He could hear it long before she gave it to him, although he didn’t quite realise what it was that he could hear. The song was strong and sweet, but soft and distant- hidden under layers of her clothing, and she flushed red whenever he stared in her direction, awkward in a way that she rarely was. It was as if there were choirs in his head, like the handful of singers in the Amaranthine Chantry when he had met with Aura, except… more. More powerful, more entrancing, more haunting, more everything. It was like listening to the act of creation itself. It made him feel alive. There was power and magic and temptation in the song, and for a time he thought that it was coming from Elissa herself as he stared at her across the main hall of the Keep.
She drew it out, glancing his way often as she went about her duties, her gaze skittering away wildly when she realised he was still staring. There was something nervous in her movements, the surety he was used to seeing gone. He frowned as he watched her, perplexed by the song that danced around her but enthralled by it in equal measure. The mesmerising sound had been distracting him ever since she’d returned to the Keep earlier that morning, a siren’s lure that he could not block out.
It became a game, of sorts. He would resist it for as long as possible, eyes fixed on her as if she would give him some sort of clue; when he could stand it no longer, he made his way towards her, drawn by the song. The colour would rise in her cheeks and she would find some reason to be on the far side of the room to him, a conversation that simply could not wait, a supplies manifest that had to be seen to this instant. He had never seen her take such an interest in the day to day maintenance of the Keep. She liked to avoid her duties, where possible, so this sudden fascination intrigued him. Not as greatly as the song, but it was a part of the mystery.
She retreated and he advanced, a complicated dance that he didn’t even pretend to understand. Her avoidance was so unfamiliar to him. Elissa drew it out for some time; he crept ever closer throughout the afternoon, and when he finally ran down his patience and stepped up behind her the song was so loud that for a moment he closed his eyes and just absorbed it.
It was magnificent. Power and fire and music and life, brilliant and drugging; he’d never heard anything-
“Kal’Hirol,” Elissa said, smiling briefly as she turned to face him. Behind her, Mistress Woolsey raised an eyebrow as she took the stack of papers the two had been working on and absented herself. Both women’s expressions seemed odd, somewhat insincere, but reading expressions still didn’t come easily to him. “You’ve heard it before in Kal’Hirol.”
He paused for only a moment, processing her words. “You have lyrium?” he asked, his surprise momentarily overruling his delight. He had not expected this, not really, and there was something else- “The song is different.”
The lyrium in the vials that the mages imbibed was weak, watered down; he scarcely heard more than a ringing hum, and only then when he was standing nearby when the cork seals were removed. It just sort of teased at his senses, just a hint of sound, a vibration in the air that drew his attention. The lyrium in Kal’Hirol had been an onslaught, wondrous beauty that it was, but it had roared, like every voice in creation singing at once, wild and desperately joyful and happy.
“Anders said that the lyrium was dangerous,” he said, concern eating at his unmitigated delight. “You went back to that pit of darkspawn and evil, to retrieve something which could damage you irrevoc-”
“Sigrun knew the way, and we cleared out Kal’Hirol a week ago, so it’s fine,” she said, somewhat irritably. Her smile lessened the sting of her tone though. “We had to go back for a few things, so it’s not like this was a burden at all.”
“But you carried the lyrium for much longer than you needed to. I have heard it singing for hours now.”
Something lightened in her eyes, and he felt himself relax at the sight of it. Her tension and avoidance had affected him more than he would like to admit. “You can hear it?” she said, a smile creeping across her face. “But it’s so tiny!”
Her hand had slipped into her breast pocket at some point during their conversation, and her fingers emerged tightly clasped around something. The song soared, and he stared in fascination, even as she grinned mysteriously. “Hold out your hand,” she said, waiting for him to obey. Her hand came to rest in his, small against the span of Kristoff’s hand, her fingers warm against the pervasive chill in his dead flesh. She drew the moment out for the longest time, until finally she opened her fingers and placed a tiny leather satchel in the palm of his outstretched hand and withdrew.
“You’ll have to open it,” she said softly. “I can’t touch it without it hurting me.”
The way she moved her left hand out of sight, hiding it behind the curve of her hip, should have been of more concern- had this tiny object hurt her? Had she been injured in pursuit of something for him?- but the song flooded him now, pure and sweet and rapturous. It thrummed through him, each pulse of the rhythm a new wave of something joyous and refreshing.
With fumbling, awkward fingers- death never added to one’s agility, he had found, and no one would ever accuse him of having nimble fingers- he managed to loosen the tie on the bag and upended it into his other hand. There was a clear ringing note, the most perfect sound he had ever heard, and a ring tumbled out.
For a moment he could only stare, lost in the symphony that soared outwards and upwards, the sound of beautiful eternity made solid in the shape of this frail ring.
It could have been seconds later, or it could have been years later, but Elissa’s hand was on his arm, and her voice came to him as if from a distance. “Justice?” she called, and he looked up finally to see her frowning. “You were swaying,” she clarified, her other hand coming up as if to touch his face and then falling back to her side. She pressed her palm into her hip, hiding it again. “Are you alright? I didn’t expect it to affect you like this.”
“It is just…” How did mortals find words to describe the well of beauty he felt within him? There did not seem to be adequate language for what was consuming him. “Magnificent,” he finished softly. And then he smiled, and her expression brightened in turn. “I do not have the capacity to describe what this means to me. Thank you, Commander.”
