Warning 1: This is an M-rated story and chapter 20 is a bit explicit, so if you are underage (in which case I wonder what you're doing at this wiki), or prefer not to read about such things, you proceed at your own risk.
Warning 2: Chapter 20 also happens to be considerably, though I believe justifiably, AU.
Previous chapter: Necessary Things 17,18
Next chapter: Necessary Things 21,22
Chapter 19 Anora
"Slavery?" Anora cannot believe her ears at yet another display of her father's foolishness. Unbelievable.
The man before her gravely nods. "I have secured the documents with his personal seal and signature as a proof."
Anora ponders the option for a moment. Convincing as it might be, the nobles will not be particularly enraged since it concerns only the elves. How fortunate, or unfortunate, depending on the point of view.
She shifts in her chair, rewarding Ned Cousland with an appreciatory smile. "You have done a great deal of work in a very short time – hardly surprising for one of your esteem, and of your background. Let me tell you that I loved and respected your family, your mother Eleanor being especially dear to me. It was horrible what Howe did, and it was only proper that he met his fate from your hands." And what a pity that you let yourself get caught afterwards – but perfection is truly hard to find these days.
He slightly bows in response to her words, then sets his dark eyes on her. "Does Your Majesty wish to speak about family matters?"
Right to the point, are you. I have expected more… subtlety, though the fact is that it is unnecessary now. She smiles again. "I wish to discuss with you the terms of our alliance, which would be highly advantageous for us both. In the days to come, you voice will be heard, and will have its weight at the Landsmeet. Nonetheless, my father is still deeply respected and even with the proofs you have, his position will be difficult to shatter. The outcome is still uncertain – unless you have secured a major boon on your side." She makes a slight pause, to emphasize her words. "My support. Not only can I vouch for your arguments, but your union with your enemy's daughter will present you as the one who truly acts in the best interest of Ferelden."
He watches her, impassively. "And what do you expect in exchange for your support?"
"Your support, of course, for my claim for the throne."
Ned Cousland leans back in his chair, his eyes not leaving hers for an instant. "As you certainly know, Alistair is a dear friend of mine, and his claim as the only living Theirin is greater than yours."
"Certainly." But you do not deny me straight away, do you? "Alistair is a good man – but consider this: will he also be a good king? What Ferelden needs now is not a good man but a good leader – and we both know that leadership is not among Alistair's chief qualities. He may find these traits in himself with time, but time is what we cannot afford to waste. We need a strong leader now."
"And that leader is to be you."
His tone suggests none but Anora still scoffs at an even imaginary hint of disdain. "I have been the leader of this nation in all but name for the last five years. I, not Cailan; keep that in mind." She forces herself to calm down. "And you should also give a thought to this: the gratitude of a strong queen is worth more than that of a weak king. The Teyrnir of Highever being the first sign of that gratitude to come, of course."
The long silence tells her that her words have hit home. When Ned Cousland speaks again, it is in a low voice, in a very different tone: "And what if you had a strong king by your side?"
Anora flutters her eyelashes, as if in surprise. So, it has come to this. It's good to be right, though I'd much prefer if you stuck just with lands and titles. "Why – oh. Well, as a Cousland, you are more than acceptable, both for me and for the noblemen. Is that what you propose? Your support for my hand?"
His features lighten up with a quick smile as he glances over her figure in a way Anora hates. Males and their desires. Of course, Erlina reported about his involvement with that… mage. 'Seems to prefer sensual types.' Which is good, because she hopes to keep the … fumbling… to the necessary minimum. I just hope that he'll be more discreet than Cailan in finding his outlets. For the show, Anora briefly downcasts her eyes, hoping for a little blush. "Do we have a deal, then?"
The previous intent look returns. "There are some matters to be decided yet. In particular, your father's fate."
"Despite all he's done, he's still my father. I'd wish for a way that his life could be spared." She lets her voice lose some of its composure and observes the outcome. She only wishes that he makes the right conclusion; stubbornness would be a complication. A slight one.
