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Steel Your Heart

Chapter Text

“Tell me again why I’m doing this?” I asked Harding, hesitating as I looked out at the Basin.

“You want the list?” my head scout laughed. “I mean… beyond that it’s generally considered wise to know what befell one’s predecessor…”

“Yeah, besides that.”

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder?”

“Fuck,” I sighed. “If tromping through the Avvar territories gets me laid, I’m in.”

“That’s the spirit,” Harding laughed. “What would Gwen say?”

“Go get ‘im, Tiger,” I answered, aiming for melodramatic to hide my desire to laugh whenever the little imp wormed into conversation.

With a flourish, Lace gestured for me to be off.

“What is this now?” Dorian asked, trotting up to stride beside me. “Hellen isn’t getting laid?”

“Lace knows because Lace knows,” I answered, maybe a bit curtly. “She and Charter have their dirty little fingers in everybody’s pies. But if you think for one second I’m going to launch into a detailed conversation of my relationship dynamics, with you, in the field…?”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Dorian reassured me. “But, I must admit, I’m a bit taken aback by your failure to mention this before we left. Isn’t that what tub time is for?”

I grunted, and he took it as the answer it was meant to be. Gwen was my sister, but Dorian was my best friend, and he was right… this was the purview of best friends.

“So, something safer,” he said, making of showing of casting about for a topic as we began our survey of the Basin. “Oh! Of course. Gwen! Where is the little demon baby off to?”

I snorted a laugh. Demon baby. Right. “Meeting the family. South Reach, I believe.”

“Oh, how lovely. And when are you making a similar journey to Antiva?”

I grunted again, and Dorian nodded, grossly exaggerating the movement. “Ooh, I see, I see. How interesting.”

“Alright, I’m sorry,” I sighed. “Not here, not now, but soon, okay? It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you about it, I just… don’t want to talk about it at all.”

He jabbed me in the ribs and I twisted out of the way, meeting his eyes and matching his smile. “Understood, Inquisitor.”

“Thanks, Altus.”

There was some kind of fucked up fade lizard in a ravine ahead of us, and while Cassandra charged ahead and Cole vanished, I unslung my staff and fell into the forms beside Dorian. It was tougher fight than I expected – the Basin was rough – but not so challenging that I had to dedicate my consciousness to it fully. While my magic flowed around me, momentum and mana magnifying each other, most of my brain was free to mull over the mystery that was Josephine Montilyet.

She loved me. I loved her. We’d admitted as much to each other – and the world in general. I’d gotten her betrothal to whats-his-nuts called off, and she had gotten her parent’s blessing for our relationship. Given that the Herald of Andraste and Divine Victoria both condoned our relations, there really wasn’t much an Antivan merchant family could say against it, but it was nice regardless.

But that was it. There was nothing else to that story. Saying our relationship was unconsummated was a lie, but not by much. There was always someone arriving or departing Skyhold that required Josephine’s diplomacy and particular touch, and that was after the insanity that was the victory celebrations and Coronation of the Divine.

And I…? I had been told not tonight so many times I’d stopped asking. So here I was, tromping through Avvar land, killing fade lizards, taking any excuse I could grasp to get the Void out of Skyhold.

Maker, let her miss me.

 

*

 

“So? How’s it going?” Gwen asked.

“You don’t even ask permission anymore?” I sighed, glancing around to see her apartment in Skyhold when I knew damn well I had fallen asleep in a tent along the Varsdotten River. 

“I do. You just don’t remember when you get in here. You’re dreaming when I ask.”

“Does that even count as consent?”

“Andraste’s ashes, you’re cranky. Should I let you go back to sleep?”

“No,” I protested, halfway reaching out to stop her exit. “No, I’m just… ugh. I’m sorry.”

“So, I ask again. How is it going?”

“There are rifts,” I answered. “There are shitty Avvar assholes everywhere. There are weird fade lizards. Harding is hitting on the professor pretty hard. The weather is lovely. And Ameridan is no closer than he was yesterday, or six hundred years ago for that matter. How are you?”

Gwen shrugged and then sat down on the couch beside me. “We’re getting to South Reach tomorrow. I’m nervous.”

“Why? Can’t you just look at the future and see how it’ll go?”

“It’s… uncomfortable… to do that. Andraste has had hundreds of years to get used to parsing through all the options for the future and determining which are the most likely. I just get a headache.”

“So what good is it?” I challenged.

She shrugged. “I can see the Truth. I can see the past, easy as pie. I can completely eliminate the need for interrogation.”

“I bet Charter loved that.”

“It simplifies the job, for sure.”

We sat in silence for a bit. Meeting in the Fade simplified my correspondence; Cullen would know how I was doing based on Gwen’s report. When she was in Skyhold – and she would likely beat me back by weeks if not months – she could tell Josie of my progress and continuing safety.

…since Josie wouldn’t think to ask or show that she was concerned about my wellbeing.

“What is it?” Gwen asked, softly.

“It’s… it’s nothing,” I sighed. “Just… the world didn’t turn out the way I thought it would.”

Gwen snorted. “You’re preaching to the choir on that one.”

Augh, she was right. All I could do was shake my head and laugh – Gwen’s life story was infinitely worse than mine. I was just in a strained relationship, for fuck’s sake.

“Alright, shoo,” I laughed. “Go get some sleep. Or not. I don’t want to know what you are up to in that tent.”

“Sleeping,” she shrugged. “I’m here with you, right? I mean, I love you, Hellen, but I don’t love you anywhere near enough to dream about you while-“

“Did I not just say I didn’t want to know?” I interrupted, and she let slip a wicked little cackle.

Then, suddenly, I was awake. The breeze lifted the corner of the tent and Cassandra said something in her sleep. I reached out with my mana to find Wisdom sitting watch over me, as always. She was how Gwen could so unerringly find me, and why I never worried that the person I conversed with unexpectedly in the Fade was, indeed, my chosen sister.

I was one of the few people in the world to be able to say I truly had the benefit of Wisdom.

With her silent appreciation for the pun warming the edges of my mind, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

 

*

 

My dearest Hellen,

Gwen is, as one might say, over the moon with the reception she was met with in South Reach. The letters I have been receiving from her and the Commander are both entirely positive.

On a similar note, my news from Divine Victoria is encouraging, to say the least. I remain optimistic about her burgeoning rule. Nothing from either of these fronts is particularly pressing, and we can discuss it at your leisure upon your return.

More concerning is the steady buildup of requests for your presence. Much of the work to defeat Corypheus was done by our allies, and many of them have come forward to lay claim to some small portion of your time in return for their assistance. None of these requests are outrageous in and of themselves, but they are accumulating at an alarming rate.

If you are not opposed, I would like to send you several that I believe you could attend to without leaving the Basin, and a handful others that could be addressed when you are en route back to Skyhold.

I eagerly anticipate your return

With love,

Josephine Montilyet

 

“Dorian!” I called without looking up from the missive.

“Hrm?”

“Here,” I said, walking over to him and handing him the letter. “This should explain everything.”

“Oh, gossip? How trite.” He hummed happily to himself as he fell into step beside me and followed me out of Camp. We had pushed the Hakkonites off the river and were working to establish enough of a presence on the north end of the Basin to force them back into their ice fortress entirely. I had no hope of a siege – these were Avvar for fuck’s sake – but once they were contained I could do what I needed to do in this damned valley.

I had traced Ameridan to a temple in the north, thanks to the corpse of his lover on the island to the south. I had an invitation to meet with the leader of the Sunbears, and a couple of very happy researchers running around in the meantime. If I could root the Hakkonites out I would be in good shape, but that was going to take some doing.

And if there was a dragon involved, I was going to want Bull… but he was in South Reach with Gwen and the Chargers.

“But this is all business,” Dorian complained as he reached the end of the letter. “None of this is… oh. Oh. Oh, Hellen, that’s dreadful.”

“Yup,” I agreed with a nod as I accepted the proffered letter. I folded it up and stashed it in my coat pocket without slowing. “Can we agree not to talk about it anymore?”

“What? No! Absolutely not. I will, however, agree to postpone the conversation. But this is fixable, Adaar, you have to know it is.”

“All I know is, that lizard there is going to ruin our day if we don’t get the drop on it.”

“What? What liz- oh. Oh, blast, another one of these.”

“Cass?”

“I am three steps ahead of you, Hellen,” Cassandra said, matching action to word as she charged across the intervening space. Cole was already invisible, but I expected him to pop out of nothingness once Cassandra had the Fade Lizard Thing fully engaged. I slung my staff off my back.

“More killing, less chatting, Altus.”

Dorian ignored me and kept up a steady stream of near-profanity. Some of it was Tevene, and I was fairly certain it was full profanity, but I didn’t know enough to translate.

He respected my desire not to talk about Josephine – she would be horrified to think I discussed our relationship where anyone could hear – but that didn’t stop him from ranting about absolutely everything else we experienced for the rest of the day. Every rock, spider, Avaar, and curve in the path was lambasted by Dorian in three languages.

By the time we got to camp, I was almost willing to talk to him about it just so he would shut up. But since I was fairly certain that was his goal, I instead retired to my tent under the premise of needing to meet with Gwen. It was a false premise – I talked to her nearly every night, and going to sleep early was not a prerequisite by any stretch of the imagination – and I instead took my correspondence to bed with me.

 

Josie,

I cannot help but notice you left out one of my advisors in this last letter.

Please, tell me – how are you doing? I hear from Gwen, I have Faith in Leliana, and Charter is surely finding her way. But you, Kadan, of you I have seen nothing. If you cannot bring yourself to mix business and private matters, write me twice! I hate to add to your work load but surely a few lines on a separate sheet and folded up with your normal missive would not be so taxing?

If there are alliances you have formed for the Inquisition that I must now tend to, I will. I trust your judgment. Please send along whatever I can do to ease your mind and your workload.

The Basin goes well. I know Harding writes to Charter, so a more thorough recounting can be found there. I mean to send for Bull to help with what seems to be a particularly nasty dragon, and aside from that it is business as usual. I intend to meet with Sunbear Hold before the week is out; I will be sure to immediately inform you of any diplomatic opportunities that arise.

Yours,

Hellen

 

I looked at the letter for easily an hour before sealing it and putting away my writing kit. It didn’t sound like me. It sounded like somebody trying to sound like Josephine.

Sleep was hard-won, but Wisdom, as always, stepped in to help me find the Fade.

“You look like shit.”

“Even my Fade form looks bad? Wonderful,” I sighed.

“If your Fade form looks bad, I hear, it is because you feel bad, moreso than you’re actually ill or wounded.”

We were in her apartment in Skyhold again, sitting on couches across from one another. Cullen seemed to flicker in and out of existence, his head in her lap; after a few flashes I realized he was dreaming about being asleep beside Gwen. Poor bastard was smitten.

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked when I made no response.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” I sighed. “Josie is busy. She is very good at what she does. She has very little time to spare.”

“She is a novice to love,” Gwen said, in a soft tone that completely surprised me. “Leliana surely told you that when your intentions came to the Nightingale’s attention.”

“She did,” I admitted. That conversation had not gone well for either of us.

“She is young, in this sense, and likely does not realize she must alter her priorities in a relationship. She is being foolish, but not malicious. She loves you, Hellen.”

I ran both hands across my face and then roughly rubbed the length of my horns; the pressure always offset the budding headache I got from stress. I needed another back massage-

“Can I have Bull?”

It was Gwen’s turn to be surprised. “Can I huh wha? You want Bull?”

“I never fight dragons with Bull.”

Gwen made a show of nodding. “Right, right. Hakkon fight. I remember. I’ll tell him. He’ll argue for a bit until I tell him there’s a dragon and then he’ll come at a run.”

“Thanks. I don’t know how long I’ve got before we get them cornered. I’d ask you but you’re worthless in that regard.”

Gwen snorted a laugh. “You’re damn right I am. It’s about time you figured that out.”

“He’s dreaming about sleeping,” I protested as Cullen suddenly flickered into our space again. “I would try to find a way to tease him about it if I didn’t know how much sleeping on your couch changed his life.”

Gwen looked down and seemed to notice Cullen for the first time. She smiled indulgently and he solidified for an instant before vanishing entirely. “None of his fears have materialized on this trip. He’s happier than I’ve ever seen him. It’s been lovely.”

“I’m happy for you,” I said, with every ounce of sincerity I could drum up.

“And simultaneously burning up with envy. Why don’t I lean on-“

“No,” I interrupted. “No, Gwen, please.”

“But if you-“

“It means so much less if you make her do it.”

She bit her lip and looked away. “I didn’t think of it that way.”

“It’s not that I want her to prioritize me, us,” I said, not drumming up the energy to argue against talking about it. “She can’t. I can’t. I don’t want her to abandon the Inquisition for us or neglect her duties or to ask me to walk away, step down. That’s not what I want. I want her to want to. I want her to tell me she wants us to go to Antiva, to run away, to have an after. I want her to make silly, completely unreasonable, adorable plans for the future that we can talk about in the ten minutes we’re together before she falls asleep at night and maybe never follow through on. I don’t want her to change, Gwen. I just want to be wanted.”

“Hellen, sweetheart, if you won’t let me tell her that, you have to. She can’t fix the problem if she doesn’t realize there is one!”

“But if I tell her, if you tell her, if she is told, I won’t know. I won’t know if she’s doing it because she actually wants to, or because that’s the only way to keep me around.”

“But wouldn’t that mean she wants to keep you around?”

I sighed. “It’s different. I don’t know how to explain it, I just-“

“No, Hellen, it’s fine. You’ll know when it’s right. I won’t press.”

I met her eye again for the first time in what felt like hours. “I know. Thank you.”

“I love you, Hellen.”

“I love you, too, Gwen.”

“Go get some sleep.”

“It’s not for you to decide who ends this conference!” I puffed up with false bluster.

She laughed, and then everything vanished.

I woke up to Cassandra dead asleep beside me, the sounds of troops on patrol around the Camp, and the soft murmurings of Dorian asleep in his tent nearby as the cool Basin breeze fluttered the edge of the canvas at the door flap.

Dorian would be pissed that I talked to Gwen about it instead of him.

But I couldn’t count on Dorian not to get involved.

Feeling a bit lighter, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Chapter Text

“I’m nervous,” I told him, for likely the fifth time.

“It will be alright. I promise.”

He had to be annoyed with me – he had to be – but he gave me no snark, made no snide comments, didn’t let his exasperation show.

Which, ultimately, was why I was on this horse in this part of Ferelden going to meet his family. The man was amazing, and this whole anxiety-inducing escapade was worth it as long as I remembered I was doing it for him.

“I know. I trust you. I just… I can't See well enough to tell and I want so badly for this to go well. For you, if not for me.”

“It will be alright, Gwen,” he said, again.

Whatever might have come next was lost when someone down the road called his name.

“Cullen? Cullen Rutherford!”

We all reined in our horses, and only through a long and rather violent association with the mercenary band was I able to pick out the subtle changes to the Chargers’ formation. There were simply more people in between me and the newcomer, and less space between those people. It was all done very nonchalantly, but I couldn't help but feel, as always, an almost foolhardy sense of security.

Yes, hello, this is me and my army.

Leliana never should have given me my own army. Even a little one.

“Mia?” Cullen asked, frowning slightly as he fought to recognize a voice he hadn’t heard in his adult life.

“You missed the turn, you great arse. You’re lucky I thought to wait here for you!”

A snicker ghosted through the Charger ranks, and Cullen managed to limit himself to a dull sort of flush rather than turning full-on beet red.

“That’s what he gets for letting Krem lead,” I offered, pitching my voice to carry. “Damn fool never asks for directions.”

The laugh was more forceful this time, and Cullen shook his head as he joined them. Then he swung down off Korth and made his way through our Charger escort to where the speaker – presumably his sister – was lost to my view behind the press of horse and mercenary.

“Oh, you got so tall!” I heard her say in the broken tones of thinly contained tears.

“That does tend to happen,” he answered soberly, and she started to laugh. I heard what might have been a swat.

“Get back on your monster of a horse and ride to the end of the hedgerow, there. The road up to the house is a little hard to see, but keeping it unmarked has saved us a world of trouble. I can cut through the woods, so I’ll likely beat you there.”

“I’ll give you a head start regardless,” Cullen replied, and then I heard what could only be Cullen lifting his sister into a hug. Then he was pulling himself back onto Korth and with a tilt to his head to indicate we should follow, turned the entire column around.

The path to the Redwell farm was easy to miss, which was why Mia had been waiting for us on the road. The front few Chargers went right past it on the second pass, even knowing it was close. The actual opening in the hedgerow was only broad enough for two horses to pass through at a time, but quickly widened to allow at least four and in some places six horses to walk abreast.

We walked in threes, with Cullen in the middle of the front, and me jammed somewhere halfway down, with Twitch on my left and Dalish on my right.

“Meeting the in-laws,” Twitch said under his breath in English. “Big day for Gwen.”

“They are not in-laws, we are not married, and you can keep your teeth together,” I hissed at him. It was a bit more vehement than I intended.

His eyes flew wide. “That is quite the chip on your shoulder, Miss Herald. Does the Commander know you don’t intend to remarry?”

“That is none of your-“

“Hello the house!” Bull called, from Cullen’s left.

“Maker’s breath, there’s a lot of you,” I heard someone answer although I couldn’t see the speaker. It was an adult Fereldan male, I was sure, but beyond that it could be Maferath himself for all I knew.

No, he was far deeper in tone and coarser in address, a whisper of a voice threaded through my consciousness.

I immediately ducked my head, lest the faint blue glow of my eyes gave me away. I had to fumble for a moment before I could fashion a response.

“Are You here all the time?” I whispered. I wasn’t confident in my ability to speak to Her in my mind, although She insisted the spoken word was unnecessary.

Not all the time, she answered, with the impression of laughter in her tone. But I do check in on you.

Then She was gone; She couldn’t help but sense my discomfort. Maybe She meant it to be helpful? The idea of Andraste haunting my mind wasn’t something I had adequately considered when I asked to be brought back to Thedas as Her Herald. Even if I had, I would have thought that She would pop in at important times, maybe just at moments of Decision… not chime in randomly with what Maferath sounded like.

The idea that we would idly chat in my down time was not something I had come to grips with.

“Gwen should be here momentarily,” Bull was rumbling from the head of the column, and I pulled my attention back to the physical world around me. The Chargers were dividing as they reached the clearing ahead of us, splitting off to the left or right to allow space for those behind to come off the road. When I got to the front, Dalish reined her horse to the right and Twitch hesitated for a moment before mirroring her action.

Eavesdropping nosy asshole. I didn’t care if he was maybe a little bit right, it was rude.

There was only Cullen and Bull in my field of view, then, so I focused on them and not my obtrusive thoughts. Cullen was swinging off Korth and striding over to take Honey’s reins and hand me down off the horse, a proper gentleman in front of his family. He knew damn well I could get on and off a horse by myself by this point, so really he was just putting up a good front.

Which was what I should have been doing. Right. I met his eyes and aimed the sort of smile at him that always left him dazzled, and then once I knew I had it properly on my face, turned the expression towards his sister.

She was a female Cullen; nothing more, nothing less. Her hair fell in lazy blond curls that were starting to grey at the temples, and her features were all softer versions of Cullen’s own. The top of my head sat just below her nose, but that just meant she was fairly normal human height in Thedas. She was dressed in her Sunday best, which for her was a bright yellow linen dress with a starched white pinafore tied on top, and brown leather slippers keeping her feet out of the still-chilled spring soil.

I was road weary and dusty, but I was wearing the green dress Josephine had given me, a year ago this very week. The brown boots were broken in to the point of perfection, and the spring day was warm enough to leave me cloak-less and my head uncovered. If my clothing was of a finer cut and quality than hers, she was dressed more formally than I and we evened out.

She met my smile with one of her own, and I immediately felt my anxiety wither.

“I am so glad to finally meet you,” she said in a breathy sort of tone.

“The feeling is utterly mutual,” I asserted, stepping towards her as she put out her arms for a hug I could only describe as sisterly.

For half a second, I acutely missed Hellen.

“You have the most darling accent!” she laughed, and I laughed with her. “I should have expected-“

“The penmanship, if nothing else, should have tipped you off,” I agreed, and she laughed harder, tightening her arms and letting me go.

“Gwen, Cullen, this is my husband, Clay.”

Cullen and I – to his surprise – shook his hand, and then Mia turned a nervous eye on the Chargers. “I don’t quite have enough room for everybody.”

“No,” Bull laughed, “We’re just delivering the Boss, and then we’re going into South Reach proper to answer the board you had put up.”

“Boss?” Clay echoed, looking askance at Cullen.

Cullen sighed and gestured to me.

“Take no payment if you can help it,” I told Bull, pitching my tone so the rest of the Chargers could hear. “But money is to be resisted and sexual favors are forbidden. If somebody insists on buying you a beer or a meal, that’s on them.”

“Such a cruel mistress,” Rocky lamented from somewhere off to my right and another laugh ghosted through the company.

“We’ll be close,” Bull said in lieu of agreeing. They would do their best, but I knew somebody would break something, be it a person or property or a betrothal; the Chargers were incapable of leaving an entire town intact. I was resolved to it, but I could still issue the order.

“I know,” I assured him, patting him on the arm.

“Chargers!” he barked, just as I turned my head and got a hand up to protect my ear. “Head out!”

“See ya, Ma!” somebody – probably Twitch – called. I waved in his direction, and the words were taken up in various forms by the rest of the company.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Siren told me as she rode past.

“Does that actually exclude anything?” I countered, and she tipped her head back and laughed as she disappeared down the road that snaked between the hedgerows.

I turned my attention back to my hosts to find Mia amused and Clay perplexed.

“Your wife is the Boss of a mercenary company?” Clay asked Cullen.

“Gwen is many things,” Cullen answered before I could fathom an answer. My mind was spitting out protests. Not his wife! Of course I’m the Boss! What is it to you?! “Before I try to run through all of her many achievements, however, I must tend to the horses. Would you care to take Gwen’s horse, Clay, and we can let the women get out of the sun?”

While he agreed, I shot a grateful glance at Cullen that was met with a wry smile, and then he was gone and I was inside.

“How long do I have to be polite before I can ream you for information?” Mia asked pleasantly as she took me on a quick tour through the house.

“Oh, please don’t be polite,” I laughed, and she grinned toothily at me. “Just promise to keep me from insulting anyone in the family and you can run me ragged otherwise.”

“Done and done,” Mia cheered as we entered the kitchen at the back of the house and she pulled a kettle off the fire and poured a pot of tea.

“Actually, can I start off with a request for a favor?”

She paused, glancing at me as if to gauge how serious I was, before finishing her prep of the tea tray and bringing it to the table and gesturing for me to be seated. “You can request anything, of course.”

“I… I don’t know how to do anything in Thedas,” I confessed, painfully embarrassed now that I’d brought it up. “I don’t know how to tell how hot the fire is in the hearth, how to bake bread here, how to do… anything. I’m a healer in a Keep where everyone has a very specific job, and I feel… I feel rather worthless the second we step foot out of Skyhold.”

“I imagine Val Royeaux is no better.”

“In Val Royeaux I don’t even get to pick out my own clothes,” I sighed. “I avoid it as much as possible. Really, I’m only in the Cathedral when Leliana makes me.”

“Leliana?”

“Uhm, Divine Victoria, I’m supposed to call her now.”

Mia paused in the act of stirring a dollop of cream into her tea and deliberately set aside the spoon. She reached across the table, took my hand in hers, and fixed me a pointed stare.

“I need to know who you are, Gwen Murray, and I need to know what you intend with my brother.”

Her eyes weren’t like her brother’s. They were a piercing sort of green, with a fantastic halo of brown around the edges that called to mind Cullen’s chocolate irises. I took a deep, bracing sort of breath…

…and I told her.

*

The story took longer than the time it took Cullen and Clay to care for the horses and bring our bags into the house. It occurred to me, as the men made their way silently into the kitchen to help themselves to tea and the scones Mia had me pull out of the oven, that Clay might have been told we were married to smooth over the sleeping arrangements, and I should probably keep my teeth together if the lie meant I could sleep beside Cullen.

They walked in just as I was reaching the point in the story where the woman in my garage took my hand and drew me through to Thedas. Cullen placed a hand to my shoulder in silent support and I kept going. With Clay becoming more incredulous and Mia seeming to exude warmth and acceptance, I plowed through the days I was unconscious and the horrible day I woke up.

We paused, then, so that I could help Mia cook dinner while Cullen and Clay walked to the field to bring the boys in. While we were alone again, I gave her the terse outline of how I came to fall in love with her brother, how I found out I was a widow, and why, exactly, Cullen had been able to recover from lyrium withdrawals as quickly as he had.

Mia and Clay’s two sons – Stanton and Bryce, I was amused to learn – descended on the house like a spring squall and immediately settled on aunt Gwen as my name. They were going to be built like their uncle, I would have put money on it, and now that they’d actually met Cullen they were both dead set on becoming Templars.

Mia shot me a worried look, and I rested a hand on her forearm and fielded the problem for her. “You know your uncle Cullen left the Templars, right? We do not live in the same world, anymore, that he grew up in.”

That managed to sober the older boy, Stanton, but his younger brother Bryce was not to be dissuaded.

“His brother gets the land, so I cannot begrudge him wishing to seek a trade,” Mia murmured after shooing them out to wash up before dinner. “But living by the sword was not a life I wished for my brother, much less my sons.”

“Good thing they didn’t meet the Chargers, then. Cullen and I will go meet them in town when it is time to leave, to keep your boys insulated.”

While Mia breathed her thanks, the pot on the hearth started to boil and we were launched into motion again. Clay and Cullen followed the younger males inside at a much slower pace, but were chased off to wash in much the same fashion.

Over dinner – a ram shoulder Mia had left simmering all afternoon and root vegetables that brought to mind my own mother’s pot roast – Cullen helped me tell the story of the Inquisition. The boys were excited to be the first ones in town to know the real story and for every wild flight of fancy that was debunked, three more stories proved far more fantastic than the rumors had implied.

Then the males vanished and it was just me and Mia in the kitchen again, and I started on the second half of her demand.

“I’m a widow,” I told her. “I already promised to love a man forever. I can’t dwell on which was the real ending of our relationship - his death or my leaving – but the ending itself was devastating. I have no words, Mia. No words.”

“You lived my nightmare,” she assured me softly, glancing at the door through which her sons and husband had disappeared. “We have a simple, backwater sort of life here, but it is ours and I cannot comprehend how I would begin to cope with its loss. You survived, Gwen. That is enough.”

“Cullen allows me to honor Patrick’s memory,” I said after we both took a moment to regain composure. We were becoming close quickly, but neither of us seemed willing to be the first to cry. “That is the most I could possibly ask of him, and I love him even more for it.”

“But?” Mia prompted when I paused.

“I don’t want anyone else but him. I fully intend to wake up beside Cullen every morning I possibly can.”

“But?” she echoed, with a ghost of a smile.

“That’s what I said with Patrick, too.”

She tipped her chin up and swallowed visibly, but kept her peace while I fought for the confession she had to know was coming.

“I don’t know if I could risk being a widow twice. I don’t think I could survive it again.”

“You don’t intend to marry my brother.”

I had to look away. I knew it was unreasonable. I knew it wasn’t what he wanted. I knew there was a white dress in the Winter Palace courtyard with a mabari as a best man in Cullen’s intended future.

But I also knew the death rate of my husbands was 100% and holding. My boyfriends had a higher survival rate, at least while they were dating me. I couldn't help but want to give Cullen the best odds.

“Would you be any less devastated if he were to die and you weren’t married?”

“No,” I answered slowly. “But if the next point is, then what is the difference? I would say, every time I remembered my husband is dead I would have a new surge of panic and then guilt, because no he’s not, and I replaced Patrick.”

Mia was nodding, and I felt a weight come off my shoulders.

“I think you’re wrong,” she said, but her tone was calm and soothing. “But I also know it is something you will need to come around to in your own time, just as you had to follow your own healing path to even take up with Cullen after learning Patrick was dead. You’re strong, Gwen, stronger than you think, and you can overcome memory.”

“Thank you for understanding,” I said, and impulsively hugged her. She squeezed me back happily. “I fear Cullen will not.”

“Do us all a favor and don’t mention it while you’re here,” she countered. “Clay thinks you eloped at Victoria’s Coronation, else he would rather die than let you sleep together.”

“I figured.”

Mia laughed and released me, and then we were embroiled in house work again. I learned how to pump water and which buckets would heat well and which should be left cold. I learned the nonmagical way of filling and heating a bathtub, as well as the equally mundane way it could be drained post-washing.

“So when you… when you died, in Skyhold,” she ventured as the last bit of twilight sank into full dark and I started to wonder just where the hell Cullen had gotten off to. “You really met the Maker?”

“I believe I did,” I answered slowly.

“And Andraste? She brought you back? She was the woman who brought you here?”

I nodded, becoming alarmed at her anxiety and line of questioning. I had no desire to give anyone a crisis of faith.

“Blessed Andraste said you would be Her Herald? You would be Her mouth?”

I nodded again.

“How do you know what She wants?” This seemed to be the focus of her questioning. I wondered if she was trying to suss out whether I was an abomination, whether I had a spirit whispering to me in my dreams. 

“She tells me,” I answered simply.

“How?”

“I can hear her speaking to me. In Skyhold, She appeared in the sky around me, so that everyone knew the voice I was speaking with was Hers. Now, She just… well. She pops in at weird times.”

“I beg your pardon?”

I decided to take the risk. “As we were riding up your road today, she told me what Maferath sounded like.”

Mia’s eyes went wide. She stared at me for a long moment while I seriously began doubting my choices. Then abruptly, her eyes welled over with tears.

“Mia?”

“Oh, the poor woman. She was a woman. Oh, Gwen, she must be so lonely.”

It took me a second to follow Mia’s reasoning, but my heart surged into my throat when I caught up.

Andraste was born, grew up, got married, birthed daughters, raised her stepsons as her own, and died horribly, betrayed by her husband. She had survived horrors far worse than my own, and then ascended to the Maker’s side to do his work and witness far worse fates than what she had suffered. She’d seen the death of Earth, seen the Blights and the countless elves killed in her name in the Dales.

How many stories could she tell? How many memories could she share? If she still remembered what Maferath sounded like, did she not also remember the sound of her daughters’ wails when their lungs expanded with their first breaths? Had she watched her daughters and grand-daughters and countless generations of great-grand-children live and die in the eons since she had last walked Thedas?

For the first time, I went looking for the other occupant of my head.

“Is she right?” I whispered, reaching out to thread my fingers through Mia’s.

Mia’s gasp was all the warning I had that my question had been heard. I guessed that the flash of blue had appeared in my eyes again.

Yes. The barest whisper confirmed centuries of sorrow.

“Oh, I am so sorry.”

No one has ever… thank you. Thank Mia.

I met Mia’s wide eyes as my worldview shifted. “She… said you’re right. And She said thank you.”

Mia swayed a bit on her feet and then laughed, a bit incredulously. “Blessed Andraste thanked me.”

“She seems to be nothing if not polite,” I quipped, and Mia laughed harder.

“Oh, I need to sleep on this, I think. It doesn’t feel real. Come, I’ll show you to your room.”

“Should I find Cullen?”

Mia shot me an exasperated look. “Not if you want to impress Clay. I love the man, but that doesn’t make me blind to his flaws. He needs a woman to cook and clean for him because he’s helpless on his own, and he pays me the respect I’m due. He knows damn well I keep him alive. But the flip side of that is, he thinks that’s where all women should be… in the kitchen, keeping their men alive.”

I considered several replies and then opted for the safest. “If you are in a healthy and happy place, I am glad for you.”

“But you couldn’t do it yourself?”

“We all have our limits,” I said in lieu of an answer.

Mia barked a laugh – the loudest she’d been since calling out Cullen on the road. “So you’re saying you should leave sooner so as to not butt heads with my husband? Perhaps cut your visit short but hopefully plan to return?”

“That might be best,” I agreed as we arrived at the door to her guest room. The boys’ room was on the opposite side of the house, with Clay and Mia claiming the largest room in the middle of the second floor. She pushed open the door and then pulled me into a hug.

“Tomorrow we cover my life story,” Mia promised. “And then I’ll teach you what you need to survive meeting the rest of the family.”

With the warning – or maybe it was a threat? – ringing in my ears, I tumbled into bed. Rather than try to wait up for Cullen, I dropped immediately to sleep. Spending the day with Cullen’s sister had made me want nothing more than a moment with my own, and Hellen was always just a dream away.

Chapter Text

Regardless of what Gwen thought we were doing, we didn’t precisely drop her and Cullen off at that farm and just leave.

Bull blockaded the mouth of the lane and directed the assault. Krem took his team one direction down the road while I took mine in the other, to assess the property boundary and potential trouble with neighbors. Grim took a third team of mostly rogues into the farm itself to make sure everything was as it seemed. Stitches, Wilder, and Dalish went looking for a place to set camp, somewhere between the Redwell property and the town of South Reach.

We crawled all over that place. In the end it was decided that Clay Redwell was a fairly good farmer with few if any skeletons in his closet, but all the business sense in the family came from the Rutherfords. Mia likely had a bigger hand in the family finances than even Clay suspected. Squirrel overheard a bit of conversation between him and Cullen as they curried the horses that suggested Clay was a bit of a misogynist, and our camp conversation that night revolved around imagining the frustration Gwen must be suffering and laughing at her struggle to stay courteous.

More than one person echoed my joke about meeting the in-laws, even if “in-law” wasn’t the phrase in Common. Marriage was through the Chantry, not the law, and the translation was more spouse family than in-law. Gwen was probably more butt-hurt about spouse family than she had been about my little quip.

It’s none of my business, I had to tell myself.

It was tempting to meddle, given Gwen’s decision to throw herself full-bore into my own spiraling shitshow of a love life. She was hurting and making an irrational decision that she might regret, but it was her decision to make.

I put the anger in her voice out of mind as I rode with the rest of the Chargers into South Reach the next day.

The town looked remarkably like Redcliffe. It was the seat of the Arling, with the Bryland family controlling everything from the Brecilian forest to Lothering, so the similarity made sense. Actually, once I thought about it, Redcliffe and South Reach were both arranged roughly like Highever. The towns were set up mostly the same, with a big central square where the Chantry, best inn, and any guild halls could be found. All the roads in town would be spokes on a wheel extending from this center, as the town grew organically before having the wall built around it sometime later. The Arl’s castle was either attached to the walls, as it was here, or off somewhere nearby but highly defensible, like in Highever and Redcliffe.

They were all in Ferelden, after all, I chided myself. It would make sense that three towns in the same country with the same cultural heritage might look a bit alike.

Nothing smelled as good as Skyhold, though, that was for damn sure.

We filed into formation idly as Bull went to meet the mayor or town magistrate – whatever they called it here - and Krem hiked up to the Chanter’s board. It was as covered as I’d ever seen one outside Denerim, but since the townsfolk had known the Chargers were coming, it was to be expected.

“Twitch?” I heard a vaguely familiar voice call from my left. I turned and saw a woman stepping out of a doorway of what was probably a shop. As she came into the sunlight and pushed back her cowl, I recognized Beckah Briarcliff, formerly of West Hill.

I immediately swung off my horse and tossed the reins to Siren, who took them with a smile and watched me with unmasked curiosity.

I was hesitant to call her Beckah, since she was an apostate on the run and I was unsure if she was using her own name now that the war was over. Instead I walked to meet her with a broad smile on my face.

When we got close, she put her left hand out to me and I took it. “Beckah, it’s so good to see you,” I said in a low tone, confident no one would hear it but us.

“Oh, I am so sorry for this,” she whispered, and then reared back with her right hand and slapped me across the face, before raising her voice to a shriek. “Where in the Void have you been?”

“I was with the Chargers!” I replied immediately, scrambling to play along, in a louder voice that was no where near a match for her piercing shout. “I’ve been protecting the Herald of Andraste! You knew I was a mercenary when you met me!”

“YEARS it has been, you right bastard, YEARS!”

“I wrote!” I insisted, not having to pretend to be confused. The Chargers were all turned this way by now, I was sure of it. I would catch hell for this. “You never said-“

“YEARS!” she howled, and I flinched. She turned on her heel and started to drag me out of the square. “You just wait until Seline gets her hands on you, you son of a bitch.”

I made a show of kicking up dust, as if she was bodily hauling me away, while really I was following along rather peacefully. I glanced over my shoulder in feigned panic, and saw I’d been right about all the Chargers watching. I caught Grim’s eye and flashed his hand signal for all clear and saw him nod once and then pass the sign around to Krem and the others.

They wouldn’t follow or start shit, and Beckah could fill me in on whatever plot she was dragging me into this time.

“Twitch!” Lesiel, the widow who had taken in her two wayward sisters when I’d first met the family, cheered as I was thrust into the house. Their home seemed to be equidistant between the wall and the main square, and I knew it wouldn’t take long for the Chief to find me. “Oh, we hoped we would see you when the bulletin went up!”

“Hello, Lesiel,” I greeted her as she flew across the little kitchen I’d stepped into and threw her arms around my neck. I felt Beckah’s arms twine around my waist and I had to laugh as I was sandwiched between two happy Briarcliffs. “And hello, Beckah. Where’s Seline?”

“Waiting my turn,” the third sister said from somewhere off to my right. I glanced over my shoulder to see her propped on a doorframe that likely led into the rest of the house.

I managed to disengage from the other two and exchange a brisk handshake-back-slap sort of hug with Seline.

“May I ask,” I said, as I saw all three of them watching me avidly, “why I got the shit slapped out of me in the town square?”

“Right,” Beckah said, squaring up. “Twitch. I mean, shit, what was it… Cedric! Right! Cedric Laucet… we can’t be married anymore.”

I had to fight not to laugh in her face. “Uhm, Beckah, we weren’t ever married.”

“She knows that, fool,” Lesiel chided, swatting at me. “But she’s been posing as married for the better part of ten years! She’s been stepping out with a fine man-“

“A good one, really,” Seline added.

“And being an apostate isn’t a crime anymore,” Beckah informed me, blinking tears out of her eyes.

“And Branson is a good man, from a good family, and he doesn’t care that she’s a mage.”

“Wait, Branson?” I asked. The name rang a definite bell. Who had said the name Branson? Surely it wasn’t-

“Yes, Branson Rutherford,” Beckah confirmed. “Why? What’s wrong with his name?”

I rubbed both hands across my face. “Maker, why isn’t anything ever easy?”

 

*

I was right; it didn’t take long for the Chief to find me.

While I was still stumbling through the explanation of who Branson was in relation to my employer, a heavy-handed knock provided a welcome interruption.

“Who’s there?” Seline called without moving.

“Trouble, if you hurt one of my Chargers,” the Iron Bull’s distinctive rumble echoed in the kitchen.

The three of them all turned wide eyes on me.

“I’m fine, Chief,” I called back and then turned to Seline. “Let him in?”

“Should I be armed?” she asked, half in jest as she made her way to the door.

“Nah, Bull’s a good guy.”

“Don’t go spilling my secrets,” the Tal’Vashoth in question told me as the door swung open and he ducked through the threshold.

“Speaking of secrets, Chief,” I told him. “This is the apostate from West Hill I’ve been posing as the husband for.”

The Chief put a hand to his side and laughed while Beckah turned to regard me with shock at my apparent betrayal.

“The Iron Bull is a spy, Beckah,” I reassured her. “If I hadn’t told him, he would have found out. We serve the Inquisitor, who was an apostate; we’re not concerned by your magic.”

“The Inquistor really is a mage, then?” Lesiel asked, leaning forward eagerly. “We heard the rumor but dared not hope it was true.”

“So I take it,” Bull said, wiping the laugh off his face, “you wish to bring your, ah, nuptials with Twitch here to an end?”

“She wants to marry Branson Rutherford,” I told him, and he had to lean on the protesting door frame or risk falling over as he roared with laughter.

“You are worth every moment of trouble,” he told me fondly as he controlled his mirth once more. “I’m tempted to leave you in this one, just to see how you get out of it.”

“Chief,” I started, worried.

“No, no, I said tempted. Just tempted.” He sighed and pushed himself off the doorframe. “So. Since your display in the town square, me just saying your spouse was killed in action isn’t good enough anymore.”

Beckah blanched. “No, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I gathered,” Bull quipped. “Only one way to do it, then.”

“What’s that?”

“Gotta get the Boss.”

“We don’t have to,” I countered, and Bull started chuckling as he turned and made his way out of the house.

“No. We don’t have to,” he laughed. “But it’s more fun this way.”

“Mother fucker.” I sighed in English, covering my face with my hands. Bull boomed another laugh and then the door closed and he was gone.

“Twitch?” Beckah asked, laying a hand to my forearm. “Who’s the Boss?”

“The Lady Gwendolyn Rhiannon Murray,” I intoned formally, with my eyes squeezed shut and one hand pinching the bridge of my nose. “Seeress of the Inquisition, and Herald of Blessed Andraste.”

“What?” Lesiel breathed, aghast. “You're going to... get her? She’s here?”

“Is it too late to just kill me?”

 

*

 

“You-u-u did wha-a-at?” Gwen asked, stammering as she tried to contain a laugh.

“I agreed to engage in a fictitious marriage with an apostate in West Hill to keep her from being forced into a real marriage and possibly being returned to the Circle,” I repeated. “She moved to South Reach and grabbed me out of the town square this morning.”

“And she-she-she wants a-a-a what?”

“A divorce.”

Gwen tipped sideways to lay on the steps of the Redwell farm porch and giggle uncontrollably.

“I really don’t see why this is funny.”

Are there divorces in Thedas?” she asked. For the sake of my dignity we were conducting this conversation in English, with Cullen and Bull leaning idly nearby against posts which in turn were holding up the porch. Cullen seemed amused, while the Chief was nearly beside himself with glee at my discomfort.

“No,” Cullen said, shortly, and Gwen laughed harder. “The Chantry allows for annulments, but there is not this divorce of which you speak.”

“Easy peasy, then,” I tried to deflect the conversation back on track. “Little miss Andraste-mouth here can just annul it right up and then we’re all good to go.”

“Can I annul a marriage that didn’t happen?” Gwen asked.

“Technically, no,” Cullen said, with a flutter of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

“Oh come on you guys. I never ask for anything.” I complained as Gwen pitched to the side once more, laughing in near-hysterics.

“What did they say his name was?” a man’s voice echoed from inside the house.

“Fuck,” I sighed, and Bull pushed away from the porch as quickly as he ever moves and was standing between me and door before it could be pushed open.

The man who was a younger, lighter version of Cullen burst out of the house as Gwen sobered up in an instant.

“Branson,” Cullen warned his brother, stepping onto the porch with one hand raised. “It’s not what you think.”

“Is that him?” the younger Rutherford demanded. "The ingrate who abandoned Beckah?"

“Wait, she wants to marry him?” Gwen asked me in English, finally putting the pieces together. “This Branson? Our Branson?”

The Branson in question turned his attention to the woman whom his brother loved as she repeated his name. “What do you say?”

“Oh, dear man, Beckah is not married to Twitch.”

Branson came to a full stop, shooting alternating looks at me, Bull, Gwen, and his brother. “What?”

“If you know nothing else of me,” Gwen said, with that smooth speaking for a deity voice Leliana had been drilling into her, “know that I can See the Truth. Twitch has never been married, much less to your Beckah.”

“She… she lied? Why would she lie?”

“Go fetch my horse,” Gwen said demurely, picking herself off the porch. “I will come with you to town and we will have all of this arranged before sundown.”

“Thank god,” I muttered.

As Branson, nodding, stepped off the porch with his older brother hard on his heels, Gwen pointed two fingers at her eyes before aiming them at me. “We’re not done here, asshole,” she insisted as she turned to walk into the house. “You owe me.”

I stood there with the Chief, our own horses left saddled nearby so we could ride with Gwen to town and either proceed to the widow Briarcliff’s house or rejoin what Chargers weren’t already embroiled in odd jobs around South Reach. “That wasn’t as fun as I hoped,” Bull rumbled.

“Sorry my personal tragedies aren’t more amusing,” I sniped back.

The Chief chuckled, but the sound was cut off when a flash of green came from Gwen’s window.

Bitch,” Bull growled, surprising me nearly off my feet. “She said she wouldn’t Step-“

He only made it three steps towards the house when another flash of green light stopped him in his tracks. He was still fuming when she appeared in the doorway a few minutes later, a baffled Mia Redwell on her heels.

“I assure you, Mia, I’ll have everything sorted and home in time for dinner,” Gwen was telling her host. “I would not miss the family dinner, nor would I keep Cullen away. In fact… set an extra place, if you can.”

“Of course I can, I always make extra. It can feed it to the druffalo if the boys don’t eat it for hash in the morning.”

“Good. We’ll be back. I won’t ruin this for you.”

A baffled – and more than a little suspicious – Mia let the door close behind Gwen, who was now dressed in the swirling white robes they stuffed her in as soon as she set foot in Val Royeaux.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Bull, seeming to immediately know he'd guessed her actions. “But you know for damn sure I didn’t pack these.”

“You Fade-Stepped to Val Royeaux for clothes?” I asked, shocked, before Bull lit into her.

“This whole things works because you swore you wouldn’t-“

“Bull, it was from a room you were guarding to a room in the Grand Cathedral and back in seconds,” Gwen countered. “And besides, I’m doing this for Twitch. Blame him.”

Bull’s head swiveled in my direction and I took a quick step back. “Like hell you say.”

Gwen was off the porch and around the corner of the house, then, heading out to meet Cullen and Branson as they returned to view trailing three horses.

“Chief you don’t think-“

“Nah,” he said, although the anger on his face stayed. “I let her have the distraction. But I won’t let her think she’s getting away with it. She gets used to thinking she can ditch us, and we’ll have a dead Herald on our hands.”

“So you’re playing an angle.“

“Go with it, kid, I know what I’m doing.”

“Chief,” I said, just a touch louder, “this was your idea, I didn’t even want her involved.”

“Much better,” he praised, and then lifted his voice. “Well it’s either I break you or I-“

“Bull,” Gwen barked from where she was settling onto Honey’s saddle. “You’re being wholly unreasonable.”

“You want the Chargers’ protection or not?” Bull countered.

“She does,” Cullen answered smoothly.

Gwen shot him an exasperated look but didn’t argue. “Of course I do. You keep me from being shackled to Val-“

“Then let me do my job,” Bull thundered.

“I’m sorry,” Gwen demurred. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

“What did you do?” Cullen asked.

“Nothing, I-“

“Did you see her pack that cowl?” I asked the Commander.

His eyes went wide briefly and then narrowed dangerously as he slowly looked over at Gwen.

The look she shot me was pure malice. “Thanks, Twitch.”

“Hey, you said I owed you. Now we’re even.”

“You Fade-Stepped out of Mia’s guest room?” Cullen demanded.

“Well, yes, but-“

“For clothes?”

“Yes, but-“

“Are there any other promises you’ve decided not to keep?”

“That’s low, Cullen,” Gwen hissed.

“Can we just, not go with them?” I asked the Chief as we untied our own mounts and pulled ourselves into the saddle.

“We can follow out of listening range,” Bull answered cheerfully. “But we should still follow. It’s principle at this point.”

 

*

 

Gwen and Cullen’s whispered argument had Branson looking plainly uncomfortable by the time we rode into South Reach, but his glances back showed that travelling with us was not a viable option. He ended up a few paces behind his brother, seeming wholly miserable.

Cullen glanced back at his brother as we rode into the town square and asked to be shown to the widow Briarcliff’s home. With a sigh of resignation, Branson kicked his horse into motion and led our little party down the short lane to where the three sisters lived.

Lesiel immediately stepped onto the porch to meet us.

“Lesiel,” Branson greeted her. “This is my older brother, Commander Cullen Rutherford.”

“Commander,” Lesiel said, dropping a bob of a curtsy to Cullen. “My home is open to any family of Branson.”

“Please, then, call me Cullen,” the older Rutherford replied, swinging off his horse and moving to assist Gwen out of her saddle. Bull and I both followed suit. I could see a few other Chargers loitering in the street around us, and I was pretty damn sure that flash of movement on the roof across the way was Squirrel. Nosy fuckers.

“Pleased to meet you, Cullen,” Lesiel replied warmly.

“May I have the honor of introducing Lady Gwendolen Murray, the Herald of Blessed Andraste,” Cullen replied, after Gwen was settled on the ground and took a step towards the house. “She believes she has a solution to your sister’s concern.”

“My Lady,” Lesiel stuttered, dropping into a puddle of skirts on the porch. Gwen shot Cullen a dirty look.

“You want to look official? Then be official,” Cullen growled just under his breath.

“My lady Briar-“ Gwen started, and then stopped. Lesiel looked up just in time to see the flash of blue in Gwen’s eyes. “My apologies. Madam duBois, I am so sorry for your loss. How do you prefer to be addressed?”

Lesiel’s eyes seemed poised to pop out of her head. In all the years I’d known them, it had never come up that Lesiel was the widow of an Orlesian.

“Lesiel,” the oldest of the Briarcliff sisters answered, shaken. “Just Lesiel will do.”

“Lesiel, please call me Gwen. May I have a moment with Beckah?”

“Yes, yes of course. Please, please do come in.”

With another sour sort of look at three of the four men standing with her – somehow managing to smooth out her face into a soft smile for Branson – Gwen stepped daintily into the house.

“You too,” Cullen said, pointing at me and gesturing for me to follow. “Bull and I will stay outside.”

“But-“

“In you go,” the Chief said, propelling me forward.

I crossed the threshold on Branson’s heels to find the table set for four. Lesiel had moved to the business end of the kitchen, working over the hearth to prepare tea, while Seline stood in the doorway to the rest of the house. Beckah was half-standing with stars in her eyes, being waved back into her chair by Gwen.

I was directed to take the seat opposite Branson, with Gwen at my left and Beckah at my right.

“There’s two ways we can do this,” Gwen said without preamble. “You can talk, or I can talk, but either way the truth comes out.”

Beckah’s jaw worked vainly for a moment. Gwen smiled at her reassuringly, but still no sound came out.

“When I left Denerim,” I said, drawing all eyes to me almost comically fast, “my first stop was West Hill. I eventually made my way back around to Highever and found work there, but I took a meandering sort of road to get there. In West Hill, I met a new widow,” I nodded to Lesiel, who smiled in return, “and her two sisters. They saw me as a perfect accomplice in their plan to keep their youngest sister safe.” Here, I nodded towards Beckah, who reached out and briefly squeezed my elbow. “There was a man in West Hill who was interested in marrying Beckah, and given they were three women living alone it was suspicious to deny him without some reason, and he wasn't being reasonable. Beckah told me she was newly escaped from the Circle, and I’ve always suspected that Seline had some role to play in that-“ Seline chuckled and did a guilty sort of shrug-nod combination “-and this being nine-thirty-four, it wasn’t safe to be out of the Circles. If Beckah was to say she was already married, to a travelling soldier who was sending money home, there would be no reason for her to, or any of the sisters, to marry, thus she wouldn’t be discovered as an apostate... or worse, for her potential children to be born with magic and discovered along with their mother.”

Branson’s eyes were glued to me, but his face was expressionless. I had to just hope for the best and plow forward.

“I walked with Beckah through town and glared at the house of the man who had been propositioning her, and that was that. She gave me a fake name – Cedric, of all things – and we kept in contact over the years so she always had recent correspondence to show in case she was questioned. That, however, is the extent of our relationship. I never married Beckah. I have never been in a relationship with Beckah beyond friendship.”

“And the ruse was meant to keep Beckah safe, when you devised it nearly a decade ago,” Gwen concluded.

Beckah nodded earnestly at Gwen. “Yes, my Lady.”

Gwen smiled and reached across to pat her hand. “I am glad the world has changed, and can afford you a chance at happiness.”

Beckah’s wide-eyed awe melted into a tearful smile. “Thank you, my Lady.”

“Branson,” Gwen said, drawing the younger Rutherford’s gaze.

“You can see the truth in things, yes?” he asked.

“I can.”

“Forgive me, Gwen, but I just found out I’ve been lied to. I think I understand, but I would be a fool to just-“

“No,” Gwen said gently, reaching out with one hand to stop him. “No need to explain, I understand. It is wholly reasonable to desire to protect yourself, and this is all yet new.” She shifted to look at Beckah. “I can look into your past and reassure Branson, but I might learn things you don’t want me to know.

“I have nothing to hide, my Lady,” Beckah whispered, sadly regarding Cullen's brother. “And nothing more to hide from Branson. Do as you will.”

“I did not mean-“ Branson prostested.

“Beckah,” Gwen interrupted. “Look at me.”

The youngest Briarcliff turned to meet the Herald’s eyes just in time for them to turn blue.

This wasn’t the flash I’d seen a dozen times already. This was a full blue neon light, glowing from the whites of her eyes. Her irises were still that deep, almost-black brown, but electric blue radiated out around them. Beckah gasped and drew back while Branson’s jaw dropped.

“Rebeckah Allissa Easley,” Gwen said in a far-away tone, “you escaped from the Circle in Kirkwall during the chaos caused by Uldred’s Rebellion, narrowly avoiding death by grace of your sister Seline visiting with serendipity. You were never Harrowed, although you were nearing your turn in the Fade. You use your magic sparingly, responsibly, and never to harm. You know no offensive spells. You are a good woman, and the “marriage” you claimed is the only falsehood you have ever spoken to Branson. You have regretted it since the moment you met him.”

The blue light faded from Gwen’s eyes. “You have never been married. There is nothing to annul. I can speak with the magistrate if you like, and make known whatever story needs circulated to support the sterling reputation you deserve, under whichever name you choose. The Easley name can remain hidden, or we can seek to reclaim your sister’s birthright.”

“Thank you, my Lady,” Beckah whispered, through a curtain of tears. I reflexively reached for her-

-but Branson beat me to it. He rose from his chair and drew Beckah to her feet in one smooth motion and pulled her tight against his chest. He buried his face in her hair and begged, brokenly, “Forgive me.”

“That’s our cue,” Gwen said, grabbing my elbow and propelling me out of the room in front of her. Seline and Lesiel were hot on her heels.

“How long will you be in town?” Seline asked Gwen, with none of the formality her sisters had shown.

Gwen shrugged. “I have a vested interest in the Rutherford family. We had not yet agreed on a departure date.”

“If we get this turned around quickly enough, will you perform the ceremony?”

Gwen spun around to look at her, clearly surprised, but didn’t get the chance to answer.

“There is to be no ceremony,” a new voice chimed in. Its owner was a pompous looking sort of man, with his chains of office bouncing ostentatiously on his chest. “I will not have adultery – bigamy! – in my town.”

“Gwen, this is Karl Middleton, our Magistrate,” Seline flatly intoned. She was clearly unimpressed by the town official.

“My Lord Middleton,” Gwen said, smoothly stepping forward to meet him. “Please allow me to-“

“There is to be no interference of the Inquisition with our town’s affairs,” he interrupted. “You are free to leave.”

“I am not here on behalf of the Inquisition,” Gwen continued amiably. “But rather as a-“

“I will not have it,” he interrupted again, and then walked directly up to Gwen, towering over her, as if to cow her into submission. He raised one hand as if to jab a finger into her shoulder or, God help him, shove her.

I was on the move, sword out, within three heartbeats.

Cullen beat me to the draw.

We were both slower than Bull.

Before any of us could take more than a step in their direction, Gwen’s eyes flared blue and Middleton took a stumbling step backward. Gwen didn’t let him gain any distance, resolutely following his retreat and staring him down. She started saying something, her voice too low for me to hear over the sound of Cullen, the Chief and I drawing weapons and moving to flank the Magistrate. She spoke rapidly, her words tumbling out too fast for me to discern; the Magistrate, however, seemed to have no problem understanding her. His eyes were growing wider, more frantic by the second. He was staggering backwards, now, desperate to get away; three more stumbling steps brought him into contact with Bull, who had charged down the street to come up behind him. As they abruptly halted in the middle of the road, Cullen and I came up on either side of Gwen and I could finally make out her voice.

“...horrible excuse for a human being. I am disgusted. One more word out of you - word one – and I will not rest until you are exposed, disgraced, and run out of town on a fucking rail. Have I made myself perfectly clear? Or should I say it all again, louder?”

While the Magistrate nodded frantically, clearly too terrified to attempt to unclench his jaw.

“Oh, I think you should say it louder. I missed the good parts,” Bull rumbled.

MIddleton – seeming to realize there was a qunari behind him and two very angry armed humans to either side, fell to his knees in the street and made whimpering sorts of sounds at Gwen’s feet.

“I will write to Most Holy,” Gwen said, loudly enough for the townsfolk now standing in their doorways to hear. “It seems the Chantry here could use more support from Val Royeaux. The people of South Reach deserve better than the hand they have been dealt.”

The Magistrate made another pathetic series of sounds and Gwen deliberately turned her back on him. It pissed Bull off – he’s told her a million times not to show her back to an enemy – but given she had him and Cullen bearing steel right there she really had good reason to feel secure. She stepped daintily back to Seline.

“Have them get their shit together and I would love to do the ceremony.”

“Will you stand with Beckah?” Seline asked me. My sword tip almost dipped in shock.

Almost. I was standing right next to Bull, after all; it’s very hard to shirk one’s discipline while under the angry eye of the Chief. The Iron Bull lifted the Magistrate by the shoulders, set him on his feet, and sent him scurrying down the street with the flat of his axe blade. Cullen slowly sheathed his sword, the long hiss of metal seeming to echo down the narrow lane and causing the Magistrate to flinch and hasten his steps.

“Of course he will,” Gwen answered for me, shooting me a nasty sort of smile.

I shook my head and sheathed my own sword, not drawing out the action like the angered Cullen had. “If not for Beckah, then for Gwen,” I told Seline, who smiled and turned to check on the two people still in the house.

“And with that I think we’re even,” I grumbled at Gwen.

“For now,” she answered, that wicked grin making another appearance.

“Asshole,” I laughed.

“You love it,” she countered.

“Yes, Ma,” I answered dutifully, and her happy laugh forced me to smile in return.

Chapter Text

“Are you even allowed to perform marriage ceremonies?” I laughed as Gwen’s tale drew to a close.

“Too late now!” she announced with a shrug, and then joined me in laughter.

“So are you headed home then?”

“Tomorrow,” she confirmed, leaning her head against my shoulder on the couch in her apartment in the Fade. “Mia is lovely, but her husband believes Cullen and I are married and it’s all a bit awkward.”

“What’s wrong with pretending to be married?”

Gwen’s laughter dried up and she stood up from the couch. “So. Right. Sleep time for you.”

“Gwen!”

The dream wavered around me and I lunged forward to grab her, overpowering her for just long enough to keep her from kicking me out of her dream. I couldn’t keep it up for long – she was much stronger than me, here – but her attempt to wake me was half-hearted and she abandoned it in the face of my protest.

“I don’t want to marry Cullen,” she confessed in a rush.

I sat back on my heels. “What? Why?”

“I’ve already been married!” she practically wailed, throwing her hands in the air. “In case you forgot, that ended so poorly I begged you to kill me. I can’t do it again, Hellen, I can’t. I can’t stop myself from loving people, and I don’t want to, but I can’t see another marriage ceremony as anything short of replacing Patrick and it is just one step too-“

“Gwen Gwen Gwen Gwen Gwen,” I repeated, hands up, until she heard me and cut off the flood of words. “It’s okay. Can we talk about it at home? Maybe have another game of questions and another bottle of Flames of Our Lady?”

