Fenris couldn't have said what about the man attracted his attention. Perhaps just the look that had momentarily crossed his face once as he'd glanced up, watching Hawke walk past on her way to Varic's suite; a look misery and bleak despair. Fenris knew that that feeling. Had had that very look on his own face, more than once.
He asked Varric about him some days later, after noticing him passed out on the table in the corner.
"Him? Calls himself Alistair. Supposed to be the bastard son of Ferelden's old king."
Fenris frowned. "A bit old for that, isn't he?"
Varric laughed. "No, not a son of King Cailan – the one before, Queen Rowan's son, what's-his-name..."
"King Maric," Hawke supplied. "Which would have made King Cailan his half-brother, if it were true."
"And is it?" Fenris asked, curious.
Hawke shrugged. "No idea. Does it matter? Ferelden has a King already, and a good one."
A week later, on his way home from a late night of cards and drink at the Hanged Man, he all but tripped over the man, lying unconscious in the rain-swept street, his clothing torn and cut. The water swirling away from him across the cobblestones was dark with blood; he'd clearly run afoul of one of the numerous street gangs.
He could have just left him there. He probably should have. But instead he found himself crouching down, checking the man for a pulse. He still lived; injured, but not, on closer examination, lethally so. He considered taking him to Anders' clinic. But they were closer to the Hightown stairs here than to any entrance leading to Darktown, and at this time of night trying to take an injured man to and through Darktown on his own was asking for trouble. Anders was more likely to be at Hawke's estate anyway.
Somehow he got the man to his feet. Alistair was clearly in no condition to walk, however, even if he'd been conscious enough to attempt it. Fenris growled out a curse in Arcanum, then lit up his brands for the extra strength they'd give him. He bent down, putting his shoulder against the man's stomach and folding him over, draping him over his shoulders like a lamb to be carried to market. He grunted with effort when he straightened; the man was big. Not fat, but muscular, and taller than Fenris was.
Climbing the stairs was an effort. He had to stop and rest twice, catching his breath while he held the man balanced upright against the wall. And again after he'd passed the market.
He hesitated when he reached Hawke's door. There were no lights showing; doubtless everyone had gone to bed already. In the end he continued on to his own place; he had poultices, and bandages, and that was what the man most appeared in need of. As well as a place to recover from his injuries. Well, and a bath, food... clothing that wasn't slashed to ribbons. All but the latter he could supply.
He made it the rest of the way to his house without incident, and carried the man upstairs, heaving a sigh of relief once he was finally able to put him down. On his own bed, there not being any other in the building in fit condition for use. Tending his wounds took a while, there was such a lot of them. By the time he was done, the man was dressed in little more than his smallclothes and a great deal of bandages.
Alistair woke as Fenris was sponging clean a lengthy cut that ran across the side of his head, just above his left ear. He looked a little dazed, but Fenris was pleased to see that his eyes responded to light normally; that was always a good sign, with head injuries.
"You're glowing," Alistair said, eyes widening, an edge of awe in his voice.
It was only then that Fenris realized he had not dampened his brands after setting the man down; that he was working by their light. "Yes," he agreed, and let them fade.
"Oh," Alistair said, softly, sounding sad. "They were beautiful."
Fenris bit back his normal sharp response to such statements. "How are you feeling?" he asked instead.
"Sore. Ow. What happened?"
"I don't know. I found you in the street. Injured."
"And didn't just leave me there to bleed to death in peace? Clearly you're not from Kirkwall," the man said.
Fenris' eyebrows rose slightly. A joke? One of the last things he's have expected from the injured man. He snorted, slightly. "Neither are you. Are you hungry?" he asked.
"Maker, yes," the man said fervently. "Always."
That brought a slight smile to Fenris' face. It was such an obviously heartfelt and honest answer. He rose to his feet. "I have some bread, and cheese," he said, and walked over to the fireplace. "I'll toast some for us."
"Thank you," the man said. He watched as Fenris used a tinderbox to start the fire that was laid ready in the ash-filled grate, then got bread and a wax-covered cheese out of a tin-lined pantry box and set to work cutting slices of both. He used a whisk to sweep clean an area of the hearthstone close to the fire, and set bread and cheese there to melt. He crouched down, watching while they cooked.
"You're Fenris, aren't you?" the man asked after a while.
"Yes. And you're Alistair, I've heard."
"That's me," Alistair agreed wearily. "You're one of Hawke's companions, right?"
"Yes. Why? Do you have some interest in her?" Fenris asked, suspiciously, looking over his shoulder toward the other man.
"No," Alistair said, then frowned. "Yes. A little. She reminds me of someone that I used to know."
"Nope, a man, actually. My best friend," he said, and fell silent for a moment, a look of grief crossing his face. "He died."
Silence fell for a moment. Fenris studied Alistair's face, the expression of regret on it. "And you think you're responsible for his death?" he asked.
Alistair snorted, then left his head drop back to the pillow. "I know I am. That cheese is about to burn," he added.
Startled, Fenris looked around and saw that the part of the bread and cheese closest to the fire had begun to brown. He quickly pulled the slices away from the fire, then transferred them to a battered tin plate and took it over to the bed. He sat down on the edge of the bed, putting the plate where both be and Alistair could easily reach it, and lifted a slice, nibbling at it more to keep the man company than because he himself was hungry. Alistair sat up, wincing at the pain his injuries caused him, then began to eat as well, neatly but very quickly, as if he was half-starved.
"How did he die?" Fenris asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
"Killing the Arch-Demon," Alistair said, voice flat.
"Killing the...!" Fenris almost dropped his bread in his surprise. "The Hero of Ferelden?"
"Yes," Alistair said shortly. He took another large bite of bread and cheese, chewing and swallowing before he continued. "If I'd been there... it might have made a difference. It would have, if he'd had someone other than that snake Loghain with him," Alistair said, bitterly, then continued, voice softening. "If someone had to die... it should have been me. Not him."
"No wonder Hawke reminds you of him," Fenris said thoughtfully. "They're actually cousins of some kind. Hawke's mother is an Amell."
"Huh. Small world," Alistair said, and picked up the last slice of toast and cheese, biting into it as hungrily as he had the first.
Fenris hid a smile. The way the man ate reminded him of Anders – like he had a bottomless pit for a stomach. "I can make more if you'd like," he offered. "The bread needs using up anyway."
"Please," Alistair said, and smiled at him. The smile completely transformed his face, and took years off of his apparent age; he couldn't have been much more then in his mid-twenties, Fenris was startled to realize. "Could I have extra cheese on it, too?" he asked hopefully.
Fenris laughed. "I suppose," he said agreeably. He was, he realized, looking forward to finding out more about his unexpected guest. He didn't think Alistair was making it up about having known the Hero of Ferelden – the grief he had shown when he spoke of him was too raw, his expressions too open and honest, for Fenris to believe it was faked.
"I'm in your bed, aren't I?" Alistair asked softly.
Fenris looked up from where he was sitting on a bench near the fire, working conditioning oil into his leathers. "Yes," he agreed. "You are."
"Why? I'm the one that put you there. Easier to tend to you there than if you were on a pallet on the floor."
"You shouldn't have to be tending me..."
"I don't have to – I could have left you in the street," Fenris pointed out. "This was a choice I made. You owe me no apologies."
Alistair was briefly silent, then spoke again. "I still owe you something, even if not an apology."
Fenris smiled at that. "We can discuss that some other time. When you're fully recovered, perhaps," he said, then put aside his work and rose to his feet, walking closer to the bed. He frowned as he took in Alistair's pale, sweaty complexion. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
The man snorted, and scrubbed one hand across his unshaven face. "In need of a drink," he said.
Fenris' frown deepened, as he took in the way the man's hand trembled. "You have the wine sickness," he abruptly said. "How much do you normally drink in a day?"
Alistair's face flushed. "I don't really know. Enough to make me forget for a little while."
Fenris' eyebrows rose slightly. "Doesn't work, does it," he said quietly.
"No," Alistair agreed, and looked away. He swallowed, and looking ashamed. "Can you... do you have..."
"I'll get you some wine," Fenris said, and turned away.
He did not bring him a bottle; he brought him only a single serving of it, in a clay mug. "Make that last," he said. "It is all you will be allowed in a day while you are staying here."
Alistair met his eyes for a long moment, then nodded. "All right," he agreed. He took a couple of sips, then set it aside.
"Apart from the wine sickness, how are you feeling?" Fenris asked.
"Still sore. Not as bad as last night though."
Fenris nodded. "I should change the poultices," he said, and got out the required supplies. Alistair flushed – blushed, really – when he turned down the sheets so he could start with the gashes on the man's shin and thighs. "You're lucky they didn't hamstring you," he remarked as he started unwinding the bandage from around Alistair's left shin.
"I think they were trying to," Alistair said, craning his head to see what Fenris was doing."
"You heal fast," Fenris said, surprised; the wound looked like one several days old, not a fresh one. Suddenly dots connected if his head. He'd seen healing like this before... on someone else who was also a bottomless pit when it came to food. "You're a Grey Warden," he said, looking up at the man, an edge of wonder in his voice.
Alistair grimaced. "Was a Grey Warden. Technically I'm a deserter now. Though they do say once a Grey Warden, always a Grey Warden. At least until the darkspawn get you. Or some other form of death. Painful death, most commonly," he added, grimacing. Then his face fell. He looked away, face frozen.
Fenris remembered his words from the night before – that he felt responsible for the death of the Hero of Ferelden, who'd died in killing the Archdemon and ending the Blight. He must, Fenris surmised, be considering how painful a death that may have been.
"Few deaths aren't painful," he said quietly, as he re-wrapped the bandage and moved to check on the gash laying open the front of Alistair's right thigh, matched by one on his left – someone must have hit him across the legs with a sword. Thankfully not hard enough to do much actual damage to the underlying muscles, just an ugly cut. Those, too, were healing well. After he'd replaced the poultices and bandages he twitched the sheets back up, covering Alistair to the waist, hiding a smile at how the man instantly relaxed somewhat. Body-shy, obviously.
Alistair finally turned back again as he was cleaning the slashes criss-crossing the man's left forearm, craning his head to look and see what Fenris was doing.
"I would guess you're used to fighting with a shield," Fenris observed.
Alistair gave him a startled look. "How..." he started to say, then broke off and frowned at his forearms, the left with numerous deep cuts and the right barely touched. "Oh. Yeah, I suppose I was blocking with my left, wasn't I. Stupid thing to do when I don't even have a shield any more." He fell silent, face going still again. "I loved that shield."
"What happened to it?"
"Stolen. Almost everything I left Ferelden with I've sold to either pay my rent or buy food and wine," he said. "The shield I'd never have sold though. I'd rather have starved, and lived on the streets or in the wilderness first. It was a gift. A very special one," he said quietly. His head dropped back to the pillow. "Maker, I'm tired."
Fenris could tell by the way he said it that Alistair meant more than just physically tired. He said nothing, just continued cleaning the cuts, frowning at the redness and heat some were showing. "I may have to get a real healer in to look at some of these," he said.
He hid a smile, wondering what Anders' reaction would be.
"You took in someone off the street?" Anders asked, his tone one of intense belief.
"Yes," Fenris said, voice calm and even.
Fenris shrugged. "He was injured. Will you come or not?"
Anders snorted. "Oh, I'm coming all right – this I have to see for myself," he said, and shoved a few potions, poultices, and rolls of bandage in the capacious pockets of his coat before following Fenris out of Hawke's mansion.
They walked silently. Had Hawke been with them they might have talked, but they both found it easier to say nothing to each other; less chance of misunderstanding or argument that way. So Anders had no warning about who his patient was.
He came to an abrupt stop halfway up the stairs, a startled look on his face, and started to turn away, only to find his way blocked by Fenris.
"Who's there?" called Alistair from the bedroom, a note of worry in his voice.
"Just the healer and I," Fenris called back, meeting Anders eyes challengingly.
Anders cursed softly, glared at Fenris, then turned and stomped up the rest of the way, shoulders hunched and hands half-clenched into fists.
"Oh. You," was all Alistair said as Anders stepped into the room.
"Yes, me," Anders bit out the words. "Hello, Alistair."
It was, Fenris thought, rather like watching two territorial dogs sizing each other up. Or a dog and a cat. They were both stiff with tension, as if ready to leap at any moment – though whether to fight or to flee was anyone's guess.
"It's the wounds in his left arm that are the worst," Fenris said calmly, hoping to defuse the situation. "And there's a cut across his back that is deeper than I'd first thought that also seems to be going sour."
Anders shot him a look, then abruptly relaxed. "Show me," he said, all healer, tenseness forgotten.
Alistair was even more self-conscious about being nearly nude in front of Anders than he was of Fenris. He turned red as soon as the sheets were turned down so that Fenris could show Anders the damage to his legs, and remained so as long as Anders was treating him. Most of his wounds were healing cleanly enough that Anders did nothing more than Fenris himself would have done – changing the poultice and re-bandaging them – but a few of them that had become reddened and swollen he reopened with a knife, cleaning out pus and then applying some of his healing energies to them so that they'd heal cleanly.
When he was done, Alistair grabbed up the mug from the table beside the bed, and gulped down a large mouthful of it. He eyed it a moment, as if wishing to take a second drink, then set it aside. He lay back down, closing his eyes
Anders watched, frowning slightly, then gathered up his things, stuffing leftover poultices and bandages into his pockets. "That's done," he said. "And I'm off."
"I'll see you out," Fenris said. Not because he needed to, but because he had questions. Which Anders seemed to divine; he stopped, once they were downstairs, well out of earshot of the bedroom, and turned to look at Fenris.
"He should heal fine," Anders said. "And quickly. If any of the wounds does look like it's taking an infection again, let me know. I don't expect it to happen; Grey Wardens are healthy buggers. He... we... can shrug off almost anything. I'm surprised he even got any infection at all."
"I found him in a Lowtown street on a rainy night; you know how filthy they are."
Anders nodded. "That might be enough for it, especially if something had him already weakened." He paused, frowned. "He's got the wine sickness you know."
"I know. I'm rationing him."
"Good," Anders said, then paused again, looking uncertain. "He was a good man, once upon a time. Or so I've heard. I never knew him myself; he'd already left the Grey Wardens before I'd become one, and the man who knew him best was already dead. But I've heard the stories, from one of the other Blight Companions."
Fenris nodded. "Thank you for your help," he said.
Anders smiled briefly, sardonically. "Well, I could hardly say no. I'm a healer... it's not just what I do, it's what I am," he said, then turned away, letting himself out the door and stalking off, shoulders hunched again.
Fenris stood beside the bed, frowning down at the sleeping man. His wounds were largely healed. The sickness brought on as his body fought off the effects of too many years of too much drink seemed to have finally ended some time the night before. He'd lost weight during his illness, at almost frightening speed during the worst of it, leaving him pale and wasted. But he seemed to be sleeping peacefully now, and Anders, having been by to check on his progress again the day before, had assured Fenris that he'd recover quickly enough once he was well enough to feed and care for himself.
They had talked a lot, during the times when Alistair was lucid. Enough that Fenris had now heard for himself most of the man's stories about his life, and about his time as a Grey Warden, brief as it had been. He could tell there were things the man hadn't told him; but he did not push him. Not when he himself, in telling his own story to Alistair, had also withheld things. There were things, events, people, that he felt uncomfortable talking about to even his closest friends, much less a chance-met stranger.
Not that Alistair felt like a stranger any more; not when they knew so much about each other now. Even in so brief a time, he had become – or at least started to become – a friend. Whether this friendship would reach beyond the lengthy of Alistair's recuperation he did not know. He hoped so. As bitter and unhappy as the man was, there was much about him that seemed... admirable.
Alistair muttered and shifted in bed. Fenris found himself smiling, watching him wake.
"Wuzzut?" Alistair mumbled, eyes opened to squint up at Fenris.
Fenris smiled slightly. "How are you feeling?" he asked, the same thing he had asked many times since Alistair's initial awakening here.
Alistair grimaced. "Horrible. Hungry. Thirsty. Like something died in my mouth. And I stink."
Fenris laughed softly. "A considerably more lucid answer than you last gave me. I'll make breakfast for us. Would you like a bath afterwards?"
"Just tell me who I have to kill to earn it," the big man said fervently.
Breakfast was ham, sliced thick, with biscuits and cheese, and rose-hip tea, sweetened with honey to cut its acidic bite. Fenris put extra cheese on Alistair's plate; the man seemed to have an insatiable hunger for that food in particular. He had to help him to sit up in bed before handing the plate to him.
"How long have I been here now?" Alistair asked, frowning, as he looked closely at one of the pale scars crossing his right forearm, all that was left of one of his wounds.
"Almost two weeks. You were delirious for quite some time."
Alistair nodded, jaw setting in a grim expression. "I owe you. More than I can ever repay, most likely."
Fenris shrugged uncomfortably. "There is no repayment necessary."
"I'd still like to try."
"Consider it an act of charity if you must," Fenris said, then remembered something he'd once heard Sebastian say. "Don't pay it back – pay it forward."
That drew a smile from Alistair. "I will," he promised.
After they'd eaten Fenris built up the fire, and hauled in water to heat from the well outside. It took a while to warm enough for even a shallow bath. While it heated Fenris dragged in a battered tin tub he kept in the room next door – the mansion had bath tubs, but they were large stone affairs, and with the plumbing and heaters inoperative were pretty much useless for bathing, unless you liked cold baths. He put soap and a washcloth out on the end of a bench, within reach of the tub.
Alistair was feeling shaky enough after long days of recovery that he needed to lean on Fenris to get from bed to tub. They both very pointedly avoiding looking at each other while he removed his smallclothes and got into the wooden tub with Fenris' help, after which Fenris withdrew to the other side of the room. He cut open the last of the biscuits and sliced some more cheese while Alistair bathed, sure that the man would be hungry enough to eat them all by the time he was done his bath.
That done, he looked around. Alistair was bent forward in the tub, busy washing his hair clean. He likely wouldn't want to put back on the smallclothes he'd been wearing, at least until they'd had a good laundering, and his leggings and shirt had been too ragged and stained to be worth salvaging. Fenris went and dug in the chest at the foot of the bed, taking out one of his spare sheets. He cut off two narrow strips and a wider one from one end, then folded the remainder in quarters and cut off the point in an uneven quarter-circle to form a neck opening. He folded the wider strip across the midpoint of one of the narrower ones, to form a breechcloth. The other narrow strip would serve to belt in the loose folds of the poncho-like garment the remainder of the sheet provided. Crude clothing, but it would do for a day or two, until Fenris had a chance to pick up some proper clothing for Alistair.
"Something for you to wear for now," he said, draping the bits of cloth over the bench near the tub.
Alistair glanced over, and nodded. "Thank you. Again," he said, and smiled warmly.
Fenris smiled back, before retreating again. He fetched the biscuits and brought them over to put near the fire to toast. "If you'd like, I could go to where you live and fetch you clothing of your own," he offered after a little while, listening to the sounds of Alistair rinsing off behind him.
Alistair snorted. "My room was rented by the week, and I've been gone longer than that... I suspect my few remaining belongings have gone to line my landlord's pockets by now."
"Mmm," Fenris grunted, and frowned. "Tell me where it is, anyway – I can go check, at least. If you'd like."
"Thank you. I'd appreciate that," Alistair agreed.
He needed help to get out of the tub again, to dry off and dress. Once he was safely back in bed, food and water to hand, Fenris headed off to see about recovering his belongings, from a boarding house in Lowtown not far from the Hanged Man.
The landlord had, indeed, already rented out Alistair's room to someone else. He'd only sold off some of Alistair's belongings yet though, and in the face of an annoyed elf with a very large sword was more than willing to hand over what remained. He also told Fenris which second-hand stall in the market he'd sold the rest at. Fenris bought the few articles of clothing the stall had that seemed of a size for Alistair – whether or not they were actually his, he needed more clothing.
He also bought more food, as he was beginning to run low. He was trying to decide what cheeses to get when a familiar voice hailed him.
"Morning, elf... I hear you have a house guest."
"Varric," Fenris said, turning and nodding at the dwarf. "I suppose I should have expected that the healer couldn't keep his mouth shut."
"Nope. So why'd you take him in?"
Fenris shrugged. "Truthfully, I don't know. It just seemed the right thing to do at the time."
Varric nodded. "Well, let me know if you need a hand with him. Or a hand with getting rid of him."
Fenris smiled slightly, "I don't think that will be an issue," he said, then looked curiously at Varric. "I'm surprised you're not more interested in him. I'd have thought a bastard prince would be right up your alley."
Varric snorted and waved one hand dismissively. "One of the first rules of story-telling is know your audience. A bastard prince that valiantly overcomes all odds to regain his father's throne – preferably with some sexy scenes thrown in for spice – that'd sell. But who would want to read about a drunken failure?"
"Mmm. I see what you mean," Fenris agreed.
"Well, I should be on my way. You'll be at our next card night?"
"Perhaps. I regretted missing the last one, but I had my hands full."
Varric nodded and started to walk away, then turned back. "Oh, Sebastian is back in town. Got back last night – I bumped into him disembarking down at the docks."
Fenris nodded. "Good to know. Thank you for telling me,"
"No problem," Varric said, turned, and left.
Fenris finished his purchases – selecting three different cheeses, in the end, sure they would all be consumed before they had a chance to go off, though the ripe blue one looked to him as if it already had – and headed home. Alistair was dozing, but woke when he came in, and was profusely grateful to have at least some of his belongings back.
After Alistair had changed into some real clothing, they had a large lunch of sausages and potatoes fried in a spider pan over the fire, with tea and, of course, some of the cheese, one with a dry white rind that proved to be soft and creamy inside, as rich as butter.
"How are you feeling?" Fenris asked Alistair.
Alistair smiled, licking a last bit of cheese off of his thumb. "Well fed. Much better, overall. Other than wobbly as a newborn kitten," he added with a grimace. "Too much time flat on my back and sick, I suppose. I'll have to get back in condition... not that I was in particularly good condition any more anyway, what with all the sitting around drinking I'd been doing. And then I need to find a new place to live. And a new job... I doubt the one I had is still waiting for me. Not that it was much of a job, but at least it paid the rent."
Fenris smiled slightly. "You're welcome to stay here until you've found a job and a new place. Though the place isn't much. And it has some... peculiarities, having been the home of a magister."
Alistair smiled back. "I'll have to take you up on that. Thank you, again. Which I'm sure I'll be saying several times a day for the foreseeable future."
Fenris laughed softly. "You're welcome," he said.
Fenris paused just inside the door, then smiled, and stepped to the side, leaning back against the wall with his arms folded.
Alistair was exercising, dressed only in leggings, his back to the door as he moved through forms in the pool of sunlight streaming in through the damaged roof. The bright light cast his shadow on the floor behind him, highlighted the edges of his muscular shape, gilding the hair on his head and body.
He watched silently as Alistair worked through exercises with the sword and shield that Fenris had dug out from among the many odds and ends of salvage that Hawke had given to him as part of his share of the findings from their adventures, things left over from back before Varric had finally convinced Hawke to just sell all the junk himself and share out the coin. The blade was dull and rusty, the shield, a heavy thing made of hide-covered dry old wood, was unlikely to stand up to more then two or three real blows, but they did well enough for practise. Alistair had quite good form, Fenris was pleased to notice, though his control was currently a little shaky and his stamina was obviously lacking; he was tiring quickly.
One of Alistair's movements turned him around enough to catch sight of Fenris standing by the door. He immediately stopped, turning to face him and smiling, lowering his shield while raising his sword-hand to mop the sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes with the back of his forearm. He was out of breath, but looking pleased with himself. "Afternoon. How was your trip?"
