Shades of Grey and Black

Brands, Breakouts, and Learning to Break Down the Hard Way

Zevran, Morrigan, and Oghren took over the trek back to Eamon's estate and found that the Arl was still awake, despite it being the middle of the night. Riordan was there, looking much more at peace, and Alistair was also with them. Zevran wished that he wasn't; it would be so much easier to plan when there were fewer emotions involved. Before the Elf could break the news gently, Anora stepped forward and took charge.

"Eamon, we have a problem," She said, forgoing a greeting and getting right to the point, "The Grey Warden has been arrested and taken to Fort Drakon."

Alistair was on his feet in a flash, his honey colored eyes wide with alarm. Tilly, who had been perched next to his chair, fed off the ex-Templar's reaction. She stood at attention beside him, whining and snarling.

"What!?" He exclaimed, "What the hell did you get her into?"

"Howe is dead," Morrigan's calm voice seemed to center everyone and her gold eyes were on Eamon, "'Twas the only way to free the queen and Ffion has rightfully acknowledged her major role in this. And now we must decide how and when to free her, yes?"

"Tonight," Alistair said promptly and Eamon's hand on his shoulder was the only thing that stopped him from flying the room, "Now."

"Wait, Alistair," His uncle commanded, "We must think about this."

Zevran's amber eyes watched the thoughts scrolling across the Arl's face and he was the next to offer an idea.

"We were quite easily able to infiltrate the estate," He said and his calm matched Morrigan's, never once giving away his internal struggle, "Would it be much more difficult to lie and deceive our way into the fort to rescue our fearless leader? If that Oswyn and the dove's young man, Rick, made it back, that means the enemy armor count is five. Six, including Riordan's. Which is a help, yes?"

Alistair didn't like the way Zevran called the redhead 'Ffion's', but now was not the time or the place for that jealous streak to raise its ugly head.

"Yeah, they made it," He answered and then frowned, "But Oswyn was carrying Rick by the time they showed up. I guess he collapsed about halfway here from Howe's estate and Wynne's with him now. We haven't heard any new reports on him."

Zevran's heart grew heavier. Were they really going to lose both Ffion and her young man? Were the gods not sated with the Arl's death? His mind shook those thoughts away and he reprimanded himself. The last time his thoughts turned this direction, he had ended up jumping at the opportunity to take on the Wardens because, like that horrible gleam he had seen in Ffion's eyes, he had wanted to die... But he couldn't believe that of his dove, he wouldn't.

"Well then, his well-being may be as dependent on Ffion's as hers is on his, yes?" He said, pleased that his tone was still steady and in charge of this situation, "So let us decide who will be walking into the lions' den."

Ffion, stripped of her armor and feeling incredibly naked in spite of her light clothing, leaned against the wall of her cell, ignoring the man imprisoned beside her, and lost in her thoughts. Her personal belongings were crammed unceremoniously into a chest beside the door that led to the main portion of Fort Drakon and she was trying to work up the energy to develop a plan of escape, but it was useless. The lethargy that settled over her after Howe had collapsed at her feet prevented her brain from working and she was still caught up in that very macabre desire to die. She wanted to see her parents again, she missed Oren and Oriana, and no matter how often that medallion failed to show her Fergus, she was beginning to believe Howe's words about him rotting in Ostagar. Gilmore's return had been a moment of pure elation, but the same voice that repeated Fergus was most likely dead kept reminding her of the blood that had spattered his lips with each cough and told her that that was not a good sign.

Her eyes smarted with tears and she leaned her head against the rough wall, closing them, and praying that the Maker would just end it so she wouldn't have to hurt from the inside out anymore. Her revenge was spent and there was nothing more to live for. Alistair was put on the back burner of her brain because thoughts of him sent little stabs of pain through her, on top of being too complicated to consider; Zevran would get over whatever happened to her because he had that strength, and the others would get by.

She must have dozed off, for the next thing she knew, five men had entered her cell and one was stepping forward, clapping a hand over her mouth and yanking her to her feet. She was shocked for a moment and then she fought back, kicking at his shins and trying to scream, which really wouldn't have made a difference. She had been hearing screams since she was first brought in here and she was sure that her own wouldn't raise any sort of alarm.

The men dragged her from her cell and down a hallway into a much smaller room meant for armor storage. One of the men closed the door and turned the key in the lock while the one holding her forced her onto a low table. Another grabbed her shoulders and pinned her upper body down and a fourth grabbed her ankles. Their intent came to her with horrifying clarity and when the one that had carried her let go of her mouth and reached for her, she screamed with all her might and fought more fiercely than they expected. She wrenched her legs free, kicking one of the guards in the crotch which dropped him instantly and then kneeing another. She had knocked them off balance enough that she was able to sit up, throwing punches. One of them very likely had his nose broken and she whirled about for the other when she herself was slapped hard across the face and shoved back down onto the table; on her side this time, which made escape a bit more difficult. Hands pushed down on her ankles, hip, and shoulder, and she struggled to get away. The cold tip of a knife suddenly pressed against the pulse throbbing in her neck and she went entirely still.

"That's righ'," A rough voice said in her ear, "Nice an' easy. I was gonna let me boys 'ave some fun with yeh. We were wonderin' if you War'en whores feel differen' than any other woman, but we're runnin' outta time an' now I'm thinkin' we'll move right ta roun' two."

Ffion's tongue ruled, never mind that he held the knife and she was helpless.

"Aw, what happened?" She asked bitingly, hearing the breathless quality in her voice from the fright and the struggle, and pleased with the groans of pain from the two she had kicked, "Lose what little nerve you have? Or maybe you just can't get it up."

A heavy silence fell and then the man grabbed her hair, yanking her head back, and pressing more of the knife's length against her vulnerable skin.

"If yeh knew wha' was in store for yeh, you wouldn' be so bold," He hissed and then turned his attention to one of his comrades, "Ge' it ready."

Ffion took the chance while she had it and fought back again. She lashed out with her legs as the one holding her ankles swapped with another and she ducked away from the knife, almost to her feet. She was just getting ready to dive at their leader when one of them grabbed her shoulders and threw her back down. The leader pressed close, one hand easily grasping both of her wrists and pinning them roughly to the wood table. His knife was juggled briefly in his free hand and Ffion could feel small nicks and cuts as they struggled. She made him drop it as he tried to get her under control and she was more herself than ever when she heard it clatter to the floor.

"Let me... go!" She shouted, trying her damnedest to get away, "You bastards... Get... off of... me!"

"Not a chance, War'en whore," The man replied, his voice short as he fought with her, "You're gonna learn... wha' was Arl Howe's... always Arl Howe's."

"I thought you'd be happy," She said and felt herself losing, "Now the position of... Loghain's bitch-lapdog... is open for you."

The man had grabbed her hair again and he slammed her head roughly against the table below her. Ffion saw stars and she stopped fighting, allowing the men to gain the upper hand. She tried to keep her senses about her and struggled to hold off the darkness that threatened to swallow her. She shook her head to clear it when the man's hand tangled in her hair and pulled her head back. Wincing and trying to hide it, she met his furious hazel eyes, determined to show him that he couldn't frighten her.

"You'll learn real pain now, whore," He snarled, "An' no ma'er how much yeh scream, no one's gonna care."

Ffion spit in his face and earned another blow to the head that came closer to throwing her to the blackness. The man spoke over his shoulder.

"Bring it 'ere," His eyes went to the men that were helping hold her in place and he motioned to them, "Turn 'er over."

Ffion tensed, her grey eyes meeting his.

"What are you doing?" She demanded and heard the unmistakable sound of metal sliding on metal.

The man was pleased to let her know, though he didn't use words. Instead, he shifted his weight, allowing her to watch as another guard came close with a long iron bar in hand. One end was red hot and Ffion's eyes widened as she realized what it was.

"Like I tol' yeh," The leader said with a horrible glee, "Once Arl Howe's, a'ways th' Arl's."

