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Baldur, formerly of the House Aeducan and second son to the dwarf king, Endrin, was ashamed to admit that he was a mediocre warrior at best. His race prided themselves on strength and prowess on the battlefield, but his fighting style was comprised of mindless hacking and slashing until his opponent was either defeated or dead. He was a better negotiator, despite how infrequently he spoke unless necessary, but he'd be damned if he would order anyone into a battle that he wouldn't fight himself.

When he had to send Morrigan, the mage in his company, alone into the Fade to spiritually battle a demon at Redcliffe Castle while her still-breathing body lay at his feet, Baldur could only stand by her inert form helplessly, unable to attack a tangible enemy who was threatening his own. He had no family after a betrayal from his beloved younger brother, Bhelen, left him stripped of his rank and exiled from Orzammar, so he protected the ragtag group he had collected fiercely.

The ties he had to Alistair, Morrigan, and Leliana felt tenuous at times, and Baldur feared they would sense his inner weakness and leave. Somehow, they still entered into battle at his side and followed him trustingly even when he was without direction. None of them made a point of questioning him when they passed the same damned tree thrice in the Brecilian Forest; Morrigan and Alistair were too caught up in their bickering; Leliana and Morrigan invested in the belief or disbelief of the Maker, while Alistair added in with comments from his own experience growing up in a Chantry as Baldur’s mabari, Bastion, barked excitedly the entire time.

Their banter was a comfort when Baldur might have otherwise lost himself to the sheer weight of the task ahead of him, charged by the Grey Warden Duncan to defeat an Archdemon – a powerful dragon that was commanding its evil minions, the darkspawn, to invade the lands of Ferelden in a catastrophe called the Blight. His burdens grew heavier and heavier with every promise to help anyone who asked, despite Morrigan's disgust and exasperation at his bleeding heart and Alistair’s insistence that they focus solely on the darkspawn and the Archdemon.

Gorim Saelac, who had been his second in command in Orzammar, had been wrong about him when he suggested Baldur would make a better king than his older brother, Trian. He would have been a terrible king, taking on everyone's burdens as his own and losing sight of the big picture until it reared up and bit him in the arse, catching him off-guard and woefully unprepared.

He never expected to have to survive by looting corpses and playing watch-out while his companion picked locks, thinking longingly of his well-worn books, warm bed, and skilled chefs at home. He was tired of tavern swill and suspicious-looking fungi foraged from the woods, but he was certain that giving into one moment of doubt or uncertainty would bring this whole venture crashing down around his ears. His armor weighed heavier with each step. He slept on the hard ground using rocks as pillows, tossing and turning in discomfort as his stomach pinched with hunger, churning bile in dreadful anticipation for the day ahead. He was terrified of who would die next because he wasn't fast or strong or smart enough.

Baldur had lost track of his exact kill count, but he felt sick even considering the sheer number of people he had slaughtered since leaving Orzammar - only a fraction of which were darkspawn. Many dwarves had every kill from battle or tournaments tattooed into their flesh, but there wouldn’t be room enough to fit his own tattoos were he so inclined. Too many of his quests were resolved with death or violence, quick results taking precedence over time and energy spent trying to reason with people who were too angry and fearful themselves. He was tired of killing, but couldn't deny he was a deathly efficient executioner, becoming numbly used to the scatter of decaying bodies to mark the places his group had traveled like gruesome landmarks. They were currently headed west after they had helped bolster the meager army of Redcliffe, made up of disheartened townsfolk and drunk soldiers, and fought against swarms of undead summoned by the demon Morrigan had defeated, but the cost had been much too high and the village nearly slaughtered in the process.

Alistair was maudlin and spoke little. He’d been close to Eamon Guerrin, the Arl of Redcliffe, who had taken him in as a child and raised him like one of his own for a time. The Arl’s illness and his wife, Isolde’s, death in order to save their son Connor from being possessed by the demon obviously weighed heavily on the other Grey Warden. They were currently on their way to Haven, a small village in the Frostback Mountains, in order to find the whereabouts of Brother Genitivi who supposedly had information on the Urn of Sacred Ashes – a relic said to cure the incurable and the Arl’s only chance at recovery.


Most of their day had been spent traveling and sporadically hunting while on the road, relatively uneventful until a woman suddenly came running down the trail towards them, crying out for help. Baldur unsheathed his magically forged sword, Aodr, eager for a chance to help in a way that may not end in wasteful bloodshed for once.

Of course, the ambush was a good reminder that nothing Baldur planned ever went as he expected.

He realized he may have something of a savior complex when he blindly rushed after the woman without first consulting the others as she led the group down the trail to a confined, hidden valley that was littered with overturned caravans. Armed men appeared at the woman’s back as she stopped and turned towards them with a smirk, her raised hand lit up with power.

Baldur hadn't known she was a blood mage when she approached their small group, which was currently comprised of a dwarf, Grey Warden, mage, rogue-turned-Chantry sister, and a war dog while begging for assistance. Prior knowledge of her class still would not have mattered to him if she had been truly in need, however. Baldur reached for his shield with a grim sigh as bandits revealed themselves like prairie dogs popping out of holes from behind hills and overturned wagons, surrounding their party with cocky expressions that spoke much of their amusement and ill-intent.

Morrigan and Leliana simultaneously hit the archers positioned at the hills on either side of the pass, their firebolts and arrows meeting both of their targets unerringly. He and Alistair were a whirlwind of flashing iron and steel. Baldur knocked a man down with a vicious hit from his shield and Alistair gutted him neatly before taking off with Bastion after a pair who immediately realized the error of their ways and attempted to flee. Baldur let Alistair handle them, his long legs eating up the distance between them effortlessly as the dwarf dispatched the remaining bandits still on the trail. He saw a flash in the corner of his eye and heard the mage give an agonized, furious scream before she was silent, Morrigan’s staff sizzling as she cast around for any survivors that may need persuading into the afterlife.

There were a few men alive on the ground, moaning from their injuries and overall seeming to regret their life choices.

“Leave them,” Baldur ordered to the rest when they would have gone for the killing strike to ensure these people would never harass anyone else again. He knew mercy was a luxury that he couldn’t afford, but he was tired from the extensive traveling by foot they’d been doing over all of Ferelden and soul-weary of the fighting and killing cycle he found himself caught up in over and over again.

“Does this seem like a more...planned attack than usual?” Alistair asked as he and Bastion joined Baldur on the path, his longsword and Bastion’s jowls dripping with blood. “We should interrogate one of them to see if they were sent by someone after us specifically.”

The previous bandits they had encountered on the road generally demanded gold or ransom, but these ones hadn’t even bothered to go for their purses before outright attacking. Baldur nodded, spotting a man not too far off that was struggling to sit up, clutching his midsection where he either took a hit from Baldur’s iron shield and likely had a cracked rib or two, or took the edge of his blade and would very likely bleed out anyway. Baldur didn’t see any blood muddying the ground around the man – an elf, he realized upon closer inspection – so his injury was likely due to the former assumption and not the latter.

Leliana and Morrigan joined them and surrounded the elf, looking extremely intimidating with their weapons at the ready and Baldur and Alistair covered with splatters of blood from the fallen.

“Mmmmm...what? Oh...” the elf groaned when he saw their feet, slowly raising his blond head to meet their hard glares. “I rather thought I would wake up dead. Or,” he amended, bemused, “not wake up at all, as the case may be. But I see you haven’t killed me yet.”

“That can be remedied.” Baldur shifted his grip on Aodr and widened his stance.

“Ohhh.” The elf shook off his disorientation and purred, sounding inappropriately pleased by Baldur’s threat. Perhaps he had taken a hit to the head as well. “You’re rather an aggressive little minx, aren’t you? But if you’re planning on interrogating me, let me save you some time and cut right to the point. My name is Zevran. I am a member of the Antivan Crows brought here with the sole purpose of slaying any surviving Grey Wardens. Which I have failed at, sadly.”

The elf, Zevran, spoke with resigned levity instead of fury or a defeatist outlook one would normally have in his position.

“I’m relieved that you failed then,” Baldur said, easing his hostile stance when he sensed Zevran had no intention of trying to lash out and finish what he’d started. He was barely able to hold himself upright, but Baldur kept his distance just in case his defeat was a feint. It would be his luck that Zevran was palming a hidden dagger and waiting for him to come into range.

“So would I be, in your shoes,” Zevran agreed readily. “For me, however, it sets a rather poor precedent, doesn’t it? Getting captured by a target seems a tad detrimental to one’s budding career as an assassin.”

Baldur didn't have any particular prejudices against elves, unlike humans on the surface who had made their hatred for the pointy-eared folk into a way of life, forcing them into alienages when they weren't chasing free elves off their lands. His earlier dealings with the Dalish elves before he'd helped end the curse of Zathrian that was turning people into werewolves had been limited to treatises and occasional visits from representatives that were mostly handled by his father or the Assembly. Dwarves generally had little interest in the affairs of others and, as a second son, Baldur had been just fine being overlooked during the rare meetings he did attend. 

“Who would send an assassin after the Grey Wardens?” Baldur stared down at Zevran in consternation.

“A rather taciturn fellow... Loghain, I think his name was.”

Baldur and Alistair tensed simultaneously, and Alistair swore beneath his breath. In the Battle of Ostagar, King Cailan's army and a handful a Grey Wardens faced down a raging hoard of darkspawn, and lost because of one man's betrayal. Alistair and Baldur had fought their way into the Tower of Ishal to light a beacon signaling Teryn Loghain and his army to attack – a task at which Baldur and Alistair succeeded, but to no avail. Loghain had instead ordered his troops to retreat, abandoning the army of Ferelden, King Cailan, and the Grey Wardens at the crucial moment when the darkspawn had converged upon them. The darkspawn retook the Tower, slaughtering the troops and mortally wounding the remaining two Grey Wardens. They only managed to escape being killed themselves thanks to the unexpected aid from Flemeth, called the Witch of the Wilds, or, simply, Morrigan’s mother. 

“Why is Loghain trying to kill us now?” Baldur demanded, frustrated all over again by the senseless massacre and his mentor, Duncan’s, untimely death thanks to Loghain’s cowardice.

“The usual, I imagine. You threaten his power, yes?”

Baldur couldn’t see how two Grey Wardens were of concern to Loghain. Lest he feared the people of Ferelden would believe their word over his own about what had really transpired in Ostagar.

“Why are you telling us all of this anyway?” Alistair asked. “Don’t you have any loyalty to Loghain?”

“To Loghain? No. I was contracted to perform a service, the details of which are between Loghain and the Crows. And between the Crows and myself, of course,” Zevran answered breezily.

“So what are you going to do now?” Baldur didn't enjoy the thought of allowing his would-be killer to walk free, but he didn't see many other options.

“I suppose we can’t just kill him?” Morrigan suggested, sounding bored but ready to take care of the problem as soon as Baldur said the word.

Baldur frowned and narrowed his eyes at Zevran. He hadn’t moved an inch, looking utterly content to languish in the dirt for as long as they kept him there. "If I spare you, what's to stop you from coming after me again?"

"Well, here’s the thing. I failed to kill you, so my life is forfeit. That’s how it works. If you don’t kill me, the Crows will. However, I enjoy living and you’re obviously the type to give the Crows pause. So...let me serve you instead.”

"Do you not have any loyalty to the Crows either?" Baldur was taken aback by how readily Zevran planned to switch sides. He wouldn’t have accepted any of the others into his company if he thought they would betray him to the highest bidder.

"I am a very loyal person!" Zevran objected. "Up to the point where I'm expected to die for failing. I was never given a choice about joining the Crows. They bought me on the slave market as a child, although I hear I was purchased at a bargain, or so I am led to believe. I believe I paid my worth to the Crows, plus tenfold."

"You're not seriously considering bringing the assassin along are you?" Alistair protested. "Although, you do have a tendency of picking up strays..."

"Don't forget you were a cast-off too," Baldur barked, startling them both. 

"Harsh," Alistair murmured, wounded. "True, but...harsh."

The sharp rise of anger was unexpected, but Baldur found himself unwilling to apologize for defending the assassin. He cursed himself for a fool, reluctant to explore why he was considering allowing Zevran into their company. It wasn't only his race that was entirely alien to Baldur. The way he spoke of his own enslavement with such joviality was bewildering, and - Baldur was reluctant to admit - intriguing as well.

"I can be very useful," Zevran added as if to sweeten the deal. "I could warn you should the Crows attempt anything more sophisticated since their first attempt failed, as well as protect you and myself – not that you’ll need any help in that regard. I am also accomplished at stealth and picking locks, and can even shine armor. Or I could stand around and look pretty if you prefer. Warm your bed..."

Baldur blanched at the suggestion and felt himself turn red. He cursed the fact his beard didn't cover the entirety of his face. His blush was no doubt visible from the moon.

"Really. I can go all night," Zevran continued when he heard no immediate objections, lascivious and shameless.

"That won't be necessary," Baldur said roughly, appalled at the idea of Zevran trading the use of his body for Baldur's protection.

He was even more appalled at the spark of interest that flared in his belly. The reaction was quickly smothered by overwhelming waves of shame and guilt for even considering sinking so low as to trade someone’s life for sexual favors, regardless of how attractive that person might be. He reached down and hauled Zevran to his feet before he was tempted to push him back into the dirt. He was pleased to note Zevran could stand under his own power and didn't appear to have any mortal wounds that would slow the group down. 

"I hereby pledge my oath of loyalty to you until such a time that you choose to release me from it. I am your man, without reservation. This I swear," Zevran said once he was standing.

The top of Baldur's head barely came up to his chin, but it was better than being only chest-high to the humans, especially the women. He really wished Morrigan would wear a proper shirt, as opposed to the artful rags that barely covered her nipples. He appreciated the view like any man, but not at the cost of his life if the witch caught him gawking. Baldur couldn't explain why Zevran's statement filled him with so much dread and then found out a second later.

"Might I say what a pleasure it was to be bested by one so handsome?" Zevran purred, leaning down to catch Baldur's gaze with his own golden-eyed one.

"W-What?" Baldur spluttered, caught entirely wrong-footed and unable to recover from his disbelief quickly enough.

"Did I say handsome? I meant utterly gorgeous."

Baldur was tempted to glance over his shoulder to check if there was someone else standing behind him, but Zevran was definitely talking to him. His eyes went heavy-lidded and appraising as he shamelessly looked Baldur up and down with open interest. Baldur felt that tiny spark in his belly flare anew before he tamped down viciously on the feeling. He suspected the flirtation was little more than a ploy to get into his good graces. Zevran wasn’t truly interested in him, but merely his strength and what he represented. With that realization, the fires of lust were banked once again. Baldur glared menacingly at Zevran and dismissed the compliment. He was a dour-faced dwarf surrounded by his tall, attractive companions. What interest could one as deadly and beautiful as Zevran have in someone like him?

“Welcome, Zevran,” Leliana offered with her usual kind sincerity. “Having an Antivan Crow join us is a fine plan.”

“Oh?” Zevran immediately perked up, flashing her a charming grin with perfectly straight white teeth. “You are another companion-to-be, then? I wasn’t aware such loveliness existed amongst adventurers, surely.”

“...Or maybe not,” Leliana said shortly with a suspicious frown.

“We’ll make camp here,” Baldur interrupted, careful not to turn his back on Zevran quite yet as he addressed the others.

Bastion sniffed suspiciously at Zevran’s boot, but Zevran seemed unbothered by the rude inspection. Bastion snorted at him dismissively.

Apparently, the elf passed inspection.


They made camp near the overturned caravans on top of a hill for the best vantage point, although a fair distance from the bodies of Zevran's companions.

"Do you... Is there some sort of ritual or burial you would like to do for them?" Baldur asked quietly, jutting his chin towards the trail below where they had left the scene of the ambush.

Zevran surprised him with a hearty laugh.

"Oh no. Those bastards are lucky I don't strip them bare and draw lewd images on their bodies. The only reason I don't is because I wouldn't want to look bad in front of my lovely host." He winked at Baldur, who went damnably crimson in an instant. "Aren't you a delight?" Zevran murmured, angling his head so he managed to look at Baldur through his pale lashes even though Baldur was several hands shorter than he was.

Of all the idiotic...

Baldur was going to get himself killed thanks to all of these bewildering, inexplicable reactions Zevran was dragging out of him, plain and simple. He couldn't do anything about his flushed face, but he straightened and set his jaw, heavy brow furrowed. He was gratified to note that Zevran mirrored his posture. His flirty expression turned politely interested, though Baldur suspected he was quite the accomplished actor. He had to be in order to get close enough to his targets to kill them.

"I am taking a chance on you, elf," Baldur spoke quietly, too low for anyone else to overhear. "I can't waste time worrying that you'll stick a knife in my back in the middle of a fight or when I'm looking the other way. I don’t know how much Loghain has told you, but I've vowed my life to ending this Blight, and it is not yours to take. I'll pay you as much or more than what Loghain did, and you may go with the promise that none of us will follow. If you honestly, truly want to stay, then I will take you at your word and not question your motives again. But I can't trust you only halfway. It has to be all or nothing."

Zevran's expression was a cross between impressed and thoughtful. "A pretty speech for a pretty dwarf, my dear Warden," he said with a slight bow that was more conceding than mocking, although a faint smile touched his lips. Baldur suspected he couldn't have one serious conversation without throwing in something glib - a little like Alistair in that regard. They would no doubt drive each other - or him - mad in the interim. "But I have no interest in killing you. Honestly and truly. I think we could have...fun...together. With the bonus of slaying bad guys at the same time."

Zevran's tone was salacious, but Baldur chose to ignore the flirtation and the persistent heat in his cheeks. He wasn't a prude by any means, but he was...had been...sheltered. He hadn't experienced the same pressure to rule his older brother Trian had faced, but he and his brothers had still been expected to conduct themselves as befitting royalty. Baldur ached for his former naivety; the world was much bigger and more treacherous than he could have possibly anticipated.

"This isn't a game or a lark, Zevran. We've come up against more horrors than you can even imagine. I can't guarantee your safety or your life."

Zevran's eyes flashed with some dark, fleeting emotion, and his smile stiffened. "Believe me, Your Highness. I've seen horrors that you couldn't possibly imagine."

Baldur startled, staring at Zevran. He hadn't told anyone of his past in Orzammar. There was a possibility Zevran had meant the title as a tease based on Baldur’s bearing and position in the company, but it was equally as likely he'd gotten information through the Crows. Loghain had known who he was in Orzammar, after all. There weren't many dwarf Wardens around, and he wasn’t stealthy or covert by any means. He was more surprised he hadn't been found out sooner.

"But let us not compare childhood trauma, hmm?" Zevran continued brightly, clapping a hand over Baldur's shoulder.

Baldur could feel the contact through his armor and was almost tempted to search for a poisoned needle slipped between the plates. Zevran slid his hand away when Baldur frowned down at the offending limb in consternation.

"I believe actions speak louder than words, so I will prove my trustworthiness to you in deeds and not give you reason to doubt me.” Zevran's grin and good humor were indefatigable. 

“You may have a chance to prove yourself sooner rather than later. We tend to draw negative attention to ourselves by going against Loghain, as I’m sure you’re aware of,” Baldur said, resisting the urge to brush his hand against his still-tingling shoulder.

“I must admit, as soon as I mentioned a dwarf Grey Warden and his entourage I didn’t have to spend a copper in bribes or alcohol to loosen tongues. Many people were only too willing to speak of their interactions with you. Predicting your route was painfully easy. If you’d like, I can show you how to hide your trail better so that you will not be so easy to find next time.”

“Let them come,” Baldur said, lifting his head to meet Zevran's gaze directly. “We hide from no one, certainly not Loghain. We have bigger problems than one man’s ego. It will save us the effort of hunting him and anyone else who opposes us down.”

“A man after my own heart!” Zevran exclaimed. "So, now that is settled...tell me. Do we seal this deal with a kiss?"

Zevran seemed to be much closer than he had been an instant ago. Baldur recoiled and stumbled back before he could stop himself from flinching at his sudden proximity.

"Ah. Guess not then," Zevran said, still smiling, but he made no move to extend the space between them. "But perhaps that stunning redhead would indulge me? She seemed to have a certain zest, that one."

Baldur had to swallow down a flare of possessive rage that shot through him at the thought of Zevran approaching Leliana, whether she was open to his advances or not. He wasn't in the habit of lying to himself, but he desperately wanted to when he realized the anger he felt was in truth jealousy. He couldn't stand the thought of Zevran seducing or showing interest in anyone else, even though Leliana and the rest could take care of themselves. His dismay must have shown on his face – Mahal damn it all - because Zevran's wily expression softened.

"I don't intend to step on toes if she's already spoken for," he said kindly. Too kindly.

Baldur barely resisted the urge to hit something. "Leliana is a free agent. As they all are, as far as I know."

Despite the amount of time spent together, he knew next to nothing about any of the others' personal lives, just as they knew very little about his own. Alistair had only grudgingly told him about his upbringing and bastard parentage. His father had been King Marric and his mother a castle servant. He'd only mentioned it to avoid any awkward conversations when they'd gone to find the Arl of Redcliffe, who had raised Alistair as a child before he'd been sent to the Chantry. Who knew if he had a wife and kids at home? If any of them did?

No mention of significant others or homesickness did not mean none existed. They were all very secretive, that was to be certain. He felt almost hypocritical demanding Zevran's complete trust when clearly no one else had given their own - including Baldur himself. He was supposed to be a leader. He'd been born to be a leader - if not a king, then as a prince and commander or general at the very least.

Baldur's mood soured. Being caught under Zevran's too-keen gaze rapidly became unbearable. "Do as you will. We break at first light." He turned on his heel and beat a hasty retreat.

The conversation had cast too much unwanted introspection upon himself. He refused to make eye contact with their newest member for the rest of the night. He tried to occupy himself by doing something useful, but his companions were brutally efficient. After helping to clear out space for them to camp, Baldur had little with which to occupy himself. Aodr, his enchanted blade, was resilient to rust or dulling, so he cleaned blood off his armor and repacked his gear to pass the time until nightfall. 

Leliana slipped away to scout the area for hidden enemies and traps while Alistair broke out their bedrolls and dinner rations. Morrigan started a fire and scavenged the area nearby for herbs and small prey with Bastion, her time spent living in the wilds invaluable compared to Baldur's relatively cushy former existence as royalty. He could hunt large game and move relatively heavy detritus out of way to clear spaces for sleeping or sitting, but he didn't know the first thing about living off the land or traveling based on the position of the sun or stars. He didn’t even know which mushrooms were edible and which would kill him in the span of a heartbeat, trusting Morrigan not to poison them all regardless of how tempting the idea might be to her at times. His home had been deep within the stone and underground, food and goods readily supplied by those who traded on the surface, and aside from the usual small thieveries and coveting between brothers and cousins, he and his kin never wanted for anything.

Zevran thankfully kept out of the way. He disappeared for a while, and Baldur almost hoped he would stay away. But he soon returned with his own pack and claimed a space for himself set slightly away from the others, but still within sight.

Baldur got little rest that night. Alistair volunteered first watch to keep an eye on "that shifty-eyed elf," but several minutes of he and Zevran posturing quickly devolved into a rapid-fire trade of truly awful "your mother" jokes and an appearance of a well-worn deck of cards. Baldur already predicted the outcome of their low-stakes card game even before Alistair startled the women with his flurry of swears and had a fireball thrown at his head for his trouble, which he barely ducked in time. Zevran laughed raucously and collected his meager winnings while Bastion barked his head off and tried to go chasing after the fireball.

Alistair was honest to a fault and had never once won a card game in-between Leliana's slight of hand, Morrigan's poker face, and Baldur's own shameless use of the resulting arguments and accusations of cheating to slip a few choice cards of his own. Trian had been even more temperamental and quick to violence when he suspected he had been swindled by either brother or their cousins during ‘friendly’ games, and Baldur, pained as he was to admit his family's shortcomings, perhaps wasn't as shocked as he should have been that Bhelen’s own competitiveness had turned to fratricide.

Baldur had banned any sort of propriety bets between the group members, not wanting to risk bad blood and resentfulness that would jeopardize their entire mission, especially after the one time Morrigan had nearly lost a finger to Leliana's knife over a ruby the size of a child's fist one of them must have picked up on any of their numerous excursions. He'd lay down what few rules they had between them for civility's sake tomorrow if the assassin - former assassin? - was still there come morning.

Baldur half-wished he would be gone and take these awful, churning feelings with him. However, the thought of waking up and having Zevran not be there was almost more gut-wrenching than the pronouncement of his banishment and ousting from his home had been. Baldur couldn't even explain how the two situations could possibly compare in his mind - he had lost everything - but there it was.

His pulse quickened as he laid in his bedroll with Bastion trotting over to curl up near his feet. He mentally replayed his all too brief conversations with the elf, lingering on Zevran's striking features, the playful if tired lilt of his voice, and the strong lines of his body. He felt guilty and skittish with the object of his thoughts mere feet away, flipping knives into a dead log at a distance while Alistair watched and frowned thoughtfully, their quiet conversation broken up with stifled yawns.

Baldur huddled deeper into his thin bedding, the removal of his outer armor, gauntlets, and helmet his only concession to comfort. He imagined, fleetingly, the press of a warm body sliding in behind his own, arms wrapping around his waist and pulling him against a strong, slender chest. His lips parted with a heavy, shuddering breath. He held onto the image for one more longing moment before letting the utter insanity of the thought and the phantom warmth dissipate as Zevran and Alistair's voices finally quieted. Morrigan and Leliana were also silent as night sounds settled around them in the glow of their crackling fire.

Morning would come and undoubtedly bring with the dawn more death and destruction. Baldur just hoped at the end there would be the potential for light and life, assuming the Blight didn't destroy them all.

Chapter Text

Baldur must have drifted off for a brief time, because a quiet whispering of voices woke him up before the usual nightmares had gotten a chance to take hold first. He heard Alistair's lower tenor, unaffected with warning or urgency, so he relaxed marginally from having tensed with a hand gripping the hilt of his knife that rested across his chest while he slept. The accented voice that answered was an unfamiliar shock. For a split-second Baldur had forgotten about the assassin in their camp, whom he would have to get used to quickly if the other man planned on sticking around. He gave no indication of being conscious, breathing out slowly and letting the conversation drift by, unable to help overhearing.

“I could take the next watch if you’d like. I tend to be at my best at night. Or in the morning...or the afternoon, if you prefer. I can go at any time, really.”

“We’re watching you, elf. Of course I’m not going to let you take the next shift!” Alistair said in between a broken yawn. His voice lacked vehemence, weariness dogging him worse than usual.

“You may watch me any time you’d like, Warden,” Zevran purred, and there was a choking sound.

“Why would I want to--Never mind. Shouldn’t you go to bed now? We wake up at first light.”

Zevran made a considering noise.

“I would, but... I am unused to sleeping alone, I’m afraid. Perhaps you would consider—“

“No.”

“Not even a cuddle?”

“NO.”

“I would let you be the big spoon, if you prefer.”

There was an intake a breath followed by a long, long sigh. Alistair’s voice was muffled, as if he were hiding his face behind his hand.

“Listen. I have nothing against men who...well. You know.”

“Oh? Do elaborate.” There was laughter and interest in Zevran’s tone, like he knew damn well where Alistair was going with his train of thought, but dragging the actual words out of Alistair amused him to no end.

“But I’m not. I prefer women. Only women.”

“I, too, enjoy the attentions of a beautiful woman. However, I would not want to deprive an entire half of the population the pleasure of my company simply based on a limited preference.”

“That’s...a rather liberal outlook.”

“I am a free spirit, what can I say. I suppose if I must sleep alone for the duration, at least I can dream well knowing I am surrounded by such attractive companions.”

“Please keep me out of your dreams, or your head at all,” Alistair begged, pained. “Who knows what depraved things go on in there?”

“I could tell you, if you’d like.”

“I’d rather not. Anyway, Morrigan is next watch, so I wouldn’t push it with her. She may kill you just to shut you up. Or...just because, really.”

Zevran’s tone went dreamy. “Morrigan is that ravishing mage, is she not? I would not object to my end at her hands. Or mouth. Or anything, really, she is gorgeous all over.”

“Yeah, well, good luck with that. I would say it was nice knowing you, but I can’t help feeling that I really, really need a bath now. In boiling water, preferably.”

“I could scrub your back for you, since we are compatriots now after all.”

"You just don't quit, do you?" Alistair sighed, even though the question was more rhetorical than not at that point.

"I am afraid persistence is in my nature, but even I can take an obvious hint once in a while. Just know I grieve that I cannot convince you otherwise," Zevran said, regretfully. "Perhaps the others may be more inclined to a handsome man's attentions?"

"I doubt you'll have better luck with any of the others, but you’re welcome to try. It's your funeral."

"I do so enjoy a challenge! I find romance more thrilling when there's a touch of danger, no?"

"I prefer my head attached to my shoulders, but to each his own, I guess."

"I, on the other hand, prefer my head attached to--"

Whatever Zevran was about to lasciviously imply was abruptly cut off with a sound of scuffling and muffled laughter, and Baldur wished he could afford to stuff his ears with cotton or a bit of wax, but having his hearing impeded would prevent him from being able to detect approaching danger.

Either way he'd had enough.

"Quiet!" he growled, sitting up and jabbing a finger at the pair who'd been tousling like school boys. Zevran had Alistair caught in a headlock, his face turning red with the lack of oxygen in the crook of his arm, and they turned alternately shameless and sheepish gazes on him.

"You," he said, pointing directly at Zevran, "Release Alistair."

Baldur glared until Zevran reluctantly eased his grip enough that Alistair could slide his head out of the hold and shove himself away, gasping while his hair stuck out in all directions.

"Both of you go to bed. Now. I will take over the next watch."

He wouldn't be sleeping for the duration of the night anyway, so there was no reason the others should be deprived of a few more much needed hours of rest, which no one would be getting if Zevran and Alistair's squabbling continued for much longer. Baldur occasionally questioned if he wasn't a nursemaid instead of a Grey Warden after all.

---

The night passed by both too quickly and too slowly. Baldur took position at the top of the hill when Zevran and Alistair parted ways and slunk back to their respective sleep areas, Baldur's hard expression brooking no argument or further comment. His eyes were gritty and tired, but he was much too anxious to worry about falling asleep while on watch. He found a long branch as thick around as his wrist and hacked at the wood with his knife just for something to do with his hands, even though he had no particular skill at whittling. Wood shavings quickly accumulated into a pile between his booted feet until the stick was down to a nub, and only an hour had passed at most judging from the slight change in the position of the moon, as far as he could tell.

Baldur was starkly reminded of how much the others' bickering and idle chatter distracted him from his own thoughts, missing the sound of their voices once all was quiet again. He could scarcely recall ever being alone in his life. He’d always been surrounded by his brothers and cousins and nursemaids and tutors and, later, soldiers and the Assembly, and there were constantly people in and out of the palace for business or visiting. Even when he'd been locked away in the dungeons, at the lowest point in his life, there were guards who he’d once served with that snuck him extra rations and commiserating words while he waited anxiously for his sentencing. Gorim had also come to visit him with hopeful news about Duncan, who had been willing to take Baldur on as Grey Warden initiate despite the fact he had fallen out of favor with the entire kingdom and branded a traitor.

He hadn’t known Duncan long, but the man had made an impression on Baldur even the first time they had met. Duncan had been polite with a quiet authority that didn’t need to be announced through loud declarations or unnecessary confrontations. He’d been dedicated to the service of the Grey Wardens, and Baldur had surprised himself by asking how one would go about becoming a Grey Warden, as if he didn’t have his own duties to the kingdom.

Duncan had gently reminded him of his previous obligations, but recognized Baldur’s strength and drive to defend those who were the most vulnerable. Baldur had been touched by the man’s sincerity after being so used to the lip service of others who sought favor through close relations with nobility or royalty. In fact, there were dwarrowdams in Orzammar called noble hunters whose goal was to offer certain services in exchange for prestige. Bhelen had one such dam, and Trian had many concubines, with even more bastard offspring who saw more of his silver than their father. Baldur frowned worriedly when he realized his unclaimed nieces and nephews would now have neither; likely destined to grow up destitute, overlooked and unnoticed. If Baldur ever found a way to make contact with an ally in Orzammar, he would be certain to send recompense to those families whose lives his brothers had ruined.

Morning was heralded as a warmth against his back and the gentle bump of Bastion’s boxy head against his hip, whining softly for breakfast.

Itsi!” Baldur ordered quietly in the jealously guarded language of dwarves, rather than the common tongue he used with his companions. He was in the process of training Bastion to follow commands in Khudzul as an advantage over their enemies who wouldn’t know to expect an attack from behind or attempt to escape on horses that have been hobbled in their absence.

Bastion gave him a sharp yip of understanding and tore off into the underbrush to chase out a small rodent or two for his morning repast.

There was an art to waking his companions, although Bastion's baying was generally a fairly efficient alarm, if not a panic inducing one that normally preceded an attack. Often the sounds of movement in the camp were enough to rouse the others. Morrigan was a light sleeper and could fall asleep within minutes and wake just as easily without disorientation. She'd come from the Wilds, and as a result seemed to be incredibly in tune with the environment, sensing the light of the sunrise or a change in wind direction before even Bastion at times.

A quiet call was usually enough to wake Leliana, but she couldn't be touched. Alistair nearly had his wrist broken in their earlier association when he'd tried to shake her awake and had ended up flat on his face with his arm twisted up behind him before anyone knew what had happened. She'd blinked herself awake with the sound of Alistair yelling beneath her, knee digging into his kidneys and his wrist bent nearly to the point of snapping. She'd let go immediately and apologized profusely, but none of them made that mistake twice.

Alistair, though. Baldur could clomp around in full metal armor bellowing at the top of his lungs, and the Grey Warden wouldn't stir an eyelash. He could be vigorously shaken awake, but wouldn't actually be coherent for up to a full hour, even if he could fight in his sleep and occasionally had. It was Morrigan who discovered the instant way to get Alistair completely, one-hundred percent awake in an instant a few weeks back. She'd daintily sucked on the tip of her finger and promptly stuck the wet digit into Alistair's ear when the man was particularly slow getting up one morning. Alistair had howled and shot awake like his hair had caught on fire.

"Did you just put a slug in my ear?! Oh Maker, it's going to eat my brain, isn't it?"

"You’d have to have brains for it to consume first," Morrigan explained rationally while Alistair fought against his bedding with a hand clapped over his ear, reaching for anything nearby to throw at Morrigan.

Fortunately that morning such extreme measures were unnecessary as everyone seemed on edge from the unexpected ambush and gradually began stirring soon after the sun had begun to peek over the horizon. Perhaps they should have made camp farther away from the site of the attack, but Baldur found that obvious signs of battle and bodies strewn about the area served as effective warning others who might try and take advantage of a weakened party. 

Baldur returned to his bedroll to begin packing after Morrigan and Leliana were risen and donning their armor and weapons after a cold breakfast of dried strips of meat and wild tubers Morrigan had found the night before. Even Alistair was grumbling himself awake despite his late night, even if he was slower to start than the others. 

When the bedding had been secured to the top of his own pack, Baldur glanced over to see how their newest member fared. He was instantly disgruntled when he saw that Zevran was still asleep, absolutely dead to the world despite the company taking no precautions to tiptoe around camp as they prepared for the day. He frowned and stood slowly, leaving his pack for the moment as he considered the assassin. He could pelt the man with small stones from where he stood and keep out of range of retaliation if the man were a violent waker like either he or Leliana, but casting stones would be extremely rude and start them off on the wrong foot when perhaps a word or two would do instead.

Baldur approached Zevran with trepidation, his heart rate increasing for no discernible reason and making him ill-tempered as a result. 

"Oy. Wake up, you," Baldur growled, standing just out of reach and glaring down at Zevran.

He had terrible sleep posture, starfished out on his belly with his back entirely exposed and his bedding rucked up beneath him. His face was unlined and even in sleep the corners of his mouth still curved up ever so slightly. Zevran's soft, nearly inaudible breathing didn't change with Baldur's call, so Baldur reached out and cautiously nudged him in the hip with a steel-toed boot. 

Zevran grumbled and his brows puckered momentarily before smoothing out again, refusing to awaken with either a command or touch, and Baldur wasn't about to jam a finger into the elf's pointed ear. Instead, he knelt next to Zevran, his left hand on his knife, and reached out with his right to jar his shoulder. 

"Mm...change your mind, Alistair?" Zevran intoned sleepily, his lips curving up in a grin as he flopped over onto his back, scrubbing his palms over his eyes. 

"Not hardly," Baldur scoffed, and Zevran dropped a hand away to peer blearily up at him. Instead of disappointment at the sight of a dwarf's grizzled countenance first thing in the morning, Zevran's grin grew wide and pleased. 

"Not Alistair, but something even better, I should say! What a lovely vision you make, pet. I could get used to waking up to your face in the mornings."

Baldur nearly lost his balance and had to use the hand on Zevran's shoulder to brace himself before snatching the limb away like he'd been scalded. 

"You need your eyes checked, elf. And your ears as well. Any one of us could have come upon you a number of times and slit your throat, and you never would have known."

"You have my eternal gratitude that you did not. I'm afraid I am quite the deep sleeper and unused to rising before the sun. At least not without a bit of...persuasion..." 

Zevran's other hand fell away from his face and had the audacity to land right on Baldur's knee, his thumb finding the space between his leg guards and stroking lightly. He smiled up at Baldur with a soft, sleepy expression. Baldur had to glance down to check if the other stabbed him in the gut while he was distracted to explain the sharp, sudden ache in his sternum. 

"How can you sleep so deeply? Aren't you an assassin?" Baldur accused, wondering why he didn't lop the other's hand off for his presumption, choosing instead to stoically ignore the touch. 

Zevran pulled his bottom lip between his teeth in thought, and Baldur felt his eyes train unwillingly on his mouth, feeling hot all over. 

"That's exactly it. I'm the assassin. I don't generally have other assassins after me. I could set my own hours while working for the Crows and wake up as late as I wished as long as the job got done."

"That's going to change, if it's like you say and the Crows don't leave loose ends. We don't have the luxury of wallowing in bed all day. We're accustomed to having to defend ourselves from attacks during the night, and most of us tend to stab first and wake up after. I'm sure you'll pick up the habit the first few times you find a hurlock or ghoul trying to kiss you awake with their blades."

"I would not mind practicing waking up to kisses, especially if it'll keep me on my guard," Zevran said coyly, watching Baldur watch his mouth as he licked his bitten bottom lip slowly. 

Baldur barely felt himself tipping forward in slow motion, reacting unconsciously to an intense compulsion to lean down those last few inches and...

"We'd better get a move on if we want to reach Haven before nightfall," Morrigan called, extinguishing the camp fire and calling up a small breeze to clear away signs of their having been there. They weren't completely incapable of hiding their tracks, but unless they separated or wore disguises, their company was memorable regardless of the precautions they took. 

Baldur jerked away, realizing what exactly he'd been about to do. Zevran's golden eyes sharpened from his sleep fog and went contemplative, seemingly disappointed for the interruption that Baldur couldn't have been more grateful for at that very moment. 

"Get up. We're leaving with or without you," Baldur said roughly. His cheeks flamed as he quickly moved away and stood, unable to focus on anything other than the spot on the side of his knee that tingled fiercely from Zevran's touch and the tenderness from his lip that he realized he'd just bitten raw. Baldur had gone much too long without non-violent contact if a simple touch and look could affect him beyond reason. 

"I could make breakfast to show my appreciation," Zevran offered cheerily as he sat up and ran his fingers through his fine blond hair, managing to look somehow dashing even upon waking.

The clearing rang out with a resounding "No!" from all directions.

"I, for one, will be watching my food and drink far more closely," Morrigan said.

"That is fine advice for anyone," Zevran agreed, entirely unfazed by the immediate, unanimous rejection.

---

Baldur found his thoughts drifting throughout the day, and he cautiously made certain there was at least a person or two between he and the elf at all times. Baldur hadn't believed himself to be susceptible to seduction, but then again no one had actively tried to seduce him before. Dwarrowdams were often more aggressive than their male counterparts and would bluntly state their interest for the strongest or most cunning dwarves rather than allow themselves to be swayed by pretty words or trinkets. Male dwarves outnumbered females three-to-one, so for a dam to have two or more lovers wasn't unexpected. Interracial relationships, such as between dwarves and humans, or dwarves and elves, were unheard of and generally considered as abhorrent as laying with a farm animal, but at least a goat or sheep had a respectable amount of hair, which was more than either a human or elf could claim. 

Zevran could likely charm the bark off a tree if he were so inclined, and apparently didn't discriminate between race or gender. He'd actually eased his attentions off Alistair somewhat, but even Baldur could see the appeal in flustering the easily offended Grey Warden. He was secretly relieved that he wasn't the only one affected by Zevran's advances, but, unlike Baldur, Alistair was in no danger of actually succumbing.  

Leliana was a touch warmer to Zevran than the others, but she'd also made her refusal quite clear. 

"While I appreciate your interest, I made a vow of celibacy when I devoted myself to the Chantry and the Maker. I have taken no lovers in the past two years and have no intention of breaking my vow today or anytime in the foreseeable future."

"Two years?!" Zevran exclaimed, the horror writ across his face nearly humorous except that Baldur felt his own sinking disappointment at Leliana's proclamation. He held great affection for her, especially since her sense of duty and compassion mirrored his own so well. She was a skilled warrior with more than a few devilishly cunning tricks up her sleeve, and spoke to everyone with respect, even Morrigan, who she disagreed vehemently with on a regular basis. 

"I cannot believe... Two years, truly?" Zevran shuddered dramatically, although it could have been from the cold as well. "I must consider myself fortunate that the Crows found me before the Chantry did, then."

"Hey! I grew up in a Chantry," Alistair protested. "I certainly wouldn't consider being made into an assassin a better alternative."

"But at least I can have my pick of lovers anytime I wish," Zevran pointed out. "How long has it been for you, exactly?"

Alistair went bright red and immediately clammed up. He refused to answer even when Morrigan started prodding him, Alistair appearing more uncomfortable by the minute. Zevran left off before Alistair imploded, but turned back to Leliana instead, still aghast and sympathetic. 

"My dear, if there is anything," he took up one of Leliana's hands between his own and gazed at her intently, "anything I can do to remedy this dry spell of yours, know that I will do so as soon as you say the word. Or don't say a word, just blink twice and I will understand that you have need of me urgently."

Leliana didn't even blink once before she slipped her fingers from between Zevran's so smoothly the elf didn't even realize his hands were empty for a minute or two. 

"That won't be happening," she said crisply, an edge of warning to her tone. Zevran frowned mournfully but then leveled a considering look at the Chantry sister. 

"Chantries must be full of repressed individuals. Perhaps I should make a point to visit one and...worship. Properly, you see. On my knees."

Morrigan snorted, loudly, and Zevran aimed his most charming grin at her, bolstered by any response in his favor. 

"Perhaps you would like to join me, hm?"

Morrigan raised her eyebrow, utterly immune to flattery. 

"Tell me, elf. Are you familiar with the mating habits of black widow spiders or the praying mantis?" Morrigan asked pleasantly, her gold eyes turning back the path ahead. 

"I cannot say that I am, but I would love to be enlightened especially if you are willing to demonstrate."

"I prefer to mirror my own personal philosophy after these two species in regards to lovemaking. They both consume the male during or after copulation so there is no messy business waiting around wondering if he will call upon her again or if the dress she agonized over for hours met with his approval. Much simpler in cleaning up loose ends, I've found."

There was a long moment of silence, and then Zevran cleared his throat uncomfortably. 

"I may have been a touch hasty with my offer. However, such a gruesome end may surely be worth the pleasure you have to offer," Zevran mused, undeterred for long, but he pointedly did not push the issue.

All of the males in their group gave Morrigan a much wider berth after that particular revelation, and even Leliana cast a speculative glance or two in the mage's direction. 

The wind had a definite bite as they began their laborious ascent up to the base of the Frostback Mountains, the air becoming dry and thin as they panted for breath climbing the treacherous, nearly vertical path that was overgrown and completely hidden at times. They referred to Brother Genitivi's map and journal often for directions, seeing no clear sign of anyone having traveled this route in at least ten years, if not more. 

"A-Are we certain this is the right d-direction? Perhaps the Urn is l-located in warmer climes?" Alistair asked hopefully, his teeth chattering with the cold. 

"Brother Genitivi's notes indicate the Village of Haven should be visible over that rise there," Leliana said as she consulted the tattered, leather-bound notebook, pointing to one of the smaller peaks that disappeared within a wreath of clouds. She drew her cloak closer around herself and shivered, the wind beginning to pick up and bring gusts of snow flurries which clung to everyone's hair and Baldur's beard and did not melt. 

Morrigan and Bastion appeared to be the only ones unaffected by the cold even though they were the least protected from the elements. Bastion had his short fur, at least, but Morrigan was exposed except for the most vital areas and didn't have a goose pimple anywhere on her flawless skin. Baldur was accustomed to the heat of constant forges and molten metals when he lived in Orzammar, but he wasn't affected terribly by the cold thanks to his thick skin and hair and many layers of armor. He also had a high core temperature, and being so low to the ground prevented most of the wind from reaching him, fortunately. 

Zevran, on the other hand, followed nearly on Alistair's heels, using the taller man's bulk as a wind blockade until Alistair noticed and protested loudly. 

"You maintain a five foot radius from me at all times, elf! I am not carrying you up this mountain clinging like a limpet on my back!"

"I am not asking you to carry me. I'm simply making use of the reprieve you're already providing from the wind and not letting your efforts go to waste," Zevran protested reasonably, practically wrapped around Alistair's arm until the man aggressively shook him off. 

"Absolutely not! If I have to be cold, then you have to be cold. Here, you can walk in front of me for a while and see how you like being a living shield." Alistair shoved Zevran into the path before him before the assassin could slip away, a protest dying on his lips as he cocked his head to the side and stared ahead. 

"Ohhh, I see now. What a marvelous view you have from here! Yes, I do believe this arrangement will work out for the best of all."

Baldur glanced at the uninteresting view of gnarled trees and snowdrifts in confusion, not knowing what Zevran meant or why Alistair was so red-faced until he realized Morrigan was walking uphill of them, and with the wind blowing her tattered skirts...

"Morrigan," Baldur called abruptly, cheeks going ruddy from more than just the cold. "Bastion and I will take point for now, if you could guard the flanks? I thought I heard something a bit ago and need your keen senses." 

The excuse was feeble and Alistair and Zevran's twin glares said they saw right through him as well. Better they were irritated with him than have Morrigan discover their source of shameful entertainment and burn their eyes from their sockets. Baldur needed his men's eyes right as they were, but he also wouldn't tolerate anyone in his group being disrespected even though he knew Morrigan could take care of herself. Baldur didn't believe in the idea of females being the "weaker" sex. He'd fought alongside azghâna for countless years who were tattooed from scalp to foot with their kills. Baldur feared to get on the wrong side of or meet in a dark area of woods alone, commanding officer of those fierce warrior women or not. 

"Don't make me regret being downwind of you," Morrigan threatened the group, slipping to the rear easily as the rest of them forged on ahead. 

Daylight grew scarce quickly under the cover of trees, which blocked them from the worst of the wind, but the shade was even colder with the weak sunlight unable to penetrate the dense branches overhead. They would have to consider setting up camp soon. Baldur had hoped to reach somewhere warmer and more hospitable before camping outside in the bitter cold became necessary. 

There was a collective sigh of relief when they came upon a lone guard when the thickest tangle of forest opened up into a clearing, the man the only sign of life they had seen in ages and proof they were headed in the right direction. Unfortunately, the guard didn't seem nearly as pleased to see them. 

"What are you doing in Haven? There's nothing for you here."

The guard practically growled at the lot of them, his hand shooting out to halt their passing. Baldur couldn't blame the man for being short-tempered if he'd been standing out here in this Mahal-forsaken weather all day, but he was too tired to argue and had no intention of having his way barred. 

"Please, we have traveled so far and mean no harm. Surely there is somewhere we may rest before we take our leave of you," Leliana pleaded reasonably, even though none of them planned on leaving until they retrieved the Urn or at least located Brother Genitivi. 

"You may trade at the shop if you wish, but then you and your companions best leave."

"Is it just me or did it suddenly get colder?" Alistair muttered, frowning at the rude dismissal. 

"They are hiding something," Morrigan said, sounding eager to expose whatever that something may be. 

"Ah, quiet insular communities. There's always something nasty going on behind closed doors,” Zevran said, and then added as nearly an afterthought. “I hope it involves chains. I hope they ask me to join in.”

Haven did indeed have something nasty going on behind closed doors but kinky sex had nothing to do with it, to Zevran’s obvious disappointment.

Baldur knew something was wrong when the unfriendly bartender he attempted to coax information from turned outright hostile at the mention of Brother Genitivi. The man scaled the bar to attack the group even though he was desperately outnumbered and armed only with a knife.

The bartender was facedown in a pool of his own blood before Baldur even knew what happened.

“People around here really don’t like questions,” Alistair said, just as shell-shocked, and they all glanced around warily at the patrons who glowered and whispered amongst themselves, but didn’t rise up to join in the attack.

Baldur made a point to stare each and every patron in the eye until they averted their gazes back into their pints, refusing to be cowed or show that he was unnerved by the wasteful death. No one tried to apprehend them when they left the shop, not even the first guard they had met who Baldur assumed would be eager to hound their every step and herd them away from his precious town. Rather than leaving immediately as promised, the company grouped together to explore the surrounding area. They didn’t need to confer in order to agree separating would be a bad idea with an entire village violently antagonistic towards outsiders.

The more they discovered, the more Baldur felt the urge to leave become more pressing. The evil of man was apparent in the discovery of an alter drenched in human blood located in a villager’s backroom.

“No one could lose that much blood and survive,” Morrigan said, and the group stared at the alter uneasily. Bastion sniffed at the base of the alter where the blood had gone black and congealed and whined pitifully.

They didn’t dare linger lest they become someone’s next sacrifice, and turned their sights towards the most prominent building in Haven. At the highest point of the village was a Chantry, which was a familiar relief to Leliana, until they pushed inside the vaulted doors after a short hike and saw many angry faces turn towards them at their unexpected entrance.

“I thought all Chantries were led by a Revered Mother?” Baldur murmured to Leliana, who was staring narrow-eyed at an older man who was directing a sermon and clearly the leader of the convent.

“They are,” she said grimly as the man left off on his speech and approached the group solemnly. Bastion’s hackles raised and he growled low in his throat.

“I understand that you are new here, but common courtesy dictates that one shouldn’t interrupt. No matter. We were just about done here anyway,” the man said as if he were indulging disruptive children rather than a group of individuals armed to the teeth.

A woman from the segregation walked up to the man with a withering look of distaste aimed towards the group before turning her objections to the man.

“But your Reverence, we have not completed the Sacraments!”

“Be calm. We have honored guests among us. Surely the Sacraments can wait...”

A familiar ringing of steel was all the warning they had before the congregation of cultists converged upon their party, these worshippers far better armed than the bartender had been. Baldur released Aodr at once and swung at the Revered Father, who blocked him with a staff longer than himself and caught Baldur across the ribs with the haft. Despite their numbers and weapons, the people of Haven were obviously unused to confrontation and were neutralized quickly. Once most of the cultists had been taken care of, Alistair quickly came to Baldur’s aid, whose limited reach was hampered by the Revered Father’s arm span and staff.

The older man was far more skilled than his disciples and dodged an attack from Alistair before he landed a resounding blow to the Grey Warden’s forearm. There was a hideous crack as the armor fractured and Alistair fell to his knees in agony, dropping his sword to clutch his likely broken arm to his chest. The Revered Father raised his staff for a finishing strike, which never landed as a arrow shaft suddenly bloomed from his throat. Before the Revered Father had even crumpled to the ground, the group surrounded Alistair, who was hunched over his arm, his face ghastly white and teeth clenched as he rocked back on his heels and bit back a scream.

“We need to get this set.” Baldur’s tone was stern, but briskly apologetic. He had the bare essentials of medical training from his time in the service of Orzammar’s army to know how to set dislocated or broken bones and staunch deep wounds, but it wouldn’t be pretty and Alistair would need an actual healer sooner rather than later if his arm was indeed broken.

He uncorked a flask of some foul healing concoction of Morrigan’s they all carried and held the rim of the bottle to Alistair’s lips, which were pale and pinched but parted willingly enough, even though he gagged at the taste. The potion would hopefully ease the worst of pain and inflammation, but the man would need an entire jug of moonshine and an actual healer before his arm would be merely a distant ache.

“Hold him,” Baldur ordered as he stripped himself of his belt and held the leather up for Alistair to bite down upon, which he did, muttering desperate prayers to the Maker all the while.

Leliana knelt before Alistair with her hands braced firmly on his thighs. She gave him a tightly reassuring smile that didn’t nearly reach her eyes, which were dark with concern and anger on Alistair’s behalf. Zevran took position behind Alistair with one arm around his waist and the other locked over his shoulder, bracing him against his chest.  

“I wish this embrace was under better circumstances, my friend,” Zevran murmured against the side of Alistair’s head. The Warden’s hair was already plastered with sweat as he glanced wild-eyed at Baldur and gave a jerky nod.

Baldur carefully took Alistair’s injured arm and drew the limb away from his chest, his skin too-hot to the touch and already livid once Baldur carefully removed his smashed arm guard and gauntlet and saw his forearm was in no better condition. Alistair whimpered around the belt and a fat tear splashed down his cheek from the pain of simply exposing the injury, tipping his head back against Zevran’s shoulder with a deep groan as he closed his eyes, unable to watch.

Morrigan stood off to the side with her arms crossed and hip cocked as she watched in interest, apparently bemused by all the fuss from one broken bone.

Baldur was thankful for small mercies that the bone hadn’t punctured flesh and seemed to be one clean break rather than numerous small fractures which would have meant Alistair’s chance at a full recovery would be minimal at best. Baldur wrapped one hand just below Alistair’s elbow and above where the line of his forearm deviated and formed a huge knot at the apex of the unnatural bend, his other hand braced firmly around Alistair’s trembling wrist.

Baldur gave no count or warning when he quickly forced his hands in opposite directions and twisted, the sound of Alistair’s radius bone popping back into place drowned out by a bloodcurdling scream. Alistair jerked violently and smashed the back of his head against Zevran’s lip, which split and immediately started bleeding profusely even as the elf clamped down on his hold. Leliana fought against Alistair as he tried to get his legs out from under him to kick or get away, frenzied as a wild beast.

The merciful thing would have been to knock Alistair unconscious, but they couldn’t afford to have one of their number immobilized while they were still in enemy territory. Bastion prowled the parameter since the rest of them were preoccupied, and Baldur saw the dog stop at a doorway with his head cocked and ears pricked forward.

“Mahal’s Beard!” Baldur swore, releasing his grip quickly once he was certain the bone was back in place so Alistair wouldn’t yank away from him and break his arm again. “There are others still here. We cannot stay like this.”

“What would you have us do?” Morrigan asked. “Alistair’s completely useless and will likely faint or expire the moment we let him out of our sight.”

“You and Bastion will stay here with him. The rest of us will take care of the villagers and try and locate Brother Genitivi.”

“I am not coddling him, the big baby,” Morrigan said with a disgusted look at Alistair, who had collapsed against Leliana’s shoulder after his initial outburst and was shaking with either sobs or convulsions.

Bastion left the door and circled around the group. He butted his large head beneath Leliana’s arms wrapped gently around Alistair’s shoulders to lick wet, dripping slurps over Alistair’s tear-streaked face.

“Oh, not you too,” Morrigan complained at Bastion. Alistair switched his one-armed hold to the mabari and buried his face in Bastion’s coarse fur, freeing Leliana from the awkward embrace. Zevran eased himself stiffly away as well, his chin a mess of gore from his split lip, which he swiped at in resignation.

“Perhaps my pout will only be more devastating after a bit of swelling, hm? Or I’ll look rugged from the bruising. Either way, I cannot find a downside.”

“I could give you a black eye or two to improve your appearance further,” Alistair joked through clenched teeth, which was a good sign that he would recover.

Zevran patted him on the shoulder in commiseration.

Baldur rose and prepared to search the Chantry for more cult members and any sign of Brother Genitivi, doubting they would find him alive if this was the sort welcome any visitors to Haven could expect to receive.

---

Itsi!Hunt! (Khudzul)

Azghâna – Warrior ladies (Khudzul)

Chapter Text

Baldur, Leliana, and Zevran made their way cautiously through the Chantry and fought off several more enraged villagers until they came upon a concealed room where a man lay barely conscious and wounded.

“Brother Genitivi?” Leliana inquired uncertainly, apparently recognizing the man’s station by his blood-stained garments or some other defining attribute Baldur couldn’t quite parse for himself.

“That...would be me,” the man, Brother Genitivi, said with a groan as he sat up, wincing at his obviously injured leg that he held out stiffly before him.

“What happened?” Baldur asked, even though the signs of having been tortured were apparent.

“The Revered Father took exception to my search for the Urn of Sacred Ashes. I’d come closer to its discovery than he felt comfortable with and attempted to destroy my research and stop me from going and telling others of what I’d found.”

“There was a decoy at your house in Denerim. I’m afraid your assistant is dead,” Baldur said sympathetically, and Brother Genitivi bowed his head with a grimace of sorrow.

“Poor Weylon. May the Maker watch over his soul.”

“We need to get you out of here. How’s your leg? Do you think you could walk on it?”

“The leg’s not doing so well and I can’t feel my foot,” Brother Genitivi said honestly, frustrated at the handicap.

“We have another injured member in our party. I think it would be best to bring the both of you to a safer place with a healer that could tend to your wounds.”

Baldur barely hid his aggravation for all of these untimely set backs despite not having many other choices available to them at the moment. Brother Genitivi apparently felt the same.

“I don’t have time to rest now. I’m so close! The Urn is just up that mountain.”

“You would never make it that far on your leg, and judging from your breathing it sounds like you have a cracked rib or two as well,” Leliana said.

“Broken ribs be cursed! I’m not abandoning decades of research! Besides, you would never reach the Urn without my help.”

“Forgive my insensitivity, but how could you be any use to us?” Zevran asked.

“Haven lies in the shadow of the mountain that holds the Urn. There is an old temple there built to protect the Urn. The door is always locked, but I know what the key is.”

“Convenient,” Zevran said, raising an eyebrow. “Where is this key then?”

“Eirik wears a medallion that opens the temple doors. I’ve even seen what he does with it.”

“I hope we do not have to disinfect this key first, then.”

“Take me to the mountainside and I will show you.”

“The risk of traveling while in your condition is too great,” Baldur said reasonably. “Tell us how to open the door instead.”

Brother Genitivi slapped his palm against the stone floor, leaning forward with a look of desperation. “This has been my life’s work! To come this far only to turn back...I couldn’t bear it!”

“You cannot deny him this,” Leliana said in the Brother’s defense. “We would have never found this place without him. I know you have his welfare at heart, but you can’t dash his hopes like this! I will look after him myself. Will that satisfy you?”

Leliana so rarely asked for anything, even though Baldur knew taking this injured man up the mountain would be a great folly, especially if he died without telling them how to enter the temple before they reached the top. She was correct that Brother Genitivi was their best hope for locating the Urn, though.

“Very well. If it means that much to you,” Baldur conceded reluctantly.

“Oh, thank you, my dear!” Brother Genitivi said to Leliana with a joyous laugh. “You certainly know how to warm an old man’s heart!”

“It is my pleasure, Brother Genitivi.”

“Oh? It’s like that, is it?” Zevran said, his sly tone loaded with implication. He was unable to grin as widely as usual with his still-bleeding lip, but somehow managed.

“Shall we get going?” Leliana said, ignoring the elf in favor of helping Brother Genitivi to his feet with tremendous effort. How either of them expected the man to make an entire journey up a mountainside when he could barely stand, Baldur didn’t know.

When they returned with Brother Genitivi in tow to the main room where they’d left the others, they found Alistair sprawled on his back with his head using Bastion as a pillow and his arm bound against his chest with strips of fabric that might have come from one of the lesser blood-stained bodies around them. Also, he was completely stoned out of his gourd.

“Ohh, pretty colors!” Alistair exclaimed as he grabbed at the empty air above his head with his good arm, giggling to himself and appearing overjoyed with whatever vision he was seeing.

Baldur rounded on Morrigan at once.

“What in the world did you give him?” he demanded, pointing a finger back at the Warden who was now nuzzling his mabari and cooing as if the ferocious war dog were a fuzzy baby rabbit.

“You have been holding out on us!” Zevran accused with nearly as much offense. 

“I only gave him something to ease his pain and cease his incessant whining for a moment,” Morrigan said dismissively, appearing highly entertained by the spectacle Alistair was making of himself. “I’d say 'tis an improvement on his usual character, don’t you think?”

“He is useless in this state! We located Brother Genitivi, who is injured himself, and we need to make our way up the mountain immediately. We don’t have time for this!” Baldur said in exasperation.

“There is no need for histrionics. He will be back to his usual despondent self within the hour. Meanwhile, I suspect Genitivi could use some painkillers himself?”

“Perhaps a smaller dosage than the Grey Warden received, but I will not refuse the offer, all the same,” Brother Genitivi said with an indulgent smile, leaning heavily against Leliana, who had her arm securely around his back.

Baldur barred the heavy wooden doors to the Chantry’s entryway by placing the Revered Father, Eirik’s, staff between the two door handles to temporarily delay anyone who tried to enter while they alternately drugged or detoxed the necessary party members and Brother Genitivi sketched out a map to the temple ruins in his leather journal, thrilled that some of his research had survived.

“I surmise the journey will take two or three days to reach the temple,” Brother Genitivi said, smiling and listing to the side from his seat at one of the wooden benches, clearly blissed out on Morrigan’s painkillers but relatively in control of his facilities. “If we can acquire some sort of crutch or walking stick, I imagine that I’ll be able to keep up relatively well, especially if Morrigan has any more of that delightful concoction in her stores.”

“I know exactly how much is in my pack,” Morrigan said with a warning glare when both Alistair and Zevran perked up in interest. “And the precise way to mix the herbs. One wrong measurement and it turns into a deadly poison.”

Baldur was again reminded of how their very lives banked on remaining in Morrigan’s good favor. As skilled as she was with general poultices and potions, their group was in desperate need of an actual healer. Unfortunately they were hard to come by, much less one willing to travel into dangerous parts of Ferelden, which would soon be anywhere and everywhere they traveled as the Blight spread. Morrigan was true to her word and Alistair was relatively coherent even sooner than expected, although the entire situation and his injury likely helped him to sober more quickly.

“I would like to speak with you, if I could?” Alistair said when Baldur walked by to check on the map’s progression, intending to memorize everything Brother Genitivi wrote down on the chance something happened to either he or the journal.

“Of course. What is it you need?” Baldur said quietly, kneeling next to Alistair who was still tucked against Bastion’s side. Baldur laid a hand on the back of Bastion’s neck, scratching him appreciatively for watching over Alistair.

"I was thinking of visiting the Arl Eamon," Alistair said hesitantly, as if Baldur would shout him down for the very suggestion. "I know he's not even conscious right now, but I feel like I could be more use in Redcliffe, especially with Isolde...gone."

Alistair's face did a complicated sort of expression. Baldur knew Isolde was the reason Alistair had been sent away from his home with the Arl Eamon and raised in a Chantry, but he appeared to have let go of any resentment. Alistair wasn't the type of person to find joy in another's demise regardless of his feelings as a rebellious youth.

"Plus, they have the best healers in Ferelden at the castle, so I may as well get one of them to take a look at my arm," Alistair shrugged without thinking and immediately lost all color in his face as the movement jostled his broken bone.

"Are you sure you don't want me to fashion a brace for you?" Morrigan called over, her tone exasperated as if she couldn't deal with the stubbornness of men.

"And have you rip my arm off entirely and beat me around the head with it? No, thank you!"

"It would no longer be broken in that case," Zevran added helpfully. "Or at least, it would still be broken, but no longer attached for you to worry about.”

"Ha ha," Alistair said dryly, cradling his arm protectively against his chest. "I'll take my chances in Redcliffe. Or at least, if that's alright with you?"

Alistair directed the question at Baldur, who was bewildered that the senior Warden was deferring to him, but recovered from his astonishment quickly.

"Of course you may, if you think it would be best. Perhaps you could drop off a letter with Knight-Commander Harrith while you are there?"

Alistair broke into a relieved grin. "I'd be happy to. Just send word when you have need of me, although hopefully the next we meet it will be with the Urn in our possession and my arm in fighting shape.”

“Mahal willing,” Baldur sighed and nodded his agreement. “Take Bastion with you to Redcliffe. You should be able to follow the path we traveled getting here, and if not Bastion knows the way. I’m fairly certain we rooted out all of the cultists, but there may be sympathetic parties still hanging around, and with your arm...” Alistair shuddered.

"If I never see another cult again in my lifetime, it'll be too soon. My nightmares will have nightmares after this."

Baldur stiffened with an apology already half formed, feeling responsible for Alistair’s injury and their lack of a healer that could have speeded the recovery along without having to drug Alistair to the gills or send him away first.

"I know a man who knows a mage who weaves sleep charms that he claims can shield your dreams,” Zevran suggested. “Dream catchers, I think he calls them. We can pick you up one as a souvenir if we ever travel out east."

Alistair looked intrigued by the idea until Morrigan interrupted with a contemptuous laugh.

"Those are nothing more than an amateur's attempts to swindle gullible non-magic users. Dream catchers are a cute idea, but there is no basis to them actually working as they say. Nightshade, though, that'll take care of any pesky dreams."

"My dear, nightshade is a poison. I know this very well since I've been using it as a coating on my knives to take out marks since I was a starry-eyed youth," Zevran corrected sagely.

"Oops. Is it? I must have gotten my plants mixed up."

Alistair stared at her in horror.

"I am never taking anything you give me ever again! I don't care if my arm does fall off!"

“Nobody is poisoning anyone!” Baldur said with a pointed glower at Morrigan and Zevran. “Except for darkspawn. You may use those foul creatures to experiment upon all you wish.”

After he calmed Alistair down, he assisted him with his equipment and rationing out enough provisions for he and Bastion to reach Redcliffe if they were careful and Bastion hunted along the way. Baldur worried about Alistair being unable to make a fire with only one arm, but he seemed unconcerned.

“Bastion and I can cuddle for warmth,” he said in an overly loud tone that was clearly directed at Zevran, who looked appropriately outraged.

“You’ll sleep with the dog but not me?” Zevran said in disbelief, throwing a baleful glare at Bastion, who wagged his tail and panted guilelessly.

“Be wary that you do not cry out in your sleep. Bastion may mistake it for a mating call, especially with you two so chummy now,” Morrigan said.

“Even so, I’d still prefer Bastion over the elf...”

“Hey!”

Baldur was going to miss having Alistair at his side, although perhaps not the bickering so much. They hadn’t been separated since Baldur had become a Grey Warden recruit and Alistair assisted him with his trials, but he had to admit to himself that the quiet would be nice for a change.

“Let’s get this key and go. It would be tempting fate to stay in Haven any longer, especially after we killed their leader.”

“I agree,” Brother Genitivi said, standing up with a grunt and hobbling his way over to the Revered Father. He made a warding sign with his hand before plucking a silver chain from Father Eirik’s chest with a grimace for taking from a corpse.

Baldur had lost that particular squeamishness ages ago.

---

The ruined temple of Andraste was shrouded in snow and glittering ice, beautiful despite the destruction. Brother Genitivi made the journey without hindering their progress too severely and guided them into the temple as promised. He insisted that he would be fine if left on his own near the entrance to peruse the numerous statues and carvings dedicated to the prophet, so thoroughly ecstatic with the findings that he would hear nothing about leaving.

“Just be careful, is all I ask. The temple is...perilous. The Chantry believes the Maker himself is watching over this area.”

“And what do you believe?” Baldur asked.

“I believe it sounds more pleasant than the intricate details of many unpleasant traps.”

“Traps?”

“It’s the ingenuity of man as perceived through the will of the Maker,” Brother Genitivi grinned wryly, as if he weren’t making light of his own people’s penchant for theatrics.

Despite the warning, Baldur felt entirely betrayed the first time he opened a chest as he had done a dozen times before, only to be met with enormous, hungry ash wraiths instead of a handful of silver or the discarded weaponry he'd grown used to finding. Fortunately the rest of the group was quicker on the uptake and slayed the beasts until he came to his senses and hacked at the back of one of them until it uttered a scream and evaporated into a burst of ash.

"I am not picking any more locks in this accursed place," Leliana said resolutely, and Baldur could not fault her.

"This is the temple of your precious Maker, is it not?" Morrigan drawled, picking dried blood from beneath her fingernails. "Shouldn't you have his protection then? Just like the soldiers we sent happily off to battle with those cheap amulets they foolishly believed would protect them?"

Leliana was too disciplined to grind her teeth, but the amulets had been a source of contention between them, even though the soldiers in Redcliffe had fought well against the undead when they believed they’d been blessed by the Maker. Auspiciously, there had been minimal casualties despite the seemingly impossible odds.

"You know," Zevran drawled, "if the architects here wanted to catch someone in a trap, they'd make it easy to access. And the good stuff would take more of an effort to get into, or at least a key, no?"

"Then I suppose you will be opening the locked chests?" Leliana said airily, crossing her arms over her chest.

"I will open unlocked chests myself and deal with any...surprises," Baldur cut in before the discussion developed into an outright argument when they had more important issues than a chest or two containing items they didn't need or have the room to carry. "We'll leave the locked ones alone. Let's go."

Baldur's pack was getting heavy and the disagreement brought to his attention the need to lighten his load on the chance he found items in the temple that they actually did need. He shrugged his pack off with a groan when the others were investigating a room they had secured full of books and curious odds and ends. He was tempted to dump everything out on the floor and sort through the resulting mess, but he carefully inspected each item before placing them into specific piles, casting off anything he could bear to part with.

He sent a silent apology to Bastion when he threw away a few ox bones he'd been saving for a special occasion, but he would remember to ask Morrigan to whip up a batch of mabari crunch for him instead at another time.

He gave Morrigan a book that radiated menace and Leliana a silver pendant, which were both received with polite thanks. He then pulled out a pair of soft leather boots that were much too narrow for his own feet, and didn't seem to suit the style of any of the others, until he happened to glance over towards Zevran where the elf was leaning over a table inspecting an old book. Baldur noticed from his position kneeling on the floor that Zevran's own boots were well-worn almost to the point of being threadbare, but he suspected an assassin would need to be fleet and light on his feet, spurning the heavy metal boots that Baldur preferred.

He stood after repacking the gear and discarding what they could (hopefully) live without. He took the boots in hand as he approached Zevran, who was now staring contemplatively out of a frosted window. Baldur cleared his throat and held out the shoes awkwardly when Zevran shifted his gaze to him, and then further down to the proffered items.

"What's this now," Zevran said with his usual warm tones and smile that had recovered from the blow it had taken courtesy of Alistair’s hard head, accepting the boots cautiously when Baldur bobbed them a bit cajolingly. "They won't explode, will they? Or have someone else's severed feet already in them?" He was clearly teasing as he made a show of inspecting the boots, humming approvingly at the sturdy construction and design. "No feet, alas! Such is a pity. Although I must say, I approve if you were wanting my professional opinion on fashion."

Zevran made to give them back, but Baldur stopped him with a quick jerk of his head.

"They're yours. If you want them, that is." Baldur was going to mention he was going to throw them away otherwise, but the look on Zevran's face stilled his tongue.

"These...are for me?" Zevran asked in hushed disbelief, and Baldur was taken aback when he realized the elf sounded close to tears. "No one's ever given me a gift before."

Baldur didn't know what to say. The gifts he gave his teammates were, for the most part, well-received. He recalled Alistair had been similarly startled when Baldur had first nudged a book on the history of the Arl in his direction after he had mentioned his upbringing, but Zevran looked gut-punched.

"I...thank you. I shall try them on at once!"

Baldur checked over his shoulder when Zevran perched on the window sill and started unlacing his boots right there, uncertain whether he should take his leave and give Zevran the opportunity to toss the boots when Baldur's back was turned if he truly didn't like them.

"They are a perfect fit!" Zevran exclaimed, apparently in rapture as he stomped his feet experimentally and bounced on the balls of his feet.

Baldur's throat felt stuck, and he swallowed with a click when Zevran looked at him with a childish glee that lit up his entire countenance. Baldur was suddenly awash with shame. Zevran's first and only gift was simply a cast-off Baldur had been intending to throw away to clear space in his pack, but Zevran reacted to the boots as if Baldur had handed him his deepest dreams and desires on a platter.

Baldur had the urgent, inexplicable urge to give Zevran every single possession he owned for the chance one of his things would keep him looking so happy. He beat down the impulse to shove his hand into his newly reorganized pack and pull out items to lay at Zevran's feet like a dog bringing a bone or a caught rabbit to its master.

"I'm pleased you like them," Baldur said gruffly, and quickly dismissed himself before he made a complete idiot out of himself.

He turned and walked straight into a pillar, bouncing off the construct before hurriedly shaking himself off and fleeing the room without checking if anyone saw. He was trembling and uncoordinated after that brief interaction, and Baldur spared a worried moment of consideration that possibly the concussion he'd received during his travels in the Brecilian Forest was perhaps still lingering. He'd be certain to have a healer take a look at his head later just in case.

---

Zevran was flirting.

Zevran was always flirting of course, but after the boots Baldur seemed to be his specific target. He became more suggestive with every interaction and then outright blatant when inexplicable shyness and nerves overwhelmed Baldur and prevented him from replying in more than grunts or dead silence.

Baldur fumbled his sword and walked in circles when he allowed his mind to drift, constantly on high alert to Zevran's presence and helpless against the violent thrumming of butterflies in his stomach that threatened to rend him from the inside out. He struggled to remain focused during each skirmish with the cultists and wraiths they found lurking in the temple, cursing himself for a fool a thousand times over for acting like a dwarrowdam not yet in her majority mooning over a handsome face. Morrigan and Leliana were kind enough not to tease him overly much for his quickly growing fixation with the elf, but he prayed they at least remained vigilant, because he was beyond compromised if Zevran was actually performing an elaborate ruse to lure Baldur into complacency before he killed him.

Baldur hoped he would show mercy if that were the case and put him out of his misery quickly, because Baldur was in over his head. He was so entirely gone on this man in a matter of a few days’ time even though he knew next to nothing about Zevran. He didn’t even know his last name, for Mahal’s sake!

---

"May I speak with you?" Zevran asked when Baldur had foolishly stumbled into him when he'd been investigating a pile of rubble that glittered interestingly, unaware that Zevran had even been so near since their group tended to jumble together and get underfoot when they all entered one small room all at the same time.

Zevran didn't seem to care the others were around, so perhaps the topic he wished to discuss wouldn’t be scandalously personal for once, but then again an audience seemed to only encourage Zevran's outrageously inappropriate comments.

"What can I help you with?" Baldur asked casually, forcing himself to stand straight instead of giving into the urge to hunch and make himself even shorter than he already was.

"I was wondering... What are your plans when this," Zevran waved a hand vaguely, possibly indicating the end to the Blight and annihilation of all darkspawn, "has ended? Granted, if we are all successful and alive at that point. You will have no need for an assassin in your company, surely."

Zevran's voice was breezy as if he had no personal investment in Baldur's answer, but something about his stance radiated worry and resignation, as if bracing himself for the day Baldur did triumph over the evils plaguing the land, only to discard the assassin once he ceased to be useful, like an old shoe. Baldur wanted more than anything to erase that terrible look from Zevran's face, and he grabbed the reins on his rapidly beating heart and took a chance.

"You mean after I ravish you in celebration?" Baldur tried for nonchalance and failed miserably. He fisted his hands at his sides to keep them from shaking, but he lifted his chin with false confidence, fighting with everything in him to maintain eye contact.

Zevran's mouth slowly stretched into a grin that trembled at the edges, obviously fighting not to laugh as he answered in kind. "Of course. Ravishing is to be expected. Encouraged even, I dare say."

"I may not need an assassin when everything is said and done..." Baldur said with careful consideration, watching Zevran's face intently and hoping for once that he could say the right thing without tripping over his own tongue. "But. I could always use a friend."

Baldur intended the offer of friendship as a gateway to something more, establishing that he would like to keep Zevran close to him after their business with the Blight was concluded, but of course Zevran hadn't taken his meaning as such.

"Ah. I see. Only friends then?"

Baldur hated the false cheer more than anything, horrible at reading this single individual when he'd studied diligently and learned to suss out other people's motives so he could persuade them with reasoning when they would have balked otherwise. He despised this tiptoeing, but he didn't know how to handle being so vulnerable to his own feelings, afraid, even though he was no coward when faced with certain death.

His heart was another matter entirely.

His body and tactical mind were honed and disciplined, but he never expected to fall so hard or completely, especially out in the middle of nowhere while fighting for his life. He wished to be able to rip out his heart and hide the traitorous organ in an urn far within an icy ruin so the damn thing wouldn't keep sabotaging him, until a time he was free to examine his own wants and intentions and make them plain. If Zevran would even want him at that point. 

"Perhaps... More than friends?" Baldur hedged cautiously.

He wished that he wasn't so blasted tentative and could just assert himself like the Prince he had been and Grey Warden he'd become. He was by no means young nor inexperienced in matters relating to sex, infrequent as physical relations had been in Orzammar, despite the unlined roundness of his face and black hair as of yet untouched with silver filigree.

"I would enjoy that, I believe," Zevran said with a soft smile that was neither his usual smirk or grin, but affected Baldur more deeply than any of his other expressions that he’d memorized and stored jealously within his heart.

---

Stupid. He was so stupid.

Even though they were all equally filthy, caked in sweat and grime from the road and unmentionable gore from their enemies, Baldur felt as if one touch from him would forever sully Zevran, who was beautiful and golden and endlessly charming. An elf assassin would have more welcome in Orzammar right now than Baldur himself, banished in disgrace and wiped out of the dwarven history books as if he never existed as one of the Princes of the House Aeducan.

He’d built this strong but unorganized team from nothing but a rusted sword, the clothing on back, and sheer bull-headedness that teetered the edge into outright stupidity. Moments that only proved his lack of self-preservation ranged from joining the Grey Wardens in a sketchy ritual that had slain two out of the three of the initiates to lusting over a damned elf moments after Zevran had organized an ambush and tried to kill Baldur himself. Perhaps the battle high and adrenaline had somehow tripped the wires in his brain from bloodlust into outright lust upon their first meeting at the sight of his enemy languishing in the dirt, injured but as mouthy and uncaring as if he reclined in the very best room The Pearl had to offer.

There was also the uncomfortable realization that Zevran vaguely resembled a prostitute Baldur had taken to bed at The Pearl as a final send off to the respect he had once cared so much about earning from his brothers and father. The man, though human, had been tall and blond and well-built, and - Mahal help him - he had a type.

Zevran had been keen to note that Baldur had surrounded himself in good-looking companions, and it was true that Baldur had noticed and appreciated the unyielding perkiness of Morrigan's breasts, scraps of clothing clearly held up by magic and her taciturn personality that would dare a skimpy string to slip. Baldur had rarely appreciated his lack of height as he did when standing before the witch placed his face in a very strategic position indeed.

Alistair was attractively wry and self-effacing, surprisingly humble despite his royal blood and handsome features that would work in his favor if he chose to press his advantage. He had loyalty pumping through his very veins and was the kind of individual Baldur was honored to have at his right hand, especially since Gorim had decided to pursue the leisurely life of a blacksmith and family man, his injury and pretty little wife keeping him from taking up arms and resuming his position as Baldur's second.

And Leliana... She was the one he thought he should want.

Her life at the Chantry had not been enough to smother her fire and wiliness. Quick-fingered and disarming, she could bestow the blessings of her kisses while robbing him blind in the same breath. He chose words over weapons when the opportunity allowed itself, lengthy kindness over quick, convenient violence because while benevolence was in his nature, her approval only bolstered his resolve to do what was good and right. He knew this woman had his back without reserve or judgment, even though their enemies were not spared against sneak attacks and backstabbing that was glorious from one so outwardly pious.

Baldur himself was slightly awkward and spoke only rarely, overly conscious of every word in a way he hadn't been when an entire army had been at his disposal rather than a mere handful of talented individuals that – combined - would likely be able to raze that army now if they were so inclined. Physically, he wasn't pretty by any race's standards, except maybe his mabari's, and Bastion was a biased and spoiled rotten dog. Baldur’s height was exactly average for a dwarf, which placed him significantly shorter than his companions. His eyes were an odd color, not quite blue or grey, and nearly hidden under his thick brows. He was broad and burly, but his cheeks were full instead of chiseled despite having reached adulthood decades ago, rough with thick black stubble that refused to grow longer than an inch or two into a proper beard. His struggle to cultivate facial hair had been a taunting point for his brothers who had theirs long enough to bind in customary braids.

Zevran couldn't have been more of his complete and utter opposite, and though Orzammarian dwarves had no qualms personally with the Dalish, they had little interaction and lesser still in common. Dwarves dwelled underground while the remaining free elves generally inhabited forests and rivers. Their values and traditions and what they considered beautiful were vastly different. There was no doubt that Zevran was gorgeous by any race's standards, be they human, dwarf, elf, qunari, or something else entirely.

Zevran admitted Baldur intrigued him, and Baldur hoped he remained amusing enough to convince Zevran to stay. He was fascinated himself by the elf's easy way, as if he hadn't a care in the world and was as untethered as a feather floating in the wind. Perhaps his departure from the Crows had a part to play in his apparent newfound sense of freedom and he was entertaining himself by following along with Baldur’s group until something better came along.

Baldur was reckless to place this man at his back - shielded or not - when Zevran had made very clear loyalty was a fairie dream that could be bought for a price, and discarded for a higher price. He’d been looking for a chance to escape his old life, which had seemed to have left him physically whole and capable at least, if not without a twisted personality that was expressed in comments that had laughter unexpectedly bubbling under Baldur's ribcage at the most inopportune moments.

All he had done was present with Zevran with a pair of handsome gloves he had carefully restored after finding them in an unguarded chest along with a mace and pile of dust, and his entire endeavor to win favor with the elf had come crashing down like an avalanche.

"Oh." Zevran's blank expression was like a bucket of ice water being dumped over Baldur as Zevran held the gloves cautiously in his hands like they would bite him or leave filth all over his fingers if he dared put them on.

Foolishly, Baldur had been expecting a reaction more along the lines of when he'd given Zevran the boots, actually putting thought and consideration into this true gift for Zevran. The temple was cold and Zevran’s hands were bare, although perhaps intentionally in order to deftly access his knives at a moment's notice, but his long, slender fingertips were white at the tips from the cold, and Baldur had thought...

He felt idiotic for every skipped beat of his heart, every stumbling breath wasted over his feelings that he'd been starting to imagine weren't just a lark on Zevran's end.

"These are Dalish gloves?" Zevran asked, although he clearly knew the answer. "My mother was Dalish, I think."

Baldur wasn’t familiar with the different races of elves - were not all of the elves in Ferelden Dalish? - but of course that assumption was small-minded of him. There wasn't only one race of dwarves, after all, so why should elves be any different?

Zevran's speech was distracted and strangely disconnected as he stared down at the gloves, his thumb tracing over the neat stitching.

"She had a pair similar to these," Zevran explained, but he seemed to be talking to himself, slowly pulling thoughts from memory and spinning them into words. "Hers were embroidered, made for a female, of course. But these are just as fine."

Baldur wished he could take the gloves back or just flee with his metaphorical tail tucked between his legs, unnerved by Zevran's deadened expression. Zevran seemed to blink and come back to himself, lifting his eyes as his mouth curved in a tenuous, if fragile smile.

"As usual, you seem to know exactly what I need. Quite the useful gift! Thank you, Baldur." His voice rang with unnatural levity, and despite the words of thanks Baldur was still thrown off kilter.

He hated feeling so chaotic in his emotions. He had been focused and driven by his goals up until the ambush led by Zevran on Baldur's party, which had failed and landed Baldur a new fighter. One he knew he shouldn't trust, but couldn't help laying his damned heart bare before him again and again in these small, terrifying ways with no real knowledge of how his incompetent courting was received.

“You’re welcome,” Baldur made himself choke out, giving Zevran an awkward, aborted bow that cemented his mortification. Worse still was that Morrigan and Leliana were right there.

“Ouch,” Morrigan intoned, clearly entertained by the display and enjoying every second of Baldur’s spectacular self-destruction. “I’ve seen decomposing, shambling corpses with more appeal than that.”

“It was a nice gesture,” Leliana said diplomatically with a half-smile and shrug.

Baldur was going to see if he could find any cult members to put him out of his misery.

---

Mahal must have been in an ironic mood, because not even handful of minutes later Baldur found himself in a large chamber completely surrounded by enemy forces. Baldur gave a war cry to signal the others to join him as he slashed his way through armored cultists to get at one of the archers who kept trying catching him in the back with his arrows. The others rushed in immediately to fight off the decoys that surrounded them, mages in the distance adding to the struggle. Baldur barked at Morrigan to get back and take care of the mages, frustrated at her apparent inability to stay out of the middle of fights when she clearly excelled at long-distance attacks.

Behind him, he heard Zevran cry out in pain, and the sound speared straight into his heart and lodged there like an icy shard of glass. He fought to keep attacking the enemy before him instead of dropping everything to run to Zevran's side, but he made a whirling parry and turned quickly to make sure Zevran was still conscious, which he was, of course.

The skirmish was over quickly enough, although they were all a little worse for wear afterward.

"I've never been injured so badly before," Zevran whined to no one specifically, sounding more like a child with a parchment cut than the lethal assassin that he was. He was favoring his left side slightly and was streaked in blood, as they all were, but there was no telling whether it was his own or from one of their fallen opponents until they got cleaned up and tended to their injuries.

Baldur forced himself to wipe down and sheathe Aodr before picking his way with measured steps over to where Zevran was doing the same – his pace neither too rushed, lest he be seen coddling or favoring Zevran, nor too slow as to imply that he was uncaring. Wordlessly, he handed Zevran a healing potion, which he sipped at before handing the vial back to Baldur, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and smearing spit and blood across the leather of the gloves Baldur had given him.

Chapter Text

Baldur may have been born from the Stone, but he didn't live under a rock. He wasn't deluded enough to believe Zevran's confession that he found Baldur desirable more than a line to get into his good graces after Baldur had spared his life or simply due to the elf's habit of flirting with anything that moved. Baldur supposed that anyone so benevolent would be alluring to him if he'd been on the receiving end of another's mercy, but Zevran's attraction would surely fade once he was fully accepted into the company the same way they all had - through fire and trial - and actually got to know Baldur after the adrenaline from battle faded. Baldur was quiet and cautious when his mask of being a leader and a Warden slipped or he didn't have an immediate mission or enemy before him. Dwarves were known for being boisterous, and while Baldur had a perfectly serviceable pair of lungs, he felt no need to exercise them regularly nor at a great volume. Every individual in his group was an anomaly for their respective castes.

"Special snowflakes," Alistair had once called their group fondly.

"Just plain 'special'," Morrigan had countered, indicating the word to have ties with mental defects, and adding glibly, "And the dog is still smarter than you."

Baldur had to wonder if Zevran would indeed follow through if any of them agreed to one of his endless propositions, or if he was only blowing smoke. He had never met anyone so preoccupied with sex before even though he was used to the loose, crass tongues of soldiers. Baldur was by no means a prude himself, but he'd never been in the company of someone so...liberated...with his own sexuality. Dwarves were as affectionate and demonstrative as they were violent. A passionate race by nature, yet even they kept sexual proclivities rather guarded aside from lewd jokes or exaggerated conquests when they were deep into their cups. Orzammarians were discrete with their dalliances and even their prostitutes were afforded basic rights and protections were someone to lay a violent hand upon them.

Baldur was simple and efficient in his own tastes, perhaps even unimaginative, but he was going to have to toughen up considerably to deal with Zevran and the way he reacted to the elf’s bold innuendo like someone had shifted the ground beneath him. Their difference in height would matter little when – if - they were both horizontal, but the image in his mind of kissing Zevran while they were both standing was entirely too ridiculous to contemplate, regardless of the way he might have stared avidly at his lips whenever Zevran spoke or grinned until Baldur caught himself and looked away. Zevran would have to bend nearly double to reach him, unless Baldur found a stool or stair to stand upon like a small child unable to reach the kitchen table, since the top of his head barely reached Zevran's shoulders. That humiliating image was enough to dispel Baldur’s incessant ruminations on the subject momentarily, hating that his only true reprieve from his own mind was during the middle of a fight when he could lose himself to the familiar motions of swinging, running, and dodging attacks.

