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Whispers in the Dark

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Jane has murdered Eileen Bensley.

Oh, not directly with spell or blade or poison, but in her unwillingness to bend, in her determination that she is the Hero of Ferelden and they should Listen To Her. She'd threatened them, knowing that they would bow, because that was how things logically proceeded in her mind, and instead, they had laughed.

And she hadn't been able to turn appeasing fast enough.

Jane has murdered Eileen Bensley out of arrogance and poor decision making and the inability to evaluate risk appropriately. The little voices of self-doubt and self-loathing whisper at the corners of her minds, louder than usual. She, they tell her, was never made to be a leader. She only kills, doesn't save. She loses everything.

And she loses everything because of her own weaknesses, not because her logic is faulty. She simply can't live up to being the hero.

Saving Ferelden was a fluke, because everything before and since has proven that while she can obey Eamon's directions well enough to be called Kingmaker, she can't pull it off as flawlessly as perfection demands of her.

And anything less than perfection inevitably ends in this.

The looks on Anders' and Nathaniel's faces, the disappointment and accusation, sends her heart (what little there seems to be left of it these days) falling into her feet and her face and eyes burn with shame, but she keeps her expression stilled to cool composure.

 

oOo

 

She had kept her expression carefully checked when she held Alistair's hands in her own in his bedroom at Castle Redcliffe. Only her lips had quivered faintly. "I need you," she murmured, voice soft more for his comfort than to keep him from seeing how, internally, she roiled, "to go to Morrigan. If you- if you lie with her-" and there she couldn't quite look him in the eye anymore and looked through him instead, "she will conceive a child. And neither of us will have to die."

Alistair looked at her, expression passing through confusion, disgust, and strangled hopefulness. He eventually settled on a strange mixture of the three that hurt to look at, but he had cupped her face with his hands and brought her close enough to rest his forehead against.

"You're not joking," he whispered, helplessly, after a moment.

"No," she answered, shivering.

And of course, he followed where she led.

 

oOo

 

It's three days later when they make their way into the Wending Woods, and Jane still can't get Eileen Bensley's dying cries out of her head. She's walking in a haze. It's never pressed this hard before over something so comparatively little, this weight of failed duty, and she's felt it often. She's failed before, and she's succeeded but still lost. She's experienced both, on the edge of the world, and yet this has her tight in its grip.

She was just a girl.

She was just a girl.

They're surrounded by the burnt-out wreckage of caravans, silk carpets tossed aside and smoldering, bodies littering the ground. She remembers other days, other caravans, other times she was too late.

This isn't what she needs.

There are bandits in the hills, too, bandits looting the wreckage, but they didn't cause the damage. It doesn't matter. She's casting spells without a thought, fire and lightening, letting Anders handle their protection and health. Nathaniel disappears up into the boughs of a tree. Oghren runs ahead. It's an old configuration with new bodies. This season last year, it would be Alistair charging ahead, Wynne healing, Leliana sniping from her perches. The texture is different, the flavor's the same.

The battle ends quickly, but there's another, and another. Sylvans, their branches all aflame, immune to further heat. Bandits snaring her in traps when Nathaniel shouts a warning just a moment too late. The crushing press of duty, and shame, and fear.

She's not sure how they make it.

Anders is sending worried glances her way and Oghren is drinking deep from his skin. Nathaniel is scowling. They know.

They never knew before. She hid it well, even from Alistair.

 

oOo

 

"We can't be together," he whispered, unable to look directly at her. "You can't be my queen, and I-"

"I can remain as your mistress," she interrupted, hands twisting before her. But even as she said it and watched his face light up with hope, she knew it might not work.

"I'll- still have to take a wife," he'd said, nervously, but his eyes were brilliant, beautiful, and she couldn't dim them. "Have children. But if you'll stay- if you'll really stay-"

She couldn't stand the thought of him in another woman's bed, and with children not her own. She already knew it would hurt. She already knew that, eventually, he'd turn to what he really wanted - a family. And she wouldn't be there. Other women, they could handle it. Other women had, throughout history.

She wasn't one of them.

But she'd already offered up the possibility, and it was the eve of the final battle. So she just smiled and said, "I'll stay."

 

oOo

 

She's completely ineffective when the elf challenges them, then flees back into the strangely dark mid-day shadows. It's Nathaniel who handles the interaction, then keeps an arrow trained on her until she disappears. He doesn't say anything to Jane, afterwards, but he does give her a heavy look. It's a look that says,

I was beginning to trust you, Commander. Don't give me a reason to hate you again.

Because, of course, she's killed his father. She's done so many things that seemed like the unassailably right decision at the time. She still thinks that Rendon Howe needed to die for his crimes, but Nathaniel loves his father's memory so much that it makes her doubt. Doubt is so familiar, too, and it slips in almost without her noticing.

Anders is trying to get her attention. He's rambling on about the Tower and the pranks he'd played on the templars when he was young. He's smiling at her, but the smile doesn't reach his eyes. His eyes are simply plaintive. Come back, come back, we're not as good at this as you are.

She tries to find her voice to reassure him that she'll get control over herself soon, but she can't quite manage it. She does catch his gaze, though. And she does smile her own weak, not-really-real smile back at him.

His mouth hangs open for just a moment, and then he's not speaking towards her anymore. He's talking to Ser Pounce-a-Lot. The kitten is far more responsive than she is.

 

oOo

 

She was always good at being unresponsive.

It was how she managed to drop, "I was wrong. I won't be able to handle this. I'm leaving," and then say almost nothing through Alistair's confusion, his rage, his grief.

"What do you mean, won't be able to? You won't even try? After- after all we've been through- I love you, Jane-"

She didn't say it back, even though her heart was breaking with IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou pounding in her veins. All she could say was, "I was mistaken."

"What did I do?" Alistair whispered, leaning hard against the wall outside his chambers. They were in the royal palace in Denerim. Below them, the meeting chamber was still filled with friends and allies, all laughing and telling stories about them. Outside the palace was the sea of people still struck by the sight of their new hero. It was less than a week after the great victory.

No time at all had passed since the Landsmeet, when she'd lied through her teeth and said that she'd stay.

She'd stayed for less time than they could ever have realized.

"Nothing," she said, softly. "It's-" as it always was, "my fault."

"What do you mean?" he'd cried, unable to take his eyes from her, unable to handle the sight of her, so grave and impassive, seemingly uncaring.

She cared, she cared so much. But it was that care that made her murmur, "I overestimated myself."

He just stared up at her, plaintively.

"I thought- that I could handle it." Admitting weakness was hard. It was harder, in so many ways, than slaying the archdemon. It was harder than burning through the Deep Roads. It was harder than standing out in the water of Lake Calenhad after Cullen- "And then I sent you to Morrigan, and I knew for certain that-"

"It was one night," and she could hear just a hint of anger there. Anger made this easier.