She nodded, managing to drum up a smile at the memory. “Yes. Yes, I would like that. I can drag the Josephine business out of you in the process.”

“Or get me trashed in the attempt,” I agreed.

“Let’s not have a pile of bodies show up the next morning, though.”

“I’ll speak about it with Cole first thing.”

Gwen relaxed back onto the couch. “Bull is leaving South Reach at the same time we do, but he’ll head down to you rather than follow me back to Skyhold. I want to make a bit of a detour in the Hinterlands – just a bit of sightseeing – but I’ll have all the Chargers and Cullen so don’t worry.”

“I always worry,” I countered, and she beamed at me.

“Will you wake up now?” she asked.

“I will, thank you.”

The tent flap flared as my eyes opened, and I wondered if I moved the air when I awoke or if it was just a strange coincidence that the breeze happened to be blowing every time I opened my eyes.

“It is nearly dawn,” Cassandra’s voice called softly from the opposite side of the tent. “You might as well wake up.”

“Says you,” I grunted, pushing myself up from where I had been face-planted in my bedding. I stiffened my arms and held myself aloft on knuckles and toes for the count of thirty before bending one knee and straightening up in a lunge. I couldn’t stand in the tent – even Cass had to stoop – so I balanced on the balls of my feet in a crouch to dress and rub the sleep out of my eyes. I had my hair unbound, combed, and rebraided by the time the sun emerged from the horizon, and I made my way out of the tent to break my fast with Dorian and Cassandra.

“Cole is already out and scouting our path for the day,” Dorian informed me as I settled in with my bowl of hot oats and fruit. “If it is a bear you want, it is a bear he will find.”

“I don’t want the bear,” I countered, blowing the steam off my spoon. “Stonebear Hold wants their hold beast back, before she seeks her glorious end in battle to avoid being corrupted by the Hakkonites.”

“Can a bear truly understand the tenets of honor?” Cassandra asked. Once it would have been with supreme condescension and disbelief, but she’d seen some shit in the last year. We all had. Nothing was really unbelievable anymore, even an honor code among bears.

As I shrugged and concentrated on breakfast, Dorian began the long process of bringing me around to talking about Bull, since we all knew there was a dragon fight at the end of this mess. Gwen was always good for that much; she never let me walk into a dragon unawares.

“He’s leaving South Reach today,” I interrupted the Altus in between bites. “He’ll be here in a week.”

“Oh! Well. I’m quite sure that’s not what I-“

“You’re not fooling anyone, Dorian,” Cassandra solemnly informed him.

He snorted in feigned disgust – managing a fairly respectable mimicry of Cassandra, if we’re to be honest – and pushed off the log he’d been sitting on. “I take it that news came from a dream, and not a message from Skyhold?”

“You would be correct,” I confirmed as I scraped the bottom of the bowl.

“Are we waiting for a raven? We’re due for one.” He was fishing for information about Josephine, although he was being a bit more subtle with this inquiry than he had been about Bull.

“Hard cold steel, bars to break bones, no purchase, no leverage, no chance,” Cole’s voice cut in from between the tents, heralding his arrival. “Death before dishonor.”

“That would be a no,” I told Dorian, handing my bowl to one of the scouts manning the camp with a brief word of thanks and sticking the licked-clean spoon into its pocket on my pack. “Sounds like Storvacker is in a rough spot.”

“You could read the bear’s thoughts?” Cassandra asked Cole while we hastened to pull our gear together and get out of camp.

“No.”

The three of us – Dorian, Cassandra and I – paused and exchanged what must have been matching looks of confusion before turning back to Cole.

The spirit boy grinned at our befuddlement. “That would be unbearable.”

Cassandra groaned with disgust as I fought to conceal a laugh. “That’s it,” Dorian announced, striding off. “I’m limiting your time with Gwen and you are not to be left alone with Sera.”

“Or Bull,” Cassandra added.

“Or any of the Chargers,” I called after Dorian. “Really, there’s nothing for it.”

While the Altus bemoaned the loss of a “perfectly good mind to the ravages of puns,” and Cassandra merely shook her head, I slung an arm around Cole’s shoulders.

“Don’t you listen to them. You know,” I confided in him, “I have the benefit of Wisdom.”

Cole’s grin widened as Cassandra spluttered. “It was you! Your influence!”

“She...” Cole’s eyes narrowed as he seemed to focus intently on his own thoughts. “She is the Inquisitor. She has... she has everything well in hand.”

I snorted and Cassandra flinched. Dorian was making strangled noises from somewhere ahead of us on the path as we trailed in his wake.

“Come back, Dorian!” I called, winking at Cole. “Let me mend this rift!”

“These aren’t even funny,” Dorian called back. I noted he didn’t slow.

“He’s pretending to be mad because he knows I can hear his laughter,” Cole told me softly. “The thoughts have faded but the feelings stay. Anger and joy, fear and love. These I can still always hear.”

“We’re proud of you, Cole,” I said in a tone as close as I could manage to matching his.

“I know.”

I squeezed his shoulder and then with another smile he dipped into the underbrush beside the narrow trail we walked along and vanished. There was a muted sort of complaint up ahead and I knew he had surprised Dorian and now was leading our little band once more.

The swamp he led us into was called Kuldsdotten by the Avvar, and I had no nice things to say about it. It was a maze, but Cole led us unerringly through. There was another of the fucking fade lizard things, because of course there was and on the opposite side of the mucky expanse was the prison containing the hold beast named Storvacker.

I’ve killed a lot of bears in my time. I’ve taken a lot of hits from those bears, seen first-hand the damage they can do to a person. So when Storvacker came out of her cage, full of piss and vinegar, and immediately charged out into the swamp, I was by degrees relieved and irritated. We’d slogged all the way down here for this fucking bear, and off she goes. On the other hand, there was always the chance that she would decide we were the enemy, and then I got to be the asshole who brought the Stonebear Hold Beast home as a rug.

“Vengeance,” Cole said, suddenly, lifting his head from the side-door he was picking open.

Before I could ask a stupid question – Anders? here? – I heard a man shout in pain or fear, and then a bear scream in rage.

“Cole, get the doors open. Don’t go in without checking for traps. Cassandra, Dorian, with me.”

We charged down the short hallway to emerge into utter chaos. Storvacker was surrounded by Hakkonites and in no mood to be recaptured. She reared up on her back legs, bellowing with rage, and leaving herself open to attack.

“Figures. My kindred spirit is a fucking bear,” I sighed, and fired a shot from my staff that bounced off the axe threatening Storvacker’s exposed belly. It didn’t knock the weapon out of the Hakkonite’s hands, but the blast of ice interfered enough with his grip that he went wide of his mark. He stumbled a step, and Storvacker came down on his neck with enough force to snap vertebra and drive the Avvar’s head completely into the muck.

One down. Cassandra parried the next blow aimed at the bear while Dorian managed to scatter the rest in Fear. My necromancer best friend raised the corpse of the Hakkonite that Storvacker had just leveled and sent it charging at the berserker who was now focused on Cassandra. As I cast a stone fist at the first Avvar to shake off Dorian’s fear, Cole arrived on the scene. The berserker drew back his axe, preparing to pummel Cassandra, who planted her feet and raised her shield in defiance. Suddenly the Hakkonite collapsed into the mud as Cole’s daggers appeared in either side of his neck, with the rogue himself becoming visible an instant later.

I tried to keep one hand on the bear – we needed her alive to win over Stonebear’s Thane – but Storvacker was having none of my protection. She leapt onto the base of a perilously leaning tree and sent it crashing down, pinning a Hakkonite who was trying to reenter the fray. Cole launched onto the Avvar’s back and buried both daggers into the man’s lungs.

“I could probably stand here and watch,” I told Dorian over my shoulder as he nonchalantly lit the last Hakkonite on fire. Cassandra bashed him into the mud with her shield, kicking him in the face every time he attempted to stand or bat the flames out. Before Cole could get into position to finish the poor bastard off, Storvacker reared up and dropped the entirety of her mass onto the man’s torso, driving him into the swamp.

Dorian’s flames were flickering even through the muck and a few large bubbles emerged from where the man’s head had disappeared. Storvacker bounced another couple of times to really jam the body into the mud and then turned to look at us.

“She did that on purpose,” Dorian said, aghast. “I just watched an animal chose to inflict pain on a human. She's not supposed to kill for fun. That's my job!"

“Storvacker,” I addressed the hold beast. She lumbered over to me and stood up on her hind legs once more. She was just a touch taller than me, and I watched as she tipped her head so our eyes were level. There was an intelligence in her gaze I hadn’t expected to find.

“Do you want us to come with you back to Stonebear? If not, I trust you to get there safely on your own.”

She chuffed, and I got the distinct impression she preferred to be alone.

“Fair enough. This is our way of showing friendship,” I extended a fist out. “Can you make this sign?”

Storvacker lifted her giant paw until it was level with mine, and made a rough fist. I bounced my knuckles off hers. “It is an acknowledgement of strength, and yours is worthy of respect.”

Storvacker pounded my fist with hers and growled, before dropping to all fours and lumbering off.

“You taught Gwen’s brofist to a bear.” Cassandra pronounced behind me, disbelief practically dripping from her voice. “When does shit stop becoming more... weird? Is there an upper limit?”

“It doesn’t seem so, no.” Dorian replied dryly.

“We have to find out what’s behind those other doors Cole opened,” I reminded them, tipping my head toward the prison we’d hurried out of. “We’ll ransack the place for information. And then we’re hiking up to Stonebear to make sure Storvacker made it home safe.”

Dorian looked pointedly at the mountains to our east. “That’s a thousand paces up from here. You want us to make it to the top of that elevation by sunset?”

“Sunset or after, we’re ending the day there,” I informed him, turning to follow Cole back down the corridor to where Storvacker had been imprisoned.

“Remind me why I come along on these little jaunts of yours again?”

“You’re my favorite, Dorian. You know that.”

“Flattery gets you nowhere.”

“It had better get your ass to the top of that mountain.”

 

*

 

We got to the top before the sun vanished, and Dorian wasn’t even winded when we reached the Hold. I suspected the many months of prancing around Skyhold and through the Dales before now had primed him for the climb.

We spent the better part of two days at Stonebear with its Thane, Svarah Sunhair, making a plan for driving out the Hakkonites. The good professor sent word that the series of strange statues marching across the Basin were relays for the magic Ameridan used to break through the ice wall encasing the Hakkonites’ temple.

“Once we blow that up, given it works, they’re going to know we’re coming in,” I told Svarah. “Every minute we delay will give them time to get ready for us. We have to be prepared to enter their hold the second the ice comes down.

“You bring the ice down, Inquisitor, and we will break the Hakkonites.”

The plan we agreed to was for my team and I to circle back around to the forward camp, send all the letters I needed to, pick up Bull when he arrived, and then fire off the relays to bring down the ice enchantment on the Temple to Hakkon.

“We will watch from the peaks,” Svarah told me. “When the first relay lights, we will prepare. We will be at the gates when you arrive, Inquisitor.”

“I will send word when Bull arrives.”

“There is no need. We will have eyes on your camp, and will note your movement. When your sacred animal arrives, we will be ready.”

“He’s not-“

“Thank you, Thane Sunhair,” Dorian cut in. “We look forward to extending the acquaintance.”

He took me by the elbow and pulled me out of her chamber. “Dorian!”

“Give me this one, will you? I just want to be a fly on the wall when Svarah refers to Bull as the Skyhold hold beast.”

Cassandra snorted a laugh that I had to fight against echoing. “You’re terrible.”

“But you’re laughing,” he countered, drawing out the vowels.

“You’re all laughing,” Cole chimed in.

“Bah, all of you," I snorted, making my voice more gruff to counter the laugh Cole could hear in my mind. "Let’s go. The sooner we finish this the sooner I get away from all of you. I'm leaving you behind next time, I mean it.”

“Promises, promises,” Dorian sighed. “I’ll think of this moment fondly the next time to drag me lengthwise through a swamp.”

 

*

 

“I’m glad you were successful,” Gwen told me. “I was getting worried when Wisdom sent me away a few nights without talking to you. She said you needed your sleep more than I needed an update.”

“Is that what happened?” I shook my head, finding it hard to be angry at the spirit. “I missed you. I wasn’t worried; I vaguely remembered seeing you but I didn’t know why we hadn’t spoken. I was flat-out exhausted, though. It was a terrible hike to follow those relays around the Basin, and then we were up to our assholes in some demigod ice dragon at the end of it. It was a long few days.”

“Are you back to base camp yet?”

“No,” I sighed, tipping forward on the couch to rest my elbows on my knees. “We spent today in Stonebear Hold. We’re hiking out of the Basin tomorrow. I’ve sent word to Lace, and she knows to break camp. We should be well on our way back to Skyhold by noontime.”

“So you’re only a few days out, then? Oh, wonderful. I’ll warn Cullen about the imminent Dorian invasion. If he takes less than two baths a day the first week he’s back I’ll be surprised.”

“Void take Dorian. I’ve been having dreams about that half-cask in your bath room.”

“Any news you want me to pass?” she asked, a bit coyly.

“No,” I sighed. “Josephine’s letters have been business as usual, which is to say all business. I have no news to give her beyond what we've spoken of already. I assume you’re passing on what you learn in my dreams, now that you’re back in Skyhold.”

“Within reason,” she shrugged. “I do respect your privacy, you know.”

“I know,” I said, swinging an arm around her shoulders and drawing her close. I tipped my head to lay my cheek on her hair and she made a happy sort of sound.

“Should I let you go back to sleep?”

“Not quite yet. What were you looking for in the Hinterlands?”

“Oh! That. I’ll save that for when you come home. I have an idea that I want to pitch to everyone at once.”

“That... sounds terrible.”

She swatted me in the abdomen and I pitched forward. “Oof. It does though!”

“Good night, Hellen.”

“Good night, Gwen.”

The fire flickered as my eyes opened and I decided there had to be some force coming off me when I awoke. Either the Fade itself, Gwen’s will, or maybe I was just breathing really hard. Cassandra was soundly asleep in the cot next to me, an arm’s length away by her reckoning. A snore on my other side drew my attention, and I turned my face to see four massive paws dangling in the air at my eye level. Storvacker was asleep on her back, belly up, doing the bear equivalent of talking in her sleep.

I wasn’t stupid enough to reach over and rub the tummy of a sleeping bear, but it was tempting. She’d taken to me, which was a part of the reason Svarah had gone along with my ridiculous notion to recruit her hold beast into the Inquisition.

Cullen was going to have kittens, which was why I had neglected to mention my furry companion to Gwen during our nightly chat. It was quite possible she knew I was bringing home a bear... but I had long since given up trying to surprise her.

Storvacker shifted in her sleep and I reached over and slapped her paw. She rolled the giant appendage into a fist and pounded her knuckles against mine, making another growling sort of snore and rubbing her head against my cot so hard it shifted across the floor.

I swallowed my laugh and settled back in to sleep. Perhaps I would surprise Gwen yet.

Chapter Text

There was something about Skyhold that had always felt like home.

Gwen said it was the magic steeped in the stones. Actually, somebody else said it was the magic steeped in the stones, but fuck that guy. I’d rather remember it as Gwen.

The first time I’d crested the lip of the valley and seen the abandoned fortress below was probably the single greatest memory I possessed. I was relieved we’d survived the long walk, thrilled that my gamble had paid off, and insanely proud of the men and women who had brought us there. I was full of hope for the first time in memory, and there in the midst of it all was Gwen: grinning to beat the band, opening up to me like a friend after I’d tackled her like an asshole.

I’d been stupidly infatuated with her at the time, but that only gave the memory the rosy sheen of innocence when I looked back on it.

I got a piece of that feeling back every time we returned home. We rarely took the Haven road, riding in from the west rather than tumbling over the ridgeline to the south, but the new route afforded a better view. The Towers all came into view at the same time when you rounded a bend in the road. It’s but a glance, before a boulder and then a bit of a ravine block the line of sight. The next glimpse came when you reached the top of a short rise and the whole valley opened up before you. The keep dominated the landscape, crouching over the frozen lake like a predator staking its claim.

The encampment of the army used to stretch the length of the valley. It’s shrinking at this point, steadily drawing closer to Skyhold proper as we stepped down from our war footing. We had to maintain some forces, of course, but our plan was to look like we’re demilitarizing. My advisors all played a long game, and they played to win.

“Hellen!” I heard as we neared the causeway, and the smile broke across my face before I managed to lay eyes on the speaker. She was wearing her uniform, of course; starched white tunic over fitted brown leather. She had on new boots, it seemed, and her hair was pinned up rather than braided down. She was, as always, unmistakable.

“Gwen,” I replied as we rode up. I swung off my horse rather than swing her up; the poor beast didn’t need to carry double when I was involved. Gwen bounced on her tip-toes for a moment until I relented and lifted her into the crushing sort of hug that always made her laugh.

“Cheater,” Dorian said from behind. “Why do you always get to hug her first?”

“She’s the fastest on her feet,” Gwen countered. The two of them bantered back and forth as we made our way into the castle proper. We’d been chatting in the Fade nearly every night, so I had little news to give her. While it made homecomings feel a bit odd, since the typical deluge of information wasn’t necessary, it added another layer to the unique feel of riding into Skyhold at the end of a long journey.

“Inquisitor,” Cullen greeted me as we entered the courtyard. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you, Commander.”

“Ambassador Montilyet is engrossed in a matter with Charter, in the rookery,” he added, in a conspiratorial tone. “I believe she intended to greet you privately, rather than in the courtyard.”

Because Maker forbid anybody ever heard her say she loved me. I tried to agree with Cullen that it was a romantic gesture, forcing a smile and clapping him on the shoulder.

He strode off, probably still having a mountain of work to catch up on from his own journey. Cassandra and Dorian tossed their reins to stablehands, greeted Gwen, and then immediately departed for their own arrival rituals. The Iron Bull was already receiving a report from Krem, and Cole had vanished utterly.

Gwen’s hand twined around one of my fingers. “Come on, then. Let’s get your stuff put down and get you settled. I can fill you in on the way.”

“Fill me in?” I asked. I slung my saddlebags over my shoulder and followed her up the stairs towards the main hall. “What’s to fill in?”

“I know you said your goodbyes before you departed for the Basin,” Gwen answered, managing to look as somber as she ever did. “But you should still know who’s left.”

“Alright,” I sighed.

“Morrigan is long gone, as you know. She took Kieran with her, of course. Blackwall left with Alistair maybe two days after you left for Frostback Basin. Part of Joining is forsaking previous bonds, and so there is no official notification coming. However, I am in a position to tell you Warden Thom Ranier is stationed in Amaranthine for the time being, learning the ropes.”

“And that is, of course, completely unofficial,” I quipped. Blackwall seemed to me to be Gwen’s personal project, and his success meant more to her than I could really fathom.

She was glowing a bit as she nodded primly. “Alistair was kind enough to drop me a line. All very unofficial, as you say.”

“Dork,” I laughed.

“Sera went to Val Royeaux, stopping to stay with Vivienne of all people. What I wouldn’t give to have a transcript of that conversation.”

“I took them both with me into the Dales once. It’s nothing you want to hear.”

“Hawke and Merrill left, at the same time as Alistair. They were all on the road together for a bit, as I understand it. Varric insisted he wasn’t leaving until Hawke was actually out the door and then he was a wreck for two days. I think he might have caught up to Hawke on the road, with how fast he hauled out of here. Varric, at least, intended to go back to Kirkwall. The idea I got from Hawke was that since Merrill can turn into a fucking dragon now, he couldn’t justify hovering over her like a nervous mother hen. He wants to stay with her because, well. Because of course he does. I think the plan was for him to go with Varric and fix Kirkwall. Merrill knows enough about the eluvian network that she can be pretty much anywhere at this point.”

“Maker's bunions. Who is around still?”

“The Chargers are still in my employ, thanks to Leliana. I can’t believe that asshole gave me an army.”

“It’s just a small army.”

“It’s still an army! I actually rode through Redcliffe and thought, I bet I could take this.”

We were halfway up the stairs to my tower apartment at this point, and I stumbled in surprise and slid down two stairs before catching myself. Gwen danced out of the way, concern lighting her face until she saw me laughing.

“You are not to attempt to assault Redcliffe castle!”

“Hey, I warned you not to trust me with an army.”

I laughed the rest of the way up the stairs. The door was unlocked at the top – the steward had to have seen me coming – and the smell that greeted me when I swung open the door was sweet perfection.

The wood floors had been waxed and polished, and the nutty oil they used reminded me of cookies I used to get on Satinalia as a child. There were new candles set but cold – I liked to light my own, to cut down on smoke – and lamps topped off with fresh oil. My hearth was lit and a bundle of herbs thrown in to blend with the wood oil and create the smell I now equated with mine. My clothes chest smelled of this, my books and my staff, my shoes and my hair. This was what I smelled when I had peace, when I had love, when I had uninterrupted sleep and easy access to a bath.

“I love the way your rooms smell,” Gwen said, as we both paused at the door and inhaled deeply. “Mine smell like balefire and spindleweed right now.”

“Ugh. Why not just set some sack mead on fire? It would smell the same and cost way less.”

“I know, right?” She laughed, and then followed me up the last flight of stairs into my room, shutting the door behind her as she came.

There was a light on in my bathing chamber, and I couldn’t help but thrust a triumphant fist in the air when I realized they’d already poured me a bath in the cask. Gwen grabbed a chair and dragged it around as I dropped my things on the floor, stripped, and stepped directly into the water.

“Oh, sweet Maker’s mistress, this is lovely,” I sighed as I sunk into the water.

“She thinks that one is funny, thank goodness,” Gwen said offhandedly.

It took me a minute to process what she said, but my heart skipped a beat when it sunk in. “Do you tell Her what we say?”

“She can... hear you, actually. Well. Sort of. She can hear me, and I can hear you, so She sort of... picks what you’re saying out of my thoughts. Usually. Honestly, She can do whatever the fuck She wants.”

“She hears us cussing.”

Gwen shrugged. “For the most part She thinks it’s really funny, the stuff we come up with. There’s a couple She really doesn’t like.”

“Maker’s burning whore?” I suggested, dumbly.

Gwen flinched. “Yeah. That one. Don’t use that one.”

“But stuff like, Maker’s fuzzy nutsack?”

“Hilarious.”

“Andraste’s ankle mole?”

“Accurate.”

“What’s the one Anders uses? Something about knickers?”

“Knicker weasels,” Gwen confirmed. “She’s really curious about that one.”

I sunk deeper into the water, steam rising up around me. “This is, far and away, the most fucked up conversation I have ever had. I was in the Fade with a Nightmare demon and the dead Divine, so that’s really saying something.”

“Anders is still here,” Gwen said, steering the conversation back on track. “He and I have been working with Dagna on something that I’m not sure you'll like but we can talk about in the Undercroft later. Cole and Cassandra and Dorian and Bull are all still around, obviously. And Leliana wants us to come meet her in Val Royeaux before you go carting off again, as she’s got new Hands picked out and wants a formal introduction.”

“Fuck you, Gwen, I just got home.”

“I know. I’m just warning you. Give it a week and you’ll be looking to leave again. You were half-mad with stir crazies before you left for the Basin. It doesn’t take you long to get sick of Skyhold.”

“I never get sick of Skyhold,” I argued.

“The best thing about Skyhold, for you, is coming home to it,” she countered.

I was staring, but I couldn’t help it. “Did you turn your Sight on me without me noticing?”

Gwen grinned. “No. I just know you, idiot. When you dream of Skyhold, you dream of the way it looks when you hit the lip of the Valley, and the way your room smells when you first open the door. You dream of horseshoes on cobblestones and the pinions snapping in the breeze. You love having a foundation, Hellen; you love having something to come home to, and the only way to experience that is to leave.”

I closed my eyes and tipped my head back. I was almost ready to start washing up, but a few more minutes of soak would do me good. “Fuck you,” I told my chosen sister. “You don’t know me.”

While Gwen giggled, the door at the base of my stairs slammed open violently. I sat upright in the tub, sloshing water over the sides, as my instinct to protect the Herald kicked in. Gwen was between me and whoever was storming up the stairs. My staff was just out of reach; Gwen could toss it to me and the Step out of the tower-

“Inquisitor, why is there a bear in your entourage?” Cullen’s outrage echoed in the stairwell as he charged up the stairs.

Gwen turned starry eyes to me. “You brought Storvacker? You recruited her? Really?

I settled back into the tub. “She fell a bit behind on the way up, probably stopped for a bite to eat. Do me a solid and explain it to Cullen.”

“Cullen!” she cooed, darting over to intercept him at the top of the stairs. “The bear’s name is Storvacker! I want to meet her! Where is she? Is she in the courtyard? Does Dennett know where we could keep her? There’s a spot in the undercroft she might like!”

I heard Gwen practically skip down the stairs.

“What? No! Gwen, you stay away from that bear.”

The latch clicked and Cullen growled in frustration while I worked to stay quiet. “We’ll discuss this at length later, Inquisitor,” he called through gritted teeth and then clattered down the stairs on Gwen’s heels. “Gwen! Wait!” I heard him call, to be answered by Gwen’s excited giggle echoing in the stairwell before the door latched shut and cut off all sound.

Half my friends were gone, freed to follow their hearts in a world they helped me bring to peace. I was sure to lose more in the coming months, and Gwen insisted I had more trouble brewing. In this moment, however, with Gwen’s energy not fully dissipated from the room and the memory of her laugh in my ears, it was easy to lean back and be content.

 

*

 

I made it two whole hours before Gwen reappeared and asked for me to come down for a meeting.

“I’m sorry to drag you down there already, but Cullen is pissed about the bear. Apparently it’s now my fault for not warning him, regardless of whether or not you told me, because I knew it could happen. So you’re welcome for that, I suppose.”

I laughed and agreed to meet them in the council chamber. We were trying not to refer to it as the war room anymore. I followed her back down the stairs while she stayed suspiciously silent.

“What else are you going to bring up in council?” I asked her at the last landing.

“You’ll see,” she chirped a reply. Once I had her voice for reference, her anxiety seemed to be more excited than nervous. It was always a relief to know I could read her as well as she could apparently read me.

We were the last to arrive in the council chamber. There were a few heavy wooden armchairs arrayed in a semi-circle to one side of the war table, which would retain its name regardless of the title of the room. There were currently a dozen or more tokens and markers scattered across the layers of maps, although they seemed mostly to be Charter’s.

“Hellen!” Josephine greeted me happily. She crossed the room and stood on tiptoe to plant a chaste kiss on my cheek. “Welcome home, my love. We have so much to discuss!”

I held Josie in place for a moment longer with a hand to the small of her back and kissed the top of her head. She hummed happily and moved back to the circle of chairs.

The memory of a dozen homecomings I’d witnessed – most notably Cullen and Gwen’s reunions – left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. I would probably never get a nervously excited Josephine greeting me on the causeway steps.

I fucking hated feeling jealous.

Pushing the sensation aside, and opting instead to feel gratitude that I got a kiss hello, I dropped into the last open chair. Gwen was sitting opposite of Cullen, as was their wont – they communicated with expression and gesture more than with words and so tried to face one another in council. I was on Gwen’s right, with Charter to my right. Josephine sat between Cullen and Charter. Cassandra was notably absent.

“Is Cass coming?”

“She had a mountain of correspondence,” Gwen answered immediately. “I asked but she was angry at Varric for something he wrote and honestly I didn’t want to stay and listen.”

“Don’t,” I cut off Charter as she started to speak. “I like the fantasy that my mail arrives unread. Don’t puncture it.”

“Of course, Inquisitor,” she agreed mildly.

“What’s the agenda today?” I asked no one in particular.

“What am I to do with a bear?” Cullen countered before Josephine could begin to read from her carefully notated list of items.

“Help her regain her honor,” I answered, with absolutely no humor in my voice whatsoever. I was pretty proud of how somber my tone was.

“What.”

Gwen snorted and leaned over slightly, clearly failing in her attempt to hide her laugh.

Storvacker did monopolize the first part of the meeting, but once we had a plan in place for her, the rest of the council progressed at a decent clip.

Charter was following up on a half-dozen leads from Gwen about potential oversights from my previous campaigns in both Orlais and Ferelden, as well as a project that Gwen insisted was not ready to be discussed yet, even with me. “I don’t want to get your hopes up if it’s an abyssal failure,” she explained. “I’m looking for people I’m not even sure exist.”

“Maybes and might-have-beens?” I guessed.

“Yes ser,” she replied.

She was working on a project with Dagna and Anders that she wanted to discuss with me in the Undercroft later, but she had a third work in progress that she wanted to bring up in council.

“I want to open a school,” she announced.

“What kind of school?” Charter prompted.

“Healing,” Gwen answered with aplomb. “Anders. Hellen. Me. Vivienne. Between us we have more knowledge of healing – both magical and mundane – than anyone else in Southern Thedas. Vivienne is the foremost alchemist in the world and I’ve been corresponding with her about focused studies in alchemical healing to accompany my instruction in anatomy and physiology. If I can tap into Anders – and you as much as possible, Hellen – then we could have parallel programs for spirit healers and nonmagical healers. With that many minds working together, we could discover treatments and cures for things that are invariably fatal now.”

“There are many nobles who would be interested in backing such an endeavor financially,” Josephine added, telling me Gwen had at least brought the notion up with Josie before now. “Lady Gwen and I have drawn up a list of notable personages who have lost loved ones to disease – or who wish to appear as if they have – and I believe she is correct in believing we could find more than adequate patronage.”

“You want to turn Skyhold into a center of healing?” I asked, letting my incredulity show. “Gwen, we’re not exactly easy to get to. The weak and infirm will not be able to journey here.”

“We would have to start here,” she admitted, “and move elsewhere. Which was the reason behind my side trip in the Hinterlands.”

“There is a manor in the southwest portion of the region,” Cullen took up the narrative, squinting at Gwen in such a way to make me believe he was putting this together rather than having been told, “that we cleaned out of bandits in the early days of the Inquisition. I believe the area was rather overrun with bears, as well.”

“Yup,” I sighed. “I know the place.”

“Gwen asked to stop there and see what condition the manor was in. In terms of a school, it is not currently well appointed, but there is definitely room to expand if that was what she intended.”

“I understand Eamon Guerrin’s son, Connor, was interested in healing as a profession. Perhaps with him as one of our first students, the land in the Hinterlands could be acquired from his uncle, Arl Teagan?”

“You are altogether too clever for your own good,” I sighed. “I don’t see as how I have any say in this. You bring it up here because...?”

“Because I want to use the Inquisition’s resources to get it started,” Gwen answered. “And the Inquisitor, herself, as our prime benefactor would give us credibility.”

“I’m more loveable than Anders?” I laughed.

“You got it.”

“Alright. I will put it under consideration. Please keep me abreast of any new developments.”

From there we moved on to more of Charter’s reports and threat assessments. Josephine had a significantly longer list of items to discuss, and most of them were repayments of the many favors we promised to owe in exchange for assistance against Corypheus.

“I’m going to spend the next year of my life in a saddle shaking hands and mediating land disputes, is what you’re saying.”

“More or less,” Gwen quipped as Josephine prepared a more diplomatic answer.

“Whatever it takes to pay the bills, Josephine. I trust you to send me on worthwhile endeavors.”

“Speaking of worthwhile endeavors,” Josie continued, “we have need of a visit to Divine Victoria regarding the appointment of her Left and Right Hands, as well as a meeting to show the Inquisition is yet a part of the Chantry.”

“I thought we weren’t part of the Chantry?” I countered.

“Divine Justinia’s edict is what recreated the Inquisition,” Gwen reminded me gently. “Just because the rest of the Chantry didn’t like it doesn’t mean they had the ability to actually kick us out.”

“Fine, fine. Give me a couple days to get my feet under me-“

“I have arrangements in place for us to leave five days hence,” Josie assured me.

“Very well. Five days. Can you get an escort together in that time, Cullen? I know you just got home.”

“Captain Brown kept the keep running well in my absence,” Cullen asserted. “Add the Chargers’ likely insistence on accompanying us and we will have a retinue in place with time to spare.”

“Wonderful. Anything else?”

Four heads shook in response.

“Good, then. Gwen, Undercroft?”

“Yes, please.”

“Meeting adjourned.”

Chapter Text

“This is a fucking terrible idea,” I informed Gwen once the plans she and Dagna had made became clear.

“What?” She gasped. “No! Not you too.”

“Cullen hated it,” I guessed easily, looking over the – admittedly beautiful – sculptured silver armband Dagna had crafted. It was wrapped around Gwen’s bicep and down her forearm, almost completely hidden by her clothes and cleverly designed to not hinder the movement of her elbow. There were gaps in the silver work – although it was probably silverite and not mere silver – where flat gems could be inserted. At the time there were only two gaps filled, both with clear stones that looked almost like glass. They had a spot of red in their very centers, and pulsed in a way that was unmistakable to me.

“Those who dance are thought insane by those who cannot hear the music,” Dagna quipped.

“Gwen told you that,” I countered.

“I like it,” she shrugged. “It’s kinder than any dwarven adage about magic.”

Gwen snickered while I sighed. “Why can’t you ask before you do shit like this?”

“Well, first, it is scientific progress,” Dagna said, launching into an explanation of the relationship between lyrium and mages and blood and I quickly tuned her out to scowl at Gwen.

She was stubbornly resisting any show of remorse. “It’s a great idea, Hellen,” Gwen insisted as Dagna concluded her monologue.

“You’re going to have phylacteries strapped to your arm so your mage allies can always find you,” I summarized. “First, you can’t even use phylacteries. And second-“

“See, you’re already wrong!” Gwen crowed. “I can use them! I can use them to find any of you in the Fade!”

I let my face go neutral and carefully resisted blinking.

“Anders let me borrow Hawke’s phylactery and I was able to Step right to him-“

“You Fade-Stepped to Hawke?” I interrupted. “Are you fucking kidding me? You aren’t supposed to-“

“Maker’s teats, Hellen, I stepped from Skyhold directly into Hawke’s bedroom in Kirkwall. And Hawke knew I was coming and confirmed the room was safe of traps. It was perfectly safe.”

I ground my palms into my eye sockets. “You really don’t see the problem with all this.”

“I’m careful, Hellen. I can See if a place I intend to Step to is safe or not. I’m not made of glass.”

“First, you’ve nearly died twice and actually died once. I would counter that you are far more fragile than you think. And, second, everybody who loves you hates when you do this. Isn’t that reason enough to stop?”

“The Inquisition wins,” Gwen answered softly. “That’s the goal. Me popping out on the other side perfectly intact is not our goal. If I have to do something that drives the rest of you crazy in order to keep the world intact, I’m going to do it.”

“You don’t have to,” I started.

“I’m going to.” Gwen’s will brushed me and I did not attempt to mask my scowl. “You can either know where I am and make it easier for me to find you if something goes awry, or not.”

“And what guarantees my safety if something happens to you and the band of phylacteries gets picked up by your murderer?”

“That’s what I’ve been saying,” Dagna jumped in. “We’ve managed to link Anders’ phylactery to not just Anders, but to Gwen as well! If the band comes off or Gwen dies, all the phylacteries go dark. They’re not usable by anyone unless they’re on the arm of a living Gwen.”

Nodding gleefully, Gwen took up the narrative. “And as long as I’m alive, I can Step to you or Dorian or-“

“So as long as you’re alive you’re leaving this arm band on,” I summarized.

They both nodded.

“So you’re going to bathe with this on?”

Gwen flipped the pendant against her sternum. “I bathe with this on.”

“You’re going to go to bed with Cullen and take everything off except the pendant that used to be your wedding ring from Patrick, and a long silver armband containing Hawke’s and Anders’ phylacteries,” I enunciated carefully, not wanting her to miss my point.

She blushed and I knew my aim had struck true. While Dagna snorted a laugh, Gwen managed a rough shrug. “It’s not that different than wearing jewelry.”

“You didn’t even think of it.”

“I... no. No, I didn’t.”

I sighed. “And Cullen didn’t say anything about it when you told him.”

“Cullen didn’t say much of anything when I told him except no.”

“And that wasn’t enough for you?”

Gwen sighed and threw herself into a pile of cushions that served as a chair in the chill air of the Undercroft. “I’m... I’m not from here, Hellen. My world... I’m different. I want different things; I expect different things. I’m not like Mia, to ignore her husband’s little bigotries and subsume her own personality to protect his ego. Cullen disagreeing with me doesn’t make my opinion invalid. So, no. No, him saying no isn’t enough for me. And it wouldn’t be enough for you, either.”

“There is so much more going on here than a fucking phylactery,” I groaned, rubbing my hands down my horns to combat a looming stress headache. “Look, fine. Fine. Take a drop of my blood, add me on there. I’d rather be able to find you if you’re going to be an idiot about all this. And maybe having me on your arm will make this easier on Cullen, since you’re bound and determined to do it.”

“Thank you,” Gwen said, without a drop of smugness or condescension.

“You’re welcome,” I answered, as Dagna came forward with a needle and a small circular piece of crystal.  I squeezed a drop of blood out of my finger onto the clear stone and it seemed to be pulled into the center. Dagna slipped a second, thinner piece of crystal over it, and the two pieces adhered with a flash. “You guys practicing magic down here now?”

“Anders made us a set of these,” Dagna informed me cheerfully. “He felt it was in his best interests to be scarce while Gwen convinced everyone this was a good plan.”

“So he knows it’s stupid.”

“He knows it’s a lost cause to try to shackle Gwen,” Dagna corrected me, with just a flash of heat in her voice. “Some people are no good at sitting down and doing as their told. I couldn’t just stay in Orzammar; I’m not going to help anyone restrict Gwen the way my father tried to restrict me.”

Lost cause was a great word for this fuckup. Gwen was chafing under the bonds of Andraste and the Chantry; the Inquisition was probably the most she could bear. Adding on Cullen’s admittedly heavy-handed attempts to keep her safe was only making her buck authority. Bull trying to keep tabs on her was probably the proverbial last straw. I could either shackle her, or let her go.

I sunk into the cushion beside Gwen, feeling a bit of my awareness stay behind in the crystal in Dagna’s hands. She was running it through a tool of some sort, probably to prepare it for being fit permanently into Gwen’s arm band.

“What did you call it?” I asked her softly.

“What did I call what?”

Joie de vivre,” I pronounced, shakily, and a hopeful sort of smile curved the corners of her lips. “We all have a death looming somewhere on the horizon. I will not stop you from riding out to meet it, as you said. I want you to be safe, Gwen, but not in exchange for slavery, real or perceived.”

Her eyes welled over with tears. “Thank you, Hellen.”

“Cullen does not understand,” I told her, trying for a stern tone that was not unfriendly. It was a hard line to walk. “He’s not like you and I, he thrives on order; he’s lived his entire life as a link in the chain of command. That doesn’t make his intentions malicious.”

“I know,” she sighed, snuggling into my shoulder. I wrapped an arm around her and held her close. “It’s... It’s complicated.”

“So you said,” I teased. “This is why we have a Flames of Our Lady date.”

“You need to put that off a couple days,” Gwen replied. Her tone was lighter, and I felt a brief surge of relief and triumph, to think that I had eased a concern from her shoulders. “I cannot believe Josephine will ignore you when you’ve just returned home.”

“She has so far today,” I grunted.

“She was clearing a space for you,” Gwen countered. “You’re in love with a workaholic, Hellen, just like me. You’ve got to find a way to pencil yourself onto her schedule.”

There was something in the way she said that last sentence that made me instantly suspicious. “What did you do?”

“You’re having dinner tonight with Josephine,” Gwen replied evenly. “She and I had a friendly competition to see who would get the honor, and she won handily. You and the Flames of Our Lady aren’t on my schedule until the day after tomorrow.”

I shook my head, helpless to hide my smile. I’d told her not to talk to Josephine about my concerns, but I hadn’t explicitly told her to not be a meddlesome asshole. Somehow I couldn’t quite drum up any anger.

“Thank you,” I said, instead.

“Anytime,” she replied, giving me one last squeeze and then pushing up out of the cushion to cross the room in response to Dagna’s beckon. Gwen sat on a stool and extended her left arm so Dagna could slide the crystal – my phylactery – into the lowest fitting. The gem containing my blood would be pressed against the soft part of Gwen’s forearm, closest to her pulse. I tousled Gwen’s hair – taking more joy than I would admit out of utterly wrecking her carefully twisted bun – and left them to their work. She was going to have a knock-down-drag-out battle to get Dorian’s contribution to the spiraling silver scrollwork on her arm. I thought I could see two places where others could be added later, or at least the alterations could be made to allow for expansion. I wasn’t sure what other mages Gwen thought to include besides the four of us, but I shrugged it off as merely allowing for the unexpected.

I climbed the stairs out of the Undercroft and continued up, winding my way to the opposite end of Skyhold, elevation-wise. When I cracked the door open to my tower apartment, the smell of sage and polished floors and beeswax was joined by fresh bread and what could only be dinner. I peered over the top step to see Josephine standing beside a set table for two.

I climbed to the top of the stairs and crossed the room, letting the smile grow on my face, and with a gesture I lit the candles on the table.

“Hungry, my love?” Josephine asked archly.

“By the Maker, I thought you would never ask.”

 

*

 

Josephine was long gone when I awoke the next morning, because of course she was.

I should be grateful I had ten uninterrupted hours with her. Shame on me for hoping to get a snuggle in the morning, right?

Right. Just keep telling yourself that, Hellen.

I tried not to be a grumpy asshole all day. It wasn’t easy. Dorian was making louder noises about leaving, which were amplified once Gwen got her hands on him and explained her little project. I made the rounds through the keep, touching base with the staff who kept Skyhold running. The quartermaster always liked to see me. Harritt and Dennet were pillars of our little community...

....except the Horsemaster was packing to leave when I walked into his stable-side office. The war was over, and he had a wife and home waiting for him. He’d trained half the staff in the proper care of his horses, and with only a pittance for himself – enough to start a new stable – he was gone by noon.

They were grains of sand, slipping through my fingers.

I took my evening meal in the tavern, noting a bit darkly that it was the Herald’s Rest for probably good reason; the Inquisitor was only rarely there, and then it was usually to talk to Bull or Sera. I caught myself glancing at the empty second-floor room where Sera used to live, and tried to take comfort in Gwen’s assertion that we would all be together again in a couple years’ time.

I managed to stay mostly unnoticed as I ate in a corner near the bar, almost beneath the stairs. I was able to just sit and watch people as they went about their daily business, and there was a sort of peace at the antics of my soldiery. A black-haired templar – who was beautiful, really, and I cursed myself for looking at her twice – rushed the stairs, calling Twitch I’ve got a lead and brandishing a letter with what could only be hope. I wondered just how much happened that I never heard of, what exactly the lead was that had one of the Chargers bounding out of the tavern with the templar on his heels, and which person in the tavern was Charter’s plant and how long they would wait before slipping out and telling everything to my Seneschal in the rookery.

Did anybody really know everything that went on in Skyhold?

The idea that sitting around me right then were agents of Fen’Harel or the Qun made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I left immediately after finishing my meal, leaving a coin spinning on the bar in my wake.

I went to bed alone.

I woke up alone.

But the next day was better, because I planned to end it with Gwen’s laughter and a bottle of aged wine called Flames of Our Lady that wasn’t our favorite thing to drink but was an unbreakable tradition.

There was a war room – council, rather – meeting that afternoon, to update everyone on our plans for the trip to Val Royeaux and the sudden summons to Orzammar.

“Finally!” Gwen sighed, sinking into her chair to read the letter from the dwarven nation beneath our feet. “Andraste’s ashes, I thought this would never come.”

“What I wouldn’t give for you to figure out timing,” Charter quipped while watching Gwen read.

“You and me both, sister,” Gwen grumbled.

“So on the way back from Val Royeaux I’ll drop out of the party and go down into Orzammar?” I ventured.

“That seems like the most efficient option,” Cullen affirmed.

“How do you feel about the Deep Roads?” I asked Cassandra.

“My shield is at your disposal, Hellen,” Cassandra answered immediately. “Wherever that may take us.”

“I’ll drag Dorian and Cole along, as well, get one more run out of them before they vanish. Literally.”

Gwen absently reached up and brushed her left arm, just below the elbow, and I guessed she had talked Dorian into giving up a drop of blood just as she had me. Cullen’s scowl as he glared at Gwen’s idle motion was all the confirmation I needed that she hadn’t managed to have the heart-to-heart with him she needed.

Finishing the letter, she passed it along, and I watched, bemused, as Cullen swept his expression clean.

Oh, they were in trouble.

“If there wasn’t anything else?” I said as I stood, encouraging the meeting to close.

“I had some business,” Josephine said, but I didn’t clear the frustration from my face quickly enough and she stopped short. “But, of course, it can wait until after we meet with the Divine and you have had a chance to build an alliance with Orzammar.”

“Please leave me a list of places I might stop on the way to or from Orzammar,” I offered quickly, eager to smooth things over with Josie. We’d been doing so well...

“Of course, my love,” she replied with a smile and I let out a relieved breath.

“Gwen?”

She had been looking absently at the war table, and I was surprised to see a hint of blue fade from her eyes as she drew her gaze up to meet mine. “Yes, Hellen?”

“Dinner?”

“Oh!” She popped out of her seat and reached out to me. I caught her hand in mine and drew her out of the council chamber.

I wasn’t looking forward to talking about Josie, about my reservations and petty jealousy. I was, however, keen to drag out of Gwen her complicated power struggle with Cullen, and I was willing to pay dearly for it.

“I might not have enough liquor,” I said, half to myself, as we went up the stairs.

“I had a cask dragged up this morning,” Gwen replied, the grimness of her tone at odds with the grin on her face.

“This is why I love you,” I told her over my shoulder.

Her only answer was a happy laugh that echoed down the tower.

Chapter Text

We made short work of dinner and I headed straight for the sideboard to fetch heavy goblets – the weighted ones that were particularly hard to tip over – while Hellen rolled the cask out of her storage room. We weren’t fucking around here; there was a hogshead of water on standby and we were planning on a miserable morning regardless.

“Who’s starting?” I asked as Hellen lifted the cask onto a stand and broached it with a glare and a bit of mana. Dorian had taught her that trick over a year ago; I couldn’t help but grin at the memory. Tevinter had such amusing uses for magic.

“You just did,” she answered flatly, grinning once I realized I’d been had. “And since I answered it so nicely, it’s my turn.”

“Oh, you ass,” I laughed and accepted a filled goblet from her proffered hand.

“Is it a cultural or religious thing in your world to only marry once?”

I breathed a little sigh of relief. Questions that could be answered with a yes or no were always a good place to start. Not that I would give Hellen a one-word answer; I just appreciated the option.

“In some places, yes. There were thousands of religions, countless cultures. My religion wasn’t too fond of divorce – leaving a spouse and picking a new one, as opposed to annulling a marriage which was also an option – but it was allowed. There was no stigma against a woman remarrying after she was widowed from a religious standpoint. In some instances it was even required, in the old days. But my own culture was actually really judgmental, and there was a feeling of one and done being the ideal.”

Hellen nodded, and cast me a sly smile.  “Thank you. I was trying to lob you an easy one to start.”

I snorted. “Easy. Ha!”

“I didn’t ask about your thoughts, just an explanation of your background. What is it you say? Just the facts, ma’am?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Have you talked to Josephine at all about her outright ignoring your plea in your letter for personal news?”

“No,” she replied with a sigh. She was going to take the option to answer with one word, it seemed.

“Stubborn ass,” I told her.

“Have you told Cullen you don’t want to get remarried?”

“No.”

Hellen lifted up her hands in a see? sort of motion and I tipped my glass at her in acknowledgement of the point. We both drank. And then sat watching each other wearily.

“This isn’t going to work unless we both open up,” she said softly.

“I know. It’s hard this time, though.”

Hellen nodded, and then drained her goblet. Rather than get a glass of water – which we always did when drinking Flames of Our Lady – she grimly refilled her goblet with the heady wine and resolutely drained it. She filled it again and then nodded once to me.

“Are you insane?”

“Wasted another turn,” she countered, blinking as the wine hit her. “We both know the answer to that is yes.”

“Damn it, Hellen.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said, and sat down heavily. “I’m going to tell you everything I can think to say about Josephine, about us, while you partake in some liquid courage. Then I’m going to switch to water when you get good and liquored up, and you’re going to tell me everything about you and Cullen. Then you’ll switch to water and I’ll start alternating and then talk about happier things.”

“This is a terrible idea,” I told her. “I’m in.”

“Of course you are. Your favorite ideas are the terrible ones.”

“You know me.”

I nursed my first goblet of wine while Hellen slowly, painfully, told me the story of her and Josephine.

It had started slow, while she was still enamored of me. When she gave me up as a better friend than lover, she’d taken a few months before setting her sights on Josie. “I never want her to think she was second-best to you, because that’s not what it was,” she insisted. “I wasn’t in Josephine’s league while I was just some mercenary working with the Inquisition, a misidentified Herald. When I became Inquisitor and she was technically my underling, I realized how fleeting rank was, how stupid it is to consider someone better or worse than you because of something as empty as a title, how limiting myself to someone of my perceived social status was not just pointless, but impossible. There is nobody else like me, nobody else like Josie, nobody else like you. It is all perception.”

“I get it, Hellen,” I laughed, waving her on. “Perception. Got it. Go.”

She fell back into the narrative, giving me a rough outline of her argument with Leliana when the Nightingale had confronted her about her intentions with Josephine. It had not gone well for either of them, and it had been some weeks before they had come to any kind of amiable truce. Josie had actually been rather flattered by the argument, although she’d chided both of them rather severely for not getting along.

The night she spent with Josephine in Halamshiral had been chaste, much to my surprise, and involved Hellen moving Josephine’s couch to face the window and falling asleep side-by-side, Hellen’s arms around Josie’s shoulders. The morning sun on their faces woke them, so Hellen could slip out and at least follow the forms of maintaining appearances. The Chargers weren’t prone to gossiping – not where anyone who wasn’t a Charger could hear, at least – and since the servants didn’t see, their night together went unremarked upon.

Which is why Josephine’s betrothal was pursued by the Montilyets and Ontrantos for as long as it was. Hellen and Josephine had done such a good job of not letting anybody see that there really was no indication that Josephine wouldn’t approve of the match. Had either of them ever been demonstrative, the entire scene in Val Royeaux needn’t have happened.

“And that’s where the difference is,” Hellen concluded, swaying a bit in her seat over her fifth goblet of Flames of Our Lady. “I changed. I announced to the marketplace in Val Royeaux that I loved her. I wrote to her parents. I got dispensation from the Divine for us to be together. I want her to come running down the steps when I come home and jump into my arms like you do. Maker knows if I could jump into her arms I would. But Josie...? Josie is the opposite. She seems to think that since we announced our relationship to Orlais, then we need not mention it again. There is no need for any further public displays of affection, because that sort of thing is better conducted behind closed doors.

“And I might be able to live with that,” she continued, her voice becoming surprisingly bitter, “if our behind-closed-doors life was half as affectionate as your public presentation. You meet me at the gates. You drag Cullen into the tower. You lock the door on his office when he works too long, even I have heard the stories the soldiers tell of walking in on you and the Commander. Maker’s Grace, have you heard the story the Chargers tell of that night in Halamshiral when you two left the ball early?”

I thought the blush might kill me. The true cause of malignant hyperthermia: acute embarrassment. I should ask Andraste to send a note to my old nursing school instructors.

“Yeah,” I managed. “I’ve heard it once or twice.”

“I see that and I’m jealous,” Hellen confessed in a rush.

“You... what?” I couldn’t decide what exactly she was jealous of. I conscientiously eased off the oversized four-poster bed and fetched myself a third goblet of wine. I grabbed Hellen some water while I was there; she was far more than drunk enough, she could start down the path to sobriety.

“I’m not jealous of Cullen,” she spat. “I’m not jealous of you. I’m jealous of the relationship you two have. I’m jealous of Cullen’s family thinking you’re more than you are, as opposed to less. I’m jealous of Cullen never going to bed alone, even if he stays up late working. I’m jealous of your lazy mornings; even if they’re rare, they exist and I don’t have that. Josephine finally spent the night up here and I woke up alone. Gwen, I am so fucking tired of waking up alone.”

“Oh, Hellen,” I whispered, reaching forward to cup her cheek. She pushed her face into my hand, seemingly starving for affection. “Oh, sweetheart, you’re so lonely.”

“I like being alone,” she countered, gently. “I am so comfortable with peace and quiet and time to think. But, damn it, I love her more than I have ever loved my solitude.”

“And you won’t talk to her about it,” I ventured carefully.

Hellen leaned away from my touch and shook her head sadly. “First, my hints and requests go completely unanswered. If I thought she was open to suggestion I would sit her down and chat. But she is so reserved, Gwen. She is so caught up in what is proper and what gives the Inquisition its best image and what our visitors think of us that she forgets to consider herself. She knows I am comfortable alone, I stupidly told her as much; she’s not worried about my needs because she knows I don’t need her around all the time. And what I want isn’t as important as what she thinks the Inquisition needs so there’s no point. Talking about it will only cause a fight. You know what she’s like, Gwen. She’s endlessly reasonable and calm and convincing and I just get angry and storm out. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless.”

“You’re not hopeless, Hellen,” I countered immediately. “She loves you. You love her. It might take awhile but I have a very distinct memory of her saying, a couple years from now, that she should have made more time for you. There is hope.”

“Am I alive when she says this?” Hellen retorted, sourly.

“Alive and angry and fighting,” I assured her.

She sighed and pitched backwards into the mound of pillows at the head of the bed. I followed her and pressed the water into her hands. “Anything else in there that needs to come out?”

She shook her head, a bit brokenly. I patted her cheek and drained my goblet.

“Your turn?” she asked, with more hope in her voice than I’d heard all night.

I nodded. “I owe you no less.”

I tried to do what Hellen had done, but she already knew the progression of my relationship with Cullen developing. I abandoned that approach quickly and instead jumped right into what felt wrong.

“It got worse when I died,” I said after roughly swallowing a bit too much Flames of Our Lady. It didn’t burn anymore... that was a very bad sign. “He has always been very protective of me, and I needed that. I really did. There was an assassination plot and Solas didn’t know whether or not I was a threat at first and I was defenseless for a long time. But I’m not anymore. I can literally See trouble coming. I can Step away from an assassin or an act of nature in a heartbeat. I’m getting really good at it because I practice. This is something I can do to save myself, and everyone is so angry with me for doing it.

“He wants me to be safe, but he won’t let me practice my best defense. If people never know where I am, they won’t be able to stalk me. If I practice looking at wherever it I’m Stepping to, I’ll figure out if a room is trapped or if it’s safe. But I can’t figure out how to do that without practice. And because I didn’t know what I was doing the first time, everybody assumes it’s always as dangerous as that first Step was. But it’s not. I don’t use my own energy to power it anymore, I know how to draw it from the Fade, I use the Fade because I’m standing in it right the fuck now. But no.

“I get it!” Hellen laughed, echoing me. “You don’t think Fade Stepping is dangerous. I understand your perspective.”

“But you don’t agree with it?” I challenged.

She shrugged. “If I can’t see you, I can’t protect you. If I don’t know where you are, I can’t protect you. It’s worse for Cullen, because he has a fundamental mistrust of the Fade; I at least can use Wisdom to figure out where you are.”

“That’s why I wear his phylactery!” I cried, throwing my hands into the air. “So that he’ll always know I’m safe. He’ll always know how to find me! And now I’ve strapped your phylactery onto my arm. You and Hawke and Anders and Dorian will always be able to fucking find me. I made this beautiful shackle and all anyone can say is how horrible it is. I did this so you fuckers would let me go.”

Hellen sat up on the headboard. “You think of those phylacteries as a shackle?”

I’d gotten through to her. Praise the Maker, I’d gotten through to her. “Yes, Hellen. I am under guard constantly. I am never alone. I have the means to travel and I cannot use it. I have things I want to do that I am continuously told I cannot do because somebody has to have eyes on me at all times. I am a grown woman, I am not a child and I want my freedom back.”

Hellen drew a shaking breath and I saw tears in her eyes. I could count the number of times Hellen had cried on one hand; I instinctively reached for her. She drew me into her arms and curled around me like I the child I had just insisted I wasn’t, and I did not care one whit. It was Hellen. She finally understood.

“In my world,” I told her as she rocked slowly back and forth; her nose was pressed into my hair and I was glad she didn’t cry long and soak my head. “I could walk out my door at any time, get into my car, and be a thousand miles away in a day. I had something in my possession that could carry me along the ground faster than a raven can fly. I went to work every day on my own, I made my own decisions, I took my own risks. And even though I was in a horrible accident and nearly died and lost my ability to bear his children, Patrick never, ever, ever asked me to stop living my life. He never asked me to stay at home and just be safe. He respected me far too much for that.”

“Oh,” Hellen breathed, drawing out the syllable.

“Yeah, oh.”

“Our insistence on you staying in Skyhold and being safe is a horrible insult to you.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Gwen, I am so sorry.”

The tension drained off my shoulders and slumped against Hellen’s chest. “It is such a relief to have one person understand.”

“I...” she took a long breath. “I have no idea how to make Cullen understand. To say it like this would be...”

“Hurtful?” I offered. “I don’t want to ever openly compare him to Patrick, not to his face, not like this. The few times we’ve talked about my Fade travel, he’s gotten so angry at the concept and I haven’t been able to make him see that it’s not about me doing stupid stuff. It’s about me having the freedom to make my own decisions, even if that means I make horrible mistakes. A great man from my world said something to tune of, someone who gives up freedom for security will have neither.”

“And to Cullen, security is freedom,” she said, half to herself. “He is more of the mindset that being safe enables freedom. That freedom is dangerous... quitting lyrium was dangerous. Freeing the mages allows a greater risk of demons, of abominations, and is dangerous. The Templars breaking free of the Chantry caused war, and made all of Southern Thedas dangerous.”

“And he would rather fall on his sword than expose me to danger,” I agreed as I caught her train of thought. “But I think life is inherently dangerous. A rabbit can either stay in shelter or it can go out and risk predators finding it, but it has better odds with the wolves than with starvation. An animal in captivity lives longer, but it is captive.”

“Cullen would rather you die of old age than bleed out in his arms,” Hellen pointed out.

“It’s too bad that’s not his fucking decision, then, isn’t it?” I countered.

Her eyes flew wide as I pushed out of her arms; my sudden vehemence seemed to have startled her. That we were both drunk and more emotional than normal probably didn’t help. “Look, I love him. I do. He is brilliant and strong and courteous and so many things I want in a partner. I respect him, I respect his wishes, and I absolutely do listen when he voices a concern. But that is as far as it should go; I listen to his concerns and I factor them in when I make a decision about me. He knows more about Thedas than I do, he has fantastic input on what will and will not keep me safe. When we were at Halamshiral and somebody was actively trying to kill me, I bowed to your wishes because that was the wise decision. But at this point I know more about what I’m doing than anyone else and I get to make my own decisions. And he has to respect my wishes.

“He doesn’t,” I concluded flopping onto the coverlet, exhausted. “He thinks I’m impulsive and stupid and suicidal and I can own the first one. I am impulsive. I am an American female and I was raised to be headstrong and ambitious and by Thedosian standards I am as impulsive as they come. He thinks he’s protecting me from myself and all he’s doing is telling me I can’t be responsible for my own actions. I can’t be trusted to make my own decisions. He’s telling me he doesn’t respect me. And when I try to talk to him about this he says he won’t stand aside and let me kill myself. He throws me closing the rift in Skyhold into my face, makes me feel guilty for dying once before. For Andraste’s sake, you did it too. You said it was the shittiest thing you’d ever heard.”

