s lead.

Saying nothing (trying to be casual), Aeoin serves up an extra helping and carries it to the corner of camp that Zevran has staked out as his own. The Antivan is busying himself with some ichor they’d picked up, his hands deft and sure as he handles the caustic materials.

“Do you have any spare flasks, my dear Warden?” he asks as Aeoin approaches.

“What for?”

“I like to make myself useful.” Zevran cheerfully shrugs, and Aeoin finds himself smiling in spite of himself. “Flasks, some distilling agent—I could make you a lovely little supply of bombs and potions, yes?”

Alistair and Sten would probably be highly suspicious of letting the assassin handle dangerous materials.

Aeoin shrugs. “I’ll look into it. Here. I brought you some dinner.”

“Ah, so this is Fereldan cooking?” With enthusiastic thanks, Zevran serves himself up a generous spoonful. “I have never been more homesick,” he announces with his usual cheer after struggling for a few minutes to force the stew down.

Aeoin laughs. “Is it that bad?”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, my dear Warden. I am sure boiled… whatever this is is a fine delicacy. I simply cannot help but notice you Fereldans have a most peculiar aversion to spices. Other than salt. And that is not a spice. And the way you torture your meat so! It’s utterly heartless—and believe me, I know torture!”

“Well, we are on the road, practically penniless, going into winter, in the middle of a Blight, and on the verge of civil war.”

“Ah, excuses, excuses.”

“And no one in this group knows how to cook. When it’s Sten’s turn he serves us raw turnips and meat and says it’s the qunari way, or something. No one believes him but we don’t want to argue, either. Perhaps you’ll do better when it’s your turn.”

Zevran eyes him skeptically. “Excuse me? My turn? As in… to cook? Oh, no, no, no, no, my dear Warden—”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, my dear assassin. Everyone has to take a turn. Except Mange. He helps me when it’s my turn.”

“That explains so much,” Zevran mutters, raising an eyebrow and giving his stew another suspicious stir. Then he puts his bowl aside and shifts subtly closer, leering. “Perhaps you and I could come to a… separate arrangement, yes?”

Aeoin feels his heart speed up, but he stands his ground. “Oh?”

“Yes,” Zevran purrs. “Think of it like… a trade. Exchange of labors, so to speak.”

“What kind of labors?” Aeoin feels pretty certain he can guess, but… he’d spent enough time around the whores at the Pearl to understand the nature of the game they are playing, at least in theory.

Zevran chuckles and it moves straight through Aeoin’s chest like a warm wave. “Let’s just say, my skills do not lie in the kitchen. It would be my pleasure to show you, of course….”

“Hm.” Aeoin focuses on his unappealing dinner to keep control of his blushing face. “I think… I’d rather have you cook me some Antivan delicacies. I’ve never had… Antivan.”

Zevran pauses. Then he laughs, tossing his head back in loud, careless mirth, and it is no longer the darkly promising sound it was before. Aeoin is disappointed, but… also a little relived. He doesn’t like feeling in over his head. “Can’t blame me for trying,” the assassin says cheerily.

“And I hope you’ll try again,” Aeoin answers, not quite making eye contact. If he looks Zevran in the eye they’ll be no containing his blush and he’ll have to go ask Alistair to cave his head in or something. Though maybe Sten would be a better choice….

“Oh, I’m sure I will, my dear Warden, I’m sure I will. I am an optimist at heart.”

“A little unexpected, in an assassin.” Aeoin hopes to get Zevran talking about himself and he isn’t disappointed. For a man who makes his living as he does, he seems shockingly open about himself.

“And why would that be?” he says with a shrug. “You were perhaps expecting me to be all doom and gloom from the shadows? My job can be bloody, but that does not mean I cannot enjoy myself. No one knows better than an assassin how quickly life can end, so why not embrace it fully? Besides. You are not so different, are you? My dear Warden?”

Aeoin raises an eyebrow. “I kill darkspawn. That’s hardly the same as murdering prices in their beds.”

He worries for a moment over insulting him, but Zevran unexpectedly laughs. “I have never killed a prince in his bed!” he declares, feigning affront. “Though there was that one special job when I killed one in his mistress’s bed—ah I will have to tell you that story, but some other time. What I mean is—you kill darkspawn, and the occasional bandit or blood mage, soldiers sent by Loghain when the opportunity arises… and you love it. You live for the battle. You enjoy killing. Perhaps even more than I do.”

The fire in front of them pops. Off to one side, at the edge of camp, Mange grunts and pants happily as he digs in the loose, loamy soil.

“…Ah, I have offended you, perhaps,” Zevran says quietly after long minutes of silence. “Forgive me, my friend, I did not—”

“I enjoy fighting,” Aeoin confesses slowly as he stares into the fire. “But I kill because I have to, because if I don’t my enemy will kill me and my friends. But I don’t kill just to be killing. I spared you, didn’t I?”

Zevran’s eyes are glittering and unreadable. “You did, my dear Warden, and believe me I am ever grateful for my life. But… tell me something. Whatever would you be doing with yourself if it were not for this Blight and this war?”

Aeoin thinks of the alienage. Thinks of marrying… whatever her name was or, more likely, getting carted off by the garrison to die in a cell or under torture. He imagines a life where Duncan never came for him and he never learned the feel of a weapon in either hand or the singing of his blood in the midst of battle, with Alistair and Mange charging forth beside him and Leliana and Morrigan at his back.

“…I would probably be eating a decent meal,” he says at last, faintly.

Zevran lets the silence hang between them for just long enough then tosses his lovely blond head back and laughs once more. “Ah, I suppose that is true enough, my dear Warden, true enough. Tell me, we are headed to Denerim, yes?”

Aeoin nods slowly. “We should arrive sometime tomorrow, if we make good time.”

“Then we should both rest, should we not? Alas, this tent seems so very lonely….”

“I’ll send Mange over to keep you company.” They are back on lighter ground, it would seem.

“That is not exactly what I had in mind….”

Smirking a little, Aeoin settles before the fire, thinking to stay up a little while longer, and after a while Alistair comes to join him as the rest of the party retires, as has become their custom.

“I think Zevran just threatened to invade my tent,” he complains as he sits. “Naked.”

Aeoin laughs and passes his fellow Warden a bottle of ale he’d been saving. “Tell you what, I’ll check under your bedroll for naked Antivans.”

Alistair grumbles and passes the bottle back. “Denerim tomorrow,” he remarks. “That’s where you’re from, isn’t it?”

“The alienage there, yes. If we have time I’d like to stop by…. If news of the battle has reached home by now my father will be beside himself.”

“Oh! Yes, absolutely! And, um… you remember what we talked about before?”

Aeoin smiles and claps the man on the back. “I didn’t forget. We’ll track your sister down, I promise.”

Alistair beams, then ducks his head self-consciously. “Thanks. I, uh, I thought about bringing presents, maybe? For her children, but I don’t actually know how many she has, or boys or girls, or—maybe I can take them out or something? If we have time, I mean.”

“I’m sure we will,” Aeoin assures him, powerless to deny the bigger man anything in the face of all that hopeful optimism.

He is actually looking forward to Denerim, which he finds surprising given how he left and how eager he remembers being to escape. Even returning to the alienage, though he suspects that is because this time he’ll be returning to leave again. He wouldn’t be stuck there, he’s free.

 

Less than twelve hours later Aeoin looks back dismally on the optimism from the night before and wants to scream or hit something. Preferably Goldanna’s shrewy face. The idea that she might not want Alistair as her brother had never occurred to him, and his inability to shield his dearest friend from her rejection lodges behind his heart.

“Alistair,” he says helplessly once they’ve stumbled away back into the street. “I’m so sorry.”

“No it’s my own fault,” Alistair says, his voice hopelessly bitter. “I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I thought… I thought my sister would just accept me and that would be it.”

Aeoin casts his eyes desperately to the others, but Zevran is studiously pretending to examine some goods at a nearby stall and Leliana has gone with him to give Alistair privacy, though she shoots pitying, sad glances their way.

“You don’t need her, Alistair,” Aeoin says, swallowing thickly. “You have other people who care about you.”

But Alistair just scoffs, still not looking directly at him. “Like…?” he mutters dismissively. “The only person who’s ever really wanted me was Duncan. And he’s gone, now.”

Aeoin feels like he’s been hit with a knock-back arrow directly in the chest. “Like me!” he cries desperately before he can stop himself. “You—you have friends, Alistair, I’m one of them! I care about you!” More than the big, beautiful man would ever know.

I’m your friend,” he continues fiercely. “And that’s got nothing to do with the Order, it’s because of this.” He lifts Alistair’s arm and crosses it with his own so that their bracers clash together. “You stand up for me. You stand beside me, and I know there’s nothing we can’t do. There is no one I trust more.”

Finally Alistair breaks from his bitter reflections to stare at Aeoin in apparent shock, utterly flabbergasted that Aeoin holds him in such high regard, and that simple fact makes Aeoin’s heart ache.

“I… thank you,” he says slowly. “I… I have to think about this. I’m sorry. Let’s just move on.”

Aeoin hesitates. He still wants to see his father, but he isn’t sure is Alistair will appreciate meeting someone else’s family after the colossal failure of his own.

 “I’d still like to go visit the alienage,” he says carefully. “Just really quickly. You don’t have to come with me, but… I mean my father will probably feed us at the very least.” If Aeoin can count on anything it’s his father taking one look at his son and his new friends and instantly fussing over all of them, and maybe that would help.

“Don’t worry about me,” Alistair mutters. He flashes a smile that is about as convincing as a wig on a mabari. “Lead the way.”

Still uncertain, Aeoin glances at the others, who have wandered back close enough to talk. “Would you two like to come as well?”

“I’ve never been to an elven Alienage before,” Leliana remarks cheerfully—which… honestly sets Aeoin’s teeth on edge. He’d always hated the shems coming through like tourists, marveling at the squalor and patting themselves on the back for passing out pennies—but he lets it be.

Zevran is looking at him oddly, but he smiles and shrugs as if he doesn’t care. Which he likely doesn’t.

Nodding, Aeoin gestures toward the far corner of the market, where a gate separates the elves from the ‘decent’ folk of the marketplace. “It’s not far. And… it’s not much, but we can probably convince my cousin to cook for us.” He already can’t wait to see what Shianni will make of Alistair….

But… the gate is closed. The alienage is locked down.

“Orders from the new arl,” the posted guard says dismally. “He’s not taking any chances with the alienage, not since the elves rioted and killed the old arl’s son. No one gets in or out.”

Shocks of guilt run through Aeoin and turn his thoughts into a distant buzz. That was him. He’d brought this down on his old home and everyone left behind inside while he escaped with Duncan.

The last time there were riots in the Alienage, Soris and Shianni lost both their parents. And Adaia. Killed by garrison guardsmen sent in to put the upstart “knife-ears” back in their place by any means necessary, when Aeoin was so small that he barely remembers her.

“But I’m from the alienage!” he hears himself protest dimly. His father… is his father alright? If no one can leave, no one can work—he’ll lose his position in the nobleman’s house. And food—everyone will starve before long.

The guard winces. “I wouldn’t be announcing that too loudly around here if I were you. There’s nothing I can do.”

Aeoin just stares at him. He thinks about rushing the guard—there’s only one and he has grown skilled at fighting. The lock on the gate couldn’t be too hard to crack….

Someone puts a hand on his arm and pulls him gently and insistently away. “You have been most informative,” Zevran says to the guard. Then, softly into Aeoin’s ear, “We cannot draw this much attention to ourselves, my friend. Come.”

Feeling dull and blank with shock and guilt, Aeoin goes.

Away from the gate, he leans heavily against the wall and struggles to collect himself. When he looks up Zevran is watching him with eyes full of… pity. That more than anything drives him away from the edge of panic—the last thing he wants is the beautiful assassin’s pity.

Scowling, he turns away and stares hard at the wall while nearby Alistair clumsily tries to find something to say.

Then his eyes focus properly and he realizes what he’s staring at, and he snatches the flier off the wall to read it more closely then turns and pushes it in front of Alistair’s face, cutting off his halting condolences. “Could this be real?” he asks—demands, and waits impatiently for him to read it through.

“More Warden survivors?” Alistair sputters excitedly.

“Or sympathizers,” Aeoin agrees, but grimly.

“This seems like a trap,” Zevran puts in, and Aeoin raises a pointed, agreeing eyebrow. It was certainly suspiciously blatant for the middle of the Denerim market.

“It’s worth looking into though, isn’t it?” Alistair insists. Distantly, Aeoin is glad that the man’s optimistic spirit seems to be recovering itself. “If there’s a chance.”

“We could use more allies,” Leliana points out. “I have reservations, too, but it could be worth the risk.”

“I know the Pearl,” Aeoin says. “I might still have friends there.”

“Oh?” He glances at Zevran, who has an eyebrow raised and a teasing smirk on his face. Clearly he knows what kind of establishment the Pearl is.

“I’m full of surprises,” Aeoin answers, smirking back.

“So are we going?” Alistair insists impatiently, and Aeon nods.

“We’re going.” He’d be going to the Pearl anyway. If anyone can tell him what’s doing in the alienage, it’s that bordello’s mistress.

Chapter Text

The Pearl is exactly as he remembers: a little seedy but clean, the tabletops and bar gleaming to a high polish and the mistress of the house overlooking everything with a steely gaze that misses nothing, her bouncers threatening shadows in the corners while pretty girls and boys flirt and lounge about invitingly with blouses pulled low over breasts pushed high.

As they enter, Leliana looks around and says, “Oh,” very quietly, but she does not seem displeased. Alistair, unsurprisingly, doesn’t seem to realize yet, and Zevran… well, Zevran of course seems right at home.

“It’s you,” Sanga says when Aeoin seeks her out. If she’s at all surprised to see him she certainly doesn’t show it, crossing her arms over her chest and giving him a look that says clearly she recognizes trouble when she sees it. Over her right shoulder her favorite tough looms aggressively, but Aeoin knows him, has diced with him, ignores him.

“I wanna buy some information,” he says, seeing no sense in attempting further pleasantries.

She regards him suspiciously for a moment, but eventually nods toward the bar and lets them lead the way over. Aeoin puts down one of their precious few gold sovereigns, but she shakes her head. “Prices have gone up.”

He scowls. “I thought I got friend rates.” He’s not above reminding her of the things he’d done for her and the Pearl when he was running around doing shady jobs a year ago, the bodies he’d dragged out the back and into the harbor before the guards came looking, the packages he’d picked up and delivered no questions asked.

She is utterly unmoved. “You’re a dangerous friend to have at the moment, so that is friend rates.”

Pursing his lips, he puts down another coin. He’d planned on picking up a few jobs while they were in town anyway, and not just Chantry Board listings, either. There’s no reason to think the Gnarled Noble hasn’t continued its brisk, crooked little side business of connecting shady folks who need a job done with shady folks who can do them.

The mistress lifts her chin and waits.

“What’s doing in the alienage?” He means to ask about the meeting first—“the griffon will rise again” and all that—but it just comes out.

“Riots,” she answers with a shrug. “New arl wants control but he can’t be seen as inciting more violence by sending guards in again, so he’s likely trying to starve the rebellion out. Chantry goes in with food once every two weeks—one of the sisters wouldn’t drop it until he agreed—but other than that’s it’s no one in, no one out. Some of my girls were home visiting family and now they’re stuck—if they’re even still alive.”

Aeon swallows a thick lump in his throat. “Lot of people died?”

“You know how it is.”

Yes. He does. “Can anyone get a message in?”

She pauses. “Perhaps,” she allows. “For a price. But….”

“But?”

She gives him a flat, hard look. “You’re not stupid,” she reminds him, and Aeoin looks away.

Taking a deep breath, he puts another coin on the table. “I heard something about a meeting.”

She actually hesitates, which is all the answer Aeoin needs. Someone has already paid her and paid her well. She would say no more, but she didn’t have to. Aeoin has good instincts when it comes to sensing out traps.

“You’ve been very helpful,” he says, lifting his hand from the coins.

Sanga looks him in the eye and sweeps up two, leaving the third. “I did think you were dead,” she says, almost an afterthought. It was the closest to an apology he would ever get from her. Friend rates, indeed. “Make sure your friends know the rules about my girls.”

Grimly, Aeoin watches her go then turns back to his companions. “Trap,” he says. “But we should go back anyway, see what information we can get.”

The nature of the establishment seems to be slowly dawning on Alistair, judging by the gradual seep of red up his neck, but he nods gamely, only a little distracted. “Right. If someone is trying to catch Grey Wardens it would be best to know who.”

“Who else?” Aeoin answers with a shrug. It had to be Loghain, maybe Howe. He glances at Zevran with a raised eyebrow. “Seems your employers don’t have much faith in you.”

Zevran shrugs. “More likely someone found the ruins of my own failed ambush and they think me dead. Still. It is a little insulting, especially considering how much he paid for me. As I have already told you, the Crows will be sending more to finish the job, and I doubt they will appreciate the interference.”

Aeoin laughs and he doesn’t care if it’s a little bloodthirsty. “Let’s go clear the way, then.”

“I must say, Warden, I am impressed,” Zevran says conversationally as they head toward the back rooms. “Clearly attempting to ambush you was a mistake. If I had to try all over again I would do things very differently.”

“How so?” Aeoin asks, searching for the correct door. One of the whores recognizes him and he awkwardly waves, then meaningfully touches the hilt of his dagger. She points him in the right direction and hustles out of the way.

“For a man such as yourself? An assassin’s best bet would be to try to gain your confidence. Get as close as possible and pray to the Maker for an opportunity to strike when your guard is down.”

Alistair’s armor creaks ominously. “That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in you, now does it?” he drawls.

But Aeoin laughs. “Oh, Alistair,” he says fondly. “I’m certain any would-be assassin knows to factor you into their plans to kill me—and me into any plans to kill you.”

Zevran laughs as well, bright and full of mirth. “Oh, without doubt, my dear Warden. Without doubt.”

 

“I am a little surprised at how… familiar you are with an establishment such as this,” Zevran says some hours later.

Aeoin stares and tries to remember how long the other elf has been sitting beside him, but it’s hard to focus through the haze of possibly-too-much ale. After clearing out the thugs (Howe is going to have to do better) the party had… found reason to linger a while in the taproom. Zevran’s pirate friend was still carousing in the corner and even Sanga had relented a bit and seemed almost friendly since they’d cleared out the riffraff for her without causing too much of a scene.

“…What do you mean?” he asks after probably too long of a pause.

Zevran chuckles indulgently. He has a laughing voice and sad eyes. He smiles so much, speaks so much, and yet says so little, seems so, so sad. Aeoin wants to taste him.

He has definitely had too much ale.

“You hardly seem like the sort who needs to pay for it,” Zevran says, a teasing smirk on his lips.

Aeoin shrugs and peers into his tankard to resist the urge to lick that smirk. “I used to work here from time to time,” he explains absently. The last few sips are always the worse, but such a waste not to drink them….

Beside him, Zevran has grown strangely still. “Oh?”

Aeoin shrugs again. He’s not really tracking the conversation and he knows it. “Waiting tables, cleaning up drunks, that sort of thing. Not often ‘cause I didn’t do room work and a lot of the customers, when they get drunk, they can’t tell the difference. Causes problems, yeah? But, if the usual server couldn’t come in, or if Sanga needed an errand run or something.”

He’d gotten to know some of the workers pretty well, actually. He wasn’t sure why they liked him—because he didn’t try to fuck them just because they were whores, maybe, or because he brought his dice with him when he came and was good for a game or two on the sly, or maybe because he never backed down from a grabby would-be customer, even if all he did was get his ass beat until the actual bouncers showed up. He could admit to a level of fascination on his part, and, Maker, he’d been so fucking young. Was that really only a few months ago?

One, an elf named Dinys, had had the most beautiful blond curls that he brushed out every night so that they looked like a halo of holy light around his head. His Chantry-choir looks had made him particularly popular, but somehow Aeoin had drawn his eye.

They’d tossed dice a few times (not a euphemism, Maker) and Aeoin had marveled between the difference between Dinys-the-Whore, who batted his eyelashes and pouted like a coquette and wore shirts several sizes too big that draped off the shoulder and made him look even smaller than he was, and not-working-Dinys, who cheated at dice and swore like a fiend.

Aeoin remembers sitting with him on the bed—the sleeping bed, Dinys had called it, not the working bed—passing a wine bottle back and forth, the two of them pressed together from shoulder to hip.

It had been either very late at night or early in the morning, either after the Pearl had closed or before it opened for the day, Aeoin cannot remember which, and Dinys had said, out of the blue, “You could kiss me sometime.”

Aeoin remembers the feeling of his entire face turning red and Dinys laughing softly like he thought Aeoin was cute.

“I really wouldn’t mind,” Dinys had said.

And Aeoin answered, “Maybe I will,” but his face still felt so warm.

“Don’t want to kiss me when I’ve been working?” Dinys guessed, and when Aeoin looked at him there was something bitter and rueful in the curve of his lips.

“It’s not that,” he said, and it wasn’t. It was just that… Aeoin had never kissed anyone. And Dinys was so beautiful…. He would laugh at him, Aeoin was sure. But he didn’t say that. What he said was, “I’m supposed to be getting married. They found… someone for me in Highever. She’ll be here in a week.”

“Ah,” Dinys said wisely, nodding. “A proper alienage marriage, then?”

And Aeoin nodded.

Dinys kissed Aeoin on the cheek and said, “I’m sure you’ll make a fine husband.” And Aeoin never told him that he didn’t want to be a husband at all, fine or otherwise, and he never did kiss Dinys properly.

The Pearl girls say Dinys had been in the alienage, visiting his sister when the riots started. No one knows for sure whether he is still alive.

Zevran, Aeoin suddenly realizes, has the oddest look on his face, and his lips keep twitching.

“What?”

Zevran laughs. “You, my friend, are a very interesting man.”

Aeoin smiles at that and, suddenly shy, wants to hide behind his tankard. “Interesting is… good?” he ventures.

Zevran leers and leans closer. “I certainly think so. Better than dull, anyway.”

Zevran isn’t like Dinys. For one thing Aeoin can’t imagine Dinys being half do comfortable in a fight to the death. But… there is a certain quality there that suggests a kinship, a similar habit of facing the darkness of the world with a wry smile. But, unlike Zevran, Dinys hadn’t bothered to hide the kindness in him behind an uncaring front.

Zevran would also know far more about kissing than Aeoin, should he ever have a chance to kiss him. With Zevran the risk might be worth it, however.

“Tell me something,” the Antivan says, still close enough to reach out and touch. “What are we doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

A shrewd glance and a raised eyebrow, as if Zevran thinks Aeoin is playing coy. “I know you are not the sort to let a guard and a lock stand in your way. And I know also that the most obvious avenues into a place are rarely the only ones. Why have you not gone to the alienage? You seemed quite desperate for news of your family.”

Aeoin sighs and looks back at his tankard. “I was. Am. I feel like I’m going crazy, but….” He gestures vaguely toward the back, where they’d killed the thugs hired by Howe only a few hours ago. “I mean, look around. I don’t…. I don’t want to call down any more trouble for my family than I already have.”

The riots, the lockdown—it’s all his fault. He’d thought that being conscripted into the Wardens would be enough to ward off the consequences of killing Vaughan, but… only he had been so lucky. And while he is finally free of the alienage, free to travel and to fight, his family suffers for his actions.

They’re better off without him.

“A handsome face such as yours should not frown so,” Zevran says quietly. When Aeoin looks up the Antivan is very close and looking at him with clear intent. Aeoin might have no practical experience at all, but he isn’t a fool. He understands, and he feels an answering stir as he meets Zevran’s gaze. “Let me cheer you up….”

But, the fragile bridge between them cannot withstand the injection of a very large blond Templar, who crashes between them and leans drunkenly against their section of the bar.

“Aeoin, help,” Alistair moans. “One of those… those girls just asked me to go into the back with her and I don’t know what to do.”

Flushed, Aeoin continues to stare at Zevran over Alistair’s bent head, watching the promising flush turn to shock then annoyance then faint amusement. “Have a good time and remember to tip generously?” Zevran suggests, apparently just for the simple joy of watching Alistair’s ears turn pink.

“No,” he wails, “I… can’t!”

Aeoin drains the dregs from his tankard and bangs it on the counter to call the barkeep over for a refill. “Which one? Moll? Yeah, I remember she likes big fellows like you….”

“Can’t you… I don’t know, call her off or something?”

“Are you sure? This could be your chance to, you know… lick a few lampposts.”

“If lampposts are what you are interested in I can see why would want to avoid that one,” Zevran leers. “I can point you toward a few lampposts if you like. Though I am surprised, Alistair, I had no idea lampposts were your thing! I thought you were strictly interested in….” He casts about for an appropriately filthy metaphor.

“…Wheelbarrows?” Aeoin suggests dubiously.

Zevran laughs so hard they draw the attention of the rest of the bar.

Alistair glares at them both dolefully. “I don’t like this. Aeoin, you’re supposed to be on my side.

Aeoin chuckles fondly. “Oh, Alistair.”

 

“…Does anyone know where Leliana got off to?”

“Ha. I knew two years was too long.”

 


 

The next day dawns with rain, a dismal lead on Brother Genetivi that involves a corpse (because of course it does), and splitting headaches all around. While supposedly tracking down leads on some work in the market (and some marks for light crime, if Zevran and Leliana are up to it), Aeoin finds himself staring once more in the direction of the alienage. For a moment he wishes there was something he could do, some message he could send to let his father know he is alright. By now everyone likely believes that he’d died with the other Grey Wardens along with the king.

That might be safer, though, for his family. Better to think him dead than become targets for Loghain and his cronies.

Sighing, Aeon turns to the others to tell them about his plans to check at the Gnarled Noble for a few quick jobs… and catches Alistair staring in much the same way he himself had just been, toward the corner of the market where his sister’s house sits.

Zevran and Leliana are a short distance away, ostensibly looking over some goods in a stall, though really Zevran is trying to tease the details of what she’d gotten up to the night before out of Leliana. Leliana sweetly claims that she and one of the girls (Claudia, maybe) had lost track of time chatting about shoes.

Aeoin and Alistair are, for the moment, alone.

“…Alistair?”

The Templar shakes himself slightly, startled. “Hm? Sorry?”

“You’re not still thinking about her, are you? She’s not worth it.”

Alistair scoffs, his hangover making him crabbier than normal. “Easy for you to say,” he mutters. “You have a family.”

Aeoin bites back his first angry retort, reigning himself in solely because it is Alistair and irritated at himself about it. “Might not,” he says tightly. “At this point, I don’t know, do I? Riots are bad—the alienage is too small for anyone to get away from the violence. People die. Lots. Whole tenements get burned down.”

“Oh… Maker, I’m. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“You know the cousins I’ve told you about? They lived with me and my father since we were kids. They’re not actually my cousins—I mean, we’re not related by blood. When you’re a kid in the alienage, all the grownups are auntie and uncle, because all the families are all overlapped and everyone looks out for everyone else. You know, mostly.

“Soris and Shianni were out neighbors, and when their parents died—the last time there was riots—Father took them in. I call them my cousins because they are my family. And it’s not blood that makes them so.”

For a moment neither of them say anything.

“Goldanna was my last living relation in the world,” Alistair says in a small voice. “That means something. It means something to me.”

It doesn’t, Aeoin wants to shout. All it means is that Goldanna is a fool…. “I meant what I said,” he says out loud. “You don’t need her. Family… I believe that family is something you make. Duncan was your family, and the rest of the Wardens. And I know we’ve lost the rest of them, but you’re not alone. You’ve still got me. I could be your family.”

He hadn’t meant to say that last part. Not out loud. And as Alistair looks at him oddly he knows he’s gone too far. Too much, Alistair isn’t—

“You… you could?”

Aeoin scowls hard at an unlucky pebble, imagining it as a boulder he could use to crush himself to death. “You’re my best friend, Alistair,” he mutters, sounding furiously pissed off about it. “Order’s like a brotherhood, right?”

More silence.

Damnit. He’s fucked everything up—

“I always wanted a little brother,” Alistair says slowly.

Aeoin stares at him, dumbfounded and uncertain how to feel. “…Little?” he says faintly. “The fuck are you trying to say, there?”

Alistair… laughs. “I am older, right?” he points out teasingly. “Wait, how old are you? Doesn’t matter, it’s not the reason that comes immediately to mind.”

“Oh, I’ll show you. Come here.” It takes some effort (and some climbing) but eventually he’s able to get an arm around the much taller man’s neck. A headlock is much more difficult to perform on Alistair than it had ever been on, say, Soris, and it isn’t nearly as satisfying since all Alistair has to do is straighten his back and Aeoin is dangling from his neck like a pendant.

Still, it’s worth it, especially when he roughs his knuckles over Alistair’s scalp.

“No, not the hair!” Alistair protests, laughing. He retaliates by swinging Aeoin around in a wide circle, but the elf hangs on like a determined mabari, even when he feels his feet leave the ground. He feels lighter than he has in weeks.

A delicate cough interrupts the horseplay. The other two have caught up, and Zevran lifts a pale eyebrow at them, amused. Behind him, Leliana is covering her giggling behind her palm.

With a parting noogie, Aeoin releases his grip and drops to the ground. “Right,” he says briskly, clapping his hands. “We need money to get to Haven—wherever the fuck that is, something tells me ‘far’—and I know how to get it.”

“The Chanter’s Board?” Alistair says.

Aeoin chuckles. “Oh, Alistair. Just follow my lead.”

 

The bundled up corpse drops down the drain and lands in the river below with a hollow splash. Aeoin wipes his hands and surreptitiously checks to make sure that the Chantry sisters are still arguing about scripture and not paying them any attention.

Alistair is frowning, one hand grasping his chin as if in deep thought.

Aeoin hesitates. He… should have suggested Alistair stay at the inn. Fuck.

“This… isn’t right,” Alistair says slowly.

“Alistair….”

“It’s not sanitary!”

“…What?”

“Aeoin, that’s a well! People drink from it!”

Chapter Text

“Here. I found these.” Zevran accepts the boots Aeoin all but shoves at him with bemused grace while Aeoin avoids eye contact and mentally berates himself for being so awkward. Finding trinkets and passing them along to whoever he feels might appreciate them most—steel greaves and warrior figures for Alistair, flowers for Leliana, books for Wynn—was nothing new. The rest of the party barely seemed to notice it anymore, accepting the baubles with quick thanks. No need for him to be making such a fuss over a pair of particularly rank smelling boots.

On the long road to Haven from Denerim, he and Zevran had spent a lot of time talking, and Aeoin had found that he liked the assassin very much indeed. Late nights around the fire with Alistair had expanded to include another, and though Alistair had yet to thaw completely, Aeoin realized he was helpless to resist Zevran’s considerable charms.

He honestly isn’t sure which is more embarrassing: pining after a man who is both uninclined and oblivious, or stumbling puppy-like after one so knowledgeable and experienced he would most likely laugh should Aeoin ever attempt to kiss him. He feels pathetic and not at all like a brave and capable Grey Warden, so he tries to focus on what he knows he’s good at. Like killing darkspawn (and the occasional hostile, crazed villager) and coaxing open locked chests.

“Where did you find these?” Zevran asks quietly, running his fingers over the elaborate stitching.

“In a chest,” Aeoin shrugs. “Mange found them really—I think he was drawn by the smell.”

Zevran laughs. “The dog has good taste!”

“Honestly I think he was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him eat them. They’re Antivan, aren’t they?”

“How did you know?” the assassin asks with a quizzical glance.

Aeoin looks away and coughs. “They, uh, they look sort of like your armor,” he hedges, hoping to pass it off as a casual observation and not the product of looking at him far too much and far too often.

Zevran smiles then brings the boots close to his face and inhales deeply through his nose.

Aeoin watches, bemused and wondering why he bothers—he feels sure he can smell the leather himself from where he stands.

“Ah, that smell is what I miss most about Antiva.”

“Stinking leather?”

Antivan leather,” Zevran corrects. “The smell is very distinctive. In Antiva I lived above a leather shop. When I took this job I promised myself I would treat myself to a pair of boots just like these when I got back—little did I know the turn I would take, eh?”

Aeoin smiles, pleased. “Fitting, then, that you should get a pair from me.”

Zevran pauses. “You are… giving me these?”

Heart sinking, Aeoin forces a laugh. “Well of course I am. I don’t need new boots. And they wouldn’t fit Alistair.”

“You… give gifts like this to Alistair?”

“Sure. All the time. And the others. I think Alistair’s run out of space in his pack by now. And, I mean, all the gear we find on the road is shared anyway, I just—” Fuck, he’s babbling. “Just take them, Zevran, honestly, I’m going to go see what else they have around here and if any of the rest of the villagers want to kill us.”

Outside, Alistair is feeding Mange a crunch and checking on the small wounds he’d gotten in the last skirmish, while the Mabari basked in the attention and Sten glared at the scenery (likely still wondering why they were wasting their time with this venture).

“So are Qunari immune to the cold in general, or what?” Alistair asks, attempting to make small talk.

Sten shifts his glare from the snow to the Templar. “I do not understand what you mean.”

Alistair’s ears turn pink. “You just don’t seem at all bothered by it.”

“Would being ‘bothered’ make it warmer?”

“Well… no….” Alistair is visibly relieved to see Aeoin. “Hey! All set? This place is weird, right? Who ever heard of a Revered Father?”

“Next stop is the Chantry—we’ll ask.”

At that moment Zevran steps outside. Aeoin turns to ask what had taken so long, but the words die in his throat.

Zevran is wearing the boots.

“Well,” the Antivan says briskly. “We should get a move on, yes? It’s fucking freezing out here.”

Aeoin cannot stop smiling and find he doesn’t even care.

 

He’s not sure what he was expecting from the Temple of Sacred Ashes, but a dragon cult was pretty low on the list. As was someone (something? a fade spirit, maybe? why didn’t he think to bring Morrigan or Wynn?) claiming to be one of Andraste’s original disciples.

Whatever the guardian is, he knows… way too much. Things he has no business knowing. Aeoin doesn’t mean to confess the guilt he feels over failing Shianni. Perhaps he wants this… being—Andraste’s disciple—to absolve him, tell him it wasn’t his fault and that he did all he could, but he… doesn’t.

At least Aeoin isn’t alone in his failure. He wants desperately to ask Zevran about the woman he regrets killing, but… no one has asked him about what happened to his cousin, and he’s grateful, so he keeps quiet.

This “Gauntlet,” whatever it is… does not sound promising. Aeoin has never exactly been a good little Andrastian, and here he is, trying to gain entrance to what might be the most holy and sacred place in Thedas with a skilled and remorseless professional murderer, a washed up Templar, and a qunari who, so far, has expressed nothing but contempt for the entire situation.

“We should have brought Leliana,” he mutters to the others. “She would have fucking loved this. Maybe we can go back for her. Camp isn’t that far.”

“It’s all the way back down the mountain,” Alistair points out grimly. He shakes his head. “Eamon’s life could be counted in a matter of days. We don’t have time. I say we do the Gauntlet.”

“Mystical spirits and dragon-worshiping weirdos aside, it sounds like a series of tests and traps,” Zevran points out, only slightly distracted.

“That’s true,” Aeoin allows thoughtfully. “I’m good at traps. And talking my way out of stuff.”

“You’re suggesting we… cheat our way through the sacred test designed to measure our worthiness to stand before the remains of the most blessed and holy women to ever walk the earth,” Alistair says, raising an eyebrow.

“Yup!” Aeoin confirms cheerily. “I’m going straight to the Void when I die, no standing around waiting to be judged for me!”

“Eh, I’ll save you a spot,” Zevran assures him, clapping him on the shoulder.

“So we are doing this?” Sten demands impatiently. “Shall we not move forward, if this is the path you have chosen?”

It… isn’t what he was expecting. Riddles and spirits and doors with locks he can’t pick or tease.

It’s seeing the shade claiming to be Shianni that does him in. She gives him the absolution the guardian did not, telling him it wasn’t his fault and that she’s proud of him that he’s come so far, granting him a token. He wants to hold her, cling to her, beg her not to go. She vanishes in a wisp.

“It wasn’t really her,” Alistair says, a big, heavy hand on Aeoin’s shoulder that he barely feels.

“What if it was?” Aeoin whispers. “What if that really was Shianni’s… spirit? What if she’s… what if she’s—” He should have tried harder when they were in Denerim to get into the alienage and check on his family. All the excuses he gave then seem so hollow and cowardly now.

Zevran puts a hand on his chin, forcibly turns him to face him. “We must move forward,” he says calmly and slowly, holding Aeoin’s eyes with his own and refusing to let him look away. “We will find your dear one, discover the truth of her fate for ourselves. But in the meantime, you will not be taken in by the illusions of this place. It is beneath you, my dear Warden.”

Aeoin licks his lips and swallows the lump in his throat. Nods. “Right. Sorry. Let’s move on.”

After that, the rest of the Gauntlet’s tricks just seem like… tricks. Puzzles, simple enough to solve.

He wants to feel… something when at last they look upon the Urn. Some flash of insight, some epiphany of faith.

All he feels is tired. And the ashes just look like dust.

“This had better fucking cure Eamon, and he had better fucking help,” he mutters as he collects a pinch. “We’re done here. Let’s go.”

 


 

It is impossible to escape the cold entirely this high up in the mountains, and yet the inside of the tent seems almost balmy as Aeoin lies back against his bedroll, sweating and panting.

“Antivan massage, huh?” he drawls once he has regained enough breath to speak.

Zevran smirks, infinitely pleased with himself, and lounges next to him, perfectly and unabashedly naked. Aeoin had been intrigued to discover that the other man is that lovely golden shade all over, and not just tattooed on his face.

“Are you not much more… relaxed?” the Antivan purrs, and Aeoin laughs.

“I couldn’t stand if you paid me, if that’s what you mean. Not for all the coin in Fereldan. You’ve ruined me.”

“You say the sweetest things.”

Aeoin chuckles again as Zevran’s smirk grows broader, but when he tries to draw the other elf close once more he resists.

“We should get dressed,” Zevran murmurs softly. “Trying to fight off an ambush without our armor on would not be much fun, I think. And, knowing our luck….”

Aeoin hums and draws back again. “Forget the armor—without trousers, even. Morrigan would never forgive us.”

Relaxing ever so subtly, Zevran laughs. “Ah, that one needs to relax a little.”

“A massage, perhaps?” Aeoin flinches at how sharp his own voice sounds, and apologies stumble and tangle on his tongue, but Zevran cuts him off.

“Eh, she is beyond my skills, I think. And my interest certainly.”

“She’s pretty,” Aeoin hedges. “And those robes she wears.” And Zevran had mentioned before that he apparently found women as appealing as men.

Zevran’s smile is teasing and encouraging. “You could try your own hand, perhaps,” he says, then more gently when Aeoin looks away, “Your skills are more than up to par, if I am any judge.”

Aeoin deflates, even as part of him preens from the praise. Being invited to take another is not what anyone wants to hear from the man who had taken their virginity not an hour ago.

Not that Zevran knows that. Aeoin hadn’t told him, hadn’t really felt a need. He was inexperienced but hardly naïve, and he’d picked up the rest quickly enough. He hopes.

Zevran certainly hadn’t voiced any complaints… though some treacherous part of his brain suggests that he would hardly have a difficult time pretending. It was, evidently, how he’d gotten close to half his targets.

“Ah, listen,” Zevran says, and Aeoin is startled to realize he’s been silent for a while. Far too long—it’s awkward now and Zevran is reaching for his clothes. “Let’s not turn this into something it is not. This doesn’t have to change anything—we are two friends having a bit of fun together on the road. Agreed?”

Aeoin is suddenly glad he hadn’t told Zevran he was a virgin. Now if he can only stop acting like one he can maybe salvage this….

Pulling a smile to his face, he reclines back once more and draws one arm back behind his head. It’s hard not to feel ridiculous posed like this, but… gratifying when Zevran’s eyes are drawn to the lines of his chest. “Sounds good to me,” he says lightly. “Any chance we can have a bit more fun?”

“We really should get dressed,” Zevran mutters. “We’re taking enough of a risk as it is.” But he draws closer all the same.

“I’m a Grey Warden,” Aeoin says flippantly. “We live dangerously. Besides, I have so many questions about Antivan culture.”

“Well….” That tongue, so clever against his skin. And that long, blond hair, so soft and silky in his fingers.

“We’ll be quick,” he promises. He doesn’t feel bad about lying. He doesn’t think Zevran minds, either.

 

On the way back to Redcliff to deliver the ashes, Zevran comes to his tent nearly every night, but….

He never stays.

And Aeoin won’t ask. He feels fairly certain that pressing the Antivan for more than he is willing to offer will cause him to pull away entirely. Perhaps it makes him shallow, but Aeoin isn’t willing to risk what he does have just because it would be nice to hold him while he sleeps. The sex is too good.

He only slips up once, on a cold and dark night when they’d spent the past few hours pleasantly wearing each other out, and the thought of struggling back into even the lightest of their gear makes Aeoin want to bury himself beneath the bedroll.

“Stay,” he mumbles when Zevran pulls away, letting fingers clutch at his lover ever so briefly. “There’s no reason why you can’t stay.”

Zevran hesitates and, feeling bold, Aeoin lets his hands wander, caressing the assassin’s familiar form. He so rarely gets to touch him like this—mostly the only contact they have is either during or right after some sort of battle, when they all help each other get patched up, or in bed, rushing heatedly toward completion. There is nothing… slow. Gentle. Loving, even. Touching for the simple pleasure of feeling his lover’s skin with no expectation of escalation or urgency for climax.

“Again?” Zevran said, teasing. “Who knew the legendary Warden Stamina had some basis in fact. We are going to have to walk in the morning, you realize. And I think our companions would appreciate it if we let them sleep.”

Aeoin’s hands still. “Not that. Just—why don’t you sleep here?”

Zevran smirk and raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s wise? I might still be planning to put a knife between your ribs. I’m sure that’s what Alistair thinks—if I linger he’s bound to come barging in with his sword drawn.”

“No.” Aeoin doesn’t even have to think about it. “You’re not going to kill me.”

That makes Zevran pause for a moment. “You’re sure about that.”

“You’d have done it already. We’re in the middle of nowhere, everyone has learned to ignore the sounds coming from this tent, and no one would question you slipping away afterwards. Tomorrow we’ll be too close to Redcliff and you’ll have missed your shot.”

Zevran pulls away and starts reaching for his clothes. “Maybe I’m waiting until we’re closer to the city so I can disappear without being tracked,” he mutters to his shirt. “You should get dressed. Before we’re ambushed and you have to fight in your nothing-at-all. I don’t think the darkspawn would appreciate the view as much as me.”

Aeoin rubs absently at his chest, which feels full of rocks all of a sudden. “Fine,” he says, aiming for a light, airy tone. “You let cold air in when you leave, that’s all.”

“…Get some sleep, amor,” Zevran says softly. “Many miles tomorrow, yes?”

Aeoin sighs and turns over. “What’s that mean, anyway?”

“What does what mean?”

“Amor. You’ve said it before. Usually when my mouth is on you. Is it Antivan?” He glances back when no answer comes, and find Zevran apparently frozen, with a strange flush high on his cheeks. “Zev?”

“Ah. Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything, just, ah… a little Antivan pet name.”

Aeoin narrows his eyes, naturally suspicious. “You’re not calling me something mean, are you?”

Zevran laughs, that head tossing belly laugh he lets out when he’s hiding something. And he keeps edging toward the exit of the tent. “Of course not! I would never, my dear Warden! Get some sleep!”

And then he vanishes, leaving Aeoin to pull his clothes on and lie back down alone.