The men attempted to roll her over and Ffion wrenched her hands free to stop them. As the one with the brand came closer, the Warden fought like her life depended on it, even as the men succeeded in pulling her onto her left side. She tossed her arms up as the men tugged her shirt away to get at bare skin and screamed again. She felt the heat from the brand sear the skin of her hands and arms and she squirmed to get away.

"No!!" She shouted, her voice echoing in the storage room, "No, you sick son of a bitch! Let me go, you bastards, let me go! You don't have-"

Her next words were lost in a scream more piercing then all the rest as the brand hit the skin of her back and the smell of burnt flesh permeated the room. Ffion's body was stiff, her eyes squeezed shut, and the pain was more intense than anything she had ever felt. It spread out in hot, steady waves from the brand and pushed that encroaching darkness closer.

"See?" The man's voice was in her ear again, "No ma'er where yeh go, yer the Arl's."

"And that probably helped to... finally get it up for you, too," Ffion's voice was weak and breathless, but her venom was strong as ever, "Glad I... could be of service."

The leader lost his cool and for the third time, the Warden's head bounced off the table and she let out a relieved sigh as the darkness took over her brain.

She came slowly back to the world, pain radiating through her whole body, its source that brand on her lower back. She was lying on her stomach and the stones were cold and uncomfortable.

Gingerly, well aware that sudden movements would put her back under, she put her palms flat on the floor and pushed herself up so she could sit as comfortably as could be managed. Her eyes were shut tight and she bit down on her tongue so hard that she tasted blood when her neighbor spoke.

"Take it easy, Warden," His voice was soft and hoarse, "You'll do more damage than anything else if you keep that up."

She opened her eyes and found that she was close to the heavy bars that separated them. Her cheek stung from the man's slap and the goose egg on the side of her head ached, but she studied her fellow prisoner with interest. He was about Eamon's age and his blond hair was speckled with grey. The scruff of a beard that covered his jaw and neck was thin and uneven, but his pale green eyes were bright and intelligent and his cultured voice told her this wasn't some everyday thief or killer.

"Not sure if I care," She replied finally and her own voice was rough. Every move meant needles of pain through her upper body and it made her breathless.

"Now's not the time for a death wish, Warden," The man said firmly and he was more animated than he had been when she was first dropped here, "With your help, we can work together to break out."

Ffion arched her brows, wincing. Even when she had been trying to work up the energy to make a plan, she hadn't really intended to follow through. She was done, now more than ever, Howe was dead and Eamon would help Alistair with the Blight. Her driving force was gone and she wished even more fiercely that Howe had killed her.

"Right, because that's a viable option," She replied finally, her voice biting. Shifting on the floor, she let out a gasped curse as the oblivion swirled closer and the pain left her speechless.

"It is," He insisted, ignoring her sarcasm, "The watch is changing in a half-hour. If we act now, we can get out of here and find some armor to slip into. That way, we can get out without detection. No, just hear me out," He held up one hand when she looked at him with parted lips, "You know that the longer you stay here, the more likely it is for your companions to try and break you out. And that's exactly what Loghain wants. But if you act first, helping me here, I can help you get out and protect your friends. Two birds with one stone."

Ffion's eyes fastened on his face at that and he smiled briefly at her. She wondered how he could have known that was what she was thinking and then she considered his other point. And knew that he was right. Alistair and Zevran were probably already halfway here and the others would have agreed to help without much convincing being done. She let out a sigh, hating this position she found herself in and for one of the few times regretting the loyalties she had cultivated over the past months.

"The name's Ffion," She wished she hadn't sat up and the man across from her heard the agreement in her voice without her saying the words, "And what do you want me to do?"

"And I'm Darroch," He answered and knelt close to the bars, "And all you need to do is exactly what you feel like doing. Lie back down and stay still. The guard will be here in a moment to complete his round and I'll take care of everything. Just remember to lie still."

Ffion let out another sigh, not wanting to go through the painful process of moving again, but she did as she was told. Carefully, wincing and mentally cursing those damn guards, she worked her way back to the floor and found that, cold hard stones or not, lying on her stomach was the only way Darroch's plan would work. She had no trouble remaining perfectly still, though. At least that way her pain was just a steady ache and not the stabbing, burning pain that was so debilitating.

Unfortunately her little moment of relative peace didn't last long. The heavily reinforced door swung open and she could hear the guard's armor clinking together as his boots echoed off the floor. She evened her breathing out and slowed it to be as imperceptible as possible, listening as Darroch made his move.

"Ser," He called meekly as the guard started to leave again, "I think you may need to check on the Warden. She hasn't moved for a time and won't wake if I call."

The guard hesitated a moment and then moved to Ffion's cell door. She could feel his eyes boring into her and she didn't dare to move. He said her title loudly and then there was the rattling of keys as he unlocked the door. Wondering what Darroch was thinking, she almost held her breath and then decided against it. The man was coming closer and closer and, as soon as he crouched to touch her shoulder, Darroch acted.

The guard was so close to the bars it made it possible for one of Darroch's thin arms to sneak through and wrap around his neck. The man's body was pulled against the heavy iron and when he opened his mouth to yell for help, nothing came. Darroch was stronger than he looked and within moments, the guard lost consciousness. As soon as he was completely under, Darroch dropped him and Ffion had moved just in time. The guard fell where she had been lying and she reached forward, lifting the keys from his belt. She drew in a deep breath and used the iron bars to pull herself to her feet. Gritting her teeth, she crossed to the door and unlocked Darroch's.

"That worked even better than I imagined it would," He said and grasped her hand to give it a shake, "I'll take his armor. I know that there's a storage room in the next hallway; we should be able to find something that will work for you."

He went into her cell while she waited outside, not wanting to be back in that cramped space. Though she couldn't bring herself to care too much, she was talking to him simply to take her mind from the pain.

"How do you know that?" She quizzed.

"I am a physician," He answered and sent her a small smile, "Not every little village can afford to have a mage healer living in their midst and so that is where I come in. And apparently my more... questionable work was not appreciated by General Loghain. I was working in the Elven Alienage here and the gritty truths that I uncovered led to this imprisonment. But the general's men are not reluctant to have me help when some other poor soul is too sick to be tortured and so I have seen most of this place. Let's go, the sooner the better."

He was completely decked in the armor that fit him fairly well and they swung the cell door closed as they left. Ffion paused beside the chest and sifted through the keys until she found a couple that looked promising. She was just about to bend and attempt them, when Darroch took the keys and unlocked the chest himself. They lifted Ffion's belongings and the physician helped her into her leather armor. She left the bottom buckles of the breastplate unfastened, the top one was tight enough, and her swords almost did her in. But she grit her teeth and bore them; Loghain's men were going to have to fulfill that macabre wish and kill her before she left them behind.

Darroch seemed to be a good luck charm. They left the prison and crossed through a wide empty hall that was clearly a training room for Mabari. Ffion could hear them through a small door and missed Tilly more fiercely than ever. The hallway that came next was well-lit and also empty, and Darroch made a right hand turn through the first door they reached. It was lined with chests and dummies decked in the fort's armor. Racks of weapons were mixed in with everything and Ffion again needed the physician's help with dressing herself. She found a set of armor that was slightly too big and it fit perfectly over her duster leather, reminding her sharply of the Arl's estate and she pushed that aside. She thought maybe this was a good thing, at least she was feeling more like her old self. Darroch also handed her a helm that was crafted so it partially hid the face and greatly reduced their chances of her being recognized. They pressed on when Ffion was ready and though the Warden struggled with keeping her shoulders and back straight, she was finally feeding off of an emotion other than wanting to die. The more she considered Alistair and the others coming to rescue her, the more she wanted to beat them to the punch. She had promised Eamon that she wouldn't include Alistair in this and she meant to keep that promise.

The nearness of the shift change worked in their favor and they were able to march through the fort with an ease that was rather off-putting, though they still kept a careful ear out for shouts of alarm when their absence was discovered. But there wasn't and when they reached the main hall of the fort, there were several groups of guards loitering about and Ffion and Darroch weren't looked at twice. Until they reached the front gate. The woman guarding the massive doors eyed them coolly, her hazel eyes hard and telling them that she wouldn't be easily fooled. Ffion pressed her lips together and allowed Darroch to take the lead here.