"And there will be more nights. Night after night of you and your wife, and I- It will be easier if I'm gone. You already knew that. You tried to tell me."

He slammed a fist into the stone behind him, then slumped, and she thought she could hear soft sobs, but he was finally looking away from her. Freed from his gaze, she turned her back to him.

She was halfway to the stairs when she heard him whisper, "For you, maybe." The guilt had crushed in on her, but she kept moving.

 

oOo

 

She always keeps moving. It's how she's come to handle herself and her demons.

Before Alistair had taken her in his arms that night in Lake Calenhad, she had always frozen in place. She'd found a spot and become rooted to it. When Greagoir had pressed her about Jowan's betrayal, she had barely been able to breathe. Irving and Duncan had saved her. And then later, Alistair had saved her again.

He'd taught her to move. And she is moving now, pressing on despite Anders complaining that he's tired and that his robes are chafing. Oghren snorts derisively and makes a comment about just how his metal armor is chafing him, and that skirtboys don't get a chance to complain. Jane should break the two apart. She doesn't.

Nathaniel is walking by her side. It's strange; he usually takes to the shadows to scout and to protect. But now, he's here, as if he wants to take her by the elbow and steer her. He's not talking to her. Nobody is talking to her. Anders' earlier try was the one exception.

She's deep in her thoughts, buried in herself, when they find the man dying of darkspawn taint. She moves through the conversation by rote: comfort the man, extract anything he knows, make sure he speaks loudly enough that the others can hear, press him until he can give nothing more, then soothe him with gentle words and empty promises.

The only difference is that the knife she takes to his throat to end his suffering is literal, this time.

Nathaniel is staring down at her with a frown on her face, and then-

Anders is screaming and there's a burst of fire and she's gripped in an impenetrable prison, writhing and arching her back and floating above the ground no matter how hard she tries. She doesn't know where anybody is, only that there's shouting and Anders is on the ground and Nathaniel and Oghren are fighting without support. Slowly, through the agony of being pinioned and torn at, she hears the buzz of the darkspawn.

They've been ambushed.

Why didn't I notice? is all she can think, immobile and staring.

The prison fails then and she's stumbling forward, fingers sliding over the smooth wood of her staff, swinging it over her head in anger at herself, and the entire area just- freezes.

The wind she's called wails cold through the trees. She shivers but doesn't dare move any further than twirling her staff once and erecting a barrier around Anders. He's unconscious, bleeding out. They need to finish the battle soon, but Nathaniel and Oghren are frozen with the rest, and the wind is taking so long to die down, and-

The darkspawn break free of their ice confinement, and they rush at her, and it's all she can do to yell and blast them back with a strong outward push. They fall down. Nathaniel and Oghren free themselves in that moment, and the tide of battle turns. The chill ends. There's a pop from the trees around them, and leaves begin to rain down from the sudden thaw of the sudden frost.

She's the one lending support now, keeping Nathaniel and Oghren up. That's Anders' job, but he's unconscious and dying and it's all she can do to stabilize him from afar. She's no healer. She's destructive.

Why didn't I notice? is running through her head when the last of the darkspawn fall and they rush to Anders' side. She pumps what little, thin healing spells she has into him while Nathaniel crouches and begins to smear poultice into the blonde mage's wounds. Oghren takes a swig from his skin.

When Anders opens his eyes, finally, Nathaniel glares up at her.

"That's it," he says, and his words somehow manage to pierce the fog she's been in for the last three days. "We're going back to Vigil's Keep."

"I should have noticed," is all she can whisper, and Nathaniel's expression is dark.

"Yes," he says, "you should have."

 

oOo

 

She should have noticed that Alistair was growing very fond of her.

After the Tower was repaired, he began spending more and more time with her. He teased her and made fun of himself until her smile started to come back, the small one she'd barely known she'd had, even before her Harrowing. He doted on her. He coddled her the way she hadn't after Duncan had died.

They were in Orzammar, marveling at an outcrop of pure lyrium down in the Deep Roads, when he coughed and pulled a rose from his bag.

She'd been stunned, and tried, stammering, to use his brand of humor. "Is that your new weapon?" And she'd given him a serious look - because that's all she ever has been, serious looks. That was her, except for when he did something like talk about his plans to whip the darkspawn into submission with his thorny stems. She couldn't help but smile.

She imagined him dancing the Remigold.

It felt right to take the rose, to accept his advance, and he felt right. He felt appropriate. He was her fellow Warden, and he was a former templar, and it just made so much twisted sense to a duty-obsessed, solemn little mage. In armies, you weren't supposed to fraternize. And mages and templars-

Well.

When he kissed her, she wasn't sure how to respond at first. He'd afterwards asked if maybe he'd moved too fast, and somehow she'd found herself saying that she wasn't sure, maybe they should test it again. And that was how it had started, with little laughs and coaxed smiles.

 

oOo

 

"I don't know what is wrong with you, Amell, but you need to get over it." Nathaniel is pacing, jaw muscles jumping in barely suppressed anger. "You almost got Anders killed. It's your job to pay attention to darkspawn movements, until we learn how to! Tell me, exactly, how you failed to do that?"

Jane is sitting on a mess bench. She has her palms flat on the wooden table before her, an old disciplinary position she'd learned even before the Tower. She keeps her gaze focused straight ahead. Nathaniel stops in the center of her field of view.

"I am willing to follow you, Commander, but only if you lead. I will not end up dead because you've suddenly decided to stop interacting with the rest of us."

"I killed Eileen Bensley," she whispers, helplessly. She's so rarely been this straightforward about her darkness that it feels awkward, raw, painful.

"Yes," he agrees, and she flinches. "A mistake. A very bad one. But if you're going to get caught up in that mistake and go prancing around Amaranthine-"

"Oh, leave off!" Anders says, and she looks over to him, frowning. He's been listening in the doorway this whole time, apparently. Even Nathaniel looks surprised, but he's been focused on verbally dragging her across her Arling. "Can't you see she's upset?"

"Well, she-" Nathaniel sighs. Should be and shouldn't be are both what he wants to say. But either one causes the other. He shakes his head, angrily. "And what do you propose she do, Anders? Pet Ser Pounce-a-Lot and then go back to getting you killed because she's sulking?"

"I'm not sulking," Jane murmurs, and Nathaniel laughs.

"Not sulking," he repeats, incredulously. "Anders, what would you call her change in demeanor since Miss Bensley's unfortunate death?"

"Er, sulking. Or at least, being rather melancholy." He shrugs, then comes to sit down beside her. He bumps her knee with his playfully, and she stiffens, lips pursing in confusion. He just smiles at her, though, a faint little thing. "I, by the way, would propose that she have a nice hot cup of tea, and then maybe find some fools. For the lightning, you know."

