tagCelebrities & Fan FictionStrings Attached Ch. 21-25

Strings Attached Ch. 21-25

byElyssaCousland©

Twenty-One: Nathaniel

The whole thing had gotten completely out of hand. Nathaniel sighed and tried to object for what had to be the fiftieth time since this plan had been suggested.

"It's simply too dangerous, Leliana. I won't allow you – or anyone else – to be hurt in my stead. This is my problem—"

"And this is how you're going to solve it, yes? You're going to get help from others who have more specific experience in this area."

He turned to the King, hoping for some support. "Your Majesty, surely you don't think—"

Cailan laughed. "Don't look at me for help. I spent most of a year bored to tears in Redcliffe while people fought and died for me, all for the greater good, or so they tell me. You'll get absolutely no sympathy from me!"

Leliana giggled. "Poor man." She sobered a little and turned to Nate earnestly. "Zevran is already in place anyway. We can't stop now without the conspirators realising that we're onto them. It's too late, my Lord."

"Look," Aedan said, "we've got this. But it won't work without you. Zev knows what he's doing, and I'll be watching too. But we need you on board. Are you with me?"

Nathaniel sighed reluctantly. "Not that I apparently have any choice in the matter...but fine. Let's go."

The plan, such as it was, was simple. The problem was that it put Zevran in danger, and the worry made Nate's stomach ache. Not that the assassin was weak or incompetent – he was a professional; Nathaniel just wasn't comfortable with someone else taking his risks.

But he'd been over-ruled – and now he would have to live with the consequences.



Leliana was called away on a last-minute delivery; dutifully she mounted her horse and rode out of camp in a rush.

Playing his part, Nathaniel approached the command tent alone. After a few minutes of quiet discussion, he stood meekly while Cailan shouted at him; for his part, the King was enjoying the theatre of it and worked himself into a right froth, upbraiding Nathaniel for some imaginary mistake. Finally creeping out of the tent, face red with suppressed laughter – though he hoped anyone watching would assume it was shame or anger – Nate strolled over to the Wardens' fire, like he did every evening. This time, though, instead of sitting alone as he usually did, he accepted the dwarf's offer of a sympathy drink. Oghren was crudely amusing, almost always drunk – though apparently recently had become less...sloppy was the word Sierra had used for it – and constantly challenged those around him to drinking contests. Faking his own shame, grunting something about needing a drink after the day he'd had, Nate took up the challenge and proceeded to gulp something from the flask the dwarf held out. Afterwards, they took turns swigging from that and the bottle of Antivan rum that Nate produced.

After a while, Aedan joined them around the fire, commiserating with Nathaniel about his public fall from favour. They drank a toast together, and Nate drank noisily. Over the course of the next few hours, he continued to drink steadily; the dwarf eventually moved on, but he left his flask behind and Nathaniel continued taking swigs. He became progressively louder and more vocal as he drank, cursing the king, the darkspawn, his father, and anyone else he could think of – before becoming maudlin and degenerating into sloppy, drunken declarations of affection, and finally falling into a sodden heap, sobbing on an amused Aedan's shoulder.

"All right, my friend, I think it's time for you to go sleep it off," Aedan laughed, pulling the flask out of a protesting Nate's hands. "Come on, up you get."

Doing a rather convincing impression of a dead body, Nate flopped to the ground as Aedan got up, and the Warden groaned as he tried unsuccessfully to pull the nobleman to his feet. After several more attempts, Aedan finally grabbed the first sober-appearing soldier who walked by the fire.

"You there! Give me a hand, would you?" Aedan asked.

"Yes, my Lord...Maker, what's that smell? Augh!"

Between them, the Warden and the soldier managed to heave the pungent, uncooperative Nathaniel to his feet and support him in an upright position; it took several minutes to half-drag, half-carry him the short distance across camp to his small tent. They had to recruit a third person – another nearby soldier – to help shove him into the tent, and the cursing could be heard all across the camp as they wrestled him inside and tried to loosen his clothes.

Finally Aedan declared it was close enough; leaving the snoozing Nate on top of his bedroll, fully clothed but at least with his boots off, Aedan and the two soldiers crawled out of the tent and went their separate ways. It was late; the patrolling guards on watch were far from the nobles' tents, and most of the torches had been extinguished. To all outward appearances, the camp went to sleep.