"And where do you two think you are going?" The guard asked, her voice rather bored.

"City watch, lieutenant," Darroch said promptly, his voice all eagerness to please.

The lieutenant seemed to relax some, but her main task was doing her duty and she glanced between them briefly.

"So early?" She inquired, still more curious than suspicious, "You know the watch doesn't end for another twenty minutes."

"Yes, lieutenant, but we've been posted near the Alienage and we don't wish to be late."

Ffion silently thanked the Maker that she had found someone like him and the lieutenant was thoroughly pleased to have a couple of soldiers that were so bent on doing things right. She gave them a nod and motioned for the doors to be opened.

"Good," She said briskly, "You two are a good example for some of the other louts around here. Be safe and do honor to our city."

They both saluted and found themselves standing at the top of a steep flight of broad stone steps in the early morning air. The sky was tinted ever-so-slightly a pale grey and a breeze that smelled of rain kicked up.

Ffion was losing strength rapidly and now she could really feel the effects of the blood loss from her axe wound. Every step sent a shock of pain through her and she wasn't sure she'd make it down those stairs. But Darroch was walking right beside her, ready to catch her arm the moment her knees buckled, and there were too many guards coming and going to attract more attention then necessary.

The walk out the main gates seemed to take an eternity and when they were finally, officially free, Darroch turned to her with a smile.

"And now we can breathe easy," He said.

"Yeah, and I can struggle back to Eamon's estate for more of this hell," She replied, pulling the helm from her head and successfully summoning a faint smile for him, "But I owe you my thanks, Darroch, I wouldn't have made it without you."

"The same to you. And you're not going to be returning to the Arl alone," He pressed on, wanting to get some distance between them and the fort before the alarm was raised, "I'll make sure you get there safely."

Ffion opened her mouth, prepared to refuse; she had put him through enough trouble as it was, and was interrupted when a familiar voice met her ears. She instantly grabbed Darroch's arm to keep him from reacting violently and turned to face the newcomers.

"I suppose it figures, my Qunari friend, that our dove would find her own way out without our assistance, yes?"

And there was Zevran, smiling at her with such tenderness and joy that it was beginning to dispel that desire to die. Sten hulked behind him and didn't bother to hide his pleasure at seeing her. The Warden blinked, sure that her eyes were playing tricks on her, and wondered how much more of this her body would take.

"What are you two doing here?" She asked, "And is it just you?"

"You surely didn't think that we would leave you in this prison," Sten's wasn't a question and his violet eyes were soft as he added, "Come, kadan, you know better than that."

She let out a breath, shaking her head in wonder. For all her previous black thoughts, she was thrilled with their response.

"And no, the others are here as well," Zevran continued, "Oghren was tasked with distracting the men in the towers here, lovely Morrigan was to keep watch, and Chirpy and the rest are looping around to make sure the coast is clear. Though I suppose now, they will have to be stopped, yes?"

He whistled loudly, sounding exactly like one of the morning birds, save the odd flat note at the end. That darkness that had been teasing Ffion for the past twenty minutes encroached boldly and she did her best to keep it at bay, but it was a losing battle. Her vision became blurry, the pain increasing, and she was suddenly so dizzy she was tempted to sit down and catch the breath that seemed just out of her reach.

Darroch saw all of this in her face and recognized it for what it was. He said her name as she swayed on the spot and Zevran turned about sharply, but it was Sten that moved the quickest. Ffion's knees buckled as the fainting spell grew stronger and the Qunari caught her before she hit the ground. She let out a cry of pain as Sten tightened his hold and struggled against his firm grip.

"No," She said breathlessly and the darkness swirled about her, "No... I'm... fine..."

Her voice trailed off as she lost consciousness and went limp in Qunari's powerful arms. Zevran glanced at Darroch, a frown furrowing his brow.

"She's been through hell," The physician explained shortly, "And the sooner she gets attention the better."

"Go," Zevran didn't ask questions and pushed Sten's shoulder, "I will collect the others and meet you there."

Sten melted away into the pre-dawn light with his burden and a half-second later, Tilly's shadowy form bolted after him. The Mabari had preceded her group and when they caught up with Zevran, none of them blinked an eye as Darroch trailed along with them. They gathered Morrigan, who had spotted Sten leaving, and had a tougher time trying to disentangle Oghren. He had had the plan to distract the tower guards with a game of dice and had started it early, getting just as wrapped up in it as the men he was deceiving. But Zevran was a master of persuasion and when the Dwarf understood what happened, he was eager to get back to the estate.

They did so in record time, Sten just barely arrived before they did, and Wynne flew to Ffion's bedroom. Eamon was there with Jess, his housekeeper and jack-of-all-trades, and she was setting a basket of bandages on the bed as the enchanter entered. The Arl immediately turned and ushered the companions back out from where they crowded in the doorway, save Tilly who had crawled under the bed, and closed the door behind them.

"Give her some time," He said firmly, noting the pale and horrified expression on Alistair's face, "It's nothing life-threatening. She just needs calm and quiet."


"Give her time," The Arl interrupted. He studied each forlorn face for a brief moment and understood their emotions. During the time of the Orlesian occupation, when life was so uncertain and they were never sure what tomorrow would bring, if it came for any of them, he had always felt his insides crawl with horror, becoming pools of ice, when he considered losing his commander. He gave them a gentle smile, "And take a page out of her book. It's been a sleepless night for most of us and I am going to see about getting an hour or two. I will be the first to hear if anything changes and I promise to notify all of you if there is anything to worry about."

He strode down the hall without another word, letting them make their own decisions about this. Morrigan instantly melted away as well and her bedroom door closed solidly behind her while the others exchanged glum looks. Darroch had disappeared from their ranks when they entered the estate, but no one was giving him a second thought, and Zevran was the first one to attempt to distract them

"I want a drink before I attempt sleep," He announced and his amber eyes studied each of them as Eamon's had done. Once again, nothing in his expression or voice gave away the turmoil within him, though he was felt about how Alistair looked.

The ex-Templar still stared at Ffion's door and his heart was in his face. His adoration for his fellow Warden was more apparent than ever and he was not trying to hide it. His hurt over being left behind was forgotten and he would give his own life to secure Ffion's, if that was an option.

"I'll take yeh up on tha'," Oghren nodded to Zevran.

"I could use a drink as well," Leliana's musical voice was heavy and morose, "It is better than brooding in our rooms, no?"

Sten also nodded, to their surprise, and Zevran looked at Alistair again.

"And you, Chirpy?" He asked and made the ex-Templar jump, "Would you like to join us?"

Alistair hesitated a moment longer, his honey eyes uncertain.

"Come, Alistair," Leliana's voice was quiet and she stepped forward to press his arm, "Eamon is right, she needs rest and we cannot help with that."

Alistair allowed himself to be led away and they went down the steps to see what could be done about the drink.

While the companions were deciding this, Wynne and Jess worked on Ffion. They had cleansed and bound her axe wound and the more serious nicks and cuts. The burns on her arms and hands, some quite severe, were puzzling until they found the brand on her back. They simultaneously sat back and stared in shock.

"Andraste's grace," The enchanter breathed, her blue eyes horrified, "What kind of monster would do this?"

"Ask any slave trader," Jess replied matter-of-factly, getting over her shock quickly, "It definitely looks ugly and it needs to be cleaned."

She took up the bowl of the herbal wash they had been using to cleanse the Warden's other wounds and dumped it into the larger pail meant for the rubbish heap. Wynne's magic was useful to stop the bleeding and ease the pain, but Jess swore by her herbal concoction and was not to be talked out of using it. She mixed more as Wynne cast another spell, feeling her own strength disappearing as Ffion's pale face gained color.

The Warden was in a complete swoon though her breathing had improved with the women's work and Wynne's worries were slowly easing. She hated seeing Ffion like this. Even in her unconscious state, there was a haunted look in the deep shadows under her eyes and her expression was drawn, like she was tormented even in her dreams. There were flashes of this when they were in the Deep Roads, but it had never been this severe and it was so strange seeing the normally busy and always thinking Ffion so still and pale on the bed.

