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The Wrong Man

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Climbing up the ramparts with the elf, Varric eyed the ugly green mess in the sky with a look of disgust. This whole latrine-in-the-heavens-that-poured-out-demons thing had all the earmarks of a major epic, but he just wasn’t sure if he had it in him to write an odyssey of such proportions—especially when he was already referring to it as a latrine. His specialty was in the little character moments, the everyday interactions that eventually led to the turning points in the plot. But a hole in the sky? That was a completely different scope. That was world-wide chaos and heroes of a bigger scale than even the Hero of Ferelden—and that hadn’t been his story to tell. The Champion of Kirkwall was small beans compared to that—no offense, Hawke.

Shaking his head, he jumped over a broken wall and hefted Bianca as more screaming demons leapt through the rift ahead. “Out of the frying pan and into the damn fire,” he muttered under his breath.

“Hm?” Solas looked back at him in confusion.

“Forget it, Chuckles. Let’s just fight.”

The battle was well underway when reinforcements arrived, the Seeker and the prisoner they had found in the middle of the Temple of Sacred Ashes’ ashes. Varric hadn’t gotten a look at him yet, but the mage flung elemental magic with the best of them. And that mark on his hand was nearly blinding when it connected with the rift, untangling all the energies and pulling at them until they snapped back into place. It was pretty damn impressive. Varric knew instinctively that he had found the hero of his next story.

Then he turned to actually look at the man and the congratulations died on his tongue. The prisoner had stumbled when the rift closed, the effort clearly taking something out of him. Blond hair obscured his features, falling free from the tie at the back of his head, and when he looked up he froze, honey brown eyes widened as they met Varric’s. Anger sparked in Varric’s chest, catching fire so quickly that he had no chance to even try to cover his reaction.

“You,” he hissed. He had Bianca trained at the mage’s head before he had even thought to raise her.

“Varric?” The Seeker’s voice was as uncertain as he had ever heard it.

“What happened to his shackles?” Varric demanded, approaching the prisoner with cautious steps. “Lock him up, Seeker, and throw away the key.”

“What is going on?” Solas asked.

“He did it. He killed the Divine. Blowing up churches is sort of his thing.”

Anders grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut and lifting his hands palm up as if waiting to be bound. The mark on his left hand flared with sickly green light.

Cassandra peered down at Anders curiously, but she made no move to cuff him. “You know him?” she asked Varric. “I thought the Trevelyans were from Ostwick.”

“That isn’t his name.” Varric was close enough now to see the sweat beaded on Anders’ brow, the new scar on his cheekbone, the haunted look in his eyes. He didn’t care. Back in Kirkwall, he had let Anders under his skin, taken pity on him and actually called in favors to keep him safe. He had counted Anders as one of his closest friends, and then the mage had thrown it all away in the name of a cause that was more unhealthy obsession than worthy goal. His perspective had gotten so jacked by the end that Varric hardly knew how to have a conversation with the man without wanting to kick him in the head—and that would have been a truly improbable feat given their height difference. But instead of setting him straight, sitting him down and arranging an intervention, he had found other more important things to do. He’d let Anders wander off down the path of insanity without lifting a finger to stop him. He might not have lit the fuse for Anders’ bomb, but he certainly hadn’t tried to dismantle it either.

“I know you have no reason to believe me,” Anders pleaded, “but I didn’t do it.”

Varric blinked. It took him a moment before he realized Anders was talking about the explosion at the conclave. He almost laughed at the absurdity of that. Anders actually thought it might have mattered to Varric that he hadn’t blown up one building when he knew for a fact that he’d already blown up another. “Lock him up,” he repeated.

“Who is he?” the Seeker demanded.

A sad smile tugged at Anders’ chapped lips, and damn if the mage did not have the market cornered on bittersweet smiles. In spite of his anger, Varric felt a pang at the sight, remembering all the times he had let that expression cut right through his defenses. But now he looked at it and saw what it really meant. That was a martyr’s smile. Anders wanted to be a martyr so badly it hurt, but Hawke had denied him that easy death and forced him to live with his mistakes. Who was Varric to do any differently?

Lowering Bianca, Varric sighed and looked away. If he told the Seeker the truth, she would probably kill Anders on the spot, and for all they knew that mark on his hand was the only thing that could fix this broken world. Varric’s fists clenched. He didn’t like where this story was going already.

“Varric.” Cassandra wanted an answer, and she was going to find out who Anders was eventually with or without his help. He might as well get the unpleasantness out of the way now.

“My name is Anders.”

Varric looked at the mage in surprise, expecting to see his sharp chin lifted with pride, but he seemed resigned instead, shoulders slumped, hands fallen limp at his sides. He was ashamed of his identity. Good.

Cassandra’s eyes were burning now. “Anders? The mage who destroyed the chantry in Kirkwall?”

Anders swallowed. “Yes.”

“What were you doing at the conclave?”

“Not trying to blow it up, if that’s what you’re asking.”

The Seeker looked less than convinced, and Varric had to admit it was refreshing to see her ire focused on someone other than himself—especially since Anders actually deserved it.

“We don’t have time for this,” Solas interrupted suddenly. “We can discuss how we all got here after that breach is closed.” He pointed to the miasma behind them. “It’s getting worse.”

Anders started to stand, but Cassandra stopped him with her sword, pressing the blade as close to his throat as she could without breaking the skin. “How do we know we can trust you?”

“Didn’t we just have this conversation? You can’t, I guess.” His eyes flicked over to Varric but didn’t linger. “But at the moment I seem to be the only person who can close these rifts, so you can either choose to trust me or hope to find someone else who has the same ability. For what little difference it makes, I do want to help.”

The Seeker actually looked at Varric as if for confirmation.

He shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I’m not sure I ever really knew him.”

“We have to go,” Solas reminded.

“Get up,” Cassandra hissed, and Anders complied. She shoved him ahead of her, and from his wince she wasn’t being gentle. Varric thought he might be starting to like the Seeker.

Chapter Text

Anders hadn’t actually expected to wake up again, but even if he had, he would have expected to find himself in a dungeon, not a warm cabin. Blinking up at quaint wooden rafters, he shifted on the bed and tried to get his bearings. A fire flickered cheerfully across the room, and the room was so homey that he felt an ache in his gut just looking at it. He hadn’t spent a night in such luxury since… No, best not to think about that.

His head was throbbing, but the pain in his hand had faded after closing the rift. He looked down at the mark, the light still glimmering over his palm and sending occasional sparks of electricity along his nerves. Closing his hand into a fist, he startled when he heard a clatter in the doorway. An elf. He tried to calm her, but he seemed to be pretty awful at it since his words only sent her running out of the room. Grimacing, he rubbed fingers over his aching head and attempted to pull his hair back into some semblance of order. His stubble itched and he longed for a shave, but he had been given more comfort than he deserved already.

The walk to the chantry was even more surreal than his trip through the burnt out Temple of Sacred Ashes. Villagers crowded the streets hoping to get a look at him, all murmuring to each other about the Herald of Andraste. He didn’t realize they were talking about him until one of them pointed and cried, “There he is! That’s the Herald!” He could only stare in shock. Surely this wasn’t actually happening to him. The phrase “kill him with kindness” came to mind, and for the first time in his life he understood what it meant, though he knew the villagers were not intending any harm by their actions. They were just naive. They had no idea who he really was or what he had done. They should have been pointing at him and yelling “murderer,” not calling him a bloody savior. If there truly was a god, he must have a wicked sense of humor.

He walked the rest of the way in a daze. Inside the chantry, he met Chancellor Roderick’s accusations with stunned silence. He had no idea what to think or how to feel, but he couldn't blame Roderick for his assumptions. He had no answer except what he hoped was true. He and Justice had been in conflict for months, and he could hardly predict his own actions from one moment to the next. But Justice was silent now. Whatever had happened at the conclave, it had caused Justice to retreat so deeply that Anders couldn’t hear him anymore.

What he couldn't fathom was why Cassandra and Leliana defended his actions to the chancellor. Or why they kept his true identity secret. They pointedly called him Trevelyan, and acted as if he really were the hero all the peasants outside thought he was. It was only when they declared an Inquisition that things started to make sense to him. This was politics, and these two women were well acquainted with the Game. They had clearly been looking for an opportunity to break away from the Chantry, and the sheer dumb luck of the breach opening in the sky combined with his new skill had provided it to them. They simply needed a reason to rebel they could justify and a greater purpose that would rally the troops.

Once Roderick was gone, all the kindness in their eyes faded.

“Your name is now Trevelyan,” Cassandra said, jaw set with determination. “You were a mage in the Ostwick circle who never did anything extraordinary until now. Is that understood?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t trust you,” she continued. “I don’t even like you. But the Maker sent you to us for a reason. Perhaps this is your penance for the things you’ve done, and who are we to question his will? This is now bigger than any of us. The people outside have hung their hopes on you and word of what you’ve done at the Breach has already spread far and wide.”

“You’re too important now to kill,” Leliana agreed. “But we don’t have to like you in order to use you.”

Anders felt Justice finally stirring in the back of his mind, but he ignored the grumbling. All he’d ever wanted was to be free, and now he was trapped in the most gilded prison imaginable. Perhaps that was the real lesson here. No one was ever completely free. Not really. “I understand,” he said finally.

“Not a word of argument?” Cassandra arched a brow. “Not even a little rant at the injustice? Perhaps the dwarf mischaracterized you in that book of his.”

Shaking his head, Anders smiled wearily. “No. I’ve done enough arguing for a lifetime.”

The two women exchanged a skeptical glance, but he didn’t really care what they thought. He needed some fresh air. Pushing through the heavy doors, he didn’t stop until he was standing outside Haven’s front gate. Sucking in deep lungfuls of crisp mountain air, he tried to calm the panic building inside of him. The reality of his powerlessness was as crushing as the claustrophobia of the Deep Roads, but he had to endure it. He had no choice.

“Not planning on escaping, I hope.”

His blood froze in his veins the moment he heard that voice. Spinning around he found himself face to face with one of the last people he ever wanted to see again. Cullen wasn’t wearing his armor, but he didn’t need a metal breastplate or silverite sword to be a templar. The man actually had the gall to smile at Anders—probably enjoying his discomfort—though the curl of his lips had a feral quality.

“You might recall I’m rather good at tracking you down.”

“Oh, I remember,” Anders whispered. “I suppose they summoned you the moment they found out who I really was.”

“Let’s just say they were glad to have me along.”

Anders scoffed and looked away, watching the soldiers training, swords flashing brilliantly in the sun. He had seen Cullen many times in the City of Chains, but he had always assumed that the templar had forgotten him, perhaps suppressed their shared history after the hell he survived at the tower in Kinloch Hold. “I wasn’t sure you even recognized me,” he said, surprised by the hollowness in his own voice.

Cullen’s lips twisted with bitterness, drawing attention to the scar on his upper lip. “How could I fail to recognize the mage who had the gall to run away seven times?”

“You could have captured me at any time in Kirkwall. Hawke and I were barely talking at the end, so she wouldn’t have gotten in the way. What stopped you?”

Cullen lunged toward him and it took every bit of Anders’ resolve to resist backing away. Gauntlet clasped in the front of Anders’ tunic, Cullen growled in his face, “Don’t you think that lapse in judgement has tortured me every day since? You weren’t the only one who noticed Meredith’s madness, you know.”

“Then why didn’t you do anything?”

“Well, I didn’t blow up a chantry, so I guess that means I wasn’t doing anything.” He shoved Anders back a step and released him with a scowl of disgust. “There are better ways to make change happen. But I guess you don’t have that kind of patience.”

“Your patience cost innocent mages their lives, turned them into husks.”

“And your lack of patience killed innocents who had nothing to do with those mages or the horrors done to them.”

Anders bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood. He could feel Justice trying to surface in his mind, but he wasn’t ready to deal with him yet. “You’re right,” he said finally, though the words took effort to say.

Eyes widening, Cullen said, “What did you say?”

“You heard me. Taking action and being right are not the same thing. I understand that now. But someone had to do something.”

Cullen scowled as he looked away, hands clenching at his sides. “The first step you take out line… I don’t care how many people think you were sent by Andraste herself. I will kill you.”

Nodding wearily, Anders walked back into Haven. He had no response to death threats at this point. He had expected to be long dead by now anyway.

Chapter Text

Varric stared into the fire, thoughts ricocheting around inside of his head too fast for him to catch. A reflection caught his eye and he saw Solas sit down next to him, firelight casting strange shadows on his bald head. The two of them had next to nothing in common, so he was surprised to see that Chuckles had sought him out, then he remembered the apostate sleeping off a rift hangover in the cabin down the road. Of course Solas wanted to talk to him. This was likely to continue. He was the bloody author of the Champion of Kirkwall , so of course he was an expert on its most tragic character. Nevermind the fact that fiction was his genre of choice and he was prone to embellishment.

“He’s harboring a spirit,” Solas said without preamble, and Varric appreciated that at least the elf preferred not to beat around the bush.

“You noticed that, huh?”

“A spirit of Justice, I believe. But it has been inside him a long time. Years, maybe.”

“Try a decade. I take it you never read my book.”

Solas blinked at him. “I have not. Ancient histories are more to my taste.”

“You don’t say.”

Solas looked back at the fire, Varric’s sarcasm clearly sailing right over his shiny head. “If we don’t do something soon, that spirit will become a demon. Frankly, I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.”

“Don’t be so sure it hasn’t. But aside from killing him or making him Tranquil, I don’t know what we could do about it anyway. He says that he and Justice are too jumbled up at this point to ever be separated.” Picking up a stick, Varric began drawing patterns in the dirt. “Believe me, if I thought there was a way to fix him, I would have tried years ago.”

“Fix him?” Solas turned to him in surprise. “He’s not broken.”

Varric looked at him through slitted eyes.

“Well, he’s not. In fact, what he did was very admirable.”

Admirable was about the last word Varric wanted to hear applied to Anders, but Solas didn't seem to notice his annoyance. He also didn’t seem to be referring to blowing up a chantry.

“The spirit was trapped outside the fade and he took it into his body in order to save it.” Solas held out his hands as if to pantomime holding a baby. “A noble, selfless gesture, though ultimately doomed to failure. Spirits can’t exist outside the fade without eventually turning into demons. But he knew no other way to protect his friend.” The wistful half-smile on his face made Varric queasy.

“If only the spirit had been as kind to him,” he muttered.

Solas pulled away from him as if affronted. “What do you mean?”

“Listen, I know you have a blind spot where spirits are concerned, but this one took my friend away, changed him. Anders will tell you that it was his weaknesses that corrupted Justice, but from the outside it looked exactly like the reverse. Either way, his mistake ended up killing a lot of innocent people. In fact, it’s still killing them now. The mage rebellion has taken more lives than it’s saved.” Breaking the stick in half, he threw it into the fire and watched it burn.

Solas frowned. “Perhaps. Either way, we will have to deal with this at some point. I should tell the others.”

“I think they already know. Not everyone is as behind on current events as you are.”

Solas pressed a finger against his lips thoughtfully. “There still might be a way to save them both. I know a ritual that could return the spirit to the fade. It would be difficult given how long they have been coexisting, but there is a chance it would work.”

Varric chuckled humorlessly. “Good luck with that.”

“I would need your help.”

“What? Why?”

“I would need someone to keep him grounded through the process or his soul might get pulled into the fade as well.”

Varric bit the inside of his cheek in frustration. “Ask someone else.” he growled.

“This task requires someone who knows him well. You are the only one here who meets that criteria.”

Standing up, Varric began pacing in front of the fire. When he turned he saw Anders walking right toward them. The mage looked as if he had aged a decade overnight. If only he had stayed smug, if only he had kept the self-righteous gleam that had been in his eyes that horrible night in Kirkwall then Varric might have been able to hold onto his anger while looking at him. But the more that Varric looked at him now, all he could see was the broken remnants of the man he had met at the beginning, the one who spent all his time healing others, setting out bowls of milk for kittens and trying to make the world a better place. Varric hadn’t seen that man in a long time, and he didn’t want to see him now, not when looking at him made it so hard to stay angry.

Solas stood up beside Varric, watching Anders approach with a pained expression. “It will take time to collect the necessary items for the ritual. I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”

The elf walked away and the movement drew Anders’ attention, but as soon as he saw Varric, his expression fell even further. Barely looking at him, Anders walked up to the fire and sat down, bowing his head as if preparation for a blow. “Go ahead,” he said.

Puzzled, Varric crouched down to get a better look at his face. “And do what?”

“I don’t know. Whatever it is you’ve been wanting to do. Go ahead.”

Varric punched the dirt next to Anders’ knee and he flinched. “Would you stop playing the martyr? It makes me sick.”

Anders swallowed, and Varric could almost see the emotions washing over him like waves against a cliff. His back curved, his shoulders hunched and then he just crumbled, burying his face in hands with a soundless sob. This was exactly the kind of anguish that Varric had wished on him. He’d wanted Anders to suffer for what he’d done and he’d expected to feel vindicated watching it happen, but in reality it only turned his stomach.

“I don’t know what to do.” Anders’ voice was muffled by his hands and Varric had to strain to hear his words. “Everyone wants me dead, but no one more than I do. I know I wouldn’t be a martyr. I would die a villain and that’s probably what I deserve. I wanted to change the world, and I did. But change brings chaos. You can’t control the outcome.” He looked up but was still hiding behind his hands, damp cheeks glimmering in the firelight. “Justice gave me a purpose, a righteous quest. It felt so good to be free of doubt, but that kind of certainty comes with a price. I lost myself along the way.”

“What are you saying? That Justice was the one who…?”

“No.” Anders straightened, wiping at his face with his sleeve. “I can’t dodge the blame so easily. Justice and I brought out the worst in each other despite our best intentions. I don’t think I would have ever done such things without him, but I’m just as culpable as he is.”

Varric rolled his eyes and sat down beside him with a sigh. “That doesn’t exactly make me feel better.”

Anders looked at him and smiled, that little lopsided smirk that was his trademark, but it was all wistful, full of pain, and Varric just wanted to slap it off his face. “I’m sorry.”

Varric turned to stare at the fire.

“I wanted to kill myself afterward, but Justice wouldn’t let me. He said we had too much left to do. I started losing track of time and place as he began taking control more often. I don’t even know how I ended up at the conclave. I came back to myself after the explosion, and by then it was too late to do anything.”

“You really don’t remember anything about what happened?” The anger began simmering inside of Varric again as he considered the implications.

“Just fragments here and there. It’s maddening. I feel like there’s something important I should be remembering, but I just...can’t. There was someone else there. Remember the visions projected by the rift? I can’t recall that moment myself, but it’s obvious I didn’t kill the Divine. Someone else was responsible.”

“But what if Justice…”

“No! I refuse to believe we were involved.” Anders’ breaths were coming fast and shallow on the verge of hyperventilation, and Varric wondered if he had pushed him too far, if he was about to get another glimpse of the spirit inside him. He didn’t know what he would do if that happened, but he didn’t think it boded well for Anders. But eventually Anders regained control, hands trembling against his knees as he tried to slow his breathing. Varric watched him struggle and felt his anger calm again. In spite of everything, he wanted to believe him. He wanted Anders to be innocent this time.

The silence dragged on as Anders collected himself and the storyteller in him ached to fill the space with words, to find some way to lighten the tragedy, if only for a moment. He didn’t know what to say, so he just said the first thing that came to mind. “Chuckles thinks he can send Justice back into the fade.”

Looking up, Anders blinked at him in confusion. “Why would he want to? Did you ask him about it?”

“Me? No.” I don’t really care what happens to you anymore. He wanted to say it, but he couldn’t, not when he was looking at those wounded brown eyes. “He is concerned about Justice. He has a real soft spot for spirits and can’t stand to see them turn into demons.”

“I see,” Anders said quietly.

“He wanted my help.” Varric looked back at the fire. “Apparently the process could kill you.” He could feel Anders watching him, the weight of his gaze almost unbearable.

“But you would rather let me die." Anders sounded calm as if he thought that was a perfectly reasonable response. He even reached out as if to pat Varric’s arm in reassurance but pulled back when he saw Varric flinch. “It’s okay," he said softly. "I understand.”

All of Varric’s anger come back in a single instant, burning through him with the heat of one of Anders' fireball spells. “It’s not okay,” he roared, turning on the man he'd once called a friend with no idea what he was about to do. “I’m not like that. I don’t leave friends to die. Not even Bartrand brought this out in me. But you...”

Varric's hands were clenched in Anders' lapels and he had knocked the mage off balance, practically pinning him to the dirt as he screamed in his face. But Anders just looked back at him with understanding and acceptance in those damn soft eyes, lying prone in the face of his wrath without fear, and that lack of resistance made Varric want to tear him apart. But that wasn't like him either.

Forcing himself to pull away, Varric finished in a whisper. “You brought out something inside of me I didn’t know existed, something ugly I didn’t think I was capable of feeling, much less acting on.”

“I’m sorry,” Anders said again, and this time there was no smile. Anders’ face was void of emotion, and Varric wondered if this is what he would look like if he were made Tranquil. He hated it.

"I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to fix it."

"How?" Anders’ voice broke on that word.

"I don't know.” Varric scrubbed at his jaw. “But maybe that thing on your hand is the key. Do enough good and maybe it'll start to tip the scales."

Anders looked hungrily at the fire as if he wanted to crawl inside it. "I spent years in Kirkwall healing others, doing whatever I could to help the mages without causing harm. I saved so many lives. But one act of desperation wiped away all the good I’d done. How can a few good deeds now make up for anything?"

And suddenly Varric felt exhausted as if he had been running for days. Emotions were not his thing, and grudges even less so. They were against his nature and the effort of keeping one alive for even this long was tearing him up inside. But he couldn't let Anders off the hook. Not yet. "I don't know. But you'd better figure it out." Walking away, he left him there, feeling a pang in his chest for doing so, but he didn't look back.

Chapter Text

Their trip to the Hinterlands was a quiet one. That wasn't to say it was peaceful, because that couldn't be farther from the truth. They fought wild animals, rebel mages, templars and demons, and by the time they reached the crossroads, Anders was low on mana and his hand ached from all the rifts they had closed. But they'd barely talked to each other on the way, any of them. Varric refused to meet his eyes and Cassandra was too focused on their destination for small talk, though she spent enough time watching him to make his skin crawl. Solas was the only one who talked at all, but he only babbled about the things he'd seen on his journeys, talking in light, cheerful tones as if he had completely failed to notice the tension in the air.

They met with Mother Giselle and her overwhelming compassion and kindness made Anders gag. He knew that even someone as kind-hearted as her would be disgusted to know who he really was. But he kept his secret well, finding that he was starting to believe the lie of his identity, if only to keep himself from slipping up. He was Trevelyan, a hapless mage from Ostwick who had been living his life quite happily in a circle tower until he got caught in the crossfire, all because of some asshole in Kirkwall who thought he was going to change the world. Being Trevelyan was a relief—like escaping from his own life, and he’d always been a fan of running away from his problems. But the truth was that he couldn’t trick himself for very long before something would remind him. A glimpse of Varric’s glowering face. A burnt-out village filled with templars and mages fighting. The displaced refugees huddling together for warmth. He had caused all this.

But he could only contain so much angst and regret. Collecting pain and brooding over it wasn’t actually in his nature, though his behavior over the last few years might have made it seem otherwise. At one point in his life, he’d actually been an optimist, making the most of what was given and finding the loopholes when that wasn’t enough. He couldn’t go on this way. If death wasn’t an option, then he was going to have to find a way to live.

Cassandra directed them to take a break after their latest delivery of clothing and supplies to the refugees. She wandered off to talk to the soldier in charge of the camp, and the rest of them dispersed. Anders was tempted to follow Varric but wasn’t feeling bold enough for another conversation with the dwarf, not after the way their last one had gone. He saw Solas perusing the items at a merchant’s table and decided to join him.

The merchant was surprisingly well-stocked considering the chaos, enough so that Anders suspected he was not be the original owner of most of his inventory but simply the one who had found the items. Some of them were unusual, including the one that had caught Solas’ eye, an intricate statue of a wolf carved from pale wood.

“How much for this one?” Solas asked, turning the object over in his hands.

The merchant leaned over to look. “That one? Two hundred gold.”

“Surely you jest. I wouldn’t pay more than fifty.”

“Do you see how old that artifact is? Two hundred would be a steal.”

The two haggled a bit more, and eventually Solas talked him down to a reasonable price. Tucking the statue into a pouch, Solas turned to Anders. “Herald. Did you need something?”

“No,” Anders answered quickly. “Just browsing.” He followed Solas back toward the center of the crossroads. “That statue you purchased. It’s Dalish, isn’t it?”

“It is.” Solas smiled fondly. “Before you ask, I am not one of the People. But I appreciate their handiwork.”

“You are from one of the cities, then?”

“No. I’m not so easy to put into a category.”

“I didn’t—I mean, I wasn’t…”

Smiling, Solas held up a hand to stop him. “Please, Herald, I took no offense. I grew up in a small village, but I have spent most of my life traveling on my own.”

“That must be lonely.”

“Not at all. I have many friends in the spirit realm.” He looked up at Anders as if waiting for him to offer something about himself in return.

Anders swallowed and looked away from the elf’s expectant gaze. “Varric told me about your conversation. I know you’re aware of Justice.”

“I am. He must be a good friend.”

Wincing, Anders tried to think of a way to respond that wouldn’t sound selfish. “He was. I don’t know that I recognize him much anymore. But, I suppose I don’t recognize myself much anymore either.”

“I am amazed that you have coexisted together for so long. Such a thing should not be possible, yet here you are.”

Anders nodded, picking his next words carefully. “Varric said you wanted to send Justice back into the Fade.”

Solas’ eyebrows lifted. “It is not a matter of desire, but necessity. He cannot remain here forever without consequence.”

“Oh, the consequences have been happening for some time, I’m afraid. But I have a hard time imagining that we could ever be separated again. We are too intertwined.”

“It would take careful, diligent work, but I believe it’s possible. There would be considerable risk to the endeavor, but no more than you are already risking every day he remains here.”

Mouth suddenly parched, either from fear or anticipation, Anders licked his lips and looked down at his boots. “I need time to consider this. I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone else.”

“As you wish.”

“Thank you.”

He nearly jumped out of his skin when Cassandra joined them on the path. Pointing ahead, she said, "The horse master lives on a farm to the west. We need to get moving if we're going to reach him before nightfall." She took the lead and Solas fell in behind her. Anders followed at a distance, needing some space to think.

He didn't realize that Varric had hung back with him until the dwarf cleared his throat. "You've done a lot of good today," he said, and Anders peered at him in surprise. "Even with the rebel mages. I thought you would hesitate at their camp, but you didn't."

Anders took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "It was necessary. Those mages used the rebellion as an excuse to do whatever they wanted, and innocent bystanders got caught in the middle. I know something about that sort of mistake."

Looking up, Varric studied him long enough that he tripped over a rock. Cursing under his breath, he caught himself against a tree and had to jog to catch up. Anders looked back to see if he was all right, but the dwarf waved him off. "You know me and nature. We're not mortal enemies, but we're not exactly allies either."

Anders nodded, remembering other walks through the woods long ago, other conversations, and aching for the easy friendship they had once had. "I'm curious,” he said, keeping his voice light, “what kind of elaborate punishments did you come up with for me?"

Varric looked at him in confusion and dismay, and for a moment he wondered if the dwarf had forgotten the game they often played in Kirkwall. They had brainstormed elaborate punishments for all of their adversaries over the years, though they’d never actually acted on any of them.

When he remained silent, Anders asked, "Boiling in oil? No, you always thought that one was too prosaic.”

A glimmer of recognition flashed in Varric’s eyes and his expression softened—not much, but a little, and that was better than nothing.

Encouraged, Anders continued, “How about stringing me up in the Gallows next to Meredith’s statue? Or delivering me to Starkhaven with a great big bow on my head? Sebastien would be more than happy to see me, I’m sure. He did vow revenge, after all. No, I know! Find the darkest, loneliest pit in the deep roads and leave me in it to starve or go mad, whichever comes first." He sucked in a breath, trying not to panic as Varric continued looking at him with something like horror in his eyes. "Come on, Varric. Surely you have a suggestion.”

“I don’t know. You've clearly been thinking about this enough for both of us.” The weariness in his tone was painful to hear, and Anders realized he had misstepped. Again.

Slumping, Anders fell silent, wishing he hadn't tried to push things. Just because Varric was talking to him again didn't mean he was any less angry.

“Okay, I’ve got one,” Varric said suddenly. “Locked in a glass cage in a room full of kittens, able to only see and not touch.”

Anders smiled. “Good one! But a bit too kind. You should blindfold me so I can only hear them. Or you could just stick them in the box with me and slowly fill it with water so they claw me to death. Death by kitten. It sounds almost pleasant."

“You always were better at this game than I was." Varric placed a hand lightly on his arm, the tiniest of smiles tugging at his lips, but even that was enough. “And you might actually be better at punishing yourself than anyone else could be, Blondie.”

Anders felt warmth blossom in his chest at the sound of his old pet name, though he wasn’t sure how to take Varric’s statement. He was afraid to read too much into it, but he felt relieved just the same.

"Rift!" Cassandra called back to them over her shoulder, sickly green light reflecting off her armor. And then they were off, fighting more demons and closing another rift. The Hinterlands were beginning to feel like one long chore.

Chapter Text

Val Royeaux was even more pretentious than Varric had expected, and he'd expected quite a bit of pretense. The streets were literally gilded, ten times more manicured than Hightown, and the people were exquisitely dressed in finery and masks, glittering as if it were a feastday instead of just another random Tuesday. Even the graffiti was witty! Varric groaned. The whole charade made his head spin—or maybe that had more to do with how often he was rolling his eyes—and they hadn’t even gotten to the chantry yet. Things were likely to only go downhill from there.

Looking over at Anders just to have something to look at that wouldn't give him a headache, Varric tried to judge how well the mage was holding up under all the stress. He didn't like what he saw: slumped shoulders, clenched jaw and lips fixed in a frown. The Seeker had given Anders an earful before they entered the city, and the lecture had been blunt enough that it made even Varric feel uncomfortable. Cassandra didn’t want Anders interacting with anyone. She was to be in charge of all conversations with chantry representatives, nobles or anyone else of import who crossed their path, and he was to keep his reactions to himself. She had even wanted to make him wear a mask, fearing that someone might recognize him, but he had assured her that he had never been to Orlais before, and it was doubtful that anyone else he knew would be in the city.

Varric couldn’t figure out where her sudden paranoia had come from—they had been wandering across half of Ferelden without such precautions, after all—but maybe it was just anxiety about their meeting with the chantry. If the Herald’s presence hadn’t been required for this particular operation, he suspected she would have been happier to just leave Anders back in Haven. And now everyone got to be unhappy about it together. But it was the silence that was killing him. Walking down the perfect streets was bad enough without doing it with a group of silent companions. He ached for the days when he would wander around Kirkwall with Hawke and the strays she had collected over the years, laughing, arguing and just generally being a public nuisance. He would have even preferred a little spat with choirboy over this eternal silence.

Looking up at Anders, Varric recalled the easy banter they had once shared and decided that grudges were simply more work than they were worth if they made a person just as miserable as the one they were trying to punish. “Hey Blondie,” he said lightly, deciding to take a chance. "Did you see the mask on that noblewoman back there? It practically covered her entire head! Do you think she's really that ugly or just that bad at hiding her reactions?"

A glimmer of humor flickered to life in Anders' eyes. He opened his mouth to respond, but the Seeker’s glare made him snap it shut again. Swallowing, he gave Varric an apologetic look and then went back to looking despondent. The Seeker might actually be even more of a buzzkill than Justice. Sighing in frustration, Varric resigned himself to the silence.

Eventually they entered the market, the place where Leliana’s agent had warned them that the templars would be waiting, and he actually welcomed all the shouting and noise simply for the contrast it provided. A chantry mother stood on a dais speaking to the crowd. When she saw them approaching, she shifted her attention to Anders.

“Behold the so-called Herald of Andraste claiming to rise where our beloved fell. We say this is a false prophet. The maker would send no mage in our hour of need!”

Cassandra stepped in front of Anders, though it was questionable whether the gesture was intended as a way to protect him or keep him silent. “The Inquisition is not your enemy. We seek only to end this madness before it is too late.”

“It’s already too late,” the Mother protested, gesturing to a group of templars approaching the podium. “The templars have returned to the chantry. They will face this ‘Inquisition’ and the people will be safe once more.”

Then the strangest thing happened. One of the templars punched the Mother in the face. Another templar stopped him, an older man who was wearing the symbol of the Seekers on his armor, but he didn’t exactly seem angry about the incident. The crowd shifted impatiently around them, and Varric took a step closer to Anders, fingers itching to reach for Bianca.

“You’re not here to deal with the Inquisition?” someone in the crowd demanded.

The Seeker on the podium looked out across the crowd with an acidic smirk. “As if there were any reason to.”

“Lord Seeker Lucius,” Cassandra spoke up. “It’s imperative that we speak with…”

“You will not address me.”

“Lord Seeker?” Varric didn’t think he had ever seen Cassandra so out of her element. She looked almost childlike in her shock.

“Creating a heretical movement,” Lucius continued, stepping off the podium toward her. “Raising up a puppet as Andraste’s prophet. You should be ashamed. You should all be ashamed. The templars failed no one when they left the chantry to purge the mages. You are the ones who have failed, you who leash our righteous swords with doubt and fear!”

Varric noticed then that Anders’ breathing had gone ragged, and he turned to look at him just as the mage squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head in concentration, the faintest flickers of blue light sparking from behind his eyelids and streaking under his skin. Panic hit Varric like a kick in the gut. Gripping Anders’ arm, he hissed, “Keep it together, Blondie.”

Anders nodded emphatically, but didn’t say a word, too focused on his internal battle to respond. Standing on his other side, Solas touched a hand lightly to Anders’ temple, murmuring something under his breath. Whatever that was about, it seemed to help because Varric immediately felt Anders begin to relax, his breathing slowing to a more normal pace. Stroking a hand over his back reassuringly, Varric looked around to see if anyone else had noticed Anders’ close call. Luckily, they were all too focused on the argument between the two Seekers to notice much else.

“I will make the templar order a power that stands alone against the void,” Lucius snarled in Cassandra’s face. “We deserve recognition. Independence. You have shown me nothing. And the Inquisition less than nothing.” Taking a step back, he shouted to his men. “Templars, Val Royeaux is unworthy of our protection. We march.”

When he was gone, Cassandra spun back around to face them, features lit with righteous indignation. “Has Lord Seeker Lucius gone mad?”

Trying to distract from Anders’ current state, Varric stepped in front of him and nodded in the direction of the retreating templars. “He's a charming fellow. Do you think he can be reasoned with?”

Cassandra frowned, following his gaze. “I hope so. If not him, then there are surely others in the order who feel differently.” Nearly vibrating with frustration, she went over to talk to the Mother who had confronted them before.

Varric turned back to Anders and was relieved to see him looking much more like himself, though he looked as tired as if he had just finished running laps around the market.

“This cannot continue,” Solas said quietly.

“He caught me off guard,” Anders argued, voice thready and deep. “He’s been so quiet since the conclave. I wasn’t prepared.”

“And preparation would have prevented the danger? We must do something soon.”

“I just need a little more time.”

Shaking his head, Varric turned away. He had gotten tired of hearing Anders defend Justice too long ago to bother listening to his flimsy excuses now.

The Seeker stalked back over to them when she had finished arguing with the Mother. “We should return to Haven.”

Varric couldn’t agree more, but they weren’t able to walk even a block before another interested party interrupted them. When the Seeker greeted her as Grand Enchanter Fiona, the leader of the mage rebellion, Varric immediately looked at Anders afraid that they might already knew each other, but Anders seemed curious rather than concerned. That wasn’t entirely surprising. From what rumors Varric had collected after Kirkwall, Anders had actually spent very little time with the rebellion. His status as a wanted man made any mages traveling with him a target, and many of them resented his actions in the first place.

“I wanted to see this fabled Herald of Andraste with my own eyes,” Fiona said, peering around Cassandra to get a better look at Anders. “You’re him, aren’t you? The Herald?”

“I am.” Anders replied, ignoring Cassandra’s look of warning. Varric could feel the tension humming in the Seeker even from a few steps away.

Squinting at him, Fiona frowned in concentration. “You look so familiar.”

“I don’t believe we’ve ever met, Grand Enchanter,” Anders said, appearing to be entirely relaxed, though Varric caught the twitch of his fingers at his sides.

Suddenly Fiona’s eyes widened. “Maker’s breath. You’re Anders!”

Cassandra stiffened, but Anders’ expression was a perfect reproduction of innocent confusion. “No...I’m afraid I’ve never even been to the Anderfels. I’m from Ostwick.”

“No…no, I meant…” Fiona stuttered uncertainly.

Anders gasped. “Oh! You mean the Anders? The one who blew up that chantry?” He actually managed a blush, and Varric was beyond impressed; Blondie could be a damn good actor when he put his mind to it. “I didn’t know he looked anything like me. My name’s Trevelyan. Sorry to disappoint.”

“No,” Fiona replied, shaking her head slightly. “I’m sorry. I was mistaken.”

“What was it you wanted, Grand Enchanter?” Cassandra asked bluntly, stepping between her and Anders to prevent further distraction.

“I overheard your argument with the Lord Seeker,” Fiona replied. “If it’s help with the breach that you seek, the mages could be of great use to you. You should come to Redcliff. An alliance could help us both.”

Varric watched Anders take all this in, seeing the frustration in his eyes at having to listen to the conversation without participating. After a bit more discussion, Fiona and Cassandra exchanged pleasantries and the Seeker led them away. Anders barely even glanced at the Grand Enchanter as they passed her, his expression set with resignation. This could not go on forever. Anders was too proud to let the Seeker push him around like this indefinitely, especially when he knew how badly the Inquisition needed him. He had been killing himself for weeks, working tirelessly on the Inquisition’s behalf, and while Varric knew Anders saw the work as penance of a sort—with good reason—he would not take being silenced well. And Varric didn’t want to witness whatever happened when Anders finally lost his patience. It was bound to be ugly.

Looking back over her shoulder once they were out of earshot, Cassandra pinned Anders with an angry glare. “I knew we should have covered your head with a sack.”

“Hey,” Varric said before Anders could snap back at her. “I thought he did a marvelous job. Ever thought of auditioning for Orlesian theatre, Blondie? You’d steal the show.”

Cassandra’s sigh was expansive. “I just hate all these lies.”

“Then you shouldn’t have asked me to tell them,” Anders retorted. “You’re the one who has a problem with who I am.”

“Many people already believe you’re responsible for Justinia’s death. Do you know what they would do to you if they knew your true identity? We need you alive.”

“Alive and silent, apparently. You might as well go ahead and make me tranquil now.”

“Don’t tempt me, mage!”

Varric tried to interrupt, but his protests went unnoticed. He was suddenly missing all the silence he had been hating after their arrival in Val Royeaux, and he suspected he was going to keep missing it all the way back to Haven.

Chapter Text

Anders had been to Redcliff once before. It had been on his second escape attempt—or had it been his third? He couldn’t remember anymore. Regardless, he had spent an enjoyable night at the tavern with a luscious barmaid before the templars caught up to him and dragged him back to the tower. He couldn’t remember her name anymore. Bertha? Bella? Something like that. It was a pleasant memory, one of the few from his days in the circle.

Justice didn’t like the memory. Though he was all but incoherent at this point, Justice’s intentions were obvious; he wanted to make Anders feel guilty for even considering something so lascivious and self-serving when there were mages to protect. But Anders was not in the mood for more guilt. He’d had enough of it for a lifetime. Still, the constant barrage of emotion was wearing him down. Ever since their encounter with the templars in Val Royeaux, the spirit had been so active and vocal that Anders was fighting a constant headache just from trying to keep their thoughts from bleeding together entirely.

Their reason for coming to Redcliff had helped a little bit, though Justice was starting to get impatient with the length of the journey. Anders was just glad that the others had agreed to make it in the first place. After days of argument, he had managed to convince them to talk to the mages, though Cassandra had insisted on being in charge of the negotiations. He suspected she was only making a token effort toward being impartial, but he would make the most of the opportunity regardless.

Not that she was making things easy. Cassandra had made a point of not including anyone who might be sympathetic to Anders’ cause, choosing some of their newest recruits to accompany them instead. Vivienne had been an obvious choice since everyone knew that the First Enchanter made Anders’ skin crawl. The fact that Vivienne hadn’t been fooled by his fake identity for more than a day only made things worse since she liked to make critiques about his failures as often as she could think of new ways to be spiteful—which turned out to be almost all the time.

Then there was Blackwall. The Grey Warden irritated Anders almost as much as the Madame de Fer, but for entirely different reasons. He was a fraud. Anders had sensed that much as soon as they met. If Blackwall had been what he was claiming to be, Anders would have sensed the taint within him, but he couldn’t feel a thing. Granted, he hadn’t been around another warden in a long time and he had fewer darkspawn nightmares than he used to have, but he didn’t think that sort of sense was something he would ever be able to lose. He didn’t know why he hadn’t said anything, but he suspected that his intentions were less than noble; keeping this little secret to himself gave him something that was his own, one little piece of control that the others couldn’t flaunt over him.

Vivienne sighed loudly, interrupting his thoughts. “This is a waste of time,” she said. Shaking dirt from one shiny boot, she looked critically at the village down the road. “These mages should be left to enjoy their glorious freedom while starving to death out here in the dirt and dog shit.” He was always amazed that she could speak with such refinement one moment and then throw in a vulgar word the next; he suspected she did it on purpose to catch people off guard.

Gritting his teeth, Anders felt Justice clawing at his mind in an attempt to be heard; though he was tired of trying to think past Justice’s constant complaints, he took comfort in the fact that he wasn’t the only one who found Vivienne to be irritating.

“Everything all right, dear?” she asked him sweetly. “You look like you just bit into something sour.”

“You shouldn’t antagonize him,” Blackwall said, coming to his rescue for some bizarre reason.

“Whyever not?” Vivienne waved her hand at Anders dismissively. “You do know what he’s done, don’t you?”

Scowling, Blackwall looked away. “We’ve all done things we’re not proud of.”

Vivienne huffed. “Well I haven’t.”

“We are getting close,” Cassandra said. “Let’s keep the chatter to a minimum.”

A mage greeted them at the entrance to the village to tell them the news that Magister Alexius was now in charge of the mage rebellion. “He’s expected shortly. You can speak with the former Grand Enchanter in the meantime.”

“Magister?” Vivienne remarked. “Isn’t that interesting?”

Cassandra frowned, looking pointedly at Anders. “I don’t like this.”

“You already didn’t like this,” he pointed out, walking faster in order to overtake her on the path. He was sick of following, and the truth was that he agreed with her this time, which only made everything worse.

“Slow down,” she said, grabbing his arm to enforce the order. “We should walk in together.”

“Right. To show them how united we are,” he scoffed.

Yanking on his arm, she pulled him to a stop and looked up at him with a furrowed brow. “Why must you be so difficult? We are here because of you, because you pushed and pushed until you finally got your way, and yet you have been disagreeable from the moment we set out. I’d be happy to turn around and head back to Haven right now if you'd rather not be here.”

Anders could think of a dozen ways to respond to Cassandra’s threat to “turn this Inquisition around and go home,” but he refused to rise to the bait. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said instead, jaw aching with the effort of keeping his annoyance restrained.

Vivenne smirked and made a false effort to hide her smile behind her hand. “Someone’s missing their pet dwarf, I think.”

“Pet dwarf?” Blackwall echoed blankly. “I don’t get it.”

“Varric. He and the Herald are thick as thieves from what I hear.”

Cassandra’s expression soured and Anders looked away. He didn’t know how Vivienne always managed to find the chinks in his armor, especially when most of them were weakness he hadn’t even been aware of until she prodded at them, but she was right. He was missing Varric. Though things between them were still strained, he knew Varric would have been able to defuse the tensions among their group with only a few choice words. Between the strain of Justice interfering with his thoughts and his lack of control over the situation, Anders could have used the dwarf’s unique brand of levity at the moment.

“There’s the tavern,” Cassandra said with a sigh, nodding at a building a little farther down the street. “Let’s ‘get this over with,’ as you say.”

He could feel the wrongness in the room the moment they walked through the door, though he had no concrete reason to think something was wrong. The mages were skittish and uncertain, and Fiona seemed puzzled even as she welcomed them. She was friendly enough in her greeting, but froze when she noticed Anders.

“You...You're him, aren’t you? You’re Anders.”

Anders exchanged an uneasy glance with Cassandra. “I thought we’d resolved this in Val Royeaux. My name is Trevelyan.”

A wrinkle formed between Fiona’s brows. “Val Royeaux? I haven’t been there since before the conclave.”

Vivienne laughed. “Fiona, dear, your dementia is showing.”

“We saw you in Val Royeaux,” Cassandra insisted. “You invited us to come here. You really don’t remember?”

Shaking her head, Fiona said thoughtfully, “I suppose it could be magic at work, but why would anyone…?” Dismissing the thought, she continued, “Whoever...or whatever brought you here, I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you. The free mages have already….pledged themselves to the service of the Tevinter Imperium.”

“What?” The startled look on all of the mages’ faces said that Anders had been a bit too frank in his reaction, but he honestly couldn’t think of anything better to say, so when they remained silent, he repeated it. “What? That’s…”

“So typical,” Vivienne finished for him. “And here I thought you wanted freedom. Apparently all you wanted was the freedom to choose your own cage.”

Justice was screaming in Anders’ ears at this point, so loudly that he actually raised a hand to one ear before he remembered that the sound was inside his head. Backing away instinctively from the others, he tried to piece together what Fiona was saying by reading her lips—excuses of some sort—but he couldn’t hear them over Justice’s outrage. He bumped into a table and stopped, focusing on his breathing in order to keep control, but black spots kept eating away at his vision.

A door opened and shut and he jumped, watching as an older man walked into the tavern and greeted them all with a greasy smile. Anders only caught the man’s last name past the roar of anger in his ears: Alexius. He felt a shiver of revulsion run through his body. He recognized the style of the man’s clothing as Tevinter, and though he had often dreamed of what it would be like to be a free mage in Tevinter, looking at this man only reminded him of Fenris and the horrid magister who had kept the elf captive. Though he and Fenris had rarely agreed on anything, the elf's stories of slavery had shattered his illusions that Tevinter might not actually be as bad as everyone said it was. And he certainly hadn’t sacrificed so much for the mages' freedom only to have them end up as slaves.

Alexius turned to look at him then, a hungry expression on his weathered features. “You are the survivor, yes? The one from the fade? Interesting.”

Clenching his hands so tightly that he felt his fingernails break skin, Anders stared back at him mutely, unable to even find his voice. Cassandra eagerly took over the conversation in his stead and he gave up trying to follow it, his focus narrowing entirely to the battle taking place in his own mind. He found himself wishing desperately for Varric, or even Solas, to keep him grounded, but he had only his own will, which was waning rapidly. Words filtered through the chaos, disjointed and nonsensical: Arl of Redcliff left the village...didn’t want an incident...close the breach...my son, Felix...ambitious indeed.

“What is happening to you?”

Anders opened his eyes only to see a flash of violently blue light. Shuddering, he pushed back Justice’s onslaught and managed to clear his vision enough to see Blackwall standing beside him. Reaching out, he found Blackwall’s arm and clutched at it like a drowning man grabs at a piece of flotsam to stay afloat, and simply having a connection to someone helped. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he pushed Justice back into the cage he had started building within his mind. It felt wrong, but he had no choice. He couldn’t let Justice hurt anyone else.

Nearly collapsing with exhaustion when he was finished, he released Blackwall and leaned against the nearest surface he could find. “Sorry,” he whispered.

A door slammed, and Anders looked up to see that the mages were all gone. His heart fell. This had been the one chance he had to convince the Inquisition to side with the mages and he had wasted it.

Vivienne and Cassandra stood at the center of the room peering down at a piece of paper. “You are in danger,” Vivienne read aloud. “It’s not exactly a revelation, is it?”

Crumpling the paper in a fist, Cassandra sighed. “Redcliff in the hands of a magister. This cannot stand.”

“Are we going to the chantry, then?” Vivienne asked.

“Yes. We need to get to the bottom of this.”

When Vivienne followed her out the door, Anders sighed. “I missed something important, didn’t I?”

Blackwall shrugged. “Are you going to tell me what that little episode was about?”

“I’d rather not.”

Pursing his lips, Blackwall looked at the door. “We’d probably better follow them.”

Anders nodded.

The fresh air helped him to shake off his terror, and he was strangely relieved when they discovered a rift waiting for them inside the chantry. He could use a real fight at the moment, and the charming mage who grinned at them as soon as they stepped through the door didn’t hurt either. Anders attacked the demons with extra vigor, a little disappointed when he saw that the rift was falling apart so quickly. Raising his hand, he tugged on the energies within the rift and stared into the blinding light long enough for it to leave after images in his vision once the rift was closed.

“Fascinating. How does that work, exactly?” Taking his hand to look at it, the handsome mage leaned close enough for Anders to get a good whiff of his cologne. He smelled good—unbelievably good, like exotic spices and pure masculinity—but Anders didn't need Justice’s disapproval of his interest to know it was a bad idea. Still, he couldn't help the bit of longing he felt when the mage looked up at him with eyes that glittered in the firelight. “You don’t even know, do you? You just wiggle your fingers and boom! The rift closes.”

“Who are you?” Cassandra demanded before Anders could think of anything intelligent to say.

“Ah. Getting ahead of myself again, I see. Dorian of House Pavus, most recently of Minrathous. How do you do?” The mage's voice rang out in the chantry with theatrical poise.

“Let one Tevinter in,” Vivienne sighed, “and suddenly they’re scurrying out of all the walls like roaches.”

“Now, now,” Dorian said, taking Vivienne’s comment in stride. “I’m ever so much more handsome than a cockroach.”

“Just tell us what’s going on,” Cassandra said impatiently.

Dorian explained, and even Anders had to raise an eyebrow before his story was done.

“Time magic?” he asked incredulously. “That’s just an apprentice’s daydream.”

“And I helped to develop it when I was Alexius’ apprentice. It was still pure theory, then. Alexius could never get it to work. Clearly something has changed. What I don’t understand is why he is doing it. Ripping time to shreds just to gain a few hundred lackeys?”

“He didn’t do it for them.” They all turned at the sound of the new voice.

“Took you long enough,” Dorian said to the young man who had just joined them in the chantry.

Anders didn’t recognize him, but everyone else seemed to. He quickly pieced together that the man was Alexius’ son and that he wasn’t very happy with his father’s activities. Apparently Alexius had joined some kind of cult—Tevinter supremacists who called themselves the Venatori—and Alexius had done all of this just to get at the Herald of Andraste. Anders was starting to think that being the center of the story was overrated.

As they dispersed, Dorian vowed to help them take down Alexius, and Anders could tell he wasn't the only one feeling a bit troubled by the prospect. At least this whole scenario seemed to have changed Cassandra's perspective a little bit. She might actually be in support of siding with the mages if it meant keeping a Tevinter magister out of Ferelden politics.

Regardless, Anders was actually relieved to be returning to Haven. Justice had quieted enough to let him hear half of his own thoughts now, but the constant battle for control was exhausting. He didn't want to admit it, but he was starting to wonder if Solas was right. He didn't know how much longer he could go on like this before he ended up where he had been in Kirkwall. And he couldn’t let that happen again.

Chapter Text

Putting her sword away, Cassandra decided she had trained enough for one day. The sun was lighting the mountains on fire as it dropped toward the horizon and a chill breeze was blowing off the frozen lake making her shiver in spite of her thick leather tunic. Stretching out her arms, she looked at the soldiers sparring with a satisfied smile. The Inquisition was growing. She wasn’t sure she liked all the ways in which it was growing, but a movement like this tended to take on a life of its own after a while. Many people were drawn in by its pull, and she couldn’t be too picky about who volunteered.

"He's staring at you again," Cullen warned, and she didn't need to look to know who he was talking about. She could feel the qunari's eyes on her as easily as she felt the wind whipping at her coat.

"Are you sure he's not looking at you?" she asked with a wan smile.

Cullen cringed, a blush blooming over his pale skin. "Don't say that. I thought I'd made myself extremely clear after the last time."

Shrugging, she said, "Perhaps Iron Bull is simply as stubborn as his namesake."

Despite her teasing, she knew the qunari was focused on her this time—she had excellent peripheral vision—but his mercenary band was useful enough to their cause for her to overlook a little harassment. Pointedly ignoring Iron Bull, she noticed movement down the road by the smithy and turned to look. Blackwall and Solas were having a heated discussion as they walked toward the Grey Warden's cabin. She had no idea what the two of them would have to talk about, but the sight immediately made her worry.

Something about Blackwall simply felt off, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. His claims that the wardens were less organized when there was no Blight were convincing enough, but she still wondered at the fact that he had been off on his own without any communication with his fellow wardens at a time when the rest of the wardens had disappeared. It was just too convenient. But Leliana was often lecturing her on the dangers of paranoia—and she was their Spymaster. If anyone knew when to be suspicious and when to let sleeping dogs lie, it was Leliana. Cassandra knew she should have more faith.

“I wonder what that’s all about,” Cullen said, following her gaze.

As they watched, Blackwall broke off the discussion and went back into his cabin. Expression more solemn than usual, Solas turned to walk away.

“It is curious,” Cassandra commented.

“Looks like trouble,” Cullen said, but then one of his soldiers waved to get his attention and he walked away.

Shrugging, Cassandra headed for the gates of the village. She didn’t realize that Solas was following her until she reached the top of the stairs.

“Seeker,” he said when he got closer. “I need to speak with you.”

“What is it?”

“It’s about the Herald. Has he spoken to you yet?”

She didn’t like the sound of that, but she tried to keep her tone level. “About what?”

Sighing softly, Solas shook his head. “I promised not to say, but you should speak with him soon. I am worried he will wait too long.”

They were nearly to Varric’s favorite campfire at this point, and the dwarf stopped his pacing when he saw the two of them talking, brow furrowed with concern. “You’re talking about Blondie, aren’t you?” he asked.

Cassandra still didn’t trust the storyteller, especially since he had begun warming to Anders again, but whatever was worrying Solas was clearly troubling him as well. “Do you know where he is?”

Varric frowned. “No. I’ve barely seen him all day.”

She looked at Solas. “I wish you would just tell me what is going on.”

“It’s about Justice,” Varric answered. Solas gave him a disapproving look, but the dwarf just shrugged. “Hey, he didn’t make me promise to keep any secrets.”

“Justice,” she echoed. She recognized the name from Varric’s book, but she still had only a vague understanding of how Anders’ relationship with the spirit worked. Technically, sharing his body with a spirit made him an abomination, but he didn’t behave like any possessed mage she had seen before. “What’s wrong?”

Conflicted, Solas answered in a rush as if he wouldn't be betraying a confidence if he spoke quickly enough. “The spirit is changing—has been changing for quite some time. I don’t know how much longer the Herald will be able to keep it contained. He almost lost control in Val Royeaux, and from what Blackwall just told me, he had another incident in Redcliff.”

“I didn’t notice anything...” she began, but then hesitated. Anders had been upset in Redcliff. She had attributed his reaction to shock, but considering his behavior in this context, she could see that it was rather odd. And if the spirit inside him was changing, that could only mean one thing. “I need to warn Cullen.”

“No,” Varric said firmly, actually reaching out to grasp her arm as she turned to leave. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Chuckles here has an idea how to fix it. We just have to convince Blondie.”

Cassandra stared down at his hand until he finally released her arm, but she was really just buying herself time to think. Varric’s alignment was difficult to guess on a good day, but she had no idea where his current loyalties stood regarding Anders. She could even understand his reluctance to involve Cullen at this stage and had to admit he might be right; Cullen’s instincts would be to treat Anders like any other abomination, but they couldn’t risk losing the mark on his hand or the symbolic role he played in the Inquisition. This would have to be handled carefully.

“I need to find him,” she said finally. “Keep an eye out,” she told Varric. “If you see him, keep him here until I return.” Turning to Solas, she added, “Whatever this solution of yours is, get it ready.”

But she didn’t have much luck finding Anders. He wasn’t in his cabin, the apothecary or any of the spots around the village she had seen him frequent. Running out of options, she decided to check the tavern, though she hadn't ever seen him there before. The tavern was raucous and warm, filled with the sound of music and cheerful voices. An involuntary smile touched her lips as the warmth washed over her, but she quickly wiped it away. This was not the place to let down her guard.

She saw their newest recruit chatting up the tavern owner, leaning rather promiscuously on the bar as she grinned at the woman on the other side, the pink tip of her tongue tracing over her top lip as she giggled. “I'm sure I could help you find another way to serve the Inquisition if you’re really looking,” she was saying and Cassandra rolled her eyes. The elf was lucky she was good with a bow.

Scanning the rest of the room, she saw no sign of Anders, but she did spot Leliana leaning against a wall in the corner, shadowed eyes watching everyone from beneath her hood.

“Have you seen him?” Cassandra asked when she was close enough to be heard over the noise.

“Who?”

“Trevelyan,” she said, biting out the false name with frustration.

“You really should start referring to him as the Herald,” Leliana pointed out. “Everyone else does. They will start to wonder why you do not.”

Grinding her teeth together, Cassandra had to admit that she was right. “Have you seen the Herald, then?”

“Not recently. He was talking—or rather arguing—with Vivienne earlier. Perhaps she can help.” She looked at Cassandra with a knowing smile. “You’re still uneasy about this business with the mages and templars, aren’t you? You’re afraid of what he will do if we decide not to ally ourselves with the rebel mages.”

Cassandra sighed, but decided to keep her conversation with Solas to herself until she knew more. “I just can’t fathom what the Maker was thinking, putting someone like him in a position of such power.”

“I suppose we shall find out soon enough.”

In spite of her worry, a smile touched Cassandra’s lips when the minstrel changed melodies and the first chords of Nightingale’s Eyes rang out through the tavern. “They’re playing your song,” she teased.

“Time for me to check in with my agents, I think,” Leliana replied, blushing as she slipped out the door.

Cassandra followed her outside and looked up at the chantry. She had avoided looking for Anders there because she knew how much he disliked the place, but she was running out of places to look and it was possible Vivienne could give her further direction. Stepping inside, she paused a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dim lighting, vision confused by the flickering candlelight dancing over the walls and rafters.

“You look positively ashen, my dear,” Vivienne greeted. “Even more so than usual. Are you well?”

“I’m fine. Have you seen...the Herald?”

Lips twitching with a scowl before she managed to soothe the reaction away, Vivienne said, “Not lately, thankfully. Were you hoping to persuade him out of this madness with the rebel mages? If they’re foolish enough to sell themselves into slavery in Tevinter, I say we should let them. Good riddance.”

Smiling tightly, Cassandra asked, “You didn’t happen to notice which way he went, did you?”

Vivienne waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I don’t know. Down to the cellar? A fine place for him, if you ask me.”

To her surprise, Cassandra did find Anders in the basement, sitting at the back of a cell in the dungeon of all places. His eyes were closed but he was not asleep, a crease between his brows as he clenched his hands in front of him and murmured something under his breath. For a moment she thought he might be praying, but the glimpse of blue light emanating from the edges of his eyelids settled that question.

Her hand went immediately to the pommel of her sword. “Mage?” she inquired, uncertain what else to call him. She refused to call him Herald to his face, Trevelyan just seemed awkward and she didn’t want to use his real name even though they were alone in the room.

His eyes snapped open and the blue light quickly faded. He was breathing hard as if he had just fought a battle—and perhaps he had. “Seeker,” he greeted with false cheer. “What can I do for you?”

She shook her head in frustration. “How did I miss this?” she asked herself out loud. “You’re coming apart at the seams and I haven’t even noticed the signs.”

Anger sparked to life in his eyes. “I’m not falling apart,” he protested. “I have it under control.”

“Is that why you’re sitting in a cell where you could easily lock yourself up if that spirit took control?”

He flinched, but she didn’t give him a chance to respond.

“You’ve been putting everyone around you at risk for weeks, and you’ve said nothing. You’ve even made others keep your secret!”

Swallowing hard, he looked away. “Solas told you.”

“No. He asked if you had spoken to me yet and was disappointed to hear you have not. Varric was the one who told me. He was worried.”

"About me? Or what I might become?"

"Probably both."

Nodding, Anders looked down at his knees, slumping against the wall behind him in defeat. Despite the emotion and strain wearing on his features, his pose was so vulnerable that it made him look like a lost little boy; to her shock, some motherly instinct she had not expected to find within herself made her itch to put her hand on his head and comfort him. “What are you going to do?” he asked tentatively as if he didn't want to know the answer.

“We’re going to fix it.” Letting her sword slide back into its scabbard, she waved at him impatiently. “Get up.” When he didn’t immediately comply, she grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet, dragging him stumbling out of the cell. Judging by the look on his face, she knew he expected the worst—that he would be made tranquil, probably. She didn’t know what kind of impact tranquility would have on the mark, so she’d rather not test it unless they had no other choice, but she was angry enough with him at the moment that she had no problem letting him think that was what she intended.

“I’m sorry,” he said, so faintly that she barely heard it over the clatter of their boots on the damp stone floor. She wasn’t sure if he had meant it for her, himself or the spirit in his head, but she wasn’t ready to hear any apology regardless.

Chapter Text

Varric turned in a slow circle to inspect all the chalk markings Solas had scrawled on the floor. Several objects were placed at various places in the diagram, crystals, herbs and carved objects that looked Dalish in origin. “So, how does this work, exactly?”

Looking up from the detailed portion of the design he was finishing, Solas arched a brow at him. “Do you really want to know?”

Varric laughed. “Probably not.”

Anders sat at the center of one of the circles staring down at his lap. He hadn’t said much since Varric arrived, following directions listlessly as Solas prepared for the ritual. Varric suspected his silent obedience had something to do with the Seeker standing in the corner of the room looking fierce. Or perhaps he was more troubled by the ex-Templar glowering from the opposite corner. Either way, he didn’t have much choice in the matter.

“Chin up, Blondie,” he said, patting him on the shoulder. “It’ll all be over soon.” Anders didn't look up or even acknowledge the comment, so Varric knew he was still angry with him for outing him to the Seeker. That was fine. Angry was better than insane.

“Are you sure it’s necessary that the dwarf be involved?” the Seeker asked Solas while glaring at Varric.

Solas looked up, puzzled. “If you expect the Herald to come back in one piece, then yes. He needs an anchor to this world.”

“Perhaps I could serve in that role?” she asked. “Or Cullen? We can keep him here.”

Anders shuddered and Varric couldn't blame him, the threat behind her words wasn't very subtle.

“While I'm sure you would try,” Solas conceded with a grimace, "His odds are far better if someone he knows well serves in this role."

“What do you need me to do, Chuckles?” Varric asked.

“Not much. Just stay within the circle and talk to him.”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “He’s proficient enough at that.”

“If things get desperate, physical contact can help. Keep his mind occupied while I work to free the spirit.” He glanced at Anders. “I’m afraid it will be painful for you. The spirit will be tearing you apart, especially if he panics. I need you to remain calm. And whatever you do, stay awake. If your mind goes to the fade, I can’t guarantee what will happen.”

A strange expression crossed Anders’ face. “I won’t be able to say goodbye,” he murmured.

“I’m afraid not. But I can relay your sentiment to him, if you wish.”

Anders nodded, a resigned expression on his face.

“How will we know the ritual is complete?” Cullen asked. Though he was asking Solas the question, his eyes hadn’t wavered from Anders. The steady vigilance of his stare was enough to give Varric shivers, and he wasn’t even its subject. He was beginning to understand a little bit about why Anders complained about mages being constantly under the Templars’ eye; it was difficult to ignore attention of such intensity.

“When the ritual is over, I will wake up,” Solas said, putting the final touches on the ritual circle and standing back to admire his handiwork. Clasping his hands together, he looked around the room. “Are we ready to begin?” Looking pointedly at Cullen, he added, “Once we start this process, we must not be interrupted. Do you understand?”

Cullen stepped in front of the door to block it with his body. “What I understand is that I’m not going let an abomination walk out of this room. So you will either succeed in your task, or I’ll finish it myself.”

“Easy, Curly,” Varric said with warning in his voice and stepped in front of Anders protectively. “You need him to walk out of here alive, remember?”

Cocking his head, Cullen pointed out, “Tranquil are still alive, aren’t they?”

Sitting down between them, Varric tapped Anders' knee to get his attention. “Just remember: he has to get through me first.” Anders actually cracked a smile at that, no doubt because the idea of Varric taking on a warrior like Cullen was hilarious at best, but Varric was just happy to see him responding.

Solas sat down in the circle that intersected theirs, stretching out on his back and closing his eyes. Folding his hands over his stomach he began taking slow, deliberate breaths, each one taking a bit longer than the last.

“Is it working?” Cassandra asked with impatience when Solas had gone silent and still.

“I don’t know,” Anders replied. “I’ve never done this before, but you’d think—ah!” He convulsed, arms wrapped around his stomach as he doubled over, his forehead nearly touching the floor as he moaned in pain. Varric marveled at his flexibility for a moment before he remembered that it was his job to keep Anders distracted.

“Hey, Blondie,” he said, putting a hand on Anders head to remind him that he was there. “Remember that time we went to the Wounded Coast and Bethany, well you know how innocent she was, she came across that little cache in the Tal Vashoth camp? You know the one. The gilded box with the tassels hanging from the sides. She opened it up looking for treasure, and then this puzzled look came over her face. It wasn’t until Isabela took a peek that we figured out what it was all about. Poor Bethany blushed so hard I thought she would stay that color permanently. Who would have guessed Qunari were so kinky? I mean, I don’t even know what half of the toys in that crate were used for, but the very thought gave me nightmares for a month.”

Anders laughed, a weak rasping chuckle that was painful enough to hear that Varric wondered how much it hurt to make. “And there was that one,” he said past occasional spasms, “the purple one. You remember? Isabela…”

Varric let loose a belly laugh. “She plucked it from the box without a word and tucked it Maker knows where. I heard her muttering under her breath as she did it. ‘I was wondering where I left that!’”

“I think she...she was just messing with Bethany.”

“I don’t know. Rivaini held that grotesque thing like she knew how to use it. And she did have some dealings with qunari.”

“Maybe Iron Bull...he might know what it was for.”

“Ask if you want. I don’t want any more nightmares. I have enough about red lyrium. Speaking of which, did you see…”

They went on like this for what felt like hours. Varric lost track of time, telling stories, reminiscing, while Anders got progressively weaker, falling on his side and curling into a fetal ball as he fought the waves of pain. Blue light crackled across his skin periodically, cracks that made Varric’s heart stop until they vanished again, but Anders didn’t seem to notice, too preoccupied with the pain to do more than cling to Varric’s hand and try to stay awake. Varric shook him a few times when he started to drift away, and when his touch seemed to go unnoticed he took off his gloves and began tracing soothing patterns over Anders’ scalp with his bare fingers.

They talked about Kirkwall and Hawke, their ragtag band of companions and the strange characters they came across in their travels. They avoided the pain points and the memories of regret or loss, focusing on the good times. Before long Varric was the only one talking, and for once in his life he found it difficult. It was hard to tell stories to someone who was in too much pain to hear them, but he hoped that the sound of his voice would be enough to keep Anders grounded. He looked up at one point to see the Seeker looking at him in wonder, listening to his story with rapt attention while occasionally looking down at Anders with a tight expression of either worry or curiosity. He couldn’t tell which. He was just glad he had turned his back on Cullen because he didn’t want to see if the man had drawn his blade.

Finally Anders went still, and Varric feared that he had fallen asleep despite his efforts, but then he shifted, rolling on his back and looking up at the ceiling. His expression was muddled, too many emotions crossing his face for Varric to catalogue any of them accurately.

“It is done,” Solas said suddenly, sounding weary though he sat up and stretched as if arising from a pleasant nap. “Your friend is safe,” he added, smiling at Anders.

Anders pushed himself up on his elbows to look at him, sadness in his eyes. “Thank you.”

“Then the spirit is gone?” Cullen demanded, his lack of compassion jarring.

Solas nodded. “Yes. He is home.”

Anders frowned, gaze unfocused. Varric had to strain to hear his words as he murmured, “And I’m alone.”

Chapter Text

The silence was deafening. Even when Justice had been quiet, his presence had always been tangible like a voice overheard from another room, a steady background hum to remind him that he wasn't alone. Now there was nothing, and Anders felt hollow, all the spaces inside that had been taken up by Justice empty and aching to be filled. He felt a bit like he had lost a limb, and not only was he dealing with the phantom pains of the loss, he was having to relearn how to do everything without it. He couldn't calm his mind enough to be able to sleep, but even if he could have slept, he worried that his current state would make him a prime target for demons.

So he sat in his little cabin and stared at the fire, losing himself in the patterns of light and shadow. He could have used a good night's sleep to prepare for more arguments over which faction to support, but it probably didn’t matter much considering how little weight his opinion actually carried. Deciding to give up on the hope of sleep entirely, he walked over to the basin near his bed and poured out a little water to wash his face. The water felt icy against his skin, but he couldn't tell if it really was that cold or he was just feverish. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the dark window when he looked up, haggard and unshaven, bruises of exhaustion gathering under his eyes, he realized he was in for a long day.

And it was nearly dawn already. Doing what he could to clean himself up, he put on his coat and stepped outside, shivering as he looked at the steadily brightening sky and decided to get a better view of the sunrise. The village was quiet, only the night guards shuffling about anxious for their watch to end, but compared to the silence in his head, even the rustle of breeze through grasses and occasional stamp of boots on stone was welcome noise.

The wind plucked at him with icy fingers as he began walking beyond Haven’s gate, but he welcomed the discomfort since it helped him remember he was still alive. The snow crunched pleasantly under his boots as he climbed a slope to get a better view of the horizon, nugs and other rodents scurrying through the underbrush as he passed. He even heard a few birds chirping in the distance. Pink was spreading over the sky by the time he reached the top of the ridge, golden light flaring around the peaks in the distance.

Entranced by the beauty, he didn’t notice he had company until he heard a woman clear her voice. Leliana perched on a rock nearby, a gentle smile on her face as she regarded him.

“Good morning, Herald,” she greeted. “You’re up early.”

“Or late, depending on your point of view.”

“Trouble sleeping?”

He nodded, brushing snow off another rock and sitting down beside her. “What are you doing up so early?”

“I always get up early. An old habit from my days as a lay sister. Greeting the dawn is such a peaceful way to start the day, don’t you think?”

Anders smiled, watching the first rays of sunlight spill over the mountaintops. “It is beautiful.”

They sat in silence for a while watching the sun rise, and Anders felt more at peace than he had since Justice returned to the fade.

“You must miss him.”

Startled, he turned to look at her, uncertain of her meaning.

“The spirit,” she explained, compassion filling her eyes. “It must be lonely without him.”

He felt his throat constrict, amazed that anyone could be so understanding of the predicament he had inflicted upon himself.

“It is lonely,” he said finally. “I hadn’t expected to feel his absence so concretely. Or to feel so lost without him.”

Nodding, she looked back at the sky, a wistful expression on her face. “You have lost your balance, and now you’re questioning everything, who you are, who you were, who you want to be.”

She was right. His identity had gotten all tangled up with Justice, and now he had no idea who he was without the spirit, how much of what he thought he was had actually been Justice and how much of his true self had been lost a long time ago, pieces of personality falling away over the years to make room for the spirit sharing his mind. Looking at her curiously, he observed, “You say that as if you’ve had personal experience with this sort of thing.”

She smiled. “I’ve never shared my mind with a spirit, but I have experienced some dramatic upheavals in my life. Did you know that I was once a bard? I loved it—or thought I did—but betrayal brought that phase of my life to a bitter end. So I joined the chantry to make up for my sins. I thought the Maker had chosen me, that I could truly hear his voice in ways that others could only imagine. But no one believed me until I met the Warden. We fought the Blight together, but when it was over I lost my purpose. Eventually I became the left hand of the Divine and found myself again. Then Justinia died. In some ways, the only constant in my life has been change.”

Anders suddenly felt incredibly selfish for wallowing in his own problems. “I’m sorry.”

Blinking in surprise, she canted her head to the side. “For what?”

“I don’t know...I’ve just been so wrapped up in myself that I hadn’t noticed that other people are suffering too.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

Anders' eyes widened in surprise. Leliana had been cold to him at the beginning, but now that he considered it, she had been rather supportive of him lately. “You don’t?”

She shook her head solemnly. “No. I've been watching you, and I don’t think you’re capable of ignoring the suffering of others. They say that you were a healer back in Kirkwall before everything fell apart. I can see that kindness in you, in the way you care for those around you and the good you’ve been doing on the Inquisition’s behalf. Tabris said you were always too generous with everyone else and not generous enough with yourself. I’m inclined to agree.”

Anders felt his heart flutter a bit at that. He had already known that Leliana traveled with the Warden during the Blight, but it had never occurred to him that they might still be in touch. Thinking about the old Warden Commander was painful. Tabris had given him a chance at a new life, a life beyond the Templars’ grasp, and then he had gone and thrown it all away. He felt like such a disappointment.

“He also said that you were funny,” she added, “that you reminded him of Alistair. But we don’t get to see that side of you much. It makes me sad.”

Anders was still stuck on the part where Tabris had compared him to the king of Ferelden, so he didn’t reply.

A smile lit her features suddenly. “And he told me about your cat. What was his name? Pounce?”

“Ser Pounce-a-lot,” Anders answered, throat tight.

“Yes!” Leliana clasped her hands together in delight, and suddenly she looked a decade or two younger. “He gave me a pet too, you know? Schmooples.”

Her joy was contagious. Smiling, he asked, “A cat? Or a mabari?”

“A nug!”

Eyes wide, Anders took that in slowly. “A nug,” he repeated.

“Yes. They’re so cute! All pink and wrinkly.” As if on cue, a trio of nugs hopped across the clearing in front of them. The last one stumbled a bit, dragging one of its legs and leaving a red streak in the snow. “Oh no! Look! One of them is hurt.”

Anders stared at her in wonder. Here she was, an assassin and spy, worrying over a wounded animal. “I might be able to heal that leg if we could catch it,” he offered.

The childlike gratitude on her features warmed him enough that he no longer felt the cold bite of the wind. Pressing a finger to her lips for silence, she directed him down one side of the path while she took the other. Moving slowly and carefully, they stalked the nugs through the trees, the sun rising overhead as they worked. Eventually they managed to corral the creatures into a hollow between a few rocks. The healthy ones were able to scamper off through a small opening, but the wounded nug got caught in the brambles. With reflexes too quick to follow, Leliana caught the nug in her arms and turned it to give Anders access to its wounded leg.

“There, there,” she said soothingly, seemingly oblivious to the creature’s claws scratching at her arms.

Kneeling down beside her, Anders calmed the panicked creature with a touch and a small  sleeping spell, then went to work on the injury. It was not deep, but with all the predators in the area, it would have been enough to make the nug an easy target. “That should do it,” he said when he was done, sitting back on his heels.

Looking down at the drowsy nug in her arms, she asked, “What do you think I should do? Should I keep him?”

Anders shrugged. “The Inquisition might not be the best place for pets, but I’ve carried a cat into the Deep Roads, so who am I to judge?”

Smiling, she stroked the nug lightly and then gently placed him on the ground. “No. Better that he go free. At least we improved his chances a little.” She turned to look at him, the expression on her face too complex to read, but something about the intensity of her regard made him blush. “Thank you, Herald.”

He grimaced. “Please don’t call me that. Not when there’s no one else around.”

“What shall I call you, then? Not Trevelyan, surely. Anders?” A secretive smile crossed her lips. “We both know that’s not your real name.”

That caught him off guard, but he didn’t know why he was surprised; she was nothing if not well-informed. “Apparently we do. But Anders will do fine. That’s been my name long enough for it to be all but true at this point.”

She nodded. “Then, thank you, Anders. You deserve more credit than you allow yourself.”

Suddenly Anders felt lighter, the emptiness inside him a little less painful than it had been before. “You are too kind,” he said softly.

“Then perhaps it takes one to know one.” Grinning, she turned back toward Haven. “We should get back. They'll be looking for us soon.”

Chapter Text

Dorian had always considered himself to be rather resilient—and even when his resilience was lacking, he was at least good at faking it until he made it. Such skills were a requirement in the Magisterium, and he had learned at a young age that it was far worse to let an honest reaction slip than it was to cover your feelings with a generous layer of indifference. In this way, Tevinter and Orlais were more alike than they were different, the only critical distinction being that Orlais relied on physical masks as a crutch to help obscure the truth. The Herald wasn’t from Tevinter or Orlais—Dorian wasn’t even convinced he was from the Free Marches—but wherever the man’s true origin, he had clearly never been forced to learn this lesson.

Trevelyan’s emotions were raw, hidden by only the flimsiest of shields, and his vulnerabilities were painfully obvious. These were unfortunate traits for someone at the center of a movement like the Inquisition, and perhaps that was why the others walked all over him. In fact, the trait that seemed to be most trained into him was passivity, though he occasionally showed flashes of fire that suggested he had not always been this way.

Dorian hadn’t overheard much of the debate going on in the war room before he barged through the door to offer his services, but he heard enough to know that the Herald’s opinions were not highly valued, especially by the man in charge of the Inquisition’s army. Detecting group dynamics was another thing that Dorian was well trained to do, and he could see from a glance that the power in the organization did not sit with Trevelyan, despite the fact that popular opinion treated him like a divine messenger. While Trevelyan tried to convince the others to go to Redcliff, the Commander seemed to think pursuing the mages was a waste of time and the Seeker was clearly more interested in ousting Alexius from the castle than in seeking help from the mages.

But then the Spymaster offered a solution that everyone could live with—the only consequence of which would be the risk to the Herald’s life. If the mark on his hand hadn’t made him so essential, Dorian suspected even that wouldn’t have been of much consequence to the Commander, but some of the others seemed more concerned. Trevelyan himself disregarded the risk and made the final decision, but his lack of consideration for his own safety only compounded Dorian’s concerns. Trevelyan behaved like a man who had outlived a death sentence and was only biding time until fate finally caught up with him.

Even so, things in Redcliff had started out extraordinarily well. They had taken control of the situation fairly handily until Alexius pulled out that amulet and decided to make a demonstration of his time magic. That was when things started to go extraordinarily poorly, but at least there was symmetry. Relying on years of practice at controlling his reactions, Dorian took this setback entirely in stride, but Trevelyan was not handling the shock quite as well.

“We actually went through time,” Trevelyan said, as if repeating the words could help him understand the concept. “That is...insane.” He looked so adorable with that little crease between his brows, his hair all mussed from their journey and flying off in a dozen directions; Dorian itched to put it in order with a lick and a few brushes of his fingers like a cat grooming a kitten, but he thought better of the impulse.

“What’s insane is what this might do to the fabric of the world,” he said. “We didn’t travel through time so much as punch a hole through it and toss it into the privy. But don’t worry. I’m here. I’ll protect you.” His hand had landed on Trevelyan’s shoulder while he was talking, though he couldn’t recall deciding to put it there. That was worrying; Trevelyan had definitely triggered something inside of him, a protective instinct he had thought he’d brought to heel long ago.

Glancing down at his hand, a hint of a smile crossed Trevelyan’s lips before he managed to maneuver away from the touch with unexpected poise. Surprised, Dorian studied the expression on Trevelyan’s face more closely. Was it possible that he’d misjudged the man? Was the appearance of vulnerability simply a form of armor intended to make people underestimate him? “This might be my first trip through time,” Trevelyan said rather bluntly, “but it’s not my first bout with insanity. Your vow of protection comes with a plan to get us back to our own time, I hope?”

Dorian shrugged. “I have some thoughts about it, yes. They’re lovely thoughts, like little jewels.”

"Let's hope they're valuable ones."

Dorian tried not to bristle at the sarcasm in the man's voice. "We should start by taking a look around. If we know where we are, we'll have a better chance of finding our way back."

Trevelyan nodded, but a frown crossed his face as he tried the door and discovered that it was locked. "Do you think any of the others could have been drawn through the rift?"

"I doubt it was large enough to bring the whole room through," Dorian replied, helping Trevelyan search the guards for a key. "Alexius wouldn’t risk catching himself or Felix in it. They’re probably where and when we left them. In some sense anyway. Aha." Pulling the key from the guard’s pocket, he lifted it up to show Trevelyan.

Trevelyan nodded in the direction of the door and asked, “What do you think Alexius was trying to do?”

Dorian obeyed the silent order with a little smile and led the way out into the ruined hall. “I believe his original plan was to remove you from time completely. If that had happened, you would never have been at the Temple of Sacred Ashes or mangled this Elder One’s plan.” He paused when he saw that Trevelyan wasn’t following, still standing in the doorway with a strange expression on his features.

“Remove me from time... Do you think such a thing is really possible?”

Considering the question uneasily, Dorian wondered at Trevelyan’s reason for asking. “I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I hadn’t thought it was possible.”

Trevelyan sighed as if he were disappointed that Alexius had failed, and Dorian shook his head, feeling an intense dislike for this fatalistic streak he kept seeing in the Herald. “I think your surprise in the castle hall made Alexius reckless,” he continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted and Trevelyan finally joined him in the hallway. “He tossed us into the rift before he was ready. I countered it, the magic went wild and here we are. Make sense?”

“As much as any of this does.”

They began exploring the dungeons, occasionally doubling back when a collapsed hallway or an overgrown red crystal cropped up to block their way. The environment was nightmarish, but perhaps it was the bizarre nature of their surroundings that helped Dorian to forget the gravity of their situation. Everything felt too dreamlike to be real, like a little trip through the Fade instead of a journey to another time. But perhaps that said something. Since when had being in the Fade become a comforting thought?

“Don’t touch it,” Trevelyan cautioned sharply when Dorian reached out to steady himself against the red stone growing out of the nearest wall. The vibrating red light cast a weird glow on his features, making the angles harsher, the lines and scars more vivid.

Turning to study the stone, Dorian asked, “What is it?”

“Red lyrium. Have you ever heard about the Knight Commander in Kirkwall?”

“Kirkwall? I recall something about their chantry, but nothing in particular about their templars.”

A humorless laugh rasped from Trevelyan’s lips and he started walking again. “Of course that’s the part that sticks.”

“Well? Aren’t you going to explain?”

“Suffice to say that red lyrium can drive a person mad.”

Entering another chamber, they heard a voice humming eerily. It was one of the mages singing a chantry hymn with no apparent awareness of his surroundings. Trevelyan’s expression was pained as he looked at the elf, eyes filled with compassion, but Dorian waved him onward. They couldn’t afford to help every poor soul they found, and from all indications this mage was already beyond help.

They found the Grand Enchanter in a cell overtaken with red lyrium, the crystals literally growing around her body, and this time the sight even gave Dorian pause.

“You are alive!” she cried. “How? I saw you disappear into the rift.”

Dorian explained their situation and she took it rather well. Then again, she was being eaten alive by a glowing crystal, so she might just be used to crazy at this point.

“Are you alright?” Trevelyan asked as if the answer weren’t obvious, leaning against the bars of the cell to get a closer look at the woman.

“Please,” she begged, “stop this from happening. Alexius serves the Elder One. More powerful than the maker. No one challenges him and lives.”

Trevelyan’s hands clenched on one of the bars. “That magister’s going to regret he didn’t just kill me.”

Interrupting to ask the current date, Dorian grimaced when he heard the answer. “A whole year.” Catching Trevelyan’s gaze, he said, “Our only hope is to find the amulet that Alexius used to send us here. If it still exists, I can use it to reopen the rift at the exact spot we left. Maybe.”

“Good,” Fiona said.

“I said, maybe. It might also turn us into paste.”

“You must try. Your spymaster Leliana is here. You must find her, quickly, before the Elder One learns you’re here.”

Dorian had to practically drag Trevelyan away from the cell, but he shook off Dorian’s touch as soon as they reached the hallway again. “Who do you think this Elder One is?” he asked.

“The leader of the Venatori, I suspect. Some magister aspiring to godhood. It’s the same old tune. Let’s play with magic we don’t understand. It will make us incredibly powerful. Evidently it doesn’t matter if you rip apart the fabric of time in the process.”

Trevelyan nodded, not even responding to the humor in Dorian’s tone. “We need to find Leliana.”

The next person they found was not the Spymaster, but the Seeker. She was reciting some verse from the chant, but it wasn’t the religious mantra that set Dorian’s teeth on edge. Cassandra may not have been visibly consumed by the red lyrium, but it had infected her just the same; her eyes glowed and a flicker of red light hovered around her like a ghostly aura.

“You’ve returned to us!” she cried. “Can it be? Has Andraste given us another chance? The end must truly be upon us if the dead return to life.”

“I’m not back from the dead,” Trevelyan replied. “I just got...well, this is hard to explain.” He glanced at Dorian for assistance.

“Alexius sent us forward in time. If we find him, we may be able to return to the present.”