Fenris grimaced. "Short at least, but annoying. There never seems to be an end of giant spiders in the caves around here, no matter how recently we've last cleaned them out."
Alistair nodded. "I noticed that, the brief time I was working as a mercenary in the area after I first got here," he said, then frowned down at the blade in his hand, tilting it absently back and forth in a beam of sunlight, sending flashes of light dancing across the walls and ceiling. "That was before I dived into a bottle."
Fenris straightened up, and walked over toward him. "But at least you've stopped drinking now," he pointed out.
Alistair looked back up again, hand stilling. "For now at least, yes. But I find myself wondering how long that will last," he said, then sighed and turned away again, walking over to set sword and shield down against the wall between the windows. "Though at least this is a start."
Fenris nodded, then changed the subject. "We'll be having a guest for dinner tonight. A friend of mine, Sebastian; he comes over once or twice a week, usually, though he's been out of town for the last month." Fenris smiled slightly. "I hope the two of you will get along," he said.
"I'll certainly try to," Alistair said. He picked up and pulled on his short, then turned back to Fenris and grinned, one eyebrow rising. "Should I dress for dinner?"
Fenris laughed softly. "We dine informally," he said dryly.
Sebastian brought food with him, as he often did – a loaf of good oat bread that he himself had baked earlier that day, a large bunch of grapes and a small basket of imported fresh figs, and a whole cold roast chicken. Fenris had put out what was left of the cheeses he'd brought several days before, some smoked sausages, and a couple of bottles of red wine from the cellars underneath the mansion.
Alistair eyed the wine apprehensively as he took his seat after introductions had been done. Sebastian picked up a bottle, holding it by the bottom and tipping the corked end toward Fenris. "Would you mind doing the honours?" he asked.
Fenris smiled, and closed his hand around the end, then called on the powers of his lyrium brands, ignoring Alistair's faint startled gasp as his lyrium lines briefly glowed. He drew his hand away, letting his powers fade, and opened his hand, dropping the cork on table.
Sebastian grinned as he poured a little of the wine into his own glass. "You've not see him do that trick before?" he asked Alistair curiously, then passed the bottle to him and pulled a flask from his belt, and topped up his glass the rest of the way with water.
"No, I haven't," Alistair said. He stared at the bottle in his hand for a moment, then poured out just a half-glass of it for himself before passing it along to Fenris.
Fenris nodded slightly as he took it from the man's hand, and set it down beside his own plate. They spent some little time in dividing up the chicken and taking portions of the food to put on their own plates. Sebastian took just a small portion of everything, Fenris took a good-sized helping of it all, with extra grapes and bread – fresh fruit and fresh bread both being favourites of his, which was, he suspected, why Sebastian invariably brought some of each – while Alistair piled his plate high, taking a full half of the chicken, two sausages, several slices of bread, and most of the cheese.
Sebastian's eyebrows rose slightly at the amount of food on Alistair's plate, but he didn't comment. "So how did you and Fenris meet?" he asked instead, looking enquiringly at Alistair.
Alistair flushed, looking embarrassed. "I was unconscious in the street actually," he said, looking down at his plate and concentrating on cutting up his chicken.
"Injured," Fenris clarified, having seen Sebastian's eyes dart to Alistair's wine glass.
"Yes. I ran afoul of one of Kirkwall's charming street gangs one night on my way home from the Hanged Man. Thankfully they were satisfied to just cut me up a little and rob me, instead of actually killing me outright," Alistair said.
"Must have been one of the smarter street gangs then," Sebastian said, and smiled slightly when Alistair gave him an enquiring look. "Smart enough to realize they can only rob a corpse once."
Alistair snorted and smiled slightly at that, then turned his attention back to his food.
"I tripped over him a little later, and brought him back here," Fenris explained. "Thankfully most of Alistair's injuries were superficial, though I had to have the mage in to deal with the worst of them. He was sick long enough to lose his place to live, so I've invited him to remain here for now."
Sebastian nodded. "A charitable act," he said, then smiled warmly at Fenris. "Not that I would have expected any less of you."
Fenris snorted, then picked up the wine bottle and drank off several swallows of it. "So how did your trip go?" he asked as he set it back down again.
Sebastian sighed, and sat back in his chair. "Not well. I had hoped that the Clairmont family would at least be willing to pledge some support to me – they were good friends of my grandfather's – but even they are currently unwilling to assist in any move against my cousin. He has, they told me, been profligate with the royal treasury, and has much reinforced the armed forces in Starkhaven with mercenaries. But he cannot maintain such increased forces for long; give it two, perhaps three years, they say, and he will run out of ready funds. Then they might be willing to help, if I am still determined."
Sebastian paused a moment, frowning, eyes staring off into the distance, then sighed. "I will have to wait, it seems, and hope that Goren has not entrenched himself so well by then that I cannot pry him out again."
Noticing Alistair's puzzled look, Fenris explained. "Sebastian's father was Prince Vael of Starkhaven. He is the last surviving son since almost the entire Vael family was assassinated during the Blight Year."
Alistair nodded, eyes lighting with comprehension. "And I take it someone else is sitting on your father's throne now?" he asked.
"Yes. A distant cousin of mine; Prince Goren, he styles himself. Placed on the throne by the very family that saw to the slaughter of mine," he added, looking briefly angry. "They are now all dead, but he remains on the throne, and I do not know if I will be able to remove him from it. Sometimes I begin to wonder if my difficulty in raising any support to remove him is a sign from the Maker; that I should put aside all thought of secular power, take my vows again, and return to being nothing more than a brother in the chantry. It would certainly be a more peaceful existence," Sebastian added, smiling slightly and tilting his head to one side.
"You're in the chantry?" Alistair asked, looking surprised.
Sebastian smiled. "Was, yes. I still live there, and help Grand Cleric Elthina as much as I am able to. She allowed me to put aside my vows after my family was killed; I am undergoing what she delicately chooses to refer to as a crisis of faith, when she's in a good mood, and the most damnable wrong-headed foolishness, when she is not. So at the moment I am neither fish nor fowl; not the Prince of my people, and not a brother in the chantry, and not at all sure what I should be doing, either. Whether to recover my father's throne at any cost, or to let well enough be, leave it in the Maker's hands, and hope Goren will prove a reasonably able king despite how he came to have his seat planted on my father's throne. But it is hard to know that my father and mother and brothers were all killed to put him there, along with a number of other cousins who would have had better claims on the throne than he. Even if I was estranged from my family at the time, and by then had no desire to take the throne."
Alistair nodded slowly, frowning. "I know what you mean. I never really knew my father, or my half-brother, and I never actually wanted the throne... I sometimes wonder if that's part of why I ran, when Laurel conscripted Loghain instead of killing him. If I used that as an excuse to run away instead of taking the throne as he wanted me to do," he said unhappily. "And sometimes I wonder if I'd have made a good king, or a bad one, if I'd stayed."
Now it was Sebastian's turn to look puzzled.
"Alistair is the bastard son of King Maric of Ferelden, and was one of the Blight Companions," Fenris explained to him, then smirked. "You two have surprisingly much in common, I would think," he pointed out, then lifted the wine bottle and drank from it, before pointing with the open end from one to the other and back again. "Prince and Prince, priest and templar, the black sheep and the bastard child. Neither with a throne, or a current vocation."
The two looked at him, then looked at each other with increased interest. Then Alistair smiled crookedly, picked up the chicken leg from his plate, and waved it toward Sebastian. "At least he's not a Grey Warden as well. That would be eery." And bit a large mouthful off the drumstick, chewing noisily.
Sebastian snorted, then smiled crookedly. "Indeed it would be. You're a templar?"
"Almost. Everything but the final vows," Alistair said after hastily swallowing. "I was lucky. I was conscripted into the Grey Wardens before the chantry could start feeding me a daily ration of lyrium. But I do know how to do that whole smiting-of-mages thing. Useful when fighting darkspawn emissaries," he added lightly.
Sebastian smiled again. "I admire Grey Wardens greatly. But why are you here in Kirkwall – there is no comanderie of wardens here?"
That necessitated further explanations. It ended up being a very long and pleasant evening, Fenris mainly sitting back and listening while Sebastian and Alistair talked, a friendship obviously growing quickly between the pair of them as they found points in common in their backgrounds, and amicably argued over their differences in beliefs, both those related to the chantry and in other areas. It pleased Fenris that both his friends seemed to be hitting it off; much better than the strained relationship Sebastian had with most of his other friends.
By the end of the evening there was little of the food left – a heel of bread, a solitary sausage, the carcass of the chicken, well picked over. Alistair was carefully picking up and eating the last few crumbs of cheese left on his plate, not wanting even a morsel of it to go to waste. Fenris had drunken a little over a bottle of wine, with the remainder split more-or-less evenly between the other two, Sebastian drinking it well-watered and Alistair having his straight, but nursing it in very tiny sips throughout the evening.
He walked Sebastian down to the front door while Alistair set to cleaning up the mess from their meal, both of them silent until they reached the door. There, Sebastian paused for a moment, and smiled at Fenris. "He seems a good man," he said quietly. "I quite like him."
Fenris smiled slightly and nodded. "Good," he said, and after saying his good-bye and closing the door behind Sebastian, went back upstairs.
Alistair was crouched by the fire, positioning a covered cook-pot among the embers of the fire. He looked up as Fenris entered. "I'm turning the leftover chicken into stock," he said.
Fenris nodded. "Good idea," he said, then yawned and stretched. "Time for bed, I think."
Alistair nodded, and rose to his feet. He frowned, looking aside at the pallet on the floor where Fenris was still making his bed. "You should take the bed," he said quietly. "I'm well enough to sleep on the floor."
Fenris frowned as well, then shrugged. "I don't mind the pallet," he said. "I was a slave – I spent most of my life sleeping on the floor."
Alistair looked uncertain for a moment. "I'm not sure if that makes me feel better or even worse that you gave up your bed for me," he said, then looked from the bed to the pallet and back. "Um. The, er... the bed is large. More than large enough for two. Maybe we could share?" he said, turning to look questioningly at Fenris. "Not as in share share, I mean.. um... Maker, I'm missing this up... messing this up, I mean! Messing this up," he repeated, then covered his face with one hand. "I'lljustshutupnow."
Fenris laughed at how obviously flustered the man was. "All right, we can share," he said agreeably, then raised one eyebrow at Alistair. "I trust you'll not attempt ravishing me."
"Are you kidding? After hearing Sebastian describe that little trick you do with your hand and other people's hearts? No thanks! Last thing on my mind," Alistair hastily assured him, drawing another laugh from him.
They changed and retired to bed, each taking one side of it, leaving a wide space between them. Fenris lay awake only a little while listening to Alistair's quiet breathing before he dropped off to sleep.
Alistair's health improved quickly after that. He was soon back in proper shape, able to do his weapons practise without so quickly running short of breath. Fenris hesitantly offered to spar with him, and Alistair quickly agreed. That proved to be enjoyable for both of them, especially as Alistair's stamina and speed improved and their bouts became more and more challenging. It was rare for Fenris to encounter any warrior capable of keeping up with him; not only did Alistair keep up, but he was soon pushing Fenris' limits, to the point that Fenris sometimes found himself needing to activate his brands in order to not be overwhelmed by the other warrior.
Alistair was startled the first time he did it, startled enough to flinch and fall back a few paces. He didn't lower his sword or shield, but instead took a more defensive stance – Fenris supposed that was ingrained as a result of fighting mages, who also sometimes lit up in some way in battle. Fenris stepped back as well, lowering the point of his own sword to make it clear the sparring was at least temporarily ended.
"Maker!" Alistair exclaimed, lowering his own weapons and straightening up. "By the Black City but that's frightening when you're not expecting it!"
Fenris smiled slightly. "An effect that it quite useful at times," he pointed out, a trifle smugly.
Alistair grinned, looking amused now that his initial surprise had worn off. "I'll bet," he said, then flipped his sweaty hait back out of his eyes, frowning slightly. "Keep going?"
"Certainly," Fenris agreed, raising his sword again. "You should do something about that, you know."
"About what? Oh, the hair? Yes, it is rather long for fighting," Alistair said, frowning slightly. "I used to keep it cut short, enough so it wouldn't get in my eyes, but still provided a little padding for my helmet. I suppose I should cut it short again."
"Or at least braid it, or perhaps put it back in a pony tail," Fenris agreed, as they resumed their sparring.
Alistair grinned. "Not a pony-tail, I think... I'd look too much like that mage friend of yours. Well, apart from being less scruffy, more muscular, and in armour."
Fenris laughed softly. "Apart from that, yes," he agreed, after which they were too busy with their sparring to talk any further.
The cold rains of fall gave way to the even colder rains and occasional snow of winter. Fenris salvaged a half-decent sword for Alistair on one of his adventures with Hawke, and a good shield. With Sebastian willingly vouching for him Alistair was able to get a job as a guard for a Lowtown merchant. He spent his days mostly sitting on a stool in one corner of the man's store and trying to look both competent and dangerous enough that the occasional unhappy customer would decide not to act on his – or her – unhappiness. The pay wasn't much, but at least it was something, and the work began to build at least a small reputation for Alistair as dependable, punctual, and polite. It also enabled him to contribute to the cost of their grocery shopping, which was very good, given what a ferocious appetite he had.
Fenris was finding Alistair a pleasing housemate; he was polite, usually quiet, a good conversationalist, and clean and neat in his person. He'd also taken over the lion's share of the housekeeping chores since becoming mobile again; the couple of rooms in the building that Fenris actually made any use of hadn't been so clean and tidy since Danarius' time. Alistair had even attempted to clean up some of the other areas of the mansion, learning quickly what Fenris already knew; only rooms in active use could actually be changed. Everything else resisted change, due, Fenris theorized, to some preservation spell of Danarius' gone awry in the years since the mage had last frequented the house. Even the mushrooms and corpses couldn't be removed.
Alistair was also reasonably handy, and in addition to doing things like resetting tiles and getting the chimney to draw properly again – which required a long stick, a lot of cursing and swearing, and a great deal of soot everywhere – he also spent a day doing complicated things with sheaves of willow withes and bundles of thatching straw, at the end of which the hole in the bedroom ceiling didn't let in as much light or wind, though drafts of cold air still managed to find their way in, and it leaked rain like a sieve. But the room was warmer, afterwards, so it wasn't a complete failure.
It was the first winter since fleeing Tevinter that Fenris had slept warm. Not because of the crude patch to the ceiling, though that helped, but because of Alistair. The man gave off heat like a furnace, and during colder nights the two of them invariably migrated closer together in the bed. He felt embarrassed and disturbed the first time he woke up next to the man, and very quickly got out of the bed. Alistair, waking as he moved away, seemed equally perturbed. They very carefully avoided looking at each other while they dressed for the day, and did not speak of it. And when they retired to bed that night, there was a little extra space between them. Still, the next cold night Fenris again woke up next to Alistair in the morning.
It should have bothered him more than it did, he couldn't help feeling. It was, he realized, how little it did bother him that he found most unsettling. He found himself giving it extra thought one bitterly cold morning when he woke up once again right next to Alistair, pressed up against the man's chest with Alistair's arm draped over him. He felt his ears and face flush with embarrassment at how intimate the position seemed.
Judging by Alistair's slow, even breathing he was still asleep, and Fenris doubted he could move away without waking the man, so he just lay there instead. Once his initial self-consciousness with their position faded, he found himself thinking how... well, nice it was. He'd had very little physical contact in his life – at least in that part of his life that he could remember – that hadn't involved fear or pain, either in battle or when forced to do things at Danarius' or Hadriana's whim. It had left him with an intense dislike of being touched. And yet, Alistair's touch was not threatening in any way. Nor was it painful. It was, if anything... comforting. Closeness without either harm or intimacy.
He could tell when the other man finally woke. Alistair's breathing stuttered for a moment, and he froze, then slowly relaxed. He must have assumed from Fenris' own relaxed state that the elf was still asleep, and was trying not to wake him.
"I'm awake," Fenris said quietly, but made no effort to move away from Alistair.
"Err. Sorry," Alistair said, hesitantly, snatching his arm away from where it was draped over Fenris' waist. "I didn't mean to... um..."
Fenris gave a short soft laugh, and stayed where he was. "Nor did I. I don't think apologies are owed, anyway," he said, then tilted his head back enough to see Alistair's face. "Or do you believe so?"
Alistair's face had a rather odd expression on it, he thought. Somewhere between wary and relieved. The man chewed on his bottom lip a moment, examining Fenris' expression, and then smiled suddenly. "No. I suppose apologies aren't needed. It's not like I... that either of us..." he stumbled to a stop, and blushed. "Well... you know. I know that some men do, but I don't have any, err... leanings that way, myself. At least none that I'm aware of."
Fenris smiled, amused. "I do know, yes," he said dryly, and let his head drop back down, so that all he could see was Alistair's nightshirt. "I have not had any good experience of it. With men or with women. I have... little interest in it. And that more with women than with men."
Something about the way Alistair said that single simple word made Fenris raise his head and study Alistair's face again. "Have you never...?" he asked, hesitantly.
Alistair blushed again. "No. Not that I haven't ever been interested, a time or two, but... well, they're always more interested in someone else. Not me."
Fenris nodded. They were silent again for some time, still side by side in the warm bed. The tension gradually went out of Alistair as well.
"Err. So why are we just lying here?" Alistair asked after a while. "Not that I'm exactly objecting or anything, it's kind of nice..."
Fenris laughed then, and finally rolled away from Alistair and sat up, pushing the sheets down. "I was actually thinking that just before you woke. That it was nice. A pleasant way to wake up... not alone, but with no..." he paused, and frowned slightly, then waved one hand in a rolling motion in mid-air. "No expectations."
"No fear," Alistair said, very quietly, as he too sat up.
Fenris shot him a look. "Yes. No fear," he agreed.
"Well... I don't mind if you don't," Alistair said, then grinned. "Rather reminds me of when I was a dog-boy, actually. We slept with the hounds; no real hardship, that, they were better housed and cared for than most of the servants. Not that you're anything like a hound," he hurried to say reassuringly. "Just... it was nice, sleeping like that, with some other living thing. I sometimes missed it, later."
After that they no longer bothered keeping a space between themselves when they went to bed. It was... odd, the first night or two, they were initially both self-conscious about it, and it took them rather longer to settle down and relax enough to sleep, but it was, as they'd agreed, nice to have the contact with someone else. Comforting.
Fenris had heard sword-play referred to as being like a dance before. He had only rarely seen moments of people moving with such grace in combat that he could begin to see what people meant by that. But sparring with Alistair, he found that he finally really understood it, in his gut. The patterns to their blows and footwork, as they moved back and forth across the floor; how the faintest lead by one of them provoked an answering move by the other. It was very much like a dance. Not that he had danced often, it not being a skill that Danarius had ever valued the use of, but he had danced, one rather drunken night at the Hanged Man, when Isabela had insisted on partnering him and then Aveline and Merrill had wanted to as well. And he had watched others dance, more than once, and was aware of the grace a pair of well-partnered people could have.
And in weapon's-work, he was well-partnered by Alistair. Not that moving gracefully in combat was as easily accomplished as it was in casual clothing; they had more than just the weight and danger of their weapons to account for. The pair of them wore their armour, of course, neither wanting to harm the other. Alistair had been concerned at first by the lightness of Fenris' armour; leather with only a very little amount of plate, as compared to Alistair's own considerably heavier gear.
"It is a special leather," Fenris had to explain. "Made from the hide of a creature of the Fade. It does not interfere with the function of my lyrium brands as metal would. For all its suppleness, it is considerably more durable than any natural leather. My fighting style depends more on agility and dexterity, rather than on raw strength and endurance as yours does."
"But your outfit does incorporate some metal; why doesn't that interfere?" Alistair asked.
"Because there is only a little of it, and the alloy it is made from includes a fair amount of lyrium; for all that this outfit uses far less metal than would a suit of plate, what little it includes cost Danarius several times what a full suit of even the best plate would have. Hence also why I continue to use this outfit, even though it reminds me of my master – there is no other that I can wear and still have the full use of my powers."
Alistair had still insisted that they take it slow at first, but as he grew accustomed to Fenris' fighting style, and confident in how difficult it was for him to land any touch on Fenris, much less one likely to actually harm him, their sparring had become considerably faster and more vicious. The only real difference between their sparring now and a real fight was that they were purposefully avoiding causing any real damage to each other, pulling their strokes or hitting with the flat instead of the edge when necessary. Even with such care they sill regularly ended their spars with one or both of them bearing bruises, shallow cuts, or strained muscles.
As they once again did today, Alistair having landed a particularly solid blow with his shield toward the end of the fight that had momentarily knocked the breath right out of Fenris. He'd managed to keep on fighting, but he had been sore enough from the blow to favour his left the remainder of their sparring match. Alistair had noticed that, too, and naturally took ruthless advantage of his soreness to land additional blows and bring their match to a rapid end.
"How are your ribs?" Alistair asked in concern as soon as the match ended, even as he sheathed his own sword and began to remove his shield.
"Sore. Likely bruised. I don't believe you managed to crack any of them," Fenris admitted, grimacing slightly.
"Better let me have a look," Alistair said worriedly. "I'd been expecting you to step back then, not forward, and hit more solidly than I'd meant to."
Fenris nodded, and after putting aside his own sword quickly unlatched his chest-guard and set it down, then unhooked and peeled off his coat. Alistair hissed between his teeth as he saw the dark bruise covering Fenris' side; his armour might be supernaturally resistant to cuts, but crushing blows were another matter.
"We'd better apply some cooling salve to that," Alistair said. "You're sure nothing is cracked or broken?"
Fenris smiled slightly. "I'm sure," he agreed.
Alistair nodded, then fetched the salve from the chest where they kept such supplies. Fenris sat down on the bench, and Alistair straddled it, facing him, then set to work smoothing on a coating of the minty-smelling salve. It was surprisingly relaxing, allowing the other man to do such a thing for him; anyone else he'd likely have snarled at and rebuffed, he was well aware, even if the bruise had been in an area that was difficult for he himself to tend. Which this was not, which made him even more conscious of the fact that he didn't mind Alistair tending it for him when he could have just as easily done it himself.
Alistair was, he realized, the first person he'd ever felt so relaxed around, that he trusted the motives of enough to allow him to lay hands on him at will. There were other people he was comfortable with, of course, but with all of them there was still the unspoken knowledge that they were all physically interested in him, to one degree or another, and his own distaste for such matters made him maintain some separation, some wall, between himself and them. Kept him subtly tense in their presence, especially when they were close at hand, or had to touch him for one reason or another. Even Sebastian had that noticeable edge of carnal appreciation for his person. The man had been a libertine before he'd become a religious, after all, though at least with Sebastian there was also the security of knowing that he had vows which he intended to keep.
Yet with Alistair there was not that constant awareness of unwanted attraction. He admired the other man, knew Alistair admired him as well, but it was a purely aesthetic appreciation, not a sexual one. Like seeing the power and speed of a running horse, the gracefulness of a sleek cat, or the beauty of a brilliant sunset – it was pleasing to view, but it didn't necessarily make you wish to possess it. Well, except possibly the horse. And the cat, if you were Anders. But that was not the same kind of possessive inclination, not at all the sort of possession which Danarius had been guilty of. The desire to not just own something or someone, but to make cruel use of them, merely because you could.
"You tensed," Alistair said, pausing and lifting his hand away from Fenris' side. "Did I hurt you? Or does this bother you?" he asked, looking up to meet Fenris' eyes.
Fenris shook his head. "The reverse, if anything, I was just thinking – and with some surprise, actually – how relaxing I found it to have you tending that for me. But the thought led me to less pleasant ones, and that made me tense."