It’s good Zevran hadn’t agreed to sleep next to him, he reflects later, after a nightmare leaves him in a blind panic, reaching instinctively for his blade. His dagger tears a wide rent right through the tent wall—if Zevran had been there he might have been hurt.

“Did you see that?” Alistair demands, also clutching his sword and breathing hard. “Did you have the dream, too?”

Aeoin swallows hard and looks around. The first blushes of dawn are just appearing over the mountains. Wynn and Leliana have both poked their heads out of their tents, and Sten is already on his feet, glaring at shadows and annoyed at being put on guard for nothing.

On the other side of camp Morrigan’s eyes glitter as she watches them over her little fire. Aeoin has no idea if she’d ever gone to sleep.

Next to him Mange whines slightly, big blocky head tilting to the side in confusion. He’d jumped up snarling when his mater did, ready to fight and defend, and the lack of enemy confounds him.

Abruptly Aeoin turns, scanning the camp wildly until he finds—

Zevran had made it back to his own tent and now stands in front of it, daggers in hand and staring intently across the fire at him.

For no reason at all the uncomfortable conversation he’d had with Wynn—where she’d all but scolded him for wanting a relationship when he should be focusing on ways to sacrifice himself, or something—pops back into his head, but he can’t make himself look away from Zevran.

“What… what was that?”

“The archdemon,” Alistair says. “Had to be. This is officially a blight.”

Chapter Text

Aeoin leaves Eamon’s study with a frown on his face, knowing he’d left the nobleman feeling just as frustrated as him and refusing to apologize for it.

Eamon wants to make Alistair king. Aeoin doesn’t disagree exactly—Alistair is the best man he knows, and after weeks of traveling together he feels pretty confident that isn’t just because of how his shoulders look when he swings his shield around. He is kind, generous, loyal to an absolute fault, and far better at making important decisions than he gives himself credit for. He doesn’t seem to realize it, but his vote is often the deciding factor when Aeoin is deciding what to do.

But… being made king would make Alistair miserable, so Aeoin won’t commit to it, and he doesn’t care if that makes him selfish. He already knows he is perhaps more selfish than is proper for a Grey Warden. He doubts Duncan knew that when he pulled him out of the Alienage.

“You might be taking away his birthright,” Eamon had finally appealed, after long arguments that went nowhere. “You realize that, don’t you?”

Aeoin scoffed. “He doesn’t even want it. And besides, you did that, you and that father of his when you shunted him off here like a puppy no one wanted and kept him like a dirty little secret.” His father would faint clean away at the sight of him shooting off at an arl like that, but he was tired an achy from travel and had just trekked back and forth across the country and fought a crazed dragon-cult for this man, and he didn’t appreciate getting immediately pulled into political machinations when all he wanted was to go kill darkspawn and stop the Blight from spreading any further.

He didn’t care about propriety anymore, if he ever did. It just didn’t seem important when he was covered in darkspawn blood, and if the nobility of Fereldan were willing to let an elf fight their battles they would be damn well willing to listen to one tell them to fuck off.

“If you wanted him to be king you shouldn’t have shunted him off to the Chantry the first chance you got.”

Eamon actually winced at that and sighed deeply. “Is that what he thinks? I assure you, it is far more complicated than all that—a great many things would be different if Cailan were still alive. Choices were made for Alistair’s well-being based on the belief that he would never have to take on this burden, but that is not the case and now it falls to him. It is his duty.”

Why? Why does it have to be him when he doesn’t even want it?”

Eamon took his time answering. “Thirty years ago, long before you were born, I’m sure, we fought a war. To free our country and restore our monarchy. To see that line fall after less than a generation….”

But that’s Loghain’s fault, Aeoin wanted to protest. That has nothing to do with Alistair, leave him alone.

“A king isn’t a country,” is what he eventually said. “And Alistair isn’t a statue you can throw a crown on and prop up in a square somewhere. He’s a person—he’s a Grey Warden. Wardens can’t just run off and be monarchs, he’s sworn to another path—he’s made sacrifices to be what he is.” If Eamon knew about the Joining, about the taint and a Warden’s connection to the Blight, he would be begging Alistair to take the crown.

Aeoin sighed. He actually… sort of liked Eamon. It was rare to find a nobleman who wouldn’t look down on an elf, at least in Aeoin’s experience. And he seemed to believe everything he said. Difficult not to respect that.

“Listen,” Aeoin said. “I’ll admit I don’t really know what you’re talking about or why the monarchy is so important. I don’t really think of myself as Fereldan—I’m an elf. I figure my life would mostly be the same no matter what country I lived in or who ruled.”

Eamon frowned but gave Aeoin the courtesy of not interrupting.

“Alistair is my friend. I may not be loyal to this country or the crown, but I am loyal to him. I’ll… talk to him.”

Eamon sighed and got to his feet. “I suppose that’s all I can ask for. Please, just… I know he doubts himself, but I know he has what it takes. He could be a great king.”

It was nice to hear someone else sing Alistair’s praises for once. But Aeoin can’t help but wonder how much of that conviction comes from desperation.

Still, he’d promised. Only, now he can’t find the warrior anywhere. The rest of their companions haven’t seen him since they left the hall and Eamon pulled Aeoin into his study for a private word.

“Perhaps he is getting himself fitted for his coronation gown,” Morrigan drawls. “What does it matter? He generally refuses to contribute to decision-making, does he not? I’m certain he would prefer if we simply collected him like a child from playing when we are ready to leave.”

“I think I saw him going outside,” Zevran offers before Aeoin can snap at the witch and say something he’ll regret—or something Morrigan will feel obligated to seek vengeance for.

“I’m going to get him,” Aeoin announces. “We’re doing this to fight the Blight, so both Wardens should be present. Yes?” No one answers. Morrigan rolls her eyes. Aeoin mentally reworks the schedule to put her on dinner duty next time they are in camp and stalks out.

 

He finally finds Alistair in the last place he wanted to look—the Redcliff stables. Eamon doesn’t have many horses—most Fereldan lords don’t with a few eccentric exceptions—and those he does have are all sturdy, laboring beasts, clearly intended for pulling plows or carts rather than prancing around in a parade or carrying ladies about side-saddle. Aeoin doesn’t trust a single one of them, and he gives the stalls a wide berth as he moves cautiously to where his friend sits sprawled against the wall on a bale of hay.

“…It fucking stinks in here,” Aeon offers as an opening gambit, plopping himself down next to Alistair without waiting for an invitation. “I fucking hate horses.”

“They’re not so bad,” Alistair says blandly after a long pause. “I used to sleep just over there in the empty stall. The horses kept it warm in the winter.”

There isn’t anything Aeoin can say to that.

“...I. Can’t. Be king,” Alistair says at last, the words carefully weighted as if he’s spent a long time thinking them over to be absolutely sure. “Aeoin. I can’t.”

Aeoin pulls one knee up to his chest and wraps his arms around it. It’s fucking cold in the stable, and the thought of little child-Alistair sleeping under the straw and calling it warm is making his chest hurt. “What’s a king even fucking do, anyway?” he asks. He remembers, for no reason at all, a drunken conversation with Shianni ages and ages ago. “Putting on clothes and then taking them off again. Right?”

Alistair snickers and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “A king is supposed to lead. A king is… important. And looked at. And—and followed, and I can’t… be any of that.”

“Why not?”

“Because I grew up in a fucking stable!” The curse makes Aeoin flinch, which is dumb, except that Alistair doesn’t swear except the occasional furtive damn. “I’m just Alistair, I’m no one, I—” The rage seems to drain out of him and he slumps back against the wall again. “I am everyone’s last choice.”

Aeoin makes a small noise of protest then. He wants to tell Alistair that it isn’t true—he’s not no one, he’s a Grey Warden, he’s Aeoin’s best friend, he’s Alistair and Aeoin thinks he’s pretty great.

Instead of saying any of that, he punches him in the arm.

“Ow,” Alistair says obligingly, even though Aeoin feels that he probably hurt his own hand more.

“You,” Aeoin says slowly, “are a Grey Warden. Frankly, Eamon can’t have you for anything until we deal with this Blight. You’re not leaving me to handle the fucking archdemon all on my own so that you can sit on your ass and eat sweetmeats from a throne all day, Alistair, fuck that.”

Alistair snickers again and it sounds slightly less miserable and hysterical. “Maker,” he moans, “I’d honestly pick the archdemon over a coronation. That—that’s horrible, isn’t it? Oh, the guilt. That’s how Eamon’s going to get me.”

“Oh, hey, there’s a thought. There’s still every possibility that you’re going to die horribly fighting this thing. So really, looking at the odds, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“Is that supposed to cheer me up?”

“Is it working?”

“Not even slightly.”

Aeoin grins. The selfish corner of his heart knows that if Alistair is crowned… well, that would pretty much be the end of their being friends, wouldn’t it? Sure, a king might have dinner or something with a Warden, and a Grey Warden might call on a king if he were important and high ranking enough and if the Wardens needed something like tithes or whatever, but it wouldn’t be like it is now. Aeoin wouldn’t be able to call him brother or threaten to wring his neck for eating the last of the cheese.

“C’mon,” he says, getting to his feet. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you—we’re trying to decide where to go next.”

 

“Alistair, what will you do?” Leliana asks when they get back to the others.

“I don’t know,” he answers grimly. “Let’s just… focus on the treaties—I can’t think about that now, we should be worrying about the Blight.”

“You’ll have to think about it eventually, Alistair,” Wynn says, but Aeoin brandishes a map at her and gives Alistair another commiserative punch to the arm.

“Right. Thoughts?”

They have helped themselves to Eamon’s kitchen and library—after everything they’ve done for Redcliff, no one tells them no. The current debate is whether they want to climb the Frostbacks and head to Orzammar—though rumors on the road suggest that they might have trouble getting in—or to the Brecilian Forest and look for the Dalish.

“We could wander the woods for weeks and find no signs of the clans,” Zevran says, leaning over the map with a critical eye. “Orzammar is closer and we’ll have to go there eventually.”

Sten shifts, the closest the qunari has ever come to an actual fidget, and Aeoin meets his eye and nods solemnly. Sten doesn’t visibly react, but Aeoin hasn’t forgotten about his sword, even if he doesn’t quite understand the blade’s significance given how often he swaps out his own gear for better and sharper and more rune slots.

“I wonder if Orzammar is as nice as they say,” Aeoin muses. Rumors of the dwarven city speak of buildings made of gold, and riches you can practically pluck from the walls. “I guess… I’ll head to Orzammar with whoever wants to come. The rest of you can start looking for news or any leads on the Dalish.”

As curious as he is about the Dalish, he’s looking forward to Orzammar. So few outsiders ever get to see it.

Chapter Text

Even miles underground, cities are cites. Dust Town reminds him of the alienage; the scammers and criminals are easy enough to dodge or intimidate away, and it’s just as easy to recognize a useful source of information in a sardonic crippled woman who makes raunchy jokes and snatches up their silver as soon as it appears.

The Commons, likewise, is not totally different from the Denerim Marketplace. There are stalls and shops and tradesmen hawking their wares. If they’re a little less trusting of “topsiders,” Aeoin is used to shopkeepers eyeing an elf suspiciously and it’s easy to ignore.

And, as it turns out, the nobles and politicians of the Diamond Quarter are just like nobles and politicians anywhere else: conniving, greedy, and mostly useless.

Prince Bhalen had given them a richly appointed room in the palace filled with finely crafted furniture and beautiful tapestries that look as if they are woven through with actual spun gold as thanks for their support—and probably also a bribe to keep them working in his favor as well as a prettily gilded way to keep an eye on them and make sure they were sneaking around after Harrowmond behind his back.

Aeoin nails one of the gorgeous tapestries dead center with his helmet as he pitches it across the room.

“How did it go?” Zevran asks lightly from a couch in the corner. The opulent lifestyle suits him. For a moment, Aeoin is distracted by the way his skin shines like bronze in the warm light, imagining him dripping with gold and jewels. Then he scowls and starts throwing his gloves in the same direction as his helmet.

“Not well,” Alistair supplies, entering the room in a slightly more sedate manner.

“Fucking dwarves,” Aeoin elaborates. “Bohdan isn’t this aggravating—is it an Orzammar thing? Is it the water down here? Do dwarves drink water or is it all just ale and asshole-juice?” Continuing to grumble in this vein, he efficiently strips off the rest of his armor.

“Bhalen says the council is no closer to a decision,” Alistair reports. He also removes pieces of his own armor, though not all of it (almost never all of it) and with considerably more care than his fellow Warden—the benefits of leather over plate.

“Cock sucking, dirt eating, rocks for skulls,” Aeoin mutters. “After all that fucking work we did with the carta.”

“You have such a poetic way with words,” Zevran muses.

“Anyway, the prince is putting us off again, but it looks like we’re going to end up going back into the Deep Roads fairly soon,” Alistair continues, unperturbed. He used to giggle and blush whenever Aeoin swore like that. Perhaps he is growing worldly.

“You’re not allowed to be a prince,” Aeoin announces, pointing an authoritative finger at Alistair. “I just decided. I don’t want you turning out like Bhalen.”

Alistair raises his hands in mock surrender, snorting. “Hey, no arguments from me on that front.”

Aeoin keeps pointing at him for a while longer, eyes narrowed suspiciously—as if he suspects Alistair has secret aspirations to royalty after all, in spite of his many, frequent, and loud protests to the contrary. Then he sniffs and dramatically announces, “I am going to take a bath.” He has kicked off his boots and stripped down to nothing but his trousers, though his axe and his dagger hang from his bare shoulders in their usual sheaths. None of them are ever fully unarmed.

“Are you certain you would not like to take off any more of your clothing for us first?” Morrigan drawls. The rest of the party has no idea what the witch’s interest in Orzammar is—dwarves famously have no talent for magic and Morrigan famously has no patience for anyone without a rudimentary knowledge of the art.

She’s been spending time in the Shaperate, studying scrolls (what she’d said or promised to get access Aeoin has no idea) and prowling through the Commons with a discerning eye for relics and lyrium infused artifacts while the rest of them run around after Bhalen and struggle to pin the dwarf down into a concrete commitment of troops for the Blight.

Aeoin turns up his nose at her and angles his bared chest away. “Avert your eyes,” he commands with mock haughtiness, and she snorts at him, unimpressed, and refocuses on her book as if he isn’t worth the time it would take to mock him. Aeoin smirks at her affectionately and thinks about the gold mirror he saw at a stall in the Commons. He’ll have to talk to the merchant about holding onto it for him until they return from whatever mad errant Bhalen sends them on next.

“Prepare for the Deep Roads,” he says, addressing the party as a whole as he makes his way to the bathing chamber. “Fifty silver says they’re gonna send us chasing after that fucking Paragon of theirs—Brosna or Bronco or whatever her name is.”

Alistair sighs and rubs his hands vigorously over his skull so that his blond hair stands up in messy spikes. “Right. Join me in the market, Zevran?” he offers distractedly. “Deep Roads—Maker, we’re going to need plenty of supplies….” But when he looks up Zevran has left his couch and is halfway to the bathing chamber himself, looking a lot like a boy caught sneaking out of lessons.

“I was just… ah.”

“Fancy a bath yourself, do you,” Alistair drawls, proud of how his face doesn’t blush at all. He throws in an artfully raised eyebrow for good measure. Nailed it.

Zevran does not so much as look embarrassed. It is possible he is actually incapable of such a thing. “Now that you mention it, that sounds lovely,” he says smoothly, moving again. “So sorry to miss out on the market, but I am certain you can find your way without me.” And then he slips into the bathing chamber after Aeoin and is gone.

“Not much cleaning going on in there I’d wager, hey?” Alistair jokes, but it falls flat when Morrigan ignores him completely. “…Fine.” The warrior heaves a sigh and starts putting his gear back on. “I’ll go by myself….”

 

As aggravating as Aeoin finds dwarves in general, he can certainly appreciate their ingenuity. While the rest of the world relies on the work of magic and mages—when available, and back-breaking labor when not—dwarves have created much more clever mechanisms and devices—more reliable, too. The pipes they use to bring hot water up from deeper underground don’t ever get irritated or distracted and decide they have better things to do and wander off.

Aeoin has taken a lot of baths since arriving. It is the one thing in Orzammar he really likes.

He hears the door open and then close again as he is lying back in the warm water, resting his head on the rim and staring up at the ceiling, trying not to think about the great, massive weight of earth and mountain above him.

Zevran’s voice is a welcome distraction.

“Mind if I join you?” the assassin purrs.

Aeoin grins. “You don’t need an invitation. Please, make yourself at home.”

One moment later he is joined in the tub by a delightfully naked Antivan. Orzammar baths are generously sized (at least in the Diamond Quarter) but are made for dwarven proportions, so it is a tight fit. Then again, it’s also possible they press closer together than is strictly necessary.

“You are terribly tense, my dear Warden,” Zevran says.

“Another Antivan massage would set me right,” Aeoin assures him.

A dark, promising chuckle. “I am so happy to be of service.”

“Sort of hate to mess up the water, though. I have no idea how these pipes work.”

“The dwarves are a clever people—surely they have prepared for the eventuality.” Zevran then takes a deep breath, slips beneath the water, and presents an oral argument that is difficult to defend against, though Aeoin is slightly concerned about drowning when he can spare the thought, which isn’t often.

“Thank you,” Aeoin says afterwards as they are drying off.

Zevran glances at him, still gently pressing water out of his flaxen hair, and smiles—one of his rare, sweetly sincere smiles that Aeoin finds himself hoarding greedily. “You really don’t like it down here, do you?” he remarks, and Aeoin sighs.

“At first I was excited,” he admits, recalling his optimism at the beginning of the trip with a rueful laugh. “So few people get to come down here, and I know so little about dwarves…. I just wasn’t expecting it to be all politics. It’s not exactly my area.”

“Well, have you committed yourself to supporting this Bhalen?”

“I really don’t think it makes much difference either way, does it?”

Zevran chuckles. “This attitude of yours where you consider politicians to be interchangeable is very Antivan, my friend. I was just thinking, perhaps I offer my… services to get the other one out of the way. Might speed things up.”

Aeoin laughs, which he suspects had been Zevran’s true goal rather than any sincere offer to assassinate a dwarven noble. “Somehow I doubt it—they’d probably use his death as an excuse to stall even more and we’ll be down here until the Blight’s over and there’s nothing left of the surface. But I thank you for the offer.”

“For you? Anytime.”

Aeoin watches Zevran pull a brush though his hair, utterly fascinated. His own hair he tends not to care about much, simply pulling it back and away from his face is care enough and washing it isn’t something he has the luxury of indulging in often. Zevran’s hair however, glittering like liquid gold in the lava flow the dwarves use for lighting, deserves to be worshiped.

On irresistible impulse he moves close and puts his own hand over the brush. The thing is weighty, probably crafted out of actual silver by some dwarf in the brush-maker caste hoping to make Paragon out of unusually ornate beauty accessories.

“Let me?” he asks, begs, endlessly hopeful that he will not be denied.

“I… sure?” Zevran seems surprised, but he passes the brush over with only minor hesitation, and Aeoin takes it, feeling somehow more nervous than the first time they’d made love.

He adores how soft Zevran’s hair is, the fine strands like silk. Still damp from the bath it is darker than its usual platinum, but as it dries it practically glows like Andraste’s halo.

Aeoin knows how to braid—Shianni taught him when they were small, insisting relentlessly until he could put as many tiny braids in her hair as she wanted. He is careful and meticulous as he separates out sections to recreate Zevran’s usual style, determined not to tug or pull but also that the two braids coming back from his temples would be perfectly even. If he did it right—if he made it perfect—he might be allowed to do it again.

All too soon he is tying off the last tie. He runs his fingers through the soft, now-dry ends, reluctant to pull away.

“All done,” he admits at last and passes the brush back to Zevran’s waiting hand.

“Your turn.”

“What?”

“Turn around.”

“You don’t have to,” Aeoin protests even as he does as told.

Zevran doesn’t respond except to tug loose the tie holding his tail back and start pulling the brush through his hair. “You hair is beautiful,” he says after a moment, his voice deep and soft. “It is so… thick. Softer than I thought, and so richly colored, too.”

“It’s just brown.” Aeoin can feel how warm his face is, how quickly his heart flutters. Zevran’s hands are strong and sure and gentle as they comb over his scalp, and Aeoin is suddenly embarrassed of his tangles and split ends.

“You have never seen it in this light,” Zevran corrects matter-of-factly. “It is not merely brown, it is… it is everything rich and warm and vital. It reminds me of chocolate.”

“What’s that?”

“Ah, just as I was starting to forget what a desolate and backwards country this is. One day I will take you to Rialto and we will have chocolate together in the cafes overlooking the harbor.”

“So… it’s a drink?”

Zevran laughs. “I’ll treat you to some decent food as well,” he continues. “Fish chowder, fresh ceviche, empanadas, camarones the size of your hand, grilled with butter in their own shells….”

“In defense of my country, I’ll say again that you haven’t experienced Fereldan at its best…. But I’d like that. You promise?”

Zevran chuckles and presses a kiss behind his ear. “Not just Antiva. I’ll take you to Orlais as well. The Orlesians love their little cakes and pastries. You will find them absolutely ridiculous and either charm or utterly scandalize everyone—which I simply must see.”

“Mm, why stop there? The Free Marches?”

“I hear Starkhaven is lovely.”

“Rivain?”

“I have quite a few friends in Rivain. We’ll catch up with Isabella.”

“Par Vollen?”

“We’ll hire Sten as our guide.”

“Tevinter?”

“That one… might be a bit more tricky. But for you? I’ll arrange tea with the magisters.”

Aeoin smiles, delighted, but… he knows better than to truly hope. Zevran has given no indication of wanting real commitment and Aeoin feels instinctively that pressing for such will only chase him away. It’s the old alienage pastime of making improbable plans and spinning impossible dreams while nothing ever really changes. Aeoin tells himself to be content with that.

“Well,” he says with a sigh. “First there’s this pesky Blight to deal with.”

“Lead on, my friend.”

Chapter Text

Zevran isn’t sure if he just hasn’t noticed before, or if there is simply less to notice in sunlight, but here in the Deep Roads, far beneath the earth, the Wardens are… strange. They barely sleep. They spend hours staring into shadows. They seem to communicate with each other without saying a word. They seem to be listening to something the rest of them can’t hear.

Aeoin sticks close to Alistair. Alistair is talking less, and Zevran honestly never thought he would miss the incessant chatter.

He’d known, of course, obviously. The Grey Wardens are legendary for a reason, after all, and they had told him, through late night conversations around the fire at camp, vague accounts of the mysterious Joining, discussions between the two of them about what they could expect. He’d even seen glimpses of it first hand, the way Alistair would still and slide his shield from his back a split second before the rest of them even heard the darkspawn coming, how Aeoin would dodge attacks there was no way he could have seen.

They both warn the rest of them frequently to keep their mouths shut when fighting darkspawn on the surface and to clean the blood off of their skin as quickly as they can after a battle, but it’s advice they don’t follow themselves—Alistair bellowing his war cry and Aeoin seeming to take fiendish delight in taunting the monsters.

Once, flushed with battle and thrilled to be alive, Zevran had gone to kiss Aeoin after a fight on the road. The Warden had panicked and backed away, his blood-splattered hands coming up to ward Zevran off. “I got some on my mouth,” he’d explained apologetically. “I gotta wash up first.”

Zevran had felt a deep jolt of panic and fear and grief—the Blight is such a horrible way to die—but Aeoin had just grinned and blew him a kiss and went to get something from Wynn to wash his mouth out with, came back to Zevran with mint and elfroot on his breath. And belatedly Zevran had remembered with a wash of relief that left his legs weak and his spine limp. Grey Warden. Immune.

But, Zevran is beginning to understand, it is an immunity borne of infection.

The Blight-mad dwarf in the lost thaig they find claims they are the same, that he can sense the same darkness that infects his own flesh inside Aeoin as well. Aeoin draws back, pale in the low light, his silver tongue abruptly failing him.

Zevran mentally draws back as well, instantly hating anything that draws comparison between his bright, strong lover and this… twisted, rotten thing.

But Aeoin recovers well enough, presses the pitiful wretch for information and gets a lead on Bronca, even lets the poor bastard trade with them.

He is, in fact, weirdly protective of Ruck, and resistant when Oghren says they should put him out of his misery. Zevran can’t understand it.

“We’re not just killing him,” he hisses, scowling. Deeper in the cave, Ruck is rustling about and muttering to himself, voice occasionally rising in some mad argument and then fearfully hushing with furtive looks around. Zevran hates him, wants him gone.

“Leaving him alive is no mercy, my friend,” he says bluntly. “Kinder by far to kill him.”

“But he hasn’t done anything to us,” Aeoin protests. “He’s helped.”

Oghren sneers. “Yeah, hasn’t done anything yet. You gonna wait for him to come jumping at us out of the shadows, going for the fucking throat?”

Aeoin glares, arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. “We are not just killing him.” He turns eyes to Alistair for support, Alistair who never speaks against their stalwart leader, who can always be counted on to have his back.

Alistair looks uncomfortable. “You… see this sometimes,” he mumbles. “Duncan told me about it, it’s the Blight. Most people it just attacks the body, but some who get infected, it… deteriorates the mind. They start running with the hoards and attacking people, acting like darkspawn themselves. Even if he doesn’t turn violent… it’s only going to get worse for him.”

Aeoin waivers, chewing on his lip as he glances back to Ruck, gesturing wildly at his own shadow. “...Make camp,” he eventually orders, reluctantly. “We should rest up before pushing after Bronca, and here we’ll at least have some cover.”

Oghren isn’t happy. He wants to chase after his wife immediately and can’t stand any delay. But in the end he’s a seasoned warrior and he knows the sense of it. He grumbles, but a few swigs from his flask quiet him, and he’s soon telling an increasingly uncomfortable Alistair an unbelievably raunchy story—really  unbelievable, Zevran happens to know for a fact that the position he is describing is physically impossible.

“Zevran? A word?” Aeoin is still frowning, brows drawn tight over his lovely brown eyes.

Zevran is surprised—he wasn’t expecting any amorous advances on this campaign and honestly can’t say he’s in the mood. The heart of the Deep Roads, darkspawn and deep stalkers and giant fucking spiders in every corner—it isn’t exactly his idea of a romantic atmosphere, and even he has his limits.

Still, he puts the effort in, lowering his eyelids in a way he knows makes him look sultry and painting on a smile that draws attention to his mouth. “What is your desire?” he purrs.

“Did you bring your poisons?”

That… is not what he was expecting. The plastered on seduction falls away in his surprise, and he frowns. “I try to keep supplied,” he says thoughtfully, no longer purring. “Running low on bombs, but—have you noticed how many darkspawn carry acid? It’s convenient, yes?”

“Do you have anything—” Aeoin stops. Looks away. “Say you needed to kill someone—you had a target, but… you didn’t want it to—to hurt.”

Ah. Zevran looks back into the cave. Ruck has gone quiet, but the way he sits—so perfectly still, staring unblinkingly into the shadows, a horrible imitation of the stillness Zevran has noticed in his own Warden friends—is almost worse than the raving. It makes Zevran’s skin crawl.

“…Let me see some of those mushrooms you found,” he says quietly.

On a hunch he makes the drought twice as strong as he would normally, closer to what he would make for one of the Wardens, if killing them were still on the table. Aeoin forcibly separates Oghren from some ale (threatens to put an axe up the dwarf’s ass when he howls about it) and takes it to Ruck.

He has to convince the Blight-mad dwarf to take it, Ruck too fearful of anything reminding him of “the light” but eventually he snatches it almost violently and guzzles it down. “The friend is good to Ruck,” he says, twisting his face into some semblance of a smile. “Good Friend.”

“Sure, Ruck,” Aeoin answers. “Sure.”

“Ruck—Ruck has a gift for the friend, too!”

“You don’t have to—”

“Take. Take! For the friend.”

The trinket he gives him is dirty and dented and worthless, just a scratched up tin pendant on a broken, rusty chain. Aeoin cradles it carefully in his hand, looking vaguely ill. “…Thanks, Ruck.”

It happens quietly. Zevran’s poison does its work, sending Ruck to sleep and then gradually stopping his heart.

“Waste of time,” Oghren mutters.

Aeoin turns and punches him in the face, closed fist, gloves on. “What do dwarves do for their dead?” he asks, shaking out his hand while the berserker is still sputtering and cursing.

“…We bury ‘em,” Oghren says begrudgingly. He rubs his jaw ruefully, but some of the mulish, sneering light is gone from his ale-soaked eyes. “Return ‘em to the stone. You said this poor bastard was smith caste? Eh. Something metal to mark the grave. Forged. Since we don’t have a hammer.”

Alistair and Aeoin are the only ones who can handle the body. The Blight seems to be eating away at Ruck’s flesh before their very eyes now that he is no longer breathing.

A shallow grave under a pile of rocks and small boulders is the best they can do, but Aeoin hopes it will be enough to keep the beasts off of him. They found a small round shield in the thaig and put that over it. Alistair roughly carves an epithet—Ruck, Son of Filda—and Zevran, with a flash of inspiration, uses a little acid from the flasks to burn it in a little deeper. Aeoin shyly squeezes his hand in gratitude and Zevran feels the oddest swell of something that might be pride.

“We really should have burned the body, because of the Blight,” Alistair says softly. “I… guess it doesn’t make much difference down here.”

“Should we be saying something?” Aeoin asks.

“Haven’t been to a hell of a lot of funerals,” Oghren mutters. “We can take his name and shit back to the Shaperate. You give those bastards enough coin and they’ll make a mention of him in the memories. Expensive as shit though. Most likely his mother’ll take care of it in their family memories.”

“…Then I guess we’re done here. We should move on.”

They leave Ortan Thaig following Bronca’s trail. Oghren eagerly takes point, with Alistair guarding their rear, and Zevran matches pace with Aeoin.

“…You have killed many before,” he reminds him quietly as they walk.

Aeoin’s lip twitches, but Zevran wouldn’t call his expression a smile. “Never someone who called me ‘friend,’” he says. “…He said we were the same.”

“You are not—” Zevran denies.

But Aeoin just shakes his head and looks away.

They pause for a rest eventually, going by how hungry they all are since there’s no way to accurately tell the time. For all Zevran knows they’ve been walking all day already, or it’s been only a few hours since they left the sad little funeral. Alistair sighs as he sets down his shield and pulls a small lump of cheese wrapped in wax paper out of his pack. Oghren frowns at his flask and gives it a few hopeful shakes.

Aeoin wanders a short distance away and leans against a crumbling pillar.

Zevran, suddenly struck by the thought of the Warden simply slipping into the shadows and vanishing, lost forever, follows.

“…You take me to the most romantic places, amor,” he says eventually, hoping to distract the other elf into flirting. He still isn’t in the mood, but if it helps Aeoin he doesn’t mind. “The lava flow all aglow, the smell of rot and dirt in the stale air, the decades old skeletons adding that perfect touch of atmosphere….”

Aeoin smiles, but it is a bitter, distracted thing. “I’m sorry I asked you to come,” he says.

Zevran isn’t having that. “You did not ask,” he counters quietly but firmly. “I very easily could have stayed behind in comfort, like Morrigan. I said I would follow you anywhere, not just to the pleasant places. Not that you ever do lead me anywhere pleasant, now that I think about it….”

Aeoin chuckles. It is as bitter and distracted as his smile. He tilts his head back, stares up at the craggy rock above them. “There’s a whole world above us, Zev. A whole fucking mountain and the only thing keeping it from crushing us is a bunch of fucking dwarves who all died hundreds of years ago.” He laughs again and shakes his head.

Zevran inches closer, chilled by the sound.

“I’m going to fucking die down here,” Aeoin says, still laughing.

No.” The denial is instant and visceral. “Don’t say that—”

“No, it’s true.” Aeoin… can’t stop giggling. “Alistair told me. If the archdemon and the hoards don’t get us on the surface, this is where Grey Warden’s come to die. Eventually we all go fucking crazy—just like Ruck—and we come down here to take out as many darkspawn as we can on our way to the Void. And that’s it. No pyres, no markers, no fucking funeral services. I’m gonna die down here. And then the fucking spawn get my body. The whole fucking world is held up by the bones of every Grey Warden too fucking dumb to let the archdemon kill them.”

The horrible laughter has stopped. Aeoin stares wide eyed into the yawning darkness that surround them and falls silent.

No, no, NO. Zevran grabs his chin and yanks him around to face him then kisses him hard and soundly. Which isn’t what he was planning to do (he’s not sure what he was planning to do) but it seems to work. Aeoin stares at him, not the shadows. “You are not dead yet,” Zevran insists. “They can’t have you yet.”

Aeoin wavers. His eyes slip closed and he slowly leans forward into Zevran.

Zevran absorbs his weight and hold himself steady, though he is admittedly more slender and not as strong. He will shore him up. He will not let this man fall.

“I really… really fucking hate it down here,” Aeoin says quietly, muffled into Zevran’s neck.

“Come back to the light, amor,” Zevran answers. “Come back to the others.”

 

They push onward. They reach the Dead Trenches.

Too late, Zevran notices that the Wardens have gone silent once more. He glances at Oghren, who grimaces and takes a swig from his flask, then shockingly passes it to Zevran. He accepts graciously. Oghren doesn’t even smirk when he nearly chokes on the gritty, sour sip he takes.

The Warden’ eyes are bright and nearly feverish as they eerily fixate on something the others cannot hear. But then Zevran hears it, too. It’s a roar like a rushing river, like the crashing of the sea against the hull of the ship be took to reach Fereldan. It’s the roar of thousands of feet stomping out of time.

Aeoin and Alistair have lead them to a ledge, and Zevran desperately does not want to see what is over the edge of it, but he is caught in their wake.

The hoard on the march is enough to turn his blood to ice, a river of countless darkspawn all heading toward the surface. And then a massive shadow slides like oil down the ravine, on tattered wings made out of nightmares. The archdemon roars and everything in Zevran wants to run away and hide, lose himself in the darkness of the Deep Roads in the futile hopes that the monster will not find him.

The Wardens are… staring. Alistair shifts—trying to get closer, perhaps—and the rock crumbles a little under the massive weight of his armor. Zevran’s hand shoots out to catch them both.

“Come away from the edge,” he urges. Panic is thick at the back of his throat and he swallows it back. “Before it sees us.”

“It knows we’re here,” Alistair says. Which is less than reassuring. But he takes a deep breath in through his nose. Slides slowly away from the ledge.

“It just doesn’t give a shit,” Aeoin confirms tonelessly. He doesn’t move.

“…Please, amor,” Zevran begs.

“Brother,” Alistair says.

Finally, Aeoin steps back. There is a burning in his eyes. They are deep in the Trenches, deep in Bronca’s lingering madness, before it starts to fade.

 


  

“Orzammar is in your debt, Warden. We shall never forget all that you have—”

“Yeah, shove it up your ass,” Aeoin mutters, then, slightly louder in a belated attempt to not completely destroy diplomatic relations after working so hard to build them, “See you on the front lines.”

Then the massive doors slide smoothly open and the first puff of fresh air, cold and biting from the mountain top, hits them all.

“Mph. Gimme a minute,” Oghren mutters, staring up at the sky with a mildly queasy expression.

Aeoin ignores him, stepping out into the weak, wintery sunlight with his arms spread wide and his head tipped back.

He is… beautiful. Zevran watches him from the back of the group, where he is only half listening to Morrigan smugly hint at the secrets she learned from the Shaperate.

The Deep Roads had turned the Warden pallid and pale, like a corpse, but the cold mountain air brings color and life back to his cheeks. He stretches his body, limber and graceful again after the pressures of being underground left him cramped and tense.

Not one for closed in spaces, Zevran’s lover, which Zevran finds interesting. Most alienages he’s been in are more than slightly cramped and crowded. Maybe it has more to do with missing sunlight? He doesn’t know, but he wants to find out.

He is in quite a lot of trouble, Zevran knows. It has been a long time since he has allowed himself to fall quite this hard for anyone, and the worst thing is he knows better. He’d begun with such simple intentions—the Warden’s attraction was obvious, and making a move was an easy decision for Zevran, one that he could give a million justifications for up to and including getting closer to a potential target (at the time, at least) and the hopes that physical intimacy might make the Warden less likely to kill him at any point.

He hadn’t been expecting… Aeoin. The way he made Zevran laugh and saw through his false smiles. The way he protected Zevran in battle—and the fierce drive Zevran felt to protect him as well. Aeoin looks at Zevran like he is a fascinating puzzle, a particularly challenging lock that he wants to tease open to get at the treasure inside.

Zevran must be careful. His one rule—the last one he hasn’t yet managed to break—is that he won’t let himself ask for more than they have. What right does he have? What can an assassin such as him possibly offer, when even now the Crows are circling and he still doesn’t know what he will say to Taliesen?  And what could he possibly hope to gain? He has seen the way Aeoin watches Alistair—their good and beautiful lost prince—would have to be a fool to miss it.

Perhaps it is time to end their arrangement, gain some distance… and yet….

Aeoin takes his helmet off, lets the faint breeze run over his hair, and raises a hand to greet their qunari friend, stoically waiting for them among the merchants who gather outside Orzammar’s barred doors.

“Sten! Any news on your sword?”

Sten grunts. “This man has been most informative,” he answers, indicating a trembling man with red hair who looks faintly terrified witless. “I did not anticipate waiting on you for so long.”

“Yeah, well, dwarves are morons, as it turns out. Speaking of, meet Oghren. Oghren, this is Sten.”

The dwarf squints up at the qunari. Sten frowns down at Oghren.

“…Ain’t you qunari bastards supposed to have horns?” Oghren said. “Or did I dream that part?”

Sten raises one eyebrow. “You have encountered the beresaad before?”

“Nah. The other ones. Vashoth or whatever. Big motherfuckers, like you, real hard to kill. And they definitely had them big fuck-off horns.”

Sten, if possible, scowls even deeper.

As the two warriors get acquainted (Zevran suspects they will start comparing sword sizes any moment now) and Alistair and Morrigan bicker over supplies to get back to Redcliff and whether or not Morrigan pulled her weight in Orzammar—or was, in fact, obligated to do any such thing in the first place—Aeoin sidles up to Zevran, slipping easily into his private space with the familiarity of lovers.

“Gonna take weeks to get the Deep Roads stink out of my leathers,” he says.

“I am glad you convinced me to trade out the lovely boots you gave me for a sturdier pair,” Zevran answers. “The broodmother would have destroyed the other ones.”

“Fuck. Fucking broodmother. Just when I think darkspawn couldn’t get any more disturbing….”

“You are… feeling more like yourself, then?” The minute he says it he regrets it. It isn’t his place, for one, and far better to allow the Warden’s pride the fiction of pretending the moments of weakness in the Deep Roads never happened. It is on the tip of Zevran’s tongue to laugh and make a joke out of it—something dirty or an innuendo, now that they’re back in sunlight, wouldn’t be any hardship.

But Aeoin blushes a little and smiles shyly. “I am,” he says baldly, and the simple honesty (when Zevran knows how well he can lie) takes his breath away.

“I wanted to thank you,” he continues, while Zevran is still trying to find his feet. “For everything you did down there. I don’t know what I would’ve… well, anyway. I’m glad you were with me. Still sorry I asked you to come, but…. Glad.”

Zevran licks his lips. If you let me I’ll follow you anywhere, he doesn’t say. Or, I’ll be whatever you need from me, or any number of other perfectly ridiculous things.

What he does say, eventually, is, “Ah, I could not let my favorite Grey Warden be so glum.” It feels utterly inadequate.

Aeoin chuckles. “Oh, I’m your favorite, am I? Alistair will be heartbroken.”

“I’ll survive,” Alistair assures them dryly from a few paces away.

Aeoin laughs and steps back. Zevran stifles a sigh and puts a smile on his face, leers playfully at Alistair. “Oh, you don’t need to hide it,” he purrs dramatically. “I know how you pine for me, Alistair.”

“Aeoin!”

“Shall we not get moving?” Morrigan says pointedly. “Or do we intend to merely freeze on this mountaintop and hope the Blight passes beneath us?”

“You’d probably be less cold if you wore more of a shirt,” Aeoin points out, and laughs at her glares as he leads the way down the path.

Zevran, helplessly, follows.

Chapter Text

Back at Redcliff, after they fought off the dead hoards and before leaving to look for the ashes, Alistair had taught him how to skip stones across Lake Calenhad with a smooth, flat rock and a flick of the wrist. The bigger man had teased him a little for not knowing—according to Alistair skipping stones was something everyone knew how to do. But it wasn’t like Aeoin had ever had the chance—you can’t skip stones in the muddy ditches of the alienage, and an elf standing around not working on the Denerim docks was likely to get either jumped or press-ganged.

But Alistair was patient and friendly teaching him—his big hand warm and sure, briefly around Aeoin’s to show him how to curl his first finger around the stone—and he quickly declared him a “natural.”

Aeoin doesn’t know the name of the lake or pond or whatever the Dalish clan they found has camped beside. If he asked, he’s sure one of the hunters or maybe the storyteller would give him some elvish name and a long-winded story about one of their Creators filling it with her tears or something. He doesn’t ask.

The quiet, plunking splashes of the rocks he throws don’t seem to bother the halla penned nearby, which is good. Aeoin has found the beasts mildly preferable over horses, prettier to look at and at least marginally more intelligent and personable (and less smelly), but he’s not sure he buys the herder’s claims of being able to communicate with them. Still, his assistance with the sick one earlier bought them her goodwill, and he’d hate to waste that by starting a stampede or something.

The clan gave them leave to sleep among them, but he feels certain it’s more so that they can keep an eye on them than anything. But, at least they shared a meal, which, for all that meat is scarce with the hunters unable to hunt, is the best they’ve had since regrouping at Redcliff. Soft, flat bread drizzled with honey gathered from the wild, foraged nuts and berries, and some sweet, spicy drink that Aeoin didn’t catch the name of, served hot from an odd flat kettle that the Dalish had nestled among the fire’s embers.

He and Alistair had eaten with their usual Grey Warden gusto, and the elves quietly marveled at how much it took to fill the two of them up (and Aeoin had made a note to bring back some food for the clan from the forest, if he could, to make up for it), but even Zevran and Leliana had taken great satisfaction with the spread rather than longingly speaking of the food back in their native countries.

True to the word of the warrior (or huntress or whatever she is) who greeted them first, they have been watched since their arrival, the hunters casually standing about, their bows never far from hand, neither openly hostile nor particularly welcoming and typically saying nothing except to remind them that they are being watched (as if they could forget) and direct them to the Keeper or Lanaya for their questions.

It is therefore a small surprise when Mithra joins him at the water’s edge, picking up a stone from the bank and skipping it across the surface, smirking a little when hers goes farther than his.

Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?

Well, never let it be said that Aeoin Tabris backed down from a challenge. No matter how petty and stupid.

They exchange no words, but the competition is heated none the less, stones skimming across the water at alarming speeds, more skips, greater distance, a bigger splash at the end. Behind them the halla make a quiet noise of complaint, and in the trees a few of the hunters murmur to each other, exchanging bets.

At one point, when Mithra manages a particularly masterful throw, Aeoin disrupts it by lobbing a small round boulder into the pond with enough force to create a massive kerplunking splash and a mini-tidal wave that disrupts the smooth surface of the water for several minutes, and makes the halla snort and stamp in irritation.

Mithra snorts back a chuckle, and the game pauses as they both restock on ammunition, snatching the best stones from each other with nimble fingers and stifled laughter.

She retaliates for his earlier disruption by knocking one of his throws right out of the air with one of her own, and Aeoin is so impressed by the trick that he spends the next several throws trying it out for himself and perfecting the technique, while Mithra runs all the interference she can manage and they both pretend not be to snickering at themselves and each other.