Hope filled Cassandra’s eyes as she looked up at them. “Go back in time? Then can you make it so none of this ever took place?”

Trevelyan nodded firmly. “That’s the plan, yes.”

Cassandra sighed in relief, avoiding Trevelyan’s touch when he reached out to help her to her feet. Dorian thought that was wise after how Trevelyan had cautioned him about the red lyrium, but the action had seemed instinctive, the gesture of a man who was used to helping. As she limped out of the cell, Cassandra told them of the things that had happened while they were gone, the Elder One’s appearance, the fall of the Orlesian empire after the empress’ assassination, the demon army steadily taking over the world. Dorian refused to even consider these events as truth, certain that they could change all of them given the chance. Trevelyan looked less certain, but no less determined; Dorian was learning there was a layer of steel beneath the man’s fragile facade.

They found the dwarf in a cell nearby. “Blondie!” he cried. “You’re like a bad copper. How did you escape this time?”

Trevelyan smiled, though the expression was strained. “We didn’t escape exactly. We just took a little detour through time. We have a plan to go back and fix all this.”

“Everything that happens to you is weird.”

Worry filling his eyes, Trevelyan observed, “You don’t look so good, Varric. What happened?”

“The not dying version of this red lyrium stuff? Way worse. Just saying.”

“Maybe I can…” Trevelyan reached out to touch Varric but the dwarf pulled out of reach and shook his head.

“No. It’s too late, Blondie. Just go back to fix this and it’ll be alright.” He glanced over at Cassandra and laughed. “And hey, the gang’s all back together. What could go wrong now?”

Dorian liked his attitude. But the air of positivity wilted quickly when they got closer to the Spymaster’s cell, the echo of voices ringing down the damp hallways raised in anger and defiance and periodically punctuated by the sound of torture. Trevelyan flinched at Leliana’s cries as if they hurt him physically, and Dorian could tell he felt responsible for the horrors that had occurred in his absence. Despite Cassandra’s plea for caution, Trevelyan burst into the room directly, only hesitating when he got a good look at Leliana. Dorian couldn’t blame him. Though she appeared to be free of red lyrium’s influence, the Spymaster was in worse shape than the other two. She had been tortured to within an inch of her life, and yet she took advantage of the distraction of their appearance to kill her torturer with nothing but her legs. Impressive, yet terrifying.

“You’re alive,” she said, looking at Trevelyan in wonder as he detached her from the chains.

“You’re safe now,” he said gently, rubbing at her wrists to restore circulation.

Her expression darkened at his words and she pulled her hands away. “Forget safe. If you came back from the dead, you need to do better than safe. You need to end this.” She looked around at the rest of them as if daring them to pity her. “Do you have weapons? The magister’s probably in his chambers.”

Shocked by her abruptness, Dorian decided that he had absolutely nothing on her where resilience was concerned; he would have been blubbering like a baby if he’d been through the nightmare she had clearly endured. “You…” he began, shaking his head. “You aren’t curious how we got here?”

Leliana glared at him, gathering up a bow and quiver of arrows. “No.”

He tried to explain what had happened despite her disinterest, trying to make her realize that they could fix this. They could prevent all the suffering she had experienced.

“Enough,” she snapped. “This is all pretend to you. Some future you hope will never exist. I suffered. The whole world suffered. It was real.”

Shocked, Dorian started talking again before he had the sense to stop himself, his need to understand overriding his sense of self-preservation. “What happened while we were away?”

“Stop talking.”

The look in her eyes gave him shivers, but he just couldn’t seem to keep his mouth shut. “I’m just asking for information.”

“No, you’re talking to fill silence. Nothing happened that you want to hear.”

They talked very little after that, focusing on the goal of finding Alexius and escaping this nightmare before it was too late to put things right. They had to fight their way through the crumbling castle, every corner revealing wandering demons or crazed cultists. Dorian wasn’t accustomed to using this much battle magic. Fighting was more sport than necessity back home, but the others fought with a brutal efficiency that put his skills to shame. Even Trevelyan was a force to be reckoned with in battle, elemental magic flying from his staff with the ease of experience—more experience than any tower mage from a quiet corner of the Free Marches should have had cause to gain. Yet his true strength was in healing, an area of arcane knowledge that Dorian had never found particularly interesting. Trevelyan kept the rest of them on their feet with an endless chain of spells that lasted far longer than the healing potions that kept running dry.

But the effort was costing him. Dorian could see the strain in the way he leaned on his staff as he walked, the tremble in his fingers as he pushed through a door. The others had endured such horrors over the last year that they didn’t seem to notice how Trevelyan was struggling, so it was up to Dorian to call for a break on the Herald’s behalf.

“We should rest a bit and recover our strength,” he said. “We’re almost through that sealed door, and you know Alexius will be ready for a fight once we get in there.”

“We don’t have time for this,” Leliana protested, anger flaring in her eyes as she paced back and forth.

“No. He’s right,” Cassandra said. “We should take a moment to catch our breath.”

“I was going to say something myself,” Varric admitted. “My legs are shorter than everyone else’s, you know?”

Trevelyan chuckled and leaned back against a nearby table. Dorian was relieved to hear the sound, grateful that the dwarf could still reach him despite the cloud of melancholy hanging around his shoulders.

Sitting down next to him, Dorian pressed a lyrium potion into his hand. When Trevelyan looked up at him quizzically, he explained, “You need it more than I do.”

Popping the cork, Trevelyan sipped at the potion in relief.

“Where did you learn to be such an efficient healer?” Dorian asked. “Restoration magic isn’t terribly popular back in Tevinter.”

A sad smile crossed Trevelyan’s face, the expression so achingly fleeting that Dorian found himself staring at the man’s lips in hope that it might return. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”

“A lot of people with bumps and bruises back in Ostwick, I take it? Or are you simply referring to your time with the Inquisition? If so, you must be a quick learner.”

Trevelyan turned to look at him, a distance in his gaze that made Dorian uneasy. He was also fairly certain he had been caught staring at the man’s lips. “I know what you’re doing,” the Herald said softly, so softly that no one else in the room was likely to hear his words. “I used to be rather good at it myself. But you should save all that charm for someone who can’t see through it.” Pushing away from the table, he added with another smile, “Thanks for the lyrium.”

Dorian watched him walk away and sat for a moment in startled amazement. It wasn’t often that someone shut him down so thoroughly, but despite the reaction Trevelyan was likely intending to cause, Dorian only felt more intrigued than he had before. The man was an enigma, and Dorian had always had a powerful weakness for mysteries.

“We need to get moving,” Leliana said impatiently, but Trevelyan was already leading the way out the door.

“Let’s go,” he said, and the rest of them followed.

Chapter Text

The rift brought them back to the exact moment they had left, but as Anders turned to look at his companions he felt the weight of that almost future and knew he would never be able to forget it. A glance at Cassandra made him remember the hopelessness in her eyes, the weariness in her posture that he knew she wouldn’t normally allow herself. Looking at Leliana, he saw the haunted expression on her tortured face as the demons took her at the end. She looked back at him curiously now and he looked away, unable to reconcile the two versions of her in his head.

Shivering, he turned his attention to Alexius just in time to see him fall to his knees. “You won,” the magister said in defeat. There is no point extending this charade.” Looking up at his son, his face twisted with anguish. “Felix.”

“It’s going to be all right, father.”

“You’ll die!”

“Everyone dies.”

The Inquisition soldiers took Alexius away and Anders watched with a frown. He almost felt sorry for him. He knew what it was like to doom others on behalf of a cause, to do evil with the hope that the ends would someday justify the means. His own choice may not have gone as wrong as the one Alexius had made, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t caused more ripples of consequences than he could ever have anticipated. Though he hated everything Alexius represented, he couldn’t judge the man without also judging himself.

“Blondie.” Varric’s hand was warm against his back. “You all right? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I’ve seen several, actually.” His voice was thick with emotion, but he cleared it, giving the dwarf the lightest smile he could muster. “But I’m fine.” His gaze skittered away as soon as it met Varric’s; he couldn’t look the dwarf in the eye without seeing that other him, the one who had been eaten alive by the very substance he feared most.

“Yeah. You look like you’re lying.” Varric patted him a couple of times before letting his hand drop to his side.

“I will be fine...eventually.’”

“That’s better.”

Cassandra joined them, looking Anders over, her gaze snagging on the obvious signs of battle on his clothing. “Where did you go? You only disappeared for an instant, but I get the sense that you were gone for much longer.”

“And I have these weird memories,” Varric agreed. “Things I know didn’t happen but half remember. They’re fading now.”

“Good. Let them fade.” Anders said firmly. “They never should have happened.”

“But where did you go?” Cassandra insisted.

Dorian stepped in to explain. “To the future and back. Dismal though it was, it was preferable to going the other direction. Much less chance of accidentally preventing your own birth.”

“I don’t know,” Anders muttered. “I can think of a few things I might change about the past.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the rhythmic steps of soldiers marching into the throne room. Their armor was branded with Ferelden heraldry, and Anders retreated a few steps as soon as he saw the blond man walking in the room with his scowl focused on Fiona.

“Grand Enchanter, imagine how surprised I was to learn that you’d given Redcliff Castle away to a Tevinter magister.”

“King Alistair,” Fiona nearly whimpered in response.

“Especially since I’m fairly sure Redcliff belongs to Arl Teagan.” Anders winced at that. He knew that the king had grown up in Redcliff and that the village’s current arl was his uncle. The mages had put themselves in a difficult position by crossing him.

“Your majesty, we never intended…”

“I know what you intended. I wanted to help you, but you’ve made it impossible. You and your followers are no longer welcome in Ferelden.”

“But we have hundreds who need protection. Where will we go?”

Anders knew he should keep his mouth shut—he could feel Cassandra’s eyes burning a hole into the side of his head—but he couldn’t stand there silently and watch the opportunity go by. “Well, we did come here for mages to close the breach,” he pointed out, and he heard Cassandra sigh.

Fiona looked at him warily. “And what are the terms of this arrangement?” He wished she had been smart enough to ask that question of Alexius before signing away the mages’ freedom in the first place.

“Hopefully better than what Alexius gave you,” Dorian spoke up. “The Inquisition is better than that, yes?”

Evidently resigned to the situation, Cassandra said, “I suggest conscripting them. They’ve proven what they’ll do given too much freedom.”

Cassandra had a point, but Anders couldn’t go halfway, not when he finally had a chance to offer the mages the freedom he had been fighting to give them for so long. “We would be honored to have you fight as allies at the Inquisition’s side.” He thought he heard Varric stifling a laugh behind him, and the intensity of Cassandra’s glare hit him like the heat of a fireball.

“We’ll discuss this later,” she promised through gritted teeth.

Fiona didn’t miss Cassandra’s displeasure, but she seemed surprised by Anders’ offer. “I’ll pray that the rest of the Inquisition honors your promise, then.”

“The breach threatens all of Thedas,” he said, raising his voice and looking around the room, even enduring Cassandra’s wrath for a moment before moving on. “We cannot afford to be divided now. We can’t fight it without you. Any chance of success requires your full support.”

King Alistair was still angry, but he was looking at Anders with a strange expression, one of curiosity and...something else. Anders hoped it wasn’t recognition. Looking back at Fiona, the king advised, “I’d take that offer if I were you. One way or another, you’re leaving my kingdom.”

Fiona accepted, of course, but Anders was too stunned at what he had just accomplished to notice what she said. How long had he been dreaming of this day? Since he was a child freshly arrived at the circle tower, his mother’s pillow tucked to his chest, tears drying on his cheeks. He didn’t know if he would have the power to make this freedom last for the mages, but it was more than he’d ever been able to do before.

“You did it, Blondie,” Varric said softly, patting him on the back again. “Now let’s just hope you can survive it.”

King Alistair approached Anders, squinting at him thoughtfully. “You’re…”

“The Herald. Trevelyan,” Anders answered quickly, but he could see that the king wasn’t buying the lie. “I’m definitely not the runaway mage you helped to get conscripted into the Wardens,” he added more softly, willing the king to understand. "Or the mage you met in Kirkwall who was tagging along with the Champion.”

“Confusing,” the king said finally. “You’re confusing.”

“Yes, I’ve been told that before.”

Nodding at Fiona, Alistair said, “I hope you have better luck with them than I did. But you probably will, won’t you? You understand them.”

“I do.”

Nodding, the king turned away and Anders breathed a sigh of relief, but the moment of peace ended quickly. Cassandra grabbed his arm and said, “Let’s go. We need to get back to Haven and deal with this.”

“Might I tag along?” Dorian asked, falling into step beside them. “I would like to see this breach up close, if you don’t mind?”

Cassandra scowled, but Anders considered the request silently. Though he hadn’t known him long, he felt like he understood Dorian pretty well already. He recognized more than a little of himself—or at least the man he’d once been—in the Tevinter mage, so he knew that all that charm and bluster was probably only a shield to keep everyone around him at arm’s length. Dorian seemed to be a decent man, an outcast from his people who wanted to do the right thing, and Anders could respect that. But Dorian was also flirtatious and bold, and forward enough that his intentions were fairly obvious. Anders didn’t want to encourage him, not when he was still so conflicted, and not when he was still unsure if he’d ever be ready to take that kind of leap again.

“I must admit I’m surprised,” he said finally.

Dorian’s expression turned serious. “We both saw what could happen, what this Elder One and his cult are trying to do. Not everything from Tevinter is terrible. Some of us have fought for eons against this sort of madness. It’s my duty to stand with you. That future will not come to pass.”

Anders glanced at Cassandra who merely sighed in resignation. “Then welcome to the Inquisition.”

Chapter Text

Cullen was so angry he couldn't see straight. It didn't help that he hadn't slept well for days, plagued by nightmares recalling the tortures he had endured when the tower fell in Ferelden. He had managed to suppress those memories for years, but a few weeks without lyrium and they were all coming back to him in vivid detail.

After what happened in Kirkwall, he'd wanted to make a clean break with the Templars, and severing his reliance on lyrium was a critical step in that process. But overcoming his addiction wasn’t easy—or safe. Many had died trying, and judging by how awful the symptoms were at even this early stage, he wondered if he would have the strength to endure it himself. The symptoms ebbed and flowed, but today they were worse than usual, his head throbbing with every heartbeat, his skin simultaneously too hot and chilled. He had told Cassandra about his decision in the beginning and she had supported it, but he worried about it constantly, what the consequences would be if he lost focus at a critical moment.

He would have felt more comfortable with his decision if Anders didn’t keep giving him reasons to start taking lyrium again. It was hard enough keeping an eye on the mages who had already joined the Inquisition, but now he had to watch the entirety of the mage rebellion without any real authority over them—all because the Herald had verbally given them their freedom with the bloody king of Ferelden present as witness. He slammed a palm down on the map, welcoming the sting of pain as he landed on one of the markers; at least that pain was immediate, not like the ephemeral agony of his withdrawal.

And then there was Anders himself. The mage was trouble enough without being possessed, but Solas’ little ritual had only increased Cullen's worry, reminding him painfully of the many harrowings he had witnessed over his years as a Templar. A mage’s mind was vulnerable to so many evils, and Anders had been harboring a spirit long enough to be accustomed to the sensation, long enough to perhaps miss the warning signs of a demon taking hold of his mind before it was too late. Cullen hadn’t trusted him before, but he trusted him even less now.

Anders. The man who had caused so much pain and suffering across Thedas with a single act. The renegade mage who held the record for most escape attempts from any tower, who had in fact chosen to escape Ferelden’s tower at the perfect moment to avoid the worst experience of Cullen’s life. Cullen couldn’t bring himself to forgive Anders for many things, but the mage’s uncanny ability to dodge the consequences of his actions was at the top of the list. And he’d done it again. He had found himself a position of power within the Inquisition and used it to further his own agenda with no regard to the repercussions. And now Cullen was the one who had to deal with the aftermath.

“Cullen?” He looked up to see Josephine standing in the doorway, looking at him with uncertainty in her eyes.

“What is it?” he snapped.

“More mages have arrived. We need to arrange accommodations for them.”

“Isn’t that your job?”

Eyebrows lifting, she replied, “Yes, but I need to move some of the soldiers in order to make everyone fit. I wanted to check with you first.”

He straightened and a spike of pain shot up his neck. “Just do what you have to do.”

Tilting her head in concern, she approached the table. “Are you ill?”

“I’m fine. But I’d be better if we hadn’t let the Herald make such a foolish decision.

“The situation is...unfortunate,” she agreed. “But we’re just going to have to make the best of it.”

Scoffing, he shook his head, regretting the motion when the movement made the room spin lazily around him. “I just can’t understand why Cassandra didn’t intervene. She was there! She could have stopped him.”

Josephine sighed. “I don’t think she had much choice. Anders has made no secret of his loyalties or his intentions, and the mages are too stubborn to come along willingly without concessions being made. In the end, perhaps this decision was the correct one. We will get more out of the mages as allies than as prisoners.”

“The veil is torn open!” he insisted. “There will be abominations among the mages, and without any oversight—”

“They are still a part of the Inquisition,” she reminded, “and you command its army. If they step out of line you have the authority to correct them.”

“I only wish that were enough.” Scowling he turned and began to pace. “It’s going to take time to organize our troops and the mage recruits for the march on the summit. But the more time we give them, the more chance of possession. We could lose lives before we have a chance to even attempt closing the breach.”

“We are doing the best we can.”

Stopping in his circuit across the floor, he jabbed a finger at her. “It’s not enough!”

A frown creased Josephine’s brows. “This isn’t like you, Cullen. What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is that we have an arrogant, entitled mage running this Inquisition.”

“He’s not in charge.”

Cullen threw up his hands. “He might as well be.”

Eyes narrowing, she observed, “This is personal, isn’t it?”

“What?”

“This...whatever it is with the Herald. It’s personal for you.”

Swallowing his anger, he took a deep breath and placed his hands on the table, staring down at the map of Ferelden and the little circle that marked the tower on Lake Calenhad. “I’ve known him a long time, longer than anyone else here. Back in Ferelden’s tower, he was constantly fighting us, constantly causing trouble for his fellow mages. He would get them stirred up about all the injustice and then leave them behind the moment he found a way to slip out the door.”

Josephine leaned against the opposite side of the table, the candle on her writing board flickering fitfully. “That was a long time ago. I suspect he’s changed a bit since then.”

“Changed? He wouldn't still be here now if he wasn’t getting his way all the time. He can’t stand to be constrained in any way even when it’s for his own protection, and he can’t be trusted.”

“I’m afraid I must disagree.” They both startled at the sound of the new voice. Leliana stepped out of the shadows in the corner of the room and Cullen wondered how long she had been standing there listening. “I had nothing but doubts about him in the beginning. After what he did in Kirkwall, I thought the best we could possibly manage was to control him and prevent another disaster, but his actions over the last few weeks have changed my mind. He has a good heart. His biggest failing is that he listens to it too often, even when it is leading him astray.”

Cullen shook his head at her in amazement. “So he’s charmed you now too, has he? He’s good at that.”

“Cullen,” she said sharply. “You forget who I am and what I do. I am not so easily deceived.”

“If I didn’t know better,” Josephine mused with an odd expression on her face as she looked at Cullen, “I might think this thing between you and the Herald was...jealousy.” Pity. That was what he saw glittering in her eyes.

Anger flared inside Cullen and he was tempted to upend the maps just for the momentary satisfaction of watching all the little markers fly around the room. He restrained himself with clenched fists and took a step away from the table. Voice dangerously soft, he said, “He has nothing that could ever make me jealous.”

The two women exchanged a knowing glance and he made a noise of frustration.

“I need some air,” he snapped and stalked out of the room. The anger had only made his headache worse, and the sunlight stabbed at his eyes like daggers when he stepped outside, bright despite the sickly green storm still brewing on the horizon. Wincing, he found a pool of shadow to stand in and leaned back against the stone wall, concentrating on keeping his skull from falling to pieces.

“Something wrong, Commander?” a deep voice asked in a rumble that only made Cullen’s headache worse. The qunari. That was all he needed. “You look all tense.”

“I’m fine,” he grunted in response.

“Well, if you need someone to help you loosen up, you know where to find me.”

Cringing, Cullen held his breath until he heard Iron Bull walk away. He needed to find a less public place to wallow in his misery. Squinting into the sunlight, he started walking, following the path outside Haven and into the wilderness until he found a shady spot beneath a tree. He didn’t go far, just enough to be out of sight of anyone who might be wandering through the village. Rubbing at his temples, he leaned back against the tree and tried to regain his mental balance.

Feeling persecuted, he wondered how he could salvage things without looking like a complete fool. He wasn’t jealous of Anders. He couldn’t be. The mage was reckless, undisciplined, and stubborn to a fault, always pushing some kind of agenda and critiquing anyone who fell outside his current worldview. Cullen hated him. He hated him for being so self-assured that he could follow his own path without question. He hated him for refusing to bend to anyone’s will but his own. He hated him for drawing others to his causes with nothing but the strength of his passion. He hated him for everything he was that Cullen wasn’t.

Damn. He really was jealous, wasn’t he?

A rustling in the bushes interrupted his thoughts. He assumed it was wildlife of some kind, but then he heard the familiar crunch of boots on snow and knew he wasn’t that lucky. Maybe if he remained completely still he could go unnoticed. But the footsteps stopped nearby, and curiosity finally got the better of him. He wished he would have kept his eyes shut when he saw who it was.

Anders stood a few steps away, a handful of elfroot in his hands and more in the bag slung across his torso. He didn’t look as smug as Cullen had expected him to be. Instead, his brows were drawn together in concern as he studied Cullen. “You’re in pain,” he observed, and Cullen was stunned by the sympathy in his voice.

“I’m fine,” Cullen replied automatically, but Anders didn’t listen, tucking the plants away in his bag and coming closer to look him over with a clinical eye.

“Headache? A bad one from the looks of it.” He glanced down at his bag and said, “I was collecting these for Master Adan to restock our potions, but they’re not very effective raw.” He lifted his hands, but hesitated. “May I?”

Cullen ducked away from his touch, but the movement only triggered a bout of dizziness that nearly caused him to trip over his own feet. Anders instinctively reached out to steady him and he was too disoriented to push him away. He could smell the elfroot on the mage’s fingers as he moved his hands from Cullen’s shoulders to his jaw, gently cupping the sides of his face. Anders closed his eyes in concentration and Cullen moaned when the magic washed over him, realizing the sound was vaguely indecent as soon as he heard it, but he was unable to contain his relief as the shimmering wave of energy pushed back the tide of pain and replaced it with the comforting tingle of euphoria. His vision cleared, and he could see every tiny wrinkle on Anders’ face, the flecks of gold in his eyes when he opened them again.

“Better?” he asked, and Cullen couldn’t find his voice in order to answer, but his expression must have reassured Anders because he released him and took a step away. “Do you get these headaches often?” He squinted thoughtfully at Cullen. “They might be caused by something more serious.”

Seeing the compassion in his eyes, Cullen remembered why he had never captured Anders in Kirkwall. He had seen the good the mage was doing in his clinic, and while he hadn't stopped resenting him, he had never been able to justify locking him up in the tower when Anders was finally doing something useful with his freedom. “It’s nothing,” he said finally, rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck. “But thank you. I feel much better.”

Anders nodded, but seemed less than convinced. “I could do a more thorough examination, just to make sure there’s nothing else wrong.”

“No,” Cullen said quickly, raising a hand between them to keep him from moving closer. “That was thorough enough.”

A wall seemed to come down behind Anders’ eyes then, and his lips twisted with a wry expression. “I make you uncomfortable, don’t I?”

“Magic makes me uncomfortable. And you…well…” Cullen felt a blush rise to his cheeks unbidden, and Anders arched a brow. “You’re rather good at it,” he finished lamely.

A smirk crossed Anders’ lips. “I must be. If someone were to judge by that sound you made earlier, they’d think that I—”

“Don’t finish that sentence,” Cullen ordered, already backing away. The look on Anders’ face had triggered a flood of memories from their time in the tower. He knew the man was experienced—the Maker only knew how many beds the Templars had caught him warming over the years, so hungry for affection that he was willing to look just about anywhere to find it—and he had very little shame. Cullen, on the other hand, couldn’t even consider the involuntary sound he had made without blushing.

“What?” Anders blinked. “I wasn’t going to say anything dirty.”

“It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to hear it.” Stumbling back along the path, he babbled, "I have to go. I have a lot of work to do if we're going to close that breach any time soon." He could feel Anders watching him, but ignored the weight of his gaze. Someone needed to stay objective about the man or they were all doomed.

Chapter Text

Closing the breach had been astonishingly straightforward. One great push from Anders and the mages and the hole in the sky had simply snapped shut. It had seemed so simple that if Varric had been putting it into a story he would have had to do some major rewrites to make it feel anything other than anticlimactic. But that was the mark of a well-planned operation, wasn’t it? Just because it looked easy didn’t mean it hadn’t taken a lot of work.

And the effort had taken a visible toll on Anders. If it hadn’t been for the surge of relief and elation that consumed the entirety of the Inquisition soon afterward, Anders probably would have have collapsed as soon as the task was complete. Instead, he had been swept up in the moment and was celebrating with the rest of them, being passed around for dances and congratulated at every turn. Varric watched this happen with bemusement, knowing that many of the people trying to bask in his glow now were the same people who had been so critical of him from the beginning.

The sounds of music and laughter rose on the crisp night air along with the scent of campfires and rich food, the atmosphere alone thick enough to intoxicate, though many of the celebrants had imbibed enough already to make the intoxication real. Wandering through the crowd, he spotted Cassandra standing on the ledge above the festivities, watching with a crease between her eyes and the shadow of a frown on her lips. Climbing up to join her, he teased, "You don't seem to be enjoying the party, Seeker."

"I'm enjoying it just fine," she replied in a grumpy tone that made it obvious just how false her statement was.

"By living vicariously through all the people actually enjoying themselves?"

“It was too easy,” she said, shaking her head.

“What was?”

“Closing the breach. I don’t trust it.”

He didn’t know how to reassure her since he was feeling a bit underwhelmed himself, but he could distract her, at least. He was good at that. “You really don’t know how to relax, do you? Here, I’ll give you a hint. Let’s get you a drink and you’ll start to feel better.”

“Varric.”

“Hey, I’ll even offer to dance with you, and that’s an offer few could resist.”

“No,” she replied, but her lips had turned up in a little smile and he counted that as something of a victory. “But thank you for trying.”

“Any time, Seeker.”

Wading back into the crowd, he saw Iron Bull spinning Anders around in a boisterous jig and nearly tripped over his own feet; that was a sight that he was going to have a hard time scouring from his mind any time soon.

“It’s good to see him smile.” The Tevinter mage was leaning against a building nearby sipping at a glass of wine while he watched the dancing pair.

“It is,” Varric admitted, though he wanted to disagree on principle. He didn’t know why, but something about Dorian irritated him. Varric suspected it was his obvious fixation on Anders, though he couldn’t figure out why that would trouble him so much. It wasn’t hard to see that the two of them had a lot in common. They’d probably even make a good pair, but Varric instinctively disliked the idea.

Breathless and laughing, Anders spun away from Iron Bull once the song was over and headed for the refreshments table to get a drink, saying over his shoulder to the qunari, “Thanks for the offer, but I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.”

“It will stay open indefinitely,” Bull said, “just let me know if you change your mind.”

“Tiny, did you just make a pass at Blondie?” Varric asked Bull with a laugh. Strangely, the thought of the qunari propositioning Anders didn’t cause him the same concern as he had felt about Dorian. “I didn’t figure he’d be your type.”

“My type is fairly diverse,” Bull admitted.

Regarding him curiously, Dorian asked, “Just how diverse, might I ask? Would you be interested in someone like our friend Varric here, for example?”

“Hey, leave me out of it,” Varric said, waving his hands as he backed away. “I’m already in a committed relationship.”

Bull didn’t seem to notice his discomfort. Shrugging, he said, “I’ve been with dwarves before. The height difference is...challenging.” The way he said the word implied that he was more than up to the challenge. “And Varric is a very attractive man. Just look at all that chest hair.”

“Committed relationship,” Varric repeated, his hand moving to Bianca.

“Easy come, easy go,” Bull replied. Looking back at Dorian and giving him a thorough appraisal, he added, “But if you're asking for personal reasons, I don’t usually go for Vints. Still...I might make an exception for you.”

Dorian laughed. “Good to know.”

Hoping that was the start of a beautiful relationship that didn’t include Anders—or himself—Varric left them to their conversation and went looking for his friend. He found Anders in a quiet spot next to the tavern, drinking deeply from a mug of ale and attempting to keep his composure. Vivienne had cornered him, a regal expression on her features as she gazed at him over her wine glass, her pose far too aloof for such a casual celebration. Sera seemed to agree since she walked behind Vivienne and made a rude gesture in the Iron Lady's direction. Anders nearly choked on his ale, but Vivienne was too absorbed in what she was saying to notice.

“Your gambit may have paid off in the short-term. The breach is closed with the mages’ help, but do you really think that their voluntary help in the midst of a crisis will be enough to earn anyone’s trust? Mark my words, as soon as they’re left to their own devices for a few days, they’ll prove exactly how far they can be trusted. The circles were created for a reason, after all.”

Anders’ reply was smooth as silk, so perfectly formed that it was probably a quote from his manifesto. “Yes. To subjugate and suppress people unfortunate enough to be born with abilities that frighten the rest of the population.”

Vivienne shook her head and smiled, though the expression had nothing to do with amusement. “You are such a zealot. The sheer quantity of facts you must constantly rationalize away or ignore must be dizzying.”

“You would know better than I. Twisting the truth to suit your whims is the whole point of the Orlesian Game, isn’t it? How do you ever manage to keep the truth separate from all the falsities you’ve conjured to support your arguments?”

“Darling, my truth is the only one that matters. Survival of the fittest.”

“Of course. If only we could all aspire to such a singular position of privilege as you’ve found for yourself. Then maybe no one would ever have cause to complain. But there’s a reason there’s only one court enchanter. Only one mage in a position of power can be tolerated at a time.” If he hadn’t known Justice was gone, Varric would have expected to see a blue glow flickering in Anders’ eyes. But according to Anders, he had espoused the mages’ cause long before he joined with Justice; the spirit had simply given him the courage—and recklessness—to act. Still, Varric couldn’t stand to listen to Anders lecture on the topic without feeling a bit uneasy.

“Blondie, you clearly haven’t been drinking enough,” he interrupted. “Your sentences are still entirely too coherent. And look! Your mug’s empty. Let’s go remedy that.”

“Ah, and here’s your pet dwarf, right on cue. Whatever would you do without his constant coddling?”

“What did you call me?” Varric demanded, instinctively stepping between her and Anders before he realized he was proving her point.

“Oh, don’t take it so personally, Varric darling. Its more of a reflection on his weakness than it is a critique of you.”

“That book I was considering writing?” Varric scowled. “I think I just discarded the idea.”

She laughed. “But you’ve already cast me as the villain! Shouldn’t this just prove the point?”

“The role is too good for you. Maybe I’ll write you as some petty noble who appears to be the villain but turns out to be nothing but a lackey.”

“And perhaps I will get your little fiction banned from publication,” she said with a lazy smile, walking away as she spoke to ensure she would have the last word.

"Can you believe her?" Turning back to Anders, Varric had expected to see the mage’s face flushed with anger, but he seemed distracted instead, head half-tilted as if listening to something only he could hear. “Blondie?”

Anders blinked and shook his head slightly. “Hm?”

“Something wrong?”

“I don’t know.” He looked thoughtfully at the wall around the village, his gaze unfocused as if he were seeing through it to something far away. “Just a weird feeling.”

At that moment the alarm bell echoed through the village and the festivities fell abruptly silent.

“If you were having a premonition, it was a little too late to be helpful,” Varric pointed out, but Anders was already moving and he lost him quickly in the chaos. By the time he was able to push through the crowd to the gate, the Inquisitions’ leaders were already standing outside and staring at a massive army pouring over the hills. Flickering torches dotted the mountains, too many to count, and he felt his stomach clench. He was a storyteller and a businessman, not a soldier, and though he had fought more skirmishes than he could recall, he wasn’t cut out for large scale battles. Hearing Cullen shouting orders at his troops, he wanted to do nothing more than to run back to the chantry and hide, but then he saw Anders’ face, tight with anxiety and sickly pale. He followed the mage’s gaze to the army cresting a ridge in the distance and his jaw dropped in shock.

“No. That’s impossible.”

“Corypheus,” Anders whispered with a shudder.

The last time they had seen that freak, he’d been a corpse on the ground, but impossible or not, the twisted, mockery of a man looming inhumanly large above the rest of the army was unmistakable. Then Varric noticed the templar standing beside Corypheus: Samson. They’d run across the lyrium addict back in Kirkwall, a miserable waste of space who had sold a poor elf boy to Tevinter slavers just to get another fix. But the glimmer of red lyrium on his armor showed he had upped the ante on his addition even further.

Anders staggered back a step, breaths coming fast and shallow. “Varric,” he said in a pleading tone. “Corypheus almost took control of me before. I can’t…”

“Easy, Blondie,” Varric said reassuringly, though he felt no less panicked. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Okay? He was dead!”

“I know. I know. We’ll figure it out.”

“The Red Templars went to the Elder One.” Varric’s attention shifted to the odd young man who had spoken. His curious wide-brimmed hat shaded half his face, and matted strings of hair hid the rest. “You know him?” the young man asked Anders. “He knows you. He’s very angry that you took his mages.”

“What was that, Cole?” Cullen turned around and followed Cole’s gaze to Anders. “You know this Elder One? Explain. Now.”

“We fought that thing—the Elder One—with Hawke,” Varric answered when he saw that Anders was too distracted to reply. “But we didn’t just fight him. We killed him.”

“I remember the story,” Cassandra confirmed. “But how can that be Corypheus? How could he be alive?”

“You’re asking me? How the hell should I know? All of this shit is weird to me.”

“But you said that Corypheus had some sort of hold over the Grey Wardens. He used their connection to the darkspawn to control them.” Her gaze snapped to Anders. “And you’re a Grey Warden.”

“We must warn Blackwall,” Leliana said, “and take precautions.”

Finally finding his voice, Anders shook his head, "It doesn't make sense. Corypheus is a darkspawn—not just a darkspawn, but the original one. I should be able to feel the taint in him by now, but all I’ve felt is a premonition that something bad was about to happen. Something is different this time."

“We don’t have time to discuss it,” Cullen said, though the way he was biting at his lower lip said he wasn’t happy about it. “We need to push them back before they get any closer.” Turning back to his soldiers, he shouted, “Someone, man that trebuchet. Mages, you have sanction to attack.”

The battle erupted around them then, and Varric and Anders got caught up in it along with everyone else. They followed orders and used the trebuchets to bury as much of the army in an avalanche as they could, but that bloody huge dragon turned the tide in an instant. A few sweeping passes and the village was on fire, their troops in disarray. Cullen called for a retreat and they started running back to the strongest building in the village, pulling survivors out of the burning rubble where they could along the way. But they couldn’t possibly save everyone.

Varric’s lungs were choked with smoke by the time they made it to the chantry, and he found a column to lean against while he tried to catch his breath. He scowled when he saw the young man Cullen had called Cole helping a wounded Chancellor Roderick inside, but to his surprise the Chancellor actually made himself useful for once. He told them about a path through the mountains, a way known only to a few, and he looked up at Anders in awe, obviously beginning to believe in his divinely chosen destiny. Varric had to clear his throat to hide the laugh building at the back of his throat. But Anders had gone silent and still, his expression guarded.

The Inquisition leaders debated their options in fevered tones, but Anders stood apart from them, listening but clearly thinking through options on his own. Then Cole spoke up. “The Elder One doesn’t care about the village. He only wants you,” he said looking sadly at Anders.

Anders nodded with determination and Varric felt a chill race down his spine. He had seen that expression on Anders’ face before, an eerie peacefulness tempered by the desperation of having the future narrowed down to a single choice. The last time he had worn that expression he had blown up a chantry. Varric knew there would be no stopping him this time either.

“I’m going back out there,” Anders said, his voice cutting through all the debate.

“What?” Cullen snapped, spinning back to face him. “That’s suicide.”

“Cole is right. Corypheus wants me. Everything else is just collateral damage. I can keep him occupied long enough for you to escape.”

The Commander’s mouth opened and shut, words failing him entirely. His brows furrowed as he looked at Anders, and Varric could feel the weight of his indecision from a few steps away.

“Keeping him distracted isn’t enough,” Cassandra said thoughtfully. “If that army follows us everything is over.”

“The only thing that slowed them was the avalanche,” Cullen said, voice faint but growing in strength as he spoke. “We could use the remaining trebuchets to trigger another one.”

“But that would bury Haven entirely!” Josephine cried.

“No, he’s right,” Cassandra said. “It’s the only way to stop them.”

“But we need time to get everyone out first. And there’d be no chance for escape.” Leliana looked at Anders sadly.

And there was Anders’ heartbreaking little half-smile, right on cue. Varric’s hands clenched into fists. “You don’t need me to escape,” Anders said reassuringly. “The breach is closed. If I can bury Corypheus, then this is all over.” Shrugging, he added, “At least until he finds a way to come back again.”

"What if Corypheus tries to control your mind?" Leliana protested.

"I've had a lot of experience fighting that sort of thing lately. But if I start to lose control, I'll end it quickly. Can I borrow one of your daggers, Cole?"

The young man offered up one of his blades with a frown and Anders tucked it into his belt easily as if he wasn't planning on using the knife to end his own life. Silence fell as everyone stared at him in shock. He swallowed, and then without ceremony, turned to leave.

Varric stepped forward to follow. “You’re not going alone.” Anders looked back at him with wide eyes, mouth flying open to argue, but Varric stopped him with a smile. “Corypheus is my responsibility too, you know. And you might actually consider an escape plan if you have someone with you.”

“Count me in,” Iron Bull agreed. “I’m itching to take a swing at that dragon!”

"I'm coming along as well," Dorian announced. “We’re all too beautiful to die, so naturally we’ll have to make it out alive.”

Emotions raced each other across Anders’ face and he closed his eyes as if to contain them. Nodding, he turned to the doors again with his head held high. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

As they fought their way to the trebuchet, Anders realized that he never would have made it on his own. The army was too close now to be avoided and they could hardly move two steps without more red templars pouring over the walls. He was still astounded that anyone had volunteered to come with him, but that was emotional baggage that would have to be unpacked later. If he survived this. If any of them did. But they were getting close now.

They had just turned the trebuchet when he heard a dragon cry and looked up to see the beast wheeling toward them.

“Yes!” Iron Bull shouted, but Anders pushed him back when the dragon swept toward them, flames pouring from its mouth.

“Run! I mean it, Bull.”

The qunari finally listened when the flames got close enough for them to feel the heat, and then they were all running. Debris flew through the air and Anders lost his footing, head spinning as he tumbled over the snowy landscape and landed with a huff, the wind knocked out of him completely.

Squinting through the smoke, he saw the others still running, likely thinking he was right behind them as the dragon continued its pursuit. Good. They might escape the dragon. They wouldn’t escape the avalanche once he used that trebuchet. The trebuchet! He exhaled in relief when he saw that it was intact. Hauling himself to his feet, he was halfway to it when the dragon came back along the path, blocking the way back to Haven.

He turned at the sound of a familiar voice growling from behind him. “Pretender! You toy with forces beyond your ken. No more.” Corypheus paused, tilted his grotesque head at Anders and balked. “You! I recognize you now. You are one of the wardens of my prison, one of the fools who sought to destroy me.”

That wasn’t entirely correct, but Anders didn’t feel like arguing. “Yes. That was me.” Throat raw, he kept talking, inching toward the trebuchet with every word. “How did you survive, anyway?”

“Your understanding is not required. If you gain it, consider yourself blessed. But you will kneel.” Fingers like claws reached out to Anders, curling in the air as if to clutch at something invisible. “Exalt the Elder One, the will that is Corypheus.”

Anders braced for the attack, but felt...nothing. It was clear that Corypheus was attempting to manipulate him in the same way that he had before, but it didn’t seem to be working.

“The anchor has changed you!” Corypheus gasped, anger burning in his eyes. “It protects you from my will. No matter. I will take it from you directly.” He twisted his fingers again and pain exploded in the mark on Anders’ hand, doubling him over in agony. “It is your fault. You interrupted a ritual years in the planning and instead of dying, you stole it’s purpose. I don’t know how you survived, but what marks you as touched, what you flail at rifts, I crafted to assault the very heavens. And you use the anchor to undo my work. The gall!”

Struggling to keep moving despite the pain, Anders let Corypheus continue his grandiose speech, hoping the freak was in enough love with his own voice that he would fail to notice what Anders was doing. But before he could move another step, the creature grabbed him by his left hand, lifting him off the ground and continuing his assault on the mark—the anchor as Corypheus called it. Anders grimaced, struggling to reach the ground or find purchase on any surface within reach simply to ease the strain on his arm.

“I once breached the fade in the name of another, to serve the old gods of the empire in person,” Corypheus continued, his putrid breath hitting Anders’ in the face with every word. “I found chaos and corruption and dead whispers. For a thousand years I was confused. No more. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own, to champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. Beg that I succeed. For I have seen the throne of the gods and it was empty!”

He flung Anders across the clearing, and Anders could hardly believe his luck when he landed against the trebuchet, painful though his landing was. At least the pain in his hand had finally ceased. He felt weak with relief.

“The anchor is permanent,” Corypheus said mournfully. “You have spoilt it with your stumbling. So be it. I will begin again, find a way to give this world the nation and god it requires. But I will not suffer even an unknowing rival. You must die.”

When Anders looked up again, he saw a flaming arrow rising high in the sky, the signal that the rest of the Inquisition had gotten away safely. Summoning his remaining strength, he said, “If I’m dying today, then I won’t be alone.” As he pulled the trigger he added, “Let’s see if the second time will be the charm.”

A crack like thunder pealed out across the valley and Anders dove for cover, his instincts guiding him though he did not actually expect to find a place to hide. The last thing he remembered was falling. Then nothing but cold and darkness.

Chapter Text

Dorian huddled closer to the fire, so cold that he was even starting to look enviously at the Commander’s ridiculous fur-lined coat. The camp was quiet around him, mournful even, and though he stayed silent to be respectful, he wanted nothing more than to talk just to fill the air with something other than the occasional moan of pain or whimper. When people spoke, they did so in whispered fragments, eyes downcast as the suffocating hush of snow swallowed their words.

“Kittens and healing potions. So lonely. He used to smile more.”

Flinching in surprise, Dorian looked at the greasy young man seated beside him. He didn’t remember seeing him before, but he still didn’t know many of the people in the Inquisition—and after today, there were many more members of the Inquisition he would never get the chance to meet. “What did you say?” he asked, but the boy seemed focused on the dwarf pacing on the other side of the fire.

“Always wanted to be a martyr. Finally found a cause worthy of him. Dead. He can’t be dead. Need to go back. Look for him.”

Confused, Dorian squinted at the young man—Cole, that was his name. He remembered that now. But Cole was focused intently on Varric as he spoke, almost as if he were speaking for the dwarf instead of himself. “Are you all right?”

Cole shifted to look at him and shivered as if shaking off a bad feeling. “He’s in pain.”

“Who is? Varric?”

“Yes. I wish I could help him.” The sincerity in Cole’s eyes was painfully pure, the sight almost enough to make Dorian forget his desire to rub snow into Cole’s dirty hair until it came away clean.

Dorian sighed. “Nothing to do but give him time and space to grieve. He’s lost a friend today.”

“The Herald.”

“Yes.” Looking back at the fire, Dorian frowned. He hadn’t known Trevelyan long, but he still felt the man’s loss keenly. He wished he would have looked back while they were running. If he had noticed that Trevelyan had fallen behind, then maybe he could have saved him. Might-have-beens weighed heavily on his mind, possibilities that had been taken from him now, buried along with Haven. But there was no point dwelling on regrets.

“My responsibility,” Cole said suddenly. “Should have gone with him and made sure he came back alive.” Cole was looking at Cassandra now, a crease between his brows. “Brave. Redeemed himself in the end.”

“Are you...reading their minds?” Dorian demanded incredulously, but Cole ignored him, shifting to look at Iron Bull.

“Ten tons of beautiful and I ran away. Shouldn’t have listened. I’ll find you again and rip the scales from your hide. You’re mine, dragon. But he told me to run. Selfless bastard. Should have saved himself.”

Dorian watched the giant qunari as he gripped the pommel of his greatsword with a scowl. Edging in the opposite direction, Dorian looked at where his staff was propped against a box beside him. Though he liked Iron Bull, he couldn’t feel comfortable in the presence of an angry qunari without having a weapon close to hand. “Why don’t you look at someone else, Cole? I think I’ve heard enough of Iron Bull’s thoughts for one day.”

Looking up at him, Cole blinked and turned his head one way and then the other. Dorian cringed when he realized that Cole was about to start blurting out his own thoughts, but then Cole turned, looking urgently out at the snow beyond the edge of the firelight. “Cold. Freezing. Can’t keep moving. Can’t think. Is that light or hallucination? Must be hypothermia. So cold.”

Dorian was on his feet before Cole finished. Just at the edge of the ridge he could see motion, a shadow moving over the snow with labored steps. Varric looked up at him in confusion when he walked past, but turned to follow.

“Where are you going?” Cassandra demanded.

“Andraste’s flaming knickers,” Varric hissed, running out into the snow as the figure ahead slumped. “Blondie! He’s alive!”

Dorian was on his heels, ignoring the state of his robes as they dragged through the snow drifts. Hopeful shouts echoed over the mountaintop, the camp behind them suddenly full of voices and running feet. He didn’t know which of them pulled Trevelyan from the snow, but it was a group effort, many hands lifting his unconscious body and bearing him back to camp. His skin was like ice, his face pale and streaked with blood, but he didn’t seem to be gravely injured. Dorian thought back to the distance they had crossed, stopping periodically to warm themselves with fires before the cold took hold. How had Trevelyan walked all that way alone—never mind how had he escaped the avalanche or the hideous creature that had been leading the army?

“This is a miracle,” Mother Giselle whispered. Normally Dorian would be inclined to disagree with such religious drivel, but he had no better explanation for the Herald’s survival.

Cassandra joined them in carrying Trevelyan, her expression filled with wonder as she tenderly brushed snow from his coat. Varric was beside her, dampness on his ruddy cheeks shimmering in the firelight, though Dorian suspected the dwarf would claim the moisture was melted snow if anyone asked. The qunari joined them as well, taking more than his share of the load, though they all knew he could have effortlessly carried the Herald back to the camp on his own. But everyone wanted to help. Even Cullen had joined them, standing opposite Dorian and supporting the mage’s shoulders, his expression difficult to decipher.

“I knew you would find a way to escape,” he said softly, looking down at Trevelyan. “You always do.”

Filing that statement away for later consideration, Dorian focused on helping the others position Trevelyan on a cot. Mother Giselle shooed everyone out of the tent in order to tend to the Herald’s wounds, but Varric lingered, pulling a crate close to the cot and sitting down near the mage’s head. Dorian and Cassandra hovered as well, so Mother Giselle sent them after various items: clean water, bandages. Cassandra followed the order immediately, a soldier’s determination settling into her features, but Dorian hesitated near the tent flap, transfixed by the sight of the dwarf gently tucking Trevelyan’s head to his chest and pressing a light kiss against his hair. Trevelyan unconsciously turned into the warmth, and Varric’s gloved fingers tightened on his shoulder.

Dorian suddenly wished for that young man’s company again, the one who could read minds. He turned to look for him, but then realized he had no idea what Cole looked like.

He turned back to look at the cot when he heard Trevelyan’s muffled voice. “Varric?”  

“Shh,” Varric reassured. “You’re safe. I’ve got you.”

“Am I dreaming?”

Varric chuckled, stroking lightly over his hair. “Blondie, if you’re dreaming about me, then you really need to work on your imagination.”

“Or I’m in Isabela’s dream. All this chest hair is warm, at least.”

Varric laughed again, and this one was loud enough to make Mother Giselle to look up with a frown.

“Dorian.”

Startled, Dorian turned to see Cassandra tugging at his sleeve. “Come on. We need to find the bandages.”

Nodding reluctantly, Dorian allowed himself to be pulled away.

Chapter Text

Varric was really sick of the snow. He’d never been an outdoorsy person to begin with, but in his opinion snow was about the worst environmental condition you could come across. It was cold, and when it got warm it melted which made a mess. The wind got colder blowing over it, and trying to wade through the stuff was as bad as slogging through sand. And they had been walking through it for what felt like days. Not to say he was ungrateful to be alive, but he would have been far more grateful to be warm and sheltered from the elements.

They still had no idea where they were going, but at least no one was singing. The Inquisition’s impromptu choir rehearsal the other night had quickly taken the top position on his list of most awkward things ever. The song had clearly bolstered spirits more than listening to the Inquisition’s leadership argue, but Varric liked to leave music to the professionals and he knew he wasn’t the only one. He hadn’t been able to meet Blondie’s eyes during the song for fear of losing his shit, but he had been able to feel the mage’s discomfort even from a few steps away. He’d only gotten through the experience by focusing on the character quirks the music revealed about their companions. He hadn’t expected Cullen to have such a nice singing voice, for example, and Leliana’s training as a bard really showed when she took up the melody an octave above Mother Giselle. Still, he would be relieved if it never happened again.

The sun reflected brilliantly off the slopes ahead, and Varric squinted into the light. Solas and Anders were just returning from another scouting trip, and judging by the looks on their faces, they were encouraged by what they had found. Varric was just glad to see Anders back on his feet and keeping busy. Tensions had been high during the attack on Haven, and while the battle had taken its toll on everyone, Anders had borne the brunt of it. Varric had noticed sentiments shifting over the last few days, however, especially in the way many in the Inquisition deferred to Anders. Even Cullen and Cassandra had started seeking his opinion and asking him to resolve conflicts when they couldn’t come to a decision on their own. Anders didn’t seem to know how to take this newfound respect, but Varric wasn’t surprised. Anders had sacrificed himself for their cause, and many thought his survival was nothing short of miraculous. The rumors of Andraste’s Herald were only going to take on new proportions now that he had apparently managed to defy death a second time. It was such a great story of tragedy and redemption that Varric was considering writing it all down.

“Varric darling, you’re thinking too hard.”

Raising an eyebrow at Vivienne he scoffed, “What? Thinking’s a crime now?”

“It is when you’re doing it so loudly that no one around you can think.”

“Oh, you’re just worried I’ll find some way to slander you in my new book.”

“Hardly! As if you could come up with an insult that I couldn’t turn to my advantage.”

Overtaking him on the slope despite her delicate footwear, she wandered over to speak with Josephine, and Varric watched her departure with relief. Shaking his head, he noticed Dorian walking beside him on the other side. The Tevinter was tall enough that he had to be adjusting his strides in order to match Varric’s pace, which meant he wanted to talk about something. Great.

“Okay, Sparkler, what is it?”

“Pardon?”

“I can feel you working yourself up to a question. Just spit it out.”

Smirking, Dorian shifted his shoulders a bit as if to get comfortable. “Very well. You and Trevelyan. There’s some history between you, isn’t there?”

Varric had to think for a moment before he realized Dorian was talking about Anders. Then he nearly rolled his eyes. Restraining himself—barely—he said, “We’ve known each other a long time, if that's what you're asking.”

“Interesting that. I mean, I wouldn’t have expected a lifelong citizen of Kirkwall to spend a lot of time in Ostwick’s circle tower.”

He was fishing. Rather obviously. Varric didn’t like it, but Dorian wasn’t likely to stop until he found some answers. Varric could give him that much, even if they were all the wrong answers. “How much do you know about the Free Marches?” he asked.

Dorian frowned, pouting a little. “Admittedly, not that much.”

“And mage circles outside Tevinter?”

A wrinkle had formed between Dorian’s perfectly sculpted brows. “Just enough to know their mages don’t get to wander freely about.”

“True. They can be transferred, however, from one circle to another.”

Dorian considered this thoughtfully. “So Trevelyan started out in Kirkwall? I thought his family was from Ostwick.”

Careful not to confirm anything, Varric said, “Sometimes circles get full and they have to send a mage to another circle until they have an opening.”

“Still, I don’t understand how a mage living in one of your unnecessarily restrictive circles would have cause to meet a dwarven merchant.”

Varric arched a brow up at Dorian. “Surely you realize what dwarven merchants are well-known for supplying.”

Eyes widening, Dorian nodded. “Lyrium. Of course.” He seemed very pleased with himself for connecting the dots. “So you were involved in the lyrium trade in Kirkwall, and what? You met Trevelyan while delivering supplies to the city’s templars? Seems rather coincidental.”

“Sparkler, ninety percent of all friendships start with a chance meeting of one sort or another. Its the connection made in that moment that determines whether it will be mere coincidence or fate.” Varric was on a roll, the bullshit rolling off his tongue like butter.

Turning these thoughts over in his brain, Dorian walked in silence for a few strides. “That explains how you met, but only raises more questions. The two of you are obviously close. You share the kind of bond that only forms through shared experience and trauma. It’s the sort of connection soldiers form during battle, a deep mutual trust and reliance on each others’ instincts. I’ve seen the two of you fight together. You fight like two pieces of the same machine.”

“Well we have been fighting together for a few months now.”

“You know each other well enough to predict what the other person will do before they do it. That sort of rapport isn’t something that develops over the course of a few months. And neither of you share it with anyone else in the Inquisition.”

Varric shook his head. Dorian was like a dog with a bone--a very manicured and pampered dog, perhaps, but a dog nonetheless. “Some people just click. It’s not that hard to explain.”

Looking at Varric with a smug look in his eye, Dorian accused, “You’ve fought together before. And Trevelyan is too skilled at battle magic to be a circle mage who only used such techniques in lessons. Not to mention his talent for healing. I’ve seen less talented healers who earned a living with their skills.”

“What do you want me to say?” Varric asked, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “That Blondie used to run around playing mercenary with me? That he spent all his free time offering his healing services to the poor and needy?”

Eyes narrowing, Dorian asked, “Is that what happened?”

“Are you kidding? That’s ridiculous.”

“Then what is the explanation? How do you and Trevelyan know each other so well? Are you long lost half-brothers? Survivors of some terrible tragedy? Secret lovers?”

Dorian had a vivid imagination, at least. There was no denying that. Varric hesitated, unable to think of a way out of the corner he had painted himself into other than lying outright. Before he could respond, Iron Bull fell back to join their conversation and took the decision away from him completely.

“His name isn’t Trevelyan,” the qunari said bluntly to Dorian, and the mage blinked in confusion, clearly trying to integrate this fact with what he thought he already knew.

“Tiny,” Varric said in warning, wondering when Iron Bull had figured out that Anders wasn’t who he said he was. Then he remembered that the qunari was a spy. He looked around anxiously to see if anyone else was in earshot, but luckily they had slowed down enough to separate themselves from the rest of the group.

“He won’t stop until he has learned the truth,” Bull pointed out. Focusing on Dorian he said, “You shouldn’t have gone to the dwarf with your questions. He’s been letting you spin yourself a false reality.”

“Wait… So none of that was true?”

Iron Bull shook his head. “Nothing you came up with. Nothing he led you into thinking.”

“Then what is the truth?”

“I suggest you look into recent history in Kirkwall. You’ll find a mage's name that stands out from the rest and an event that changed that city forever. His name and his actions.”

Dorian laughed. “That’s it? You’re going to make me do the research on my own?”

A grin split the qunari’s lips. “I’d be happy to keep you company while you work, though I’m not sure how conducive my presence would be to your focus.”

“Whatever you find out,” Varric added, grinding his teeth together in irritation. “Keep it to yourself. There’s a reason we haven’t been broadcasting the truth to the whole Inquisition.”

“Of course,” Dorian said, a frown darkening his features.

"You should probably start with his book," Iron Bull suggested, nodding at Varric.

"Hard in Hightown?" Dorian exclaimed. "I could only get through two pages of that drivel before..." Varric's glare stopped him. "I mean, it's not exactly my cup of tea."

"Then you're in luck," Varric replied mildly, accustomed to this sort of critique by now. "He was referring to the Tale of the Champion."

Their conversation ended there, because in that moment they heard a cheer rising up from the front of the group. Anders and Solas stood at the top of the ridge, looking off at something in the distance, and Varric could feel in his bones that they had finally discovered their destination.

Chapter Text

Josephine didn’t think she’d ever seen anything so beautiful in her life. Skyhold was perfect, an easily defensible keep, large enough to suit their needs and remote enough to keep them safe while they recovered from their wounds. She could hardly believe their luck—their providence, as Mother Giselle insisted—but the keep had been abandoned long ago, waiting for them to discover it as if formed directly by the Maker’s hand for their purposes.

She knew she wasn’t the only one who was thinking such thoughts, and the fact that the Herald had discovered the castle himself only gave more credence to the idea of fate. Josephine wasn’t certain what she believed herself, but she knew how to use such beliefs to their advantage. Despite her seemingly pure intentions, Mother Giselle seemed to understand such notions as well since she had made a related suggestion that they choose a leader for the Inquisition soon. They needed to be united, now more than ever, and the choice of who should lead them was obvious. Josephine only needed to convince the others. That was proving to be a difficult task, but not as difficult as it would have been before the events at Haven, before the Herald had sacrificed himself for the Inquisition.

Directing workers as she wandered around the keep, she went looking for the others, hoping to bring them to consensus soon; they couldn’t wait too long to resolve this or the gesture might miss the mark. She found Leliana in the tower’s rookery tying a message to a bird’s leg and setting it free.

“Josie,” she greeted, leaning on the balcony and looking out over the castle. “Isn’t this place wonderful?”

“It will be perfect,” Josephine agreed. “As soon as we’ve finished enough of the repairs, I will start contacting our supporters. Seeing our new stronghold will reassure them that the Inquisition is stronger than ever in spite of what happened at Haven.”

Leliana smiled, closing her eyes and leaning her head into the breeze.

“Have you given any more thought to our discussion earlier?”

“About the Herald?”

Josephine nodded.

“Yes. And I’m with you. He’s the only logical choice. Everyone would wonder if we chose someone else. Besides, he has earned this. I trust him.”

Sighing, Josephine said, “That’s two of us, then. I need only one more vote to have majority. Who would you recommend approaching next? Cullen or Cassandra?”

“Difficult to say. Cullen has been the most volatile toward the Herald, but convincing him is critical if this decision is going to be something more than merely symbolic. But Cassandra has already started softening her stance, and perhaps Cullen would be swayed by the pressure if the rest of us were in agreement.”

“Or it could make him more contrary if he felt we were ganging up on him.”

“True.”

Taking a deep breath, Josephine summoned a smile. “Perhaps I will go looking for them both and approach whichever one I find first.”

She walked back down the stairs, nodding at the mages in the library as she passed. Taking the passage through Solas’ room, she admired the mural he was painting on the wall and took the walkway over to Cullen’s tower. He wasn’t there. A glance over the balcony showed her that he was down in the courtyard, but Cassandra was closer, so she headed in her direction. Watching the Seeker attack a practice dummy with a vengeance, she hesitated, but Cassandra had already noticed her.

Wiping sweat from her brow, Cassandra looked up at her with a scowl. “I suppose you’re here to get my answer,” she said bluntly.

Shifting her weight to one hip, Josephine asked, “Do you have one?”

“I do.” Looking down at the ground, Cassandra shook her head. “And much as I might like to say otherwise, my answer is yes. His past mistakes cannot be forgotten, but he has done much to redeem himself. And his selflessness is undeniable after what he did at Haven.”

“You would follow him? And abide by his decisions?” Josephine asked to confirm Cassandra’s resolve.

“As long as he is at least willing to consider my advice along the way, yes. I have accepted some of his decisions already, ones I would not have chosen myself. And the consequences have not been so dire as I would have expected.”

“Good. Then I have only Cullen to convince.”

Cassandra grimaced. “He is having a rough day. Perhaps now is not the best time.”

Considering the evasiveness in Cassandra’s voice, Josephine determined that something more was going on with Cullen than Cassandra was sharing. This would warrant further investigation. “Unfortunately, it must be now. If we wait too long, the gesture will be wasted.”

“Good luck, then.”

Cullen was barking orders at his soldiers when she arrived in the courtyard, such weariness in his posture that she wondered if he had slept at all since they arrived at Skyhold. Seeing the haunted look in his eyes, she understood why Cassandra had tried to dissuade her. Without acknowledging her presence, he looked back down at the papers spread over the table before him and returned to work.

“Commander?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have time to talk, Ambassador,” he said abruptly.

“Head pounding, fire burning in my veins.” They both turned to see Cole sitting on a crate nearby, heels kicking absently at the wood as he stared at Cullen unblinkingly. “Need to take it. Must take it. Can’t keep on like this. No! Shake it off. Have to keep working.”

“Stop that!” Cullen snapped, and she realized that Cole had been voicing his thoughts. Take what, she wondered? Is this what Cassandra had been hiding?

“You’re in pain,” Cole said to justify the intrusion. “And he could help.” His gaze swung to the stairs and Josephine saw Anders walking down the stone steps toward them.

He was wearing a new coat, brushed suede and quilted fabric in shades of dark teal with black trim—and were those feathers sewn into the fabric across his shoulders? Beneath, he wore a flowing white shirt and black pants tucked into soft leather boots.

“Herald,” she said in surprise. “Did you not get the package I left in your room?”

Anders replied with a wince. “I did, actually. I appreciate the thought, Ambassador, but it was a bit...form-fitting, and not really my color. I had Dagna make me something new.” Though she was irritated that he had discarded the clothing she had commissioned for him, she had to admit he had decent taste; the teal contrasted nicely with his eyes, and the cut of the coat complemented his lanky frame.

“Can’t you two chat somewhere else?” Cullen grumbled.

Anders frowned at him. “You have another headache, don’t you?”

Pausing in his work, Cullen seemed to be holding his breath, but he didn’t look up or reply.

“Stubborn,” Anders muttered, walking over to him without further preamble and pressing a hand against the nape of Cullen’s neck. Magic flared around his fingertips. “You really should let me take a closer look to make sure these headaches aren’t a symptom of something more significant.”

“I’m just tired,” Cullen said, voice husky as he closed his eyes, but he pushed back into Anders’ touch despite his reluctance.

“Relief,” Cole said, and Josephine watched Cullen’s face as the young man spoke, seeing the emotions on his face follow the words. “Like diving into mountain water, pure and clean. Tingling all over, racing down my spine. No pain. I can breathe again. Stop talking.” At that last phrase, Cole’s hand flew up to cover his mouth.

Cullen had looked up to glare at him, and Cole hopped off the crate and ran away. “Someone, keep him away from here. I can’t focus with his constant babbling.”

“I’ll go find him,” Anders said with a sigh.

Josephine felt a grin spreading across her lips as she watched him walk away. Though Cullen was trying to ignore her, he squirmed a bit under her gaze. “So,” she said, walking toward him. “He heals your headaches.”

“I’ve never asked him to do anything.”

“Then he does it because he recognizes your pain and wants to fix it. An admirable trait.”

Planting his hands on the table, he looked up at her. “What do you want?”

“An answer.”

“To what?”

She tilted her head at him and arched a brow.

Sighing deeply, Cullen looked off in the direction Anders had gone. “He isn’t a leader.”

“He has a following,” she countered. “Doesn’t that make him one by default?”

“No,” he said, jaw tense as he spoke as if the words were reluctant to come out. “But he means well. Without that demon clouding his mind, his intentions are more reliable. I might even trust him. A little.”

“Enough to make him Inquisitor?”

Cullen scrubbed at his face. “I’ll probably regret this, but yes.”

Her smile broadened. “I’ll arrange for everyone to gather in the courtyard for the announcement. I’ll see you there, Commander.”

“Yes. Fine.” He waved a hand at her and returned to his work.

Josephine made a habit of never visibly gloating over her victories—such behavior was unladylike and crude—but she would probably sit in front of the fire in her study later and enjoy a glass of wine and a box of Orlesian candies to celebrate. It wasn’t gloating if no one saw you do it.

Chapter Text

Anders was in shock. He was in charge of the Inquisition. How had this happened?

He had started out as a prisoner, the least trusted member of the Inquisition—and with good reason. If it hadn’t been for the mark on his hand, they probably would have executed him the moment they found out who he was. They had only kept him around out of necessity, supporting him publicly while privately pulling his strings like a puppet. And now that the breach had been closed, his purpose served, he had expected them to push him out of the spotlight entirely. He was nothing more than a nuisance at this point—even to Corypheus—and they should have been more than happy to relegate him to a merely symbolic role, a position where he could do little harm.

Instead they had made him their leader.

Perhaps they had felt that they had no choice. After what happened at Haven and the way his actions kept getting chalked up to divine intervention, they had to know that whether they acknowledged his influence or not, the people were looking to him for guidance. The pressure of their expectations was so debilitating that it made him itch to run away, to escape before he found some way to ruin everything. Though he had often wanted to change the world, being the one to make all the decisions was not as empowering as it seemed. It was impossible to please everyone, and most of the time it was foolish to even try.

Still, they had all looked to him after the announcement, giving him their advice and opinions but leaving the ultimate decisions to him. He hadn’t known how to handle the shift in power, so he hadn’t caused any waves. Of course they should investigate the potential assassination of Empress Celene. And of course they needed to find out more about the demon army Corypheus was building. He had very little to add. As long as they didn’t try to get him to limit the mages’ freedom, he was happy to follow their advice.

Varric had tried to catch his eye when he finally walked back outside, but he had avoided the dwarf by losing himself in the shuffle of people moving through the castle. He needed some time to think. He finally found a quiet spot at the top of the battlements where the cold wind whipped at his hair and reminded him that he wasn’t dreaming. He thought he was alone until he heard the voice beside him.

“Wrong. The wrong man for the job. What are they thinking? Never wanted this. I’ll only fail, let them down.”

Looking at Cole in surprise, Anders sucked in a breath and leaned on the crenelated stone as he tried to calm his racing heart. “You shouldn’t startle people like that, Cole.”

“Sorry.”

Catching his breath, Anders looked over at the young man, still uncertain what to think of him. He’d gone looking for Cole after Cullen scared him off, but he hadn’t been able to find him anywhere. Cole had a talent for disappearing entirely when he wanted to go unnoticed. Anders had no idea what Cole was, but he knew he wasn’t human. He might be a spirit possessing a body like Justice had been when he first left the Fade or something else entirely. Regardless, he seemed to be benevolent in nature, and Anders had felt an immediate affinity for him the moment they met.

"You aren't afraid of me." Cole said thoughtfully. "Not like the others."

Smiling, Anders replied, "No. You remind me of a friend."

Cole tilted his head, eyes drifting shut as he said dreamily, "So quiet. Lonely. Can't remember his voice anymore. Halved now, never whole. How do people walk around so empty?"

Hearing his pain relayed to him so bluntly only brought the raw emotions back to the surface, feelings Anders had managed to bury in all the recent chaos. "Cole," he said gently, "most people find it disconcerting when you share their thoughts out loud."

"But Justice knew your thoughts." He turned to peer at Anders from beneath his hat. "He shared them, shared everything."

"Yes." Anders looked off into the distance. "But I gave him permission. It's wrong to intrude without being permitted."

"But they all call to me, broadcast their thoughts so I will hear."

"They don't know they're doing it. That's not the same as giving permission."

"I want to help. And they'll forget me afterward."

"That doesn't make it okay."

Cole wrung his hands, one foot tapping anxiously against the stone. "But what do I do? How do I help? They need me."

Regarding him uncertainly, Anders shook his head. "I don't know."

Cole looked over his shoulder down at the courtyard below. Following his gaze, Anders saw that Cassandra, Vivienne and Solas were embroiled in a tense conversation. "They think I'm a demon."

"You're not," Anders said firmly.

"But you're worried you have forgotten how to tell the difference."

Closing his eyes, Anders sighed. "Demons only take, but you only give. You're not a demon."

Cole was smiling at him when he opened his eyes again, a childlike grin that made Anders warm inside. "You're kind. You remind me of him."

"Who?"

"Rhys. He was my friend. Then a Templar told him what I was and I went away." Looking down at his knees, Cole's smile turned sad. “I lost my friends. I lost everything. I learned how to be more like what I am. It made me different but stronger. I can feel more. I want to help.”

Listening to Cole brought back memories Anders wasn’t prepared to process. Smiling at him wistfully, he said, “You remind me of Justice. How he was in the beginning."

"I wish I could have met him. Maybe he could have helped me understand."

“I don’t know. I think he was just as lost in this world as you are. Maybe more so. And he was so certain that he was right.” Meeting Cole’s eyes, he said, “Don’t stop questioning things, Cole. When you stop doubting, you’re more likely to lose your way.”

Squinting at him, Cole said, “Flame and ash. People screaming. Chaos. It was necessary. They will listen to us now.”

Anders’ mouth went dry, but he nodded. “Yes. Right and wrong are not absolute. It’s easy to get things wrong when you are relying solely on your own perspective. But doubt will keep you honest.”

Boots clapped against the stairs behind them and Anders cringed, hoping that it was just a guard on patrol. But he wasn’t so lucky.

“There you are, Blondie. I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” Varric paused, noticing Cole. “Oh, hey kid.”

“Hello,” Cole said brightly.

Clearing his throat, Varric smiled at Cole, but the expression was strained. “Can you give us a minute?”

Nodding, Cole hopped down from his perch.

“Cole,” Anders said to stop him. “If you ask me, you are a member of the Inquisition now, but the others may not understand. I will talk to them, but until then you should stay close to Solas. He will keep you safe.”

Cole regarded him with a strange expression, but nodded, looking back at him a few times as he walked away.

“You two have hit it off, I see,” Varric said, lips curled with amusement as he watched Cole lope down the stairs.

Crossing his arms over his chest, Anders leaned back against the stone wall and waited for Varric to say whatever was on his mind. He could feel the dwarf’s distress from a few steps away, and he couldn’t think of anything he could possibly want to hear that would upset Varric.

Delaying the inevitable, Varric leaned one arm against the wall and looked up at him with a smile. “So, Inquisitor, huh?” He shook his head. “Didn’t see that one coming.”

Anders looked down at his feet.

Varric nudged him on the arm. “But you’ve earned it. You know that, don’t you?”

“Why were you looking for me, Varric?” Anders asked, unable to stand the suspense any longer.

Rubbing at the back of his neck, Varric clenched his jaw and looked away. “You’re going to kill me.”

“What? Why would I…?”

Grimacing as as if waiting for a blow, Varric explained, “Because I wrote Hawke a letter. I invited her here.”

Anders felt his heart plummet, landing somewhere in the vicinity of the undercroft. “Why?”

“This can’t be a complete surprise. You had to know I would tell her about Corypheus.”

Anger flaring, Anders pushed away from the wall and began to pace. “I don’t see the point. We know as much about him as she does—maybe more.”

“Yes, but she just couldn’t let it go once she knew. And she has information we could use. She’s been looking into the missing Wardens.”

Sighing, Anders looked away. “Then you can find out what she knows on your own. I don’t want to see her.”

Varric winced, rubbing at one brow as he said, “She wants to see you.”

“Why? What reason could she possibly have for wanting to see me? Other than, you know, changing her mind about letting me go.”

“Anders,” Varric said, surprising him by using his name. “I know it’s hard to remember now, but there was a time when the two of you were friends.”

A humorless laugh escaped Anders’ lips and he shook his head in disbelief.

“Listen, I’m sorry. I know I should have told you before I made contact. But if she can help us figure out what Corypheus is up to, we can’t just ignore her.”

Growling in frustration, Anders leaned over the nearest wall and clutched at the stone so tightly that he could feel it cutting into his skin. Despite everything that had happened since he joined the Inquisition, despite the title and power that had just been entrusted to him, thinking about Hawke made him feel as if he had just walked out of Kirkwall. Seeing her would bring everything back with vivid clarity, and all the progress he'd made in the last few months would feel like nothing.

Varric put a hand on his shoulder and said gently. “Don’t worry. I’ll go with you.”

“When is she coming?” Anders asked.

“She’s already here. I didn’t think she’d get here so quickly or I would have warned you sooner.”

Steeling himself for the confrontation, Anders took a deep breath and released it slowly through his nose. “Does anyone else know she’s here?” he asked, thinking of how Cassandra would react to the Champion of Kirkwall walking through the front gate.

“No. I thought it would be best to keep her arrival secret.”

Anders nodded. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Hey,” Varric said, catching his arm as he tried to walk away. “Whatever happens, don’t let her get to you. Just remember that moment in the courtyard earlier. Remember all those people who believe in you. I’m one of them, and I’m going to be right there the whole time.”

Anders swallowed. “Varric.”

“You’re going to be fine, Blondie.”

Chapter Text

Varric already felt awful. No matter what he did next, he was likely to end up being a shitty friend to someone. But there was no helping it. This conversation needed to happen, and as long as he could keep Hawke and Anders from coming to blows, then it would be worth it.

Still, he held his breath when Hawke appeared at the top of the stairs. Her piercing blue eyes were focused on Anders with an eerie sort of objectivity, giving him the sort of look that one would give to an artifact in a museum rather than an old friend. Despite the wind whipping black hair around her face, her attention never wavered from Anders as she descended the steps, approaching him with the sort of caution usually reserved for wild animals.

“Anders,” she said with uncertainty in her voice. “I didn’t think I’d ever see you again.”

Turning to face her, Anders shrugged, the gesture deceptively casual considering the tension in his posture. “If things had gone according to plan, you wouldn’t have.” Varric wasn’t sure if Anders was referring to the circumstances that had brought Hawke here or his failed attempts to kill himself after Kirkwall, but either way he didn’t like it.

"This place is pretty impressive,” Hawke commented, looking down at the courtyard below. “A remote keep in the mountains, all these soldiers and pilgrims flocking to your cause...and I hear they put you in charge." Her eyes flickered with something akin to humor, though it was a little too tarnished to be honest.

Anders shook his head. "Don’t ask me. I still can’t believe it myself."

“Funny how things work out, isn't it?" Dragging her fingers over the stone wall beside her, Hawke slowly closed the distance between them. Though she kept her voice light, a sharper undertone surfaced as she continued, "I spent years trying to save a city from its own corruption and they ran me out of town for befriending the wrong man. You, on the other hand, plunged the world into chaos and ended up leading the world’s most powerful religious movement. I’ve clearly been going about everything backwards.”

“Don’t let the castle and the fancy title fool you, Hawke,” Varric said before Anders could find another way to be self-deprecating. “Things haven’t been so easy for him.”

Hawke’s eyes narrowed as she looked at Varric, but she didn’t reply.

When the silence dragged on, Anders spoke up. “Varric said you know something about the Grey Wardens’ disappearance."

Hawke sighed, crossing her arms over her chest and turning away from Anders. “I do. With Corypheus still alive, I think it’s likely that he has taken control of them again.”

Varric exchanged a glance with Anders. “We came to the same conclusion.”

“I’ve got a friend in the Wardens,” Hawke continued. “He was investigating something unrelated for me. His name is Stroud. You remember him, don’t you? The one who saved Bethany in the Deep Roads. Anyway, the last time I spoke to him, he was worried about corruption in the ranks. Since then, nothing.”

“Corypheus would certainly qualify as corruption in the ranks,” Varric commented. “Do you think your friend disappeared with the rest of the wardens?”

“No, he told me he’d be hiding in an old smugglers’ cave near Crestwood.”

“It’s a place to start, at least.” Varric looked at Anders and he nodded.

Hawke sighed. “What I can’t understand is how Corypheus managed to survive.”

“Archdemons are notoriously hard to kill,” Anders offered. “Maybe Corypheus’ tie to the Blight has given him a similar ability.”

“And Corypheus seems to have an archdemon at his beck and call,” Varric pointed out.

Hawke focused on Anders. “But you saw Corypheus? You actually spoke with him?”

“Yes.”

“After what happened in that Warden prison, how can you be certain that he’s not controlling you even now?”

Anders' jaw clenched at the accusation. “He can’t control me. Not anymore.” He held up his hand, wiggling his fingers so that the mark glimmered in the sun and Hawke focused on it curiously. “The anchor interferes with his powers.”

Pursing her lips, Hawke remarked, “That’s handy.” Smirking, she seemed to notice her pun and repeated, “Handy.”

Varric chuckled in spite of the tension still lingering in the air.

Hawke reached out to pull Anders’ hand closer, turning it so she could get a better look at the energy dancing over his palm. “And this lets you control portals to the Fade? Amazing.” She didn’t appear to notice how he stiffened at her touch or held his breath while she traced fingers over the sensitive skin on the inside of his wrist. “How did you get this anyway?”

Swallowing and looking away, Anders answered quietly, “I don’t remember.”

“That’s convenient.”

“Not really.” Anders’ voice had a bite to it now.

She looked up at him through dark lashes, and Varric shifted nervously, noticing how close they were standing and how Hawke had canted her hips ever so slightly toward the mage. Varric didn’t know for certain that they’d ever become more than friends, but the sexual tension between them had always been thick enough to cut with one of Hawke's daggers. Hawke’s lack of interest in Anders’ pet cause had turned that tension into something ugly, triggering a number of violent arguments over the years. But somehow Hawke had always managed to charm her way back into Anders’ good graces in the end; she wielded her charisma like a weapon, and he had always been too vulnerable to survive it unscathed. The worst part was that she seemed to take a sadistic sort of pleasure in winding Anders up, pushing him just so she could watch him push back. And Anders usually pushed back.

But not this time. Twisting his wrist to gently tug his hand from her grasp, Anders took a step away from her and took a deep breath. He was calm and collected when he finally returned her gaze. “So how’s Bethany?” he asked lightly.

Confused by the sudden change of topic, Hawke had to regroup before responding. “She’s safe. When I heard what was going on with the Wardens, I had Aveline take her somewhere far away from Orlais.”

“That’s good. I was worried she might have gotten caught up in whatever is going on.”

Hawke smiled then, and the expression actually touched her eyes.

“And Fenris?” Anders asked, surprising the hell out of Varric. “I half expected him to come along to chaperone this visit, actually. He never did trust me.”

Hawke straightened, a frown creasing her brows. The idea of her needing a chaperone obviously did not sit well with her. “He’s staying busy,” she replied cryptically, but Varric happened to know the elf was off somewhere fighting Tevinter slavers. According to his sources, the two of them weren’t even together anymore.

Nodding, Anders looked away. “It sounds like things are tense in Kirkwall.”

Her expression went cold and hard. “That’s what I hear. Ever since he reclaimed Starkhaven, Sebastian has been creating trouble. He says he’s punishing Kirkwall...for your sins.”

Anders leaned back against the stone wall, arms wrapped around his stomach as if for warmth.

“You ask me,” Varric said, “Choir Boy doesn’t have a lot of higher ground to stand on. He’s as much a zealot as anyone.”

Anders straightened. “You don’t have to defend me, Varric. Sebastian’s decisions are his own, and I refuse to hide from the consequences of my actions.”

Hawke stared at him, lips parted in surprise.

Turning to face her, Anders said sadly, “I know that you made Kirkwall your home, and I’m sorry that they drove you out because of me.”

She shrugged wearily. “It’s probably for the best anyway. Kirkwall was never very kind to my family.”

“Still, you didn’t have much choice. I know what it's like to have your choices taken away from you, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone.”

Eyes narrowing, Hawke shook her head. "That’s sweet, but it's a little late for regrets, isn't it?"

Looking down at his boots, Anders frowned. "Too late for them to make any difference maybe, but that doesn't mean I don't still regret the unintended consequences of my actions."

"Unintended consequences?" she repeated with a frown. "What about the ones you did intend?”

Anders’ expression was more defensive than repentant, but he remained silent.

Turning on him suddenly, her blue eyes sparked with anger. “You still don't regret what you did, do you?"

Even Varric found himself dreading Anders’ answer, uncomfortable with this topic already. "It's complicated," Anders said finally.

"Not really," Hawke snapped, lips curling with feral intensity as she parroted his earlier response back at him. Shaking her head, she began to pace. “When Varric said Justice had gone back to the Fade, I thought that you might have changed. But you haven't changed at all, have you? You're still just as obsessed with that cause as you ever were."

Anders flinched, her words clearly cutting into him far more deeply than her daggers ever could. "I'm sorry to disappoint you."

"Oh, stop saying you're sorry when you're not! At least not for the things that matter." Cheeks flushed, jaw set with anger, Hawke retreated a few steps from him and scowled down at the courtyard below.

"Hawke,” Varric began when it became obvious that neither Hawke nor Anders would be willing to break the silence, “A lot has happened since Kirkwall. Give him a chance to explain.”

"Give him a chance?" Hawke looked at him with betrayal in her eyes. “You’ve forgiven him, haven’t you? I can hear it in your voice.”

Blinking at her in surprise, Varric realized that she was right. Though he’d never consciously forgiven what Anders had done, he had certainly found a way to accept him and move on. Over the months his feelings for Anders had changed, slowly progressing from anger to tolerance to fondness and finally to the fierce protectiveness he now felt for the mage, especially after Haven. He couldn’t fully explain his change of heart, but he could see the truth of it now that she had pointed it out.

“What did he do to earn back your trust?” she asked, a pleading note in her voice as if she was hoping that he could solve this puzzle for her, that she might be able to do the same if she could only understand.

Varric opened his mouth and closed it again, suddenly unable to find the right words—such a rare occurrence for him that the mere thought of his own uselessness rattled him.

Then Anders spoke, voice quiet, almost carried away by the wind. “I don’t expect forgiveness from anyone.” His voice gained strength as he continued, “But we are facing bigger problems right now that can only be solved if we work together.”

Hawke nodded, but avoided Anders’ gaze. "You're right about that, at least," she said, a distance in her voice that hadn't been there before. Focusing on Varric, she added, "I'm going ahead to Crestwood. Meet me there when you can." She didn’t even glance at Anders before turning and walking away.

When she was gone, Anders leaned back against the nearest wall and slid down it to the ground, burying his face in his hands. Varric felt conflicted. Half of him wanted to comfort Anders and the other half wanted to leave him there to wallow in his own misery for a while. Hawke’s accusations had reminded him of all the reasons he’d been angry in the first place, and he couldn’t be sure if his change of heart had been real or just the path of least resistance. He had always had a soft spot for Anders, after all, and it wouldn't have been hard to fall back into old patterns out of habit if nothing else. But being forced to face Anders’ lack of remorse was too much to simply swallow and ignore.

“Just go,” Anders mumbled when Varric continued to stand there frozen with indecision. “You don’t owe me anything.”

Sighing, Varric walked away, every step breaking his heart a little more, but he couldn’t deal with this here and now. He needed time to think. And it turned out he had been right. He hadn’t ended up being a very good friend to either of them.

Chapter Text

Anders didn’t know what to do. The last time he had felt this lost, he had at least had Justice to keep him company, the spirit’s presence comforting and real even when he was silent. But he was truly alone now. Even a short conversation with Hawke had been enough to tear him back down to the emotional wreck he had been after Kirkwall, and he'd lost Varric along the way. The dwarf had been a rock for Anders in the last few months, and he hadn’t realized how much he had come to rely on his support until it was stripped away.

He stayed on the battlements until the sun set and the guard changed, nodding at the new guard on duty as if nothing was wrong and getting up to leave before the curiosity on her face turned into questions he wasn’t prepared to answer. The castle was peaceful at this time of day, voices and music beckoning invitingly through the door of the tavern, but he had no interest in surrounding himself with people in his current state. There wasn’t much worse than feeling lonely in a crowd, and he knew that his new title came with responsibilities; he couldn’t afford to appear in front of the soldiers with anything less than absolute confidence, and he knew he couldn’t accomplish that sort of poise at the moment.

So he wandered, sticking to the shadows, avoiding any faces he recognized and exploring the crumbling underpinnings of the castle until he finally found his way down to the dungeon. A single guard was on duty, but all of the cells were empty.

“Careful, Inquisitor,” the guard said when he opened the door into the farthest chamber. “The floor is unstable in there.”

He nodded and pushed through the door anyway, taken aback by the roar of water rushing through what remained of the room, walls and floor hanging suspended over a gaping hole that revealed an enormous waterfall beneath. Vertigo rushed over him at the sight, but he stepped up to the edge, staring down at the water and feeling himself lean ever so slightly toward the fatal drop. It would be so easy to take that one step. So easy to do what Justice had never allowed him to finish. To escape.

“Inquisitor!” the guard cried, and it wasn’t the panic in his voice that stopped Anders. It was the title, the responsibility that came along with it. What would happen to the Inquisition if he stepped off that ledge? They no longer needed him merely for the mark on his hand, but they had entrusted the fate of the Inquisition to him, willingly made him their leader and set him up as the symbol of their cause. How would it look if the Inquisition’s appointed leader ended his own life? What would that do to morale, to the momentum they had been building in their war against Corypheus?

He stepped back from the edge. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked the guard.

The guard shuffled anxiously. “I suppose. To be honest, it makes me a bit queasy.”

Heart still thudding with the exhilaration of what he'd almost done, Anders nodded. “Probably a wise reaction.”

