Fandom: Dragon Age
Pairings: Duncan/m!Cousland, mentioned Duncan!Alistair, eventual Alistair/m!Cousland
Rating: Overall R, this chapter PG-13
Summary: With the Blight looming over Fereldan, discord and tragedy creep through the ailing nation with little hope of ceasing. Fereldan's only hope lies in its last two Grey Wardens. In their way stands a daunting task, and if they cannot learn to stand together as companions under the same banner, they risk not only falling apart, but the ruin of all of Fereldan.
A/N: While sifting through the unfilled prompts on the Dragon Age kmeme, I came across this prompt and couldn't tear myself away. Not that manically filling prompts on my first kmeme in a couple of years wasn't already a sign that this game just stole some fundamental part of me and won't give it back. tl;dr, this is my response to that prompt. A response that is threatening, like the game, to steal bits of my life.
Sleep was Aedan's enemy. Every moment his eyes were closed he would see his home in flames, Oriana and Oren slain, his father lying bleeding to death on the dusty floor of the larder. The sounds of screams and cruel taunting would fill his ears in the quiet night and the youngest Cousland's eyes would open to stare at the canvas of Duncan's tent. They were two days out of Castle Cousland and the land around them was leveling out, a far cry from the high hills and cliffs of Aedan's home. He longed to return to the walls he'd grown up within but the mere thought of what Howe wrought there made his stomach lurch with a heavy combination of hate and grief.
Wearily, Aedan crawled out of the tent to sit around the fire where Duncan kept watch. Despite his initial anger at having left his parents to die, the youngest Cousland was grateful for the older man's intervention and presence. A part of Aedan knew that regardless of whether or not Duncan had been visiting with his family, his parents would have forced him to leave and seek out his brother. Duncan's presence gave him someone to blame as well as someone to hand responsibility to, though this did little for Aedan's conscience.
The first night out the Warden maintained a distance from Aedan. The youngest Cousland had the distinct feeling that the older man was giving him space to come to terms with everything. It was a nice gesture, though Aedan spent most of the night with his fingers curled into Shadow's fur, wanting to scream and rage and cry. He wasn't sure if he would ever come to terms with the massacre he survived. It didn't seem real, and Aedan didn't know how he would ever face the memories completely. He was never the sort of person who dealt with the intangible well.
This second night was worse than the first. It physically hurt to have this burden. During the day, Aedan could largely ignore the grief wearing at him. He could pretend to be out scouting for bandits on a mission to help a bann or pretend he volunteered to become a Grey Warden and would come back to the warm castle and spin tales of his adventures for his nephew. When that failed, the journey itself gave him solace, simple activity allowing him to lose himself for however small a moment.
The calm of night gave him none of this. Aedan was left alone with his traitorous mind, and he couldn't even begin to think of a way to let go of any of the tension. He was being wound too tightly, and he hated how little control he felt he had.
Everything was going wrong. Aedan picked up a thick stick from the small pile of tinder they collected earlier and poked at the fire as if he could provoke it to attack him. His body sung for battle. It the only thing he could think of that would allay any amount of the forces that threatened to break him. He could feel Duncan watching him, taking a measure of him perhaps, or wondering if he'd made the right choice in saving him. Maybe Aedan should have been left in the larder with his parents to die. What good was it that he was spared when his mind was set on making him a mess?
Heat pricked behind Aedan's eyes and he rubbed them, willing some of the graininess away. He was a Cousland, and quickly becoming a disgrace of one. He would dishonor the memory of his family if he couldn't hold himself together. Dimly, Aedan registered the soft grind and clink of heavy armor and took a deep breath, forcing the air past the catch in his throat.
This would not break him. He couldn't let it.
His throat tightened, and he cleared it weakly. He couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs. Aedan's hands shook as he tossed the stick into the fire and reached for the hem of his shirt, tearing it a little in distraction. If he could not even endure two days of this stress, he would save Duncan the trouble of sending him to his death in battle and find somewhere to drown himself quietly. Aedan closed his eyes and tried to calm his troubled mind. He began to count—a small meditation exercise that had always helped him as a boy still in training as a rogue.
There was a chilling scream. Shadow tugged at his sheets and whined, but Aedan was slow to wake.
The door burst inward the moment his hand touched the latch. Shadow lunged before the man could slice through Aedan's neck, and without thinking his hand went for a dagger and threw it at the archer behind the swordsman.