The memory was galvanizing and I pushed myself upright, raising the goblet to my lips and finding it empty. How many had I had? That was a sure sign it was time to switch to water, and I swung off the bed and padded back to sideboard for water. Hellen was watching me warily.

“You know what? Fuck you, Hellen. I love you. But I was doing exactly what I was put here to do. It was no different than what you did in Haven, throwing yourself at Corypheus to give everyone else a chance to escape. My choice was between everybody in Skyhold dying – including me! – or just me dying. It’s a decision every last one of us would have made. Andraste specifically put me here to make that decision. She almost admitted as much.”

Your being there was actually the reason why the rift was opened, Andraste’s voice chimed from the back of my head. It was a convenient way to offer you another Choice but definitely wasn’t The Reason you were brought to Thedas.

“I don’t have time for your fucking logic right now, I’m drunk and angry,” I said to the air as the blue light from my eyes faded. She was laughing as She went, and any remorse I might have felt at snapping was gone as quickly as it came. Hellen was looking at me with unmasked shock.

“The point stands. I did what anybody else would have done. And instead of being praised for my sacrifice, everybody is pissed at me. Tell me again why I fucking came back to you people?”

“Do you regret your choice?” Hellen asked, softly. Hurt.

“No,” I sighed, the exhale taking my anger with it. “Not for one second. I love you. I love Cullen. I love this world, these people. I wanted a chance to see Thedas at peace. I wanted to see what would come after, since there won’t be a fourth Dragon Age game released back on Earth. I wanted to stand with you and help you keep Solas from fucking everything up. I wanted to help him accept his new world, since the world of his birth is gone... I am one of the very few people who knows what that feels like. I do not regret coming back. I just wish... I wish you assholes were nicer to me about it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching for me again. I drained my glass, refilled it with water, and stepped back to the bed to be pulled into her arms. She settled me against her, her shoulder for my pillow, and we both sat quietly for a minute as I collected my thoughts.

“I know Cullen’s afraid,” I admitted. “I know watching me step into that rift was terrible for him. I get it. But watching me get ripped apart by demons when my will was exhausted by banishing wave after wave that spawned from the rift while we waited for you to come home would have been awful, as well. And maybe I would have thrown myself into the rift in the end, when the losses became too great to bear.”

“You can play what-if now, can’t you?” she asked softly.

I nodded, even while I shuddered away from the memory. The past was easy for me, now. Looking back to See what might have happened had a single decision been made differently was far easier than looking into the future and trying to pick apart the infinite options. I had peered into my own past when I had first started experimenting with my Sight and saw Skyhold dismantled, Hellen falling, the Chargers falling at my feet as I weakened, Cullen pierced through by the claws of a Terror demon as I finally threw myself into the rift. “I made the right decison,” I answered simply.

Hellen shivered. “You can See exactly what would have happened?”

I nodded again, and she pulled me tighter against her.

“Fucking Solas,” she grumbled. “Fuck him and his fucking orb and fucking Corypheus and the fucking Breach. This is all his fucking fault.”

It was an old fight. I shrugged and let it slide. Laying blame solved no problems.

“So you don’t want to marry Cullen because you feel like he doesn’t respect you? You don’t want to be shackled forever to a man who doesn’t believe in your ideas of freedom?”

I sighed. “No. I don’t want to marry Cullen because I feel a ridiculous amount of guilt over the idea of replacing Patrick.”

“Haven’t you already?” Hellen asked shrewdly. “And weren’t your marriage vows until death part us? You should be free and clear now, since he’s died. Doubly so since you died too, after all.”

“I guess I think of it as, since I haven’t remarried I haven’t replaced him. I’m just... dating again.”

Hellen snorted. “You are lying to yourself, sister.”

Saying it out loud exposed how stupid the reasoning really was. I dropped my head to my chest and laughed at myself. Hellen tousled my hair. “Idiot.”

“Oh, Hellen, I am so dumb. Yes, you’re right. I’ve already replaced Patrick. I entered into a long term relationship with someone else. I melted down my wedding ring. I’m living with Cullen. I went to South Reach and met his family. If I didn’t want to remarry I went about it all the wrong way.”

“So why are you with Cullen?”

She phrased it rhetorically, but I answered it regardless. “Because I love him. Because I know we’re not meant to be with anyone... which means I wasn’t meant to be with Patrick. It is a choice I made and I am so very fond of getting to make choices. Especially when they’re not what other people think I would choose.”

“Who thought you wouldn’t choose Cullen?” She laughed, clearly not meaning the question seriously.

“Andraste,” I answered without thinking.

“WHAT?” Hellen demanded, launching off the bed and propelling me to the floor in a heap.

“Not so much that I shouldn’t choose him,” I quickly amended as I righted myself. My water glass was empty again – it spilled on the floor rather than me, thankfully – so I filled it while Hellen stared at me, thunderstruck. “She thought I would end up with... somebody else. The Maker – or, I assume it was the Maker; He looked like Patrick and Andraste rather implied it was Him – bet her that I would pick Cullen. Or maybe not bet. Guessed? Can The Maker be said to guess? Maybe he was cheating.”

He was absolutely cheating, Andraste’s voice chimed in my head again. He’s a known cheater.

“Cheating confirmed.”

Hellen’s eyes widened. “Who did she think you’d end up with?”

“That’s... that’s not the point.”

“Gwen.”

“Hellen.”

“Gwen, who did Andraste think you would end up with?”

“Not you.”

“Who?”

“Hellen.”

If you don’t tell her, I will.

“That’s cheating!”

“What’s cheating? What did she say?”

I sighed, all too aware that I sounded like a petulant child, and chugged a glass of water. I refilled it while Hellen danced from foot to foot impatiently.

“Anders,” I muttered.

“You did not just say Anders.”

“Okay. Can we move on then?”

“NO.” Hellen spun me around and shook me lightly by the shoulders. “Gwen, this is not okay. You’re mad at Cullen and resentful about your loss of freedom and spending all sorts of time with the man Andraste suggested you could be happy with. You are sabotaging your relationship with Cullen!”

“I am not,” I argued, trying to slap her away.

“Dagna said something about this, in the Undercroft, didn’t she? Something like, ‘he knows it’s a lost cause to try to shackle Gwen,’ or something similar? The only people actively helping you find freedom are Dagna and Anders.”

I made another unsuccessful attempt to break free and then abandoned my fight. “Okay, yes,” I confessed, feeling nothing more than misery. “Hearing Anders talk about freedom and working with him to start the school and building the phylacteries and knowing what Andraste said isn’t helping my situation with Cullen. It’s probably why she thought I would hook up with Anders from the get go.”

I was happy to be wrong, she told me gently.

“What did She say just now?” Hellen was getting oddly comfortable with the presence in my head.

“She said... She was happy to be wrong,” I answered.

Hellen sighed and pulled me in for a hug. “You can’t just walk away from Anders. He’s your friend. Your resentment would only get worse. But you have to figure out how to get past this. Either you have to sit Cullen down and break him of this belief or... I don’t even know. But losing you... to Anders... will break him. Irrevocably. I don’t need your True Sight to know that.”

“I know,” I agreed. It was one thing on a long list of things I never wanted to try to See.

“I can talk to Cullen.”

“And he’ll feel like we’re teaming up on him?” I shook my head. “Or, worse, he’ll feel like he has to choose between protecting me and serving the Inquisition? Or, Maker forbid, something happens to me and he’ll blame you? You need to stay out of this. I’ve been really careful to not actually get involved with you and Josie.”

“Although you are definitely meddling.”

“Only in a way that doesn’t actually put me in the middle!” I protested. “I am making sure you have the opportunities you need to fix it yourselves.”

“And how could I do that for you?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just... let me deal with it. I’ll come up with something.”

“Do you want to be with Cullen?” she asked, holding me steady under her searching eyes.

I forced myself to consider the question before simply affirming.

I loved him. My prime complaint was that he was so desperate to keep me alive and well that he was smothering me. While it was a justifiable complaint, in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the worst problem we could have. He was brilliant, he challenged me, he loved talking with me about literature and history and strategy. He encouraged my mind, he worshipped my body, and he didn’t pull away when Andraste had taken up residency in the back of my mind. He trusted me with his problems, he took my advice about his troops, his headaches, his withdrawals, his office, our apartment... for the most part he made me happy. He took me to meet his sister and he always, always, always had my back.

And, maybe most importantly, I loved him. I was in love with him.

“Yes,” I told her when I was completely confident it was the truth. “Yes, I want to be with Cullen.”

“You want Cullen and your freedom,” she enunciated carefully, “while he wants you and your safety.”

I made my best disgusted Cassandra sound, and Hellen chuckled. “When you say it like that, it’s a mess.”

“It is a mess,” Hellen agreed mildly. “Should we move on to the fun part of the night now?”

“The alternating water and wine and talking about things that don’t suck?”

“Yes,” she confirmed, spinning me around and pushing me towards the sideboard again. “One more glass of water into you and we can do this the right way.”

“What are we talking about that will cheer us both up?” I asked as I dutifully refilled my glass.

“Bull and Dorian. Earth music. Your super-secret project you don’t want to talk to me about. Every dirty joke I heard in Stonebear hold. Storvacker. I don’t care.”

“Do you think Storvacker is being fed?” I asked, the bear’s name triggering an idle curiosity I had forgotten earlier.

“Fuck it, let’s go find out,” Hellen replied, extending her elbow.

I threaded my hand through it, laughing. “We’re going to kill ourselves on the stairs.”

“I’ve got strong bones,” Hellen countered. “If we tumble, hop on my back and ride me down like a sled.”

“This is a terrible idea, Hellen.”

“That’s why you went along with it.”

I was laughing too hard to argue. Instead, I clung to my sister’s arm as we descended into Skyhold.

Chapter Text

I had been sitting in the room that used to be Sera’s when Aillis charged into the ‘Rest.

We had taken over the room for the purpose of sorting through the small mountain of paperwork that Gwen’s intervention had caused. Most days I didn’t know for sure whether I was actually thankful for her help... if it paid off, then sure. Until then...? Not so much.

Of the list of people I’d given her, most had full names and home addresses listed. Cousland was the Arl of Denerim, easy to find. Amell and Aeducan, Wardens wandering the world together. Tabris was in Denerim as well, and since the Nightingale knew Brosca was in Ostwick with Cadash I was able to give Gwen the information to reach out to Nuggins and get what else she might need from him.

But Ophelia had presumably changed her name when she’d fled, since nobody had heard anything about her in well over a year. It was possible she hadn’t made it far out of Val Royeaux...

...but I couldn’t believe that was possible. Somebody would have found something, word would have come up if she was dead. There were too many people trying to pick up her trail as she’d left Val Royeaux for a body to have not been found.

Instead, Gwen had the arguably ingenious idea of rolling our search for Opie into her founding a college of healing. She sent out inquiries to all mages who might have skills to teach, to find out their status and whether they might be interested in teaching at a similar school if the concept panned out. There was no infrastructure for the education of mages in existence right now; the new Divine had yet to formalize a solution to the problem that was at the core of the last decade of Thedosian conflict.

But the school for healing was already a well-known rumor, and information was coming in at a steady rate, collecting in our little second-floor office at the Herald’s Rest. The inquisition agents moving around the world, looking into mages with apprentices, were getting a lot of useful information and not running into much hassle. We had several categories we were sorting information into for Charter, and I delivered a digest to the rookery every few days.

“Twitch! Twitch!” Aillis' voice cut through the standard background noise of the tavern and made me pause midway through reaching for a quill to make a note on the corner of a missive for Charter. “Twitch, I’ve got a lead.”

She charged up the stairs and burst into the room, a tiny scrap of paper in her outstretched hand.

I reached up and took it from her.

It was not a lead.

That would be calling a signed confession a lead, or saying a man who finished a marathon an hour before the next runner even started had a lead. This wasn’t a lead. This was the goddamn answer. We’d won. We were done.

Viuus Anaxas has an apprentice named Willa Patrick, in the house of the Duke of Cumberland.

Aillis hadn’t wanted to say she’d found her, hadn’t wanted to put voice to the hope, but she had, she had, there was no one else this could be. A feminine version of my name, studying in Nevarra?

“Got her!” I pushed to my feet and ran out of the tavern to find Gwen, with Aillis hot on my heels.

But Gwen was meeting with Dagna and Dorian in the Undercroft, and I was sternly told by the door guard that she was unavailable. Aillis went back to work – she had her own responsibilities under Cullen’s command – and I reported in to the Chief. There was talk of us going to Minantur Hollow, of escorting the Herald to Val Royeaux, of further trouble in South Reach... but Gwen was delaying all of that for reasons only the Chief seemed to know. I did my best to keep him in the loop about Opie, but he’d already heard that Aillis had a lead – she’d yelled it in the ‘Rest, after all.

When I went back to try to find Gwen later, she was sequestered with Josephine regarding highly sensitive information that had come in from Val Royeaux.

Immediately after that, she had dinner plans with the Inquisitor and access to the tower was strictly off limits.

I turned away from the doorway with as much frustration as I’d felt the day I’d learned Opie had left Val Royeaux to begin with. She was in Cumberland – Cumberland! – and I was stuck in Skyhold. I decided to camp out in the main hall and accost Gwen the second she descended from the Inquisitor’s tower.

Our Ma was likely to be brutally hungover, if the cask of extremely potent, aged wine that had been carted up was any indication; my chances of passing on my information were abysmally low until the next evening with the way things were going if I didn’t catch her that night. Krem, Grim, and Meck all offered to keep me company, and the four of us whiled away the hours with disinterested hands of cards.

It was possible Andraste had a soft spot in her heart for me still, because the Inquisitor and the Herald made an explosively loud descent out of the tower well before midnight, when no one had expected to see them until late the next morning. Instead of sleeping in, they crashed through the bottom door, Adaar bearing a rapidly-darkening black eye and various scrapes on her face, Gwen laughing through streaming tears, and a weird pattern of scratches on the front of the Inquisitor’s tunic.

“I can’t... believe... that just... fucking happened...” Gwen gasped, keeping a death grip on Adaar’s arm. "How did we call that?"

“Hold on, I need to heal my face,” the Inquisitor replied, causing Gwen to pitch to the ground in a fit of giggles that sounded close to hysterics.

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Adaar hissed as the four of us watched their goings-on with varying degrees of shock. “For fuck’s sake, I can’t heal if I laugh. Magic is serious business, Gwen.”

The Herald replied with a loud snort and then a serious of laughs that could only be described as hooting. The Inquisitor tried – in vain – to ignore her but kept cracking a smile as the blue light fizzled in her hand. Eventually she shrugged and seemed to accept the damage to her face.

“Andraste’s incredibly convenient ankle mole,” she sighed, sending Gwen into another round of hysterics. The Inquisitor seemed to giggle – which was not something I imagined she was capable of – and bent down to scoop up Gwen and carry her out of the Hall like an over-sized child. “Did she like that one?”

Gwen, still crying-laughing, nodded her head helplessly and fought to answer. “She... says... you’re... welcome!”

“I love it!” Hellen crowed, and then the big double doors boomed shut behind them.

The Hall was silent; the two of them could be heard vaguely through the door, carrying on into the distance, while everyone else seemed incapable of processing what had just transpired.

We’d all seen the Inquisitor pissed. We’d seen her happy, of course, and we’d all heard her laugh. But this...? This was something else entirely.

“Those two never made sense before now,” Meck observed softly.

“The Inquisitor called Gwen her sister, but I’d never actually seen it in action,” Krem agreed.

“I got to go try to talk to her,” I told my Lieutenant as I pushed off the bench I was sharing with Grim. “I’ve been turned away for a day and a half and-“

“Go,” Krem interrupted. “I want the story later. Try to keep them both alive.”

“Not coming?”

All three of them shook their heads, no. “That mess is so far above my paygrade,” Meck whispered.

“Bah. Cowards.”

“Takes one to know one.”

“Touche.”

I ran to the old solarium, covered with Solas’ artwork, and out the door, thinking I could see which way the still-giggling sisters had headed once they were out of the Hall. They were passing beneath me as I emerged outside, heading towards the southern-most courtyard. I jogged across the bailey wall, into Cullen’s office – empty, but lit, as if the Commander had only stepped out for a moment and would shortly return – and took the Southern door out. I could watch their progress from the top of the wall as I ran along, and was surprised to see them head for the last of the stones brought in to repair the walls. They’d been left in a mostly organized pile in the south-eastern corner of the keep, adding a rustic sort of feel to the area that had become an impromptu park. Most of the soldiery and staff was uncomfortable hob-knobbing in the gardens, and on nice days would take their lunch on this end of the courtyard. It had the added benefit of being near the kitchen but removed from anywhere any of the advisers usually roamed – excepting, of course, Gwen. Her tower was near and the infirmary was some levels above the kitchen, but infirmary staff was still staff so she was generally welcomed.

I hadn’t been in this end of the keep in a few days – I’d been trying to get my hands on Gwen and the problem was that she wasn’t in her rooms or the infirmary for me to get a minute of her time – but I’d heard everyone was avoiding it for some reason. I was surprised to see the stone had been stacked and jumbled into a rough sort of cave.

I circled around, cutting through several towers and losing sight of them for awhile. As I descended a stairwell into the courtyard, I heard Gwen call out a greeting.

“Hello, darling. Are you fed? Are you well? Come here, let me get a look at you.”

Something huge lumbered out of the cave, and I stumbled to a stop.

There was a bear.

There was a giant fucking bear living in the courtyard.

“Have you already been down here?” Adaar was saying, laughter overlaid with surprise. “When do you find the time?”

“For our Ambassador from the Avvar? Hellen, you wound me!”

They were both clearly still inebriated. Gwen was wobbling a bit on her feet and Adaar was leaning pretty heavily on the wall. The bear, to my endless relief, seemed to be fond of them both. It stood still so Gwen could do a lap around, noting any changes in weight or condition. When she pronounced the bear could use with increased rations, it lumbered to its feet and...

...and...

The bear pounded fists with the Inquisitor.

“What the actual fuck, you guys,” I heard, not realizing at first that I was the one who spoke.

“Twitch!” Gwen called, positively gleeful. “Have you met Storvacker? She’s the Hold Beast from Stonebear and their official Ambassador to the Inquisition. Isn’t she beautiful?”

The bear stayed upright, towering a bit over the Inquisitor, and stared at me as I walked up to stand behind Gwen.

“Hello, Storvacker,” I told the bear, aiming for the same careless grace the other two had affected. “You are probably aware of this, but you’re fucking terrifying.”

Storvacker replied with a coughing sort of bellow that almost sounded pleased. Then she dropped back to all fours and head-butted Gwen in the gut, knocking her on her ass. Gwen landed with a thud and a laugh, and the bear proceeded to drag her into the cave by taking a mouthful of the heavy seams on the back of Gwen’s dress.

“What? No!” Gwen protested. Hellen started laughing as hard as Gwen had inside the Hall, falling to a heap and providing the Herald absolutely no assistance. “I’m sure you have a perfectly lovely cave, darling, but I don’t want to stay the night here!”

“She probably thinks you’re sick, stupid,” I sighed, reaching down to put a hand – gently, gently – to the bear’s shoulder. She stopped and glared at me. “She’s not sick. She’s drunk. I’ll take care of her.”

Storvacker chuffed. Unconvinced?

Maker’s mercy, I’m arguing with a bear.

“I know, it’s fucked up. They’ve done it to themselves. Surely you’ve seen the Avvar get drunk.”

Another chuff, almost to say go on.

“That’s what these two did. They drank a lot of booze and now they’re stupid. I know she’s small but she’s full grown, I swear. She’s an adult, and she’ll be okay.”

Gwen was laughing hysterically now, as well, pointing at my face. I ignored her.

“You’re right, she’s all fucked up. But she’ll be okay, you don’t have to take care of her. I’ll go get her sobered up and she’ll be fine.”

Storvacker grumbled and ducked into her cave. She was immediately shrouded in darkness – it was approaching midnight after all – and I realized bears weren’t nocturnal. These drunken assholes had probably woken her up. No wonder she wanted to sit on Gwen.

“Your face,” Gwen managed between howls of laughter. “You’re. So. Angry. To be talking. To a bear!”

“Yeah, yeah,” I sighed. “Come on.”

I leaned down to gather her up, but Adaar’s hand on my shoulder stopped me. “I got her, I got her.”

“Are you-“

“Up!” She lifted Gwen effortlessly into the air, staggered a step, and then headed off into the night.

“No!” Gwen squealed. “I can walk! Put me down, asshole!”

“You just about got put under house arrest by a bear,” Adaar reminded her, and I trailed behind as the two of them giggled for a minute. “We’re going to go get some coffee and sober up.”

“The Rest!” Gwen decided.

The Inquisitor seemed to hesitate. “I don’t know if a tavern is our best-“

“If you’re to be my chariot for the evening, you get no say!” Gwen insisted, and Adaar hunched over a bit as she laughed at the description. “I have ridden you into battle, noble steed! Onward! To My Rest!”

“Your Rest?” Adaar echoed, laughing.

“The Herald’s Rest. Therefore. MY Rest.”

“Oh, of course,” Adaar agreed.

“She needs a gallon of water,” I told the Inquisitor.

“You need to catch up,” she countered, with an appraising eye.

“Doctor’s orders, Twitchy!” Gwen called, gleefully, in English.

“You heard the lady,” Adaar answered in kind.

Everything went downhill from there.

 

*

 

The tavern was sparsely populated, given the late hour. I assured Cabot – who seemed like he was in the process of shutting down – that we would stick to the third floor. He sent up one of the serving girls who seemed to be the most awake, a hard-nosed Rivaini who answered to Verie. Verie came up the stairs on our heels, bearing a heavy jug of water and – much to my dismay – a beer for me and two heavy goblets of god-knows-what for the Inquisitor and the Herald.

“Water first,” I insisted as Adaar plopped Gwen on the piano bench. Gwen sedately pushed back the fall and cracked her knuckles theatrically. “And I thought you were getting coffee?”

“I think this mead was made with coffee beans,” Adaar answered, sniffing the goblets thoughtfully. Gwen giggled her agreement, but the Inquisitor was scowling at me as if just realizing I was crashing their party. “Look, I know you think of Gwen as your Ma, little Charger, but you don’t have any room to lip off to me.”

I’d just faced down a bear. I regularly survived the Iron Bull’s anger. Adaar seemed scarier, but I was pretty sure I would walk away from this, regardless of how lippy I got. “And vice versa,” I countered. “You’re not The Boss anymore, that’s Gwen here. And if you’re encouraging Ma to get shitfaced, I have full rights to step in.”

“Hellen, Twitch is the Charger from my world. Have you met yet? Twitch, Hellen. Hellen, Twitch. He knows more music, be nice.”

Adaar, it seemed, was as enamored of Earth music as Krem was. Her eyes lit up almost greedily. “You’re the one, are you? And didn’t I just see you tear ass out of here with a Templar the other day? Something about a lead?”

“You did,” I answered, immediately grateful for the opening. “That’s what I’ve been trying to talk to Gwen about.”

“Oh no!” Gwen cooed, spinning away from the keys to face me. “I’ve been running around like a crazy woman, I should have left word for you to be able to interrupt meetings. Are you sure it’s her?”

I pulled the tiny note out of my pocket and handed it to her. “Positive.”

Gwen tossed her head back and laughed. “Viuus Anaxas! Oh, you’d love this if I had the sense to explain the joke. How do you want to do this? Any ideas?”

“I should probably just walk up and let her know I’m alive,” I said with a shrug. “If that’s the reason she’s in hiding, I don’t know if she’ll surface without the chance to kill me first.”

Hellen was shaking her head. “If she thinks you’re dead, the last thing you should do it walk up to her unannounced. She’ll immediately assume you’re a demon. She’ll attack first and ask questions later, if ever. Especially if you’ve got the willpower trick Gwen’s got.”

“Opie knows about the willpower trick. She’s the one who told me about it.”

“Still too risky,” Gwen decided. “We know she’s there. Could we get eyes in Cumberland to get a better idea of her head space? Figure out if she’s likely to shoot first and ask questions later, given she’s been in the wind for over a year?”

“The worst she would do is punch me in the face, and I know I can survive that, even from her.”

“Is she worth dying for, if you’re wrong?” the Inquisitor asked suddenly.

“I’m not wrong,” I replied. I didn't feel the need to say she was absolutely worth dying for. 

“Why don’t you just write her?” Gwen chirped.

I blinked. She had a point. Why hadn’t that been our first thought?

“I mean, you know where she is now. We have a forwarding address. We can send it with an official Inquisition courier so we know it gets to her. And then we’ll just keep some eyes in the city. If she leaves, we can have her trajectory noted. If she makes a beeline for Skyhold, or Denerim, or really any points south, problem solved. If she turns heel and charges off into the nether, we come up with another plan.”

“She’s right,” the Inquisitor noted.

“I... okay. Huh.”

“Yes? Good plan? Plan is good?”

She was simultaneously my least favorite and most favorite drunk. “Yeah, Ma. Good plan. I’ll have a letter ready for the morning.”

“I want to read it so bad,” Gwen practically squealed. “You’ll let me read it, right?”

“No.”

“Pleeeeeease?”

“No, you drunken asshole.”

“You don’t understand. I ship this so hard.”

“You... ship it?” Adaar echoed while I slapped a palm across my face. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s the short hand of the word relationship,” Gwen said, switching into English, and sounding completely stone sober. “It’s the idea that you personally want a relationship between other people to happen.”

“So we could say Dorian... shipped... you and Cullen?”

“Yes!”

“Stop,” I managed.

“You can let me read it, and I’ll owe you a favor, or I’ll just have one of Charter’s people read it and you won’t get anything out of the deal.”

“Oh, fuck you.”

“So you’ll let me read it?”

“Fine. Just... fine. But you owe me.”

“Witnessed!” Adaar said, raising a fist.

“Write it right now,” Gwen whispered.

“What? No! This isn’t something you rush.”

“Listen, kid,” the Inquisitor drawled, leaning back in her chair as Gwen tilted her head to the side, listening intently. I got the idea she wasn’t listening to Adaar, but she’d turned her back to me so I couldn’t get the verification of blue light around her eyes.

“I’m older than you by more than a decade,” I interrupted.

“Shut up. Gwen and I just spent all evening arguing about each other’s love lives, and we will sleep better if we manage to fix something tonight. Write the girl the letter. I’ll get it sent out tonight. By the time we wake up, the messenger will be well on the way to Cumberland and all of us can feel good about ourselves. There’s got to be writing supplies in Sera’s old room. Hop to.”

“As much as I don’t give two tin shits about how you spent the evening... I have to admit you’re right about the timing.”

“Hop to,” Gwen echoed sweetly.

I sighed and went down the stairs to Sera’s old room, where there was, indeed, everything I needed to write a letter to Opie. I dragged it back up to the third floor and got set up on one of the tables nearer to the piano.

“Wait, so, She wants to teach you how to look at potential futures using Earth music?” Hellen was saying once I had everything laid out and begun my typical staring-at-the-blank-page routine.

“Come on, don’t tell me you’re surprised to hear Andraste has a soft spot for music,” Gwen scoffed. “She won the Maker’s love with Her song for fuck’s sake. Bitch has got pipes and it’s been ages since She had anything new to sing.”

“Can She hear you call Her a bitch?” I asked, reaching out to load up my nib with ink.

“A little less talk and a lot more action, Twitchy,” Gwen replied without looking over.

“Yes,” Hellen answered me. “She hears us curse, so mind how you take Her name in vain when Gwen’s around.”

“Awesome. Well. Tell Her thanks for dropping me where I could meet Natalia, when you get a chance.”

They both went still, and Gwen slowly turned to face me. Her eyes were glowing brilliant blue.

“She says you are very welcome, William,” Gwen replied, surprised. “She says you should know She’s very proud of you.”

It made the small hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “I’m glad. I worried for a long time that I wasn’t paying the ferry man, so to speak.”

Gwen tilted her head to the side, and the look in her eye changed. She wasn’t looking at me anymore, but through me, and I felt like she was seeing a lot of things that nobody else could. After a moment she shuddered, blinked, and her eyes focused back on mine. “You’ve accomplished more than She ever dared to hope, much less dream to ask for. She seems quite fond of you.”

“And to think,” Hellen cut in dryly, “I was the first one called Her Herald and I’m the only one who hasn’t chatted with her.”

Gwen’s head whipped around. “Someday.”

I watched the Inquisitor shiver. “Okay, stop that. She’s ruining my buzz.”

Gwen began to laugh, but she kept her head tilted slightly to the side. “Music, my Lady, let’s get back to the music. Give me something to look for, some kind of key word.”

“Beatles reunion tour, post-1980,” I prompted, doing my best to be an asshole.

Gwen’s head tilted further to the side. “In most cases wherein John Lennon survives the attack in 1980, the reunion tour doesn’t happen until 1985,” she replied, her voice very soft and her words carefully enunciated. I got the impression that what she was doing was either very difficult or very painful. “If he wasn’t attacked at all, the tour doesn’t seem to happen in the vast majority of potentialities.”

“Holy shit.” Adaar looked at me, confused, as I gasped at Gwen’s pronouncement. For her part, Gwen was still concentrating on something beyond the wall, and I was sure I looked completely flummoxed.

“She’s leading me along,” Gwen said, almost dreamily. “There’s a way to almost scan through things, looking for key words or ideas or events.”

“What are you looking for?” Hellen asked, taking a sip of her mead.

“I don’t know,” Gwen answered, smiling in an altogether creepy sort of way. “What should I look for? I suspect this is easier to do whilst completely shit-faced, so give me a refill.”

While Adaar reached for the decanter, I once again dipped into the ink well, although this time I had the intent to write. “Do I address it to Willa or Ophelia?” The question was mostly rhetorical, but if they wanted to be involved in my love life, I might as well get some mileage out of it.

“Willa,” Hellen answered.

Gwen’s response, however, was to start to play.

“When I was younger... I, I should have known better. And I can’t feel no remorse. And you don’t feel nothing bad.”

While Hellen looked at me in confusion and I shook my head – I had no idea what the hell she was playing – Gwen closed her eyes, dropped her chin to her chest, and started pounding out a series of notes I’d never heard before.

“I, I got new a girlfriend, it feels like she’s on top. And I don’t feel no remorse. And you can’t see past my blinders. Oh, Ophelia, you been on my mind, girl, since the flood. Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love.”

Hellen started to laugh at what was surely a scowl on my face. God damn it, Gwen. The Herald, for what it was worth, was really putting her back into it, and when she started to sing it was with clenched eyes and far more volume than was really necessary in the ‘Rest in the middle of the fucking night.

“I, I got a little paycheck. You got big plans, and you gotta move. And I don’t feel nothing at all. And you can’t feel nothing small.”

She looked up at me, just a hint of blue circling her irises. “Honey I love you. That’s all she wrote.”

She turned and went back to the chorus while Hellen grinned toothily at me. “Oh, Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind, girl, like a drug. Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love. Oh, Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind, girl, since the flood. Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love.”

I sunk into my chair. Lesson learned, I supposed. Offhanded comments around Gwen would be turned into overly-pointed observations on my existence, in song form, with piano accompaniment. Loudly.

“That’s not your typical style,” Adaar observed.

“No,” Gwen breathed. She started to say something else, and I determined to tune them out.

Letter. Write the letter to Opie. Let Gwen read it, let the Inquisitor send it off, and we might know something within days.

 

Dear Willa,

Right off the top, before anything else is said: fuck you, you fucking asshole. I’ve been tearing my hair out looking for you! Aillis and Eamon showed up at Skyhold with my last letter to you returned unread and instead of focusing on the world not ending, I’ve been half-mad trying to find you for over a year.

That said, you will probably say the exact same to me, and you’ll be justified. There is so much I have to tell you. The date I kept was with the Herald of Andraste – Gwen, completely crazy asshole, you’ll appreciate the torment she subjects me to – and my obligation is met. I kept her alive. The Chargers have adopted her as our honorary Ma and actually right now she’s our Boss so it all kind of works.

She’s helped me figure out everything. She’s got the willpower trick I have... because we’re from the same place. She helped me-

 

“You’re writing too much about Gwen,” the Inquisitor observed from right over my shoulder.

I startled and shot ink all over the page and table. “Son of a-“

“Some necromancer loves you and thinks you’re dead and ran off to study with the mortalitasi. I can promise you’ve been on her mind. You do not want your affirmation of life to revolve around another woman. Trust me here.”

“And she’s a elf who grew up in the Circle, escaped Kinloch before it fell,” Gwen added. "If that doesn't spell low self esteem I don't know what does."

“Yeah, scrap that and start over,” Adaar counseled. “Take it from a woman who loves women.”

“I hate you both,” I sighed, but I had ink splotches all over the page, so I had to start over regardless.

 

Dear Willa Patrick,

I’m not dead, you fucking lackwit.

 

“You suck at this,” Adaar announced.

“Sit and spin, asshole, I’m not asking for your advice.”

She tossed her head back and laughed, and I went back to my letter.

 

If you had assumed any other name, I would think you didn’t want to hear from me, given you returned my last letter unread (with a couple of templars, no less, thanks for that heart attack) and left no forwarding address, and led your family to believe I’d pissed you off badly enough that I was dead to the whole clan and you’d cut ties with them just to be sure you didn’t have to hear from me. It’s almost as if you wanted me dead, and believe me I had a great time keeping Senna from shanking me. She sent Hank to Skyhold to fuck me up in your name. Thanks. Thanks a lot.

 

“Why the fuck are you antagonizing her? Do you want her to kill you?” the Inquisitor demanded.

“No, no, shut up Hellen, this is amazing,” Gwen countered. They were looking over either shoulder, Hellen’s horns casting a shadow to counter a halo of mussed hair from Gwen. It was painfully distracting, and all I could do not to laugh.

“I know what I’m doing. Both of you, shut up.”

“Yeah, shut up, Hellen.”

 

We need to talk. This silence does nobody any favors. I owe you a massive explanation, and you need to write your fucking family. Sera confiscated the last letter you sent me and the shit I had to go through to get it from her... I knew you were in Nevarra as soon as I read it, but that was only a couple of months ago. But Opie... the date I was keeping wasn’t with my end. I didn’t forget what I knew because I was planning to die, I forgot what I knew so that I couldn’t break anything. It’s complicated and I don’t want to try to write it in a letter, I want to look you in the eye and explain everything to you. I need to see you.

 

Gwen squeaked. “Here it comes, here it comes!”

“Shut up, imp! Let him write.”

 

You shouldn’t have been put in the position to feel like you had to write me a letter goodbye. You shouldn’t have told me you loved me in a letter. And I shouldn’t tell you that I love you in a letter. So, I’ll come to Cumberland, if you want. I’ll walk away from the Chargers, if you want. You can come to Skyhold, if you want – just tell me you’re on the way and I’ll be here to meet you. We can meet on neutral ground somewhere, if you want – just tell me when and where.

Just... give me the chance to explain, and I’ll give you the opportunity to punch me in the fucking face if you want to.

And we both know you want to.

Yours,

Twitch

 

“Okay, I’ll give you that one. That one’s acceptable,” Adaar said with a satisfied nod as I signed my name.

I blotted the ink and glanced up at Gwen, who was strangely quiet. She was crying silently, hands clenched into fists pressed to her cheeks, blinking rapidly as she looked at me over the tops of her knuckles.

“You’re too fucking drunk for this,” I told her.

“I am way too fucking drunk for this,” she agreed. “You have to let me read it again tomorrow.”

“What? No!”

“No!” Adaar concurred, whipping the paper away from us both. “This is getting sealed and sent right now.”

Gwen stood and began hopping about, trying to reach the letter that the Vashoth held high over the petite woman’s head. “No! Hellen! Please! Just! Let me! Hellen! HELLEN!”

“Come on, Ma,” I laughed, reaching down to grab her knees and swing her over my shoulder. “Grab a water skin, we’re going up to see Charter.”

She whined incoherently as I followed the Inquisitor down the stairs, but when we reached the ground floor, Adaar turned and gestured for us to make a trade.

“You give me the drunken asshole, and you take your letter. I’m sure Charter is both awake and fully aware of everything we’ve discussed, it’s Charter for fuck’s sake. But if she gives you any grief, come get me.”

“And you will be...?” I asked as I took the letter from her hands and turned so she could take Gwen.

“Back up in my rooms,” she said as she shifted Gwen from my shoulder to hers. “If Gwen’s family to you, then you’re family to me. I’ll make sure your name is on the list of people allowed to interrupt meetings.”

“Wow. Thanks, Inquisitor.”

“It’s Hellen, Twitch.”

“Right. Not sure I can swing that.”

She barked a laugh. “Fair enough. Just remember to try.”

“Sure thing. You putting Ma to bed?”

“We’ve got a lot of other shit to talk about first, but yes,” she said, slapping Gwen on the ass. Gwen responded by punching her in the ribs. “This was supposed to be a trip to check on Storvacker. The night is still young for us.”

“You’re both insane.”

“Go to bed, Twitchy!” Gwen called as Hellen turned to leave. “Your love life is in good hands!”

“You’re a sloppy drunken mess, Ma.”

“Love you too!”

The Inquisitor just waved, and they disappeared into the night. Their voices immediately started bickering back and forth again, and I just stood there and laughed as they slowly faded away.

“Thanks for keeping that short,” Verie said, having already cleaned up our drinks on the third floor. “You out for the night?”

“Yeah, Verie, thanks.” I tossed her a silver that she caught with a smile, and then removed myself from the ‘Rest so the staff could close up.

When I got outside, I could immediately see a dim light was on in the rookery, with Charter’s form outlined on the balcony. She was probably watching me, and definitely waiting for me.

The Nightingale had picked a good replacement, it seemed. I folded up the letter and made my way to the Seneschal’s lair. I tried not to think about what Opie would do when she got it, but my mind was already made up.

If she ran, I’d follow.

Chapter Text

“I will never understand the Charger’s insistence on starting a journey miserably hungover,” Hellen said, shaking her head as she watched a cadre of dwarven sappers stagger a bit as they marched. 

“You know,” I replied, laughing, “you were pretty fucked up yourself, the other morning.”

“Right, but that was specifically planned for a day I didn’t have to be anywhere,” she countered. She canted a sideways look at me and reached up – seemingly absently – to brush her hand against the one slightly scabbed red line that descended across her cheek. She’d healed the rest – eventually – but I’d gotten to be present when she’d explained to Josephine how she’d scratched up her face acting as my sled down the stairs. Josephine had laughed, long and hard, and then told Hellen to keep one, “a memento of a poor decision and a good story.” She’d then launched into a series of tales of her and Leliana in their youth in Orlais, and I realized our Ambassador was lonely. I’d found a reason to remove myself from the room once I saw Hellen reach the same conclusion.

When I’d next seen Hellen, she’d healed her whole face but that one scratch across her cheekbone. It was a very fine line, and would leave just a ghost of a scar. As far as I knew, it was Hellen’s first scar – she had always had a knack for healing, after all.

Josephine, to my surprise, had told Cullen in the meeting the morning before we left that there would only be two tents necessary for the council, and asked for him to account for that when camp was set on the road.

I had to assume they’d had some form of conversation in regards to the status of their relationship, but I knew asking either of them would net me nothing. Josephine would just give me that look and deflect, and Hellen would primly ask whether I’d made any headway with Cullen; tit for tat, and all.

Cullen, as it stood, was having a discussion with Bull about the state of his Chargers. Hellen was right; they were miserably hungover. Hellen seemed to think it was the intended result. I knew it was the product of a group of jokers intentionally sabotaging each other. They all knew damn well they had to march in the morning, so they would keep buying the others another drink, and heaven help the man who wasted a beer. What goes around comes around, and eventually the whole pack of them were shitfaced, cut off by Cabot, and doomed to yet another miserable march.

It wasn’t exactly tradition, but it had all the potential to become one.

“They’ll be fine by dinner,” I reassured the Inquisitor.

She shrugged. “I have no doubt that if we were attacked right now, they would fight twice as hard as a normal, if only to punish whoever it was that made them work. Not to mention the adrenaline kicking their livers into motion. I’m not mad at your children, Gwen, no worries. I just don’t understand why they continually do this to themselves.”

“Same reason we do,” I mirrored her shrug. “Family and  fellowship.”

She didn’t have an answer for me, but I didn’t need one. We had five rather lazy days of travel between us and Val Royeaux, and we made it a point not to discuss anything of significance on the road. We told stories, and jokes, and the Chargers sang a lot once they recovered; we didn’t talk about her shared sleeping arrangements, or the truths we’d uncovered at the bottom of a cask of Flames of Our Lady, or the surprise Divine Victoria had waiting for us that I calmly refused to ruin for her.

It made for a very satisfying trip, all told.

The Divine was, as always, the most gracious of hosts, and the two small armies accompanying us – the Inquisition’s troops and my Chargers – were quickly given accommodations that were everything Cullen could have asked for. Hellen and Josephine were assigned a beautiful suite generally reserved for visiting royalty, with Cassandra and Dorian in smaller rooms down the hall. I was given my own rooms, of course, although by now they had been adjusted to allow for the rest of my little family. Cullen and I had separate antechambers off the shared bedroom with separate entrances, and the walk-in closet had been converted to a tiny bedroom containing a narrow but plush mattress and an elaborate if small foot locker.

Maker knows I needed a space for Cole more than I needed an extra room for clothes. All I ever wore in the Grand Cathedral were those white robes, after all; they didn’t take up a lot of storage space.

I was mobbed as soon as I set foot outside my room; I would expect it from the stewards and servants, but more than half wore the robes of the clergy. Hellen waded into the throng of faithful who had some kind of request for me – no one had yet learned that they pretty much never wanted to know what I had to say – swung me up over her shoulder with as much regard to my dignity as being a sack of potatoes could provide, and carried me off. “I fucking hate Orlais,” she confided in me, for not the first time.

It wasn’t even the twelfth time. We might have been well into the triple digits by that point.

“They’ll learn eventually, you know,” I reminded her. “The fifth or sixth time they hear me tell them something heinous from their past and reiterate that the future has yet to be determined, they’ll leave me the fuck alone.”

“Yeah, well, not today,” she replied. “We have shit to do today. And, knowing you, you’re going to do something in this meeting to piss me off, and then I’ll be more than happy to leave you alone to drown in a gaggle of clerics.”

“Such faith,” I noted, with as much piety in my tone as I could manage.

I couldn’t see the eye roll, but I felt it. “Prove me wrong, Second-Most-Holy.”

I was still laughing at the title when we strode into the council chamber that afforded the most privacy possible for a formal meeting with the Divine. Hellen set me down just inside the door, and I darted over to throw my arms around the woman formerly known as the Nightingale.

“Gwen!” she greeted me cheerfully. “Oh, it’s so good to see you.”

“Oh, Leliana, you look fantastic,” I, admittedly, gushed. And I was being honest – her complexion was good, her smile was genuine. If there were a few more creases around her eyes and a few more cares on her shoulders, she seemed more at peace now than ever before. I knew the divine confirmation of her purpose I’d given her when Andraste had brought me back from death was making all her decisions a bit easier these days.

“Hey,” Hellen protested from behind me. “If I have to call her Divine Victoria, you do too, asshole.”

“She’s right,” Leliana agreed, managing to maintain the warmth in her tone even with a sudden layer of stern over the top. “Even in private, you have to get into the habit.”

I had a shitty retort all planned out, but Cullen strode into the room at Josephine’s back, and I was horribly outnumbered. If there were two people on the planet who were sticklers about Leliana’s formal mode of address, it was Cullen and Josephine.

I broke free of the hug with a noncommittal shrug and Leliana gave me a very comedic sort of scowl.

“Knight Commander,” Cullen said, and I was horribly confused for a moment, until a man I had completely missed a moment before stepped away from the back of this room’s miniaturized (but still massive) sunburst throne. The chair sat in the middle of a notch in an otherwise oval table surrounded by horribly uncomfortable chairs. I noticed, as I scanned the room, that the seats had fluffy floral cushions in them today; yet another callback to the person she’d been before changing her name to Victoria. There was a wall of windows behind Leliana’s seat, with sideboards to her left and right beside the only two doors in the room. There were stewards – Cedric and Antony, I had already Looked them over on Leliana’s bequest to ensure they weren't spies – posted in the corners farthest from the windows, and the man behind the throne was the only other thing in the room.

I’d never met him before, but even without Cullen’s greeting, I recognized him instantly. He was tall, raven-haired, blue eyed, and bearing the sort of jaw line that could give women heart palpitations. He was wearing modified Templar armor, if the title Cullen had applied to him hadn't been enough of a tip-off.

“Carver!” I gasped, and then immediately worried over whether or not I should bring up his brother. I adored Garrett Hawke – not just because the asshole had legitimately saved my life more than once – and I had information about Carver’s extended family that could only be discussed with a reference to the elder Hawke. It was generally agreed to be very bad form to meet someone and immediately rummage about in their past, but I was known for my terrible decisions.

This incidence was no different. I focused on his relationship with his brother, let my extra Sight take over, and was awarded with a cross-section of the events of Kirkwall that set everything I thought I knew on its head.

“Knight Commander,” Carver returned Cullen’s greeting as I gawked gracelessly at the younger Hawke. Cullen opened his mouth to argue, realized his mistake, and chuckled a bit awkwardly. “Fair enough. How would you rather be addressed?”

“Carver Hawke is my Right Hand,” Leliana interjected. “Given the current state of the Templar order, he has requested to merely be Sir Carver when addressed. To date, he has resolutely denied any other attempt to title him.”

“Either Garrett or Varric need to start dropping babies, or I’m going to have to fend off the office of Viscount of Kirkwall,” he said as he stepped forward and shook Cullen’s hand. "Just the threat of a title is enough for me."

“I’ve said it before, but Kirkwall would do well under your leadership,” Cullen replied.

“That lying son of a bitch,” I managed, finally getting a grip on my tongue – and my eyes. My only attempt at professionalism was to say it in my native tongue.

All eyes spun towards me. I had no way to explain everything I’d seen – but Cassandra was so right. Poor thing had been right all along and Varric had played her! Oh, her fury at having Hawke waltz into Kirkwall had been so justified! And to think-

“That’s rude as fuck, Gwen,” Hellen said in English.

“So’s speaking in Qunlat in mixed company,” Carver chided, in the same language, although strongly accented. 

“Stop!” Leliana demanded, putting up both hands. “Everyone, stop. Sit.”

She took her seat at the head of the table. I plopped down at her right, and Cullen took his usual spot across from me. His eyes were shooting daggers at me today, and I could do nothing but nod and sheepishly shrug. He was right – turning my Sight on Carver had been a dick move. It was the right dick move, but still.

Hellen sat at my right, and Josephine – in a surprising move – opted to sit next to Hellen, rather than closer to Leliana. It made the table a bit uneven, with Carver standing behind Leliana’s right shoulder, but we were all so plainly happy for Hellen that it didn’t matter. My sister’s face lit up as Josephine laid her left hand on Hellen’s lap and then turned slightly to take notes with her right.

Cullen was smiling indulgently at them, and I happened to catch his eye as he turned back towards Leliana. His smile shifted into the one he reserved for me, the soft one that he got right before he said he loved me, and for a moment everything was right in the world.

“I brought you here to meet the individuals I selected as my Left and Right Hands,” Leliana began, with the tone of voice that said she was not putting up with any of our shit. She was getting really good at it. “As I stated previously, Sir Carver is my Right Hand. He will be leading my work to solve the looming void left by the Nevarran Accord. I would appreciate it, Hellen and Cullen, if you would both agree to serve as advisers to him. I extended the same request to Seeker Cassandra, Madam de Fer, and Enchanter Fiona. I believe you have a diverse view on the function of both the Templar Order as well as the Circles themselves, and you each possess the soundness of mind necessary to negotiate an amiable solution.”

“I am at your service, Sir Carver,” Cullen agreed immediately.

“Sure, put another fucking iron in my fucking fire,” Hellen sighed. There was no malice in her tone, and Josephine patted her hand while Leliana winked at the reluctant Inquisitor.

“My Left Hand is en route, as I understand it. While we wait for her, we can either attend to whatever business you have brought to me, or we can throw it out the window and gossip.”

“Business, please,” Hellen insisted, flatly.

“Agreed,” Cullen added, much more pleasantly.

“Very well then. Josie, I’m sure you have a list of things. Did you want to address them now, or can I use that as an excuse to grant you a private audience?”

Josephine had seemed to be on the verge of asking for the first, and then immediately agreed to the second. “By all means, let us use it as an excuse.”

“Wonderful.” Leliana pointed at one of her stewards, and he quickly started making adjustments to what must have been Leliana’s schedule on a writing board nearly identical to Josephine’s.

“Gwen’s got something, I’m sure,” Hellen commented, although she seemed much less cantankerous now that Josephine’s long list of political needs had been tabled.

All eyes swiveled to me.

“First,” I said, taking a steadying sort of breath. “My apologies to Sir Carver. I wished only to know whether my news of his family would be well-received.”

“Most Holy did warn me of your abilities, as well as your questionable sensibilities,” Carver informed me, in a tone so laden with sarcasm to make me want to turn my Sight on him again. “Had she not, Garrett had already written me, so I was not taken by surprise. Your apology, though, is accepted.”

“Have you word of your cousin?” I asked.

“Which? I have several.”

He’d said several instead of two so I was pretty sure he knew. “Garrett told you.”

“Of his discovery of Solona’s sister? Yes.”

“You suck.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

“Gwen!” Hellen jabbed me in the ribs as Leliana scowled at me. Cullen hid a smile behind one hand, so I knew I wasn’t in that much trouble. Carver had likely been a pain in his ass in Kirkwall for years.

“Second,” I continued, quickly. “I am running this by you because it was originally your idea, but I’ve decided that the Chargers should be released from my employ.”

Cullen’s smile vanished. Josephine’s continuous scrawl hesitated for a long moment before hurriedly picking up once more. Leliana and Hellen made no discernible reaction.

“I will hear your reasons,” Leliana replied, slowly.

“First, they encourage me to look for trouble. Ask Hellen.”

“True,” Hellen acknowledged, ruefully.

“Second, I have several uses for them that are contraindicated by them always being around me. I can outline those at length, if you would like, but Minantur Hollow and South Reach are both on my list.”

Leliana nodded. “I understand your meaning. Such a purpose would serve the Chantry and Thedas as a whole, moreso than simply the Herald of Andraste.”

“Third,” I continued, a bit buoyed by their response thus far, “if the Chargers are always the same place I am, it makes me an easier target. If you are all concerned about my welfare, giving me more autonomy will make me harder to pin down. I intend to travel more by Fade Step than by horse, which will reduce my profile and increase my safety. I understand my safety is of utmost concern to some, and I truly believe it can be found in secrecy more so than announcing my presence.”

Cullen looked like I’d pulled a rug out from under him. He was not pleased, but I hadn’t really left him any good arguments. I watched as he glanced to Hellen, and the Inquisitor gave him the nod-and-shrug indicating she was reluctantly agreeing with me, bless her. Leliana was nodding thoughtfully, and I kept my attention directed to her.

“Very well. I know you did not need my permission, but you have my blessing.”

“Thanks, Leliana.”

“Most Holy,” she corrected, with a fond sort of sigh.

I grinned at her, and she rolled her eyes.

“Was there any other new business?” Leliana asked.

Heads were being shook around the table – most of our projects had been ongoing for awhile – and Leliana seemed on the verge of directed our conversation towards old business when the door we’d entered through swung open to admit two women.

The first was a rogue if I’d ever seen one, with layers of jet black leather covering her body and moving silently with her as she swaggered into the room. She moved as if she owned the place; since she had her hood up in audience with the Divine and the complete lack of response from Carver, it was safe to assume she was right. She had auburn hair hanging loose beneath the pointed hood, and daggers hung from her belt as well as over each shoulder and in each boot.

“Oh, Ev, good,” Leliana greeted the newcomer. “You have excellent timing, as always.”

“Most Holy,” the woman replied.

I was already in trouble for it, but Leliana brought me here to meet her Hands, and I was going to know them both. I turned my Sight on the rogue and barely stifled my gasp as her name surged into my consciousness.

Evelyn Trevelyan, potential Inquisitor, potential love of Cullen’s life.

Oh, I could See it all. I usually shied away from follow what-might-have-beens, but this one led me helplessly on a merry chase as I watched the way their love might have bloomed. They would have been so fucking happy together, had everything been different. That thought led to one markedly worse – the might-be-future wherein I break up with Cullen and his association with Leliana throws him into a torrid love affair with this angel of death.

I Saw her underlying anxieties, the fear bordering on paranoia that directed her life to this point, the confidence she had gained by earning this place with Leliana, the men who had her back and even now stood just to either side of the door. And oh I was going to love this mouthy little shit, didn’t that make everything worse?

I followed the potential future down, down, down, far past the point of plausibility into the one-in-a-trillion chance that they make it to some untold Happily Ever After and I looked on the face of their daughter.

He could have a child with her.

It was unlikely, of course, so unlikely, but it was possible and it was impossible with me and sweet baby Jesus on a biscuit he would be such a good daddy.

I pulled myself back, clawing out of the hole I’d dug with a desperation I hadn’t felt in years. I couldn’t quite break free of the Sight and so I looked away from the Left Hand and met the eyes of the woman who’d entered the room on her heels.

She was blonde, beautiful, and elven; roughly my age, and absolutely everything I had ever imagined her to be. She was sizing each of us up, having already dismissed me as just some random religious type, and searching for the source of the Fade energy that hovered between me and the rift on Hellen’s left hand. She was strong, stronger than any solitary mage I’d met; Hellen had an edge only because of her bond with Wisdom. She was almost invisible in the Fade, though, and I realized she was shielded in a way I was completely unfamiliar with; she was hiding from spirits, or demons maybe. Twitch had said she was a Necromancer but I’d never seen Dorian do that.

And, oh, god, she was asshole over elbow in love with Twitch, thank fuck this was going to be awesome.

Cullen stood, stepping into my line of Sight, and because I’d been thinking right then of Twitch, something terrible happened.

A thousand moments between Cullen and Twitch played out, suddenly, in an instant, right before my eyes. Sparring on the rooftop, language lessons, mention of me, mention of our world, mention of...

...of...

...of Patrick. Of Twitch not wanting to tell me I was a widow.

Cullen had known.

Twitch had taught Cullen English. Twitch had taught Cullen English, and Cullen had known damn well where Twitch had come from. He’d known my world was gone from almost the very beginning.

No wonder he’d been willing to wait me out. No wonder he wasn’t ever worried about me going home. No wonder... no wonder. God, so many things fell into place and all of them were heartbreaking.

He’d known. He’d known and he’d never told me.

What else had he-? I immediately shuddered away from the thought, dreading what else I might see. If he’d kept that from me, he could have hidden anything.

“Kaiopi?” Cullen asked, and the familiar address coupled with the genuine surprise immediately informed me of something else I hadn’t known about Cullen. It hadn’t been Amell he’d dallianced with as a new Templar, but rather Surana. Did Twitch know that? Oh, I didn’t want to know. I focused on separating myself from everything I’d Seen, everything I could See. I didn’t want to know.

I realized Andraste was staying suspiciously silent through all of this; generally She had something to chip in when I was playing with Her gift. On the grand scale of betrayals, this was nothing compared to Maferath selling Her to Tevinter, but fuck if it didn’t still hurt.

I focused back on the situation at hand to see Cullen drop a quick but respectful bow to Opie, as I was already thinking of her in my mind. She looked flabbergasted and completely uncomfortable. I was torn between approval and sympathy. What a weird spot to find oneself in. Welcome to the Grand Cathedral, elf mage we dragged out of hiding! Here, confront your former lover!

“Enchanter Surana, I had no idea you’d survived the Blight, much less that you were one of the people Gwen sought. Welcome to Val Royeaux.”

Opie looked askance at the Leliana and swallowed nervously. “I... thank you, Cullen. I apologize, I don’t know the proper address. It seems unlikely you are still merely a Knight-Templar?”

“Commander Cullen,” Josephine offered, pleasantly. “He leads the Inquisition military forces.”

“Of course he does,” Surana replied in the precise same tone as Josie, and I knew the adoption to be intentional. “Commander Cullen, then; it is quite the surprise to see you here. Even more a surprise to be treated with even the barest measure of civility.”

I did not manage to stop the snort, but I did almost conceal it by immediately speaking up. “Enchanter Surana, how would you prefer to be addressed?” Her eyes shifted to me, and no recognition bloomed therein. “You’ve changed your name since you left Kinloch; I would rather use what mode of address you are currently comfortable with.”

“Thank you. I would prefer to be called Ophelia, if I may.”

“Twitch’s Ophelia?” Hellen asked, brightening visibly.

Her face shifted, but I didn’t know her well enough to read the expression plainly. Surprised confusion, that she wished to hide due to the unfamiliar situation, perhaps? Surely not dismay? No, not dismay; maybe reticence? Anxiety? I had to remind myself to don’t Look at her, stupid, you’ll fuck it up again. I was barely containing the previous fuckup; I wasn't going to be able to keep it together through another.

“Depending upon connotation, yes,” she answered, carefully.

Hellen shifted slightly, and if I hadn’t known her as well as I did, I would have thought her merely settling her feet differently. Truth be told, she’d barely restrained a dancing sort of wiggle-step of excitement, that she had totally learned from me. It was fantastic.

It was almost enough to distract me from what I’d just learned about Cullen.

Almost.

“We can get to that shortly,” Leliana pronounced. “Cullen, sit down. Opie-“ She paused, stood up as Cullen quickly obeyed her command, and she stepped over to the newcomer. “It is so good to see you again. It’s almost as good as seeing Solona.” I watched at Ophelia smiled warmly and stepped into Leliana’s open arms for a brief but sincere hug.

“Were it anybody but you, there is no power on Thedas that would have dragged me in here,” she answered, in a voice almost too soft to hear. And, by the Maker, I believed her. Hellen and I exchanged a hurried look that said we shared an opinion of this mage: well connected, wild, and currently feeling trapped. Probably one of the most terrifying combinations possible.

“I’ll fix it,” I mouthed to Hellen. She responded with a brief squeeze of my knee. Josephine tapped Hellen's right hand and Hellen glanced over to wink at her. Josie nodded, glanced over at me, nodded again, and then scrawled on her notes – Gwen has got this one.

I fucking loved these people.

“Not to take up too much of anyone’s time,” Leliana said, as she headed back to her own seat. “Ev is my Left Hand. She is formerly Evelyn Trevelyan, although more recently she was the Ostwick Red Jenny and answers to the name of Knuckles. I met with her in Kirkwall, when Cassandra and I were looking for Garrett Hawke, so she’s been in my sights for many years. I am thrilled to finally have her in my fold.”

Knuckles replied with a gracious nod of her head to each of us. “Gwen, Hellen, Josephine, Cullen. Good to put faces to names. I’ve heard much. We’ll be in touch?”

Leliana nodded, and the could-have-been Inquisitor patted Opie on the shoulder and then left via the same way she’d come in. I saw her hands go up as she passed through the door and impact with something, and then two figures stepped away from the wall just as the door swung shut. Hellen snorted softly and I knew she’d seen the same thing I had – Knuckles smacking her fellows upside the back of the head on the way through.

