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Steel Your Heart

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I was just another Charger again when the Chief carried Adaar out of the mirror, his free hand drawing Dorian through with him.

Cassandra emerged moments later, calling for Gwen, and Squirrel scrabbled loudly on the tiles as she skittered away from the pack of us before getting her feet properly beneath her and vanishing down the corridor. It would have been hilarious, had we not all been completely preoccupied with the Inquisitor’s lifeless form dangling limply from The Iron Bull’s shoulder.

Dorian was doing something to conceal her left arm; a bubble of darkness started at her shoulder and seemed to clamp the flesh together there. I wondered if it wasn't some kind of magical tourniquet. 

“Here!” Ma’s voice called down the corridor from the direction Squirrel had run. Bull had only made it a few steps away from the mirror, going slower than I was used to seeing him move. “Bring her here, we have the room ready!”

The Chief started picking up speed, moving carefully to avoid jostling the Inquisitor and giving us the first real sign that she wasn’t dead. Dorian’s eyes seemed glued to where Adaar’s left elbow lay hidden in darkness, and he was keeping up a constant low murmur that indicated he was asshole deep in magic.

The whole pack of Chargers moved with the Chief, blocking off side hallways ahead and behind in a solemn parade. Other participants in the Exalted Council were kept on the other side of a wall of steel but there was no hiding the Inquisitor’s passage. The rumor mill had been spitting out bits of the Qunari invasion since the first Antaam careened, terrified, out of an eluvian; this was fuel on that fire. I wasn’t close enough to the Exalted Council to know what Adaar’s absence was doing to the proceedings, but I was fairly confident she’d just validated the seriousness of the situation.

Gwen – who was just barely visible, moving at a near jog at the front of the pack – turned a quick corner and pushed open a set of double doors. Past that was another long hallway, this one almost completely empty, and then another set of double doors. Between us and that was Ambassador Montilyet, whose writing board clattered to the floor as she gasped in dismay.

“Josie, wait,” Cassandra said, angling to prevent Josephine’s hands from pulling Adaar off the Chief’s shoulder.

“Hellen! Hellen, no, Hellen! What has happened? Is she-“

“She is not dead,” Cassandra told her in a low voice, pulling her aside and letting the Chargers create a bubble for them to speak in as Bull continued down the hall in Gwen’s footsteps. “We were not with her when she fell, there is little we will know of what transpired until she wakes. We must trust in lady Gwen, now; she said she was prepared for this eventuality.”

Josephine nodded and then dashed down the hall in Bull’s wake. Cassandra scooped up the writing board and then followed. The Chargers fell in around the Seeker and the parade resumed its sad march through the Winter Palace.

We passed another set of double doors to find a broad sitting room. There were several stocked sideboards and half-dozen overstuffed armchairs set in pairs in various corners, “conversation nooks” I believe they would be called. The Chargers stopped in the sitting room and immediately set to work establishing a perimeter. There was one other exit, another hallway, this one with a single door at the end, and I recognized it as the room I’d helped Gwen’s infirmary staff set up their operating room. 

Last night. That was just yesterday evening. Maker, it felt like so much longer. I'd spent most of the time with Gwen, drawing out of her the story of Neria - Marian Ruess, from outside Baltimore - and helping her come to terms with the intense grief of losing so many earthen refugees at once. Every one of those Viddathari had been born on our world, plucked out of certain death and sent here to try to set the future aright. Gwen had Seen them all, and there was not enough time to grieve. There might never be. She definitely did not have that luxury today.

“Why did she lose consciousness?” Gwen was asking Bull, down at the end of the hall, the eerie silence carrying their words effortlessly to us. Cassandra was keeping Josephine in the hallway; it wasn’t a hard task, as there wasn’t much room left in the room with Dorian, two Qunari and four medical staff crowding the space. I could see a pair of boots kicking idly in the room, and just enough of the owner of those boots to recognize Solona. She had kept a low profile since saving the Chargers yesterday; she'd greeted Bann Teagan like an old friend and I heard that had a marked effect on the negotiations. That she was here, now, was another weight off my chest. Adaar would be okay, she had to be. Against Gwen and Solona, Death didn't stand a chance.

“I didn’t see it, we couldn’t get thru the mirror. All I know is-” the Chief answered, slowing to a stop that seemed to make Adaar stir, “-he tossed her out of the eluvian to us, and I scooped her up and hurried my ass here.”

“You saw him do it?”

“I saw his hands,” Dorian spoke up. He seemed to be speaking through gritted teeth, and his normally perfect hair was stuck to his temples by a sheen of sweat.

“Okay swing her around and on the bed, we don’t have any time to waste. Cass, have Josie take a seat. With some luck this won’t take long, but she doesn’t need to see it.”

“Come on, Josephine.”

“But – Hellen – I-“

“Tell her when she wakes up,” Gwen said gently. It took the fight out of the Ambassador, and she allowed Cassandra to lead her away. Gwen gestured for me, and I trotted over, careful not to meet the eyes of the women I passed on the way. Gwen took me halfway down the hall and pressed her cell phone into my hand.