Wynne's maternal feelings for the young woman deepened and she reached out with one hand and stroked the soft chocolate curls that tangled across the pillow, wishing she could take the burdens from her shoulders with the same ease that she took the pain.

"Here we are," Jess' voice was more brisk than usual and she settled into her chair again and moved Ffion's shirt out of the way of her work. She dipped a fresh rag into the wash and gently daubed it against the burn.

While the Warden had remained still and completely out for most of the nursing, when she felt the cleanser this time, she moaned and began stirring. Her grey eyes, cloudy with pain, blinked open and she moved to push herself up and get away from whatever was poking and prodding at that tender spot. Which was a mistake. The burning increased and she let out a faint curse, dropping back to the mattress and squeezing her eyes up against the tears that sprang into them.

"Don't move, Ffion, please," Wynne's soft voice was tender but firm and she settled into the extra chair beside the bed, "That needs to be cleaned, so just let us finish this."

Ffion fumbled until she could grasp the enchanter's hand in thanks and remained still. She reflexively squeezed Wynne's long fingers with each gentle rub at the brand and she couldn't help the little moans of pain that escaped her. Jess worked thoroughly and hastily, not wanting to put the Warden through more than necessary.

"They - ah! - They kept saying that I belonged to Howe," Ffion said faintly, her curiousity just about as strong as her pain, "So they were his, clearly... but I want to know what they meant. What did they brand me with, Wynne?"

Wynne saw in the Warden's grey eyes that she already partly guessed the answer to this and she hesitated. She didn't want to cause Ffion anymore pain, but what could she do about it? Her magic would not make the brand go away and so that meant Ffion would see it sooner or later. She just couldn't help that fierce desire that wanted to protect this girl.

"Ffion, you-"

"Either tell me what it is or I'm getting up and finding a couple of mirrors," Ffion's voice was recovering its old strength and Tilly slid from under the bed and whined softly as she licked her lady's forearm.

"Worst patient," Wynne muttered under her breath and earned a faint smile. She got to her feet and moved so she could look more closely at the brand. Jess was dumping her herbal wash again and unwinding a strip of bandages that would protect the tender, damaged skin. The enchanter's face softened with pity as she studied the burn. It was roughly six or seven inches in diameter and though the raised, swollen skin made the finer details vague, she could see the basics of it, "I'm not quite sure, Ffion, it's so-"

"Roughly, tell me what it is," The Warden's voice was a little muffled against her pillow and her fingers stroked Tilly's soft head, the joy of seeing her easing some of her discomfort and pain.

"It is the shape of a shield," Wynne began slowly as Jess returned to the bed with the bandage ready, "And there is some sort of shape within it, but I can't make it out very well."

Ffion went quiet and still, her anger slowly trickling back and making her voice as icy as Morrigan's when she spoke.

"Something like an animal?" She asked and when Wynne gave an affirmative, she added, "Rather like a bear?"

The enchanter cocked her white head and gave the burn a last searching look. Now that Ffion had suggested that, she could see it better and she nodded.

"Yes, I think that's about exactly it. What does it mean, though?"

She was jostled aside by Jess and she glanced at Ffion, waiting for her answer. The Warden's hand stilled on Tilly's head and her face was white again, though this time it was fury and not pain. She closed her grey eyes for a moment and seemed to forget Wynne and Jess' presence.

The enchanter was about to say her name when she opened her mouth and uttered a word that she hadn't used since she was fourteen and consequently had her mouth washed with soap.

"Fucking bastards."

Her eyes smarted with tears and her heart wrenched in pain and furious anger. Even dead, Howe managed to reach out and touch her life, torment and terrorize her, and remind her that, for a brief time, he had possessed all that belonged to her family. And his guards had brilliantly and cruelly found a way to tell her this by branding her with the bastard's heraldry.

But you're still here. That little voice in her head told her. You're alive and he's gone. The Couslands haven't lost everything and you have acquired a family that loves and cherishes you. Never forget that. And you have to think of Rick. If you give up, he will, too...

"How's Rick?" She asked and surprised herself with the rough quality of her voice.

Jess had spread a cooling salve across the brand, bound it firmly, and slipped out of the room. Wynne's expression tightened for a moment as she thought about that poor, malnourished young man, and then she gave Ffion a particularly grave look.

"He collapsed on the way here and hasn't woken yet," Wynne held up a hand to stop Ffion from interrupting when the Warden's grey eyes grew wide and her lips parted, "He's been underfed for too long, Ffion, and his sleep was never really sleep. It is best if he gets as much rest as he can to recover his strength and the same goes for you."

"Yes, ma'am," Ffion sounded a little more like herself and though it wasn't the most comfortable for her, she settled firmly on her belly on that soft mattress. Jess' salve soothed her burns and Wynne's magic had eased her other aches and pains, and in spite of the dark chasm she found herself in, she was starting to come around. The fondness and loyalties of her companions was such a warm thought and she sent the enchanter a tired smile, "And thank you, Wynne. You really are one in a million."

Wynne waited until Ffion was sleeping peacefully with Tilly sprawled on the floor beside the bed before she quietly padded out of the room. Knowing that the others wouldn't have rested easily when they knew so little about their leader's condition, she wandered down into the dining hall and found them clustered at a corner of the table with several jugs of ale. Morrigan and Sten were the only two absent, which was not a big surprise, and the others looked expectantly up at her as she approached.

"How is she?" Alistair asked, his hand wrapped tightly around his mug. His honey eyes were worried as they watched her settle beside Oghren and accept the glass Leliana pushed across to her.

"Sleeping soundly," Wynne replied and took a sip of the smooth ale. Her blue eyes looked around at each of them and she allowed a little white lie to set their minds at rest, "It looked much worse than it was and she needs rest more than anything."

Zevran watched her more closely than the rest and he saw what she was doing. He wasn't going to call her on it, though. Ffion's injuries were not life-threatening, the enchanter would never keep that from them, but there was something that she was keeping hidden and he was instantly curious. He was also smart enough to avoid asking her here. Instead, he made a mental note to finally corner his little dove and find out exactly where that chasm originated. Howe, obviously, had been a major component and though he knew the bare facts of the Cousland family's demise, he wanted to know everything from Ffion's perspective.

"Praise the Maker," Leliana sighed and took one more sip before getting to her feet, "I am going to follow Eamon's advise and try to rest. Thank you, Wynne."

"We should all try to get some sleep," Wynne said and followed the Orlesian's example; "Sitting here and worrying about her won't do Ffion any good. Or us. I heard Eamon's promise and I'll second it. If the unlikely were to occur, I'll gather all of you and we will take care of her together."

Ffion's comfortable sleep only lasted a few hours. She began to have nightmares worse than those after the Deep Roads and she almost smacked Tilly several times when the Mabari nosed her awake. The dreams would start out normal enough, even happy, with visions of her family and friends and then, like a flip of a switch, everything would grow dark and gruesome. Her mother and Oriana would become screeching Broodmothers with Fergus and Oren standing on either side of them, repeating that Dwarf's chant over and over again. Gilmore would transform into Howe and cut down her father while he alternately begged for mercy and shouted accusations at Ffion. And one by one her companions, who stood over the whole scene like sentinels, would turn their backs on her. Alistair always came last, his honey eyes cold and hard, and he said the same words each time: 'I trusted you.' He would turn away and that vision of Howe loomed closer, covered in her father's blood...

And then she would start awake in a cold sweat, sobbing until she realized that it was just a nightmare. But she put on a good face later that day as she meekly remained in bed under Wynne's stern eye and her companions all stopped in to check on her. Her smile felt forced and she knew there were deep shadows under her eyes and her nightmares were fresh in her mind, but she swallowed her dark thoughts and desires and tried to be blunt little Ffion, for their sakes.

Despite the rain that had settled heavily over Denerim, Leliana and Zevran joined Morrigan when she returned Irminric's ring to his sister and informed her of where he was. They also used the opportunity to gauge the city's demeanor.