“Trevelyan was on your list, right?” Hellen whispered, leaning close. It was practically inaudible; I was really proud of her for saying it so softly. I nodded quickly and she nodded, once, and sat upright.

Ophelia was watching me with a completely different look on her face.

Leliana continued briskly. “Ev didn’t need introductions, but Opie-“

“Gwen?” Ophelia asked me, softly. “Knuckles said your name was Gwen?”

I nodded as I opened my mouth to speak but she kept going. “Twitch left Denerim all those years ago because he had a date with someone in the Frostback Mountains. That was you, was it not?”

I shut my mouth and nodded again, aiming for a smile. It was harder than I thought, but if I looked away from Cullen I could manage it. Hellen seemed to be catching on to something being very not right with me. I ignored her, too.

“You are the reason I was brought here? You have me on a list?”

“I do,” I answered, when it seemed nodding wouldn’t suffice for this question. “It is difficult to explain, and need not be your priority. I would like to speak with you about it later, if you’re willing.”

“If I’m willing?” she repeated, and her expression was flat astonishment. It melted slowly into disbelief. “As I understand it, the three of you – Most Holy and the Inquisitor and yourself – chartered a ship to pull me out of Nevarra. That does not imply a conversation if I’m willing.”

I shrugged. “Alright. If you want to do it here and now. What would you like to know about the Nightmare? Is second-hand knowledge from me sufficient, or would you rather interview the people who went into the Fade and fought with it?”

Her jaw dropped. She stared at me for a long moment before Hellen – who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself for once – chimed in. “You could ask Alistair, since he was with me, and you probably want to chat with him anyways. But Hawke and I have more of the sort of information you might want.”

“That would be my brother, Hawke, and not me,” Carver added. I got the impression he didn’t really mean the spite in his tone, and it was more out of a long-standing habit.

Ophelia’s jaw slowly lifted and clicked shut. She swallowed, and then nodded at the Right Hand. “Right. That makes you Solona’s second cousin Carver, yes? Garrett Hawke’s brother?”

“I am.”

“Templar, or Former Templar?”

Carver seemed to go still. “Templar.”

She nodded, turned her gaze to Cullen. “Former Templar, yes?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“And the Antivan, on the end? What’s your stake in this?”

“She is my dear friend,” Leliana chimed in immediately, “Josephine Montilyet, whom I recommended for Ambassador to the Inquisition. She has repaid that faith a dozen times over.”

Ophelia nodded, again, once, and then looked back to me. “How do you expect me to pay for this?”

“First, I don’t,” I countered, putting a hand out to forestall the comment I saw Hellen poised to make. “I am not trying to make money or be owed favors. I am doing what I can to make sure this world survives. I have seen the ending of a world, and I would rather not witness it again.”

“You send escorts on a hired ship to retrieve me from Nevarra,” she reiterated. “You bring me back to Val Royeaux, offer me up the information I’ve been researching for years, and, I assume, told Twitch where I was so he could write to me. You sent his Friends to be my escort, you obviously want something very badly from me. I would appreciate being told upfront what it is.”

“She-“

“We-“

“Stop,” I interrupted Leliana and Hellen, rising up from my seat. “It is a completely reasonable request, and there is exactly one way I can make these stakes clear. This is not the venue for this conversation. Will you walk with me, Ophelia?”

She hesitated, and I put out both hands, palms up. “I want your good will. Badly. Give me your terms and I will abide by them. I am no mage, and a valuable hostage.”

One graceful eyebrow rose as her face shifted dangerously close to a smile. “I don’t take prisoners.”

“I am fairly warned.”

Hellen was glaring daggers at us both, but Leliana was openly pleased. I pointedly did not look at Cullen.

“I am at a disadvantage, as I am on unfamiliar ground,” she replied.

“It is not a long walk, and I am unarmed.”

“Lead on,” she agreed.

I gestured towards the door she had entered through, and with a wave to Leliana, quickly crossed the room and exited, Opie ducking through behind me. The door swung shut behind us, and I stopped and took a long breath. I pinched my eyes closed and balled up my fists and tried to put the feeling of betrayal on a shelf, if only for just a little while. I could deal with it later, I could, I used to never deal with anything, I could use that now.

“You’re not filling me with confidence,” Ophelia commented dryly from just over my shoulder.

“Yeah, well, I’m really fucking mad at Cullen and it was very difficult to keep my composure with him sitting there clueless.”

She started to laugh, then, a soft and rumbling sort of sound, and after a moment I breathed out another long sigh and then canted a glance in her direction. “Let us agree, right off the bat, that the men in our lives are fucking idiots? I know what kind of asshole Cullen was in Kinloch and Kirkwall, and I told Twitch he was a dense mother fucker at the top of my lungs once. Very publicly.”

“You and Cullen, then?” she asked, shifting to face me. She was definitely still hesitant – this could be a feint, after all, and she didn’t survive as long as she had by being overly trusting – but she was curious about me. The feeling was mutual.

“For now,” I replied. I wasn’t sure how honest the response was, which frightened me a little. “I’m a bit impulsive, and right now I’m angry. So let’s not talk about Cullen.”

“Please,” she agreed readily.

“Alright,” I turned and gestured toward one of the doors in the room. “That one opens into a long hallway, well lit. We’ll take it into a different part of the Cathedral, and then down a few flights of stairs to a sitting room where a private conversation can be held.”

“Thank you,” she said, and opened the door. I led the way into the hall.

“It might be easiest for you to believe I’m doing this for Twitch,” I told her as we walked.

“What is he to you?” she countered.

“He is one of a very few ties to my first home,” I answered, “and he helped me be accepted when I arrived here. I’m the officially unofficial adopted mother of the Chargers, and they treat me like family. That whole group of assholes is important to me, and Twitch is a big part of the reason why.”

“They told me – his Friends, I mean – that you and he are from another world?”

I nodded. “I don’t know how much he wants me to tell you, but yes. The world of our birth was destroyed. Although we left there on the same day, we arrived here ten years apart. He was brought to an earlier time, to help him hide until I arrived, so he could make sure I was accepted and give me the best possible odds of survival. There were many of us, I have come to find out, and we did not all come to good ends. Some of us were hunted, in Orlais. I have recently been in contact with others, one who has been living with the Chasind, another in the Free Marches. I’ve been looking for so many people that looking for you, too, was a simple request to fill.”

“While some would be disappointed to hear they were an afterthought, I’ll admit to being relieved.”

“I wouldn't quite call it an afterthought. There’s more to it than that.”

“The Nightmare?”

“Not exactly, although that is a part of it all, too.” The hallway turned, and I paused to make sure it was empty before we continued down. “Imagine for a moment, what might have happened if Irving would have handled the incident with Jowan differently.”

What?”

I’d completely unsettled her. Was it possible the story of Jowan wasn’t commonly known? It had been heavily alluded to in Genetivi’s work, but perhaps that was just because I knew what I was looking for?

“They call me a Seeress for good reason. Look, Irving fucked that whole thing up. Duncan bailed Solona out. But what if it had all gone down differently? What if you’d joined the Wardens instead of her?”

“Instead of...?”

“There were seven people who had the potential to become the Hero of Ferelden. Seven people who could have risen to the challenge and stopped the Blight. Solona was, obviously, one of them. But what if Duncan had recruited someone else on that last mission? What if he’d gone somewhere else, like Orzammar or Denerim? The Blight would still have been stopped, but it might have been someone else Commanding the Grey when it was all said and done.”

“Is this like Twitch telling people to stay out of Kirkwall? Some fucked up knowledge of the future that you brought from your world?”

“Yes.”

She took a long, hissing sort of breath, and then nodded. “Okay. Seven people. Solona is one. Who were the other six?”

“Their names were Mahariel, Cousland, Aeducan, Brosca, Tabris, and Surana.”

“Nuggins told me those names,” she said, softly. “There were some others on the list, too.”

“The others were people who could have become the Inquisitor. We got Hellen Adaar, but the Inquisition would have still be a success with one of three other people at its head.”

“So I’m a might-have-been? Why does that make you willing to foot the bill to bring me here and give me the information I want? Don’t you really just want Solona?”

“Because of something I’m not willing to discuss in a hallway,” I answered easily, and she nodded quickly, understanding. “But, to sum up, you have the potential to have done everything Solona did, and nobody knows that but me. That is what I need. I need allies that haven’t been heard of yet, and this was the easiest way for me to go about it.”

“You want me as an ally?” she repeated, with an incredulous sort of laugh. “What on Thedas-“

“Remember Twitch saying to stay out of Kirkwall? To stay out of Haven?”

She stopped laughing. “Yes.”

I nodded. “I need allies for what’s to come.”

She missed a step, but quickly recovered. We were silent for a moment as we descended the staircase I’d spoken of when I'd outlined our walk.

“Is it a similar level of danger?” she asked as we started down the last hallway of our little voyage.

“Yes.”

“So bringing me here and giving me information really is just the introduction. What are you really offering me, to face that level of danger?”

I stopped at a door, putting my hand on the latch to hold it closed while I Looked within. There was one person sitting in the room, a letter in one hand and his head in the other. Perfect.

“Absolutely anything within my power to give,” I answered, turning to look her full in the eye as I said it.

“You don’t mean that.”

“Oh, I do. But I’m not asking you to trust me blindly,” I countered. “I am willing to earn it. And I do come highly recommended.”

“Oh?” She smiled. It was the first genuine smile I’d gotten from her.

“Yep,” I answered brightly. “And you’re helping me cement trust elsewhere right now. I deliver on my promises or die trying, Opie. I mean it.”

That one graceful eyebrow went up again, and I pushed the door ajar.

“Knock knock,” I said, as I stuck my head into the quiet little seating area that was my favorite haunt in the Cathedral. Really only the Chargers knew to find me there, and only one had a reason to wait for me today. I intentionally spoke in English. “Waiting for me? You really don’t want to talk to me right now.”

“Yes. Yes I fucking do,” Twitch countered in the same language. He lifted his face out of his hand and waved the letter at me. “A raven just brought this. It went to Skyhold first and Charter bounced it here. It says Opie’s going to come looking for me once she gets her business settled, whatever the fuck that means. She could be in Skyhold right now! I need you to Step back there and check. Please. I’m going to go insane if you don’t.”

“I can do you one better,” I replied in a sing-song voice.

His face went blank. “Don’t tell me she’s behind the door.”

I pushed the door open the rest of the way and the look on his face was everything my sappy little shipper heart could have ever hoped for. I watched as he sucked in a shaking breath and the hand holding the letter slowly dropped to his side. He was staring at her, where she was still standing one step behind me and to my left, and his whole world was in his eyes. I could have evaporated at that moment and he would never have known.

“This conversation is more important,” I said to Ophelia in the Common tongue. “Whatever questions you have left after talking to him, I will happily field.”

She nodded, lips pressed into a thin line, and took two deliberate sorts of steps into the room.

I went to shut the door and paused. “You know,” I said in English to Twitch, “Krem really wanted me to get video of this, and I’ve got my phone-“

“Get the fuck out, Ma,” he said without sparing me a glance. He had eyes only for Ophelia.

The temptation to listen at the door was horrible, but I had somewhere else I really needed to be. I flagged down one of the countless guards circulating in this section of the Cathedral and directed him to hold that door. “Nobody goes in until at least one of the two people in there comes out. If anybody tries to argue with you, you send them to me. Clear?”

“Yes, my Lady Herald,” the man intoned sharply, and then turned on his heel and planted himself against the wall opposite the door – far enough away not to overhear, which was prudent when the Divine was a former spymaster.

I stood for a moment in the hallway and collected my bearings. Bull, first. Finalize his freedom, write up a couple contracts for jobs, and get him moving down the road. Also, warn him about Opie. He knew Opie, right? Pretty sure he knew Opie.

Then, once the Chargers weren’t my personal guard anymore, I would be free to Step out of the Cathedral. Once I could do that without upsetting Bull, then I could go pick the fight with Cullen that he had no idea was brewing.

Maker’s Grace, this was going to suck.

I took another bracing breath, and went back to work.

Chapter Text

They were speaking in Qunlat.

That probably solidified everything for me more than everything else I’d seen or been told up to this point.

I would know that voice anywhere. It had taken so long before he was comfortable talking, and then he had worked constantly to keep the edge of the Qun off his words. I’d heard it, of course; Natalia and I talked about it once, how we thought he was an escaped Viddathari. To hear him embrace the language, to rattle off a whole monologue in the tongue he’d tried so hard to hide, forced a cold sort of certainty into my chest.

It was still possible, I supposed, that he was a former Viddathari. But that seemed like a foolish sort of hope, given everything.

Gwen said something in a taunting sort of tone and then his voice went flat, and I guessed she’d hinted that I was with her. Then Gwen pushed the door open and there he was.

It was a round, warmly appointed – if a bit plain – sitting room. There were side boards and upholstered chairs and thick rugs, but for the most part it matched with the finely made but simple theme I had appreciated elsewhere in the Cathedral. The only person in the room was Twitch – my Twitch, alive and well, looking almost exactly the same as he had when last I’d seen him.

The look in his eyes, though, was new to me. I didn’t have words to capture it, but I was absolutely positive the Grand Cathedral could burn down around us and he wouldn’t see anything but me. I wasn’t just the most important thing in the world, I was the only thing in the world, according to that look. I had never expected to see it, never imagined what it might possibly look like, but now that I had it I couldn’t fathom how I’d lived without it. My heart had migrated to somewhere just below my tongue and breathing was a battle; breathing quietly was impossible.

The letter I’d gotten from him in Nevarra was suddenly heavy in my pocket. I shouldn’t tell you I love you in a letter, he’d said. I’d twisted it into a thousand meanings in my mind, but I couldn’t deny it any more. He didn’t have to tell me he loved me; it was finally plain upon his face.

He was going to fucking say it if I had to beat it out of him, though.

“This conversation is more important,” Gwen said softly to me. There was an almost giddy sort of happiness in her face. I wasn’t sure what her vested interest was in reuniting Twitch and I, but I would be very grateful to her once I had my feet under me. “Whatever questions you have left after talking to him, I will happily field.”

I nodded – as much in agreement as to acknowledge that yes we will talk later – and then forced myself to step into the room.

Gwen started to leave, and then stopped to say something taunting to Twitch again. He replied with a terse, “get the fuck out, Ma,” that made her laugh and then the door latched shut behind me and we were alone.

“You!” Gwen’s voice called down the hallway. “Come here! I need you to park in front of this door-“

Twitch’s eyes crinkled into the beginning of a smile as we listened to Gwen order around a guard in the hall. It sounded like we were free to leave, but no one would be permitted in.

“It is her room; I suppose we should be glad she didn’t lock us in here,” Twitch told me as Gwen’s directions were acknowledged and silence fell once more.

“And yet you just threw her out?” I countered.

He shrugged, and I realized he seemed bereft of the self-consciousness he’d always carried like a shield. My Twitch would have, well, twitched a bit at the suggestion he’d overstepped his bounds. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

“Gwen is one of those people who will take a mile if you give her an inch,” he explained. “And everybody lets her because at the end of the day, every day, she’s given away twice as much as she’s taken.”

I didn’t quite know where to go with that, either – this whole conversation was a thousand fucking miles outside my field of expertise – but I didn’t have long to consider it, because he wasn’t ready to stop talking yet.

“I wrote you. From Skyhold, after Haven fell. When Aillis brought it back to me unopened, I... ugh, this is hard. I brought the letter with me. As much as I hoped I would see you, I didn’t actually think I would, and so I still don’t know how to say everything I need to say. Can we start with that? Can I give you the letter I wrote you from Skyhold and we can start from there?”

“I was thinking to start with hello, but that works too,” I agreed, and he sprung from the chair and pulled a thin stack of papers out of a small book he slid out of the breast pocket of the loose sort of doublet he wore. It hung open, in a strangely casual look for a mercenary lounging in a private sitting room of a holy woman in the Grand Cathedral of Val Royeaux. I hadn’t seen much of him since he’d left Denerim, but he seemed to have worn nothing but armor since he’d first bought it from Gorim; another change I was at a loss to explain. Whatever had happened in the last year had caused some profound changes in my Twitch, it seemed. If they resulted in that look that was still on his face, I wasn’t sure I had any room to complain.

He gestured to the several other chairs arranged in clusters of two or three around the room, and seemed pleased when I picked the one nearest to where he’d been sitting. He handed me the rumpled, aged, and well-creased letter once I was seated, and then dropped back into his chair to watch me read.

 

Opie,

The Inquisition was chased out of Haven, but we’ve settled on this rock in the middle of the Frostbacks that Adaar is calling Skyhold. I realize as I write this that you might have gotten all sorts of fucked up news in Orlais, but our casualties were relatively low and we’re in a much better spot now. 

Now that I’ve got an address again, we need to talk. The Chargers have marching orders so I’ll be in and out of range but we’ll return back to Skyhold and the mail is (obviously, since you’re reading this) running again. I don’t know how to write what I need to say. I understand why you never noticed I was leaving this sort of shit out of my letters because how the fuck do I write about it? I kept my date, although I didn’t remember it until it happened. I didn't remember anything until it happened, but then... Then it came back in a flood. I’m doing what I came to do but I have eight years of bullshit to clean up and the first person I have to make amends to is you. And then to Brue, since I didn’t understand his son’s name until now.  

Adaar formed an alliance with the rebel mages; they’re all in Skyhold now. I told you to stay away from Haven and I’m glad I did but Skyhold is safe. I’ve been through every level of this place and there’s nothing that can chase us out of here, not once we fortify it the way the Inquisition intends to. I could give you a dozen reasons why I’m asking you to come to Skyhold but it all boils down to I think you would like it here, and I would like it if you were here. If I have to come to Val Royeaux in order to talk to you, I will. Just tell me. I expect nothing less than a punch in the face when I finally see you again, and then I would like the opportunity to explain everything.  

This time I really do mean   everything . I know now that I don’t have to hide. 

Twitch

 

I tried not to laugh; I really did. Aillis was going to be insufferable about this, and the idea of her getting the chance to gleefully tell me she told me so filled me with a bubbly sort of joy. Twitch, of course, had no way of knowing where my mind was at, so I tried to clear my expression for his sake. This wasn’t the sort of letter that was written to be laughed at.

He didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were flickering across my face, like he was cataloging my features or only seeing them for the first time. I lifted one eyebrow and waited him out.

“You’re beautiful,” he said. I felt my face flush, but he’d taken me by complete surprise and I blanked on how to respond. Gaping like a fish was not the proper response, but it was the only one I managed. He reached up and scrubbed his hands roughly through his hair – which he’d cut off! what a shame – and he dropped his gaze to the ground. “I’ve never told you that. I’m doing this all wrong.”

He rattled off a series of syllables in Qunlat – it sounded suspiciously like swearing – and then dropped his hands to face me again. “I want to tell you everything. Everything. It’s going to take awhile, so I want you to interrupt me whenever something doesn’t make sense or you have a question. Is that okay?”

I spared a glance around the room. It was a nice enough room, I supposed, but this wasn’t how I wanted this to go. This wasn’t the conversation I wanted to have, especially not in a rare moment of privacy.

“No,” I answered, and he froze. “I don’t want to sit here and listen to your life story.”

“I didn’t mean-“

“You’re from another world? The same world as the Herald? As Gwen?”

“Y-yes.”

“And you came here specifically to make sure she survived to become the Herald.”

“Sort of? Mostly I came here because my other option was immediate death.”

“And you made yourself forget all that why?”

He made this fidgety sort of motion with his fingers, as if tapping on a tabletop that wasn’t there, and it was almost a relief to see a bit of the twitchiness that had given him his name. “Cut to the chase?”

“Yes, Twitch. Cut to the chase.”

“If I had told people what would happen in Kirkwall, would what happened in Kirkwall have actually happened?”

It took me a second to work through the phrasing. “Oh. I don’t know.”

“I didn’t either. If I had gone to Kirkwall, knowing what was going to happen, would I have been able to stand aside and let it happen? What would the world look like right now if everything that had happened in Kirkwall didn’t happen?”

“I... I don’t know.”

He nodded. “I didn’t either. And it scared the fuck out of me.”

“So you forgot everything so that you didn’t even possess the knowledge that you might accidentally use to change the future.”

He relaxed a little. “Exactly.”

“Okay. The baffling bit of how you even fucking knew all of that aside, why didn’t you just tell me that?”

“Because I forgot I did it.”

“You forgot.”

He shrugged. I had to battle not to roll my eyes. Battle. “In all that time you never remembered? You never wondered who you were, where you came from? You never met anybody’s parents and wondered why you didn’t have parents?”

He made a larger show of the shrug, lifting both hands into the air, palm-up.

I felt my eyelids flutter, but I managed not to roll my eyes. Maker, it was almost too much. He didn’t immediately offer up any further explanation, so I made an attempt to steer him in the right direction. “When the news came of Haven, I figured you must have forgotten where you came from, and that you left Denerim and... and... and acted the way you did, because you knew what it was like to lose someone you loved. You’d told me about Cindy, after all. I decided you must have known you were dying, and... pushed me away... to save me some grief when you were gone, because you cared about me enough to protect me. You proved that much in Amaranthine.”

He actually flinched. Flinched. I braced myself for whatever terrible thing he was about to tell me.

“Right. So. That’s really noble, and I’m really flattered you think that of me, and that explains why you vanished like you did, and I’m a bit less angry about the whole Nevarra thing now. Sort of. But... Ophelia, I’m sorry, I had no idea you loved me.”

I blinked, and then caught myself frowning at him as I tried to discern whether or not he was actually that fucking oblivious.

He had his hands clasped in his lap like a child about to be chastised. He was studying the floor at my feet, and he actually seemed to be bracing for an impact-

-or a rejection. A rejection? From me? How far up his ass could his head go?

“How could you possibly not know? Are you serious? Hank knew, for fuck’s sake. He teased me about it in front of you. Regularly!”

His mouth twisted to the side, and he met my eyes with another awkward sort of shrug. “I never had any reason to even consider the idea that you would look twice at me. It literally never crossed my mind.”

“What? You wha- why? Why not?”

He set his jaw, inhaled a sharp sort of breath, and seemed to mentally steel his shoulders. “Okay. The bit you wanted me to skip over earlier? I’m from a different world. There are only humans on my world.”

I was frowning at him again. I worked to smooth my expression; he was apparently extremely poor at interpreting my emotions. Maker only knew what he would think if I kept scowling at him. “What do you mean by only humans?”

“No elves. No dwarves. No darkspawn. No spirits. No demons. No Qunari. No dragons. There are humans and there are animals like dogs and bears and fish and birds. End of list. There is no magic. There is no Fade. Only. Humans. Worlds like yours are stories, legends, fables. When I stepped into Thedas, I stepped into a fairy story.”

I fell back in my chair as he ticked the points off on his fingers. I immediately had a dozen questions, with countless more rushing up behind them; I’d told him to cut to the chase, though, and I was far too stubborn to reneg on that. “Oh... okay.”

“You’re magic, Ophelia. You’re an elf. You’re a mythical creature, a legend. And to top that, you’re Surana, you’re one of the people who could have been the Hero of Ferelden, you’re a complete and utter badass.”

“Oh... kay...?”

“You are the single most amazing, perfect, magical being I have ever encountered, that I could possibly imagine. I was just some asshole kid who’d abandoned his world in its death throes and was pretending as hard as he could to fit in. I was worthless, and you were flawless. Why the fuck would you look twice at me? Why would the thought even cross my mind?”

I gawked at him as my disbelief slowly tipped over into astonishment. “Twitch! I was starving to death in an alienage! I’m a knife ear, an apostate. Whatever story you had in your head, it’s insane. That’s not real.”

“That’s what you were in my world,” he countered, softly. “That’s what you are in my eyes. You’re sheer perfection, Ophelia. I had no idea you loved me until I finally got that fucking letter from Sera, and I don’t think I would have believed it had I not literally had it spelled out for me, in your hand writing. You made a mistake when you ran to Nevarra, and if you could fuck that up, you could have fucked up and loved me, too; it was believable, finally.”

This was not possibly real. I did a quick check for the Fade – but no. I was definitely awake. “But I’m- I’m-“

“Opie,” he interrupted, reaching out a hand towards me. I took it without hesitation. “I’ve had a long time to think about it. I know this world is broken. I know you have no idea what I’m talking about, because I was never honest enough with you to give you even an inkling of what was in my head. I have never been honest enough with you. I had my reasons... looking back, they were all dumb, but in the moment, I don’t know how I could have made any decision differently. And I want the chance to explain. Please, just let me explain.”

“Twitch,” I said, raising my free hand to cut him off. “Stop. You’re killing me.”

His teeth clicked together as he snapped his jaw shut and his eyes went wide. He thought I was going to say no? After everything?

“Maker’s grace, you’re a fucking idiot. You’re a shem, Twitch. Humans hate elves, they hunt elves, there are still places with elves ears on plaques on the wall. Humans don’t love elves. They-“

“If you compare me to the fucking animals who kidnapped your cousins, you forfeit any right to ever punch me ever again,” he interrupted, a bit coldly. Maker, he said things like that and thought I didn’t love him?

“You idiot fucking shem. That was my point. If anyone had any room to doubt anyone’s affections, it was the elf doubting the shem, not the other way around! I had to assume I was just the clueless mageling who was pining for the first human to treat her like an equal. Why didn’t you ever-“

“Because I’m dumb,” he answered before I could even phrase the question. “You’re right, Opie, you’re so right. I’m an idiot. I’m a utter fucking idiot and I swear if you’ll just let me explain-“

I dropped his hand and raised my palms up to my temples, pressing against the threatening headache. “Stop fucking saying that! We don’t have the time today for your life story. Can you just table that for later so we can get through this?”

“Wait, I get a later?”

I dropped my hands to the arms of the chair. “You really think I got on Isabela’s boat, to come Val Royeaux and be paraded in front of the Inquisitor and the Herald of bloody Andraste, not to mention Divine fucking Victoria, just to turn around and vanish again? I went to Nevarra so I didn’t have to hear the news you were dead, you idiot shem, and I didn’t come back on my own! Clearly I didn’t get over you. Now that I know you’re not dead, I’m not leaving. I hope we have plenty of opportunities to discuss the many ways you were fucking stupid over the last ten years, but that’s not the part we have to get through right now.”

“What is the part we have to get through?”

I could cheerfully throttle him, I really could. “If there was ever a time to say it, Twitch, now would be the time.”

His jaw dropped, and he stared at me for long enough that I seriously considered punching him. And then he tumbled out of the chair to land on his knees at my feet and plucked my hand off the arm of my chair and suddenly I couldn’t breathe at all.

“I love you. I’m an idiot and I don’t deserve you and your family wants to beat me within an inch of my life – if not outright kill me – and I would happily let them if it afforded me even a narrow window of time with you. I have never loved anyone the way I love you. I have nearly lost my mind trying to find you. I would kill for you. I would die for you. And I should have realized it in Amaranthine. I should have realized it in Denerim. I should have done a thousand things differently and I want to start fixing them right now.”

“You fucking asshole,” I whispered once I could breathe again. “You were just supposed to say, I love you, Opie, and then I could say, I love you, too, idiot, and then I could tease you for being stupid. But no. You have to give me a speech. I don’t have a speech prepared!”

“I would be completely satisfied to hear you say you love me too,” Twitch said through a painfully hopeful smile.

“I love you, too. Idiot.”

He turned my wrist and pressed his cheek into my palm, closing his eyes and tipping his head back. “I have never been so grateful as I am right now to not be able to dream. I know for a fact I am awake and this is real.”

“Why couldn’t we just lead with that?” I teased. “Opie! Hi! Look, I’m not dead, any chance you still love me? And then I could say, of course I still love you, idiot. And then you can get into the fucking explanation.”

“But the explanation about where I came from explained why I didn’t think you could love me,” he countered.

“I already told you I love you, stupid. The reasons you didn’t figure it out on your own are pointless.”

“I can’t believe how badly I missed this.”

“I have to admit I am looking forward to getting letters again.”

“Letters?” he echoed, his eyes snapping open. “You just said I got a later!”

“You’re still a Charger and I still have shit to do,” I reminded him. “The world doesn’t change just because we both finally came to our senses.”

“If I have to choose between you and the Chargers-“ he started to say.

“No,” I cut him off. “We are not going to start this out by giving things up. There’s no reason for you to sit and watch me study and be bored, not when you could be out working with your company. You have your obligations and I have mine and that hasn’t changed.”

He didn’t move, just sat there blinking up at me. After a few long breaths, he said, “How are you so perfect?”

“Stop saying that, you know it’s not true.”

“I’m going to keep saying it until you believe it,” he argued.

“Idiot shem,” I countered.

His response was to lean forward, put his right hand to my cheek, and pull my lips down to his.

Maker’s Grace, it had been so long since I’d been kissed. My hands gripped the collar of his coat of their own volition and I held him in place while my heart fluttered against my ribs as if actually trying to take flight. His lips were just a touch on the dry side – an endearing sign of nerves – but he was warm and he smelled like home, like waking up to freedom after Amaranthine, like six days on a roof in Denerim planning the hit on Vaughan, like oiled steel and vandal aria. There was a hint of wine on his breath, and when his lips parted slightly I chased the trail of the vintage with my tongue.

He hummed, definitely satisfied, and his other hand came to rest on my waist and I was kissing Twitch. Four days before I’d thought he was dead and now I was lost somewhere in the Grand Cathedral of Val Royeaux kissing him.

It sounded way too good to be true, when phrased like that.

Sweet Maker, if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

The doubt crept in, and before I could attempt to reassure myself, instinct darted in on its heels. I pulled away, flattened one hand on his chest, and channeled energy through my bracers into that palm in a single pulse of pure force.

Twitch flew backwards across the room, careening between several chairs, to land heavily on his side on the floor and slide the last few feet to rest against the wall.

“The fuck...?” he groaned, unmoving.

“I’m sorry,” I offered, immediately and mostly sincerely. “I had been afraid the demons would learn your face and I wouldn’t realize it wasn’t you until it was too late and so I-“

“You thought I might be a desire demon?” He asked, weakly. “Just now? That’s what that was?”

“I... yes.”

“That is flattering enough to be worth the broken ribs.”

“I broke your ribs?” I scurried across the room and dropped to my knees beside him. “It’s instinct, Twitch, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth I am positive you’re not a demon, now.”

“Great,” he managed, still unmoving and clearly short of breath. “That’s great, really. In the future, please, just punch me in the face. Okay? I promise I won’t even dodge.”

“Maker’s ballsack, Twitch, I’m sorry. It was instinct, I-“

“No,” he grunted, moving his arms experimentally and then slowly pushing into a seated position. “No, it - fuck – it’s fine, it’s – fucking ow – it’s what kept you alive, so it’s worth it. It’s – fuck – it is what it is.” He hissed out a long breath and slowly lifted one hand to his chest, slightly on his left side, and then rattled off another string of words in Qunlat.

“What can I do?”

“Give me a minute. I’m not-“ more Qunlat, new words this time “-I’m not willing to share you just yet.”

I let the eyeroll happen, this time. “Yes, yes. I love you, you love me, blah blah blah, your fucking ribs are broken, tell me where in this fucking building I can find you some help.”

“Ma’s got some scheme,” he said, pointedly ignoring my outburst. His words were still halting, but he seemed to be in control of the pain and not interrupting every sentence to swear. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got her figured out, but I won’t know for sure until she actually decides to tell me about it.”

“Ma being the Herald of Andraste?” I clarified. “Are you a particular confidante of her or something?”

“Or something,” he agreed, with a cough of a laugh and then a wince. “She’s got a plan for the people on her list, and I think you are the foundation of that plan.”

“Me? Why me?”

“None of you have any reason to trust Gwen. I trust Gwen. You trust me. Everybody else can build from there.”

“A bold statement from a shem whose ribs I just broke.”

“Shut up,” he coughed. I grinned at him. I couldn’t help it; we’d settled so quickly into how things used to be, only way better than I’d ever dared to dream, that I was inching towards giddy. “She’s going to build something with you. I want to be a part of it.”

“Okay? And?”

“I already decided. I will always have a spot in the Chargers, but I would rather be where you are. Even if this – if us – doesn’t work. You were my family first and I’m ready to come home.”

“This? This is what you wanted to say when you can barely breathe? The lack of oxygen is making you more stupid than normal.”

“I mean it.”

“I know.”

“No, Opie, I-“

“I know,” I cut him off with a hand to his face. It worked better than I had imagined it would; he instantly stilled and pressed into my palm. “You left them to come for me in Amaranthine. Even if you hadn’t just told me you loved me, I would still believe that you would chose me over the Chargers. This is not an explanation I need.”

“Good,” he breathed, and sank back, wincing, against the wall. “There’s a bell pull in the corner; if you turn around it will be to your left.”

I stood up, spun around and – damn. Once I knew to look for it, it was obvious. I hurried across the room and tugged the cord, and then crossed back over to where Twitch sprawled. He was watching me with a smug sort of smile on his face.

“What’s that look for?”

“Looking forward to the fight.”

“Which fight?”

The door burst open, and I shot to my feet and called lightning to the ready. It proved unnecessary.

“Did she punch you?” the Charger Lieutenant, Krem, demanded, as he strode through the room. “Tell me she punched you.”

Twitch shook his head, no. “Force push to the sternum. Nobody called it. Bet’s off.”

“Bullshit!” another voice called from the door. I recognized the speaker as a Charger, but there were far too many for me to remember all their names, with the brief meeting we’d had. This one was human, and built for strength; a warrior of some sort, most likely. He and Krem were both dressed as informally as Twitch, although with wildly different styles. Were they off duty in the Cathedral?

“You all lost,” Twitch insisted. “And you need to get Stitches, I’m seriously fucked up.”

“Meck, run for the Inquisitor,” Krem countered, giving the order to the Charger who had paused at the door.

“Adaar’s got better shit to do,” Twitch argued.

“She needs the distraction. Ma’s in a screaming match with the Commander. That whole wing of the Cathedral is empty. Maybe you can get information about their fight out of the Inquisitor, you’re good at that shit.”

Twitch shook his head, but Krem turned his attention to me. “Welcome back, Opie. Glad to see you’re in one piece.”

Krem remained the only ‘Vint I’d met that I could even stand, much less feel genuine friendship toward; I tried to put as much warmth as I felt into the smile I directed at him. “Thank you. The feeling is mutual.”

“Are the Chargers gaining one or losing one?” he asked without missing a beat.

I canted a look at Twitch and felt my smile widen when he winked at me. “We’ll see,” I told his Lieutenant. “The world didn’t change just because we came to our senses.”

Krem merely nodded, and I sat down beside Twitch to wait for help to arrive. His hand dropped off his cracked ribs and found mine on the floor, and he twined our fingers together and then leaned his head heavily against the wall.

“Worth it,” he sighed.

“You’re an idiot,” I reminded him. “But, Maker save you, you’re my idiot.”

He squeezed my fingers but made no reply. I tipped my head so it rested just barely against his shoulder - mindful of the ribs - and decided to use the next few minutes to adjust my world view.

Twitch was alive. Twitch loved me. Twitch wanted to be with me. We actually had a chance to make this work. The Herald of Andraste wanted me for some grand purpose. I was going to have the resources to battle the Nightmare, if that was even still necessary, since apparently the Inquisitor had already fought it. And somewhere in the Grand Cathedral, right at that moment, Cullen Rutherford was getting his ass chewed.

It couldn’t possibly get any better than this.

Chapter Text

The conversation with The Iron Bull took no time at all, in the grand scheme of things. I walked up to him, informed him that I had cleared with Most Holy the change in his contract, we shook on it, and he asked if I knew anyone who was hiring. I told him I had two jobs in mind, and oddly enough he was already prepared for them both.

“One other thing, Bull,” I said, after I signed his contracts and headed towards the door of the room the Chargers used as a base of operations in the first basement level of the Cathedral. “When, precisely, did you figure out Twitch was from my world?”

He regarded me with that one eye, coolly, for several long moments as I rested my hand on the latch of the door. “I suspected it years ago. He quoted the Arishok and his accent was... off. The Qun was looking for people like him – like you – so I knew it was a possibility, even then. I didn’t know until after you arrived. I hadn’t ever seen him twitch, didn’t ever know where the name had come from, until he took a look at you.”

The Qun knew. Why the fuck hadn’t anybody told me that the Qun knew? “Besides Cullen – and the fucking Qun – who else knew?”

His eyebrow twitched slightly – I’d surprised him, and he wasn’t afraid to show it to me – but he otherwise didn’t react. “I saw no reason to share the information. Cullen figured it out for himself, after I sent Twitch to him for Qunlat lessons.”

I nodded and turned my back to him. My anger wasn’t for him, not now. But Bull surprised me, as only Bull did. “We knew it would break you,” he said, and I paused in the act of lifting the latch. “I asked Twitch why he didn’t want to tell you, and he asked if I wanted to be the man to tell you that you were probably a widow. Nobody wants to give that news, Gwen. On the off chance you might never know, we thought it best to save you the grief. Looks like we just delayed it, and for that I’m sorry. I should have pushed him to tell, a lot sooner than I did. Nobody deserves what happened to you.”

“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” I told him as I pulled open the door. “And your name was Hissrad. You owe me nothing. But thank you.”

“How’d you find out?” he asked as I stepped through the door.

“Sometimes you find things you weren’t looking for,” I answered, and let the blue light of Andraste’s vision fill my eyes. I Looked at him just long enough to know that he understood my meaning – that I had Seen it in Cullen by mistake – and then I let the door swing shut behind me.

It was a long, awful walk to my rooms. He was there – I Knew he was there – and so there was no deluding myself into thinking I would delay this for another day. I should let it sit, I knew I should; I was angry, and I always made mistakes when I was angry. My mouth ran away with me and things went south.

But we’d put this off too long, and the list of grievances was growing. The thing that was Us deserved better than what I was giving it. Our relationship couldn’t survive this silence any longer. Whether it could survive the airing out it had coming was a question I didn’t want to Look into. Not yet.

He was waiting for me, in the rooms that had been redesigned to accommodate us. He stood at the window, clenching and releasing one fist as if preparing for fight.

So, I was wrong. I’d really thought he’d had no idea this was coming.

“We need to talk about your decision to release the Iron Bull,” he said as I let the door close behind me. He didn’t look up, but I hadn’t been quiet about throwing the bolt and locking us in here.

“We do,” I agreed. “But something has to come first.”

He sighed. “What now? What else is more important to you than your safety?”

I bit back a handful of snarky replies – honesty? freedom? trust? – and forced myself to breathe for a moment before speaking. I loved him. I really did love him. And this was going to get bad but I needed to remember I loved him. Hellen had made me really think about all of this, and he was worth it.

Or, he had been worth it when I thought he trusted me. Finding out he’d been lying to me since day one had put a definite backspin on the entire thing.

“In the council just now,” I said, stepping back to press my back to the door, “I met Ophelia for the first time – Kaiopi Surana – and because she’s an elf with no vallaslin, I had to Look at her and make sure she hadn’t been approached by Solas.”

Cullen turned from the window, eyes a little wild but face disbelieving. “You knew I wasn’t celibate. You couldn’t possibly be upset about-“

“I’m not talking about what may or may not have transpired between you and Enchanter Surana. That was over a decade ago, you didn’t even know I existed yet, and frankly it’s none of my business. And, honestly, that didn't even come up; that wasn’t my point.”

His eyes narrowed but he gestured for me to continue.

“While I had my Sight engaged, I was Looking at her more recent history, and Twitch factored prominently. At that point, you stood up, blocking my line of sight, and I Looked at you while I was thinking about Twitch. So instead of seeing Opie’s history with my fellow earthling, I saw yours.”

He went so still, so ungodly still, that the anger seethed a little hotter in my gut. I wanted an apology. I wanted an explanation. I didn’t want silence.

Maker take me, I wanted him to grovel.

Which, honestly, probably wasn’t healthy.

“For the record, it makes sense that you would learn English from him. It was a good decision and explains so much about your grammar and word choice... looking back, now, I realize your sentence structure is more similar to mine than Bull’s. If I had even noticed it before, I would have dismissed it as you intentionally patterning your speech after me, so well done there. Furthermore, I understand Twitch did not want me to know he was from my world, and he has already apologized to me for the subterfuge and explained his motives and while I wish he’d told me the rest of it, I can take that up with him later.”

I was shaking so hard. My whole body was quivering; I wanted to cross the room and pour a glass of water but I had no trust at all in my motor function. Even if I managed to cross the room, I was shaking far too much to not spill the whole damn pitcher.

 “But you knew my world had been destroyed within weeks of my coming here. You knew I was a widow before it was even Bloomingtide. You’ve never admitted it to me, never, and I had to find out about it like this.”

“I did not know everything by Bloomingtide,” he countered immediately. “I knew only that what had happened in your world was bad. Bad enough to make you – and Twitch – flee for your lives. I didn’t know for certain that you were a widow until you got your memory back.”

I just looked at him. It was splitting hairs; he wasn’t comfortable with the argument he’d made, if the way he wouldn’t meet my eyes was any indication.

“I just came from Bull. He verified that he, also, knew Twitch had come from my world, and that my world had been destroyed, and that was why he sent Twitch to you to teach you Qunlat.”

His jaw tightened, but his eyes again slid past mine. This time he kept his silence.

“Twitch told you I couldn’t ever know. You had an agreement with Twitch that required you both kept your silence. I understand that. What I want to know is, when he came clean and admitted he was from my world, why didn’t you come clean and admit you knew?”

“You told me about Twitch as an aside,” he answered, softly but with steel in his voice. “You had just started your forays into the Fade and broached that subject with the same breath you spoke of Twitch. I didn’t mention it then because... I didn’t. I could tell you it didn’t fit with the conversation or because I wanted to speak with Twitch first, but I somehow doubt you’ll see those as anything but excuses. You brought it up at the war room meeting the next day, and then left with Alistair. Your piano was delivered that evening. There wasn’t an easy opening, and then as time passed it slid from my mind. Ultimately, I saw it as harmless.”

I clenched my hands into fists and pushed them against the door behind me. “Harmless? You kept from me the knowledge that my world was destroyed and you think that was harmless?”

“By the time I had the information to give you, you had your memory back!” he shot back. “Did you really want me to say I thought as much when you were flailing and suicidal in my arms?”

Would I have been if you’d given me the forewarning that my world was destroyed?” I countered, letting the anger drive my voice higher. “Could I have gotten that memory back without the shock nearly driving me mad, if I’d at known, going into it, that it was bad? You could have at least told me I had fled!”

“Twitch had said you weren’t to know!”

“Twitch was being a coward!”

Cullen paced away from the window, running a hand angrily through his hair. “I trusted him. I did not have the language with which to speak with you, and he was providing it to me. I did not have the rapport I felt necessary to judge your needs better than someone from your world could. Had I known then what I learned later, I would have told you. I made the best decision I could at the time!”

“Gwen,” I said in tones meant to mock his voice. “I’ve been talking to Bull, and he says the Qun are looking for people like you. It’s possible there’s more people like you in our world. The rumor goes that they fled some great calamity. I’m not sure how accurate it is, we’re following up, but I thought it best to keep you abreast of the situation.”

He shot me a disgusted look. “Is that necessary?”

I raised my hands, palms-up, but made no other reply. It probably wasn’t, but I was too pissed to care.

“If you recall, this is when Twitch was just beginning to teach me English. You had a rudimentary grasp of Common. We did not possess the means to have that conversation, even if Bull had divulged that information to me, which he hadn’t yet.”

“Yet? So you’ve had the conversation.”

Cullen huffed out an aggravated breath. “Yes. He informed me of the warehouse in Kont-aar some time after we discovered the bodies in Gaspard’s basement.”

“Warehouse,” I echoed, “in Kont-aar?”

Cullen scowled at me. “How could you possibly know the Qun were looking for people from your world and not known they’d been collecting them in Kont-aar?”

“I don’t know, maybe because none of you fuckers will tell me!” I shrieked. Cullen’s eyes widened and he put his hands out but I stepped to the side, away from him, circling to keep my distance. “First day! When we were supposed to purge our memories of the year before, when we were alone on my roof, you could have told me then. If you need a list, I can keep coming up with opportunities you missed. If you wanted to tell me, Cullen, you would have told me. How much have you been keeping from me? How much else is known about my home, my people, my life, that you assholes don’t think I should hear about? I survived the loss of everyone I loved and you shitstains think I’m some delicate flower who has to be shielded at all costs! What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Gwen, it’s not some grand conspiracy to keep you in the dark! It’s-“

“It’s just people I love and trust lying to me,” I interrupted, and he froze in place. His eyebrows lifted to his hair line and his hands slowly dropped. “I expect it from Bull. His name is Hissrad for fuck’s sake, he’s supposed to be a liar. But you? Cullen, you were my friend. Before I allowed myself to love you, I trusted you. But this?”

“Gwen, it wasn’t meant to hurt you, it was meant to protect you. We didn’t want you to-“

“How about you do us both a favor and stop trying to protect me,” I said, fighting to keep a normal tone of voice as I cut him off. “Lying to me, hiding the truth, and smothering me with body guards isn’t working, and it needs to end. For both our sakes.”

“Is this why you severed Bull’s services?” Cullen asked. I could see his heart wasn’t really in the question, but he was just as angry as I was. I could almost see the wave of shit we shouldn’t say starting to crest.

“No. I severed Bull’s services because I have shit to do that I have to Step for and rather than sneak around behind his back and lie about what I was doing, I thought our friendship would be better served if I didn’t erode the trust he had in me. What a novel fucking idea.”

“I explained to you why I didn’t say anything, Gwen,” he said, sighing as if I was being wholly unreasonable. “You can forgive Bull and Twitch but not me? Their explanations were enough but mine is not?”

“Their explanations were not enough,” I countered. “They actually apologized. You seem to think that arguing with me is the same as acknowledging I got hurt.”

His face blanked with surprise, and after a moment he opened his mouth again – almost certainly to say he was sorry – but I was too far gone. I wouldn’t hear it, couldn’t hear it. It was too little, too late.

“It was supposed to be different, with you. I require more from you because I sleep with you. I plan my future with you. I can’t trust you to tell me something that literally affects no one else but me – that I fled, that what happened to my world was bad, that I probably lost a lot in some cataclysm, even if you didn’t know how much for sure. Do you not understand how badly this shakes me? My faith in us? And your only defense is that you were trying to protect me.”

I stepped toward him, raising my hand to stab a finger into his armored chest. “Your idea of protecting me is to stick me in a cage. You deprive me of news, deprive me of freedom, and say it is for my own good? You don’t get to decide what’s right for me. I’m not one of your fucking mages, Cullen! Locking me up in Skyhold and putting me under armed guard is no different than sticking me in Kinloch or the Gallows. That shit doesn’t work. This broken world is proof enough of that. If you’re going to say you’re a former Templar, then stop being a fucking Templar, don’t just project that bullshit on me.”

He recoiled as if I’d hit him, and fuck, maybe it would have been kinder if I had. I stepped away, giving us both some distance as he stared at me in shock and dismay.

“I’m not a danger to myself,” I told him, as his face began to slowly shift towards anger once more. I wasn’t sure if he was mad at me or mad at himself or mad at Bull or the situation or what but I needed more distance than this room could provide if I didn’t want to just stand here and pour gas on a fire. “I’m not a danger to others. I have the tools to protect myself and you won’t let me use them. If I want to be safe, if I want to use these gifts I’ve been given, that I already died for, then I have to practice them.”

I watched as he finally finally met my eye, just as the panic set in. I shook my head as he took the first step forward. “I can’t let you hold me back anymore,” I told him, and I slid my consciousness into the Fade. As he reached out with both hands, as his mouth formed the words that would beg me to stop, I Stepped out of the room.

I only went as far as the hallway. He wouldn’t know; I could be anywhere in Thedas already, there was no reason to believe I’d only gone ten feet, to the other side of a wall. He’d be too angry to try to check his phylactery – at first, at least.

I heard his shout of anguish inside our – my – rooms. I heard the wordless exclamation turn into a roar, heard the crash of my desk being over turned. I looked around the Cathedral and saw my wing was largely abandoned. I widened my search and saw Hellen kneeling over Twitch, surrounded by Chargers, in my sitting room three floors down. Ophelia stood a few feet away, watching with her arms slung across her abdomen and I wondered who’d won the Chargers’ betting pool.

The door suddenly unbolted – Cullen must have realized I hadn’t gone far - and I Stepped in the direction I was looking, not eager to be found in the hallway. I stopped outside the room Twitch was being healed in, and took comfort in the sounds of laughter beyond the half-opened door.

Hellen suddenly looked up and then turned towards me, probably feeling the tickle of her phylactery appear so close by.

Still straddling the Veil, I caught Wisdom’s eye and waved. She waved back – a clear farewell.

I blew a kiss, and then switched my Sight to the TrueSight Andraste had given me.

It was a clear day in Skyhold, and my tower bedroom was empty.

“Tell Cole not to worry and I’m sorry. Tell Hellen to get her sleep,” I bid Wisdom, and without waiting for a reply, I Stepped out of the Cathedral.

I checked everywhere to make sure my room was truly empty, locked my doors, crawled into bed, and gave over the rest of my afternoon to crying my heart out.

Chapter Text

We had not planned to linger long in Val Royeaux, and I did not loiter in the council chamber for long after Gwen had left. There were a dozen people who seemed to think they had business with me, and perhaps a quarter of those were legitimate requests; the sooner I could see to them all, the sooner I could get out of Orlais.

Whatever Gwen told Ophelia seemed to have worked wonders, as she was in a much more stable mind state when I was dragged into Gwen’s sitting room by a trio of concerned Chargers to heal up Twitch. Again.

“Are all your insides on the outside again?” I asked as I strode into the room.

“Nah,” he answered, although the way he was holding himself told me he had internal damage. “Cracked ribs from a force push.”

“Force push with no staff?” I countered as I lowered to the ground beside him. Eight of his ribs were broken, all right along the sternum; she must have gotten a direct hit, and a strong one. I got an uneasy feeling about the rest of the names on Gwen’s list, if a relatively unknown mage could do this much damage, unarmed.

“It’s my... my bracers,” she offered, stepping forward with both hands out, palm up. Twitch lifted his eyebrows in surprise but stayed still as a statue otherwise. I didn’t see any damage in his lungs, heart, diaphragm, or liver, and that meant he had barely moved at all. Good man. “Using a staff made me a target, and not having one left me vulnerable. I had these made when I went into hiding.”

I did my initial mend on Twitch’s bones, taking the majority of the pressure off his torso, and then spared another look at the elven mage. She had a completely different demeanor than she’d borne before; she’d lost the defensiveness, the offensiveness, and almost seemed friendly.

Huh.

Her bracers were works of art, once I actually knew to look at them. They had runing wrapping around the circumference to rival Dagna’s best work, and Andraste’s ashes, were they iron bark? How did she get iron bark in Denerim? I turned my attention back to Twitch and reconnected the stripped ligaments from his sternum, pulling the ribs back into place. He’d feel off until I stood him up and gave him a good shake, as that was far easier than magically realigning the nearly two dozen bones I’d just tweaked. He took a deep breath and smiled at me, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Gwen really knew how to pick them. Maybe he’d worked the change in Opie.

My phylactery was in the hallway.

It was just that fast – it didn’t approach, it didn’t slowly grow in my awareness, it was just there, cutting off every other thought in my mind. I turned, stupidly, to look towards it, knowing there was a wall in the way. There was a sudden awareness of the weather in Skyhold – she was conversing with Wisdom, most likely – and then my phylactery was gone, leagues and leagues away to the east.

I sat back on my heels with a sigh. “Gwen just left.”

“Left?” Krem echoed.

Twitch frowned at me. “Words of Wisdom?” he asked.

How the fuck did he know that? Forget what I was thinking before, fuck this kid. “Gwen and I worked some magic so I would always know where she was. She just left the Cathedral. I’m pretty sure she’s in Skyhold. There was something off about her at the meeting, but I never found out what.”

“She’s mad at Cullen,” Ophelia offered, and rather than look at her, I rose to my feet, dragging Twitch with me by his wrists. I dangled him off the ground, shook him once, and heard his spine realign his ribcage with a long series of cracks and pops. He grunted, nodded a woozy sort of thanks, and I set him back on his feet.

“We know she’s mad at Cullen,” Krem countered. “You could hear her yelling from halfway down the corridor.”

“What else did she say?” I asked Opie.

She closed her eyes, concentrating, as she shook her head slightly. “Sorry, I’ve had a very turbulent afternoon. I think what she said was, I’m really fucking mad at Cullen, and then something to the tune of it being difficult to keep her composure when he was sitting there clueless. But she asked if we could just agree that our men were idiots, and not discuss them further, which I had to agree with.”

“Your men?” Twitch echoed, with a very smug sort of smile.

“Stay on target,” I ordered, and he swallowed the smile with some difficulty. Ophelia had a slight blush to her cheeks and I suddenly knew exactly what led to his ribs getting force-pushed into splinters. No wonder she was in a better mood.

“I don’t think she was mad at me,” Opie said, and I figured out that reference pretty quick, as well. Gwen had told me that Cullen had possibly had some kind of interlude with Solona Amell, but given the way he had reacted when Enchanter Surana entered the room, I knew why he’d never mentioned the Warden in that light in our conversations.

“No, she’s not the jealous type. That, and she was married to someone on her own world; she’s a lot of things, but unreasonably jealous isn’t one of them. Something else must have happened in the council meeting, something I missed. I’ll send Dorian up to talk Cullen down, and I’ll ask Gwen about it tonight.”

“Are we chasing her to Skyhold, then?” Krem asked.

“You’re going north, to Minantur Hollow,” I countered. “Your tenure as the Herald’s personal guard has ended. I think she’s currently the Chargers’ employer, however. You should check with the Iron Bull.”

Krem nodded and the Chargers filed out of the room – all except Twitch, who asked, “Does Gwen dream?”

“I don’t know, anymore. She visits me in the Fade, though. We keep in contact when I travel.”

“How is that possible?” Ophelia protested. “She said she wasn’t a mage!”

“If you’re not going with the Chargers, you’re welcome to travel with me,” I told her, in lieu of answering her question. She seemed to accept the evasion easily. “I’m not going straight back to Skyhold, but I can escort you most of the way there.”

“And then I’ll finish the journey with, who? Cullen? Forgive me, Inquisitor, but I’ve had better offers.”

I couldn’t blame her. Even if he wasn’t an ex, Cullen wouldn’t be great company in the days to come. What the fuck had set Gwen off? “Suit yourself. I assume the Chargers will come back through Val Royeaux when they return from the Free Marches. You’ll have to arrange that with Divine Victoria and the Iron Bull.”

“I will, thank you.”

I nodded to them both and left, pointedly shutting the door behind me. Twitch was one of Gwen’s clear favorites, and from the little I’d known him I was glad we’d managed to reunite him with Ophelia. Gwen seemed to think the elf was important; I just hoped she would lure Solona out of hiding.

I sent Dorian to Cullen, as I’d told the Chargers I would, and something made me want to go find Cole – that something being Wisdom, I was sure – even though all he did was look at me, frown, nod, thank me, and disappear. Josephine was closeted with the Divine but I was warmly welcomed back into their council when I knocked. Neither had heard anything about Gwen’s argument yet, but the news would reach me there as quickly as anywhere else. I persevered through hours of their talk – gossip and idle chit-chat heavily peppered with plots and schemes – until sometime well after dark I excused myself and went to bed.

Josephine did not follow.

I was well past the point of being disappointed. It merely was. The shared tent on the way up could have been purely economical, with the benefit of romance, as opposed to the reverse. Rather than dwell on it, I resolved to get some sleep.

Gwen found me, immediately, in my dreams.

She was a hot mess.

Somehow, I managed to coax out of her the whole sordid affair, how Cullen had known about her world and not told her; it struck me as something that had just happened, rather than being planned our ahead of time or intentionally malicious. If she hadn’t been so bent out of shape about his overprotective measures, this probably would have glided by as a bump in the path, rather than a roadblock. But then again, Gwen and I were very different people, so maybe this was big enough to be a deal breaker for her. Now was not the time for comparing personal philosophies.

“His means of protecting me is to treat me like a child,” she sobbed into my shoulder. She went incoherent from that point on, with words like respect and templars and gilded cage bubbling out of an unintelligible stream of consciousness.

“You need sleep,” I told her. “I’m glad you’re safe at home. Just rest. I’m going to Orzammar, I won’t see you for awhile. Promise me you’ll keep finding me in the Fade while I’m down there?”

“Be careful,” she whispered, and then I woke up.

It was dawn, or would be shortly, and I was alone. Again. Still. I got my gear together and headed for the courtyard.

Josephine was there, bleary-eyed and looking like she hadn’t slept. I bid her a good morning and tried to not let Gwen’s distress bleed over into me. I ran my eyes over the varied soldiery assembled – the Chargers were there, looking to be starting yet another march miserably hung over. Twitch actually looked dead sober, which was definitely a change of pace. He also looked like he hadn’t slept, and was being thoroughly kissed, publicly, by Ophelia. She was getting a respectable cheer from the Chargers and not giving two tin shits.

I had to admit she was growing on me.

I pulled my eyes away from their leave-taking to find Cullen sitting miserably in his saddle, also having clearly not slept, with a concerned and comparatively well-rested Dorian nearby. Cole was leading Gwen’s horse, which made Cullen visibly flinch every time he happened to look at it.

Cassandra had my horse in hand and was waiting for me near the gate. “What is the saying? The more things change, they more they stay the same?”

“I really hope to see you ass over tea kettle in love one of these days,” I told her. “You deserve a piece of this universal misery.”

“I am content to merely read about it,” she countered, and we both swung into our saddles.

The Chargers left on our heels, although we quickly split paths; they were headed off on a series of errands that I understood to be mostly centered around finding more people from Gwen’s world. We were headed east, while they journeyed north; Bull waved goodbye gamely while the Chargers called out any number of things, ranging from the formal to the impolite, in at least four languages. “Never change!” I called back, which earned me a cheer. Crazy assholes.

The rest of the trip was decidedly less pleasant than I could have hoped. Part of it was individual melancholy: Cullen was a wreck, Dorian was rapidly tiring of all of us, Josephine was gradually becoming less oblivious to my discomfort, and Cole was only capable of picking out the thoughts we least wanted heard. Of all of us, only Cassandra remained congenial, and that was a miracle in and of itself.

I was not looking forward to descending into the Deep Roads. Some unknown force causing earthquakes did not sound like it was within my realm of expertise, and if Gwen hadn’t told me I could fix it I never would have consented to go.

We split from the rest of the group at Orzammar, with Cullen and Josephine riding south with our guard detail. The lift that was being built as a short cut for us was nearly complete, but I insisted on spending one last full night on the surface, and had Lace Harding pass the word.

“Tell me again why I’m doing this,” I asked Gwen when I found myself sitting on her couch.

“It’s a key component of the truth,” Gwen replied, although it was such a shitty, evasive thing to say I wasn’t willing to call it an answer. She looked like she almost had her shit together, though, which was good since Cullen would be there in two days, tops. “Honestly, Hellen, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“You think, by this point, I wouldn’t believe you? Is it an archdemon? Will you promise me it’s not an archdemon?”

“It’s not an archdemon,” she affirmed, meeting my eyes and speaking plainly. I appreciated it, but it helped my anxiety less than I might have hoped. “Look, it’s dwarven mythology come to life. It’s dangerous as fuck, and I want you to be on your toes. There are crazed dwarves down there, and darkspawn out the ass, and just... it’s not safe. At all. I wouldn’t tell you to go if I didn’t think it was necessary.”

