Chapter 1: A Good Man
This story has taken up a lot of my brain. It’s the first multi chapter fic I’ve put on here, let me know what you think. I literally cheer at every kudos, and I love to hear from readers!
“Your father… was a good man.” Morrigan’s voice drifted up from the courtyard below as Zaire Cadash passed nearby, hurrying back to her quarters after stabling her horse. The sun had dropped below the edges of the mountains, plunging the courtyards of Skyhold into a gloomy twilight.
She resisted the urge to slow her stride and kept moving, unsure if she could keep it together if she had to hear the reply. She swallowed, choking back the emotion that she felt sneaking in. I’m the Inquisitor. I can’t afford any more emotion after the last few days.
As if on cue, she passed a scout. “Inquisitor,” he said, nodding to her. She nodded back. No amount of time would make her feel comfortable with everyone noticing her everywhere she went. Back in the Carta, being noticed was a liability. She couldn’t afford to look weak, couldn’t afford to break down. Pulling herself up straighter, she reminded herself to focus, to show only strength where others could see her. Especially after her judgment of Thom Rainier the day previous, which she worried that some in Skyhold would have an issue with. Then again, if they didn’t like it, they could walk in her boots. Being Inquisitor was not an easy job.
She moved more into the shadows where people would be less likely to walk at this time of night. It was easier for her to see in the dark and sticking to the shadows offered her a small measure of privacy she wouldn’t otherwise have.
Morrigan hadn’t outright stated who Kieran’s father was, but Zaire heard enough to have worked it out. The awkward conversations with Morrigan and Alistair. Alistair’s comments about how they’d traveled with the Hero of Ferelden. Morrigan suddenly being willing to comment on Kieran’s parentage in passing.
He won’t get a chance to know his father. And that’s on me.
She still felt off her stride in the aftermath of Adamant and Blackwall’s subsequent departure and turbulent return. She had spent her entire day in constant meetings with her advisors, and she was honest enough with herself to-
“Still out and about trying to out walk your problems?” Dorian asked, sauntering out from a side passage. His dark blue robes swayed, silver trim catching bits of dying light.
“My legs are too short to out walk my problems.” She stared straight ahead, not slowing her stride. “That’s why I’ve been out riding a horse.”
“I too avoid overly walking when other options are available.” He matched his stride to hers. “I wouldn’t mind going out for a ride next time you need to get out. It’s a lonely life in the middle of nowhere.”
Zaire snorted, glancing over at him. “I’ll tell Cullen you’re lonely.”
“If you can find him not working or sulking, please do.” He winked. “Maybe I like your charming company.”
“Yes, I still have that bottle of wine in my quarters, if that’s your roundabout way of asking.” A smile formed on her lips despite her mood. It was why she had become so close to Dorian over the last number of months with the Inquisition; he was always there in his own strange way. He’d joke about the wine, but he’d spend more time listening to her than drinking. He always did.
“Excellent. It will go with the food I’ve asked to be delivered there so that you remember to eat.” He made a face and reached out to brush a bit of dirt off her coat. “Perhaps it would also go well with bathing.” He wrinkled his nose. “You smell like a stable.”
“I think that’s the least of my problems.” She cast her eyes up to the sky at the descending darkness as they walked into the main courtyard, frowning at the clouds that had blown in while she rode. As her eyes searched the clouded sky, a fat raindrop landed on her forehead. She wiped it away. “And rain. Of course.”
“Yes, well. It does happen in this dreary place. But if I am to walk slow so you can keep up with me, we’re certainly opening that bottle of wine when we get to your quarters.” He placed a hand on her shoulder as they walked. “If you stopped by the stable, does that mean that you’ve gotten around to-”
“No,” she said, perhaps a little too sharply. She winced. “Sorry. No. I didn’t. He wasn’t there.”
“Probably with Sera, then. I’m sure they’re off being thoroughly unsavory together.” He lifted his hand from her shoulder reached out to tug on her hood. “You may want to put this on.” He pulled his cloak closer around himself as the rain began in earnest. Thunder cracked in the distance.
She reached up and pulled her hood over her head to keep the worst of the rain off as the sky opened up and poured water onto them. “We’ll talk about it in my quarters.” She huddled in her wool cloak.
“Fair enough.” His gazed remained steady on her. “How were all of your meetings today?”
She sighed at the thought of another long day of meetings with her advisors, especially as the strain of losing Alistair hung over all of them. In particular, she felt concerned for Morrigan; she hid it well, but Zaire couldn’t deny that she was off. She’d wanted to ask how she was doing, given that Morrigan had known Alistair so long and there seemed to be more to the situation. With Alistair’s widow being the Hero of Ferelden, though, it hadn’t been a point she wanted to broach. “Fine. A lot to do. Always too much to do. Everyone was shaken up after Adamant, and then there was yesterday…” The judgment of Thom Rainier. The hardest trial for her so far, and something told her that even more difficult ones were to come.
“Yes. I had to hear Cullen rage about that all last night.” The mage rolled his eyes. “Not as badly as he did about the Samson situation, but enough.”
“Sorry you had to deal with it.” They reached the hall, where the day before she’d had to pass judgement on the man she loved. A judgement that was far kinder than what many people felt he’d deserved. A number of nobles were still finishing dinner at the table, and they fell hushed when she entered. Shivering, she flipped her soaking wet hood back then shook the water off of her hands.
“It’s not the first time nor the last time. The Inquisition is stressful on us all, and Cullen has handled far worse. And I’m more worried about what you’re dealing with than that I must endure.” He tucked a wet strand of hair back into place. “But I’m worried I’ll be plucking a gray hair at this rate.”
“Hang on a second.” She put a hand on his arm to stop him. They were near the fire, where Varric sat with a book half full of writing, a pen in his hand. He tapped his pen against his chin, and Zaire got the distinct impression he was already listening. “Varric. What do you think? Is the Inquisition giving Dorian gray hairs?”
Varric looked over at them, smiling, and set the pen down. “I can see a gray hair on Sparkler’s head all the way down here.”
Dorian made a wounded face. “He’s lying. Right? Tell me he’s lying.”
“I don’t know, I’m a little short to check.” Zaire grinned, clapping the other dwarf on his shoulder. “Thanks Varric.”
“You’re both terrible people.” Dorian shook his head. “Terrible. Next time I’ll walk fast so you can’t keep up.”
Varric picked pack up his pen and gestured with it. “Never tell two experts at setting traps that. We have ways of making you slow down.”
Zaire laughed. “We definitely aren’t having this discussion again tonight.” She paused. Earlier that day, Hawke had said his goodbyes and stated his intention to leave that afternoon. He’d sent word ahead about what had happened to Alistair, a letter that she knew had not been easy to write. Hawke wouldn’t admit it, but she’d seen him in the days following Alistair’s decision to stay in the Fade so that they could survive, and he’d looked like he hadn’t slept. It’s best if he gets home. “Varric, did Hawke make it out of here in time to beat the storm?”
“Hawke, on time?” Varric snorted. “No. In fact, I’m joining him for a drink later. Something about needing to stay for another day. Says he’d like to get back to Blondie and Warden Amell, but has a couple of people he needs to speak to here first. ‘Deputy Warden business’, he calls it.”
“I may come join you for that drink later, then.” A cold ale to warm the heart, her mother would have said. “It’s been a long week.”
“Any time, Inquisitor.”
Zaire thought for a moment. “How far does Hawke have to travel to get home?”
“That is one question I don’t think even Leliana can answer.” He tapped his pen against his nose. “He’s been notoriously secret about where he’s been holing up. With good reason.”
“I don’t blame him.” If she’d been through half of what Hawke had been through, she wouldn’t have come this far, although she understood he’d gone with Alistair to ensure that they had someone to get back to the Ferelden Wardens, if needed. “I’m surprised no one has cornered him and tried to get it out of him.”
Dorian laughed. “Oh, they may try. But I’ll give Cullen this – for all that he’s still holding grudges about Kirkwall, he has some respect for Hawke. He’s… well.” Dorian ran his hands along his robes to straighten them after being out in the weather. “He’s aware of what Hawke did for Kirkwall, dreadful place as it seems to be. He wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Hey, that’s my home you’re talking about. Don’t think I won’t set traps.” He set down pen on the table next to the book and reached out to touch Zaire’s arm. “While you’re here, have you-”
Zaire put the hand with the mark over his, feeling his fingers through the leather of her glove. “No. Since you’re about to ask the same question that everyone is asking me. I’ll take care of it.” She squeezed his hand and became suddenly aware of the alien feel of the mark. Even when it didn’t glow, it was always there. “I appreciate the concern. I do. I just need to think.”
“Just don’t take too long for it.” He picked up the pen again. “Seen friends do that, and it just led to more heartbreak.”
She nodded as she stepped back. “I know. I do.”
Varric touched his pen to the paper to continue his writing, and Dorian and Zaire continued up towards her quarters. As they passed the throne, she looked away from it, momentarily uncomfortable with the responsibility that it represented. She rubbed at the marked hand with her other, the ever present reminder of the burdens she carried.
Chapter 2: Who Am I Now?
Blackwall didn’t know where to go. His world felt off balance, surreal. Where the inhabitants of Skyhold looked at him with admiration or smiles before, they now avoided him, turning away. They didn’t make eye contact. He could hear the whispers, even if he didn’t know what they were saying. He could imagine well enough.
It would be bearable if he knew where he stood with Zaire. As it was… he wasn’t sure. It had been only a day since the trial, but he’d held out some hope that she’d come talk to him as soon as it ended. Instead, she threw herself back into meetings with her advisors. Which he understood; she had duties that were much larger than whatever was between them. It didn’t make it any easier.
He needed to talk to someone, but finding someone who still considered him a friend could prove hard. So, he went to the one person who was least likely to care. It meant getting through a crowd of tavern goers, but he didn’t know where else to go. Her door stood open at the end of the passageway.
“Are you here, Sera?” Blackwall called, knocking on the doorframe.
“Of course I’m here. Where else would I be?” Sera’s foot stepped through the open window to his right, the rest of her following a moment later. “Ooof. Got hit with a raindrop. I’m out. Or in. In. Right. In and out.” The slender elf giggled as she closed the window soundly and latched it before sitting down on a pile of brightly colored pillows. “Not sorry for that.”
He chuckled, crossing his arms as he leaned against the door frame. “Nor should you be.”
“I’m not that kind of in and out girl. I mean, not in the same way some girls are.” She patted the pile of pillows next to her. “Are you gonna come in and sit down, Beardy?”
“Depends. Fuzzyhead.” He sat down on a startlingly blue pillow and laid his hands on his knees, careful to not let his arms stray too far outward in the crowded room. He didn’t want to run the risk of knocking anything over, a constant possibility when in Sera’s eccentric sanctuary. She had far more possessions than he saw himself ever having, and crammed into such a small space that sometimes he half expected the stuff to start pushing itself out of one of the windows. He never asked where she got any of it, but it seemed like the collection kept growing.
Sera beamed at him. “Sorry you’re not getting any in and out, there.” She hopped up and crossed her legs under her, her blonde hair bouncing with the movement. “So whatcha want?”
Blackwall paused, looking around at the piles of random things she’d accumulated. A metal vase sat precariously on a beat up looking book, and he reached out and moved it so it sat more steadily on top of it. “Maybe I just came over here to make ass jokes.”
Sera snorted. “As if we’d sit around making ass jokes.”
“Are you saying we wouldn’t?” He crossed his arms, wishing that it were as simple as ass jokes. “Didn’t you tell me that you drew the empress’s ass?”
“Yeah!” Sera started laughing. “A story about trust. Yeah.” She giggled then stopped, her face becoming serious. “So I wanted to ask you something.”
Blackwall leaned back against the pillows, trying to get comfortable in the small space. “Ask me what you’d like. So long as it’s not in and out.” And here it comes.
Sera made a face. “Gross.” She picked up a pillow and idly punched at it. “I don’t get it. If you want to change, just change. Why this ‘fake Warden’ rubbish?”
He thought about the question for a moment. There were so many more reasons for why he did what he did than he could explain to her. No answer seemed like a good enough one. “For one, people wanted me dead.” An understatement, perhaps; when the word got out, it went past people wanting him simply dead. Good coin would be paid to whoever could bring him to justice, lending a great deal of motivation for any sensible person to turn him in. “Being someone else kept me breathing.” He paused, rubbing at his beard that he’d used to hide his identity for so many years. “And then, knowing that people thought I was good made it easier.” Every accomplishment he’d had as Blackwall felt like another cut, another place to bleed until Thom Rainier had bled away and only whoever he tried to be would remain. But every look of admiration from another person made him feel like that only lies replaced the blood lost to the cuts.
If he was being perfectly honest with himself, the truth being known came with some relief. If he were going to bleed out from a thousand cuts, at least he would bleed his own damned blood.
Sera stabbed a finger at him. “You needed them to think you could, so you could think you could!” She picked up the pillow and hit him with it. “You’re smart, but you’re sort of stupid.”
“A smarter man wouldn’t have gotten into this situation.” A smarter man would have turned tail when payment for killing came into the picture. A smarter man wouldn’t have fallen in love with the very person that could hold his fate in her hands.
Shoving the pillow into his lap, she sat back. “She won’t talk to you, yeah?”
Sighing, Blackwall wrapped his fingers around the edges of the pillow. The golden fringe spilled out between his fingers. He wished it were Zaire’s coppery hair between his fingers instead. “No.”
“Driving you crazy, that.”
“It is. She said…” He wasn’t sure if he should tell her. Then again, it was Sera. She’d undoubtedly make fun of the idea, but that wasn’t the worst that could happen. “She said she didn’t love me. Back in the prison.”
“Then she’s being stupid, too.” Sera flailed, reaching out for a flask sitting on the floor nearby. “She loves you. I’m pretty sure she’d do the in and out with you tonight if you wanted.”
He rolled his eyes. “Sera, that’s not even what I want.”
“Then what do you want?” She peered into the flask and frowned, turning it upside down to reveal its lack of contents. “Isn’t that what men want?”
“I just want… her.” He shrugged. “I just want to sit around holding her, talking to her, knowing she’s there.” Feeling her warm and alive in my arms. Being able to take on anything because he’d come home to her. “Knowing she believed.”
“She still believes. She believes in all of us. That’s why it’s good here, because we can just be us. We don’t have to pretend to be some noble bullshit we’re not. She doesn’t ask that of us. She used to smuggle lyrium and that’s shit, Beardy.”
“She also never tried to pretend she was something she wasn’t,” he pointed out.
“Doesn’t matter. People try to make her what they think she should be. Herald of Andraste. Or whatever.” She waved her hand in the air. “The point is that we all change and at least you tried to be better. That’s more than lots of people ever do.”
“Lots of people don’t…” He struggled to find the words. “Kill innocents, Sera. Children.” Blackwall slumped and covered his face with his hands. He wished that covering his eyes could block out their faces, or covering his ears would silence their voices echoing in his head. It’s what I deserve. To be reminded.
“Yeah and lots of people don’t get put in situations where they have the option. I mean, yeah, you should have said no. But that was the old you. You aren’t that Rainier guy, at least not like he was.”
“Then who am I?” He lifted his head. “I’m not Warden Blackwall, either. When I look in the mirror, I don’t know who I see.”
Reaching out, she tugged on his beard. He wouldn’t have tolerated it from just anyone, but something about the way Sera did it made it endearing rather than annoying. “You’re whoever you want to be, now. She gave you that freedom. You get to pick. You can spend the rest of your life giving people second chances like the one you’ve had. You can do anything you want now. It’s all up to you.”
How did she manage to make it sound so simple? “So you’re saying I can be anything.”
She wrinkled her nose up. “Oh no not that. You can’t be a Templar, because lyrium. You can’t be an elf because you’re not… elfy.” She studied him for a moment. “You also can’t be my girlfriend, you’re right out on that one, too much hair and dangly bits.”
Blackwall chuckled, and it felt good to laugh. He pointed at his beard. “Hey, I have had this hair and dangling bits complimented, thank you very much.”
“Well they can be complimented somewhere else.” She punched his leg lightly. “Maybe you should go out of your way to talk to her then? I’ll bet she likes it.”
He sighed, glancing through the window as if he’d gain some insight. The darkness outside made it impossible to see past the glass, and he felt like he looked into his own future, not knowing what lay beyond. “I don’t know if she likes any of me all that much right now.”
Rolling her eyes, Sera plucked an arrow out of the quiver and waved it at him. “Do you need me to stab you? She loves you. She was always happy with you.”
“She was happy with who I let her believe I was.” A hero. Someone who had saved lives, not taken the lives of innocents. A Grey Warden. “She let me close to her because of who she thought I was.”
“You really are daft.” She bounced the arrow on her head. “On the inside, maybe that other guy is still there. Okay. But when you were with her, I saw you. Well, not saw-saw, that would be gross-”
“Sera,” he warned.
“Right, right. I hear lots though. I see you go to your tent together when we’re away from here. You’re just two people. You treat her well, hold open the tent for her. Always make sure she’s okay. When you walk in the room, her face glows, all… glowy. Not like her hand glowy. But you knooooow.” She balanced the arrow on her head as she kept talking. “When you’re with her, maybe you weren’t Rainier, maybe you weren’t Blackwall, but you were hers and she was yours and you were both okay with that.”
Outside, the rain was falling harder, beating against the window. He could be curled up with her by the fire in her quarters, threatening to count her freckles or tracing the shape of the tattoo on her face with his fingers. The thought that he may never have that again made him feel sick to his stomach. “I didn’t tell her what I’d done.”
“Oh! You think she had sex with you thinking you were a virgin who had never killed another person in their life?” She snorted and the arrow wiggled on her head then steadied. “Now that’s rich. The bad kind of rich, I can’t even pick that kind of rich’s pocket. See, there’s no difference now except she knows what you did before, but it doesn’t change what you do now.”
And there was the question. “What do I do now, Sera?”
“You should ask her that question. She’ll probably have all kinds of nice compliments about your arse.”
He reached out and plucked the arrow off the top of her head. “It’s not my arse I’m worried about.”
“Yeah except I’m going to kick it if you don’t talk to her. Trust me. She blushes like… like this pillow.” Sera picked up a pillow that was a shade of red that Blackwall was fairly sure Zaire was not capable of turning under any circumstances, but he went with it. “Every time she talks about you. It’s awful, and I’ve seen you two making out by the stable, Dennet can’t unsee anything-”
Blackwall fidgeted with the arrow in his hand. “Then maybe he shouldn’t have been lurking around. Nor should have you.” He smiled, pointing at her with the arrow. “If I ever have a chance to ensure you see my arse, I’m taking it.”
“Oh no you won’t, I learned where not to go at night.” Her hand snapped out and grabbed the arrow out of his hand. “Stop being stupid and just ask her what she’s pissed about. You’re good for her, and life is short and shit. Like that Alistair guy? He wasn’t probably living much longer because he’s a Warden anyway, but you don’t have Warden problems but still we never know when any of us will die and-”
“Sera, I get it.” He shook his head. Alistair. Of course Zaire was still upset, that had really been hard for her. He stared out the window, unable to see much outside through the rain and descending darkness. “I’m being an idiot, aren’t I? She has a lot bigger problems right now than me.”
“Well then stop being dumb and give her one less problem. Maybe tomorrow you can talk to her.” She pushed at his shoulder. “I want to steal a pie. You want to come with me?”
As delicious as that sounded, it also seemed like trouble. “I’d love to, but the way this place has been since yesterday, I’m more likely to get stabbed than handed a pastry.”
“I’ll only stab you if you’re dumb.” She made a face at him. “So, tomorrow, yeah?”
He nodded. Sera believes. Is it such a stretch that Zaire could still believe, too? Maybe it wasn’t so distant of a possibility. For the first time in weeks, he felt hope swell up and he pushed it down, afraid to let himself feel it yet. “I will. And… thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Beardy.” Cackling, she pushed him through the doorway and took off… wherever Sera goes to find trouble.
He headed down the stairs through the tavern, nodding to Iron Bull as he passed. Krem stood near the door, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. “Hey. How are you holding up?”
Blackwall slowed to a stop and tried to blend into the shadows. “I’m… fine.”
“You don’t sound fine. Chief’s worried about you. Won’t say it, but he worries.” Krem uncrossed his arms to pick up his drink and take a swallow. He pushed the half empty mug to Blackwall. “Here. You need a drink.”
“I need more than a drink at this rate,” Blackwall said, taking it from him and drinking. The ale was well-rounded, just the right amount of bite to make him pay attention to it.
“We’re rounding up a group to do some sparring tomorrow.” Krem jerked a thumb towards the general direction of the practice yard. “Interested?”
Blackwall took another swig of the ale and shook his head. “No one wants to spar with me.”
“No one wants to spar with half of us, either.” Krem shrugged. “The Chargers are a family, and we’re full of people that have done things. You’re always welcome with us.”
A hand clapped down hard on Blackwall’s shoulder, hard enough that he almost dropped his drink. He looked over as the Iron Bull came to stand next to him. The qunari grinned. “Now, isn’t this better? Getting the burden of that lie off your chest?”
Blackwall could feel the eyes of the patrons around them glaring his direction. He raised his mug in a mock toast. “And exchanging it for the burden of everyone hating me? Yes. So much better.”
“Hey, I don’t hate you. You and me? We’re good.” Bull shrugged. “Now that you know who you are, you can stop doubting yourself and start hitting crap again.”
“Why don’t we hit a few drinks first, huh?” Looking down into the mug in his hand, Blackwall finished off the drink with a couple more swallows.
Iron Bull lifted a pitcher from the table nearby and filled the tankard in Blackwall’s hand. “Now you’re talking.”
“Then it’s settled, we’re hitting things tomorrow,” Krem said, grinning.
Iron Bull nodded. “People will come around. Or they won’t. But that’s their loss. We stand with you.”
Well, that’s something. “I… appreciate that.”
“We’ll hit things tomorrow. Tonight is for…” Iron Bull whistled as a pretty woman walked by. “That. Right there.” He turned and followed, and Blackwall shook his head.
At least he knew he had some friends still here.
Chapter 3: Terrible Burden to Bear
At the top of the stairs, Zaire found a large covered platter on the table outside of her door. She looked over at Dorian. “When did you become so good at ensuring we’re fed?”
“When I learned that none of you will eat without assistance. I’ve known children with better self preservation than you lot.” He rolled his eyes.
“So…” She smirked at him, lifting the lid on the tray just far enough to see that it looked packed with an unusual amount of food. Far more than she thought she could manage, and she felt a stab of guilt. There were others that needed to eat more than she did in Skyhold, she was certain. “You asked Josie to take care of it.”
“Not entirely, although I should spoon feed you your food at this rate. See if I do you any more favors.” He crossed his arms. “I merely encouraged her to take advantage of Leliana’s observations and concerns. With a little help from me. Now I just tell them who looks hungry.”
“Do you manage to get extra dessert out of the deal?”
“No, alas. I have to make do with wine as thanks for my thoughtfulness.” He reached out and plucked the key out of her pocket, unlocking the heavy wooden door and pushing it open. He held it open for her, then followed her in, closing it firmly behind them.
“Can you lock that?” Zaire called back over her shoulders, carrying the tray up the last set of stairs to her living area.
Dorian reached back and pushed the bolt over. “When did you become so paranoid?”
“I’ve pissed a lot of people off, Dorian. Several of them this week alone.” Zaire set the tray down on a table and flopped down on the bed, tugging off her gloves and tossing them onto a pillow. She held her hands up in front of her face, stretching out her fingers and looking at her palms. Times like this, when the mark didn’t show, she could almost feel normal. A normal, heartbroken woman that went from smuggling lyrium to trying to save Thedas in a matter of mere months. She could read the years by the lines on her hands, by the callouses and the scars and the way her flesh draped over her knuckles when she looked at the back of her hands. She felt older than she had a right to.
“Well, laying on the bed in dirty clothes certainly won’t help.” He dropped down onto the couch and sprawled dramatically. “But that’s not my problem as I can’t smell you from here.”
Zaire didn’t get up, instead dropping her hands to her sides and closing her eyes. “I think it’s the least of my problems.”
“Yes. That much I can see.” She heard him stand and start moving. Opening her eyes, she watched him get the bottle of wine from the rack near her desk and open it. He pulled out two glasses from a cabinet and filled them.
She sat up to take a glass from him, and he kept hold of the other one. “Thanks.” She paused, sipping at the red wine. She didn’t know much about wine, but generally drank whatever she was handed. “I’m still working out what happened with Alistair.”
“Having to leave him behind?”
Zaire winced at Dorian’s blunt delivery. “That’s… part of it.” She held the wine in both of her hands. “Did I tell you the Hero of Ferelden sent me a message asking me to keep him safe?”
“No.” He sat on the bed, sitting cross legged. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. That’s a terrible burden to bear.”
“I sent a letter, along with Hawke’s, but there’s nothing I can do to fix this.” Her shoulders slumped as if she felt the physical weight of it all, pressing down on her. If it pressed hard enough, perhaps she could sink so far into this mattress that she’d never come up again. She wasn’t sure what to make of that thought. “I feel like I failed.”
“Zaire.” Dorian shook his head and put a hand on her knee. “That was a decision that he made, too.”
Nodding, she rubbed at her forehead. As much as having to tell Audra Amell what had happened, she had even larger concerns. She laid her free hand over his, grateful for his friendship. “People are not supposed to be physically in the Fade, right?”
“It’s certainly not a wise decision, that much is certain.” He looked thoughtful as he shifted his eyes from her to his glass, the crimson depths swirling with the movement of his hand. “Ancient Magisters entering the Fade, the Taint, archdemons, ect.”
Nodding, Zaire sipped at her wine. Alistair’s last brave moments stuck in her head, but something else did, too. “There’s two things I can’t shake. If it was bad for anyone to enter the Fade physically, even for a short time, isn’t it worse to leave someone there? Even if they… don’t survive. It seems that something has been left there that shouldn’t be.”
“I don’t believe it’s the Fade that’s the problem per se, I believe it was considered to be entering the Golden City. Or Black City, depending on your source.” Dorian now seemed to be moving the wine in a pattern within the glass, a habit she noted he had while thinking. “But. You pose a good question. Is it the fact that they went into the city… or that something physical was in the city at all?”
“Meaning that even a body could be a risk?” She took her hand off of his and clasped her own glass in two hands.
“Yes.” Dorian tipped his cup back and finished the whole glass before speaking again. “I’m going to need more wine for this.”
Zaire set hers down on a table by the bed and hopped off the bed, going over to get the bottle. She didn’t want to interrupt his train of thought on this. She filled his glass and set down the bottle, then lifted her own glass, sipping as she begun to pace.
Dorian started to drink the wine then stopped with the glass halfway lifted. “That’s perhaps an issue. We don’t know what actually happened there. All we know is that it started the first Blight, which is the only tangible proof that anything happened at all.”
“Do you think it’s possible to… survive that? The demon?”
He watched her pace as he sipped at the glass. “I don’t know. The odds were not in anyone’s favor. But it’s fair to say that it’s… haunting some of us.”
She frowned. “Have you dreamed lately?”
“Of course. Mages all have a stronger than usual connection to the Fade.”
Having no connection to the Fade, Zaire wasn’t sure how to ask the question she was trying to ask. She shuffled back across the carpet to sit next to Dorian. “I don’t dream so I don’t really understand… but… what do you dream about?”
“The usual things. Demons. My father. Sometimes good things. Wine. Cullen.” He shrugged. “Why do you ask?”
She didn’t know why she asked, and she didn’t know the answer she was expecting. “I don’t know. Do you think it’s possible for a mage to manage to find out if Alistair is alive in the Fade?”
“As much as I hate to put this out there: Solas may be a better person to ask than I.” Dorian wrinkled his nose in distaste. “But, if you want my opinion, you’d need a mage with a stronger connection to him than I. Perhaps related to him, but…” He shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like that’s an option.”
Zaire froze in place, calculating the conversation she’d overheard between Morrigan and Kieran. She couldn’t tell Dorian that; it wouldn’t be fair to then. And what if she were wrong? If anyone could have chance of it, he seemed likely.
“Although,” he continued, “you may be interested to know that there’s been some tense times in the library. The elven mage. Fiona. Since you returned from Adamant, she’s been… snappish. Claims to not be sleeping well, too many nightmares.”
“After what she’s been through, nightmares seem to be the expected outcome.” Zaire paused. “Since Adamant. Have you heard any other mage mention this?”
“Not that I’ve heard, although it’s not as if they acknowledge me if they can help it.”
Zaire didn’t like the sound of that. “That’s their loss. I, for one, value your company.” She leaned against a pillow, forcing herself to relax and think. Fiona would be on her list of people to talk to tomorrow, after she’d had some time to think on how to phrase the question.
“Of course you do, because you’ve got taste in friends.” He smiled. “Speaking of losses, and not to change the subject, but you appear to have still not addressed your other situation.”
Finishing off her glass of wine, she started towards the food, pulling up a chair. “You need wine for these conversations, and I need food.” She lifted the top off the platter to find a still warm bowl of stew containing meat, carrots, and potatoes. On various smaller plates around it, she saw bread, cheese, fruit, and a dessert pastry. The stew smelled delicious and she dove into it. While she’d likely eaten her fill of enough stew to last a lifetime, she did admit that it help to warm her in the colder temperatures at Skyhold.
While she ate, Dorian refilled her glass and took a seat across from her and waited for her to speak. Halfway through her fifth mouthful, she said around a chunk of potato, “So. Blackwall.”
“Speaking of barbarians.” He made a tsk sound. “Swallow your food properly.”
She did so, washing it down with a gulp of the wine. “Blackwall. Or… Thom.”
“I don’t care what you decide to call him.” He crossed one leg over the other and smoothed his hands over his robes. “What I care about is that you are clearly not happy.”
She shook her head. “I’ve got bigger problems than my happiness, Dorian. I do.”
“No, you don’t. Yesterday, I watched you make the one and only decision you’ve ever made as Inquisitor that anyone could ever accuse of being selfish.”
That stung. “I’m not-”
“I’m not saying that you are. I’m saying that others could look at it that way.” He set down his wine and reached across the table to cover her hand with his. “Zaire. I know you better.”
Letting him wrap his hand around hers, she slumped. “All we do is fight here. We fight for others to have a chance at life. At happiness. To survive this. Dorian…” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “I just had to remember what it’s like to have a shot at that myself. It’s so hard to fight when I can’t remember what it’s all for sometimes.”
He squeezed her hand. “So you let him go because you wanted to be happy?”
Not sure how to answer that, she shrugged. “I know it sounds ridiculous, because I’m not happy, but…”
“You need to have that conversation with him. In fact, I suggest you go as soon as you’re done eating.”
Sighing, she nodded. “Fine. I will. But if we’re going to sit here talking about this, I think it’s only fair that I get a chance to ask you about Cullen.”
“Is it fair?” He leaned back in his chair, lips pushed together under his mustache. “I suppose it is. Well. Then I assume it’s obvious that it’s not going where I’d like. Cullen takes beating himself up over past misdeeds to a whole new level. Perhaps worse than Blackwall, I’d imagine.”
“That’s… Impressive. And maybe accurate.” Zaire winced.
“I know it is. It’s just that… I know he’s done things. He won’t tell me the details, but he was a Templar. I’m not stupid. I might be from Tevinter but I know full well the abuses Templars are guilty of upon mages here. I hear the rumors. The whispers.”
“Does it bother you?” She picked up her spoon and continued eating her stew before it got too cold to taste good.
“It’s less that it doesn’t bother me, and more than…” Dorian stared down into his wine glass, tension showing along his jaw. “He clearly wants to leave that person he was behind. He wants to see people for who they are. But he isn’t quite there yet. Even worse, I’m concerned he doesn’t think he’s worthy of anyone caring about him.”
“Least of all a mage,” she added between bites of food.
He pointed to her. “Yes. That right there.”
She finished chewing a bite of stew and swallowed. “What do you do with two people that have trouble seeing their own worth?”
“Lock us in a room together and take away our clothes would be my suggestion.” Dorian chuckled.
“I’m impressed you managed this much, to be honest.”
“Are you really? Did you doubt my charm?” Dorian made a face and Zaire laughed.
“No. Not in your charm. Cullen’s ability to take a hint… yes. I did doubt that.” In fact, it had taken more than just hints. They’d started by playing chess, since it appeared that most of the people at Skyhold were not terribly good at it. The games had started with a lot of strategy and concentration, and evolved into some verbal sparring. Zaire had watched them on a few occasions as they’d established a rapport, and Cullen had admitted to her later during one of their rare discussions that weren’t about work that he enjoyed Dorian’s company. Their friendship had, at first, helped Cullen get perspective on how he could more tactically leverage the Inquisition’s mages. It moved into mutual flirting, onto the dance at Halamshiral, and everything that’s come since. She’d watched Cullen’s usually serious demeanor crack into some of the most genuine smiles she’d seen on his face. In turn, she’d watched Dorian become more confident in himself, a real confidence that seemed borne partially out of having the chance to make a difference, and partially out of the knowledge that not everyone would judge him as his father had.
“Oh, you’re referring to how it took weeks of flirting to get him to even flirt back.” Dorian leaned back and smiled smugly. “The novelty of making him blush has not worn off.”
“I’m not sure it ever will.” Zaire smiled, balancing her spoon in her hand. “I never got the chance to ask which one of you asked the other to dance at the Winter Palace.”
“It was me, and he turned me down.” Dorian shook his head. “I figured he wasn’t interested.”
Zaire remembered how irritated Dorian had been, pacing the garden at Halamshiral and gesturing with his hand that didn’t hold a wineglass. Shortly before ripping into an Orlesian noble that had gotten too far into his personal space. “Well, we saw what that got him. Pinched inappropriately by a number of nobles. And then all hell broke loose.”
“As it tends to do. When the dust settled, you had danced with Blackwall, and I’d taken up a corner with a glass of wine.” Dorian held up his wine to make the point. “I considered asking you to dance just to remember I could dance. Then Cullen stopped in front of me and reached out a hand. He was as red as the outfits we were wearing.” He smiled. “He stammered a lot. I had to ask him if he was asking me to dance.”
“What did he say?”
“Oh, it was positively incomprehensible but it seemed to be yes. I considered making him wait a moment, bent over in a bow with his hand out, but I got concerned he’d lose his nerve.” Dorian’s eyes went from his wine up to Zaire’s face. “It’s hard for him to have his guard down that much, but with the threat passed… well. I’m sure we gave the nobles something to gossip about.”
“They had a whole assassination attempt to gossip about,” Zaire noted. “Why would they-“
Dorian laughed. “Because that’s what they do. Orlesians love a good scandal.”
“You moved well together out there.” Zaire remembered their first halting dance steps before Cullen had taken a deep breath and just let go. At first Cullen had been stiff, formal, but then they seemed to find a stride.
“Thank you for that. I was mad at him for not only making it so hard, but after the dance, he blushed, stammered, and left. I believe he told me I had a beautiful nose first. The next day, he invited me to dinner in his office. He tried to explain. He failed.”
“I remember.” She laughed. “Then he kissed you.”
“Yes, that. And I’m still not sure how we got there. I’d like to blame too much wine, but Cullen barely drank.” He smiled. “That escalated quickly.”
“It’s good for him. I’ve noticed he’s become… well.” Zaire paused, trying to find the right words. “It does him good to spend time with a mage. It’s showing in how he’s started approaching situations.”
“I think it does him good to spend time with someone who cares, but I admit, I’ve noticed. He’s been telling me about some of the mage recruits, and his tone has been changing. You can consider that a bonus to him exhibiting less signs of stress in general.” Dorian’s grin left no doubt in Zaire’s mind as to what he referred to.
Zaire started to reply when the pounding at the door came, followed by Sera’s voice. “Let me in, yeah? I’ve been out on the roof and it’s warmer in here.”
“The roof? You’re all savages,” Dorian commented as Zaire stood up and bounded down the stairs to slide the bolt aside and pull open the door. Sera stood in the doorway, perfectly dry.
“I thought you said you were soaked?” Zaire asked, puzzled.
“Oh, I just said that so you’d let me in.” Sera bounded past her and up the stairs, nearly running into Dorian as he downed the second glass of wine. “Hope you left some for me.”
“Just don’t eat all of her dinner again. Please.” Dorian waited for Zaire to come back up the stairs, then patted her shoulder. “I’d hug you but you smell like horse. I’m off to do my next good deed.”
“Doing a good deed, huh?” Sera asked. “Is Cullen’s nickname ‘my next good deed’? So you can go… do it?”
Groaning, Dorian hastily headed for the stairs. “Zaire – let’s talk with Solas tomorrow.”
“You’ve got it. And thanks.”
He slipped through the door and closed it as Sera stole a handful of grapes from the plate and shoved them in her mouth. “I think Blackwall is back in the barn. You should talk to him.”
“Not you, too.” Zaire sat down and put her arms on the table, resting her head on them. Of course, of all of them, Sera would be the most likely of the bunch. “What do you think of the situation, Sera?”
