He shows up in Amaranthine many long years after the fall of the Chantry and the Battle of Kirkwall. Nathaniel cannot decide whether he is more furious or taken aback, until Anders collapses at his feet. Then everything goes into overdrive and all he can do is hoist the other man up over his shoulder and wonder - when did he become so light? Anders has always been solid in a stocky, typically Anderfels kind of way. But now, he feels like a feather and Nathaniel is half afraid he'll float away at the first hard breath.
When Anders finally opens his eyes two full days later, the first thing he does is ask for water. Nathaniel is in the Keep treasury when he gets word and hastens to Anders' bedside. Anders seems oddly serene from where he lies in bed, propped up by as many spare pillows as Woolsey will allow. She is fussing in the corner with something and gives Nathaniel a long, sharp glance and a stiff nod before excusing herself and closing the door with her usual efficiency. She is withered and aged now, but she still has more spring in her step than most of his recruits and Anders gives him a faint, wry smile. He knows, without a doubt, that they'd been thinking exactly the same thing.
"You came back," is all Nathaniel can think to say when the silence in the room stretches into something heavy and unbearable. Anders turns his face into a pillow. His mouth is a tight-lipped line and his brow is furrowed as though in intense concentration, and Nathaniel muses that he has never seen Anders look more fragile or worn out.
"I had nowhere else to go," Anders answers after a short while. There are dark bags beneath his eyes and his cheeks are hollow. "I couldn't very well prance back to Kirkwall. My name is on every Templar's lips. The infamous Anders, scourge of all Thedas." The words are bitter and tinged with regret and an unfathomable sorrow, and Nathaniel doesn't comment when Anders reaches up to scrub wearily at his eyes. He doesn't tell Anders that it seems as though he has gotten as used to crying as breathing.
What he does say, is: "You're a Warden, Anders. You'll always have a place here."
"Even if all the world is at my back?" Anders questions inbetween hiccups and sniffles.
"I'll still always open the door," Nathaniel replies, feeling something loosen in his chest; a sort of weight that has lain there ever since the night Anders left. Anders gives him a watery smile then, cheeks tear-stained and fever-flushed.
"I never knew you to be good with words, Nathaniel," he says, some of the old Anders in his voice.
Nathaniel wants to say, you never took the time to learn. But he doesn't. There are enough regrets between them, and voicing this one will be both petty and pointless. Instead, he gives one, two short strides to the bed and sits down when Anders scoots over weakly. There isn't much space, but they make do and he cups Anders' chin in a gauntled palm. Anders makes a soft noise in the back of his throat and Nathaniel leans forward, buries his face in the loose fall of Anders' sandy, grey-streaked hair.
"I've waited for this for a lifetime," he murmurs, meaning to brand the words into Anders' skin by sheer force of will alone.
"I was an idiot," Anders replies. "I'm sorry. Sorry that I left, sorry that I let Justice - well, it doesn't matter anymore."
Nathaniel turns Anders' face to look him in the eye. "What do you mean?" he asks, frightened and elated all at once.
"He's gone," Anders whispers, head dropping. "He's gone and he won't ever be coming back. I made sure of it."
"How?" Nathaniel asks, smoothing back Anders' hair. With every motion of his hand, the years and leagues that have lain between them seem to melt away, as though they never were and had never happened.
"It doesn't matter, Nathaniel," Anders says, voice pleading. In his younger days, before the world had gone mad, Nathaniel might have pushed and shoved and pestered until he'd gotten an answer. But he's sharper now, if not always wiser, and he knows that to push with something so important will send Anders running for the hills again. So he leaves it at that, even though curiosity and scepticism seem to be trying to gnaw a dark hole right through his gut.
"He's finally, blessedly gone," Anders affirms again, even more quietly than before.
"What will you do now?" Nathaniel asks, though he dreads the answer. There is still so much that can go wrong, even with Anders tucked against his side as though he had been made to fit.