“Dwarven mythology? Come on, just tell me.”

“The Breach woke up a Titan,” she said, and I felt myself blink just before she rolled her eyes. “Look, there’s shit down there worse than Darkspawn, but they won’t be able to quiet it down without you. The Legion of the Dead is getting their shit kicked. Lieutenant Renn is awesome and I want you to try really hard to keep him alive, okay? When you get down below the Deep Roads, below the level of the Thaig, shit is going to jump out and shoot him and maybe he won’t die if you’re there.”

That hollow feeling of horror was getting worse, not better. “Ugh, this is why you never want to tell me. It always sucks. I’m going below the Deep Roads? And people are going to die down there? I don’t want to go anywhere near that damn lift. Also, fuck you, there’s nothing worse than Darkspawn.”

“There are lots of things that are worse than-“ she trailed off suddenly, frowning at me. Then her eyes went wide and I was awake, rolling out of my bedroll with the force of my ejection from her dream. Moments later there was a flash of green outside my tent, a shout from the Inquisition scouts running this base camp, and then Gwen was kneeling beside me, in the flesh.

Cassandra was on her feet, having snapped instantly awake at the alarm Gwen raised. She frowned at the Herald and stalked out of the tent, presumably to tell the scouts to stand down.

“Your parents,” she whispered, apology heavy in her voice. “I can’t believe I forgot. I’m so sorry, Hellen. Of course you don’t want to go into the Deep Roads.”

A weight came off my chest and I wrapped my arms around her, drawing her down onto my bedding to lay beside me. Maker, but she was small; it was so easy to forget sometimes, but times like this I felt like I could break her right in half. “They came up out of no where and swarmed the wagon and ever since I get this tightness in my throat when I think about them.”

“I know. I know, I forgot, I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”

“And you can’t tell me that won’t happen this time.”

She shook her head. “Even if I didn’t think it would happen, I would tell you it might, just to keep you on your toes.”

I sighed and tightened my arms around her. “You realize how shitty that is, right?”

“I know. I’m doing the best I can. I want the best possible outcome, so I’m hedging my-“

“No. Gwen. I mean, it’s shitty for you to be pissed at people for hiding information from you when that’s sort of your bread and butter.”

She went deathly still, and then tried to push to her feet, failing miserably as I tightened my arms around her.

“Hellen. Hellen. Let me go. It’s different, Hellen, let me go.”

I didn’t let go. “How is it different? Tell me how, and because Andraste says isn’t a valid answer.”

“Because he knew about Patrick!” she hissed, and I let her go. She surged to her feet. “I told Cassandra that I knew about her loved one. I told Cullen to write his sister. I tried to get you to evacuate Haven as soon as I knew where the fuck I was. I will talk to any of you about your pasts. Me not wanting to divulge the future because I might change it is completely different than lying to someone about their past. There are uncountable different futures, Hellen, and I cannot possibly tell you every path that will lead to every result. I have to hide things by default, because revealing everything is impossible.”

She reached up and worked to straighten her bed-tousled hair; she, too, had been asleep only minutes before, if safely in Skyhold and not on the cold ground outside Orzammar. “I didn’t tell you about Solas because he might have killed me. But as soon as he was gone? I sat you down and told you everything I knew. I can’t tell you all the possibilities because there are so many I literally can’t but as soon as it’s safe to talk about it, I do. Cullen had a dozen chances to tell me he’d known and he never did. And, worse, he didn’t even have the grace to admit it was problematic! I know what I do is shit, it’s hard. But he knew I couldn’t go home and didn’t tell me. He knew I was a widow and didn’t tell me. And then he entered into a relationship with me without ever coming clean about something that couldn’t affect anyone but me. It’s different, Hellen.”

“Okay! Okay. Sit down, it’s too fucking early to be yelling like this. I think you’re splitting hairs, and you should be a bit more lenient, but for fuck’s sake I’m not the one you’re mad at so I don’t care. Alright? I don’t care.”

She collapsed back onto my bedroll and tumbled onto her side, where I wrapped an arm around her again. I saw Cassandra’s feet at the tent flap and I called for her to enter. The Seeker shot both of us an annoyed look and then crawled back into her own bedding without a word.

“I want to go down with you, on the lift,” Gwen whispered once Cassandra’s breathing had evened out. “Just to the bottom, to meet Valta and See. And then I’ll leave, I swear.”

I could argue with her, but why? Clearly, she thought the first lift was safe. What I had seen of it seemed about the opposite of safe, so her wanting to ride would probably comfort Dorian. Given everything, it wasn’t worth the fight. “Get to the bottom, meet Valta, get out, don’t come back. You hear? I don’t want you in the Deep Roads at all, no matter what.”

She nodded and I felt the weight settle back on my chest.

“I wouldn’t send you if you couldn’t do it,” she whispered, and I squeezed her gently. “The fear will keep you alive.”

“Your chatter will get you killed,” Cassandra countered, sounding more than half asleep. I clapped a hand over Gwen’s mouth to stifle her sudden giggle. The giddy wave of humor cleared out my anxiety enough to let me sleep, and I managed to rest until dawn.

Gwen had brought a change of clothes – because of course she had, it was the reason for the few-seconds delay in her arrival the night before – and managed to look almost official in her green dress as we assembled the next morning. She was hand-in-hand with Cole, although Dorian was giving her enough side-eye to make Cassandra seem amiable.

“Something I said a long time ago is going to make sense at the end of all this,” Gwen was telling Dorian as I walked forward to take report from Lace. “And I want you to know, I’m still sorry.”

“You’re going to be a lot sorrier still if I survive this,” Dorian replied. “We’re going to have a very long chat, and by chat I mean you’re going to shut up for once and listen.”

“I look forward to it,” Gwen said, and stood on tip-toe to press a kiss to his cheek.

Lace had nothing to report that was news to me – I already knew I was looking for Shaper Valta, and I would definitely find darkspawn at the bottom – and so I gestured for the rest of the team to join me. They piled onto the lift with me, and Gwen reached out to take my hand.

“It’s going to be alright,” she said, and the lift started to descend.

She held my hand for the ten long minutes it took to slowly drop into the earth. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, a dwarf stepped slightly out from under an overhang, gestured for me to step towards her, and then disappeared back into the shadows.

“That’s Valta,” Gwen said, and there was something completely indecipherable in her voice. By the time I turned to face her, she was kissing Cole and Dorian on the cheeks, and then wrapping her arms around Cassandra for a hug that pulled the smaller woman off her feet. Then Gwen was running at me, and I leaned down, scooped her up, and held her tightly to my chest.

“Be careful,” she said into my ear. “Save as many as you can, but save yourself first. I still need you.”

She didn’t mean the Inquisitor. She meant she needed me, Hellen, her sister. I squeezed the air out of her, made her laugh as I set her down, and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “Go home, Gwen. Watch for me in our dreams.”

“Let them figure it out for themselves,” she called, and then disappeared in a flash of green.

“That remains disconcerting,” Cassandra noted.

“Agreed,” from Dorian.

“Why Kirkwall?” Cole asked. I focused on my phylactery and frowned, realizing it had moved north and not south or west.

“She said she had things to do,” I sighed, and tipped my head towards the dwarf in the shadows. “As do we. Let’s get moving.”

 

*

 

“Why Kirkwall?” I asked her that night. Or, what felt like night; we walked until we were tired, and then kept going to almost the point of exhaustion before finding the Legion camp. The dwarves didn’t follow our diurnal cycle but Wisdom always seemed to know the time. The sun was shining on the surface, so I didn’t think to encounter my sister, but Gwen had been watching for me to sleep.

“Because I don’t know where to go in Ostwick,” Gwen answered, wearily. “I don’t know the Left Hand well enough to ask her, and besides, if shit hits the fan I want Garrett with me. Furthermore, while I was sitting there chatting with him, Orana came in with some mending and new clothes from his tailor. We got to talking about her – the tailor, I mean – and how Varric found her and Garrett mentioned she was just a little odd and now she’s another person I need to find and take a good look at and the list is just never ending.”

“You think she’s from your world?” I asked, reaching over to scoop her up and pull her into my lap. We were sitting on the couch in her rooms, where we always met in dreams. I knew I wasn’t actually hugging her, but it felt like I was, and honestly that was what we both needed.

“Either she’s from my world,” Gwen sighed, leaning her head against my shoulder, “or she’s brilliant. Regardless, I have to find her, if just to keep in Vivienne’s good graces. If Madam de Fer finds out that there’s an accomplished seamstress with otherworldly designs in her memory banks, and I don’t do my damnedest to establish the connection for her, I’m as good as dead. And Josie! Oh, if Josie knows there’s a tailor available from the world that produced my wedding dress and I don’t hook her up...”

Her voice stumbled a bit on the word wedding, and I pulled her closer. She coughed out what could have been a sob, and I knew the wound was still too fresh to poke at. We’d talk about Cullen another night.

“We’re up to our assholes in darkspawn, but so far so good,” I told her, conscientiously shifting the subject. “We’ve been on the move since you left, and didn’t make camp until we found Renn and his men. Having a dozen or more Legion of the Dead doing circuits around us might be the only way I sleep down here.”

“You’ve set up a base camp, then?”

I nodded. “They even have a sort of war table set up, so I can visualize the area. And let me tell you, the way they chart the Deep Roads is weird. They layer the maps, and measure by units called rods and chains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. At least, that’s what Dorian says. I don’t think my mind works the way it needs to, to understand dwarven Deep Road elevation diagrams.”

She made a disgruntled sort of sound. “I want to see! I want to come to base camp. I want to meet Renn. Ugh, I can’t believe I agreed not to come back.”

“Tough,” I countered, biting back the surge of bile and fear in my throat at the thought of genlocks swarming out of the earth, tearing into her before she could-

“Hellen!” Her voice was harsh, harsher than I’d heard it. I snapped my eyes to hers. “You’re disturbing the Fade around us. If you were anybody else, you would have just put yourself in a nightmare.”

As she shifted out of my lap, I reached up and pressed my hands on my horns, warding away a headache that wouldn’t come – not here, at least. “If I didn’t have you and Wisdom, you mean.”

“Regardless. I won’t come. I understand why it’s important to you, I do. I’m sorry you’re elbow deep in your worst fear. You definitely can’t dwell on it, though. You need restful sleep.”

“I know, I know.”

“Good night. I love you.”

There was a quality in her tone that warned me that she was up to something, but not quickly enough, not even remotely. Before I could open my mouth to voice a protest, she vanished.

“Hellen?”

I blinked, finding torchlight around me and an odd heaviness to my limbs.

“Hellen, are you well?”

Cassandra leaned over me, now that she knew I was awake enough to recognize her. I had never lashed out as I awoke, but she was always considerate of the possibility. She was yet a Seeker, and I was yet a mage. I sat up and had a mug of cool water pressed into my hands before I could firmly place where I was and what had happened.

“You’ve slept for... bah, time here is meaningless. You’ve slept longer than I’ve ever known you to sleep. Dorian assured me you were well, and that I should let you rest. I did not attempt to rouse you until I saw you stirring.”

Meddling little shit. “Gwen decided I needed sleep, and I think she did something to make sure I got it.”

Cassandra breathed out a long sigh of relief. “A kingly gift, if Renn is to be believed. We will leave the Legion here and continue on as a smaller band, to avoid notice; we shall have to keep watch and sleep in shifts once we leave this camp.”

I pushed up from the rumpled pile of bedding, easing into a crouch to begin my morning routine. Unbraid and rebraid hair, stretch, make water, break my fast, and make a plan. The sun being obscured by miles of rock meant that morning was whenever I damn well wanted it to be.

“Tell them I’m awake, and well, if you would,” I instructed Cassandra as I felt the tension start to seep back into my shoulders. That it had left at all spoke magnitudes about the quantity and quality of sleep I’d experienced. “We have delayed Lieutenant Renn long enough; I’ll be ready to resume the descent within the hour, at his discretion.”

Chapter Text

(1)

Waking up in Skyhold alone was immediately reminiscent of the march on Adamant, but worse.

I didn’t have Lace or Josephine to keep me company. Blackwall and Sera were both absent. I had left Cole and the Chargers behind when I fled Val Royeaux. I was left with few friends to confide in, and those that were present – Anders, Eleanor, Rheyna – were not the sort I should invest these troubles in.

The rest of the Inquisition was coming, and I dreaded their arrival more than I had Hellen’s homecoming from Adamant, even after I knew they’d brought everyone out of the Fade alive. The faces I most wanted to see wouldn’t be with them, and I still had no idea what was going to happen the next time Cullen and I spoke.

I knew better – oh how I knew better – but old habits are like dear friends. I ignored the warning klaxons in my mind and I willfully set it aside. I would think about it another day, I would deal with it another time, there was too much to do now to worry overmuch about whether this split from Cullen was permanent.

The day Hellen arrived at the dig site outside Orzammar, I was finally feeling like I had enough distance from what had happened in Val Royeaux to get back to work. Up until that point I had been – in a word – moping. But no one had expected me back so early, and so I’d bought myself a bit of a vacation, and if I wanted to spend those days curled up in a ball in my room, then that was on me.

Charter had information for me, including a connection I hadn’t expected to find, between a branch of the Trevelyans and the remnants of Clan Lavellan. The First I sought was outside Ostwick, more or less, living on a land grant from a minor scion of house Trevelyan – Knuckles’ uncle, it seemed. They were such a wide spread family, if I hadn’t Seen Evelyn for myself I would have to wonder if she was the one with the spark I was looking for.

She was, though; there was something almost like a halo around her, an aura of importance that turned green around her left hand. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that, had she been in the Temple of Sacred Ashes when Corypheus attacked, she would have done just as well as Hellen.

The memory of Looking at the Left Hand of the Divine brought to mind everything else I had Seen that afternoon, and I shuddered away from the memory. Lavellan was too closely tied in with... that... so I would put it off for a bit longer.

My favorite project at the moment was the college of healing Anders and I had dreamed up. Anders wasn’t anybody I should be around just then, if I was forthright about my feelings. Hellen hadn’t been completely right when she’d accused me of sabotaging my relationship with Cullen by spending so much time with Anders. However, she had put the idea in my head.

It was stupid. I was being stupid. I was making a terrible mistake that would hurt everybody. Literally, everybody.

I told myself that, nodded my agreement, and went looking for Anders anyways.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to say – train wrecks aren’t planned, impulsive idiocy like this was never planned – so I opted to just wing it and go find him. The door to his room was ajar, letting the warm air from the garden swing it gently on silent hinges. I was rather intent on not thinking, so I leaned against the door jam and widened the gap just enough to see inside.

Anders was standing beside his table, which was covered with papers of every variety; books, scrolls, loose leaves covered in words and diagrams, scraps and corners fluttering in the breeze. His attention was upon the person he was conversing with, but it was a long moment before I bothered to notice who it was.

There was a warmth in his gaze, a hopeful sort of smile tentatively tugging at the corners of his mouth, and I knew my being there was an even bigger mistake than I had previously assumed.

He wasn’t available.

Oh, Maker, the sudden wave of guilt was terrible.

Here I was, angry at Cullen, looking for- what? A fling? Something to make him jealous? Something to make myself feel better? A one-night stand to ruin a relationship and several friendships, all in one go? Conveniently tucked behind the excuse that I hadn’t actually planned anything when I’d gone to see Anders that day?

I glanced at the object of his affections as I backed carefully away from the gap in the door, feeling even worse for my impulsivity as I recognized her. I managed to escape without notice, fleeing silently through the keep to Hellen’s rooms.

What if I hadn’t walked in on that conversation, hadn’t noticed the look on his face? How many people could I have hurt by trying to- what, hit on Anders? Seduce him? What was I even thinking? Maker take me, I hadn’t considered him for anything but a friend until Andraste had put the idea in my head. Twitch had been open about his belief that Anders was a better man than Cullen, and damn them both anyways. Twitch knew Cullen was lying to me all along, and the closest the damn coward had come to letting me know was to tell me I’d do better with Anders.

I pushed aside the warring thoughts to focus on setting one thing straight in my mind: Anders was my friend, he was not a potential dalliance, and the affection I had just seen on Rheyna’s face was a solid indicator that if they weren’t an item yet, they would be soon. I was happy for them. I was happy for them. For fuck’s sake, she was the happy medium between the Champion and the Warden, wasn’t she perfect for him?

I dropped onto Hellen’s bed and pulled a pillow over my face.

Andraste was there, hovering in the back of my consciousness, but she didn’t need to say anything. I knew full well the scope of the problem. She knew I could have been a match for Anders, but she was happy to be wrong. That ship had sailed; I had chosen another route and it was far too late to try to hop over a different rail. I could either stay on course or jump overboard, if I hadn’t already done just that in Val Royeaux.

I sprawled on Hellen’s coverlet until nearly dark, adamantly not thinking, and then made my way to my rooms. I would meet my sister in her dreams and then I would find something to do besides haunt Skyhold and wait for Cullen and Josephine to return.

Maybe Hawke would be able to get me information on the Trevelyan/Lavellan connection. If not, maybe he could take me on a tour of Kirkwall. Anything was better than what I was doing.

 

(2)

I waited three days before leaving Val Royeaux.

I had no desire to travel with the Chargers; they were headed back north, through Nevarra, towards some village that was currently both anti-Inquisition and anti-elves. Even had I wanted to go, the Iron Bull took one look at my face and banned me from the trip.

“I know you just got shit smoothed out with Twitch, but you are a liability on this trip. Skinner probably is, too, but she’s a member of my team and she gets the benefit of the doubt. You’re not a Charger, you’re not coming.”

Twitch probably would have argued – it was written all over his face, the dear – but I quickly agreed.

I had other shit to do, after all, and Twitch had promised to write.

He promised a lot of things, the night before he left. We piled blankets in a corner of the Herald’s sitting room, locking the door and agreeing to say everything that needed to be said before we parted ways again. His life before he’d come to Denerim was fascinating to me in a devastating sort of way; I would never meet his parents and childhood friends, never see the town he grew up in, never get a window into how he’d been as a child.

There was a silver lining, of course; there weren’t any disapproving family members frowning on his choice of a knife ear. He’d been welcomed in the Tabris clan, and that was his family for as far as he was concerned. He joked that it would make holidays easy, and I laughed to let the moment pass.

Knowing he was alone, utterly alone, made my run to Nevarra so much harder to live with.

I’d abandoned him.

He forgave me, because he’s an idiot. I forgave him, because ultimately, he had only harmed himself. As much as I would have liked for him to have known his mind in Amaranthine, being mad at him for it just wasn’t reasonable. His decision to forget everything he knew was crazy in my book, but again – it was entirely his choice to make. If I’d told him I loved him, if I’d said something before he left Denerim, then maybe – maybe – I would have grounds to be angry.

As it was, he was just an idiot. He was my idiot, though, and Maker save the man who interfered.

We were talking about impossibilities when the call came for his muster; buying back Natalia’s house, living anywhere but on the road, four walls and a roof and the same scenery every day. I didn’t have to tell him that life didn’t suit us; he laughed at the idea even as he suggested it. “Maybe we can spend Satinalia there some years, or First Day.”

“Definitely not First Day,” I countered. “Then we’d have to tell Senna what we’d been up to. Satinalia is a good goal.”

“Satinalia in Denerim, then,” he said, and it sounded like a promise.

I wasn’t at all sure that I would get to have it. My life hadn’t been one for kept promises or happy endings. The way he looked at me, though, was enough to make me hope that this time – just this once – maybe I would get lucky.

And then Siren came to pound on the door and I followed in his wake as he hurried to leave. I stopped him as he strode out to the courtyard.

“If you think you can ship out without kissing me goodbye, you’ve got another thought coming.”

The Chargers nearest to us laughed, and I was aware of a weak cheer going up as Twitch’s expression of surprise melted into a smile.

“I didn’t want to push my luck,” he admitted, and then leaned down to press his lips against mine. “Write me when you leave Val Royeaux, let me know where you’re headed, so I can find you when we’re done.” He smiled a bit broader and then took a step backwards. “I love you.”

I reached out with both hands, grabbed him by the belt, and dragged him back to me. “I love you, too, idiot,” I said, and then kissed him the way I needed to be kissed.

His arms twined around me and he lifted me off my feet as I released his belt and threaded both hands into his hair, holding his mouth to mine. The cheering was markedly louder but I didn’t care; this man was mine and the more people who knew it, the better.

He was flushed and winded when I finally let him up for air, and he set me back on my feet with a whispered phrase in Qunlat.

“What does that mean?”

“I fucking love you,” he answered, “only with a lot more swearing.”

“Good,” I said with a nod, and then backed away. I wanted to tell him to come back to me. I wanted to tell him to be careful. I wanted to tell him any number of things that ultimately wouldn’t change how hard he fought to survive or the way I would feel if he didn’t return. I didn’t say any of it. “Write me.”

“Yes ma’am.”

And then he was gone, lost in the press of people as his band swallowed him up and disappeared through the gate.

And perhaps he was wrong – perhaps he did have a family besides mine. But the Chargers were as likely to swallow me up as to spit him out, and I had no fear of their opinions.

I made my way back to the sitting room of the Herald – Twitch had insisted I should call her Gwen but I needed to know more about her before I put us on such friendly terms, even if only in my head – and was met at the door by a servant in the livery of the Divine. He had a room assignment for me, and led me through the halls to a place near to where I had entered with Knuckles the day before.

Was it really only the day before?

I had a desk and a bed and I made use of them both, sleeping as much as I was able in between writing letters to everyone who had known to miss me.

I owed my family in Denerim a better explanation, and with the Chantry’s resources I could send a proper letter and not worry about the price of paper. Solona I wouldn’t write immediately; I had written her only the week before, after all. I felt as if the more mail I sent, the easier she would be to trace. What she already had would lead her straight to the Divine, and she could get whatever information she wanted from her Nightingale.

I hesitated to write Twitch – I had just seen him – but there was a history of too much silence, too much left unsaid, and life was precious. If he fell in a skirmish next week, I would want to have written him today.

 

Twitch,

I have a meeting with the Divine tomorrow – me! a private meeting with the Divine! – and I will most likely leave Val Royeaux the day after. I had no desire to travel with Cullen the Inquisition, but their destination is the same as mine, so I will follow in their wake. I plan to write you again when I reach Skyhold. I am not taking anyone with me, but with the Dales between me and the Frostbacks, I assure you I will not be traveling alone.

Your ‘Ma’ left before I had a chance to talk with her about her plans, so for the time being I am left to my own devices. I believe you are right, and she has a greater scheme, and from the glimpse I have had into her character I can admit to being intrigued. There is a freedom, a fluidity about her that makes me think any group of hers would be akin more to Solona’s Blight Busting Brigade than anything else. Solona wouldn’t let me become a Warden – did I ever tell you that story? – so this might be the next best thing.

I am sending this via the Chantry, because I’m still an alienage rat, and I’m going to build up this tab as high as I can before I dodge the bill. Senna was always proud of the time she pulled a dine-and-dash during a Landsmeet. Just wait until I tell her about a three-day chew-and-screw in the Grand Cathedral!

Ah, who am I kidding? She’s going to beat me six ways to Sunday the second I show my face in Denerim. She will show you greater leniency, I think. Her anger at you was from my mistake – if you’re lucky, you might have a prime view of the comeuppance I receive.

I can only hope you remain lucky. I refuse to ever be the woman clutching an empty doorframe, crying for the safety of her man. Watching you leave, though, and knowing for the first time it could be different? I have never asked you to stay, but I believe the day will soon come when I will not abide being left behind. I would rather endure a cold night in a snowbank with you, mere hours ahead of pursuit and certain death, than a hundred nights of safety in warmth and solitude.

The next time we share a bedroll, though, be forewarned: I will not let another opportunity pass us by.

Always

your Ophelia

 

My meeting with Divine Victoria was short and sweet. I was to have money enough to travel, and I was welcomed back in the Grand Cathedral whenever I was in Val Royeaux. More importantly, I was also welcome to not come back to the Grand Cathedral when I was Val Royeaux; it was a privilege, and not an expectation.

“Sera is back in business in the city, but I believe her to be away. At least, the relative calm in the city implies she’s not currently in Val Royeaux. She was told that you were found and recalled back from Nevarra, but what she chooses to do with that information is anyone’s guess.”

“Thank you, Most Holy. Can you tell me... did the templars I traveled with survive the war?  They were Fereldan, by the names of Aillis and Eamon.”

“Knight-Captain Eamon and Knight-Lieutenant Aillis are alive and well in Skyhold, to the last of my knowledge,” she assured me with a smile, and I released a breath I didn’t know I was holding.

“If you would have told me ten years ago that I would be relieved to know a couple of shemlen templars were alive and waiting for word of me, I would have called you a damn liar.”

Divine Victoria tipped her head back and trilled a delicate sort of laugh. “I believe you would have called me far worse! You have a mouth to rival Solona, I remember it well.”

I could do nothing but agree, and then my audience was ended. A steward pressed a purse into my hands – containing a reasonable mix of copper and silver atop a buried layer of gold – that was the most money I’d ever had to my name. I made my way through the strangely logical corridors to the small room that was to be mine whenever I had need of it, and went to bed early.

A spirit of peace visited my dreams that night. I had seen little of Joy since the news of Haven reached Val Royeaux, and Peace was a stranger to me. He bore the appearance of a child, and asked nothing of me.

I will tell Valor you are well, he whispered.

His essence stayed with me when I awoke.

There was a wrapped package leaning against my door when I opened it to leave, and I delayed my departure to investigate. Within was a note, in handwriting I recognized from the letter Knuckles had brought to Cumberland, stating the package was simply a token of friendship.

Friendship. From the Divine. To an elf-mage. What the fuck.

The only other object in the package was a finely tailored cloak that, for the first time in my life, was tailored to my height and didn’t drag on the floor. It was a charcoal sort of dark grey, not quite black but somehow richer for the distinction. The hood was nicely formed, to hang properly and not come to a foolish point, and I immediately swung it across my shoulders. It was completely unremarkable – no emblem, no insignia, no embroidery of any kind – and I was immediately enamored of it.

The hood hid my ears, and the cut of the shoulders hid my stature; I could be anyone, in this cloak. I made my way out of the city without hearing a single slur or catcall. A slightly tarnished silver bought my passage on the ferry and that ride was similarly unmarred. I walked quickly once I was ashore, and as soon as civilization thinned, I left the road.

The trip was faster on the road, but safer in the forests and fields. Especially for me.

I crossed the road that connected Lydes with Halamshiral and made my way some distance into the hills before stopping for the night in the hollow of a tree. The next morning, I found my first battlefield.

It was poorly cared for, with hastily constructed pyres only half-burned and left to rot in the open air.

Filthy Orlesian shems, can’t be bothered to care for their own.

I was careful – I was always careful – and I only pulled across one, to start. It was a credit to the years I spent with Solona that the first spirit I connected with was one of valor. I took my time and found a well charred body with minimal rot. No reason to announce my presence with an odor of decay.

“I seek protection as I cross these lands,” I told the corpse that stood with new light in its eyes. “I will provide a better pyre for this body when I arrive at my destination.”

“I will come,” the soldier said, in a voice that never touched its lips. “I will protect.”

I was careful – I was always careful – and I only chose the best bodies, the most stable of spirits. Most who consented to come were spirits of valor, but several spirits of wisdom and even a spirit of justice crossed the veil to join me on my quest.

There were nearly thirty of them, by the time I reached the top of the pass that contained the great forgotten fortress of Skyhold. They ringed me as I walked, churning up the snow with no attempt made at stealth. As long as I stayed off the roads, and veered wide of any templars, who would dare approach me, much less attempt to stop me, with a small army of undead circling ‘round?

The Inquisition soldiers would, as it turned out. I was met at the top of the pass – still some distance from the gates – by a full contingent of wide-eyed warriors.

“You approach Skyhold!” a woman’s voice called, confident to the point of brash. “These are Inquisition lands. Turn back or state your business!”

I raised a hand, bidding her to bide her time. I couldn’t pick out which soldier had spoken, but I was sure she was their Lieutenant. My gesture was accepted, if not verbally acknowledged.

I sent my swarm of undead to lay themselves down in an orderly pile in the snow, some distance to the side of the road. Once they were all settled into a rough pyramid, I thanked the spirits for their time and then sent them all back across the Veil. It was draining – they required little upkeep, and I had summoned them one at a time, and dismissing them all at once took a significant amount of energy – but I had faith that the Inquisition troops wouldn’t attack. And, if they did... well, they were all wearing steel. It wouldn’t take but a bit of lightning to buy my freedom.

I focused for a minute, building up the heat at the center of the pile before releasing it, causing a sudden conflagration that immediately consumed the charred corpses. The snow melted around it in a perfect circle, and the entire pyre was soon a pile of cinders. I stepped away from the fire and pushed my hood back as I approached the still-wide-eyed Inquisition soldiers.

Their Lieutenant pushed to the front, and I realized I hadn’t found her before because she was the shortest person in the unit, one the shortest adult shems I’d ever met. Her helmet was off and tucked under one arm, revealing short blond hair cut to her chin.

“I appreciate you taking care of your followers like that,” she said as she came to a stop a few paces away from me. “I also appreciate you showing your face. Skyhold is friendly to mages, but you’ll forgive me if I need a bit more information from you before I let you in, if entry is what you want.”

“It is,” I answered. “I am content to give my name and wait if you’d like to send word into the keep. I am known to your Inquisitor, and here by invitation of the Herald.”

I fully intended to tell her my name, but I didn’t get the chance, as a person was running full-speed down the road towards us. I heard them shout several times before they came close enough for their voice to be audible.

“Opie!”

The soldiers shifted to allow her through, but not quickly enough; she barreled through their midst and skidded to a halt next to the Lieutenant. “Let her through, Killer, it’s Opie.”

“Opie?” The Lieutenant echoed.

The newcomer pulled her helmet off and a thick black braid tumbled out a moment before bright green eyes reappeared above a smile I had missed more than I was willing to admit.

“Enchanter Surana, you are welcome in Skyhold.”

“Thank you, Knight-Lieutenant Aillis. I would rather you keep calling me Opie, though.”

She dropped her helm into the snow, crossed the distance between Lieutenant Killer and me, and lifted me into a hug.

“You’re alive! You crazy asshole!”

“I take it back! Call me Enchanter Surana! Fear me, shemlen!”

There was some nervous laughter behind her, but that was better than drawn steel. In terms of welcomes, it was one of the better ones I’d gotten in my life. Aillis put me back on my feet and gestured to the scorched earth where my followers had been. “That was creepy as fuck, Opie.”

“Is that how you knew it was me?”

“Well, yeah. You’re the only person crazy enough to pull a stunt like that in full view of Skyhold. I can’t wait to tell Twitch-“ she froze and tipped me back to look into my face. “You know he’s alright, right? He’s not here, or I’d take you to him. He didn’t come back from Val Royeaux with the Commander, I don’t know when-“

“The Herald facilitated our reunion in Val Royeaux,” I told her, at the same time the Lieutenant said, “Twitch? The Charger?”

I nodded at her and she snorted before jamming her helmet back onto her head. “Chargers. Go figure. If Aillis is vouching for you, you can have the run of the keep, Enchanter. Welcome to Skyhold.”

“The Inquisitor isn’t here,” AIllis told me as we made our way through the army encampment to where the fortress seemed to grow out of the bedrock. “The Herald was rumored to be here, but judging by the Commander’s face I would hazard those rumors to be false. The nominal head of Skyhold right now is either Charter – the Seneschal, who happens to be an elf – or Ambassador Montilyet. I can take you up to them if you want.”

“No, thank you, Aillis. I’ve met the Ambassador and I would rather not see the Commander.” Aillis frowned and then her eyes went wide and she nodded hurriedly. Smart girl. “In the absence of the Herald, the person I am most interested in seeing is Anders. Twitch mentioned he was here?”

She nodded again, happier this time, and then gestured at the fortress looming before us. “He’s got a room by the garden, I’ll take you right to him.”

“Perfect. Thank you. And then you should show me to a place where I can buy you and Eamon a drink, apologize profusely, and sit through your lecture of how you were very right and I was very wrong.”

“I wouldn’t dream of lecturing you, Enchanter Surana,” Aillis said, primly. “I will absolutely let you buy me a drink, though.”

 

(3)

 

We were deep, deeper than I had thought to go. The first lift had been bad, but it at least had been new. The lift we discovered, that Valta insisted would take us down to the old lyrium mine, abandoned when the earthquakes had happened in antiquity, was not new. It hadn’t been new when it had been abandoned a thousand years before, and yet we trusted it not only to bear us down into the dark, but also to still be standing when we returned, to bring us home when we escaped.

If we escaped.

It was there, in the dark, an unfathomable distance from the sun, that I realized Gwen was right when she said there were worse things than darkspawn.

They came out of the darkness. Humanoid but inhuman, dwarven in height but alien in armor. They fired something at us, in response to Renn’s demand that they show themselves, and then the darkness flashed blue.

Blue, like Gwen’s eyes when she’s talking to Andraste.

I hesitated, horrified that she had come, that she was here now, for this, even though I knew damn well she hadn’t, and when Renn roared I leapt to the attack beside him.

There wasn’t space beneath their armor, no gap in the armhole for me to find with the blade of my staff, no shift in plates to betray a movement before it was taken. They were ghosts in the darkness, shooting hunks of metal in a way I had a hard time comprehending. It was like Varric’s crossbow but louder, faster and harder and I couldn’t dodge fast enough. I had gouges out of my skin and armor in half a dozen places before we managed to get the upper hand through sheer rage and terror.

Cassandra was in their midst, and I took a step back to support her and Cole as Dorian wrenched control of the battle with fear and fire. There was something wrong with Renn – something horribly wrong with Renn – and every drop of healing energy I sent towards him was absorbed with no obvious improvement.

The battle was suddenly over, in the everything-to-nothing deceleration I never wanted to get used to. I strode towards Renn but he hit the ground almost immediately after the last enemy stopped moving. Valta beat me to his side, but only because I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized what had happened.

The first shot had taken his hand clean off at the wrist. My attempts to heal him had only kept him alive during the fight.

He’d bled out.

There was nothing I could do. I could have closed over the wound, if I’d tried healing him immediately, or I could have found his hand and tried to reattach it, but not in battle. Cole handed me something and I took it without thinking, recoiling and nearly dropping it when I realized it was the mangled gauntlet containing the remnants of Renn’s hand.

There was no reattaching that.

If I’d had time, if we’d filled him with potions, if he’d stayed out of the fight and put a tourniquet on his arm, if if if. None of it mattered, now; he was dead by the time Valta had reached him, keeping together until the end of the battle like the fucking legend he was.

As we built his cairn, there in the dark far below the deep roads, I reached out to Wisdom.

I don’t want to talk to Gwen, I told her. Not ‘til this is over, and we’re back in the sunshine.

I didn’t have to tell her that I’d break down. I didn’t have to tell her that I needed not to grieve until it was over, until I was free of the oppressive dark and the memory of another friend dying.

They were Sha Brytol, Valta said. They were monsters who melded their skin with their armor, I corrected her, if only in my mind. They were firing bolts at us, we learned; their weapons were boltcasters, an amalgamation of lyrium and machinery. They had been dwarves, once. Maybe.

I didn’t care.

Gwen had told me Renn might die down here and he did. I’d known it might happen and then it unfolded right in front of my eyes. How did she do it? How did she go every day knowing the worst that could happen, knowing the worst that would happen, and still find the strength to get up in the morning?

She didn’t, I realized as we walked into a lyrium-riddled paradise, somewhere miles below my home. These incredible vistas, unseen by anyone in centuries, existed fully formed in her mind, along with every drop of horror hidden in shadowed recesses and darkened corridors.

The strength Gwen found to keep going wasn’t in spite of the horrors, it was in a vain hope to avoid them. Or, failing that, to pick up the pieces once they’d passed. And when we failed to avoid the worst – when we had to go to war against the Wardens at Adamant, when the Breach reopened, when undead poured out the basement of Gaspard’s manse, when someone had to drink of the Well of Sorrows to keep Corypheus from it – she had the next horror to focus on, to work to avoid or survive, to distract her from the evil of the moment.

Maker take her, what horror came after this? She knew Renn was a good man, she asked me to save him if I could; how did she so blithely accept the possibility of his death?

Because this was a game to her.

The thought was unfair, and I quashed it as soon as it surfaced. It wasn’t untrue, not entirely. She knew Renn through the lens of a game, not through the flesh-and-blood bond that formed when you fought shoulder to shoulder against an ogre while genlocks sprung from the ground at your feet and a hurlock emissary punished every misstep with raining fire. He wasn’t a man to her, not unless they had actually met.

And who was it that had insisted she not meet him? That fault was mine.

How many countless deaths had she seen through the lens of that game, in the form of a story? Did I mourn for the soldiers lost in the battles of old when I heard their tales? Of course not; I had the same distance from those stories as Gwen had from ours.

The difference was she knew me, knew Dorian and Cassandra and Cole. We’d become more than just characters in a book, and she was invested in our survival.

Which begged the question: where, precisely, was the line between acceptable loss and friend to save? She’d fought to save the Chargers, and anyone in her infirmary, but she hadn’t batted an eye when it came time to march on the Arbor Wilds.

“You look like I feel,” Dorian said as we picked our way through the wreckage of what Valta had said was a titan. Or whatever Valta was, anymore. Between Renn’s death and her weirdness and the constant stress of being so far from the sunlight, I didn’t really feel anything. I was disinterested at best, with a detached sort of muted horror that I simultaneously realized wasn’t healthy and I was powerless to change.

“Oh?”

“The thing Gwen said a long time ago, that was going to make sense at the end of all this,” he said, and I felt the frown pull my skin moreso than the emotion that put it there. “We were bathing once, and she had said all magic is blood magic, or something to that effect. I was furious at the time, but now...?” He gestured to the carnage at our feet. “Lyrium is the blood of titans? I’d be horrified if I wasn’t so blasted exhausted.”

Exhausted. Right. Is that what this was? This pervasive numbness?

“You’re not upset about lyrium being titan’s blood,” Dorian said, watching my face carefully. “You’ve been abnormally quiet, Hellen. I am embarrassed to admit I only just realized it’s been days since last you spoke. And you haven’t been sleeping.”

“I’ve never-“ I started to say, but the words stuck in my throat. I swallowed and tried again. “I’ve not failed to save anyone since I became a spirit healer.”

Dorian’s face softened and he reached out with one hand to cup my shoulder. “You haven’t processed anything we’ve seen since Renn died.”

I shook my head, mutely, no.

“And you’re avoiding Gwen – and thus avoiding sleep - because you know she’ll make you talk about it.”

I could do nothing but nod. Was that why I was avoiding her? Or was it because the tally of acceptable losses suddenly didn’t even out? Was I worried that somewhere down the line, we would disagree on who was worth saving?

How many more Lieutenant Renns would I befriend, out in the world, knowing their death was coming?

Void take me, hadn’t she warned me of just this? That knowing what could happen only makes everything so much worse? Hadn’t she broken down into hysterics when she thought either Alistair or Garrett had to die in the Fade? Was I only perceiving her as being callous because I was behind the curve?

Andraste’s blood and ashes, was I going to see enough horror to catch up to her?

“Hellen!”

I snapped my eyes back to Dorian’s. His expression informed me that he’d been speaking for awhile. His aggravation faded into a quiet sort of concern that worried me more than his irritation ever did.

“You need more care than I can give. Let’s get you home, and I’ll put you in better hands.”

I nodded, and started on the long path back to the surface, Valta remaining behind as I didn’t have the heart to argue with her, and Renn cold beneath a stone cairn, unmarked but grieved. Remembered.

“He’d promised me stories when we were through,” I told Dorian when we’d stopped to rest. I couldn’t call it stopping for the night because Maker only knew what time it actually was. With our luck we’d stumble onto the surface with our schedules fully ass backwards, nocturnal and perpetually exhausted.

“The Legion of the Dead hold their funeral when they join,” Dorian reminded me softly. “He knew, full well, that those promises might have been empty. He finished the fight and saw us hale when he fell; he died with as few regrets as is probably possible for a Legionnaire of the Dead.”

“Fuck that,” I shot back. “Fuck his regrets. I wanted those damn stories!”

It helped, to hear Dorian’s laugh echo off the cold stone around us. It helped, to have Cole trace out the path back to the surface, seeing the scratches he left on the walls and floors to point our way back in case our guides didn’t make the return trip with us. It helped, to hear Cassandra’s litany of disgusted grunts and sighs slowly grow as the time stretched on and still we were not even to the level of the Deep Roads. We reached the lift before I remembered how badly I feared it.

“You could sleep for a bit, ask Gwen to pop in and Look at it,” Dorian suggested as the four of us stared up into the darkness. “She could tell us whether or not it’s going to crumble halfway up.”

“She’d have warned me already if that was a possibility,” I countered, trying to take solace from how she’d hinted to me of Renn’s death, of the Titan, of things worse than Darkspawn.

Darkspawn.

Fuck.

“Maybe the Legion of the Dead have advanced to this lift,” Cassandra suggested, hopefully, having followed the same line of thought as me. “Perhaps we will not traverse the Deep Roads without a dwarven guide.”

“And maybe Solas will be waiting for us in Skyhold with an apology and unconditional surrender.”

“There is no need for snark, Hellen.”

“Just... get on the damn lift.”

 

*

 

Five. Fucking. Weeks. That’s how long we were away from the base camp in the Deep Roads. We came across a Legion of the Dead scout on the second day after ascending the great lift – that did, thankfully, hold together – and so the walk back was not as taxing as it might have been. The dwarves’ Stone Sense was no joke, and spending more than a month wandering their domain drove home what was really lost when they moved onto the surface. Varric was worthless in caves, and he was only one generation removed from Orzammar.

We emerged from the lift into the sunshine around noon, dispelling my fear that we had become nocturnal while we toiled beneath the surface. We hadn’t been keeping a daily schedule, for sure; we had missed one night’s sleep out of every three or four. I insisted we spend one full day in the summer sun, resting in an Inquisition camp in the Hinterlands, before setting off for Skyhold.

Gwen had said something about sunlight being necessary for mental health, and the improvement I felt after only one day gave proof to her words.

I was still upset about Renn. I was still vaguely mistrustful of Gwen, of her level of acceptable losses, of her near-apathy at the possibility of Renn’s death. I was still worried about what other horrors lie ahead, for her to be so blasé about everything I had seen beneath the Deep Roads.

...but it was all tolerable, in the sunlight. There was always a potential for darkspawn to erupt from the earth at my feet, but it was back to an acceptable level of risk, rather than a near-surety.

There was a lot simmering in my mind, still; things only half-understood through the muted horror I had succumbed to. Renn had said things that drifted uneasily through my mind, but considering them was still tinged with sorrow at his passing.

...at my failure to save him, even when I knew his death was looming.

When we finally crested the last rise and Skyhold soared into view, I did a sweep for my phylactery and found it impossibly far to the north, far beyond Kirkwall. Before I could spare much thought for what in the Maker’s name my sister was up to, my phylactery abruptly moved, until it was only a few thousand paces away from me, somewhere in the pile of stone we called home.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was in Tevinter,” Dorian muttered at my elbow.

“We don’t know better,” I countered with a sigh. “And at the moment, I don’t care. I want a bath and a hug and a week’s sleep in my bed, and not necessarily in that order.”

“Then, by all means, let’s go get it.”

Chapter Text

Really, it was all too much.

I had my travel arranged before we’d even descended into the Deep Roads, and was more than ready to leave Skyhold with three days’ turnaround. If returning to the Magisterium wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned for this precise moment in my life, it at least made sense.

What I could not abide, what made no sense, was the mess my dearest friends seemed intent to sink their lives into.

I could not, in good conscience, leave this disaster festering behind me when I left for Minrathous. It was simply too much.

“You are an idiot,” I informed Gwen as I strode into her office. A check at her appointment book the day before had reassured me that she would be present, and alone. I was not wrong.

“And what makes you say that today, Dorian love?” she replied without skipping a beat. She was writing something in that language no one could decipher and didn’t so much as glance at me.

By Andraste, I would miss this little demon.

“All the effort I put into tripping you into bed with Commander Cullen and you’re going to throw it away for, what? A whim? A bygone principle of a world long deceased?”

She flinched, clenching the hand that gripped her quill in a move so obviously influenced by Cullen it almost made me smile. Almost.

“So he’s overprotective. First, you knew that coming in, and second, you did rather die. It’s not as if his fear of you doing something monumentally stupid and getting yourself killed is unfounded. For the Maker’s sake, you very nearly died the first time you Fade-Stepped. His is not an irrational fear.”

“It is not his protection I dislike, it is his overprotection,” Gwen practically spat at me. Goodness, I had touched a nerve. Fantastic.

“Right, right. And because he so desires you to stop your active attempts at suicide, he must be abandoned entirely. Was there no such thing as compromise on your world? Is it that alien of a concept?”

She drew in an angry breath, nares flaring, but I sprawled across the chair on the near side of her desk and didn’t give her a chance to respond.  “Given you have a decade of experience in the art of maintaining a relationship, and he has, oh, a few months, it does make sense that the man hasn’t quite grasped it yet. The whole trying to save the world bit probably didn’t improve the learning curve, since he was fairly occupied with his work and couldn’t focus all his attention on your rather particular needs. Of course, you could be helping him learn, rather than pushing him aside. But that would interfere with your Independent Woman shtick. Hate to disrupt that. Maker knows, that is why only you are ever allowed to withhold information; anyone else is a liar, but you are a, what’s your phrase? Ah yes, a special snowflake.”

Oh she was mad at me. The last time I’d seen her this angry, she’d punched a dwarf in the face. I let a barrier spell coalesce at my fingertips in case she launched across the desk.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with being an Independent Person, of course. You’re definitely strong enough for it. Surely that’s why Andraste picked you to be the sole decider of who hears what, when. But that would make you quite the ass for leading the good Commander on, with talk of love and after and the future. You’ve entered this from the standpoint of a life partner, not a brief fling, and if it really is just I don’t need anybody then you rather owe the man an apology.”

She leaned back, and for the first time a bit of the anger cooled into just the smallest touch of shame, or perhaps regret. Lovely. We were getting somewhere.

“But, no, this is something else, isn’t it? Something deeper? What a travesty, that such a beautiful relationship is being thrown out the window with absolutely no attempt made to salvage it. Honestly, I thought he meant something to you. Maker knows you mean the world to him. He’s never been allowed to own anything before. He even feels guilt for keeping books. It is such a shame that he never got the opportunity to learn how to possess someone’s love without imposing on their freedoms; more a shame that no one tried to teach him. The Templars sure did him no favors in that department.”

She flinched again. She was still angry – oh was she angry – but there were enough other emotions simmering behind the anger that I was confident I’d done my part.

“I would tell you I’m leaving, dear friend, but that droplet of blood you schemed out of me should tell you when I’m gone.” I pushed myself out of the chair as her face blanched. Good, a little regret and self-awareness had seeped in. There might be some hope after all. “You know how to find me.”

She stayed silent as I strode from the room, and I let the door close behind me with a very satisfactory sort of booming echo.

I straightened my seams and swept my hair back into place before making my way to the main hall. Cullen wouldn’t be free for another hour or two, and would be notably harder to put into place than Gwen had been.

 

*

 

“A moment of your time, my friend,” I called from the door, as politely as I could; which, honestly, wasn’t very polite at all by most peoples’ standards.

“Now is not the time, Dorian,” Cullen sighed.

“Well, given I only have another day or two before I leave, there really isn’t a time like the present.”

His eyes snapped up from his work – important, of course, but at this hour it was likely neither time-sensitive nor particularly critical – and I shrugged. “Leave?” he echoed.

“I’ve been summoned back to Minrathous, and given our little Seeress has announced Hellen has little need for a team between now and the spring of nine-forty-four, I have more reason to go than to stay.”

Cullen seemed temporarily at a loss. Charming. “I will miss our chess matches.”

“I will seek to improve while we are apart. Might I have a moment now?”

“Yes. Yes, of course. Please do come in.”

“Lovely.” I crossed the room and took the seat he indicated.

“When do you leave?”

I waved a hand to dismiss the notion. “Soon. Not tonight, however, which is why I’m here.”

“Oh?”

“Gwen is an idiot.”

He seemed torn between defending her and agreeing. Good.

“And, my friend, so are you.”

“Dorian, I-“

“With all due respect, you’re both wrong. And that’s perfectly acceptable, so long as you are both willing to come off your gallows and meet in the middle, rather than being hanged by your own pride.”

“You don’t know what you’re-“

“She is not from here, Cullen,” I spoke over him. “She has a fundamentally different set of principles than you or I or Hellen or most anyone else. She has wants and needs you cannot anticipate because they come from a place you cannot fathom. Add to that she’s now under the sway of a woman who has been dead for hundreds of years and you get someone so ridiculously unique that she will absolutely defy prediction. You cannot expect anything from her.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He had enough annoyance in his tone to almost mask the hurt, but I knew better.

“No.”

“So the point to this is...?”

“You’re treating her like a woman from Thedas. You’re going to lose her.”

He halfway rose from his desk. “Have you spoken with her? Is that what she said?”

I waved him back down. “Spoken to her, yes. She said very little. I think she was trying to kill me with her thoughts. That is neither here nor there. Have I ever steered you wrong with her?”

“No,” he admitted, sinking slowly back into his seat.

“Alright then. If she wants to kill herself, you have to let her.”

He surged to his feet again. “You cannot be serious.”

“She’s not suicidal, Cullen. She’s not going to take a knife to her own throat. But when she approached you after your return from Val Royeaux, she told you she’d been sent here by Andraste. She had already told you she had overcome her fear of loving again by deciding she wanted to live in the time she had left as fully as possible. Now she’s sharing her head with a woman who was burned to death in the name of her Maker. And I don’t think I need to remind you that she already died once and chose to return.”

“No, you don’t ever need to remind me of that,” he agreed sourly.

“Very well. She might die, Cullen. She might be dead right now.” We both shuddered slightly at the idea, and I was sure he reached out for his phylactery just as I did. She was well, but the thought...

“Can we agree to not-“

“No,” I interrupted. “No, that is the crux of the whole problem. She is not a bird in a cage, to be admired and only taken out when the room is secure. She must be allowed to fly, even if that means she must dodge the falcons unassisted; failing that, she will wither away.”

Cullen dropped heavily into his chair and dropped his head into his hands, elbows propped on the desk top. “You’re asking me to let her die. Again.”

“No. I’m telling you to come to grips with the simple fact that someday she will. You can accept your own death but not hers, and you are smothering her as a result.”

Cullen let out a long, grumbling sort of sigh. “It’s not that I doubt she will someday... die. It’s that she seems to refuse to take even a moment to consider a course of action. I fear she will throw her life away, be torn from us – from me – prematurely, in a way that could have been easily prevented.”

“And?” I prompted.

“And it’s stupid, Dorian.”

“Did I not say Gwen was an idiot?”

He snorted a laugh, and I allowed myself to smile at having caught him unawares.

“Do you love her?”

“Yes,” he answered, roughly.

“Do you want her?”

“Dorian-“

“Answer the question.”

“Yes,” his voice was the distant rumble of an avalanche.

“Then you have to figure out a way to keep her. And what you’re doing now is not it.”

“I’d rather she be alive,” he growled.

“Yes, we all would, and imposing restrictions on her has done so much to encourage her to be careful with her life, hasn’t it?”

He dropped his hands to the desk and glared at me.

“Gwen said once that a definition of insanity is to repeat an action and expect a different result. Caging her hasn’t worked, Cullen; she is contrary by nature. It is past time to try something else.”

He met my eye for a moment and then flinched away, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It is likely far too late for that.”

“That is possible,” I admitted. He exhaled, his breath shaking with dread. “But you cannot know unless you try.”

“And how do you propose I do that?”

“Have you asked her for help?”

“Help,” he repeated flatly. “Help with what? Should she reenact her death over and over until I become accustomed to it?”

“Don’t make me hurt you.”

“Well?”

“Maker’s breath, man. You go up to the woman you love, tell her you love her, that you would like to continue loving her, you have no idea how to make this right, and would she please help you figure this shit out. Do you think, after everything, that she doesn’t know what she wants? I’m quite sure she would tell you if she thought for an instant that you would listen.”

He seemed to decide upon and cast aside several responses before settling on honesty. “And what if she says what she wants is not me?”

“Then at least you would know you tried,” I answered. There was no way to soften that blow, and Gwen hadn’t been overwhelmingly demonstrative of her intentions.

Cullen leaned back in his chair, letting his head tip back so he could stare at the ceiling. I settled in to wait him out. Gwen I could leave to fester, knowing she’d eventually force herself into proper conclusions... or at least seek me out so I could redirect her again. Cullen, though, was almost guaranteed to spiral into doubt and despair, and we were sitting at the precipice.

“I am not ever going to be alright with her being in danger,” he said softly, some time later.

“When did you first meet her?”

He was quiet for another minute. “When Hellen carried her through Haven into the Chantry cells.”

“No, that was when you first saw her. When did you first meet her?”

“We didn’t actually speak until Krem was chasing her down for Sera during the long walk to Skyhold.”

“That’s not what I asked. When were you and her first both awake and interacting?”

“Haven, the day she woke up.”

“Alright. How did that go?”

He sighed, sounding very much put upon. “You were there, Dorian.”

“Humor me.”

He sighed again. “Bull brought her out when she woke up. She was... she should not have been moved, yet. Her eyes were unfocused, her color was poor, she could barely stand. I could not understand her words, and for a moment I didn’t recognize the language. Her accent was so different from any I had heard before, and to hear that language in her voice... I couldn’t place it. I remember being profoundly disappointed when I learned it was Qunlat, when I concluded she was a Viddathari, a spy.”

“If she was in such bad shape,” I prodded when he went silent for long enough I could assume he didn’t intend to speak further, “why was she out of bed?”

“To warn us,” he answered after another long pause.

“To warn us? Of what?”

“Andraste’s ashes, Dorian.”

“Answer the bloody question.”

“Corypheus,” he huffed, frustrated. “She got out of what could have been her death bed to warn me about Corypheus and start the evacuation of Haven.”

“The very first time you met her, she put herself into harm’s way,” I said it slowly, so he flinched at every word. “You didn’t have to believe her. None of us had to believe her. She had no way of knowing she wouldn’t be killed for being a spy. I think Bull intended to leave her in the snow, honestly. And she risked that because it was better to die trying to save innocents, trying to save us, than it was to keep herself safe.”

His jaw clenched until I could hear the joint pop and his teeth grind.

“She wanted to explore Skyhold, regardless of what might be living in the lower levels. She tried to go with the team into the Deep Roads to see where the plumbing went. She Fade Stepped to the Exalted Plains to help someone she knew full well would become the enemy, because maybe it would change his mind. I know I don’t have to remind you how she managed to not give a single fuck when there was an assassination contract out for her and you discovered a mountain of bodies outside the walls. And none of that is as bad as what happened in the Arbor Wilds or when the rift opened in Skyhold.”

He stayed silent.

“If you cannot come to grips with the idea that she will, continuously and gleefully, put herself directly into harm’s way, then you cannot accept her.”

His head snapped up at that, and the angry glare melted into astonishment.

“You cannot change who she is, Cullen. You cannot cage her.”

The look I got then was horror. Lovely. I managed to break him. All I wanted was to shake a little sense loose, and now I had full-blown remorse and borderline terror. Bloody Void.

“You have to talk to her. I don’t care if you grovel, but you have to do something. Maker’s mercy, have you been sleeping here again?”

He nodded, dumbly.

“Go home, idiot. Go home and fix this before it’s too late and you have to live knowing you didn’t do all you could to keep her.”

He pushed out of the chair again, although now his movements were rough and uncoordinated, as if he’d been struck off balance and everything else had tumbled into disarray alongside his worldview. He cast about for a moment, and even in total chaos his mind was still working feverishly. He grasped a small stone bowl from the casement, roughly wiped it out, and then thrust it towards me.

“Ice,” he demanded. He took a shaking breath, and then closed his eyes as he tilted his head. I could almost hear his inner monologue berating his manners. “Dorian, may I please have a ball of ice?”

“Do you have a headache again?” Could stress have brought on a resurgence of his withdrawal symptoms?

“Yes. No. It’s not the point. Just... please.”

I lifted my hand above the bowl and made a ball of ice to fill the vessel. He watched the ice form almost greedily, and then with scarcely a nod in my direction, turned and made for the exit.

“Thank you,” he said, as the door swung open. It boomed shut behind him and I was left sitting alone in his office, looking about a bit owlishly.

“I’m not entirely sure what just happened,” I confessed to the empty room. My voice seemed out of place here, and I did not linger.

They would either mend things or not, but I had done what I could to at least start the conversation. I had a friendly dinner scheduled with Anders, and I was actually going to make it on time, would wonders never cease. Even if we stayed late in the tavern, which was likely, I would have plenty of time for some beauty rest before my appointment for tea in the morning.

If today was open battle, tomorrow would be an assassin’s duel.

 

*

 

“While I am very sorry you will be leaving us soon,” Josephine said as she refilled my tea for the third time, “I am grateful you had a moment to converse with me. Hellen, I know, will miss you greatly.”

“It is my pleasure, Josephine,” I assured her. She was a lovely woman. “With everything you have done to help me over the past year or so, really, it was the least I could do.”

“I am flattered you think so,” she replied, with just a touch of coyness in her voice. Goodness, was she about to bring business into our goodbye tea? The woman was a hawk. “I would be amenable to continuing our friendly conversations once you have returned to Minrathous.”

“You understand it will be some time before I am in any position to help the Inquisition,” I reminded her mildly. Incorrigible, she was. “I can promise not to forget who gave me my start, but you might want to save those favors for a time I can actually repay them.”

“Oh of course,” she said. Maker, why did anyone think Leliana was the real threat? “I would just hate to fall out of touch.”

“I completely agree. Luckily for us all, Gwen got her claws in me and I won’t ever truly escape. Hellen and I are both helplessly entangled in our Seeress’ grasp.”

“Gwen is very good at creating opportunities for dialogue,” Josephine laughed. I immediately thought of three instances the statement could refer to directly, and imply half a dozen more. Dinner with Celene would be less carefully couched.

“Josephine, I admire you,” I confessed, setting my tea cup down on the settee. “You can rest assured that I will be building contacts in Tevinter for you to weave into your own web. We need not mince words.”

“Dorian! I would never-“

“Yes, yes, I know. Now. Let us speak plainly, yes?”

She set her cup silently into its saucer and held it demurely in her lap. “What do you wish to speak of?”

“You must know Hellen is my very best friend.”

Josephine sighed. “Yes, Dorian, I am well aware. Which means you must know that for us to speak of her with any sort of confidence is to wound her dearly. I would never discuss our relationship, not even with you.”

“Blast that,” I retorted, waving my hand. “That’s the entire problem.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Let’s not talk about Hellen, Josephine. Let’s talk about you. It is your reserve that I question, not Hellen’s.”

“I am afraid I do not follow your meaning.”

“I have never, not once, seen you and Hellen embrace. Why is that?”

Josephine studied her hands where they delicately held her teacup for long enough that I started to doubt she would answer. When she did speak, it was in a near-whisper, with a tone I had never heard from her before; dark and somehow vulnerable in a way I did not expect.

“Because Hellen would not want it. She did not tell me she loved me until after Copyheus had fallen, when it was the only way to keep me from marrying Lord Otranto. She is the Inquisitor and I the Inquisition’s Ambassador and I can do nothing here but follow her lead. She has made it plain she wishes discretion and I will abide by that.”