Everyone was buzzing about Howe's death and the Warden's imprisonment, and the subsequent escape of the Warden from Fort Drakon. The tales about that were particularly amusing to hear. They ranged from a secret tunnel that had been bored through the earth into her cell long ago with just that purpose in mind, to a group of covert mages that had bewitched the entire fort so each guard was studiously occupied when Ffion passed by, to what became Leliana's favorite which consisted of a tall, dark, and handsome stranger, a dancing troupe, and a griffon.

Though amused by all of them, Ffion gave her companions and Eamon the truth of the escape and asked the Arl what could be done for Darroch's well-being. Only to find out that the physician was already making his own plans and conferring with Eamon to discover the best routes to take. He wanted to return to the Alienage immediately, but the Arl talked him out of this, warning that next time he was imprisoned, there was little doubt he would be executed.

Loghain, by all reports, was beside himself with Anora's renouncement of him and blindly furious over Ffion's escape and he would be very likely to take out his frustration and anger on anyone he could. Particularly the man that assisted the Warden in flying his coop. So Eamon distracted Darroch by questioning him on those discoveries that threw him into the fort in the first place and found that the physician had more ammunition they could use against Loghain, as long as they found some tangible evidence to back this up.

When Ffion heard about it, she was all for traipsing through the Alienage and seeking some out, but Wynne gave her a very foreboding frown, her back felt more tender as the day wore on, and then word came that Gilmore had taken a turn for the worst. The Warden wasn't about to be kept down after that and Wynne had to relax her restrictions of Ffion's movements, if only for a little while.

Ffion sat beside Gilmore's bed; her hands wrapped around one of his as she bent close and prayed for his healing. She was sliding back into the chasm again and didn't care. She wanted to welcome the oblivion of it, to finally join her family, as this last tenuous link that kept her going began to flicker out. Wynne allowed her an hour's time with her friend, but there was no change in Gilmore's face, in spite of Ffion's prayers. And then the enchanter herded her to her room, quick to spot how much this had taken from Ffion's own constitution.

She helped the Warden settle into her bed and then grabbed Jess' salve to coat her burns. Ffion took the jar as the enchanter came close and unscrewed the cap herself. Her grey eyes, horribly dark, met Wynne's blue.

"Thanks, but I can get it," She said, "Supper's about over and you've hardly had anything to eat on account of watching after me. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure-"

"I'm not losing great amounts of blood, the wound on my arm is healing, and the... brand on my back is a pain in the ass, but manageable," The Warden interrupted smoothly, "You've done too much for me already, now go get something to eat."

Wynne gave her a small smile, pleased that she was returning to their no-nonsense leader once more.

"All right, Ffion, but I'll come back tonight and check on you."

"Don't worry about it, please," Ffion replied briskly, the jar of salve held in one hand as she met the enchanter's gaze again, "I'll probably just try to get some more sleep, so worry about me in the morning."

Wynne gave her a reluctant nod and left the room.

Ffion stared down at the salve in her hand and then pressed the fingers of her other to her forehead, sending a plea to the Maker, Andraste, and whoever else might be listening for Gilmore's health. Do I really have to lose him again?! Please, please, don't take him!

She inhaled a shaky breath and the burning pain in her back went ignored. It had been slowly easing throughout the day, but now it was a tight, uncomfortable feeling that was nothing compared to the ache in her heart. The voice that sounded so much like her mother chose that time to cut into those thoughts and struggle to be heard. You've been given this last chance to help Alistair, Ffion. You are a Cousland, never forget that, and you can't allow your heartache and desires to be more important than the welfare of Ferelden. There is time for grieving when all of this is over.

Heaving a sigh and knowing that there was no way to avoid what had to be done, Ffion took the advice, shoving the pain to the back of her mind, and not seeing how close her towering stack came to toppling over. She turned her attention to the salve and the burns on her arms. The right looked better; the burns hadn't been so severe there, and she sighed as the salve eased their stinging. She was just about to start on her left arm when there was a knock on the door.

Shifting on the soft mattress, she absently called an answer and decided that she would just have to force herself to eat something. She didn't want Wynne decreeing that she wasn't well enough to get back to their work.

The door swung open, but it wasn't one of the kitchen girls that carried the tray. Zevran's green tattoo curled a little with his smile and his amber eyes danced with pleasure. She looked at him for a split-second and then gingerly went back to her work. Her heartache increased with the stabbing pain that shot through her arm and it made her voice dry when she spoke.

"Food, huh? Finishing the Crows' task would be much more welcome."

Zevran placed the tray on the little table beside her bed and turned to her. He clucked his tongue as he settled on the edge of the mattress and plucked the jar from her hand. He grasped her wrist gently in his other hand and pulled her arm to him to apply the salve himself. His amber eyes met hers briefly as she stared steadily at him.

"Silly Warden," He purred the words that were as much of a caress as ever; "I have already told you I am your man, yes? And the Crows mean little to me anymore. Besides, I am most curious about your fixation with your own death and I mean to discover the origin of it. You cannot shy away this time, my dove, so tell me what torments you."

Ffion hissed a little as Zevran's gentle fingers hit a particularly tender spot on her arm and then sighed again. She didn't want to do this; she knew that she ran the risk of falling apart completely and not recovering. But the Elf was looking at her expectantly, the amber eyes serious for another one of maybe five times, and she was talking before she quite realized it.

"You were with me at the bastard's estate," She began and her voice was soft and sad, "You heard what he said and... and it's the truth. My surname is Cousland and as far as I know, I am the only Cousland that survived. Which means the Highever Teyrnir is mine as well as whatever remains of my mother and father's lands and riches."

Zevran listened to her words but kept his eyes on her arm. The brand had slid up the skin and the closer he got to her elbow, the worse the damage was. He went on with his work, waiting for her to continue and knowing that if he said anything now, she would clam up.

"When Cailan called for his armies to convene at Ostagar, Father and Howe agreed to travel south together. They had been close allies since Orlais' occupation and no matter how much my brother Fergus and I disliked him, Father wouldn't hear anything against the bastard. So Howe came to Highever with a small troop of men and told us that the bulk of his soldiers had been delayed. Father didn't ask any questions and sent Fergus south with our men, promising to follow when Howe's showed up or first thing the next morning. They weren't delayed. The bastard waited until after supper, when the castle was quiet and he and Father were in the study reminiscing, before stabbing Father in the back and signaling his men. They ransacked my home, killed our servants, and set fire to anything that would burn," Ffion's face was white, her eyes blazing, and she sat stiffly on the bed. Zevran saw with dismay that not only was she in the chasm, she was stuck in the mire at the bottom, "Thank the Maker, Duncan, Alistair's mentor, was there and he helped Father get down to the cellar where there was an old servants' entrance that had been overlooked in the attack. Marmie and I found them there and... and I had just enough time to say goodbye before we heard the front doors burst open. Marmie stayed behind with Father to buy more time and they sent me with Duncan. I left them to die and saved my own neck and now I..."

"Don't wish for that, Ffion," Zevran said quickly as her voice trailed off, reading her thoughts with as much ease as always, "Never wish for that."

She gave a hollow laugh and her eyes were so dark, it frightened him. Her body was still stiff, though not with pain. The Elf was incredibly gentle with her and she just... hated telling this tale.

"Why not?" She asked and her voice was hoarse, "What's left, Zevran? You've been wondering what I was before the Wardens. A spoiled, doted upon daughter of a great Teyrn and Teyrna, cut down in their own home over petty jealousies and... politics. Cherished sister to an idolized big brother, presumed dead at Ostagar; sister-in-law to a beautiful Antivan woman, raped, brutalized, and murdered because she loved my brother. And aunt..." Ffion's words left her again and she pulled herself from his grip, twisting her fingers together tightly, and not meeting his eyes as tears flooded her own. She could see each beloved face more clearly than ever and Oren's mischievous smile tore at her heart. Voice trembling, she finished that last thought, "Aunt to an innocent five year old boy, slaughtered because he stood to inherit his father's title. And now, to top it all off, my best friend may never wake up. My dearest friend in the world, who I left to face fate alone, when we swore we'd see each other through anything. Tell me why I shouldn't wish for that, Zev, tell me what's left."