Without looking back, he walked out of the dungeon and climbed back to the upper levels, every step bringing him out of the fog he had been drifting through since his conversation with Hawke. Remembering his conversation with Cole earlier, he decided to go looking for Solas. He found the elf in his chamber at the bottom of the tower hard at work on his mural. Though Anders wasn’t a fan of the stark colors, he had to admit that the painting was coming along nicely, and he lingered in the doorway for a moment to admire it.

“Inquisitor,” Solas said, glancing over his shoulder. “Did you need something?”

“It’s about Cole. I saw you talking to Vivienne and Cassandra earlier.”

The elf grimaced, loading his brush with more paint. “Yes. That was rather unpleasant. Cassandra thought Cole might be a mage, but Vivienne is convinced he’s a demon. I tried to explain that he is neither. He is a spirit taken tangible form and has possessed nothing and no one. More than that, he wishes to help. I think we should let him.”

“I’ve come to the same conclusion, myself.”

Solas looked at him, paint brush hovering in the air as he considered his response. “You have?” Then he smiled. “Of course you have. Still, I’m relieved to hear it.”

“You’re probably the only one—other than Cole, I suppose.”

Putting down his paintbrush, Solas regarded him curiously. “Is something wrong, Inquisitor? You seem troubled.”

Attempting a smile, Anders shook his head. “I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Yes, it has been a significant day for you.” Squinting at Anders, he shook his head. “But something tells me that's not what’s bothering you.” Wiping his hands off on a cloth and descending the scaffolding with effortless grace, Solas walked over to Anders with a pensive expression, studying him closely as if he could determine what was troubling him simply by looking. “You haven’t been sleeping well,” he said finally.

That wasn’t the observation Anders had been expecting, but it was nonetheless true. “I’ve slept uneasily since Justice went back to the Fade. I’m worried…” Anders swallowed down the fear that clenched his throat. “I’m worried that I might be more vulnerable to demons because of all the years I shared my mind with Justice.”

Solas shrugged. “That’s a logical conclusion based on what information you have, but I don’t think it’s a true concern. In fact, I believe your familiarity with spirits actually makes you less vulnerable to demons.”

“And you’re basing this on…?”

“A hunch. But a good one.” Solas smiled, but then his expression turned sad. “You miss Justice, don’t you?”

Looking away from the elf’s gaze, Anders whispered, “Every day. Most of the time I can ignore the loneliness, but some days it’s harder, like a weight around my neck.”

“And today is one of those days?”

Anders nodded.

Solas pressed a hand down on his shoulder and peered at him patiently until Anders met his gaze again. “You should get some rest. We can talk more later...preferably somewhere more interesting than this.”

Nodding again, Anders turned away, feeling suddenly groggy as if Solas had just cast a sleep spell on him, but if the elf had used magic, it hadn’t been a kind that Anders recognized. Hurrying through the main hall with his head down to avoid any of the people still milling about, he slipped through the door near the throne and climbed the stairs to his room, each step requiring more effort than the one before. The emotional toll of the day was finally catching up with him, and by the time he reached the top he could hardly lift his feet at all. He was still overwhelmed by the unnecessary luxury of his chambers, but at the moment the bed looked far too comfortable for him to feel any guilt about sinking into the gloriously soft mattress. Stripping off his boots and coat, he crawled under the covers, too exhausted to even bother with changing clothes. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

“Why did you want to talk here?” he asked, walking along the main path through Haven and marveling at how the falling snow swallowed all sound in the quiet village.

“Haven is familiar,” Solas responded. “So much happened here, some good, some bad. But it is important to you. It’s the place where you parted.”

They walked into the room where they had completed the ritual. The chalk markings were smeared over the floor. Canting his head to the side, Solas regarded Anders thoughtfully. “He was terrified when I finally pulled him free of you. He didn’t know who he was or how he had gotten there. I spoke to him for a while and eventually his memories began to return, but his only concern was for you. He wanted to know if you had survived the process, if you had survived him.”

“Did he blame me for what happened? The things we did?”

“Blame you?” Solas repeated in surprise. “He said nothing of the kind.”

Anders shook his head and felt snow hit his cheeks. They were standing in the courtyard outside, looking up at the boiling miasma of the breach churning away in the sky.

“I’m actually a bit envious of you,” Solas said, a crooked smile slanting his lips. “Did you know that?”

“Envious?” Anders looked at him in surprise. “You really shouldn’t be.”

“You lived in concert with a spirit for almost a decade and never turned into an abomination, never lost control completely.”

“We came very close. More than once.”

“But you survived. In addition, you are the only mortal in existence to have walked physically through the Fade. I have explored the Fade more than anyone alive, but even I can only visit in dreams. But you...you might have been able to visit me here while awake.”

Anders blinked. “What do you mean?”

Smiling coyly, Solas asked, “Where did you think we were?”

Looking around at their surroundings more closely, understanding hit Anders like a slap in the face. “We’re in the Fade.”

“Yes. And I don’t see any demons flocking to possess you. Do you?”

Anders shook his head in wonder.

Solas smiled, looking at something past Anders’ shoulder. “But there is someone here to see you.”

“Anders.”

The voice sent chills racing down Anders’ spine and he turned to see the glowing entity standing behind him, tattered in a few places but mostly whole, a golden figure filled with light. Justice smiled at him, and Anders felt the world shifting around them, the dream image of Haven getting swept away into darkness. They were back in Amaranthine now, in the place where they had made that fateful decision.

“You’re okay,” Anders said softly, feeling a tear roll down his cheek.

“I am well,” Justice agreed, but he regarded Anders with a frown. "But you do not appear to be. Has our separation been difficult for you?"

A sad smile creased Anders lips. "Yes. But it was necessary. I was worried that the years of sharing my mind may have corrupted you."

"I remember that time only in flashes of clarity, but the experience was extraordinary. You gave me a view of the mortal world that spirits are never allowed to see. And we made a difference! We brought justice to your world."

Anders shuddered and looked away. He couldn't reconcile how good it felt to hear Justice's pride in their actions with how horrid he had been feeling about those same actions all day. This unwavering support was exactly what led him astray in the first place, but the relief of having someone not only understand his actions but applaud them was almost too great a temptation to deny.

"What is it? You're upset."

"Have you ever thought...that we might have gone too far?"

"They would not listen!" Justice insisted, clenching a fist in the air. "We had to make them listen. And now the mages...they are free, are they not?" Justice spoke of the mages' freedom as if it had been a direct result of their actions and not a fragile victory won after so much turmoil and pain. And suddenly Anders didn't want to shatter his innocence. He wanted Justice to believe their actions had been vindicated. It was a comfort he would never entirely know, but he wanted the spirit to have at least that much.

"The mages are free," Anders said, throat choked with emotion. He managed a smile, though he knew it could only ever fool a spirit.

"Then we succeeded." Justice grinned. "We made the world a better place."

Nodding, Anders backed away a step, trying to see past the tears clouding his eyes. "I've missed you," he said to the spirit, "but I'm relieved to know you're home, safe and sound."

"I am. You have done so much for me, and there is so little I can do in return. But I will guard your dreams. No demons will come near you while I have the will to fight them. And if you ever need me, you will always be able to find me here."

"Thank you, Justice."

The spirit nodded. "You should rest now. I will keep watch over your sleep."

Anders wanted to say goodbye, but he didn't have the strength, the dream already collapsing around him as he fell into a deeper sleep.

Chapter Text

“Another,” Varric said to the bartender when his tankard had run dry. Cabot lifted an eyebrow at him, but refilled his mug without a word. Smart man. For once in Varric’s life, he didn’t feel like talking.

“You keep that up, and I’m going to start feeling intimidated.”

Varric glanced up at the Iron Bull as he settled onto a stool next to him. Frankly, Varric was surprised the spindly wood was enough to support the qunari’s weight. He paused from drinking only long enough to say, “It’s not a competition.”

Bull pursed his lips. “That’s odd, because I can’t think of a time outside of a drinking competition when I have willingly consumed that much alcohol in such a short period of time.”

“Ever heard of self-medication?”

“I have something stronger you could try if that’s your aim. It would be over more quickly, at least.”

“I don’t want it to be over quickly.”

The grumble Bull emitted then was deep enough for Varric to feel it vibrating in his own chest. “And here I thought everything was going so well. What did I miss?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Finishing off the last of the ale, he nodded at Cabot and the dwarf refilled his tankard again with a frown.

Watching him start in on the fresh ale, Bull shook his head. “Maybe you need to talk about it.”

“Nope. Not going to work, Tiny. The last thing I want to do is think about why I’m drinking.”

“Suit yourself.” Bull shrugged. “But I’m not going to peel you off the floor when you finally overdose on all that self-medication.” Varric ignored him and the qunari reluctantly shuffled back to his usual chair.

Varric had barely made it to the bottom of the mug before someone else rudely interrupted his foggy, inebriated bliss. Perching on the stool next to him, the Tevinter mage waved Cabot down and ordered a glass of fancy wine that sounded at least as expensive as it probably was.

“I read your book,” Dorian said while he was waiting for his drink.

Cringing, Varric rubbed at the bridge of his nose. This was the last thing he needed.

“It explains a lot, but has left me with more questions than answers, including how much of your own opinion colored the story.” Turning to look at him, Dorian asked with more sincerity than Varric had ever heard in his voice, “Do you really damn him for his actions as much as you did in the book?”

Varric put his mug back down on the bar, vision swimming as he struggled to find an answer. “I have no idea.”

“You must have some opinion. You know him better than anyone here.”

“Knowing him only makes everything harder.”

Lips twisting wryly, Dorian took a sip of wine and looked wistfully at the shelf of bottles behind the bar. “I suppose it would. I barely know him myself and even I feel conflicted. I believe his intentions were good, even if his judgment was flawed. But then again, he was trying to change the world, and since when has that sort of change been straightforward—or painless?”

Varric bit at his lower lip, welcoming the pain as it gave him an excuse for his blurry vision that had nothing to do with the knot of emotion twisting in his stomach.

“I think I admire him,” Dorian said finally. “Not so much for what he did as for how he’s behaved afterward, the purity of his resolve. I’ve never believed in anything half as much as he believed in his cause, and while such fanaticism can be dangerous, I don’t think he’s blind to that danger anymore. He’s learned to question himself.”

Considering this, Varric stared down into his ale and wondered if that was the answer. The man he’d known in Kirkwall had rarely doubted himself, perhaps because Justice wouldn’t allow him to question their actions, but Anders had been wrong-footed and uncertain ever since the Inquisition began. Varric thought of Anders’ reaction to Hawke’s questions, the conflict in his voice as he defended himself without even a shadow of his usual righteousness. Anders’ words came back to him: I don’t expect forgiveness from anyone. At the time Varric had thought this was just another example of Anders’ arrogant belief that he had nothing to apologize for, but now he wondered. Anders hadn’t said that he didn’t need forgiveness. He’d said he didn’t expect it. Those were two very different things.

Standing up suddenly, he felt the room slosh about him a few times before it finally settled.

“Careful,” Dorian said with a hand on his shoulder. Arching a brow at Varric’s mug he asked, “How long have you been at this?”

“Good talk, Sparkler,” Varric said, shrugging away from the mage’s grip. “But I just remembered something I need to do.”

He made it to the door with only a few wobbles, though he’d never noticed how uneven the tavern floor was until now. The cold air outside sobered him somewhat and he sucked in deep lungfuls of it to clear his vision. Now he just needed to find Anders. Maybe he was still up on the battlements.

But he didn’t make it two steps toward the stairs before he was face to face with a vitriolic Seeker. “We need to talk,” she said, biting the words off one at a time. Grabbing him by the back of the collar, she dragged him off to a secluded corner of the courtyard and threw him against the stone wall. Given his compromised level of coordination, he could do nothing to stop her. “You knew where Hawke was all along,” she accused.

He didn’t even bother asking how she had found out. “You’re damned right I did,” he said, shoving her back a step.

“You conniving little shit!” Lips curling with anger, she took a swing at him and he wasn’t agile enough to dodge the blow.

Leaning against the wall for support now, he was grateful for the numbing effect of alcohol as he touched his jaw tenderly. That was going to sting in the morning. “You kidnapped me!” he snapped at her. “You interrogated me! What did you expect?”

“I expected you to tell the truth! I told you what was at stake.”

He was too angry to hesitate over the anguish in her voice, though something told him he was going to regret that lack of consideration when he was sober. “So, I just hand her over on your say so? It’s okay, Hawke. This zealot isn’t crazy, I promise.”

This time Cassandra didn’t take her anger out on him, but Varric wasn’t sure if she or the practice dummy got the worse end of the bargain judging by the way she winced and shook her hand afterward. “We needed someone to lead this inquisition,” she said in a choked voice. “First Leliana and I searched for the Hero of Ferelden, but he had vanished. Then we looked for Hawke, but she was gone too. We thought it all connected, but no. It was just you. You kept her from us.”

“This Inquisition has a leader,” Varric said, and the reminder of who that leader was made him anxious to finish this quickly.

“Hawke would have been at the conclave! If anyone could have saved Most Holy…”

“If Hawke had been at the temple, she’d probably be dead too. You can’t change the past, Seeker.”

“So I must accept...what? That the Maker wanted all this to happen? That he...that he…” Her anger seemed to cool a bit then, and she slumped back against the wall next to him.

“Hawke’s with us now,” Varric sighed. “That’s all that matters, isn’t it? We’re on the same side.”

She shook her head. “We all know whose side you’re on, Varric. It will never be the Inquisition’s.”

“So that’s it?” Varric demanded, leaning into her personal space in his anger. “I try to protect a friend and suddenly I’ve lost all your trust?”

Making a face at his breath, she said, “You’re drunk.”

“You’re damn right I am.” He was wavering on his feet now, all the liquid in his stomach roiling around as if it wanted to revolt. “You’re not the only one dealing with some difficult truths, you know.”

She frowned. “You’d better not be keeping anything else from us.”

“In that case, I have some intel for you,” Varric said, wincing. “I’m about to be sick.”

Managing to step out of the way a moment before he doubled over and made a mess on her boots, she watched with distaste as he leaned against the wall and emptied his stomach all over the grass. The cheap alcohol managed to burn every bit as much on the way out as it had on the way in. To his surprise, the Seeker rubbed a hand lightly over his back as he heaved again, though he didn’t have enough energy to spare a thought for her sudden spark of compassion. Wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve, he realized that his little talk with Anders was going to have to wait until morning. Or maybe the afternoon depending on the severity of his hangover.

Chapter Text

Cassandra’s mind had been turning in circles all night, the implications of Varric’s dishonesty leading her into thoughts about what might have been and eventually into the usual list of regrets her mind kept stored for painful reflection on sleepless nights. After hours of torturing herself over such circular thoughts, she had finally given up on sleep and decided to do something productive.

She dressed slowly, grimacing with every movement that required use of her injured hand. Varric had a rather thick skull, and she hoped that he was feeling her punch as much as she was. Of course, the second punch she had thrown at the practice dummy had probably done far more damage. Regarding her gloves dubiously, she wondered if she could even pull them on with her sore fingers, but then decided she had to try. She didn’t want to deal with the questions she would get all day about the telltale bruises.

When she was finally dressed, she stepped out into the crisp dawn light with a sigh. The courtyard was still quiet at this time of morning and she relished the silence as she walked up the stairs and through the main hall. Josephine wasn’t in her study yet, so she certainly hadn’t expected to see anyone in the war room, but she discovered that it was not only occupied but in serious use. Her eyes widened when she pushed through the door and saw the stacks of papers on the floor and the Inquisitor seated among them, nibbling at one fingernail thoughtfully as he read a report. The room was an exercise in organized chaos, papers scattered in various piles around Anders, each weighted down with an object to keep them from shifting around when he moved.

“Inquisitor?” she said, still surprised how easily the title came to her lips when she had struggled so much to call him Herald in the beginning.

Anders glanced up at her as if he hadn’t heard her enter, amber eyes blank with confusion. He looked better rested than she had ever seen him, which allayed her worry that he might have been up working all night. He wasn’t wearing his coat and the sleeves of his black shirt were rolled halfway up his forearms to keep the fabric out of his way; she wondered idly if this was how he would have looked when he was hard at work in his clinic back in Kirkwall. The casual look suited him surprisingly well.

“You’re up early,” she observed when he failed to speak.

“I forgot to close the doors to the balcony last night,” he answered, looking back down at the papers. “The cold woke me and I couldn’t get back to sleep.”

“So you came down here to…do whatever it is you’re doing?” She gestured helplessly at the mess.

“I’m organizing all the reports,” he said, frowning at the paper in his hand for a moment before nodding decisively and placing it on a pile. Without pausing, he picked up another one and began scanning it as he continued, “All the urgent ones go over there, and I’m grouping the less urgent ones by the type of request. We can’t very well send our soldiers everywhere at once, so I’m stacking them by the order in which we should respond.”

Amused by his studiousness, she stepped carefully among the piles and shifted them enough to sit down across from him. “You do realize that sorting through this paperwork isn’t your job, don’t you? That’s for your advisors to do.”

“At some point I have to actually read the reports myself, though, don’t I?”

“You’ll need to read the important ones, of course, but we can filter out all the routine items.” Picking up a pile and looking through it, she smiled when she saw him glance at her with a frown, obviously concerned that she would interfere with his organization. The stack appeared to be a list of requisition requests, and she nodded in approval at the way he had prioritized them. Still, he shouldn't have been the one doing such work. “The Inquisition needs you working in the field more than it needs you shuffling papers,” she said, returning the papers to their spot on the floor.

He filed another report away as if he hadn't heard her, and she touched his arm lightly to get his attention.

“Anders,” she said, using his name for what might have been the first time. “What’s troubling you?”

She waited impatiently for him to look up, but his eyes remained focused on the stacks in front of him. “Nothing. I just want to keep busy.”

“If that's all it is, I’m sure I could find a more important task for you to be doing.”

He swallowed, glancing at her furtively before looking away.

“What is it?”

“This is all new to me. I just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

The expression on his face was strangely vulnerable, and she felt an intense and unexplainable desire to reassure him; he’d triggered this protective instinct in her before and it baffled her just as much this time. “You’re doing fine,” she said, and the words sounded flat even to her. Patting his arm awkwardly to make up for her less than nuanced tone, she grimaced when a jolt of pain reminded her that she was using her bruised hand.

Though he had hardly been looking at her, he noticed her pain immediately. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing.”

She tried to pull her hand away, but he caught her wrist, tugging lightly at her glove to inspect the injuries underneath. Gasping in pain at even the gentle contact, she flinched in response and reached down instinctively with her other hand to steady herself. Unfortunately, her hand landed on a pile of papers which immediately slid over the polished floor and sent her sliding toward him. Before she knew what had happened, he was holding her wrist in one hand and supporting her shoulder with the other. If he hadn’t caught her, she would have landed right in his lap.

He arched a brow at her. “That doesn’t seem like nothing.”

Blushing, she shook her head in embarrassment. “My hand is just a little sore.”

Now that she had regained her balance, he made another attempt to remove her glove, clucking in disapproval when he saw the state of her fingers. “It looks like you’ve been punching a rock.”

Chuckling dryly, she muttered, “A dwarven jaw, actually.”

His eyebrows lifted in amusement. “You punched Varric?”

She smiled wanly at him in confirmation. There were several dwarves in the Inquisition, but she wasn't surprised that he had figured out her target so quickly.

“Knowing him, he probably deserved it,” Anders said with a wry smile, returning his attention to her injury.

Light sparked over his fingertips as he worked a healing spell, and she shivered at the intimacy of the sensation. He had healed her wounds before in the midst of battle, but the gesture felt different when they were sitting knee to knee on the floor. Shaking herself slightly, she tried to clear her head; she had always had trouble staying objective around strongly charismatic people—which was probably where her troubles with Varric had started—and Anders had charisma in spades. Cullen had told her stories of Anders’ ability to draw people to his side with his seemingly natural magnetism, and she had taken his warnings to heart. But as her trust in Anders grew, her resistance to his charms diminished. She wondered if he was having the same effect on anyone else and hoped that his motives were as honest as they appeared to be. Otherwise they were all in trouble.

“How does that feel?” he asked when he was finished.

Pulling her hand out of his grasp, she flexed her fingers a few times and smiled in amazement. “Better than new.”

His smile warmed his eyes. “Healing is the only thing that comes easily to me.”

“It’s hardly the only thing.”

He didn’t blush, but she could tell by the way he avoided her gaze that he was uncomfortable with the compliment. “Why did you hit Varric? Was it because of Hawke?”

She sighed. “He should have told me that he knew where she was from the beginning.”

Picking up a stone he’d been using as a paperweight, he rolled it absently back and forth between his hands. “If he had told you the truth, I imagine things would have gone very differently. Hawke might even be the Inquisitor now instead of me. I’m hardly the first person anyone would have chosen to lead the Inquisition, after all.”

Eyes narrowing, she studied his expression for a clue to what he was thinking. Did he wish that things had gone that way? Or did he think that was what she would have preferred? She felt a pang of guilt as she realized that she had actually made the same observation to Varric at the height of her anger the night before.

Looking up at her with a sad little half-smile, he said, “That would have made life a lot easier on everyone, I suppose. Hawke is a proven hero, while I'm just stumbling around trying to make up for all the pain I've caused."

Seeing the sincerity in his eyes, looking around at the way he had thrown himself into the work without reservation, she realized that she had no desire to change the past. The fact that Anders was so uncertain only made him try that much harder. They could ask for a less complicated leader, perhaps, but not a more dedicated one. He was a reminder that the Maker’s will was rarely obvious, but always right, and he had chosen far better than she could have. “The Maker’s ways are rarely the ones we would choose for ourselves,” she said as a reminder to herself as much as to him.

“And the crooked man must claw his way back into the light lest he drag others with him into the darkness," Anders countered, surprising her by not only recognizing her quote, but also finding another relevant verse from the same scripture. She had always assumed Anders had no faith in the Maker, but it seemed that he had at least studied the chant at some point.

Frowning, she thought about the verse he had chosen and tried to interpret his meaning. "Are you afraid that's what will happen? That your past will come back to haunt us?"

"It's already happening." He sighed, flipping through papers in the urgent pile until he found the ones he was looking for. “There are Trevelyans in Ostwick—real Trevelyans—who want to reveal me as a fraud. Now we have to try to either coerce or threaten them into keeping my secret because the Inquisition will go down with me if the truth gets out. Then there's Sebastian. He would march on Skyhold tomorrow if he thought the Inquisition was harboring me. Look what he's done to Kirkwall! How much danger is the Inquisition in simply because of the man leading it?"

His argument was more valid than she wanted to admit, and she had no quick answer to ease his concerns.

"I know you hate the lies as much as I do," he said when she remained silent. “Maybe it would be better for everyone if the Inquisition cut its losses and distanced itself from me before it’s too late."

She shook her head at him in amazement. Before meeting him, she had always pictured Anders as an arrogant, self-assured zealot who refused to see reason or consider compromise. Every report she had read on the incident in Kirkwall had painted him that way, but even after months of interactions with him, she still didn’t know how to reconcile her expectations of the man with the reality before her. He was stubborn when challenged and quick to point out injustice, but he had never made an attempt to grab power for himself or sought control simply for the sake of his own pride. She had half expected him to show his true colors after being given the title of Inquisitor, but he continued to surprise her with his doubt.

“That isn’t going to happen,” she said finally.

“Why not?”

“Because you are the right person for the job. When all this started, if someone had told me I would be pleased to have you lead the Inquisition, I would have throttled them. But I am. I may not always agree with you, but I trust your intentions. And I believe that you are meant to be exactly where you are.”

This time he did blush, looking away with damp eyes. "I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve that trust, but I won’t abuse it. Thank you."

“You’re welcome.” Smiling down at the mess around them, she said, “Now, let’s get this room back in order before Josephine walks in here and sees what you’ve done to her filing system.”

He laughed, and the sound lightened her heart. Reassuring him had done wonders for her own mood, and she suddenly felt ready to face whatever came next without regrets.

Chapter Text

Anders was learning that leadership was more about building and developing relationships than anything else. After Cassandra had talked him back from the edge, she had coached him on the sorts of things he should be doing with his time instead of obsessing over reports. He was amazed by how patient she was being with him, sharing her experience and wisdom without any of the gruff admonishments and fierce disapproval he had come to expect from her. It seemed that her respect, when earned, was well worth the effort.

Attempting to follow her advice, he’d spent most of the afternoon wandering around Skyhold and just talking to people. He’d spoken to half the Inquisition at this point and had a list of requests as long as his arm to show for it, but he could see that his efforts were making an impression. That didn’t mean it came easily. He was sorely out of practice at making and keeping friends, as evidenced by his recent troubles with Varric and Hawke. He had been rather good at casual friendships back in the tower, better at deeper ones in the wardens, but he often thought it was a miracle he had made any friends at all in Kirkwall considering his obsession with the mages' cause. The skills were slowly coming back to him as if by muscle memory despite the fact the muscles had nearly atrophied, but he knew the only way to improve was through practice.

He had relatively good luck in the tavern, perhaps because of the generally cheerful mood. Sera had confided some concerns she had about the mages—as if he wasn't one himself—called Corypheus a number of childishly mocking names and requested that the Inquisition do an errand on behalf of Red Jenny. It seemed simple enough, so he had agreed. He'd had a little more trouble accepting Iron Bull's request. The qunari was eager to take on one of the dragons they had seen in their travels, but Anders wasn’t sure if they were ready for a fight with a dragon—or why they would voluntarily seek one out. He still remembered the dragon he had faced with Hawke at the Bone Pit, and he had little desire to repeat the experience. But Bull had a good point about the danger the dragon posed to the locals, and he agreed that it was something they should look into.

Cole hadn’t asked him for anything in particular, but their discussion had given him something to investigate. The spirit had told Anders a story—as much as any of Cole's stream of consciousness ramblings could be called a story—about his friends Rhys and Evangeline. He had not wanted Anders to track them down, but it was obvious they were in danger and Cole was worried about them. That was enough for Anders to add the task to his list.

He went to see Blackwall next and found the grizzled warrior in the stables building a rocking horse of all things. As he often did when conversing with Blackwall, Anders debated about whether or not to reveal that he had figured out Blackwall wasn’t actually a Warden, but he always came to the same conclusion: let it be. He had his own secrets, after all, and so far he couldn’t see how Blackwall’s lie was hurting anyone. Whoever Blackwall really was, he had a deep respect for the Wardens and knew enough about their lore and history to pass as one with ease. He seemed to want to be a Warden far more than Anders ever had, so Anders found it relatively easy to allow him the illusion. For the moment, at least.

Their conversation was light and easy until the subject turned to their battle with Corypheus. Regarding Anders with a level expression, Blackwall asked, “Are you what they say you are? Andraste’s chosen?”

Caught off guard by the question, Anders shook his head. That was one lie he wasn’t willing to tell. “No. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Blackwall’s gaze was intense as he studied Anders. “Perhaps that’s enough. Don’t you see what you are to them? Without you they would be consumed by despair. We all would. They need you to be Andraste’s messenger. It gives them hope. The truth doesn’t matter.”

Considering this, Anders thought about his conversation with Cassandra and felt a smile forming on his lips. “You don’t know what a reassuring thought that is.”

“Maybe I know better than you think.” Blackwall turned back to his work, picking up a chisel and bending over the rocking horse with care.

Leaving him to his project, Anders saw Cullen training some new recruits in the courtyard and decided to catch up with him next. They only spoke briefly, long enough to verify that the Commander had another headache brewing, but Cullen turned down his assistance when he offered it, returning his attention to the recruits and ignoring Anders until he finally walked away. He found Josephine in her study and listened to her worries. She wanted him to meet with a man in Val Royeaux to uncover a conspiracy against her family, and though her request seemed less urgent than some of the other requests he had heard already, Josephine had a way of asking that made it nearly impossible for him to refuse her.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the list of tasks he was compiling, he was relieved when he ran into Leliana in the hall. She quickly distracted him with the latest gossip from her spies, and soon they were laughing about some ridiculous story of a nobleman in Antiva with a fetish for old socks. When she excused herself, he went to the mages’ refuge in the tower and began making his rounds. He thanked Solas for the opportunity to see Justice again, spoke long enough with Vivienne to regret starting the conversation and dropped off some research materials with Helisma. He even made a stop to speak with Fiona and see how the rest of the mages were settling in at Skyhold. But the entire time he was talking to former Grand Enchanter, he felt the weight of Dorian’s gaze from the little alcove the Tevinter had claimed within the library.

Dorian sprawled within his leather chair with a book open on his lap, positioning himself strategically so his bare shoulder was clearly visible to the room. No one could deny that Dorian was attractive—and knew it—but something about him made Anders wary. He was too slick, too charming…too much like Anders had been in his younger years. He wasn’t sure if it was his time with Justice that had changed his perspective on such things or if he was simply getting old, but Dorian was an uncomfortable reminder of everything he had once been. And if the similarities were more than skin deep, then he was sure to be hiding any number of issues behind his sarcastic facade—more than Anders was equipped to deal with on top of his own. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t still tempted. He might be out of practice at such things, but he wasn't dead.

Wrapping up his conversation with Fiona, Anders steeled himself as he turned to face Dorian, meeting the heat in those dark eyes with a neutral smile. “You’ve found yourself a nice spot for people-watching, I see,” he said, leaning against the bookshelf at the edge of the alcove in an attempt to stay well out of reach.

“I could watch you roam Skyhold all day,” Dorian purred, “Running here and there checking in on your followers. Why don’t they come to you? Feed you grapes? Rub your shoulders?”

“I prefer to stay busy. And from what I’ve seen today, that shouldn’t be a problem. Everyone always needs something.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Dorian agreed, adjusting the book on his lap.

“Reading anything interesting?” Anders asked, trying to get a peek at the cover.

A mischievous smile curled Dorian’s lips, exaggerated by the well-groomed curve of his moustache. “A modern classic, or so the book jacket says. You should know it well. It’s your friend Varric’s best known work.” He lifted the book so Anders could read the name clearly on the spine: The Tale of the Champion.

Unable to entirely hide his reaction, Anders faked a cough and shook his head. “Whatever possessed you to read that?”

The glint in Dorian’s eyes was just gloating enough to make Anders nervous. “I think you already know.”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

Closing the book and tapping it against one knee, Dorian considered him with a smug look for a moment before standing up and sidling closer. “The mage in the story, the one who goes up against Meredith at the end? He’s such a tragic character, don’t you think?” Dorian’s hand landed against the shelf next to Anders’ shoulder and he tried not to flinch as the mage leaned in, voice dropping to an intimate whisper. “So idealistic and brave. The book implies that he died in the ensuing battle, but I’m not so sure he did. What do you think?”

“I think you’re giving Varric too much credit for his subtlety.”

Dorian shook his head slowly, his tongue tracing over his top teeth as he considered his response and Anders tried very hard not to find that sight appealing. “You aren’t going to admit it, are you?”

“Admit what?” Anders asked innocently, trying not to squirm when Dorian leaned even closer.

“I know who you are. Iron Bull confirmed it.”

Anders’ eyebrows leapt upward. “Bull?”

“He is a spy, remember?”

Trying and failing to ignore the warmth radiating distractingly off Dorian’s body, Anders gave himself a moment to take in all this new information before he reacted. “So you know who I really am… And what I’ve done.”

Dorian shrugged. “I’m in no place to judge. I wasn’t there. All I have to go on is what I see before me, and it’s obvious to me that you are a good man who was driven to desperate measures. I might do something equally as radical if I thought it was the only way to cause change in Tevinter.”

Anders shook his head firmly. “I certainly hope not.”

“Why?”

“I wouldn’t wish the consequences of such a decision on anyone.”

Finally slipping out from between Dorian and the bookcase, he put a little space between them so he could gather his thoughts. He was stunned by how easily Dorian was willing to dismiss his actions, and he could only conclude that reading about them in a book made them much easier to forgive. Culture might have had something to do with it as well; Dorian’s own countrymen had done some truly awful things over the years, after all, and his ability to feel any pride in his homeland at all must require a lot of creative excuse-making.

“Does it bother you that I know the truth?” Dorian asked softly, his voice more honest than Anders had ever heard it.

“No. I don’t like hiding from who I am. I’ve spent enough of my life running away from things. But given the circumstances I don’t have much choice. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone else.”

Dorian laughed, the flair of drama returning to his voice as he replied, “I’m from Tevinter. I know how to keep a secret.” Arching a brow playfully, he began casually closing the distance between them again. “Any other secrets you’d care to confide while we’re on the topic?”

Anders considered shutting Dorian down, but he hadn’t had much success from that angle so far. Perhaps the best was defense was simply to feign ignorance to all the flirting. He’d certainly had plenty of experience with that tactic from the other side over the years; even Karl had pretended to be oblivious for months before finally succumbing to his advances. “Secrets?” Anders repeated lightly, tapping a finger against his lips. “Let’s see… I hate the smell of spindleweed, so I avoid potions that contain it. I’ve never lost more than three hands of Wicked Grace in a row. And oh, here’s a good one: my middle name is Jerome.”

“Middle name?” Dorian asked, eyes sparkling. “What about your last name? Or is Anders not your first name?”

Smirking, Anders waggled a finger at him. “Sorry. I’ve reached my quota of secrets for one day.”

“You are such a tease!” Dorian exclaimed, and Anders realized with a sinking feeling that his plan had backfired. He was apparently horrible at this game, and though he hadn’t done much of it in years, flirting came far more naturally to him than being aloof.

Clearing his throat, Anders looked away from Dorian’s adoring gaze. While he didn't want to encourage the Tevinter any more than he already had, he was tempted to bring him along on their trip to Crestwood. He had already agreed to bring Cassandra when she asked, and he knew he couldn't leave Varric behind, but on a selfish level he wanted to bring someone who would be likely to take his side if things got ugly. After their conversation, he had little doubt that Dorian would do that for him. He hoped that didn’t mean he was using him. The last thing he wanted to do was lead him on.

“We’re leaving for Ferelden tomorrow,” he said casually. “I could use another mage as backup. You available?”

Dorian’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Are you joking? Why would I ever want to leave with all these dreadfully boring books to read?”

Anders nodded in relief. “In that case, I’ll see you first thing in the morning,” he said, backing toward the stairs.

“Now that’s a phrase I wouldn’t mind hearing in another context,” Dorian said with a wink.

Anders laughed, wondering if he had sounded that arrogant in the past; he must have had at least half of Dorian’s charm in order to pull it off, but such confidence felt as foreign to him now as the nobility in Orlais. Turning toward the stairs, he ran through the list of people he still needed to talk to and realized with a sinking sensation that there was only one left: Varric. His old instincts kicking in, he suddenly wanted nothing more than to run away from that conversation, but he knew that he needed to talk to the dwarf before they left for Crestwood. He couldn’t face Hawke again without knowing where Varric stood.

Taking a deep breath, he headed for the stairs and began his descent.

Chapter Text

Varric’s head was beating like a drum and his nerves were so raw that even the friction of his clothing against his skin was irritating. He hadn’t had a hangover this bad since that time he had agreed to take Isabela up on a bet; he’d known that the pirate could hold her alcohol, but he had thought his own tolerance was still something to boast about until she’d proven him wrong.

Squinting at the light pouring through the windows of Josephine's office, he wondered if she would think he was making a pass at her if he asked her to close the shutters. For a keep in the mountains, Skyhold had more than its fair share of sunny days and he would have given anything for a little cloud cover at the moment to cut down on the brilliance of the sunlight. But he knew he should be careful what he wished for. Clouds could also bring snow and they had plenty of that to go around.

Josephine was so engrossed in writing a letter that she didn’t seem to notice him approach. He had a feeling she actually had noticed, but was ignoring him in the interest in finishing up her work.

“Okay, Ruffles,” he said when she failed to look up from her writing. “Where is he?”

Finishing a sentence with a flourish, she looked up at him with her diplomatic smile firmly in place. Her eyes widened when she noticed the bruise on his jaw. “Why Varric, have you been out brawling?”

“You like it?” he asked, brushing fingers lightly over the mark. “Makes me look pretty tough, don’t you think?”

Her mischievous smirk seemed to disagree.

“Just say yes, Ruffles. My pride needs bolstering after the Seeker’s abuse.”

“I expect your pride is substantial enough to survive the offense.”

Leaning his hands on the edge of her desk, he stared at her expectantly. “Maybe so, but I can’t help but notice you’re avoiding my question.”

Her smile broadened. “What question was that?”

“Where’s Blondie?”

She didn’t flinch, expression perfectly placid as she placed her chin on one palm and stared back at him with challenge in her eyes. “What makes you think I would know?”

“Only Nightingale keeps better track of people than you do, and I’m not about to ask her. She’s terrifying. So have you seen him or not?”

“I have. A few hours ago. He’s keeping busy with his new duties.”

“Of course he is,” Varric grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

Arching a brow, she regarded him curiously. “Is something wrong?”

“You tell me.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Shrugging, Varric looked away from her penetrating gaze. “Blondie seemed pretty upset last night. I just wanted to check on him. Make sure he’s doing okay.”

“Because of Hawke’s visit,” she said in understanding. “He seems to be handling it well enough.”

“Really?” Varric said doubtfully. “He’s the sort that bottles things up until he explodes—or something else does—so you’ll forgive me for being skeptical.”

She shrugged. “I’m well aware of his...inclinations, but he seems to be preoccupied with other concerns at the moment.”

“I suppose that’s your explanation for why he’s been avoiding me, too. I’ve been looking for him all day, but every time I go somewhere he supposedly was going, he turns out not to be there. You know anything about that?”

“Why do you think he would be avoiding you?” she asked, genuinely surprised—or at least doing a great job of pretending to be.

Shaking his head, Varric turned away. “You know what? Forget I said anything.”

“Varric.”

He paused, but didn’t turn around.

“I assume this is about something that happened with Hawke. Without knowing more, I can’t give the best advice, but I imagine being confronted with such a strong reminder of his past could be troubling for the Inquisitor. If he’s avoiding you, I suspect it’s because he is still processing his feelings on the matter. Give him time. He’ll find you when he’s ready to talk.”

Sighing, Varric shifted his weight back and forth between his feet. “I’m not great at waiting.”

“This should give you practice, then.” Smiling gently, she returned her attention to her letter, and he took that as a dismissal.

Stomping back out into the main hall, he flopped down on his chair by the fireplace with a scowl. He didn't hesitate before grabbing a fresh sheet of paper and his quill and beginning to write. This was what he did when something was bothering him. He lost himself in the stream of words, crafting a world that obeyed his rules and was populated by characters he could control. Then he tortured the ever-loving crap out of them, threw heartache and pain in their faces and watched them fight back. People loved a good drama for the same reason he loved to write them: it was cathartic to watch fictional people endure against impossible odds. His problem was with the ones who weren't fictional.

Anders had all the earmarks of the iconic tragic hero: a tortured past, an unwavering dedication to a hopeless cause and a willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of it. The only problem was that his story should have ended already. Tragic heroes had a tendency to die at the end of their stories because only death could give them redemption for their sins and release from all the pain they had endured. Living through the tragedy was simply too painful for most readers to enjoy. But Anders had lived, and now they were in uncharted waters. No one could predict how this story would end, and Varric was too invested in it to walk away without finding out.

He didn’t know how long he had been writing before he heard Anders’ telltale gait on the stone floor, quiet, deliberate steps that could sneak up on you if you weren't paying attention. At first he had thought Anders would just walk by without saying anything, pretending to be too absorbed in his thoughts to notice Varric at all. But to his surprise, Anders’ boots came to a stop at the far end of his table.

Lifting his quill, Varric looked up slowly, afraid to see the toll Hawke’s visit had taken on his friend. But Anders looked surprisingly good, the shadows under his eyes lighter, his complexion healthy and bright as if he had slept well for the first time in months. He looked different in other ways as well, more relaxed without his coat, his hair pulled up off his neck in the world's tiniest ponytail, though enough tendrils had escaped the tie to soften his angular features. He looked younger than he had in years, and Varric was stunned. Perhaps Josephine was right. Anders really was handling things better than he had expected.

But then he began to speak and Varric could hear the reticence in his voice, see the dread in his gaze as he refused to meet Varric's eyes. “I thought you would want to know...” he said. “We’re leaving for Crestwood in the morning.”

Placing his quill in its inkpot, Varric sat back in his chair. He had no idea how to respond to that loaded statement.

Anders’ knuckles rapped lightly against the table in anxiety as he continued, “Whether you continue on with the Inquisition from there or decide to go with Hawke instead is up to you."

Sighing, Varric shook his head. "Sit down, Blondie."

Anders stiffened, clearly taking his request as an order. "Actually, I was just passing by—"

"Have a seat," Varric said more gently, nudging the chair next to him away from the table enough for Anders to sit.

Taking a deep breath, Anders turned the chair and sat down uncomfortably, staring into the fire with a frown.

"You honestly think I'd walk away from the Inquisition now after everything we've been through?"

Anders seemed to consider his response carefully. "I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to."

Looking at Anders’ grave expression and thinking about the absurdity of the situation, Varric suddenly had the strangest urge to laugh. And before he knew it he was laughing, a great big belly laugh that caught the attention of a few passersby. Anders finally turned to look at him, eyes wide and worried as if he thought Varric might have gotten infected with red lyrium at some point and lost his mind.

When he had finally managed to stifle his giggles, Varric leaned forward and stared at Anders long enough for the mage to squirm in discomfort. “I don’t know what I find more disappointing: that you actually think I’m that shallow or that you think so little of yourself.” Anders opened his mouth to reply, but Varric interrupted him. “I’m not going anywhere unless you’re leading, Blondie, so you’d better get used to the idea.”

“But Hawke…”

“Hawke? Hawke is so wrapped up in what you did that she can’t see the role she played in it—the role we all played. We all saw you changing over the years. We all heard the things you said about the chantry. Anyone who was listening could have figured out what you were planning and tried to talk you out of it or helped you find a better way. But that was the problem. We stopped listening to you long before it was too late to change anything. If we don’t like the result, then we have only ourselves to blame.”

Anders looked confused, hands lying limply on his lap as if he didn’t know what to do with them, gaze unfocused as it drifted back toward the fire.

Leaning closer, Varric put a hand on top of Anders’ arm. “What you said yesterday about not expecting forgiveness… I didn’t know how to take it. Hawke’s questions had thrown me and I had no idea how to answer her. I hadn’t even realized the truth myself before then, but I think I forgave you a long time ago. Not because I can completely understand or relate to what you did, but because I know you honestly couldn’t see any other solution to the problem. And I know that underneath it all, you meant well.”

Anders squeezed his eyes shut and a tear rolled down his cheek.

Itching to reach up and wipe that tear away, Varric patted Anders' arm instead. “You’ve been avoiding me all day, haven’t you? Don’t you feel silly now after hearing what I had to say?”

“A little,” Anders admitted with a faint smile.

"You always expect the worst from everyone. Like you're constantly waiting to be disappointed or don't think you deserve anything better. It's exhausting."

"I'm sorry," Anders said as if by reflex, his voice tired and barely audible. "It's habit. Too many disappointments, I suppose."

Varric shook his head slowly. Before he could think better of the gesture, he was brushing a tendril of hair out of Anders' eyes and tucking it behind his ear, a fond smile curving his lips. Brown eyes snapped open to look at him uncertainly and Varric's breath caught in his throat, fingers lingering on Anders' jaw. Realizing he had been caught in a moment of blatant sentimentality, he decided to own it.

"What's with the new look?" he asked casually.

Anders relaxed a fraction, a smirk dancing over his lips. "It's an old look, actually. I used to wear my hair this way when I was with the wardens. I chopped it off after Kirkwall and it's only now long enough to pull back."

Nodding absently, Varric's eyes narrowed when he saw the little dimple in Anders' earlobe. How had he never noticed that before? His thumb rubbed over the spot to confirm what his eyes were seeing. "Blondie! You used to wear an earring?"

Anders smiled, and the expression actually reached his eyes. "I got the piercing on one of my early escape attempts. It was a symbol of taking control of my own life and I was extremely proud of it." He looked away. "I had to sell the earring to pay for passage to Kirkwall."

"I'm surprised they let you keep it when they brought you back to the tower."

"They didn't want to, but First Enchanter Irving convinced them." Anders shook his head wistfully. "I must have caused that man no end of trouble over the years, but he always had a soft spot for me. I don't know why."

Releasing Anders' arm and turning to hide the expression on his face, Varric said softly, "I do." Then more loudly, he said, "We'll have to get you another earring sometime. Maybe Dagna could make one."

Laughing, Anders replied, "If Dagna made one it would probably be imbued with the soul of a rage demon or made from some rare metal that lets you cast lightning bolts from it or something. She can't ever make anything simple."

"Sounds like someone else I know." Varric arched a brow at him meaningfully and Anders laughed again.

Expression sobering, he gave Varric a grateful smile. “Thank you, Varric. You're a good friend. Better than I deserve.”

“The best, usually. But you deserve more than you give yourself credit for.”

"Maybe," Anders admitted. "But I'm still lucky to have a friend as loyal as you."

No one had ever accused Varric of being bad at taking a compliment, but either Anders was better than most at giving them or Varric was still feeling guilty for not being there for him back in Kirkwall. Squirming uncomfortably, he rubbed at the bruise on his jaw and avoided Anders' painfully sincere gaze.

“You want me to heal that?” Anders asked, focusing on the bruise.

Letting his hand fall to his side, Varric shook his head. “Nah. I think I’ll wear it around for a while. But I wouldn’t say no to a remedy for a hangover. You have any of those?”

Smiling, Anders lifted a hand to Varric's forehead. “I might know one or two.”

Chapter Text

Crestwood was turning out to be quite the unpleasant little Ferelden backwater. Dorian had never had the highest opinion of the country to start with, but his opinion had only plummeted with every step they’d taken through the miserable mud and drizzle. And that was before they met the first group of undead.

“What a lovely place,” he exclaimed when his boot got caught in the squelching mud for the third time.

Anders reached out a hand to pull him from the mud and Dorian smiled in gratitude, pleased that the Inquisitor allowed his hand to linger before pulling away. Staring at him in fascination when Anders returned his smile, Dorian thought that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that the man was so sparing with such expressions since it meant that every smile felt like something special and rare. But he really needed to check this growing infatuation with the Inquisitor before it got out of hand. Anders had already shut him down once, and while Varric’s book had suggested that he had experience with other men, he hadn’t yet shown any interest in Dorian personally.

“Weren’t you just thanking Blondie for bringing you along, Sparkler?” Varric asked with a laugh. “I recall you saying something about how the castle gets so dreadfully boring and how eager you were to get out for awhile.” The dwarf’s mimicry of Dorian’s exaggerated vowels was precise enough to actually make Dorian smile a little in spite of his discomfort.

“Ah, yes. That was before icy water managed to find its way inside my boots.”

“You’ll only make it worse thinking about it! Pretend you’re on a beach somewhere and it’s only ocean waves lapping against your toes.”

He gave Varric a dubious look. “Your imagination is impressive, Varric, but I don’t think even you could convince yourself of that.”

“You don’t need to imagine it,” Anders pointed out. “You’re a mage. You have other ways to keep yourself warm.”

“Oh, I can think of plenty of ways to stay warm,” Dorian assured with a salacious smirk, “but  using magic for such a delicate task is only asking for burnt toes.”

Rolling his eyes, Anders waved his fingers in the direction of Dorian’s feet and a pleasant warmth blossomed over his soles, returning sensation to his skin and drying the dampness of his socks along the way.

Dorian sighed in relief, knowing and not caring that the sound was rather uncouth. “You are a man of many talents, Inquisitor.”

“Blondie,” Varric said sharply. “My morale is sinking with every step. Would you like to share some of that talent?”

“I thought you had your imagination to keep you warm?” Dorian teased.

“I also have a generous friend.”

Anders turned, walking backward a few steps and concentrating on Varric’s boots. Glancing up at Cassandra when he was finished, he lifted his brows in a silent question.

“Go ahead,” she said grudgingly, blushing a bit when he was finished.

“It’s a nice trick, isn’t it?” Dorian asked her, but she looked away. Returning his attention to Anders, he said, “It's never been cold enough back home for such a technique to ever occur to me, but you must have been in some desperate situations to make you so resourceful.”

Shrugging off the compliment, Anders replied, “It was a bitterly cold winter the first time I escaped from the tower. I’d run out in the middle of the night with nothing on my feet but an old pair of socks. They were full of holes and I thought I was so smart when I figured out how to warm my feet with magic, but Lake Calenhad was only half frozen at the time and the heat made the ice crack. My trick didn’t do much to keep me warm after hours of trying to swim in the frigid water. I was nearly frozen solid when the templars found me.”

Laughing, Varric said, “You never told me that story, Blondie. How old were you when that happened?”

“Oh, I don’t know. All the escape attempts blur together at this point, really.”

“All the attempts?” Dorian asked in amazement. “How many times did you try?”

“Seven. I’m nothing if not persistent.”

Dorian’s jaw dropped open in shock. “That’s rather impressive.”

“Not really,” Anders said lightly, propping his staff under his arm and rubbing his hands together for warmth. “I never could stay escaped until the last one.”

“How much farther, Varric?” Cassandra demanded, clearly tiring of the conversation.

Squinting down at a waterlogged piece of parchment and then back up at the rainy wilderness around them, Varric answered, “According to the map Hawke sent, the cave should be just around that ridge. I told you we were getting close, Seeker. You should really have more faith in me.”

Cassandra sighed loudly. "I'll have more faith in you when you give me good reason," she said bluntly.

Suddenly Anders stumbled a bit and came to a stop, squinting at something off in the distance with a frown.

"What's wrong?" Cassandra asked, her hand immediately finding the pommel of her sword.

Anders frowned. "I don't know. It isn't exactly like the feeling I used to get when Wardens or darkspawn were nearby, but it's similar. My sense for that sort of thing has been different ever since I got this." He lifted his hand and the anchor flared to life for a moment. “Maybe this is just how it feels now.”

"Which one do you suppose it is? Wardens or darkspawn?" Dorian asked, but the men in armor that appeared at the other end of the road answered that question.

The wardens were surprisingly unhelpful. They exchanged a brief but infuriating conversation about their reason for being in the area—searching for Hawke’s contact apparently—and their refusal to defend the locals against the undead wandering the land. Dorian could see Anders’ anger building as they spoke, but Cassandra reacted first, placing a hand on Anders arm to steady him. As soon as she made contact, he reined his anger in enough that the wardens didn’t seem to notice, but even after he had calmed, Cassandra's hand lingered. Interesting. Dorian filed the observation away for later reflection.

"Can you believe that?" Anders said as soon as the wardens were out of earshot. "Helpless villagers are in danger and their Commander orders them to just walk away! This is exactly why I left the wardens. When I first joined, they followed a moral code that was more important to them than petty infighting. But by the end they were too focused on hierarchy and politics and not interested enough in simply doing the right thing."

"We may not have time to help those villagers either," Cassandra warned, eyes widening when Anders turned his glare on her.

"We'll make the time," he insisted.

"Inquisitor," she began, but he interrupted.

"No. They need help, and I'm the only one who can close that rift in the lake. What's the point of the Inquisition if we abandon those in need?"

Annoyance sparked in her eyes, but she took control of it, taking a deep breath before replying. "I agree that we should try to help them, but those Wardens are looking for Hawke's contact. If they find him before we do..."

Nodding reluctantly, Anders agreed, "We'll meet with Hawke and Stroud first. But we're going back to the village when we're done."

Varric chuckled under his breath, patting Anders on the back as they continued walking. “You’re such a bleeding heart, Blondie.”

“I know you want to help them as much as I do.”

“I never said I was complaining.”

Despite Varric’s insistence that they were close to their destination, their path led them the long way around the ridge and Dorian’s feet were feeling cold and numb again by the time the cave was in sight. Anders' expression darkened as they began climbing the rocky slope, turning into a melancholy frown when he saw the woman standing at the mouth of the cave ahead, a woman who could only be Hawke. She was shorter than he had been expecting, but fit and attractive, and her eyes had a fire in them that both intrigued and intimidated.

“You finally made it,” she said coolly, expression strained as she watched Anders approach. “And I see you brought some friends.”

Anders didn’t reply, his expression carefully neutral.

“Hawke, I presume?” Cassandra asked, a slight quaver in voice that sounded like excitement. Anders and Varric exchanged a look of surprise at Cassandra’s behavior, but Dorian merely smiled. Clearly the Seeker had been bottling up a bit of hero worship for the Champion. “I’m Cassandra Pentaghast,” she said, offering her hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Hawke replied. “But don’t believe everything you’ve heard. Varric likes to exaggerate.”

Cassandra smiled tightly. “I’m well aware.”

"And I am Dorian Pavus,” Dorian said, sketching a little bow when Hawke turned her attention to him. “A pleasure.”

Hawke’s eyes narrowed. “You’re from Tevinter,” she observed, her gaze flicking back to Anders in accusation.

“Not everyone from Tevinter is mad with power,” Dorian explained quickly. “You needn’t worry. I tend to disagree with my countrymen on most things.”

“Including slavery?” Eyebrow arching in challenge, Hawke returned the full weight of her attention to him, and he tried not to squirm in discomfort. He remembered something about an elven slave in Varric’s book, and realized why she was being so particular about this point. Fortunately, he was on her side.

“Including that, yes.”

“Good.” Hawke nodded decisively as if that settled everything. “My contact with the Wardens is waiting at the back of the cave. This way.”

They followed her down the passage, and although the cave was damp and smelled like mildew, Dorian was just glad to be out of the rain. Putting his hair back in order, he kept a close watch on his companions’ body language as they walked, noticing how Hawke intentionally turned herself away from Anders and Anders slumped his shoulders slightly in a defensive posture. He had read about the history between them—at least as much as Varric revealed honestly—so he wasn’t surprised to feel the tension in the air, though it felt a bit more charged than he had been anticipating. Even Varric seemed to be on edge.

The passage opened up into a larger chamber, one that appeared to be well lived in considering the cheery fire and various items scattered about. Anders walked ahead of the rest of them and turned in a slow circle as he waited for their host to appear, but he missed the impressively mustachioed man stepping out of the shadows behind him, brandishing a sword with a fierce expression.

“Anders,” the man grumbled when he saw his face, letting the blade drop.

"Stroud," Anders replied evenly. "Fancy meeting you here." Though Dorian had known Anders was a Warden, he hadn’t expected him to already know the one they were meeting.

Glancing at Hawke, Stroud put his sword back in its scabbard. “I thought you were bringing the Inquisitor.”

"You're looking at him," Hawke replied dryly.

The man scowled, the expression exaggerated by his thick facial hair; Dorian longed to give that bushy mess a better trim. "You have a demon's luck," Stroud said to Anders.

"I prefer to think of it as the luck of a cat. Nine lives and all that. Plus, cats are adorable."

"I see you haven't changed," Stroud scoffed, but Hawke frowned as if she disagreed. “Just remember, Anders. We’re even now."

"Really? I hear Bethany is an excellent Warden. I think you got the better end of that bargain in the end."

"She is, but you were the one asking for the favor. I won’t protect you again.”

“What a loss. Especially since I hear you’re the one on the run now.”

Stroud’s frown turned more contemplative. “Yes. I suppose that’s true.”

“What happened?” Dorian asked, startled when all eyes in the cave settled on him. “I mean, isn’t that why we’re here? To find that out?”

Stroud nodded. “Warden Commander Clarel is planning some sort of blood magic ritual to prevent future blights. When I protested the plan as madness, my own comrades turned on me.”

“That is madness. Why would she even consider such a thing?” Anders demanded.

Stroud looked at him in disbelief. “Because of the Calling, of course. When every Warden in Orlais began hearing it, the leadership panicked. They are desperately searching for a way to end the blight before we all fall.”

Anders looked horrified. “Wait...what?”

"You must be feeling it as well," Stroud insisted.

Stunned, Anders looked down at the flicker of light on his palm as if it held the answer. "I haven't felt anything. I haven't even had a darkspawn nightmare in months."

Regarding him thoughtfully, Hawke said, "You said the anchor prevented Corypheus from controlling you. Perhaps it has blocked the Calling as well?"

"If that is true, than you are even luckier than you know. The Calling is a persistent beast. It lurks like a wolf in the shadows around a campfire." Stroud’s Orlesian accent made the words sound prettier than their meaning, the contrast in tone sending shivers down Dorian’s spine. "The creature that makes this music has never known the love of the Maker but...at times I almost understand it. We must uncover what Corypheus has done and end it."

"I'm sorry, but can someone please explain what this Calling is?" Dorian said, again drawing everyone’s attention. " What? It isn’t my fault that I’m apparently the only one here who hasn’t had much direct experience with wardens.

"The Calling tells a warden that the Blight will soon claim him," Stroud explained. "Starts with dreams. Then come whispers in his head. The warden says his farewells and goes to the Deep Roads to meet his death in combat.”

Dorian grimaced. “Sounds barbaric.”

"And every Grey Warden in Orlais is hearing that right now?" Varric asked. "They all think they’re dying? No wonder they've lost their minds. Corypheus is controlling them through their fear."

"Yes. And they aren’t likely to listen to reason." Stroud pointed down at a map on a nearby table. "They are gathering in the western approach at an ancient Tevinter ritual tower. I hope to find answers there."

Chapter Text

They agreed to meet up again in the Western Approach, but Varric managed to convince Hawke to stay with them a while at their camp before they went their separate ways. Cassandra was actually grateful for the opportunity to get to know the Champion better, but  the more questions she asked, the more disappointed she felt. Hawke had certainly accomplished some amazing things, but Cassandra was learning that her renown had far more to do with Varric’s storytelling than anything else. She was gracious about her fame, however, and extraordinarily patient with Cassandra’s questions, although she must have heard them all before, perhaps dozens of times.

Studying Hawke as she spoke, Cassandra tried to reconcile the slight, roguish woman before her with the Champion of Kirkwall she had heard so much about. Hawke looked far too small to be such a larger-than-life figure, but she didn’t know why she was surprised. Justinia had been every bit as diminutive, not to mention frail, but she had commanded multitudes when she spoke.

“And that was it, really,” Hawke said with a shrug, finishing up a story about the Tal Vashoth. “Qunari are skilled fighters, but everyone has a weakness.”

"Then how did you defeat the Arishok?” Cassandra asked. “His fighting prowess was legendary!"

Hawke sighed. "Well, he was pretty fast, but I'm faster, so I just sort of kept running away and waiting for him to swing that big club of a sword at me. Then, while he was trying to lift it up again, I'd get a few stabs in. It was really a matter of endurance."

Cassandra felt her heart falling further. "But that's..."

"Not as impressive as Varric made it sound? I get that a lot."

"Hey, a little embellishment never hurt anyone," Varric protested, standing up to stretch the kinks out of his back.

“You say that,” Hawke said, “but you haven’t had to deal with all the idiots who challenged me to a fight simply because your stories make me sound invincible.”

“You've survived them, haven't you? Maybe I didn’t exaggerate as much as you think.”

“See? This is what he does when he knows I’m right about something,” Hawke complained. “He turns on the charm and pays me a compliment.”

Cassandra nodded with a frown. “He does, doesn’t he?”

“And that’s my cue to leave,” Varric said with a grimace. “If you ladies need me, I’ll be over there.”

He pointed at where Dorian and Anders were talking on the edge of camp, a frown settling into his features when his eyes focused on the pair. Anders hadn’t joined them around the campfire when Varric asked Hawke to stay, deliberately keeping his distance and occupying himself with other tasks around the camp. At some point Dorian must have wandered off to join him, but Cassandra had been too absorbed in their conversation to notice. She wasn't sure what had possessed Anders to bring the Tevinter along on this mission rather than someone more logical like Blackwall—he was a Warden himself, after all—but she hoped his reasons didn't have anything to do with Dorian's doe eyes and charming smile.

Returning her attention to Hawke when Varric had walked away, she saw that the Champion was still focused on the other side of the camp, on Anders in particular. A crease had formed between her brows and she seemed to be debating about something as she looked back at Cassandra.

“Can I ask you something?” she said, biting at her lower lip in a surprising display of doubt.

Eyebrows lifting, Cassandra thought guiltily about how she had been interrogating Hawke all night and hadn’t once asked for permission to question her. “Of course.”

“You do know what he’s done, don't you?”

Cassandra swallowed, a little startled by the anger in Hawke’s voice. “I do.”

Hawke shook her head in disappointment. “I got the impression that you are a woman of faith.”

“I was once the right hand of the Divine. So yes, my faith is very important to me.”

Hawke’s blue eyes hardened, brows furrowing as she asked, “Then how can you follow him?”

Looking at Anders, Cassandra thought about her response. “I can’t speak to the man he was when you knew him. But I trust the man he is now. He has sacrificed as much on behalf of the Inquisition as anyone else—perhaps more—and I truly believe that he is doing everything he can to make up for his sins.”

Hawke nodded slowly, looking down at her hands. “I’ve had so much doubt about what happened in Kirkwall. I let him live because I didn’t want to give him an easy way out, but I also feared what he might do afterward. I knew that his actions would be my responsibility after I let him go, and when I heard what happened at the conclave… I couldn’t help but wonder if he was involved.”

“He wasn’t responsible,” Cassandra said, reaching out to reassure her with an abortive motion, hesitating at the last moment. “It isn’t your fault.”

Wiping at her eyes covertly, Hawke pursed her lips and shook her head. “Anders and I had our share of disagreements over the years, but I never thought he would go so far as to blow up a chantry. Most of the time he was wonderful, so selfless and kind. He spent all his time in Kirkwall helping others, after all. But he can also be obsessive, unwavering and incredibly cold when his views are challenged. And he is better at lying than I’d ever expected." Looking up at Cassandra, she added, "I trusted him, and he betrayed that trust in the worst possible way."

Frowning, Cassandra concluded, "You're afraid that he will betray us too."

Hawke shook her head and threw her hands in the air helplessly. “I don't know. I don’t even know why I'm telling you all this. I barely know you. But I feel like I need to warn someone.” Returning her attention to the men on the other side of camp, she said with a wistful smile, “Varric seems to have forgiven him, so maybe he knows something I don’t. But I can't bring myself to trust him again. I don’t know how.”

Cassandra didn't know what to say, much less what to think. She had admired Hawke for a long time, and while the reality of her might not have lived up to all the stories, Cassandra still respected her deeply. She couldn't just disregard her opinion. "I appreciate the advice," she said finally, careful not to commit to anything.

Smiling in resignation, Hawke said, "But you're going to ignore it."

"No. I will take it into account. But until he gives me reason to doubt..."

"That's just the problem," Hawke interrupted with a sigh. "He didn't give me enough reason to doubt until the chantry's ashes were already falling from the sky. Just be wary of him. For everyone's sake."

Cassandra nodded dumbly, conflicted as she watched Hawke glance at Anders again, regret and something like longing burning in her eyes.

"I'll see you in the Western Approach," Hawke said finally, standing up and brushing dirt from her pants. “And tell Varric goodbye for me,” she added before turning and disappearing into the night.

Cassandra didn't know how long she stared into the fire before Varric joined her.

Looking around with disappointment in his eyes, he sat down across from her. "Did Hawke leave already?"

Cassandra nodded. “She asked me to tell you goodbye.”

"You look a little queasy, Seeker.” He chuckled. “She told you about Merrill’s disastrous attempt to cook, didn’t she? The smell of elfroot made me feel sick for months after that. Or was it Isabela's birthday party? The mental images alone are enough to make anyone a little sick."

Shaking her head, Cassandra’s eyes drifted toward Anders unbidden and by the time she forced them back to meet Varric's eyes, he was frowning. "So that's what you talked about. Don't let her turn you against him. She and Anders have history. She isn’t exactly objective.”

“And you are?”

“Maybe not. But at least I don’t have enough unresolved tension with the man to fill a romance novel.”

An image of Anders and Varric posing awkwardly on the front of a romance novel popped into  her head, and she found herself smiling in spite of the gravity of their conversation.

Varric echoed her smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “All I’m saying is that Hawke’s judgment is flawed where Anders is concerned. You’re better off following your own instincts.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes. Because they served me so well with you.”

“They did,” he insisted. “I was hiding something and you knew it. And when you chose to trust me, you were also right because my loyalties actually are in the right place.” He took a deep breath. “And you can trust me on this: he couldn’t make the same mistake now if he tried. I wouldn’t let him.”

“Hawke said she never saw it coming. She trusted him until the moment he betrayed her.”

Varric shook his head. “Then she’s fooling herself. We could have figured it out last time if we’d been willing to try. I know better now.”

“You had better hope you’re right. Because for better or worse, I do trust him. And I think I stopped being objective a while ago.”

He gave her a curious look, but seemed pleased by her decision and remained silent.

Standing up, she gave Dorian and Anders one last glance before turning toward the tents. “I’m going to bed. I suspect the Inquisitor has a busy day planned for us tomorrow and I could use the rest. Goodnight.”

“Sleep well, Seeker.”

Chapter Text

The caves beneath old Crestwood seemed to go on forever, and the deeper they delved the narrower and more claustrophobic the chambers became. When Anders had seen the glow coming from beneath the water he had thought that draining the lake would be enough to expose the rift, but of course it couldn’t be that simple. He’d hesitated as soon as he saw the entrance to the caves, but he had committed them to helping the villagers and he wasn’t about to turn back just because he didn’t like being below ground. They weren’t even that far beneath the surface yet, and surely they didn’t have that much farther to go before they would find the rift. He had been through far worse with the wardens.

His attempts to quell his growing panic with reason were only partially successful since the emotion was unreasonable by its very nature, but he kept trying anyway. Shivering, he focused on taking slow, steady breaths and trying not to notice how the walls were closing in on him. He heard his companions’ voices as if from a great distance, the sounds muffled and barely audible over the ringing in his ears.

“Bodies,” Dorian said, gesturing at something on the ground. “Were people living down here when old Crestwood flooded?”

“Poor bastards,” Varric said with a sigh. “I’m going to have nightmares just thinking about it.”

“I thought dwarves couldn’t dream.”

Varric scoffed. “Ever heard of a daydream, Sparkler?”

“Of course, but that’s hardly the same thing.”

“It is if it happens in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.”

Dorian seemed to consider that, but he sounded dismissive when he replied. “I suppose it’s similar, but if you’re in control of the thoughts, then you can stop them at any time. You’re more vulnerable when you’re asleep.”

“Everyone’s vulnerable when they’re alone with their thoughts in the middle of the night.”

“Inquisitor?” Cassandra said softly, slowing her pace to walk beside Anders.

Anders tried to focus on her, but he couldn’t make out much of her expression through his narrowed vision. “Hm?”

“Are you all right?”

Anders nodded, blushing a bit at her scrutiny. He had only just managed to gain her confidence and the last thing he wanted to do was appear weak over something so foolish; the Inquisitor should be ready to face anything, not on the verge of breaking down because of nothing more than a few layers of rock over his head. “I’m just not fond of caves,” he said with what he hoped was a disarming smile.

Before she could reply, they were attacked by another group of undead. At least fighting helped him to ignore his claustrophobia for a little while, and he threw himself into the battle with abandon, wasting more mana than he probably should have on lesser creatures and running low by the time the last enemy had fallen. Breathing hard, he looked around the cavern in curiosity, his vision clear for the first time in a while. The rock formations were really rather stunning, the subtle striations in the stone giving the entire space an otherworldly quality.

“Blondie! A little help here?” Following Varric’s voice, Anders found the dwarf supporting a wounded Dorian. Blood dripped from between Dorian’s fingertips as he pressed his hand against his thigh and Anders cursed his lack of restraint during the battle; he didn’t know if had enough mana left to heal much of anything at the moment.

Dorian took one look at Anders and shook his head. "I'll be fine. It's just a scratch. Just wrap it up and we can take care of it later.”

“At least let me stop the bleeding,” Anders replied, directing Varric to help Dorian sit on a nearby rock. Shifting fabric aside so he could get a better look at the cut, he frowned as Dorian continued to protest.

“You’re low on mana already,” Dorian hissed, gritting his teeth as Anders probed the injury. “Save it for something more important.”

“Just be silent and let him work,” Cassandra ordered impatiently, and Dorian sighed in frustration.

Ignoring them both, Anders managed to close the wound, his reserves running dry as soon as he wove the last bit of skin back together. He wavered a bit when he was done and Varric steadied him with a hand on his shoulder, a frown creasing his face.

Dorian shook his head. “I’d offer you a lyrium potion, but I’m all out.”

“Luckily, mana is one resource that comes back on its own,” Anders said with a weak smile, trying to sound reassuring even though he was a little worried that his mana was regenerating more slowly than normal due to his current condition. But he didn’t want to trouble anyone, and there was little he could do about it until they were back on the surface regardless. “I’ll be fine,” he insisted when they all looked at him as if they didn’t believe him.

They continued walking and Anders continued fighting the panic clawing at his chest with every downward step. He lost track of time as they continued to descend deeper into the caves, slowly falling to the back of the group and seeing the others drift farther ahead despite his attempts to keep up.

“There’s dwarven ruins down here!” Cassandra exclaimed at some point, her voice echoing harshly in Anders’ ears.

“The whole area is still lit up,” Dorian chimed in. “Remarkable!”

“What did you expect, Sparkler? You know dwarves build to last.”

Dorian didn’t respond right away, but when he did there was a frown in his voice. “Varric, I want a new nickname.”

Varric laughed. “What’s wrong with Sparkler? Not colorful enough for you?”

“You must know me better by now. Or does the moniker you gave me five minutes after we met still apply?”

Anders was far enough behind now that he could see them disappearing around a corner in the distance as Varric waved off Dorian’s concerns.“I have the eyes of a storyteller. It’s a gift.”

“So I’m a bit of light you stick in a windowsill to impress passersby?” Dorian demanded, his voice echoing off the walls in erratic patterns. “All flash, no heat. Hm. That’s actually pretty clever.”

“See? Embrace your place in the universe, Sparkler.”

Varric’s last few words sounded distorted to Anders as if he were underwater and the sounds were bubbling to the surface from the depths. His vision was also closing in on him again, shadows encroaching from every angle, and he leaned against the nearest wall to stop the cave from spinning. He wasn’t sure how long he stood there trying to catch his breath before he felt a warm hand against his back.

“Blondie,” Varric said next to his ear, and Anders realized that at some point he had slid down the wall to the floor and tucked his head between his knees. He heard someone breathing loudly and then recognized that it was him, his breaths coming in shallow little pants and barely providing enough air to keep him from passing out. “Blondie, can you hear me?”

“Varric,” Anders whispered haltingly, and the dwarf began tracing reassuring circles over his back.

“That’s good. Focus on my voice. Breath with me. In… And out… That’s it. Nice and slow. Deep breaths.”

“What’s wrong with him?” he heard Cassandra ask but didn’t dare look up for fear of making his dizziness worse. Though he felt intensely embarrassed to be seen in his current state, he was too far removed from his body at the moment to be able to do much about it.

“Panic attack,” Varric explained. “Happened to him once in the Deep Roads and it scared the shit out of me. He really hates being underground.” His hand paused on Anders’ back, then resumed its pattern a bit more firmly. “I knew something was wrong. I should have been paying closer attention.”

“Is there anything we can do?” Cassandra’s voice was closer now, and Anders realized that she had knelt down beside him as well, her hand landing tentatively on his head, fingers tracing over his hair as if she wanted to be comforting but didn’t know how.

“I think you’re doing it,” Dorian said quietly, and his tone made Anders wonder if the Tevinter knew something about what he was going through.

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, Varric coaching him on his breathing until it had finally slowed to a normal pace, Cassandra and Dorian hovering beside him and exuding palpable worry. He appreciated their concern, but they were all too close, invading his personal space and making him feel more confined. But eventually he began to come out of the attack, feeling foolish and uncertain of how to let the others know that it was over. Luckily, Varric was intuitive enough to figure it out on his own.

Patting him on the back before pulling his hand away, Varric sighed. “You have to say something before it gets to that point, Blondie,” he said.

Anders lifted his head and Cassandra also retreated, taking a few steps away to give him some space. Still, she and Dorian were both staring at him with wide eyes as if they thought he might keel over at any moment. “Sorry,” he said, looking down at his knees. “I haven’t had one that bad in a long time.”

“You’ve had a strange week,” Varric replied with a shrug. “A person can only take so much emotional whiplash before it catches up with them.”

Anders thought about that, wondering if he was right. He'd always hated enclosed spaces, and his year in solitary had only exaggerated that weakness, making it nearly debilitating for him when the circumstances were right. And those circumstances tended to include anxiety about other things as well as exhaustion, both emotional and physical. His attack in the Deep Roads had happened after Bartrand left them for dead and they had brought a dying Bethany to the wardens in the desperate hope that they could save her. Both experiences had been emotionally draining and they had happened after days below ground. The circumstances this time around seemed less dire, but the emotional extremes of the week had been far worse, from nearly dying to the elation of his new position to seeing Hawke and Justice again. And he'd kept himself so busy that he hadn't had time to truly process any of it.

“I’m going to scout ahead,” Cassandra said suddenly, seeming to realize that he was going to need some time to recover and that he might like to do so without all of them gaping at him.

Dorian shifted on his feet as if to follow, but hesitated, gaze lingering on Anders as if he was afraid to leave him. Then Cassandra tapped him on the arm and arched her brows pointedly. “I’ll go with you,” he announced completely unnecessarily.

Varric watched them walk away with a little laugh. “Those two are even worse at this sort of thing than I am.”

“You’re actually rather good at it,” Anders replied, leaning his head back against the wall.

“Well, I’ve been through it before. I don’t even remember what I did the last time. I think I was panicking almost as much as you were, and Hawke was absolutely no help after what happened with Bethany.” He patted Anders’ knee. “I’m just glad you’re okay. Talking I can do. Anything more than that, and you would have been on your own.”

Anders smiled at him in gratitude, then turned to look through the opening where Dorian and Cassandra had disappeared. He shook his head. “Cassandra is going to think I’m completely unreliable after this.”

“No, she isn’t,” Varric said. “If anything, she’s going to finally realize you aren’t invincible. You’ve been pushing yourself so hard, but you have to set some limits with that group of workaholics you have as advisors or they’ll wear you out before Corypheus does.”

“Good thing I’ve got such a wise unofficial advisor, then.”

“Hey, they’re looking out for the Inquisition. I’m only looking out for you.” Turning to face him, he added, “Which reminds me. I got you something. I was going to wait until we were out of this place to give it to you, but after what Dorian said earlier you could probably use it more now." Fumbling around in his pockets, he finally found what he was looking for: a tiny velvet-covered box impressed with the logo of the Inquisition.

"Varric," Anders said dryly, "Are you going to propose?"

Smirking, Varric nodded, "Yes, Blondie." He lifted the lid of the box to reveal a shiny hoop of gold, flashes of blue reflecting off the surface as the light caught it. "With this earring I do swear my eternal friendship."

Anders laughed and reached into the box to remove the earring. Inspecting it more closely, he realized that it was inscribed with an elaborate design in fragile strands of pale blue.

"Dagna says that it should help you regenerate mana more quickly. Why don't you give it a try?"

Still smiling, Anders guided the metal post into his ear lobe, surprised that the skin hadn't grown back together in all the years he'd gone without an earring. "What do you think?" He asked when it was fastened in place, already feeling the regeneration enchantment beginning to work.

"You look like a dashing rogue—or at least you would if you weren't still pale as a ghost."

Rubbing his fingers over the earring, Anders smiled. "It’s perfect. Thanks."

"Thank Dagna. You should have seen how excited she was to make it. I could barely understand her she was talking so fast."

The quick rap of Cassandra's boots on the stone drew their attention. “We found the rift," she said, her gaze catching on Anders’ ear before returning to his eyes.

Anders nodded and pushed himself to his feet with a hand on the wall. "Then let's finish this."

Chapter Text

Cullen winced as he stepped outside, the sunlight cutting through his eyelids and burrowing painfully into his head. The symptoms of his withdrawal would come and go from day to day, but the extremes were getting worse and the constant distraction was taking its toll. He had made a bad call recently and a soldier had been wounded because of it; he worried that the mistakes would only continue if he didn’t find a way to compensate for his lack of focus. The only thing he knew to do was to bury himself in work, though it was the work itself that concerned him most. Perhaps if he took more time to consider his decisions he could manage enough clear thought to make the right ones.

When he stormed through Josephine’s office, she looked up in surprise but remained silent, correctly taking his look to mean he was not in the mood for small talk. He hadn’t expected to find anyone in the War Room with the Inquisitor still in Crestwood, hoping to spend a little time studying the latest reports and considering his decisions more carefully, but to his surprise Anders was there when he arrived, standing on the far side of the table and gazing intently down at the maps. He looked freshly washed, damp hair pulled sloppily back and away from his face, but his posture was weary, his eyes tired. A glint of metal on his right ear caught Cullen’s eye. He hadn’t seen Anders wearing an earring in all the time they’d been in Kirkwall, but seeing it now brought back memories of their time at Kinloch Hold, memories from a period in his life he had been reliving vividly every night in his nightmares.

Shaking away those thoughts, he let the door swing shut behind him. “Inquisitor,” he greeted gruffly.

“Commander,” Anders replied in a friendly, but neutral tone without looking up from the maps.

“When did you get back?”

“A couple hours ago.”

“And you’re already hard at work again?” Cullen was both surprised and impressed by Anders’ dedication.

“I wanted to look into something. Hawke’s contact says that the Wardens are congregating in the Western Approach. From his description of the situation, I suspect Venatori involvement. I wanted to see if we have any reports of Venatori movements in the area.”

“We have a few.” Sorting through some papers on one corner of table, Cullen found the one he was looking for and handed it to Anders. Leaning over the map, Cullen reviewed the markers in Orlais. “We have some scouts nearby. I can send word to them to explore the area.”

Anders finished reading the report and nodded. “Tell them to look for an old Tevinter ritual tower.”

Straightening, Cullen leaned against the table when he felt a wave of dizziness wash over him. While he appreciated how seriously Anders was taking his new responsibilities, he had come to the war room with the intention of getting some work done without distractions. And Anders was good at being distracting, even when he wasn’t meaning to be. Rubbing at one temple to ease his headache, he said, “I can follow up on this lead. You should get some rest while you can.”

Anders’ eyes narrowed as he regarded Cullen. “Perhaps you should be resting yourself. You look ill.”

“I’m fine,” Cullen protested, but then he gasped, the pain intensifying enough that he ended up clutching at his head as he rode out a wave of agony. He didn’t notice Anders moving until he felt the hand against his neck followed by the blessed rush of healing magic smoothing over the pain and burying it beneath a layer of numbing relief.

When his vision cleared, he found himself using the mage to prop himself up, one arm slung around Anders’ back and clutching at his hip for balance. He blushed, but felt too shaky to pull away just yet. They were almost the same height, he realized, feeling his panting breaths rebounding off Anders’ cheek. Head still spinning, he wondered what had possessed him to reach out to Anders at all. It must have been instinct, grasping for the nearest solid object to keep himself on his feet when his knees went weak with relief. Yes, that was the only explanation that made sense.

Anders didn’t seem to have noticed their proximity, his vision unfocused as he continued to clutch at the nape of Cullen’s neck, fingers pressing against his scalp as he concentrated. Cullen could feel his magic still probing at him, tendrils of energy searching his body for the cause of his pain, but the wrinkle of confusion between his brows said that he hadn’t solved the puzzle yet. “It’s more than a headache,” he murmured. “You’re running a fever. Your body is fighting…something. And it’s losing.”

Cullen sighed, pulling away from the mage with an unsteady step. He couldn’t keep the truth from Anders any longer. As Inquisitor, he deserved to know about Cullen’s decision, and even if he didn’t tell him, Anders was likely to figure it out on his own eventually anyway. “I’ve stopped taking lyrium.”

Eyes snapping back into focus, Anders looked at him in shock. “What? Why?”

“You see Templars as jailers who take pleasure in keeping mages under lock and key, but we don’t have much more freedom than the mages we vow to protect."

Anders didn’t reply, but Cullen was unsurprised to find little sympathy in his eyes.

"The leash around our necks may not be visible, but it’s always there," Cullen continued. "Addiction binds us to the order and we are leashed by it until we either die or lyrium takes our minds away, compelled to follow orders, compelled to obey. I can’t live like that anymore.”

Anders’ expression softened. “This could kill you,” he said quietly.

Swallowing, Cullen looked away. “You escaped the nightmare in Ferelden’s circle, but surely you’ve heard stories about what happened.”

“Of course,” Anders replied uncertainly.

Trying to keep his voice even and calm despite the latent panic the memories always triggered, Cullen said, “Many Templars died before it was over. In some ways survival was worse. Those blood mages tortured me for what felt like years, using every trick they knew to break my mind. For what purpose, I don’t know, but they nearly succeeded.” His throat was thick with emotion as he continued, “I was eventually rescued, but how can anyone be the same after that? Still, I wanted to serve. They sent me to Kirkwall, and you know what happened there, the things Meredith in her madness asked us to do.” He surprised himself by avoiding a comment about Anders’ role in that disaster. When had he stopped taking every opportunity to punish Anders for what he had done, he wondered? A little bit of compassion surely couldn’t make up for so many sins.

Shaking his head, he turned away, walking over to the nearest window and squinting out into the blinding sunlight. “I want nothing to do with that life. Whatever happens, it’s worth the risk to be free.”

He heard Anders crossing the room to follow him. “That’s a feeling I understand all too well. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to heal lyrium addiction, but I will do whatever I can to help.”

Cullen turned to face him, startled by how close he was standing. “Why would you do that? Why have you helped me at all? I was the one who tracked you down that last time, the one who threw you into that cell at the bottom of Ferelden’s tower. They left you there for a year!” Biting at his lower lip, Cullen looked away from Anders’ gaze. “I know you must still hate me for that.”

Anders regarded him silently, waiting until Cullen finally met his eyes again before he spoke. “And I imagine you still hate me for what I did in Kirkwall. Perhaps one hatred cancels out the other? Or maybe it's just our version of common ground. All I know is that I can’t stand by and watch someone suffer when I know I can help.”

Cullen frowned. “I suppose it must be reassuring to know that without lyrium I’ll never be able to silence you again.”

Laughing mirthlessly, Anders shook his head. “Yes, I could only want to help a templar if he were actively making himself less of a danger to me.”

Wincing at the sarcasm in Anders’ tone, Cullen sighed. “I’m sorry. That was unfair.”

“It was fair enough, but in this case untrue.” Stepping closer, he peered at Cullen as if he were a puzzle to be solved. He knew Anders wasn’t really looking at him but into him, but he still felt uncomfortable with the scrutiny—as well as their renewed proximity. “How long does it usually take for the pain to come back after I’ve treated it?” Anders asked.

“I don’t know. A few hours? Half a day, maybe.”

“Perhaps if I used stronger magic…” He reached out to touch his face, but Cullen grabbed his wrist and twisted it away.

“Stop,” Cullen said, his voice sounding surprisingly strained, deeper than normal and rough.

Attempting to avoid Anders' gaze, Cullen’s eyes focused on the war table, the stacks of reports reminding him of all the unfinished work he had ahead of him. Releasing Anders’ wrist and stepping out from between him and the wall, he returned to his usual place at the table without looking back. “I appreciate your offer to help, but I don’t want this to become a distraction. Stopping Corypheus is our top priority. If my fitness for duty is a concern, you should know I’ve asked Cassandra to monitor me and relieve me from my position if she thinks the symptoms are impairing my judgement.”

Anders scoffed. “That’s not what’s concerning me.”

“But it should be,” Cullen insisted. “Like it or not, you are in charge of the Inquisition, and you can’t afford to waste time on pet projects like finding a way to cure my addiction.”

Eyes narrowing, Anders met his angry glare without fear. “You don't want help from me, is that it?” he asked in an irritatingly reasonable tone.

“That’s not what this is about.” Cullen picked up a report and stared at it, but he could feel Anders watching him and the weight of that attention prevented him from absorbing any of the words on the page.

Finally Anders sighed. “Fine. It’s your decision. But it’s not a distraction for me to ease your pain. When it gets bad, don’t suffer through it alone. Come find me.”

Cullen nodded reluctantly. "Fine."

Chapter Text

Anders walked out of the War Room feeling irrationally angry. He knew that what Cullen chose to do about his own health was ultimately his own decision, but Anders had always found people who refused to accept help out of fear or pride to be intolerably frustrating. He wasn’t sure which one was holding Cullen back, but he suspected it was a healthy dose of both.

After what had happened in Ferelden’s tower, Cullen’s fear of magic had been fanned into an all-consuming flame, and the high incidence of blood magic in Kirkwall had only exacerbated his fears further. Frankly, Anders was surprised that Cullen had allowed him to use magic on him at all, but that was only an indication of how desperate his withdrawal had made him. But Cullen’s pride was also a factor that couldn’t be underestimated. He was the sort of man who worked hard to be self-sufficient, only relying on others when absolutely necessary and Anders knew he took satisfaction in this independence. He might have admired the man’s dedication if it weren’t for the fact that it prevented him from accepting the help he needed.  