“Me?” She shrugged, picking up the bottle of wine and taking a drink straight out of the bottle. “He tried to be good. That’s better than most.”
Zaire picked back up her bowl of stew and kept eating. A knot was forming in her stomach that threatened to make eating far more difficult than it already had been the past two days, but if she didn’t eat she wouldn’t be of use to anyone. “I’ll go after I eat. Fair?”
“Yeah. But I’m waiting for you to finish. What if you never leave because you’re waiting to eat this piece of cheese?” Sera asked, pointing.
“Hey!” Zaire pulled the plate closer to her. “Get your own cheese.”
“Well then eat it faster!”
Chapter 4: An Old Friend
In his office, Cullen stared down at yet another pile of reports. Between the Hissing Wastes, the aftermath of Adamant, Cadash's recent withdrawal into herself in the aftermath of Blackwall's deception, and attempting to ensure all forces were trained appropriately, he had little time to so much as think.
Or, if he were to ask Dorian, little time to think, bathe, eat, sleep, drill properly, or “enjoy Dorian's delightful company.”
He wanted it to be a relationship, but was it yet? They enjoyed spending time together. Sometimes it was a bit more than that. He wanted it to be something even more. If he had to put a name to it, he’d say he was falling in love with Dorian, but couldn't shake the feeling that he didn't deserve to have the affection of a mage. Not after...
The door to his office creaked open and he scowled, not looking up. “Now is not the time,” he growled. It’s always something, isn’t it?
“I'm sure you've got the time to talk to an old friend,” a woman's voice drawled.
He glanced up and frowned at a woman cloaked in brown, hood pulled over her head. Water dripped off of her and started to pool inside the door as she shook her cloak out. He wondered who could have let her in here and considered calling for the guards. “I don't have any old friends. Get to the point.”
She shut the door behind her and crossed her arms over her chest, her hood still in place. “Cullen.”
The papers fluttered from his hands onto the floor, recognition dawning on him. It couldn't be.
She reached her hands up to lift her hood and Cullen stared. Of course it would be her. Alistair, left in the Fade. She'd come to... What had she come to do? Find out what really happened to her husband?
The years had changed her, her brown hair reaching partway down her back in a braid and a wisdom in her green eyes that he hadn’t seen before. Even so, he couldn't ever not recognize Audra Amell, the Hero of Ferelden.
“Audra,” he blurted, stepping backwards into his chair and knocking it into the wall with a clatter.
“Cullen,” she repeated, a slight smile on her lips that didn't touch her eyes. “You... you look good.”
He fought to control his reaction. For years she had haunted him, part of the demonic prison he'd suffered at Kinloch Hold. Memories he tried to forget but that haunted him every day, every time he remembered that Dorian was a mage and that Cullen had no right to touch a mage, not after the things he’d said and done. “You, too.” He fought for a deep breath as he walked around his desk, uncertain. He’d loved her, once. Or thought that he had. The years hadn’t helped him understand, leaving that time of his life a tangled ball of regret and pain that he put off sorting out.
She stepped towards him, pulling herself up to her full height even though it didn't bring her much farther than his chin. He started to step back but her hand snapped out to grab his wrist, and she pulled him into a rough, awkward hug. His armor formed an uncomfortable barrier between them, but her head tucked under his chin.
Cullen remembered Alistair's words. She forgives you. You need to forgive yourself. He raised his arms, wrapping them around her. If nothing else, he could try to provide comfort, despite everything that had happened in the middle. She’d called him an old friend; he didn’t know if he’d earned that, but a gratefulness swelled in his chest at the gesture of acceptance. “Audra, are… you okay?” He almost cursed. “I mean, I know that you can’t be-”
“I know. It’s…” She shuddered. “I’m fine. Or not fine. I’m a bit of a mess on the inside.” She stepped back out of his arms. “Alistair did pass on what I said, didn't he?”
“Yes, but... Maker, Warden Commander, how can you be so calm?”
She snorted. “You just said it. I'm Ferelden's Warden Commander. It's calm or die these days.” Unclasping her cloak, she flicked it off her shoulders and hung it on a peg by the door. Under the cloak she wore simple brown clothing, not even carrying a staff, no doubt to blend in as much as she could.
Bending down to pick up the papers, he straightened them into a pile and put them back on his desk. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s… complicated.” Drawing a deep breath, she shrugged. “I received word about Alistair from your Inquisitor.” Her eyes were sad. “I’d asked her to keep him safe.”
Cullen felt a stab of indignation for the implication. “She did the best she could under the circumstances. It was an impossible situation.”
“I’m not angry, Cullen. I’m sorrowed beyond all belief, but there’s more to the situation.” She paused, then paced near the fire and rubbed her hands together to warm them. “It’s more complicated than I can explain right now.” She put her hands against her face and Cullen realized she was wiping away tears.
He felt awkward, unable to help. “I’m sorry. He was… a good man.”
“He still is a good man.” Audra turned to look back at him. “You have no idea how much it means to me that you're doing well, do you? I heard you're not a Templar anymore.” She cocked her head at him. “But you still wear armor everywhere.”
A warmth flushed his face. “Not… everywhere.”
“You need to sleep sometime.” Her eyes still shone with unshed tears but she’d composed herself. Cullen didn’t think he’d ever seen her cry, and he was somewhat surprised she’d do so in front of him.
“I don’t.” He sat back down in his chair and gestured at her to sit across from him. “When did you get here?”
“Ten minutes ago, more or less.”
“And you came here first? Why?”
“I saw Leliana before you. That’s how I even got past your guards, she got me this far.” She took the offered seat and sat on the edge, not quite comfortable. “Of everyone here, you were the one I didn’t want to find out that I was here through rumor. I wanted you to know from me.”
It seemed dangerous for her to come to Skyhold, now that he thought about it. “Are you okay here? I know there is a false Calling, from Corypheus.”
“It’s… manageable.” Wincing, she rubbed at her temple. “It’s faint, and I came ready to deal with it. Not thinking too hard about it helps.” She managed a smile. “Leliana tells me that you've found someone?”
He felt a blush creep into his face again. “I don't think it's Leliana's business. Or yours.”
A sudden full out grin crossed her face, so unbelievably Audra that he wasn't sure he was reading her correctly. “That... is somewhat true. I'll bet she's pretty. You always had good taste.”
He didn't want to explain the details that Leliana clearly left out. “Maker, Audra...!”
“Relax. I'm teasing. And thank you for leaving my title alone this time.” She leaned back in the chair, folding her hands in her lap. “I’m glad you’ve got something good in your life. And that you’ve walked away from…” She trailed off but he could read her meaning well enough.
She doesn’t trust Templars. He started straightening the piles of papers again, struggling to find a change of topic. It started to occur to him that she was one of the few people that knew how horrible he’d been then, the things he’d said to mages. That he’d gone on to do. He suddenly thought of Dorian and wanted to undo the things he’d said. Maker, I hope that Audra and Dorian never get a chance to compare notes. Or Hawke, for that matter. Then again, perhaps Audra of all people understood what he’d been through, and if she could forgive him… Maybe there was hope for him. “By all rights you should hate me for what I said.”
“Maybe I did for a time. But that’s what life does to you sometimes. You see terrible things, and you see beautiful things, and somewhere you find the line. You learn to understand what to let go. And Hawke said that you learned to see reason in your time in Kirkwall.” She pushed a piece of wet hair out of her face. “I’ve had no room in my heart to keep hating you, Cullen. We were kids, kids that went through traumatic and shit things that we had no choice in. We walked away and did something about the messes we made.”
Garrett Hawke, also of the Amell line and Audra’s second cousin, a fact that had explained many things when Hawke had told Cullen. “You saved Ferelden and killed an Archdemon. I…” He shrugged. “Well. I’ve changed, anyway.”
“You’re doing a hell of a lot more than that here, if Leliana is to be believed.”
The knock at the door startled both Audra and Cullen and they got to their feet. The visitor did not wait for an answer, and Cullen breathed a sigh of relief at the prospect of not continuing down that topic. That is, relieved until Dorian's voice called out through the opening. “Dinner and charming company! Also very wet company.” Dorian pushed the door fully open, pausing when he saw Audra. He smiled at her. “I see some charming wet company has beat me here.” He set the tray down on Cullen’s desk and turned to Audra, taking her hand and lifting it to his lips. “Dorian Pavus, at your service.”
Cullen noted that Dorian no longer stated “of House Pavus” any longer, as if he'd left the house behind but still took pride in the name. He found himself unable to take his eyes off of Dorian, any time he entered a room. While it wasn’t the distraction from the conversation that he would have chosen, he never regretted a chance to look at Dorian.
Audra giggled - Maker help him, the Hero of Ferelden giggled at Dorian - and took his hand in both of hers. “A pleasure, ser.”
Rubbing at the back of his neck, Cullen tried to hide his blush by ducking his head. Damn his fool face. “Dorian, this is Audra Amell, the, uh...”
Audra winced and reached out to snag a piece of cheese, gesturing at him with it. “Don't you dare, Cullen Stanton Rutherford.” She shoved the piece of cheese in her mouth, looking ridiculous and so much like the girl he’d known at Kinloch Hold that he had would have laughed if he wasn't already mortified.
“Audra, everyone knows who the Hero of Ferelden is, there’s no use in not mentioning it.”
“Oh, never mind that part.” Dorian waved his hand dismissively. “I’m much more interested in hearing a story about the undoubtedly blushing young Templar from back when-”
That was the last thing Cullen needed. “No,” he said, perhaps more sharp than he intended.
Dorian arched an eyebrow. “Cullen, you take all my fun away. Now eat.”
“I'll make it up to you later.” The words spilled out before Cullen could stop them, and he groaned, finally sitting down in his chair and covering his face. When he uncovered his face, his eyes slid past Dorian to Audra, who had a growing smirk. He titled his head at her in silent question. She pointed to Dorian, then at Cullen.
The look on his face must have confirmed her suspicions as she covered her mouth with a hand, her eyes bright with amusement.
“Oh now what did you do, Audra?” Dorian asked, looking at Cullen. “He's more red than usual.”
A laugh bubbled up out of Audra. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-”
“Make him blush? Yes well it's one of his many...” Dorian pushed his lips together. “Talents.”
“You people are going to be the death of me,” Cullen grumbled, pulling the tray towards him. He trusted Audra to not say anything terrible, but he hadn’t planned on her finding out about Dorian. At the same time, a sense of relief came over him. Audra’s face showed nothing but support and joy for him, and somewhere in his mind he felt lighter for that. He just wished that Alistair were here to share in all of it.
“Mmm.” Dorian turned back to Audra, this time taking her hands in his. Cullen noted that her fingers were stained with ink, as if she’d been writing a great deal recently. “As to why you're here... I'm sorry. For what's happened.”
Audra pushed her lips together for a moment before speaking. She stared down at Dorian’s hands, then up to his face. “Why did it have to be him?”
“Oh, he and Hawke fought about it.”
“Of course they did. Both damned fool stubborn assholes.” Audra shook her hands free and started pacing. “Were you there?”
“I was. He gave his life against a demon for the rest of us to survive.”
Cullen looked from Dorian to Audra. “He was a hero.” From the first time Cullen had met Alistair, that much had been obvious, even in Cullen’s state at the time. “He’s always been a hero.”
“Is. He is a hero.” She turned back to Dorian, studying him. “You’re a mage. Tevinter, by the accent?”
“Yes. You have a discerning ear. But wait a moment.” He shook his head. “You said is. By any chance have you… had some dreams lately?”
Audra’s mouth set into a hard line. “How would you know-“
“About Alistair. That he’s alive. But you don’t think they’re just dreams. As to how… well.” Dorian shook his head. “I think it’s time you meet our Inquisitor.”
Cullen frowned, wondering what Dorian was getting at. “What are you both going on about?”
Dorian ran a finger along his moustache, a gesture that Cullen found distracting because it always led to him studying the shape of Dorian’s nose. Every time. “It’s ill advised to leave a person physically in the Fade. Especially if they’re alive. I was there, I don’t know how he could have survived, but-“
“He’s tough, and a Grey Warden. We survived the Archdemon together.” She reached up and unconsciously tugged at her necklace. “I will need to speak to your Inquisitor, but I have something I need to attend to first. I need to talk to Garrett, and determine where my mabari went.”
“Hawke is probably drinking with Varric. I can take you to him,” Dorian noted.
“It might be better to bring him to her,” Cullen said, stepping around his desk and picking up a cup of water. “We don’t need to cause a scene.”
“I’ll start with finding Diablo then. Fang has probably already found Garrett.” She stretched. “But I could also use something to eat. It’s a long way from where I came. I have my ways, but…”
Cullen blinked a few times. “Fang?”
“His mabari. Hawke left him with me when he teamed up with Alistair to come out here.”
His eyes narrowed, the pieces starting to come together. He hadn’t realized the extent to which they’d associated with each other. He stood up. “What else did Hawke leave with you?”
“A bar tab, and a nasty hangover.” Audra glared at him in challenge. “I know quite well what you’re asking. And I’d rather this reunion not be soured by this conversation at this point, Cullen. Please.” She grabbed her cloak from the peg by the door and pulled it closer around her.
“Fair enough.” He didn’t like where this was leading. The implication is that if she had Hawke’s mabari, she’d been in close enough contact that she’d also been in contact with Anders. And if she was in contact with Anders, it wouldn’t bode well for any of them. He had never answered for his crime in Kirkwall, and there were many who would never let that go. Cullen included.
She clasped her cloak. “Wonderful. Now that we’ve got that sorted out, I’m going to find my dog, get dry, and get the dogs fed.”
He suddenly felt awkward about the situation, and he wished he hadn’t brought up Anders at all. “I… need to finish these reports.”
Audra nodded. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so harsh. It’s just…” She paused. “Kirkwall was hard on everyone.”
“We can talk later.” Cullen picked up a pile of reports and started reading them. This was the last thing he needed.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Warden Commander,” Dorian added, taking Audra’s hands in his own. “Do you need any assistance?”
“Please, Audra is fine.” She smiled at him. “And the pleasure is all mine. I’d prefer you stay here, as I’m glad that Cullen isn’t all alone in the cold up here.”
Dorian snorted. “Oh, no, never that. I need something to keep me warm in these dreadful nights in the mountains.” He winked. “He even takes his armor off.”
“You two are going to be the death of me, and you’ve been here less than a half hour.” Cullen set down the papers and started eating a piece of bread.
“I’ll see you both later.” Audra exited through the indicated door, and Cullen sat down, shaking.
Dorian was immediately at his side. “Are you alright? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.” He reached down and laid his hand on the back of Cullen’s neck, running his fingers through his hair.
Cullen closed his eyes and leaned into Dorian’s touch. It soothed him, calmed him in ways that nothing else could. He reached out and wrapped an arm around Dorian, his fingers tangling in the mage’s robes. We’re here for each other. The thought steadied him. “That was… difficult.”
“She seems charming enough.”
“She is. You know what she meant to me back at Kinloch. But now…” All the memories of Kirkwall started flooding back. “I can’t stop thinking about all of the dead we dug out of the rubble in Kirkwall, and I’m worried she’s protecting the man that caused all of that death and destruction.”
“I know what Kirkwall cost you, Cullen.” Dorian leaned down and kissed his cheek. “Do you think you can focus on work?”
Cullen opened his eyes and held up his hand, feeling the tremor there. “No.” His eyes drifted up to Dorian’s face, reading the concern. “But I’m not sure I’m in any state to do you any justice, either.”
“Then how about this,” Dorian offered. “Eat something, then let’s curl up by the fire and see what happens. Fair enough?”
Cullen managed a small smile as his stomach fluttered. He wasn’t sure what this was between them. He wasn’t sure he deserved it. But he wanted to be the man that deserved it. He reached his hand up to wrap around the back of Dorian’s head, curling his fingers into his hair. He marveled at the darker tone of Dorian’s skin, of the warmth of him under his own hand. The moments like this, where the world nearly faded away, and it was just them…
Those moments were everything. Cullen pulled Dorian to him and kissed him, then cupped his hand along Dorian’s cheek, letting his thumb trace the bridge of his nose. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Dorian smiled at him. “Now finish eating before you collapse. You won't be of much good to me or the Inquisition laying on the floor.” Dorian chuckled. "Although I'm sure I could find a use for you on the floor."
Cullen would have eaten all the food in Skyhold if it meant Dorian would keep smiling at him like that. “Dorian, I…” I love you. I love you more than I know how to tell you, and every day I’m afraid you’ll find out the truth, of the people I’ve hurt, and I’ll lose you. He took a breath. “I appreciate it. You. All of… this.”
Laughing, Dorian directed Cullen back into his chair and sat down across from him. “As well you should appreciate me.”
I do. More than you’ll ever know. He didn’t have the nerve to say it, so instead he ate and hoped for the day when he’d have the courage to tell Dorian everything. Soon, he promised himself. Soon.
Chapter 5: Raining Cats and Dogs
“Mother, there’s a cat at the window,” Kieran noted, looking up from his studies.
“Leave it be, Kieran.” Morrigan looked up from the notes she was writing. An orange cat sat on the ledge, staring through the glass.
“Could it be hungry,” Kieran offered. “It’s raining pretty hard, too.”
Morrigan’s eyes narrowed, sensing a spell. “Tis no cat, Kieran.” She stood, stalking to the door and opening it. “Well, well, someone taught you a little trick, didn’t they?” she murmured as the cat turned and hissed at her. “Now that isn’t very nice.” She studied it, and in return it shook itself off, flinging water at her. “I could let you inside to fix this situation, but I’m not sure who, exactly, you are.”
The cat jumped onto the ground and glanced over its shoulder into the darkness, and Morrigan heard a pant. Kieran came up next to her. “It’s a mabari!” he exclaimed.
Out of the darkness, the dog trotted towards them, tail wagging. The cat backed up swiftly as the dog broke into a run and knocked Morrigan backwards onto the rug. She batted at it with one hand. “Ugh! Off, off of me!” She pushed at the mabari as it attempted to lick her face. Of course it would be this mabari. Of course. “I see you never grew out of drooling your weight in water.” Despite her agitation at being drooled on, she found herself feeling a swell of hope that perhaps Audra Amell had found her way to Skyhold. Morrigan may have even missed the mabari a little, but she’d never admit it because the beast would be more insufferable than usual.
The dog wagged his tail and retreated a short distance, letting Morrigan get to her feet and dust herself off. The last time she’d seen this mabari, it had been shortly before she’d gone into the eluvian after Audra found her. “Well. I’ve heard of raining cats and dogs but this wasn’t what they meant, I am certain.” She glared down at the cat. “I suspect I know exactly who taught you this trick. Which tells me… who you most likely are. In which case, I can take you where you need to go.” Hawke’s quarters were not far from hers. She glanced back to Kieran. “Kieran, I shall return shortly.”
He peered around the corner to look. “Oh,” he said, startled. “That’s a big cat.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?” Morrigan noted, rolling her eyes. “You could have picked a normal sized cat.”
The cat swished its tail and walked past her into the room. “I did not say you could enter,” she commented, turning from the door to attempt to block the cat from going any further. “My son is here.”
The cat made a growling sound and dodged around her legs to cross the room, ending up in the bathroom. It pushed the door shut. Morrigan sighed and peered back out at the mabari. “Fine. Come in and babysit your charge.”
The mabari disappeared for a moment, returning with a pack in tow. He jogged through the doorway and dropped the pack before heading straight to Kieran, licking his face. “Aw mother! Isn’t he great?”
Morrigan shut the door. “Fantastic.” She sighed. Now what, exactly, has Audra gotten us all into?
From the bathroom, she heard a voice call out. “I apologize for this, but I was running out of time and options.”
“The spell doesn’t last as long as any of us would like, I’m afraid.” Morrigan took a stance outside of the door, ready to stand between her intruder and Kieran if necessary.
“No, it’s not that. It’s that… I really had to use a bathroom, and did not want to find myself needing to lick-“
“Stop,” Morrigan called out, her suspicions confirmed. She did not expect a joke from him under the circumstances. While she had never met the man, she knew that a man in the form of a cat traveling with Audra Amell’s mabari could be only one person.
She picked up the pack and carried it to the door. “I presume this is your pack.”
The door cracked open and a hand reached out, pulling the pack back through before slamming the door shut again. “If it’s not, I’m about to be wearing Audra’s robes.”
Kieran started laughing and Morrigan shot him a look. She trusted Audra to not bring danger to Skyhold, but several people in Skyhold would view this as a very poor sign. Particularly Cullen. The possibility existed that Cassandra and Leliana would also be concerned.
After a few moments, the door opened, and a tall, blonde man walked in, wearing pants and a tunic. His hair fell to just past his shoulders and one gold earring was in his right ear. “I’m sorry for the urgency.” He winced. “I just couldn’t go through that again.”
Morrigan sighed, crossing her arms. “Anders, I presume.”
“In the flesh. My not furry flesh.” He managed a small smile. “I won’t stay long. I’d rather no one know I’m here, but I asked Diablo to find someone I could trust. He brought me to you.”
“Yes, well, shapeshifting apostates must stick together. I am Morrigan, and this is my son, Kieran.” She gestured to a chair. She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly hadn’t been this seemingly personable man. “Have a seat. Can I assume, with how quickly you arrived, that you traveled by eluvian?”
He nodded. “We got word of what happened and tried to get here as quickly as we could. We… were able to secure access to one.”
“I won’t ask.” She put a pot of water onto the stove to warm it. “Did you travel through my eluvian, then?”
“Yes. That wasn’t easy, believe me, but Audra and I had been working out the logistics of getting here as soon as Alistair and Hawke left.” Anders watched Diablo settle himself in front of Kieran. “We had a feeling that something went wrong, but there was more to it than that. I’ll let Audra explain that.”
“Fair enough.” Morrigan followed his gaze to her son, and back to Anders. “So, then, what of your spirit?”
Anders slumped slightly. “Also complicated. But no one is in any danger, if that’s what you’re thinking. We’ve had some time to work out a more beneficial arrangement. I’ve tried to let a lot go, which has helped him, too. It’s not perfect, but we’re in more of a constant dialogue with each other, rather than fighting each other for dominance.”
“That must have been difficult.” She wanted to point out that it also appeared dangerous, but under the circumstances of Kieran’s conception, she felt it best to not to judge too harshly.
“It was. At his core, Justice can’t stand those being treated unfairly. He’s not always fine with me avoiding that, but we’ve managed to turn our attention to trying to find a cure for the Taint, or at the least, prevent the Calling. He and I are in agreement that the Wardens have protected many mages who would have otherwise been killed, or Maker forbid made Tranquil. So, we help the Wardens. It’s the best compromise we have.”
“Well, you’ll find here that the Warden situation has… escalated.” Morrigan pulled the chair from her desk. “It’s not the best time to be a Warden here.”
Anders frowned. “Worse than usual, then? We’re aware of the false Calling.”
“Most of them at Adamant attempted a blood sacrifice ritual, under the influence of Corypheus.”
Sighing, Anders closed his eyes and tilted his head back. “Of course they did.”
“It is my understanding that Hawke unleashed Corypheus?”
“Yes. Which is why I’m confused how Hawke survived up until this point. When he left with Alistair… well.” He shivered. “We said our goodbyes. I didn’t expect him to make it back. That’s how Hawke is.”
“Apparently, Alistair overruled him,” Morrigan noted. “When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, you have… you people.”
“Are you suggesting you aren’t stubborn as well?” Anders asked.
“I did not say that.” Morrigan regarded him, then stood, walking back to her pot of now-hot water. “I would have thought all of you would have heard your Callings by now. You are all far past when you should have heard them, yet you’re still here.” As she talked, she dropped a hefty pinch of tea leaves into a strainer and placed it over a cup, pouring water over it.
“Audra isn’t as far from it as she’d like. And me, well…” He shrugged. “I’m immune for now.”
“You’re aware there’s risk to any Warden that they will hear Corypheus’s false Calling and be swayed to him?”
“We… are.” Anders winced. “It’s not pleasant, but I lived through it once with the help of Justice. Since then, we’ve learned to channel my unique connection to the Fade to help counter the Calling for periods of time. That’s why I have to travel with Audra. I haven’t got to check with her, but it’s likely fairly quiet for her currently.”
“You’ve worked out a spell that can block it for a time?” She lifted the strainer and set it aside, handing him the cup of tea.
“Thanks.” Anders nodded. “We discovered it while working on a cure for the Taint. Given that the Taint seems to have started with the Fade, we’ve been doing research on it to determine if there’s an answer there somewhere.”
“Ah. So you’ve come to study it.” Morrigan lifted a cup and placed the strainer on it, adding new tea leaves. She poured water over it and lifted the cup, holding onto its warmth.
Anders snorted. “Not entirely. We’ve mainly come to find Alistair. Audra is not convinced he’s dead, but she can’t consistently reach him. It’s all unconscious, when she’s asleep, and very hard to control. It’s frustrating to her.”
Kieran asked Diablo a question and the dog responded with his paw. He put a hand on the dog, scratching him behind the ears. “Bleeding and time work differently there, I think, but he’s not doing well.”
The cup slipped from Morrigan’s hand and shattered on the floor, and everyone jumped. “What have you seen, Kieran?”
“In dreams. I’ve seen him.” He hesitated. “There are demons, but also spirits. I think they’re trying to help. Everything else is waiting for him to die.”
Morrigan sidestepped the broken cup and dropped to her son’s side, putting her hands on his shoulders. “Why didn’t you say anything?” she asked.
“I thought it was just dreams.”
“And you?” Morrigan asked, turning to look at Anders.
“No, but my dreams are somewhat different anyway.” Anders got off the chair and started picking up the pieces of the cup.
A knock sounded on Morrigan’s door, and Anders froze. Morrigan pointed to the bathroom and Anders backed up, moving back through the door and closing it behind him.
Now what? Morrigan thought, sighing as she put her hand on the handle to open it.
Chapter 6: So Fortunate
Alistair’s mabari had led Audra to a door near a garden. Light streamed through the window beside it, but she couldn’t tell who would be inside. She had no idea where the mabari had brought her, but she assumed that Diablo had led Anders to somewhere or someone safe. She’d half expected it to be Leliana, but something told her that a room off on the far edges of Skyhold didn’t fit.
“Do you want to come in?” she asked Akeva, squatting down in front of the mabari and scratching her behind the ears to reassure her. She knows he’s gone. It broke her heart even more, which she hadn’t thought was possible after trying to face the possibility of living the rest of her life without Alistair.
Akeva gazed from Audra to the door and back to Audra, looking reluctant. Audra leaned forward and planted a kiss on the dog’s head. “How about this: can you find where the stables are? I’ll bet we can probably find a spot for all of us there.” She shivered, hoping that at the least there’d be somewhere that they’d be able to escape the biting wind that had come in with the rain.
With a bark, Akeva left to walk into the darkness and Audra got to her feet, turning back to the door and putting her hand on the heavy iron knocker. It felt sold and cold under her hand, and for a moment she worried about what she wound find. She trusted Diablo to find Anders somewhere safe to go, but at the same time, there were complexities to people that mabari didn’t always understand. She knocked three times, then waited for the door to open, shifting from foot to foot to try to generate some warmth.
The door swung inward, and the light from inside the room caused her to blink a couple of times. A dark figure stood in the door, and Audra drew a surprised breath as the other woman’s face became clear in her vision. Most striking were her golden eyes.
The last time she’d seen Morrigan, she hadn’t thought that she would see her again. She had never been so glad to be wrong. “Morrigan,” she blurted out, throwing her arms around her old friend. Her hands clutched at the woman’s back, feeling the warmth of her skin. Few people understood what she and Alistair had truly been through together, and no one had a clearer picture of that than Morrigan. “Can I hug you?”
The other woman laughed, and Audra realized that she seemed to laugh more easily than she once had. “I think we’re already past asking.” She wrapped her arms around Audra. “You’re as wet as your dog always is.”
Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes at the sound of her voice, but Audra managed a smile. “Charming as always.” Her mind raced, wondering why Leliana had not told her. Or… Oh. Leliana had told her that she had an old friend here. She’d assumed that was Cullen, but in thinking on it further, her words made more sense. Her composure crumbled and she heaved a sob into Morrigan’s shoulder, suddenly grateful.
She had so many questions. Where had Morrigan gone? What about her son? Had Flemeth ever come after them?
She stepped back out of Morrigan’s arms and regarded her. She appeared very much like Audra remembered, all the way down her robes, which couldn’t possibly be warm enough in a place like Skyhold.
The sound of Diablo’s tail thumping against something caused her to look over his direction, and she realized that the dog stood beside a boy. Her breath caught in her throat. His resemblance to Morrigan’s was striking, and a casual observer wouldn’t have noticed anything more than that. Audra leaned against the doorway, feeling suddenly disoriented. It’s him. The child that Alistair fathered in the ritual that saved both of their lives. She could see hints of it in the shape of his nose.
She’d spent years feeling guilty about that ritual, as if she’d cheated a death that should have claimed her. And I had. The guilt had faded, but they’d never known what happened to this child. What or who he was. Confronted with him, she felt her heart thudding. He’s a normal, beautiful boy.
Seeing Morrigan’s alarmed expression, Audra pulled her face into a more composed expression. Her mind felt like a whirlwind of confusion, conflicting emotions, and burning questions. They’d have a lot to talk about. “It’s good to see you.”
“You as well.” Morrigan stepped aside to let Audra enter, shutting and locking the door behind her.
Diablo came to her side and sat patiently until Audra patted him on the head. “Good boy. Did you find a friend?”
“Kieran,” Morrigan said, gesturing to him. He came over and Morrigan put an arm around his shoulders. “This is a very old friend of mine, Audra Amell.”
“The Hero of Ferelden.” He smiled. “Hello.”
The slight quirk in his smile caused her heart to ache. “Hello, Kieran.” The sight of him overwhelmed her with a strange sense of relief, not just for the fact that he seemed so normal, but that Morrigan seemed happy. She wanted to hug him, to know he’s real, but there was a line that she couldn’t cross yet.
“You’ve known my mother a long time.”
“I have. Since before you were born.” She looked over at Morrigan. “Mind if we talk? I think we have a lot to catch up on.” She scanned the room, looking for Anders in either cat or human form. “I assumed that my cat made it here, but I don’t see him.”
“Here!” Anders called from another room, opening the door. “Just wanted to give you all some time to say your hellos. Whatever touchy feely stuff.”
“No one saw you?” she asked, concerned particularly about anyone that would get word back to Cullen.
“No. They saw an orange cat.”
“A big orange cat,” Kieran commented.
“Yes, well, go big or go home.” Anders stretched. “Do I need to turn back so you can smuggle me somewhere else?” He plucked at his shirt. “I just got dressed but that’s easily fixed.”
Morrigan shook her head. “You may stay here for now. Audra and I have some… things to discuss.”
“Kieran, I’m glad you’re here,” Anders commented, taking a seat on the floor. “Otherwise, Diablo has no one to drool on but me.”
The whole scene seemed so normal: Anders sitting crosslegged across from her dog and her husband’s son that had been fathered with Morrigan. If only we had Alistair here.
She could feel any smile she’d managed to keep up drop from her face, and she turned away to hide her expression. Morrigan threw on a cloak and led Audra outside, where the cold still cut right through her cloak. She pulled the hood up over her head. “Is there somewhere we can talk? I’d rather no one overhear what we’re about to discuss.”
“We’ll go back to the room with the eluvian,” Morrigan said, taking the lead. “How did you find it?”
“We weren’t able to find it until Garrett was here, actually. We’d been trying to find one somewhat close to here, but it’s hard unless we’ve got something to sort of… attune to. In the case of this eluvian, we were able to use a spell similar to what’s used to track mages with a phylactery. Even though he’s not a mage, he’s Amell blood so I was able to use our eluvian to get to the crossroads, then find one where his sister could sense him.” They’d been lucky that they’d been able to reach Bethany, given her place among the mages of the Circle in Kirkwall, but she’d come immediately to their assistance.
“That’s quite the spell.” Morrigan arched an eyebrow. “How long have you been experimenting with this?”
“A little bit,” Audra admitted. “We have an eluvian near us, thanks to a contact of Garrett’s, and we’ve used it to try to get a sense of where we can go.” She’d been grateful for Merrill’s assistance with the eluvian. “We did not try to track Kieran, if that was your concern. In fact, we had no idea where you were here at all.” She reached out and put a hand on Morrigan’s shoulder. “And we weren’t going to come looking for you. That’s what you asked for.”
“I… appreciate that. More than you know.”
They reached the room with the eluvian, and Morrigan cleared a sheet off of a couch that was to one side of the room. She sat down. “I am sorry I never contacted you.”
“Morrigan,” Audra said, sitting down on the other end of the couch. “Let’s make something clear. You were a dear friend of mine, but you owed us nothing. Not even Alistair.” She reached out and took Morrigan’s hands in hers. “You saved us.”
“And you both gave me Kieran.”
“I’ll venture that Alistair may have had more of a part in that than I.” Even though that had hurt Alistair at the time; as a bastard himself, growing up without a father was painful thing to consider inflicting on a child.
“You say that, but he never would have done it if you hadn’t been willing to accept it. I know it was…” She hesitated, staring down at their hands. “Difficult. I know it is not what Alistair wanted.”
“What he, and I, wanted, was a chance to be together and keep the Wardens strong.” For the time that they could, anyway. After a time, as they realized what was left of their lives was slipping away, it became harder to keep the Wardens strong. We’ve both been so tired and we’re just ready to live out the rest of our days with our dogs and our friends. “You gave us that. Don’t get me wrong, it was hard at the time. Alistair… he was upset, when he came back. After being with you.” Audra remembered him crying, asking what have we done?
“I know. But I did what I did to save you both.” Morrigan squeezed Audra’s hands. “He’s a normal boy, Audra. He’s brilliant. He’s brave, like his father.”
Audra had to ask. “Did Alistair meet him?”
“He did, briefly.”
Closing her eyes, Audra nodded, swallowing. “Thank you. For giving him that. He always wondered about him.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t give him the chance sooner. I just felt it was better if our paths didn’t cross. For all our sakes.”
“Morrigan,” Audra croaked, raising her head. She felt a tear slip down her cheek. “You know you and Kieran would always be welcome to us. It didn’t matter how he was conceived. At the time, Alistair was devastated, but not because it was you.”
“It was because I was not you. I know it hurt him. And you. I am… sorry, for that.”
“Maker, Morrigan, no, that’s not what this is about. Never be sorry. Not for that beautiful boy, and not for us.” Her hands closed tighter around Morrigan’s. “If not for you, either Alistair or I would have died. And I wouldn’t have let it be him. Without you… I never would have had the chance to live all these years with the man I love. I would never have had the chance to know my cousin. Alistair and I have saved lives together. We had the most ridiculous Grey Warden wedding.” It had been more than she’d ever thought she’d had. They’d gotten married wearing their Grey Warden armor, and their union brought hope to many of the other Wardens that becoming a Warden didn’t mean you had to be alone. We carried the burdens together. “Everyone brought us alcohol and food because we were heroes. I don’t think anyone has ever got so much free wedding. Alistair ate so much cheese that I was sure he’d be sick, but the next day he was up like nothing happened.” Audra managed a smile. “I never expected a happy ending, from the time I was old enough to realize what the world did to mages. I’ve been so fortunate.” She squeezed Morrigan’s hands. “That’s you.”
Morrigan’s eyes were wide and she tilted her head to the side slightly. “I… did not realize how much it meant to you.”
“It was hard at the time to understand it.” Audra remembered talking to Morrigan about having Alistair father a child with her, in order to absorb the Archdemon’s essence and save her or Alistair from having to die. “We had to sit around talking about which one of us would sacrifice ourselves. And it was horrible. We both knew that no matter which of us went, the other would be left alone. Maybe it was selfish of us, but we couldn’t do it.” Alistair, walking from the room to go to Morrigan’s. Audra waited, sitting on the edge of the bed and waiting for him to return. When he finally came back, his eyes were pained, as if he’d betrayed her. He’d wanted to go his whole life having had no one else but me. At the time, she felt like she betrayed him, too.
They’d held each other until they both fell asleep. It had been the hardest night of their lives. “I remember your last words before we stormed Denerim. ‘Live well, my friend. Live gloriously’.”
“And you did,” Morrigan said softly.
“But I missed you. We were best friends, once.”
“That is not negated by how long it has been since we spoke, is it?”
“You are going to make me cry” Audra drew in a deep breath. “I can see how much you love him. It’s good for you. You’re everything that your mother was not. I’m proud of you.”
“Thank you.” Her face softened. “When I called you a sister, I meant it.”
“No matter how far away we are, you’re family. I just want you to know that…” She met Morrigan’s gaze. “You and Kieran always have a home with us.”
Morrigan was silent for a long moment, appearing to be lost in thought. Finally she regarded Audra. “Why did you come to Skyhold?”