"Oh, pet," He replied and there was nothing of the dancing amusement in his amber eyes, "We are. We have all become a family, yes? You are not alone, no matter what has happened or will happen. You mustn't let these things break you."

Ffion's smile was infinitely sad and her eyes were still brimming with tears, but she had her voice mostly under control again.

"I was broken a long time ago, Zevran," She said, "Howe didn't manage to kill me that night, but I did break. The only reason I made it this far was because that bastard had to pay and now..."

"And now you have to depend on your own strength."

Zevran wished he hadn't spoken after the look Ffion gave him. She wasn't even struggling in the muck she had slid into and this calm acceptance made that desire to die even fiercer in her expression.

"I am tired of being strong," She said with a sort of exhausted passion, "Every damn decision has fallen to me. Alistair is the senior Warden and he just watched as I took the initiative that's rightfully his. Morrigan and Sten, in the beginning, wanted to have control over everything, but never stepped up. Leliana was looking to follow someone and put her own demons to rest; Wynne believes in everything we're doing, but merely wants to be moral compass and teacher. Oghren was looking for a commander and found one and you... well..."

"I tried to kill you," Zevran added, his eyes sparking a little, "The others would not have taken kindly to this. And I would not have done half so well as you with the decisions."

Ffion snorted, sitting straight and wincing.

"Everything has been left to me," She went on quietly, ignoring his comment, and her tone became rather desperate. She was close to the breakdown and she wasn't sure she could stop it, "From Lothering, do we head for Redcliffe or Denerim? Do we save the village or move on? Is the Circle whole enough to be worth the risk or is it the Right of Annulment? Do we seek out the Urn or head to Orzammar? Is it Bhelen or Harrowmont? Branka or Caridin? Haven or back to Redcliffe? The Dalish... Do we try to save them, take Zathrian at his word, or seek out another tribe? Trust the Lady or attack without investigation? Side with the wolves or the Elves... Which was the same damn thing... Do I rescue Anora, risk Loghain's fury, or try Alistair's luck without her voice? Everything was left waiting for my word, my agreement or disagreement. Even Alistair's little cousin..." Her grey eyes were swimming in tears now and she couldn't stop a few from tracing the curve of her cheek. Twisting her fingers together so tightly she was losing feeling in them, she studied her fingertips, "Do we travel to the Circle and ask for help with a little boy who made a mistake? Do we let his mother kill herself to save him? Or do we kill him and end his torment? A little boy who looks so much like Oren that..." She released a shaky breath, pressed her eyes closed, and brushed her tears from her face. When she looked at Zevran again, her own torment was clearer than ever and he had never found her more attractive. She was trying her damnedest to stay strong and losing spectacularly and he had always been drawn to strong, fierce women. His little dove was all of this and more, but she had to learn that a small break now would prevent a much more serious one later, "My strength is disappearing so damn fast, Zev, and I need what remains for Alistair and the Blight. So for tonight let's forget that I'm a Grey Warden hoping to die with the Archdemon and that I've told you all these things; let's forget that all these little cracks are starting to turn into one huge chasm and I've told you I'm broken, and face tomorrow with a smile."

The Elf shook his head, not liking this talk. He shifted closer to her and took her hands in one of his, making her look up at him. He touched her cheek with tender fingers.

"Break a little tonight, my love," He said gently, "Or you won't be able to face tomorrow at all."

Anger surged through her, a sudden fierce anger entirely unexpected and out of context in this situation and made worse by the fact that his words broke the dam and she could feel the tears running down her cheeks. She tried to snatch her hands away and found herself crying in earnest when she couldn't. Glaring at him through her tears, she pulled harder at his grip and felt this irrational anger dissolve into that unavoidable breakdown.

"No, Zevran," She snapped and her voice was hoarser than ever, "You can't tell me that, not after everything you've said... not after everything that's been done... I can't, I can't..."

And Zevran was there when she finally crumbled. She was crying harder, letting all that she had seen and experienced get the better of her, and the Elf moved closer. He released her hands and her fingers twisted into his shirt as he slipped fully onto the bed, stretching on his back, and tugging her down next to him. She curled herself closer, burrowing her curly head in his chest, and sobbed as her broken heart finally fell into pieces.

Zevran didn't try to soothe her, didn't say anything at all, he simply held her as she cried herself out. In no time, her breathing deepened and her fingers released their vise-like grip on his shirt. He wondered briefly about shifting her more onto her stomach, but decided against it. In a moment of still shocked disbelief, Wynne had shared the news of that demeaning brand with him, Leliana, and Morrigan when they returned from speaking to Irminric's sister. Leliana had been frankly incensed and the enchanter swore her to secrecy, knowing how Alistair would feel about such a thing; while Morrigan, though not surprised, had definitely felt the sting of such an action. The Elf looked down at Ffion's chocolate curls and marveled at the little woman's strength once more. He was sure the men who had done that to her had had other tortures and humiliations in mind and he silently commended her for the hell she must have raised to earn just the burns.

Fingers slipping through her soft curls, Zevran tipped his head against the headboard and dozed a little himself. Ffion's weight was warm against him and Tilly's quiet snores filled the room with an odd patterned beat that fit well with the soft pattering of rain on the windows. His shirt was slightly damp from her tears, but this went ignored and the next thing he was conscious of was the gentle pressure of Ffion's fingers as they traced random shapes on his chest. The estate was silent and the windows dark, so there was no way to tell what time it was. The oil lamp still burned on the bedside table and its dim light cast a rosy yellow glow through their half of the room. Ffion hadn't said a word and she didn't speak even when his fingers found her curls again. Her own fingertips paused for just a split-second and then started once more and it was Zevran that broke the silence.

"Pet, what is 'Fifee’?” He asked quietly.

It was something that had been needling him for some time and he couldn't help himself anymore. She shifted against him and lifted her head a little.

"What?" She replied and her voice was still low and hoarse.

"When we found your man, Rick, he called you-"

"Fifee," Ffion interrupted him with a tone of such sadness he was afraid she would break down again, but she continued without a tremor or hesitation, "When my nephew, Oren, started talking he wanted to know all of the 'huger words,' as he called them. And of course, all of our names. The Couslands have always used the old names for grandma and grandpa, so Marmie and Father were Maimeó and Daideó, Fergus and Oriana were Pops and Mam, Rick is... Roddie, Tilly: Lilly, and I was Fifee... I hadn't heard that name since... It was so nice to hear."

Zevran's free hand, looped around and laying against her arm, pressed her closer to him for a moment at the lost and little child air that infused those words. He knew it had been personal, but he never would have guessed this and he wouldn't presume to use it, no matter what. The other, though...

"And 'Fi-'"

"No," The Warden's tone was suddenly sharp and she was closer to that horrible break-down than he thought. Her hand pressed palm flat against his chest as though to keep any other words from escaping him and she went on in a thick voice, "Don't, that's Rick's name for me. Please, don't call me that. It isn't-"

"Easy, dove," Zevran's own voice had never been tenderer and he held her close again, wishing with all his might he could take this pain from her, "I was merely curious and you have satisfied that. Now, my last question, I promise: do you wish me to leave so that you can sleep?"

Ffion's hand pressed harder for a second and she could feel her cheeks reddening as she gathered her thoughts. She didn't want him to misunderstand her... which he would probably do anyway, just to serve as a distraction.

"No, stay," She murmured and burrowed her head into his shoulder, hearing his light gasp and choosing to ignore its meaning, "This is the first time I've slept nightmare-free since leaving the Circle and it's... wonderful."

On impulse, the Elf bent his neck and kissed the top of her head with a tender possessiveness as he gathered her little body closer to him. He felt his heart melting and knew without a doubt now that he had fallen for the Warden. Hook, line, and sinker. A voice in his head told him. And for one you can't have. Figures, yes? He ignored it and the pain it caused as best as he could and instead focused on enjoying this moment while it lasted. His fingers stroked her hair as he answered her with the same soft murmur,

"Than sleep, my love, you need and deserve it."