Anders knew that there had to be a way around Cullen’s stubbornness. He simply needed to find the right angle. Maybe Cassandra could help. Cullen had indicated she knew about his decision and was keeping a close eye on him. She might have observed something that would allow Anders to help without entirely disregarding Cullen’s wishes.

He found her sitting on a barrel near her usual training spot, hunched over something with her back turned to the rest of the courtyard. When he got closer, he identified the object in her hands as a book, but he couldn’t read the cover. She was clearly absorbed, and while he hadn’t thought he was being particularly stealthy in his approach, she didn’t react to his presence until he was nearly upon her.

“Good book?” he asked and she practically leapt out of her skin, hopping to her feet and tucking the book behind her back.

“Ah! I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said in what was possibly the worst attempt at a lie that he had ever heard. Crimson washed over her skin, rising high on her cheekbones as she waited for his reaction; he had never seen her so out of her element, and the sight amused him more than he cared to admit. She was always so buttoned up and controlled all the time. It was refreshing to see her a bit wrong-footed for once.

“Either you’re blushing,” he said, unable to hold back a smile, “or you’re running a sudden fever. I think I might be concerned either way.”

Feigning innocence—and doing it badly—she waved a hand at him. “What would I have to blush about?”

“I have no idea. But I must admit to being incredibly curious.”

She looked away. “It’s of no interest to you, I’m certain… It’s a book.”

“I did notice. And I do actually know how to read,” he pointed out. “What makes you so sure I wouldn’t be interested?”

“It’s literature...smutty literature.”

Anders laughed, and immediately regretted his instinctive reaction when he saw her expression crumple. Attempting to reassure her, he said, “Do you know that back in the Circle, I spent quite a lot of time searching the library for books like that? I think the best I ever came up with was a book cataloguing the differences in sexual practices around the world. It was shockingly dry reading despite the subject matter, but I still have many fond memories of that book.”

Her blush spread down her neck. “It’s not like that! I only read it for the romance.”

Anders’ eyebrows rose and he smiled at how flustered she was. Though he would never have imagined describing the Seeker as adorable, that was the only word that seemed to fit her currently. “So you’re saying that beneath that taciturn exterior, you're a hopeless romantic?”

“Why must it be an accusation?” she demanded, outrage sparking in her eyes. “Romance is not the sole province of dithering ladies in frilly dresses. It is passion. It is being swept away by the pursuit of an ideal. What is not to like about that?”

“Nothing.” Smiling encouragingly, he added, “I didn’t mean it as an accusation. It’s actually a relief to know there’s more to you than honor and responsibility.”

Her blush intensified and she looked away, folding her arms over her chest. This brought the book up where he could actually see it, and he squinted at the title: Swords and Shields. He didn’t recognize the name, but as soon as he saw the heroic woman on the cover, he noticed the similarity between the idealized warrior and Aveline. “Wait. Is that one of Varric’s books?”

“You can’t tell him!” Cassandra said quickly, a bit of the fierce warrior in her rising to the surface as she focused on him again.

“I won’t,” he said gently.

“But this is the latest chapter,” she said with a frown, “and it ends on a cliffhanger. Varric must be working on the next one, but it’s been months! You’re friends with him… Perhaps you could ask him about it? Convince him to finish it?” Shaking her head violently, she turned away. “No. That’s ridiculous. Pretend you don’t know this about me.”

“Cassandra,” he said with another laugh, waiting patiently until she finally met his gaze. “I’ll see what I can do.”

A small but sweet smile curved her lips. “Thank you.” Swallowing, she shook herself again and settled back into her usual restrained demeanor. “But you didn’t come here to talk to me about such frivolous things. What can I do for you, Inquisitor?”

Thinking about his original reason for coming to talk to her, he felt his smile fade. “Cullen told me that he’s stopped taking lyrium. And that you are keeping an eye on him.”

She nodded slowly. “I am. As a Seeker I can evaluate the dangers. We had an agreement long before you joined us, but I have seen nothing yet to make me doubt him.” Her expression darkened. “Are you concerned about his ability to complete his duties?”

“Not at all. But I’m concerned for him.” Sighing, he shook his head. “Lyrium withdrawal can be wildly dangerous, and I want to help if I can. But he doesn’t trust me.”

Eyes narrowing, she tilted her head thoughtfully. “Are you certain of that?”

“He pushes me away every time I try to help. I can do research on lyrium addiction, but without being able to monitor his condition, I don’t know how I can apply that information in any useful way.”

“You want me to keep you informed.”

“And tell me if it gets too bad. I don’t trust him to seek help when he needs it.”

“He is stubborn,” she agreed. “And it would be a relief if you could find a way to ease him through the process. I will do what you ask.”

Nodding in gratitude, Anders thanked her and left her to her reading.

He found Varric in the main hall pacing in front of the fire and deep in thought. Despite his promise to Cassandra, Anders wasn’t sure how he was going to bring up Varric’s romance serial without revealing her secret, but he would do his best.

“Planning your next epic?” he asked, perching on the edge of the table beside Varric.

Smirking at him, Varric shook his head. “Trying to figure out how to reply to some irritated merchants, actually. I sort of forgot to pay a few of my bills last month to see if they were paying attention. They were. Also, I’ve been busy and might have misplaced my most recent bill. I’ll have to get creative to talk myself out of this one. I don't suppose you're ready to set out for the Western Approach?”

"Not yet. We've sent scouts to explore the area, but it's remote. It could be a few days."

"Damn. I could really use a reason to procrastinate."

Anders had never heard a more perfect opening. “Surely you have stories you should be writing.”

“Of course. But I was already procrastinating on those.”

“What about all your adoring readers? You can't just leave them in the lurch."

Varric’s eyes narrowed. "What are you after, Blondie?"

Anders shrugged. "Fine. I'll admit it. I was in the library earlier looking for a book and I found one of yours—we’re stocked with rather a lot of your books, actually. Is that your doing?”

“I admit nothing.” Varric showed his palms innocently.

“Anyway, I found this one that had Aveline on the cover—or at least a character who was clearly based on Aveline—and I thought I’d give it a try. Read the whole thing in one go. But I guess it was the last chapter you’ve published, and now I’m left wondering what’s coming next.”

Varric’s expression was more startled than amused. “Aveline? Surely you’re not talking about Swords and Shields.” He laughed dryly. “That book is easily the worst I’ve ever written. The last issue barely sold enough to pay for the ink.”

Wincing, Anders countered with as much false sincerity as he could manage, “Well, I didn’t say it was good, but I couldn’t put it down. And I still want to know what happens next.”

“I suppose you’re worried about the Guard Captain, then?” Varric arched a brow.

Sensing a trap, Anders replied noncommittally, “Among other things, yes.”

A smile spread over Varric’s lips and he jabbed a finger at Anders’ chest. “Hah! There is no Guard Captain. Aveline’s lookalike is a Knight-Captain. And you didn’t actually read my book at all, did you, Blondie?”

“No,” Anders admitted with a sigh. “But I know someone who did. And she’s very eager to read the next issue.”

“She’ll be waiting for a while, then. I haven’t finished it and I wasn’t planning to.” Rubbing a finger over his lips thoughtfully, Varric regarded him with eagerness in his eyes. “But now I have to know who you’re talking about. She’s obviously my biggest fan if she actually enjoys that drivel, and she must have asked you to keep her identity a secret.”

“I’m not going to tell you who it is.”

“You don’t need to say a thing, Blondie, and I’ll still figure it out. Let’s see… Buttercup? No. Even if it were her, she’d just threaten me with a prank rather than ask someone to help. Ruffles? Highly likely, but I don’t think she would care about hiding her interest. Nightingale?” He seemed to really consider that one, but eventually dismissed it. “Unlikely. She wouldn’t trust anyone to keep her secret, not even you. What about the Iron Lady?” He laughed. “Now wouldn’t that be rich? I actually kind of wish it was her, but I can see it written all over your face that it’s not. But who’s left?” Sighing, he scratched at his forehead. Then his eyes widened. “No!”

“Varric,” Anders said in warning.

“And I honestly thought a hole in the sky was the weirdest thing that could happen. The Seeker actually reads my books?”

Anders waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Yes, yes. Congratulations.”

“And she wants me to finish the latest issue of my worst serial. That’s such a terrible idea.” He actually giggled in glee. “I have to do it. On one condition: I get to be there when you give her the book.”

“She’d be mortified.”

“Yes. And?”

“Then she’d kill me.”

“Oh, stop being so dramatic. Your life isn’t in danger. And as soon as she has the book in hand she’ll be too eager to read it to pay attention to anything else.”

Anders sighed. “Fine.”

“I’ll get to work, then. Better than dealing with the merchants guild.” Chuckling, he looked back at Anders as he added, “You know, the fact that the book is terrible just makes it more worthwhile, somehow.”

Smiling, Anders turned away and nearly walked right into Solas.

“Inquisitor,” the elf said softly, expression deathly serious. “I need your help.”

“What’s wrong?”

Jaw tight, Solas shook his head. “One of my oldest friends has been captured by mages and forced into slavery.”

“Forced into slavery by mages…” Anders’ eyes widened. “Your friend is a spirit!”

“Yes. A spirit of Wisdom. Considering your friendship with Justice, I thought you would understand.”

“Of course,” Anders said quickly. “Do you know where the mages are keeping your friend?” Solas nodded. “Then we should leave right away.” He looked back over his shoulder at Varric, but the dwarf shook his head.

“Sorry, Blondie, but I’m going to stay out of this one. I’ve seen enough trouble with spirits to last me a lifetime. But the kid might want to come along if you need a rogue.” Sitting down in his chair, he picked up his quill and started writing. Anders couldn’t blame him, and he was probably right about Cole anyway.

“We need to move quickly,” Solas reminded.

“Let’s find Cole. And we should probably have a warrior along. Cassandra, maybe?”

Varric chuckled. “She does owe you a favor now, after all.”

Chapter Text

Cole had never been to the Exalted Plains before. He didn’t like the place. It was gray and dusty and smelled of smoke and death. There were too many memories, too many layers of pain and sadness buried along with the bodies in the ground.

His companions didn’t like the place any more than he did. Cassandra was fighting to control her memories, the fortifications and fires recalling thoughts of various battles. She struggled to push them aside and concentrated instead on repeating a religious mantra endlessly in her head. Anders was not doing as well at containing his own memories, and Cole saw flashes of the first real battle Anders had ever experienced, the attack on Amaranthine when he was a Warden. Anders hadn’t been a Warden for long after that, and thoughts of what followed made him remember Justice. Cole explored those visions hungrily, feeling an intense kinship with the spirit because of Anders’ connection even though he had never had a chance to meet him. Justice seemed so brave and determined. So much stronger than Cole had ever been. He wished he could have met him just once.

“We’re not far away now. My friend was summoned somewhere near here,” Solas said, voice tight with anxiety. Cole tried to read his thoughts, but Solas’ mind was confusing, all jumbled like looking into a hall of mirrors. Occasionally memories would flash into focus, but they were all reflections layered on top of each other so deeply that Cole couldn’t focus on one for long without getting sucked into another.

“Everything here is blurry,” Cole complained, voicing the echoes he heard whispered on the wind. They belonged to Solas’ friend. “It wants to forget. But the rocks are solid.”

Solas slowed when he saw a body on the ground, but then immediately continued walking. “One of the mages,” he said dismissively. “Killed by arrows it would seem.”

But Anders did not keep walking. Crouching down beside the body, he inspected the dead mage with a frown and Cole felt his regret like the smoke choking his throat.

Cassandra paused next to Anders. “Bandits, most likely,” she said, but her chest was aching as she looked at the Inquisitor. She wanted to brush away the lock of hair that had fallen across his face, but the impulse made her angry. Her hands clenched at her sides in frustration as if she blamed him for making her feel this way.

“There are more bodies over here,” Solas said from the ridge ahead of them. “But they aren’t mages. The bodies are burned, and these claw marks… No. No, no, no…” He took off at a run and Anders straightened quickly and rushed to follow.

“Solas!”

Cole stumbled when he saw the cage ahead and the Pride demon pacing within its boundaries. The spirit’s thoughts were confused now, consumed by raw emotion. Looking at the demon, he couldn’t help but take the threat personally. That demon could just as easily have been him.

“Solas,” Anders repeated, cautiously approaching the elf where he was standing nearly doubled over in anger. “I’m sorry.”

“We were too late,” Solas whispered.

Tilting his head thoughtfully, Anders said, “Maybe not. If we can dismantle the ritual circle…”

Solas looked at him, the anger fading from his eyes as he considered Anders’ suggestion. “Perhaps. Remove the conflict with its nature and it might return to its natural state. It could work. But first, we must find the mages who summoned my friend in the first place.”

“Thank the maker!” a man cried from the other side of the hill. A trio of mages ran toward them. “You’re mages. Do you have any lyrium potions? Most of us are exhausted. We’ve been fighting that demon.”

Solas nearly attacked them with his bare fists, but Anders held him back. “You summoned that demon!” Solas said once he had caught his breath. “Except it was a spirit of wisdom at the time. You made it kill. You twisted it against its purpose.”

The mage stuttered, and Cole felt his fear as he babbled, cold and metallic on the back of his tongue. He had been so safe in the circle. He’d had a warm bed to sleep in every night, a library full of books to read. No bandits. No armies fighting each other and killing anyone who got in the way. “Listen to me!” the mage cried. “I was one of the foremost experts in the Kirkwall Circle. I understand how demons work."

“You understand nothing!” Solas snapped. “You summoned a spirit, not a demon, and it was only when you commanded it to kill that it turned.”

“It tried to tell you,” Cole said sadly. “It tried to warn you that what you were doing was wrong.”

“Demons will say anything to control you. We had to bind it,” the mage protested.

“Explanations will do nothing for these fools,” Anders said with a sigh. “We will have to break the binding before they’ll see the truth.”

“What?” The mage’s eyes bulged out of his head, his pulse racing into a panic. “The binding is the only thing keeping the demon from killing us! Whatever it was before, it is a monster now.”

Anders swore under his breath. “I can’t believe I helped idiots like you escape the circle.”

“Helped us escape…?” The mage looked at Anders more closely and his anxiety turned to rage. “Wait! I recognize you from Kirkwall. You’re the apostate who lived in Dark Town. The one who blew up the Chantry! You’re the reason we’re stuck out here in the wilderness doing what we have to do to survive. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you!”

Lifting his chin, Anders regarded the mage in silence, but Cole could feel the pain and regret boiling inside of him.

Solas glanced at Anders with a frown, but the demon’s cries drew his attention. “We must hurry.”

Despite the mages’ protests, they began destroying the binding circle. Cole felt uneasy every time one of his daggers touched the barrier, worried that it could somehow suck him in and put him under its spell as well. He trusted Anders and Solas to prevent that from happening, but he couldn’t help worrying about it anyway. As the binding crumbled, the demon began to change, shrinking and transforming until it became the figure of a woman with glowing eyes. Her shape was insubstantial, wavering in and out of existence as if parts of her were missing.

Solas ran to her side, an expression of anguish on his face. He said something in Elvish, and though Cole couldn’t understand the words, he understood his thoughts. He was apologizing.

“She is ready to die,” Cole said sadly, daggers hanging limply from his hands as he watched Solas’ reaction and realized the elf had given up hope.

“No,” Anders whispered. “Solas. Let me try to help.”

Solas shook his head sadly. “It’s too late.”

Placing a hand on his shoulder, Anders knelt down beside him and turned to the spirit, a crease forming between his brows as he concentrated. “I’ve never tried to heal a spirit before, but I use spirit energy in my healing. Surely there’s something I can do.”

The spirit of Wisdom peered at him curiously, and though she had made peace with her fate, she was still afraid.

Cole joined them, smiling at the spirit encouragingly. “He wants to help,” he said to the spirit as Anders closed his eyes, holding his hands out in front of him and summoning a pure blue light to his fingertips. “Let him try.”

She nodded, closing her eyes as well. The energy from Anders’ hands seemed to flow into her and give her strength. Her form began to coalesce more completely, her skin glowing as if lit from within.

“What are you doing? You’ll only make the demon stronger!” one of the mages cried in dismay, but Cassandra stood between the mages and their group and drew her sword in warning.

“Don’t interfere,” she ordered.

Anders continued to work until the spirit gasped suddenly in surprise. She lifted her hands and turned them in amazement, light shimmering from her fingertips. “I’m whole!” she whispered. Cole could feel her joy and relief as if it were his own.

“I don’t believe it,” Solas breathed. “You’ve actually done it.”

Finally lowering his hands, Anders sat back on his heels and smiled, wrinkles forming at the corners of his eyes when he saw the spirit’s restored form.

“Thank you,” the spirit whispered.

“Yes, thank you,” Solas agreed, looking at him in wonder. “You continue to surprise me, Inquisitor.”

“It’s the least I could do after what you did for Justice,” Anders replied. Standing up, he turned to face the other mages. When he wavered a bit on his feet, Cassandra caught his arm to steady him. “Do you see now?” Anders demanded, gesturing to the spirit. “That is no demon.”

“We… We didn’t know.”

“And now you do. Don’t make the same mistake again.”

The mages shrank away from him.

“In fact,” Solas added, standing up and lifting his staff menacingly, “stay away from spirits and demons altogether. You can’t be trusted with them.”

“And you lot can?” one of the mages asked defiantly, nodding at Anders. “Isn’t he an abomination? Surely you know what he’s done.”

“I also know what you’ve done,” Solas growled. “And I suggest you leave now before I change my mind about letting you live.”

Stumbling over his own feet in his haste to retreat, the mages hurried off down the path, glancing furtively back at them as they went.

When they were gone, Solas returned his attention to the spirit of Wisdom, and the look of adoration in his eyes was intense enough to make Cole curious. “If you don’t mind, Inquisitor, I’d like to stay here for a while.”

Anders nodded and turned to leave. “Take all the time you need.”

Turning to follow reluctantly, Cole frowned. He could tell that Solas and the spirit were more than friends. They had shared ancient mysteries, forgotten dreams and something deeper; the emotions they had shared were something like love, though that was a slippery emotion, one that Cole still had trouble understanding. As they made their way back to the main road, he noticed that neither of his companions were thinking about battles anymore. In fact, they were both thinking of more tender memories, friends and lovers and moments of peace and acceptance.

“How are you holding up, Cole?” Anders asked, glancing back at him. “It must have been hard to see what happened to Solas’ friend.”

“I wouldn’t want to end up like that,” Cole admitted. “I’m glad you were able to help her.”

“Me too.”

Skipping a little as he walked, Cole added. “We should go help someone else. I like helping people.”

Anders laughed. “That sounds good to me.”

His hand collided with Cassandra’s as he turned, and they both froze for a moment, exchanging a startled glance. Anders opened his mouth as if to apologize, but Cassandra turned away and continued walking, a faint blush coloring her cheeks as she increased her pace. Cole could tell that she had wanted more than anything to reach out and clasp his hand at that moment, but she had been afraid. He almost asked why, but then she started talking.

“We shouldn’t linger here too long,” she said. “Our scouts will send word from the Western Approach soon.”

Expression darkening, Anders nodded. “Yes. Hawke will be waiting for us.”

Chapter Text

Hawke could smell the blood magic on the air. The scent had always turned her stomach, and even a whiff of that sourness tinged with copper could send her right back to that horrible night, the last time she had spoken with her mother—or at least what had been left of her after that psychotic blood mage was finished. Pacing in front of the stone pillars, she ignored Stroud's concerned gaze and tried to focus on anything but those memories, the glazed look in her mother's eyes, the grotesque way she had moved under that man's control, like a puppet held up by strings.

Grimacing, she resumed her pacing, glancing periodically up at the tower and trying to banish the images from her mind. "We can't afford to keep waiting. People are dying up there."

"We can't very well attack without reinforcements," Stroud replied reasonably, just as he had responded to every other comment she'd made on the subject. "We must wait for the Inquisition."

"I've taken on worse before."

His mustache billowed as he retorted, "Indeed? I'd wager you had more than one companion at your side at the time."

She nearly growled in frustration, but the sound of footsteps on the path made her pause.

She turned to see the Inquisitor and his companions approaching, still unable to think of Anders with that title without a healthy dose of sarcasm. Despite her mixed feeling for the man himself, she had to admit he was making a difference in the world and leaving more than destruction his wake. Whatever she might think of his judgment, she couldn't argue with his level of influence; at this point, he had more notoriety than she had ever garnered as the Champion of Kirkwall—both positive and negative.

Anders looked at her curiously as they approached, his keen eyes immediately picking up on her disquiet. She didn't know how he always managed to see straight through to the feelings she was trying to hide, but perhaps it was a healer's instinct, the desire to find the source of the pain rather than simply settle for the symptoms. Steeling herself for the coming confrontation, she straightened her back and tried to calm her nerves. Varric caught her eye and gave her a grin that immediately bolstered her spirits. The dwarf had always been able to cheer her up with little more than a smile. She felt a pang of jealousy when she looked at him, knowing that he was here as Anders' companion this time, not hers.

"I’m glad you made it, Inquisitor," Stroud said impatiently. "I fear they are already starting the ritual."

"It’s definitely blood magic," Hawke added, seeing understanding dawn in Anders' eyes. "You can smell it even from here."

Arching a brow at her, Varric said with a sour smile, "Just like old times, eh?"

She nodded, looking away from his gaze before her emotions could get the better of her. "We need to hurry if we're going to stop anyone else from getting hurt," she said, the smell so thick in her nose at this point that she couldn’t ignore it. "You take point. I’ll guard your backs.”

Anders hesitated as he walked past her, eyes full of sympathy as he reached out to comfort her, obviously thinking better of the gesture when he saw the look in her eyes. "Don't worry," he said quietly. "We'll stop them."

She nodded, blinking to clear her vision and trying to breathe past the ache in her chest. She watched as the rest of them began climbing the steps to the tower, keeping her distance to minimize her proximity to the horrid smell. She was still close enough to witness one of the wardens sacrifice another in order to summon a rage demon. The sight made her stomach roil.

Focusing her attention on Anders’ companions to distract herself from what was going on at the top of that tower, Hawke first regarded the perfectly coiffed, olive-skinned mage. Dorian seemed decent enough, but his obvious pining after Anders was irritating on multiple levels. It wasn't that she was jealous—she had turned down Anders’ advances long ago and had no regrets about her decision—but a shameful, petty part of her didn’t like the idea of Anders actually finding comfort and happiness after everything he’d done. Anders seemed to feel the same way since he kept the Tevinter at arm’s length, but she suspected he would only be able to resist for so long. And the mage wasn’t the only one who seemed to be interested.

Turning to the Seeker with a frown, Hawke wondered if Anders was aware of Cassandra’s interest—or if the stoic woman was even aware of it herself. Hawke had picked up on her feelings during their talk in Crestwood, recognizing the feelings she had experienced herself early on in Kirkwall. She had been swayed by Anders’ charisma until their strong differences in opinion, especially his petty arguments with Fenris, began changing her mind. After everything that happened afterward, she found it difficult to recall those feelings now, but seeing them in Cassandra had brought them all back vividly.

Hawke regretted returning her attention to the path ahead when she saw the spectacle before them. Lingering at the top of the stairs, she observed the gruesome scene from the back of the group, black spots eating away at the edges of her vision. The tower was eerily silent despite the demons crouching among the wardens, only the roar of wind breaking the silence. Then the magister standing at the top of the tower turned to greet them with sarcasm rolling off his tongue.

“Inquisitor! What an unexpected pleasure. Lord Livius Erimond of Virantium at your service.” He bowed mockingly, and Hawke’s hands itched to reach for her daggers.

Glaring at the man, Stroud took a step forward. “You are no Warden.”

“No. But you are. The one Clarel let slip. And you found the Inquisitor and came to stop me. Shall we see how that goes?”

Everyone’s attention focused expectantly on Anders, but he was peering closely at the wardens with a frown, forehead creased with concentration. “What did you do to them?” he demanded softly, notes of amazement and horror in his voice. “They bound these demons, but somehow managed to bind themselves in the process. I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible.”

“Anything’s possible,” Erimond said dryly, “when you open your mind to the options society has rejected out of fear.”

“Blood magic,” Anders hissed with enough anger in his voice that Hawke felt a spark of appreciation for him. This was one topic on which they had always vehemently agreed. “Society rejects it because no power is worth the cost of a life.”

“Interesting assertion from the man who had no qualms ending numerous lives in the name of his own personal crusade.” Anders flinched, but the magister didn’t give him a chance to reply. “Yes, we know who you really are, Anders. Some of the wardens recognized you. And soon enough everyone else will know who you are as well. How well do you think the world will accept an Inquisitor who murdered innocents simply to make a point?”

Hawke froze, watching the others to see their reactions, but none of them seemed surprised.

“He’s changed,” Cassandra said sharply, taking a step between Erimond and Anders.

Laughing, Erimond shook his head. “Either you are in denial or he has you fooled. Either way, it won’t matter when the truth comes out. What do you think people will believe? Your desperate assertions? Or the facts they know about his past behavior? Face it, Seeker. You’ve chosen your leader poorly.”

“What about the Wardens?” Stroud interrupted, looking around at the blank-faced men and women around them. “What do you say? Would you really prefer to follow this magister who serves a darkspawn master?”

None of them even twitched in response.

“You’re wasting your breath. They belong to my master now.” Erimond laughed. Spreading his arms, he looked at the wardens with satisfaction. “This was only a test, but once the rest of the Wardens complete the ritual, we will have a demon army capable of conquering all of Thedas!”

“A demon army,” Varric said softly, looking up at Anders. “We've heard that one before.”

Anders nodded gravely. "In that dark future."

“And now you know how it begins,” Erimond replied with madness in his eyes.

Hawke shifted her weight from foot to foot, anxious for this pointless conversation to end so she could aim a dagger at one of the magister’s smug eyes. But unsurprisingly, Anders hadn’t finished talking yet; he never knew when to shut up. “I don’t understand why you continue to serve Corypheus,” he said. “What do you have to gain? If the world falls to the Blight, you’ll be in as much trouble as everyone else.”

Laughing, the magister shook his head as if Anders was being obtuse. “The Elder One commands the Blight. He is not commanded by it like the mindless Darkspawn. The Blight is not unstoppable or uncontrollable. It is simply a tool.”

“Somebody’s certainly a tool,” Varric muttered, and Hawke actually felt a smile spring to her lips despite the unpleasantness of the situation.

“As for me,” Erimond continued in a theatrical voice that Hawke was beginning to think was a default for most Tevinters, “while the Elder One rules from the Golden City, we, the Venatori, will be god-kings here in this world.”

Anders rolled his eyes. “Oh, is that what he promised you? Too bad we’ll be stopping him before you get to be disappointed by his empty promises.”

“The only one who will be suffering from disappointment will be you,” Erimond retorted, and the grin on his lips made Hawke nervous. “But not for long.” Twisting his fingers, he did something magical and Anders doubled over in pain, the mark on his hand flaring up green and sending waves of energy flying through the air. Hawke’s daggers were in her hands before she even realized she’d reached for them.

While Anders fell to his knees, the magister continued to gloat. “The Elder One showed me how to deal with you in the event you were foolish enough to interfere again. That mark you bear? The anchor that lets you pass safely through the veil? You stole that from my master. He’s been forced to seek other ways to access the Fade. When I bring him your head, his gratitude will be…”

Hawke had a dagger in her hand and ready to fling, but before she let it loose, Anders cried out, somehow redirecting the flow of energy from the mark and wielding it as a weapon. She didn’t have much time to be impressed before the magister ordered the wardens into motion and they were suddenly in the middle of a battle. Relieved to finally be doing something, Hawke cut into her enemies with vicious stabs, channeling all of her painful memories and frustration into every attack. But Anders’ companions were all skilled fighters and the battle was over far too quickly.

Wiping her daggers off on a bit of cloth, Hawke overhead Anders talking urgently to Cassandra in soft tones.

“You heard what he said. They know who I am. If the truth comes out...”

Cassandra shook her head, lips pressed into a firm line. “We’ll deal with it.”

“It’ll be too late by then,” Anders insisted, wringing his hands.

Putting a hand on his arm to stop his anxious movements, Cassandra shook her head. “It’s already too late to change our minds now. We’ve chosen you. And we’ll stand by you no matter what happens.”

Anders looked as if he were about to be sick. “That’s a mistake,” he whispered.

“We’ll see.” Turning away, Cassandra returned to the rest of the group. “Did anyone see which way that magister went?”

"He slithered off in that direction," Dorian said, pointing.

Stroking his moustache thoughtfully, Stroud said, "There is an abandoned warden fortress that way, Adamant."

Anders made a face. "I've heard of it."

"As have I," Cassandra said with a sigh. "The stories of what happened there are unpleasant."

Stroud turned to survey the scene with a frown. “No less pleasant than this business. It’s difficult to fathom. The warden mages have all voluntarily made themselves slaves to Corypheus, and the warriors…” He frowned down at the pile of bodies that had greeted their arrival.

“Yes,” Hawke said bitterly. “It’s not real blood magic until someone gets sacrificed.”

“Human sacrifice, demon summoning...” Cassandra said, shaking her head in disgust. Something about the look in her eyes rang true to Hawke, and she realized that Cassandra must have had personal history with blood mages. She would recognize that look anywhere. “Who looks at this and thinks it’s a good idea?”

Jaw tight with anger, Hawke replied, “The fearful and the foolish.”

Cassandra nodded in agreement.

“The Wardens were wrong, Hawke,” Stroud said, giving her a sympathetic look, “but they had their reasons.”

Eyes narrowing, Hawke shook her head. “All blood mages do. Everyone has a story they tell themselves to justify bad decisions…and it never matters. In the end you are always alone with your actions.” Her gaze inevitably drifted toward Anders as she said the last sentence, and to her surprise he didn’t look away, responding to her livid glare with sadness and regret. But not enough. Never enough to soothe her anger.

She needed some space to think. She wanted to be away from this grisly scene, away from the lingering smell of blood magic, away from the tension in the air. "Stroud and I will scout out that fortress and confirm that the other wardens are there," she said, already walking away from the group. "We’ll meet you back at Skyhold when we know more."

"Hawke."

She cringed when she heard Varric following her, but was at least relieved that he was the one following her and not Anders. Still, she didn't slow her pace until he caught her sleeve and forced her to stop.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Varric." Pulling her arm out of his grip, she crossed her arms over her chest. "I just want to be away from here."

Expression conflicted, he looked up at her with sincerity in his eyes as he repeated Anders' previous assurance. "We'll stop them."

"Eventually, sure. But not soon enough." Feeling the anger welling up again, she turned away. "Just let it go, Varric. I'll see you back at Skyhold."

Chapter Text

Pacing back and forth, Anders tried to calm his mind enough to engage in the conversation happening on the other side of the table. The conversation was really more of an argument at this point, and he was already too conflicted after his trip to the Western Approach to voice a neutral, unbiased opinion, so he settled for listening and trying not to worry.

“But if Corypheus is building his demon army at Adamant, we have work to do,” Cullen snapped. “That fortress has stood against the Darkspawn since the time of the Second Blight. It won’t go down easily, and it will take careful preparation and planning to get inside.”

“Right now we’re only speculating that Adamant was the Venatori’s destination,” Leliana protested. “Until we receive confirmation from Hawke, we need to focus on other concerns.”

“By the time we get that confirmation, it could be too late!”

“And if we focus all our efforts on this one threat, then we’ll be too late to stop others,” Josephine replied. “The demon army was only one of the dangers the Inquisitor saw in that dark future. We still need to figure out what to do about Empress Celene. The peace talks will be starting soon, and we need a plan for preventing her assassination.”

Cullen scoffed. “Which we are only guessing will happen at the peace talks.”

“Empress Celene’s assassination is only one of our concerns at the masquerade,” Leliana pointed out, glancing pointedly at Anders.

Nodding, Josephine said, “We know the Venatori plan to reveal the Inquisitor's identity in some public way, and everyone of influence in Orlais will be at the Empress’ masquerade. They won’t waste such an opportunity. If we don’t manage everyone's reactions, we might as well write off all the alliances we’ve worked so hard to build.”

“Manage their reactions?” Anders echoed in disbelief. “The best you can hope for is that they won’t murder me on the spot—and all of you along with me."

"He isn't wrong," Cullen said with a grimace. "We always knew this lie would have consequences. When the truth comes out we will have more trouble than broken alliances. We'll have a mob demanding that justice be served."

"There will always be those who are too angry to be convinced by reason,” Leliana said, “but if we handle this the right way, that mob could be a small minority."

"But a vocal one," Anders cried, combing fingers into his hair in frustration. "Even a small group of dissenters could do a lot of damage. And the doubt that this revelation will sow in everyone else..." Squeezing his eyes shut, he tried to swallow down the panic building in his chest. He hadn’t done anything to earn this second chance in the first place, and perhaps his true punishment would be having to give it up before he could manage to fully redeem himself.

“Perhaps we should attempt to discredit their sources before they reveal their information...” Leliana suggested, pressing a finger to her lips.

“I would prefer to find a way to frame the truth to our advantage,” Josephine countered. “We shouldn’t forget that many people wholeheartedly believe he is the Herald of Andraste. If they have true faith, they will not waver; this wouldn’t be the first time the Maker has chosen the last person anyone could have predicted, after all.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Josie. Undermining the truth only weakens our position. We must own it. We will need to start laying the groundwork now. The more people of influence we can reach, the better.”

Josephine nodded firmly, eyes bright with the thrill of the plan forming in her mind. "We'll need key members within the Inquisition to lend a hand. We can't afford to tell everyone yet for fear of rumors getting out of control, but we need Vivienne's help with the leaders in Orlais. And Sera could help spread influence with the commoners."

"That assumes they'd even want to help!" Anders protested. "Vivienne has always felt I was the wrong man for the job, and Sera hates it when the little people get caught in the middle. She won't be pleased by what I've done."

"Let us worry about convincing them," Leliana said gently. "We have ways of helping them see our point of view." Anders didn't like the sound of that, thinking of how easily Leliana wielded secrets like a weapon and hoping she didn't intend to coerce their own team members with such coldly calculated methods.

"And we can also be very persuasive," Josephine added, regarding Leliana with a nervous laugh and obviously thinking along the same lines as him.

"This is all well and good, but if we are at risk of losing allies," Cullen interrupted, "then it's even more important that we plan our move on Adamant as soon as possible. We'll need help to pull off an assault of that magnitude."

Leliana and Josephine exchanged a glance. "You’re right,” Josephine admitted. “We must tackle Adamant while we still have all our allies on board. But we must be ready to put our pieces in play as soon as the battle is over. We won’t have much time to convince them before the Venatori make their move at court."

"This is ridiculous," Anders snapped, throwing his hands in the air. "All of you know what must be done. You just don’t want to admit it.”

His advisors exchanged an uneasy glance.

“What would you propose we do?” Cullen asked.

"I'm the problem here. So eliminate the problem. Strip me of my position and reveal the truth on your own before the Venatori have the chance. Tell them I tricked you, that I kept my identity hidden and you never knew who I really was—or whatever you think will be most believable. But it probably won’t be enough to just lock me up and throw away the key. They’ll be clamoring for blood." He swallowed hard and looked away. "You will have to judge me publicly, and might even have to execute me in order to satisfy them.”

Silence reigned long enough for Anders to feel uncomfortable with their scrutiny.

“No. I won't even consider that option,” Leliana said finally. “We’ve already tied our fate to yours and we can’t untangle them so easily.”

Josephine nodded. “Agreed. You are the Inquisition's leader. That isn’t going to change.”

Even Cullen nodded solemnly in concurrence.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Anders listened to them continue their debate as if his suggestion hadn’t even been heard, trying to contain the scream building in his chest. He didn't know if they had actually grown too attached to him to see clearly or if they were simply too proud to admit their own mistake, but if they wouldn’t take the necessary action, then he would remove himself from the equation on his own. Backing quietly toward the door, he slipped into the hallway and listened to their muffled voices as he walked away, his mind already racing with plans. A familiar, queasy giddiness shivered through him, and he felt as if his feet weren’t quite hitting the ground. Something that had been grounding him had broken free and he had become untethered from this time and place, already distancing himself from the castle he had started to think of as home.

He paused at the door to the hall, knowing he would find people there who would attempt to pull him back down to the ground and try to talk him out of what he knew was necessary. His mind conjured a vision of Varric’s concerned eyes, his face wearing the same expression he’d worn every time he looked at him on their way back from the Western Approach. The dwarf had already sensed that something was wrong, and he would figure out what he was planning with a single glance at him now. He couldn’t afford to be distracted from his course. It was too important that he follow this through.

Turning, he began to descend the stairs, hearing a faint click behind him, but dismissing it as an echo from another part of the keep. He didn’t accept the fact that he was being followed until he heard boots on the stairs behind him, and by then it was almost too late. Rushing to find a hiding place once he reached the columned room at the bottom, he aimed for the dusty library in the corner and nearly had the door shut when a boot wedged itself into the opening and forced the door inward. Retreating until his back hit a shelf, Anders watched in frustration as Cullen stepped through the opening, wearing a frown so deep it looked like a scar across his face. Cutting off any possibility of escape, Cullen shoved the door closed behind him and stood in front of it, crossing his arms over his chest while he glared at Anders.

“Commander,” Anders said casually, deciding to feign ignorance to the tension in the air. “Something I can help you with? If you’re looking for reading material, you seem to have come to the right place.” He stepped away from the bookshelf and brushed some of the dust off the spines to get a look at the titles. “Lots of eclectic stuff on these shelves. Half of them are probably banned by the Chantry.”

Cullen didn’t speak, but the expression on his face said enough to make Anders fidget anxiously.

“Listen, I know I shouldn’t have walked out of the War Room while we were in the midst of planning a strategy, but I needed some air. I…”

“You were planning to run away.”

“Yes," Anders admitted reluctantly. "I thought that might be best.”

Jaw twitching with anger, Cullen said, “You run away now, you’ll only end up getting yourself killed.”

“Like I said, that might be best.”

Shaking his head, Cullen leaned back against the door with a sigh. “Where has this suicidal streak come from? The Anders I once knew was a survivor. He could escape from any cage, talk himself out of any danger. The only thing you could always rely on him to do was keep himself alive. Where did that Anders go?”

Anders felt moisture pricking at the corners of his eyes but he ignored it. “He learned that some things are more important than himself. Some things are worth sacrificing one’s life to protect.”

Fury burning in his eyes, Cullen took a step forward. “Your life is no longer your own. Don't you understand that yet?”

Brows furrowing, Anders looked up at him in confusion.

“You are a symbol now. A leader. Your life belongs to all the people who believe in you, those who have chosen to follow you.” Cullen took a step with every statement until he was crowding Anders back against the bookcase, the hilt of his blade swinging forward to block Anders’ path to the door. He couldn’t help but think of another library and another man who had backed him up against a bookcase, but the comparison was ridiculous; Dorian and Cullen couldn’t be less alike.

“And what happens when those people find out they’ve been following a lie?” Anders asked wearily.

“You aren’t a lie—only the name you’ve been using.”

Anders shook his head at the man in wonder. He couldn’t remember a time when they hadn’t been at odds, and the thought of Cullen respecting him enough to defend his integrity with such vehemence shocked him out of his worries—at least temporarily. Forcing a laugh, Anders looked away from the compassion in Cullen’s brown eyes as if it had burned him. “You're the last person I would have expected to give me a pep talk like this.”

"That's exactly why I'm the one doing it. They sent me after you, you know? They knew you wouldn’t believe such things coming from anyone else.”

“I figured it was just your instinct for tracking me down.”

“There’s that too.” Tilting his head, Cullen frowned a little, and some of the softness in his expression turned to hard steel. “Now, are you going to behave, or am I going to have to lock you up in the dungeon to prevent you from running away?”

Anders shuddered at the thought of being locked in a cell and Cullen winced when he saw his reaction. Trying to make light of it, Anders said, “What makes you think a cell could keep me from escaping? Surely you remember that time I charmed Ser Lenovar into letting me out?”

“I remember. I also recall that you didn’t make it fifty paces before I put you right back in your cell.”

Smirking, Anders reached out to trace a fingertip over Cullen’s breastplate. “But you have so many more responsibilities now. Surely you’re far too busy to keep an eye on me personally.” He poked playfully at the metal, realizing only when he saw the darkness in Cullen’s eyes that he was flirting with the man. He felt a jolt of anxiety and wondered what the hell he was doing. One moment he had been convinced that the only option left to him was to walk away from the Inquisition and die a traitor’s death. The next, he’d essentially let Cullen convince him to stay through little more than flattery and a reminder of his responsibilities. And now he was flirting with him—with Cullen, of all people. When all of his usual defenses were stripped away, flirtation really was his default response to almost any situation. All he knew was that his head was spinning, and he needed to convince Cullen that he had changed his mind in order to buy himself enough time and space to think.

“Maybe I’ll lock you up in my office instead.” Cullen’s voice had dropped in pitch, though Anders couldn’t tell if it had deepened with interest or annoyance. "I could get my work done and prevent you from causing trouble at the same time."

“That wouldn’t be so bad,” Anders said with a shrug. “It would give me a chance to monitor your lyrium withdrawal. How are the headaches, anyway? You seem to be feeling better today.”

Cullen’s expression darkened. “The pain comes and goes. Today is a good day. Yesterday was not.”

“If I’d been in Skyhold yesterday, would you have asked me for help?”

Avoiding his gaze, Cullen sighed. “What does it matter? I endured it.”

“You are so stubborn!”

Cullen arched a brow at him, the faintest spark of humor lighting his eyes.

“And so am I,” Anders admitted. “I know.” Biting at his lower lip, he asked, “So what happens now? Are you going to drag me off to your office and chain me down to your desk?” Anders watched the double meaning occur to Cullen, amused by the man’s apparent innocence. Cullen had always struck him as the kind of man who took duty seriously, the sort who followed every vow to the letter and never wavered even for a moment. Anders doubted that he had ever fraternized with a mage under his charge—maybe not with anyone at all—and he had always seemed like the type to take gender roles as a given. All of which meant that he was entirely too easy to distract with a little teasing.

“I didn’t—I mean that wasn’t what I…” Rubbing self-consciously at the back of his neck, Cullen blushed from his collarbone to his hairline.

“What?” Anders asked in exaggerated tones. “You didn’t want to tie me down to your desk and have your way with me? I thought that was where this was going. Don’t think I missed the way you used to look at me back in the tower.”

“You thought everyone was looking at you that way.”

“Because most of them were.”

Sighing wearily, Cullen shook his head. “I never have been able to tell when you were joking.”

“Don’t feel bad, Commander. I’ve had years of practice at teasing uptight Templars. I’m rather good at it.”

Expression sobering, Cullen said, “I’m not a Templar anymore.”

“Maybe not.” Anders stepped around him and began walking toward the door, leaning in to add, “But you’re still uptight.”

Cullen turned, catching his arm before he was out of reach. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“To make myself useful. As fun as it might be for me to play prisoner in your office, I’m not sure you’d be comfortable with the rumors it would create. And I’d rather not be chained up regardless.”

“Then I can trust you not to run away?”

Anders sighed. “If all of you are foolish enough to see this through despite the consequences, then who am I to complain? You’re stuck with me. For better or worse.”

He wasn’t sure if Cullen believed him—or even if he believed himself—but he’d lost the opportunity to escape for the moment, and he knew he couldn’t run away right now without second-guessing himself anyway. He would just have to be patient.

Chapter Text

Dorian looked up as he finished reading the letter, gazing at the window rather than looking through it. He hadn’t felt homesick once since leaving Tevinter, but he felt an ache in his chest now, a longing to go home. Despite all the corruption, his schism with his own family, he still loved his country—not for what it was, but for what it could be. He had always secretly dreamed of finding a way to transform Tevinter into something better, but Felix hadn’t had time to wait. He’d boldly gone to the Magisterium and spoken on behalf of the Inquisition with no regard to the consequences. Though it was still too early to tell if his words had made much impact on the magisters' views, his honesty and passion would not soon be forgotten. It would be just like him to achieve through sincerity what so many aimed for with lies. Felix had always been a bright spot in Dorian's world, a gentle soul who deserved better than the hand life had dealt him. And now he was gone.

"Dorian?"

Dorian shifted in his chair. He hadn't even heard the Inquisitor approaching until the man was standing in his alcove looking troubled, regarding him with a reluctance that heralded bad news. Apparently it was just one of those days. Steeling himself for whatever the Inquisitor had to say, Dorian summoned a smile and tried to shake off his melancholic mood; Anders already had enough on his plate without Dorian adding his emotional baggage to the pile.

"Inquisitor," he greeted with a smoldering look. "What a pleasant surprise. You must have come here in search of some intelligent conversation. Or perhaps you only came for the view?"

Normally his flirtation earned him some sort of reaction, be it exasperation or amusement, but this time Anders' expression remained blank. "Neither, I'm afraid. I just had a very strange, very awkward conversation with Mother Giselle."

Barely managing to suppress an unseemly groan, Dorian rolled his eyes. "Ah. What precious rules of propriety have I broken now?"

“None.” Anders watched his reaction carefully as he continued, "She received a letter from your family."

Dorian felt a chill race down his spine. All the warm nostalgia he had just been feeling about home turned to soured milk in his stomach. "Well, that was the absolute last thing I expected you to say."

Giving him a sympathetic look, Anders pulled a letter out of his pocket and offered it to him. "They want to see you."

Snatching the letter out of Anders' hand, Dorian scanned it quickly as if the painful words would hurt less if he didn't linger over them. "I know my son?" he gasped when he was finished, anger choking his throat. "What my father knows of me would barely fill a thimble. This is so typical. I’m willing to bet this “retainer” is a henchman, hired to knock me on the head and drag me back to Tevinter."

“Surely you don't actually think that's what your father has planned.”

“No,” Dorian admitted, “although I wouldn’t put it past him.”

"I take it he had something to do with your reason for leaving Tevinter?"

Dorian looked away to shield Anders from the rage in his eyes. "His actions were the instigating factor, yes."

"He seems rather desperate to meet with you now. He must have regrets."

Chuckling dryly, Dorian retorted, "I imagine the only thing he regrets is allowing his precious legacy to escape his grasp. I have no interest in hearing anything he has to say."

Frowning, Anders turned to look out the window with an unfocused gaze. "I don’t have a lot of memories of my family, but I do know I was loved—at least until the day my magic manifested. My father immediately called the Templars and had me hauled off to the tower. My mother couldn’t stop crying, but she made no move to stop him. Father wouldn't even look at me when they dragged me away. Kept referring to me as 'that thing.' Despite all that, during my early years in the Circle I would have given anything to go home.”

Dorian sighed. “You think I should talk to them.”

“I think that if you don’t try, you’ll always wonder about it.”

Something about the kindness in Anders' eyes reminded him painfully of Felix, and Dorian looked away, swallowing past the lump in his throat with difficulty. “Will you come with me?”

“If that’s what you want.”

“Then let’s go. I’d rather get this over with quickly.”

They didn’t talk much on the trip to Redcliffe, but it was reassuring to know he wouldn't be facing this alone. Until that letter had made it obvious that he hadn’t entirely escaped his past, he had convinced himself that the matter was as resolved as it would ever be. The world beyond Tevinter was so different that it was easy to forget that those horrible things had ever happened, easy to pretend that his family no longer existed—and that he was beyond their reach. Now that he had been forced to see the flaws in those beliefs, he couldn't go back to pretending again without living in constant doubt. Anders had been right. Regardless of the result, he needed to face this.

He knew something was wrong as soon as they walked through the tavern's front door. The entire place was empty. Exchanging a look with Anders, he froze when he heard a familiar voice coming from the stairs.

“Dorian.”

“Father,” he snapped, feeling the old anger instantly flaring to life in his chest. ”So the whole story about the 'family retainer' was just what? A smoke screen?”

His father shook his head in disappointment. “Then you were told. I apologize for the deception, Inquisitor. I never intended for you to be involved.”

“Of course not,” Dorian said, stepping in front of Anders as if he could shield him from his father's insults. “Magister Pavus couldn’t come to Skyhold and be seen with the dread Inquisitor. What would people think?"

The conversation quickly went downhill from there. On some level, Dorian recognized that he was acting out of pure emotion, flinging accusations at every turn and barely listening to anything that came out of his father’s mouth, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. What was the point of taking the high road when his father had already thrown away all of his own supposed ideals? Anders made a few attempts to lessen the tension between them, but he stopped trying after Dorian shared more of their family history.

“So this rift between you,” Anders asked incredulously, “is about nothing more than who you choose to sleep with?”

Dorian shook his head, voice lowering as he replied, “That’s not all it’s about.”

“Dorian, please…if you’ll only listen to me.” The tortured look on his father’s face should have been satisfying, but Dorian found that it only disgusted him.

“Why? So you can spout more convenient lies?” Turning to Anders, Dorian said, “He taught me to hate blood magic. ‘The resort of a weak mind.’ Those are his words.” He spun back to face his father, jabbing a finger in his direction. “But what was the first thing you did when your heir refused to play pretend for the rest of his life? You tried to change me!”

His father's eyes widened. “I only wanted what was best for you.”

“You wanted the best for you! For your precious legacy! Anything for that!”

“What do you mean he tried to change you?” Anders interrupted, voice dangerously quiet.

“He was going to do a ritual,” Dorian explained, “alter my mind, make me…acceptable.”

"With blood magic," Anders said with distaste, glaring at Dorian’s father fiercely enough that he actually seemed to shrink away. “Even ignoring the blatant disregard for life, how could you overlook the possible results of such a ritual? Would you have even recognized your own son if you had succeeded?"

His father’s eyes widened, mouth opening to reply, but Anders didn’t give him a chance.

“I actually used to fantasize about what it would be like to live in Tevinter, to be a free mage who wasn’t persecuted for his powers. I imagined a land where I could be myself without constantly looking over my shoulder or worrying about hiding the things that made me different. But I can see now that Tevinter isn't like that at all. It’s just like the stories, full of forbidden magic, blood sacrifices and mages who have gone mad with power—and apparently it's as petty and cruel as Orlais. Appearances are more important than anything else!"

Anders’ voice grew in volume until he was shouting, and Dorian stared at him in shock. As angry as Dorian still was, he hadn’t been prepared for Anders’ level of outrage. He suddenly understood how someone who seemed so gentle could have taken such desperate measures in Kirkwall; here was the fire that had thrown the first sparks of the mage rebellion, the fury at injustice that had forced the chantry’s hand. And Dorian had unwittingly aimed that ferocity directly at both his father and his country.

"You know nothing about us,” his father cried, managing to collect himself in the face of Anders’ wrath, “but I can see now how you managed to coerce Dorian into joining your cause. He's always been weak to such rebellious thoughts."

Anders’ eyes narrowed and the mark on his hand flared suddenly, rift energy dancing in the air around them and painting their faces a sallow green.

"Inquisitor!" Dorian hissed urgently. “What are you doing?”

Stumbling back a step, Anders looked at him with wide eyes as if coming out of a dream. The energy faded and he stared down at his hand in horror. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"This is the man in charge of the Inquisition?" his father demanded. "This man ruled by his temper who bullies anyone who disagrees with him? Dorian… If I'd known my actions would drive you to join this reckless cause..."

"You didn't," Dorian snapped, turning back to face his father. He heard the door slam shut behind him and realized that they were alone now. Strangely, he felt relieved by that fact. At first he had felt reassured and elated to have Anders defending him, but seeing the depth of his anger had only made Dorian realize how comically inflated his own anger had been. “I joined the Inquisition because it’s the right thing to do," he said wearily. "Once I had a father who would have known that.”

His father shook his head, voice weak and more uncertain than Dorian had ever heard from him. “Once I had a son who trusted me. A trust I betrayed. I only wanted to talk to him. To hear his voice again. To ask him to forgive me.”

For a moment Dorian hesitated, unable to look at him, much less believe that this was anything more than another trick. “You've given me no reason to forgive.”

"I know. But I am sorry. I suppose I just wanted you to know that.”

Sighing, Dorian shook his head. “And now you’ve told me. Don't try to contact me again. When I’m ready—if I’m ever ready to talk about this—I’ll reach out to you.”

Bowing his head, his father nodded. “I understand. Be safe, Dorian.”

Turning away, Dorian walked out the door without looking back, stepping into the brilliant afternoon light and trying to imagine the sunlight burning away his lingering anger. He had to search half the village before he finally found Anders on a bench near the shore, face buried in his hands. He looked up when he heard Dorian approach, his expression warring between regret and shame.

“Are you okay?” Dorian asked softly.

Anders grimaced. “I should be the one asking you that. But I’m the one who almost lost control. I don't know what I might have done if you hadn't stopped me." Lifting his hand, he frowned down at the anchor flickering over his palm. "It’s strange. When I shared my mind with Justice, I often had moments like that, but it was always his rage that pushed me over the edge. Either my temper was more responsible for those lapses than I realized, or I haven’t quite shaken the habit now that he’s gone.” Looking up at Dorian, he added, "Either way, I'm sorry."

Dorian waved a hand dismissively. “You have nothing to apologize for. I don’t have many friends who would have defended me so fiercely.”

Anders shook his head as if he still disagreed. “I can’t pretend that my motivation was entirely selfless. On some level, I suppose I thought that if I could patch things up between you and your family it would make me feel more at peace with my own past."

"It must still bother you a great deal."

"Blood magic bothers me more," Anders replied, clenching his hand around the anchor. "And the idea of a father using it on his own son... It's intolerable."

Dorian stared off into the middle distance, still trying to process his reaction to the day’s events. “He’s a good man, my father,” he said. “Deep down. He taught me principle is important. He cares for me in his way, but he won’t ever change. I don’t know if I can ever forgive him.”

“Forgiveness must be earned. I’ve had to learn that the hard way,” Anders said sadly, shifting on the bench to make room for Dorian to join him.

Sighing, Dorian sat down and stared thoughtfully at lake Calenhad, watching the waves lap lazily against the docks. "He just couldn’t accept that I wasn’t willing to put on a show, marry the girl, keep everything unsavory private and locked away. Who knows if his plan would have worked? It could have just as easily left me a drooling vegetable. It crushed me to think he found that absurd risk preferable to scandal. Part of me has always hoped he didn’t really want to go through with it. If he had… I can’t even imagine the person I would be now. I wouldn’t like that Dorian."

Anders nodded, a sad smile playing over his lips. “Neither would I.”

The tenderness in his eyes, the overwhelming empathy and concern washed over Dorian, and he felt himself reaching out before he realized what he was doing, fingers sliding over Anders' jaw as he leaned in to kiss him. Anders flinched at the contact, but then relaxed into Dorian’s touch, allowing him to escalate the kiss without fighting back. But Anders wasn’t exactly participating either, and they teetered for a moment on a knife’s edge between reluctance and need, Dorian deepening the kiss and pulling them closer while Anders allowed him to take without giving anything in return.

Finally Anders broke the kiss, pushing him away firmly. “Stop,” he whispered in a voice thick with regret. His eyes were still dark with hunger, lips bruised and skin flushed, but his jaw was set with determination.

“Why?” Dorian asked, startled by the petulance he heard in his voice. He’d never been good with rejection.

Sliding back across the bench to create some space between them, Anders bit at his lower lip. “I can’t give you what you’re looking for.”

“And just what is it that you think I’m looking for?” Trying to keep his disappointment from coloring his words, Dorian explained, “I don’t actually ask for much. In my experience, such liaisons are simple and fleeting, and I expect neither romance nor commitment. Just a little mutual comfort.”

Anders shook his head wistfully. “At times you remind me so much of the way I used to be that it’s almost painful.” Dorian had no idea how to take that, but Anders continued before he could respond. "I wish we had met back then, back when I was less complicated...before I’d made so many mistakes. But it isn't that simple for me anymore.” Wringing his hands, he added, “I'm sorry."

Defeated, but knowing he had done this to himself, Dorian sighed. “So am I.”

“Dorian…” Anders said in a pleading tone. “This has nothing to do with you. You understand that, don’t you?”

Dorian nodded, smiling wryly. “I understand. I’m also far too aware of my own desirability to require any coddling. But thank you.” Drawing a deep breath, he released it slowly through his nose. “I...think I’d like some time to myself, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course.” Anders stood up reluctantly. Pausing as he turned to leave, he said, “I’ll see you back at Skyhold.” There was a question in his tone, so Dorian nodded again, and that seemed to satisfy him enough for him to walk away.

Chapter Text

Varric’s quill was flying over the page, the words coming faster than he could write them down. Romance had never been his strongest genre, but writing for an audience of one was strangely compelling, especially when that audience consisted of the one woman he could never have pictured reading his work. As much as he liked to dismiss her as a hard-headed warrior, Cassandra was still an enigma to him, and he’d found that the best way to figure someone out was to write about them. While he was finishing up her commissioned chapter for Swords and Shields, he was already formulating a new series about a dragon hunter from Nevarra, a complex woman rife with contradictions, both devout and rebellious, passionate and restrained. He could hardly wait to get started.

Dipping his quill into the inkwell, he groaned in frustration when it came out dry. Sighing, he stood up to refill it, but couldn’t help but notice all the kinks in his back or the fact that his leg had gone half-numb because of the way he’d been sitting. Judging by the angle of the sunlight, he’d been working long enough that he definitely deserved a break. Putting the inkwell back on the table, he stretched his arms over his head and headed outside, greeting the fresh air with a satisfied smile.

He kept an eye out for Anders as he descended the steps, nearly colliding with a courier as he scanned the busy courtyard, but he could find no sign of the mage. He hadn't seen much of Anders since their return from the Western Approach—so little that he was getting the sense that he was intentionally avoiding him. Anders had made an appearance in the main hall earlier in the day, and Varric had expected him to stop by his table for a little chat, but he'd talked to just about everyone else—including Mother Giselle, of all people—before disappearing up the stairs to the library.

Spotting Cole sitting on the wall dividing the upper and lower courtyards, Varric aimed for him, figuring that if anyone else had picked up on Anders' strange mood it would be Cole.

“Hey kid.”

Cole turned and grinned at him. “Varric! Have you finished writing smutty things?”

Eyebrows lifting, Varric replied, “For now. And it’s not smut. It’s romance.”

“It makes Cassandra all warm inside. She forgets to blink as she scans the words. Her heart beats faster. Are they going to kiss? She aches to turn the page.”

“I’m going to stop you there.” Varric cleared his throat. “It’s one thing to know she enjoys my books. Quite another to know exactly how much she’s enjoying them. I think I’d rather keep the mystery alive.”

Frowning, Cole considered this. “But you said it was a romance, not a mystery.”

Varric chuckled. “A good book has a little of both. So, you overheard anything interesting today?”

“A few things. But I keep forgetting. Anders said I shouldn’t share other people’s thoughts without their permission. But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what people are saying and what they’re thinking,” Cole complained. “All of the words get jumbled up in my head. Like when the Iron Bull said that he wants to see what Dorian is hiding under his robes.”

Varric couldn’t stifle his laugh, but he regretted it as soon as he let it out, seeing the curiosity in Cole’s eyes and realizing that now he was going to have to explain the joke.

Wide-eyed, Cole asked, “What do you think Dorian’s hiding? Something good or something bad?”

“Depends on how you use it, I suppose... But if I were you I’d stay out of Iron Bull’s thoughts.”

“Why? They made Bull feel all tingly. Right down to his—”

“Cole,” Varric interrupted sharply. “What Blondie said about sharing thoughts...I think he was trying to explain that some thoughts are private.”

Cole blinked at him blankly.

“This falls in that category.”

“But the words were so strong that he might have actually said them out loud!”

Varric considered this, searching for the right way to explain. “Let’s put it this way: there are thoughts that people want to keep private, and there are thoughts everyone wishes they wouldn’t share. This falls into the latter category. Either way, you’re probably safest keeping them to yourself.”

Cole frowned at him, his face scrunched up in confusion. “Then what about Leliana?”

Varric sucked in an eager breath in anticipation of what Cole was going to say next, but then realized how dangerous that information could be to know and stopped him before he could say more. “No. Anything from our Spymaster should be left unsaid. She shares only what she wants heard.”

“But why won’t she say it?” Cole asked, frustrated. “Josephine—”

“I knew it!” Varric exclaimed before he could stop himself. Clearing his throat, he continued in a measured tone, “Just keep it to yourself, kid. It’s for your own good.”

Cole nodded reluctantly.

“But if you’re ever wondering what you should do about something you overheard, I’m always happy to listen.”

Expression brightening, Cole nodded again.

"Speaking of which, I’m worried about Blondie. You haven’t picked up anything strange from him lately, have you?”

Cole frowned. "No. But I think he's angry with me."

"What makes you think that?"

"He pretends not to see me, and when he does, he takes the long way around to avoid me."

Disappointed, Varric sighed. “He’s definitely up to something.”

While he had no concrete reason to worry, Anders' behavior was making him nervous. Anders had been distant and distracted since their trip to the desert, maintaining a thin veneer of normalcy on the surface while underneath he was clearly troubled. Varric suspected the strangeness of his behavior had something to do with the Venatori's threat to reveal his past. The revelation hadn’t sat well with Anders at the time, and Varric could imagine him obsessing over the problem until he found a solution, which was a definite cause for concern; he didn’t come up with the most reasonable solutions when working in isolation. That would explain why Anders might be avoiding him as well. Varric was the one person in Skyhold who would immediately recognize what he was doing and try to stop him before he could follow through.

“Varric?” a familiar voice called across the courtyard, startling him from his thoughts.

Hearing Hawke’s voice nearly made him jump out of his skin. She was the last person he wanted worrying about Anders' motives. “Hawke,” he greeted, trying to hide his worry behind a grin. "Everything go okay in the Western Approach?”

She was a bit sunburnt and looked dusty and tired from days spent on the road, but she seemed to be in decent shape otherwise. “If okay means tracking the Venatori mage back to an ancient fortress filled with crazy Grey Wardens and a bunch of demons, then yes. I suppose it went okay.” Glancing at Cole warily, she asked, “Who’s this?”

“I’m Cole.”

“Nice to meet you,” Hawke said, returning his smile hesitantly.

Cringing, Varric realized Hawke wasn’t likely to be very welcoming of Cole if she knew what he was—not after everything they’d been through with Anders and Justice. The look on Cole’s face confirmed that he was only a breath away from saying something entirely inappropriate and giving away his more unusual qualities, so Varric decided to take the initiative. “We’d probably better get you to the War Room, Hawke. Everyone will be eager to hear what you’ve learned.”

“When I asked at the gate, they said that Anders had just left for Redcliffe.”

Varric did his best to hide his surprise. This was the first he’d heard of any outings to the Hinterlands, and he was a little hurt that Anders had taken out a team without including him. The news definitely warranted further investigation, but he needed to separate Hawke and Cole first. “We can catch up with Blondie later," he said quickly. "The people you need to talk to are his advisors anyway. Let's go.” Waving at Cole with one hand while guiding Hawke toward the stairs with the other, he added, “See you later, kid.”

But Cole was staring at Hawke, face pinched with concentration, and he started talking before they could take two steps. “He’s sorry,” he said desperately, and the intensity of his statement made them both freeze in place.

“What did you say?” Hawke asked, voice faint.

“Anders,” Cole explained. “He never meant to hurt you. He didn’t want to lie, but it was the only way he could think of to protect you. He didn't want anyone else to be blamed for his actions.”

"How dare you?" Hawke demanded, anger flaring in her eyes.

A chill raced through Varric as he looked back and forth between them, trying desperately to think of a way to end the conversation before it got worse. "That's enough, kid. You aren’t helping."

But Cole was still talking, babbling in run-on sentences as if he couldn't pause for breath for fear of losing the thoughts. "You knew those ingredients were familiar, and they weren't for making potions. You helped him anyway, because he seemed so much happier, so full of hope, and you wanted to hope after everything you'd lost. You wanted to hope that things could get better, that he could finally see reason, find some way to coexist with that spirit in peace, but it was all a lie. He only told you what you wanted to hear."

Hawke lunged for him and Varric tried to hold her back, but Cole just disappeared as soon as she reached him. Spinning around with wide eyes, she found him standing behind her and would have attacked him again if Varric hadn't stepped between them. "Hawke, stop. He's just trying to help."

"What is he?" she growled.

Sighing, Varric shook his head. "I think you already know.”

Hawke stared at Cole in horror. "A spirit… He’s a spirit, isn’t he?” She punched Varric in the arm. “I can't believe you're letting Anders make all the same mistakes again!"

"I'm not," Varric insisted, though his confidence was shaken on that point already. "Cole is a spirit of compassion, and he isn't possessing anyone. All he does is reflect what he sees and hears."

"I did it wrong," Cole cried, tugging at his hair as he shook his head violently. "I made things worse! I can make her forget..."

"No! Don't." As tempting as it would be to wipe away this whole exchange, Varric couldn't allow that sort of manipulation. "Hawke is strong enough to handle the truth. Aren't you, Hawke?"

She took a deep breath, still staring at Cole. “Those things you said,” she whispered. “You took them from my mind?”

Cole nodded sullenly.

“That’s not how I remember it.”

“It’s not how you want to remember it,” Cole said sadly.

She blinked, and little jewels of liquid clung to her lashes, sparkling in the sun. “Where’s the War Room, Varric?” she asked, looking away.

He sighed. “I’ll show you.” Leading the way to the stairs, he patted Cole on the shoulder as they walked past.

Chapter Text

Anders aimed straight for his quarters as soon as he returned to Skyhold, even after one of the soldiers in the main hall helpfully informed him that his advisors were meeting in the War Room with Hawke. Boldly shirking his duties, he headed for the stairs without looking back. He would deal with the consequences later; compared with the consequences they would all be facing soon, this little act of rebellion would be only a small disappointment.

He knew he was being childish, but he’d had his fill of being a mature adult for the day. Rejection was horrible no matter which side of the equation you were on, and while he hadn't had a lot of experience with either side, he was less familiar with pushing people away. The only times he had ever really done it had been because of Justice, and never when he felt as conflicted about the situation as he did now. He had always craved touch more than most people, and he'd gone without contact for long enough that he literally ached for the comfort Dorian had so freely offered. But it was a bad idea on multiple levels, and with the reckoning he knew was coming he couldn't give in to Dorian now without feeling like he was using him.

Trudging up the last few steps and shrugging out of his coat as he went, Anders had one boot untied and off his foot before he noticed that he wasn't alone. Letting the boot fall, Anders gaped at the dwarf sitting at his desk, his feet propped up on the surface and a book splayed open over his lap.

Looking up when he noticed him, Varric snapped his book shut. "There you are," he said with false cheer. "Thought I might have to finish this awful book before you finally showed up. I mean, I knew dwarven poetry was bad, but this is downright criminal."

"What do you want?" Anders demanded gruffly, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

"A chance to talk."

Varric was the last person he wanted to talk to right now, but the look in the dwarf’s eye made it obvious that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Sitting down on the edge of the couch, he tugged roughly at the laces of his other boot and yanked it off his foot with such force that it flew out of his hands and landed on the floor with a resounding thud.

"Rough day?" Varric asked innocently.

"I don't want to talk about it." Leaning back, Anders rested his head on the back of on the couch and stared up at the ceiling.

"I take it things went badly with Sparkler's family?"

Anders wasn't surprised that Varric knew the details of his trip. He and Dorian had discussed it in the middle of the library, after all, where there were plenty of people around to overhear every word if they chose to listen, and Varric was incredibly good at finding out information—especially the kind he wasn't supposed to know.

"I have to admit," Varric continued when Anders remained silent, "I was surprised when I heard about your little trip. I mean, I’ve had my suspicions about you and Sparkler for a while now, but I didn't expect you to have gotten that serious already. First you're meeting the parents. Next you'll be proposing."

Grinding his teeth, Anders tried to ignore Varric's attempts to provoke him. He doubted that Varric would have been so cruel if he had even an inkling of what had really happened in Redcliffe. He was simply trying to get a reaction using every means at his disposal. He must have been angry. He never resorted to such cheap tactics unless he was angry.

"As much as I love the sound of my own voice, this is starting to get tedious, Blondie. Don't you have anything to say?"

"No."

Varric sighed. "You know, back in Kirkwall I used to blame your moodiness entirely on Justice, but this is just part of your personality, isn't it? You can be just as broody as Broody when you want to be."

Wincing, Anders couldn't help but recall the way he had let his anger rule him when talking to Dorian's father. It seemed that he had allowed Justice to take the blame for a lot of things that were ultimately his own fault.

"I assume you heard that Hawke made it back."

Anders remained silent, and eventually Varric continued speaking.

"Now that she's confirmed the wardens are at Adamant, we'll probably be taking off for the Western Approach soon. That must be a relief for you."

Lowering his chin just enough to look at Varric through slitted eyes, Anders asked, "Why’s that?"

"Oh, I don't know. It just seems like the perfect place to set your plan in motion."

Anders shook his head, too weary to play this game anymore. "What plan?"

"The one where you take advantage of the chaos to run away so that the Venatori can't use your past against the Inquisition."

"Oh," Anders said dryly, not entirely surprised that Varric had noticed his strange behavior and made some educated guesses about the cause. "That plan. How could I have forgotten?"

"Isn't that how it goes? Or maybe you were planning something more dramatic? Maybe you don't plan to make it out of Adamant at all. One wrong step, a shield dropped at the wrong moment, a wound left to fester. Any of those would do the job, wouldn’t they?"

"Varric," Anders said past the lump in his throat, hating how close Varric had gotten to the truth. In fact, Varric seemed to have given the whole thing more thought than Anders had allowed himself; he'd had ideas swimming around in the back of his mind since the Western Approach, but he'd avoided thinking about them directly after his conversation with Cullen, keeping himself busy and distracted while he waited for the right opportunity to present itself.

"You don't intend to still be around by the time the Venatori reveal your identity, do you?" Varric asked bluntly, his anger now obvious in his voice.

Sighing, Anders stared up at the ceiling through blurred vision. “I'm a danger as long as I'm still around. I don’t know what else to do.”

Varric slammed a hand against the desk hard enough for Anders to jump. "You can start by trusting your friends. Dammit, Blondie, I thought you'd learned that lesson the last time. We're all in this together, and your decisions affect everyone. You can’t just decide to sacrifice yourself without consequences.”

“Can’t you see that there will be consequences either way?” Anders countered, his own voice rising in anger. “I’d rather pay for them myself than let everyone else suffer because of them.”

“And can’t you see that these consequences aren’t entirely of your own making?" Standing up, Varric circled the desk and approached him with deliberate steps. "Since you joined the Inquisition, you have done nothing but good. You’ve saved far more innocent lives than you destroyed in Kirkwall and put your own life on the line again and again. Yes, your past mistakes are probably going to come back and haunt us, but that isn’t your fault. You didn’t decide to use a false name. You didn’t volunteer to be the Inquisitor. You never pretended to be anything other than who you are, faults and all. They knew about your past when they chose you, and they did it anyway. They brought this on themselves."

Anders stared at him, his mouth opening and closing in shock. He'd honestly never thought of it that way. He'd gotten so good at accepting the blame that he'd never considered the possibility that this particular situation wasn't entirely his fault.

“What do you think would happen if you jumped off a cliff tomorrow?" Varric continued, now standing directly in front of him. "Do you actually think the Venatori would hesitate to reveal your secret just because you’re dead? They won’t. The truth will make the Inquisition look like liars and hypocrites whether you’re around or not, but your death would take away our only chance to prove them wrong."

Again Varric's perspective caught him off guard, and he shivered when he saw the truth in it. There was no way to undo his role within the Inquisition at this point, and the consequences wouldn't change much whether he was alive or dead. Some people might see him as a martyr if he died for the cause, but many more might simply see him as a coward. That wouldn’t help anyone.

Folding a leg beneath him, Varric sat down next to Anders on the couch, propping himself up with an elbow against the back. "I hate to break it to you, Blondie, but there's no easy way out of this one.”

"I wasn't looking for an easy way out," Anders protested with his last scrap of defiance.

"I believe that much, at least," Varric said wryly. "You never have done things the easy way."

Groaning, Anders leaned forward and buried his face in his hands, feeling like a complete fool. He nearly whimpered when he felt Varric place a hand against his back in reassurance, even that innocent touch enough to make him crave more. Dorian's kiss had only made him painfully aware of how long he'd been alone, how isolated he'd become. He realized with a sinking feeling that his reasons for pushing Dorian away were no longer entirely valid, but maybe it was for the best anyway. He was good at hurting people despite his best intentions, and he was already having enough trouble living up to everyone's expectations without giving in to those particular needs—needs that he knew from experience would be endlessly distracting once he indulged them. Regardless, he wasn't looking for pleasure right now as much as he was seeking comfort; he simply wanted to be held, to feel safe and protected, to know that he wasn't alone. Looking up at Varric, he tried communicate with his eyes what he needed, and as usual Varric got the message.

Smiling faintly and shaking his head, Varric said, "Come here," and spread his arms wide.

Anders took a shaky breath, resting his head on one broad shoulder while Varric's arms wrapped around his back and pulled him close. Varric was reassuringly solid, warm and smelled faintly of leather and ink, a combination that was strangely comforting. Relaxing into the embrace, Anders settled into the crook of his neck and sighed when he felt Varric brush a hand over his hair.

“The Inquisition will survive, Blondie,” Varric murmured soothingly. “And so will you.”

Chapter Text

The ramparts were crawling with enemies, and Hawke was beginning to wish she had traded places with Stroud. As much as she enjoyed a good fight, this was quickly turning into a bloodbath, and she didn’t know any of the Inquisition soldiers well enough to complement their moves. At least with Varric and Anders she would have been able to slip back into old habits and let some of the fighting take care of itself. And it would have been nice to have Anders around to throw a few healing spells her way as well.

Taking advantage of a lull in the battle to pull her last healing potion out of her pocket, she downed it in one swallow, feeling it taking effect only a moment before she heard the cries of more demons approaching. Diving back into the fray, she lost herself in the endless motions of fighting, the mindless repetition and instinctive reactions that kept her from falling on an enemy blade or ending up in the belly of a fiery rage demon. The battle felt endless, more waves of enemies appearing as soon as the last one fell, and she imagined it would be the exhaustion that did her in at this point.

Then she heard Varric’s voice over the chaos, and the sound gave her a burst of energy. Throwing herself into her next several blows, she forced a Warden back over the edge of the ramparts and heard the impact far below. Her relief made her careless, however, and another Warden landed a nasty blow on her arm that left her reeling. Before he could finish her off, she roared in frustration and shoved him back, dispatching him with a feral cry although she nearly crumpled to the ground along with him when he fell. By the time Varric and Anders joined the scuffle, her arm was burning with white-hot fire and she was bleeding from so many places that she kept slipping in her own blood.

Looking around, she saw that they had brought along a number of other Inquisition agents, including some she’d never met. They were an impressive group all told, and they took care of the rest of the demons almost as soon as they arrived. Relieved to have a moment to catch her breath, she swayed on her feet and might have lost her balance if a hand on her back hadn’t steadied her. She turned to see Anders standing beside her, avoiding her gaze as he guided her to sit on on a nearby crate. His expression was obscured by the blood smeared over his face, but his touch was light and gentle as he inspected her for injuries, energy flaring around his fingers when he found a cut or bruise. She watched him silently, feeling as if she had just stepped into a memory. How many times had they fought together like this over the years? How many times had he patched her up when it was over? She had lost count long ago.

Hissing when he saw the wound on her arm, his brows furrowed, fingers working at her gauntlet to pull it loose and get it out of the way. She slumped against the wall behind her when he managed to free her hand, the lack of pressure on the cut making it throb with pain. Healing magic enveloped her arm in brilliant blue light and she tried not to squirm, the sensation like itching in a hundred places that were all just out of reach.

“Wiggle your fingers,” Anders said when he was done, watching with a frown as she followed the order. “That was a hasty job. Does it feel okay?”

“It works.” She smirked wanly, and he looked at her with uncertainty in his eyes, obviously wary of her smile. “Thanks,” she added more sincerely.

He bobbed his head in acknowledgement without meeting her eyes and then got up and went on to the next injured person. She watched him work, his fingers knitting skin back together with little shimmers of light, remembering how much she had once admired his skills. After what he had done, it had been easy to forget that his first instinct was always to help, but she was starting to realize that many of the things she had come to believe about him after Kirkwall were revisionist history. She’d rewritten some of the facts in order to feel better about her own mistakes, and that wasn’t fair to anyone.

Gaze wandering over to the strange young man who had helped her understand this, she sighed. Cole paced back and forth among the soldiers, eyes darting around as if trying to take in everything at once. Anders had been reluctant to bring Cole with them into battle, but the spirit had been insistent that he come along, claiming that he was familiar with Adamant already—that he’d been there before. They’d all been a bit taken aback by that, but Cole had woven a strange tale that Hawke had only half followed about mages from the circle in Val Royeaux and a Tranquil who had been “undone,” as he put it. There had been something about a stone golem and a lady templar as well, but she hadn’t been able to piece much of that together.

Varric chuckled as Anders finished patching a nasty cut on his shoulder, and said, "You look like a barbarian with all that blood on your face, Blondie." Catching Anders by the chin, he pulled a surprisingly clean handkerchief out of a coat pocket and began gently wiping the blood away. Anders endured this with a grimace until Varric discovered the source of the blood: a cut at the edge of his hairline. "Heal that," Varric ordered as if he fully expected Anders to neglect his own injuries in favor of healing others.

"It's not that bad," Anders protested, trying to pull out of the dwarf's grip.

"It bleeds like crazy. When we catch up with the people in charge around here, you’re going to need to be extremely persuasive, and it would be a lot easier to be convincing if you didn’t look like a crazed Avvar at the time. Just heal it."

Sighing, Anders conceded his point and lifted a hand to his forehead.

“That’s better,” Varric said after he had pushed Anders hand away to inspect the cut. Hawke couldn’t help but smile. Varric could be such a mother hen at times.

“We need to keep moving,” Cassandra said suddenly. “I hear more fighting ahead.”

And then they were in the midst of battle again. The only difference this time was the acrid smell of ozone and the disorienting mass of green light roiling in the air ahead of them. When the fighting paused long enough for her to inspect it, she realized it was a tear in the veil, and she could see a horrid shape on the other side just waiting to come through. The Wardens were gathered in greater number around the rift, and there were signs of blood magic all around them.

“Stop them!” shouted an arrogant voice. “We must finish what we started.” The Tevinter mage was standing on a platform above the rift, a battle-hardened woman standing beside him in Grey Warden armor, her arms raised to perform some sort of magic.

"Clarel!" Stroud shouted at the woman. "You complete that ritual, you’re doing exactly what Erimond wants."

"What?” Erimond replied dismissively.  “Fighting the Blight? Keeping the world safe from Darkspawn? Who wouldn’t want that? And yes, the ritual requires blood sacrifice. Hate me for that, if you must. But do not hate the Wardens for doing their duty!"

Hawke felt a visceral reaction to that, anger spiking through her. “I have seen more than my share of blood magic,” she retorted. “It is never worth the cost!"

But her words seemed to bounce off Clarel without making any impact. "We make the sacrifices no one else will," the Warden Commander said. "Our warriors died proudly for a world that will never thank them."

"You're right," Anders said dryly. "No one will thank you. Few people are grateful when a demon army comes to kill them."

“Our army is for the Archdemons!” Clarel snapped back. “For ending the Blight!”

He scoffed. “Your army is bound to the will of Corypheus, and you can’t even see it.”

At least that name gave Clarel pause. Blinking uncertainly, she repeated, “Corypheus? But he’s dead.”

For a moment Anders' words seemed to be getting through to Clarel, but then Erimond focused his attention on her and she seemed to crumple. Though Hawke couldn’t see the blood magic, she knew what he was doing. "These people will say anything to shake your confidence, Clarel," he said soothingly, and she nodded like a puppet.

"Bring it through," she ordered emotionlessly, staring at the creature on the other side of the rift.

“Stop!” Stroud pleaded. “I trained half of you myself. Do not make me kill you to stop this madness!”

Again Clarel hesitated, but Erimond spoke up before she could be swayed. “Clarel, we have come so far! You are the only one who can do this.”

"Can't you see you're being used?" Anders exclaimed, turning to look at the rest of the Wardens now. "Surely some of you have noticed what's happening."

"He may be right," one of the Wardens said faintly, voice gaining strength as he looked at his fellow Wardens. "The mages who’ve done the ritual are wrong. They were my friends, but now they’re like puppets on a string."

Clarel's eyes unclouded for a moment and she glanced at Erimond. "Perhaps we could test the truth of these charges to avoid more bloodshed."

Rolling his eyes, Erimond countered. "Perhaps I should bring in a more reliable ally." He turned to face Anders. "My master thought you might come here, Inquisitor. He sent me this to welcome you!"

A dragon's cry shook the tower under their feet, and Hawke felt a thrill of fear race through her. A moment later everything erupted in chaos. Clarel finally gained enough presence of mind to attack the dragon and suddenly they were all fighting the massive beast, racing along the ramparts and dodging gouts of flame along the way. Their numbers dwindled as they ran, several people breaking off to guard their retreat and take on the hordes of demons at their heels. They were sorely outmatched by the time the reached the highest parapet, but they fought as best they could, keeping the dragon at bay rather than doing much to defeat it.

Unfortunately, the castle itself turned against them in the end, ancient stone crumbling under the dragon’s weight, and soon they were tumbling in midair. Hawke felt time slowing down as she fell, the shock of realizing that of all the dangers she had faced over the years, this might be the last, the one that finally ended everything. She saw Varric falling beside her, clutching Bianca to his chest as he smirked up at the sky, smiling in the face of death as if he’d always expected the story to end this way. And just beside him was Anders, face set with determination as he stared at the chasm below, and she knew by the look in his eyes that he was still trying to save them all. She wanted to tell him that it was okay. He’d done enough. He could let go without regret.

And then she winced, a blinding light erupting from Anders’ hand and enveloping them all in its brilliance. She felt a queasy shift in gravity as if she were underwater and swimming to the surface rather than falling to the ground. Disoriented, she flung her arms out to either side, scrabbling for purchase amongst falling objects and squeezing her eyes shut to block out the dizzying view and the burst of sickly green light.

Then her boots collided with something hard and she landed…somewhere.

Chapter Text

Anders laughed triumphantly, the sound ricocheting through the unsettling landscape in unexpected ways. “I can’t believe that actually worked.” Turning in a slow circle, he drank in the broken vista around them as if it were the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

“What is it that worked exactly?” Varric asked with a groan, sitting up and shaking his head vigorously.

“The anchor.” Anders grinned at the light flickering over his palm in appreciation. “I opened a rift into the Fade.”

“Is that where we are?” Stroud asked from somewhere nearby, walking on what appeared to be a wall from Anders’ perspective.

“But we aren’t dreaming,” Hawke said from where she stood on yet another outcropping of rock, this one directly above Anders. “Is that why it looks so different from the last time I was in the Fade?”

Anders shrugged. “Maybe. That would make sense.”

“No, no, no, no, no!” Cole splashed frantically around one of the nearby pools, hands pressed over his ears as if to block out some unwanted noise. “This place is wrong. I made myself forget when I made myself real, but I know it wasn’t like this.”

“I know what you mean, kid,” Varric said with a scowl. “It isn’t exactly the friendliest place, is it?”

“And likely filled with demons who will try to convince us all to betray each other,” Hawke added wryly.

Varric rolled his eyes. “It happens to you one time and you never let anyone forget it!”

“One time was enough.”

“Inquisitor,” Cassandra said softly, tightening her grip on her sword as she walked up to Anders. “Do you think you can you get us out of here in the same way you brought us through?”

“I don’t know. I could try.” Focusing on the tendrils of rift energy he could feel intersecting with the anchor, he tried to pull on them and activate the power he had felt a moment before, but nothing happened; it felt a bit like shoving on a door that had been barred from the other side. “Apparently not. It doesn’t seem to work the same way on this side.”

"So we're stuck here?" Hawke hopped off the rock she’d been standing on and landed lightly on the same plane as the rest of them. "I really don't want to be stuck here."

Stroud followed her example a little less elegantly, stumbling as he landed and righting himself with the help of a misshapen statue of some sort. “In our world, the rift the demons came through was nearby, in the main hall. Can we escape the same way?”

“Beats waiting around here for demons to find us,” Varric said. “I say we give it a shot.”

Cassandra pointed at the enormous green whirlpool in what passed for sky in this place. “There it is.”

Varric sighed and started walking. “Let’s hope it gets a whole lot closer to the ground by the time we get there.”

The landscape was simultaneously breathtaking and unsettling, and as Anders walked through the chaotic jumble of glowing rock and almost recognizable, half-formed shapes, he couldn't help but wonder if he was finally seeing the Fade the way Justice saw it. But Cole’s uneasiness wiped that thought away.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong," Cole muttered with every step. "Wringing me out. Wrought right and rigid. Can’t relax. Can’t release..."

"You doing all right, kid?" Varric asked, giving Cole the sort of sidelong glance he had often given Anders over the years, concern mixed with pity and a healthy dose of fear.

“Don’t worry, Cole,” Anders said reassuringly. “We’ll get you out of here soon.”