There was a hurt here, pain so deep as to be only rarely glimpsed. This was not a problem I could solve in day, and I was leaving the morning after next.

“She loves you, Josephine,” I said instead. “You haunt her thoughts every second she is away. She might be dreadful at confessing it to you, but please let me assure you of her devotion. She’s sick with love for you.”

Josephine blushed prettily and kept her eyes averted from mine. “I do not doubt her love.”

“You doubt her willingness to receive yours?”

She made no answer.

“If you believe nothing else I have ever said, trust me in this. She is keen to be loved by you. Avid.”

“Dorian.” Hellen’s voice in the doorway made my heart skip a beat. If Gwen was angry at my interference, Hellen would be homicidal.

“Hellen, darling, come here and have a cup of tea with us.” Josephine said, buying me a stay of execution.

I did not look up. If I looked I would see her standing by the door with murder on her face and then she could say I was fairly warned when she told Bull how she ripped me in half. Instead I focused on picking up my tea and assisting Josephine in pouring a cup for Hellen. I tried not to notice how intent Josephine was on keeping her own gaze carefully averted. It would have been funny if we weren’t both anxious messes.

Hellen eventually made her way to us, sitting down in one of two empty chairs in Josephine’s seating area. Josie always had room for more when she had a tête-à-tête planned. Josie handed Hellen her tea and I pointedly met the Inquisitor’s stony gaze.

No better way out than in.

“You cannot tell me I was lying.”

“Dorian.” It was a warning. I was too much like Gwen, however; threats were meant to be flaunted.

“Resist as you may like. I saw you snuggle that bear. You’re too softhearted to deny it.”

Hellen closed her eyes and sipped delicately at her tea, and a terrible idea leapt to life in my head. I absolutely had to run with it.

“Tell me how you feel about Josephine.”

Her eyes snapped open, as if she intended to pin me to my chair with her gaze. I settled deeper into the cushion and made sure my tea reached my mouth as nonchalantly as possible.

“That is not necessary, Master Pavus,” Josephine murmured. “Hellen need not be put on the spot for my sake.”

Oh, bless this Antivan. I had never seen Hellen take a shot to the heart before, but her shoulders curled minutely as if the words had physically wounded her.

“I am happy to be put on the spot for your sake,” Hellen argued immediately. “That is the best way to sum up my philosophy at Halamshiral, my mantra whenever I am tasked with meeting nobility. Your sake is my primary motivation, Josephine.”

Josie looked up at Hellen through fluttered lashes and I mentally calculated how quickly I could reach the door. My welcome was very soon to be overstayed.

“I love you,” Hellen told her, without a single tremor in her voice. She said it like it was a simple truth, as if she was explaining the sun rising in the east or the tides wearing away the shore. “I would kill for you. I would die for you. I would dance with the Empress of Orlais for you. I would lay down on this floor right now if you desired your feet to be warmer. I will shout it from the roof if you want. I announced it in the marketplace of Val Royeaux, Josie; it is no trouble to repeat it whenever and wherever you might wish to hear it. I love you. Endlessly, helplessly, breathlessly. I love you.”

Josephine blinked tears out of her eyes and stood, reaching for Hellen. Hellen stood and pulled Josie into her arms. I stood and got the fuck out of there.

Someone was crying behind me as the door to Josephine’s office swung shut – I refused to consider which woman it was – and I called over a guard to stand some distance from the actually doorway. “You might save a life by keeping anyone from coming through this door,” I encouraged, pressing a silver into his hand. “Do yourself a favor and don’t meet their eyes when they come out.”

As he quickly agreed, I straightened my clothing again and then detoured to my room. I was being a coward, it was true. I’d been a coward for months now. I paced my quarters, packed what little I had left, and cursed myself solidly before finally picking up the velvet-wrapped package on the top of my luggage and striding out into the settling dusk. I’d wasted most of the day; I could not dally any longer.

I’d done what I could for Hellen and Gwen, cleared my conscience for Cullen and Josephine.

Now I had to do myself the same service.

The Iron Bull was, blessedly, alone at his table when I entered the tavern. I did not let myself stop for breath or dramatic effect, because to pause would be to crumble. I strode directly to him, stopped at his feet, and pulled the dragon tooth out of the velvet.

I met his eye as I set it down on the table.

It did not take a genius to read what I found in his expression.

“I am leaving the morning after next,” I told him.

“You... you know what this means,” Bull said carefully, hefting the tooth. He never broke my gaze.

“I do.”

“You waited an awful long time, Kadan,” the Tal’Vashoth said as he rose slowly to his feet.

“Yes, well. Everyone’s entitled to some idiocy, Amatus. Even me. To be fair, however, I acquired that only recently. We killed enough dragons than an ordinary tooth wouldn’t do.”

He cracked a smile. “Is this from Hakkon?”

“Nothing but the best.”

He nodded, and I turned and left the tavern. I didn’t have to glance behind me to know that he was following close behind, the dragon tooth in his hand.

It would be harder to leave, now.

But I would leave no regrets.

Chapter Text

I had the refugees from Minanter Hollow settled in Val Royeaux – for the time being, at least – and the Chargers on the road back to Skyhold when I could no longer tell the difference between the feeling from Cullen’s phylactery and those of Hellen and Dorian. I wasn’t sure about precisely how sensitive the feeling would be, from so far away; I had gone back to try to salvage a few more things for Tempie, and I was so far north in the Free Marches as to be nearly in Tevinter. I Stepped back to Skyhold, to the top of the tower that held my rooms.

Cullen was in his office. Hellen and Dorian were at the top of the pass, most of the way home.

I was frozen for a long moment, trying to decide what I should do – what I would do. The brave thing would be to march into Cullen’s office and tell him I was back and open up a line of communication. The normal thing would be to wait in the courtyard and greet the team when it arrived. The cowardly thing to do would be to go to my office and pretend I’d been working.

I sighed, and made my way down to the courtyard. I hadn’t heard from Hellen in weeks; Wisdom had assured me that she was well in body if not in mind. I could get nothing else out of the spirit, not that it was her place to say; I would have to wait until Hellen was willing to open up to me.

“I love you,” the Inquisitor said, weakly, after spotting me in the courtyard and plodding directly toward me. “I don’t want to talk to you, though. Not yet.”

“That’s fair,” I assured her, and then stepped into a crushing sort of hug.

“Renn didn’t make it,” she whispered as she set me down.

“I’m sorry,” I answered, reaching out with both hands to grip her arm before she withdrew completely. “Oh, Hellen, I’m so sorry, I was hoping it might be different.”

She seemed to deflate slightly, and her expression lightened somewhat. “Me, too. I liked him.”

She was still closed to me, her face shuttered against exposing too much emotion here in the courtyard. She was upset – shaken in a way I wasn’t used to seeing from Hellen – but if she said she didn’t want to talk, I had to respect it. I squeezed her arm and then stepped back.

“Give me a couple days to get settled, get caught up on sleep, and then we’ll have a war- a council meeting.”

“Sounds good. I’ve got a pile of work waiting for me in the infirmary.”

Dorian and Cassandra had disappeared while Hellen and I spoke, but Cole took the spot Hellen vacated. His concern was more apparent upon his face than Hellen had allowed, and I quickly wrapped an arm around his shoulders and drew him with me out of the courtyard.

“I’m sorry,” I said as we walked. “Everyone around you is upset.”

He nodded, mutely. After another few steps, he shook his head and shrugged out of my arm and walked away.

Another problem to solve later. Dorian was probably pissed about the blood magic thing, since I’d brought it back to mind for him. Hellen was upset about any number of things, and Maker only knew how that would affect Josephine. Cullen and I were at odds. People were choosing whether to stay with the Inquisition or go back to their lives, and the prospect of hundreds of friendships dissolving around us was enough to make me uncomfortable, and I couldn’t feel it the way Cole could.

My statement about having work to catch up on wasn’t a lie, though. I had a half-dozen soldiers, injured when the rift opened in Skyhold, who were a bit magic-phobic and requested to be healed by my more mundane methods rather than be visited by Hellen or Anders. I agreed, both from the standpoint of the Right to Refuse that I respected back on my own world, and as a means to better document the way my willpower altered the healing process. All of them had fully recovered by now, but I had occasional check-ins still and the data didn’t analyze itself.

I was also hip-deep in the process of founding the healing college, and even with Josephine’s expert advice, the sheer amount of work to be done was daunting. Having to strap an information request to a raven and wait for a physical written reply to return either by messenger or bird was jarring, to say the least. I was wired for a digital world, and I had to relearn the art of letter writing. The temptation to just Step from place to place was overcome by Josephine’s assertion that I would cast myself in a negative light. The words she used were harsh, by Josephine’s standards – overeager, impulsive, improper, and unseemly. She went so far as to suggest my serving as my own messenger would come across as rude, not to mention impatient, and I would ultimately get a far worse deal than if I just let the ravens do their work.

There was a series of correspondence regarding current ownership of the manor in the Hinterlands I had my eye on. A similar pile of letters detailed who would be involved, to what extent, why, and, for what compensation. Both of these were utterly dwarfed by the mountain of paper dedicated to acquiring patronage. Who was paying how much was barely mentioned; instead it was my husband’s sudden death compels me, and fourth child to pass under the same circumstances, and anything to keep another soul from suffering my fate. The people who actually wanted to patronize the healing college for legitimate purposes were easily dealt with; they stated their desire to be involved, requested appropriate documentation for their stewards or seneschals, and that was that. The louder the sentiment, the more I tended to doubt them. Fucking Orlesians.

“Methinks thou doth protest too much,” was specifically forbidden from my letters by Josephine, although the saying did inspire a bit of a giggle.

I was mired in my daily replies – sometimes writing a single letter three times until my handwriting and verbiage was as polished as possible – when Dorian swept into my office. I assumed it was to tell me that Bull was due in the next afternoon, and perhaps to complain that I hadn’t yet dragged the sorrow out of Hellen. He was definitely going to yell at me about Cullen, I had no illusions there; but I did not expect the degree of sass that was leveled at me.

The templars sure did him no favors rang in my ears long after the door boomed shut behind Dorian.

God fucking damn it.

There wasn’t enough variety in Kingspeak to swear the length and breadth that I needed, not enough ways to blaspheme and rant; I immediately resorted to the curses of my youth. There was barely enough in English, and I had to start repeating before I felt I had properly vented my frustration over his being right.

And it wasn’t that I was wrong – that would probably be more tolerable, a complete one-eighty. I could just say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry,” and we could move on. Instead, I was right to be angry. Cullen had kept from me information about my world, information that could neither hurt nor help anyone but me, and that was worth being angry about. Cullen was being overprotective and restricting my freedom and of course that was something to be angry about.

No, what Dorian undercut was my reaction. I’d come up with a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I knew Cullen was reacting like a templar – I’d thrown it in his face in Val Royeaux – but how else should I expect him to act? Where did I get off, thinking it was reasonable to expect him to behave different than he had been trained for most of his life?

No, I wasn’t an asshole because I was angry over nothing. I was an asshole for having unreasonable expectations and for blowing up over it.

Okay. So. The moral high ground was lost. My high horse was dead; there was no reason to beat it. How the fuck did I move forward from here? Hey, Cullen, I’m still mad, and you’re still wrong, but I realize I could be a better person and forgive you for it? A sanctimonious asshole was still an asshole. Hey, Cullen, that Templar comment I made cuts both ways, and if I want you to act differently I should teach you? Better, maybe, but still patronizing as fuck – and not in the way I sought for my healing college.

I shoved aside my logs and my correspondence and started brainstorming things to say to Cullen. It was so easy when I was angry – my mouth opened and shit just fell out – but trying to make it better without making it worse was painfully difficult.

The sun was set and my stomach was beginning to remind me of the meal I’d missed when the door swung open. I instinctively looked up to see Cullen, flush-faced and wide-eyed in the doorway.

In his hands was a cup of ice.

Dorian, you meddlesome genius dickhole. Bless you.

I took the opening, pushing up to my feet. “Is your headache back? Are you okay?”

Cullen blushed and grimaced slightly. “No, the withdrawals are gone for good, I believe, or as much as they can be. I should have realized this would make you worry. I didn’t mean for it to.”

“Shut the door,” I bade him, as I stepped around the desk and gestured for him to bring me the ice. I watched a measure of tension ease off his shoulders as he pushed the door closed, threw the generally-unused bolt, and then crossed the room.

I let our hands touch as I took the ice from him, and he froze for half a heartbeat before letting his shoulders droop a bit lower. I took the ice out of the bowl, went back around my desk, and sat down with my hands in my lap, letting the ice chill my fingers. Cullen’s eyes were a bit glassy, but he sat down across the desk from me.

“I don’t think I was wrong,” I said, when he seemed to struggle for a minute to find words to begin. “Not in how I felt, at least. I was wrong to let it go for so long. I was wrong to blow up at you and then run away. I was an asshole and I am sorry.”

“You are an asshole,” Cullen agreed with a smirk, surprising a smile out of me, “but I did know that coming in, and you could surely say the same.”

I started to say much the same – that I’d known he was a templar coming in, to boot – but he raised both his hands to forestall me. “I didn’t get a word in edgewise, before. Can you just... let me talk for a bit?”

Asshole, asshole, asshole. “Absolutely.”

“We’re both here right now because of Dorian,” he said, and I nodded glumly. “But he’s leaving and we can’t count on him to set us straight anymore, so we need to get better about... this. We used to talk about us and have it not be a fight. At some point, I just assumed you knew everything, and I didn’t need to tell you anything, and that... well, that clearly didn’t work.”

The urge to immediately reply – even to agree – was nearly overwhelming. What was that quote? People didn’t listen to understand, they listened to reply? I willfully bit my tongue, nodded, and let him keep going.

“I’ve had weeks to think about everything you said, to try to determine where everything went wrong, and I keep coming back to... to that night in Halamshiral. Our first night. I spoke to you of not wanting to share you, and you said I was your chosen defender. Those words resonated with me, even if my reply at the time was flippant. Perhaps you didn’t mean it seriously, but I did; it was something that you needed from me, wanted of me, and I have clung to that. I have protected you, defended you, the only way I know how – with my body as your shield – and if you no longer desire that, then I am at a loss.”

He shifted in the chair, although I couldn’t imagine that he was even half as uncomfortable in the conversation as I was.

“As to not telling you about my conversations with Twitch... what I said before were excuses only. The assumption that you know everything I have done is a false one, as we’ve discovered time and again. There is nothing else for it but to apologize. You are right; you have always been open and honest about everyone’s pasts, including mine; you made it clear from the very beginning that you knew my history. I want you to know... it was through oversight, and not malice, that I kept this from you; if I had suspected, for even a moment, that telling you this would have helped rather than harmed, I would have done so immediately. Please, if nothing else, believe that.”

I waited until he nodded at me, and I could not reply quickly enough. “I do believe you.”

He nodded, clearly relieved. “I am sorry, Gwen.”

“Thank you,” I said, and then shook my head. “I always thought I was very forgiving, but perhaps I need to work harder. I accept your apology.”

“If it would help... I worry, that I might have overlooked something else, and wrongly assumed you knew something that would... I’m not even sure. If you want, if it would help, you could – look – for anything else I might have unwittingly concealed.”

I brought my hands – yet clutching the slowly melting ball of ice – up to my collar as I shook my head. “I don’t want to be that person. You’re allowed secrets, everyone is, I don’t want or need to peer into every corner of your life. Can we just agree, going forward, to be more open?”

As he nodded, I got the idea he had said his piece. He nodded again as I indicated I wanted to speak, and I worked to choose my words carefully. “I was upset about not being told, not because it was something you didn’t tell me, but because it changed the context of our relationship, in my mind. When I told you I had accepted I couldn’t go home, and you admitted you were relieved that I wouldn’t be focused on leaving Thedas... already, then, you knew I was a widow. It added a whole level of subtext to so many of our conversations, all those months ago, and I’m really uncomfortable about that.”

He closed his eyes as he nodded. “That’s fair. I wasn’t- I didn’t- I’m not a lecher, Gwen. I’m not an Orlesian games-player. I was genuinely glad you were coming to accept your being here without anyone having to tell you what you had left. I was hoping you would never have to know, even if that meant you still believed yourself married, and remained loyal to Patrick. I would rather you never got that memory back, never were... tormented as you were, even if that meant I never had a chance to love you.”

Well, fuck. I nodded as I worked to blink back tears. My hands were nearly numb; reaching up to brush my eyes dry wasn’t an option. I gestured with the ice before setting it back in its cup, and then rose from my chair to move around the desk and stand behind Cullen. He twisted as I walked and stood, catching my hands before I could thread them through his hair. He pulled my hands into his, raising them to his mouth to blow his warm breath across my fingers.

“It was a tactic only,” he whispered as he rubbed the feeling back into my fingers. “Something to buoy me into action and get me through the door. I apologize if my ploy added to your distress. Truly, I do not need you to address a headache, and I would rather we speak face to face.”

“I always worry that the withdrawals will come back,” I confessed. “I would rather you leave me than you die of something I could not cure you of.”

“As happened to Vivienne.”

“Just so.”

“I’m not leaving you,” he said, and as my heart seemed to skip a beat. “I can only hope you will say the same.”

“Yes,” I answered, and if the word didn’t come instantly, Cullen seemed to forgive my need to swallow three times before I was able to speak. And, Maker forgive me, if I had any reservations, they disappeared when he smiled.

“Gwen, I-“

“You’re right, you know,” I jumped in, shaking my head as he tried to talk over me. “No, I need to say this. You can have the floor again when I’m done.”

He shook with a soundless laugh, and then swung us both around so he could sit back down in the chair. I left my hands in his grasp – although he loosened his grip enough I could have pulled free easily if I had wanted – and perched on the edge of the desk in front of him. I tucked my feet at the edge of his chair, beside his left knee, and threaded his fingers through mine. I wasn’t done leeching the warmth back into my hands yet.

“What you said about being protecting me, you're right - we did agree that you would be by defender. I don't think that has changed, but since that night at Halamshiral, we’ve changed. I’ve changed. I’m sorry, but it’s true; Andraste changed me, yes, but I’m simply different now, to boot. I have been practicing my Steps, I can Look at where I’m going and see whether it’s currently safe and how likely it is to remain so. And, Cullen... I can’t take you with me. It doesn’t work that way. And I can’t just not use it. I have too much to do, too much good I can do, to sit here on my hands. I understand it’s not the end-all be-all solution to every problem in Thedas; Josephine has given me a few painful lessons illustrating its limitations. But just as I have to trust that you meant well when you didn’t tell me about my world, you have to trust me when I say I know what I’m doing, too.”

“How do I defend you, then?” Cullen countered. “Or is that going by the wayside?”

“Cullen, do I use a sword?”

He frowned at me, so deeply it bordered on a scowl. “Not that I’ve seen. Have you been practicing?”

“No. I don’t use a sword. Do I wear armor? Have I ever won a fight? That doesn’t include the time I sucker punched Bianca, that wasn’t a fight.”

“All of that is a large part of the reason I wish for you to not Step around Thedas, Gwen.”

“My two options for defense are good planning – which I can manage if I Look at where I’m going and I stay vigilant – and outright flight. I run from things, Cullen. It’s what I do. Sometimes it’s right and sometimes it’s wrong but it’s a definite trend in my behavior. Sometimes running isn’t going to work. I couldn’t run from Corypheus; I delayed him until you could run him through. I couldn’t run from the assassins in Skyhold; I relied on you and Cole and Leliana to keep me safe. I don’t think I’m invulnerable, I know I’m not immortal, and I’m not afraid to ask for help. I definitely do still need you to keep me safe... just, not every hour of every day. There's a huge grey area between not protecting me at all and smothering me.”

He was struggling with it. I could see the desire to compromise war with the need to protect. He opened his mouth twice to speak, thinking better of it both times, and then made a come at me gesture. “What should I do instead, then?”

“What could we do to fortify the manor in the Hinterlands without interfering with its growth potential?”

He blinked as I caught him off guard. He was brilliant, though – you don’t get to be Knight-Commander by the age of thirty by being dense – and he quickly followed in the direction the conversation has swung. Before he could answer, though – the question was rhetorical; we could circle back around to it – I pressed the issue.

“How could I assemble a team to counter Solas and assist with the Inquisitor’s campaigns without tying them to myself or the Inquisition? Where could we meet? What, reasonably, could I get away with? If you want to work to rehabilitate other lyrium-addicted templars, could we do that in conjunction with the healing college? Should they remain separate, out of consideration for the templars in recovery, or could both groups benefit from each other? If I were to step to Kirkwall, is there someplace you would rather me go than Hawke’s manor? Because that’s where I’ve been staying, and I would love to be able to talk to you about it, instead of feeling like I'm sneaking around.”

He was nodding as I spoke, and he laughed as I finished. “I would much rather you stay with Aveline Vallen. Nothing interesting ever happens in her home.”

“You’re probably right; I don’t even know where that is!” I said. “Do you get what I’m saying? You can protect me in a thousand ways without standing right next to me, with the sheer magnitude of your mind. And when I do need a sword? I can promise I will come to you first. Even moreso now that I’ve changed my relationship with the Chargers.”

“While I see your point, what makes my knowledge better than your ability to See the truth?”

“I have to See it,” I countered. “When I Step somewhere, I See my own immediate future, and I can See what will happen should I Step to a place. If it’s been trapped or someone’s lying in wait, I can See them. It’s a narrow enough field that it’s manageable. But being able to pick out who is trustworthy in an entire city? I’m sure Andraste could do it, but that’s just too many lines of possibility for me to parse. I can’t see them all and compare them. That’s not the way it works.”

He just looked at me. He held my hands and gazed up at my face and just looked at me, his face calm but otherwise unreadable.

“Where else have you been?” he asked, after many long moments had passed.

“I rode the lift into the Deep Roads with Hellen,” I said, and paused when he flinched. After a moment, he nodded for me continue. “I Fade Stepped to the Free Marches, to the middle of the camp the Chargers made with the refugees from Minanter Hollow.”

“You sent them ahead and then Stepped to them?”

It was my turn to nod. “I watched for Dalish in the Fade, and they gave her a sleeping draught when it was safe for me to join them.”

He took a long, shaking sort of breath. “If I may ask, why did they need you there?”

“I delivered Tempie’s baby,” I answered. “That was rather out of Stitches’ pay grade.”

He coughed a laugh. “What did she have?”

“A boy.”

He took another long breath. “Tell me about it.”

So I did. I gave him the whole tale of Minanter Hollow, and when I was finished I told him about my trip to Kirkwall, and how it led me to a scion of house Trevelyan in the coastal lowlands west of Ostwick. I told him about Hellen’s trip below the Deep Roads, and the pain she’d brought home with her that I hadn’t been able to help her with. I told him about my plans for the Chargers, and my plan for Twitch.

Somewhere in the midst of the talking, I forgot to be defensive. I forgot that I was trying to justify these trips to Cullen, and started just telling him about them. He listened, and he asked thoughtful questions, and he didn’t once criticize one of my decisions. Tentatively, at first at least, he suggested things to try in my future endeavors. He mentioned a location close to the manor in the Hinterlands where he and Cassandra could begin their work to reform the Templar order, and ways the two groups could be kept separate enough. He had many ideas for fortification of the area, as well as several suggestions for ways to keep my strike team of might-have-beens out of scrutiny.

It was late – probably nearly midnight – when he looked at my desk and sighed. “I left a mess in my office.”

I followed the line of his gaze. “Yeah, me too.”

He seemed to hesitate – for the first time in hours – and Maker take me if I didn’t love those little glimpses at how awkward he could be. “I could- er, Dorian said I should- What I mean to say is, I know you haven’t been in Skyhold much, but I’ve been, ah, sleeping in my office. Should I-“

“Come home,” I told him, and his shoulders immediately sagged with relief. “But first, we both have offices to clean. Do you want to go pick up your work, and just meet me at home?”

He slowly shook his head, no. “I know it’s foolish, but I don’t want- I’m not convinced that- ugh. I’ve gone so long without you, I’m not ready to walk away from you again just yet.”

“I’ll clean up here, and come with you to your office, and then we’ll go home together,” I said with a smile.

“Thank you.”

I pulled my hands free, slid off the edge of the desk, and made quick work of putting away my logs, letters, and ledgers. Most of it was written in English, but I didn’t harbor the fantasy that I was the only person in Thedas who could read it. That, and the correspondences were between the Inquisition and many wealthy people; somebody like Charter or Leliana could absolutely find a way to leverage them.

I tucked everything back into a locking drawer, turned the key, and then gestured to the door to indicate that we could be off.

Cullen reached up with those lightning reflexes of his and caught my hand as I waved doorward. He pulled me towards him, and I grinned at him as I allowed myself to be reeled into his embrace.

“Stay with me,” he whispered as he touched his forehead to mine.

“I cannot promise it,” I answered, and felt his breath catch. “But I will aspire to it. I love you.”

“I love you, too. What do you mean, you will aspire to it?”

“Patrick and I promised forever,” I explained, giving myself a moment to feel a twinge at how I had always been so grateful that Cullen didn’t mind me talking about Patrick; he’d known Patrick was dead for almost as long as he’d known me. That discomfort was going to take a long time to fade completely. “And... well, I know better now. All relationships end; some better than others, of course, but ultimately forever isn’t a healthy goal. But, at the same time... even knowing a house will someday, inevitably, crumble doesn’t make it a worthless endeavor to build in the first place.”

“Forget I asked,” Cullen laughed, turning away and pulling me into motion beside him. “We’ve only just mended a rift; we can debate the definition of forever another night.”

He did have a point, and I let it stand. I rather thought he would like the conclusion I had reached, though – that, even knowing I was likely to become a widow again, I preferred to build a life with him than to live with one foot out the door. The cavernous failure that had loomed at my feet when I’d walked into Anders’ moment with Rheyna had been a resounding wake-up call. I’d spent these past months in a Dixie Chicks song, constantly ready to run. Instead of taking our mistakes as opportunities to grow, I’d taken them as reasons to flee.

And, yeah, Cullen fucked up. He lied and he smothered and he didn’t communicate and things went south. Did I think he was perfect? Did I really expect him to not be human, after everything? Did I think I was flawless and the easiest person to live with, or did I expect some forgiveness sometimes, too?

We won’t stay together forever, is what I wanted to tell him. Nobody does. But for better or worse, I’ll love you for the rest of my life, and I won’t give up again without a fight.

I wasn’t ready to marry him. I was, however, finally willing to double down and build a relationship that could lead to a mabari best man in the courtyard of Halamshiral.

Tonight, though, I followed in his wake to his office, where he ordered his paperwork in a rush. He tucked my hand through his elbow and escorted me back to our apartment – as he had that night, all those months ago, when I first convinced him to let me help with his nightmares. I helped him shuck his armor, and pulled him to the bed we hadn’t shared in weeks. He wound his arms around me, I drew his head down to rest on the hollow of my shoulder, and I decided to truly sleep, for the first time since I’d left Val Royeaux, and reflexively Looked for incoming disturbances.

Above us, on the roof, Cole dropped a balefire flask into the bowl and loosened his daggers in their sheaths, settling in to guard our sleep. He’d found some measure of peace, and that – more than anything else – reassured me that all was right in my world. Cullen’s breathing was already slow and steady; I closed my eyes and followed him into dreamless oblivion.

Chapter Text

Aillis was a great help in those first days in Skyhold. Eamon was usually with Cullen, so I opted not to see my other templar Friend, but I wanted for nothing with Aillis around.

She showed me around the keep as best as she could, and taught me all the places I might find Anders. He was frequently to be found haunting a tower everyone called “Gwen’s Tower,” although it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that was because all the rooms in it were hers.

I was in Skyhold for only a few hours before I was treated with the revelation that was Rheyna: Solona Amell’s once-Tranquil sister. Aillis was a lifesaver, getting me a chair and a stiff drink as a younger, somehow more volatile, but infinitely more cheerful version of Solona explained to me how Gwen had “woken her up” from Tranquility. It didn’t take long for me to realize Anders’ fond smile wasn’t just for the Tranquility cure, but also for the young woman it had been applied to. I hadn’t seen my old friend smitten before, but it was definitely a good look on him.

Aillis had work to do, though, and she wasn’t always available during waking hours. Thankfully, I had Anders to take me under his wing, because the entirety of the Inquisition was flatly unbelievable. If I hadn’t already been forced to come to grips with Twitch’s eccentricities, the Herald and the Inquisitor would have been beyond belief. It took days for Anders to relate the results of his studies of Gwen, and then we started on the anchor itself and the rifts that still lingered in some of the farther reaches of Southern Thedas.

Somehow, Anders had become friends with Twitch; as had Hawke and Alistair, both of whom I’d only missed seeing by a matter of weeks. Our talks shifted over the course of that first week to be less about the legends we’d surrounded ourselves with and more about our own lives and studies.

Anders gave me an abbreviated summation of the ten years he’d spent in Kirkwall, and I alluded to my years in Denerim before telling the story of my escape to and from Amaranthine in lavish detail. It gave me an excuse to talk about Twitch, after all, and as the days dragged on without word, he was weighing more and more on my mind.

We were sitting at a table at the Herald’s Rest when Anders stopped speaking mid-sentence and cocked his head to the side. We’d been discussing the differences between necromantic magic in Ferelden, Orlais, and Nevarra, but it was immediately discarded.

“My phylactery is here.”

He’d spoken of Gwen’s armband of phylacteries and her ability to Fade Step for increasingly long distances, but I hadn’t actually put the two together in my mind yet. The idea of a phylactery suddenly appearing was disconcerting to say the least.

I’d never hated the concept of a phylactery like Solona had, but I also hadn’t thought much about leaving the Circle before I actually left. She’d destroyed my phylactery shortly after my escape, so it hadn’t ever haunted me like it probably had her and Anders. On the other hand, she'd never worried about Templars the way I had, so it probably evened out. I knew the Chantry-made phylacteries were different than what Gwen was using, but it was still a lot to unpack. I wasn’t sure how I felt about any of it.

I was pretty sure, however, that I wouldn’t mind having a better idea of where Twitch was.

“She’s weeks behind on correspondence for the school, so she’s likely in her office, in the infirmary. You should let her know you’re here.”

I hadn’t unpacked how I felt about Gwen yet, either. “How about you go tell her I’m here, so that I’m not trapped in your shemlen conversation about university patronage and land acquisition. That sounds like the worst third wheel, ever.”

He laughed and pushed up from his seat. “Fair enough. I’ll find out how long she intends to stay and try to make you an appointment to meet with her. She’s fascinating, Opie; you just need to get to know her a bit.”

I waved him off and he bounded out of the room with a laugh.

I went to the bar for another drink – the bartender, Cabot, was serving tea cold, poured over ice from the glacier and I was immediately enamored of it – and as I sat down, someone else dropped into the seat across from me, that Anders had vacated. I’d been watching my seat and the table top and my mug as I moved – having gone hungry too many times to ever be nonchalant about spillage – so the path my eyes took up to the face of my uninvited company was of the bottom-up variety.

Her boots and pants and the bottom of her cloak all screamed alienage, with the subtle patching and fine stitchwork that my People used to convert abject poverty into art. More importantly, it was Denerim alienage work – my sister, specifically, or someone she’d taught; I recognized the stylized embrium leaf Kyler favored in the corners of the embroidery.

The sword at her waist had been owned by my aunt, Adaia, and the hand resting on the hilt was almost as familiar as my own. I took in her carefully maintained leather jerkin and the bit of red cloth she always kept stitched into her collar before meeting the amber eyes of my cousin. Her hair was hidden beneath her hood, but a single ginger coil of her flaming mane curled at her right temple.

“Do I get a chance to explain?” I asked, in lieu of a greeting. “Or, better, a running head start? Ten seconds would be sporting.”

Senna Tabris rested her elbow on the table and propped her chin into one cupped hand, to gaze at me a bit sideways. “I love you. You know that, right?”

Oh, this was not good. “I do. And I will remember that you love me during and after the ass beating I’ve apparently got coming.”

“I can’t whip you,” Senna countered. “Kyler would shank me when I got back. You kicked her into a frenzy, disappearing like you did. Again. And whatever letter you sent her dropped her into a three-day crying fit. Once she pulled it together, she started sparring again, like she hasn’t done since she got pregnant with Alois. So, no, the severe ass beating you have coming is not mine to dole out.”

“I would rather it be you than Kyler,” I told her. I was completely honest, too. Kyler would get emotional and carried away; someone would probably need to step in or I would have to actually defend myself. Senna would give me a solid thrashing and then call it good.

“And that’s why I’m not fighting it.”

“Thanks, Senna.” I waved for Cabot to bring her a mug of the tea I was drinking, and then turned my attention back to her. “So why come in person if not to partake in our rich history of intrafamily assault?”

“You abandoned your family because you didn’t want to hear a shemlen was dead. A shemlen who was still very much alive.”

“When you say it like that-“

“A shemlen you apparently never had a romantic relationship with, but who was welcomed into our home. Our clan.”

“I might not have had a rela-“

“You’re a mage, Kaiopi.” Her use of my birth name hurt more than I thought it would, since it was Senna who had suggested I take on the name Tabris. “You disappeared, alone, in the middle of a war between mages and templars. No forwarding address. We spent years building up our Friends, and you abandoned them. You cut us all off. For a shem.”

She threaded her fingers together and set her hands, white-knuckled, on the table in front of her. She glanced at the mug one of Cabot’s servers brought and then focused right back on me. It was all I could do to keep my hands on my mug, and not bring them up to cover my face. Senna had been the head of our clan since my uncle Cyrion had died; she was delivering the censure of the entire family. The disappointment in her voice was meant to convey the feelings of every member of my kin I’d left behind in Denerim, and Maker if she wasn’t doing a damn fine job of it.

“I sent Hank here to rough him up, in your name. Was I wrong?”

“Given the information you had-“

“Was I wrong?”

“Yes.”

“And he’s the one who expended resources to find you.”

“Yes.”

“Made more difficult by Sera’s trying to help.”

“Yes.”

“And you wouldn’t have returned for us – for Kyler or the children or me or the Friends. You would only come back for the shem. If he was alive.”

“No. Eventually I would have-“

“Kaiopi.”

I let my jaw snap shut. The answer she wanted was not one I was willing to give her. I would have come home… eventually. Most likely. I was almost completely sure.

“So, the shem didn’t do anything to drive you away. He is literally the only thing that could have brought you home. Which he did.”

“Yes.”

"A shem reunited our family."

"Yes."

“Do you know he’s been sending money to Gil? And Hank?”

“I knew about Hank, but I didn’t know about Gil, no. For how long?”

“Since he pulled you out of Amaranthine.”

“Ah, fuck.”

“Kaiopi. What the actual fuck.”

“We were dumb, okay? We… we were just dumb. We only just talked about it a few weeks ago. He didn’t realize I loved him. I assumed he loved me and that was holding me at arm’s length and we-“

“I don’t need the sordid details. The point is that I hate being indebted up to my asshole to a shemlen, and it looks terrible for Shianni’s family to be dependent on the shem who reportedly chased away Cousin Ophelia. Do you understand?”

“Fuck politics, Senna. But yes. Yes, I understand.”

“How am I spinning this? Is it blood gold? Is it a life debt? Why the fuck is the shem sending money?”

“His whole family is dead,” I reminded her. She immediately nodded. “We took him in. He’s a good guy. Why can’t that be enough?”

It was a dumb question, I knew. The flat look she gave me was all the reminder I needed about the dangers of shem in the alienage, Solona Amell being a friend of elves or not.

“He loves me,” I offered, instead. “We talked, and we love each other, and we’re going to try to make a run at this.”

“So I can say the money’s actually been from you, and you didn’t want your sister to realize you’d eloped.”

“What? No! We aren’t-“

“The money’s from you,” she said, in a tone that brokered no argument. “And I’ll get the others to back it up. That will make the ass-kicking you get from Kyler when you finally come home seem all the more believable. You better bring him with you, Opie. Where is he now? Can I talk to him?”

“I’m not sure where he is,” I admitted. It might have been from a breath of false confidence, born when she called me Opie instead of Kaiopi, but it was clearly the wrong answer. Her expression went blank and she stared at me flatly.

“What.”

“He’s still in the Chargers, and they’re on assignment up north somewhere. Marches, I think. I’m waiting for news.”

She blinked at me. Once. Slowly.

“Gwen knows where he is. We can ask her? She just got back, and I haven’t wanted to meet with her yet.”

Senna nodded, and then scowled at the mug at her elbow. “Who’s a big enough asshole to make money off cold tea?”

“It’s good. Waste not, want not, Senna.”

She pushed up from the table. “I didn’t order it.”

I was in no position to argue with Senna; not today. We’d always been on more or less equal footing before now, but I’d never forced her into speaking for the family before, either. I reached for my belt pouch for coins for the tea as I stood in Senna’s wake, but a hand to my elbow stopped me.

“Please, Enchanter Surana, allow me,” a familiar voice said. I looked up to meet the familiar green gaze of Knight-Captain Eamon. His hair was clipped short enough that the ginger seemed like a thin carpet more than the unruly mop I had known in Val Royeaux, but I would recognize his eyes anywhere. “I was about to order an iced tea, you’ve saved me the trouble.”

“Thank you, Knight-Captain.”

“Another shem, Kaiopi?” Senna sneered. She wasn’t usually this bad; I’d thought having Twitch in the family had eased her hostility towards shemlen, but perhaps her anger with me was goading her on. Or maybe the grief she’d been catching in the alienage – for getting money from a shem – was worse than she had implied.

“This is my Friend, Eamon,” I countered, gently. “He is one of the two Templars who helped me get to Val Royeaux, during the war. They came to Skyhold looking for Sera after Haven fell.”

Her face cleared, abruptly, and I was relieved to see a measure of shame color her cheeks. “My apologies, Friend. Enjoy your tea.”

“A friend of Enchanter Surana’s is a friend of mine,” he said, intentionally leaving off the emphasis generally used by the Jennies. It knocked Senna down another notch, which was a relief for me; she seemed to be coming to her senses.

“I need to take my cousin here to meet Lady Gwen,” I told Eamon. “Can you tell me how to find her?”

“Infirmary,” he answered, and gave me simple directions on how to find it. “If she’s not there, you might go speak with Charter, in the rookery. I know she’s always happy to meet a new Friend.”

I had no desire to meet the spymaster – anyone Leliana felt comfortable leaving in charge wasn’t anybody I was ready to spar with – but there seemed to be more to Eamon’s suggestion that I couldn’t suss out. I thanked him, and then quickly followed Senna out the door.

“I’m sorry, I got carried away,” she said as we strode across the courtyard. “I was angry and shamed and I allowed it to color my judgment.”

“I had a hard time with it at first, too,” I replied. “I kept wondering what everything was going to cost me, until I spent a few days with Anders and Rheyna. The world is changing, though. There is elven nobility in both Ferelden and Orlais. The Inquisitor is a Vashoth apostate. I had a private audience with the Divine. It might come to Denerim slower, but here? Senna, look, we’re two elves walking across the courtyard together. Armed. Look! Look!  Nobody’s watching. Nobody cares.”

She sighed and nodded. “It is different, in the alienage.”

“Maybe you should come out of the alienage for awhile.”

She lifted her hands and gestured around as we walked. “Look at me, out of the alienage.”

“You know what I mean.”

She sighed and nodded, if a bit begrudgingly. “Given the letter I received from this Gwen person, asking to meet with me, I have to agree with you about the world changing.”

“Gwen wrote you?”

“What, you think I came all the way here just to chastise you? I could have sent for you, made you come home, and done it under the Vhenadahl.”

“Fuck you, you would not.”

She grinned at me, from under the corner of her hood, and suddenly everything was right again.

“No, but it’s a great thought. I’ll definitely suggest it to Kyler.”

“Fuck you, Senna. I changed my mind. Go home.”

We laughed the rest of the way to the infirmary.

The Lady Gwen, Blessed Herald of Andraste, was sitting at her desk, watching with unmasked amusement as Anders animatedly suggested what sounded like a new school of alchemical thought.

“It does actually work, Anders,” Gwen told him when he stopped to breathe. “The problem is in the dosing. We don’t have the means – especially in the field – to get a small enough dosage to avoid toxicity. It isn’t feasible yet, but not for any reasons that require experimentation. What you’re proposing wouldn’t help with heart function so much as it would make someone trip balls.”

“Trip balls?”

I barely restrained a snort of laughter as Senna echoed the phrase.

Anders spun around as Gwen sat up in her chair. She’d noticed us when we’d come in, of course, but as we loitered near the door she hadn’t interrupted her conversation to acknowledge us yet. And, who knows, maybe she was used to people coming into her infirmary just to stare at her.

“Willfully partake in a substance for hallucinogenic purposes, rather than medicinal,” Gwen clarified, with that odd accent I’d rarely ever heard from Twitch.

Senna nodded as she studied the human behind the desk. “I know what it means. I’ve only ever heard Twitch say it, though.”

Gwen’s eyes widened. “Opie, is this some family of yours?”

“My cousin,” I answered with a nod. “Senna. She says you sent for her?”

Gwen lept out of her chair as the whites of her eyes suddenly glowed lyrium blue. She didn’t glance away from Senna once as she circled around her desk, gently shoved Anders out of the way, and strode over to face my cousin.

She was less imposing in this setting, although I suppose the Grand Cathedral is rather meant to have that effect on people. She was in simple but nicely fitted brown clothing – boots, pants, jerkin – under a crisp white tunic, embroidered with what looked like healer’s insignia. Her hair was braided into a long plait over one shoulder, and the result was a far more approachable visage than the cowled-and-robed figure of white she had cut in Val Royeaux.

“That is Adaia’s sword you bear,” Gwen said softly, as the glow faded from her brown eyes.

Senna’s eyebrows shot up, and I saw her shoulders actually sag. One sentence, and this stranger had disarmed my cousin. I felt the hair go up on the back of my neck, and I took a step back as I met Anders’ eyes. He had a clear I told you so look on his face, and he nodded his understanding at me.

“You know of my mother?”

Gwen nodded. “Of course. She impressed Warden Duncan, she met the Divine long before she became Victoria. No family should suffer as hers has,” her answer, somehow – impossibly – creeping me out more. “It is only logical that the sort of strength I seek in this world would come from her line.”

Senna was impressed, and swayed, but never dumb. A perfect first impression was not enough to buy unquestionable loyalty, especially not from some noble shem. “What could someone like you need from someone like me?” Senna asked, and I allowed myself a measure of pride in her counter.

“I can See things,” Gwen said, gesturing to the chairs by her desk, and encouraging us both to sit before seating herself on the other side. Anders perched on one of the many crisply made beds, his feet swinging almost childishly as he listened. “But I am not a mage, not a fighter, and only barely a diplomat. I can See what might come, but there is little I can do to alter or assist it. I am but one woman. But you, and your cousin Ophelia, and your Friends? If I could enlist your aid, I could create real change in the world.”

“Why me?”

Gwen smiled. “What if Warden Duncan had gone to the alienage in Denerim for his last recruiting mission, knowing the strength of Adaia's line? What if he, and not Ophelia, had come to your aid? Would you have joined the Wardens to pay that debt?”

“Yes,” Senna answered, immediately. Almost eagerly. I wasn’t surprised; before Ostagar, joining the Wardens had been my own plan.

“And Ferelden would have been as well served by you as it was by Solona Amell,” Gwen said. It was odd, how she could be so matter-of-fact about something so clearly rhetorical. “There were seven of you; seven people who could have served as the leader of the Wardens who saved Ferelden. You and your cousin Ophelia are two. Solona, obviously, is a third. There was another elf, a Dalish, who did not survive the Blight. Two dwarves and another human round out the set. It is that potential I am looking for. I want you, Senna, because I know you are one of the most capable people in Southern Thedas.”

“Three elves?” Senna clarified carefully. “Three elves, two humans, and two dwarves?”

Gwen smiled. “Three elves,” she confirmed softly. "Just as the Inquisitor is Vashoth and the last Inquisitor before her an elf; a round ear is not a requirement for greatness."

Senna sunk into her chair and seemed to seriously consider the woman’s words. There was no way to verify much of what she said; it could just as easily be pure flattery, smoke blown up our asses to dupe the poor knife ears. Something about the grin on Anders’ face disabused me of that notion, though. And Twitch… Twitch had built his life around making sure this woman survived. That would count for almost as much with Senna as it had with me.

“So, what?” Senna said after a long time in thought. “I move here, and jump when you point a finger?”

Gwen shook her head, adamantly, no. “There is little that needs done, at the time being. For now, I am gathering people. Introducing them to each other. Learning. The teams and jobs will come later. It will not be too dissimilar to the Friends of Red Jenny, if on a larger scale. For now, it is better to upset your life as little as possible, best not to widely broadcast you have a tie to me. I am not asking for altruism; I will pay for your time and the risks being associated with me brings.”

“Risk?” Senna’s ears twitched, and I knew all was lost. Whatever Gwen was plotting, Senna was going to throw her lot in with the demure shemlen behind the desk, if only for the concept of paid excitement. With Twitch and Senna both involved, there was no way I would stay out of it, even if I wanted to. In spite of everything, I wasn't sure I wanted to.

Gwen nodded, a bit grimly. “You’re the first I’ve spoken to openly about this. I hadn’t had a chance, yet, to speak much with your cousin Ophelia, although I’m sure Twitch suspects more than he lets on. I don’t have systems in place yet, protections I am confident of, nothing concrete. That is something I will want your input on – how to keep you and your family safe, extend that safety to the others we recruit later, and still create the change we want to see in the world.”

She could not have pitched this better to sell it to Senna.

This little shem was dangerous.

“Another member of our family is the Denerim Jenny,” Senna offered up, verifying my suspicion that she was sold on the idea of working for Gwen. “I have many suggestions for keeping your contacts anonymous.”

Gwen beamed at her, and I sighed with resignation. “Alright, so you’ve got the Tabris’, Lady Herald. Before you and Senna lay too much ground work… may I request a boon?”

“Whatever is within my power,” Gwen promised immediately. Senna’s brows lifted and I sighed again.

“Where is Twitch?”

Gwen grinned at me. “He is en route to Minanter Hollow. There is a conflict brewing between the elves there and some of the human traders. Also, another of my fellow refugees is there, and very pregnant. I sent the Chargers to protect the civilians and try to diffuse the situation. He will be away for some weeks still.”

I gestured to Senna, but she was frowning at Gwen. “Who, exactly, are the Chargers protecting? What do you consider a civilian?”

Gwen set her jaw, met Senna’s eyes, and lifted her voice a bit. “In this case, the elves, Senna. And what humans are redeemable.”

“And you sent them to defend elves, why?”

Gwen sighed. “There was a great woman in the literature of my world who said, those who don’t wield blades can still die upon them. I will defend any civilians because it is the right thing to do, regardless of their race. Do I have a long game? Of course. I need the cooperation of the elves if I want to be successful. But do not doubt me when I say I have lived through the utter devastation of one world and I will not allow it to happen again. Those are the stakes I am playing for, Senna Tabris; I am trying to save us all from something worse than the Breach. I will not stop and look at the shape of an ear or the distance it sits from the ground when determining if someone is worth saving.”

 There was a fierce light, then, in my cousin’s eyes, as she nodded slowly at Gwen’s words. “The alienage needs a dedicated healer.”

“I’m opening a college for healing, south of Redcliffe. One of your people will be in the first class. I can send someone there in the meantime, if you like. Just tell me who in the alienage would best serve.”

“The alienage needs-“

“Make a list.”

“What?”

“Write me up a list, and we’ll take them one at a time and figure out how to fill those needs without drawing too much attention to the alienage in Denerim. I will get Divine Victoria involved, and perhaps all the alienages in Southern Thedas can be improved upon, so that the happenings in Denerim go unnoticed.”

“You have yourself a deal,” Senna declared, standing up and offering Gwen her hand.

Gwen rose to her feet and quickly clasped wrists with Senna. “Stay as long as you like in Skyhold, and when you are ready to go back to Denerim, you will go with whatever you need to begin protecting your family.”

 

*

 

Senna, as it turned out, liked staying in Skyhold quite a bit. We were given the run of the place, and after a few days of sleeping in barracks and questionably public areas (thanks to a particularly rowdy night at the ‘Rest with Aillis and the Lieutenant who had stopped me when I’d arrived, Killeen) we were encouraged to take rooms.

I wanted a room near Anders, thinking Senna and I could share a larger space by the garden. Senna was colder blooded than I – and unaided by a proclivity towards fire magics – and wanted something a bit more protected from the sure-to-be-brutal winters this high in the mountains.

I doubted she would still be in Skyhold that winter. She doubted she wanted to share a space with Twitch and I when he returned. I countered that he likely had his own space. She contended he shared a barracks with the Chargers. Anders got sick of our back-and-forth and got Josephine involved, and then we had a suite in the level beneath the main hall, with three bedrooms connected by a communal space. There was a water closet meant to be shared by the three bedrooms, which Josephine actually apologized for; as if this wasn’t more luxurious than anything we had ever been able to call our own before.

“We’ve got a whole room that’s just for pooping and washing.” Senna whispered to me as we sat, alone and a bit flummoxed, in our new Skyhold apartment.

“Anders says the plumbing keeps the plague away.”

“Fuck the plague. I was thinking we’d have to walk out to one of the towers to use the loo. I hadn’t seen a chamber pot anywhere. Do you know how much I was dreading that hike come winter? The draft in the garderobe at the Palace in Denerim is vile.”

“Wait, have you been using the loo in that one tower the whole time you’ve been here?”

“Well, yeah. I didn’t know they had so many!”

We made it a point to explore Skyhold a bit more thoroughly after that revelation, and I longed for Twitch to be there, to answer the more complicated questions. Anders was only occasionally helpful, as he had one too many irons in the fire and was constantly ensconced in either his studies or his slow courtship of Rheyna.

Rheyna, on the other hand, was a spectacular guide. She had retained everything she had learned as a Tranquil, and disseminated that information with a sort of joy that was endearing. She was like a perpetually happy Solona; she wasn’t a substitute for her absent sister, but she was quickly my friend in her own right. She immediately and thoroughly creeped out Senna, but my cousin had met Solona a few times and was mollified by the similarity enough to keep her peace.

Gwen spent little time in Skyhold, owed largely to the aftermath of her fight with Cullen in Val Royeaux. I managed to avoid the Commander entirely, as he was a slave to his job and easy to sidestep. I finally received a scarce few letters from Twitch, mostly reassuring me he yet breathed and was likely to continue for the near future. Our days were largely our own, to suss out the inner workings of the Inquisition and lazily plan for our return to Denerim. When the Inquisitor returned, however, everything changed in a rush.

“Ophelia, it’s great to see you in Skyhold,” Hellen Adaar said the first morning she was back from some errand with Orzammar. We ran into her in the breakfast line, which seemed to surprise no one but Senna and I. “Josephine says you have a kinswoman with you?”

“Yes, your worship. This is my cousin, Senna.”

Our worship is Gwen or Divine Victoria," she corrected, not unkindly. "Around here I'm 'Inquisitor,' if we must be formal. I would like a chance to talk shop with you, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Did you want to discuss magic,” I asked, “or my thoughts on the whereabouts of Solona?”

She grinned at me, which was a bit disconcerting from a Qunari, Vashoth or not. “If you would like to tell me about your friend Solona, I would not complain. My actual concern, however, was your thoughts about the Nightmare I faced in the Fade some months ago.”

I couldn’t agree quickly enough, and the Inquisitor exchanged pleasantries with Senna before reaching the front of the line, accepting her breakfast with another smile for the server, and then assuring me she would find me at her first possible convenience.

“Welcome to the Inquisition,” the shem serving breakfast from a giant iron kettle said with a smile.

“We’re just visitors,” I answered.

“That’s what they all say,” she laughed, as Senna and I walked away.

The rumors said the Chargers would return the next day, and the few short letters I’d received from Twitch promised the same.

I have no privacy anymore, he’d lamented in the letter he’d sent from Nevarra. As soon as I sit down with paper and ink, I’m surrounded by nosey assholes who look over my shoulder. I’m talking about you, Meck.

It wasn’t a surprise, then, when all his missives were little more than an assertion he’d gotten my last letter and how much longer he was likely to be away.

I was tempted to meet him at the gates. I considered and discarded half a dozen ways to greet him when he returned, and was still mostly undecided when the Chargers started to clatter across the cobblestones on the long bridge leading up from the gatehouse. I found myself standing under the archway below the giant double doors of the main hall, leaning against the wall and watching the slowly deteriorating chaos that was the Chargers coming home.

He was looking for me; he knew I was in Skyhold, and I could see him pause to look around every few seconds as he unpacked provisions and helped with everything else that went into a mercenary band going on the equivalent of shore leave. They were starting to splinter off in twos and threes when he happened to glance towards the main hall and froze. I was too far away to really make out his expression, but even at this distance I could see the grin split his face. I raised a hand to wave, he waved back, and I settled in to wait for him.

It wasn’t what I expected, the feeling I got when he was dismissed and started making his way up the stairs to me. My heart beat faster, of course, and I was definitely fidgeting as I waited, but as he started up the last flight of stairs, the only emotion I could put a name to was relief. A nameless anxiety I’d been scarcely aware of was draining away, leaving only a heavy feeling of peace.

He paused at the last step and I crossed the distance to throw my arms around him, feeling the air seem to leak out of him as he wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his face in my hair. He whispered something in Qunlat and then lifted me a bit into the air so he could step onto the landing, leaving my feet dangling for just a moment before setting me down by the wall.

“What did you say?”

“A nonsensical expression of relief,” he answered, leaning back against the wall to look me in the eye. He seemed to drink me in, and Maker I loved this shem. “A few rhyming syllables, a little bit of swearing, and then I missed you.”

“I missed you, too. All sorts of things happened while you were away.”

“So your letters said. Is Senna still here?”

I nodded, and dropped my hand to his, tugging him to motion and turning to lead the way into the keep. He resisted, drawing me back to him and cupping my face with both hands.

“I told Bull this morning. I quit. I’m not doing this again. We can stay here or not. We can go to Denerim or not. We can travel to parts unknown or join a merchant caravan or go to Gwen’s school or not. I don’t care. But I’m not doing this again, not leaving again – I’m better with you.”

The protest bubbled up – I didn’t want him to give up anything for me – but I resolutely ignored it. He wanted me. He wanted me. By the Maker, I wasn’t going to fight him over whether or not he could do better, not when his walking up the stairs felt like nothing more than coming home.

“It’s a good thing Senna and I signed on with Gwen, then; somebody’s going to have to feed this family.”

I only saw his smile for a moment before he pulled my face to his and kissed me, kissed me the way I’d kissed him when he’d left Val Royeaux all those weeks ago. I gripped the collar of his armor, held on for dear life, and feverishly worked to convince myself that I could have this.

“Please tell me,” he said when I let him up for air, “that we’re not sharing a room with Senna.”

“We’ve got an apartment in the lower level,” I told him with a wink. “Two doors and a fancy living room between our bed and hers, but she’s as likely to pass out in the ‘Rest as actually make it to her room.”

“Let’s hope she and Skinner hit it off and she spends a few nights away,” he said, and then pushed away from the wall.

I threaded his fingers through mine, and – after eight years too many – took him home.

Chapter Text

It was good that Dorian didn’t leave the day after his little coup, because I would have regretted not seeing off my best friend. As it was, the chances of me getting out of bed that morning for anything short of the imminent destruction of Skyhold, itself, were precipitously close to zero.

“Everyone will know precisely why we are both absent this morning,” she told me, as sunlight began to seep up from behind the mountains. It sounded more like a reminder than a warning.

“Good,” I replied, pulling her more tightly against my chest.

She was on her back in my bed, her legs tilted as if she was sitting, and her ankles resting on my calves. I laid on my side, curled around her; my thighs held up her knees, my arm was her pillow. She smiled up at me, drowsily, murmured something about her aides knowing their jobs by now, and drifted back to sleep.

It was perfection. It was distilled perfection, a priceless essence to be bottled and treasured for all eternity if I had but the means. My only option was my mortal memory, and so I laid there, awake, and drank in every detail.

Her hair in a halo around her head, the contrast between her skin, my skin, and the soft ivory of the linens beneath us, the slowly growing sunlight casting shadows across the bed to slowly eclipse the flickering glow of the dying candle on the side board; I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

I must have nodded off, because I blinked and Josephine was cupping my face with both hands.

“As wonderful as this has been, and as much as I agree that we should make more time for each other, I cannot make a habit of tardiness in the mornings,” she told me once I had her smile once again in focus. The regret in her voice made her words much easier to swallow.

“At least one morning, when I come home from trips,” I countered, and her eyes lit up as they always did at the promise of a beneficial negotiation. “And no less than once a week when we have an extended time together.”

“Once every other week,” she offered, smiling, “but I will assure that it is for no less than half a day, undisturbed.”

“Deal,” I agreed, and we sealed the negotiations with a kiss that completely derailed her attempt to get out of bed.

We managed to make it to the main hall before noon, well put-together but clearly just rising. I expected chatter, braced for it, and got-

Nothing.

Our tryst and truancy seemed to be completely unremarkable to the denizens milling around Skyhold’s halls.

“See?” I whispered, elbowing Josie, leaning down a bit to land the nudge in her shoulder rather than the side of her head. “Nobody cares.”

“It was your opinion I cared for, my love,” Josephine answered easily, and then turned towards her office as if she hadn’t just leveled me. “I will have a list of requests for you prepared by this time tomorrow.”

“I look forward to you setting me to task,” I called back. She glanced back from the door and winked at me before disappearing down the side hall.

“Fucking Dorian,” I said to no one in particular and with no actual malice. Then I went looking for my sister.

I found her in her office, sweating over the fine details of a letter, so ensconced she didn’t spare me a glance when I entered.

“I have news,” I announced, as I sat down in the larger of the two chairs she kept in front of her desk. It was still a bit too small for me, but it was better than the vast majority of chairs in Skyhold, so I took it for the kind gesture it was meant to be.

She had been more engrossed than I thought, and I surprised her. She jumped, neatly saving her page from ink spatter, and then shaking her head with a laugh. “For all my talk of keeping safe by seeing what is coming, I’m painfully obtuse this morning.”

“Another argument with Cullen?” I guessed. An argument would be better than the angry silence Josephine said had laid between them since Val Royeaux.

“The opposite, actually,” she said. Then she smiled, and I realized she was lighter than I’d seen her in months. I cast back through my memory and had only seen her so relaxed, so calm, since her worst fears had been alleviated after Adamant. I’d ruined it moments later with a vial of memory, which was painful to recall, but still.

“Oh, by the shriveled sack of the dread wolf, you made up? Please tell me you made up.”

“Hellen! That was disgusting, don’t make me picture-“

“You made up!” She was too happy for it to be anything else.

“Yes,” she laughed, reaching across her desk to take my hand and keep me from leaping out of the chair. “Dorian intervened and we talked and we both listened and we’ve spent two consecutive nights in the same bed and I think we’re going to be okay.”

“Thank the Maker for that insufferably smug Altus,” I sighed, leaning back in my chair.

“Anything you need to report?” she asked, archly, leaning back to cant an eyebrow up at me.

I grinned at her, and she sighed happily. “I might have only just now rolled out of a shared bed.”