Alistair nodded, once, and resumed spreading the salve. They'd shared enough stories of their pasts by now for him to be aware of at least the broad strokes of Fenris' troubled past, even if not all the fine details of it. As Fenris watched him, he smiled, and glanced up again. "I was thinking something similar, actually. About how nice this is; sharing this place with you. Having a friend who doesn't want more than simple friendship and doesn't get all handsy the moment you let down your guard. Who has no inclination to interpret this," – he gestured broadly with the hand still holding the container of salve, to make it clear what this he meant – "As anything more than a friendly gesture."
That drew a short laugh from Fenris. "The Antivan?" he asked, guessing what past friend of Alistair's was both handsy and given to such interpretations.
Alistair's smile widened briefly into a grin. "Yes. Nice enough fellow, once you got past the whole I-am-an-assassin kill-kill-kill thing, but randy as a cat in heat and not very particular in his tastes. Though he was always polite about it; took no for no. Not that saying no stopped him from checking back regularly to make sure you hadn't changed your mind yet," he added, grinning again. "Or finding the most bald-faced excuses to get all touchy-feely with anyone who'd allow it."
He paused again, staring off into space for a long moment. "Even now, I'd trust him with my life in a heartbeat. Though I'd still be keeping an eye on where he's putting his hands, and not for any fear of him adding lethal seasoning to the stew."
That drew a soft laugh from Fenris. "He sounds like quite the character."
Alistair nodded. "He was that. Is that, I hope – I sometimes wonder what's happened to him, in the years since," he said contemplatively, then shrugged. "I'll probably never know."
Fenris nodded. They fell silent for a while again, as Alistair finished applying the salve. It wasn't until he was corking the jar that he spoke again, thoughtfully. "If Zevran had been a she instead of a he... I might have said yes. At least once. Maybe. Just to really know what it was like."
He rose to his feet, and looked questioningly at Fenris for a moment. "Is there any one of your friends that you've ever thought of, err... maybe?"
Fenris smiled slightly, and rose to his feet as well. "Yes, actually. Isabela. She's rather like what your friend Zevran sounds like; very fond of bed-sports, and quite generous about sharing her favours. I think... if I ever decided to... well, I think I would trust her to do her best to make sure it was very pleasant for both of us, not just for herself, because she seems to like it best that way, at least by everything I've ever heard her say, or heard others say about her."
Alistair nodded slowly. "About the same as what I think about Zevran; that he'd enjoy making sure it was a good experience for me." He suddenly smiled broadly, and tilted his head to one side, looking speculatively at Fenris. "It just struck me... in many ways, you and he are very much alike. Not when it comes to, um... sexual proclivities.. or personality, either, come to think of it, but.." he trailed off, frowning slightly.
Fenris gave him a questioning look. "What do you mean about us being alike, then?"
"Well, you're both deadly dangerous fighters, elves, from the north, tattooed, and fleeing your previous masters," Alistair explained, ticking points off on his fingers, then shrugged. "A surface resemblance, anyway. Oh, and he's dusky-skinned and light-haired too – another superficial likeness. I hadn't really thought about it before. Odd."
Fenris smiled slightly. "Yes. Odd. What should we have for dinner?"
"I don't know. Something with cheese?" Alistair said hopefully.
Fenris laughed again. "Of course. I tend to take the inclusion of cheese in the meal as rather a given, with you."
Alistair grinned, and they went to investigate the tin-lined box that served as their pantry, to see what they had on hand.
"Well, look at you two, all curled up as snug as two bugs in a rug," Varric exclaimed softly, sounding amused. "I wouldn't have believed it if I wasn't seeing it for myself."
Fenris opened his eyes and raised his head to peer blearily at the dwarf standing beside the bed, then flushed when he realized what it must look like to Varric, the two warriors sleeping curled together in the single bed. Decently dressed in night-shirts and leggings, yes, but Alistair's arm was draped across his waist, the two of them spooned up together like... like... his flush deepened further, and he slid quickly out of bed.
Alistair stirred, his eyes cracking open. "Wuzzut?" he mumbled.
"It's nothing... go back to sleep, Alistair," Fenris said quietly. Alistair nodded, and his head dropped back to the pillow, eyes shutting again as he dropped easily back to sleep.
Varric grinned widely, looking back and forth between the pair. "I'll be downstairs," he mouthed, jerking one broad thumb over his shoulder toward the door, then turned away, striding off out of the room. Fenris muttered a particularly vile curse, then hurried off to wash and change.
He hurried downstairs a short while later, and found Varric there waiting, leaning against the wall near the door, pince-nez glasses perched on the end of his nose while he scrawled with a stub of pencil on a sheet of parchment held against the wall. He looked around at Fenris' approach, the pencil and glasses and parchment all quickly disappearing back into his pockets.
"Well, you and your house-guest sure looked comfy," Varric said, grinning widely up at him.
Fenris scowled back at him. "It is not what it looks like. We just sleep warmer in one bed than in two. Do not make this into one of your stories, or gossip to the others about this, or I..."
"Hey, hey, calm down, broody," Varric said, lifting both hands up placatingly, palms towards Fenris. "I promise I won't say a thing. I know better then to get on the bad side of a man who can rip my heart out if he gets peeved enough to want to do so. Though you're lucky Hawke sent me to fetch you and not Isabela – you'd never hear the end of it from her."
Fenris stilled, then nodded stiffly. "Thank you," he said.
"No problem. Anyway, we better get a move on, Hawke has some wild adventure on the wounded coast she wants to drag us all along on, same as usual."
Fenris nodded, and followed the dwarf out the door and off to Hawke's mansion.
Perhaps it was his recent conversation with Alistair that had put the thought in his mind. When Isabela started flirting with him later that day, Fenris found himself... well, not flirting back, that wasn't anything he'd ever learned how to do, but... not rebuffing her either. She didn't notice the first time, but when he still said nothing the second time, her eyebrows rose slightly. It was some time later before she made a third flirtatious remark, and when he again failed to rebuff her, she looked guardedly pleased.
In mid-afternoon they stopped in a cul-de-sac among the rocks and sand to take time to eat and rest for a while. Fenris had moved some way apart from the others, where he could sit on a rock and look downhill over the rock- and wreck-filled bay far below while he ate his biscuit and jerky. After a while Isabela wandered over, stopping a few paces away, where she leaned against the side of a large boulder. "So. Is it my imagination, or are you in a friendlier mood than usual today?" she asked lightly.
He glanced at her, then looked away again. "Perhaps," he said, and took a bite of jerky, chewing it vigorously.
Isabela raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps it's my imagination, or perhaps you're in a friendlier mood than usual?" she asked.
Fenris swallowed, then drew a deep breath before looking at her, meeting her eyes briefly. "Friendlier," he said, then had to look away again. "I find myself... curious, lately," he confessed. "About..." he broke off, and then looked toward her again, steeling himself to ask. "You've invited me into your bed in the past. Did you mean it? Is the invitation still open?"
She looked very surprised for a moment. "Yes, I meant it, and yes, it's still open. Does this mean you're thinking of taking me up on it?"
"Yes," he said, and looked away again, down at his hands. They were shaking, he was startled to realize, and sweaty. He carefully balanced what was left of his food on the rock near his knee, then wiped his palms dry on the leather of his leggings. "When?" he asked. "When would you be able to...?"
"I'm free tonight," she said quietly. "Or is that too soon?"
"No, that's not too soon," he said, and gave her a very brief little smile. "Less chance of me loosing my nerve."
She smiled warmly at him. "After the divvy-up at the Hanged Man, then, assuming we don't get stuck out here overnight again."
He nodded. "Yes," he agreed.
"Fenris! Isabela! Time to move on!" Hawke called, rising to her feet from where she'd been sitting in the sandy clearing, talking earnestly with Varric while she and the dwarf ate their share of the food.
"Coming!" Isabela called back, and shot a final smile at Fenris. "Tonight then," she said softly.
"Yes," he said again, picking up what was left of his food before rising to his feet. "Tonight." He crammed the last couple of bites into his mouth and climbed down off the rock, resettling his sword across his back as he followed Isabela over to rejoin Hawke and Varric.
It was only the third time he'd ever been in Isabela's room at the Hanged Man, and the first time he'd been there alone with her. He stood uneasily by the door, while Isabela lit a couple candles, standing one on the mantle of the tiny fireplace, the second on a small table near the bed in front of a polished brass plate, filling the room with a warm golden light. She turned and smiled at him.
"You should at least take off your sword," she said, then sat down on the edge of the bed, and began unbuckling her boots. "Make yourself comfortable."
He nodded, and removed his sword, standing it up in one corner of the room, then hesitantly removed his gauntlets as well, dropping them onto the large table that stood along the wall across from the bed, flanked by a pair of cushion-topped chests that doubled as chairs.
"Have a seat," Isabela offered, gesturing to the chests. He sat down on one of them, silently watching as she loosened her boots. She sighed in evident relief as she pulled them off at last, tossing the pair into the corner beyond the foot of the bed, then stretched out her legs and wiggled her toes, before curling them tightly for a moment. She rose, and padded bare-foot over to the table, opening the other chest and taking out a bottle of wine and a mismatched pair of goblets, placing them on the table before closing the chest and taking a seat herself. She opened the bottle herself, and poured for both of them, pushing one goblet across to him afterwards. "Drink. You're too nervous right now," she said.
He nodded, and tossed back half the goblet in a couple of large swallows, then forced himself to put the glass down. "I have had no good experience of bedding anyone," he said quietly. "Neither men nor women."
"I gathered that, from what little you've said in the past," she said calmly, and leaned her chin on one hand, looking at him questioningly. "It makes me wonder why you've suddenly decided to try it after all."
Fenris flushed, and looked away. "It's complicated," he said.
She laughed softly. "It always is, sweetness. Tell me."
He looked at her, meeting her eyes for a moment. She looked... curious, but not in any unsettling way. If anything, the attentive way she was waiting was curiously comforting; she was listening, wanting to hear him speak. He drew a long shaky breath, and sipped at his wine before beginning. "You know I have a... house-guest, yes?"
"Alistair, yes. I've heard."
"He and I were talking recently," he said. "He's inexperienced; even more so than I. We were discussing that one day recently, and he'd mentioned how there'd been a friend of his that he might had considered, ah... losing his virginity with, someone he trusted would make it a pleasant experience, except the friend was male and he has no interests that way. Anyway, he asked me if I had any friend I could imagine trusting enough to feel safe doing something like that with. And my answer was you," he said, and took another larger sip of his wine. His hands had started shaking again, he noticed.
"I'm flattered," she said quietly, when it began obvious he'd finished speaking. "And honoured. How are you feeling right now?" she asked abruptly.
"Frightened," he answered, and shot her a brief smile. "My previous experience of... of this... was very bad."
She nodded. "Then we'll have to be sure that this time it's very good," she said, then pushed the wine bottle closer to him. "Drink more if you need to. We'll talk more. There's no rush, is there? Tonight, or some other night... when you're ready," she said.
He nodded, and relaxed just slightly. "Yes," he agreed, and drank more wine.
They talked for a long time. Mostly about random subjects, but occasionally touching on his past, and on hers, enough that he knew she'd had to overcome her own bad experiences in the past. At some point Isabela opened a second bottle of wine, and they moved to the bed, a more comfortable seat than the hard-edged chests, stretching out side-by-side but not touching, passing the bottle back and forth. Fenris drank a lot more of it than Isabela did, but that was all right; he knew he had an abnormally high tolerance for alcohol. He'd never been sure if that was because of how much he drank, or yet another effect of the lyrium in his flesh.
After a while she Isabela up and took off all her jewellery, setting the heavy pieces aside on the table beside the bed. She took off her bandana too, letting her dark hair cascade down around her shoulders. "Much better," she said, and when she settled back down again, she moved closer to him, pressing up against his side, as comfortably as she could she he was still dressed in his armour. He was uneasily aware of the warmth of her at first, but then decided it was no more threatening than when he and Alistair lay down to sleep, and slowly relaxed again. After a while she took the near-empty bottle from him, and set it aside too, then picked up his hand, holding it lightly in both of hers, looking at it. "I never really noticed before, but the lines go all over your hands too, don't they... right to the fingertips," she said.
Fenris nodded shortly. "They have to, so that I can reach inside of or through things."
"Does it bother you, when I touch them?" she asked, running one fingertip lightly along one of the line, tracing it from his wrist, down across the back of his hand, out to the tip of his finger, where it branched around his nail, and then rejoined and ran back along the underside, to his palm, becoming one of several lines swirling together in a sigil there. "Does it hurt?"
Fenris shivered slightly. "No. It doesn't hurt. Tickles slightly, but that's normal I suppose."
She continued examining his hand for a couple of minutes, then to his shock lifted it toward her mouth, and licked delicately at one of the lines. He jerked in surprise, and she smiled mischievously, then closed her mouth around the tip of his finger and sucked lightly on it. That made him gasp, and jerk again, in surprise at the shock of pleasure it sent through him, like a jolt right up his arm and down to his groin.
She released his fingertip with a faint wet popping sound, and smiled wickedly. "Like that, do you?" she asked softly.
"Yes," he said, fascinated by the sensation. "Do that again."
So she did. She played with his fingers for a while, licking and sucking on them, then took one of his hands, and placed it on her breast. "Touch me," she whispered. "Anywhere you like."
There was a long time of slow exploration after that. At some point her brief garments disappeared; his coat was undone, her hands exploring his sides and chest. It seemed to him that her hands were telling him things, showing him through touches to his own flesh what touches would please her as well. Hands run lightly along smooth sides, or caressingly across flat stomach, pressing firmly against his back, sliding downwards to cup his still-clothed buttocks. Fingers gently pinching or fondling, pressing and stroking surprisingly sensitive places; nipples, the faint line between hip and stomach, the join between his legs. The pressure that so quickly built there, the ache of his erection trapped within his armour, the surprising pleasure of that uncomfortable tightness. Even more so when Isabela finally unlaced his leggings and drew him out, nimble fingers stroking and touching, thumb stroking across the moist tip. His first swift, sudden orgasm a few minutes later was completely unexpected, Fenris crying out as much in shock as pleasure as his body arched urgently under her expert touch, the pleasure cresting so strongly he seemed to float on the edge of blacking out from it.
She was smiling as she cleaned him up afterwards, then helped him out of his armour. There was more touching after that, her showing him the things to do to bring a like pleasure to her. He'd begun to recover by then, flesh rising a second time, and she brought him off again, using her mouth this time. That one lasted surprisingly long; perhaps he really did pass out that time, he wasn't sure, just that it seemed an endless moment of pleasure before he finally came back to himself, limp and tired in her bed.
"Sleep," she suggested, and the two of them curled up together. But as tired as he was, he found he couldn't relax enough to sleep; he tried, closing his eyes, breathing slowly and evenly, but every time he slipped toward sleep he started awake again. Finally he gave up, trying to slip out of the bed without disturbing Isabela. He should have guessed he'd fail; she was a rogue, after all, and senstitive to out-of-place sound and movements.
"Leaving?" she asked muzzily as he rose to his feet, eyes slitting open.
"Yes. I can't sleep," he said quietly.
She nodded, and smiled sleepily at him. "Strange bed, maybe. All right."
He pulled on his clothes again, blushingly aware of her watching him do so, and picked up his sword, then paused. "May I see you again?" he asked hesitantly.
She opened her eyes all the way and really smiled at him then. "Yes. Any time."
"Tomorrow night?" he asked hopefully.
"Drat. I'm already spoken for then. The next night?" she suggested.
"All right. The next night," he agreed, then on impulse leaned down and kissed her. "Thank you," he said, as he fastened on his sword.
"Any time," she said, smiling again, then snuggled down into her sheets. "Good night, Fenris."
"Good night, Isabela," he said softly, and slipped out of her room, closing the door securely behind him.
The walk home was long and unpleasant, a wet snow having started falling some time since their return from the coast. He was chilled by the time he reached home, shivering as he changed out of his damp armour and into his night-clothes, then crawled into bed with Alistair.
"Maker! You're half-frozen," Alistair exclaimed, startled awake by the touch of chilled flesh.
"It's snowing again," Fenris said, curling up as tightly as he could in the warm spot beside Alistair.
Alistair snorted and wrapped the bedding more snugly around the pair of them, sharing his trapped body heat with the elf. "Didn't expect you back so late," he said, yawning and curling up against him, arm slipping into its usual place over Fenris' side. "Figured you must be camping out overnight."
"No," Fenris said, voice barely above a whisper. "We came back earlier this evening," he said, and fell silent for a moment. "I went over to Isabela's, afterwards."
"Oh?" Alistair said, then lifted his head. "Do you mean you...?"
A long pause. "How was it?" Alistair finally asked, shyly.
"Good. It was good," Fenris said. "Very good." A brief pause. "I'll be seeing her again. The night after next."
"That's good," Alistair said, and finally let his head drop back down to the pillow. His arm tightened around Fenris momentarily, a one-armed hug. "I'm glad for you," he said softly after a while.
Fenris laughed quietly. "Me too," he said, then sighed, eyes drifting shut. "Maker, I'm tired."
"Why didn't you stay the night then?" Alistair asked, breath warm against the back of his neck.
Fenris smiled, amused. "Couldn't sleep in a strange bed."
Alistair laughed softly. They fell silent than, and were soon asleep.
He dreamed. Red hair and green eyes, and a laughing smile. Playing in the dust outside the door to the one-room hovel that was home, where everyone he loved was – his mother, his sister. Food, coarse and in small quantity but warm and filling, and made better by his mother's smile as she cooked it for them. There was no table; they sat in a circle on the floor, around a common pot, and ate from that with fingers or bits of flatbread as their only cutlery. He wanted a better life, he remembered that much; not for him, but for them, the two he loved. Freedom, which would mean a better place to live, and more food to eat, good food, not just whatever their mother could cobble together out of scraps and leavings and the double handful of grain or beans or dried peas that was her daily portion.
Mother was usually gone at night, cleaning the more public areas of the master's house in the quiet hours when they were unoccupied. His sister and he shared a bed then, a narrow pallet against the wall in their hut, little more than a folded blanket stuffed with old rags and bits of dry grass, curled up together under a much-patched worn-thin blanket with his sister's arm hooked comfortingly over his waist. They would sometimes talk then, on the edge of sleep, talk of their present, their future, their dreams and fears. He could see her face so clearly, in that dream. Hear her voice, smell the warm scent of her skin.
And then he woke.
For a moment he felt confused, dream and reality blending, going as he did from a dream of sleeping in his sister's arms, to waking in Alistair's. He jerked and gasped, waking the other man.
"Mmm?" Alistair groaned questioningly.
"Nothing. A dream. Go back to sleep," he whispered.
Alistair snorted, and smacked his lips, rolling partway over on his back to peer through slitted eyes at the nearest window. "Almost morning anyway," he said, then yawned hugely. He rolled back, frowning at Fenris. "Must have been some dream. You're shivering. Nightmare?"
"No," Fenris said, then sighed. "I dreamed of my family. My mother, my sister... it's the first time I've ever remembered anything about them."
Alistair nodded understandingly; he already knew that Fenris remembered nothing from before when the lyrium marks were being etched into his flesh, a process so painful it had driven his prior self away. "What did you remember?" he asked sleepily.
"Our house. My mother and sister; they both had red hair, green eyes. Eating, sitting around a pot on the floor. And sleeping; my sister and I used to sleep just like this," he said, shrugging one shoulder slightly so his side moved under Alistair's arm, to indicate what he meant. "Wanting better for them than what we had. It fades so quickly... I can remember their hair and eyes, my mother's smile, but not their whole faces, not their voices, not anything they ever said."
He was shaking now, and badly. Alistair drew him closer, hugging him tightly. For a moment he felt on the verge of tears, and then he had an especially strong full-body shudder and that too passed away, leaving him limp and tired and empty-feeling. Only fragments of the dream remained. Impressions, more than distinct images. A stray thought occurred to him.
"Before I killed her, Hadriana told me that I had a sister. Varania. That she was still alive, servant to Magister Ahriman." He paused a moment, thinking. "It didn't bother me before. I couldn't remember anything about her. Now... I don't know. I want to know more."
Alistair nodded. "Have you ever thought about trying to contact her?" he asked. "To write her maybe?"
Fenris bit on his lip, then sighed. "I do not know how to write," he confessed. "It was not a skill my master felt I needed to know."
"Oh," Alistair said, and fell silent for a little while. "You could tell me what you want to say, and I could write it for you," he offered. "And if you want to learn to read and write, I can teach you."
"You'd do that?" Fenris asked, feeling a little surprised.
"Of course," Alistair said. "Why not?"
Fenris considered that for a minute. "Why not, indeed. Thank you. Yes," he said. "I would like to write to Varania. And I would like to learn to read and write as well."
"Good," Alistair said, then yawned again. "Later though. Right now I'm thinking breakfast would be good. I think there's still cheese and bacon left, and some bread that isn't too stale."
Fenris laughed softly as the other man rolled over and got out of bed. "We'd better buy more groceries soon. You're a bottomless pit for food."
"Yeah, well, Grey Warden. Comes with the territory. Along with nightmares and a greatly-reduced lifespan."
"I haven't seen you have many nightmares," Fenris pointed out as he too got out of bed.
Alistair shrugged. "No Archdemon around, and very few darkspawn either. Put me near either and I'll be waking in a panic on a regular basis. Oh, and I was wrong, we're out of bacon. Just cheese and bread left, at least that we can breakfast off of. And tea."
Fenris nodded. "I'll pick up more groceries later today then."
"Right. Remind me to give you some more coin before I head off to work," Alistair said.
As soon as he saw the elf, he knew who he had to be. Alistair had described him well; golden-brown skin, golden eyes, golden hair, and the three curving lines tattooed down the left side of his face, bracketing his eye. The elf glanced only briefly at the group of them, then focused on Hawke and smiled charmingly at her.
"How do you do. My name is Zevran Arainai, adventurer and occasional assassin," he said, and bowed, then gave her a questioning look. "I must admit, I was waiting for an assault by the Crows, not the mighty Champion of Kirkwall!"
Isabela, who'd been lagging behind the group, caught up just then, and pushed her way to the front. "Zevran! I thought I smelled Antivan leather!"
The elf's face lit up with a brilliant smile. "Isabela! I was not expecting to see you," he said warmly.
Fenris was startled to learn that the two knew each other; and quite well too, judging by the pleased banter they exchanged before Isabela introduced Zevran to Hawke and the rest of them. With the pirate vouching for him, it was little surprise that Hawke decided to switch sides, helping the elf against the Crows instead of the other way around. Which, also unsurprisingly, involved a trip back out to the Wounded Coast, and a great deal of bloodshed.
The assassin was a talented fighter, Fenris could see – fast, accurate, and very, very deadly. Impressive, making even the other Crows seem lack-luster fighters in comparison. But this was a man who had survived almost the entire Blight in the Hero of Ferelden's company, without ever falling to the darkspawn or contracting the blight himself; it was to be expected that he was a superlative fighter.
It was late afternoon by the time they'd finished dealing with Nuncio and his men. Zevran thanked Hawke graciously, and gave her a small reward for her help. He was just excusing himself when Isabela stopped him.
"Zevran – a moment," she called, as he started to withdraw.
He hesitated, looking as if he would rather keep going, then nodded and took a few steps back toward them. "Yes, my fiery pirate queen?" he asked, winning an amused smile from her.
"Before you vanish, I thought it might be worth mentioning that your friend Alistair is in Kirkwall."
The assassin went very still for a moment. "He is?" he asked, sounding uncertain for the first time that day.