Jane closes her eyes in what amounts to a smile, given her sulking state.

"I don't want anybody else getting seriously injured because of her moods. Or mood, I suppose, as since we've met I've only seen one."

"Oh, Nathaniel, that's- that's cruel. I mean, Jane, you have more than one mood. There's- well, there's determined, for one." He ticks it off with a finger, looking at her expectantly. "Like when you encountered our good friend Ser Howe here in the dungeon, you didn't get angry, you just got determined. And then there's this one, the melancholy bit. And-"

Nathaniel quirks a brow.

Anders laughs, uneasily. "... I'm sure there are more. Oh! You were amazing uneasy when the king showed up. So there's determined, melancholy, and nervous."

"That," Nathaniel says, "is exactly my point. They're none of them very different. And none of them, except the first, very helpful."

"Oh, go off and glare at that painting of your mother. Give the girl- sorry, Jane- the Hero of Ferelden some space."

"You better put her back better than you found her," Nathaniel grumbles, stalking off to the main hall.

Anders draws his brows together, widens his eyes, and frowns, open-mouthed, in mockery of Nathaniel's bad mood. Then he turns to Jane with a laugh.

Jane is still sitting, facing forward, palms on the table.

He sighs. "Oh, don't do that. Come on- hot tea, like I said. And if you want, I can go around trying to find you some fools. I'm sure a Bann is hanging around wanting to bother you or something. Come on, come on." He's taken hold of one of her elbows and is tugging.

She makes a frustrated little noise and pointedly stays still.

"Jane?"

She doesn't respond.

"If you are going to be that way," he sighs, "I'm just going to go make tea, and then spoon feed it to you. And if you won't drink it, I'll be forced to dump it in your lap."

Jane makes a distinctly displeased noise at the thought.

"Exactly," Anders agrees. "So, up from the table. Tea. And then we'll see how you're feeling."

Jane sighs, finally, and stands, knees and elbows stiff. She steps out from the bench, then looks at him with a small frown, hands twisted in front of her. "Why are you doing this?" she asks, finally, voice soft. "I almost killed you."

"Oh, did you? I thought it was the genlock. It had a very nasty little sword. I hate swords."

"... oh?"

"They're very pointy and not so nice. It's probably just, you know. The constant fear of being skewered alive on them. Especially if a templar is holding the other end." He grins and holds out his hand. "Come on. Tea time!"

She takes it, and somehow, he draws a little smile from her.

She likes Anders.

 

oOo

 

She liked him from the moment she met him. After all, she was a mage, and a part of her (a small part, but it existed all the same) felt rather good at seeing another mage standing amidst a whole slew of dead templars. And part of her felt like they were breaking so many rules. It was the larger part, but somehow, the smaller still had a say in things. After all, she didn't turn him in when Rylock came knocking.

To be fair, though, she was rather distracted at the time.

King Alistair Theirin was standing at the gate of her Keep, and he smiled the moment he saw her. He crossed the space between them. He kissed her cheek and called her my love in front of everybody.

They hadn't spoken since that night in the palace when she'd left him crying in the hall. He'd only written to her once, to reassign her to Amaranthine. And she wasn't sure if he was putting on an act or if he truly thought that things were okay.

She murmured greetings to him and fell into formality. He took it in stride.

Afterwards, while she should have been preparing the Joining for her new recruits, Jane stared into one of the mirrors fractured in the attack by the Withered and touched her cheek, feeling his kiss still there like a brand.

She finished the job the darkspawn had begun and went to attend to her duties.

 

oOo

 

Somehow, they end up in her quarters, which are lit dimly by the failing light of day and a few glow-lights. It's so strange, having her own bedroom. Her own study. As a child, she'd slept in her parents' bed - until one night, during a nightmare, she'd set the curtains on fire. And in the Tower, she'd slept in a room filled with all the other female apprentices. And facing the Blight, she'd slept in a tent, barely separated from all the others, and later with him there.

And now she has her own room.

Anders has a wooden tray where he's balanced two big wooden mugs of tea. The tea is from Jader, apparently. She knows nothing about tea. The apprentices didn't ever get tea. That was a templar thing, and a senior enchanter thing, and when she mentions it, he laughs.

"That," he says with a conspiratorial smile, "is exactly why I drink it. Just to show them."

He places the tray on the low table before her couch, where they both settle. It's a little awkward, being alone together, but something about being both in robes and drinking tea that is for templars and senior enchanters only- it makes the whole moment a big secret and a big joke, and she smiles again.

"Ah, I saw that!" Anders grins, and takes up one of the mugs, raising it to her. "To Jane Amell, Hero of Ferelden, she of very few smiles!"

She takes up her mug and raises it in turn, looking at him with her head canted. "And to Anders, he of not caring that his commander nearly killed him not a day ago."

He rolls his eyes. "Almost let me get killed," he corrects, then shrugs and drinks.

It's scalding and Jane almost forgets that she can drop the temperature with a flick of a finger.

 

oOo

 

Fire.

They were in Amaranthine. They were in an abandoned warehouse. And they were killing templars.

This should have been horrifying. Everything in her should have wanted to cry STOP and take it all back. And yet- she just went with it. Anders wasn't laughing; he was grim, and perhaps that was what made it okay.


We're not going back.

Anders' contact had told them his phylactery was here. And Anders had said, softly, that maybe hers was too, if she wanted...?

Her first instinct had been to say no, of course. That she was free anyway, and if the Chantry decided to hunt her, it was their right. But then she thought for a moment and realized- no. She'd go back on her own one day, maybe, return to curving halls and templar gazes, but until then, she wanted to be her own person.

She was so tired of belonging to people. The Tower had owned her for so long. Alistair still thought he did, apparently. She didn't mind belonging to the Wardens, not really, or to Amaranthine, though that yoke grated more. But the Chantry, the Circle? That was all in the past. It needed to be ended. And so she'd turned to him, surprised, and said, "I will if you will."

He'd smiled, boyish and excited and she thought for a moment that he was going to catch her up in a hug. But he didn't- Nathaniel was watching with that dark expression of his, and Oghren was beginning to 'sneak' off towards the tavern, so they had to move.

And now there were three dead templars at her feet and no phylacteries.

"Well, damn," Anders said, tugging at his ponytail. "I mean- maybe since she's dead they won't come after me? Hopefully?"

"I won't report you," Jane said, locking gazes with him.

Anders' shoulders relaxed. "Thanks- hm, do I have to address you as Arlessa all the time now, for that second pardon of yours? You keep saving me."

"I do that a lot," Jane said, finally looking away and down. "Save people."

