Grey Wardens have a limited life span: thirty years, give or take, from the Joining to the Calling. When the Calling comes, there are two choices: find a way to die, or be changed into a darkspawn, the very creatures you've sworn to protect against. So most Grey Wardens go to the Deep Roads: ancient Dwarven tunnels, now crawling with darkspawn. They swear to take out as many of the monsters as they can before succumbing to axe or spear or arrow in the bowels of the earth.
My firm knock on the door brought a muffled shout, followed by some rustling, and finally the door opened. Zevran stood there, shirtless, just as he'd looked for the last thirty years; he didn't seem to age, but tonight there were lines around his eyes, and dark circles under them, and I knew he felt as old as I.
I brushed past him, uninvited, glancing around his room curiously. For all that we'd known each other for three decades, I'd never been in his room. It was tidy, his armour on a stand in the corner, no clothes on the floor or discarded foodstuffs on trays; I don't know why I expected that, but somehow I did. He sighed and closed the door behind me, not even smirking as I looked around. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and just waited. He always had been the patient one.
Aedan leaned in slowly and kissed me, and surprised, I didn't immediately respond. But his lips were soft and probing and perfect, and I felt my heart skip as I opened my mouth to kiss him back. I finally pulled away, torn between desire and confusion.
"But I thought ... you and Zevran..." His dark bushy eyebrows furrowed a little.
"We are. But there's just something about you..." He leaned in again, but I pulled away.
"So what, then? You're breaking up with him?"
He sighed. "No. I won't. But ... he understands. I was hoping you might as well."
I did one more circle around the room, looking out of the small window onto the wintry scenery below - it never completely thawed, up here at Soldier's Peak. I returned to Zevran, still standing near the door. His bronze skin glowed in the firelight, and I reached out one hand to touch him, his chest, just below his collarbone. He gasped, softly, but didn't pull away. He was still handsome, after all this time. I wondered what he thought about me. I decided not to dwell on it.
"I need him, Nala. But I need you too. I love you. I want to be with you forever. But ... it will always be the three of us."
"No. It will be the two of you, and the two of us. I love you, and if this is the price to be with you, I will pay it, but I'm not getting involved, either."
"I can make it work. I swear to you, you'll never regret this. I love you."
Taking my hand back, I reached down to the hem of my silk dress, and in one smooth motion pulled it up and off. I let it slither to the ground, purple silk puddling beside the chair. I was wearing nothing underneath the dress, and I watched with some satisfaction as his eyes traveled over my naked torso. The bulge in his pants was enough to let me know I was still at least somewhat attractive.
"Marry me, Nala? Please? I need to know you'll be mine forever."
"And what about Zevran?"
"He understands, Nala. Better than I do. He's okay with this."
"And if I'm not?"
"Oh, please, love. Don't. Don't make me choose. I can't. I won't. It would kill me. I need you both."
The distress on his face was agonising, but I couldn't say no, couldn't walk away from this man.
"Okay. Yes, Aedan. I'll marry you." I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
He dropped his arms, and I approached him, one hand touching his shoulder, the other on his lean stomach, feeling the muscles tense beneath the skin. He was shorter than Aedan, and less bulky. I teased him, fingers caressing softly, and I felt him shudder slightly though he made no sound. I moved closer, so our breath mingled and I could feel the warmth of his skin radiating across the gap to mine. I leaned in, moving my lips close to his ear. I stuck my tongue out, tentatively, and stroked the long, pointed outside curve of his elven heritage, drawing a small gasp.
We had made it work. Somehow, despite the awkwardness, we were both committed because of our love for Aedan. We ate together. We spent time together, learning to live together. Coming to respect each other, maybe even to be friends. We all agreed to keep our displays of affection private, and that helped. I knew the offer for me to join them both was there, but I never took it. I just ... couldn't. I loved my Grey Warden, and that was enough for me. I stopped wishing Zev would disappear, but I didn't invite him into our bed, either.
I whispered, the only words I could manage, hoping he could understand what I needed. Wondering if he needed it too.
"I'm not here for love." There was more I wanted to say - beg him to take me, distract me, somehow show me it was all a bad, bad dream - but my lips wouldn't obey. I waited, haunted by memories.
Twenty-five years of marriage, and a set of rambunctious twins. Who could ask for more? We hid our arrangement from them, they just grew up with an 'Uncle Zevran' who spoiled them rotten at every opportunity. They were grown, Bryce off fighting at the head of the army, Eleanor married to Nathaniel Howe's eldest, soon to become Arlessa of Amaranthine. Everything was perfect. Unlike the few noblewoman I knew well, my husband did not take lovers, did not stray. Except for Zevran, the cause of my never-quite-complete confidence.
And one day, after twenty-five years, I found him, in the little office that we shared. Kneeling on the floor, holding his head. Tears streaming down his face. The only other time I'd seen him cry was when the children were born.
"I can ... feel them, Nala. Hear them. Calling to me."