After they cleared the area of traps, the group approached the westernmost entrance leading into a great cavern with trepidation. They had scoured every last inch of the temple more than once, opened every chest and locked door, fought every wraith and cultist, and still found no sign of the Urn.

“The Urn has to be in here,” Baldur said, peering down the dark, rocky corridor that did not appear to be manmade, however the path had obviously seen some traffic recently judging by the smoothness of the stone path worn down by many footsteps and torchlight in the distance. The caverns were wide and spacious at some parts, and in others they narrowed down into tunnels that would hardly fit two abreast while the overhanging rock nearly brushed the tops of the others’ heads. There were torches spread out to guide the way, which was more convenient than stumbling around in the dark blindly, but the blazing fire also meant people. There was almost no chance of them simply finding the Urn and leaving without a fight.

They slayed a number of dragonlings along with these violent worshippers of Andraste that seemed never ending. Baldur remembered to pocket several drake scales on behest of the master blacksmith, Wade, in Denerim who wished to experiment with a new type of armor using the palm-sized scales. The path was long and winding, and soon the group lost track of time with no windows to the outside. They were forced to bunk down right in the middle of a long stretch of tunnel when their bodies determined night had come and their pace dragged noticeably.

They split watches so two people could be on guard from attack in either direction, the tunnels providing no escape if they were caged in from both sides at once. Leliana and Zevran had the first shift while Morrigan and Baldur took the second. Baldur couldn’t deny that he arranged them to his own advantage. He didn’t trust himself with Zevran and the elf would no doubt goad Morrigan into violent retaliation. In the future he knew they would all have to learn to tolerate each other, their small group’s dynamic so exclusive to outsiders that allowing room for strangers was an adjustment for all. Baldur didn’t have so many allies that he could afford to turn away help when it was offered, but neither could he have members of his company at each other’s throats for petty reasons or a clash of personalities. He would have to set an example and find a way to either confront his preoccupation with Zevran or cut him out entirely if Baldur couldn’t perform his duties as a Grey Warden, which took precedence over all else.

When they awoke and resumed travel for an indeterminate distance in one direction, they eventually spilled out into a great chamber that was occupied by the largest group of cultists yet, to no one’s great surprise. Baldur already had Aodr drawn from the fights with the dragonlings along the way, the enchanted blade ablaze with its unquenchable thirst for violence.

“Stop! You will go no further,” a man in shining metal armor commanded instead of immediately attacking the group unlike the other inhabitants they had encountered. He had a similar bearing to the Revered Father back in Haven, and was no doubt one of the cultists’ leaders.

“You will stand aside or die,” Baldur challenged without even bothering to attempt diplomacy.

Every last one of the cultists had been single-minded in their determination to attack them upon sight, refusing to be swayed from their religious fervor and dedication to keep outsiders away from whatever it was they were protecting. He narrowed his eyes as he silently counted the amount of cultists and mages and dragonlings as no less than double their number, which did little to concern him as they had often faced worse odds and prevailed.

“The righteous do not fear death. You have defiled our temple. You have spilled the blood of the faithful, and slaughtered our young. No more! You will tell me now, intruder, why you have done all this. Why have you come?”

The man was righteous in his anger, approaching Baldur without regard to his readied weapon to tower over him and spit his ire.

“I have come for the Sacred Ashes,” Baldur stated plainly, not bothering to obfuscate his intentions as the chances of the man or his followers leaving the tunnels alive were extremely unlikely.

“You did this all for an ancient relic?” the man said in disbelief, as if a small group of warriors razing through his entire village and defiling their places of worship all for the sake of chasing after a rumor was entirely unreasonable.

Baldur supposed, if considered in those terms, he couldn’t deny that he appeared to be villain in this scenario. He could understand how the villagers felt justified for going to extreme measures to protect their village by capturing Brother Genitivi when the man risked exposing them and attacked any who threatened their very way of life, which just so happened to include throwing their lot in with dark creatures and practicing regular human sacrifices.

“Know this, stranger,” the man continued as he paced in agitation. "The prophet Andraste has overcome death itself and has returned to Her faithful in a form more radiant than you can imagine! Not even the Tevinter Imperium could hope to slay Her now. What hope do you have?"

“You’re mad. Andraste is dead.” If any remnants of the prophet did exist, they were long since rendered into dust and fragments.

“You know nothing!” the man bellowed, insensate with rage as he bore down upon Baldur for his presumption. “Andraste revealed Herself to us! We are Her Chosen! To arms, my brethren! Andraste will grant us victory!”

---

What the man hadn’t mentioned, or was given the opportunity to explain before his skull had been caved in by a finishing blow to his temple with the pommel of Baldur’s sword, was that their apparent Andraste reborn was a dragon.

Their group had somehow managed to survive this long with little more strategy than throwing themselves into melees, lucky they didn't take out each other with friendly fire as they alternately ganged up upon one enemy until that man, woman, or creature was dead before they converged upon the next, rinse and repeat. The fact was that Baldur had very little experience leading an actual coordinated attack himself. Despite his years of training in the army, or maybe because of them, he knew how to take orders better than he gave them.

The battle in Redcliffe had been tipped in their favor partly in due to confidence and bravado he didn't feel, trying to organize men who were no more soldiers than he was a dainty, painted princess, but even then he'd had help between the counsel of the officer, Murdock, and Lord Bann. He had no guarantee that he wouldn't get the entire village slaughtered when night arrived and ghouls came spilling out of the castle to fall upon them in waves. Their success had been sheer luck combined with his company's tenacity.

He'd been meant to lead the army in Orzammar, but had never gotten the chance before he was exiled. Commanding legions was far, far different than leading a mere handful of extremely dangerous individuals who came from vastly different backgrounds and had nothing in common save for their goal of fighting against the Blight. He knew these people, as well as he could know anyone he spent the entirety of his days and nights with who kept all of their secrets cautiously guarded.

Zevran, he believed, had caught him so off-guard because the elf simply didn't have secrets. Every thought that crossed his mind also spilled from his lips, giving up the horrific story of his childhood being sold into slavery and prostitution, and then taught to kill others lest he be killed himself. If Baldur asked, Zevran would likely give away the known locations of all of his former leaders with the Crows. Even if Zevran didn't ask, Baldur would kill every single one of those filthy, despicable creatures who made a profit from exploiting children and were worth less than a darkspawn he caught at the end of his blade.

This time, however, Baldur’s arrogance that they could swing sharp objects and fire arrows and spells in a focused attack and their target would unerringly end up dead resulted with every single one of them barely clinging to life by the skin of their teeth. They dragged themselves back into relative safety of the caverns when Morrigan had revived herself enough to force feed them all potions and cast a minor healing spell. They could only slump against the rock in stunned disbelief at their resounding failure to slay the beast the cultists had claimed was Andraste reborn.

May the Maker forgive him if there was any truth to the claim, but Andraste was a bitch if that were the case.

They'd razed their way through dragonlings without a second thought, but nothing had prepared Baldur for a full-grown version of the little nipping beasts, especially when Alistair was effectively out of commission and Bastion with him.

There was no question of them taking a few days to recover, especially when no one could move without pain or complaint. They slathered each other in ointment for the burns and Lelilana carefully applied gauze where the dragon had caught Baldur around the middle. One of its claws had pierced the armor and gouged a shallow wound through his chainmail, even though the cut was more or less superficial. He was more grateful than ever for his armor which only just kept him from being disemboweled, but he would need to find new armor soon to replace the set the dragon’s grip had damaged. Zevran’s lack of comment was a testament to his own injuries when the elf let the opportunity to openly ogle and insinuate pass, although Baldur felt the heat of his gaze over his bare chest and arms linger for longer than a moment, and shivered.

When he could move without his skin cracking and flaking from the intense burns he’d sustained, Baldur carefully scouted and surveyed the land when the dragon had returned to its perch, seemingly asleep until that damned gong went off again.

"If you could find a spell or charm to make us all fireproof, that would be wonderful," Zevran coughed, his smoke-roughened voice a little too desperate to be taken as mere jest.

"I have just the thing!" Morrigan stated with a snap of her fingers that had them all instantly at attention. "There are these amulets that have the Maker's blessing and will protect us from all harm."

Baldur and Leliana deflated with a groan, but Zevran perked up.

"That doesn't sound so bad, no? I mean, we could use all the help we could get, and with the Maker's protection, we could--"

"No," Leliana said sharply, cutting Zevran off so severely that he blinked. "I will not be a party to misleading others with lies to force them into battle with the false impression they are protected by the Maker and can befall no harm."

"Are you implying the Maker, whom you love so dearly and have complete and utter belief in, has no ability to protect his own faithful followers? Or simply that he wouldn't lower himself to bartering mere trinkets like a merchant on a street corner?"

Baldur was honestly surprised Morrigan and Leliana hadn't devolved into a vicious cat fight with hair pulling and scratching right then and there, possibly because they were too tired and still smarting from the dragon's attack, but Baldur wouldn't put anything past them at that point.

"So... Amulets or no amulets?" Zevran asked cautiously, his eyes darting between the mage and rogue. He unconsciously shifted so that he was positioned slightly behind Baldur with the dwarf's armored shoulder squarely between him and the two bristling women.

Baldur sighed.

"No amulets, but we do need something. We need to pit all of our abilities together and plan an attack this time.” Baldur thought for a long moment, forming and discarding strategies as rapidly as he could process through his exhaustion. “Leliana and Zevran, I need you to stay far enough away from the dragon to keep from being grabbed while you loose arrows upon it - aim for the eyes and underbelly if you can, but evade the fire even if you have to break formation. Morrigan will hit the beast with all of her ice spells and cast a healing charm on any flagging members as often as she can before we are beyond recovery.”

"And what about you?" Zevran asked.

The corner of Baldur’s lips tilted in a humorless smile.

"I will be the distraction. I will keep the dragon's attention on me so it's less likely to fly and swipe at the archers or Morrigan."

"But...that is suicide! You're going to position yourself as a decoy and face the full brunt of the dragon's attack alone while we try and peg it with tiny sticks?! That's a terrible idea! Are you insane?" Zevran exclaimed, the first true hint of anger Baldur had ever heard from him clashing with his normal laissez faire.

"Do you have a better idea?" Baldur countered, not eager at the idea of turning himself into a roasting tin for a dragon to snack upon, but unable to think of another way that presented the least amount of risk to the others.

"Yes! We walk past the dragon, pretend we never saw it, and get the Void out of this mad house!" Zevran's voice was shrill and incredulous. "Who says we have to kill a dragon?"

"You can go if you want to," Baldur snapped, irritated that Zevran spoke aloud his very own thoughts, but he couldn't afford to show weakness now. His dreams - nightmares - were a miasma of evil plagued with dragons and darkspawn. He couldn't possibly let such a creature live when its mere presence had tainted an entire village. He had to find the Urn of Sacred Ashes, and the only way was through that dragon. If all of his fighters weren't wholly dedicated, then they would all fail.

"Perhaps you should leave," Baldur said roughly, despite how the words burned and seized up in his throat. "I can call upon a number of other fighters besides Alistair to help us instead if you're afraid of one overgrown lizard."

Baldur didn't mention the fighters he spoke of numbered a mere two; Sten, a qunari traitor that he had liberated in Lothering, and Bastion who was otherwise occupied, but Zevran didn't need to know that. Yet. Calling Sten into battle when the unfriendly man was more likely to kill Baldur than Zevran at that point, much less equip him and refamiliarize himself with his fighting style, would take more time and resources than what was currently at his limited disposal. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so quick to kill Haven's bartender before he could barter for further supplies, but there was no use in dwelling on the matter.

Zevran's head reared back, stunned and hurt.

"Andraste's tits, of course I'm afraid! Aren't any of you? That 'overgrown lizard' handed our backsides to us repeatedly, and your plan is to throw yourself at it and, what, cling to its leg like a ball and chain? Do either of you support this plan?" Zevran accused of Morrigan and Leliana, both of whom looked varying degrees of amused and resigned.

"Like he said, do you have a better suggestion? I'm perfectly content to stay on the sidelines and pelt that beast's head with snowballs while you lot play archers in the forest," Morrigan said.

Zevran’s expression turned mulish and he spat something that sounded like a curse in an unfamiliar language.

"Fine,” Zevran said angrily, throwing his arms up in defeat. “So we have to kill the dragon. But does it have to be at this very moment? I mean to say, are we trapped here until the beast is dead or can we regroup, resupply, and maybe get some rest so you aren't talking completely crazy ideas?"

Zevran sounded panicked and at the end of his rope, cajoling and an unexpected voice of reason when Baldur was just so tired. He had expected to be able to barrel right through this latest obstacle as he had all of the previous ones. He was coming up against a wall he couldn’t climb or smash through this time, and he didn’t know what else to do, except that he couldn’t continue attacking the dragon again and again and expect a different outcome. Even he could see the insanity in his plan, but he was desperate.

"I suppose not..." Baldur ventured unhappily, scratching at the bristly hair on his chin and wincing when his ragged nails reopened a cut. "Or at least, we haven't tried to leave yet, so I don't know if anything would stop us, but that dragon needs to go."

"I agree with you there, love. I don't necessarily agree that we should be the ones to do it, but I suppose there's no changing your mind otherwise?"

Baldur startled visibly at the endearment, riding out the waves of longing that threatened to shatter his bones. He hid his no doubt piteous expression by bowing his head and pinching the bridge of his nose between his eyes, fighting off a headache that threatened to explode into blinding pain at any moment if he didn't take control of himself.

Hearing no dissolution, Zevran quickly continued.

"I have several contacts in Denerim that could help with the fire repelling at least. It couldn't hurt to acquire better armor and a few warmth balms if you insist on jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire literally."

Baldur sighed and lifted his head, meeting Morrigan and Leliana’s impartial gazes and finding little help on that end.

"I do have to agree with Zevran,” Leliana eventually offered after a moment of strained silence. “I can see sense in equipping ourselves properly and preparing. The planning helped us in Redcliffe, for all that you may think it did not." Zevran practically pounced on her.

"You see! A brilliant woman after my own heart!" he exclaimed as he clasped his hands over his chest and rocked back on his heels as if struck by one of her arrows. "Do you have a vote, Lady Morrigan, who is so fair and wise?"

The witch rolled her eyes and flicked her fingertips dismissively, impervious to Zevran's charms in a way that Baldur desperately, desperately envied.

"Do as you will. As soon as this one bites the dust I'm gone." She tilted her head in Baldur's direction, and the dwarf almost had the urge to look behind him to see if she were referring to someone else.

He didn't actually know what would happen to the company if he was incapacitated in any way. He assumed Alistair would pick up the mantle, but Alistair was injured and Baldur had no certainty where any of their loyalties were truly placed. Alistair and Morrigan couldn't stand each other, for all that Baldur thought they should fuck and get the deed over with already. Leliana might stick with Alistair for a while, but Baldur assumed she would eventually return to the Chantry or venture out on her own to fulfill the Maker's wishes in whichever manner she interpreted from her dreams. Sten would likely return to his people and Bastion... Baldur felt a pang for his dog, fierce and loyal without question. Bastion would bond with no other and likely become feral, eventually succumbing to the poison of darkspawn blood without a regular administering of antidote.

"There! You see! You are outnumbered with two against one, and one neutral party. Now come, let's go before you change your mind."

Zevran grabbed at Baldur's hands and hauled him to his feet. Zevran was misleadingly strong despite his slim build and lifting Baldur's dead weight plus several stones in added heft from his pack and armor seemed like hardly a challenge. Despite agreeing to retreat for now, Baldur knew he would be the most suitable as a tank for his team, but he supposed he should brush up on his shielding before they returned at the very least.

He would be a target for the dragon, but not its prey.

---

"Perhaps we should discuss this apparent death wish you seem to have?" Zevran said quietly, jolting Baldur out of his maudlin introspection as the group trudged down the long and winding tunnels. Their footsteps echoed off the rocky walls in the otherwise eerie silence now that all of their foes were dead, except for one. 

Baldur's misery was rooted in their sound defeat against that one single enemy - a dragon he had been recklessly confident he could kill if he could only figure out the right combination of attacks and weaponry. The knowledge of his own weakness nipped at Baldur's heels as they made their retreat, stinging like nettles and making the arduous journey back to the entryway of the temple where they had left Brother Genitivi feel like a lifetime. He looked over at Zevran, whose amber eyes were fixed ahead as he kept pace effortlessly with Baldur's trudging gait, sticking close to his side without crowding him. Baldur glanced behind him where Morrigan and Leliana were pretending not to listen in on their conversation and sighed.  

"I apologize. I was in a dark place, mentally, back there and I endangered the group trying to forge ahead when I should have retreated. Thank you for talking sense into me before I got us all killed." 

Zevran made a frustrated sound and shook his head sharply, his shoulder-length blond hair flying with the movement.  

"That is not what I meant. I refer, of course, to your eagerness to plant yourself before a dragon and let it spit flame at you so the rest of us have a chance - a teeny, tiny, incremental chance - at shooting it with enough arrows that we create a new breed of porcupine dragon and piss it off while you are squashed beneath its feet." 

Baldur grit his teeth and stared determinedly at the ground in front of him as they pushed forward, tired and aching down to his bones.  

"I made a bad call," he said, biting off every word, resentful that Zevran wouldn't let the subject drop already. “I accept and take ownership for my weakness, and I will do everything in my power to become stronger and--" 

"Baldur!" Zevran snapped, interrupting Baldur's tirade of self-loathing before the dwarf dashed himself upon the rocks in penance. "I am not blaming you. I know you tried, we all do, and I understand this setback is only temporary. I will stand by your side if and when you are ready to slay this dragon and can allow yourself to be fully prepared now that you know exactly what you face. That is, if you'll still have me then." 

Baldur tried to protest that of course he would still want Zevran then, and for a long time after as well, but Zevran wasn't finished. His voice softened from the near-shout that had dislodged several pebbles from the surrounding stone and made the walls groan warningly, though. 

"I recognized that look in your eyes back there. It is a look I've seen many, many times from my former compatriots during my years with the Crows, the ones who are tired of their violent existence and wish to find their own end by seeking out fights they cannot win." 

"I don't have a death wish!” Baldur protested vehemently, setting his shoulders back and straightening his spine in outrage. “I accept this path that I am on will likely result in my premature demise, but I'm not actively trying to die. It is my duty as a Grey Warden to fight for peace, and I cannot do that if I'm dead." 

"As you say," Zevran demurred, clearly trying to alleviate the discord between them even though his disbelief was plain. 

Baldur didn't want to argue. His own brain screaming 'failure, failure, failure' at him was bad enough without Zevran accusing him of walking into a suicide mission intentionally. He felt a migraine looming at the base of his skull, the taste of old coins sharp at the back of his tongue. His lips were pinched tight from pain and exhaustion, wanting nothing more than to strip down to his smalls and soak in a hot bath.  

The last time he'd been entirely without armor had been months ago at The Pearl, and the feeling of weightlessness and bare, vulnerable flesh had spooked him before the afterglow from anonymous sex had even faded. He'd felt vulnerable and exposed, but managed a polite nod and extra coin to the man who had warmed his bed for an hour. Any release he might have found quickly wound up in tension until every last piece of armor was in place and he had his shield and sword strapped securely to his back once again. He couldn't quite meet his companions' eyes afterward, not wanting to deal with Morrigan's cutting remarks or Leliana's silent disapproval or Alistair's embarrassment. 

Baldur had accepted Sanga’s, the proprietress of The Pearl, offer of services on a whim, figuring he may as well while he was there.  

The man had been kind, saying nothing of Baldur's nervous, fumbling fingers, but had made an impressed noise in the back of his throat when Baldur had revealed a strong, sturdy build and generous proportions below. Baldur had never been with a human before, much less a male one, although there had been a few women back ho--back in Orzammar that had found his company pleasing enough. He had rarely felt the urge to press for more than mutual release even then, especially when taking himself in hand was much quicker and efficient.  

Thinking about the prostitute now didn't help his mood, doubting he would be able to rise to attention even if Zevran himself had been waiting in Baldur's bedroll wearing nothing but a smile.  

He ached to drown himself in wine and spirits until he could shut his mind off for one blessed moment of peace. He replayed their attacks again and again in his mind from every possible angle, running through their best abilities and weapons that would possibly be effective against a dragon. He'd relied heavily on Morrigan's cold spells, perhaps too much as she had been unable to split her abilities between attacks and healing spells before one of them was down, beyond reviving. He hadn't slept well since the Grey Warden ritual that required him to drink darkspawn blood, and now the demonic dragons and beasts he dreamed of regularly had shifted to become reality.  

If anyone tried to speak to him that night, Baldur couldn't recall. He'd internalized all of his awareness and shut down, which he knew was dangerous when there were those actively seeking to kill him, but he couldn't bring himself to care. 

Maybe Zevran was right. Perhaps Baldur did have a death wish after all, throwing himself into fights with little regard for his own safety. Baldur didn’t have family to care about his well-being any longer, and he couldn't even call the people he traveled with and fought beside true friends. He knew more about Zevran than any of the others combined, and he'd only known the man a couple weeks. Granted, he rarely pried into the others' personal business and they returned the favor, but perhaps not making more of an attempt to get to know his companions was an error on his part. 

Possibly he was afraid of attachments after being betrayed so thoroughly by his own flesh and blood. The irony of falling for someone who had tried to kill him did not escape his awareness.

Chapter Text

The following night they took a risk when they finally found their way out of the caverns and holed themselves in a small room with only one exit, where Leliana placed a vicious trap on the off-chance intruders came upon them in the night. They piled around the small fire Morrigan created by setting several undoubtedly valuable books alight and throwing them into the middle of the floor as a meager warmth when none of them could bear another night half-frozen after nearly being burned to a crisp by the dragon. As long as the books weren't some sort of holy relic, even Leliana didn't protest their destruction. She shivered and brought her bedding close enough to the fire that the flames threatened to singe the edges. Morrigan didn't seem to feel the cold despite her lack of proper winter gear and when Leliana offered her old Chantry robes she'd exchanged in favor of armor, Morrigan rebuffed the offer with relish.

"Are you asking me to role play with you?" Morrigan gasped with wide eyes, mockingly affronted. "But wouldn't that be blasphemous, seeing as how we're under the Maker's own roof?"

Leliana was, obviously, unamused and curtly snatched the robes back to stow away in her own pack.

"Ungrateful harlot," she muttered under her breath, and Zevran completely lost whatever composure he might have clung to during the exchange. Baldur had never actually witnessed someone falling over with laughter before, but, well...there it was.

"Perhaps I could play the Revered Father and you can tell me all your sins," Zevran suggested lewdly after he'd rolled onto his side facing Baldur and propped his head on his fist to glance coyly up at him, his cheeks flushed from laughter and the cold.

Leliana’s lush mouth twisted disapprovingly and she made a warding sign with her hands, glancing towards the ceiling in obvious supplication for her companion's damned souls.

"You'd better not be whining to the imaginary man in the sky about me again," Morrigan warned, stabbing her finger in Leliana's direction.

"I am not," Leliana said stoutly, refusing to look at any of them, which meant they were indeed the targets of her silent pleas of forgiveness to the Maker.

Baldur wasn't particularly pious himself, but he wasn't about to risk misfortune because of another's poor taste in jokes when they had enough problems. He wasn’t willing to offend another's deity and worship practices especially since they needed all of the help they could get, omnipotent or not. Leliana could handle her own battles, and Baldur wasn't about to step in on every single argument in his group, because they would never get another thing done ever again. They all had their own unique ways of letting off steam, which unfortunately included squabbling like children or making crude remarks.

When they woke Baldur had no idea whether the sun was up or not as their internal clocks were all in disarray from the days spent deep within the caverns. They broke camp and reunited with Brother Genitivi, who refused to leave, but whom they left a good portion of their supplies, including their remaining healing salves for his injured leg which wasn't faring as poorly as Baldur would have expected. There was a very high chance that Brother Genitivi would still be dead from starvation, exposure, or succumbing to his injuries before they returned, but Baldur had never seen anyone happier or more determined to live. The brother seemed bolstered by the relics of Andraste and her followers with an almost holy fever, as opposed to one brought on by infection.

The instant Baldur stepped foot outside the oppressive doors to the temple he felt like he could breathe again. An icy fist that had clamped around his chest miraculously vanished in the aggressive onset of fresh air, open space, and sunshine. Even his debilitating infatuation with Zevran subsided marginally when they weren't piled practically on top of each other as they had been when bunked down in the frozen temple.

They raided a few houses for food and supplies near the borders of Haven before nightfall, making camp after clearing a path through a now customary outcropping of darkspawn. The quick, dirty fighting against a tangible and beatable enemy improved all of their moods considerably and Baldur was even more aware of how much the Frostback Mountains had spiraled him into a fit of depression. A frosty breeze in the night air carried the scent of wood smoke and pine and soothed some of the crushed feeling that had taken root inside of him for so long. Combined with the stars and moon overhead, the pleasant evening was made even better once his bones began to thaw from the ceaseless ice and snow and his nostrils no longer burned with the stench of sulfur.

The respite and change of scenery raised Baldur's spirits and made him bold enough that he approached Zevran with only the slightest hesitation.

"Could I ask you something personal?" Baldur inquired quietly, cheeks already heating at all of the possible ways Zevran could run away with that statement.

"Sounds intriguing," Zevran answered with a rakish tilt of his lips and eyebrow, gesturing to Baldur to join him at the wide log he'd claimed as his seat in the impromptu campgrounds. "What is it that you wish to know?"

"I wanted to know about...you know. The way you are. With men," Baldur clarified vaguely. He immediately wanted to swallow his tongue or fall upon his own sword in apology to Zevran, who took the tactless question in stride nonetheless.

"I think I see what you are getting at. My only rule regarding sex is that it be done well. Male, female, it does not matter to me. I was raised by prostitutes so I have seen it all. Done it all too, most likely, although I'm certain to discover a few more delightful surprises..." Zevran trailed off, sliding a smoldering glance at Baldur, "...with the right partner."

Zevran allowed Baldur to process his response, the Warden obviously discomfited by how liberal the elf was regarding his own sexuality.

"However," Zevran continued after a moment, "If any of that makes you uncomfortable, then I believe we should clear the air now so there are no misunderstandings in the future."

His voice that odd mixture of levity and solemnity that Baldur was beginning to realize Zevran used whenever he spoke of matters that were important to him or could inspire backlash. He was always ready to diffuse a conversation with clever joke if his seemingly off-hand comments were not well received, and Baldur wondered if he had developed the humor as a survival tactic from constantly being exposed to tense situations that could turn lethal with one misstep.

For a brief, cowardly moment Baldur felt keen relief leap inside him for the option Zevran presented to simply allow the charged tension between them to fizzle out. Their flirting and dancing around each other would go no further from that point, and Baldur could pretend the weakness in him that wanted to know what Zevran would feel like, what he'd taste like, was simply a passing fancy brought on by a pretty face or an over abundance of stress knowing he could die any day. Or that he'd fail in stopping the Archdemon as he had failed to kill one dragon.

Prince Baldur of the House Aeducan desperately wanted to take the opportunity to leave these ridiculous thoughts behind him. A small part of him still feared what his family would think of him if they knew he had feelings for a man who also happened to be an elf. Baldur had been considered too soft-hearted by most, especially when dwarves prided themselves on being as hard as the Stone they lived, breathed, and returned to upon death. He'd always been a champion for those in need, and he knew his image had taken a blow after he'd supported Oghren's petition to restore the citizenship of dwarves who had gone to ground and were unable to return to their families in Orzammar. He could gloomily appreciate the irony that he would find himself in such a position now without an anchor and all ties to home and family severed.

Baldur the Grey Warden knew he couldn't spare a moment's distraction when there was danger spreading to every corner of Ferelden and beyond, growing more dire by the day. He wanted to shut down any romantic feelings he may have been developing that risked him straying from his chosen path. Their situation was so tenuous that there was no guarantee either would survive long enough to form attachments, regardless. There was also no telling whether anything physical between them could actual develop into a functional relationship, or if Zevran wanted anything more than fun for a night.

Baldur, just Baldur at his very core without all the titles and expectations, ached to be free from the chains of duty holding him back from his heart's desire. He almost never asked anything for himself. Even as a child he would indulge his younger brother and cousins without reserve and allowed Trian to verbally castigate and belittle him because he understood how much pressure his older brother was under as next in line to the throne. Baldur was rarely able to be selfish simply for himself, especially now when he was in a position of authority and responsible for others under his protection.

He wanted, which was the plain and simple truth, and for perhaps one of the first times in his life, he let himself consider taking without thought to the consequences.

"It doesn't bother me," Baldur said in a rush after a too-long pause, but the relief on Zevran's face was worth the knot of anxiety twisting in his own stomach as he made his decision. He was stubborn above all else, and once his mind was set almost nothing could budge him. "But I'm curious how a relationship between two men would work."

"The same as any relationship - with consent and respect," Zevran said sagely, and Baldur's thick eyebrows lifted in surprise at the thoughtful and non-suggestive answer.

Baldur chewed on his short beard as he considered the idea of being romantically involved with another man. Certainly, same-sex couplings weren't entirely unheard of in Orzammar, but they were few and far between. The most common instances usually happened between two shield-brothers or shield-maidens when success and adrenaline fueled vigorous celebrations with the nearest warm body. Some pairs sought each other out specifically during and after every fight, and there was, of course, sex for its own sake, but one didn't generally live in domesticity with another man or hold a Bonding ceremony before their respective families, vowing an eternity with their souls joined as one.

Baldur supposed he could consider Zevran a brother-in-arms, but he didn't necessarily want the blood-fueled fucking that preceded a successful battle to be all they ever did together, or at least not as much as he wanted the other things that his brothers would have mocked him for wanting. If this intense pull he felt toward Zevran had simply been about physical attraction, then Baldur would have fallen into bed with him the first time Zevran had indicated interest and Baldur could be relatively certain he wouldn't be getting impaled with a knife rather than a nice, thick cock. There was no doubt Baldur was attracted to the elf, because he wanted him desperately, but even more so than mere physical attraction, Baldur just wanted to be near him.

He would be content if he could allow himself to bask in Zevran's presence without being so damnably self-conscious or concerned about what others would think. He wanted to hear Zevran laugh and just let his face be stupidly adoring the way it tried to be every time Zevran spoke or glanced his way. Baldur didn't care if Zevran never laid a finger upon him if only he allowed Baldur be near. Zevran was like the sun, and Baldur was certain he would burn if he dared get too close, but he’d already walked through the fire once and came out on the other side. What was one more time?

"I think I could do that," Baldur said quietly with a small, tight smile, averting his gaze when Zevran looked at him with fondness and inched the tiniest bit closer to him on their log.

Zevran thankfully sensed Baldur had reached his limit for uncomfortable conversations for the day, and instead changed the topic to one of his endlessly amusing tales. Baldur listened to him speak as he stared up at the night sky, his entire side warm where his shoulder occasionally brushed Zevran's arm. He cherished each touch and hoarded the sense memory possessively in his heart like a dragon with its treasure. Zevran wove effortless tales intermingled with enthusiastic gestures and his rich laughter until at last he fell silent and they simply enjoyed a rare, quiet moment in each other's company.

He and Zevran didn't share a bedroll that night, but inches vanished steadily between them each time they set up their sleep areas, circling each other like they were the sun and earth caught in overlapping orbits, coming closer and closer until their paths either collided or they merely grazed in passing before spinning away again.

Baldur was braced for the resulting explosion, ready to have his very foundations rocked to the core.

---

Baldur had nearly worked off the majority of moroseness that had plagued him so severely in Haven once his group was back on the road, minus Alistair and Bastion, who he sent word to in Redcliffe for their plans to reconvene in Denerim. He couldn't help putting the temple behind him for the time being, but there was an invisible chain tying him to the dragon that still lived. He was weighed down with the knowledge that Arl Eamon grew weaker every day they were unable to retrieve the Urn of Sacred Ashes, which was a last resort to cure him of the blood mage's poison when potions and spells and all manner of healing attempts had failed.

There were a few skirmishes with bandits and wolves which served to keep any of them from getting bored or complacent, and helped restore some of Baldur's shaken confidence when his opponents fell against his sword as readily as ever. He and Zevran spoke a little more freely with each other, although Baldur still had the tendency to clam up and turn a brilliant red after Zevran had taken to touching him more and more frequently. Mostly there were companionable claps on the shoulder over armor or nudges when Baldur was a little slow on the uptake of a particularly amusing joke or anecdote, and Zevran patiently urged him to catch up and react. But occasionally he'd reach out to squeeze Baldur's hand through his gauntlets or swipe away a fleck of blood from his cheek after a successful fight with a proud smile that lit Baldur up like a torch from the inside. Even Morrigan's groans for them to get a room or Leliana's tinkling laughter wasn't enough to keep him from gazing up at Zevran like he'd hung the moon in these moments before Baldur would unerringly run into a tree or trip over small rocks in his path.

During one memorable incident Zevran had leaned down to touch his forehead to Baldur's in an affectionate bump, which was a jarringly intimate gesture for dwarves usually only practiced between close family or lovers. Baldur had been so affected by the touch that he'd wandered into a field of high grass in a daze and couldn't find his way out again until his companions' calls guided him back towards the group. He’d looked like he was trying to impersonate a scarecrow once he found his way back to the road, grass sticking out of his beard and the gaps in his armor. He didn't even bother trying to pretend he was out gathering elfroot for their stores to save his pride, accepting their good-natured ribbing and Leliana's attempts to pick the grass out of his hair. He had to avoid Zevran for the rest of the day in simple self-preservation, who seemed to take the incident in stride with his usual aplomb.

Baldur was so used to living inside his own head, a quiet spectator as his company mingled and conversed amongst themselves, that he didn't know how to navigate another's attention when it was fully focused on him. Zevran would actively try and draw him into conversations far past the time the others would have given up and left him to his solitude. He honestly seemed to want his opinion on a variety of unrelated subjects and Baldur floundered just to keep up sometimes.

He wasn't disinterested in the lives of his fellow crusaders by any means, but they each had their own demons and rather than risk the chance of prying and upsetting any of them, he allowed them to approach him first if they wanted or felt he needed to know information. Baldur knew this hesitancy would have eventually been beaten out of him in Orzammar, and he needed to get over his natural reticence before he missed out on gathering vital information that could be relevant to their cause. He had been a soldier in the king's army the moment he'd reached his majority at the age of forty with barely a shadow of a beard upon his chin and his longsword still warm from the forge, untested against live foes in battle. He began his military career at the basic grunt level, even though captaincy would have been handed to him without the unnecessary drudgery first simply due to his royal station. Trian had taken advantage of being the king's heir, unwilling to bother toiling about in the mud and trenches with common soldiers who were charged with the most menial services until they proved deserving of a higher rank.

Baldur had unwittingly earned the respect of the majority of the army and his father's generals over Trian when he proved himself to be a competent warrior. He became known for being the last to leave a battlefield, stubbornly refusing all but direct orders to retreat until the very last of his brethren who could still be saved were retrieved, even if he were mortally wounded himself. Baldur's favor with the army, and subsequently with the civilians and their own father, was an insult which Trian had never forgiven him for, and as such had set about being as nasty and cruel to King Endrin's new favored son as possible. Trian's jealousy forced Bhelen to become a mediator between his older brothers even though Baldur never intended to put either of them in such an undesirable position. He'd only wanted to better himself in order to build a stronger army from the inside. He accepted his promotion after he felt confident that he understood the inner workings of even the lowest ranks and earned the trust of men and women he fought alongside and would one day lead.

Baldur had no personal desire or ambition to claim the throne for himself, and he missed the brutally difficult but ultimately satisfactory occupation as a soldier. All that was expected of him was to train and follow orders, and he excelled at being pointed at a target and told to kill, maim, or disarm. He hadn't been prepared for the reality of being thrown into a leadership position after essentially having to escape with his life and being stripped of all the counsel and support he would have gotten in the palace.

Baldur had been devastated until Duncan had given him a purpose as a Grey Warden. Duncan had issued him an order and a direction and then he had gotten himself killed and left Baldur back at loose ends. He was grateful he at least had Alistair to mentor him, although Baldur had somehow found himself delegated into a leadership position sometime between running from Loghain's men, after that beardless traitor had betrayed King Cailin and the Grey Wardens, and when they'd acquired Morrigan, who'd basically been ordered to come by her mother.

Baldur was doing his best to pretend that he knew what in the name of Mahal’s great bollocks he was doing, hoping the others wouldn’t be able to see the chinks in his armor. All he wanted at the end of the day was to honor Duncan by carrying out his duty and seeing that they all survived.

"You are very much like your namesake, do you know?" Zevran interrupted his silent introspection with a soft smile as he approached Baldur and settled on the low rock wall the Warden occupied, his body angled toward him so their knees brushed. Baldur's feet dangled inches from the ground, but the soles of Zevran's dusty boots pressed firmly into the sparse, prickly grass below their perch.

"How do you mean?" Baldur asked. He was hyperaware of Zevran's proximity even though he kept his eyes fixed on the brightly glowing campfire before him, poking at the coals with a long stick.

"Baldur, son of the old god, Odin, was known for his exceptional kindness and generosity, a god much beloved by every person, tree, and creature in the entire realm, if I remember correctly. I believe that description bears similarities to a certain dwarf I know." Zevran's tone was gently teasing as he knocked his arm lightly against Baldur's shoulder, and the dwarf in question snorted.

"With as many people, trees, and creatures that have tried to kill me lately, I would say decidedly not. Besides, wasn't Baldur was tricked by the god of mischief and killed by a measly sprig of mistletoe?"

Zevran hummed thoughtfully, pushing at a rock on the ground with the tip of his boot, the pair of which were a gift from Baldur back in the temple of Andraste - one of the few good memories from their time spent wandering that accursed place.

"In the brothel I grew up in, the prostitutes had a tradition during the Satinalia celebrations. They would hang mistletoe in doorways, and if a pair of people were caught standing under the mistletoe, they had to kiss." Zevran laughed. "I remember one year, I may have been five or six, I stood under a doorway for an entire day and refused to budge. One of the women had to scrub my face with lye soap two or three times to remove all of the lipstick and rouge I'd accumulated. My poor little face was so sore and red in addition to the beard burn, but all of those kisses that day were entirely worth the discomfort later!"

Baldur could absolutely picture a tiny, gangly Zevran stubbornly demanding kisses for the price of admittance into the brothel where he was residing. Frankly, he could see Zevran pulling a stunt like that now, and he quirked a grin at Zevran's wistful chuckle at the memory.

"Ahh, there it is. There's that smile I have heard legendary rumors about," Zevran murmured, his breath brushing Baldur's ear. "I wonder..."

He moved slowly so as not to startle Baldur, sliding his fingers against the stubbled line of Baldur's jaw to tilt his head so Baldur was forced to meet his eyes, shining like molten gold in the firelight.

"Would a kiss also be your undoing?"

Baldur dragged his eyes up from Zevran's full, smirking lips to stare helplessly into his eyes, heartbeat thundering against Zevran’s fingertips.

"Yes," he said bleakly, the word ragged and wrenched out him.

Zevran's eyes widened and his smirk faltered, but he recovered with a hum of pleasure, moving his face closer to Baldur's with clear intent. At the very last moment Baldur turned away sharply so Zevran's lips glanced off his earlobe instead.

"Please," Baldur whispered, a desperate plea as he lowered his head and swallowed hard, heart pounding furiously in his ears. "Please give me time."

He badly needed to reconcile the fact that he wanted to kiss this man more than he needed to breathe. The knowledge was terrifying and Baldur would need a drastic internal reassessment after he already had his identity stripped away once and refitted into the image of a Grey Warden. He wasn't in the habit of lying to himself or brashly denying fear when the feeling took a strangle hold on him. To dwarves, admitting fear was a weakness. Misgivings fueled by terror were never spoken of lest one face ridicule or even demotion if they seemed unfit for taking bold, decisive action or if subordinates didn't trust their commanding officer not to drop their weapon and abandon position mid-battle.

Baldur, though, was convinced that being fearful didn't make him weak. Terror made him cautious and considerate when otherwise he would have barreled on ahead recklessly.

He didn't fear the dragon, and that was very likely part of the reason why he had failed to kill it. He was angry and frustrated and had immense respect for the dangerous creature, but they had aggravated the dragon into attacking them first. The beast was otherwise content to sleep while they tromped around its hatching grounds until they woke it by beating upon a gong, weapons ready and seasoned with the blood of its young. No, what Baldur feared was his own heart and how the fist-sized organ had taken complete control of his wits and his body. He'd been blindsided by his lust for Zevran, intense and all-consuming and so very unexpected. Baldur had already accepted his attraction for other men from his dalliance at The Pearl, however unfavorable the inclination towards one’s own gender was amongst many of the races, not only dwarves. But sex was physical and universal and understood by most to be necessary, regardless of the genders involved.

Falling for Zevran, against all of his instincts and reasoning, was unforgivable. But unforgivable to whom, he no longer knew. He would never be able to earn his way back into his family's favor, much less Mahal himself. His Creator could see into the very center of him and know that Baldur had been forged from the Stone with incurable defects, an aberration of his kind that made him seek reason over violence, compassion over vengeance, and infatuation over simple, damned self-preservation.

Zevran hadn't moved, his lips hovering over the hinge of Baldur's jaw while he waited for the dwarf to either pull away first or perhaps reconsider the kiss.

Baldur shakily brought his hands up to frame Zevran's striking face, turning so his broad forehead rested against Zevran's, their lips inches apart. His thumbs pressed gently into the corners of Zevran's unsmiling mouth, wanting so badly to kiss him that he thought he would die if he did not do so immediately. Instead, he drew every ounce of self control and slid their noses together in a tiny caress, trailing his fingers down the tattoo that curved along Zevran’s left cheek until he reached the edge of his jawline and finally allowed his fingers to drop down into his lap, tense and still.

Zevran let out a puff of air with an agonized groan.

"You would tempt men more pious than I," Zevran said despairingly. He circled his arms around Baldur's waist in a loose embrace as his temple bumped down along Baldur's profile, grazing over the rounded tip of his nose, across his lips which tingled like fire from the contact, and off his chin to bury his face against the hollow of his neck and shoulder. He breathed out with another heavy sigh.

"I'm sorry, ghivashel," Baldur said remorsefully, rubbing his bristly cheek against the side of Zevran's head and returning the embrace by tentatively settling his arms around Zevran's shoulders.

Zevran snuggled into him despite how uncomfortable the position must be with their armor in the way and the awkward angle Zevran had to twist himself to reach. But he seemed to have no intention of moving anytime soon, and Baldur allowed his embrace to tighten, content to stay here like this forever.

Or at least until Leliana or Morrigan returned and caught them together, forcing Baldur to retreat to his tent alone in a fit of mortification.

---

Ghivashel - Treasure of all treasures (Khudzul, endearment)

Chapter Text

The familiar twang of Leliana's bowstring releasing woke Baldur before her cry of "Attack!" sounded in the air. He had his dagger and Aodr in hand before his eyes were even fully open. The clash of steel sent vibrations down his arm as he blocked a swing from a genlock’s sword that was aiming for the spot his head had been resting an instant before.

"To arms!" he seconded Leliana's call, hearing the reassuring ring of Zevran's twin blades unsheathing and Morrigan's mage fire crackle to life.

He slashed through the heel of the genlock’s boot and rolled as the squat creature came crashing down nearly atop him. He came up into a low crouch and stabbed his dagger into the darkspawn's lungs from between its shoulder blades. In the same moment, Zevran took off its head with a single, fluid motion before whirling away to dance with the next darkspawn that crashed into their camp. There were five attackers in all, one remaining for each of them to practice their skills upon after being abruptly woken in the middle of the night.

If Baldur had suspicions that Zevran’s lethargy in the mornings was a ruse, they were only further confirmed as he watched the elf moved lithely to flank a growling darkspawn without even a hint of sluggishness, using the trunk of a tree to kick off of and launch himself in the air. He spun his blades before sinking them into the creature’s flesh on either side of its thick neck, riding the writhing darkspawn down as it fell. Before it hit the ground, Zevran tucked his legs in close and shoved the darkspawn away as he ripped out his blades and flipped backwards to land nimbly on the balls of his feet with a grin. Baldur wasn’t certain if Zevran even touched the ground when he fought, his movements so swift and fleeting that he seemed made of air.

“If you are quite finished ogling,” Morrigan said crisply as she sent a fireball shooting directly over Baldur’s shoulder to hit the shriek sneaking up on him, so close that the heat of the spell charred the tips of his hair. He twisted and brought Aodr around to run the flaming shriek through the middle, wincing as this particular darkspawn lived – or rather, died – up to its name.

"I apologize that I did not hear them coming sooner," Leliana said tightly when they cleared up the last of the darkspawn and no further attack came. They all lowered their weapons cautiously after a few tense minutes of silence, still on alert.

"Did you confuse their grunting and stomping about for the dwarf's snores, perhaps? I am surprised you heard anything at all over that clamor," Morrigan said as she glanced around the clearing for any stragglers that might approach in a second wave. "Regardless. There is little chance I will be sleeping again tonight."

"Same," Baldur agreed solemnly, not refuting her jibe because it was very likely true.

He'd once slept packed in cheek by jowl with a platoon of dwarves who could snore down a mountainside if they hit just the right frequency. He learned to sleep through the racket just as the quiet snap of a broken twig could wake him in an instant. He retrieved his dagger and grimaced down at the genlock that had bled all over his and Zevran's respective bedrolls, positioned so close together as to be nearly atop each other. The irreversible damage to their bedding effectively destroyed any chance of either of them going back to bed once the adrenaline faded.

"I don't know about you, but that rude awakening has me more wired up than viewing an Orlesian oil wrestling match. Speaking of which, would anyone care for a round or two to work off the excess energy?" Zevran asked.

"Do you really expect anyone's answer to be anything except 'no' by now, elf?" Morrigan asked.

"I am an eternal optimist, what can I say? It does not even have to be wrestling. I can think of several even more pleasant activities we can do while covered in oil."

"You'll attract ants," Leliana said practically.

"That is not a ‘no’," Zevran pointed out.

"Well then. No."

"'Tis a shame we cannot travel by night," Morrigan mused. "We could make use of our time to arrive in Denerim sooner rather than later."

Baldur agreed, but the danger of traveling in nearly complete darkness outweighed any progress they might have made. Dwarves had proficient night vision, but the last thing their party needed was for anyone to twist their ankle in a rabbit hole or step on a poisonous snake. Also, darkspawn tended to be more active at night and would have an immense advantage were their group to stumble upon a hoard while trying not to walk blindly into trees at the same time.

"I could tell fortunes to pass the time until morning," Zevran offered instead, his enthusiasm indefatigable.

"I was not aware there were elven fortune tellers," Morrigan said in interest. Or challenge - Baldur could never be certain. "Do you find divining through oracle bones or numerology to be more accurate? Or perhaps astrology? I prefer tarot readings myself, but unfortunately I left my set back with Mother, which was terribly remiss of me."

"Nothing as refined as that," Zevran chuckled, waving her off. "I only know simple palmistry. Divining the life and love in the tender lines of another’s palm is the most romantic way, don’t you think?"

"Bo--ooring!" Morrigan said with an overdone yawn.

"The Chantry forbids the use of arcane magics or those claiming to be clairvoyant, aside from prophets such as Andraste, of course. Only the Maker Himself should have knowledge of our fates," Leliana said with obvious censure, and Morrigan's yellow eyes gleamed.

"I'll try it," Baldur offered loudly as a distraction, his eyes flicking between Leliana and Morrigan and calculating whether he was in a blast radius.

"Wonderful!" Zevran exclaimed as he clapped his hands together once and then rubbed his palms briskly in anticipation. "Come closer to the fire so I may read your palms better." Zevran shoved the genlock out of the way with a grunt and patted the cleared space beside him as he sat elegantly and leaned an elbow against the dead creature’s back as if it were a convenient armrest.

"If you will excuse me," Leliana said coolly before dismissing herself.

"This I must see,” Morrigan said as she crossed her arms over her chest with a skeptical look.

"Actually, if you do not mind terribly, readings can get intensely...personal. I could do one for you later in private if you desire," Zevran offered with a grin as slow and sweet as molasses.

Morrigan rolled her eyes.

"If you wanted to fondle the dwarf then you should have just said. I will take my leave of you as well then. Good night."

Baldur fidgeted uncomfortably as Morrigan retreated to the opposite end of the clearing. Both she and Leliana were still in sight, but he would have protested and gone after them if either tried to go any farther, especially with darkspawn prowling the area.

"I cannot imagine when I could have gotten so transparent," Zevran wondered outloud, as if he hadn't been shamelessly blatant in his attempts to bed each and every one of them since the beginning.

Baldur was starting to rethink the wisdom of allowing Zevran to ‘fondle’ him, so to speak, even if it was just his hand. He dropped onto the ground with far less grace, facing Zevran with his knees accidentally knocking into the other man’s, who didn’t appear to mind. Zevran reached out to catch Baldur’s wrist lightly, thumb stroking soothingly over Baldur’s already quickening pulse as he smiled at him and met Baldur’s eyes until the dwarf became flustered and had to look away. Their height difference was less remarkable when seated since dwarves tended to be built with longer torsos and shorter legs, so not having to crane his neck to look at Zevran was a novel experience that he wasn’t exactly equipped to handle.

"This line right here," Zevran announced after he closely inspected Baldur’s palm with a great deal of theatrical humming and exclaiming to add to the ambiance of mystery, no doubt, "is your life line. It says you will grow a magnificent grey beard all the way to your belt and have a very hard, but very long life." He traced a fingertip gently over the crease that stretched from the side of Baldur’s palm and ended below his index finger. Baldur eyed the line dubiously.

"I highly doubt that I'll be alive long enough to even see the new year, much less get grey in my hair."

Zevran leveled him a flat, unimpressed glare and squeezed his hand in warning before he gazed down at Baldur's palm again, considering.

"Ah, my mistake. That line actually describes your...endowments, shall we say? So you must have a very hard, very long--"

"Enough!" Baldur protested with a bark of laughter as he jerked his hand away and punched Zevran in his shoulder with his balled up fist, blushing hotly. "I don't think you know palmistry at all, you charlatan!"

Zevran gasped in mock offense, clutching at his shoulder melodramatically.

"I'll have you know the woman who taught me the art of reading palms in the whorehouse was a legendary gypsy and was never wrong, even when she predicted her own death! Whether or not I was a model student, however, was debatable."

"How did she die?" Baldur asked cautiously, uncertain whether the subject was a sore one.

"Mmm. She swallowed an aconite pill and passed away comfortably in her sleep."

"That's not predicting anything at all!"

"She also predicted her body would transform into a great white bird and fly away before the sun rose. When the other women went to prepare her body for burial in the morning, the window was open to the first rays of sunlight and she was gone from her room with only a single feather lying on her pillow. True story."

Baldur pursed his lips dubiously, not wanting to speak ill of the dead or of Zevran's apparent "truths," but, well... Dwarves were a very superstitious lot and had certain sects devoted to arcane knowledge, despite their inability to use magic. They believed heavily in prophecy and the will of Mahal, and being denied the right to be buried within the Stone so their souls could be reforged by their Creator's great anvil and hammer was unthinkable. So Baldur tried not to think upon the fact the Assembly had branded him a traitor to the Stone and he was no longer even considered a dwarf. What would become of his soul tomorrow, or in years to come, would be something that even Zevran and his suspect palm-reading abilities wouldn't be able to predict.

"Here, give me your hand so I can try again. I will do better," Zevran promised, drawing both of Baldur's hands back into his lap without waiting for permission. "Let's see...ah. I understand now. It says right here you will be very successful in all your endeavors and that you will be lucky in love. You also have a very passionate romance in your near future."

"Don't quit your day job," Baldur recommended gravely, and Zevran laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners with fine laughter lines aptly named crows’ feet for the ex-Crow.

"If you don't believe me, then I will just have to prove it."

Baldur could only swallow and stare into Zevran's watchful golden eyes as they suddenly seemed to take up more of his vision. His wrists were still being held in Zevran's hands, but so loosely as to not be restrictive. When he heard no immediate protest, Zevran leaned toward him so slowly and deliberately that Baldur was certain he would expire from the sheer anxiety ratcheting up in his chest waiting for contact to happen. Zevran's lips very lightly brushed against his cheek and remained there for a long moment. Baldur felt lightheaded when he immediately stopped breathing at the faint touch, only letting out a gasp when Zevran finally moved back enough that he could gauge Baldur’s reaction.

Baldur's eyes had shuttered closed and his mouth parted at the feeling of Zevran's soft, warm lips against his face, warmer still than even the heat radiating along his side from the campfire. His pulse was rapid beneath Zevran's thumbs, so quick as to be nearly untraceable, he imagined. He swallowed hard, his face still tilted up towards Zevran's, unable to make himself open his eyes and allow this moment to be real.

"Oh, love..." Zevran's breath tickled across his cheek in a warm puff of air. His voice was so tender that a rock seemed to lodge itself in the back of Baldur's throat, making it impossible to swallow. "May I?"

Baldur made a soft, helpless sound and squeezed his eyes shut so tightly he saw red flashes behind his eyelids like sparks. Zevran's lips returned to the same cheek before switching over to the other, dropping kisses as delicate as a butterfly’s wings against his eyelids and the tip of his nose. There was a pause, a moment of consideration, and then Zevran kissed the corner of his mouth, right over a patch of bare skin amidst the forest of Baldur's beard. Fire rushed through Baldur and he made a desperate grab for Zevran's forearms as his center of gravity shifted violently, certain he'd just pitched himself into the coals. The pressure of Zevran's lips and his hands steady on Baldur's wrists were the only things holding him upright. He made a piteous noise, and one of Zevran's hands released his wrist to draw up his arm and rest against Baldur's shoulder, steadying him even though, Baldur noted, Zevran's hand wasn't exactly steady itself.

Baldur could stand the wait no longer, and only opened his eyes long enough to drink in the sight of his beloved assassin before reaching up and pressing his mouth to Zevran's in a desperate, closed-mouthed kiss. All of the tension from the past month peaked and shattered in an instant. Baldur suddenly felt as if all the loose pieces adrift within him suddenly snapped back into place, awash with a golden sense of clarity and relief that carried away his terror in a swift rush and left him pleasantly thrumming instead.

"Are you magic?" Baldur murmured deliriously, almost drunkenly, against Zevran's lips.

He was unable to bring himself to pull away enough to take a proper breath, almost dizzy as he went back for a second kiss, and then a third. Zevran chuckled into his mouth, a pleasant vibration as he curled his hand beneath the shaggy mane of Baldur's hair to cup the back of his head. His other arm slid around Baldur's shoulders to draw him in as close as he could manage with their knees jostling together. He stopped just short of dragging Baldur into his lap, even though Baldur really wouldn’t have minded at the moment, except...

“Thank the Maker! I thought they would never get on with it,” Morrigan exclaimed from somewhere nearby. The fact Baldur didn’t falter for an instant was a testament to how engrossed he was with the intoxicating taste and sensation of Zevran’s mouth on his own.

“Believe in the Maker do you now, Morrigan?”

“Clearly there must be a higher power at work if the dwarf finally made a move. They’ve been dancing around each other for so long that I had considered drugging them both with an aphrodisiac to put them out of their misery. ‘Tis a shame I will not get to test my newest recipe.”

Baldur certainly felt drugged. Morrigan and Leliana’s conversation drifted away as he lost all sense of time and awareness in favor of kissing Zevran. He sucked at his bottom lip and groaned when Zevran's talented tongue teased into his mouth and slid playfully against his own. Baldur's calloused fingers caught in the soft silk of Zevran's hair, angling him closer as he drank from Zevran's lips like a man dying of thirst in a desert. Zevran didn't try to push for more or let his hands wander too far, likely due to the fact Baldur was a shrinking violet in all matters of romance, but his mouth was pure sin and Baldur felt flush all over, his scalp and fingertips tingling.

They finally managed to part after a few false starts when one or both of them couldn't help chasing after one last lingering kiss. Baldur lowered his forehead against Zevran's shoulder to hide a wide, helpless smile that strained the unused muscles in his face. He could feel the faint pressure of Zevran's hands through his armor as they settled against his back in a loose embrace, the warmth of Zevran's kiss-swollen lips burning pleasantly against his temple. Baldur had never felt so uncomplicatedly happy before; weeks and weeks of tension were finally released in one blast to be replaced with calm and peace instead. He'd been certain that he would fall to pieces when their careful courting - if that's what Zevran's flirting and Baldur making a complete mule's backside of himself could even be called - led to the inevitability of this moment.

Baldur felt as if something indefinable had just been confirmed within him, his wildly spinning compass stopping abruptly with its arrow quivering on his true north with absolute certainty.

Dwarves had many words for the experience of finding their One, but Baldur couldn't think of a single syllable. He never expected that he would find his sanâzyung in this lifetime, never mind someone as complex and wonderful as Zevran. In Orzammar, had Baldur still been a prince and Zevran a dwarf, there would have been endless celebrations and feasts and gifts from well-wishers. They would have at least a year of proper courting and negotiations between their families, which Baldur had seen stretched out for decades in a few cases, before they were joined together in a lavish Bonding ceremony with the blessings of Mahal and the Stone upon them.

The meeting of sanâzyung was so rare and monumental that even their genders trumped any stigma they might have faced otherwise. Baldur doubted the easy acceptance applied towards interracial joinings, though, especially if one half of the couple was incapable of forming a true Bond. What the Bond meant for dwarves was certainty in finding one's perfect match - the other half of their soul - and complete love and acceptance on all levels. However, if the Bond was denied by either person, then instead of a happy joining, the spurned dwarf would forever remain incomplete, unable to form a lasting attachment to any other, save for familial ties or friendships. It wasn't a death sentence, being rejected by one's other half - or worse, losing them to death as his father had when his mother passed into the Stone - but being allowed to live out their long lifespans without hope for love did not seem like such a mercy.

Baldur was starkly aware of the absurdity in imagining a wedding and picking out names for their children and grandchildren after only one kiss. Their continued existence was never guaranteed especially when they survived a day at a time, and often only barely. When dwarves found their intended, they knew without any doubt whatsoever, however Zevran was neither a dwarf nor the type to settle down in a life of blissful domesticity. There was also the fact Baldur was a Grey Warden.

Death would be his only retirement.

The cold dose of reality shocked Baldur's smile into fading as his ever-present anxiety and doubts crept back in with cold tendrils. He closed his eyes with a shuddering sigh and let the carefree joy of the moment slip through his fingers like sand. He kept only a tiny granule for himself as a reminder that there were still moments of happiness to be found in a world so full of darkness and pain, however fleeting they may be.

"Will you stay with me tonight?" Baldur asked tremulously, unwilling to let go of that last grain just yet. He stared down at his white-knuckled fists clenched in his lap, certain his heart would beat its way out of his chest. "Just...just to sleep?"

He could barely kiss Zevran without feeling as if he were dying, much less think about doing anything more just yet. He knew he must seem like an idiot to someone as...knowledgeable...as Zevran on the subject of worldly pleasures. Here he was, an infamous Grey Warden that even darkspawn and assassins couldn't touch, trembling like a virgin on her wedding night just from a few kisses.

"There is nothing I would enjoy more," Zevran said with utter sincerity, lifting one of Baldur's hands to press a kiss to his palm. Baldur deflated with an audible sigh of relief.

They would still have the ground to lay upon with only the rough canvas of Baldur’s tent as meager protection until they could replace their bedding, but Baldur was starting to come down hard from the rush of adrenaline and endorphins and would very likely pass out using the headless genlock as a pillow in the next few minutes. Baldur disliked sleeping in a tent unless their party was more than just a handful, or they at least had Bastion as an added sentry. Most of them forewent tents entirely on warmer nights, simply because it was dangerous to have their vision impaired rather than having immediate sight to the area around them. There would also be lethal consequences if they became entangled within the rope and canvas as they rushed to respond to a night raid similar to the one they just experienced.

Morrigan and Leliana appeared to be awake for good, but all of them would feel the effects of interrupted sleep in the morning. Baldur wanted to avoid their sleep-deprived scrutiny for as long as possible, so he retrieved his tent from his pack and Zevran helped him hastily construct the flimsy apparatus without needing to be asked. Normally Baldur slept in most of his armor, but he surmised that the cold, unyielding links of chainmail would be uncomfortable for another to sleep next to with any sort of proximity, and Baldur wanted as few barriers between them as possible. He didn't meet Zevran's eyes as he pulled off his hauberk and iron-plated boots, tossing them and his weapons into a corner of the tent within easy reach. There was very little room to move within the confined space. Baldur's head brushed the top of the tent at its highest point when he was standing, but Zevran made no complaints as he removed his own gear in silence. Baldur hesitated to offer his assistance, and by the time he worked up the nerve, Zevran had already stripped himself down to shirtsleeves and trousers, although he left his boots on. Baldur couldn’t recall if he ever saw Zevran without them, actually, and the knowledge was a warm glow in the pit of his belly.

Baldur lay down on his side when he was similarly attired, stiff as a plank of wood and only just managing to refrain from curling into a tense ball. His breath caught when Zevran reclined next to him rather than changing his mind and leaving to join Morrigan or Leliana outside instead.

“Do I frighten you so much, my fierce Warden?” Zevran chuckled as he rested a hand on Baldur’s hip and leaned over him, his hair brushing lightly against the side of Baldur’s face like the maddening tickle of cobwebs.

“N-No,” Baldur protested unconvincingly, letting out a short exhale and an almost-whimper when Zevran nuzzled under his jaw before sucking a soft kiss against his throat.

Baldur tipped his head back to oblige him without thought as ardor coursed through him, uncurling to roll over and drag Zevran down nearly on top of him. Their arms and legs quickly entangled as they sought out the other’s mouth eagerly. Ligament by ligament Baldur slowly relaxed and melted into Zevran’s embrace, not once regretting the lack of proper bedding or armor as he couldn’t imagine possibly being more comfortable or safe. Zevran’s slick tongue felt even more at home in Baldur’s mouth than Baldur’s own clumsy one did, and Baldur gladly parted his lips to receive him, their bodies rolling together until Baldur’s interest was made known by pressing insistently into Zevran’s flat stomach.

Zevran’s hand stroked firmly down his back and curved around to cup his arse, drawing Baldur’s thigh over his hip as he rocked them together with intent. Baldur meant to slow down and catch his breath, but the act of stopping was like trying to hold back a bladder filled to bursting while continuing to chug pint after pint of ale. His head was similarly buzzing and almost like a sieve, allowing all rational thought to pass through without snagging on irksome protests. In this position, with their heads level to kiss without stretching and Baldur rutting into Zevran’s stomach, Zevran was left to work his hips against air, the strained bulge of his arousal trapped within his trousers heating the underside of Baldur’s bollocks without actually touching them. Baldur shook some of his delirium off enough to realize Zevran was allowing Baldur to take his pleasure without receiving any of his own.

“Wait, wait,” Baldur gasped, pushing against Zevran shoulders to halt him. Zevran growled and bit him savagely through his shirt against the meaty rise between his neck and shoulder, exactly the area he had stabbed the genlock through earlier, and Baldur didn’t miss the implication.

“You will not deny me this,” Zevran threatened, even though his tone was more beseeching than demanding.

“Please--I. Zevran,” Baldur’s voice was rough and desperate as he shoved hard against Zevran's chest and pushed himself away. He panted as he sat up in an ungainly sprawl and stared at the debauched elf laying on the ground, forcing himself to keep his eyes above Zevran’s waist even though his own disturbed state was painfully obvious.

“I am going to kill you,” Zevran breathed out with deathly certainty. “I suggest you run. Now. I may even pay Loghain for the honor of letting me finish you, you wretched--”

Baldur’s expression crumbled and Zevran immediately ceased his tirade and scrambled upwards, reaching for Baldur’s face and peppering kisses all over his feverish skin. He stroked Baldur’s beard and hair as he pressed their foreheads together, instantly contrite.

Lo lamento, mi amor. I did not mean it, of course. Please forgive my insensitivity, I was not thinking with the correct head.”

Baldur had only meant to slow Zevran down enough to reposition them so they could both find relief, but getting a moment to breathe compounded with the icy cold shock of Zevran’s furious response banked some of the fire in his loins. Baldur hazily pulled his thoughts together, even though the last thing he wanted to do was second guess himself or force Zevran into reconsidering them. Zevran made a wounded noise and trailed his fingers beneath Baldur’s eyes, coming away wet. He alternated reverent kisses with placations spoken in his gorgeous, incomprehensible language. Never had Baldur wished that Zevran would make good on his death threat as he did then. He was no dwarf. Baldur didn’t even deserve the description of a man, and he couldn’t believe that he had thrown away so much of his pride and dignity that he would be reduced to weeping for such an inconsequential matter.

“Whatever am I to do with you?” Zevran despaired rhetorically, nestling Baldur against his chest as if he were a small child.

Keep me. Please keep me. I’m sorry, Baldur wanted to say, but he had already damned himself enough and disgraced his marlûn in the process.

He wanted to erase the past few minutes and redo them all over again. He wanted to give Zevran everything he asked, even the things Baldur couldn’t even think of yet and was hesitant to even consider, much less offer first. Baldur held onto Zevran tightly and promised himself that he would do better, that he would be better, and there would be no more of this ridiculous crying or spineless evasion. They were both adults, or at least what passed as adults for their respective races, he assumed, even though Baldur had decades before he even reached middle age, by dwarven standards.

“Understand that even a week without sex is practically a lifetime for me,” Zevran said as he rested a cheek against the top of his head and combed his fingers through the hopelessly tangled mat of Baldur’s hair. Baldur was taken aback that Zevran felt the need to apologize to him. “I have never met a group of people that so stringently held onto their virtue as if it were the only rope anchoring them to shore during a storm. I will not push you into anything you are not ready for, mi corazón. You have my word.”

“I understand...if you wished to find your release with another, in the next village or caravan we come across,” Baldur said quietly into Zevran’s chest, the effort of voicing these words similar to what being crushed under several tons of rock must feel like, Baldur was certain.

“Not unless you have no intention whatsoever of putting me out of my misery eventually, and only in that case would I consider other options. Truly, though, I have not had such a delightful challenge in quite some time. I fear I have either met my match, or dwarves are more stubborn than the tales have given them credit for. But you will, of course, forgive me if I seek my release the old-fashioned way?”

Baldur glanced up with confusion, and Zevran raised his hand and waggled his fingers tellingly.

“Oh. Oh right. I mean, yes. Of course.” Baldur blustered, breathless and wide-eyed. “I mean. Are you—Right now?”

“As tantalizing as the idea of attending myself for your viewing pleasure is – and you can be assured the suggestion will definitely be revisited in the future – I shall somehow manage to refrain so as not to overwhelm your dwarven sensibilities this time.”

A part of Baldur breathed out in relief, but he couldn’t help but also be disappointed that his own insecurities made any progress between them drag along at a snail’s pace. His groin hadn’t entirely lost interest in the proceedings and clenched at the offer of Zevran in all of his splendid glory laid out like a feast for Baldur to gorge his eyes upon.

“Come. Let us try and find some rest before morning. I still have not quite managed the feat of waking with the sun barely over the horizon as opposed to when it is directly overhead, as is proper. I must admit, yours is a rather disciplined group I have chosen to throw my lot in with, no?” Zevran teased gently, curling a finger under Baldur’s chin to press an achingly sweet kiss to Baldur’s lips that threatened to spring tears to his eyes yet again.

Baldur cleared his throat and nodded, meek and shamed in the face of Zevran’s benevolence. He knew he couldn’t keep expecting endless patience and indulgence from Zevran, despite the assassin’s word that he had no interest in taking another lover at present. Baldur didn’t know what was wrong with him, aside from the obvious, that he would spurn his ghivashel when he desired him so thoroughly and Zevran couldn’t be more receptive.

Baldur allowed Zevran to arrange them as he saw fit without protest, his back warmed by Zevran’s chest as the other’s arm curled possessively around his waist. Zevran dropped a consolatory kiss against Baldur’s shoulder where he had bit him previously, and the spot ached pleasurably at the reminder of his more aggressive passion. Baldur sighed as he relaxed into the embrace, covering Zevran’s hand with his own over his belly and permitting himself to lace their fingers together so he selfishly didn’t risk the chance of Zevran letting go and leaving him to wake up cold and alone in the morning.

He felt a warm thrum of joy in response to Zevran squeezing his fingers and shifting them even closer together so not even a pocket of space existed between them. Baldur breathed in, slow and deep, and allowed consciousness to slip away on the next exhale.

---

Waking up in Zevran's arms was a decadence that consumed Baldur, reveling in bliss and comfort until he recalled the events of the previous evening and became rigid with embarrassment. The color drained out of his face even as splotches of heat suffused his cheeks in the same moment, making him lightheaded with the abrupt transference of blood to varying parts of his body.

"Zev?" Baldur croaked, wincing as his voice came out rather too panicky and hoarse for his tastes. He tried again after clearing his throat pointedly. "Zevran."

Zevran groaned against his neck and tightened his hold when Baldur shifted to gauge how much room to move he had, which was none at all, especially when Zevran threw a leg over Baldur's and burrowed against him in wordless protest at the idea of getting up. Perhaps the elf hadn't been faking his struggle to wake up quickly when their lives weren't in danger after all.

Baldur swallowed uncomfortably and tugged at Zevran's hand tucked up against his ribs, suddenly too hot and stifled in the tent that had half-collapsed around them during the night. The confined quarters and Zevran practically sprawled on top of him made Baldur feel claustrophobic for the first time in his life. Dwarves were at home in dark, confined areas, such as tunnels or caves, and generally balked at wide open spaces. He didn't recall being agoraphobic in Ostagar, his first real experience aboveground, but then again he'd been too focused on trying not to die to spare a moment to quake in fear or awe for the endless sky above him and the grandness of the mountain range he'd only known from the inside.

"Shall we continue to wait for you to locate your testicles, dwarf?" came Morrigan's voice from outside the tent, and Baldur jumped as if scalded. "Especially since you didn't have the nerve to put them in--"

"Morrigan!" Leliana reprimanded, her voice equally close.

"Mmm,” Zevran moaned behind him, the sound obscene, and Baldur couldn’t have been more flustered if he tried. “Perhaps you would like the opportunity to redeem yourself after last night's...interruption?" Zevran purred into his ear, nibbling at Baldur's undecorated lobe in a way that sent shivers racing up and down the entire left side of his body.

"Ah!" Baldur gasped. He heard a soft laugh from outside followed by the sound of retreating footsteps. He realized with dismay that the other two were giving them privacy for...for...

"By Mahal!" he swore as he pulled away with a jerk and sat up abruptly, knocking over the upright section of his small tent and trapping both he and Zevran inside as the tent collapsed around them. Baldur thrashed and fought against the restrictive material, trying fruitlessly to find the opening and failing as he heard Zevran grunt when one of Baldur's fists accidentally struck him.

“Oof! If you just stay still a moment--”

“--to the Dust with this blasted--”

“Oh, enough of this!”

There was a tearing sound, and Baldur was suddenly blinking away the sunlight with Zevran's tousled head looking back at him with a victorious expression, a knife raised tellingly in his hand.

"You cut my tent?" Baldur exclaimed, struggling out of the coarse fabric pooled around his waist until he was on his hands and knees and free from constraints.

"Oops," Zevran grinned unapologetically as he flipped his dagger and caught the hilt easily between his first two fingers. "I suppose that means we will simply have to share mine from now on."

"No we will not," Baldur said resolutely with a red face, knowing how damnably close he came to giving in last night. He couldn't tell if he was more upset that he didn't go through with the sex or relieved that he'd somehow managed to refrain from giving in to his baser urges. "You can sleep outside. Alone."

Zevran made an offended noise, but Baldur ignored him in favor of burrowing like a groundhog into the remains of the tent for his armor. He quickly tired of the struggle and ripped the rest of the tent in half with a growl, throwing aside the pieces and effectively ruining any chance of mending the tent.

When he finally looked up, Zevran was watching him with a calculating expression.

"What?" Baldur demanded, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as he slapped on his armor and yanked on his straps and buckles so tightly he feared that he might loose circulation, but he didn’t care at the moment.

“Oh, nothing at all,” Zevran demurred secretively as he retrieved his own gear and prepared for the journey ahead.

---

Apparently, Zevran decided that driving Baldur absolutely crazy was his new goal in retribution for Baldur denying him satisfaction the previous night. The elf caught him up against trees and the sides of dilapidated buildings to kiss the breath out of him in the most unexpected moments, nimbly moving out of reach before Baldur could respond and continuing his walk as if nothing were amiss. There was no doubt that Baldur was being punished, Zevran’s revenge made even more potent as Baldur was rendered entirely useless after each incident. If Zevran truly wanted to kill him, then this was the strangest and most effective method Baldur had ever heard of, especially after the second time he walked directly into the path of a darkspawn. He was fortunate enough the creature had been just as surprised by Baldur crashing into it that the darkspawn tripped over him and fell right into the path of one of the other’s weapons.

“I swear on all that is unholy that I will turn you both into toads,” Morrigan snapped when Baldur nearly took his own foot off when he fumbled and dropped Aodr. Zevran had put a hand over his when Baldur had been in the process of sheathing the sword, only to kiss him soundly when Baldur looked up in puzzlement. Despite her protests, she and Leliana automatically took guard whenever Baldur and Zevran were otherwise distracted, which occurred with increasing frequency.

Baldur declined Zevran’s repeated offers to share his tent, unable to overcome the humiliation of their first night sleeping together just yet and instead choosing to sleep on the cold ground by himself, propped against a rock or a tree. However, the more Baldur resisted the more Zevran persevered with obvious relish until Baldur was flustered to the point of forsaking any remaining pride and was reduced to ducking Zevran's clutches or outright running away from him when the elf approached with a particular glint in his eye. He truly did feel as if he were a mouse with a particularly persistent cat stalking him, waiting its chance to pounce the moment he dropped his guard.

The company eventually stumbled across a merchant during their travels through Sulcher's Pass, the man clearly at loose ends as he hailed their group wearily. The man claimed to have lost his donkey, which was more than likely supper for ravenous darkspawn at that point. Baldur nearly offered to help look for the man's animal out of habit, but he had enough on his plate without adding more, especially if non-equine lives weren't at stake. And frankly, he didn't want to go chasing after someone's donkey, so he commiserated with the man's bad luck and bartered for whatever goods the man had in his wagon. He and Zevran were both able to secure new bedding and a patched old tent, although the bedrolls weren’t in much better shape than their last ones, even before the genlock had bled all over them.

"If you're headed at all to the south, be wary of darkspawn,” the merchant offered when their trade was complete. “I heard the entire village of Honnleath was overrun with 'em. In fact, I just acquired a rod that is said to control a golem that's located in the village, but you'd have to wade through all of the darkspawn in order to get close enough to activate it. As you can clearly see I'm no kind of warrior myself, so it's just a stick to me."

Baldur didn't have a clue what a control rod or golem were, more interested in darkspawn sightings, but Zevran suddenly tensed like he’d been struck by a raw lyrium vein next to him and surprised Baldur when he asked the merchant casually, "Does this rod and golem come with a command phrase?"

Baldur cast a confused glance at Zevran, but quickly turned his face back to the merchant with an expectant frown as if he knew what either man was talking about.

"Certainly, and I'd be willing to part with the rod and the phrase if you want to take it off my hands."

The merchant seemed more tired than interested in trying to swindle them for just a stick and some silly magic words, so Baldur agreed just to have Zevran's shoulders finally release the tension he’d been holding ever since he heard the word 'golem'. He planned on giving Zevran a full interrogation as soon as they were back on the road, but apparently the elf couldn't contain his excitement and practically danced around Baldur once the rod was in their possession, crowing, "A golem! An actual golem! This is exactly what we need!"

Morrigan crossed her arms over her chest and eyed Zevran as if examining his mental state and finding it severely lacking. "What possible use could we have for a talking rock, assuming the rod even works?"

"Wait, what’s a golem?" Baldur asked, feeling lost in the conversation.

"A golem is an animated anthropomorphic being, magically created entirely from inanimate matter that obeys the commands of its master and is generally used for labor that would normally take the strength of ten regular men to do, or as a loyal protector," Leliana recited as if from rote, although Baldur had to agree with Morrigan that while a golem sounded useful in some cases, he didn't quite see how it would pertain to their quest unless they needed to move large rocks out of their path or something along that nature.

"Don't you see what this means!" Zevran cried with a wild, dramatic wave of his arms and Baldur quickly stepped back before the other man accidentally took an eye out. "A golem would be the perfect distraction for a dragon! It's what they do - they are meant to take hits and protect, so certain hard-headed dwarves will not need to stand in the line of fire themselves. If I remember correctly, golems can also equip different crystals to make them more resistant to elements such as ice or lightning...or fire..."

Zevran said the last word with a hushed reverence that was meant to be enticing, Baldur supposed, but he still had his doubts.

"I can't ask anyone else to take that kind of risk for me. It was my plan so I should be the one out there--"

"Technically," Leliana interrupted Baldur's protest seamlessly, "while sentient, golems are not actually people, and they are designed specifically to take orders without question. Using one as a tank would be a smart move in this case."

"This is a long shot, you do realize?" Morrigan said. "If the dwarf is determined to play peek-a-boo with a dragon, why not let him? ‘Twould be entertaining if nothing else."

"And that is exactly why the decision is not up to you," Zevran said as coldly as Baldur had ever heard him address anyone before. Which was all the more startling when he turned to Baldur and inquired much more warmly, "Baldur?"

Baldur eyed them all uncertainly, and then breathed out with a shrug.

"I suppose it couldn't hurt. If nothing else we can clear out a village of darkspawn and Honnleath isn't too far out of our way." Zevran beamed, but Morrigan threw her hands up with a sound of disgust.

"I see how ‘tis. That one bats his eyelashes and Baldur's falling all over himself to do his bidding," she accused, pointing a finger at Zevran who looked both guileless and satisfied. "If I'd known that pouting at him was all it would take to get my way, I'd have done it ages ago!"

Baldur reddened with indignation; a small part of him knew her accusations weren't entirely unfounded, but he wouldn't stand for being undermined so blatantly in front of the others.

Unexpectedly, it was Leliana who came to his defense.

"I have never seen you pout or bat your eyelashes at anyone in the entire time I have known you, Morrigan. What Zevran suggests isn't unreasonable and could very well work to our advantage."

Morrigan glared at her shrewdly. "And I imagine you'd be watching close enough to know if I did? I'm touched, Leliana, but I'm afraid I don't swing that way, darling."

"I wouldn't consider it even if the choice was between you and a hurlock," Leliana said primly, unperturbed.

"I certainly can't compete with jaws that can dislocate. The tongues on those things," Morrigan responded with a regretful sigh, and the other woman shook her head with a wry grin.

And just like that, the tension was diffused when Baldur was certain this would be the time Morrigan walked away and washed her hands of them all. Still, Baldur was aware that he might be showing favoritism to Zevran, and resolved that he wouldn't let his emotions get in the way of sense and reason in the future when others clearly knew more than he did about a subject.

Zevran hung back when the women went ahead to consult their map for directions, and Baldur looked up at him warily after storing the rod away safely in his pack. It wouldn't do to lose the damn thing after all the trouble it had already brought.

"I do not mean to sow discord between you and your friends," Zevran said quietly, tucking his hands against his sides after making an odd, aborted motion towards him.

Baldur couldn't tell if the movement was meant to be a clasp on the shoulder or a more personal touch. Not that it mattered, because Baldur was equally affected by any manner of contact from Zevran, which Zevran obviously knew and finally decided to take pity on Baldur, judging by the way he held himself back. Baldur inwardly grimaced at the idea of being so obvious, but it couldn’t be helped, unfortunately.

"This isn't a dictatorship. Everyone's opinion holds the same amount of weight in our group. I have to trust that if one of us has poor judgment the others will feel comfortable enough to object. I can't do this on my own, as much as I wish no one else had to suffer in my place."

"You are too kind by half." Zevran smiled sadly and this time did reach out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Baldur's ear, letting his hand linger on his cheek. "We unworthy, lesser beings certainly don't deserve you."

Baldur allowed himself a moment of weakness and turned his head to brush his lips in a barely-there kiss against the curve of Zevran's palm, pretending he didn't see the other's amber eyes go dark and focus on his mouth. He pulled back and cleared his throat. "We should catch up with the others."

Zevran dropped his hand and watched Baldur for a silent moment. Then he nodded and swept his hand in a courtly gesture before him, his jester's mask firmly back in place.

"Lead the way, oh Illustrious One."

---

The golem was a bust.

Baldur stood before the lumpy stone statue that looked vaguely man-shaped and held the control rod in hand. He solemnly intoned the activation words, aware of his companions waiting anxiously behind him.

"Dulef gar!"

His voice rang too-loud in the deserted village, hearing nothing in response save for a bird call in the distance and the crackling of fire from the burning buildings still smoldering around them. There was no answer or movement from the golem, if that was what the statue actually was. Baldur waited a second more, but nothing continued to happen and he had already become resigned that nothing would happen.

"Try it again," Zevran demanded after Baldur turned toward the group with a shrug.

"It did not work, so let it go already. I told you this would be a waste of time," Morrigan complained, but Baldur could see that she was frustrated as well.

They'd been hit hard with swarms upon swarms of darkspawn upon arriving in Honnleath, but Baldur was still unnerved that the village was entirely devoid of occupants. Usually there were survivors or warriors holed up somewhere. They had to pick their way through corpses of darkspawn and villagers alike, but there didn't seem anyone left alive to confirm what had happened, or why the golem hadn't been activated and ordered to protect the people.

He knew the control rod wouldn't work but he tried it again just to appease Zevran, unable to bear the crushed look in his eyes when the second attempt failed as expected.

Me cago en tu puta madre!” Zevran swore and ripped the control rod out of Baldur's hand with a vicious growl.

He charged up the small hill and started beating at the golem with the rod, yelling the ineffectual phrase the merchant had given them until Baldur recovered from his surprise and went after him. He wrapped his arms around Zevran's waist and pulled him away from the golem, shouting over him.

"Stop, Zevran! That's enough! Stop!"

Zevran fought against him in an almost berserker-like fury that worried Baldur, who never imagined the personable elf to have so much rage bottled up inside him.

"Ghivashel, please stop. It's okay, we'll find another way," Baldur pleaded as he pressed his forehead between Zevran’s shoulder blades. His helm knocked uncomfortably against Zevran's armor, but he refused to let go until Zevran calmed down.

Zevran gave one last enraged shout before he winged the rod at the golem's head and finally went still, panting and trembling in Baldur's arms. Baldur wanted nothing more than to take Zevran some place private and let him cool down, but they didn't have that luxury. He was hypersensitive to Morrigan and Leliana's stares on his back as if he'd been the one to break down, and he desperately wanted to protect Zevran from the entire world at that moment. Zevran didn't sink into the embrace, standing as stiff and unmoving as the golem he opposed, until Baldur slowly, reluctantly released him. Zevran spat at the ground at the golem's feet and retreated back down the hill without a word. Leliana and Morrigan gave him a wide berth as he disappeared into one of the buildings to blow off steam, or find something to kill, Baldur suspected.

He sighed and went to retrieve the control rod just in case. He actually found the rod in one piece where it landed next to the wooden fence surrounding the golem. He tried not to think about Zevran's outburst or the fact that he may have also gotten his own hopes up. He examined the golem in detail now that he didn't have to hurry to bring it to life. It was massive, towering over him with a solid build that looked vaguely masculine. Thankfully it wasn't entirely anatomically correct for a male because, proportionately, certain parts would be bigger than Baldur's arm, maybe even his leg. Its pose looked like it had been frozen mid-motion, arms outstretched and face tilted up to the sky. Baldur couldn't see its expression, but there was a certain tension in the rock that spoke of resistance or rage, or it could be that he was projecting. Either way, he almost felt remorseful that it had ended up here, alone and surrounded by death and completely stuck for perhaps forever. If the golem really was sentient, it was a miserable existence not likely improved by an impassioned elf hitting it with a stick.

"I'm sorry," Baldur whispered, resting his hand over what would be the creature's heart if it were living, and then immediately felt ridiculous.

"Come quick, I’ve found something!" Zevran suddenly called, his tone much improved from moments ago.

Baldur snatched his hand away from the golem and went to join the other three.

Zevran's search led them to survivors who were locked behind an energy barrier in one of the intact buildings. They had to cut through a hoard of hurlocks and wraiths and other nasty beings that were clearly determined to tear down the barrier, but finally all of the darkspawn were dead and the shimmery blue force field came down, a handful of people running past them for freedom. Baldur only hoped they hadn't missed killing any pockets of darkspawn in the village, otherwise their freedom would be very short-lived.

One man remained behind who claimed to be the son of the mage Wilhelm, the previous master of the golem.

"My mother hated that golem and very likely gave the merchant she sold the rod to the wrong phrase to ensure that Shale would never be woken again," the man, Matthias, explained when they indicated their interest.

"Why would she do that? Couldn't the golem have protected you from the darkspawn?" Baldur asked, and Matthias shook his head.

"That golem killed my father. My mother found his body laying so broken and twisted that he was nearly unrecognizable with the golem standing over him, frozen just the way you saw it outside. My father deserved better than that, but if you want to wake Shale up...well, it’s your problem now."

“What’s the command phrase?”

“I’ll give it to you, but I’ll need your help first.”

“Ah. There is always a catch, is there not?” Zevran mused.

“I know you’ve already saved my life, and I’m grateful, but my daughter is inside the laboratory. She was afraid and ran too far in before I could stop her. I don’t know how she made it past my father’s defenses. One of the men tried to go after her and was killed, but you could find her, couldn’t you?” Matthias’ voice went brittle and desperate. There was no telling how long the girl had been in the laboratory or if she was even still alive.

“Of course,” Baldur said. He didn't voice his doubts, although he believed their chances of finding Matthias’ daughter were dismal considering the infestation of darkspawn, never mind mage traps.

“You will? Oh, thank the Maker!”

“Oh goody,” Morrigan drawled, rolling her eyes as she shifted her weight and planted a fist on her hip. “More distractions. Just what we needed.”

“Let’s just go,” Baldur said, adjusting his grip on Aodr and entering through the door Matthias indicated.

The passageway was claustrophobic and cobwebs hung from the ceiling like delicate tapestry. Thick roots from trees above ground spidered through the cracks in the stone walls. The boxy tunnel opened up into a slightly larger room where soon enough they triggered one of the mage traps Matthias had warned them about and were set upon by several dust wraiths and shades. They were vile, hissing creatures twice the size of Baldur, but they fell quickly enough against their assorted weaponry and Morrigan’s blasts of magic. Perhaps the girl had been small or lucky enough to slip past the traps. A child would hardly make a snack for one of these creatures had she come across them.

Leliana picked the locks on a few chests they came across, cautious after the decoys they’d found in the temple. The mage had stored a few potentially helpful items, but what caught Zevran’s attention was an outcropping of brilliantly glowing crystals they spotted when crossing a dubiously constructed walkway comprised of mismatched planks of wood. Baldur very carefully did not look down. Zevran gingerly picked up a reddish crystal that seemed to throb brighter with his touch and Baldur could feel that it radiated warmth from where he stood.

“A fire crystal,” Zevran explained. He appeared pleased as he hastily wrapped the rock in a cloth and stored it in his pack, sucking on his singed fingertips absently. Baldur hoped it didn’t set either the pack or the elf alight. “Golems can equip certain crystals to make them more resilient to elemental or spiritual attacks.”

“How do you know so much about golems?” Baldur asked.

“A creature that walks around hard all the time is surely worth interest, no?” Zevran winked. Baldur blushed as hotly as the crystal in response, his attempts not to react utterly hopeless. “In any case, we should keep an eye out for more of these crystals. There is no telling when they will come in handy.”

They did find more crystals. Baldur picked up a violet stone that made electricity shoot through his hand and his hair stand on end. He yelped and dropped the blasted thing, but Leliana’s quick reflexes caught the crystal before it shattered. She had the lightning crystal wrapped and stored away before Baldur could shake the fiery prickles from his hand.

“Careful,” she cautioned with a quick smile that made Baldur’s heart trip over itself. She really was beautiful, but Baldur no longer felt the urge to pursue more with her, appreciating her more as a friend and ally than a potential lover. If Zevran hadn’t come along and wiped Baldur’s mind completely clear of anything else, then possibly...

He shook himself of that particular train of thought and nodded in thanks.

At the end of the walkway they approached a doorway that shimmered with a magical barrier, and beyond the spell he could hear a little girl’s voice. Against his better judgment, he reached out and touched a hand to the barrier. He let out a breath of relief when it only tingled and allowed him to pass instead of incinerating him.