Not so dignified, now, the Grey Warden and the Dalish Huntress.

There is so much he would love to ask her, about what her life is really like, not the placid non-answers of tradition and “outsiders wouldn’t understand” and shunting him off to the Keeper and the storyteller. He wanted to know about where the clan had been in their travels and what Mithra had seen. Didn’t they ever talk to outsiders? Even to trade? Did the clan ever go very far north? Had she seen the Free Marches? Had she ever gone up against real Tevinter slavers? Had she ever killed one?

Had she ever actually been to The Dales? He’d read that some of the elven buildings from before the Exalted March still stood. He’d read that the Orlesians had turned one into a palace for the Empress, and taken over old elven fortresses.

Finally, Aeoin spits on a stone and sends it skipping ten times (a personal best) nearly to the opposite bank, successfully avoiding her best attempt to derail it, then turns and smirks at the Dalish huntress.

She laughs good naturedly. “Not bad for a flat ear,” she says, and she probably means it as a compliment or a lighthearted joke, but Aeoin feels his own smile stiffen.

He forces a little laugh and looks away, his chin tipping toward his chest. “Flat ear,” he repeats faintly. “Right. You know, in the alienage, you Dalish are practically fairy stories, tales mothers tell their little ones because they wanna give ‘em hope for a better life, and you can’t see much of that hope where we are.”

Stories his own mother had told him, when he was very, very small, so long ago that he barely remembers. The pride and nobility of the Dalish, the seductive fantasy of an elf with their own heritage, beholden to no human, never having to scrape or bow to get by. He remembers liking the stories of the halla the best, how they would carry the elves to anywhere in the world.

He got older and learned better, of course. If there were elves in the woods, they didn’t have anything to do with him in the alienage, had certainly never made life better for a city elf. And no elf in Thedas lived an easy life—the adults of the alienage said they should pity the Dalish, starving to death for pride out in the wilderness, whereas at least in the alienage they didn’t have to worry about ravaging beasts.

Still, though, part of him had never forgotten those fairy stories. He hadn’t expected to walk right in and be inducted into the clan or whatever, but.

“…I didn’t mean to offend you,” she says hesitantly, a little taken aback. “You just… you don’t know our ways, that’s all.”

“No, I know,” he assures her, smiling still. “I just thought the Dalish would be different is all. Turns out you’re just like the shems—they call us ‘knife ears.’”

She jerks back, affronted and looking comically like Mange when he smells something nasty, but he turns away before the argument can start.

“I should get some rest,” he says cheerily. “I’m going werewolf hunting in the morning.” He leaves her by the water, returning to the little corner of camp that’s been given over to them.

Zevran greets him with a knowing smile and nod, a gently steaming mug of more of that spicy-sweet tea in hand. Aeoin sighs and settles beside him, accepts the mug when he wordlessly passes it over in commiseration.

“…Was it like this with your mother’s clan?” he asks quietly. “Why it… didn’t work out with them?”

Zevran hums a little. “The clan I briefly attempted to join was not my mother’s—at least I don’t think so. I have no real way of knowing for sure. They claimed to not recognize her name, but… who knows. When she left them…. Who knows.”

The fire pops. Aeoin takes a sip and waits, patient. It can take Zevran a while to talk his way around to a point, especially if it’s a subject that makes him unhappy. It’s no hardship—he has a lovely voice, after all, and Aeoin could listen to him for hours.

Eventually Zevran sighs. “As for why it didn’t work out, as you say…. Well, any number of reasons, I suppose. They were never unkind to me, but… they were a lot like this clan, if you follow my meaning.”

Yes, Aeoin follows. Not unkind, but not particularly welcoming, either. He imagines it was difficult for a young man who had come to them with fantasies of acceptance and finding his people. He passes the mug back.

“Ah, but it is probably for the best,” Zevran says with a cheery smile. “I am ill-suited for a life of roughing it on the road in the wilderness, wouldn’t you say?”

“You’ve been alright with us,” Aeoin protests, laughing, and Zevran nods with mock-solemnity.

“Yes, I have manfully hidden my suffering from you to protect your delicate feelings. But at least with you we might occasionally stay at an inn—or even the odd castle or estate. No, my friend, I am afraid a man such as myself belongs in a city, somewhere I can find wine and women—and men. And a hot meal I don’t have to shoot before I can eat it.”

“I dunno. You clearly haven’t tried to eat at some of the Denerim taverns I have. You really gotta stab the Mystery Meat Stew a few times for surety.”

Zevran sighs deeply and mournfully. “Fereldans. If a tavern in Antiva City tried to sell ‘mystery meat stew’ it would be burned to the ground.”

Aeoin laughs.

“I am sorry the Dalish did not live up to your expectations,” Zevran says quietly. It’s a disappointment he knows well, after all.

Aeoin just shakes his head, chuckling. “I’ll admit, I wanted the fairy story, but turns out they’re just people.” He sighs and chucks a pine cone into the fire to listen to it pop and crack. “Too elf for the humans in the city and not elf enough for the woods. Only place for an elf like you and me is the one we make. Yeah?”

Zevran smiles slightly, and his eyes as he watches Aeoin are warm and golden in the firelight. “The Wardens for you?” he guesses.

Aeoin grins. “I guess so. That was almost entirely luck, though. What about you? You’ve left the Crows--what’s the place for you?”

Zevran startles a little and tries to laugh it off. “Me? Ah… no one has… asked me that before. I admit—I do not know.”

Aeoin licks his lips, a smile twitching helplessly across his mouth. “Well. There’s… space by me as long as you want it.”

 


  

The elf-turned-werewolf Danyla begs him to end her life, and Aeoin balks. “I can’t promise that,” he protests. “There has to be another way, something else we can do.” He is thinking mainly of Swiftrunner—that wolf had been kind of an asshole, but surprisingly intelligent, and he didn’t seem to be in this kind of pain—maybe there’s a treatment, something the wolves have devised over the years to alleviate the suffering of their curse. But if he’s honest he’s also thinking of Ruck, of choices made in the dark and mistakes he doesn’t want to repeat.

But Danyla attacks them to force their hands, and Zevran’s knife appears as if by magic in the middle of her skull when she snarls and swipes at Aeoin.

“…She wouldn’t have bit me,” he says numbly.

“You don’t know that,” Zevran returns, his voice oddly flat as he jerks his blade free with a practiced twist and swipes it clean against his thigh.

“She wouldn’t have,” Aeoin insists. She was enough in her right mind to not wish to pass her curse to them.

“She attacked us. She wanted to die.”

Aeoin wants to argue, but he doesn’t really know why. Instead he sighs and rubs his face. “Something isn’t… adding up,” he mutters. “Swiftrunner wasn’t in pain like that. She wasn’t… mindless, the way Zathrian said they are.”

None of the werewolves we’ve fought have been mindless,” Alistair says, frowning as well. “The attacks have been too well coordinated. Animals don’t ambush.”

“Why would Zathrian lie about that?” Leliana asks. “Or does he simply not realize?”

“Do you think we should tell him?” Alistair sounds dubious.

Leliana has no such doubts. “Why would we not? If the werewolves are intelligent, perhaps they can be reasoned with.”

“They did attack the elves first,” Zevran points out dryly. “Unprovoked, it would appear.”

“But do we know that for certain?” Leliana is frowning, running the fingers of one hand deftly down the string of her bow. “Swiftrunner’s words seem to suggest otherwise.”

“Are we really going to trust the word of a werewolf?” Alistair points out sardonically, and Leliana purses her lips at him, displeased.

They all look to Aeoin.

Aeoin has crouched over Danyla’s body, frowning and pensive. “…I guess Zathrian wouldn’t thank us for bringing her back to the camp, right?” he mutters. “Not if he already told her husband she was dead. It would expose his lie.”

“And her poor widower,” Leliana adds mournfully. “She did not want him to see her like this—to know.”

“The Dalish probably have all kinds of death rituals, right? Their Creators and all…. Zevran, do you know any?”

Zevran sighs and shakes his head. “I do not. I was not with the clan for very long, really. I know that they bury their dead instead of burning them like Andrastians, and the Keeper will usually ward the gravesites somehow, but other than that….”

They do not have time to dig a grave—night is beginning to stretch its fingers through the trees. They arrange Danyla’s body beneath the cover of some underbrush, and Aeoin marks the location on their map. Maybe they can appeal to Zathrian or Lanaya while they decide what to tell her husband.

Then they move on.

 

Aeoin stalks away from a fruitless conversation with Zathrian, muttering under his breath and resisting the urge to kick at trees. The Dalish watching frown disapprovingly, but he has gotten skilled at ignoring them.

“Wouldn’t expect an outsider to understand,” he mocks. “Wouldn’t expect an outsider to understand. Well, you don’t mind putting the outsider right in the fucking middle, now do you?”

Alistair had set down his sword and his shield by the fire they’d slept around the night before, and was poking hopefully through the stores of food, but with Aeoin’s grumbling entrance he reaches again for his gear. “Back into the forest?” he guesses glumly.

“Zathrian is lying,” Aeoin muttered, instinctively keeping his voice down. Even so, the hunters scattered about to keep an eye on them shift and glare. Aeoin glares back, unapologetic. “Or at least not telling us everything”

“I am sure there is a reason,” Zevran soothes, unexpectedly more diplomatic than usual. “Things are perhaps not as they appear.” Then, more quietly, into Aeoin’s ear, “They must have faith in their Keeper, amor, or else their entire way of life begins to crumble.”

“But he won’t fucking listen,” Aeoin grumbles back, relenting only slightly. They’d returned to camp to deliver the news of Danyla’s death and the message they’d gotten from Swiftrunner, to ask Zathrian how he wanted them to proceed since the werewolves appeared intelligent, but he wouldn’t accept that they were anything but mindless beasts.

He doesn’t even seem willing to grant Danyla her death rites as a Dalish elf, claiming she’d died in the moment of her transformation, and his stubborn refusal to find a better solution—or even give Aeoin all the information he needed to go forward—Is grating on the Warden’s nerves.

“Perhaps it is as the storyteller Sarel said,” Leliana says gently. “Certain truths can be difficult to accept.” Aeoin has to admit to the truth of that much.

“So, where does that leave us now?” Alistair asks. “Are we still going after Witherfang?”

“Yes,” Aeoin says definitively. If Zathrian won’t share information, perhaps the werewolves will.

But he does wonder about Zathrian as they press deeper into the forest, into the underground ruins following the werewolves’ trail.

“Do you think he’s really immortal?” he asks as he cleans spider guts from his axe.

Leliana, collecting arrows from fallen ghouls, hums softly. “I’d always assumed that was merely a story. The legends say that instead of dying the ancient elves would enter a great sleep.”

“Sounds a lot like dying to me,” Aeoin mutters.

Leliana smiles. “Which is probably where the stories came from. But who knows? Perhaps it is true. But then, where did that magic come from, and how and why did they lose that magic?”

“I don’t believe it,” Zevran says blithely, surprising Aeoin.

“Oh?”

“It is true that we tend to age more slowly than humans,” Zevran says, shrugging. “I for one have maintained my youthful charm and good looks to devastating effect, I am sure you will agree. But the Dalish do not live longer than city elves because they are Dalish.”

“It probably has more to do with them not living in filthy, disease-ridden alienages,” Aeoin agrees, smirking, and Zevran nods, conceding the point.

“No one is immortal,” Zevran says. “I wonder what our resident Templar has to say about the kind of magic necessary to keep him alive for so long….”

“Former Templar,” Alistair corrects. “And not even a Templar, just a recruit. And… I’ve been trying not to think about it.”

Aeoin smirks, feeling a little petty, but vindicated. “Well, we’ll see what Witherfang has to say.”

“You are not considering leaving the clan to the wolves?” Zevran says, a little sharply, and Aeoin startles.

“What? No! Of course not. I just want all the information.”

Zevran’s face is unreadable as he turns away to examine a bit of decorative tile, dust-covered and mostly crushed by the centuries. He has Antivan leather boots on his feet, and those embroidered gloves Aeoin found for him at the camp on his hands.

“Regardless of Keeper Zathrian’s secrets,” he says slowly, nearly offhand but Aeoin is listening closely, “the rest of the clan is suffering, and I do believe the Keeper has their best interest at heart.” He shrugs. Anyone might think he doesn’t care. “It is what a Keeper is—from what I understand.”

Aeoin nods slowly. Zathrian… actually reminds him of Valendrian, when he allows himself to think of it. Forever concerned with the people under his care, forever exasperated with the antics of the younger people…. Valendrian was warmer, though, and more approachable, and there had never been an elf in the alienage that the elder hadn’t welcomed, no matter where they came from, and—and suddenly Aeoin misses his home desperately.

He pushes it aside, swallows it down. “I’m not turning my back on the elves,” he says. “How would I even look at myself if I did?”

Zevran’s mouth twitches, almost a smile. “I am not Dalish myself, but… they are my mother’s people. It is a tenuous connection, I know, but….”

“I know what you mean. We’re going to figure out what’s going on in this forest and we’re going to set it right. And then maybe there will still be some darkspawn left to kill, yeah?”

 


 

 They leave the Dalish with a dead Keeper and the burden of supplying forces for the Blight, but the curse is over and the werewolves have been cured, the warriors bitten in the attack recovering quickly.

Mithra sees them off, guiding them out with marginally less hostility than she had guided them in, but the huntress is tense and says little.

Aeoin has no interest in pushing her for conversation, especially after their conflict skipping stones across the pond, but he does catch himself glancing back as they leave the clan behind, catching glimpses of the aravels through the trees and the moss covered stones and fallen arches of the ancient ruins where the clan camps. He’d liked the statues of their Creators, liked learning the stories, even if the storyteller did get long-winded and preachy (and clearly did not approve of joining the “outside” world in fighting the Blight).

In the underground ruin he’d poked curiously into every corner, seeking out every tiny tidbit of information, of the history of the people who had once lived there, who had left their ghosts and their secrets, guarded by the rattling bones of their vengeful dead.

Can he claim that history, even if the Dalish say he isn’t one of them? Is it just for the Dalish, or is it for all elves?

Can they keep it from him?

“Grey Warden. I owe you an apology.”

Aeoin is so shocked he stops walking and then stumbles forward a few steps when Alistair crashes into his back.

Mithra gives them both a balefully unimpressed look.

Alistair coughs and becomes very interested in making sure his helm is on straight.

“Uh,” Aeoin says. “What for?”

Mithra’s unimpressed look becomes particularly pained. “The way I—we—treated you was… unkind. And uncalled for. I do not know all that you did for our clan, but I know that the other hunters would most likely be dead if it were not for you. We are not your people and… I am aware that we did not let you forget that fact. But still you helped us.

“Flat—city elves. Come to us from time to time, looking for, as you said, a fairy story. Some of them, like Lanaya, are able to adjust and earn a place within the clan. We think of them as one of us, though they were not born to our ways. Most of them, however, cannot accept the difficulty and hardship of our lives. They miss their soft beds, or they grow weary of the travel, and they flee back to their cities and their human masters. Sometimes their carelessness even brings danger and humans to threaten the clan.”

Aeoin frowns, feeling the argument he’d walked away from by the pond come bubbling back. “You don’t know what it’s like in the alienages, either. Maybe if you did you’d be more willing to give them a chance. You talk about city elves like we have no pride, but my pride is the only thing I left Denerim with.”

She sighs deeply, shaking her head. “Perhaps you are right,” she allows. “I was not trying to excuse my words. I merely hoped that you would… understand the reasoning. Our life is difficult. Each member of the clan has a place and a role that is vital to our survival as a whole. Outsiders who come, seeking to join us do not always understand. And… outside of the clan, we have learned that we must be wary.”

Slowly he nods. “Life’s hard, but you all rely on each other. Kin and kind.”

“Exactly so.”

“It’s just like that in the alienage, at least, it is in the one I was born in.” He takes a deep breath and looks away briefly. “Listen I… probably owe you an apology as well. My expectations of the Dalish were… unfair. I’m glad I got to meet you, and learn more about your people. You know, my best friend once said that the best thing about Blights is how they bring people together.”

A quick glance to the left shows him Leliana smiling beatifically, and a small twitch in the corner of Zevran’s lips.

Mithra nods solemnly. “We will meet you on the field of battle before the hoards, then,” she says, “and our arrows will rip the archdemon from the sky. Dareth shiral, Grey Warden. May the Dread Wolf never catch your scent.”

Chapter Text

They finish off the last of the assassins easily enough, but the skirmish has left Aeoin jittery and annoyed. Disadvantageous terrain and cocky asshole assassins who fail to be as charming as his favorite Antivan are only half of it— “I want answers, Leliana. Please—if we’re going to be attacked on the road for your secrets—”

“Yes,” she says quickly, her voice thick with dismay. “Yes, forgive me. I will tell you everything, I swear it.”

Aeoin pauses, looks her over. Sweat has darkened her hair and a thin red line of blood runs down her pale cheek from a minor wound or scratch, probably from the arrows that had been flying about everywhere. They won the fight, but the lines on her face and the bow of her spine speak of defeat, a great weight that has finally caught up with her.

It has been such a long road, and they have all been through so much. So many nights around the fire, tense from their troubles and never knowing if or when the darkspawn were going to come out of the gloom, Leliana’s sweet, clear voice singing a song or telling a quiet story the only thing keeping them sane.

Aeoin might not have much use for a Maker, but hearing her sing is almost enough to make him believe. If it was Andraste’s song that brought the Maker’s attention to her, then surely Leliana’s voice is a sign of His favor as well, if anything was.

“…Let’s make camp,” he decides. “Here’s as good a place as any. Alistair, it’s your night to cook.”

Alistair builds the fire pit and Wynn ignites it with a gesture. Respectfully, the others retreat a little ways to give them some illusion of privacy, Alistair to frown over the cooking pot, Morrigan to her usual far off corner, Wynn to fuss at an uninterested Zevran and Oghren about the linens and tents. Sten takes watch in stony silence, and Mange keeps him company for a time (it’s oddly cute how the two of them interact—Aeoin has occasionally caught Sten carefully rubbing Mange’s clipped ears and short fur, as if puzzling out how a creature so fearsome can also be so soft).

Eventually it is just him and Leliana, seated side by side before the warm little fire. He waits her out as patiently as he is able, seeing to his gear to keep his hands busy. One of the runes on his axe has been knocked a little loose—he’ll have to have Sandal look at it. And Zevran has told him at least a million times how important it is to clean a blade thoroughly after using a poison coat on it….

Leliana speaks slowly, her voice clear and deliberate, as if she is telling one of her stories about distant, heroic, historic, romantic figures. Except the characters in this story have all the ugly closeness of familiarity, and there is nothing romantic and little heroic about the tale of betrayal she unveils, word by word.

By the time she finally reaches the end, Aeoin’s hands have stilled in their work, and he stares at her in silent astonishment as he takes it all in.

“So, now you know the truth of me, all of it,” Leliana says, staring bleakly into the fire. “Can you blame me for wishing to keep it safely hidden in the past? I thought Marjolaine would let me go, that I could have a new life, free of her and all the rest of it.”

“But that’s not how life works,” Aeoin murmurs, and she hums in quiet, sad agreement.

“But… I will find Marjolaine. And this time, I will put an end to it. Forever.” There is a darkness in her voice that he isn’t used to hearing there, from a girl he has come to think of as all sweetness and the Maker’s light. But he realizes that is foolishness, when he has seen how she is in battle, arrows flying without hesitation or remorse, no hesitation in close quarters, drawing sword and dagger when she must and never flinching from the spray of blood on her pretty face or delicate hands.

“I’m with you,” he says simply. “You know that.”

Her smile, flashing at him through the flickering light of the campfire, is all sweetness again. “We have come a long way, the pair of us,” she remarks, and he blushes a little, embarrassed to be reminded of his early jealousy.

“I wasn’t… fair,” he mutters.

She laughs a little, but not cruelly, and nudges him a little with her shoulder. “I have already told you, I find it endearing how protective you are of your friends.”

“That includes you. You know.”

“Then I cannot fail.”

Nothing quite breaks a moment like a belch from an inebriated dwarf. Oghren gracelessly inserts himself between them while they’re both still reeling and gagging from the smell. “Yer missin’ out on dinner,” he tells them.

“We know,” Aeoin answers, waving a hand in front of his face.

“It is Alistair’s night to cook,” Leliana elaborates, her nose wrinkling delicately.

“Ah, it ain’t so bad! I’ve eaten way worse shit on campaign.”

“Considering what you fed us on your night, I believe it.” Oghren had only cooked once, and never again by unanimous decision. Alistair reflected that if nearly killing them all was all it took to get out of the duty then the risk might be worth it, but Aeoin had given Morrigan permission to hex him if he tried.

“He is getting better,” Leliana says judiciously.

“I know,” Aeoin replies glumly, eyeing the contents of Oghren’s trencher. “That’s the frightening part.”

 

On the other side of camp, Alistair is unsuccessfully attempting to feed a dog. “Come on, I’ve seen you eat actual rotting flesh.”

Mange, unconvinced, gives the bowl a cursory sniff and then turns his back, making his opinion clear by kicking dirt on it.

Alistair huffs, insulted. “Fine, be that way. But you’ll not get anything else from me!” Mange ignores him and starts digging through the underbrush.

“…Why do I bother?” Alistair wonders with a heaved sigh. “Aeoin’s just going to give you bones and beefsteaks the minute he doesn’t think anyone will notice him spending the money.”

“Tell me, what must I do to obtain a similar promise?” Zevran asks, startling Alistair a little though he wouldn’t like to admit it. “I assure you, nothing is off the table,” the assassin continues cheerfully, “just swear to me I’ll never have to eat your cooking again and you can do whatever you wish to me.”

Slightly peeved (why does no one appreciate his cooking? He’s been getting much better—it’s been weeks since he burned anything!) Alistair rolls his eyes. “As if Aeoin’s not giving you bones and beefsteaks as well.”

Zevran’s eyes widen almost comically, his jaw dropping in shocked glee. It’s almost endearing, damn him. “Alistair!” he cries, making a good show of being scandalized. “That was a dirty joke! Not a very good one, mind you, but an actual dirty joke! I am… so proud.”

Alistair rolls his eyes then glances surreptitiously toward the other side of the camp. Aeoin is arguing about something with Oghren, his voice briefly rising in indistinct exasperation while Oghren loudly laughs and talks over him. Leliana smiles mischievously as she makes some comment or other that instantly sets the other two off.

Alistair isn’t certain why Zevran isn’t over with the others—he rarely strays from Aeoin’s side. In the beginning it was probably because he was relying on their leader to defend him against the others. Sten, for one, has never made his opinions secret, and Morrigan is full of acerbic remarks on the foolishness of mercy. And then they started their… dalliance, and they both seemed more than eager to spend every waking moment in each other’s presence.

This is, in fact, the first time he and Alistair have been together without Aeoin there to be a buffer between them since he and Zevran started…. Well.

Alistair rolls his shoulders (since that shriek attack he can’t even fully disarm at camp, and he seriously regrets making the switch to plate, no matter how much more impressive Aeoin says it is over his old splint mail). He’ll likely not get a better chance at this, and no point in putting it off.

He stops Zevran from walking away with a hand on his shoulder, and though the usual pleasant smile remains on his face the Antivan goes very, very still, his golden eyes coolly roving over Alistair the way Alistair has seen him look over a mark, picking out weak spots to attack. His hands twitch ever so slightly before he crosses his arms casually over his chest. Zevran is never disarmed, either.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Alistair says, undeterred.

Zevran shifts his weight, casual, and twitches one corner of his mouth up in a crooked smile. “Of course, my friend,” he shrugs. “What do you want to talk about?”

Alistair is aware that Aeoin wouldn’t appreciate this, which is mildly hypocritical, Alistair thinks, but not the point. “What are your intentions toward Aeoin?” he asks, crossing his arms over his chest and doing his best to look stern and imposing and big.

The effort seems wasted on Zevran, who is no doubt accustomed to being smaller than most everyone, except maybe Aeoin himself, who is particularly short even for an elf. He laughs.

Alistair scowls, annoyed.

Zevran’s smile turns into a leer. “Why Alistair,” he purrs (Alistair hates how he does that, just to make him uncomfortable). “I would think my intentions would be obvious by now. Just this morning you were complaining about how my intentions kept you up half the night. Surely you don’t need a more elaborate explanation, after all this time.”

Alistair can feel the tips of his ears turning pink, but he covers by deepening his scowl and trying to loom like Sten. “I’m being serious,” he says.

“Me too!” Zevran crows, laughing.

Aeoin glances over, attracted by the sound, and Alistair waves him off as best he can and shifts his weight, deliberately placing himself between him and Zevran. Zevran’s eyebrow twitches, the barest hint of annoyance taking over his face briefly before smoothing back into friendly non-concern.

“Is this brotherly protectiveness, Alistair?” he says easily. “Surely his affairs are no concern of yours. He can more than take care of himself, wouldn’t you say? Or perhaps this is jealousy, hm?”

“Jealousy?” Alistair repeats, crossing his arms over his chest uncomfortably. “What do you mean?”

Zevran’s smile is a sharp and pointy thing, tinged with the poison he favors. “No longer so starry eyed when he looks at you, is he?” he says, low and casual.

And that… that is too far. If Zevran had made it the joke Alistair had half been expecting—something about pining for Zevran’s flesh or an equally ridiculous comment, just because he knows how it makes Alistair squirm—that would have been one thing. But they—he and Aeoin—they have never talked about… that. It was easier to play dumb, and he suspected kinder to Aeoin’s pride, and at some point—somewhere in the Frostbacks, maybe—it had stopped mattering.

Alistair feels his spine straighten like a sword, and something viciously triumphant glitters for a moment in Zevran’s golden eyes.

“What are you two talking about?” Aeoin’s voice makes them both startle a little, and for a split second neither of them says anything.

“…Alistair has a rash,” Zevran announces after a moment. “He was asking my advice.”

Predictably, Alistair sputters and turns quite red. “What—that’s not—Aeoin!”

“It’s the armor,” Aeoin says, his voice all sympathy and his eyes all mischief. “I hear plate chafes terribly.”

“He’d be a lot less useful to hide behind if he were wearing leather like us,” Zevran points out. “Though the sight of those legs might be worth it….”

Aeoin laughs. “Zevran, you letch!”

“Neither of you are welcome behind my shield anymore,” Alistair announces loudly. “You’ll have to beg a defensive position from Morrigan, and see if I care!”

“Oh, Alistair,” Aeoin chuckles fondly. “Anyway, come help me knock sense into Oghren.”

“You do like your impossible tasks, amor.”

“He wants to send a genlock head to Felsi as a courting gift or something. Seems to think it’ll get her hot.”

 

“You never answered the question,” Alistair says quietly as they trail behind Aeoin on the road back to Redcliff. Alistair feels as if he’s crossed the entire country at least a dozen times by now, but now the end feels finally in sight, all the treaties at last addressed and the armies sworn to stand.

Their stalwart leader is distracted by Mange, who is full of high spirits and eagerly chasing rabbits while Aeoin laughs and eggs him on. Hopefully he’ll at least think to shoot a few for their dinner.

Zevran has paused to dig a rock out of his boot, and he heaves a put upon sigh and rolls his eyes. “This again,” he mutters. “Like a mabari with a bone, you Fereldans.”

“That’s my best friend, Zevran,” Alistair says. “If you do him harm, I swear to the Maker—”

“Spare me your blasphemy, Alistair,” Zevran sighs, suddenly sounding weary. “You wish to know my intentions? They are not so different from yours, as far as it goes.”

They both watch Aeoin for a moment. Mange has somehow managed to steal his right glove and has discovered a new favorite game in making the elf chase him, barking and wriggling his stump of a tail to goad him on whenever he seems to be flagging. Aeoin curses him viciously, calling the war hound all manner of cur and mongrel and flea-bitten monster, but he laughs breathlessly as he does it.

For the moment it is almost as if there is no Blight and no war, just a young man and his hound playing in a field. While their qunari friend looks on in bewildered disapproval and the local apostate witch woman glowers from the sidelines. Right.

“Alright, keep the fucking glove!” Aeoin shouts. His defeat has come from falling on his ass and being too winded to rise again. Mange, ever the contrary beast, instantly drops the gauntlet to come smother his master’s face with slobbery kisses, amid much protest.

“I intend to follow him,” Zevran says quietly. “For as long and as far as he will have me.”

Alistair nods. “Don’t break his heart,” he pleads quietly.

Zevran laughs, quiet and pained. “Ah, my dear Alistair,” he says, briefly echoing how Aeoin will sometimes say ‘oh, Alistair’ so affectionately. “You need never worry of that from my end. If only we all had a friend like you.”

Chapter Text

Come here and say that, shem.” Alright. Not Aeoin’s brightest moment, he’ll admit. But in that moment his rage is so hot that he can barely think, let alone curb his notoriously reckless tongue. The woman standing with Loghain (his guard, probably judging by the uniform and impressive sword) gives him some reprimand, calls him a fool, and he wants to snarl at her, too. Didn’t she hear what Howe just said? Didn’t any of the fucking humans standing around care that his people—his family and kin—are being slaughtered like rats in a cage?

Alistair’s hand on his shoulder, strong and heavy, is, for a moment, the only thing stopping him from drawing his axe right then and there, not sense or any sort of reasoning. Fuck the Landsmeet, he’ll settle the question of succession here and now—by slaughtering every last one of them.

“Easy, brother,” Alistair murmurs, and while it isn’t enough to quell his anger, he does manage to keep still, like a mabari quivering in its harness before being loosed for battle.

Finally Loghain and his cronies leave. Eamon says—something. Aeoin knows he responds but he has no idea what either of them said. Something about getting information from the nobles coming in for the Meet, something about discussing strategy in Eamon’s office. Something about making themselves at home.

When the raw anger finally draws back Aeoin feels vaguely sick. He shrugs off Alistair’s hand, still heavy on his shoulder and mutters something unintelligible.

“I’m sorry,” Alistair says. And it sounds like he really means it, too. But he can’t actually do anything for the alienage, no more than Aeoin can, and it’s hollow.

“Forget it,” Aeoin mutters. “Just… promise me you’ll let me punch that bastard’s face in next chance we get.”

“So long as I get first crack at Loghain,” Alistair agrees readily, and Aeoin obligingly smirks a little at the dark humor. The bigger warrior sighs and roughs a hand over his hair, pushing the blond spikes into greater disarray. “Listen, Eamon wants me upstairs for… something. Maker. You’ll… come get me? If anything comes up? Anything?”

That actually makes Aeoin laugh a little. Since leaving Redcliff, Eamon has only gotten more determined in his set course of putting Alistair on the throne, and he hasn’t been letting the poor man out of his sight. It’s almost disturbing how hell-bent he is, especially in the face of Alistair’s obvious reluctance; he has stopped listening to their protests entirely, and Aeoin has taken to mulling over new strategies at night when he can’t sleep.

“I won’t leave without you, brother, I promise,” he vows, punching Alistair lightly on the arm. “I’m just going to poke around a bit, see if I can find the fucking kitchen.”

Alistair snorts, heading toward the stairs. “Good bloody luck getting anything out of Cook before dinner. We should just point her at the darkspawn….”

Everyone seems to be settling into the estate, which is… good. Even Oghren, camped out in the dining room and covertly working his way through Eamon’s wine cellar, just burps and claims to be bored though he makes no qualms about nestling his ass firmly on a fluffy velvet seat cushion.

Aeoin feels a little stupid about it, but he sort of misses the cozy quietness of their camp. They’re less likely to be ambushed by shrieks here, and he and Zevran are mildly less likely to keep the rest of the group up all night, and sure the food is worlds better than throwing whatever they’d managed to scrounge up that day on the fire and hoping for the best, but… still.

There’s no quietly crackling fire and gathering around it at the end of a long day, Zevran teasing Alistair and Leliana playfully picking sides, Oghren loudly teaching them the most vulgar drinking songs he knows—only to be shockingly outdone by Leliana singing something in Orlais that makes Zevran snicker and Wynn blush.

There’s no late night watch with Sten and Mange, Aeoin asking quiet questions about Par Vollen and the Qun for as long as Sten’s patience lasts. No trading barbs with Morrigan at the edge of camp while she cooks up something actually edible for them both—so long as he doesn’t share with Alistair (though apparently sneaking morsels to his dog is acceptable).

There’s just something about the estate that Aeoin finds unsettling, and he thinks he knows what it is, though he’s not quite willing to voice it.

It’s just that… most of the lords’ estates in Denerim follow the same basic floor plan, and all the ladies mostly follow the same conventions of fashion when it comes to decorating. And this estate reminds him of the last time he was in a lord’s estate in Denerim, with Soris, fighting their way through guards and highbred assholes to rescue Shianni.

And also… there aren’t many elves in the household, but the absence stands out to Aeoin like a bright red flag, serving as nothing but a reminder that his people are currently trapped in their homes. Unable to work. The position his father was so proud of, which had provided for them so well throughout Aeoin’s entire childhood, is almost certainly gone.

There is, in fact, only one elf maid in the entire staff.

Aeoin finds Nigella in the library, dusting under the jaundiced eye of the seneschal, and he waits until that sour old shem finally moves on before approaching. He doesn’t want to get her in trouble.

She gives him a long suffering sigh, but merely flaps a dust rag at him and doesn’t try to curtsey or call him ‘ser’ like she did the first few times he tried to talk to her. She merely shakes her head and says, “Why a Grey Warden would want to spend him time on this I can’t imagine,” as if talking to herself, and doesn’t try to stop him from taking the dust rag and wiping down the shelves with her—though he admittedly gets a little sidetracked looking at the titles while she is quick and efficient always.

It’s the agreement they’ve come to, after a few days of him lurking about like some kind of loon and her getting increasingly exasperated with him getting in the way of her chores. He helps out and keeps her from getting in trouble for talking to him, and she kindly indulges his pathetic urge to be around another elf, one who reminds him of his family.

She’s a few years older than him, closer to Shianni’s age though she seems steadier by far, more mature in many ways, and he doesn’t feel a traitor for thinking so because Shianni would think so as well. She isn’t married yet, mostly because she has no parents to find a match for her. She has a sweetheart, one of Eamon’s men-at-arms, and when Aeoin asks her if she wouldn’t rather be with an elf she looks at him like he’s an idiot.

“Danael’s a little elf-blooded. His grandmother, I think. But that doesn’t matter to us. He’s a good man, and he treats me well.”

His own prejudices aside, he concedes that that is all that really matters.

“I know what you mean, though,” she confesses slowly after a moment. “It isn’t always… easy, for a human and an elf. But Danael isn’t like that.”

They don’t speak of the alienage, though she knows that is where he is from and shares a sympathetic sigh that he likely wouldn’t accept from anyone other than another alienage elf. Sometimes he’ll tell her little stories about his family, how it was growing up with Shianni and Soris, the time Father caught him and Shianni smoking redleaf and made them finish the entire packet until they were sick for days, or the time Soris lost half their food money to some scam and Aeoin had to go knock skulls to get it back.

She’s curious about how he was recruited, but he skirts easily over the details, saying only that Duncan came to the Alienage and conscripted him. He doesn’t mention the wedding, because he can just imagine her asking for details and it would only be awkward to admit he could barely remember his former bride’s name (not his fault—they’d only met the once, after all, and he hadn’t been at his best).

He definitely doesn’t mention Vaughan. Cowardly, but he couldn’t stand to hear her condemn him if she knew how responsible he was for the trouble in the alienage, and anyway no one in the estate really knows. Eamon probably suspects, but is politically choosing not to mention. Technically his Grey Warden status would protect him from a trial, but it would surely only hurt their position at the Meet.

Mostly he gets her talking about herself, her duties, her quiet little life. She would like to return to Orlais and is saving up pennies for the journey and the necessary bribes, but on the other hand she doesn’t want to leave the arlessa, especially with Conner getting taken away to the circle soon, and she’s not sure what’s even still waiting for her back home, anyway.

It’s a feeling Aeoin is intimately familiar with after the past year, longing for home while being uncertain if ‘home’ even exists anymore.

 

Zevran slips back into the estate through the servants’ quarters, where it is least likely that he will be observed, since the dwarf has taken to sullying the dining room and the Circle mage has found a favored bench in the courtyard. He has a lie on the tip of his tongue should anyone ask where he has been—something saucy and irreverent about finding a particular type of toy for himself and the Warden from the Pearl—but he doesn’t honestly think anyone missed him.

He wasn’t gone long enough, frankly, just a quick turn about the market to check on messages and have a quiet, discreet word with the pair of brothers selling Antivan goods from a stall in the central pavilion.

The Crows generally don’t provide much for their agents in the field, as it were; trained assassins are expected to get the job done by any means necessary, with particulars left up to the individual—or team—to decide and arrange for. Which means that Zevran can expect the bulk of his information sources to be fairly uncompromised, even if the Crows are seeking him out.

Unless, of course, they send an agent who is intimately familiar with all of Zevran’s usual methods and techniques.

He feels fairly certain he has tipped his hand already, and now the ball is in Taliesen's court in regard to when and where the strike will come. An ambush, most likely. It’s Taliesen’s style, the page Zevran borrowed when planning his own initial assault on the Warden—he always lacked Rinna’s subtlety, which is why they always relied on her for their plans.

Zevran imagines he can anticipate the particulars down to the details. Taliesen will select some quiet, out of the way alley to lie in wait for them in—and he will certainly have his pick, Denerim is a sprawling city that is simply packed with such advantageous locations for the casual mugging or spot of violence.

The biggest difficulty will be selecting a spot that will give him the high ground while also being fairly certain that their little band would go wandering down it eventually. Tabris navigates the city like the born native he is, and one who spent a youth running messages and errands for coin.

There will be traps, more agents hiding in the shadows to stab them in the back, but first Taliesen will wish to talk. That is also his way, and Zevran believes he has warranted that much, at least, given the history between them. Taliesen will make an offer—return to Antiva, to the Crows, and together they will make up a lie. They will say Zevran never turned on the Crows, he was simply waiting for an opportunity to strike—Taliesin’s arrival was the plan all along.

Of course, in order for that to work, the Warden he was sent to kill will have to finally die….

Zevran can picture his lover’s face in the moment of betrayal, the dismay and the shock. The pleading. For just a moment, Tabris’s face in his mind’s eye shifts to another, Rinna lying at his feet, begging for her life….

Zevran closes his eyes and breathes slowly. That… will not be happening. He is not going to let it happen. When Taliesen’s ambush comes… he will handle it, finally severing the last tie to his old life.

And if something in his heart shrinks and quakes at the thought, Zevran easily pushes the thought aside to step into the library

Aeoin’s voice is the first thing he hears, and he drifts that way without much thought, a smile coming to his lips. He has seen a slim volume of Antivan poetry somewhere on these shelves. They can recite verses back and forth at each other—Zevran has always felt that poetry sounds better naked.

But then he realizes exactly what he is hearing, and his heart sinks into his stomach, even as he quietly slips closer to get a better view.

The warden is flirting with that maid again, the pretty elf one with the mousey hair and the soft eyes. Zevran hides behind bookcases, feeling a fool, pretending that he isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation as they talk about small, meaningless things.

Respectable courtship is like that—from what Zevran understands, anyway. You talk around and around in circles and everyone pretends they wouldn’t rather just jump into bed with each other and then there’s a party and the Maker gets involved and someone wears a white dress. There are flowers. Cakes. Dancing. Not that Zevran would know firsthand, not being respectable himself—the only experience he has with weddings is getting sent to poison some guest or other, and sometimes a quick tryst with a bridesmaid (and, on one memorable occasion, the bride) on his way out.

He does happen to look stunning in white. Not that it matters.

Dully, Zevran realizes he has expected this, though that doesn’t make it hurt less. And he reflects without much enthusiasm that it does not even mean he will necessarily lose what he has. It is fairly common in Antiva for a man to marry some proper woman and produce children with her, all while keeping a male lover on the side. And still—still, after all these weeks on the road together, driving the rest of the camp to the edge of sanity with their activities nearly every night—he and Tabris have made no real promises to each other.

He has not even been invited to stay the night since that one time in the mountains. He regrets the retreat now; it’s not as if he has spared himself anything by maintaining the distance.

He doesn’t know if he could stand it, to be kept on the side like a shameful secret while the warden started a proper little family, eventually forgotten and left to gather dust while visits grow further and further between….

He thinks again of Taliesen, the confrontation coming from the shadows any day, any minute now, and curses himself for a fool.

Because it still changes nothing, in the end.

Putting his head down, he turns to go. Tabris can have his little flirtations, can even have his little wife if that is what he wants, but Zevran doesn’t want to see it and thankfully he doesn’t think the Warden is that cruel. He means to slip away from the library, ignoring Leliana’s quizzical look, ignoring the sneering seneschal who peers at him distrustfully.

But he doesn’t get very far. He turns a corner and there Aeoin is, as swift and sneaky as any rogue, and grinning like he’s deeply pleased with himself for getting the drop on Zevran. The courtship must be going well, and Zevran forces an answering smile to his own face, arranging himself into a flirty, sultry pose that is well rehearsed and capable of covering any of his real feelings.

“I thought I saw you leaving,” Tabris says, teasing.

“Here I am,” Zevran answers lightly, his voice cheerful and carefree.

“I found something for you. I think you’ll like it.”

“More gifts? You are too generous, my dear warden. I can barely lift my pack as it is.” The over generosity of a guilty heart, perhaps. Zevran has seen it before—Crows are often hired by jealous mistresses, the deaths of their unlucky paramours funded by the very jewels they showered their secret lovers in.

Aeoin rolls his eyes, still smiling. “You won’t have to carry this one. Look.” And he holds out a slim book bound in pale tan leather and embossed with gilt lettering. “It caught my nose first,” the warden continues, “That smells like Antivan leather, I thought, and sure enough….”

“Antivan poetry,” Zevran murmurs, reaching out to take the little volume—the same one he’d noticed days ago and planned to bring to his lover. He runs his hands lightly over the cover. “Someone in the Arl’s household has good taste, I see.”

“I was looking for the one you recited to me,” Aeoin says wryly. “But oddly enough the book of Antivan poems is written in Antivan, of all confounding things.” His eyes slide away, the faintest hint of a blush coming to his cheeks, and Zevran wants to press his lips to that precious tint of pink. “I thought perhaps… you could read me some and help me translate? See what I can pick up?”

“You… want to learn Antivan?” Zevran says slowly, not altogether certain what to think.

“Well,” Aeoin answers, still faintly embarrassed and not looking at him, but smiling a little. “You’re supposed to take me to Rialto, remember? I don’t want to look like a clueless tourist who can’t even order his own drink….”

Zevran gives into the temptation and steps forward to kiss that sweet pink cheek. “You want to learn Antivan,” he says again softly, wonderingly.

Aeoin ducks his head, but he’s smiling. “Of course… if you’ll teach me.”

Zevran cannot quite quell his grin. “Well, I don’t know how good of a tutor I’ll be, but I promise to try my best.”

The warden chuckles, one hand coming up to caress Zevran’s face. “Maybe a few lessons without clothes and you’ll be sure to have my undivided attention.”

After that they have to slip away from the library quickly, lest any of Eamon’s household be scandalized by the pair of them frolicking among the books. Leliana’s amused chuckle follows them out. Zevran spares half a thought to the maid—was she still in there or did Aeoin wait until she’d gone to another part of the house before going to him? and did he care?—but she is quickly gone from his thoughts, replaced by his warden’s soft lips and dark, intense eyes, focused only on him.