It was a strange thought even then, because usually, she thought of destroying people.

 

oOo

 

How she ends up with her legs stretched out along the couch and her feet in Anders' lap she isn't quite sure, but it happens while he chatters on about his memories of the Tower. It's turned into a late-night tryst of sorts; not the illicit kind, but the kind young apprentices manage when they just want to stick it to the templars. The kind when young apprentices somehow slide down below the lowest bunk and giggle all night long.

Jane hasn't quite reached the point of giggling, but she does feel far more relaxed that she's felt in at least six months, maybe more. Maybe not since the Landsmeet.

"How is it," Anders muses, "that we never met? I'd think I'd have remembered you. I mean-" And he falters, then shrugs. "You're, well. Memorable."

Jane sips at her tea, the mug still cradled in her hands. "I spent most of my time studying."

"Hey, hey, so did I. Some of the books probably still have my notes stuffed in the pages!"

Jane nods. "Probably. Although, I always kept my notes with me. So that I could actually study them when I was not in the library."

Anders has the grace to look sheepish as he stretches, leaning back against the couch cushion and stretching his arms out along its back. "But really- where were you and why didn't I see you? I mean, you can't be that young that we never crossed paths. Do you- hm. Do you remember when the templars used to let us out to exercise?"

"Oh, yes," Jane says, with a smile. "I always liked that part. And then another apprentice swam across the Lake and-" Her eyes widen, the narrow. "... An apprentice with blonde hair who somebody told me was always playing with Mr. Wiggums-"

Anders grins. "Hah! So you did know me!"

"Of you," Jane corrects. She's feeling relaxed, but still not entirely talkative. She's mostly responding. But it's a pleasant sort of responding. Very few expectations. And he's working so hard to tease smiles from her - almost like Alistair, but not. Anders has a slightly different sense of humor. Less focused on himself. More focused on the world.

"Well, that at least makes it seem a little less strange. But I still don't remember you. Unless-" He tilts his head and squints. "... Did you ever wear your hair down in a braid?"

"... For a year or two. When it began getting long and I didn't want to cut it. And then-" A memory: Cullen, embarrassed and shy, saying that maybe she'd be more- comfortable with a bun. Like the older mages wore.

"You're the one that templar boy had a crush on!"

Cullen.

She stiffens, looking away from him.

"... Aren't you? I'm not getting you mixed up with somebody else?"

"No," she says, softly.

 

oOo

 

Before Alistair, there was Cullen. And she'd never even noticed.

He had only ever wanted to protect her, but the blood mages and their demons had taken that from him and twisted it, and when she had found him begging for freedom, for release, she hadn't known how to handle him. She'd left him behind to deal with Uldred, to fix her home, and when she'd seen him the next morning, sitting with his head in his hands, still shaking from lyrium withdrawal and unable to look at her without some kind of mix of fear and anger and confusion in his eyes, she'd turned away again. Greagoir would take care of him. She could offer nothing except leaving again.

There could have been something, but she'd missed it.

 

oOo

 

"Except- you and the king are- a thing, right?" Anders is saying, and she forces herself to concentrate. She doesn't need those memories. She'd locked them away a long time ago. (Just another episode of her failing at something, failing somebody.)

"We- were."

"He seemed pretty friendly the last time he was here." Anders is trying to figure her out now, and she suddenly has the urge to run. To push him out. Lock the door, and-

Wallow.

Oh, Nathaniel would be proud.

Jane closes her eyes, leaning her head against the cushion to her side. "He- it's complicated. Him, and C- the templar, and me. It's-" She trails off, unable to find the words. Complicated is too simple.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Anders asks, and his expression is so open and earnest that she can't help but smile a little.

 

oOo

 

"What happened?" She was lying naked in her tent, and Alistair was sitting next to her, worried, concerned. They had never had a problem before. But that night, she shut down. All he'd done was find a piece of old templar armor, worn it as joke, because he knew that some of the mages had things for templars, little dirty thoughts, and he'd thought-

It didn't matter what he'd thought. She had told him to get rid of it and he had thrown the armor far into the woods. She couldn't find the words to explain what it meant, what it signified: failing a man she could have loved, leaving him in the wreckage of a life that she claimed was no longer hers. It represented guilt and running away, things she couldn't face with an Archdemon still to fight.

"I don't want to talk about it," Jane said, turning over. "Just- don't ever wear that again. Please."

He didn't understand why she couldn't tell him, and she knew that a small part of him resented her for it. But she couldn't tell him, not even when duty asked her to. It wouldn't be fair to tell him she regretted not going to another man in another time.

 

oOo

 

It's an awkward shift, Anders pulling her against him, but it's comforting, having her legs over his lap and her head against his shoulder. His robes smell of herbs and spell-scent, the lingering notes of Veil clinging to the enchanted fabric. There are no runes worked into it, but she can smell lyrium, too.

He smells like home. Like everything good about the Tower that wasn't unyielding steel.

"I'm your Commander," she warns, though it's half-hearted and she appreciates more than she can say having the warmth of another against her once more.

"And you think I care?" he laughs, and it's soft and melancholy and waiting for her response. He has one arm around her, hand rubbing her back. His other hand lies limply on the couch cushion next to her feet. He's not entirely sure what to do with her, but he's there. "We're both mages, right? Both got through our Harrowing? I still don't know why they even let me, honestly, but hey, we both did it. We're bonded, right? By the threat of having our heads cut off?"

She manages another weak smile, and he makes a sound of triumph.

"At any rate," he says, giving her shoulder a squeeze, "it's Mages Confidential evening here in Vigil's Keep, and as long as you're up for pillow fights and midnight confessions, I am. I might even make us more tea."

Maker, his humor actually works, unlike Alistair's which only ever deflected.

"You'll really listen?" she asks, wanting to tell, hoping he'll understand. And that hope is what makes her able to start talking when he nods.

She starts at the beginning.

She came to the Tower young, so young, but she didn't meet Cullen until many years later. They were close in age, her just passed her sixteenth name-day and him somewhere beyond his eighteenth. She had been just as serious and quiet then as she is now, and he had been shy and more than a little awkward but steady in his duty. Well, steady except for when he brought her snacks filched from the dining hall when she sat up late studying.

He'd offered small smiles then and she'd returned them, playing at something she didn't understand. She never thought of a future except for teaching and didn't long for something she couldn't have.

She tells him too about Jowan, and about her Joining, and about Ostagar. She tells him about how Alistair declared her in charge of their original little band, and she took the lead even though she was terrified. She tells him about the first time she'd planted a walking bomb without even knowing what she was doing, and how it had terrified her, knowing that that sort of power was within her. She'd always thought, up until that point, that she was more of a scholar than a fighter. She was proficient with basic staff usage and all-purpose fire spells, but at the Tower, she'd focused on theory, not practice. She tells him about how quickly that had had to change.