Sighing, Audra let go of Morrigan’s hands and wiped at her face. “I don’t think Alistair is dead. I’m dreaming about him constantly. He’s injured. Sometimes he’s talking to me, sometimes he’s just babbling. And I don’t even understand how he got there, but he’s trapped somehow.”
“He entered the Fade physically, with the Inquisitor.” She hesitated. “Kieran says he has dreamed of Alistair as well.”
Audra’s heart leapt in her chest. “Then it’s possible. He could be alive.”
“Tis my understanding that it was a dire situation, I would caution against too much hope.” Morrigan placed a hand on Audra’s shoulder. “But we’ve faced impossible odds before.”
“That we have.” Audra managed a smile. “I’d considered meeting with your Inquisitor in the morning, but perhaps we should consider this sooner rather than later.”
“And I was enjoying having a quiet night in.” Morrigan sighed. “How safe is your mage?”
Audra dreaded this sort of question and suppressed her urge to snap. “For you and Kieran? Absolutely safe. Neither will harm anyone unless harmed first, or if harm is threatened. Believe me, neither would hurt Kieran for instance, but I’m certain that if Kieran was threatened by someone, it would not end well for that person.”
“Fair enough.” Morrigan sat back and pondered. “Does Anders know who Kieran’s father is?”
“Maker, no. Anders knows many of my own secrets, but how your son came to be is a secret I will carry to my grave. It is not for me to disclose, ever.”
Morrigan nodded. “I… thank you.”
“No need to thank me. We’re family. This is what family does.” Audra stood, brushing away the dust she’d picked up from the old couch. “Do you mind if Anders stays with Kieran for a while?”
“That is fine. It sounds like it might be the safest place for them both. I am certain that Cullen will not take kindly to Anders being here.”
Audra shook her head. “That’s why I’m not telling him unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“You will find it’s hard to keep secrets for long here,” Morrigan noted.
“I don’t have to keep it for long, just for long enough to do what needs to be done.” I hope that Cullen and Leliana can forgive me for this.
“Audra, did you ever…” Morrigan hesitated a moment. “Were you able to use the information I gave you about how to potentially cure the Taint?”
Audra ran a hand through her hair. She had wondered when that question would come up, given the final conversation she ever had with Morrigan. “I did. I think I know how to do it. It’s taken a lot of effort. I just don’t know how to…” She trailed off, thinking. Her research had shown that she could bind the Taint and pull it from them, but she’d found no way to bind it far enough away to remove it.
The Fade might just be far enough away.
The implications ran through her head. Of course. She could save Alistair… and end the Taint. At the same time. Her eyes widened and she found herself staring at Morrigan. “We can bind the Taint into something we leave in the Fade, so that leaving it will remove it.”
“Surely you can’t be serious,” Morrigan scoffed, then she paused, and Audra watched the realization dawn on her face. “You are serious. And it may work.”
Audra nodded, reaching out a hand to bring Morrigan to her feet. “It just may.” If it doesn’t kill us in the process.
Either way, though, she and Alistair were dead if it didn’t work. They had nothing to lose.
Chapter 7: Not Just Any Man
After finishing eating, Zaire took enough time to change into something clean before wrapping herself in a dry oilcloth cloak and heading out into the storm. She stuck to the shadows and corners, careful to keep her hair covered as it was her most obvious feature at a glance. The rain hit her cloak, pattering against her hood and blocking out a good deal of what she could hear. It almost drowned out the sound of her heart thudding in her chest, and she wondered how she could close breaches, kill Venatori, and help take down a dragon, but didn’t know what to say to one man.
He wasn’t just any man, though, and that was the issue.
She crept up on the barn and lingered near the entrance for a moment. He had indeed returned, and sat beside the fire, carving a block of wood. She took a moment to watch him. From where she stood, she could see him in profile, bent over his work and lit by the firelight. His hands were steady, but she saw a tremor in his shoulders. He’d taken off the padded layer of armor he usually wore, and it sat over a chair nearby, she presumed to dry. His hair fell around his face as he worked, the fire lighting his skin in soft light and harsh shadow. It was a state she rarely saw him in, a level of vulnerability that she wasn’t accustomed to him showing outside of their most private interactions.
He looked as if the layers had been stripped away, leaving just the man underneath. Who was this man? Not Blackwall the Grey Warden, not Thom Rainier, just… him. He looked beaten down, resigned to his fate. Tired.
He had hurt her, and she had hurt him in return.
I’ll never find out who he really is if I don’t ask. Shivering, she pulled the cloak around her and stepped forward, starting for him. One of the horses nudged at his door as she passed. She looked up to find Scotch looking down at her. He wasn’t hers, as he was far too tall for her to ride, but he tended to be a favorite of Blackwall’s, so she spent a lot of time with him. She paused in front of the door, even though she couldn’t reach without pulling up a stool. The stable doors in Skyhold weren’t made with dwarves in mind. “I can’t pet you from down here, sorry.”
Blackwall’s head snapped up and watched as she approached. “M’lady,” his voice rumbled, as he scrambled to his feet, setting aside his carving.
She shook her head. “Sit down. It’s fine.” She watched him cautiously sit, and unclasped her cloak, pulling it from her shoulders and shaking it out before hanging it on a hook on a pillar close enough to the fire to help dry it faster. She took a seat near him by the fire, close to him but not close enough. The fire was warm and helped heat her from her cold trip through the rain. The distance between them felt massive and it hurt, not touching him. Even more than that, the pain that she felt the most was not knowing where they stood with each other.
They sat in silence for a moment before he finally spoke. “It’s… good to see you.”
She’d missed hearing the rumble of his voice and was struck with a sudden desire to hear him just say her name. “It’s good to see you, too.” She stared into the fire, struggling with words. Start simple. “Is there anything you actually know about the Wardens? Or did you make it all up?”
“I made very little up.” He reached next to him and picked up a piece of wood that he was not carving, throwing it into the fire. Sparks scattered into the air. “I also feared you knew enough to contradict me. Warden Blackwall told me a bit before my initiation. But it is a… secretive order. Not even the most senior Wardens know all there is to know.”
It seemed like the perfect place for someone like him to hide. She nodded. “I started to get concerned around the time we went to Valamar and you didn’t seem to be able to know when the Darkspawn where coming.” He’d nearly gotten her killed that day. His inability to actually detect Darkspawn had led them into an ambush where the odds ended up being against them. Zaire had gotten bruises all over her body and a black eye from that. She remembered the look of complete devastation on his face when he looked at the marks where the Darkspawn had choked her. She could see that look in a different light, now.
His posture deflated. “No. That’s… part of why I left. I failed to protect you. My lie got you hurt.”
The uncertain wavering in his voice hurt as much as those bruises had. “It could have happened even if you had felt that there were darkspawn there.”
“We got lucky.” He put his hands down on his knees, hard. “That could have been worse.”
She wished that she could make him laugh, or smile, or anything. It had been easy to be angry when she wasn’t here with him. He looked broken, overwhelmed. Not the confident man who talked down the Wardens at Adamant, or even the gruff mentor that taught people how to fight back to defend themselves. “At least now we know why you were never worried about Corypheus's Calling.”
“Yes. I have none of the Wardens' abilities, and none of the... drawbacks.” He sighed. “Still, I would've fought through the darkest pits of the Deep Roads, like any true Warden. There's more to it than being able to sense Darkspawn. Warden Blackwall would have agreed.”
She started to lift her hand towards him and forced herself not to, instead folding her hands in her lap. “The Wardens at Adamant listened to you. They saw you as one of their own.”
“Perhaps it takes an outsider to show how much of yourself you've lost. I never understood the reality of being a Warden. I only saw the ideal. I suppose I reminded them of something they'd forgotten.”
“They’d forgotten a lot.” Zaire rubbed her gloved hand against her bare hand, trying to warm them and failing. Rain pounded onto the roof of the barn, and she found herself thankful for everyone working so hard for the Inquisition. “You have a lot of respect for the Wardens.”
He glanced towards his Warden armor, still in a corner. “They take all men, from the most noble to the most despicable, and make them equals. I needed to believe something like that was possible.”
Nodding, she thought for a moment before speaking. It was not that far removed from what she tried to do with the Inquisition, and perhaps that underscored that he belonged here with them. However, she would do him a disservice if she didn’t offer alternatives, even if she loathed them. “You still have the choice of going to them, if you feel that’s what you need to do.” She hated the idea of him leaving, but it would have to be his choice to make.
“Is that what you want?”
“Maker, no.” Zaire tucked her unmarked hand into her coat to try to warm it. “But I gave you your freedom so that you could choose.”
“I didn’t deserve that freedom, Zaire.”
She gritted her teeth, starting to get frustrated with his denial of his own worth. “Maybe you didn’t. It was a hard call to make.” She looked at him, trying to gauge some sort of reaction. He kept his eyes on the fire. “But it was my decision.”
“I don’t understand why.”
Ok, that’s it. “You don’t have to understand,” she snapped, shaking her head. “If you want me to say it, then I’ll just say it.” She got to her feet and crossed her arms. “First of all, I’m sorry for what I said. About not loving you. I heard your lie and I lashed out with one of my own. Maybe I was trying to tell myself it was the truth, so that what was to come would be easier. And you saw through that.” Of course he had, because he knew her that well. The thought made her mad and she squared her jaw. “I didn’t care who you were. I never did. We all screwed up somewhere. I used to be a lyrium smuggler. Did you know that I’d smuggled lyrium to Kirkwall? To Samson?” She’d never admitted that to another person. I’m just fortunate that Samson hasn’t recognized me. “Did you know that I’ve contributed to the addiction of more former Templars than I can even recall.” She threw her arms up in the air. “What do you think anyone would think of me if they knew?”
“No.” Her hands balled up into fists at her sides. “You don’t get to sit here and pretend that you’re the only one that’s fucked up. You made a bad decision, and you gave some shit orders. I’m no better than you. I don’t care,” she snarled, taking a half step towards him. “I cared that you had chances to tell me you weren’t a Warden. You lied to me about that. We used your credentials to forge alliances.” Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. “I trusted you.”
He turned to her and reached out, taking her ungloved hand. She pulled her hand free, leaving him with his hand held out towards her, waiting. She met his gaze and held back a sob that she would refuse to let out.
“I’m a man. Who made terrible mistakes. Who fell in love with you.”
She stared at him, feeling her composure crack and not caring. “You want to know why I let you go? Because you deserve a second chance. Because there’s a man somewhere in the Hinterlands who told me about a man who was helping others fight. You.” She looked down at his hand still reaching out and fought taking it in hers with every instinct she had. “Every day I’m fighting.” She held up her marked hand. “The mark hurts. It takes its toll. One day, it might take me with it, for all I know. I’m fighting so that everyone can have a chance at life. At making it through this. A fight I might not survive. I just want the same chance at something good that I’m giving every other person. I’m giving up everything for the Inquisition.” She met his eyes. “I didn’t want to give you up, too. Even if you lied, even if you didn’t trust me enough to tell me.” Reaching out, she planted her hands against his chest and shoved. His body rocked backwards and resisted her push. “You think your life didn’t have value? That’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to me, and it’s not fair to any of us who have fought beside you.”
He reached for her wrists and wrapped his hands around them. “It was fair that I pay for my crimes.”
She pulled her arm free and punched him hard in the shoulder. She felt irrational, angry, and she was past caring. “You left. I tried to tell myself it was the Calling, but you resisted Corypheus's calling, then I started to worry you went crazy. Then I thought it was me. I thought I was why you left.” She spun around and picked up a log, throwing into the fire. Just to take all that rage that was bubbling up and put it somewhere. “I didn’t know what happened to you, if it was me, if it was a Warden thing, if I needed to come after you.” Swatting his hands aside, she stalked around him, her voice rising as she spoke. “I just wanted… I just wanted you.” Her posture sagged. “That’s all. I didn’t care about Warden Blackwall, or Thom Rainier, whatever name you wanted to call yourself.” She stopped back in front of him, standing between him and the fire, staring at him. All she wanted was one simple answer from him. “Why didn’t you trust me?”
He stared up at her, his eyes wide. He held his arms out. “I’m sorry.” He winced. “That… doesn’t begin to cover it.”
The sorrow on his face was more than she could take, and as she finally felt a tear slip down her face, she fell to her knees in front of him and let him hold her. She couldn’t stop herself from shaking.
Wrapping his arms around her, he laid his chin on the top of her head. It felt more like home than anything she’d ever known, and she hated that he’d stayed so calm when she could not. “There aren’t any words that will fix this, I know.”
“Then just stop talking.” She closed her eyes and let him hold her against him, breathing in the scent of him, of leather and sweat and wood chips. His hand stroked her hair as she curled up against him, wishing that she could take back everything they’d both said. His warmth and solid hold calmed her. His arms formed a barrier that kept out the rest of the world, even if for a moment.
He kissed the top of her head and just held her until she stopped shaking. “It was never about you,” he murmured.
“I know that now.” She pulled away from him, taking his hand in hers. He shifted towards her and placed his other hand over hers, holding it. That simple motion held in it a thank you, a declaration of love, and relief.
He held her hand in his, warming it. “What do you think will happen to us after all this? A house? A dog?” He smiled. “Do you think that mark of yours can be used for cooking eggs?”
“Would you want to eat an egg cooked with this?” She held up her gloved hand.
“Perhaps not. We could just continue as we are. No eggs necessary.” He reached a hand up and brushed his fingers along her cheek. “As long as you're by my side, I don't care what happens.”
She leaned into his side as he put an arm around her. “I’m sorry for yelling. Can we just pretend the last few days didn’t happen?”
“No. Nor should we. This has been… well. Certainly not me at my best.” He pulled her against him and rested his chin on her head.
Not my best, either. “What do I call you?” she asked softly.
“I've gotten used to ‘Blackwall.’ Perhaps we could treat it as less of a name and more of a title. Almost like ‘Inquisitor.’ Reminds me of what I ought to be. And… I’m not ready for you to say that other name.”
Zaire wasn’t sure what answer she expected. A part of her wanted to call him Thom, to just try out how it felt to say out loud. But is he ready for that? Am I ready for that? “Is this some fetish about my Marcher accent and the way I say Blackwall?”
“I do like the way you say it.” His hand drifted up to the back of her neck and he rubbed at it. She closed her eyes and relaxed into his touch.
His hand stilled and she opened her eyes when she felt him tense. “What?”
“I didn’t mean get a dog now,” he noted, and she followed his gaze to find a mabari watching them from the door.
“That wasn’t me. Although wouldn’t that be clever on my part.” She stood, dusting herself off, and gestured to the mabari. “Where’d you come from?”
“She’s beautiful,” Blackwall commented, coming forward and kneeling before the dog.
She trotted up and stopped in front of them, her head hung low. Blackwall reached out and scratched her head, and while she leaned into his hand, her tail did not wag. Instead, she looked past him. “Not even a wag?”
Zaire followed the mabari’s gaze to Blackwall’s Warden armor. Oh no. “No.” She looked down at the dog. “Aren’t mabari smart and very attached to their masters?”
“They are.” Blackwall looked over his shoulder, and his face fell. “She was Alistair’s?”
“Was. Shit.” Zaire started pacing. “Not good.”
Blackwall looked alarmed, and started to get to his feet. The marbari walked around and stopped him, putting a paw on his knee and putting her weight on it so that she could lick his face. “I’m not sure what this means.”
“I think it means dogs like you.” Zaire watched Blackwall reach out and scratch the dog behind her ears.
“I’m more concerned that it implies that the Warden Commander is here.” He glanced nervously back at the armor. The mabari backed up and let Blackwall stand, and he started to gather the armor to put it into a trunk.
“Maker be damned, this is not going to be my night.” Zaire sighed, rubbing at her forehead. “I’m going to sort this out.”
“I’ll come with you,” he offered, but she shook her head.
“No. Let’s not stir the Warden pot.” She looked up at him. “I… I think I still need time to process this. To be close to you.”
“That’s fair. It’s more than what I deserve.” He got to his knees in front of her and held her face in his hands for a moment before kissing her. “I’ve missed you.”
She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, then backed up and punched him in the shoulder. “Don’t every put me through this again, Blackwall. I swear to the Maker that you’d better not have any more secrets up your sleeve.”
“No secrets, m’lady. I promise.”
Taking him at his word, Zaire stood up and reached a hand out the mabari. “How about you take me to meet who you’ve come with?”
The mabari barked, once, and left the barn, Zaire following. Just before she left the barn, she realized she was about to walk back out into the storm without her cloak. She turned to get it to find that Blackwall had already gotten it and was walking to her. He got to his knees in front of her and put it over her shoulders, then leaned in to kiss her cheek.
She turned her head so that his mouth landed on her own, and kissed him. It felt like home. “You don’t get away that easily,” she said, managing a smile.
“I don’t plan on getting away at all.” He got to his feet and started back to the fire, and she turned to follow the mabari into the darkness and rain.
“I do know my way around,” Zaire commented, “but your nose is probably going to get us farther than me trying to find who you are here with.”
The dog’s tail wagged a couple of times and she looked up at Zaire. They moved through Skyhold, the mabari occasionally stopping to sniff the air or ground.
Near the tavern, Zaire saw another mabari waiting, who barked once when he saw them coming. “Another one? How many of you are there?”
They both stood outside the tavern door, waiting for her to open the door. Sighing, Zaire pushed it open, and the two dogs bolted through the door. She followed, closing the door behind them.
Chapter 8: Like A Brother
“Well, Varric,” Garrett Hawke said, sitting a mug of ale down in front of each of them. “I’m planning on leaving Skyhold in the morning.”
Varric smirked, leaning forward. “Actually leaving, or putting it off another day?”
“Actually for real leaving.” Hawke took a big drink of his ale. “I miss home.” I miss Anders. He didn’t bother to say it out loud, but he missed his mage with his golden hair and beautiful eyes. It generally had served him better not to bring it up, even if it hurt. It hurt to love someone so much and hardly get to talk to anyone about them. Even to a friend as close as Varric had been. Zaire had been kind enough to listen and had seemed sympathetic, but it had taken a lot of thought on his part before he’d been willing to talk to her.
The dwarf across from him took a drink of his ale. “Where is your home, these days? You’ve never told me.”
“I’m not falling for that trick, Varric.” It was better if no one else knew where he’d been holed up with Anders and the few Grey Wardens. Far away from Corypheus’s reach. He raised his mug towards Varric. “Let’s toast to me fading back into my obscurity where I can’t fuck up anything else.”
Varric lifted his mug and clicked it against Hawke’s. “How about toasting to the Champion of Kirkwall instead.” He set the cup down. “Are you still blaming yourself for-“
“Yes. And you would be blaming me, too, if you have any sense.” Hawke sat back, regarding his friend. They’d been the best of friends since shortly after they met, after Hawke arrived in Kirkwall, but what had later happened with Anders and the Mage Rebellion had caused some tensions between them and Hawke had kept his distance since, out of respect for Varric. “Maybe I saved Kirkwall, but accidentally helped blow it up. I released Corypheus, then we killed him, then he came back. Now? I tried to fix that, and Alistair had to one up me.” He shook his head. “Figures.”
Varric shook his head. “Come on, Hawke. That’s not really how you look at it, is it?”
Hawke rubbed at his beard. “He was my cousin’s husband, Varric.” It felt like a rock settled in his stomach, at how he’d feel if he’d lost Anders. He just wanted to get home and hug Audra and tell her that he was sorry. That this wasn’t what he wanted. “I’ve fucked up her life, too.”
“Self pity doesn’t suit you. It could have been a lot worse.”
“No, Varric.” Hawke remembered the last time they’d tried to talk about Anders, shortly after he’d arrived. They’d had a night to catch up over drinks, very similar to the night they were currently having. Hawke had laughed it off then, but couldn’t find the energy to do anything other than try to shut the conversation down. “We’re not going to talk about Anders again.”
“What do you mean, again? You barely mention him to me.”
“You think I don’t hear your comments?” Hawke snorted. He supposed the one thing more painful than not being able to talk about Anders was not being able to talk about him to someone who had been there through it all, who had called them both friends. Varric had been there when Hawke had stumbled into the Hanged Man to drink one night, after another frustrating night where he’d left the clinic wanting nothing more than to drag the healer back to his mansion, and Anders steadfastly putting his duty first. “Varric, I love you like a brother, but you’ve made it clear that you think I’d be better off far away from him.”
“Would you? Can you tell me that you’re happy with a man that killed that many innocents? In my home?”
That’s enough of that. “What are you talking about, Varric? We routinely sacrifice innocents now, every other week. It’s how we have quality time.” Hawke slammed his mug down on the table. “So, if you want to know?” Hawke took a deep breath. “At first, after we got out of Kirkwall, I wondered if that love I had for him would fade, if resentment would start to build. I waited for it. I waited to get really mad. Not just mad like I was, but really mad.” He’d been mad at being lied to, and he’d been lied that he’d had to flee Kirkwall. Mad that he’d had to leave everything behind. He’d effectively lost his home in Ferelden, and then his home in Kirkwall. “And it hurt. I tried to laugh it off, I tried to joke, but I watched Anders retreat into himself. I wanted to be mad, then. Just to be able to have it out.” The depression had started to crush Anders from the inside out, and Hawke hadn’t known how to help him. The memory caused his chest to tighten up. “He fought against Justice constantly, as Justice wanted to keep fighting, and Anders was ready to give up.” More than just give up the fight; Anders hadn’t planned on surviving that long. He hadn’t thought about what would come next, how he’d move forward. Anders came out of it not knowing what he would say to Hawke, what they’d do with their lives, because he’d assumed that Hawke would just move on after Anders was gone. I loved him too much to ever let him go.
“I didn’t hear any reports of explosions, so I’m assuming he landed on some variation of giving up?”
“Not on my watch.” Hawke took another drink from his mug, fighting to control his voice. “Would it make you feel better to know it was weeks before we could touch each other? Before we could be anything other than two people on the run?” It had been some of the worst weeks of his life, separated from his sister, his friends, and finally, his lover. There had been days when he’d just watched Anders sleep, wanting so bad to just hold him but not knowing how to bridge the gap. “Justice and I fought, in the spaces between. Anders stopped caring so much that half the time, I was arguing with a spirit that couldn’t and would never be able to understand what I was trying to say.”
Varric waved to the barmaid for more drinks. “Come on, Hawke, it was doomed from the start.”
Finishing his drink, Hawke put the cup down and put his elbows on the table. “Challenge accepted.” Those were rough days, for them both. There were times when he wouldn’t see Anders for days at a time, but Justice kept following Hawke for Anders’s sake, or so he said. “We stuck together. The best we could. And then…” Hawke hesitated. These days with Anders were the most private that he had, and few people knew. He looked around to make sure that no one was listening. “We had taken refuge somewhere far away, I’m not even sure where. We were both growing beards that would put your average dwarf to shame. He was losing so much weight and hadn’t been eating.” Hawke paused, remembering the haunted look in Anders’ eyes, during the times he remained. “But something started to change. The farther we got from Kirkwall, from the Templars, that drive to fight just sharply faded. I felt like Anders had started to withdraw so far, just to protect himself from how much he hurt.”
“He wasn’t the only one.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of people hurt him to get him to that point. Have you ever seen how many scars he’s covered in, Varric?” Hawke could picture each of them in stark relief in his head. Anders remembered the source of every one of them and had recited them to Hawke once. I wanted to take them all away for him.
The dwarf fell silent as the drinks arrived, and he pushed one to Hawke. “Unfortunately, yes.”
“Tell me that anyone deserved that. Even him.”
“Of course not, but that doesn’t undo what he did.”
Hawke got halfway out of his seat, his patience wearing thin. Why am I even having this conversation? “Do you want to hear what happened, or do you want me to leave? I can do that.”
“Sit the fuck down, Hawke.” Varric gestured at him with his hand. “You know me, I’m always being an asshole.”
“We used to all be assholes together.” Hawke dropped back into his seat, closing his eyes. “Finally it was me and Justice and I was starting to worry if Anders was coming back. I went looking for my cousin. She had another Warden with her, by the name of Nathaniel Howe. And he looked at Anders or Justice or whoever he was… and he spoke directly to Justice and said that he’d forgotten what he’d told him. Justice reared up, and then was… silent. They were both gone.” Hawke wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but at the time he’d been terrified. “I was left with some Wardens and a shell.” He’d held Anders to him whispering at him to wake up. Through all that time in Kirkwall, Hawke had never once felt like he was completely losing his mind. The moments after Anders collapsed challenged all of the composure Hawke thought he had. “Nathaniel told me that he’d known Justice and Anders both, before they’d merged.”
Varric almost dropped his drink. “Can you set me up an interview with this guy?”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that.” Hawke rolled his eyes. “He’d once talked with Justice about the ethics of joining with a living host. They’d discussed the right circumstances for it. Life. Love.” Nathaniel’s explanation made a lot of things more clear about Anders and Justice both, and having the perspective of someone that knew them separately had been immensely helpful to Hawke. “That together, perhaps spirit and host could do together what they could not do alone. ‘If you gave instead of taking, I would consider you no demon’.”
Reaching into his pocket, Varric fumbled something out and bent over it. After a moment, Hawke realized what he was doing. “Did you really just write that down?”
“Damn right I did. But you still haven’t told me why I should drop my grudge.”
“Varric, I swear to the Maker…” Hawke sighed. “You know what? I don’t care if you write this all down anymore. Have at it.” He would just leave out the best bits. “I spent almost a week waiting for either of them to come back. Anders would thrash around, then fall still. We hid with the Wardens, and I waited for him to come back, for either of them to.” They’d laid him on a bed, and Hawke was certain they were just waiting for him to die. There was a stream of visitors, as it turned out that despite Anders having considered himself no longer a Warden, he still had friends within the order. Including Hawke’s own cousin, the Hero of Ferelden. “My cousin poured healing magic into Anders, trying to do anything to bring him back, but finally determined that his body was fine, it was his mind that was gone. So I waited.”
Varric had gone still. “Did he…?”
Hawke realized that he’d gone from mad to enjoying dragging Varric along on a story for once. “Wouldn’t you hate if I just ended the story here?” Grinning, Hawke finished the ale. “It’d be what you’d deserve.”
“You wouldn’t.” Varric looked down at his ale and back up to Hawke. “I want to believe you that things have changed. I don’t want to hate him. But look at what you both left me: a city in ruins, a trail of dead bodies, a traumatized Templar made Knight Commander, who was living in just as much horror realizing what the Templars had done. Some people around here are still cleaning up that mess.”
“I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Dorian, if that’s what you’re getting at.” He pondered. “Do you really care if Anders woke up or not? You could go on with the rest of your life thinking he died, and you could write it in a book, and everyone would believe it.”
Shaking his head, Varric looked at Hawke with a surprising amount of sympathy. “But he didn’t.”
“I waited every day. We tried everything, we even brought him cats.” In fact, Audra had managed to get a hold of Anders’s friend in Amaranthine and get back the cat she had given Anders as a kitten, Ser Pounce-a-lot. They still had the cat, even, and as soon as she’d brought the cat back he started shamelessly bossing the dogs around. “And every evening, I’d… sit with him.” Holding Anders’s head in his lap, his fingers on the mage’s face. Come back to me, he’d whispered. We’ll work this out. He didn’t know how he’d feel when Anders woke up, but he wanted to know. Who would be the man that would greet him? Would it be the one he’d fallen for in Kirkwall so many years ago? The angry apostate that destroyed a chantry? The broken man in a constant war with the spirit within him? The spirit that Hawke had fought with? “After a couple of weeks, he opened his eyes and looked at me. He said he was hungry, and…” Hawke paused dramatically. “That his ploy for cats had succeeded.”
Nearly spitting out his ale, Varric set his cup down onto the table, hard enough that someone at the neighboring table jumped and looked over at them. “No! No way, Hawke.” He started laughing. “No way. I don’t believe you.”
“Hey, you could ask him yourself if you… well. Ever talked to him.”
“I’d buy him a drink for that comeback.”
“Well, don’t get too excited.” Hawke winced. He wouldn’t be able to explain the rest of it, not to Varric, but he’d always remember. Anders’s eyes sparked blue, and Justice shifted into his place. He apologized to Hawke, who didn’t flinch, but just kept running his fingers over his cheeks. We’re going to have to work together, Hawke told him. For all of our sakes. Justice agreed. “We said a lot of apologies. Anders, me, and Justice.”
“Justice… apologized to you.”
Hawke nodded. “Yes. Then Anders preceded to eat his weight in broccoli.”
“Bullshit. He hates the stuff.”
“Apparently that changed.” Hawke shrugged. “He was still Anders, but… he was Justice, too. Not locked into a fight, but some kind of coexisting. And vegetarian.” Hawke winced.
“That’s… Hawke. You’ve got to be shitting me.” Hawke I know you’re shitting me. Vegetarian?”
“I cannot tell a lie on this one, Varric.” It had been the least of the oddities that had followed. There had been a lot of fights in the meantime, trying to determine who had dominance when, how they managed to rebuild some sort of life. Hawke would never be able to explain out loud what it really meant to move forward from that moment, but he didn’t have to. That crossed the line of where no one else beyond Hawke, Anders, and Justice needed to know. It had been like falling in love with the man all over again, but now going into it knowing what he was in for… and accepting it, fully. He felt that he’d done Justice a great disservice by not recognizing the degree to which he had a relationship with them both. They had been merged so long that there was not one without the other. Hawke made the decision to love them both. He would never admit that to Varric. “But by their nature, they needed something to fight towards. Other than not eating cows, which we had to all compromise on.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a vegetarian, too?”
“Oh fuck no.” Hawke winced. “I’d do just about anything for him, but that compromise was that the rest of us kept eating meat, but make an honest effort to eat… some other stuff.” He made a face. “If I see another piece of spinach I might lose my mind, but…” Hawke shrugged. “It’s a small price to pay, in the big picture. They settled on helping the Wardens find a cure for the Taint. The Wardens have done a lot for mages that otherwise would have been made Tranquil, or killed.” It wasn’t always perfect, but time had taught him that Anders and Justice had the ability to learn who needed to be in the forefront when, and that Hawke had to trust them. They’d worked out a balance, the three of them. “They determined that coming home to the Wardens was a worthy cause.”
“And has there been any progress on that cure?”
“After a fashion. They’ve determined that there’s some tie to the Fade that’s gotten them closer to a solution, which has made Justice a valuable resource.” Hawke downed more of his second drink, wishing the ale would go to his head faster. “So, here we are. I learned to forgive. I had to fall in love with him all over again. We had a chance to have that without the pressure of Kirkwall.” He looked at Varric. “I don’t ask you to forgive him. He wouldn’t ask it of you, either. What happened there had to happen, somewhere, or the problem would get pushed under the rug over and over. For what it’s worth, he’s sorry it was Kirkwall.”
“Not as sorry as I am.”
“You don’t even have to give him a chance. I just need you to understand that things are very different now, and Kirkwall is very far away. We’ve spent some time traveling and healing, like he used to do with the clinic. He doesn’t ask for anything.” Hawke couldn’t bring himself to tell Varric that he’d come to the eventual conclusion that it wasn’t Justice or Anders that corrupted the other – it was that the injustices done to mages corrupted them both, combined with the impact of the Taint.
Varric sighed. “Fine. If I ever see him again, I won’t shoot him. Fair enough?”
“Good enough for me.” Hawke leaned back, content with that for now. “You asked if I could be happy. And Varric…” He took a deep breath and looked at his friend, who looked back at him and smiled. “The answer to that is that I can be, and I am. It’s the hardest thing to be away from him, to tell you the truth. I wasn’t sure I’d be coming back, and I feel like perhaps my work here isn’t done. I still feel as if-“
A commotion from near the entrance caused him to pause and look over, as his and Alistair’s mabari edged their way around tables to where he and Varric sat.
“Fang! Akeva! They’ll let anyone in here!” Hawke grinned as the two mabari made their way through the tavern, with the Inquisitor in tow. The dogs jumped up, one on each side of him, and started licking his face. “Hey now, hey, I just showered a couple of days ago. You’re getting slobber in my beard.” He didn’t push them away, though. Wrapping an arm around each dog, he pulled them into a hug.
Varric held up his mug. “Well, they let you in, Hawke! Inquisitor! Welcome!” He handed the mug to her. “I’ll get another one.”
He got up to get another drink, and Zaire sat down across from Hawke, pushing back her hood and taking a drink of the ale. “Can you explain why there’s two mabari roaming Skyhold?”
“Only two? Sounds like a slow night.” Hawke let go of the dogs and settled for scratching them behind their ears in turn. “This is my mabari, Fang,” he said, indicating the mabari Zaire had found outside of the tavern. “And this is Akeva. She’s… she was…” He picked up the second drink that had arrived and slammed a good portion of it, setting the mug down hard, then threw both arms around Akeva.
“It should have been me.” Hawke scratched behind Akeva’s ears more. “I’m sorry, girl. I tried to talk him out of that stupid shit but we both know how reasoning with him goes.”
Akeva whined softly and sat down, putting her head in Hawke’s lap.
“You seem awfully familiar with her,” Zaire observed.
“Living together in one keep will do that to you.” He dropped a hand onto Akeva’s back, running it over her fur. “I’m used to smelling like wet dog.”
“Oh, I’m sure Blondie loves that,” Varric added, bringing back two more ales and putting one in front of Hawke. He sat down next to Zaire.
“I’m not sure I follow.” Zaire wrapped her hands around the mug.
“Picture a bunch of Wardens and a pack of dogs. Now add me.” His hand stayed on Akeva’s back. Poor girl. I’m so sorry.
Fang crawled under the table to come up on the other side of Varric, sitting next to him. He reached a paw up and copied Varric’s stance, glancing sideways at him. “Are you mocking me?” Varric asked.
Tongue hanging out, Fang looked over at him and Hawke started laughing. “Good boy.” He looked over at Zaire on Varric’s other side. “Where did you pick up these louts?” He didn’t want to let himself get too much hope, but if they were here, it meant that Audra was also here, and possibly Anders. Although that, certainly, would have its own complications. He started to wonder if it meant that there was a chance that Alistair lived. If anyone could outdo a giant spider demon, it would be a man that survived an archdemon.
“I’m not sure.” The dwarf’s Marcher accent always surprised him. “I assumed one was Alistair’s. She… Akeva, you said?” Hawke nodded. “She found Blackwall and I, and looked sad about… well.” Zaire shrugged.
“Oh so you two are talking again?” Varric asked. “Good for you!”
Hawke chuckled, winking. “Maybe they weren’t talking, Varric.”
“Talking,” Zaire said firmly, sipping at her ale and looking at Hawke over the cup. “For now.”
Varric started laughing. “Will you stop talking to him, or will Dennett be back to wondering why the horses are-“
“Varric,” Zaire warned, shaking her head. “I think we’ve got bigger things going on than that. I’d like to get back to the question about roaming mabari in Skyhold.”
Hawke realized that he wasn’t entirely sure, either. “I was serious when I said I’d expect three. Fang, Akeva, Diablo are almost always together.”
“Diablo?” Zaire asked.
The dwarf sighed. “Then that confirms what I think is happening. I just don’t know why.”
“We probably won’t figure it out waiting here.” Hawke pushed the rest of his drink towards Varric. “Think you can handle this for me?”
“Can I handle another drink?” Varric snorted. “When did you become such a lightweight?”
“If I had to guess, probably about the time I stumbled around in the woods for months.” Hawke tried to force a smile but didn’t entirely feel it. If Audra had come to Skyhold, something big was happening. And was Anders with her? He wanted to ask the dogs, but also didn’t want to tip Varric off if that were the case. He’d take him at his word that he wouldn’t make an issue of it, but there was a big space between talking about Anders and actually seeing Anders.
“Sure you don’t want me to come with you?” Varric asked.
“Let me figure out what the hell is happening, and I’ll let you know.” Zaire finished the ale and set the cup down, getting to her feet. “Well, then, let’s go work it out.”
Hawke lead the way out of the tavern, looking at her after they’d passed through the door and were into the open. “Are you worried she’ll be mad about Alistair?”
“Why wouldn’t she be mad? She asked me to look after him. And I cocked that up.”
“We can both own that, then.” He pulled his hood up over his head, although the rain had slowed to almost nothing. “That should have been me.”
“We can debate who should have been left behind, or we can get this over with.” She looked over at Hawke. “I think he’s alive, Hawke.”
“Coming here to mount a rescue would be more Audra’s style than anger,” Hawke commented. He didn’t add that a rescue effort changes everything, at least in regards to Anders. He couldn’t imagine a scenario where Audra came to rescue Alistair and didn’t bring Anders with her. However, Anders’s presence at Skyhold would be an issue for certain, and Hawke wasn’t ready to open that can of worms. “Let’s get to Audra. Ok, dogs, show us the money.”
“You said you expected one other dog?”
“Diablo. I assume he’s with Audra, but…” He paused, hearing shouting. “Something’s up.”
Zaire came to a stop and listened. “That doesn’t sound good.”
A dwarf scout came out of the darkness towards them and Zaire hailed her. “Harding, do you know what’s going on?”
