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Blood and Ashes

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“How could you be so stupid?”

 

Your fingers twitch as Anders turns a gaze part horrified and part incensed on the elf next to you. To her credit, Merrill doesn’t look afraid. She hasn’t, not since the four of you got back from Sundermount.

 

The knife rests heavily in your hands.

 

“You know, I’m beginning to think that when people call me stupid it’s just that they don’t understand what I’m talking about.” She tilts her head to the side, eyes wide. “I thought better of you.”

 

Aveline has already gone, of course - she claimed it was to sort the next week’s duty roster, but you’re pretty sure she just didn’t want to listen to several more hours of the same argument. Because they haven’t stopped, the two of them. Not on the entire, achingly long journey home.

 

You’re used to listening to people argue. Aveline and Isabela do it constantly. Carver used to argue with you at every opportunity, and you gave as good as you got. And Fenris will go off on one the moment anyone so much as thinks about magic.

 

But this is different.

 

He is not saying it to you, little bird.

 

In any other circumstance, Compassion’s voice would be soothing. You can feel her presence like static on your fingertips; the varterral wasn’t an easy fight, and her touch lingers like a memory on your own.

 

No, you think to the spirit that embraces you from the Fade, but he would, if he knew.

 

And your tingling fingers twitch again, towards the pouches on your belt full of vials he doesn’t know about. Because Merrill is right - Anders is stupid. There is a lot he doesn’t understand about blood magic.

 

Like the fact that blood is still useable for casting as long as it’s liquid. As long as it hasn’t dried, or clotted too much. It’s not as potent as a fresh sacrifice, of course, but it’s better than nothing when you’re exhausted and you have nothing left.

 

Or the fact that most of the blood mages in Kirkwall are absolute fucking idiots, because none of them bother to use their power to control blood to get it off their damn clothes.

 

You know how to, though.

 

Just like you know how to mend wounds so well that they don’t leave a trace of a scar. Your hands, your arms, should have a hundred lines on them now - lines he would have seen, if they had been there. But you’re careful.

 

So very careful.

 

“Besides, it’s irrelevant,” Anders says, his voice cutting hard into your awareness. “Hawke isn’t going to give you the knife.”

 

Not careful enough.

 

You sigh, and kick off the wall. “Actually…”

 

“No. No, you can’t be serious.” He steps towards her and grabs hold of her arm as Merrill’s face lights up with hope. “Hawke, she’ll get herself killed. Or worse.”

 

He’s holding you in the spot where you bled the last set of vials. His thumb is lying right over the patch of skin that doesn’t have a scar but should. Over the bloodstains in your armour from Aveline’s wounds, the stains you desperately want to pull out but can’t with him here.

 

“Keeper Marethari gave it to me. She made it my decision.” You wrap your fingers over his and pull them away from your arm. “But it’s not my decision to make. It’s Merrill’s.”

 

You hold the blade out, and the elf takes it as though you’ve just handed her a newborn to cradle. “Hawke, I…thank you.”

 

“But it’s -”

 

“Dangerous. Yes. Merrill knows that it is dangerous. She has told you that, repeatedly, for the past however many hours it’s been. You just haven’t listened to her.” You bring your hands to your face and rub your eyes. “Can we go home now, please? I need a bath.”

 

Your feet are in the direction of the door before you can answer. You haven’t said goodbye to Merrill, but she’s only got eyes for her eluvian anyway - a litany of thank yous are still tumbling from her lips. Deep within the core of your magic, you can feel Compassion singing for her sorrow.

 

Anders doesn’t talk to you, not on the walk back to Hightown, not over dinner, and not when he crushes you against the wall of your bedroom with a kiss that feels like it burns.

 

---

 

Maybe he started suspecting you the day that you handed Merrill the Arulin’Holm. Maybe the more Justice takes over him, the more paranoid Anders becomes. Either way, you should have known you couldn’t hide it forever.

 

“What are these, Hawke?”

 

He’s holding up your belt, pouches still attached. With the other hand he reaches into the pouch you’ve spent years trying to hide from him and pulls out a vial of blood, gazing at it with dark eyes that are starting to pale.

 

Lie to him, Compassion says, and your lips part in surprise. If he loses you now, it will break him. Lie to him, little bird.

 

You close your eyes and take a deep breath. When you open them, you look at him with a shame you don’t feel. “It’s my blood. I was - I was trying to - to create a phylactery.”

 

He stares at you. “What?”