She smiles at little memories she unearths, happy moments she's somehow forgotten. She tells stories about her mabari, Shibboleth, who is with Leliana in Orlais, causing all sorts of trouble while his human stays in Amaranthine and tries to put things in order. Anders laughs when he hears how Shibboleth once ate all of Morrigan's herbs and smelled horrible for the next week- even worse than normal.

And then she's all-too-quickly at the Tower, telling him about coming home to find everything gone, everything ruined. He stiffens and stops laughing and listens quietly, fingers stroking her back and then stilling as he gets caught up in the horrors.

She gives him the list of templars and mages that she knows the names of who died He grows pale. "I knew about it," he whispers, "I did, but I never really- thought about it, except that it gave me more time running free. I got out, that final time, in the commotion of the mages returning from Ostagar."

There's a moment of silence and she finds a quiet prayer to the Maker. And then she tells him about the charmed templars, the dead apprentices, the children. She tells him about becoming a mouse in the Fade. She tells him about how she was the only one to know it was a dream, and how she had to brave that ordeal alone.

When she reaches finding Cullen trapped in that circle, she stops, voice catching. And then, softly,

"The demons, they- were torturing him with images of me."

Anders sucks in a breath, then nods. "Makes... sense."

"I- he was traumatized, when I found him. Hurting, tormented and angry. He would have stopped me if I could from saving Irving. I didn't let him.

"I never got a chance to talk to him after that. We left the next day before nightfall. We ran."

She closes her eyes again and focuses on Anders' touch. He doesn't say anything, no praise for having ruined a templar or censure for having broken a man. Her guilt is still there, but it's faded with time; she can feel that now that the words are out into the room. She had locked that time away months ago and let it sit, afraid to see it again, afraid to let it out where Alistair could see. He would have been hurt, jealous.

But that doesn't matter. It's out, spoken finally, and what matters is that she can tell him what she has to, and he just listens. She can tell him about the guilt, about her regrets, about how if she hadn't been made a Warden-

"You loved him," he says after a moment, and she hesitates.

"I could have loved him."

"What mages have- what templars have. It's never permanent. Trust me, I know. But you saved his life and had somebody there for you. That's a lot. That's more than I've ever had or done." He shrugs and offers a smile.

"Oh," she says, and his hand on her back means everything.

 

oOo

 

She spent six months wandering before she came to Amaranthine.

Six months with Shibboleth at her side. Sometimes Leliana was there, a good friend and a strong pillar of support. She encouraged Jane to sing, or to play, or to find some rhythm, some beautiful song, coax is out. She wanted Jane to tell her what troubled her, what made her stare so long up at the stars if it wasn't their beauty.

Jane kept her at arms' length, because Leliana couldn't understand.

All she ever told her was that things hadn't worked out with Alistair.

Jane wasn't surprised when, one morning, Leliana said it was time to part ways. Jane had nodded, smiled, and looked down at Shibboleth. "You should go with her," Jane said, softly. "She'll make a far better master than I will."

Shibboleth whined.

"Just for a little bit. Leliana will give you all sorts of delicious foods, and she'll paint your kaddis far better than I can. And I'll- be alright. I need some time alone."


Alone.

Alone had lasted under a week, before she stopped in West Hill on the coast of the Waking Sea. There had been a message for her, summoning her to Amaranthine. Mhairi had met her in Highever.

 

oOo

 

The rest comes easily. It tumbles out of her, into the space between them. Alistair, his rose, his gentle, self-effacing, amusing love, and their eventual parting because of her own problems of perception, of foresight. Interspersed are more little stories about Leliana actually being a bard, and finding Sten's sword, and at times, it's just a story.

But then it's the dead of night and she's dwelling on how she failed Alistair, how she's responsible for driving them apart. Anders shakes his head.

"If you want my opinion," he says, "and you might not-"

She looks up at him with wide eyes and he can't help but smile.

"Right. Well. It sounds like, to me, that maybe- maybe you didn't love him per se."

"... I-"

"I mean, you- maybe you did, but it seems like a lot of that was obligation."

Jane is quiet for a moment, then murmurs, "Mages and templars." It's Anders' turn to look confused. and she shrugs. "It made sense at the time," she says, softly and he laughs.

"It always seems to, doesn't it?."

"It- it hurt, though. Breaking his heart. And leaving." He nods, and she presses forward, "I'd never been alone."

"The Circle does that to you," he agrees, then gives her shoulder a firm squeeze. "I think- well, I think you should stop paying attention to what you think would be proper and right and poetically just for you to do, and just start- well, living. Stop being so caught up in rules. It's always served me well, after all."

"Rules," she repeats, and he nods.

"Rules. You're all wrapped up in them. I mean- you keep telling me how you felt like you should do something, even though you usually didn't want to, and then it always ended up badly and you felt guilty about that."

She nods.

"That? Is no good. So you should stop it." He smiles and stand, lifting her in his arms. "And, you should sleep."

"Oh," she responds. It's her new favorite word. It's repeating over and over in her head as he carries her back into her room. It's repeating when he bangs his shin against a chest by the foot of her bed. It's repeating when he deposits her onto her broad mattress. And then it turns into a quiet Oh of what feels like understanding.

He's straightening up and taking a step back when she sits up a little and asks, "But I thought we were going to have a pillow fight."

Anders pauses, then smiles, sitting down on the bed next to her. "I don't know about you, but midnight confessions make me a sleepy mage. And sleepy Anders can be cranky in the morning."

And Jane just- moves over. "The least I can do," she says at his confused and hopeful expression, "is let you have a more comfortable piece of bed tonight."

"Oh," he echoes her, and carefully stretches out on the mattress.

It's late and she's exhausted and all talked out, and it's been a long week. She wants nothing more to sleep, and it just makes sense that he's there beside her in the dark, because:

"I've never told anybody any of that before."

He smiles a little. "See, I knew you needed tea," he mumbles. They whisper back and forth in the dark about silly things, and he whines that Ser Pounce-a-Lot must be lonely, but he doesn't move except to join her under the heavy covers. They nudge each other with their cold toes like they're young apprentices squirreled away under the lowest bunk, and Jane, for the first time in her life, feels silly in a wonderful sort of way.

 

oOo

 

She wakes in the morning with a languid stretch and a slow yawn, feeling lighter and better and not at all trapped in that stifling, smothering haze. She's smiling. She doesn't remember a lot of last night; it's lost for the moment in the soft fuzz of dreams and the lingering wash of emotions that still haven't quite put themselves away.

She's a little surprised when she hears Anders murmur something, feels him roll towards her and drape an arm over her waist. She settles down while he attempts to bury himself between her shoulder blades.