“You should know,” Zevran says casually sometime later as they are dressing to go out. Leliana has some errand to run concerning her former mentor, and Aeoin wishes to know what the gathering nobles are saying, and Alistair wants to get out of the estate before he loses his mind and “runs mad through the hallways,” as he put it, so they are going to hit the streets.

Some instinct tells him—this is precisely the opportunity Taliesen will have been waiting for. He needs to prepare. Needs to make sure his warden is prepared.

“Hm?” Aeoin says, distracted as he fiddles with his axe. Just because no darkspawn have been spotted in Denerim yet, that’s no reason to let their guard down. Especially with Loghain’s cronies literally everywhere.

Zevran… hesitates. For some reason he’s reluctant to speak about Taliesen. Except that explaining about Taliesen will mean explaining about Rinna, and… he isn’t ready for that. “You know that the Crows… do not intent to simply let me go, yes?” he says slowly.

That gets Aeoin’s full attention, and he brings his head up, frowning. “You think they’re coming now?”

“A few of my contacts have indicated there may be a few Crows in Denerim, yes.” He carefully keeps his voice casual, focuses his hands on checking the stock of poisons on his belt. “I cannot say for sure that they are here for me, but… I would be a handy little errand to get out of the way while they are in town.”

“Are you worried?” Zevran’s flippant tone doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect; the warden is still frowning seriously, those dark, intense eyes focused on Zevran’s face.

Zevran chuckles. “Worried? Why on earth should I be worried. After all, my dear warden—I have you!”

That, at last, smooths the worry from Aeoin’s brow, and he smiles a little. “I won’t let them hurt you,” he promises sweetly, and Zevran smiles a little.

“Ah, amor,” he sighs. “I have no doubt.” I won’t let them hurt you, he vows silently. If Taliesen is a threat to his lover, Zevran will kill him, simple as that. And if something in his heart still twists, something that remembers when Taliesin was his best friend, when they survived all the trials of the Crows together and had each other's backs against everything… well, that is easy enough to silence.

 

Chapter Text

Normally Aeoin is the insatiable one, that Warden stamina that Zevran loves to tease him about. Their love making that night, however, is touched by a desperation that comes entirely from the Antivan, loath though he is to admit it.

“More,” he gasps, the breath having long been driven out of him. “Harder.”

Long months on the road and nearly endless fighting have turned Aeoin into a beast of tightly compacted muscle, contrasting pleasingly with the long, lean lines of Zevran’s own body. His hands on him are sure and firm—Zevran wants them bruising. His thrusts deep inside him are smooth and steady and devastating—but it isn’t enough.

Harder,” he demands brokenly, drumming his heels into the small of his lover’s back, feeling the muscles there bunch and shift with every thrust.

Sweat coats their skin, making their grasp on each other slick and uncertain. Aeoin’s dark, lovely hair is hanging around his face, and Zevran has hazy memories of roughly pushing his fingers through it to free it from the usual tight tail. He wants the Warden undone. He wants him to forget the differences in their respective strength, wants him to forget to be careful with Zevran.

There is a frown in Aeoin’s intense dark eyes, pricking a line between his brows as he stares steadily down at him. Zevran closes his eyes and turns his face into the pillow so that he won’t have to see it. “Harder!” he demands again, squeezing with his thighs.

It is the oddest memory, but he can’t get it out of his head. He was just a boy, not long after he was purchased from the whorehouse, and living in the dormitories of House Arainai with the other trainees. Life was a constant misery then, the training beyond merciless with the only choices being to succeed or to die.

Taliesen slept in the bunk above his, but they didn’t talk much. Taliesen was bigger than him, and dangerous, and their instructors liked to pit the trainees against each other to see how they do and encourage a certain level of bloodthirstiness. Mostly Zevran tried to stay out of Taliesen’s way.

But then one night Taliesen thrust his hand down toward Zevran’s bed, offering something. Half of an apple. A little brown, a little bruised, a little mealy, but still.

“Is it poisoned?” Zevran had asked dubiously, and Taliesen had snorted.

“As if I’d waste poison on you. Want it or not?”

Zevran ate the apple, and it wasn’t poisoned, and now Taliesen is dead, making him the second of Zevran’s former lovers he has ended with a knife between the ribs. He wonders if he is with Rinna now, in the Fade. Perhaps the two of them are waiting for him.

“Zev,” Aeoin murmurs, and his voice is soft and tender and his hands on Zevran’s face are so, so very gentle.

Zevran doesn’t want soft, or tender, or gentle. Or hadn’t he made that clear?

He snarls. Aeoin might be stronger, and with his axe and a sharp dagger he might be better in a brawl, but Zevran knows more than enough to be dangerous in his own right, and the Warden should not ever forget that.

It’s easy—a clamp of his thighs, a twist of the hips—to flip them so that he is on top, all without ever letting Aeoin slip from his body. He has him right where he wants him, and now he sets the pace, and his thighs burn with it as he drives himself down harder and harder, again and again and again.

I’ll show you how to fuck me,” he hisses, slipped back into Antivan without even realizing it until he’s nearly surprised to hear his mother-tongue in his own ears. “Fuck me until you break me.”

He rakes his nails down Aeoin’s chest and is rewarded when the Warden curses and bucks his hips up with punishing force.

That’s it, mi corazon. Fuck me like you own me.”

Zevran rides him like a pro—he is a pro, purchased, paid for and trained for exactly this. He clenches his body until they both gasp, rolls his hips, slams himself down until the entire world narrows to the place where they are joined and the pulse of sex between them.

Taliesen had been his first seduction. It hadn’t been particularly difficult—horny young boys and all—and Zevran, small and skinny and still stumbling through his dagger forms, had needed the protection the much bigger trainee could offer.

They started sleeping in the same bunk. With Taliesen draped over his back and drooling in his hair, Zevran could rest. Eventually they were the only two left from their “class,” which was convenient, not that having an extra person around had ever stopped the two of them. Taliesen was crass, and he had a tendency of coming and then immediately rolling over and going to sleep, but he kept Zevran safe, always watched his back, never abandoned him.

He helped Zevran hide his mother’s gloves. Not that it had mattered in the end, since they were still found and taken away eventually, but Zevran had never forgotten that.

Zevran!” Aeoin cries, broken and desperate, and it snaps Zevran out of his own head with a stinging flash of something harsh that burns like guilt.

His lover is a long line of tension, his head tipped back and the taut tendons of his neck standing out in stark relief as he gasps. His eyes are screwed shut tight, and his lovely red lips are parted and quivering between a sob and a snarl. His hand claw at the sheets and his feet kick and struggle restlessly.

Fuck!” Zevran curses, the filthiest language he knows in Antivan and Trade both tumbling past his lips. He knows that Aeoin doesn’t think he knows he was a virgin their first time together, at that freezing camp in the mountains. It had been obvious to someone like Zevran, but the Warden had taken to sex the same way he took to everything else he was interested in learning: with enthusiasm and swift improvement, so Zevran has never mentioned it, not really knowing how.

He has in fact come to treasure the knowledge, kept like a secret against his heart in the same place he keeps his memories of home, that of everyone in the world it is a failed assassin purchased for three sovereigns on the slave market who was the first to know the dark eyed Warden’s body, to taste his lips and tease him to heights of ecstasy.

He had never intended to show him this side of himself.

It is disgustingly easy to take the regret and self-hatred that he feels and turn it outward, and he sneers at Aeoin and slaps him without thinking about it.

The Warden’s eyes fly open in shock and he brings one hand up reflexively to touch his red cheek. “Mother fucker—!”

You can’t fuck me I’ll find someone who can,” Zevran hisses in Antivan, pulling himself up and off of Aeoin’s cock and away. Maker, he has to get away from him before he manages to do something even more unforgivable—

He makes it to the edge of the bed before the Warden slams into him, snarling like an animal. They tumble together, falling to the ground, and Zevran ends up pinned to the rug on his knees, and he howls as Aeoin drives into him.

And then it’s all Zevran can do to hold on and keep from being plowed straight across the floor. Aeon’s hands on his hips are tights and bruising, nails digging into his flesh, and his thrusts are fast and merciless and punishing, and his teeth in Zevran’s neck, harsh enough nearly to draw blood

It’s perfect.

Zevran cries out as he comes, chanting “Yes!” and “More!” like religion as he explodes out of his body until he is finally, blissfully empty of all thought, all emotion, everything except the man holding him and filling him and owning him.

 

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The next time Zevran knows anything it is still dark, but the fire has been built back up and is blazing merrily in its hearth. It was perhaps the pop of the embers that woke him. Or perhaps it was the soft cloth being dragged tenderly down his body, gently and carefully cleaning away their mingled release and soothing the bruises he’d begged for.

They are still on the ground, on the rug beside the bed and close enough to the fire that no hint of the night’s chill threatens his tender flesh. He is resting against the Warden’s strong chest, cradled and cared for in his arms.

He feels… safe. Protected. Like the man holding him would defeat impossible odds and an archdemon to make sure Zevran isn’t hurt. It is… not a bad feeling.

“Amor,” he murmurs, turning his face in his lover’s neck.

Behind him, Aeoin stiffens ever so slightly. Zevran stills.

“…Go back to sleep,” Aeoin whispers against his temple, and Zevran doesn’t mean to, but the fire is so warm and he is still utterly exhausted, so he does.

 

When Zevran wakes again he is back in the bed, which has been dressed in fresh linens, and swaddled in quilts and blankets. The fire has been banked and the room is dark. When he reaches for Aeoin, the bed is empty.

“Amor?” he calls, feeling cold and abandoned despite the blankets wrapped around him, and he struggles against the covers. Shit, the room is freezing

The Warden is perched on a chest in front of the narrow window. He has pushed aside the tapestry meant to keep out the night chill and opened the pane. He has pulled on a pair of trousers, but his chest is bare, and the hard planes of his muscles look soft in the dim light. He’s holding that axe of his steady against his thigh, a whetstone rasping smoothly down the lethal curve of the blade.

He looks up and his dark, intense eyes glitter as he stares at Zevran and his entire body goes perfectly still.

“…Fuck, do Grey Warden’s not feel cold?” Zevran curses, flopping back against the pillows as panic drains out and leaves something bitter in its place.

Aeoin closes the window and twitches the tapestry back down. It’s some horrible, tacky Fereldan thing with dogs all over it. He still hasn’t said anything.

For a while they just watch each other, more distance between them than ever before, and Zevran hates it, misses the close security he’d felt in front of the fire when Aeoin’s arms around him were enough to protect him from all the world’s evil.

“…Come back to bed,” he says eventually, his voice loud and rasping in the quiet.

Aeoin gets up, puts his axe away carefully, goes to the fireplace and builds it back up, feeding in wood and kindling until a merry blaze is once again warming the room.

Zevran turns over to watch him. Crouched there before the fire, he looks so… young. So terribly, terribly young. By the time he was his age, Zevran was already a murderer and a whore several times over, and he’d long since learned to silence the part of him that felt guilt over the things he had to do.

By now, Aeoin is no stranger to brutality or cruelty, has seen more than his share of death, has dealt it out to his enemies with a ruthlessness that, at times, borders on gleeful. But it’s different, Zevran knows, knows better than most, a stain on his soul that isn’t ever going away, when the person you hurt is someone you… care about.

Zevran is a monster. He has some sort of disease, insidious as the Blight, and now he has infected his lover with it as well. “Come back to bed,” he says again, quietly, pleading. “Please. Amor. Come to bed.”

Aeoin hesitates but reluctantly comes, sliding beneath the covers and shifting along the mattress until he is lying stiffly beside him. Zevran is beginning to see that the Warden will deny him nothing, and he closes the last distance between them to draw Aeoin’s uncertain arms around him.

He hisses when Aeoin’s fingers brush the raw bite he left on his neck, and the Warden swiftly draws back and makes a small, wounded sound that makes Zevran’s chest ache. He catches his fleeing hand with his own and draws it back, kisses the fingertips, pulls them in to gently trace the wound again. I wanted it, he wants to say, and, Thank you, and, Forgive me.

Instead he softly guides Aeoin’s hands in exploring each scratch and each bruise littered between them and kisses him again and again, anywhere he can reach.

Eventually Aeoin stops trembling. Eventually he starts kissing Zevran back.

They lie together for a long time, limbs entwined and breath mingling between them. After a while, Aeoin huffs a quiet, humorless laugh. “I’ve wanted to hold you like this since before Orzammar,” he explains quietly. “But you almost never let me.”

Zevran tightens his arms around him, an apology, and Aeoin strokes his hair, simple acceptance.

“Will you tell me about Taliesin?” Aeoin asks quietly. Outside their dark little room, servants have begun to stealthily move about the manor.

Zevran sighs. Does not pull away or cover with a joke as he might once have done. “There is not much to tell. We were partners. Lovers. There were three of us. For a time, I thought our trio would be united and invincible forever but… that is not how these things work.”

“Who was the third?”

“…Rinna.” Saying her name hurts just as much as he always knew it would. “Taliesin was the muscle, I handled seduction and poisons, but Rinna was the brain, our strategist and planner. Taliesin and I… we were told that she had betrayed the Crows—betrayed us—and ordered to kill her. We did it. Later, I discovered that it wasn’t even true. She was true to us until the end. Her only crime—like so many of our victims—was being inconvenient.

“I had forgotten what guilt felt like—had made myself forget—until the woman I… I loved begged me for mercy and I turned away from her. Taliesin… did not feel the way I did. He didn’t care, or was better at acting like he didn’t. But… we couldn’t trust each other after that, and our partnership dissolved.”

Aeoin squeezes Zevran a little and lets him hide his face against his neck.

“I came to Fereldan expecting to meet my death.” Zevran does not know where the confession comes from, spoken in a pitiful mumble against his lover’s skin. “Everyone knows the legendary skill of the Grey Wardens. I do not flatter myself to think I could really stand against that, and it was a stupid plan from the start—hiring those thugs, the ambush, that has never been how I operate, how any self-respecting Crow would go about it. But instead… I met you. Why didn’t you kill me? You’re not a merciful man, not toward your enemies, and I distinctly remember everyone in the party telling you it was a bad idea.”

“Why beg for your life if you took the job expecting to die?” Aeoin counters.

Zevran’s smile, pressed against the Warden’s shoulder, is small and humorless. “It’s one thing to expect to die in battle. It’s quite another to instead wake up, tied hand and foot, with a man like you looming over me.”

“I don’t loom. I’m too fucking short to loom. It’s a terrible sore spot for me and I can’t believe you would prod at it so heartlessly.”

“You loomed. It was quite intimidating. My heart went all aflutter.”

“Flatterer.”

“Why didn’t you kill me? If you didn’t kill me, why take me with you? If you took me with you, why treat me as you did, as an equal and not a prisoner?”

Aeoin huffs. “Obviously it’s because you were far too pretty to kill.”

“Obviously. That goes without saying. Tell me why.”

“Why were you ordered to kill Rinna?”

A flare of anger tears through him—why must he be so difficult, why is this stupid secret worth causing Zevran pain? He forces the anger down and stays still. Answers in a cold voice, “You first.”

Aeoin is still for a moment then sighs and kisses Zevran’s shoulder like an apology. “I don’t have an answer,” he says quietly, helplessly. “I was drawn to you. Killing you seemed a waste, but beyond that I don’t have a good reason.”

“Perhaps you knew I’d be as useful and loyal as Mange, hm?”

With another quiet sigh, Aeoin pulls away though not far, rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. Zevran is cold everywhere he is no longer touching. “Are you trying to hurt me because you’re mad at me, or are you trying to hurt me because you want me to hurt you back?” he asks, casual and disinterested except to Zevran who knows him well and can see the way his dark eyes fix intensely on the ceiling, like he’s lying in wait for a sign. “It’s hard for me to tell.”

Zevran doesn’t answer for a while, then curls close again and puts his head on Aeoin’s shoulder. The Warden’s arm goes easily and automatically around his waist. “Neither. Both. Forgive me, amor, I don’t know.”

“Can you stop?”

“…I can try?”

Aeoin kisses his hair. “Just talk to me,” he whispers. “Please. I’d do anything for you.”

That’s Zevran cue. To say something dirty or flirty or teasing to break the heavy, serious atmosphere in the room. Instead, in the warm, dark comfort of their bed, he whispers back, “I’ll try.”


They are late coming down for breakfast. Aeoin sits and instantly begins shoving rolls in his mouth with one hand while stacking his plate with sausages and bacon with the other, but his manners are no worse than Oghren, who seems to be on his third serving and showing no signs of slowing.

Leliana gives Zevran a curious look as he settles beside Aeoin, but he deflects with a brazen grin and starts picking over a selection of fruit. Apples, apples, more apples, and a pear. What Zevran wouldn’t give for a fresh, ripe orange.

It’s annoying how perceptive Leliana can be. Zevran would much rather have stayed in the quiet closeness of their room for a while longer—much longer, truly, but warden appetites are not to be denied—and he is worried that it shows. But Aeoin puts a hand on his knee beneath the table and squeezes lightly between sausages, and that helps settle him into his own skin a bit more firmly.

At the head of the table, Eamon is speaking quietly and urgently to Alistair. Part of the man’s ongoing campaign to get the reluctant prince in line behind Eamon’s plan to shove him onto the throne, if Zevran had to guess. Alistair looks pinched and miserable, like someone is trying to put him in armor that doesn’t fit properly—and hungry; Eamon has a hand on his arm and is preventing him from shoveling food in his face like Aeoin is, and he’s too polite and respects Eamon too much to shake him off.

Zevran narrows his eyes at Eamon while slowly cutting up his pear. He has seen lesser nobles prop up a puppet for royalty before—It is practically the national pastime among the merchant princes of Antiva. It rarely goes well for the puppet.

Casually, he leans over and murmurs into his lover’s ear, pitching his voice so that only Aeoin can hear him. “You asked why Rinna became a target.”

Aeoin stills briefly, then keeps eating, more slowly.

“She was the bastard child of a king,” Zevran explains, sharing information he had only learned after, had never thought to look for before. “A certain political faction was setting her up to take the throne, and another faction wanted her out of the way of succession. They could have tried to buy her off, kidnap her and send her out of the country, any number of things, but killing her was the fastest and most… economical. Left the fewest loose ends to tie up. Her life meant… less than nothing to those people, in the end.”

Aeoin’s eyes flick over to him briefly, and he gently squeezes his thigh, offering what comfort he can, and that Zevran is likely to take.

Zevran has to close his eyes a moment before he can continue. Aeoin discreetly rubs his knee  under the table and waits.

“You want to keep your Alistair safe?” Zevran says at last, his voice slightly thicker than it was, and Aeoin glances at Alistair and Eamon and then away. “Keep him as far from the throne as you possibly can.”

Aeoin swallows the last of his sausage and wipes his mouth clean before leaning over to give Zevran a quick kiss on the cheek. Then he tosses his napkin down and gets to his feet.

“Alright, time’s wasting,” he says loudly. “We have a queen to rescue—Alistair, you’re with me.”

Alistair can’t quite muffle his desperate mutter of, “Thank the Maker,” as he clambers swiftly to his feet, throwing off Eamon at last. “I mean—yes,” he amends hastily. “To work. Right.”

“Zev?” Aeoin says, and Zevran smiles.

“As if I would let you go rescue a queen without me,” he says teasingly. “After all, she might be very beautiful and steal you away.”

Aeoin laughs and rolls his eyes. “Not likely.”

Chapter Text

When Aeoin wakes up he’s flat on his back, and the hard stone floor is cold and gritty against his bare shoulders. Everything hurts.

A groan wants to rise in his throat, but he swallows it back, too unsure of where he is, exactly, his surroundings, whether or not he’s alone or surrounded by enemies. He’s not betting on being surrounded by friends, not with how shitty he feels. Staying still he tries to focus on what he can hear--someone somewhere is being hit, the blows snapping against flesh but the victim too far gone now to scream; someone else is pacing a few dozen feet away, muttering to themselves with irritation and displeasure in their voice; someone very close is taking slow, even breaths and rubbing their hands against the stone--a familiar, soothing rhythm, like… like how Alistair rubs at that worry stone of his.

Alistair . Alistair is here with him.

Now that he’s focusing a little better (his head is swimming ) he can feel the other Warden, that odd echo of sensation that has become so familiar, the Blight in him reacting to the Blight in Alistair. He knows where Alistair is the same way he knows where his own feet are, most of the time, and it’s a great comfort just now.

Enough so that he feels safe opening his eyes….

And instantly regrets it.

He can’t swallow back the groan this time, and when he instinctively brings his hands up to cover his face they feel weighed down with lead.

“Oh, Maker, you’re awake,” Alistair says. His voice, though welcome, is just a touch too loud just yet, and Aeoin groans again. “I was starting to worry.”

“You were starting to?” Aeoin grumbles, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes. Right. Getting up: attempt two.

This time he manages to get his eyes open and after a moment of staring contemplatively at the rough, dark ceiling, decides to be very brave and try sitting up. Considering the circumstances, the experiment goes very well, and he’s able to lever himself into a more or less upright position without falling on his face or throwing up in front of Alistair.

He still feels… foggy, though, and it takes a little while of looking around for the clues to come together.

“…Are we in prison?” he ventures to guess. It’s the general cell-like qualities of the room they’re in--the barred walls, the giant metal door, the chains on the floor that thankfully haven’t been used--that give it all away. That and the general air of misery, the scowling guardsman clanking about outside their cell, and the sounds and smells of torture happening not too far off. Most likely they’re waiting for a fresh rack to clear up, or the torturers to get back from a lunch break or something.

“Mm, yes,” Alistair drawls. “That is usually where they take you when you get arrested for murdering an arl.”

Aeoin winces expansively. Right. He remembers now. The queen. The estate. The massive contingent of guards that showed up just as they were heading for the exit--that fucking guardswoman trying to lecture him on honor while standing up for that snake Loghain.

“I should’a known better,” he mutters. “That’s the second fucking time I’ve gone tearing through that fucking estate to murder people and rescue some woman. It almost never goes well. Always goes tits at the very end…. Didn’t get arrested last time, though. Duncan.”

He vaguely remembers the battle going… very poorly very quickly. Almost embarrassing, really. There were too many of them, more pouring in from the sides as all of Howe’s guards that they’d slipped right by on their way in cottoned on to what was happening. Alistair had planted himself in front of Anora, using his shield and his bulk to bully her a path--useful, and gallant of him, but it had left Aeoin more exposed than he’d become accustomed to being.

He remembers seeing a path open up, just one slim, narrow shot. Remembers shoving Zevran toward it, bellowing, “Get the queen out of here!”

He casts his eyes about the cell again, a little more frantically.

“The others?”

Alistair is looking at him a little oddly, but he reports promptly, “Leliana and Zevran got out,” understanding immediately what he means. “I’m pretty sure Anora was with them, and they’ll have gone straight to Eamon.” Good old Alistair. Knowing he can always count on him makes Aeoin feel all warm and fuzzy. Or maybe that’s the concussion.

And it’s also a comfort to think of Leliana and Zevran protecting the queen. If anyone in their group has the skill and subtlety to smuggle a queen across the city it’s those two. And Leliana will keep Zevran from flirting too outrageously with Anora. And the distraction of having royalty to flirt with will maybe keep Zevran from worrying about him….

Aeoin is starting to feel like he might be having trouble focusing.

They could have at least poured a potion down his throat after knocking him out and rattling his brain all over Denerim.

“At least I got to stab Howe in the fucking face,” he says contemplatively.

“It’s your sunny optimism that I really value in our friendship,” Alistair sighs as he stretches his legs out in front of him. “Always looking on the bright side, you.”

Aeoin looks him over…. And then looks him over again.

And then a third time, just to be sure.

“…You’re… only wearing smalls,” he says at last. In case Alistair didn’t know.

“And your skills of observation,” Alistair says, nodding to himself. “Utterly invaluable, really.”

Aeoin’s list of problems keeps growing. The latest addition is that his eyes appear to be stuck on Alistair’s chest… abdomen… shoulders region.

“I don’t think I care to be ogled,” Alistair says, but he sounds amused.

“Alistair, be reasonable,” Aeoin answers. “You’re always wearing that fucking armor--it’s easy to forget.”

“Forget what?”

“Well, everyone looks fucking huge in plate, right? So you think, ok, it’s just the armor. But no, in real life you really are that big.”

Alistair snorts. Aeoin thinks it really says something about how they’ve been living for the past however many months that they can laugh while sitting in a prison cell, held captive by their enemies, and awaiting torture and execution while wearing nothing but their smalls.

“Oh, what would Zevran say about this blatant leering,” Alistair says dramatically. He’s only blushing a little bit.

“Zevran would be leering, too,” Aeoin answers, prompt and confident.

Alistair snorts again and shakes his head. “I’m not so sure about that. Well. Leering at you , most likely--you are also wearing only smalls, not sure if that had escaped you--”

“It hadn’t, but thanks.”

“Here to help. Anyway. Zevran. He’s only got eyes for you, you know.”

That makes Aeoin feel unexpectedly shy and unable to make eye contact with Alistair’s chest anymore, so he looks away. “…You really think so?”

Alistair chuckles, and there’s something both amused and fond in how he looks at Aeoin, shaking his head. “Oh, Aeoin,” he says, and it startles Aeoin into laughing.

“Hey,” he protests.

“Perhaps now isn’t the time to discuss it,” Alistair suggests.

“Fuck. Right. Prison. On it.”

The room is no longer going all wavy around the edges, so Aeoin looks around again. One guard is sulkily patrolling around the cells, which are all empty except theirs. The sounds of torture have faded away and Aeoin can’t hear anyone else, so probably the torturers--interrogators, they call them here--have left by some other entrance. Clearing away the bodies, most likely.

Aeoin’s stomach clenches and his mouth feels very dry suddenly. Head wounds can make you feel all queasy, he knows this well. But it’s also… this place.

Every kid in Denerim knows all about this place. Especially in the alienage. It’s a black shadow, looming like a threat from the other side of the river.

“My mother died here, you know,” he hears himself say. “I mean, like. We think so. There were, um… riots, yeah?” He can’t remember what sparked the violence, if he ever knew. He was just a kid at the time. “Anyway, guards came in to restore order--ha. Order. Fuck. They bashed in a few heads and arrested people at random. Ma--my mother…. They took everyone they’d rounded up here, and… she never came back.”

Somewhere nearby is where his mother breathed her last. Somewhere around this fortress is the pile or pit where they tossed her body, her bones left to rot.

Probably.

That’s all he has to go on: probably.

“…Our friends won’t just leave us here,” Alistair offers quietly after a moment. Good old Alistair. “We could just sit tight, wait for them.”

Aeoin has been sizing up the door. He’s pretty sure he’s picked tougher locks in Orzammar. And, well, the guards left him his smalls. And his hair is still tied back. He’s got enough to work with.

“…Or we could do something reckless and stupid like try to break out ourselves,” Alistair finishes on a sigh.

Aeoin grins.

“Well, I assume you have a plan?”

“Don’t I always?”

“More like: do you ever .”

“Let’s get out of here.”

The door isn’t much of a challenge, really. He produces his hidden picks and gets to work while Alistair looks away and dramatically announces that he doesn’t want to know.

Aeoin laughs. “Zevran taught me,” he shares absently as he pokes at the lock. It’s so ancient and pathetic it’s almost insulting.

“Zevran,” Alistair repeats dryly, “taught you how to hide lockpicks in improbable places. That is both unsurprising and terribly ironic.” He has shifted, using his body to hide what Aeoin was doing while also making a passable show of just leaning casually against the bars while actually keeping a lookout for the guard. Aeoin is a little proud of how well he has taken to devious pursuits lately.

“Guard’s coming,” Alistair murmurs.

“Think you can handle him?” Aeoin asks as he palms the picks and backs away from the door.

Alistair hums and rolls his massive shoulders.

“Be still my fucking heart,” Aeoin mutters.

“Shut up,” Alistair replies primly.

“What are you two up to?” the guard demands suspiciously.

“Practicing our waltz,” Alistair answers, drawling and dry, and Aeoin suppresses a smirk.

Gripping the bars, he beckons the guard closer. “I gotta tell you something.”

The guard sneers. “Unless you’re actually dying, I don’t want to hear it. And even then.”

“No, listen. You know we’re both Grey Warden’s right? And you know Grey Wardens can sense the darkspawn, right?”

The months since the fall of Lothering have been long and dire enough to work on the nerves of the most stalwart of men, and this one isn’t one of them. His eyes grow wide under his helmet and he visibly pales. “That’s true?” He leans forward ever so slightly, and Aeoin makes his eyes big and earnest.

“Oh, holy Maker but wish it wasn’t, friend. But you have to know--the ‘spawn. They’re coming!”

“Wh-what?! No--you’re lying! That’s not possible!”

“They’re pouring up through the ground! They’re going to drag us all off and eat us! Let us out and we’ll hold them off, quick!”

As the guardsman panics and fumbles with his keys… Alistair reaches through the bars and clocks him right in the temple, closed fist. The guard crumples to the ground like a dropped sack of potatoes.

“I cannot believe that worked. I think he was actually going to let us out,” Aeoin remarks.

I think you laid it on a little thick,” Alistair answers.

Aeoin beams up at him. They’re in prison and naked and vulnerable and more guards could be coming any moment to kill and dismember and torture them, but Alistair is there with him and, all told, he feels like their escape attempt is off to a promising start. “I might swoon,” he says.

Alistair puts his hands on his shoulders and starts steering him toward the door of their cell. “Let’s find our things and get a potion in you. I am really worried about your head.”

“Oh, be realistic. As if they’ll have just left all our stuff, untouched, in a conveniently placed chest right by the door.”

 

Zevran gathers his daggers, testing the edges with a careful hand. These are not the blades he uses in most battles--Tabris favors frontal assault tactics over skulking about through shadows and taking out a target with a series of small cuts with poisoned blades, and it seems to work out for him, so what is the harm? Except for this last time.

They should have cut back through the dungeon, slipped out the side or found another exit. Waltzing through the front hall with the queen in tow had been the height of arrogance and stupidity, and Zevran doesn’t intend to keep that opinion quiet, even if he has to break into the garrison just to yell at his idiot young lover.

He seems to think he is immortal--but he’s not.

The little gold earring Zevran slipped into his pocket earlier feels irrationally heavy. He is not keen to mourn another lover. He does not know if he will survive this one.

Beside him, moping on the rug with his big boxy head on his front paws, Mange whines like a puppy a quarter of his size, and Zevran spares him a glance, only hesitates a moment before bending to pat the dog’s head. “I’m going to bring him back,” he promises absently. Aeoin and Alistair speak to the mongrel so often and so familiarly that he barely feels foolish for doing the same.

And Mange perks up a bit, barking (in agreement? the Fereldan atmosphere is clearly robbing Zevran of his senses) and bounding to his feet. He presses close to Zevran and whines again. Like he wants to come with him.

“I’m afraid my plans do not account for mabari accompaniment,” Zevran says, sliding the last of his hidden, poison-coated blades into place and checking the fall of the coat to be sure nothing is out of place. It’s finery he had to borrow from Eamon’s chest and it doesn’t fit him perfectly, but the ill-cut disguises the many concealed weapons on his person.

Besides it would be perfectly in character for a low-rent prostitute to buy their wardrobe second-hand.

“Oh, so you do have a plan?” Morrigan’s voice from the doorway is cutting and acidic. “Silly me, only it looked as if you were about to rush off with nothing but a few blades on what is surely a fool’s errand, taking on an entire fortress full of guards singlehandedly.”

She’d nearly spit fire when the three of them had tumbled into the estate without either Warden. Somewhere along the road, and without anyone else noticing, the acerbic witch seems to have grown fond of Tabris. Zevran can’t quite figure that out.

“My dear, I am a professional,” he says to her with cool confidence. “I know what I am doing.”

“Oh yes, we’ve all been utterly regaled by your tales of daring deeds. Tripped out of a window and beguiled by a sob story. The Master Assassin at work.”

He glares at her. She glares back, her slender arms crossed over her chest. There’s slightly more weight behind hers, given how she can shoot lightning at him with a gesture, but he refuses to be cowed by it.

She makes a disgusted sound somewhere in her throat and looks away, sneering. The lovely Morrigan has an isolated child’s difficulty with eye contact. It is either too much, too intense, and making everyone around her uncomfortable, or else she simply can’t maintain it, her eyes endlessly roving over the scenery or examining her own fingernails. Most people wouldn’t ever notice. She passes it off as general contempt quite handily.

“I suppose the only way to insure you don’t join those two fools on a torturer’s rack is if I come with you,” she drawls as if it is a deep imposition.

Zevran raises an eyebrow. It is not that he is surprised, necessarily, except that he is. Morrigan keeps herself apart. Other than a few conversations with Aeoin in the far corner of the camp, she doesn’t bother much with the rest of them. Zevran wouldn’t have thought she cared much about anyone.

“…You do realize we will be attempting to rescue Alistair as well,” he says. “Yes?”

“If we must ,” she sighs.

He smirks suddenly as a thought occurs to him, and he eyes her contemplatively, looking over her usual wardrobe. She won’t even need a costume change, and his own finery can be pimp as easily as whore. “You are not going to like my plan for getting in,” he remarks, and her eyes narrow suspiciously.

“I am certain I can find my own way in, if it comes to it,” she declares at length. “There are birds at this garrison, are there not? They shall not notice another. Should we not be away?”

Zevran is more than eager to go, but they are stalled once more before they can get very far, by the others in the next room.

Leliana is dressed in Chantry robes--apparently a spare set kept at the bottom of her pack on the off chance of her ever returning to the abbey. Wynn is holding another one to her chest, frowning at it skeptically.

“A Chantry sister can get almost anywhere without being questioned,” Leliana is explaining. Like Zevran, she is busy with a collection of small knives, throwing daggers, it looks like, and slipping them into her sleeves and her sash and down her bosom. “But they will be suspicious if I try to bring my bow.”

“And they won’t be suspicious of a magical staff?” Wynn points out. “One with a great glowing crystal at the end, covered in frost?”

“You can do magic without the staff, can’t you?”

“Don’t lecture me on how to do magic, girl,” Wynn chides, but absently and without heat. She is distracted, trying to figure out how the Chantry robes come together.

“Well… most apostates I know claim that their staffs are walking sticks. That seems to work, usually.”

“This subterfuge seems unnecessary,” Sten grumbles from the corner. “If the guardsmen have the Grey Wardens unlawfully then we will take them back by whatever necessary force.”

“Yeah, that’s the spirit!” Oghren agrees. “Swords clashing and skull bashing!”

Neither of them have ever displayed much respect for human fortifications, now that Zevran thinks of it.

Wynn snorts and it is echoed by Morrigan, who immediately looks away and adopts an airy pose, prepared to deny ever agreeing with the circle mage on any subject ever, should anyone dare to ask.

Still, the sound draws Leliana’s attention to the door and she looks up, her face falling in dismay as she takes in Zevran’s attire and quickly comes to the right conclusion. “Zevran, you’re not thinking of going to the garrison, are you?” she cries, which is a stupid question because they both know that is exactly what he is doing.

“I am curious, Leliana,” he says, “why in Andraste’s Holy Name would you think I do anything else?”

“Zevran,” Leliana says. Zevran is irritated to realize she is trying to be gentle with him, and he crosses his arms over his chest, feeling every single one of his blades. “We don’t know what condition he may be in when we find him. It may be very difficult for you to see--”

“I know what torture looks like, Leliana,” he interrupts coldly. “I know what it feels like. Quite intimately, I might add. I am, after all, an Antivan Crow.” She was an Orlisian Bard. She knows what that means. “I am going.”

“At least take Wynn with you,” Leliana presses.

I am going with him,” Morrigan says, glaring at Leliana a little.

“They will never believe Wynn as a prostitute. No offence, my dear lady.”

“None taken, I’m sure.”

That was your plan?”

“Of course, now that I think about it, you would most likely do very well for yourself with a certain clientele.”

“Were you going to insinuate that I --”

A standard issue guard helmet sails over their heads and crashes into the wall above the fireplace. Sten catches it and looks it over with a deeply critical eye.

“Fucking thing was pinching my damn ears,” Aeoin mutters irritably. His ears are indeed looking a little red at the tips. “I cannot believe how long it took us to lose those two. Oh, hello, Mange! Who’s a good boy?”

The Warden is dressed in ill-fitting city guard armor, complete with the hilt of a standard-issue sword peeking over his shoulder in place of his customary axe. Behind him and the exuberant mabari attempting to wash his face, Alistair, similarly dressed, also takes off his helmet, though he manages to do it without denting it.

“Wynn?” the bigger Warden calls. “Could you come look at him? He got hit pretty hard around the head.”

“Oh--Alistair! I took a potion! I’m fine.”

“Please, Wynn?”

“Come over here, Warden,” Wynn says, pronouncing ‘Warden’ in such a way that sounds almost exactly like ‘fool idiot boy.’

Aeoin grumbles only slightly as he goes. The story comes out in a steady stream of chatter from Tabris with a few dry interjections from Alistair, from tricking the guard--“ One mention of darkspawn and the poor bastard runs off screaming.” “Denerim’s fucking finest.”--to finding the spare uniforms-- “The shortest city guardsman I have ever seen in my life.”--to marching straight out the front door with the commander’s own blessing-- “ Discipline, ser --ha!”

“And to think I was actually worried,” Zevran remarks faintly, which makes Aeoin blush a little and smile in a shyly pleased sort of way.

“Were you?”

“I have no idea why,” Zevran sighs airily. “Last I saw of you, you had your teeth sunk into the arm of some unlucky guardsman and were hanging on like a rabid mabari. I should have known you would be fine.”

“Well, I was worried about you, too. I’m glad you got out alright. And--speaking of.” He glances around the room again, frowning a little. “Is the queen here? Where’s Eamon? Why are you all dressed like that?”

Chapter Text

Alistair hesitates outside the queen’s bedroom. He should just knock, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it. He knows he is the last person she wants to see. And it’s not as if this is a pleasant social call.

The shield he carries is heavier than it has any right to be, and he knows shields though this ornate, heraldic piece isn’t something he would select for himself. Digging it out of the snow at the ruins of Ostagar had made him want to curse and weep--it was more fit for a parade than a battlefield, and Cailan was, by all accounts, a soldier, he should have known better. Alistair hates the thought that this useless shield might have been the difference between life and death.

It’s dented now, and battered, the dogs of the Ferelden royal seal mangled and barely recognizable. Someone, either enterprising darkspawn or battlefield looters, had attempted to scrape off the gold gilt, and most of the jewels have been successfully pried loose.

Alistair had polished it up and repaired it as best he could, even going so far as to ask a few of the dwarves they recruited for aid, but with all resources going to fighting the blight there wasn’t much that could be done.

Eamon doesn’t know he has it. He also doesn’t know that Alistair has a scrap of map tucked close to his chest where he carefully marked the location where they stashed Cailan’s body, packed in ice to preserve it and covered and hidden as best they could from further darkspawn indignities. Alistair had argued hard for a pyre, something properly respectful, but in the end they simply didn’t have time, with night falling and darkspawn all around. They did the best they could, but… it still doesn’t feel right.

Aeoin had skeptically suggested telling Eamon so that he could send the necessary forces to at least recover the body, but Alistair had… resisted. Eamon was a good man, he trusted him, but… he didn’t want Cailan’s body turned into some… strategic tool. And it just didn’t seem right that Eamon would know before Cailan’s own wife.

Which brought Alistair to here.

Staring down a door.

Trying to talk himself into knocking and doing this horrible thing properly at least. Instead of the much more attractive option of leaving the shield and the map with a note and running away. Maybe forget the note.

Alistair is used to people looking at him as if he is beneath them, unacknowledged bastard son that he is. People who know who he is, who his father was, tend to, at best, become quickly disappointed that the Theirin line could produce… him. And, at worse, they resent him for smearing mud on their memories of Maric as a noble, peerless ruler. They don’t like the implication that he was just a man, and one who couldn’t keep his hands off the servants besides.

But Anora… Anora hadn’t looked at him at all. Alistair, who has spent most of his life trying to avoid notice, hadn’t realized how much worse that would feel.

She doesn’t want to see him. He shouldn’t be imposing himself on her like this, he should give the shield to Aeoin and let him do it--but as soon as he thinks it he has to sigh against the headache that immediately starts pressing at his temples.

His friend is many wonderful things, brave to a fault, honorable in his way, loyal to his friends, but… respectful is not one of them. Especially not toward authority. And he has a chip in his shoulder toward the nobility that even Alistair can see. The only thing worse Alistair can think of would be sending in Oghren.

No. It has to be him, it’s his responsibility.

...There has to be a way out of this….

Just as Alistair resolves himself to a dignified retreat to regroup and decide on a strategy, the door abruptly opens. Queen Anora catches sight of him immediately and draws up short, her spine straightening and shoulders drawing back like she can make him vanish with the power of good posture. She has a very strong jaw, Alistair notices inanely, probably all the teeth clenching she seems to do.

Before, in Eamon’s office and at dinner, she didn’t even glance at him. Now she can’t seem to stop staring at his face. He wonders dismally what she sees.

Belatedly, Alistair dips himself into a courteous bow and stammers, “Ah, my lady--”

“Did Eamon send you?” When it is just the two of them, when there isn’t anyone else around to woo or sway to her side, the queen doesn’t bother with the pretty courtly manners, as blunt and direct as a charging mabari, and her eyes narrow suspiciously, trying to suss out what he wants, why he is here, whether or not it would be more advantageous to her own position to give it to him or to hold out. Just thinking about having to live that way makes Alistair want to hide.

“Er--no, my lady. I--”

“I don’t know what he’s thinking. You and I both know who is better suited to rule, Alistair; if you have any love for Ferelden, for your father’s legacy, you will step aside. You--”

The mention of his father’s so-called legacy has left Alistair reeling. Maric didn’t include him , the mistake begat on a washerwoman and left in a barn, in his ideas for a legacy , Alistair knows that well, but he feels himself flush hotly all the same. Some small, prideful part of his heart wants to rail that he is Maric’s son, too, to prove them all wrong about him. But the bigger part fears that they are all right.

But the queen has stopped, abruptly cut off. When Alistair chances a glance her eyes are no longer captured by his face and are fixated instead on the shield, which he suddenly realizes he has slipped naturally onto his arm, as if it belongs there.

Anora’s face has gone pale, and her lip quivers--just once, and in that second she is no longer the proud, fire-breathing Queen of Ferelden, but a young, mourning widow. Then her mouth firms into a hard line (she is going to have monstrous wrinkles when she’s older, Alistair abruptly thinks, apropos of nothing) and the moment of near weakness is over before it even began.

“Where did you get that?” she demands, spits, snarls. “That’s Cailan’s shield-- give it to me, you have no right--!

Alistair feels his spine straighten. If Aeoin were here he would already be cursing and spitting and telling Anora to shove the shield and whole rest of the country up her ass, but his brother Warden is with Zevran, letting the assassin assure himself that he is still in one piece after their adventures at Fort Drakon (and isn’t it lovely to have stone walls between the rest of the party and them). Surprisingly, Alistair finds he does not need his friend to come to his defence in any case.

He is taller than her by quite a bit. Well. Obviously. Alistair may have hated the Templar training, but they did feed him right in the Chantry. It’s just that Anora is such an imposing, commanding woman that she seems to dominate every room she is in. Aeoin is the same way.

When he speaks it is with carefully measured tones, as if he is delivering a field report, and he dismisses the base urge to fire back at her as unworthy of them both. He did not come here with the intention of hurting her, despite what she or anyone else may choose to believe.

“My lady. Before returning to Denerim with Arl Eamon, Warden Tabris and I found cause to return to Ostagar. There we were able to recover the effects and some personal correspondences of your husband, King Cailan, may the Maker carry him to his side. I would return them to you now, with my deepest respects and condolences.”