Twenty-Two: Leliana

Leliana yawned, fighting the urge to stretch. Unlike Zevran, she'd never trained for stealth or ambush; her strengths ran to seduction and manipulation. She'd never practiced lying in wait, motionless, for a target.

But there was no one else she'd trust to do this, no one with her aim – or her motivation to do the job well. So she stifled a sigh and remained still, watching over the darkened camp like a hawk. She was grateful for Anders; he'd known a spell to temporarily sharpen her vision, so it seemed as though it was mid-day, instead of the dark, moonless night it actually was.

She had watched her friends all evening, tracking the movements of the soldiers around them diligently. She had waited, unnoticed, while Aedan had poured Nathaniel into his tent. And now she watched as a dark shape detached itself from the shadows of another tent and slipped silently towards her sleeping...whatever he was. Lover wasn't the word – yet, if she had anything to say about it – but she didn't have another to describe what Nathaniel meant to her.

But all of that would be moot if she allowed her attention to wander at the critical moment. She rolled her eyes at herself – Sierra was going to bust a gut laughing at her when she found out, Leliana knew – and sighted down the length of her nocked arrow. The soldier from before, the one Aedan had recruited to help him, paused outside of Nate's tent, glancing surreptitiously around to see if anyone was nearby. Leliana had been watching long enough to know that no simple soldier had any reason to be in this part of the camp so late at night. He moved gracefully – too gracefully. Leliana drew her arm back, holding the bow steady, arrow poised to fire. This is it.

The soldier slipped silently inside the tent. At first nothing happened, but then there was a muffled shout. Nathaniel's tent lit up with the blue glow of an arcane lamp, and Leliana could see the silhouette of three male bodies grappling in the confined space. With an oath that echoed across the camp, a narrow blade emerged from the side of the tent and slid down quickly, tearing a rent in the fabric. Leliana waited, breathlessly, finally loosing the arrow she held as an arm and then an entire, unfamiliar upper body emerged from the hole. Her aim was perfect, piercing through the leather gauntlet the soldier wore and pinning his forearm to the ground with an audible thunk. The soldier let out a pained grunt as he tried to yank his arm off the arrow.

A compact, blonde-haired body came flying through the wall of the tent next, landing crouched on top of the immobilized soldier; dagger in hand and pressed to the vulnerable neck of the man underneath him, Zevran looked every inch the assassin he'd been trained to be, and the soldier started stuttering out pleas and apologies almost instantly.

Zevran ignored him. "Help the Arl!" he cried.

Leliana's stomach churned, suddenly feeling like she'd swallowed a lead weight. Had something happened to Nathaniel? She'd never forgive herself if he'd been injured, especially so soon after recovering from a major head injury. She slid out of the tree where she'd been perched for hours, and almost dropped to her knees as her stiff legs refused to hold her.

Using her bow as an improvised walking stick, she limped across the camp as fast as she could manage; Aedan beat her into the tent, and she relaxed as she heard the nobleman curse at the Warden through the thin walls.

"Let me up! I'm fine."

"Nate..."

"It's not my blood, Aedan. I managed to give the bastard a bloody nose. I'm fine!"

Leliana glanced at Zevran, who nodded at her and winked cheekily; he remained perched on top of the would-be assassin and looked to have made himself comfortable. He lazily slapped the man when he tried to speak again, and the soldier lapsed into a sullen silence. Satisfied that the elf had it under control, Leliana crouched and crawled into Nathaniel's tent just in time to see Aedan help him up. The false tent wall behind which Zevran had been hiding was torn and hanging awkwardly, and the legs of Zevran's captive protruded through the hole in the tent, his feet twitching periodically. The dark-haired noble had a dramatic bruise forming under one eye, but he grinned at her impishly anyway, and she chuckled.

"Ready to go meet the man who tried to kill you, my Lord?" She arched one eyebrow at him artfully.

"Bah," he scoffed. "It was barely an attempt."

Rolling her eyes, Leliana preceded him out of the tent. Aedan followed, and the three of them gathered around the prone soldier the elf was kneeling on. The soldier paled, seeing Nathaniel apparently uninjured and surrounded by allies – bearing weapons that were trained on him unflinchingly.

"Let him up," Nate commanded, and Zevran obliged, leaping to his feet adroitly. The man tried to rise, but failed, given his forearm still pinned to the dirt.