“Amalia?” he ventured, approaching the little girl who was kneeling next to a ginger tabby. Baldur couldn’t imagine how both Amalia and a cat had survived down here, but he was relieved to find Matthias’ daughter alive, against all odds.

“Oh look! Someone’s come to play!” the girl said happily as she stood and turned towards the group without fear despite their doubtlessly intimidating appearance. “You have come to play, haven’t you? We’re playing a guessing game, but it’s better with more people.”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“Kitty and me, of course! Anyway, you should go if you aren’t going to play. Kitty finds you distracting.”

Baldur was startled by her presumptuous tone, as if she had no intentions of leaving this dismal and dangerous laboratory. He didn’t know how long she’d been down there, but he doubted the girl had access to food or water in quite some time, even though she looked perfectly content and healthy.

“We have to go. Your father is waiting for you,” Baldur said with a trifle impatience in his tone. He had no time or patience for games, especially from a spoiled child.

“I can’t go!” Amalia exclaimed, her two braids flying as she shook her head and dropped to her knees next to the cat, which just stared at Baldur unnervingly. “Kitty says she can’t come and I’m not leaving her! She’d be lonely.”

“You are so kind, Amalia,” the cat said, its eyes glowing violet.

Baldur snarled and drew his right arm back with Aodr raised to strike, throwing out his left hand and motioning towards Amalia. “Amalia, get away from that demon!”

“No! Leave me alone! Kitty!”

“Nothing you say will convince Amalia to go with you,” the cat purred haughtily. “She loves only me now.”

“I am not leaving without the girl.”

The cat licked its paw dismissively and then stood, its tail weaving languid spirals as it stretched, its rump up in the air. “Then it seems we are at a impasse. So let me propose a...compromise, of sorts. Release me, mortal, and let me have the girl. Let us return to her father and leave this place.”

“Don’t you think he’ll notice when a demon returns instead of his daughter?”

“Mortals are often blinded by hope. They see what they wish to see. If the father hopes to see Amalia alive and unharmed, perhaps he will.”

Baldur frowned, thinking quickly. He was an expert at circumventing the truth when he needed to, but he was unable to outright lie at a direct question, or at least not well enough to be convincing. Not even to a demon, apparently, otherwise he would have promised the demon its freedom and the girl in order to lure it away from Amalia and kill the demon after they’d gotten Amalia to safety. He was a tactile fighter and utterly useless against spirits or demons unless they took possession of a physical body. He just had to convince the demon not to inhabit Amalia's body.

"You can't keep the girl. But I will allow you to go free if I have your word that Amalia will remain unharmed.”

"Murrr," the demon-possessed cat crooned unhappily. "But I like the girl. I have been so alone for decades, until Amalia found me. However...if the price is my freedom..." the cat considered, turning glowing eyes between Amalia and the barrier. "...I agree to the deal. The mage’s wards hold me within this chamber and only a mortal may approach them. There is a trick to disarming the wards, but I do not know it. Perhaps you will succeed where the girl failed.”

“Oh! This is so exciting!” Amalia exclaimed as she jumped to her feet and clapped her hands in delight. “Kitty is going to be free!”

The cat stepped aside and Baldur saw a grid of tiles behind the demon with flame connecting several tiles together in the upper corner. Baldur approached the grid and shifted one of the tiles experimentally, noting that it slid easily. He moved another tile and roared as he was suddenly engulfed in flame. He rolled out of the way from the spout of fire arcing over him and beat at the flames.

"Baldur!" Leliana and Zevran shouted as they darted forward to help, but the cat hissed and moved threateningly towards Amalia. They stopped, looking uncertain.

Baldur waved them off, stinging but not too badly injured. He'd gotten worse from the dragon, after all. He moved off to the side and gathered his bearings, looking more closely at the grid, and even more cautiously at the spitting gouts of fire. He eventually noticed the tiles were marked with arrows, and the flame followed the direction of the arrow. The puzzle was complex in its simplicity, and Baldur found himself stymied and returning to the beginning again and again. He wiped the sweat out of his eyes and glanced up after what felt like several aggravating hours staring at the grid while nudging tiles back and forth. He noted that Amalia had gone back to happily chattering to the cat while his party had spread out, keeping the pair in eyesight but obviously looking bored. Zevran leaned against a pillar and observed Baldur’s struggles with the puzzle. Baldur was frustrated that it was taking so long. He considered, momentarily, grabbing Amalia and making a run for the barrier with the rest of his group, but the cat seemed to sense his thoughts and wound itself around Amalia’s shins possessively, refusing to separate from the girl.

Baldur sighed.

“Perhaps if you move the tile in the bottom corner back, and shift the one above it to the right?” Zevran suggested with an encouraging smile. “You can do this, my love.”

Baldur’s ears stung at the tips from his burns and his response to Zevran’s words, and he ducked his head and returned to the puzzle with renewed determination. He jumped out of the way of the fire as he followed Zevran’s suggestion and the tiles connected, creating a path of fire closer and closer to the opposite corner that would, hopefully, trigger the wards into dismantling. Baldur lost track of how much time passed or how many burns he sustained, but eventually, eventually the final tile slotted into place and the golden barrier at the entryway began to dissolve the moment the puzzle was completed.

“Yes...I can feel the magic fading!” the cat exclaimed rapturously. “Ohhh,” it groaned as it stretched, reveling as if invisible shackles had been released from its body. “I had forgotten how it felt to be free.”

“Kitty? What’s happening?” Amalia asked with trepidation.

“A wonderful thing, my dear. For both of us.”

“Remember our bargain,” Baldur threatened. The others responded to his tone and stood up straight, cautiously surrounding the demon and Amalia in a loose circle. “You may go, but the girl comes with us.”

“I have not forgotten,” the cat purred, an edge of flirtatious malice entering its feminine voice. “But I find myself...unwilling...to part with Amalia. She loves me and belongs to only me now.”

“Kitty! What’s happening? I don’t want to leave you!”

“Close your eyes, my dear. I promise we will never be parted.”

“No!” Baldur roared, leaping for the cat, but it was too late. The cat rose into the air and surrounded itself and Amalia in a violent burst of light. Baldur threw up his arms, blinded as he yelled out in impotent fury when the light receded and only Amalia stood where the cat had been.

“Stay your weapons!” Baldur shouted as he saw Leliana ready a bolt in her longbow in order to kill the demon through the girl, knowing the other two would act just as swiftly.

“Come now,” the demon purred, seemingly unfazed by the weapons trained on it. “I promise to take good care of Amalia. I only wish to see the world through her eyes and know what it is to be mortal.”

“I welcome the chance to show you your own mortality, demon,” Morrigan said, her staff crackling with energy as she held herself in a ready stance.

“You wouldn’t want to hurt Amalia, would you?”

“I care not for the child nor what becomes of her.”

“Perhaps you don’t, but the Warden does.”

All eyes were suddenly on Baldur, and he felt the weight of indecision pressing upon him until he could no longer breathe. Without anyone to hinder its exit, the demon leapt for the entryway wearing Amalia, its steps propelled with childish glee rather than in fear that anyone would stop its retreat after finally being set free. Baldur could no more kill Amalia than he could Connor when the Arl's son had been possessed by another desire demon and killed dozens of civilians and soldiers in the process.

"Is there nothing we can do?" Baldur demanded when the demon disappeared out of sight.

"You could order me back into the Fade to destroy the demon without having to kill the host. Simply provide me the person you wish to sacrifice for the ritual," Morrigan offered sweetly. "I am certain Matthias would gladly offer himself in exchange for his child, just as that wretched woman did in Redcliffe."

"I can’t allow that."

It was bad enough that Arl Eamon's wife died the first time they faced down a desire demon because Isolde had been too selfish to allow the Circle of Mages to take Connor and train him properly how to control his magic, thus leaving him susceptible to the evils that dwelled in the Fade. She had sacrificed herself to fuel the blood magic needed to send Morrigan into the Fade to defeat the last demon in the spirit realm without killing its host.

"We cannot allow this demon to live! What's to stop Amalia from raising hoards of undead? We can't let the same thing that happened in Redcliffe happen here too!" Leliana said, ready to run after Amalia herself if Baldur wouldn’t. He was desperate for another option even as he fingered the hilt of his dagger and eyed the doorway as he weighed whether he could actually kill a child in cold blood if the alternative meant she could wreak havoc upon her father and the few survivors there were before spreading her evil influence to other areas.

"Mm. That would be impossible," Morrigan said unexpectedly, leaning against her staff and looking bored.

"What?" Baldur said, startled. "How do you mean?"

"The demon in Redcliffe could only perform magic by channeling Connor's own abilities. 'Tis why demons generally do not bother possessing anyone except mages, as they are limited by what the body they inhabit is capable of ordinarily. Certainly the girl could cause damage with a knife or setting fires, as could any precocious child her age, but she has no latent magic abilities that the demon could use."

"How can that be? Both her father and grandfather were mages."

"Magic is not guaranteed to pass down through bloodlines, and can even skip several generations. Non-magical parents are also capable of producing mage offspring as well, though ‘tis rare. If you will not take my word on the matter, then ask her father once we return to the cellar. But I did not sense a spark within Amalia, and the demon is nearly as useless in its current form as it was as a cat."

"Matthias should at least know his daughter is possessed," Leliana protested.

Morrigan rolled her eyes. "Oh yes, and ensure the demon either kills Matthias or Amalia in retaliation for revealing its presence, and then what would have been the point of setting the dwarf on fire and wasting our time so thoroughly?"

Baldur looked toward Zevran, who was conspicuously without an opinion on the matter, and only shrugged a shoulder indifferently. He must have taken some of Morrigan's accusation that he unfairly influenced Baldur with his wiles to heart, but Baldur wished he had picked another time to practice restraint.

"Then I suppose we don't have much choice. Either I kill Amalia or the demon does, unless we allow Matthias to believe his daughter returned to him."

"She is still in there. Amalia. There is a chance that, in time, she may grow strong enough to push the demon out on her own, or more than likely Matthias will sense the presence of the demon and banish it himself."

Baldur had to admit the latter was the best case scenario in a handful of utter shite options. He could see the truth in Morrigan's reasoning especially when she couldn’t be troubled to concern herself on whether Amalia lived or died. Her callousness was jarring, and Baldur could never imagine himself being so disconnected from the suffering of others.

"Then that is what we will do," Baldur conceded with grave reluctance. He left Aodr in its scabbard as he turned toward the doorway and carefully led the group back across the rickety bridge and through the cramped passageway with no further surprises. His resolve was sorely tested when they emerged to find an overjoyed Matthias with Amalia tucked close against his side. The demon did not blink, but stared at Baldur with an air of smugness.

“You did it! You freed her! Thank you so much!”

“Yes, thank you for your...help,” the demon intoned through Amalia’s mouth, standing preternaturally still and unblinking even as the corner of its lips pulled up in amusement for the Warden’s predicament.

“Is everything alright, butterfly? You must have had quite a scare down there,” Matthias said as he looked down in concern at his daughter.

Baldur ached to say something, anything rather than to allow the charade to continue, but he remained rigidly silent, and the others followed his example.

“I am tired, Daddy,” the demon said, curling its hand around Matthias’ and looking up at the mage imploringly. “Can we go now?”

“Of course, sweetheart. Just let me finish up things here with the Warden.” Matthias looked at Baldur with only gratitude in his eyes, which made acid burn in Baldur’s stomach. “The phrase to activate Shale is ‘dulen harn’, if you still want that bloody thing. I wouldn’t if I were you.”

Baldur stiffly inclined his head in gratitude, knowing that if he spoke he would give the game away and endanger Amalia. He wasn’t about to kill the man’s daughter right in front of him. Matthias and Amalia quickly departed after a few more profuse words of thanks that struck Baldur’s breast like arrows. Baldur approached the wooden ladder leading straight up into a hatch that Matthias had climbed rather than passing back through the corpses of the darkspawn Baldur and his group had defeated. Matthias likely intended to spare his daughter some unnecessary trauma by not parading her past the dead darkspawn, except there was little chance of the demon becoming distressed from viewing the slaughter they had left. Most likely the demon would revel in the bloodshed.

Baldur could only hope Matthias would see through the demon’s deception quickly and perhaps even know a way to banish the demon without having to forfeit someone’s life in the process.

Either way, the matter was out of his hands, and they had a golem to awaken.

---

Sanâzyung – perfect/true/pure love (Khudzul)

Lo lamento, mi amor. – I’m sorry, my love. (Spanish)

Marlûn – love*-man (*passion)/lover (Khudzul)

Mi corazón - My heart (Spanish)

Me cago en tu puta madre – I shit on your whore mother (Spanish)

Chapter Text

Baldur approached the golem apprehensively. Zevran nearly treaded on his heels as he followed him into the small paddock where the golem was displayed. Baldur couldn't imagine why Wilhelm's wife allowed the golem to be so prominently featured where it would have been a daily reminder of her husband's violent end if the golem did indeed kill its master. Perhaps it had been too heavy to move very far, but then again maybe the widow needed the assurance that Shale remained in its inactive state where she could keep an eye on it.

Zevran practically vibrated in anticipation, and Baldur felt his pulse skitter momentarily in sympathy. He rose the control rod without fanfare and intoned what he hoped to be the correct control phrase, if only to keep Zevran from tearing down what remained of the village in a rampage were the rod and words to fail.

“Dulen harn!”

A flock of birds rose in the distance, but Baldur’s eyes were fixed on the golem, gaze intent on any movement or reaction. Matthias and Amalia were nowhere in sight, and if Matthias’ claims that the golem was violent were true then it was likely the mage hurried them both far enough away to be certain the golem wouldn’t be able to shift its revenge onto Wilhelm’s descendants.

“I think its head moved,” Zevran whispered into Baldur’s ear, his hands gripping Baldur’s shoulders so tightly that the armor groaned in protest. “Perhaps if we—“

Whatever Zevran was about to suggest was interrupted with a loud blast as the golem’s right arm shot into the air, pulverized rock flaking off the golem's stiffly shifting form as the left arm punched upward a second later. A brilliant light flashed in the hollows it had for eyes as well as on the runes inscribed on its forehead as the golem bowed its bald head downward to peer at Baldur before straightening to its impressive, full height.

“I knew the day would come when someone would find the control rod,” a voice like an avalanche echoed from the golem, intricate markings lighting up on its thick forearms and around its neck. “And not even a mage. Probably stumbled upon the rod by accident. Typical.”

“Er...hello?” Baldur ventured, shifting his feet beneath him to keep from overbalancing when Zevran nearly mounted his back in excitement, leaning his weight heavily against Baldur as if to get closer to the creature, but not too close just yet.

"I stood here in this spot and watched the wretched little villagers scurry around me for, oh, I have no idea how long. Many, many years. I was just beginning to get used to the quiet. Tell me, are all the villagers dead?"

"Not all of them," Baldur said cautiously on the chance the golem wanted to finish the job.

"Some got away, then? How unfortunate."

"Do you have a name?" Baldur asked. He knew Matthias called the golem 'Shale', but he didn't want to offend if that wasn't the golem's true name at all, and only what its master had called it.

"Perhaps. I may have forgotten after all the years of being called 'golem' while being tirelessly ordered about." A thought seemed to come to the golem. "It...does have the control rod, doesn't it? I am awake, so it...must..."

"Oh. Yes," Baldur floundered for a moment, nudging Zevran back a bit so he could raise the arm holding the rod.

"I see the control rod, yet I feel... Go on. Order me to do something."

"Alright. Walk over there," Baldur said as he waved his hand with the rod towards the far corner of the paddock.

The entire group looked at the golem expectantly.

"And...nothing? I feel nothing," the golem announced with cautious wonderment. "I feel no compulsion to carry out its command. I suppose this means the rod is...broken?"

In one collective motion, they all turned to look at Zevran accusingly. Zevran's eyes flicked between them with a mock appearance of innocence before he rose his hands, palms up, and shrugged with a grin. "Oops?"

Hearing Zevran’s voice must have triggered a recollection in the golem. The creature narrowed its glowing eyes as it took an aggressive step towards where Baldur and Zevran were standing. “I should crush it now, puny mortal. Or perhaps locate an entire tree to beat it with, as seems to be its custom.”

“I do apologize. I tend not to make the best first impressions, unfortunately. In fact, I attempted to assassinate our dear Grey Warden here upon our first meeting. Ah, what a fun memory, and now look at us all here together in perfect harmony!”

"The painted elf attacked the tiny bearded man and yet it still lives? Had the decision been mine, its skull would be pulp right now."

"Painted...elf... Oh! That's me! I do like that," Zevran beamed. "Oh, I don't know. Could you destroy something as pretty as I am?"

"Easily," the golem drawled.

"Then one wonders that you wouldn't be grateful to the one who allowed you to stretch your legs, golem," Morrigan said.

"Hmm. Another mage, I see. Charming." The golem sighed with a vague sound of disgust, even though its crag-like features remained expressionless. Having a face made from stone limited one's range of expressions, Baldur surmised. He was reconsidering the wisdom in deciding to awaken the golem, especially since the enormous creature seemed to be worryingly hostile to the one most insistent that it be activated. As the golem had apparently murdered its previous owner, this did not bode well for any of them, especially Zevran. The golem had taken an instant disliking to Zevran due to the elf’s earlier attack upon its person while unable to move or protest the violent treatment, which Baldur couldn't necessarily blame it for, but it did make things slightly more difficult.

“I believe introductions are in order,” Baldur stated loudly, drawing the golem’s attention away from the others and turning its unnerving, emotionless gaze upon him. “I am the Grey Warden, Baldur,” Baldur said simply, suspecting the golem wouldn’t be impressed by fancy titles or pompous gloating – not that he cared about those things either.

"Zevran, formerly of the Antivan Crows, at your service."

"I am Leliana. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"And you may call me Morrigan. Now, if these droll pleasantries are finished?"

The golem hummed suspiciously, a sound like crashing boulders. "So, here is a question for the painted elf.”

“Certainly. What is it?”

“Am I to understand correctly that the painted elf is a crow?"

"Not literally, but, yes. I am a Crow."

"As in a bird?" it said with rising disdain.

"Is there another sort?"

"So the painted elf assaults helpless statuary with its feces," the golem accused, appearing to grow larger as it apparently took offense to Zevran's easy admittance. Zevran only shrugged.

"If given sufficient cause, why not?"

"That is outrageous! The painted elf will stay away from me. Or else."

Zevran sighed, "I get a lot of that."

Attempting to get on the golem’s good side really was not working as Baldur had planned, but deactivating the golem was no longer an option since the control rod was broken.

“You have free will now,” Baldur stated, watching the golem carefully. “What will you do?”

"It is simply...what should I do? I have no memories, beyond watching this village for so long. I have no purpose... I find myself at a bit of a loss. What about it? It must have awoken me for some reason, no? What did it intend to do with me?"

Baldur's eyebrows furrowed, stymied at being referred to as an 'it', but he supposed turnabout was fair play as he'd been referring to the golem as an 'it' in his own mind. He wasn't certain how golem genders worked. If anything, the golem looked and sounded masculine, but he didn’t dare assume lest he chance offending the golem further since the golem didn't have any apparent genitalia and he couldn't exactly point as much out.

"I don't intend to do anything with you," Baldur said honestly. Zevran hissed, elbowing him between the shoulder blades until Baldur swatted him away.

"Ah," the golem said. "How...unexpected. Yet refreshing. I suppose I have two options. Go with it or...go elsewhere? I do not even know what lies beyond this village."

"You're welcome to come with me," Baldur offered, which mollified Zevran for the time being.

"I will follow it about then...for now. I am called Shale, by the way."

"We are very pleased to have you, Shale," Baldur said, his welcome nearly drowned out by Zevran's cheer as the elf hugged Baldur's head before releasing him to tackle Leliana with an enthusiastic embrace and a loud, sloppy kiss on her cheek.

"Do not even think about it," Morrigan threatened, her hand raised and glowing an ominous blue as she narrowed her eyes at Zevran when he took a step towards her after releasing a flustered Leliana, his arms outstretched.

"This should be interesting," Shale remarked.

---

They located an area to camp before nightfall far enough away from stench of burned wood and rotting corpses.

“Oh, your poor face,” Zevran tsked sadly as he tilted Baldur's face upward and applied a pungent paste to his exposed skin which immediately cooled the aching burns that still smarted even after swallowing a few mouthfuls of a restorative potion as a precaution.

Baldur hadn't planned on being burned into a cinder outside of the temple, which only stressed the need for upgraded and fire-resistant armor. He was truthfully more concerned that either his eyebrows or beard had been burned clean off and he patted his face when Zevran was done greasing him up. He let out a breathy sigh of relief that all of his hair was as it should be, if not crunchier and slightly shorter than it had been previously. Baldur was so preoccupied with thoughts that he sputtered when Zevran leaned down to kiss his lips, greasy with ointment, and nearly fell on his arse.

“A copper for your thoughts, amor?”

Baldur glanced up at Zevran, and then looked away as his brow furrowed. “Amalia.”

He was aggravated with himself for hesitating to kill the demon in the beginning. He replayed the scenario with different options and potential outcomes that hadn’t ended in Amalia being possessed. He could have killed the desire demon rather than waste time figuring out that blasted puzzle, or turned around and retrieved Matthias for help, or at least found a way to send word to him that all was not as it appeared with his daughter, but Mahal only knew where the mage was now. Further loss of life would happen if he didn't strengthen his resolve and take necessary action when the opportunity presented itself.

Baldur built himself up into a righteous fury soon enough and wandered away from the camp and Zevran’s concerned looks to expel his frustration on a few hapless trees with Aodr. When his arm threatened to give out after creating enough kindling to last them the rest of the year, he stomped through the underbrush and kicked up dirt and leaves as he muttered angrily to himself. Several critters scurried away as they hissed at him for disturbing their homes, but he took no notice of them nor the chill that took hold when the sun set. Baldur must have been gone for hours, although there was little doubt the others could hear his angry outbursts and know that he hadn’t been carried away by darkspawn. He would be a changed dwarf from this point forward, determined that he would no longer hesitate in any of his decisions. From this moment on, he would harden his heart and take rather than ask.

He knew the first step he had to take in order to leave his skittishness behind.

"Zevran!" Baldur shouted as he stomped back into camp, his jaw clenched with purpose.

"You bellowed, my darling?" Zevran asked with an amused expression, looking up from where he was sharpening his blades as he sat on a tree stump near the campfire. Baldur refused to be sidetracked by the endearment, stubbornly ignoring the warm glow that took up residence behind his ribs.

"I have something I wish to discuss with you." Baldur’s tone was stern and his brows furrowed as his arms crossed formidably over his puffed up chest. “In my tent.”

"Oh? Is there something in your tent that needs assassinating?"

"What?" Baldur started, and then shook his head, frowning as his arms dropped to his sides and hung there awkwardly while he fidgeted. "I just want to talk to you. In...in private."

"Whatever would we need privacy to...talk...about?" Zevran said playfully. "Tactics? Poison recipes? The Midsummer dance?"

Baldur hated that he couldn't get a serious response without Zevran teasing and flirting so outrageously. His deflection made attempts at serious conversation unbearable when Baldur was already highly strung to begin with. Losing his temper and his nerve, Baldur gave his attempt at authority one last shot and snapped, "In the tent. No more questions."

Clearly this was the wrong thing to say.

"Yes ser," Zevran purred lasciviously as he straightened and set aside his dagger, immediately getting Baldur's blood up by the way he wouldn't just...be...quiet. "But I'll have you know I am very resistant to interrogation tactics. You just may have to beat any answers out of me...creatively."

Baldur's tenuous hold on his willpower snapped and he hid his crestfallen expression behind one hand before Zevran could see.

"I can't," Baldur gasped, shuddering all over. "I just...can’t. Never mind."

Zevran seemed to be more amused than disappointed, suggesting, "If you change your mind, my tent is always available."

Baldur left without another word, nearly too worked up to see straight. He would rather take on a thousand Hurlocks with only a dinner knife than attempt that conversation again. Everyone else would start retreating to their respective tents or bedrolls for some much needed rest soon, and Baldur wasn't going to deprive them of sleep because he was emoting all over the entirety of Ferelden. He withdrew Aodr and went about finding more trees to ‘kill’ until he could force himself into an exhausted sleep. He would have to find some other way to overcome his shortcomings, which was becoming increasingly more difficult as his failures stacked up one after the other until he felt buried under the weight of them. There were abilities dwarves were able to access with years of instruction and training, but Baldur just didn’t have that long, and certain techniques were only used as a last resort due to the considerable toll they took on the user. He had to do something, though. Perhaps Alistair would have some coping mechanisms considering he was the only other Grey Warden Baldur knew and had faced similar losses.

Matters were not helped when upon his return to camp the second time he saw Zevran had arranged their bedrolls nearly one on top of the other next to the campfire instead of retiring to his tent. Baldur bit back a sigh and did not press the issue, especially when Zevran was already occupying his own bedroll and greeted Baldur with a warm, expectant smile that Baldur felt all the way to his toes.

Somehow, he should have known that smile was only hiding nefarious purposes.

Baldur shucked his heavier armor and laid down with his back to Zevran, feeling the warmth of the fire at his front and the elf’s body close to his own at his back lulling him with unexpected swiftness into an exhaustion that perhaps would allow him a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. He was on the verge of succumbing to slumber when the quiet sound of rustling drew him back from that dark precipice, an even softer moan that followed alerting him into full wakefulness even though he did not move, listening intently.

When he realized what was happening behind him, Baldur nearly smashed his forehead with a balled up fist as he bit back his own moan.

Zevran was by no means subtle when he apparently decided to enact the next stage in either seducing or punishing Baldur by shamelessly indulging in self-pleasure right in the middle of camp. Shale was set up as a stone sentry with Leliana to take first watch and keep an eye on the golem, which was customary after introducing any new member into their party and not only assassins. Morrigan always kept her tent and bedroll apart from the others, but sound tended to travel and both he and Zevran were more or less exposed to the open night air.

Zevran was nearly close enough to touch. Baldur could tell when the sound of his hand rasping over dry skin became slick and wet, his breath shivering hotly over the back of Baldur’s neck. Zevran must have been incredibly repressed, because he finished quickly with a soft grunt as his forehead pressed against the back of Baldur’s flushed neck. The sound of his hand became outright squishy until it slowed and then stilled entirely. Baldur barely managed to bite back a whine as he ground his palm against the front of his trousers, breathing harshly through his nose as he fought not to give in and take himself in hand as well. He could practically feel the smug satisfaction radiating off Zevran as the man wiped off his hand and pressed a chaste kiss to the sensitive spot just behind Baldur’s ear. He fell asleep almost immediately after that brazen display while Baldur was left entirely tense and so frustrated that he could scream.

Baldur was groggy and in a foul mood by the time morning arrived. He came inches from biting Zevran’s nose off when the chipper elf attempted to kiss him awake, blissfully unaware that Baldur hadn’t slept at all.

"I have noticed the painted elf seeks the attention of the Grey Warden," Shale suddenly announced once they were back on the road, as if stating the sky were blue or there were doves in a tree nearby that it desperately wanted to kill. Life as a statue had made Shale resentful towards birds and dogs and their respective bowel movements which they tended to relieve on the immobile golem in the past.

"He certainly does," Zevran agreed brightly as their newly expanded group set forth towards Denerim after Baldur declared there would be no further detours until they arrived and obtained the necessary armor and equipment to face the dragon back in Haven. No one dared object despite the obvious misgivings they all had, including Baldur himself.

"Pah! I watched many such couplings during the time I spent immobile in Honnleath. Or, I should say, I was forced to watch. You do know this usually ends in reproduction?"

A shocked snort of laughter escaped Morrigan and Baldur tripped over a divot in the road. He was barely kept from falling on his face by Zevran's hand wrapping securely around his upper arm, thoroughly familiar with Baldur's clumsiness when the dwarf was flustered without warning.

"I doubt that would be a problem in this particular instance, but who knows? The act of creation is grand fun," Zevran said with a wink at Baldur, who ducked his head and blushed as Zevran transferred his grasp from Baldur’s arm to his hand with a gentle squeeze. He didn’t relinquish his hold, to Baldur’s astonishment, but likely only in order to keep Baldur from careening off into a ditch or a field of cornstalks.

"So you say,” Shale mused. “I have no idea how a golem is created, but I doubt I shall be creating one anytime soon."

"Just as well, I imagine. Any lover of yours would no doubt be quickly reduced to a puddle of bruises."

"So you see me winning the affections of another golem, do you? Most golems are slaves to whomever holds their control rod."

"Funny. It works exactly the same way for us as well."

Baldur groaned and dropped his eyes to the ground, wondering if he prayed hard enough the packed dirt underneath his boots would open up and swallow him whole.

To say that he was preoccupied would be redundant, as Baldur was rarely caught not brooding about something, but he noticed himself staring at Zevran more pensively throughout the day. Normally he would duck the other’s gaze in a fluster when Zevran returned his look with a knowing leer or wink, often following up with a kiss or by taking Baldur’s hand in his own as they walked. The fact that even a golem with no understanding of relationships or complicated emotions had noticed their interest in each other was no surprise, as anyone with eyes, regardless of species, could decipher that much by only looking at them. Baldur knew he wouldn’t be able to survive another night like the last, if only because the sleep deprivation would get him killed in battle.

His resolution must have shown on his face, because Zevran glanced down at him with a raised eyebrow and inquired, “Something the matter, my love?”

Baldur only shook his head and tugged on their joined hands. He raised the other to catch Zevran around the back of his neck, drawing him down into a hard, hungry kiss. When Baldur pulled back enough to rest their foreheads together, he could feel Zevran’s surprised pleasure at Baldur initiating affection, especially in such a public display. Leliana giggled while Morrigan made overdone gagging noises and Shale rumbled its displeasure.

Tonight.

It would be tonight, and nothing short of an attack from the Archdemon itself would dissuade Baldur’s resolve.

---

“Would you care to join me in my tent?”

"We have done this song and dance before, are you certain? We do not have the luxury of privacy..."

Baldur stared at the ground between his mud-splattered boots for an indeterminate amount of time, feeling the wild panic in his mind clash with the calm certainty in his heart until one finally triumphed over the other. He looked up at Zevran, patient and beautiful and everything he never knew he wanted or needed.

"Yes,” he said, his voice rough and tight, but his eyes pleading. “Please take me to bed."

"It would be my greatest pleasure."

Baldur had set up his tent as far from the others as possible, regardless of how futile the precaution would be. The ragged cloth sides wouldn't muffle so much as a mouse's sneeze, but at least their activities wouldn't be entirely on display.

'Bed' was a relative term, which meant throwing both of their bedrolls and thin blankets into a pile on the hard, rocky ground in Baldur's flimsy tent that even he had to duck in order to enter. This time they helped each other out of their armor without needing to ask. Baldur’s eyes were kept bashfully averted until Zevran paused in unbuckling Baldur’s chestplate to tug him in by the straps for a long, heated kiss. Their mouths didn’t part as they stripped away the rest of the armor in record time. Baldur hesitated with his trembling fingers clenched on the hem of Zevran's tunic which was in better condition than Baldur's own tattered garments, even stained with blood and sweat.

"Do you... Should I get cleaned up first?" Baldur asked self-consciously, not even wanting to calculate how long it'd been since any of them had a bath that involved more than splashing their hands and faces in an icy cold stream. Dwarves were known for their strength and power rather than a keen sense of smell, but the same couldn’t be said for elves, he was certain.

“Absolutely not,” Zevran said firmly. “I am not permitting you a chance to get away from me again. If you are not out of your clothing within the next five seconds, I’m afraid they will meet the same fate as your old tent.” Zevran’s dagger made a reappearance, and Baldur swallowed back a moan at the thought, even though practicality reminded him he did not have enough clothing to spare that these ones could be torn asunder from his very person.

"Have you ever made love to a man before?" Zevran murmured into his neck after they had removed all of their clothing with due haste.

They kissed until Zevran's already lush mouth was swollen and red from the scratch of Baldur's beard as they slowly lowered themselves to lay facing each other atop their bedding. Their hands did not yet stray below the other's waist, but Baldur's erection was snug against Zevran's hip while the elf ground his own restlessly against Baldur's muscular thigh covered in thick, coarse hair. The tent allowed very little light inside, but Baldur didn’t need his eyes to know how exquisite Zevran was, bared before him in all of his splendor as his fingers ran reverently over warm, scarred flesh.

"Once," Baldur admitted hesitantly, "In Denerim." He didn't clarify that his first encounter with the same sex had been with a prostitute, instead resting his lips against Zevran's smooth cheek as they held each other close.

"Ah, I see," Zevran said pleasantly, but Zevran was pleasant even when he was in the middle of killing something, so Baldur couldn't tell how well received the information actually was. "I imagine this lover has been missing you desperately and pines away the hours awaiting your return. It is fortunate we are passing through Denerim so that he may content himself with your exquisite presence once again."

Baldur swallowed hard, desiring nothing more than to remain silent and allow Zevran to make assumptions as he would. If Zevran thought he had a lover, though, Baldur risked the chance that he would believe theirs to be a casual relationship that extended no further than their mutual pleasure. Baldur couldn't bear the thought of Zevran politely distancing himself physically or emotionally to avoid coming between Baldur and his nonexistent paramour.

"It wasn't in the manner you think," Baldur said, dragging out his words as if to delay the explanation. He knew, now, that Zevran had been raised by prostitutes and held a fond place in his heart for them, but he didn't know how Zevran's opinion of him would change when he knew Baldur had once paid for sex, regardless that the exchange of money for certain services had happened before he'd even heard of the Crows. "I--It was at The Pearl, so..."

Baldur stuttered and stumbled into an abashed silence, his hands tense and still where they'd been stroking along Zevran's back and hip. Zevran was quiet for longer than Baldur could ever recall him being unless he was unconscious, and he squeezed his eyes shut in despair, knowing that he had likely ruined everything. The sex hadn't been exceptional or even necessary at the time, and the decision had been more about satisfying an impulse rather than out of any true desire. It had been a long while since Baldur had found release even from his own hand and sex with no strings attached held its own appeal. He’d only wanted to satisfy a curiosity that he’d harbored for many years in Orzammar, but had no opportunity to indulge due to his recognizable face and royal standing that would bring unaccountable shame to the Aeducan name if his proclivities were made public. Even equipped with the newfound knowledge of his preference for other males, fighting for his life daily and being in constant proximity to his companions had effectively diminished his libido until he had met Zevran, who stoked the dying embers of arousal in his belly into a roaring pit of fire.

"I imagine you were in very capable hands then," Zevran's voice came in an unexpectedly husky purr as his hand slid down and between Baldur's legs to cup his stones. His thumb was a line of heat on the underside of Baldur's cock, which could have been used to chisel through a mountainside at the moment. "You must show me what he has taught you."

Zevran's lips caught his in a passionate kiss that Baldur surrendered to helplessly when Zevran moved fluidly over him and settled against his hips.

"I thought...I thought you'd be upset," Baldur gasped when Zevran had thoroughly inspected Baldur's tonsils to his own specifications and finally let him up for air. Color had infused Zevran's sculpted cheekbones and his eyes glittered with lust as he pulled back and cradled Baldur's cheek with his free hand, his expression unbearably fond.

"Why ever would you think that, you darling thing? I know from very reputable sources that Sanga's employees would have been falling over themselves for an opportunity to service one so irresistible and impressively endowed such as yourself. I may have to consider...dissuading...several would-be suitors when they catch word you are back in town."

Zevran's smile went dangerous and possessive. Baldur felt a thrill run up and down his spine as his cock leapt in Zevran's callused hand with obvious approval.

"Since Denerim was so far away when we first crossed paths, allow me to guide our coupling this first time while you relax and refamiliarize yourself with the fundamentals of pleasure between two men."

Zevran nipped at Baldur's bottom lip and soothed his tongue along the tiny hurt, teasing Baldur's length with the tips of his fingers until the dwarf was bucking his hips urgently up into Zevran's and keening.

"Hush..." Zevran breathed against his mouth, although Baldur could tell he was pleased at the responses he was eliciting.

Baldur was dangerously close to spending already, but Zevran thankfully removed his hand after a last, lingering stroke before Baldur embarrassed himself and cut their time together short. Zevran's delectable bottom was flush against Baldur's thighs, his own long, slender member equally distressed as it bobbed between his legs when he shifted and leaned over to retrieve something from his discarded trousers. A pearly string of fluid momentarily connected the tip of his weeping cock to the smooth skin just below his navel before snapping when he resumed his upward seated position with a tiny vial in his hand, which he uncorked and spilled the contents over his fingers that wafted a light, herbal fragrance.

"I'm afraid it has been a while since I have received one so well-equipped such as yourself, so allow me a moment to prepare myself."

Zevran's eyes remained locked on Baldur's in wicked challenge as he discarded the empty vial and moved his hand around behind him, raising up on his knees so Baldur could see his deft fingers working to stretch himself.

"Oh blessed Ancestors, you will be the death of me," Baldur groaned unthinkingly, his eyes flickering helplessly between Zevran's flushed face and his thrusting fingers. “Ghivashel.

"Then let us both enjoy these little deaths," Zevran answered, his voice trailing off into a breathless moan of anticipation as he quickly slicked Baldur with the fingers that had been inside himself and grasped him at the base as he began impaling himself on Baldur's length. Baldur's hands caught at Zevran's narrow hips, grasping hard enough to leave bruises, but he neither forced Zevran down to take him in his entirety nor pushed him off so Baldur could collect his bearings, already sweating and swearing profusely.

"Your blasphemes are like Andraste's dulcet tones to my ears," Zevran gasped with a delighted laugh at the normally quiet dwarf's creatively filthy tongue when he was aggravated in such a pleasurable manner.

Zevran rose and sunk progressively further until Baldur was finally fully sheathed within him, the stretch almost more than either could bear. Zevran cried out as if the noise had been punched out of him when he lifted almost entirely off of Baldur and plunged down swiftly, repeating the motion and becoming progressively louder in his passion as he rode him with brutal efficiency while Baldur could only hold on desperately and fight off completing too soon.

The walls of the tent were parchment-thin and drafty, so there was no doubt the entire encampment was privy to their enthusiastic coupling, but Baldur couldn't manage to find the urge to care. Zevran was beautiful and fierce above him as he stole Baldur's pleasure and returned it to him a thousand fold, riding him harder and faster until he stiffened with a strangled cry and ejaculated without a hand upon himself, marking Baldur's belly, chest, and the underside of his chin with splashes of seed.

"Baldur!" Zevran cried out in his ecstasy, barely pausing before he resumed his frantic thrusts, contracting in spasms around Baldur's hardness. "Come for me, cariño!”

The unfamiliar language spoken so fluidly from Zevran's talented tongue sparked an unstoppable tide within him. Baldur spilled with a bellow that was frighteningly similar to the war cry he uttered before he lost all reason and his body engaged without input from his mind in battle until every last obstacle lay slaughtered before him. Thankfully there was no carnage this time, but when Baldur came back to himself Zevran had collapsed against his chest, sucking in air laboriously and slick with their combined fluids. The lack of salacious comment from Zevran was vaguely alarming considering what they had just done, but the elf seemed to barely be clinging to consciousness, still joined at their most intimate places.

Baldur wrapped his arms around Zevran and buried his face in his tangled blond hair, breathing deeply of sweat and spice and something intangible, like metal and warm earth, until his own heart rate returned to normal. He could hear no sounds from outside, and Baldur tried not to speculate what that meant, knowing he would hear all about their indiscretion in the morning.

"I do believe you fucked out whatever remaining brain cells I had left," Zevran eventually voiced in a thoroughly ravished and wondering tone as he turned his face from the warm burrow he had made between Baldur's neck and shoulder to be certain his words weren't muffled. He didn't attempt to move any further than that, still wrapped around Baldur's supine form.

Baldur hummed in agreement and stroked his fingers through Zevran's hair, which had come loose from the braids he wove back from his temples. “Could I ask you something?”

“Oh? So this was an interrogation after all? I am impressed by your wily methods. You may ask a question, but I get to stare at you luridly while you do so."

Zevran made every last coherent thought fly out of his head and Baldur faltered, forgetting entirely what he was going to say and instead blurting out, "Tell me what Antiva is like?"

He didn’t even hear the response as he stared helplessly up at the uninspiring view of his tent, his heart beating anew.

"If you don't mind terribly, I rather not speak further of Antiva," Zevran finished, after a lengthy spiel extolling its virtues. "It makes me homesick, thinking there is a very good chance I may not return."

Of course Baldur had to pick a sore subject and completely stick his foot in his mouth.

“I...understand. My apologies.”

His hands and everything else were shaking, which he hid by pulling self-consciously into himself. He hadn't gotten this worked up battling werewolves or giant living trees, so he didn't understand what was so terrifying about Zevran when the elf had never been anything but cordial and flirtatious with him. Baldur was at a loss, especially since he’d been so certain that finally giving in and sleeping with Zevran would cure him of his obsession, but it seemed his fondness – and subsequently his nervousness - had only grown stronger. But of course, such was the case for sanâzyung, if Baldur had any doubts left whatsoever that Zevran was his.

"Now it is my turn to ask a question, as is only fair. What is that you call me? Geeva-something?"

Baldur cocked his head in confusion, thinking back quickly to when he would have called Zevran anything other than his name, and then all at once his face went immediately, flaming red as he remembered. He ducked his head to hide his expression in his hands, but Zevran's sharp eyes missed nothing.

"Oh?" Zevran said, sounding intrigued. "It is something terribly filthy not meant to be overheard in public?"

Baldur shook his head, groaning.

"For example: Me encanta cojerte pero me vuelves loco. Te quiero cubrir con mi leche desde la cabeza hasta los pies.”

"I have no idea what you just said, but I'm sure several milkmaids all the way in Antiva have fallen over in shock without knowing why."

"It would not be the first time I have gotten a milkmaid on her back without even a touch," Zevran purred. "I could gladly translate for you, cariño."

Baldur lifted his head, eyeing Zevran speculatively even though he was still flushed.

"Perhaps I would not say no to that offer when we don't have an audience," he said quietly, scrubbing at his hot cheeks with his rough palms as if he could diffuse the heat that way.

"Mmmm. I bet you say the most enchanting things in dwarvish. Your language, from what I have heard so far, is beautifully guttural and passionate.”

“I do miss hearing it,” Baldur admitted. He had been speaking Common for so long that he feared that he would somehow forget Khudzul regardless that both languages had been instilled in him since birth, as was customary for most races. The more reclusive races refused to speak in anything but their own native tongue, and Baldur wasn’t certain if darkspawn had words of their own, or only communicated through the psychic directive of the Archdemon, which Baldur heard echoing throughout his dreams. “Ghivashel...”

“Yes, that’s the one! What is its meaning?”

“Well... The literal translation is ‘Treasure of all Treasures’, an endearment for those we hold closest to our hearts.”

“You never told me you were a romantic!” Zevran protested. “I just may have to poison that man's morning tea out of jealous spite," he said contemplatively, weaving his fingers into the thick pelt of hair covering Baldur's chest and pressing a kiss over his heart, which caused the poor, overtaxed organ to skip a beat.

"Which man?" Baldur asked, struggling to recall if they had met anyone in their recent travels in need of poisoning. Aside from Loghain, that was. Baldur had likely dribbled out his brain through his cock as well, and coherent thoughts were foggy at best.

"The one who had you first at The Pearl, of course. Do not worry. He'll feel no pain," Zevran assured Baldur, which wasn't assuring at all.

Baldur could not honestly tell if Zevran were jesting or not, but just in case a man's sodden body ended up mysteriously at the bottom of a well sometime in the upcoming days while The Pearl suddenly ended up with one less employee, Baldur decided to head Zevran's bloodthirsty tendencies off at the pass.

"He was only doing the job I paid him to do," Baldur chided gently, beginning to re-braid Zevran's hair in an alarmingly intimate liberty he wasn't certain the elf would allow, even after sharing each other's bodies and details of their respective pasts only very few were privileged to know. "If not for him sharing his body with me, I may not have had the courage to approach you or accept your advances."

Zevran went silent in contemplation. Baldur had to fight not to hold his breath as he tied off the silken braid with a bit of string unraveling from the bottom of the tent nearest his hand, twisting the length of gold around his finger once before reluctantly allowing the small braid to drop back into the loose fall of Zevran's hair. Finally, Zevran released a long, slow breath before tipping his head so his other cheek lay against Baldur's chest. He nudged at Baldur's arm until the dwarf received the hint and began separating strands of hair to make a second braid, his heart high in his throat.

"I may need to send him flowers instead," Zevran conceded reluctantly, nuzzling Baldur's chest when he finished his braiding with a final stroke over the simple, finished style, leaving his hand curled warmly against the back of Zevran's neck.

"Thank you," Baldur rumbled softly, his voice thick with sleep as he unsuccessfully tried to stifle a yawn.

Zevran relaxed against him in a heavy but welcome weight. Baldur slung an arm around his waist to ensure he didn't roll off during the night, foregoing his scratchy wool blanket for a much more pleasant living furnace instead. Baldur was nearly asleep before a thought occurred to him.

"You're not sending him hemlock or any other lethal plant in a bouquet either," he said sternly, and Zevran stiffened tellingly.

"You ruin all of my fun," he accused, nipping at Baldur's shoulder resentfully.

Zevran yelped when Baldur pinched him in the backside as a final warning. The assassin dutifully refrained from comment and instead shifted in Baldur's secure hold, wincing when Baldur slipped out of him with a wet, obscene sound. Zevran made no effort to clean up, but he was certain to jab Baldur with an elbow in retribution for waylaying his unsubtle scheming before they both settled to catch what few hours remained of the night to sleep.

---

Baldur was awakened in the most astonishing manner, gently urged into consciousness with the wet, silken heat of Zevran's mouth enveloping him and light fingers teasing his bollocks. They were both quiet when Baldur peaked and spilled onto Zevran's tongue, his hand braced against Zevran's shoulder as the other sucked and licked him clean.

Baldur hauled him up into his arms when he was unable to bear the kittenish licks of Zevran's tongue, kissing him roughly until he could no longer taste himself in the damp hollow of Zevran's mouth. Zevran's arousal rocked demandingly against his hip until Baldur took him in hand and brought him off within a few strokes, kissing him through the waves of pleasure until Zevran shuddered and stilled against him with a satisfied sigh.

Baldur rarely lingered in the mornings, but he felt as if it would take an act from Mahal himself to remove him from the exquisite joy of simply laying with his beloved and bask in the afterglow of their coupling. Reality laid outside his tent, and Baldur was in no hurry to rejoin whatever trials waited in store for them this day. However, a pervading sense of duty only allowed him a moment of indulgence before he reluctantly disentangled himself from Zevran's long limbs and began to prepare for the day ahead.

They cleaned up as well as they could without running water and got dressed in companionable silence; Zevran assisted in strapping Baldur into all of his gear and armor, and Baldur redid Zevran’s braids as the assassin hid knives and vials of toxin along his person. Baldur spared a moment of relief that Zevran hadn't mixed up the oil he'd used last night with one of his deadly concoctions while caught in the fog of lust and urgency. He made a note to acquire lubricant himself and keep it especially segregated from Zevran's personal stores if they were to continue their relations in the future. Baldur desperately hoped they would continue developing their newly physical relationship rather than snipping that particular bloom while it was still in its glorious prime. He wouldn't be able to bear Zevran's playful flirtations or close company if he was never permitted to touch him again, but he was unsure of the proper etiquette that followed laying with one's companion and would-be assassin.

“I must admit, I knew this would happen eventually. I should have warned you right from the moment you refused to kill me. Having sex with me was inevitable,” Zevran said with an air of haughty humor and Baldur scowled at him, even though there was no heat to the expression.

“You’re practically a public menace,” he said, recalling that his tipping point had been when Zevran had decided to pleasure himself right next to Baldur in the middle of camp.

“It’s true. They used to issue warnings about me at the Antivan border. Ah, the good old days. So then, what now?”

Baldur looked up at him, startled. “Well...I. I suppose I was hoping this wasn’t just a one-time deal? I really like you, Zevran,” he finished apprehensively.

Zevran hummed and looked at Baldur in consideration as he tucked a stray lock of hair behind Baldur’s ear. “I was raised to take my pleasures where they could be found, for they do not come very often. I shall ask nothing more of you than you are willing to give.”

“But...” Baldur started, and then swallowed as the words stuck in his throat. “how do you feel about a more...permanent arrangement, I guess is what I’m asking.” Baldur was unaccountably nervous, laying his heart at Zevran’s feet after sleeping with him once. “What about...love?”

Baldur saw the moment Zevran shut himself down and pulled away. He cursed himself a thousand times for pushing when he should have just followed Zevran’s lead and kept matters between them casual without bringing attachments into their relationship.

“I was born of a whore and bred as an assassin. All I know is of pleasure and death. What room is there in these things for love? At any rate, we should be on our way. A new day awaits us, or so the rumor goes.”

Baldur was braced for jeering or a barrage of complaints when they finally left the flimsy confines of his tent. What he wasn't expecting was a shimmery blue barrier surrounding them in a dome. He glanced at Zevran, who only looked amused, and reached out to touch the transparent wall. Magic tingled at his fingertips before the barrier disintegrated and a rush of noise greeted them from the sounds of an awakening camp.

"A sound barrier. Very impressive magic, this," Zevran said. Baldur couldn't help being mortified and grateful for the implications of its presence around their tent. "Perhaps if we do not aggravate the mage too much, Morrigan would be willing to cast the charm for us every night, hm?"

Zevran grinned at Baldur with a ridiculous waggle of his brows, looking impossibly radiant and relaxed in the morning light. It took Baldur a moment to realize what that statement implied - that they would have need for such a spell every night. Once he did make the connection he blushed to the roots of his hair and ducked his head with a relieved nod.

"Aliento de Creator. How are you even possible my fierce, sweet dwarf?" Zevran murmured, leaning down to catch the tip of Baldur's beard between his thumb and forefinger and raise his face to press a lingering kiss to his lips, uncaring of who might see.

Baldur would take whatever he could get from Zevran without expecting or asking for more, grateful beyond words that he would still be allowed to look and touch rather than delegated to pine from afar.

---

Me encanta cojerte pero me vuelves loco. Te quiero cubrir con mi leche desde la cabeza hasta los pies. - You drive me insane, but I love fucking you. I want to cover you in my cum from head to toe.

Cariño - Darling

Aliento de Creator – Maker’s Breath

Chapter Text

Shale slotted into their small group without an overabundance of chafing. Zevran seemed to thrive under the golem's banter and provocations that he must have been missing since Alistair left to Redcliffe in order to recuperate. When Baldur was relatively certain Shale could be trusted not to turn on them or merely wander away in disinterest, the golem made an exceptional guard as promised. Shale had no need for sleep, which meant Zevran and Baldur had the opportunity to become quite intimately acquainted when neither had to wake in the middle of the night or before dawn for their turn on sentry duty. Their time together was spent - for the most part – uninterrupted. Combined with Morrigan's sound barrier that she now cast without even needing to be asked or bribed, they were able to take advantage of exploring their full vocal ranges to their heart’s content while they explored each other with delirious enthusiasm.

Zevran and Baldur tumbled out of their tent only half-dressed, sporting a matched set of blissful grins after they dismantled the barrier that was triggered to drop at a touch and joined the others for breakfast. They helped themselves to a kettle of porridge bubbling away over the pitiful fire that hissed and sputtered in the rain and tucked in together beneath an overhang of low tree branches. They’d become nearly inseparable in a very short amount of time, often moving in tandem during battles. Baldur found an unexpected grace propelling his own movements while Zevran’s fighting style became bolder and more head-on, trading one of his daggers for a sword in order to attack from Baldur’s side and make up for the dwarf’s limited reach rather than breaking around and attacking from behind, as had been his previous custom.

“Did I ever tell you what marvelous magic your barrier is?” Zevran said to Morrigan when he could manage to tear his gaze away from Baldur, who was similarly unable to avert his eyes from the freshly-ravished sight of his elven lover, haloed in morning’s first light. “Surely there is some way to demonstrate our thanks?”

"No one wants to hear the two of you rutting about and bellowing like beasts in heat every night," Morrigan said, waving away their thanks with a wooden spoon in hand.

"I do not mind," Leliana contradicted. "It’s fortunate that any of us should be so lucky to find someone to care so deeply about during these trying times."

"Just admit it. You get off on listening to the dwarf and elf copulate, Leliana."

Rather than respond in outrage to the accusation, Leliana only shrugged a slender shoulder dismissively, which did not escape Zevran’s notice.

"I would not mind if you wanted to watch, Leliana. Perhaps we could even propose audience participation, if Baldur is amenable to the suggestion?" Zevran said brightly.

“Wait. What?” Baldur startled and nearly dumped the hot bowl of porridge all over himself, glancing between Leliana and Zevran with a look akin to being caught in a leghold trap.

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly!” Leliana protested with tinkling laughter like the sound bells. Baldur had the improbable notion that she wouldn’t mind being persuaded, which completely threw him for a loop especially since Leliana seemed so virtuous and staunchly against Zevran’s previous advances. “The both of you are adorable together. I would never come between your relationship, especially when it is still so new.”

“You could certainly come between us in a different way,” Zevran suggested with a wicked smirk. Baldur had to pinch the bridge of his nose and squeeze his eyes shut as he rode out the familiar sting of mortification from his lover’s terrible innuendos.

“Zevran...”

“Oh, fine. I suppose our relationship has more than enough spice as it is. You wouldn’t suspect dwarves to be so flexible, but the positions Baldur can twist himself into—“

“ZEVRAN.”

“And Shale,” Zevran turned to the golem who was watching the exchange with its usual stoic expression. “You do us a great honor suffering in silence. I suppose we could also extend the offer to you as well. You do watch over us admirably every night, after all.”

“I was not suffering, silently or otherwise. Until now.” If the golem could sneer, then there was no doubt that Shale would be doing so right then. “All of those...fluids. Eugh!”

“Why not do away with illusions entirely and have your way with the Warden in the middle of camp?” Morrigan asked, sarcasm thick in her tone.

“Not to say I haven’t offered. Alas! Our dear Warden is so charmingly bashful about these things.”

“Can we please change the subject?” Baldur begged.

“Have you written to Alistair and informed him of your relationship yet?” Morrigan continued heedlessly despite Baldur’s request. “I can only imagine his surprise when he catches you bending the Warden over the nearest sapling once he returns. He may even try to defend Baldur’s virtue, or what little he has remaining after you’ve had your way with him.”

“Oh? And you see me as the one bending Baldur over, do you?”

“Lovely weather we’ve been having, don’t you think?” Baldur said loudly to Leliana. He was more than just a little desperate to put an end to Morrigan and Zevran’s discussion of their private relationship - or as private as one could be on the road when their companions were inescapable witnesses to every conversation and intimate encounter.

“It has been raining almost ceaselessly. What a strange creature it is to consider this weather nice,” Shale said, aggravatingly literal. “I wonder... Does its kind rust? All that metal...”

“I really cannot imagine Baldur being the aggressor in any scenario, unless ‘tis on the battlefield. Tell me, does he play conqueror and you his spoils of war?” Morrigan continued her relentless baiting, Zevran apparently not minding their sex life being dissected for all present.

“Now that is a suggestion! Baldur, what do you say to a bit of aggressive roleplaying?”

“Did anyone else hear that? I’m going to go check it out,” Baldur announced and stood without even waiting for a response. He set down his uneaten breakfast with a clatter and retrieved the nearest blade at hand without even bothering to check if it was one of his own before stalking off to the copse of trees in the distance. His cheeks flushed hotly at the laughter that followed in his wake. Baldur wasn't an exhibitionist by any means, but he should have learned by now there was no room for self-consciousness amongst warriors who slept, ate, and shat side-by-side, although an illusion of privacy seemed too much to hope for, he supposed.

Despite their amusement at his expense, Baldur couldn’t help being touched at the others’ easy acceptance of his and Zevran’s relationship. He cringed at the thought of pursuing Zevran if he’d still been in Orzammar, of the hatred and ridicule they both would have faced. Most marriages were arranged by heads of family and political in nature if two dwarves weren’t already sanâzyung. Even then, he had heard of families disapproving their offspring’s One and attempt to break up the fated love with dismal consequences, often ending in anywhere from the pair running off to the surface to become casteless, to more tragic suicide pacts, preferring to be together in death rather than have their lives spent forced apart, trapped in loveless marriages. He didn’t worry that Alistair had any underlying prejudices or would spurn Baldur for falling for Zevran’s charms, but that was still a discussion better had in person.

Before everyone began to prepare for travel, Baldur made certain to slip a few gold necklaces and rings that matched Morrigan’s eyes into her satchel as thanks for her spell casting, although perhaps not her commentary on the matter. Zevran also took his bow after they stopped for lunch later that day when the deluge that poured down upon them finally let up for more than a few minutes at a time, and returned with a clutch of birds as a gift to Shale for being a tireless guard. Shale had even disposed of several bandits that tried to sneak upon the sleeping camp without waking anyone. Likely the men had mistaken Shale as a large boulder, which was the last mistake they ever made. Shale inspected the birds to make certain they were very much dead - as was the proper state of being for any bird, according to the golem - and was slightly warmer to Zevran afterward.

Baldur didn’t dare ask what became of the poultry, since they didn’t end up in the communal dinner pot and Shale didn’t eat.

The days melted into a miserably rainy blur with occasional bouts of fighting to break up the monotony of travel, but even darkspawn didn’t want to be caught out in this weather either. Baldur looked forward to nightfall with an anticipation that he’d never experienced previously when he only had his thin, uncomfortable bedroll on the ground to await him. He still had that, of course, but the harshness of camping on the cold and muddy ground was combated by a lover’s heated embrace, even though most nights they barely had enough energy to drag themselves into their tent and toss aside heavier pieces of armor before collapsing in an ungainly tangle of limbs.

The group was worn out, conversations shifting to focus on thoughts of dry beds and hot meals and potent drinks as the distance until they reached Denerim shrunk with every passing day. Baldur nearly went weak-kneed with relief when a traveling merchant with a wagon loaded with squealing hogs informed them they were only a half-day’s travel from Denerim. His companions - Baldur included - were visibly weary as they slogged through the mud, chilled to their bones and miserable, except for Shale who didn’t need to eat, sleep, or feel the cold.

"So tell me, Shale,” Zevran said conversationally as he flicked damp tendrils of hair out of his face while watching the merchant fade into the distance. “How does it feel to be a giant statue?"

"What a bizarre question. How else would it feel?"

"Well, let's see... Does it hurt? Do you feel you've been buried under a pile of rock, or do you feel nothing at all?"

"I have nothing to compare it to. How does it feel to be considered an inferior race when compared to others who are just as soft and weak as you?"

"Uh...fine?"

"How very fragile it must be. One touch and its kind crumbles, spilling liquid everywhere. No wonder they clad themselves in metal."

"It takes more than just a touch, I'm sure."

"I feel very solid. And immortal. No putrid liquids to squirt out of me."

"Now that you mention it...I suddenly feel like a delicate mushroom."

And a soggy one at that.

The high walls and gates of Denerim came into view as they passed over a rise hours later, and a half-hearted cheer went up before the sound was smothered by the pattering of rainfall. The company planned to part ways to take care of personal business and to gather information once they reached the outer gates, however Shale declined the invitation to join them in the dense city.

"I do not care to surround myself with people needlessly," Shale intoned in its gravelly voice, saying the word 'people' with the same distaste as it would 'bird droppings.' Shale still referred to Baldur as "it" despite giving Shale leave to use his given name, but Baldur had been called much worse and didn't protest overly much.

"Are you certain ‘tis wise to allow the golem on its own?" Morrigan asked in a bland tone that implied quite clearly that she found the idea immeasurably idiotic. "Who's to stop it from going on a rampage and slaughtering the whole town?"

"My quarrel is not with people unless they attack first," Shale said gravely, apparently unmoved by Morrigan's not entirely unfounded accusations.

Baldur had been reluctant to ask flat out whether the golem had indeed murdered its previous master because from what little he had gathered Shale had not been treated well for many, many years while in the mage Wilhelm's service. Baldur didn't hold anyone else's past against them and believed everyone deserving of a second chance if they wished to atone for their past or desired a new direction for their future.

Or because their mother had told them to, in Morrigan's case.

"We can't be certain of that," Morrigan frowned, eyeing Shale who was intently watching a pair of birds roosting high on a branch like it was considering uprooting the entire tree to beat them with. "Do you wish to be responsible if the talking rock goes rogue? Why not just deactivate it and leave the golem here until we come back and pick it up?"

"The control rod doesn't work on Shale any longer, and I wouldn't do that even if it was functional." Baldur frowned, his stance becoming defensive as he crossed his arms imposingly over his broad chest. "Shale deserves a chance to be free like anyone else, and I'm not going to consider shutting Shale down otherwise unless I feel it's a danger to itself or others.”

“You seem to be in the habit of allowing dangerous creatures to roam free.”

"This discussion is over," Baldur snapped, angry that the blow meant to be a low shot found its intended target. Morrigan’s disapproval radiated from her like a toxic miasma at the abrupt dismissal, which had no effect on putting a stopper on her insolence.

"Far be it from me to refute orders from our distinguished leader," Morrigan said mockingly, shouldering her staff and turning down the path into town with one last disgusted glower at Shale.

Shale took an aborted step towards the tree when the birds startled and flew off, but otherwise showed no interest in their conversation.

"I cannot help but find it intensely arousing when you get authoritative and start growling out orders," Zevran said after they left Shale to its business and conferred with Leliana. She was thinking of commissioning a new bow and agreed to meet them at the Dancing Wyvern Inn later that night where Baldur and Zevran would be staying, walking on ahead of them to secure her own accommodations. "I would not be opposed to such a display in the bedroom we will be renting tonight..."

Baldur stumbled over an exposed root and barely caught himself in time to keep from falling to one knee. His reflexes had improved dramatically with repeated practice for all that he was still occasionally clumsy. He was fortunate no others were around to witness his blunder for once, and Zevran considerately refrained from comment although he was smirking to himself, pleased.

"But we must get you cleaned up first, my love, lest the poor townspeople believe they have a golem infestation regardless."

Baldur frowned down at his armor, encrusted with gore and caked-on mud, and imagined that his skin couldn't have been much cleaner beneath despite the plentiful rain showers. How Zevran could bear to share the same confined quarters with him, must less touch him, Baldur didn't know, and felt ashamed that he hadn't been more considerate.

"Of course, if you are thinking that I imply your intoxicating scent to be in any way offensive, be assured I am more than eager to have my mouth over every inch of you before soap even touches your skin."

Baldur bowed his head and made sure there were no roots or stones to trip him up again, wondering how he'd gotten so damnably easy to read.

"A bath and fresh clothes would be nice," Baldur admitted grudgingly, surprised when Zevran reached down to take Baldur's hand in his own. Despite Zevran's gloves and Baldur's gauntlets desensitizing them to touch at the moment, Baldur appreciated the gesture even when Zevran didn't relinquish his hand as they passed the sentries who eyed them oddly but didn't say anything as they passed through the gates opening into Denerim.

The first thing Baldur did the moment they entered the bustling town was to beeline straight to the weapons master, Wade, and deposit the drake scales he'd picked off the dragonlings that he had slain at the temple.

"I will make the most BEAUTIFUL armor with these scales!" Master Wade cried in paroxysms of ecstasy as he reverently took the scales from Baldur who, along with Zevran, was simply thankful to finally be somewhere indoors with a fire that would stay lit out of the rain.

"How much do I owe you for the armor?" Baldur asked the overjoyed blacksmith, who waived him off with a scandalized gasp.

"Payment! I should be paying you for bringing these scales to me! Oh, I have so many plans for this armor. It will be my best work yet, just you wait!"

"We are not paying him to make his armor!" Wade's assistant, Herren, spluttered in outrage, despairing of his employer's sheer lack of basic business sense.

"I'll pay you ten sovereigns for the armor," Baldur said quickly, going for his purse and slipping the gold coins over the counter before the poor man went apoplectic when Wade protested the amount. "If you could send word to the inn when the armor is completed?"

"You're too kind, my lord," Herren said through gritted teeth as Wade exclaimed over the scales nearly in iambic pentameter as the sound of a ringing anvil soon filled the shop. "I supposed I have no choice but to close the shop for the rest of the day. Wade will be obsessed with this armor until it's completed, so you won't have to wait too long for it, at least. A week at most at this rate."

Baldur nodded his thanks, and after a few minutes bartering items he no longer had a use for, he and Zevran left to go procure their room.

"You want to go to a public bathhouse?" Baldur balked when Zevran bypassed room service and instead dragged Baldur into the market district with the dwarf firmly in tow after they deposited their gear, not even staying long enough to do more then grab a couple of herb-encrusted loaves of bread from a passing servant to eat on the way.

"I didn't plan breaking out of prison on my agenda today after they arrest us for indecency!" he hissed, tugging on their joined hands, but Zevran was relentless.

"I don't know if you've ever visited a bathhouse before, but the general consensus is that people are in dishabille in order to bathe themselves, my light. We cannot be arrested for that, I assure you."

"We can be arrested for having sex in a public space!" Baldur pointed out unthinkingly, and then nearly swallowed his tongue.

"Why, Baldur! The thought never even crossed my mind!" Zevran exclaimed, falsely aghast but clearly delighted. "Honestly. I don't know what goes through your filthy mind at times."

Baldur blushed furiously and saw that a human woman had paused in her perusal of fruits and vegetables at a vendor's stall to glare at them in indignation. Baldur hunched his shoulders and hurried them along until they were out of sight and he was pulling Zevran by the hand instead.

"I thought we would just order a bath back at the room," Baldur complained in a much quieter growl, anxious at the idea of being vulnerable in an enclosed space with unknown people in attendance, especially when he'd be distracted by all of Zevran, wet and naked. They wouldn't be able to defend themselves against an attack, and dwarves sunk like rocks in the water, so there was the additional risk of drowning.

"A tiny basin and a sliver of tallow will not even begin to scratch the surface layers of grime we have accumulated on our journeys. No, Baldur, I really must insist on a proper soak, and you will feel better once you are clean and presentable again, I promise."

"It's too dangerous," Baldur tried again, glaring down anyone whose gaze lingered on the odd sight of an elf and dwarf strolling hand in hand down the street. "The Crows might be coming for you sooner rather than later for failing to kill me and Loghain still has a bounty on my head. We've already drawn enough attention as it is. Zevran, please!"

Zevran's face went blank right before he turned a corner and abruptly shoved Baldur into an unoccupied alley between two buildings, crowding him up against a dirty wall that his shield bounced off with a clang when his back hit the unyielding barrier. Baldur was immediately on high alert and went for his sword, his pupils blown out and darting around for the direction of the attack, but Zevran's hand clamping down on his wrist pulled him up short.

"Easy, easy. There is no danger here," Zevran murmured as if Baldur were a spooked horse, leaning in close to cup Baldur's face in his free hand and stroke away a smudge of dirt on his round cheek with a thumb.

Baldur jerked his head in confusion, all of his senses battle-ready as the acid tang of adrenaline filled his mouth and his heartbeat drummed in his ears. Zevran had him blocked in against the wall so Baldur couldn't see around him. He rebelled against the idea of his lover allowing himself to be so exposed and not even paying attention to the area they found themselves occupying. They could be all too easily hemmed in or shot at with arrows from the rooftops above in moments.

"Here, look at me. You are safe. I will not let any harm come to you." Zevran patiently talked him down with soothing words, even though Baldur clearly wasn't comprehending spoken language at the moment.

It took several long minutes of soft, nonsensical platitudes and Zevran's hands running continuously over his exposed face and neck for Baldur to come back to himself. When Baldur's senses checked out the area for himself and assured him there was no immediate threat, he finally released Aodr’s hilt and slumped back against the wall with an exhaled curse.

"Please don't do that again," Baldur whispered miserably, tremors breaking out beneath his skin at the sudden influx of energy that clamored for an outlet, but had nowhere to go.

"You see what I mean? You are much too tense and this reaction just now proves it. Not everyone is out to get you, despite how popular you may be with bandits and darkspawn." Zevran smiled a little sadly, bringing both hands up to cradle Baldur's face and lean their foreheads together.

"It's not paranoia if people are actually out to kill me," Baldur groused, but his hands had finally stopped shaking enough that he settled them on Zevran's hips with no better alternative other than to let them dangle at his sides. He permitted Zevran to brush their lips together chastely.

"You are not wrong that we are both persons of interest at the moment, but I would not throw us into the path of danger intentionally," Zevran said. Baldur knew they were both suddenly thinking of the dragon, and the reminder was a punch directly to his solar plexus. However, finding a way to defeat the dragon was their entire purpose for being in Denerim, Baldur had to remind himself firmly.

"I am asking this one boon of you, to allow me to tend and pamper you, because you do so much and tear yourself apart trying to take care of everyone else. You deserve a moment's respite from constantly fighting and placing yourself in harm's way to protect your people, my brave warrior."

Baldur's sense of duty screamed at him for thinking of delaying for even a second, especially when he'd already done the unforgivable and split his focus between retrieving the Urn of Sacred Ashes as promised and exploring his tentative new relationship with Zevran. He couldn't afford further distractions, and Zevran was nothing but a distraction...

...And utterly tenacious when he was determined to oppose Baldur on an idea.

"Half an hour and no longer," Baldur reluctantly compromised. Zevran beamed, pressing fervent kisses all over Baldur's face until he drew a small chuckle out of the reticent dwarf.

"Not a minute longer," Zevran promised, and Baldur allowed Zevran to reclaim his hand and resume their walk down the street.

---

The bathhouse was a quaint establishment with clean floors and clean towels, the air warm and steamy with mist. Baldur glared mulishly at the poor attendant when they were directed to place their weapons and what equipment they hadn't left at the inn into a locker and handed them robes and a key. She stuttered at them to leave their clothes for the laundry service in a basket in the corner of the room and scurried away before the force of Baldur's glower caused her to combust.

"She is only doing her job," Zevran chided teasingly as they disrobed in a private changing room, each article of armor clanging loudly when it hit the floor. "Besides, if it is being unarmed that has you so concerned, I know how to hide several weapons on my person without even wearing a stitch," Zevran commented off-handedly as he unlaced a boot and reverently set it aside next to its mate.

Baldur boggled at him and then narrowed his eyes in consideration, his mind unerringly going directly into the gutter Zevran had accused his brain of residing in earlier. When Baldur was down to only his smallclothes, he hesitated for only a moment before he reluctantly stripped out of the garment and threw it into the basket with the rest of his clothing that the attendant would be better off just burning. He turned back to Zevran to find the elf staring at him avidly, halted partway in the process of removing his sock.

"W-What?" Baldur asked uncertainly, resisting the urge to cover himself up with his hands.

"Forgive me for saying so," Zevran said in a dazed half-murmur, still staring at Baldur as if he were a sizzling plate of sausages and mash with a side of honeyed mead, "but I had not truly appreciated just how exquisite you are in the daylight until you do me the honor of experiencing the vision of you in all your splendor. Your gods truly formed you well."

Zevran rose from his bench and stalked toward Baldur, utterly nude except for a sock that dangled halfway off his foot, but Baldur had never felt less like laughing. Zevran barely stopped before they collided to stand directly before him, an entire head and shoulders taller, which forced Baldur to either crane his neck back or stare straight ahead at Zevran's chest.

His pectorals were fascinating.

Baldur shifted his weight from foot to foot and fidgeted despite the usual discipline he employed to control his own nervous ticks, but Zevran threw off his entire center of gravity simply by existing. The wait was unbearable. When Baldur could stand the tension no longer, he reached up and grabbed fistfuls of Zevran's hair. He forced him into a steep bow to kiss him aggressively, uncaring of how ungainly the position was due to their height differences.

"I lied," Zevran breathed against Baldur's lips when they parted for air, gasping against each other. "I am absolutely going to get us arrested before we step foot inside a bath."

He ducked to kiss Baldur again, arms twining around his shoulders as he dragged them both to the floor.

---

The attendant interrupted their passionate embrace by tripping over them with a loud scream and shattering of ceramic as she dropped the tea tray she'd been bringing out to serve refreshments to the guests. They broke apart at once and Baldur reached for the closest article at hand to cover himself with, which happened to be his shield, as the young elf girl shouted at them. Zevran didn’t bother to have the same consideration, sprawled back on his elbows and entirely without shame.

Baldur had never been berated so thoroughly since he'd been a young child and wanted to play with his father's kenneled mabari. He accidentally released the entire pack of war dogs who immediately took off to terrorize the kitchen staff and overturn the larder. The kitchen Mistress had dragged King Endrin's then-youngest son into his office without even waiting for permission to enter, both she and Baldur covered from head to foot in flour. His father solemnly promised to discipline Baldur after she had given them both a severe tongue-lashing, king or not, and stormed off leaving a trail of ghostly white footprints in her wake. His father had barely waited until she was out of earshot before roaring in laughter, tears streaming down his cheeks as he held his stomach from the force of his powerfully shaking laughs that boomed like thunder. Baldur had been so startled and still stinging from the chastisement that he'd immediately burst into tears, sobbing inconsolably until his father had gathered him up in his arms, flour and all. He held him until Baldur was all cried out and fell asleep in his lap with his father's chuckles following him into his dreams.

The memory was one of Baldur's most cherished, save for Mistress Keryn’s scolding that could flay the flesh off bones, however the girl's shouts made her castigating remarks seem like a lover's whisper. It took all of Zevran's charm, Baldur's persuasion tactics, and a hefty amount of silver to entice her not to have them immediately ejected from the vicinity just as they were. They promised repeatedly that they would behave themselves and helped clean up the remains of the spilled drinks, the girl unconcerned with their undressed state considering her employer's business. Once the floor was spotless, the girl, Calysia, left in a righteous huff, the pockets of her apron weighed down with silver and clinking with every prim step.

Just like Baldur's father, Zevran couldn't contain his laughter once Calysia had closed the door behind them. Baldur shot him an unimpressed glare as he gathered his towel and stalked into the bathing chamber, leaving Zevran to quickly scramble to compose himself and follow in pursuit.

---

They had to thoroughly scrub down before entering the baths so as not to foul the water, and the rivulets that cascaded down their bodies and past their feet to empty into a drain in the floor ran black with soot and grime and old blood. They both had a multitude of cuts and bruises, eyeing each other covertly for signs of deeper injuries one of them may have been trying to hide.

Baldur was entranced by the swirl of markings on Zevran’s body that he hadn’t had much opportunity to inspect while on the road, tracing light fingertips over the black lines that curved around Zevran’s shoulder blades like wings and sloped down towards the delicious dip of his spine to frame his vertebrae. Zevran shivered at the touch but did not pull away, instead twisting to display more tattoos for Baldur’s perusal. His ribs were also decorated with intricate markings almost like words or symbols written in cipher and Baldur desperately hoped that one day he would learn to read Zevran’s body even better than his own written language. He was determined to find time to make love in the daylight when they were back at the inn and could explore each other anew, using all of their senses to map skin and expressions rather than clutching at each other in the dark.

They took turns scrubbing backs and washing the other's hair. Baldur was unable to hold back obscene moans as Zevran dug his nails into his scalp to loosen the grit and detritus that made his hair impossible to comb. Thankfully Calysia hadn't come running to chase them out at the first questionable sound, but Zevran, at least, was quieter as Baldur tended to him while Zevran sat on a small stool so that he could reach. Baldur carefully unbraided Zevran’s hair and lathered him up so much that Zevran's entire head was nearly lost under the bubbles, which caused the elf to laugh uproariously when Baldur gave him sudsy horns like a qunari, and then curse when soap got into his eyes.

Baldur apologized so profusely after rinsing him off that Zevran finally tugged Baldur into his lap for a passionate kiss to shut him up.

"We are never going to have a bath," Baldur moaned, still slick enough to eel out of Zevran's tempting clutches before they became distracted again.

"Fine fine," Zevran conceded with a put upon sigh, but aimed a solid smack to Baldur's bare rump before darting past him and diving into the nearest unoccupied bath with hardly a splash.

Baldur rubbed his sore cheek and frowned, following much more sedately.

---

Baldur kept to the edges of the deep pool, not wanting to test the depth by getting quite literally in over his head despite Zevran's attempts to drag him away from the wall. The water came up to just below Zevran’s chest when he was standing, which would certainly reach Baldur’s eyeballs at the very least, covering his nose and mouth, and last time he’d checked dwarves were unable to breathe from the tops of their heads.

"I would never allow you to drown!" Zevran protested when Baldur voiced his concerns.

"I know you wouldn't, ghivashel, but let us not tempt fate."

Baldur kept a steady watch on the bathing chamber's few other occupants as well as the exits and entrances, fingers clenching and releasing around an absent sword. He was too on edge to allow the warm water to ease his sore muscles, but he wasn’t too distracted that he couldn’t appreciate finally being clean again was akin to an otherworldly experience.

"You will give yourself wrinkles fretting so," Zevran said as he draped himself over Baldur's shoulders and nudged their heads together. He ran wet hands over Baldur's chest and arms comfortingly until Baldur relaxed just enough to lean into him with a sigh.

"It's a terrible feeling, being hunted," Baldur admitted quietly, catching Zevran's wrist beneath the water when his hand deemed to travel lower than was proper in their current position. Zevran chuffed in his ear and wormed out of Baldur's grip to tangle their fingers together instead. "I almost feel bad for your former targets."

"Mm. In my line of work, one does not usually know they are a target until the very last moment of their lives, if the assassin is at all competent at their job. And if you are really good, they don't know they are dead until they never wake up again."

"That must mean you're a pretty terrible assassin," Baldur pointed out with a fond smile as he squeezed their fingers together and leaned further back into Zevran's chest. "You practically announced yourself with trumpets and a parade before you sicced that mage and all those men on us."

"Not my finest moment, it is true. But as a Grey Warden, you at least deserved an honorable death in battle against a tangible enemy rather than a poisoned knife in the dark while you slept."

"I appreciate the consideration," Baldur said dryly, turning his head so he could press a glancing kiss to Zevran's chin, unable to reach his lips from that angle.

"Best decision I ever made, accepting that final job with the Crows," Zevran murmured as he turned Baldur around to pull him into a proper kiss. “And failing miserably, of course.”

"I'm really glad I didn't kill you either," Baldur said as he wound his arms around Zevran's neck, the bottom of the pool sloped downward so they were on more equal footing.

"I have never been so pleased to lose a fight before," Zevran agreed, his lovely eyes crinkling with mirth as he pressed their lips together once more before resting his forehead against Baldur's, hiding those gold eyes behind long, long lashes.

Baldur found holding onto regrets to be nearly impossible when he was so content at this particular moment in his life. Events that should have been some of his worst memories were instead overlaid with an odd sense of joy that squeezed his heart at unexpected times when he recalled them in his mind. Dragonfire was a distant flicker when Zevran’s surprised expression after Baldur gave him his first ever present became forefront in his strongest recollections of Haven. A night attack from darkspawn and nearly getting beheaded while he slept became secondary to the blaze of heat and utter certainty that welled up in him after their first kiss; helplessness at losing Amalia to a demon contrasting with ecstasy of gaining Zevran as a lover. He might have lost his home and family, but he would have given up everything and more if he’d known then that his banishment would put him on a winding and treacherous path that eventually led to his sanâzyung.

Zevran might believe himself to be incapable or undeserving of love - a feeling that Baldur resonated with all too well - but he wouldn’t trade what they had now for anything else in the world. Excepting, of course, the end to the Blight. He could spare a moment to indulge selfishly for himself while he prepared, taking advantage of the scant time left in his rapidly depleting hourglass to recover and enjoy himself a little without relentless guilt that he wasn’t doing more. He had to remind himself why he fought, why his life had been spared when it should have been lost to the Deep Roads. He didn’t belong to himself any longer; Grey Wardens served the greater good and left their individuality and pasts behind them the moment they took their oaths. He let himself pretend for a little while that he belonged just to this one man without the looming threat of all the impossible decisions he had yet to make.

Soaking until they were both al dente eventually lost its appeal, and they abandoned the pool with towels wrapped around their waists to wander over to one of the side rooms that offered massage and additional grooming services. Or at least that was what Zevran told him before he pulled Baldur into an empty room and closed the door behind him with a roguish grin.

“No one said we had to inconvenience the staff to render such services,” Zevran pointed out when Baldur looked at him askance. “I am more qualified than all of their attendants, I can promise you that. Come, take a seat and relax.”

Baldur played along with a minimum amount of grumbling, watching with curiosity when Zevran produced a tiny scrub brush and oils and attacked Baldur’s grimy nail beds with brutal efficiency. When his ragged nails were smoothed and shining, Zevran worked the oil into muscles Baldur didn’t realize he had in his hand, stroking each of his fingers up to his elbows with methodical precision until he felt limp and feverish from the unexpectedly erogenous attention. Or perhaps Baldur only believed his hands to be unusually sensitive merely for the fact that any part on his body Zevran touched could instantly arouse him, even his toes and feet, which probably suffered the most abuse thanks to their never ending campaign of marches across Ferelden. They really needed to purchase or steal some horses - once Baldur actually learned to ride, and they found one big enough to handle Shale’s immense weight.

“Where did you learn to do this so well?” Baldur groaned when Zevran pressed into the taut arch of his foot with the pads of his thumbs, efficiently locating and attacking knots of tension with ease. “I think you’ve – ah - missed your calling in life. Ohhhh...”

“Crows are expected to be trained in all areas of seduction, amongst many other useful skills. Plus, I learned a few things here and there about tending to another's comforts from the whores who raised me. You'd be surprised how many men and women purchased their services only wanting conversation or to be touched in a non-sexual manner. People are not meant to exist alone, and even the most solitary creature craves the company of another occasionally."

"I'm afraid you've wasted your efforts trying to seduce me this entire time," Baldur said with a wry grin, wiggling his toes in Zevran’s gentle grip. "You could have simply given me a foot massage or gotten me drunk and I'd have climbed you like a tree ages ago."

"No efforts are ever wasted on you, truly. However...that is good to know for the future. The very near future, mind you, but no. Embarrassingly enough, my attempts to seduce you backfired rather spectacularly when I devolved into hopeless pining and essentially throwing myself at your feet within a few days of knowing you. Not my subtlest work, I admit."

Baldur was surprised to see a faint hue of pink coloring Zevran's cheeks and the other man refused to meet his stunned gaze as he worked out the tension in curve of Baldur’s heel. He hadn't thought the former assassin was even capable of blushing.

"If that was you not even trying to seduce me..." Baldur trailed off, bewildered by the admission. He had never fallen so hard so fast in all of his - admittedly, not very old - seventy-two years of life. His father was nearing two hundred and forty-five, so Baldur was still a youth in comparison. Bhelen was only nine years younger than him, but he knew even his nadadith would be considered practically ancient in human years. Still, Baldur was old enough that he shouldn’t have been such a novice when it came to relationships, but Zevran was many firsts for him.

"I know... Terrible, right?" Zevran winced, his fingers moving upward to knead skillfully at the knots of muscle at Baldur’s calves and coaxing them to unwind, which they did so obediently.

“I wouldn’t say that. I may not have survived a concentrated effort, and then where would we be?”

“Again, my failures tend to become successes with you. I’m not sure what that says about either of us.”

When Baldur’s arms and legs were sufficiently rendered boneless, Zevran shifted his focus back to Baldur’s hair, which was tangled and damp and would likely take centuries of dedicated attention to comb through without cutting the entire mess off. Zevran used more of the oil to soften the strands, taking advantage of the bathhouse’s relevant supplies as if he’d been employed there his entire life. He worked through the snarls with determined patience and neatly trimmed the ragged ends until the heavy mass of black hair lay smooth and gleaming just past Baldur’s shoulders, longer than he could remember his hair ever being.

"I am going to look like a pampered courtesan who does nothing but lay around and eat sweetmeats all day," Baldur grumbled for form’s sake, but Zevran ignored him and instead gathered a small section of hair at Baldur's temple. Then he paused.

"May I?" he asked quietly with all the gravity the act of braiding another's hair, especially a dwarf’s, demanded. The act was more personal than sex, and Zevran’s careful regard implied the elf knew full well the meaning Baldur intended when he'd braided his hair after the first time they became intimate, which set Baldur’s heart aflutter.

"Yes. Please," Baldur said thickly, chills breaking out all along his skin as he shivered at the unfamiliar feeling of another's hands deftly working in his hair, his chest aching. He'd worn his hair loose after his banishment, undeserving of the braids indicating his status and family line, but grateful that he hadn't been shorn bald to cement his shame. Stripping away a dwarf's facial hair was the highest humiliation one could deliver to a Child of the Stone, and most dwarves would choose death over being parted from their beards. Even though Baldur had always kept his beard short and free from entanglements, he couldn't imagine his face without it, which was why he gave Zevran a wild-eyed, panicked look when Zevran pulled out a razor and leather strop.

"You are not shaving me," Baldur stated with deathly certainty even after Zevran had woven his intentions into Baldur's hair.

"I wouldn't dream of parting you from your magnificent beard, mi amor. I simply wish to tidy up the edges for you so the handsomeness of your face isn't detracted from by a bedraggled beard. I meant no offense or disrespect."

Baldur instantly dismissed any reserves he might have at being made vulnerable to Zevran equipped with a blade near his throat. Having someone - anyone - near his beard with an instrument meant for cutting rebelled against the very core of him, going against everything it meant to be a dwarf. He knew Zevran wouldn’t push him too far past his comfort levels, endlessly accommodating to Baldur’s skittishness. He touched the matted, singed ends of his beard and sighed, bracing himself as he looked up with an expression that wavered between resigned and determined.

"Very well," Baldur said gruffly, swallowing hard.

"Thank you,” Zevran murmured, leaning down to press a kiss to the tip of Baldur's bold nose. "I promise you will not look like a shorn carnival bear when I am finished."

"I'll hold you to that." Baldur tried to laugh, but the sound was high and unnerving even to his own ears.

Zevran left the room for only a moment, and when he returned with the necessary supplies he set them upon the table next to where Baldur was seated in a spindly-looking wooden chair that actually held his solid weight without creaking or buckling - possibly of elvish make. Zevran had brought a bowl of warm water, shaving soap, and a boar bristle brush, arranging the items to his liking before he knelt between Baldur's knees, their towels the only concession to modesty. Baldur was going to need a much bigger towel in a moment, he was certain, as he stared at the gorgeous man kneeling before him. Then he happened to glance over at the razor Zevran intended to use on him, and inconvenient arousal was no longer an issue.

"Have you...done this before?" Baldur asked tremulously, eyeing Zevran's impossibly smooth cheeks, arms, and bare legs. He only had a light dusting of darker blond hair between his legs, Baldur knew, and likely that little bit didn't require much grooming.

"Actually, I would do this for several of my former lovers and I got quite good at the act, if I may say so. Already having an affinity with a blade doesn’t hurt either."

Zevran placed a finger on Baldur's chin, tilting his face in several directions speculatively before reaching for the bottle of oil rather than the shears first, Baldur noted with no small amount of relief. The oil smelled pleasantly like jasmine and something woodsy when Zevran tipped some into his palm and rubbed his hands together briskly before he worked the slick liquid through Baldur's beard. They had done the best they could with soap and water, but the oil helped further loosen the chunks of thick black hair that had been fused or tangled together, saving most of the hair from having to be cut, thankfully.

Baldur’s hair and beard had been in shameful condition, growing out unbound and ragged while on the road and only rarely seeing the business end of a brush or soap. Bhelen had an enviable beard, Baldur recalled sadly. He missed his little brother sometimes despite everything that had gone so terribly wrong between them. Bhelen's flame-red hair was neat and short like a soldier's, but he had a full mustache that he wove into his beard to form three braids with the center braid parted and braided again halfway down. The style was functional and respectable; the relatively short length denoted his status as a warrior, whereas intellectuals and nobles tended to wear their beards long since they didn't have to worry about the hair getting tangled up with their sword arm. The gold clasps specially made for the Aeducans were inscribed with runes and tailored to their royal station. Baldur had worn his hair shorter as well, his clasps used to hold back two small but intricate braids from his temples. The clasps were gone now, taken from him when he'd been stripped and thrown into a cell, and he wondered if they'd been repurposed or destroyed.

"I wonder...Where is your mind right now, my dearest dwarf? Certainly I must not be doing so poorly a job as to warrant such a dour expression."

Baldur blinked and Zevran came back into focus, overriding the images of the past that certainly weren't distant enough not to hurt him any longer.

"It's...nothing. I mean,” Baldur amended after Zevran's face went politely blank when he thought Baldur was deliberately withholding information about himself, “I just miss Orzammar sometimes, you know?" Zevran would not pry, just as Baldur wouldn't dig for information about his life in Antiva, but Zevran seemed to share a similar love-hate relationship with his own hometown.