Turning to him with wide eyes, Cole nodded. “Thank you. It should be like home. It’s not. This isn’t me. Not this part.”

Things got weirder as they walked, but at least the creatures that attacked them were the same sort of demons they’d been fighting on the other side. Anders was just starting to adjust to the weirdness when they climbed a set of stairs and came face to face with a dignified old woman in a habit.

“By the Maker…” Stroud breathed, coming to a stop beside him. “Could that be?”

The woman nodded. “I greet you, Warden. And you, Champion.” Her voice was gentle and smooth like glass.

Cassandra nearly stumbled in her eagerness to greet the woman. Expression transported with hope, she breathed, “Divine Justinia? Most Holy?”

The old woman smiled with the warmth of recognition. “Cassandra.”

“Could that really be her?” Hawke asked, her voice thick with doubt.

“I don’t know,” Cassandra admitted, shaking her head. “It is said the souls of the dead pass through the Fade and sometimes linger, but we know the spirits lie.”

“I fear the Divine is indeed dead,” Stroud said. “I fear we face a spirit...or a demon.”

Anders wasn’t so sure, but then again, he had the worst track record with such things out of all of them. “I’ve met you before,” he said finally. “Haven’t I?”

Smiling kindly, the thing wearing Justinia’s face evaded his question. “You do not remember what happened at the Temple of Sacred Ashes, do you Inquisitor?”

He shook his head.

“That is because those memories were taken by the demon that serves Corypheus. It is the nightmare you forget upon waking. It feeds off memories of fear and darkness, growing fat upon the terror. The false calling that terrified the Wardens into making such grave mistakes is its work.”

“That must be the big, ugly demon Scruffy was trying to bring through,” Varric said.

Justinia nodded. “When you entered the Fade at Haven,” she said to Anders, “the Nightmare took a part of you. Before you do anything else, you must recover it. These are your memories, Inquisitor.” She gestured to a group of wraiths and Anders sighed.

“Of course we’d have to fight them first.”

Plucking Bianca from his back, Varric said, “Even your memories are stubborn, Blondie.”

The fight was fairly easy, and when it was over the demons left glowing spheres of light in their wake. The orbs floated easily in the air, and when Anders brought the anchor close to them they began to spark, flying into the mark on his hand like moths into a flame. Voices echoed in the uneasy atmosphere when the fragments were all gathered, and Anders doubled over in shock when the memories took hold of him, forcing him to relive them with vivid clarity.

He was standing in a hallway, peering through a cracked doorway at a horrific scene in the distance. Corypheus was approaching the Divine with a silver orb cupped in one misshapen hand, the globe gathering energy from her as she writhed in midair. “Now is the hour of our victory,” he said as he moved closer.

“Why are you doing this?” Justinia asked in a pleading voice, twisting to look at the captors holding her aloft. “You, of all people?” Judging by the griffins on their armor, her captors were Wardens, but they stared at her blankly as if looking right through her.

Corypheus clutched the orb more tightly. “Keep the sacrifice still.”

“Someone help me!” Justinia’s cry tore at him, and Anders felt himself moving to answer her call.

He didn’t realize until he burst into the room that he was not actually in control of his own body. Blue cracks lit his skin as he shoved the door open wider and his voice was deep and booming when he spoke. “What are you doing to her? You’ll ruin everything!”

The Divine used Corypheus’ moment of distraction to slap the orb from his hand, and it rolled across the floor, stopping directly at Anders’ feet. In a movement that was more reflex than planning, Anders felt his body move to catch it, but as soon as it made contact with his skin, a fiery pain erupted in his hand, spreading up his arm with such force that he nearly fell to his knees in shock. Justice retreated within him, and Anders was in control of his body again for what little difference that made considering his situation.

Corypheus cried out in outrage and lunged for him, but before he could make contact, the orb exploded with light and they were thrown apart. This must have been the explosion that destroyed the conclave Anders realized as the vision ended as abruptly as it had started. The energy being collected within the orb had backfired when he touched it, leaving the mark on his hand, throwing him into the Fade and releasing the remainder of the energy on the unsuspecting temple, destroying everything in its path. He had been responsible for that explosion after all, but not through any prior planning or intention. He had simply gotten caught in the middle, and his attempt to help had, unsurprisingly, only made things far worse.

Shaking himself when he came back to the present, Anders glanced at the others, realizing from the looks on their faces that they had all shared in the memory. Looking away in shame, he stared down at the ground and tried not to notice that it was moving ever so slightly beneath his feet, expanding and contracting as if with the breaths of some great beast.

“Blondie,” Varric said quietly, fingers brushing over his arm in reassurance. He was looking up at him with the same sort of look he’d given Cole, and Anders couldn't stand to see the pity in his eyes.

Pulling away from his touch, he took a few steps to distance himself from everyone, trying to shake off the dread that was still clinging to him in the wake of that memory.

"Was that everything you wanted me to see?” he asked Justinia, hardly recognizing his own voice in its roughness.

“For the time being. You cannot escape the lair of the Nightmare until you regain all that it took from you.” Shaking her head, she added, “And now it knows you are here. You must make haste. I will prepare the way ahead.”

“So that mark on your hand…” Cassandra said in a broken voice when Justinia was gone. “It wasn’t sent by Andraste at all. It came from Corypheus.”

“Don’t say it like that,” Varric protested. “It’s not as if Corypheus was happy about Blondie taking it from him.”

“But Anders wasn’t in control at the time,” Hawke murmured. “Justice was.”

“That was Justice?” Cole asked curiously, glancing back and forth between them.

“What difference does that make?” Varric demanded. “He was trying to protect the Divine.”

“He said that Corypheus would ruin everything.” Anders felt Hawke’s eyes focus on him, but he avoided meeting her gaze. “Ruin what, Anders?”

He didn't see the point in responding. Justice had been in control at the time, so even without the Nightmare's manipulation of his memories, he still couldn't remember why they had been at the conclave in the first place or what they'd been planning to do.

“At least they attempted to stop Corypheus,” Cassandra said, as if intention even mattered at this point. “That’s more than can be said for those Grey Wardens.”

“They weren’t exactly aware,” Stroud protested in disbelief. “Corypheus must have taken their minds.”

Hawke frowned at Stroud as if that was not a good enough reason, and Anders recognized her expression a little too well. At least it was no longer directed at him.

“We should keep moving,” he said with a sigh, leading the way along the next bit of rocky path.

They had only walked a short distance when a deep voice boomed out across the ruined landscape, causing Anders to stumble in surprise. “Ah. We have a visitor. Some foolish little boy comes to steal the fear I kindly lifted from his shoulders.” Anders did what he could to block the voice from his mind, humming under his breath, repeating children’s rhymes in his head, but the Nightmare’s words seemed to penetrate directly into his skull, burrowing into his mind no matter what he did. Eventually it seemed to grow tired of taunting him with no response, and its focus shifted to his companions.

“Perhaps I should be afraid, facing the most powerful members of the Inquisition,” the Nightmare said, laughing. “Are you afraid, Cole? I can help you forget. Just like you help other people. We’re so very much alike, you and I.”

“No,” Cole said, voice surprisingly calm.

“That’s it, kid,” Varric muttered under his breath.

“And Varric,” the Nightmare said. “You must feel so much guilt over everything that has happened. You and your brother uncovered the red lyrium in the first place. You helped to free Corypheus from the Warden prison. None of this would have happened if it weren’t for you and your ambitions.”

“Just keep talking, Smiley,” Varric replied through gritted teeth.

“You think I don’t know your fears? The dwarf who befriends everyone. As much as you hate the idea of becoming a family man, you are so quick to adopt every lost soul that crosses your path. Too bad you only enable them to continue their cycles of destruction.”

Anders winced, hoping the words weren't getting to Varric. “Some people are beyond help,” he shouted up at the voice. “That doesn’t make the people who try to save them any less noble.”

“And you are beyond help, aren’t you, Anders?” the Nightmare asked. “So tangled up in your own pride that you can’t honestly regret the things that you’ve done. You are just one more entitled mage who was too weak to change the world without ceding his control to a spirit. Soon everyone will know who you really are, and your cause and all the people who believed in you will suffer for your sins.”

“Stop talking,” Cassandra snapped.

“Why? Does it bother you to know that your Inquisitor is a fraud, Cassandra? He wasn’t sent by your Maker. He was merely in the right place at the right time. Yet more evidence there is no Maker and all your faith has been for nought.”

“With the Maker’s blessing,” Stroud said firmly, “we will end this wretched beast.”

“Such thoughts must comfort you, Warden Stroud. And how much must you need comfort now after what has happened to the Wardens? You’ve devoted your life to their cause and now you are responsible for their destruction. When the next Blight comes, will they curse your name?”

“He knows our deepest fears,” Hawke reminded Stroud. “Don’t listen to him.”

“And Hawke. The champion of a city where you are no longer welcome. Did you think anything you ever did mattered? You couldn’t even save your city. How could you expect to strike down a god? You’re a failure and your mother died knowing it.”

Growling under her breath, Hawke hissed, “I’m going to enjoy killing this thing.”

Laughter echoed along the broken path, the sound scraping up Anders’ spine like jagged fingernails. Before the sound had faded away into silence, creatures scrambled up out of the dirt, a writhing mass of red-eyed rodents of the sort that had plagued him when he was stuck in the Circle’s dungeon during his year in solitary confinement. He’d welcomed Mister Wiggums for more than just companionship during that year. He loathed the creatures.

“What are those things?” Cassandra cried in disgust.

Hawke drew her daggers. “Servants of the nightmare, I’d assume. And of course they look like giant spiders.”

“Spiders? I see maggots crawling in filth!” Cassandra said, slicing through one of them with a vengeance.

“The demons look different to each of us,” Stroud said. “They take on the appearance of something we fear.”

Varric cursed under his breath. “Wonderful.”

“Butterflies!” Cole screamed, hiding behind him. “They have eyes on their wings.”

Shaking his head, Anders leveled his staff at the nearest rat and fired off a spell. “Suck on a fireball,” he shouted, feeling an inordinate amount of satisfaction at watching the creature’s fur catch flame. At least these creatures were present to be fought, unlike the omnipresent voice that endlessly taunted them.

Chapter Text

Once they had dispatched its servants, the Nightmare fell silent for a while. Varric knew it was only a matter of time before it came up with more hateful words to needle them with, but he was determined to enjoy the quiet while it lasted.

“I thought that demon would never shut up,” he said conversationally, trying his best to lift the mood. “It mouths off even more than I do.”

“I think you might be evenly matched in that regard.” Hawke replied with a coy smile.

“We need to stay focused,” Cassandra interrupted, jaw set like flint. “It is still watching us and listening, looking for signs of weakness. It will attack again as soon as we let down our guard.”

Varric glanced at Cole when he heard him repeating, “It’s nothing like me,” under his breath as if trying to convince himself of the statement.

“Relax, kid,” Varric said, patting the spirit’s shoulder. “I don’t imagine anybody seeing much of you in the Nightmare. It doesn’t help people forget like you do—it steals their memories. That’s low. Even for a demon.”

“Look,” Cassandra said, pointing to the precipice ahead. “More wraiths ahead. Perhaps these are the other memories you need to reclaim.” She looked at Anders, and he nodded silently.

Anders hadn’t said much since the Nightmare stopped talking, and Varric worried that he was thinking too much. Overthinking was a bad habit of his, and it was likely to get them in as much trouble as the Nightmare if he had too much time to continue unchecked. Another flash of memories wasn’t likely to help either, especially if it raised as many questions as the first one had. Varric stayed close to him during the fight, watching as Anders collected the fragments one by one and then getting drawn into the thrall of the memory along with everyone else as soon as it was complete.

Demons chased Anders up a near vertical path, and he clawed desperately at the rock in order to stay out of reach. The environment was exactly like the one they had been walking through for hours, so this must have been the first time Anders was in the raw Fade at the Temple of Sacred Ashes. The explosion at the end of the last memory must have thrown him there and now he was trying to get out. The rock crumbled beneath his fingers when he grasped the top of the incline, but the Divine was already there, ready to help him over the edge. She directed him toward the rift nearby, the portal that must lead back to the ruins of the temple, but the demons were relentless.

“Go!” she shouted as the demons pulled her back with vicious claws.

“No!” Anders cried, trying to reach her. “You’re the only one who can stop the fighting, the only one who can help us find peace!”

But it was too late, and Anders stumbled backward through the opening as the demons dragged the Divine away.

The memory ended, and Anders looked up at Justinia, now standing among them again. “It was you,” he gasped. “They thought it was Andraste sending me from the Fade, but it was the Divine behind me. And then you...she died.”

Smiling kindly, she nodded. “Yes.”

“So this creature is simply a spirit?” Stroud demanded.

“I am sorry if I disappoint you.”

“Are you a memory of the Divine? A reflection?” Cassandra asked with a desperate look in her eyes, and Varric felt sorry for her. He’d never seen such vulnerability in her before.

The Divine’s shape dissolved into a form of brilliant light and began to float off the ground. “If that is the story you wish to tell,” she said, “it is not a bad one.”

“What we do know is that the mortal Divine perished at the temple,” Hawke said. “Thanks to the Grey Wardens.”

Stroud shook his head. “As I said, the Wardens responsible for that crime were under the control of Corypheus. We can discuss this further once we return to Adamant.”

“Assuming the Wardens and the demon army didn’t destroy the Inquisition while we were gone.”

“How dare you judge us? After everything you allowed to happen in Kirkwall?”

Hawke’s eyes widened and Varric was about to intervene—physically if necessary—but Anders got there first.

“Both of you, stop!” he shouted, expression twisted up in anguish. “The Wardens have made horrible, unforgivable mistakes. So have I. But I’ve been given a second chance, and I can’t in good conscience give them any less. Now that they know how much damage their desperation has done, they will have a chance to atone for it.”

Stroud nodded gratefully and turned away.

Hawke, on the other hand, simply stared at Anders, and Varric edged a little closer in case she made a move against him. “In that last memory you recovered,” she said faintly, “You said that the Divine was the only one who could stop the fighting. You and Justice didn’t actually go to the conclave to stop her, did you?”

Expression conflicted, Anders looked away. Before he had a chance to respond, the cry of demons in the distance drew their attention.

“My lady,” a strangely familiar voice cried, and Varric turned to see a spirit running toward them, an armored warrior wreathed in light. “The Nightmare has found you!” he shouted, coming to a stop beside the Divine. “I tried to hold him back, but his forces were too much.”

“Justice?” Anders gasped in shock. “What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” the spirit replied simply.

Anders laughed. “Is that a joke? Maybe my influence on you wasn’t all bad.”

“I don’t know, Blondie,” Varric countered. “That was a pretty lame joke.”

Justice shifted to look at him, and the intensity of his gaze was more than a little unsettling. “You are the storyteller, aren't you? Varric. You have been kind to Anders. Thank you for looking out for him.”

“Uh, yeah. Don’t mention it,” Varric said uncomfortably, glancing at Anders, but his gaze hadn’t wavered from Justice.

“The Fade is a big place,” Anders said. “How did you find us?”

“I felt you enter the Fade, and I never stray far from where you are on the other side. But the Nightmare has claimed this place and twisted it to his own uses. I had to break into his domain to reach you. She was here when I came through.” Justice glanced at the Divine. “We agreed to work together to help you escape.”

“They are coming,” the Divine warned, looking over her shoulder.

Justice drew his sword and turned to face the horde of demons appearing in the distance. “Stand behind me.”

Hefting Bianca, Varric waded into the fight, noting along the way that Justice was a pretty impressive fighter. And even though he fought with a sword rather than magic, some of his moves seemed familiar, techniques that Anders had often utilized to evade enemies or turn their attacks against them. Varric wondered which of them had learned them first, or if they had discovered them while they were joined—and then he decided to stop pursuing that line of thought because it was quickly giving him a headache.

“Do you think you can fight me?” the Nightmare said suddenly, voice booming over the clatter of the fight. “I am your every fear come to life! I am the veiled hand of Corypheus himself! The Demon army you fear? I command it. They are bound all through me!”

“Ah,” Justinia cried. “So banishing you will banish the demons on the other side.”

“Such helpful information,” Justice agreed.

The Nightmare growled in annoyance, and Varric felt the ground rumble beneath his feet.

“Can we not antagonize the evil demon while he’s sending his minions to fight us?” he asked, firing another bolt at a wraith.

Another wave of demons followed the first, but eventually they took out the last of the creatures and had a moment to catch their breath. Anders made his rounds, patching up injuries as he went and Justice watched him work with a faint smile. Taking his time cleaning the otherworldly goo off Bianca, Varric studied the spirit, trying to fit what he knew of Justice with the form before him. He’d honestly never tried to picture it before, and from what little he’d seen of the creature while he was inside Anders, he’d never have expected him to appear as such a heroic figure.

“I wanted to meet you,” Cole said, startling Varric out of his thoughts as he appeared at Justice’s side.

Turning to face Cole, Justice regarded him thoughtfully. “You are...strange. You feel like a spirit, but you act like a human.”

“I don’t know what I am,” Cole admitted. “I’m a bit of both now, I think. How did you manage to live outside the Fade for so long? How did you keep from dissolving away?”

“You worry that is what will happen to you?”

Cole nodded.

“I don’t know how to help you. Anders kept me grounded. His will kept me bound to the mortal world, and when he slept I took strength from the Fade in his dreams. But my memories of that time are distorted, and I know that our identities became tangled together over the years. Perhaps your way is better...whatever way that is.”

“Do you miss it?”

“The mortal world?” Justice smiled wistfully. “I miss some things. Lyrium, for one. It makes the most beautiful music.”

Varric shook his head in amazement. He’d never expected to hear Justice speak with anything other than anger in his voice. Hawke sat down beside him and he glanced at her to see her eyes focused on the spirit as well.

“So that’s Justice,” she murmured.

“Guess so.”

“I didn’t expect him to be so…pure.”

“Maybe he was like this before he became trapped in our world,” Varric replied, returning Bianca to her place on his back. “Explains why Blondie would be so willing to help him in the first place.”

“Look!” Cassandra cried suddenly. She was standing at the edge of a rocky outcropping, peering over it at the landscape below. “The rift is close now.”

“Great, Seeker,” Varric said with a sigh. “Why don’t you just taunt all the old gods into throwing more obstacles in our way while you’re at it?”

Justinia floated ahead of them, looking at Anders as she went. “You must get through the rift, Inquisitor, and when you are on the other side, you must force it closed with all your strength. That will banish the army of demons, and exile the Nightmare to the farthest reaches of the Fade.”

“And what will happen to the two of you?” he asked, glancing back and forth between the two spirits.

“We will reclaim this portion of the Fade and purify it of the Nightmare’s influence,” Justice replied, clapping a hand to Anders’ shoulder, and Varric was surprised that his insubstantial form actually managed to make impact.

Anders smiled. "Then I wish you luck. It's been good to see you again."

"And you. Take care of yourself, Anders."

The Nightmare was waiting for them at the bottom of the slope, shimmering into being between them and the rift, a monstrous, insectoid shape filled with bulbous eyes. And just in front of it was a smaller creature with skeletal wings, another thrall to fight. Just as they were all brandishing their weapons in preparation for the fight, Justinia floated by them, aiming directly for the Nightmare’s larger form.

“If you would,” she said to them, “please tell Leliana, ‘I am sorry. I failed you, too.’”

“No!” Cassandra cried, but it was already too late.

The spirit drove the Nightmare back, dissolving into pure light as she made impact, and while her attack seemed to weaken the Nightmare, it still had time to take control of the other demon. Though smaller in size, the creature was no less menacing, and it proved to be a fierce and dangerous enemy. The fight wore on them after all the battles they'd already faced, but eventually they did manage to get the upper hand.

"Go!" Justice cried when the fight was over, shaking them out of their stupor. "The Nightmare will revive soon. Through the rift, now. Quickly!"

Varric followed the spirit's direction along with the others, racing toward the rift; he was amazed that his short dwarven legs managed to clear the gate ahead of everyone else, but relieved to be on the other side as soon as he felt solid ground under his feet again. Stumbling to a stop against a stone wall, he turned around to see Cole follow and then Cassandra. And for several dreadful moments after that, nothing. Straightening, he considered running back into the rift to help the others, but then he saw Stroud limping through, dragging a struggling Anders along with him. But still he saw no sign of Hawke. He was halfway back to the rift when she finally emerged, nodding sharply at Anders before falling to one knee, her arm clutched against her side.

Light flashed brilliantly from Anders’ palm as he yanked the rift shut, and the air filled with the sound of demons crying their last before crumpling to the ground, just as the Divine had promised. Cheers erupted in the silence that followed, and Varric had to shove his way past celebrating soldiers to reach Hawke and help her to her feet.

“I’m sorry, Anders,” she said, leaning heavily on Varric as she met Anders' eye. “He’s gone.”

Looking stricken, Anders nodded and turned away.

“Inquisitor,” Cassandra said, voice thick with reluctance as she tugged on Anders’ arm. “We have to deal with the rest of the Wardens.”

Jaw clenching, he nodded again and followed her, the look in his eyes so haunted that Varric felt torn between keeping Hawke on her feet and going after him. But there was nothing he could do for Anders right now and Hawke needed his help.

“What happened?” Varric asked as he helped Hawke sit down on a stone ledge.

“The Nightmare blocked our path before we could follow you through the rift,” she said with a sigh. “Someone had to distract it so the rest of us could escape. Stroud and I both volunteered, but Justice wouldn't hear of it. He sacrificed himself to save us.”

“Shit.” He handed her his last healing potion with trembling fingers.

“Pretty much. Yeah.” She downed the potion and then shook her head, looking at all the soldiers and Wardens around them in amazement. “Listen to them cheering. None of them have any idea what we faced in there. As far as they’re concerned, Anders broke the spell with the blessing of the Maker.”

“And maybe that’s best,” Varric replied. “Makes for a more palatable story anyway.”

“The look on his face when I told him about Justice...” she said softly. "All those years in Kirkwall, and I feel like I never really knew him until now."

“How well can you really know anyone? We get to know the pieces we have in common, the pieces we’re willing to share, but we can never know everything. And everyone changes over time, so even the things we know about each other can change.” He shrugged. “I guess that’s what keeps life interesting.” Feeling Hawke’s gaze on him, he turned to look at her. She was grinning. “What?”

“I’ve missed you.”

“Stop,” he complained. “You’re going to make me blush.”

“I wish I could bring you with me, but I think Anders needs you more than I do.”

He frowned. “You aren’t sticking around?”

“No… I tend to stir things up more than I calm them down. Stroud’s going to Weisshaupt to tell the rest of the Wardens what happened here. I was thinking that I might tag along for awhile. Maybe try to track down Fenris along the way. See if I can patch things up.”

“I can give you a few leads.”

Shoving his arm, she laughed. “I knew it! You keep tabs on all of us, don’t you?”

“How’s that wound doing?” he asked, deftly changing the topic. “I’m going to find you another health potion and see if we can get you patched up.”

Chapter Text

Night in the desert was shockingly cold. Anders sat on a shelf of rock far enough away from the camp for the chill wind to cut right through him. He’d left his coat in a pile at the entrance to his tent before falling onto his cot. When he’d left the tent after hours of tossing and turning, he’d simply wrapped his blanket around his shoulders and walked out, but the blanket was proving to be a poor substitute. Shivering, he huddled more deeply within the fabric and tried to keep his teeth from chattering. He could have used magic to warm the air or shield himself from the wind—even in his exhaustion, it would take minimal effort to work such a spell—but he wasn’t in the mood for comfort, physical or emotional.

Varric had tried to talk to him several times after they returned from the Fade, but Anders hadn’t wanted to let the dwarf cheer him up. He wanted to brood over his pain, hold it close and just drown in it until the ache wore him out entirely and he could finally sleep. It was counterproductive and a waste of time, but it was his decision to make. He’d already fulfilled his obligations to the Inquisition, done all the things that were expected of him, and now he wanted to be childish and self-indulgent for a while before he had to go back to being responsible again.

He couldn’t believe Justice was gone. He’d finally been at peace with the spirit, relieved to know he was home in the Fade, and it had been absurdly reassuring to know that Justice was always on the other side of the veil watching over him. He had wanted him to be happy, to live on in the Fade with the hope of someday inspiring others to do amazing things. But maybe he was viewing things from too human a perspective. Justice had always been happiest when he had a purpose, and protecting others must have felt like a wonderful purpose even if it had ended with his death. Perhaps Justice had gotten everything he wanted in the end, and Anders was only being selfish by mourning him.

“Anders?”

Startled by the sound of Hawke’s voice, he turned to look at her as she slogged through the sand toward him.

“You’re going to freeze to death out here,” she said, crouching down beside him and frowning at his lightweight shirt and pants. She was dressed in her full armor as if she were ready to travel, but that didn't make sense; it was the middle of the night and most of the camp was asleep. Noticing his scrutiny, she sat down on the rock beside him with a huff. “I’m getting ready to leave.”

“Right now?”

She nodded. “I was hoping to avoid saying goodbye. Then I saw you out here, and I couldn’t…” She bit her lower lip and looked down at her hands. “I’m sorry about Justice.”

“You’ve said,” he replied, voice thick.

“I misjudged him. I misjudged both of you.”

Somehow the apology hurt more than her anger had. “Did you? I’m not so sure.”

She scoffed at him. “Really? You’re going to start doubting yourself now ?”

“I do it a lot, actually. It must drive everyone crazy.” Swallowing, he took a deep breath. “You saw the memories the Nightmare took. You wanted to know why Justice and I were at the conclave. I still don’t remember—I’m not sure Justice even remembered after everything that happened afterward—but regardless of our intentions, we did cause the explosion at the temple. We were responsible for all those deaths.”

Shaking her head, she reached for his arm and squeezed it. “And what do you think would have happened if you hadn’t interfered with Corypheus’ plans? Do you think all those people would have survived? Or would even more be dead, and no one around to stop him from ruling the world?”

A sad smile twisted his lips. “You’re not supposed to be reassuring me.”

“Since when have I ever done what’s expected of me?” Returning his smile, she said, “That’s the real reason they ran me out of Kirkwall, you know. I never could manage to meet their expectations. You, though? You’ve gotten pretty good at it. Leader of the Inquisition. Herald of Andraste. You get them through all this, I think they might even want to keep you.”

The glimmer of fondness in her eyes almost did him in, and he had to look away before he said something he would regret. Staring out at the shadowy dunes, he said, "Just wait until everyone finds out who I really am and what I've done. They'll be eager to get rid of me then."

"Maybe. But somehow you keep winning people to your side. Even those who are determined not to let you." She nudged him with her elbow teasingly.

Fiddling with a string hanging from his blanket, he asked, "You’ve changed your mind?"

She tilted her head. "Not about what you did…but about you. Meeting Justice, seeing him as you must have seen him all those years ago… I think I understand you a lot better now."

He looked at her with a frown. "That's scary."

Her eyes sparkled with humor. "Why? You prefer to be misunderstood?"

"Yes. I don't want anyone repeating my mistakes."

"Oh, there's little chance of that. I make enough mistakes on my own without any help."

He nodded, her honesty and openness only making the weight of his guilt that much harder to bear. “I’m sorry,” he whispered suddenly, the apology escaping his lips unbidden. “I’m sorry for everything I put you through.”

“I know,” she whispered, finding his hand in the darkness and clutching it tightly. “I’m sorry too.”

He choked on his next breath, and he couldn’t see the desert anymore past the blur in his eyes. The next thing he knew she was pulling him into her arms and tucking his head against her shoulder, stroking a hand over his hair gently and murmuring words of reassurance in his ear while he cried. He felt as if he were pouring out years worth of pain and regret with his tears, and the way she held him brought back a memory from Kirkwall, a moment they had shared soon after her mother had died.

They'd spent so much of the time arguing in those days that he had been annoyed to see her show up at his clinic in the middle of the night. She had been dragging along an injured Fenris, which hadn't improved his mood, but the elf passed out from loss of blood almost as soon as they placed him on a cot, so he hadn't had much time to berate Anders before falling unconscious. Hawke had been so worked up and anxious that she barely gave Anders room to work, rambling at him about the dangers of magic and the foolishness of his cause even while he was working to save her lover with that very same magic.

He hadn’t been able to get any sense out of her until he'd finally put Fenris back together and forced her to sit down on a cot and drink a draught that he kept on hand to calm patients. She explained that Fenris' injuries were caused by a blood mage, and then opened up about the night her mother died for the first time in his hearing. She'd broken down then, and he had just held her while she cried, realizing how heavily her responsibilities weighed on her, that they drove her to bottle up her emotions and keep them hidden, to act like the invulnerable hero everyone wanted her to be. He'd loved her in that moment despite all their differences, had wanted to protect her no matter the cost.

But the next day everything had returned to normal and Fenris had been even more unbearable than usual, probably overcompensating because he knew Anders had saved his life. Hawke became distant again and Anders threw himself back into his cause. He had often thought about that night over the years and wondered if Hawke had only confided in him because he happened to be there at the moment when the burden became too much, or if he was actually  the only one she felt she could show such vulnerability to without recriminations. Varric would have been there for her in a heartbeat, but she hadn’t wanted him to see her that way. And Fenris was horrible with emotions. The others all had their issues as well, no matter how much they would want to support her. Anders, on the other hand, was well practiced at seeing people at their most vulnerable and reserving judgement. He did it every day in his clinic.

When his tears had finally dried and his breathing calmed to a slow and steady rhythm, he knew that he should pull away, but he couldn't bring himself to let her go. She was sitting silent and still despite the awkwardness of their position, tracing patterns over his back and making no move to push him away. A chill wind blew against them, and although it felt less biting now that they were sharing body heat, Anders shivered.

“I want you to promise me something,” Hawke said softly when the howling wind had fallen silent again. “No matter what happens, no matter how much you doubt yourself along the way, promise me that you’ll follow this thing through to the end. The Inquisition needs you. I didn’t believe that before, but I’m sure of it now.”

Thinking about all of his doubts, his concerns about what would happen when his identity became common knowledge, he had to clear his throat before he could reply, “I promise.”

Pushing him away gently, she looked at him with a smile. “And keep Varric out of trouble if you can. He could be stupidly heroic if you let him.”

“I know.” Anders sat back. “And you... Take care of yourself.”

“I will.”

“And Fenris,” he added, surprised at the lack of jealousy in his voice. Maybe he really had moved on and learned to let things go.

She studied him for a moment, then nodded. Standing up, she said, “Time for me to go.” Helping him to his feet, she added, “And time for you to get some rest. You look wrecked.”

He laughed. “Yes. Just enough time for me to get to sleep right before Cullen rouses us all at an absurdly early hour.”

“Maybe I’ll leave him a note to let you sleep in.”

Shaking his head, he said firmly, “No. We have work to do.”

Smiling faintly, she let go of his arm when they reached the edge of camp. "Goodbye, Anders. Maybe we'll cross paths again someday."

"Maybe. Until then..." He couldn't say the word, but she smiled as if he had and turned away. He'd always been awful at goodbyes.

Chapter Text

Cullen was trapped in a nightmare. Light shifted around him, confusing his vision and disorienting his balance until he felt as if he were tumbling through space, oblivious to distance and direction. He was hot, burning up as if he were in the midst of flames, and the world was melting around him, color and light and sound boiling into an indistinguishable flood of sensation. Claws grasped at him, misshapen limbs trying to drag him down into the darkness below. Every touch burned like white-hot fire.

He had been here before. He could almost remember the names of the demons tormenting him and the blood mages who had summoned them. But they were far away, convinced that they were pulling all the strings while the demons held all the power. Cullen was caught in between, a trifle for their enjoyment.

A voice reached him through the hellish landscape. “Commander?” Feminine, accented and authoritative. He felt as if he should recognize it. “Cullen? Wake up!”

He groaned, flashes of light and darkness piercing his skull with stabbing pain. “No,” he murmured. “Stop! Leave me alone!”

“Seeker?” A second voice. Male. Tentative.

A soft sound like a sigh, utterly mundane compared to the otherworldly sensations wracking Cullen’s body.

“Seeker, what should we do?” asked the second voice.

“Get the Inquisitor.”

When the voices fell silent, Cullen slid back into the nauseating chaos, surrounded by vile creatures that tore at his flesh and tortured him with flaming lances and knives. He screamed and whimpered, but he couldn’t escape, gripped by cold blue chains that held him prone on the ground. Or was it the ceiling? He couldn’t tell anymore. He lost all sense of time, his awareness narrowed down to the simple experience of pain, so pure and intense that he was able to absorb nothing else.

“...with the battle, all the plans leading up to it... He’s been pushing himself too hard.” The female voice was distant now, but he grasped at it like a lifeline, using the sound to haul himself up from the depths.

“I'm not sure how much I can do,” said a new voice, male and agonizingly familiar. "But if I can reduce his fever, it might..."

“Whatever you can do will have to be enough,” the female voice interrupted. “The Inquisition can't afford to lose its commander.”

“I know.”

The world lurched, and Cullen reached out through the void to find purchase, any surface he could use to lever himself away from the creatures still clawing at his skin. He found something solid and clung to it, breathlessly begging for help from any source. And then he felt a gentle touch against his forehead. Icy relief spread out from that point of contact, spreading along his nerves like quicksilver, and the inferno froze into stillness, the flames dissolving into frost. A chill wind buffeted at him, sweeping the creatures back into the void. And then, as the wind stilled, a gentle breeze wrapped him in layers of downy softness and eased his pain. His skin tingled in relief from the onslaught and he whimpered, shivering from head to toe as he felt the nightmare recede, the demons’ howling fading to silence.

His body felt heavier than normal as his consciousness returned to it, his limbs seemed too heavy to be moved, his skin wrung out and dry like an empty husk.  Trying to wet his parched lips with an equally dry tongue, he grimaced, blinking fitfully into the brightness around him in order to orient himself. He was in a tent. The hot wind buffeting the canvas reminded him that he was in the desert, and the shouts and clatter from outside helped him remember that he was with the Inquisition’s forces. They had just defeated Corypheus’ nascent demon army at Adamant.

“I’ll get some water.” He recognized Cassandra’s voice now and looked at her gratefully as she turned to leave, but winced at the flash of light as she slipped out through the tent flap.

Attempting to sit up, he found that he was too tangled in sweaty blankets to get far. He didn’t register the weight on the edge of his cot until it shifted, a figure leaning over to help him free himself. Silhouetted as it was against the sunlit canvas, he didn’t recognize the figure until it moved closer.

"Anders," he croaked in recognition, his voice as gritty as the sand clinging to his tongue.

Anders looked nearly as exhausted as Cullen felt, but he hushed him with surprising gentleness. "It's okay. Just rest."

"How long was I...?"

"I don't know." Anders turned away, scrubbing his hands over his face. His fingers trembled ever so slightly. "But I had expected you to wake us all at the crack of dawn to break camp. It's almost noon now. Cassandra came to check on you when she realized no one had seen you today. She found you...locked in a dream. Hallucinating. She had to get help from another soldier to restrain you from hurting yourself."

Cullen thought that the tent couldn’t feel any hotter, but his blush of embarrassment proved him wrong. "Did many people see me like that?"

"Only Cassandra, the soldier and me. Cassandra will take care of the soldier. Some others overheard you crying out in your sleep, but she'll no doubt take care of them as well. She can be very convincing.” Anders attempted a smile, but it didn’t spread beyond his lips. “Your reputation is safe."

"What a relief," Cullen said dryly, studying Anders' profile. "But what about me?"

Brows furrowing in confusion, Anders studied him.

"Am I safe?" Cullen asked, his voice breaking. He'd been suffering from nightmares for months, but none of them had been as vivid as the one he had just endured--or left him feeling so weak. The severity of the experience shook his confidence, and he wondered just how long he could continue fighting the battle against his addiction before he lost. Or before the Inquisition was forced to pay the price.

Anders’ eyes widened, but he didn’t reply before Cassandra returned with the water, again blinding Cullen as she entered. She handed a canteen to Anders, then crouched beside the cot and helped Cullen drink from another. He felt ashamed that he needed the assistance, but he was too weak to pretend otherwise.

"His coloring is better," Cassandra observed, glancing at Anders. "But I can see from the look on your face that this was a close call. How close?"

Anders rested his canteen on his knee, his expression guarded. "I don't know. But for a moment there I thought he might slip into a coma."

Cullen watched them silently, irritated that they were discussing him as if he weren't there, but too exhausted to protest.

"How could this happen? He’s been doing so well..."

Anders grimaced. "All I can do is speculate. Perhaps his body was simply delaying the symptoms until the immediate crisis was over. As soon as he let his guard down they caught up with him. Or maybe all the stress triggered a relapse. It’s hard to say. But I couldn't fix the source of the problem. All I could do was treat the symptoms. They will return.”

“That settles it," Cullen said through gritted teeth, and they both turned to look at him as if they’d forgotten he was there. Pushing himself up on one elbow, he looked at Cassandra. “I have to start taking lyrium again.”

“Cullen,” Cassandra said firmly.

“There’s no room for argument,” Cullen interrupted before she could continue. “You convinced me to keep trying before, but the symptoms are getting worse and I’m clearly losing control over them. What if this little episode had happened in the middle of the battle? How many lives could have been lost?” He shook his head. “No. I can’t continue this way. I won’t give less to the Inquisition than I did to the Chantry.”

Cassandra regarded him with a pained expression, but nodded.

He patted her arm, trying to smile encouragingly, but even the attempt made him feel queasy. “I can always try again once this is all over. When I will be putting only myself at risk."

Feeling the weight of Anders’ gaze, Cullen looked up to see the mage scowling at him. “No,” Anders said in a quiet voice that was fierce despite its lack of volume. “You’ve made too much progress to give up now. Let me find another way.”

Cullen shook his head. “You just said that you couldn’t fix me.”

"I said I don't know how, not that it couldn’t be done," Anders corrected, eyes flashing with anger.

Attempting to sit up, Cullen had to lean on Cassandra when his arm almost gave way beneath him. “I told you before,” he said sharply, annoyed by his weakness. “The Inquisition needs you focused on stopping Corypheus. We can’t afford to have you wasting time on this.”

Grumbling under his breath, Anders stood up and took a few steps away. Even though the tent felt stiflingly hot, Cullen was surprised to find that he immediately mourned Anders' warmth on the edge of the cot.

“Anders,” Cassandra said with disapproval in her voice as if she thought he were being childish. But he ignored her.

Finally, he turned back to face them, arms crossed tightly over his chest and his jaw set with determination. “Give me two weeks,” he said. “We just won a major victory against Corypheus, and the peace talks in Halamshiral are still several weeks away. Give me until then to solve the problem, and if I can’t, then you can decide whatever you want.”

Cullen recognized the look in his eyes and knew that it would be pointless to argue with him. So he sighed instead. And nodded.

 

 

Chapter Text

Dorian shifted in his plush leather chair, grinning despite the discomfort causing his restlessness. The light pouring through the window of his alcove was equally bothersome given the mild hangover he was still nursing, but even that couldn’t dampen his mood. All of his current aches and pains were pleasant in a satisfying way, reminders of an experience he was eager to repeat.

He’d been spending a lot of time in the Herald’s Rest after his trip to Redcliffe with the Inquisitor, draining his sorrows into countless glasses of expensive wine and bitter spirits and never expecting to find a less destructive method of dealing with his troubles. But the Iron Bull defied expectations in many ways. And despite Dorian’s reservations about getting too close to a qunari, he was quickly learning that Bull was not a typical example of his kind, which seemed appropriate since Dorian was far from a typical Tevinter.

He had noticed the Iron Bull’s flirting, of course. It was hardly subtle. But flirtation from Bull was so commonplace that it meant very little. Over time the comments had become more blatant however, more personal, more scandalous, and after Anders' rejection he had gotten drunk enough to begin reciprocating. Before he’d known what was happening, he had found himself in a compromising position in Bull’s quarters, stripped bare and vulnerable to the qunari’s every whim. And then the most extraordinary thing had happened. Bull had stopped. Taking stock of Dorian’s level of inebriation, he had refused to go any further until they both were sober. No one had ever given him such consideration before, and the fact that it had come from a source that he had been all too eager to dismiss as barbaric and savage was all the more shocking. Days later, Dorian was still learning how wrong his initial assumptions about Iron Bull had been.

Sighing wistfully, Dorian adjusted the book on his lap and attempted to focus on the words. But his attention was too divided to be of any use. Maybe it was time to go for a walk and work out the kinks in his sore muscles. Or he could just wander down to the tavern for a little refreshment and companionship. His smile widened as he thought of the qunari who was likely to be there at this time of day, and he had all but made his decision when he saw the Inquisitor appear at the top of the stairs.

Anders was even more serious than usual these days. He was working himself ragged trying to satisfy everyone’s requests, but Dorian hadn’t seen him so much as show his face in the library since their trip to Redcliffe. He didn’t want to go so far as to assume that Anders was actively avoiding him, but even if such a thing were true, he couldn’t blame him for keeping his distance after the way they had left things. But such avoidance was unnecessary, and it was time for Dorian to make that clear.

Shutting his book, Dorian stood up with only a little wobble, smirking again as he dropped the book into his chair and walked leisurely over to the Inquisitor. “I could help you find what you're looking for, you know,” he said coyly, but as soon as Anders shifted his shoulders in discomfort he realized that his statement had been mistaken as one of his usual attempts to flirt. "I’ve been through most of these shelves at least once,” he explained quickly. "If we have a book in this library, I probably know about it."

Anders nodded, his expression brightening. “In that case, I’m looking for books about lyrium.”

“If you’re researching red lyrium, I'm afraid you're out of luck. I’ve already given Dagna every single book we have on the subject.”

“Actually, I'm interested in the normal variety.”

Leaning a shoulder against the shelf, Dorian studied Anders’ expression thoughtfully. “As I’m sure you know, lyrium is a common subject of interest in magical research. Could you be more specific?”

“I need to understand its addictive properties, especially its effects on human physiology.”

Dorian itched to ask questions, but he suspected that they would not be welcome. “I’ve seen a few books like that. This way.”

Leading Anders to a shelf in his alcove, he tried to ignore their proximity as they both squeezed into the narrow space and began searching the volumes. “Here’s one,” he said, pulling a thick, leather-bound tome off a shelf. “And another. In fact, the entire bottom shelf touches on the topic in one way or another.” He hesitated, choosing his words carefully as he continued, “If you gave me an idea of what you’re hoping to find, that would help me narrow down the options.”

“I’m looking for a cure to lyrium addiction,” Anders said in a quiet voice as if he didn’t really want Dorian to hear his answer.

Arching his brows, Dorian had trouble restraining a laugh. “Oh? Is that all?”

Settling on the floor and opening one of the books Dorian had handed him, Anders replied reasonably, "Surely I'm not the first person to have tried."

"Perhaps not. But I don't recall hearing about anyone who succeeded." Shaking his head, Dorian tried to figure out what could have motivated such a desire. “Who are you trying to cure?”

“I doubt that information would help you find the right book any more quickly,” Anders pointed out.

“True,” Dorian admitted. “But I'm the curious sort. And last I knew, the people most vulnerable to lyrium addiction are templars, and they're not your favorite kind of people. So why help them?"

Anders stared blankly at the book in his lap. "I always thought of lyrium in a templar's hands as a threat against mages. It is the source of the power they use to control us, after all. But I understand now that lyrium is just as much a threat to the templars themselves as it is to us. They are enslaved by the very substance that gives them power, and once they have become addicted, there is no easy way to free them from that slavery."

"So now that you've freed the mages, templars are next on your list of oppressed people? Funny, that. I would have expected the elves to come first."

Sighing, Anders flipped the book shut.

"Or perhaps this is more personal than that? Perhaps you're more interested in freeing a single templar than the entire order?"

“Dorian."

Dorian knew he should stop pressing Anders for answers, but he was unable to control his curiosity. “It’s Cullen, isn’t it?”

Anders looked up with resignation in his eyes.

“Aha!” Dorian said, sliding down the wall to the floor beside him. Resting his arms on his knees, he said thoughtfully, “I knew something was not quite right with the commander. He’s obviously templar-trained, and I’ve noticed that he's been unwell lately, but I never put the pieces together. Templars don’t take lyrium in Tevinter, you see. There’s barely enough to go around for all the mages, and it’s not as if the templars there do much enforcing anyway.” Smiling kindly, he asked, "Would you like some help finding that cure?”

Anders peered at him suspiciously.

“I have nothing better to do at the moment,” Dorian explained, “And good chess partners are hard to come by. I’d hate to lose one of the best opponents I’ve ever faced. Imagine how good he'd be when he's not suffering from lyrium withdrawal."

Mirth brightened Anders’ eyes. “You play chess with Cullen?” he asked in a disbelieving tone.

Dorian wasn’t sure if Anders was jealous or simply curious, but it was probably safer to assume the latter. “I do.”

“The idea of Cullen taking a break to play a game—even one that it is little more than a simulation of war—is hard for me to wrap my mind around. Tell me, does he actually seem to enjoy it?”

“Would that be so shocking?”

“Maybe it’s just a testament to how little I actually know him. We may have lived in the same tower for years, but templars and mages rarely get to know each other beyond the prescribed boundaries of our roles.”

Dorian’s brows lifted. That explained some things. “You lived in the same circle?”

“In Ferelden, yes. He was the strict, idealistic Templar recruit who followed every rule to the letter, and I was the rebellious young mage who broke every rule I came across. You can imagine how unpleasant most of our interactions were.”

“You were both young and foolish.”

Smiling wryly, Anders mused, “I’m not sure how much we’ve changed now apart from age.”

“Interesting. I noticed the dynamic between you two immediately, but I always assumed it was unresolved sexual tension.”

Anders laughed loudly enough to interrupt Fiona's conversation with the tranquil on the other side of the room, and Dorian felt a burst of pride at having finally brought an authentic smile to his face. Wiping a tear from his eyes when he'd finally gained control of his laughter, Anders said, "Thank you. I needed that."

"You're most welcome, although I hadn’t meant it as a joke. Cullen is an attractive man, after all, and you already know what I think of you. The two of you would make a rather devastating couple.”

“Devastating is an accurate description. But I would be shocked if Cullen's inclinations are anything but traditional.” Anders shook his head. “I hope his looks aren’t the real reason you play chess with him.”

“No. But they are probably the reason I lose so often.” Still smirking, Dorian plucked another book from the shelf and flipped it open to begin his search. He felt Anders watching him.

“I appreciate your help with this, Dorian.”

“It’s nothing. Research is one of the things I’m good at—of course, it might be hard to tell considering how good I am at everything else.”

Anders smiled, but the expression faltered when a soldier called out to him from the stairs.

“Inquisitor!” the woman panted as she ran up to them. “Inquisitor. That spirit...Cole. He’s causing a disturbance in the courtyard. Solas is trying to calm him, but he isn’t listening to reason.”

Anders glanced at Dorian with a frown.

“Go," he said, reaching over to take the book from Anders' lap. "I’ll carry on here.”

"Thank you. I’ll be back soon."

Nodding, Dorian watched him go, wondering if he was making a mistake in encouraging Anders in this endeavor. It was highly unlikely that they would find an answer at all, and Dorian wasn't sure how well Anders would take the disappointment if they failed. But he supposed that there was no point contemplating defeat before they'd even started. Alexius would have been ashamed to hear his thoughts. The only people who contemplate the consequences of failure are people destined to fail, Alexius was wont to say. And despite his mentor's copious failures, he still took the advice to heart.

Chapter Text

A blotch of ink ruined the sentence Varric was writing, a dark puddle swallowing the text with spidery fingers. Growling in frustration, he rolled the paper into a ball and tossed it aside, grabbing a fresh sheet from the pile nearby and rewriting the sentences he had lost with flowing strokes of his quill. A shadow crossed the page, and he waited for it to pass, catching a glimpse of Anders and Cole in his peripheral vision. He looked up and frowned when he saw the eagerness on the kid’s face and the anxiety in Anders’ posture. Returning his attention to the paper, he cursed when he saw the droplet of ink that had fallen from his quill and again ruined the page.

Wadding the paper up, he threw it into the fireplace and watched it burn with satisfaction. Then he took a deep breath and tried again. He was just putting the finishing touches on the letter when a loud cry and a strange sound from the rotunda made his wrist jerk involuntarily, scrawling a long black mark over the page.

Sitting back in his chair, he attempted to calm his temper before rising from his seat and walking purposefully into Solas’ study. Anders and Solas stood there frowning at Cole while the kid stomped away in frustration and obvious distress.

“What was that noise?” Varric demanded. “What are you doing to the kid?”

“Stopping blood mages from binding me like the demons at Adamant,” Cole cried, throwing up his hands. “But it didn’t work.”

Regarding Cole thoughtfully, Solas observed, “Something is interfering with the enchantment.” The academic distance in his tone despite the obvious gravity of the situation pushed Varric’s already aggravated temper over the edge.

“Something like Cole not being a demon?” he asked with sarcasm dripping from his words. He might not be a mage or a scholar on the Fade, but even he knew that Cole wasn’t a demon. Unusual abilities aside, he had a hard time even remembering Cole was a spirit most days, the kid's naive questions and passionate displays of emotions making it easy to forget about the complexities of his nature.

“I never said he was a demon,” Solas snapped back. “But the fact remains—”

“A spirit is vulnerable to binding as well,” Anders finished in a reasonable tone, looking back and forth between them with a frown. This was the first Varric had heard of binding a spirit, but he supposed Anders would be the one to know considering his personal experience with such things. Not that it mattered. They were all overlooking the obvious.

“But he isn’t just a spirit, is he?” he demanded. “He has a name, a personality, memories of a past that a spirit simply couldn’t have…”

Shaking his head with force, Solas retorted, “Regardless of Cole’s special circumstances, he remains a spirit.”

“A spirit who is strangely like a person,” Varric insisted.

“I don’t matter,” Cole protested. “Just lock away the parts of me that someone else could knot together to make me follow.” But that only made Varric’s anger burn more hotly. He hated to hear anyone denounce their own worth; in his opinion, everyone mattered, especially the ones who thought they didn't.

“Focus on the amulet,” Solas instructed, approaching Cole cautiously. “Tell me what you feel.”

Canting his head to the side, Cole began to ramble in his unfocused way, words bursting from him with passionate force. The unnatural cadence of his speech made Varric uneasy. “Warm. Soft. Blanket covering. But it catches. Tears. I’m the wrong shape. There’s something…” He turned and pointed. “There. That way.”

“Of course there’s something missing.” Anders sighed. “Nothing ever works on the first try.”

Solas nodded as if he had expected this. “We’ll find whatever is preventing the amulet from working and we’ll make it right.”

“Will you come with me?” Cole asked, looking imploringly at them each in turn. “All of you?”

“Sure,” Varric answered gently, eager to get the kid out of the room so he could talk with the other two. “Now go to the War Room and work on the map to find out where exactly this thing is that’s causing the problem.” When the kid was gone, Varric turned a glare on Solas. “All right, I get it. You like spirits. But he came into this world to be a person. Let him be one.”

“This is not some fanciful story, child of the stone,” Solas said, brows furrowing. “We cannot change our nature by wishing.”

Varric turned when he heard Anders walking away. “And where do you think you’re going?”

“To get my staff,” Anders replied without looking back. "If we're traveling, I'll need it."

“However we deal with the problem,” Solas said firmly to Varric, “our next step is to track down whatever is interfering with the enchantment.”

Grumbling under his breath, Varric grabbed Bianca from her place next to the fireplace in the main hall and hurried after Anders.

“Blondie,” he said, tugging at Anders’ sleeve to slow him down. “What are you thinking? We can’t just bind the kid. It’s a horrible idea.”

Reluctantly slowing his steps, Anders looked down at him with a pained expression. “He begged us to do it. He’s worried that he’ll end up like the demons at Adamant if we don’t find a way to prevent it, and the only way I could calm him down was to agree.”

“No matter what Chuckles says, he isn’t just a spirit anymore. You know that, don’t you?”

Anders bit at his lower lip, but nodded.

“Even your pal, Justice, said as much,” Varric pointed out, wincing when he saw the way Anders stiffened at hearing the name. Patting Anders’ arm reassuringly, he apologized. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have brought him up, but I want to make sure you aren’t just letting Chuckles yank you around. He means well, but he has an unhealthy obsession with spirits.”

“Maybe. But Cole isn’t wrong. Allowing him to remain unbound could put him in danger. It could also make him a danger to all of us.”

Sighing, Varric adjusted Bianca on his back, absently running his fingers over her stock. “Do you know what binding would do to him?”

Anders hesitated before responding. “No.”

“And that’s what worries me. I like the kid, and I’d hate to see him change his nature because of nothing more than a potential threat.”

Nodding, Anders plucked his staff from its place beside the oversized throne at the end of the hall; Varric had yet to see him sit on the ridiculous piece of furniture despite Josephine’s pleas that he judge the criminals in their dungeon.

“There’s Cole already,” Anders said, gesturing to the door to Josephine’s office as it opened. “That didn’t take long.”

Their journey led them to Redcliffe. Varric made small talk along the way, focusing mostly on subjects he knew the elf would find irritating, but Cole was too distracted to participate in the conversation and Solas went to great lengths to ignore him. That left only Anders to carry on the discussion, and he was less than talkative. While Varric rarely ran out of things to say, he found himself struggling to keep up the conversation the closer they got to their destination, Cole’s obvious agitation causing him to often lose his train of thought mid-sentence. The village itself was eerily normal, smiling villagers going about their business while Cole darted around the town as if his pants were on fire. The rest of them had trouble keeping up when he took off, and by the time they finally caught up with him they saw him interrupting some people talking near the town square. A man approached him, but quickly began to retreat when Cole began shouting in a loud voice.

“You,” Cole cried, grasping the man’s lapel. “You killed me!”

Cowering before Cole, the man shook his head in confusion. “What? I don’t...I don’t even know you.’

“You forgot,” Cole continued, features twisted up in anger. “You locked me in the dungeon in the Spire and you forgot, and I died in the dark."

”The Spire?” the man mumbled. Varric caught the hint of recognition in his eyes before Solas shouted at Cole to stop.

“Just take it easy, kid,” Varric said as the man ran away, but Cole was too frenzied to be calmed.

“He killed me! He killed me! That’s why it doesn’t work. He killed me and I have to kill him back.”

“Cole,” Solas protested sharply, “this man cannot have killed you. You are a spirit. You have not even possessed a body.”

Turning in on himself, Cole wrung his hands. “A broken body. Bloody, banged on the stone cell, guts gripping in the dark, dank. A captured apostate. They threw him into the dungeon of the Spire at Val Royeaux. They forgot about him. He starved to death! I came though to help and I couldn’t. So I became him. Cole.” Cole’s eyes were wild and fierce when he looked up, his fingers clenching until his knuckles were white. “Let me kill him. I need to… I need to.”

“We cannot let Cole kill a man,” Solas said firmly.

Rolling his eyes, Varric replied, “I don’t think anyone was going to suggest that, Chuckles.” He glanced at Anders for support, only to find him gazing into the middle distance as if he were reliving a memory, his eyes nearly as wild as Cole’s. “Blondie?” he asked gently, realizing with a sinking feeling that Cole’s story about the Spire was painfully similar to Anders’ own stories about Ferelden’s circle.

Anders looked away, closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath. He was managing to hold himself together, but only barely. Either way, Varric was on his own in this argument.

Returning his attention to Solas, Varric said with as much restraint as he could manage, “The kid’s angry. He needs to work through it.”

“A spirit does not work through emotions. It embodies them.”

“But he isn’t entirely a spirit anymore. He made himself human. And humans change, they get hurt and they heal. He needs to work it out like a person.”

Solas’ eyes widened. “You would alter the essence of what he is.”

“He did that to himself when he left the Fade. I’m just helping him survive it.”

“Cole is a spirit,” the elf insisted. “The death of the real Cole wounded him, averted him from his purpose. To regain that part of himself, he must forgive.”

“Come on,” Varric scoffed. “You don’t just forgive someone killing you.”

"Cold and damp." Cole murmured, his voice suddenly full of concern rather than anger. “The walls contract in the darkness. Too close to breathe. Loneliness presses down like the layers of stone over my head. How long has it been? Have they forgotten me this time?”

Following the kid’s gaze back to Anders, Varric cursed. Breaths coming in short gasps, Anders had settled into a defensive crouch, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as if to ward off any outside contact. Approaching him with caution, Varric placed a hand on his shoulder. “Blondie,” he whispered. “Look at me.” But Anders only shook his head spasmodically and tucked his head more tightly against his chest.

"What's wrong with him?" Solas asked, looking openly concerned for the first time all day.

Glaring at him, Varric explained, "Panic attack. He spent a year confined in a cell at the bottom of Ferelden's tower. If the Templars had forgotten him like the ones in the Spire forgot Cole, he would have wound up just as dead."

"He can't forget," Cole said. "And he can't forgive."

"Maybe he can't," Solas said quietly. "He is, after all, only human. But you're a spirit of compassion, Cole. You can forgive anything. Come with me and I’ll show you."

Gritting his teeth, Varric watched Solas lead Cole away, realizing that in deciding to help Anders he had lost his chance to help Cole. "Deep breaths, Blondie," he whispered, rubbing circles over Anders' back and trying not to think about how this whole experience might irreparably change Cole. "You're safe. That's it. Just breathe."

Slowly Anders came back to himself, his hands clutching at Varric's coat as he drew the first full breath he'd taken in far too long. "What happened?" He whispered, looking up at Varric with wide eyes.

"You went away for a while," Varric said gently. "But everything's okay." It was hard to swallow past the lump in his throat.

"Cole..." Anders said, looking around frantically. "Where...?"

"Solas is with him," Varric replied without emotion. "He'll be fine."

Sympathy darkened Anders' eyes. "Varric."

"He'll be fine," he repeated, clearing his throat and turning away.

"I'm sorry."

Leaning back against a nearby fence, Varric shook his head. "Who knows? Maybe Chuckles has a point. Maybe it's better that the kid remembers what he really is rather than what he wants to be. Justice tried to be something he wasn’t, after all." He wasn’t sure if he really believed that philosophy, but saying the words out loud was at least a step toward accepting it.

Anders just looked at him, his expression unreadable. "You should go after them.”

"No." He crossed his arms over his chest and settled in to wait. "I'm fine right here."

Anders joined him reluctantly and they waited in silence, watching as the Templar who had let Cole die walked by as if nothing had happened. Finally Solas and Cole returned, the amulet on Cole's shirt glowing faintly.

"You all right, kid?" Varric asked, voice thick.

Cole smiled, and the expression wasn't quite as innocent as it had once been. "Yes. He's free. We're both free."

"It appears to be working," Solas said, lifting his chin as he looked at Varric. "Cole should be adequately protected."

Varric wanted to punch the smug look off the elf's face, but he knew that wouldn't get him anywhere.

"You're worried," Cole said quietly, looking at him with an unearthly gaze. "I sound like him sometimes. Nonsense words. Like Bartrand at the end. Just let me hear the song again. Just for a minute. But I'm all right, Varric."

Varric had forgotten to breathe for a moment, but a sudden pressure on his shoulder reminded him. He turned his head to see Anders' hand resting there.

"The memories hurt you,” Cole said kindly. “I can help you forget."

"No," Varric replied. "That pain is a part of who I am. I don't know who I'd be without it." Turning his back on the others before he said something he would regret, he added, "Come on. Let's get back to Skyhold."

Chapter Text

Josephine smiled when she saw the servant carrying a tea service into the room, fragrant steam wafting ahead of her with every step. Tea was one of the few indulgences she allowed herself while she was working, and while she would have preferred some rich Antivan coffee, she found that tea was less irritating to her nerves. Pouring out a cup for herself and Vivienne, Josephine drank in the aroma for a moment before continuing their conversation.

“What about Duchess Morreau?” she asked, reaching for the tongs to pluck a sugar cube from the neatly stacked pile. “Can we count on her support?”

“We can,” Vivienne replied, holding up a hand to decline Josephine’s offer of sugar. She should have expected the Iron Lady to prefer her tea black; milk and sugar dulled the intensity of the flavor, and Vivienne respected strength.

“I must admit that I didn’t think it would be possible to woo her to our side,” Josephine said, stirring a cube into her own cup. Raising her cup in a salute, she added, “Your influence with the court is unparalleled, Lady Vivienne.”

“Influence had very little to do with this particular victory. Knowledge was the key.” A smirk tugged at Vivienne’s lips. “I have heard from multiple sources that Morreau has some rather shocking tastes when it comes to bed partners.”

“They must be exotic if they can raise eyebrows even in Orlais.”

Nodding enigmatically, Vivienne sipped at her tea.

“You aren’t going to give me an explanation? My interest is piqued.”

“I would tell you, my dear, but then I would have to kill you. And then you might catch Duchess Morreau’s interest.”

Josephine coughed, placing her cup down on its saucer with a clatter.

Laughing richly, Vivienne began pouring herself another cup of tea. “Don’t you wish now that you had let it go?”

Shaking her head, Josephine sat back in her chair. “Just when you think you’ve heard everything.”

“Believe me, no matter how much you’ve heard, you’ve never heard everything.”

“You’re right, I suppose.” Lifting her cup just beneath her lips so that the steam obscured her expression, she regarded Vivienne thoughtfully. “We are fortunate to have someone on our side who has such wisdom and determination,” she observed gravely.

Vivienne inclined her head.

“Speaking of which, the Inquisitor asked me to relay his appreciation for your efforts on his behalf. I don't think he expected such generosity from you given your frequent differences in opinion."

Stiffening slightly, Vivienne replied, "If he thinks I'm doing this for him, then he is sorely mistaken. What I do, I do on behalf of the Inquisition."

"Oh, you needn't worry. I doubt he has any illusions about your motivations. He is simply grateful that you haven't let your disagreements with him get in the way."

"If I were that petty, I would never have made it a step beyond the circle. In fact, my difference in opinion only makes my argument in his favor that much more compelling.”

Josephine tilted her head thoughtfully. “And I imagine that the nearly insurmountable challenge of the task before us must be motivating as well.”

“I do adore a challenge,” Vivienne agreed. Finishing off her tea, she placed the cup delicately back on the saucer and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.

“I only hope our efforts will be enough to overcome it."

"Confidence, dear. Believe in the outcome you desire, and it is more likely to come to pass.” Vivienne rose to her feet, towering over Josephine’s desk like a slender tree that had just sprouted from the ground. “Now I’m off to woo the last noble on the list. I’ll see you in Halamshiral."

When she was gone, Josephine looked down at her clipboard and scanned the rest of her list to decide who to speak with next. She’d already run around the castle helping Sera with various pranks in order to secure her assistance, written letters to many of her contacts in both Ferelden and Orlais inviting them to the castle and revised the Inquisition’s contracts with various merchants and suppliers. The pieces were almost in place, and not a moment too soon. She didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

“Don’t you ever take a break, Josie?”

Smiling, Josephine looked up from her papers to see Leliana peering at her from the chair Vivienne had recently been occupying. She wasn’t surprised that she had failed to hear the rogue enter the room since no one ever heard Leliana unless she wanted to be heard. “Are you suggesting that you’re here on a break?”

Leliana’s eyes glimmered with humor. “Of course not. I’m here for our meeting. You did call us all to the War Room at noon, remember?”

Jaw falling open, Josephine said, “Is it that time already?”

“Nearly. I thought we could catch up before the others arrived.”

Sitting back in her chair, Josephine sipped at another cup of tea while Leliana ran through her updates. She had nearly reached the end of her own to do list, even after adding a few items along the way, but Josephine had come to expect her efficiency. She was relieved that Leliana shared only the relevant details of her efforts; she trusted her implicitly, but at times the former bard was willing to go farther than Josephine knew she ever could.

Leliana’s sense of timing was downright uncanny, and she wrapped up their conversation just before Anders walked through the door. “Coming?” she asked, standing up to follow Anders down the hall to the War Room.

“In a minute. I just need to finish up a letter.”

Josephine was pressing her seal into the wax when Cullen finally arrived, looking even more haggard than usual. She had been aware of his condition for some time, but she worried if he would be able to continue on much longer in such a state.

“Commander,” she greeted, reaching for her clipboard as she walked around her desk.

He rubbed a hand absently over the stubble on his jaw. “Ambassador.”

“Trouble sleeping again?” she asked lightly.

He nodded, a haunted look in his eyes.

“Maybe the Inquisitor…”

“I’m fine.” Studying the angle of the light in the hallway, he added, “Sorry I’m late.”

“It’s no trouble. I was running late as well.”

Leliana and Anders were laughing when they entered the War Room, and she saw Cullen go tense at the sound.

Unaware of the glare being focused on his back, Anders asked Leliana, “And then what did you do?”

Smiling coyly, Leliana replied, “Then...I told him exactly where he could put his staff.”

Anders laughed again, but he swallowed the sound and cleared his throat when he saw Cullen walking around the table.

Josephine shook her head. No matter how much time passed or how many shared experiences helped to break down the walls between them, Cullen and Anders were always prickly with each other at the beginning of a conversation. Taking her place at one end of the table, she waited until the others had shifted their attention to her before she began to speak.

“Thank you all for coming. As you’re well aware, the Empress’ peace talks are set to begin in just a few days. It’s time that we discuss our strategy for the ball.”

She decided not to go into detail about the alliances she had been putting in place, and Leliana similarly left the intricacies of her own maneuvers out of the discussion. If they had done their work correctly, then Anders’ secret would hardly make waves at the Winter Palace. It would be old news to most of the royal court by that point. Focusing instead on what they could expect at the ball, she described in detail the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major players in the Orlesian political landscape.

“The assassin must be hiding within one of these factions,” Leliana said when she had finished.  “They could be anyone--a servant, a guard, a trusted advisor. If the Empress dies, Orlais will fall into chaos and the rest of the world will soon follow. We must find them before they can make their move."

Cullen nodded in agreement. “The Venatori will wait to reveal Anders’ identity until they’re ready. They’re no doubt planning to use the ensuing chaos as a smoke screen.”

“Wait,” Anders interrupted. “I thought we were planning to tell the truth from the beginning. Are we really going to wait for our enemies to do it for us?”

Exchanging a look with Leliana, Josephine sighed. “We’ve already revealed the truth. The Venatori are counting on your identity being shocking, but it will not be a surprise to most of the nobles at the Winter Palace. The ones we are capable of convincing are already in on the secret and willing to continue supporting us. When the truth comes out, their loyalty will influence others.”

“This is Orlais,” Leliana chimed in. “Everyone who will be in that room has more than one secret, and they’ll be lying about all of them, even though half the people in the room will already know the truth. That’s how the Game is played.”

Anders shook his head. “You seem awfully confident, but what if you’re wrong? What if you haven’t won as many people over as you think?”

“Are you doubting our abilities?” Leliana asked, her voice like a shard of ice.

“We know what we’re doing,” Josephine said lightly to smooth things over. “This isn’t even the worst scandal I’ve managed to avert.”

Brows arching, Anders shook his head. “I’m not sure I want to know.”

“You don’t,” she replied with a taut smile.

“Regardless,” Cullen said sharply, “there is no point in revealing the truth ourselves. If we force the Venatori to act too quickly, we won’t have time to find the assassin before they strike. It will be impossible to maneuver once the court’s attention is focused on us."

Josephine nodded in approval. “Exactly.”

“I guess that’s why you’re the advisors and I’m the one with the target on my back,” Anders said with a sigh. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”

Cullen made a soft breathy sound that might have been a laugh, but Josephine couldn’t be sure. “That will be a first.”

Despite Anders’ annoyance, the rest of the meeting went smoothly and they accomplished everything on her list. Feeling satisfied, she checked off the last item on her clipboard and turned to follow Leliana to the door.

“We’re as ready as we can be, Josie.”

“Now I just have to figure out what to wear,” she replied in mock despair, and Leliana giggled. They both knew that their clothing had been finished and fitted days ago. Identifying the proper attire for the occasion had been near the top of her list.

Slipping out into the hall, she prevented the door from closing when she heard Cullen and Anders still talking. Curious, she tilted her head to listen through the crack.

“Time’s up,” Cullen was saying. “If I'm going to lead our forces through this business at the Winter Palace, I need to have a clear head."

"You will. One way or the other."

“You’ve found a solution?”

“Dorian did, actually.”

Cullen's clothing rustled as he shifted uneasily. "Dorian...?"

"When he figured out what I was doing, he asked to help. And it’s a good thing too since I might not have figured out a solution on my own."

A pause. “Is he…?”

“I can’t do this alone.”

“I see. What about Cassandra?”

“You want her there?”

“I do.”

“Fine.”

She gently allowed the door to click shut when she heard Anders turning away from the table. His voice was muffled now, but it was easier to hear as he approached the door. “...and meet me in my quarters in an hour.”

Smiling to herself, Josephine walked leisurely down the hall to avoid looking as if she’d been eavesdropping. What she wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall of the Inquisitor’s quarters for the rest of the evening. Getting any of the details from Cassandra would be nearly impossible, and the other two weren’t likely to share anything either. But Dorian could be persuaded. She just needed the right approach.

Chapter Text

Cullen’s hand felt so clammy that he could hardly turn the handle on the door to the tower. He didn’t know whether to blame his withdrawal or his nerves, but either way he was irritated by the weakness. The stairs to the Inquisitor’s quarters felt endless, his muscles spasming with exhaustion by the time he reached the top, but he knew it couldn't be due to a lack of conditioning. Even on his worst days, he hadn’t stopped sparring with his troops. Perhaps it was only reluctance. As much as he was ready for the pain to be over, he wasn’t sure he was ready to put his well-being entirely in Anders’ hands.

Anders and Dorian were standing on the far side of the bed when he arrived, organizing various magical implements and talking in anxious tones. Several bottles were aligned on a table beside them, including a pair of luminous blue vials that made his mouth go dry with need, a bright rosy bottle he recognized as magebane—enough to completely drain a mage’s mana for hours—as well as several other potions he couldn’t identify. Considering the goal of this procedure, he was surprised to see the lyrium, but perhaps Anders and Dorian expected to need a supplement for their mana at some point. The magebane baffled him completely.

Cassandra stood near one of the balconies, arms crossed over her chest as she frowned at the other two. The severity of her expression softened when she saw Cullen enter the room. “Are you ready for this?” she asked when he came closer.

“I’m not sure. But I’m definitely ready for it to be over.”

She smiled faintly, then glanced at the mages. Anders was placing a large rune-inscribed stone on a metal stand, adjusting it to be within reach of the bed. Now that he was closer, Cullen could see a number of magical and medical implements arranged on the table next to the bottles. He recognized a few of them from lessons he had taken in field medicine when he was with the templars, but most of them were a mystery.

Licking his thumb, Dorian flipped a few pages in the book he was holding, inspected the items on the table and then nodded down at the book before snapping it shut. “That should be everything.”

“Now all we need is our patient,” Anders said wryly, but smiled when he saw Cullen standing beside Cassandra. “You made it. I was starting to think you’d changed your mind.”

“Not yet,” Cullen replied, warily eyeing the objects arrayed around the bed. Shivering, he rubbed his bare hands over his arms, feeling naked without his armor. “But I want some answers before we get started.”

Dorian glanced at Anders with worry in his eyes, but Anders nodded. “Of course.”

“I want to know exactly what you’re planning to do.”

“You mean, aside from healing your addiction?” Dorian asked dryly.

“I mean, what are you going to do, specifically?”

Worrying at his lower lip, Anders shook his head. “I’m not sure if it would make much sense to someone who isn’t a mage…”

“Just answer his question,” Cassandra said impatiently. “He has a right to know.”

“Fine. We’re going to burn all the lyrium out of your blood,” Anders said, wincing when he heard Cassandra’s scoff of disgust.

“I haven’t taken any lyrium in months,” Cullen reminded him. “How much could possibly be left at this point?"

“Enough to cause problems.”

“That’s hardly an explanation,” Cassandra observed crisply.

Coming to Anders’ rescue, Dorian explained, “It may sound strange, but it’s the best solution we could find. We started out by researching everyone who has an immunity to lyrium. We wanted to understand why some people are able to handle exposure without becoming addicted. Dwarves were an obvious starting place, but researching their physiology was little help since their immunity comes from a quirk of their metabolism. Mages, on the other hand, generally don’t suffer ill effects from lyrium unless we take too much, but we have the same physical characteristics of non-mages. So where does our immunity come from?

He began to pace around the bed, gesturing emphatically as he continued. “Templars use lyrium to fuel their abilities, and they must have a certain level of it in their system at all times in order to maintain them. Mages use lyrium differently. We use mana from our own bodies to fuel our magic, and when it runs dry we supplement it with lyrium. We don’t get addicted because the lyrium is never in our systems long enough. Even when some gets left behind, it eventually gets used up—burned away—the next time we use magic.”

“I don’t understand,” Cullen said sharply. “What does any of this have to do with why you think there’s still lyrium in my system?”

Drawing a deep breath, Anders glanced at Dorian and licked his lips as if to delay his explanation as long as possible, “Have you heard Dagna’s theory about red lyrium?”

Cullen was quickly losing confidence in their supposed cure. “No.”

“She believes it is alive.”

Cassandra scoffed again. “That’s ridiculous.”

“Is it?” Dorian asked. “We’ve found enough evidence to prove that it is grown rather than simply found. And we’ve seen how it can change people over time, how it changes them from the inside out.”

Shivering involuntarily at the thought, Cullen shook his head. “Even if that’s true, I’ve never taken red lyrium.”

“Perhaps not," Anders replied. "But many scholars think the same thing about the regular sort of lyrium. Dwarves use it to store memories and spirits can hear it sing.”

“What are you saying? That whatever lyrium is left in my body… It’s growing?”

Anders gave him an apologetic look. “Exactly.”

Exchanging an exasperated glance with Cassandra, Cullen shook his head and walked toward the nearest balcony to get some air.

“It can multiply over time,” Dorian said, elaborating on Anders’ blunt explanation, “but never enough to restore you to the levels needed to prevent withdrawal. That’s why your symptoms keep getting worse. The remnants of lyrium are keeping your addiction alive and preventing you from fully recovering.”

That actually made some sense, but Cullen wasn’t willing to admit it just yet. “If that’s true, how do you intend to stop it? How can you possibly find every scrap of lyrium left in my body?”

“We can’t,” Anders admitted, and his tone was so abashed that Cullen turned to see if his expression matched. It didn't. “But we are mages. Our bodies can consume lyrium to create magic. All we have to do is use the lyrium inside of you as the source instead of our own mana.” He gestured to the runed stone he’d been holding before. “I had Dagna make that rune to collect the magic that is produced.” A smile crossed his lips. “It seemed a safer solution than accidentally setting the room on fire.”

Cullen sighed. Glancing at Cassandra, he asked, “What do you think?”

She shook her head. “I don't like it.” She sighed deeply. “But I don't see a better alternative."

“Neither do I." Returning his attention to the mages, he asked, "Where do you want me?” He asked in resignation.

Chuckling, Dorian smirked at him. “The bed, of course.” Sitting down and patting the covers beside him, he added, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right beside you the whole time.”

“That isn’t as reassuring as you seem to think it is,” Cullen muttered, sitting down on the edge of the bed with his back to Dorian. Anders handed him a dull orange bottle. “What is this?” he asked, sniffing at the potion but unable to identify any of the ingredients.

“Something to help you relax.”

The mixture tasted worse than it smelled, and a tingling sensation raced along his nerve endings as soon as he’d swallowed the last drop. Smacking his tongue against the roof of his mouth to remove the cloying flavor, he felt the potion already beginning to take effect as he watched Anders kneel down to remove his boots, long fingers deftly untangling laces. The gesture seemed strangely intimate, and Cullen felt a blush warming his cheeks before Anders was done. Hoping his fever would hide his embarrassment, he turned to orient himself on the bed and tried to ignore the fact that Dorian was doing the same beside him.

Anders reached for his left arm and lifted it, brushing fingertips over his wrist with a spark of magic, then used a similar burst of magic on a needle attached to a thin tube. “This will sting a bit,” he said, meeting Cullen’s eye before proceeding.

Feeling drowsy, Cullen lifted his head to get a better look at what he was doing. “What is that for?”

“To give me access to the lyrium in your blood,” Dorian replied, lifting the bottle of magebane in a little salute. “Bottoms up.” He drank all the liquid down in one draught, the blood draining from his face as he swallowed; Cullen knew that the poison could be painful for mages, but he'd never given it much thought before. Shaking his head spasmodically, Dorian wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand and gave the empty bottle to Cassandra. “Nasty stuff.”

“I would have traded places with you…” Anders began, but Dorian interrupted.

“If I were a better at creation magic, I know. This was my idea, remember?” Glancing at Cullen as he stretched out on the bed beside him, Dorian smirked. “We’re about to become blood brothers. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Thrilling.” Cullen squeezed his eyes shut when he felt the sharp pinch of pain at his wrist. When it was over, he looked down to see the tube connecting his arm to Dorian’s in a line of red.

“Just keep breathing,” Anders advised, patting his shoulder. “Cassandra, would you mind helping Dorian reach that stone?”

Cullen listened to the echoes as Cassandra adjusted the metal stand, startling when he felt a touch against his feet. Lifting his head off the pillow, he looked down to see Anders tying loops of fabric around his ankles.

“Kinky, isn't it?” Dorian commented, arching a suggestive brow.

Cullen frowned at him, but then Anders explained.

“I need you to stay as still as you can.” Anders said in a calm, clinical tone. “This will be delicate work, and any sudden movements could cause complications. I have no idea what it will be like for you, but I suspect it will be unpleasant."

Nodding in resignation, Cullen felt the room swim around him with the motion. “I expected as much.”

“Can I do anything?” Cassandra asked.

"I don't know yet. I might need your help holding him down if he reacts badly. Just be ready for anything.” Taking a deep breath, he looked at each of them in turn. "Is everyone ready? Then let’s get started. Dorian?"

Cullen had thought that after months of nearly constant pain he had surely managed to increase his tolerance, but the wracking agony that ripped through him the moment the process began was almost enough to make him scream. Struggling to hold himself still, he bit at the inside of his cheek to remain silent and clenched at the covers beneath him. Light flared in the rune as bright as lightning, and Cullen had to squint to see past the violent flashes of light. The pain was traveling through his body now, moving from one area of focus to the next and leaving a raw tingling sensation in every place it had been. Distantly, he felt Anders pressing a hand against his forehead and the torture lessened enough for him to breathe again.

The procedure seemed to last for hours, but finally the rune flared with one last burst of light and another sudden shock of pain hit him so abruptly that he couldn't hold back a cry. He must have lost consciousness briefly, because when he opened his eyes again, the tube connected to his wrist was gone and Dorian was sitting up, looking down at the now glowing rune with a thoughtful expression.

Leaning over Cullen, Anders ghosted glowing fingers over his body in inspection. “How are you feeling?” he asked when he saw that he was awake.

"Empty," Cullen replied hoarsely.

“I know the feeling,” Dorian muttered. “I forgot how much I hate magebane.”

“I’m surprised you’ve ever experienced it before,” Cassandra said. “Surely the stuff is illegal in Tevinter.”

Dorian chuckled. “In a country full of mages, there must be some way of leveling the playing field, and the lesser nobles have never been above using such techniques in order to compete.”

Their words sounded strange in Cullen’s ears, warped and far away. Blinking up at the ceiling through blurred vision, he felt a wave of nausea wash over him and grasped urgently at Anders’ wrist. “I’m going to be sick.”

Anders’ eyes widened in surprise, but he darted into a side room for a bucket and helped Cullen bow over it before he lost control. He hadn’t had much to eat all day so all that was left in his stomach was bile, but that didn’t stop his body from doing its best to eject it. Retching painfully over the bucket, Cullen heard the others talking but couldn’t understand the words over the rushing of blood in his ears. Shuddering when the nausea eased, he let Anders take the bucket away and stared down at his feet, trying to focus on his breathing in order to ignore his lingering queasiness. When Anders returned, he felt a cool touch against the back of his neck. A soothing sensation spread out from that point of contact and helped to settle his stomach, but his head was still pounding with a headache that wouldn’t go away.

“Your withdrawal is intensifying now that the lyrium is entirely gone,” Anders said softly, but Cullen felt so oversensitive that it seemed as if he’d shouted the words. “The good news is that once you get through this, your symptoms should start improving.”

“That doesn’t feel like very good news right now,” Cullen said weakly.

“I know.” Cupping a hand under his chin, Anders tilted his head, frowning as he examined Cullen’s eyes. “But it will get better.”

“Where’s everyone else?” Cullen asked, eyes rolling as he tried to look around the room.

Releasing his chin, Anders sighed. “Fetching a tub and some water.”

A dry laugh rasped against Cullen’s throat. “Is this really the time for a bath?”

“An ice bath will help lower your core temperature.” Anders reached for the hem of his shirt, but Cullen clutched at his wrist to stop him. Expression taut with frustration, Anders met his eyes and said gravely, “Your fever is dangerously high. It could kill you if I can’t bring it down.”

“Can’t you do that with magic?”

“I’ve tried. But it isn’t enough.”

A sharp pang of fear took Cullen’s voice away and he let go of Anders’ wrist, allowing him to pull his shirt over his head.

Drifting in and out of awareness, he heard the others return, heard a clatter and splash and felt hands tugging him somewhere, every touch like ice against his skin. Shivering, he felt himself being stripped and then lifted. Water flooded in around him and he panicked. He was at sea, drowning, but strong arms caught him and held him tight, kept him above the waves. And then the water turned to lava, rivers of molten rock like in the deep roads, and he was floating along them, slowly burning from the inside out.

Chapter Text

Anders woke feeling so blissfully warm and comfortable that he didn't want to move. Sunlight pierced his eyelids, but he snuggled his face deeper into the pillow to hide from it. As soon as he moved, a sleepy sigh blew across his ear and he stiffened, feeling the covers shift and tighten around his waist while warm breath tickled against the nape of his neck.

His immediate thought was, “What did I get myself into this time?” even though it had been years since he had woken up in bed with someone without any memory of how he had gotten there or who he was with. But old habits died hard. Pulse racing, he reminded himself that the first step was to figure out where he was. His eyes opened to reveal his quarters painted in the golden hues of morning with no sign of discarded clothing or bottles of alcohol. A glance down reassured him that he was still fully clothed and he was lying on top of the bed. No serious indiscretions to worry about then.

The next step was to figure out who was snoring softly in his ear. Despite his position on top of the covers, layers of blanket were wrapped around him, held in place by a pale, but brawny arm. Attempting to turn as much as he could within the strong embrace, he caught a glimpse of curly blond hair and nearly cried out in surprise. Cullen. While he was still frozen in shock, the commander made an adorably vulnerable little noise and shifted again in his sleep, his stubbled chin rubbing possessively against Anders’ shoulder.

Lying there trying to think platonic thoughts, Anders suddenly remembered what Cullen was doing in his bed. He had attempted to heal Cullen's lyrium addiction the night before. While the attempt appeared to be successful, he hadn’t anticipated the fact that Cullen's withdrawal would worsen as soon as the lyrium was completely eliminated from his body. With Dorian and Cassandra's help, Anders had spent most of the night trying to bring down Cullen's dangerously high fever. After the healing itself, and hours of trying to help Cullen survive the ordeal while he fought them at every turn, they had all been utterly exhausted.

Dorian had crumbled first, worn out from doing most of the work during Cullen's healing and unable to supplement Anders' magic with the magebane still suppressing his mana. Anders had sent him home despite his protests. Drawing on the lyrium from Cullen's body without causing any permanent damage had been painstaking work, requiring a level of control Anders wasn't sure he could have managed. Healing came naturally to him, but maintaining such fine control over destructive magic for any length of time would have worn him out completely. There was a reason he preferred fireballs and large scale area attacks. But Dorian had completed the procedure swiftly and efficiently and not left much damage for Anders to heal when he was done. It was no wonder the process had left him almost as tired as Cullen.

Cassandra had been in almost as bad a state. Although she hadn't contributed any magical support, she had borne the brunt of Cullen's feverish outbursts. Even in his weakened condition Cullen was strong, and she had to fight to keep him calm while Anders focused on keeping him alive. When Cullen's fever had finally broken, Anders had tried to send her home as well, but she refused to leave, collapsing on the couch to rest while Anders sat down on the bed to keep watch over his patient. At some point he must have fallen asleep as well.

And now Cullen was cuddling him like a favorite toy. Despite his reaction when Dorian commented on the tension between them, Anders had to admit that his feelings for Cullen were not as simple as he had made them seem. He had hardly needed Dorian’s help to notice that Cullen was handsome in a wholesome sort of way, or that he was charmingly authentic and honorable to a fault. He had noticed these qualities but had never spent much time contemplating them because until recently he’d never had the luxury of considering Cullen anything but a threat. Back in the circle, Cullen had been one of Anders’ jailers, and even though he had never abused his power, he had been too dangerous to be trusted. In Kirkwall he had been even worse: a Templar under Meredith's thumb who already knew Anders was an apostate and could have captured him at the slightest provocation. Anders still wasn't sure why Cullen never did so—he had certainly done enough to provoke the chantry over the years—but perhaps he could thank his association with Hawke for the unspoken protection it provided.