Harding looked grim. “Inquisitor. One of the patrols just came back. Hit hard by Venatori. Five injured.” She winced. “Burns.”
“Damnit.” Zaire frowned. “We’re stretched too damn thin. I’ll put out a call for more supplies. Give them everything we’ve got.”
Hawke hoped against all hope that Anders wouldn’t come out of hiding if he were here…
On the other hand, he wouldn’t be the man that Hawke loved if he didn’t.
Over his shoulder, a voice said softly, “The hurt peels away like a burn, one becomes two or two become one… or are three now two? Blinded by the blue. Whole.”
Hawke swore and looked over his shoulder at Cole. “Cole, what did I say about sneaking up on me?” It happened frequently enough that Hawke had come to be used to it, especially as Cole always had something insightful to say that made Hawke miss Anders. Cole seemed to have an uncanny grasp of the situation.
Cole stilled and peered at Hawke from under his hat. “The lyrium burned in them, they hurt us. We can’t be them. Be more.” He looked out towards the infirmary. “Spirit calls to spirit.” He looked back to Hawke. “We answer the call to fix the hurt.”
He’d had enough conversations with Cole to be able to parse that, and it didn’t bode well. He swore a couple of more times for good measure. Without a doubt, Anders and Justice were in Skyhold. “Take me there.”
Nodding, Cole started towards the infirmary. Zaire shook her head. “Hawke. I’m going to put this together as being a comment about being hurt by Templars. The implication is…”
“Yes. That’s exactly what he implied.” Something told him this was about to go horribly wrong. He set his mouth in a grim line as they followed Cole into the darkness.
Chapter 9: Compelled To Help
“And that’s how I ended up traveling with the Hero of Ferelden,” Anders finished.
Kieran grinned. “What happened to the rest of the Wardens? And to Justice?”
“That’s… a story for another time.” Anders smiled at the boy. “I can’t tell you the whole story right now, that would leave us with nothing to talk about later.”
There is another spirit here, Justice told Anders, causing Anders to fall silent.
Where? Is everything okay?
No. The spirit is a spirit of compassion. He appears in distress. There are people who are hurt.
Anders saw the crackle of blue flash across his hand and tried to hide it from Kieran. The boy was too sharp, however, and he looked from Anders’ hand to his face. “Are you okay?” he asked. “Your hand…”
Nodding, Anders shook his hand out. He didn’t bother trying to have a conversation with Justice if they should go help or not. They both knew they had to, without needing to discuss it. I’m about to do something very stupid. “I’m fine. But I think someone needs my help. Where would people go if they’re hurt?”
“The infirmary. I could take you there.” He stood up, his eyes narrowing as he studied Anders intently. “You’re spirit. Like Cole, but not like Cole.”
Cole is the other spirit here, Justice supplied.
Thanks. “I doubt it’s quite the same, but it’s also a long story. I’ll explain later.”
“You have a lot to explain later.” Kieran looked up at him. “You’re not just telling me that to make me stop asking questions, are you?”
“Maybe. But it doesn’t mean I’m never giving you answers.” He fished out a leather strap from his bag and tied his hair back into a rough tail. “I think I’ve got to do some healing first.”
Justice spoke up. Hawke will not be pleased at the risk.
Getting his cloak out of his bag, Anders threw it over his shoulders and pulled the hood up tight over his face. Hawke will understand. It’s everyone else I’m worried about. With any luck, no one here will recognize us. He pulled on gloves so that he could hide his hands if needed, although he’d need to take them off to heal.
Luck has nothing to do with it, Justice warned.
Kieran picked up his own cloak and pulled it on, starting for the door. He stopped for a moment, turning back to Anders. “Is Justice inside of you?”
This child is too smart for his, or my, own good. “Yes. He is. We… we merged after what happened.”
“What’s it like?”
This was the question that Anders hated to answer the most. “It’s… complicated.”
“You’ll explain later?” Kieran said with a knowing smile.
“Something like that, yes.” Anders gestured towards the door.
Audra had said Cullen is here, Justice said, and Anders’s stomach tied up in a knot. The last thing he needed was a Templar, especially that Templar. Or former Templar, he supposed.
Here’s hoping we don’t run into him, then.
Kieran led him outside, Diablo following them both, and they headed through the garden and along the edges of the keep. “If you could do me a favor, Kieran… could not you not mention my name?”
“I won’t.” He glanced over at Anders. “We all know about Kirkwall. Mother teaches me… a lot.”
“Oh.” Anders pulled his hood tighter over his face.
“Mother is an apostate. She says that people would be afraid of me, too, if they knew everything.”
“A part of you is very old, is it not?” Justice asked.
“That’s how it feels.” Kieran studied his face. “You’re blue again.”
Anders felt suddenly self conscious. “It… happens.” We’re not home, Justice. We’re going to need to keep that down, as much as I hate it, too. They’d become too used to casually slipping to the surface; with the Wardens, everyone became used to it. Here? Anders didn’t even want to think about what would happen.
Anders heard the shouts before they reached the infirmary, and he picked up the pace. All he had to do was blend in with the other mages and healers, it should be very easy to just sneak in, heal, and fade back into the darkness. Simple.
People ran in and out of the infirmary, shouting and carrying supplies, and Anders paused before edging into the chaos. “Why don’t you take Diablo and head back to your room?” he asked, looking down at Kieran. “Something tells me your mother won’t be happy if I’m dragging you all around the keep, and we didn’t let her know you were going.”
Kieran nodded. “I’ll let her know what’s happening.”
“Thanks.” Anders smiled at him and turned, edging past a scout near the door.
I like the boy named Kieran, Justice observed.
Me, too. He melted back into a corner, getting his bearings. There were a lot of people there, and he tried to evaluate who was hurt worst so that he knew where to focus his effort.
“Over here,” a voice said softly over his shoulder. A young man was hunched over, his large hat obscuring his face. “Burning, so hot. Am I still on fire?” He wandered towards a cot where two healers placed their hands on an unconscious woman, her clothing melted to her under her armor. Anders followed him. As he watched, the mages started healing the woman, but he knew it wouldn’t be enough to save her.
He stepped up and slid in next to one of them, taking off his gloves. “I’ve got this.” He looked down at the woman and carefully removed her helmet, setting it aside. “We’re going to take care of you.” Laying his hands on her arm, he looked over at the other mage. “She could wake up and start screaming. Do you have a piece of leather you can put into her mouth for her to bite down on?”
The other man nodded and started pulling supplies out of a bag. “I can start treating the wounds, if you can heal.”
“Thank you.” Anders didn’t bother telling him it wouldn’t be necessary to do much treating of her wounds. “You’ll also need to start getting this armor off of her, when I give the word.” The woman’s skin felt hot to his fingers, and he looked at her face as he reached out and pulled from the Fade. His connection to Justice meant that he had more power at his disposal, but it meant that he risked being discovered.
He wove the power into a healing spell and let it pass from his fingers and into the woman. He shifted his hands over her, instinctively searching for damage and pouring it into her. First, the pain, but she may not realize she wasn’t still on fire until-
She awoke, arching her back in pain as she bit down on the leather. Anders could hear her cries and he kept working. The best thing he could do for her is to heal her quickly. Skin knit together where the burns had split it, causing the burnt skin to fall off and away. “Armor, now.”
The other mage jumped into action, and the mage across from him realized that the woman was healing rapidly, but he’d hardly done anything. He stared at Anders, who tucked his head down farther under his hood and kept his focus on the woman.
“Hey, are you going to help or stare?” the first mage asked, and the second one pulled his hands away and started unbuckling the warrior’s armor, letting her regenerating skin breathe. They were efficient and their hands were steady, and Anders found himself impressed with how coordinated they were when they weren’t staring at him. He’d love to mentor mages like these.
Anders watched the woman’s eyes roll back in her head. “Almost there. I’ve got you.” The damage was extensive, the burns covering most of her body. But he’d healed worse.
Bleeding stopped, and soon the screaming stopped. She breathed raggedly, desperately, but she breathed. Anders pulled his hands away, the glow fading from them, and reached for a blanket from a nearby table. He pulled it over her and touched her forehead. “Keep the wound sites clean. After the rest of the skin has fallen away, get her on a clean sheet. She will have minimal scarring if you keep pouring more healing into her, but she needs a break, her body can only take so much of this.”
“We’ll take it from here.” One of the mages laid a hand on her forehead, smoothing her hair back. “We’ve got you.”
Anders placed a hand on the woman’s arm. “You’re in good hands.”
The rush of it coursed through the combined entity that was Anders and Justice.
She has fought hard and now she can rest, Justice said.
There are more to go. Anders was already in motion, moving to the next one.
“Healing the hurts on them heals the hurts inside,” the young man said again. Anders hadn’t realized he was still there, and felt unnerved by the accuracy of the statement. Then again, Justice had pointed out that a spirit named Cole was here.
“Cole, I presume?” he asked. The young man nodded. “If there’s someone that needs my help the most, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll go from patient to patient.”
Cole nodded. “The rest are about the same. Not as bad.” He looked back at the first woman. “She shielded the others.”
Of course she did. Anders’s heart hurt for the woman, but he had no time to stop. More patients were waiting.
He worked in an almost trance from that point onward, blocking out the distractions. The other mages started to work around him, bringing him what he needed.
Between the third and fourth victims, Cole suddenly put a hand on his arm. “These are his men. He is coming to see if they are alright.” He looked up. “I’ll let him know.” Cole rushed from the room, and Anders kept healing, hoping he could finish the last two and get out of there soon. Whoever was coming, it warranted Cole telling him, and as such, he didn’t want to find out why that was important.
The last one was an elven scout, her hands burned. She wept. “My fingers, I can’t feel my fingers.” Her fingers were curled up, her gloves burnt mostly away.
“Archer?” Anders asked, taking her hands in his and holding them, pouring the energy into her. She nodded, looking up at him. “You’ll shoot again. I promise.” He didn’t make that promise lightly, but he could already tell that he’d be able to heal the damage almost completely.
When he finished healing her, he set her hands down on her chest and smiled. He realized she was staring at him. At his face. No doubt he glowed blue from Justice’s connection to the Fade, from the lines that blurred when they healed. His time with the Wardens had made him too sloppy, too open.
He pulled the hood down over his head further, but it was too late. Others had seen, and the whispers started. He had to get out of there. Now.
“I don’t know who you are, but you just saved five of my best. Thank you.” A hand landed on his shoulder and a cold knot settled in Anders’s gut. Across the years, across Thedas, he would recognize that voice anywhere.
There would be no escaping this.
But he’d sure try. “Thank you, ser,” Anders answered, lowering his head. “I’m just doing my service to the Inquisition.”
Why are you polite? Do you know who this is? Justice asked, boiling under the surface.
Of course I know who it is! Anders drew a breath. A memory flooded back to him, of Kirkwall. Mages cannot be treated like people, they are not like you and me. He needed to get out of there, at least long enough to let him process it. To make a plan.
He pushed past Cullen but the other stepped to the side with him. Anders realized that he hadn’t put back on his gloves, and his hands had started to glow. Pulling his cloak tighter around himself, he pulled his hands under his cloak but he already knew it would be too late. Cullen couldn’t have missed that.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cullen put one hand on his sword and take a step back. “No.” The former Templar’s voice shook. “You cannot be here.”
“Tell that to the men I just saved,” he shot back, standing up straighter but keeping his face covered.
“I will not have the Butcher of Kirkwall in Skyhold!” Cullen started to draw his sword.
Anders shifted so that Cullen could see his face. “I’d consider your next move carefully, Cullen.” He raised his hands; both glowed blue. “We can both walk away now.”
The former Templar paled but did not back down. “Is that a threat, apostate?”
“It’s whatever you want it to be. You’re not going to listen anyway.” On the outside, Anders liked to think his voice remained calm, but under the surface, he and Justice seethed. Memories of Kirkwall that they’d managed to bury in the last four years away from it all started to surface. It would be so easy to lash out at him. So easy to…
We are better than this, they thought in unison.
“Do you think I can let you walk away, when you’ve never stood trial for your crimes? Guards!” he barked. Two guards approached cautiously; Anders could tell one was a former Templar just by their stance. “Arrest this man.”
They started forward, but the elf scout beside him groaned and sat up. “No.” She held up her hand. “Look at this, Commander. Look. I shouldn’t have been able to shoot again. This man saved me.” She turned to Anders and reached out her hands, turning them over for all to see. “Thank you, ser. I’m in your debt.” Anders could see the tears in her eyes and he fought to breathe. This is why he’d come here. Why he’d never given up on healing. The blue faded from his hands.
The guards stopped and looked to Cullen. “Commander?” one asked, eyes shifting from the woman to Anders to his commander.
Cullen kept his hand on his sword, shaking his head. Fury crept into his voice. “Arrest. This. Man.”
Anders clenched his teeth. He could pull a spell together, but he’d risk hurting innocents. “You will not take me,” he growled.
Whoever yelled, the guards listened and stepped back, saluting. Anders turned to see a copper haired dwarf enter, with Hawke and the two mabari in tow. This must be the Inquisitor. Would she be ally or enemy? What did she know of him? Anders looked at Hawke and nodded, hiding his relief at how glad he was to see them both. Hawke shook his head, a silent warning to Anders. A warning he didn’t need; he knew how delicate the situation had become.
“Commander. Stand down.”
“I will not stand down, Inquisitor!” Cullen drew his sword. “Do you know who this man is?”
“A man that you will not kill on sight.” She strode to his side and put a hand on his arm. “The Inquisition is better than this, Cullen. You are better than this.”
Anders watched a bead of sweat edge down Cullen’s forehead, and recognized that he had to be going through lyrium withdrawal. He wanted to tell Cullen that he forgave him, as Audra had, for his crimes against mages. That he understood how much more complicated the situation had been, more than he’d understood. Kirkwall made victims out of us all.
Instead, he brought himself up to his full height and flicked back his hood. “Is this what you want, Cullen? To expose me to everyone in Skyhold?”
“Cullen.” The Inquisitor shook her head. “Put the sword down and stop. Step away.”
Cullen glowered at the Inquisitor but stepped back, sheathing his sword. “You can’t be serious. You can’t let him walk free.”
“Let me be the judge of that.” The dwarf walked up to them both, inserting herself between them. “Cole,” she called over her shoulder. “Help me out here. What do you see? Are we in danger?”
“Surely you can’t be serious?” Cullen asked, staring.
The Inquisitor ignored him and waited for Cole to ghost his way up to her shoulder. “Scars, so many scars. No, don’t hurt me again, don’t… we’ll make you Tranquil for this, boy.” Cole shuddered but looked at Anders.
Stay calm. Anders breathed slowly and tried to calm the fight or flight response that still held him in place.
“Templars. Mages. All victims. The circles are all broken.” Cole moved to Anders’s side, almost touching him but not quite. “No one listened. Drastic but necessary. With the bandages ripped off, now the wounds can stop festering and heal.” He looked down at the Inquisitor. “We are in no danger.”
She nodded and turned back to Cullen. “I think there is a larger conversation we need to have here. I don’t doubt that. But at the moment, five of our men have been healed from a Venatori attack.”
“That doesn’t undo what he’s done,” Cullen said, pointing to Anders.
“Nothing can undo what I’ve done.” Anders took a step forward. “But I could argue that you wouldn’t be here right now if your order hadn’t been shaken to the core, too. Everyone was corrupt. Everyone hurt. You knew it, and you didn’t-“
“Enough.” The Inquisitor shook her head. “We aren’t having this out in here.” She looked around. “Anders, I presume?”
He nodded. “At your service, Inquisitor.”
“Zaire Cadash. Zaire is fine.” She reached out a hand to shake his in a confident grip that didn’t show any fear towards him.
Cullen crossed his arms. “I’m not letting him out of my sight.”
“Like to watch, then?” Hawke quipped, coming around and putting his arm on Anders’s shoulder. “Hello, love. Always one for an entrance, hrm?”
Anders snorted. “It… wasn’t my plan.” He wanted nothing more than to hug Hawke, but the scene in the infirmary was already getting to be overwhelming. He and Justice were both starting to feel restless. As if Hawke could tell, he planted a gentle kiss on Anders’ lips and stepped back, taking his hand. It grounded him while giving him space.
Zaire sighed. “Here’s what’s going to happen. Anders – for your own safety, I’m putting you in the care of two of our guards. One will have a Templar ability to nullify you. One will be a mage that can take that one down, if you are in any danger. You have to understand the situation you’ve put me in, but my intent is to ensure your safety as well as the Inquisition’s security. Is this a suitable solution?”
Anders looked at Hawke. “Can I trust this?”
“Yeah.” Hawke grinned in that cocky way that he did. “I wouldn’t trust her in a game of cards or a drinking game, but she’ll take care of you.”
Nodding, Anders looked to Zaire. “Then it’s fine. Not the reunion I’d hoped for.” He squeezed Hawke’s hand. He wanted nothing more than to embrace him, to show him how much he’d just missed him. To convey the relief he and Justice both felt on seeing him. There’d be time for that later.
“Me, either.” Hawke chuckled and looked at the guards in the infirmary. “But I don’t know, we could give the guards a show?”
Zaire looked to Cullen. “Cullen?”
He threw his hands in the air, and Anders felt certain it was the farthest from his sword his hands had been since he had seen Anders. “Fine. I pick the Templar.”
“I pick the mage.” Zaire jutted her chin out.
“Fair.” Cullen looked to one of the scouts in the room. “Get Jonathan.” He looked down at Zaire. “Your mage?”
Zaire looked over at the scout. “Dorian Pavus. You’ll likely find him-“
“We know where he is, Inquisitor,” the scout said, giving Cullen a look that Anders couldn’t entirely understand.
But if the look on his face were any indication, whoever this “Dorian Pavus” was, Cullen did not approve of the choice. “Surely there’s another, Inquisitor-“
“None other I trust to match Jonathan.”
A silent challenge went between them, one that Zaire seemed to win. “Fine. Dorian it is.”
“Fantastic.” She strode past Cullen. “Your office, Cullen. We need to have a conversation. As soon as Jonathan and Dorian are both here.” She stepped back around to walk from the infirmary, and Anders heard her directing the two mabari to find their other master and bring her back to Hawke and Anders.
Audra would not be pleased, either.
Chapter 10: Then Be Better
Halfway to Cullen’s office, Zaire passed Dorian headed to the infirmary with the scout. He stopped her as she started towards Cullen’s office. He frowned at her, a mixture of confusion and annoyance. “Zaire, what in Thedas is going on? One minute I’m relaxing, considering a bottle of wine, then the Venatori light people on fire, and now I’m told I’m being sent to guard an apostate mage?”
“I’m sorry, Dorian.” She put a hand on his arm and looked up at him. “I didn’t know who else I could trust.”
His eyes narrowed. “You’ve got that look on your face again. Trust to do what, exactly?”
“We have a… visitor.” She hated that the situation left her fighting for words. A lot had happened in a very short amount of time, and the events were ones that would only serve as a distraction to the Inquisition, and that concerned her. “A few visitors, in fact.” She winced. She wasn’t even yet aware if others had also arrived along with Audra Amell and Anders. “And a lot of dogs.”
“Ah yes. The dogs. We suddenly seem more Ferelden than usual.” He shook out his robes, straightening them. “Can I assume you’ve encountered the charming Hero of Ferelden already then?”
Zaire felt a rock settle in her stomach, followed by a twinge of irritation. One she had no intention of taking out on Dorian as it wasn’t his fault. “Am I the only one unaware of her presence in Skyhold?”
Dorian blinked. “I assume she would have found you by now.”
“I’ve been in the barn.” Dorian would know what that meant, and it was a way for her to admit it without trying to say Blackwall’s name and having her voice waver.
He put a hand on a shoulder. “Good on you.”
“Thanks.” She sighed. “I need your help guarding one of the guests, a mage that healed some of the wounded.”
“And this mage needs guarding why?”
Damnit, Dorian was always too perceptive. “He could be perceived as a threat.”
“Ah. I see.” He nodded. “You realize that the obvious conclusion here is that it’s Hawke’s husband. The one that blew up Kirkwall. Varric is still mad.”
“Shit.” She glared at him. “Do not tell Varric about this.”
“The secret is safe with me.” Dorian sighed. “Cullen can’t be taking this well. I’ll talk to him later.”
“Might be good. For now, you can start with heading to the infirmary. The only way I could keep the situation from escalating is to set a Templar and a mage on him.” She left out the part where Cullen tried to kill Anders. “A Templar of Cullen’s choice to nullify him, and-”
“A mage that not only could take down a Templar, but would without fear.” He put his hand on his chest. “Such as myself.”
Zaire nodded. “I’m sorry. I know you probably had other plans for the night, but… so did we all, I think.”
Dorian smiled and reached up to smooth his moustache. “I’ve got this. Cullen probably assigned fucking Jonathan.” He rolled his eyes. “He doesn’t stand a chance.” He winked and headed off towards the infirmary, and Zaire headed to Cullen’s office to wait.
Once there, she found the remains of Cullen’s dinner, and was glad at the least he’d eaten something before this ordeal began. On the shelf behind his desk, she saw the box that contained the lyrium. They’d had a conversation before Adamant, of him going off of the lyrium and she was getting concerned that it was a conversation they’d have to have again. If Cullen was on lyrium, he’d feel he would have nothing to fear from Anders, Zaire was sure.
What a disaster. Zaire paced the room, realizing that it felt overly warm. No doubt Dorian’s influence, as Cullen would end up just end up putting on more damned fancy cloaks to keep warm.
After a few minutes, Cullen opened the door and closed it behind him. As soon as he was in the room, he made his way shakily to his chair and sat down, putting his elbows on the desk and covering his face. Zaire realized he was shaking and she suddenly felt a pang of regret. What Cullen probably needed was Dorian, and she’d taken that option away from him entirely.
“Cullen,” she said, taking a seat across from him. “I need to know you’re okay.”
“Do I look okay?” He looked up at her, his eyes rimmed with red. “You should have let me continue the lyrium.”
“So you wouldn’t feel so powerless?” She shook her head and her palms on his desk. She traced the wood grain with her fingers. “No way, Cullen. You’re stronger than that. You don’t need the lyrium to be in charge.”
He frowned and it almost twisted into a sneer. “No, I have you to overrule my decisions.”
Zaire flattened her hands on his desk and stared at him across the surface. “You don’t get to pull that card, Cullen. You were out of line. You are not judge, jury, and executioner.” She leaned forward in her chair. “You chose to leave that behind you. We agreed to be better than that.”
Cullen gestured in the vague direction of the infirmary. “That was before that… abomination appeared in Skyhold. Clearly, Audra hid that from me, which I can’t even begin to explain-“
“Is it worse than the commander of your forces failing to inform you that the Hero of Ferelden has entered Skyhold, more than likely with the intent of rescuing her supposedly dead husband from the Fade?” She glared at him. “Because from where I’m standing, that’s a neglect of duty, Commander.”
The edge of Cullen’s mouth twitched. “Leave her out of this. I asked to be relieved from duty, Inquisitor. You, and Cassandra, denied my request. Would you like to revisit it?” He reached behind him and picked up the box, setting it on the desk between them hard enough that he rattled the contents. “Would you like me to be back on the lyrium so that I can stay in control of these situations?”
“No.” Zaire slammed her fist down, startling Cullen and rattling the half empty plate of food. “I want you to grow the fuck up. No lyrium. I get that this has dredged up some horrible memories for you. And I understand that.” She stabbed a finger at him. “But I need you to keep it together. I’m aware that Anders could be a threat, but I need you to understand that his purpose here is obvious.”
“Is it?” Cullen asked, shoving the box to the side.
“If you’d look past your own nose, you’d know that.” She took a deep breath. “Did Amell tell you that Alistair could be alive.”
He froze, staring at her. “Yes…”
“And if that’s the case, will they need the best healer in Thedas?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “One that just healed five of yours that were nearly burned alive, without breaking a sweat?”
Cullen covered his face with his hands. “He heals like that because he’s an abomination, Zaire.”
She didn’t yet entirely understand the implications of that in Anders’s case but decided to ask Hawke or Anders himself about it. “Call him what you want. He might be Alistair’s best chance at surviving.” She stood and reached out across the desk to pull a hand away from his face. “I’m not trying to hurt you.”
He yanked his hand away from her. “Then why did you send Dorian with the one person that could tell him the truth about the person I was?”
The truth of the statement sunk in, and Zaire recaptured his hand and wrapped hers around it. She hadn’t thought of that, and now that she did she’d wished she’d picked someone else. On the other hand, there was only so long that Cullen could pretend to protect Dorian from Cullen’s own past. Dorian was far more clever for that. “Do you think Dorian doesn’t know? Cullen, I’m sorry to say, but everyone knows the rumors about you. Every single mage here knows not just about Kirkwall, but that you were at Kinloch Hold.”
“Dorian doesn’t look at me like I’m the man who did those things.” He scrubbed at his face with his free hand. “I can’t lose him, Zaire.”
“Give him more credit than that. You may not like to hear it, but no one thinks you’re innocent. They follow you because they respect you and see the person you are now.”
“You mean the person who just threatened to kill an apostate in the infirmary in front of everyone?” Cullen shook his head. “Hardly a shining example.”
“Then be better. We’ve all fucked up.” Letting go of his hand, she backed away from the desk. “When you’re feeling less sorry for yourself, ask me about the guilt I carry.” She gestured towards the door. “I’m gathering everyone in the war room. Let’s get this over with. I need to know that you can keep it together, Cullen. Are you with me?”
He rose from his chair, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. Zaire waited for him to open them. When he did, he stood straighter, and picked up the box of lyrium and put it on the shelf behind him. She could see his bearing shift to the Commander of the Inquisition’s forces, and that was what they needed him to be. Later, they would discuss removing that box entirely.
“I’m with you, Inquisitor,” he said, the crisp voice of command now back in his tone.
“Good to have you. As always.” Zaire left the room, heading towards to the war room. She trusted that Cullen would follow and started out across the courtyard.
Chapter 11: The Least Harsh Thing
Audra looked around after they entered Morrigan’s quarters, immediately noticing that she did not see Anders. Kieran sat reading a book, one arm around Diablo. He looked up as they entered and Audra squinted at him, her eyes adjusting to the sudden light in the room after the dark walk outside. “Kieran, where’s Anders?” she asked, concerned.
Kieran’s eyes were wide. “There were some people that were burned. He went to the infirmary to heal them. He was… blue.”
Her breath hitched in her throat. Anders, Justice, you damned fools. She clutched at the necklace that Alistair had given her on her wedding day; it grounded her. “Where’s the infirmary?”
“I’ll take you there,” Morrigan said, her hand already reaching for the door.
Audra turned back towards the door, hearing the sound of a bark. She pushed past Morrigan and cracked open the door to see Fang and Akeva. Stepping back, she opened the door. “Are you coming in this time?”
Akeva stopped at the doorway, looking at Kieran, evaluating him. The boy stared back, then his face lit up. The marbari bounded in and started licking his face, Kieran laughing the whole time. Fang followed, sitting down to wait his turn.
Morrigan made a noise. “That is disgusting. Wash your face when they’re done.”
“Disgusting?” Audra snorted. “Says the woman who turned into a giant spider just to freak out Alistair in camp.”
“That was… a long time ago.” Morrigan put on a dignified expression.
Audra chuckled, remembering Alistair’s panic and Oghren’s drunk laughter. “He screamed like a girl. I don’t care how old we get, that’s always going to be funny.”
“Mother, did you really do that?” Kieran asked, and Morrigan shot Audra a look that said thanks a lot for that.
“I… did. It was a long time ago,“ Morrigan repeated.
“That’s funny, but also kind of mean.”
Audra didn’t want to point out that described Morrigan in a nutshell. She changed the subject. “Ok, dogs, you’re staying with Kieran?” A trio of barks answered her. At least that made that easier. Akeva looked particularly excited, and it started to sink in that perhaps Akeva knew exactly who Kieran was. “You can stay, but you’re going to have to go somewhere that’s not in here, okay? Morrigan doesn’t need her room smelling like dogs. Akeva, did you find a place to go?”
The dog barked, and Kieran patted her. “I’ll stay with them. If they’re hungry, I’ll bet I know who might be able to help. By the stables.”
Akeva barked again, and Audra smiled. “Is that where you were thinking, too?”
“Warden… ah. Blackwall.” Morrigan nodded, casting her eyes downward. “Excellent. Kieran, don’t forget a thick cloak, ‘tis cold out.” She looked over at Audra, her posture looking more guarded as she opened the door and stepped through it into the darkness. “Let’s go.”
Another warden at Skyhold was news to Audra, and that name... Audra thought for a moment. The only Warden Blackwall she knew of couldn’t possibly be at Skyhold. “Warden Blackwall would have had to have gone on his Calling many years ago. He can’t be here.”
“No.” Morrigan bit the word off sharply. “I would prefer you disregard my misstep. This man is no warden.”
“Then who is he?” Audra persisted, both curious and concerned. “If someone is impersonating a Warden, I need to be aware of it, Morrigan.”
Morrigan sighed. “Tis not my information to give you. Again, a question for the Inquisitor. He fights for the Inquisition, and I assure you that he will be of use taking care of the dogs. He is… a good man.”
Audra felt suspicious but would take Morrigan at her word, and besides, there were larger issues at hand. “Let’s find Anders, then. I can’t let him be harmed.” Between being married to her cousin, one of her closest friends, and the only person capable of healing Alistair, Audra had a lot of reasons to ensure Anders’s safety.
“Then let us hope we reach him before the Commander does.” Morrigan strode forward, and Audra matched her step to the other mage’s. “Did you talk to Cullen already?”
“Yes, I saw him before you.” She hesitated. “I didn’t want him to hear that I was here through some rumor.” Pulling her hood up over her head, she hoped that she’d be able to hide. If nothing else, she and Anders had worn nothing that hinted that they were Grey Wardens, but if Anders had gone to heal, there was no doubt in her mind that someone would notice he didn’t belong there. No one could heal like Anders, anywhere.
And no one could hurt someone like Anders could if pushed far enough.
Especially if pushed by someone carrying enough fear and hate to nearly have annulled a Circle, even if that were years in the past. “Damnit.” She glanced at Morrigan. “Cullen seemed stable, but I’m not sure about how he’d react to Anders.” Not well, she presumed.
“I do not believe it will go well,” she said, echoing Audra’s thoughts. “For either of them.” Her dark robes swished behind her as she walked.
Audra saw Leliana waiting near the infirmary, looking concerned. “Good, you’re both here. We need to get to the War Room.”
Feeling her heart drop into the vicinity of her leg, Audra placed a hand on her friend’s arm. She was again struck by how much Leliana had changed. “Leliana-“
“Not now.” The woman looked grim. “You’ve brought a situation here that will not be easily resolved. But I do admit, I’m curious. I have not seen Anders in a very long time, and even then it was only brief. He was…” She winced. “Difficult.”
“Is what happened in Kirkwall an issue for you?” Audra asked. Leliana’s ties to the Chantry could be complicated, and it had occurred to her on a few occasions that she may not have an ally in Leliana when it came to sheltering Anders (and Justice) as she and Alistair had.
“The destruction of a Chantry is.” Leliana sighed. “In the end, though, it can’t be denied that the situation was poor. His actions are causing the Circle and Templar model to reevaluated in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Sometimes you need to tear something ugly down so that something beautiful can be put in its place.” Her fingers ran over the crest on her clothing, which Audra recognized as the Eye of the Seeker. “I just wish that lives hadn’t been in the cost.”
“I thought you’d be more angry about the Grand Cleric?” Elthina had been an unfortunate casualty in the Chantry explosion, one that Audra and Anders had talked about at length in the past.
Leliana nodded, her demeanor calm. “I was, for a time. But Varric’s explanation of the events caused Cassandra and I to determine that the majority of the fault lay in Meredith and the red lyrium. Meredith called for the Rite of Annulment, which the Divine rightly denied.” Leliana’s mouth set into a tight line. “Not that Meredith cared for what the Divine determined.”
“That’s what Hawke said as well,” Audra noted, forcing her tone to stay level. When Hawke and Anders had made their way to where Audra and Alistair lived, it had been a number of very difficult months to heal them both, physically and emotionally.
“Yes. And even without… what happened, something was going to happen eventually. We had hoped we’d have more time, but the events were not as surprising to us as they were to some.”
Audra winced at the tone in Leliana’s voice. “That sounds… oddly harsh.”
Morrigan let out a laugh. “Audra, tis the least harsh thing I’ve heard Leliana say lately.”
“I’m not that bad, Morrigan.” Leliana smiled. “I just know where to hide the bodies.”
Audra looked from one to the other, then started laughing. “I missed you both.”
“We missed you, too,” Leliana said. “I’ll speak for Morrigan since she doesn’t have time for the sentimental sentiments.”
“Some things don’t change, then. Although you do seem to be very happy with Kieran,” Audra offered.
Morrigan tilted her head to the side, her golden eyes bright. “I am.”
Audra didn’t want to ask any more questions as she didn’t want to tip Leliana off as to Kieran’s true parentage, although knowing Leliana, she may already know. “Leliana, is Anders in the infirmary? I need to find him.”
“We would be better to discuss this in the War Room with the group. Anders is no longer in the infirmary.” Leliana looked grim. “Cullen beat us here. The Inquisitor prevented the situation from escalating, and Anders has been placed under a combined Templar and mage guard.”
“Fuck.” A jolt of fear shook Audra and she forced herself to stand up straighter. She glanced around, noticing now that a number of people seemed to be lingering near the infirmary. “Well, then, I guess there’s that. Let’s get this over with.”
Chapter 12: Hope Changes Everyone
In Alistair’s nightmares, he lost her over and over. To the Joining. The Archdemon. The Nightmare demon. The Calling.
She smiled, readying her staff as she headed into the Deep Roads. I’ll be with you soon. The Darkspawn set on her in droves, their cries almost drowning out his own screams in his head. She got no more than a few spells off before her hands and arms were shredded by them, her staff falling to the stone. The lifeless meat that had been those graceful arms fell to her sides, and she kept fighting, throwing herself at them. The Darkspawn pulled her down, ripped her to pieces. Her skin came away in ribbons, blood coming off her in crimson bursts, the white and blue of her robes turning to black and red. She kept smiling, looking right at him. She smiled until the moment they tore her jaw from her face. I’ll be with you soon.
“No!” He awoke with a start and looked around, fighting for breath as he reached for his sword. He closed his eyes against the pain that sunk into what felt like his entire body. The Fade. Of course. He leaned back against the rock wall he’d managed to get himself against, which at least kept anything from getting to him from behind. “I’ll see my death coming. That’s good, right?” He frowned, feeling his heartbeat flutter in his chest. “I’m safe. Fantastic. Bad dream.” He forced himself to take a large breath, but his chest felt too tight, his lungs too small. Coughing wracked his body and he tasted the metallic tang of his own blood. He spit it out to the side, wiping his face with his hand. “What I wouldn’t give for some cheese,” he muttered. “And now I’m talking to myself. That’s… that’s great.” He paused, looking down at his bloody hands as if they belonged to someone else. “Add crazy on top of… dying? And nightmares.”
He tried to look around, giving himself more leverage by putting his hand on the ground. It squished down and made a wet sound. Lifting his hand, he realized he had placed it firmly in a puddle of his own blood. Something in him tried to tell him he should be disgusted, or he should be puking, or even alarmed, but he felt so disconnected from everything that it became another curiosity to file away somewhere between rocks that float and random demons. “Well, I’m not dead yet. I guess. I don’t think I’d be still bleeding if I was already dead.”
Pulling his shield over himself, he wondered how long it would take to die. Would the demons find him first? He hoped not. He would rather just end it now than… that.
They whispered to him, the demons. After he’d struck the final blow to the Nightmare demon and it had slunk away to die, he had staggered down the hill and gotten wedged against the rock hillside. The rocks helped him sit up, and they helped him have something of a defensible position. That is, if he could stand up.
The wound in his side burned and had started to smell. He had no idea how long he’d been here already, or how long he would be here. Hours? Days? Did a lack of water have the same effect in the Fade? When did he last drink any water?
He missed Audra, and their warm bed in the keep. He missed the dogs. He missed Hawke and Anders.
“You better live the rest of your life well, Hawke,” he muttered. “Not as if you can hear me. I’m going to come back and haunt you if you screw that up.” Alistair laughed. “I’m going to knock your cheese off the table for the rest of your life. It’s going to have dog and cat hair on it every time.”
A bit of movement to the side alerted him to the presence of the demon, and he saw the telltale fire that indicated a rage demon. “Shit.” Shit shit shit.
It turned towards him and paused, seeming to see him, then floated directly towards him in that uncanny way. He fought to get to his feet, managing to stagger into a standing position but needing the help of the rocks behind him. His sword felt so heavy, dragging his arm down. His shield felt completely useless. There’s no way he could fight like this.
I guess this is it, he thought, taking a deep breath.