 

“Maker, not to - I’m explaining this wrong.” You rub your face with your hands. “I want to understand how they work. To see if I can learn how to break them.”

 

That makes Anders falter, the belt slipping slightly in his hands. He places it to the side and steps towards you, brushing his thumb over your jaw. “You break them by breaking them, Hawke. You know that.”

 

You nod. “I do. But the Circles are well-defended. We can’t always get into them and just smash the place up - believe me, I would love to.” You don’t have to lie that anger into your voice. “But we can’t. And I got to thinking...what if we had another way?”

 

His thumb traces a path down to your neck as he leans his forehead against yours. “It’s blood magic.”

 

“Well,” you laugh, resting your hands on his chest, “that’s pretty hypocritical, isn't it?”

 

“Everything about the Templars is hypocritical.”

 

Glancing up, you check his eyes - golden brown, not a hint of blue. “I didn’t expect to get very far. It’s not like I have a phylactery to use as an example.”

 

Anders wraps his arm around your waist and pulls you against him. “You should have just asked me.”

 

“Because you love talking about Circle imprisonment.”

 

“Mmph.”

 

“Tell me now?”

 

Part of you is screaming inside, because you know that one day this lie - this lie that has worked - is going to come back to bite you. Compassion is there, such as she can be, doing her best to soothe the screams.

 

Most of you is just relieved, desperately grateful for a ruse that worked, as Anders pulls you over to the bench and into his lap. “It’s the phials they use,” he explains, “and how they’re preserved. Blood doesn’t keep its power forever. If it clots or dries, it’s worthless.”

 

“What do they do to the phials?”

 

“Treat them with lyrium. In the metal - a kind of enchanting. Then they use a charm to keep the glass from breaking easily, and another to stop the blood from clotting.”

 

He tells you everything he knows about phylacteries whilst you sit there, hands laced through the hair you’ve untied from his nape. He tells you about the book that the Hero of Ferelden once gave him, and everything it taught - about his phylactery and how it was destroyed - about the way they make the incisions and how the blood glows to show you it's working.

 

It’s in the lecture that you hear his voice return truly to his own, warm and soft, a low murmur just for you to hear. Anders talks about magic the way he talks about loving you. Something in that hurts and makes sense all at the same time.

 

“You know,” you whisper, when his voice finally falls away and there is just the tension of duplicity left in your heart, “I could listen to you talk about magic forever.”

 

“I - can’t give you forever, Hawke. I wish I could.”

 

The corner of your mouth turns up. He doesn’t understand - he’ll never understand. He’s not the problem. You are.

 

“Then let’s not lose now just because we can’t have forever,” you assert, shifting to straddle him in a way that is definitely because you want to make him feel something good for once.

 

Not because you’ll use any weapon to make him believe you.

 

---

 

In the end, it doesn’t matter.

 

He blows up the Chantry for the sake of people like you and your first thought is why didn’t you let me help you.

 

Everyone around you is hurling their opinion whilst the only man you have ever let yourself love is sitting on a crate. Anders was right - mages shouldn’t fall in love. They don’t get love. The people you love get made into Tranquil like Karl. They destroy sacred buildings in acts of terrorism that kill dozens.

 

If you tell the others the truth - that you would blow up a dozen Chantries if it meant that people like you were free - they will leave you, and Kirkwall isn’t safe yet with Meredith still out there.

 

The truth burns in you like his touch, like the fire of Justice’s - Vengeance’s? - control in his eyes. You stand in front of your family and want to scream at them that you save their lives by pulling power from your own blood, blood that you keep hidden in a pouch of lies.

 

You want to shake them and say: the blood mages that you know are not all blood mages. They are terrified and desperate and they will already give anything to try and save themselves. They are born of what is done to them, not of the magic that they turn to when all else is lost.

 

If they were not captives, if they were not slaves , they would be able to understand that blood is a force of life as much as of death. That it is of spirits as much as demons.

 

But you don’t tell them that; you don’t tell him that.

 

Instead you just say we need him, you say I don't agree with it, but he's part of our family, and ignore Sebastian as he storms away, vowing the very vengeance that he considers so very terrible.

 

Anders sits on the crate and stares at you, as if seeing you for the first time. It’s only when you’re ducking out of the way of a red lyrium blast from the Knight-Commander that you realise what it means.

 

He knows you’re lying. To save him.

