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Title: Hard Truths
Fandom: Dragon Age: Origins
Rating: G
Wordcount: 2,871
Characters: Alistair, Sereda Aeducan; Alistair/Aeducan
Spoilers: Dwarf Noble Origin and Alistair's Family quests
Notes: It will probably not surprise you that I tend to play my Wardens as fairly selfless paladin types who do whatever they can to help people out. As a result, I find the line of dialogue they have to speak to "harden" Alistair rather out of character. This is an attempt to reconcile that dichotomy, at least for my Aeducan. Unlike my other "missing scene" fics, this is more of a rewrite and expansion of a conversation that happens in canon.

Relates directly to Ties that Bind, although it's also meant to stand alone.

"Everyone is out for themselves. You should learn that."


The words had been turning themselves over and over in Alistair's mind, for days, ever since they'd left Denerim behind them. It was... not the worst advice, he had to admit. A practical way of looking at the world, if somewhat depressing. But he found it jarring to hear such a cynical sentiment from Sereda, who so often went out of her way to help others: the mages of the Circle, Arl Eamon and his family, refugees and townsfolk, anyone who needed a hand. The contradiction ate at him, and so their fourth night on the Imperial Highway, he made a point of catching her alone by the fire, tapping her lightly on the shoulder.

She turned and looked at him with a smile, though it seemed a bit forced to his eyes. "Hi, Alistair. Need something?"

"I wanted to talk to you. About what happened at Goldanna's house, and the things you said afterwards. About how everyone is only out for themselves?" Her expression closed down -- eyes narrowing, lips pressing together -- and Alistair took a deep breath before continuing. "I've been thinking about that, a lot. And I think you're right. At least, I've decided that need to look out for myself more, worry less about pleasing everyone else. But I have to ask: do you really think that's true?"

Her eyes darkened further. "Yes. I do."

"Then why do you go to such lengths to help other people? Are you out for yourself when you do that?"

At first, she didn’t respond, the silence stretching into a minute, then longer, the crackling of the fire loud in Alistair's ears. Then she indicated the rest of the party with a toss of her head. "Not here," she muttered. "C'mon." She headed into the shadows of the woods that surrounded the camp, and Alistair followed. When they were a safe distance away, she stopped and leaned back against a tree, arms crossed over her chest. "All right. I said, back when we left the Circle Tower, that I'd tell you why I joined the Grey Wardens. You've probably noticed that I've been putting it off, avoiding the subject. But I guess it's time, if only so you understand."

"Understand what?"

"Well." She shifted her eyes sideways. "You... aren't the only one who kept some secrets about their family background. I told you that I'm noble caste, but I never told you how noble. My father was Endrin Aeducan, king of Orzammar."

Alistair's mouth dropped open. Then he closed it. Then he opened it again, wanting to say something, anything, but no words came, so he shut it one more time while he gathered his thoughts. By the time he was ready to speak, she looked concerned. "I mean, you know that I, of all people, can understand why you didn't say anything before. But as hard a time as you gave me for hiding my parentage..."

She gave her head a single, sharp shake. "Your heritage has more bearing on our quest than mine."

"How can you say that?" Alistair stared at her, hard. "You're not just any dwarf, you're their princess. How can that not help us compel the dwarves to honor their treaty with the Grey Wardens?"

"I'm not a princess," she replied, an edge of frustration in her tone. "Not any more. I'm a casteless exile. No name, no house, no influence. The Wardens are respected among my people, but that's all. I don't even know whether they'll let me past the door." She let out a sharp breath, exhaled through her nose. "I... I'm sorry. You're right, I should have told you. I just-- didn't want to. It's... painful. Even to think about."

"You don't have to talk about it if you'd rather not," Alistair said softly. "I don't wish to cause you pain."

Her laugh was bitter. "The pain is already here. I've been living with it for months, and now, since Gorim told me... no. I have to get it out."

"Gorim?" Alistair thought back over the past few days. "The dwarf merchant? In Denerim? The one you went off to have a talk with?"

"The same. He's my oldest friend, my second, my right hand. All my life, until..." She sighed. "But I should start from the beginning. I am, as I've said, the daughter of Endrin Aeducan. I had two brothers, one older and one younger. My brothers... I got on with my younger brother Bhelen well enough. I never thought much about him, to be honest -- he wasn't the heir, not much of a soldier, thinker, or politician. My older brother, though. Trian. The heir to the throne and an insufferable ass, the eternal thorn in my side. I was Father's favorite, you see. And although the chances that he would have named me heir were slim to none, Trian still saw me as a threat, and he did whatever he could to pull me down, undercut my influence."