"Yes, he is," Isabela said, then gestured at Fenris, motioning him over. "Lives with this impressive-looking fellow. Zevran, meet my friend Fenris." She put just the tiniest emphasis on friend. Fenris felt himself blushing slightly, and bowed very formally to Zevran.
"Alistair has spoken of you often," Fenris said. "If you are able to... I am sure he would like it very much if you could visit him."
Zevran frowned worriedly, chewing on his lower lip for a moment. "It might not be wise... I have many enemies, as you have seen," he said, gesturing at the body-strewn campsite around them. "But perhaps... all right, tell me where you live. I will make my own way there, if you don't mind."
"Of course," Fenris said, and described the mansion and its location to the other elf.
There were the usual delays in returning home; a meeting at the Hanged Man for the divvying of the money after Hawke and Isabela had sold off the spoils from that day's adventuring, a thankfully brief drink together before everyone split up and went their separate ways. Sebastian walked with him as far as the Hightown market, then went on his own to the chantry while Fenris picked up a few more groceries before the stalls closed for the night.
He had just let himself into the house when a cloaked figure that he hadn't even seen anywhere near slipped in through the door behind him, almost startling him into dropping his parcel. "Fenris," the assassin said quietly, as the warrior reflexively reached for his weapon. "My apologies for startling you. Nothing damaged, I hope?"
Fenris gave him a hard look. "No, nothing harmed," he said.
The assassin was looking around interestedly. "Intriguing decor, if rather morbid. If I'd realized you had such easy access through the roof, I'd have waited inside."
Fenris snorted softly. "Alistair and I live upstairs," he said shortly, then led the way over to the stairs and up, the other elf following silently in his wake.
Alistair was sitting on a bench near the fireplace, chopping up onions. He glanced up with a smile as Fenris entered, then froze as he saw the second figure behind his friend. "Who..."
Zevran pushed back his hood, and smiled warmly at the man. "Alistair."
"Zev!" Alistair's face lit up with a delighted grin, and he was on his feet and rushing across the room almost instantly, the sudden move sending bench, knife, cutting board, and onions flying. Zevran gave a delighted laugh as the much larger man grabbed him in a ferocious bear-hug.
"You are glad to see me then, I take it?" he asked, then laughed again as Alistair's only answer was to hug him more tightly.
"Zev. Zevran. It's really you! Andraste's arse, I didn't think I'd ever see you again!" Alistair exclaimed, and laughed again even as his eyes suddenly overflowed with tears. "Oh, Maker, Zev... Laurel."
And then he was crying in earnest. Zevran darted Fenris a worried look even as he slid his own arms free and wrapped them around the other man, hugging him in turn. Fenris frowned, worried as well, then decided it was best to leave Alistair's comfort to the other elf for now. Zevran knew the man better than he did, and had also known Laurel Amell.
So while Zevran guided the grief-stricken man over to the benches, and sat down with him, talking to him in soft tones and rubbing his back while he cried, Fenris quietly cleaned up the mess Alistair had made when scrambling to his feet, then set to work on finishing preparation of the stew Alistair had started. The meat was well-cooked; it remained only to finish adding vegetables to the gravy, and let them cook for a while as well. By the time he'd taken care of that, Alistair had regained his composure.
"Sorry," Alistair croaked, sitting up straighter and wiping at his tear-stained face. "Seeing you again, it just suddenly hit me all over again. Laurel's dead, and I wasn't there..."
Zevran smiled compassionately at him. "It's all right, my friend. I am not surprised it upset you so. But Laurel would not have wanted you to cry. Or at least, not so much. Or so messily," he added, making a face and drawing a brief startled laugh from the warrior.
"I suppose I do look a mess right now," Alistair agreed, and rose to his feet, withdrawing across the room for a moment to the washstand. "What are you doing here, anyway? How did you even find me?" he asked, as he wet a cloth and began to wipe his face clean.
"Sheer random luck, as it happens – I did not even know you were here to be found," Zevran confessed. "But I met this gentleman earlier today, in company with the Champion, and after mutual hostilities had turned to mutual pleasantries, and then a little excitement with some Crows, my old friend Isabela informed me that you were living with him. Quite cozily too, I see," he added, looking around the room, which it was obvious both men inhabited.
"Isabela?" Alistair said, surprised. "You know her too?"
Zevran grinned. "Indeed. And quite well. Did you not know...? Ah, but that is right, you weren't with us the evening Laurel visited the Pearl in Denerim and encountered her. She is an old and very dear friend of mine. I rid her of a problem years ago, though she was quite annoyed with me at the time."
"A problem?" Alistair asked, puzzled.
"Her husband, wasn't it?" Fenris asked, having more than once heard the story from Isabela's side of things.
"Indeed. There was little love lost between the two of them. I believe she prefers to refer to him as 'that fat greasy bastard', a description I can personally vouch for the accuracy of. Anyway, she eventually forgave me for my role in his sudden demise, as it led to a considerably more pleasant life for herself, and we have been friends ever since."
"Small world," Alistair said, frowning slightly.
"Indeed. And quite pleasantly so, when it means that I have encountered you again. How are you, my friend?" Zevran asked, as Alistair walked back over and resumed his seat on the bench.
Alistair smiled. "Better than I was. I... rather went to pieces for a while, after leaving. Especially after word reached me of how it all ended," Alistair said soberly. "Dove into a bottle for a few years. I was a real mess."
"But you are better now, yes?" Zevran observed, then looked at Fenris. "And am I right in guessing that Fenris has something to do with that?"
"Yes," Alistair agreed, and smiled warmly at Fenris, which made him flush with self-consciousness. "I ended up half-dead in the street one night a few months ago, and he tripped over me, pretty much literally, and then dragged me home, fixed me up, and dried me out. We've been friends ever since."
That brought a pleased smile to Fenris' face. Being called friend so easily and simply by the man.
Zevran gave him an interested look. "If you are Alistair's friend, than I must count you as my friend as well," Zevran told him. "Unless, of course, you would prefer not?"
"No, it's all right," Fenris said agreeably.
"So why are you here?" Alistair asked Zevran. "You mentioned Crows – are they still after you?" he asked worriedly.
"Sadly, yes – though most of them have become rather less ardent in their pursuit of me, after so many years of my teaching them what a futile – and ultimately lethal – occupation it is for them. There are still a few masters who seek my ending, though thankfully one less after today. I believe I owe the late Master Nuncio a debt of thanks, however, since without his interference I would have left Kirkwall days ago, without even knowing that you were here."
Alistair smiled slightly at that. "It's so good to see you again, Zevran," he said. "Can you stay for a while? At least tonight? There's so much I want to ask you... so much I need to know."
Zevran nodded. "At least one night, yes. It should be reasonably safe; as far as I know, Nuncio and his group were the only Crows in Kirkwall, and they are all dead. As long as I don't stay too long, or attract any notice while I am here, it should be fine."
They ate dinner together, the three of them sitting near the fire, plates balanced in their laps as they ate and talked. Zevran did most of the talking, sitting cross-legged on the floor and gesturing widely with fork and plate as he told Alistair of his adventures since leaving Ferelden some years before. Most of which revolved around travelling, avoiding Crows, and killing Crows when they couldn't be avoided.
Only after did the meal did their talk turn to more serious subjects; their time together in Ferelden. Shared memories of Laurel Amell, the Hero of Ferelden, whom both of them clearly had cared for very much. Anecdotes about the other Blight Companions; Zevran told Alistair what he he knew about what had happened to the others since. The Sten had taken ship back to the north, the bard had returned to Orlais, the witch had vanished back into the wilds, the mage gone back to her tower, and then gone travelling again, to Cumberland, and then further afield.
"Oghren became a Grey Warden?" Alistair exclaimed, looking startled.
"Yes," Zevran said, and smiled widely. "And a good one, by all accounts that I have heard. He is married again now, and his friends see to it that he does not overdo the drinking. We met her once – the fiery young dwarf at the Spoiled Princess, surely you remember her?"
"Felsi? She actually married him!"
Zevran grinned. "Yes. Surprising, perhaps, but she's a strong-willed woman and is willing to make allowances for him. To a point, anyway. It is fatherhood that has mostly changed him, I believe."
Eventually the talk drifted back around to Laurel, and his end.
"I wish I'd been there," Alistair said soberly, staring down into his cup of wine, hands closed so tightly around it his knuckles were white. "Maybe I could have made a difference, saved him..."
"Alistair," Zevran said softly, drawing the man's attention back to him. "I think, at the end, he no longer wanted to be saved. There was a point at which he had a choice that could have saved him – and he turned it down."
"What?" Alistair said, and stared at the assassin. "What do you mean?"
Zevran frowned, pursing his lips for a moment, then glanced at Fenris. "It is all tied up in secrets. Grey Warden secrets..."
Alistair stared at Zevran, then looked at Fenris as well.
"I will leave," Fenris said, starting to rise to his feet.
"No," Alistair said, reaching out and touching his fingers to Fenris' forearm. "Stay, please," he said, then looked back to Zevran. "I've already told him most of the so-called secrets anyway. And I trust him."
"So, well," Zevran said, and nodded. "You remember the warden we rescued from Howe's dungeons? The Orlesian one?"
"I did not entirely trust him. When we returned to Redcliffe, after you had left us, he told Laurel there was something he needed to talk privately to Laurel and Loghain about. So I made sure that I was party to what was said."
Alistair smiled thinly. "Lurking in the shadows?"
"Hanging from the windowsill, actually. But anyway, he explained to Laurel and Loghain things that Duncan had never told you. That only a Grey Warden can kill the Archdemon, because as long as there are any tainted creatures alive anywhere near it, when one body dies it will merely go to the next nearest, and can do so again and again and again. Unless the tainted creature is a souled creature – a man, or an elf, or a dwarf – or presumably a qunari as well, if one of them was a Grey Warden – and then they both die. The body is unable to contain both soul and demon at once, and the living soul takes the archdemon with it back into the Fade, or whatever other place it is that souls go when people die."
"Maker's arse..." Alistair said. "So it was a death sentence for the Wardens?"
"Or at least for one of them, yes, whichever one of them was closest and struck the killing blow. Riordan explained that it was the tradition that whichever warden was closest to their calling anyway should try to be the one to do so, which would have been him. But he died beforehand, in bringing the archdemon down to where it might be killed. And in the end, when it came down to a choice between Loghain or Laurel taking the killing blow..."
"Loghain wouldn't," Alistair said, bitterly.
"No, my friend, you wrong him. Loghain was willing to take the blow – more than willing. He wanted to do it, to atone as much as he could for his actions since Ostagar. It was Laurel who insisted on taking the blow himself. He told Loghain that the only way he could atone was by living, and making things right again, as much as he could. That he doubted that he, a mage, would ever have the power to do what needed to be done, while Loghain, as the Hero of River Dane, once Maric's right hand, the ex-Teryn of Gwaren, the Queen's father, would wield more power in Ferelden even as a Grey Warden than any warden anywhere short of the First Warden himself. He commanded Loghain to live, and atone for his sins by mending what could be mended."
Zevran looked away for a long moment, silent and lost in memory, before finally resuming speaking. "I think Laurel was very tired of living by then. He'd been forced out of the only home he'd ever known, seen almost everyone he ever knew die most horribly – you remember the state the tower was in when we rescued the few that yet lived – and seen his closest childhood friend turn to blood magic, and be destroyed for it. There were very few people left that he cared for by the end. He told me, when I confronted him that last night before Denerim..." Zevran paused again, blinking furiously for a moment. When he continued speaking, his voices was ragged. "He told me he was glad that you were away from it all, and safe. And that he was very tired, and ready to rest. He chose to take that final blow, Alistair – it was the last gift he felt able to give to the people he loved. You, the bard, and me, and the few others that were important to him."
Alistair rose and walked away, and stood with his back to them for several minutes, shoulders shaking. The two elves remained seated where they were, it being obvious to Fenris that he didn't want comforting at that moment, and Zevran busy regaining his own composure. Finally Alistair moved over to the washstand, wiped his face, and walked back over. He stopped, some feet from the benches, looking at Zevran. "I loved him so much."
"I, too... as much as he would let me," Zevran said quietly. "And he loved us, as well, as much as he could love anyone after all that had happened to him. He cared for you very much, Alistair, and I know he would want you to live well; he wanted that, for you, for me, for the the others. That we might live and be happy."
Alistair nodded. And then his face crumpled, and he started crying again, loudly this time, hand rising to cover his face as he sobbed. This time Zevran rose, and walked over to him, putting his arms around the larger man's shoulders and drawing his head down to rest on his own shoulder. An awkward position, given the difference in their heights – Zevran was short even for an elf – and yet the tenderness and caring in their posture brought a lump to Fenris' throat. He rose to his own feet, uncertain of what to do.
Zevran looked over at him. "I think we should put Alistair to bed now," he said quietly. "This has been very hard on him."
Fenris nodded. He walked over to the bed, and turned it down, and got out their nightclothes, while Zevran comforted Alistair as best he could and eventually coaxed him over to the bed. They got him undressed and changed, and changed themselves, Fenris into his own nightclothes, Zevran merely stripping down to just his smallclothes, and got all three into bed together, Alistair between the two elves, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling.
He kept crying for some time, silently now, the tears sometimes stopping for a while, then starting again, nose running and eyes reddened. Zevran finally sat up, looking at the warrior in some concern. "Alistair. I want to put you to sleep. Is it all right? Will you trust me to do so?"
Fenris was puzzled, unsure what the other elf meant, but the words clearly had meaning to Alistair; he nodded. Zevran leaned over and picked up his belt from where it rested on the small table near the bed. He opened one pouch, then moved, quicker than Fenris could follow, startlingly fast – there was a brief glint of something in his hand, as it touched the side of Alistair's neck, then he was closing the pouch again, returning the belt to the table. There was a tiny spot of blood on Alistair's neck.
"What..." Fenris exclaimed, having sat up at the sudden movement.
"It is all right," Zevran said quietly. "He will sleep now, deeply and without nightmares. And when he wakes, he should be beyond the grief."
Alistair's eyes were already sliding shut. Zevran rose, walking to the washstand to fetch the cloth, and returned, gently wiping Alistair's tear-streaked face clean again, wiping away the spot of blood. Fenris watched, suspiciously, but it seemed to be as Zevran had said; Alistair was merely sleeping, very deeply.
"Drugs?" he asked warily, as he finally lay down again. Alistair had trusted Zevran; he would, too.
"A poison, actually, at least if too much is used. But in very small quantities it merely makes people sleep for a while. Useful, if one wishes to pass by guards without killing them," Zevran explained, then put the cloth aside and lay down as well, on his stomach, braced up on folded arms so he could watch the sleeping warrior's face. "He is very different than the man he used to be," he said quietly after a while, and shifted his weight to one side so he could reach out and touch the backs of his fingers lightly to Alistair's cheek. "And yet still the same. Harder, at least on the outside, but still so gentle inside."
"You love him," Fenris said quietly. "And Laurel."
"Yes. As much as a man may love a man who does not love men," Zevran said, and sighed. "He and Laurel – in some ways they were two of a kind. Very special men. They opened my eyes, made me see that it was possible for men to do things merely because they needed to be done, because they were the right things to do, not just for personal profit or advancement or fame. They both expected to die, trying to end the Blight. Just the two of them, and a collection of random misfits, trying to organize an army," he said, and then smiled, looking sideways at Fenris. "And against all odds, they succeeded. But..." he stopped, and looked at Alistair again, gently brushing some of his hair back from his face. "Alistair was not quite strong enough. Not as strong as Laurel was. He knew the Grey Warden's must do whatever needed to be done, but at the penultimate step, when it came to sparing Loghain and making him a Grey Warden rather than killing him, he faltered. I fear it broke him, that failure."
Fenris blinked, and thought back over things Alistair had said about his past, and how he'd come to Kirkwall. "I think you're right," he said quietly. "But he is mending. He has been, for some time now – I think he was ready to be rescued, when I found him, or he would not have given up the drinking. He would not have stayed here with me."
Zevran nodded. "You are probably right. And hopefully what I have been able to tell him, about Laurel, will help. Knowing that it was not his fault that Laurel died, but Laurel's choice... it may help, at least a little."
Fenris nodded slowly. "One can hope so," he said.
Zevran rolled over on his side, and moved closer to Alistair, slipping his arm across the larger man's waist, resting his head on Alistair's arm. He smiled, craning his head back to look at Alistair's face again. "He will be embarrassed in the morning, waking with me here like this. But a little embarrassment is good for him."
Fenris snorted. "He and I sleep together like this every night. It does not embarrass him. Or me. Not any longer," he added, tacitly admitting that it had, at first.
Zevran grinned at him. "Ah, but you do not have designs on his virtue, do you? And he knows that I do. You watch; he will be like a blushing maiden tomorrow morning, and he will pretend to be angry with me, but he will be happy anyway. It is quite charmingly adorable."
Fenris snorted again. And thought the other elf was probably right.
Fenris was amused to notice that Alistair did blush when he woke up and found Zevran snuggled up against him, the elf's arm draped over his chest and one leg hooked over his. He got out of bed with considerably more speed than he displayed most mornings, face colouring deeply. He nodded to Fenris – already up and dressed – and vanished into the bathing chamber to make use of the facilities.
Zevran was grinning as he sat up in bed, having been awoken by Alistair's scramble. "You see?" he said quietly. "Watch, it will all be just as I said."
When Alistair re-emerged from the bathing chamber – his face its normal colour again – Zevran was in the middle of dressing, busy lacing his leggings and still bare-chested. He smiled warmly at Alistair. "Ah, my friend, you disappoint me; such an ardent greeting last night, only to be so coldly abandoned this morning!"
Alistair frowned at the elf. "You're teasing me again," he said, jaw setting and lower lip pouting out just slightly.
"No, if I was teasing you I would be propositioning you when I had no intention of ever carrying through on my offer. I have always been entirely truthful about my desire to bed you, Alistair," Zevran said, and grinned as Alistair promptly reddened again. Zevran picked up the top half of his leather armour, and started to pull it on. "But I know you have no interests that way, so I will not press the matter. Though surely you cannot fault me for taking advantage of the opportunity for a little chaste cuddling, hmmm?" he asked, one eyebrow arching high.
Alistair sputtered for a moment. "Y-you... you're stop making fun of me!" he finally managed to say. Zevran grinned at the warrior, and suddenly Alistair was laughing. "Maker, Zevran... I've missed you. Even the teasing."
Zevran's grin widened. "I've missed you too, at least a little," he said, and held up one hand, pinching two fingers together so they almost touched. "At least that much."
"You're such an ass sometimes," Alistair said, a fond note in his voice spoiling his attempt at a peeved tone.
"No, I am such an assassin," Zevran corrected him. "And perhaps I exaggerate. I may have missed you a little more than that. Say... about this much..." he said, and spread his hands apart in front of him, only a few inches apart at first, and then suddenly spread them much wider and raised an eyebrow at Alistair again.
Alistair laughed, and stepped forward into Zevran's open arms, exchanging a hug with the elf.
Fenris could not help smiling at the obvious warmth of the friendship between the two of them. He waited a moment, then cleared his throat and gestured to the plates of food he'd been setting out. "If you two are quite done - there's cheese and sausages for breakfast, and some sweet rolls."
"Excellent!" Zevran said, still smiling as he released Alistair, then walked over to claim a plate. "Tell me, is Alistair still a bottomless pit for cheese?" he asked curiously as he stepped over one of the benches and took a seat.
"Yes," Fenris said dryly, as he claimed a plate and seat of his own. "It's the largest single portion of our grocery budget."
Alistair had meanwhile hurried over to the other side of the room, and quickly dressed, then joined the two elves on the benches near the fireplace. He took a bite of his wedge of cheese, and chewed and swallowed it before speaking. "I have to go to work today, no way I can get out of it. Will you be leaving right away, or can you stay so we can talk more later?" he asked Zevran anxiously.
Zevran smiled warmly at him. "I can stay another day, but no more than that – I have only a small reprieve with the death of Nuncio and his cell before more Crows are likely to be on my trail. I should move on tomorrow at the latest."
Alistair nodded. "All right. I'll be home this afternoon – Fenris should be able to keep you company until then, or does Hawke have plans for today?"
"None that she mentioned before we parted yesterday," Fenris said. "But that could change; Hawke isn't exactly known for planning ahead. Adventures more just sort of drop into her lap."
"She sounds very much like Laurel," Zevran said, grinning. "Adventures dropped into his lap all the time too. With almost annoying frequency, and usually at the most inopportune times."
"They're actually cousins of some kind, Fenris tells me," Alistair said.
"Truly?" Zevran said, looking startled. Which necessitated an explanation of how Hawke's mother had been an Amell, and shared a grandfather with Laurel.
"As I understand it, his powers manifested shortly after birth – astonishingly young, but it does sometimes happen. They shipped him off to the Ferelden Circle to be raised, hoping out of sight, out of mind I suppose, but the news had already spread outside the family. His birth is now commonly regarded as having been the start of the family's ruin here in Kirkwall, a process that Leandra herself worsened when she later eloped with the apostate Malcolm Hawke. To Ferelden as well, oddly enough."
"A small world indeed, as Alistair pointed out last night," Zevran said. "How astonishing."
The explanation of it all had taken long enough that Alistair couldn't stay and talk any longer; he hurriedly strapped on his sword and shield, exchanged another affectionate hug and a shoulder buffet with Zevran, and hurried out of the room and off to work.
Zevran watched him go, then sighed, and resumed his seat, picking up the plate with the remainder of his own breakfast on it. He looked at Fenris curiously. "So. Why don't you tell me about yourself," he said, and smiled charmingly. "I have little doubt it is a most intriguing story. That is a Tevinter accent you speak with, is it not? And such curious markings on your skin... like nothing I have ever seen before, and I have seen much."
Fenris frowned, then decided that if they were going to be friends – and he hoped they would be, for Alistair's happiness if nothing else – then he might as well tell Zevran what he wished to know. Doubtless some of the questions he wished to ask the assassin about his own history would be equally intrusive.
It had been a very long day, but one that had gone by reasonably pleasantly. Fenris and Zevran had exchanged histories, at least those parts of their pasts that they felt comfortable talking to a near-stranger about. They had also spent some time in discussing Alistair, how they each had met him, the development of their separate friendships with him, their impressions of and liking for him.
It was not until it was almost time for Alistair to arrive home that Fenris abruptly recalled that this was one of the nights that Sebastian was due to come over for one of his regular visits. That might be a problem, he realized, and quickly explained the situation to Zevran. "I can, if you wish, send a message to the Chantry with some excuse, asking him not to come over tonight," he offered.
"You say he is a friend to you and Alistair both?" Zevran asked, frowning slightly.
"Yes. He's been my friend since shortly after he joined Hawke's companions, about three years ago now, and he and Alistair have hit it off quite well; as with you and I, there are a number of similarities in their personal histories."
"If he is Alistair's friend, and trusted by both of you, then I am perfectly willing to meet him as well," Zevran said matter-of-factly.
Fenris nodded, then suddenly found himself smiling. "Good. I would have disliked telling him not to come; I look forward to his visits," he said, then rose to his feet, stepping over to the fireplace to pick up a candle and light it with a spill from the fire. "I should go down to the cellars and select the wine for this evening. Would you like to come along?"
"Certainly," Zevran said, and rose as well, following along after Fenris. He frowned as they went down the stairs, seeing the dilapidation of the house again in better light than there'd been the night before. "Do you have a good cellar?" he asked, a touch nervously, as if finding it hard to believe a place in this condition might have any cellars at all, much less a decent wine cellar.