 

The fight is hard, and terrible, and there are more than a few close calls when Merrill is caught in a corner by one of the Templars, or when Meredith blasts a column down onto you and Aveline. You are exhausted, spent. Orsino is collapsed against a railing, most of the mages are dead, and your family are all collapsed around you.

 

Meredith laughs at you - you draw all of the blood out of your pouch of lies and send it lancing towards her in a blast of spiritual energy that sunders her. No one sees, except her - and she's dead, now. Her opinion doesn't matter.

 

You call Compassion forth with all you have left and bring your family back to life, letting out sobs that Varric comes and catches against the torn armour of his shoulder. You wonder if it’s possible that it might be over, at last. If it’s time to say the things you should have said long ago, but couldn't.

 

It isn’t. Orsino is still desperate, and you are so fucking tired of people disappointing you.

 

Meredith should have been the end of it. Meredith should have been the last barrier between Kirkwall and some peace. But no, this terrible world they created for people like you is so broken that even when you’ve won, everyone is still afraid.

 

“No, no, no,” Anders garbles at your side, a litany of horror, as Orsino transforms.

 

Merrill tightens her grip on her staff. “By the Dread Wolf, that’s a -”

 

“Harvester. It’s a Harvester. Hawke, we have to destroy it.”

 

You’ve barely gotten a fraction of your mana back. There are no lyrium potions left on your belt; none in Anders’s pockets, none in Merrill’s bag. You take a deep breath. The Harvester charges.

 

“We do,” you say, switching your staff to your left hand. You might need the right. “I’m sorry.”

 

The abomination that used to be Orsino clashes against Aveline’s shield, and the rest of you fan out. Isabela vanishes in a flip and reappears behind it; Anders throws a barrier over her as she manifests, and Merrill begins doing her best to hold it still as Varric sends bolt after bolt into the mass of flesh.

 

Moving around as a group, the way you’ve done together for years, keeps Orsino at bay for longer than you expected. You start to think that maybe, just maybe, you might manage this - maybe the scant blasts of spiritual force from your staff will be enough on its own. Maybe those few elfroot potions you’ve got will be enough.

 

And then Orsino picks Aveline up and smashes her against the ground repeatedly, until there’s nothing of her body moving.

 

“Blondie, get her up!” Varric shouts, throwing a grenade to try and keep the abomination distracted.

 

Anders reaches for power that isn’t there, horror on his face. “I can’t - I can’t, I’m sorry. Hawke, you have to do it!”

 

You listen, desperately, for Compassion. Please, you beg, help me, I need you. When she says nothing, you plead with her out loud, watching as Orsino turns on Varric and begins prowling towards him. “Please, Compassion! Compassion, help me!”

 

She can’t hear you. The Fade seems so far away that you let out a sob, and draw your knife from the sheath at your hip. You can't go on without Aveline - the rest of you are sitting ducks without her. You won't be able to call Compassion from the Fade if you do this, but you can do something.

 

“Isabela,” you yell, throwing your staff to the ground. “Distract him!”

 

“I’m trying!”

 

Your fingers are shaking too much - you fumble with the buckles on your bracer, getting one loose and slicing through the leather of the other. It clatters to the ground next to your staff, louder than leather against brick should be.

 

As you pull your sleeve back, you don’t look at the rest of them. You can’t. You can sense them moving around you, doing their best to kite the creature as Isabela yells a series of insults that draw Orsino towards her.

 

The knife is sharp enough that the first cut doesn’t hurt.

 

Blood pours unnaturally fast from the slice across your inner forearm, trailing after your knife like a ripple in water, a mixture of droplets and vapour in the air. A twitch of your aching left hand and it shudders, transforming into static charges that warp the air like a heat haze.

 

Another swipe of your hand, a push of will, and the electricity leaps into the air, crashing down on Orsino in an intense tempest. The bolts send him stumbling as you make the next cut, following it up with a rush of icy cold - a third, and fire leaps up from the ground to meet the lightning of the sky.

 

There is someone next to you, you realise as you bring the blade back for another spell - a hand pressed against your spine, holding you up where your body has started to waver.

 

“I’ve got you, lethallan,” Merrill says, drawing tears from your eyes. “I’ve got you.”

 

A bolt of spirit - of lightning - a fist of rock drawn straight from the earth. You reach for the bodies around you, but there are none - Orsino has consumed them all to take this form, and the only bodies left are your friends.