But things were different now. They were allies. They had formed an uneasy truce that was starting to look an awful lot like friendship, one that could be trusted far enough for Cullen to willingly put his life in Anders’ hands. But Cullen was distrustful by nature—especially of Anders—and if he woke up in these circumstances, all the trust they’d built would be gone. Anders didn’t doubt what he had told Dorian about Cullen’s likely preferences, and he had known enough men like Cullen to guess how he would respond to anything that raised questions about his sexuality. He would be mortified. And despite the fact that Anders had recently gone to so much trouble to heal him, Cullen would likely place the blame solely on him. He would say that Anders had tried to seduce him in his sleep or some other such nonsense.

The only way out was for Anders to extricate himself from the situation before anyone woke up to witness it. Taking a deep breath, he shifted slowly and attempted to turn onto his back so that he could slide out from beneath Cullen’s arm. The maneuver was woefully unsuccessful. Cullen’s hand slid down over his waist and landed on the slice of exposed skin where his shirt had lifted above his trousers. On top of that, they had been nestled so close that when Anders turned, Cullen rolled halfway on top of him, his head landing on Anders’ shoulder and his weight pinning Anders down to the bed. Anders grimaced when he felt an obvious hardness pressing against his thigh. This was bad. Anders was destined to be the rude awakening from Cullen's pleasant dream unless he could find a way off the bed quickly. Staring up at the ceiling, he considered his next move, but his mind was still too foggy with exhaustion to come up with an easy escape.

The soft sounds Cullen kept making weren’t helping. “Mmm,” he hummed against Anders’ collarbone. “Smell so good. Elfroot. And lyrium.”

Anders froze, hoping that the incoherency of Cullen’s mumbling meant he wasn’t entirely awake.

Then Cullen pressed a sloppy kiss against the base of Anders’ neck and despite the lack of technique, it still felt nice enough for Anders to moan breathily. He was frozen in shock for a moment afterward, then panic caused him to react like a startled cat, twisting as he attempted to scramble away from Cullen’s touch. He didn't get far before Cullen was tugging him back. “Don’t go,” he murmured between nips at Anders' throat. “Solona.”

Anders’ eyes widened in surprise. He remembered the feisty mage from Ferelden’s tower—well enough to know that she had rarely bothered to wear underwear—and he’d never suspected that Cullen had a thing for her, although it shouldn’t have been a surprise considering she had been nearly as flirtatious as Anders was back then. He wondered if Cullen had only ever fantasized about Solona or if he’d been wrong about his assumption that Cullen would never fraternize with a mage; either way, all of his feverish flashbacks about life in the tower must have brought her to mind again. And into a wet dream.

Then Cullen's lips brushed against Anders' stubbled chin and he pulled away with a gasp. Eyes snapping open, his brown irises focused on Anders in horror, and Anders closed his own eyes with a cringe.

Cullen was gone so quickly that Anders shivered from the sudden chill. Sitting up and deciding that the only way forward was to pretend that nothing had happened, Anders slid off the bed and walked to the nearest balcony to get some fresh air, noticing along the way that Cassandra was still curled up on the couch with her back to the room, hopefully still asleep. He stood there looking out at the snowy mountaintops until his pulse returned to normal, and when he walked back into the room, he found Cullen leaning weakly against the bed and attempting to pull his shirt over his head.

Sighing, Anders walked around the bed to help him, but as soon as his hands made contact, Cullen lowered his arms and scowled as if Anders had assaulted him. Lifting his hands palm out, Anders took a step away and shook his head. “How are you feeling?” he asked, looking away.

Cullen managed to pull the shirt over his head and then let his arms drop wearily to his sides. “Better,” he admitted begrudgingly. “The best I’ve felt in months, actually. No pain at all.”

“Are you hungry?” Cullen’s stomach answered him with a loud growl, and Anders walked over to his desk and scrounged around for a scrap of food. Tossing him an apple he found amongst the books and papers, he was pleased to see that Cullen's reflexes were back to normal since he effortlessly caught the fruit in mid-air.

Cassandra was stirring on the couch now, and Anders released a breath in relief. Leaning back against the desk, he watched as she sat up sleepily and turned to smile at Cullen. “You’re awake,” she said in wonder.

Cullen nodded, so ravenous that he was eating the apple core and all.

“I’m afraid I don't keep much food on hand,” Anders said, pushing away from the desk. “I’ll run down to the kitchens and fetch some breakfast.”

“I can do it,” Cassandra said with a stretch and a yawn.

“You did enough errand running last night,” he insisted. “Just stay here and make sure he doesn’t stumble off a balcony or something.”

He felt the weight of Cullen’s gaze on his back as he walked to the door, but he resisted the urge to look back.

The kitchens were bustling when he entered, and he nearly collided with a serving girl carrying a tray of fruit. "Sorry ser!" she cried, slipping through the door before he could reply. The other servers disappeared just as quickly, carrying various items to all corners of the castle. Deciding he would have to gather what he could find himself, he collected a remnant of bread and began nibbling on it while he searched for more food.

"I did it!" Cole exclaimed, bursting through the door and grinning at Varric as he followed.

"That's it, kid," Varric said. "See? That's how you put honey in Leliana's wine without anyone noticing. No need for any disappearing tricks or anything. Just good, old fashioned stealth."

Anders smiled, relieved to see the two of them getting along again. He'd had a feeling that Varric would find a way to reconnect with Cole despite the ways he had changed.

"Blondie!” Varric said when he turned and saw him. “What are you doing down here?"

"Stealing all my food, it looks like," grumbled an old woman who appeared through another door. Anders recognized her as the head cook. Her rheumy eyes widened when she got close enough to focus on him. "Oh! Inquisitor! I didn't realize it was you. Is there anything I can get you?" She slapped the bread out of his hand. "Day old bread? That won't do. Here. These rolls were baked fresh this morning."

Anders took a roll cautiously. "Thanks. Would you mind sending breakfast for two up to my quarters?"

"Of course ser! Right away."

As she scurried off with surprising speed for a woman of her age, Varric sidled over to him with a wicked grin while Cole watched them both with owl eyes. "So, breakfast for two, eh, Blondie? I take it you had some company last night?"

Anders smiled wryly, thinking of his frustrating awakening. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"I would, actually. Who is waiting up there for that breakfast in bed? Is it Sparkler? After the way he and Tiny have been carrying on lately, I figured you'd missed your chance."

"Dorian and Iron Bull are...?" Anders felt a bittersweet pang in his chest. "Huh. Good for them."

Varric leaned an elbow on the table beside him. "I take that to mean it isn't Sparkler, then?"

"No."

"Then who is it? You haven’t shown a lot of interest in anyone else." Varric scowled suddenly. "Surely it isn’t the Seeker. I know she's been harboring a crush for a while, but she seems like the type who would require a long, complicated courtship."

Eyes widening, Anders shook his head at Varric. "Cassandra...has a crush...?"

"You hadn't noticed, had you?" Varric rolled his eyes. "I didn't think so with the way you keep innocently leading her on."

Anders thought back to all of his conversations with Cassandra and suddenly saw what he had been missing: that little smile and blush he occasionally caught softening her severe features, the longing look in her eyes that he had mistaken for wariness. Varric was right. He doubted she would ever act on her feelings without confirmation that he returned them, but she definitely had a crush. Slapping his forehead with a groan, he wondered how he could let her down gracefully at this point. He had too much respect for her to allow her infatuation to continue unchecked, but as much as he cared for her in general, he simply wasn't attracted to her in that way.

"If it isn't her either, then who else?" Varric asked, without really expecting an answer. "Some random recruit? That bard from the tavern? Not Nightingale, surely. I know you two are friendly, but that would just be playing with fire."

Still reeling from the revelation about Cassandra, Anders decided a little revenge was in order. "You aren't even close, but I'll give you a hint: neither of the breakfasts I requested were for me."

Varric laughed lewdly. "You dirty dog. You have two lovers up there waiting for you? You don't do anything by halves, do you?"

"Warm lips against skin," Cole said suddenly, "the drag of calloused fingertips. He calls out the wrong name. Please don't wake up."

Shifting uncomfortably at the description, Anders looked away with a frown.

Varric raised a brow. "Huh. Either you're even kinkier than I imagined, or things didn't go entirely to plan."

"There was no plan," Anders replied with a sigh. "And there is no lascivious story to tell. Just a misunderstanding."

His other eyebrow lifting to match the first, Varric said, "It sounds a little lascivious to me."

"Only out of context."

"So, are you going to give it some context?"

Anders swallowed hard. "No."

Shaking his head, Varric laughed. "You know I'll find out on my own eventually."

"I imagine you will. But do me a favor and keep it to yourself when you do."

"Sure. If that's what you want." Varric's expression sobered. "You okay, Blondie?"

"I'm fine." Nodding at him, Anders took a bite out of the roll the cook had given him and turned to leave, hoping to escape Varric's scrutiny before he put any of the pieces together. "I'd better check in with Josephine before she sends someone to find me. She wanted to go over some arrangements for Halamshiral today. See you later."

Varric held his tongue, but Anders could feel his eyes watching him until he was out of sight.

Chapter Text

The masquerade was well under way when the Inquisition arrived, but Josephine assured them that they were merely fashionably late to the party. Cassandra didn’t like it, walking through the gates of the Winter Palace with a glittering crowd of nobles present to witness their entrance, all those critical eyes watching and judging from behind their masks. It was like walking into a cage filled with hungry animals, coldly calculating gazes weighing them each for weakness and trying to pick the most vulnerable member of their entourage to attack first. Cassandra was determined not to be the weakest link, so she squared her shoulders and met the prying eyes with bold indifference.

“You’re trying too hard,” Josephine murmured as she passed on her way to Anders’ side. “Try for a more casual posture. Smile a little.”

This advice inspired the opposite expression, and Cassandra felt a frown scoring her face as she watched Josephine float ahead of her, walking lightly in her expensive boots. Tugging at her collar, Cassandra shifted uncomfortably in her fitted coat and tried to force her shoulders to relax; she knew the fit of the jacket was perfect—the tailor had checked it more than once—but it still felt too tight.

Josephine, now leaning toward Anders with her hand tucked into his elbow, said in a soft tone that Cassandra’s sharp hearing still managed to pick up. “That’s him over there. Grand Duke Gaspard de Chalons.”

Cassandra followed her gaze to the man standing near the fountain. Battle-hardened and extraordinarily fit for his age, Gaspard’s finery looked about as appropriate on him as a dress on a wolf. Cassandra still couldn’t understand how arriving at the ball with the man trying to wrest the throne from Celene was going to endear them to the Empress, but she wasn’t the political savant. She didn't even understand why they were trying to save the Empress at all when Gaspard was clearly the leader they needed right now.

“Just remember what I told you,” Josephine said to Anders. “He appreciates honesty and confidence.”

“I remember,” Anders replied, sounding far more at ease than Cassandra felt. Pulling away from Josephine, he approached Gaspard with measured steps, and Cassandra was surprised by how well the dress uniform complemented his lean frame; he wore the restrictive clothing naturally and seemed to be far more at home among the nobility than she would have expected. It was difficult to tell whether that was due to his talent for adaptability or Josephine's coaching, but either way, his gallant bow and confident bearing seemed to please the duke.

Greeting him with a nod and a knowing smirk, Gaspard said, “It is a great privilege to meet you, Inquisitor Trevelyan ,” he said, eyes twinkling behind his mask as he emphasized the name. He had obviously been informed of Anders' identity. “The rumors coming out of the Western Approach say you battled an army of demons."

“As well as a few possessed Grey Wardens, but who’s keeping track?”

“Everyone, I’m afraid." Gaspard spread his hands to indicate the crowd around them. "Luckily for you, the score is in your favor.”

Anders smiled wryly. “For now. But it would be unwise to get too comfortable.”

“Perhaps what you need is stronger allies. Imagine what your Inquisition could accomplish with the full support of the rightful Emperor of Orlais.”

Still smiling, Anders shook his head in amazement. “You don’t mince words, do you? We’ve hardly exchanged introductions and you’re already suggesting an alliance.”

“Our introduction is a mere formality,” Gaspard tilted his head and regarded Anders with an appraising expression. “I've already learned enough about you to know that we have a great deal in common. We are both men of action capable of recognizing the need for change and willing to do what is necessary to accomplish it.” Struggling to suppress her snort of amusement at the positive spin the duke had put on the mage rebellion, Cassandra shifted her attention to the rest of their group.

Standing silently at her elbow, Solas surveyed the crowd with an amused expression, surprisingly relaxed considering the hostility of most Orlesians toward elves who dared to step outside their station. Varric stood anxiously beside him, eyeing the crowd with a wariness that surprised her. She would have expected someone with Varric’s arrogance and charm to feel at home in such an atmosphere, but he looked almost as jumpy as she felt. Sera looked jumpy as well, but with excitement rather than anxiety. Marveling again at Josephine’s decision to bring the prankster with them to the palace despite the damage she was likely to do to the Inquisition’s reputation, Cassandra watched Sera shift lightly from foot to foot and giggle rather obviously at the crowd; perhaps Josephine was counting on her pranks being a good distraction from their other activities.

A silent presence behind her, Blackwall stood with military precision, his back stiff and straight. The Iron Bull looked like a common thug next to him, slouching in a deceptively relaxed posture that she knew from experience could be turned to violence at a moment’s notice. Dorian stood in front of him, seemingly comfortable with the qunari at his back. He leaned toward Vivienne to murmur something in her ear and the enchantress actually smiled in response and laughed, her eyes every bit as predatory as the ones peering out from behind the masks in the crowd. Near the front of the group, Leliana and Josephine were watching the crowd no less carefully, aligning themselves strategically just behind Anders.

Cassandra saw no sign of Cole at all, though she knew he had been with them just a moment ago. Shaking her head, she turned to Cullen to ask if he’d seen the spirit and hesitated when she saw the queasy expression on his face. Although his condition had improved greatly, he was still far from fully recovered.

“Another headache?” she asked quietly.

He glanced at her with a wry glint in his eyes. “No. Although I suspect I’ll have one before the night is over. Just looking at all these simpering nobles makes my skin crawl.” Shifting his shoulders uncomfortably, he added, “And my jacket is too tight. I tried to tell the tailor, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Smiling in understanding, Cassandra said, “It’s very flattering on you.”

“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better. Do you see those ladies over there?” He nodded at a group of giggling women. “They’re drooling at me like I’m a piece of meat.”

Cassandra sighed, noticing a gentleman standing next to the women who inclined his head rather suggestively at her. She glared at the man until he turned away with a frown. “Then don’t act like a good meal,” she suggested, “and they’ll lose their appetite.”

He laughed and looked at her curiously. “I’m not sure I want to know exactly what you mean by that. I also doubt I could get away with such behavior. I’ve been instructed that my primary role this evening is to…” He cleared his throat and then finished with distaste, “To stand around and look pretty.”

Cassandra hid a grin behind a hand, her gaze inevitably drifting back toward the Inquisitor who was already doing a rather good job of the latter himself. Cleanly shaven with his hair slicked back into a tight knot at the nape of his neck, Anders looked more handsome than she had ever seen him, and even the hoop glinting from his ear every time he turned his head could do nothing to detract from his looks. Cullen’s scoff drew her attention back to him. “What?” she asked bluntly.

“Nothing.”

Cullen had never had much patience for Anders, but his behavior around the mage had become increasingly irritable over the last several days. She would have expected his feelings to have softened after Anders had gone to such lengths to heal his addiction, but the opposite seemed to be true. Knowing Cullen, she suspected that his reaction was partially a manifestation of embarrassment; he hated having to rely on anyone, and the entire healing process had made him as vulnerable as she had ever seen him. He resented Anders for seeing him in such a state, and the fact that he owed the man his health—perhaps even his life—only increased that resentment.

Gaspard’s laugh drew her attention back to the duke’s conversation with Anders. “I knew that we would get along splendidly, Inquisitor. Who would have imagined? The man who struck the first blow of the mage rebellion and the hateful usurper of Orlais.”

Anders smiled tightly. “Yes. We make quite the pair.”

“Indeed. But we’ve kept the court waiting long enough. Shall we?”

“After you.”

Drawing an anxious breath, Cassandra followed them up the grand staircase, focusing carefully on each step.

She heard Josephine murmuring to Leliana under her breath as they climbed. “He’s doing well. So far, at least.”

“Stop worrying, Josie. Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance—and I don’t intend for us to fail this evening. Do you?”

“No, of course not.”

Cassandra made it nearly to the top of the staircase before she tripped over her own feet, so preoccupied with the eyes watching her every move that she missed the last step. Catching her arm instinctively, Cullen righted her with a little smile. Flushing in embarrassment, she nodded at him gratefully.

“Watch your step,” Cullen said gently. “I suspect there are many more ahead of us.”

She nodded. “You're probably right."

He was proven right even sooner than she'd expected. They had another staircase to climb as soon as they stepped inside the Winter Palace, and another to descend when they reached the ballroom. The second flight was the worst since she had to navigate the stairs while a herald was announcing her to the court, all eyes in the room fixed on her as she took each careful step. She made it to the bottom without tripping and up the other side with only a little awkwardness in her gait. She felt like a chicken on display, walking stiff-legged and unnaturally across the shimmering dance floor, trying and failing to take slow, regal steps as Josephine and Leliana had before her. The pair of women had practically floated across the room without touching the ground, every movement fluid and effortless.

Gaspard and Anders paused on the landing just below the Empress to exchange pleasantries, and Cassandra hoped she wouldn't be expected to say anything. Gaspard handled the greeting poorly, speaking abruptly to Celene before giving her cursory bow and disappearing back into the crowd. Compared to him, Anders was handling the situation like an experienced courtier.

"We have heard much of your exploits, Inquisition," Celene said with expressive sweeps of her hands. "They have made grand tales for long evenings. How do you find Halamshiral?"

"It's like walking into a dream." He cleared his throat and Cassandra smiled, realizing he was referring to their trip through the Fade; Halamshiral was as deceptively beautiful and likely no less dangerous. "If this is how Orlais handles peace talks, I can't imagine what your parties are like in peacetime."

Celene's eyes glittered behind her mask. "Perhaps we will invite you to one when this is all over. Feel free to enjoy the pleasures of the ballroom, Inquisitor. We look forward to watching you dance."

Just the idea of dancing made Cassandra's legs clench enough that she had difficulty climbing the stairs back to the upper level. Hugging the railing, she watched Dorian and the Iron Bull pass her.

The qunari sniffed deeply as they reached the top of the stairs. "Mm. Smell that? Whatever's on that tray over there, I'm having some. You want any?"

"What?" Dorian laughed. "You actually plan to leave some for me? Surely you could strip the tray bare entirely on your own."

"I could. Which is why I asked."

"How considerate," Dorian replied, actually sounding a bit startled by Bull's thoughtfulness.

"I can be romantic too if you give me a chance. Why don’t we go out to the gardens and I'll pick you a flower?"

Chuckling as Bull slung a broad hand around his waist and pulled him closer, Dorian shook his head. "Let's just start with the hors d'oeuvres, shall we?"

"Hard to believe, those two," Cullen muttered from beside her as Dorian and Iron Bull walked ahead. He seemed to be guarding her steps as they climbed to ensure she didn't trip again. "A few weeks ago they were at each other's throats."

She nodded. "I suppose that sometimes it's true what they say. Opposites really do attract."

Clearing his throat, Cullen looked away uncomfortably, and she wondered what she had said to upset him.

She sighed with relief when they reached the top, noticing that the nobles had all turned back to each other and were no longer paying her any attention. "This ball is a waste of time," she sighed. "Like all Orlesian foolishness. The sooner we can find the Venatori collaborator and get out of here the better."

Cullen nodded. "I couldn't agree more."

Chapter Text

Navigating the crowd with cautious steps, Anders somehow managed to avoid the perpetual sweep of ball gowns swirling so closely to his feet that they threatened to trip him at every turn. His senses were overwhelmed by the aromas of rich food and perfume, the sound of music and simpering conversation and the expensive baubles sparkling among the crowd like flashes of starlight. It was heartbreakingly beautiful, and yet his instincts screamed at him to doubt the false beauty, to be wary of the vile undertones beneath the jovial atmosphere.

Every few steps he overheard another ridiculous bit of gossip about his feats as Inquisitor spoken at just the right volume for him to hear every word. The stories were positive overall, if exaggerated and inaccurate, but most of them still included bits of brutal rumor that were no doubt designed to make him uneasy. According to popular belief, as the chosen one of Andraste he could invoke her name and summon a heavenly spirit to fight at his side, but seeing as he was a mage, could that mean he had actually made a pact with a demon who only took on the aspect of Andraste? Others told rumors of his death at Haven that included him being buried in a mass grave and physically resurrected by the Maker days later, shocking the Inquisition by crawling out of the pit of bodies to continue the fight. But his favorite stories were only slightly exaggerated versions of what had happened with a single bizarre falsity that overshadowed the rest, like how he had formed the fortress of Skyhold whole out of the mountaintop with magic, or how he could use the anchor to bring the dead back to life.

Walking through the crowd and listening, he did his best to smile and nod at all the right people without allowing any of them to engage him directly in conversation. Then he grabbed the first glass of wine that came within reach and downed it more quickly than was likely proper. But he didn’t care. He would need the liquid courage to get through the rest of the evening. He was so far on edge that he was about to tumble over the side, constantly waiting for the moment when someone would announce his true identity to the crowd, but so far every noble he had spoken with had already been at peace with the truth, coyly referring to his past deeds with a wink as if being in on the secret was enough to make them overlook the details of his actions.

Everything was going just as Leliana and Josephine had planned, but he didn't trust it. Surely there were plenty of nobles who would be outraged by the idea of an terrorist apostate running the Inquisition, but perhaps he simply underestimated his advisors' skill in the Game. Not all the nobles had been welcoming, after all. A few had been rude and resentful, but they had still restrained themselves and looked furtively over their shoulders when alluding to his past as if they feared some consequence for speaking their mind. He had no doubt that Leliana had threatened them, finding some lurid secret that they would keep silent in order to protect. Whatever she had done was effective, but witnessing the result made him feel as if he needed a bath.

"Josephine!" Cried a girlish voice from behind him. "Josephine! Is this him?"

Turning, he saw the young woman shivering with delight beside the Inquisition's ambassador, hands clasped tightly at her breast in anticipation. "Hello," he said uncertainly, and the awkward greeting sent the girl into another fit of giggles.

Josephine sighed and elegantly swept a hand toward the girl. "Inquisitor, please allow me to present to you my younger sister, Yvette Gabriella Montilyet."

Grinning, Anders offered to take Yvette’s hand and lightly mouthed a kiss over her wrist. "Pleased to meet you, Lady Montilyet."

He heard Josephine sigh again as her sister giggled. "Inquisitor!" The girl chirped. "I’ve heard so much about you. But not as much as I want. Josephine writes, but she never tells me anything!"

Anders felt a smirk forming on his lips, the first honest smile he'd experienced all evening, and he glanced at Josephine to see her shift her shoulders in discomfort.

"Is it true rebel mages in Redcliffe were performing blood rites and orgies before you stopped them?" Yvette asked with utter sincerity, and Anders had a hard time holding back a startled laugh.

"Where did you hear such nonsense?" Josephine demanded, outraged. Anders had no doubt that Yvette had heard the rumor simply by walking through the crowd at the Winter Palace. It was certainly wild enough to match some of the ones he'd heard already.

"Is it true?" Yvette asked him, excitement twinkling in her eyes.

"You really shouldn't believe everything you hear," he replied lightly, seeing Josephine relax a fraction. "The only blood rites I saw were the ones performed by Tevinter mages. But the orgies... Well, that's just a normal afternoon in the circle."

"I knew it!" Yvette shrieked, bouncing on her toes in excitement. Josephine merely groaned.

He was tempted to ask the girl about Josephine’s childhood, but he suspected he had already tried his ambassador’s patience enough. Excusing himself, he stepped back into the crowd.

Vivienne nodded at him as he passed, leaning close enough to whisper congratulations in his ear.

“For what?” he asked, suddenly anxious that he had done something worthy of accolades without being aware.

“For not embarrassing yourself as much as I feared you would. Keep it up and you might just survive the evening.”

Trying not to flinch at the underlying menace in her words, he smiled tightly and walked away from her with a shudder. Her laughter followed him like the chatter of aggravated birds.

Rounding the corner of the ballroom, he noticed Cullen standing with his back to the wall and trying to ignore a gaggle of simpering women—as well as a few men— who were fawning over him so intensely that he wouldn’t be surprised if Cullen was covered in their drool at this point. If Anders hadn’t been so irritated with him, he might have sympathized, but Cullen had been frosty since their accidental morning encounter, and Anders couldn’t help but feel that all the unwanted attention served him right. He felt the commander’s eyes following him as he walked by, but he refused to even meet his gaze.

"Inquisitor," a voice said from beside his shoulder and he was relieved to see Leliana suddenly standing in his shadow. Her voice sounded different here, brighter and more approachable. And she looked younger without her armor and hood, red hair framing her face in a spritely manner. "I was hoping I would catch you," she continued, tugging at his sleeve and indicating a secluded spot away from prying ears. "I overheard what the duke said about Ambassador Briala, but she can’t be the sole focus of our search. The best place to strike at Celene is from her side."

Following her, Anders did his best to restrain a sigh. "And who's at her side?"

Perching on the edge of a couch, she looked up at him with pursed lips. "Empress Celene has an occult advisor, an apostate who charmed the Empress and key members of the court as if by magic. I’ve had dealings with her in the past. She is ruthless and capable of anything."

"You've had dealings with her?" Anders' eyebrows lifted.

"Yes,” Leliana replied with reluctance. “During the Blight."

"An apostate you met during the blight... Surely you don't mean that witch you met in the Kokari Wilds. What was her name? Morrigan?"

Eyes narrowing, Leliana clucked her tongue. "How would you know that? She didn't stick around for the final battle with the archdemon so she managed to escape most of the tales. And the Warden didn't like to talk about her."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Anders cocked his head. "I think I know why. I overheard a fight between him and his lover once. Zevran said something to imply that she was carrying Tabris' child."

Pursing her lips, Leliana sighed. "Sloppy of Zev."

Anders shrugged. “Not exactly. I mean, he had no way of knowing I was hiding in the bushes below the window at that moment.”

“And what were you doing down there?” Leliana asked with amusement twinkling in her eyes.

“Trying to corner Ser Pounce-a-lot.”

She laughed. "Your cat?”

Nodding, Anders smiled fondly. "I'd let him out of my pack just in time to be scared off by a particularly violent bout of flatulence from Oghren. I swear the dwarf planned it. Laughed so hard when I ran off after Pounce that I could still hear him cackling on the other side of the courtyard. I could barely even hear Zevran at all over the racket."

Without giving in to the smile flirting at the corners of her mouth, Leliana returned them to the topic at hand. "Regardless of what you eavesdropped about her, I think Morrigan is worth investigating. But both leads point toward the guest wing. I’ll be in the ballroom if you need anything."

Anders sighed when she walked away. He wasn’t sure why Leliana was sending him to do a spy’s work when she was clearly better suited for espionage than he was. She was also under far less scrutiny. But perhaps she was simply looking for a way to minimize his contact with the nobles—as well as the chances of him ruining all the hard work she and Josephine had done in setting the stage.

Steeling himself, he turned back to face the crowd, put on a pleasant smile and began dodging sycophants on his way to the garden in search of fresh air. He barely made it a step outside before he was surrounded by a trio of ladies wearing the masks of House Valmont. Doing his best to dodge verbal landmines, he smiled and nodded and expressed his interest in their offer an alliance without agreeing to much of anything. Fluttering their fans like butterfly wings, they swept away with gliding steps and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re getting rather good at this, you know?”

Turning to face Dorian with a weary smile, Anders nodded at the Iron Bull and then found a spot at the railing beside the pair. “I’m good at pretending I know what I’m doing, but as soon as a conversation moves beyond word games, I’ll be in trouble.”

Grinning, Dorian leaned back so that his shoulder was braced against the Bull’s broad chest. Anders noticed that the qunari’s hand soon came to rest unobtrusively on his hip. “Luckily for you, very little of the conversation around here is of any substance,” Dorian said. Glancing at the nobles gathered around the courtyard, he shook his head. “This is all so familiar. You could almost mistake this for a soiree in the Imperium. The same double-dealing, elegant poison, canapes… It’s lacking only a few sacrificial slaves and some b lood magic. But the night is still young. I half expect my mother to materialize from the crowd at some point and criticise my manners.”

Bull chuckled, and the rumble was so deep that Anders could feel the sound in the soles of his feet. “Talk about your awkward family moments. I doubt she’d be very happy to see you draped across a barbarian like me.”

Dorian shrugged. “She’s found me draped over much worse.”

“I could always lean in and pretend to be part of a threesome,” Anders said with a smile. “Maybe that would get a reaction.”

“Hardly. But don’t let that stop you from joining us anyway.”

“We’d be more than happy to make room,” Iron Bull agreed with a grin that did things to Anders’ insides.

Clearing his throat, Anders thought back to his more adventurous days, wondering how he might have responded to such an offer back then. He had certainly been curious enough to try just about anything once. But he wasn’t that man anymore. “I’m flattered by the invitation,” he said politely.

The pair exchanged a knowing glance, and he turned away.

Leaning over the railing, he peered down at the lower gardens and spotted Varric conversing with a group of eager nobles; the dwarf looked frustrated, and Anders sensed that he could use an escape route.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said, stepping away from the railing. “I’d better keep moving before someone important manages to corner me and starts asking questions I won’t know how to answer.”

“Good luck,” Dorian said.

“And grab one of those little spicy things off that platter on your way,” Bull suggested. “They’ll improve your mood.”

Smiling, Anders did as Bull had suggested and coughed in shock when the burn hit his throat. Pretending to enjoy the treat despite the way it made his eyes water, he spent the next several minutes searching around for the stairs to the lower gardens and overheard a few juicy bits of gossip along the way. Leliana would no doubt have a use for such information.

He was glad that he’d made the effort when he saw Varric’s face light up at the sight of him. “Blondie,” he greeted. Glancing at the nobles around him in turn, he clasped his hands and made a little bow. “Friends, thank you for all of the feedback. I’d love to continue discussing your ideas for the next volume, but I really must take my leave for a moment.”

“But Lord Varric,” one of the ladies cried, “I still haven’t told you about the twist at the end!”

“Waiting for the cliffhanger will only make the revelation sweeter, I’m sure,” Varric replied, backing quickly toward Anders. Turning and grasping his arm, Varric yanked him toward a corner of the courtyard with such force that Anders nearly tripped over his own feet.

“Get me out of here,” Varric hissed, looking imploringly up at Anders.

“It can’t be that bad. It looked like you were surrounded by devotees of your work.”

“Devotees don’t rip your stories into little shreds, dance around on top of them and then give you horrible pointers on how to write your next book.”

Smiling in spite of Varric’s scowl, Anders gently tugged his arm out of his grip. “Don’t you care what your fans think?”

“I don’t need advice on how to write from a bunch of pampered court follies.” Shaking his head, Varric leaned back against a trellis and then cursed when a thorn dug into his sleeve. “I didn’t even know I had any fans in Orlais. I’m going to have to have a little chat with my publisher.” Sighing, he glanced up at Anders. “So what are you up to? I suppose you’re actually enjoying the party.”

“I’m actually planning to escape it for a few minutes myself. Leliana suggested I explore the guest wing for leads on the assassin.”

“Bring me along.”

Anders shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t want to attract too much attention.”

Arching his brows, Varric gave him a look. “Blondie, you’re not exactly a master of stealth. If you’re trying to avoid attention, you should just send me in your place. Besides, you’re the one everyone is keeping their eyes on tonight. They’ll notice if you disappear.”

Nibbling at his lower lip, Anders considered the consequences of taking Varric’s suggestion. Leliana wouldn’t be pleased that he had found a way out of her directive, but she probably wouldn’t mind as long as they found the information they were seeking. “I don’t know…”

“Do you even know how to get to the upper floor?”

Eyes narrowing, Anders squared his shoulders. “Do you?”

“That trellis near the fountain. Leads right to the library. And I saw some blood on the tiles near it. We’re not the first to go up there.”

Anders sighed.

“Tell you what, I’ll sneak in from this side. You head back to the vestibule and wait at the top of the stairs on the left. I’ll let you in from the other side.”

Unable to argue with his logic, Anders nodded. “Okay.”

Grinning, Varric turned and slipped away through the crowd. Anders followed at a distance, keeping an eye on the nobles in the courtyard and distracting them when Varric began climbing the trellis. As soon as the dwarf was out of sight, he began making his way back to the vestibule. He was waylaid enough times on the way that he’d expected Varric to be waiting for him by the time he made it up the stairs, but there was no sign of his friend when he got there, and the doors were still solidly locked. Beginning to regret his decision, he began to pace, worrying that Varric’s own blood might have joined the stains on the tile.

A bell rang out across the vestibule, and he remembered from Josephine’s coaching that he was supposed to head for the ballroom as soon as he heard one of those bells. But he couldn’t leave Varric alone in the library. Maybe he should find Leliana and let her know what had happened. Or he could try to track down Cole or Sera to ask for their help unlocking the door.

At that moment, one of the doors opened and he turned to face it with a relieved sigh. He stiffened when he saw the woman framed in the doorway. She was beautiful in an exotic way, dark hair, porcelain skin, a beauty mark next to her darkly painted lips that gave her delicate features a mischievous quality. Sparkling amethyst eyes settled on him and sized him up, making an unabashed assessment from head to toe that left him feeling naked.

“Well, well. What have we here?” she said in a voice like liquid velvet, the dark folds of her dress swirling around her feet with every step. “The leader of the new Inquisition,” she continued, slowly circling him with predatory grace as she continued, “fabled herald of the faith. Delivered from the grasp of the fade by the hand of the blessed Andraste herself. The stories paint you as such an exalted creature, and yet we both know your true origin. What could possibly inspire such a holy figure to save one who had committed such unholy deeds, I wonder?” Pausing at his shoulder, she peered into his eyes from a hand's breadth away. “Do even you know?”

Anders sighed. “What is there to know? I’ve been given a task, and a second chance with which to complete it. I’ll leave the debates on morality to those who still have the appetite for them.”

A small smile quirked the edges of her lips, and he got the sense that she approved of his response. “Such a noble sentiment. It’s no wonder you’ve already inspired so many with your heroism.”

Wincing, Anders shook his head. “I’m less a hero and more a victim of circumstance.”

A lopsided smile tugged at her lips. “In my experience, most heroes are.”

“And you’ve known many heroes?”

“A few. Including one with whom we are both acquainted.”

Nodding, he laughed softly. “You’re well informed.”

She arched a brow at him. “As are you. I saw the recognition in your eyes earlier. You were given a description of me, weren’t you? I’d advise you not to believe everything you hear.”

A second bell rang distantly from the ballroom, and his eyes darted anxiously toward the library in search of some sign of Varric.

“You are worried about your dwarven friend,” she observed. His mouth went dry with fear, but her smile was oddly disarming. “You needn’t be concerned. He was so proudly sneaking around my private chambers that I decided to allow him the illusion of success by making myself scarce.”

“That’s generous of you.”

She inclined her head. “I am hunting far more dangerous prey this evening.”

“Oh?”

Nodding, she continued, “Recently I found and killed an unwelcome guest within these walls. An agent of Tevinter. So I offer you this, Inquisitor. A key found on the Tevinter’s body. Where it leads, I cannot say, yet if Celene is in danger, I cannot leave her side long enough to search. You can.”

He took the key and she turned to leave, descending the stairs with measured steps. “Proceed with caution, Inquisitor. Enemies abound, and not all of them are aligned with Tevinter. What comes next will be most exciting.” The last was said over her shoulder, dark eyes twinkling in the candlelight as she smiled back at him.

“Making friends, Blondie?” Varric said so suddenly that Anders jumped in surprise.

“What took you so long?” Anders hissed, watching as the dwarf pulled the door shut behind him.

“Don’t get your fancy sash in a twist. I think I found what you were looking for. Then I ran into the kid and stopped to get his take on the party.” Nodding at Morrigan as she disappeared into the crowd. “Who was that?”

“Morrigan, the Empress’ arcane advisor.”

Letting out a low whistle, Varric shook his head. “You make some interesting friends.”

Another toll from the bell made Anders hurry toward the stairs. “Come on. We’re late.”

“I’m right behind you.”

Chapter Text

Varric was starting to wish he had stayed back in the garden with his gaggle of overly critical fans. At least they were honest. That was more than he could say about the parties involved in the peace talks.

They had barely walked through the doors of the royal wing before they were learning about Briala’s and Celene’s discretions—and they’d gone there looking for evidence on Gaspard based on a tip from his own sister. Apparently everyone was planning to screw each other over before the night was done, some more literally than others.

“Please! I’ll do anything you want!” begged the naked man tied down to the Empress' bed, proving Varric’s point.

Anders considered his reply while tapping a finger thoughtfully against his lips, eyes twinkling with amusement.

“Blondie,” Varric warned, “you come up with anything kinky and I’m leaving the room.”

Sera snorted suddenly. “I’ve got an idea!”

“More than one, I’d wager,” Blackwall muttered. “And all of them humiliating.”

“Does anyone have any tar?” she asked, turning in a circle as if expecting to find the substance somewhere in the extravagant chamber. "I already see the feathers." The man on the bed whimpered.

Varric rolled his eyes, wondering how Anders had chosen his companions for this particular mission. Sera had certainly been bored at the party, and a bored Sera made for unexpected—and inconvenient—pranks, so he wouldn’t have been surprised if Josephine had asked Anders to bring her along. Blackwall rounded their group out with his brawn. He hadn’t been enjoying the party much either, but he tended to encourage Sera as much as he kept her in check. In this circumstance, Varric would have recommended bringing someone like Cassandra along instead if the point was to keep Sera contained, despite the annoyance she would cause him personally.

He didn’t question why Anders had brought him along, however. That much was obvious: he was a skilled rogue and an amusing companion. Plus, he’d asked to come. Anders tended to attract trouble, and Varric wasn't about to let him run off without him. For example, Varric hadn't run into anything more troubling than a puzzle lock in his solo trip through the library, but their exploration of the servants' quarters had been a bloodbath, and the royal wing was turning out to be anything but a walk in the park despite the famous beauty of its gardens.

“Tell your story about Celene to the court,” Anders said finally to the soldier on the bed.

The chevalier's chains rattled. "Of course. Protect me from Gaspard and I'll tell them anything they want to hear." And that example of the mutability of truth among the royal court pretty much summed up Varric’s experience at the Winter Palace.

After they'd released the chevalier and sent him off to tell his story to Cullen—fully clothed, much to Sera’s chagrin—they began exploring a damaged section of the palace, navigating hallways littered with building supplies and scaffolding.

"This part of the palace must have been damaged during the war," Blackwall observed.

"This whole place is minging. Creeps me right out," Sera said with a shudder.

They heard shouting coming from beyond one of the doors, and Anders gestured them all to silence. "That sounds like Gaspard's mercenary captain."

"He's in trouble," Blackwall said with a fierce expression.

Anders nodded, leading the way as they burst into the garden and right into a trap. The mercenary captain was tied up at the center of the courtyard, while archers lined the upper balcony, arrows knocked and pointed directly at them. Varric reached for Bianca, but an arrow whooshed past his ear as soon as he moved. He dropped his hand to his side regretfully.

“Inquisitor,” said a familiar voice from the balcony. Grand Duchess Florianne emerged from between two archers, looking so smug that Varric was surprised the balcony could support the weight of her ego. “What a pleasure. I wasn’t certain you’d attend. You’re such a challenge to read. I had no idea if you’d taken my bait.”

"You’re the traitor?" Anders sighed. "If I'd known, I would have refused your invitation to dance. Do you know how hard it was to avoid stepping on your feet? Now I wish I wouldn't have bothered."

"Then I am glad that I’m far too busy for another turn about the dance floor. Corypheus determined that the empress must die tonight, and I would hate to disappoint him."

Brow furrowing, Anders shook his head. “It seems you missed a step. Wasn’t your plan to reveal my identity to the court so they would be too distracted to notice when you assassinated the empress?”

Florianne giggled. "You poor, deluded thing. Your advisors spent so much time trying to cover for your sins that they missed my master’s true plans. I never intended to reveal your identity myself. You did that very thoroughly yourselves without any help from me. All I need to do is keep you out of the ballroom long enough to strike. No one will expect me to assassinate Celene, and I'm afraid you’ll be far too occupied to warn them.”

“Occupied with what?” Varric said dryly, looking around the courtyard. “A few archers? As traps go, it’s a little underwhelming. We’ve faced worse than this on the gilded streets of Val Royeaux.”

A smile spread slowly across her lips. “These are only a precaution to keep you trapped until my new allies arrive. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and you are a man with many enemies, Inquisitor. You must have known that some of them would seek you out once news of your identity began to spread." Turning to one of her soldiers, she ordered, “Fetch the prince. He’s waited long enough for his prize.”

Varric felt a shiver of fear run down his spine. There was only one prince he knew who wanted Anders dead: Choir Boy. This was going to be bad.

“A pity you’ll miss the rest of the ball, Inquisitor,” Florianne said over her shoulder as she retreated from the balcony. “They’ll be talking of it for years.” Before she was out of sight, soldiers began marching into the courtyard in formation, all dressed in the shiny white armor of Starkhaven.

“Blondie?” Varric murmured. “Any ideas?”

Anders shook his head, clearly in shock.

“Then we need to keep him talking until we can figure something out.”

Anders nodded.

Once they were thoroughly surrounded, a man walked slowly past the rows of soldiers, tall, proud and blindingly bright in his polished armor. Sebastian hadn’t changed much since Varric had last seen him—at least not physically—but his handsome features were a bit more drawn and severe than they used to be, his bright blue eyes brimming with so much righteous indignation that they looked like they were on fire. From what he had heard about the ruler of Starkhaven, the thirst for revenge had taken all his boyish sincerity away, replacing his kindness and generosity with hatred and anger.

“Anders,” Sebastian growled, his gaze focusing on the mage with such intensity that Varric was surprised it didn’t set Anders’ coat on fire.

“Sebastian,” Anders replied with mock humor. “I see you’re still walking around with Andraste’s face guarding your crotch.”

Sera snorted at that, and even Blackwall chortled softly. But Varric merely clenched his hands into fists. He could count on one finger the number of times he had seen Sebastian Vael truly amused by anything. The expression on the prince’s face now was so far from amusement that it was almost painful to witness, his features so twisted up with a toxic mixture of negative emotions that he could hardly spit out a response.

“Still making jokes,” Sebastian rasped. “Even after everything you’ve done. It’s time you finally learned the true meaning of justice, Anders.”

“All this time, and you still haven’t come up with a better line?” Anders laughed dryly, and if Varric hadn’t known the archers would turn his arm into a pincushion the moment he moved, he would have grabbed his shoulder and shaken him. Anders was only asking for more trouble with snide remarks like that—but maybe that was merely his desperation showing. He probably didn’t figure there was any way he could make Sebastian hate him more, so he saw no point in pretending. That sounded like Blondie.

But Sebastian ignored Anders’ sarcasm, beginning to pace in front of them with deliberate steps. “I was disappointed when the Inquisition sided against my attempt to liberate Kirkwall. The Inquisition was born of the chantry, after all, and I had thought that the horrors wrought against the people of that city would be something any organization that followed the teachings of Andraste would abhor. But they protected those who had sheltered Kirkwall’s murderer as if they were the ones who had chosen wisely.”

“Oh get off your high horse,” Varric snapped, unable to stomach the positive spin Sebastian was putting on his invasion of Varric’s hometown. From what he’d heard, Sebastian had marched into the city and executed or imprisoned everyone he could find who had a connection to Anders, including refugees from Ferelden and innocents who had only volunteered to help in his clinic. “We all know what you’ve done.”

“What I’ve done? All I've done is attempt to bring order to chaos,” Sebastian insisted, “justice to the dead.”

“Who is this poncy blowhard?” Sera cried in amazement. “I’d stuff a dagger up his arse, but I doubt there’s room with all the other sticks shoved up it already.”

Sebastian focused his glare on her, and Anders shook his head. “Let him finish his little speech, Sera,” he sighed. “He’s probably been practicing it in front of a mirror for ages.”

Sera scoffed, but Sebastian picked up from where he’d left off without missing another beat as if he really had scripted the entire thing. He focused on Anders again and took slow, menacing steps toward him, his soldiers tightening the circle around them with every step. “When I heard the news out of Redcliffe, the way the Inquisition had taken in the rebel mages—had given them freedom even after they’d caused more pain and destruction—I began to doubt the Inquisition’s true mission. But it wasn’t until I heard from my ally in Orlais that I understood the source of the corruption. The Inquisitor is not who he claimed to be at all. In fact, he is the very man I’ve been hunting all these years.”

The expression on Anders’ face was akin to boredom at this point, but they had all been forced close enough together that Varric could feel the tension in his posture. “So, what you’re saying is that you let Corypheus manipulate you into attacking us instead of the greater enemy we should all be fighting together?”

“That’s what I heard,” Varric muttered, his fingers itching to reach for Bianca as he watched the soldiers around them brandish their weapons.

“You would have me ally myself with one evil in order to defeat another!” Sebastian snapped. “I wouldn’t compromise my ideals even if the whole world were at stake.”

“Clearly. Since it already is.”

“Blondie,” Varric hissed, glancing up at Anders and wondering when the hell he was going to finally make his move. He could sense him coiling for an attack, but they were losing ground so quickly that they wouldn’t be able to fight back if they didn’t make an attempt soon.

Sebastian was close enough now to grab Anders by the collar and drag him forward until their noses were almost touching. “You will learn the depth of your mistake,” he snarled in Anders’ face. “And you will atone for your sins every day for what’s left of this life you no longer deserve.”

“Fine,” Anders said quietly. “I surrender.”

“What?” Varric demanded, so shocked he dropped his guard.

“Inquisitor,” Blackwall grated out and Sera laughed, probably for no other reason than the fact that she was surprised.

“At last,” Sebastian whispered, his hand landing possessively around Anders’ shoulders and turning him, dragging him back until they were standing flush. He had drawn a dagger and pressed it against Anders’ throat. “At last you will suffer for your sins.”

“Do whatever you want with me,” Anders said calmly, “but let the others go. They have nothing to do with this.” He glanced at Varric, trying to communicate something with his eyes, but Varric couldn’t figure out what it was.

“They’re hardly innocent,” Sebastian scoffed. “They are guilty of harboring you, a known criminal. They all deserve to be punished for their crimes.” Eyes gleaming with insanity, he instructed his soldiers with an eagerness that turned Varric’s stomach. “Bind them all. And bring me the magebane.”

Anders’ brows furrowed as he looked imploringly at Varric. Then green light flickered from between his fingers and Varric suddenly understood what Anders was planning. “I thought you were better than this, Choir Boy,” Varric said to get Sebastian's attention. “I thought the chantry preached forgiveness. Aren’t you worried about the stain that revenge will leave on your soul?”

“I will gladly bear that burden,” Sebastian said, taking the bait. “The Maker has chosen me to make his will manifest. I am an instrument of his justice and I will see that it is done!”

“Listen to yourself! You sound just like he did.” Varric glanced at Blackwall and Sera, hoping that they had picked up on the subtext of the conversation. The warden nodded almost imperceptibly and Sera waggled her eyebrow. “You’re damning him while making the same mistake he did,” Varric continued, beginning to back away as slowly as he could without drawing attention.

“I’m nothing like him!” Sebastian growled, clutching Anders so tightly that his knuckles turned white.

Anders’ expression darkened, and Varric reached for Bianca the moment the mage twisted his wrist, retreating to a safe distance as the air above them erupted in green fire. Screams filled the air when the rift opened, and Varric lost track of Sebastian in the chaos, taking aim instead at every soldier that was still in sight. By the clash of steel and whiz of arrows he could hear from either side, Sera and Blackwall were doing the same. Avoiding the pull of the rift energy, he circled the room and kept firing until he ran out of bolts.

Then the rift closed, and the sudden lack of light blinded him. He narrowly avoided a soldier’s sword, but finished him with a lucky swipe of Bianca’s blade. Blinking into the relative darkness as he waited for the impression of green tendrils to clear from his vision, he stumbled over bodies on his way to the center of the room in search of Anders. But there was no sign of him or Sebastian.

“That way,” Blackwall grunted, pointing to a door on the other side of the room. “The bastard dragged him off.”

Varric was already moving, racing down the hallway so fast that he nearly slipped in the puddle of blood smeared across the polished floor. The walls were scored with scorch marks, and he followed the embers to a room at the end of the hall. The room was dark and cramped, a storage room of some sort lit by lamps around the perimeter. He froze when he saw Anders slumped against Sebastian at the center of the space, a bit of metal winking from his torso. His eyes were wide with shock, and when Sebastian pushed him off the dagger, he tumbled forward in slow motion, crumpling to the ground with a moan.

Sebastian’s eyes flashed with madness as he carefully cleaned the blood from his blade. His brown waves were singed at the edges, but he appeared otherwise untouched by Anders' magic. “It isn’t the punishment you deserve,” he said with disappointment in his voice as he frowned down at Anders, “but it’s the execution Hawke spared you in Kirkwall. Given the circumstances, it will have to do. The Maker will have to see to the rest.”

Anger pulsed through Varric’s veins with such force that he could barely hear Sebastian’s words over the pounding of blood in his ears. He felt Bianca's recoil before even realized he was firing, shocked when he saw the cluster of shafts piercing Sebastian’s forehead. Sebastian was dead before he even hit the ground. Bianca hit the floor soon after, the clatter suddenly loud in Varric’s ears as he began running again.

“Take that you uppity wanker!” Sera cried triumphantly from what sounded like far away, and Varric was no longer sure how many of the shafts were his.

It didn't matter anyway. He fell to his knees beside Anders and draped an arm around his shivering shoulders. “Blondie."

Blackwall knelt down beside him, pressing a wad of cloth against the wound on Anders’ back and helping him turn the mage over. Varric didn’t know what the cloth was or where it had come from, but he took over holding it in place as he gathered Anders into his lap. Anders was incoherent, his eyes still staring unblinkingly into space while his breath came in short, shaky bursts.

“Anyone have a health potion?” Varric asked in a ragged voice. “I’m all out.”

“Found one,” Sera said, pulling a bottle out of a pouch at Sebastian’s belt. “Only one, though.” She kicked Sebastian’s shoulder. “Stingy bastard.”

“Won’t be enough,” Blackwall grunted with a shake of his head. “That’s an awful lot of blood."

Cradling Anders like a baby, Varric popped the cork from the potion with his teeth and forced Anders to drink, frustrated that half of the liquid dribbled down his chin. “Find more,” he said to Sera, and she ran off without another word. Under normal circumstances, that would have been shocking, but Varric was already too deep in shock at the moment to really notice.

“Blondie,” he said sharply, and Anders’ eyes focused on him.

“Varric?”

“Who else?” he replied, forcing a smile.

Shaking his head, Anders mumbled, “We have to warn Celene. Florianne is..."

"I'm more worried about you right now."

"Varric," Anders said sharply, but Blackwall was the one who responded.

“I’ll warn them,” he said, hefting his sword and standing up.

Varric barely nodded in reaction. "And find a healer while you're at it."

A frown crossed Anders’ lips as he lifted his hand to get a look at the wound. “He missed my heart, but it may not matter. There’s nothing I can do. The dagger must have been treated with magebane.”

Cursing under his breath, Varric pressed Anders’ hand back down against the wound and held it firmly in place. Anders looked like he was about to black out from the pain, so Varric shook him until his eyes fluttered open again. “Stay with me, Blondie.”

Blinking fitfully, Anders looked up at him through glazed eyes. “I feel so cold. It must be the blood loss.”

Varric shook his head, hating that Anders’ experience with healing meant that he knew exactly what was happening to him and was probably calculating his odds of survival every step of the way. Easing the pressure on Anders’ wound just long enough to shrug out of his duster and drape it over him, Varric laughed when Anders gave him a disapproving look.

“I’ll ruin your coat,” Anders protested.

Wrapping him up and pulling him closer, Varric shook his head. “I can get a new coat. You’re not as replaceable.”

Anders smiled, and it was the smile Varric hated. That sad little smile that crinkled around his eyes and broke Varric’s heart. "It'll be okay," he whispered.

"Of course it will. You're going to be fine." Something kept blurring Varric's vision no matter how much he blinked his eyes.

"Varric," Anders murmured sadly, his eyes sliding shut long enough for Varric to panic before they opened again. “Tell me a story."

Swallowing the lump at the back of his throat, Varric forced another smile. “Only if you promise to stay awake until the end.”

Chapter Text

Anders felt as if he were existing in two places at once. Part of him was still grounded within his dying body, slowly going numb as his senses failed one at a time. The rest of him was tearing free, buoyantly floating up and drifting somewhere near the ceiling with only a narrow tether to tie the two pieces together. He didn't know if this second state of being was a dream, simply his mind's way of coping with reality, or if it was actually happening, an out of body experience that was merely a prelude to death. Either way it was disturbing.

Floating above the bloody scene, he watched as Varric rocked his body slowly, still speaking in a shaky voice and diligently telling the story that Anders had requested. Tears were falling steadily from the dwarf's eyes, landing on Anders' face like salty rain. Anders could hardly feel the dampness anymore.

Shaking him when he noticed he was drifting away again, Varric begged in a broken voice, “Blondie. Blondie, wake up. The story isn’t over yet.”

Anders tried to respond, but he was so tired that the most he could manage was a flicker of his eyelids.

Taking a shaky breath, Varric leaned forward until their foreheads were touching, his shoulders shuddering with silent sobs. The part of Anders that was outside his body tried to reach out to comfort him, but he couldn’t make contact. He could do nothing but watch.

Varric looked up when he heard boots pounding down the hallway. A group of Inquisition soldiers appeared in the doorway with Blackwall and Cullen in the lead. The commander froze as soon as he saw Anders cradled in Varric’s arms. “Maker’s breath,” he gasped, his expression crumpling. Glancing back over his shoulder, he demanded, “Where is Cassandra with that healer?” One of the soldiers ran off to check, and Cullen ordered two others to make sure that none of Sebastian’s forces had gotten away.

“I found another potion,” Sera cried from the hall, pushing past the soldiers and slipping on the bloody floor as she rushed to Anders’ side. She was still panting for air when she crouched down and held out a bottle to Varric.

Opening it with trembling fingers, Varric forced as much as he could into Anders’ mouth. Anders tried to cooperate, but he could barely find the energy to swallow when he felt the cool liquid hit the back of his mouth. The potion tingled as it rolled down his throat, but the effects didn’t spread far; there was only so much that health potions alone could fix.

Anders lost track of time then, floating above the room in a daze and only catching occasional snippets of conversation as the room became more crowded. Cassandra appeared with the Inquisition’s most powerful mages in tow. Vivienne, Solas and Dorian each took turns examining him and doing what they could to repair the damage, but it was too late. None of them were healers, and even if he had been conscious enough to direct their efforts, not everyone could draw on the sort of energies he used to heal people. He wasn't sure that even he could have saved himself at this point.

They began to argue. Cullen and Cassandra were demanding a miracle, but they had all done as much as they could. He wanted to tell them to stop trying. This was the death that had been waiting for him ever since that fateful decision in Kirkwall. Deep down, he had always known his life would end this way—although he’d never expected to die surrounded by so many people who cared about him when it happened.

He watched as Dorian knelt down beside his body and pressed a hand against his forehead. Leaning forward, he replaced his hand with his lips in a brief kiss—a kiss Anders couldn’t even feel. “I’m sorry,” he whispered before pulling away.

More of Anders was floating outside of his body now than was still in it. He hovered near Varric’s shoulder and wished that he could pull the dwarf into a hug. Varric’s expression had gone blank with shock now, and his grip on Anders was finally starting to slacken as reality took hold.

“I won’t accept that,” Cullen snapped loudly, drawing Anders’ attention. “There must be someone at this party with some healing skills! Orlesians are always trying to murder each other or calling for duels. Surely they plan for this sort of thing!”

“Cullen,” Cassandra said sadly, gazing down at Anders’ dying body with a dark expression. “It’s too late. Even if we found a healer now...what could they do?”

Cullen turned, growling in frustration as he stomped a few steps away.

“So many long faces,” a new voice said suddenly from the doorway. The Empress' advisor stood there, aloof and confident. “One might think that someone had died.”

“Suspiciously astute,” Dorian said sharply, taking a step back to give her a direct view of Anders.

She pursed her lips. “He is dying,” she said, cocking her head thoughtfully. “But not yet dead.”

“He will be soon,” Solas replied, brows furrowing as he regarded the woman.

Lips curving slowly, she nodded. “It would be a shame if the Inquisitor died so unnecessarily. Perhaps I could assist?”

“What do you want, Morrigan?” Leliana demanded, stepping out of the shadows behind her.

“Ah, the bard. Always eavesdropping.” Morrigan smirked at her. “But your unspoken suspicions are unfounded. I only want to help.”

“What can you possibly do that we cannot?” Dorian asked. “You don’t strike me as a healer.”

Shrugging, Morrigan moved closer, stepping carefully over the bloodstains. “I have never studied the modern healing arts, ‘tis true. But I have studied many ancient methods of magic, some of which might provide a solution here.” She crouched down and touched one of the puddles of blood with a finger. Lifting it to her lips, she touched it with the tip of her tongue and frowned. “I would need to act quickly if he is to be saved.”

“What do you intend to do?” Cassandra asked uncertainly.

“She plans to use blood magic,” Dorian answered for her, teeth flashing in disgust.

Anders shivered, floating in between Morrigan and his body as if he could do something to stop her. She stepped right through him.

“No,” Varric said suddenly, his voice so rough that Anders hardly recognized it. Gently allowing Anders’ body to slide off his lap, he sat back on his heels and looked down at it with a gut-wrenching expression. “He wouldn’t want that. He hates blood magic.”

“Even if it is the only way to save his life?” Morrigan asked with an arched brow.

Anders nodded emphatically even though he knew she couldn’t see him, and to his relief Varric said, “Yes. He’d rather die.”

She rolled her eyes and looked around at the others. “He has already spilt enough blood to sustain the spell. No fresh blood would need to be sacrificed. No one will be harmed.”

“No,” Varric repeated.

“What is your price?” Leliana countered, clearly considering the proposition. Anders wanted to scream at her.

But Morrigan only shook her head. “Must there always be a price? I offer this freely. The world would not benefit from the Inquisitor’s death—not at such a time of instability. I see no point in watching him die when he could be saved.”

Leliana’s eyes narrowed. “That’s unusually selfless of you.”

Morrigan smiled but remained silent.

“Do it,” Cullen said with such authority that no one else even attempted to disagree. Anders gaped at him in shock, unable to fathom why he, of all people, would agree to such a thing. The very idea seemed diametrically opposed to his character, but Cullen was wearing an expression of sheer determination, the sort of face a person wore when they were about to endure something unpleasant but knew it was the only way to reach the conclusion they sought.

Arching her brows at Cullen, the witch nodded. “As you wish.”

Varric lunged forward to stop her, but at Cullen’s direction, one of the soldiers dragged him out of the way.

The others all watched in shock, too undecided to either help or prevent the proceedings, and Anders panicked, turning to Solas for help in the hope that the mage might be able to see him since he was more spirit at the moment than human. But Solas didn’t react, merely watching Morrigan work with a guarded expression. The others either stared uncertainly or looked away in shame. Varric continued to fight against the soldier that was restraining him and another joined to help.

Watching helplessly, Anders saw Morrigan rise to her feet, closing her eyes and lifting her hands, the blood lifting from the floor along with them, swirling through the air in complicated patterns as she began to mutter under her breath. The blood undulated and began to glow with a dull red light, pulsing nauseatingly as it moved faster and faster, Morrigan’s voice growing in volume with every passing second. Anders tried desperately to catch someone’s attention, waving his hands and shouting in their faces, but he couldn’t reach any of them.

Then he felt a tug of pressure. His body was arching up off the ground, the ruddy light swirling fast around his wound and binding it back together within a brilliant ball of light. His tether was growing stronger, yanking him back into his body as the room spun around him. He gasped suddenly, and his eyes opened wide, fingers clawing at the floor as he struggled to breathe. The blood magic knitted him back together with painful heat, but it was nothing compared to the pain he had felt the last time he’d been in his body.

All at once it was over and he was left panting for air, staring up at the ceiling and trying to remember how to move. When his eyes finally came into focus, he was looking up at Morrigan from a hand's breadth away. Smiling, she nodded in acknowledgment and backed away, leaving him to reacquaint himself with his surroundings. The room did not look exactly the same as it had during his out-of-body experience, the walls closer and the candles dimmer than they had seemed before. The angles and proportions were different, and the colors more rich and varied.

“Inquisitor?” Cassandra asked tentatively.

The others were all staring at him as if they were worried that Morrigan had brought back a demon in his place, and he couldn't blame them for their concern. He would have had the same worry if their positions had been reversed. Despite Morrigan's insistence that there was no price for what she had done, he knew better; blood magic always had a price.

“The Empress,” he said, voice croaking as he attempted to redirect their attention to something more important. “Did we save her?”

Anxious laughter greeted his question, and Leliana nodded emphatically. "Yes. Josie is still sorting things out between Celene, Briala and Gaspard, but we stopped Florianne. With all the evidence you gathered, we might even be able force them all to work together."

Anders nodded, swallowing hard and tasting the bitterness of copper on his tongue. Pushing himself up on his elbows, he felt Dorian moving behind him to help him sit. Dorian's fingers brushed over the wound on his back, and Anders was surprised to feel no pain, only the tingling of overly sensitive raw skin.

"Astounding," Dorian murmured. "There's barely even a scar."

"How do you feel?" Cassandra asked, kneeling down beside him.

Anders shook his head, at a loss for words. "Alive."

He turned to thank Varric for his attempt to defend his wishes, but the dwarf was gone. Looking around the room, he saw that Cullen had also retreated, and Solas and Vivienne had cornered Morrigan, questioning her urgently while the witch rolled her eyes with impatience. Leliana was listening to them with a frown.

Watching them all, Anders suddenly felt very tired.

Seeing his eyelids drooping, Cassandra patted his knee. "You must be exhausted."

"Just rest," Dorian said in his ear, wrapping an arm around his waist protectively with no regard for the blood on Anders' clothes. "We'll take care of you."

Anders relaxed into his embrace and let his eyes slide closed, and this time instead of floating away he began to sink, darkness rushing in around him like the waters of a flood.

Chapter Text

Cassandra tensed when she turned the page and saw the title of the final chapter: Farewell to the Knight-Captain. Her breath caught in her throat and she hesitated before continuing, wondering why Varric had even bothered to write the next installment of Swords and Shields for her if he was going to end it in such a tragic way. He knew how she would react to such a thing, and despite all his flaws, cruelty was one trait she had never expected in him. Wood popped in the fireplace, throwing sparks into the air and causing the shadows in the room to flicker and dance. She shivered despite the warmth of the fire, her hand covering the first paragraph for fear of what it might contain.

“Cassandra?” a croaky voice asked suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts.

She nearly jumped out of her chair, but the plush leather made it difficult to get very far. “Inquisitor,” she breathed, turning to look at him. He hadn’t moved much, but his eyes were definitely open, blinking blearily at her. “You’re awake,” she said unnecessarily.

“Am I?” He looked blearily around the room. “I’m back in Skyhold... How did I get here?”

Frowning, she tried to judge his level of coherency. He was still a bit pale and gaunt from lack of nourishment, but he looked more aware than she had seen him in days. Perhaps his body was finally recovering from the severe trauma he had suffered in Halamshiral. Morrigan had warned them that although his wound appeared to be healed, all the energy for the healing had come from him, from his own lost blood. That sort of damage took its toll.

"What is the last thing you remember?" she asked gently.

His brows furrowed. "The Winter Palace. Sebastian." He looked down at his chest as if expecting to see a blade protruding from it. "Blood magic." His lips curled a bit on the first word.

"It's been nearly a week since then."

Turning his head to look at her, his eyes widened.

"You've been asleep much of that time. Morrigan said it might take some time for you to recover, but we were all worried."

"Morrigan... Did she...?"

"She hasn't touched you since your healing, but she did follow us back to Skyhold. The Empress sent her to help with our cause."

“So, she’s the empress’ spy within the Inquisition?”

“That’s one way to look at it,” Cassandra replied, considering. “But I suspect she follows her own agenda before all others. It is too early to tell if that is a good or bad thing.”

Anders smirked at that and attempted to sit up, his smirk quickly turning into a grimace of pain along the way.

Marking her page in the book with a leaf she had been using as a bookmark, she helped him sit and adjusted the pillows behind him to keep him comfortable.

When he was situated, he sighed in relief. “So...a week. How much have I missed?"

"Not as much as you might think," she replied, sitting down in the chair again. "The peace Josephine forged at the Winter Palace is holding, and Corypheus has gone strangely silent. It worries me that we don't know what he's up to, but I’m grateful that it gives us the time we need to recover." Sighing, she shook her head. "The most interesting thing that has happened is the news from the chantry council."

His eyebrows arched. "And what is that?"

Swallowing hard, she considered how to explain, but there was no easy way to broach the topic. "Apparently, Leliana and I are both candidates to be the next Divine. Because of what happened at Halamshiral, of course. The Empire favors the Inquisition, and so now the chantry bandies our names about without even asking us first."

She couldn't read his expression entirely, but the shock was evident in his arched brows and gaping mouth. "That's...the last thing I expected you to say. I don't even know how to react. Is that something you'd want?"

"Why should what I want matter?" she replied stiffly.

He scoffed, brows furrowing, and his outrage on her behalf tugged at her heart. "Why shouldn’t it matter? You have the right to be happy."

"It is very simple," she explained. "The chantry needs to survive. To do that, it must change. I have never believed in asking another to do what you are unwilling to do yourself."

“I’m surprised to hear that you think the chantry should change.”

She tried not to take offense at that, but realizing that he thought her so rigid stung. “Am I not the same woman who declared the Inquisition against the chantry’s wishes? In all my years as a seeker, I did what I was told. My faith demanded it. But now my faith demands something else: that I see with better eyes.”

He nodded, a pensive look in his eyes. “That’s an admirable goal. If you don’t mind me asking, how would you change the chantry if you could?”

Hesitating, she realized that she was walking into a minefield with this topic. She was talking to the man who had blown up a chantry to prove a point, after all. Anders had strong opinions about what the chantry should and shouldn’t do, and while she believed he was a man of faith deep down, she wasn’t sure if he felt that there was any purpose to organized religion at all. A small part of her, the part that admired him for his kindness and believed that it was his compassion that had driven him to such an extreme action in the first place, wanted to make him happy with her answer. She had a deep respect for his dedication and resolve and hated to disappoint him, but she also had to be true to herself. She would not lie about something that was so close to her heart.

“Surely it was never meant to be like this,” she said reasonably. “The chantry, the circle of magi, the templars. This cannot be what they intended when it all began.”

He nodded, and the reaction gave her courage to continue.

“The chantry should provide faith, hope. Instead it cannot veer from its course, even in the face of certain death.”

“Exactly,” he said eagerly. “A chantry that allows injustice to fester and refuses to take a stand is worse than providing no oversight at all.”

“We must be vigilant, but we must also be compassionate to all peoples of Thedas, human or no. We must reform the circle of magi,” she continued, so wrapped up in passion for the topic that she failed to notice when his expression fell. “Let mages govern themselves with our help. Let the templars stand not as the jailers of mages, but as protectors of the innocent.”

The disappointment in his eyes was every bit as crushing as she had expected. “And when the templars overstep their bounds? When they inevitably begin to see restricting the mages’ rights as protecting the innocent?”

“Then I will teach them otherwise,” she said firmly.

“How? Where will you draw the line? As long as templars are put into a position of power over mages, eventually some of them will attempt to take advantage of that power.”

Anger flared in her chest, and she felt a blush heat her cheeks. “I don’t have all the answers yet, but I will figure them out.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, closing his eyes. “I know you have good intentions, but what you’re proposing is not enough to create real change. The old system was broken. And attempting to reinstate it in any way will only lead to the same problems in the end.”

“You sound like Leliana,” she scoffed. “She says she wishes to follow Justinia’s legacy, but she and I remember a different person. Justinia knew her fellow clerics and the people would only accept so much change. Like you, Leliana prefers to cast it all aside and start over, but that would only lead to chaos for us all.”

Swallowing and looking away, he said quietly, “The world is already in chaos. I agree that order must be restored, but must it be the same order that existed before? Isn’t this an opportunity to build a system that is better than the one that was destroyed?”

“Every system has its flaws.” She shook her head. “But there is a reason the previous system lasted as long as it did. On some level, it worked.”

Smiling bitterly, he nodded. “From your perspective, I suppose it did.”

She could see in his expression that she had lost his respect—at least in part—and that realization hit her harder than she would have expected. But she was also disappointed—even though she shouldn’t have been. He had always been clear about where he stood on such issues, and she had only forgotten the truth for a while, imagining that they might have more in common than she’d first believed. But they were very different people with very different experiences of the world.

“I’m sorry you disagree,” she said finally, trying hard not to sound defensive. “But you did ask for my opinion.”

“I did,” he agreed, still avoiding her gaze. “I’m feeling a bit tired, now. I’d like to rest for a while, if you don’t mind.”

She nodded, reading between the lines. “Are you hungry? I could have someone in the kitchens send up some food for you.”

“Not right now. I don’t have much of an appetite. But thank you.”

Feeling suddenly uncertain, she gathered up her book and stood to leave, studying his profile with a frown. He looked strangely fragile, his hair mussed from so many days in bed, his cheeks hollow and pale. Although she didn’t regret speaking her mind, she regretted their quarrel. He was barely recovered from a near-death experience and she’d taken the first opportunity she had to launch into a discussion on politics. She should have known better.

She wanted to say something to make everything normal again, but she couldn’t think of anything that would fix things. So she pressed her lips into a thin line and turned away, her boots echoing mournfully as she crossed the room to the stairs.

She suddenly felt like finishing that chapter now, and planned to give Varric a piece of her mind when she was done.

Chapter Text

Cullen paced back and forth behind his desk, jaw clenched so tightly he could hear his teeth grinding. Samson had crossed a line. His operation in Emprise du Lion was not just misguided. It was monstrous.

Growling, he leaned over his desk to read the report again. Samson had been using people to grow red lyrium. The way he had been forcing his own templars to take the stuff had been bad enough, but the thought of him killing innocents and using them as a resource for his corrupted army was beyond horrifying. They had shut down one mine, but he would only set up another. The only way to stop the madness would be to stop him...permanently. Slamming a hand down on top of the letter, Cullen clenched his fingers until the paper was crumpled within them.

“Have I come at a bad time?”

Cullen looked up at the sound of the voice, jaw dropping open when he saw Anders standing just inside the doorway, still dreadfully pale and slouching a little as if he barely had the strength to stand. “Inquisitor,” he breathed.

“Commander,” Anders replied with a dry smile.

Straightening, Cullen released his grip on the report and studied the mage uncertainly. They hadn’t spoken before or during the ball, and Anders had been so incoherent after his injury that Cullen wasn’t sure if he’d have even recognized him. But that wasn't a valid excuse to ignore him. To be honest, Cullen had been consciously avoiding him ever since that awkward morning in Anders’ quarters. He hadn't known what to say to him then, and had even fewer ideas now.

“Can I help you?” he asked with an air of formality.

A frown creased between Anders’ eyes, and he looked away, rubbing absently at the place below his breastbone as if it itched, the very place that had been a gaping hole before Morrigan used her blasphemous magic to close it. And she’d only done that at Cullen’s command. He shivered at the memory.

“How are you feeling?” he asked suddenly, realizing how rude it was to neglect asking such an obvious question. Regardless of their strained relationship, he had no excuse for forgetting common courtesy.

“Like I almost died,” Anders said lightly, but the words meant more than his tone implied.

Cullen nodded, unable to think of an appropriate response.

“I suppose I’m here...to thank you for my life,” Anders added, his eyes darting back toward Cullen and then quickly drifting away again. “I wouldn’t be here now if not for you.”

The unspoken question hung heavy in the air, and Cullen cleared his throat. “You should probably thank Morrigan for that.”

“She would not have acted if you hadn’t given her permission.”

Cullen shrugged. “I merely returned a favor. I’m not sure I would have survived my lyrium withdrawal without your assistance, after all.” He wasn’t sure how true that explanation was, but it was believable enough.

Anders met Cullen’s gaze suddenly, and he nodded as if Cullen had lived down to his expectations. “Then I guess that makes us even. No debt either way.” Glancing at the papers strewn over Cullen’s desk, he turned away. “You look busy. I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“Anders...” Cullen began without any idea of how he was going to finish the sentence, but he didn't want to leave things like that.

Anders looked back at him curiously.

“Do you…” Looking down at the reports on Samson’s activities, Cullen asked, “Do you know a tranquil named Maddox? He was part of Kirkwall’s circle.”

Frowning, Anders shook his head. “I didn’t know him personally, but I’m familiar with the name. As I recall, he was made tranquil for the heinous crime of falling in love.” His voice was dripping with bitterness as he continued, “How did they phrase the crime? ‘Corrupting the moral integrity of a templar.’ Something like that. Meredith did love to throw around words like ‘corruption’ and ‘morality’ whenever possible.”

Cullen winced, realizing that this had been the absolute wrong topic to bring up. He should have expected that Anders would have strong feelings about the tranquil; Anders had suffered painful consequences over his own love affair in the circle, after all, and it was that love that had brought him to Kirkwall in the first place. But it was too late to retreat gracefully, so Cullen forged ahead. “I’ve been following Samson’s activities closely since Haven. Recently I’ve learned that he rescued Maddox from Kirkwall and used him to develop his armor. That armor makes him nearly invincible. If we could learn how it was made, we might be able to find a vulnerability.”

“That’s assuming we could convince Maddox to tell us.” Anders shook his head. “After everything he’s been through, I can’t think of a reason why he would help.”

“Perhaps you could get through to him,” Cullen suggested, but immediately wanted to take the words back when he saw the fire sparking to life in Anders’ eyes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…” Rubbing at his neck in embarrassment, he stared down at his desk.

“It’s fine,” Anders replied stiffly. “You’re probably right. If anyone has  a chance of connecting with him, it’s me. Just tell me where to go, and I’ll--”

“Anders,” Cullen cut him off sharply, walking around his desk and approaching the mage before he fully considered what he was going to do when he got there. “I’m making a mess of things, as usual,” he said, looking Anders in the eye from a few steps away and struggling to keep his nerve now that there was no physical barrier between them.

Eyes narrowing, Anders attempted to cross his arms over his chest, but winced with pain halfway through the motion.

Cullen caught his elbow to steady him. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” Anders said through gritted teeth. “Just sore.” Taking a deep breath, he blinked up at Cullen from beneath furrowed brows. “You wanted to say something?”

“I...I never thanked you properly. For healing my lyrium addiction, I mean. With the masquerade, and everything that happened after, I never found the time.”

Expression guarded, Anders replied, “I thought we just agreed that neither of us owes the other anything.”

“No, I... “ Cullen cleared his throat again. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, that’s not really why I asked Morrigan to heal you. Not out of a sense of obligation.”

Studying him, Anders asked, “Then why?”

“I don’t know,” Cullen answered honestly. “But I couldn't let you die. Not like that.”

“You blamed yourself,” Anders guessed. “For failing to notice the danger until it was too late.”

“Yes,” Cullen admitted. “But that’s not the entire reason either. We were running out of time. She made the offer, and it seemed like an acceptable risk. So I took it.”

“An acceptable risk? She used blood magic!” Anders retorted, surprising Cullen with his vehemence. “I still can't understand it. You can barely tolerate magic at all—and that’s the kind that doesn’t require blood sacrifices or a pact with a demon. I never expected to see you compromise your beliefs so completely.”

Cullen felt his skin heat with an angry blush. “There was no other option." Shaking his head, he asked, "Does this mean Varric was right? Would you really have rather died than be healed with blood magic?”

Collecting himself with a deep breath, Anders looked away. “Yes,” he replied softly. “If I had been given the choice, I would have chosen death.”

“Even now? You said you came here to thank me for your life. Was that a lie?”

Anders sighed. “I… No. As much as I’d like to stay completely true to my principles, it’s hard to argue with survival.”

Cullen leaned back against his desk, suddenly exhausted by the conversation. Why had he ever broached this topic? What was he trying to prove? “If you asked me what decision I would make in that sort of situation,” he said slowly, the thoughts forming in his mind only moments before the words left his lips. “If you posed it purely as a hypothetical, I would choose differently. In the abstract, my decision makes no sense. I hate blood magic as much as you do—maybe more. But you were lying there in a pool of your own blood, so pale and deathly still… And all I could think about was how close you had come to dying that way back in Kirkwall—how angry I had been that Hawke had chosen not to finish the job at the time—and how much my feelings have changed since then. I realized that I wanted you to live. And when I realized that...I couldn’t accept any other option.”

Shifting uncomfortably on his feet, Anders stared at him as if struggling with a decision; Cullen couldn’t interpret the expression on his face, but the intensity of the emotion made him anxious. For a moment he thought Anders was going to finally ask him about their awkward awakening the morning after his healing. But then Anders sighed. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Neither do I. So let’s just leave it at that.” Walking back around his desk, Cullen frowned at the stack of reports and pulled a fresh one from the top of the pile. “You were right before. I have a lot of work. I should get back to it.”

Anders stared at him for a while longer before finally nodding. “Let me know when you get a lead on Maddox. I’ll try to convince him to help us.”

“I appreciate that.”

“And Cullen?”

Looking up from his report, Cullen felt warmth blossom in his chest when he saw the smile wrinkling the corners of Anders’ eyes.

“Don’t work too hard. You’re still recovering too, remember?”

Cullen nodded, swallowing hard as he watched Anders walk away.

Chapter Text

Anders had been expecting to see Varric since he first woke up. After the way the dwarf had guarded him when he was dying, he had expected Varric to still be watching over him while he slept. But Cassandra had been the one to greet him when he opened his eyes instead.

He had initially been comforted by her presence despite the awkwardness of knowing about her crush; now that her interest had been brought to his attention, he couldn’t help but see signs of it in everything she said and did. But after the way their conversation had ended, he wasn’t sure that it would be much of an issue in the future. They were both stubborn people with strong beliefs, and their conversation about the chantry had made their inherent incompatibility all too obvious. He still respected a great many things about her, but he didn’t see any possibility of romance in their future. He suspected she was no longer seeing that possibility either.

Feeling frustrated and in need of some cheering up, he’d dressed and gone out in search of Varric, but the dwarf was nowhere to be found. Surprisingly, the next person on his list was Cullen. After his close brush with death, he needed reassurance that his survival had been worth the possible consequences. Cullen had seemed to have few doubts when he ordered Morrigan to save him, and Anders was hoping that he would feel better about what had happened if he could understand Cullen’s motivation. But their conversation had only left him feeling more confused. Cullen had been acting strangely ever since his healing—and their awkward interaction the morning after—but his behavior was only getting stranger. Anders could understand his coldness, even his brutal honesty. But genuine concern? Attachment? He had no idea what to do with such emotions coming from Cullen.

At this point, he was ready to give up on the day and hide away in his quarters until someone forced him to come out. On his way through the main hall, Varric’s voice made him pause. Varric was standing in his usual spot, and he had company—rather charming company, in fact. The dwarven woman was obscured by her leather armor and hood, but she had a fire in her eyes and a humorous twist to her lips that made Anders instantly like her. Her posture was inclined ever so slightly toward Varric, and the way Varric tilted his head in return told Anders that they had history, likely an intimate one. Curious, he studied them a few moments before emerging from the shadows to join their conversation.

“I appreciate the warning,” Varric was saying with worry in his tone, “but you shouldn't have come yourself. What if the Guild found out? Or...whatshisname?”

She smirked and crossed her arms over her chest, canting her head to the side as she asked, “Are you worrying for me or for yourself?”

“A little of Column A, a little of Column B. I am the expendable one, after all.”

Anders didn’t like the sound of that. Joining them in front of the fireplace, he observed that the woman took notice of him far sooner than Varric did.

“Well, this is a surprise!” she said with a pleasant smile. “You’re the Inquisitor, right? Bianca Davri, at your service.”

Somehow Anders had known that would be her name. “Bianca?” he repeated with a smirk, giving Varric a meaningful look. "Nice name."

Varric grimaced.

“It’s a common name for a dwarf,” Bianca replied, still smiling, though she watched their exchange curiously. Anders guessed that she didn’t miss much. “Half the girls in the Merchant’s Guild are named Bianca. The other half are name Helga. I lucked out.”

“I’d say,” Anders agreed. “Helga would be such an unfortunate name for someone as lovely as yourself.”

Bianca’s eyes glittered with laughter, but Varric was not as amused.

“Inquisitor,” Varric said sharply, and Anders was too distracted by Varric’s uncharacteristic use of his title to respond. If Varric was using his title, then he didn’t want Bianca to know who he really was. “Bianca’s got a lead on where Corypheus is getting his red lyrium,” Varric continued, getting down to business. Anders couldn't help but notice that Varric had actually used Bianca’s name rather than a moniker. That was another first.

"Attractive and resourceful," Anders said, unable to help himself despite Varric’s annoyance. “I like her.”

Varric shook his head. "Could you be serious for a minute? The place Corypheus is using to get his lyrium? It's the primeval thaig Hawke and I found on our expedition!"

Eyes widening, Anders felt all the moisture evaporate from his mouth as he took his next breath. "How did he find it?"

"How he found it isn’t important," Bianca interrupted. "What matters is that we know what they’re doing now."

"Wait." Anders frowned. "How does Bianca know about it?"

Varric huffed in annoyance. "Really, Inquisitor? You need to ask?"

"You told her," Anders surmised, feeling a strange pang in his chest that felt an awful lot like envy.

Looking back and forth between them, Bianca rolled her eyes. "I'd better get back so I can keep an eye on their operation. The sooner we shut it down, the better."

"I can't argue with that," Anders agreed.

She nodded. "Then I'll see you soon. Don't keep me waiting too long, Varric. I’ve got my own work to do, you know?"

When she was gone, Varric shook his head. "Stop looking at me like that, Blondie."

"Like what?" Anders asked innocently, but the pang in his chest wasn’t going away. This woman was clearly important to Varric, had likely been a part of his life for much longer than Anders had, and yet he’d never met her before now, never even had confirmation that she existed. Varric had always been private about certain things, but it was still hard not to take a secret of this magnitude personally. When Varric remained silent, Anders arched his eyebrows. "Well? Is that her?"

"Who?"

"Don't play dumb. The real Bianca. The woman you named your crossbow after, the one you use as your excuse for turning down everyone who falls in love with you."

Varric squinted at him. "Is that...jealousy in your voice?" He laughed. "If I didn’t know better, I might think you had fallen in love yourself."

Eager to change the subject, Anders perched on the edge of the table and crossed his arms over his chest. “You called me Inquisitor.”

“I wrote to her off and on when we were back in Kirkwall. If I called you Blondie, she’d know immediately who you are.”

Anders arched a brow at him. “You wrote to her about me?”

“I wrote to her about everyone.” Varric gave him a look that dared him to ask more. “You might have come up once or twice.”

Anders decided to let the subject drop, uncertain if he really wanted details considering how frustrated everyone had been with him by the end. "Do you think this lead of hers is real?"

"Bianca is too much of a researcher to pass me information without verifying it first." Varric shrugged. "But if you’re asking if she’d lie to us, maybe set us up? It’s possible. Not likely, though. She risked the wrath of the Guild coming in person."

"I know the Merchant’s Guild is cutthroat, but you say that like they have some grudge against her personally."

"To be fair, it’s more a grudge against me. Technically, we’re not supposed to be within 300 leagues of each other. If it got back to the guild that we were seen together, they’d freeze my assets and then have me killed, maybe not in that order."

“That’s quite the grudge.”

“Yeah,” Varric said, rubbing the back of his neck. “We almost started a clan war. It was a long time ago.”

“Let me guess. It was all a complete misunderstanding.”

“Something like that.”

Nodding, Anders watched as a log collapsed into embers in the fireplace. “You’ve known each other a long time, then.”

“You are jealous, aren’t you?” Varric joined him beside the table and nudged him with an elbow.

Anders sighed. “I’m not jealous. Just disappointed, I guess.”

“She’s not what you expected?”

“I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t even sure she was real.” Taking a deep breath, Anders chose his next words carefully. “I suppose I thought you would have talked about someone so important to you at some point during the decade we’ve known each other.”

Varric shook his head. “It’s not a story I like to tell.” Looking up at him, he added, “If it makes you feel any better, I haven’t told it to anyone else either.”

Frowning, Anders nodded, more to acknowledge the statement than to say he agreed. He didn’t feel any better at all.

“Hey, how are you doing, anyway?” Varric’s voice was suddenly deliberately casual, as if he were trying to hide how much Anders’ response mattered to him. “This is the first time I’ve seen you up and about since…”

“I’m fine. Nearly healed,” Anders glanced at him without turning his head.