"I believe I do know. Forgive the tugs, darling," Zevran warned as he began combing the snarls from Baldur's beard, the oil making the job much easier and less painful than it could have been. "If it is acceptable to you, it appears I need only trim the ends. The oil and combing did much of the work for me, I am pleased to say."

Baldur's exhale was just a little too relieved, and Zevran chuckled. He used the shears to snip the uneven ends, the towel over Baldur's lap catching the fallen hairs until Zevran was satisfied both sides were neat and even, although still too short to braid, which was nothing new.

"What a handsome man I found hiding under all this hair!" Zevran purred, tugging on Baldur's neat beard to tilt him down for a kiss. Not having to crane his neck to be kissed was a novelty, and Baldur trailed his tongue along Zevran bottom lip in appreciation for his lover’s attentions. Baldur almost thought they were finished, until Zevran reached for the straight razor.

"Uh..." Baldur said, glancing between Zevran and the blade in his hand.

Zevran laughed at the expression on his face. "Oh, you thought we were done, did you? That's sweet, but you are still not quite the polished gem I know you could be yet."

“What else did you have in mind?”

“Mm, I think we can clean up the line of your beard some, don’t you think?” Zevran said as he ran a finger over the scattering of stubble along his larynx, which bobbed when Baldur swallowed apprehensively.

"Do you trust me?" Zevran asked in complete seriousness.

"With my life." Baldur didn't even have to think about his response, answering without a trace of hesitation. Then he reconsidered. "My beard is another matter entirely, though."

"Dwarves and your beards!” Zevran chuckled affectionately. “I wonder about your priorities sometimes, but of course it was merely a suggestion to top off your already devastatingly handsome appearance. You do look much improved from when we arrived, that I will readily admit."

Zevran’s thumb was still stroking over Baldur’s throat, and he shivered as he imagined how Zevran’s fingers and lips would feel trailing over smooth, sensitive skin rather than the usual prickle of stubble. “O-Okay,” Baldur rasped, his eyes going dark at the thought as his tongue swiped nervously over his bottom lip, moaning softly when Zevran took the unintended invitation and kissed him deeply. Zevran’s hand curled warmly around the front of Baldur’s neck, and although he applied no pressure, Baldur still felt breathless.

When he pulled back and rested their foreheads together for a brief moment Zevran was smiling warmly, soft and intimate. Baldur kept his eyes on Zevran’s face while the other set aside the razor for the time being and picked up a round, fat brush made up of soft bristles. He dipped the brush into the bowl of water and dragged the hairs in brisk circles against the bar of shaving soap until there was a foamy lather which Zevran applied diligently to Baldur’s neck and throat. Baldur distracted himself from the proceedings by cataloguing all of the curves and lines of Zevran’s tattooed face made new again once dirt and sweat and blood were washed from his olive skin, eyes bright and irresistible lips curving in an encouraging smile just for Baldur when his gaze flicked up to meet Baldur’s. Zevran gave him a slow wink as he bestowed a kiss to the end of Baldur’s chin to avoid getting a mouthful of soap.

“Any second thoughts?” Zevran said as he retrieved the razor with a deft flip of his hand, inspecting the gleaming edge.

“Never,” Baldur said with a wry, tense smile that was there and gone again in a flash, eyes on the blade as Zevran attached a loop at the end of the leather strop to a small hook on the edge of the table which must have been put there for that purpose. He pulled the strop tight and swiftly dragged the razor over the leather in short, sharp flicks, the motions obviously familiar. Zevran tested the edge on the pad of his thumb when he was done, making a satisfied sound when the blade split skin easily. Zevran licked the blood away, and Baldur couldn’t help staring at his mouth, pulling his bottom lip between his teeth.

Zevran applied the blade to the right side of his neck, swiping carefully upward through the foam. Zevran was focused on his work and didn’t look up when Baldur sucked in a breath and tensed, too anxious to move. All it would take was one slip of the blade and a patch of Baldur’s beard would just be gone and he would have to tack on a strip of animal pelt to his face to hide the baldness until the hair grew back, which could take weeks. Sitting still for Zevran was the hardest thing he had to do in recent memory, and perhaps Zevran was correct in stating dwarves had a mixed sense of priorities considering the dragons and demons and darkspawn that he’d faced in the past month were less terrifying than the thought of being beardless. Zevran didn’t drag the process out longer than necessary and finished with a few careful passes of the razor over the rise of his throat. He lifted the razor away when Baldur suddenly tipped forward, woozy from lack of oxygen and gasping for breath as Zevran reached out a hand to hold him cautiously upright.

“Truly, I had underestimated what a trial this would be for you. We can stop here,” Zevran said sympathetically, giving Baldur’s bicep a squeeze before rinsing off the razorblade in the bowl of water and wiping soap residue from Baldur’s smooth skin. “I rather think you’d prefer to have minor surgery performed in the middle of a field by a drunken apostate than have your beard trimmed again.”

Baldur clutched at his knees to keep his hands from flying to his face to inspect Zevran’s work and ensure that his beard was still there, which of course it was since Zevran hadn’t gone anywhere near his chin or jaw.

“It-It’s fine,” Baldur lied poorly. “You...you can finish.”

“Mm. One more pass should do the trick,” Zevran said, eyeing his work critically. “Then we can leave and eat our weight in greasy, delicious tavern food.”

Baldur didn’t know one single dwarf who would allow even their spouse to come near their beard with shears and most likely this would be a one-time occurrence. Baldur’s heart simply could not take the strain a second time. But he swallowed and tipped his head back without prompting, closing his eyes and breathing harshly from his nostrils as he counted backwards in his mind from one hundred.

It wasn’t until he reached twenty-six that he realized Zevran hadn’t started shaving him yet.

“Zev--?” Baldur started, his eyelashes fluttering when he opened his eyes and tilted his head down to investigate what the delay was. Baldur was stopped short when he saw a flash of metal and the razor’s edge was suddenly pressed to his throat, the pressure and angle all wrong for shaving, and more like...cutting.

“Do not move,” Zevran said, voice so unfamiliar and cold that for a moment Baldur thought Zevran had left and someone else had crept in to take his place when Baldur’s eyes were closed. “Either you forget I was hired to kill you, or you are entirely too trusting, because I know you are not stupid. Regardless, you should know better than to show your throat to an assassin."

When Baldur’s gaze flickered down to meet Zevran’s in alarm, he was taken aback by the danger in Zevran’s golden eyes that had gone sharper than the blade he held to Baldur’s throat. His expression was dark and his familiar smile was little more than a distant memory. Baldur’s heart sunk like lead into his stomach, not only for the deception that shocked him much worse than Bhelen’s, but that he had been too blind to see Zevran had more than likely been trapped with him in order to fulfill his job’s specifications, forced to endure Baldur’s unwanted advances and give up his own body to lure Baldur into complacency so he could have him at his mercy.

So, this was to be his end? Here, at his own sanâzyung’s hands?

But why had Zevran waited until now? Was he so cruel to string Baldur along when he’d had hundreds of opportunities to take Baldur’s life and escape unscathed? By the Stone, he could have simply let Baldur walk into the dragon’s den without a word of protest, and the creature would have done the deed for him without Morrigan or Leliana suspecting a thing, if that was his concern. How could he have not seen his own lover’s duplicity, living a lie and cheerfully suffering humiliations visited upon his body nightly while still dedicated to the Crows? Perhaps Loghain had stipulated that the assassin had to work his way into the Grey Warden’s confidence in order to gather information against him, but what had Baldur said or done that Loghain didn’t already know? Loghain knew he was a dishonored prince of Orzammar, that he’d survived Loghain’s betrayal in Ostagar, and also that Baldur planned to confront the Archdemon while killing as many darkspawn as possible. Perhaps he wanted the Urn of Sacred Ashes for himself, but for what purpose? And why not wait until Baldur figured out how to kill the dragon and then swoop in to claim the Urn unchallenged, unless Zevran tired of the façade and could no longer stomach pretending for that long?

Baldur knew then, facing his end, that he would still give him anything, even his life, if it brought Zevran some measure of peace or fulfillment. Slowly, Baldur lifted his chin so his entire throat was bared, exposed to Zevran’s hand and the edge of sharpened metal placed precisely over a vital artery.

"If you must kill me now, then do so knowing I don’t regret a single moment of our time together,” Baldur said quietly, wounded and resigned, but not flinching away when Zevran’s grip on the razor’s handle shifted at the sound of his voice. “I trust you, Zevran, and I am willing to accept my death if it would bring you freedom from the Crows or Loghain, if they are the ones forcing your hand, so you have the chance to live the life you choose."

Zevran's face remained an unchanging mask, but Baldur felt the fine tremor of the blade against his larynx, perilously close to cutting him despite Zevran’s normally immaculate control over each of his weapons.

Broadcasting his intentions while still looking into Zevran's eyes, Baldur unhurriedly reached for the wrist holding the blade, but didn't attempt to disarm the assassin. Instead he drew Zevran's hand down so the sharp tip of the blade was aimed at the left side of his chest, the point resting directly over his steadily beating heart. He turned Zevran's arm and pressed a kiss to the inside of his wrist, feeling the blood rushing beneath the tender skin in flutters as quick as a bird's heartbeat.

"My heart is yours to take, ghivashel. Do with it as you will."

The shaking in Zevran's hand intensified until he finally lost his grip on the short blade and dropped the razor with a clatter and a frustrated shout. In the same moment, he ripped his hand away from Baldur's and threw himself forward to wrap his arms around Baldur's waist, crying out against his chest.

"You stupid, stupid man! I could have killed you! I could kill you for wanting to throw your life away like that for someone like me!"

Baldur was startled, but said nothing as Zevran shouted at him in Common and Antivan with perhaps a few other languages thrown in until he collapsed with the suddenness of one being caught in a life-draining spell. He only held Zevran close and pressed his lips to the crown of Zevran's head, fingers carding soothingly through his damp hair while Zevran shuddered against him. He wanted so badly to know what was going through Zevran’s head and how he could help him. If Baldur needed to confront Loghain sooner rather than later, he would. If he needed to expose every last Crow and clip their wings so Zevran wouldn’t have to always be looking over his shoulder then Baldur would do that as well. If Zevran needed to leave and forget that he’d ever heard Baldur’s name or of the Grey Wardens, well...

Baldur would never recover from the pain of losing him, but he would give Zevran every last copper he had so he could flee to the other side of the world, and Baldur would never try to contact him again if he asked.

"How are you so damnably forgiving?” Zevran asked angrily from somewhere around the vicinity of Baldur’s sternum after a long moment spent in conflicted silence. “You see the best in everyone, even those who no one else would give a second chance, and with good reason! I am a terrible person."

Baldur made a soft sound of discontent but didn’t move, in no great hurry to allow Zevran to pull away either. He took his time considering a response, not entirely certain of the reason himself. He'd always been very trusting, even when that trust had backfired and his family had been torn apart as a result. He refused to speak a bad word against his brothers even now, so he didn't speak of them at all. Instead, he found the next best reason other than simply offering up his own too-trusting nature as an excuse.

"I think maybe it’s because Duncan, the Grey Warden who initiated me, gave me a chance. He offered me the option of becoming a Grey Warden if I escaped the Deep Roads, and believed me when I said I was innocent of the crimes I had been charged with in Orzammar. No questions asked. I wouldn't be doing his legacy justice if I didn't allow others the opportunity I had been given."

Zevran absorbed that answer in another extended bout of silence with only the irregular drips of water from a leak somewhere nearby to break up the almost stifling quiet.

"A noble sentiment, and one that I am profoundly grateful for, don't mistake me. But I think you should have a little more consideration for how your life – and your continued existence – affects others. Mainly all of us who are closest to you. I think even Morrigan would shed a tear if you were to be found naked and bleeding out in some random bathhouse."

“I wouldn’t be naked and bleeding out in a bathhouse if a certain elf hadn’t been so insistent that I come,” Baldur pointed out more than a little crossly. Zevran scoffed and bit him sharply on a nipple in response, drawing a gasp from Baldur as the dwarf grasped at his towel that suddenly felt much, much too small. “I think, maybe, we should finish this...discussion...back in our room?” Baldur suggested, but it was less of a suggestion than a direct order as the tense atmosphere suddenly shifted to become strained in another way entirely as he felt Zevran contrarily relax and become intent against him.

“Zevran.” Baldur’s voice was breathless and tense with warning when Zevran hummed thoughtfully, his lips closing around the abused nub and sending vibrations through Baldur. Baldur’s fingers clenched on a spasm in Zevran’s hair. “Zevran...you don’t have to...” his voice cracked, and Baldur swallowed hard, squeezing his eyes shut when Zevran released his nipple and looked up at him with a concerned expression. “You don’t have to pretend to want me if there’s something you need. Just tell me and I’ll do my best to help you, but you’re not beholden to me for anything. Especially not this.”

Aliento de Creator, I am an idiot,” Zevran breathed out, dropping his forehead to Baldur’s thigh and shaking his head in denial as he cursed quietly. “I don’t...I have no excuse for my actions just now. Temporary insanity, I believe is the term. If you are willing to forgive me, then perhaps you will also not blame yourself for whatever perceived slight you think you may have done to provoke such an inexcusable attack. You are utterly perfect and deserve so much better than myself; it is I who is defective.”

There was clearly a discussion that needed to be had in the very near future, but at the moment Baldur was tired and hungry and had a lapful of his naked and disconsolate lover who was dangerously close to certain sensitive areas with only a towel to separate them. Ever the opportunist, Zevran seemed to realize his advantageous position the same moment Baldur did, and Baldur hastened to intercept whatever ill-advised ideas he could see formulating behind Zevran’s very pretty and very perverse head.

“We’re leaving. Now. Before we are thrown out in our altogether without armor.”

“Hmm. Planning on doing something to get us thrown out, are you?” Zevran purred, his hands sliding up Baldur’s bare thighs slowly but with purpose. Baldur growled, tightening his hold on Zevran’s hair to yank his head back sharply and pressing his mouth to Zevran’s throat with more than a hint of teeth that was no bluff.

“I think I get your meaning,” Zevran breathed out, a soft, tantalizing moan escaping him as Baldur’s teeth sunk down when Zevran kept talking instead of getting up or removing his hands from their dangerous path. His fingertips disappeared beneath Baldur’s towel, and quick as that Baldur forgot all intentions to leave.

A familiar sound of shattering ceramic followed by an even more familiar screech tore them apart in an instant where Baldur’s threats had only incited Zevran to disobey.

“Oh, no you don’t!” Calysia shouted as she began pelting them with the remains of the establishment’s second best tea set after the pair had already caused her to destroy their first. “Out! Get out and don’t you even think of coming back here!”

They scrambled to their feet, clutching onto their towels as they attempted to skirt around the enraged girl. Baldur had to consider them fortunate that Calysia was at least considerate enough to use their belongings as projectiles when she ran out of pottery and chased them out of the bathhouse, her aim scarily accurate. Baldur would be sporting a throbbing goose egg on the back of his head for the next few days from the edge of his shield that she flung as if it were a sporting disc, and he was fairly certain she had clipped Zevran in the backside with a boot when he was attempting to run and pull on the other boot at the same time. They held their belongings tightly to their chest as they ran naked down the moderately crowded street to the amusement and horror of the other pedestrians and merchants in their stalls, their towels torn away by the wind and lost to the ether.

Baldur wondered if Calysia ever considered an occupation as a Grey Warden – darkspawn would cower before her wrath.

---

Nadadith – Younger brother (Khudzul)

Aliento de Creator - Maker’s Breath (Spanish)

Chapter Text

Baldur and Zevran ducked into the alleyway Zevran had shoved them into earlier in order to catch their breath and pull on what remained of their clothing so they weren't streaking all the way back to the inn. They dressed haphazardly and had to dart back down the street to retrieve several items they missed after checking that Calysia was nowhere in sight, but Baldur was missing a boot and Zevran's tunic and leggings were nowhere to be found. Zevran shrugged off their loss easily.

"Truthfully, I rarely wear trousers with my armor anyway. I only had them so I didn't freeze my most priceless jewels off when we were traipsing up and down a mountainside."

"Don’t you...you know," Baldur said awkwardly, paused with his chainmail hiked up under his armpits. "Chafe?"

"Ha! No. My armor has a layer of leather sealed to the underside so I am usually protected and insulated even if I have nothing on underneath. It is quite liberating, not to mention the easy access."

Baldur recalled Zevran’s fighting style and the way he favored high kicks and leaps, and wondered how many of Zevran’s opponents had been defeated simply by the shock of being flashed by him unintentionally. Or, knowing Zevran, quite intentionally. Certainly the sight would have given him pause, and the imagery suitably distracted him from wanting to berate Zevran for their current predicament.

They made a detour into the market to buy new clothes to replace the ones they had lost or had been meaning to trade before their incident in the bathhouse. The rain had finally let up, but Baldur’s bare foot was wet and filthy from something unmentionable he had stepped in, thinking longingly of his spare boots back at the inn that would have to suffice until Wade’s armor for him was finished. They bought a half dozen meat pies and watered down wine to tide them over until they met for dinner with Leliana, then Baldur tracked down the liaison for the Blackstone Irregulars mercenary group to confer payment over minor jobs Baldur had completed for them while on his journey.

He wished there was a more efficient way to contact others while on the road to make transactions and the exchange of information easier. He worried that his group would become separated indefinitely if someone was detained and unable to let the rest of them know their location. Alistair and Bastion were to meet them a fortnight from when he'd sent the letter a week prior, picking up Sten along the way so the entire group could finally meet their newest members and formulate a plan from there. He was nervous about introducing Zevran as his âzyungâl, if only because that exposed a vulnerability which could be used against them both, but never because he was ashamed or worried what others would think. If Zevran had been a dwarf or had an occupation other than assassin, Baldur wouldn’t care for him any more or any less than he already did. He was wrapped in a pretty package, that was certain enough, but he could have also been hideous and Baldur would have only seen the exquisiteness of his soul that resonated so completely with his own.

Once they were finally ensconced in their room at the Dancing Wyvern Inn, Baldur had time to recall with discomfort how utterly at Zevran’s mercy he’d been at the bathhouse. He hadn’t realized how susceptible he was until put in a situation where he had to choose either Zevran or his life, which was no choice to him at all. Baldur would have been punished severely for his indiscretions had he still been in Orzammar's military and acted with a fellow soldier the way he was carrying on with Zevran. Fraternization during an active campaign was forbidden, if only for the practical reason that soldiers would become distracted and let down their guards, never mind internal jealousies or abuses of power that could lead to discord within the ranks.

There were allowances made for spouses or pairs officially courting to be Bonded, and military officers tended to turn a blind eye to carnal celebrations after difficult battles in which they had been triumphant. The king’s army was perhaps the most lenient towards relations between same genders as there was no official punishment for sodomy between two men or two women, but the societal stigma was often enough to smother all but the most tenacious couplings. The gender imbalance made it so that male dwarves who showed an indifference or even an aversion for dwarrowdams, especially when females were outnumbered and desperately sought-after, were considered to be lesser. There was a heavy expectation to reproduce, ergo even more pressure on females to bear children, and dwarrowdams who refused a suitor in favor of a monogamous relationship with another dam with no desire for either to take a donor faced the worst ostracizing of all.

Fortunately neither he or Zevran had to worry about reproducing, despite what Shale thought.

Another memory that stuck out to him was how discomfited Zevran was admitting he hadn’t been seducing Baldur for an endgame, but was simply unable to keep himself from actually liking Baldur back, for all that the dwarf had been absurd and bumbling about his own growing infatuation.

"You must have thought I was ridiculous back in Haven, carrying on like I was a smitten cat and you were hiding sardines in your pockets," Baldur muttered as he sat on the edge of the single bed and washed off his dirty foot before finding his spare boots that were made of leather and nearly worn down through the heel, glad that he hadn’t thrown them out earlier. He was embarrassed by his own unsubtle fascination with the elf even now, especially knowing Zevran had seen right through him at the Temple of Andraste when Baldur was literally falling over himself to get into Zevran’s good graces.

"I do like cats," Zevran agreed readily, picking up the thread of conversation without Baldur needing to elaborate as he combed out his hair with his fingers since he hadn’t gotten the chance before they’d been kicked out of the bathhouse. "Although... perhaps not so much after... Well." Zevran was conscientious of Baldur's anger over the situation in Honnleath, allowing a demon to walk free in a little girl's skin. "But no, I do not think you are ridiculous. Honestly, I felt rather foolish myself mooning about over a Grey Warden, of all things."

Baldur raised his eyebrows in surprise. "It's the Grey Warden part that’s strange to you? I rather thought it would be the fact I was a dwarf, or sullen where you are outgoing and personable, or that I'm so...inexperienced...in matters of physical affection. You could have anyone you wanted begging for a chance to warm your bed." Anyone who wasn't in Baldur's company, that was. Zevran had even propositioned Shale a few times even though the golem would squish him like an insect.

Zevran gave a tiny bow of his head, conceding the points without argument.

"I imagine you don't know what it's like to be on the opposite end of your sword, or fighting beside yourself in battle. You are," Zevran took a deep breath, letting out the next word in an awed exhale, "magnificent. All that ferocity and aggression, and then you are this sweet, quiet thing when the danger has passed and you can relax knowing you have protected your own.”

Baldur grunted and dropped his head to tie his laces, feeling the bed dip when Zevran sat down beside him. He took one of Baldur’s hands in his own.

"You, my grounding stone, heart of my heart, are absolutely terrifying when bloodlust has overtaken you. I was rather glad when I thought you would spill my blood and leave my corpse as fodder for the birds that I would meet my end at the hands of such a great and skilled warrior. My type are usually done in by knives to the back, jealous husbands with straying wives, or by mishaps with our own poisons. I felt perhaps redeemed that I would receive a clean death at the hands of someone so capable, who bested me fairly in an unfair attack. Alas! I was a goner from the moment you showed mercy to a lowly assassin when you had no discernable reason to believe I honestly wished to terminate my arrangement with the Crows and join you instead. You spared my life and then allowed me to stand at your side, even knowing who and what I was. Acceptance like that when I had to scrape and steal and take everything I wanted my entire life..."

Zevran shook his head, at a loss for words for once before he eventually found his voice again, low and with a hint of a rasp.

"And then you gave me presents on top of everything else, when I was no more than a man you knew could fight, but didn't even know you could trust!" Zevran laughed in disbelief, a little hysterically, and Baldur wanted nothing more than to take him into his arms and soothe his frenetic energy. "Baldur, if you cannot understand why I am madly, passionately enamored with you, then I'm afraid I will have to make it my very life's mission to demonstrate every waking moment that you are very much cherished until you believe it yourself." Zevran cupped Baldur's stunned face in his hands, gently leaning their foreheads together.

"If you willed it, I would write sonnets dedicated to your gorgeous eyes, how they appear like two perfect stones beneath the clear waters of a river bed. I'd detail every curve of your enchantingly soft lips, how tender and hot they feel against my skin; your fingers, strong and skillful as they take me apart from the inside out and put the pieces of me back together again. And then I would hire a bard whose sole duty would be to scurry after our little group and serenade any and all in the vicinity with tales of your brave exploits and skill with a sword on the battlefield, as well as in bed..."

Baldur choked out a laugh at Zevran's ridiculous suggestion, except, to his horror, the sound came out as a sob before he even realized he was weeping.

"Oh, my love. Why do you cry? This is a joyous occasion! Unless I completely misread the situation, which I have been known to do," Zevran said with a worried, uncertain laugh, gently brushing away the tears that streamed down Baldur's cheeks with his thumbs.

Baldur shook his head mutely, unable to speak and overwhelmed with emotion, but he leaned up and took Zevran's mouth in a wet, sloppy kiss and hoped he would understand.

Zevran murmured his approval against Baldur's lips and moved in a sleek, soundless motion to straddle Baldur's lap, cradling his face as if Baldur were something precious and breakable. The thought was laughable - Baldur had endured more injuries the past few months than he had his entire life and shook off each one with the stubborn tenacity of a dwarf warrior.

Baldur nipped gently at Zevran's lips as he slid his calloused hands under Zevran's hauberk, caressing the warm, smooth skin of his thighs and glad that Zevran had ended up losing his trousers. Baldur's desire for the elf had been utterly transparent from the beginning, and as a result his company had been witness to every excruciating exchange whether they wanted to be or not. He pulled Zevran against him and then further as he tumbled them backward onto the bed. Zevran caught himself on his hands and laughed into Baldur's mouth, their legs tangled and half-hanging off of the bed. Neither were in any hurry to move, and gradually Zevran sunk down onto his elbows, pressing his chest into Baldur's as they traded alternately leisurely and passionate kisses. Their armor clanked and jostled together noisily, and there was a number of times where a link of chainmail caught against an edge of armor and they were literally stuck together until they could get unhooked and then undress entirely.

The light was starting to fade from the day, but they lit candles and Baldur explored the intricate tattoos he had glimpsed earlier in the bathhouse. He used his fingers and tongue in place of his eyes, checking whether the tattoos tasted any differently than Zevran’s unmarked skin. He would need several passes to reach a definite conclusion, but Zevran was a willing and responsive test subject and Baldur was in no hurry.

---

"How you came to have such a low opinion of yourself, I'll never know," Zevran sighed as they lay in a sweaty and pleasantly exhausted tangle atop the bedclothes. He combed his fingers through Baldur’s clean but slightly damp hair, for once not catching on tangles. “You are a true paragon amongst men of all races. Even I had no idea a tongue could do that.”

Baldur bowed his head with a faint blush at the praise, pressing a kiss to Zevran’s shoulder.

"I have...had...brothers," Baldur said hesitantly to Zevran’s first statement, even though he doubted Zevran had expected a response. He wanted to tell Zevran though, tired of hiding in the shadow of his past even though he still felt a familiar pang of loss and anger whenever he thought of his family.

"Oh? Do tell! I was an only child, so I always wondered what it was like having siblings to get into mischief with."

"With anyone else's siblings, I would agree with you," Baldur said as he sat up with a groan, Zevran's fingers sliding out of his hair and trailing down his arm to twine their fingers loosely together as Baldur gathered his thoughts.

"However, as the second son to the...to a very powerful man in Orzammar, there was much feuding regarding the issue of inheritance. My elder brother, Trian, was the natural choice to inherit, but he had an unpleasant countenance and was quick to ire; he feared I would supplant his position, as I was more popular with the lower classes, or so I'd been told by our younger brother, Bhelen."

"I am given to understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, that squabbling is only to be expected between those raised in the same household?"

"Squabbling...was only the beginning. I refused to believe Bhelen when he came to me with information that Trian had plans to murder me to make sure that I did not usurp him. I was on an errand from my father, and upon my return I found my brother Trian slain.” Baldur paused, collecting himself in a moment of anguish that he hadn’t expected after all this time. Zevran didn’t rush him, stroking his thumb soothingly over the back of his hand until Baldur found his voice again.

"As I knelt over my brother's body in horror and grief, Bhelen came upon us leading guards and our father to ‘catch me in the act’ as it were. The soldiers I was with immediately turned on me and claimed that I had killed Trian. Nothing I said could convince my father otherwise, and so I was imprisoned and stripped of all rank and title."

The wound was still raw and bleeding, Baldur realized with his retelling as he fell silent. But he was sad and confused more than anything. If Bhelen had only told him of his desire to rule, Baldur would have done everything in his ability to support him and would have gladly stepped down if he had been voted into kingship in place of either brother. Leading no more than handful of individuals in a fight against the Blight was more than enough responsibility for one person to handle, never mind ruling the entirety of Orzammar during wartime.

Zevran squeezed his fingers and looked up into Baldur's face with open compassion.

"I cannot even imagine. And I had thought my childhood was difficult! I know you found a way to escape and join the Grey Wardens, since you are here now, which I am beyond grateful for. But do you know what become of your father or Bhelen?"

Baldur frowned and shook his head slowly. "Father was...not well when I was banished. I was told he had taken ill after my apparent involvement in Trian's death, but I would not be surprised if he was poisoned so Bhelen could have his title sooner rather than later." Speaking badly about his family sat bitterly at the back of his tongue like foul-tasting potion. Even after everything that had happened back home, Baldur was disinclined to hate Bhelen for his choices and only hoped, bitterly, that his brother found whatever it was he hoped to accomplish with all of his family out of the way.

"I think that's why I admire the idea of Leliana's Maker, as I am no longer considered a Child of the Stone and will not be welcomed back into Her embrace when I pass on. If my own creator, Mahal, will not accept me, then I'd like to believe another may take pity on this tarnished soul."

Zevran sat up swiftly, grabbing Baldur's hand in a fierce grip that actually hurt.

"Any deity, the Maker or Mahal or Odin himself, who would not gladly welcome you into their halls with feasts and treasures to pile at your feet in thanks for all of your sacrifices is a fool! I would gladly show my blades to any who would dare say otherwise!" Zevran actually bared his teeth in rage, and Baldur was taken aback by his lover's vehemence.

"I should rather hope you won't need to storm the halls of my forefathers demanding retribution in the afterlife, but I will not stand in your way if you are determined to defend my honor." Baldur ducked his head with a tiny, helpless grin, and Zevran huffed and pressed a hard kiss against his temple.

"Damn right."

Baldur had ceased all thoughts of returning to Orzammar and fighting to prove his innocence the moment he had passed Duncan's tests and survived the ritual to become a Grey Warden, severing the last ties to his past as thoroughly as his people had done everything in their power to erase his very existence. He was considered less than even the casteless dwarves who had been banished or went willingly to live aboveground, stripped of their titles and rights. That shame had hung heavily until he'd met Alistair, who had seen the same visions of evil that Baldur was plagued with in his dreams and waking hours, and hadn't lost his conviction that it could be defeated. Morrigan had scoffed all ideas of there being a higher power that she must be held accountable to, and Leliana was the stark opposition with such a firm belief in the Maker that her own visions had driven her away from a secure life in the Chantry to seek out and defeat darkspawn with Baldur and his companions.

He assumed Zevran's beliefs were more along the lines of Morrigan, but asking felt too invasive, and didn't necessarily matter. They would likely all find out what was waiting on the other side for them in the afterlife sooner rather than later if Baldur didn't find a way to defeat the dragon and find the Urn of Ashes to heal the Arl before tackling even greater enemies. They would need the Arl’s help if Baldur planned to pull together an army to defeat the darkspawn, knowing that he would need numbers on his side rather than naively expecting to make any leeway with only the few people he had under his tenuous command. He’d already secured the promise of help from the Dalish in the Brecilian Forest, few in number as the elves were, but he was afraid he would have to invoke the Right of Conscription sooner rather than later to build up the ranks of Grey Wardens that had nearly been decimated in Ostagar, save for Alistair and himself.

They laid in comfortable silence for a long while, content to simply enjoy a quiet moment alone, until the rumbling of their bellies reminded them they had a dinner date with Leliana, which they would be late for if they didn’t get out of bed and dressed.

Leliana had also seen to getting herself cleaned up and put to sorts when they joined her at a table in the corner she’d already secured. He and Zevran were late despite their best attempts not to kiss and touch each other to distraction while getting dressed, even though they were only a hallway and staircase away from the conveniently located tavern downstairs. The tavern offered a veritable selection of food and drink, and more questionable entertainment that was currently comprised of a very bad juggler who spent more time chasing after his balls – literally and figuratively – than actually managing to keep them aloft.

“Thank you,” Leliana said with a polite smile to the serving girl who set down tankards of ale in front of them while they waited for their dinner. “So,” she started after she took a sip of her drink and took her time looking them over. “You seem to have settled in well.”

“We have,” Baldur agreed. His eye lingered on the swell of a bruise from a cut on her cheek, but it was an older injury and one that she would have seen to already without him being a mother hen. Being alone, relatively speaking, with Leliana when they weren’t cold and huddled around a campfire was jarring, although seeing her now recalled Baldur of their first meeting in Lothering where they had fought side-by-side against Loghain’s soldiers in a tavern much like this one before even being introduced.

“We spent a good portion of the day procuring new items of clothing to replace those lost gallantly in battle,” Zevran expounded with a completely straight face, while Baldur had to hide his own in his tankard, swallowing so fast that he nearly choked. “I found several gorgeous tunics in a flattering cut and shades other than grey or brown for our dear Warden here.”

"How lovely! We have many things in common, Zevran, other than an appreciation for finer things," Leliana said conversationally as she gazed across the table at Zevran who had his arm draped over the back of Baldur’s chair. He occasionally brushed his fingers across Baldur’s neck or down his shoulder, causing Baldur to shiver slightly but not pull away.

"Other than our purity and beauty?" Zevran asked with a guileless expression.

"We both spent many years in places other than Ferelden. You are an assassin, and I a bard."

"Then you were called upon to kill," Zevran concluded.

"Often,” Leliana said regretfully, a small unhappy frown gracing her lovely features. “I didn't like it, but I did it anyway."

"You didn't like it? You didn't like the thrill of the hunt?"

"I suppose...I did like that. The hunt, not the killing."

"The killing just signals the end of the hunt. Without it the chase just goes on. You killed your marks cleanly, I hope."

"Whenever possible."

"Good. When the prey is caught it deserves a good death. A clean death.” Zevran paused a moment and stroked his thumb along the curve of Baldur’s ear, looking contemplative when Baldur met his eyes. A soft, slightly wistful smile pulled at his lips. “Perhaps you are right. We have much in common."

Baldur settled back with his drink and listened to Zevran’s and Leliana’s familiar chatter which only paused when the serving girl returned, arms laden with delicious-smelling food. She set down a hunk of bread and sharp cheese along with several bowls of lamb stew, thick with gravy and vegetables – the latter which Baldur picked out and transferred into Zevran’s bowl as the other man spooned some of his meat into Baldur’s. Leliana watched them with amused fondness before digging into her own fare with enthusiasm. Baldur couldn’t remember the last time any of them had a meal that consisted of more than stale waybread, hare or squirrel skewered on a stick, or bland tubers foraged from the woods. Dwarves weren’t meant to eat green things, and if Baldur never saw another vegetable again it would be too soon.

"I heard the strangest rumors today,” Leliana said idly when they had decimated their supper and they were all full and satisfied. Zevran perked up, always interested in the latest gossip.

“Oh? And what would that be? Nobles exposed in an affair? Politicians accepting bribes? An assassination, perhaps?”

“There is word going around that an elf and a dwarf were seen running from the local bathhouse with a small elven girl chasing them down the street...au naturale. I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that? Hmm?"

Baldur choked, nearly coughing up a lung in his surprise. Zevran gave him a hearty slap on the back with one hand as he calmly slid over his untouched tankard to Baldur with the other, who gulped the entire contents down thirstily, not planning to come up for air anytime soon.

“What an odd rumor!” Zevran agreed, rubbing small circles on Baldur’s back soothingly. “I could see how one would reach certain conclusions considering you are a particularly close acquaintance with both an elf and a dwarf, one of which who is a prolific deviant. But tell me, Leliana, could you really see Baldur of all people ripping off his clothes and running naked down a crowded street? He doesn’t even remove all of his armor during more amorous activities, and trust me when I say there are some places pommels should just not go.”

Baldur sunk down in his chair, face bright red as Leliana laughed.

“I suppose you are right. Anyway, it is getting late and I for one cannot wait to sleep in a proper bed. Thank you both for dinner. I hope you sleep well.”

“Oh, we will!” Zevran assured her cheerfully, ignoring the fact Baldur was practically under the table from mortification at that point. They made their farewells and after a final nightcap they paid for the food and dragged themselves back upstairs, the day catching up with them both.

“It’s good to know we’re making an impression already, no?” Zevran said cheerfully, stripping down to bare skin with relish.

“That is not the kind of impression I wish to make, Zevran,” Baldur said irritably, wresting his tunic over his head and discarding the shirt over a bedpost, too tired to bother folding and storing his clothing in his pack as he normally would.

“Oh, but really. Think of the stories people will be able to tell to their grandchildren about the time they saw a Grey Warden so petrified of a girl that he ran stark naked down the street in the middle of the day! It is definitely a tale fit for the history books. Or a tawdry novel. Same difference, really.”

“Don’t forget you were there too.”

“Mm, yes. But I, sadly, will merely be a footnote in the great exploits of Baldur the Grey Warden who single-handedly defeated the Blight.”

“And runs from elf children.”

“They will appreciate that story in the Alienage at least.”

Baldur sighed, rubbing the space between his eyes with thumb and forefinger. “Come to bed, Zevran.”

Si, mi amor. Con placer.”

Baldur extinguished the small oil lantern they had been using to see by and climbed under clean, crisp sheets, nearly moaning at the unusual sensation of not having rocks and roots digging into his back for once. He hadn’t gotten a chance to truly appreciate the luxury of laying in a proper bed earlier. Zevran was apparently in agreement judging from his soft groan as he sunk into down-stuffed mattress and curled against Baldur, their heads sharing the same pillow and the narrowness of the bed forcing them close - to the disappointment of neither man.

“Sweet dreams, cariño.”

“Goodnight, Zevran.”

---

"By the Stone, it's Trian!"

"It must have been a darkspawn attack."

"This doesn't look like darkspawn. No bites, no scratches, no mutilation..."

"Someone's coming!"

Instead of running, Baldur dropped to his knees next to Trian's lifeless form as the other men fled, crushed by grief as he placed a clenched fist over Trian's heart, which no longer beat.

"Hurry, Father! Before it's too..." Bhelen's voice, tight with urgency, dropped off as he led their father's force to where Baldur was knelt over Trian's body. Endrin shouldered Bhelen aside and approached the illuminated dais, steps heavy with trepidation and sorrow. Baldur looked up at his father in placation and then stood to meet him, eyes stinging with tears.

"By all the Ancestors, what happened here?" Endrin asked, his voice low and crackling.

"It seems we weren't fast enough. Bhelen was right," one of the king's guards answered.

"My son. Tell me this isn't what it looks like," Endrin begged, kneeling next to Trian with all the weight of his years and sorrow pressing upon him.

"It isn't. I assure you," Baldur said, stung at the very idea.

"He killed Trian. Just as Trian said he would!" Bhelen accused, staring right at Baldur with eyes full of venom and distrust.

Baldur returned the look in kind, his heart leaping in his chest as he fought the urge to go for his sword, disbelieving of what Bhelen proposed. As the guards in his company denounced Baldur and cast him to the wolves, Baldur felt a slow crawl of rage pour through him and his right arm moved to reach over his shoulder, withdrawing the longsword from the scabbard strapped to his back. His lips peeled back on a snarl as he leapt at Bhelen while he spilled his poisoned words to their father, watching from afar as a second mouth opened up beneath Bhelen's chin. Bhelen staggered back, clutching at the gaping wound in his throat as blood gushed down the front of his chestplate and he stumbled, falling next to Trian while gurgling for breath or to shout...

Baldur whirled and decapitated Frandlin Ivo where that traitorous bastard stood, gutting the other guard before he could scramble away. Gorim reached out to stop him, and Baldur didn’t hesitate for a moment before he cut his best friend nearly in half. Bodies dropped around him in a whirlwind of violence and screams, his rage only growing with each kill until none were left standing.

His chest heaving, Baldur turned towards his father, who had remained frozen to the spot on the floor, too horrorstruck to move. Endrin, eyes wide with terror and his pale face and beard spattered with the blood flung from Baldur's sword, rose his hands in supplication, as if that much could protect him from his son.

"You should have believed me. Now everyone is dead," Baldur snarled, raising his sword.

"Baldur, no!" his father cried, and Baldur's sword arm came down.

"No!" Baldur screamed, shooting up out of bed and dislodging the body laying across his chest.

"Baldur?" Zevran groaned with groggy alarm, tensing and immediately going for the dagger he had placed under his pillow before falling asleep. "What's happening? An attack?"

Ai-rusê!” Baldur cursed, casting aside the bedclothes as he struggled out of bed. He stumbled over to the window, knocking the shutters open and bracing himself on the window sill to take large, sucking gulps of the chilly night air. He was shaking but didn't feel the cold from the wind as it cut like a knife and whistled through the open window. Events hadn't transpired as he had just dreamed down in the Deep Roads after finding Trian's body. Bhelen and Gorim and his father still lived. Baldur had to tell himself repeatedly they hadn’t been cut down by his own sword, even though he could feel the echoing reverberation of steel hitting against bone in the tremors of his fingers. He raised his left hand to cover his face, surprised to find his skin wasn't sticky with blood.

"Baldur..."

Zevran's voice was as soft as his approach, but his hand was a warm reassurance against his shoulder as he stood next to Baldur's side and waited patiently for Baldur to catch his breath, sweat chilling on his skin.

"I didn't kill them," Baldur whispered urgently to himself, both a reassurance and almost a question. "They're all fine...they aren't dead..."

"I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific, cariño. It is rare that anyone who crosses us leaves our meetings alive."

Baldur lifted his head and scowled at him through his fingers. "You’re not helping," he complained, but Zevran grinned unselfconsciously and shrugged a shoulder.

"It’s true, is it not?"

Baldur sighed, lowering his hand and turning back to stare outside at the blue-black of the night sky, the scent of rain heavy in the air. He would have to make a visit to Gorim soon to prove to himself that he hadn't struck down his best friend, needing Gorim’s reassurances that Baldur had been innocent in this particular case. His hands were certainly stained red now, but he'd tried to preserve as many innocents as possible, knowing that he hadn't always succeeded.

"Come. Let us go to bed and I will warm you up - you're nearly frozen solid," Zevran said gently, taking Baldur's hands in his own and drawing him back to their rumpled bed.

Zevran held him close and quietly brought Baldur off with his hands and mouth, waving off attempts at reciprocation and merely wrapping his arms and legs around him like a second blanket while Baldur still thrummed with the pleasure of his release. Baldur didn't intend to fall asleep, but the steady rhythm of Zevran's heart beneath his ear and the comforting weight of his arm around his waist lulled Baldur into a restless slumber until the morning came.

Baldur woke with the sun out of habit after he somehow managed to find sleep again with the vestiges of the night terror echoing hollowly in his chest. The nightmare was likely provoked by bringing up the whole sorry affair with Zevran, but for once there was no urgent need to get up and on the road as soon as possible and Baldur was perfectly content to wallow. He was still tucked against Zevran’s side with his cheek pressed against Zevran’s chest, head lifting and falling with each gentle breath, sound asleep. Baldur rested a hand between Zevran’s shoulder blades and didn’t try to wake him, appreciating the warmth of his lover at his side, a soft bed beneath him, and a stomach only slightly hungry rather than trying to consume itself from near-starvation. He could rarely recall having felt so rich in all of his life, even when he spent days in Orzammar’s vast treasure rooms filled from floor to ceiling with countless marvelous workings of gold and jewels.

The day seemed calm and no urgent missions or obligations needled at him for once. When Zevran woke they had slow, languid sex face-to-face, Zevran’s eyes still squinty from sleep and hair mussed on one side. Baldur almost couldn’t bear to look at him, he was so beautiful. The gentle exertion chased away any lingering traces of the dream, and they fed breakfast to each other in bed after a second round when they were both more coherent. Baldur was actually able to enjoy lazing about with Zevran and not worry about the time he was wasting when there were no pressing appointments or reason to get out of bed save for the very basic needs, which were quickly tended to before they languidly resumed their tangle of limbs under the covers, trading lazy kisses and gentle smiles.

The entire day was spent in an indolent manner and Baldur stubbornly refused to feel guilty when the light outside faded and simple tiredness rather than bone-deep exhaustion took hold and nearly cracked his jaw with a loud yawn. Zevran laughed softly into the back of his neck before releasing his own yawn and snuggling closer. They breathed together in spent and companionable silence until their breaths slowed into sleep, and blessedly Baldur didn’t dream.

---

The next few days they only ventured out of bed when there was a need. They cleaned their armor and mended what they could salvage, replacing what they could not with the coin Baldur had accrued from odd jobs and looting corpses – not that merchants knew, or cared to know, the difference. Baldur located a woman who sold a variety of scented oils in the market and purchased several vials, storing them in his belt where they wouldn’t get mixed up with Zevran’s poisons. He also checked on Master Wade’s progress with the armor, which was coming along with seemingly impossible quickness.

“He hasn’t slept or eaten since you brought those damnable drake scales!” Herren moaned, his hair sticking out in odd directions as if from gripping his hair in despair. “He has forsaken all of his other commissions and nothing can convince him to be pulled away from your armor otherwise. I suspect it will only be a day or two, if that, before he is finished. Forgive my saying so, but I’ll only be too happy not to see you again anytime soon distracting Wade from his other obligations.”

Baldur ducked his head and grinned an apology, but he was pleased. The armor should be ready by the time Alistair was due to meet them. He dropped Zevran off at an apothecary and scurried off to meet up with a blessedly familiar face in Denerim’s marketplace. He purchased a pair of dwarven hair clasps from Gorim on impulse as they caught up, taking advantage of the rare moment when he and Zevran weren’t glued to each other’s sides to buy a gift that he wasn’t certain he’d actually have the nerve to present to his beloved.

"Congratulations, my friend! I hope you are very happy with your special someone," Gorim said as he neatly wrapped the silver-plated clasps and handed them over to Baldur, waving off payment. "Consider it a Bonding gift from me and the missus."

Baldur protested and blushed scarlet to his roots, Gorim chortling his familiar gravelly laugh, and for a moment it sounded like home. He stopped in at a nearby tavern to soothe his nerves with a drink, but the bard warbling out terrible love songs from a corner of the nearly empty room wasn’t helping matters, especially when Baldur could relate to every single saccharine lyric. Zevran slipped into the seat next to him when his mug was nearly empty and leaned down to kiss Baldur after signaling for two more drinks to be brought to their table, looking pleased. Baldur didn’t bother asking how Zevran had found him – there was only one Grey Warden in Denerim, after all, and no others who were a dwarf. Zevran took his hand when they walked down the street after leaving the tavern as if the gesture was now second nature. Baldur reddened helplessly, unable to keep from glancing up at Zevran every few minutes and think of the weight of the small gift tucked away in his tunic, protected by his chestplate.

"Message for you, Ser."

A young boy planted himself directly in front of Baldur and Zevran's path and held out a letter to the dwarf, distracting him from nervous contemplations over the box currently digging itself into his sternum. The boy stuck out his hand with a sealed envelope for him to take and Baldur accepted the letter automatically, bewildered.

"Wha--?"

The urchin was gone when Baldur looked up from the envelope addressed to the "Grey Warden" written in an unfamiliar scrawl.

"Summons from your lovers whose broken hearts pave the streets of Denerim," Zevran surmised with a teasing glint in his eyes. "I do hope they left a return address so you can let them down gently." A knife suddenly appeared in Zevran's hand with a showy twirl. "Or not so gently..."

"It's a request for a meeting," Baldur said numbly after he broke the seal right there in the street and stared down at the letter, "from the Crows."

The knife hit the cobblestones with a ringing clatter and the parchment crumpled beneath Baldur's too-tight grip, his voice coming out strangely disconnected and hollow.

"My presence is requested at the Gnawed Noble Tavern. Tonight."

Baldur paled and looked up at Zevran helplessly, but Zevran only appeared grimly amused as he crouched in a fluid motion and retrieved the knife, sliding it very pointedly back into a hidden sheath.

"At least you will look presentable when I introduce you to my employers, no? Do you have a preference for the blue tunic or the green?"

"Whichever will have bloodstains washed out the best," Baldur said darkly, baring his teeth on a snarl.

---

Baldur lost whatever appetite he might have had and spent a good portion of the time before he was due to meet with either the Crows or their liaison pacing in their room back at the Dancing Wyvern, a thousand thoughts running through his head.

"Most likely they will try to ambush us, if that is their plan," Zevran said calmly where he reclined on their single, narrow bed, his dusty boots resting on the patched coverlet. "Whoever they send to have a meeting with you will be a more expendable member. They are casting out their feelers and if they find you are not so...agreeable...to what it is they are offering, a casualty or two would merely be collateral."

"Why are they asking for me? I thought it was you they were after?"

Zevran's husky laughter filled their small space, momentarily derailing Baldur from the path he was trying to wear into the floor.

"Because you have survived an encounter with one of their best! They would be fools not to offer you a job when you have already proven yourself to be both capable and cunning. Necessary traits for an assassin, I am told."

"They want to hire me?" Baldur asked incredulously, stopping directly in his tracks and staring at Zevran in disbelief.

"That is only my guess, of course. But I do not think I am wrong. You are very desirable, my heart. I do not blame them for seeking you out especially when you seduced one of their own over to the light..." Zevran's tone became low and suggestive as he stretched languidly on the bed to showcase his best angles.

Baldur resumed pacing.

"Leliana and Morrigan should be there when we go. I'll send word for them to meet us here before supper and possibly send Leliana to survey the tavern and note any suspicious patrons. She and Morrigan can take point as sentries should anyone try and rush in while our backs are turned."

"That is all very well and good, but we have hours yet until that time. I may have a suggestion to take your mind off the meeting until then."

"I need to see Gorim," Baldur said suddenly and Zevran sat up swiftly, offended.

"Who is this Gorim?" Zevran asked dangerously, but Baldur was already slinging on his belt.

"He's my best friend and second in command. Or, at least, he was in Orzammar before we were both cast out. Now he's a merchant, and if I recall from my last visit in Denerim he had a manual detailing how to unlock one's berserker state. I need that manual."

"Have you lost your senses entirely?" Zevran exclaimed, grabbing for Aodr before Baldur could secure the blade to his back. "You want to learn how to lose yourself to a blackout rage and kill everything in sight just for a meeting?"

"It's not just a meeting!" Baldur shouted, snatching his weapon out of Zevran's grasp with a thunderous glare. "They threaten you by coming after me. They threaten us. I will not stand for it, and you can either come with me or stay here until I get back, but I'm going to see Gorim."

"Of course I am coming with you," Zevran said, wounded. "I would not leave you to the Crows alone."

"Fine," Baldur said shortly, buckling his bracers and grabbing his leather purse before storming out of the room, not waiting for Zevran to follow.

---

Leliana was stationed right outside the doorway to the room indicated for the meeting and Morrigan was left at the entrance to the tavern to glower threateningly at anyone who entered the establishment behind them. Baldur and Zevran were armed to the teeth, the clink and rattle of metal announcing their approach.

Master Ignacio, a soft-spoken merchant from Antiva Baldur had spoken to earlier just that week, was there to greet them.

"You hear about a note?" Ignacio said in his distinctive Antivan accent. "Maybe we have some things to talk about."

Baldur perhaps should have realized the man was a Crow sooner, but Zevran hadn't recognized him as anyone familiar in the marketplace, and it wasn't as if Baldur could assume that everyone from Antiva was automatically an assassin. But maybe he should.

"Let's keep this civil. If this is a trap..." Zevran started as he took guard behind Baldur's right shoulder.

Ignacio flicked cool eyes over to the elf, his pleasantly neutral expression unchanging.

"Zevran, is it? You are Taliesen's responsibility. Other Crows may try to kill you, but as far as I am concerned you are already dead. But the Warden here, he is of great interest."

"What is it you want?" Baldur demanded, unable to feel exactly relieved that the man before him had no desire to kill Zevran, but that did not mean the rest of the Crows would not try and take their shot at a later time. The bathhouse had been a monumentally stupid idea. There were members from the Crows right there in Denerim, and they'd practically painted a target on their backs cavorting like they had. They were extremely fortunate they hadn't been killed while they were distracted and unarmed, but it seemed likely that their good luck was a calculation on the Crow's part if they wanted Baldur, at least, alive.

"As someone who's crossed our path and survived...perhaps a Grey Warden could be an asset to the Crows. Make some coin. Everybody wins."

The idea of working for the Crows, for the group that had purchased Zevran when he was a child and turned him into a killer, who would then see him dead for failing to assassinate Baldur... Baldur had known the offer was coming due to Zevran's warning beforehand, but actually hearing the proposal filled him with so much rage that he couldn't even think to draw his sword in that moment. However, if Ignacio so much as twitched in Zevran's direction Baldur would see him beheaded before he could even finish blinking.

"And what would this entail exactly?" Baldur replied dangerously, wanting to keep the man talking long enough to figure out what the Crows' plans were and stop them in their tracks. He would see every last one of them dead for what they did to Zevran.

"I hand you a scroll. You read it, you learn about someone interesting. If you find out something happens to him, something unfortunate, I give you money for letting me know. If you don't like what's on the scroll, then someone else will tell me all about it."

Baldur was tired of all the cloak and daggers and poorly cryptic speech - must everyone from Antiva speak in circles? - before Ignacio had even finished. He had no interest in anything further this man had to say, unless it was to inform Baldur they no longer planned to send someone to kill Zevran failing in his mission and defecting.

"Not interested," he said darkly, shifting his weight as his right hand hung loosely at his hip, ready to dart up and unsheathe his sword in an instant. "Don't contact me again."

Ignacio gazed between him and Zevran knowingly, not even glancing at their displayed weapons.

"Zevran is very good at seduction and lies, I have heard. It is a shame he was unable to kill you, as he would have been an incredible asset to the Crows. Perhaps even a leader in his own right one day."

"We're finished here." Baldur's hand moved towards his hilt and Zevran already had his daggers unsheathed.

"Of course, no offense meant," Ignacio said smoothly, eyes back on Baldur's with a hint of amusement. "We knew it was a long shot, but you are very good at what you do and have caught the interest of more than just the Crows. If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

Ignacio brushed past them, knocking Baldur's shoulder with his own, but the dwarf was like a mountain rooted to the earth miles below the surface and didn't budge, glowering and furious.

Then they were left alone in the room.

"That went way better than I expected," Zevran said jovially, putting away his daggers as Leliana and Morrigan slipped into the room after checking that the area was all clear.

"Fuck!" Baldur roared, grabbing a nearby ceramic bowl and heaving it against the wall where it shattered explosively and dented the painted surface.

The untested berserker rage he had accessed in an unheard of amount of time flared up with a vengeance, threatening to consume him from the inside out. He punched the wall hard enough that his fist went through the plaster and let out a yell of frustration, unable to feel whether his fingers were bruised or broken. He slammed his forehead against the wall once, twice and left it pressed there, shuddering through the waves of violence and heightened senses that detected three raised heartbeats, not including the hammering of his own.

"Leave us," Baldur distantly heard Zevran say, and he was grateful when Morrigan and Leliana obeyed without protest for once, afraid that he would attack anyone in his way at that moment regardless if they were friend or foe.

"Can you teach others to be an assassin?" Baldur demanded of the wall, unable to turn and face Zevran, who - Baldur knew without even looking - was waiting and watching him speculatively.

"I could teach others...but not yourself," Zevran said regretfully with a calmness that was jarring considering what had just transpired. "Assuming you had the years of training required to become adept at just the basics alone, making a career of being an assassin would suit you poorly, my love. I mean that in the best possible way. Cold-blooded murder is not for the beautifully tender hearted such as yourself, and I would not see you changed so drastically on my behalf."

Baldur made a frustrated growl, ripping his hand free from the wall to yank at fistfuls of his clean, untangled hair that Zevran had groomed so diligently and he had no doubt gotten covered in dust and plaster. He looked around for something else to throw.

"However," Zevran continued before Baldur could go on a rampage and start overturning tables and breaking the furniture, "I could teach it to someone else who has experience in stealth and other rogue talents that are needed to become an assassin. The Crows are already furious, no? I shall enjoy tweaking their nose further."

"Then do it," Baldur snapped, already thinking of Leliana and her soundless footsteps and ability to pick almost any lock. The more leverage they had against the Crows, the better.

Baldur's blood was boiling and he couldn't calm himself in the usual manner of killing darkspawn or some really, really deserving people. "Let's get my armor from Wade and get out of here. I want to be gone from this town."

Baldur stormed out of the back room to the tavern, barmaids scattering out of his way from the murderous expression on his face. Zevran hurried to catch up, and Baldur thought someone may have been speaking to him, but the rush of blood in his ears was drowning out any sound.

"Baldur!" Zevran shouted, grabbing Baldur's shoulder and yanking him around.

Baldur's fist was clenched and flying before the motion even fully registered. Fortunately, Zevran was extremely quick and had been expecting some kind of volatile reaction, sidestepping easily so that Baldur's fist clipped the edge of a doorframe instead, sending splinters of wood flying and imbedding several slivers into his already damaged knuckles.

"Son of a beardless mother!" Baldur swore vehemently, enraged and appalled at the near miss. "Mahal damn you, Zevran! I told you not to... I could have taken your head off!"

"And what a tragedy it would be to damage a face as devastatingly handsome as mine, but as you can see I am fine. You, however, are very much not fine."

"How can you be alright with everything that happened back there?" Baldur demanded plaintively, wanting to weep at the injustice of being sought after by the Crows as a recruit while Zevran's every step was shadowed with the inevitability that another assassin would come after him and not stop until Zevran had his lifeblood spilled out upon the ground.

"I found it amusing more than anything else," Zevran admitted with a shrug. "And now I know Taliesen himself will be coming for me and him I know how to handle. So you see, there is no reason to be concerned at all. Let us focus on bigger problems, hm?"

Baldur wanted desperately to believe in Zevran's confidence, but it was maddening to think the elf wasn't as concerned for his own life as he was for Baldur's mental state of being.

"Who's Taliesen?" Baldur asked, grasping at straws.

"Ah. That is a story for another time, I believe. It is a riveting tale full of mystery and passion and murder, I assure you, but I will need the proper settings and ambiance to give the telling the justice it deserves."

Baldur took this answer as Zevran's long-winded request to drop the subject, and while he wanted to demand answers right that very moment, Zevran could clam up tighter than even Baldur when he was pushed.

"Come. What you need is some rest and perhaps a mug of ale or two. Or five, who's to say? And later, if you are amenable, we can continue what we started several times in that delectable little bathhouse, which we have no doubt been banned from indefinitely. Such a shame! I rather enjoyed the bubbles myself."

"Are you certain it’s wise to stay in town when we know the Crows are here?" Baldur asked dubiously, feeling agony begin to pulse behind his eyes as the rage finally began to subside. A soft bed in a dark room while wrapped around a warm and breathing Zevran sounded like bliss despite the danger staying even a night longer presented.

"I am certain it is not. But if the Crows wish to find me, they will do so whether we are sleeping on the cold ground fifty miles from here, or in a nice warm bed in the room we have already rented for the night. It would be such a shame to let it go to waste..."

Baldur knew it was a bad idea, but as the adrenaline-fueled rage finally began to dissipate he started to crash hard. They had ways to lay traps and barricade themselves inside their rooms, however they would need to inform the inn staff that they were not to be disturbed under any circumstance. Baldur didn't try to delude himself that the idea of finally having Zevran in a proper bed while they still had the chance was direly appealing, even if he would be unable to manage more than a clumsy kiss before he passed out against Zevran's shoulder.

---

Baldur didn't remember the walk to the inn. He also didn't remember being stripped of armor and clothing, or having his hand carefully removed of splinters and bandaged. He only came to when he felt the warm, comfortable weight of Zevran settle over his thighs, his lover very much nude.

"Mmrh?" Baldur's questioning sound was muffled by the pillow buried in his face, aware that he was laying facedown on their bed and had not a stitch of clothing on him as well.

"Shhh. You may sleep if you like - I will do nothing untoward with your body. I prefer my partners conscious and writhing with pleasure. It is good for the ego."

"Mm," Baldur agreed, closing his eyes and relaxing back into the mattress when Zevran's slick hands ran up his sides and across his back, kneading the painfully tight muscles with almost clinical efficiency.

Baldur didn't know how much time had passed when he woke up again, but there was a candle halfway melted and flickering on the beside table and no light coming through the shuttered window. Zevran was humming quietly to himself, his hands steady and even as they worked on Baldur's taut shoulders. He must have located a pressure point because in one swift moment Baldur was hit with an excruciating pain at the base of his neck that sucked the breath right out of him. Before he could yell at the sensation of a white hot poker stabbing directly into the back of his skull, Zevran let go and unspeakable relief immediately flooded down his spine in the most intense pleasure he had ever felt. All of the agony and tension from his migraine was suddenly, blessedly gone, and Baldur sobbed at the foreign feeling of being entirely without pain for once.

Zevran seemed to expect such a reaction, because his aggressive massage smoothly flowed into feather-light caresses all over his body, easing Baldur through the worst tremors until he gasped into his sodden pillow, entirely rung out. Zevran leaned over him and curled his arms around Baldur's broad torso until his chest was flush against Baldur's back, kissing him tenderly behind the ear with hot lips.

"Forgive me for being so crass, my dearest, but I find that I need you quite desperately," Zevran murmured against the side of his neck. He rocked his hips meaningfully, the long, hard line of him riding the cleft of Baldur's arse, and Baldur jolted with realization of what Zevran was asking.

"I--" Baldur started, gasping when Zevran pressed against him again, fire trailing from every point of contact. "Oh Ancestors," he breathed, arching his spine and lifting his face from the pillow with a soft moan as he pushed back against him, shuddering. "I've n-never..."

"I know, mi corazón. If it helps, think of it as another kind of massage, only from the inside."

"I...Yes."

Zevran pressed another kiss to his neck and then unexpectedly moved off of Baldur entirely. He immediately missed the man's heat and weight holding him down to the bed, but Zevran only shifted back and not completely off the bed, his hands an anchoring point on Baldur's body the entire while. Zevran gently grasped Baldur's hips and tugged back on them, coaxing Baldur into a sort of half-kneel with Baldur's face and shoulders pressed into the pillow. Cool air brushed against a place that never saw daylight, Zevran's sword-roughened hands gently spreading him open and exposing the most secret part of him. A warm, wet touch replaced the puff of air and Baldur jerked as if he'd been hit by lightning.

"Zevran!" he gasped, scandalized and desperately, desperately aroused. "You can't--"

"Oh, I think you will find that I can," Zevran chuckled, his voice dark and rough like smoke. "And I will." His tongue returned before Baldur could protest, pressing and licking inside with obscene, wet sounds that became sloppier when Baldur cried out and lifted his hips into the illicit sensation, chasing after Zevran's wickedly skillful tongue and immensely relieved that he had maintained his hygiene since the bathhouse.

Baldur lost all sense of time and space, his entire focus tunneling down into a single point of contact. He didn't even notice when Zevran worked an oil-slicked finger into him, licking around the digit hungrily, but he certainly felt when he slid two inside, the burn and odd sensation of fullness completely foreign. Zevran stayed with two fingers for a long while, clearly in no hurry as he drove the tip of his tongue between his fingers until Baldur was sweating and thrusting counterpoint to his touch.

"If only you could see how sweet you look right now," Zevran said as he nipped lightly at Baldur's cheek, dipping his fingers in and out of him with no resistance and tugging experimentally at his rim. He retrieved the massage oil and drizzled a generous amount between the gaps in his fingers, squishing lewdly when he pushed back inside.

"Zevran," Baldur moaned again - the only coherent word he'd been able to produce since this entire endeavor started.

"Hush, love. Patience is a virtue after all. I will give you what you need soon..."

Baldur sobbed, spreading his knees apart and arching into the touch when Zevran started working three slender fingers inside, his pace relentlessly unhurried despite the way Baldur cursed and cried for him, clawing at the bedclothes. He'd never felt anything so strange or so good in his life, helpless against the wave after wave of sensation pulsing through him. When he was certain he would go mad with need, Zevran repositioned himself behind Baldur and the now-familiar stretch of his fingers gave way to a blunt pressure at his entrance.

Zevran didn't immediately start forcing his way into Baldur, for which the dwarf was simultaneously grateful and frustrated. However, for each shuttering breath Baldur took Zevran inched incrementally deeper inside, simple gravity and physics pulling them together at a nearly imperceptible rate, so slow they seemed locked in one position indefinitely. When Zevran's hips were finally, finally flushed against Baldur's backside, they were both sweating and shaking. Baldur let out a ragged moan when Zevran collapsed on top of him, covering him like a living blanket. Baldur hadn't realized how much he missed being thoroughly surrounded, having been born as a Child of the Stone and subsequently lived his entire life under miles and miles of rock in endless tunnels. Zevran's arms wrapped him in a tight embrace as he buried his face against the curve of his neck, licking at trails of sweat that poured off of him.

If the inn came crashing down upon them at that moment, Baldur would not have noticed. He trembled all over and strained momentarily against Zevran's weight just to see if he would move, but he cried out and collapsed like his strings were cut when Zevran rocked his hips, once, and then stilled again.

Baldur went through feverishly revolving sensations, becoming so worked up and jittery that he was certain he would crawl out of his skin. He clenched brutally around Zevran and mewled his frustration when the other pinned him to the bed to prevent Baldur from thrusting back upon him. Alternately, when the tension finally peaked and Baldur could stand it no longer, there was a shift in his brain that suddenly felt like falling off a bottomless cliff, an infinite descent slowing and slowing until he was finally suspended, floating in a dreamy haze.

His breathing and heartbeat gradually evened out, tense muscles slowly relaxing once again beneath Zevran's unyielding presence within him, safe and secure. Baldur wasn't asleep, but neither was he awake, bound so thoroughly by Zevran's body and the anchoring, unmoving firmness of him within that he could finally just...let...go...

Baldur didn't know when Zevran began to move within him, the gentle rocking so, so slow and infinitesimal that he may as well have not been moving at all. He may have fallen asleep or lost awareness again for minutes or hours at a time, blissfully disconnected from his own body and mind, but when he drifted to the surface again Zevran seemed to know and would ease him back under with his body and wordless, soothing murmurs every single time.

When morning light finally penetrated through the haze and gradually started bringing him back into his body, Baldur found himself in an enormous wet spot. He must have come off half a dozen times throughout the night in order to create the sodden area beneath his hips. Zevran was awake, if he’d even slept at all, heavy and warm on top of him and still connected intimately inside, although he too seemed to finally be spent. Baldur felt refreshed and clean, for all that they were tacky and stuck together like two mating mabari.

Zevran kissed his cheek and carefully peeled himself off of Baldur when they lingered as long as they could, his fingers gently inspecting where Baldur was gaping open, wet and sore. Zevran wiped him down with cool water and a rough flannel after Baldur apparently passed muster, gently working to unstick the crust in the corners of his eyes from sleep and all the crying he had done. When Baldur was clean again, Zevran turned him over and kissed him fully awake, even though Baldur struggled against the thought of having to step a foot outside and willingly subject himself to pain and fear and the pressure of the world upon his shoulders. Already tension was starting to seep back in, but Baldur was determined to enjoy this moment for as long as he could, not knowing when their next reprieve would come.

They eventually disabled the wards that Zevran must have had Morrigan set the night before and shared a quiet breakfast of poached eggs, sausage, crusty bread and tea that Zevran requested from a flustered servant while scantily clad in only a bedsheet wrapped loosely around his hips. They leaned against each other while seated on the edge of the bed as they ate, carefully avoiding the telling stains that Baldur would have to tip the inn staff extra for having to clean.

When breakfast was done, they washed their teeth, faces, and dressed in new tunics and stiff leather breeches that would need to be broken in. Even Zevran pulled on a pair, stating the weather was still a bit too cold to go without just yet, to Baldur’s mild disappointment. Both of them saved the heavy, uncomfortable armor until the very last. Zevran settled on the floor between Baldur's legs for the brushing-and-braiding that had become their ritual in the mornings. Baldur stretched the stiff fingers of his bandaged hand, grateful they didn't seem to be broken, but he was frustrated that he wouldn't be able to plait Zevran's hair well enough to his own exacting standards with the minor injury.

He spent a moment carding his fingers through the fine, silken strands, awed and more than a little humbled at the easy trust Zevran had with Baldur at his back, not even considering that he would make a mess of the attempt. He lifted the comb he had purchased as an indulgence earlier that week, although Zevran claimed it was very definitely a 'need, you heathen dwarf'. He started to run the tines through Zevran's hair and was struck with a wave of nostalgia as he abruptly recalled an old, previously forgotten memory of his parents doing this very thing.

The memory was hazy, but Baldur remembered every morning his father would reverently brush waves and waves of his mother's shining black hair while she was seated regally at her gilded armoire. Baldur would climb into her lap, surrounded by her scent and loose hair, to curl around the bulge of his baby brother or sister still in her belly while Trian played with his wooden blocks on the floor at her slippered feet. His father would braid her hair into the most intricate, swirling loops Baldur had ever seen, the movement of his large fingers in her dark hair quick and deft with years of practice. The loops were held in place by gold clasps and ornaments and then woven with strands of precious gems that gleamed like starlight against the midnight black of her hair. Baldur had been told several times as a youth that he resembled her, while Trian and Bhelen had inherited their father’s fairer coloring. He didn’t remember her face or her voice, especially after all the royal portraits of her had been taken down and stored away on the king’s orders after her death and Endrin forbade any to speak of her.

They had been so happy as a family, deliriously so, before his mother had died in childbirth with Bhelen. The closeness and affection the two older boys once had in abundance vanished instantly in the wake of the queen's death, the loss of their mother eclipsing the excitement of a brand new baby who was sent off to a wet nurse while Trian and Baldur were turned out to their nursemaids and tutors to keep out of their father's hair, shorn nearly to his scalp in mourning. Endrin's devastation hardened the king's heart and all tenderness was set aside for raising hard, efficient sons who would someday lead a nation and achieve greatness at any cost.

"I have something for you," Baldur blurted, clutching the fine-toothed ivory comb so hard its teeth nearly broke through the skin of his palm.

"Presents before Feastday? I must have been a very good boy," Zevran smirked as he twisted around to watch as Baldur slid down off the bed and dropped the comb to tear open his pack, searching frantically.

"Mahal's beard, where is it?" Baldur cursed as he overturned his pack when he couldn't find the small package he had yesterday, knowing it would take forever to put everything back in order so his gear would all fit, but he didn't care at that point. Baldur had nearly reached the bottom of his pack and was ready to tear at his hair when Zevran's voice smoothly interrupted Baldur's increasingly frantic search.

"Is what you are searching for small and box-shaped, perhaps?"

Baldur's head snapped up, sending several coins and small vials scattering across the floor where they rolled into cracks or corners, but he was focused on the package in Zevran's hands and didn’t notice.

He paled.

"How did you-- Did you open it?" he demanded, stumbling over the mess he'd made on the floor to snatch the box out of Zevran's hand, dropping to his knees next to him with a jarring 'thump' that rattled his teeth.

"Though I am a very skilled procurer of valuable items - which I may sometimes borrow indefinitely - I do not make a habit of stealing from my companions."

"That wasn't what--I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply..."

"I’m sure you did not," Zevran agreed magnanimously, but there was a frosty edge to his voice that caused Baldur's stomach to twist violently, barely managing to hold onto his breakfast. "I found the package when I was undressing you last night and it seemed to be of importance. I set it aside so that it would not get misplaced. Usually you are more of an eager participant in the event of divesting ourselves of clothing, but I understand you were not well and may not remember."

Zevran did not meet his eyes as he shifted to rise to his feet, hair loose and unbraided.

"Wait!" Baldur blurted, shamefaced and reaching out to grab Zevran's arm before he got up. "Please, I'm sorry. I'm doing this all wrong."

Baldur must have looked so distressed that Zevran hesitated, nodding his head in an indication to continue before settling back on the floor with a politely interested expression on his face.

"Are you going to make me guess what is in the box then? Alright, I will bite. Is it a detonation device that is rigged to blow up the entire inn once opened while we make our dramatic escape from the Crows? Somebody's fingers you are having delivered as a threat to a politician’s family? Or perhaps a priceless gem for a secret lover of yours?"

"Stop saying that!" Baldur snarled. Zevran's lips pinched together in a tight, unhappy line before he schooled a neutral expression back into place. "Just...stop. There is no lovestruck man waiting for me at The Pearl, no perfumed letters from secret admirers, or trails of broken hearts scattered all across Ferelden! So stop implying that I'm not completely yours! There is only you! It's always going to be only you!"

Baldur was yelling, but he couldn't make himself calm down, much like his berserker state, except he was more scared and hurt than actually angry.

"I know you wouldn't steal from me because you couldn't. Everything that belongs to me, everything that I am, is already yours. I would let the entire world burn for you, and if you can't see that--"

Baldur was shaking, his jaw clenched so tightly no further words could possibly make their way out. Instead, he shoved the damned package into Zevran's hands and crossed his arms over his chest, pretending that the sight of Zevran so wide-eyed and stunned didn't tear him apart.

"This is...for me?" Zevran asked hesitantly, and Mahal damn him for still sounding so surprised at being given a gift without prompting. Baldur was doing a poor job in his duty as a lover if Zevran didn't take for granted being showered in gifts and attention regularly and accept it as his due.

"I meant to give it to you yesterday, but then the letter from Ignacio came and, well..."

"May I...open it?"

"Please," Baldur said tightly, certain he'd expire from nerves if Zevran waited a moment longer.

He tried not to watch as Zevran carefully, meticulously unwrapped the twine and brown paper, but his eyes kept returning to Zevran's hands and then his face, unable to look away. He held his breath when Zevran finally removed the lid after what had to be nearly a decade of making Baldur wait, possibly as punishment for his earlier behavior.

He stared down at the contents blankly.

"It doesn't have to mean anything," Baldur blurted as all his breath rushed out of him, suddenly panicked and wanting to snatch the box away and hide until either the world ended or he was old and grey, whichever came first. "You don't have to accept them if you don't want... I can take them back..."

"Baldur," Zevran said sharply. Baldur fell instantly into silence, twisting his bruised fingers together brutally and distracting himself with the pain to keep from incriminating himself further.

"Baldur. These..."

Zevran's voice was strange, and Baldur couldn't tell if the sorrowful echoes he heard were from pity or rejection. He wanted desperately to be ill or cry, and had to swallow repeatedly to keep from doing either. He knew he should allow Zevran to finish, but he couldn't stand the thought of hearing the end to their relationship crash and burn around him, wanting to selfishly hold onto the memory of waking up in Zevran's arms every morning, braiding his soft hair, and listening to him laugh and try to get Baldur to respond to his increasingly ridiculous flirtations.

"I know it’s too soon and sudden, and you don't feel the same way, but I thought I would just... I don't know how elves Bond, but dwarves only have one true love in their lives and will have no others after. Ever. It doesn't matter that we've only known each other for a short time, and it's not fair to put that pressure on you, but I wanted you to know that what I said before is true. You are and will always be the only one. There will be no one else for me after you, whether you choose to accept me or not."

Tears were rolling down Baldur's cheeks and into his beard, weeping silently. He imagined this all-consuming despair was what his father must have felt when his mother had died, bleak and without hope, with only persistent loneliness to look forward to for the rest of their very long lives. Zevran wasn't dead, but Baldur didn't know if that was better or worse knowing he was alive and somewhere Baldur couldn't reach... No, that wasn't true. Far better that Zevran was alive and happy, even with someone else, while Baldur loved him quietly from afar and did everything in his power to protect him from the Crows and Baldur's own enemies that would exploit this weakness in an instant.

Zevran didn't respond, still looking down into his hands with a haunted, hunted expression on his face, and Baldur couldn't wait for the death knoll to ring out signaling the end of his very heart and soul, even if his body still had to keep fighting once he left this room. He scrambled to his feet, tripping over the mess of his pack and not caring, leaving everything behind as he stumbled to the door. He spared a moment to be both grateful and resentful that they had already removed the warding that likely would have stunned, if not outright killed him trying to force his way through. He could find new weapons and equipment. He could start again from nothing as he had done once before, except he now had Leliana and Morrigan and Alistair and so many others on his side when before he had no one.

Baldur didn't make it to the door.

Zevran grabbed him and had him flipped onto his back with his head slamming against the solid wood floor in a move so swift and brutally disarming that Baldur hadn't even heard him move from his seated position on the ground. Zevran swung a leg over his hips and pressed a hand hard against Baldur's throat before he could think to shout, stunning and pinning him down so efficiently that Baldur couldn't use his greater strength to force his way free. He could breathe – just barely - but he couldn't talk, which he suspected was Zevran's goal.

"Don't you dare say these don't mean anything or presume to tell me what I feel!" Zevran hissed venomously, his short nails digging into Baldur's skin on either side of his neck. "You don't get to take that back!"

Baldur's throat worked under Zevran's fingers, knowing the assassin could feel his frantic heartbeat, if not hear it as well. He could only look up at Zevran, helpless and completely at his mercy. Even spitting with rage he was the most beautiful thing Baldur had ever seen and he loved him so much, even if he could never say those exact words to Zevran.

Zevran glared back at him, vibrating with rage even as Baldur's body responded to the familiar weight and presence of his beloved even when he was certain Zevran was so angry that he would gladly throttle Baldur right then and have no regrets later. Zevran clearly noticed Baldur's interest, seated as he was with his backside directly over the dwarf's groin. His eyes narrowed dangerously and he rocked his hips in a deliberate motion, drawing a strangled hiss from between Baldur's clenched teeth.

Zevran's smirk wasn't kind.

"I've had sex with a mark before," he said conversationally, his fingers easing up slightly on Baldur's throat, just enough to let him gasp for air but not so loose as to allow him to lift his head or break free. "I still killed her after, but I had her begging for release of either kind after I kept her strung at the end of my cock for hours. I gave her both, of course. Never let it be said that I cannot be gracious, too."

Baldur didn't know why Zevran was telling him this unless he planned to kill or fuck him to death. Why now when he didn't in the bathhouse with a razorblade pressed to Baldur's jugular, he didn't know. He'd had no better opportunity than when they were both alone, Baldur unarmed and baring his throat to Zevran, unless Baldur had infuriated him past the point of reason. The situation wasn't helped by the fact Zevran continued grinding against him painfully, the leather of their trousers chafing and heating from the friction and causing all coherent thought to flee Baldur's brain.

"Don't move," Zevran warned, a knife suddenly in hand and his tone brooking no dissent. He dragged the tip of his knife down Baldur's damp cheek in a curved echo of his own markings, the touch too light to break skin but not too light that Baldur couldn't feel the drag of the blade less than an inch from his eye, a cold sweat breaking out all over. The knife gently traced Baldur's bottom lip before scraping through his beard and resting against the tip of his chin. Zevran's head tilted consideringly.

"I wanted to kiss you from the moment I saw you, standing over me with the blood of my companions still wet upon your face and your sword leveled at my throat." The knife traveled down and Zevran removed his hand with a lingering caress to Baldur's throat, resting the edge of the blade against his larynx in counterpoint to his story.

"You could have killed me - or had me - right there in the dirt surrounded by your friends and the bodies of your attackers, and I would have begged for release myself. A fitting end for one such as I, no? But then you stupidly decided to trust me and offer me a hand in friendship and a place at your side. You are fortunate I was too astonished by these actions to kill you that very night, guards or no, and take my chances with the Crows. They would never have to know that my first attempt to assassinate you failed, especially since you so efficiently took care of anyone who might have wagged their tongue to Ignacio or some other informant."

The knife moved again, this time plucking at the lacings to his tunic, the new one dyed in ultramarine that Zevran had insisted that he buy as the color brought out the mixed blues and greys of Baldur’s eyes. "But you interested me, so I stayed my hand and bided my time for however long it was until you no longer amused me. Then I could kill you and disappear where the Crows would never find me.

"I've never met anyone so blatantly, pathetically in want of me before and not take the opportunity when it was presented over and over again. I was tempted to greet you in your bedroll at the temple, naked and leaking from my desire so there was no possible way you could deflect or adorably blunder your way out of the conversation without either clear dismissal or taking what was yours by right."

Baldur burst into a miserable flush at the reminder that Zevran had seen right through him from the beginning, humiliated beyond reckoning for the way he'd acted back then. The way he was acting now, helpless at the end of Zevran's knife and hard enough to split his seams as the other rode at him relentlessly.

"You were more interested in getting yourself killed by a dragon than in fucking, though, so what was a man to do except save you from your stubborn, irrepressible self? I swear, I have never met someone with such a blatant disregard for their own life. You drive me crazy," Zevran growled, leaning forward with the knife in a white-knuckled grip in his hand.

Baldur felt the bite of steel slice into the vulnerable skin beneath his collarbone, flesh parting with sharp sting followed by a bead of warmth that gathered and rolled down his chest.

"Mierda!" Zevran suddenly cursed, ceasing all motions of his hips at once and causing Baldur to groan at the loss. His hands, which had been inert at his sides, scrabbled for Zevran's hips. "Oh fuck me, are you alright, Baldur? Damn it!"

Zevran flung the knife away and pulled at the front of Baldur's tunic, snapping the laces and shoving at the fabric to inspect the tiny cut that was barely bleeding, but Zevran looked so horrified that it may as well have been a mortal wound. Zevran made a frustrated sound and tore a strip of fabric from the hem of his own tunic, pressing the material over the injury.

"Amor. Baldur, I..." Zevran looked down at him helplessly, all of his former anger vanished at once. "Oh, Maker, forgive me. I didn't mean--"

"Why did you stop?"

Zevran paused and stared at him, his hand pressing painfully hard against Baldur's chest, even though Baldur did not protest the rough treatment. Zevran seemed to understand what he was asking, and closed his eyes with a long, slow breath.

"I never knew how you felt back then..." Baldur said quietly, stroking his thumbs against the bare skin over the jut of Zevran's hipbones, just above the edge of his trousers. "I still don't, even now. I always feared that I was only an amusing challenge for you, someone who didn't fall immediately into your bed and beg for a chance to please you, even though I wanted to do exactly that. Desperately. I feared that I would only have one night with you, ever, more than I ever worried that you would slide a knife between my ribs, which would have been a kinder act by far."

Zevran shook his head sharply, his mouth tight and eyes still closed, but he didn't speak. He seemed unable to form words, so Baldur hesitantly continued, less afraid after he had bared his soul and the worse had already happened.

"I'm terrified of falling in love with you, but I'm even more afraid it's too late. I think I’m already--"

"No, Baldur, please stop," Zevran begged, laying his fingers over Baldur's lips and opening his eyes to look down at him with so much anguish that for a moment Baldur couldn't breathe. "You can't--"

Zevran broke off with a frustrated growl, removing his fingers and replacing them with his lips in a crushing kiss. Baldur's arms immediately went around him and held him close, afraid of ever letting go. He opened his mouth to Zevran's demanding tongue, bucking upward when Zevran lowered himself again and began riding Baldur in earnest through their clothes, painful and not enough friction and the best thing Baldur had ever felt. Baldur let out a sob of relief when Zevran scrabbled at the lacing of his breeches and then his own, freeing them both and taking their matched need into a dry hand, jerking them together roughly. Baldur cried out into Zevran's mouth as he spilled within a few strokes. Zevran didn’t released him as he used Baldur's seed to slick his own way before he was shooting over Baldur's tunic, gasping out his name.

They were trembling against each other when Zevran finally let them both go, wiping his hand off on his ruined tunic as he slowly collapsed against Baldur's chest. He made a tiny, hurt sound when he saw Baldur's cut anew, licking gently at the split skin until the bleeding stopped and he nuzzled gently underneath Baldur's chin like an overgrown cat. Baldur ran his hand down Zevran's back accordingly, his mind blank and blessedly free of chaotic thought for once.

Zevran, however, seemed to have most of his brain cells in working order, which was unfortunate since Baldur was more than content to lay there in companionable silence and never move again.

"I am not a nice or a good person, Baldur," Zevran said quietly into his throat, grazing his lips against the stubble that was beginning to grow back from the close shave a few days ago. "Not like you. I find satisfaction in taking another's life regardless of the kind of person they were - good, evil, or neither. I am good at my job and I worked hard to be someone the Crows trusted - as much as they ever trust anyone - to take out the remaining Grey Wardens. How you would want to bind yourself to someone like that, I cannot understand."

Baldur was quiet for a long time.

"I was banished from Orzammar for killing my older brother, Trian, which you know. I was set up, but a part of me knows that if Trian had been the one to attack first I would have relished the chance to take his life myself. He tormented me for much of our lives, and I think I may even resent Bhelen a little for taking the opportunity away from me. A 'nice' or a 'good' person wouldn't think these things about their own family. And I've killed too, even when I didn't have to simply because it was easier than trying to talk my way out of a situation. There's a reason the berserker state came to me so quickly - it only amplifies the bloodlust and rage that's already there."

It hurt to finally voice his darkest thoughts, to have the ugliness within him laid so bare and exposed. Yet telling Zevran these things was an unexpected relief too, the other man just as broken and twisted as he was. If he still wanted to be with Baldur after everything he heard, even only as an ally instead of a lover after all, then perhaps Baldur wasn't so irredeemable.

"What a fine pair we make," Zevran muttered with dark amusement. Baldur's lips twitched wryly, leaving his hand pressed against the small of Zevran's back and holding him there.

"Oh, dear. I do hope we aren't interrupting," Morrigan's voice came from the doorway.

Baldur jerked his head back to see her and Leliana surveying the disaster of their room with interest. Baldur's things were flung from his pack and scattered everywhere; a bloodied knife on the floor near the door, and Zevran and Baldur sprawled atop each other on the ground.

"Were you attacked? The wards were down when we came up."

Baldur let his head drop with a hollow thud and sighed. He pinched Zevran's side hard when the assassin shook with laughter against him, thankful that their bodies hid the more damning evidence of what had transpired between them. Zevran cleared his throat and lifted his head when he regained control over himself, grinning smugly.

"What you are witnessing right now is the aftermath of a very enthusiastic honeymoon, I'm afraid. I apologize for our indiscretion, but as you can likely surmise we were a little...overcome...with emotion."

Baldur jerked in disbelief and stared up at Zevran, stunned.

"You could have gotten yourselves killed," Morrigan said disapprovingly as she stepped into the room, raising her eyebrow at the state of their bed, which was proof in itself that Zevran was speaking the truth.

"Congratulations!" Leliana exclaimed with obvious joy for the both of them, apparently uncaring of their current state of dishevelment. "I do wish you would have told us so that we could have pulled something together for you with the others. I am trained to officiate weddings, you know. Although...I am unfamiliar with either elven or dwarven ceremonies, I'm afraid. I don't think it's ever been done before, but I am certain we could find someone to oversee either ritual, or both even."

"That would be lovely. Thank you, Leliana," Zevran said with obvious pleasure before he glanced down at Baldur and winked, his smile soft and affectionate.

Baldur...didn't know what was happening.

"Leliana and I were on our way to get breakfast and last minute supplies. You may join us if you wish, but I suspect you will need time to pack if we're to leave before noon."

"A fine idea," Leliana agreed, opening their window enough to allow some fresh air into the room without making them vulnerable to an attack from an archer. "Shall we pick up anything for you? Oh! I remember there was a merchant selling flowers and scented oils down in the market. Perhaps I could--"

"N-No! Thank you. We'll just... We'll be ready to leave within the hour. You may go," Baldur choked out, utterly mortified.

"Very well," Leliana said, a little disappointed. "I will confer with the local Chantry sister here about who may be able to see to your Bonding. The Alienage may have someone, but I do despise the way the elves are treated there and I'm afraid much of the culture has been lost."

Leliana seemed genuinely saddened at the thought, and it was a testament of how far removed Zevran was from his own Dalish heritage that he didn't bristle at the reminder that his kind were essentially kept in cages and treated poorly by their human keepers. Baldur had thought most of the looks they received on the streets were partially due to the strangeness of seeing a dwarf as a Grey Warden, but he now suspected many of prejudices against elves were alive and strong, especially towards one as clearly armed and free as Zevran. No one had been idiotic enough to confront them on their obvious relationship, thankfully.

"Come. We will pick up your armor from that strange blacksmith with an apparent fetish for drake scales. Consider it a gift."

Baldur didn't bother to mention the armor had been paid for beforehand, but he suspected Morrigan already knew as much. He was eager for them to go so that he could hurry and die of mortification in privacy, hyperaware that he and Zevran's trousers were undone and they were still pressed together intimately between their sticky bellies. He found himself beginning to stiffen again helplessly despite their audience, and Zevran quirked an eyebrow as he glanced down at him and shifted minutely, his grin filthy.

"Do not get distracted by each other's dicks," Morrigan warned in complaint as she stabbed a finger at them, and Baldur had the decency to look abashed. She snorted and quickly reset their wards before slamming the door behind her and Leliana with a loud reverberation and hum of magic.

"Alas. I would suggest another go in celebration for our apparent upcoming nuptials, but I'm afraid Morrigan would skin both of us and use our pelts as new draperies."

Zevran pecked a kiss to Baldur's slack lips in consolation before dragging himself off of Baldur with a groan. He stripped himself of his torn shirt and used a section to clean them both up with before tossing the garment into the corner to be disposed later. He retrieved his knife and started to put the room back to rights while Baldur laid there like a beached sea creature, utterly bewildered by the entire past few minutes.

"Did you really mean..." Baldur started and then stopped. He felt like a coward for not wanting to know whether Zevran actually meant to be Baldur's intended, or if the entire conversation had been a ruse to throw Leliana and Morrigan off the trail from what had really transpired between them.