 

He’s stumbling, but so is Isabela. You can see Anders just behind her, just as defenceless and lost without the glow of his own spirit. Justice is closer to him than Compassion is to you, but even he cannot hold on forever.

 

Another storm of lightning, and you feel your knees buckle. Merrill tries to catch you and fails; she tumbles to the ground with you.

 

“Hawke,” she urges, turning your head to make you look at her. “Take it from me.”

 

Your eyes widen. You never have - not from someone who’s alive, it’s different, you could kill her.

 

“Please, Hawke! If you don’t, we’ll die.”

 

Isabela screams, and you clench your unnaturally clean hand into a fist, pulling the blood from Merrill’s wounds and gathering it around you in a cloud.

 

“Orsino!” you scream, as Merrill stumbles to the ground - unconscious, you hope alive, please Andraste, let her be alive. “Come and pick on someone your own size!”

 

“Oh, Chuckles,” Varric whispers, his voice lost to the abomination’s roar.

 

Orsino charges towards you - he’s three, four, maybe five times your height, and half again as wide. But Merrill’s blood is swirling around you in a cloud, a halo of the power that is going to make everyone you love come to hate you. You whip it into a frenzy, your own blood seeping out to join it, leaving you lightheaded. But you can sense the blood in Orsino’s twisted form, dozens upon dozens of bodies full of clotting blood.

 

You bring your hands together in front of you, hand around hand around dagger, and scream everything you have into those veins. Into forcing the blood to clot and coagulate, to haemorrhage and harm.

 

He never reaches you, but everything goes black all the same.

 

---

 

“I think she’s waking up!”

 

“Hold on, kitten, don’t crowd her.”

 

“Hey, Chuckles.” Varric’s face swims into blurry view, set against too much light. “You had us scared for a moment there.”

 

“Merrill -”

 

“I’m alright, Hawke. I’m here.” There’s a gentle touch against your left hand, cool fingers running over your arm. There are scars. You have to hide the scars, you have to - “Hawke, stop. You’re hurt.”

 

You can’t reach Compassion anyway; the aura of her presence is still gone. Your mind catches up, reminding you that it’s too late anyway. There’s no need to hide them now. The world comes into painful focus, and you tilt your head to the side. Orsino’s body has congealed into a puddle of slime, and the courtyard is quiet. It won't be forever. This is Kirkwall, after all. The city you should hate, and can't.

 

“Can I sit up?”

 

Varric lifts his hand from your shoulder and slips it under instead, pulling you to a dizzy sitting position. You lean heavily against his chest, unable to voice the quip that pops into your head, distracted by the sight of your arm landing in your lap. It’s been bandaged, crudely, and the blood has stained the cotton in an ugly way.

 

You take a deep breath. “Is everyone alright?”

 

“We’re all alive, thanks to you,” says a new voice - Aveline. Your heart soars at the sight of your friend, who kneels down next to you and leans her forehead against yours before pulling away. “You look terrible.”

 

“I feel terrible,” you reply, but it’s hard to truly mean it when you can see them all around you, alive.

 

Almost all of them.

 

Deep breath, little bird.

 

Compassion?

 

I am here. I have not left you, and I never will. Here. I will help you up.

 

Warm light suffuses you from head to toe, and you hold your hands to your mouth to choke back a sob of relief. She loves you. She loves you, and you are not alone, you won’t be, no matter what happens. Varric holds you tight to his chest, and Merrill’s fingers clench around your arm, Isabela and Aveline sat sentinel by your legs.

 

“Where is he?” you ask, softly.

 

Merrill’s fingers move to brush your hair from your face. “He’s on the other side of the courtyard. He’s alive. He hasn’t said anything, since…”

 

“I - I need to get to him.”

 

“We know,” Varric says, kissing the top of your head. “Come on, let’s get you up.”

 

It takes the four of them to do it, with Compassion helping, her healing aura slowly taking the worst of the aches and pains from your weary body. The light-headedness doesn’t go away, but it’s enough. Merrill and Varric squeeze your hands and let you go as your eyes fall on the figure curled up against the railing in the far corner.

 

“Thanks. Will you -”

 

“We’ll be here, lethallan.”

 

You push the tears back against your eyes and stumble forward, legs like lead. There’s no need to make a point of going slowly when you’re barely able to walk, and the mess on the ground makes it hard work, but Compassion’s touch keeps you going. You have to do this, little bird, you have to. It will be hard and it will hurt, but you have to.

 

I know.