He bows again, and this time presents the shield. He’s surprised to find that… he wants to keep it, actually. Wants to hide it behind his back and keep her from taking it from him. But he came here to do this, and it is her right, she was Cailan’s wife, so he holds himself steady.

For a moment Anora doesn’t move. “...My husband’s body... Warden?” she asks woodenly.

Alistair bows his head. “Recovered, but… we were unable to build a proper pyre, at the time. I’m. I’m sorry, I.” He fumbles the shield to dig out the map. “This is, um, where his remains may be recovered--Maker willing. I’m… sorry.” It isn’t enough. Damn him, but it will never be enough.

She closes her eyes and breathes steadily through her nose. Then she blinks her eyes back open and reaches out to take the shield and the paper. It is a heavy burden, but she doesn’t falter. “...You have my thanks,” she says quietly after a long moment, and Alistair bows again, hesitating.

He should go. His unfortunate task is complete and he should leave her to her grief. But his eyes linger on the shield. Hours spent polishing and struggling to repair the thing have left him intimately familiar with every detail. Had Cailan cared for his own equipment, he wondered? Did he know every inch of that shield as well as Alistair now did?

...Maker, that wasn’t very likely, was it? He was a bloody king for Andraste’s sake, he’d probably had a fleet of servants to do those things for him.

With a sigh and a shake of his head, Alistair turns to go. That pretty, useless, damaged shield is… not for him. Anora was right.

The queen’s voice stops him. “Why… why were you not with him?” she asks. “How did you survive the battle, Alistair?”

He doesn’t know how to answer her for a moment. Why is he here, and not Cailan, that’s what she is really asking, isn’t it? “I. Duncan--my mentor with the Wardens. He sent Tabris and I to the tower, to light the signal for the second wave of the attack. We were the two most junior Wardens. I. I argued. I wanted to be on the field. I… I wanted to be where the fighting was.”

He remembers, with a hot flush of embarrassment and shame, thinking that… maybe Cailan would notice his skill--he is well trained, from the Templars and then the Wardens. Maybe he’d be impressed--maybe not enough to say, ‘Hey, that’s my little brother, there!’ but. Well. Stupid, anyway.

Cailan had visited Redcliff only once when Alistair was a child. Alistair had put on his best clothes, been on his best behavior, remembered to bow and say ‘your Highness’ all proper. Cailan barely looked at him.

“The second attack that my father was to lead?” Anora clarifies, heartlessly direct.

“There were darkspawn at the tower, we weren’t expecting,” Alistair hears himself say in defeated tones. “We went as fast as we could, but… we were too late.”

“...How? How did you survive?”

He simply shakes his head. He can’t explain about the witches. He has no memory of how they got down from the tower, only fighting darkspawn until he felt half crazed with the blood, Tabris a swift shadow by his side, their movements locking in together and becoming one. “We barely did.”

He shakes his head again and turns away. He’s not certain, still, if coming here and doing this was the right thing, but it’s done now and all he wants is to leave. “Forgive me, my lady.”

“Alistair--!”

Startled, he turns back around… and finds her staring at him again, her eyes traveling almost frantically over his face. Having her ignore him earlier was unexpectedly painful, but this… he isn’t sure how to take this.

“...Maker’s breath,” she whispers after a moment. “You… you and Cailan both took so strongly after Maric--did you know that?”

“I….”

“You… you look just like him….”

Maker , what does he say ? “Anora….”

Taking a deep breath, she visibly reigns herself in once more and takes a step back. “...You mentioned correspondence?” she asks, eyes narrowed with canny calculation and suspicion.

Alistair looks away. “You’ll have to speak with Tabris about the particulars,” he mutters. “Eamon… Eamon doesn’t know.”

She gapes at him. “...He what?”

“This isn’t… political,” Alistair insists, frustrated. “It’s just… right. I want to do right by him.” He scowls at the ground, lacking the ability to explain further. Cailan was his king, and Alistair mourns him. Cailan was his brother, but wasn’t, and Alistair mourns him, but isn’t truly permitted to. It isn’t his place.

“...I see,” Anora says after a while. When he chances a glance at her she clears her throat and busies herself with shifting the weight of the shield. “You… you have my thanks, Warden. Alistair….”

“...Right. Uh, don’t… mention it.”

And then the queen slips back into her room and closes the door. She takes the shield with her.


Aeoin finds Alistair before breakfast in the morning, frowning slightly and looking pensive. “I just spoke with the queen,” he says, wasting no time.

“Yes?” Alistair… got very little sleep. He still has his worry stone in hand, and the fireplace turned to embers at some point when he wasn’t paying attention. And he’s starving, but that’s fairly normal.

Aeoin comes inside, confident of his welcome--he isn’t wrong--and makes himself comfortable on Alistair’s bed. “She is a bitch .”

Alistair sighs and closes the door. “Aeoin….”

“No, you misunderstand. Like, yeah, I’m not a fan of how she calls you unfit to rule and shit, but she’s the type who can get a job done. Like Morrigan.”

He sounds halfway impressed, so Alistair lets it go, putting his worry stone back in his pocket and turning toward his armor stand to start gearing up for the day. That Aeoin hasn’t hustled them all out the door at the crack of dawn shows remarkable restraint. They’re heading into the alienage today.

“She wants an alliance,” Aeoin continues. “Our support at the landsmeet in return for her support to the Grey Wardens.”

Alistair snorts into his undershirt. “As if any ruler would offer anything less. Well. I guess if Loghain wins….”

“Right. Sure you don’t want to marry her?”

Alistair thinks of Anora, staring at him, her face pale and her eyes wide and wet. “That is the worst idea you have ever had, and you wanted to ring the bell and summon the dragon back in Haven.”

“Ha. Well, last chance for you, I guess.”

“What?” Frowning, Alistair glances over, and finds Aeoin watching him fondly.

“Ask me for the country, Alistair, and it’s yours.”

For a moment Alistair can only stare at him. There is royal blood in his veins. Thanks to the Joining, there’s Taint in there, too. Duncan chose him. “...I am a Grey Warden,” he says quietly, seriously.

Aeoin grins. “Yes.” He holds up a fist and Alistair knocks his own against it. “You’re with me in the alienage today?”

Alistair can feel his own answering smile and he hurries to finish getting ready. “You can count on me.”

“I know I can, brother. Always.”

Chapter Text

Stepping through the gate and back into the alienage at last is… disorienting. How many times did he travel this way to get home in the evening, skirting through the marketplace and keeping his head down to avoid the eyes of the guards? The river churns sluggishly below them as they cross, and a trick of the morning light briefly convinces him it is a year ago and Father will scold him for staying out all night the moment he gets home.

Then they’re on the other side of the bridge and he has to pause a moment as the stench hits him. He never noticed it when he was growing up here, but a year in clean air has knocked the smell out of his nose. Mud and filth and too many bodies in too small a space, stinking dogs, rotting food, the sick-sweet smell of disease.

For a moment he is… embarrassed, and he glances quickly back at Alistair and Morrigan, shy of their judgement. And then, just as quickly, he is angry with himself for being embarrassed, for his shame, and he takes a deep breath in through his nose and forges forward. “My father’s house is this way,” he mutters.

“Ah the alienage,” Zevran says cheerily as he follows. “They're the same everywhere, aren't they?”

Aeoin smiles a little. “I guess I wouldn’t know.” He has only ever known this alienage, and this alienage has always been home, for all it’s shortcoming and squalor. Valendrian’s house off the square, the vhenadahl tree in the center, Alarith’s store tucked away in the corner. The tenements he ran through with his friends and the secret twisting passages and ways.

“There has been disease here,” Morrigan says suddenly, and Aeoin startles. So lost in nostalgia, he hadn’t noticed until now, but she’s right and it’s obvious. Beggars are a staple of this area, the unfortunate lining up to beg mercy from people coming in, but… there have never been so many. A woman coughs listlessly as she leans against a building, and a man struggles and fails to rise, collapsing to the dirt over and over again. A young child stares into space, heedless of the flies buzzing around her ears and eyes.

“An unnatural sickness,” Morrigan continues, eyes narrowing.

“What do you mean by that?” Alistair says with a deep frown, but Aeoin is rushing on, chased by a chill that runs down his spine. He has to get home.

His father’s door isn’t even locked. “Father? Father, are you here?”

“...Cousin? Is it really you?”

His eyes slid right over Soris, slouched in the corner in front of the low, meager fire, and he stares at his cousin for a moment before he really registers him. Soris looks… pale. And when Aeoin gathers him up in a tight embrace he feels thin and insubstantial in his arms, and the sweet, smokey smell of char-root is thick on his breath.

But he smiles faintly and hugs Aeoin back. “We’d assumed you were with the other Wardens at Ostagar,” he says distantly. “Valendrian even held a funeral for you. Oh, it’s good to see you, Cousin.” He sounds distracted, not wholly present. Like he expects to wake up later and discover Aeoin’s return was all a dream, and doesn’t feel particularly strongly one way or the other about it.

He’s still high from the root, Aeoin realizes quickly, and he frowns. Char-root was never Soris’s vice. Shianni hated the stuff, used to sneer half pitying and half judgmental at the addicts who lined up with the beggars and then smoked away every coin that landed in their hands.

“Soris, where’s my father?” he presses quietly. He can feel Morrigan’s gaze behind him, disapproving. Alistair is ducked awkwardly in the corner, too tall with his helmet and his boots on for the low ceiling, and Zevran is a presence on the edge of his awareness, always close. Zevran is a comfort. He didn’t grow up in an alienage, but he knows what it’s like, won’t judge the small, bare house or the faded, drug-addled man Aeoin calls kin. “What happened? Where is everyone?”

Soris sighs heavily. The news he shares makes Aeoin’s blood cold and his knees weak.

It’s everything he has feared and worse. Riots. Sickness. Dozens dead, and who taken by violence and who by illness it is impossible to say. And his father and Valendrian and Soris’s wife and countless others, all now missing.

“They took my father?” he says weakly. “He was ill?” Cyrion was strong, but… old. Whatever this plague is, would he be able to survive it, even with treatment?

“He seemed healthy,” Soris shrugs, like he has long since given up trying to understand. “They took Valora, but she hadn’t even coughed.”

“There are sick elves lining the streets,” Morrigan says, her voice cutting. “Why have they not been quarantined?”

There are alarm bells ringing in Aeoin’s ears, but Soris only shrugs.

“Where is Shianni?” Aeoin demands.

“In the square probably, raising hell. She doesn’t trust the hospice much.” And with good cause, it sounds like. But Soris just smiles absently, already drifting away on char-root. “It was good seeing you, cousin.”

Aeoin awkwardly pats his shoulder. “I’ll be back later,” he promises. Something is happening to his people--to his family, and he is going to find out what.

 

Shianni is warm and alive and vital in his arms, the smell of her just the same as his memories, and she begs him to do something about the strange healers who have come, to find out more about what has happened to the people taken into quarantine.

As if he could do any less.

Being immediately singled out as “terribly ill” and needing to be quarantined right away is a surprise, but Aeoin, eyes narrowed with suspicion, only has to think about his response for a split second.

He fakes a cough. “Please. Help me.”

Zevran grabs his hand. “Don’t,” he hisses. “It’s a trap--it’s obviously a trap!”

Aeoin briefly squeezes his fingers then pulls himself free. “I’m going to find out what happened to my father. Be ready.”

They aren’t healers, that’s for certain--too many weapons, for one thing, and the room is empty.

“So, are there gonna be any pretty nurses?”

“Shut up.”

The one behind the desk recognizes him--Loghain is looking for him. Obviously.

He kills them all and steps over their bodies.

Muffled voices in the corner draw him over. This building used to be a meeting hall of sorts--Valendrian used to make him help arrange chairs for the monthly gatherings whenever he was too mouthy (nearly every month)--and this was the storage room. “What are you assholes doing?” he mutters, and pushes open the door.

Whatever he was expecting, his former neighbors pleading for him to free them from cages and insisting that they aren’t sick… wasn’t it.

 

Slavers. There are slavers in the alienage, and Aeoin can’t think past the ringing and screaming in his skull.

The so-called hospice is empty save for the cooling bodies of the dead “healers,” the captive elves freed from their chains and cages and fled back into the streets. If they’re smart they’ll hide until it’s over, gather their children and stay the fuck out of Aeoin’s way until he’s done staining the walls with slaver blood. Slavers in the alienage, slavers preying upon his people.

“Loghain knew,” he growls, and he barely recognizes his own voice. The regent’s seal is damning on the documents all over the desk--he didn’t just know he endorsed it--profited from it. Aeoin is going to kill him. Wishes he could go back and kill Howe again--he did it too quickly the first time. If he could do it over again he’d put his axe down and tear the piece of filth apart with his bare hands.

Slavers. Slavers took Valendrian. Took his father. Maker, what if he’s too late ?

Zevran’s hand on his wrist keeps him from crumpling and tearing the papers to bits in his rage, and he recognizes dimly that they will need the evidence. If this isn’t enough to turn the landsmeet against the regent, Aeoin is prepared to let the country burn-- selling his own people, Andraste’s tits .

“Where will they have taken the others?” It takes Aeoin a moment to realize that Alistair is speaking, much less what he is saying, but then he feels a great swell of affection for him. This isn’t personal for Alistair in any way other than that Aeoin is his friend, but he is burning with rage all the same. That thought comes fleetingly, that this is the king the elves of Fereldan deserve, but it’s gone before it really registers.

“The docks.” Zevran speaks surely and with oddly clipped, confident tones. He knows what he’s talking about. Seen this happen before, people smuggled out of a city like contraband goods and without anyone the wiser, without anyone caring. “They will need a secure route, somewhere they can hide what they are doing from the others. The plague kept the elves weak and frightened enough that they could act with near impunity, but they wouldn’t want to risk rebellion by working too openly. Frankly, I’m surprised they let your lovely cousin rant and rave as long as they did.”

No one would ever pay for Shianni, and the thought makes Aeoin smirk a little with pride. More trouble than they’re worth, her and him both. He has been so worried and he is so glad, so relieved that the trauma of what happened with Vaughn hadn’t broken her.

Zevran’s hand on his draws him back to the present, stills his whirring, agitated mind enough to think . He remembers being in Denerim months ago, remembers avoiding the hidden, secret routes he is so familiar with out of fear of bringing trouble to his family. Maker , if only he’d known .

“I know where to start,” he says grimly, and leads the way out into a cramped back alley where children used to play. The tenements back here are falling apart and have been for years. Every few summers a fire rips through and devours whole families, trapped in the tight, maze-like halls and windowless apartments, and the landlord just throws another haphazard structure up over the ashes of the old and charges the same blood-gouging rents as before.

Dinys, his friend from the Pearl, has a mother and a sister who live here. Had. Probably. And his old friend Tyrin, who Aeoin remembers thinking was so beautiful when they were boys together, moved in with his new wife shortly after his wedding, a year or so before Aeoin’s. Aeoin is starting to accept the fact that he is never going to see a lot of people again, and it rings hollowly in his chest.

The tight halls are empty and silent, and that alone is enough to tell Aeoin that they’re on the right track. More than a dozen families used to live here, packed in tight and on top of each other, spilling out of doorways left open in the futile attempt at catching a breeze, children racing up and down the halls and old folks gossiping and dicing in the corners.

The quiet shouts wrong, wrong, wrong nearly as loudly as the doors left hanging from hinges and the signs of violence they find in nearly every apartment. Aeoin pauses to put a child’s abandoned doll on a disheveled bed--a meaningless gesture, given the tacky puddle of blood left to congeal nearby--then puts the hilt of his axe in his hand and continues on, itching for violence, for vengeance.

He remembers feeling this way before, nearly a year ago now, storming the halls of the arl’s estate with a borrowed sword and a prayer. It’s different from the darkspawn. The spawn he hunts and fights because they’re monsters and they need to be destroyed, and his very blood surges and yearns for their destruction. It’s instinctive to the point of meaninglessness, animals in the wilderness hunting each other because they must.

This is personal. This is heavy and hot in his heart, and Maker help the bastards if they have put his father beyond his reach .

They find the first of the slavers in the cramped courtyard behind the building, and he lets his dagger sing.

By the time they make it to the back offices (the landlord must be in on it, or paid off somehow, is there no end to slimey, slaving shems that Aeoin has to kill), he is practically seeing red, and blood is all he can smell, covering even the baked in stench of the alienage. His companions haven’t faltered a single step as he leads them on a path of destruction, and he loves them, loves Alistair’s bellow of rage as he uses his shield like a battering ram, loves the ozone sizzle of Morrigan’s magic and the screams of her victims as she twists their minds with fear. Loves Zevran, always by his side, nimbly covering the gaps in Aeoin’s defenses left open by rage, protecting Aeoin from his own carelessness and desperation.

The Tevinter blood mage pleads for his life, offers to use the lives of the captive elves cowering in their cages to bolster Aeoin’s own strength, and Aeoin can only stare at him for a moment.

“That elf?” he says, pointing to the man behind the bars. The man who held him as a child and soothed his hurts, who argued with him over a thousand petty, meaningless things that he can barely remember now, who prayed for him and wept for him and only ever wanted for him to be safe and well. “That elf--my father ?”

The mage has precisely half a second to understand the utter depth of his miscalculation before there is an axe in his skull and he’ll never need to understand anything again.

Fumbling with the lock to his father’s cell, Aeoin abruptly becomes aware that he is absolutely caked in blood. Shit. He can taste it. His warpath has been neither neat nor elegant, forgetting everything he knows as a rogue and a duelist in favor barrelling straight through everything in his path. “Just a second,” he mutters. His hands are shaking and he can’t get the picks straight in the lock. “I can get this open, just give me a second.”

Cyrion never wanted him learning to pick locks. His mother taught him when he was very young, and he kept practicing after she was gone, and Cyrion has always hated it. Along with the brawling, and the stealing, and the small, slim knife Aeoin kept hidden under his shirt.

It’s a simple fucking lock, he opened the cells in Fort Drakon in nothing but his smalls, why can’t he just--

Cyrion reaches through the bars and touches his face, as if he doesn’t even notice the tacky, congealing blood. “My son,” he says quietly, his voice a whisper close to tears. His hand his shaking and Aeoin instinctively covers it with his own. “My son--Maker’s breath, is it really you?”

“Father….”

“I never thought I’d see you again. My boy, my dear, dear boy.” Aeoin remembers Cyrion holding him when just slightly drunk and muttering prayers for mercy against his son’s collar. This sounds more like a prayer of gratitude, and he doesn’t know how to express how little he deserves it.

It is Zevran who gets the lock open--not with picks, of course, but with the key that Aeoin has somehow completely forgotten about. Aeoin could kiss him as he helps him gently pull Cyrion free; instead he grabs his hand and squeezes, wanting to convey all his thanks and love. Zevran startles a little, but covers easily enough, smiling just a little and squeezing Aeoin’s hand back.

By then he has managed to pull himself together, at least somewhat. Though the urge to cling to his father like a child is strong, he and Cyrion are both awkwardly aware of the others, hovering uncertainly around the peripherals, and the instinctive need to vacate the premises before guards or, more likely, the regents men or more slavers show up with reinforcements.

“You’re coming back to the house, aren’t you?” Cyrion presses. Even with the audience he can’t seem to bring himself to look away from Aeoin’s face, like he worries he’ll vanish if he doesn’t constantly reassure himself of his son’s presence and wholeness. “There’s something I should give you--and you look like you could use a meal! Do the Wardens not feed you? You’re skin and bone!”

“Of course, father. Come on, we should get going….”

They walk back toward the square, moving cautiously. Aeoin supports his father, tense the whole time against the possibility of more slavers showing up. He wishes he could sense them like the ‘spawn--they’re certainly evil and depraved enough to be the same--and tries to strategically place his father so that he can get him behind Alistair and his shield should they suddenly need to spring into battle.

Cyrion talks as they go, filling in a few more details of how this happened. Valendrian is long gone--the slavers recognized a leader when they saw one and got him out of the way swiftly. If he’s still alive he’s halfway to Tevinter by now, to be some asshole’s house slave the rest of his life.

As for the rest, the magisters used the plague to keep everyone too scared and weak to question them and placed their own operatives among the elves to sow further discord and encourage everyone to listen to the “educated men” come to “help” them. Without leaders, without the ability to organize, and without any outside aid from the Chantry or the arl or the regent--all of whom were likely either complicent or in on it--the elves of the alienage were all but helpless.

The sense of community Aeoin remembers and that Valendrian worked so hard to create broke down. Anyone who figured out the plot kept their heads down to save their own skin, leaving Shianni to be the sole and easily dismissed voice of outrage.

Aeoin quietly fumes--and realizes he is still holding Zevran’s hand on his other side, letting the other man gently sooth him as much as possible with the soft rub of his thumb over his knuckles, at roughly the same time his father notices it. Cyrion coughs, awkward, and Zevran starts and automatically tries to pull away.

Aeoin hangs on, stubborn, and Zevran chuckles out of nervous reflex. “Ah. Amor….” he says quietly, hesitantly.

“Is this your, um… friend, then, son?” Cyrion asks.

Aeoin rolls his eyes. “Yes, Dad, he’s my friend . This is Zevran. He’s Antivan.”

“Ah-ha!” Zevran says. When Aeoin glances slyly over there is just a hint of pink under the natural golden brown tan of his skin, and he grins with just a touch of mania and panic around the edges. “It is a great honor to meet you, of course, ah, ser . Your son and I… met on the road, and I can certainly see where he gets his--charm.”

Aeoin snorts a little. Zevran pinches the back of his hand in retaliation.

Cyrion snorts as well, and Alistair glances back at them incredulously because he sounds just like Aeoin, which makes Aeoin start to blush, youthfully embarrassed by the comparison. Oblivious, the older elf just shakes his head and gives his son an extra little squeeze. “I’m glad you’re… doing well, son,” he says, quietly.

Aeoin would, of course, be doing a lot better if there wasn’t a blight and an archdemon breathing down his neck, if the rest of the Wardens hadn’t all been killed in battle nearly a year ago, if a half-crazed regent weren’t tearing the country apart with civil war when they should be uniting forces against the darkspawn, and if somehow, for some reason everyone seems to be looking to him to figure out who the next ruler of the country will be… but he smiles all the same.

Chapter Text

Aeoin fixes the shopkeep with a long, hard stare. Alarith avoids his eyes, grimacing as he packs the food and groceries Aeoin had swiftly volunteered to go get for the feast his father is excitedly planning.

Aeoin remembers the alienage gossip mill. There’s little to do on a good day other than sit around flapping lips at each other, and everyone living so closely cramped together means that it’s easier for everyone to be in everyone else’s business than it is to stay out of it. Frustrating, when Aeoin was a young man and struggling to keep illicit activities hidden from his father, but… he remembers the things said about Alarith.

Alarith wasn’t born in the alienage. He stumbled in from the wilderness, half starved, half grown, and missing his parents, with a thick northern accent he has worked hard in years since to cover with Denerim muck until he seems, at first glance, utterly unremarkable from the rest of them. He’s maybe a shade or two darker than the Denerim average, but elves run the color spectrum from lilly pale to brown as tilled earth, same as humans, and the Dalish had been darker than the Denerim average, too.

People say Alarith hasn’t left his shop since the riots started. That’s not so unusual. He prefers to stay behind his counter in the best of times. Soris says he kept his doors open, though.

“You knew?” Aeoin says. It’s a bad idea--Alarith is a friend, used to let him read the few books he keeps stocked without making him pay for them, gave Soris a job, trades barbed banter with Shianni that neither of them will admit to being flirtatious.

Alarith scowls, but still won’t meet his eyes. “I’m not stupid,” he mutters. “Not stupid enough to get taken back there.”

“Kept it to your fucking self though,” Aeoin presses. He’s angrier than he really has a right to be. End of the day, Alarith is just a shopkeeper, and his past is his own business. But he’s still so mad . “Didn’t even say a word to Shianni. Or to Solis, even when they took his fucking wife.”

Alarith barely flinches. “What did you expect me to do?” he hisses. Aeoin doesn’t have an answer, but he’s still mad.

“Did you work with them?” he growls. He remembers how his stomach twisted at the sight of that elven woman, working with the slavers. She was Tevinter first, she’d told him with a sneer, and he’d killed her just like the other slaver scum. “A little cooperation, maybe, to save your own neck?”

Alarith snarls something in that other language of his--Tevine, Aeoin guesses, curling his lip. Aeoin doesn’t know what it means but he recognizes the acidic vitriol of a curse in any language. “They didn’t take Shianni, did they?” he demands. “She’s almost as big a troublemaker as you, but she’s still here.”

“Gee, thanks, you couldn’t fucking barter for my father while you were at it? Or Valendrian , or Valora ?”

Asshole .” Alarith meets his glare now, his eyes shining with too many frustrated emotions for Aeoin to name. “We can’t all be like you , you know. Yeah, you’re a bigshot Warden, now, and you’ll go charging in and play the fucking hero--meanwhile the rest of us are just trying to survive . And it’s easy for you, you don’t have to deal with the mess . You wanna know how folks around here treat Soris these days, since the last time you went to be the fucking hero and dragged that poor bastard along for the ride? They all blamed you for the riots, but you weren’t here , and now Soris doesn’t go out much.”

Fuck you. ” Aeoin… he hadn’t known that. “At least--at least I fucking did something.”

“We can’t all be you,” Alarith says again, but he sounds tired more than angry, and he shoves Aeoin’s groceries across the counter at him, including the two bottles of wine he promised Shianni.

Aeoin drops coin on the counter without bothering to haggle--he’s not exactly flash, but he’s staying in a lord’s estate and he’s been rifling through pockets all over Thedas, not to mention the little side-business he has going with Bohdan; he can afford it.

 

Back at the house, Cyrion has conscripted Alistair and Soris into peeling vegetables. Shianni is nominally “helping” (or maybe claiming to be “supervising” like she did when they were kids) but seems to be spending much more time telling some sort of story that involves a lot of gesturing and threatens to make Alistair fall out of his chair for laughing so hard.

“--and then he says, ‘Well, the dog would be extra ,’” Shianni says, and Aeoin groans as she realizes what story she is telling.

“Shit, Shianni!”

“Language,” Cyrion reprimands absently, which only makes Alistair laugh even harder. Cyrion indulgently ignores him and gestures Aeoin over with his ladle. “Bring that over here, son, I’m just about to start the crust.”

‘Feast’ is perhaps an ambitious word. After everything, resources are low, after all. But Cyrion is determined to feed them, and when Alistair expressed anxiety over eating his food when the family seems to have so little, Aeoin had subtly stabbed him in the side, right at a chink in his armor.

“Do not embarrass my father,” he’d hissed. “You eat everything he fucking gives you.”

Alistair hadn’t needed to be told twice.

As Aeoin unloads the shopping basket--flour, fresh eggs, a pat of butter--the door opens again and produces Morrigan, who immediately appropriates the pot from Cyrion, adding mushrooms and mysterious herbs from her pockets, and Zevran, who is holding a packet of brown paper tied with string.

Cyrion gives over the pot gracefully, and soon the small house smells utterly divine.

“I knew you were only pretending to be a bad cook,” Alistair says accusingly, and Morrigan distractedly flicks a spark of lightning at him. Shianni jumps a little, but looks at Morrigan with a disturbing amount of adoration after.

“Did you get the fish, Mr. Arainai?” Cyrion asks eagerly, and Zevran passes over the paper-wrapped packet with great pomp and ceremony.

“I had to promise the fishwife my first born for the price she was asking,” he says ruefully, “but I got it.”

“Aeoin never wanted kids anyway,” Shianni says cheekily, popping pea-pods into her mouth, and Aeoin kicks her chair on his way to the cupboard to get the little jar of rendered fat.

They’ll fry the fish and have it with the peas--provided Shianni leaves any--along with the meat pie Cyrion is making the crust for. Maybe not a feast but certainly a more extravagant dinner than Aeoin can remember most nights growing up.

A glance shows him that Zevran has brought back a much larger and fresher cod than Father’s budget would normally allow for, and he shoots his lover a small, pleased smile. “Thank you,” he murmurs, nudging him a little.

Zevran preens and pretends he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

Dinner is… nice. A little awkward, a touch strained. Cyrion’s eyes grow wetter in proportion to the amount of wine he has consumed, and there are a million and one topics to dance awkwardly around--the Blight, the riots, is Morrigan really a witch, and does Alistair know he looks a lot like the late king Cailan, who Cyrion saw in a parade once many years ago.

Cyrion mostly handles the revelation prompted by Aeoin’s obvious regard for Zevran by not acknowledging it, which is honestly more than Aeoin had expected, though he does make a few shrewd inquiries into the Antivan’s profession and “long term plans,” which Zevran stumbles his way through until Aeoin loudly changes the subject. He shoots Zevran an amused, covert wink that seems to do little to reassure him.

By the end of the night Cyrion has had enough wine to lean over and whisper (louder than he’d probably intended, but endearingly so), “I like him.”

There are plenty of other things to talk about--did you really meet the new king of Orzammar? “Yeah, and he’s a dick .” What were the Dalish like? “Jerks, mostly.”

Mostly they leave the conversation up to Shianni, who drinks and keeps everyone’s glasses full and tells all the most embarrassing stories about Aeoin she can think of, until his friends are all laughing at him and Aeoin is promising dire vengeance through chuckles of his own.

Aeoin keeps one eye on Soris, wondering with a flush of hidden guilt about what Alarith said. Soris doesn’t say much, and twitches restlessly in the tell-tale sign of a char-root addict in need of a fix, but he smiles readily enough and adds a comment or two to Shianni’s tales. Aeoin doesn’t know what to say and regrets for the millionth time letting him go with him to the arl’s estate.

“And you should have seen him the day Valendrian told him they were planning his wedding,” Shianni says. “You’ve never seen anyone mope so hard--you’d have thought he’d just been told they were taking him to Fort Drakon.”

“He probably would have been happier,” Soris puts in, teasing, and Aeoin mimes a punch at his head that makes him laugh and throw his hands up in mock surrender.

“Wedding?” Zevran repeats. Aeoin instinctively freezes as he suddenly remembers something he hasn’t mentioned yet. “So you do have some secrets.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” Aeoin mumbles, flushing a little. This is not at all how he wanted them to find out.

“Still!” Alistair says, equally shocked. “You never even mentioned . What happened?”

Aeoin shrugs and studies his glass. “Oh, it was a disaster, wrong cake, napkins clashed with the tablecloths--and, you know, rapists .” He steals a glance at Shianni. Shianni pours herself another generous glass, draining the first bottle, and drinks deeply.

Then she reaches over and ruffles his ponytail. “And then the knucklehead went and got himself arrested ,” she says, quietly fond.

That’s why Duncan conscripted you?” Alistair says, and Aeoin shrugs.

“Choice between being tortured to death and darkspawn… figured the Wardens would probably give me a sword at least….”

“...Still,” Soris puts in unexpectedly. “Most people don’t go quite that far to avoid getting married, cousin.”

It’s enough to startle a snort out of Aeoin. He glances at Zevran, wondering if he should apologize for never saying anything, and the Antivan covertly squeezes his knee under the table. “Well, we can at least be certain you looked stunning, I’m sure,” he murmurs. There’s an odd gleam in his eye, but it’s gone before Aeoin can figure it out.

Some reluctant sense of obligation prods him to ask, “What happened to… her…?”

Nesiara !” Shianni says, peeling with laughter. “You are terrible , cousin!”

“She went back to Highever,” Soris supplies quietly. “You… weren’t here, and there was no reason for her to stay.”

Conversation drifts after that. Soris slips out the back door with a mumbled excuse, hands already rooting through his pockets for his stash and ignoring Shianni’s waspish glare. Cyrion drifts off in his chair, and Aeoin is brought back to his childhood once again, gently pulling the wine bottle from his lax grip and wrapping him in a knitted shawl, carefully rearranging his head against the backrest so that he won’t have a crick when he wakes up, a familiar routine from a hundred nights when he was young.

“Staying here tonight?” Alistair asks quietly.

Aeoin snorts a little at the thought, raising an expressive eyebrow to the three little beds in the corner. He’d shared the bottom bunk with Soris since they were little, with Shianni perched above them (and taking every opportunity to dangle her feet in their faces) and Father in the rickety cot in the corner (though he fell asleep in his chair most nights).

“You all can head back,” he says. “I… just want to stay a while longer.”

“Whenever you are ready, amor,” Zevran says, and Alistair nods. Morrigan, doing something mysterious and weird in the kitchen area, ignores them, but she doesn’t seem in a hurry to go. Shianni watches her raptly and is ignored as well, which Aeoin supposes is preferable to the alternative of Morrigan getting annoyed and cursing her or something. And Shianni is smart enough (or frightened enough) to not pester her with questions.

Aeoin finishes his drink, then stands and clears the dirty plates from their meal into the sink. There are no leftovers (pitfall of feeding two Wardens) and he makes a note to covertly replenish his father’s food stores before leaving town.

“Let me do that,” Alistair says, rolling up his sleeves. “If the Templars were good for anything it was teaching me how to scrub out a pot.”

“You were a Templar?” Shianni asks, momentarily distracted from her enraptured study of Morrigan.

Alistair snorts inelegantly and scrapes a plate into the scrap bucket. “Not a very good one, hence all the scullery duty, and I was conscripted to the Wardens before I could be fully sworn in, thank the Maker. I remember just enough tricks of the trade to annoy Morrigan.”

Morrigan tosses a slow, dark look over her shoulder that promises dire consequences for any “annoyances,” now or in the future, but otherwise does not deign to dignify the insinuation with a response.

Shianni giggles, a loose, bubbly sound that has Aeoin rolling his eyes and remembering nights drinking in the square or the tavern with the other young people. Shianni has always had something of a reputation, one that has led to Aeoin and Soris getting into a fair share of fights with people who thought the reputation gave them liberties to talk (not that he ever minded the excuse for a brawl). Now she’s drunk and feeling flirty, leaning liquidly over the table with her hands coquettishly propping up her chin as she makes eyes at Alistair, and Aeoin is honestly not sure which of them he should be defending from the other.

“You certainly are an interesting man, Ser Alistair,” she says.

Morrigan snorts, possibly a little louder than is called for, and Alistair’s ears turn red.

Aeoin rolls his eyes and kicks Shianni’s chair as he passes, then turns to Zevran, leans over and whispers, “Can I show you something?”

Zevran’s smile is warm and beautiful, not the filthy leer or the easy false cheer he faces the world with, but one of his rare and precious real smiles, and Aeoin greedily drinks in the expression to keep hoarded with the others next to his heart.

“Have a few fantasies about your childhood home?” he suggests flirtatiously, and Aeoin grins.

“Something like that. Do you mind climbing?”

“Well, now I’m intrigued! Lead the way, amor.”

 

Chapter Text

 It’s an easy climb to get to the rooftops, though a tighter squeeze through certain spaces than he remembers. He’s been clambering up this route since he was a child, the only way to catch a breath of fresh air. It’s where he and Soris hid after pissing off some bigger kids (well, alright, after Aeoin pissed off the bigger kids and Soris was implicated through association) and where he and Shianni would go to get drunk together and spin their most outlandish fantasies about impossible futures.

And yes, Zevran is right, he did entertain one or two daydreams about coming here with… someone. A lover. A partner. Someone with strong hands and a deep voice, who never flinched from danger and wanted more than the quiet, fearful life of the alienage.

Zevran stands on the edge of the roof, his footing casually graceful and sure as he takes in the view. The river churns below them, sliding toward the sea, and distance and darkness disguises the muddy brown silt-and-garbage filled ugliness (not to mention the smell) until it’s almost beautiful, the city around it a quaint and sleepy painting, the streetlamps just beginning the flicker out as the midnight hour approaches.

“You certainly have an eye for picnic spots,” Zevran comments, “though I’m not sure I’d trust these shingles for a tryst. We would have to get creative--braced against the eaves, perhaps. Or there’s always rope….”

Aeoin chuckles. “Damn, I forgot the rope. But I am intrigued.” He checks the little hiding place where he and Shianni stashed a few morsels, but someone--some street kid, probably--has cleared them out.

Zevran’s soft laugh is a velvet promise. “Ah, one day, when there isn’t quite so much danger of us being attacked by darkspawn or assassins in our bed….”

“I’ll hold you to that.” He draws Zevran away from the edge and into his arms, enjoying the rare height advantage the slope of the roof gives him. Zevran leans into him with a soft, pleased sigh, and Aeoin relishes the warm bubble of pride that swells in his chest as he accepts the weight.

“So,” Zevran says quietly. “Your family is lovely. Not that there was any doubt, of course. Your father must have been quite handsome in his day, I see where you get it.”

He’s very nearly babbling. Aeoin takes a moment to suss through the words and realize that the master assassin in his arms is… nervous. He gives him a little squeeze and hides his fond grin behind Zevran’s blond hair. “They like you,” he assures him once he’s sure the laughter in his voice won’t be taken for mockery. “Of course they like you; you could charm the teeth off of the archdemon.”

Zevran snorts. “I hope you are not planning to ask me to try that. We will have to have words.” Aeoin squeezes him again, tamping down on a shudder. Zevran isn’t going to be anywhere near the archdemon, not if he can help it. He’s a Grey Warden, he figures he can enforce that.

After a while they slide to sitting, still pressed together, Zevran’s back to Aeoin’s front.

“You can almost see the docks from here,” he says absently. “I used to dream about jumping a ship.” A fantasy that recent events have soiled the memory of, admittedly.

“Yet you always stayed,” Zevran points out. Zevran is never judgemental in his observations. Aeoin could have left at any point, jumping ship or slipping out of the city through any number of routes and ways, but he didn’t.

“My father,” Aeoin says, shrugging. “And nowhere to go. And… I was afraid. I suppose.”

“Staying is easier,” Zevran says musingly. “Even if conditions are… less than satisfactory, at least it is a hardship you know you can survive. But only to a point.”

“If Duncan hadn’t conscripted me I’d be dead now.”

“And if I had run into anyone other than you on the road, I would be as well.”

A slight shift in position allows them to kiss, lips pressing to lips comfortably and peacefully, without the frantic urgency that has colored so much of their relationship. When they pull away from each other, Aeoin wonders if that is really uncertainty he sees in Zevran’s eyes.

“You… truly did not want to get married?” he asks, and Aeoin blinks in confusion at the shift in tone. “Not that I would rather you wed, of course,” Zevran hurries to explain, “It’s just, from what I understand, that seems to be to height of ambition for most people. Marriage, family, stability, that sort of thing.”

Aeoin huffs a little, bemused. “I didn’t even know her,” he says. “My father and the elders found her in Highever and paid her dowry to have her come here--I spoke to her for the first time twenty minutes before the ceremony and I don’t even remember her name.”

“Still,” Zevran presses. “Was it just the girl you objected to? Or that it wasn’t your choice? Would you… ever want that? With anyone?” He looks away, drawing back from Aeoin’s arms slightly. “That… maid at Eamon’s, for example. She’s a pretty girl, if you wanted children--”

Nigella?” It takes Aeoin a moment to place who he must mean, and then he can’t quite stifle an incredulous laugh. “Maker, no! Even if I were attracted to women, she’s got a guy. And I’ve got you! I mean….” Flushing, he backtracks quickly.

“That… idea of the perfect life, getting married, having a family--that’s never been something I want, if that’s what you’re asking.” Perhaps he would feel differently if he could marry a man--marry Zevran--but that has never been the way in the alienage.

And the idea of “settling down” is just, well, ridiculous. In the past year he has traveled all over the country, seen Orzammar and dragon cults and Dalish clans--and he only wants more. Wants to see Orlais for himself, the Waking Sea. Antiva, preferably with Zevran by his side to show him all the wonders. Being responsible for a family sounds like the type of thing that prevents people from seeing the world.

“Never…?”

“If I got married… I knew I’d never leave. I would have been stuck here forever.”

“…Ah.” Zevran smiles, bright and carefree. There’s something off about it--Aeoin has spent the past months becoming an expert in Zevran’s smiles and he can tell, but he doesn’t know how to mention it. “I think I understand your meaning. And you are right, of course! So much of the world to sample--you wouldn’t want to be tied down.”

“…Right.” And if Zevran is there to help him sample, all the better.

So… why does he look so upset, while trying so desperately to hide it?

“Zev?”

The assassin, hesitates only a moment, then sighs a little and turns in Aeoin’s arms, breaking free slightly to gain enough distance to pull something from a pocket on his belt. “Here. It seems an appropriate moment to give you this.”

It is… “An earring?” A small golden hoop, jeweled and glittering in the low light of the moon. Aeoin instantly covets it as he covets just about any treasure, but he hesitates to take it, picking it up with reverent fingers only when Zevran presses it on him insistently.

“I acquired it on my very first job for the Crows,” Zevran says, his voice taking on the storytelling cadence he uses when speaking of his past. There is still that faint note of… something in his voice. Something a little wistful and a little melancholy and a little uncertain. “A Rivaini merchant prince, wearing a single jeweled earring when I killed him--in fact, that is about all he was wearing. I thought it was beautiful, and… I took it. To mark the occasion.” He shrugs like it means nothing, but Aeoin isn’t completely blind. This is important.

“And… you’re giving it to me?”

Zevran smiles fondly and strokes his cheek. “Don’t get the wrong idea about it. You killed Taliesen and set me free--at least for now. Think of it as… a token of thanks,” he says. “One day, I had hoped… well. It doesn’t matter what I hoped. There is no reason for me to hold onto it anymore. Sell it if you like, or… wear it. It’s the least I could give you in return.”

Zevran is… blushing. He is actually blushing, a lovely and enticing shade of pink rising on his cheeks. Aeoin can’t help the smile that grows on his face, threatening to crack into a ridiculous grin.

“Just thanks?” he presses, because he cannot help himself, “Not a token of affection?”

Zevran crosses his arms defensively, looking away. “I--look, just… just take it,” he protests. “It’s meant a lot to me, but so have--so has what you have done. Please. Take it.”

Aeoin closes his hand around the earring like he worries Zevran will take it back, and kisses his cheek because he still seems embarrassed. “Thank you, Zevran, I’ll treasure it.” And he means it. Zevran might protest that it is a simple token of gratitude, but it is impossible for Aeoin to not read a bit more into it. This is a treasure, something important that has been kept and guarded--and now he is giving it to him.

He kisses him again, and nearly begins rethinking the logistics of getting the assassin naked on the roof (it is a fairly protected eave, sheltered on three sides, so long as they get the angle right and Aeoin’s strength doesn’t fail him at an inopportune moment they should be fine), but Zevran laughs a little and steps away.

“We should get back to the others. It is getting quite late, ah--dear Warden.”

 

When they slip back into the house, Morrigan’s concoction in the kitchen has the entire place smelling of bitter herbs, and Father has woken up to peer into the pot with no small amount of trepidation.

“A tincture,” Morrigan says shortly, addressing her instructions to the room at large rather than take any sort of direct responsibility, as if she hasn’t spent the better part of an hour making this and sacrificing her store of herbs in the process.

Shianni frowns and takes careful note. She has apparently been distracted from flirting with Alistair, who is busy gathering their gear.

“To be administered sparingly until the cough clears,” Morrigan continues. “Rest, for the body pains. The dead must be burned well away from the water source.”

“Well, I don’t know how much we can do for the last two,” Shianni says practically, “but… thank you. Thank you so much--this will save so many lives, I can’t thank you enough”

Uncomfortable and irritated at the praise, Morrigan wipes her hands clean in rough, jerky motions and tossed the rag onto the counter. “‘Tis a simple enough concoction--a child could brew it, an they knew how. And curing the Blight is beyond my means--many more will die. This is but a measure for those whose illness comes from the usual sources, not the spawn.”