Ffion woke again in the wee hours of the morning. She had rolled away from Zevran while she slept and just one of his hands rested heavily on her hip. He was sound asleep, his lashes making a thick curve under his eyes and his face soft. His blond hair crept over his cheek and if she didn't think it would startle him awake, she would have brushed it away. She studied his handsome face in the lamplight and felt her heart soften for him. He was so dear to her, he had been so kind and tender, and she would never be able to repay him for it. Not that he would ever expect it, but she felt her debt of gratitude towards him growing larger and deeper by the second.

She turned her attention away and felt her thoughts drift as well. They centered around Gilmore and she knew it was worry for him that had woken her up. The desire to check on him, make sure that nothing more serious had happened while she slept, spiked sharply. She slowly eased from Zevran's grip, hoping not to wake him, and she didn't. The Elf shifted, sighed in his sleep, and then his breathing returned to the steady, deep breaths.

Ffion padded across her room and out the door with Tilly on her heels. Her back stung and her head ached, but there was no way she was going to let these annoyances stand in the way of seeing her friend. She found him in the same state as the previous evening. His face was pale and haggard, his breathing steady but shallow. The big bed he was lying on seemed to swallow him whole and Ffion winced, both for him and herself, as she sank into the chair beside him and took his hand in both of hers. She didn't have words for prayers anymore, she could only say 'please' to whoever might be listening.

She wasn't sure how long she sat there, but had the sense that it was probably a couple of hours before the taint swirled to life and Tilly lifted her head with a woof of welcome. The Warden glanced over her shoulder as Alistair came through the doorway and moved to stand beside her chair. His smile was gentle and a little sad as he looked Gilmore over and then fixed his attention on her. She felt a little shiver of apprehension that warred with the friendly, companionable air that surrounded the ex-Templar. This was the first time she'd really been alone with him since that night at the Dalish camp when he had touched her cheek so tenderly, his eyes smouldering, and they had almost...

"Any change?" Alistair's voice cut through her memories and he kept the words at a whisper as though Gilmore was merely sleeping.

At least her concern prevented the flaming embarrassment that would have made this situation even more awkward. She turned to face her unresponsive friend, her hands tightening on his

"None," She replied, "Not even Wynne has an answer for his state. She just keeps telling me that he has to have the strength to pull through this. Which is... I just feel so helpless and... Oh, Alistair, I just don't know."

Alistair's heart tightened in his chest, hating that lost quality her voice had taken. He stepped closer to her chair and reached out to grip her shoulder, wishing he could ease her heartache and not knowing how.

"With your devotion and support, Ffion, how could his odds be bad?"

She sent him a tremulous smile and his heart constricted again. He thought he had fumbled there, but her eyes told him that she appreciated the encouraging words and touch more than he could ever know.

"Thanks," She replied, "It's just, thoughts of losing him again... It just hurts."

He gave her shoulder another brief squeeze and left his hand there. He dug frantically for a different subject and though he knew now was probably about the worst time to bring this up; it had been bothering him for far too long.

"Why didn't you ask me to come along, Ffion?" His voice was hesitant as he asked, "I mean, Anora asked for the Wardens' help and I'm still part of the Order, no matter my half-royal blood."

Ffion's smile felt a little more real as she met his gaze. They had to get him away from all of the 'half' talk that he had started lately; it did nothing for his confidence level.

"You mean you wanted a night at Fort Drakon?" She was purposefully being a little dense; she wasn't ready for any confessions tonight...or this morning, not on her part anyway, "Completely overrated, let me tell you."

Alistair couldn't help but grin. Her voice was light, the words meant to distract and evade, but there was an underlying bitterness there at war with everything else. Also the black and blue mark on her cheek that incensed him every time he considered it was so contradictory.

"I'll keep that in mind," He answered dryly and then pressed on, thinking briefly that his new found ambition for discovering the truth would make Eamon proud. It meant at least some of the lessons were getting through, "Come on, Ffion, you've always been honest with me before, what's changed this time?"

And because she was still, underneath it all, wanting everything to end, she came the closest that she ever had before to telling him the truth. But there was that quiet little voice that stopped her and this time she really wondered why. Hadn't she just confessed everything to Zevran, fallen to pieces in his arms, allowed him to hold her? Comfort her? Sleep in her bed to keep the nightmares at bay? What was so different about Alistair knowing all of this?

And, like a strike of lightning, she knew. Like his own magnetism towards her, Ffion was drawn to Zevran because of that darkness in his past that cast shadows over his present and future. They had that to link them, they both had lost everything in the blink of an eye and the Elf understood her desolation like Alistair never could. He had never truly been without someone he could cling to, even without knowing his father and mother. Eamon was there when he was a boy, he had found another mentor and idol after cruelly being torn from his foster-father; Duncan was there when the Chantry failed, and when Ostagar destroyed that, he had clung to Ffion. While she herself had no one. Not even Duncan, really, though he was the one that protected her on the road to Ostagar. They had touched on many subjects: the Blight, the Wardens; Duncan's own history, condensed; but she had done her best to bury her past life, never once letting him ask about it or allowing herself to soften enough to bring it up on her own. She had been entirely in her own world, depending on her own strength with Tilly as her shadow and confidant because the Mabari couldn't ask nosy questions, until Zevran.

In him, she had seen that hopelessness, that macabre wish to end it all, that grim march to her own demise, and she opened herself to him in a way that no one understood, most of all: Alistair. And this forced her to wonder about her feelings for the both of them, to consider them more carefully than she had in the past, and... It was still as confusing as ever because she loved them both dearly in so many different ways and her heart wasn't ready to make that decision.

"Ffion?" Alistair's voice broke through this rabbit warren of thoughts, "You okay?"

She gave herself a shake and felt her cheeks flush a little. Squeezing Gilmore's hand to buy herself more time, she replaced it and then sat back with a wince. The ex-Templar had taken his hand from her shoulder and looked as though he wished he hadn't and she was warmed by the concern in his honey eyes. He leaned against her chair and frowned down at her and she thought maybe her decision would be easier than previously believed...

"Sorry," She finally answered as her cheeks burned more brightly before fading out, "Just lost in thought. Which was probably pretty obvious. And the reason is because I had made a promise to Eamon and I don't break my promises. Your uncle doesn't want you to ruin your chances in the Landsmeet and if you had been involved with all of that-"

"I would have been screwed," Alistair interrupted with a humorless smile, "You guys have got to stop protecting me or I'll be a disaster for Ferelden."

Ffion tipped her head against the back of the chair and sent him the ghost of her usual warm grin that he believed belonged solely to him. Her eyes were dark and shadowed, the bruise blacker than ever, and she suddenly looked so small that he wanted to take her in his arms and soothe her troubles. Instead, he crouched beside the chair, leaning on its arm, and placing his hand on her forearm.

"Let us do it until Loghain's taken care of, at least," She replied.

He slid his hand down to cover hers, his expression tender. Maybe this was the chance that he had been impatiently waiting for...

"And what about you?" He asked quietly and heard how husky that unspoken thought made his voice.

She looked down at their joined hands and felt a slow warmth radiate from her heart. He was so different from Zevran, who couldn't help but insert innuendo into practically every conversation she had with him. Alistair was warm, sweet, and so genuine, and a small voice in her head was telling her that she would be so happy with him; he would protect her, keep those demons at bay, and- The voice would have gone on, but she cut it short abruptly. There was no need for those kinds of distractions... No matter how much she might long for them sometimes either.

"After that display of your loyalties at Fort Drakon?" She answered and tried to bring that lightness back. His honey eyes were too soft for a continuation of rational conversation or thought, and that wasn't something she wanted to start now, "I'm probably the most cared for girl in Ferelden. And the kindness you've all shown Rick..."

Her voice trailed off and Alistair pressed her hand as her grey eyes landed on her friend with a horribly tortured pain. He fumbled for a different topic and spoke without considering it... again.

"So that's the famous Rick, huh?"

He instantly wanted to take that back as Ffion straightened with a frown and he had to do some very quick thinking as she pounced on his poor word choice.

"'Famous?'" She repeated and her grey eyes locked on his, "Have I talked about Rick before?"