Anders takes a very long time to reply, long enough that Nathaniel thinks he must have passed out again. "I'd like to stay here, for a while. If it's all right. I - I'm tired of running. I've been running all my life. I thought inciting a war for a noble cause would change that. It didn't. Instead I wound up running even harder and further. I'm sick of it. I wanted to come home." Nathaniel has a difficult time swallowing around the lump in his throat when he hears those words. He thinks on how strange a path his life has taken, and of how the Maker, as the Chantry's scattered zealots still preached, always provided.
"You're still worn out," he tells Anders then, heedless of the tremor in his voice. "Woolsey will kill me if I keep you up too long. Go to sleep." Nathaniel makes to stand when Anders' fingers reach up to tug at his bracers. The grip is weak, but insistent.
"Stay?" It comes out needy and desperate, something Anders had always hated back when they were younger and more brash. But Nathaniel acquiesces as Anders again makes space for him. He stays until Anders is fast asleep and snoring softly, lying there as still as stone until Woolsey comes round again and relieves him with another fluffy pillow and a click of her tongue.
Anders makes a quick and full recovery at remarkable speed, and is up and about before the week is out. Woolsey tuts and frets whenever he roams around the Keep's many winding hallways, but Anders always manages to shake her off with a smile and a friendly word. Nathaniel watches the proceedings with a hawk's eye, noting every little detail. The amount of times Anders stumbles when he becomes exhausted. How much he eats during mealtimes and how much sleep he gets. All in all, he is pleased. But something still niggles at the back of his mind, like a worm burrowing into rain-softened earth.
"Nathaniel!" Anders calls out one sunny morning, barging into his office as though he has every right to and Nathaniel greets him with as coolly disinterested a look he can muster. "You're a cheap liar!" Anders wails. "A sodding cheap liar whose breath reeks of nug-guts!" Nathaniel doesn't even have to wonder where that came from. In his mind, he can clearly hear Oghren's amused chuckles.
"The dwarf's back on speaking terms with you, I see," he comments dryly, catching Anders off guard for a moment.
"What? Oh, no it's not that. It's about Ser Pounce!" Nathaniel cannot keep from smirking then, and Anders' eyes go impossibly wide, his mouth forming a soundless little "oh".
And then follows a deafening noise - what Nathaniel is tempted to call a squeal. "It's true?! You kept him? They didn't make you throw him out or give him away again or anything? Wherever did you even find him?"
"I have a knack for finding and taking care of strays," Nathaniel answers, turning back to the requisition form he had been busy with before the interruption. Anders falls silent for a time, and for the next few minutes, the only sound in the office is the scratch of Nathaniel's quill on parchment.
"Thank you," he says at last, voice as cracked as chipped glass. "I don't know what else to say, but Nathaniel? Thank you so very, very much." And then he's crying again, softly and Nathaniel heaves a sigh.
"It's nothing to cry over, Anders," he says, but he motions the other man closer nevertheless. Anders shuffles along until he's right in front of Nathaniel's solid wooden writing desk and doesn't even so much as protest when Nathaniel draws him into a tight embrace. "I know how much he meant to you. So, after you'd left, I spoke to the Commander. I was told I could keep him so long as he didn't accompany me on missions. I asked around and Woolsey offered to take care of him while I was away."
"D'you think he missed me? Or even remembered me at all?" Anders asks, drawing away from the confines of Nathaniel's arms with a teary smile.
"He waited outside your room every day for an hour until the day he... passed on. Like clockwork," Nathaniel replies, lying through his teeth. He makes a mental note to ask Woolsey to keep up the charade should Anders ever inquire further. He isn't terribly worried about Oghren, though. If it doesn't involve fighting or drinking, the dwarf doesn't deem it worth his time, effort or even notice.
"I'm so glad," Anders says again, wiping at his nose with the back of a torn sleeve. Nathaniel wonders when last the man had the luxury of a decent set of robes, and the thought makes him want to punch through one of the Keep's stone walls.
"He was a good cat," Nathaniel says instead, trading outrage for nonchalance. "A bit iffy at times, and he had an awful habit of just wandering off whenever it pleased him, leaving me worried sick. But a good cat in the end. Probably the best ever."