“Still--!” Shianni looks a moment away from actually embracing her, and, having no desire to have a toad or a nug for a cousin, Aeoin swiftly intervenes.

Not that he intends to let her actions pass unremarked. He smiles at her, sincere and whole-heart. “Really, Morrigan, thank you.”

She scoffs at him. “That circle mage might show herself actually useful here, for a change,” she mutters. “And you would be wise to tell people to stay well clear of that gutted building off the square--I believe it used to be an orphanage. There is an evil air there.”

“Good idea, I’ll ask Wynn. And we can look at the orphanage later.”

The wilds witch busies herself with checking the many straps of her dress, scowling a little. “Should we not be returning to the others?” she says. “‘Afore Alistair nods off into the pudding pot?”

“Oh, just a moment, son,” Cyrion says, creaking to his feet and bustling over to the corner. “I meant to give this to you earlier. I, well, I should have given it to you before you left, but there wasn’t time, and, well, I didn’t anticipate you being gone so long….”

Curious, Aeoin follows him, helps him pry up the floorboards under his father’s bed. “How long has this been here?” he asks, incredulous. He thought he knew every inch of this little house, from the childish carvings he and Soris had scraped into their bedpost to the exact placement of the squeaky floorboards and how to traverse them without giving himself away.

Cyrion’s eyes glitter with amusement. “Managed to keep a few secrets from you, did I? Where do you think I always hid your Feastday presents?”

Wiley old man.

“Your mother made this little hiding place,” Cyrion continues, wistful rather than pained for once, when speaking of Adaia. “And, well, this was hers.”

It’s a dagger, old but still sharp, the hilt done up in the stylized, beautiful fashion of the Dalish. “This was Ma’s? I never saw her with it?” Not that he can recall, in any case.

Cyrion chuckles a little. “Your mother was a radical, son, but no fool. She kept it well hidden; told me once it had been in her family for years, since the Dales, and that one day she would see you carry it with pride. Ah, she would have wrung my ears for letting you leave without it, if… well.”

Aeoin is getting misty eyed, and he blinks rapidly to hide. “Thank you, Father….”

Fang, it’s called. I’m… I’m so proud of you, son.”

Ah, hell. Aeoin embraces his father, using the old man’s shoulder to hide the brief spill of tears. Cyrion hugs him back just has tightly. After a moment he pounds his back in a fortifying gesture and Aeoin pulls away, a swift swipe of his hand keeping his sentimental tears well hidden.

Cyrion studies his face for a moment, like he knows it will be another long time before he sees him again and wants to commit every detail to memory. “I suppose you should be going now,” he says reluctantly, and Aeoin reluctantly nods.

The landsmeet looms ever closer, and they have evidence now to turn the bannorn against Loghain. Eamon and Anora will be eager to know what he found, and if he acts quickly and with the perfect amount of righteous outrage he can shame the fucking shems into providing more support for the much-abused elves of the alienage--food, clean water, teams of workers to clean up the fucking mess left by the riots, proper medicine to supplement Morrigan’s concoction. “There’s a lot to do….”

Before they finally leave, Cyrion stops them one last time to ask gravely, “This Blight, son--just how serious is it? Are we in danger here?”

“Valora and I,” Soris says unexpectedly, then falls silent for a moment before he can continue. “We talked about going to Highever, where her family lives. If… if we could get past the lockdown….”

Aeoin shakes his head. “The roads aren’t safe. Not just darkspawn, bandits, too. But you shouldn’t worry--the hoards have all been coming up from the south.” The idea of the darkspawn attacking Denerim is just… horrific. The alienage especially, too cramped and crowded for anyone to get away. It’s too terrible to even think about. “You’ll be safe here, I promise.”

 

It is nearly morning by the time Aeoin falls into bed for a few hours’ rest.

Yelling at Eamon and Anora had been satisfying, as had watching the color drain from the queen’s face as she took in the implications behind the papers he’d taken from the slavers’ offices.

Then Eamon tries to wiggle out of a concrete vow of actually helping the elves, citing the limited resources and currently lacking authority, and Aeoin gets to spend the next twenty minutes railing about honor and duty. Alistair helps, which is nice. Then Anora puts her foot down--the minute she has her proper authority back relief efforts will be sent to the alienage, food, medicine, that sort of thing. She doesn’t even try to use it to make Aeoin reassert his promise to support her at the landsmeet.

She keeps tracing her father’s seal on the paperwork, like she can’t believe it’s there.

But that’s none of Aeoin’s concern.

He’s grateful to fall into his bed, painfully aware that he’ll have to be up in only a short while to deal with whatever the next crisis will be. He’s hopeful that, with the Landsmeet looming ever closer, things will quiet down until it’s over. Like the calm before the storm. But he isn’t particularly counting on it.

He’s nearly asleep before he realizes… Zevran isn’t there.

Chapter Text

“So, this is why you have been grinning like a fool all day?” Morrigan says critically.

Aeoin plucks the little jeweled earring from her judgemental fingers and crosses his arms over his chest, though he makes absolutely no attempt to stifle his foolish grin. “Do you have a needle, or should I go ask Leliana?” he asks archly, or as archly as he is able with the foolish grin still firmly in place.

She rolls her eyes at him.

He knows she has a sewing kit, has seen her using it at camp to repair tears to her skirts and stockings. He’d thought about just lifting it--it wouldn’t be difficult. Though naturally suspicious, Morrigan has let her defences down considerably. She seems to trust him, and it’s that trust that keeps him from rifling through her things rather than any fear of curses she may or may not have lain against interlopers. Something tells him he wouldn’t get it back, once broken, so he happily endures her mockery instead.

She pulls the kit from a pocket, right where he thought it was, and makes a show of going over the needles in their little leather case. “He has his charms, I’ll give him that. Certainly he must be quite something for you to risk so much in order to be close to him.”

He grins wider and lounges against the mantle for no other reason than to annoy her. “He is rather charming, isn’t he?”

She rolls her eyes again, harder, and Aeoin cheekily considers pushing his luck by waxing luridly poetic about Zevran’s many charms.

“There are establishments you might visit for these types of services,” she points out as she selects her needle.. Aeoin thinks he knows her well enough by now that he can recognize the thin thread of concern in her voice and he lets himself be touched by it though he knows better than to draw any attention. “Surely one such as yourself would be familiar.”

He shrugs. She isn’t wrong. There are parlors near the docks, or he could even find someone at the Pearl. He could have hunted down the old sailor who did the tattoo on his face, though that would have been far more trouble than it was worth. He could have gotten Shianni to do it, if not for memories of her piercing her own ears as a young girl and the lobes getting so red and swollen that she cried they were going to fall off.

“I trust you more.” It’s simple and the truth and it seems to startle her briefly, which is it’s own breed of pleasant. He meets her gaze evenly when she stares at him as if trying to catch him out in a trick or a lie, then nods at the needle in her hand. “Will you do it?”

She stares at him a moment longer then summons a prick of mage fire to her fingertips and passes the needle through it. “Come and sit, then,” she sighs, managing to sound as if he is being a major imposition on her life.

Next she turns a nearby glass of water into ice and takes the earring, eyeing the post and the backing critically.

“Hold still.”

“Hey, my ears are sensitive, alright? Be careful.” Now that he actually looks, it seems like she picked the largest needle she has....

She scoffs at him, unimpressed as ever. “A genlock stabs you and hardly a whimper. An ogre bashes you about the head and Alistair has to all but drag you to Wynn. But a needle... .”

“They’re sensitive , it’s an elf thing, be careful ,” he presses, but he laughs.

“Behold, the fearless Grey Warden,” she mutters. “Be still.”

Once, months ago, at Morrigan’s little fire on the edge of camp, she asked him, hesitant and awkward, if he thought there would ever be anything more between them. “I have never had a friend such as you,” she’d confessed.

He hadn’t known what to say to her. He hadn’t yet fallen into bed with Zevran, though they circled closer to each other every day with every heated glance. And… Morrigan was very female. Very pretty and very much a woman. Alistair couldn’t help himself from… glancing, sometimes, and he didn’t even like her.

Things had gotten a little awkward.

“I didn’t know you felt that way about me,” he said hesitantly, wary of her temper and not wanting her to feel mocked or pitied.

She looked at him sharply, piercingly for a moment, and said nothing.

There were a lot of things he could have said. He could have brought up her lonely childhood, or perhaps the twisted idea of relationships she’d gotten from her mother. But it just seemed cruel. “I do… care about you, Morrigan--you’re… my friend .” Shit. He was completely fucking this up. Why couldn’t she be like Nissa back at the alienage and just throw a rock at his head and be done with it?

“And anyway--you know what a fucking fool I made of myself over Alistair--” He had never said out loud before that women held no attraction for him. Memories from his youth, Valendrian’s pained wince when he asked if he couldn’t have a husband instead of a wife, the older boys’ mockery and the heavy hurt of their fists, had him cutting off sharply and biting his lip.

“Ah.” Her face cleared briefly with understanding. Then, oddly, a crease of something that might be concern appeared between her brows as she looked away. “So. You would never--with a woman?”

He laughed, giddy with nerves he couldn’t quite explain. “I don’t think I could . And I’ve never wanted to try.”

“I see.”

It was awkward again. He groped for something to say. “So. It really isn’t you , it’s me .”

“We shall speak no more of it, please,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. She was clearly thinking of something which seemed to trouble her deeply, but he was so relieved to be off the hook for the other thing that he didn’t think to ask what.

“Know this,” she’d said as they parted for the night, “I will always value your friendship. Though I may not always prove myself worthy of it.” And then she’d vanished into her tent before he could think of something to say.

Now, the small hairs on the back of his neck stand up as she leans close, and he forcibly stifles the instinct to lean away. Her slender fingers on his jaw and the crown of his head angle him more fully into the light.

His ear twitches. “Be still,” she says again, absently, and he laughs lightly at the close atmosphere that has developed between them.

Morrigan pauses, then pulls away, pressing the needle into his hand when he turns to question her. “You should get your charming assassin to do this,” she drawls as she walks away. “‘Twould be far more appropriate, would it not?”

He stares after her. “ Seriously ?”

She flaps a hand at him dismissively. “Away with you.”

 


“You need to talk to him.” Zevran makes a face. He knew he shouldn’t have confided in Leliana. Oghren would have been the far superior choice, mainly because a heart-to-heart with the dwarf would have involved far stronger drink and far less actual talking.

But even Zevran can admit he has been… moping. Not that there has been much time for such things since returning from seeing Aeoin’s-- Tabris ’s family. The Landsmeet, the Landsmeet, all anyone can think of is the Landsmeet.

Over the past day it has seemed to occur to Eamon that he is on the cusp of dragging a pack of dusty brigands and, well, Aeoin Tabris in front of the Fereldan nobility--and attempting to put forward Alistair as some sort of regal figure, no less. They have all been subjected to an extensive polish and shine, and about the only one handling it with any dignity is the dog.

Normally Zevran would love the pampering, accepting it as his due and taking the opportunity to dress himself in the finest cloths and jewels--all out of the arl’s pocket, of course. Right now his heart just isn’t in it.

“There is little to talk about, dear Leliana,” he says. He hates the morose note in his voice, but no amount of brandy (the wonderful Antivan bottle Tabris had found on Bodhan’s cart and presented to him as a Feastday gift, no less) can chase it away. “Our Warden friend has made his feelings on the matter quite clear.”

Leliana shakes her lovely head, and Zevran rolls his eyes at her. What does she know, anyway? Two years devoted to the Maker, and not even the handsome Alistair enough to properly turn her head.

“I know more of love’s pains than you might think,” she says, raising an eyebrow.

...It is possible that Zevran is drunker than previously thought, if he is speaking out loud when he doesn’t intend to. “Nothing quite like Antivan brandy,” he mutters, examining the bottle.

“And Alistair is a dear boy,” Leliana continues, ignoring him, “but he is quite young. Though he is most formidable against the darkspawn and the Blight, he has little experience with the wider world.”

“Ah, well, my dear Leliana, if it is experience you are after you should have said,” Zevran says blithely as he pours himself another drink. He is unlikely to get more sober , after all, and he needs the alcohol to figure out what she is driving at.

She ignores the flirtation with the ease of months of familiarity. “My point, Zevran, is that Aeoin is quite young as well. He may have been set to be married, but based on what he has told me of his past, and of alienage culture--and the fact that his father expected him to marry a woman --he has never had opportunity to learn of love.”

“Love,” Zevran repeats with a scoff. “What do I know of love? Other than what it can be bought for, of course.”

“Oh, Zevran.”

Unable to stomach the pity and compassion in her voice, Zevran makes another attempt to drown it out with more brandy.

Aeoin Tabris is the sort of meteoric wonder intended for greatness. If he does not find it in near singlehandedly defeating this Blight he will doubtless take the rest of Thedas by storm, his hunger for life and all it can offer unquenchable. Zevran will be merely the first of a long string of broken hearts left in his wake, and he will have to take his solace in that singular distinction.

What does he have to offer him, after all, truly? The price on his head once the Crows discover he is not as dead as they might think? The gallons of blood on his hands and countless black marks on his soul? He knows countless ways to bring pleasure to the body, dozens more ways to stop a heart, but when it comes to caring for a heart, to the softer, more delicate things in life, he feels as inexperienced as a fumbling schoolboy.

Perhaps Aeoin will keep the earring. Perhaps he will wear it for a time, and remember Zevran fondly when his future lovers playfully tug on it.

And perhaps Zevran will learn to live with the hollow space in his chest where his heart once sat.

“Oh, Zevran….”

Zevran put a hand over his face and stifled a groan. “Do a favor for me, Leliana.”

“Of course, my friend. Anything you need.”

“Wonderful. You are a spirit of mercy and compassion sent by the Maker. Now. Go and fetch your bow, and a few of those lovely combustion arrows our fearless leader found for you....”

“That seems a little excessive for a hangover.” Aeoin’s voice makes him startle and jump, a spike of anxiety shooting straight through his heart. When he turns, the Warden is leaning through the door, clearly only just arrived (and Zevran has the presence of mind to be grateful for that, that he missed hearing the worst of Zevran’s self pity), and smiling at him with faint amusement. Mockery, Zevran uncharitably sees there, and he covers a scowl by returning attention to his bottle.

It’s nearly empty. What blackguard stole all his brandy?

Aeoin chuckles, shaking his head a little. “After the lecture you gave me on savoring that stuff? Surely Eamon’s taylors weren’t that bad.”

Leliana delicately clears her throat. “I notice you have been avoiding your fitting.”

Aeoin waves a hand, dismissive. “Alistair and I will be dressed to represent the Grey Wardens. Just don’t tell Eamon. I’m working on my accessories now, in fact. Zev?”

The Warden’s voice is warm and fond, with just a hint of sexual promise and expectation in his dark, piercing eyes, and Zevran aches with desire for him. It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that Zevran taught him all he knows, and now he uses it to be so casually cruel, and just for a moment Zevran wants to hate him.

“Perhaps you might join me for a moment in my room?” the Warden invites. “I could, ah… use your help with something.”

“No, I…. No.” The denial, falling from his mouth before he can think, takes them both by surprise, but, abruptly, Zevran realizes that he actually can’t be satisfied with scraps. Taking pleasure where he can is all he has ever known, but here, now, with this man, it will never be enough.

For a moment no one says anything, Aeoin taken aback and uncertain, Leliana agonized in the corner. Zevran studies the bottle in his hand and tries not to curse himself. A clean break. It’s for the best. Now that he has removed the thing that keeps Tabris interested in him, the one thing Zevran truly has to offer anyone, he will move on quickly enough. And Zevran can begin putting himself back together. After all, if the Crows taught him anything it is how to endure.

“I… is something wrong?” Aeoin asks, and he sounds so painfully young and wretchedly unsure, and Zevran wants to hate him again, fiery hot and explosive.

Because he doesn’t even know . He doesn’t even realize how he holds Zevran’s heart in his hands, as carelessly picked up and squirreled away as any of the countless baubles and pieces of junk they have come across in their travels, destined to be just as carelessly tossed or traded away when there is no more use for it, or when he needs to make space for something shinier and better and worth more.

“I said I am not interested!" Zevran snaps. "Can you not understand that? There are other things for you to focus on besides me, I am certain. Go--do those!”

Gathering the last scraps of his dignity, Zevran slams the empty bottle down on the table and stalks out. That he manages to avoid walking into a doorway or falling on his ass is a minor miracle that he fervently thanks Andraste for, but the miracle wears off when he reaches the stairs and he stalls, unable to so much as contemplate climbing so many.

“Ah… Zevran?”

This estate is far, far too small.

Zevran puts his head in his hands and starts swearing in Antivan, the filthiest swears he knows. He was born in a whorehouse and raised in a Crow dorm, so it’s filthy enough to turn Alistair’s ears pink despite the language barrier, and the big Warden stands by awkwardly, fidgeting with his gloves. Distantly Zevran registers that he is dressed for some excursion about town, but he decides stubbornly that he doesn’t care. Let someone else follow the Wardens around, he is through.

“How can I help you, my friend?” he grits out, enunciating each word carefully and precisely.

“Um,” Alistair says. “Are you--I mean… is everything alright?”

Plastering on a leer is a reflex, something he doesn’t even think about. Later Zevran supposes he will wonder what that says about him. “Ah, dear Alistair,” he purrs. “Nothing a strong and strapping young man such as yourself cannot fix, I assure you. So. What do you say? You are so stressed these days--the pressures of royalty, no doubt. I am sure a little… Antivan massage will sooth you.”

Alistair, though pink as an Orlesian maiden’s underthings, simply studies him for a moment. Then he nods to himself and says, “Alright.”

“...Eh?” Zevran was--well, ‘joking’ is the wrong word, but he certainly hadn’t been serious . He’d intended to chase the blushing Chantry boy off, just as always, and now he finds himself backpedaling so quickly he loses his balance.

Alistair catches him and slings one of Zevran’s arms over his broad shoulders with automatic ease. “Much easier you than Oghren,” he comments cheerily as he steers them toward the stairs. “Come on. Up you get.”

There is something terribly swoon-worthy about being hefted about by the brawny Warden. If Zevran drags his feet a little, leans into more into Alistair than he really needs to, lets him take a bit more of his weight than strictly necessary, well, he’s drunk. And Alistair barely notices anyway.

But when Alistair starts taking him to Aeoin’s room, cozy and comfortable, Aeoin’s things and rubbish strewn about carelessly, he digs his heels in. “No. Not in there.” He will have to creep in later like a thief and collect his belongings, mingled in with Aeoin’s with the familiarity of lovers, Zevran’s poison pots among Aeoin’s elfroot potions, socks shared between them freely.

When did they get so tangled up in each other? He used to be so good and so careful about keeping the lines between them clear, separate tents, separate packs, creeping back to his own bedroll between Oghran and Alistair before morning. Since arriving in Denerim, perhaps, he has let himself grow soft and spoiled.

Alistair hesitates only a moment before redirecting course to the next bedroom over, slightly more shabby and significantly more cramped. Oghren’s odor lingers, and Sten’s bed is made with military precision, so neat that Zevran honestly doubts the qunari has actually slept in it, rejecting the mattress as being unworthy of the Qun.

The pillow doesn’t smell right and the blankets feel cold, lacking the lingering warmth of the last time they laid together.

“What is going on between you two?” Alistair asks quietly.

Zevran, who has nearly forgotten he is still there, snorts into his pillow. “Going to make good on your dire threats? Why not? Add an injury to this insult. Tell me something, my friend, where is my   dashing knight in shining armor? This hardly seems fair.”

Alistair says nothing for a moment then hums. “Did that make sense in Antivan? Because I don’t speak Antivan, terribly sorry. You might try it again in Half-wit?”

“Bah.”

“Zevran, what in the void are you talking about? He’s completely crazy about you! Even I can see that! Wynn has even been giving him lectures about what a distraction you are to him, did you know that?”

“Well, I can be very distracting, it is one of my better qualities. But the lovely Wynn can rest assured, I will be keeping my distance.”

Now ? With the Landsmeet tomorrow--when he needs you the most.”

“Don’t worry,” Zevran mutters bitterly. “I will still be his assassin--my services for my life, I have not forgotten. I can kill for him without sleeping with him.”

“Zevran….”

Waving him off, Zevran rolls over and burrows under the blankets. “You needn’t worry. He will be fine, I’m sure.”

Alistair curses softly. “It’s not just him I’m worried about, dummy,” he mutters, but he is easy enough to ignore.

Chapter Text

“So… you and Zevran….”

Aeoin scowls at the chest he is rummaging through with a little more hostility than strictly necessary. The silver and blue tunics haven’t done anything wrong, after all.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he mutters.

It’s just him and Alistair, having finally slipped away from Eamon long enough to rifle through Riordan’s Warden cache, and Alistair has been giving him “concerned” looks all afternoon.

He doesn’t want to talk about it because he still has no idea what happened. Leliana wouldn’t say, merely repeating over and over that he needed to discuss it with Zevran.

“A real conversation,” she had stressed, “open and honest about your feelings--your real , true feelings, Aeoin, let him hear it.”

Bah. Aeoin would rather face down the archdemon right this instant , armed with nothing more than Eamon’s second smallest cheese knife and one of Alistair’s smelly socks. After all, he had the earring, and he’d thought he knew what it meant, but now….

Now it looks more like a memento token, something to remember a former lover by rather than the declaration he had taken it for, and Aeoin feels…. Well. A discussion of his feelings would likely involve a lot of cursing and throwing things. Shameful, embarrassing tears. Begging, graceless, blubbering begging, on his knees, grasping at Zevran’s legs to keep him from… from leaving.

“Let’s just focus on the Landsmeet, alright?” he says flatly.

“...Right,” Alistair says after a moment’s hesitation. He is examining a shelf of helmets, running his fingers over the iconic griffon detailing and brushing dust off of the silverite. “Do you know what you’re going to say?”

“Oh, yes,” Aeoin says. Possibly with just a touch too much glee because Alistair pauses to give him a Look.

“No swearing at the Landsmeet,” he says wearily.

“Alistair. When am I ever going to get another chance to call the entire Fereldan nobility a bunch of assholes to their faces ? Be reasonable.”

“If we get kicked out we can’t win.”

“You and I have differing definitions of winning.”

Alistair picks up a smaller helmet, probably intended for a scout, studded leather with the nose guard styled into a griffon's beak. “At least wait until after we deal with Loghain.”

“Fine. And fuck off with that helmet; I want one of those big ridiculous looking ones with the wings.” He is wrestling with a blue and silver striped tabard, trying to figure out which side is the front.

According to Alistair, who says he heard it from Duncan, Grey Wardens in Fereldan rarely wear their formal uniforms. Something to do with the history of the order in the country, and how Maric only allowed them back in less than thirty years ago, supply chains into the country, the lack of a proper Grey Warden base. Less than half of the Wardens present at Ostagar had been wearing the silver and blue, which had turned out to be a good thing--for a certain morbid definition of good.

With the Grey Wardens being publicly blamed for the death of King Cailan, the ones out of uniform were more likely to get a decent pyre.

But Aeoin is eager to make a statement at the Landsmeet, and he needs to look like a proper Grey Warden to do it, the iconic silhouette, the silverite polished to a high shine, the griffons on their chests, him and Alistair both..

There is barely enough equipment in Riordan’s cache to pull it off, and he suspects he’ll have to rely on no one in Fereldan knowing what a Warden is supposed to look like, in the end.

Chasing the gleam of something shiny, he pushes aside a pile of spare scabbards and pulls out a shield. A little dusty, the insignia a little tarnished, but perfectly serviceable based on what little he knows about shields. The metal is still solid and rings true when he taps the surface.

“Hey, Alistair. Found you this.”

He has found dozens of shields for Alistair over the past months, kite shields, round shields, tower shields. Templar shields at Kinloch and heavy dwarven shields in Orzammar, even, from time to time, putrid darkspawn shields still dripping with gore. But this time Alistair hesitates before reaching for it  with near reverent hands.

“This was… Duncan’s,” he says slowly, running his fingers over the crest.

Aeoin feels his stomach drop out, and he shuffles his feet awkwardly in the dust. “...Didn’t know he used a shield,” he offers hesitantly.

“It all depended, really. Sometimes he fought like you, with a dagger in his off hand, if he thought it was going to be a particularly hard scrap, the kind of situation where he would have to fight for his life right away. But he could hold a line with a shield--this shield. The kind of battles that are long and hard, and you just have to set your feet in the mud and endure….”

His fingers curl around the edges of the shield and he pulls it slowly to his chest. “I gave Cailan’s shield back to Anora,” he says faintly.

“...Right,” Aeoin answers, uncertain what he means. “You mentioned. Well… this one’s better, I’ll bet. And… you said you wanted something of Duncan’s. Right?”

Alistair chuckles a little. “Right. I can’t believe you remembered that.” Clearing his throat, he puts the shield on his arm and tests the weight and heft of it.

“Feels good?”

“Feels right.”

“Excellent. You look just like a Grey Warden.”

Smirking, Alistair selects a helmet, one of the heavier weight ones with the wings, as requested, and sets it on Aeoin’s head. “You, too. Come on, we should be getting back.”


Zevran is woken by a pounding in his head and a high pitched whine in his ear. The headache is clearly the fault of the brandy that sloshes regretfully in his stomach. The whine, and accompanying wet snuffle and cold press of an animal nose to the vulnerable skin under his ear, comes from the fearsome mabari warhound pawing at his sheets.

He groans and shoves Mange’s head away with a faint curse, but the idiot dog is not deterred for long, whining more insistently now that he is sure of his audience, and resting his chin on the edge of the mattress to aim big, ridiculous puppy-dog eyes at Zevran.

Zevran makes a show of putting an arm over his eyes and ignoring him. Ridiculous animal.

The mattress tilts somewhat alarmingly, and when Zevran looks Mange has put a single, questing, experimental paw on the bed.

“No,” Zevran says warningly. “No, no, no, no--damnit!”

The bed is nowhere near big enough for a two hundred pound warhound to crawl into it with him, but Mange makes do by delicately settling his bulk mostly on top of Zevran until the assassin is fully pinned

“I know Tabris spoils you,” he drawls as well as he is able, “but you are not actually a puppy.”

A pitiful sort of whine.

“Or an Orlesian lapdog.”

An offended snort. Fereldans.

“Get. Off.”

Mange whines, puts his head on Zevran’s chest, and licks his chin.

“You are disgusting. And you smell bad.” It is an objectively true statement. Even freshly scrubbed by Eamon’s own kennel hands, a dog still smells like a dog, and Zevran has found that mabari in particular have a certain… musk baked into their fur, smells of battle, the warpaint Tabris smears onto his hide, the leather of his harness, warm and vital scents of blood and mud and sweat.

It is not a good smell, and yet… embarrassingly Zevran doesn’t really mind. Mange smells like his master--or rather Tabris frequently smells like he shares a bedroll with his dog, mainly because he frequently does . Zevran would tease him and make him bathe before coming to bed with him, and he would retaliate by making Zevran take his boots off outside the tent.

And when Zevran left his tent before sunrise, Mange would slip in and lay down beside him. Zevran has come to be… fond of the beast for it. It sooths something in him, to know that Aeoin would not sleep alone.

Mange snuffles again, and Zevran realizes he has started gently stroking his ears without meaning to do it. Well. Mabari ears are notoriously soft, like velvet, the only true softness on the fearsome beasts.

“You’ll take care of him, won’t you?” he says quietly. “You won’t let him get into too much trouble?”

The dog whines and slobbers all over Zevran’s neck.

“You are disgusting.”

It is not exactly comfortable, lying beneath a massive killer warhound. Even disregarding the sheer weight of the fur and muscle, Zevran can’t help but think of how many of Tabris’s enemies died in nearly this exact same position, pinned by his mabari, the beast’s hot, humid breath against the delicate skin of their throats.

And yet, despite the mabari elbow digging into his ribs, Zevran nearly feels as if he could drift off back to sleep again. Probably he is still drunk.

And probably that is also why he doesn’t notice the door opening until Mange lifts his massive head and starts shaking the bed trying to wag the tail he doesn’t have.

“Mange? What are you doing, you big dummy, come here.” Tabris keeps his voice pitched low, like he is trying not to wake Zevran.

It’s tempting-- beyond tempting--to stay still and quiet to keep up the ruse. Instead Zevran clears his throat. “Come to rescue me from the savage beast, have you?” he says. The joke falls flat (and Mange seems to take a little offence if the aggrieved whine is anything to go by), but Tabris moves a little further into the room.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Sorry--don’t know what wrong with him. Mange--down.”

Mange makes a complaining noise and puts his big, blocky head back down on Zevran’s chest.

“Mange!” Tabris scolds, and Mange woofs back, unrepentant.

The terrible beast is still wiggling his ridiculous stump of a tail, in fact, and he paws playfully at Zevran and the sheets, making an elaborate show of getting more comfortable. Tabris curses, utterly exasperated, and Zevran can’t contain a giggle.

There is just something fantastically comical about a particularly short elf like Aeoin trying to force a particularly large mabari like Mange to do anything. If Mange loved Tabris any less, or if Tabris were any less free with treats and praise, it probably would have become an issue sooner than now, and over something much more dire than Mange using Zevran as a mattress.

Aeoin tugs ineffectually at Mange’s collar, and Zevran laughs harder.

“Alright, if you’re gonna laugh about it you can just live under him, see if I care,” Aeoin huffs, amusement in his voice. “And as for you , no more beef bones, you disobedient mutt. I should make you sleep in the kennels.”

Mange whines, eyes big and liquid, and Aeoin settles onto the edge of the mattress to poke at his belly. The bed creaks somewhat alarmingly under the additional weight.

“I don’t think this mattress was designed for this many occupants,” Zevran says.

“Well, there’s plenty of room in mine,” Aeoin quips without thinking, then stills. “I mean--shit. If… you wanted .”

Zevran chews on his lip, a habit he’d long thought broken by his old Crow masters, and neither of them can think of anything to say.

Mange rumbles a complaint and presses his cold, wet nose to Zevran’s neck, and Aeoin huffs a soft laugh when Zevran yelps from the unexpected cold.

“You seem… different,” Aeoin says quietly, and Zevran hesitates a moment before sighing.

“I really don’t know what to say. Are you certain you wish to talk about this?”

Only days ago they took each other apart. This man held him in front of the fire, and Zevran had never felt so safe, and so cherished. Then… the earring. The realization that Zevran could never be satisfied with a casual affair; he wanted forever or nothing at all--but how can he ask for that?

“Do you… want the earring back?” That… stings .

“No! That was a gift--I want you to have it!”

This conversation would be a lot easier without the fifteen stone warhound on his chest. He shoves Mange one last time, and finally the contrary beast moves, sliding off the bed and onto the rug with a grumble and a yawn, where he shakes himself once and turns around to put his chin on his master’s knee.

Aeoin begins scratching his ears on reflex, and Zevran finally struggles his way upright to look at him properly. The Warden looks… terrifyingly unsure. He is holding something in his fist, so tightly that his knuckles are stark white and bloodless, and he stares sightlessly at a spot on the rug just past his foot.

It is… oddly comforting, actually. At least Zevran is not alone in his uncertainty.

“Let me… attempt to explain.” Still, he hesitates. How can he explain when he feels so unsure of himself?

But then Aeoin finally meets his gaze, his dark eyes piercing into Zevran’s, as steady as an assassin’s blade, and he feels something in him settle.

“An assassin must learn to forget about sentiment,” he says quietly. “It is dangerous. You take your pleasures where you can when life is good. To expect anything more would be… it is reckless. It was… I thought it was the same between us. Something to enjoy, a pleasant diversion. That is all I intended when we began.”

Something in Aeoin’s face twitches, some flinch between his eyebrows, but he is otherwise perfectly still, as still and focused as he was in the deep roads. It is, as ever, a heady and harrowing experience to be the subject of that intensity.

“I grew up among those who sold the illusion of love, and then I was trained to make my heart cold in favor of the kill. Everything I have been taught tells me what I feel is wrong.”

“What you feel? Are you saying you’re in love with me?” There is a note in the Warden’s voice that Zevran can’t identify, disbelieve tinged with… something else, and he has to look away, flinching away from the pain that will come from seeing pity or worse in his love’s eyes.

“I know it is foolish of me, is what I am saying,” he says, struggling to put a little laughter in his voice. “Foolish to think that you would feel the same way--but in any case, I apologize for my behavior, but it really is for the best that we… stop.”

“... What ?”

Zevran can’t bare this. He imagines Taliesin in the Fade, sneering at him for his soft, weak heart. He should have been a better Crow and spared himself this agony.

Zevran …!” Aeoin’s hand on his jaw, and again, inanely, Zevran can’t help but compare master and mabari, both so fearsome and deadly and yet capable of being so, so gentle, cradling his face like he is something precious, and Zevran cannot bare to hope. “ Are you in love with me ?”

“I do not know! How would you know such a thing?”

Aeoin draws him closer, until their foreheads press together and their breath mingles between them. “I don’t have any more experience in this area than you do,” he whispers. “In the alienage--we would talk about the future, impossible dreams and fairy tales, but… never really expecting that anything would ever change. But you… you promised to take me to Antiva, remember? You are supposed to show me Rialto and Antiva City--and chocolate. You said you would rescue me from my pitiful Fereldan tastes, remember? I may not know much, but… I know that is what I want. I want to be with you .”

Finally Zevran brings up his hand and presses Aeoin’s fingers between his. “All I need to know,” he says, his voice finding new strength, “is if there is some hope between us, for… I don’t know what.”

“I can’t promise you a future,” Aeoin says dismally. “Or--or a family, if that’s what you want. The Blight--and even if the archdemon doesn’t kill me, I don’t have long.” He will never be as old as his father is now, and when Alistair told him he had no regrets but now he feels robbed. “But I know how I feel about you, and it is the same as you, please don’t doubt me.”

Zevran feels his mouth twitch into a smile as his heart slots back into place. “The idea that we can all die tomorrow is not unfamiliar to me, amor. If a year, or ten years, or another week is all the Maker sees fit to grant me with you, I will be grateful. That is… all I needed to hear, I think.” He huffs a quiet laugh, more breath than sound, and shakes his head ruefully. “I do feel a bit foolish now. And I will have to admit to Leliana that she was right--do you think shoes will distract her from gloating? I believe Bodhan has a lovely pair of slippers on his cart--”

Aeoin quiets him with a kiss, which Zevran certainly has no objections to. It begins heady and impassioned and grows ever more heated the longer they go on, everything that had built and passed between them in the past few days finally finding release. Zevran would be more than happy to have this physical reconnection between them go even further, to the natural conclusion (and he gets a small thrill to think of it as making love for the first time), but Aeoin drifts back before he can do more than fumble at his clothes.

He is still holding some small thing in his hand--the earring, Zevran realizes with a small jolt when he holds it up for inspection, the familiar gold and jewels glittering in the low light of the room.

“I wanted to ask for your help with the piercing,” he says, smiling a little, playfully, and that sends a warm current of arousal straight to Zevran’s core.

“It would be my pleasure,” he purrs, and Aeoin grins, wicked and lovely, as Zevran draws him back close again.

“Go to your own damn room!” Oghren’s mildly inebriated voice is enough to startle them apart. “Don’t we have to put up with this shit enough at camp?” Despite his words, the dwarf feels no compunction whatsoever about coming into the room and stripping off his own armor with the efficiency of long practice that not even gallons of ale can wash away. He greets Mange with a friendly pat, then tosses himself down on his own bed.

Sten follows him in, managing to look both mildly disgusted and utterly resigned, like he has given up on trying to understand the more distasteful habits of basra. He also pauses to pat Mange while treating the two elves to a singularly disapproving glare.

“At the very least you could angle yourselves so it’s easier to imagine a set of tits between ya,” Oghren leers.

“What, just floating there?” Aeoin says as he climbs to his feet.

Zevran combs his hair back into place with his fingers, murmuring, “What a disturbing image.” Aeoin offers him a hand and he takes it, suddenly feeling uncharacteristically shy.

“If you gentlemen would excuse us,” the Warden says airly, then grins at Zevran and whispers, “Care to join me?”

“It would be my pleasure, my dear Warden.”

Chapter Text

Zevran is roused, far too early, by the sensation of being watched. Aeoin leans over him, tracing over his features with his eyes, and Zevran smirks a bit as he arches his back in a preening stretch, basking in the attention. The earring gleams from its place in Aeoin’s ear, and Zevran takes a moment to relive the close, heated memory of putting it there himself, needle in hand and the Warden’s delicate ear given over to his care.

“Will you give me a tattoo?” Aeoin had asked, curiously poking through the needles and inks Zevran kept stashed away.

“Whatever you wish,” Zevran had promised in return, and then kissed him deeply to distract from the pinch of the needle through the sensitive flesh and cartilage of his ear.

After, they made love, and Zevran revelled again in the sheer power of his lover, over and over until he finally drifted to sleep, held safe and secure in Aeoin’s arms.

“Did you sleep at all or did you stay up all night staring at me?” Zevran teases.

Aeoin merely shrugs. “Grey Warden. Don’t need much sleep. Rather watch you than the Fade.”

Zevran chuckles and shakes his head. “You are very odd.”

Grinning, Aeoin leans over him a bit further, pinning him to the bed, and Zevran purrs through the trail of heat that slides lazily through him. “Am I?” Aeoin growls playfully.

“Well, I never said it was a bad thing,” Zevran says, and loops an arm around his neck to draw him down into a kiss.

A heavy knock on the door breaks them apart, and Aeoin sighs expansively as he rolls his eyes. “Yeah?”

“Aeoin, are you in there?”

Zevran settles back against the pillow and lets his lust cool with a sigh. Anyone else Aeoin might have ignored until they were both thoroughly satisfied, and smirked cat-like at Morrigan later when she expressed her annoyance. But he has never been able to deny Alistair anything.

Sure enough, he sighs again and delivers an apologetic kiss to the tip of Zevran’s nose, but rolls off the bed and onto his feet, stepping into a pair of trousers as he goes to spare his brother-Warden’s delicate sensibilities. Zevran sighs as well and starts hunting down his clothes. Apparently the day is starting.

Alistair is already dressed and shows every appearance of having also not slept all night, though he vibrates with energy and anticipation where Aeoin has gone lax and languid from Zevran’s attention. “It’s starting,” he says when Aeoin opens the door. “Eamon has gone ahead to call the Landsmeet; he said to follow as soon as we can.”

“Surprised he didn’t make you ride in with him,” Aeoin remarks, combing his hair back with his fingers and gathering it into a tail. “Gather up everyone else who wants to go and get Mange in his harness for me, will you? And tell Leliana to be good and keep her mouth shut lest her accent frighten the nobels.”

“Right.” Alistair is grim and serious as he clasps Aeoin’s hand. “Loghain,” he begins.

“All yours,” Aeoin promises. “We’ll be down in ten.”

“Are you certain that is a good idea?” Zevran asks as he braids back his hair.

Aeoin grunts and splashes his face with cold water from the pitcher a servant left on the side board. “What do you mean?”

“Vengeance has it’s place, amor, but it is rarely the most political move. Alistair is a merciful man by nature, but something tells me he will not stay his hand, should it come to it.” The assassin had not missed the shield Alistair carried, shining silverite and emblazoned with griffons. A Gray Warden shield, for a Gray Warden vendetta.

“It’s not political,” Aeoin counters, frowning. “After everything he’s done to us….”

Zevran just shrugs, not really willing to fight about it. “I’m not arguing that, amor. Loghain most likely does not see his actions as ‘personal,’ is all.”

The Warden growls slightly as he wrestles with his tabard. “But it is personal. Not just the Wardens, but what he did to my family, to my home--what possible justification could there be for that?”

Zevran smiles sadly and reaches out to tenderly straighten the blue and silver striped tabard, running his fingers lightly down the scale-mail and picking a minute piece of lint out of the blue-dyed cloth. “People always find ways to justify their cruelties, during trying times such as these most of all. I really only meant that, if you truly intend to allow Alistair to avoid his throne, than it might be in your best interest to court the approval of the queen. She is bound to be resentful toward the man who kills her father, and you will be handing her a great deal of power over you both, for the cost of a promise.”

Aeoin grunts, clearly irritated with the minutia of thinking politically, and Zevran stifles a fond grin. He had been similarly fed up in Orzammar. It is amusing to Zevran. For a man with very few qualms about lying to get what he wants, and greatly skilled in the art of skulking through shadows, his lover has very little patience for what the Orlesians call the Great Game.

It shows through in his fighting style as well, now that Zevran thinks of it. Rogue he might be, and skilled duelist at that, but Aeoin is, at his core, a brawler, not best suited to the subtle work of an assassin. It’s what he has Zevran for, and Zevran would be lying if he claimed that idea didn’t warm some small kernel of his soul.

“Grey Warden’s aren’t beholden to any ruler, it’s one of the perks. Letting Loghain live isn’t an option,” Aeoin says. “Anora is just going to have to accept that--she may want to think of him as a good man, but her father tried to enslave mine. That’s not the action of a good man.”

Zevran smiles. Good leaders, good rulers, are rarely good men. It is a fact of life every Antivan--and certainly every Crow--knows well. He supposes his lover will learn it for himself soon enough.

Most likely he would see it as all the more reason to keep his Alistair insulated from such pressures, as a Warden, away from political life.

Rather than try to teach him now, Zevran picks up the blue quilted brigandine and helps him settle it on his shoulders, than pulls the buckles tight and fastens them with nimble fingers, rubs the pad of his thumb over the silver griffons on his shoulder until they shine.

“Not particularly practical armor, amor,” he says critically. Too many decorative bits to catch a slicing blade, too many parts that can be too easily used as a handhold by the enemy.

Aeoin rolls his eyes. “Dress uniform,” he says. “For official events. How do I look?”

He looks like a hero from a storybook, and it makes Zevran’s heart suddenly clinch. Heroes don’t always survive the end of the story, after all. Antivan theater loves a tragedy.

On the surface, however, he smiles sultrily and flicks the jeweled earring he pierced into his lover’s ear. “Good enough to eat,” he purrs, and Aeoin smirks.

“We’re going to be late,” the Warden admonishes. “But after… I figure I’ll need your help getting this getup off.”

“It will be my pleasure, my dear Warden.”

 


Zevran has oiled his black leathers to an inky shine. Anyone in Antiva would instantly know him for what he is, given away further by the pin in his cloak, styled into a crow’s skull. Here, in Ferelden, he contents himself with becoming a shadow as they finally enter the royal palace.

“Surprised you did not fight her,” he remarks quietly to his lover when he convinces Cauthrien to step aside. The lady knight knows, he thinks, clear in the guilty bend of her head as she kneels to let them pass, that she has followed the regent down too many wrong paths, and she is a woman of a honor. More surprising is his bloodthirsty little lover letting earlier insults slide.

Judging by Aeoin’s sneer he isn’t happy about it, either. “I’m not giving anyone an excuse to kick us out before I’ve said my piece,” he mutters back. “Did you hear what she said? No choice but to sell my people, slaughter them like rats in a cage--who the fuck does she think she’s fooling?”

Zevran traces his fingers over the back of Aeoin’s hand to calm him and is rewarded by a quick, warm squeeze.

“Even after everything he’s done, they still think he’s a hero,” Alistair seeths. Zevran spares the warrior a glance.

Alistair is in a vengeful mood, rarely seen, and awe-inspiring in his silverite, the rampant griffons gleaming on his chest. His shield--his mentor’s apparently--he has clearly spent the night polishing and repairing, and now it nearly seems to shine with the specter of the lost Wardens, the crest reflecting the last light of every silver helm that fell at Ostagar.