"Actually quite a good one," Fenris said, as he led the way around through the side rooms of the lower floor to where a door off of the cavernous kitchen gave access to the cellars. "The nobleman that Danarius acquired this place from was an aficionado of fine wines and had put in a sizable cellar. And Danarius also had quite expensive tastes, with a preference for fine Tevinter vintages over 'foreign plonk', so he laid in a considerable stock of his personal favourites as well. I've made inroads into them over the years, of course – I'm almost out of the Aggregio Pavali – but I could likely live here for another decade or two before I'd ever need to actually buy a bottle of something."
They had reached the entrance to the wine cellar proper by then, a massive door of thick oak planks that look more suited to the front gates of a castle than the depths of a darkened cellar. It was the solidity of the door – and the lethal trickiness of the equally massive magically-charged puzzle-lock that kept it closed – that had prevented looters from ever opening and emptying the vaults behind it while the house had sat empty for so many years. Fenris, having lived here with Danarius during the magister's brief residence in Kirkwall, both knew how to operate the lock, and was recognized by the magic that prevented unauthorized people from attempting to figure it out by trial and error. He quickly slid the parts of it through the complicated series of moves needed to unlock it, then swung open the heavy door.
Zevran whistled as the light from their lantern revealed the size of the room; a cavernous space occupying full half of the space beneath the mansion, with row upon row of racks filling it. Fenris smiled at the other elf's surprise, and led Zevran on a tour of the wine cellar, pointing out particularly notable vintages. The assassin was intrigued by the brandy selection in particular, though deeply disappointed that there were no Antivan brandies among those available. Fenris had him select a pair of bottles, one to open that night and the other to take with him when he left, which offer pleased Zevran greatly. Fenris selected a couple of bottles of red wine himself, after which they returned upstairs to see if Alistair was back yet.
By the time Sebastian arrived, bearing his usual gift of food, the brandy and the first bottle of wine were already open, the other three men already seated comfortably around the table, talking volubly. He hesitated for a moment, seeing the stranger, but was quickly called over and introduced.
"An Antivan Crow?" he said, eyebrows rising. "The one Hawke helped yesterday?"
"Yes," Zevran said, and frowned worriedly. "Is word of that already spreading?"
"Only among Hawke's closest associates," Sebastian assured the elf. "I heard of it from Isabela this afternoon."
Zevran muttered something sharp in Antivan. "I love the woman dearly, but I do wish she was better at holding her tongue. The fewer who are aware that I was in Kirkwall at all, the better – and the longer it will hopefully take for the Crows to pick up my trail again."
That required explaining to Sebastian that Zevran was an ex-Crow, and very much in danger from the other Crows.
"I have been considering going to Antiva and having personal words with the guild-leader about this," Zevran said, smiling as he fingered the dagger at his belt rather pointedly. "Perhaps after that I might finally have some freedom for pursuit for a while. If nothing else, it would distract any surviving masters for some time with the fight over rights to the title; the current leader has no clear successor. And it would certainly make most Crows that much more wary of taking me on. Apart, of course, from those who would see it as even greater reason to attempt killing me, to acquire fame as the Crow who finally succeeded in doing so."
Alistair frowned. "Wouldn't going to Antiva be dangerous?"
Zevran shrugged. "Not all that much more so than I currently endure. It is strange, you know... I left Antiva seeking my death. And yet when I failed to find it easily, at the hands of yourself and Laurel... well, I went along with you two thinking that I would likely find it quite quickly in your company anyway. It was, you must admit, a rather suicidal mission the pair of you were on. And yet I did not die... and eventually, I no longer wanted to."
"Good. I don't want you to die either," Alistair said softly.
Zevran smiled warmly at him. "If I have my preference, it will be at a great age, in someone else's bed. But first I must somehow convince the Crows that continuing attempts to kill me is more trouble than it is worth. If it can be done at all. Otherwise, sooner or later, they will kill me. But enough of such an unpleasant topic. Come, let us speak of something else. Sebastian, Fenris mentioned that you and Alistair have similar backgrounds; does that mean that you are also a bastard prince?"
That drew a laugh from the man, and then a brief explanation of his own background, including the death of his family and his subsequent uncertainty over whether to reaffirm his vows to the chantry, or to return to Starkhaven and reclaim his father's throne.
"I suppose it would be easier to decide if my cousin Goren was an evil man. He is weak-willed, a malleable puppet placed on the throne by the Harriman family, and since their demise is controlled rather more by his councillors than is wise, but he has not, all told, been a bad ruler. Just... not a good one either. Starkhaven does not suffer under his rule, but neither does it prosper, though according to what I have heard, a few of his councillors certainly do." He frowned, chewing on his lip for a moment. "I suspect that is a large part of why I have been unable to rally any support to help me retake the throne; that he is, in the end, such a non-entity that there is no real ire toward him, while I myself am such an unknown that people are hesitant to support me in case I prove to be even less able than he."
Zevran nodded thoughtfully. "There are a few Antivan nobles who survive our rather tumultuous political climate because of similar reasons; that no one dislikes them enough to be bothered with removing them. It can be a precarious line to walk, however, since if someone who plays the game on a more cutthroat basis does take a liking to their power or land, or even just their house or their mistress, there is also often no reason not to kill them, since they likely have no allies who would be angered by their removal."
Talk of politics consumed most of the rest of the evening. Their conversation rambled all over the place, from all of them discussing local Kirkwall politics to anecdotes from Zevran about notable assassinations in Antiva and abroad. There was also commentary from Fenris about how the magisters ruled Tevinter in fact even if not in name, each of them owning one or more or some part of a senator's vote though bribery or intimidation, and in some cases by outright blood magic. Sebastian talked further about his cousin Goren and his councillors, and the Harriman family.
"You're very quiet this evening, Alistair," Sebastian finally said, looking questioningly at the warrior, who apart from a few comments about local politics had been largely silent.
"Mmmm. It's the subject. Politics, and thrones. It has me thinking about Ferelden. I miss it, you know... but I don't know if it would ever be safe for me to return. People who know about my ancestry might leap to the conclusion that I was after my father's throne; Arl Eamon was unfortunately rather vocal on my behalf about it, even though I had no desire to ever be king. And King Fergus is well-loved, and a good king. I'd rather not have anyone jumping to conclusions and opting for an Antivan solution to the problem they think I might become," he added, smiling at Zevran. "And then there's also the issue of me technically being a deserter from the Grey Wardens. I suspect it might be tempting fate to set foot back on Ferelden soil; I've heard their Warden-Commander is a real dragon. And especially since I'm not the only deserter the Ferelden branch has had, she might think it worth making an example out of me to discourage any further losses."
"It's rather odd, isn't it?" Fenris asked, sitting back in his chair with arms folded. "You and Anders, both deserters from the same order of Wardens, both ending up here in Kirkwall."
"Not too odd, actually. I would guess Anders and I both stopped here for the same reason; Kirkwall is one of the only major cities in Thedas that doesn't have a local Grey Warden presence. And it's also an easy boat-ride away from both Denerim and Amaranthine. Anyway, as much as I would love to see Ferelden again, I think it's best if I avoid ever returning," he added glumly.
"I suppose we're all exiles, all of us here in this room," Sebastian said thoughtfully, swirling his watered wine as he gazed thoughtfully at it. He looked up, and looked from person to person as he spoke. "None of us can return home easily, and even if we could, the home we had once no longer exists there. Alistair and I because of politics and our father's thrones, Zevran because of the Crows, Fenris because of the slavers and magisters."
"I have no wish to ever return home," Fenris said softly. "There is nothing there I miss, nothing I regret leaving behind."
Zevran smiled sadly. "I wish I could say the same. There is much I miss about Antiva; much I regret that I will likely never be able to enjoy again in my life, as I did in my youth there. Yet I do not regret what has become of my life; for all the shortness of my association with him, I would not give up even one moment of the time I spent in Ferelden with Laurel and Alistair; not even if each hour lost regained me a full year of life in Antiva."
Alistair smiled, and reached over to briefly clasp the assassin's shoulder. Zevran reached up and touched his hand, then he drank back what was in his cup and leaned forward, pouring himself some more brandy. "This is most excellent brandy, by the way. Almost as good as Antivan. But I fear it is making me melancholy."
Fenris snorted. "I think it is the subject we have turned to that is doing that, not that brandy. It is late. We should talk about something else."
"Well, we've dealt with politics, I abhor talking religion – that leaves wine or women," Zevran said, then grinned at Sebastian. "Though perhaps our friend here would, like Alistair, feel left out of such a conversation?"
Sebastian and Fenris both laughed. Zevran tilted his head to the side slightly, giving Sebastian an enquiring look. "Not sworn to chastity then, as so many of your kind are?"
"Oh, I'm sworn," Sebastian said, smile deepening. "It's just that I had rather a history before entering the chantry. In fact part of the reason my family sent me off to the chantry was because of my libertine ways. They'd have done it even if I was a staid and proper son, but they did it several years earlier than they'd originally intended to, in disgust over my behaviour," he explained, grimacing at the memory.
"Oh-ho! And I know the elf here is involved with Isabela, so that means the only one who would be left out by such a topic would be our dear friend Alistair here. Who is already turning a most becoming shade of pink, I see. You know, Alistair, you really should do something about that."
"Now, now, be kind," Sebastian said. "There is no shame in being chaste, if that is what he prefers. Though if it's only lack of opportunity, not lack of inclination, I can think of several ways he could easily remedy the situation."
"The Blooming Rose," Fenris suggested. "Anders is on retainer there; he sees to it that the whores are clean – in more than just the sense of making regular use of soap and water."
"Or there's always Isabela," Zevran pointed out. "She is very trustworthy, at least in that particular area of endeavour."
"Hey! She and Fenris are seeing each other, that wouldn't be very nice," Alistair exclaimed, looking shocked at Zevran's suggestion.
"We are not exclusive," Fenris said dryly, and smiled at the expression that brought to his friend's face. "We are friends, and sometimes lovers, but mostly just friends. I know she sees other people; she schedules me in around them," he added, amused.
Alistair looked perturbed, and just the tiniest bit intrigued. "And it doesn't bother you? That you and she..." He broke off, his flush darkening with embarrassment. "I mean, no, it still wouldn't be right."
Sebastian couldn't help grinning now too. "Why not? If it doesn't bother Fenris, or Isabela herself, why should it bother you?"
"Seb! I thought you'd be on my side in this!"
Sebastian laughed, then smiled warmly at Alistair. "Just because I am sworn to chastity does not mean I don't remember my own looser days. Or what a gift I'd have considered meeting someone like Isabela when I was still free to partake of her charms. She's a woman who knows what she likes and has no fear of going after it, be it the freedom of a good ship underfoot, treasure to steal and spend, or a night of carnal adventure between the sheets. No, Alistair – if your chastity is something that you would like to be rid of, Isabela would doubtless be both enthusiastic and kind in the removal of it."
"Can we change the subject? This is even worse than talking about homes we can never see again," Alistair said, so flushed now that even his ears and the back of his neck were red. "Oh, look at how late it is. Maybe we should just call it a night," he added, a touch desperately.
It actually was getting to be quite late, so the others nodded agreement. Sebastian rose, making his farewells to the three before departing to head back to the chantry. The other three cleaned up from their meal and evening of camaraderie, then readied themselves for bed.
"So... you being fully aware this evening, I take it there is no likelihood that I can indulge in another little cuddle with you this evening?" Zevran asked Alistair as his stripped out of his armour.
"No!" Alistair said sharply, frowning at the assassin. "Especially after that talk just now."
Zevran laughed, and reached out to pat Alistair's arm. "You know we only brought it up because we care for you. If you wish to remain chaste, then remain chaste. But if you are curious, you could do far worse than going to Isabela."
Alistair flushed again, and looked away. "You know I don't even know her," he mumbled suddenly.
Fenris and Zevran exchanged a look. Fenris cleared his throat. "I could always introduce you to her, you know."
Alistair made a strangled sound. "And wouldn't that be awkward! Hello, Isabela, I know you're sleeping with my friend here, but I've asked him to introduce you to me so I can ask you to help me remove this inconvenient virginity of mine. No, I don't think so."
Zevran and Fenris both laughed at that. They finished changing and climbed into bed together, Alistair once again between the two elves.
"You know what Isabela's most likely response would be to such a question?" Zevran asked after a few minutes.
"No, what?" Alistair asked, suspicion in his voice.
"If you'd both be up for a threesome with her."
Alistair made another strangled sound, then sat up, grabbed his pillow, and thumped Zevran with it before lying back down again, drawing laughter from both elves.
Alistair had been very quiet in the week following Zevran's visit; missing his friend and wishing he'd been able to stay longer, Fenris assumed. He regained his normal talkative cheerfulness quickly enough that the elf was not worried by his behaviour; he would have been more surprised if the warrior hadn't been saddened by the departure of his friend.
He was different afterwards; happier, as if Zevran's brief visit – and more likely, Zevran's words about Laurel – had brought him some measure of peace that he'd previously been missing. He talked more about Laurel, and their adventures during the blight, without the edge of bitterness that had previously been there. Regret, yes – he still mourned the death of his friend – but he didn't blame himself for it any more.
Alistair's happiness seemed contagious, though perhaps it might just have been the turn of the weather from winter to spring. The frosty nights, winter rains and occasional snows turned to balmy days and warm spring rains, the nights merely cool, not cold. The few trees in Hightown budded out, bright new green leaves unfurling with almost visible speed, while the leathery leaves of the vhenadahl in the alienage, that rarely dropped but instead merely furled and darkened over the winter, spread wide again, regaining their usual lighter colouring. A few early spring flowers appeared, here and there, in planters and window boxes.
And along with the arrival of warm spring weather came something else; a letter, all the way from Tevinter.
"You're sure you want me to read this for you?" Alistair asked, as he unfolded the piece of parchment.
"Please," Fenris said, more than a little anxiously. "I doubt my skills are up to it yet."
That won a brief smile from Alistair; he'd been teaching Fenris, but they weren't much beyond the basics of the alphabet and the simplest of words yet.
"All right," he agreed, and peered at the letter. "Whoever wrote this has terrible handwriting – even worse than yours. Let's see... Dear brother, I had given up on ever hearing from you again, or learning what had happened to you. Mother is some years dead. I am servant to a magister, but treated little better than I was as a slave. I have been saving my money to try and leave Tevinter, in hope that I can do better elsewhere, and have almost enough. If there is any way you could help, maybe I could come to Kirkwall and see you, and we could talk together like we used to. Your loving sister, Varania."
Fenris sat in thought, unsure how to react to the letter. He was pleased to have heard back from her at all, but also disappointed that she had told him so little – almost nothing, really – in response to the rather lengthier letter that Alistair had penned for him. "Does she say anything about how much help she'd need?"
Alistair frowned and looked over the letter, then turned it over and checked the other side. "Ah, there's a postscript. She says she has eight gold saved up; she can get passage out of Tevinter for eleven gold. But going all the way to Kirkwall would be sixteen gold, and she'd also need money for food for the longer trip, since that's not included in the fare... call it seventeen gold in total she'd need."
Fenris frowned, and rapidly twitched his fingers – he could do simple math, as long as the numbers weren't too big. "Nine gold, then?" he asked.
Fenris rose and walked over to the fireplace, taking down the painted tin box that served as his petty cash. He had few expenses, beyond groceries, and the box was heavy with coin. He counted out the equivalent of nine gold, then looked questioningly at Alistair. "How do I even get it to her?" he asked. "I can't imagine that coin can be sent to her as easily as a letter can be."
Alistair smiled. "Easily enough. Talk to your friend Varric; the merchants have a system of notes of hand, whereby you can give him the money, and he'll give you a special paper. You send it to Varania, and she can take it to any of the big merchants there, and they'll give her money for the paper."
Fenris frowned. "The paper is worth that much gold?"
"No, not really. I don't understand how it works entirely myself, but basically anyone can use the paper as if it was the gold, and some day it'll get back to Varric or one of his business associates, and they'll give out gold or goods for the paper, and then destroy the paper."
Fenris' frown deepened. "So they don't even keep the gold?"
"No they do, just... look, it's complicated. Varric can probably explain it better than I can, seeing as he's an actual merchant. I just know that you can send her the paper, and it'll work the same as if you sent her the gold."
"All right," Fenris agreed dubiously. "I'll go talk to Varric about it," he said, and swept the pile of coins off the table and into one of his belt pouches.
"I'll walk with you part of the way," Alistair said, rising to his feet as well. "I feel like picking up some extra groceries. You want anything?"
"Some figs or dates if you can find any at not too ruinous a price. Raisins, otherwise. I assume you're buying cheese?"
Alistair grinned. "Yes. And some sticky buns."
"Mmmm. We're low on plain bread too. You might as well pick some up while you're at the bakery anyway."
"Certainly," Alistair said, as the two men left together.
Fenris hated the Deep Roads. Hawke and Varric were obviously unbothered by them, even after the near-fatal outcome of their own expedition so many years before, the two of them chatting away as blithely as if the group was on nothing worse than yet another trip to the Wounded Coast, but Fenris felt uneasy and on edge.
He didn't think it was the intermittent darkness that bothered him, nor the weight of stone overhead – his cellars were as dark, and their adventures within assorted caves and underground ruins on both the coast and Sundermount had long since inured him to having rock overhead instead of sky. It was something else; the smell, perhaps, or the sound, both somehow oddly different than that of any lesser cave or structure. He wondered if it was simply the brimstone odour from the copious amounts of lava that the dwarves of old had seemed to delight in channelling through their structures – as much just because they could, it seemed, as because of the dim light its molten glow provided – or due to some darker source; the Deep Roads were the home of the darkspawn, after all.
The only person in their party who clearly disliked their current location even more than he did was Anders. The mage was walking along between him and the other two, back hunched and head sunk down between raised shoulders, his feathered mantle giving him a look rather like a bedraggled crow. He seemed nervous, head constantly turning back and forth; sensitive to every little sound in the place, and carefully walking wide of any falls of rock or other debris, of which there were a lot.
The mage stopped, suddenly. "Hawke," he said, very quietly.
She turned and looked curiously at him; whatever she saw in his face, which Fenris could not see from where he stood, had her reaching for her weapons, even before she asked, speaking just as quietly, "Darkspawn?"
Anders nodded. "Yes. Ahead, and to the left... and more than just darkspawn. At least one Grey Warden," he said. "Possibly more... I can't tell for sure, with all the darkspawn in between."
Fenris frowned slightly as he drew his own sword, puzzled by the mage's words, then abruptly remembered how Anders had stopped on the stairs in Fenris' mansion, how Alistair had called out, knowing that there was someone there – someone who wasn't Fenris. Chalk it up as yet another odd Grey Warden ability, he supposed, along with near-insatiable appetite, nightmares, rapid healing, and uncommon strength and stamina.
They proceeded quickly but quietly, following a route that Hawke and Varric remembered from their previous journey here, that led in the direction Anders had indicated. It wasn't long until faint sounds of fighting reached their ears. They picked up their pace, torn between the desire to get there in time to save whomever it was – hopefully the man they'd come here to find – and the necessity of not arriving so abruptly that they entered the fight unprepared for it.
They came out in another open area, a large one, the sounds of nearby battle echoing strangely through it. They hurried along an area of unstable-looking dwarven roadway that skirted along the edge of yet another channel flowing with molten rock, then crossed over it on a bridge – thankfully in rather better condition than the roadway – and came to the top of a wide staircase. They could see the fight now; a lone dark-clad figure with a bow, standing with his back to the railing along a bend of the channel, casting arrow after arrow at an enclosing force of darkspawn – the squat shapes of genlocks, interspersed with the taller forms of hurlocks. The railing at his back and two tremendous stone pillars to either side meant they could only come at him along one front, but it was a wide front, and even as they hurried down the stairs he reached back for an arrow and cursed, finding his quiver empty. He dropped the bow at his feet and drew two wickedly long knives as the darkspawn charged him, giving a loud battle cry as the darkspawn surged in toward him, the words of it lost among the growling cries of the spawn and the echoes of the cavern.
Even as the darkspawn charged, Hawke and her group did the same, coming up on the back of them and engaging before the creatures had even realized they were there. It was chaos for a few minutes; Fenris laying about him with his great-sword, Hawke darting in and out to hamstring legs, cut throats, and slice into assorted vital organs. Varric had stayed back on the stairs, where he had a good view, and was peppering the edges of the fight with bolts, taking out anything he could that didn't involve shooting too dangerously close to the humans and elf. Anders was between Varric and the rest, casting bolt after bolt into the closely-packed mass of darkspawn, occasionally pausing to let loss a burst of healing magic.
The fight ended quickly, the last few darkspawn falling to a scything cut from Fenris' sword. The Grey Warden sagged, clearly exhausted and on the edge of collapse. Hawke stepped forward. "Nathaniel Howe?" she asked.
"Yes," he responded, tiredly. "Who are you? What are you even doing here?"
Varric stepped forward, twirling a bolt between his fingertips. "That's the Champion of Kirkwall you're addressing, son," he said, staring up at the lean, dark-haired human. "Your sister hired us to find you."
He stared blankly at Varric for a moment, then looked at Hawke and nodded tiredly, before straightening up with an obvious effort, and looking dazedly around. "My men..."
At least two of the forms on the ground at his feet were not darkspawn, Fenris abruptly noticed, but other Grey Wardens, lying motionless and drenched in blood. He could not tell if they were already dead, or merely wounded and unconscious. "Mage!" he snapped. "Work for you here."
Anders walked forward, hunched over even more than he had been, face turned slightly to the side, the very picture of reluctance. "Nothing I can do for them," he said shortly.
"Maker's breath... Anders!" the other man exclaimed, looking astonished. "You're alive..." He stepped forward suddenly, face lit up with joy and looking for a moment as if he was going to embrace the mage. Then his expression abruptly changed, becoming an angry scowl, and he lashed out, punching Anders in the jaw hard enough to send Anders windmilling backwards before he crashed to the floor, unconscious. His actions drew a startled exclamation from Varric and an angry outcry from Hawke. Fenris quickly grabbed her arm before she could do anything unfortunate to the man they were, after all, being paid to rescue, not slaughter.
"Fuck," Nathaniel exclaimed, wincing in pain and cradling his hand. "I think I broke something."
"Serves you right," Anders grumbled after examining the rogue's hand. "You've cracked a bone. And don't think I'm going to heal that for you, it'll heal just fine by itself if you don't go doing anything stupid with it. And bone..."
"...bone heals better when it's allowed to heal naturally. Yes, yes, I remember," Nathaniel grumbled, looking darkly at the mage. "Andraste's knickers, Anders, how could you let us think you were dead all these years? Did you never once stop and think about how much that would hurt your friends? First Justice vanishing, then you and Rolan being killed by templars like that..."
Nathaniel had gone pale, the lines bracketing his mouth deepening. "I saw the bodies, Anders. We couldn't even identify most of them, the wildlife had been at them for days before anyone found them. There were parts missing, dragged off by scavenging beasts; we never did find all the bodies that the chantry admitted should have been there." The raggedness of his voice testified to how upsetting a memory it was for the man. "Why didn't you come back? Why didn't you at least let us know you were alive?" he demanded.
Anders looked away for a moment. "I thought you already knew," he said, voice thin and strained.
"Knew? Knew what? That you were alive?" Nathaniel asked, puzzled.
"No. Knew that Rolan had betrayed me to the templars. He... told me it was with the Warden's knowledge and agreement," Anders said bitterly. "He accused me of being an abomination, and sold me out to them. I killed them and ran."
"What!" Nathaniel exclaimed loudly, face going red with anger. "Maker, no, whatever he said was a lie. You were one of us, Anders – a Grey Warden. Our friend and companion, our brother. Once a Grey Warden, always a Grey Warden, you know that."