 

You stop ten feet or so from him, reaching out with your bandaged arm for the railing. Fainting isn’t something you want, right now.

 

“How long?” he asks, his voice startling you so much that you have to grip the metal bar tighter for support. He’s him, at least - but his voice creaks in a way that hurts more than all the cuts in your arm.

 

The truth, this time.

 

“Always.”

 

“How?”

 

You take a step closer, and he flinches - so you lower yourself down to the ground instead, and unwrap the bandages from your arm. The cuts are scars rather than wounds now. “You’re a better healer than me,” you say, tracing your fingertips over the scars. “But you were always jealous that I could heal a wound without a mark.”

 

Where your fingers draw the lines, the skin returns to perfect wholeness, freckles and all.

 

“And the vials? The ‘phylacteries’?”

 

“I couldn’t draw it fresh in front of people. We fight in the middle of the street, Anders. I kept them in a pouch and drew from them when I really needed to. No one could see, that way. I was always careful.” The charm he’d mentioned to stop clotting really helped, but it isn’t the time to mention that. It probably never will be.

 

He takes a deep breath. Two. Three. His hands shake around his knees.

 

“Are you alright?” you ask, because even Compassion cannot soothe the vice grip around your heart.

 

“I’m -” Anders shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I am, anymore. Or what you are. What we…”

 

All of the truth, little bird.

 

You take a deep breath of your own, and tell him.

 

You tell him about the book of your father’s that you weren’t supposed to read, the one that was a cautionary tale but just made you wonder. If you understood the ways of blood magic, wouldn’t that make you a better healer? If you could sense the inner workings of your patients in another way, it would help even more. Then when you found Compassion, a few months after finishing your work for Meeren, it all started to make sense.

 

You tell him about the quieter days, before Varric’s expedition, before people noticed you much. About how you’d practised on your own and how really had made you better at tending wounds. You don’t pull the punches, either - you tell him every single dream that the demons have given you to tempt you. Every time that Compassion has had to brush against your presence in the Fade and say no, little bird and every time she hasn't been able to, and it’s been far too close a call.

 

But you tell him, too, about how different blood magic is when you’re not desperate. About what you truly believe, all of the things you didn’t say when he was sitting on a crate wondering if you were going to kill him or not. You tell him everything, and you don’t look at his face when you do, don’t even hear him moving until there are arms around you and the tears drip from your chin to land on your chest.

 

“This is not forgiveness,” he says, his voice tight against your ear.

 

You let him pull you tighter, closer, until you’re half sprawled over his legs and your arms are around his chest, face lent against his. “I guess that makes us even, then.”

 

“Even, unforgivable liars?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“They will come for you tonight, you know. The next time you sleep. You opened too much of the Fade destroying it.”

 

“I know.” Your throat tightens. “It was worth it.”

 

“Was it really?”

 

“You’re alive, Anders. You are all alive. It was worth it.”

 

You’re not sure if Compassion flinches or is triumphant at the surge of vehemence that runs through you, makes your limbs shake and tighten where they hold onto him. He freezes as if in surprise, then slides a hand into the hair that you really need to cut and clenches his fist, saying nothing.

 

“I’ll need someone there,” you say, the words tumbling from you without thought. “If I go in my sleep, someone will need to kill me. Merrill will do it if I ask, I know she will, but - I would rather it was you.”

 

He laughs, which isn’t what you expected, so much so that you don’t know what to think or feel - and then his lips are brushing against yours, warm and dry and chapped from exhaustion. He kisses you like the storm you killed Orsino with, sharp and biting and striking in short bursts.

 

Broken, Compassion murmurs in your mind. Everything is broken, and he cannot lose this, he cannot lose you, little bird, but he will do this for you because he understands you now. He understands that you are the same and always have been, that you will do anything just like he will. He knows you. He sees you.

 

“I love you, Hawke,” Anders whispers, “but I don’t forgive you.”

 

“I love you, but I don’t forgive you,” you echo. You kiss the tears from his cheek. You aren’t sure if they’re yours, or his.

 

Sounds begin to creep back into your awareness, coming from beyond the courtyard. “We need to go, Hawke,” Varric calls, pulling Bianca from his shoulder.

 

“Together?”

 

Anders nods. “Together.” He helps you to his feet and kisses you one last time. “No one else would understand.”

 

He doesn’t let go of your hand - your pure, unscarred, perfectly clean hand - until you’ve made it outside Kirkwall.