“The rumors hit at dawn, when a few of Josie’s aides went looking for her,” she told me, and I realized we were both grinning at each other like idiots. Top five, best days ever, right here. “The prevailing opinion is fucking finally, which I thought was a pretty healthy reaction, honestly.”

“I have seen a surprising lack of bullshit so far today, it’s true,” I confirmed, and then we were both just sitting there, grinning at each other like assholes.

“I don’t have a single shitty thing to report to you,” Gwen offered after a bit. “I’ve got a ton of positive odds and ends, if you’re interested. Or you can just run with the news that literally everything is going well in my neck of the woods.”

“I’ll take it,” I agreed immediately. I wanted to tell her the same was true for me-

But that would be a lie. A lie, and she knew it. I saw the grin seep off her features and I knew she was looking right through me, without need of Andraste's added blessings.

“We had specialists, in my world,” she said, softly, when I was sure she was going to wait for me to feel awkward in the silence and offer to spill my soul. “They were advisors, of a type – we’d call them counselors, although the word meant something different there than here. They had technical names, like psychiatrist or psychologist or therapist, but the ones I’m talking about were specifically for healers and doctors.”

She switched into Qunlat when she rattled off the unfamiliar words, and it had a way of immediately making the huge space of her infirmary feel secure, intimate somehow, when I was sitting with my back to twenty paces of empty air and then an unlocked door. I shifted in the slightly-too-small chair and let her talk; I wasn’t sure where she was going with this, but she seemed to think she was helping.

“It’s not something most people understand,” she continued. “People like you and me, we spend so much time and effort and energy saving people, and when we don’t…” My chest clenched as I realized what she was saying. “It’s not like losing a family member, it’s not like a friend dying. It’s a personal failing, but at the same time it’s not. Everyone dies, we know everyone dies, and yet – and yet – people aren’t supposed to die when we’re around. We’re supposed to be able to save them. That’s our job.”

She reached back across the table and I gave her my hand, let her squeeze it. “Our job is to do the impossible, and we’re going to fail at it. It is inevitable that we fail, and that isn’t something we ever get good at dealing with. There is nothing I can say that will make what happened to Renn better. There isn’t anything I can possibly say to make you feel better, to make his loss acceptable, to make that failure easier to cope with. Just know that I know how you feel. Not from anything I can See, but from the times I’ve been in your shoes, been the person who was supposed to save someone and just… not.”

I slid my hand out of hers, walked carefully around the side of her desk, and lifted her into my arms. She wrapped her arms around my neck and let me hold her there, dangling undignified in the air, toes brushing against my thighs, her cheek pressed against mine.

“There aren’t any acceptable losses,” I told her.

She shook her head, no, against mine. “It never gets easier,” she replied, and I felt a knot in my chest unravel and fall away. “You just get better at forgiving yourself, at focusing on the next person you might save rather than losing yourself in regret.”

I squeezed her too hard, I know I did. The air squeaked out of her, but she didn’t complain. After a moment, I set her down, surreptitiously wiped the wetness from the corners of my eyes, and shifted  around the desk to sit back down in my almost-big-enough chair.

I wanted to tell her I’d been mad at her. I wanted to tell her that she’d, once again, hit the nail right on the head as to what I needed to hear, what I needed to believe. I wanted to apologize, for doubting her.

“Thank you,” I said, instead. It was enough.

We talked about lighter things, then, and agreed to meet at the gatehouse the next morning to see Dorian off. She brought Cullen, and I brought Josephine. Cassandra, surprisingly enough, had decided to travel with Dorian, having found strong evidence to suggest one of her fellow Seekers was alive as recently as two months past, somewhere in western Nevarra. Cole wandered down, to hover between and behind Cullen and Gwen, and I realized this was all that was left of my inner circle.

I didn’t have long to dwell on it, as the Chargers appeared as Dorian and Cassandra reached the bottom of the long ramp that led up to the gatehouse and started down the road towards the pass to the north. Cassandra’s eyeroll was visible from a quarter mile away, and then the whole motley crew rode off out of the valley.

“I don’t think Cassandra realized what she was signing on for,” Cullen noted as we all laughed at the Seeker’s resigned ire.

“If she would have told anyone she was leaving with Dorian, we could have warned her,” I countered.

“She told Dorian,” Cole suggested, which set us all to laughing again.

“The Chargers have a contract in Montfort, and an interest beyond in Perendale,” Josephine intoned. “It is only sensible for them to provide protection for Seeker Cassandra into Nevarra.”

Gwen snorted, and Josephine grinned slyly at the sound. “Make sure to say that to her when she writes of the hardship.”

“I will be happy to see to that for you, Lady Gwen.”

“I assume I will not be here when Cassandra’s letter arrives?” I asked, turning our group towards the council chamber. We had a planned meeting, after all, and our work wasn’t stopping just because nearly everyone I considered a friend was leaving me.

“No, my love,” Josie replied easily as she settled her writing board on her forearm. “Although I will allow you to choose what destination you approach first.”

“Choose?” I echoed, letting my surprise show in my voice.

“Choose,” Josie repeated. She winked at me, and then led the way up the stairs.

Gwen, walked behind me with her arm slung through Cullen’s, started to laugh softly as we all followed in Josephine’s wake. I breathed out something suspiciously close to a laugh, myself. Apparently, I was to receive a more playful Josephine, as well as a more demonstrative one, when we were in public. Or perhaps the playfulness was her being more demonstrative of her affection?

Whichever it was, I was thrilled to see where it would take us.

“I’ve never had a choice before,” I teased, and was rewarded with a crinkle of amusement to her shoulders as she continued up the stairs.

“Perhaps you’ll get to change the décor of your rooms, as well,” Gwen offered from behind me.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Josie chided from the front.

Cassandra and Dorian leaving had seemed like the end of a chapter. Walking up the stairs between Josephine, Gwen, and Cullen, however, I realized this new chapter might not be half bad.

 

*

 

Kirkwall. Orlais. Ferelden. Ostwick. Nevarra.

Everywhere you could anchor a ship in the Waking Sea, I’d visited.

Rifts in the Free Marches. Leftover demons from rifts everywhere. Favors to be repaid from nobility all over southern Thedas. Invitations to speak before various fraternities of enchanters as Vivienne worked to bring order to the various groups of mages. I even hand-delivered a sack of baby nugs to the Divine.

“My love,” Josephine said, one bright summer morning in 9.44 Dragon, “I have received our summons to the Exalted Council from the Divine. She delayed as long as she was able; I believe she was trying to push it into next year, just to prove Lady Gwen wrong.”

“She would have suffered less annoyance if she’d rushed it, instead.”

“Perhaps. While we would not have our position enhanced by a rush, Halamshiral will be miserable this time of year. There’s a reason it is the winter palace.”

“Please tell her Perfection that we will, of course, attend. I assume you’ve already called a meeting to discuss logistics?”

“I’m leading you there now,” she agreed, with an arch sort of look that always made me smile. She had my number, no question. “I had no luck in acquiring a firm commitment from Lady Gwen, is she-“

“In her tower,” I answered, immediately; between the whisper of Wisdom in the back of my mind and the now-instinctive search for my phylactery, I knew where she was without thinking. “No excuses if she skips out.”

She beat us to the council room, disappearing from behind me and appearing outside the massive reinforced doors just as Josie and I drew near. Josie hesitated for just an instant as a sudden slash of green light materialized, became Gwen, and vanished.

“Not late!” She declared, pumping a fist before darting into the council room in front of us. She was wearing one of the first dresses Josephine had ordered for her; it was showing some wear and tear around the hem and seams, but that only seemed to make Josie happier. I watched my ambassador scratch a quick note to herself on her writing board as I held open the door for her: have Gwen’s dresses mended – during Exalted Council?

Cullen and Charter were already present; in nearly two years I still wasn’t used to seeing her stand in Leliana’s place.

“So,” I said as the door boomed shut behind me, “What do we know about the Exalted Council?”

“We have tracked the shipments of gaatlock barrels to the various cities in southern Thedas,” Charter began, indicating which markers on the map table were the shipments and their current locations. “We have agents standing by to neutralize the explosives as soon as we are engaged with the Qunari in Halamshiral.”

“And those agents?”

Gwen stepped forward to answer. “All of those teams were checked by me when Charter selected them. I have not Seen any reasonable chance of any of those agents being interfered with.”

“Our decision to act as if we did not see this threat coming seems to have been believed by the Qunari," Charter continued. The Iron Bull reported to the Ben Hassrath that Lady Gwen had no intelligence beyond the death of Corypheus, and has since confirmed that he never countered that claim before his exile.”

“Thank the Maker he became Tal Vashoth,” Cullen remarked, which netted nods all around.

Gwen shuddered delicately, but otherwise made no comment. I was confident I didn’t want to know.

“Ferelden wishes the Inquisition to disband,” Josephine asserted, drawing us back on track. “It wants its holdings returned and for the army on its border to disperse. This comes largely from the Bannorn, rather than the crown, and a number of voices arguing over proper ownership of Caer Bronach.”

“Will Ferelden be content with a step down and return of the Keep?” I asked Gwen.

She shrugged as the whites of her eyes went blue. “Fifty-fifty, more or less. They’ll accept whatever deal the Divine tells them to, but whether they are content or a thorn in your side is yet to be determined. A lot of choices remain between now and then.”

“Caer Oswin,” Charter said, as she dropped small wooden rings onto the map to mark the locations. “Hargrave Keep. Haven, and the Temple of Sacred Ashes. We don’t have forces there, per se, but we did Ferelden a favor by reclaiming them and fortifying the surround.”

The blue of Gwen’s eyes winked out. “That will definitely help, as a bargaining chip.”

“Orlais, on the other hand, would rather the Inquisition remain, if diminished, and be shackled to the whim of the Divine. Anything attached to Val Royeaux lends strength to the Orlesian Empire,” Josephine said. “Neither side will be wholly satisfied with the results of the Council.”

“If we return Inquisition holdings to Ferelden, we will need to expect the same in Orlais,” Cullen said, gesturing for Charter to continue marking holdings.

“Griffin Wing. Villa Maurel. Suledin Keep. What of Gaspard’s Manse, in Halamshiral?”

“No Inquisition, no manse,” I shrugged. “Keep the Inquisition, keep the Manse? It was given to us by Celene, after all.”

“She may rather you content yourself with the fountain at the Winter Palace,” Cullen countered.

I felt my jaw clench at the memory of the ceremony. Josephine had been particularly lovely that day, the sun bringing out highlights in her hair that were all but hidden by Skyhold’s mountain air. I had focused on that, and not the infuriating simpering of the gathered Orlesian nobility.

“I can see that going either way, as well,” Gwen reported, the flicker of blue gone almost as quickly as it arrived.

“What are all these choices that are throwing off your Sight?” I asked her. It was hard to keep the irritation out of my voice. We were three steps ahead of the Qun, we had a plan in place for the nobility in the Exalted Council, and Gwen had all but promised Solas would show himself. What choice did that leave?

“You need to stay out of the eluvians, as much as possible,” Gwen softly replied.

“Easy enough.”

Gwen shook her head. “In the heat of the moment, the decision will be harder. You have to stay out of the eluvian for as long as possible. There’s a small chance we can lure Solas out, an opportunity to get out of this… intact. But if you go in too soon, his magic will-“

“I hate the fucking Crossroads,” I interrupted her. “Telling me to stay out of an eluvian is as good as telling me to stay out of the Fade. Consider it done.”

She frowned, but didn’t press the issue. If staying out of the eluvian meant we could lure Solas out, that was all the convincing I needed. She was a career worrier, though; she’d feel as good after this was over as she had after Adamant.

“This will be a prime opportunity for you to negotiate your purchase,” Josephine told Gwen, drawing me back to the present. “With your School for Integrated Health established already in Ferelden, I feel the banns in attendance will take your desire for personal property, as well, to be a slight to Orlais and a sign of favor to Ferelden.”

“Personal property?” I repeated, feeling my eyebrows rise. “What’s this?”

“I tried… Looking ahead,” Gwen said, suddenly looking quite pale. “At my own future. I Saw a lot of things that… well. It didn’t make any sense. It was a terrible experiment, really, and all it did was rattle me; I didn’t get any usable data out of it, just nightmares.”

“And?” Cullen prompted, looking almost hurt.

She quickly extended a hand to him, which he took with a smile. “And you! I didn’t think you wanted me to say it in the council room.”

“Josephine is easier on me now that Leliana answers to another name.”

Josephine shifted, slightly, in my peripheral vision as Cullen’s eyes darted back to Gwen, and I knew then that there was something up. Charter’s forehead pinched into a thoughtful frown as Josephine bent her head back to her board. “And that relates to property how?”

“Morrin’s Outlook, on the Storm Coast,” she answered. “I keep Seeing it, I think it’s important somehow. To me, at least. There were other places – other options, it seemed – but that one seemed to feel like the best outcomes would come from my being there.”

“Your being there? When?”

“After,” she said with a shrug. “When I need to get away from the school, and Val Royeaux, and Skyhold. When I want space of my own.” She stopped and glanced at Cullen. “Space of our own. We have to retire eventually.”

“To a rain-soaked island off the Storm Coast?” I enunciated. “That’s what you choose?”

“It’s quite easily defensible,” Cullen chimed in, surprising me. The idea of Gwen and Cullen leaving Skyhold honestly hadn’t occurred to me; it was our home, we were family. Was she planning on the Inquisition being dissolved? “The weather makes observation nearly impossible; with Gwen not needing a boat to reach the island, it is possible no one will ever know she’s there, if handled properly.”

“Fine, so long as I have a standing invitation.”

Gwen smiled at me. “Anywhere I am, you are welcome.”

“Good. Any other business before we agree upon travel plans?”

Cullen, Charter, and Josephine all shook their heads, no. There was definitely other business, but nothing that couldn’t wait until after we took care of the Exalted Council.

“How’s your hand?” Gwen asked, and I had to clench my jaw not to react.

It had been fine – in Skyhold. Something about the stronghold had calmed the strange twinges and flares I had experienced when closing rifts along the western end of the Waking Sea. I definitely hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, and I doubted the contingent of Inquisition soldiers who had gone with me on those trips had noticed. Cullen’s Lieutenant who had taken responsibility for my guard outside of Skyhold, Aillis, was a former templar, but she hadn’t batted an eye at anything I – or the anchor – had done.

Which meant Gwen knew about my hand because she had Seen something about my hand.

The chances of me confessing to being concerned about it in front of Josephine were as low as the chances of her not already knowing exactly what was going on. But now Josie knew to watch, and the concern was seeping in at the corners of her eyes, and fuck Gwen for saying something here and not in private.

I lifted my hands and waved them slowly in shallow circles. “Attached to my wrist, still doing what it’s supposed to. Why?”

“The magic of the eluvians will fuck with the anchor,” she said, and I realized she had probably been trying to tell me that earlier. Well, double-fuck her, and fuck me for being obtuse. “Stay out of the eluvians if you want to keep the hand.”

“Noted,” I agreed, and she seemed to relax a little.

“I believe, in order to arrive in a timely fashion, we will need to leave Skyhold three days hence-“ Josephine declared, as she started to make a pile of invitations, orders, requisitions, and weather reports on the map table. Sometimes Cullen or Charter would have information that would alter the travel plan, but generally speaking we would do whatever Josephine decided. I tried to stay focused on her words, but Gwen’s warning made me uneasy.

I couldn’t see as how the anchor flaring up could do permanent damage to my hand – if the Breach being open directly overhead hadn’t managed it, and the travel I’d already done by eluvian had done no harm, then her warning seemed to have no merit. I didn’t see Gwen as being the type to joke about losing limbs – but hadn’t she done just that, years ago, to put a surgeon at ease? The way she’d treated the elven scout who’d nearly lost her leg in the Fallow Mire – Lyal, she’d told me her name was, in the days we spent trying to keep her and her fellows alive on the road to Skyhold and mostly succeeding – showed she had a different idea of losing a limb than the rest of the world did.

Surely, though, given how Renn died, she wouldn’t joke about losing a hand? Maybe that was what she meant here… the risk was greater than I thought, there were dangers I could not yet fathom. She brought Renn to mind to make sure I took her warning about the eluvians seriously.

“Hellen?”

I snapped my eyes down to Josephine’s, as she looked up from the map table and waited for me to approve their plans. A quick search of my memory yielded no trace of the specifics they’d been discussing.

“You tell me where to be and when, kadan,” I replied, and was rewarded with a beaming sort of smile.

The meeting adjourned, the room emptied. I leaned on the map table, staring at the tiny replica of a dwarven miner’s lift sitting upon the entrance to the Deep Roads where we had last seen Valta. Renn’s body was gone, the entrance to the depths where we’d left Valta had disappeared as if it had never been. I couldn’t forget Cole handing me Renn’s gauntlet, the destroyed remains of his hand still warm in my fingers as I’d recoiled and nearly dropped it. My first failure, since bonding with Wisdom.

I could just ask Gwen what she’d meant.

I thought again of Renn, dead on the ground, his blood staining my hand.

I pushed away from the table and made my way back towards my rooms, away from where Gwen sat in the infirmary, probably alone with her books and notes. I could just ask her, if I wanted to know.

Maker take me for a coward, I didn’t want to know.

Chapter Text

Everything about the trip back to the Winter Palace was wrong.

Our party consisted of Josephine, Cullen, Gwen, and myself; we had Cullen’s honor guard, a mix of former templars and regular soldiery, and a short supply train. Everything and everyone else had gone on ahead of us. We regularly met with Charter’s scouts on the road, who delivered terse reports that always amounted to more or less the same thing: all clear on the road, the danger lies in Halamshiral.

Our rooms at the manse were juggled, when we arrived at the Palace. I had the same room as before, but Cullen and Gwen took the suite Leliana had previously shared with Cassandra, while Josephine moved into Cullen’s prior suite. The rest of the rooms stood empty, as no one was to move into the manse before we arrived. I had hope that Cassandra, at the very least, would come back to stay with us, although I was quite sure Vivienne would have her own accommodations, more befitting her station. As it was, the manse was far too quiet for my comfort.

The whole opposite side, which had held Gaspard’s household when first we were here, stood shuttered and empty. I had suggested we allow some of our closer allies to reside there during the Council, but all of my advisors had immediately united against the suggestion; they were so rarely in agreement about something that I had to abandon the idea. Cullen and Charter agreed it made the Inquisition’s safety harder to ensure, while Josephine stated that the only allies who would feel equal to staying in the quarters of a former Grand Duke already had lodging at Halamshiral; besides, to stay with us would be political suicide, given the uncertain nature of the Exalted Council.

After settling in at the jarringly-quiet manse, Cullen and Josephine rode with me to the Palace proper. Gwen opted to arrive separately, Fade-Stepping into the private quarters of the Divine so that she could appear as part of the Chantry rather than a member of the Inquisition. I didn’t expect to see her far from Divine Victoria for the duration of the Exalted Council, which just added another layer of wrong to the entire ordeal.

She was one of us, not one of them.

It was hard not to separate the factions into us and them.

I made my way inside, to greet the Divine, and instead met almost immediately with Mother Giselle. She seemed to believe the Inquisition would serve best by disbanding, and fuck her, seriously. She had a pretty little speech about apologizing to Dorian, ruined by her insinuation that he would make a pageant of it.

It was also possible that I had no patience for her because my hand had flared, painfully, as I’d passed near the place the rift had been opened in the courtyard, all those many months before.

“The Inquisition’s not going anywhere,” I told her, clenching my left hand into a fist to calm the spasms rippling across the palm. “We still have work to do.”

She didn’t have much to say to me after that point, so I made my way back outside – taking a detour to avoid the courtyard where the rift had added half an hour to the walk – and immediately met up with Varric, the new Viscount of Kirkwall.

“It’s the Official Recognition of your Title and Holdings,” the irrepressible dwarf declared, grandly. The gravity of the moment was only reduced by the former provisional Viscount, Bran Caven, insisting you can’t do that.

“Wait, I’m a Comte in Kirkwall?”

Varric gave Bran a glare that set the man storming off, and then aimed a mildly abashed shrug in my direction. “I thought you should have a place in Kirkwall, if you need it. In case this goes as well as most of our endeavors tend to.”

“In case I’m forced to disband the Inquisition, you mean,” I surmised with a sigh. I almost managed to make it sound resigned, rather than annoyed. Almost.

“In case you choose to disband the Inquisition, your Inquisitorialness,” he corrected. “Maker knows I would, if just to get away from dog-and-pony shows like this.”

“Which is why you’re Viscount now?”

“That’s punishment,” he said with a laugh. “Don’t let them fool you into thinking it’s an honor.”

Josephine encouraged me to spend the afternoon catching up with my friends, who had all made the trip back to Orlais to support me. Josie already knew where everyone was, had made arrangements for them to stay with us at the manse, and had issued a memo to everyone even peripherally associated with Skyhold titled “Conduct Becoming of the Inquisition.”

“If you would like, my love, I have an opportunity to attend an entertainment this evening, if you would care to-“

“Yes,” I answered, immediately, taking her hands in mine. “Tell me when and where, kadan.”

With the idea of an actual date with Josephine burning in the back of my head, I wandered the sweltering courtyards of Halamshiral to piece together the rag tag pack of assholes who’d helped me save the world.

Warden Rainier was throwing knives in an overgrown alley near to the gates, and was practically bubbling with new stories. I had barely sat next to him before Sera appeared from over the wall, and I let myself merely listen as they caught up.

“Cards in the tavern,” Sera said, jerking her head to indicate a building deeper into the palace grounds.

“There’s a tavern? In Halamshiral?” I asked as I let her lead Thom and I.

“Best way to keep the Fereldans out of the Palace, innit? Give ‘em a place out here to sit with their doggos and whatsit.”

“Fair point,” I conceded as I ducked under a doorway not meant for my race and was immediately surrounded by chaos.

The Chargers were there – because of course they were – and were apparently reuniting with one of their own. I moved to sit beside the Iron Bull, who seemed to be tending bar, which might have been the worst choice possible for the role.

“Twitch,” Bull said, tilting his chin towards the melee. “You can’t see him, but he was at the back table, playing cards with two of the Left Hand’s agents. Siren about split him in half. How’s it going, Boss?”

“Been better,” I replied, taking the tankard he offered and throwing back a long swallow without question. It was ale – Fereldan, I would guess – and probably one of the more benign things Bull had gotten me to the drink over the years.

We largely ignored the commotion as we caught up, touching lightly in Qunlat on the sorts of things we were likely to see in the next few days, mainly to test if anyone nearby seemed overly interested.

“Surprise!” Krem called, from behind me, spinning Bull and I both around. “Happy Birthday, Chief!”

The Chargers had managed to drag a skeletal dragon’s head into the tavern, although how they could have gotten it to Halamshiral without Bull’s notice was beyond me.

“Ah, you got me,” Bull rumbled. I didn’t believe him for a minute.

“Let ‘em have this,” he chided beneath his breath, and I went back to my drink.

“Inquisitor?”

I lifted my eyes from the rim of my tankard to see one of Gwen’s favorites hesitantly leaning on the stool next to me.

“Twitch,” I greeted him.

“Is Ma around? I’ve got news she’s got to hear from me, if I want to stay intact.”

“She was Stepping into Divine Victoria’s quarters this morning,” I told him. He was one of the few people I would trust with Gwen’s location, if it wasn’t already widely known. “I expect she’ll stay close to Most Holy over the course of the Exalted Council."

“Thanks, Inquisitor.” He gave a brief salute and then meandered back over to the table in the corner. His companions at the card table were Fereldan, brunette, and similar enough in build to be brothers. I hadn’t seen them much, but I agreed with Bull’s assessment of them being the compatriots of the Left Hand of the Divine. Good company for the former Charger. I hadn’t seen Twitch in months, but I was fairly sure he’d been in Denerim since the winter previous.

Cole had been working closely with Charter; while I hadn’t seen much of him, it was a damn sight more than I’d seen of anyone else. He was watching Maryden play, and we exchanged brief pleasantries as I went seeking Cassandra.

“Quick!” the Seeker said, coming towards me at a dead run as I rounded the alcove Josephine had said Cassandra had been reading in. “Oh, if we hurry, we might see!”

“See?” I echoed, but she was already past me, running the opposite direction. I fell into step behind her, more out of habit than any particular curiosity. She sprinted across the main courtyard, coming to a sudden stop at the edge of the wall leading to the gardens containing the baths. She gripped the wall and peered around into the garden beyond, and I did the same, keenly feeling how foolish we must have looked.

There was a gazebo in the courtyard beyond, and the path leading up to the stupid fountain Celene had installed in my honor. Cavorting on the flagstones in front of the gazebo was a mabari – only the second one I’d seen that appeared friendly, the first being Hawke’s in Kirkwall. I had been told, repeatedly, that they could pick a Fereldan out of a crowd effortlessly, so I just assumed they were bred to hate anything that looked like a Qunari on principle.

This mabari was gazing fondly at a Fereldan that I was acutely familiar with.

“Cullen got a dog?” I whispered to Cassandra.

“Maker take the mabari, look,” Cassandra hissed back.

Cullen was talking to a woman I would recognize anywhere. Gwen had her back to me, but the white robe they stuck her in while she was anywhere near Divine Victoria was a dead giveaway. The look in Cullen's eyes made me certain, without seeing a single one of her features, that it was my sister-by-choice.

“We live with them,” I said. "We see them all the time. Okay, so they got a dog, we had a bear in the courtyard for awhile."

“Shut up,” Cassandra shot back, and then gasped.

As we watched, Cullen looked up from where he’d been kneeling, playing with the mabari, and extended a hand to Gwen as he said, “Marry me,” into a suddenly silent courtyard. Gwen placed one hand over her heart and reached out with the other to lay her palm against Cullen’s. Anything else they might have said was lost to my ears as Cassandra seemed to deflate, the air hissing out of her at an octave only the mabari and I could hear.

“She knew,” I guessed, as Cullen stood and pulled Gwen into his arms.

“No,” Cassandra protested, aghast. “He said he had a plan and this wasn’t it! He said-“

“It’s Gwen, Cassandra. She-“

“You must give me this,” Cassandra insisted, pushing off the wall I still leaned on to stand up straight and at almost-eye-level, more than a little irritated with me.

I put my hands up in surrender. “You want this fantasy, you can have it. Do you want an invitation to the wedding?”

“They’ll need a witness, and Maker knows they can’t pick you, not and keep it a secret. Oh, we should tell Josephine at once.”

“Go, tell Josie,” I laughed, and she made as if to run again before seeming to remember where she was and assuming a much more dignified pace. I stayed to one side as Cullen left the courtyard alone, beaming. He seemed to be headed into the Palace proper, although for what I couldn’t say. Gwen was long gone, probably using the Servant’s Quarter to throw off pursuit. I made my way to the baths, where I’d heard Vivienne was waiting for me.

As if I didn’t have enough reasons to detest Orlais already, I was immediately beset by sarcastic commentary about my feet and horns, thinly veiled by a veneer of questionable manners and just enough simpering to make it impossible to actually complain. Oh, surely the Inquisitor does not believe we would mean such a thing!

But Vivienne wanted me to relax and have a spa day, and even if she had no idea how thoroughly aggravating the treatment was, I stretched out next to her and worked to ignore the women working in the baths. When the crashes started, Vivienne encouraged me, again, to ignore it; when I heard Sera’s giggle and the voice that had previously been commenting about the similarity of my horns to those of druffalo calling out in anger, I found it much easier to relax and enjoy the day.

Bless the Red Jennies.

Any serenity I had discovered by Sera wrecking the baths was destroyed within moments of leaving, as I attempted to find Dorian. The Ambassador from Tevinter was conversing with the leader of the delegation to the Exalted Council from Orlais, and between me and them was Arl Teagan Guerrin and Divine Victoria.

Most Holy had a wink for me and a promise to meet later, at my convenience. Arl Teagan had a refreshingly simple demand: put it simply, get the fucking army off his border.

“Given Ferelden’s recent history with Orlais, I can respect that position,” I told him, as his shoulders eased. “I also thank you for being honest. I am not used to forthright discussion at the Winter Palace.”

At that he barked a laugh and nodded. “If we are of a like mind, perhaps we can end this quickly and go home.”

“If ever there comes a day where negotiations in Orlais end quickly, it will herald the end of the world,” I sighed. It earned me a smile and a hand clasp from Arl Teagan, and then I was left alone to find Dorian.

Lord Cyril Montfort was an old ally of the Inquisition, according to Josephine, but I didn’t trust the man for half as far as I could throw him. The Orlesian noble wanted to shackle the Inquisition to Celene’s throne; Ferelden wanted the Inquisition dissolved simply to keep Orlais from swallowing her up, more than any reason they would own. Lord Cyril wouldn’t say that, though; his word choice was hovering much closer to the alliance range of bullshit.

Once Dorian and I got rid of him, I was slapped with the information that Dorian was going back to Tevinter after the Exalted Council.

“For good, this time.”

“What? No! Why?”

“The letter arrived this morning. My father is dead, assassinated most likely, and I am to succeed him in the Magisterium. I didn’t realize I was yet his heir…”

“Well, shit. Dorian, I’m sorry. I know things were complicated between you, but I didn’t wish the man dead.”

“Thank you, my friend. It doesn’t yet feel real.”

“If you require cheering up, I have fresh gossip for you.”

“How fresh? I arrived here before you, and had tea with the Divine. Do you think you have gossip she doesn’t?”

“Did you hear of the proposal in the courtyard this afternoon?”

Dorian’s face went carefully still. “This afternoon? No. I have heard nothing at all. But for you to talk about it, surely it is someone we believe matters?”

“Maybe I should let them tell you. I would hate to-“

“You evil woman. I adore you. Come here, sit, and tell me everything.”

Chapter Text

For the record, I never meant to get married again.

When Dorian left, I was looking forward to discovering what the game had skimmed over when it time-jumped two years. I figured I hadn’t Seen anything coming because I hadn’t known exactly what to look for, but surely shenanigans were brewing.

But, no.

We all fell into a routine, work and school and travel and holiday dinners with the family. Anders and I graduated our first class of mundane healers – Twitch insisted my use of the term muggle was not funny – and found one mage with the proclivity to become a full-fledged spirit healer. One mage besides Rheyna, of course; she was well on her way to outstripping Anders himself. She was an Amell, after all.

Cullen and Cassandra built Templar Rehab, as I liked to call it – which Twitch found only slightly more amusing than muggle – up the road from my school, and I visited whenever I found the time. When Templars were still weaning off lyrium, they came to the University for metered dosing, as none was kept at Cullen’s facility. It was a good system, with a lot of potential.

Hellen traveled continuously, but we touched based almost nightly in her dreams. More often than not, we exchanged amusing anecdotes or verification of continued health and then went along our way. I gradually began seeking out Dorian and Hawke in the Fade, as well, and my visits with them were always far more entertaining.

Cullen had a very hard time at first, biting his tongue as I Stepped across southern Thedas. The more news I brought him and the more times I returned home safely, the more comfortable he became.

The turning point came when I was preparing to Step from our apartment in Skyhold to the Charger’s encampment along the Orlesian-Nevarran border. I Saw a pack of darkspawn creeping from the earth less than a quarter-mile from where the Chargers were camped, and Knew my mercenary children would be overrun within the hour. The losses woulds be sickening.

I pulled back from the FadeStep and told Cullen what I’d Seen. He warned me against going – which was out of the question – and then told me how to spread the alarm to the Chargers without warning the darkspawn they’d been discovered. The Chargers would have a better time turning a trap than trying to escape it, given how well they were dug in.

“Come back before the fighting starts,” Cullen said as I went to leave. I couldn’t tell if it was an order or a plea, but it was definitely not a question.

“As you wish,” I agreed, and Stepped into Bull’s tent, waking the mercenary Captain with a hand to his cheek. I was back in Skyhold within minutes, and Cullen nearly crushed me with relief as I Looked right back at the Chargers and watched them handily destroy the darkspawn.

No injuries. Not a one.

Cullen had no complaint on how it all went down, and the overwhelmingly positive outcome laid a foundation we could build upon. He had experience, now, of my Stepping into a trap, and it was no longer unknown territory. He had trusted me to handle the problem, and I had an easier time trusting him with the information, now that I knew he would still let me go.

On the twelfth day of Drakonis, 9.43 Dragon, I was woken by a warm hand on my hip and another threading through my hair.

“Good morning, old lady,” Cullen whispered, and then laughed as my eyes shot open. “It’s your second birthday, but you don’t look a day over forty.”

“You asshole,” I sighed, shifting to look up at him as he laughed at me.

“You know I jest. You look ten years my junior, the years rest so lightly on you. But there is little I can tease you with, so...”

“My birthday was months ago,” I countered, rolling away and pulling the blanket up to block my view of him.

“Yes, but today’s the second anniversary of the day you fell out of a hole in the sky, into Hellen’s lap. My world will never be the same. You can’t blame me from wanting to mark the occasion.”

I rolled back over and looked up at him. He was dressed as he only did on vacation days, when Hellen or I made him take time off work, with a coat hung open over a simple shirt. It was vaguely reminiscent of his style at Halamshiral and I was more than passing fond of the look.

“I will only acquiesce to a party if Dorian and Hawke are both here and there is dancing.”

“No party,” he assured me with yet another laugh. “You have to make do with just me.”

“More than enough,” I countered, reaching up to attempt to pull him back into bed. He resisted, which worked to wake me up the rest of the way.

“Get up,” he said, tugging on my hands. “I promise I let you sleep in as long as I could bear.”

We took the day off, walking in the garden and picnicking on Hellen’s balcony (as the Inquisitor was tromping across the Free Marches). We locked ourselves in the old library with my cell phone, hidden in the lower levels of the Keep, and danced like we had at the Winter Palace, while he recounted his favorite memories of us. We went to bed right after dinner and stayed there the rest of the night, spending as much time reminiscing as anything else.

“Thank you,” he whispered, as I started to drift off to sleep, “for coming here. For choosing to help us. For choosing me.”

And, shit, he was right, wasn’t he? “You were an easy choice to make,” I replied, sleepily. He teased me for it, questioning my memory, but I could see the truth in it. We were together because I’d not only chosen him, I’d kept choosing him, over and over again. Didn’t everything revolve around that? Choice? Nothing in the future was clear until a choice was made, and if I Looked, wouldn’t I See that mabari best man in the courtyard of Halamshiral, easy as a summer’s day?

At its core, that was what created a strong marriage, a good marriage: choosing one another, even when other choices were easier. We hadn’t said the words, hadn’t made it official to judge or king or church, but for all intents and purposes we were already married.

Hell, I’d swatted the Maker Himself and told him I’d chosen Cullen. The fact that the Almighty had looked like my dead husband at the time only made it more profound.

Cullen was going to propose and I was going to say yes. I could lie to myself, or I could make it as perfect for him as humanly possible. Again, it was an easy choice to make.

The next morning, it was back to work for both of us. Cullen was overseeing some adjustments to unit rotations before travelling back to the Hinterlands, and I was supposed to be taking another pack of gear to the house on Morrin’s Outlook. I couldn’t carry much with me at a time – only what I wore or held in my hands – so supplying the house secretly required many, many, many small trips. Cullen loved the idea of a hideaway that was so easily defensible and not in Orlais that he actually encouraged my stocking missions. To be fair, I did make one trip up to Morrin’s with a couple of heavy blankets, but then I Stepped from there to a well-appointed shop in the Belle Marché, in a quiet but well-watched corner of the market. I was only rarely in this part of Val Royeaux, but there was literally no where else I could – or would – go for what I needed. The gossips would be buzzing with the news that I’d been here, and she’d probably get swamped, but Cullen at least wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at me visiting a fellow refugee.

“Needles?” I asked as I pushed open the door. She sat in the corner, as she always did, a beer and a project both at hand. I got a raised eyebrow but no immediate greeting; I was interrupting her work, after all, and she would charge me double for coming without an appointment. “I need to commission a dress.”

*

Ten months later, Needles’ handiwork tucked in a cedar chest in a corner of my room at the Winter Palace, I walked down to the courtyard knowing damn well what I’d find, no TrueSight necessary. If he asked later, I would honestly be able to tell him I hadn’t Seen this coming. I’d known, but I hadn’t gone Looking for it. I was splitting hairs, but it was a just white lie. Better let him think I was at least a little surprised, right? If he pressed, I’d confess, but somehow I doubted he’d make an issue of it.

I was surprised by the size of the mabari, to be honest. I’d met Hawke’s little beastie, and encountered more than one in Denerim; I knew how big they got, but it always took me aback. This one’s shoulder peaked at my hip, and he was built like a bully breed, but with a more wolfish muzzle. At that size, they should have topped out at eight or ten years, but I’d heard of some living nearly three decades during times of peace, rare as those were.

Cullen’s monster was a sort of mousey grey – on a human’s head it would be termed dirty blond. It was trotting towards him with a child’s leather ball mostly hidden in its jowls. As it flopped on its back in front of Cullen, I saw it was definitely a he. Cullen chided him for fetching. “You, there! You’re to dodge, not catch! If that ball were a fireball, you’d be dead.”

In the middle of an Orlesian courtyard, the number of people crowding for a look at the wardog was precipitously close to zero. In fact, the mabari’s presence seemed to be sending people out of the yard in droves. If Cullen hadn’t been genetically predisposed as a Fereldan to love dogs, the mabari’s ability to chase away Orlesians would have been more than enough to win the man over. As it was, it left us singularly secluded in what should have been a crowd.

“You found a dog,” I said as he caught my eye, trying to focus on that – sweet mother Mary I was going to finally have a dog again – and not on the internal wince at subconsciously following a script.

“They don’t breed mabari in Orlais,” he reminded me. “A merchant said he was abandoned. Perhaps his owners tired of the novelty.”

“Poor guy. Lucky he ran into you here.”

“Another Fereldan, trapped in the Winter Palace? I couldn’t leave him to that fate. Besides, I think he likes me.”

“Any mabari worth his name can pick a Fereldan dog-lover out of a crowd,” I teased, and Cullen rewarded me with a grin. “I won’t pretend I am not thrilled at the idea of having a dog again. He’ll be your first?”

“My first since I was a child. The Circle wasn’t keen on pets, especially Kirkwall’s. But Skyhold...?” His smile fell, and he looked down at the mabari, although his eyes were focused a thousand miles away. I braced myself for impact. “The Inquisition will change after this, and even you don’t know for sure how. Still, I’ve found certainty in my life, and the Council won’t change that.” He ruffled the mabari’s loose fur around its neck and shifted from a crouch to a kneel. His eyes locked on mine and I realized I couldn’t have Seen this moment, because Cullen didn’t make the decision until right... now.

“Marry me,” he said. It wasn’t a question, or even a plea. It was an honest offer – and even though I knew it was coming, I still felt my jaw drop. Nothing actually prepares you for being proposed to, it doesn’t matter how many times it happens in your life or how far in advance you know it’s coming.

“I mean, will you, um, uh...” he amended, reaching up to rub his neck and immediately back-pedaling with a sigh. “I had a plan, and there wasn’t a dog, and I know you don’t mean to, but I thought- Ugh. It doesn’t matter. I’ve thought of little else, and I don’t need a plan – only to know if you would.”

I stepped toward him to put my hand in his, and he stilled immediately under my touch. “I would,” I admitted, and almost laughed as his face lit up. “Cullen, I... I will.”

“You will,” he repeated, perhaps a little shocked. “You will. Maker, before she changes her mind, someone find me a chanter!”

“Cullen!” I protested, laughing, as he reached out and clasped both my hands. “People will notice two of the Inquisitor’s advisors getting married during the Exalted Council.”

His eyes narrowed deviously and I wondered if he didn’t have this planned. “It won’t go over well, but we know a few people who can keep things secret.”

“When you say it won’t go over well, you mean, half our friends will want to kill you, and the other half will want to kill me?”

“More or less. Gwen, we can do this right now, today, here at the Council. Or we can delay even a little and Josephine will get her hands on the planning and you and I both know how she will-“

“Oh, Maker save us, you’re right. We need masks. Should we get Leliana, or-“

“Mother Giselle, they’d expect us to use Leliana. Er, Divine Victoria. And for this, I’ll wear a bloody mask.”

“Right, you find Mother Giselle, I’ll go get a mask.”

I went to turn away, and his hands tensed on mine, pulling me up short. The mabari – poor boy desperately needed a name, if he was our best man – growled with an uptick, as if to imply a question. I was going to need to Look into just how smart this dog actually was.

I faced Cullen squarely, and waited as he seemed to fight with himself. I was a confirmed runner, and it was obvious that Cullen was lowkey terrified that I was going to walk out of this courtyard and Step to the other side of the planet. We had also spent over a year working out that very trust issue, and giving voice to it was dredging up our past when all he wanted to focus on was our future.

“You have to let me go, so we can both get our shit done and come back,” I told him softly, squeezing his fingers and then letting my hands go limp.

“Right! Right...” he said, letting me pull my hands out of his grip. Though he watched me as I turned to go, I heard him quickly head off in the opposite direction as I made my way to my rooms to retrieve the dress and mask hidden there.

Wedding ceremonies in Thedas were simple, as I had come to learn, and heartfelt. The officiant was present as a conduit to the Maker, figuratively, and served as witness to the marital contract, secularly. I expect Mother Giselle said something to the effect of, we stand here in the Maker’s gaze to join these two in marriage, please speak your intentions.

I neglected to pay attention to her. Honestly, I could Look back at the ceremony whenever I chose, so standing there and really living the moment was more important. And, Maker, what a moment it was.

Cullen was dressed in the red and gold of Ferelden; with a mabari at his heel he couldn’t have been more obvious about his nationality even with an Orlesian mask over his features. Given the sheer numbers of Fereldans who had come to the Council, there was plausible deniability over his identity, which extended to me. I felt like the mask did nothing to hide him – his jaw was a dead giveaway, and his eyes were unmistakable – but a random passerby would probably be fooled.

When I stepped out of a side passage into the courtyard, I had a perfect view of his reaction. He stiffened and stared, the mask hiding his mouth but not the dropped line of his jaw. We’d talked about the earth tradition of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and as his eyes ticked from item to item, I saw something in his stance loosen. He’d been afraid I was going to ditch him at the altar, whether he’d voiced it or not; he was relieved I was there, of course, but my merging of cultures seemed to help him realize this was really happening.

My dress was my something new, a long-sleeved A-line with a scalloped neckline, the watery blue of a winter sky. My shoes were my something blue, the sculpted heels from the fourth night at Halamshiral, when we’d averted two assassinations at the Winter Palace. My mask was borrowed, one of dozens Vivienne had sifted through before deciding this was the thing to set off my dress, a confection of gold leaf and ivory that had been carefully lined with a cobalt blue enamel. My something old was the filigree pendant of the Inquisition, reforged from my old wedding band, sitting heavily on my sternum beneath the neckline of my dress. I left my hair down, and it hung to nearly my waist; it was rarely unbound in Orlais, and never uncovered when I was in my official role of Herald. With my pendant covered and my hair down, I hoped to have some degree of anonymity.

Of course, people seeing Cullen and I with the mabari in the days to come would destroy that. In the meantime, the Orlesians were attracted to a wedding ceremony, put off by it being Fereldan, and utterly disgusted by it including the dog. We were largely ignored.

We were standing in a corner of the courtyard, hand in hand, not listening to anything Mother Giselle said, in a relative bubble of silence as the rest of the attendees of the Exalted Council were involved in various evening pursuits. I was vaguely aware of an opera happening, with most of the nobility (and Hellen) in attendance.

“Just know,” he whispered to me, in a pause in Mother Giselle’s also soft speech, “everything feels like it was worth fighting for.”

I squeezed his hands gently. “It was.”

“This is-“

“This is the part where you make a promise,” Mother Giselle prompted, shaking us both out of the moment.

“Right,” Cullen breathed. “I swear, under the Maker and Holy Andraste, to love this woman the rest of my days.”

“I promise,” I replied easily, having thought about my vow for far longer than I would ever admit, “to choose you, to choose us, for as long as we both live.”

“I was hoping for a forever in there somewhere,” Cullen joked as Mother Giselle finished the ritualized prayer and declared us wed.

“I only make promises I can keep,” I countered, as Mother Giselle rolled her eyes and gave up on us. She reached out and clasped her hands over ours, squeezing briefly before releasing us and silently walking away. Cullen released one of my hands, shifted his grip on the other, and tugged me out of the courtyard, under a trellis nearby.

“There isn’t a great place in the ceremony to introduce new things,” I said while Cullen grinned at me in a slightly stunned sort of way, “but I want you to have this.” In a pocket in my dress – because of course Needles put pockets in things without being asked to – I pulled out a ribbon-wrapped parcel and quickly untied it. In the middle was a simple white ring, the outside unadorned and the inside carefully engraved. I rolled it between my fingers and then held it out to him. “Where I come from, it’s customary to wear it on the fourth finger of your left hand.”

Cullen’s eyebrows lifted but he managed to keep the rest of the surprise off his face as he extended his hand and I slid the ring in place. Dagna had made it, so of course it fit. I was surrounded by masters at their craft.

“It’s dragon bone,” I explained, “so don’t worry about hurting it.”

“You knew,” he accused, although his tone was pleased. “I decided I was going to propose in Skyhold, when we got back, once the Council was decided, but still, you knew-“

“It’s from before,” I answered with a shrug. “Before I could See things. Secret wedding in the courtyard of the Winter Palace at the Exalted Council, with a mabari for a best man. At the time, I didn’t imagine it would be me, but here we are.”

“So, is this actually what you wanted?” he asked, pulling my hands back into his. “You aren’t the type to bow to expectations.”

“I am not,” I confirmed, squeezing his hands as relief crept into his eyes and eased his smile. “I realized months ago that I’d already made the choice, the choices, that would bring us here. It’s important to you, and ultimately it doesn’t change anything for me – who we are, how we live, what we do, how we plan. I didn’t See this, but only because I didn’t bother to Look. I wanted to do this for you, Cullen, because I love you, and because what’s important to you is important to me.”

“Thank you,” he replied, and pulled me into a hug.

“You may now kiss your bride,” I intoned softly, against his chest.

“I think I like your wedding ceremonies better than ours,” he chuckled, and pulled me up for a kiss.

“How could you,” a voice hissed from somewhere behind me, and I tensed as an enraged Cassandra Allegra Portia Calogera Filomena Pentaghast discovered our elopement.

Cullen lifted one hand off my back – I presumed to gesture for Cassandra to wait – and finished kissing me. Then he straightened, blushed lightly, and kept me held tightly against him. I tucked my face against his chest and tried not to laugh.

“I would explain it here,” he said mildly, “but seeing as how the point was secrecy, we would be better served by taking the conversation elsewhere.”

With Cassandra muttering darkly under her breath leading the way, Cullen and I walked hand-in-hand across the courtyard. There would be a party that night, I was sure of it – a reception of sorts, another mix of my world and his. There were dozens of people to tell and countless ass-chewings to accompany the news.

In short, everything was proceeding exactly the same way it always had. The only difference being, Cullen now had my full maiden name, in English script, pressed against the ring finger of his left hand.

Chapter Text

The first morning of formal meetings at the Exalted Council was markedly worse than it needed to have been. I left the opera with a swimming head and ringing ears; it wasn’t something I would choose to sit through again, but Josephine was thrilled and anything that made her eyes shine that brightly was worth a bit of a headache. We arrived back at the manse just in time for the impromptu reception for Cullen and Gwen, who’d eloped that evening while the worst of the gossips were in the theater with Josie and I. After the proposal Cassandra and I had seen, I wasn't surprised; I would have been thrilled for them if Josephine hadn't been so crushingly disappointed. On the other hand, I could understand wanting your own control over the event - I knew exactly what I signed on for when I entered into my relationship, and I was comfortable ceding control of events to Jo. Somebody outside my relationship would get cut if they tried to tell us what to do, so the elopement made more sense than a fight. Josephine's high from the opera was sorely tempered, though. I spent a few hours and too much wine talking her down before bed that night, which made the next morning a little rough.

I wasn’t hungover, per se; sleep deprived and a bit dehydrated, sure, but not hungover.

Sitting at a table in the middle of the converted throne room with Josephine wasn’t that bad. Being surrounded by various nobility of Orlais and Ferelden made it less pleasant. Being stared down by Teagan Guerrin and Cyril Montfort would have been intolerable if not for Divine Victoria sitting between the two men.

Let it never be said that the Nightingale was anything but a master of disapproving side-eye.

“I apologize to make you recite this again,” Most Holy said, with a flicker of a glance towards the Fereldan side of the room that made Teagan flinch. “Particularly since it was your Seneschal at the time who most benefited from the acquisition of the keep in question.” Another flicker of a glance, another minuscule flinch. “But, Inquisitor, please explain to this Council what prompted the capture and subsequent holding of Caer Bronach?”

Every minor action the Inquisition had taken, from the attack on Hargrave Keep in the Fallow Mire to rescue Inquisition forces, to the discovery and reclamation of Skyhold, required a full recounting.

When one of Charter’s agents – the elf whose leg had been injured at the Fallow Mire, Lyal – came to whisper in my ear that shit was happening in one of the gardens – it was hard to hide my relief. I leaned over to pass the message to Josephine.

“It’s happening. I need to go set the ball rolling.”

“Now?” Josephine answered, dismay clear upon her face.

“Now,” I agreed, and pushed up from my seat.

“Forgive me, Your Perfection, but as I have been trying to explain to this Council, my work is not complete. I must see to a potential concern. Please excuse me.”

Divine Victoria gestured towards the door behind me, a gentle smile on her face; she knew as much about the Qunari “Dragon Breath” as I did, after all.

Teagan Guerrin, however, did not. “Are we not even worth the Inquisitor’s time?” he demanded, causing a susurrus of discontent through the ranks of nobility as I made my way towards the door in Lyal’s wake.

“I can sit in for the Inquisitor,” Gwen’s voice sounded softly, behind me. “I was present for the majority of Inquisitor Adaar’s decisions, and anything I was not privy to at the time, I can easily See, if it benefits the Council. If you will permit me, Most Holy?”

“By all means,” the Divine was saying as the door swung shut on my heels.

“I cannot imagine doing this without her,” I said to Lyal as we crossed swiftly through the palace, towards the garden where most of my inner circle was idling away their time on the off chance they would be summoned to speak to the Council.

“A sentiment shared by many,” Lyal agreed.

We reached Charter quickly, to find her in a small store room, kneeling over the body I had been warned of for more than two years. I waved Lyal outside, to keep anyone else from approaching.

“He’s a warrior, not a spy,” I told Charter, taking quick stock of the arms and armaments. “Antaam.”

Charter nodded, and then started pointing out wounds. “Damaged by magic and blade. A unique combination.”

A unique combination we had known to expect, she meant. We had removed the spies from Skyhold over the previous two years, leaving a select few we could use to pass on the idea that we were clueless as to what would transpire here. We had not, however, removed the spies from Halamshiral or attempted to weed them out of the entourages of the assembled nobility. We were almost assuredly being spied on at this very moment, and we would have to couch our words carefully.

I fucking hated it.

“Have we traced the blood trail back to the source?”

“No. I sent for you straight away.”

“Have it traced. Send for Cullen, get this area cordoned off. Once we find where he came from, get that area secured as well.”

“Yes, Inquisitor.”

Charter side-stepped neatly around a figure in a brown cloak who was entering the door as Charter was leaving. They stopped and stared at each for a moment before Charter nodded and continued out. The newcomer took another step into the room and pushed her hood back to reveal the Left Hand of the Divine.

“Lady Trevelyan.”

“Inquisitor Adaar. I saw this Qunari fall off a balcony and traced his path while Charter sent for you. I can take you to the eluvian he staggered out of.”

“Lead the way.”

The woman known as Knuckles kept her steps near the blood spatter, so I could see precisely where the trail was without her overtly pointing it out. We reached an arbor, and she paused as if to merely have a brief conversation with me. She spoke without moving her lips, keeping her voice to a low murmur that I could barely make out.

“Drips along the trellis, all the way up to the third-floor balcony. There is a window open; the dark smudges on the sides of the frames are bloodied hand prints. Would you like to ascend the trellis, for old time’s sake, or is it enough to see it from here and then walk inside and follow the trail like civilized people?”

“It don’t know as anyone has ever accused me of being civilized before,” I replied, as I gestured for her to lead the way into the Palace proper.

“I shall avoid making a habit of it, Inquisitor,” she said, loudly enough to be overheard.

We hurried into the Palace, making our way to the third-floor hallway that was already under guard by people I assumed were affiliated with Knuckles, given the nods they directed at her rather than me. I thought I recognized one of them from the bar – one of the brothers who’d been playing cards with Twitch – as he waved us through a door and shut it tightly behind us.

“You work quick.”

“The last Divine had an abbreviated life span; I would rather be over-worked than out of a job.”

“Fair.”

The bloody hand prints on the open window drew me to look down into the garden below, and verify it was the same window we’d seen from the ground. The Qunari had bled out; by the time he’d reached the garden there was little left in him but determination. These corridors, however, were fairly coated with spray from what must have been an arterial bleed.

“What drove him into the garden? There was no help to be found,” Knuckles said, almost conversationally as we moved deeper into the Palace.

“Magic,” I answered with a shrug. “I have seen men and beast flee from Dorian in terror; I do not have a knack for it, but I understand it is not hard to learn. The corpse we found was killed by a sword, as these carpets can attest, but he was definitely injured by magic in whatever battle he had engaged in.”

“Are you saying he fled mindlessly?” She asked as we pushed open a door to a store room and were greeted by the glistening surface of an eluvian. There was another body of an Antaam on the floor, this one in a pool of blood, still wet and warm. “That seems like too great of a coincidence.”

“Not mindlessly,” I countered, kneeling by the Qunari’s body. “Perhaps he was unaware of the direction he fled, but I have no doubt he was sent.”

There was something crumpled in the warrior’s offhand. I unfurled his limp fingers – Maker, but he was warm enough I stopped to check for a pulse; we missed his final breath by mere moments – and pulled free a bloodied parchment containing a neatly penned letter in Qunlat.

 

Inquisitor,

I have sent you these Karashok as both a warning and an offer. I do not doubt the Herald has told you much of my history. I find it highly likely that she has encouraged you not to follow the trail they have left you, hoping instead to lure me out. Let me assure you, I will do no such thing.
The Viddasala’s lyrium mining operation is yours to end. The dragon she has tethered is similarly a problem for you to address. You will have no leverage with the Qunari if you allow my agents to attend to these concerns.

Let us not dissemble; you are angry with me, and my choices. If you wish to confront me without the lady Gwen’s influence, you will have to do it somewhere she cannot follow.

 

The letter was unsigned. I didn’t need a signature.

“Mother fucker.”

“Inquisitor?”

I thrust the letter towards her. My vision wavered as I fought to pin back the rage that seethed at the back of my throat. Wisdom was frantically vying for my attention, but I had none to spare for her.

He was right. He was right. If he came out of the eluvian to confront me – and there was no reason for him to do so – Gwen would be right there. She would argue with me, keep me from condemning him, keep me from killing him outright, as he fucking deserved.

He was the true culprit of the Breach, the ultimate murderer of the Divine. He’d given Corypheus the power to split open the Veil, which meant he was the reason for the Inquisition’s continued existence. Corypheus had been the weapon which slew Justinia; we hadn’t brought Justice to the one who’d wielded it.

“Take this to Charter,” I hissed at her as she took the letter from my hands. “Gwen and Bull can help if she had problems with the translation.”

“Inquisitor, should you enter the eluvian alone? This is obviously a trap.”

I glared at her over my shoulder as I reached out and grasped the edges of the mirror. To her credit, she didn’t flinch.

“Send Cassandra. Tell her to run.”

Then I thrust myself through the liquid surface of the mirror, into the alien world of the crossroads.

 

*

 

Time was different in the Crossroads. I had barely regained my balance after passing through the eluvian before the anchor flared angrily to life. I gripped my left wrist with my right hand, willing the anchor into silence. I had only just succeeded and forced my hands back to my sides in a reasonable approximation of a normal stance when the eluvian spat out Cassandra.

Hot on her heels appeared Bull and Varric.

“Did Cassandra volunteer you?” I asked in lieu of a greeting.

“I have to see this Dragon Breath bullshit for myself,” Bull replied gravelly.

“Let it be known, if I have to choose between political maneuvering and walking back into the Fade, I chose the damn Fade,” Varric said as he ran through his checks of his crossbow. Finding everything intact, he tossed the weapon onto his shoulder and sighed. “I am not sure I stand by that decision.”

“Gwen was adamant that you were not to enter the Crossroads,” Cassandra started to remind me.

“Gwen wants me to let Solas live, she isn’t exactly objective right now,” I countered.

“Hellen, I-“

“It’s too late for that; I'm already here.” I gestured at the path across an empty expanse of what probably wasn’t open air, leading to another eluvian. “Blood goes that way.”

We weren’t in the Crossroads long. The next eluvian spat us out into a mountain range that reminded me a lot of the Tirashan, in far western Orlais. The mountains in the distance might have been the Hunterhorn. We could have been anywhere, though; there was no sign of civilization beyond the ruins we stood in.

If I thought that was going to do me any favors, I was wrong. We had found a mural of Fen’Harel – of Solas – removing vallaslin, and an actual written plan of attack on the winter palace before we found anything living. We walked into a room so full of Solas’ magic that the anchor went full on batshit before we found anybody yet living.

“Hey, it’s like that creepy veilfire you mages have been so fond of,” Varric remarked upon my hand lighting up like a fucking torch. He seemed to be fighting pretty hard for a silver lining.

“Yeah, great,” I answered, gritting my teeth against the sudden flare of palm-to-shoulder lightning that left my fingers numb. “We saved ourselves a step, I can just lift my hand instead of lighting a torch. Revolutionary.”

“Hellen, you-“

“Nope,” I interrupted Cassandra again. “Not stopping to think about it. Not now, maybe not ever. We keep going.”

Cassandra grunted and we just kept going.

We found another missive claiming an unknown intruder had woken up the spirit guardians in this place and then fled, and I would have wagered Skyhold itself against that intruder being Solas. He’d been here – but of course he had. He’d put that fucking note in the hands of the dead Antaam. Eventually, we found the remaining Qunari, embroiled in a losing battle with the spirit guardians, and although we focused on the Antaam we were attacked on sight by the spirits.

“Are we sure these are Chuckles’ minions?” Varric said, when the last of the spectral guardians had evaporated. “It doesn’t seem like him to actively attack us.”

“We don’t exactly look like refugee elves,” The Iron Bull argued. “They might not be sophisticated enough to differentiate much more than that, especially not if they’re as ancient as Gwen believes.”

“Or Solas is making the simple statement that we’re not his allies,” I told them, cutting off the conversation. “The immediate threat from the Antaam is finished. We need to check in on the council and then figure out how this place connects to the rest of the Qunari forces.”

“Right behind you, Boss,” Bull agree immediately. Varric nodded. I glanced at Cassandra and expected to see a thundercloud but instead got damp eyes and open concern.  I shook my head, and she nodded silently.

We made our way back to the Winter Palace. I stepped through the eluvian last – I hated being first, after leaving Gwen behind in the Arbor Wilds, and avoided it as much as possible. When Orlais materialized before me, my companions were disappearing out the door.

Gwen was standing against the wall, eyes glowing gently blue, Solas’ note clasped in trembling hands at her waist.

“The chance was always small,” she said, before I could get a word in edgewise. “But to have any chance at all, you had to stay out of the eluvian. In the heat of the moment, the decision is always harder.”