"He was," Anders agrees quietly. Nathaniel is aware of the ridiculously warm weight of Anders' body pressed against his, of the way Anders' breath ghosts along the line of his chin. He's clean-shaven for once, no stubble or beard and to Nathaniel, he appears impossibly young and broken and brittle.
"Nate," Anders murmurs, turning his name to a question. And before Nathaniel can help himself, he surges forward and kisses Anders roughly, harshly. He worms his tongue inside Anders' mouth and tastes traces of the morning meal left there; relishes the way Anders seems to melt against him as though he is the only solid, dependable thing left in their crazy world.
The shuffle around from behind the desk is awkward, but they don't break apart and when Nathaniel is finally close enough to meld himself to Anders without any obstruction barring his way, the world feels as though it finally makes sense again.
His hands are quick in their work as he pushes Anders back onto the surface of the desk, callused fingers as nimble at skimming along the underside of Anders' robes as they are at stringing his bow. He is rewarded with a low, keening whine for his effort and Anders finally, finally breaks the kiss.
He is breathless and flushed and achingly handsome, and Nathaniel wants him more than he's ever wanted anything else, ever. "Nate," Anders breathes again, another plea. "Please. It's been ages since someone's touched me like this," he moans, and Nathaniel quashes the flare of jealous rage that burns in the back of his mind at the mention of others. Instead, he leans forward for another bruising kiss, another fumbling grope. Anders' hair comes loose from its binding and fans out across his shoulders. It is beautiful, beautiful and Nathaniel wants to run his fingers through those strands for the rest of his life.
"All I ever wanted was for you to come back," Nathaniel whispers in his ear when he comes up for air again. Anders' lips are swollen and red, stubble-scrubbed in places. "All I've ever wanted is for you to say it out loud, to tell me how you really feel."
And Anders gives him a blindingly bright smile then. It's the old and the new, the warped and the pristine Anders all wrapped up in one. Nathaniel can see the heartache and longing, the years of not being able see one another etched into the deep lines at the corners of his mouth. He can read all the things they never said to one another in the twinkle of Anders' eyes. "It's good to be home again," Anders says with a laugh, and leans forward for another kiss.
The world is a changed place when the Calling finally comes. Nathaniel is in his office when the first whispers start insinuating themselves in his mind. We're waiting. Come find us. We can't see you. Where are you? A horrified chill runs up his spine and he catches a brief glimpse of dark, dank rock tunnels buried deep in the belly of the earth. Not five minutes later there is a knock on his door. The sound is subdued and Nathaniel doesn't even have to guess. Anders stalks in like a startled cat, movements stiff and jerky and completely uncontrolled.
"Did you hear it?" he asks, voice frantic. Nathaniel can only nod.
"Maker help us," Anders whispers, paling and catching his face in his hands. "So it's finally happening."
"Yes," is all he gives by way of answer. There are arrangements that need to be made, the analytical side of him thinks with brutal efficiency. Letters to write, commendations to make. But his other side, the one that notices the nervous wring of Anders' hands' and the sudden slump of his shoulers, rebells.
"I don't know if you recall, but I hate the Deep Roads," Anders comments miserably. He seems resigned to it at least, and for that Nathaniel is grateful. The last thing he needs now is Anders deciding to up and make a run for it again. Not that he'd get very far, not with Nathaniel at his heels this time, magic be damned.
"Can't stand them myself," he says wryly, and for this he gets a wan smile. "Too dark and tunnel-like for my liking. Not to mention imposing and disheartening."
"Is this the part where you tell me to think of it as a holiday?" Anders quips. "Because if that's the case, I'd rather not take my leave just yet."
"No," Nathaniel answers and circles the desk, takes Anders' hand in his own and holds it tightly. "It's the part where I tell you that I'll be beside you every step of the way, even if I have to mow down every Darkspawn ever bred."