Leliana leaned down and grabbed the shaft of the arrow; the man cried out in pain as she snapped it off just above his arm. "Better than pulling it back out the way it went in, yes?" she snarked, earning herself a dirty look. "We can do it that way if you'd prefer."

He groaned as he slid his arm up the arrow; the flow of blood from his wound was sluggish and dark, and Leliana nodded to herself, satisfied that the poison she'd tipped her arrow with was working. It wouldn't kill him – but he wouldn't be escaping easily either, instead racked with stomach cramps and other, less pleasant gut effects.

Complaining the whole way, the soldier climbed to his feet, with Zevran and Aedan both holding blades to his throat. Nate cleared his throat and looked the man over from head to toe.

"Pretty impressive – you blended quite well. I wouldn't have guessed you weren't really one of ours until I noticed you lingering near my tent."

He winced. "Your Grace—"

"Don't bother with excuses. What's your name, and whose orders are you following? Being honest now will save you a lot of discomfort later, in case that hadn't occurred to you."

"My name's Joffrey, your Grace." He coughed, his voice sounding rough; Nathaniel gestured for Aedan and Zevran to relax, and reluctantly handed over a water skin he had tied at his belt.

Leliana didn't even have time to object – the cry left her lips just as the assassin lifted his hand and licked the skin on his wrist before taking a swig from the canteen. "No!"

Aedan stepped forward and grabbed him, wrenching his arms behind his back, but Leliana could tell it was already too late. He had a self-satisfied smile on his face, and he choked out a laugh.

"At least you'll go down with me." A trickle of blood escaped the corner of his mouth as he spoke.

Aedan snarled as Leliana paled, but Zevran stepped forward and pulled something from his belt – a small pouch, she saw, which he opened to reveal several tiny spikes of metal perhaps an inch long. Needles, she realised, and likely poisoned.

"You are referring to these, yes?" the Antivan asked with a smirk. "Poisoned needles in a bedroll are so...unimaginative. What sort of assassin are you?"

"The amateur kind. At least, I hope no one spent any coin on someone who's so bad at their job." Leliana had to giggle at Aedan's snarky reply, until Nate's smirk made butterflies twirl around in her stomach. She knew she shouldn't be finding him sexy when he could just have been killed – and their only lead had just poisoned himself, ruining their chances of tracing his employer – but there was just no chance that his particular half-smile wasn't going to set her mind spinning.

The assassin cursed – and then, slowly, slumped over. Aedan released his arms, and a corpse dropped at his feet. The Warden kicked the useless body with an oath. "Well, shit."

Twenty-Three: Nathaniel

Nate's smile fell, his hands clasping into fists at his side. "Maker take me, we had him. If I wasn't such a blighted idiot..."

Leliana turned to him, her smile sympathetic. "It's not your fault. You couldn't have known—"

"You did." Nate sighed. "I'll bet you all did. And I've just ruined any hope of pinning this on Esmerelle."

"He wouldn't have talked." The Antivan seemed completely confident in his assessment. "I know the type. Anyone willing to poison themselves to avoid capture wouldn't break. I doubt even his name was real."

"We'll never know now, will we?" He sighed. "Anyway, thank you again for your help. All of you. I'm not dead – and there probably won't be time for another attempt before we meet the Archdemon, so I guess it's a win?"

Aedan slapped Nate on the shoulder. "I'll find someone to clean up the body. You, my friend, need a new tent and a new bedroll. Even without the needles, I wouldn't want to sleep there."

"Get checked for injuries, yes? I am quite certain I found all of the needles, but..." Zevran trailed off.

Nate nodded and turned to walk away – where he was headed, he wasn't really sure. He had no intention of seeing the healers and would have to make a huge fuss to procure himself another bedroll and tent in the middle of the night, which he would never do.

He had gone only a few paces when he realised that there were footsteps following him. He spun, hand on the dagger sheathed at his waist, suddenly very anxious about a second attempt – but it was just Leliana, her red hair hidden in a deep hood, a sympathetic smile just visible in the dim light. She stepped towards him, closing the distance between them, and reached out to pry his fingers off the pommel. He released it with an embarrassed sigh, but somehow ended up with her hand in his, their fingers interwoven. Her hand was cold, and he shuddered at the contact – but it wasn't the temperature that got to him. He just stared at her, his throat tight, eyes prickling with an unfamiliar emotion.