Alistair nodded, understanding. "And so he got you exiled?"

"After a fashion." She fell silent for a moment, and when she resumed speaking, the words came quickly, stumbling on top of each other as if bursting through a barricade. "On the same day that my father named me to my first military command, Bhelen warned me that Trian was plotting to kill me to assure himself a clear path to the throne. I had no reason not to believe Bhelen -- if anything, Trian despised Bhelen even more than he hated me, so I couldn't imagine them working together -- but I hesitated, even though Bhelen urged me to strike first. What if Bhelen was mistaken? Or what if there was some way to expose Trian's treachery without killing him? So I waited, and then it was too late -- there was a darkspawn breach on the Deep Roads close to Orzammar, and my father sent Gorim and me on a mission to the family thaig. Once there, Bhelen was proven right: some men working for Trian were waiting in ambush. I took care of them, stormed off to confront Trian... and found him dead at the rendezvous point."

"Dead?" Alistair swallowed, chill fingers of dread creeping down his back. "By whose hand?"

Sereda's mouth set into a hard line. "Guess."

He didn't want to say it; it was just too horrifying. But he made himself speak the words. "Your other brother. Bhelen."

She nodded. "Oh, I doubt he held the sword himself. I can even guess who he got to do his dirty work: the same dusters he paid to ambush me. But regardless, the effect was the same. Trian was dead, and my father found me standing over his body, weapon in hand. And the scouts in my party lied and said I had killed him. Father didn't want to believe it, I know. But he turned on me anyway. The Assembly found me guilty after less than an hour's debate, exiled Gorim to the surface, and threw me into the Deep Roads to die. I only escaped because I knew Duncan was on patrol there; I tracked him and convinced him to conscript me into the Wardens." She spread her hands as if concluding a speech. "And so there you have it. One brother would have killed me, another succeeded in betraying me, and my father did nothing to stop it. And you wonder why I'm a bit cynical about the notion of family? I think that's reason enough, don't you?"

Alistair could only nod in reply.

She looked away again. "And now Father is dead, and Bhelen will probably take the throne, the lying, scheming little stone-cursed fool. And I have to go back there, crawling on my hands and knees, begging his aid to face the Blight? Feh!" She spat on the ground, her face contorting with rage. "I would rather die. But that's the choice, isn't it?" Taking two steps away from the tree and lifting her chin to the sky, shoulders slumping as the anger drained from her. "I will die, if I don't. And not just me: you, Wynne, Leliana, everyone else in Ferelden. Which means it isn't really a choice at all."

Silence fell once again, her last words ringing with desolation, and Alistair found himself with no concept of how to respond. It was a terrible tale, much worse than anything he could have imagined; a simple "I'm sorry" seemed sorely inadequate, but more elegant words escaped him, and no response at all might be even worse. What he truly wanted was to take her in his arms: to kiss her and hold her close, to create a refuge from all her sorrows within his embrace, to tell her how much he-- not love, not now, don't even think those words, Alistair, this is really not the time --cared about her.

So he did the most he dared: laid a hand on her shoulder in an awkward pat, and spoke the words that were still the best that came to mind: "I'm sorry."

She didn't move, or look at him, but he thought he felt her relax beneath his touch. "Thanks," she said, softly. "I appreciate it. Really." Then she did turn, and though she did not smile, her brow had smoothed. "I don't actually believe that everyone is always out for themselves. But Gorim had just told me about my father's death, as well as some some other unwelcome news. So I was feeling more cynical than usual when I went with you to Goldanna's, and my words came out harsher than I intended. But I still think there's a basic truth to it: many people really are out for themselves, family as much as anyone. If you keep being so fast to trust, you will get hurt. And I don't want to see you hurt like that again."

Alistair's heart jumped into his throat -- did she really say-- did that mean she-- He took a few careful breaths to get his voice under control, pulling his hand back even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. "I appreciate the advice, I really do. And I'll do my best to take it. It's about time I toughened up a bit, anyway." He backed away, then turned to look at her again, brows raised as a thought struck him. "So you're telling me that you're a disowned royal scion, the rightful heir by blood, with a price on your head." He couldn't help it -- his mouth twitched with a smile that threatened to burst into a laugh. "What are the odds?"

Sereda snorted, a light of mild amusement coming into her eyes. "I never thought of it that way." She pursed her lips, then sighed. "It's different for you, though. You never wanted to sit on Ferelden's throne."

"And in the end, I might have to. Ironic, isn't it?" Alistair forced himself to keep his tone light. "Too bad we can't crown you Queen of Ferelden. Somehow I don't think the Landsmeet would take it too well."