"Hm?" Zevran asked, not looking up from where he set aside two clean tunics for them to change into before kneeling to arrange Baldur's equipment neatly and quickly into his pack with no apparent misgivings about handling Baldur's belongings.

Baldur had meant what he'd said about everything that belonged to him was also Zevran's, meager though his possessions were. He could and would have given Zevran treasures and weapons and wealth beyond counting as his Royal Consort, were they in Orzammar and Baldur still in possession of his inheritance. He grinned mirthlessly to himself at the idea of his father entertaining an elf for a son-in-law, much less one of low birth and no station. If Baldur hadn't been disowned then, he certainly would be now. Then again, if events hadn't transpired the way they had, he might not have met Zevran at all, and the thought was too unbearable to contemplate.

"Nothing," Baldur said, dragging himself off the floor and grimacing at the damaged state of his shirt, stained with bodily fluids of all manner and beyond saving.

He was sticky and filthy from rolling about on the floor, but they hadn't time for anything more than a quick rinse with cold water from the basin. Baldur resigned himself to weeks without a proper bath once they were on the road again, having missed the feeling of being clean. They had at least scrubbed the layers of dirt and blood from their armor and polished the metal to a high shine while they lazed about in their room the past week, taking the opportunity to do the necessary repair and maintenance they wouldn't have time for later whilst in the thick of battle. He picked up the soft forest green tunic Zevran had laid out on the bed for him, starting when he saw the ivory comb that was hidden beneath.

He picked the comb up delicately, as if it would shatter as easily as Baldur was certain he would in that moment, a strong breeze likely enough to tip him over. Zevran reached for his own tunic after securing Baldur's full pack, his own already put together the night before and waiting at the foot of their bed. He paused when he saw the comb in Baldur's hand, and Baldur felt dizzy with the choices before him.

Neither of them said a word, unwilling to break the tension between them, or not knowing how.

Finally, Baldur turned toward Zevran and held the comb out with a sad, resigned smile, his gaze fixed to the other's collarbone rather than meeting his eyes. Zevran accepted the comb from him and Baldur's heart sank without knowing exactly why, except that he felt like he was giving up more than just a comb. He turned quickly away to change into a fresh top and begin to assemble his armor, his leather breeches thankfully sturdy and none the worse for wear after a bit of spot cleaning.

Zevran cleared his throat, startling Baldur into dropping his chestplate with a clang. Zevran gave him a strained, apologetic smile.

"You should do it," Zevran said quietly.

Baldur's eyes widened in dismay, immediately thinking of that sentence being completed along the lines of anywhere from "you should join the Crows" to "you should let me go," neither of which deemed considering. However, if Zevran wanted to leave, Baldur wouldn't be able to stop him from going.

"My hair, that is," Zevran clarified as he held the comb back out to him, and Baldur stared at the implement uncomprehendingly. "It's a complete disaster, I'm sure. I wouldn't want the others to think I've let myself go already now that I'm a kept man. Unless," Zevran faltered, seeming to catch Baldur's expression and began to withdraw his hand, "you don't want...?"

"No!" Baldur said too loudly as he grabbed the comb away from Zevran before he could take it back, causing them both to jump. "No, I want to. Please."

Baldur wanted everything Zevran was willing to give, except he just couldn't tell what was actually his to have thanks in part to Zevran's jesting nature. He couldn't presume anything, and felt like he was taking several steps back from the progress they had made while in Denerim, overly cautious about every word and move he made once again.

Zevran smiled at him, bright and warm and perhaps relieved, but he turned too swiftly for Baldur to be able to tell and settled at the floor by his feet. Baldur seated himself on the edge of the bed, managing not to be too ungainly as he had to hop a little to reach. He soon lost himself in the familiar rhythm of coaxing out tangles until he could easily glide the comb through Zevran's hair without snagging just for the pleasure of the motion even when his hair was smooth and shining once again. Baldur finally gave up the comb and twisted Zevran's hair into the familiar two braids pulled back from his temples, wildly tempted to work in a Bonding knot while he was there, but he refrained. The silver clasps were nowhere in sight, and Baldur swallowed down his disappointment and didn't ask after them, instead fixing the braids together behind Zevran's head with a strip of leather.

Zevran joined Baldur on the bed to do his hair for him after Baldur was finished, plaiting quickly and not lingering on the simple braids. He gave a quick kiss to Baldur's cheek when he was done and murmured in his ear. "There. Now you look like a proper elf."

That startled an unexpected snort of laughter out of Baldur and Zevran chuckled in response. He rubbed their cheeks together briefly before he pulled away and stood, lending Baldur a chivalrous hand down even though it wasn't needed. Zevran didn't let go of Baldur's hand when he was standing again, both of them only having their armor left to put on before they could go. Instead, he leaned over and raised Baldur's hand to his lips, pressing a light kiss to his still-bruised knuckles from where Baldur had picked a fight with a wall and then a doorframe, obviously not coming out the victor in either scenario.

"I am your man, completely and without reservation," Zevran said softly but with conviction as he fixed Baldur with an intent gaze through his lashes.

That particular phrase was beginning to mean more than just an oath of loyalty between them, but just how far the promise extended Baldur couldn't even begin to fathom a guess. Before Zevran could straighten back up and take himself out of range, Baldur stepped forward and slipped a hand around the back of Zevran's neck beneath the fall of blond hair, drawing their lips together for a chaste, close-mouthed kiss that Zevran melted into and returned without hesitation.

"I told you they wouldn't be ready when we got back! Is every morning going to be like this?" Morrigan complained as she barged into the room with Leliana following more sedately behind, the bard’s eyebrow raised in amusement at Baldur and Zevran's proximity and clear lack of armor. Neither man had noticed their approach, and their companions were not wrong to be concerned about successful assassination attempts. Baldur and Zevran were dreadfully easy targets lately with a questionable sense of self-preservation.

"They're sweet. Leave them be," Leliana scolded and Morrigan scoffed.

Zevran bumped their foreheads together very gently with a smug grin and Baldur sighed, blushing to the tips of his decidedly non-elvish ears.

"We'll be right there!" Zevran said, bussing a kiss to the rounded end of Baldur's pink nose before moving away and strapping on his armor in only a handful of minutes. He was already sheathing his daggers by the time Baldur was only just beginning to move to shrug on his chainmail.

The weight of the steel as it settled over his shoulders was just as heavy as he remembered.

---

Âzyungâl – Lover (Khudzul)

Si, mi amor. Con placer. – Yes, my love. With pleasure. (Spanish)

Ai-rusê! - Upon the filth! (Khudzul, swear)

Mierda! – Shit! (Spanish)

Chapter Text

Master Wade refused to release the drake scale armor to Morrigan, wanting to see Baldur in person and make sure the fit was right, even though Baldur wasn't going to stay in Denerim a moment longer to wait for adjustments. Their group of four piled into the blacksmith’s shop and Herren didn’t bother to greet them, sneering at Baldur as if he were something unmentionable that he had found on the bottom of his boot. The armor was surprisingly lightweight and flexible, the scales shining with a faintly reddish hue. Baldur was used to the clunky heaviness of steel and iron and had to wonder how well the armor would hold up against blows. It would be tested in battle soon enough, but he didn't necessarily want to have to set himself on fire to be assured that the armor would endure against a dragon.

"The drake scales worked better than I imagined, but I just know I'd be able to create a set of truly formidable armor with actual dragon scales!" Wade said wistfully as he assisted Baldur in attaching one greave. “I’ve already been planning on the next set of armor—“

“What was that?” Herren snapped at them from the front desk. “I certainly hope what I just heard was that you were planning to work on the current commissions that are already a week late!”

Herren inescapably reminded Baldur of a stereotypical miner’s wife, loud and abrasive and endlessly critical, and likely withholding connubial duties until their husband was properly contrite. Baldur wondered suddenly if they were indeed lovers. The thought never occurred to him before, but the way Wade carried on about drake and dragon scales Herren was probably more than a little jealous, if not feeling outright neglected if that were the case. Wade took one of the new drake scale gauntlets before Baldur could put it on and carelessly threw the piece into his fire pit as Baldur squawked in protest.

"The drake scales worked well enough, even though I had to combine them with several other materials to keep the armor from falling to pieces," Wade frowned, fishing the gauntlet out of the fire with a poker and tossing it to Baldur, who caught the piece reflexively, fumbling the gauntlet when he expected to be burned. He was pleasantly surprised when the gauntlet was cool to the touch and - when he rubbed away the soot - was entirely undamaged without even a single singe mark.

"I will do my best to bring you a dragon scale, especially now that I have this armor," Baldur said, feeling much more confident as he slipped on the gauntlet and flexed his fingers experimentally.

"Until then, you have other commissions to work on!" Herren yelled back.

Baldur gave Wade a commiserating grin when the master blacksmith rolled his eyes and made a very rude remark under his breath, which Herren undoubtedly heard and chose to ignore, possibly plotting his revenge for a later time. The few silver pieces Baldur had slipped Herren earlier for his troubles may have softened him up a bit, but Baldur wouldn’t hold his breath.

“Don’t come back if you know what’s good for you,” Herren hissed as he herded the group out of the shop, eyeing the armor jealously and Baldur even more contemptuously. Baldur knew a false threat when he heard one, knowing that Herren wouldn’t dare turn away customers, but not above discouraging Baldur to forget anything he’d ever heard about dragons or their scales.

Herren didn’t quite boot Baldur out on his arse after the business exchange was complete, but it was a near thing.

Finally they were ready to leave, resupplied and recharged, even though Baldur had to fight the urge to glance over his shoulder repeatedly as they put Denerim behind them. The Crow's threat was still fresh in his mind, which stirred rumblings of uncontrollable anger in him that he had to quickly smother. They found Shale exactly where they had left it - to Baldur's immense relief and Morrigan’s displeasure. Baldur had to wonder if the golem remembered that it actually wasn't a statue any longer.

"It has returned," Shale said in a rather disappointed tone as it heard their approach, but didn’t move from where it stood staring out at the tree line. "I had been hoping it had forgotten."

"Not trying to renege on your agreement are you, golem?" Morrigan asked sharply.

"I won't force you to come with us," Baldur said, more than a little disappointed at Shale’s reticence. He wasn't expecting unflagging enthusiasm from each person that joined their party, but he wasn't about to drag anyone along kicking and screaming either if they didn't want to be a part of Baldur’s risky endeavor.

"The golem made a deal," Zevran said from where he stood next to Baldur. "It wouldn't be very sporting to go back on your word." His words were light and casual, but his shoulders tensed in a way that meant Zevran would drag Shale along even if he needed a dozen horses to pull the stone giant along behind them to do it.

"So tell me. Why does the swamp witch still travel with the Grey Warden?" Shale shifted the focus on Morrigan, who looked startled at being addressed by the golem and narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

"The ‘swamp witch’? How original. You are of the opinion that I should not be?"

"I am curious. It seems as if it has little reason to stay," Shale mused in the way it had of talking over everyone's head, not bothering to make eye contact or turn entirely in their direction.

"The same could be said of you. There is no control rod commanding your presence, golem."

"I have no history, thus no purpose. The same cannot be said for the swamp witch. Its purpose is simply unknown."

"Keep asking questions and I shall turn into a bird," Morrigan threatened casually. "I can do that."

"I have no fear of birds!" Shale exclaimed, scoffing at the very idea.

"Oh, I didn't say you were afraid. I would simply hover out of reach. Hovering...waiting...until..."

"Enough!" Shale shouted, rounding about to face the group but refusing to look at any of them. "I shall be silent."

"Excellent choice."

There was no further question of Shale joining them, and they collectively ventured forth. Baldur wanted to reach the familiar campgrounds about twenty miles from Denerim’s gates where they were due to meet Alistair, Sten, and Bastion if their timing was right. Baldur had the opportunity to test his newest armor against a mercenary group, disappointed for the first time ever that there wasn’t a fire wielder to test his armor against before Baldur’s team dispatched them efficiently. They reached camp in good time with no sign of Alistair yet, which wasn’t too worrying since they had left a day earlier than intended after Baldur’s confrontation with the Crows.

Zevran took the time to go over his secrets of assassinating with Leliana, their heads hunched close together and voices a low murmur while Baldur led Morrigan a safe distance from camp as Shale followed along curiously. He was glad for the recent rain that would prevent the surrounding foliage to catch on fire, and instructed her to hurl fireballs at him while he tried not to flinch when she acquiesced to the request with unholy delight.

The golem seemed utterly despairing of them.

"The swamp witch has a great deal in common with my former master,” Shale noted as it watched Baldur take hit after hit disinterestedly, Baldur’s arm raised to cover his eyes through the slits in his helm. “It has the same arrogance. The same air of cruelty. I would hate for it to have possession of my control rod. If it still worked of course."

"Let me tell you what you could do with your control rod, golem," Morrigan said, leveling a spout of flame that enveloped Baldur’s entire body with pointed viciousness.

"Is it telling me that if the rod did work it wouldn't want control over me?"

"I wouldn't go so far as to say that," Morrigan replied as the barrage abruptly ended and Baldur was still left standing, hot but not burned, which was exactly what he'd been hoping for. Wade was indeed a miracle worker. "I could, for instance, command you to jump in a lake. A very deep lake."

"It fools no one. The swamp witch would control everything if it could. It would have us all dancing on its strings."

"You know me too well, golem. Your revealing gaze has laid me bare," Morrigan conceded, her voice thick with mockery.

"I will be watching the swamp witch. It must not be trusted."

Baldur signaled to Morrigan that he’d had enough, and she allowed the fireball forming in her hand to extinguish with a disappointed frown while he went to cool off and gulp down some water.

He heard the familiar baying of his war hound before he saw the small pair of figures approaching their camp in the distance and gave a shout that had Zevran and Leliana taking up arms and then relaxing when they realized what had caught Baldur’s attention. Bastion barreled towards him with high, happy yips and Baldur dropped to one knee, opening his arms to catch the massive dog that leapt straight onto him and knocked him flat on his back. Baldur laughed loudly when Bastion's giant front paws pinned him down by the shoulders as his mabari slobbered all over him, the dog absolutely beside himself.

"I missed you too, you great mutt," Baldur said. He wedged an arm free to brace against Bastion's massive chest and push the dog back so he could sit up, scratching at his short, coarse fur and murmuring to him in nonsense Khudzul.

"Mm. Do I get my own greeting like that from you, Alistair?" Zevran asked as the Grey Warden in the company of a large, white-haired qunari approached, both of them looking blood-splattered and weary but whole. Alistair’s arm was no longer in a sling, and he didn’t seem to be favoring the appendage, to Baldur’s great relief. His broken arm had put Alistair out of commission for a while and Baldur was glad to have his brother-in-arms back at his side again.

"Ugh. You're still here?" Alistair complained, making a face even as he allowed Zevran to draw him into a one-armed embrace, patting his back companionably.

"How is it that the dog gets to cuddle you and slip Baldur tongue, yet whenever I try I get rebuffed? I'm starting to think that I may be the mongrel in this group."

"'Tis because of the two of you, only the dog has learned not to hump people's legs," Morrigan explained as she joined the reunion.

"I wouldn't call it a failing," Zevran protested.

Sten watched the proceedings with his arms crossed over his chest, his ever-present frown just as unwavering as Baldur remembered. The qunari was severe and daunting, but he had more than ample opportunity to abandon his promise to fight alongside the Grey Wardens and Baldur appreciated that he had not gone back on his word.

"I hope you didn’t have too much trouble on your journey,” Baldur said as he stood and brushed the dirt off his armor and the slobber off his face. Bastion plopped down right over his foot and leaned hard against Baldur’s leg. Baldur rested a hand on the dog’s head while Bastion panted happily. “Sten, I’d like you to meet...this is Zevran." Baldur winced at the way his voice went breathy and nervous, on edge ever since his failed semi-proposal.

Sten only grunted, his eyes accessing Zevran calculatingly and then abruptly dismissing the elf who perked up and waved at the sound of his name.

“The Blight,” he barked, and Baldur startled visibly at the non-sequitur. “How will you end it?”

“Why...do you ask?”

“You say you are a Grey Warden. I have heard stories of this order.”

“What have you heard?” Baldur asked, curious despite his irritation with Sten’s abrasive manner that he hadn’t gotten a chance to build up any resistance towards since Sten had been away doing...whatever Sten did when he was away.

“Great strategists and peerless warriors. That is what we hear of the Wardens. So far I am not impressed.”

“I’m not here to impress you,” Baldur said shortly, his temper quickly fraying when normally he would have held his tongue and let the insult roll off him.

“Evidently not,” Sten said, and if Baldur didn’t know better he would venture to say the qunari was mildly approving at the show of assertiveness. “It remains only to be seen what you are here for.” Having spoken his piece, Sten left the discussion without waiting for a dismissal, silently and efficiently claiming his space around the campfire as he started to unpack his tent.

“So...that was a long and awkward trip, by the way. Thanks for that,” Alistair said dryly, obviously glad that Sten was Baldur’s problem to deal with now. “There’s something I wanted to—By Andraste’s holy knickers!” Alistair exclaimed with horror as he reeled back and went for his sword. “What is that?"

Baldur had Aodr in hand and raised to strike before he realized Alistair had spotted Shale as it lumbered into the clearing. He dropped his sword back into its sheath and gestured towards the golem, forgetting that Alistair hadn’t met Shale yet. It felt like years since they’d parted ways in Haven, but also no time at all.

"This is Shale, the golem we rescued in Honnleath."

"Golem?" Alistair repeated dubiously. "Oh yeah...I think you might have mentioned you picked up another stray in your letters. Are you...certain...you want to bring that thing with us? It could be dangerous. And large...very large!"

"I can hear it," Shale intoned dryly.

"Shale's been invaluable to us as a guard," Baldur said, attempting diplomacy before the newest members of their party went immediately at each other's throats. Baldur was always reminded of alpha dogs circling and snapping warily any time a new person - or non-person, as it were - shifted the balance of their group. They all had vastly different personalities and unfortunately most of them clashed at the best of times. “Shale’s been taking sentry for us every night so we can actually rest while on the road instead of having to take shifts.”

"So Shale...do you sleep?" Alistair asked, reluctantly lowering his blade but not giving up his weapon yet as he eyed Shale dubiously.

"I have no need to sleep. My body does not tire or do - eugh - other flesh-related functions."

"But...don't you get bored?"

"No. I watch all closely when they are still at night. There is little else to do."

"For hours and hours?" Alistair said disbelievingly, as if he couldn't possibly fathom the idea of staying put for that long, never mind the sheer boredom.

"I count the breaths. It helps to overcome the overwhelming urge to crush their faces while they sleep."

Baldur groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"This is what you have guarding you at night?" Alistair demanded as he made an exclamation of dismay and backed away further, unused to Shale's particular brand of...Shaleness.

“Yes,” Baldur sighed.

"Well I won't be doing much of that anymore,” Alistair grumbled before his tone went abruptly somber without a trace of his usual playfulness. “I want to talk to you about what happened in Redcliffe."

Baldur gestured for them to move away from the clearing for some semblance of privacy even though he knew the attempt would be in vain without Morrigan's sound barrier, at the very least. The relocation didn't matter one whit, because Alistair took one breath and immediately tore into Baldur.

"You let Lady Isolde sacrifice herself! With blood magic! How could you do that?" Alistair yelled, truly furious.

Baldur was thoroughly taken aback. He'd never seen Alistair so angry before and wasn't at all prepared for his accusations. "You think I should have killed the little boy, instead?" he countered, incredulous.

"You weren't there to see the Arl’s people trying to pick up the pieces after her death, especially when so many people were killed and buildings destroyed in the battle! I was! We could have gone to the Circle of Magi! We could have tried harder! We should have tried something that didn't involve blood magic, that's for sure! This is the Arl's son we're talking about here," Alistair clarified with heated sarcasm as if Baldur weren't fully aware of the fact. "What do you think he'll say when we revive him?"

"There were larger things at stake," Baldur said through gritted teeth, counting breaths like Shale had mentioned so he wasn't tempted to break Alistair's face. He was suddenly so angry that he could hardly see straight and he had to clench his fists to keep from lashing out.

"I just don't know how you could do it, how you could make that decision. I owe the Arl more than this."

Baldur turned away, stalking several feet away from Alistair and forcing himself to cool down instead of throwing or hitting something, making his voice steady and even as best as he was able when he turned back to Alistair at last. "I honestly did the best I could, Alistair."

Alistair's anger released at once like an deflated bladderskin, seeing Baldur's hurt expression at the unprovoked attack. Baldur had berated himself more fiercely and thoroughly than Alistair had, and he'd finally managed to let Isolde's loss go until Alistair had shoved that particular failure amongst the many Baldur had accumulated back in his face. Alistair had been close to the Arl and watching Eamon fade steadily by inches while knowing Baldur had assisted in his wife's death and then the Arl's son had been taken away by the Circle...

Everything was still fresh and new for Alistair after his stay in Redcliffe, and this particular failing was personal.

"You're right," Alistair sighed, shoulders slumping. "Of course you're right. I'm such an ass. I should know better than to second guess you like this." He shifted uncomfortably, suddenly unable to meet Baldur's eyes. "Ahhh, why am I getting on your back about it? You did what you had to. It's just...all this death... Never mind. Let's just stop there before I do more than shove my foot in my mouth like an idiot. Why don't you fill me in on what's been happening instead?"

Baldur wished he had better news, reluctantly detailing his loss against the dragon after Alistair and Bastion left, Alistair’s expression falling further with the knowledge they still didn’t have the Urn in their possession.

“Zevran actually had to talk me down from confronting the dragon on my own while he, Leliana, and Morrigan shot at it from a safe distance,” Baldur admitted quietly. “I really wasn’t in the best state of mind to be fighting anything after dealing with all of those insane cultists, never mind a dragon. I’m glad you and Bastion weren’t there. Someone could have gotten seriously hurt.”

“We’ll get it this time,” Alistair swore with unflagging faith in Baldur’s abilities and leadership, Redcliffe notwithstanding. Baldur finished up his dismal tale with the desire demon in Honnleath, explaining how they'd come to acquire Shale up to where the Crows had caught up to them in Denerim.

“I am exhausted just listening to all that, and I wasn’t even there!” Alistair was obviously frustrated about being side-lined, even though he tried to conceal it with jocularity. “As much as I like Bastion, I’ll enjoy having a tent to myself again. He breaks wind in his sleep, did you know? Foul, absolutely foul.”

Alistair peered over at the campsite, doing a mental count and furrowing his brow when he came up one short. “Hey, where’s your tent?”

"I. Um," Baldur stammered and then stopped, rubbing the back of his neck which had gone heated. “I’m sharing...with Zevran, that is.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” Alistair asked, utterly nonplussed.

Baldur dropped his hand and sighed, setting his shoulders back and looking up into Alistair’s puzzled face. “...We’re lovers.”

"You're sleeping with the assassin?!" Alistair shouted, utterly scandalized as his voice echoed throughout the clearing and likely announced the state of Baldur's love life to every living creature in Thedas.

"Shhhh!" Baldur hissed, but the damage had already been done, and it wasn't as if everyone else didn't know anyway, except for Sten who would know now and likely not care. "Keep your voice down before you alert every darkspawn and soldier to our location!"

"But...really? Zevran?" Alistair whispered urgently, his disappointment palpable, which Baldur did not appreciate considering how hard on himself he already was without the added pressure of the other’s expectations to be some chaste, noble figurehead. "He's so...shameless."

The last time they’d all been together, Alistair and Zevran had hardly known each other for more than a week, and when they'd parted Alistair had been injured and drugged to the gills. Baldur had barely been speaking to Zevran back then, terse and practically growling at the elf every time he looked Baldur’s way. He could understand Alistair’s bewilderment, but their interactions were constantly evolving the longer they spent confined in such close quarters and it could hardly be surprising that a romantic relationship would sprout eventually. He wouldn’t fault Alistair for becoming intimate with either Morrigan or Leliana, even though the former templar hadn’t shown an interest in anyone, really.

"He is that," Baldur agreed, unable to deny how well the adjective described Zevran. "But it's more than just...you know...the physical parts."

Alistair made a face and waved his hands in front of himself frantically. "I do not want to know! No details, please! Zevran's innuendos are bad enough." Alistair paused for a moment, his gaze turning speculative. "But how do you...with the height...? No. No, don't tell me," he amended rapidly when Baldur opened his mouth to respond, pressing his lips together in an annoyance instead.

"I just can't believe you of all people gave into that...that...! He even tried to get me into bed with him! And Leliana! And Morrigan, even after she admitted she eats people who have sex with her!"

"She was only kidding." Baldur wasn't entirely certain about that, actually, but he wouldn't voice his doubts to Alistair when the other Warden was wary around her already.

"But...but..." Alistair stuttered, waving his hands as he tried to encompass his betrayal and concern and disbelief all at once. "Aren't you worried he'll stab you the moment you let your guard down? What if it's just an elaborate plot to get close to you so he can turn you over to the Crows or collect the bounty on you himself?"

Alistair couldn't have known how close his words hit after Zevran had Baldur at knifepoint several times in Denerim, but fortunately they had already worked out matters between them and Baldur had complete trust in his lover.

"Believe me, it's not an issue. Don't ask me how I can be certain, but please accept that I know what I'm doing. I... It's pretty serious between us, and we've been through a lot since you've been gone. He’s proven repeatedly that he's here to stay."

"If he must...” Alistair sighed begrudgingly. “But at least tell me one thing."

"Anything. Within reason..."

"Does he treat you well?" Alistair asked with unexpected intensity, his eyes unwavering on Baldur's. "Are you certain he's not merely stringing you along or planning to kill you once he's done having his fun?"

"It's...complicated. But I trust him with my life. And my heart." Baldur dropped his gaze for a moment, remembering the touch of a cold blade against his chest and the heat of Zevran's anger for Baldur's reckless, unrelenting faith in him. "He's just... He's mine," Baldur finished lamely. He shrugged a shoulder and looked back up at Alistair, who appeared confused and dubious, but more or less resigned to Baldur’s choice of lover.

"That's pretty possessive."

Baldur ducked his head with a flush and twisted his hands together, unable to find the words to encompass everything he and Zevran were to each other especially when he didn't know if Zevran even intended to be his Bonded or thought the entire idea was some kind of ruse that he was playing on Morrigan and Leliana. And Baldur, for that matter. Baldur didn't regret giving him those clasps, if only so Zevran knew where Baldur stood in their relationship and could make an informed decision whether or not he wanted to bind himself to someone as unlucky as Baldur who courted disaster and was unable to fully give himself over to a relationship when he was married to his duties first.

"I suppose there's only one thing to do, if Zevran's actually sticking around."

"Which is--?"

"The 'hurt Baldur and I'll cut your heart out and feed it to a dragon' speech. I've always wanted to give one of those."

Baldur barked out a startled laugh, clapping a hand against Alistair's upper arm. "You're a good man, Alistair. Are you certain you aren't curious what it is about Zevran that attracts Grey Wardens? I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to borrow him for a night to satisfy your...curiosity."

"No! Maker, no! Don't even joke about that!" Alistair shuddered, looking over his shoulder to check that there wasn't an assassin waiting in the bushes to pounce. "I trust your judgment, but I'm still going to keep an eye on him and you won't change my mind on that. But aside from that... congratulations, I guess?"

“Thanks. I guess?”

“That came out wrong,” Alistair winced. “I am glad you're happy. You deserve to be, even if it is with the perverted elf who tried to kill you. To each his own, hey?"

“Your support warms the cockles of my heart,” Baldur said dryly.

“Please don’t ever say anything with the word ‘cock’ in it again,” Alistair begged. “I’ve already been traumatize enough, I think.”

Baldur knew then that the relationship between he and Alistair was on even ground again, even though Alistair was still likely upset about Redcliffe. And Shale. And...Zevran...but Alistair didn’t tend to linger incessantly on issues that upset him, getting whatever was bothering him out of his system once and moving on with enviable ease.

---

Baldur was relieved to have his entire team in one place together, finally. They decided they would make the journey back to the Frostback Mountains as a whole unit rather than splitting up again, overpowering the dragon with nearly double the amount of warriors they had the first time around.

He should have felt more confident, except he’d been getting increasingly short-tempered lately and nightmares had become a frequent reoccurrence nearly every night, when previously they had been weekly and manageable. Before he drank darkspawn blood Baldur had never dreamed. Now, his dreams were steadily gaining in intensity until Baldur broke into a sweat and had to hide the trembling in his hands at just the thought of closing his eyes when he laid down to sleep next to Zevran at night. The nightmares, combined with the inability to quiet his mind, made a potent mixture that cemented Baldur's insomnia. He obsessed over all of the insurmountable challenges he had to find some way to overcome, all the people who would die and had died as a result of his actions, or inaction, keeping his fears to himself even though he knew at least Alistair and Leliana would understand. Zevran didn’t have regrets about killing people, so Baldur didn’t think he would find much sympathy in that particular corner.

True memories collided with the false nightmares and Baldur often didn't know what was real immediately upon waking until he saw for himself the world hadn't ended while he slept. He lay staring up at the canvas of his tent with Zevran asleep next to him, the afterimages of his dreams flashing behind his eyelids every time he tried to close his eyes. A blink and Trian would be laying broken and bleeding in his arms, another blink and he was suddenly watching Zevran turn a second too slow and be crushed between the wicked jaws of a dragon. A blink, and Morrigan was led away in chains, her mouth sewn shut. Blink. Leliana pinned to ground by a soldier's sword through her stomach. Blink. Shale crushed and broken into unidentifiable rubble. Blink. Alistair with his limbs ripped from his torso by a hoard of darkspawn, still screaming with his own bloodied flesh caught within the jagged shards of their teeth...

The brief calm that suffused him after his heart recognized Zevran as his One had vanished. Anxiety about their relationship and where exactly they stood with each other didn’t help matters when the last thing Baldur wanted to do was inconvenience Zevran with his issues. Stress and anger thrummed like energy through his veins at night, but he was drained during the day as if his jitteriness didn't at least have the decency to stick around when he actually needed to be alert. He tried to take out his anger on the enemies they encountered, but with their expanded group Baldur was often left to clean up the dregs of men and creatures that had already been critically wounded by Morrigan or Leliana's ranged attacks or the others’ longer legs as they ran ahead, their steps not as weighed down by exhaustion.

His frustration peaked when they came across a group of Loghain's soldiers and Leliana and Morrigan had already downed two before Baldur had even caught up with the group, bringing up the rear instead of his usual position at the front of the pack. Baldur threw his head back and released a roar of fury that came up through the depths of his chest and felt as if it would shatter his bones. A red haze descended over his vision as he gripped Aodr and his shield in both hands and charged at the men like a ramrod, tearing into their ranks and bellowing at the others to get out of his way if they weren't quick enough to move already.

The first stinging splash of blood across his face from a killing strike with his sword incited Baldur into a riot of violence, losing himself to the familiar dance of battle. Each jarring percussion of impact against his shield and soldier cut down by his own hand was sweet validation, blood singing in his ears. His face stretched into a rictus snarl, licking wet copper from his lips as fought like a beast unleashed. He gutted a wide-eyed soldier who was little more than a boy, putting his entire weight behind the strike before ripping out his sword and decapitating the soldier before he could grasp at the intestines spilling out of him.

Baldur turned and leveled a challenging call to those next in line to fall to his blade, only just beginning.

----

The camp was eerily silent that night as the group quietly tended to their weapons and checked on any injuries they might have sustained. Baldur had left the area to clean up, feeling sweaty and sticky and itching to get his blood-soaked armor off. He tensed when he heard footsteps approaching behind him, but relaxed when Alistair's familiar voice called a soft greeting.

"Are you...okay?" Alistair inquired, approaching the small stream where Baldur was kneeling with caution.

"Why wouldn't I be?"

Baldur was stripped down to his breeches and scrubbing off the blood from his armor that looked as if he'd been bathing in the red liquid. Blood was in his hair and beard and had seeped between the plates of his armor. He might have gotten a little...enthusiastic...fighting Loghain's soldiers, but he had never felt more alive, his blood humming beneath his skin and the exhaustion of the past few days wiped away by the heady rush of victory.

"It's just that you, well. You seem different lately. Not bad!" Alistair backpedaled hastily, even though Baldur hadn't said anything or looked up from his washing. "Just... You know you can talk to me about anything, right? I know a lot happened when I was gone, but...I'm here now. So, you know. You don't have to do it all alone."

Alistair trailed off, scratching the short hair at the back of his neck uncomfortably.

“Is that all?” Baldur asked shortly, irritated as he scrubbed at a particularly stubborn stain on his leather trousers which now looked as if he’d stuck them in a meat grinder and dragged them for miles across rocky terrain.

“O-Oh. Yeah. I guess,” Alistair said awkwardly. Baldur didn’t say anything else, and eventually Alistair left and returned to camp.

Everyone else thankfully left Baldur to his business.

Baldur barely waited until nightfall to drag Zevran into their tent, bloodlust peaking into another kind of lust entirely. There was no tender lovemaking of their previous times together. Aggression that he wasn't able to hold back had him tearing the armor off Zevran and biting at every exposed inch of flesh until he tasted copper from fresh blood and the salt from sweat. He heard Zevran make a shocked noise of discomfort when Baldur pushed his way inside of him, barely sparing a moment to stretch and slick him, and even that preparation was rushed as well. Baldur paused when he was fully sheathed inside, his breath rasping in and out of his chest, but Zevran tightened his thighs around Baldur's waist and urged him to keep moving.

Baldur bit at his throat when Zevran threw his head back with a gasp and held him down by his wrists, pounding into him like a hammer upon an anvil until Zevran screamed his completion and clamped down around Baldur viciously, who bellowed back his own release. He regained a second wind as the berserker rose up inside him and demanded further satisfaction. He flipped Zevran over onto his stomach and hauled his hips up to force his way back in his slick channel before Zevran could even brace himself on his arms. Baldur bit down hard on Zevran’s tattooed shoulder as he rutted into him like some beast, sucking away blood from his skin as Zevran keened and clawed furrows into the ground beneath him. Baldur had half a mind left to reach around and strip Zevran’s cock with a dry grip, bullying an orgasm out of the elf until he clenched convulsively around Baldur and wrung a second spending out of him, filling Zevran near to bursting.

Baldur lost all sense of time and place, but when he finally came down from both the battle and the exertions after, Zevran was already asleep...or perhaps unconscious. Either way, he didn't stir when Baldur tucked his scratchy wool blanket up around Zevran's bare shoulders, his olive skin already darkening from savage bites and bruises.

Anger was still simmering after blessed release, but the black emotion had abated enough that unease began to well up in its stead. Violence didn't always come easily to him, and now Baldur reacted to every encounter like a personal affront to his character, lashing out with words or weapon depending on whether his target was an ally or enemy. When he was a soldier, a bloodthirsty urge had to be drilled into him. His fighting style had been defensive, aiming to disable rather than kill, and his commanding officers had made it their personal mission to hammer his reluctance for making the killing blow out of him, wearing him down by converging upon him en masse in the training arena.

However, despite the aggressive tutelage that had often seen him nearly concussed or with the strap of his much-abused shield grafted to his forearm from repeated blows, the lesson not to show mercy to their enemies only sunk home when an enemy Baldur had spared during a skirmish with bandits on their outer borders led to the crippling of one of his cousins, Yggarth. A fallen bandit Baldur had stunned but not gone back for the killing blow had slipped free a knife hidden in his boot and cut Yggarth's Achilles' tendon clean through, instantly crippling him before another soldier from Orzammar reacted and smashed the bandit's head in with his mace. The damage had been done, though, and Yggarth permanently lamed. He had been younger than Baldur and desperately wanted to follow in his cousin's footsteps. Yggarth’s older brother, Piotin, had been known as the ‘horns of Trian’s army’ back when his brother had still been alive, and both Piotin and Trian had treated Yggarth’s injury as if Baldur had been the one to cripple his cousin himself. Trian’s former vitriol turned into outright slander on Baldur’s character for any and all to hear after that incident.

Baldur had changed irrevocably, but instead of destroying every single person who opposed them as revenge for his younger cousin, he instead studied up on dwarven psychology and ‘softer studies’, focusing on tactics on how to negotiate and form alliances rather than making life-long enemies of any who dared raise conflict within Orzammar’s borders. Yggarth's parents never forgave him for allowing their son’s tragedy to go unpunished, as they saw matters, especially when Yggarth would depend on a crutch to hobble around for the rest of his life rather than fulfilling his destiny as a proud warrior.

Baldur eventually fretted himself into a troubled sleep, Zevran’s low, even breaths a familiar rhythm like his own heartbeat.

Baldur woke up first, feeling somehow recharged but weighted down with apprehension which only grew when he was greeted by the sight of Alistair's wide-eyed, pale face staring back at him from his seat near the campfire with Sten when he left the tent. Baldur was certain the qunari soldier was incapable of any expression at all, but even he appeared disturbed. It was then that Baldur realized there was no sound barrier surrounding their tent. He and Zevran never bothered to quiet themselves when they sought pleasure together because of the knowledge they wouldn't be overheard. Perhaps Morrigan had simply forgot or needed to replenish her mana and couldn't maintain the spell, but Baldur was too embarrassed and furious to find excuses to make for her oversight. He’d nearly gone looking for her when Morrigan ducked out of her own tent appearing just fine. She wasn't paler than usual or drawn from exhaustion - nothing to excuse her lapse.

"Did you forget to do something last night, Morrigan?" Baldur growled, not even bothering to cross the clearing to address her privately.

"Mm, no. I don't believe that I did," she answered, her tone light and dismissive, and she didn't even have the decency to look at him. Baldur clenched his fists, breathing out slowly through his nostrils.

"The barrier?" he clarified, barely holding onto his temper.

Morrigan paused for a moment where she was leaning over her pack, making a show of pondering...and then she affected a shocked, pantomimed expression of contrition before her gaze flattened and she turned back to her pack in clear dismissal.

"Oops. Did I forget? How remiss of me."

Baldur glowered and bit down savagely on his remarks about her forgetfulness, knowing that she'd been more than generous and wasn't obligated to set the spell every night. He just wished she had the decency to warn them first to keep it down. Last night had been particularly...intense. He could feel the others' eyes on him, cautiously watching for his reaction and tense as if Baldur would go off on them as he had Loghain's soldiers. He did feel the need for violence, but with no enemies to vent upon, he strangled the feeling down and stomped back to his own tent, nearly colliding with Zevran when the elf emerged, shirtless, from the tent.

"Fuck!" Baldur hissed, jerking himself out of the way before they crashed. "Watch where you're--" Baldur cut off abruptly, a sharp flood of pain and blood filling his mouth when he bit down on his tongue in shock.

Zevran looked as if he had been mauled. His tanned skin was covered in vivid bruises and bites that appeared to have broken skin in several places. There was the yellow-green bruising and half-healed scars from past battles, but these markings were new and Baldur...Baldur couldn't remember making them last night, even though he must have. He recalled the blaze of lust and victory that had overcome him after the battle, the power behind his grip and thrusts as Zevran writhed and cried out beneath him...

Had his cries been from pain?

Baldur was too aghast to respond when Zevran raised an inquiring eyebrow at him, leaning down to peck Baldur's slack mouth. Zevran had a threadbare towel slung over his shoulder and was apparently headed towards the stream to wash up, taking no notice of his current state. When Zevran walked past Baldur, who was rooted to the spot, the dwarf saw deep red scratches that intersected the solid black lines of the tattoos on Zevran's back, along with more of those damning bites and bruises.

He was also limping.

"Excuse me," Baldur choked out before he darted off into the woods, dropping to his knees once he was out of sight and retching up every ounce of last night's dinner.

Baldur wasn't surprised when he heard leaves and twigs crunching as they approached the area of woods Baldur had tucked himself away, too ashamed and horrified by his actions to look Zevran in the eye. How could he have done something like that to his âzyungâl? To someone he loved with his entire being?

"Baldur..." Alistair's uncertain voice reached him. Baldur spared a moment of crashing relief and fury that he was the one to approach him and not Zevran, because of course Alistair had to throw himself into the line of fire first. Must be a Grey Warden trait.

"I think... There's something wrong with me," Baldur said shakily, running the back of his hand over his upper lip. He made a noise of distress when his wrist came back crimson. Alistair crouched down next to him and handed over a wrinkled handkerchief that Baldur pressed to his bloody nose before turning away from Alistair's penetrating stare.

"Are you... I thought dwarves were immune to possession? Or at least that's what I'd been told at the Chantry, but who knows where the templars got their information."

"No, I'm not possessed," Baldur said with a small, humorless laugh, almost wishing that he was so there would be some excuse for his actions. "I just did something really stupid.”

"You've changed since we parted in Haven. You don't have to, but if you want to talk about it. Well. I'm here and I'm your friend. I may not understand, but I can promise to have a sympathetic ear, for whatever it's worth."

Baldur swallowed hard, breaths uneven as a warning pulse of light started behind his left eye, which he blinked away quickly. “Have you heard of berserkers?"

Alistair settled in while Baldur recounted the whole miserable tale, explaining how he'd received the Crow's offer to join the group of assassins in Denerim and his overreaction to their offer by subsequently teaching himself how to reach a berserker state without the proper knowledge or practice first.

"I can't shut it off," Baldur admitted when he was done, his voice low and rough as he viciously twisted Alistair’s bloodied handkerchief in his hands. "I'm angry all the time and I can't sleep. I have these awful dreams about everyone dying and they seem so real and I'm afraid they'll come true if I don't find a way to get the Urn and—fuck.

"Arl Eamon is stable for now,” Alistair said carefully after a long moment to process the information he’d just been given, stunned at Baldur’s confession. “I think he can hang on a little while longer before even the Urn will be unable to bring him back. Sten was right in that we need to address the matter of the Archdemon eventually, which is even more important than the Arl."

"I know--"

"But," Alistair interrupted, holding up his hand to stay Baldur’s automatic defensiveness. "I think we need to fix you first before we can even think about saving the world. Is there someone who could teach you how to control it? Another dwarf back in Orzammar maybe?"

"No," Baldur said harshly, causing Alistair to flinch. "I can never go back to Orzammar."

"Oookay. Dwarven cities are out of the question then," Alistair amended, and Baldur winced at his own outburst. “And I guess Denerim where your friend is isn’t an option either, with the Crows and all...” Alistair thought for a moment, dragging a finger in the dirt in idle patterns. "I hate to suggest it because the Maker knows mages creep me out, even more so after traveling with Morrigan, but maybe the Circle of Magi would be able to help you? They're all about spiritual control and disciplining their minds to fight off demons. Your demons might be more metaphorical, but we need to go to the Circle to recruit mages against the Blight anyway. It couldn't hurt."

"That's...not a terrible idea."

"I do have good ones occasionally. Although, let it be said that it is never a good idea to lick a lamppost in winter."

"How would you know that?"

"Just take my word on it. Trust me. Don’t do it."

Baldur shook his head at Alistair and rinsed himself off in the icy cold water, fortunately upstream from where Zevran was likely cleaning up, before they returned to camp together. He felt marginally relieved now that they had the makings of a plan falling into place, but his relief was short-lived as a headache that felt like a nail being driven into his eye socket hit him all at once. He nearly stumbled, but he was all too aware of the camp’s wary attention on him, and grit his teeth as he pushed through the pain as stoically as he could manage. The migraine didn't relent for the entire day, which he accepted as feeble retribution for the unconscionable things he had done to Zevran. He wanted so badly to beg forgiveness, but couldn't even breathe in Zevran's direction before his gut twisted in guilt and his headache flared anew, nearly blinding him with agony. He could barely walk straight and his vision was blurred and doubled, but he kept his head down and eyes fixed on the heels of whoever was in front of him as they walked, and he somehow made his torturous way through that day and the next.

The others were still understandably cautious around him. Baldur didn't even trust himself and bore their reactions to his loss of control in quiet acceptance. Leliana was furious and refused to speak to him, and even Morrigan's responses were colder than usual. Alistair watched him surreptitiously, but when Bastion, his own faithful hound, shied away when Baldur went to pet him, Baldur knew something had to be done sooner rather than later. Fortunately the Circle was located in the same direction they had already been heading, but would require at least a week or more of travel as long as they weren't sidetracked, and Baldur was struggling to keep up. He didn't sleep anymore, dreams and his rage keeping him awake, so there was no need to share Zevran's tent. He wouldn't go as far to say he was avoiding the other man, but...he was definitely avoiding him. He was terrified of putting hands on him even though he'd never actually struck out at him - yet - and Baldur would cut off his own hands before hurting him again.

Zevran, for his part, remained unchanging, impossibly lewd and flirtatious although he seemed to realize that Baldur desperately needed space for he didn't try to engage in his usual banter or come out to drag Baldur from his place brooding in front of the fire at night. Zevran's bruises gradually faded and his limp either disappeared entirely or he was simply that skilled at hiding his discomfort, moving and sitting with his usual lithe grace as if Baldur hadn't violated him in the worst way possible.

Baldur barely held onto his fury, forcing words he would normally say rather than the vicious retorts that were trying to claw their way from his throat, knowing a brutal response would hurt his companions possibly beyond forgiveness, but knowing and feeling were two very different things. Every moment was a struggle to keep reign over the beast that grew within him especially when he felt constantly on a hair-trigger, vibrating with the need to bellow and cut down any living or inanimate obstacle in his path until there was nothing left except for the smoldering ashes of his rage.

At night, he poured over the manual he'd gotten from Gorim, searching again and again for how to control the berserker state but finding little help there. It was worse now that he was aware of it... He had to fight to hold himself back during battles, pulling his blows and taking more than a few hits that could have been avoided were he not so terrified of losing control again. Rage constantly simmered beneath the surface, and he had to consciously walk away from conversations that weren’t even directed at him to keep from snapping at the others. He distanced himself from the group and pulled away, trying to protect them from his lack of control even though he knew they saw how badly he was faltering. He had to wonder how long it would be before they had enough and decided to take their chances without him, or simply left. He was scared of himself, what he was capable of, and how easily he could lose himself to the berserker. Each day was a struggle that was growing increasingly more difficult to get himself through.

More than anything else, though, he was lonely.

Everyone in camp gave him a wide berth without any prodding and even Bastion remained glued to Alistair's side, the two obviously having bonded after their stay in Redcliffe. He missed being in the middle of the group's familiar banter and teasing, even though he rarely had much to contribute to conversation when he wasn't losing his mind. That he missed Zevran most of all went without saying, watching his beloved longingly while he trailed at the back of the group so he wouldn't be tempted to reach out to him. Zevran was bright and cheerful and seemed to be entirely unaffected by Baldur's absence, teasing Alistair mercilessly to make up for lost time while pestering their most stoic members with highly invasive questions, since Leliana and Morrigan had become practically immune to Zevran when their group had been just the four of them for a long while. He sat alone and ate sparingly when they paused for breaks or at night in camp, even though food tasted like ash in his mouth. He struggled to swallow, forcing himself to eat what little he could manage in order to try and keep his strength up.

If Alistair’s estimate was correct, they only had a day or two left of travel to reach the Circle of Magi in Lake Calenhad, and Baldur clung to the hope that the mages would somehow be able to help him. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about, but he extracted a promise from Alistair if he lost control again and became a danger to the group the other Grey Warden would put Baldur down himself and take over leadership. Alistair had immediately refused, but Baldur reminded him of his own initiation and how Duncan hadn’t hesitated to strike down another recruit when he tried to abandon his duties even though the act had come at great personal cost to Duncan.

“I’ll always be thankful to Duncan for recruiting me,” Alistair said quietly. “If it hadn’t been for him, you know, I would never...I wouldn’t have...”

“He was a good man,” Baldur agreed, even though he hadn’t known the senior Warden long.

“He was. A good man who didn’t deserve his fate. I will...I will honor his memory by doing this for you,” Alistair finally conceded, upset but resigned.

“Thank you, my friend. It’s a weight off my mind.”

Alistair retreated to his tent with a thin excuse and Baldur dug out the well-worn tome on berserkers and set up his usual spot by the campfire to read. His hands were shaking too badly to make sense of the blurred words that he had yet to discover insight on how to release the berserker state that threatened to overtake him with only the slightest provocation. Gorim had sold him the manual with great reservation and numerous warnings, but Baldur had been too stubborn to heed them at the time and was now paying the price for his recklessness. He dug his palm against his dry eye socket and muttered to himself while perusing the battered manual in his lap for what felt like the hundredth time, trying to find anything he might have missed even though he had the book memorized cover to cover.

He jumped when a slobbery stick suddenly dropped into his lap right over the book, obscuring the words that remained unchanging. Baldur went automatically for his dagger with a curse upon his lips, anger flaring up hot and bright, but a soft whine stilled his hand.

Bastion was standing before him, his large boxy head lowered as he stared up at Baldur with big brown eyes, the stub of his tail wagging hopefully. Baldur stared back at the dog, who whined again when Baldur didn't move, nudging his wet nose against the stick and smudging the words further. Baldur took a deep, grounding breath and picked up the stick, setting the book aside. The limited information it held was useless to him anyway, and this was the first overture Bastion had made since he'd shied away from Baldur in fear days ago.

"Good boy," Baldur said quietly, reaching out a palm for Bastion to inspect.

Bastion's tail wagged faster and he sniffed Baldur's hand reflexively before he slobbered his tongue over his palm and whined again, backing away to stretch his rump in the air as if getting ready to pounce. Baldur picked up the stick and threw it half-heartedly away from him. Bastion gave a loud bark that shot spikes through his skull before bounding off to retrieve the stick. Bastion returned a moment after with his stick ready to be thrown again, but Baldur didn’t acknowledge him. He suddenly felt nauseous and his heartbeat was racing too fast even though he was only sitting there. He carefully braced a hand against the ground, blinking rapidly when the firelight started to dim and the ground seemed to shift under his palm. Bastion cocked his head and let the stick fall, his whines becoming increasingly louder when Baldur shoved his way to his feet, feeling as if he was held suspended in one breath.

The last thing he heard was Bastion’s frantic barks as he hit the ground, sparks flying up into his face as his hand knocked against a cinder at the edge of the fire before his vision went black.

---

Baldur woke up to Bastion licking his face, whimpering as he nosed Baldur's cheek.

He winced and pushed Bastion aside so he could sit up, but he found his head was too heavy to lift more than a few inches and his left hand throbbed fiercely. His head dropped back against the ground with a low groan. He heard a shifting of movement over him and felt a soft touch brush against his cheek that wasn’t his dog’s tongue. Baldur cracked one lid open to see Bastion, Zevran, and Sten hovering over him before he shut his eyes again with a low hiss of pain.

"Alistair and Leliana went ahead to Lake Calenhad to find help. There should be at least one healer the Circle can spare to come look you over," Zevran explained, stroking away hair from Baldur's temple before resting his hand over Baldur's chest as if to reassure himself with the dwarf's heartbeat. "You can rest now.”

"M'fine," Baldur slurred in protest. He realized then that he was on a bedroll laid out on the ground, his head pillowed on a bundle of cloth that smelled like Zevran.

"Passing out is not the same as sleeping, Baldur," Zevran said sharply. "Brasca! I should have known better. When was the last time you even slept properly?"

"I'm fine," Baldur repeated more insistently. He tried again to get up, bracing himself on his left hand, and Baldur screamed as agony ripped through his arm and dug talons into his heart. Baldur collapsed with a thin, reedy sob, clutching his hand to his chest and feeling the rough binding of bandages around the limb.

"Maker preserve us from the stubbornness of dwarves! I should have Shale sit on your legs so you can't move."

"My weight would crush it," Shale said practically. "And then I'd be made to carry it when it can no longer walk."

"Can't you just do as you're told for once?" Zevran complained, but he sounded defeated. “Your hand was laying in the fire cooking when we woke up to see what Bastion was barking at,” Zevran said tightly to Baldur. Baldur would have thought him almost calm if it weren’t for the way Zevran clutched at the neck of Baldur’s tunic and his voice went brittle around the edges. “If we hadn’t gotten to you when we did... You’re lucky Morrigan was able to save your hand at all.”

Baldur felt tentatively at the edges of the bandages, biting back a curse when he encountered blistered, cracked flesh. He left his injury alone and tentatively covered Zevran’s grip on his chest with his good hand, letting out a small breath of relief when Zevran tangled their fingers together and squeezed gently.

"There is no shame in admitting weakness," Sten stated from somewhere off to Baldur's left. "The only folly is pushing on and ignoring one's limitations instead of recognizing them and adjusting your actions accordingly."

"I couldn't have put it better myself. Even Sten thinks you need to rest," Zevran pointed out, refusing to be budged.

Baldur's mouth pulled down in a frown, turning his head away to hide his fear. "I can't sleep. Not with the nightmares I keep having...”

Sten cleared his throat.

"I have known several honorable warriors who suffered from night terrors and waking hallucination from wars they have served in the past. Sometimes talking about what troubles you releases some of the power these dream hold over you if they can't gain potency from carrying them trapped within."

If Baldur hadn’t been so disoriented or in so much pain he would have been stunned. This was the most Sten had ever spoken to him, and Baldur thought he must be dreaming because the terse qunari almost sounded compassionate. Baldur had already told Alistair his dreams and didn’t care to repeat the experience, especially since his dreams about the Archdemon were actually prophetic and not something that could simply be willed away or discussed.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Baldur murmured, even though he had no intention of baring his soul to the remainder of the group, knowing that Morrigan had to be nearby with something snide to say if she knew how badly he was struggling. He felt Bastion settle against his side and rest his head on Baldur’s shoulder, whuffing his hot breath against the side of his neck. Baldur didn’t have the heart to push him or Zevran away, missing their companionship more than he could say.

Baldur had difficulty cohabitating with cold or cruel people even before he became a Warden, avoiding unpleasant interactions that weren't relevant in a purely professional manner and preferring to walk away from uncomfortable situations rather than forcing confrontation. Trian had been extremely confrontational, taking every opportunity to snipe and criticize. Their very last conversation ended with Baldur finally snapping and telling Trian to kiss his arse, waspish in a way he rarely was, but even after Trian's death he didn't regret his last words to his brother, more relieved than anything that he'd finally said what had been bottled up inside for decades.

He worked well with contrary people precisely because he didn't normally give into their goading and pettiness, but that didn't mean he enjoyed their exchanges. Sten wasn't cruel, but he was very clipped and unapproachable, limiting their strained conversations to one-word answers and redirecting to matters of war whenever Baldur tried to make overtures of friendliness towards the aloof qunari in their company. Sten didn't seem to care that Baldur had won his freedom when the Warden found him suspended in a cage in Lothering, agreeing to fight for him for reasons known only to Sten. Shale was much the same, not actively abusive but openly disdainful of 'squishy' mortals. Morrigan he struggled with, needing the witch and her invaluable skills and knowledge, but she had no regard for the life and suffering of others and showed open contempt that bordered insubordinance whenever Baldur demonstrated sympathy for anyone else she deemed insignificant, which was everyone except herself.

Zevran wasn't kind, exactly. He had his own agenda that seemed to revolve around whatever amused him the most at any given time. Baldur could never predict whether Zevran would campaign for the life of another, requesting mercy that he’d been shown himself, or if the assassin would be the first to attack, bloodthirsty and reveling in violence. He was unpredictable where Baldur was steady as a rock, their personalities a stark contrast of each other. They argued as often as they made love and had wildly differing approaches to any given situation. Zevran was nothing like the sort of person Baldur had imagined he'd settle down with eventually as prince regent in Orzammar. Very likely his marriage would have been political in nature, loveless, perhaps, but comfortable. A lovely dwarrowdam who would compliment his quiet temperament and bear him little ones, simply because it was expected and Baldur very likely wouldn't have tried to buck against expectations.

Being in love with Zevran wasn't a revelation. The feelings he had were simply an intrinsic part of who he was, as much as the color of his eyes or hair. Baldur wasn't sure which deity thought making an elf sanâzyung to a dwarf was amusing, but he didn't try to fight how he felt, just as much as he didn't try to change the color of his eyes, unusual though they were. What he did struggle against was overwhelming Zevran with the depths of his feelings for him. The disaster with the hair clasps and unclear proposal that Zevran either played up outrageously or ignored entirely caused Baldur to pull back and evaluate every word and gesture before he made another misstep that Zevran wouldn't be able to overlook.

Imagining what his life would have been as an obedient son to King Endrin, without the danger and guilty wanting and passion behind his every interaction with Zevran...his very spirit quailed at the thought of what might have been. He would have led their army into great battles against the darkspawn and been comfortable in Orzammar, certainly, but he wouldn't matter in the grand scheme of things. His bland history and mediocre accomplishments would have been recorded by their Shaperate and filed away to gather dust after his death, passing into the Stone surrounded by children and grandchildren if he didn’t have a valiant death in battle first. It would have been a good life, certainly, but that wasn't his life now. Baldur fought and killed and stole with very little hesitation anymore, his tongue taking on a silver sheen as he cajoled or outright threatened those who dared oppose him with increasingly successful results.

He was afraid to lose himself, that he would lose that regard for kindness he expected in himself and those he surrounded himself with. He thought of Duncan in quiet moments of introspection, wishing the other man was there to guide Baldur down the right path. The Grey Warden had been kind, but he also didn't hesitate to make the difficult calls, able to set aside his own personal feelings to carry out actions that would benefit the good of all, rather than a select few. That was Baldur's struggle. His world shrunk down to these few warriors even though he knew, he knew the Blight still waited for him out there. There had only been a handful of people he truly cared about in his life, with Gorim and Bhelen having been at the top of that very short list.

Baldur was very good at keeping his emotions buried deep beneath the surface. The berserker, however, was better at tearing control away from him, forcing harsh words and actions that Baldur tried to soften before they became sharp-edged like a knife and used to wound those he cared about. Rage and ruthlessness were the epitome of what traits a dwarven warrior should encompass, and perhaps Baldur would have embraced the darker side of himself in Orzammar had he stayed on the bloody path a warrior rather than as a diplomat that would have been more suitable for his temperament.

The person he was now would have had little patience for the shy, cringing dwarf he’d once been, too afraid to defend himself against his brutish older brother. He was changing, adapting, and growing harder each day as more blood was spilled at his hands, barely differentiating between enemy and innocent anymore. Baldur's softer edges were being ground down steadily, and he wasn't sure that he would like the person who was revealed underneath.

He didn’t realize he’d been drowsing when Zevran’s voice startled him awake, immediately anxious that he’d nearly fallen asleep and would be prey to nightmares. He was afraid that he would lash out in violence unconsciously in his sleep and severely injure anyone nearby. He cursed the fact Alistair was gone, taking Baldur’s contingency plan with him.

“Ah good, you’re back. Did you find it?” Zevran asked, directing the question over Baldur’s head.

“Yes. ‘Tis fortunate valerian root grows around these parts. And of course elfroot springs up like weeds everywhere.”

“Excellent. That is good to hear.”

Baldur made a questioning sound and Zevran combed his fingers through Baldur’s hair in a soothing gesture. “Something to help you sleep, dearest,” he explained.

“Don’t want to sleep,” Baldur slurred, blinking his eyes open to glower at Zevran.

“Mm. Consider this your intervention. You’ve been outvoted and your two champions aren’t here to defend your honor. I am not above using nefarious means in order to see you well again.”

Zevran was deaf to any of Baldur’s protests or curses. Yelling gave Baldur a splitting headache so eventually he subsided into petulant silence, refusing to rise to the bait. Morrigan finished her brewing and brought over a vial of a clear, green-tinged liquid in a vial which she handed to Zevran.

“There is more where that came from,” she stated cheerily. “Enough to put him out for several days at least.”

Baldur bit his lip to refrain from giving her a piece of his mind. He also stubbornly refused the potion when Zevran held the bottle up to his lips, knowing that Morrigan wouldn’t be nearly as forgiving as Zevran and could just as easily slip deathroot into the next batch.

“You have two options: Either you can take this potion orally, or we’ll have to test whether it’s as effective as a suppository.”

Baldur glared at Zevran, lips pinched tightly together.

“Very well then. Sten, if you’d be so kind to hold him down...”

“Fine!” Baldur spat, and he barely got the word out before Zevran tipped the vial’s contents in and clapped a hand over his mouth and nose to make certain Baldur swallowed. The potion was bitter and tasted like foliage, but he swallowed it all down. He turned his head away and refused to look at any of them, furious at his own helplessness and that he’d allowed his state to deteriorate so far that members of his group with the least amount of compunction had taken it upon themselves to restrain and drug him against his will. The medicine hit him hard on an empty stomach and he didn’t bother fighting the shroud of darkness falling over him this time, hoping that Zevran would have the sense to stay away from him if Baldur were to lash out in his sleep.

---

When he clawed his way back into consciousness, Baldur had no memory of his dreams, if he dreamed at all, and frowned when he saw that neither Zevran nor Bastion had left his side. Bastion was sprawled out on his back, tongue lolling out of his mouth and legs twitching in the air. It was astounding how much he resembled Alistair when he slept, and Baldur didn’t doubt Bastion had picked up a few bad habits from the other Warden. Zevran was also asleep or dozing where he sat at Baldur’s other side, his elbows resting on his knees with his chin dropped against his chest, eyes closed. Baldur tried not to wake either of them as he took stock of himself, feeling much more levelheaded after a decent night’s sleep, despite the immoral means sleep had been acquired. His headache had receded into a dull ache that could be pushed to the back of his mind, but he bit back a hiss as he tried to move the fingers on his burned hand, the nerves stinging so badly they were nearly numb. Perhaps he should take to wearing Wade’s armor at all times if he was just going to throw himself into fires anyway.

“You’re awake. How do you feel?” Zevran asked quietly without a hint of slur to indicate that he’d actually been asleep rather than waiting for Baldur to wake, raising his head and pressing a hand to Baldur’s cheek as if to check for fever. Bastion snorted in his sleep.

“Fine. Better.” Baldur amended at Zevran’s unimpressed look, rewarded with his lover’s bright smile. “I could probably stand to eat.”

Baldur was suddenly, desperately ravenous and could likely eat an entire herd of halla on his own. The book had mentioned an increased appetite was to be expected for berserkers, but Baldur hadn’t felt like eating for nearly as long as he had avoided sleeping. It was little wonder his body had completely shut down on him, and more than likely he would have never made the journey to the Circle of Magi if it hadn’t been for the others’ intervention, even though he was still bitter about the circumstances.

“You already sound much improved,” Zevran noted, pleased. “Give me a few moments and I’ll be right back with something for you to eat.” Zevran started to move away, but then he paused and turned back.

“On second thought. Bastion,” Zevran said sharply, and the dog immediately started awake, rolling to his paws. “Please sit on your master and make sure he doesn’t move until I return.”

“Wh--You can’t be serious!”

“I’m entirely serious. Bastion, if you would.”

Bastion cocked his head at Zevran and then gave a low “woof” of assent, walking right over Baldur with his legs bracketing the dwarf before dropping his bulk down on top of him.

“Oof! Is this really necessary?” Baldur wheezed, slapping ineffectively at Bastion’s flank. Bastion gazed around with an almost imperial air, head lifted as if Baldur was beneath his notice.

“You tell me. Are you actually going to listen for once and stay put?”

Silence.

“That’s what I thought. Now don’t go anywhere. I’ll return soon.”

Baldur huffed and Bastion tilted his nose down as if surprised to realize Baldur was there. He licked a stripe over Baldur’s face and Baldur made a noise of disgust to disguise a reluctant snort of laughter, not wanting to encourage the dog.

“Traitor,” Baldur accused mock-sternly. Bastion wagged his tail stub in agreement.

When Zevran came back Bastion raised himself off of Baldur without needing an order. Baldur really needed to spend more time bonding with his mabari if Bastion was going to heed everyone except his own master.

“Good boy.”

Zevran tossed a large bone with a few chunks of meat still clinging to it and Bastion yipped, chasing after the treat into the underbrush. He helped Baldur to sit up, steadying him when Baldur went woozy and started to tip over. Zevran had brought him a large bowl of porridge with shredded meat on top, and the food smelled divine. Baldur reached for the bowl automatically, but Zevran held it out of reach.

“Allow me. You’ll be doing nothing with that hand for a while.”

“I still have my right hand,” Baldur complained. “I can feed myself.”

“I know other things you can do with your right hand as well, but that will have to...come...at another time. For now, I must insist.”

Baldur blushed furiously, more at the idea of being treated as an invalid rather than Zevran’s suggestive tone – not that he was unaffected by any means. He knew Zevran didn’t make idle threats in this regard, so he allowed him to spoon hot porridge into his mouth until the food was gone. Baldur looked at empty bowl hopefully and Zevran gave a small laugh as Baldur’s stomach made his petition for more known.

“If you promise to behave then I will get you more.” Zevran smiled at him. “Or should I get Bastion?”

The dog perked up at the sound of his name, but when no command came resumed gnawing on his bone.

“No. I’ll be good,” Baldur sighed, rolling his eyes when Zevran kissed his forehead before getting a second bowl for Baldur, which he devoured just as quickly as the first.

After a third bowl and a mug of tea that Zevran allowed him to hold by himself in his good hand, he took Baldur's left hand in his own and unwrapped the bandages while Baldur observed, wincing when the gauze stuck and peeled away flakes of skin. The skin was inflamed and covered in blisters, and being exposed to the air made the injury blaze anew. Baldur had to quickly look away, breath hissing between his teeth. He didn't want to know what his hand had looked like before Morrigan had done her healing on it, but he was fortunate she'd been there or else he might have lost his hand entirely.

"Lucky for us half of our supplies is burn salve," Zevran said as he reapplied a cooling paste after inspecting Baldur's hand critically. He was careful not to touch more than he had to and rewrapped the injured hand with clean gauze, considerate not to draw attention to the tears of agony streaking Baldur's cheeks. Baldur was both sweating and shivering with chills while Zevran tended to him, fighting not to cry out, and then he was done.

Baldur clutched his hand to his chest as soon as Zevran released him and bowed over the limb protectively. He scrubbed at his eyes with his other hand and realized he had bandages on the side of his face as well. He vaguely remembered sparks flying into his face when he fell. He was a disaster and it was a wonder anyone expected him to lead, much less defeat an Archdemon.

"The elfroot in your tea should kick in shortly for the pain," Zevran said, stowing away the unused supplies after checking Baldur’s face.

"Should I be concerned how often you're drugging me without my consent now?" Baldur snarled through clenched teeth like a wounded animal, raw and stinging from the gentle treatment.

"Would you rather I poison you instead? It is my specialty after all."

Baldur drew a deep breath into his nostrils and let it out slowly. Sleep and food may have improved his headache and restored some of his energy levels, but the anger was still as ever present as it had been before. This was the first he and Zevran had spoken - coherently - in a week, and Baldur had to consciously rein himself in so he didn't snap at Zevran when he was only trying to help.

"No, I-- Thank you."

"You're welcome, I'm sure. Now then,” Zevran said as he took the empty mug from Baldur and set the cup aside, turning towards him with a disarming lightness to his tone that did nothing to prepare Baldur for his next words. “I believe I have been more than accommodating your disquieting moods lately, however I have reached my limit and can do so no longer."

Baldur felt as if he'd been struck through the breast with a spear. He could only stare at Zevran dumbly, scrambling for words that would keep Zevran from ending their relationship right there after everything they’d gone through, but he couldn’t dare ask his ghivashel to stick around for Baldur to abuse him again. Any entreaties he might have tried dried up in his throat. That Zevran had remained for so long was a minor miracle in itself, but Baldur hadn't any time or warning to prepare himself for letting Zevran go as he had been ready to do in Denerim. He thought they'd have more time, clinging to the hope that the Circle would somehow be able to fix him and they could go back to how they were before Baldur started losing his grip on sanity. He'd been trying to protect Zevran by keeping his distance, but instead he'd only pushed him away and forced him into this confrontation.

"Alistair told me what is going on with you and I am extremely displeased that I had to find out from him instead of hearing it from you. I rather hoped you trusted me enough to confide in me when you are suffering, but it seems I was mistaken."

Zevran's anger Baldur could take, but not his disappointment, and certainly not sorrow from the normally amicable elf. Baldur swallowed hard around a lump in his throat, searching for a suitable explanation or apology to elaborate why he'd been trying to hide his struggles from Zevran, but words evaded him like trying to catch minnows in a shallow pond.

"Alistair told you?" Baldur croaked, focusing instead on more manageable incredulity and addressing the lesser issue first. "He wouldn't do that."

"His loyalty is admirable, but fortunately very few have any resistance for certain interrogation techniques." Zevran frowned as a thought occurred to him. "You'd better hope Loghain's men never get a hold of him. He's rather hopeless."

"You tortured Alistair for information?" Baldur exclaimed, moving to rise to his feet and damn the promise he’d made to sit still. Mahal's beard, what had Zevran been thinking?

"Mm," Zevran agreed, unrepentantly smug. "You wouldn't believe how ticklish he is! One touch and he was confessing everything from his earliest childhood secrets to the mischief he got up to in the Chantry. Do you know Bann Teagan, the Arl Eamon's brother, has a very impressive collection of dwarf maiden erotica*? I may have to keep an eye on the man once we have returned to Redcliffe, as he may have designs to capture you and make you his sex slave. Not that I would blame him – you are very irresistible after all."

Baldur stared at Zevran, paused where he knelt on the bedroll. After a moment, he decided not to touch either statement, sitting back on his haunches reluctantly. "So you know about the berserker state then," Baldur said bitterly, angry at his own failings. "You were right from the beginning. I acted irrationally in Denerim and now I can't control it."

“As much as I delight in hearing you admit that I was correct, believe that I find no pleasure in being right this particular instance. We cannot change the past, but we are a team now, no? There are so many others who would help you if for any reason you are unable to come to me with your problems. Do not think you have to do everything alone.”

Zevran’s words were nearly a direct echo of Alistair’s and Baldur bowed his head guiltily. He didn’t know how to depend on anyone else except for himself, so determined to shield and protect everyone from harm that he’d ended up hurting them himself instead.

“I’m sorry,” Baldur mumbled, not knowing what else he could say or promises he could make that he would actually be able to keep.

"Now that unpleasantness is out of the way...I have another matter I wish to discuss."

Baldur didn’t know if anything could get worse, but he nodded his head without looking up, bracing himself for whatever else Zevran wanted to bring to his attention.

"A certain dwarf has been remiss in his marital duties, and as I believe I once told you, a week without sex is practically a lifetime. I must insist that you rectify this oversight at once." Zevran’s tone was playfully demanding, but his levity could be hiding an entire range of feelings that masked hurt or concern, and Baldur didn’t know quite how to navigate their conversation without it blowing up in his face.

"Zevran, I... I can't," Baldur said, anguished, clenching his fist in his lap.

"Do you mean to say the berserker won't allow you to 'rise to the occasion', so to speak? If that is the case, there are many, many ways to work around a faulty piece of equipment, if that's what concerns you." Zevran leaned closer and curled a hand against Baldur's cheek, playing with the wild strands of black hair that hadn't seen a comb in days.

Baldur closed his eyes and leaned into the touch with a small sigh of longing, a rush of familiar comfort and exhilaration pouring through him at the barest contact. There was certainly no issue with his 'equipment', Baldur was relieved to note as his body responded to Zevran's proximity, but in there lay the problem. Baldur opened his eyes and pulled away with a tight shake of his head, refraining from lifting a hand to his cheek to retain the warmth of Zevran's touch as he moved back to put space between them.

"Unless..." Zevran started, uncertainty flickering across his face. "It’s me you no longer...?"

"No!" Baldur interjected loudly, startling them both as the remaining group around the fire went quiet, looking over at he and Zevran curiously. "No," he said more quietly, anxiety running through him like a current. "Believe me, I could never not want you. Ever.”

Zevran carefully reached out for his hands and lowered his head to catch Baldur's eye when the dwarf looked away in shame.

"Then tell me," he pleaded, all joking set aside and replaced with earnestness. "You don't need to hide yourself from me. I am not leaving you, so you need not fear that whatever you tell me will send me running for the hills. This, I swear." Zevran lifted Baldur's hands to his mouth, kissing his knuckles as if sealing a promise.

"I don't want to hurt you again," Baldur choked out, a tear tracking down his cheek as he recalled with nightmarish clarity the sight of Zevran covered in brutal marks that Baldur had caused. He would die first before raising a hand in violence against Zevran.

"Hurt me?" Zevran asked, his brow furrowing as he tilted his head to the side in confusion. "You've never done anything untoward to me, Baldur."

"What are you...I practically raped you!" Baldur yelled, tearing his hands away from Zevran and gesturing sharply. "You were bleeding and I...I hurt you!" Baldur was aware the others could hear every word they were saying, but they didn't have the luxury of Morrigan's silencing spell and Baldur couldn't hold back the tide of words.

Zevran blinked at him, consternation taking the place of confusion. "You mean a few love bites? Baldur, that was nearly a week ago!"

"Love bites--! Zevran, I forced myself on you after I completely lost my mind and slaughtered Loghain's men. You could hardly walk the next day!"

"Is that what this is about? You think you forced me into anything?" Zevran swiped a hand through his hair, his agitation visible. "Mierda. Baldur," Zevran took a breath, and then another, his next words coming out very careful and deliberate. "Do you not think I could stop you if I wanted to? You have never - not ever - done anything that I did not consent to wholeheartedly. I was actually hoping for a repeat performance, but...I suspect that perhaps you are not quite there yet."

Baldur could only stare at Zevran in dismay. What in the name of all his blessed ancestors had Zevran been through that he would actively want to seek out pain during intimacy?

"If you do not believe me, then I will simply have to show you." Zevran said. "Do you trust me?" There was no conditional clauses to the question. The answer could only be yes or it could be no, without exception.

"Yes," Baldur said helplessly, his voice breaking. "It's myself I don't trust. But of course...anything, Zevran."

"Good," Zevran said shortly, looking Baldur over with a critical eye. The entire encampment had heard them, so there was no use attempting subtlety. Baldur followed, entirely contrite and compliant, when Zevran helped him to his feet by his good hand and lead him over to his tent. Their tent.

"My dear Morrigan. If you would be so kind?"

Morrigan sighed with an inconvenienced expression, but waved her hand dismissively. The brilliant blue glow of the barrier forming around their tent was a familiar and comforting sight, if not one that basically painted a glowing sign announcing their activities. Baldur had kept his head down, unable to meet anyone's eyes, but Sten and Shale were in quiet conversation together, and Baldur was startled to see how well they matched, both tall and broad and grey with a matching distain for others not of their kind.

Zevran ushered Baldur into the tent, letting the flap drop down behind them.

Baldur had already been removed of his armor when he’d been unconscious, and Zevran quickly made short work of his own. He nudged Baldur away when the Warden tried to fumble at the lacings of his trousers one-handed. He leaned down to kiss him softly as he undid the ties, slipping his fingers down the front of Baldur’s smalls without even pulling his clothes off him first, and massaged him into full hardness. Baldur gasped into his mouth, reaching out for Zevran’s arms and sliding over smooth skin to bury his hands in Zevran’s hair, pressing him closer.

Zevran broke the kiss with a soft, playful nip to Baldur’s bottom lip. “I see we are going to have a problem with you keeping your hands to yourself, seeing as how you are injured.”

“I can—“

“You will do as I say. And if not, I am not above drugging you to make you more complacent, as you know. But I would hope it will not come to that.”

“I’m really starting to question whose side you’re on,” Baldur grumbled, letting his hands fall away from Zevran’s hair to drop down obediently to his sides. Zevran smiled at him, kissing him again as if in reward for good behavior.

“I am on my own side. Fortunately for yourself, I happen to include you in that particular plot. Now then. I will have you lay down on your back and do not move unless I say so.”

Baldur felt a thrill rush through him at Zevran’s orders, and on the heels of that particular emotion came a wave of relief at being able to concede all control and responsibly for the first time in a long while. Baldur did as instructed, laying back on Zevran’s bedroll and feeling a pang of guilt that there was only the one, his own on the ground outside. His bedroll had been packed away, Baldur having given up the pretense of trying to sleep before then. Zevran must have given up on Baldur returning to their tent of his own accord, and the thought burned worse than his hand. He was so undeserving of Zevran’s patience, which made him want to be good for him that much more.

Zevran knelt next to Baldur and nudged for him to lift his hips, drawing off his trousers and smallclothes in one smooth motion. He ran his hands back over Baldur’s legs to rub his thumbs along the crease where his thighs met his pelvis, watching Baldur’s cock bob and leak at the tip with satisfaction. He leaned down to swipe a taste with his tongue and Baldur groaned. He reached out automatically to grab for Zevran’s shoulders, but snatched his hands away when Zevran glanced up at him with a raised eyebrow. Baldur appeared contrite, but Zevran moved away from between his legs and Baldur let out a disappointed groan that made Zevran chuckle softly.

“It has been awhile for you as well. But don’t worry, my darling. I will see that you are not left unsatisfied.”

He gripped the bottom of Baldur’s tunic and pulled it up over his head, but not off his arms entirely. He drew the fabric taught around Baldur’s wrists, exceedingly gentle with his injured hand, but making the binding tight enough that Baldur couldn’t break free and hurt Zevran. Baldur nearly sobbed with the relief that knowledge gave him. Zevran didn’t waste any time and straddled his torso, placing his fingers to Baldur’s lips and urging them open. Baldur gasped and sucked at Zevran’s fingers when they invaded his mouth. He was barely allowed enough time to even wet them before Zevran wrapped his hand around himself and fed his erection into Baldur’s mouth, giving him no warning as he pressed himself down into Baldur’s throat. Baldur convulsed and gagged, arching his head back as he fought to breathe. He strained at his bindings, but Zevran placed a hand against the knot in the middle of the tunic tied around Baldur’s wrists and firmly forced his hands back down, pinning them above his head.

“No teeth, Baldur. I know you can do this. I know you can be good for me.”

Baldur sobbed, struggling to breathe and swallow at the same time as Zevran pushed forward, slipping the tip of himself into the convulsing channel of Baldur’s throat before retreating. Baldur was seized with wracking coughs, turning his head to the side as he tried to gasp for air. Zevran only gave him a moment before he turned Baldur’s face back toward him with his fingers squeezing firmly at the hinges of his jaw, entering Baldur’s mouth again before he was ready. Zevran buried himself deep in his throat and held himself there until Baldur saw dark spots flash behind his eyes which were steadily leaking tears. His heart was pounding so hard even though he tried to grasp at calm and control that eluded him. He couldn’t draw in oxygen, and he was on the edge of suffocating before Zevran pulled out again and allowed Baldur a moment to gather his bearings.

Again and again Zevran brought him to that edge until Baldur was coughing and sobbing around his cock, but his mouth opened to receive him eagerly every time Zevran pressed his crown against Baldur’s lips, urging him onward with steady praise and endearments that Baldur strained to quiet himself so he could hear over the blood rushing to his ears. Eventually, after too long choking and struggling, they found a rhythm. Baldur was able to take Zevran into his throat, sucking and swallowing while he drooled around his length until his mind went hazy, losing awareness of everything except his lover invading all of his senses.

Baldur stopped fighting, going limp and just taking it. His own cock was straining, weeping, as he opened himself eagerly for Zevran, only to have emptiness replace the cock he’d been expecting. He blinked his eyes open in confusion when Zevran moved away from him, a bereft sound escaping his raw throat.

“You were so good, mi amor. You’re so sweet. I just need you to hang in there a little while longer,” Zevran soothed. Baldur sobbed at the words, clinging to them so desperately because he knew he’d been anything but ‘good’ or ‘sweet’ ever since he began losing himself to the berserker, who was mercifully suppressed in his mind for the time being.

Zevran retrieved a brand new bottle of oil that Baldur had purchased in Denerim and slicked his fingers. Baldur had only been on the receiving end of another's cock once, and he had been unconscious for most of that time. He suspected Zevran would have taken him without much, if any, preparation if not for the fact of Baldur’s inexperience, and even then he only stretched him enough that he could slide two fingers within Baldur’s channel with only minimal resistance before pulling out and immediately replacing his fingers with his cock. Baldur didn’t even have time to tense before Zevran sheathed himself entirely in one stroke, holding Baldur’s wrists down as his back arched with a sharp cry.

Zevran took advantage of Baldur’s bare throat and closed his teeth around skin hard enough to leave a mark, if not draw blood. He matched Baldur bite for bite, fucking into him with brutal savagery that shoved Baldur by inches across the ground with every thrust. Zevran raked his nails down Baldur's shoulder blades, tearing marks into Baldur's skin that parodied his own elaborate tattoos, tracing the curves of his body.

Baldur cried out, wailing as he was subdued and overcome, unable to do anything but accept the glorious torture of Zevran ravaging and ravishing him in turn. He submitted all control over to Zevran, who was skilled beyond reason and so, so gorgeous in the sinful way he took Baldur apart. If Zevran had felt anything like this the last night they’d spent together, then Baldur understood Zevran's anger at being denied a repeat experience. Baldur was incapable of formulating a coherent thought, trying and failing to match the cadence of Zevran’s body against his own. Zevran would suddenly stop without warning, buried to the hilt or connected just by the flared head of his cock, until Baldur was crying out and writhing against him just to move. When he was certain he would lose himself to madness, Zevran drove into him with the full force of his strength, his flint striking mercilessly at Baldur’s steel and turning his insides molten.

As with the last time Zevran had taken him, Baldur felt himself letting go of all tethers to his body, pleasure and pain becoming one undecipherable blur in his mind until he couldn’t remember ever feeling anything else. His fingers clutched on nothing and his breath was knocked out of him with every snap of Zevran’s hips.

Orgasm crashed over him in the space between breaths, violent and unexpected, but Zevran didn’t allow him a moment’s respite. If anything, he redoubled his efforts, each thrust harder than the last as he alternated a slow drag with furious pounding that heated the underside of Baldur's thighs and backside from the force of their skin slapping together. Baldur was sensitive, too sensitive, and soon he was writhing on Zevran’s cock trying to pull away. Zevran clamped his hands down on Baldur’s hips and held him firm, taking advantage of the dwarf’s exhaustion without hesitation. He brought their mouths together and Baldur could taste his own coppery blood on Zevran’s tongue. His skin stung from multiple bites and scratches that he would inevitably feel for days, reminding him of this very moment.

A week without proper meals or sleep caught up to Baldur swiftly. He was certain the ground had come loose beneath him, the entire world going unstable except for the bracing pressure of Zevran anchoring him from the inside out. He groaned pleadingly into Zevran’s mouth, clenching down on him and straining his hips upward. He wanted to feel the other man find his release within him while Baldur was still conscious, fighting off the waves of darkness that lapped at the edges of his vision.

“Please, ghivashel,” Baldur moaned against Zevran’s lips, bringing his bound arms up and around Zevran’s neck to pull him flush against his body, and Zevran’s brutal rhythm finally faltered. Zevran let out a low, rumbling growl, swelling and twitching within the confines of Baldur’s body as he shot his seed deep within him, his hips flush against Baldur’s backside so not even a drop escaped between their bodies.

Baldur didn’t need any of Morrigan’s potion to lose his connection to the waking world, slipping under into unconsciousness as smoothly as Zevran’s spent organ sliding out of him. The last thing he felt before fading away was Zevran’s fingers in his hair, a kiss softer than breath against his lips, and then Baldur was gone.

---

Bastion’s baying woke Baldur up suddenly. He automatically reached for his sword, but he found himself pinned down with Zevran’s weight sprawled over his chest and legs, lethargy still clinging to his limbs. If they could hear sounds from outside that meant Morrigan had dropped her barrier, which was more often than not a prelude to an attack.

“Let the others take care of it,” Zevran mumbled against the side of his face, pressing a sleepy kiss into his beard as his hands stroked up and down Baldur’s flanks without even pretending to make a show of getting up.

“I’d forgotten what a terrible influence you are,” Baldur grumbled, trying and failing to dislodge Zevran, but the elf was incongruously heavy for his slender build and utterly resistant against all attempts to move.

“Nonsense. I—ah!” Zevran gave a sharp cry and Baldur was up at once, shoving Zevran behind him with a resurgence of strength as he balled his fists to strike out for lack of proper weapons.

Baldur stopped immediately when he saw Bastion’s head peering at them through the flap of the tent, his tongue lolling out happily. His mabari gave a short bark and pressed his cold, wet nose against Baldur’s hand. It was likely how he’d greeted Zevran, except in a much more sensitive area - if the way Zevran was rubbing at his backside with a disgruntled expression was any indication. Baldur looked past Bastion and saw with surprise and relief that Alistair and Leliana had returned, but they were alone and each appeared livid.

“They wouldn’t allow us entry into the Circle!” Alistair said furiously when Baldur and Zevran had both dressed and rejoined the group. “We were told by some peon that there were no healers available, and no one was entering or leaving the Circle of Magi until further notice!”

“We will have to go back. We cannot give up,” Zevran said firmly. “We will find a way past the guards to the Circle if Baldur cannot work his special Grey Warden magic and convince them otherwise that the mages’ services are direly needed.”

“I’m a Grey Warden!” Alistair protested, on the verge of petulance. “I have special Grey Warden magic too, but they still wouldn’t let us pass!”

“Clearly whatever ability you believe you possess is inferior to the dwarf’s,” Morrigan said. “You couldn’t convince a dying fish to jump back into water.”

“Did they explain why the Circle was closed?” Baldur asked.

“I, er, might have punched the templar blocking access to the docks in the jaw before I could get around to asking.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Morrigan said, looking disgusted. “Perhaps you should wait here while those more competent gain access to the Circle.”

“We’ll all go together. They must honor the Grey Warden treaty, and I intend to hold them to their promise,” Baldur said firmly, irritated but blessedly free from the rage that would have had him drawing his blade and storming the Circle himself. Perhaps that time would come, knowing Zevran’s solution to the berserker problem was only a temporary fix at best, but one he was more than happy utilize regularly except for the way he had to attempt to mask his limp to avoid any of Alistair’s concerned questions that the other Warden was in no way prepared to have answered.

Chapter Text

They didn’t delay packing up camp and setting out towards Lake Calenhad to seek out the Circle’s assistance with Baldur’s berserker state, and – more importantly – to recruit whomever they could into battle against the darkspawn. Baldur had lost sight of the big picture, so focused on one dragon that he'd forgotten there were much bigger issues at hand. They'd been picking off darkspawn during their travels, but the darkspawn’s appearance was only a symptom of the Blight. What they really needed was to cut them off at the source. There was evil everywhere they went and it would only get worse the longer they delayed. The dragon in the Frostback Mountains was like a sore tooth, but even Baldur could admit there was no use obsessing over one tooth when the whole mouth was rotten. Except they did have to return sooner rather than later to find the Urn.

Baldur was able to keep up with the group after finally resting and eating again, but he suspected the way Zevran kept a relentless hold on his right hand along with Bastion nudging him along encouragingly from behind had more to do with his livelier pace. Still, they had to stop more frequently than Baldur liked so Zevran could change the bandages on his hand while Morrigan force more of her foul potion down his throat. He endured the treatment with as much begrudging stoicism as he could muster, but he reached his limit when Zevran implied they take a break after only half a day’s walk so Baldur could nap.

“Absolutely not,” Baldur snarled. He shook off Zevran’s hand and gave him a warning glower that was the mildest expression his berserker would allow for the indignity.

He stalked several paces away before picking up a stone and hurling it at a tree trunk rather than bottling his anger as he normally would have. He’d been advised that he needed to have a less destructive outlet if he was going to last much longer, however, Zevran fucking him into unconsciousness just wasn’t plausible during the day. Baldur found a branch the length of his arm and threw that next. He startled when Bastion yelped and bounded after the projectile with apparent ecstasy for the game Baldur had unwontedly initiated. He blew out a breath when Bastion returned the stick to him seconds later, but in the end decided to indulge him. Bastion was the reason Baldur hadn't become irreparably crippled, after all. He had alerted the others when Baldur passed out on top of the firepit, and more than likely would have dragged him out himself had the others not been so quick to respond. As far as Baldur was concerned Bastion deserved to be a little spoiled for a job well done. He’d seen Zevran slip the dog dried strips of meat throughout the day, and even Morrigan had made Bastion’s favorite treat when she thought no one was looking, as if they didn’t know mabari crunch from a healing potion.

"So let me ask you something," Alistair said as he advanced on Zevran the instant he and Baldur were separated, not beating around the bush for even a second. "What are your intentions with him?"

Baldur was still in earshot of the pair, as was everyone else, but Alistair seemed uncaring of who might be listening. Baldur loosely gripped the stick Bastion had fetched for him in his good hand, but his attention was on the two men. He gave a soft command when Bastion nosed at him impatiently and whined. Bastion heeled at once, his tail nub swishing small arcs in the dirt as he waited with his keen eyes fixed on the stick.

"You speak of Baldur as if he were not present. He's just right over there, you know," Zevran said, gesturing with a hand in Baldur's direction. Alistair didn't look at Baldur, his hard stare fixed on the assassin.