“They say Loghain was King Maric’s best friend,” Leliana remarks quietly, and Alistair scoffs.

“That didn’t stop him from abandoning his son to die,” he mutters.

“We might not know everything, Alistair.”

“I know enough.”

Zevran and Leliana share a glance, Leliana a vision in her finery but still carrying the bow she took from her former mentor’s body and a quiver full of elf-shot arrows on her back. The Wardens are both out for blood, and they will doubtless get it. They’ll have to be ready.

They are late, and by the sound of things the arguing has been going on for some time. Ladies gasp gratifyingly as they walk in and the gathered nobles part to make way.  Zevran watches with some fond amusement as Aeoin’s spine straightens in response, his gait turning into a liquid prowl as his eyes slide over the crowd, taking in the audience and being sure of everyone’s focus and attention.

A glance at Alistair shows that he is far less comfortable, but rather than blushing at the attention and trying to shrink down into his armor and disappear, he walks tall and proud in his Gray Warden uniform, eyes hard as he seeks out the one he came to challenge.

And then, finally, they are standing before Loghain MacTier.

Zevran recalls the one time he met the regent face to face, when he was hired for the ill-conceived mission that brought him to Aeoin’s side in the first place. Howe did the actual hiring, and Zevran understands it had been that man’s idea to hire an assassin in the first place. Not that he had particularly cared at the time, and he supposes he still doesn’t. He hadn’t liked Howe, was pleased enough to watch Aeoin bury an axe in his face, but Loghain had been a bit more of a mystery. Howe was a garden-variety snake, would not have lasted two years in Antivan politics before getting a well-earned dagger in the back, but Loghain carried himself like a man of honor.

A very, very tired man of honor, struggling to rise to a battle that was, perhaps, past his years. He’d seemed disgusted by the idea of hiring assassins… but, of course, in the end he had still done it. Zevran wonders what other compromises to his honor he had made since Ostagar.

Wonders also, idly, if his coffers would have been emptied to the point of allowing slavers in the alienage had he not agreed to the frankly exorbitant expense of hiring an Antivan Crow, but whether or not a client could afford services offered has never been the Crows’ concern. Only if they could pay, and Loghain must have, since no one has come for his head, yet, other than two young, headstrong Gray Wardens.

In the months since Zevran last saw him, Loghain seems to have aged ten years. His heavy, imposing armor, though gleaming at a high polish, seems to sit more heavily on his shoulders than it once did, the lines on his face are deeper, the circles under his eyes are darker. The Blight has not been kind to anyone in the country, and Zevran can see the weight of it all on this one man.

He makes a decent showing of it, though, posturing for the nobles and sneering at Eamon and Alistair. He nearly breaks character once, when Aeoin reveals what has been done in the alienage, a barely-there flinch, a twitch in his sword hand while the nobles react with outrage and shock.

But then he rallies, blustering through the accusations as inconsequential, and claiming that everything he did was for the good of the people.

It turns out to be the exact wrong thing to say, of course, and Aeoin goes cold. “So, I suppose my family, the elves of Denerim, are not Ferelden, then?” he says.

Loghain, thin lipped, stares stonily back, unable and unwilling to reverse direction.

“Fine. What about your fellow nobles , Mac Tier, since the elves rank so lowly with you?” Another flinch from the son of a farmer. “How do you justify the torture of Ferelden sons?” And they are off again, but any chance for mercy has been lost, clear in the cold fire that lights Aeoin’s dark eyes.

Loghain seems to know it as well, for he turns stoney and unmovable. Not even the dramatic entrance of his daughter stirs him much, nothing but regret and resignation as he looks her over, assures himself of her physical well-being if nothing else.

Zevran watches the assembled bannorn, the arls in their balconies. Aeoin’s righteous fury--and especially the clipped, fiery tones of the queen--are striking a chord with many. Still, the vote will be close. People are frightened more than anything, and clinging to familiar figures. Loghain is known to them, the Hero of River Dane a comforting reminder of past victories and glories. Memories may well be enough to excuse or obscure current fumbles.

In the end it comes down to a single vote, and Aeoin turns to grin at Zevran, triumphant. Zevran moves quickly, tossing aside his cloak to free his sword and dagger, just as Logain declares his refusal to accept the vote. The battle is no surprise, tensions being so high, and of course Aeoin takes the opportunity for a fight with all the eagerness of the mabari that paces beside him.

Everyone is in fact so quick to join the fray that Zevran has to wonder if all Ferelden political meetings become brawls at some point. It is difficult to tell friend from foe.

Zevran focuses on covering dear Leliana, whose pretty dress is not exactly battle ready, but it is difficult to resist the urge to go to Aeoin. It is always somewhat distracting to watch the Wardens fight, so skilled and well-attuned to each other they are. Aeoin slides behind Alistair’s shield and then darts out to deal devastating blows to their enemies once the warrior has them distracted or stunned. Or he covers any gaps in Alistair’s defense with a brace of daggers.

Even Mange is a seamless part of the deadly dance. When someone tries to attack Aeoin from behind, they find themselves with a face full of enraged mabari, determined to defend his master.

But these are not darkspawn they are fighting, and Zevran cannot forget it. They have come to rely on the Warden’s nearly supernatural senses when fighting those fiends--but these are just men, infinitely harder to predict. And it would only take a single lucky blade to put an end to everything.

It ends as quickly as it starts. Panting slightly, Zevran takes stock of himself (no injuries, as pretty as ever), then trails his eyes anxiously over his lover, wishing the Warden would fight like a rogue for once instead of chopping that axe of his straight through. He doesn’t look hurt, though, just a little disheveled from the fight, and panting slightly as he glares at the Grand Cleric who interrupted the battle. Sexy, as he brushes back a lock of hair that escaped the tail, and shifts his grip on his axe as he and Loghain exchange sneers.

Zevran breaths a sigh at the proposal of a duel, and Aeoin quips, “He can fight my fucking dog for all I care.” One good thing about Aeoin promising Alistair his shot at Loghain--Zevran won’t have to worry as much about his lover getting himself killed. At least, not right this instant, anyway.

“He can fight me,” Alistair corrects grimly, drawing his sword.

Loghain sneers, unimpressed, but Aeoin… hesitates. Goes to Alistair and puts a hand on his arm.

Zevran is close enough to overhear Aeoin ask-- “Are you sure?”

“I can take him,” Alistair answers. “For Duncan’s sake.”

Aeoin glances at Zevran, who raises an eyebrow. Glances at the queen, who watches her father, tight-lipped and clasping her hands in front of her, her outward calm betrayed by her white knuckles and barely-there tremble. Glances at Loghain, who sneers, and flattens his mouth, resolved.

“You can match him easy, but don’t let him knock you off your feet. I’m behind you, brother.” It is on the tip of his tongue to offer a vial of Soldier’s Bane, but Alistair (noble Alistair) would not accept, so he settles for clasping his arm and then moving aside.

He settles beside Zevran to watch, arms crossed tensely in front of his chest. Zevran sways slightly to bump their shoulders, and Aeoin spares him a glance before refocusing on his brother-Warden, slowly circling with Loghain, his shining gryffon shield held high.

Zevran swallows a sigh. For all that he will never love him back the same way, Alistair will always occupy a significant corner of Aeoin’s heart. Zevran can accept that, he supposes. It is reasonable. Alistair is Aeoin’s friend, he is handsome and strong and shining and good. Jealousy would be pointless.

Even if it does sometimes feel as if no one will ever be as important as Alistair to Aeoin.

The two warriors clash against each other in ringing cacophony of steel against steel, Loghain’s battle-tested endurance against Alistair’s youthful vigor.

Where their shoulders touch, Zevran can feel Aeoin flinch every time Loghain bashes his sword punishingly against Alistair’s shield. Alistair grunts and holds, then bellows his war cry and goes on the attack the moment there is a break in Loghain offense.

He also has no doubt, that, should Alistair fall here, Aeoin will not hesitate, ending Loghain with a knife in the back and damn the consequences.

Zevran doubts it will come to that, however. The man is… stunning in battle. The righteous fury, the grim determination on his face as he meets the regent, blow for blow. There is something about Grey Wardens, perhaps, that inspires such awe.The assembled nobles--and probably Loghain himself--believe that they are fighting for the kingdom. Only the Wardens know that the agenda is far more personal.

“Not long now,” he murmurs for Aeoin’s benefit. Assassin eyes have already picked out numerous points of attack that would end this fight quickly, and while Alistair may lack the instinct to put a hidden dagger through a tiny weak point he has a warrior’s training and knows well how to press an advantage.

Aeoin grunts a little, unwilling to take his attention from the fight. He doesn’t begin to relax until Loghain’s sword falls from his hand.

Against all logic, the fallen regent seems to relax as he loses. The fire and fury leaves him with a sigh, and the scowl smooths from his brow. “So you do have some of Maric in you,” he says. “That is good.”

Alistair only snarls. Maric, unknown and distant, is not the father he has come to avenge. “Forget Maric. This is for Duncan,” he declares, and lets his sword fly.

Aeoin does not flinch, stepping forward to meet Alistair with shared triumph reflecting in their eyes. Zevran stays back and watches the queen, pale and grieving but refusing to tremble as she gathers herself and skirts around her father’s body. For good or ill, the pieces will fall now where they may, and Zevran will protect his Warden as best he can.

 

 

Alistair’s left arm is numb from absorbing Loghain’s attacks with his shield. He’s not entirely certain how he has not lost his grip on it, to be honest. He wonders if he’ll ever be able to set it down again or if it has been permanently hammered into his bones by Loghain’s sword.

Duncan had advised all of them to stay out of the general’s way at Ostagar. It was why it had only been the two of them and the recruits at the main camp and the Joining--the others had elected to make themselves as scarce as possible and camp right on the front.

Loghain didn’t trust the order, Duncan said, he saw them as Orlesian interference and would not be convinced that their only concern was the Blight. It had been too many centuries since the last archdemon and too few decades since the Fereldan rebellion against Orlais, and the man was suspicious by nature, a trait that had served Maric well, no doubt, but hindered the Wardens at every turn.

If Duncan had any vague hopes of allaying those concerns by recruiting from within Ferelden, he made an unfortunate misstep by recruiting Alistair. Loghain, it was obvious from the first, knew exactly who Alistair was, who his father was, and was in no way prepared to forgive him for it.

Alistair remembers a man who looked at him as if Alistair’s very existence was an affront, like he was a slug beneath his boot, a smear on what should have been pristine and shining.

Nothing he wasn’t used to.

Blood drips from his sword. A practiced flick of his wrist shakes most of it off the blade to spatter on the ground around the corpse.

Loghain is dead.

Duncan and the other Wardens are avenged.

You should have been faster . Alistair closes his eyes against the thought. The signal was late. You should have been faster .

And Cailan shouldn’t have been on the field, and the army shouldn’t have been split, and Duncan should have known better, and, and, and, and--

And you should have been faster.

Strange, he’d really thought killing Loghain would quiet this.

Anora is staring at him again, something disbelieving and grieved and hatefilled in her eyes. He straightens his spine and meets her gaze. He can’t look away now, can’t apologize. Can’t take it back.

He wonders if she still sees Cailan as she looks at him. Wonders if a dead husband is better or worse than her father’s killer.

“So it is decided,” Eamon says. There is an ugly note of triumph in his voice that Alistair flinches away from, does his best not to hear. “Alistair will take his father’s throne.”

“Wait--when was that decided?” he snaps. He is very tired of other people deciding things for him, and he turns to Aeoin, frustrated.

“You heard him,” Anora says quickly. And loudly. “Alistair abdicates.” And even though Alistair honestly can’t give his oath of abdication fast enough, that’s a little annoying, too.

“I am a Grey Warden,” he says, drawing himself up, “and my duty is to all of Thedas and stopping this Blight.”

From there he lets Aeoin take over. Knowing him, he’d only end up saying the wrong thing and getting his head chopped off or something. Anora certainly looks like she would love the opportunity, and more the longer it takes to get the crown back on her head.

He happily gives his vow to never seek the throne (for himself or his heirs, very thorough), and just like that it’s over. He will never be King of Ferelden.

He lets all the air leave him in a woosh. He feels lighter. And hollow. What now?

“Alright, brother?” Aeoin says quietly, peering up at him.

Right. He’s still holding his shield, Duncan’s shield, heavy on his arm. He flexes his grip, then hefts it up onto his back. “We’ve got an archdemon to fight,” he says. He’ll end this and then maybe he’ll finally be able to claim he’s done Duncan’s memory proud.

Aeoin grins, dark eyes glittering. “Yes,” he agrees. “Let’s go kick it’s ass.”

Chapter Text

The two Wardens step out of Riordan’s room together, both silently stunned with what they have heard. It has been a long and trying day, arriving at Redcliff to find the town overrun by darkspawn, and then the harrowing news that the hoards aren’t coming here at all but converging on Denerim. It’s a terrible irony, one that sticks in Aeoin’s chest like a Blight-tainted arrow.

They were just there . He’d gone to visit his father one last time before they left; he’d promised that they would be safe, that the battle wouldn’t touch them. And now the archdemon has been spotted, the hoards are marching on the capital, and there is no way to get there in time to keep them from entering the city. Having to wait for the army is suddenly galling, after a year of running around the country unfettered.

And now this, the sacrifice that one of them will have to make to kill the archdemon now weighing inescapably over their heads.

Bitterly, Aeoin can’t help but wonder how many more secrets the Grey Wardens are keeping from the rest of the world, and if or when Duncan was planning to tell them any of it. A year ago, dead-man-walking after the events of his wedding, he might not have cared. He hadn’t cared, at first, when Alistair told him about the Calling. But things are different now. He tugs on the jeweled earring and thinks of Zevran and all their promises.

It’s not supposed to be like this. He’s supposed to see the world.

He and Alistair share a glance, both of them thinking the same thing as they listen to Riordan cough through the door to his room. The Orlesian Warden has not fully recovered from his time in Howe’s dungeon; he shouldn’t be charging into battle, not that they have any choice. It feels painfully unlikely that he will even survive the battle long enough to get to the archdemon, much less that he’ll be able to make the final blow. And so, just as it has been since Ostagar, it is down to them; two Grey Wardens between the Blight and the entire country--the entire world.

Alistair’s back straightens slightly. He has been different, since the Landsmeet. Quieter, maybe a little withdrawn. A few days ago, another of their late nights around the fire, he’d asked Aeoin what he thought about building a memorial to the Wardens lost at Ostagar.

“You knew them all far better than me, brother,” Aeoin had answered, shrugging. “But I bet that’ll be easy enough to make happen once we’re famous heros for stopping the Blight and all. But first we gotta stop it.”

Now, Alistair has an uncomfortably grave expression on his face as he puts a hand on Aeoin’s shoulder, but he says only, “You should go see if Zevran’s still awake. But get some rest, alright. We’ll all need it tomorrow.”

“Alistair,” Aeoin begins, frowning. “About… what Riordan said--”

But Alistair just clasps his shoulder a little tighter and shakes his head. “Don’t worry about that.”

Aeoin’s frown deepens. “Don’t worry about it? Don’t be loony, Alistair--”

“You’ve got Zevran,” Alistair interrupts, shaking his head. “You should be with him tonight.”

Aeoin can only stare at him, unable to think of a single thing to say to that. “...Riordan’s the senior,” he says at last. “He said he’d do it.”

Alistair’s lips twitch in a tight smile. “Right,” he agrees. “Get some rest, brother.”

He pauses, briefly, at his own door, and looks back at Aeoin still frozen in the hall. “Don’t let Anora sweep Duncan and the rest of them under the rug,” he says. The lights in the sconces shine on his hair and his armor and catch in his familiar brown eyes. For a moment they seem to shine with the torch light, like elf eyes, a trick of the light, and Aeoin just stares.

The thought of Alistair, Aeoin’s brother, his best friend, making that terrible sacrifice, the archdemon’s soul entering his body, corrupting everything that makes him good, makes him Alistair , until he’s completely destroyed by it--it is too much for Aeoin to bare.

“You promise me?” Alistair prompts after too long a silence, and Aeoin… shakes his head.

“You can fight that one out with her yourself,” he says to Alistair’s frown.

“Aeoin,” Alistair begins, sighing, but Aeoin shakes his head and turns away, escaping toward his own room.

He can’t deal with that right now, not on top of worrying about his family and all the rest of it, but the truth is… he has no idea what he is going to do. The jeweled earring is a warm weight that wars with the cold lump of the locket filled with darkspawn blood he got from his Joining against his breast. How can he possibly leave Zevran? But the thought of losing Alistair is an unbearable injustice.

He is so distracted as he enters his room that the shadowy figure before the fire makes him startle and grasp for his axe, but then Morrigan turns, drawing her hood back from her head. The fire casts her in shadows, but her eyes glitter.

“Fear not,” she says lightly. “‘Tis only I….”

 

Zevran watches Oghren guzzle his way through the arl’s ale stock with a mixture of fascination and disgust.

“What’s the point in savin’ it?” the dwarf had growled. “We could all be dead next week--might as well drink it now!”

So far he’s worked his way through most of a cask all on his own, with Zevran nursing his own single tankard in the space it takes Oghren to drain four. He doesn’t feel bad about it--Oghren is a professional. Frankly, it’s almost impressive.

Wynn is less impressed, but her disapproval is part of the fun.

“Shouldn’t you be preparing for tomorrow?” she says pointedly.

Oghren belches at her. “What’s it look like I’m doing?”

They all have their pre-battle rituals, it’s just that normally they seem to stumble their way into battle without this chance to prepare. That Oghren’s is “getting plastered” is no shock, since that seems to be the way he prepares for most things. Leliana has slipped away to the arl’s chapel, and Sten occupies himself with caring for his weapon with a focus that borders between meditative and obsessive.

“Perhaps you should go polish your staff,” Zevran suggests to Wynn with an exaggerated air of faux-innocence that fairly drips with suggestion. Personally he is waiting for Aeoin to return from whatever mysterious Warden business Riordan pulled him and Alistair away for, so that they can get started on Zevran’s prefered pre-battle ritual--to fuck as many times as physically possible before exhaustion takes them.

She gives him a pursed look, then rolls her eyes. “I don’t know why I bother,” she sighs.

“Me neither!” Zevran agrees, saluting her with his tankard.

Oghren belches again.

The soldiers scattered about the castle are likewise occupied, quietly gambling, or drinking, or praying, or polishing their equipment (both figurative and literal), or, Zevran has no doubt, fucking in their tents or their barracks or whatever semi-private space they can find. The locals spend time with their sweethearts or spouses and children, make their soon-to-be-broken vows to return in one piece.

Only Mange seems to have taken the opportunity to sleep, the faithful dog curled up beneath their table with his head pillowed on his paws. His nose and his cropped ears twitch every once in awhile, but regular, even snores emanate from his deep barrel chest. Fond, Zevran reaches down to scratch at his ribs, and Mange wuffs a little but doesn’t open his eyes.

When Zevran straightens back up, he sees Aeoin, standing like a shade in the shadow of the stairwell.

Smiling in greeting, Zevran drains his tankard and gets to his feet, wishing the other two a cheerful goodnight since he has no plans to see either of them until he and Aeoin are pried from their room for the march in the morning.

Beneath the table, Mange lifts his head and stares at his master with an inquisitive rumble, but neither Aeoin nor Zevran pay him any mind, and he eventually lays back down, whining softly.

“There you are,” Zevran greets cheerfully as he draws close. “Top secret Warden business finished?”

Aeoin just stares at him. Now that Zevran is close enough to see… he looks terribly pale and deeply unsettled. Zevran frowns and steps close, trailing a hand down his cheek to his neck to his shoulder to his hand.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb any of the nearby soldiers. The eve of battle is no time to be stirring up panic, and the men have already started looking at Aeoin and Alistair as if they were fabled heroes, come to save them all from the void. They don’t need to see the Grey Warden looking so unsettled, less they lose their own nerve in the face of it.

Aeoin abruptly grabs his hand, squeezing his fingers like a lifeline as his dark eyes bore into him.

“...I have to talk to you,” he says.

Zevran squeezes back as best he can. “Whatever you need, amor.”

They slip up the stairs together, but Aeoin resists going into his room for some reason, so they go instead to the guest room that had been set aside for Sten and Oghren to share. The Warden is worryingly unresisting when Zevran urges him to sit on the nearest bed, but he still does not let go of Zevran’s hand.

“I’ve never seen you like this,” Zevran says. “Surely you are not worried about tomorrow?” That would be singularly unlike Aeoin, who was still young enough to believe himself invincible if nothing else. “Perhaps I can put you at ease, hm?” With his free hand Zevran strokes Aeoin’s hair and the soft, smooth skin of his neck.

Aeoin turns into the petting with a shuddering sigh, then shakes his head and focuses his gaze on Zevran’s face. “There’s something about Grey Wardens you need to know. You’ve heard of the Joining--they made us drink the blood, the Taint--”

“I know this, amor,” Zevran sooths, stroking back a few flyaway hairs from his brow. “I guessed as much, in the Deep Roads.” He hadn’t known the particulars, drinking the blood and that, but he knew the Wardens carried the Taint. It breaks his heart to think of it too much, and so he tries not to. He grins, trying to lighten the mood with a joke, “I assumed you would have told me sooner if it were congenitally contagious.”

Aeoin just stares at him, then raises a hand to caress his face. “I wouldn’t… put you at risk like that, love,” he says quietly. But then he looks away, the corner of his mouth lifting in a sneer. “Though fuck if I know if the rest of the fucking order would even tell me if that were the case. No, Zev, listen to me. It’s about the archdemon. Riordan just told us.”

Slowly, Zevran sinks down onto the bed beside him, dread wrapping icy fingers around his heart.

“Riordan says that, in order for the archdemon to be defeated, only a Grey Warden can strike the killing blow,” Aeoin says slowly. “Otherwise it just won’t work; the archdemon will rise again and again. And… and the Warden who does it will die.”

“...And he’s sure?” Zevran asks. His voice sounds small and faraway to his own ears.

Aeoin shrugs and shakes his head. “This is the fifth Blight, I guess they’re pretty sure, by now.”

“...Riordan. Surely--he, he is the senior, is he not? You are barely a recruit--”

“He’s going to try. But he’s still weak.”

Zevran swallows convulsively. There is a tickle behind his eyes and he feels like he is going to throw up. “Then…. Alistair, then!” he says helplessly.

Aeoin winces and looks away. “Zevran--”

“No!” With a cry he wrenches his hand away and springs from the bed to restlessly pace about the room. “Why should it be you? Why must it be you, when there is someone-- anyone else?”

“You can’t ask me to do that,” Aeoin protests from the bed, “you can’t ask me to just let Alistair die!”

“But you can ask it of me ? I’m just supposed to let you die?”

“It’s Alistair --”

He is never going to love you, Aeoin !”

Aeoin shoots to his feet, but Zevran merely charges ahead to meet him, half expecting a blow. He is shocked to discover that his eyes are swimming with tears, and as they stare at each other they spill over.

“Zevran,” Aeoin says, sounding shocked.

Zevran shakes his head as more tears pour down his face. Funny. He’d thought the Crows beat all the tears out of him a long time ago. Helpless, he can only allow Aeoin to wrap his arms around him and pull him close, cling to him as if by will alone Zevran can keep him safe and whole and away from harm.

“I cannot lose you, amor,” he says. “Not like this. I could not bear it.”

Aeoin holds him tight. He seems so sturdy and so strong, but what is he against an archdemon, against the Blight--what are any of them? “...Morrigan,” he says slowly, hesitantly, apropos of nothing, “Morrigan says… she might have a way. A loophole.”

Shocked, Zevran pulls back, but Aeoin can’t quite meet his eyes.

“I have no idea how she and her crazy mother knew, but it’s a ritual,” he continues reluctantly. “Some kind of spell. I’m supposed to… have sex with her, and she’ll use her magic, I guess, to be sure she’ll conceive a child. And then when I kill the archdemon, the child takes its soul on instead of me. The archdemon dies, I get to live.”

“Then what in the Void are you doing here!” Zevran demands. He knows Morrigan--she’s proud and fickle as a cat. She won’t offer this miracle twice.

Frustrated, Aeoin runs a hand over his hair, scowling. “So you’re just fine with me sleeping with someone else, then?” he demands. “Putting a… putting a fucking child in her?”

“I am fine with anything that spares your life!”

“Well, what about the fucking baby, then, Zevran, are you fine with that? I don’t know what will happen to it--Morrigan won’t tell me, but it can’t be anything good , can it? What if we make something worse than the archdemon, something the Grey Wardens can’t defeat and Morrigan can’t control?”

Zevran just shakes his head. He can’t think about that, can’t bring himself to care about an unsure possibility when the alternative is losing Aeoin forever . “Please,” he says, “please, amor, you have to catch her before it’s too late, before she changes her mind--!”

Aeoin turns away, tugging on his hair again.

“Please!” Zevran begs more fervently. “If you love me--if you love me you won’t leave me like this!”

“It might not even work!” Aeoin protests.

With a hand on his shoulder, Zevran tugs him back around. “But it might! There’s a chance! And without it--” Without it, he is certain to die. Sure, he may be killed in the battle, or in a hundred other ways over the years, but that is different from this outright sacrifice . And Zevran knows, he knows , that if it comes to a choice between himself and Alistair, Aeoin will never let Alistair die, he loves him too dearly,  and for just a moment Zevran nearly hates him for it.

“Please, amor,” Zevran says again. “Please.”

“I can’t !” Aeoin cries. “I tried , but when she touched me I just--I couldn’t ! I left !”

…Ah. Prickly Morrigan would not have taken that too well. But it still might not be too late. If they hurry. If Morrigan’s hurt pride hasn’t already sent her off into the night. “We have to hurry,” he says, taking both of Aeoin’s hands in his own and tugging him toward the door. “She’s a sly one--she’ll disappear forever if we let her.”

“Zev,” Aeoin says hopelessly, and Zevran can think of nothing else to do but to kiss him, fierce and possessive.

“It’s going to be alright,” he promises. “I’m going to help you. Leave it to me, amor.” Well, he had been intending to spend this night before battle having sex, hadn’t he.

Breathless with the urgency, he leads Aeoin by the hand out into the dim hallway and down to the larger guestroom that had been set aside for him. Alistair’s door is shut, and for a moment Zevran is wildly hopeful that, having been rejected by Aeoin, the witch had gone across the hall to try her luck with the bigger Warden, but there is no light and no sound coming from behind the door.

Given how Morrigan and Alistair feel about each other, it’s unlikely that she would ask and less likely that he would agree. And of course (of course) Aeoin would not want Alistair to know.

When he throws open Aeoin’s door, Zevran nearly despairs; at first glance the room is empty. But then a closer look at what he had first thought to be a shadow reveals the witch, seated on the ground before the fire and wrapped in a blanket.

She startles when they come in. As if on reflex the fire in the hearth arcs toward her, like a protective guard dog, before settling back behind the grate. She doesn’t seem to be wearing anything beneath her blanket, and for a moment she seems so very, very young and unsure.

Then she draws the blanket and her disdain around her like a shroud, somehow manages to look down her nose at them despite her position reclining on the ground.

“Having third thoughts, are you?” she says, her voice as caustic as the acidic bombs Zevran keeps on his belt. “Perhaps I have a mind to recend my generous offer to save your life .”

“Will your ritual work if I am there, too?” Zevran demands, cutting through the bullshit. They don’t have time for her pride or her hurt feelings or whatever complicated emotional mess has resulted from asking a man not attracted to women to have sex with her and finding him unable to perform. “Will the magic work if I am touching him?”

“Zevran,” Aeoin says, sounding shocked, and, once again  visibly startled, Morrigan pulls her blanket around herself tighter as she stares at him. As if, not an hour ago, she hadn’t invited his lover to do sex magic with her.

Maker preserve him--have these innocent young babes never heard of a threesome? Impatient, he squeezes Aeoin’s hand reassuringly but keeps his eyes on Morrigan, awaiting her answer.

She frowns at him, something almost sulky in her posture as she fastidiously rearranges her blanket to cover her--for a woman who routinely walks around without a shirt, she is remarkably shy at the moment.

“Why should I agree?” she demands finally. “He has made his choice and he is welcome to his fate--what is it to me?”

“Bull. Shit,” Zevran answers bluntly. “If you truly did not care you would already be gone. I know he is your friend; do not pretend you do not care for his fate. And more than that--you want this, Morrigan. Your reasons are your own and I do not care about them, but whatever this ritual is, you want it to work.”

She believes her mother is dead and has no reason to continue dancing to whatever tune Flemeth laid out by insisting she go with the Warden on his quest. She wants it for her own sake, whether the magic, or the archdemon’s soul, or even just the child itself.

She glares at him, jaw working soundlessly for a moment before she huffs and looks away. “You must not touch me,” she says severely, and Zevran nods.

“But if I am touching him ?” he presses. He doesn’t know much about magic, but he’s not taking chances here.

“It should still work,” she allows after a moment, an unhappy press at her mouth.

“And he will not die when he kills the archdemon?” That is the point of this, after all.

“I make no guarantees of his life ending in any other fashion, but no, complete this ritual and that will not be his fate.”

“Zevran,” Aeoin says again in a somewhat strangled voice. He is clinging to Zevran’s hand like a lifeline, and when Zevran turns to look at him he finds he has gone pink and miserable with uncertainty. “I don’t think I can--” he begins, and Zevran cuts him off with as deep and filthy a kiss as he can muster.

“Trust me, amor,” he says. He knows all about sleeping with people you wouldn’t normally, because you must, because your life depends on it. He can guide Aeoin through this. Turning back to Morrigan, he raises an eyebrow. “What are we waiting for?”

With all the grace and dignity of the cat he’d compared her to earlier, Morrigan gets to her feet and lets the blanket fall. She is not completely naked, plain, undyed smalls wrapped around her hips, but her breasts swing free and uncovered--honestly not much different from her normal attire, yet Zevran can’t stop his eyes from following their movement. Unlike Aeoin, he has never had any difficulty appreciating a female form.

But she glares at him thunderously and he wisely averts his eyes, allowing her to approach the bed unscrutinized. No touching--or anything else--between the two of them. He turns his attention back to Aeoin instead and kisses him again, tenderly this time, and squeezes his hand.

“Focus on me,” he says, deliberately pitching his voice low and sultry. After months in bed together, Zevran is intimately familiar with every inch of him, knows how to touch him and tease him to force his body to override his mind’s misgivings.

Drawing him close, he urges him to close his eyes, then trails his fingers up his arms and begins undressing him slowly, while drawing him back toward the bed.

“Focus on me,” he says again, then slips behind him as he eases them both out of their clothes, leather armor coming off easily for practiced hands and falling heavily to the floor.

Aeoin grits his teeth, the knot of his throat bobbing as he swallows thickly, and Zevran nibbles teasingly at his ear, tracing his tongue around the earring he put there himself.

Morrigan has removed her smalls and lies naked on the mattress, limbs spread and eyes fixed stubbornly on the ceiling. Zevran watches her throat work as well, and her eyelashes flutter as she closes her teeth punishingly around her lip, and he wishes he could touch her comfortingly as well, wishes he could sooth her and ease her and bring pleasure to her. Sex should be pleasurable.

But he has been forbidden from touching her lest he disrupt the magic, and she wouldn’t thank him anyway, would despise him for what she saw as pity, and so he focuses on Aeoin instead, guiding him to kneel on the bed and trailing his hands down his body.

For just a moment, Morrigan’s eyes meet his over Aeoin’s shoulder. Then she sits up slightly, turns her head to the side, and blows out the candle by the bed.

  

Alistair drops down onto the pillow, muscles trembling through the afterglow as he struggles to reorient himself. “That was--wow!” he gasps.

Beside him, Leliana rearranges the sheet and chuckles a little as she brushes her pretty red hair off of her face. The braid she wears on one side has gone frizzy and askew (Alistair has vague and slightly embarrassing memories of getting his fingers tangled in it as he fumbled around) and she deftly undoes it and combs it out with her fingers.

“You were pretty good yourself. You’re a very quick student, Alistair,” she says playfully, and Alistair, bizarrely, feels himself blush all the way down his chest.

He’d gone to the chapel for lack of anything else to do, unable to sleep and feeling restless and troubled with thoughts of the coming battle.

He doesn’t want to die. He is young, there is so much left for him to do. But Duncan’s voice echoes in his head-- In war, victory; in peace, vigilance; in death… sacrifice . And Aeoin has Zevran. No matter what his brother-Warden says, Alistair can’t let him do it. So it will have to be him.

He wishes he could claim that he’d found peace, dignity, resolve in his decision… but the truth is his hands had started shaking almost instantly and he’d found himself pacing around his room, despite having told Aeoin to get some sleep, so he’d gone downstairs, some vague vestiges of his templar training suggesting that prayer would help.

He’d found Leliana, gazing serenely up at the figure of Andraste, the candlelight catching on her pretty red hair.

“Ah… I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he’d mumbled awkwardly, blushing as he remembered his boyish attraction to her. It just seemed… unseemly, somehow, to see a woman at prayer and get distracted by how pretty she was, like he should be apologizing to her, and the Maker, and Andraste, and maybe also the mother he’d never known, and the knight-captain who’d been in charge of his training as a templar recruit.

But Leliana had just smiled and said, “Not at all! Come join me,” and patted the bench beside her invitingly.

So Alistair had plopped himself down, feeling big and awkward and ungainly as he often felt next to her, and stared up at the Maker’s Bride. Prayer had never done much for him, he abruptly recalled. Hours on his knees for the templars notwithstanding, he’d never felt what he thought he probably should . Trying to talk to the Maker or his wife felt mostly like talking to a rock, no matter how finely carved or gilded with gold, and left Alistair feeling foolish and self-conscious.

Oh, he had faith , at least, compared to Aeoin he did. He believed in the Chant, tried to behave the way the Chantry mothers said he should. But he’d never felt the Maker’s presence the way Leliana claimed to have, never basked in the Lady’s mercy like the other Templar recruits after a night-long vigil.

Mostly he’d just felt hungry and tired after vigil. And creaky as on old man from kneeling on the stone floor all night.

“You seem troubled,” Leliana had said after a while of sitting in silence, just as Alistair was ready to give up on religion and go polish his sword or something instead. “Are you worried about the battle?”

“...A little,” Alistair had confessed reluctantly. He didn’t want her to think less of him, but the quiet little chapel had created a close sort of atmosphere. A room for confessing secrets in.

She’d reached over and taken his hand, her slim, dainty fingers surprisingly rough with bow callouses. “The Maker is on our side,” she said confidently. “We will prevail, Alistair, I know it. Simply have faith.”

“Oh, no, I--it’s not that I think we’ll lose. We can’t. The alternative is too terrible to think about. It’s just… what winning is going to cost.”

Solem, she bowed her head. “Every battle has losses. And with the darkspawn already converging on Denerim ahead of us, I have no doubt that the carnage will be… terrible. But you will be there, Alistair, and you will not be alone. You and Aeoin will stop it, I know you will, and you will have the rest of us to see you through.”

Alistair swallowed thickly, staring up at the face of Andraste, the beatific expression everyone always put on her face, her eyes raised as if gazing up at the Maker and her arms spread to accept the people of the world. “Being a Grey Warden… it’s everything to me,” he said slowly. “I want to do well. I want to make Duncan proud--to… to make myself proud. I’ve never regretted being conscripted, even though the Joining could easily have killed me, even with the cost. I’m not afraid of the--of the sacrifice , it’s just--it’s just, I’m going to die and I’ve never even kissed a girl! Maker, what’s wrong with me?”

Unbearably embarrassed, he’d leaned forward and buried his face in his hands. Maker . He should have just given in and let that girl at the Pearl--no matter how mercilessly Aeoin and Zevran would have teased him about it. And he cannot believe he just said that--to Leliana, no less! Maker’s mercy--how pathetic she must think he is!

“Alistair, you mustn’t say that!” Leliana protested. “Yes, the battle will be dangerous--but there is no reason to believe you will die! If you go into it believing that--you have already lost! You must have faith, Alistair, you must let the Maker guide your path.”

...She didn’t know. Not sure why that was so surprising to him, just a few hours ago, he hadn’t known, and the nerves he’d felt about the coming battle were just over the possibility that he could die.

And he couldn’t tell her. Warden secrets were Warden secrets, no matter how they chafed.

So he swallowed back his despair and forced himself to nod. “...Right. You’re right.”

For a moment she said nothing, merely gave him a careful, shrewd look. Then she leaned forward and kissed him.

Her lips her soft and dry, and she smelled faintly of the little white flowers she loved.

When she leaned back again, he could only stare at her, flabbergasted.

“There,” she said, smiling faintly. “Once less thing for you to worry about.”

“I’ve wanted to kiss you since Lothering,” Alistair babbled.

She laughed, and he blushed wildly. “I know,” she said, but not unkindly, and she reached out to take his hand again and gave his fingers a squeeze. “You could do it again, if you like?”

“I--here?” he’d stammered, and she’d laughed again, a playful, impish gleam in her eye that he suddenly found very attractive.

“Why not? The Maker himself has a bride. Why would they not delight in all mortal experience?”

But she’d eventually relented in her teasing and taken him back to her little room. And then….

“Wow,” Alistair says again, and Leliana giggles prettily.

Her creamy white skin is dotted with freckles, and he’d even found the mythical tattoo (a flower. He blushes to think of where) and though he’d been embarrassed by his big, rough, clumsy hands, she hadn’t seemed to have any complaints, eagerly directing him where to put them and how to touch her.

“Do you feel better?” she asks, lying on her side and propping her head up on one hand so that she can peer down at him where he’s still flat on his back like a knocked over druffalo.

Alistair gives the question some thought, drawing in a deep breath to fill his lungs. “Yes,” he says  eventually. “I’d say I… feel pretty good, right about now.” Absurdly shy, he glances at her, awkwardly mumbling, “Thank you,” and then immediately kicking himself for it.

She darts forward, rogue quick, and plants a kiss on his cheek, smacking and wet. “You are a dear friend, Alistair,” she says, fond and affectionate, but… as if choosing her words carefully, all of a sudden.

It belatedly occurs to Alistair that she is trying to soften a blow, and he hurries to reassure her however he can, turning to face her on the bed and meeting her eyes as earnestly as he can. “You’re dear to me as well,” he says

This  turns out to be wrong when a light of panic hits her face and she quickly draws a breath to cut him off, and, wincing, he hurries on.

“Right before a battle--it’s not a good time to start a… a romance,” he says, stammering awkwardly.

But Leliana pauses and then relaxes, though she kindly tries to keep the relief from her face. “I completely agree,” she says. “So! We are dear friends, and we are giving each other comfort before a dark day.”

“Right,” Alistair agrees firmly, smiling back at her.

He’s always thought of himself as a romantic, of course. He didn’t go into the back with that girl at the Pearl, or with any of the girls in any of the bars that Oghren had helpfully pointed out as looking him, or with Aeoin’s cousin because, well… he’d always sort of hoped he’d be in love (and, at least in the case of Aeoin’s cousin, because he hadn’t wanted his brother-Warden to kill him). And that she, whoever she was, would love him. In another life, and if he could somehow have gotten her to take him seriously, that might have even have been Leliana.

But Alistair can only expect to die in taking down the archdemon, and that, truly, is no time to be starting a romance. And the truth is… he does feel better. Comforted. A little more sure, a little more settled. So, whatever regrets he may have, he lets them go.

A little shyly, he reaches out to put a hand on her hip. “You think you might need some more comfort?” he says playfully, and she laughs, delighted.

“So, the rumors of the Grey Warden stamina are true!” she teases. “Good to know!” Then she leans close and kisses him once again.

 

In the dark of the bedroom, the only light coming from the smoldering embers of the long-banked fire, Zevran watches Morrigan dress.

Aeoin has his arms wrapped firmly around Zevran’s waist and his head on his chest, either sleeping or stubbornly pretending to. Zevran strokes his hair and the pale skin of his back where the sun seldom touches.

“Where will you go?” he asks quietly once she has settled her robed back into place and tied her hair in its usual knot and given all of her gaudy, glittering necklaces and baubles a thorough examination before putting them back on. Her armor back around her and ready to defend.

She spares him a single glance, sharp enough to cut. “That is of no concern of yours.”

He nods, conceding the point. “But you will stay until the battle is won?” he presses. “I suppose we will not know until then, if it worked….”

“It worked.” She presses a hand to her lower stomach, a far away look in her eyes, and Zevran believes her, even though he knows there is no chance she would feel the child within her so quickly. It might not even exist yet in truth, nature needing time to run its course, dark ritual or no.

He tightens his arms around his love a bit more and takes a deep breath. “Thank you,” he says, very quietly.

“I did not do it for you,” she says, sharp as her claws when she is a bear, sharp as her beak as a raven.

“I do not care why you did it,” he answers simply. “You’ve saved his life and I will be forever in your debt for that alone. So… thank you.”

She stares at him a moment, frozen, and he offers her a slight smile.

“...I will not leave until the battle is won,” she says stiffly after a while. “In order for this to bear fruit, after all, he must make it that far.”

“Leave that to me.”

Still stiff, she inclines her head in acknowledgement, then picks up her staff and starts moving toward the door.

“I think you will be a good mother, Morrigan,” Zevran says faintly, stroking his fingers again through his lover’s rich dark hair. “You can certainly do no worse than yours.”

Startled, she looks back at them. Half hidden where he lays on Zevran’s chest, Aeoin opens a single dark, glittering eye, and for a moment their gazes meet. He nods once. She nods back.

Then she opens the door. The light from the hall transforms her into a dark silhouette that casts a long shadow back toward the bed. Then she steps into the hall and is gone.

“Can you forgive me, amor?” Zevran whispers in the darkness.

Aeoin is silent for a long moment, then shifts a bit and curls his face into the crook of Zevran’s neck. “Take me to see the ocean. I’ve read about it but I want to see it--is it beautiful?”

Zevran tightens his arms around him and presses his lips to his hair. “It’s breathtaking, amor.”

Chapter Text

Later, he remembers very little of the battle.

He remembers the streets of Denerim overrun, the buildings on fire, the bodies lying twisted and broken beneath their feet. Darkspawn so thick that he finds it impossible to avoid getting caught up in the rush of it all. The last time he felt like this was deep, deep in the Deep Roads, surrounded on all sides and above and below by the monsters, or on the tower, battling for his life and Alistair’s at Ostagar, back at the beginning, and it’s impossible not to lose himself in it, in the battle and the blood and the taint.

He loses track of his companions. Somewhere nearby there is Alistair, and the weaker, less familiar echo of Riordan. Somewhere at his back is Zevran, shadowed closely by Mange, and when he can spare the thought he is grateful to the faithful beast for protecting his lover. And every once in awhile there is a blast of mage fire or ice from over his shoulder, Morrigan staying close.

But he can’t think about them. Can’t think about anything. He can only think about the next enemy and the rise and fall of his blades, the black tainted blood that sprays up to coat his face and his arms.

He surfaces in the first lull, the moment of quiet in the regained ground they have earned at the gates, and looks around frantically for Zevran. Finds him with Mange, feeding the faithful dog a crunch while allowing Wynn to examine a shallow cut.

The next beat of his heart draws his attention to Alistair, staring deeper into the city. They have to get moving.

He tries to convince Zevran to stay behind at the gates. Zevran kisses him silent. “To remain at your side I would storm the Dark City itself. Never. Doubt it.” And he doesn’t. So it is him, Alistair, Zevran, Mange and Morrigan who press deeper into the city, their small band slipping in where the rest of the army can’t as easily follow and cutting a path for the rest of their forces, and he drops back into the pounding, unbearable rhythm of the battle.

