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Velanna holds up a hand, face turning even more forbidding than usual. “Don’t!”

Nathaniel comes to a sudden halt two steps from her, all of him slumping and making him look smaller as if he’s trying to disappear, which is quite a feat for a tall human standing in the middle of Vigil’s Keep’s courtyard. It’s too great a feat even for an assassin of his skill, so he has to make do with shifting his weight from one leg to the other. “My lady…”

She grits her teeth and turns away slightly, facing the well as if there was anything interesting about it, anything at all.

The courtyard is crowded around them, soldiers going this way and that, guards chatting amongst themselves. The hammering coming from the forge, more hammering coming from the stonemasons. In the midst of rebuilding, Vigil’s Keep is even more of a beehive of activity than usual.

This is the worst possible time and place for a private conversation and the very thought of having it here makes Velanna’s skin crawl. And yet…

“Back to being formal?” she snaps, shoulders stiffening even more. My lady. That’s what he had called her in the earliest days with the Wardens. It grates, even though she knows Nathaniel intended it respectfully; he had explained as much – because you deserve to be treated with respect, she could still hear him explain in his earnest voice. But whatever his reasons, it made her bristle. At first, because she couldn’t help looking for mockery beneath the earnestness and now… “I thought you had decided we are past that.”

It’s unfair. She knows it’s unfair as soon as the words are out and regrets them at the same moment – too late.

She regrets them more when Nathaniel makes a wounded noise at the back of his throat. From the corner of her eyes, she can watch his shoulders slump another notch. Trying to make himself invisible now.

“I’m sorry. I.” He shifts his weight from one leg to the other. He’s avoiding to look at her. “I should go.”

She keeps watching him from the corner of her eyes. His long, drawn face is pale and solemn as ever. Much like her, Nathaniel is the kind of person who doesn’t really know how to look happy. They’re both unused to the emotion. This is different, though, today he looks wounded.

He’s the only human she has ever deemed not useless. He may even be the only human she has ever trusted – and she has no intentions of expanding that list, either. If it had been anyone else, she would have set them on fire for kissing her.

Nathaniel, though, Nathaniel is different. He has always been a special case, the way he wormed his way under her defenses without making her want to lash out – well, not much anyway, she is still going to hold a grudge forever for calling her ears clownish.

The celebrations after her return from protecting the human village had been small, it having been just one skirmish among many for the other inhabitants of the Keep. Only those who knew her full story and knew her could truly understand what it had cost her to risk her life for humans and had celebrated not her victory over lingering darkspawn but rather her victory over her past.

Maybe Nathaniel hadn’t understood, how could he, for all the understanding he had gained he is still shemlen, but he had rejoiced in her victory all the same.

They had drunk and talked and their heads had moved ever closer together and when the campfire had burned low and everyone else was gone, he had kissed her and it had felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Velanna scowls, dreading and fearing the inevitable feeling of her face burning with heat. “Yes,” she says, her voice only a little high-pitched with suppressed emotion and mostly just curt, “you should go.”

He should. She doesn’t want him to but he should.

Because last night she had kissed him back but last night it hadn’t mattered what they are or who they are. Last night had been magical. This, though, this is today, with a courtyard full of soldiers pretending not to eavesdrop and Velanna remembering exactly, painfully who and what they are.

She picks at a loose thread on her left gauntlet and wishes he would leave already. She wishes so hard for it, it makes her sick with yearning for him and this mad desire that he would cross this far-too-large distance between them and kiss her again, right here and now in front of everyone. Only, Nathaniel would never. The only reason she can trust him at all is because he isn’t the kind of man who would do that. But if he isn’t, if he doesn’t, and if she isn’t that kind of elf either, then who is ever going to budge first?

“I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.” Quiet and solemn again, and she closes her eyes as she lets his voice wash over her like a caress. She loves his voice, even when he is hurting because of her.

Velanna nods sharply and swallows down the lump in her throat. There’s some shuffling behind her, Nathaniel still lingering. He doesn’t want to leave. He’s lingering, still hoping against hope that she will ask him to stay, Velanna realizes. The realization makes the ache in her belly twist into something sharp and nauseous because she wants it so badly, too. She wants it so much it hurts.

But they are what and who they are and not all the wishes in the world will ever change that. People can only bend themselves so much, or for so long, into new shapes. In the long run, this will prove the lesser hurt.

The hammer in the forge falls silent and is replaced by the muffled noises of Master Wade and Herren’s affectionate bickering. It drives prickling, stinging tears to her eyes.

She is still blinking away the tears when light rogue’s footsteps alert her that Nathaniel has grown tired of hoping.

It’s better this way, she reminds herself. One day he will understand she’s doing him a kindness.

“Nathaniel?” He halts and turns towards her and there is so much raw hope in his eyes that the ache she feels nearly numbs her – but she’s long since learned to push through the pain and keep doing what needs to be done, even if it adds to her pain. “I’m sorry, too.”