“Good.” Varric nodded, taking a shaky breath. “That’s good.”

“For what it’s worth, you were right,” Anders added, watching Varric’s face closely.

“About what?” Varric’s expression said he already knew the answer, but needed to hear confirmation.

Pushing away from the table, Anders explained, “About what I wanted. Thank you for trying to stop them.” Giving Varric the chance to process this without  scrutiny, he turned to walk away.

“Blondie," Varric said in a tortured voice, his casual air crumbling as he reached out to catch Anders' arm. "Wait.”

Covering his hand, Anders smiled gently. “Don't worry. I'm happy to be alive. But I'm also grateful to have a friend who would try so hard to defend my wishes.”

Varric nodded, looking mildly embarrassed. “Even so, I’m just as happy that you survived. I…”

“I get it. You don’t need to say anything else.” Taking a few steps away, Anders cleared his throat. “We’d better start packing for the Deep Roads if we’re going to shut down those red lyrium mines.”

"What's this about the Deep Roads?"

Anders cringed at the sound of Josephine's voice.

Despite the fact that she was significantly shorter, she still managed to look disapprovingly down her nose at him, but there was a twinkle in her eyes that belied her fierce expression. "Considering you've barely left your sick bed, don't you think you should start with something a bit less strenuous, Inquisitor? Like joining us in the War Room?"

Varric grinned at him. "You'd probably better do what Ruffles says. I'll take care of the preparations."

"I'll catch up with you later," Anders said, nodding in agreement.

"Much later," Josephine suggested, gesturing him toward her office.

Chapter Text

Standing just outside the War Room, Morrigan strained her ears to hear the voices from within. She could feel the ancient magic thrumming through the stone at her back, condensed with the memories of all the people who had sheltered in this castle through the ages. Sensing the sheer weight of history held within them, she imagined she could feel the stones vibrating with joy. After so many eons of slowly crumbling into dust, they were standing witness to great events. The Inquisition had given them purpose once again.

In a way, she shared that sentiment. She and Kieran had been wandering aimlessly across the world for many years now, seeking temporary shelter and safety wherever it could be found. Her thirst for knowledge continued to keep her occupied, but she rarely felt the sense of clear purpose she had felt while traveling at the Hero of Ferelden's side. But she felt an echo of that feeling here, and she suspected that the longer she stayed, the more her fate would become entwined with that of the Inquisition. Part of her worried that she might regret binding herself to this cause, but the rest was thrilled at the prospect of the things they might together accomplish.

Sighing, she tilted her head and listened more closely to the soft voices discussing the current state of the Inquisition. They had turned their attention to Corypheus now and were debating his interest in the Arbor Wilds. A smile twisted her lips. That was her cue.

Stepping silently inside, she surveyed the room as the advisors continued their discussion, noting the organized chaos of the maps on the table, the stacks of reports around the edges and the various items cluttering every remaining surface. The Inquisitor stood with his back to her, but she was surprised to see him there at all. She had mended him as best as she could with the energy she had at hand, but the blood used to fuel his healing had been spilled at great cost to him in the first place. She would have expected him to still be in bed recovering, but clearly she had underestimated his strength of will.

"But what is Corypheus doing in such a remote area?" the woman on the right side of the table asked, still unaware of Morrigan's presence. Her easy confidence—not to mention her Antivan accent—reminded Morrigan of Zevran, but she also had an elegance to her bearing that was more reminiscent of Orlais than Antiva.

"Corypheus' people have been ransacking elven ruins since Haven," Leliana mused. "We believe he seeks more. What he hopes to find, however, continues to elude us."

Morrigan couldn't hold back a chuckle. She couldn't look at Leliana without recalling the sweet lay sister who had joined their party back in Lothering, an outcast who believed that she could hear the Maker's voice and was determined to follow it to the ends of the earth. She looked older now, certainly less sweet but no less naive. Cynicism was not a cure for foolishness. Morrigan wondered if she still heard that voice in her head, or if she had finally learned that she was hearing nothing more than her own mind echoing her thoughts back at her in an attempt to protect herself from the consequences of her actions.

"The fact that Corypheus continues to elude you should surprise no one," Morrigan said tartly as she joined them at the table. "Fortunately, I can assist."

The Inquisitor turned to her with a conflicted expression, and she recalled how that beardless dwarf had tried to stop her from using blood magic, claiming he was honoring Anders wishes. She hoped he was wrong, and that Anders didn't hate her for saving his life. Stubborn self-righteousness at the cost of logic was one of her pet peeves. Between that potential trait and the painful sincerity in his eyes, he was reminding her uncomfortably of Alistair, and that was not a comparison that endeared him to her.

"Inquisitor," she said lightly. "I see that you are much improved since our last encounter."

"I am," he admitted. "Thanks to your efforts, it seems."

She arched a brow, surprised to hear such a reasonable response. Unable to resist the urge to test the waters, she observed, "And suffering no ill effects from my barbaric methods, I trust?"

A small smile curved his lips, tight and humorless. "Not yet. But I guess we'll see."

"You said something about helping us?" This time it was the commander who spoke. He sounded tired and eager to change the topic. She had met Cullen in Ferelden's tower after it had been overrun by blood mages, and recalled a desperate templar who had been turned cold and cruel by days of torture. After that experience, she would have expected him to be the one with the chip on his shoulder, but his behavior at the Winter Palace had been the most reasonable she had seen within the Inquisition that night. He hadn't hesitated to do what was necessary. "What do you think Corypheus is after?" he asked.

"Something that is as ancient as it is dangerous," she replied. Turning back to the Inquisitor, she added, "'Tis best if I show you directly."

Anders' brow furrowed, but he followed her out of the room without comment. She knew little about him, truth be told. His actions in Kirkwall were simple enough to discern once she knew his name, and a little digging had informed her of his time with the Wardens in Amaranthine, but beyond that, she only knew fragments. And even some of those pieces had already been proven wrong. She had expected to find a spirit of Justice sharing his mind when she healed him, but there had been no sign of such a spirit, and no indication that one had recently been present. His hatred for blood magic had also been a surprise, considering his distaste for the chantry and defense of all other forms of magic.

"If you're planning to lead me all the way to the Arbor Wilds, I'd prefer to pack a bag first," he said dryly.

Rolling her eyes, she walked out into the hall without bothering to hold the door open for him. "You would need to pack? I have heard you are always well prepared to make a quick escape."

He frowned as he caught the door and followed her. "I don't run away anymore."

Regarding him obliquely, she considered this. "Is it so easy for a bird to change its feathers?"

"I didn't say it was easy." His eyes narrowed. "But what about you? You have the look of someone who's been running for a long time. Have you never considered settling anywhere?"

She laughed at his boldness. "'Tis none of your business, I think."

"And here I thought we were getting to know each other."

"Learning more about me will do nothing to aid you in your fight against Corypheus. You are only asking questions because you have not yet learned to trust."

"I can trust just fine. You simply haven't earned it yet."

She laughed, looking back over her shoulder as she stepped through the door to the garden. "Even after I saved your life?"

"At a convenient moment by using blood magic," he pointed out.

Shaking her head, she led him into the garden, steering well clear of the chantry mother and her flock of faithful. Kieran was sitting quietly on a bench near the gazebo with his nose in a book, but she avoided him as well; she had yet to determine how far Anders could be trusted, and she would protect her son at all costs. "You disappoint me, Inquisitor," she said airily. "After hearing so many stories about your fanatical beliefs, I would have expected you to respect an apostate living free of the chantry. Instead, you focus on the details that offend your sensibilities."

He scowled. "Blood magic is more than a detail."

"And without it, you would be dead."

Sighing, he rubbed at his forehead in frustration. "Listen, I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but in my experience, even the good that might come from blood magic comes with a price."

"You are afraid of it, then," she surmised.

Considering this, he tilted his head with a frown. "I am more afraid of those who would rely on it without considering the cost."

She nodded, appreciating the distinction and deciding he was not entirely the short-sighted fool she had taken him for. "In that case, you need not fear me. I may make bold choices at times, but never without considering the consequences. Still, sometimes the ends actually do justify the means. Or do you disagree?"

He laughed suddenly, the sound refreshingly bright and welcome after the tension of their conversation thus far. "I can hardly disagree without damning my own actions, can I?"

She smiled slowly. "Indeed."

"So, where exactly are you leading me? Last I knew we were using the rooms around here as quarters for our guests..." He gasped suddenly with exaggerated offense. "That's it, isn't it? You're taking me to your quarters. Is this where you demand that I show my gratitude for saving my life? Is that how you got the Warden Commander to—"

She interrupted before he could continue, annoyed that he even knew about the ritual, let alone would speak so flippantly about it. "Yes, yes. I am a traitorous vixen, is that what you've heard? How very childish. At times you remind me entirely too much of another grey warden I once knew."

She regretted mentioning Alistair as soon as she saw the way his eyes lit up with curiosity. "Oh? Not Tabris, surely. He always laughed at my jokes, but rarely cracked his own."

"No. I'm thinking of the fool currently warming Ferelden's throne."

"Oh!" Anders laughed. "Then I'll take that as a compliment."

"And that simply proves my point." They were close to their destination, but she slowed her steps, unable to ignore her curiosity now that the topic had arisen. Glancing up at him, she said, "Speaking of the grey wardens, I understand you spared them from destroying what good will was left them. 'Tis good of you, considering the weakness Corypheus exploited was their own doing." She paused a moment before adding, "One thing makes me curious. Did you encounter the Hero of Ferelden at Adamant fortress?"

His eyes widened slightly. "No. I haven't seen him since he left Amaranthine. Last I heard, he had run off with Zevran and was searching for a way to end the calling."

She nodded, disappointed but not entirely surprised. "Then for all your sakes, I hope he finds one. To avoid Corypheus' manipulation, if nothing else."

Turning back to face the door she had been seeking, she pushed it open and gestured him ahead of her. He gasped when he saw the enormous mirror at the far side of the room, light reflecting off the surface in a myriad of colors as if bent through a prism. His steps slowed as he approached, finally stopping completely. She smiled at his reluctance.

"I assume this is what you brought me to see?" he asked, unable to pry his gaze from the mirror.

"This is an eluvian, an elven artifact from a time long before their empire was lost to human greed. I restored this one at great cost, but another lies within the Arbor Wilds. That is what Corypheus seeks."

"An eluvian?" Canting his head to the side, he lifted a hand toward the mirror and she felt him summon a bit of magic to his fingertips. The mirror failed to react to his inspection. "I've seen something like this before, but it was broken, dangerous. I good woman lost her life because of a pact with a demon to restore it." He glanced at her with a frown. "What did you have to sacrifice in order to restore this one?"

"That is none of your concern. But if it eases your mind, I did not require a demon's assistance to accomplish the task."

He nodded. "Merrill was convinced that restoring her mirror would somehow help her people, but I'm not sure if even she understood its purpose. What does it do?"

"A more appropriate question would be 'Where does it lead?'" Lifting a hand, she whispered the words in her mind that would activate the eluvian and sent the burst of magic into the surface to unlock it. The patterns on the surface began to swirl, tendrils of light reaching out into the room as if straining to break through.

His jaw dropped open, and she took a moment to enjoy his surprise before moving forward and stepping through the surface. She welcomed the shock of magic tingling over her like a shower of electrified water as she walked, smiling into the foggy courtyard on the other side with a feeling like returning home. She had spent countless days in this place and ones like it, and she never felt safer than when she was standing in this world between.

Following her through the portal, Anders stumbled on a loose cobblestone and flung an arm out to one side to regain his balance. She caught it instinctively, but gasped when she felt the sting of energy against her skin and saw the mark on his hand flare brightly for a moment.

Frowning, he pulled his hand away from her touch and then turned slowly to survey their surroundings. "Andraste's knicker weasels," he breathed, and she arched a brow at his language. "Where are we?"

"If this place once had a name, it has long been lost. I call it the crossroads, a place where all eluvians join…wherever they might be."

He began to wander, inspecting various eluvians and a few of the curiously perfect trees. "How can this place even exist? It feels almost like the Fade, but solid. Real in a way the Fade never is."

"It is similar enough," she agreed. "The ancient elves left no roads, only ruins hidden in far-flung corners. This is how they traveled between them. As you can see, most of the mirrors are dark: broken, corrupted or unusable. As for the rest...a few can be opened from this side, but only a few."

Resting a hand lightly against one of the eluvians that had gone dark, he quickly pulled it away again and looked back at her. "How did you find out about this place?"

"My travels have led me to many strange destinations. Once they led me here. It offered sanctuary."

He nodded. "And now Corypheus wants to destroy it."

She tilted her head thoughtfully. "As you observed, this place is very similar to the Fade. Someone with enough power could tear down the ancient barriers…"

"And enter the Fade in the flesh," he finished for her.

"Corypheus learned of the eluvian in the Arbor Wilds, as I once did. It proved too dangerous for me to approach, but he has an army. He marshals the last of his forces to reach it and may very well succeed."

His expression took on a fierce determination that surprised her. "That can't happen."

"Then we need to gather our own forces to follow him. Soon."

"Our forces," he echoed quietly. "You've assimilated rather quickly for someone so late to join our cause."

"What does the timing matter?" she asked, voice sharp with frustration. "Corypheus must be stopped. Most dismiss him as a madman for seeking godhood, but I have studied the old gods for much of my life and even I do not fully understand what they were. What secrets of theirs might the ancient magisters have known?" She shook her head vehemently. "What I fear—what all should fear—is not that Corypheus believes he can succeed. 'Tis that he actually may. With stakes so high, you do not have the luxury of choosing only the allies you prefer. You need everyone who is willing to fight at your side."

"You're right," he admitted with a sigh. "Talk to Cullen. He'll need to know what our forces will be up against in the Arbor Wilds."

She nodded, gesturing at the eluvian behind them, still shining brilliantly like a beacon through the mist. "Shall we return?"

He hesitated, looking around as if reluctant to leave the place without exploring further, and she smiled. This was one trait, at least, that they had in common. "Let's go," he said finally. "We have work to do."

Chapter Text

Life was finally beginning to settle back into a routine.

Nothing had been routine in the weeks leading up to their trip to the Winter Palace between all the diplomatic meetings, the letter-writing and preparation for the ball itself. Josephine had spent most of her time running around the castle like mad, meeting with important visitors and coordinating with Inquisition agents about topics ranging from the lofty to the obscure. It had been exhausting work, but the effort had paid off. Anders' identity was not exactly common knowledge, but it was known and accepted by those with the most influence. And now Orlais was stable again, although she doubted the three-way truce would last long once the immediate crisis was over. But it would last long enough, and Orlais could find it's own way forward after Corypheus was gone.

Although they had been back at Skyhold for days, she hadn't felt as if life had returned to normal until their first meeting in the War Room with the Inquisitor. For a moment Josephine had felt as if nothing had truly changed among them, that despite Anders' close brush with death, they had managed to survive Halamshiral without lasting damage. Then Morrigan had interrupted and shattered the illusion. The dynamic had shifted. Morrigan had knowledge that none of the rest of them could bring to the table, knowledge that might be the key to understanding Corypheus' motives. Her presence could be invaluable to their efforts, but Josephine wasn't sure she trusted the woman any more than Leliana did.

She was reassured by the fact that Anders was no less wary. Morrigan may have saved his life, but she was pleased to see he wasn't allowing that to color his judgment. She wondered where the witch had taken him, what Morrigan was sharing that was so difficult to explain that she had insisted on showing him first-hand. Sighing, Josephine shook her head. It was pointless to worry.

A smile curved her lips when she turned her head and saw the fresh vase of flowers on the corner of her desk. The blooms were especially crisp today. She wondered how far Blackwall had walked along the jagged mountain peaks to find such perfect specimens. An ache formed in her chest as she brushed a finger gently over one of the soft petals, conflicted as always over the desire to respond to the warden's overtures.

She'd caught him watching her more than once at the Winter Palace, and her breath had caught in her throat at the possibility that he would ask her to dance, but he had never moved close enough for anyone to connect them beyond their loyalty to the Inquisition. He had never come within range for her to introduce him to her sister or tell him how dashing he looked in his dress uniform, beard trimmed so sharp and neat against his angular jaw. She had been disappointed but also relieved; she would not have been able to accept an invitation to dance. It would have been entirely improper. And she doubted that Yvette would have had the tact to greet him as graciously as he deserved. They were from different worlds, and there was no way to reconcile the two without abandoning her family's honor. But she enjoyed thinking about the possibilities, the potential of what could be if circumstances had been different.

Her smile faded as she thought about how Blackwall had been more taciturn than usual after the ball, his dark gaze often unfocused and distant as if he were occupied with unpleasant, heavy thoughts. At first she had thought he'd been blaming himself over what had happened to the Inquisitor, but she was beginning to suspect he was troubled by something else. Leliana had mentioned that someone had been rifling through her reports and that one was missing. One of her agents had noticed Blackwall leaving the rookery the same day the report had disappeared.

Playing with her quill, Josephine looked down at the half-written letter on her podium and struggled with how to continue. Her eyes drifted back toward the flowers and she sighed. Maybe what she needed was a little fresh air.

Stretching and standing up, she walked out into the courtyard, checking in with various Inquisition agents and soldiers along the way. She spent some time with the merchants in the lower courtyard, inquiring about their needs and looking for ways to make their alliance with the Inquisition as profitable as it could be. The stables were always in the corner of her eyes, the yawning doorway drawing her attention whenever she turned her head. But she took her time, speaking with each merchant in turn to make certain that they all felt equally attended.

After wrapping up the last conversation, she turned to face the barn, walking lightly across the muddy yard to avoid the puddles. The barn was quiet and surprisingly dark when she entered, the fire dwindled down to embers as if it hadn't been tended for hours. She frowned. Looking around, she saw no sign of recent activity, the wooden rocking horse Blackwall had been carving sat unfinished on the bench. Smiling fondly at the horse, she traced a finger along the horse's nose and admired his craftsmanship, marveling as always at how a man so coarse and stoic on the outside chose to spend his time making toys for children.

Then she saw the folded piece of paper on the table and her heart quickened its pace even though she had no obvious cause for alarm. Picking up the paper, she noted how neatly it had been folded, the crispness of the parchment, delaying the inevitable for a few moments longer.

She had to read the letter inside twice before she truly understood what it meant: he was gone.

Folding the paper again, she hurried back into the courtyard and headed immediately for Leliana's tower. But she ran into the Inquisitor in the main hall—quite literally—and gasped when she saw his grimace of pain, his hand pressing against the place where his wound had been.

"Inquisitor!" she gasped, covering her mouth in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry! I didn't—I should have been looking where I was going."

Collecting himself, he gave her a wry smile. "Don't worry about it. You were in a hurry and I wasn't paying attention." His smile faded when he saw her expression. "Is something wrong?"

Taking a slow breath, she handed him Blackwall's letter.

Regarding the paper warily, he opened it and began reading quietly out loud. "Inquisitor, you've been a friend and an inspiration. The courage you demonstrated in facing your past has given me the courage to face my own. It's been an honor to serve you." Looking up at her, he asked, "What has he done?"

"I don't know. But I intend to find out."

She led the way up to the rookery and Anders followed closely on her heels. The birds were in a frenzy when they reached the top of the rotunda, their cries echoing loudly in the vaulted space. Turning when she saw them appear in the stairwell, Leliana nodded at one of her scouts and walked briskly across the room to join them, a report clutched in one hand.

"Josie," she said, "We found that missing report, and one of my agents has confirmed that Blackwall was the one who took it. He's up to something. I need to know what."

"He's gone," Josephine replied, hating the slight waver in her voice the moment she heard it.

"What?"

Handing Leliana the letter, Anders asked, "What was in the missing report? Does it give us any clue where he might have gone?"

Leliana read the brief letter before responding. "It was about an execution in Val Royeaux. Someone named Cyril Mornay."

Plucking the report from Leliana's hand, Josephine read it quickly, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach as she finished.

"Thom Rainier," Anders said, peering over her shoulder to read along with her. "The report says the captain who ordered the assassination is still at large. Could Blackwall be…?"

"No," Josephine answered automatically, even though she knew she was being irrational. "It can't be. He's a grey warden."

Frowning, Leliana said, "Many criminals take refuge within the wardens."

"And I'm not entirely sure he is a warden," Anders said, rubbing at the back of his neck sheepishly.

"What do you mean?" Leliana asked.

"When we first met, I couldn't sense the taint within him. I thought that the anchor was interfering with my ability to sense darkspawn, and therefore wardens as well, but when we met with Stroud and later went to Adamant… It isn't the same, but I can still sense them."

"And you decided to keep this information to yourself?" Leliana demanded.

Anders set his jaw stubbornly. "I didn't think it mattered. You can see how little the joining did to keep me loyal, and he is certainly dedicated enough to their cause even without it." He shrugged.

Eyes narrowing, Leliana shook her head, "Or perhaps he was merely playing the part to keep his identity a secret."

"Regardless of his original intentions," Josephine said sadly, "his heart is clearly in the right place now. He's run off to Val Royeaux to turn himself in for his crimes."

"We have to stop him." Anders turned to leave as if this statement was fact and not up for debate. As much as Josephine's spirits soared to hear the determination in his voice, she worried for the consequences; the Inquisition couldn't start interfering with criminal proceedings in another country without overreaching its bounds. But she couldn't bring herself to say anything either, clinging quietly to the hope that Anders would find a way to save Blackwall from himself.

"Inquisitor!" Leliana said sharply before he could reach the stairs.

He stopped and looked back at her, but didn't fully turn around.

"There's nothing we can do," she explained, "If Blackwall really is this Thom Rainier, then he ordered the murders of a nobleman and his entire family and has allowed his own soldiers to take the blame. Regardless of his work with the Inquisition or the purity of his intentions in impersonating a grey warden, his crimes are outside our jurisdiction. If he decides to turn himself in, we can't afford to get involved."

Expression darkening, Anders turned back to face her with fire in his eyes. "What about my crimes? None of you had any trouble using Inquisition resources to protect me from the punishment I deserved."

"You are the Inquisition," Leliana snapped back at him. "If you go down, you bring the rest of us with you. We had no choice but to defend you. But Blackwall is different. He is one man among many."

"He's no less important, no less worthy of protection."

"This isn't about worthiness…"

"No, it's about politics. But aren't we supposed to be better than that? Isn't the point of the Inquisition to do the right thing even when it's inconvenient?"

Josephine watched them argue, too conflicted to choose a side, but she knew that the argument wouldn't get them anywhere. "Stop!" Steeling herself for the anger in their eyes as they turned to look at her, she shook her head. "Both of you are right. It will be troublesome to protect Blackwall, and it's possible that we will erode alliances by doing so. We might even lose some of them entirely. But the point of the Inquisition is to uphold the spirit of the law and not merely the letter. We hold ourselves to a higher standard...and we defend our own."

Sighing, Leliana nodded reluctantly. "Until we know more about Blackwall's motivations, it's impossible to decide if saving him is worth the risk. But if we don't investigate, we won't have the chance to prevent his execution."

Anders nodded. "Then I'm on my way to Val Royeaux."

"Be careful," Josephine said softly, the entire situation triggering her protective instincts.

He nodded again before disappearing down the stairs.

When he was gone, Leliana sighed. "I'm sorry, Josie."

Squaring her shoulders, Josephine summoned a diplomatic smile. "There's no need to apologize. I'm fine."

"Of course."

Chapter Text

Anders had been standing outside the jail long enough for the rain to seep into his clothing, water pooling uncomfortably along his collar and soaking into his trousers so that they hung heavily on his legs. He felt miserable and cold, but he was reveling in the unpleasantness, knowing it was more pleasant than the decision waiting for him inside. They had arrived too late to prevent Blackwall—Rainier, he corrected himself—from turning himself in to the authorities, and now Anders had to decide if his life was worth tarnishing the Inquisition's reputation at a time when they needed their allies more than ever.

He wanted more than anything to pass this choice to another. He was biased in the worst possible way, and he couldn't consider Rainier's crimes without also considering his own. While he still believed that he had done the only thing he could have done given the circumstances, he knew that many people would have been happy to put him on that scaffold right next to Rainier. And they would have been no less justified in doing so. His actions had earned him a traitor's death, the sort of death Sebastian had nearly provided, and yet he had managed to escape his fate once again. How could he not attempt to help Rainier escape his?

Rubbing absently at the spot where his wound had been, he stared out into the rain until his eyes burned, worried that his desire to save Rainier was motivated by nothing more than his own guilt.

"It isn't the same," a voice said from behind him, startling him from his thoughts. He turned to see Cullen huddling in his armor as if Val Royeaux could possibly be colder than their lofty castle in the Frostbacks. He had been surprised when Cullen insisted on coming along, but the Commander had claimed he was only there to secure Rainier's transfer if Anders decided to take him back to Skyhold for judgment.

"What did you say?" Anders asked, even though he had heard Cullen just fine and suspected he had also understood his meaning. He simply couldn't believe that such a sentiment had come from Cullen at all.

"You're thinking that you belong in that cell with him," Cullen explained. "You don't."

Scoffing, Anders looked away. "I don't believe you actually think that. I ruined far more lives than Rainier did."

"And you're saving lives every day now."

"And that's enough to make up for what I did?"

Cullen opened his mouth and closed it again before finally saying, "It's a good start."

Peering at him out of the corner of his eyes, Anders wondered when Cullen had started cutting him so much slack. "Did you see the letter Rainier left for me? He said I'd inspired him by facing my past so courageously." He laughed bitterly. "I haven't faced anything. All I've ever done is run away."

Stepping closer, Cullen frowned at him. "If you want to go back to Kirkwall and spend the rest of your life rotting away in a cell, that's your choice, but you'll have to wait until all of this is over."

Anders smiled sadly. They'd never actually talked about what would happen to him after Corypheus was defeated, but he'd always assumed that his long-delayed punishment would catch up with him eventually. "My choice? I'd expected you to insist on marching me back to Kirkwall yourself when this is over. And you know there will be worse than a cell waiting for me when I get there." Sighing, he turned back to face the jail, surprised when Cullen caught his shoulder before he could take a step.

"I won't let you go back to Kirkwall alone."

Blinking at him in surprise, Anders tried to figure out what he meant by that. It almost sounded as if he intended to protect him. But that was ridiculous. "I have no intention of going back," he admitted finally. "Not if I can avoid it."

"Good." Cullen looked away from his gaze, cheeks pink with embarrassment as if he had said more than he'd intended. "Let me know what you decide about Rainier," he added, voice suddenly cool and distant.

Staring at him in confusion, Anders waited until Cullen turned away entirely before he began moving toward the jail again. He didn't know what to make of Cullen anymore. The Commander's attitude toward him had been slowly changing over the months they'd been working together, but Anders' close brush with death had transformed it to such a degree that Anders struggled to even guess where he was coming from half the time. If he didn't know better, he might interpret Cullen's fondness and growing protectiveness as a sign of deeper feelings. But even if such a thing weren't all but impossible, he knew that it would end in disaster before it even started. He couldn't stop thinking about Cassandra and the way they had recently clashed over their beliefs, and his differences of opinion with Cullen were even more extreme.

They had far more important things to concern themselves with other than romance, regardless. Stepping into the welcome darkness of the jail, he tried to focus on the decision before him, nodding at the guard as he passed and descending the steps to the cells below. The damp, musty smell immediately recalled unpleasant memories from his extended stay within the tower's dungeons, and he shuddered as he descended the steps, forcing himself to focus on details to avoid thinking about the oppressive whole. Very little light filtered down into the space, but dust motes danced in the sparse pools of light, and grime gathered in every corner. He marveled at the dirt, realizing this was the first place in Val Royeaux where he had seen such a disregard for appearances. All of the cells were unoccupied save the one holding Rainier, and the burly figure of his friend was hunched toward the back of that space, head bowed and features obscured by shadows. Anders studied him for a moment, unsure what to say or even how to address him.

Rainier saved him the trouble. "I didn't take Blackwall's life," he said without looking up. "I traded his death. He wanted me for the wardens, but there was an ambush. Darkspawn. He was killed. I took his name to stop the world from losing a good man. But a good man, the man he was, wouldn't have let another die in his place."

"Tell me about him," Anders suggested, stepping closer to the cell.

Looking up at him in confusion, Rainier frowned. "We met in a tavern when I was on the run. I was nothing, a waste of life, but he wanted to recruit me."

"Many wardens start out the same way," Anders mused. "In fact, they might be the ones best suited to the role."

Rainier shrugged. "We headed for Val Chevin for the joining, but Blackwall insisted on making a stop along the way, an old ruin from one of the previous blights. He said it led to the Deep Roads."

"Let me guess. He wanted you to retrieve some darkspawn blood."

Nodding, Rainier gave him an odd look, and Anders realized that they'd never really discussed his own past as a warden, and it wasn't as if Rainier had been able to recognize him without the joining. If he had known Anders was a warden, he would have realized his cover was blown from the beginning. "When I returned," Rainier continued, "I found the warden ambushed by more of the creatures. He took a blow for me. He shouldn't have died. It should have been me."

"You might not have even survived the joining. Maybe he saved your life in more ways than one."

Shaking his head, Rainier said darkly, "He still shouldn't have died for me. He...he would have wanted me to carry on to Val Chevin, I'm certain. But without him, there was no proof I'd been recruited, that I didn't kill him. I couldn't go to the wardens, but I couldn't just walk away. So, Rainier died, and Blackwall lived."

Anders leaned against the bars, crossing his arms over his chest and trying to figure out how to connect with Rainier. The flatness in his voice, the detachment in his words made his state of mind obvious: he had given up hope. He was ready to die. Anders had been in that place enough times to recognize the signs, and strangely enough this reaction more than anything made him think Rainier was worth saving. If he had enough regrets that he was willing to die to make things right, then he was no longer the same man who had committed those crimes in the first place.

"My name isn't really Anders," he said suddenly. "Not many people know that."

Rainier looked up at him with a spark of curiosity in his dark eyes. Good. He had his attention.

"It was a nickname at first. When I arrived at the circle in Ferelden, I refused to speak, as a sort of silent protest against all the changes that had been forced upon me. They called me the Anders kid because I looked like I was from the Anderfels, and the name eventually stuck. I wore it like a badge. I suppose I thought that by refusing to use my given name I could keep it safe, untouched by everything that was happening to me. I wanted a piece of myself that no one could ever take."

Rainier continued to regard him silently, but Anders could see thoughts churning behind his eyes.

"I used my new name as a shield, but you used yours as an inspiration, a promise to be better than you thought you could be. We don't get many opportunities in life to reinvent ourselves. Chances to live up to our potential without being burdened by the past are hard won and shouldn't be wasted. Blackwall gave you that gift, and I suspect he would have wanted you to use it."

Shaking his head, Rainier sighed. "Why are you here? It's too late to undo what I've done."

"What if it isn't too late?"

Surging to his feet, Rainier lunged toward the bars with such speed that Anders drew back instinctively. "Don't you understand? I deserve this and worse. I gave the order to kill Lord Callier, his entourage, and I lied to my men about what they were doing. When it came to light, I ran. Those men—my men—paid for my treason while I was pretending to be a better man. This…is what I am. A murderer. A traitor. A monster."

The words echoed in Anders' head with familiarity. He had called himself such things on more than one occasion, and he knew how awful it felt to identify with such hideous words. Seeing such behavior from the other side suddenly made him understand how everyone else must have felt every time he had devolved into similar levels of self-pity. They had been able to see his foolishness for what it was: selfishness in disguise. And now he could as well.

Drawing a deep breath, Anders said calmly, "You can't take back the choices you made, and you can't undo the suffering you caused. You can't fix them with good intentions or even your death. The only way to make up for them is to live. To bring more good into the world than the pain you caused. I know this first-hand. I'm fighting to live it every day."

Rainier grimaced and buried his head in his hands, making a sound that was somewhere between a growl and a sob. When he had collected himself, he murmured, "I don't know if I can do that."

"You can. You've been doing it since you joined the Inquisition."

He nodded, shoulders slumping as he retreated to the bench in the back of the cell. "I don't deserve this, but I can see you've made your mind up already. How much will this cost the Inquisition?"

"No more than it has already wasted on me."

Decision made, Anders turned and walked back up the stairs before he could change his mind.

Chapter Text

As soon as Bianca walked through the front gate of Skyhold, Varric knew she would bring nothing but trouble in her wake. And now he was hip deep in that trouble, fighting past Corypheus' allies and darkspawn alike in search of red lyrium—the last thing anyone should ever seek out voluntarily. And all of this was happening in the Deep Roads, a place that every dwarf should desire to be, but he would rather avoid at all costs. Yes, it was shaping up to be a wonderful trip so far.

“You doing okay there, Blondie?” he asked, covering the mage's flank when he saw him stumble with a grimace. He realized he shouldn’t have used the nickname, but it was hard to fight the habit, and Bianca was on the far side of the bridge and unlikely to overhear.

Anders pressed a hand against his stomach as he straightened. “I’m fine,” he replied through gritted teeth and threw another fireball into the fray.

Varric nodded, noticing how pale Anders looked, and wondering if Josephine might have been right to protest this mission in the first place. Anders had insisted that he was fully healed, and Varric had been happy to believe him, but he was starting to wonder if his eagerness to see Bianca again had blinded him to the obvious.

“Varric!” Anders shouted, throwing a shield up around them both to deflect an attack that Varric had been too preoccupied to notice. Maybe Anders wasn’t the only one with a handicap in this fight.

Firing a slew of bolts through the shield at his attacker, Varric watched the darkspawn crumple to the ground with a sigh of relief. “Thanks,” he grunted, wading back into the battle, but keeping himself between Anders and the rest of their enemies. He noticed that Dorian was doing the same thing. Meanwhile, the Iron Bull was on the front line clearing a path for the rest for them while Bianca fired bolts from her perch on a broken pillar, leaping lightly out of reach of the creatures whenever they reached for her.

When the last enemy had fallen, they all paused to catch their breath, and Varric saw Dorian hang back to check on Anders and force him to drink a potion. The Tevinter was doing a good job of taking up Varric’s usual role of mother hen with Anders, but Anders seemed irritated by all the coddling. And Varric knew from experience that he wouldn’t put up with it much longer.

Forcing himself to look away, Varric focused on recovering bolts from the fallen to replenish his supply. Bianca joined him with a sly smile.

“So, this is what you do now?” she asked, cleaning a bolt off on her thigh before handing it to him.

“Beg your pardon?” he asked.

“Skulking around in caves, shooting guys? Is this your day-to-day?”

Shaking his head, he smirked. “I usually try to avoid the caves.”

Her eyes twinkled with amusement before she turned away, and Varric restrained the little sigh that was building up pressure in his chest. Taking a slow breath and releasing it even more slowly to mask his emotions, he tried to return to the task at hand but found himself staring off into space instead. No matter how much time passed, no matter how many times he scolded himself over his irrational attachment to her, every time he saw Bianca again, the old feelings came rushing back with renewed intensity. She was his first love, and no rational argument was ever going to change that.

“I said I’m fine,” Anders said sharply, drawing his attention. Walking unsteadily away from Dorian with exasperation burning in his eyes, Anders marched off along the path as if he intended to take on the rest of the hostiles in the area entirely on his own.

The sigh that Varric had been holding back came out in a different form. Tucking away the last bolt, he fell into step beside Anders. “You sure about that, Inquisitor? You look grayer than those darkspawn. Maybe you ought to take it easy.” He caught Anders’ arm and pulled on it to slow him down.

Huffing in annoyance, Anders attempted to pull his arm out of Varric’s grasp.

“Blondie,” Varric said softly, tightening his grip and glancing over his shoulder to verify that Bianca was still out of earshot. “You can’t blame us for worrying. You nearly died in Halamshiral, and none of us are eager for a repeat of that experience.”

Anders relaxed a fraction and released a breath. “I know,” he murmured. “I just...hate feeling weak.”

“You aren’t weak. You just saved my ass in that fight. But you’re pushing yourself too hard. Let us pick up the slack. Okay?”

Biting at his lower lip, Anders nodded.

“Is something wrong?” Bianca asked, moving closer.

Varric squeezed Anders’ arm before releasing it. “Other than the obvious? Darkspawn and red lyrium, all in one cold, damp and creepy package... You always give me the worst presents.”

“Oh? You’ve liked a few of them, as I recall,” Bianca countered, grinning as she walked past him.

“Bianca, stop!” Varric admonished as he followed her, “You’re embarrassing me in front of my friends.”

She just laughed, and the sound went right through his defenses, hitting him somewhere nice and vulnerable. Grinding his teeth, he felt a weight on his back and turned to see Anders studying him with a frown on his lips. He nodded at the mage reassuringly, but kept walking.

“You had me worried, you know?” Bianca said a bit later. “That letter you sent about the red lyrium was the first I'd heard from you since the chantry explosion.”

He grimaced, watching Anders in his peripheral vision. “Had it been that long?” he asked, forcing a laugh.

She hopped over a bit of rubble and glanced back at him with a wistful expression. “Seriously, if you had died in that mess, I would have come back to Kirkwall and dug you up just to kick your ass.”

Smirking, he asked, “What would you have done if I'd been cremated?”

“Kick your ashes, of course.”

Some things never changed. Bianca was good at puns, and she never wasted a good setup.

“Then I would have hunted down the guy responsible, of course,” she continued. “He used to be a friend of yours, didn’t he?”

Anders stumbled over a nonexistent rock, and Dorian had to catch him before he fell on his face. Trying to keep Bianca’s attention focused on him rather than Anders’ comedic reaction, Varric said dismissively, “It all feels like a long time ago now.” Clearing his throat, he asked, “So, how is whatshisname? You didn't mention him in your last letter.” He really would rather have not known, but he needed to change the subject, and it was the first one that came to mind—probably because it managed to cast a shadow over every conversation he had with Bianca.

Still giving Anders a curious look, she replied, “Bogdan? He's in Nevarra right now selling my machine to wealthy landowners.”

Varric chuckled. “I hear some of the Guild were trying to get you named a Paragon because of that contraption.”

“That's not going to happen, even if I am ten times the smith Branka was. A surfacer Paragon? Never.” One thing Bianca had never lacked was confidence—in her opinions if nothing else.

“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”

She huffed in response, but quickened her pace when she saw the door on the far side of the bridge, a suspiciously new and highly complicated looking door. “I’ve got this,” she said, crouching down and getting to work on the locking mechanism.

“Bianca…” Varric said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose where he felt a headache forming. “This door looks like your handiwork.”

“It is,” she admitted. “As I mentioned before, I’ve used this entrance in the past. I built these doors to keep rivals from following me down here and arranging accidents. You know how it is. Ah!” A click resounded within the door and it opened noiselessly. “Tadaa,” she said with a grin.

“You've been waiting to do that since we arrived here, haven't you?” Dorian asked dryly.

“Of course.” Bianca shrugged and gestured through the door. “After you.”

“More enemies up ahead,” Iron Bull warned as he took the lead.

And then they were fighting again, and Varric lost himself in the rhythm of it, following the flow until it was over and they were surrounded by bodies. The fact that he had grown so accustomed to this sort of life that he could treat a battle like a task on a checklist was a bit troubling when he stopped to think about it, but honestly it just made the grind easier to endure. Distance helped the mind go less crazy, apparently.

“You know, this is almost fun,” Bianca commented. “Kind of like old times.”

“I don't recall us ever shooting people together,” Varric said, uncomfortable with the idea.

“Remember crashing Bartrand’s guild dinner? We might as well have shot him.”

Anders snorted, and Varric gave him a look of warning, but it was too late. He could tell by the arch of her brows that Bianca had noticed. She noticed everything.

“This isn't nearly as dangerous as pissing off my brother,” Varric said gravely.

“I always wanted siblings,” Dorian said wistfully. “You’re not exactly selling me on the idea.”

“Count yourself lucky,” Varric agreed.

The deeper they delved into the mountain, the more anxious Varric became. He kept a close eye on Anders as they proceeded, knowing that his weakened state would make him more vulnerable to claustrophobia, but the mage seemed determined to make it through this mission without becoming a burden, jaw set and shoulders squared despite his growing exhaustion.

“How long are you going to be in Orlais, do you think?” Bianca asked suddenly, breaking the silence as they stepped into a long, winding corridor.

Varric shrugged, knowing immediately where her question was leading and wary of having this conversation in front of an audience. “As long as this weird shit is going on, at least. Maybe longer. Why?”

“You'll have to stop by before Bogdan gets back. You should see my new workshop.”

Workshop. Huh. That was a new one in the innuendo category. Isabela would have been impressed. Not quite as direct as “explore my Deep Roads,” but he could take a hint. He should have said no, but he’d never been very good at telling her no. “I'll see what I can do. You know your family will kill me if I stop by, right?”

“They're not going to kill you,” she chided as if he were being foolish.

“You always say that, and they always send assassins.”

“Either your family’s pretty messed up,” Bull commented, “Or they really hate Varric.”

“If you think that’s strange, you should meet my family,” Dorian said with a laugh.

“Is that an invitation?” Bull asked with a slow grin, slipping a hand around Dorian’s back.

“Not at all!” Dorian said quickly. “Then I’d have to see them too.”

Varric laughed. “You two are getting entirely too domestic for me,” he said, smiling to soften his words. He hadn’t known what to think when the pair first hooked up, but his worries had quickly faded when he saw how good they were for each other. His gaze drifted over to Anders, and his smile began to fade when he saw the bittersweet expression on his friend’s face, the way he was staring down at his feet.

“There you are!” Bianca said suddenly, plucking a key from a nearby table and heading for a door at the far end of the corridor. Turning the key in the lock, she said with a grin, “They won’t be able to use this entrance again.”

Watching her, Varric suddenly put the pieces together. “Bianca…”

Turning back to face him, she smiled innocently, and he knew he was right.

A familiar sort of anger bubbled up inside of him, and a dozen tiny comments from the last several days began fitting themselves into his theory. “Andraste’s ass, Bianca, you’re the leak?”

She didn’t even flinch. “When I got the location, I went and had a look for myself. I found the red lyrium, and I… studied it.”

“You know what it does to people!”

“I was doing you a favor. You want to help your brother, don’t you? I just…wanted to figure it out.”

Sighing, Varric rubbed at his forehead, feeling the weight of everyone’s attention on him and realizing they were all waiting for his reaction so they could follow his lead. “Did you figure it out?” he asked, voice heavy with resignation.

Her eyes shimmered with excitement, and the emotion was so pure that he couldn't help but get swept up in it. “Actually, yes. I found out that red lyrium…it has the blight. Do you know what means, Varric?”

Anders gasped, but Varric just shook his head. “What? That two deadly things combine to form something super awful?”

“No,” Anders interrupted. “It means that lyrium really is alive.”

“Exactly!” Bianca said, nodding vigorously. “Blight doesn’t affect minerals, only animals.”

Looking back and forth between them and watching the way they seemed to infect each other with enthusiasm, Varric felt a sinking sensation in his chest. It wasn’t jealousy exactly, but it was no more productive. Possessiveness, maybe? He cared for them both in very different ways, and seeing them connect with each other over something he could barely understand was alienating. “How did you figure all of this out?” he asked, interrupting their exchange.

She shrugged. “Well, I couldn’t get any further on my own, so I looked for a gray warden mage. Blight and magical expertise in one, right? And I found this guy, Larius. He seemed really interested in helping my research. So I gave him a key.”

“Wait, Larius?” Anders’ brows furrowed, and he glanced at Varric.

“Wasn’t that the grey warden we met in Corypheus’ prison? Shit. I knew something seemed off. He definitely wasn’t a mage before.”

“The way he acted after we defeated Corypheus—or thought we had…He was like a different person.” Anders shook his head.

Grimacing, Bianca said, “I had no idea anything was wrong until you said you’d found red lyrium at Haven. Then when I came back here...I realized what had happened. Once I knew that, I knew I had to make things right.”

Anders sighed. “You couldn’t have known what would happen.”

“Maferath’s balls she couldn’t!” Varric snapped, but he knew he was angrier at himself than he was at her. If only they had realized what was going on back in Corypheus’ prison. They could have prevented all of this from ever happening at all. But that didn't meant that he wasn't still angry with Bianca as well. Angry that she hadn’t told him the truth right away, that she had manipulated him the same way she always did. And even angrier that he had let her.

“I know I screwed up, but we did fix it,” Bianca said, giving him that imploring look she always gave him when she was trying to change his mind. “It’s as right as I can make it!”

“This isn’t one of your machines,” he said firmly, determined not to let her get the better of him again. “You can’t just replace a part and make everything right.”

“No, but I can try, can’t I?” The look in her eyes infuriated him. She was unrepentant, utterly convinced she had done the only thing she could have done, and the expression suddenly felt eerily familiar to him.

When he realized why, his eyes shifted to Anders in shock. He’d never noticed the similarities between them before, the way they both got the better of him with so little effort even when he wanted more than anything to stay angry at them. Not to mention their lack of remorse over their foolish choices. The similarity set his mind spinning in another direction. Anders blinked at him uncertainly, but Bianca dragged Varric’s attention back with her next statement, the sarcasm thick enough that he couldn’t let it go unanswered.

“Or am I supposed to wallow in my mistakes forever,” she asked, “kicking myself, telling stories of what I should have done?”

Varric winced. That was a low blow—low enough for him to know how serious she was about this argument and realize he wasn’t going to win without an equally pointed attack. “As if I would tell stories about my own mistakes,” he said dismissively.

“Oh, for pity’s sake. Would you two just get a room?” Dorian muttered with amusement in his voice, and the comical tone helped to defuse some of Varric’s anger.

“We’ve done all we can here,” he said in resignation. “Bianca, you’d better get home before...someone misses you.”

Her eyes widened slightly, and he could see the worry in their depths as she realized that she had crossed a line. “Varric…”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said as he turned away, the words sticking in his throat.

Frustrated by his own vulnerability, he focused on putting one foot in front of the other and didn’t even look back until he reached the top level of the main chamber. Leaning against a crumbling bit of railing and trying to calm his anger, he stared blankly at the abyss below.

Bianca had always been good at finding his weak spots and applying pressure until she she got what she wanted, and even when he saw her coming, he had never been able to resist because his feelings for her had always undermined his better judgment. That was understandable, natural even, given their history. The mixture of fondness and anger he was feeling toward her was a familiar feeling, almost comforting in its predictability. What wasn’t familiar was the guilt building up inside of him over the role he had played in the evil currently threatening the world, from the discovery of red lyrium to the unwitting release of Corypheus from his prison. He was connecting dots that had never seemed remotely connected before, and every realization triggered a new wave of sickening regret. And somewhere on top of that miasma of ugly emotion floated a curiously light and giddy sensation inspired by the similarities he’d noticed between Bianca and Anders, but he didn’t have the energy to tackle that particular revelation at the moment. In fact, he wasn’t sure if he would ever have the courage to face it head on, but it certainly didn’t warrant the attention in comparison to the other issues occupying his attention.

Lost in thought, he didn’t come back down to earth until he heard boots scraping against the stairs behind him. He turned to see Bianca appear at the top of the steps with a sheepish look.

“There you are,” she said with relief in her voice. “I was worried you might have run into more darkspawn.

He didn’t respond, experiencing one of those rare moments when he couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Listen, I really am sorry. You know that, don’t you? I was just trying to fix things.”

“I get it, Bianca,” he said, turning to face her and leaning back against the railing.

She shuffled her feet. “It’s just...I don’t want to leave things like this. After what happened in Kirkwall, I thought I’d lost you, and now you’re in even more danger with the Inquisition, and I… Well, I need you to know—”

“It’s fine,” he interrupted, not in the mood to hear more excuses. “We’re fine.” He glanced up at her and managed a little smile.

Biting her lower lip, she nodded. She joined him at the railing, and he could tell by her posture that she was working herself up to something. “I figured out who he is,” she said finally. Turning to look at him, she explained, “The Inquisitor. He’s your Blondie, isn’t he? The one responsible for everything that happened in Kirkwall.”

Stunned, he had to process that on a few levels before he could formulate a response. First, she had referred to Anders with a possessive, and while it had probably only been included for clarity, it still struck him as odd. Second, she was blaming Anders for more than he deserved. It was the second point that he reacted to first. “He wasn’t responsible for everything that happened,” he said, realizing even before he saw her arched brow that he was showing his hand. “But he was responsible for the chantry.”

She shook her head slowly. “Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s complicated.”

Sighing, she asked, “But you think you can trust him?”

“I do trust him,” he said firmly.

“Then I hope for your sake that you’re right.” She pushed away from the railing and touched his shoulder as she stepped away. “Take care of yourself, Varric.”

“I’ll try to find time to come see your new workshop,” he said, attempting a more genuine smile.

“Don’t,” she whispered. “It was selfish of me to ask. I’ve made my choices. It’s about time I start living with them.”

He frowned. “Bianca.”

“See you around,” she said, stopping him with a wistful smile before he could say anything more.

Still frowning, he noticed the rest of his companions appearing at the top of the steps but ignored them, too preoccupied by watching Bianca as she walked away.

Chapter Text

Dust motes floated through the air, catching the light and blinking like fireflies as they swirled above the map. Standing with an elbow propped up against his other arm, Anders tapped a finger against his lips and regarded the map thoughtfully, trying to decide which mission to tackle next. They had already started moving their troops into position in the Arbor Wilds, but it would still be days before they were ready to bring the fight to Corypheus. There were several tasks left unfinished that might make the battle ahead less risky, but they didn’t have time to finish them all. He would need to decide which ones had the most value.

Sighing, he closed his eyes and rubbed at his forehead to ease the headache he could feel starting to take hold. He could easily banish it with a bit of magic, but he knew it would just come back. Again. He’d been staring at the map for a least an hour and was no closer to a decision, and every hour that passed was one less hour they had to accomplish anything before they left for the Arbor Wilds. The rest of his advisors were busy taking care of last minute arrangements, so he didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of, and he wasn’t feeling confident enough in his strategic abilities to make the right choice without input.

He jumped when the door swung open with enough force to rebound off of the opposite wall, and opened his eyes to see Cullen striding toward the table. To his relief, the expression on the commander’s face was not anger or anxiety as he had expected, but excitement. With a smile so satisfied that it looked out of place on his usually stoic features, Cullen leaned on the edge of the table and announced, “We found him. We found Samson."

Eyebrows arching, Anders recalled their conversation from a few weeks before about Samson’s armor and the Tranquil who had made it. “Where is he?”

“An old Tevinter shrine to Dumat. But we need to leave right away if we’re going to catch him and Maddox.” Turning away, he added over his shoulder, “Gather a team and meet me at the gates in an hour.”

Relieved to have his choice made for him, Anders nodded and gave the map one last glance before following him out of the War Room. They parted ways in the great hall, although Cullen was walking so fast that he hadn’t been able to keep up beyond Josephine’s office anyway. Glancing around the hall, he considered who to bring along on this mission. His gaze paused on the dwarf at the table in the corner. Varric looked like he hadn’t slept since their trip to the Hinterlands; his eyes were bruised with exhaustion and his stubble had grown so long that it was starting to resemble an actual beard. His quill flew over a sheet of paper as Anders approached, pausing only long enough for him to reach for a fresh sheet.

“Varric?” Anders asked, stopping beside the table and watching the flowing script appearing from the end of Varric’s quill.

Varric didn’t even react to his inquiry.

Sitting down on the edge of the table and leaning closer, Anders said his name again but still failed to elicit a reaction. Finally, Anders took the stack of blank paper and set it out of reach so that when Varric reached for the next piece his fingers came up empty.

Glaring at the spot where the paper had been before, Varric scowled and sat back in his seat. “Blondie,” he said in a rough voice, blinking up at him in surprise.

“Varric.” Anders smiled gently. “You look exhausted. When was the last time you slept? Or ate? Or stopped writing long enough to even notice the world around you?”

Varric shrugged. “No idea. You need something?”

“We found Samson’s stronghold. You want to come along?”

Shaking his head, Varric leaned over the table and strained to reach the stack of paper he had just noticed beside Anders. “I’m too busy. Would you mind handing me that? I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”

Anders frowned and pushed the paper farther out of reach. Then he reached for one of the pages Varric had already filled with words. “What are you writing?”

Before he could even make contact, Varric placed a hand protectively on the stack. “It’s private.”

Inclining his head, Anders reluctantly allowed his hand to fall to the table beside it. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Anders frowned. “Varric.”

Swallowing, Varric shook his head and shifted his attention to the fire. “I don’t want to talk about it, Blondie.”

Anders hesitated, thinking about Cullen’s eagerness and trying to decide if he had time for this conversation. Then he looked at the haunted look on Varric’s face again and decided he would make the time. “Is it about Bianca?”

“I said—” Varric began, an edge to his voice that Anders wasn’t accustomed to hearing from him, but Anders interrupted him with a deliberately cheerful smile.

“I know what you said, but you might recall that I can be incredibly persistent when I put my mind to it.”

Varric gave him a dirty look, and it took Anders a moment to realize that the dwarf was actually pouting. He’d never seen Varric like this before. “Don’t you have to go?” Varric asked in dangerously quiet voice.

Folding his arms over his chest, Anders shifted his position on the edge of the table to get more comfortable. “It can wait.” That wasn’t exactly true, but it wasn’t as if Cullen was likely to leave without him when the commander needed his help to deal with Maddox.

Varric sighed, and his tongue darted out to lick at his chapped lips. “If you’re going to force me to talk about this, then I’m going to need a drink first.”

“Fine. After you.” Anders gestured toward the open doorway.

Still giving him the stink eye, Varric stood up from his chair and winced as his joints popped, moving stiffly as he led the way to the Herald’s Rest. Anders nearly stepped on his heels he was following so closely. The tavern was fairly empty at this time of day, even more so since the Iron Bull had taken the Chargers out on a mission, and Cabot was using the opportunity to clean the bar. His eyes widened a bit at Varric’s unusually disheveled state, but he shoved a pair of flagons across the bar without comment.

Varric wasn’t content to sit at the bar, leading Anders to a table in the corner instead. “Keep them coming,” he shouted back at Cabot as he settled into a chair.

Anders sat down across from him and took a sip of his ale. He wasn’t planning on drinking much of it, but he suspected that Varric would be more willing to talk if he thought Anders was drinking with him. Waiting as patiently as he could manage, he watched Varric shift in his chair, fiddle with the handle of his flagon and tap at the table while he worked himself up to whatever it was he wanted to say.

“It’s our fault,” he said finally. “Corypheus, the red templars, all of it. Bartrand may have come up with the idea for that stupid expedition, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t convinced Hawke to help finance it or coerced you into handing over your maps.” He took a long drink and let the mug land heavily back on the table. “If we hadn’t found that red lyrium, then Corypheus couldn’t have used it.”

“Varric,” Anders said sadly. “Your brother was the one who told everyone what we found. You didn’t—”

“I helped him find it in the first place. And then I let Bianca know about it and she finished the job.”

Anders sighed, realizing that despite the fact that he had been on the opposite end of more talks like this than he could count, he didn’t have the slightest idea how to make Varric feel any better.

“And then there’s Corypheus himself,” Varric continued. “He wouldn’t even have escaped his prison if I hadn’t helped Hawke track down the Carta’s hideout in the Vimmark mountains.”

“Corypheus was searching for her,” Anders protested. “No matter how many of his minions we killed, he would have kept finding more and sending them after her until he finally got what he wanted.” He swallowed, his mouth going dry. “He would have turned me into one of them given the chance, and I’m not sure if any of you could have stopped Justice and I if Corypheus took control.”

“The point,” Varric continued, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand after taking another drink, “is that we’ve been helping him all along. He wouldn’t be able to threaten the world now if we hadn’t broken him out of that prison and given him the tools to do it.”

“We didn’t even know he existed when all of this started,” Anders scoffed. “I’m with Bianca on this. The blame is irrelevant at this point. We are already doing everything we can to stop him!”

Rolling his eyes, Varric crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair. “Of course you’re on her side.”

Startled by the comment, Anders scrunched his face up in confusion. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Varric muttered quietly, his expression unreadable as he stared down at the table.

Feeling suddenly uneasy, Anders took another sip of ale while he tried to puzzle out what Varric was thinking. “Did I say something wrong?”

Varric looked up at him finally, a hint of a smile curving his lips though it was difficult to discern past all the stubble. “No, Blondie. This isn't your fault.”

“Maybe not, but it might be the first thing that isn't,” he protested with a slow shake of his head. “I've done far more than you have to cause our current situation, so if you’re going to sit around blaming yourself, you ought to blame me twice as much.” He glanced at the door, wondering how long he had been talking to Varric and how much time he had left before Cullen would be expecting him.

“Blondie,” Varric whispered, and Anders started when he felt the dwarf’s hand land on top of his, holding it down to the table to prevent him from leaving. “This isn’t about the blame. I know there’s plenty of that to go around. But you’ve made your biggest mistakes through action, by doing things that you thought were right. Just like Bianca. While my worst mistakes have been caused by my own inaction. I avoid things. I refuse to see what’s right in front of me. I could have stopped Bartrand a hundred times, but I didn’t because it was easier to keep him happy. I could have used my influence to take care of the Carta, but I didn’t because I was afraid of the repercussions.”

Anders looked up, and as soon as their eyes met he looked away, unsettled by the raw emotion he saw in Varric’s gaze.

“I could have stopped you before you and Justice—”

“Stop.” Anders pulled his hand out from beneath Varric’s, turning on his chair so that he couldn’t meet his gaze by accident. “Can’t you see that none of it matters? Mistakes are mistakes, no matter how they happened. They can’t be changed. And feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to fix anything.” Looking up at him obliquely, he added with a grimace, “You’re supposed to be the one telling me that. Not the other way around.”

Varric chuckled bitterly. “How does it feel, Blondie? To be the one who has it all figured out for once?” His smile crumbled slightly. “It sucks, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, it does. So you’d better get yourself together soon so we can trade places again.” He sighed as he rose to his feet. “I have to go. Promise me you won't spend the rest of the day drinking in here.”

Varric nodded, but he didn't say a word.

Chapter Text

As usual, they were too late.

Samson had already fled the scene by the time they finally managed reach the Shrine of Dumat. What was worse was that he must have set fire to the place on his way out, leaving them to fight their way through a collapsing ruin in the hope that he had left some clue behind that could still be salvaged. Cullen blamed Anders for their delay in leaving the castle, although he knew that the fault was at least as much his own. He had wasted half the day before he noticed the report about Samson’s hideout on his desk in the first place.

“Cullen! Behind you,” Anders shouted, flinging a fire ball in exactly that direction and bringing Cullen quickly out of his reverie.

Cullen spun to face the templar at his back, deflecting a blow with his shield and feeling the impact all the way up his arm. Anders cast a shield around him, and he shivered as the magic washed through him, gritting his teeth against the sensation. Although he had lived among mages most of his life, he hadn’t spent as much time fighting alongside them as allies. He’d been forced to learn how to integrate their skills into the Inquisition because it was necessary after Anders brought the mages into their ranks, but he still struggled to accept the unrestrained use of magic without a templar’s skills available to bring them in check. He could no longer serve in that role himself, and the instincts of a lifetime spent curbing the free use of magic were difficult to ignore.

The aging structure groaned around them as the last templar fell to the ground, and Cullen looked up warily. “We have to hurry,” he said, striding up the stairs toward the next chamber, “or this place will come down around our ears before we find anything of value.”

“Anyone need healing?” Anders asked as he followed. “Cassandra, you’re bleeding.”

“It’s nothing,” she said. “Not even my blood. But that one, whatever his name is now… He’s favoring his left leg.”

Cullen glanced back from the doorway and frowned at the man they had once thought was a grey warden. Rainier—or Blackwall, as he still preferred to be called, as a title now rather than a name—stood with shoulders slumped and a scowl hidden within the depths of his beard. Anders’ expression was gentle as he approached the man with magic already glittering on his fingertips, moving slowly as if afraid he might spook him.

“I’m fine,” Blackwall grunted, ducking away from Anders’ touch, but the mage merely shook his head and proceeded to heal his injury.

Crossing her arms over her chest, Cassandra frowned down at them. “You’re lucky the Inquisitor was the one who decided your fate,” she said to Blackwall. “If it were up to me, I would not have chosen to save you.”

Dark eyes glimmering from beneath furrowed brows, Blackwall replied quietly, “Such spite is beneath you, Cassandra.”

“Is it? What do you know of me? Even less than we know of you.”

Blackwall opened his mouth and then closed it again. “I…wasn’t…”

“You have no right to determine what is beneath me. Not now. Not ever.”

“Cassandra,” Anders said firmly as he straightened. “The decision has already been made. He is still a part of the Inquisition, and once Corypheus has been defeated, he’ll become the warden he was pretending to be. It may not be a fate worse than death, but it won’t be an easy life.”

A cross beam far above them groaned and then slid out of place, displacing embers and bits of ash as it fell. “We’re running out of time,” Cullen reminded, turning and proceeding through the doorway without looking back to see if the others were following. He didn’t slow until he saw the figure slumped against an overturned table in the next room. Anders overtook him when he paused in a moment of hesitation, and Cullen was glad he let him take the lead when Maddox looked up at Anders with an expression that looked almost hopeful.

“Hello, Anders,” Maddox said in a flat, unperturbed tone.

“You know me?” Anders asked as he knelt down beside the tranquil.

“Of course. You freed the mages.”

“I did,” Anders said with a sad smile. “I wish I could have done more for you back in Kirkwall.”

Maddox’s eyes flashed in the firelight. “Like you did for your lover? I would not have wanted to die.”

Flinching as if Maddox had struck him, Anders said, “Karl couldn't bear to live like you. He begged me to end his life.”

Maddox coughed, and a bit of blood trickled down his lip. “I was not troubled by this life. I was content.”

“Anders,” Cullen said sharply. “Something’s wrong.”

Anders nodded. “I noticed. What did you do, Maddox?”

“I drank my entire supply of blightcap essence,” Maddox replied, still in the eerily even tone of the tranquil. “It won’t be long now.”

Anders cursed under his breath, lifting a hand to Maddox’s chest and closing his eyes. Light flared around his fingertips as he attempted to heal him, but he gave up quickly, shaking his head as he let his hand fall. “The damage has already spread too far to be undone. There’s nothing I can do.”

“We only wanted to ask you questions, Maddox,” Cullen said in frustration.

“Yes, Knight-Captain Cullen. That is what I could not allow. I destroyed the camp with fire. We all agreed it was best. Our deaths ensured Samson had time to escape.”

Rage bubbled up inside of Cullen at the thought of someone like Samson inspiring such loyalty. “You threw your lives away. For Samson ? Why?”

“Samson saved me even before he needed me. He gave me purpose again. I...wanted to help.” Maddox collapsed on the last word, and Cullen slammed his fist against the floor, cringing when the weakened floorboard creaked under the impact.

Anders sat back on his heels with a sigh. “I suppose my history wasn't as much help here as we had hoped. What a waste.”

Cullen hung his head in defeat, but Cassandra didn’t give him a chance to wallow.

“We should search the area,” she suggested. “Maddox may have missed something.”

“You’re right,” Cullen agreed. “Spread out and let me know if you find anything out of the ordinary.”

They began sifting through the wreckage, searching for something that might make this trip worthwhile, but most of the items turned to ash at the slightest touch.

“Inquisitor,” Cassandra said as she helped Anders shift a broken shelf out of the way. “I heard you talking to Dorian before we left. I must be mistaken, but it sounded like you were asking him to help you set up a card game. Surely you haven't taken up gambling?”

Anders laughed, and Cullen gritted his teeth at the sound. “No. It's for Varric. He hasn't been himself lately, and I thought a few rounds of wicked grace might cheer him up. We used to play it all the time in Kirkwall.”

“Yes, I remember,” Cassandra said crisply. “He enjoyed sharing such irrelevant stories when I was interrogating him about Hawke. I think he believed I would give up if he rambled on long enough.”

“You're welcome to join the game,” Anders said. “Everyone deserves a little break before we take off for the Arbor Wilds.”

Cassandra's lips curled, but she shrugged in acquiescence. “I suppose it couldn't hurt.”

“Could we focus, please?” Cullen asked, jaw set with annoyance as another book crumbled to dust in his grip.”

Anders smiled sweetly, eyes crinkling at the corners, obviously misinterpreting Cullen's irritation as jealousy. “Don't worry. You're invited too, Commander.”

Cullen opened his mouth to retort that he had no interest in a game, but Anders gasped, nearly losing his balance after stepping on a bottle.

Crouching down, he inspected the glittering pile of glass beneath him. “Lyrium bottles licked clean,” he observed.

“Ugh. Revolting,” Cassandra said in disgust, but Cullen merely frowned at the pile. He knew what it was like to feel that desperate.

“Desperate, digging,” Cole said in that lyrical tone of his, and Cullen wasn’t sure if he was reading Cullen’s thoughts or the echo of Samson’s. “It doesn't sing as loudly so he needs more.”

“How much red lyrium is Samson taking?” Cullen mused to change the subject. “His resistance must be extraordinary.” Looking around at the wreckage, he sighed. “What a dismal place to die. It cannot have been much of a place to live either under Samson’s command.”

Anders glanced at him, a spark of amusement in his eyes, but he remained silent.

“What? Surely you don’t disagree? You and Hawke had your own dealings with Samson in Kirkwall, as I recall.”

“Yes,” Anders agreed. “He sold an elf into slavery to support his lyrium addiction. He’s despicable.”

“Then what is it that you find so amusing?”

“Nothing. Only that you keep talking about his command with such extreme distaste.”

Putting down an unidentifiable melted object, Cullen glared at him. “Because it's revolting the way he leads his men into almost certain death. He experiments on them, forces them to ingest red lyrium, knowing only a handful will survive the process!”

Anders shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Doesn't sound all that different from what the Grey Wardens do.”

“You can’t be serious.”

He shrugged. “Not entirely, no. But the joining isn't terribly different from drinking red lyrium, and it comes with a death sentence of its own.”

Cullen stared at him, stunned by the idea, and equally startled by the reminder that Anders was a grey warden himself. He'd never seen him acting in that role directly, so it was easy to forget that part of his history, but he, like all grey wardens, had sacrificed a portion of his lifespan in joining the order. Although Anders hadn't felt the calling when Corypheus manipulated the rest of the wardens, so perhaps something in him had changed because of the mark. Regardless, his time with the wardens had been unpleasant enough to spark Anders’ escape instincts, and he seemed to take Blackwall's sentence to become one as a serious punishment.

“I think I have something,” Blackwall said suddenly, breaking the awkward silence that had fallen after Anders’ comment. Given the way he'd distanced himself from the rest of the group and his lack of comment during most of the trip, his voice was unexpected. “A letter addressed to you,” he said gruffly, nodding at Cullen.

“To me?” Cullen said in disbelief. “Let me see.” Bile rose in Cullen’s throat as he read the nonsensical note, thinking back to the man Samson had been long ago before he had left the order or turned to crime to feed his addiction. Cullen had respected the man back then, even considered him a friend. But reading his words now only made it clear how little of that man was left.

“What does it say?” Anders asked, stepping closer and leaning forward to read over Cullen’s shoulder.

Trying to ignore his casual proximity, Cullen cleared his throat and read aloud, “Drink enough lyrium, and its song reveals the truth. The chantry used us. You’re fighting the wrong battle. Corypheus chose me as his general, and his vessel of power.” Lowering the letter, he finished, “And other such nonsense. Does he think I’ll understand? What does he know?”

Anders gave him a strange look, not quite as amused as before. The expression in his eyes now was more like pity.

“What?” He demanded. “I suppose you think you know what this means?”

“You were friends, weren't you? You and Samson?” Anders asked with a gentleness in his tone that only irritated Cullen further.

Cullen rolled his eyes and resisted the urge to crumple the letter in his fist. “What difference does that make?”

“I'm trying to figure out why you take everything he says and does so personally.”

Cullen scoffed, but something in his gut clenched at Anders’ words. “You're wasting your time analyzing me. Samson is the one we need to understand.”

Shrugging, Anders gestured to the letter. “What's there to understand? The red lyrium has addled his mind. Crazy people tend to be unpredictable.”

“He has a point,” Cassandra said from beside the bed, tossing a sheaf of burnt papers aside with a grimace. “We came here to find a weakness in his literal armor, not his psychological defenses.”

Scowling, Cullen gave up on the remains in the room and walked back the way they had come, hoping he would find something more intact a bit farther from the source of the fire.

He didn’t realize Cole had followed him until he heard the spirit speak. “He didn’t earn this—his army, their loyalty. He sold his soul for lyrium. With no higher purpose, no noble cause. He doesn’t deserve to inspire anyone.”

“Stop that,” Cullen hissed, but Anders stood at the top of the stairs watching him, and he knew the mage had heard every word. Digging through the rubble while only half paying attention to what he found, Cullen tried to ignore him as he approached.

“He isn’t your rival,” Anders said quietly as he joined him.

“I never said he was.”

“You have nothing to be jealous of. You're better than him,” he added, and the words were so matter of fact that Cullen paused in his search, stunned. Still shuffling through items on a table nearby, Anders frowned when he found a strange object, holding it up to get a better look. “This looks like a tool of some kind.”

“And is that part of a forge?” Cullen said after inspecting the objects next to them. “The craftsmanship here is remarkable.”

“Tranquil often design their own tools,” Anders pointed out. “Do you think…”

“Maddox might have used them to make Samson’s armor,” Cullen said, finishing his sentence in a rush. “Perhaps Dagna could use them to unmake it.” Clenching his hand around one of the tools, he added, “We have him!”

Anders nodded, amusement still twinkling in his eyes, but this time Cullen didn’t mind so much.

Chapter Text

Varric’s face was getting sore from how much he'd been grinning all night. He was still stunned by the effort that had gone into making such an unlikely gathering happen, and so delighted by the fact that the Inquisition’s leaders—even the stuffiest, most stick-in-the-mud members like Cassandra and Cullen—were all sitting around a table drinking and playing cards that he could hardly manage to concentrate on the game. Luckily, he’d had years of practice playing and knew how to cheat well enough to keep his stack of gold piled high and his clothes exactly where they should be. Not everyone had been so lucky.

Cullen’s assertion that he had figured out Josephine’s tells probably would have ended with the Commander naked and embarrassed—but Anders had convinced everyone else to keep playing as well, and now they were all in varying states of undress. All save himself and Josephine, who was the best cheater Varric had ever seen. Cassandra had bowed out of the game soon after she’d removed her gloves and jacket, stubbornly refusing to strip any further, and Cole had such uncanny luck that he had only lost his hat. The rest of them had lost several layers of clothing. Varric suspected that Dorian and the Iron Bull were intentionally losing, treating the game as exhibitionist foreplay, but they were only slightly less clothed than the Commander who was worrying at his lip in anxiety while Josephine dealt the next hand.

Anders had managed to keep his skin covered so far, but he had lost every bit of inconsequential clothing he was wearing. He had a lot of practice at the game and was extraordinarily good at bluffing, but Varric knew his tells, and at least half of his winnings had come from the mage. He felt a little bad about targeting his friend considering how much trouble Anders had gone to in order to arrange the surprise evening, but he knew Anders would expect him to play his best.

Thinking about how Anders had arranged the game, he was still amazed that the mage had been able to keep the secret from him up until the last moment, but he supposed he had been so wrapped up with all the guilt and confusion he'd felt in the wake of Bianca’s visit that he had likely been easier to fool than usual. He hadn’t had even an inkling of Anders’ plans until he saw the sign on the tavern door: closed for renovation. Anders had been hovering beside him at the time, and ushered Varric inside with the excuse that Cabot would surely still serve them drinks despite the mess. Then Varric had seen the table and the excited group gathered around it, and a pang of nostalgia had blossomed in his chest at the memory of another tavern and another gang of friends, a time in his life when he’d been the master of a domain and felt secure in his place in the world.

The Herald’s Rest was technically the Inquisitor’s retreat although Anders spent little time there, and Varric had never felt entirely at home in the place. The Iron Bull and his Chargers owned it in the same way that Varric had once owned the Hanged Man—not to mention Sera, whose residence upstairs was much smaller than Varric’s erstwhile quarters but earned bonus points for style. Still, he couldn’t argue with the sense of familiarity he felt in walking up to a table full of friends and sitting down with a deck of cards and a tankard full of strong ale.

Varric had been so overwhelmed with gratitude that he’d hardly been able to look Anders in the eye once the surprise had been revealed, recognizing that this was exactly the sort of gesture he would have made for a friend, but unable to accept that someone else had made such an effort for him. He supposed he shouldn't have been so surprised. When it came to taking care of friends, Anders had always been beyond generous—at least when he wasn’t too distracted by some fool cause to notice they were in need in the first place.

So Varric had joked and laughed, blinking away the emotion before it could take root and getting the game started before anyone could notice how much this gathering actually meant to him. But even now, as he looked around the table at the unlikely group of friends he had made in the Inquisition, he felt emotion welling up inside of him and had to take another drink of ale to keep the feelings at bay.

“Your bet, Varric,” Dorian reminded, startling him from his thoughts.

“Don't get your silk knickers in a twist, Sparkler,” Varric said without heat in his words, referring to the Tevinter’s all too obvious final scrap of clothing. “I was just basking in the glow of my hand.”

“Oh, he's definitely overselling it,” Bull said with an echoing grin.

Calling the bet, Varric laughed. “Keep throwing gold on the pile, Tiny, and we’ll find out who is bluffing.”

“Last card,” Josephine announced as she dealt one more card to each of them.

Cole gasped. “I have a choir. They don’t want to sing together, but they make such nice music.” He threw some more gold on the pile.

“Kid! How many times do I have to tell you?” Varric scolded. “You’re not supposed to announce your cards to the table.”

Josephine giggled. “I happen to have a nice little choir of my own. I’ll call.”

“I’m out,” Cullen said, slapping his cards down on the table and looking mournfully at the pile of gold at the center.

Dorian, on the other hand, merely arched a brow at Bull and tossed a coin on the stack. Bull grinned and stayed in as well.

Anders was next. He considered his cards for only a moment before counting out his coins. “It’s hot in here anyway,” he said with a shrug and a smile. Anders had never seemed to enjoy playing cards that much back in Kirkwall, especially after Justice’s influence began making most of his decisions for him, but he seemed to be enjoying the game tonight simply because he knew that Varric was enjoying it.

“Time to put your money where your mouth is, Tethras,” Bull said, leaning forward in anticipation.

“No.” Varric folded his cards neatly on the table. “I think I’ll take the kid at his word.”

He was glad for his decision when the spirit finally shared his hand with the rest of the table.

“Well, I guess that’s it,” Dorian said, seeming pleased. Standing up, he made a show of removing his last piece of clothing and throwing it in Iron Bull’s face. The Qunari lunged at him with a growl, and everyone quickly averted their eyes—everyone except for Cole.

“It comes off,” he said in wonder. “I didn’t know it came off…”

“Gentlemen, don’t you think you should take that somewhere more private?” Varric suggested, and his question was echoed by a chorus of agreement. To everyone’s relief, the pair excused themselves, but continued to make some rather distracting noises as they went.

“Okay, everyone,” Josephine said when they were out of earshot, pulling her necklace over her head and tossing it on the table. Her hand hadn’t been quite good enough to beat Cole’s, but it had been close. “Time to settle up.”

“Actually, I’m done for the night,” Cullen announced. “We have a long march tomorrow.”

“Indeed,” Josephine agreed, gathering her necklace and her winnings with an unladylike grin. “Good night, everyone. I had a wonderful time.”

“Likewise, ambassador,” Varric replied with a nod.

Cullen attempted to cover his bare torso while gathering his clothing from the floor, but he did a poor job of both activities, and once he was standing he finally seemed to remember that he wasn’t wearing any pants either. Blushing, he sort of sidled his way around the table with such awkwardness that he nearly tripped over his own chair in his haste.

“Commander,” Anders said past a laugh, scooping his own coat off the back of his chair and draping it over Cullen’s shoulders before he could escape. “Cover yourself up a little or you’ll catch a cold out there.”

Blushing even more fiercely, Cullen mumbled something unintelligible and then clutched the coat at his neck to keep it in place as he raced out the door.

Cole had disappeared at some point in the meantime without saying another word, leaving only Varric and Anders at the table, alone except for Sera who was passed out on the floor—but she hadn’t made a sound beyond snoring in at least an hour.

Reaching for the cards, Varric asked, “You up for another hand, Blondie?”

Anders considered, eyes wrinkling at the corners as he regarded the stack of coins stacked in front of Varric. “I suppose I could try to earn back some of that gold.”

“You’d have to settle up first,” Varric teased. “I believe you lost the last hand.”

Pouting, Anders, asked, “It would be a little unfair, don’t you think? You sitting there fully clothed while I’m half naked.”

“Blondie, I’m always half naked,” Varric laughed, gesturing to his exposed chest.

Anders smiled. “I suppose I could play one more hand,” he said finally, pulling his shirt over his head and tossing it aside. Varric tried not to stare, realizing that despite the fact that he had fought alongside Anders for years and traveled with him across half of Thedas, he’d rarely seen Anders shirtless. Maybe not even since Kirkwall. Back then he had been skin and bones, but he had a little more meat on him now—no doubt due to the Inquisition’s excellent kitchens. He also had a lot more scars—aside from the one Sebastian had given him in Halamshiral—and most of them looked as if they hadn't been properly healed. Whether that was because he had run out of mana and lyrium during a fight or because he had chosen to let them fester was an open question—one Varric was reluctant to ask.

Oblivious to Varric’s scrutiny, Anders leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “One more loss is all I’ve got anyway.”

Varric glanced at him again to make sure he was still wearing his breeches. He was. Nearly spilling the cards all over the table when he realized what that meant, he asked, “You mean you’re not wearing any…?”

Anders smirked. “Never do.”

“Well,” Varric said, shaking his head as he continued to shuffle the deck. “And here I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about you.”

“Oh, I still have a few secrets.”

“Is that so? Like what?” Varric began dealing out the cards with a practiced flick of his wrist, deciding not to cheat this round.

Anders’ silence made him look up, and the intensity of the look on the mage’s face made him feel strangely self-conscious. “They wouldn’t be secrets if I told you, now would they?” Anders said finally with a quiet smile.

“I suppose I deserve that after the whole thing with Bianca.” Taking a look at his hand, Varric almost laughed at the sad collection of cards. It looked like Anders might win some of his coin back after all.

“Do you think you'll see her again?” Anders asked, his tone deliberately casual.

Glancing up at him, Varric tried to figure out what Anders was asking. “Bianca? I always do.”

“Good. You make a good pair.”

Varric felt a tug of something in his chest, a pang of regret that hit him out of nowhere. Not prepared to unravel that particular tangle of emotions, he deliberately changed the subject, realizing as soon as he spoke that a lump had formed in his throat. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come along with you to the Arbor Wilds?”

Tossing a few coins on the table, Anders blinked at him in surprise at the change of subject. “No. We need a small infiltration team. Morrigan is nonnegotiable. Blackwall also asked to go, and I need Solas’ expertise. But the two of them have practically stopped talking after Blackwall’s past caught up with him, so I'll need someone else to break the tension. Sera is my best bet.”

“I'm good at defusing situations,” Varric argued, raising Anders’ bet although he was almost positive he was going to lose.

“You also hate nature. And the Arbor Wilds are basically an overgrown jungle. You'd be uncomfortable. And cranky.”

Varric chuckled. “You're getting good at this leadership thing, Blondie.”

“Is that what it is? It feels more like babysitting.”

Varric dealt out their last cards, and Anders pushed his remaining coin into the center of the table. Varric could tell by the glimmer in his eyes that he had a good hand.

“So? You staying in?”

Considering his cards again, Varric mused, “I might be if you’re willing to part with one of those secrets of yours.”

“Surely you realize I’m not a poor healer living in Dark Town anymore. I don’t need the money that badly.”

“Maybe not, but I also know you don’t like backing down from a fight.”

Anders laughed. “We’re fighting now?”

“We might be after what I’m about to ask.”

“And what is that?”

Varric swallowed. For a moment he thought he might actually ask the question that was burning a hole in his gut, the one that had been swirling around in his head ever since that moment in the Deep Roads when he’d looked back and forth between Anders and Bianca and seen parallels he’d never expected to see. But then he thought of the consequences, the ways the question could change the easy friendship they shared—possibly even damage it irreparably. Instead, he asked, “What's going on between you and Curly?”

Anders’ eyes widened. “Me and Cullen? Nothing.”

“You gave him your coat.”

“I can’t have our commander getting frostbite, can I?”

“And what do you think his men will think when he shows up at the barracks wearing nothing but his smalls and your coat?”

Anders grimaced. “I didn’t think about that.”

“You also didn’t see the way he blushed when you brushed your hands over his shoulders. I think it went all the way—”

“Varric!”

“And now you’re flushed! You used to be able to listen to the tales of Isabela’s pornographic exploits with nothing more than a nod and a shrug—and occasionally a tip on how she could have improved the experience. You don’t blush over nothing.”

“Cullen isn’t…” Anders protested. “I mean, he would never…”

“But you would?” Varric arched a brow.

Squinting at him, Anders asked, “Why do you want to know? You ask an awful lot of questions about my love life for someone who refuses to talk about his own.”

“I worry about you, Blondie.”

“Why?”

He should have known better than to walk into that one. Avoiding Anders’ piercing gaze, he pushed his entire pile of winnings into the center of the table. “Enough small talk. Let’s see your hand.”

Anders hesitated, still watching him closely, but he finally relented and spread his cards out in front of him. To Varric’s shock, it was only slightly better than his own paltry hand. Maybe he wasn’t as good at reading Anders as he thought.

“You got me,” Varric said, spreading his hand over the table.

Scoffing, Anders leaned closer to get a better look at Varric’s cards. “No. You let me win!”

Varric winked at him. “It wouldn’t be the first time, Blondie.”

Anders looked properly outraged at the implication. “You mean you threw games back in Kirkwall too?”

“I couldn’t stand taking your money when I knew you would give most of the rest to the sick and dying anyway.”

“And here I thought I was getting better at the game!”

“You are. But you refuse to cheat. You’re never going to win that way.”

Glancing at him through narrowed eyes, Anders shook his head. “Not against cheaters, I suppose.”

“The world is full of cheaters,” Varric replied, collecting his diminished pile of winnings. “You should be glad you have one on your side.”

“I am.” The warmth in Anders’ eyes made Varric’s chest ache. “But he hasn't been himself lately. I've missed him.”

Varric nodded, looking away in embarrassment. “Well, you don't have to worry anymore. All he needed was a little reminder of who he really was.”

“Good.” Anders stood and stretched with catlike grace before reaching for his pile of discarded clothing and beginning to put himself back together.

“Good luck in the Wilds,” Varric said when Anders had finally collected everything.

Anders nodded, smiling sleepily as he turned to leave.

“And Blondie?” Varric swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

Morrigan quickly grew frustrated by their slow progress through the jungle. The Inquisitor paused often to assist his army as they passed, even when his soldiers and allies encouraged him to continue forging ahead. While he took time to heal the wounded and refresh the exhausted at every turn, Morrigan mourned every wasted bottle of lyrium, wondering how much he would have left by the time they finally reached the temple if he kept giving every obstacle in their path the same priority as their destination.

“Inquisitor,” she reminded once again. “We must keep moving.”

He looked up from the broken leg he had just set with a frown. “I heard you the first time,” he said, then returned his attention to the soldier he had been helping. “Don’t put any weight on it. I can’t heal it completely without more mana.”

“Much as I hate to agree with the witch about anything, she is correct, Inquisitor,” Solas said to Morrigan’s utter surprise. “We cannot afford to linger here.”

Standing, Anders brushed his hands over his coat to clean them and then nodded at the path ahead with his lips set into a firm line. Morrigan didn’t wait for him to begin walking, eagerly taking up the lead. They moved more swiftly through the forest then, and when they passed another skirmish, she gave Anders a look and he continued walking with a sigh. She was just beginning to enjoy the focused silence when the obnoxious young elf spoke up, shattering Morrigan’s peace of mind with her irritating banter.

“So. You gonna squeeze up to her or not?”

Morrigan knew that the elf—what was her name? Sera? She knew that Sera was not addressing her, but she didn’t know who she actually was addressing until the hairy bruiser of a man beside her replied. Morrigan had heard a rumor that the man had been impersonating a grey warden, and the very idea made her detest him.

“What?” the man asked the sassy elf in an unhappy grumble of a voice. “Squeeze up to who?”

“Lady Josie,” Sera replied with a roll of her eyes. “I've seen you, doing that knightly stuff.”

Morrigan was intrigued in spite of herself. She picked up on social dynamics quickly, but she never would have suspected a romance between this unkempt soldier and the Inquisition’s refined ambassador. The Inquisitor seemed equally intrigued, and she hoped that meant he would be paying so much attention to their conversation that he wouldn’t get distracted by any other passing battles.

Maker, Sera. No,” the grey warden impersonator said, shaking his head. “Stay out of it.”

Giggling, Sera cried, “You're all shy! What, you think you can't treat her right?”