A movement to his right started him, a spirit popping up next to him. He flinched away from it. It didn’t look like a demon, just a yellow glow.
The spirit shifted into the form of Audra, reaching out a hand. “I can help you.”
“No! Back!” Alistair forced his sword arm to lift his sword, managing to get it at least pointing the right direction. “You can’t help me.”
“I am a spirit of hope.” Not-Audra took a step forward. “I can help you fight it. I can help you stay alive.”
“Why… why would you help me? How do I know you’re not a demon?” His voice shook.
Not-Audra smiled kindly at him. “You don’t.”
He pulled away from it, his sword feeling more heavy by the moment. It wavered in his hand, then slipped through his fingers, slick with blood, and clattered to the ground. “I can’t… I can’t take you back with me. You know that. I’d sooner die.”
“I am not asking to leave this place.” The spirit half stepped, half glided. It didn’t quite speak in Audra’s voice. “My only purpose is to give hope. I have no desires, only… the need to give hope. But I need your permission to help.”
The rage demon had slowed, noticing the spirit. It let out a growl and started rushing towards them.
Alistair drew a breath and reached for the spirit of hope, his hand landing on its hand. “I don’t have any options. I accept your assistance. Please… just don’t change me.”
Hope changes everyone, Alistair. It is not a thing to fear. And I will not stay past where you need me.
“Oh, that’s good to know,” he babbled. “Now what-“
Something surged through him. A warmth, an uplifting feeling. Moments flashed through his mind: the first time he saw Audra. Their first night in the tent together in camp. When she survived fighting the Archdemon. She is your hope. She will come for you.
That hope was beyond what he felt he could afford himself, but the spirit wouldn’t let him doubt it. He reached to the ground to pick up his sword and met the rage demon head on, forcing it back with his shield. He didn’t know how he’d be able to fight, but the spirit helped him, giving him the strength.
Other spirits arrived and surrounded the rage demon, pushing forward into it. It thrashed against them but they reached for it, blocking it’s fire from reaching Alistair. The spirits took on the form of others he knew. Leliana. Perhaps faith? Cailan. Valor. Duncan. Duty. Nathaniel. Honor. Morrigan. He had no idea what that meant.
They cornered the rage demon and Alistair lifted his sword, plunging it through it with a cry. It disappointed in a shower of sparks and ash, it’s cry fading out as it did. We did it. He took a deep breath. Everything hurt, just to move that far. “I don’t think I can do that many more times.”
Someone has been looking for you, the spirit told him. They will soon know you are alive. For now, rest.
He stepped backwards to lean against the rock, sliding back down to sit on the ground. He let his eyes close, a slight smile on his face. He had to survive, to see her again. “I love you. I miss you.” A fit of coughing up blood took the last of his strength, and he let himself rest finally, slipping into the darkness.
Chapter 13: Not On Trial
Cassandra caught up with Zaire as she reached Josephine’s office. “Inquisitor, may I have a word? There appears to be-“
“A complete shit show.” Zaire continued forward, stopping at Josephine’s empty desk. Frowning, she looked back at Cassandra. She’d hoped that she could have spoken with her to work out a better arrangement for the situation with Anders. Josephine wouldn’t be pleased, but Zaire needed to find a way to ensure his safety that also kept Skyhold safe. For that matter, she suspected that Cassandra may not be pleased when she found out the depth of what was happening. “Is Josephine doing her usual rounds for reports?”
Cassandra put her hand on Josephine’s desk, forcing herself into Zaire’s view. “I suspect so, but I need to know what’s going on. I’m hearing… alarming rumors.“
Of course she was; the Orlesians alone had probably spread it across the keep, and the mages… Zaire sighed. “Cassandra, I suspect that whatever has happened is going to be a long story, one I’m not completely certain on.” She squared her shoulders. “So let’s go find out.” She gestured to Cassandra to follow her to the War Room.
Opening the doors, she found that Hawke, Anders, Dorian, and Jonathan waited in the room. Hawke and Anders stood close enough that Zaire imagined it had to be hard for them, to wait to see what would happen after they’d waited to be reunited. Based on her conversations with Hawke, she knew they’d missed each other. The two didn’t take their eyes off of each other, and Hawke’s stance looked protective, placing himself between the Templar and Anders. Their hands touched for a moment, a casual gesture that made Zaire ache for her time with Blackwall. Dorian feigned indifference but the look on his face seemed pained. She hoped that no one had said anything about Cullen to him, but she couldn’t know until later. Jonathan looked profoundly uncomfortable and over-diligent
Zaire glanced at Cassandra, whose mouth had fallen open as she stared at Hawke and Anders. It occurred to Zaire that the Seeker could now take over the Templar’s duties. It would be for the better, as she did not need someone else being jumpy about mages in here at the moment. Cullen would be enough of a handful. “Jonathan, you are relieved of duty.”
The Templar protested, taking a half step forward that caused his armor to clink. “Commander Cullen said-“
“Seeker Cassandra will take over those duties,” Zaire snapped, not having the time nor patience for the Templar’s uncertainty. “We must convene in private.”
Frowning, the young man strode from the room, but Zaire saw him slump as he passed through the door. She assumed in relief.
As the door closed behind him, Dorian sighed and gestures towards Cassandra, his ornate sleeve flowing with his movement. “Wasn’t the point that I’m matched with someone I can take down?”
Zaire glanced at him. “Are you saying Cassandra would win in a fight?” She supposed she wouldn’t want to see that fight.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Dorian said, taking interest in one of his ornate rings. “But I don’t want to fight Cassandra, she knows my weaknesses. Wine, good clothing.”
“What is going on?” Cassandra asked, stepping towards Anders without threat, only curiousity. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah, my reputation precedes me.” The mage smiled wryly, surprisingly glib. “And I’ve only had one sword drawn on me.”
Cassandra frowned. “By whom?”
The door to the room slammed open, and Cullen strode in. “There had better be an excellent explanation as to why he is in Skyhold,” he growled, jabbing a finger towards Anders. “After what he did in Kirkwall-“
“Stop, Cullen.” Cassandra stepped in front of him, spreading her arms. Hawke edged up next to her, the two of them becoming a human wall between Cullen and Anders. “I would like to remind you of the result of the Seekers’ investigation into the cause of the events of Kirkwall and the Kirkwall Rebellion.”
Anders leaned forwards towards Hawke. “There was an investigation?”
Zaire shot him a look that cause him to step back. “There was. Conducted by Cassandra, and verified by Leliana.” She looked back to Cassandra. “We should get Leliana. It would not hurt to have Morrigan here, given her connection to the Hero of Ferelden, and since apparently the Hero of Ferelden is here and Cullen did not see fit to inform me of this…” She looked pointedly at Cullen, feeling the smolder of anger in her for him not telling her sooner. “They should both also be here.”
Cassandra’s head snapped around. “Audra Amell is here?”
The door banged open again, and Leliana entered, with Morrigan and a woman whose dark hood was pulled down to hide her face. When the door closed behind them, she flicked the hood down and stepped past Leliana. She radiated a calm but steeled authority, her hair long and pulled back into a braid. The woman strode across the room to put a hand on Anders’s arm, searching his face. “Have you been harmed?”
“He is under my protection, and will not be harmed.” Zaire took a breath. “No one will be harmed.” Zaire stepped forward meet the Warden Commander halfway.
“Inquisitor Zaire Cadash, meet Warden Commander Audra Amell,” Hawke said, stepping forward to bridge the gap.
Zaire nodded. “Thank you, Champion of Kirkwall.”
Hawke smiled. “It is rather fitting that we’re all here. I just wish the circumstances were better.”
Zaire looked up at the Warden Commander. She stood shorter than many humans, but something in her bearing made it seem as if she were taller. Or was it the knowledge that she’d ended a Blight? That was enough to make anyone look larger. Zaire has heard the story, of course, of th killing blow made to the Archdemon. She found it hard to picture the woman in front of her with a sword, but she supposed if one had asked her months ago, she wouldn’t have pictured herself as anything but a lyrium smugger.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Cassandra staring. She started to worry about the other woman’s eyeballs falling out of her head. “I would have liked us to have met under better circumstances. I am… sorry for your loss, Warden Commander.”
She nodded. “You may call me Audra. It’s easier.” She drew a breath. “I apologize I did not come to see you first, I did not want Cullen to hear about my presence second hand.”
“I understand.” Zaire did not entirely understand, and had the distinct impression she was missing part of the story. At the moment, it was in her best interest to be as polite as possible until she felt out the situation. She understood enough to know that Cullen and Audra had some history.
“I had hoped to discuss this in private with you and Garrett, but it seems that circumstances tonight have forced my hand. My intent was not deception, rather…” She sighed, rubbing at her face.
“Then let me help move the conversation along,” Zaire noted, her hands feeling along the edge of the table. “I’m not best known for my tact.”
“Neither is Garrett, so I suspect we’re on the same page.”
“It’s good to see you too, cousin.” Hawke crossed his arm and smiled.
“I’d like to discuss the details of why you’ve come to Skyhold,” Zaire said, “but before we go any further, I’d like to discuss the subject of Anders, as this is a potentially sensitive topic.” She looked over at Anders. “Before the others arrived, we started to discuss the results of the Seekers’ investigation into the events in Kirkwall.” She looked to Cassandra, who continued to stare at Audra, Zaire, and Hawke. “Cass?”
“Inquisitor. I am sorry. It’s just that I never thought I would see the Champion, the Hero of Ferelden, and the Inquisitor in one room.” She nodded. “Very well. I investigated Kirkwall, interviewing several parties involved. This included Cullen himself, Varric Tethris, and several other first hand witnesses to the events in Kirkwall. The Seekers’ determination is that the blame for the events of the Kirkwall Rebellion lies on the shoulders of Meredith Stannard of the Templars, and her corruption from the red lyrium she was exposed to.”
Leliana nodded. “I am witness to this account.”
“It is the evaluation of the Seekers that both mages and Templars were victims. While we cannot condone the means,” Cassandra said, with a harsh look at Anders, “the blame for the events does not lie solely on the head of the mage named Anders. None of the events would have been set in motion if the Templars had been following the appropriate protocols.”
Anders slumped and only then did Zaire realize that he had been so tense.
“You are forgetting that while you determined he is not responsible for the Kirkwall Rebellion nor the events, as you put it, he did kill nearly a hundred people in a horrible act,” Cullen shot back.
A silence filled the room. Zaire started to speak, but Anders beat her to it.
He stood up straight and looked defiantly at Cullen. “I do not deny my part in ensuring both mages and Templars had a chance at freedom.” Hawke put a hand on his arm but Anders shook it off. “There is no excusing what I did in the name of mage freedom. We were given few options. Yet…” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “Hurting people went against everything I wanted to be. And for that, I will always be sorry, and nothing I do will ever be enough atonement for that.” He opened his eyes and Zaire realized he was blinking away tears.
“The Templars pushed everyone too far. Hell, Cullen, you took away my sister, in case you forgot.” Hawke stepped forward and put his hands down on the table. “Anders was a healer in Darktown helping everyone he could, before the situation became intolerable.”
“And that excuses his actions?” Cullen asked sharply. “And you’re no better, helping him like you did.”
Zaire put a hand up. “Cullen, Anders is not on trial.”
“Perhaps he should be.” Cullen looked from Anders to Zaire. “I demand he be put on trial for his crimes.”
“If that’s a discussion we need to have, we can have it.” Zaire crossed her arms. “But we are not having it right now. We need to have some trust.”
“I have no trust for him.”
Anders crossed his arms, the glint of tears still in the corners of his eyes. “You have never trusted any mage, Cullen. Kirkwall isn’t that far away. What was it you said?”
Hawke and Audra shot Anders a look of warning at the same time. Audra in particular looked alarmed, and shook her head at him. “Not here, Anders.”
Cullen’s eyes grew wide and Zaire saw him flick a panicked gaze to Dorian. The mage’s expression didn’t change, but Zaire could see that he did not meet Cullen’s gaze. This was a road she needed neither to go down, and now they would both be distracted. Even worse, it may have proved Cullen’s silent fear about not wanting Dorian to be anywhere near Anders. “Enough. We are not here to discuss the people that we were. The Inquisition has changed us all, I like to think for the better.” She looked to Audra. “You and Anders came here for a specific reason, and I’d like to get to business on discussing that reason.” She could see Cullen fuming. “If any of you are not here to discuss the fate of Warden Alistair, you are welcome to depart now.”
Silence greeted her statement.
Zaire continued. “I’m not convinced that Alistair is dead. Nor am I convinced that it is a good idea to risk a person remaining alive while physically in the Fade.”
“While we cannot determine if the historical precedence for such an event is accurate,” Dorian noted, “it does not seem that leaving him there is a wise idea, no.”
Audra nodded. “I’m actually certain he’s alive. I’ve dreamed of him being alive, and I have heard that at least one other as has well.”
“Have you spoken to enchanter Fiona yet, Warden Commander?” Dorian asked. “She has also mentioned having such dreams.”
Audra blinked. “I was not aware of that. I’m not sure why Fiona would also be having those kinds of dreams, although it could have something to do with her being a mage and a former Warden. The ties of Warden blood are strong, although…” She frowned. “Well. It doesn’t matter. We can discuss Fiona later.” She looked around the room. “I intend to attempt to rescue Alistair, but to do that I need your help.”
“We will provide what assistance we can, but we also are locked in our own battle with Corypheus and need to consider the implications of assigning any of our people to your own mission.” Zaire started pacing the room, thinking. “But I agree that the very least we can do after everything he did for us is to try to save him.”
Audra nodded. “I’d hoped you’d say that. The rumors I’ve heard about you seem to be proving true.”
“So, how do we do this?” Hawke asked. “Zaire has the mark, which gives us a chance of getting into the Fade if she can recreate what she did to take us there the first time.”
“I think I can, with some help from Morrigan and Solas,” Zaire noted.
“And am I chopped liver?” Dorian asked, smirking.
“Absolutely not, Dorian.” Zaire shook her head. “But I think that they’ve got that specific knowledge. But, I need your help to determine the plan after everyone gets there. I have no idea how anyone will find him once there.”
“There are some other possibilities, but they may not be ones that we will be able to actually pursue.” Audra glanced over at Morrigan, exchanging a look that Zaire couldn’t quite read but that she filed away to ponder later.
“I’m assuming, then, that you’ve brought Anders with you as you’ll need him to heal Alistair if he is badly injured,” Zaire added.
“He’s the best healer in Thedas.” Audra smiled, glancing at the other mage. “I couldn’t do this without him.”
Cullen frowned. “We have many capable mages within in the Inquisition.”
“None that have the ability to directly pull from the Fade in the same way that Anders does,” Hawke added. “And I suspect, given how this happened the first time, it’s going to take a lot of power to get even a handful of us in.”
“I don’t have the capacity to send in enough mages to make up for Anders’s ability,” Zaire admitted. “I’m taking Audra on her word that he’s the best.”
Sighing, Cullen glared at Anders. “He is… powerful. I can admit that much. But that doesn’t mean this is a good idea.”
“I think it’s a fabulous idea,” Dorian remarked. “In fact, I volunteer to go, if I can. I’d look forward to this sort of impossible mission.”
“Let’s not be too hasty, Dorian,” Zaire warned. “We’re going to have to put together a plan first. Let’s go over what we know. Alistair is alive, and physically in the Fade.”
“You have the capacity to get him out, with the Mark,” Morrigan added.
“We have a Fade expert, in the form of Solas,” Leliana noted.
Audra nodded. “It sounds like we can put together a party. I need myself and Anders for sure. I’d prefer Hawke, because Hawke and I have enough experience in combat together at this point that we can work well off each other. I’d like to get a warrior, not someone who would physically go in but that would go into a dream state in order to help fight.”
“I’ll do it,” Cullen said, taking a step forward.
The room fell silent. “Cullen, are you sure about that?” Zaire asked, concerned. With how much of a loose cannon he’d been during this, she wasn’t sure if she could trust him to keep it together.
“I need to keep my eye on this situation, and this is the best way to do it.” He set his jaw firmly.
“Cullen, I’m not sure that’s wise,” Cassandra warned.
“With all respect, Cassandra, it’s not your decision.”
“We’ll keep discussing this in more detail later.” Zaire frowned. “I wish that I could help, as I want Alistair back badly, but I have to admit the risk is too high for me to go.”
“I would agree, Inquisitor. I’d prefer if you and Morrigan are here, as I’m going to need you both to get us out.” Audra looked around. “I’d be interested in talking to this Solas, if possible, before trying to make any solid plans about what we do next. But by my estimate, I need three mages including myself, plus Hawke, one warrior…” She looked over to Cullen. “Are you sure it will not take you away from your duties here?”
“It doesn’t matter. My duty is to protect those that need it.”
Audra shook her head. “Well, I personally would welcome you having our back, but you will need to work with Anders. Can you handle that?”
Cullen took a deep breath. “If I may say so in front of the group… for the things I have said and done, I owe it to you to help bring Alistair home.”
“Then that settles it.” Audra nodded. “There are other details to work out, primarily about how we get into the Fade, and how we find Alistair once we’re there. I’m going to suggest we call it a night.” She looked back at Cullen. “You won’t appreciate me for this, but Anders is a Warden responsibility, and as such I am overruling your authority in regards to him needing to have guards. He deserves some time with Hawke, and I dare say that we all have bigger issues than if a healer is going go to blow something up again.”
Cullen glowered at her but finally nodded. “If the Inquisitor agrees, I will compromise on a guard outside of his quarters.”
Zaire sighed. “If it gets us out of this conversation, I don’t care what we do. So, we’re settled.”
“Excellent. I suggest that everyone break off to have the conversations that you need to have, and tomorrow we will meet up to discuss what our next actual steps are.”
Everyone started to disperse. Dorian strode out of the room, past Cullen, and Cullen followed him. Wincing, Zaire wondered if she should go after them but realized that they’d have to work those things out for themselves. Especially if they had to go into the Fade together.
As she started for the door behind the others, Hawke reached out and put a hand on her arm. “Zaire, a word, if I could.”
“You will anyway, Hawke,” she said, smiling at him but feeling tired. “We’re going to get a drink later.” She hadn’t thought to ask who Cullen would put as a guard outside, but at that point, she wondered if he’d just eventually give up. As is, he was sure that Dorian was going off to raid someone’s wine stash and it worried her.
“That’s what I’d like to talk about. Anders and I…” He glanced at the mage. “We drink enough for three people so you’re buying.”
Anders snorted. “You forgot that we’re both getting to be lightweights in our age.”
“I didn’t say anything about me getting old,” Hawke noted, and Anders smiled, shaking his head.
“I see your gray hairs, Hawke. All three of them.” Anders straightened his tunic and looked at Zaire. “We thought it was fair that we explained to you my situation. There’s a lot of rumor about it, a lot of assumptions, and it’s… hard to explain. You’re aware that I carry a Fade spirit inside of me, a spirit of Justice?”
“I’m somewhat aware, yes.” Zaire searched his face; he seemed like any other person, nothing strange about him. “But I know very little. My experience with Fade spirits has been mixed, but so has my experience with people.”
“That’s the most true statement anyone’s said since I got here.” Anders glanced over at Hawke before looking back to Zaire. “It seemed faire that perhaps we let you know what you’re actually dealing with. It’s nothing… bad, necessarily, but…” He sighed. “It’s easier to show you. Would you like to talk to Justice?”
“I think in technicality, you’re already talking to him, since we’re effectively the same entity, but we… shift. Here.”
Blue cracks appeared along Anders’s skin, and his eyes shifted to glow with an otherworldly blue light. “It is easier this way.”
“You are Justice?” Audra asked, searching Anders’s face again.
“I am.” His voice took on an otherworldly quality. “And I am Anders. We are one, yet also two.”
Zaire reached out a hand. “I don’t know if spirits shake hands, but-“
“We do. I do.” He reached out and took her hand. His skin was cool to the touch, and tingled. “We have lived in this form for many years, I have adopted many human mannerisms.”
Part of Zaire wondered if she should be afraid or intimidated, but oddly, she didn’t. Perhaps it was her own experience so far with various spirits, such as Cole, that meant her no harm. Or perhaps it was fighting her way through the Fade with Hawke, and learning that she trusted his judgement. “I am glad to have you as an ally, Justice.” She smiled. “You are welcome at Skyhold.”
“You are not afraid? After what you have been told?”
“People say a lot of incorrect things about me as well. About any of us here.” She almost listed a few examples then decided perhaps that wasn’t the best idea, since Cullen would likely be among them. “Is there anything that you need while you’re here?”
“Beyond what Anders needs?” He glanced over at Hawke. “No. We have everything we need.”
“A hot bath would do you good,” Hawke noted, reaching out to run his finger near a streak of blood on their arm.
“Spirits do not need baths. But our hosts do.” Justice looked back at Zaire. “If you have any questions, you are welcome to ask them.”
“I have a lot of questions. Ones that can wait.” Zaire smiled, brushing her hands over her leather vest. “You’re both welcome here. I’m sorry that your reception was as it was, but there’s a lot of painful history for a number of people.”
“There is. Our reputation is not undeserved.” He looked down at her, eyes crackling with blue. “We have made mistakes. We have been angry. We learn to change, to move forward. It is why we merged in the first place, to teach each other.” He paused. “For a time, we did not teach.”
“You bullied each other,” Hawke said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
“I do not bully,” Justice said, a note of indignance in his voice.
“Ok, how about: you are both very strong willed, and that can sometimes be in opposition.”
“That is fair.” He nodded. “We have spent time since leaving Kirkwall learning how to work together.” The blue faded from his skin by a margin and he smiled. “We’ve made the arrangement work.”
Zaire noticed the shift in speaking and realized that the comment was more in the tone of Anders. “Do you shift back and forth?”
“Sometimes. We are working on acting as one as often as we can, but the Taint complicates everything. It adds a level of chaos and distraction. Our merge will never be complete because of it.”
Zaire nodded. “That sounds difficult.”
“It is. But it is worth it.” The blue faded from his skin and his eyes returned to Anders’s. “Justice and I work together. He makes me stronger, and I teach him about humanity. It’s a careful balance that took us a long time to learn.”
“It turns out that Kirkwall was also not very conducive to a peaceful coexistence, thus why we’ve been working with the Wardens,” Hawke explained. “It’s a much more comfortable place for us to be in that regard.”
“If I can ask a question of you three, then,” Zaire said, thinking about how some of their situation mirrored their own. “I’ve read Tale of the Champion.” She hesitated. “I know I don’t know either of you that well, but-“
“I’m hurt. I’ve been telling you all of my secrets.” Hawke made a gesture.
Anders laughed. “Hawke, you have no secrets.”
“Are you sure about that?” Hawke said, grinning.
Zaire laughed, feeling somewhat more at ease. “I’d like to ask something that might be a little difficult, so if you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to.” She took a deep breath. “I’m in a situation where someone I love… lied to me about who they are. Very badly.”
Anders winced. “You weren’t kidding about the disclaimer on that question.”
“No, I wasn’t.” She looked from one to the other. “Was anything Varric wrote about what happened to the two of you true in that regard?”
“After a fashion, yes.” Hawke reached out and took Anders’s hand. “I think perhaps there was more lying about motivation than who he actually was, though. I went into it not really knowing the whole story, and that was a hard thing to get through. I didn’t comprehend what it meant for Justice to be such a part of Anders.”
“How… did you get through it?”
Anders looked at her. “I almost died, and that made us get our shit together. I really don’t recommend it.”
“It’s the sort of thing that’s different for everyone, but I do see the parallel there. For you, you’ve loved who you think you’ve loved, to find out there’s another person also on the inside that they’d hidden from you. And I know this one a bit.” Hawke smiled kindly. “It’s not that complicated, though. You have to learn how to get to know that person on the inside, that one you didn’t know, and decide if you want them in your life.”
“It’s a lot of really rough conversations,” Anders added. Small blue cracks appeared on his skin. “And a lot of being honest. Apologizing for mistakes.”
“And resolving to accept that you can’t change what already happened. And you might find that person on the inside isn’t that different from what you thought, once you learned to accept the whole package.” Hawke reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. “If it helps any, I can tell he loves you.”
“I… appreciate that.” Zaire smiled, touching his hand.
“I’m not sure what either of you are talking about, but I’ll cheerfully help remind this mystery man of yours what he’s got. It’s not every day I can show someone a spirit and they don’t freak out.” Anders made a gesture, waving his hands, and Zaire laughed.
“You see a lot in Skyhold.”
“That’s what we used to say about Kirkwall.” Hawke smirked, pulling his hand back.
“Well, we’re going to see a lot more before it’s all done.” Zaire sighed. “Hawke, I suspect there’s enough space in your room for Anders. If I recall, Josephine put you in a two room suite with Alistair, so perhaps that’s the best place for Audra as well.”
“Agreed. And it’s getting late. I’d love to get her settled in before she goes to talk to Solas.” Hawke stretched.
They left the room and found Audra waiting, looking over the books on the shelves. “I thought I’d give you some time to talk.” She ran her fingers over the spines of the books.
“Let’s get you settled in a room before we move any further ahead with any planning or conversation.” Zaire gestured to her. “Hawke, lead the way.”
They started through Skyhold, gathering a few stares and Zaire had a feeling that by tomorrow, the rumors would be all over the hold. If not sooner. “I apologize for the chaos of that meeting.” She looked around. “I don’t see the guard anywhere.”
Audra rolled her eyes. “I told Cullen that it wasn’t necessary. He didn’t like that, but…” She sighed. “He’s in a bad mood, and I don’t think he wanted to fight over it. While I’m thinking about that topic, let’s talk about that mouth of yours, Anders.”
“What? He had it coming. He doesn’t trust mages.”
“Maybe not. But I think he’s trying. And I think he’s got a particular mage who is has been trying very, very hard to do more than trust.”
Zaire winced. “I’ll deal with that situation. That mage is one of my closest friends, and I have a feeling I’ll know where to find him. But let’s get you settled first.”
Nodding, Audra pulled her cloak closer around her as she looked around the keep. “You’ve done good work here, Inquisitor. Both Hawke and I know what it’s like to need to create order out of chaos, and-“
“I don’t think anyone ever accused me of order, cousin.”
“Well, not in a strict sense, no. But we’ve both had to pull together something out of impossible odds.” She looked down at Zaire. “And while we’re talking, I’d like to address the matter of the letter I sent you about Alistair.”
Hawke and Anders picked up their pace, giving them some space to talk. Zaire was grateful, but at the same time, Hawke was the only vaguely known factor in this conversation, and she felt uncertain about what to expect. “I’m sorry, Warden Commander. I tried to bring him home, we all did.”
“I know. And I’m aware that if he and Hawke went at it to determine who would have to not make it, one of them was going to lose.” She sighed. “If it hadn’t been me in this position, it would be Anders. And no doubt that occurred to Alistair, too. We’re a family, all of us, and I have no doubt in my mind that he did what he did because he was trying to save Hawke. And all of you. That’s what heroes do. I don’t hold that against you.”
Zaire looked down, fighting the pain in her chest. What if it had been Blackwall? She couldn’t even image, and they hadn’t even had the years of being together behind them that Audra and Alistair had. “You seem very calm about it.”
“That’s exactly what Cullen said.” She sighed. “I carry it on the inside. That’s what you learn to do, unfortunately.” She reached up and wiped at her face, and Zaire realized that she was starting to cry. “But I have to keep believing that he’s alive. I’ve had lots of time to cry about it, and now I just want to find solutions.”
“I understand how that works.” She didn’t go on to explain her own difficult moments she’d had recently, but she wanted to. Something told her that she’d be able to trust this woman, but she also recognized that she barely knew her. “Still, if you need anything…”
“I may need some time to process the information we’ve all shared today.” Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she readjusted her cloak. “I’ve had to think about a number of things I have not had to think about in years.”
The cold cut through Zaire’s cloak and she longed to be curled up in her quarters. She considered inviting Audra there for a drink and a discussion, but it seemed that perhaps Audra needed a small amount of space. “I’m sure seeing Cullen was something of a… possible shock.”
“I assume he’s told you that we knew each other in Ferelden, then.” A small smile came over her face. “I think it’s a rite of passage if you’re to be a hero in Thedas, you have to go toe to toe with Cullen Rutherford at least once. Welcome to the group.”
“Thanks, I think.” Zaire glanced around, noticing that a few people had stopped to stare as they wound around the garden. The stares would likely go one of two ways. Either they’d realize that the Hero of Ferelden, the Champion of Kirkwall, and the Inquisitor walked together… or they’d notice that the man that was considered one of the most wanted mage criminals walked with them. “He’s trying. He gives a lot.”
“He’s always been like that. Sometimes misguided, but he tries. It seems like he’s learning.” Audra hesitated, seeming to compose her next thought. “It seems that perhaps Dorian might be helping that, but I’m concerned about what happened today. They haven’t been with each other very long, have they?”
“No. It’s really not my place to speak of it, but they met due to the Inquisition.”
Audra drew her cloak more tightly around herself. “I hope they can figure it out. Cullen needs some snark to keep him on his toes.”
Zaire laughed. “Oh, he gets plenty of that here, at least. You can’t avoid it. It’s on the job application.”
“Then I have a feeling we’re all going to get along very well.”
Chapter 14: Move Forward or Fall Apart
Audra watched as Hawke moved ahead of her and Zaire, reaching a door and unlocking it. Audra followed him as he opened the door, and she came to a sudden stop, feeling a drop in her stomach.
In the middle of the room, Alistair’s remaining belongs sat in a pile. Hawke had stacked everything into a careful pile, contrasted sharply with Hawke’s own belongings that were half tossed upon the couch. It summed up Hawke so well, and she thought about how if it hadn’t been her feeling this pain, it would have been Anders. Both thoughts hurt, deeply.
She’d known not long after it had happened, when she’d started having the dreams. Of Alistair in the Fade, but injured. The first time, she’d thought she just missed him, that she worried. When she saw him the next night, she started to see consistencies that started to lead to another conclusion, one that seemed impossible.
It was a week before the letters arrived to tell her what had happened, and it had been Anders who had held her as she shook with the pain, sobbing into his robes, clutching at him with everything she had because no one else there would understand the pain. The pain of losing someone that you’d chosen to love so much.
Fighting for a breath, Audra walked slowly to the pile, sinking down to her knees and placing her hand on Alistair’s pack. She wanted somehow to feel some warmth, some spark of life. Something to tell her that he’d be walking through that door to sling his pack over his shoulder so they could go home.
Behind her, Zaire spoke up. “I don’t want to intrude, but I’m sure you’re hungry and I’d like to get that taken care of. Will you be here, or elsewhere?”
She fought past the feeling of her life being squeezed out of her chest. “I’ll go check on the dogs next, so I suppose that’s near the stables from what I hear.”
“It is. I’ll arrange for something to be brought there.” Zaire excused herself and backed out through the door, closing it as she went. Audra wanted to tell her to stay, that they had more to discuss, but realized that a wave of feeling started to sneak up on her and that she didn’t need the Inquisitor to see it. She lifted the pack, opening it, and started pulling out Alistair’s belongings. The first item her hand encountered was a silly stuffed mabari she’d given him for luck a long time ago. Pulling it to her chest, she held it to her and closed her eyes. She breathed in and almost thought she could smell him for a moment. To just curl up with him and tuck her face against his neck after a long day, to feel his arms around her. Her fingers tracing the freckles on his arms. Him laughing at the times she’d done it with ink still on her fingers, teasing her that marking off the freckles with ink as she counted them was cheating.
She set the stuffed mabari on the table, and reached her arms around the pack, hugging it. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes and she pulled in a ragged gasp as they fell down her cheek. She closed her eyes and let it wash over her. The loss, uncertainty, all of the worries she had that she’d never see him again. That he’d never see the end of the Taint’s influence over them. She was so close to a solution, to a cure.
They’d fought so hard just to get where they were, and for in the end, perhaps nothing. On the other hand… they’d laughed. And loved.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she set her head down on the pack. Anders and Hawke came up and sat on each side of her, each putting an arm around her shoulders. She appreciated the shelter they provided but it couldn’t counter the unbearable hollow ache inside of her. She just needed to hear Alistair, to hear his laugh. Anything that would tell her that he was still her with her. But he’s gone. And I don’t know where. They’d fought an Archdemon and survived, defeated a Blight. Survived trips into the Deep Roads, to locations all over Thedas. For years later on, worked together on a cure for the Taint, often spending months apart from each other, banking all of their hopes on the possibility that they many have many more years together if they could find a solution. When Clarel had put out the demand for Wardens, she’d given hers the choice. Something felt wrong, and she wouldn’t risk them. Her closest Wardens stayed with her: Nathaniel, Sigrun, Oghren, Velanna. Alistair had gone to investigate what had happened with the other Wardens along with a handful of other Wardens, Hawke going with them to keep an eye on the situation and to stay out of sight. He would be the one to report back should the situation turn worse.
Had that been the right decision? Should they have taken advantage of the time they had together? She wasn’t sure what the right answer was.
The false Calling she’d heard of sounded like it would be the worst part for Alistair. With the years of service he had, it risked sounding like a genuine Calling. Something that would terrify either of them.
She looked up at Hawke, then over to Anders, who reached up and brushed a tear off of her cheek. “I need to find him.”
“We will,” Anders assured.
Hawke’s reply was more grim. “We have to.”
At least she knew that with these two behind her, they had a chance. She tapped her fingers against the pack, trying to form her thoughts into something that would help. The stuffed mabari looked at her as if to say don’t ask me, you figure it out. “I need to check on the dogs, and I need to talk to the mage named Solas. However, I’d prefer you two stay here. I’m worried about our exposure, and the best thing we can do to fly under the radar is to keep Anders out of sight.” She pulled herself away from them, reluctant to lose the contact but knowing that she needed to take some action to move forward or she’d fall apart.
“You’ll have no argument from me.” Anders settled against Hawke, and while Audra felt a pang of loss, it also reassured her to see them together. If it had been her or Anders having to make the same decision over who would go home and who would not survive, she was certain it would have been a stubborn fight.
“We probably have some catching up to do anyway.” Hawke grinned at Anders.
“In that case, I’m definitely vacating the room.” She stood. “I’ll have to find where the dogs hid my pack.”
“Where are the dogs?” Hawke asked. “They seem suspiciously quiet.”
“I believe they’re in the barn. I’ll check on them on the way through. If you can point me in the right direction, I’m pretty sure I can get there.”
“It’s probably not that straightforward,” Hawke noted, “but I’m going to bet you that if Cullen didn’t post a guard, Leliana at least posted a scout. She likes knowing everything. The scout can help you find your way, but if you go out the door, turn left, and follow the covered area around, you should get fairly close. If you find Cullen’s office, you’ve gone too far.”
“Audra…” Hawke started. “There’s something you should know, if you’re going to the stables.” He got to his feet. “Let me fill you in on everything that happened at Adamant, the parts I couldn’t put in my letter.”
She listened in silence as Hawke told her how they’d ended up in the conflict at Adamant, and onto the Warden that had given a rousing speech there. She’d heard about this, about how he’d rallied them, through other Warden channels, and had wondered. She exchanged frequent alarmed looks with Anders, who looked tired. At one point, she saw his hands glowing, moving in a rhythm as he muttered quietly to himself, renewing the spell that kept them outside of the reach of Corypheus’s voice.
The story Hawke spun told the tale of a man who tried to be better. She had sympathy, yet he also put her in a difficult situation in regards to dealing with it.
“In short,” Hawke finished, leaning back into the couch, “we have a Warden Blackwall here… who is not actually Warden Blackwall.”
Anders had stopped his quiet spellcasting and crossed his legs in front of him, a gesture that Audra recognized as an invitation for a cat to sit on him. “He sounds like someone I’d have a good time talking to, since I’m halfway a fake Warden myself these days.”
Audra sighed. “Morrigan mentioned this. She did say I should ask the Inquisitor, which I forgot to do. I appreciate you filling me in, as this explains some of the recruits we’d gotten from him.” She tried to do the math in her head. “Every recruit became a little more puzzling. I’d figured he had to be past his Calling by now.”
“He would have been,” Anders pointed out. “What are you going to do with him?”
“Be kind,” Hawke added. “He’s worked hard for the Inquisition.”
“By using treaties he didn’t have a right to use,” Audra added, frowning. She didn’t like this one bit, but she started to think on ways that this could be salvaged. Morrigan had spoken reasonably well of him, by Morrigan standards.
“I don’t disagree. But…” Hawke hesitated. “I’ll leave the rest of it for him to explain.”
“Fair enough. That’s where I’ll head, then.” She picked up her cloak and put it back on. “Either of you want to come with me?”
Anders looked at Hawke. “I’d love, to, but…”
“Don’t even try to be subtle, she sees right through you,” Hawke noted.
Audra saw how they didn’t quite reach for each other, as if they were trying to not remind her of her own loss. She didn’t want to explain that it didn’t matter how they were towards each other, she would remain acutely aware of the situation. Their consideration for her made her grateful that they were part of her extended family, however. “Try not to wake up the whole keep, you two.”