"Don't dodge the question. I'm serious."

"Is this brotherly concern I detect...or something else? Perhaps you are concerned for me, yes?" Zevran nudged closer to Alistair with half-lidded eyes.

"I'm just asking what your intentions are. You did try to kill us all, remember?" Alistair snapped, his words quick and aggressive rather than succumbing to his usual fluster whenever Zevran flirted with him.

"And now I owe him a blood debt as he has spared my life. It has brought us...closer together."

Baldur could only see Zevran's face from where he stood, as Alistair’s back was to him. He saw the line of Alistair's shoulders go rigid in response to the suggestive grin on Zevran's face that was more or less his default expression.

"Is that a smirk? Are you smirking at me?" Alistair demanded, crossing his arms over his chest and puffing himself up in what he probably thought was an intimidating way.

"I assure you, ser. I am not smirking," Zevran smirked. "No smirking here. No."

"Well, just watch yourself then. I'll be keeping an eye on you."

Baldur shook his head when Alistair stalked off, unable to keep from biting back a grin despite himself. Alistair didn't stand a chance against a trained killer who didn’t play by the rules if he ever had to duel for Baldur's honor, but Baldur appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. He tossed the stick one last time, not wanting Bastion to tire himself out before they reached the Circle, and came up to lean against Zevran's side in a silent display of support.

"I do believe Alistair thinks you are incapable of making an honest man out of me," Zevran said with a put upon sigh, resting his cheek against the crown of Baldur’s head and settling a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"Actually, he probably thinks you'll turn me into some kind of deviant who kills for fun and has sex in public places."

"Perish the thought! You are as wholesome as they come, my dear Warden."

"I fear for the future of Ferelden, if that’s the case then," Baldur said without even a trace of irony.

Zevran threw his head back and laughed. He was still grinning when he turned Baldur and caught him up in a truly filthy kiss that very nearly devolved into the sort of depravity that Alistair feared the most.

Baldur wasn't sorry at all.

---

Due to Loghain's slander, they were more likely to be spit upon or outright attacked once people they encountered realized he and Alistair were Grey Wardens. Sure enough, upon entering Lake Calenhad, their group was set upon by defectors of the army. Baldur was angered by the wasteful deaths before he'd even drawn his sword, but the skirmish was over quickly. Baldur grit his teeth and breathed out slowly through his nostrils, blood and battle stirring up the darkness within him even though Zevran had been increasingly creative in discovering ways to keep his berserker subdued. He didn’t miss the way Zevran was scrutinizing him, the way they all were especially after Leliana and Alistair had been filled in on the gossip they’d missed while away from the campsite after Baldur’s meltdown. There was an unexpected release of tension when everyone had been apprised of the cause of Baldur’s sudden and violent change of temperament, which they were currently attempting to rectify.

They approached the docks that separated the small fishing town from the tower sitting like a dark beacon in the middle of the lake. The Circle of Magi was unapproachable except by ferry, which was currently being guarded by a young but stubborn-looking templar currently sporting a bruise on his cheek that no doubt matched the impression left behind by Alistair’s fist.

“Oh hello. It’s you again,” the templar said with a haughty air when he spotted Alistair. He seemed smug for having stood his ground against an enraged Warden and would likely be even more stubborn in his refusal to allow them passage. Still, Baldur had to try, and he had little patience for a grunt’s inflated ego.

“I’m a Grey Warden. I need to see the first enchanter.”

“And I’m Carroll, the Queen of Antiva. Like I told the last guy: No entrance into the tower.”

“Your superior won’t like that you’ve given me trouble.” Baldur crossed his arms over his chest and glared the templar, Carroll, down until the boy shifted uncomfortably and broke their staring contest first, expression gone mulish.

“You think Knight-Commander Greagoir would be upset with me for not letting you in?” Carroll scoffed, and then seemed to reconsider when Baldur’s eyebrow rose dangerously. “Wait...actually, he would. Good point.”

Baldur took note of Greagoir’s name, suspecting he would need to win the Knight-Commander over if he had any shot of his plight being heard, much less even considered.

Failure was not an option.

“But there’s too many of you to take across the lake. Some of you will have to stay behind and I’m only making one trip,” Carroll said. He eyed Sten and Shale pointedly, who would no doubt sink them with their combined weights.

"I'm coming with you," Alistair spoke up at once, tone implacable.

"As am I," Leliana said, nearly on his heels.

"I suppose if things go southward with either the mages or templars you will need my skills to battle them," Morrigan said with dreary benevolence, making known what an inconvenience to her this was and how appreciative the group had better be for her generosity.

"And, as always, my blades--" Zevran lowered his voice to a seductive purr just for Baldur, "--and my heart, are yours to command."

"Thank you," Baldur said, touched at their unwavering loyalty even though he’d been nothing short of a tyrant lately. He knelt to scratch Bastion’s ears before he addressed the towering grey pair.

"Should anything happen to us, go to Redcliffe and inform Bann Teagan of our situation," Baldur said after he stood and removed Brother Genitivi's journal and map from his pack, handing the leather bound book over to Sten. “Bastion knows the way to Redcliffe and the Frostback Mountains, so Bann Teagan can send a force to retrieve the Urn himself if...”

...If the mages are unable to fix him and Alistair became tasked with killing Baldur himself, Baldur didn’t say.

"Am I to understand we are to take directions from a dog?" Shale said in complete indignation. "It'll have us chasing our own tails and rolling in filth."

Bastion growled and shook his head as if flinging off water, his spiked collar clinking with the movement.

"Bastion's incredibly smart. I would have never made it to Redcliffe after I broke my arm without him. He's saved my life more times than I can count," Alistair said, patting the dog fondly.

“You never said,” Baldur accused.

Alistair shrugged sheepishly.

Baldur had no idea his journey had been so harrowing, and he cursed himself for putting Alistair and Bastion both in danger like that. The party should have gone with him until they found a healer to tend to him instead of leaving him to make an arduous journey alone while injured and with only one mabari as protection.

"Don't make that face," Alistair said, looking down at Baldur. "It was my idea, remember? Bastion and I are fine, and we made it in one piece. There wasn't anything else you could have done. We had to get the Urn."

"Which we didn't get!" Baldur shouted. His heart was pounding in terror for what could have happened to Alistair and Bastion on his orders. He would have never known until much too late if the pair had never made it to Redcliffe.

"Do we really have time for this?" Morrigan asked impatiently. "The mutt's fine. Alistair's...well...functional at least."

"Hey!"

"So let's get going. You can yell at him for your precious hurt feelings later."

Baldur growled, pulling at his hair in frustration, but conceded the point with an angry grunt.

"May the Maker watch over you," Leliana said to the trio who would be staying behind. Bastion wagged his tail stub and barked once.

"Keep your words of the Maker," Sten said gruffly. "You will need whatever blessings you think your god is capable of for yourselves."

“How can you say that? Do your people believe in nothing?”

"We believe in discipline and order. Where is the wisdom in crying for a derelict god to save you? Believe in whatever you like: absent creators, or whimsical gods. Follow prophets, or ashkaari, or omens in the earth and sky. You do a disservice to yourself and others by waiting idly for divine intervention instead of taking action."

Leliana visibly gathered herself to protest, but Carroll hailed them impatiently from the boat that appeared much too small to handle the weight of their group, even with reduced numbers. Baldur was the last to board, his face gone ashen as he surveyed the endless black expanse of water. He hadn’t quite reconciled the notion he would be traveling across an entire lake in what was essentially a wooden tub. Zevran seemed to recall Baldur’s fear of water deeper than chest-level and held out a hand for him as Baldur wavered at the end of the dock, trying to bolster his courage when everyone else stared expectantly at him when he hesitated. He gripped Zevran’s outstretched hand tightly and tried to look anywhere except at the water. Zevran gently guided him into the boat, allowing Baldur to cling to him and bury his face in his chest as the boat listed alarmingly. Alistair and Leliana moved to the opposite side to counterbalance their weight and the craft steadied itself, even though Baldur was shaken and flinched every time the boat rocked in the water, which was constantly.

“I would never allow you to drown,” Zevran reminded him, speaking softly into Baldur’s hair as the dwarf clutched him around the waist and muffled a moan of terror.

Alistair and Carroll took up the oars while Zevran and Baldur knelt in the middle of the boat, out of the way. Leliana stood comfortably at the stern with her balance unwavering. Baldur didn’t look up once, wishing he could enjoy being held so closely by Zevran rather than putting all of his energy into not being sick over the both of them. The distance to the tower seemed never ending. The rhythmic splash of the oars in the water and gentle rocking should have eased some of Baldur’s nerves, serving instead only to wind him up further.

As soon as the hull bumped against the shore, Baldur was the first off the boat. He collapsed to his knees and sucked down great, gulping breaths as he dug his fingers gratefully into the sand. Baldur had never traveled using any means other than his own two feet and wasn’t looking forward to their return trip back.

“This one hasn’t gotten his sea legs yet, huh?” Carroll scoffed as he tied up the boat and the others deboarded. “Thank the Maker he didn’t sick up on the boat. Would’ve come out of my commission, for sure.”

“He’s used to traveling by dragonback,” Zevran explained as he helped unload their packs and set them down before crouching next to Baldur in the sand, resting a comforting hand against the back of Baldur’s neck. “Much faster than boat, but unfortunately our group just became too large for it to carry us all and we had to leave his dragon back in the mountains.”

“And you expect me to believe that, do you?” Carroll snorted.

“Just take a look at his armor. Those are authentic drake scales. One of a kind. Who else aside from a Grey Warden could get close enough to such a formidable creature to make armor out of one of them?”

Carroll squinted at Baldur’s armor, suddenly appearing uncertain. “Right then... If you could just not mention my name to the Knight-Commander, I’d be ever so appreciative.”

“Thank you for your service,” Baldur gritted out after he allowed Zevran to help him to his feet, steadying himself against the elf’s side with Zevran’s arm around his waist. He doubted after his display Carroll was all that impressed with Grey Wardens despite Zevran’s tale that Baldur rode around on a dragon. The falsehood was preferable to reality, Baldur had to admit.

The Circle of Magi was a dark tower that thrust up into the night sky, appearing as if its spire would puncture the moon itself. Baldur’s group made their way into the entrance, wading through a tumult of templars that rushed about, paying them no mind. All of the templars wore full helmets that obscured their faces, impossible to differentiate one from the next, but soon he approached one man with his head bared. Baldur surmised this man was the Knight-Commander, as he was issuing orders to another man in armor. Baldur caught the tale end of their conversation, waiting to be noticed as he observed the barely restrained panic of the templars hurrying around them.

"...and I want two men stationed within sight of the doors at all times. Do not open the doors without my express consent. Is that clear?"

“Yes, ser.”

“The doors are barred... Are they keeping people out or in?” Alistair muttered as an aside to Baldur. The Commander turned towards them, his expression severe.

“We are dealing with a very delicate situation. You must leave, for your own safety.”

There was no way Baldur was getting back on that boat again any time soon, and he would not be moved from his task. “No. The mages have an obligation to the Grey Wardens.”

“I am weary of the Grey Wardens’ ceaseless need for men to fight the darkspawn. You’ll find no allies here. The templars can spare no men, and the mages are...indisposed. I shall speak plainly: The tower is no longer under our control. Abominations and demons stalk the tower’s halls. The Circle is lost. The tower has fallen.”

“How did this happen?” Baldur demanded, refusing to believe that all was lost just yet.

“We saw only demons, hunting templars and mages alike. I realized we could not defeat them and told my men to flee. I have sent word to Denerim, calling for the reinforcements and the Right of Annulment.”

“The Right of Annulment?”

“The Right gives templars the authority to neutralize the mage Circle. Completely,” Greagoir said.

“You can’t do that! All of those innocent people will die in there!” Leliana cried.

“There is no alternative,” Greagoir said, implacable. “Everything in the tower must be destroyed so it can be made safe again.”

“The mages are not defenseless. Some must still live,” Baldur protested.

“No one could have survived those monstrous creatures. It is too painful to hope for survivors and find...nothing.”

“If you’re so certain, why even wait for the Right of Annulment?” Morrigan asked. “Destroy the tower and be done with it then.”

“Morrigan!” Leliana scolded, horrified.

“Only the grand cleric in Denerim can authorize the Annulment of this Circle and we must wait for reinforcements. If we enter the tower now, we will be massacred. I cannot order my men to their deaths. While the door holds, we wait for word back from Denerim.”

Baldur felt aghast that the Knight-Commander was planning to destroy the entire tower without seeking out an alternative solution. So many people would die. Baldur couldn’t fathom making the kind of call that would lead to such an abhorrent outcome.

“If I help you deal with the Circle, will you lend me aid?” he asked, his expression growing hard with determination.

“If, by some miracle, you destroy the abominations, yes. The templars will join your army.”

“We have an agreement then.”

“A word of caution...once you cross that threshold, there is no turning back. The great doors must remain barred. I will open them for no one until I have proof that it is safe. I will only believe it is over if the first enchanter himself stands before me and tells me it is so. If Irving has fallen...then the Circle is lost, and must be destroyed.”

“Let me make sure I understand,” Zevran said affably. “Even if we defeat every last abomination, yet we discover the first enchanter has been killed anyway, you will still keep us trapped within the tower and destroy it with all of us inside?”

“Yes.”

“I can’t imagine how any of that could possibly go wrong. It appears to be a sound plan to me,” Zevran said to Baldur with a too-bright grin, and Baldur knew his lover was already plotting ways to get Baldur right back on Carroll’s boat even if he had to drug him and tie him up again to do so.

"There's no need for all of us to be trapped inside," Baldur said, addressing the group while the Knight-Commander awaited his answer. "If this does go belly up, I need you all to delay the templars for as long as possible and, worst case scenario, go to Redcliffe with the others to alert Bann Teagan where to locate the Urn and hope they can retrieve the ashes for the Arl."

"Who stays and who goes?" Alistair asked nervously. “You’re still...not well, but if there are any healers left to be found here they are all still trapped inside.”

Baldur bit his lip. Ideally he'd want as many of the others with him as possible, but risking everyone was dangerous and impractical. “I will leave that for each of you to decide, but decide quickly. I am going into the tower. If anyone can help me, help us, it would be the first enchanter, and I can’t allow all those people to die if there’s anything I can do about it.”

“If only you could be selfish like normal men,” Zevran sighed, shaking his head. “I am with you, always.”

“We’ve come too far,” Leliana said, raising her chin staunchly. “I will not turn back now.”

“Nor I,” Alistair agreed.

Morrigan curled her lip but appeared unwilling to be left behind in the hands of the Knight-Commander himself, especially since it was her kind - wild mages - that templars hunted relentlessly.

“Open the doors,” Baldur commanded. If the Right of Annulment was already set into motion, then every minute counted.

“May Andraste lend you her courage,” Greagoir said with an air of solemnity as he led the group to the sealed entryway. He likely expected the company to die in the effort, but no doubt hoped they would take out a few of the demons first at least.

The darkspawn were getting more powerful and numerous by the day. There would be no help from the mages unless Baldur helped clear the tower so they could pull together their strength and numbers. He knew nothing about magic except that all of the tower’s resources were centralized in this one location. If that knowledge was destroyed too, the remaining mages outside of the Circle would be of no help to anyone without resources and would likely be hunted or even killed by the templars without any Circle to contain them. Whether the Circle was saved or fell had far-reaching effects that Baldur couldn’t even begin to anticipate, but saving people and killing evil things was what he did.

The heavy iron doors closed behind them with an ominous clang.

---

Broken furniture and broken bodies lay strewn all around, the floor slick with blood; the Knight-Commander had not been exaggerating. There had been a massacre, and they would only find more chaos the further in they went, but going back was not an option. Baldur smelled ozone from discharged magics and the cloying odor of spilled blood and singed flesh, but detected no scent of decay yet, so the attack had been recent.

“Look for any survivors who might know where the first enchanter might be. The sooner we find him, the sooner we can all get out of here and put a stop to the Annulment,” Baldur ordered.

They didn’t stray too far out of each other’s line of sight or hearing. The entire ground level was silent as death aside from their own footsteps and the clang of armor. They cleared the area quickly and picked up items of use along the way. Each of his teammates shook their heads in a negative when nothing living was located, although they did find several stocks of potions and poultices they would likely need as they proceeded up the tower. A thick tome with an intricate crest on the cover zapped Baldur when he tried to pick it up, and he was cautious about what he touched afterward especially since one of his hands was already useless. When they gathered together again, Baldur led the group towards a closed door with a faint blue glow spilling from around the edges. He pushed open the door cautiously and was greeted by the sight of a mage, an older woman with silver hair who moved like a woman twenty years younger, as she swung her staff and blasted a wave of magic at a rage demon. The demon writhed in wordless fury and clawed at the air as it sunk into the ground. Baldur braced himself and surveyed the chamber full of several other mages and small children, knowing this particular enemy had the habit of disappearing and reappearing right behind him at the worst possible moment.

The mage seemed confident the demon had been vanquished, and after several seconds when it failed to resurface, Baldur finally relaxed his guard and signaled to the others to enter the room. The company drew the attention of the mage, who turned her staff upon them.

"Come no further!" the mage demanded, and Baldur slowed warily, showing his palms to signal he meant no harm. "Grey Warden or no, I will strike you down where you stand!"

This mage seemed to know who - or at least what - he was, to Baldur's surprise. He cast back in his mind, trying to recall if they'd met before, but Baldur had met so many people in his travels he certainly couldn't be expected to remember them all.

"Do I know you?" Baldur asked, disliking to show ignorance but unable to avoid it in this particular case.

"I am Wynne, a mage of the Circle. We met only briefly in Ostagar, before that terrible battle. I was relieved when I found out that both you and one other Grey Warden had survived, but why are you here now? The templars would not let just anyone inside."

"The Knight-Commander sent word to Denerim to enact the Right of Annulment. We're here to find the first enchanter in an attempt to save the Circle and everyone inside from being destroyed."

"So Greagoir thinks the Circle is beyond hope. He probably assumes we are all dead." Wynne's face fell. "They abandoned us to our fate, but even trapped as we are, we have survived. If they invoke the Right, however, we will not be able to stand against them."

"What happened here?"

"Let it suffice to say that we had something of a revolt on our hands, led by a mage named Uldred. When he returned from the battle at Ostagar, he tried to take over the Circle. As you can see, it didn't turn out as he had planned. I don't know what became of Uldred, but I am certain all this is his doing. I will not lose the Circle to one man's pride and stupidity."

Baldur didn't recognize the name Uldred either. He'd been in something of a daze those first few weeks after surviving the Deep Roads. He’d spent the journey from the mountain tunnels to Ostagar with Duncan trying to overcome the crushing weight of his losses when he hadn't been fighting for his life. He'd been on the surface before on his army campaigns, but always with the knowledge that he could return home at the end of each mission. The people he met were just a blur of unfamiliar faces in Ostagar and Baldur recalled that he'd gotten a crick in his neck from all the time spent looking up to address so many humans. He’d felt like the only dwarf left in the world.

“What do you intend to do?” Baldur asked Wynne, looking towards the barrier where the blue glow was originating from and Wynne followed his gaze.

“I erected a barrier over the door leading to the rest of the tower, so nothing from inside could attack the children. You will not be able to enter the tower as long as the barrier holds, but I will dispel it if you join with me to save this Circle.”

“I will help you,” Baldur said. He heard someone sigh and mutter “of course you will” behind him, but ignored them. “Greagoir will only accept that the tower is safe if the first enchanter says so.”

“Then our path is laid out before us. We must save Irving.”

Baldur looked towards the children who were huddled together in the middle of a cluster of mages. “Will the children be safe here?”

“Petra and Kinnon will watch them. If we slay all the fiends we encounter on our way, none will get by to threaten the children.”

"Wynne...are you sure you're all right? You were so badly hurt earlier. Maybe I should come along," a younger woman at Wynne's side said worriedly.

"The others need your protection more, Petra. I will be all right," Wynne soothed.

Baldur’s company had been watching his and Wynne exchange wordlessly, but finally Morrigan could no longer remain silent, her tone cutting through the conversation with scathing derision.

“You want us to assist this preachy schoolmistress? To rescue these pathetic excuses for mages? They allow themselves to be corralled like cattle, mindless. Now their masters have chosen death for them and I say let them have it.”

“How can you say that?” Baldur demanded. “There are children. What has the Circle ever done to you that you would just leave them to die?”

“Look how they live, servants of the Chantry. They lack respect for themselves and their own power. Why should I respect them?”

“Everyone deserves respect. Even cruel people like you.”

"This is a fool's gambit.”

"Then you don't have to come with us. Stay here...or don't. I can't force you to do anything."

Morrigan bristled with anger, her skin fairly crackling with energy. "Fine," she sneered. "Don't expect me to pull you out of the fire again when a demon possesses one of you this time."

They needed all the help they could get, and their team would take a blow with the loss of Morrigan in this venture, but her hatred of Circle mages was very present and Baldur had no patience for her particular brand of vitriol. As it was, he was barely hanging onto his fury by a thread. Baldur would be lost to his berserker if they didn’t find the first enchanter, and then he would be of help to no one.

"I will stay behind and help protect the children," Zevran said unexpectedly.

“Zevran?” Baldur whipped his head around to look at him in alarm, but Zevran only shrugged.

"What can I say. I have a soft spot for children, and I know how you worry. They did not ask to be trapped here and face either torture and death from an abomination, or to be destroyed along with the tower once the templars receive their orders. I know you are more than capable of taking care of yourself and the others, mi amor. But even so, please be careful."

Zevran's hand cupped Baldur's cheek and he bowed gracefully to rest their foreheads together for a long moment, eyes closed as they just breathed.

"You too," Baldur murmured, his voice rough with emotion and gratitude.

Not for the first time, Baldur wished he was capable of splitting himself in two. He was torn between his desire to help in any capacity that he could, however menial, and his vows as a Grey Warden. There was no one else he would entrust to watch over the children and ensure Morrigan didn’t do anything heinous in his absence. He needed to find Irving, who would ultimately be the deciding factor on whether they lived or died - including Zevran and the children. This was the first time Zevran wouldn't be there to fight at his side since they met and the thought terrified him even though he knew Zevran was exceptionally proficient at taking care of himself as well.

He brushed a kiss over Zevran's lips and ignored the shocked gazes of the mages around them. He knew how absurd he and Zevran looked together, but he didn't care one whit about what anyone else thought. Zevran stroked his thumb against Baldur's cheek before slowly pulling away with a deep sigh.

"Make them sorry they ever crawled out of the Void," he ordered with a wicked smirk and a sharp smack to Baldur's rear, which made the dwarf jump with bitten-off yelp.

"I will get you back for that later!" Baldur threatened, grinning despite himself and the seriousness of the situation. He felt an hourglass tip over in his mind to start an invisible countdown until the templars received their Order and took action whether the group succeeded or not.

"That is what I'm counting on."

As Alistair, Leliana, and Wynne prepared themselves to enter the barrier Baldur spoke with the mage, Kinnon, who would be left behind to watch over the children along with Zevran. His lover would also be keeping an eye on Morrigan for him since she was just as trapped as the rest of them until they returned with Irving, and Baldur hoped she had sense enough not to interfere with the other mages.

“I'm glad to see some Grey Wardens have survived. I thought Loghain had them all slaughtered at Ostagar,” Kinnon said when Baldur approached. Baldur was surprised to hear mention of Ostagar that didn’t lay blame at the Grey Warden’s feet.

“How do you know about Ostagar?”

“Wynne was there. She saw everything. Uldred persuaded the Circle to join with Loghain. Wynne came back to tell the truth about Loghain's deception. But why speak of things past? Be careful in there, and stay safe."

Baldur felt unexpected relief to finally find supporters on their side, for all the good it would do if the templars finished Loghain’s work and he and Alistair were both killed anyway.

"Look after Wynne, will you?" Petra said, drawing Baldur aside when he ventured over to inspect the area near Wynne’s barrier. "I don't know if she's up to this... Especially not after... I just worry."

"Not after what?" Baldur said with no small amount of concern.

"I was on my way down to the library when I heard screaming, and a demon came around the corner. Its eyes were afire with evil... I was certain it was my death come upon me. I think I screamed, I was so afraid. And then Wynne was there, in front of me, shielding me. It was light and fire, blood and chaos... When it was over, the demon was dead but Wynne wasn't moving either. I was so afraid she was...gone."

"She seems pretty alive to me."

"When I moved to help her, she stirred and coughed. I don't know what I would have done if she had died...for me."

"I'm glad she did survive," Baldur said, especially since Wynne's presence would help bolster the gap made from Zevran and Morrigan's absence, he hoped.

"Just look after her, all right? She might be completely fine, but then again, maybe she didn't come away from that totally unharmed."

"Don't worry, she'll be safe with me," Baldur promised. He scratched absently at the bandages of his left hand as he conferred with Petra, who was obviously terrified out of her wits, but trying to hold it together for the children’s sake. He’d gotten sand within the wrappings after he’d prostrated himself across the ground after disembarking the boat his group traveled the lake across, and the sand was irritating his burns further.

“You should have Wynne take a look at that,” Petra suggested, nodding at his hand. “She’s an incredibly proficient healer and I can assume with whatever you will face behind that barrier you don’t want an injury to impair you in any way.”

“I believe I shall,” Baldur said, seeing the wisdom in Petra’s words rather than forcing himself to fight through the pain of his essentially useless left hand. He didn’t need the hand exactly, since he’d be using his shield strapped to his forearm on that side, but he would fight better without the distraction.

“Are you ready to go?” Wynne asked when Baldur approached.

“I am, but I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?”

“If it is within my means to grant it, then I will do so. But be quick. We do not have much time.”

“I burned my hand the other day...” Baldur started sheepishly as he lifted his left hand for Wynne to inspect, hoping that she didn’t ask how he came by the injury.

“I see,” Wynne said. She took Baldur’s hand gently between her own and he watched as she closed her eyes and a soothing blue-green glow enveloped his hand.

The stinging pain eased at once like a cool balm, and Wynne peeled away the bandages to revealed the skin of his hand, healthy and new. Baldur sagged with relief as his fingers curled around Wynne’s in thanks, moving them without pain or stiffness just that easily. He wanted to ask her if she could fix his mind as well, but he suspected his issue would take more time to address than they had available to them, and they’d already delayed enough. He hoped he could hold on for a little while longer, especially when Zevran had alternately forced food, potions, and his own company on Baldur during their walk to Lake Calenhad. Alistair would be with him to make sure Baldur was kept in check, and he would consult Wynne if he feared he deteriorated enough to become a liability again. Mostly he was embarrassed for his lack of control, and stubborn, especially when he was feeling much better than he had been days ago. He spared a tiny amount of relief that Zevran wouldn’t be there to harass Baldur into bringing the subject up with Wynne just yet.

Baldur gathered his group, and as soon as the barrier was dismantled he, Leliana, Alistair, and Wynne were set upon by gruesome abominations that towered heads and shoulders above him. Baldur easily ducked the swing of their grasping claws and assailed them with his sword, his body moving automatically to adjust his position according to the sound of Wynne’s magic attacks over his shoulder so he didn’t accidently catch himself in the crossfire. Wynne’s spells didn’t come close to hitting him once, though, unlike Morrigan whose spells he constantly had to duck lest he take the impact of one gone awry. In fact, after their first few battles where the group effectively wiped out all of the demons they came across, Wynne lifted her hands and staff to send a rejuvenating light washing over them all that stole the lingering fatigue and pain from Baldur’s very bones.

“Thank you,” he said fervently, more than a little in awe of Wynne’s abilities.

“You’re welcome.”

She nodded at him with a gentle smile before her expression went focused with determination as they ran towards the next cluster of monsters, keeping up with the rest of them easily despite her age and Petra’s concern about Wynne’s earlier injury. His berserker seemed to quail in Wynne’s presence. She was unerringly calm despite their predicament and seemed confident in her abilities, which had already helped Baldur immensely.

The deeper they went into the tower, the more bodies and abominations they faced, and it wasn’t until they reached what appeared to be the remains of a storage area they encountered their first living person.

"Please refrain from going into the stockroom. It is a mess and I have not been able to get it into a state fit to be seen," the man said mildly. He was in robes and had a brand on his forehead in the shape of a sunburst. His voice was inflectionless as he gazed at them without even a flicker of reaction at seeing his rescuers. Baldur could only assume the man was in shock, surrounded as he was by corpses and destruction.

"What are you doing here?"

"I was trying to tidy up, but there was little I could do."

"Don't you want to get out of here?"

I tried to leave when things got quiet. That was when I encountered the barrier. Finding no other way out, I returned to work."

"That's...some dedication," Alistair said dubiously, and then muttered, "or insanity..."

"Owain, you should have said something!" Wynne scolded. "I would have opened the door for you."

"The stockroom is familiar. I prefer to be here," Owain said blandly.

"How can you be so calm?" Baldur demanded, unnerved by the man's detached mannerism.

"He is one of the Tranquil. The Tranquil do not have emotions," Wynne explained.

"I would prefer not to die. I would prefer it if the tower returned to the way it was," Owain said. It appeared that even though he was without emotion, he was still capable of at least some sort of opinion regarding their current predicament. "Perhaps Niall will succeed and save us all. He came here with several others and took the Litany of Adralla."

"But that protects from mind domination," Wynne said. "Is blood magic at work here?"

"I do not know."

"Blood magic...I was afraid of this."

"How is blood magic worse?" Baldur asked. Dwarves were incapable of using magic, so he was almost completely clueless about the differing forms magic could take, aside from Morrigan's input on the subject. He could never tell the truth from fiction with her, but Alistair seemed convinced she could turn them all into frogs on a whim.

"Blood magic could control us, too. Who knows what could happen then? We should find Niall. The Litany will give us a fighting chance against any blood mages we encounter."

"I wish you luck,” Owain intoned. “Perhaps this will be over soon and things will return to the way they once were. Goodbye."

They left the area after Owain's abrupt dismissal as he left to return to his duties in the stockroom, but it was as if their conversation had signaled the other mages to their location. Baldur perked up at the sound of non-demonic voices a few rooms down, but Wynne made a warning exclamation behind him. When he turned back around it was only to duck a blast hurtling towards him, which Wynne deflected and returned with a volley of her own.

The mages were familiar in their robes and staffs, except the whites of their eyes were red from broken blood vessels and crimson swirls of mist from gaping wounds on their palms or wrists surrounded them, pulsing with light that forewarned another attack.

Blood mages.

"Why are they fighting us?" Baldur called to Wynne as he struck out with his shield arm and knocked a man back. He would have thought the Circle's mages would want to escape or help fight off the abominations too.

"Blood mages have been tainted by evil forces and employ dark rites to access more powerful magic. Abominations are created when the mages give themselves over to demons."

"Great, evil mages. Just what we need," Alistair said as he felled one of the mages with his longsword.

The woman next to her fallen companion gave Alistair a gruesome smile and moved her hands in the air over the dead man. His body suddenly twitched before rising into the air, suspended by her magic. When she released him, the corpse surged toward Alistair, who gave a shout of alarm and blocked reflexively with his shield as he stumbled backward. One of Leliana's arrows struck right through the corpse's eye, but the man didn't even flinch, staggering with his hands grasping toward Alistair. Baldur moved quickly, ignoring the animated body and going straight for the mage controlling it. He leapt off an overturned crate with his sword raised above him and lopped off her head on the downswing. Both she and the corpse collapsed at once, but it would only be a matter of time before one of the other mages reanimated one or both of the deceased mages’ bodies.

"This is so creepy," Alistair complained.

Wynne and Leliana helped them take out the rest of the tainted mages before any of them could raise the undead against them, but Baldur was thoroughly disturbed by the display. Between the Tranquil and the blood mages, he didn't know which one bothered him more, even though Owain seemed harmless enough, for the most part. He was starting to understand Morrigan's aversion to the Circle, but judging from Wynne's despair the blood mages were just as unexpected as abominations appearing within the tower, and not the norm.

Baldur saw one of the mages who’d been struck down by his shield attempt to crawl away, and he approached her with grim purpose. Her eyes widened and she threw a hand in front of her face, pleading with him for mercy.

“Please, please don’t kill me!”

“The people you killed didn’t want to die either,” Baldur snarled, anger simmering just beneath the surface. Wynne’s calming aura could only go so far, and fighting real flesh-and-blood people seemed to stir up his berserker state far more quickly than demons did. He suspected the reason had something to do with his guilt and resentment for having to kill people when his efforts should have been directed solely towards defeating darkspawn. He was trying to save them from the evils of the Blight, not their own personal darkness.

“I know I have no right to ask for mercy, but I didn’t mean for this death and destruction. We were just trying to free ourselves.” The woman, at least, seemed to be in control of her own rational mind and didn’t appear to be possessed, but he didn’t let go of his sword just in case. “Uldred told us that the Circle would support Loghain and Loghain would help us be free of the Chantry,” she implored him. “You don’t know what it was like. The templars were watching, always watching...”

“What you’ve done will make things harder for future mages,” Wynne interjected.

“We thought...someone always has to take the first step. Force a change, no matter the cost.”

“Nothing is worth what you’ve done to this place.”

“And now Uldred’s gone mad, and we are doomed to die at the hands of those who seek to right our wrongs,” the mage said despondently.

“And all you do is wallow in self-pity.” Baldur couldn’t forget that one of her fellow mages manipulated the corpse of one of their fallen members to fight them even after death took him and felt little sympathy for her since she would have likely done the same if given sufficient opportunity.

“What else can I do? I’m trapped here,” she said, defeated.

Baldur could kill her, easily. He didn’t know if one became a blood mage they would be able to go back or if they would forever carry the taint of their misdeeds. Which...he was infected with darkspawn blood himself, so what made him any different? He could still be merciful despite his rage, despite the side effects from the Grey Warden ritual and the barely-controlled bloodlust from his berserker. His sword hand trembled around the hilt and Baldur gritted his teeth. He wasn’t a monster yet, but he was hardly better than these mages who embraced their inner darkness, just as he had.

“I will not kill you, but I will not help you escape,” Baldur said finally, turning from the sight of the woman prostrate on the ground. She reminded him of someone else he had spared in her same position not too long ago.

“Thank you. The Maker will surely turn His eyes on you for your mercy!”

Baldur doubted that very much.

He left the woman to her fate, but he didn’t dispense the same sort of leniency towards any other blood mages they came across who attacked them first. He found one man who’d holed himself up in a closet, neither Tranquil nor possessed by blood magic, but seemed to prefer his tiny hiding spot to attempting to escape. Baldur didn’t press the issue. There was only so far the man would be able to go once he reached the doors Greagoir refused to open for anyone other than the first enchanter himself anyway. Their party moved on, falling into the rhythm of fighting and running without much room for any other thoughts except survival.

Baldur stopped short as he entered a chamber and was greeted by the sight of a demon holding a templar in its thrall. He had never seen this particular demon in its true form, but the familiarity of its voice froze his blood, bringing him instantly back into Wilhelm’s cellar in Honnleath.

“Everything is just as you wanted, my knight. Our love and our family is more than you hoped for,” the desire demon purred as the templar gazed down at it adoringly. The demon had the body of an incredibly voluptuous woman rather than a cat this time, its skin a pale shade of lavender with chains of gold drawing attention to its alluringly nude shape rather than as any sort of true covering. Curling horns sprouted from its smooth skull, demonic fire replacing hair. A whip-like tail grew from the demon’s lower back and swayed with the demon’s movements, framing long, shapely legs and pert buttocks.

“Unhand him, demon!” Baldur shouted, coming back to his senses after shaking off his unease and unwanted pulse of lust at the sight of the demon’s physical, inhuman beauty.

“Do you hear something, love?” the templar asked in a dazed tone, unable to tear his eyes away from the demon who smiled up at him and touched his chest.

“It is nothing, my darling. Just the door. I will get it. The children have finished supper. Tuck them into bed while I see who it is.”

“Don’t be long, the children will want to kiss you goodnight.”

“I will be but a moment, my pet.”

The templar was apparently unable to see the unnatural features of the creature or the fact he was standing in a stone room littered with rubble and scorch marks on the wall and not in a cozy home with his wife and children. The demon turned away from the templar at last and its face contorted in a snarl at Baldur’s interruption, its black eyes glaring darkly at him. “You are intruding upon a loving, intimate moment and I dislike disruptions.”

“There’s nothing loving or intimate going on here.”

“I have given him what he always wanted,” the demon protested with a seductive pout as it caressed one of its full breasts with a claw-tipped hand. “Where is the harm in that?”

“You’re deceiving him. I would consider that harmful,” Baldur said.

“All emotion is intangible. You cannot see it, cannot grasp it.”

“But it is normally caused by something real,” Wynne countered. “Real events, real people. What you’ve done to him is...is abhorrent.”

“I saw his loneliness and longing for a family that loved him,” the demon said, its voice raising in what sounded like true anger on the templar’s behalf.

“She is feeding off his innermost desires and taking away his will. This is unholy,” Leliana said to Baldur as if she could sense his doubt.

“No one else would have known his heart,” the demon implored of him. “He did not know it himself.”

“Do you think you’re doing a good thing?”

“We are partners. I give him what no one else can, and through him, I experience what it is to be mortal.”

“He deserves to be free from you, to find his own happiness,” Baldur said, but he sounded uncertain even to himself. All he had seen since entering the Circle was death and destruction with very little hope for escape, and perhaps the demon’s vision was an escape of sorts, if only for this one templar. Baldur had heard a similar sentiment from the demon in Honnleath after it had possessed Amalia, though, wanting to know freedom after being trapped for years. He told himself this time he would not falter... however, he found the demon’s logic hard to refute when it continued.

“What is happiness? He has gone through life empty, resentful of his vows. You would return him to this?” the demon said, gesturing to the ruin around them. “I give him the happiness no one else can, and he sustains me in return. I want nothing from you. I have what I need. All I ask is that you leave us alone.”

The demon turned back to the templar, but not before Baldur caught the look of longing on its face that was just as desperate as the templar’s.

“What will become of you if I leave you?” Baldur said quietly, his chest aching at the expression of adoration that softened the templar’s rough features as he looked upon his ‘wife’.

“Perhaps we will escape. Perhaps we will not.”

Relationships were a give and take in any circumstance, and Mahal knew he and Zevran didn’t have the healthiest one in the world for him to judge someone else’s. Baldur rather thought he would prefer the lie himself to this nightmare of reality he had found himself in, but he had responsibilities to the remaining survivors, to his own people who were just as trapped as the desire demon and would die if he didn’t find a way out.

“You are too dangerous to let live,” Baldur said at last, wanting badly for the demon to convince him otherwise so he wouldn’t be the cause of taking away the man’s happiness, illusion or not.

“Then you leave me no choice,” the demon said just as reluctantly. At once its tone changed from a throaty purr to something high and panicked as it beseeched the enchanted templar. “Help! There are bandits at the door! They are going to murder the children!”

The templar’s features contorted in rage and he yelled as he drew his sword, “They will not get past me!”

Baldur cursed and went immediately after the demon, dodging the templar's infuriated strikes. The man was entirely deaf to anything Baldur tried shouting at him and Baldur had the jarring experience of being on the other end of another's berserker rage. There was no reasoning with the man, his anger all-consuming as he fought to protect his illusionary family.

He fought to kill.

Baldur slammed into the demon with his shield, but it hovered in the air instead of losing its feet beneath it. He followed up with a quick strike with Aodr while Alistair hacked at the demon with his own sword. It screamed its pain and fury as it engulfed them in flame. Baldur was starkly grateful for Wade's armor as he smoldered, slashing at the demon until it gave a final, soul-shaking scream and fell. Baldur had hoped the spell would be broken upon its death, but the templar gave a wounded bellow and swung at Baldur's face, nearly knocking his head from his shoulders.

Leliana caught the templar in the back with arrow after arrow, but the man seemed to feel no pain and refused to flag as he avenged his murdered family. Wynne struck him with a powerful bolt of energy and the man's spine arched as he writhed in pain, baring his teeth as he kept coming at them. Baldur grit his own teeth against a cry of frustration when Alistair's sword finally drove through the man's armor and pierced his heart, the templar dead before he hit the ground.

"Damn it!" Baldur cursed, swiping the blood and sweat out of his eyes viciously with the back of his gauntlet and no doubt cutting his face with its sharp edges. He barely resisted the urge to throw his sword from him in a fit of helpless rage.

"It had to be done," Wynne intoned gravely. "The enchantment had a hold on his very spirit and the sudden shock of the spell lifting likely would have killed him, regardless."

"You mean the shock of realizing the family he loved never existed in the first place?" Baldur spat back.

The man had been middle-aged, still fit judging from his vicious attack, but with his current profession the chances of him actually being able to secure a wife and children was nigh on impossible. The templar was caught on the other side of the doors with no chance escape unless Baldur and the company succeeded in finding the first enchanter, but at least the man would have died blissfully trapped in his vision if they failed.

"If you let this one demon go, how long before you start turning a blind eye to the actions of others? Desire demons are particularly vile creatures that feed on the weakness of men and women. They give mortals visions of their greatest joy while draining that person's life force. They waste away until they are only empty shells before the demon moves on to another victim," Wynne said with patience and logic that made Baldur want to stick his fist through the wall, but the tower’s walls were built of stone rather than wood and plaster, and he didn’t imagine Wynne would be thrilled with having to heal his hand a second time.

"How much chance would that man have at finding someone to love while trapped in here? Better we allowed him this lie," Baldur insisted, guilt eating away at him like acid.

"Why is this one man bothering you so much?" Alistair asked. He shifted uncomfortably as if expecting Baldur to level accusations and blame at him for landing the killing blow.

"How is this any different than Honnleath?" Baldur shouted, his frustration peaking. "I allowed a desire demon to possess that little girl and permitted her father to believe his daughter had returned to him! We said nothing because Matthias was so relieved to have Amalia back and I was too much of a coward to tell him that we failed!"

"We did not permit that demon to possess Amalia," Leliana said sharply, the only one in their current group that had actually been there. "It betrayed us after promising to leave the girl alone if we allowed it to go free. It lied, as these demons do. The situation was not ideal, but we could hardly slay the demon while it was possessing Amalia."

"I am afraid the path of a Grey Warden is a difficult one that tests even the greatest man's morality, and I grieve for your loss, Baldur. Truly. You are tasked with great responsibility, but we cannot show mercy to any demons if it is in our ability to stop them. That is our obligation as protectors," Wynne said gently but firmly.

"We did what we had to do," Leliana said, staunchly refusing to spare a moment of regret for a difficult situation that could compromise their mission if they allowed one death to affect their entire purpose for being there.

Baldur knew he was being unreasonable. What was one life when hundreds were at stake? Baldur couldn't afford to question his decisions once they were made. He knew from his time in Orzammar’s army on the other end of receiving unfavorable orders leaders couldn't lose sight of the larger picture no matter the cost or loss of life. It was their duty to ensure as little loss as possible, but in war death was unavoidable. Soldiers were pawns, and they enlisted knowing full well they were expendable, even princes like Baldur who demanded to be placed on the front lines with the common soldier rather than safe in the middle where danger was the furthest from him on any side.

"Let's go," Baldur said tightly, knowing this was one battle that was already lost to him and no amount of reasoning would help him accept the failure any easier. He lowered his head as he stepped over the bodies of the demon and the man laying motionless on the ground as their blood pooled out beneath them, their hands reaching towards each other in death.

Their party encountered several more templars bewitched by demons and blood mages alike as if to spite Baldur’s wounded empathy, but his anger overcame any compassion he might have had lingering and he struck each one down without hesitation. Baldur snarled when Wynne froze his boots to the ground as he made to chase down a pair of mages who turned to flee, his inner beast howling to be unleashed.

“We do not have time to spare on misguided mages who strike out in fear. We must find Irving first.”

Baldur shook his head, sending a spray of blood and sweat from his skin, but too angry for words. He met Alistair’s eye and took a deep breath, trying to focus on the task ahead rather than giving into his berserker and slaughtering every living, or unliving, thing that opposed him. Wynne leveled a speculative glance at him, but Baldur grimaced and quickly turned away. He distracted himself by pawing over the remains of the fallen while attempting to regain control over himself, only needing the work of a few seconds to locate pockets of valuables and items of use, discarding what he didn’t need. Most of the items they came across would only be of assistance to mages – thereby useless to him. He felt a momentary pang of guilt that he had left Morrigan behind, especially on such poor terms since she would have reveled in all of the resources readily accessible to one as magically inclined as her.

They located Irving’s office in what Wynne had informed them was the senior mage’s quarters, but unfortunately there was no sign of the first enchanter himself. Baldur searched through his belongings for any clue of where Irving might be found, but he didn’t put much hope in finding a note stating where Irving had gone or when he might be expected to return. Baldur did find a heavy black tome inlaid with an intricate tree design that didn’t bite or shock him when he touched its cool leather cover, and he stowed the book away in his pack. Morrigan might be swayed by a peace offering, especially coming from the first enchanter’s stores, although he did have slight misgivings about providing Morrigan with information that she could use against them or the Circle. He couldn’t tell the difference between good or bad magic, only when it was used against him. He just hoped he had enough influence that Morrigan wasn’t inclined to chose the side of whatever evil was holding the mages in the Circle in its clutches.

He also found a small bar of gold and a bottle of Tevinter wine in his searches that he purloined when Wynne wasn’t looking, doubtful that the mage would appreciate Baldur’s penchant for looting. His small thieveries had somehow turned from survival into habit – just one more black mark against his character - but he had reluctantly come to terms with accepting as a necessary evil. He hoped the gold and wine would be less personal and more practical gifts for Zevran and he wouldn’t feel the need to read too deeply into their meaning. He’d caught himself turning to seek out the assassin on multiple occasions, unused to him being out of sight. The sharp pang of fear and worry never lessened each time he found his lover missing from his side. He spared a moment to pray those of his teammates he had left behind in Lake Calenhad and in the tower were safe, glad that he at least had Alistair and Leliana with him as well as Wynne who was already proving herself to be an invaluable ally despite their earlier disagreement with the desire demon. He shouldered his pack and forced himself to ignore anymore unopened chests or piles of books on tables that hadn’t been overturned. Material possessions would do them little good if they were dead.

"Oh look...visitors," a voice sighed in a slow, muffled drawl as a demon turned to gaze upon them as Baldur led the party into a chamber within the templar's quarters. The demon appeared as if its flesh had been peeled away and the remaining organs and muscles had fused together poorly. Behind its great bulk Baldur spotted the unmoving body of a mage laying at its feet. "I'd entertain you, but...too much effort involved..."

"Good. That'll make you that much easier to kill," Alistair quipped.

"But why?" the demon inquired, its tone beguiling and entirely reasonable. "Aren't you tired of all the violence? Wouldn't you just like to...lay down...and forget..."

Baldur blinked, and then blinked again when his eyelids suddenly struggled to raise as if sandbags had been attached to his lashes. Alistair released a long yawn in his ear before shaking himself, appearing momentarily startled before his eyes slowly became half-lidded as well. "Can't...keep eyes open. Someone...pinch...me."

"I'll not listen to your lies, demon!" Leliana said, but her voice was like molasses and quicker to fade. "You have no...power over me..."

"Resist. You must resist, else we are all lost..." Wynne's was the last voice of reason Baldur heard before the impossibly heavy weight of Aodr clattered to the floor when Baldur's grasp loosened upon its hilt.

"Why do you fight?" the demon crooned kindly. "You deserve more... You deserve rest..."

'Rest' sounded like the most beautiful word Baldur had ever heard. He wanted to lay upon the floor right where he was standing more than anything else in the world. His body insisted he would be more comfortable on the blood-sticky stone than he would laying upon dozens of feather down pillows and blankets. He was so warm and his head was so muzzy...

"The world will go on without you," the demon assured when Baldur let the floor press into his palms and knees, not knowing when he had fallen. A gentle but insistent weight like a stone hand pressed inexorably against his back, guiding him down...

...down...

...down...

Chapter Text

Baldur woke standing in a cavernous hall lined with tall pillars, some of them fallen as if tipped over in slumber. He blinked his eyes and shook his head when his vision refused to sharpen, feeling disoriented as the hall blurred and faded around the edges. He reached up to press a hand to his chest, encountering the reassuring firmness of his armor before groping for his scabbard on his back, relieved when his sword and shield were as they should be. He was alone and in a strange place, unable to recall how he’d gotten there or where his companions were. He saw a dais up ahead and made his way towards the raised area with his eyes fixed forward so he didn’t stumble when the world wavered at the corners of his vision. His steps hurried when he saw a figure standing in the distance, but he stumbled and faltered when the man’s features formulated into a face almost forgotten when he got closer.

“Duncan?” Baldur called out uncertainly. His thoughts were struggling to make sense through the lingering lassitude. Was he...dead? Was Duncan a spirit, or merely a figment of Baldur’s imagination? The more he tried to recount what had transpired to land him in this place, the less Baldur remembered.

“Ah, there you are,” Duncan hailed him, his arms crossed over his chest in a relaxed positioned as he smiled at Baldur’s approach. “I’m not disturbing you, am I?” 

The senior Grey Warden looked the same as the last time Baldur had seen him, before the battle at Ostagar where he’d been told Duncan had been slain. His salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back into a neat tail and his armor was intact and shining instead splattered with the evidence of his murder by darkspawn.

“You...should be dead,” Baldur said uncertainly, wanting to give into the relief of seeing his mentor alive and hale once again. Perhaps Duncan would even take over where Baldur had no business trying to lead.

“Dead? Me? Hah!” Duncan laughed, the crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes creasing his tanned skin. “I have been close many times, but I never quite made it all the way. I just wanted to make sure you were happy here, in Weisshaupt,” Duncan said, his voice softening kindly. “These grand halls were built by the first Grey Wardens. Isn’t it breathtaking?”

Baldur spared a glance for the high ceilings and open space uncluttered with refuse or bodies before turning his attention back to Duncan, his brows furrowed. “Why are we here when we should be battling darkspawn?”

Duncan’s amusement didn’t falter, and he tilted his head as he contemplated Baldur.

“The darkspawn are gone, remember? You were there in that last great battle. It was a triumph for all of us, bringing down the Archdemon and setting the underground lairs ablaze.”

Baldur took a step back, shaking his head in denial.

“That’s not possible. You’re lying.”

“Foolish child,” Duncan snarled, his handsome features contorting with rage. “I have given you so much and you cast it back in my face! Can you not be content with the peace I offer?”

“The darkspawn are not gone. To ignore them is irresponsible,” Baldur said with more conviction, standing his ground firmly and feeling the truth of that statement resonate within him like a distant bell.

“It seems only war and death will satisfy you. So be it! Have your war and your darkspawn! May they be your doom!”

Baldur leapt back, barely evading Duncan’s sword as the heavy blade swung toward him. He withdrew Aodr and had his shield at the ready in time to block Duncan’s next blow, parrying with his sword and taking advantage of their height differences to duck Duncan’s swing and strike him in the midsection with his pommel. Baldur grunted when a blast took him unexpectedly in the back. He turned around with a snarl to face two more men behind him with the seal of the Grey Wardens emblazoned upon their armor. Baldur was unused to having to guard his own back, accustomed to counting on the others to handle attackers who might have tried to sneak in past his blind sides or overwhelm him.

An arrow just barely missed grazing his cheek and Baldur ran at the archer first, smashing his upraised bow and his hand with the edge of his shield before catching him with the flat of his blade against his temple. The man crumpled into a heap and Baldur barely rolled in time to evade another blast of magic from a mage. The blast went over him and hit Duncan, or whatever apparition was pretending to be Duncan, instead. Baldur took advantage of Duncan’s distraction to drive the point of his sword into the vulnerable space beneath Duncan’s underarm where armor didn’t cover as Duncan lifted his blade to take another swipe at Baldur, crying out in anguish as his mentor died for the second time. The mage caught the full brunt of Baldur’s fury as he pulled his sword free with a bellow. He knocked the mage back with a slam of his shield and cut him down with his blade, splitting through robes and flesh as easily as carving up venison.

The fight was strangely bloodless once the battle was finished and the bodies lay unmoving upon the ground. Baldur stepped back and took stock of himself. He didn’t feel tired in the way of labored breathing and the ache of sore muscles that usually followed battles, but rather drained in his spirit itself. His anger at being forced to kill Duncan was quick to snuff out like a candle instead of gaining momentum while in his berserker state, replaced by weary acceptance instead. Out of cautious curiosity, he reached for his inner demon just to see if he was still afflicted, but the usual overwhelming anger evaded him instead of flaring up and threatening to bring him to his knees. Wherever he was, anger didn’t seem to have a foothold. His consciousness was just as softened around the edges as the hall he was standing.

He wasn’t certain where to go or what to do now that Duncan was dead, but he spotted a pedestal made of thorns creeping out of the ground and approached with curiosity rather than trepidation. The lesson of being attacked by magical objects while in the Circle tower seemed to not have stuck as he reached out and let his fingers brush over the flat surface wreathed in black thorns, touching a glowing light illuminating the very uppermost symbol.

Nothing happened, of course. Baldur let out a small sigh of relief that he hadn’t exploded himself into a million tiny pieces, but his next breath caught when he looked up from the glowing symbol and found that he was no longer in Weisshaupt’s halls. There was dirt under his feet rather than paved stone and the vaulted pillars and ceilings had been replaced by leafless trees that stretched toward a brown, lifeless sky. There was another figure waiting for him, or simply waiting, and Baldur approached with caution even though he hesitated to draw his sword when he saw the man’s bewildered expression.

"Who are you? Where did you come from? Are you a demon?" the man demanded, already cringing away from Baldur as if to evade a blow or to run. He was a human, a mage judging by his robes, but he answered his own question after chancing a second glance at Baldur when he didn't immediately attack. "No...you're like me."

"I'm a dwarf," Baldur grunted, eyeing the man’s long limbs ensconced within those ridiculous robes mages were made to wear. Impractical things.

"You also got out of the trap. Congratulations."

"What of my companions? Are they trapped too?"

"You...came here with others. Then yes. They would be trapped. The demon traps everything that comes to this part of the Fade in a dream that thinks it can't...or won't...try to leave. I thought I'd escaped too, but I've been wandering these empty grey spaces for a lifetime."

"Who are you?"

"My name is Niall. I was trying to save the Circle when I encountered the sloth demon. I expect our experiences were similar."

The name Niall sounded familiar to Baldur, but he couldn't say exactly why until a flash appeared in his mind. A sunburst brand, an oddly calm voice in the middle of bloodshed and chaos...

"Owain spoke of you! Back at the Circle. You have some kind of magical weapon thing, don't you?"

"The Litany of Adralla was our defense against the blood mages' domination. But it's too late. Everyone's dead. This place drains you of everything. Hope...feeling...love."

It explained why Baldur no longer had to fight his berserker for control. There was relief knowing he wouldn't suddenly lose his mind to rage, but there was also an indelible power to be found within his berserker state too if only he could find some way to harness it. He was very nearly powerless here, wherever 'here' was, and alone, but the apparitions he faced earlier had fortunately seemed just as susceptible to his weapons as they would have been in the waking world.

"We'll find away out," Baldur assured him, but Niall shook his head.

"There is no way out. You think there might be, but you'd be wrong. You see that pedestal there?" Niall asked, gesturing with his head towards the winding pedestal of thorns that had transported Baldur from the hall. "I've studied the runes on it, runes that signify different islands of Sloth's domain. The sloth demon itself is on the center island, but the islands around it form a barrier and with each an obstacle I was unable to overcome. It taunts you and drives you mad."

"Then I will find away out. With my companions," Baldur amended, his tone brooking no dissent.

Niall might have given up, but Baldur could not afford such a luxury. He would like nothing more than to believe the world had been saved and the Archdemon and the darkspawn no longer posed a threat, but he hadn’t gotten as far as he had by being complacent or by allowing his duties to fall to others.

"Very well. May the Maker watch over you, my friend. And...I hope you have better luck than I did."

Baldur didn't know how time passed in Sloth's domain, but he wasn't going to count on being allotted a lifetime of wandering in order to find the others. He ignored the pedestal and decided to explore the current area, following the violet glow of an archway made from branches. He only hesitated a moment before walking through the archway with the sort of abandon his companions would have expected - and despaired.

"Ah! I just want to leave this place! Help!"

He walked through the other side without injury, but he drew his weapons at once when he heard a man's voice cry out in terror, catching sight of a flaming mass of rage demon. Baldur went for the demon without pause, unable to catch sight of its victim, but it mattered not. The demon shrieked at the bite of his enchanted blade and swiped at him with molten claws, the tips screeching off the rounded surface of his shield. Baldur disposed of the demon quickly, but whirled around when he heard the same voice that had cried out earlier call weakly to him now.

"Thank you...but it’s too late for me..."

Baldur didn't see anyone as he walked forward and glanced cautiously around the deadened landscape, but he stopped and looked down when he heard a sharp squeak of warning. He'd nearly stepped on a rat that scurried out of the path of his boot, but it didn't go far, turning back to him with its ears and tail slung low with either exhaustion or injury.

"Kill Yevena, the demoness that rules here," the rat said.

Baldur knelt in cautious surprise, glancing around once more to make sure he wasn't being had and the talking rodent wasn't just a decoy.

"She protects her master, Sloth. There's a door only demons can see. The key must be in another realm. Take my power. Save any others trapped in nightmares, kill the demons that guard Sloth, make my--" the rat gasped in a rush before Baldur could even draw breath to ask any questions, as if the creature could sense its time was fading. Indeed, a golden glow surrounded the rat and whatever words it was going to say next were lost in a pained squeak.

Baldur covered his eyes when the glow shifted to envelop him and cried out when his already compact body seemed to compress further upon itself. He fell to the ground and felt the prickling bite of short, bristly grass and dry dirt against his cheek, rolling onto his side as if to extinguish a fire. When he righted himself with a yell, he was startled to hear a tiny squeak where a throaty bellow should have sounded. Grass tickled his nose, his vision reflected only shades of grey back at him, and suddenly the world which was once so big to a dwarf became a thousand times larger. He couldn't see himself, couldn't feel the armor upon his back, and he was unable to stand on two legs. Instead, he scurried around in panicked circles, making more of those humiliating squeaking sounds until he caught sight of a tail that followed behind him unceasingly. It was thin and worm-like, like a rat's tail. Like...the tail of the rat he'd been speaking to seconds before.

Who was suddenly nowhere to be found.

Baldur squeezed his eyes shut desperately, thinking he must be in some kind of awful nightmare. He was a helpless voyeur to his usual dreams, but this place formed by the sloth demon was more tangible than even his own mind while unconscious. He didn't expect the attempt to work, but he tried to focus on how he should appear, recalling an excerpt he had glimpsed from a book he’d scanned in the tower about mages walking through the Fade. He’d ordered Morrigan into the Fade once to defeat a demon, but he hadn’t known exactly where he’d been sending her spirit, only that it was some place he couldn’t follow. Sloth’s magic must be indiscriminate, or else this was some other realm that permitted those utterly incapable of using magic, such as he, to exist and function. Baldur tried to still his rapidly beating heart, glad that he still had breath and a heartbeat in his chest. He firmly pictured himself as sturdy dwarf with a beard and armor and weapons in his mind, not the tiny and squeaking and defenseless thing he was in actuality.

He almost dared not open his eyes, but he couldn’t hide in darkness and denial forever. He braced himself as he looked up. The area was still awash in greys and browns, and he was still on the ground, but on his hands and knees rather than four paws. Baldur scrambled to his feet and patted himself down, twisting behind himself to make certain he didn’t still have a tail.

“Mahal’s hairy bullocks,” he exhaled forcefully, shaken but undeniably intrigued. An impulse of fancy took him and Baldur closed his eyes once more to try and imagine himself as an elf. He pulled an image into his mind of being tall and slender with pointed ears, but when he reached up and felt the tips of his ears, they were as rounded as they always were, and he seemed no taller for the effort.

He felt foolish and was glad there were no witnesses, scuffing dirt with his boots as he inspected the clearing. He didn’t encounter any other mice or demons, but he did get his foot caught in a tiny hole that had him stumbling to his knees again. He cursed, lucky he hadn’t broken his ankle, and eyed the hole warily for a venomous snake or spider to come crawling out and bite him, as seemed to befit his luck lately. He felt a curious tug as he leaned towards the hole, like the tiny scratch of claws within his sternum, and before he knew it the hole had suddenly become a cave. Baldur squeaked in surprise, but he was a little more prepared for the transformation as he scuttled down the passageway, focusing on not becoming a dwarf lest he be crushed.

The tunnel ended and opened up into another dreary landscape. He spotted another rage demon who would kill him instantly while in this state, so Baldur crept along quietly, keeping the demon in sight until he was far enough away that he could become himself again and hit the demon from behind with his sword. He laughed incredulously as the tactic worked and the demon exploded into dust, giving himself over to the insanity of the realm where the dead were once more living and dwarves could become mice.

Baldur returned to where he’d left Niall and informed him of his new ability, which was apparently key towards accessing the various sections of each island hiding either demons or his friends.

“Do you think you could learn other shapes? Maybe they could get you into places you couldn’t otherwise,” Niall suggested, excited by the prospect. Baldur chose not to mention his failed attempt at turning himself into an elf.

“I’ll investigate this further and let you know,” Baldur promised.

He ran through portals and mouse holes and doorways, searching always for his companions but also finding others willing to transfer their abilities to him while he fought the evils that lurked in this strange dream world. His body wasn't a fixed thing. He learned from other spirits he encountered in the Fade that he could become as tiny as a mouse, as effervescent as a spirit, or as great and hulking as a golem - larger even than Shale. He swung his massive fist and only felt satisfaction rather than the pain of busted knuckles as his blow struck another stone golem in the jaw, knocking the creature onto its back. In the waking world Baldur might as well have resigned himself to kicking the golem in the shins, for all the effectiveness a physical attack had on one of these creatures when he was a dwarf. As a golem he was heavy, so heavy and had the galling habit of tipping over unexpectedly. He felt invulnerable when he was on his feet and smashing through opponents smaller than himself, though, barreling through stone walls and enemies alike with hardly any effort. He imagined a kinship with Shale for the experience, but couldn’t deny how weightless and freeing it felt when he became a dwarf once more. He seemed to almost float away after he changed back, running from room to room without the earth shuddering beneath each footstep.

Taken out of his body, his very spirit was forced to stand alone and grow stronger. He disciplined his inner control out of necessity until he could master multiple forms beyond his imagining. He was more grateful than ever for the presence of those who had chosen to follow him after being forced to battle alone and figure things out for himself, but even if his new forms in the Fade didn’t follow him into the waking world, he felt more grounded and in control with a renewed confidence in his own abilities. His confidence saw him through many fights victorious, but despite his newfound abilities to transform his shape, Baldur still had few defenses against actual magic. As a dwarf, he'd been immune to spiritual possession and always had Leliana and Morrigan to take care of the mages that attacked them at a distance without having to get in range of their spells.

On the current island he found himself occupying, Baldur ran through a barrier of fire and into a large chamber in the midst of a battle between dueling mages. The mages immediately turned their spells on the new interloper and Baldur was instantly killed by a blast of lightning before he managed ten steps inside. When he woke, it was if everything had been reset. He cautiously walked through the familiar flaming door in his current borrowed form, which was a living skeleton engulfed by fire, and came upon the same mages ensconced in the same fight as if time had rewound itself and the past few minutes had never happened. Baldur was so surprised that he was immediately hit by a bolt of mage fire and his bones crumpled to the ground, awakening on the other side of the burning door once again.

“Sod-eating nug humpers!” Baldur cursed, striking his fist upon the ground.

He changed tactics the third time, shrinking down into a mouse and simply letting the mages play out their battle as they would. He hoped they would take each other out and he could just pass on by undetected. However, without an audience or a new target, the mages soon lost interest in fighting each other and idled around, looking bored. Baldur crept towards the opposite door and chittered to himself in agitation when he realized he couldn't reach the door handle without revealing himself. One of the mages seemed to have heard him and followed right on Baldur's tail, nearly stepping on him and squashing him beneath his feet. Tiring of running, Baldur abruptly transformed into a towering golem, hoping to scare the man, but instead all of the remaining mages leapt into action and assaulted him as one, killing him yet again.

Baldur was swiftly becoming irritated when he woke to face that damned burning door.

He was beginning to suspect the mages were caught in a loop, an endless cycle of fighting and dying, except no one could truly die in the Fade. They had no bodies, only manifested spirit forms, or at least that was what Baldur had gathered. He supposed he should be grateful that he couldn't die here, but he was just as stuck as the mages if he couldn't find a way past them to get to Alistair and Wynne and Leliana and send his companions back to their sleeping bodies. There was no telling what the sloth demon was doing to their prone forms back in the waking world, and Baldur shuddered to find out. He gave himself a moment to calm down and attempted to formulate a plan since neither rushing in with sword blazing nor trying to sneak past stealthily had worked. He found - after several more failed attempts - a few of the mages would kill each other off once his entrance somehow signaled the battle to begin. He sent a blast of fire towards a cluster of mages to disorient them before shrinking down into a mouse and drawing the mages away to attack them one by one. The room had pillars, so he ducked and dodged, keeping the stone barriers between him and the mages’ blasts. He countered with his own ranged attacks before assaulting them with sword and shield.

He was frustrated and exhausted by the time the last mage had fallen and he could finally leave that accursed doorway behind him and proceed to the next obstacle, but he also exulted in his victory. He wished there was a chance to redo his failures or that mortality was so fluid in the waking world, but alas, he couldn’t be so fortunate. He was strong enough to walk alone in Sloth’s realm, at least so far. His purpose and his resolution had grown the longer he remained trapped, clearing the last of the cobwebs from his mind.

Baldur found and defeated the five demons guarding Sloth’s islands, returning to the pedestal of runes that lit up after each victory to transport him to a new arena and new enemies to face. He brushed a finger over a sigil that was closer to the center marker where Sloth was supposedly laying in wait. He looked up, braced for a fight, and gasped in surprise when he saw Wynne instead.

"Maker forgive me. I failed them all. They died and I did not stop it," Wynne moaned as Baldur approached. His steps slowed when he saw she was surrounded by the bodies of dead mages, staring out amongst them with an aura of hopelessness around her.

"They're not dead yet, Wynne," Baldur said, glancing over the bodies that he knew to be an illusion, however Wynne hadn't seemed to realize none of this was real yet. "The Circle can still be saved."

"What about all this? How can you say that when you are faced with all this death? Can you not see it?" Wynne demanded, her voice tight with unshed tears.

"You're in the Fade. It's a dream," Baldur insisted. He recognized the irony that a dwarf should be telling a mage about the Fade, but Wynne seemed too lost in her despair to decipher fiction from reality.

"Why was I spared, if not to help them? What use is my life now that I have failed in the task that was given to me? Leave me to my grief. I shall bury their bones, scatter their ashes to the four winds, and mourn their passing till I too am dead."

"Enough with the dramatics, Wynne! Snap out of it!" Baldur growled, quickly losing his patience. He was itchy with the urge to take Wynne and run. He wasn't certain if she still had her abilities in the Fade and didn't want to find out the hard way if she refused to come with him.

"Your blatant disregard for the souls of the dead strikes me as being utterly inappropriate."

"This is a trick," Baldur enunciated slowly. "They aren't dead."

"I do not know what you are trying to tell me. Why must you make this more painful? And where were you when this happened? I trusted you as an ally and you were nowhere to be found."

Baldur narrowed his eyes at the insinuation, but rather than taking offense he reached into his inner pool of calm and said, as sincerely and forcefully as he could, "I am the only thing that's real. Ignore everything else. What do you remember?"

"We were..." Wynne started and then hesitated. "We were entering into the tower... And then there was all this death around me. There was no sign of you, and I... I don't remember anything of them dying. I just know they are dead."

Wynne's brow furrowed, and Baldur waited her out, silently urging the healer to fit the pieces together for herself as he had when Duncan's imposter had been trying to convince him the Blight had been won. "Why...why wouldn't I remember them dying?"

"Because they didn't."

"Something in your speech rings true, but it feels as though my mind is...clouded over. Perhaps some time away from this place will help me think clearly."

"Good. That's good, Wynne."

"Don't leave us, Wynne. We don't want to be alone!" One of the slain mages stood and turned his supplications on Wynne. He didn't move like a corpse under the control of blood magic, so Baldur knew him to be an illusion...or a demon.

Fortunately, Wynne did as well.

"Stay away, foul creature!" Wynne ordered, stepping back from her resurrected apprentice.

"Do not fight it. You belong here, with us."

"N-No. My task is not yet done...it is not time yet."

An inhuman growl ripped forth from the mage and Baldur didn't wait for Wynne to get her act together, jumping forward to attack. The rest of the mages climbed to their feet and joined in on the fray, quickly surrounding Baldur while Wynne stood there, frozen in horror. Baldur didn't waste time trying to get her to engage them, the image of those she was trying to protect too strong, but he had no such compunctions against tearing down the creatures attempting to keep Wynne trapped in her own nightmare.

"Maker forgive me," Wynne murmured when all of the mages were once more laying dead, struck down by Baldur's hand. "I failed them all. They died and I did not stop it."

Baldur groaned.

"Don't believe any of it, Wynne. It's not real," Baldur begged, caught in an endless loop with Wynne's self-pity. He had an obligation to save those mages in the real world, if only to spare himself from having to talk Wynne down from this particular ledge yet again.

Wynne shook her head and pressed her fingers to her temple, attempting to dispel the fog in her mind, Baldur was relieved to see. "Is it over?" Wynne ventured cautiously, almost as if she didn't dare to believe. "Thank the Maker for you, Baldur. Wait..."

Baldur glanced up and reached out to Wynne with a startled shout when her form began to disappear, her voice fading with her.

"What's happening? Where are you going?" Wynne asked, panicked, and then she was gone.

Baldur stared at the empty space where Wynne had once been, alone yet again.

"I really hope that was a good sign," Baldur muttered to himself, but there was nothing he could do about Wynne now. He would have to find a way to free the others, and hope that wherever they went they would find each other again.

Leliana's vision, when Baldur found her next, was even more aggravating because at least Wynne had known who he was. Leliana had reverted back to her days living devoutly under the Chantry and didn’t recognize Baldur at all. She was praying fervently while she knelt next to the figure of a Revered Mother who Baldur knew at once to be a demon trying to trick her.

"I do not know you," Leliana said uncertainly when Baldur attempted to convince her otherwise. "But...somehow I feel as if I can trust you..."

"You are going nowhere, girl. I will not permit it!" The demon must have felt Leliana slipping from its grasp, and decided to do away with appearances entirely, using force rather than manipulation to keep her trapped. The Mother's form warped and grew until a nightmare Shade with wicked claws and even sharper fangs stood in her place.

Baldur attacked without preamble.

"Holy Maker! She was...she was a..."

"A demon, yes," Baldur said quickly, having little patience to coddle Leliana when he'd already spent more time than he wanted convincing Wynne that her dream wasn't real either.

"Ohh, my head feels heavy. Like I've just woken up from some terrible nightmare," Leliana moaned, coming to rather quickly. "I believe we had a task to accomplish. Let's be on our way--what's happening to me?"

Leliana gasped, and just like Wynne she too was gone.

Baldur was sensing a pattern, but fortunately he only had Alistair left to find. He was glad that Zevran and Morrigan hadn’t also been caught by the demon’s snare. He shuddered to think what either of them would have dreams about had they come along.

"Hey!" Alistair hailed, his entire face lighting up when Baldur approached. "It's great to see you again! I was just thinking about you...isn't that a marvelous coincidence?"

Baldur's eyebrows furrowed, instantly suspicious. Alistair sounded drunk, but he gestured to the woman standing beside him and began making introductions.

"This is my sister, Goldanna. These are her children," he said, gesturing to the veritable brood surrounding them. "There's more about somewhere. We're one big happy family, at long last!"

"They're demons," Baldur stated bluntly.

Alistair laughed. "Oh, that's what everyone says about their relatives, but I've never been happier. I...don't think I'll be coming back. I don't want to spend my life fighting, only to end up dead in a pit along with rotting darkspawn corpses."

"Well, Alistair, is your friend staying for supper?" the demon wearing Alistair's sister inquired with an indulgent smile. If Alistair had been a dog, his tail would have been wagging.

"Say you'll stay," Alistair wheedled. "Goldanna's a great cook. You can, can't you?"

Baldur's mind flashed back to the templar he'd killed, how the man had been wrapped up in his own joyous delusions that Baldur had ripped away, but he was prepared to do the same to Alistair without a second thought. They were getting out, which was the difference. Even though both of them were more likely to end up killed by darkspawn than find themselves safe at home surrounded by family, Alistair's life wasn't over yet. Baldur still had need of him, and perhaps he was more callous than he'd realized because he snapped at Alistair sharply.

"Don't believe any of this. She's a demon in disguise," Baldur ordered, hating himself a little for crushing Alistair's dream when he'd never seen the other man so deliriously happy before, but it couldn't be helped.

"How can you say that? Goldanna's...she's the soul of goodness! You're acting really strangely."

"I'm trying to save you, Alistair."

"I think your odd behavior is brought on by hunger. Now come and have some pie. I promise you'll feel better."

"Are you sure you won't stay for supper?" Goldanna asked sweetly.

"I'm sure," Baldur said, turning towards her and withdrawing his sword with a flatly unamused expression. "You don't fool me, demon."

Goldanna's voice became a guttural rumble, hinting at death and destruction. "He's ours. He sees only what we want him to see."

The 'children' hissed behind him and shed their mortal skins as their skeletons stretched and attacked Baldur. Baldur spun in an arc on his heel and threw the horde back with his shield, bringing his sword up to defend himself against Goldanna's lunge. Alistair didn't join in the fight, but neither did he impede Baldur cutting down his illusionary family as the templar had, which was no small blessing. He wouldn't have been able to bring himself to harm Alistair, even though he sincerely doubted he would be able to best him in a fight when Alistair had height, muscle, speed, and impenetrable armor over him. If anything, Alistair should have been the one leading their company as the senior Warden, not Baldur. They'd somehow found their positions reversed with Alistair deferring to Baldur in most regards. Alistair was uncertain and submissive in decision making, and Baldur had been born and bred to lead, so perhaps Baldur being the authority figure in their group wasn’t so inexplicable after all.

"G-Goldanna?" Alistair inquired shakily when Baldur ran the demon through, shoving it off his sword with a foot to its stomach as it collapsed with a growling death rattle. "I can't believe it. How did I not see this earlier?"

"You're in the Fade. Nothing is as it seems."

"Yes...well. Try not to tell everyone how easily fooled I was. Are we going now?" Alistair asked, and then gave a shout when he started to disappear. Baldur just watched him, resigned. He hoped wherever his team was vanishing to they didn't go too far.

It would be a pain in the arse to find them again.

Baldur was rather relieved that his group had been reduced prior to entering the Fade so he wouldn’t have to traverse all of the others’ deepest fears or desires. He felt guilty for having come upon Leliana, Wynne, and Alistair in their most private moments when they knew very little about him in return. He was glad to have broken Wynne of her spell as her guilt and horror was, for now, unfounded, but he couldn’t offer the same sort of belonging and comfort Leliana and Alistair had found within their own visions. He was somewhat curious what he would have discovered had Morrigan, Zevran, Shale, or Sten been trapped in the others’ stead, whether their demons would have been Flemeth, the Crows, Wilhelm, a cage, or something far worse. Perhaps if his own vision had been delivered by someone he knew still yet lived - Zevran with a triumphant grin and the bloodied heart of the Archdemon held aloft in his hands like an offering, for example - Baldur would have gladly embraced the lie without a second thought. As it were, Duncan showed Baldur a glimpse of a future that could never be simply for the mere fact the elder Warden was dead, and no amount of magic or wishful thinking would be enough to revive him.

Baldur returned to the black-thorned pedestal and saw the center rune had been activated. He was approaching the final stage in this treacherous realm that would either spell freedom or eternal entrapment depending on whether Baldur could defeat Sloth alone, or if the demon had even left their vulnerable physical bodies intact so their spirits could return. A blinding light enveloped him as he touched the rune. He felt as if his body were being crushed and expanded, made weightless and heavy all at once before he landed in a clearing that was familiar in the way the Fade seemed incapable of replicating anything original for long, defaulting back to colorless ground and leafless trees and brown sky.

"What do we have here? A rebellious minion? An escaped slave?"

The creature's form was different but Baldur recognized the deep, syrupy tones of the sloth demon as it chuckled. It was no more concerned by Baldur’s appearance than it would if Baldur were a naughty child rather than the man who had defeated every one of Sloth's demon guards.

“I’m the Grey Warden who’s going to see that you pay for your crimes,” Baldur promised.

"My, my...but you do have some gall. Play time is over... You all have to go back now."

"Oh! Here I am!" Alistair's startled voice came from behind Baldur's right shoulder. Baldur turned to see that his three companions had once again materialized, to his great relief. "You just disappeared!"

"You tried to keep us apart," Leliana said accusingly to Sloth. "You lead us from each other because you fear us."

"You will not hold us, demon!" Wynne growled, her voice reverberating with fury and power that set the hairs on Baldur's arms shivering.

"If you go back quietly, I'll do better this time. I'll make you much happier," Sloth promised, as if it had any room to bargain.

"Seeing my sword rammed through your chest would make me the happiest," Baldur said, baring his teeth and his blade both.

"You wish to battle me? So be it. You will learn to bow to your betters, mortal."

The sloth demon curled upon itself, and with a whoosh of hot air and power it opened its arms and shed its current vessel. Sloth transformed into a towering ogre so quickly Baldur barely had time to register the shift before the demon swung its arm and backhanded him before he could even lift his sword. He barely registered the pain of impact before a tall outcropping of rock abruptly stopped the trajectory of his body. He collapsed to the ground in a crumpled heap, but heard the metal on leather sound of Alistair's sword being unsheathed, the twang of Leliana's bow, and the crackle from Wynne's staff as they moved in unison and attacked the demon all at once.

Baldur shook off dizziness from the blow, but quickly stopped when the warped edges of the dream world only increased his vertigo. He grit his teeth and dug his fingers into the barren dirt. He focused instead on his inner calm and drew forth the power he'd absorbed while in the Fade. He watched his hands and arms ripple as his armor disappeared under a wave of rock that covered him like a second skin. He stood and the ground shook, nearly matching the ogre in height and girth as he approached and stopped Sloth’s arm mid-motion as it made a grab for Alistair. Baldur shoved and followed up with a right hook across Sloth’s jaw that sent it reeling as Wynne's ice blast and Leliana's fire arrow caught it simultaneously in the chest. His group seemed entirely unfazed by Baldur's new appearance, staying out of reach as the two giants hammered blows upon each other and taking advantage of any opening to attack the demon.

Sensing its impending demise, Sloth roared and a shockwave blasted Baldur back several paces and knocked the humans completely off their feet. Sloth took advantage of its momentary reprieve and shifted form again, taking the shape of rage demon that oozed scorching liquid fire. Baldur responded as his rock body melted into bone and fire licked along his elongated skeleton. He blasted the demon back with a grin made entirely of teeth fixed within his skull. Sloth flashed between forms with increasing desperation and ferocity as Baldur and his companions responded and attacked with equal force, each manipulation of his spirit body feeling as if it were a natural extension of himself that he could call forth with hardly a thought.

However, even with Baldur's newfound abilities and the odds of four against one, he felt himself begin to flag the fourth time Sloth warped its shape. He wondered if the battle would ever end or continue until they collapsed from exhaustion, just as Sloth had desired from the beginning.

"Wynne!" he gasped out, a dwarf once again with sword and shield in hand as he bashed at the grasping claws of Sloth's shade form.

He saw Wynne release a bolt of lightning at the demon's back before lifting both her arms and staff, swirling them above herself in an intricate pattern. A blue-green light shot forth from her staff and enveloped Baldur, Leliana, and Alistair with a rejuvenating pulse of energy that was quicker to fade than Wynne's previous healing spells. She was also reaching the limits of her power, and Sloth showed little sign of waning. Baldur growled in frustration, using the burst of stamina to become a golem again. He reached down and picked up a boulder that weighed more than several dwarves combined, heaving the stone directly at the shade where it struck the demon dead-center and exploded with the force of his throw. Sloth disappeared under the resulting blast of rock and shrapnel, but when the dust cleared an arcane horror had taken its place. Baldur was still the weakest against spell attacks, and he found himself frozen like a statue as Sloth’s cold spell froze him where he stood before turning and attempting to encase the others in ice as well.

Leliana and Alistair dodged, but Wynne was too slow to move out of the way and caught the brunt of Sloth's whirlwind of ice shards and arctic air. Wounds opened up on her bare face and hands from the flying ice as she was thrown backward, striking the ground hard where she rolled and didn’t move. Baldur phased out of the golem and claimed his ephemeral spirit form, mustering all of his energy and concentrating on willing life into Wynne's prone body as he had seen her do a dozen times before. His magic was unrefined, crackling yellow energy but it worked all the same.

Wynne clambered to her feet with obvious effort, looking drained and pale even though her wounds had closed over thanks to Baldur's healing efforts and the attributes of the Fade that didn't account for bleeding injuries or even a need to breathe, except out of habit. Leliana's arrows replenished themselves because she willed it so, but even she was starting to drag between attacks. They wouldn't survive another five forms. Sloth seemed to rejuvenate itself after each one, forcing them to begin their attacks anew. Baldur knew they only had one more chance before their edge was lost and there would be no resetting if they failed to defeat the very creator of the realm they were trapped within. Sloth took advantage of their momentary distraction and darted forward to clamp a hand down on Alistair's sword arm, freezing his pauldron and causing Alistair to drop his sword with a yelp.

"Get back!" Baldur ordered, his voice carrying even though his mouth didn't move, still a spirit.

Alistair shook the ice off his arm with a grimace, darting down to retrieve his fallen sword. He hooked a hand through Wynne's arm and they both ran for a pathway that led to an overlook while Leliana darted off in the opposite direction. Hopefully they would be far enough away to evade most of the demon's spells. Sloth rounded on Baldur with a wordless roar, far past using its beguiling words and promises as they sent simultaneous blasts towards each other. The arcane horror's spell missed Baldur but his own took, freezing Sloth solid. Baldur changed back into a golem and pounded at its immobile form until it shook itself free of the spell and Baldur had to dodge its next attack.

"Like that!" Baldur called in a voice like an earthquake, "Follow my lead!"

He and Wynne alternated cold and paralyzing spells while Alistair pummeled away at Sloth. Leliana sent arrow after arrow at it without allowing Sloth an instant to gather itself to switch whatever abomination it would try to become next. Baldur pushed thoughts of anything else aside, sending a volley of attacks at Sloth while keeping an eye out for any flagging members. He sent them what little energy he had to spare, which wasn't much, but apparently it was enough. Alistair gave a battle cry and gripped his sword hilt in both hands, putting every last ounce of strength behind a strike that tore through the thawed demon diagonally from shoulder to hip. Sloth crumbled like a puppet without strings, its borrowed body remaining in the final shape of an arcane horror without any twitch or pulse of power indicating another alteration was forthcoming.

"You defeated the demon," Niall's voice said as he shimmered into existence as if summoned once the danger had passed, his face slack with disbelief. "I never thought...I never expected you to free yourself, to free us both. When you return, take the Litany of Adralla from my...body. It will protect you from the worst of the blood magic."

"Body? Aren't you coming back with us?" Baldur asked, letting go of his spirit manifestation to become a plain, solid dwarf once again.

"I cannot go with you," Niall said regretfully. "I have been here far too long. For you it would have been an afternoon's nap and your body wouldn't have wasted away in the real world while your spirit lay trapped."

"You can't have been caught by the demon's spell much longer than we were," Baldur protested, but time moved so differently in the spirit world. He hoped Niall was correct that when they returned no more than an afternoon would have passed, which was still a delay they couldn't afford.

"Every minute I was here, the sloth demon was feeding off me, using my life to fuel the nightmares of this realm. I was never meant to save the Circle...or survive its troubles. I am dying."

Baldur couldn't claim to know how Sloth’s magic worked more than a mage of the Circle. Neither he or Wynne had energy to spare in order to restore Niall if they had any chance of making it out of the realm with their own spirits intact. Baldur was somber when he thanked Niall for his help. He seemed to be at peace with his impending death, glad to be of some use if not precisely in the manner he imagined when attempting to save the Circle himself. Baldur wasn't certain if he would be their savior either, but he kept his doubts to himself, watching Niall's spirit fade into oblivion after they made their final farewells. He didn't know where spirits went when they died, but he hoped Niall found true respite rather than a demon's lies wherever he did end up.

The transition into the waking world was jarring and sudden. Baldur almost thought he’d been transported into another area of the Fade, except his vision was crisp and clear at the edges and he felt more present in his physical body than he had even as a golem. The weight of Sloth’s spell lifted off of him and he drew a deep breath into his lungs as he struggled to his hands and knees, seeing the others shift into consciousness around him. Ahead of where he lay, he saw the unmoving bodies of the sloth demon and the man he now knew as Niall, but had never met when he was alive. They had lost time, that much was certain, even though there was no windows or melted candles to prove otherwise. Even a minute’s delayed was too long. Baldur only waited until he was certain the others were steady on their feet before retrieving the litany from Niall’s person as promised, hoping that Wynne would know how to use it against the blood mages they had yet to face.

The group continued through the tower rejuvenated from their enforced nap and with renewed haste as if dragonlings were nipping at their heels. The miniature dragons were indeed among the unyielding tide of adversaries they faced on their way to the uppermost reaches of the Circle. Baldur faltered when he automatically tried to call forth his golem form to stomp them, only to find himself alone in his head save for the distant hum of his berserker, which was oddly subdued. A dragonling caught him on the wrist when his sword arm remained at his side while trying to turn himself into a spirit or a flaming skeleton or even a tiny mouse as his mind knew he could be, but his physical body refused to respond. Finally, in a fit of frustrated rage, he opened himself to his berserker which answered his call with bloodthirsty eagerness. The dragonlings were decimated in moments. As soon as the last overgrown lizard had fallen the berserker retreated promptly rather than linger or punish him with agonizing pain or a continued loss of control. Baldur merely stood there, his mind once again his own without falling prey to insane fury. He choked back a disbelieving laugh. The attack was so quick and controlled that the others hadn’t even noticed the slip into his berserker state. Baldur might not be able to tower over Shale any longer, but he would gladly trade in all the abilities he had learned in the Fade just to be himself again, no longer a threat except to their enemies.

“I must have really needed that nap,” Baldur said, unable to keep the grin from his face when Alistair sent him a questioning look. He hadn’t expected a demon to do him a favor, intentional or not, but he wasn’t one to look a gift nug in the mouth. Still, he would be cautious. He didn’t know if his berserker was only temporarily subdued or if the change would be permanent.

The smile was quickly wiped from his face when they discovered a trapped, delusional templar who was sealed within an energy barrier, apparently having been tortured with visions and delirious from food and water deprivation. He was also surrounded by dead bodies, some of which were stuck in the barrier with him decomposing for who knew how long.

“Rest easy. Help is here,” Wynne soothed as she held her hand up to the barrier, her brow furrowed in concentration. “I have never seen a barrier such as this before...”

“This trick again?” the templar moaned, falling to the ground and rocking on his knees with his hands clenched above his head in supplication. “Enough visions! If anything in you is human...kill me now and stop this game.”

“Dwarf, not human,” Baldur corrected, even though it was petty of him when the man was clearly suffering. “But I can help.”

“Don’t touch me! Filthy blood mages...getting in my head...I will not break. I’d rather die.” The templar squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head rapidly, his breathing strained and irregular. Baldur waited him out, raising his eyebrow expectantly when the templar opened his eyes and startled upon seeing Baldur and the rest still standing there.

“Still here? But that’s always worked...”

“I’m real. What’s your name?” Baldur asked gently, his eyes flickering to the door beyond the trapped templar and wondering if he should really spare any time on this one man rather than immediately forge ahead. The templar was half mad and suffering, and Baldur couldn’t make himself walk past him without at least trying to help first.

“Cullen. It’s...my name’s Cullen. Did Greagoir send you? How...how did you get here?”

“I’m a Grey Warden,” Baldur said, as an introduction and explanation both. “I’m trying to save the tower.”

“Good,” Cullen said, finally standing. He appeared to gather some of his strength and wits at this pronouncement. “Kill Uldred. Kill them all for what they’ve done. They caged us like animals...looked for ways to break us. They turned some into monsters. I’m the only one left...”

Wynne stepped in closer, her eyes locked on the diminished templar. “Irving and the other mages who fought Uldred. Where are they?”

“They are in the Harrowing Chamber. The sounds coming out from there...oh Maker...” Cullen keened, his eyes red and bloodshot.

“We must hurry,” Wynne said. “They are in grave danger, I’m sure of it.”