“Tell me he was wrong,” I pointed at the note in her hands. “He knows you know, Gwen. He’s ahead of us, again. Still.”

The blue faded from her eyes, and I realized she wasn’t shaking with anger. She was barely holding back tears.

“You, too? Cassandra was on the verge of getting weepy in the Crossroads.”

“Hellen, this could kill you,” she said as she pushed away from the wall. “No one can safely wield the anchor but Solas, we need him to-“

“Everything in this fucking world could kill me!” Gwen came to a lurching stop in front of me. “What, nobody but you gets to die for the fucking cause? He killed Justinia, he killed thousands at the Conclave, he killed you, and he wants to destroy the world as we know it. He does not get to escape justice in the name of preserving my life!”

Gwen set her jaw and nodded. “Your Choice is made, but we all have to live with it. Josie is waiting for you in our private meeting room; I will get Leliana and Cullen and meet you there.”

I closed my eyes as she walked away and took a steadying breath. I could say it to Gwen, but it would destroy Josie to hear me sell my life in the name of justice. She would call it vengeance, and I wasn’t sure she was wrong.

I kicked the eluvian, nearly knocking it over, and followed in my sister’s wake.

Chapter Text

“She what?” Cullen repeated, shocked.

“She went in! She went into the eluvian! Solas goaded her with a note and in she fucking went!”

Cullen put a hand to his forehead and I could see him thinking as quickly as he ever did – which was something to behold and would have been a pleasant distraction under better circumstances. “You specifically told her to stay out of the Crossroads if she wanted to keep her hand.”

“Yes. Thank you, I was explicit. She must not have fucking believed me?”

“Or she thought it hyperbole,” Cullen theorized with a half-hearted shrug. “Regardless, the action is in the past and unalterable. How does this change our plans?”

“Solas is not coming out,” I informed him, and he seemed to be making checkmarks on a mental list. “Hellen is going to lose her left hand, if she lives. If she tries to fight Solas she’ll be a fucking statue, that is not hyperbole. We will have a harder time controlling the Exalted Council, as Hellen has to go back into the Crossroads and confront him if she’s to have any hope whatsoever of survival. I have to divert some of my attention to putting together a surgical suite; I brought Eleanor but I had hoped to not need her. I will brief her on what’s transpired and get her started, and hopefully she can handle most of the medical needs and I can assist her when all is said and done.”

“What else changed with the Council? Solas knows you know, as Hellen said; what else can you See that has changed?”

I threw my hands up and started to pace the room. Cullen had been mired by the need for crowd control and missed the brief window in which Hellen met with Josie and Leliana in our conference room before she stormed off to re-enter the eluvian. One he'd gotten the bodies of the Antaam cordoned off, I dragged him to my quarters to fill him in privately, while Josie and Divine Victoria returned to the Council. I was overdue at the Council, and my absence would definitely be noted, but I was also shaken right out of respectability. I would do the Inquisition no favors by swearing up a storm in the Council, and my frustration with Hellen’s Choice had bereft me of a polite vocabulary. Hopefully, the rumors of Cullen-and-Gwen as newlyweds would give a different spin to my hauling him into private quarters in the middle of the afternoon.

I tried to Look at our immediate future... and immediate saw Hellen missing a hand. I couldn't bring anything else into focus. Other things swirled in the periphery... but her hand, her fucking hand, rendered everything else a mess. “I am so focused on Hellen I don’t know what else I could be missing,” I confessed. “I can feel at least two other Choices coming to play beyond hers... one of them must be Solas’ on whether or not to kill her, but he won’t be faced with that until she finds him, and that is too many twists away for me to be able to get any kind of odds on. Her next two days are such a fucking quagmire I can’t unravel it, it’s got everything else jumbled around it like-“

“Gwen,” Cullen said softly, stepping in front of me as I paced and gently gripping my shoulders. “They aren’t your Choices, are they?”

I shook my head. “No. I know enough to know what those feel like.”

“Are you safe for the next few days?”

Keen to his anxiety – he’d only been married a day, now, and did not trust his luck – I steadied myself and Looked into my own immediate future. It was a mess – but it was a mess because of Hellen, not me. “Hellen is mucking everything up, but I don’t have any more threads cut now as any other time.”

“Not as encouraging as you might think,” he replied, not for the first time.

“I am in no more danger than I ever am,” I said, realizing the phrasing wasn’t much better. He quirked an eyebrow at me and I blew out a frustrated breath. “You know what I mean!”

“What I am hearing is that you are facing a major conflict for the first time with your new insight and are flummoxed to find it nearly useless, with so many threads crossing at once.”

The up-swelling of anger his words invoked was an indication that they were probably completely accurate. He saw that realization on my face and coughed out a tired sort of laugh.

“We’ve always run blind, relying on Hellen’s choices. You kept as much information from us as you shared, so while this is obviously very frustrating for you, it’s very close to normal for the rest of us. You can still assure us that there is still hope, and so we all continue forward.”

“Fuck,” I replied, drawing out the ‘f’ for a few seconds.

Cullen huffed another ghost of a laugh and then pressed a kiss to my forehead. “Do your best. But you cannot force Hellen to see things your way, no one ever has. Don’t get too caught up on it. You said Blessed Andraste herself cannot see anything past a moment of Choice, you should not expect to do better.”

“You’re right,” I sighed, and he brightened, making both of us laugh. “I am just so fucking worried about her.”

“Welcome to the way the rest of us live.”

We didn’t say goodbye, we didn’t try to extract promises of meeting again that evening or even at all. I hoped we would both sleep that night but Hellen was so volatile I was worse than usual about pinning down a timeline. I let him leave before me, taking a few more moments to steady myself before returning to the Exalted Council. Cullen was responsible for protecting the Exalted Council from the Antaam; he was careful to be sure the bodies of the Qunari were removed with few witnesses. Not no witnesses, though – that was Charter’s job, to make sure the right people knew shit was going down. Divine Victoria’s people were stepping up to remove the gaatlok as it was found, keeping Hellen from appearing to make a power grab. Meanwhile, Josephine was letting loose countless ravens, informing allies of the location of gaatlok barrels and identities of Viddathari double agents.

I was doing my damnedest to let them all do their jobs, keep Hellen on the right path, and keep the Exalted Council from running off the rails.

So far, I was the only one failing.

Someday, Cullen I would laugh about having the worst honeymoon, ever. That, at, least, I could See was still an option.

 

*

 

“Gentlemen, let me be plain,” I found myself saying some four long hours later. “Ferelden will not allow Orlais to absorb – sorry, ally with – the Inquisition. Nor will either of your states concede to an unaligned army remaining upon your borders. Neither of you are proposing reasonable solutions, and we will make no progress sitting in this chamber and explaining every acquisition the Inquisition made. You both want your fortifications back. It is understandable. You will not make yourself sound more reasonable by attempting to claim the Inquisition had committed some transgression by claiming unoccupied keeps or by clearing hostile squatters.”

There was a sussurus of complaint, then, as I stood up. “Forgive me, Most Holy. When one can See the intentions of men as I can, it makes sitting through their prevarications particularly trying. If you would like, I can submit to you the actual requests both of these men received from their sovereigns so that we can rebegin negotiations in good faith on the morrow.”

Their complaints were much louder, then, and I could feel the displeasure radiating off Josephine from where she sat beside me at my use of the word 'prevarications.' Divine Victoria, for what it was worth, looked at me quite sternly but gestured her acceptance. “If you would care to provide such a document, my lady Herald, I would allow each party to review it and strike out any items they disagreed with.”

“Thank you. May I beg for an adjournment? The day becomes late, particularly with so little accomplished.”

The Divine quickly agreed and called for us to resume the next morning, with Lord Cyril and Bann Teagan meeting her for breakfast to review the list I would provide. I had made no allies there, but I was comfortable with any bridges I might have just burned. As far as I could See, neither of them was in a position to bite me in the ass any time soon.

I slid into an antechamber, aware of Lord Cyril hard on my heels, and in the split second between the door latching behind me and his hand grasping the handle, I Stepped to the manse formally held by Grand Duke Gaspard.

There was a solid Inquisition presence in the courtyard, and within moments I was recognized by a handful of soldiers who had spent time in my infirmary. I waved and made my way into the guest wing; as much as it would have amused my infirmary staff to use Gaspard's former bathing chamber, opening up the entire wing was far more trouble than it was worth. We had fewer people with us this time - Leliana had an entourage of her own that we could lean on as needed, and the Chargers were up in the Palace proper - so there was plenty of space to be found for my people.

Eleanor and two of my best infirmary staff – Jaime and Edmun – were staying in one of the nicer first-floor suites and treating the trip like a vacation. I was loath to burst their bubble; I had hoped they would not be needed this trip.

“I’m sorry,” I said as Jaime opened the door in response to my knock. “I hoped I wouldn’t need you, but our new best-case scenario is something terrible. I need you to gather the supplies I had you pack and bring it to the Palace.”

“Oh, oh-of course,” Jaime answered, as Edmun sprang off an upholstered couch and rushed out of the room, emerging a moment later with his boots in one hand and a pack of supplies in the other. Eleanor entered from a different direction and froze when she saw me at the door. She saw Edmun sling a pack towards the door and then start pulling on his boots and tensed.

“What’s happened?”

“Nothing yet. I need you to bring all the supplies we packed – literally all of them – to the Palace. I will get a room assigned to us. I need you to set up a surgical suite. I will help where I can.”

“All of them?” Jaime repeated, shocked still. “But we brought-“

“You promised to be my student, should this happen,” Eleanor reminded me darkly. The woman’s memory was frightening sometimes. I had specifically told her to bring everything we would need for a major limb amputation, so perhaps it had been floating near the surface of her thoughts.

“I was not planning for this to ever come to pass, but I will be right beside you.”

“Hurry back, and have someone meet us when we arrive.”

“Yes, doctor,” I replied, and we smiled at one another briefly before I turned and made my way back out of the building.

“Gwen!” I was stopped in the courtyard as I tried to pick a place to Step to in the Palace. I looked around – precious few people called me Gwen anymore – and quickly spotted Twitch jogging towards me in the dwindling sunlight. “Gwen, wait, I have news.”

It was rude, I know, but I was harried and tired. I blinked, turning my Sight on him to pluck the news from him. He was going to tell me-“

“Oh, my god,” I gasped, surprised into normal vision. “Twitch!”

“Rude,” he laughed in English. “God, you just took all the fun out of that.”

“Holy shit, Twitch, congratulations! I am surprised you came this far from Denerim!”

“I figured I had time to get back. I do, don’t I? Have time to get back?”

I shook my head to clear it, laughing. “Hold on, hold on, I didn’t look! That was the last thing I expected to See, hold on!” I had to focus harder this time, but I Looked at him again. Ophelia was miserable, but only because she was being utterly doted on by her family. There were four women swirling around her; even Senna was being a bit of a mother hen. Pushing further ahead...

“Something’s blocking me from seeing you get home,” I admitted, frowning as I went looking for it. “The decision isn’t yours, its... not even close to you, god damn it. Shit is going down at the Council, and I can’t promise that you’ll be okay.”

“Fuck,” Twitch sighed. “I shouldn’t have asked. That wasn’t what I wanted to know. What I want to know is-“

“She’s beautiful,” I answered, and his worry drained into total dopey contentment. “She’s beautiful and healthy and perfect. Rheyna’s cooling her heels in Denerim, but they won’t need her. Twitch, I have to warn you, her magic is going to show up early.”

“It’s a girl?” he whispered, grinning like a fucking idiot.

“Sorry, did I ruin that surprise, too? She’s going to look like her mama, lucky thing.”

“Thank you,” he breathed, and seemed to deflate. “Now I just have to focus on getting home.”

“Its the courtyard,” I told him, casting my Sight back in that direction, Looking specifically for what might hurt Twitch. “Gaatlok in the courtyard, seems to be the sticking point. The odds are real low but they seem to be rising by the minute.” Lines of possibility were falling off as I Looked at them; the whole chain I was on dropped away and I had to start over. Whatever was happening was happening now, as decisions were made that shaped the event.

“Gaatlok? One of those barrels? Should be easy enough to fix.”

“No,” that wasn’t right. I traced back up the lines of possibility and followed another one to find horror. “Where are the Chargers?”

“What, right now? They’re all up at the Palace, cooling their heels while Bull fucks around in the eluvian with Adaar.”

“Oh, god, Twitch, we have to get back to the Palace right the fuck now.”

“Don’t go alone!” he snapped, and grabbed my hand. “Don’t you dare Step up there and leave me wondering. Come on!” He pulled me along with him, to where Inquisition horses were saddled for runners to use between the manse and the Palace. Twitch untied the closest from its hitch while I swung up into the saddle , and then scooted forward. He swung up behind me and shifted so that he was steady in his seat while I urged the horse away from its fellows. I handed back the reins and Twitch clucked it into a walk out of the courtyard and then into a run on the road.

“Are you going to tell me what happens? What are we trying to stop?”

“I fucked up,” I told him over the pounding of my heart in my throat. “I missed something, something big. I was too caught up in Hellen and I missed another group of Viddathari. They know about me, of course they know about me, Bull told them about me, they were specifically sent to kill me, but they won’t get to me because-“

“Because the Chargers are there. And you didn’t look into the Chargers ahead of time to see how they made out at the Council.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t look at the Chargers until now.”

Twitch didn’t reply, but he urged the horse to keep its breakneck pace down the road. It was a short run, no more than a few minutes by carriage, but today it felt like it hours.

When we got back to the Palace, the sun setting at our backs, we charged directly into the middle of pure chaos.

Chapter Text

I knew she could get off the horse on her own, but I dismounted first and held him still while she slid to the ground. Then we were both off at a dead sprint. I didn’t understand exactly what was happening – Gwen was trying to stop the Chargers from being killed protecting her, and her rushing into that fight wasn’t a reasonable answer to most scenarios. I knew she could Step out if shit went south, and it was real hard for me to run the other way when the Chargers were in danger. So even though my own battle training screeched at me to dig in my heel and reassess, I kept my mouth shut and kept pace with Gwen.

Opie and the baby were going to be fine, with or without me. Gwen had told me as much, and I’d seen the way the Surana clan had rallied around her since we got back to Denerim; obviously I wanted to be with them. But I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to the Chargers and I hadn’t done anything to prevent it. I had to trust that Gwen had brought us here to stop the disaster, rather than lead me straight into my death. Trusting Gwen had gotten me this far; I wasn't ready to stop just yet. 

It wasn't hard to follow the commotion across the Palace grounds to where the trouble was brewing. The Chargers were cordoning off one half of the courtyard, where a pitched battle seemed to have already been fought. Three or four of them were bleeding or limping, but the two bodies on the ground weren’t ours. The Inquisition had a few soldiers in attendance, several of whom were wiping blood from their swords, but the bodies didn't belong to them, either.

They weren’t Qunari, although they were put here by the Qun. Like Gwen had said on the ride in, they were Viddathari – a dozen humans, mostly men dressed like laborers, swords in hand, surrounding a lone female. They didn't seem to have attention to spare for their dead fellows sprawled between them and the Chargers' line. I didn’t get a good enough look to get any more information than that before plunging into the crowd after Gwen as she made her way into the Chargers to get to Krem.

They recognized her and made a hole for their Ma and me, sealing up behind us. Gwen got to Krem, wrapped a hand around his arm, and he spared her a glance.

“They are asking for you in Qunlat,” he said.

From here, I could see the woman in their midst. She was draped in red cloth that looked to be an oversized robe kept closed more from the bulk of cloth than from any intentional closure. She had a band strapped across her eyes in a blood red to match her robe, and her hair was cleanly shaved.  

“Neria,” the Herald called in a soft greeting.

“Gwen,” the other called back. “You were right,” she said in Qunlat. There was something about her tone that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and I exchanged an uneasy glance with Krem. He jerked his chin towards Gwen, and I nodded. He took a half-step back, widening his stance, as I stepped forward silently into Gwen’s wake. I shifted my shield to the side, prepared to step forward and swing it around her at a moment’s notice.

A soldier, somewhere behind me and to my left, breathlessly reported to his Lieutenant that the Commander was sealed in the Council, and as soon as he could be reached he would be en route. Cullen’s absence drove the sense of dread deeper into my gut.

“I was wrong,” Gwen countered in the same language. “I never should have let you go, Marian.”

Oh, god, it was worse. I didn’t know it could get worse, but it just did; she was one of us.

She was one of us.

“No, Gwen, when you spoke of purpose. The tamassrans had use for me yet. This is their grand purpose. This is what the Qun has asked of me.”

She dropped the robe. She was covered in what looked like tar. Gwen breathed in a choked breath and then took three quick steps forward. “Marian! Marian, no, come with me. You have a grander purpose. You know this, you’ve always known this. You don't need to make this statement. There are other ways to take your life back!"

I had no idea what the hell was happening, but it was bad. I stepped into Gwen’s shadow, standing practically on her heels, and the Viddathari surrounding Neria – Marian – moved a single step toward Gwen and I, falling into a stance to defend the blind woman from us. Gwen and I both froze.

“I will bow to the demands of the Qun,” Neria said, "and still heed your words. I can still take my life back."

Gwen’s voice caught as she breathed, “Please. Don’t. You do not have to do this. I swear to you, there is another way.”

“Like a small boat on the ocean, sending big waves into motion,” Neria said softly, and it seemed like lyrics to a song I had heard but didn’t remember. It swirled in the back of my mind like my own forgotten identity once had.

"Please," Gwen begged, but her eyes were deep blue and she was starting to shift her weight away. She saw the cause was lost. My stomach dropped into my shoes. "Please, stop, you do not have to do this."

“Like how a single word can make a heart open,” Neria continued as if Gwen hadn't spoke, and Gwen stepped quickly backwards into me, crushing my feet with her haste, and I swung my shield around her and wrapped my free arm around her waist, lifting her into shelter as Neria lifted her hand.

“Back!” Gwen screamed, and the Chargers started widening the circle around the Viddathari. They weren’t going fast enough, they were still too close- “Get back!” our Ma screamed again, and I heard her voice crack. God, this is what she had seen, this is how we all died.

"I might only have one match-" Neria had a Zippo lighter in her hand, painted with garish colors faded with time but visible between her fingers. I pulled Gwen completely off her feet and started backing up as quickly as I could. “Krem!” I warned. He didn’t know what a Zippo was, but he knew that tone in my voice.

As Krem called for the Chargers to take cover, Neria tipped her head up. If she’d still had eyes, she would have been staring right at Gwen and I. Her thumb flipped the lighter open, and then smoothly clicked the flame into life as she finished her lyrics.

“But I can make an explosion.”

The tar covering her – Maker, it must have been gaatlok – ignited as the lighter fell out of her hands, and I threw myself backwards, curling around Gwen to try to protect her from the blast. It was dumb – with me wrapped around her, she couldn’t Step away – but it was instinct and I leaned into it.

I landed, hard, on my back; I skidded twenty or thirty feet backwards, and immediately felt an ungodly fire in my feet. I glanced down at Gwen – she was openly crying, and her dress was scorched, but she rolled out of my arms and immediately stood. The pendant made of her wedding ring flashed red at her throat and my concern for the Herald diminished. She was fine.

I glanced down. I was not. My armor was charred, and the metal was burning the skin beneath. I leaned over to grab my boots and tug them off, but as soon as I sat up, a cold hand gripped my collar at the back of my neck and dragged me, bodily, forward. I twisted around so my heels dragged in the singed earth. As I reached up to bat away whoever had me, I was tossed forward, landing in a rough heap at the lip of the smoking crater where Neria and the Viddathari had so recently stood.

I shuddered away from a few pairs of smoking boots lying empty around me and tried to turn and see who was manhandling me. I caught sight of Gwen, first.

Her eyes were huge and tears still flowed freely down her soot-streaked face. The deep brown irises were lost in a glow of blue that seemed to leak from the whites of her eyes, and I knew she wasn’t Looking at anything I could see. Her shoulders were shaking and her hands were two clenched fists, but she made no move to interfere. Past her I could see dozens of limp forms, bodies of Chargers and Inquisition soldiers alike – what few were moving were clearly in agony. Gwen wasn’t moving to help them, which was incredibly out of character for her. My mind refused to work; as I tried to figure out what was happening I kept getting dragged back to the searing pain shooting up my legs.

I twisted the other way, at my captor, and caught sight of two decidedly feminine, armored boots. My eyes traveled up a literal fortune in dragon hide, tooled with the hands of a master, to land on an ornamental breastplate bearing a griffon, rampant, half-hidden behind a heavy braid of thick black hair.

I dropped onto my back to look up at a face I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Solona gestured with her right hand, extinguishing the flames left by the explosion, instantly chilling the metal of my boots and the heat in my burning feet. She bent at the knees, tipped her left hand palm-up, and then pushed at the air as if lifting an unfathomable weight. The ground erupted in blue light, radiating up from the earth across the entirety of the courtyard, and I could feel the skin beneath my armor becoming whole once more. I sat up and glanced around, seeing Chargers looking at intact skin through rent and bloody armor, soldiers holding their heads as they pushed to their feet, and Krem shaking so much blood off his arms that I wondered if Solona hadn’t just brought him back from the very edge of death.

I started to say as much, but she bent, grabbed the front of my armor, and slammed me into the ground.

“Where the fuck is she, Twitch?” she demanded.

“Who? Opie?”

With a roar of rage, she stood, took a running sort of step, and launched me across the crater. I slid across the scorched earth and scrambled to my feet but she was already there, her hand on my throat. I stutter-stepped backwards and she followed, bearing me across the clearing to finally slam to a stop against a wall.

“She’s not here. She’s supposed to be with you! Where the fuck is she?”

“Denerim!” I managed. “She stayed behind in Denerim!”

“Where the fucking templars found her before?” She pulled me away from the wall slightly, so the impact rattled my brain when she slammed me against it once more. She cast a thread of healing magic into my skull, and I realized she could beat the fuck out of me for days before I sustained enough damage to pass out.

“Solona, for fucks sake, she couldn’t travel! She’s safe, I swear I wouldn’t leave her somewhere dangerous!” I managed, not attempting to bring my hands up. I kept them pressed against my thighs, hoping none of the Chargers would try to hurt her to save me if it seemed like I wasn’t fighting back.

She paused, arms tensing to shake the brains right out of my ears. She’d just found me in a bomb crater, her first impulse was probably the assumption that Opie had just been vaporized, and honestly her anger was justified. I reached up and lightly rested my hands on her forearms. “If you want more details, I will happily tell you somewhere privately, but I am not telling you how I am sure she is safe ten paces away from a crater that you just saved my ass from. You just have to trust that she’s okay, Loner.”

The Warden Commander of Ferelden slowly released her grip on me, and I slid down onto my heels and shifted to center my weight. My feet felt prickly, like the tail end of pins and needles, but it was a damned sight better than the sensation they were on fire. I risked a glance away from Solona to see all the Chargers on their feet – the Viddathari were completely gone and everybody else was stirring and seemingly shocked at their lack of injuries.

“If you’re wrong-“ Solona started darkly.

“I’ll want to die,” I answered, pulling her up short. “I won’t hide from you, I’ll beg for an end.”

“Does she know that?” she asked, with a completely different tone.

I dropped my voice as low as I could, ducking my head to obscure my words from anyone who could read lips like Garrett Hawke. “Given she’s about six months along with my baby, I should sure fucking hope so.”

Solona seemed to deflate. “No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Well, then, I’m glad I decided to step in. I was just going to silently observe this shitshow. Where’s my Nightingale?”

“The Divine is currently in Council, but I am confident we could request a recess, under the circumstances,” Gwen offered from where she yet stood, hands in tight fists at her sides.

Solona turned to look at her, cocking her head slightly as she frowned at her thoughtfully. “I know your voice,” she said, and then whistled sharply. From under the gazebo in the corner of the courtyard, a mabari – the biggest damn dog I had ever seen in my life, it dwarfed the beastie Cullen had found – somehow squeezed out, then turned and scooped up a cloth sack with a thick strap that it nosed its head into, before tipped its head back and let slide down its neck to bounce gently against its thick chest as it trotted over to Solona’s side. The sack seemed to be moving slightly of its own accord.

“I might have been told to tell you my name, so you would recognize me; I’m Gwen-“

“YOU,” Solona shouted and then strode across the crater to gather Gwen into a sudden, crushing hug. “His mother! My sister! I cannot tell you-“

Solona swallowed, hard, suddenly cognizant of the sheer number of eyes on her, and set Gwen down. She straightened her shoulders. “My lady Herald, I am the Warden Commander of Ferelden. I have business with Most Holy, and would like to request your intercession with the Exalted Council so that I might have access to her Perfection.”

Gwen nodded and then gestured at the crater at their feet. She swallowed thickly a couple times before finding her voice. “I need to-“

“We got this, Ma,” Meck interrupted, stepping to her elbow. “Chargers are all present and accounted for, we will report to the Commander and the Chief if you can pull them out of the Council. We’ve done this before, we know how to sift through the wreckage. There’s nothing here you need to see.”

“I owe it to Marian-“

“You owe it to the Inquisitor,” Krem countered, and Gwen's shoulders sagged in defeat. “Go, Ma. We got this.”

She nodded and then turned away, Solona hard on her heels. A few minutes later, Cullen rushed in and started to organize the reconstruction of what the fuck just happened here.

I sat and collected my thoughts; I was alive, and only by the grace of Solona Amell. I'd officially had my life saved by all three remaining spirit healers in Southern Thedas; I was out of get-out-of-jail-free cards. My mind resolutely avoided any reflection on the Viddathari who'd just self-immolated in the courtyard; that sort of thing was what I'd hoped to leave behind on Earth. Why the fuck had she concluded that was her only option? Why the fuck had Gwen thought she could be talked out of it? I would need to talk to Gwen about it later; she hadn't been out fighting darkspawn and undead with a sword like I had, she would need a serious debriefing. And not from Cullen, either, this was an earthling problem and needed earthling solutions. In the meantime, there was not much for me to do until Knuckles or one of her Highever boys came to get me; I was technically here with the Left Hand of the Divine. I was vacantly staring at the grand staircase when Gwen walked out a short while later. She was moving like something was broken in her chest, and I pushed to my feet to go talk her down. Before I could take a step, a woman ran up to meet her, someone I vaguely recognized as a surgeon at Skyhold, and they spoke for a moment and then they both jogged down to meet two other infirmary staff and start moving parcels into the Palace.

That was a better use of my time than sitting on a stoop, so I headed over to help, and was quickly press-ganged into moving furniture and setting up a medical suite; Gwen seemed to remember that I did have some experience with her idea of modern medicine and wouldn’t be completely useless.

“What is all this for?” I asked when the layout made it clear they were expecting a lot of blood. There was a bone saw, for fucks sake.  We had Solona fucking Amell wandering around the Winter Palace, with Hellen Adaar on standby. What did Gwen think we would see that they couldn’t handle?

“It hasn’t happened yet,” the surgeon, Eleanor, said with a shrug.

“Better to have and not need,” Jaime said, from a corner where she was setting up a hand wash station.

“Than to need and not have,” Edmun finished as he put clean sheets on a stout table.

Gwen’s face told a different story, and she met my eyes for a long moment before shaking her head and dipping out into the hall. I followed. There was something apparently, somehow, worse than the explosion in the courtyard that Gwen was contending with. In a whispered conversation, I learned what had Gwen so distracted that she had forgotten to check on her Chargers, and wished – not for the first time that day – that I hadn’t asked. 

Chapter Text

I had promised her I wouldn’t go in at all. By my fourth trip into the eluvians, my left hand was going full beserk, and it was hard to argue the wisdom of her words. I couldn’t bring Solas to justice if his fucking anchor killed me. The skin under my bracers was blackened and bloodless; the anchor was keeping the flesh together but the magic was eating its way up my arm, already halfway to my elbow and rising steadily. There were greenish black streaks sending out tendrils along my veins; I didn’t have to ask Gwen what would happen when it hit my heart.

“You can’t heal it?” Cassandra had asked, the one opportunity she’d had to see it, when I’d knocked the bracer loose while setting off blast charges in the lyrium mine.

“No,” I admitted. If Renn was my first failure, this would be my second. “It’s magic. Trying to use my magic on it just makes it stronger, somehow. It’s feeding on all the old elvhen magic we’re finding.”

That conversation was just this afternoon, and already it felt like years ago.

I had tried to find Gwen the second time we came out of the eluvian, but she stayed with the Council to give Josephine a chance to get away. I’d left Varric behind when I reentered and brought Dorian instead; we weren’t finding any doors locked by mundane means, and Dorian wasn’t as sketched out by the anchor and the Crossroads as Varric was. I missed the dwarf in the library, but I would never regret having Dorian beside me.

Those three – Cassandra, Bull, and Dorian – had gone in with me the fourth time, which was the last time I would enter the Crossroads, one way or the other. The anchor was building up power and discharging it on its own if I didn’t vent it periodically, and it sped up as the day went on. It was the middle of the fucking night when I kissed Josie goodbye and headed for the Darvaarad.

Gwen was nowhere to be found. I didn’t blame her. I had heard there was some kind of attack in the courtyard, but no one gave me any particulars beyond that it had been handled. Given all the other irons she had in the fire, I would be more worried if Gwen had come to say goodbye; her absence was a sort of confidence that I would survive this. It was the only thing keeping me going, honestly.

The Viddasala had a dragon, but we knew that; we had Gwen, after all, and this was one of those things she hadn’t needed Andraste’s eyes to know. There was only one thing that had surprised me, and honestly I should have seen it coming.  

“Hissrad!” The Viddasala called. We all turned to look at Bull, to gauge his reaction to the command in the Viddasala’s voice. She was Ben Hassrath, after all. “Now!”

My heart stuttered as the muscles in my chest clenched. After all this time, he wouldn't- not now- surely he-

“Not a chance, ma’am,” he replied. If there was regret in his tone, I was willing to attribute it to the loss of culture, and not at the choice that led him there.

“She is Bas-“

“It’s pronounced Boss,” he corrected her.

Anything else the bitch might have said was lost in her retreat, as Cassandra spun the wheel controlling the dragon’s restraints and Dorian redirected the flames in the floor to force it out the gate, Cassandra swearing viciously as she levered it open. I took a moment to enjoy the view as the dragon absolutely destroyed half a battalion of Antaam, and then we were off to chase the Viddasala.

She seemed to think we were trying to save Solas from her. Idiot. She was just in my way.

Her pet Saarebas upset my equilibrium in a way I had a very hard time dealing with in the press of battle. This was what she wanted for me, and damn it all if I didn’t know I would be stronger than him. Saarath was too far gone to reason with; I could have freed him if he’d just fucking listened to me for a minute. Bull would disagree but I had to believe it was possible to come back from the torment he had experienced. It had to be

The last thing he saw was Bull and I leaning over him. It didn’t seem to bring him any peace.

“Fuck the Qun, Bull,” I said when the light left Saarath’s eyes.

He sighed, but for the first time he didn’t argue with me. “As you say, Boss.”

I appreciated the inflection he put on the pronunciation, and gestured for them to go through the eluvian after the Viddasala.

They couldn’t. All three tried – Cassandra, Bull, and Dorian. The glass would not yield to them.

“Found him,” Dorian said softly, looking up at the mirror. “We’ll keep trying to get in behind you, Hellen.”

I wanted to argue, but it had been too long since I’d discharged the anchor, and it started to crackle. I would rather it explode on Solas’ side of the mirror than the one my allies stood on.

“Thank you,” I said, as my left hand passed easily through the plane of glass. “For everything.”

“We know,” Cassandra replied.

“We love you, too,” Dorian said, the last thing I heard before being pulled through.

I stepped through just in time to see the Viddasala solidify into a statue – solid, lifeless stone – alongside what was left of her Antaam. Solas’ eyes glowed brightly for a moment, reminding me of Gwen and distracting me from the anchor’s need to discharge. It directed itself inward – not wanting to explode in Solas’ face, probably. Betrayed by my own fucking hand. The pain dropped me to my knees.

“I suppose you have questions,” Solas said, as he walked over to stand before me. It was him – but it wasn’t. There was something fundamentally different about him, something more than the upgrade in clothes, but I was in too much pain to put my finger on it. I wanted nothing more than to rip him apart, and instead I was on my knees and looking him eye to eye.

“Not really,” I gritted. “That last rift in Skyhold, when we were fighting Corypheus... it really did kill Gwen. You know that, right?”

“I assumed she was merely injured, from the reports I received.”

“Nope. Dead. Full dead. Sent back by Andraste, herself, with some timely intervention from Anders. I don’t need you; I’ve actually got the Maker on my side.”

His jaw shifted, but he didn’t seem angry. Rueful, almost, if I didn’t know better. The anchor crackled when I tried to push to my feet, and it was all I could do to keep my composure as I felt the bones in my wrist start to give way.

“An interesting philosophy from a Vashoth. I expected Gwen would have told you to stay away, if she had any idea of what was to transpire.”

“She did. You know me,” I countered. “And you know how close Wisdom sits to Pride.”

“True,” he conceded. “Regardless, the Mark will eventually kill you. In spite of your obvious desire to kill me, I made a promise to Gwen on the bank of a river to intercede prior to your death. It is not one I have an intention to break. Drawing you here gave me the chance to save you – at least for now.”

“I can’t let you destroy our world, Solas,” I told him, and to his favor he seemed to listen. “I know what Gwen told you, and I know she was right. She was willing to give all of us up to go home – close her eyes on this wild dream she was having and go back to whatever mess it was she’d left behind. Do you remember? You remember what she said?“

“She asked, how long I would need to be in this world, before it was more than just a nightmare to wake up from,” he answered softly. “But it is more than that, Inquisitor. You know the faults in this world go far deeper than just the Fade and the loss of my People. Believe me when I say it is far worse than you imagine.”

I shook my head as the tip of my radius disconnected from my thumb. I could speak through gritted teeth, but just barely. “Killing us all is not the solution. I will not let you. Do you hear me? It will not happen.”

“I look forward to seeing what you and Gwen muster in its defense,” he said, smiling softly. Andraste’s asshole, I hated this man if only because I missed the friend I had lost when he left. “In the meantime, you have stopped the Viddasala, and I have control over the eluvian network. You should have a few years of relative peace. It is all I can promise you.”

The world was starting to go dark around the edges, and a glance down showed the black streaks starting to move visibly up my arm. One was practically in my elbow.

“Pass my congratulates to Gwen on her recent nuptials, if you would,” he said, as he reached down and took my pulsing left arm. If anything, his touch amplified the pain. Anything snarky I might have thrown into his teeth was lost as the world flared white and then disappeared.

 

“Boss!”

I was jostled, lifted, settled over a shoulder. Bull. Thank fuck, Bull.

“Hellen, stay with us.”

Dorian. There was a tightness around my elbow and it felt like him, somehow. Tevenes had weird magic tricks for everything, maybe it was a tourniquet.

Tourniquets were dangerous. Leave them on too long, you could lose the limb.

Wait, is that what Gwen meant? Oh. Oh, no. 

“Find the Herald!”

Cassandra. Sounds of booted feet dashing every which way. I didn’t try to observe; I was conscious enough to listen, and that was enough. Wisdom was whispering in the back of my head, encouraging me to stay calm, keep my head down, and it was easier not to argue with her.

“Here! Bring her here, we have the room ready!” Gwen’s voice never failed to wash calm over me, even when I was mad at her, even when my self-doubt cast her words into suspicion. She was ready for this. I was going to be okay.

“Josie, wait,” Cassandra said softly, and my heart skipped.

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

I should look up. I should give her a sign of life. I should-

You should not use a single one of your muscles, Wisdom chided me, and I remained limp in Bull’s arms. Something about my arm dangling was beneficial, and I just wasn’t thinking fast enough to keep tabs on why.

“Tossed her out of the eluvian,” Bull was saying, and I realized I had lost some time. Seconds? Minutes?

I was jostled again, rolled in mid-air to land on my back on a hard, elevated surface. Hands were at my armor, stripping my top half and my arm and self-defense started to kick me back to life. I leaned forward against a weight on my abdomen, tensed to throw it off.

“It’s me,” Gwen’s voice whispered, directly in front of me. “We’re going to save you. We are. I’ve been dreading this and hoping it didn’t have to happen but here we are and I’m ready. Don’t fight me, Hellen, I’m going to save your life.”

“Gwennie,” I murmured and I felt her lips press against my forehead, chin between my eyes. She was sitting on me. It was almost enough to make me laugh – almost – and I laid back down.

“Bull, Cass, on my signal.”

“Ready.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Eleanor?”

“Ready.”

"Solona?"

Wait, what? Solona?

"On your mark."

“Alright. On three. One. Two. Three!”

As the world exploded in pain and I fought against the sudden hands holding me still against the knives to my arm, the part of my brain that was calmly observing heard Josephine crying, somewhere nearby and yet impossibly far away. Then it vanished in the... Chargers singing? Or, was I remembered the Chargers singing? My throat started to burn before I heard my own voice, before I heard my screaming. There was something over my face, over my eyes, I couldn't see-

And then something was pressed to my lips, poured into my mouth. I swallowed rather than choke, and knew only darkness.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

I sat at Hellen's bedside for two days before I could accept Solona's assurances that my sister by choice would eventually wake. I was not willing to Look at her and maybe destroy what little hope I had. It had been a long time since I'd Seen anything good.

"Get some sleep, you're making me feel sane," the Warden-Commander said, although there was no hint of command in her voice. "You're not going to process that shitshow in the courtyard until you've slept, and if I have to open the door to Cullen Fucking Rutherford one more time we are going to have to revisit the terms of our friendship."

"You're right," I sighed. I stayed where I sat, Hellen's remaining hand held tightly between both of mine.

"Right. Great. Look." She dropped onto the floor beside me and swiveled my chair with her booted feet. My squeak of surprise was lost in the screech of protest from the chair as I was forced to look at Solona instead of Hellen. "You fucked up, okay? Everybody outside this room is going to kiss your ass and try to reassure you and you don't want to face it. I get it. Life and fucking death hangs in the balance and yes, someone else can probably salvage a win out of the mess left behind if you fail, but fuck them, this is your responsibility. Believe me, I know exactly how that feels. So does Hellen, that's why you love her past the point of reason. And, no judgment, I'd like you a lot better if you'd picked her over Cullen, but whatever."

I shook my head, wanting to laugh but not finding any real mirth in my throat. Solona didn't let me look away.

"You don't have any control whatsoever in other people's choices. Clarel. Logain. Flemeth. I have run my face right into the same problem, I get it, and I've got a decade of practice on you. You have to let that shit go. Account for it in your planning. Assume none of these assholes will ever take a single fucking word of yours to heart and figure out how to minimize the damage they cause. And never, ever, take responsibility for anybody elses' choices. Even the ones you don't see coming - you don't control people. The second you start trying to control people is the moment you become everything you've ever fought against."

I nodded, and she reached out, removed my hands from Hellen's, and threaded my fingers through hers. 

"Good. Next. You watched somebody kill a lot of people you loved. They're alive because I am fucking awesome - you're welcome - but that won't make what you saw go away. You're focused on Hellen because her mess is easier for you to deal with than what happened to the Viddathari. You need to walk me through that entire cockup, start to finish, because I cannot begin to figure out what the fuck went down."

I nodded again, and told her. I started with meeting Neria in Gaspard's basement, explained her faulty translation of the interrogation that Alistair and I heard a recording of, and then explained what I'd Seen when I met her again in the courtyard. Her name had been Marian Ruess, and she was a translator back in my world, drawn here as a refugee, and picked up by tamassrans in Dairsmuid and converted to the Qun. All of the Viddathari in the courtyard had been from my world - collected over the years and stored away. I could See all their stories, if I had the heart to. Someday I would, but not-

"Not now," Solona interrupted, squeezing my hands. "I am precipitously short on fucks to give in general, and I'm not wasting any on what might have been."

"Fair," I coughed, and continued with Neria's story, including the full lyrics of the song she'd been singing in the courtyard. Solona stared at me for a long moment when I finished, until I dropped my eyes back to the floor.

"Right. So. That's fucked up. And also not your fault. You let her make her own choices, you gave her a way out at every junction. I can't speak to the moral and ethical fuckery that is blowing yourself up to escape powerlessness, and honestly I really don't want to. Ultimately, she felt like that was what she had to do to empower herself and take back her life, and without being in her shoes we can't say whether we would make the same call. I'm not going to try to tell you to just get over it, either, because there is some seriously fucked up shit in this world and once it piles up everything is pure fucking horror. How you feel about it is how you feel about it, but the one thing you can't feel about it is responsible. Somebody else abused her until she didn't know which way was up, and the blame is on them. You hear me?"

I nodded, and returned the squeeze of her fingers. "I hear you."

"Do you hear me when I tell you to get your nasty ass out of here? You need sleep and a bath and not in that order."

I nodded again, and this time I let her pull me to my feet. "Will you let me know if-"

"When," she corrected, as she spun me towards the door and slapped my ass to get me into motion. "When she wakes up, she can decide for herself whether we waste a messenger to tell you what you already know damn well is going to happen. Go. To. Sleep."

"Solona," I said, stopping at the door. "I want to-"

"Maker's aching taint, your hair stopped moving yesterday morning. It would deflect an arrow by this point. You're disgusting. You smell like Sir Pounce A Lot's sand box and your teeth-"

"I want to say thank you!" I interrupted. "Thank you for staying to help with Hellen! Jesus Christ on a bike, I am well aware that I'm living in three-day-old swamp ass. I just suspect you'll be long gone by the time I bathe and sleep and I wanted to say thank you now, you relentless bitch."

Solona laughed, loudly, and clapped her hands together. "My ass is out of here at the first possible opportunity. But you're welcome. I am sure I will run into you again, Gwen Murray."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." I waved a hand at her and stumbled out of the room. 

I fell asleep in my bath, and was only vaguely aware of Cullen carrying me to bed, and slept the rest of the day and the entirety of the night. Instead of going straight to Hellen's room the next morning, I bit the bullet and returned to the Exalted Council. I immediately regretted it. Everything was on hold because of Hellen's infirmary, and my presence was taken as a sign that the Inquisitor wasn't coming back, regardless of my assurances to the contrary. All the compromises we'd already agreed upon were immediately up for renegotiation. I spent the whole day making them reconfirm our existing agreements, stretching long into the night. The next morning came far too early and by noon we were down to the final point of contention. 

I steadied my hands on the table. We were so close to done, so close I could almost taste it.

“So we are all in agreement. Griffin Wing is returned to the Grey Wardens, as per the request of Warden Commander Amell.” That had gone over like a lead balloon, but it was the only thing Solona would admit had brought her here. Everyone would have felt obligated to bow to her request even if Divine Victoria had given anyone the option to refuse it. “Inquisition forces will be removed from Caer Oswin and Caer Bronach so they may be peacefully reclaimed by Ferelden.” That was really all Bann Teagan wanted, since Queen Anora’s grandfather was born in Oswin. Everything else was bluster. “Therinfal Redoubt belongs to the Seekers, and through them the Chantry, and will be retained as such. Suledin Keep is still riddled with red lyrium and must be contained appropriately; as it was empty before seizure by Corypheus, Orlais will allow Inquisition forces to cede territory in the area only as it is decontaminated. Haven is agreed to be a memorial to lives lost at Divine Justinia’s Conclave, and will also be overseen by the Chantry.” Neither one of them had liked that either, until we’d spun it as a memorial rather than property. The grave site of Most Holy and the former resting place of Andraste’s ashes was above our political maneuverings.

“Yes, yes, but you refuse to explain what Chantry oversight involves,” Bann Teagan complained, not for the first time. “The Templars are disbanded, the Seekers are nearly obliterated, what force will The Chantry wield to protect its assets?”

“Orlais would be more than willing to provide the necessary manpower,” Cyril offered immediately.

Teagan’s jaw clenched.

“I believe The Inquisition is part of the Chantry, my Lords,” I reminded them mildly. “Given it contains what remains of both the Templar Order and the Seekers of Truth, it makes sense that the Inquisition would continue in that capacity, at Most Holy’s behest.”

“The Inquisition is compromised,” Teagan contended, with a slice of his hand to underscore his argument. “You admit as much in your explanation of the Qunari attack, what with the ready access spies have to Inquisition operations.”

“As much as I am loath to admit it,” Cyril added, “it is with a heavy heart that we acknowledge the Inquisition is again leaderless. The organization does not have a good track record for cohesion past its initial Inquisitor. Its forces would be better served in the ranks of a cogent organization.”

I put my hands out to them both in a motion to hold on a minute, and the room fell silent. I could practically hear the thought bouncing around the room – leaderless, leaderless, leaderless – and both Teagan and Cyril knew I was delaying. Divine Victoria would have to make a decision, and both sides had reason to believe the woman once known as Leliana was more sympathetic to their cause. Neither of them were right, but they were both convinced of it. I closed my eyes and took in a long, calming breath.

“We are not leaderless,” I said into the silence, not for the first time. I heard both men draw breath to argue and I spoke over them. I felt a twinge in the silver band on my arm and had to sweep the smile off my face. Oh, we were not leaderless; Solona was right, I knew exactly what was coming. 

“I have seen her in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps,” I recited in its original English, opening my eyes to watch both their jaws snap shut. Twitch was across the room, subtly signalling to the Left Hand wherever she was currently holed up – I knew she was in the room but she was nigh impossible to spot – and he fell still as our gazes met. His eyes went comically large and he shook his head, mouthing, don’t you do it, you crazy bitch.

“They have builded her an altar in the evening dews and damps,” I continued. “I can read her righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps. Her day is marching on.” I switched to Common and lifted my voice. “Her day is marching on!”

As if my words had summoned her, Hellen Adaar slammed open the double doors and stormed into the Council.

Because, let’s face it, if anyone in this world deserved the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a theme song, it was Hellen goddamn Adaar.

She was back in that buttoned-up Inquisition uniform, with the sleeve cut from the left side and a drawstring holding the end loosely closed. In her right hand was the heavy tome that Josephine had carried out of Haven and kept reverently on the edge of the war table for years. Hellen slammed it on the table beside me, causing everyone to jump.

“This is a writ from Most Holy, signed and sealed by Divine Justinia, permitting us to act. And, in case you have forgotten, that is all the Inquisition has done. We stopped the war between the mages and Templars. We discovered the perpetrator of the Conclave explosion. We rescued the enchanters from Tevinter slavery at Redcliffe and we avenged the templars at Therinfall. We removed bandits from your lands, we removed red fucking lyrium from your lands. I, personally, closed the rifts that were spitting out demons and murdering your populace. We avenged the murder of the Divine. And We. Are. Not. Done.” She slammed a fist on the book with every word.

“The Qunari seek to eliminate magic from Southern Thedas. That was discovered by the Inquisition and thwarted by the Inquisition – call us compromised, but nobody else raised a fucking finger to stop the gaatlok that was positioned in your palaces as well as here at this Council. We have eliminated the minor threats, finally giving us the ability to go after the man who empowered Corypheus to slay the Divine, and now you want us to stand down? We face a man who has the ability and desire to succeed where Corypheus failed, and now you want us to stop?”

She straightened and lifted her left arm. “I have risked life and limb – literally life and fucking limb – to save your people. I personally saved every person in this room this week when I stopped an invasion of Qunari into this very Council. And this is the fucking thanks I get?”

I watched as she flexed her arm, extending the limb that I knew ended at her elbow, and a blue spectral hand emerged through the drawstring. It grew to match her existing hand, translucent but solid enough to join its fellow in picking up the writ from the table and heaving it onto the floor.

Wisdom’s hand.

Didn’t see that one coming.

It looked a lot like the blade Vivienne summoned in battle, come to think of it. I glanced over to where Vivienne was seated and saw the Grand Enchanter watching me with a bit too much pleasure on her face. She lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head towards Hellen in the most blatant lookie what I did there I had ever seen from the Iron Lady. The hand vanished and Hellen was panting lightly – it must be stupendously hard to do, especially with so little practice – but the statement had its desired effect on the assembly.

“We will adhere to the arrangements made by Lady Gwen in this Council. We will continue protecting the Templar Order and gathering what remains of the Seekers of Truth. We will continue protecting mages and sponsoring the education of healers. We will continue to sit right on the fucking border between your two countries, and if either one of you tries to start shit we will enforce peace through whatever means necessary. It is past time your nations realized there are bigger problems in the world than one another, and those are the problems the Inquisition will continue to act upon. We are done here.”

Hellen stood and marched right back out of the room. Josephine primly swept up her writing supplies and followed in her wake. I bowed to Divine Victoria, shrugged to Cyril and Teagan, and took my own leave.

I caught up to Hellen in our makeshift war room, to find her holding Josephine against her chest in a crushing sort of hug. Cullen walked in on my heels, and we both stood in the doorway for a moment to give them some space. Cassandra and even Leliana arrived before Josie settled back on her heels and brushed tears off her cheeks.

“He knows you know,” Hellen told me as we settled into our old places around a new table. Charter came in and leaned on the wall beside Cassandra, exchanging a look with the Divine but keeping her silence.

“He knows us, Hellen,” Leliana replied. “He can guess our every action.”

“We can count on that, and try to out think him-“ Josephine started, as Cullen and I shook our heads. “But given he has an extended head start, that is not ideal.” Cullen and I nodded at her conclusion and she smiled at us both.

“We need new allies,” Hellen said, staring at the map. “We need new blood, people he doesn’t know, people he can’t anticipate.” She gestured at Tevinter with a dagger, but Cullen quickly swept the knife away from her. Maps were expensive, and knife holes were dead giveaways for spies.

“That’s been all Gwen has worked on for the last year,” Charter spoke up from the wall.

I felt eyes shift towards me and I made a show of shrugging. “I told you so. We’re officially in the after.”

“Dorian has plans in Tevinter, too,” Hellen said, not taking her eyes from the map. “I will get up there as much as possible to help him, but our main goals need to be weeding out what’s left of the spies from our organization, paring down our operations to the point we know everyone around us, and trying to make Solas’ job as hard as possible rather than waste time trying to out-think him.”

“We can do that,” Cassandra told her.

“Good,” Hellen sighed. “Let’s get the fuck out of Orlais.”

 

*

 

We didn’t even make it back to the manse.

“Herald, a quick word,” Lyal said, jogging up to me. There was something different about her, and it took me a moment too long to pick it up.

“What have you done?” I breathed.

She went still, but met my eyes steadily. She knew. Oh, damn it, she knew.

“Gwen?” Hellen was at my shoulder. “What is it?”

I could not make the words form. I opened my mouth to speak, failed, and miserably put my teeth back together.

“She just noticed my vallaslin is gone,” Lyal told her, proudly. She lifted her chin and finished, “I am no longer a slave to the Evanuris.”

“Lyal, why,” I managed to ask, reaching out to take her shoulders and turn her to me. “Why would you do this?”

She tilted her head, genuinely confused. “He was your hah’ren,” she replied. “He said you had always known who he was, what he was; he freed me. Isn’t this what you wanted?’

It was all I could do to shake just my head. “Of course, I would want you freed. But it does not matter what I want, Lyal. Your life is your own. Why did you come here?”

“He sent me,” she said, and I felt Hellen shift,

“No!” I spun around and put myself between Hellen and Lyal.

“You heard her, Gwen, she is an agent of Fen’Harel, by her own admission.”

“No, Hellen, please, wait, just listen to me.”

“I will not let you-“ she started to say. She was going to give me a line of bullshit about protecting me from myself and I would not let her murder Lyal, I would not. This was one loss too many.

“NO!” I shouted, and put every ounce of my will behind it. “You will NOT do this!”

Hellen’s eyes flew wide and she staggered backward a step. Then her posture shifted and she wasn’t my sister anymore. She was the Inquisitor, and I was a liability. “You will not endanger yourself, or this Inquisition, with your foolhardy forgiveness. She is an agent of Fen’Harel.”

“Hellen, no.”

I was helpless to stop her. She lifted her hand, a flash of light sparked between her fingertips, and Lyal collapsed. Hellen had stopped the electricity in her heart – I knew, because I’d explained to her how it could work. I spun back around and dropped to the ground to gather up the body of my friend. “No, Lyal, no, I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry.”

“He said...” Lyal gasped, one hand clenched in her armor over her heart as her face went pale. “He said... you would not... let her...” and then she spoke no more.

I don’t know how long I sat there, bowed over her body and weeping. Cullen stood behind me, his hands on my shoulders, but did not speak. Hellen cleared the courtyard, told Cullen to “give the traitor whatever funeral you see fit,” and then left me there with my grief.

“Go back to Skyhold,” Cullen told me. “I will follow with Hellen, but you need not travel with us.”

I nodded, but it was still some time before I was able to stand and let him lead me away.

“Check first,” he reminded me, and I made a show of Looking ahead, making sure there was nothing lying in wait for me in Skyhold. I assured him I was safe, and he kissed me solidly before moving aside. “I love you,” he said, with the inflection of goodbye.

“I love you, too,” I answered, and fled.

I emerged into the Skyhold great hall to find it mostly empty. There was something happening in the courtyard, but it wasn’t a threat so I hadn’t paid it much mind. I was in shock – the back of my mind was aware that I was in very bad shape and needed to find help. Anders was there – I had news for him from Solona, fuck, I’d met Solona – and he would help me process this loss. All these losses. My god, Lyal had the choice, made her choice, but she based it on what she thought I wanted...  on top of my missing the truth about Neria, the loss of all the earthling Viddathari and nearly all the Chargers... It was bubbling up in my chest again and I was quickly losing my ability to function.

The fastest way to the mage’s tower was through the courtyard, so I descended into that milieu.

“Lady Gwen!” one of Cullen’s Captains – Brown, who’d been with us since Haven – seemed relieved to see me. “My lady Herald, this party just arrived, insists you sent for them.”

“I probably did, then." Fuck. Well, if I couldn't get help, I would take a diversion. Put that ability to avoid thinking about problems to use. I grasped at the distraction with every available brain cell. "Let’s go see.”

“Are you... Are you well, lady Gwen?”

“Nope. I am a hot mess. Be a dear and distract me. Your Commander is on his way back and will fill you in better than I can, I’m sure.”

“As you will.” The Antivan gave me his arm and led me to the small gathering near the gate. I admit I leaned on him a bit more than I normally would, but I needed the grounding. There was a group of dwarves surrounded by Inquisition soldiers. The man leading them bore a carta brand across his face that almost blended in with his skin. He wore all black and had a heavy shield slung over his shoulder. He stood at the point of a diamond, with four other dwarves arranged behind him. To his right was a rogue if I’d ever seen one, with mismatched armor and a shock of white hair, shaved up one side and left to hang down the other, although I didn’t recognize her brand. The dwarf to the left of the leader had the same brand, under his right eye. His hair was braided into tight rows down his scalp, and he was also wearing mismatched light armor. They both had dagger hilts peaking up over their shoulders and extra weapons hanging at their waist and tucked into the tops of their boots. The dwarf in the back had the same brand as the leader, and similarly had a shield slung over his shoulder. His brand was more pronounced against his bald head and lighter skin. The center of the diamond was another female, with her hood pulled down to hide her face and a shield that was probably worth more than the arms and armaments of all the rest of them combined on her arm. She had one hand resting on a nasty looking hammer at her waist and even with the hood down I could tell she was constantly surveying the courtyard for threats.

“Welcome to Skyhold,” I said as I reached the bottom of the steps. “Please allow me to greet you in the Inquisitor’s absence. I am Gwen Murray, I understand you are here asking for me.”

“I’m Edric Cadash,” the dwarf in the front said, and I immediately switched the way I was looking at them all. “This here on my right is Rian Brosca, my left is our boy Leske. A Friend of ours said you were looking for us and that it would be lucrative to make an appearance. So, well, here we are.”

“I am happy to meet you, Edric. Rian, Leske.” I leaned sideways, making a show of looking around him. “You as well, Lantos.” I straightened up as Edric scowled at me. “And, I hate to say this, but now that you’re here in front of me, I have to admit I was wrong about you. Rian is definitely someone I was looking for, but Edric... you’re the wrong Cadash.”

All five of them whipped weapons out, which was instantly matched by the Inquisition forces drawing steel. Cullen was going to hate everything about this when I told him about it next week. “I offer no threat to your sister, Edric. Please do me the honor of introducing me to Malika.”

Chapter Text

I walked to my borrowed room, shut the door behind me, sat down at my desk, and stared at the space where the anchor used to be, where my hand used to be.

Night had fallen, and I sat in darkness, before anyone came looking for me.

“Gwen is gone,” Josie said, the flickering flame of the candle she had brought the only light in the room.

“I know,” I answered, knowing I was likely invisible in the darkness.

Josie stepped slowly to my desk and lit my lamp, and then blew out the candle.

“Scout Lyal was one of the soldiers you saved in the Fallow Mire,” she told me.

I flinched, dropping my head into my hands. “I know. Of all Gwen's favorites, she was the easiest for me to recognize. We spoke a lot, coming back from the Fallow Mire.”

I felt rather than saw Josie nod.

“Favorite is a good word for it. I discussed Lyal's service record with Cullen. Scout Lyal was stationed in the Exalted Plains when Gwen... stepped there to find, ah, Wisdom. She was also one of Leliana’s first assignations to Halamshiral, and protected Gwen the first night of the Ball at the Winter Palace.”

“She was a test,” I hissed through gritted teeth.

“Charter shares that opinion. Given Lyal’s, ah, last words, to Gwen, she believed she would be freed from the purge you and Gwen were conducting, given her service. It is unknown whether she was instructed to spy, or if she would be put to that purpose unwillingly once Gwen had accepted her back.”

“Because I always listen to what Gwen says,” I sighed, reaching up to rub my horns – and remembering at the last minute that my left arm wouldn’t do the job anymore. I dropped my elbows to the desk top with a groan.

Josie stepped behind me and ran her hands down the length of my horns. It was the same motion she’d seen me make a million times, and if she didn’t have quite the hand strength to combat the brewing headache, the action in and of itself was enough.

“He wins either way,” I concluded. “Either I accepted Gwen’s assurances and he got a permanent spy in Skyhold, or I overruled her in a rage and cut down her friend against her protests, and lose Gwen. He either got a spy, or divided us.”

“Charter... concluded this as well.”

“He knows us, Josephine,” I complained bitterly. “He knows everything about me, about us. He can play us all like puppets.”

“Gwen surely knows this,” Josephine countered. “We must give her some time to grieve, and then repair this rift. She loves you, Hellen, as surely as I do. We must not lose hope. “

“Hope,” I coughed. I was aiming for a laugh and narrowly avoided a sob. 

Josephine cupped my cheeks and gently turned me to face her. “There is always hope. We will go back to Skyhold, you will admit to lady Gwen that Solas played you, you will apologize, and you two will talk this out like you always do. And then we will be more alert to ways Fen’Harel may seek to divide us in the future.”

She was right. I took a deep breath and said as much. “You’re right.”

“Yes, well, thank you for noticing. Now we have a meal to partake in before bed, and then an early morning on the road to try to get to Skyhold in good time. Then-“

I let her schedule out the next three weeks of my life with an odd sort of relief. I stared at the space my left hand should have occupied, wiggling the missing fingers and wincing as the nerves reported on bones and muscles that simply did not exist anymore. Everything was different but nothing had changed. Solas had promised me another few years of peace. I gazed up at Josie and waited for her to stop for breath.

“My love?”

“How about we don’t get an early morning on the road. Why don’t we spend an extra few hours in bed, and get on the road closer to noon?”

Josie’s smile could make everything right in my world, if only for the moment. “I believe that could be arranged.”