“I don’t care what you do,” Gwen hissed at me through clenched teeth and a fake smile. “You have to make enough noise to protect Josephine.”

“I get it,” I reassured the woman who was suddenly nothing more than a trauma nurse. I could almost picture her in scrubs, stethoscope draped around her neck, gloving up before jumping on a gurney and doing chest compressions on the way down the hall to an emergency surgery. The odd intensity she got in stressful situations never made more sense. “We’re your white noise machine.”

She patted me on the cheek and then spun on her heel, catching the hem of her dress as she moved and hiking it up to expose the black and white shoes that were her trademark. Her pressed rubber soles flashed as she ran down the hall to the clean room, the door shutting snugly behind her. Cassandra deposited Josephine and then went back to help. I got a glimpse of Gwen climbing onto Adaar's chest before the door swung shut again.

I trotted back down the hall as sounds of activity started emerging from the operating room. I headed straight to Krem and told him what our Ma had commanded of us.

“Any ideas for this white noise?” Krem asked.

“On it,” I replied, and waggled Gwen’s cell at him. I was still swiping away at menus as Skinner offered Josephine a chair, Dalish handed the Ambassador a cup of tea, and one of Rocky’s sappers – Cake, I thought, only catching him from the corner of my eye – wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. Siren was shaking down everyone for clean handkerchiefs and making a pile on the arm of Josephine’s chair.

“I need a water glass,” I announced to no one in particular. “Empty and dry.”  I had one shoved in my face within seconds. I set it on one of the decorative side tables in the antechamber and dragged it into the middle of the room.

“Krem,” I called him over to look at what I had on the screen. “Can you do this?”

“Only you and Gwen can read that shit, man.”

I turned the sound down and played him the first five seconds.

“No. No way. Ain’t no way.”

“Come on, Krem, you’ve been practicing for this moment for months.”

“Twitch, I can’t-“

A strangled sort of groan echoed down the hallway, loud enough that the tightly closed door separating us from Gwen and Eleanor’s grim work did little to muffle the sound.

Josephine came halfway out of her chair, tears welling up helplessly.

“Fuck,” Krem spat, and hit play; I immediately dropped the phone into the glass to amplify the speaker.

Can…

We all knew the song. Maker’s ankles, did we know the song. The Chargers couldn’t pick Freddie Mercury out of a line up but they knew his voice in their sleep. If I thought I was going to be the only one singing back up, I was a fool. I was joined immediately by twelve or fifteen other voices when I sang:

“…anybody…find me…somebody to… love.”

If the theme was less than ideal, the fact that we could all add our voices to support Krem and drown out the Inquisitor’s increasingly piercing cries of pain trumped the actual words.

The guitar break almost killed us, as Hellen cursed in the middle of the relative silence. The sharp bark of “Fuck! Noooooo…” faded away just as the song kicked in again, and one look at Josephine’s face kicked us into high gear. Krem seemed to understand the cost of failure and drummed up another ten or fifteen decibels of intensity and we all followed him.

“Got no feel, I got no rhythm, I just keep losing my beat. I’m okay, I’m alright. I ain’t gonna face no defeat. I just gotta get out of this prison cell, one day I’m gonna be free, Lord…!”

The Maker smiled at us then, as Krem hit and held the high note just as Hellen started screaming, and we made enough noise, just enough noise that Josephine didn’t seem to hear it.

We were beating on the floor, pounding on our thighs, hammering rhythm on the furniture, anything to generate the thunder necessary to hide any hint of the Inquisitor’s agony. Every voice was joining every word on every chorus, and Josephine almost – almost – smiled as we trailed down to the end of the song.

The playback stopped and we all stood in silence.

I knew a good surgeon could do an amputation in minutes. Gwen had told me, once, that the first amputation done with anesthetic took twenty-five seconds. While I doubted it would be that fast, was it possible the worst was over?

I grabbed the phone and scrolled, looking for something else we all knew and could all join in on.

It was for naught.

The door at the end of the hall creaked open and Gwen, fucking soaked in blood, walked slowly towards us. Josephine stood slowly out of her chair, hands drifting to her face as if she couldn’t stand to look, and couldn’t bear to look away.

“Eleanor’s finishing the stitches,” she said wearily. “We’ve got to get another potion or two into her, but she’s asleep now. The worst is over.”

Josephine coughed a sob and dropped back into the chair, and Gwen lifted a hand as if to stop her, to go to her, before seeming to remember she was soaked in blood and instead turned and walked back into the clean room. The Chargers gathered around Josie – blocking her grief and relief from anyone who might happen to enter the room or come looking for Gwen or Hellen – but I couldn’t look away from Gwen. Our Herald paused at the door, glancing back at the crowd, her chosen family, in the antechamber.

I had seen the look in her eyes before, but not on her. I'd only seen that many warring emotions in Solona, when she talked about the Blight: horror, shame, sorrow, and guilt so profound it hurt to witness swept across her features, warring with relief a least as powerful as Josie’s.

With a shudder and what might have been a tear quickly brushed away, she slipped silently back into the room, careful not to open the door wide enough to expose the wreck within.