First Chapter:His Father's Son
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Now that the fight is over, there is still a lot to be dealt with.
All Alone in the Night
The setting sun slowly gains the colour of blood: a dramatic end of a beautiful day. The smell of burnt still pertains even despite the rain, yet spring freshness can already be felt in the air, as well.
A fresh start, perhaps. A new hope.
Nathaniel has to rub his welling eyes with his knuckles. 'Dearest Nathaniel…'
His lips crinkle up, of their own volition. There has been enough doom and gloom recently, it is high time that the tide turned.
It gives him hope for the other thing, as well.
He hasn't seen or spoken to Ned ever since they parted on the Feravel plains - or rather, since his abrupt departure for Denerim as soon as he was able-bodied, which, due to both mages' overexertion, took several days. Nathaniel sighs involuntarily at the memory: it was a bleak and lonely time, with everyone confined to their tents by almost constant drizzle. He glimpsed Ned but once during the whole time: the deep clawmarks on his cheek an angry red, his deep-sunk eyes unfathomable. The hand resting on Wolf's scarred head as the mabari was pressing close to him never moved and Nathaniel just knew that they had been like that the whole time.
He runs a hand over his face. He doesn't know how Ned's dealings in Denerim went but with the king being so close to him, there is hardly any reason to worry. By now, Ned has already rested; the best time to set things right between themselves.
The air is chilling rapidly, and so Nathaniel leaves his vantage point at the watchtower and cautiously walks down the steep stairs: his barely healed body could certainly do without a fall.
When he approaches Ned's door, it's dark already and he hesitates a little, but seeing the light under it, he knocks.
No answer, and he is a little puzzled: could Ned have fallen asleep?
He knocks louder. "Ned? That's me, Nathaniel."
Still no answer, and the waiting is becoming awkward. Yet, he knows that Ned is in there, the servants were sure of that.
Making up his mind, he presses the doorknob. "Ned?"
A candle is burning in the stick by the door; the rest of the room is drowning in darkness. Wolf, lying by the cold fireplace, briefly raises his scarred head with maimed ears from his paws as he wags his tail in welcome but Ned is nowhere to be seen, until Nathaniel notices him, sitting in the tall armchair, turned towards the darkness behind the window, a glass in his hand. Pointedly, he keeps looking out of the window, as he says: "I didn't ask you in. What do you want here?"
Nathaniel almost flinches at the hostility, out of scale for his intrusion, but is firmly decided not to be deterred. " You weren't answering," he says in a way of apology. "I have to talk to you."
Ned still doesn't look at him, offering only the sight of his badly scarred cheek: the face of a stranger. "There's nothing to talk about. I did what I did. Leave."
Nathaniel slowly exhales and folds his arms on his chest. You're not really making this easy, Cousland.
That finally provokes a response. Ned abruptly drops his eyes to his glass, then downs the content with a single gulp. He rises from the chair and covers the distance to the window to lean on the windowsill. "I burnt a city with every single man, woman and child inside, including your pregnant sister. What could you possibly want to talk about, huh? You want to tell me that you understand? That you forgive me, no hard feelings at all? That you would have done the same?" The tone overflows with mockery, the words like a wall of daggers.
Nathaniel slowly inhales and exhales again. He knows the tone, he thinks he knows the reason, as well, yet he cannot help but feel irritated by the whole scene, by the display of stubbornness as if trying to goad him into something. "No. That's not why I've come."
Slowly, Ned raises his hands and leans into the window frame. "No? So why have you come, Nathaniel Howe?"
"Certainly not to plant a knife in your back, as you seem to imply," Nathaniel snaps; the oozing hostility is already affecting him, against his better judgement, and he silently curses himself. Let's stop beating around the bush.
"Gosh, what a relief," Ned mutters sarcastically.
The next moment, though, he staggers as if he were truly stabbed and nearly falls into the window, as Nathaniel says: "Delilah lives."
She lives, Maker be blessed. She lives. Nathaniel never tires of repeating the miracle to himself: my sister lives.
Finally, Ned turns to him, the cold mask gone: his lips are trembling but he seems unable to find the words.
"A letter from her arrived after we departed for the Feravel plains," Nathaniel explains. It had been waiting on his bed; he nearly collapsed, seeing the familiar handwriting. "She was not in the city when the darkspawn struck. Her old housewife died in her sleep, and with her husband gone, Delilah thought it unwise to stay home alone in high pregnancy. She moved to the relatives of Adria's – those who have already taken her in once, after she left the Keep – who live on a farmstead two miles from the city. She had left a message with the neighbours, which, of course, I never found out about, and after the darkspawn attack, there was no-one to bring her letter to me in time."
Two glistening streaks slowly make their way to Ned's jaw; yet, he still looks as if he was expecting a blow, or not fully believing what he hears.
"Here." Nathaniel takes out Delilah's letter, folded and crumpled as he has been carrying it around in his sleeve, "take a look." His own eyes are moist again: Dearest Nathaniel…
Ned's hand, shaking, reaches for the vellum, then stops short of touching it as something creeps back into his eyes. "How many such miracles have you to report?" he asks softly.
"Just this one," Nathaniel has to admit hoarsely.
The hand recedes, the eyes close and Ned leans his head against the wall. "So one Delliah lives. The others still burnt to ashes."
The despair makes Nathaniel's throat tighten. "You did what you had to," he tries to offer the only console he can.