"I didn't think it applied to me any longer," Anders said unsteadily. "The way Rolan talked, you were all in on it – you'd all given up on me."
Nathaniel cursed, at length and loudly.
"All that over again with bells and a fancy dress on," a rumbling voice said, causing everyone but Nathaniel and Anders to start in surprise. A pair of dwarves emerged from a nearby tunnel mouth, one male and red-bearded, the other female and dark-haired, her face covered in extensive tattooing. The lead dwarf suddenly stopped. "By my Ancestors! Well, dip me in perfume and call me Orlesian, it's the skirt-wearer! We all thought you were dead, brat!" he exclaimed, grinning widely, clearly pleased to see the mage.
The female's reaction was more immediate, and remarkably similar in nature to Nathaniel's. She stopped, stared, her mouth dropping open, then suddenly scowled and pulled a pair of hand-axes from her belt and started to bee-line for Anders. He yelped and back-pedalled away from her.
"Sigrun! No weapons!" Nathaniel snapped.
She didn't stop, but merely sheathed the weapons and continued her advance towards Anders, who was still backing away.
"She doesn't need weapons," the mage exclaimed, a worried note in his voice. He backed into the railing around the magma-filled channel, and looked worriedly behind him and then back at the dwarf.
When she reached him, she kicked him hard in the shin, then when he yelped and lifted his leg, grabbing at his bruised shin, she stomped at the toes of his other foot. An inelegant hop that nearly made him fall over saved Anders from a bruised foot as well.
"You... you... you!" she sputtered, then suddenly burst into tears. She reached up, grabbed onto one of the rings joining the front of Anders' coat closed, and yanked him down, then threw her arms around him and hugged him hard. He hesitated a moment, then put her arms around her as well. She said something – Fenris couldn't make it out, her voice was muffled by the way she had her face pressed into Anders' feathered mantle – but whatever it was made Anders look ashamed.
"I'm sorry, Sigrun," he said apologetically. "I was stupid. And an ass. Forgive me?"
She drew back her head and glared up at him. "That depends. Are you coming back?"
Anders looked guiltily at Hawke. Sigrun followed his line of sight. "Oh," she said, and reluctantly released him. "Like that, is it?"
"Yes and no," he said as he straightened up. "It's a long story," he added, then looked at Hawke, Varric and Fenris. "Could I have a little while to talk privately with my friends?" he asked quietly.
Hawke pursed her lips slightly, then gave a sharp nod and turned away, rounding up Varric and Fenris by eye and leading them out of easy earshot of Anders and the Grey Wardens.
"He's not going to leave you, Hawke," Varric said softly, glancing back over his shoulder to where Anders was leaning back against the railing, talking to the three figures gathered around him.
"I know," she snapped, then pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Sorry. I shouldn't snap at you. I know he's not going to leave – there are too many things he's involved in here in Kirkwall that mean too much to him. Even more than the Grey Wardens ever did. It's just... it's the one area of his life he's never been willing to talk much about. He's told me all about his time in the tower, his escapes, merging with Justice and his travelling here to Kirkwall – but barely a word about his time in Amaranthine. I don't think he's ever really gotten over missing the life he might have had there, among people who loved and trusted him," she said, then darted a glance at Fenris. "He gets precious little of that around here."
Fenris bit his lip, biting back any retort he might have made about how little the mage had ever done to earn his trust, much less his liking. He and Anders were like oil and water – unlikely to mix without a third party present. But Hawke was the sort of person who wanted all her friends to get along well with each other, and almost took it as an insult when they didn't. They at least tried to be reasonably civil when she was around, but 'civil' and 'friendly' could be worlds apart for some of them.
It was a long time before Anders finished talking with his friends and led them over to rejoin Hawke. He performed proper introductions; Sigrun studied Hawke intently, then gave a short satisfied nod and seemed much more cheerful. To Fenris' surprise the other dwarf, Oghren – a name he recognized from Alistair's tales of the Blight year – gave him a similarly intent examination. It wasn't until they got underway, heading back to the surface together, that he found out why.
"So sparkle-fingers tells me that the pike-twirler is shacked up with you," the dwarf said, falling into step along-side Fenris, thumbs hooked into his belt.
That took Fenris a moment to unravel. "If you mean Alistair, then yes, he and I share a place," he said.
"Heh. Never would have imagined Alistair living with another man. Boy was almost indecently innocent, if you know what I mean."
Fenris turned and stared in surprise at the dwarf for a long moment. "I think you may have misunderstood," he finally said. "We are merely close friends, not..."
The dwarf grinned. "Hah! I was pretty sure the damned mage was pulling my leg. But he is living with you?"
"And he's... he's all right, is he?" the dwarf asked, sounding a little anxious all of a sudden. "Only Laurel was really worried about him when he took off like that, them having been such close friends and all. The last night, he told me the only regret he had was that he hadn't gone after him right away. By the time he'd wrapped up things with Arl Eamon – Ancestors but can that man ever natter on – it was too late. Alistair had grabbed his things from the Arl's estate and vanished, and there wasn't any time to go looking for him."
"He was in rough shape when i first met him, but he's doing much better now," Fenris said, then lowered his voice slightly. "Especially since another of your companions was a recent visitor – Zevran was in Kirkwall not long ago."
Oghren's face lit up with a pleased smile. "Well that's a fine piece of news! I've often wondered what happened to the backstabber since he moved on. Glad to know he's still alive and kicking. And you say he visited with Alistair? I can't think of anyone better suited to putting the stiffening back in the boy's spine, even if the elf would likely rather be stiffening up some other choice bit of his anatomy."
Fenris couldn't help but smile at the dwarf's words; it seemed clear from his tone of voice and cheerful interest that he was fond of Alistair, and thought well of the assassin.
Oghren spent a good portion of their trip back out from the Deep Roads over the next couple of days telling Fenris stories about the Blight Year, some of which Fenris had already heard versions of from Alistair's viewpoint, and some of which were new. The dwarf also talked about his own doings since the Blight Year – joining the Wardens, and becoming a father. He asked questions about Alistair too, most of which Fenris had to answer with an "I don't really know," either because he actually didn't – which was most of the time – or because he was unsure if that was information Alistair would want others to know or not.
"Why don't you come visit him and ask him yourself?" he suggested on the final day, as they drew closer to the exit from the Deep Roads. "I'm sure he'd be glad to see you; he's spoken of you several times."
"Really wish I could, but I have a sneaking suspicion Nathaniel is going to want to touch base with his sister and then hop ship straight back to Amaranthine; we'll need a much larger force than anticipated to reach that old thaig, by the look of it," Oghren said grimly, frowning darkly. "And we've lost precious time, with this failed effort."
"Why is it so vital to reach it?" Fenris asked curiously.
"Can't tell you. Grey Warden business. Sorry," Oghren said, and shrugged.
Fenris nodded in acceptance.
Oghren's prediction proved correct; as soon as they returned to the surface, Nathaniel was bidding Hawke and her group good-bye. He drew Anders aside for a final few words, during which Oghren sidled back over to Fenris' side again.
"Hey, listen, tell the kid I said hello, okay? And that he still has at least one friend back in Ferelden who wouldn't mind getting an occasional letter from him or something, just to know that he's doing okay. Oh, and tell him I said not to twirl his pike too hard, or he'll do himself an injury, all right?"
Fenris smiled briefly in amusement. "I will," he promised.
"Good. Nice meeting you, Fenris – and good to know that Alistair has at least one friend keeping his back covered. If you're ever down Amaranthine way, be sure to drop in at Vigil's Keep and look me up," he added. "We can hoist a brew or three, the wife allowing."
"Oghren! Get your short legs in gear, we're moving," Nathaniel called out as he and Sigrun started to move away, the tall man's legs eating ground at a rapid rate, the female dwarf almost scampering in order to keep up with his longer stride.
"Coming!" Oghren called, and lifted his hand in a brief wave to Fenris as he turned away and hurried after the departing pair.
Alistair was disappointed to hear that Oghren had been so close yet unable to visit, but was also very pleased to hear that Fenris had met him, that the dwarf seemed to be in good health, and that Oghren had remembered Alistair fondly. His parting message made Alistair laugh, and have the widest of smiles on his face for some considerable time afterwards.
He asked almost as many questions about the dwarf as the dwarf had asked about him, and once again Fenris found himself having to answer "I don't know" to most of them. Fenris also repeated as much as he could remember about Oghren's stories of his time in the Grey Wardens, about his wife and family, and so forth. It took until quite late that night before he finished, the two of them long-since retired to bed, though sitting up and talking rather than trying to sleep. Alistair looked rather pleased but thoughtful when he'd done.
"I miss the Wardens," he said after a few minutes. "At least the way they were before Ostagar. It was the first time I'd ever been really accepted, you know? For myself, with my background not mattering at all." He fell silent for a while, then smiled crookedly. "I suppose I miss them after Ostagar as well, when it was just Laurel and I. It wasn't always a very pleasant time – in fact most of it was pretty blighted unpleasant – but it was still one of the best times in my life. I was actually doing something that mattered, with good friends at my side."
Fenris nodded slowly. "Acceptance is important. I felt... very much an outsider, for most of my life. Even as a slave, I was shunned by the other slaves because of being Danarius' prized pet, having no memory of my past, and of course these markings. Even the fact that I was allowed to carry a weapon, something few slaves are trusted to do. And here I'm a foreign elf, an unemployed squatter, and thought to be rather strange, for some unknown reason," he said with a wry little grin. "And then I met Hawke, and she made me part of her group of friends. At least some of whom are now my friends as well, and accept me. It... means much to me. My friendship with them, and my friendship with you."
Alistair nodded in understanding. "For me, as well. Living without friends..." He stopped, and frowned, then rolled over on his back. "I've done too much of that in my life. Having friends is better. Especially if they're friends you get to actually see more than once every few years," he added, turning his head to smile warmly at Fenris.
"Yes," Fenris agreed with a small smile of his own. "Friends like that are good to have."
A letter arrived two days later, sent from Fenris' sister in Tevinter. She had received the note of hand he'd sent her; she'd exchanged it for gold and booked passage to Kirkwall, and would be leaving within a few days. The letter was going on a faster ship, and should beat her to Kirkwall, but likely only by a few days, a week or two at most if there were delays on her own ship. She'd send word once she'd arrived, so they could arrange to meet, she said.
His hands trembled with the force of his emotion as he laboriously read the letter himself. He looked up at Alistair, and smiled, feeling more than a little dazed. "My sister is coming. Varania's already on her way here; she should be here within a few days, assuming weather doesn't delay her ship."
Alistair beamed, and reached out to clap his hand against Fenris' upper arm. "Wonderful news! I'm happy for you," he said. "You've wanted this so much."
Fenris nodded, looked down to reread the letter again, then changed his mind and looked at Alistair again. "It frightens me; I've wanted this so much, and now... will you come with me, when she comes? I'd like someone there, just in case it... in case it doesn't work out as well as I hope."
Alistair smiled. "Well, you've heard the story about what a disaster my reunion with my own sister turned out to be... not that I think yours will be a disaster too, but I can certainly understand your worry," he hastened to add. "Yes, I'll gladly come."
The next few days passed with agonizing slowness. Fenris couldn't keep his mind on any task. At home he spent much of his time pacing, or maintaining his gear. On the one day that he went on a trip with Hawke, all he could think about was whether or not there'd be a message waiting for him once he got back to town. As a result he was too distracted to maintain proper focus, and more than once only narrowly escaped serious injury, drawing the ire of Anders and an eventual sharp word from Hawke as well.
His attempt to go to one of the weekly card nights was equally disastrous – he actually lost significantly, for one of the first times ever, and to Anders of all people – and he decided to swear off them until after his sister's arrival.
He came home from picking up groceries one day, just a little more than a week after her letter's arrival, to find a Lowtown urchin lurking on his stoop, a folded and sealed bit of parchment in hand. A few coins to pay off the child, and he had the message. He hurried indoors, almost dropping the parcel of groceries in his haste to get upstairs and open it.
She was in Kirkwall, and safe. She didn't say where she was staying – he supposed she was as anxious about how their reunion might go as he was – but instead stated that she'd wait at the Hanged Man each night for several days running for him to come, if he still wanted to meet her. And if he'd changed his mind... well, she would understand. It had been many years, after all; they were like strangers to one another.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon until Alistair came home in a flurry of preparations, torn between whether or not to wear his armour and sword, or something much more casual and friendly in appearance. In the end, it being the Hanged Man, and Lowtown, he decided on the former, and spent some time going over his already near-pristine gear to make sure it looked as good as possible, then bathed and dressed, and spent some time in making sure that he was as neatly groomed as possible.
Alistair stopped a few paces within the door after getting home, and grinned as he looked Fenris over. "A message finally came?" he asked delightedly.
"Yes! She's here – she'll be waiting at the Hanged Man tonight," Fenris announced, elated.
Alistair smiled. "Give me a few minutes to sponge down and change, and I'll be ready to come along."
"Supper?" Fenris asked worriedly.
"I can grab a bite there. It's been a while since I last had a bowl of Corff's excellent mystery meat stew."
Fenris laughed, and forced himself to sit down on one of the benches and wait patiently for Alistair to be ready to go.
The Hanged Man was almost empty, only a scant handful of the tables occupied. Fenris looked around hopefully, but it was obvious that none of the people there was his sister; they were almost all male, and the two that weren't, were well known to him – the waitress Norah, and a rather drunken human female slumped at a corner table, mumbling into her tankard of ale. He sighed almost silently, then forced a smile as he glanced at Alistair, trying to hide his disappointment. "Why don't you get some stew and a table for us. I'm just going to head upstairs for a moment and say hello to Varric, and apologize to him for skipping out on our card night yesterday."
Alistair nodded, then smiled. "All right. Don't be long, or I'll eat your stew," he said.
That drew a slight smile from Fenris as well before he turned away and hurried upstairs.
Varric was in his room, and not alone – Isabela and Merrill were with him. Isabela smiled warmly at him, leaning forward to show off her cleavage to better advantage, while Merrill shrunk down slightly in her chair, eyes getting that wide, almost frightened look that so irritated him. As if she expected him to snap her in two at any moment. Varric, for his part, lounged back in his chair and smiled. "Fenris! Wasn't expecting to see you around and about tonight. Over your fit of broodiness yet?"
He ignored the dwarf's attempt at humour. "I just wanted to apologize for not coming over last night," he said. "I've had rather a lot on my mind lately and didn't feel I'd be able to concentrate enough to play very well."
"Hah! You should have come on over anyway; would have given us a chance to win back some of the money you're always taking off of us," Varric said, grinning toothily.
"What's got you so distracted lately anyway? Anything we should know about?" Isabela asked, looking curiously at Fenris, one eyebrow rising questioningly.
He flushed slightly. "Yes and no. It's about my sister."
"The one that woman – Hadriana, wasn't it? – spoke about before you killed her?" Isabela asked in surprise, looking interested. "The one still alive back in Tevinter somewhere?"
"Yes," Fenris agreed.
"This wouldn't have anything to do with that note of hand you wanted, would it?" Varric asked, sitting up and looking interested.
"It would. I sent her money to help her leave Tevinter and take passage to Kirkwall. She's here, now – she's supposed to meet me here tonight. Speaking of which, I better get back downstairs; she may have arrived by now."
"Want some company while you wait? We can't stay forever though, we're just waiting on Hawke to arrive before we go off and have a girls' night out," Isabela offered.
It was Fenris' turn to raise an eyebrow. "A girls' night out? Than shouldn't Varric be Aveline?"
Varric grinned. "She couldn't make it. I've been deputized to stand in for her."
Fenris snorted. "I'm sure you'll do an excellent job in her place. Anyway, I should be fine – Alistair is with me."
"Ooo, I've been wanting to meet him," Isabela said, sitting up straight. "I've heard so much about him since he moved in with you. Introduce me?"
Fenris raised an eyebrow at her, then suddenly smiled, remembering how both Sebastian and Zevran had suggested that Alistair should meet her – and more. "Why not," he said, then glanced curiously at Merrill. "Would you like to come along too?"
"Oh, no. No. I'll just stay here with Varric and wait, if you don't mind," she said anxiously.
"Of course," he said, nodded in farewell to Varric, and led Isabela downstairs.
Alistair looked up as the pair of them came down the stairs. His eyes got almost comically huge as he spotted Isabela, and he was flushing red and averting his eyes even as he hastily put down his spoon and wiped his mouth clean. Fenris had little doubt that he'd guessed who she was, and was likewise remembering Sebastian and Zevran's advice. The warrior rose to his feet, almost knocking his chair over backwards in his haste. "Err. Hello – you must be Isabela," he said, giving her a formal little bow. "I've heard so much about you."
"Likewise," she said, and smiled warmly at the man. "I think I remember seeing you around a time or two. Those shoulders are rather memorable," she said, running a frankly appreciative eye over Alistair and making him blush even more deeply.
"I've seen you in here before, too, though I'll admit my memory of it is rather hazy, as I was rather drunk at the time. But I remember the, er... your, ah... your outfit," he said, making a vague gesture at her brief tunic and thigh-high boots.
Fenris knew he shouldn't be amused by his friend's discomfiture, but Alistair's extreme nervousness around Isabela made him have to fight to keep a smile from appearing on his own face. The man was just so obviously flustered by her appearance. Isabela wasn't bothering to hide her own amusement.
"I think I like your friend," she stage-whispered to Fenris. "Why don't you go get us all drinks while I get to know him a little better?"
Fenris gave her a quelling look. "Evil wench," he muttered softly.
She smiled, looking pleased. "Evil pirate wench, please! I promise not to break him," she wheedled.
Fenris snorted softly, then rather to Alistair's dismay, acquiesced, and went over to the bar to get drinks, leaving the warrior alone with her.
"Er... so I hear you're a friend of Zevran's?" he heard Alistair asking as he walked away, and smiled again, feeling sure that Alistair wouldn't be thrown off too much by Isabela – not when he'd already demonstrated his ability to hold his own in the face of the assassin's equally aggressive manner.
Corff was busy removing an empty ale cask to take back down to the cellar, so Fenris leaned on the bar, waiting patiently for the man to be done. He glanced over at the table after a few minutes and saw that Isabela was sitting down now, talking earnestly to Alistair, while the warrior had resumed eating his stew, nodding in apparent agreement to whatever she was saying, a smile on his face and looking considerably less flustered already. Fenris smiled, then turned back to Corff, who had returned from the cellar with a fresh cask. He waited while the man stood it on the empty stillage and tapped the cask, then was finally able to place his order for drinks; grog for Isabela, ale for Alistair, and a small glass of whiskey for himself, one of the few beverages the Hanged Man carried that he considered at all palatable, their wines being largely of the cheapest and coarsest varieties.
The door to the tavern opened as Corff was serving the drinks. Fenris glanced that way, and froze. An elven woman had just entered, one with red hair and large green eyes just a touch brighter in shade than his own. She paused just a couple of steps inside the door, scanning the room. He gaped at her for a moment, the sight of her unlocking a flood of memories, of a younger version of that same face; smiling at him, laughing, serious, crying, asleep.
He took a step toward her, feeling clumsy and weak-kneed. "Varania?" he called faintly.
She turned, and saw him, her face going very still for a moment. "Leto," she said, very quietly. "I wasn't sure you'd come."
"Leto? Is... is that my name?" he asked, taking another few steps her direction, then swayed as another flood of memorys momentarily overwhelmed him. "Yes, it was... I remember now... you and I, playing in the master's courtyard... you called me that," he said, voice filled with wonder.
As he swayed again she closed the small bit of distance between them, took him by the arm. "I think you'd better sit down," she said, sounding concerned, and guided him to a nearby chair. He stared up at her, trying to reconcile the face he remembered – never older than a teenager in the memories that were coming back to him – with this older, wary-eyed woman. She looked like their mother, some part of him recognized, only younger, with a less care-worn face.
She was studying his face as intently as he was studying hers. She reached out, fingers lightly touching his cheek for a moment before she snatched her hand back, looking faintly distressed. "I wouldn't have recognized you," she said a little shakily. "If I hadn't... if I wasn't expecting to see you. Your hair... those marks..."
He swallowed heavily, remembering now how close they'd been as children. "Please... won't you sit down?" he asked, gesturing at the other chair at the table.
She hesitated, then stepped to the side and sat down. She clasped her hands tightly in her lap, and studied his face again. "You're different than I'd expected," she said abruptly, then pursed her lips. "Though I'm not entirely sure just what I had expected."
"I... I have so many questions," Fenris said. "But first, do you need anything? Food? A drink? Money?"
She pursed her lips, and gave her head a small shake. "No. I'm well-provided for now," she said, voice bitter and unhappy.
Fenris frowned slightly, and gave her a puzzled look. "What's wrong? Why are you so... I don't understand," he said.
"You don't have to," she said, leaning forward and putting her hand on his.
He felt a tingle, and gasped, eyes widening in shock. Magic. And found himself unable to move or speak.
The door to the Hanged Man opened a second time, allowing the entrance of a frighteningly familiar form, with more grey in his hair than when Fenris had last seen him, but still instantly recognizable; Danarius, flanked by a group of guards in dark armour and horned helmets. He marched over to the table, coming to a stop at Varania's side, and smiled down at the motionless elf. "Ah... my little Fenris. Predictable as always," he drawled.
Varania looked down, flushing, unable to meet Fenris' eyes. "I'm sorry it came to this, Leto," she said unsteadily.
Fenris wasn't sure for a moment which distressed him more – her betrayal, or Danarius' presence. Fenris ground his teeth together, glaring at the pair of them with equal hatred, feeling both angry and frightened – and rather more angry than frightened. He wanted to spew defiance at the mage, but whatever hold Varania had over him, it rendered him unable to do so.
Danarius smiled, and reached out, brushing the back of his hand against Varania's cheek before setting it on her bare shoulder in a proprietary fashion. "Now, now, Fenris... don't blame your sister. She did what any good Imperial citizen should," he said, sounding almost sickeningly pleased with himself. "It's time for you to come back home with me, where you belong."
"Er, excuse me... but I don't think you're taking Fenris anywhere."
Fenris felt a rush of relief as Alistair stepped near, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. And worry, as well – they hadn't come expecting any real trouble. Alistair had his sword, since it was Lowtown, after all, but no shield or armour.
The look Danarius gave the poorly-armed man was noticeably dismissive. "Do not interfere," he said coldly. "This elf is an escaped slave..."
"Which would mean something is this was the Tevinter Empire," Alistair interrupted. "But it's not. This is Kirkwall, in the Free Marches, and slavery is illegal here. Fenris is a free man."
A look of annoyance crossed Danarius' face, and he signalled to his men. "Teach this riff-raff some better manners," he snapped out.
His men had barely begun to move to engage Alistair when a dagger spun through the air and sunk into the throat of one of them. A crossbow bolt flashed through the eye-slit of another; clearly Isabela had slipped upstairs to get additional help when she and Alistair had noticed what was going on.
Danarius cursed and quickly gestured, a shimmering sphere of protective energies flickering into being around him. "Hold him," he snarled at Varania, then moved a few steps away from her, looking toward the staircase. He began to gesture again, clearly planning to cast something at Isabela and Varric. Fenris wanted to curse, but still couldn't move at all.
Alistair was hard pressed by the two guards on him, and more were rushing into the building. As Danarius started to chant something in Arcanum, the warrior darted a quick glance at him, then frowned, quickly beat back the two guards on him, and disengaged from them long enough to rush a few steps closer to the mage, then threw wide his arms with a loud shout. Fenris felt something pass over him, a sensation like a buffet of strong wind hitting him, and suddenly he was free to move again. Alistair's templar powers, he realized; the man had drained the two mages. Varania gasped and flinched back in fear as he surged to his feet and drew his sword, spinning toward Danarius and ignoring her as the much smaller threat of the two.