“You can call me Elissa, you know,” she said, her smile changing her entire demeanour. She shone as brightly as the tiny band of metal in his palm. “We’re friends- friends can call each other by their names.”
Her words only half registered, entranced as he was by the ring. “I would dearly love to show this to the other spirits in the Fade,” he said, running his fingers slowly over the curve of the metal. It hummed in a pleasing manner, in the same way that Anders’ feline companion purred when stroked, and he repeated the motion to hear the wobble in the song anew. There was nothing in his experience in the Fade, nothing at all, that compared to this moment, this object. What a glorious thing it was, this mortal world.
The silence that came from her was telling, and he glanced up, tearing his eyes from the ring.
“Oh,” she said, her expression for once easy to read in her confusion. There was hurt there as well, pain that she quickly masked, and he had no idea how it had manifested. “I didn’t know that spirits were friends with each other. I thought you all sort of… did your own thing, I guess. What spirits were you friends with? I knew a spirit of faith once, any chance you knew her… err, it? Him?”
He shook his head, glancing back to the ring as he turned it over in his fingers, end over end. The song changed depending on how he held it, and it delighted him no end to play and experiment and see what notes he could draw from it. “I do not know what names they go by,” he said, “and I was more likely to encounter demons than spirits. For the most part we kept to ourselves.”
Another look came over her face, another one he recognised- pitying. He was surprised to see it, and even more surprised that he knew in an instant how carefully he paid attention to her moods. He doubted he would have recognised pity on the face of one of the others from just the look in their eyes. “Justice, you don’t have anyone in the Fade to show,” she said softly.
He frowned, distracted by the song. “What?”
“You told me yourself, it was one of the first things we talked about after you came here.” She was shaking her head, sorrow etched deep in her eyes. “You told me that you had no need for companionship there. Why do you… who do you even have to show, if you were able to?”
Her question stunned him. It was nothing but truth, horrible wrenching truth.
This world had changed him… in the simplest way.
They had taught him to desire companionship.
So small a thing, something he would never have missed in the Fade. Something he had never known, never desired, never even considered in any form… friendship, and companionship, such a simple thing but so very separate from his nature. Justice did not require company. Or friends. Justice needed only righteousness, and victory, and to see wrongs righted. But now, after only a few short weeks in this world, he… wanted. Desired.
He wanted someone to share in the joy this simple ring gave to him.
Elissa was still looking at him, pity and sorrow in her expression, and he needed more from her than that. He needed something else.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked, holding the ring out between them.
She huffed softly, clearly well aware that he’d ignored her questions. “Justice, I didn’t mean to… it’s a gorgeous ring but you know I can’t-”
“The song is beautiful, is it not?” he continued, speaking over the top of her.
The silence was weighted, and he stared at her until she relented. There was something hard in her eyes when she finally spoke. “You know I can’t hear it,” she said firmly, each word heavy with scorn.
He could not think of a time when he had earned her scorn before. It should have been a warning for him to stop.
“You must hear it. It is so loud. And you yourself are no ordinary mortal, you’ve done far more than any non-mage has ever done.” He held the ring out, thrusting it before her face. The song rang out between them. “You must hear it sing. Surely.”
There was caution and sadness and anger in equal measure in her eyes as she put her hand over his wrist and gently pushed his hand away. “Justice, I can’t. You know that pure lyrium is poisonous to mortals. I can’t go near it.”
“Then why did you carry it for days?” He was raising his voice, and he wasn’t even sure why he was angry at her; was it that she had endangered herself for him, for a gift that carried more weight than she intended it to? “Why risk yourself if you don’t-”
“Just say thank you!” she said, louder than she needed to, almost shouting, desperate. Her words drew a few eyes their way, but he did not care for the attention of others. The other mortals didn’t matter. Elissa did. “Just take the stupid ring and say thank you!”
Her words rang out in the silence of the main hall, and someone coughed uncomfortably when it stretched on for too long. The ring hummed in his hand, the merry melody continuing unabated despite the tension.
Elissa blinked, her expression furious. Then blinked again. Her eyelashes fluttered frantically, and only when her hand went up to her cheek did he realise she was crying… and that the hand dashing away tears was marred by an ugly scar, one of her fingers crooked and bent as if the skin had melted and reset at a bad angle.
Without a word, she sketched a shallow bow in his direction and stormed out, shoving her shoulder into Nathaniel as he entered through the same door she was leaving through. The archer staggered backwards a step, opening his mouth to snap at her and clearly thinking better of it when he saw her expression. Sighting Justice standing with his hand still outstretched, he wandered over.
“What was all that about?” he asked, rubbing at his aggrieved shoulder.
“The Commander gave me a gift,” he said, somewhat flatly, watching the door to see if she would return. Common sense suggested she would not.
Nathaniel whistled softly. “A ring? Well that’s just dripping with symbolism, isn’t it.”
He glanced downwards, to the ring in his hand. “Is it?”
The song was not quite so sweet now. He wasn’t sure what Howe was talking about, but the only symbolism he could see was the undeniable truth that his time here in the mortal world had changed him… and that one mortal and her opinion of him meant more than it should.
He pocketed the ring, nodded stiffly to Howe, and made his way up to the battlements. She had sought to make him a friend, and instead had forced both of them to realise just how very different he now was.
The song hummed, and he tuned it out.