Her smile broke through at last, and she shook her head. "No, I really don't think so. Besides, I don't think I want to rule anymore. Even if it meant that I could take Bhelen's head off his shoulders. No, I like being a Grey Warden. It suits me." She took step closer to him and looked into his eyes, expression growing serious yet again. "Thanks for listening to me, Alistair. I... it's hard sometimes, being in charge, having to hold it all together. It was good to have a chance to let some of that go. Could you do me another favor, before we go back to camp?"

"Anything you need," he replied with a nod.

"When I was in Denerim, Gorim gave me a letter. From my father." She lowered her eyes. "I've been putting off reading it, because I'm afraid of what it might say. But it's been eating at me; I have to know. Would you wait with me while I do?"

"Of course." Alistair watched as she pulled a rolled note from her pack, spread the sheet open, and read. After a moment, she bit her lip, folded the letter into quarters, and clutched it in one hand as she covered her face with the other. The gesture of sorrow drilled straight to his heart, sharp as an arrow, and once again he had to fight the urge to pull her into an embrace. Instead he projected a feeling of comfort, of solidarity, as best as he could, while wondering just what the letter said.

"Father, oh Father," she finally murmured, drawing her hand over her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose and looking down at the ground. "What did we do to you? If only I could..." She closed her eyes with a weary sadness, shaking her head slowly. Then she put the letter away, tucked it carefully back in her pouch, and looked at Alistair. "Let's go back to camp. I want to give you something."

Before he could reply, she had turned on her heel and started walking, each step more brisk and professional than the one before, the mantle of the commander settling back on her shoulders, and he knew she would never speak of this to anyone else. It gave him hope, that she would confide her secrets to him. Maybe, someday, he could admit how he felt about her in return.

They broke back into the clearing and made straight for Bodahn Feddic's wagons. The merchant poked his head out of the back with a cheery smile. "M'lady! What can I do for you?"

Alistair had always wondered at Bodahn's choice of address toward Sereda; now he understood, both why Bodahn used it and why Sereda concealed a wince every time. "Evening, Bodahn," she said. "Can you fetch me the item I had delivered from Denerim?"

"Of course, m'lady." Bodahn disappeared behind the curtains, then emerged a few minutes later, carrying a shield in both hands. It gleamed silver, a bright yellow crest engraved on its front. "Is this the one you mean?"

"The same." He lowered it down to her, and she took it. "Thanks. Good night."

"Need anything else? No? See you in the morning, then." Bodahn nodded to Alistair, then went back into his wagon.

Sereda hooked the shield over her arm for a moment as if testing its weight. "This is the Aeducan Shield," she said. "My father had it sent to Gorim along with the letter, just in case he should find that I had survived. It's been in my house since the Paragon Aeducan had it forged to fight the darkspawn swarms on the Deep Roads." She slid her arm out of the handles and held it out to Alistair. "Now I want you to have it."

"Me?" Alistair stepped back, shaking his head. "But it's a priceless family heirloom. What if I break it?"

"This heirloom was created and specially enchanted to fight darkspawn," she countered. "Someone ought to put it to that purpose instead of letting it hang on some wall, don't you think? And you'll make better use of it than I ever could. If nothing else, it's an upgrade over that templar hand-me-down you've been using." She stepped forward and lifted up the shield. "Go on, take it."

With only a little hesitation, Alistair obeyed, wrapping his hands around the edges. It was a targe, a tad smaller than the shields he was used to carrying, but it seemed strong for its weight. He slid his arm through the strap and closed his fingers around the grip, then made a few experimental feints with it, as though to block a blow, or knock down a genlock. He had to admit, it felt good. "Silverite?" he asked.

She shrugged. "I'm no smith, but I think so. Quality metal, anyway. As you would expect from dwarven make."

A hint of pride crept into her voice, as it often did when she spoke of her people's accomplishments, and Alistair smiled to hear it. Perhaps she was not so disconnected from her home after all. He removed the shield from his arm, then bowed to her. "Thank you," he said. "I will wear it with pride."

"You're welcome." She smiled him, backing away as she did so. "Now I should get some sleep before my watch, and so should you. We have a lot of ground to cover if we want to find Brother Genitivi in time to help Arl Eamon." Her hand came forward and closed around his wrist. "Thank you, again. I mean it. For listening, and for... just for being you. I appreciate it more than I can say."

Then she was gone, walking toward her tent, and Alistair's eyes followed her until he could see her no more, head and heart buzzing with complicated thoughts and emotions. She had answered his question with much more than he had bargained for, and he wondered how much longer he would be able to resist her.

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