He watches her so long that she is beginning to feel uneasy. "You ask a lot." But not 'too much'.
After another while, Ned Cousland finally says: "Very well. Let him live. His abilities could still come to a good use against the Blight. But when this is over, I have full confidence in you to make sure that I see as little of him as possible."
"Of course." Though I do hope that you change your opinion with time.
"That's not all. I will request a special boon as a reward. Persuading Alistair to agree to this will be much harder than simply to give up a crown he never wanted."
"What kind of boon?"
"I am sure that we will arrive at a convenient compromise when the matter arises."
Anora is not particularly fond of unclear pledges but this is of minor importance now. "I agree. Do we have a deal, then?" she repeats, smiling.
"We have a deal."
She allows him to kiss her hand as he takes his leave, and does not protest when his lips linger more than the convention allows. Only when the door closes behind him, she lets her features show a content smile as she recapitulates the debate. It went better than I expected. How true that everyone can be bought, it is only a matter of price.
How very fortunate. You will make a fine Prince Consort, Ned Cousland – not king, I only have to watch your ambition. I'm not going to share my power.
Chapter 20 Ned
"Yes?" The hostile tone shatters the hope of an easy conversation, yet only further fuels his determination.
"You haven't given me a chance to thank you yet."
"Well, if this is supposed to mean 'thank you', then you're welcome. Was this all you wanted?"
Ned does not sigh, even though he much wants to. "No," he says. "I want to thank you properly. Thank you, Morrigan, that you came for me."
As he leans to her for a kiss, she turns her head away, to offer a cheek instead of lips. "Of course I came," she says with annoyance, "that's why I gave you that ring, so that I could find you."
"I was actually surprised I still had it…"
She snorts. "What use would be giving you a tracking ring if anyone could just take it? It's enchanted to be unobtrusive, unless you do something as stupid as to draw attention to it. Now, are we done with civilities? I have some business to attend to."
You don't expect me to believe this, I hope. "No. Wait. I have to speak to you."
"You already do. So, what is so urgent?"
Instead of an answer, Ned pulls her closer and kisses her again. Almost instantly, she breaks away from the kiss. "I'm in no mood for such nonsense. Leave me be."
"Morrigan – "
"I said, leave me!"
"Damn it!" Running out of patience, Ned grabs her by the arm. "Is there any sensible reason why you keep refusing me?"
She shoots a warning glance at the hand holding her arm. "Let go."
"Not until you have answered me."
Narrowing her eyes, she tries to pull herself free, and when she fails, she hisses like a wildcat and rakes with the other hand against his face.
Ned blocks the attack and grips her wrist. "Morrigan – "
"Let me go!" Her eyes flashing wild, she accentuates her words by a half-successful kick in his kneecap.
Impossible woman! Ned grunts and after another attempt at kicking, he throws her on the bed, effectively pinning her down with his weight. "Will you finally listen – "
Her energy suddenly surges but as he focuses his mind, the spell harmlessly evaporates, leaving only a tinge of sleepiness. The next move comes reflexively, as in every fight.
Morrigan gasps as her mana is drained. "Let me go!" The first time, her voice shows something else than anger. "Or do you intend to force yourself on me?"
Ridiculous as the idea might seem, Ned realizes that it does sound appealing – being so close to her, feeling her against him, her breasts heaving, the pulse throbbing on her throat – it strains his self-control to the limits. "No," he says, trying to slow down his breath, "but I am going to force out some answers."
It's not relief that he sees in her eyes, though. "Let me go," she repeats almost desperately, "there is really nothing to say. I told you, I told you that it was no good carrying on with this weakness but you wouldn't listen. Why are you so intent on it now?"
Because I cannot go on like this. Because I'm running out of time. "Morrigan," he says, also on the verge of despair, "when you said once that you considered your feelings for me a weakness, I thought you needed time to see that it is not so, that you shouldn't trust all that Flemeth taught you. How do I possibly weaken you?"