“If the Circle taught me anything, it’s how to be quiet,” Anders pointed out.
Hawke let out a laugh that startled Audra. “What happened to ‘fuck the Circle and everything they taught me’?”
“And with that, I make my exit.” There was only so much Audra needed to know, it was bad enough living in the same building as the two of them. She headed back out into the darkness. Her stomach had started to rumble, and she reminded herself that she’d need to eat soon.
She could hear the horses as she got closer, and the sound of Kieran’s laughter over it all. One of the dogs barked, and Audra wiped her face again before going in.
Chapter 15: You Wear His Name
“And that,” Blackwall said, reaching down to scratch Fang behind the ears, “is when foxes stopped playing tricks on mabari.”
Kieran laughed. “That’s a good story!”
The dogs barked in unison, their tongues hanging out as they looked from Kieran back to Blackwall. “I’m glad you all liked it.”
“Can you tell another one?” Kieran asked.
Blackwall wanted to, but at best, every interaction he had felt like a temporary distraction from what he needed to think about. Namely, the presence of Ferelden’s Warden Commander in Skyhold. Zaire had said that she’d be coming to check on the dogs, and had sent food for them both in the event it happened. It felt like waiting for someone to deliver his judgement all over again. The waiting, his blood pounding in his ears. The tension. Someone had to have told her, and he didn’t convince himself that if she walked through that door that it would be solely to see dogs.
He drew a slow breath as he realized that he should send Kieran off before the confrontation happened. “I think that’s all for tonight. Perhaps tomorrow.”
“No need to stop on my account,” a voice said from the entrance, and Blackwall froze, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Too soon, he wasn’t ready.
Kieran grinned when he saw her. “Blackwall has been telling the dogs stories!”
Audra looked over the three empty bowls that the dogs had eaten from, and Blackwall watched her eyes shift to focus on him. “It sounds like quite the story.”
“He’s good at stories.”
Blackwall tried to suppress a wince and failed. It sunk in that the last person he wanted to see after what had happened the day before was Ferelden’s Warden Commander, but here she stood. He had planned less on avoiding her so much as he’d hoped he’d have a chance to process that she had arrived. It was not obvious that she was a Warden if he didn’t already know. She wore no Grey Warden armor, no symbols, instead dressing in mostly brown.
She leaned against a post. “Thanks for helping keep an eye on them, Kieran. I’ll take it from here, go ahead and get back to your mother.”
Kieran dropped down to his knees and put his arms around Akeva. “Can I see the mabari again tomorrow?”
“You can see them as much as you want while we’re here.” Audra smiled at him, watching him as he left. She looked to the dogs. “Are you having a good time?”
A chorus of barks greeted her, and Blackwall got to his feet, feeling his face go red. There would be nothing for it. This would be one of many hard conversations he would have in the wake of his lie, and it would be better for him to face it head on. It’s what the man he wanted to be would do.
He wondered if Zaire had perhaps tried to make this happen, to try to get this resolved as much as possible. “Warden Commander.” He stood at attention.
“Please. Sit.” She waved a hand at him, and Diablo lumbered to his feet, coming to her side and waiting for her.
“No, I’d rather you sit, actually.” He turned from her and walked to the table, picking up the two plates of food. It took him a moment to turn around and face her. He drew himself up to his full height and tried to push down the feeling that he’d lose the precious few contents of his stomach. “Zaire made sure there was something waiting for you here.”
“I appreciate that. Thank you.” She took the spot that Kieran had vacated, Diablo staying close to her.
He handed her one plate of food and set the other beside him as he sat. His stomach churned. “There’s more if you need it.”
She lifted the top off the tray. “This is plenty. I don’t eat much. The Taint does that you to you sometimes.” She looked up at him. “But you wouldn’t know that, would you?”
Her green eyes held a piercing accusation. “No. I would not.”
“You wear his name, but you are not him.” She picked up a piece of cheese, regarding. She took a bite, chewed, and swallowed, never taking her eyes off of him. “Then let’s get this over with. What happened to Warden Blackwall?”
Wastes no time getting to the point, this one. He felt like curling up on himself but at this point, he needed to be honest. It was another step on the long road ahead of him. “He… died. Fighting Darkspawn.”
“As most of us do, if we beat the Calling.” She picked up a spoon and scooped up some stew. “How about this. I’m going to eat, and you’re going to tell me why you’re carrying his name. And his beard. You have to know how bad this looks from where I stand. Ah, sit.” She made a face. “Enlighten me.”
He sighed, but appreciated her mild humor. He was starting to understand why Ferelden’s Wardens so willingly followed her. “I have no excuse.” He explained how he was recruited by Warden Blackwall, and how he had planned on becoming a Warden. She listened as she ate, nodding, letting him speak.
It felt surprisingly good to tell the whole story, as if telling it helped lift the burden from his heart. At least, most of the story; he didn’t get into the details of how he ended up on the run in the first place. His days as a cocky bastard, hiding his flaws behind bravado and a sword. Slowly learning humility as he found himself fighting darkspawn, in helping people who needed it. In finding a strength in himself that he hadn’t known he’d been capable of, a pride not in what he could do but in who he could be. A chance at a future where his life could mean something.
When Warden Blackwall died, he had been crushed. He’d thought about going to the Wardens, to tell them what had happened. He’d started the journey, but with every step he took, the sense of dread grew in him. He believed in you, but will they? What reason do they have to believe in you? His own voice threw his misdeeds and mistakes back at him at every turn. He wanted to be better, and Thom Rainier of the past warred with the Thom Rainier of that present.
He could live out his days trying to be that better man, on his own. Stepping into Warden Blackwall’s boots. “I didn’t know what else to do. I was young, afraid, and I… was running away from my past.”
“Warden Blackwall accepted you as Warden potential, why didn’t you continue on?”
“I thought they’d think I killed him,” he admitted.
She snorted. “While I suspect you’re more than competent fighter, no would have jumped to the conclusion that you could beat Blackwall.” She smiled slightly. “But that’s to say nothing of your ability now, mind you. You could have gone anywhere, done anything. But you choose to become him. Why?”
“I didn’t know where else to go. I’d… done bad things. I made bad decisions, and in turn gave bad orders. It was politics and we got caught in the middle, but I’d still be found guilty for…” He couldn’t say it. Part of him wanted to, and he knew that she’d probably find out, but he couldn’t bring himself to bring the words out. “They would have hung me had they found me.” He hung his head, shame filling him. Pain. The little lives lost because of my orders. I can’t undo that. He closed his eyes. “I became him because I had to believe that I could be someone better. I didn’t know how to be that myself, so I took his identity.”
“To hide.” It was not unkind.
“Yes.” He rubbed at his face. “There was good I could do. Find people that had nowhere else to go, train them. If they showed promise, send them onto the Wardens.”
“You’ve certainly explained one thing that’s been confusing some of the Wardens, which is that recruits have been received from Warden Blackwall, even though the man himself has long been out of communication and presumed dead. From everything I’ve heard, every one of them turned into a solid Warden. None of them succumbed to what happened at Adamant.”
He looked up her and suddenly felt guilty that he hadn’t even talked to her about Adamant. “So you know what happened, then?”
“I do.” She looked at him. “I was also told that a Warden traveling with the Inquisitor gave a rousing speech. One that mattered to many of those Wardens, that reminded them what it was like to be a Warden.”
He stared into the fire, wondering if he’d ever shake the feeling of walking through a fire every time he remembered it all. “Sometimes you need someone else to remind you what you should be.”
“That much is true.” She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Can I presume then that it’s now known that you are not Warden Blackwall?”
He nodded, wishing she’d pull her hand back. Wishing she’d be more angry.
“Impersonating a Warden is a serious charge. We do more than just fight, we hold the line against the Darkspawn, against the Blights. Being a Warden is an honor, and a terrible burden. You give up family. You become isolated.”
“It would have suited me. It… sounds like my life. Before Zaire found me. Before the Inquisition.” Before he lifted that shield to protect her, before he’d determined that he’d not allow her to be hurt. Before he hurt her anyway.
“What happened after they found out?”
“There was a trial. It was yesterday.” He flinched, and picked up a stick off the ground, holding it in his hands. “The Inquisitor did not deny my guilt, for pretending to be a Warden or for the crimes of my past, but she gave me my freedom. Which I do not deserve. She should have sent me to the Wardens.”
“That isn’t her call to make.” She picked up a piece of bread. “You choose to become a Warden, or we conscript you. I was conscripted. It was likely that or be made Tranquil.”
He used the stick to push at the fire. “I would have chosen the Wardens.”
“That’s still a choice you have.” Her ink stained fingers pushed the bread into a ball. “Do you want to become a Warden?”
He thought about the answer, and perhaps he was silent too long because she chuckled. She set down her bread ball and picked up a piece of cheese. “Do you know who else likes cheese?”
His lips curled up into a smile despite it all. Her affection for him showed clearly on her face, but her sad smile made his heart ache for her. “Your husband.”
“You met him, then? Because my bet is that he saw right through you.”
Blackwall winced, dropping the stick and instead reaching out to scratch Akeva on the head. “We were out with Hawke and he stopped and said, ‘do you feel that? There’s Darkspawn nearby’.”
Audra bust out laughing. “Oh no, Alistair…” She put her head in her hands. “He didn’t. Oh Maker.”
“He absolutely did.” His face burned red at the memory. “And I paused for a long moment. I listened. And I said, ‘how many, do you think?’ He said it seemed like a lot, and I told him that we should be ready. He said that we had other things we needed to deal with right now. When we got back later, he called me out. There were no Darkspawn.” He shrugged. “I appreciated that he didn’t say it in front of the others. We had agreed to discuss it after Adamant.” Alistair, too, had been more kind than he had deserved. Blackwall sighed, looking up at Audra. “It’s the one conversation I never wanted to have, and I’ve never wanted so much to have had it because it means that Warden Alistair was here.”
“Alistair is a softy. He wouldn’t have made it that hard on you.” She frowned. “I have to admit we’ve never come across this situation before. You never answered my question. Do you want to become a Warden?”
“I do,” he affirmed. “But my hesitation comes from something else. There is someone here I am reluctant to leave.” He looked down, shame causing his cheeks to warm. “That’s a selfish answer.”
“It’s an honest answer.” She finished the last piece of cheese on the plate and set it to the side. She nibbled at the balled up bread as Diablo rested his head in her lap. She scratched him behind his ears. “If you’d asked me five years ago, I might have had a different answer. Now, though… Well, there’s someone I need to be with, too. And the Calling has slowly tugging at us, and it’s a matter of time before we go to the Deep Roads and die together. One of us will die first. And it’s going to be terrible.” She looked over at him. “I’ve been searching for a cure for the Taint. There are many of us who were forced into being a Warden, and it’s been something I wouldn’t have traded for anything. I wouldn’t have met Alistair, or anyone, really. We wouldn’t have defeated the Blight.”
“You’ve paid your dues, no one would blame you if you wanted a life back,” he pointed out. His fingers reached down and plucked at a piece of straw, and he held it in his fingers. He had never thought of being a Warden so much of a burden, but now that she explained it… A part of him felt relieved that he didn’t go. A part of him felt that it would have been what he deserved.
“Well, some would. And, if I succeed, will blame me. It could be the end of the Wardens.” She sighed. “If you want my advice, hold onto that thing that keeps you here. You’ve been given a second chance as is. I won’t counter the Inquisitor’s judgement that freed you.”
He lifted his chin. “But you do not approve.”
“Actually, that’s not entirely true. It’s a second chance that the Wardens have been in the business of giving. People are terrible at giving second chances, and I wish that were different. If she felt you need that chance, I’m not one to judge. I have no authority here beyond my role in the Wardens. Such as they are at this point.” She shook her head. “I’d be interested in taking a different approach on this, one that might spare us both a bit of pain.”
“Oh?” Blackwall looked over at her, tossing the piece of straw into the fire. “And what is that?”
“I’m going to take the stance that, while it’s deceptive that you pretended to be Warden Blackwall, that you were still acting in the stead of a Grey Warden. You were recruited, and I believe that you would have served us well had you made it to us. Is this true?”
“Absolutely, without hesitation.” That much he was certain of.
“That means you held the rank of Warden Recruit. Perhaps the longest we’ve had on record, but that’s your rank to hold. It does not expire.”
Blackwall was not sure what she was getting at. “Does that mean I am still a Warden Recruit?”
“It does. It also means that we can release you of your service at any point. Which I am choosing to do now. You are welcome back if you decide differently, but your life is your own now. With my blessing.” She reached out and put a hand on his. “Take care of her, Ser Blackwall.”
“I… should stop calling myself by that name.”
She shrugged. “I’m not holding you to any name. Nor should you. You left behind your old one for a reason, but you might find some day that you’ll want to step back into the light and take back your name.”
“My name is attached to treachery and shame.” He put his other hand over hers and at that moment he resolved to uplift those that needed it. As Zaire did. As Audra was doing right now.
“But it is yours. I have known men who have left their name behind and lost it forever. You should be certain that is what you want before you decide that.” She pulled her hand away. “Use this second chance wisely. Fight hard for the Inquisition. And for her. We all like to think we can fight alone, but we need others more than any of us like to admit.”
“I… appreciate that.” He looked down. “I don’t deserve how you’ve treated me.”
“I can’t say what you deserve or not. But if you are part of the force that defeats Corypheus, you will deserve every bit of it.” She stood. “Fight well, Ser Blackwall.”
“You are going to try to rescue Alistair.” He stood. “Can I help?”
“I think… the help I may need from you the most is not your sword. It’s the support Zaire needs.”
Blackwall did not recall mentioning that it was Zaire that kept him here. “How did you know it was her?”
“It’s the look in your eyes when you talk about her.” She smiled kindly. “You also mentioned the Grey Warden treaties? I’ll point out that Warden Recruits, being of a rank within the Wardens, have that authority. You may have misrepresented your level of authority, but if anyone has a qualm with it, I am happy to address it. In fact, I’m pretty sure we specifically authorized recruits of Blackwall’s. So, I will ensure that goes on record with the Inquisition.” She hesitated. “After what happened at Adamant, I feel like the Wardens are in for dark days. It’s best that the Inquisition got something from that.”
“You seem…” He hesitated, not sure how to put it.
“Like I don’t care? Oh, I do. Perhaps too much. But I think right now there are much larger problems, and those are the ones I’d like to see solved.” She chuckled. “Plus, after you’ve killed an Archdemon, this seems really minor in comparison.”
“I would love to buy you a drink and hear about it after Alistair is back.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” She nodded. “I am off to see Solas.” She looked down at the dogs. “Find Hawke, go get some sleep.”
Diablo and Fang stood, stretching, but Akeva wagged her tail and barked. Audra looked surprised. “Well, it appears Akeva wants to stay here, for now. Are you fine with that? She’s probably tired of me. Or maybe she likes stories.”
“I imagine it’s the latter. I wouldn’t mind the company, to be honest. Dogs make good company.”
Her smile showed that she understood. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Warden Commander.”
“Audra.” She ran her hand over her forehead. “Please”
“Audra.” He nodded. “Thank you.”
She left, heading out into the darkness, leaving Blackwall with Akeva. He couldn’t shake the thought that he’d dodged an arrow. By all rights, that should have gone much worse, but at least it was over. One less burden to carry, although he felt only marginally lighter for it.
He looked down at the dog that waited patiently, her tail gently wagging. “So, do you want to hear a story about how I met the Inquisitor?”
Akeva barked, and Blackwall told her another story.
“I’m glad to see you in one piece and get some time alone with you, love,” Anders murmured against Hawke’s neck as they laid on the bed, facing each other. The dogs had been let into the suite and left to settle anywhere but their room, because Hawke had plans that didn’t involve Fang licking Anders’s foot at the worst possible time. Again.
He reached up and ran a hand over Anders’s cheek. “I missed you. You could have just as easily been locked up tonight, though, and while I might make a joke about restraints, that wasn’t really what I had in mind. I’d ask what you were thinking, but I know exactly what you were thinking.” It’s why I love you. He leaned forward and kissed Anders.
His beard tickled at Anders’s chin and Anders smiled, leaning into the kiss. After a moment they pulled apart. “Maybe we’re just keeping you on your toes.”
“Maybe the two of you will be the death of me.” Hawke chuckled, running a hand along Anders’s thigh over his pants. “I’m just glad to see you both.”
“Us too.” A glimmer of blue came over Anders’s skin, flashing through his eyes.
Sometimes Hawke still didn’t always know what to make of this, but felt right to him. Who and what Anders was encompassed Justice as well; they inhabited the same body, with aspects that ebbed and flowed. At times, Hawke worried that it wasn’t healthy for Justice that this all happened. How much did spirits understand of love? Of sex?
It had taken a lot of conversations, a lot of trying to sort everything out. Their life in Kirkwall had Hawke and Anders together, with Justice as something of a third party. They’d all gone into it having no idea what would happen, how it would work out, or anything, really. As such, as the situation in Kirkwall destabilized, Justice hadn’t had the opportunity to know Hawke as Anders did, as Anders frequently tried to push that part of himself down when with Hawke.
After fleeing Kirkwall, Hawke made it clear: no more secrets. No more hiding. And that included Justice. They’d decided, the three of them, that Justice should be an equal part of this relationship, and to the degree at which he felt comfortable. He was a spirit, and they don’t have the same concept of attachments as people, but Justice was also Anders. Anders was Justice. And if Hawke were to help keep them both sane, he’d need to live with them both.
Hawke didn’t pretend to understand it all, but he was grateful, and happier than he’d ever been. He smiled at the blue glow along Anders’s skin. “So now I’ve got your attention?”
“You always have our attention.” He laughed. “Well, you always have my attention, anyway.”
“I would never imply that Justice might be less motivated than you by sex.”
“He’s not motivated by sex. But we’re both motivated by you, which is convenient.” Anders lifted Hawke’s hand up and rolled off the bed, standing. Hooking his thumbs into the edge of his pants, he pulled them down, freeing the erection that Hawke had known he’d had since they walked in the room.
“You’ve been going all day without underwear?” Hawke asked.
“No, you savage. Half the day. I spent the other half in the shape of a cat, sneaking around this place looking for a bathroom.”
“Ah.” Hawke grinned at him. “Because you didn’t want that thing to happen again-“
“Hawke,” Anders warned, his hands on the edge of his shirt. “I can stop right now, if you don’t stop right there.”
“No fun, Anders.”
The blue glow intensified and a tone of Justice’s voice crept in. “You seem to usually comment that we are fun.”
Hawke winked, rolling over and sitting on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry, I’ve had a pretty crazy few days. Maybe you need to remind me.”
The growl that Anders let out was somewhere between both their voices and Hawke stood. He reached forward, tugging Anders’s hands away from his shirt so he could lift it, his hands brushing over Anders’s skin. He pulled it over Anders’s head, tossing it over a chair and sitting back down. His hands on the other’s hips, he pulled him towards him and wrapped his arms around his back. He felt the familiar knotted scar tissue, every line clear under his fingertips. Sometimes, it made him sad and he just wanted to hold Anders and never let the rest of the world see him. Anders, though, could never heal if locked away. He would always take those chances, to help someone. “The world doesn’t deserve you.” He kissed along a blue glowing scar on Anders’s chest, and the other man drew a breath and tangled his hands in Hawke’s hair.
He leaned in close against Hawke’s ear. “You are far too overdressed.”
Hawke’s pulse thumped in his ears, and sometimes wondered if it would ever occur to Anders or Justice that they could probably finish him off just by talking to him. He hoped they never figured that out, anyway. That would just lead to him tied to a chair again.
Anders reached down and pulled Hawke’s shirt off of him, then reached out his hands to encourage Hawke to his feet. His hands caught in the edge of his pants and underwear at the same time, and he carefully pulled down, revealing Hawke’s own erection. His hands on Hawke’s hips, he pulled them against each other and moaned. “We missed you.”
“Show me how much you missed me.” Hawke let himself fall backwards onto the bed, and let Anders pull his pants off the rest of the way.
They moved onto the bed and Anders straddled Hawke, placing his hands on the other’s chest. The blue glow played across his skin. “Oh, we plan on it.”
Placing his hands on Anders’s thighs, Hawke trailed his fingers over the other’s skin. Anders leaned down and kissed him, and Hawke ran his hands over his skin, over muscle and scars, the familiar roadmap of his body. Anders let his body lay along Hawke’s, kissing him on the mouth, his tongue running along Hawke’s lips. Hawke opened his mouth to him willingly, welcoming him. Each kiss reminded Hawke how grateful he felt just to be here with them. He reached a hand up and ran it over Anders’s cheek, who closed his eyes and leaned into the touch.
Sometimes, it hurt to love him this much, like something in his chest would burst. It felt too good to kiss him, too good to be fucked by him. Hawke pulled away from their kiss. “You brought oil I assume?” he asked, rolling his hips up against Anders.
“No, I was just going to use butter,” Anders teased, swinging his leg over and reaching past Hawke to the table by the bed.
“Should I pretend to be a biscuit?”
An extra flicker of blue came over the mage’s skin as he moved between Hawke’s legs. “I am not sure what the appeal of that would be.”
Hawke laughed. “Forget I said anything.”
Anders opened the bottle and tipped oil into his hand, then handed the bottle to Hawke who did the same before placing it back on the table. As he set it down, he almost dropped it as Anders wrapped his hand around Hawke’s cock. He let out a hiss of air at the touch, of those long fingers gripping him. Hands that healed, hands that had hurt, hands that coaxed out a passion in Hawke that he hadn’t thought possible.
He trailed an oiled finger over Anders’s length before wrapping his fingers around him and stroking him. Anders moaned and tightened his hand around Hawke. Then, he opened his hand and pushed Hawke’s hand away, wrapping his hand around them both and using his other hand to hold himself up. They thrust against each other, and Hawke put his hand on Anders’s, tightening the grip. He looked up at Anders’s face, at the cracks of blue, at this man and this spirit who he’d been through so much with. Every push against each other caused him to inhale, and his breathing matched their tempo.
Letting go of them both, Hawke tipped his hips back and brought his legs up so that his ankles were over Anders’s shoulders. Anders’s other hand slipped down, between Hawke’s legs. “Is this what you want?”
Unable to speak, Hawke nodded as Anders slid two long oiled fingers into him. Hawke moaned at the sensation, of Anders’s fingers inside of him. Anders slid his fingers in and out and Hawke’s hand reached for him, finding his arm and gripping it hard. His fingers pressed against Anders’s flesh and his breath caught. How was it they had waited so long in Kirkwall, longing for each other for years until they touched like this? Hawke couldn’t imagine it now, couldn’t imagine life without them.
He bent his fingers inside of Hawke, who gasped at the sensation. “Or do you want more than this?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, instead shifting his position. Hawke looked up at him, Anders’s face framed by Hawke’s legs as Anders reached one hand up and ran it down Hawke’s leg. Anders’s eyes faded to brown, and Hawke couldn’t look away. He’d never been able to look away.
Anders smiled and shifted his hips forward slowly, burying himself in Hawke. Savoring every inch, Hawke moaned and clenched at the sheets with one hand. They melted into each other, moving together. Anders’s fingernails raked over Hawke’s leg, his breathing becoming heavy as he found his rhythm. Blonde hair fell to frame face, and Hawke didn’t know if he’d ever seen anything so perfect.
Hawke reached to touch himself but Anders grabbed his hand and lifted it to his mouth. “Not yet.” He wrapped his lips around two of Hawke’s fingers and sucked. Those lips…
Anders kept hold of his hand and kissed Hawke’s palm. The blue flared up and Hawke realized how normal that felt, now. “You know we’ll take care of you.”
Of course Hawke knew that, but what he wanted and what he knew weren’t the same things at that moment. He just craved the touch, needed it. They’d been apart for over two months and Hawke had laid awake in this very bed in Skyhold, wishing Anders laid beside him. “I’ve been taking care of myself,” he managed.
Anders’s hands reached down and took hold of him, wrapping around his cock and holding him. Slowly at first then with increasing speed, he stroked Hawke as he drove into him over and over, and Hawke moaned every time he thrust deeply into him. Hawke started feeling the tension building up as their bodies pounded against each other.
Laying a hand flat on Hawke’s chest, Anders’s fingers curled against Hawke’s skin, nails raking over flesh. The blue cracks intensified for a moment, then faded, and that’s when Hawke knew that Anders was close.
With one last push inside of Hawke, Anders let out a sound somewhere between a cry and a moan, his body twitching as he came into Hawke. His fingers convulsed with his body, eliciting another sound from Hawke. He felt it coming on and his back arched, then he felt Anders slip out of him. He gasped at the empty feeling until Anders replaced his cock with two fingers so that he could wrap his mouth around Hawke’s own throbbing cock.
“Oh, Maker,” Hawke moaned, his fingers tanging in Anders’s hair. He loved this man. He didn’t know how to not love him.
He could feel his body tightening around Anders’s fingers, still thrusting, the tension building in him until it exploded. For that moment, the world stopped; there was nothing else but them, here. He let out a gasping moan as Anders kept working him with his lips and tongue.
Just as Hawke started to feel too sensitive to it all, Anders pulled back, running a hand across his mouth and smiling. Hawke reached for him and pulled him close, wrapping his arms around him as Anders laid his head against Hawke’s chest. Anders laid his hand on Hawke’s chest, his hand idly running through the hair there. The blue glow faded from his skin, but Hawke knew that it didn’t mean Justice wasn’t there, simply that he didn’t choose to show himself.
Stroking Anders’s hair, Hawke tilted his head forward to kiss him. “I wish you wouldn’t take chances. That could have ended badly.”
Anders snorted. “They would have been in for a nasty surprise.” His hand continued in comforting circles on Hawke’s chest. “Do you remember by the lake what I said?”
Hawke thought for a moment. “The time you yelled ‘fuck Templars’ across Lake Calenhad?”
Laughing, Anders pushed himself up on his elbow to look at Hawke. “No, although that was a good moment. The other time.”
Hawke remembered. It’s a moment he’d never forget. He repeated Anders’s words back to him. “I wish we could be like this forever, love.”
“That.” Anders reached up and caressed Hawke’s cheek. “I love you, Garrett.”
Almost no one called him by his first name, and he drew a breath in. Every time it made something in him sing, soar, something he couldn’t always put his finger on. It sounded like home.
“And I love you.” He rolled over on his side and kissed him on the lips, resting his forehead against the mage’s. A flicker of blue appeared above where Anders’s beard ended, and Hawke ran his finger along the blue crack. He pulled back and kissed that spot on Anders’s cheek. “I love you, too.”
Anders’s hand trailed over his shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Always remembering that we’re both here.”
Hawke snorted. “As if I could forget. It’s not like you’re both subtle or anything, the blue is a giveaway.” He reached up and wrapped his fingers around Anders’s. “We’re in this together.” He leaned forward and pulled at Anders’s ear with his lips. “And I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“It’s been less than ten minutes, even my Grey Warden stamina can’t do it.”
Laughing, Hawke kissed his neck. “Oh, neither can I. I just like chewing on your ear.” He brushed Anders’s hair out of his face. “You need a haircut.”
“And you don’t?”
“We can be scruffy together.” Hawke regarded him. “I’m worried about Audra. Even if we manage to save Alistair, aren’t they getting close to their Callings? Do you think the plan to cure the Taint will work?”
“It has to. Not just for them, but for… well.” Anders smiled, looking sad. While Justice could hold the effect of the Calling at bay, they never knew how long that would last, and they’d suspected that the Taint was something that made it harder for Anders and Justice to be merged fully. Most of the time it worked out fine, but the Taint would always cause some discomfort so long as Justice had to take the role of protecting Anders from it. On the other hand, Hawke didn’t know what would happen if the Taint were gone. It would be another change to the dynamic.
But they’d gotten through changes before. They’d do it again.
Blue flickered across Anders’s skin, his eyes glowing. “It is also the right thing to do for the Wardens that have fought so hard to protect those that need it. They deserve that chance.”
“That they do, Justice.” He wrapped an arm around them and pulled them against him, tucking his head against theirs.
Conventional it was not, but Garrett Hawke had never thrived on conventional.
Enjoy the peace while it lasts, chapter 17 is coming. :P
Dorian pushed open the door to Cullen’s office, finding Cullen with his head in his hands. The lyrium box sat in front of him, open.
Not this again. They’d fought about it before, Dorian fully aware that a part of Cullen still linked the lyrium to having a sense of control. I should just drop a fireball on the box and get it over with, but that will not solve the problem.
Sighing, Dorian crossed the room and slapped the box shut. He picked it up as Cullen pulled his hands away. Setting it back on the shelf, Dorian sat across from Cullen and stared at him. He folded his hands and put them on the desk, noticing how Cullen’s demeanor had completely changed since just a couple of hours ago when they’d sat in front of the fire. That had started with Dorian trying to comfort Cullen, but had ended with Dorian’s head in Cullen’s lap. Cullen smiling down at him and stroking his cheeks, just one of the absurdly affectionate things he did.
The contrast between that and the restless man before him caused Dorian to tense up and frown. They’d been over the lyrium many times, of course, and every time both Zaire and Dorian assured Cullen that he didn’t need to be on it and in fact should not be on it. “We’re not having that conversation again, are we?”
“Leave it, Dorian.” Cullen rubbed at his face, his skin more pale than usual. “This really isn’t a good time. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry.” Dorian leaned back and crossed his arms. “So now you won’t talk to me because your past comes back to haunt you?”
“It’s not like that. It’s just that…” Cullen drew in a shaky breath. “My past is complicated.”
“Ah yes, and everyone else here is living such simple lives.” Dorian reached forward and put a hand on Cullen’s arm. “Are you choosing the past, or a future?”
“What do you want me to tell you?” Cullen pulled his hand away and got to his feet, pacing across the room to in front of the fire. He remained turned away from Dorian.
Don’t shut me out now, don’t you dare. They’d come so far. Dorian rose to his feet, smoothing out his robes. He turned to Cullen. “The truth, then.”
“The truth.” Cullen slumped. “The truth that I was a Templar. That I’ve done terrible things to mages. I’ve hurt them.”
All of that for this? “This is a secret to precisely no one, Cullen.” He started to reach up to put a hand on Cullen’s arm, but found himself too afraid of being pushed away. “Did you think anyone here thinks you are innocent? Everybody knows. I’ve had mages try to warn me away.”
Cullen’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know that.”
“Of course you didn’t. And you can see how well I listened. Because I can see that you’re not that same person. You and I wouldn’t be where we are right now if you were.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but...” Cullen closed his eyes. “I’ve been reminded of…” He drew a breath. “I don’t know if I have the right to…”
“The right to what, Cullen?” Dorian demanded, grabbing Cullen by the shoulders and turning him towards him.
Cullen opened his eyes, and finally met Dorian’s gaze, his eyes sad. “It’s not right for me to love you.”
Dorian stared at him, stunned. Cullen had never brought that word into the conversation. He’d never said love. And Dorian had certainly never wanted to bring that into it, because as soon as love came into it… so did the risks. “And now you tell me this? After…” After I’ve already fallen for you. His heart threatened to burst from his chest and he felt his vision swimming.
“You had to know that’s how I felt.” He tried to step out of Dorian’s grip but Dorian grabbed his shoulders more tightly.
He wasn’t letting Cullen sidestep this. “That you love me, or that you don’t think you should love me?”
“Both.” He swallowed. “Either.”
“I’m a mage, not a mind reader.” He gritted his teeth and let go of Cullen’s shoulders, throwing his arms up. “Do you think you could have hurt me as a Templar?”
“I could have, yes.”
Dorian snorted, taking a step back. “High opinion of your abilities, you have. I’m from Tevinter, we don’t have the fear of Templars that Ferelden mages have. We don’t hold back.” A realization dawned on him, one that caused his stomach to settle somewhere in his left boot. “Is it as Anders said? Do you not trust me?” He took a step towards Cullen. “Are you afraid of me?”
Cullen cringed away from him and Dorian felt his hopes burn up. Maybe Cullen thought he loved him, but this wasn’t love. He didn’t know what this was. Had he read all of this wrong? Was he reading it wrong now?
He had to get out of there, to think, before he said something he’d regret. “I think I should take my leave,” he said, turning and starting for the door.
“Dorian, wait!” Cullen reached out and grabbed his arm. “It’s not you, I promise you that, it’s not you. I don’t even think of you like a mage.”
Dorian spun on him, and the look on Cullen’s face showed that he knew that was a mistake.
“Well, that answers that, then.” Dorian pried Cullen’s fingers off his arm, trying to not think about how much he hurt. “Magic is what I am, Cullen. If you can’t accept that, then you don’t accept me. I won’t just be… whatever it is you think this is supposed to be. You’re no better than my father if you can only accept part of me.”
Cullen started to step forward but Dorian held up a hand to stop him, resisting the very strong urge to put a glyph on the floor to stop him in his tracks. It would only make it worse, but it’s so tempting.
“Do you know what you didn’t have the right to do, Cullen? It was to give me a false hope.” Dorian turned and left, managing to get through the door before Cullen could say anything else to keep him there. What had he expected? What was he to Cullen, really?
Which begged perhaps the hardest question of all. What was Cullen to him? An occasional fuck when Cullen wasn’t so completely uptight? Half the time, Dorian was coaxing him to stop working, or just stop being so rigid.
But the rest of the time… He’d thought they’d been good together. He thought he’d perhaps he’d found acceptance. A friend, then a lover. Long nights staying up late talking about their families. Touching, always touching. Warm, casual, comfortable in a way that made Dorian’s heart ache and he blinked a few times to clear his eyes. Damn you, Cullen Rutherford.
Damn him for giving Dorian hope, for the way he held Dorian after they’d worn themselves out in Cullen’s bed. Damn him for his stupid ceiling with the blasted holes that he tolerated only because he’d started to care too much about Cullen.
Dorian took a shaky breath, torn between turning back around and giving Cullen a piece of his mind, or leaving before this hurt him any more. He took a deep breath and headed back to the library, hoping to do something at least halfway useful with himself. Research to help with saving Alistair, perhaps. Or forcing himself to deal with Fiona’s prickly demeanor, that would be good for a distraction.
Barring that, he had two bottles of wine waiting for him hidden in a corner.
Next chapter: Audra Amell walks the Fade with Solas in search of Alistair.
Chapter 18: A Connection
After Audra had explained everything to Solas, she regarded him across the table. She didn't yet know what to think of him, but if Morrigan said that he was the resident expert on the Fade, Audra would trust that. She wasn't sure what she expected, but the bald elf was unlike any other mage she'd encountered. He moved carefully, seeming to weigh his actions and movements.
“So, is it possible? To reach Alistair?”
Solas pondered, pacing as he held onto the tooth he wore around his neck on a cord. Audra couldn't identify what animal it had come from. “It’s possible, yes. That doesn’t mean we will work out now. It takes much time to learn to walk the Fade.” He gestured to a couch. “Have a seat.”
She sat, folding her hands in her lap. “What do I do?”
“It may not be so easy." He sat next to her, his hands resting on his knees. "Have you walked dreamwalked the Fade with intention before, Audra?”
“A couple of times, but never with a goal like this in mind.” She swallowed, trying to focus. Perhaps she should have slept before this. Perhaps…
There was no use for it. If it didn’t work tonight, she’d try again tomorrow.
“It may not be easy. It takes some many years to learn. But you do not have years.” He nodded, watching her. “Close your eyes. Focus on him.”
She followed his directions, closing her eyes and thinking about Alistair. She tried to think of the most vivid memories she had of him, of him laughing. Of them together.
“Now reach, as if you’re reaching for your magic, but reach farther. I will guide you.” He put his hands on hers, and she could feel her reach extend. “It’s going to feel disorienting,” he warned. “But do not be afraid. You will not be actually there.”
Not yet, she thought. “I’m ready.”
“Then follow me into the Fade.”
The world felt like it fell away. Or, perhaps more accurately, as if it shrunk to almost nothing, to something insignificant that existed just in a corner of her mind. Pulling away into a pinpoint of non-existence until her presence reasserted itself. She felt like her feet were under her again.
“Open your eyes.”
She did, and found herself in the Fade. Not unfamiliar to her, but also not the old friend that it clearly was to Solas. “How do we find him now that we’re here?”
“Focus on him again. Listen for him.”
Audra took a deep breath, trying to listen. The sound of an otherworldly wind, of demons howling in the distance. She looked around, then down, realizing she was holding something in her hands.
It was Alistair’s stuffed Mabari.
She heard a shout in the distance and she looked over at Solas. He nodded, and they started towards the sound. As they walked, she hoped that they wouldn’t encounter a demon. It wasn’t something she looked forward to, having done this before.
They rounded a corner and stopped. Audra’s breath caught in her throat. Ahead of her, she could see Kieran walking ahead of them. She started to call to him but Solas put a hand on her arm.
“Is that the child or something else?” he asked softly, holding her back.
“Only one way to find out.” Breaking free from his grip, she strode forward to where Kieran walked, catching up him.