“You can’t save them. You don’t know what they’ve become!”

“What are you afraid of?” Baldur asked, tensing in wary anticipation for whatever lay within the Harrowing Chamber.

“They’ve been surrounded b-by blood mages whose wicked fingers snake into your mind and corrupt your thoughts. You have to end it, now, before it’s too late.”

“His hatred of mages is so intense...” Alistair murmured, shifting uncomfortably. Had Duncan not recruited him, Alistair very well could have ended up in Cullen’s place, dead, or worse - as one of his fellow templars that had been turned into monsters.

“I’m going to save everyone who can possibly be saved,” Baldur said firmly. He was unwilling to consider doing otherwise after he’d already come so far and risked more than half his team even attempting to retrieve Irving so the entire Circle wouldn’t be annulled, destroying everyone and everything inside.

“Are you really saving anyone by taking this risk? You must kill everyone up there to ensure this horror is ended...to guarantee that no abominations or blood mages live.”

“I’d rather spare a blood mage than risk harming an innocent.”

“Thank you. I knew you would make a rational decision,” Wynne breathed out gratefully next to him. Baldur was glad they were unified in this course of action, unwilling to sanction another’s death without doing everything in his ability to save them first.

“Rational? How is this rational?” Cullen spat, appearing almost insane with anger and also as if he’d like to tear through the barrier to throttle Wynne himself. “Do you understand the danger?”

“I know full well the dangers of magic, but killing innocents because they might be maleficarum is not justice. I know you are angry—“

“You know nothing! I am thinking about the future of the Circle. Of Ferelden. As you can see, I am in no position to directly influence your actions, though I would love to deal with the mages myself.”

“Good. Then you can’t cause any trouble. I don’t want the blood of innocents on my hands,” Baldur said, unyielding.

“My cage is Uldred’s doing...or one of his mages. Once they’re dead I will be free,” Cullen explained...or threatened. Cullen was swaying on his feet, though, so Baldur doubted he would be much of a challenge if he did escape and attempt to kill the mages Baldur refused to destroy out of hand.

I will decide what to do with the others.”

“No one ever listens, not until it’s far too late.” Cullen spat on the ground by his feet, too dehydrated to work up proper phlegm. “Maker turn his gaze on you. I hope your compassion hasn’t doomed us all.”

Opening the door to the Harrowing Chamber, Baldur was met with a vortex of magic so intense even he could feel the electric charge vibrate through the back of his teeth. He could see several forms – human or otherwise – either dead, cowering, or writhing with the power that coursed through them.

“Do you accept the gift that I offer?”

Baldur heard a man speak, blinking back the afterimage that flashed in his eyes to see a mage holding another man suspended by magic before everything went jarringly still and silent. He didn’t hear an answer, but the man dropped suddenly to the floor. The mage took a step back, flanked by two abominations as they turned their gaze to the fallen figure. Baldur thought him dead, which would likely be a mercy, but then the trio lifted their hands and enveloped the man in a blinding blue light before Baldur could even shout out to stop them. The man’s body jerked violently and lifted into the air as he gave an agonized yell and absorbed the power of the spell. He fell to the ground once again and the magic faded, but the man’s form began to pulsate with his own light and swell outward. Baldur couldn’t see what happened after that, but when the man stood, his huge, deformed body was a perfect replica of the abominations that stood next to the mage, no longer human but something...other.

Baldur thanked Mahal dwarves never had to deal with mages of their own.

"Ah...look what we have here. An intruder," the mage said, turning to face Baldur and the rest. His tone was unhurried and amused, reminding Baldur starkly of the sloth demon, and he had to wonder if the demon hadn't found another form after all. "I bid you welcome. Care to join in our...revels?"

"Can't say I care much about your choice of entertainment. You must be Uldred," Baldur deducted.

"Ohhh. Very observant," the mage, Uldred, said mockingly. "I'm quite impressed you're still alive. Unfortunately, that must mean you killed my servants. Ah, well, they are probably better off dying in the service of their betters than living with the terrible responsibility of independence."

"Don't worry. You'll follow them soon enough."

"The Chantry vilifies us, calls us abominations, when we have truly reached our full potential! Look at them. The Chantry has them convinced. They deny themselves the pleasure of becoming something glorious."

"You're mad!" Wynne called out, disgusted and appalled. "There's nothing glorious about what you've become, Uldred!"

"Uldred?" Uldred said, giving a derisive laugh. "He is gone. I am Uldred and yet not Uldred. I am more than he was. I could give you this gift, Wynne. You and all mages."

"Not a chance," Baldur growled.

"No matter. I still won. I even have the first enchanter on my side, don't I... Irving?"

An older man, sick and shaking and in worse condition than even Cullen gasped out, unable to even open his eyes. "Stop him...he...is building an army. He will...destroy the templars and--"

"You're a sly little fox, Irving, telling on me like that," Uldred-not-Uldred crooned. "And here I thought he was starting to turn."

"N-Never..."

"That's enough out of you, Irving." Uldred turned back to Baldur, almost apologetic for his pet not performing up to his standards. "He'll serve me, eventually. As will you..."

"You're delusional."

"And you are a thorn in my side that I must remove before you fester. I cannot let you be, but killing you...such a waste. Your raw potential, with the strength of a demon behind it, would be unstoppable. I can do that--I can give you power, and a new life."

"Is that the best you've got? Not even a lifetime of ale or commemorative pin to throw into the mix? What a shame, you almost had me there."

"You've gotten snarky," Alistair noted approvingly. "I'd ask what's gotten into you, but I'm afraid the answer is more along the lines of 'who' rather than 'what'..."

"Enough! Fight, if you must. It will just make my victory all the sweeter."

"Don't forget the Litany," Wynne whispered to him urgently.

"But I can't be possessed nor am I a mage. Couldn't you use it instead?" Baldur held the scroll out to her, but Wynne shook her head. He wouldn't be able to cast any of the counterspells the scroll contained, unless he was expected to smack Uldred with the rolled up parchment like a misbehaving puppy, which might not be as effective.

"Just speak the incantations and it will thwart Uldred's attempts to control the mages and win this fight for us."

Baldur had magic in the Fade, which disappeared the instant he was back in the waking world, but he knew enough from that experience as well as flipping through the tomes he'd picked up in the Circle that intention was everything. He hoped Wynne was right and that he didn't have to be a mage to use the Litany of Adralla effectively.

He supposed they were about to find out.

Baldur, Wynne, Leliana, and Alistair faced off against Uldred and his abominations. Baldur's eyes flicked between them, readying for the first assault when Uldred suddenly disappeared within a blinding flash of light. Baldur staggered back a step when an enormous, hulking creature bigger than ogre, abomination, and sloth demon combined reared up in his place. The abominations barely reached Uldred’s hip, and they were already twice the size of Baldur to begin with. Baldur was frozen for a second too long, and a ball of ice whizzed over his shoulder, nearly catching him as Wynne's blast hit the monstrous Uldred in the chest and turned him into frozen statue.

"Go!" Wynne shouted, hurling another spell at one of the abominations that was fast approaching.

Baldur snapped out of his shock and took up his weapons. Fighting Uldred was just like being in the Fade again, he and Alistair hammering at the frozen demon with shield and sword while Wynne did her best to keep him immobilized. She charged them with healing spells when they failed to dodge the abominations that shrieked and came after them when their attention was diverted on the larger target. Leliana loosed her arrows upon the abominations, trying to keep them back while the Wardens focused the bulk of their attacks upon the demon clearly controlling them. Baldur had to turn away from Uldred to cut down an abomination that nearly ripped out Alistair's throat from behind, rushing at it with his shield and knocking it to the ground before its strike connected.

"Whoa, close one! Thanks!" Alistair called. He followed up Baldur's hit with a downward jab of his sword right through the abomination's shoulder, pinning it to the ground. He'd only taken his eyes off of Uldred for a second, but apparently that was enough.

"Uldred's trying something! Stop him!" Wynne yelled, warning and the edge of panic in her voice as Uldred shook off the ice and started drawing power into himself.

Baldur fumbled for the litany and cracked open its wax seal. He looked down at the scroll for the first incantation, but spluttered when he frantically glanced over the unfamiliar script. "What language is this? I can't read the spell, Wynne!"

"Just say it! Now!"

"Blast it!" Baldur cursed, ducking a fireball and clutching the scroll to his chest to keep the parchment from being singed. He saw Uldred turn towards one of the bodies on the ground, recognizing from previous experiences the reanimation spell of a blood mage. He was not going through that again, still creeped out from the first time he'd had to fight the corpses of the recently deceased. He filled his lungs and bellowed, undoubtedly butchering the unfamiliar language entirely, but putting all of his focus towards blocking Uldred's casting.

"Ejice daemones redire inopibus unde venistis!"

By all rights Baldur's spell should not have worked, but something either in the garbled incantation, Baldur's intentions, or the scroll itself must have caught hold. The magic faded from between Uldred's claws, and he howled in impotent rage as the spell to animate the corpses was interrupted.

"Did you see that?" he exclaimed to Alistair excitedly, stunned that his first attempt at a spell outside of the Fade without even a staff at his disposal had worked. He was probably the first dwarf in history to ever have done so, although the spell lacked the boom and sparkle mages’ spells usually had...so maybe, it wasn’t quite as simple as being able to use magic after all. No matter. The litany had worked, which was all that mattered.

"Sure! Great job, buddy!" Alistair said, more than a little sarcastically as he ducked a bolt of lightning from one of the abominations and dove for Uldred. "A little help here!"

Baldur’s confidence increased exponentially as he quickly pocketed the litany and joined Alistair in the attack. He didn't even hesitate to release his berserker with a reverberating war cry. A red mist entered his field of vision, pulsing along with the raised heartbeats of his foes like an irresistible beacon. He lost himself in the exhilaration of movement while being completely aware of his surroundings at the same time. He alternated hits of his shield and swings of his sword with bone-breaking force, drawing back when Wynne called out for him to use the Litany of Adralla again, stopping Uldred in his tracks.

A strange sort of joy surged through Baldur, mingling with and bolstering the might of his berserker. He almost wanted to laugh, overflowing with energy, but he shouted down the abominations instead so the others wouldn't fear him insane. He hadn't felt so present, so in control in a long, long while. Not since before he became a Grey Warden, certainly, strength and power flooding through him. The combination was heady, and Baldur could almost see the appeal in the endless power Uldred had offered if only he never had to feel so weak and helpless ever again.

Leliana aimed an arrow through Wynne's ice blast, absorbing the chill of the spell and impacting Uldred's chest with ice and metal alike. Uldred roared and rounded on Leliana, who had unintentionally backed herself into a corner. Her eyes went wide with the realization as Uldred advanced on her, shortening the distance so swiftly that she would be unable to draw another arrow in time to slow him down.

Baldur tossed aside the litany and bared his teeth with a feral snarl, feeling as if his skin was stretched at the seams as all of his muscles tensed and braced to attack. He rushed at Uldred just as he was preparing to claw Leliana into pieces, slamming into his side with body and shield. They both fell to the ground and Baldur howled as his left arm was crushed beneath Uldred's body, his bulk pinning down Baldur's shield arm. He was unable to angle his sword back to swing, so this too he threw aside as he went for the dagger on his hip. He stabbed at Uldred blindly until he roared and rolled away from Baldur, freeing his numbed arm. Baldur ripped off the shield and leapt upon Uldred's back before he could rise fully to his feet again, clawing and stabbing at whatever he could reach while Uldred thrashed and tried to throw Baldur off of him. Baldur even sunk his teeth in at one point, scalding, toxic blood filling his mouth, but he was too far gone to care.

Leliana discarded her bow and buried her own daggers into Uldred's chest the instant Wynne's blast caught him in the right side and Alistair's sword impaled him on the left. Uldred didn’t even have time to shriek before he died. They all scattered in time from being squashed as his massive form toppled over. Baldur was tempted to stab at Uldred a few more times just to be sure, but doing so would be overkill and he could feel his berserker recede like a satisfied lion, purring in the back of his mind as the red mist swirled away from his vision. Baldur spat a gob of blood out onto the floor next to Uldred’s outstretched claws, reaching for his waterskin and thoroughly rinsing out his mouth before spitting again.

"I can't believe you bit him," Alistair said, appalled as he stared at Baldur. "Does this mean I have to give you the same medicine we give Bastion after he fights darkspawn?"

"We already have the taint," Baldur reminded him, wiping his mouth off on his forearm with a grimace. "Plus Uldred wasn't a darkspawn. Just...evil."

"Don't they give you these talks in dwarf school? Practice safe blood sucking, and all that?"

“I thought you didn’t want to hear about biting, licking, or sucking...”

"Boys, if you are quite finished," Wynne interrupted. Her hands were still outstretched towards Uldred, but she lowered them to hurry over to Irving's side where he was laying on his side on the ground.

Baldur checked over the demonically possessed form of Uldred, being thorough to remove any potions or magical artifacts that could revive Uldred and start the fighting anew. The only item of note was a pair of gauntlets that seemed sturdier than his drake scale ones. He considered the possibility of needing a second, more durable set of armor to defend against physical blows and mage spells when he wasn't off fighting dragons or seemingly innocuous campfires. He stowed the gauntlets in his pack and stood, picking his way over to where Wynne was assisting the First Enchanter to his feet. Irving looked half dead and still trembled faintly even after Wynne washed him in an aura of healing magics.

"Are you alright?"

"I've...ngh...been better," Irving groaned. "But I'm thankful to be alive. The Circle owes you a debt we will never be able to repay. Come, the templars should know the tower is once again ours."

"Lead the way," Baldur said, gesturing to the doorway presumably leading out of the uppermost chamber.

"I'll need you to guide me down the stairs," Irving admitted, breathless with pain as he curled in on himself and lurched forward.

Alistair was quick to assist him in Baldur’s stead. He likely didn’t want Baldur near anyone fragile after he had just let his berserker run loose and bite people. Baldur felt fine, though. Or as well as could be expected after any intense battle, but he wasn't going to fly off the handle and attack anyone out of hand. The knowledge was a blessed relief and more revitalizing than any of Wynne's spells could have been. He let Alistair and Irving lead the way after doubling back to make certain the spell containing the delirious templar had disappeared. The man, Cullen, wasn’t in much better condition than Irving, but he could make his own way unaided after Baldur shared what rations and water he had on him, which Cullen devoured ravenously. Cullen accompanied their group, quiet and watchful as he tapped nervously on the pommel of a sword he borrowed from one of his fallen brethren, his eyes fixed on Irving’s wavering form.

Baldur felt his heartbeat pick up when they approached the lower levels of the tower. Worry and anticipation he hadn’t allowed himself to feel started to trickle in after leaving Zevran behind with Morrigan, the only defense the children and mages would have against abominations on one side and templars on the other. He was braced for the worse as they approached the doorway Wynne had constructed a barrier over before they went searching for Irving. He nearly knocked Alistair – and by extension, Irving – down when he couldn’t wait for Irving to catch his breath and bolted into the room.

His eyes immediately alighted on Zevran, sitting on the stone floor surrounded by riveted children. His breath left him in a rush and his knees went wobbly, reaching out to grasp the doorway to keep from falling in relief. There was a small girl leaning against Zevran’s shoulder with her thumb paused halfway to her slack mouth as she watched something he was doing with his hands. When he came closer Baldur saw Zevran was constructing something with a bit of wire and shrapnel.

A trap. Zevran was teaching mage children how to make traps.

By the looks of things, several of these traps were set up near the doorways - either as a defense against abominations or templars, he didn't know. He had no doubt the traps were functional, although he didn't know how effective they'd be against either aggressor. The simple contraptions likely served the purpose of putting the children's minds at ease by giving them a distraction and allowing them to contribute to their own sense of safety. Baldur was rather fortunate the group hadn't accidentally triggered one of the traps upon their arrival back to the lower levels, but Zevran would have considered as much.

“Zevran!” Baldur called out before he could help himself, having neither thought nor eyes for anyone else.

Zevran’s soft, indulgent smile for the children brightened into painful radiance as his gold eyes landed on Baldur and the bedraggled group he was heading. Baldur almost thought he’d imagined the flash of desperate relief that crossed Zevran’s features, but he made no such illusions regarding his own elation at seeing him safe and sound. Zevran discarded his project and stood at once, steadying the girl who had been leaning against him absently with a hand on her shoulder.

Baldur practically launched himself at the other man, who laughed and caught him with their arms wrapping tightly around each other. Baldur stretched up on his toes and Zevran leaned down automatically as they met somewhere in the middle for a bruising kiss that was less about pleasure and more about reaffirming the other was actually real and alive. The children giggled and scattered, but neither man noticed.

“Oh...aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” Zevran murmured as he took Baldur’s face between his hands and scratched his nails softly through his beard. “Let us never do that again, hm?”

“Agreed,” Baldur promised solemnly, but he couldn’t hold back the grin that spread across his face. Zevran seemed pleased to see him smile again, especially since Baldur hadn’t been at his best or most cheerful when they last parted.

“You seem much improved for having risked life and limb against unknown enemies. I trust you were successful?”

“Yes. We killed the evil mage that started this whole mess and we have Irving. Alive.”

“I am relieved to hear it, amor,” Zevran said, drawing Baldur into a softer but no less passionate kiss before they reluctantly broke apart.

They weren’t out of the tower yet, and Irving seemed to be on the very last dregs of his energy. Wynne herded the group towards the main entrance after Zevran’s traps were dismantled with a few rather advanced and lethal contraptions Baldur seriously hoped the children hadn’t been involved in constructing. Baldur tucked his hand into Zevran’s as they followed Wynne out of the tower at the back of the group. The gesture was as much habit as strapping on his sword was every morning, his âzyungâl an equally necessary extension of himself.  

“Was there any trouble? With the abominations...or Morrigan?” he asked quietly.

Zevran shook his head.

“The worst part was the waiting. Morrigan created a barrier similar to the one that spritely older mage with the ravishing bosom dismantled before you left. She rather thoroughly isolated herself from the other mages with her merry disposition, and the children were shaken from before we arrived, but unharmed.”

“By the Stone, please don’t call Wynne that to her face,” Baldur begged, his face heating.

“I make no such promise. A lady at any stage in her life, however advanced, deserves to be complimented!”

“Complimented, yes. Referred to by her age or her...her bosom, no.”

“Should we discuss your bosom instead? I am particularly fond of your manly chest hair and muscles, myself.”

Baldur sighed, bringing Zevran’s hand to his lips to brush a kiss over his knuckles rather than answer. Zevran smirked at him but subsided on his teasing for the time being, for which Baldur was immensely thankful. He missed being able to enjoy Zevran’s flirting when before just the sound of someone else breathing was enough to have his berserker frothing at the jowls. He was physically tired from their exertions, but his spirit felt light and rejuvenated compared to the ravaged mess it had been after Denerim, and perhaps even before that. He was hesitant to try and draw forth his berserker outside of battle, like poking a sleeping bear after one finally got the feral beast sedated after a long and vicious hunt, but for now he reveled in the freedom of simply having his mind back.

Leaving the tower was as simple as knocking on the door barring the way out and shoving aside the templar who poked his head through without even verifying Irving’s presence within their group first. Had Baldur known it would be that simple he might have saved himself and Irving a decent amount of trouble not rushing the half-dead enchanter down multiple flights of stairs, but either way the Circle was saved. Knight-Commander Greagoir came storming over at once upon seeing the door standing wide open with a cowed templar huddled in the corner after Baldur had growled at the man when he tried to protest their re-entry. Greagoir started to issue a command to seal the doors, but gasped with wide eyes when he saw Irving propped up between Wynne and Alistair.

"Irving? Maker's breath, I did not expect to see you alive."

"It's over, Greagoir. Uldred...is dead," Irving murmured, gently shaking off his support and standing as straight as he was able before the Knight-Commander.

"Uldred tortured these mages, hoping to break their wills and turn them into abominations. We don't know how many of them have turned," Cullen stated as definitively as if he were giving a report.

"What?" Irving protested. "Don't be ridiculous. We will rebuild. The Circle will go on, and we will learn from this tragedy."

"Of course he'll say that. He might be a blood mage! Don't you know what they did? I won't let this happen again!"

"I am the Knight-Commander here, not you," Greagoir reminded Cullen sternly.

"But they may have demons within them, lying dormant...lying in wait!"

"Enough! I have already made my decision." Greagoir turned to Baldur, dismissing Cullen in the same motion. Baldur didn't miss the way the templar's face went red with anger, but he would have to trust Greagoir to keep his men in check and hopefully find help for the obviously traumatized man. "Thank you, Warden. You have proven yourself a friend of both the Circle and the templars."

"Friendship is all well and good, but there are still darkspawn we must contend with," Baldur reminded him firmly, lest he go back on his word or conveniently forget the agreement they'd made before Baldur had trapped himself within the Circle.

"I promised you aid, but with the Circle restored, my duty is to watch the mages. They are free to help you, however, speak to them."

"Have you no say over them?" Baldur asked suspiciously, a hint of a growl entering his tone. If he had been played to do this man's bidding...

"The templars guard and advise, but the first enchanter has the last word in what happens in the Circle."

And with that parting statement, Greagoir dismissed himself. Baldur narrowed his eyes on Irving expectantly, not bothering to hide his irritation.

"I am glad you arrived when you did. This could have been much, much worse," Irving said with a soft, sad smile at Baldur's undoubtedly grumpy face. "It's almost as though the Maker himself sent you."

"The Maker holds no sway over my kind," Baldur said, perhaps uncharitably, but Irving did not appear to be offended.

"Perhaps that is so. From what Greagoir said, it seems that you came here seeking allies. The least we can do is help you against the darkspawn. I would hate to survive this only to be overcome by the Blight."

"Thank you," Baldur said, expelling his tension with a breath. Even a handful of mages would be helpful, especially if they were even half as talented as Morrigan or Wynne.

"You have my word as First Enchanter. The Circle will join the Grey Wardens in the fight," Irving said formally. Baldur bowed his head, accepting Irving's promise on behalf of the Circle mages.

"Irving, I have a request," Wynne said from over Baldur's shoulder. "I seek to follow the Grey Warden."

Baldur's heart leapt, his lips parting with surprise. Zevran gently nudged his chin with his forefinger without even looking down, and Baldur snapped his mouth shut with a sheepish expression even though his eyes were fixed on Wynne.

"Wynne...we need you here. The Circle needs you."

"I appreciate the sentiment, Irving," Wynne said kindly, "but the Circle will be fine without me. This man is brave and good, and capable of great things. If he will accept my help, I will help him accomplish his goals."

"I would be honored, Wynne," Baldur said, touched.

Even Irving couldn't protest overly much, especially when he'd just promised Baldur the mages he needed. Wynne would be an invaluable companion, and it helped that she was rational and experienced and didn't seem the type to provoke others unnecessarily, which was more than he could say about most of the others - himself included.

"Then I give you leave to follow the Grey Warden, but know that you will always have a place here," Irving conceded.

Baldur did not quite leap or shout, but he met Wynne's gentle smile with a relieved one of his own. He barely knew Wynne at all, but already he trusted her at his back unquestioningly. As was customary with each new member that joined their party, Zevran began chatting up Wynne at once.

"You know... I have heard stories about your Circle of the Magi, my dear Wynne," Zevran said in a conversational manner even though devious hints of a smile lurked around the upturned corners of his lips.

"Is that so?" Wynne responded politely, glancing only briefly at Zevran.

"There is a Circle in my country, of course, but perhaps things are different here. I visited the Antivan Circle on official Crow business once. Met a beautiful young apprentice who was very eager for a taste of the outside world."

"Please, please get to the point," Wynne begged, aggrieved.

"All I wonder is whether the templars guard the mages here as closely as they do in Antiva? In Antiva, the templars watch the Circle like a jealous husband guarding the chastity of a wanton bride."

"Interesting metaphor, but yes. It is not too different in Ferelden."

"And is it also true that when the moon swells to fullness the mages of the Circle gather at the top floor of their tower and, naked under the stars, make love to each other?"

"What? No! Maker's breath!"

"Oh," Zevran sighed in disappointment, his face falling comically. "I found out recently that it was not true in Antiva and hoped that it would be in Ferelden. Alas! I will simply have to content myself with making love to our dear Warden under the moonlight, just the two of us..."

Baldur's cheeks were like two bricks nestled amongst hot coals, especially since he knew for all of Zevran's jocularity he had every intention of doing exactly that. Baldur certainly had no inclination to dissuade him after their long separation, despite his embarrassment that Wynne should be made apprised of that very personal information. 

"You...condone this sort of behavior?" Wynne demanded. She was very likely considering the wisdom in deciding to affiliate herself with his party.

"You learn to ignore it after a while."

"Or give in," Zevran purred, framing Baldur's face in his hands and rubbing his thumbs over his ruddy cheeks. He leaned down for a kiss, which Baldur was only too happy to oblige. Baldur melted into his touch, unable to help himself. His easy complacency was further enhanced by how suddenly exhausted he was, his body crashing once they were finally free from immediate danger.

"Oh, you poor man. You're practically dead on your feet," Zevran chided when he pulled away to inspect Baldur's face more closely. He delicately traced the swollen, bruised skin under Baldur's eyes. "Do you know what you need?"

"A horse?"

Zevran laughed. "A little late for that, I think. I was considering something more along the lines of a sensual massage, but if you'd rather have something else to ride..."

Baldur bit his lip, aware of Wynne's skeptical gaze on them. Despite how little they knew each other yet, he liked Wynne and actually cared about being in her good opinion. However, he wouldn't allow her favor to come at the cost of hiding his feelings for Zevran. He couldn't think of anything he'd rather do more than make love with Zevran under the stars, finally in control of his berserker without having to worry about accidentally hurting his beloved. Baldur reached up to take Zevran's hand, turning it over to press a lingering kiss to his palm, right over his lifeline.

"I would enjoy that very much," Baldur said softly. He glanced up to see Zevran's pupils expand as they dropped down to watch Baldur's bottom lip, caught between his teeth.

"Are you certain we are not still in the tower? Surely, you must be a dream."

"Ugh. Must we listen to this drivel all day, or may we continue? If I am not mistaken, we have a dragon to slay," Morrigan interrupted.

Baldur glanced over to see that Leliana was watching them without even trying to be subtle, her cheeks pink, but Alistair was beginning to look a little green around the gills. He pulled Zevran down for one more kiss, making clear his intentions with all the skill he possessed.

"Then I'll just have to prove how real I am, kurduê. Tonight."

Zevran appeared as if he had no plans of waiting until nightfall to drag Baldur onto the nearest flat surface and have his wicked way with him, but before Baldur could even convince himself it would be a good idea, there was a hand on his collar yanking him back. Alistair had his other hand on the edge of Zevran's armor, holding them apart with his face redder than Baldur had thought even possible.

"I will dunk you both in the lake, see if I don't!" he threatened, trying – and failing – to look authoritative.

"Mmm. As long as you join us, Alistair. I am eager to see what you keep hidden under all that heavy armor while dripping wet," Zevran purred, hanging complacently at the end of Alistair's grip. Alistair let them both go immediately and backed away as if he'd contract something contagious just by being in contact with either of them.

Baldur stumbled but Wynne reached out to catch his shoulder. Her grip was surprisingly strong, Baldur noted when she didn't immediately let go, but she met his eyes with a steady gaze. He wasn't entirely certain what she was trying to project with that look, but he could only imagine. Zevran made terrible first impressions despite all of his charm - or because of it. He was relatively certain Wynne would learn not to take Zevran at face value, for all of his inappropriate flirtations that were more amusing to Baldur rather than grounds for jealousy. He trusted Zevran, and Baldur himself was incapable of infidelity due to his half of the sanâzyung bond. He didn't know what he'd do if Zevran decided to take another lover, and...there...he finally felt the stirrings of his berserker at last. He buried the thought quickly, deciding not to dwell on things that may never come to pass, especially when they had so many tangible problems to face right before them.

Like a dragon.

---

Ejice daemones redire inopibus unde venistis. - Cast out ye demons and return to the Void from whence ye came! (Tevene/Latin)

Sanâzyung – perfect/true love (Khudzul)

Kurduê – My Heart (Khudzul)

Chapter Text

Zevran was as good as his word.

As soon as they crossed Lake Calenhad on a journey no less harrowing than the first time and took rooms at The Spoiled Princess inn near the docks, he had Baldur stripped out of his armor and laid out on his stomach almost before the door was locked and warded. Zevran removed his own armor nearly as quickly, and Baldur sighed in contentment when bare skin slid against his own as Zevran settled his weight over Baldur's thighs, the bed creaking beneath them.

"Tell me what happened after we parted in the tower," Zevran said as he uncorked a vial of oil and poured the fragrant liquid into his palm. "And do not leave out the juicy details."

The slick sound of his palms rubbing together to warm the oil caused Baldur's lower stomach to clench in anticipation, as did his words, but not for the same reason. He knew Zevran wasn't asking him to recount the edited version of events, glossing over the uglier or mundane things that had happened, but instead delving into whatever had hurt the tender, vulnerable parts of Baldur the most. Zevran wanted to know the thoughts and feelings Baldur would normally try to keep hidden until he could form a protective layer of calluses over his heart. Zevran didn't expect him to be the fearless, invulnerable leader that everyone else did, but Baldur had a difficult time letting anyone see him falter or be anything less than utterly sure of himself, for all that he could hardly keep his head above water most days.

Zevran dragged his palms down his back while Baldur tried to sort out his words, mapping out knots and tense muscles that would get Zevran’s undivided attention once he'd satisfied himself by touching. Zevran was so good with his hands. Baldur had missed being with him without the weight and dread of his nightmares and his deteriorating mental state an ever-growing chasm between them.

“There was no one alive when we first entered the barrier, except for the abominations. But when we did finally find people they were either possessed or blood mages. There was...so much death.”

Baldur gave his report without the clinical efficiency that’d been required by his commanding officers in the army, hesitantly admitting how angry and out of his element he had been. Confessing his own weaknesses was easier without anyone's pressing gaze on him. Zevran's hands were soothing and unhesitating when Baldur told him of the blood mages and abominations and possessed templars he'd faced in the Circle. He did his best to recount what had transpired in the Fade, but even now his memory of the sloth demon's domain was fading like a dream. The Fade had been too improbable to be real, but Zevran asked serious, interested questions up until Baldur mentioned he had been able to shapeshift into a golem. He cut Zevran off before he became too excited at the prospect of Baldur walking around ‘hard’ while in the Fade.

"You do realize golems have no genitals whatsoever, right? And...you can't really feel sensation as you normally would with flesh and bone. I could feel the pressure of impact, but it's hard to keep your balance when you can't see your feet and the ground is so far away. I don't know how you and the others manage it."

"I can see my feet!" Zevran protested, laughing. "And elves are generally more diminutive in stature than most fully-grown humans. Except where it counts, of course."

"You're tall to me," Baldur said truthfully. Zevran hummed, sounding pleased.

"I believe you have been underestimated because of your size, my love - as have I - which has only worked to our advantage against our enemies. That you’re a dwarf  has never been an issue for me. You are quite delectable for one of your kind. Or for any race, truly."

"I'm sure your back doesn't appreciate having to constantly bend down or contort yourself into uncomfortable positions," Baldur sighed. He tried to hide the fact their differing heights had been one of his biggest insecurities since the beginning, but that had never stopped Zevran from kissing or bedding him as frequently as he could get away with without any sign of discomfort on his part.

"I'm flexible," Zevran said loftily, as if it really were that easy. "Truthfully, I have never been with a dwarf before, which was a grave oversight on my part. But perhaps that is fortunate, since I suddenly find myself ruined for all others. There are not many dwarves on the surface that would give one such as I a second glance, save with a suspicious eye."

Baldur's breath caught and, oh Ancestors, if only he could ask if Zevran meant his statement as merely a jest or if Zevran actually was content only having each other as bedpartners. In the end, his attempt at Bonding was still a raw and aching humiliation, and Baldur kept his silence, cursing himself for letting himself hope.

"I’m pretty sure I can suppress my berserker state now," Baldur said quickly just to change the subject. “Or at least I haven’t felt nearly as homicidal since I awoke from the demon’s spell.”

"Oh? Does this mean you have no desire to tie me up and punish me any longer?" Zevran said, infusing such defeated disappointment in his tone that Baldur laughed.

"Only say the word and the others would be lining up right outside the door to do the honors for me."

"You are entirely correct about that," Zevran conceded happily.

Baldur had to bury his grin in his arms. Mahal's beard, he really had missed their playful banter and teasing that was so much easier when he didn't have to constantly keep himself from sniping at Zevran or everyone else.

"Would you..." Baldur started, and then hesitated, going suddenly shy.

"Hm?"

Zevran dug his palm into a knot right beneath Baldur's shoulder blade on his sword arm and Baldur groaned, immediately losing his train of thought. Zevran huffed a laugh, leaning down to press a kiss behind Baldur's ear before resuming his attentions to Baldur's sore muscles.

"You were saying, mi amor?" Zevran nudged him when Baldur remained silent, drifting in the pleasure-pain of Zevran's skillful touch. "Is there something you desire?"

Instead of answering right away, Baldur leaned his weight to the side and Zevran obligingly rose to his knees before Baldur repositioned himself on his back and Zevran resumed straddling his thighs. They were both half hard, but their arousal wasn’t urgent yet, just a comfortable presence that could be set aside in order to just enjoy each other’s closeness. Zevran’s hands lowered to rest against Baldur's waist as he waited with an inquiring smile, softly stroking the flesh over Baldur's hips that was too spare for either of their liking. Baldur contented himself with simply looking at Zevran, his breath taken away time and again by the impossibility of Zevran's beauty. Certainly, if a desire demon had appeared before him in this form, Baldur would have been lost to its thrall even more deeply than the templar in the Circle tower had been.

"I lo..." Baldur said without thinking, and then caught himself and nearly bit his tongue. "That is...would you have me tonight? Like this?" Baldur amended clumsily, inwardly wincing at his slip.

Fortunately Zevran's eyes only softened rather than going shuttered as they had the last time Baldur had threatened him with feelings.

"Shall I tie you up first?" Zevran asked. It was an honest inquiry since Baldur had been too terrified to allow any intimacy between them without being restrained after he'd lost control of his berserker.

"N-No," Baldur said, hesitating as he searched within himself for the uncontrollable force he'd been trying to contain. His berserker was quiet, curled up in a corner of his mind until he called it forth just as he had when he'd wanted to turn into a tiny mouse or a massive, lumbering golem. Certainly, the Fade was a strange, strange place that he had no desire to revisit anytime soon – or ever.

"No. Just us.” Making love, Baldur didn’t say. “Um...gently, please."

As much as Baldur liked the biting and rough touches when Zevran exerted his control over Baldur’s wilder side, tonight he just wanted to feel close to Zevran. To make love with their bodies, if not quite with words. Zevran's lips were warm against his own, thankfully stifling Baldur before he said something else he didn't intend to say aloud, even if he meant those secret words of love with every part of his being. Zevran stretched out against Baldur's side and turned him so they faced each other without ever breaking their kiss. He drew Baldur's knee over his hip and let his hand trail up the back of Baldur's thigh, gripping Baldur's buttock as he let his fingers dip into his crevice, gently teasing.

Baldur drew in a sharp, wanting breath and his chest expanded, pressing against Zevran's as his heel dug into the back of Zevran's leg to leverage them closer. Zevran was in no hurry, though, kissing him languidly and letting his fingers stay as they were, still slick with oil and kneading Baldur's flesh as if to resume his earlier massage. Baldur supposed his arse was a muscle just like any other, but he knew what Zevran could do with that part of his anatomy and writhed impatiently, sucking at Zevran's tongue and lips in turn. He could taste the sweet flavor of Zevran's smile against his lips when Zevran gave him one last squeeze before shifting his hand to Baldur's waist and just leaving it there without trying to grope him further. Baldur's baser instincts were itching something fierce, desperately wanting to roll them both over and take what he wanted, but an ice cold fear of losing control clenched his gut and he subsided.

Zevran was testing him. He had to be.

Baldur's berserker was either truly contained or else he would let his frustration take over and force the issue. Baldur still didn't trust himself, his control relatively untested and new. He had to find a way to harness that power rather than suppressing the berserker state constantly, needing every advantage he could find, but laying with Zevran while naked and wrapped up in his arms was not the time to test his ability. Instead, he subsided, allowing Zevran to set their pace without complaint and easing the clutch of his fingers against Zevran's shoulder.

Zevran murmured a sound of approval, pressing slow kisses to Baldur's lips and cheeks and neck. Baldur sighed and let him. There was no rush, no urgency, even though they were both tightly coiled with arousal, which was an unavoidable side effect considering their current state of undress and proximity. Zevran rolled Baldur onto his back and laid out over him as if he couldn't bear to have any part of them not flush in contact. Baldur slung an arm around Zevran's waist to keep him near, and Zevran buried his hands in Baldur's hair, hopelessly tangled and unbraided as it always was without Zevran's regular attacks upon his head with a comb. Zevran's stomach was a warm pressure against Baldur's cock, and Baldur spread his legs, bending his knees to cradle Zevran’s hips between them while Zevran drew him into wet, open-mouthed kisses that sounded obscene in contrast to the hushed murmur of voices and footsteps outside of their room. The Spoiled Princess had likely not seen so much activity in ages, playing host to Baldur’s ever-growing group, but the innkeeper had only seemed nervous rather than grateful for Baldur’s patronage.

Baldur let his mind drift into nothingness. He allowed Zevran take away his fear and his pain with his touch as if he was reaching out from the Fade itself, enveloping Baldur in cottony bliss as long as Baldur was open and susceptible to letting himself be taken. Zevran was exactly what Baldur needed in a lover - passion to match his own, wiliness to slide through the cracks of Baldur's stubborn resistance, and gentle when anything more would cause Baldur to break. Zevran kissed him like he was savoring fine wine, consuming him a little at a time until Baldur was entirely drunk on him. He didn't know when Zevran had moved them back onto their sides, opening him up to the gentle touch of fingers. Zevran didn't press inside of him; he merely dipped his fingertip into the clenching ring of muscle before retreating and rubbing soothing circles that caused Baldur's hips to buck forward as he gasped.  He was tense with anticipation, but Zevran only kissed him and stroked his lower back and buttocks and thighs until Baldur went loose and relaxed against him.

Baldur spared a brief moment to consider Zevran's previous lovers who might have experienced such tenderness from him, who might have taught him how to please a lover so thoroughly he could read every single need Baldur had and respond so perfectly each time. He couldn't be jealous, not when he reaped the fruits of their labor. Zevran had been more than willing to kill the only man Baldur had ever bedded, and he didn't even know the whore’s name. Baldur probably wouldn't be able to pick him out of a lineup now, besides.

Baldur drew a breath when Zevran's finger finally breached him, feeling a slight burn since the oil Zevran had used had long been displaced to other parts of his body. Baldur forced himself to relax and bore down against the intrusion at Zevran's gentle instruction, flushing when Zevran pulled back to watch him as his finger pressed a little further inside. Baldur made a soft sound of discomfort and Zevran kissed his cheek while he moved his finger back out and circled Baldur's rim again until Baldur shifted restlessly, trying to press himself back upon Zevran's slender digit. Zevran didn't prolong the teasing overly long, his hand leaving Baldur to locate the vial of oil. Baldur twisted his head over his shoulder to make sure it was clear liquid and not the acid green of Zevran's poisons. Zevran bit the meat of his shoulder hard enough to leave a mark, and Baldur forgot what he was doing, forgot his own name, as he tilted his chin in an offering for Zevran to take more.

Zevran obliged.

Baldur's back made contact with the pallet to complete the push-pull dynamic between them and Zevran knelt up over him, his knees urging Baldur's legs apart. He did not let Baldur close his eyes or look away as he spilled oil over his palm and moved his hand between Baldur's legs. He pressed the tips of three fingers against Baldur's opening and let the oil slide down between his cheeks. He worked one and then two fingers into him up to the first knuckle before retreating and scooping up some of the dripping oil to repeat the process, sinking deeper into Baldur's body each time. He answered each of Baldur's gasps or shudders with rewarding kisses, his lips conveying how pleased he was with Baldur, how good he was, without ever having to form a word. Baldur was flush and slick all over from more than just the oil by the time Zevran had three fingers buried inside him up to the last knuckle, working in and out in a steady rhythm that Baldur answered with rolling motions of his hips. He dug his heels in and bent his knees to lift his pelvis up into Zevran's hand, telling him wordlessly that he was ready for more.

Zevran pressed one more kiss to Baldur’s slack and gasping mouth and kneeled back on his haunches, leaving a burning trail of kisses down Baldur's chest and the solid curve of his belly to take his prick in his mouth. His fingers still moved in and out of him like a slow piston, twisting and searching. A cry ripped its way from Baldur's throat, startlingly loud after going so long without speaking. He clapped a hand over his mouth in embarrassment, but Zevran let his cock slip out, slapping wetly against Baldur's stomach. He reached up with a gentle 'tsk' as he drew Baldur's hand away and instead placed it in on his own head, encouraging Baldur to grip his fine blond hair instead.

"I would hear your pleasure, my love," Zevran said gently, but his words were an order and not a request.

"Yes," Baldur agreed in a voice pinched with need when Zevran crooked his fingers. "Ah--yes!"

Baldur's body jolted as he cried out, clutching at Zevran's hair and incidentally drawing his head back down. Zevran chuckled and took him back into his mouth, the vibrations of his laughter sending Baldur into incoherent babble that was neither Common nor Khuzdul, but rather a language of pleasure understood by only the two of them. Zevran sucked him with a single-minded focus, his fingers reaching so far inside Baldur that each thrust forced his hips upward, shoving more of himself deeper into Zevran's throat, which opened for him beautifully. Baldur felt the beginnings of his completion tingle up through his toes and down the top of his head as if drawn from the very earth itself, converging to meet in the middle where Zevran was doing his best to take Baldur apart, and wildly succeeding. When Baldur was in danger of spending too swiftly he cried out a sharp warning, realizing much too late he’d reverted back to his birth language and thus went unheeded.

Tharaka, mizimelê! Jalaigrif, or nakha!

He attempted to correct himself, but the damage had already been done. He cried out helplessly as he spasmed against Zevran's clever tongue, his seed shooting out of him with the force of an arrow released. Zevran's throat contracted the same instant he pressed his fingertips mercilessly against the spot inside Baldur that caused his vision to white out. Baldur's eyes rolled into the back of his head as his entire back arched, suspended as pleasure crashed over him in wave after wave. He had enough sense to release Zevran's hair and instead clawed at the bedding, at the headboard, at his own hair as he scrambled for a handhold but found himself unmoored. Baldur felt as if his stones were squeezing themselves dry, drawing up tight and pulsating to prolong his completion for as long as possible even though he couldn't breathe...

Zevran finally released him and Baldur's spine hit the thin mattress with such a harsh, indrawn breath of air that it was nearly a reverse yell, lifting his knees up towards his chest almost defensively but catching against Zevran's sides instead. Baldur was sweating and panting like an overrun beast of burden, but Zevran was entirely composed, almost demure, when he swallowed his mouthful and carefully eased his fingers out of Baldur with a soft, smug smile.

"I came..." Baldur said guilty, like a small child who'd stolen the last piece of cake.

"You did," Zevran agreed, his voice a throaty purr that sounded as if it’d been run through gravel several times, entirely too pleased. "And certainly you know by now that is only the appetizer. A taste, if you will, of what more is to come."

Baldur couldn't help the groan when Zevran grinned at his own terrible pun. A band of pressure eased from around his chest that all was not lost quite yet, wanting so badly to feel Zevran inside of him, for him to find his own completion while Baldur was coherent and unafraid and ready.

"I need you, ghivashel," Baldur said plaintively, reaching out his arms to his beloved as his heels hooked against the small of Zevran's back. He sighed in relief and pleasure when Zevran sank against him. He was a warm and familiar weight that Baldur held onto greedily.

"And I you, my heart. You will always have me, for however long you have need."

"Forever," Baldur agreed, half-delirious.

Zevran's answering grin warmed him through. He pressed a kiss to Baldur's bitten lips before he took himself in hand and leveraged between Baldur's legs, coating himself in the oil he had drizzled between Baldur's valley. The swollen head of his prick caught and dragged against Baldur's swollen rim, and Baldur hitched a breath, his own cock ready to fill once again.

"Please don't tease me, Zevran. I can’t wait any longer...I need you inside me," Baldur begged, relieved that his words came out in Common this time, therefore easily understood unless Zevran was in a particularly obstinate mood.

"Oh," Zevran said softly, "you do beg so prettily. How could I possibly resist?"

Baldur didn't answer, instead lifting his hips and urging Zevran not to delay. He knew he would lose whatever tenuous grasp he had on his sanity if he did. Zevran did not draw the first thrust out any longer than was necessary for Baldur's body to adjust and receive him like a tailored glove, warming and molding itself to fit around Zevran. The pressure was uncomfortable at first, but Baldur wanted him so badly that his mind turned any physical discomfort into white noise, thoughts of so good mine mine mine filling all the empty spaces within him until he was fit to bursting, and still Zevran sunk more of himself in Baldur.

They rocked together, never breaking eye contact, and Baldur wished for time to stop, forever trapping them in this moment. He brushed a kiss over Zevran’s shoulder when he leaned forward, his mouth too far above Baldur’s head to reach unless Zevran arched his back and curled over him. He wrapped his arms around Zevran’s waist and buried his face in his chest, feeling the gentle press of lips against the top of his head. Zevran didn’t need to employ any fancy tricks with restraints or hot wax or stinging lashes to have Baldur submit to him entirely, even if his berserker side thrived on the rougher treatment. He learned something new about himself and the pleasures he was capable of each time they were together. He let himself imagine they were in their wedding bed, both of them stripped of their ceremonial garments, making love and connecting on a level that only Bonded could. Envisioning a life with Zevran was achingly simple – very little would change save that he could call and claim Zevran as his own, and know he belonged to him in return.

Baldur felt himself rapidly approaching his peak for the second time and pulled back to gasp as Zevran ground his abdomen against Baldur’s trapped cock. Zevran’s was rock hard - as if emulating a golem after all - and throbbing as it skewered him over and over.

“Close?” Zevran murmured into his hair.

Baldur nodded, holding him just that little bit tighter. Zevran picked up his pace, reaching down to grip Baldur’s cock with his hand and fisting the other in his hair to draw his head back with a gasp.

“I want you to scream for me, Baldur. I want them to hear you from all the way up in their precious tower.”

“Don’t...don’t blame me if the others kick down the door with staffs and swords blazing,” Baldur half moaned, half laughed. “They’ll think I’m being slaughtered.”

“Don’t ruin the fantasy,” Zevran scolded, but he was smiling too.

Baldur did as asked even without Zevran’s prompting, his voice rising higher and higher as Zevran pounded into him until he broke off with a strangled cry, digging furrows into Zevran’s back until the other man hissed and slapped his body hard against Baldur’s, pulsing inside of him as they found their completion together.

Amrali...” Baldur panted, unable to let go even as they both began to wind down. Zevran was still rocking gently against him to draw out every last shiver of pleasure to be had. “Amsumul, ghivashel. Amrali.

“One day you will translate for me,” Zevran said, his lips soft against Baldur’s glistening forehead, his eyelids, his nose...his mouth...

“One day,” Baldur promised, touching the tips of his fingers to Zevran’s cheek.

A knock, almost like clockwork, came from the other side of the door.

“Is someone dying in there?” Alistair’s concerned, slightly uncertain voice drifted in, the floorboards creaking as he undoubtedly shifted from foot to foot in indecision on whether or not to just barge into the room. Baldur almost swore he heard Leliana giggle and Bastion whine, but they were quickly hushed.

“Why don’t you come check for yourself?” Zevran called back as he gently freed himself from Baldur’s body, arranging them both to his liking with Baldur’s back flush against his damp chest, arm steady and secure around his waist. Baldur hastily reached for the duvet to cover themselves with in case Alistair actually took Zevran up on the suggestion, but fortunately Alistair seemed to think better of it.

“Just...keep it down. The rest of us are trying to sleep,” Alistair grumbled before the sound of footsteps retreating echoed down the hall.

“Shame,” Zevran sighed, clucking his tongue.

“Narrowly-averted trauma,” Baldur corrected, and grinned when Zevran bit him in wordless rebuke.

Baldur didn’t have to wonder where he’d suddenly picked up the habit of biting. Perhaps Alistair’s accusation that Zevran was a bad influence wasn’t so unfounded after all, but there was nothing to be had for it, aside from a few pints of ale and a good brushing to remove the last of Uldred’s blood from the back of his mouth. That would come later, but for now... Baldur was looking forward to an honest night’s sleep not influenced by a demon or exhaustion brought on by his berserker.

---

In the tavern, Baldur traded for supplies with the innkeeper and handed out various gifts he’d “collected” from the tower, although he was certain not to mention where he’d acquired the items within Wynne’s hearing range. He pressed gold and wine into Zevran’s hands and was rewarded with a kiss as Zevran vanished the gifts into his own pack when Baldur was otherwise distracted. To his surprise, he received the same response when he presented Leliana with an amulet of Andraste, the warmth of her lips on his fleeting but shocking. He tripped over a bench seat when she pulled back with an affectionate smile, and a large bone and a shining green gem fell out of his pack and tumbled onto the floor. Bastion gave an excited yip and scooped up both up items in his mouth, taking off for the front door before Baldur could stop him.

“I suppose the rock was to be my gift?” Shale drawled. “Of course it was. Dog! I demand its return at once. I will not be digging through its feces to retrieve it later!”

Shale lumbered through the door after Bastion, and Baldur shook his head as Alistair helped him back to his feet.

“Here,” Baldur said, handing Alistair’s gift over to him. Alistair looked down at the smooth white runestone in his hand, his mouth twisted ruefully.

“I suppose if I must,” he sighed. Before Baldur could ask what he meant by that, Alistair wrapped an arm around Baldur’s shoulders and actually dipped him back like a swooning maiden before planting a hard, determined kiss right over Baldur’s mouth.

“By the beards of my Ancestors!” Baldur spluttered as he was righted, taking several stumbling steps back to put distance between him and the other members of his group who had suddenly lost their minds.

“Ohh, Sten next! That one I would pay to see,” Zevran exclaimed, clapping his hands together once as he rocked back on his heels in delight.

Baldur sighed and warily retrieved the small framed painting that Leliana had assured him Sten would love for some unfathomable reason. The painting was a bit damaged, which was unsurprising considering the disaster the Circle had been left in, but Leliana wasn’t the type to play practical jokes. He went ahead with her advice, however bewildering the idea of Sten liking anything other than training and fighting and glowering was.

“Do you require a physical display as payment?” Sten growled, eyeing the portrait a bit longingly, to Baldur’s bemusement.

“Yes!” Zevran crowed.

“No,” Baldur said firmly, retreating before Sten got any ideas.

Meravas. You have my thanks.”

Wynne chuckled and kissed his brow when he presented her a bottle of wine as well, uncertain of her likes and dislikes as of yet, but she seemed like the refined sort who would appreciate a decent vintage. That only left...

“I will not be kissing you, dwarf,” Morrigan stated immediately. Baldur leveled her a crooked grin and shrugged, handing over the book he’d found in the Circle without a word.

"You...found Flemeth's grimoire?"

"Is that what that is?" Baldur asked curiously as Morrigan held the heavy tome in her hands reverently. "It was one of the only books that didn't try to bite or shock me in the Circle. I thought it looked interesting."

"My mother was once divested of a particular grimoire by a most annoying templar hunter. It occurred long before I was born, but even today Flemeth speaks of the loss with great rage. This is most fortuitous, indeed! I will begin study of the tome immediately."

Baldur had not seen Morrigan so excited or even crack a smile that wasn't in some way malicious prior to that day, and the expression transformed her already impossibly beautiful face into something soft and radiant. Morrigan hesitated rather than immediately running off to pour over her newest acquisition. After a moment of visible indecision, she huffed out a short breath and leaned over to peck a light kiss to Baldur’s cheek before abruptly turning away, already paging through her mother’s grimoire hungrily. Baldur couldn’t help but chuckle as he pressed a hand to his cheek, feeling an immeasurable wave of fondness for all of his companions.

“Shall we depart then? The Urn of Sacred Ashes waits for no man, surely,” Zevran said, coming over to wrap his arms around Baldur from behind and rest his chin on top of his head. Baldur leaned into him as much as he was able with a sword and shield strapped to his back, but nodded.

The group was attacked almost by rote as they left the tavern by suspicious-looking men who’d apparently taken exception to their unsubtle murmurings about heading up to the Frostback Mountains. They were dispatched with hardly a thought, no doubt a lingering remnant of the faction of cultists Baldur thought he’d taken care of in Haven. The mountains were within sight of Lake Calenhad, but progress was slow in-between darkspawn, difficult to navigate terrain, and blisteringly cold wind and snow. Baldur had time to reflect upon the events that had transpired within the Circle of Magi and found opportunity to speak with his companions on matters that needed clarification.

“What can a templar do, exactly?” Baldur asked Alistair when they passed through a clearing of trees that provided a reprieve from the howling winds that made conversation otherwise impossible without shouting.

“Essentially they’re trained to fight. The Chantry would tell you that the templars exist simply to defend, but don’t let them fool you. They’re an army. The other main purpose for a templar is, of course, to hunt mages. To that end, we train in talents that drain mana and disrupt spells. The Chantry keeps a close reign on its templars. We’re given lyrium to help develop our magical talents, you see...which means we become addicted.”

“So templars are leashed just as much as the mages they watch over?”

“In a way, I suppose so. The Chantry controls the lyrium trade with the dwarves...well, I’m sure you can put two and two together.”

There were no mages or templars in Orzammar, but isana – or lyrium – was mined and refined by the dwarves, their most lucrative export. Baldur sincerely doubted his kind knew how dangerous the substance was to non-dwarves. They tended to view surfacers as lesser beings entirely; all that fresh air and open space made them addled in the head. Even if they did know the addictive and powerful properties of the coveted lyrium, the merchants very likely didn’t care.

“The Chantry usually doesn’t let their templars get away, either, so they can spread their secrets. I’m a bit of an exception. Lucky me.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Baldur said with a wry expression, which Alistair echoed even as he bumped his elbow against Baldur’s arm companionably. Baldur went to Morrigan next for the other side of the templar-mage rivalry, managing with some difficulty to tear her away from her mother’s book.

“Have you ever been hunted by the Chantry?” he asked her while the conversation with Alistair was still fresh in his mind.

Morrigan chuckled, only vaguely threatening, as her sharp yellow eyes gazed down at him keenly. “You are very cute to ask so many questions.”

Baldur flushed, but he knew an evasion tactic when he heard one, especially when he spent so much time in the company of a master evader of uncomfortable topics.

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

“Of course I don’t. ‘Tis no matter. My mother has been hunted from time to time, yes. By templar fools like Alistair-“ she projected her voice purposefully and Baldur saw Alistair glance over at them with a petulant scowl, “-which should tell you how successful they generally were. I did not understand the danger we faced until I was much older. I had never heard of ‘apostates’ or ‘maleficarum’.”

“What is an apostate, exactly?”

“You do not know?” Morrigan asked. “The zealots use that word for any magic user they do not control.”

Baldur gestured to himself as if to say ‘dwarf’. He couldn’t use his race as an excuse for his ignorance any longer, however, which was why he was seeking out the others in his group to flesh out his education regarding the complex politics on the surface. They were an entirely different beast from Orzammar’s internal conflicts and strict adherence to tradition.  

“The Chantry sees any mages not leashed to the Circle of Magi as ‘apostates’. And apostates could become ‘maleficarum:’ evil mages that resort to blood magic and become demon-enslaved abominations. It may even be true. Still, those of us who prefer freedom see no reason to submit.”

“If I were a mage, I might think the same,” Baldur admitted. He might not have gotten the best impression of the Circle considering it had been overrun with these maleficarum and abominations at the time, and him trapped inside the tower with them.

“Thank you for small favors,” Morrigan declared, throwing her hands up in feigned relief. “Enough talk. We have more important matters to attend to and I grow weary of this chatter.”

The conversation was practically civil, Baldur was pleased to note. Morrigan seemed to be warming up to him, although he almost thought he’d prefer one of her fireballs considering how damnably cold the weather was this season. He’d rarely experienced any sort of incremental weather before. Wind, rain, and snow were utterly foreign to Orzammar since the dwarven city was completely sheltered from the elements and warmed from its own internal source.

Their tents were useless against the snow and wind, but Sten demonstrated how to dig in the snow and form shelters against the trunks of trees. It was too cold to sleep alone, except for Morrigan whose only concession to the bitterly chill temperature was to don an artfully tattered cloak and hood. Leliana and Wynne bunked together without complaint while Alistair, Sten, and Bastion were already familiar enough companions to take another shelter. No one was fool enough to come between the amorous pair Baldur and Zevran made, although their lodging became plenty warm given a little time.

Shale led the group, plowing through snow and leaving a clear path for the rest of them to follow. They took care to skirt the outer edges of Haven without veering too close to the entrance into Orzammar, which was located within the Frostback Mountains. Baldur suspected Haven’s inhabitants weren't the sort to quickly forget or forgive the people who had killed their religious leaders and planned on destroying their sacred incarnation of Andraste, just as his own people would never forget Baldur’s own misdeeds.  Their group moved steadily through the mountain pass despite the bitterly cold weather and piles of snow, but Baldur made sure that no one was left behind. He was concerned for Wynne as the oldest non-golem in the group, but she never slowed them down or showed any sign of difficulty.

“Are you alright?” Baldur asked her quietly, lending her a hand as they clambered up a particularly icy incline, which she took gratefully.

“Oh, it’s been a long day. Rest...rest would be welcome. As you may have noticed, I’m no spring chicken.”

“No, Shale would never stand for poultry traveling with our group.”

“Hah...very funny. But in all honesty, I do not know how many years I have left in me. I have lived for such a long time. But there’s always something else to do, and I have to keep going in order to do it. I think I will be glad when I am...done.”

“Don’t say things like that,” Baldur said, stopping to face Wynne and taking up her gloved hands in his own. “We still need you.”

Wynne’s face was lined and haggard, cheeks red and windburned, but her chapped lips still managed to form a smile as she tightened her fingers around Baldur’s. “I’ll see this through, I promise. I’m not the sort of person that leaves things unfinished.”

“Nor am I,” Baldur said.

She squeezed his hands one more time and let go before one of them slipped and dragged the other down with them. Baldur was going to ask something else about Wynne’s history with the Circle, but all thoughts flew out of his head when Alistair gave a sudden shout and disappeared beneath the snow. Baldur was too far away to reach him in time. Sten, however, was close enough to reach out and pluck Alistair free from the snow. Baldur let out a breath of relief when Alistair’s head reappeared, but he tensed when he saw that Sten had grabbed Alistair by the throat and didn’t seem inclined to let go. Sten’s face was unreadable as he lifted Alistair up with only one hand and swung him out over a precipice that Alistair had only missed by a few feet – a drop that ended with a outcropping of jagged, ice-coated boulders.

Alistair choked and gripped at Sten's forearm frantically, trying to claw his way back up as his eyes rolled wildly in fresh terror.

"Sten!" Baldur barked. His hand went to his hilt as he tensed to rush forward, quickly accessing the situation. The others either watched with disinterest – Shale; avid fascination - Morrigan and Zevran; or with horror as they went for their own weapons -Wynne and Leliana.

Bastion reacted first. He growled and leapt at Sten, clamping his powerful jaws around the back of Sten's armored calf and yanking backwards.

"Tharaka!” Baldur commanded when Sten staggered and nearly sent all three of them over the cliff. "Enough! Put Alistair down now!"

"Don't drop me, don't drop me!" Alistair wheezed frantically when Sten's arm lowered, his feet encountering empty space instead of ground.

Aodr was halfway out of its sheath when Sten abruptly turned and deposited Alistair on the frozen ground that had been compacted by Shale's steps. Alistair must have accidentally strayed from the path, falling into a hidden snow bank. Bastion barked and bounded over to Alistair’s side, licking his frozen face as Alistair wrapped his arms around the enormous hound and clung to him, trembling.

"We do not harm our own," Baldur said, his voice dangerously quiet as he addressed Sten.

"I would not have allowed the annoying Warden to come to injury. It was merely a deterrent. He has learned his lesson, has he not?" Sten's tone was implacable.

"I-I take back every b-bad thing I've ever said about you, S-Sten,” Alistair chattered fervently into Bastion’s fur. “I-I even p-promise to stop hogging the blankets at night.”

"You are a Grey Warden. You should not be so incompetent that you walk off the side of a mountain without provocation," Sten said, clearly unrepentant.

"I s-slipped! That c-could have happened to anyone!”

"How are you going to face an Archdemon if you cannot protect yourself?"

"It is a m-mystery, I'll admit. My f-fingers are too numb to even grip a s-sword right now even if I w-wanted to."

"Oh! I know ways we can warm up a cold body. I'm game if you are," Zevran suggested, already beginning to sidle up to Alistair’s side.

"As do I," Morrigan added, her hand blazing with fire.

Alistair looked between them with mounting horror before he scrambled to his feet, brushing the snow quickly off his armor. "I-Is it just me or is it suddenly hot in here?" he asked with loud, nervous laughter. "Whew! I'm...s-sweltering. Could really go for a c-cold bath and a drink of ice water right now..."

Alistair's voice faded as he sprinted after Shale, who had barely stopped when Alistair fell. Baldur saw with no small amount of relief that Alistair made certain that he placed his feet precisely in the indentations Shale had made, eyes fixed cautiously to the ground.

Baldur made a note to do the same himself.

The temple of Andraste was just as they left it – a towering, frost-encrusted construct that had fallen into ruins, but was no less beautiful for its shambling conditions. The door was still unlocked from their previous venture within the temple, and Baldur was even more surprised to see the man they had left behind still working diligently on recording his findings within the great hall, appearing none the worse for wear.

“Brother Genitivi!” Leliana called out, and Genitivi looked up with a surprised, welcoming grin.

“You’ve been gone for quite some time! Oh, you are a welcome sight, my dear! Have you found the Urn?”

“We haven’t yet, but that’s why we’ve returned.”

“I had hoped to see you all again. The carvings I’ve found are fascinating. I could study them for an entire lifetime and still only uncover a fraction of their meaning!”

“You’re alive!” Baldur blurted out, staring at Genitivi in awe.

They had left him alone in the frozen temple with an injured leg, broken ribs, and limited food and supplies months ago, and yet he appeared to be relatively well against all odds. He favored one leg and was looking rather gaunt, but his enthusiasm for the temple and the secrets it held hadn’t flagged a bit. Wynne checked him over and healed what she could, but affirmed he had no life-threatening injuries, which was a weight lifted off Baldur’s mind. Genitivi must have foraged goods off the bodies and abandoned supplies from the cultists Baldur's group had defeated during their first attempt to slay the dragon guarding the Urn to have survived as long as he had... Or perhaps simply being in the presence of his Maker had restored Genitivi, if one were to believe in such things.

“I am alive and well,” Genitivi laughed, waving off the offer of a restorative potion but eagerly accepting a sheaf of parchment instead. “It’s been quiet here. Just myself and the Maker, I suppose.”

“We had a brief fight with some cultist in Lake Calenhad, but I think for the most part we’ve flushed out the rest.”

“That’s good to hear. I haven’t had any luck locating clues to the Urn’s exact location, but then again I only dared to venture so far. You never know what surprises may still be lurking.”

Baldur thought of the dragon waiting on top of the mountain, and couldn’t agree more.

They made their reunion brief, but Baldur left Bastion with Genitivi for company and protection, even though Genitivi seemed more than capable of taking care of himself. Truthfully, Baldur couldn’t bear to pit his dog against a dragon, especially since he couldn’t exactly fit Bastion with armor, and all it would take was one swipe of a claw or misplaced foot and Bastion would be crushed.

As much as Baldur hated traversing the temple of Andraste with its icy halls and multitude of nasty traps, he couldn't help the bubble of warmth that filled his chest when he recalled the incredibly clumsy and unintentional courtship of the man who was to become his sanâzyung; the other half of his soul, his most precious treasure above all else. From the way Zevran looked at him, golden-eyed gaze warm and knowing, before he dragged Baldur up against a pillar and kissed him senseless, Baldur knew he was remembering the same.

The trip through the temple and tunnels and up to the mountain top took far less time, especially since they knew where they were going and had little to fear from rogue cultists and dragonlings. Baldur felt his heart beating anxiously within the confines of his ribcage at the thought of facing the dragon again, but he couldn’t help feeling marginally excited as well. They were all stronger than they had been and far better prepared. The group hunkered down within a cavern for the night and went over their battle plan, which relied heavily on the abilities of Wynne and Morrigan to try and keep the dragon grounded and heal any debilitating injuries during the fight. The warriors would be on the ground engaging the dragon directly, while the mages and archers took point on higher terrain in order to evade being grabbed or caught by the dragon’s fiery breath. Zevran and Leliana filled their quivers with arrows magically charmed to inflict ice damage while Shale swapped out the green crystals on its arms and shoulders for glowing orange fire crystals that would improve its resistance to flame attacks. All exposed skin would be coated in a warmth balm that would hopefully protect against the worst of the dragon’s flame when they set out for the mountain top in the morning.

Sleep was hard to come by and they all huddled around a large, roaring fire exchanging stories or banter, or merely observing in silence. Baldur had discarded his outer armor, inspecting and cleaning the drake scale that was to be his only protection against the dragon, while Zevran sat on the ground next to him to do the same with his own equipment. Conversation eventually petered out, and those who could sleep drifted off to their bedrolls, placed close together for warmth and companionship against the pervasive darkness of the caverns that echoed every breath, every loose pebble clattering against stone. The fire crackled and Baldur caught Leliana humming under her breath. She smiled at him when he caught her eye, and indulged them all with a soft, haunting melody that caused him to shiver at how aptly the tune reflected their current situation.

“If this is to end in fire
Then we should all burn together
Watch the flames climb high into the night.

Calling out father oh
Stand by and we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on
The mountain side.

And if we should die tonight
Then we should all die together
Raise a glass of wine for the last time.

Calling out father oh
Prepare as we will
Watch the flames burn auburn on
The mountain side
Desolation comes upon the sky.

Now I see fire
Inside the mountain
I see fire
Burning the trees
And I see fire
Hollowing souls
I see fire
Blood in the breeze
And I hope that you remember me.”

Silence descended after the final strains faded into the darkness, their group sobered with acknowledgement for the danger they were throwing themselves into. Baldur could hardly reconcile with the fact that the dragon wouldn’t even be the most difficult or dangerous of the enemies they would be facing.

The Archdemon still lived while the Blight raged on, after all. 

Baldur tucked himself into a bedroll with Zevran a little while later when Aodr was sharpened to a lethal edge and his armor shone in the firelight. Their arms made an unbreakable tangle around each other with Zevran’s breath gently stirring his hair.

“If it matters at all, I prefer my meat well-done,” Zevran whispered. “Slightly charred is even better. I like that little added crunch.”

Baldur snorted and buried his face in Zevran’s chest when he chuckled in return. “You’re terrible,” Baldur accused, but his tone was undeniably fond. “I hear dwarves are gamey anyway. They make terrible entrees.”

“Ah, well then. I suppose that means you will have to avoid being roasted at all costs, my Warden.”

“You too, Zevran.”

Daybreak was heralded by a gradual, grey lightening of the cavern through the tunnel leading up and out to the mountain top, drawing them all into reflexive motion as they packed up their gear and shook the stiffness out of fingers and limbs gone numb from the cold. Breakfast was a somber affair that involved a light repast and strong tea before slathering their faces in greasy, pungent balm and buckling each other into reinforced armor.

Baldur took a small group and quietly scouted the overlook, pointing out the forked tip of a snake-like tail at the top of a very high outcropping of rock before it flicked and disappeared out of sight. Once the entire team was assembled, they made their way as quickly and quietly as possible outside, trying to avoid drawing the dragon’s attention to them before they were ready. Wynne, Morrigan, Leliana, and Zevran swiftly moved to their vantage points overlooking the crater-like indentation the rest of them would try to keep the dragon contained. He instructed Shale to the center of the crater, feeling a lump of lead in his stomach as the golem complied. He would be joining Shale soon enough, but he could barely hold back the fear that he was sending some of them – if not all – to their deaths, and it would be entirely his fault if they failed a second time.

The gong, a signal that would draw the dragon to them once sounded, was still as they had left it. Before he could hesitate any longer, Baldur hit the gong with the pommel of his sword. The resulting crash echoed throughout the valley and was answered by a resounding roar as the dragon reared up from its perch and flared out massive wings that blocked out the sun before it took flight. Shale, as instructed, fearlessly issued a challenging bellow in return, glowing eyes fixed to the dragon as it circled them.

“Are you prepared?” Sten asked Baldur without showing any sign of nerves or fear.

“No, I thought we’d go for tea and cookies and leave the rest of them to have at it.”

“Very well,” Sten said. “I prefer my cookies with butter and cinnamon.”

Baldur did a double-take. Sten’s face was as rigidly stoic as ever, but Baldur thought he could detect a telling curve near Sten’s permanently downturned mouth.

“I’ll buy you a dozen if we make it through this,” Baldur promised, lowering his face guard as he followed Sten and Alistair down the rampart towards where the dragon was closing in on Shale, preparing to land. He felt a brief smile tug at his lips before he called up his berserker state as easily as breathing, adding his own bellow into the mix as they charged.

The whistle of arrows and magic rang in Baldur’s ears and struck at the dragon with unerring accuracy. However, because of the dragon’s immense size, it shook off the assault within seconds. The warriors only had a brief window in which they could unleash their attack before they had to quickly dodge the dragon’s belching flame once it shook off its temporary paralysis. Despite Wade’s armor, Baldur could feel his skin begin to crackle when he and Shale jumped in-between a torrent of flame aimed directly at Sten and Alistair, who were attempting to hamstring the dragon. The dragon was fast for all of its bulk, and try as they might they couldn’t keep the damn thing grounded. Alistair grunted and lost his sword and shield when the dragon abruptly spun and caught him in the midsection with its tail, sweeping his feet right out from beneath him as he was thrown a great distance to land with a painful crunch of limbs and armor. A powerful gust of wind knocked Sten and Baldur flat on their backs an instant later as the dragon launched itself in the air, only to land with a shuddering reverberation that felt like an earthquake near where Wynne had been stationed.

“Shit!” Baldur cursed, stumbling to his feet as he took off in that direction. His breath came out in white puffs, the air thin and burning in his lungs as he barreled up the incline.

Wynne was holding her own well enough, ducking and keeping out of reach as best she could, but Baldur could see that her spells and strength were weakening, hardly affecting the dragon at all. Wynne winced as flame came close to singeing her hair, but instead of running away from the dragon she ran towards it, jabbing her staff directly upward and unleashing a blast of concentrated frost at its midsection.

The dragon gave a high shriek and twisted, rolling itself away from Wynne’s spell and taking off into the air again.

“The underbelly! Go for the underbelly!” she cried out.

The arrows that had been aiming for the dragon’s eyes and wings to little effect changed their trajectory, pinging off scales but sinking into more vulnerable flesh as the dragon rose up on its hind quarters, slashing with talons longer than Baldur himself at the archers. Sten was dragging Alistair off to the side, bracing him with a shoulder wedged under his arm as Alistair struggled to get his feet under him after being knocked down by the dragon’s tail. Baldur circled the dragon and dove out of the way when it twisted around and snapped at him while Shale gave a taunting cry of challenge to keep the dragon's attention focused on it.

Baldur rejoined Shale in the crater and stabbed frantically at the dragon's underbelly when it came shuddering down onto all four legs as Shale pounded at the beast mercilessly with boulder-sized fists. The air around them sizzled with the smell of char and ozone as Wynne flooded them with rejuvenating energies, tossing aside a drained vial that had previously contained an electric blue potion made from lyrium. Leliana and Zevran were also staying back, their quivers empty as they looked on with grim, anxious expressions. Of the original eight, only Baldur, Wynne, Morrigan, and Shale remained in the fight.

The dragon became increasingly vicious as it tired and lashed out in primal rage that Baldur felt echoed deep within his own core. He felt the first glimmer of triumph swell within him; the difference a few weeks and extra fighters made compared to their first attempt was beyond comparison. They were doing this. They were actually going to win—

Baldur's confidence came crashing down when he was caught within the dragon's powerful grasp as he lost sight of the dragon's limbs for less than a second and was suddenly airborn. It reared up on its hind legs with Baldur dangling from its claws. The sudden elevation was nauseating as Baldur found himself a great distance from the ground. A fall from this height would likely cripple - if not outright kill him - but still Baldur stabbed at the dragon's forefingers bigger around than his entire arm, gasping in pain as the dragon's grip constricted further when Morrigan's spell caught it right in the chest. The force nearly crushed his ribs. Baldur saw a flash of gold dart past beneath the dragon, and before he had a chance to react, Zevran was scaling the dragon's spine as if the ridges were a staircase. He had a dagger in each hand that dripped poison while his bow and quiver were nowhere to be found. 

"Zevran, no!" Baldur shouted when the dragon's claws loosened and he sucked in a large breath of air while he had the chance. His heart stopped in sheer terror at the sight of his lover standing right on top of the dragon instead of safely ensconced on an overlook and out of the reach of the dragon's flame or claws, as Baldur had ordered. 

Zevran either did not hear or chose to ignore him as he stabbed into the back of the dragon's neck and twisted the dagger savagely. The dragon gave a great roar and tossed its head, launching Zevran into the air the same moment its claw opened and dropped Baldur. Baldur flailed and felt his stomach swoop up into his throat as the ground rapidly approached. He was caught at the very last instant by a pair of stone arms reaching up and snagging him from the air as Baldur crashed into a rock solid chest. Shale did not grunt or exclaim at the impact, although Shale was knocked back a step or two from the sheer weight and velocity of a falling dwarf. Shale dropped him carelessly, anyway, but the distance of a fall from a golem’s height as opposed to a dragon’s was vastly different, and Baldur scrambled to his feet at once to watch on in horror. 

Baldur was certain he was about to witness Zevran be killed as the dragon opened its giant maw to either expel a gout of flame or swallow Zevran whole on his decent. Zevran threw the second dagger in his left hand directly into the base of the dragon's neck and swiftly reached out to grab one of the dragon's horns to swing himself around and into a crouch on the back of its enormous, flat skull just as its jaw snapped closed on empty air. He pulled his daggers out of the dragon’s neck, stabbing the blades back in with a breathtaking display of violence and grace as the dragon screamed in fury. Zevran's weapons were a blur and he was quickly drenched in steaming and likely scalding blood, using his embedded daggers as handholds to keep from being flung off for a second time. 

Wynne and Morrigan leveled the dragon with a relentless volley of everything they had left, taking care not to hit Zevran - Baldur hoped. Zevran grabbed the hilts of his blades buried in the dragon’s neck and shoved outwards as hard as he could, severing the dragon's spine with a horrible, wet crack. The dragon twisted and writhed in its death throws, already dead, but its huge body took several seconds to catch up to the fact. Zevran flung himself off the dragon's head to twist and land on his feet effortlessly before the dragon collided with the ground, its entire body hitting the earth with a clamorous crash that shook the very stone. 

A stunned, disbelieving silence fell over the mountain, and for a moment Baldur couldn't hear over the ringing in his ears. Zevran approached the dragon's head without regard to whether the beast was only felled temporarily or playing possum, and retrieved his weapons with an air of haughty satisfaction. Baldur saw images in his mind of Zevran being snapped up by the dragon's great maw or skewered by its claws as it grabbed him and flew up to its perch where they wouldn't be able to get to him before it was too late. 

"Zevran!" Baldur barked, his voice tremulous with fear and anger and the wild rush of adrenaline. He wanted to grab Zevran like a wayward kitten and shake him by the back of his neck after dragging him away to safety first. He couldn't believe Zevran had done that, had mounted the dragon as if it were an overlarge pony and taken matters into his own hands even as Wynne and Morrigan had to adjust their attacks so as not to strike him as well as the dragon. 

Baldur couldn't think, he was so furious.

The control he had learned in the Fade was sorely tested as he fought not to shout down Zevran in front of the others and completely lose himself to the fear-fueled tirade that struggled to break free. Zevran thankfully moved away from the dragon before he could try prodding at the thing further, although he saw Alistair had a look on his face that meant he was considering grabbing the dragon's tail, too, as soon as he caught his breath. Baldur didn't know how he had managed to fall in with a group of children, but sometimes...often...they made him feel ancient. He would soon be as white-haired as his father, who was over two centuries old. 

Wynne cast a weak, but rejuvenating spell over the entire group, standing tall and proud, although Baldur could see the lines of strain creasing her eyes and mouth. He had no doubt in his mind they would have failed without her despite their increased numbers and preparedness. She had been focused and fierce, maintaining a ceaseless hailstorm of spells that struck offensively at the dragon from afar even as she kept an eye on the rest of them and sent necessary healing spells to their flagging members. Baldur owed her a debt that he wouldn't ever to be able to repay, but he would make certain she knew that her presence was appreciated and do everything in his limited power to see that she had everything she needed. 

"Our task is not finished yet. We still need to find the Urn," Leliana reminded them as they all caught their breath and marveled at being alive.

Baldur had forgotten entirely about the Urn, so focused on the dragon that the sheer relief of its having been defeated erased all else from his mind, aside from his anger at Zevran for risking himself unnecessarily. They would have words in private, that much was certain, but only after Baldur had calmed down before he said something they both would regret. The group trudged across the grounds and approached a large metal doorway leading to a second temple, their last chance to locate the Urn, if it even existed. Baldur was practically dead on his feet, but he gritted his teeth and pushed on, nearly collapsing in the entryway as the door swung open easily beneath his touch. 

"Might I suggest resting here?" Wynne asked, even though the hair on Baldur's arms rose at the feeling of old, powerful magic that permeated the temple. "At least we shall be out of the elements and can tend to our wounded."

The sun had barely reached its peak, but Baldur was determined to have the Urn within his possession by the day’s end, bruised and exhausted though he was. He glanced back at the company, whose individual status fell between the range of being only slightly singed to nearly dead on their feet. He saw the wisdom in Wynne's suggestion, hoping there was nothing malicious lurking within the temple for them while they weren’t at their full strength.

“Very well,” Baldur said, rubbing at his cheek sticky with balm and dragon blood. “But not for too long. I want to take a small group and explore the temple within an hour or two.”

Alistair was slumped on the ground and propped up against the wall where Sten had dropped him and needed help removing his armor in order to examine the extent of his injuries. Wynne knelt next to Alistair when he was stripped down to his tunic and trousers, drawing his hands away from where they were favoring his ribs. He cried out when Wynne prodded at his cracked ribs that were already a nasty shade of purple.

“Why does this always happen to me?” he whined. 

“Perhaps you should learn how to duck,” Sten suggested, crossing his arms over his chest. He had no visible injuries and seemed vaguely disappointed that they weren’t still out there fighting the dragon.

"Wynne..." Alistair started, watching Wynne's hands as they gently pressed against his side, knitting the bones back together.

"Yes, Alistair?"

"My shirt has a hole in it," Alistair said sadly, holding up the edge of his tunic that had more issues than just a hole. There were bloodstains and burn marks too, but clothing tended to have a very short lifespan in their group.

"I see. And?"

"Can you mend it when we get back to camp?" Alistair pleaded, sounding very young and helpless despite the fact he was a full grown man.

"Can't you mend your own clothes? Why do I have to do it?" Wynne raised her eyebrow, tugging down Alistair's shirt once his ribs were healed and the bruising on his skin faded to yellow and green.

"Sometimes I pick up too much fabric and it ends up all puckered and the entire garment hangs wrong afterward and you're, you know. Grandmotherly. Grandmothers do that sort of thing, don't they? Darning socks and whatnot?" His pout became truly impressive, bottom lip bobbing with every word. "You don't want me to have to fight darkspawn in a shirt with a hole, do you? It might get bigger and I might catch cold!"

"Oh all right," Wynne sighed, patting Alistair's leg before using his shoulder to stand back up with a soft groan and crackle of joints. "I'll mend your shirt the next time we set up camp."

"Oh! And while you're at it, the elbows kind of need patching, too."

"Careful, young man. Or puckered garments may be the least of your problems."

Baldur didn’t speak much to the others, conserving his strength and planning their next move while they broke for a midday meal. He had no idea what would be waiting for them within the temple, guarding the Urn. He hated splitting up the group, but they would make better time with fewer people while the others could rest. For purely selfish reasons, he wanted Zevran where he could keep an eye on him. If they were dealing with spirits or apostates, as the old magic in the temple seemed to suggest, he also wanted the mages with him even though Wynne and Morrigan were fairly tapped out on mana.

Sten, Shale, and Leliana would be able to take care of themselves and keep an eye out for Alistair so Baldur’s attention wasn’t split worrying after them as well.  He gathered his small group and ventured deeper within the temple cautiously. Up ahead, he spotted a  man in full armor wearing an elaborate, winged helmet guarding the only door leading into the temple. Baldur was instantly on the defense. The only inhabitants he'd encountered in the adjacent temple they’d initially entered through with Brother Genitivi belonged to Haven's cultists. When the man spoke, he seemed unconcerned by their appearance. His voice echoed with the weight of power that made Baldur’s back molars vibrate. 

"I bid you welcome, pilgrim," the man greeted, rather than going for the enormous maul strapped to his back at the group's cautious approach. "I am the Guardian, the protector of the Urn of Sacred Ashes. It has been my duty, my life, to protect the Urn and prepare the way for the faithful who come to revere Andraste." 

"So the dragon was not Andraste?" Baldur asked. He hadn't believed the cultists’ claims at the time, but if he'd accidentally destroyed humankind’s goddess in his quest to find the Urn, he doubted even his own creator would be able to save him from the Maker’s wrath. 

"No. Our Andraste has gone to the Maker's side. She will not return." 

Baldur felt a knot of tension uncoil before it had a chance to fully form, but he still watched the Guardian with suspicion. "Are you with those men who have taken over the temple?" 

"The dragon is a fearsome creature. Those men, as you say, must have seen the dragon as an alternative to the absent Maker and His silent Andraste. I made a vow, to Andraste and to the Maker. My life is tied to the Ashes. As long as they remain, so will I." 

"I would like to see the Urn," Baldur said, just short of a demand.  

"You have come to honor Andraste, and you shall, if you prove yourself worthy." 

Baldur hadn't, actually, but tactfully refrained from mentioning as much. "So...I have to fight you?" 

"It is not my place to decide your worthiness. The Gauntlet does that. If you are found worthy, you will see the Urn and be allowed to take a small pinch of Ashes for yourself. If not..." 

"I get the idea. Let's get this over with." 

The Guardian looked at Baldur keenly and he shifted under the weight of his gaze that seemed more ancient than Baldur could possibly fathom.  

"Before you go, there is something I must ask. I see that the path that led you here was not easy. There is suffering in your past --your suffering, and the suffering of others." 

"Oh, very good," Zevran chimed in. "He didn't even have to inspect your palm first. Alas! I have been exposed as a fraud!" 

The Guardian continued without gazing away from Baldur despite the interruption. "Bhelen's machinations led to Trian's death and your exile. You allowed this to happen. Do you think you failed Trian?"  

Zevran's mouth dropped open. 

Baldur staggered back, his face draining of all color as the Guardian's words hit him with the force of an entire mountain collapsing down on him. His ears rang, echoing back the names he never expected to hear again. He couldn't breathe. He felt trapped, his greatest secret exposed. He couldn't even recall the Guardian's question, ‘Trian’ and ‘Bhelen’ still reverberating in his head like the roar of a dragon or the swarming hoard of darkspawn converging upon a battlefield. 

“How do you know of my past?” Baldur demanded, clenching and releasing his fists helplessly. 

“Your path is laid out before me and plain to see—in the lines of your face and the scars on your heart. Do you believe you failed Trian?” the Guardian asked again, calm but relentless. 

A gentle hand touched his arm and Baldur jerked his head up, wild-eyed, to look at Wynne, whose sympathetic expression seemed incongruous to the horror and shame Baldur felt coursing through him. He trembled under Wynne's hand. Baldur rapidly blinked away the burning in his eyes that made seeing nearly impossible. The Guardian was waiting for an answer - Wynne, Morrigan, and Zevran likely were too - and Baldur finally looked away from Wynne, clearing his throat roughly. 

"No. I could not have known what Bhelen planned," Baldur rasped, angry and resentful that his past should be thrown in his face here of all places. Orzammar was merely a stone's throw away, located deep within the mountain, but utterly inaccessible to Baldur. 

“Then you do not dwell on past mistakes—neither yours, nor someone else’s.” 

That was blatantly untrue, but Baldur wasn’t going to argue. Each hurt, each failing, he carried deep within as a reminder that he needed to be stronger...to be better than he was. He obviously hadn’t learned a lesson from being betrayed by Bhelen, because he still trusted rather naively, but he didn’t want to believe the worst in people. Perhaps that made him dangerously delusional, but until he was given sufficient cause to question every single person’s motives that he came across in his dealings he would stay true to his own sense of self – regrets and all.  

“One wonders what this Guardian’s purpose is. Be wary of his traps,” Morrigan warned. 

“And what of those that follow you?” the Guardian asked, directing his gaze towards Wynne next. 

“Ask your question, Guardian. I am ready.” 

“You are ever the advisor,” the Guardian informed Wynne, “ready with a word of wisdom. Do you wonder if you spout only platitudes, burned into your mind in the distant past? Perhaps you are only a tool used to spread the word of the Circle and the Chantry. Does doubt ever chip away at your truths?” 

Were these Wynne’s darkest thoughts? Her deepest insecurities? Baldur felt awed and humbled by Wynne’s innate goodness, especially if the Guardian couldn’t unearth more damaging skeletons of her past. Baldur had many things to atone for in his life – that Wynne had none save for her own doubts was remarkable. 

“You frame the statement in the form of a question, yet you already know our answers,” Wynne responded evenly. “There is no sense in hiding, is there? Yes. I do doubt at times. Only the fool is completely certain of himself.” 

The Guardian inclined his head, accepting Wynne’s answer and turning to Baldur’s next companion. 

“And the Antivan elf...” 

“Is it my turn now? Hurrah. I’m so excited,” Zevran remarked dryly, his shoulders tensing as he crossed his arms over his chest.  

“Many have died at your hand. But is there any you regret more than a woman by the name of—“ 

“How do you know about that?” Zevran snapped, inhaling sharply.  

“I know much; it is allowed to me. The question stands, however. Do you regret—“ 

“Yes. The answer is yes, if that’s what you wish to know. I do. Now move on.” 

Baldur glanced at Zevran out of the corner of his eye, but quickly dropped his gaze. Zevran was refusing to look at any of them, though his fingers twitched toward his dagger almost reflexively. The Guardian didn’t seem to fear retaliation, however, and leveled his ancient gaze on Morrigan, who appeared more annoyed than anxious by the entire proceedings.  

“And you, Morrigan, Flemeth’s daughter...what—“ 

“Begone, spirit. I will not play your games.” 

“I will respect your wishes,” the Guardian said, and didn’t question her further. “The way is open. Good luck, and may you find what you seek.” 

Baldur nearly spluttered in disbelief. He hadn’t known he had the option of refusal and felt envious that Morrigan – possibly the most morally corrupt out of the lot of them – was permitted to keep her secrets to herself while Baldur, Wynne, and Zevran had been flayed open for all to see. 

Baldur replayed the Guardian’s words over and over in his mind as they moved on ahead. Perhaps he couldn’t let go of the past because he’d kept his life before becoming a Grey Warden buried for so long. The others now knew he’d been involved in his brother’s death, and still the world hadn’t ended. If he couldn’t open up to them, especially Zevran, then he would never truly be free. Coming to a difficult decision, Baldur turned towards the others, standing in the middle of a long hallway lit by torches. They halted and looked at him expectantly when they took in the wary but stubborn set to his jaw and shoulders. Baldur took a deep breath, scratching at the back of his neck uncomfortably as he looked somewhere over Morrigan's left shoulder.  

"So. I was framed for my brother’s death by our younger brother and banished from Orzammar," he said in one great breath, feeling weak-kneed at the admission. “I...might have also been a prince.” 

Silence greeted his statement as the words hung heavily in the air. Baldur closed his eyes so he wouldn’t have to see the betrayal on his companions’ faces when they realized the man they had been following and risking their lives for wasn’t the person they thought he was. He wasn’t someone that could be trusted after lying to them for so long. 

"I suppose this means you expect us to kneel before you and line the ground with rose petals for you to walk upon?" Morrigan asked, unimpressed.  

"You do have a regal demeanor about you. I did wonder..." said Wynne. 

"Yes," Zevran said simply. 