He remembers the devastation of the marketplace, the stalls all overturned and the goods scattered and trampled by panicked feet. Goldanna’s house in the corner is on fire. He notices it when Alistair uses his shield to bash down the door, and then a moment later come crashing back out with a woman and three children in tow.

“Head for the gates!” he bellows at them. “Don’t stop!”

Goldanna, clutching her youngest to her chest, doesn’t look back. Aeoin doesn’t know if they make it--he never sees her or the children again, and then all thought of them is pushed from his mind by the Alpha Hurlock that snarls a filthy challenge at him and forces him to dance back with a swing of a gore-encrusted mace.

He’s separated from the others. Mange snarls his rage at this, and there is a ringing clash as Alistair brings his sword up and around to re-engage the enemy, but the Alpha has Aeoin effectively cornered with no way to get back to his allies except through the Alpha.

Through it is. His axe hasn’t failed him yet, and his dagger is a wicked tooth that bites and rips through darkspawn flesh and tears out the Alpha’s throat. He is beast more than man, feral and wild and monstrous. He feels the taint, like a fever that seeps into his brain, and Maker help him but how he revels in it.

The alienage burning is nearly enough to shock him out of it. The great tree is burning. The square where he was nearly married is burning. Valendrian’s empty house is burning. The ruined orphanage has already collapsed.

“Cousin! Cousin, what should we do?” It is Shianni, her face pale and smeared with blood and her eyes wide with panic. But she has a heavy club in hand, the kind of improvised weapon alienage elves are most proficient with, and the end of it is already black with darkspawn blood from where she split their skulls.

Duncan was a damned fool not to take her as well.

Reason is slow to resurface. Mindless battle is simpler and so much more appealing, but without a strategy all the elves are doomed. The Alienage is too cramped, too hemmed in, isolated from the rest of the city by a loop in the river on three sides and high walls on the remaining edge. The same geography that kept them all trapped and wallowing in sickness will leave them with no escape from the darkspawn.

But if it can keep the elves in… maybe there’s a chance to keep the ‘spawn out.

“The gates!” he calls to the others, then lifts his horn in a blast that calls the Dalish archers to them. “If we can beat them back there we can hold them!”

It’ll do the Dalish good to see their city cousins in action, witness for themselves their will to fight and survive. He sees Dalish archers sharing specialized bolts and arrows for the alienage elves’ stolen and homemade bows and crossbows, watches the alienage elves direct the Dalish to vantage points for shooting the ‘spawn as they come, the two groups swiftly coming together into firing lines and attack squads.

Aeoin and Alistair lead from the ground, moving forward as one to thin the invading hordes and then drawing the darkspawn back into firing range. Mange is with them, like a particularly vicious herd-dog the way he corrals the beasts to be shot down by elven arrows. Zevran and Morrigan stand together, Zevran with a bow and his bombs and Morrigan being cautiously conservative with her spells.

They manage to bottleneck the fiends from a stream to a trickle. Aeoin pauses to wipe the sweat from his brow, and that is when they feel it, him and Alistair snapping upright together while the roar of the archdemon rattles through their bones.

With a scramble, Aeoin manages to get to the rooftop while the bloodlust of the Taint rises again to throb in his ears like a terrible heartbeat, and he sees it, writhing through the sky over Fort Drakon like a horrible worm, bigger and darker and more terrible it seems than the glimpse they caught of it down in the Deep Roads so long ago.

At that distance there is no way to see, so he doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows , he feels it , the exact moment Riordan makes his bid… and fails, falls from the monster’s back to be dashed on the earth below. Aeoin snarls , an animal, ghoulish sound tearing from his throat, and has never hated as deeply and darkly as he does in that moment. It seems as if, somehow, the archdemon snarls back in answer, the terrible roar echoing over the city like a blast.

He drops back down to the ground and finds Alistair in a similar state, rattling in his plate and breathing hard-- nearly growling-- beneath his helmet. He knows. He felt it, too.

“We have to get to Drakon,” Aeoin says anyway, and he barely recognizes his own voice.

He orders Mange to stay with Shianni. The mabari isn’t happy about it, and he growls and whines his displeasure, but Aeoin isn’t so far gone into the taint that he will leave his family and childhood home without protection, and Mange is the closest to a Grey Warden they can spare.

“Don’t let anything happen to her,” he says quietly to the hound. “Guard this place well. All the bones you can eat after.”

Mange whines, but, with a parting lick to his master’s chin, goes to stand with Shianni.

Aeoin wants to cling to him and bury his face in his short, bristly fur, breath in the scent of him, of leather and blood and warpaint and warm, familiar animal. Instead he pats his head once and says, “Good dog.”

From there, his memory becomes even more foggy and uncertain, flashes of battle and death interspersed with throbbing bloodlust that fills his head like a drumbeat and covers everything with a red haze. Through the palace district, to the fortress-- memories of their recent escape like a distant dream that happened to someone else.

Their allies rise and fall around them like tides (and at some point he thinks maybe Sandal was there-- but that makes no sense), but Aeoin has thought for nothing and no one but the archdemon screaming its taunting challenge from the roof.

It calls to him. He can feel it, the taint in him drawing him ever closer, inescapable and inevitable. This is the Calling , he thinks, with the last corner of his mind not lost to the battle and death, and feels a gibbering, mad fear begin to take hold. This is how I die .

It is not a thought he can hold onto and keep his nerve, and so he casts it off and gives himself over once more to the blood and the battle.

They make it to the roof. The world narrows to that small space, and slows to the endless slog of battle.

With Alistair beside him it is impossible not to recall another tower, another rooftop, where it all began for the two of them, and just as they did at Ostagar so long ago they lock into rhythm with each other. It feels just as it did then, in many ways, but amplified a hundredfold. Then, they were all but strangers, bound to each other through the Joining, the blood of that ritual still fresh in Aeoin’s mouth. By now they have had months of fighting side by side, their techniques perfected, their bodies in perfect sync down to their heartbeats, moving like one creature.

And this time they are not alone.

This time they have Zevran, beautiful and deadly, dogging Aeoin’s heels relentlessly. When the taint rising like madness in his brain makes him sloppy, or when the endless stream of darkspawn makes him weary, Zevran is there, guarding his back with grim determination in his every move.

This time they have Morrigan, her wicked spells coming to their defence time and again, and Aeoin does not know if he imagines it but he’s almost sure he can feel another echo coming from her, not completely different than what he feels from Alistair but not at all the same, faint and feeble, naught but a whisper, a dark, shadowy promise.

The battle stretches on for an eternity. Not only does there seem to be no end in sight, it becomes difficult to remember a time when there was anything but the endless storm of blood and killing.

They wear the archdemon down by inches, attacking from a distance when they can, darting forward to daringly drive at it with their blades and then back again, away from the killing miasma that surrounds it.

Finally, after a lifetime, the armies of their allies all but spent, Aeoin sees his moment as the archdemon falters.

“Hold!” Alistair shouts, gesturing for everyone to stop their assault. It must be one of the Wardens. If the archdemon transfers into another darkspawn vessel, all is lost--the armies are spent, Denerim is nearly in ruin, and the archdemon and the endless hordes will only rise again and again while the rest of them fall to dust.

Separated by half the length of the battlefield, Aeoin and Alistair stare at each other, eyes locked. Somewhere, Aeoin has lost his helmet, and his hair hangs in lank, sweat soaked tangles where it has been torn free of its tail. The mountain of armor that is Alistair rises and falls with his heaving breath, and he raises a gauntleted hand to lift the visor of his helm.

Aeoin seizes that moment and takes off, forcing speed into his limbs even as they want  to tremble with exhaustion. He hears Alistair shout his name but does not halt or falter, snatching up a sword as he goes-- he sees his target and his beloved axe won’t do the job, not in a single blow, and he must finish it before Alistair can draw near.

He is closer, and with his lighter armor he is quicker.

The archdemon screeches its rage--perhaps it can feel him coming just as clearly as he can feel it, and perhaps it knows the death he brings.

A leap brings him close, and he’s struck breathless by the stench of it, like rot and decay, the sick sweetness of the Taint pouring from its corrupted flesh. The point of his sword finds its target, the tiny tender spot behind the dragon’s head, and he drives it through with all his remaining strength.

The world explodes into light and sound.

He can feel it, the archdemon, the Blight itself, feel it enter his body like a tidal wave and tear through him, ripping away all thought and all sense of self.

Maybe he screams.

The last thing he sees is Alistair, staring at him aghast, horror on his face, then turning back to catch Zevran and keep him from coming any closer. Is Zevran, screaming his name and fighting against Alistair, fighting to come to him, to be with him here, at the end. Is Morrigan, far away and half in shadow, watching for a moment before twisting her body into the shape of a crow and flying off, vanishing into the smoke and the darkness.

And he loves them, loves them all. Loves Alistair and always will. Loves Zevran with a passion that half frightens him. Loves Mange down in the city where he stands guard over his family, loves Leliana and Wynn and Oghren and Sten left at the wall, bravely keeping the rest of the hordes from entering the city. Even loves Morrigan, even as she leaves him, even as her ritual has failed.

And then the Blight drowns out even that and he doesn’t feel anything.

Chapter Text

He wasn’t ever expecting to wake up, and so finding himself on a bed, with a weary and dust-covered Wynn leaning over him is… something of a shock.

“What?” he gasps.

“Hush,” she answers, and then he sleeps again, drawn down into the soothing dark by her magic.

He dreams of dragonfire, and the soul of an Old God tearing through him and leaving a ruin in its wake.

 

Aeoin Tabris sleeps for five days.

 

When next he wakes, he doesn’t know where he is, but there is a warm weight beside him on the bed and another resting over his legs. He can hear the quiet rattle of Alistair’s snore, familiar after months at camp, from a broken nose a few years back, he claims. Morrigan has listed it near the top of the many-- many -- reasons she chooses to pitch her tent so far away.

Coherent thought is far slower to return, and for a while he can do nothing more than blink up at the stone ceiling in a daze. The mattress is soft and the sheets are warm. His throat is dry but he can’t gather the will to do anything about it. He can’t even move. The entire world and all of existence has been narrowed to the few square feet of ceiling he can see directly above him, and the comforting, familiar rattle of Alistair’s snore.

Someone is gently humming a lullaby, barely loud enough to hear. Leliana?

Is this the Fade? Has he passed beyond the Veil-- is this the rest and reward the Chantry mothers have promised in the Golden City? Doesn’t look golden. Just looks like stone. And if Alistair is here as well-- that causes some distress. Not fair. Alistair wasn’t supposed to die, too, what was the point? He could have stayed with Zevran-- Zevran, where is Zevran?

He manages to twitch, what little movement he can muster hampered by the weight across his legs, and makes some small noise that lights a fire in his dry throat, like sand getting rubbed in a raw wound.

The humming stops. “Maker’s mercy,” Leliana whispers, her voice gone breathy with shock.

The weight next to him on the bed shifts and starts to whine, and he recognizes Mange’s short, broad snout as the dog noses cautiously at his neck, his wet nose and snuffling breaths tickling against his skin.

“No, no, my friend, please, don’t try to move.” Leliana’s small, strong hands press against his shoulders, and then her face appears, staring down at him. Her hair is clean and brushed and braided, her pale skin flushed with shock.

He croaks at her, a pathetic attempt at asking for water. This cannot be the Fade; he aches too much.

Blessedly she seems to understand him, vanishes from his sight and returns in seconds with… ice? The cold of it is a shock that chases more fog from his thoughts, and the cold water that melts and drips down his throat is… bliss.

When the first block melts Leliana gives him another, her cool slim fingers gently stroking his hair and reminding him, bizarrely, of when he was sick as a small child, his mother’s gentle, loving touch.

Mange licks his cheek and lays his big blocky head down, his breath hot against Aeoin’s ear.

“Where?” Aeoin croaks after his third chunk of ice.

“The palace,” Leliana answers quietly. “What is left of the palace, anyway. Queen Anora has made us all her guests. I am surprised the work crews did not wake you earlier-- clearing away the rubble has been no easy task.”

“...The battle?”

Her smile is beatific and serene. “Won. You vanquished the archdemon, as I knew you would, and the darkspawn fled soon after. They are calling you the Hero of Ferelden. Truly, you saved us all.”

That… is far too much for him to contemplate. He swallows roughly, his throat still feeling like he tried to drink glass. “Zev?” Was he alright? He thinks he remembers seeing him, there at the end, and he doesn’t think he could bare it to find something had happened to him now.

Leliana seems to be laughing at him. “Here, of course.” She helps him lift his head just slightly, and he realizes that the weight across his legs is him, his assassin, his Crow, his love. Zevran, looking pale but unhurt, the disarray of his hair calling out to Aeoin to touch, and his fingers twitch but he still can’t find the strength to move.

“It has been five days,” Leliana says. “These three have not left your side in all that time. Zevran especially has not so much as slept until now.” Now that she mentions, there is a lank, exhausted tinge to Zevran’s skin, the dark circles under his eyes, the tangles in his hair that he would normally never allow.

He is sitting in a chair by the bed and seems to have slumped over mid-vigil, his upper body settling heavily face-down across Aeoin’s hips and thighs, like the Maker himself was pressing him down. His face is turned to the side, and Aeoin can see his lips part slightly as he breathes the deep, steady breaths of utterly exhausted sleep.

Aeoin stares at him. It isn’t fair that he’s so far away when all he wants is to touch his hair and his skin and reassure himself that he is whole and unharmed and breathing.

But wait--three?

Alistair abruptly snorts awake, and Aeoin looks over to find him struggling to sit up from where he was slouched in the corner, rubbing at his neck from where it was bent at an uncomfortable angle, and scrubbing at the unflattering line of drool that dripped from the corner of his mouth.

“What--” he mumbles, then sees Aeoin and bolts upright with a mild crack of his spine. “You’re awake! How-- how do you feel?”

“Alistair,” Leliana chides gently, but Aeoin can only shake his head dumbly.

“What happened?” he croaks.

“You… you killed it,” Alistair says. His eyes dart briefly to Leliana, but he can’t seem to look away from Aeoin, like he can’t believe he’s really there. “The archdemon, you… you mad, daft fool. How--?” He breaks off with another glance at Leliana and shakes his head, then laughs a little. “You utter mad man. What in the Maker’s name were you thinking-- you could have-- you should have--”

Aeoin is saved from having to address what Alistair can’t say infront of non-Wardens (unsurprisingly he finds he hasn’t planned for this in the least and has no idea what he should say about Morrigan and her little ritual) by Zevran, groaning softly and stirring against his legs, drawing all of his attention down to where the assassin is beginning to reluctantly wake.

Zevran opens his eyes and sees Aeoin watching him, and for a moment they can only stare at each other. Then Zevran’s eyes begin to fill with tears, and Aeoin makes a broken noise of distress as he struggles against his exhausted, broken body to move and take him in his arms.

Zevran makes it to his pillow while Aeoin is still trying to lift his hands from the blankets, strokes his face and his hair while tears stream down his chin.

“Don’t cry,” Aeoin begs, his voice reduced to a whisper. “Don’t cry, I’m alright.”

“Don’t you ever do that to me again,” Zevran answers, then collapses onto the bed and buries his face in Aeoin’s neck.

“I’ll go tell Wynn you are awake,” Leliana offers gently, and Aeoin hears Alistair shuffle to his feet.

“And I’ll go… get you some food,” he says. “C’mon, Mange.”

Mange whines and curls his big body a little closer to Aeoin.

“Come on , you big brute,” Alistair insists. “Give them some time alone, there’s a good dog.”

With great reluctance, and whining complainingly the whole way, the big mabari slinks off the bed and follows Alistair out the door. Aeoin makes a note to find him the best bone in the kingdom, and then all he can think of is Zevran.

They end up curled around each other. Aeoin wishes he could do more than just hold him, but the truth is he can barely manage that much and his strength is already failing him again. So Zevran holds him instead, his arms strong and sure around him and their faces tilted toward each other.

“I thought I was dead,” Aeoin confesses. “I thought Morrigan’s ritual had failed.”

“I thought I’d lost you,” Zevran answers. “And then you wouldn’t wake up, and I wondered if the witch had tricked us with a demon’s bargain. Sure you lived, just as she promised, but what if you never woke again? What if that was the hidden cost?”

“Where is she?”

“Gone. I cannot promise I did not entertain thoughts of hunting her down, if only I knew where to start.”

Aeoin bites his lip, struggling against what he wants to say for a moment. Then he presses his lips to Zevran’s skin and says, “I can’t believe it’s over.” It isn’t a lie.

 

Later, after a short rest and more ice (supplied, it turned out, by Sandal and a very clever frost rune), Aeoin lets Wynn poke at him while he holds onto Zevran with one hand and eats with the other. Her magic is a familiar tingle over his skin; it draws goose pimples up and down his arms, but it is easy enough to ignore, and he is far more interested in the sausages Alistair brought him from the kitchen.

“Now the cook knows you’re up, the whole castle will and then the whole city,” Alistair says. “Queen’ll be by any minute--remind me to make myself scarce. Everyone’s been waiting to see if you’ll pull through; they’d all much rather have a parade than a funeral.”

“I agree, though I do look quite fetching in black,” Zevran says, a faint echo of his usual irreverence, belied by the grip be maintains on Aeoin’s hand. Aeoin gives his fingers a comforting squeeze.

“Well, it’s a miracle,” Wynn eventually declares, letting the glow of magic fade from her palms. “I don’t know how you survived having a dragon fall on you, and I don’t know how you managed to wake up finally. I strongly suspect it was your stomach demanding its dinner.”

Judging by the way Alistair is watching him, he would like to know how Aeoin survived as well.

Aeoin shoves more sausage in his mouth, then gives Wynn his smarmiest grin. “Who needs miracles when I have the best healer in Ferelden?”

She flaps a hand at him, but then squeezes his shoulder fondly.

“Are you just going to let her fondle you like that?” Zevran demands. “After everything we’ve just been though?”

“Zevran, you should eat as well,” Wynn says sternly. “I know you haven’t been.”

Aeoin frowns at him, then magnanimously offers him some food from his own plate. Given Grey Warden appetites, that has never happened before, and Zevran looks suitably touched. “Come on,” he tempts. “You love my sausage.”

Zevran laughs, then tilts his head coquettishly and plays at being shy. “Darling, the dog is watching.”

Mange is, in fact, watching from the foot of the bed, his chin resting on Aeoin’s ankle and his attention evenly split between making sure his master doesn’t slip into another coma and keeping a weather eye on the sausages.

“Oh yes, please, spare the poor dog,” Alistair drawls. “He’s only a puppy, he shouldn’t be exposed to such filth.”

“Actually Bann Teagan has apparently been making plans to repopulate the kennels,” Wynn says. “I hope you’re up for it, Mange.”

Mange barks once and looks both pleased and eager.

“Now, now,” Wynn scolds as she gets to her feet. “Fatherhood is a big responsibility, I don’t want you entering into it lightly.” Collecting her staff, the mage levels a stern glare at the two elves on the bed. “You two: food, more rest.”

“I’ve been resting for five days,” Aeoin points out.

“And when you can walk to your own chamberpot without needing a breather you can do as you like.” Before she leaves, Wynn surprisingly stoops and presses a matronly kiss to Aeoin’s brow. “I am glad to see you awake, my friend. We all feared the worst.”

“Where’s my kiss?” Zevran demands while Aeoin is still sorting through what to do with that.

Wynn rolls her eyes at him. “Eat something.”

“I can think of something I’d like to eat.”

Ignoring him, Wynn deputizes Alistair with a nod and then sweeps from the room.

As predicted, Queen Anora arrives shortly after, her back as stiff as ever. Her eyes still burn with emotion when she looks at Alistair, and he grimly meets her gaze without flinching. Evidently in the five days Aeoin has been unconscious, the two of them have come to some sort of agreement that allows them to be in the same room no matter how Alistair jokes, but things are no less tense. Anora is not quick to forgive the man who killed her father, and Alistair will not apologize for avenging his mentor, leaving them at an uncomfortable crossroads.

Anora wants to throw that parade Alistair was talking about, and she doesn’t want to waste time about it.

“He can barely sit upright,” Alistair points out.

“And the streets are still choked with rubble, in any case,” Zevran adds, squeezing Aeoin’s hand.

It doesn’t seem to have escaped Anora’s notice that the foreign assassin has elected to stay on the bed with his lover rather than springing to his feet in the presence of royalty, and while she isn’t nearly crass enough to mention it, it annoys her, so she ignores him as she ignores Alistair.

“The people need to see you,” she says bluntly. “The Blight has nearly broken the country, and the hardships are not over for Ferelden. For the past year, crops have rotted in the field for lack of harvesters or been lost to the taint. Food shortages are only the beginning-- rebuilding the country will take many years, and there are many who fear we are now vulnerable to a return of Orlesian hostilities.”

“You are like your father,” Aeoin can’t help but point out. “We won , my lady, can’t we have a moment to celebrate before we get back to the doom and gloom of living?”

Anora merely gives him a flat, unruffled look. “Pretending that Ferelden and Orlais have not had a long, combative history, or that defeating the archdemon is the end of our troubles, would be simple foolishness. But a celebration is exactly what I am talking about, for the sake of the people of Ferelden--of Denerim. They need their hero. They need to know that they can survive what is to come, just as you survived the archdemon.”

Aeoin looks away and eats another sausage. There’s that word again-- Hero-- it makes something in his stomach curl uncomfortably. “For morale?” he says.

“For the good of the country,” Anora answers. “When you are feeling up to it, of course.” And not a moment later, most likely. She manages to make the polite request sound like a royal decree, and Aeoin strongly suspects there will be no getting out of it.

“Ferelden is in your debt, Grey Warden,” she continues, a precursor, no doubt, to the grand speech she will give in his honor. Aeoin already wants to disappear. “Please allow us to do what little we can to show our gratitude.” And with that she steps regally from the room.

“The Queen of Ferelden,” Alistair says in grand tones after she leaves, though not loudly enough for her to hear, since he isn’t completely stupid.

“I’m having second thoughts about making you do it, again,” Aeoin says, and Alistair snorts.

“Don’t let her hear you say that or she’ll have both our heads, I’m not kidding. Besides, you heard her-- running this country is going to be a headache for years . No, thank you.”

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t make me march in a parade.”

“Are you kidding? I’d make you wear a big hat and have beautiful young women follow you around scattering rose petals in your wake for a month.”

Aeoin throws a sausage at him.

Alistair eats it.

After Anora there is a short stream of well-wishers, including, shockingly, his father, who bravely struggles against tears and smooths his blankets and makes him tea. It was Alistair who went to get him, and boldly had him given one of the nicest rooms in the guest wing as the Father of the Hero of Ferelden. Cyrion has barely known what to do with himself, between worrying about Aeoin and being a guest in the royal palace .

“The room they’ve given me is bigger than the house , son,” he says with an air of bewilderment. “And the Queen herself came to speak with me-- me! Your old man! Your cousins are going to be sorry as hell they missed out.”

Shianni had apparently elected to remain in the alienage to continue the rebuilding efforts, but she expected him around as soon as he can walk.

“There’s a nice lad in the kitchens who offered to carry a message to her as soon as you got better-- the Gunders’ youngest, you remember Finn Gunders?”

It’s not just Shianni, of course. Apparently the entire alienage has been waiting desperately for news as to whether or not he would pull through. Aeoin tries not to dwell too much on how recently they were all so eager to blame him for their troubles.

Bodahn and Sandal come in, and Bodahn fusses at him and chats with his father (they’d apparently become quite chummy, Bodahn and Cyrion) while Sandal drools contentedly in the corner.

“Were you at the fortress, Sandal?” Aeoin can’t help but ask, frowning a bit at an uncertain memory.

“Enchantment,” Sandal answers cheerfully.

Then it’s Oghren, who looks Aeoin over carefully and then smirks with little humor and offers him a swig from his flask. “Congratulations, Warden, you survived.” There is an odd, flat, nearly sarcastic quality to his voice that Aeoin can’t quite place, so he merely nods and accepts the flask.

Oghren pounds his back when the gritty dwarven ale makes him cough, and it’s a bit rougher than he can really withstand at the moment (and Zevran glares daggers at the dwarf in his defence) but he’s… grateful. He’s been awake long enough to come to the conclusion that he doesn’t care for being bedridden at all. He’d much rather people be rough with him than the gentle, uncertain care.

Oghren laughs again, that same strange flat note to it-- and perhaps it’s always been there, between the belching and the slurred speech-- then leaves. “I’ll be around, Warden,” he promises with a sigh. “Come have a drink with me when you’re up and about.”

Sten comes as well, apparently pressured into it by Wynn, and remarks briefly that it is favorable that Aeoin seems to have survived, then leaves again. Apparently visiting injured companions is pointless under the Qun. Or Sten still doesn’t view him as a valuable companion-- it’s difficult to tell with him.

Alistair waits until the stream of visitors has trickled to a halt and Cyrion slipped off to his own rest and Zevran seems to have nodded off against Aeoin’s shoulder before finally asking, “How… did you survive?” He speaks slowly and carefully, keeping his voice low to avoid disturbing Zevran, nothing but curiosity in his tone, but he has been thinking this question over for five days and it shows. “Riordan was so certain….”

Aeoin is strongly tempted to feign exhaustion, and he is , much to his annoyance. He hasn’t slept so much in the year since his Joining as he has in the week since killing the archdemon, yet already he is weary, as if the effort of a few conversations and eating a plate of sausages was too much for him.

But a convincing lie depends on commitment and a lack of hesitation, and timing is everything, and so he looks his brother-Warden square in the eye and says, “How should I know? I guess he was just… wrong?”

Alistair says nothing for a moment, his mouth twitching just a little. “...Perhaps,” he allows slowly. “It’s been centuries since the last Blight, right? Maybe… maybe there was more too it. What’s the difference between you and the rest of the Wardens though?”

Time for some misdirection. “The archdemon-- it did die, didn’t it? You don’t think it’ll rise again?” He doesn’t have to fake the anxiety. It’s a real concern, and the truth is he doesn’t know what the full consequences of his decisions will be. He doubts Morrigan really knew, and now there’s no way to ask.

But Alistair only frowns and shakes his head, a far away look in his eyes as he feels it out. “No,” he says eventually. “No, I felt it. You’ll feel it, too, once you get your strength back and really think about it-- it’s different than it was. Like the air is clearing. The Blight is over.”

Aeoin says nothing. Lets himself sink back a little into his pillow, his hand still tight around Zevran’s. He doesn’t feel that, and it frightens him that he doesn’t. But what can he say?

“Well, that’s the important thing, right?” Alistair says after a moment. “That it’s over? And I am glad that neither of us had to die after all, don’t get me wrong. I suppose we can always ask the other Wardens when they get here.”

That gets Aeoin’s attention, nearly startles him, truth be told. “Other Wardens?”

Alistair laughs. “Late to the party, right? Orlesians-- I’d like to know what the hold up was, but yes, they’re finally coming. Should be here any day now. Maybe one of them will know something.”

Aeoin swallows thickly. “...Honestly I’m just grateful to be alive, and that it’s over,” he says. “Forgive me if I don’t really give a shit as to why or how.”

“Good point,” Alistair allows with a fond smile, then gets to his feet. “It’s late, I’ll let you sleep. We can talk in the morning, brother.” He clasps Aeoin’s shoulder briefly, then slips out of the room.

Beside him, Zevran makes a sleepy sound and curls closer. “Maybe you should just tell him,” he says quietly.

“...No. He’s better off not knowing.”

Zevran hums a little, noncommittally, and presses a kiss to Aeoin’s neck.

Despite his exhaustion, Aeoin feels like he stays awake for a long time.

 


 

It feels like it has been no time at all since Aeoin put on his blue and silver uniform to crash the Landsmeet, and yet at the same time it seems so long ago that it happened in another lifetime, to another person.

He tugs awkwardly at the tabard, then adjusts his gloves for the millionth time, peering critically at himself in the glass. He has a new scar from the battle, a jagged gash across his cheek that he honestly has absolutely no memory of getting, and his father has been running a losing campaign for the past few days to let him cut his hair. It’s grown from the stubby little tail he left home with, long enough now to pull over his shoulder.

Sighing heavily, he smooths his hands down the scalemail stripes, then closes his eyes and curses under his breath.

Grit and stubborn determination (and a lot of elfroot) had gotten him back onto his feet a mere two days after he finally awoke. Wynn called him foolhardy and an idiot, and Zevran bonded with his father over fretting over him, but he’d been highly motivated, mostly by the need to escape the Orlesian Grey Wardens when they finally arrived.

It’s odd having them around. He is so used to having only Alistair that every time one of them enters the room he has to stop himself from reaching for a weapon, convinced that they are darkspawn sneaking up on them.

They have sense enough to be discreet, at least. They keep to themselves, didn’t try to insist on staying at the palace (Aeoin actually has no idea where they are staying), and don’t impose their uncomfortable Orlesian-ness on the prickly, defensive natives (many of whom, as Anora predicted, are eager to turn a highly suspicious eye on anything smacking of Orlais).

It had been a lot of disapproving looks and lectures about how “Grey Wardens must not involve themselves in politics” once they heard everything that went down in the Landsmeet. Aeoin and Alistair came to an immediate unspoken accord to not mention Orzammar at all.

“His fault,” Aeoin claimed, pointing at Alistair. “He’s the secret prince, they dragged us into it.”

“We got as uninvolved as we could as quickly as we could,” Alistair added. “And anyway, none of you lot were there.”

“We’re not saying you haven’t done quite well for a pair of raw recruits,” a rather tall man named Caron said. “We’re all damned impressed, no doubt. But there are a few… questions.” He’d stared right at Aeoin as he said it, and Aeoin stared steadily back.

From there it was an endless retelling of the battle in minute, horrible detail until Aeoin wanted to throw himself out the window. Caron was convinced that he was lying, but not about the right thing, so it was fine.

“The people here want to throw you a fucking party, that’s one thing,” he growled. “But you do a good Warden a grave disservice by claiming credit for his sacrifice. Riordan deserves better.”

Aeoin just glared at him and said nothing. Easier to let him believe what he wanted. He would love to shift the credit for the killing blow to Riordan, but too many people saw him fall long before the final stand on top of Fort Drakon. The fact that Caron refuses to believe it speaks more to the man’s stubbornness than anything else.

Needless to say, he and Caron aren’t destined to be friends.

There are others who aren’t so easily put off the trail, a slim, dark skinned elven woman named Andras, a quiet, canny dwarf named Kader with a face full of tattoos. They ask him how he survived and he says “I don’t know” over and over until he finally snaps.

“I don’t know ! I don’t know anything-- I was a Grey Warden for all of ten hours before fucking Ostagar wiped out all but us, so I don’t know shit about shit , alright! Fucking Alistair had to tell me about the damned Calling for fuck’s sake!”

Andras just watches him, her head tilted to one side like a curious fox. He wonders about her, if she got pulled in from the Dalish of if she was once like him, a nothing elf from a filthy alienage, scraping to survive, but it is evidently rude to ask. Maybe she’s just like him, conscripted out of prison or off of the executioner’s block. He’ll never know.

“We will be in contact with Weishaupt,” is all she says. Maybe a promise. Maybe a threat. “They’ll want to know more about this apparent miracle,” she continues, and he kind of wants to hit her.

“Couldn’t the Wardens just been wrong?” he asks peevishly.

She shrugs. “The Grey Wardens know more about the Blight than any other organization under the Maker. This is new information. Weishaupt will need to know.”

Mostly he tries to avoid them, difficult since their Warden senses mean they can always find him, but balanced out by the fact that he can feel them coming as well. Ultimately that just made it all the easier for Anora to swoop in and corner him, leading to here, him fussing over his uniform while downstairs the parade she wanted gears up to get underway.

Not really a parade. They only just got all the fires out. More of an appearance. Wave at the crowds, maybe a speech. Fuck he hopes they don’t expect him to give a speech.

The mirror stares back at him. There are new lines on his face to go with the scars, for all that a vain corner of his mind insists that he is far too young for wrinkles. Around his eyes especially. Father has always said he has his mother’s eyes, dark and clear while Cyrion’s are light and watery. Now, staring at himself, he can’t help but feel like they are the eyes of a stranger, like there is something else staring out back at him.

He looks away and curses again, low under his breath. He’s supposed to be getting ready. Everyone is waiting.

The door opens and he can’t stop his hand from twitching toward his dagger, wonders if he’ll ever be able to let go of that instinct, but it is only Oghren.

“We never got that drink,” the dwarf says. He’s looking at Aeoin a little strangely, but Aeoin finds he doesn’t have the patience for it and turns away, tugging again at the stupid straps of the brigandine.

“Been busy,” he grunts. “Need something?”

Oghren says nothing, his arms crossed over his broad, barrel chest as he studies him, small eyes nearly lost beneath his bushy red brows.

Finally, just as Aeoin is about ready to lose his temper completely, the dwarf speaks. “All this fancy to-do, everyone wanting to kiss your ass-- pisses you off, doesn’t it?”

Aeoin huffs a ghost of a laugh. “What clued you in?”

“Everyone wants to fucking celebrate, ‘cause it’s over,” Oghren continues. “But it doesn’t feel over, does it?”

Slowly, Aeoin turns around to stare at him, saying nothing.

“And you’re wondering why you can’t just fucking relax,” Oghren says relentlessly, “wondering what the fuck is wrong with you that winning only tastes like more blood. You can still smell it, can’t you? Bodies burning, sometimes while they’re still moving--it’s not a stench you ever forget.”

“...The pyres,” Aeoin says belatedly. “Chantry’s been cleaning up the dead all week, that smell’s all over the city.”

Oghren just gives him a wry look. “You still hear it roaring,” he says, half accusation, half commiseration, and Aeoin draws in a sharp breath.

Because it’s true, of course it is. He hears the archdemon echoing in his skull, and not just when he’s asleep, though the dreams are their own struggle. He sleeps little, worried about disturbing Zevran. Every moment he half expects the dragon to come bursting up from the floor, because it can’t just be over . He has forgotten how to live without the Blight occupying his every thought, every waking moment of every day devoted to fighting it.

And more than that, of course, the eyes of the other Wardens are damning--he should be dead, and he cannot justify why he isn’t. He made his choices, desperate to live, but the question lingers: what, exactly, has he done ? He felt it, he knows he did, the archdemon tearing through him….

“When does it stop?” he asks Oghren, eyes on the floor.

Oghren shrugs and steps closer, fishing at his belt for his flask. “It doesn’t. Have a drink.”

Oghren was Warrior Caste, Aeoin abruptly recalls, the product of Orzammar’s attempts to make an entire class of people suited for nothing but battle and war-- and then punished and cast out for being exactly what they made him. Killing’s what swords are for , he’d said.

Aeoin takes the flask and drinks deep, then passes it back.

Oghren takes it and tosses back a drink of his own.

“How do you live with it?” Aeoin asks quietly.

Oghren gives him a wry look. “You see any other options, Warden? You just keep going until you don’t anymore, that’s all.”

“Drinking? That helps?”

“It doesn’t hurt. Have some more.”

They pass the flask back and forth for a while, saying nothing, until Oghren heaves a deep throaty sigh. “Just how it is for some of us. Peace is for other people. You just keep this in mind, Warden,” he says, as grave as Aeoin has ever heard him. “You’re still alive, and your enemies aren’t. All the rest is piss.”

“I should be dead, though.” It’s out before Aeoin quite knows he’s going to say it, and he feels no less lost for giving the thought voice. “It doesn’t make any fucking sense-- that’s what Grey Wardens do , that’s how it was supposed to happen, and now--”

“Hey! Fuck that noise, Warden.” Oghren has rarely sounded so fierce or focused, and it’s enough to shut Aeoin up. “How would that improve anything? Huh? How would any fucking thing be better if you’d died with that thing, you tell me that. That lover boy of yours probably would’ve followed you off into the abyss, given how he was carrying on during your little lie-in-- is that something you want? Your old man’s a decent guy-- you wanna make him have to mourn ya twice?”

“No, of course not….”

“You got folks that care about you. I ain’t saying it makes any of the rest of it any easier to deal with, but you just keep ‘em in mind when you start thinking dying might be easier.”

“You saying it isn’t?”

Oghren rolls his eyes. “I’m saying, no one’s better off if you don’t stick around. You’re gonna figure out real quick that there’s always another fight. So like I said, you just keep going, until you don’t.”

Drinking to that, he drains the flask. “Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. Figured… maybe you could use an old drunk like me, someone who knows. I’ll leave you to finish primping up. Queen Hoity-Toity’s opening up the good kegs and I wanna get at the front of the line.”

“Hey, Oghren,” Aeoin calls as he steps out of the room. “Thanks.”

“Yeah, don’t get all misty-eyed on me, ya scrawny little shirt-lifter. Save it for Zevran.”

“I meant for the drink, asshole.”

Smirking, Oghren closes the door behind him.

Aeoin faces the mirror again, and manages to avoid looking at his eyes as he ties back his hair.

 

The Great Hall is everything he thought it would be and worse. The nobles have lined up to shake his hand and kiss his ass, and he realizes quickly that half of them are trying to rope him into promises to come give direct aid to their particular little corner of the country. He can’t fault their dedication to helping their people, but he resents the efforts to tie him down.

The only bright spot is seeing his father, wearing finer clothes than he has ever worn in his life, and standing with Alistair, alternating between bursting with pride over Aeoin and casting about the room in shocked awe like he can’t quite believe where he is.

By the time he makes it before Anora he’s twitchy and irate, barely remembers to give her a proper bow and doesn’t pay as much attention to their conversation as he should. If Cyrion is close enough to overhear he’ll twist his ears later for how he’s talking to the Queen, but luckily he seems thoroughly distracted.

“Travel,” he says shortly when she asks what his plans are now, and he glances out over the room to where Zevran is standing with Leliana, and misses the Queen’s unhappy, calculating look.

“What boon would you ask, Warden?” she says primly, and that gets Aeoin’s attention a bit, except that he can’t think of anything he wants that even the Queen of Ferelden can give him.

“Better treatment for my people in the alienage,” he lands on eventually, because all of Denerim, practically,  needs to be rebuilt, and it would be just typical for the elves to come last once again.

Anora does him one better and offers him a bannorn, a political voice for the elves for the first time in the history of the city. He shifts it to Shianni instead, and can’t wait to see her face when he tells her. She’s to be a fancy lady, after all. He’ll work on getting her those hundred dresses.

He has to duck out before stepping out to make his appearance to the gathered masses. He’s confident that none of the nobles will be able to find him-- the dark, quiet side hall he slips into is unused by anyone except the servants, he doubts any of the gilded asses in the hall even realize it’s there.

It’s just… it’s too much. Too stifling. The Great Hall looks almost exactly as it did during the Landsmeet (and he’s noticed Anora’s eyes straying to a certain spot on the floor, though Loghain’s blood has been thoroughly scrubbed out of the stone) and it’s like… it’s like none of it even happened.

He knows that as soon as he steps through the doors the illusion will shatter, the rest of the city naturally taking much longer to repair than just one section of the palace, but soon enough the rebuilding will be over, and the battle will move into history.

The rest of the country will likely bear the scars of the Blight for longer. Lothering is just one town of many that have been wiped from the map. But eventually the edges will soften. The Fifth Blight didn’t go on long enough to make a wasteland like the Anderfels, only far to the south and in the depths of the Kokari Wilds would hold the physical memory for very long.

The Blight will become history, the battle against the archdemon over Denerim part of the legend, and the world will move on.

Aeoin can still see the archdemon’s hungry, glowing eyes, it’s endless, gnashing teeth, it’s oozing, serrated, corrupted flesh. He can hear it, a sound that isn’t a sound, echoing in his skull like it’s speaking to him, he can feel it--

He curses savagely and punches the wall. His dark leather gloves, designed to protect his hands from slashing blades, are no match for thick stone, but he finds the sharp pain grounding. Soothing, even, keeping him firmly in the present, so he does it again, harder. The pounding in his head becomes his own singular heartbeat once more, and he draws in deep, careful breaths.

“...Amor?”

Aeoin’s head shoots up and he turns in shock. “Zev-- love,” he stammers. “What are you--?”

Zevran looks shocked as well, eyes wide as he stares at him. Damn. He had never intended for him to know….

“Everyone is waiting on you,” Zevran says. “I saw you slip off and naturally assumed-- well, a dark corner, a celebration, you see the conclusions I came to, surely; I assumed you intended for me to follow you. But I see I was wrong, more’s the pity. Darling-- what are you doing? Your hand--”

“It’s nothing--”

Zevran silences him with a quelling look, finally stepping close and taking the offending hand in his own to examine the damage as best he can through the glove. “You are not going to start lying to me now, after everything we have survived already,” he says simply.

Aeoin hisses a little-- it’s possible that some of the more delicate bones in his fingers have broken, no way to be sure without removing the glove which promises to an extremely painful activity, and Zevran purses his lips unhappily.

“Talk to me,” he says. “What’s wrong-- and do not say it is nothing. Nothing doesn’t make you pick fights with castle walls.”

How can he tell him? How can he possibly understand?

“Please, amor,” Zevran presses.

“...I felt the archdemon,” Aeoin hears himself say, as if at a distance. “When I killed it, I felt it… enter me. And then I was sure I had died, and now, ever since I woke up… how can I be sure it left, or that it didn’t leave some piece of itself behind, or… or take something with it? Zevran, I-- I should have just died --”

No .” Zevran’s denial is swift and fierce.

“--If I had done what I was supposed to and taken it down with me--”

“No, there is no world in which your death is better.”

“--then it would really be over--”

“It is over! The archdemon is dead . I may not be a Grey Warden, but I know what I saw, and Alistair has confirmed it as well. If it had not been slain, it would have risen again, correct? That is how it works-- it would have jumped into the body of another darkspawn and begun anew? But it didn’t! The battle is over , amor, we won , that is all that matters to me.”

“But I can still feel it,” Aeoin whispers, pressing his uninjured hand to his chest.

Frowning, Zevran steps closer and covers his hand with his own, his eyes never straying from Aeoin’s, and Aeoin has a sudden sense memory, something he’d thought he’d dreamed, Zevran’s hand over his heart during those long days he lay unconscious after the battle.

“I feel your heart beating,” Zevran says. “I have never felt anything sweeter. Because if your heart still beats, then we can continue. So, even if you are right-- and I am not saying that you are-- but even if it is not over, as long as your heart still beats, we can still fight, and we can still win.”

Aeoin bows his head and curls slightly around Zevran’s hand. Zevran steps closer still, until they are close enough to be dancers on an Orlesian ballroom floor and Aeoin can lay his head down on Zevran’s shoulder.

“Stay with me,” he begs, mumbled into the fine cloth of his beautiful shirt. “Don’t ever leave me.” It’s quiet when Zevran is there.

“Never,” Zevran promises. “We face the future together, amor, hand in hand. First we should fix yours, though. I’m going to go find you some elfroot; Wynn usually has some in her pockets, and you know how I love an excuse to get a good grope in.”

Zevran fixes him back up with patient, sure hands, and Aeoin lets himself be soothed by his presence, his quiet chatter and gentle touch. When they slip back into the hall, it doesn’t seem as if they were missed too terribly. Alistair pointedly rolls his eyes at them, but no one notices anything amiss.

“There you are,” one of the guards at the door say, but not unkindly or impatiently. “Big crowd out there. You ready?”

Aeoin glances back at Zevran, who smiles encouragingly and nods. “...I guess so.”

“Nothing to worry about, Warden,” the guard says, mistaking his hesitance for nerves. “Just give ‘em a wave and they’ll be happy.” With a friendly grin, he pushes the door open.

The sun is shining, and Aeoin blinks through the bright glare as he steps forward into the light.