When they got close, Kieran spun around, eyes wide. He backed away from them, holding his hands out in front of him. “Are you real?”
“What’s your Mabari’s name?” he asked.
Audra recognized it for the test it was. “Diablo. Blackwall told you all a story about dogs and foxes earlier.” She held out a hand to him. “It’s me.”
He dropped his arms and slumped, nodding. He reached out and took her hand, grasping it in his own. “I had to be sure.”
“Am I sure it’s you as well?” Audra asked.
Kieran thought for a moment. “The orange cat man that came to use the bathroom.”
“The… what?” Solas asked, looking confused.
“It’s a long story.” Audra sighed. “But one that only Kieran would know.”
“You do realize that a demon could be reaching either of your minds,” Solas pointed out. “A test like this is pointless.”
“What do you suggest, then?” Audra asked.
Solas stepped forward and put his hand on the boy’s head, closing his eyes. “He is a dreamer. He is real.” He pulled back his hand and opened his eyes, frowning. “Kieran, do you frequently end up here?”
The boy nodded, looking from Audra to Solas. “In dreams.” He hesitated. “This is still a dream, isn’t it? The Fade is where we all go when we dream.”
“Yes. You’re asleep in Skyhold. But…” Audra thought for a moment. “I wonder why we found you.”
“Are you looking for Alistair? I’m looking for him, too. I’ve found him before. Maybe that’s why?”
Solas shifted his eyes to her and she felt her stomach drop. “Audra. You and I need to speak after we leave the Fade.”
Shit. She didn’t like the sound of that. “Is everything okay?”
“It is… for now.” He got down to his knees. “Has anyone ever told you that you seem much older than you are?”
“My mother says it.”
“He’s a child, Solas, leave it,” Audra growled, holding onto Kieran's hand more tightly. “We’re here to find Alistair.”
Kieran wrapped his fingers around hers. “Follow me.” His looked up at her. “It’s less scary here with you here.”
Audra’s heart pounded in her chest. He was so brave. “Lead the way.”
She could feel Solas’ eyes on her and she wondered if he could tell that something was different about Kieran… or if he was working out that she’d cheated death. This was a mistake. She should not have contacted Solas. Now Morrigan and Kieran could be at risk, and it’s because she came here. I’m too focused on finding Alistair that I slipped.
“You shouldn’t be here,” a voice said, and she took a breath. She knew that voice, and knew it should not be here.
“Keep moving,” she hissed. “That’s a-“
“Fear demon,” Solas finished.
The demon stepped out from around a rock, looking like a normal man in Grey Warden armor. Duncan. Audra’s heart beat in her chest. No. Not now.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he repeated. “You cheated death. You should be dead.” Before them, he started to rot away, and Audra stepped between him and Kieran. If she let the fear seep in, the demon would win.
She lifted a hand to cast. “You are not him!”
Her spells did not work the same in the Fade, but the demon dissipated and Audra drew a breath in relief.
“Audra, stop.” Solas stepped around her. “I have seen a great many things in my time. I believe I may be piecing together a picture of what’s happened here. And I need you to know that I am not concerned with… what I believe is going on here.”
“Which is absolutely none of your business,” she snarled, wishing he would leave it.
“It is as far as our unfettered travel here is. If you feel afraid, you are a target.” He conjured a staff out of nowhere and handed it to her. “You cannot afford fear.”
As much as she hated to hear those words, he was right. “Fine.” She snatched the staff from him. “Do you know if I will be able to cast while physically in the Fade?”
She realized that she’d likely need to ask if that would apply to a mage that also had a spirit inside of him, but it didn’t seem the best time to bring up the subject of Anders. The truth was that they may not have any concept of what would happen until Anders was physically in the Fade. “Lead the way, Kieran.”
They walked through the surreal landscape, Audra keeping herself anchored by Kieran’s hand. “We’re getting close,” he said, pointing ahead. “He’s at the bottom of that hill. He told me earlier that it’s a defensible position.”
Audra exchanged a look with Solas, who nodded. They moved forward and as they got closer, Audra could hear the whispers from the demons. Soon. We will take him soon. He is losing hope. You cannot save him.
“Not today, assholes,” she muttered. Ahead, she could see a rock formation that would indeed be defensible. “Please, please be alive…”
“He is.” Kieran looked up at her. “You can’t see him?”
She shook her head. “Not from here, no.”
“He’s behind the rocks. He… glows. Blue.” Kieran sighed. “It’s hard to explain.” He looked back the way they came. “I can see Mother from here, too.”
Understanding dawned on Audra and she pulled Kieran against her. Her arm rested on his shoulder, but it didn't steady the shaking she felt. She didn’t want Solas to hear any more of this than he already had. She dropped down to her knees in front of him. “We’re going to go on ahead, but I need you to wake up. Can you wake up?”
“I’m… not sure." He looked at her with wide eyes. "Why can’t I go with you?”
“We don’t know what we’re going to find, and your mother... she and I are very old friends, and she’d never forgive me if I didn’t keep you safe.” In truth, she didn’t know what they’d find, or how she’d react, and what could come for her when that happened. She didn’t want him to have to see that.
“I can wake you, Kieran,” Solas added, dropping down next to Audra. “Wake up.”
Kieran disappeared and Solas stood, reaching down a hand to help Audra up. “It’s wise to send the boy away.”
She let him help her to her feet, but immediately turned from him and started for Alistair. She was not about to get pulled into a conversation about Kieran, not when Alistair could be so close.
Rounding the corner, she came to a stop. Alistair sat propped against a rock, his shield covering him and his hand loosely around the hilt of his sword. Blood pooled around him, coming from any number of cuts and punctures, some of which had gone through his armor. Blood ran down his face. Her breath caught in her throat and she started forward. “Alistair!”
Around him, three shimmering yellow forms appeared, blocking her. “No, you will not have him,” they whispered. “We will not let you.”
She started to ready a spell, holding up the staff, but Solas stepped between her and them. “No.” He turned his back to them to face her. “Audra, these are not demons. They are spirits. They are protecting him.”
Understanding dawned on Audra. “They’re buying him time.”
He nodded. “But he won’t have much left.” He turned to the spirits. “We are here to help. We have a way to bring him out of here and save him, but we need to get to him.”
“Please,” Audra said, lowering the staff and setting it on the ground. “He’s my beloved. I need to see how hurt he is. I’m here to help.”
The shimmering forms intensified for a moment in their brightness, then parted to let her pass. She ran to Alistair’s side and put her hands on his face. “He’s cold,” she said, panicking. She could see his chest rise and fall with each breath. “But he’s alive.”
“He could be cold because you’re not actually here,” Solas said, kneeling down on the other side. “Even if you can make it here physically, I don’t know of a healer that can heal this kind of damage.”
Audra set her mouth in a determined line. “I do.” She didn’t know what to expect when she tried to inspect the damage to Alistair. She tried to run a hand through his hair and felt as if she were touching it, but also going right through it. “Alistair,” she whispered, leaning close. “We’re coming. I love you.”
His eyelids twitched and he managed to open them, squinting. When he saw her, his eyes became wide. “Back, demon!” He tried to raise his shield to push her away. He able to rally a surprising amount of strength and pushed her backwards.
“It’s me!” She cowered, covering her face with her arm.
He fell backwards in his weakness, and stared at her. “That’s what all of them have said. You can’t fool me.”
“Alistair. It’s me. I’m at Skyhold. I brought the dogs. And Anders. We’re coming to get you.”
He squinted her. “Of course you are, and I’m the Queen of Ferelden.” He closed his eyes. “Oh now wouldn’t that be funny. Queen of Ferelden.”
Audra uncurled and sat up. “You wouldn’t fit in Anora’s dresses.”
His breaths came in ragged gasps. “I don’t know if it’s you or not. I don’t know how long I’ve been here. The boy, Kieran. My…” He coughed up bloody foam. His eyes were wide, afraid, but recognition seeped in. Something came over his face, perhaps… hope?
“Audra?” he managed.
“It’s me.” She crawled forward to him, arranging his shield to help defend him as best she could. She still had the stuffed Mabari in her hand and she set it in one of his, curling his fingers around it for him and holding them. “We’re coming.”
His head rolled back and his eyes closed. “I’m so tired. You… you said you’d come. I mean, it said you’d come.”
Audra didn’t know what that meant. “Shh. Rest. Save your strength.” She reached out and ran her hand over his face. Tears started to form in the corners of her eyes and her heart felt like it would burst. “I love you. Please just hang on. For me.” Leaning forward, she kissed his forehead, then stood, looking at Solas. “I’m ready. If you have any questions for me, ask me quickly when we return."
“I have… a better idea.” He reached out and took her hands, and the Fade they were in disappeared. They were back in Solas’s room in Skyhold, standing beside the table again as they were before they sat down and traveled to the Fade. “We aren’t actually in Skyhold,” he explained. “We’re still in the Fade. Time moves differently here so we can talk without losing time, and without anyone overhearing.”
Nodding, she pulled her hands away. “There will be questions that will not be mine to answer.”
“I understand that.” He placed his hands on the table and looked down at them. “Kieran had no trouble finding Alistair. Do you know why that is?”
Audra hesitated. “That is one of the questions that I can't provide an answer to. I'm sorry.”
“But you know, then. I didn’t want it to be a surprise to you.”
“It’s not. I’m perfectly aware.” She sighed. Of course he would work it out. Morrigan would kill her if this came up. “Next question.”
He leveled his gaze at her. “You avoided dying when you killed the Archdemon. I always wondered how you did it, but-“
“Stop.” She rubbed at her forehead. “I know you want answers, but… I can’t help you. Not in the way you want.”
“That’s fair. You being here is proof enough, and your reasons are your own.” He crossed his arms. “Do you have a plan for this?”
“More or less. But you may as well know that getting Alistair out of the Fade is not my only intention.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“This is a conversation I’d rather have a few others present for.” She looked over at him. “Let’s get out of here.”
She blinked a few times and found herself sitting on the couch again. “That’s disorienting.”
“It gets easier.” He stood. “Let’s get everyone here that you need here.”
From down the hall, Audra heard the sound of boots on stone, and seconds later Morrigan strode into the room and stopped. “How dare you bring Kieran into this?”
“I didn’t bring him into it!” Audra got to her feet and strode forward. “We went into the Fade and he was already there.”
“He knew where to find Alistair. They appear to share a connection,” Solas offered. He no doubt meant to be helpful, but Audra winced and shook her head.
Morrigan stopped dead in her tracks and seemed to notice Solas for the first time. She snapped her mouth shut and kept her eyes on Audra. “Did you find him, then?”
“With Kieran’s help, yes,” Audra affirmed. “But we’ll find some way, I know you don’t want him to-“
“No.” Morrigan straightened, looking like the ever fearless witch Audra had always known her to be. “If he can help, without stepping foot inside of the Fade through a rift, then we will find a way.”
Audra tried to not look too relieved. “Thank you.”
“Thank me if we pull this off.”
“Assemble the people you need,” Solas affirmed. “I don’t think you have much time left.”
Audra nodded, and they started to send runners to gather their resources.
Chapter 19: Easily Cowed
Were they making bottles of wine smaller these days? Dorian was starting to become convinced that they were. Or had someone snuck in and started drinking off the bottle while he drank out of the glass?
Sighing, he picked up the bottle and tucked it between his knees, figuring that forcibly protecting the wine would be the best way to ensure no one else was drinking from the bottle. He picked back up the book he’d been reviewing, one about dreams and the Fade. In truth, he wasn’t looking forward to going back in, but he couldn’t imagine doing anything else if it were needed of him. At any point, he was sure he could say that he’d changed his mind and he didn’t want to go.
However, Alistair was a good man, and if nothing else, Dorian felt that anyone who could forgive Cullen his Templar trespasses deserved his help.
And was, for that matter, likely a better person than he himself was.
He took a swig of the red wine, setting the bottle back between his knees and thinking. What had Anders meant by Cullen had never trusted a mage? Surely Cullen trusted him?
Dorian had thought so, but now he wasn’t certain. After the way that he’d reacted and set a guard on Anders, a visiting mage, Dorian realized he felt profoundly uncomfortable. And their conversation earlier hadn’t helped. Was this why Cullen was so closed off towards him? Because he was a mage? Was he afraid of Dorian?
“He should be afraid of me,” Dorian muttered, flipping the pages of the book but barely seeing the words. He felt restless, and normally in times like this he’d seek out Cullen. For comfort, for conversation, for sex. Two bottles of wine in, though, and he didn’t think finding Cullen was a good idea. If he drank one more, it might start to look like a good idea, but it would take more wine than he currently had on hand. He’d hoped for a quiet night in with Cullen, but that had gone badly as soon as the victims of the Venatori attack arrived.
Finishing off the bottle and setting it down on the table hard, Dorian closed the book and got to his feet. He may as well call it an early night since tomorrow was bound to be a long day. As he started towards the exit to the tower, he looked to the side and saw Fiona, frantically searching the shelves in the Fade section.
On a hunch, he retreated back to his chair and picked up the book he’d been reading from the table. He walked over to her and held it out. “By any chance is this the book you’re looking for?”
The elven mage looked down at the book and snapped it out of his hands. “Yes. Thank you, Dorian.” She pulled it towards her and looked up at him long enough to nod. Dark circles stood out under her eyes, and she looked like she’d barely slept in days.
She started to turn from him, but he reached out and wrapped his fingers around her arm, a thought occurring to him. Could she be researching the same topic as he had been? “Are you still having those dreams you mentioned? The ones that started since Adamant?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said, pulling from his grasp.
“I overheard you talking about it,” he insisted, leaning against the shelf she’d been investigating.
“I hardly see how that’s any of your business,” she snapped, holding the book against her chest.
“Ah. Well, my mistake then.” He yawned and stretched. “If you suddenly remember what I’m talking about, come find me, or the Inquisitor. It looks like there will soon be an attempt to rescue Alistair from the Fade. I’m sure Warden Commander Amell wouldn’t mind the help.” Perhaps it wasn’t the best tactic, and he immediately realized he may have given her more information than he should have. On the other hand, as a former Warden, maybe it would spurn Fiona into some action.
She stared at him for a long moment, clutching the book tighter. “I will keep that in mind.”
“Please do.” He glanced over the railing to see Morrigan storm in and start saying something he couldn’t hear to Solas and Audra. That looked like just enough trouble that he was going to check it out.
Ferelden mages were so easily cowed. Must be because of the Templars, he thought, then immediately hated the thought. He turned and headed down the stairs.
Chapter 20: Objections
They assembled back in the War Room, in a tense circle around the table. Audra couldn’t help but think that they’d arranged themselves as if they had to make some points to each other. To her right, Morrigan crossed her arms and looked concerned. Past Morrigan stood Solas, Cullen, Zaire, Dorian, Hawke, and Anders. She knew that having Anders to her left sent a message to Cullen, and she hated that she had to send that message at all. But Cullen had never taken subtlety nearly as well as a clear message.
Across the table, Cullen glared at Anders, who pointedly kept his focus on Audra. Dorian had worked his way over to have Zaire between him and Cullen, and while Audra couldn’t tell for sure, it appeared Dorian had been drinking. Hawke watched them all like, well, a hawk; he appeared to look casual about it, but she’d known him to long to not see the rigidness in his spine. Zaire looked unruffled but Audra had seen her touch Dorian’s arm and say a quick word to him when they walked into the room. Her concern and care for her people was obvious, and Audra approved of that.
“Now that I’ve got you all in one room…” Audra took a deep breath. “I don’t think Alistair has much time. Solas and I found him in the Fade, and he’s bleeding out.”
Anders let out a hiss. “How well will magic work if physically in the Fade? That will affect how much healing I can do.”
“Very well, if my experience means anything,” Dorian noted. “I may have slung a record number of fireballs, even.” He punctuated his words with his hands. “Fucking demons.”
“I concur,” Solas agreed. “It’s nothing like walking the Fade as we normally do. You’ll find that you’ll have more power to draw off of as well.”
Nodding, Anders looked at Audra, determined. He cracked his knuckles. “If I can cast, I can heal.”
Solas placed his hands on the table. “He’s lost a lot of blood. Are you sure you can heal that?”
A crackle of blue appeared across Anders’s skin. “I have to.”
Cullen’s hand reached for his sword and Zaire lifted a hand in his direction. Hawke placed a hand on Anders’s arm and the blue glow faded. Solas looked intrigued.
“I’d like to get something out of the way right now,” Zaire said, lowering her hand. “Cullen, you in particular are not going to like this.”
“Do I like anything about this situation?” he demanded, slowly pulling his hand away from his sword but tension obvious in his posture.
“That’s on you. But I’m not going to let this sit any longer.” She gestured to Anders. “Do I have your permission to explain the situation.”
“You might as well.” Anders gestured to her. “It’s better if it comes from you.”
Zaire looked around the room. “For those not aware, Anders carries a spirt of Justice inside of him. And that spirit, Justice, is part of the team. We may be talking to Anders, but that does not mean that Justice is not here. I understand that may make some people uncomfortable, but they’re both a part of the situation. We need them both to make this work. If anyone has an issue with that…” She pointed at the large double doors. “The door is that way.”
Hawke spoke up. “You know where I stand.”
“I certainly don’t have an issue with it,” Solas said, looking at Anders. “In fact, I would love to converse with you both later if you’re open to it. I’m sure you would both have some fascinating perspectives.”
Anders smiled. “We’d… like that.”
Cullen stepped forward. “I have a problem with it. But I’m here for Alistair, and for you,” he said, looking at Audra. His eyes looked almost afraid but she could see the resolve he tried to convey. “I will do what it takes.”
“Good.” Zaire looked around the room. “No other objections?”
No one spoke up, and Zaire nodded once, firmly.
“I have an objection,” Anders said, a flicker of blue coming over his skin. He lifted a hand and pointed to Cullen. “I cannot work with the Templar. I have seen what he does to mages. It is not right that he have a place among us.”
A muscle twitched in Cullen’s jaw. “I did not kill over a hundred innocent people. What you did was not ‘justice’, it was slaughter. We were cleaning up that mess while you ran.”
Anders met his eyes. “We freed you. You would not be here if not for us.”
Cullen slammed his hand down on the table. “That is not freedom. We were becoming prisoners of our fear as much as you were of yours!”
“This is precisely why the Circles need to end.” The blue flickered along his skin. “How do you think the mages who waited for you to kill them felt? We have one of those mages-“ The blue glow suddenly faded and Anders closed his eyes, seeming to having a moment with Justice. Audra could recognize that they were having an internal struggle.
Zaire held her hands up before Audra could interrupt. “I’m stopping this right here.” She pointed to Anders. “Cullen is here to help Alistair and Audra. He has as much of a right to be here as you, and I’d like to point out that he is a trusted advisor and friend to both myself and the Inquisition.” She shook her head, then turned to Cullen. “You can work with them or not. I respect you enough to let you make your own decision.” She looked around the room. “I am fully aware of the factors here, but I will not have either side continuing down this path. Do I make myself clear?”
Silence stretched out for a long moment before Zaire spoke again. “The floor is yours again, Warden.”
She’s good. Audra was understanding now why so many of them followed the dwarf so faithfully. “Thank you, Inquisitor.” Audra looked around the table. “So, there is more to this than saving Alistair. I debated telling you all this, but I wanted everyone to be aware of it as I’m not sure what will happen.” Audra drew a deep breath. “I’m intending on curing the Taint. I’ve been researching the Fade as much as I can, and I’ve determined that the Taint is not just tied to the Darkspawn, but also to its source.”
“The magisters that entered the Black City,” Dorian commented. “Or so the legends say.”
Audra nodded. “It’s not much, but it’s all I have to go on. I think that if I can tie the Taint in us back to the source, physically leaving the Fade could pull it out of us.”
Solas pondered for a moment. “It could work. It shouldn’t cause any damage to the Fade. But it could kill you. I can’t say what would happen.”
She shivered, taking a deep breath. “The Wardens are all dead in a matter of time anyway. Anders and I are both Wardens.” She looked at Anders, who nodded. “We are willing to take the chance. Alistair and I have talked about it, and he, too, is willing.”
Past Anders, Hawke stood up straighter. Audra was aware that they, too, had talked about this, and it had not been an easy conversation. On the upside, Anders had the greatest chance of survival out of the three of them, thanks to Justice. If they came out of this with Hawke and Anders together, even if she and Alistair didn’t make it, it would be enough for her. I’m going to die no matter what.
Morrigan shook her head. “You’re planning on being an experiment?”
Audra nodded. “It’s about our only alternative. I’ve got most of the spell worked out. But we don’t have a lot of time, so Anders and I could use some help from you, Dorian, and Solas.”
“My knowledge is at your disposal,” Morrigan said, nodding.
Dorian managed a smile. “I’m up for a challenge.”
“And I am fascinated by this concept of tying the Taint to the Fade,” Solas finished.
“Then that settles it.” Zaire nodded to Audra. “However, it doesn’t sound like Alistair has much time. I’m going to suggest that if you’re going to do this, you do it tonight. It’s not as if I can’t ever send you to the Fade again if you can’t perfect the spell now.”
Solas shook his head. “Inquisitor, we don’t know how easily you can do this again-“
“We’ll make it happen.” Zaire’s lips were set in a line. “Dorian, take them below to work on the spell. Perhaps Dagna can also offer some assistance.”
“Dagna?” Audra laughed. She hadn’t heard that name in years. “The same Dagna with a thirst for knowledge that never quits?”
“That sounds absolutely accurate,” Dorian noted.
Zaire nodded thoughtfully. “Ah, that’s right. Dagna mentioned you met in Orzamar many years ago. During the Fifth Blight.”
“It’s been at least 14 years.” Audra tugged at a thread on her robe. “At least I know we’ll be in some additional good hands.”
“You’ll have the best team in Thedas,” Dorian promised. “Mostly because you have me.” He led the mages out of the room, and Audra reached out and touched Zaire’s arm as she passed. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” the dwarf warned. “But you’re brave as hell, Warden, and when this is over, the drinks are on me.”
Audra smiled. “I’d like that.”
The non-mages remained in the room, and Audra left to catch up to Morrigan. She held a hand on her arm so that they fell back slightly behind the other mages. “Morrigan. I hope you know that I didn’t say anything. About Kieran.”
“I know. You would not do that.” Morrigan rubbed at her arms against the chill in the hallway. “But someone might ask about their connection, and that is not a question I want to answer.”
“Is it that bad to answer it?” Audra asked. “I know you’d rather no one know, but I want you to know that it’s not a secret you have to hide for us. I could always make up some great story about a threesome and-“
“You would not!” Morrigan let out a laugh.
“I hoped you’d laugh at that.” Audra chuckled. “I know you don’t want Kieran involved, but earlier when we ran into him in the Fade, Solas was able to immediately wake him. We’ll keep him safe.”
“Yes. Kieran told me. Tis why I am willing to take the chance. But I will need his assurance that he will ensure Kieran gets out if he is in danger.”
“Absolutely.” Audra knew that they had to succeed, though, because risking leaving all of them physically in the Fade was a risk they couldn’t afford.
Chapter 21: Andraste’s Mabari
Left in the War Room, Zaire looked from Hawke to Cullen. “It looks like now we wait. I’m going to head to the barn with the mabari.”
“I’m for that. I’m always for dogs.” Hawke grinned, putting an arm around Zaire’s shoulders. “I’ll keep the dogs company, you keep Blackwall company?”
Zaire blushed. “Well, if you can get him away from the dogs.” She looked over at Cullen, who had placed his hands flat on the war table and stared at them. “Cullen?”
“Yes, Inquisitor?” He looked over at her, and she could see in his eyes that this wasn’t a good night. Being chewed out by a Fade spirit probably hadn’t helped.
“Do you like dogs?”
Cullen almost smiled. Zaire thought his face would crack. “I’m Ferelden. Of course I like dogs.”
“Now we’re talking!” Hawke slapped Cullen on the back and Cullen glared at him. “Let’s go find some dogs like proper Fereldens. You might hate my husband, but dogs make everything better.”
Cullen huddled down into his cloak. “I can hate what a person does without hating the person, Hawke.”
“Do you?” Hawke looked remarkably serious. “Hate what he did but not him?”
“Do you think I’m daft? We all knew an apostate was running a clinic in Darktown.” He snorted. “We didn’t care. We knew no one else was taking care of people. I respected that. I respected you both. But you screwed that up. Both of you.”
Hawke focused on the table, his hands running across the wood. “For what it’s worth, you weren’t the worst.”
“Thank you. I think.”
“Did you know that the Templars in the circle abused Anders so badly that he doesn’t remember what his name is?” Hawke asked suddenly. “It isn’t Anders; that’s the name he was called because he wouldn’t tell anyone his name. But he doesn’t know it any more. He’s covered in scars.” He hesitated. “I know it’s a hard thing to explain, and I know it doesn’t excuse the harm he’s done. I just know that he won’t ever tell you, so I am.”
“I… I did not know.” Cullen winced, and Zaire could tell he meant it. “I’m sorry that happened to him. I wish that there had been more good Templars.”
Hawke snorted. “After a while I started having a drink for every bad Templar. I think I became a drunk.”
They headed out to the barn, and Zaire could hear Blackwall’s voice singing what sounded like a tavern song before they reached the barn.
Cullen paused for a moment. “Is that Andraste’s Mabari?”
Hawke listened, then grinned, gesturing for Cullen to follow. “You know it?”
“Of course I do. Templars don’t live in complete isolation.”
“Oh but you’re not just any Templar,” Hawke pointed out. “Because you fight with the Inquisition. And if you’re good enough to fight with the Inquisition, you can sing for the Inquisition.”
As they walked into the barn, Cullen lifted his voice to join in the second verse. “And there’s Andrastre’s marbari.”
“By the Holy Prophet’s side,” Hawke added, joining the trio of voices.
The three continued through the song, taking seats between the dogs around the fire. Zaire sat on a bale of hay, tucking her legs up and resting her chin on her knees. The dogs’ wagged their tails along to the song, and Zaire found herself smiling. Cullen had avoided talking to Blackwall since finding out who he was, and Zaire was certain there was no love lost between Cullen and Hawke, either, given what happened in Kirkwall. But here these three were, singing for dogs around a fire in the middle of the night.
Her eyes drifted to Blackwall, who had a genuine smile on his face. She’d missed that smile more than she’d been able to admit to until that moment.
Maybe Skyhold needed some dogs.
“Yes that mabari’s the companion… of the Maker’s Holy Bride.” The three men finished the song, letting the last note fade into the barn.
A moment of silence held over the space before the dogs started barking, Zaire assumed in approval. A very loud approval.
“I think we should do that more often,” Blackwall noted. “You’ve got a good voice, Cullen. I don’t think I’ve heard you sing since Haven.”
“Yes, well, we’ve had few enough reasons to.” He put a hand on Diablo’s head. Zaire wondered if he knew which mabari was which.
“Are you kidding me?” Hawke chuckled. “We’re always singing something in the tavern. You both need to get out and drink with us more. At least…” Hawke let out a breath then forced a smile. “If we all make it through this okay.”
Blackwall looked at him, then reached out and clasped his shoulder. “I’m sorry for lying to you and Alistair.”
“About being a Warden?” Hawke snorted. “Trust me, I’ve been lied to about worse.”
“Don’t go there.” Cullen sighed, and Diablo leaned over and licked his face. “Why are you even talking to me, dog?”
“Technically he’s not talking to you,” Blackwall pointed out. “Did something happen with Dorian?”
Zaire winced at his keen observation. Cullen buried his face against Diablo’s side and Zaire got up off her bale of hay, walking over to stand behind Blackwall. She ran her fingers through his dark hair, letting the warmth warm her own fingers. “Its fine, Cullen, you don’t have to talk about it.”
“Good.” He kept his head down. “Let’s just get through this trip to the Fade and get everything back to normal. The sooner, the better.”
Hawke nodded. “No offense, but I’m looking forward to going home.”
Zaire watched Cullen tense but spoke anyway. “If it’s helpful, Hawke, I know that there are some that would want Anders to stand trial for what happened. As far as I’m concerned, he is more than paying it back by taking the risk of going into the Fade for Alistair.”
“There’s no one else in Thedas who could do what Anders does.” Hawke smiled. “It’s part of why I love him. He cares. He’s stronger than anyone knows. He adapts. He makes me laugh.” Still grinning, Hawke wrapped his arms around Fang. “He’s even gotten used to this drooling lout. The dog, I mean. Not me.”
“Now we definitely need a dog,” Blackwall commented, wrapping an arm around Zaire’s waist. “I feel like we’re missing out, not being able to make those jokes.”
She wanted to tell him that it was too soon, that maybe it wasn’t time to joke about it yet. But instead, she felt a warmth spread through her. Them. It felt right. When this was all over…
“Cullen,” Blackwall said, looking over at him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” He hesitated. “I know you’re mad at me.”
“It’s not even for the lie,” Cullen muttered, lifting his head. “I’m more worried that you hurt Zaire.”
Blackwall’s arm tightened around her more and she realized he shook. She brushed a piece of straw off her pants. “I’m fine, Cullen. I’ll… be fine.”
“And so will all of us.” Blackwall sighed. “For all the shit I give Dorian, I’d like him to be happy. I’d like him to have someone who can care about him.”
“Well, then I am likely not the best candidate for that.”
Hawke reached over and poked at his furred cloak. “If I can work it out, you can work it out.”
Cullen didn’t speak of it, but Zaire could tell he listened and tried to process that. She half expected him to storm out, but he stayed there with an arm around Diablo, until the runner finally came for them. The elf sprinted into the barn and stopped just outside of the fire.
“It’s time, Inquisitor,” she said, gesturing to them to follow.
“Time for what?” Blackwall asked, and Zaire realized she hadn’t told him the details of what was happening. She looked to Hawke. “Are the dogs fine here?”
“They’ll be fine.” He stood, dusting himself off. “I fully intend on us all making it through this, but if anything does happen… mabari bond for life. They may not survive, or they may determine they’ll find a home here with you. Either way, I’m trusting you to ensure they’re cared for, Blackwall.”
“It would be my honor.”
“Come with us, and I’ll explain on the way.” Zaire started for the door, and the others followed.
Zaire led Cullen, Hawke, and Blackwall to Dagna’s workshop. “Inquisitor!” Dagna greeted as they entered. “I’m glad you’re here. We’re ready. It seems best if we do this here, given that the room has magical shields that should contain any incident. Not that I think they’ll be an incident, but-”
“Thank you, Dagna.” Zaire didn’t want to dwell on the meaning of incidents. She stepped forward and looked around the room. Four beds were laid out in a row, she presumed for some of the group to lay on while entering the Fade in dreams. But who was dreaming and who needed to travel? “Fill me in.”
“We’re going to leverage Kieran’s ability to navigate the Fade to find Alistair,” Morrigan said. Her posture looked straight but a worry touched her eyes as she looked over towards Kieran, sitting quietly in a chair nearby. “He will enter in a dream state, and they will find their way to Alistair.”
“After we’re there,” Audra continued, “I will do a quick spell to bind the Taint, using these amulets.” She touched the one around her neck, and Zaire saw that Anders also wore one. “We have another for Alistair.”
“How will you get back to the rift point?” Zaire asked.
Morrigan gestured with her hand. “I can handle that. I can make myself known in the Fade so that Kieran can come back to me.”
Kieran sat with his hands folded in his lap. He looked braver than a boy of his age had a right to be, but Zaire knew he must have seen more in his short lifetime than most his age. She moved to his side. “This is a brave thing you’re doing, Kieran. You’re fine with this?”
He nodded. “I can do it.”
“And I will ensure he’s removed at once if anything goes wrong,” Solas added. “I will not be going in physically. As much as I’d like to, I feel that I need to also be able to be here to help you open the rift at the end.”
Zaire caught the wistfulness in his tone. “Thank you, Solas.”
Dorian and Anders were looking over a pile of papers, talking quietly. Dorian looked up. “Anders and I have worked out how to best distribute ourselves across defensive and offensive magic.”
Anders nodded. “We’ve used our own understanding of both Solas’ and Audra’s magic to develop a strategy we think will give us the maximum coverage.”
“We’re looking forward to working together.” Dorian’s glance towards Cullen was pointed, and Cullen did not meet his gaze.
“We will need Hawke and Cullen to run interference and help defend us,” Audra said. “They won’t be going in physically.”
Hawke stepped forward. “We can handle it. I’ll backflip over a demon and flip it off if I have to. Then stab and shoot it to death.”
“I’ll skip straight to stabbing,” Cullen noted, his hand resting on his sword.
A strange gesture, given that he wouldn’t be taking it with him, not really. But in the Fade, the power of belief would be the strongest weapon any of them would have. Zaire studied the group, Alistair’s last hope. And hope for the Wardens. “How will everyone find each other in the Fade, if some are going in physically and some not?”
Morrigan moved to Kieran’s side, her robes swishing as she walked. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Once all of the mages are in, I can leverage Hawke and Audra’s shared blood connection to bring the others close to them.”
Nodding, Zaire took a deep breath. It sounded as if it were time, and the longer they waited, the worse Alistair’s chances became. “Tell me what to do.”
“Do you remember how you opened the Fade rift last time?” Dorian asked.
“I absolutely do not,” Zaire said, sighing. She held her hand out, pulling off her glove and turning her hand over in front of her face. She looked back up to Dorian. “The circumstances were… special.”
“We can work with that.” He glanced to Solas. “Your turn.”
The elf led Zaire to a chair. “I’m going to hypnotize you to help you remember how you opened the rift the first time. The mages here will help guide you if needed. I need to you to focus on this point,” he said, conjuring a point of light above and to the right of his head.
He sat her down and held her hands, talking. She barely heard any of the words, as focused as she was on the point. “Now, go back, to Adamant. To the rift. Think about how the mark felt on your hand. Hold it up.”
She lifted her hand and held it there.
“Now, keep it controlled. We don’t need a large rift.”
Zaire focused on the power surging through her and held her hand out towards an empty space in the room. The rift opened in front of them, and she forced it into a size to fit a tall person. She could hear Dagna’s gasp of delight. “Like that?”
“Exactly, yes. Does that feel stable?”
Zaire focused on the feeling of holding the rift, making sure that she knew her answer. “It does. But you should go quickly, I don’t know how long I can keep it open.”
Solas looked to Morrigan. “Are we ready?”
“We are.” She nodded to Audra.
Zaire saw that the mages held their staffs, and Anders had changed into actual mage robes sometime during the preparation process. A feathered mantle now sat over his shoulders.
Audra’s hands held her staff so tight that her knuckles turned white. “Then let’s do this.” She picked up a bag and slug it over her shoulder, and stepped through the rift, swallowed up by the pulsing green light. Anders followed her, and lastly, Dorian. He didn’t look back, his white robes fluttering behind him as he stepped forward and disappeared.
Cullen took a half step forward then stopped, his posture slumping.
Zaire looked over at him. She understood what it felt like to watch someone you love take a step that could lead them to their death. “You’ll see him in a few minutes.”
“It’s going to feel like a long few minutes,” he muttered.
Solas put a hand on Zaire’s shoulder. “Good work.” He looked to the others assembled. “We have to go fast. I’m going to pull us in together. Asleep, but leveraging the rift, and using Hawke to guide us to Audra.”
“It’s a weak blood connection but it should be good enough for this,” Hawke affirmed, laying down on one of the beds.
Kieran moved to a bed, near Morrigan. She reached out her arms and hugged him. “You’re so brave.”
“It’s going to be okay, Mother.” He smiled at her, then laid down on the mattress.
Cullen took a deep breath, and Zaire was sure he hated the whole ordeal but she understood why he felt he needed to go. He laid down as the others had, staring at the ceiling.
Solas looked at Morrigan. “Let her know when to close the rift.”
“I will.” She nodded, once, and started pacing around the beds.
“Close your eyes,” Solas told them, laying down. “And follow me when I call to you.”
The only sounds in the room became the waterfall and the rift, and Zaire waited, her hand starting to shake slightly. She reached up to steady it with her other hand. Blackwall reached his hand out to help support her arm, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Morrigan sat down on the bed beside Kieran, her hand on his forehead. She waited for a moment, closing her eyes, then nodded once and looked up at Zaire. “Close it.”
Zaire pulled the rift back, the green energy swirling back into her hand. She leaned back in the chair, feeling suddenly weary. “Now what?”
“Now, we wait.” Morrigan sat down at the table where Anders and Dorian had been, with their pile of notes. “You may as well get some rest, it’s going to be a few hours at the very least.”
Outside of the door, Zaire could hear the dogs barking.
“Sounds like they came looking for us,” Blackwall said, turning towards the door.
“Don’t let them in,” Zaire warned. “I don’t want them to disrupt anything. If it’s possible to lick someone out of the Fade, I’m pretty sure mabari could do it.”
“Yes, please, let’s lick no one out of the Fade,” Morrigan said dryly.
“I don’t know, it sounds like a good experiment!” Dagna said cheerfully, not looking up from where she had started enchanting a rune.