Jane blushes, but she can't help a strange little smile.

There's bright light shining in through the window, and the Keep smells wonderful. Her rooms are near the kitchens, because all the occupied rooms are in a close little group to decrease the amount of the building that needs to be patrolled. She smells roasting meat. Meal time. Breakfast. She turns her head to look at Anders, and he's fast asleep, his ponytail half-undone and his robes wrinkled. He still smells of herbs and spells and lyrium. Her whole bed smells of it now, between the two of them. It's pleasant.

She tries to move his arm, and he makes an unhappy little sound, his eyes cracking open.

"But I don't want to get up, Mr. Templar," he mumbles, and she coughs.

"I," she responds, softly, "would make a horrible templar. I don't even know how I managed to lift that sword I killed the archdemon with."

And then Anders is wide awake, staring at her, and she's nervous until a grin stretches itself across his face.

"Well," Anders says, "maybe you should train to be a berserker. Massive strength at the last minute, and all that."

He looks inordinately pleased. Jane sits up, pulling down her tangled and messy bun to begin resetting it, and looks at him questioningly.

His grin gets wider.

"Oh, what is it?" she finally asks, dark brown hair in gently waving masses tumbling around her shoulders.

"Best morning ever," he says. "A pretty girl, the promise of a good meal... now, if only there were a fool, I'd be up there waltzing with Andraste. Where's Oghren when you need him?"

Jane stares, then begins to laugh.

Anders sits up, his eyes somehow sparkling even more. "And I've made you laugh. Smiles, laughs- yes, I do think I'm a miracle worker. Please, please, no need to bow down to me every minute of the day."

oOo

Jane kicks him out of her room after he tries to tickle her and changes into new robes quickly, then heads down to breakfast.

Which, as it turns out, is actually lunch.

Nathaniel and Oghren are waiting for her, Nathaniel looking less than pleased and Oghren looking- rather excited, actually.

"Hey, sleepyhead," he says, grinning. "Out of that funk of yours? If all you needed was a quick roll in the hay, you could've just asked-"

Dwarves make amusing sounds when electrified.

"Oh, now that's just not fair," Anders complains from the doorway, and Jane leaves Oghren to groan and grumble, flushing. "I wanted to be the one to shoot lightning at the fool! Not fair."

Nathaniel just- sighs and covers his face with one hand, rubbing at his temples with thumb and forefinger. "I don't want to know what happened after I left last night. I just want an assurance from the Commander that she's going to start concentrating again."

"I am," Jane says, nodding. "I-" had quite a lot of pent up guilt, but he doesn't want to know, so she just settles on, "I intend to act in a manner more befitting my position. I apologize for the state I've been in recently."

"Well, it's a start," Nathaniel shrugs. "Now sit down and eat. You've already missed breakfast, and Oghren's eaten half of this meal."

Anders is about to sit next to her, then pauses a moment and sits across from her instead. She's not entirely sure why, but then, she's not entirely sure about him. The longer she's awake, the more confused she feels, but it's- almost a good sort of confused. It's a little like the confusion she'd felt when Alistair had offered her that rose, but it's less fraught and more... exciting?

She wonders what that means.

Nathaniel is talking, so she turns from Anders to look at the man. She needs to pay attention, after all - even if her mood is better, if she's still caught up in other things, nothing has been accomplished.

No, that's not true - so much has been accomplished.

Still, she needs to focus.

"-going to stay here for another day or two before going back to the Wending Woods. Varel has some documents he needs you to attend to, and I would like to make another patrol down to where they're continuing to clear the rubble, to check up on their progress."

Jane nods. "Very well."

"And," Nathaniel says, moving over to drop a small pouch of- sounds like sovereigns- in front of her, "this is from Ser Bensley."

Jane blinks, then frowns. "... Oh?"

"His note that accompanied it," Nathaniel offers, and she takes it, scanning over the parchment. He's thanking her, and she doesn't completely understand why, but-

"Oh."

Nathaniel nods. "So hopefully, that will help things, as well. Between that and Anders apparently not caring about you almost killing him-"

"She almost let me die. It's different," Anders cuts in, and Nathaniel rolls his eyes.

"Well, I see little for you to be moping about, except maybe the letters that I'm sure Varel will have you writing all day. So, if you're not going to start staring at walls again..."

Jane nods, beginning to pull food onto her plate from the various platters on the table. "I'll let you get to work. And I'll be sure to have them take down the painting of your mother today."

He inclines his head with what looks like relief and gratitude, then disappears into the shadows of the hall.

Anders smiles over at her, taking a bite of braised ox tail. He's about to say something when Oghren finally pulls himself up off the floor with a loud clatter.

She's expecting some sort of rambling complaint, but instead he just leers and chuckles and leans on the table, looking at the two of them. "So, you two. Tapping the midnight still."

Jane colors. She remembers this. Alistair had come to her complaining that Oghren was saying horrible, lurid things about them.

"No," she says, trying to cut him off, but he just grins wider.

"Forging the moaning statue."

Anders sputters, but manages an, "Ah, no. Not this time."

"Really? I mean, what about that whole, skirts make it easier to fuck in the corner, when the templars aren't watching? Gotta be a turn on, having another mage around. Can't see what you see in Sparkle Fingers, Commander, but-"

"Oghren," she groans, covering her face with her hands. "We did not have sex."

"This time," she thinks she can hear Anders whisper, and she kicks him under the table, because she really doesn't need him adding to this. And she's not entirely sure how she feels about 'this time'.

Oghren looks incredibly dubious.

"You're tellin' me," he begins, slowly, "that you two spent aaaaaall night in your room, miss Commander, and don't wake up until after me- and you didn't have sex."

"We did not."

"... What is wrong with you?" He throws up his hands. "I mean, I thought you and Alistair were pathetic, with all the being done in thirty seconds or less and the noises he'd make, but this?" Oghren shakes his head, then begins to wander away towards the main hall and his cask, muttering things about I'd take a nug after six months without and Are mages all this repressed?

Jane sighs and looks down at her plate. She knows she's bright red, and that it's very, very obvious with all of her hair pulled back once more into its tight bun.

"Thirty seconds?" Anders asks, and it's too much.

She starts laughing again.

oOo

She does manage to get away from Anders, eventually, after they've both eaten and he's made her laugh too many times for her to begin to be able to explain it as just giddiness from finally having talked to somebody about everything.

Of course, she gets away by walking the halls with Varel and listening to him rattle off everything that needs attending to. Letters to write, trade agreements to be signed, military orders, dinner plans. She apparently needs, also, to commission some 'attire appropriate to an Arlessa' which is code for Dresses that aren't robes, because they don't need to be reminded that you could turn them into a toad at any moment.