"Oh, yeah," He replied, not wanting to give her much time to think about where he might have heard the name, "I think I heard you talking to Zevran or Leliana about him."

Her frown deepened for a second and then, to his immense relief, she nodded. She couldn't recall any specifics, but that sounded like something she would do.

"I guess I have, haven't I?" She replied, relaxing back in the chair again, "And, yes, to answer your question."

"Why would Howe have had him captive?"

Ffion forced herself not to clench her hands, not while Alistair's was still covering hers.

"Well, Rick was part of the guard for one of the families up north that that bas- Howe slaughtered," Her voice was suddenly fierce, but she wasn't concerned by it. Alistair would merely think that it was for Gilmore's sake and she wasn't going to correct him, "I'm still amazed Loghain let the havoc wreaked up there go without any consequences."

"Politics," Alistair offered disdainfully.

"Petty jealousies, too, most likely," Ffion added, thinking of all that she had told Zevran and feeling that sweep of pain course through her, "I don't know why Howe kept Rick alive all this time, other than for sport. A sick, demented, twisted kind of sport."

It wasn't a lie. She really had no concrete clue why Howe didn't kill Gilmore with the rest. Though there was a little niggling thought in the back of her head that guessed he had held to the slimmest chance Gilmore might know her whereabouts... which merely fed into her guilt and pain.

"Well, good riddance to the bastard, then," Alistair's voice was nearly as fierce as hers, but it was more because he hated the sight of her torment.

The Warden glanced at him, her heart softening even more as he stroked the back of her hand to comfort her. The warm, tender light was still in his honey eyes and they flickered as she smiled gently at him.

"Exactly," She replied in a murmur and glanced down at their hands again, "And thank you, Alistair. You could have taken my sneaking around in the way everyone else would have and you didn't. You've been understanding, kind, and so very sweet, and... you have no idea what that means to me."

His heart leapt at those words and he knew now that the Maker had finally given him his chance. He turned her hand palm up and grasped it firmly as he leaned closer to her, his voice husky when he spoke.

"You know, Ffion, you must've known all this time why I've done it."

Her smile was the barest curve of her mouth and her heart started thudding heavily. Something deep within her was suddenly blinking its eyes open and telling her that that choice between him and Zevran would be no contest. But the rational part of her pushed it aside, tamped it down, and told it firmly that now was not the time. Not when she was so shattered. Alistair didn't deserve that. He needed someone whole, happy, and beautiful; and she was such a far cry from that.

And Alistair had never found her more attractive. The shadowed eyes made her somehow ethereal, their haunted air calling to him, making that desire to comfort her more poignant than ever. The dimple in her cheek was a ghost of its mate and her voice was wonderfully low and husky when she answered him.

"A number of reasons," She had to be irreverent, she had to kill his notion because they couldn't start here and now. He deserved more, "I mean, I could start anywhere. It could be anything from the fact that we're the only two Wardens left in Ferelden and we have to start the rebuilding somewhere and it'll be smoother if done together. Or it could be that we've been in this, together, from the very beginning and you feel so fiercely loyal that-"

"Don't tease me, Ffion," He interrupted with a quiet passion that surprised her. She glanced up at him as his hand tightened on hers and he cocked his head even closer to her, "You know it's not any of those things and there's no way you've missed what's changed in the past weeks. Oh, Ffion, I-"

"No, Alistair," Her voice was just above a whisper as she pressed her fingertips against his mouth and her heart tried to leap out her throat and his eyes began smouldering, "Don't, not now. That... whatever you plan to say, save it. Now's not the time, or the place, for that. Please, don't."

He pulled his face away, his honey eyes suddenly hard and even more passionate. Ffion thought fleetingly that he would go on anyway or just screw it and kiss her, but she was wrong on both fronts. Still gripping her hand tightly, he locked gazes with her.

"Tell me it's not about him," He demanded, his voice still husky and his heart in his face, "I'll promise, but please tell me it's not about him."

Ffion frowned, glancing at Gilmore and wondering how it was that she could remain so calm about all of this, especially when the ex-Templar was looking at her like that. When he was waiting to pounce on her words and try to break down the defenses she was raising.

"'Him?' What do you mean, Alistair? Rick?"

"Zevran," The ex-Templar spat the name, "I keep my promises, too, you know, but if you're preventing this because of the Elf, I... Please, just tell me it's not about him."

And because she did care for him, so much, and couldn't let him go on believing that of her, she squeezed his hand, gentling her voice.

"Oh, Alistair," She murmured and pressed on when his face began to glow at her tone, "No, it's not about Zevran, you can rest assured on that front. It's just that, everything is so complicated, so uncertain, and I don't want something like what you have in your heart overshadowed by that. Your words belong to a day with sunshine, happiness, and... a victory. Not for a time like this."

Alistair, elated that Zevran wouldn't stand in his way, only heard that and a few random snippets, and in his joy he promptly forgot his promise. He leaned towards her again, thinking he could easily argue around her points.

"That just means we should take our chances as they come, yeah?" His words were husky and he sighed in disappointment as she tipped away from him.

"Not now," She implored again and her grey eyes clearly revealed her struggle with this, "I'm not ready to hear it and you know how ornery I can be when I'm not ready to hear something."

"So bloody frustrating," He was quietly passionate again, his honey eyes lit with a fire that Ffion had never seen.

"You know I care about you, Alistair," She said fondly, not wanting him to be angry. She just had to make sure he understood her own sentiments here. Reaching out with her free hand, she touched his cheek, "You're my brother in the taint and such a dear friend."

He pressed his face against her palm, his fingers loosely circling her wrist.

"I want more than that, Ffion," He told her and felt the pulse leap in her slender wrist, "I don't want to wait."

She smiled faintly, her ears picking up what his missed.

"I'm afraid you'll have to," She answered lightly, "Because I'm pretty sure that's Wynne coming down the hall."

His eyes flickered and he leaned back a little, a look of intense frustration crossing his features. He spared a quick glance over his shoulder and parted his lips to argue, but Ffion added before he could start in.

"Please, save those words, Alistair," She instructed, her voice still gentle as she dropped her hand from his cheek, "And ask me again when... when the time is right. And, no, it's not now. You'll know."

That last was added as he made to interrupt again and she had pulled her other hand free as Wynne crossed the threshold and entered the room. She glanced between them briefly, reading Alistair's open face like a book. Trepidation coursed through her and she hoped that he hadn't done anything drastic. She had already had a talk with him about his feelings for Ffion and she knew that if they were victorious against the Blight and Alistair asked Ffion to stay with him, as queen not just an adviser, they would be painting such a target on themselves. It would be interpreted as a power-grab by the Wardens and that was the last thing Alistair would need to start off his rule. But Ffion's expression was the one of old determination and Alistair's spirit was alive and well and she clung to the little flicker of hope that ignited within her. She looked at Ffion, her blue eyes concerned.

"Here you are," She said, forgoing a greeting and keeping her voice quiet, "I checked your room, but... you weren't there and I was worried."

She finished that statement very carefully. Alistair was looking at her and so he missed Ffion's stern head shake. And the enchanter had to commend her for the tact she was showing. Alistair really didn't need to know that Zevran had kept their Warden company the night before and Wynne wasn't going to be the one to let the cat out of the bag.

"I wanted to check on Rick and Alistair came in to keep me company," Ffion replied and though the pleasant tone was forced, she managed to come off as cheerful enough, "What time is it?"

"It has to be around six now, the watches have changed," Wynne answered and came closer to the pair, "I know you want to get back to the tasks at hand, but I want to check you out before we go anywhere."

Ffion gave her a nod and gripped the arms of the chair to pull herself up. She could feel how stiff she was from sitting in such a position for so long and Alistair instantly helped her. His hand grasped her elbow firmly and she was on her feet, smiling at him as she pulled away and stepped towards Wynne. The ex-Templar watched her leave the room, frustration spiking.

He had promised himself that he wouldn't let anyone stand in the way of seeing another moment like that through, but he could honestly, and bitterly, say that he had never, not in a million years, expected Ffion herself to dump cold water all over him.

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