Zaire snorted. “No experiments until this is over.” She looked over at Blackwall. “Come on, let’s go keep the dogs company before they wake the entire keep.”
Blackwall followed her out of the room and closed the door behind them. The dogs were, thankfully, still at the top of the stairs, but Zaire winced at their volume. “Something’s got them riled up.”
“They could possibly know that Audra isn’t here,” he noted. “Or maybe they think Solas smells funny.”
Zaire chuckled. “We probably all smell funny after today.” She yawned as she walked up the stairs, feeling her feet drag. “I should probably take a bath and get some sleep, but I think I’m going to skip directly to sleep to get as much of it as I can before I have to do that again.”
“I should as well. I can keep the dogs company in the barn,” he added.
She wanted to ask him back to her own quarters, but with the way the dogs were going on, she wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Then again, mabari were smart; perhaps it would settle them down. “It’s been a long day. For all of us, them included.” Opening the door at the top, she found the dogs looking anxious, cautiously wagging their tails.
“Its fine,” she assured them, getting down to her knees. “They’re going to bring Alistair home, but they need some quiet to do that. Can you keep it down to help?”
The dogs wagged their tails faster, and Blackwall chuckled. “It never ceases to amaze me how much they understand.”
“I just wish I knew why they were so excited to begin with.” Zaire sighed. “Come on. Let’s get some sleep.”
Blackwall hesitated a moment, standing by the door. “I’ll see you in the morning then.”
“No.” She chewed at her lip. “There’s been a lot that’s happened today. I’m not ready for things to be back to where they were yet, but…” Looking up at him, she reached out her hand. “I’d rather start somewhere tonight.”
His hand closed around hers and squeezed. “I’d like that very much, my lady.”
“And if I’m letting you up there, I may as well take the dogs too.” She looked at the mabari who waited attentively, sitting on the floor. “Come on, it’s warmer up there, and closer if they need to find us.”
Up in the room, the mabari rushed to curl up in front of the fire, and Zaire pulled off her jacket, throwing it onto the couch. “Don’t even try to argue about where you’re sleeping, just come keep me warm. Fair?”
“Oh, you mean curling up with the dogs isn’t an option?”
“Unless you want the dogs on the bed with us… no.”
Fang looked up, wagging his tail.
“I’d be careful with saying that,” Blackwall warned. “They’ll probably take you up on it.”
Zaire chuckled. “Well, either way, they’ll have to fight us for it.” She yawned again and started removing the rest of her clothing, walking to the closet to pull out a nightgown. She wanted more than sleeping in the same bed, so much more, but everything that happened felt too fresh and she needed the time to process.
He undressed to the same point she had, and they got into bed together. Laying on his back, he put out his arm so that she could curl up next to him. “It’s nice to be this close to you,” he murmured, kissing the top of her head. His arm tightened around her back. She placed her head on his chest, hearing his heart beat loudly in her ear.
Reaching out a hand, she set it on his chest. “I missed you. When you left. I hated sleeping by myself again.”
“Got used to it that quickly?”
“Yes.” She smiled. “I got used to a bit more than that, I suppose.”
“I’m here. However you need me.” His fingers trailed over her back and she reveled in that warmth coming off of him.
She wanted more. Needed more. But there would be time for that after she spent some time getting used to the idea of Thom Rainier. Perhaps more importantly, after he had some time to remember himself, too.
She closed her eyes and let herself drift off into sleep.
I am so overdue on updates. I have no excuses, only my sincere thanks for anyone that is still reading. I'm going to work on alternating updates of this with my other story that I'm working on. As always, thank you for reading. <3
Last week, I got to hang out with one of my Dragon Age friends (Erandir), who is an awesome person and who I really enjoyed hanging out with! (thanks for being encouraging and awesome!!)
Chapter 23: Not Whole
Anders shifted his staff from hand to hand, looking over the assembled group. Now that the rift had closed, they were left standing in the Fade. Himself, Audra, and Dorian looked very real, while Kieran, Solas, Cullen, and Hawke shimmered slightly around the edges.
He took a long moment to get his bearings. The last time he’d been in the Fade, it had been in a dream state. In that situation, Justice had taken over. He’d recognized that would be a possibility this time, but didn’t know if a pattern would emerge from their travels in the Fade.
Taking stock of the situation, he and Justice looked around and agreed on their approach. Anders would remain in the forefront for now, as his own connection to the Fade as a mage would allow him to know the most reliable times to cast. It also provided the most consistent experience for the others traveling with them.
“Anders,” Audra said, turning to him. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers around his staff. “We’re both fine. It’s the same as it usually is.” Blue cracks appeared on his skin; Justice affirmed that it felt right. “We can shift at will, as we are used to.” It would allow him to fight and heal, which is what they would need the most from him.
“Good.” Audra looked around at the others. “How are the rest of you?”
“Other than that trip making me feel like puking?” Dorian asked, an uncomfortable look on his face.
“That’s probably all the wine you drank before coming in here,” Cullen muttered, and Dorian shot him a look.
I’d probably be drinking if I had to put up with Cullen, too, Anders thought, unsure what to make of that situation.
Audra frowned. “Why were you drinking if you knew we’d be coming into the Fade?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Dorian tugged at his robes. “I can cast, and I can fight, if that’s what you’re asking. Nothing will sober a person up faster than a trip through a Fade rift.” He rolled his eyes. “Waste of perfectly good wine, if you ask me.”
“Well, you can have all you want when we’re done here,” Audra noted.
Anders got to his knees in front of Kieran, leaning on his staff. He studied the boy’s face, wanting to know that he was ready. “Everything feel okay?”
“Yes.” The boy nodded. “I’ve been in the Fade before.”
“Excellent.” Anders smiled at him. “What direction should we start?”
Kieran closed his eyes and tilted his head to the side. After a moment, he turned to his left and pointed. “That way.”
Anders stood and looked to Audra. “Should we get the first two bindings out of the way?”
She nodded, reaching into her tunic and pulling out a pendant. It looked similar to a phylactery, and the thought made Anders shudder slightly. “We’ll need the rest of you to give us a moment.”
They walked a short distance away, blocking what they were doing from the others. Anders knew why; he could just imagine Cullen screaming about blood magic. They certainly didn’t need that extra complication. Anders pulled his pendant off and handed it to Audra, then drew a knife from his belt. He touched it to his finger, just enough to cause a fat drop of blood to well up. Audra opened the cork that kept the glass tube closed and scooped up the blood before closing it. He took it from her and cast the spell over it. It glowed green for a moment then faded. Just before leaving the Fade, they would take off the pendants, leaving them in the Fade to draw the Taint out of them.
“This is probably going to be horrifyingly painful,” he muttered as he healed his finger and put the pendant back around his neck.
Audra held out her hand and he did the same to her finger. “It’s this or die in the Deep Roads like every other Warden.”
“Ask me what I think of it when it’s over.” He opened her vial and carefully squeezed her finger until enough blood dropped into the vial. He pushed the stopper in and handed it to her to do the same spell. She cast her own healing spell for the bleeding.
After tucking the pendant back under her shirt, she looked back at him. “At least we know what it’s like to fight Darkspawn.”
“Isn’t that the truth.” He tucked the dagger back into his belt and regarded her. “Are you ready for this?”
She took a deep breath, reaching into her pocket to pull out a short leather strap. She braided her hair as they walked back to the others. “As ready as I’m going to be.”
When they reached the rest of their party, they started off in the direction that Kieran indicated. The formation they ended up in had Audra and himself at the front, with Hawke and Cullen on each side of Kieran behind them. In the back, Dorian and Solas paced, staffs at the ready.
“Can you also see where your mother is, Kieran?” Audra asked, looking back at him.
He nodded. “Yes. She’s not far.”
As they walked, something within Anders seemed to sing to the Fade. More than just his own magic, he could feel Justice reaching for the Fade. Being physically here came with a sense of peace, of renewal. As of part of him was finding its purpose again, and it made him feel more alive.
This is a good feeling, Justice asserted, and Anders had to agree. He wondered if this is what they’d needed all along to feel more whole. Justice had joined with him at such a turbulent part of his life, and they’d had to take many years to understand what that meant. There had been Kirkwall, where Justice had become more like Vengeance. Then the more peaceful years after Kirkwall, where they learned to coexist in a more stable way. Anders, though, had always carried the guilt and concern that the way he was is that caused that to come out in Justice.
Being here in the Fade, he started to understand that it may have run deeper. “Solas,” he asked, falling back slightly, “could I have a word with you?”
“Of course.” The group rearranged itself, and Anders found himself walking with Solas at the back. “Did you have something in particular you wanted to ask about?”
“After a fashion, yes. It’s about the spirit inside of me. Back in Kirkwall, the spirit… well, and I… we were very angry.” Anders winced at the understatement.
Cullen muttered something up ahead of them, picking up his pace.
Solas nodded. “Ah, I believe I see where you are going with this.”
“I’m worried that my anger may have corrupted the spirit,” he admitted. “He is a friend, and while I feel like everything is stable now, I’m worried about his future.”
Thinking for a moment, Solas tapped his chin. “Can I speak to the spirit directly?”
Anders shifted with Justice. Beyond the blue cracks that normally appeared along his skin, Anders was aware that they’d also partially taken on the form of an armored figure, as Justice took on before they merged. It shimmered around them. “Yes, you may.”
“Spirit, how did you come into our world?” Solas asked, watching him.
“It is a… long story. But suffice to say, it was not my choice. I was thrown through what you call the Veil, and found myself in the body of a dead Warden by the name of Kristoff.”
“Unwilling, you say?” Solas frowned. “That would explain that feeling of corruption you are concerned about. While it’s possible you could have picked up corruption from inhabiting a person, what is far more likely is that your trip out of the Fade may have injured you.”
“I do not become injured.”
“Not in the sense that a mortal does, no. But some spirits that are forced through the Veil become demons just based on the shock of the transition alone.”
“How can we tell?”
“It’s not something that you simply tell. However, what sounds likely is that the shock may have caused a corruption. Yet now, you both seem like you are in reasonable balance. Is that correct?”
“It is mostly so.” The blue flared up. “We do not know if the Taint plays a part, but we have a feeling like we are not whole. It has been better since we have entered the Fade.”
Solas smiled. “I am starting to gather a theory. I suspect that perhaps while your first traumatic trip through the Veil may have caused damage, an intentional exit that you are ready for could leave you in a much stronger state.”
“Such as the one we will have after rescuing Alistair.” Anders and Justice felt a swell of hope unlike anything they’d felt since waking up far away from Kirkwall.
“Precisely.” Solas reached out and clasped Justice’s arm. “I am sorry you had to go through that. Being forced through the Veil is more traumatic than any mortal can even imagine. It is not your fault that you were put through that. Perhaps we can fix this.”
Something in his tone led Anders and Justice to think that Solas directed that towards Cullen. “I would… appreciate that.” The blue faded from Anders’s skin and he tried to keep control of the surge of anticipation that went through him. Could there be a chance to even out the balance inside of them? Could it be not entirely Anders’s fault for what had happened to Justice?
“I imagine you both carry some pain over it. While we cannot undo it, we certainly can try to make it better from this point.” Solas smiled at them. “I encourage you to do what you can to calm your mind in the meantime, to prepare for a smooth exit from the Fade.”
“That could be complicated, but we’ll see.” Anders sighed, fingers grasping the worn spots on his staff. “We don’t know what pulling the Taint out will do. It could kill me.”
“Let us hope that is not the case.”
They rejoined the group, and Anders tried to even out his breathing. Could it be possible that they could really make things better? He hoped so. Glancing over at Hawke, he saw the other man gave him an encouraging smile, and he smiled back.
Anders had to survive this, because he always came back to Hawke.
Chapter 24: As Natural As Breathing
Audra changed her position to walk beside Kieran. “Thank you for coming with us, Kieran. It’s very brave.”
“It’s fine. I like the Fade. In parts.” He looked up at her, his eyes searching her face. “Mother says you love Alistair a lot.”
Her chest tightened and she nodded. “I do.” The admission sounded so plain, so insignificant compared to the feeling inside of her. She couldn’t convey what they’d gone through over the years, what they’d given up as Wardens. What they’d seen together. She smiled. “You’d be horrified at the blood we’ve wiped off each other’s faces, if I’m being honest.”
Kieran made a face. “It’s better than letting your mabari lick it.”
“Oh Maker no, I love my dog too much.” She looked around, trying to judge how far they’d walked.
“It’s not very far,” Kieran commented, tugging at the sleeve of his tunic. “I think we got lucky.”
“I hope so.” She hoped that they would encounter little resistance. The sooner they were done in the Fade, the better. She could feel the magic from the Fade humming in her, and she stretched out her fingers. It felt wrong, as if something tingled along her skin. An undercurrent of power, as if she could access something great yet terrifying.
Audra closed her hand and continued the walk through the alien landscape, seeing the occasional demon cross in the distance. She glanced at Cullen to see how he fared. Of all of them, she worried for him the most.
He kept his hand on his sword, a frown on his face. She used to call it his “Mask of Diligence.” It wasn’t much different than when he’d been a Templar at Kinloch, except he moved with a confidence that he hadn’t had back then.
She couldn’t help but notice that he flinched any time he saw a demon. He stayed at the ready, his eyes constantly sweeping over their surroundings. He went out of his way to not look at Dorian.
Sighing, she reminded herself to give them a stern talking to. If I survive this.
“Look ahead,” Dorian said, and Audra looked up to see two rage demons and a desire demon blocking the way.
“That’s where we have to go,” Kieran said, stepping back.
“Stay behind us,” Audra told him, making sure she stayed between him and the trio of demons. She cast her eyes over the group. Hawke already readied his bow, ready to slow them with shots from their current position. Cullen pulled his sword free, the steel hissing as he drew it from the scabbard. The sound skittered outward, distorted by the Fade. Blue light bloomed over Anders as Justice growled. Solas took a solid stance, his form as firm as if he were physically present with them. Dorian drew his staff and started casting.
She nodded to Hawke to start the fight, and he took careful aim, letting an arrow fly. It solidly hit the rage demon, knocking it back. Burning the arrow away, it turned towards them and charged.
The battle had begun.
* * *
Cullen rushed forward to take on the closest rage demon. Not being physically in the Fade, he had little to lose, as it was most likely a blow would simply wake him up outside of the Fade. That would, however, leave the group without his protection. He would not let that happen.
Arrows from Hawke’s bow sped past him, and he could see them hitting the other rage demon. The mages focused their attention on the rage demons and casting protection spells. The desire demon hung back, which Cullen was fine with. Of all demons, desire demons were…
He forced a breath. No, I can’t think of that now. Raising his shield, he felt one of the mages cast a protection spell on him. He didn’t know which did it, but he could feel it come over him. He pushed the uncomfortable feeling aside and rushed at the first rage demon, using his shield to keep himself from its fire.
The scar on his back where a rage demon had burned him seemed to itch in sympathy, and he gritted his teeth. This is for all of the times I could not fight back. He would fight for Alistair, this time. He swung his blade, cutting into the rage demon. Pulling his sword free, he saw the other rage demon advancing on the mages.
He couldn’t keep them both back at once, but he’d be damned if either of these demons got to the mage line. Out of the corner of his eye, a black and red streak came out of seemingly nowhere, armed with two daggers. “Not today, asshole!” Hawke barked, drawing the attention of the other rage demon.
With Hawke keeping the other rage demon busy, it let Cullen focus on fighting his current target. He let out a cry and bashed it with his shield. It staggered backwards, then a spell hit it, freezing it nearly solid. Cullen took that opportunity for what it was and slammed into it again, shattering the ice and the demon with it.
He breathed a sigh of relief and glanced over to see how Hawke was doing. The demon hit the ground, hit by electricity, and Hawke pounced, jamming both daggers into it. They had to have some kind of enchantment on them, as they froze the rage demon. Hawke leveraged a savage kick and the demon cracked apart.
Cullen looked back at the mages to see they’d started to take on the desire demon with spells at range, and he stopped for a moment, staring at the mages. Solas casted in and out of focus, he assumed because of the Fade. Audra cast in a disciplined, straightforward way, as she’d always done. Anders had turned fully blue, no doubt letting the spirit inside him help him in the fight. It would have been terrifying except for the fact that Cullen’s eyes moved to Dorian.
The mage looked past him to the demon, casting a fire spell with an ease that Cullen hadn’t seen in a mage before. He followed it up with an ice spell, his body moving like a dance, his staff an extension of his magic. His magic an extension of his very being. Each move perfect, practiced, deliberate.
In that moment, Cullen realized what he hadn’t had the opportunity to see. It wasn’t just that Dorian was a mage; it flowed through him with an unrestrained grace, a joy, a power. No hesitation, no thought. Every mage he’d seen had some kind of almost reservation about them. A fear. Fear of Templars, fear of possession, he wasn’t sure. Dorian had no fear of that, no fear of magic. Confident, and as natural to him as breathing.
It was the single most beautiful thing Cullen had seen in his life.
Cullen’s heart beat hard in his chest, and he turned towards the desire demon, knowing that they needed to make it out of this in one piece. I have to tell him that I understand now.
He exchanged a look at Hawke who nodded, and they advanced on the final demon.
The desire demon looked from one to the other as they approached. Its eyes focused on him, looking into him. “You’ve seen my kind before.”
Cullen gritted his teeth and advanced on it, ignoring the taunt. He moved in, swinging his sword. It dodged his swing and turned away from him for a moment. When it turned back, it wore Dorian’s face. It’s clothes flowed into black and gold. A smile split it’s face and he… it… moved towards him with the same movement as Dorian.
“Don’t let it fool you, Cullen,” Hawke barked at him, dodging in with his daggers.
He didn’t know if Hawke could see what he saw, but he had to fight every instinct he had to keep advancing. Hawke flashed in with his daggers and cut the demon’s arm, drawing red blood.
“How dare you!” the demon said in Dorian’s voice, knocking Hawke to the ground with its hand. Hawke rolled away and got to his feet. He’d dropped one dagger, and the demon picked it up, holding it in its hand. “How barbaric.”
It’s not him. You have to attack. Cullen felt his hand shake and he looked over his shoulder. He had to anchor himself back to the real Dorian. The mage’s eyes were wide and he shook his head.
“Cullen, don’t listen.” Dorian’s stance stood firm. “Look at me.”
“Can he give you want you want?” the demon purred, pulling Cullen’s attention back. “Will he ever be happy with you, broken as you are?”
Broken. It hurt to hear it in Dorian’s voice, Dorian’s tone. The demon wasn’t wrong. He needed Dorian, but did Dorian need him? Damaged, afraid, a mess of literal and figurative armor that he didn’t know how to take off.
“You’ve only hurt mages,” the demon continued, sickening in it’s likeness to Doran, in the way it sneered. “You know it’s true. It’s a matter of time before you have a nightmare and you lash out at him. Before you hurt him.” The demon ran it’s hands over it’s robes. “But you could have me, and you’d be everything to me.”
“Cullen,” Audra warned.
He could have killed her, during her Harrowing. Swallowing, he turned his eyes to Dorian. He expected judgment, pity, something hardened. Dorian’s face was guarded, but a concern showed on his face. A care. It made Cullen ache.
The demon was right; Cullen had nightmares. He woke up tangled in the sheets, looking to attack something, anything. He slept so solid with Dorian beside him, but when would that change? When would he snap? When would he hurt Dorian?
Dorian flung his hand up, throwing a protection spell onto him. “Behind you!”
Too late, Cullen realized the demon had advanced and was on him, one arm wrapping around it’s neck as it deflected the spell. Hawke dashed in, slashing at the demon’s arm, but his hits didn’t land.
The demon leaned in close to Cullen’s ear. “You think I don’t know what you feel for him?” it asked, breath hot on his face. “I know what you were thinking just moments ago. About me.”
“You will not take him!” a voice roared, and Cullen recognized it as Anders… but not entirely. A shockwave hit both Cullen and the demon. It didn’t hurt Cullen, but it shocked the demon into letting go. It dropped Dorian’s appearance and Cullen took the opportunity. With a roar, he turned on it and beheaded it.
He dropped his sword and shield on the ground and took a deep breath. Feeling sick, he closed his eyes. They’d know. They’d had to have heard the demon, know what he’d been thinking. How he felt. He couldn’t look at them, especially not at Dorian.
A hand rested on his shoulder and he flinched. He opened his eyes to see Hawke beside him.
“It took Dorian’s form, didn’t it?” he asked softly, and Cullen nodded.
“Was that… was that Anders that just saved me?” he asked, trying to stay focused on Hawke.
Hawke smiled. “After a fashion. That was Justice.”
Confusion filled Cullen’s mind, not understanding why Justice would protect him. “Why…”
“Because you were defending us, and Justice… well.” Hawke chuckled. “No one wants you possessed. We’ll talk when we’re out of here.”
Picking up his sword and shield, Cullen stood and they headed back to the group. Dorian had strapped his staff over his shoulder, and looked at Cullen critically as he approached. “Are you alright?”
Cullen’s hands shook, every moment the demons had tortured him echoing in his memories. He sheathed his sword. “I’m… not injured.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.” Dorian sighed, moving to stand in front of Cullen.
Cullen swallowed hard, noticing the softness in Dorian’s tone. He noticed a bit of hair out of place, and he reached up to brush it into place.
He froze, realizing that he’d not only made such a casually affectionate gesture in front of everyone, but that he’d perhaps crossed a line.
“Your armor is going to get caught in my hair.” Dorian grabbed Cullen’s arm. “Are you fine?”
“He’s asking if the demon go to you!” Anders barked, pushing between them. The blue still crackled over his skin.
He shook his head. He didn’t want to explain his mental state, nor did he want to comment on the clear implication. Anders was physically separating him from Dorian because he didn’t trust him. “I’m not possessed.”
“Are you certain?” Anders demanded.
“Of course I’m certain! As if you are one to judge. Back off.” Cullen wasn’t sure who he was speaking to. “I don’t see you asking Hawke those questions.”
Anders shook his head. “Hawke has proven his ability against demons.”
Audra stepped between them. “Enough. If he says he’s fine, he’s fine. You have to trust that.”
The blue glow intensified then died out. Anders frowned. “We’ll watch you.”
“We’ve got no time for this,” Solas noted, looking back to Kieran.
The boy had stayed back during the fight, and looked shaken. Audra put her arm around him, protective. “Are you alright?”
He nodded. “It’s scary but I’m fine.” He stood up straighter. “It’s not far. This way.” Kieran led them past the dead demons, Audra staying close to him.
Cullen took a deep breath and steadied himself, unable to shake the feeling that the worst was yet to come.
Chapter 25: Blinding Light
Audra started to recognize the landscape as they got closer, and she picked up her pace to a run as she saw the spirits from before standing guard.
You have returned, one said.
“I have.” She looked at the others. “These spirits have protected Alistair. They mean us no harm, and we will do them no harm.” Looking from spirit to spirit, she nodded, grateful. “Thank you for protecting him.”
We gave him hope.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes.” She rounded the corner and dropped to her knees next to Alistair. He looked even more pale than when she’d seen him last. Her heart felt like it was being squeezed in her chest. Her beautiful, vibrant, lively husband looked barely living. “Alistair.” Running her hands over his face, she could feel his skin under her fingers. She laid her fingers over his wrist. He felt cold, but she could feel the dim throb of his pulse. “Love, talk to me. Come on. I’ve brought you help.” She rubbed at his cold skin.
He didn’t respond and she leaned down, kissing his forehead. “I even brought you cheese so you’d know it’s me.”
His eyelids fluttered and he opened his eyes, looking up at her. “I’d know it was you anyway.” His voice was so faint.
“Does that mean you don’t want the cheese?”
Alistair tried to laugh and instead it came out as a cough. “No.”
Anders dropped to the other side of Alistair, his hands running over the injuries. Alistair groaned in pain. “Sorry, Alistair. Just trying to see what I’m up against.” He took one of Alistair’s hands in his, and placed the other on his forehead. “Hang in there, we’ve got you.”
Alistair’s eyes closed and Audra nodded to Anders. “Quickly. Please. I can’t…”
“I know.” The familiar blue glow came over his skin. “He will live, Audra, I promise.”
Audra stepped back to let him work, one hand over her mouth to cover her expression. Hawke wrapped an arm around her and she leaned into him, trying to breathe. He pulled her against him and stoked her hair. “We made it.”
She nodded against him, looking down at Anders and Alistair. The blue glow intensified, the power flowing from Anders into Alistair. She knew he could pull more power from the Fade, more than any other mage.
“Amazing,” Solas whispered in awe, and Audra closed her eyes as Anders became so bright that she worried she’d go blind. Hawke tucked his chin against her head, his arms holding her steady. She took comfort in her cousin’s reassurance and fought back the threat of tears. If anyone could do it, it was Anders, but what if Alistair was too far gone for him to heal?
The light still shone through her eyelids and she turned into Hawke, certain that they were all covering their eyes by now. Hawke held the back of her head with his hand, holding her against him. Somehow his armor was less pokey in the Fade.
“How long will it take?” Cullen asked.
“As long as it takes?” Dorian replied, a edge of acid in his tone.
Audra opened her eyes and pulled away to see Anders fall back, the glow fading from his skin. She looked from him to Alistair, then dropped back to her knees next to him, her hands moving over his wounds. There was nothing. She looked at Anders, her hand resting against Alistair’s chest armor. “How could… you healed this completely?”
Anders nodded, swaying. Hawke came to his side and sat next to him, taking his hand and raising it to his lips. Anders chuckled, smiling. “The connection to the Fade gives me more resources. I may not have been able to heal this if we weren’t here. But Justice and I-“
“Are getting laid when we get the fuck out of here,” Hawke quipped.
Cullen coughed and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Still standing here. As are the rest of us.” He glanced at Kieran.
“Oh.” Hawke sighed. “Sorry, Kieran.”
Kieran shrugged. “It’s okay.” He looked down at Alistair, getting down next to Audra. “Will he be fine?”
Audra put her hands on Alistair’s face. The cuts that had been there were gone, the skin whole. Warmth started to seep back into his skin, and while he still looked pale, his breathing evened out.
Audra smoothed Alistair’s hair. “I think so, but he’s not waking up.”
He peered at Alistair’s face and put a hand on his. “Everyone looked really hard for him not to wake up.”
“We couldn’t have done it without you.” Audra looked up at the rest of the group. “I don’t know what to do if we can’t wake him.”
“Cullen and I can manage to move him if we leave the armor behind,” Hawke volunteered.
“By the sound of it, he won’t need it much longer anyway,” Dorian noted. Cullen shot him a look. “I mean because of curing the Taint, Cullen.” He gestured. “Grey Warden armor.”
“If it works,” Solas noted. “We should get ready to carry him if we must.”
Audra leaned over Alistair and kissed him on the lips. Some warmth had returned to them, and she longed to feel him move. His breath brushed against her face and she counted her blessings. He’s alive. “Come on, love. Wake up.” She started unbuckling his ruined armor, starting with removing his chest plate and setting it aside. Her hands moved over his chest to his neck, pulling back any of his tunic that would be potentially restrictive. As she did, she brushed her fingers over his skin. It would have been so easy to have lost him, when they’re so close to having the life they’ve always wanted together. She tried to control the shaking in her hands, but found it hard to stay steady.
A hand rested on her shoulder and she looked over to see Solas standing beside her. “They’ll wait as long as is needed,” he said, gesturing to the spirits that still surrounded them.
“Thank you.” She looked around at the spirits, and at those who had risked themselves to come with her. “All of you.” She drew a deep breath. “The hard part is over. Now we just need to get out of here.”
Kieran looked up and back the way they came. “I can see Mother’s light from here. It shouldn’t be hard to get back.”
Audra nodded, resolute. “Good. We’ll give him a few minutes and if we can’t wake him, we’ll carry him.”
Please, love, she pleaded silently, running her fingers through his hair despite it being caked with blood and sweat. Please come back to me.
Chapter 26: Unfinished Business
A warmth spread through Alistair and he sunk into it gratefully. Was he dead? He didn’t hurt anymore. There’s that, at least. He laid there, hearing voices and struggling to focus on them. Audra? Was it really her? Or the spirit of hope again, trying to keep him from letting go?
He didn’t think he had much time left. He didn’t even hurt. But then again, he thought he’d heard Anders. And other voices…
Focus. He had to focus.
Distantly, he could hear Audra’s voice, and he put all of his attention on it, focusing on her words. On her.
“Come on, love. Wake up. Or I have to let Cullen and Hawke carry you out of here.”
That didn’t sound very fun. But it did sound like Audra. Alistair groaned and turned his face towards her. He couldn’t open his eyes yet, still deep in the feeling of warmth and comfort. It had to be Anders, somehow. It felt like his healing. “Can’t you carry me instead?”
Audra wrapped an arm around his chest, and he lifted a hand to rest on her arm. Her arm felt so warm. So alive. She was here. “I don’t think that would work very well.”
“But it would be funny,” Kieran added.
Kieran. His son. Alistair went still and slowly opened his eyes, blinking. He looked up at Audra and smiled, drawing a deep breath. He wanted to tell her that he could finally tell her that she was the most beautiful woman in Thedas or the Fade, but he struggled with what was happening around him. His eyes slid to Kieran and he felt something that he couldn’t explain. Perhaps it was some kind of pride, a pride he felt like he didn’t have a right to have but couldn’t stop himself from having.
“Kieran helped find you,” Audra explained. “It’s a long story. We’ll talk about it later.”
Alistair swallowed and nodded, reaching a hand out to Kieran. “Then I owe you a great debt.”
Kieran reached out and took his hand. “It’s fine. This is what you do for friends.”
Smiling, squeezed his hand. “You’re a good kid, Kieran. Your mother has done well.” He winced, thinking of Morrigan. “Don’t ever told her I told you that, though. She won’t let me live it down.”
“I won’t.” He grinned and stood up.
“Let’s see if we can get you out of here,” Dorian said, stepping forward and starting to remove the armor off his leg.
“The sooner, the better,” Cullen agreed, dropping down to help remove other pieces of armor.
Alistair made a face and shook his head. “You two aren’t my type.”
“Hush, you,” Audra said, unbuckling another piece of armor on his arm.
Dorian laughed. “Oh, I’m everyone’s type, they just don’t know it yet.”
Blushing, Cullen dropped the piece of armor he’d be holding. Alistair saw him glance at Dorian and then away. He wondered if Audra knew about that yet. Oh, who was he kidding? Of course Audra had worked that one out.
He looked up at Anders, surprised to see him here, especially given Cullen’s presence. Getting Cullen into the Fade must have been one thing, but to get him to go with Anders… A pang of something seized in his chest. They’d come here to save him. “Days like this… Anders…”
Anders dropped down next to Alistair and smiled, the soft smile of the healer that had healed him after battle more times than he could count. “Like what?”
“Days like this I’m glad my wife knows where to pick up all the good stray mages,” he croaked, reaching up to take Anders’s arm. “Thank you.”
The mage broke into a huge smile. “You’re family.” He reached up and put a hand on Alistair’s hand. “Thanks for saving Hawke the first time around.”
“For saving us all,” Dorian added, removing the last piece of armor. He patted Alistair’s leg.
“Lucky for me, I also inherited the ability to pick up stray mages,” Hawke said, putting a hand on Anders’s shoulder.
“Oh good,” Dorian added. “Zaire also has that talent. You should all go drinking and invite the mages along.”
Solas leaned over Alistair, observing. “How do you feel?”
Alistair coughed. “Like I had holes poked in me. But I’m alive. Thanks to all of you.”
Picking up Alistair’s sword and shield, Dorian looked around at the others. “Well, while this is all nice and very sentimental, we should probably get ourselves out of here.”
After all of the armor was removed, Hawke helped Alistair to his feet. “Can you walk at all?”
He lifted a foot and tried to take a step, putting the weight down on his other foot. He felt himself wobble and leaned into Hawke. “I don’t think I can do more than that.”
Cullen got on Alistair’s other side, helping to distribute the weight. “We can work with this.”
Alistair grinned. “All I need is a beautiful woman to feed me cheese and I’m-“
Audra shoved a piece of cheddar into his mouth. “Happy now?”
Cheese had never tasted so good in his life, and he chewed at it appreciatively. He didn’t think he’d ever see any of them again. His eyes drifted over to Audra, and he realized that she’d been crying. He swallowed hastily and leaned onto Hawke, taking his arm off of Cullen for a moment and reaching out towards her. She stepped to him and put her arms around him, sobbing once into him as he put his arm around her and kissed her. “Hey. I’m okay.” His fingers brushed over her hair.
“I know.” She stepped back and looked at him. “Alistair, I… I think I have a cure for the Taint. But it’s risky.” She met his gaze. The Fade made her eyes look extra blue. “I just got you back, but… this cure. It could pull the Taint out.”
His hand traced her jawline. He could read it in her face. “But it could kill us.”
She nodded, leaning into his touch. He wiped a tear off of her cheek. “I know we said if we had a chance, we’d take it. But you’re the one I’m the most worried about.”
They’d just found each other again. He wrapped his fingers around the back of her head and pulled her into a kiss. Her lips were warm, soft, and so familiar. Years together, fighting the Blight, the Archdemon, and everything since… Part of him wanted to talk her out of it. Part of him want to go home and enjoy what few years they had left, or to try again later. “If you’re taking the chance, I am. We’re in this together. Besides,” he reasoned, “what’s the chance of anything killing either of us at this point?”
She kissed his cheek. “We’ll do the spell when we get closer to the exit, then.” She looked to Kieran, stepping back. “Lead the way.”
Cullen stepped up to him and worked his way under Alistair’s arm, and they started following Kieran towards the starting point.
Something nagged at the back of Dorian’s mind, and he couldn’t put a finger on it. Was it being back here in the Fade again? The Nightmare demon’s words haunted him. I mistook you for your father.
Dorian snorted. Who would ever mistake him for his father? They were about as far away from each other as Dorian thought possible, but coming back into her, into this place where so much had been said by the demon, unnerved him. He certainly felt ready to get as far away from here as he could and never come back.
A whisper tickled at the edge of his mind, bubbling up from somewhere. He’ll never stay with you. If he survives me, he’ll find himself someone with no magic to complicate his life.
It sounded like the Nightmare demon. But it was dead.
From somewhere in the distance, Dorian heard a laugh and looked up the hill. He swore. It shouldn’t be, it couldn’t be. Dread clenched at his chest and he forced in a breath to speak. “Alistair isn’t the only one that survived. The Nightmare demon is here.”
I am. And you walked right into my trap.
Others in the group looked startled, and Dorian looked up to see the giant spider demon loom over the top of the hill and look down at them.
Cullen looked grim. “It was using him as bait
“And now it has us all,” Solas said grimly, readying his staff.
Audra turned to Hawke and Dorian as she pulled hers staff into her hands. “Hawke, Dorian, you’ve fought this. Do we run or fight?”
Hawke lifted his shoulder under Alistair’s arm. “Running isn’t an option.”
“Then we fight,” Audra said, grimly.
Cullen and Hawke tucked Alistair behind a rock, Dorian following to leave the sword and shield next to him. As they turned to rejoin the group, Dorian put a hand on Cullen’s arm. “Cullen, this demon is nasty.”
“I’ve faced demons.”
Typical Cullen. Dorian sighed. “Not like this. I’m not here to tell you how to fight. I just wanted to say…” He thought about his words for a moment before he nodded. “Be careful.”
“I’ll be fine.” Cullen reached out and took Dorian’s hand. “I have you.” A blush crept into his face. “I mean… to protect us.” He covered his face. “Oh, Maker, why do I speak?”
“Don’t ask me, I have no idea.” Dorian reached out and brushed his fingers over Cullen’s hand. “Let’s do this.”
Dorian turned back to get ready for the battle. Damn himself for not being able to leave well enough alone.
The demon reached the edge of the hill, and they could now view it fully. To Dorian’s relief, it appeared injured, dragging itself on three legs. They could outrun it, but what could it take from them in the meantime?
“Solas!” Audra called, backing up and keeping Kieran behind her. She looked desperate. “I made a promise.”
“You know this could trap you here?” he asked.
Dorian winced. “There has to be another way.”
“We have to trust that Morrigan will work it out.” Audra looked from Solas to Kieran. “I’m sorry. I can’t take the chance.”
Kieran shook his head. “No, I can stay back with Alistair, it’ll be fine.”
Alistair coughed, lifting up his arms. “Hey, Kieran. We’ll see you back at Skyhold. Maybe we can go riding. Do you like to go riding?”
“I love horses, but my mother does not ride often,” Kieran admitted, taking Alistair’s hands.
“Then we’re going to go do that.” Alistair looked up at Solas and nodded.
Kneeling down in front of Kieran, Solas softly said, “wake up”.
Kieran was gone, and they were alone in the Fade.
“Well, then,” Dorian said, readying a spell. “Let’s go kill a demon and find a way home, shall we?”
He let loose a fireball with everything he had, as the others launched into battle.