She didn't say a word, just dragged him to the side, and after glancing surreptitiously around once, pulled him behind her through the opening of her tent. He hadn't even noticed how close they were to the small pavilion he used to inhabit. He ducked his head as he went through the flap, looking up just in time to be blinded by the arcane lamp she thumbed on. She turned and pulled him into a tight hug, Leliana's arms going around his neck, her fingers stroking his hair.

He hugged her back by instinct; he wanted to push her away, to protect her by keeping her as far from him as he could manage, but in that vulnerable moment he couldn't do it. He bent down, burying his face in the crook of her neck, his arms around her waist tightly. It suddenly hit him: someone had tried to kill him. It was different, being in combat where you could die, compared to having someone try to murder you in cold blood. He started to shake, and loosened his arms, embarrassed at his reaction, but Leliana seemed unfazed – and unsurprised. She kissed his ear, then his shoulder, and tightened her fingers in his hair to provide some pressure. She hummed softly, something soothing that he didn't recognise.

With a gasp, he sank slowly to his knees, and she came with him, half-supporting and half-directing his fall until he ended up cross-legged on the ground, with the bard in his lap.

"Leliana," he began, his voice unsteady, but she just hushed him and refused to let go. It was too much, and the sob he'd been holding back finally broke through. He lifted his head, knowing there were tears streaking down his face, wanting her to see them, to see the coward he was. "I'm sor—"

She interrupted him with a kiss, open-mouthed, her tongue tracing his lower lip, her sweet-smelling breath in his face, and suddenly nothing else mattered. He crushed her to his chest, kissing her back desperately, willingly losing himself in the feel, the taste, Maker, the smell of her.

He never wanted the kiss to end.

Twenty-Four: Leliana

She made a small, pleased sound when their tongues touched, and he swallowed her gasp as he nipped at her lips. Before she realised what had happened, she found herself sprawled across his chest, her knees on either side of his hips, as he laid back unceremoniously in the middle of the tent.

They kissed for an eternity, lips sliding deliciously against each other, their breath intermingling. He was a good kisser, not too aggressive, but nicely assertive, his tongue teasing hers, his breath quick and shallow. He tasted a little of the ale he'd pretended to drink, but also like himself – something unique and heady. He smelled foul, but more than made up for it by how he felt against her.

And it felt good – his body was hard and lean against hers, one of his hands kneading her ass, the other stroking up her spine. She could feel him hard against her thighs, and he shuddered deliciously when she rocked her hips against him.

She wanted this – wanted him – so badly it hurt. But he'd just had an attempt on his life, and she wasn't about to let him hide from that truth. He needed to deal with it – and she needed to know it was her he wanted, not just a distraction.

She gentled the kiss, then stopped with her forehead pressed against his softly. "The first time we make love," she quoted back at him with a smile, "it won't be on the ground with you smelling like the wrong side of a seedy tavern."

He groaned. "The first time?"

She giggled and shook her head against his. "I mean it. We need to check you for needles Zevran missed. Then you need a bath, and some sleep."

"There's no needles," he objected.

"You wouldn't necessarily know, truthfully. They are small enough to be virtually painless, and often coated with a numbing agent in addition to poison." She climbed off him awkwardly and tugged his hand until he sat up. "Tunic off, yes?"

She made quick work of inspecting the fabric for tears, and then spent a few more minutes examining his chest and back in detail. She teased him to distract him from her purpose, running her fingers along his ribs and waist, enjoying his chuffs of laughter when she hit a ticklish spot almost as much as the gasps when she touched somewhere sensitive in a different way.

He seemed to enjoy it, getting in a few kisses and caresses while she looked, blushing as she openly admired his physique.

It was a glorious job, she reflected; he was strong and lean, his muscles well-developed, his skin bronze and smooth, with a few scars for the sake of variety. Finding nothing worrisome, she sat back and grinned at him sympathetically. "And now the rest."

Twenty-Five: Nathaniel

He sighed. Any other time the woman had asked him to take his clothes off, he'd have been thrilled. However, she'd made it quite clear that nothing was going to happen that night, and as he got a whiff of the alcoholic stench coming off his clothes – to both disguise the liquor he hadn't drunk, and also hide the fact that his breath didn't smell very strongly – he admitted she was probably wise to decline. But now he was supposed to shuck his trousers so she could inspect his bare skin – while fully hard and almost desperately aroused.

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