Danarius' protective sphere had vanished. A bolt appeared in his shoulder as Varric took immediate advantage of his loss of shielding; Danarius had moved to one side at the last minute or it would have hit him in a much more lethal location. Unfortunately a non-lethal injury was the very worst kind you could give to a blood mage, at least if it was the sort that bled. Danarius gestured and spoke again, an unnaturally heavy stream of blood flowing from the wound. Alistair cursed; he could drain a normal mage's power, but blood magic renewed itself as long as there was blood available to draw energy from.
As more guards closed in on Alistair, Fenris found himself with a choice between attacking Danarius, or going to his friend's rescue. It was no choice; he couldn't allow Alistair to be cut down by the swarming guards, especially not when the man's timely intervention had just freed him. He turned away from Danarius, leaving him occupied by Isabela, Varric and Merrill, and charged into the fight swirling around Alistair, moving to cover the warrior's left side, knowing the man was used to fighting with a shield and that he'd be weak on defence without one. He made himself be that shield.
Fenris was glad for all the sparring together he and Alistair had done; he was familiar with the man's capabilities in the fight, knew what moves and series of moves he liked to make, and was able to move with him, keeping his left side protected. The two of them were badly outnumbered, however, and every time they managed to injure a guard badly enough to take him out of the fight, Danarius ruthlessly sacrificed the injured man to give himself more power. They must all be blood thralls, Fenris realized; any sane man would have fled the fight long since, otherwise.
Danarius was using the blood magic to protect himself, and to summon forth abominations and minor demons from the Fade. In the few glimpses of them he had, Fenris could see Isabela busy holding the base of the stairs against the onslaught, while Varric peppered the fight with bolts from his position further up. Merrill was behind him, her own hand and arm dripping with blood as she fought Danarius' blood magic with her own, keeping him just distracted enough that he couldn't easily overwhelm the three or split his attention between them and the two warriors.
The fight quickly grew very chaotic, the few patrons diving for cover or escaping out the door if they could, Corff ducking down behind the bar and Norah darting through the curtained doorway into the back. Varania had disappeared as well; taken cover under a table, most likely, Fenris guessed. If she hadn't been wise enough to flee while she could.
The fight had initially gone their way, but he could see that if it continued on the way it was going now, with Danarius' forces increasing with every slain guard, the balance would inevitably shift to Danarius' side, and they would be done in by sheer force of numbers. Something had to be done about the mage; normal weapons were unable to penetrate his defensive shield. Merrill might have been able to do something about him, except he was far more experienced – and ruthless – than the elf was, and she had her hands full just keeping Isabela well-protected; the pirate was doing a good job keeping things away from Varric and Merrill, but she was a rogue, not a warrior, and her light clothing was no real protection.
Alistair's thoughts must have taken a similar direction; "They need a warrior," he gasped out, tilting his head towards the stairs.
"You go," Fenris ordered. "I'm going for Danarius when I can; I can probably get through that shield of his, if I get a chance," he said, then drew a deep breath. "You'll have to try and get me that chance, and quickly; I can't hold against these guards long by myself."
Alistair darted a look his way, then nodded grimly. They performed a co-ordinated attack, driving back the guards and managing to disable another pair of them, then disengaged, Alistair dodging to one side and then sprinting along the outside of the room to get around to the fight at the stairs, while Fenris backed quickly toward one corner of the room, which while it limited his own movement meant the guards had only a small choice of directions to attack him from, and would interfere with each other's movements if too many of them crowded too close.
Alistair quickly gained the foot of the stairs, fighting alongside Isabela, the pair of them beginning to make some headway against the crowd of summoned creatures. Varric was able to turn his attention from aiding Isabela, to firing bolts across the room into the guards around Fenris, easing some of the pressure on him in turn.
And then the door to the Hanged Man opened again as Hawke entered, Anders trailing along behind her. They stopped abruptly, taking in the situation at a glance, then Hawke was drawing her daggers and diving forward to attack the closest of the guards, while Anders pulled his staff from his back and began casting. The tide turned decisively in the favour of Fenris and his friends after that, the remaining guards falling quickly to the three, after which they were able to turn their attention on Danarius and his swarms of abominations. With no more guards for him to draw additional power from with which to summon more of the things, and two mages opposing all his attempts to cast, Danarius was soon stripped of his protective guard of abominations. Then Alistair managed to slip close to him and strip him of his accumulated energies a second time, taking down his protective shield and leaving him with just the energy from his own still-flowing wound.
"The Black City take you!" Danarius roared in outraged anger, striking out at Alistair with a blast of magical energy that sent the warrior reeling backwards, before even attempting to put his shields back up. Fenris was diving for him even as Alistair's pained cry rang in his ears. Danarius managed to interpose his staff between Fenris' sword and his unprotected flesh, but the blow was still enough to send him flying sideways, crashing heavily into a wall, his staff falling loose from his hand. He slipped to the floor, dazed, and before he could regain his senses and resume casting, Anders hit him with a blast of healing magic, closing his existing wounds and at least temporarily cutting him off from the source of his power.
Fenris was on Danarius before he could rally enough to draw his knife and cut himself, grabbing the mage and lifting him into the air as if he weighed nothing, slamming him back against the wall and holding him there with one hand locked around his neck. He drew back his other arm, lighting it up with the energies needed to pluck the mage's heart from his chest.
Danarius' eyes narrowed, his hands scrabbling at Fenris' wrist, trying to pry his hand loose from his throat. "I am your master," he snarled out, voice choked from the pressure Fenris was exerting. Even now, at Fenris' mercy, he clearly didn't believe he could be killed.
Fenris' eyes narrowed. "You are no longer my master," he grated out. And lit up the hand that enclosed Danarius' throat, reaching in and snapping the mage's spine like a twig before letting his dying body fall to the floor. He stood there, watching the mage die, feeling shocked to realize it was over; Danarius was dead. He need never fear him again.
"Well. Mind telling me what that was all about?" Hawke asked, interrupting his thoughts.
Fenris turned and stared at her blankly for a moment, then gestured at the corpse lying sprawled on the floor at his feet. "Danarius. My ex-master," he said, all the explanation he could currently muster.
"A bit late to be formally introducing us," she said, eyebrows rising. "He's rather beyond just merely ex at the moment."
Fenris snorted. "Quite," he said, then frowned and looked around. "Alistair?" he called.
"Ow. Alive," Alistair responded, climbing unsteadily to his feet, one hand pressed to his side. "I think the bastard broke my ribs."
Anders immediately headed over to him, a look of concern on his face. The warrior was soon seated on a bench, Anders binding his ribs – badly cracked from the impact with the wall, but not actually broken, the healer said – while Fenris began explained the evening's events to Hawke. It was only when he mentioned Varania's treachery that he realized she was still there, crouched in a corner and weeping. His face twisted in anger as he saw her, and he broke off his tale, striding across the room to grab her by the arm and pull her roughly to her feet. Varania shrieked in fright and cringed away from him.
"Give me one good reason not to send you to join your master," he snarled at her, dragging her over to Danarius' corpse.
She looked for a moment at the dead magister, then suddenly broke loose from his grip, taking a step away and drawing herself up, looking at him coldly. "You don't understand what our life was like as free elves in Tevinter, Leto," she said, voice unsteady but sounding more of anger than fear. "You fought for those markings; the boon you gained from winning, you used to free mother and myself. I look at you now and think that you got the better end of that deal. Free," she added bitterly, voice firming as her anger increased. "Free to be turned out of our home, free to live in the streets as beggars, free to starve!"
She turned and looked at Danarius' fallen corpse, silent for a moment. Then looked at Fenris again, her face a mask of despair. "He was going to teach me. I would have been a magister."
He stared at her for a moment. "You blind fool – there are no elven magisters!" he shouted angrily. She recoiled as if slapped. "The best you would have been was a passing amusement, his toy, his blood thrall, until he tired of you or happened to have a sudden need for additional power. You'd have died like those damned guards of his tonight, in a gout of blood, all to fuel his powers!"
"No... you're wrong..." she said faintly.
"I was his bodyguard for years! I met most of the magisters in Tevinter at one time or another. There are no elven magisters, Varania. He offered you a fool's dream and you bought it. You betrayed me for nothing," he spat out angrily, hands balling into fists.
Her face went blank, then she sagged. "Go ahead and kill me then," she said, voice flat and empty. "It's what I deserve, isn't it?"
He was sorely tempted to. He'd had so much hope, before tonight... his lines were glowing again, he ached to end her, ached to end the anger and pain of her betrayal. He took a step toward her, and then a hand was on his shoulder, holding him back.
"Fenris, no," Alistair said.
"Why not?" he demanded, mostly incensed at the man's interference, and yet at the same time just the littlest bit thankful for it.
"Because she's your sister," Alistair said tiredly. "And if you kill her, that's something you can never undo. Before he came in, you said you remembered something – you said you remembered playing together. Wasn't she once someone important to you? Someone you loved? Enough to have her freed, even though you yourself remained a slave... can you look at her now and not think of even one good memory that makes you want to spare her?"
Fenris stared at Alistair for a moment, then turned and studied Varania's face. The flood of memories he'd had – so many had been of her looking after him, looking out for him, protecting him... he blinked rapidly, and turned his back on her. "Go. Leave, now, before I change my mind. You're free," he said hoarsely, the word as bitter on his tongue as it had been on hers. "Make of it what you will."
Silence a moment, and then a faint sigh, a rustle of clothing as she moved away. Everyone was silent, watching. He heard the creak of the tavern door opening. A pause. "Leto..."
"That isn't my name!" he roared, spinning around. "Go! And if ever I see you again..." he broke off. She'd gone now, her face white with fear in the face of his rage.
He was trembling, surges of light coming and going uncontrollably in his lines, torn between rage and tears, and conscious of everyone there, looking at him, having seen... he covered his face, then felt an arm around his shoulder. Alistair. And then Isabela was there too, her voice low and gentle. "Let's get him upstairs to my room."
He let them guide him, too miserable now to care any further. He almost stumbled on the stairs, but they kept him on his feet, and then he was in Isabela's familiar room, sitting on the edge of her bed, her sitting beside him with her arm around him.
"There's some bottles, in the leftmost chest," he heard her telling Alistair. "Bring me some rum or gin – something stronger than wine, anyway."
He got very drunk after that. At some point Alistair left, and Isabela got him undressed enough to get him into bed. And held him, while he buried his wet-eyed face against her shoulder and did his best not to cry, overwhelmed with memories of a life with a sister he'd loved, and had lost, and had now lost again.
"Do you mind if I chase after your friend for a while? He's cleaned up quite good-looking," Isabela asked the next morning. "And his blushes are absolutely delicious. I find myself intrigued."
Fenris laughed, and then had to recount to her the story of how Sebastian and Zevran had both suggested that Alistair should look to her, if he wished to be relieved of his virginity in as pleasant a manner as possible. Isabela was amused, and very pleased, taking it as a compliment to have both men, one of whom she'd never even slept with, so heartily recommending her skills.
"I have told him that our relationship is just an extension of our friendship, nothing more exclusive, but I'm not entirely sure he believes me," he further explained. "He seems one of those men who thinks pleasure of the body and a certain... dedication of purpose, are inextricably linked."
Isabela smiled, teeth flashing white against her dark skin where she lay next to him, rolled over on her stomach, hands folded beneath her chin, a corner of the sheet draped over her otherwise naked body. "Have I mentioned lately how much I like the way you talk?" she asked. "Dedication of purpose. Inextricably linked. Such large and weighty words to hear dropping from the lips of an ex-slave."
Fenris flushed slightly, shrugged. "I relearned proper speech mainly from listening to magisters talking while I guarded my master. It amused Danarius that I developed such a wide vocabulary and such exacting diction. I suppose I could change it, but it is a long-standing habit of speech..."
Isabela snorted, then suddenly rolled closer and kissed him. "Don't change it. It's part of what makes you you. Unless you want to change, and then by all means do whatever pleases you. But you're so lovely to listen to, especially in that wonderfully deep voice, that I hope you don't."
Fenris had to smile at that, and kissed her in return, raising his hand to tangle in her hair for a moment. "I should go," he said afterwards, regretfully, then smiled. "Pursue Alistair if you wish; I think it would do the man good."
Isabela smiled and nodded, and rolled over on her side to watch appreciatively as he rose and redressed, leaning down to kiss her a final time before he left.
Watching the occasional manoeuvring between Isabela and Alistair over the next few weeks amused him, taking his mind off of his own dark thoughts. It was like watching a dance; Isabela would show up, talk, flirt a little with Alistair, then retreat again as soon as he began to get too flustered. Which sometimes took a surprisingly long time; a fact she privately expressed some surprise to him over some little time later. He laughed, and pointed out that Alistair's lack of experience didn't imply a lack of knowledge; this was a man who had been raised in a stable, after all, and then later dealt with Zevran's rather blatant approaches and total disregard of privacy for over a year.
If it was a dance, it was certainly once Isabela was very experienced with. And also one she was very, very good at. Less than a month later, Alistair hesitantly approached Fenris.
"Err. About Isabela. Are you sure it won't upset you if I... if she... if she and I..." he trailed off, blushing.
Fenris smiled, letting his amusement show. "I promise you, it won't upset me. If you're curious, go ahead – I agree with Sebastian and Zevran that she is likely to be a very good first experience for you."
That made the man blush even more darkly, then he suddenly grinned, looking cheerful. "Good. I'll do that then."
He didn't come home the next night. And when he finally did reappear late the next day, having presumably gone straight to work from the Hanged Man, he looked... different. Not in any great way, just a slightly more confident bearing to him, mixed with a tendency to lose his chain of thought and stare off into the distance, a bemused look or a slight smile on his face. He was very quiet for a couple of days, and then disappeared for another evening, and after that seemed back to normal, though the confidence remained. And perhaps more tellingly, his occasional absences continued.
By then Fenris had regained his own equilibrium as well, and was starting to feel what a difference it made in his life that Danarius was dead. Thoughts of his future were no long prefaced with the fear of Danarius reappearing and rendering all his plans moot. He began to take a real interest in the condition of the mansion; most of the preservative magics seemed to be failing now that the mage was dead, and he was finally able to begin properly cleaning out and repairing the more useful sections of it, with some certainty that they would remain that way.
It was a couple of weeks after Alistair had finally taken up with Isabela when Fenris heard a piece of news that disturbed his growing contentment with his life.
"She's living where," he asked sharply, turning to look at Anders as the mage slouched along nearby.
"The alienage. With Merrill. I wasn't sure if you knew or not."
Fenris drew a deep breath through his nose, face setting in an expression of annoyance. "No. I didn't know," he snapped out. "Why did no one tell me?"
"Probably because they guessed you'd react exactly the way you are," Varric pointed out.
"You knew as well?"
"Of course I knew. Everyone knew except you, and the only reason you didn't know is because you haven't been paying much attention lately."
Fenris frowned, then had to admit to himself that the dwarf's words had some truth to them. He'd been distracted lately, and even if he hadn't been, he'd never paid much attention to the witch and her doings apart from the rare time Hawke brought both of along on one of her little adventures. Which she'd only done once since Varania's appearance in Kirkwall and Danarius' death.
"So the wi... Merrill has taken in my sister?" he asked cautiously.
"Yes. Took off after her when Isabela and whatshisname were dragging you off upstairs. I suppose she figured an ex-Tevinter elf wouldn't know much about things like how to find the alienage – it's not like she'd have had any experience of one in Tevinter. Merrill's always been a little soft-hearted. And they're both mages, and female, too. I guess she had some fellow-feeling for her. Anyway, she took your sister in, and has been helping her to fit into alienage life."
Fenris snorted softly. As poorly as Merrill herself fit into the alienage, he couldn't imagine she was a particularly apt teacher. And personally he'd be far more likely to refer to her as soft-headed than soft-hearted, though he supposed she could well be both. Still, what disturbed him most was not her actions, foolish as they seemed to him, but the knowledge that Varania was still here in Kirkwall; still within his reach. Though within his reach for what end, he wasn't quite sure.
They had been close, once. He doubted they ever would be again; too much lay between them now. And yet... she was still his sister. His loss of memory, the many long years that had passed since, her betrayal, could not change that one essential fact.
Knowing his sister was still in Kirkwall preyed on Fenris' mind; any time he was not distracted by other activities, he found himself thinking of her. Remembering things, even more than in the first weeks after Danarius' death, new memories seeming to surface every time his thoughts turned to her and her nearness. Not a day passed now without him suddenly recalling some random incident, a long-missed sensation, or a forgotten feeling. The tired smile on his mother's face as she cooked a meal for them to share; the tug of a broken-toothed comb being pulled through his tangled hair as she neatened him up, his skin damp and cool and clean from being wiped down with a damp cloth, as much of a bath as most slaves were ever able to have. The feeling of being hugged, by her, or by his sister, and the warmth it made him feel inside.
Varania had protected him back then, he knew. He could remember the feel of her thin arm wrapped around his shoulders, comforting him after some incident with other children that had left him feeling shaken and bruised. Remembered, too, some of the games they'd played together as children, in the little free time they had, using lines scratched in the dirt and bits of pebbles and twigs as markers. Sometimes louder, more active play, but generally it was better to be small and quiet, and not draw any attention to oneself. Otherwise work would be found for them, or sometimes punishment, if they'd been too noticeable at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
He'd find himself just stopping sometimes, overwhelmed with memories triggered by some random sound or smell or taste. The damp-soil smell of the Wounded Coast after a rainstorm on a summer day set off a memory of the feeling of hot sun on bare back and shoulders, and the smell of moist, fresh-turned soil in his nostrils as he helped to set seedlings in rows in the master's fields. A slice of sweet melon, the taste of which reminded him of the tiny garden patch they'd had by the door of their hovel in his earliest memories, before Master – not Danarius, some other man whose name he couldn't recall if he'd ever even known it – moved their mother from being a servant at his country estate to his city house. The smell of the dust in the streets of Kirkwall on a warm dry day reminded him of the dust kicked up while he was working to sweep the Master's courtyard, and of other chores he'd been assigned – scrubbing the tiles of the fountains, raking the gravel pathway in the flower garden, anything a small boy could be entrusted to do outside of the house, him not being well-trained enough nor attractive enough to be given work inside.
Less pleasant memories as well; the tidal smell of the seafront market near the docks, the stench of day-old fish, the taste of it too, a ration of fish having replaced some of the vegetables that they used to receive at the country estate. The pain of his back and, worse, the pain of his mother's angry, frightened tears, the time he'd earned a whipping by getting into a fight in the streets. Not a bad whipping, nor hard enough to scar, but yet another reminder that he was a slave, property, not to do anything that his Master didn't approve of. Not even defend himself against tormentors in the street, if his tormentors happened to be freeborn humans.
And gentler memories, of sitting curled up against his mother's side as she told stories to him and his sister. Of sharing a thin pallet on the floor with Varania, cuddled together under a well-worn and much-patched sheet in the comparative cool of the rainy season, or stripped down to just loincloths and sweat-sticky flesh during the hotter times, which was most of the year. Laughter, and tears, and sudden raging-hot anger and arguments, confidences shared, daydreams, jealousies, all his childhood pouring back into him in dribs and drabs, the bright moments and the dark.
He would have to go see her, he knew. Somehow reconcile his memories of the protective, loving older sister with the bitter woman who'd so easily betrayed him. He didn't like the thought of it; he didn't like the alienage to begin with, and liked the thought of visiting the witch in her house even less, but if that was where Varania was to be found... but he didn't want to go. So he put it off, and put it off again, and then one evening after a divvy-up at the Hanged Man found himself turning right instead of left as he stepped out of the building, his feet taking him – reluctantly, and second-guessing himself the entire way – to Merrill's door.
Varania was the one that answered it.
Fenris climbed the stairs to his room, feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally. He'd stayed far later at Merrill's place than he ever would have imagined himself doing; it was well past dark, and the walk from the alienage through Lowtown and up to Hightown had been dangerous. It had also been a blur, his mind too preoccupied to pay much attention to his surroundings; he was lucky not to have been jumped. Perhaps that also explained why he had walked well into the room before noticing that Alistair was still awake – awake, and not alone.
Fenris slowed and stopped, staring at the sight of Isabela and Alistair in bed together. They were both naked, on top of the covers and lit by a single candle on the small table near the bed, Isabela slowly riding Alistair. Even as he watched, mouth going dry with surprised arousal, Alistair gave a soft cry and arched back, his stomach sucking in abruptly as his head and shoulders pressed backwards into the mattress, hands tightening convulsively on the sheets.
He should, perhaps, have left – they must have assumed he was gone overnight when he hadn't returned that evening; Hawke's adventures often ran to more than a single day in length. But seeing Alistair and Isabela like that, imagining from his own experience with her what the pirate might have just done to get such a strong reaction from the warrior under her, he was suddenly fully aroused, almost painfully so given the constriction of his clothing. Without considering what he was doing, he moved closer for a better view.
He should have considered how difficult it was to sneak up on a talented rogue; Isabela turned her head to look at him even as she kept up the slowly rippling motion of her hips, a welcoming smile lighting her face. She tilted her head back, turning just slightly and moistening her lips in obvious invitation. An invitation he found himself unable to resist, taking the final few footsteps to stand beside the bed, leaning down to kiss her, one hand rising to card into the strands of hair at the back of her head, the other moving to caress her closest breast. She moaned and arched her back, pushing herself against his cupped hand.
"Oh," Alistair said in a very small, surprised voice. Fenris stopped the kiss, turning his head to look at his friend. Alistair looked startled, eyes wide, an embarrassed flush colouring his cheeks as he stared up at the two of them.
Fenris started to straighten up, meaning to retreat, but Isabela's hands caught at him, pulling him down for another kiss. He could feel a flush of self-conscious embarrassment heating his own cheeks, was sure that he and Alistair must be a matched set now, equally red.
"Stay," Isabela said softly when she ended the kiss. "It's all right. Isn't it?" she asked, turning her head to look at Alistair calmly.
He was even redder in the face than Fenris had imagined he would be, his wide eyes looking first at Isabela, then at Fenris, then back to her. "I... I'm not sure..." he stuttered. "I mean, I've never..." he trailed off.
To Fenris' surprise, the other man sounded more hesitant than off-put or frightened by the idea. Isabela smiled reassuringly at them each in turn, releasing Fenris' head to lean down and touch her hand caressingly to Alistair's cheek, pushing his sweat-soaked hair back from his face. "It will be just fine. Let it be like that first night... just listen to me, and let me guide you. You'll like it... we all will. I promise."
The warrior chewed on his lip, looking searchingly into her eyes for a long moment, then glanced nervously at Fenris. "All right," he abruptly said.
"Good," she whispered, and leaned down, giving him a lengthy kiss. Reward, Fenris assumed, feeling his own initial excitement returning as he watched them. Seeing the way Alistair's hands tangled into her hair, hearing the little sounds they both were making as the kiss went on and on – he suddenly thought he understood the little "oh" that Alistair had made on first catching sight of him. Surprise, yes... but excitement as well.
"Help me undress him," Isabela said to Alistair as she straightened back up, moving off of him with a self-composure that belied the essential ungracefulness of the act. Alistair, of course, flushed darkly again, as Isabela deftly caught up a corner of the sheets to wipe herself dry. He did the same, look far more self-conscious about the act than she did. Isabela moved to the edge of the bed, still on her knees, and began to help Fenris with unfastening and removing his armour, her nimble fingers making short work of the complicated task. Alistair rose to his feet, and stood by uncertainly until Isabela handed him a piece of armour. "Put this away," she told him, smiling reassuringly at him.