There were soldiers outside his parents' room, and he cut them down. The door to his brother's room was slightly ajar, but there was only darkness beyond. His mother was speaking to him—words he couldn't hear though he understood her prefectly. She expressed the fear that Aedan felt deep in his bones, and they armed themselves. The soldiers all bore Howe's standard. They had been betrayed.
Oren and Oriana lay slaughtered scant steps from Fergus's bed, and there were sounds of battle and screams from beyond the halls that led to their family's apartments. There was no shortage of the dead. They were certainly outnumbered.
Too many soldiers invading their home, some of them men Aedan recognized. Some of them were his teachers in his youth when he could only play at battle. Some of them were people he considered friends, but Aedan cut them down. One ill turn for another.
Rory and the other soldiers were losing ground. There were mages here, apostates that were winning the battle for the traitor. Without them, the men of Highever were better fighters, and so Aedan scooped up a bow off a fallen man and joined his mother in taking them down so that the tide of battle might change.
Dread. The castle could not be reclaimed, but neither could they surrender. They couldn't possibly lay down and offer their necks to a blade that would show no mercy and listen to no reason. This was their home. They had to fight.
Rory gathered the soldiers that were left and they braced the doors of the hall with the only defenses they had. Aedan's gut twisted as he realized this would be the last time he would see his best friend alive. None of them would survive this night.
They fought their way to the larder with the slimmest sliver of hope. His father lay dying on the floor, drenched in a pool of his own blood. They had to escape, but it was impossible. The Grey Warden offered a way, but Aedan couldn't take it. They would die here, and Fergus would be left without a clue. The last of the Couslands with no home to claim. His parents urged him to leave. To take that message, but what sort of son would he be if he left them to Howe's mercy?
He should be dead. Aedan felt as though he had died. Flames licked at the walls of the place he knew as home, but his feet would not carry him back. He should have died, he knew, but the burning castle grew smaller and smaller as he made his escape. It was wrong. He should never have left.
The touch of warm metal against his cheek drew Aedan out of his thoughts. Duncan had moved to draw him into an embrace against a strong chest. Through the heavy metal and layers of padding, the youngest Cousland imagined he could hear the Warden's heartbeat, drumming blank calm into Aedan's overtired mind. A small measure of the stress that held him together drained away at the gesture. They were little more than acquaintances, but Duncan's act of comfort helped Aedan feel grounded.
Aedan always responded well to his tactile sense. It was something real to hold on to, a welcome change from the constant company of the phantoms in his mind. They sat in silence for a time, content to hold or be held. The youngest Cousland had all but forgotten verbal communication until Duncan spoke, words rumbling up from the older man's chest and working their way into Aedan's exhausted frame.
"You do not wish to speak of it. It is too soon, too much and you are not ready for such a telling. I would not ask you to share. You owe me none of that." Duncan's hand—freed from its gauntlet, though when, Aedan didn't know—came to rest in his hair, "But you need to rest. You will feel better for it, and whatever dreams you have will be easier to face when you wake. Rest is maybe the last thing you wish to do, but it is needed."
The hand in Aedan's hair began to card through it gently, leaching the tension from his frame. The older man's presence was a balm to Aedan's raw nerves. He pressed closer to Duncan's side, unconsciously craving more of the gentle attention.
"I will help you bear this burden, Aedan. You are to become a Grey Warden, a title with no small amount of responsibility. We are brothers in the Grey. The burdens that one of us carries are burdens that we all share."
The horrific visions that played behind Aedan's closed eyelids began to fade with Duncan's words. His body was giving in to the exhaustion that tugged at it so heavily. The youngest Cousland felt the hand in his hair slip down to slide under his knees so the Warden could lift him. Duncan placed Aedan in the tent more gently than he would have believed the other man capable of and drew up the woolen blanket to his chin. Though it would have embarrassed him to do so were his head clear, Aedan reached for the older man when Duncan pulled away.
The youngest Cousland kept his eyes closed, ready to pass off the reaction as one done unconsciously and prompted by the lull of sleep if the Warden didn't receive it well. There was no such rejection and a beat passed before the creak of leather and clink of metal reached Aedan's ears and another few moments passed before he was pulled against a solid chest.
Aedan clung to that warmth that made the harder edges of hurt ebb away, filling his head with Duncan's heartbeat. The young recruit's body seized upon the chance for rest, and slowly, Aedan's mind passed into the Fade, his burden a little lighter.