She wants to correct, But mages can't turn people into toads! but that doesn't change the fact that she'll have to cave, eventually.

They part ways in one of the towers, Varel going back to overseeing and Jane lingering a moment by an arrow slit to think. The air is chilled and salt-laden, and it's more refreshing than she remembers it ever being before. She leans her cheek and shoulder against the cool stone and closes her eyes.

Well, she thinks, wryly, she'd thought she'd gotten away from Anders.

But her imagination is conjuring up images from last night, him making her tea and him laughing and him listening patiently. Images from this morning: waking up in her bed with him beside her, his mock disappointment when she got to Oghren before he did. Images from before: him standing in the middle of a room of dead templars going I didn't do it! and his hair and earring shining in the sunlight on the market streets of Amaranthine City.

A pretty girl, a good meal, and the right to shoot lightning at fools. Is that so much to ask?

She hadn't been entirely impressed when he'd first said that, because of course it was so much to ask. They had duties. They always had. Circle mages and now Grey Wardens - duty was inescapable. And yet- now it seems like a fine goal, a wonderful goal, and if she just replaces A pretty girl with A handsome and ridiculous mage-

Even Jane is surprised when she gets to that image.

"Do the torches in this part of the keep always do that? Maybe it's haunted." Anders' voice makes her jump and turn. He's peering at one of the lights, which seems- ordinary.

"Do what?" she asks, trying not to sound like she's just realized how attractive he is. It's hard. The whole sensation is a complete rush and is strangely unfamiliar. (Shouldn't she have felt this way about Alistair, at some point?)

"Pulse. The fire was sort of- contracting and expanding. And it sometimes went a little purple. Very strange. Haunted. You might need to hold me at night, if I get scared."

She realizes with a little sheepish noise that that was probably her fault. She usually tuns to fire as a first line of attack, and its left her with the tendency to manipulate flames when her emotions are high.

Anders shrugs. "Anyway, Varel said he'd left you up here."

"You're looking for me?"

"I've found you," he agrees, with a smile. "I just- wanted to talk. Without Nathaniel or Oghren around. Nathaniel's glares are absolutely the worst, I'm amazed you didn't light him on fire yesterday while he was lecturing you. I certainly wanted to."

"Last night?"

"No, today. I was going to take some fish to Ser Pounce-a-Lot and ran into him in the hallway, and he gave me this glare and said I should 'Remember my rank' or something like that." He sighs and shrugs. "I really hope he doesn't start watching me in the bath to make sure I'm not straying from Chantry Teachings.."

"He's not made of templar material," Jane says, with a small laugh.

"No, he'd never be able to wear all that armor. Too delicate." He puffs out his chest a little, as if he could handle it, if asked.

She smiles.

He smiles back.

It's suddenly very quiet, and Jane shifts, swallowing. "So, last night-"

"I really enjoyed it," he blurts out, then laughs, sheepishly, rubbing at the nape of his neck. "I mean- obviously the part where you told me everything that's been getting to you- that wasn't fun but the rest of it..."

Jane nods, and he nibbles at his lower lip.

"What I mean to say, is, can we do it ag-"

For all her thoughts of how handsome he is, and how amusing, and how wonderful to be around, she's not sure if she's ready to have this conversation, the lightness of her shoulders all too knew and her gratitude to him too strong.

So she kisses him instead, crossing the space between them almost at a jog, hands finding his head and holding him still while she presses her lips to his.

She's probably sending the wrong message, but she doesn't exactly care.

Just start living, he'd said.

This absolutely feels like living.

He makes a surprised sound, hesitating a moment before responding. One of his arms slides around her waist, and his other hand cradles the back of her head. This isn't the intense fumbling of Alistair pulling her in for a furtive kiss in the alleyways of Denerim. This is far sweeter, and the intensity is translated into how firmly he holds her and how much she tenses her body against his.

At some point, Anders backs her into a wall, and she's thankful for the cold support of the stone. He makes what sounds like a very happy, very pleased sound and her heart flutters. Their tongues are tangled and she's melting into him, toes curling and fingers clutching now at his robes.

No buttons, no clasps-

"Oh, for the love of the Maker."

Jane freezes and pulls away, and Anders jumps back, looking- rather embarrassed. Nathaniel is standing in the doorway, arms crossed.

"She started it!" Anders whines and Jane stares-

And starts laughing again.

oOo

For all the time she spent in the Tower with her nose in books and writing out treatises on this or that old school of magic, Jane finds that she hates the paperwork associated with being Arlessa.

It's tedious at best, frustrating at worst, and nothing is written in a straightforward manner. Nothing is written in riddles, either, just- circumlocutions and inabilities to make a point.

After Nathaniel's interruption, Jane had retreated without much of anything more exchanged between her and Anders. Once in her study, struggling mightily to ignore the lingering scent of tea from the night before, her head slowly began to clear. She began to realize just how bad of an idea that kiss was.

She hadn't wanted to have that conversation- so instead she'd answered Yes yes yes with kisses.

But she likes him and he makes her laugh and Maker's mercy, they've only been close like this for under a day. They've talked and even laughed a little before this, and she'd given him Ser Pounce-a-Lot, but she'd always been so constantly caught up in the past, that it's like she'd barely seen him until last night.

She has no idea what she's feeling, except that it's good.

And that's bad.

She stares down at the letters on her desk, arranged in neat piles of Resolved, Unread, and What am I supposed to do with this? Her unread pile is dwindling, but not nearly as fast as she would have liked.

She has a wild moment where she thinks of, perhaps, burning a few. Oh, Varel, I never even saw a letter from-

That, she realizes, is an Anders thought. Is she really already thinking like him? He's contagious, that's what he is. He's-

In her office, and why didn't she lock the door?

He's just opened her door and is standing there, looking a little sheepish.

"I don't want to talk about-" Jane starts, and he shakes his head.

"I, um. I got that impression. With the- er, running. They just sent me in here to tell you that dinner is about to be served."

She purses her lips. "I'm not finished yet." She gestures to her piles. "Varel will have my head-"

"Varel sent me," Anders says, proudly, rocking back on his heels. "So, put down the quill, stand up, and let's get some food."

"I'd rather not." She's not entirely sure walking to the dining hall will be- easy, if it's just the two of them. There are far too many walls.

"Oh, come on," Anders whines, pouting. She fights back a laugh. "You owe me. You escaped before Nathaniel really got going, and I had to stand there for over an hour with him pacing and every so often saying something very, very pointed about my masculinity."

Jane quirks a brow, trying to look disinterested. She can tell by the curl of his lips that she's failing. Miserably.

"I mean, he said I was taking advantage of you, and he really didn't believe me that you'd started it."

"I'll have to talk to him, then. Set the record straight."