Baldur's eyes snapped over to him, startled upon seeing Zevran's affectionate smile as he tilted his head at Baldur.  

"Crow, remember? Our jobs aren't always limited to simply killing our targets. Information gathering is a large part why we are so skilled at certain...recreational...activities, and highly sought after. You'd be surprised how many plots are unraveled through pillow talk." 

Wynne's mouth turned down and the grip on her staff tightened visibly. "You speak as if you still consider yourself a Crow. Is that your plan for Baldur? To use him for your own ends?" 

Zevran shrugged. "Once a Crow always a Crow, although my allegiance has changed. I would think that if seducing the Grey Warden for nefarious purposes had been my plan all along even I would know better than to announce such a thing, hm? But, yes, that had been my intention after he defeated me and was kind enough to leave me alive." 

"And this is how you repay his kindness?" Wynne demanded, a visible aura of fury pulsing around her. "He cares for you, deeply, and you admit you've been pretending this entire time in order to use the things he tells you in confidence against him?"  

Zevran was moments away from being cinders smeared across the stone floor, but Baldur stepped between them before Wynne tore Zevran apart with only a word. It hurt, of course, to hear Zevran admit Baldur had merely a pawn in the beginning, but he also knew that he'd thrown a wrench in Zevran's plans when the assassin had started to catch feelings for the shy, stubborn dwarf who was ridiculously smitten with him and brought him presents even while refusing to bed him for the longest time.  

"It's okay, Wynne," Baldur said calmly, holding up a hand to stay her impending attack. "It's nothing that I didn't already know." 

"How can you possibly say that? You should have more respect for yourself! How can you allow this...this farce to continue after what he just admitted?" 

"What farce? Anyone with eyes could see the elf is just as soppy over him," Morrigan said in disgust. "Did the two of you not elope in Denerim, or were Leliana and I merely hallucinating?" 

"No..." 

"Yes!" 

Zevran and Baldur said at the same time, and then stared at each other in consternation. Clearly Baldur had missed something. 

"You're...married?" Wynne saidskeptically, disbelief evident in her tone. She looked between them as if navigating a minefield full of explosives. 

"No," Baldur said again, furrowing his brows at Zevran when his expression went dark and shuttered. "Not technically. We never said official vows, but he is my sanâzyung."  

Baldur struggled over the translation when he was met with blank expressions, appealing to Zevran when his lover crossed his arms over his chest and started to turn away.  

"It means...it means he is my perfect half, and I his. Our union was predestined and is considered sacred in the eyes of my Creator, whether vows are spoken between us or not. We are bound together." 

"That is a dwarven belief, is it not?" Wynne stated, her jaw set. "Zevran is not a dwarf." 

"You are quite correct, Wynne,” Zevran agreed at once, voice too cheerful. “Never mind anyway. It was my misunderstanding." 

"Zevran," Baldur pleaded, but Zevran cut him off with one of his patented, falsely reassuring smiles that Baldur hated. 

"We have an Urn to retrieve, do we not?" Zevran announced before heading towards the next room and whatever obstacles lay in store. 

Despite Zevran’s abrupt dismissal, Baldur couldn’t ignore that particularly jarring revelation so easily. How in the name of Mahal's left bullock could Zevran have thought they were married and never mention anything to Baldur? Baldur could have been spared so much anguish and self-doubt if he'd known Zevran returned the depth of feelings that Baldur felt for him. As it were, he could only feel helplessly furious for missing his chance to forge their relationship into something more permanent yet again. Zevran...hadn't necessarily spurned Baldur's Bonding gift, but he had hidden the clasps away and never made mention of them again. It wasn't fair. Zevran was always attentive and eager to please, so Baldur hadn't noticed a change in his demeanor towards him at all.  

He certainly hadn't felt as if Zevran considered them to be spouses. He would Bond with him in a heartbeat if he knew the option was allowed to him, if he knew marrying Baldur was something Zevran wanted just as badly. He could have lost Zevran today when he decided to break formation and take on the dragon single-handedly. Baldur would protect him at all costs - would protect any of them - because that was his responsibility, what he chose, and he couldn't do his job properly when he was emotionally compromised or those that followed him and made promises to him ignored his orders. 

Baldur wouldn’t have thought anything could take his mind off of Zevran and their dreadful misunderstanding, but seeing Trian – Trian – waiting for him in the next room wiped all rational thought from his mind.  

“Greetings, my exiled brother,” Trian said, his voice strong and hale.  

Baldur staggered and dropped to his knees as all blood drained from his face. He stared at his deceased brother without comprehension, unable to speak as tears thickened his throat and welled up in his eyes. Agony was swift and cutting, but he didn’t look away, didn’t blink as he drank in the sight of Trian. Memories of their lives before their relationship had devolved into a vicious rivalry flashed through his mind. Each image was more progressively painful than the last as he remembered their childhood playing together, learning sword work and eagerly sparring, and banding together to protect Bhelen from their father’s harsher disciplines. 

“Trian,” he sobbed, not daring to reach out, lest the spell break and Trian disappear forever. “How...?” 

“I would lament your fate, but why should I? You have been cast out to walk the surface, whereas I...hmph...” Trian scoffed and didn’t finish that particular train of thought.  

Whereas he was dead, neither of them said.  

“But I am too hard on you,” Trian conceded. “Bhelen made fools of us both. Were I a spectator, I would applaud him for his clever manipulations. However, I find it hard for me to remain...unbiased in this regard.” 

The spectre of Trian was just as much of an arsehole as his living incarnation had been, but Baldur only felt affection and loss where anger and resentment had once resided. He dredged up a watery smile and shakily stumbled to his feet, grateful for this gift despite the pain seeing his brother again caused him.  

“You are not Trian,” he said simply, tears running down his cheeks and catching in his beard. 

“I am the brother you remember. The one you have seen in your dreams these past months.” 

Baldur made a noise of alarm, but then relented. The Guardian had seen into his mind and heart – why not his dreams too, after all? 

“The betrayals of Orzammar do not weight down your steps as they once had. You have not faltered, and I am proud of you.” 

“Now I know you’re not real,” Baldur said, laughing wetly as he dashed the tears from his eyes.  

“Take this,” Trian said as he held out an amulet for Baldur to receive. Baldur’s fingers brushed through Trian’s when he went to take the gift, but the chain was real enough. “I give you this...and my blessing.” 

Baldur stared down at the pendant in his hands and then up at Trian. He closed his eyes, burning the image of him, real and solid, in his mind rather than the nightmare of Trian dead and bleeding that had been all of Trian’s he had left.  

“Remember me,” Trian said softly, and then he was gone. 

Baldur’s sorrow-tinted joy did not last long. Between one shuddering breath and the next, he was consumed with helpless fury for having the things he desired most in the world dangled before his face only to be ripped brutally away from him yet again. This place was beyond cruel and made the sloth demon’s domain seem like a pleasant dream in comparison. Anger threatened his newfound control over the berserker, and he barely hesitated to retaliate when a cruel-eyed doppleganger of Zevran suddenly rushed to attack as they drifted into the room that lay beyond where he’d encountered Trian. 

He did not falter as he went for the false spectre of Zevran, a creature wearing his lover's face and running towards Baldur with a twisted expression and his familiar blades held aloft. Baldur had to admit hacking at the shade was rather cathartic towards easing the resentment he felt toward Zevran, although his swing stuttered when he brought Aodr down upon the mirror image of Wynne. Fighting Wynne's doppleganger made Baldur feel more sick than angry, and the rising tide of rage within him quickly subsided. He checked over his shoulder to make certain that the real Wynne was engaged with a false Morrigan, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if the real versions of them took advantage of the confusion to ‘accidentally’ zap one of their more insufferable allies. 

Baldur faced off against his twin, this version of himself somber and focused without damning tear tracks streaking his face. He ducked a swing automatically and instantly recoiled when the flat edge of the sword caught him on the side of his head, knocking him to the ground and sending his sword spinning out of reach as his ears rang from the blow. He hadn’t fought someone his own size in ages, too used to being able to duck under the reach of those much taller than he was. A wave of kinetic energy blasted over his head and struck his image directly in the chestplate, catapulting him backwards as his sword also skittered from his hand. Baldur picked up the replica sword and attacked while the other Baldur was down, feeling a sliver of respect for the defiant look his doppelganger gave him before he was slain by Baldur’s own hand. The sword vanished the instant the spectre ‘died’ and he knelt to pick up the real Aodr, taking a moment to settle the spinning in his head and hopefully purge the sight of he and his fellows laying dead from his mind before the image could take root and provide new fodder to his nightmares.  

A gloved hand entered his field of vision, and he accepted the help up gratefully, wobbling only a little as he stood. A part of him wasn’t surprised to come face to chest with Zevran’s familiar blood-splattered armor, especially when his hand didn’t let go of his own. He wondered if Zevran even thought before coming to his aid, or if reacting to Baldur being threatened was automatic. He closed his eyes when Zevran’s free hand lifted and his fingertips tenderly grazed the bruise undoubtedly forming on the side of Baldur’s head, aching but not bleeding. 

Zevran’s concern was palpable but muffled, no doubt struggling with his own lingering hurt at Baldur. They parted reluctantly without a word spoken between them, although their fingertips clung together a moment too long, unused to emptiness without another hand to hold. Zevran walked on ahead with Morrigan, but Wynne hung back as Baldur watched Zevran’s retreating back rather forlornly, he suspected – if Wynne’s sympathetic expression was any judge. 

“So, tell me...” Wynne began, and Baldur hunched his shoulders as he quickly dropped his gaze, expecting her to bring up Zevran or Trian while those particular wounds were still festering. 

He’d been desperately recounting every step, every word spoken between he and Zevran since they’d left Denerim in an attempt to pinpoint any sign he might have missed proving that Zevran considered them wed. Or had. But his memories were foggy at best, tainted with exhaustion and pain and rage from trying to keep his berserker at bay.  

“How did you become a Grey Warden?” 

The question wasn’t what he was expecting at all. It took Baldur several long seconds to reconcile Wynne’s question with the mess swarming around in his head, but compared to what she could have asked he was almost relieved to answer. “I was cast out to die in the Deep Roads, where I met Duncan.” 

“You survived the Deep Roads and the darkspawn that dwell there? Truly, you were born to be a Grey Warden.” 

Baldur scoffed, unable to help the derision in his voice. “Born the esteemed child of King Endrin, and now...nothing.”  

Not a prince, not a leader, and most certainly not a husband.  

“No, not nothing. You are a Grey Warden...one of the last of the Fereldan Wardens. We depend on you now. Take heart, dear friend. You survived, even when you were not expected to. We do not know yet what lies in store for you, or the name you carry.” 

Baldur automatically started to protest, to deflect. He was so used to keeping anything personal about himself tucked close to his heart that he struggled to let anyone else in, but the Guardian had already seen into the deepest parts of him, so there was nowhere else for Baldur to run. The darkest regrets that they all tried to keep hidden from themselves had been laid bare, and Wynne deserved honesty. They all did. 

“I just hope I can show the strength that you see in me. That Duncan saw in me.” 

“Sometimes it gives me comfort to believe that everything will end up the way it’s supposed to, that it will be all right. You were chosen; you survived the Joining when others did not. Perhaps it was meant to be.” 

“Only time will tell. Please remember me kindly, if I happen to fail spectacularly.” 

“I don’t believe you will, but I will always remember you as kind and fair and brave. I can’t imagine better qualities in a Grey Warden – or a prince.” 

Baldur leveled a tremulous but grateful smile at Wynne as he ushered her on ahead, catching up to the others. The next obstacle was actually pleasant compared to the previous tests they’d faced. They entered the next room to find a chamber full of stationary spirits, barely corporeal as opposed to solidity of the Guardian, Trian, and their dopplegangers, as if the magic holding the temple together was weakening the further in they progressed. Each spirit employed a riddle, which was an unexpected reprieve from the endless battles and violence that only relied on brawn and quick reflexes. Baldur didn’t get a chance to use his wits very often, so he crossed his arms and took his time carefully evaluating each riddle, not even glancing over his shoulder for consultation as he answered each question confidently and correctly. He was almost disappointed when the last spirit vanished after his question of “She wields the broken sword, and separates true kings from tyrants” was answered by Baldur’s murmured response. 

“Mercy,” he said simply. 

“Yes,” the spirit echoed mournfully. “I could not bear the sight of Andraste's suffering, and mercy bade me end Her life. I am the penitent sinner, who shows compassion as he hopes compassion will be shown to him.” 

Baldur heard the click of a lock unlatching as the spirit vanished. A door opened to precede the next test in the Gauntlet evaluating their worthiness to approach the remains of Andraste. He wondered how many others had come before him, whether traps were set and ready to spring upon the unworthy. The cultists had been so thoroughly devoted to the dragon that he also had to wonder if they’d been spurned by the Guardian and not even permitted to venture this far. He imagined they wouldn’t take rejection very well, their devotion to Andraste so all-consuming they would turn to extremism in order to form their own very exclusive cult just to spite the Guardian, like scolded but dangerous children.  

They crossed a bridge that could only be formed through the placement of weight on pressure plates, reminding Baldur of the aggravation he’d felt trying to figure out the puzzle in Wilhelm’s cellar. Eventually they figured out the correct sequence that allowed them to enter into a room wreathed by fire rather than dropping them into an endless pit had the bridge simply disappeared beneath their feet. There was nowhere to go except somehow through the flames or back the way they came, which wasn't an option when they were so close. Baldur could see a magnificent statue looming past the wall of flame of a human woman cloaked in white marble with the tantalizing shimmer of a golden cask nestled at her feet. He approached a dusty stone slab that had once perhaps been an alter and brushed away a layer of dust, reading aloud the inscription on its chipped surface.

"Cast off the trappings of a worldly life and cloak yourself in the goodness of spirit. King and slave, lord and beggar; be born anew in the Maker's sight."

Silence, save for the steady crackle of fire, descended upon them as they deciphered those words individually. Baldur looked from the alter to the fire to the statue, his brow furrowing with growing dread.

"Correct me if I'm wrong..." Zevran started, "but is this rock instructing us to get naked?"

“I...cannot think of an alternative meaning,” Wynne reluctantly admitted after a long moment of deliberation.

“Oh good! I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” Zevran exclaimed, already beginning to shuck off his armor and toss each piece on top of the alter with a ridiculous amount of eagerness. “I would have never thought Andraste was a fan of public exhibition. It is always the pious ones that are kinkiest, no?"

Baldur read the placard again just to be certain, but the instructions were fairly unambiguous. He sighed, keeping his eyes carefully averted even though Wynne and Morrigan seemed to have little reservation following in Zevran’s example and stripping down to their smallclothes. They'd all seen each other in various stages of undress in camp, of course, as was inevitable when privacy was a commodity rarely acquired on the road, but idling around while trying desperately not to stare at his nearly nude companions was another matter entirely.

Wynne was stood tall and unabashed, surprisingly well-formed considering her age. Baldur had to exert a tremendous effort not to gawk at her generous bosom, cursing his stature that placed his line of vision directly at chest-level. Morrigan was slim and fair, but Baldur was used to seeing her breasts on display at this point, and his eyes skipped over her out of self-preservation more than anything else. Zevran was golden in the firelight and Baldur struggled not to stare at him either and have a most inappropriate reaction with only a scrap of cloth to preserve his modesty. He didn't know where to look, surrounded by so much gorgeous, tempting flesh. He feared the test of his character would fail right then after coming so far, if only because he couldn't get a grip on his baser instincts. He turned his head to stare at the fire wall as he breathed deeply through his nostrils and approached the barrier. 

After the dragon, walking through fire was nothing. The pain and heat he'd been expecting came instead as a wash of warmth that prickled against his skin not unpleasantly. When he glanced down at his body to assess the damage he was startled to realize his skin had been rid of all dirt and blood, leaving him feeling tingly and clean. Baldur jumped around with a start when a sonorous voice spoke behind him, and he saw the Guardian had appeared. He felt horribly exposed, but stood with his back straight and his head tall. Wynne and Morrigan seemed unconcerned by the appearance of a man - spirit or not - while they were nearly nude, and Zevran was too busy oogling the women shamelessly to spare the Guardian a second glance.

 "You have been through the trials of the Gauntlet, you have walked the path of Andraste, and like her, you have been cleansed. You have proven yourself worthy, pilgrim. Approach the Sacred Ashes." 

"Naked?" Baldur asked skeptically, but the Guardian vanished without answering. 

"Do you suppose we will get burned if we walk through the fire with our armor on?" Zevran asked, eyeing the wall where he and the others had hung back rather than immediately passing through after Baldur. 

"Just toss 'em over," Baldur said. "We can put our clothes back on over on this side." 

"Too bad," Zevran said sadly. "It seems a sin to cover up all this beauty." 

"Take care where you allow your eyes to linger, elf, or I shall remove you of them," Morrigan warned as she tossed Baldur her robes and staff before confidently sauntering through the tall flames.  

"I am so sad, Wynne! May I console myself in your bosom?" Zevran sighed, turning wistfully to Wynne. 

"No you may not. I also suggest you keep your eyes and hands to yourself. I am watching you." 

"Oh! Now that I know you will be watching so intently, Wynne, perhaps I will forgo clothing entirely." 

"Maker's breath!" Baldur really couldn't expect much maturity out of Zevran when he could hardly keep his own eyes from straying. He caught his armor as the drake scale plating was tossed to him, along with his sword and shield, dressing quickly while the others joined him. A sense of ritual and reverence hung heavily in the air as he approached the statue of Andraste and the Urn of Sacred Ashes. He could almost hear the echo of a hundred voices rising up in song as he walked up the steps leading to the Urn. The Urn seemed innocuous enough, its gold plating dulled with age, but Baldur felt almost reluctant to disturb the remains of a woman long dead. He almost couldn't believe they'd succeeded in reaching the ashes, feeling as if this moment had been years in the making.  

"I could not have asked for a greater honor than to be here. I will never forget this feeling," Wynne said as they gazed upon the sacred relic holding Andraste's true remains.  

"I stand in awe. Really," Morrigan said ironically, barely suppressing a yawn.  

"Nice vase," Zevran added, his tone an echo of Morrigan's disinterest. "I should get one for my house." 

"You have a house?" Baldur blurted, perking up before he could help himself. 

Zevran gave him a tight-lipped smile that was closer to a grimace. Baldur very much doubted he would be invited at present, if Zevran wasn't simply being superfluous. Any place Zevran had lived or frequented would likely be located in Antiva, and undoubtedly watched by the Crows. He was as much without a home as the rest of them. Baldur’s company traveled by choice, but at the end of the day only Morrigan had an actual house to return to that wasn’t a Chantry or half-decimated Circle Tower, and that was only if she wanted to deal with her mother.  

Baldur retrieved an empty leather pouch and took a pinch of the ashes, the dust both gritty and slippery between his fingers. He hoped the small amount would be enough to heal Arl Eamon of his fatal illness, or else Eamon and the support of his armies would be lost. Once the ashes were secured, Baldur felt no pressing urge to linger. There was a door off to the side that Baldur presumed was the exit, otherwise they would have to backtrack through the temple once again. He was pleasantly surprised when the door deposited them right back at the entrance of the temple, blinking hard against daylight. The position of the sun was too low and too bright to still be the same day they had started the tests of the Gauntlet. He didn't know if time passed by differently in the temple, as it had in the Fade, but he was awake and alert as though he’d had a full night’s rest. He was relieved to find the others that had stayed behind right where he'd left them at the entrance, appearing none the worse for wear. 

"We have the ashes, now let us take our leave of this accursed mountain," Baldur said, and no one protested. Even Alistair scrambled to his feet eagerly, showing no sign of his ribs still bothering him. 

"Great! Now we can go to Redcliffe and heal the Arl. I hope he's still hanging in there..." 

They did have to trudge back down through the caverns and tunnels and finally the temple of Andraste before they reached the great hall where they had left Brother Genitivi. Bastion gave a howl and galumphed over to Baldur's side the instant he was within hearing range. He nearly knocked him over before he circled around the party and whined, sniffing out for injuries as he took inventory of his pack to make sure all had returned safely.  

"Welcome back! Did you find it?" Brother Genitivi asked eagerly without preamble.  

Baldur hesitated to answer truthfully, his hand almost flying to the pouch secured to his hip that contained a pinch of Andraste's ashes. Genitivi was obsessed with the Urn, but Baldur had no intention of handing his findings over especially since he didn't know if what little he had would be enough for the Arl.  

"The Urn? Yes..." Baldur said slowly, already thinking up excuses to deny Genitivi the ashes and avoid retaliation should he ask to see them.  

"You seem different. It must have changed you," Genitivi said, staring avidly into Baldur's face as if he could decipher the answers to all of his questions in the drawn lines of Baldur's face. "What...what was it like? Coming to the Urn, I mean?" 

"Grueling. There were tests." 

"Wonderful! Perhaps my research will not seem so much like blasphemy to the Chantry now. We must organize an expedition. There is so much history here. It must be studied. And...and pilgrims should be allowed to come to the Urn." 

"Many will try to exploit this discovery," Baldur warned. He'd seen far more evil and self-serving tendencies in the world than actual good. Despite having passed the Guardian's tests, even Baldur couldn’t claim to be entirely without fault himself. 

"But the Urn belongs to all the faithful. How can you deny this to them? No...we must share it." 

"Yes. Share it. Spread the word and more will come under the Chantry's power. Is that not what you want?" Morrigan said, her voice laced with saccharine mockery. 

"I will spread this good news, or die trying." Genitivi's demeanor suddenly became defensive and aggressive, as if he had every intention fight them all in order to spread word of the Urn’s location.  

"There's no need for that," Baldur said quickly, showing his empty palms. "It does not matter to me what you decide to do with this knowledge. Tell everyone or no one." 

Baldur had gotten what he needed. If followers - or enemies - of the Chantry decided to converge upon the temple in droves, whether to worship or destroy, then so be it. Only the most determined would make the journey to the top of the mountain, and there was the Guardian and his tests to weed out those he deemed unworthy. 

"Yes, of course," Genitivi said, a breath of relief and sheepishness easing his aggression. 

They didn’t linger in the temple much longer, only allowing time for Genitivi to gather up his research before accompanying him down the treacherous mountainside. Baldur had to tune out the excited discussion he, Wynne, and Leliana were having about their findings, if only out of self-preservation. He had more than enough of the Maker and Andraste and their Guardians for one dwarf’s lifetime.  

Genitivi shared Baldur and Zevran’s tent when they had to camp for the night, which was less of an inconvenience than it would have been had Baldur and Zevran been on speaking terms. Baldur didn’t know how to initiate a conversation with Zevran, especially when Zevran was actively going out of his way to avoid him. Zevran usually did enough talking for the both of them, so his abrupt, stubborn silence put a halt to all but the most bland conversation related to strictly perfunctory topics like food supplies, the quickest route to Redcliffe, or the lingering looks they caught Shale giving Sten when the brusque qunari went through his sword forms every morning.  

Genitivi didn’t seem to pick up on the strained air between the two disconsolate lovers, settling down happily between Baldur and Zevran with his snores drowning out the words Baldur could have...should have said. 

---

The song Leliana sings is ‘I See Fire’ by Ed Sheeran.

Tharaka, mizimelê! Jalaigrif, or nakha! - Stop, my jewel! Please, I'm going to come! (Khudzul)

Amrali. Amsumul, ghivashel. Amrali. – I love you. You are so wonderful, my treasure. I love you. (Khudzul)

Meravas – So shall it be. (Qunlat)

Tharaka! – Stop! (Khudzul)

Chapter Text

"If I may, I wish to speak with you regarding a serious matter," Wynne said to Zevran a few nights later in camp after she had finished darning Alistair’s shirt and a few other articles of clothing that had somehow found their way into her possession before being redistributed to their guileless owners. Despite Wynne’s tone, Zevran looked up at her with interest rather than trepidation after stowing away his newly mended socks.

"...Is it regarding your bosom? I'm game."

"No...I do not wish to speak of my bosom!" Wynne said slowly, adjusting her grip on her staff with a frown.

"But it is a marvelous bosom. I have seen women half your age who have not held up half so well. Perhaps it is a magical bosom?"

"Stop talking about my bosom!" Wynne demanded, pained.

"But I thought you wished to speak seriously."

"I do," Wynne said. "I thought, however foolishly, that you might be willing to speak of your past."

Baldur, too, was interested in Zevran's past. Particularly about the woman the Guardian had mentioned before allowing the party access into the temple, the woman Zevran regretted killing. Baldur would likely never bring the subject up himself for fear of overstepping his boundaries and reopening old wounds. However, he couldn't help but overhear if someone else were to bring the topic up instead.

"We could do that," Zevran said, cheerfully enough. "There have been many bosoms in my past, though only few as fine as yours," he assured her.

"Enough. I'm ending this conversation."

Apparently that particular chapter of Zevran’s life would continue to be a mystery, but Baldur didn’t have time to dwell for long before he was summoned by Morrigan. He left Zevran and Wynne to their bickering as he went to see what she wanted.

"I have been studying mother's grimoire. Do you wish to hear what I have found?" Morrigan said.

For all that she kept her face emotionless, Baldur detected that she seemed upset and slightly anxious. Her eyes darted whenever she heard a crackling log in the fire or a stick snapping underfoot, and he had to wonder what she had discovered to make her so jumpy.

"I do."

"'Tis...not what I expected. I had hoped for a collection of her spells or a map of the power that she commands, but this is not it."

"You seem disturbed," Baldur said, wary of triggering Morrigan into taking out her frustrations out on him.

"’Disturbed’? Yes, perhaps that is the right word. One thing in particular within her writings disturbs me. Here, in great detail, Flemeth explains the means in which she has survived for centuries."

"A spell? Blood magic?"

"Oh, if only it were so. Flemeth has raised many daughters over her long lifetime. There are stories of these many witches of the wilds throughout Chasind legend, yet I have never seen a one and always wondered why not. And now I know. They are all Flemeth. When her body becomes old and wizened, she raises a daughter. And when the time is right, she takes her daughter's body for her own."

"You know how this sounds, right?" Baldur said, feeling his gut clench in horror at even the possibility that what Morrigan was saying could be true. "How can you be certain that this isn't some story made up by the templars or Flemeth herself?"

"I recognize my mother's hand. She uses a code that only she, and myself, can decipher. She wrote this grimoire, and I cannot see a reason why she would fabricate such a tremendous tale if no one else could read it. She couldn't have possibly thought I would acquire it from the Circle of Magi myself, thereby would think nothing of mentioning the grimoire's existence to me, save as a warning not to let my guard down around foolish templars. No, there is only one possible response to this. Flemeth needs to die. I will not sit about like an empty sack waiting to be filled. Flemeth must be slain, and I need your help to do it."

Baldur's gut instinct was to refuse Morrigan outright. What she proposed was insanity. He was also deeply indebted to Flemeth for saving both his and Alistair's lives, though to what end he still did not know. He wouldn't do Morrigan's dirty work for her, especially with so little proof of Flemeth's supposed scheme to possess Morrigan herself. However, Baldur had to pause and think of the repercussions of declining to help. Morrigan was under his protection and, for better or worse, she had followed his lead more often than not even when she adamantly opposed his chosen course of action. If he didn't do this one, great deed for her, then there was a very real possibility he would lose her and the abilities and knowledge that came with having a mage such as she in their company. Wynne was invaluable, but she was older and tired, and fighting a dragon in addition to passing through the Gauntlet had taken much out of her.

"I will...consider it, Morrigan."

"I suppose I can't expect much more assurance than that from you. Flemeth is dangerous and must be stopped at all costs. You will need to go back to Flemeth's hut in the Korcari Wilds without me."

"You're not even coming?" Baldur protested.

"If I am present when she is slain, I cannot be certain that she will not be able to possess my body right then. So I must remain at the camp. Confront her and slay her quickly. I doubt she will truly be dead even then, but it will take her years to find a new host and recover her power, if that is even possible. The thing I must have is her true grimoire. With it, I can defend against her power in the future. Everything else in her hut is yours."

Every last thing about the situation sat wrong with Baldur, but at least without Morrigan there to force his hand, perhaps he could reason with Flemeth and judge for himself whether or not Morrigan's fears were unfounded.

"Very well," he said, not quite meeting her eyes.

"I am grateful," she sighed in relief that made Baldur uneasy to hear, especially if he didn't come through for her. Morrigan criticized much, but asked for very little herself. “The sooner this can be done, the sooner it will set my mind at ease."

Getting the ashes to Arl Eamon was priority, but he knew if he went to Redcliffe first he might never get the time to make a trip all the way back down south to the wilds. As it were, they were positioned nearly dead center between Redcliffe and Flemeth’s hut. He decided their best chance would be to split the company in half with the first group to head north to Redcliffe and the second half to go with him into the Korcari Wilds. He wished there were a better way, but unless Morrigan knew of a spell that allowed Baldur to make a copy of himself that wasn’t evil and trying to kill everyone, this was their best option.

If Flemeth was as dangerous as Morrigan warned, Baldur wanted to be prepared, but he also didn’t want to approach her looking for a fight either. He needed to appear non-threatening, so he decided to take Leliana, Wynne, and Alistair as the most affable in appearance and personality in his group. Plus, Alistair’s templar abilities that nullified most mages’ power would come in handy if Flemeth did attack. He decided to take Bastion with him as well, since he was starting to feel like he was pawning his mabari off on everyone else, and he could use Bastion’s tracking abilities if they became lost in the Wilds. Hopefully the trip would be nothing more than a scenic walk before they could all reconvene in Redcliffe and plan their next move with Arl Eamon’s assistance.

The only thing left was to tell Zevran he wasn’t coming with him.

He delayed that particular conversation for as long as possible. He hardly knew how to approach Zevran even when things were good between them as opposed to navigating the fraught tension currently turning Baldur’s tongue to stone. Instead, he spoke to Brother Genitivi, who was a welcome buffer between he and Zevran at present, though a temporary one.

“What will you do now?” Baldur asked Genitivi. “You are welcome to come with us.”

“As fascinating as your travels no doubt are, I will only slow you down, unfortunately. But I appreciate the offer all the same,” Genitivi said in between bites of his third or fourth helping of supper that consisted of game Leliana and Sten had caught roasted over the open fire.

Baldur had briefly considered carving up the dragon at Alistair’s suggestion, though it would be just their luck if dragon meat turned out to be poisonous, so they stuck with safer sources of nourishment. Baldur couldn’t even imagine when Genitivi’s last hot meal had been and made certain that he had enough, especially if they were to turn him out into the wilderness to fend for himself.

“I believe I will return to Denerim," Genitivi said. "Get my affairs in order before arranging an expedition of pilgrims and scholars to the Temple of Andraste. I’ll also need to see to poor Weylon’s remains as well.”

Baldur hadn’t thought about Genitivi’s dead assistant once the entire time they were in Denerim. He’d left the corpse to lay mouldering in Genitivi’s house for months without even alerting the city guard or attempting to locate Weylon’s family and inform them of his passing.

“I’m sorry,” Baldur mumbled, feeling ashamed for his callousness, especially since he’d spent most of his time in Denerim in bed with Zevran. “I should have...”

“Nonsense. You had other more important matters to attend to, I’m sure.”

Those more important matters did need attending, but Baldur, coward that he was, didn’t tell Zevran of his plans until the next morning while he was packing up their tent after a restless night spent with Genitivi snoring away blissfully between them. Baldur wanted nothing more than to travel to Redcliffe with the others and have a hot bath and fall into a real bed to sleep for the next several days. However, a low smolder of anger had been burning steadily within him since they left the temple and threatened to consume him from the inside out if he did not confront Zevran on his actions with the high dragon. He wasn't looking forward to having this conversation at all. He waited until Gentivi had joined the others in arranging breakfast before he took a deep, bracing breath and kept Zevran back with a soft call.

“Morrigan fears her mother has plans to take possession of her body and has asked me to intervene on her behalf. A few of us will be going to the Korcari Wilds before heading up to Redcliffe to join everyone else,” Baldur said, not looking up from where he was tying off his bedroll to the top of his heavy pack.

"Ohhh, we are to go assassinating?" Zevran said excitedly. "That is my particular specialty, as you well know. What shall it be, do you think? Knives? Poison? Or perhaps I shall stare at her luridly until her wizened heart expires from desire? You'd be surprised how effect that particular method has been."

"You're not going," Baldur said.

Zevran laughed, placing his hands on his hips and rocking back on his heels. "So I won't stare at Morrigan's mother, although if she's who Morrigan inherited her devastating beauty from, I can make no promises."

Baldur set his pack aside, kneeling for a long moment with his face turned down, before he stood and looked Zevran with his shoulders pulled back and his jaw tight.

"You misunderstand. You are not coming with us to confront Morrigan's mother. Period."

Baldur's eyes were trained on Zevran's, and he saw when Zevran's amusement turned from confusion, to worry, to finally the beginnings of anger. Zevran was the first to look away when Baldur's hard stare refused to waver. Baldur took a deep breath and felt the mantle of commander slip over him like a forgotten glove that had recently found itself back in his possession.

"You disobeyed a direct order and endangered yourself as well as the others when you decided to engage the dragon on your own. Your actions were entirely unacceptable, and as such you will be going to Redcliffe with Morrigan, Sten, and Shale to wait there and stay out of trouble until the rest of us return from Flemeth’s."

"I killed that dragon for you!" Zevran said, throwing his hands out and taking a step toward Baldur. "We would still be up that Maker-forsaken mountain trying to kill it if I hadn't stepped in when it was about to crush you!"

"That was not your call to make. Morrigan and Wynne had to redirect their shots to avoid hitting you, which could have caused irreparable damage if the dragon broke free of the spells and focused its attack on those fighting on the ground. You put all of our lives at risk, including yours most of all!" Baldur shouted the last words, which didn’t have the benefit of Morrigan’s barrier to contain the volume. Some of Baldur's harsh demeanor slipped, and his hands shook as he let the last words sink in and grip hold like his worst nightmare.

"You could have been killed," Baldur said more quietly, the steel in his tone grating and raw. "If anything were to happen to you, Zevran..."

"So it's fine if you want to throw yourself in front of the dragon you’ve been obsessing over for months, but complain when someone else lands the killing blow, is that it?"

Baldur almost wanted to laugh at the thought of forcing this terrible confrontation with his lover simply because of wounded egos, but he held back. He suspected that a laugh wouldn't be the only emotional or uncontrollable sound to escape him once he started, and he couldn't afford to fall apart right then.

"I am a Grey Warden, not you. I took an oath swearing to do everything in my power to stop the Blight and all the monstrosities that result from it. Not you. There is nothing tying you here or stopping you from being able to leave if you decide you'd rather not be eaten alive by darkspawn. I wouldn't ask that of anyone, much less someone I care about."

Zevran's eyes went cold and flinty. His look stated that witnesses wouldn't stop him from reaching over and grabbing Baldur to do...only Mahal knew what to him.

"I may not be a Grey Warden, as you are so kind to point out. Repeatedly. But I gave my oath to you. The word of a Crow may not mean much, but I do not go back on my promises. I am more than capable of handling myself on the battlefield. I thought we were partners - or part of a team, at the very least."

Zevran's hurt was palpable and Baldur's soul railed at him for failing the trust his âzyungâl had in him. But this, Zevran defying orders and taking matters into his own hands, threatened Baldur's entire mission. If anything were to happen to Zevran, if he were killed, Baldur would be crippled by the loss. He might recover in time, but time was a precious commodity none of them could afford with the Blight upon them and the Archdemon growing stronger each day. His own father had been forever changed by his mother's death, and Baldur didn't want to become cold or ruthless, or worse - an empty shell of himself if his very heart was destroyed.

Baldur forced calm around himself like a cloak, despite wanting to sink to his knees and beg forgiveness. He wanted to forget everything that had happened on that damned mountain, but he could not be lenient in this. Were any of the others to do something similar, Baldur would have been dressing them down as well. He couldn't show special consideration to Zevran as a subordinate especially because he was Baldur's lover.

"I will be leaving with Wynne, Leliana, Alistair, and Bastion. The rest of you are to take the Sacred Ashes to Redcliffe. Hopefully they will be enough to save Arl Eamon. There’s no one else I would trust with this task."

Zevran stared at him as if he were a stranger, and said nothing. Baldur shifted his eyes ever so slightly to the left, focusing on Zevran's beautifully tapered ear instead of the betrayal in his amber eyes. He used all of his strength to keep his features neutral. The silence fell thickly between them like an insidious fog, penetrating Baldur down into his very core with an icy chill.

Zevran turned and walked away without another word.

Baldur didn't tell Morrigan that he had no intention of killing Flemeth. He was unable to murder the witch in cold blood on her say so, especially since neither he nor Alistair would be alive without Flemeth’s intervention in Ostagar. He still wanted to keep their party as small as possible. Showing up on Flemeth's doorway with an assassin or giant golem might hurt any chance of talking with her and discovering for himself if there was any truth to Morrigan's horrifying claims that Flemeth was possessing the living bodies of her daughters in order to prolong her life.

Wynne was necessary as a healer since Morrigan was staying as far from her mother as possible, although Baldur hoped they would have no need of her skills. Leliana, on the other hand, he was hoping to use her skills to steal the grimoire rather than confronting Flemeth if a fight seemed otherwise unavoidable, and Alistair was useful for his templar training in dealing with apostates. Baldur was almost hesitant to bring him because Flemeth would know what Alistair was at once, but he was a Grey Warden first and foremost as well as the only other person who had dealings with Flemeth before.

Baldur didn't see Zevran before his half of the group left. He even lingered over his replenished pack and bedroll hoping to catch a glimpse of him at the very least. Baldur still stood firm on his point and wouldn’t take back anything he said, but that didn’t lessen the ache. He would be sharing a tent with Alistair while on the way to Flemeth’s, having given Genitivi his own tent since Genitivi would be heading out east to Denerim on his own. He left the ashes in Morrigan’s care as a trade off for confronting her mother with instructions to use them to revive Arl Eamon at once, rather than waiting for Baldur’s return.

Baldur stewed in his own thoughts once the five of them were on the road headed south while Zevran and the others went in the opposite direction toward Redcliffe Castle. Everyone had heard his and Zevran’s fight, of course, though they were all sensible enough not to mention what they heard until they were several hours from the campsite and Baldur had time to cool down. He was surprised Wynne had given him that long, knowing she disapproved of his fraternizing with Zevran, but not surprised that she grabbed the first opportunity to speak with him as soon as the two of them were separated.

“Forgive me if I’m overstepping my bounds, but I’m concerned. I wanted to ask you where you thought your relationship with Zevran was going,” Wynne said, easing into the conversation and matching Baldur’s pace at the back of the small brigade led by Bastion at the front.

Baldur winced and had to fight back a growl. He was still torn between anxiety and anger over the earlier confrontation with Zevran and fretted whether or not he made the correct decision in sending him away. “Not now, Wynne.”

“When then? I only ask because I’m your friend. It seems he only has one thing on his mind. I question the wisdom of a Grey Warden being involved in such an affair.”

“It’s not an affair. He’s my sanâzyung. We’ve been over this before.”

“Which is why I worry. You are a Grey Warden. You have responsibilities which supersede your personal desires and I fear you will neglect them in favor of your One.”

“I can handle my responsibilities and relationships. I’m not about to jeopardize our mission and I know where my priorities lie as a Grey Warden first.”

“Love is ultimately selfish. It demands that one be devoted to a single person, who may fully occupy one’s mind and heart, to the exclusion of all else. A Grey Warden cannot afford to be selfish. You may be forced to make a choice between saving your love and saving everyone else, and then what would you do?”

“What am I supposed to do, tell Zevran to go away for good?” Bad enough that he already had to do it the once, and he hoped to avoid a repeat performance.

“You may have to, to save one or both of you unnecessary anguish later on.”

“I’m not giving up what we have, no matter what you say.”

The last thing Baldur needed was to have doubts shoved into his head when his and Zevran’s relationship was already on rocky ground. He didn’t expect being involved with Zevran would be easy, and was astounded they had managed this long without stepping on each other’s toes or finding their differences too great to overcome. He wasn’t about to give up on Zevran, but he meant what he said at camp. He had to hope that Zevran would trust him and not think himself expendable or invulnerable.

“I have given my advice. Do with it what you will,” Wynne said dismissively. She lengthened her stride to catch up with the others while Baldur hung behind and glowered at her back.

If anything, he only grew angrier after Wynne shoved her nose in where it didn’t belong and refused to speak to her aside from issuing barked orders.

At night, both he and Alistair were plagued with nightmares. Or rather messages, it seemed, from the Archdemon itself.

Baldur woke fighting against his bedroll and gasping for breath like he'd been running all night. His ears, his mind, his soul echoed with the roars of a dragon, bigger and angrier than the one they'd just defeated in Haven. This dragon, the Archdemon, had been accompanied by hundreds, if not thousands, of darkspawn swarming in a pit of fire and they’d all called out a challenge that felt aimed directly at him.

The sweat beneath his armor chilled when he saw Alistair sitting up in his own bedroll, face drawn and pale.

"Did you...did you feel it too?" Alistair asked. Baldur's expression, he assumed, was answer enough. "It was like the Archdemon saw us! What does that mean? I think--wait! Did you hear that?"

The reason why Baldur feared dreaming was because of shit like this.

Darkspawn burst from the bushes and surrounding tree line like a nightmare made reality. Bastion went from dead sleep to attack mode the second Baldur reached for his sword laying right next to his hand. Baldur and Alistair were already awake and on edge, so by the time the rest of their party roused, a half-dozen hurlocks and genlocks lay dead between them.

"I guess it's like Duncan once said," Alistair said when Leliana and Wynne picked off the remaining darkspawn that chose to flee rather than end up like their brethren, "we can sense them, and they can sense us. We'd best be more careful from now on. This camp isn't safe any longer."

It seemed like the more darkspawn they killed, the stronger their connection to the Archdemon became. And the more they killed, the more darkspawn flocked to them, as if they knew the Grey Wardens were the one true obstacle between them and overtaking Ferelden entirely. 

Baldur felt nearly as irritable as when he’d been trapped in the grip of his berserker, and sleep deserted him once again without the comforting presence of Zevran beside him. He took up sentry duty in place of Shale’s absence and was glad for the resurgence of darkspawn on the outskirts of the Korcari Wilds for him to vent his frustrations upon. They became scarcer the closer they ventured to where Baldur remembered Flemeth and Morrigan had once resided back when he’d been a brand new Grey Warden initiate.

Flemeth was waiting for them outside her hut with no illusions that their arrival was unexpected.

“And so you return. Lovely Morrigan has at last found someone willing to dance to her tune. Such enchanting music she plays, wouldn’t you say?” Flemeth greeted in her rasp of a voice.

She appeared every inch the wizened old woman rather than the dangerous maleficar Morrigan and rumor had made Flemeth out to be. She had coarse grey hair and gaunt cheeks. Her dress was drab and patched together as opposed to Morrigan’s opulent jewelry and ravaged clothing that seem more intentional rather than a result of poverty or living out in the Wilds. The differences between Flemeth and Morrigan couldn’t have been greater, save for their piercing yellow eyes that saw through whatever they landed on...which currently happened to be Baldur.

Unnerving eyes, those.

Bastion growled with his ears pricked forward. Baldur set a calming hand on his ruff and Bastion quieted, though he stared at Flemeth with intent focus.

“I’ve come to talk, nothing more,” Baldur said, hands empty and loose at his sides.

“Oh? How interesting. Speak, then. You have come far, and I am nothing if not hospitable.” Flemeth sounded as if she found the entire concept of hospitality laughable.

"Morrigan claims you want her body," Baldur said. He immediately regretted his word choice as Alistair broke out into a coughing fit behind him. It was one of the few times he was relieved that Zevran was not with him, especially since he would never let a comment like that pass.

Flemeth laughed, the sound rough and full-throated.

"Oh, I do like that. Ahh, but it is an old, old story. One that Flemeth has heard before...and even told. Let us skip right to the ending, shall we? Do you slay the old wretch as Morrigan bids? Or does the tale take a different turn?”

“I just want the truth.”

Baldur had no intention of killing an old woman out of hand, especially at Morrigan’s provocation. They very rarely agreed on anything, and time and again Morrigan had proven herself to be selfish and morally repugnant, which was a good enough reason for Baldur to do exactly the opposite of what she wanted. However, if Flemeth did indeed prove to be a threat to Morrigan, then he would do as he must. Morrigan was under his protection as an ally, at the very least, if not exactly a friend.

“The truth? As if it were nothing! How like a man. No, no. Far better the lie. Far better the comfort of blankets and shadows and a mother’s love. Morrigan wishes my grimoire? Take it as a trophy. Tell her I am slain.”

Baldur was unsurprised that Flemeth knew about the grimoire. He was half tempted to remain silent and simply let Flemeth play out the conversation between them, especially since she apparently knew what Baldur was going to do and say before even he did. He didn’t know if she could look into his head like the Guardian had, or if she knew Morrigan so well that she could predict her daughter’s course of action well beforehand.

“What happens to you if I take the grimoire and don’t kill you?” Baldur asked, feeling very much as if he were attempting to bargain with a demon once again. He knew how that particular story played out whenever demons were involved, but Flemeth was an unknown. He couldn’t say for certain what would be the outcome for either decision.

“I go. Perhaps I surprise Morrigan one day...or I may simply watch. It would be interesting to see what she does with her freedom. Enlightening, even. Would you give an old woman that?”

“I...could do that. If you promise not to harm Morrigan.”

“My, what you must think of me! Despite what Morrigan may have told you, I have no designs on her life or her body. She is free to do with both what she will.”

That was very likely as good a promise as Baldur was apt to secure from the Witch of the Wilds. He doubted he would be able to lie convincingly if Morrigan asked, but he had no interest in doing her dirty work for her. As much blood as he already had on his hands, even he couldn't kill an old woman on her say so without any proof.

“Not killing Morrigan’s mother...that is the more noble choice, right?” Leliana said, echoing Baldur’s own thoughts uncertainly.

“Very well,” he said. He would deal with the consequences as they came.

“It’s far easier this way, don’t you think? The lies are always more fun,” Flemeth said.

“Yes, fun,” Alistair said. “Tricking Morrigan...oh, who am I kidding? That does sound fun.”

“A tangled web you weave, Warden. I hope it’s for a good cause,” Wynne cautioned.

“You would rather I kill Flemeth?” Baldur countered. He was still ready to snap at Wynne at the slightest provocation, though he knew his ability to hold a grudge was minimal at best. She wasn’t necessarily wrong, about Flemeth or Zevran, which galled the most.

“I trust your judgment. I’m certain your intentions are noble, but I can’t imagine Morrigan will be well pleased were she to find out the truth.”

“I will tell her the truth myself...if she asks.”

“A lie of omission is still a lie. But very well.”

“The book is inside the hut,” Flemeth said, gesturing to the wooden shack half sunken into the marsh and covered with winding vines as if the earth was slowly claiming the construct back for itself. “There are notes and spells enough to make even Morrigan blush with delight.”

Baldur nodded his thanks. Flemeth’s amused smile finally faded from her weathered face as she leveled him a serious look that made his spine straighten and his hand itch for his sword.

“You and I will not meet again. That I guarantee.”

Baldur went into the hut, wary of traps, but Leliana only shook her head, indicating their way was clear. Baldur did not linger. He picked through the chest at the foot of a bed with a simple, wooden frame and thin mattress and took whatever items of note caught his interest. He found the grimoire in the same chest. The grimoire was similar to the book he’d appropriated from the Circle; however, this one was much thicker and just felt ancient, despite being in rather decent condition. Baldur tried to open the grimoire, half expecting the damn thing to blow up on him, but there must have been magical seals of some sort because the cover refused to budge. Perhaps that was for the best. He stowed the grimoire away in his pack and directed the party to head back the way they came. 

Bastion had stayed outside as guard, refusing to enter the hut. Flemeth was nowhere to be found when Baldur and the others left the area, and they didn’t bother to search for her. Baldur was just fine with the prospect of never meeting Flemeth again. If they did not encounter delays then they would be arriving to Redcliffe only a week or two behind Morrigan and the rest. He could use the extra time to think of what he might say to Zevran once they arrived.

“Look, darkspawn!” Wynne cautioned, unstrapping her staff from the holster on her back.

Baldur had been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn’t been looking and almost walked directly into the path of a hurlock archer’s arrow. He brought his shield up just in time and reached for his sword, sinking back into the familiar motions of battle. Each fight they encountered blurred into the last and Baldur let muscle memory and his berserker take over as the group easily took down the pack of darkspawn before continuing on their way without hardly a pause for breath. He was taken entirely off guard when the sound of a body hitting the ground came from directly behind him. He turned in time to see Wynne struggling to pick herself up after no apparent cause for her collapse.

“Wynne!”

“Ohhh...I...fell...” Wynne murmured as she staggered to her feet and waved off any assistance as Baldur rushed toward her, his eyes wide with concern.

“Are you all right?” Baldur asked. He touched her elbow and looked her over for injury. He was so stupid to have just assumed everyone was fine after that last attack without even checking.

Complacency, he knew, could get someone killed.

“For a moment there I thought I was... I thought it was all over.”

“Thought what was all over?”

“Everything. I will explain everything when we are back at camp. Now is not the time.”

“Now is very much the time, Wynne,” Baldur said, refusing to be put off. “I’ve been pushing you too hard. We haven’t had much of a break in between Uldred and the dragon, not to mention we’ve been marching all over Ferelden...”

“No, you were right to push us. I will not be content to simply waste away in my dotage as long as there is breath in my body and I am not a detriment to the group. I can continue. I just became a little...lightheaded.”

“Fine. But we’re looking for a place to camp and then you’re going to explain.”

Wynne was tight lipped and pale, but inclined her head in agreement. Baldur noticed the way she leaned on her staff like a walking stick and was determined that they set up camp sooner rather than later. He hovered close to her side, his earlier ire forgotten as he quietly fretted. He didn’t have so many friends that he could afford to lose the ones he had, but Wynne was more than that. He respected her and cared for her a great deal, and would have even if she wasn’t half as powerful. She wasn’t afraid to challenge him or question his motives, but did so in a way that was out of concern rather than just to provoke him.

Alistair and Leliana didn’t seem overly alarmed, but Bastion, as the unquestionable mother hen in the group, stuck close to Wynne as well, much to her chagrin.

“Your dog is filthy. I can smell him fifty yards off,” Wynne said, sounding as if she’d like nothing more than to plug her nose as she glared at Bastion, who cocked his head at her and whined.

“I’m sure you’re exaggerating. None of us exactly smell like a field of daisies,” Baldur said in loyal defense of his dog, but he tried not to breathe too deeply either.

“That may be so, but all the same, I would like your permission to bathe him.”

Baldur snorted when Bastion yelped and bolted from Wynne’s side to scurry ahead, splashing – intentionally, Baldur thought – through a puddle that sprayed the left side of Alistair’s armor with mud.

“Hey!” Alistair exclaimed. He attempted to shake mud off his leg before he gave up and chased after Bastion, who barked as if he were laughing when Alistair splashed through another puddle.

“Can’t you just wave your staff and make him clean?” Baldur asked, jutting his chin in the direction Bastion and Alistair had run off.

“No, that’s not what magic is used for.” Wynne sighed. “Just...make him sleep over on the other side of the camp. With Alistair. With any luck, that will keep all the stench confined to one small area...”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Baldur said.

With his luck, Alistair and Bastion would more than likely try to sneak a cuddle with Wynne, filthy or not. He was tempted himself, just to make certain that she didn’t collapse again or expire in the night. They were nearing the lands between the Hinterlands and Southron Hills where they would be able to take the Imperial Highway on their way north to Redcliffe, rather than attempting to navigate the endless miles of forest again. Nightfall was swiftly approaching, and they made camp upon a hilltop so they wouldn’t be caught by another ambush while traversing through a valley.

“I think I owe you an explanation for what happened earlier,” Wynne said once they were settled. A fire blazed beneath the cover of a copse of trees which would hopefully hide the worst of the light and smoke that would give away their location to unsavory parties.

“You had me worried,” Baldur said rather calmly, he thought, as opposed to the yelling or fussing he actually wanted to do.

“You should know that...something happened to me at the tower before you came along. You spoke to Petra, did you not? She told you I saved her from a demon. I...did, but I did not survive that encounter.”

“H-How? Blood magic?” Baldur reeled back as if struck. Wynne didn’t look like a corpse. She ate and slept and bled like the rest of them, and from what Baldur could tell she was as alive as anyone else.

“No, I’m not undead. If I were a possessed walking corpse and could still think, I’d kill myself. I engaged a very powerful demon to rescue Petra. It sapped me of all my energy and will, and left me drained. It took everything I had to defeat it, and when I was done I no longer had the strength to keep my heart beating.” Wynne looked down, her face a mask of pain and sorrow. “I remember my life ebbing away; everything receded from me...sound, light... I remember being enveloped in complete, impenetrable darkness. And then I sensed a presence, enfolding me and cradling me, whispering quietly to me. The sensation is impossible to describe. I was being...held back, firmly, but gently, as a mother would a child eager to slip from her grasp. I felt life and warmth flowing through my veins again. I began to be aware of small sounds, and the discomfort of my hip pressing into the cold stone of the tower floor."

"So you were never really completely dead then," Baldur said, trying to understand.

"I had no heartbeat, no breath left in my body. My spirit was barely holding on by a thread when I was called back. The Fade contains spirits both benevolent and malicious. The benevolent spirits seldom make themselves known, because they want nothing from mortals, unlike the demons. It was one of these spirits that saved me. Without it, I would be dead. And it has not left me. It is with me, even now, bonded to me. You see, I am supposed to be dead. It is the spirit that is keeping me in this world, and this is not the way of things. Perhaps the spirit did not expect this but it is weakening, gradually. I am living on borrowed time."

"How much time?"

"I do not know. I can feel when the spirit weakens, so I should have fair warning. But come, let us not talk about this. There is time yet."

Baldur felt as if he'd been struck a blow.  He was already unable to imagine fighting without Wynne as a calming, reassuring presence at his side. She resonated with kindness that didn't come at a price or with exceptions. Her goodness was innate and a reminder that Baldur could survive the most horrific atrocities and still have faith. He wept for his friend in private, unwilling to bring more stress to Wynne and give her cause to hide her waning strength from him. He knew without a doubt that Wynne would refuse to be coddled or sidelined in an attempt to conserve her strength. She, like Baldur, would fight to her very last breath to make even the slightest dent against the evil forces at work.

Their march was a solemn one, but their spirits – possibly literally in Wynne’s case – rose at the sight of the not-quite-bustling, but nonetheless active, village of Redcliffe. The Arl’s castle was not much further away and overlooked the village, which was in the process of rebuilding after Baldur and his companions put an end to the siege of undead that had nearly slaughtered everyone in Redcliffe. Baldur lifted a hand sheepishly when the villagers and guards who saw them stopped whatever they were doing and cheered the group’s approach.

“None of these people would be alive today without your intervention,” Leliana reminded him when Baldur was perplexed by the influx of greetings or tokens of thanks pressed into his hands.

He even collected more than a few kisses from weeping mothers with tiny children clinging to their skirts, though the lovelier young women who attempted to express their gratitude found themselves doing an abrupt retreat when encountering Leliana’s glare. Alistair was more than willing to accept thanks in Baldur’s stead; his cheeks were red and his expression was pleased. Baldur was almost tempted to tease him, except someone dropped a crown of white flowers upon his head when he wasn’t looking, which made Alistair point at him and laugh while Bastion sneezed.

“These are Andraste’s Grace!” Leliana gasped. “These were my mother's favorite flower...oh, I haven't seen these in such a long time!”

Leliana leaned down and Baldur froze when her nose nearly brushed the top of his head, breathing in the flowers’ scent. “They smell just like Mother use to."

"Well...here," Baldur said.

He carefully removed the crown when Leliana remembered herself and stood up straight. She had a beguiling tinge of pink to her cheeks that matched his and Alistair’s. He held out the flowers for Leliana to take and he saw the white flowers had a deep red center that did indeed smell quite lovely. "You would appreciate these far more than I."

"Thank you...thank you so much!" Leliana said. She held the flowers delicately and ducked down to press a kiss to Baldur’s cheek, which more than made up for the ones he’d missed due to her unsubtle intervention.

Wynne cleared her throat.

“Right. We should...we should get going,” Baldur said, ducking his head and scratching at the nape of his neck with ragged, dirty fingernails. The wall of fire from the Guardian’s temple might have scoured away the blood and soot from his body, but there was no comparing to a real bath, which was only a short hike up a steep hill away.

The castle’s guards kept their lips and their flowers to themselves, but bowed with one fist clasped over their heart as they opened the gates to usher Baldur and the others inside. A runner or a scout must have alerted Bann Teagan, Eamon’s brother, of Baldur’s arrival, for he was there to greet him as one of the guards led Baldur into the great hall. Alistair, Wynne, Leliana and Bastion were taken to the guest quarters where the rest of their party was residing, Baldur assumed. He wanted to go with them, anxious for different reasons to speak to both Morrigan and Zevran, but even more importantly he needed to know how Arl Eamon fared.

"You return," Teagan said. His face broke into a pleased smile as the guards deposited Baldur in front of the steps leading up to where Teagan stood before a roaring fireplace.

"What is Arl Eamon's condition?" Baldur asked, cutting right to the point rather than wasting time on pleasantries. “Did the ashes work?”

"The Urn's healing powers have lived up to their expectation! Eamon is convalescing in his bedchambers at the moment. He’s very weak, but he is alive, which is...more than I could have hoped for. Truly, I cannot begin to thank you and your companions enough. First with the village and Connor and now this..."

Baldur, uncomfortable with praise, tried not to let the villagers’ and Teagan’s thanks go to his head. He recalled Alistair telling him that Teagan had once – or still did – retain a collection of dwarven erotica, and he shifted uncomfortably. He really did not want to find out how far Teagan’s gratitude extended.

"May I see him?” he said, swiftly changing the subject. “We have important matters to discuss."

"Indeed we do. Come. I will take you to him."

Baldur was glad that Morrigan had decided to turn over the ashes rather than keep them for herself and disappear, but perhaps he didn't give her enough credit. He still wasn't comfortable delegating responsibility. He was determined to carry the burden of duty all on his own, but he was reminded time and again that he wasn't alone. He could afford a little more trust in his companions.

Eamon was sitting at his desk rather than in bed, to Teagan's apparent dismay, though Eamon waved him off and stood with a hand braced on the desk at Baldur's approach.

"Ah, you must be the Grey Warden who has saved my life. I'm afraid I do not recall much of what happened before I fell ill, and Teagan has been unusually tight-lipped."

"Much has happened in that time, Brother. Some of it will not be...easy for you to hear," Teagan said.

"I would like to know the details surrounding my wife’s death," Eamon said, sorrow and steel infusing his tone in equal measures. "The mage Jowan, who tutored Connor and poisoned me, has been sent to the Circle with a guard of templars and will face judgment there."

“A mercy that he did not deserve, Brother.”

Baldur sighed and ran a hand through his hair, thinking of how best to explain Isolde's death by way of a blood magic ritual and Connor's possession, along with all the events following. Eamon had undoubtedly seen loss and war in his time, but losing one's family was never an easy thing.

"You may want to sit down for this," Baldur said, resigning himself to a lengthy and extremely painful retelling.

Eamon listened without interrupting or casting blame upon Baldur like Alistair had, as was his every right. By the time Baldur ended his account of how they’d come by the Urn of Sacred Ashes, Eamon was positively grey and did have to take that seat after all. They reconvened in the main hall after Eamon requested a moment alone to grieve. Baldur met with him, along with Alistair and Teagan, in order to discuss their next course of action.

"There is much to be done," Eamon said. His face was lined and haggard with sorrow, though he stood tall and appeared strengthened with resolve. "But I should first be thankful to those who have done so much. Grey Warden, I know you did what you had to do. I grieve for Isolde, but I believe that had you not acted as you did, it might have been far worse. I am in your debt. Will you permit me to offer you a reward for your service?"

"I only ask for your help against the Blight."

Baldur considered himself fortunate that he wasn't being dragged away in shackles for his part in Isolde's death. To expect anything more seemed unbearably selfish.

"I understand, but regardless of your motivations, I feel you are worthy of a reward. I would like to honor your efforts, nothing more."

Humans and dwarves were alike in that one did not refuse a gift from a noble, or else risk giving grave offense. Baldur would lose nothing from agreeing, even though he still felt undeserving and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He inclined his head in acceptance.

"Then allow me to declare you and those traveling with you champions of Redcliffe," Eamon announced to the room at large, as though addressing an entire assembly rather than the three of them plus a few guards stationed at the doors. "You will always be a welcome guest within these halls. And for you, Warden, a shield of the same make as those that have been given to our finest knights."

"Thank you, your grace," Baldur murmured, accepting the shield that seemed blindingly pristine compared to the dented and blood-encrusted one on his back. He was tired and exhausted and filthy, and he was further weighted down by the fact that he hadn't seen hide nor hair of Zevran since returning to Redcliffe. He'd been assured by Teagan that all members of Baldur’s party were around. Somewhere.

"We should speak of Loghain, Brother. There is no telling what he will do once he learns of your recovery," Teagan said.

Eamon frowned. "Loghain instigates a civil war even though the darkspawn are on our very doorstep. Long I have known him. He is a sensible man; one who never desired power."

"I was there when he announced he was taking control of the throne, Eamon," Teagan protested. "He is mad with ambition, I tell you."

"Mad indeed. Mad enough to kill Cailan, to attempt to kill myself and destroy my lands. Whatever happened to him, Loghain must be stopped. What's more, we can scarce afford to fight this war to its bitter end."

"But you can unite the nobility against Loghain, can't you?" Baldur said. He hoped the human nobles were far more reasonable than those of Orzammar, who were so bogged down in tradition and fitting with the ideals of their precious caste system that it was a wonder that anything got done.

"I could unite those opposing Loghain, yes," Eamon said. "But not all oppose him. He has some very powerful allies. We have no time to wage a campaign against him. Someone must surrender if Ferelden is to have any chance at fighting the darkspawn."

"But once everyone learns what he has done..." Baldur said.

"Loghain claims that he pulled out his own men at the Battle of Ostagar in order to save them," Teagan said, his sneer belying his disbelief. "That Cailan risked the entire nation's safety in the name of glory. Loghain calls the Grey Wardens traitors, murderers of the king. I don't believe it. It is an act of a desperate man."

"I will spread word of Loghain's treachery," Eamon assured them. "Both here and against the king, but it will be a claim made without proof. Those claims will give Loghain's allies pause, but we must combine it with a challenge Loghain cannot ignore. We need someone with a stronger claim to the throne than Loghain's daughter, the queen. I would not propose such a thing if we had an alternative. But the unthinkable has occurred."

"What are you suggesting?" Baldur said, though he thought he knew.

Alistair was King Maric’s illegitimate son, half-brother to Cailan, and had more claim than most to the throne. Alistair must have reached the same conclusion because he went pale with horror. He shot a look toward the guards at the door nearest him as if contemplating whether or not he would make it past them before he was dragged back kicking and screaming.

"Teagan and I have a claim through marriage, but we would seem opportunists, no better than Loghain. Alistair's claim is by blood," Eamon said, confirming both Grey Warden’s suspicions.

"And what about me? Does anyone care what I want?" Alistair demanded.

Eamon looked at him regretfully, though he remained firm on his stance. "You have a responsibility, Alistair. Without you, Loghain wins. I would have to support him, for the sake of Ferelden. Is that what you want?"

"I...but I..." Alistair stuttered and then sighed, head and shoulders slumped in defeat. "No, my lord," he mumbled.

"I see only one way to proceed," Eamon said, eyes returning to Baldur's. "I will call for a Landsmeet, a gathering of all of Ferelden's nobility in the city of Denerim. There, Ferelden can decide who shall rule, one way or another. Then the business of fighting our true foe can begin. What say you to that, my friend? I do not wish to proceed without your blessing."

Baldur would spare Alistair this fate if he could, or at least attempt to seek another solution for his sake. "Wouldn’t it be easier to simply kill Loghain?"

Assassination wasn't exactly befitting of a Grey Warden, but it was no less than Loghain deserved. Perhaps Baldur could even convince the assassin that Loghain had hired to kill him to return the favor...if only he could find Zevran to ask.

"I'm not sure that would help our cause," Eamon said, shaking his head. "We would become the criminals, and our accusations would become excuses. Furthermore, I'm not even certain where Loghain might be."

"What if we defeat him in battle?"

"Unless we convince some of Loghain's allies to abandon him, that's not likely to happen. Our army is not large enough. As a Grey Warden, you may gather allies to you, but we need these forces to face the darkspawn, not to battle against our own."

"I..." Baldur started, and then cast a glance to Alistair, who wasn't looking at anyone. "I say we proceed with your plan."

I'm sorry, he wanted to say to Alistair, but he saw few other options.

Arl Eamon straightened, looking relieved. "Very well, I will send out the word. It will take some time to recall my forces and organize our allies. I would prefer to wait until that is done before calling the Landsmeet. In the meantime, I suggest you pursue the remainder of the Grey Warden treaties. We will need all the allies we can get if we are to defeat the darkspawn horde."

Alistair stormed out of the great hall without even waiting to be dismissed. Baldur watched him go, too tired to pursue what would undoubtedly be a tongue-lashing to rival the last one Baldur had gotten from him. If nothing else, it would have been the perfect opportunity for Baldur to tell him that he was - or at least had been - heir to a king as well, if that particular rumor hadn’t already spread throughout their party, but the words stuck in his throat and he didn't. What did it matter anyway, aside from tearing open past wounds? He was an Aeducan no longer.

Baldur made his leave with a nod of his head to Eamon and Teagan before a servant wisped over to his side and led him to the room where he would be staying. He was too tired to take in his surroundings and appreciate the renovations that had been made since his last visit after a demon had razed through the castle.

The soft click of the door closing behind him sounded like a shot from one of Leliana's explosive arrows connecting with a target. He only managed to remain standing for a few seconds before he staggered over to the bed and sank down unsteadily on the plush mattress before he collapsed to the floor instead. He nearly didn't get up minutes or hours later when one of Eamon's serving lads tentatively knocked on the door and informed him that dinner would be served within the hour in honor of the Grey Wardens and the Arl's recovery, which more or less meant Baldur's attendance was mandatory. He was barely given a chance to breathe before he was being called away again. He thought it no wonder that both he and Wynne had run themselves down to the point of collapsing, but he would never ask any of his companions for more than he was willing to give himself.

His body propelled itself into motion on autopilot. He'd attended enough dinners and court functions as a representative of his house to be able to prepare without thought. He let his mind drift as he removed his armor and changed into a cleaner set of clothing before he washed his hands and face, deciding to wait until that night for a proper bath.

When he and Bhelen were children, they had made a game of sneaking away from the boring dinner parties King Endrin held without being noticed. The game lasted well into their teens until the kitchen's matron had caught Bhelen raiding the larder one evening after he'd managed to slip away before dinner had even been served. Mistress Keryn had frog marched Bhelen up to their father before the court and all; the old wench was subservient to no one but Mahal Himself, not even to the king. Bhelen had been so small then, his face redder than his flaming hair. His demeanor had been even sweeter than Baldur's at the time, but no less stubborn. He had stared up at their sire with his smooth cheeks puffed out and with such a mutinous expression that it was a wonder he didn't singe the hairs on their father's greying beard.

Trian had sat back in his chair and sneered meanly at Bhelen, whose arm was still caught up in the vice-like grip of Mistress Keryn's stern hand.

"Bhelen, son of Endrin, son of Ansgar, you do your house a great dishonor this night," King Endrin intoned. His deep timber had echoed throughout the halls and cast a pall over the hundred or so nobility in attendance who focused all of their attention on the high seat at the head table and the chastised boy standing before it. "I expect you believe that simply because you are young and of royal blood this means you are above reproach. Or perhaps you believe you are so privileged that you simply cannot be bothered to mingle with those you deem lesser than yourself."

"Nnh!" Bhelen had exclaimed through a mouthful of sweetbread, which he hastily chewed and swallowed, nearly choking. "No, Father! That is not it at all. I only wanted--"

"Your wants are secondary to the needs of your people," Endrin had cut in, slashing a heavily beringed hand through the air.

Bhelen flinched as if that hand had struck him.

"Let it be known," Endrin announced as he rose from his seat and addressed the gathering, spreading his arms wide so his heavy cloak flared out behind him, "that every single son of Aeducan serves only Mahal and the Stone before his own people, and never, ever before himself. As a reminder of his humility and remorse, Prince Bhelen will be reporting to Mistress Keryn for kitchen detail the remainder of the month. Know that every plate you dine from, every cup filled to brimming with the finest golden ales from Orzammar's own bountiful harvests, will have been meticulously seen to by your very own prince with his deepest gratitude for being allowed the privilege of serving you."

Bhelen's jaw had sagged as he stared up at their father wide-eyed and gaping, crumbs clinging to the corners of his mouth.

Baldur ached for him. He began to stand in order to explain to their father that Bhelen's actions had been due to his own goading, and as the elder he should be punished in Bhelen's place. Trian's hand had clamped down on his thigh, however, and stopped him short before Baldur rose an inch from his chair. He dug his nails and fingers in so hard that Baldur nearly cried out in pain when he tried to resist. The distraction had been enough that Endrin retook his seat with a dismissive flick of his hand and conversation gradually resumed like an excited tide.

Mistress Keryn sniffed disapprovingly before turning on her heel and dragging Bhelen along, stumbling behind her like a recalcitrant toddler.

Baldur had snuck into the kitchens early the next morning before the rest of the kitchen staff arrived, despite what Trian or their father would have said about his interference. He got a head start on scrubbing the giant copper pots hanging from the massive fireplaces that took up an entire wall. Bhelen arrived shortly after, wiping sleep and tears from his lovely blue eyes, which brightened when they alighted on Baldur, who was already grimy with soot and burned dregs of stew from the previous night's meal. Bhelen had fallen alongside Baldur with a delighted laugh as Baldur knocked their foreheads together before pressing an affectionate kiss to Bhelen's sleep-rumpled head. Both boys attacked the pots with vigor. When Mistress Keryn found them, their entire upper bodies were submerged in the opening of one of the pots large enough to comfortably fit both brothers, with perhaps even Trian to spare. She'd only shaken her head and swatted their exposed rumps with a dish towel before leaving them to their work with the occasional rough criticism thrown out before she demonstrated the proper way to polish silver. Eventually her already brittle patience snapped and she chased them out with a broom after they'd broken a half dozen plates between them.

Needless to say both Baldur and Bhelen were in attendance for every single dinner from then on. Baldur never forgot the reverberating echo of his father's voice declaring them servants first and foremost. That core principle hadn't changed, only shifted, when Baldur became a Grey Warden.

Baldur wasn’t very engaged in the dinner despite the fact he hadn’t had a proper meal in ages, but others were more than willing to pick up the slack in conversation. He was wrought with anxiety and so exhausted that he dribbled soup down the front of his tunic. His limited focus was swallowed up by the unoccupied chair at the table that felt like a stab to his chest every time he glanced between the empty place setting and the door. If any important matters were discussed that night Baldur couldn’t recall, though he vaguely remembered promising to meet with Eamon the next day.

Zevran never showed up to the dinner feast, and neither did he come to bed that night. Or at least, not to Baldur's bed. Bastion had certainly made himself comfortable in Baldur’s absence, though. Bastion huffed when Baldur half-heartedly attempted to shoo him off the bed before he gave up and let Bastion have his way. Privately, Baldur was grateful to even have a dog keep him company rather than no one at all and to be left alone with his thoughts.

Servants had seen to cleaning his clothes and armor when Baldur had been at dinner. The festivities were a blur only to be remembered by the bite of bitter ale still lingering at the back of his throat and the throbbing behind his left eye, but he managed to force himself into a hurried bath. He scrubbed at the black flakes of darkspawn blood that smelled acrid and revealed spots of irritated skin once removed that possibly would have eaten into flesh if left too long. He had no fear of the blight sickness since he and Alistair both had the taint as a result of the Joining, but others could contract the disease caused by ingesting or being infected by darkspawn blood through an open wound. The disease - as far as he knew - was eventually fatal. They managed to keep the taint at bay for Bastion, whose weapons were his claws and teeth, by a potion made from flowers very similar to the ones he had given Leliana. He had no idea if the potion was only effective for mabari, or if it would work for people as well, but he did not wish to find out.

His sleep was fractured that night, riddled with nightmares and the distant, scratchy whispers of darkspawn that he tried to ignore. He curled around Bastion, who snuffled and paddled his paws in his sleep as he chased dream rabbits. Baldur wished that his own life could be as carefree as his dog’s.

In the morning, Baldur requested a pot of strong tea and dry toast be delivered to his rooms along with a ham hock for Bastion to gnaw upon before he whined and scratched at the door to be let out. Baldur didn’t feel up to mingling when his presence wasn't required for breakfast and enjoyed the rare silence while it lasted. As if that very thought summoned an interruption, there was a sharp rap at his door. He tried not to get his hopes up as he tied his hair back into a sloppy tail and laced his tunic, before reconsidering and undoing the laces, but his care was for naught as he was greeted by Morrigan’s glowering visage.

“I trust you were successful in obtaining Flemeth’s grimoire, seeing as how you are neither dead nor reduced to idiotic babble from one of Mother’s curses?”

“Good morning to you as well, Morrigan,” Baldur sighed, gesturing her inside the room and closing the door behind her when she strode inside without hesitation. “It’s unlike you to be so concerned with my welfare.”

“Do not be foolish. Flemeth is far more experienced and – if her grimoire from the Circle is any indication – devious than I. I cannot imagine she would have been willing to depart with all of her secrets so readily.”

Morrigan would be surprised and more than a little suspicious if she knew just how easily Baldur had obtained the grimoire.

Rather than answer, Baldur retrieved his pack from the foot of the bed and dug through the leather satchel until he located the strangely cool cover of the grimoire and handed the book over to Morrigan. Her eyes sharpened hungrily on the grimoire, which she snatched from Baldur’s hands, though she handled the tome almost reverently once it was secured in her possession.

“Ahhh. Mother’s real grimoire, is it? I’m glad you were able to find it after all. My thanks for retrieving it.”

“Welcome,” Baldur mumbled, looking down at his feet. He shifted uncomfortably, unnerved that Morrigan would take the implication of her mother’s death so lightly, but he said nothing confirming whether or not Flemeth was slain, and Morrigan didn’t ask for specifics. She was enthralled with the book, expression avid and hungry.

“I shall begin studying it immediately and unlock the power it holds.”

“Just...be careful?” Baldur said.

He had a bad feeling about supplying Morrigan with the means to obtain more power and risk her becoming maleficarum, but he’d also seen the easy way she brushed off demons and spirits and figured if anyone was strong enough to resist the thrall of dark magic and possession, it would be Morrigan. At least she would be where he could keep an eye on her. Like Flemeth, he was interested to see what she would do with her newfound freedom, especially if her word that she would remain at Baldur’s side was no longer a promise that could be enforced with Flemeth supposedly out of the picture.

Morrigan breezed out of his room with the same lack of regard she had upon entering, but he’d never been one to stand on ceremony unless required of him. Trian had been even less diplomatic than Baldur, and Bhelen far too cunning. King Endrin had ruled with an equal balance of diplomacy, ruthlessness, and cunning, though even he hadn’t been able to anticipate his own sons’ treachery right beneath his nose. Baldur only hoped that Alistair would step up and be a more effective ruler, otherwise all their work to stop the Blight would be for nothing if civil war in Ferelden broke out and destroyed what they tried so hard to save.

Baldur finished dressing, though he left off his drakescale armor and sword. Redcliffe Castle was reasonably guarded and he needn’t fear violence from its inhabitants, unless anyone else turned out to be possessed.

...On second thought, he strapped on his belt knife as a precaution.

He took the long way around to the audience chamber where he assumed he would be meeting with Eamon and Teagan to discuss their plans. His detour was partially because he was hoping to catch Zevran, and mostly because he was lost. A servant giggled behind her hand and pointed him in the right direction when he’d clomped up and down the same passage three times and nearly kicked over a decorative vase in his frustration. He thanked the girl with a strained smile full of teeth before marching the opposite way he had come. He met Alistair along the way, though he only greeted Baldur with a terse nod. Alistair was in his full Grey Warden armor, cleaned and polished with its griffin insignia on full display, which couldn’t have been a more obvious statement indicating where his loyalties lay above all else. Rather than leading them to the assembly chamber, Alistair took a detour and Baldur had to jog to follow his lengthy strides.

“Um...where are we going?” Baldur inquired, wondering if Alistair was actually making a break for freedom after all.

“Arl Eamon’s war room. That’s where he holds most of his meetings discussing strategy and how to ruin other people’s lives.”

No, Alistair wasn’t bitter at all.

Baldur wisely held his tongue until they arrived to the war room. He greeted Teagan, who rose from his seat to welcome them toward two empty chairs next to where Eamon sat at the head of a long table. The meeting consisted of only the four of them, and after a few stilted pleasantries, Eamon directed the talk to more serious matters.

“The majority of our forces have returned from where they had been dispatched during my illness to search for the Urn and seek aid against the demon, though I’m afraid those numbers are far less than I had hoped. We need to bolster the amount of warriors under our command as quickly as possible, not only as a deterrent should Loghain attempt the unthinkable—“

“Again,” Alistair muttered.

“—and rally his own forces against us rather than upon the darkspawn. There are no reports of the Archdemon having been spotted yet, which I thank the Maker for, though it actually weakens our claim that a Blight is indeed upon us despite the influx of darkspawn sightings. Unfortunately, only few will believe the word of an old man very nearly deceased and two branded traitors over Teyrn Loghain, who was King Maric’s best friend and Ferelden’s champion after he helped defend the country against Orlais’ invasion. We need to outmaneuver Loghain at the Landsmeet, but even if we are successful the issue of the Blight remains and time is of the essence. What is your current status in regards to the treaties, Warden?”

Baldur cleared his throat and stood so he was of an equal height to the other seated men rather than peeking up at them from over the edge of the table.

“The Grey Wardens have been promised aid from the Dalish clan in the Brecilian Forest in addition to any mages the Circle can spare to fight on our side. I believe these two groups, in addition to your army, will be enough to dissuade Loghain and turn the tide against the darkspawn if and when they launch another attack.”

"Then all that remains is your people,” Eamon said. “You must travel to Orzammar. All of the races must be united if we are to stand a chance."

"I am...unable to return to Orzammar," Baldur said as he felt sweat begin to prickle at the nape of his neck. He’d hoped the treaties he had already invoked would be enough to convince Eamon they didn’t really need Orzammar’s help. He’d rather avoid explanation if at all possible, but it seemed his past was determined to catch up to him at every turn.

"No one is more experienced or knowledgeable against the darkspawn than the dwarves, save for perhaps the Grey Wardens. We cannot assume the Wardens in Orlais and the Free Marches will arrive in time before we are forced to take action. I’m afraid I must insist. The dwarves must honor the treaty. Whatever happened in your past, you must unite all the races, or we are doomed."

“I can’t,” Baldur insisted, his palms sweaty where he had them clenched against his thighs. “I wouldn’t even make it to the front doors before I’m shot down.”

“What did you do that was so terrible?” Alistair asked.

"I...” Baldur started and then stopped.

Alistair definitely didn’t know if he was even asking. Zevran, Morrigan, and Wynne had managed not to run off at the mouth as soon as they found out his dark past from the Guardian at the temple. As much as he appreciated their loyalty, it only meant that he had a few more awkward conversations lined up in his near future, starting with Alistair.

No time like the present, as the saying went.

“I was the son of King Endrin and banished for the accused crime of having killed my older brother. I am forbidden to return to Orzammar on penalty of death." Baldur had to grip the edge of the table with white-knuckled hands when his knees went shaky at the admission. He kept his gaze fixed on Eamon rather than acknowledging the stare boring into the side of his head from the seat to the left of his own.

"An Orzammar dwarf you may be no longer, but you are a Grey Warden, and as such your duty must come first. Banished or not, a dwarven representative would be our best chance, and not even King Endrin would dare go against a Grey Warden treaty," Eamon said, entirely too unfazed and unyielding.

"It’s not the king I fear. My younger brother, Bhelen, conspired to get me and Trian out of the way in order to rule himself. The last I heard, my father was gravely ill and Bhelen very well may sit on the throne now."

"Take a contingency of guards with you if you must, but do not doubt the sway you have. You are no longer an exiled prince but an esteemed Grey Warden. We all have our roles to play, and play them we must if we are to survive this Blight."

“I...understand, my lord. I will do my best.”

Baldur’s gut was churning and he was certain his face must have lost all color, but he did manage to retake his seat before he fell over.

"Prince!" Alistair hissed, leaning over into Baldur’s space so Baldur couldn’t duck and hide himself beneath the table in order to avoid Alistair’s outrage.

Baldur pinched the bridge of his nose, but he thought it best to let Alistair get it all out now while Eamon and Teagan discussed their own forces and supplies in Redcliffe.

"All this time! And after I told you about King Maric and my mother."

Baldur couldn’t help hunching guilty before he shook off his regret and beseeched Alistair for his understanding instead. "I didn’t mean to keep it from you. I kept my birthright a secret for the same reason you did. I didn’t believe who I was before Duncan conscripted me was relevant. It was a painful part of my past that I would just as soon forget about."

"So is it true then? Did you kill your brother?"

Baldur wondered if he would lose Alistair over this, even after everything they had been through. "No, I didn't kill Trian."

Alistair looked at him for a long while, and then looked away. "I believe you. Just...I can't believe you didn't tell me. I thought we were friends."

Baldur reached out and clasped Alistair's forearm hard until Alistair looked at him, eyes sad and wounded. "We are friends, Alistair, as well as brothers. Never doubt that I would give my life for yours."

"Well, we do have darkspawn blood in us," Alistair hedged. Baldur shushed him, glancing around to make sure Eamon or Teagan hadn’t overheard. They had been sworn to secrecy during the Joining, and he didn't care to find out how others would react to the fact Grey Wardens were, in a way, part darkspawn themselves. "But anyway. I'm not the one you need to be making amends with anyway."

"You're not?"

"Uh, no. The last time I checked, you and I weren't shacking up together, if you get my meaning."

"Ah. Right." Zevran.

"Talk to him. I don't have much experience with family or significant others, but leaving things broken between you will only make confronting your family worse if you're worried about what's happening back here. I think you could use his support now."

"I don't... I said some pretty harsh things. I don't know if he'll forgive me or even want to come to Orzammar."

"You'll never know until you ask."

“I assume you have reached a decision?” Eamon cut in, sounding amused.

Baldur didn’t know what decision he was expected to make, since it seemed Eamon had made his choices for the both of them despite the fact he had no jurisdiction over the Grey Wardens. Authority or not, Eamon was sensible and already a better strategist than either Baldur or Alistair. Baldur had hoped to avoid Orzammar and its people for the remainder of his life, but Orzammar did have a division of warriors devoted specifically to fighting the darkspawn in the Deep Roads called the Legion of the Dead. His time in the army had mostly consisted of training and patrolling the city. He'd broken up fights and instilled order as an officer, rather than merely issuing orders as a prince safe on his throne. He’d only been in the Deep Roads a handful of times to arrange a supply drop off to the Legion, though he’d always had a battalion at his back and never for longer than a few days. He’d expected to die in the Deep Roads when he’d been banished, so the thought of returning to the people who had thrown him to the darkspawn alone and unarmed threatened to unhinge him, but he managed to keep his rage contained for the time being.

“I will need to speak to the others in my group, but I will have an answer for you tomorrow,” Baldur said with far more confidence than he felt.

“Very well. We will meet at the same time tomorrow with the rest of your party. We will begin making preparations for your departure right away,” Eamon assured him.

Baldur tried not to sigh. They had just come from the Frostback Mountains. He couldn’t imagine any of them would be happy to learn they would have to turn around and go right back, himself least of all. He hoped no one had gotten too comfortable, though he already had in mind who he wanted to ask to come with him.

“Don’t even think of leaving me behind in Redcliffe again,” Alistair said as he followed on Baldur’s heels after the meeting was adjourned.

Baldur tried to speed up his pace, but to no avail. His short dwarf legs would never outstrip a human’s, especially not one determined to run him down before Baldur could make his escape. He needed to figure out how to assuage the inevitable hurt feelings of those he would ask to stay and those he would ask to put themselves into danger on his account. Even without saying, Alistair already anticipated that he was in the former category, and Baldur didn’t try to pretend otherwise.

“Alistair... You’re needed here. As the potential future king, you’re too important to risk, especially when I’m already expecting we’ll be met with hostility.”

"I knew this would happen!" Alistair shouted when Baldur stalled at a corridor, trying to figure out which way his rooms were for more privacy, but Alistair didn’t seem to care about the guards and servants passing nearby. "You're coddling me just like everyone else! Both the templars and Duncan tried to keep me out of the fighting because of who my father was, and now you too?" Alistair didn't even try to keep his voice down, pacing back and forth as Baldur watched him with a grim expression. "I thought you understood. Especially considering you are actually a prince!"

Baldur winced and shifted to cross his arms over his chest as he gave up on trying to find his room and instead let Alistair get his frustrations out of his system. Alistair was quickly using up the limits of Baldur’s leniency, though, and soon Baldur would be pushed into taking a page out of Eamon’s book and issuing orders with absolutely no contest rather than catering to everyone’s moods and whims, friends or not.

"I still can't believe you didn't tell me," Alistair whined. "You keep so much from us, it's hard to tell if you actually trust anyone."

"I'm sorry, Alistair," Baldur said, and he was. "It was a part of my past that I thought would remain in my past and I, like you, didn't want anyone else to treat me differently because I'm the son of a king. That's why I'm telling you now. I'm trying not to keep things from you and the rest of the company any longer. I promise there aren't any other surprises I'm hiding."

Alistair scoffed, but his anger was a fleeting thing that burned hot and then cooled quickly, even though Baldur could tell he was still hurt. Alistair would just have to get over it. They would both have to develop stronger backbones as Baldur suspected they would have to make many more unfavorable choices in the future and have to find the wherewithal to live with the consequences.

"Are you sure about that? Maybe you like to put on pretty dresses for the Midsummer dance, and never thought to mention it to the rest of us."

"Maybe I do."

"Ha!" The laugh jumped out of Alistair as if he hadn't expected that response and he visibly softened, blowing out a breath and deflating.

"You're right. I am trying to protect you," Baldur said into the resulting silence.

"I knew it..."

"Becoming king over Loghain is far more important to the upcoming war, Alistair. You would be able unite thousands in the time it takes for me to find a way into Orzammar and beg for a handful of warriors to help us, if they don't attempt to kill me on my brother's orders first."

"That's... I didn't think of it that way."

"You fought a dragon and confronted a legendary witch these past few weeks alone. You may not think so yet, but you will be a great leader, Alistair. And one that Ferelden desperately needs right now."

"You say that like you weren't there leading us the whole way, and doing more besides! You didn't break your arm and have a mabari nanny you for a month rather than being out there fighting with everyone else."

"Is that all I have to do to get a vacation? Feel free to let me know when you’d like to take over. You are the senior Warden after all,” Baldur said, spreading his arms out in offering.

“I—uh. No, that’s all right. You’re doing a great job. I’m just angry and taking it out on you, I guess. But that’s still no excuse.” Alistair shook his head. “I’d better not keep you. You still have the others to talk to, and I suspect that will take the rest of the day.”

“The night too, if they’re as stubborn as you are.”

“I deserve that. But don’t let those dwarves in Orzammar get to you. Obviously they didn’t know what they were throwing away, which was only our luck, huh? I don’t even want to imagine what would have happened if you hadn’t joined the Grey Wardens. I think...Duncan would have been proud.”

“He would have been proud of you too, Alistair. We’ve both come a long way. Let’s see this through to the end, yeah?” Baldur held out his hand, grinning when Alistair gripped his forearm and smiled back.

“To the end, Brother.”

Baldur had to swallow back a lump in his throat at those words. He was reminded again that even though he might have lost his family in Orzammar, he’d gained another on the surface that he wouldn’t have traded for the world. Baldur released Alistair’s forearm with a squeeze, and Alistair tossed him a sloppy salute with a rakish grin that could possibly give Zevran’s a run for his money. The thought made Baldur’s heart ache, and he turned away before Alistair could see his expression.

“I’ll see you later,” Baldur said, his voice a little rough, but he kept his head up as he walked down the corridor until he realized he had no idea where he was going. He turned around to call Alistair back, but he was already gone.

“Dammit,” Baldur muttered.

He kicked at the stone floor with his boot before he sighed and resigned himself toward aimlessly wandering the castle and hoping he ran across someone who could direct him back to the guest quarters so he could begin to assemble the team he wanted to take with him to Orzammar.