"What? Feel who? Let me call for a healer. Just stay still, Aedan."
I screamed into the hallway for a healer; there was always a guard just around the corner to keep people out of the family chambers, and I knew he'd hear. I returned to Aedan, wrapping my arms around him, holding him until Bain entered. He'd been recruited to the Grey Wardens a decade ago, and had saved my Aedan from death a handful of times. I sighed in relief. He took Aedan from me, laid him on the couch, and shooed me out of the room with the others who'd come at my frantic summons. Zev was there, face lined with worry much as mine was. Our eyes locked, and for the first time since we'd met nearly three decades before, I understood him exactly. Almost unconsciously we reached for each other's hands and held on for dear life.
Later, outside our bedroom where Aedan slept, Bain finally explained.
"I can't heal him, My Lady. There's no way to heal this ... problem."
I looked confused, more so when Zevran's face went pale and he staggered back. Seeing my confusion, the healer continued, uncomfortable. "It's his Calling, My Lady. Not an illness. There's no way to heal the Calling."
Horror plastered itself to my face, where I knew it would stay. I'd heard about the Calling, but I'd never seen it - Aedan was the most senior Grey Warden at this outpost. I'd managed to forget, convince myself it wasn't real. That it couldn't happen - not to my gentle, loving husband. Not to me. I felt an anguished cry escape my lips, and then Zevran was on me, covering my mouth, whispering.
"We mustn't make it worse for him, mia sorella." I had no idea what the nickname meant, but it had stuck for decades. I'd never thought to ask. Stupid things that occur to you when your world is ending. "We must be strong for him, so he doesn't have to be. We must hold it together, keep up appearances. Can you do this? If not, go somewhere, cry, scream, whatever you must do, and come back after. Do not go in there and let him see you cry."
I felt my heart beating wildly - would he understand? Would he consent? My fears were allayed when he brought his hands up, one on my waist, one on the side of my neck, and he tilted my head back firmly. His lips skimmed my jaw and down to kiss over where my pulse pounded. I sighed, and he opened his mouth and sucked. That drew a slight moan, a mix of enjoyment and disappointment, and then he finally got the picture. He sucked some of my sensitive, pale skin into his mouth and bit down. I could tell he hadn't broken the skin, but the pain was exquisite and exactly what I needed. I gasped and writhed in his grasp, my breasts pressed against his naked chest, my nipples rock hard, goose bumps breaking out across my entire body.
"Nala, love. I know you're being strong for me. I love you for that, but ... I know you. You don't have to pretend for me."
"Aedan, if I lose control, I'll never stop screaming. I love you, darling. I can do this, for you."
The children had come to say their goodbyes, and Bryce had taken over as the Arl of the new Arling around Soldier's Peak called Warden's Roost. The ceremony was set to go once Alistair arrived. The former King of Ferelden, my husband's best friend. The only other Grey Warden likely to be going through the Calling at the same time. Aedan said he could feel him coming, so we knew he must be close.
Zevran knocked, and I bade him enter. The three of us, long-since having learned how not to be awkward together, sat and held hands and talked of old times. Watching the children learn to walk. Going with them to Denerim to meet 'Uncle Alistair' and his son, Duncan. Who was now King - we discussed that, and all agreed he'd be the best ruler Ferelden ever had. Watching new recruits Join, and train, and succeed. Watching some of them die. The first days after the establishment of the Arling, trying to learn to feed a growing number of Grey Wardens, never quite able to adjust for their insane metabolisms.
When it was time for bed, and Zevran got up to leave, I stopped him. It was the first time all three of us had shared a bed. There was no sex; just both of us knowing that Aedan needed us both more than ever.
Suddenly his hands were everywhere. Strong hands, so like Aedan's. My neck, my back, my breasts, even my ass; he kneaded them, tweaked my nipples, bent down to suck one small breast into his mouth and then bite again with his sharp teeth. I stood, fighting myself to remain still, fisting one hand in his silky, golden hair, feeling it, but it wasn't enough. I needed more. The hand in his hair pulled, sharply, and I hissed in disappointment as his hands returned to my waist. Maybe he didn't understand. Maybe he didn't consent.
Aedan stood, warm clothes covering his flexible leather armour. It was time. We had one last moment in private before he would leave Soldier's Peak for the last time, to go to the Deep Roads with Alistair and attempt to die well. Zevran was there, of course, and I wouldn't have had it any other way. We had spent the last weeks together as much as possible, the three of us. I finally understood, and wished it hadn't taken this to bring about the epiphany.
Aedan took my hand in one of his, and one of Zevran's in the other, then placed our hands together like a wedding ceremony.
"Take care of each other. For me." We nodded.
He kissed Zevran, one soft, loving kiss, and repeated it with me. I managed to blink back the tears that threatened, and showed him only my strong face. I knew I'd have plenty of time to be weak later, alone. And then he let go of us both and walked out of our chambers, out of the keep, and out of our lives.