Anders nods. "Because you did start it."

"I- yes, I did."

"And I mean, I continued it, but-"

"Anders."

"Right, right- don't want to talk about it. For some reason. I thought it was very pleasant."

Jane bites back a smile. She wants so badly to smile at him. She wants so badly to say, That's exactly why I don't want to talk about it, but she just stays silent.

Until, that is, he circles around her desk and pulls her up from her chair. She's just about to protest when he bends slightly, then hooks an arm around her knees and shoulders and lifts. Then she just squeaks and struggles, and he beams.

"Varel," he explains, "told me to use every means necessary to make sure you came to dinner. The cooks were apparently not thrilled at our absence from breakfast, you see. So they're going to fatten us tonight to make up for it."

Jane squirms a little, but his grip is unrelenting, and she sighs. "Fine, fine. Put me down?"

"Oh, no. No, no, no. I don't trust you at all. You'll just turn into a mouse and scamper off to some little hiding hole, and I'll spend the whole night worried that Ser Pounce-a-Lot has gotten you."

"I only did that in the Fade," she points out, and her voice has an edge of Anders' whine to it. He grins, and begins to haul her out of her office, cradling her against his chest.

Herbs and magic and lyrium.

"I do not put anything past you," Anders is saying as they enter the hallway. "Including wearing rocks in your robes as penance for finally feeling better. You're heavy."

She stares up at him, about to say something soft and a little offended, and he flushes. "I mean- not that- I didn't mean anything by that, it's just I'm not used to carrying people, it's usually templars throwing me over their shoulder, and-"

Jane can't help it, she's laughing again and again around him today.

But that laughter dies abruptly when Anders stops dead and she looks up and sees-

King Alistair Theirin, jaw set and eyes narrowed.

oOo

"What are you doing here?" she asks when they've retreated to a small meeting room. She can still feel Anders' hands on her knees, her shoulders, but it's fading fast in the face of her nervousness. She's afraid she's spiraling back down to where she was the day before.

"What were you doing being carried around like that mage's bride?" he responds, arms crossed. They're alone, his guards and her companions outside. Alistair is beginning to pace. Jane is standing still, twisting her hands before her.

"He was under orders to drag me kicking and screaming to dinner."

"I didn't see any kicking. Or screaming."

Jane swallows hard, closing her eyes. "It's none of your business, Alistair."

"Of course it is!" he all but shouts, rounding on her. "I love you, Jane, and-"

"And we're over," she reminds him, shaking her head. "We've been over for six months."

"Have we?" he asks, and his voice has gone from shout to broken whisper. "Because all I remember is you breaking my heart and then leaving without so much as a Goodbye, my love or an I hate you, I never want to see you again. You just left."

"Is that why you acted like nothing had happened, the last time you were here?" She opens her eyes to glare at him, and it makes him stop, for just a moment. "Because you thought- that nothing had? Do you have no idea what you did to me, that day?"

Her eyes flick to the empty mirror frame. This room. It was in this room that she'd waited for the Joining to be prepared. This mirror, smashed.

Alistair swallows. "I just- want everything to be alright-"

Jane shakes her head. "It's not, and it hasn't been. For a long time. I-"

"What's going on with you and the apostate?" he interrupts, voice low and rough.

Jane flushes. "I'm not sure," she says, after a moment, siding with honesty. "But it's starting off better than what we had did."

Anger flashes over his face, but he doesn't say anything.

"I was able to tell him what happened. That night at the Tower. And I never felt like I could tell you." She realizes that she hasn't fallen as low as she'd feared- she feels better. Stronger.

"Why not?" he growls, and she shivers. "I was listening. I was trying to understand. I still am! I love you and I want you back, Jane. I was supposed to go back to Denerim, but I couldn't leave without actually talking, and here I find you being carried around by a templar-murdering apostate and you're telling me that that's a good thing? Jane-"

There's a humming in the air and a sharp crack as a ball of arcing lightning crashes into the wall not a foot from Alistair's head. He curses and jumps away. Jane stares back at him levelly, jaw tight.

"I," she says, slowly, taking the time to pick her right words instead of continuing to fumble, "will not- will not be made to feel guilty, anymore. Or obligated. At least- not the way that I have been. This time last year, if you had told me that to kill the archdemon, I had to run across all of Ferelden without stop, from Highever to Gwaren, I would have done it, because I was foolish and believed that calm, stoic acceptance and focused action were the only route to not only victory, but to a good life.

"I," and she finally looks away, "was quite obviously wrong. And if I had learned this fact sooner, perhaps- perhaps I would have slain the archdemon without Morrigan's intervention, and we would no longer have a problem."

Alistair tries to say something, but she shakes her head and more magic twists around her dominant hand, the hand that clutches onto her staff for dear life. The words are tumbling out now, the ideas that she's been turning over and over in her head for six months, that began to crystalize last night while she sat in Anders' arms. She unleashes them, because if he's listening, then she'll make him understand.

"I have lived my life bowing my head and taking orders, even as I have led others. When there were no direct orders, I followed ideals as if they were unbreakable. I evaluated the situation and ignored my feelings and settled instead on what I perceived to be the best course of action. And it has taken from me everything I have loved. It has nearly killed me several times. I think that, perhaps, listening to not my mind but my heart will cause fewer deaths. I can only hope that I still have a heart to listen to, and that my mind has not slain it in the cradle it has been confined to ever since I walked through the Tower doors at the side of a templar.

"I want to start living, Alistair."

She is finished now, and exhales shakily, magic fading, the air growing less thick and acrid.

Alistair shifts in his armor and squares his shoulders, but his voice is soft when he says, "If you had tried to strike the final blow, I would have stopped you." He smiles sadly. "I would have died in your stead, because I- love you. But I- agree- perhaps that would have been the better course, no matter which of us would have died.

"Good luck, my dearest. Hopefully, one day, at least one of us will find happiness."

And then he has left her alone in that room, pushing through the doors and striding past the startled forms of Anders, Nathaniel, and Ogrhen who stare after the King of Ferelden, watch as he placates his anxious, mistrusting guard.

She's not sure he understands, but she lets him go, because- because watching him walk away, she feels lighter, like she's finally out of that hallway in the palace.

Anders slips through the door and comes to stand before her, looking- anxious, perhaps. He knows, after all, all of her history with Alistair. He knows more about her than she's ever let anybody understand until this moment. He knows, also, how deep her melancholy has been up until so recently, and how much of it rested upon failed duty and guilt and shame. He knows that this has been a crucial moment, and he's looking at her for signs that she's about to break from the strain.

Instead, she looks at him and-

Jane Amell, Arlessa of Amaranthine, Commander of the Grey and Hero of Ferelden smiles at him, and when he smiles back, she holds out a hand and laughs.