"Well, that's a relief at least," Anders says, though his voice is completely devoid of its usual jocular tone. "I won't have to die alone then? Good, just what I wanted."
"Would you have preferred Oghren?" Nathaniel asks, and Anders goes still.
"That's not funny, Nate. It's only funny when I make the terrible jokes." Nathaniel chuckles, leaning forward to brush his cheek against the feathery pauldrons of Anders' robe.
Even after all this time, the man still looks as though he's just marauded a crow's nest. Deep in his heart, Nathaniel is content. Things might not always have gone the way he would've liked them to. Maker only knows, for a time it had even seemed as though nothing in his life would ever come right again. But Anders is still Anders, and nothing will ever change that. And Nathaniel is thankful, for even the smallest of mercies such as this one.
"Come along, Anders," he says at length, releasing the other man. "We've got some bad news to spread. We might as well get it over with."
The swarm they encounter is one of the largest ever, Nathaniel notes with dark humour. Six broodmothers all lined up in a gigantic vault and horde upon horde of Darkspawn snapping and howling. If he concentrates hard enough, he can almost hear words amidst those screeching yelps. Hate and revulsion crawl along his skin at that, the sensation burrowing itself deep into his heart.
"It looks like we've hit pay dirt," Alistair says. There is no fear in his voice, but his eyes belie a deep-seated concern.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Daylen cries out and brandishes his heavy battle staff with a graceful flourish. It had been strange seeing the two of them, of all people, waiting outside the entrance to the Deep Roads just past Orzammar's outskirts. Nathaniel would have imagined his former Warden-Commander's Calling to have come a long time ago. Still, the Maker's Will is His own, and secretly, Nathaniel is glad for two extra sets of Darkspawn slaying hands.
"It's been an honour, gentlemen," Alistair says, and now his face is a calm, collected blank. A hushed sort of silence falls over the cavern then. The noise of the Darkspawn horde fades to a dull roar and everything seems to sharpen. Nathaniel has no way of knowing how, but he just does. It flows crystal clear in his veins as though the knowledge has always been there. All of them are ready to die in this forgotten, Maker-damned place.
So he casts Anders a last look, leans over and brushes his lips against the other man's. This is as close as Nathaniel will ever come to letting himself say farewell. Anders gives him a soft, heartbroken smile and mouths the words, I'll be waiting for you. Nathaniel is aware of Alistair and Daylen and the blistering look that passes between them, and thinks ruefully that perhaps he and Anders aren't the only ones who've shared a burden like this before. Time slows, then halts and Nathaniel draws in a deep breath.
When reality comes crashing back in, he's as ready as he ever will be.
Anders is the last one to die. He is caught by a poisoned arrow to the back of the skull, and just like that, he crumples to the filthy cavern floor. His hand catches in Nathaniel's and in the moments before life bleeds out of him completely, he smiles as brightly and brilliantly as he can manage. Fate has a funny way of tying loose ends together, he thinks and closes his eyes. Nathaniel's hand is still warm and Anders imagines that perhaps he'll wake up to morning kisses and whispered nothings.
The world is a changed placed. The Grey Wardens exist now only in myth, an array of fanciful tales carried on from one generation to the next. They pour from the mouths of elves and dwarves and humans alike, both mage and non-mage. Stories of dragons and griffins and Darkspawn; all manner of made-up creatures drawn from legend and imagination. One such story tells of four Wardens who once went into the belly of the earth and slew a horde of Darkspawn large enough to constitute the force of a Blight. It is a silly, exaggerated tale and most children stop believing it by the time they are old enough to come into their magic, or their sense - whichever shows first.
But there are some who swear by it. "Go to Orzammar," they say. "Follow the ancient ways as far in as you can." No one ever does it of course. Everyone knows that the old Dwarven ways are all collapsed, and have been for many ages.
But the storytellers always insist: "Hidden deep beneath the surface somewhere, in a vault large enough to house the ancient city of Denerim, there lies the remains of four Wardens. And if you are lucky enough, you might even see that two of them died, tied together by the hand until the very end."