"It's – I – " She tries to wriggle out of his grasp once again. "This is pointless! If you're not going to have your way with me, then let me go, Ned!"
Stop asking for it, woman, or I can't warrant anything! Actually, would you be more disappointed if I did, or if I didn't?
It's really difficult to keep clear mind, feeling her warmth, smelling her scent of herbs and honey and –
The memory hovers somewhere between dream and consciousness, yet it finally gives a clue. "Morrigan," Ned says softly, leaning even closer to her, "you've been avoiding me ever since the return from Fort Drakon. Will you please tell me why?"
Her lashes flutter as she abruptly turns her head away, and at that moment, Ned is all of a sudden certain that she is holding back tears. "Morrigan," he repeats like an incantation, "Morrigan."
"Let me go," she wails.
"No. Why are you doing this to me, to us?"
"There is no 'us'! Cannot be! Never, ever, do I want to feel again the way I did when I knew all along what they were doing to you!"
Finally, he has his true answer, yet hardly one he hoped for. He lets go her wrists, half expecting renewed struggle, but when she does not move, he gently touches her face. "I'm sorry about it, Morrigan. I'm so sorry but it's over now." He caresses her temples with the tips of his fingers. "Nonetheless, there is also the other side to the coin – all along, I knew I had to hold on just a little longer, until you come for me. Do you think I wouldn't come for you if it was the other way round?"
She keeps silent so long that Ned feels acute pain, spreading within, but finally she says in a small voice: "You would. I know that you would, but – but – "
"Morrigan. Nothing ever comes without a price – of all the people, I'd think that you would understand that. And I'd never think that you would be too cowardly to pay it."
"I'm not cowardly! It's just – "
"Morrigan." He brushes his lips against her face, softly breathing at her cheek. "I do not ask you to pledge yourself to me forever." Though I'd love to. "As you have said yourself, there is no future for us together, anyway. I am a Grey Warden, I don't have a future. If the Landsmeet goes badly for us, I may as well be dead this time tomorrow, and even if we succeed, there is still the Blight and the Archdemon to deal with. What chances do I stand to survive that, what do you think?" Ned stops whatever she wants to say with a finger over her lips. "Let me finish. We may not have a future but we still have the present, the little what is left of it. Should we waste it because of fear?"
Still, she says nothing. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn woman!
"Morrigan. I love you, I want you, I need you – do you feel the same for me?" She stares at him, her eyes open so wide that he can see something vulnerable deep within, and hurt, in desperate need of healing.
In a flash of instinct, he rolls over with her so that she is on top of him, unrestrained but for his loose embrace. She looks at him, stunned, but not running away.
"Or, if this is too hard for you to say it now – can you claim the contrary? Say that you don't love me, don't want me, don't need me, and I let you go this instant."
"I – " her voice breaks, and she closes her eyes, all tensed.
Tensed, but not running away.
Ned slowly caresses her lips with his thumb, feeling the soft ragged breath; follows the line of her jaw to the ear, slides down her throat, to the spot trembling with rapid pulse. "Morrigan," he whispers as he places his lips against that spot, "once I had a dream where you freely said all those things you cannot say now. Was it a true dream?"
She still does not answer, and so he repeats the question, trailing with his lips up her throat, to her mouth: "Was it true?"
Yes, her lips reply, softening and parting against his; yes, her body archs to him as he touches the hardened nipple and then takes it in his mouth through the thin fabric while his hands stray under the tunic, knowing their way, removing all that stands between them.
Yes, her hips rise against his as he thrusts in her, yes.
Yes, she says with every move meeting his.
He comes too fast, and so he continues with his mouth and hands and the intimate knowledge of the ways to please her, till she tightens around his fingers, gasping his name.
She never did that before.
He continues caressing her, ready again and proceeding more slowly, intent on every touch, every single inch of her skin, abandoning words and letting the body speak: I love you.
Ned hopes that this time, at least for this once, she may understand.