“No, it's not—”

“I'll show you. I just need a peach. A ripe one, because if you do it right? Ripe! Down there.

Anders laughed while the soldier continued to protest.

“Please, no peaches, ripe or otherwise.”

Well I can't teach you bananas! That would be like showing you swords! Oh! Remember, do not use it like a sword.”

Now even Morrigan was smiling, but her smile faded as soon as she heard the fighting ahead. She waved them all to silence. This fighting was of a different pace and timbre than the other skirmishes they had encountered, and something about the sound made her believe it was a new group of forces clashing. Crouching down, she approached the railing at the end of the corridor they had been pacing with caution. Anders followed her lead and knelt down next to her, a gasp hissing through his teeth when he saw the red templars in the courtyard below, along with the creature that Morrigan instinctively identified as Corypheus. They were clashing with a group of elves. The elves in particular drew her attention. Something about them was wrong, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.

“They still think to fight us, Master,” shouted a man in impressive armor. The man himself was not so impressive. In fact, he looked rather ill.

Corypheus’ voice shook the ground, and Morrigan felt her hands clenching reflexively at her sides when she heard it. “These are but remnants. They will not keep us from the Well of Sorrows.”

Anders turned to look at her and mouthed the phrase again. “Well of Sorrows?”

She was pleased that he had learned to look to her for guidance, but she had no answers in this case. Shrugging, she shook her head.

“Be honored,” the ancient Tevinter continued, “Witness death at the hands of a new god.”

What happened next was frankly impossible. Corypheus breached the elves’ barrier, turning their own security measures back on them. They fell like trees before a flood, and although Corypheus also fell, his soldiers walked over all of the bodies without regard, utterly unperturbed by their own master’s apparent death.

Slowly, cautiously, she and the others approached the battleground. And when they got closer she saw why the templars had not fretted at their master’s demise. One of the grey wardens who had died in the previous battle was somehow...changing. As his body morphed, a new shape emerged. A familiar shape.

“It cannot be!” she cried, recognizing what was happening before anyone else. She could feel the magic tingling in the air like static electricity.

Mesmerized by the tableau, she didn’t even notice the dragon swooping through the corridor they had just vacated until the others began shouting. Pursued by both the dragon and Corypheus, they stumbled over their own feet and the elven bodies alike as they raced across the bridge to reach the structure at the far end. Morrigan’s heart was racing by the time they managed to shut the doors behind them. Panting for air, she took stock of their surroundings in relief, realizing that they had stumbled into their destination unwittingly.

“Mythal’s sanctum at last,” she announced when she had caught her breath. “Let us proceed before Corypheus interferes.”

“Before he interferes?” Anders demanded. “Didn’t you see what he just did? He literally just died! And then resurrected himself in another body.”

“Yes,” Morrigan admitted, hoping that he would get over his outrage quickly. It was unproductive. “He must be capable of passing his life force onto other blighted creatures,” she said, realizing the explanation even as she spoke. “Darkspawn, of course. And grey wardens.”

“For once I’m relieved I’m not really a warden,” the hairy soldier said with disgust.

Anders shifted uncomfortably, looking at the door behind them with a frown.

“So how many times do we need to kill him?” the elven archer chirped. “A small number, right?”

Morrigan shrugged. “‘Tis strange. Archdemons possess the same ability and still the grey wardens are able to slay them. Yet Corypheus they locked away. Perhaps they knew he could do this, but not how.”

“What I find more curious is the prize that Corypheus is seeking,” Solas said sharply, and his piercing gaze made her uncomfortable in its scrutiny.

“Right!” Sera agreed. “Why’s lumpy after this sorrow well, or whatever? Weren’t we after some poncy mirror?”

Feeling everyone’s gazes settling on her, Morrigan replied cautiously, “I am uncertain of what he referred to.”

“You said he was looking for an eluvian,” Anders said sharply.

“Confidence can carry one only so far, it seems,” Solas commented, and the elf’s smugness rubbed Morrigan wrongly on several angles.

“I suspected. I did not know,” she protested, knowing she sounded defensive and deciding she didn’t care. “Yes. I was wrong. Does that please you? Whatever the Well of Sorrows might be, Corypheus seeks it and thus you must keep it from his grasp.”

Sighing, Anders began leading them deeper into the temple. “Let’s find this well before Corypheus’ people do.”

They found several ritual paths as they continued, and despite her failure to guess Corypheus’ true purpose in the Arbor Wilds, she still managed to convince the Inquisitor to follow the rituals of supplication rather than charging ahead even after Corypheus’ general blasted a hole in the ground and jumped through it. She had to admit begrudgingly that his decision might have had more to do with Solas’ support than her own powers of persuasion, but she was pleased regardless. She was also pleased to find that several of the paths were inscribed with messages about the Well of Sorrows; the more she learned of it, the more she intrigued she became. Whatever it was, it obviously held great power and should be preserved at all costs.

The others seemed less inclined to agree, both the elven archer and the soldier protesting the rituals and the delay in reaching Corypheus’ general, but Anders seemed to be inclined toward delaying the inevitable. First it was healing the soldiers, now it was respecting the ancient rituals. He seemed reluctant to proceed in a way that she couldn’t fully understand. He wasn’t the only one. Solas seemed equally troubled by their journey through the temple, his fierce expression darkening as he looked at the carvings and statues fallen to ruin. There was something odd about his expression, as if he were imagining a version of the place before it had fallen apart. He had often boasted about his travels through the fade. Perhaps he had seen some glimpse of it in its original glory there.

Whatever he was thinking, he kept his thoughts to himself. Until they came across the statue of the wolf.

“Why would this be here?” she asked rhetorically when she saw it, shocked by the presence of the Dread Wolf in Mythal’s sanctum. She said as much when the Inquisitor questioned her reaction, likening the representation of Fen’Harel to a nude portrait of Andraste in the chantry—which, of course, triggered an immature chortle from their young elven companion and a smirk from the equally uncouth soldier. Solas’ expression of disapproval remained unchanged, but the Inquisitor seemed intrigued.

“It’s not that strange,” Anders commented. “Many chantries include imagery of Andraste’s betrayer, Maferath, after all.” Given his history, she was surprised that he had spent enough time in any chantry to recognize this fact.

“It might fulfill a similar function,” she mused, “a reminder of vigilance for the faithful.”

“For all your knowledge, Lady Morrigan,” Solas said imperiously, “you cannot resist giving legend the weight of history. The wise do not mistake one for the other.” Something about the elf’s tone struck her as odd, but she didn't have the patience to dissect it.

“Pray tell, what meaning does our elven expert sense lurking behind this?” she snapped.

“None we can discern by staring at it!”

Anders whistled. “Would you two like us to leave you alone for a moment so you can work out all that scholarly tension?” Anders asked, and Sera snorted.

Shooting Anders an irritated glance, she realized with frustration that she and Solas were finally on the same page since his impatience with the Inquisitor’s immaturity was no less potent.

“‘Tis time we moved on,” she said finally, walking away.

Once the rituals were finally complete, the door to the inner sanctum opened with a click. Unable to contain her eagerness, she rushed ahead, but slowed as she stepped inside, awed by the beauty of the chamber beyond. “‘Tis not what I expected,” she said with a sigh, turning in a slow circle as she walked. “What was this chamber used for?”

She was so wrapped up in their surroundings that she did not notice that they had company until the Inquisitor hissed that they were being watched. Elven warriors literally appeared around them from clouds of smoke, arrows knocked and bows drawn. They were dressed in ancient garb—the sort of armor that she had seen in scrolls and paintings, but never in person. Intrigued, she watched as their apparent leader stepped up to the edge of the balcony above, his pale features hidden by a deep hood.

“You are unlike the other invaders,” the elf commented in a clear voice like a ringing bell. “You stumble down our paths at the side of one of our own. You bear the mark of magic which is...familiar. How has this come to pass? What is your connection to those who first disturbed our slumber?”

Morrigan itched to respond to the elf herself, ask the questions on the tip of her tongue, but she held back, glancing at the Inquisitor to see what he would say.

“We came here to stop them, so I suppose you could say we have a common enemy,” Anders said in reassurance, a bitter twist to his lips as he spoke of Corypheus’ army.

The elf, Abelas as he introduced himself, seemed to accept his answer and proceeded to explain how he and his fellow elves had guarded the temple over the ages. Morrigan felt a chill at the thought. She had heard stories of such sentinels, guardians who slept until they were needed and then woke to fight, but she had never encountered them first-hand. She had so many questions! But then Abelas mentioned the Vir’Abelasan and she could no longer remain silent.

“The place of the Well of Sorrows,” she translated in a whisper to the Inquisitor. “He speaks of the Well.”

“It is not for you,” Abelas said firmly, his voice echoing throughout the chamber. “It is not for any of you.”

Irritated, Morrigan listened while Anders questioned the elf, but Abelas was wiley and shared only what little information he was willing to part with.

Finally, Anders said, “We didn’t come here to fight you or steal anything from your temple. We only want to stop Corypheus.”

Morrigan stiffened, glaring at him while Abelas seemed pleased by his statement, offering help against Corypheus’ army in return. Solas seemed equally pleased by Anders’ decision, clearly relieved that the Inquisitor had no intention of fighting the sentinels.

“Consider carefully, Inquisitor,” Morrigan interrupted. “You must stop Corypheus, yes. But you may also need the Well for your own.”

Anders inclined his head at her in understanding, but he still accepted Abelas’ offer. She shouldn’t have been surprised that he would seek to avoid conflict if at all possible.

“You will be guided to those you seek,” Abelas said. “As for the Vir’Abelasan, it shall not be despoiled, even if I must destroy it myself.”

“No!” she cried in desperation, feeling the cry rip from her throat instinctively when she saw the elf turn back the way he had come. Gathering her magic, she transformed into a bird and flew after him, the elation of the metamorphosis barely registering for her in the face of her need to stop Abelas from destroying the very thing he had sworn to guard. She heard the Inquisitor calling her name as she soared through the chamber but ignored him. If he was too much of a fool to appreciate the importance of the Well, then she would have to take matters into her own hands.

Chapter Text

Even without his armor, Samson was a difficult foe. Anders swayed a bit on his feet when the templar finally collapsed to the ground, worn out by the battle and weary from the long journey through the Wilds. Solas pressed a bottle of lyrium into his hand with a frown, although his expression seemed more focused on Samson than Anders.

“He’s still alive,” Blackwall grunted, approaching Samson cautiously, sword clenched in his hand and held defensively before him.

“Leave him. We will take him back to Skyhold for judgment,” Anders decided, knowing Cullen would appreciate having a chance to find closure in his history with his former colleague.

He barely had time to drink the lyrium potion before Solas cried out, drawing his attention to the elf racing up a magic-summoned staircase. Morrigan—or rather the bird she had changed into, arrived only a breath ahead of Abelas, landing in front of him and transforming back into her human form. Despite his exhaustion, Anders hurried up the stairs to join the pair before they came to blows. He could hear the others following closely at his heels.

“So the sanctum is despoiled at last,” Abelas said in a mournful tone.

“You would have destroyed the Well yourself given the chance,” Morrigan snapped.

“To keep it from your grasping fingers. Better that it be lost than bestowed upon the undeserving.”

“Fool. You’d let your people’s legacy rot in the shadows!”

“Okay, all of that isn’t getting us anywhere,” Anders interrupted, glaring at Morrigan.

“The Well clearly offers power, Inquisitor. If that power can be turned against Corypheus, can you afford not to use it?”

Abelas scoffed. “Do you even know what you ask?” He turned to face what Anders assumed to be the Well, a shallow, clear pool that was eerily still despite the wind. “As each servant of Mythal reached the end of their years,” Abelas continued, gesturing to the water, “they would pass their knowledge on through this. All that we were, all that we knew, it would be lost forever.”

Anders empathized with him, imagining how difficult it must be to hold on to what was left while more and more was taken away with every passing year. He had no desire to take away what little these elves had left, but he also had a duty to make the Inquisition as strong as it could be and an enemy they could not hope to defeat without help. He was torn, and Morrigan’s stubborn obsession was doing nothing to make his decision easier.

“There are other places, friend, other duties,” Solas said quietly to Abelas with more gentleness in his voice than Anders had heard since he helped deliver Justice back to the Fade. “Your people yet linger.”

Abelas looked at Solas uncertainly. “Elvhen such as you?”

“Yes, such as I.”

Sighing, Abelas turned to regard Anders again. “You have shown respect to Mythal, and there is a righteousness in you that I cannot deny. Is that your desire? To partake of the Vir’Abelasan as best you can? To fight your enemy?”

Anders regarded the Well uncertainly. “We need a way to defeat Corypheus. But I don’t want to fight you in order to learn it.”

“No boon of Mythal was ever granted without cost. The Vir’Abelasan may be too much for a mortal to comprehend. Brave it if you must, but know you this: you shall be bound forever to the will of Mythal.”

Morrigan scoffed. “Bound to a goddess who no longer exists, if she ever did?”

“Bound as we are bound,” Abelas revised sharply. “The choice is yours.” He turned to walk away.

“Are you leaving the temple?” Anders asked, surprised that Abelas would give up his duty so easily.

“Our duty ends. Why remain?”

“There is a place for you, Lethallin,” Solas reminded, “if you seek it.”

Abelas made a show of visibly considering the offer, but Anders suspected that he had no interest in becoming a part of the world in its present state. His verbal response confirmed it, but still Anders had to try. “You could come with us. Fight Corypheus. He killed your people.”

Shaking his head, Abelas replied. “We killed ourselves, long ago.”

Solas exchanged a few more words with the elf in elvish, and translated them when Abelas was gone. “His name, Abelas, means sorrow. I said, I hope he find a new name.”

Morrigan, clearly boring of the exchange, turned back toward the Well again and hovered at the edge as if ready to dive into the water at only the slightest provocation. She pointed out the eluvian on the far side of the pool, her voice smug, and theorized that the Well itself was the key that would unlock it. Everything she said was calculated to build her case for using the Well, but none of her arguments so far had done anything to convince Anders that she could be trusted with that kind of power. She might have saved his life in Halamshiral, but he had no doubt that she would support the Inquisition only as long as their objectives were in alignment. As soon as they diverged she would take her own path, and if the Well really could give them enough power to defeat Corypheus, they couldn’t risk giving it to someone with such weak loyalties.

“I did not expect the Well to feel so hungry,” Morrigan admitted softly.

Anders smirked wryly at her unexpected honesty, but his smile faded quickly when he turned his attention back to the Well and realized he felt the same sensation emanating from the surface, a sort of compulsion drawing him closer. “Isn’t that sort of thing usually a warning sign?”

“Knowledge begets a hunger for more,” she replied. “I am willing to pay the price the Well demands. I am also the best suited to use its knowledge in your service.”

“Or more likely to your own ends,” Solas argued, saying the exact thing Anders was thinking.

“What would you know of my ends, elf?”

Solas scoffed. “You are a glutton drooling at the sight of a feast. You cannot be trusted.”

“Of those present, I alone have the training to make use of this. Let me drink, Inquisitor. Can you honestly tell me there is anyone better suited?”

“Solas?” Anders asked, but he was unprepared for the elf’s fierce scowl.

“No. Do not ask me again.”

Anders sighed, not liking where his thoughts were leading him. His gaze drifted back to those still waters. He could feel the tug of compulsion again, and this time he thought he heard voices whispering ever so faintly, tempting him to take a taste. Although he didn’t know exactly what the Well held, he recognized its nature and had no trouble imagining the price that would have to be paid for drinking from it. He had no desire to bring that sort of fate on himself again, but he couldn’t think of a better way solve the problem. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to voice the idea to the others.

“What happens when Corypheus comes for you again?” Morrigan asked, continuing to campaign for herself when he remained silent too long. “He is immortal. The wisdom of the Well may include a way to destroy him. Give me this, and I will fight at your side. I shall be your sword.”

“Any other opinions?” Anders asked, cringing at the desperation in his voice when he turned to face the others.

“She is right about only one thing: we should take the power that is in that Well.” Solas’ voice was reluctant, but firm.

Shrugging, Blackwall said, “I would trust you with that power more than her. But it’s not for me to decide.”

Anders frowned, realizing Blackwall had guessed that he was considering drinking from the Well himself, although the others seemed startled by the idea and exchanged uncertain glances.

“It’s called the Well of Sorrows,” Sera reminded him in disbelief. “ Sorrows . The name says it all, don’t it?”

He couldn’t argue with her logic, but it still wasn’t enough to change his mind. “I’ve had voices in my head before,” he mused, wondering if his mind could survive the influence of the Well without fracturing completely.

Solas shook his head fiercely. “Not like this, Inquisitor. This is not a single-minded spirit. It is the echo of thousands of voices, each with its own will.”

Nodding, Anders turned to face the Well. “I know. I can almost hear them.”

Morrigan was beside herself with outrage. “Almost? You may hear whispers, but you aren’t trained to understand them. Would you really take what little knowledge you can understand and let the rest go to waste?”

“We don’t need all of the Well’s knowledge,” Anders retorted. “Just enough to defeat Corypheus. That’s the difference between you and I. I don’t want this power except for the edge it might give us in this fight. You want it to make yourself stronger. And what will you do with it once Corypheus is dead? Who else will become subject to that power when it suits you?”

She opened her mouth to rebuke him, but remained silent, closing her mouth again a moment later. Jaw tense with anger, she said finally, “I am forever balked by those who believe they know better than I. Drink if you will for the sake of us all. But steel your will to do it.”

Heart racing, Anders turned back toward the Well and took a slow step toward it. Water splashed against his boot. The next step was easier, the compulsion drawing him in like a lover’s embrace. He thought of Justice, of what it had been like when they first joined and how difficult it had been to sort their thoughts out from each other. Eventually he had stopped trying altogether. How different would it be to have thousands of voices speaking all at once, all trying to be heard, trying to exert their will upon him? He shivered, the chill water lapping against his knees now.

Taking a deep breath, he cupped his hands and dipped them into the water, the tingling rush of old magic dancing over his skin, and then he hesitated. Thinking of Varric suddenly, he realized how angry the dwarf would be when he found out what Anders had done, how Varric would beat himself up all over again for not being there to change his mind. But he would be angrier at Anders for not knowing better. If this went badly, if it turned out to be a mistake as foolish as joining with Justice, would Varric ever forgive him?

Then he thought of everyone else who had supported him as Inquisitor, the people who had forgiven him for his sins in the hope that he would never repeat them. Cassandra and Cullen had come to trust him despite his past mistakes, and even Hawke had acknowledged how much he had changed. None of them would forgive him a second time if he made this choice and it turned out just as wrong. And what about all the effort that had gone into separating him from Justice and freeing him from the corrupted spirit’s influence? Would he need a similar rescue from the voices in the Well? Or was such an escape even possible? And what would happen tod the Inquisition if its leader became subject to the will of an ancient elven god? The threat might be mere superstition, but could he afford to take that risk?

Looking up finally, he met Solas’ gaze and let the water slip through his fingers and back into the Well. The elf nodded ever so slightly in approval. “No,” Anders murmured, returning to the edge of the pool and feeling the drag of magic on his legs with every step as it tried to pull him back in. “I can’t be the one to do this.”

“Then you want me to…?” Morrigan began, dark eyes sparkling with eagerness.

“If you betray us,” Anders interrupted, “if you take this power and somehow turn it against the Inquisition…”

“I will not,” she responded quickly. “I have no reason to do such a thing, and even if I did, I know better than to borrow trouble. You have my word.”

Solas scoffed at that, but Anders nodded, patting his damp hands against his coat as he watched Morrigan take his place in the Well.

Chapter Text

Cullen approached the Inquisition’s throne with the sort of caution he normally reserved for skittish animals. From his posture and the way he kept squirming on the chair, Anders’ discomfort with the judgment seat was painfully obvious. Anders did everything he could to avoid actually judging their prisoners, clearly feeling the hypocrisy a bit too keenly to enjoy the experience, but after some persuasion he had finally agreed to go through with the formal judgment publicly this time given the gravity of Samson’s crimes.

“Inquisitor,” Cullen greeted, his voice raised enough for the crowd to hear him.

Anders didn’t ask why Cullen was presiding over the judgement instead of Josephine, merely greeting him in return. “Commander.”

Anders turned then to watch the soldiers leading Samson into the chamber in chains, but Cullen wasn’t quite ready to look at the prisoner himself. He watched Anders instead while he read out the list of charges, noticing how the mage’s expression darkened with every word, emotions chasing each other over the his face as Samson approached.

“The blood on his hands cannot be measured,” Cullen added when he was finished, his voice betraying more emotion than he would have liked. “But his head is too valuable to take. Kirkwall, Orlais, many would see him suffer. I can’t say I’m not one of them.”

Anders glanced at him, and Cullen could read what he was thinking in the sad cast of his eyes. It wasn’t so long ago that Cullen would have said something similar about Anders. Stiffening, Cullen opened his mouth to reassure him, but Samson’s dry laughter startled him into silence.

“The Zealot of Kirkwall sitting in judgment over me,” Samson rasped. “It's hard to believe the gall. Is what you did for your mages so different from what I did for my templars? Most of your mages died fighting for their freedom, didn’t they? While I saved countless templars from a life of servitude to the chantry. I gave them a chance to die at their best instead of leaving them to rot like the chantry had left me.”

Anders straightened on the throne, eyes flashing with anger. “We found what was left of your people at the Shrine of Dumat. Their slavish devotion to you got them killed even after you abandoned them. That’s not freedom.”

Samson chuckled without humor. “They were always going to die. I saw what Corypheus was doing, so yes, I fed them hope instead of despair. I made them believe their pain had purpose. Just like the chantry does. Right, Commander?” Cullen shivered when Samson’s gaze settled on him, but refused to respond to the barb. Samson broke eye contact first, his shoulders slumping finally and his voice cracking with emotion. “It ended as well as anything else I’ve done.”

Considering Samson silently, Anders shifted his attention back to Cullen briefly for guidance, but Cullen could only shake his head. Hearing about the faith Samson had inspired in his men had made him doubt his own abilities, but he saw now that Samson’s leadership was hollow. He led his men with lies, coddling them with easy answers while he poured poison down their throats. He had euthanized them to protect them from the truth and justified his actions by comparing them to the chantry’s mistakes rather than owning the decisions himself. He wasn’t a leader. He was a fool with too much charisma and not enough sense.

“Maybe you can still be of some use,” Anders said suddenly, and Cullen’s attention snapped back to him in alarm. “Your resistance to red lyrium is unusual. Maybe we could learn something by studying it.”

Samson’s chains rattled as he squirmed, obviously wondering if Anders was talking about experiments while he was still alive or a dissection of his dead body.

“And you might still have information we could use in our fight against Corypheus,” Anders added, clearing up the question of whether or not Samson would survive the examination. Samson seemed dismayed by this answer. “Cullen will oversee your interrogation personally. Perhaps he can get something useful out of you.”

Now it was Cullen’s turn to squirm. He knew that Anders was likely trying to give him the opportunity to find closure with his decision, but Cullen would have rather seen Samson come to a swift end than be given such power over his fate.

“I doubt the Commander believes there’s anything worthy left in me,” Samson said with a taunt behind his words.

Biting back his anger, Cullen replied, “You’re not wrong, but you served something greater than yourself once. Perhaps you can be made to remember that.”

Samson sighed. “What does it matter? Corypheus would kill me on sight now. I’ll tell you whatever you want—at least until the red lyrium steals your vengeance. You know what it does.”

“You’ll wish the red lyrium was the worst of your problems,” Cullen muttered under his breath as he gestured the soldiers to take Samson away. Climbing the remaining steps to the throne, he leaned closer to Anders who had slumped back in the seat as if exhausted. “You went too easy on him.”

“Did I? I thought I was harsh, but fair. Who knows what Dagna will do to him to understand his lyrium tolerance? And you can determine how painful his interrogation will be.”

“You shouldn’t have given him into my keeping,” Cullen said, biting his lower lip. “I don’t know if I can restrain myself.”

Anders gave him a strange look. “No one is asking you to.”

Cullen felt a chill at the darkness in Anders’ eyes then and looked away quickly. Revenge was something that he had craved many times in his life, but he had always managed to avoid the temptation. He had restrained himself where Anders was concerned, but he didn’t know if he could do the same with Samson. They had been brothers in arms before Samson betrayed everything they stood for. If Cullen hadn’t ended up with the Inquisition, if he had stayed with the templars, he might have foolishly become corrupted by the red lyrium himself and died for Samson’s cause just as easily as the rest.

Sighing as he watched the soldiers dragging Samson down to the dungeon, Cullen decided to get back to work. Losing himself in the daily operations of the Inquisition would distract him from the uneasy knot forming at the pit of his stomach. He was disappointed to find that the War Room was occupied, but as soon as he saw the fierce expression on Cassandra’s face he decided that she might actually be more troubled at the moment than he was.

He followed her gaze to the map in the hope of identifying the focus of her attention, but nothing on the table seemed interesting enough to cause such an intense reaction. “Everything all right?” he asked.

Caught off guard, she straightened when she noticed him. “I’m not sure.”

Joining her on the other side of the table, he asked gently, “What’s troubling you?”

Cassandra looked at him uncertainly as if she couldn’t decide if she wanted to voice her concerns out loud. “We saw so many red templars at Haven, and again in the Arbor Wilds,” she said with hesitation in her voice. “But among all of Corypheus’ army I have seen no hint of any Seekers. I find their absence troubling. Not even Lord Seeker Lucius has shown his face since we saw him in Orlais.”

Cullen frowned, realizing she was right and suddenly feeling guilty for how much time he’d spent feeling sorry for himself over what had happened to his own order when Cassandra was still worrying over what might have happened to hers. “What do you think happened?”

Her expression was grim as she crossed her arms over her chest and returned her attention to the map. “I’m beginning to assume the worst.”

Cullen waited patiently for her to collect her thoughts, knowing her well enough to know that she would continue when she was ready.

“I believe that Corypheus has imprisoned the Seekers,” she said finally without meeting his eyes. “He couldn’t gain control of them through lyrium like he did with the templars, so he would have to use some other method to keep them out of the way.”

“Have you spoken to the Inquisitor about this?”

“I have. And he sent a scouting party to investigate.” Pointing one gloved finger at the map, she directed his attention to spot in Ferelden. “Whatever happened to them, I think we will find the answers there.”

“Caer Oswin,” he said after studying the location. “Strange. I would not have expected an unassuming man like Bann Loren to be involved in something like this.”

“It could be nothing...”

He shook his head firmly. “But you need to know either way. I understand. When do you leave?”

She hesitated and flushed slightly as she looked away from his curious gaze. “I haven’t asked the Inquisitor yet.”

Blinking in surprise, Cullen asked, “Why not?”

Worrying at her lower lip with her teeth, she began pacing slowly around the table. “I don’t know. This quest feels…strangely personal. While I trust Anders to do his best to be impartial, he is still a mage and one who has suffered personally at the hands of the Chantry. The Seekers were designed to be the defense against templar corruption, but given the abuses that occurred leading up to the rebellion, we did not do our job very well. Corypheus is good at using our best intentions against us. I’m terrified of learning what secrets he might have used to twist the Seekers to his own purposes.”

“Cassandra,” Cullen said, waiting for her to meet his eyes before continuing. “I know you too well to believe for a second that you could let something like this go out of fear of learning the truth. You are planning to pursue it on your own, aren’t you? That’s why you haven’t asked him.”

Her uncharacteristic blush deepened, the color softening her features considerably. “I’m perfectly capable of accomplishing a mission like this on my own.”

Smiling fondly, he countered, “I’ve no doubt in your abilities. But are you sure you wouldn’t like a little company?”

She considered him with a wary expression. “Are you offering?”

He realized with a bit of shock that he was. Perhaps this was exactly what he needed to do to get past the feeling of dread that had been lingering with him since Samson’s judgment. “More than anyone else in the Inquisition,” he explained, “I understand what is at stake here for you. I turned my back on my order just as you did on yours. But we never completely stop being what we are, do we? I know you feel an obligation to find out what happened to the Seekers just as I hope to someday free other templars from their addiction to lyrium. I’d like to see at least one of us reach our goal.”

And he owed her after everything she had done to support him during his lyrium withdrawal. Anders may have done the final healing, but he wasn’t sure if he would have survived long enough to receive the mage’s help if Cassandra hadn’t been keeping such a careful watch over him from the beginning. And he hadn’t done much to repay that debt—or even acknowledge it. He’d taken her support for granted. It was time for that to change.

She smiled then, an expression she rarely allowed herself, and he was reminded that she wasn’t nearly as severe as she liked for people to think she was. “Thank you,” she said, averting her eyes in embarrassment. “I’m afraid that this won’t be an easy assignment. At least not for me.”

Cullen placed a hand reassuringly on her shoulder. “We’ll face it together.”

Chapter Text

Varric had never spent much time in the castle’s garden before. It was all a bit too natural and cloying for his taste, but he was working on a scene with a similar setting and his lack of first-hand knowledge about such places was proving to be an obstacle.

He’d wandered around the area a bit first, steering clear of the Reverend Mother and her crowd of supplicants before retreating to the pots of herbs near the entrance. He noted the rich dirt used in the pots and how it differed from the hard pack under his boots and then started up a rather stilted conversation with the chief gardener. The grizzled old man had begrudgingly helped him identify the various plants and their uses before returning to his work of trimming the shrubbery.

Feeling as if he had collected enough details to work with, Varric looked around for a quiet place to sit and capture what he’d learned. The gazebo in the corner seemed like the best spot and it was currently unoccupied. Settling down on a bench inside, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the shade before he began scribbling notes over the pages he’d brought with him. He had just paused in his notetaking to debate how to spell Amrita Vein when he saw Morrigan walking in his direction with a child in tow, brushing strands of dark hair out of her face in frustration as she looked back over her shoulder at the boy.

“I told you, Kieran. ‘Tis nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

“But I am concerned!” The boy replied, dark eyes narrowing. “I know something happened.”

She turned back to face him, seemingly unaware of the dwarf sitting inside the gazebo directly behind her. “Many things happen all the time, but that does not mean you get to know them all, little man. Perhaps you should return to your studies if you are so interested in learning things you don’t know.”

But the boy was undeterred.  A secretive little smile spread over his lips, eerie as shit, and he said softly, “But I know what you did.”

Morrigan crossed her arms over her chest. “Do you, now?”

“I can hear the voices sometimes. I can hear them speaking to you.”

That was enough to make Varric shiver. He’d heard the story of what Morrigan had done in the Arbor Wilds from a few sources—Blackwall and Solas being the most coherent storytellers, although Sera’s account had been entertaining, at least—and he still felt a hint of panic every time he thought about how close Anders had come to drinking from that magic puddle himself. The idea of anyone having that kind of power—let alone someone as eldritch as Morrigan—was enough to make him uneasy. But the thought of Anders subjecting himself to such a thing after everything they had gone through to return Justice to the Fade? Varric wasn’t sure how he would have reacted to such a choice, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.

Morrigan sighed, turning her head just enough for Varric to glimpse a smile spreading over her lips and recognize the pride in her eyes. “‘Tis rude to eavesdrop.”

For a second Varric thought she was talking about him, which was weird given her expression, but then he realized she was scolding Kieran instead.

But then the boy’s gaze actually did focus on Varric, giving him another chill. “You should tell him that.”

Varric fumbled his papers in reaction, nearly scattering them in every direction before he managed to get a handle on them again.

Looking back over her shoulder, Morrigan gave him a bland expression. “Ah, the dwarf,” she said, as if he were the only one in the castle instead of one of dozens.

“I didn’t know you had a son,” Varric commented, realizing when he paused awkwardly at the end of the sentence that he had yet to find a nickname for her. But even if he had, he wasn’t sure he would really want to use it in her hearing.

She didn’t reply, but her eyebrow twitched in irritation.

“He’s, uh…” Varric babbled, realizing he couldn’t think of a single flattering descriptor for the creepy child and finishing with an awkward laugh. “A bit precocious, isn’t he?”

“Yes. He takes after his mother.” Morrigan smiled tightly. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“No. Not a thing,” he replied a bit more sharply than he had intended, realizing that she had done quite a bit for him already. Anders would be dead by now if not for her intervention, and after what happened in the Arbor Wilds she might have saved him from madness as well. “Actually, I suppose I should be thanking you.”

“Oh?” Dark brow arching sharply, she turned to face him more directly.

Varric swallowed, not liking how she kept managing to rob him of his words. They were too important to him. “I’m not sure he would have survived that thing in the temple,” he said in a hoarse voice, hoping she would follow his meaning without him needing to elaborate.

Her expression softened and he realized that she was actually quite attractive beneath all the thorns. “‘Twas the Inquisitor’s decision to refuse the Well, not mine.”

Nodding, he said, “All the same. I’m glad it was you and not him.”

Her eyes narrowed slightly and she scrutinized him with a look that made him feel utterly exposed as if she could see inside his head—and maybe she could. The little twist to her lips said she’d definitely discovered something. Hell, she probably knew what he’d eaten for breakfast and the color of his underwear. But when she finally spoke his mouth went dry in shock. “You should tell him how you feel,” she suggested. “Before it’s too late.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he breathed, but she gave him a knowing smile.

Turning back to face her son, she startled when she noticed that he was gone. “Kieran?” she called, looking around the garden with more panic in her voice than seemed necessary. The distant sound of a door clicking shut drew her attention and she called his name again before racing across the yard to one of the rooms along the perimeter.

“Huh,” Varric huffed thoughtfully when she was gone. “I’d say that was weird, but what isn’t where she’s concerned?”

“Varric?” He turned to see Anders standing just outside the gazebo, leaning against one of the pillars to look in with a curious expression. The golden afternoon sunlight caught in his eyes as he arched a brow at Varric, making them glow from within. “Are you talking to yourself?”

“Practicing dialogue for one of my stories,” Varric deflected. “It’s important to make sure it sounds natural when spoken. What are you up to?”

“Looking for Morrigan.” Anders glanced around the garden before returning his attention to Varric. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you here before. Doesn’t seem like your kind of place.”

Varric shrugged. “Just doing a little research. You have to visit the places you don’t know anything about if you’re going to get them right.”

Stepping inside the gazebo, Anders sat down on the bench beside him and Varric tried not to think about how he sat closer than was actually necessary; he was probably just trying to sneak a peek at Varric’s notes. Anders was nosy like that. “Sounds like you’re making a lot of progress in your writing,” Anders said a little too casually. “Still working on that series for Cassandra? Or have you started something new?”

Honestly, Varric hadn’t written much of value since their trip to the deep roads. The stacks of obsessive writing he’d done after they got back had turned out to be stream of conscious drivel that even he had no desire to read. He’d tossed it all in the fireplace after he’d finally recovered his senses enough to realize that he’d simply been working through his feelings for Bianca—among other things. Anders himself had featured on more than a few of those pages and Varric never wanted anyone, especially him, to get their hands on them and learn how pathetic he could truly be. His writing had been stalled out ever since and this little trip to the garden had been his first attempt at writing something decent again.

“I have some ideas, but I’m not sure where it’s going yet,” Varric mused. “So, why are you looking for Morrigan?”

“Just curious, I guess. Wondering if she’s learned anything yet from…” He glanced at Varric briefly before looking away, gesturing vaguely with his hand.

“The voices in her head,” Varric finished for him.

Anders nodded, still acting a little self conscious.

“Well you’re in luck. I know where she is. I had a spooky conversation with her just before you showed up. She ran off in a panic looking for her son.” He pointed at the door on the other side of the garden. “She went in there.”

A frown spread across Anders’ lips and he went very still. “That’s where the eluvian is. We used it to escape Corypheus when we returned from the Temple of Mythal.” Standing up suddenly, he said, “I’d better check it out.”

“Hold on,” Varric protested, shuffling his papers into a stack and folding them into a pouch attached to his belt. “Wait for me.”

Glancing back over his shoulder, Anders asked, “More research?”

“Something like that,” Varric grumbled, nearly tripping over his own feet as he attempted to keep up with Anders’ swift pace.

He nearly collided with the mage when he stopped suddenly a few steps inside the door. The room appeared to be mostly used for storage, but he didn’t have any curiosity to spare for the dusty boxes and furniture once the glowing mirror caught his attention. It was similar to the broken object poor Daisy had often fawned over in her tiny Alienage hovel, but the design was more elegant and the glass completely intact. Color and light swirled over the surface like oil on water, and the magic powering it was so strong that even Varric, magic blind as he was, could feel it tingling against his skin.

“Is it supposed to be doing that?” Varric asked in a whisper, already suspecting the answer since there was no sign of Morrigan or Kieran even though he hadn’t seen them leave the room.

Approaching the mirror warily, Anders compressed his lips into a thin line as he regarded the object with more than just his eyes. Varric could feel the magic rolling off of him like a static charge. “Stay here,” he instructed.

“Not a chance, Blondie.”

Anders looked back at him. “Someone needs to stay behind to let the others know what happened in case—”

“In case you don’t come back? No. I’m not letting you go in there alone.” Varric was already scribbling a note on one of his sheets of paper and writing Nightingale’s name on the front. Opening the door and shouting at the nearest soldier in sight, he handed the note over with instructions to deliver it to the spymaster immediately.

Anders’ expression was unreadable when Varric joined him in front of the mirror again, but Varric could tell that he was more worried than annoyed.

Looking up at him, Varric asked, “So, what now? We just walk through it?”

A wry smile twisted Anders’ lips. “That’s the idea.”

On a whim, Varric reached for Anders’ hand and grasped it tightly in spite of his gasp of surprise. “So we don’t lose each other when we go through,” he explained, already walking toward the mirror with gritted teeth.

Hand relaxing into Varric’s grip, Anders chuckled under his breath and folded their fingers together without any further hesitation. Varric was pleasantly surprised by how calloused and warm his hand was. For some reason he’d expected it to feel cold. But then the icy sensation of the eluvian was washing over him and his skin crawled with the impression of being dismantled piece by piece and reassembled in another place, only the feeling of Anders’ warm hand keeping him grounded throughout.

Chapter Text

Anders had expected to arrive in the crossroads after stepping through the eluvian, but they had clearly arrived in the Fade instead. He hadn’t known such a thing was possible—not that he knew much about the eluvians to start with—but he didn’t like it. “This is wrong…” he said softly, looking around them in dread. “We shouldn’t be here.”

“You’re not doing much for my sense of calm, Blondie.”

Glancing down at Varric, Anders couldn’t help but smile at the grimace on his face. He realized suddenly that he was still holding Varric’s hand and tried to decide if he was ready to release it or not; the strength in the dwarf’s fingers was oddly reassuring. But Varric made the decision for him, giving his hand a quick squeeze before letting go.

“Do you think they ended up here too?” Varric asked. “Or did we did we take a wrong turn somewhere?”

Squinting at a figure in the distance, Anders thought he heard shouting and began moving in that direction. “No. I think that’s Morrigan up ahead.” He heard Varric following closely behind him and tried not to get distracted by the iridescent rocks and wisps of spirits floating past as they walked.

Morrigan did not seem to be pleased to see them. “Inquisitor. What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Following you,” Anders replied. “But I think the bigger question is what any of us are doing here . We’re in the Fade.”

“I have noticed,” she said sharply. “And I wish I knew the answer. It would take immense power to direct the eluvian here.”

Varric looked around uneasily. “Did the kid do it?”

Morrigan shook her head. “I don’t know how Kieran could have managed it.” She took a shaky breath before continuing more softly as if she were talking only to herself, “But if he is lost to me now, after all I have sacrificed… I must find him before it is too late.”

She began walking aimlessly, calling out her son’s name again and Anders glanced uneasily at Varric before turning to follow. “We’ll find him, Morrigan,” he said in the most reassuring tone he could manage. “He can’t be far.”

“The Fade is infinite,” Morrigan scoffed. “He could literally be anywhere! Whatever happens to him now, ‘tis my doing. I set him on this path.”

Anders didn’t like the sound of that. He hadn’t spent much time around her son, only enough to recognize the boy’s resemblance to his absent father, but he knew enough about the circumstances of his creation to know that it hadn’t been a normal conception and likely not a normal birth either considering a ritual and the soul of an archdemon had been involved. He could feel Varric studying him as if he suspected that Anders knew more about what was going on than he was saying, but he remained silent.

Time was difficult to parse in the Fade, but Anders was starting to tire of the fantastical landscape by the time they finally caught a glimpse of Kieran on a nearby ridge. And he had company. When they got closer, Anders felt his steps slow at the sight of a familiar face, a tall, menacing woman in ancient armor. A woman he’d seen turn into a dragon once and fly away. Turning to look at Varric, he saw the same dread in the dwarf’s eyes. They had both been on Sundermount the day that Hawke had returned that ugly old amulet to the elves and discovered that it had been carrying the fragment of a witch—or demon, or whatever she was.

“Mother!” Kieran cried when he saw Morrigan, guileless in his pleasure at seeing her.

Morrigan was not as pleased as she looked at the white-haired woman standing next to him, a frown set deeply into her features as she said, “Mother,” in a quiet growl.

The white-haired witch smiled, her voice like sandpaper over velvet as she said, “Now, isn’t this a surprise?” Her gaze shifted to Anders and Varric. “And what interesting companions you’ve found for yourself, girl.”

Morrigan glanced at the two of them in confusion.

Shrugging a shoulder, Anders explained, “We’ve met before. Briefly.”

“Yeah,” Varric chimed in. “She droned on about flotsam on the river of time and a bunch of other cryptic shit. Then she turned into a dragon. All in all, not the weirdest day I’ve ever had with Hawke. But it’s on the list.”

Morrigan didn’t seem terribly interested in their explanation and quickly turned her attention back to the witch. “What is Kieran doing here, mother?” she demanded.

Placing a hand possessively on Kieran’s shoulder, the witch replied, “He came to see his grandmother, like a good lad. I’m told sense often skips a generation.”

“Kieran is not your grandson,” Morrigan protested. “Let him go!”

Rolling her eyes, the witch looked at Anders. “As if I were holding the boy hostage She’s always been ungrateful, you see.”

Morrigan stepped in front of Anders to get her mother’s attention again. “Ungrateful? I know how you plan to extend your life, wicked crone. You will not have me, and you will not have my son!” The air crackled with arcane energy as she began working a spell, something powerful judging by the amount of mana she was collecting at her fingertips.

Anders hesitated, wondering if he should try to stop her or let this play out. He felt a hand on his arm and looked down at Varric who shook his head, pulling him back a step and out of easy striking distance.

But there was no need for worry because the witch simply waved a hand and the magic on Morrigan’s fingertips dissolved. “Now, now. That’s quite enough of that.”

Gasping in dismay, Morrigan looked down at her hands as if they had betrayed her. “What have you done to me?”

“I have done nothing. You drank from the Well of Sorrows of your own volition.”

A chill raced down Anders’ spine and he breathed a sigh of relief that he had decided not to drink from the Well himself. Varric’s hand tightened on his arm. Clearly he was thinking the same thing.

“Then you,” Morrigan breathed in shock, “are Mythal? That’s impossible.”

Anders considered this revelation in shock. He was not well-versed in elven mythology, but Solas had made his opinions about the gods known at every opportunity and he was far more of an expert on the subject. He acknowledged that the gods had existed in some form, but that they weren’t deities in the truest sense of the word. Whatever they were, the idea that one of them had survived through the ages and continued to meddle in the world’s affairs was unsettling to say the least.

The witch’s laughter grated on Anders’ nerves. “Explain to me, dear girl, why I cannot be what I am.” She nudged Kieran toward Morrigan and he ran into her arms. A clever distraction from the focus of their conversation.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” Kieran explained. “I heard her calling to me. She said now was the time.”

Morrigan shook her head. “I do not understand.”

“Once I was but a woman, crying out in the lonely darkness for justice,” her mother explained, closing the distance between them and although she looked like she wanted to retreat and pull Kieran with her, Morrigan stood her ground. “She came to me, a wisp of an ancient being, and she granted me all I wanted and more. I have carried Mythal through the ages ever since, seeking the justice denied to her.

Chilled by the explanation, Anders couldn’t help but see the similarities to his own joining with Justice. They had been bound together by their desire to right the wrongs of the world—and the wrongs done to Anders and his fellow mages in particular. If he had allowed their partnership to continue, would they have become something like the creature before him now? Not quite one thing or another, a powerful being that existed on the fringes of society and manipulated others rather than truly connecting with any of them. Morrigan’s opinion of the woman was proof enough that she had lost what made her human somewhere along the way. How close had he come to losing his own humanity permanently? The thought made him queasy.

He didn’t have to look at Varric to know he was thinking the same thing, but Morrigan was still arguing with the witch, oblivious to her companions.

Finally, the witch snapped, “You hear the voices of the Well, girl. What do they tell you about me?”

Tilting her head as if listening to something the rest of them couldn’t hear, Morrigan said in awe, “They say you speak the truth.”

“But what was Mythal?” the witch mused. “A legend given name and called a god, or something more? Truth is not the end, but a beginning.” Turning her attention to Anders, she said, “I have had many names, but you...may call me Flemeth.”

Anders had heard that name before. “Flemeth… But the hero of Ferelden killed you.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Of course. The amulet. You said that Hawke had saved your life.”

Sighing, Varric said, “Add it to the list of stupid shit we did with Hawke that might have helped screw over the world.”

But Morrigan shook her head. “If it hadn’t been you, it would have been someone else. She knows how to get what she wants and will do whatever it takes to get it.” Shifting her focus back to Flemeth, she demanded, “What is it you want now?”

“One thing, and one thing only,” Flemeth replied, lightly as if her request was of no consequence.”

“I have to go now, mother,” Kieran said sadly, taking a step backward into Flemeth’s embrace.

Voice breaking, Morrigan shook her head. “No, I will not allow it.”

“He carries a piece of what once was, snatched from the jaws of darkness. You know this.”

“He is not your pawn, mother. I will not let you use him!”

“Have you not used him? Was that not your purpose, the reason you agreed to his creation?”

“That was then. Now he...he is my son.” Morrigan turned to Anders as if she expected him to somehow intercede on her behalf. Perhaps she had no choice. Flemeth had control over her because of the Well, so she couldn’t hope to fight her without assistance. “Flemeth extends her life by possessing the bodies of her daughters, Inquisitor,” she explained, desperation in her eyes. “That was the fate she intended for me. I thwarted her, and now she intends to have Kieran instead.”

Anders felt Varric’s eyes on him and he could tell that the dwarf was trying to silently tell him to stay out of this family feud. Flemeth was too dangerous.

“I am not the only one carrying the soul of a being long thought lost,” Flemeth said in a painfully reasonable tone. “You know something about that, don’t you, Inquisitor?”

But Morrigan protested before he could respond. “Kieran is more than that, mother.”

“As am I, yet do you hear me complain? Our destinies are not so easily avoided, dear girl.”

“Mother, I have to,” Kieran pleaded.

Grasping at his shoulders, Morrigan knelt down to look him in the eyes. “You do not belong to her, Kieran. Neither of us do.”

Anders knew he couldn’t remain neutral, not after Flemeth had called him out, and he couldn’t in good conscience remain silent when a child’s life was at stake. Glancing apologetically at Varric, he stepped between Flemeth and the child. “You are right about me. I do know something about harboring a spirit. Enough to know that it must be possible to remove this soul inside Kieran without causing him any harm. Justice and I were so tangled up together by the end that I didn’t think we could ever be separated again, but we managed it. Surely you can do the same for him.”

“Is that what you want?” Flemeth asked, looking at Morrigan.

“He will return with me, one way or another,” Morrigan replied. “I am many things. But I will not be the mother you were to me.”

A faint smile curved Flemeth’s lips and she knelt down beside Kieran. Magic gathered at her fingertips and drew a glowing spirit from within Kieran’s chest and into her own.

Kieran gazed up at her in wonder. “No more dreams?”

“No more dreams,” Flemeth affirmed. “A soul is not forced upon the unwilling, Morrigan. You were never in danger from me.”

“Wait!” Morrigan cried, but Flemeth did not pause or look back as she turned to walk away.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Anders looked at Varric and found pride and fondness blurred together in the dwarf’s eyes. “Ready to go back, Blondie?” he asked.

Anders nodded, holding out a hand to Varric who took it with a smile and little chuckle. “Morrigan?” Anders prompted, counting on her knowledge of the eluvians to bring them back safely to Skyhold.

She did not disappoint him. The effort to open a connection to the eluvian clearly cost her, but it was a payment she seemed willing to give just to leave that place. She kept an arm wrapped tightly around Kieran’s shoulders until they were back on solid ground, checking him over thoroughly when they arrived. “Are you all right, Kieran? You are not hurt?”

The boy’s expression was simultaneously wistful and sad. “I feel lonely.”

Anders felt an echoing ache in his own chest at that statement, remembering the horrible sense of loss he’d felt after losing Justice. He felt Varric brush a thumb over his wrist in reassurance and realized he wasn’t ready to release his hand just yet.

“She wanted the old god soul all along,” Morrigan said with wonder in her voice. “Is it worth reminding myself that I do not know everything after all? My mother has the soul of an elven goddess—or whatever ‘Mythal’ truly was—and her plans are unknown to me.” Looking at Anders, she frowned. “Thank you, Inquisitor. I don’t know if she would have offered this option without your suggestion, but I am grateful for the outcome either way.”

He nodded. “Me too.” Placing a hand lightly on the boy’s shoulder, he added, “It will get better, Kieran. I promise.”

The boy looked up at him with sad dark eyes, and Anders was startled by the resemblance to his old Warden Commander. But whatever the boy saw in his own eyes seemed to reassure him because he nodded before looking away.

“You okay, Blondie?” Varric asked when they walked back outside, and Anders realized they were still holding hands.

Summoning a smile that felt almost believable, Anders nodded. “Yes, I think so. But right now I’m feeling more grateful than ever for the ritual that sent Justice back to the Fade.”

“Me too.” Varric looked down at their joined hands and swallowed. “Blondie, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.”

Curious and a little wary of the gravity in Varric’s tone, Anders allowed Varric to pull him toward the private little nook near the stairs. But before they could get there, a flash of light and deafening crack of thunder made them both stop and rush back into the garden. Looking up in shock, Anders watched as the heavens opened with pulsing green light and the breach reappeared once again.

Releasing Varric’s hand in shock when he felt the anchor flare to life on his hand, he winced as  he looked back at Varric. “I have to—”

“Go,” Varric said with a weary smile. “We’ll talk later.”

Chapter Text

It was raining when Cassandra and Cullen returned to Skyhold. They were both drained from their trip to Caer Oswin, but Cassandra hadn’t been able to get her worries about the secret tome out of her head. Drenched and tired, she had holed herself up in the Armory and started to read.

Many hours later, the sun was just starting to peek over the mountaintops and brighten the sky when she turned the last page and sat back in her chair in a state of shock. She didn’t know how much more time had passed before she heard someone enter the armory and call her name. Cullen appeared at the top of the stairs a moment later, a worried expression on his face, still drawn with exhaustion from their trip.

Offering her a tray of food he must have brought from the tavern, he sat down on the other side of the table and looked down at the book still splayed open before her. “Have you slept?”

“No.” She looked at the food with a queasy feeling in her stomach, knowing it would probably make her feel better if she could eat, but the idea of it was unappealing. “Have you?”

He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “A few hours. You’ve learned something, haven’t you?”

Sighing, she reached for the cup of tea on the tray, deciding it might help. She took a sip and revelled in the warmth as the liquid rolled down her throat. “It’s about the Rite of Tranquility,” she said finally.

Expression darkening, Cullen looked at the book again as if he expected it to turn into a monster and attack.

“You know that the final trigger for the mage rebellion was the discovery that the Rite can be reversed. Anders’ actions lit a match, but the truth about the rite provided the kindling.”

“I’m aware,” he agreed with dread in his eyes.

“We’ve both seen the horrors of the Rite applied where it should not have been, used as a punishment or a deterrent. But the idea that it could have been reversed even when applied inappropriately and yet had not… It was the last straw, so to speak.” She tapped angrily on the book. “But according to this, we’ve always known how to reverse the Rite. From the beginning.”

His eyes widened, but he remained silent and allowed her space to finish. She’d always appreciated this about Cullen, his patience and willingness to let her speak without interruption. Her thoughts sometimes took time to develop and interruptions tended to short circuit the process, but most people were in too much of a hurry to wait her out. They would try to anticipate what she was about to say, often guessing wrong but so eager to get to the point that they couldn’t endure her pauses.

“The Seekers created the Rite of Tranquility. It’s the basis of everything we are.” She swallowed. “Do you know anything about the ritual for becoming a Seeker?”

“Not much. I know that you must spend months in a vigil, emptying your mind of emotion until it is completely pure.”

“Until it is tranquil,” she rephrased. “To become a Seeker, you must first become Tranquil. And at the end, a spirit of faith is summoned to touch your mind and reverse the process. This step is what gives us our abilities.”

Cullen took a deep breath and released it. “That’s a lot to process.”

“But there’s more,” she said sadly, placing the empty cup down on the tray with a trembling hand. “What Lucius said about the Order was true. The Seekers created the Circles and the Templar order. We were responsible for setting up and monitoring the whole system. And we failed.” Standing up and walking to the window to catch a glimpse of the rising sun, she hugged her arms around herself and tried to stave off a shiver. “I thought to rebuild the Seekers once victory was ours. Now I’m not certain it deserves to be rebuilt.”

Looking down at his hands where they were folded on the table, Cullen frowned. “The Templars were equally flawed. But they were also necessary. Anders would have us let mages roam the world unchecked, but we’ve seen the consequences of such leniency. Tevinter is one example. Corypheus is another.”

“I can’t tell him about this,” Cassandra said, only realizing the truth when she’d said it out loud. The argument she’d had with Anders after the Winter Palace was enough to prove that. They might respect each other deeply, but their opinions about how the world should be were always going to be in conflict.

Cullen seemed to be coming to the same conclusion as well, a sadness settling into his features as he considered the implications of lying to their leader. “No, you can’t,” he agreed finally. “We’ve been working together so long now that I’ve forgotten who and what he is.” Scrubbing a hand over his face, Cullen shook his head. “He wouldn’t accept this.”

Closing the book and tugging it closer in spite of her frustration with its contents, she said, “He would probably want to throw this book in a fire. I was tempted to do the same at first as well, but I don’t think ignoring the past is the answer. If we do not learn from our mistakes we will be forever doomed to repeat them.”

Warmth blossomed in her chest when she looked up at Cullen again. “Thank you for going with me. I would not have been able to face Lucius on my own. Or this.”

Blushing, he shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “It’s nothing compared to everything you did for me before. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you properly.”

“Cullen.” She covered his hands with one of her own. “We’re friends. We’ve been through a lot together. You don’t need to thank me.”

“Neither do you.” He turned one of his hands over to clasp hers, a faint smile curving his lips.

Something about the look in his eyes made her chest flutter in the same way it often did when she was reading one of her romance novels. She’d experienced the feeling so rarely in her own life that she didn’t quite know what to do about it, especially when it was being caused by Cullen, of all people. He was attractive enough. She’d always thought so. But they both tended to bury themselves in their work, and neither of them were very good at this sort of thing. She’d never truly considered him that way. Until now.

“After all this is over,” she said quietly, “when Corypheus is defeated, what will become of the Inquisition? The Seekers were the original Inquisition and they fell to corruption so easily. Will that happen to us?”

He considered this with a frown. “When we started it, we didn’t intend for the Inquisition to become a permanent solution. It was only meant to be a tool for dealing with a crisis. But now it’s taken on a life of its own. By the time this is over it will be bigger than all of us. Even the Inquisitor.”

“You’re probably right.” A thought struck her and she found herself voicing it before she’d fully vetted it, a rare occurrence for her. “Maybe we should strike out on our own.”

Eyes crinkling at the corners, his smile broadened. “And do what?”

“We could create a new order, one that isn’t quite the Templars or the Seekers. Something better. Prove that it can be done.”

“I like that idea.”

Time stopped for her then as they gazed into each other’s eyes, a romantic idiom that she had never truly understood until that moment. Or maybe it was just her lack of sleep catching up to her.

But the moment didn’t last. They never do.

When green light flared brightly through the windows, they both rushed to look out. Watching in shock as the sky rippled apart, they saw the breach burst to life again, echoed by shouts of dismay in the courtyard outside.

“No,” she whispered in shock.

“Corypheus,” Cullen hissed. “I need to go.”

She nodded, realizing that she would need her strength to face whatever was next. Sitting down at the table when Cullen was gone, she forced herself to quickly devour the food on the tray, knowing it wouldn’t be long before the Inquisitor called them all into battle.

Chapter Text

The mood in the War Room was tense, the green light flooding from the rupture in the sky casting a pall over the entire room. The Inquisitor stood on one side of the table with pain written into his features, clutching at his left hand as the mark sparked and glowed, while his advisors stood on the other side with equally grim expressions.

“We’ve confirmed it,” the Commander said. “Corypheus is in the Valley of Sacred Ashes. He’s trying to draw you there, Inquisitor.”

“Obviously,” Morrigan said with a roll of her eyes. “He is ready to end this, even if that means ending everything.”

“He’s seeking revenge,” Leliana agreed. “That might give us an edge.”

“We’ll need every advantage we can get,” the Commander countered with a frown. “Our armies still haven’t returned from the Arbor Wilds. We will have only the soldiers in the castle for support.”

Wincing at another flare of the anchor, Anders nodded. “It will have to be enough,” he said through gritted teeth before turning to Morrigan. “Have you learned anything from the Well that can help us?”

“I have,” she said proudly. “I know how to match the darkspawn magister’s dragon. I can keep it out of the fight. Matching Corypheus will be up to you.”

“Right,” he said with a wry expression. “We’d better go.”

“Be careful, Inquisitor,” the Ambassador said, catching his arm as he turned away. He nodded gravely in response.

“My scouts are waiting for you in the valley,” Leliana added, following them out the door. “They will clear a path for you.”

Anders gave her a pained smile and squeezed her arm before he continued on. “I’ll see you when it’s over,” he promised.

The Commander also lingered by the Inquisitor’s side when they reached the great hall. “I’ll gather the soldiers and meet you at the gate.” Morrigan was surprised that he would be joining the fight personally rather than hanging back and directing the battle from a distance, but she supposed the Inquisition would need every soldier it could spare for this fight, including its commander.

Watching him go, Anders frowned but didn’t have time to do anything more before his other companions were joining him at the top of the stairs.

“Time to stomp Lumpy’s face,” the sassy little elf announced brightly as if the whole world wasn’t at stake.

Beside her, the imposter warden agreed with a stoic expression, “We’re ready, Inquisitor.”

The Inquisitor’s other warriors and rogues, mages and friends continued to gather around them as they descended the steps, readying weapons and armor for the march ahead. Morrigan was impressed by how easily they all fell into step beside each other, so accustomed to fighting together that they didn’t need explanations or affirmations to do their duty. It was admirable.

In spite of her assurances about her ability to fight the dragon, Morrigan didn’t have high hopes for their victory in this battle. Corypheus had caught them off guard and managed to compromise their leader as well by using the breach against him. Before joining the others in the War Room, she had lingered in the garden to say goodbye to Kieran and give him instructions should she fail to return. She itched to check on him again before leaving the castle, but she knew that it would only waste precious time. She was needed and winning this fight would be the only way to assure Kieran’s safety. Still, he was a smart lad and he would know what to do if the worst came to pass.

The journey to the valley was grueling because of the sense of urgency that drove their pace; they had no way of knowing how long they had until Corypheus succeeded at finally destroying the world. When they got closer, the tension grew thick enough that she could almost taste it in the air, and it was visible in the body language of everyone around her. She watched them as they walked, noting how much the dynamics between all of them had changed in the time she had been with the Inquisition.

The first dynamic she noticed was between the Tevinter mage and the Qunari, how they lingered close to each other, occasionally exchanging reassuring touches and intimate looks. They were an intriguing pair to be certain and had only grown closer during the months she had been a witness to their relationship.

“Leave the dragon to the witch, won’t you?” Dorian said to the hulking Qunari, hugging one thick arm to himself. “The Inquisitor needs us focused on Corypheus.”

The Iron Bull growled in frustration. “If I must. But that gorgeous dragon won’t know what it’s missing.”

“Yes,” Dorian replied wryly, “It’s a pity. But that just leaves more for me.”

“Let’s keep things decent, shall we?” The elegant mage from Orlais rolled her eyes at the pair as she passed, not even acknowledging Morrigan even though they knew each other from their time together in the Orlesian court. Not that Vivienne had ever paid her much attention back then. Morrigan had preferred things that way for the most part. It was often convenient to go unnoticed.

The whimsical Spirit in the ridiculous hat nearly collided with Morrigan then, preoccupied with the sullen elf apostate nearby. “An old pain and a possible solution,” the spirit said as it seemed to look through Solas rather than at him. “A path diverges. Everything comes down to this.”

“Cole,” Solas said sharply, giving the spirit an awful glare—one that Morrigan had felt enough times in the Temple of Mythal that she actually pitied the spirit. “Enough of that. We must focus on the battle ahead.”

Morrigan had clashed with the elf from the beginning, but she liked him even less now that she knew the truth about the Well of Sorrows. Thinking back on their arguments in the temple, she couldn’t help but feel that he had known more about Mythal from the beginning. Was it possible that he actually knew her mother personally? Had he known exactly what she was binding herself to when she drank from the Well? Sighing, she admitted to herself that she would likely never learn the entire truth since she was not willing to ask.

Moving ahead, Morrigan found the Inquisitor again at the front of the group listening to a report from the Commander. “When we get there, I’ll direct my men to cover your retreat, Inquisitor, and make certain that Corypheus can’t call in reinforcements. It’s possible he doesn’t have any left given how his army was in tatters when they fled the Wilds, but it’s not worth the risk.”

Anders seemed distracted as the Commander droned on about troop placements and strategy, his hand clenched over the anchor despite the green light trickling out between his fingers. Finally, he said, “I trust you, Cullen. Do whatever you think is best. You know this isn’t my area of expertise.”

Cullen nodded reluctantly. “And Corypheus will try to use that against you in order to back you into a corner. Don’t let him.”

“I will stay close and make sure he doesn’t,” the Seeker said, but her reassurance seemed to be directed at Cullen rather than the Inquisitor, a fond smile curving her lips as she regarded him. That was interesting. Something romantic seemed to be developing between the pair; Morrigan rolled her eyes, wondering if half of the Inquisition had paired off at this point.

When Anders hissed in pain suddenly, clutching his hand to his chest and trying to contain his reaction to the anchor flaring again within his palm, the beardless dwarf drew closer to his side, brushing a hand over his back in empathy. Speaking of romance, she wondered if Tethras had said anything to the Inquisitor about his feelings yet. He seemed stubborn enough that she wouldn’t be surprised if he had not, but they were out of time for such discussions now regardless. Out of time for much of anything.

The battle was already well underway by the time they arrived, Corypheus taunting several Inquisition soldiers and gloating over his superiority. Morrigan rolled her eyes. Their foe was as much of a swaggering and vindictive fool as she had expected. He both spoke and looked exactly like the villain he was. How disappointing.

“I knew you would come,” Corypheus cried when they appeared as if the Inquisition had dropped in unexpectedly rather than responding to the invitation he had ripped into the sky.

The Inquisitor gave him a tired look and clenched his fist more tightly over the mark on his hand. “Right. Can we skip this part?”

But Corypheus had already begun to speak again. “You have been most successful in foiling my plans, but let us not forget what you are. A thief in the wrong place at the wrong time. An interloper. A gnat. We shall prove here once and for all—”

Interrupting Corypheus’ speech, the Inquisitor raised his staff and directed a fireball at the magister’s head. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“As you wish,” Corypheus growled, shrugging off the fireball as if it hadn’t even hurt.

When his archdemon landed on the broken ramparts behind him, Morrigan laughed in delight, launching herself into the air and transforming into a dragon along the way, reveling in the freedom, the power of this new form. She lost track of most of the battle after that, soaring through the sky, great wings beating at the air and talons clawing at the magister’s great beast. When she finally fell to the ground again and lost consciousness, she had no regrets. Whatever happened next, she had done her part.

Chapter Text

When his vision finally cleared, Varric found himself staring up at a beautifully twinkling sky bereft of the breach’s sickly green light. That was weird. Not as weird as a big hole in the sky, of course, but the absence of a big hole in the sky at the moment was actually unexpected. Unless…

He groaned. Unbelievable. The final defeat of one of the worst evils the world had ever faced and he’d missed it.

Mentally retracing his steps, he tried to figure out the last thing he could remember before waking up in a pile of rubble unable to move. He’d been right beside Anders every step of the way, guarding his flank and clearing a path through the creatures Corypheus kept summoning to wear them down. He remembered the pair of dragons sparring high overhead until Morrigan let loose an awful cry and plummeted to the earth, landing in her human form and collapsing in a heap. Corypheus’ dragon had crashed to the ground soon after and they’d had to fight it before they could continue—much to the delight of the Iron Bull.

Varric’s memories got a little foggy after that. Given the way his head was throbbing that probably meant he had a concussion and he was getting close to the point when it had occurred. Shifting uncomfortably under the slab of rock pinning him to the ground, Varric did a quick survey of his extremities to assess the damage. He could still feel all of his fingers and toes and could manage to move enough beneath the stone to know that nothing had been broken. He was merely rapped in a crevice that was too narrow to escape.

It wasn’t until he tried to free his arms that he discovered he was actually injured. Twisting enough to free most of his torso, he felt a little nauseated when he got a look at the ragged stripes of red torn across his chest and realized that the reason the dirt beneath him was damp because it was soaked with his blood. He must have been in shock. Wounds like that should hurt a whole lot worse. Panting in a mixture of panic and pain, he tried to calm himself enough to find his voice and cry for help. If his suspicions were right and the battle was finally over, then surely someone would be looking for him.

As if in answer to his thoughts, he heard shouting in the distance that sounded an awful lot like his name. “Over here,” he called out in a hoarse voice and soon heard a response from Anders, voice bright with fear. Several calls and responses later, he could hear Anders attempting to clear some of the rubble to get closer but most of the rocks were too heavy for him to move. Luckily, Anders was agile enough to navigate around the larger pieces and squeeze through a narrow gap to reach Varric.

“Finally,” Anders said as he worked his way across the broken landscape. “I was starting to think that damn dragon might have thrown you off the mountain.” The grin on his dirty, blood-smeared face faded when he got a good look at Varric.

“Hey, Blondie,” Varric said to lighten the mood, but the raggedness of his voice sort of ruined the effect. “Did we win? I sort of missed the climax.”

Worry etching itself into his features, Anders dropped to his knees beside him and began quickly assessing the damage. “Maker’s breath, Varric…” he breathed and the fact that his curse was so mundane was testament to how much he was rattled. Looking back over his shoulder, he shouted urgently,  “Dorian! I found him, but I need more lyrium!”

“Coming!” Dorian replied from far away.

Forcing a laugh, Varric grimaced at the twinge of pain caused by the attempt. “Don’t look so sad, Blondie. I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

He could tell by Anders’ frown that he disagreed. The gentle light of healing flared around his hands then, only enough to take the edge off Varric’s pain before it flickered and died. Weary from even that much, Anders sat back on his heels and glared at his hands as if he could force his mana to rejuvenate more quickly through sheer force of will.

“You never answered my question,” Varric said, trying to distract him. “The breach is closed, so I assume it’s all over, but with Corypheus you never really know. He’s the king of false endings.”

Lips curving with one of his bittersweet smiles, Anders nodded. “Corypheus is gone. For good this time.” Swallowing hard, the smile faded from his lips as he met Varric’s gaze. “Varric...I don’t know if I can…” Fix this? Heal you? The words went unspoken, but Varric knew what he meant.

“Hey.” Varric lifted a shaky hand to wipe away the tear tracking a path through the dirt on his cheek. “It’s okay.”

“No. It’s not okay. I’m not failing you now. Not after everything—” His voice broke and Varric wanted nothing more than to pull him in for a hug, but that was sort of off the table for him at the moment. He settled for catching one of Anders’ hands and giving it a squeeze.

“Whatever happens, don’t blame yourself. It’s my fault for taunting that dragon.”

Anders shook his head with such sadness brimming in his eyes that it made Varric’s chest hurt even more than it already was.

“I’m here!” Dorian cried suddenly from somewhere nearby and Anders jumped to his feet when he heard the mage scrambling on top of the rubble, hands still ruffling through his clothing in search of lyrium; based on the number of places he checked, Varric was a little impressed that he had managed to fit that many pockets into an outfit that showed off so much skin. “Still have one left,” he cried victoriously and stretched out a hand to pass the delicate bottle to Anders. “Vishante Kaffas,” he hissed when he saw Varric.

“Woah,” the Iron Bull agreed from below him, hefting a boulder out of the way as if it weighed nothing. “That beautiful dragon really did a number on you, Varric.”

“Yeah. Try not to take its side, will you?” Varric scoffed, distracted by Anders as he yanked the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and spit it away.

Drinking down the liquid in a few quick gulps, Anders knelt down beside him again and waited for the lyrium to work its way into his system. While they waited, Bull continued to clear away rubble, eventually reaching for the stone still pinning Varric in place.

“Wait,” Anders warned with a frown and suddenly Varric understood why he was so worried. Without being able to see under the rock he had no way of knowing the extent of Varric’s injuries and must have expected to find crushed limbs and mortal wounds hidden beneath.

“Don’t worry,” Varric reassured him. “You’ve already seen the worst of it.”

At Varric’s nod, Bull rolled the massive stone out of the way with a grunt, and they all breathed a sigh of relief to see that Varric barely had a scratch on him below the waist. A little hollow in the ground had saved him—not to mention his short stature; if he’d been any taller the rock would have crushed his feet.

“You might have said something sooner, you know?” Anders complained, looking a bit embarrassed about how dire he’d been acting before.

Too relieved to argue, Varric simply apologized. “Sorry, Blondie. Really. Your reaction had me worrying too and I didn’t think.”

“Not that this isn’t bad enough,” Anders said with a frown, redirecting his attention to the gashes across Varric’s chest. “This is probably going to be pretty unpleasant,” he warned as he lifted his hands again, magic flaring to life around his fingertips.

He wasn’t wrong. All the pain that Varric would have expected to feel when he realized the extent of his wounds hit him like a tidal wave as Anders healed him as if all the damage were being done in reverse. The entire process felt more intense than any healing Varric had ever experienced and the wrenching sensation of badly torn flesh being forced to weave itself back together was almost enough to make him lose consciousness again. Trying to swallow his pain, he focused on Anders to keep himself grounded, watching the little twitch in his eyebrow as he worked, the way he bit at his lower lip in concentration and the glow of magic casting blue shadows over the planes of his face. He looked so beautiful in that moment that just looking at him made Varric ache in ways that had nothing to do with his injuries.

“No!” Anders grimaced as the magic on his fingers began to stutter again. “I’m not done.”

But Varric could see that the jagged cuts had closed, resolving to puckered pink lines, and assumed that enough of the internal damage had been healed as well if they looked that good on the surface. “It’s okay, Blondie,” he said, catching Anders’ elbow. “It’s enough.”

“They’ll scar,” Anders hissed back through gritted teeth as the magic died on his fingers.

“What are few more scars?” Finding that he was recovered enough now to sit up, Varric squeezed Anders’ arm as he added, “Besides, I ought to have something to show for this battle given I missed half of it.”

Anders slumped in exhaustion and Varric wrapped an arm around his waist to prop him up, content for the moment to simply hold him and not question his reasons for doing so. He was relieved that Anders made no protest, seeming to welcome the reassurance that Varric was alive and well.

“Now that Varric’s put back together, maybe we should finally start celebrating?” Dorian suggested. “We did win, after all. Big bad evil defeated, world saved, order restored. Remember?”

“Good point, Sparkler,” Varric agreed firmly and attempted to stand up. “And I expect a full account of everything I missed during the battle. Don’t leave out a single detail.”

He and Anders had to lean on each other just to make it to their feet, but he didn’t mind the excuse to stay close. With one arm wrapped around Anders’ waist for support, he led them out of the rubble through the path Bull had cleared and reluctantly released him when they were back on open ground.

He could hear cheering in the distance and realized the party must have started without them. As they walked toward the sound, he grilled Anders, Dorian and Bull on their versions of the battle but by the time they had reached the rest of the soldiers they were all too distracted by the celebration to carry on much of a conversation. Cullen suggested they set up camp in the valley for the night since they were all too tired to make the march back to Skyhold in the dark and Anders gratefully agreed.

A bit revived by his healing and infected by the contagious elation of their victory, Varric made his way around the camp collecting more stories about the battle and filling the gaps in his recollection. Morrigan’s version of events was particularly interesting given her vantage point, but he noticed her giving him a strange look throughout their discussion.

When she was done with her story, her eyes narrowed at him. “You haven’t told him yet, have you?”

Startled by the question, he laughed. Morrigan didn’t strike him as the romantic type so he couldn’t understand why she cared enough to bring it up. “We’ve had a few things going on,” he countered.

“You are afraid of the consequences,” she concluded a little too accurately and he cringed. “‘Tis quite the conundrum, I must admit. Do you remain silent and content yourself with the known? Or do you risk what you already have in the hope of something more? I cannot claim to have personal experience in this particular situation, but I have always preferred to take a risk than settle for less than I deserve.”

Chilled by her words, Varric looked away from her piercing gaze and tried to process what she had said without creating a diversion. He didn’t like facing these types of questions and often went to great lengths to avoid them, but he couldn’t argue with her logic. And it struck a nerve that his failing in this situation—the fear of taking a risk—was the same weakness he had been kicking himself over after their trip to the deep roads. More often than not, he failed through inaction rather than action. This felt like another chance to do the right thing.

His friendship with Anders had come so naturally from the beginning, and back in Kirkwall he'd had all of his boundaries so firmly established that he'd only ever considered Anders beyond the realm of friendship as a curiosity. The idea of a tragic, idealistic mage with a wild side made for a fascinating character, and even though Varric rarely considered his own sex beyond the necessity of fiction writing, he could see even then that Anders was attractive enough to look the part. But had he actively desired him? He hadn’t thought so, but then again he’d only started to understand how much Anders was filling a Bianca-shaped hole in his psyche when he saw the two of them occupying the same space. But was that all he really was? A substitute? Or had Varric actually been lying to himself about the nature of their friendship all along? He wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out the truth. Not if it meant exchanging one impossible relationship for another.

He had no idea how long he sat there contemplating this before he turned to look and saw that she was gone. The celebrating had died down by now and everyone was drifting in the direction of their tents to get some sleep, but he knew that sleep wasn’t going to be in the cards for him for a while yet, not with this question burning in his gut. Wandering through the maze of tents in search of one that was unoccupied, he spotted Anders stepping into a tent in the distance and froze with indecision.

His feet began carrying himself toward the tent before his mind had decided what to do but by the time he was hovering outside he knew he couldn’t just walk away without trying. Still completely unsure of what he was going to say, he leaned closer to the opening and said, “Blondie? You still awake in there?”

“Varric?” Anders replied in a surprised voice. “Come in.”

Taking a deep breath, Varric pushed his way past the tent flap but froze in shock when he saw Anders sitting on a stool and cleaning off the grime and sweat from the battle with a rag and a bucket of water. He was facing away from the entrance, thankfully, so Varric couldn’t see much below the waist, but he appeared to be entirely nude. He’d tied his hair up into a high ponytail to keep it off his shoulders, but half of it was already falling down again.

Shifting on the stool, Anders gave him a worried look as he wrung a rag out over a bucket and lifted it to wash his arm. “Are your wounds giving you trouble?”

“No. No, I’m good,” Varric said a little breathlessly. “I’d almost forgotten about them, actually.”

Frowning at the ugly stripes across Varric’s chest, Anders shook his head. “I doubt that. They still look awful. I’ve recovered enough mana that I could probably heal them a bit more now. Just give me a minute to finish.”

He bent over to rinse his rag again and when he sat up a drop of water rolled down his neck and along the crease of his spine. Varric felt self-conscious watching, but Anders seemed to be utterly untroubled by being so exposed in front of him. The realization left Varric feeling cold. Either Anders was so oblivious to the possibility that Varric might be attracted to him that the idea of his nakedness making him uncomfortable hadn’t even crossed his mind or he thought of Varric as a brother and didn’t think he would care.

“I’d actually meant to check in on you before I headed for my tent,” Anders said, frowning at a patch of mud as he tried to scrub it away, “but I was so eager to get some of this dirt off that I completely forgot.”

When he lifted the rag to his shoulder and strained to reach his back, Varric heard himself asking, “Need some help?”

He almost slapped his forehead when he saw Anders stiffen slightly in reaction, but he was smiling faintly when he turned and offered Varric the rag. “Sure.”

Suddenly self-conscious, Varric dragged the cloth over freckled skin and tried not to count all the little scars or think about the emotions writhing around in his gut. He got bolder as he continued to wipe away the dirt and sweat, his touch becoming firmer as he rubbed the cloth down to the small of Anders’ back, but he didn't realize how far he'd strayed from platonic touches until he heard Anders sigh. Freezing in place, Varric quickly lifted the rag to hand it back.

“All done,” he said with a tremble in his voice, practically dropping the cloth the moment Anders shifted to reach for it.

“Are you okay?” Anders asked, and he was so close now that Varric was sure that he would see the emotions in his eyes if he looked long enough.

“Fine,” Varric replied, turning away. “Just tired.”

Water splashed in the bucket and he heard Anders push it aside and stand up. “This shouldn’t take long. Take a seat and I’ll see what I can do.”

Anders had pulled a shirt over his head, but still appeared to be nude below the waist. Luckily, the shirt was long and hid the most important bits, but when he stretched with a yawn Varric had to look away again just in case, the view doing things to his body that he was hoping wouldn’t be obvious when he sat down on the stool. Hiding his lap with nonchalantly folded hands, he tried not to watch too closely as Anders pulled the tie out of his hair and combed a hand through it as it fell damp and tousled around his face. He couldn’t believe that Anders had any idea what he was doing to him given the way he kept doing things that seemed designed to turn Varric on, and that conclusion was painful to consider. In spite of the motivation Morrigan had given him, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to go through with his confession now.

To his relief, Anders seemed to be primarily focused on healing his injuries and didn’t notice what was probably a fairly troubled expression on Varric’s face. Looking down to watch him work, he saw the ragged pink lines shrink and fade, the skin around them becoming fresh and healthy. By the time Anders was done, the cuts were only visible in the dim light by the gaps in his chest hair.

“That’s more like it,” Anders said proudly as he leaned back to get a better look at his handiwork.

Smiling in spite of his heartache, Varric had to fight the urge to tangle a hand into Anders’ messy hair and kiss him in thanks. “You’re pretty good at this, Blondie,” he said, dryly. “Almost like you used to do it for a living.”

“Almost a living,” Anders agreed with a laugh and then yawned again.

“Time for bed,” Varric suggested, standing up and giving Anders a nudge in the direction of his bedroll. “Sleep well.”

“You too,” Anders said with a wistful look that Varric swore he could feel as he walked away.

Yeah, he definitely wasn’t going to manage much sleep tonight.

Chapter Text

Anders walked away from the final battle with Corypheus with only a few minor injuries. The only lingering pain was caused by the anchor that still buzzed in his palm like a firecracker from time to time. But he’d managed to ignore that as well for most of the evening, wandering through the celebration that had greeted them upon their return to Skyhold with a glass of wine in his hand and what was probably a pretty stupid looking grin on his face. The wine helped. So did the celebratory mood that had overtaken the entire Inquisition, inspiring everyone to act a little childish and goofy, laughing and dancing and acting as if the world really had ended and all of their responsibilities ended along with it.

Only a few things managed to deflate his mood at all. One was the strange exchange he’d had with Solas at the end of the battle and the way the elf had completely disappeared afterward. Another was the niggling sensation of finality to everything. He tried to ignore them both as much as possible, taking another drink of wine every time he felt a twinge in the back of his mind, but by the end of the evening as the high from their success began to fade, he found a mournful feeling lurking underneath.

The war was over, the Inquisition’s purpose fulfilled. And despite Leliana’s assurance that diplomacy and politics would keep them busy for months if not years, he knew better than to believe that this victory wouldn’t change things. Those who had signed up for their primary task would leave quickly, and even those who had promised to stick around for longer would eventually move on as well. Dorian had business to attend to back home, Sera had her work as Red Jenny and Vivienne wouldn’t hesitate to return to her place in the Orlesian court. Blackwall wanted to become a Grey Warden in truth and Iron Bull and his Chargers would have other contracts to pursue.

The Inquisition’s advisors had to move on at some point as well. Josephine had family obligations and Leliana was the favored candidate for Divine. Even Cullen and Cassandra seemed to have plans of their own that they were reluctant to share. He suspected that was because they were plotting to rebuild one or both of their orders and knew he wouldn’t like the idea of them working to restore control over mages. They were right. He did disagree, but he also felt a twinge of disappointment that they thought they had to hide their plans from him. Regardless of what they were planning, he had no doubt that it would take them far from Skyhold.

Varric. A lump formed in his throat, and he surveyed the crowd until he found the dwarf sitting in his usual place near the fire enjoying a game of Wicked Grace with a group of soldiers. How long would Varric stick around now that the battle had been won? He hadn’t actually chosen to leave Kirkwall in the first place and would likely still be there now if Cassandra hadn’t dragged him away. And with everything he’d put into the city-state’s restoration in both money and influence, they’d probably end up making him viscount before long. Then he would be obligated to go back and stay permanently. The thought filled Anders with panic. After everything they’d been through, he had a hard time imagining his life without Varric in it.

But the common goals that had drawn them all together had been achieved, and in their absence the Inquisition would begin to fragment. He knew it was morose to be contemplating the demise of the organization that had saved the world so soon after their victory, but he’d felt like an imposter within the Inquisition from the beginning. He couldn’t imagine turning into some sort of political figurehead now that the war was over, trying to solve the world’s problems at the painful pace of bureaucracy. The very thought made panic rise in his chest along with the familiar itch to run away before things got difficult. Funny to think of politics as difficult after everything he had already survived, but at the end of the day he preferred action to dialogue every time.

He retreated to his tower as the party began to finally die down, bringing a half drunk bottle of wine with him and hoping that no one would seek him out until late in the afternoon. He needed time to think.

What if he decided to leave the Inquisition? What would he do? Where would he go? Leliana seemed to think that now that Corypheus had been revealed as the true enemy and defeated once and for all, nobles from all over the world would want to become his new best friend. He doubted that. They would seek him out for his position and the power of the Inquisition. Without that backing, he doubted anyone would tolerate his presence for long. And he still had plenty of enemies in the world, people who still wanted revenge over the things he had done. So, he either continued to shelter within the Inquisition while it fragmented and changed around him or he had to find a place to hide and reinvent himself. Both options sounded lonely.

Drinking directly from the bottle, he sat down on the balcony overlooking the mountains and stared up at the stars, wondering how he had managed to turn such a happy occasion into something so dismal. “I really do manage to ruin everything,” he muttered with a self-deprecating laugh.

He was surprised when he heard a reply. “Why is that, do you think?”

Looking up at the dwarf standing in the doorway, he suddenly remembered the conversation they had abandoned in the garden when the breach reopened in the sky. He wondered with a sense of unease if Varric had come to finish that conversation now. He’d been strangely distant most of the way back to Skyhold, glowering with an expression of intense concentration as if he was agonizing over a decision. Had he already started to plan his departure? Or was something else bothering him?

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Anders said, trying to keep his expression neutral.

Leaning against the door jamb with arms crossed over his chest, Varric shrugged. “I saw you weaving your way across the hall with that bottle in your hand and thought I’d better make sure you didn’t fall down the stairs and break your neck. That really would be ruining everything.”

Anders sighed. Holding up the bottle, he asked, “You want some?”

Considering the bottle with narrowed eyes, Varric asked, “Depends. How much did you backwash in it?”

Smiling in spite of his worry, Anders quipped, “A lot, probably. I wasn’t planning on sharing.”

Shrugging, Varric took the bottle anyway and drank a swig before handing it back. “How can you still sound so coherent after that much wine?” Varric mused, the question likely rhetorical.

But Anders answered it anyway. “Grey Warden—”

“Stamina,” Varric finished. “Yeah. Too bad it doesn’t work on psychological problems.”

Scrunching up his face in offense, Anders asked, “What do you mean by that?”

“Only that your biggest problem is thinking too much.” Lips pursed, he looked down at Anders appraisingly. “Why do you think you ruined everything?”

Anders took another drink from the bottle to cover his reaction. “I don’t,” he said when he had regained his composure. “It’s just what you said. I’m thinking too much.”

“About what?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Blondie,” Varric said sharply, crouching down beside him and pulling the bottle out of his hands so that he couldn’t keep hiding behind it. His eyes were filled with such compassion and concern that it hurt to even look at him.

Looking away, Anders whispered, “The future.”

“Andraste’s ass, you really don’t know how to enjoy anything, do you? The whole damn castle is living in the moment tonight, even the most rigid, buttoned-up members, but you can’t stay in the present for more than a few hours without worrying about what’s next?”

“I kno