A wrong answer, it turns out.
The dark eyes open, the daggers back again. "Says you because your sister lives."
Taken aback, Nathaniel does not respond, and the words come like a flood. "Yeah, sure, I did what had to be done and I acted in the best interest of the land, says his fucking royal majesty who had never had to make a single call, says Eamon because Maker preserve that the Hero of Ferelden's judgement could ever be questioned, 'cause his comfy Chancellor chair as well as the whole fucking throne is fucking built on it, and Maker preserve that anyone questions me at all because, you know, there's no telling what I might do to them if I could burn the whole fucking city! So no-one dares a say in my face, they just fucking look at the bloody mass murderer Hero of Ferelden!"
Nathaniel frowns, uncomprehending. "You are the one who stopped the Blight and –"
The laughter which Ned produces at that is worse than anything he has said previously. "I quelled one Blight, and made sure that two more will happen! Isn't that great? What a feat! No-one will ever beat me in that! What's Loghain with half his army slaughtered, I've trumped him before my victims were even born!"
Dear Maker, what has got into him? This is not the Cousland as Nathaniel knows him; he looks like one haunted by all the demons of the Fade and Nathaniel has no idea how to deal with that, yet he tries nonetheless. "But that was the right choice. The Architect lied…"
Again the laughter, now tinged towards sobbing. "And you can tell the future to be so fucking sure? Don't you realize that it all hung by a thread? It was such a fucking piece of luck that we stopped the Blight, who's to tell that luck won't run out the next time? Sure, the bastard was lying in something, but I didn't even –" His voice breaks, his hands fly to cover his face.
Seeing him so is heart-breaking. Nathaniel walks over to him and reaches to take Ned by the arm. "Ned…"
The arm jerks away violently. "Leave me, Howe!"
It is like a slap in the face.
Nathaniel has no memory of leaving the room, only some time later he finds himself striding angrily through a corridor, aimlessly, and stops his roaming only on the battlement, in hope that in the fresh chilly air, he will not feel like suffocating.
Standing there till his fingers and toes turn numb with cold, his whirling emotions finally settle to a single thought, tightening his stomach.
It was a mistake. I shouldn't have left.
But by now, Ned's window has gone dark, and whether he has fallen asleep, or sits sleepless in the night, consumed by doubts and self-loathing, Nathaniel doesn't dare another try.
Shivering and upset, he heads for his room, to the comfort of his cold bed, but that is not to happen.
Only as he places the torch in the holder by the door he notices her; before he can say a word, Velanna drops the blanket that she was wrapped in as she was sitting on his bed, and walks over to him. Her hair is undone, falling on her bare shoulders, the tight bodice more revealing than covering –
– and he knows that he should just sit down with her and talk and set things straight between them –
– and she stops short of touching him, waiting for his response, her hair sparkling gold in the torchlight, her lips parted, her eyes gleaming green –
– and he knows he absolutely shouldn't, even as he is leaning to her to claim those lips, to bury his hands in her hair, to feel her shiver under his touch while her own hands clasp on his neck, pulling him closer. He tastes her mouth, his tongue playing with hers, he tastes her skin, all the way down to her breasts, and Velanna screams softly as he sucks on the nipples. He is not sure when or how they shed clothes, all he knows is that her breasts are even more wonderful than he remembers, and she is wet for him and her legs are locking around his hips –
– Velanna, arching under him, gasping some incoherent words, and shuddering as her inner walls clench around him, and he rocks into her faster and faster, in his own release –
Sweating and panting, he rolls on his back, and only as his breath starts calming down does he realize that the rutting brought no more than momentary oblivion. After a moment, Velanna gets up and leaves without as much as a word; it barely makes a difference and he doesn't blame her, as it is not her who occupies his thoughts. He finds himself thinking of the other woman who shared his bed, remembering her with remorse and sorrow, and of the man whom, so long ago, he meant to kill. He came a full circle; yet, returning temporarily to the starting point, he found out that even in his bitterness, he couldn't truly hate Ned, despite anything. Tiredly, he ponders how many burdens a man can bear before he inevitably breaks; how long, if ever, it might take for him to recover.
Not the least of all, he ponders his own role in it.
Every step is straining, each more than the previous, what with the insufficient healing that the exhausted mages were barely able to perform. Gritting his teeth, Nathaniel concentrates on Justice's feet before him, moving regularly despite the burden he is carrying. Anders, slightly better off than Velanna, walks ahead, what little magic he has left to make the difference should they be attacked. The elf, still dizzy after her collapse, clings to Nathaniel's side; he is unsure who supports whom but it does make the walking slightly better, with an arm around each other's waist. Gareth, the least wounded, quietly keeps the rearguard, and so the only sound except gasps and footsteps is Wolf's quiet whimpering as he limps heavily on Nathaniel's left, his eyes never leaving his master's motionless form in Justice's arms.
Every time Nathaniel looks up, he can see the blood-soaked bandages, an eye tightly shut and lips constantly pressing in pain.
"Good that you made Anders heal the dog," Velanna remarks as they pause briefly to rest and Wolf immediately curls by Ned's side. "I cannot see animals suffer."
In the silence of the underground, her voice carries clearly but no-one comments on it. Nathaniel, aching and exhausted past caring, lets the words slip, their true significance dawning on him only much, much later.