Alistair seemed much happier once he had a task he was comfortable doing, and happily went back and forth between the bed and Fenris' armour stand, hanging up pieces as the two removed them, seemingly not even conscious of his own nakedness any more. Not, that is, until Fenris was equally nude. He came to a stop a pace or two away from the elf, his earlier uncertainty returning, hands moving to cup over his groin.
Isabela smiled warmly at both of them, and held out one hand toward Alistair. He took it, hesitantly, and she tugged on it, drawing him closer, pulling him down for another kiss. She whispered something to him, too; just what, Fenris could not hear. But when Alistair straightened up he was smiling again, an odd little still-partially-embarrassed twist of his lips. Only then did Isabela offer a hand to Fenris as well.
He accepted it easily, let her draw him near for a kiss of his own. She whispered to him, too – "Be good," she told him, bringing a slight smirk to his own lips. Unlike Alistair, he was experienced with both sexes, though it was not an experience he had any wish to share with the other man. Nor, he was sure, one that the other man had any wish to experience. Isabela's words were unnecessary; and yet they had served to remind him that he was more widely experienced than the other man, that Alistair might be finding this whole thing far more worrisome than he himself did, and need more reassurance and more careful handling than Fenris himself would. Perhaps that reminder was all Isabela had truly intended by her words. He gave her a very slight nod, as he straightened from their kiss, then looked at Alistair.
"Now what?" the other man asked, sounding a touch uncertain.
Isabela smiled again. "Now you both come here," she said, moving back towards the middle of the bed, and patting the mattress to either side of her. "And we'll have some fun together."
Fenris walked around the foot of the bed, getting in on her right, while Alistair somewhat nervously got into bed on her left. She leaned over and kissed him first, caressing his face with one hand. It was a very lengthy kiss; she kept it going until he finally relaxed again, before she finally ended it and turned to kiss Fenris as well. Not that Fenris minded; watching Isabela kissing another man that thoroughly was rather... warming. Judging by the expression on Alistair's face by the time she'd finished kissing Fenris as well, the other man also found it so.
They progressed slowly, Isabela having the two of them handle her. They were both hesitant at first, and self-conscious, shying away from anything that might make either of them accidentally touch. But as nothing worse happened than Isabela showing her approval of their first careful, guarded touches and occasional brief kiss, they both began to relax and explore her more fully, their hands sweeping over her skin, kisses turning from brief pecks into longer explorations, eventually gaining enough confidence to begin using their mouths elsewhere on her as well. It was exciting, Fenris found, seeing someone else touching her as he did, seeing her reacting to what someone else was doing, not just himself. Sweeping his hand down her stomach, feeling her muscles flexing under his touch as she moaned, not because of the feather-light brush of his hand, but because of what Alistair was doing at the same time to her breast. Hearing her cry out at his touch a little later, the cry muffled by Alistair's kiss. He was soon achingly hard; Alistair the same, if he was any judge of the matter.
As they became more comfortable with what they were doing, they also became less concerned about brushing up against each other; it was Isabela they were focused on. And they knew they could trust each other, that any touching was accidental, not intentional. They began co-operating in what they were doing, and somehow it seemed a natural thing. One would tease her nipple, then the other would suck and nibble on it; kisses were taken in turn, hands drifted here and there, teasing and toying, drawing louder cries and moans from the woman. Nor was she merely a passive recipient in what was happening; her own hands were roaming too, her mouth as well when any part of them was in reach, drawing sounds and reactions from them too.
When she finally guided Alistair onto his back again, and moved to straddle him, resuming what he and she had been doing when Fenris entered the room, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for Fenris to move behind her, straddling Alistair's thighs as she straddled his hips. Natural to continue kissing and caressing her as she rode the other warrior, her buttocks brushing back against him as she rolled her hips, repeated firm pressure against his length that had him moaning and gasping nearly as much as Alistair was. Natural to be watching over her shoulder, one hand cupping her breast while his other rested low on her tummy, feeling the movement within, when Alistair cried out and came.
She lifted herself off Alistair smoothly, turning enough to grip Fenris' arm and urge him to the side. "Lie down," she told him. "Your turn now." And then it was him on his back, and her lowering herself onto him, hotter and wetter than she'd ever been, her hips resuming their rolling movement. He cried out, hands lifting to steady her hips as she rode him, too. He looked to the side; Alistair was still lying there, chest heaving as he caught his breath, watching the pair of them avidly. Their eyes met, and Alistair suddenly smiled, then tiredly heaved himself upright, moving to take the same position Fenris had had before. It felt good, lying there under both of them, watching Isabela respond to Alistair's caresses, feeling her respond, muscles clenching tight deep inside, whenever Alistair did something she particularly liked. Seeing both of them looking down at him, brown eyes and amber, both widely-blown.
Isabela came first, arching back against Alistair, the warrior's strong arms supporting her as she trembled and cried out and rode out her crest. As close as Fenris had been even before she mounted him, it was enough to tip him over the edge as well, his cry even louder, his movements more frenzied, though at least lying down as he was he didn't have to worry about his own balance.
Then they were tumbling together in a pleasantly exhausted pile, chests heaving as they all three caught their breaths, Isabela still in between the two men. After a few minutes, as their excitement ebbed, Alistair sat up and yanked the end of the already-soiled sheet free, and began wiping Isabela clean. That seemed to signal a general re-arrangement, all three of them sitting up and shifting around to get the sheet out from under them. They each claimed a corner of it, and dabbed and wiped at each other, until they were all towelled more-or-less clean and dry again, then Alistair wadded up the sheet and tossed it into the corner.
Isabela sighed contentedly, then chuckled, throwing her arms wide to wrap around both of them. "That was magnificent," she declared. "We should do that again some time."
Fenris and Alistair exchanged a look. Alistair cracked first, grinning and then laughing softly. "It was pretty good. Sure," he agreed, blushing darkly.
Fenris just smiled, then nodded. "All right," he agreed.
Isabela grinned, then gave them each a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek in turn, first Fenris, then Alistair. "Good," she said, then sighed again, followed by a yawn as she let her arms drop back to her sides. "Magnificent, but tiring. Sleep?"
"Yes," Fenris agreed. They lay down again, squirming around to find a more comfortable position. They ended with the two men on their sides, facing inwards, each with an arm draped over Isabela between them. She made a contented sound, wiggling a little more, then they lay still.
Fenris was drifting toward sleep when his stomach gurgled. He tried to ignore it, but a moment later it gave a second, embarrassingly loud rumble.
Isabela laughed softly. "Hungry?" she asked, sounding amused.
"Actually, yes," he admitted, and sighed, moving to disentangle himself from the two of them and sit up. "I didn't eat earlier," he explained, and slipped out of bed, padding bare-foot – and bare-arsed – across the floor to the tin pantry where the food was stored.
Alistair was propped up on one elbow now. "Why not?" he asked, frowning slightly, looking puzzled.
Fenris frowned too as he opened the pantry, taking out some cheese and a handful of dried fruit. "I was visiting Merrill and my sister. I was in no mood to eat."
That had both of them sitting up and watching him. "Visiting them? Whatever for?" Isabela asked, sounding perplexed.
"What did she have to say for herself?" Alistair asked, a more to-the-point question.
Fenris frowned again, then turned away. He put the handful of food down on a plate, then abruptly opened the pantry and took out more cheese and fruit, and a handful of hard biscuits, adding it all to the plate; a good-sized snack for three, not just enough for him. He picked it up in one hand, and a bottle of wine in the other, before turning and walking back over to the bed.. "Here," he said, holding out the plate. "This is going to take a while, and I'm not going to explain on an empty stomach, or without any wine to hand."
Varania looked startled to see him for a moment, then her face set, a guarded look in her eyes. "Yes?" she asked warily, holding the door almost shut. "What do you want?"
"To talk to you," he said, forcing himself to keep his voice even and calm, to keep any hostility out of it.
Varania's eyes narrowed, just slightly, and she looked him over carefully, then her lips pursed and she stepped back, holding the door open wide enough for him to enter. "I suppose you'd best come in then," she said.
Fenris gave her a curt nod, and stepped inside. It was only the second or third time he'd ever been inside the witch's house; a surprisingly large set of rooms for a single elf to occupy in the overcrowded alienage. Varric's influence, he supposed, Merrill having taken up residence in them long before Hawke had any ability to pull strings. The main room looked much the same as he remembered it – the large rough wood table, the pair of chairs, the open shelves full of odds and ends of foodstuffs and herbs, most of which were not meant for eating, but for potion-making, along with a fireplace made out of broken bits of brick and a rusted grate, by the look of it once a decorative fence gate scrounged from Maker-knows-where.
Varania led the way over to the table, and sat down, giving him an almost challenging look. "Sit down," she said, gesturing at the second chair.
He frowned slightly, then did so. They sat in silence for a while, just studying each other. Her hands were trembling as they lay crossed limply in her lap, he noticed. She was frightened of him, for all her lifted chin and false bravado. Good.
It was she that spoke first. "What do you want to talk about?" she asked, voice wavering just slightly.
His frown deepened. He still wasn't entirely sure of the answer to that question, even after the walk here. Even after having considered just that question for the last few days. "I suppose I'm curious," he said. "About you and our mother. About what happened to the both of you, after I won your freedom. About... about what went wrong," he said, voice dropping uncertainly. "It was supposed to make your lives better, not worse."
She studied his face for a moment, than gave a tiny nod. "All right," she said.
It took her a long time. She told him of the vindictiveness of their old master, who'd seen them manumitted and then turned them out in the street. "Go beg that Danarius for work, if you want a job," he'd told them "I have no need for paid servants when I have plenty of slaves who'll do the work free."
He'd been annoyed at the disturbance of his well-ordered household, Varania thought. Annoyed, too, about loosing a bet he'd placed against Leto in the games, the only reason he'd even allowed the boy to enter being that he'd assume Leto would lose. He felt cheated, that he had never known how talented a fighter the largely self-trained slave boy was.
Danarius had no interest in them either; they hadn't even seen him, being turned away at the gates of his mansion, told quite bluntly that his interest in them had begun and ended with his fulfilling Leto's requested boon of seeing them freed. He'd paid an inflated cost to their old master to see it done as it was; he had no more interest in employing them afterwards than their old master did.
They'd had no choice but life on the streets then, learning the hard way just how few opportunities there were in the city for free elves. Most of the very rare paid positions went to well-trained humans with skills worth paying for – things like being trained in proper accounting, or having useful martial skills, or some artistic skill. Most of the menial tasks were done by slaves. Of the handful of paid jobs that remained, openings were rare, and almost always went to a human with connections, not a recently freed elf.
"Even begging in the street was barred to us," Varania explained bitterly. "There's territories, gangs that control them... they beat mother, the one time she tried it. She was a week recovering from it. I had to scavenge scraps from the garbage to feed us. It was a very bad time. I don't think..." she stopped, eyes filling with tears. "I don't think she ever really understood what had happened to us. She'd been a slave, yes, but she'd had value, been trusted to do good work. She'd never been ill-treated. We hadn't been particularly well-fed, but we'd never gone hungry before either. She'd had a home. Now... you were gone, she and I were sleeping in a rank alleyway, eating refuse that we wouldn't have slopped the pigs with back at the master's estate. There was no work. There was no hope, for either of us. It... broke something in her. She was never the same, afterwards. Even after I..."
She broke off, turning her head away, hands clenched tightly in her lap.
"Even after you what?" Fenris forced himself to ask, dreading the answer.
"Even after I took up the one thing I could do to earn any money at all. Whoring on the streets. Three coppers for a hand-job, five for a blow, a full silver for a fast fuck up against the wall," she said, bitterly. "Bottom-end money, but then I was the cheapest sort of whore. And even then, seven coppers out of every silver went to the man who owned rights to that territory. Rent of my bit of street, and protection. Protection!" she cried out. "The only protection I ever got from him was a punch in the stomach and being told to shut it or he'd shut it for me."
She wept for a while then. Fenris stayed silent. It hurt, hearing what had befallen the pair of them. Nor was it the end of the story; instead, only the beginning.
Varania forgot her fear of him, eventually, as caught up in telling the story as she was. She was pacing back and forth, one arm waving around as she angrily talked about how their mother had been cheated out of pay for two weeks hard work, pay they'd been counting on in order to have enough for the exorbitant rent on the small, filthy room they'd finally been able to find for themselves, when Merrill got home.
The witch came to a stop just inside the door, looking warily back and forth for a moment between Varania, who'd come to a stop at her entry, and the still-seated Fenris, then smiled with forced cheerfulness. "Oh, you've come to visit. How nice," she said. "I told Varania you likely would, sooner or later... family is family, after all. I brought food – are you hungry?" she asked, already bustling over to the table and setting down a cloth-covered basket.
Fenris said that he was not, but Merrill seemed not to hear, talking non-stop as she took down three mismatched and cracked plates from one of the shelves, and divided the food – bread, some cheese that had gone all sweaty in the heat, and a handful of sliced root vegetables, rather unevenly roasted – among the three of them. She dragged over a crate to use as a third seat, and beamed at the two of them. "Well, isn't this nice," she said. "What were you talking about?"
Varania gave Merrill a thin smile. "I was telling him about how mother and I lived in Minrathous, after we were freed."
"Oh! That's a sad story. I'm sorry I interrupted it. Do go on... just ignore me," she said, and settled down to eating her food.
Fenris ignored his own plate, too upset to even consider eating. Varania remained silent for a while, pushing around the bits of food on her own plate, lifting a piece of bread and taking a bite of it, lifting a piece of root vegetable – parsnip, he thought – and then setting it down again untasted. Finally she started talking again, not continuing the story from where she'd left off, but telling another tale, of how mother had fallen very ill, of how in her desperation Varania had gone to Magister Danarius' mansion again, planning to beg to see Leto, to beg him for any help he might be able to give her to obtain medicine for their mother.
"You weren't there, nor Danarius. That woman was, his apprentice... Hadriana. She said the pair of you had gone off to Seheron, and she didn't know when you'd be back," Varania said, voice bitter again. "She invited me in, asked me to tell her all about mother. She asked me a lot of questions about you, too – what you'd been like, before. She gave me coin to pay for medicine. But the only person I could find who was willing to look at a dying free elf was a drunkard, and his help did mother no good; she died a few days later anyway."
She fell silent, staring down at her plate fora while before continuing. "I went on, as best as I could. It was easier without her, you know? When I realized that, it hurt even worse than her death had," she said tiredly, and stopped talking and just cried for a while. Merrill reached out and took her hand, holding it while she wept, patting it comfortingly. Fenris sat by, unable to think of anything he could say or do. He felt like he was full of broken glass, that the least movement would shred him apart from the inside, and so he just sat there, utterly still and silent, until Varania recovered her composure enough to continue.
"I managed to put together a bit of a life for myself after that. I even had a man, for a while, a nice one, at least until he died in the streets, caught up in a duel between two minor magisters. He'd helped me to find a job that didn't involve letting men use me. The job even came with a room of my own, not much bigger than my pallet but it had a door that locked and it was mine. It wasn't much of a life, but it was better than it had been."
She fell silent again, for a very long time.
"And then?" Fenris finally prompted her, knowing there must be an and then.
She drew a deep breath and raised her eyes to meet his. "And then I met Hadriana again. I think she may have engineered the meeting – it seemed just random chance at the time, but afterwards... well, there was no good reason for her to be there, the place I was working was a water-front dive, well below her class. She recognized me, and called me over to her table to talk for a little while. Asked what I'd been doing, how I'd been. She came back a couple of times after that, all friendly-like. Found out what skills I had, and then mentioned she might be able to help me find a better job, someone she knew who preferred paid servants over slaves; he felt they were more trustworthy, since they'd lose their position and wage if anything happened to him, while a slave's lot wouldn't change much no matter what happened to their master. Anyway, she arranged for me to meet Magister Ahriman next time he was in the city, and he hired me."
She fell briefly silent. "He wasn't a bad man to work for. About like our old master, only more talkative. Younger. Not bad-looking, for a human," she said, then gave Fenris a sudden look. "I didn't sleep with him, if that's what you're thinking. His tastes ran in a different direction. I was the wrong sex, and not nearly muscular or hairy enough to be of interest to him," she said, mouth twisting in a sudden wry smile.
It startled him. It was the first time he'd seen her smile. It transformed her face, and for a moment he could see in her the sister he'd once loved enough to sacrifice his own freedom for.
"Anyway, we got along reasonably well. I was happy working for him," Varania continued, then sighed. "And then my powers decided to manifest, and I went from being a valued servant to being thrown out on my ear again."
Another silence. "It was another bad time, though nowhere near as bad as it had been back in Minrathous. I knew how to survive as a free elf by then; what dangers to watch out for, what was safe to do, how to get by. I tried contacting magisters, looking for one willing to take me on, to train me – they laughed in my face. And the one that didn't... well, I was lucky and got away before she could do anything to me. Eventually I decided to go back to Minrathous, try to visit Hadriana, see if she could help me again – advise me on how to safely look for a Magister to train me, if nothing else. She wasn't there – dead, Danarius told me. And him in need of a new apprentice... he told me that if I passed his tests, so that he could be sure I was going to be reasonably powerful, he'd happily take me on and train me. He took me in, put me in a beautiful set of rooms, gave me fine clothing to wear, invited me to dine with him at his own table. He made it clear that this wonderful lifestyle could be mine if I passed. Just one little catch, he told me later, after I'd passed all his damned little tests," she said, and blinked back tears.
"Me," Fenris said softly.
"Yes, you. He told me you'd betrayed him, that you'd ran away. That he wanted you back. That if I helped him to recapture you, he'd train me. That I would be powerful; I'd never have to live on the streets again, never go hungry. I'd be a Magister, one of the elite."
She was blinking back tears again, and when she continued speaking, her voice was raw with emotion. "I guess I convinced myself that it was the right thing to do. You'd given up any chance of freedom once before to give it to mother and I – why wouldn't you be willing to give up for freedom a second time, for the same goal," she said. "Maker, I was so stupid... so gullible."
Fenris chewed on his lip for a moment, then sighed. "It wasn't necessarily you making the decision. Once you were living in his house... it would have been very easy for him to control you. As a blood mage, he could influence your sleeping mind, even if he hadn't turned you into an outright blood thrall yet, which he may well have. Ask Merrill, she can tell you," he said, nodding at the other elf.
"It's true," Merrill agreed, nodding emphatically. "It's one of the darker aspects of blood magery; there are good uses that can be made of the ability to influence or control another, but mostly it only ever gets used for bad reasons. And as Fenris says, if you were living in his house... it would have been very easy for him, especially since you hadn't learned any mental defences yet."
"And is she learning them now?" Fenris asked, unable to keep a suspicious tone out of his voice when he asked.
"Yes, of course she is," Merrill said, giving him a surprised look. "It's the first thing I taught her; how to shield her thoughts. It's the way we Dalish always work; we learn a good solid defence first, and then once we're well-grounded in the basics we move on to more practical magics. There's little sense in being able to summon up a wild storm, yet still being vulnerable to the first minor imp of the fade that trips over you," she said sternly.
Fenris declined to comment on that. What the witch said made sense, even if she'd fallen victim to a demon herself. And it wasn't far off the way he'd often seen soldiers being trained; first taught how to defend themselves, and then moving on to being able to attack without dropping their defences.
It was only as a yawn suddenly escaped him that he realized how late it was; how long he'd already been here, listening to his sister talk. "I hadn't realized the hour; I should go," he said, rising abruptly to his feet.
"But you haven't eaten at all..." Merrill protested.
"I'm not hungry," he said, and started for the door, then stopped, and turned to look back at the two women, meeting Varania's eyes. "May I visit you again?" he asked hesitantly. "I... there's so much more for us to talk of."
She nodded, slowly. "I think I'd like that," she said uncertainly. "Yes. Come again, when you can."
"Thank you," he said, nodded to the both of them, then turned and hurried out, head swimming as he tried to take in all that Varania had told him.
Things settled down again after that. Fenris and Alistair continued seeing Isabela, usually at different times but occasionally together. Fenris visited with Varania every now and then, a degree of... well, not quite trust, but at least less distrust... slowly beginning to establish itself between them. Sebastian still came over to their place regularly for conversation and drinks. It was all very pleasant and comfortable.
It might well have continued that way indefinitely, the pair of them continuing their life together there in Hightown, but fate intervened late one overcast evening, as red light seared into the sky, the chantry coming apart in a violent explosion whose sound didn't reach them for a second or two after the light did. Like the thunder after a lightning flash, Fenris found himself thinking, except this sound went on and on and on, almost drowning out Sebastian's scream of shock and grief. Fenris himself stood frozen, staring dumbly at Anders once he'd managed to tear his gaze away from the red-lit cloud of dust.
He couldn't believe the mage had done this. For all the times he'd spoken up about the dangers of mages, the terrible ways so many of them, at least in Tevinter, had often chosen to misuse their powers... Blight it all, he'd come to trust Anders, at least enough to think the man would at least try to use his powers only for good purposes. Had it all been a mask after all, his caring for the sick and injured and poor, a way to hide his true intentions from them all?
No... not all. He caught the look Hawke exchanged with the mage before Anders turned away, slouching off to sit down on a nearby crate with his back to them, shoulders hunched. He felt a chill go down his spine, a churning in his stomach. She'd known. Known, and possibly even helped to cause this... this atrocity.
It seemed so unreal, watching things play out... Meredith and Orsino's argument, the departure of Merdith after Hawke declared her intention to side with the mages, followed shortly thereafter by Orsino's departure as he hurried back to the Gallows to prepare the mages to resist the templar's forthcoming attack. Sebastian's anger over Anders' actions, and his rage-filled demands for the mage's immediate death. His abrupt departure when Hawke flatly turned him down.
"Aveline..." Hawke said almost pleadingly, looking at the other woman's stony face; her oldest friend among them.
"I can't help you with this, Hawke," Aveline said coldly. "I have a city to protect, people to save, any for whom it's not already too late. Good-bye, Hawke," she said, voice catching for a moment, then turned and walked off, back stiffly upright, shoulders straight, but her gaze turned down toward the ground.
He shook his head. He'd loved the woman more than a little once, had trusted her for years – but this was going too far. "This is a hopeless cause, Hawke. I'm sorry... but I'll be helping Aveline, not you," he said. Turning and walking away was one of the hardest things he had ever done; but he could not help her and damned pet mage. Whether or not the mages of the Circle, largely innocent of Anders' crime, deserved protection... no. There were too many innocents, neither mage nor templar, who were now caught up in this. They needed protection far more than anyone else right now.
"I'll help you, Hawke, of course I will!" he heard Merrill exclaiming as he walked away. He felt a pang as the sound of her voice made his thoughts turn to Varania... he hoped she was all right. She should be; the alienage was the furthest from the chantry of any part above-ground part of the city save the docks and the Gallows themselves. The elves, used to occasional outbursts of violence from their human neighbours, were likely erecting barricades to seal off the alienage even now. No, it was others he worried about more. Sebastian, who'd seemed half-mad as he rushed away, so overwrought by the sudden violent turn of events. Alistair, who Fenris was relieved to remember would have been at work still when the chantry exploded, thankfully well away from Hightown.
He turned his steps that way, hurrying now, all too aware of the distant swell of sound that meant rioting was already breaking out somewhere in the city. He arrived to find Alistair just helping the shopkeeper to fasten the last heavy storm-shutters closed over the shop's windows.
"Fenris!" Alistair cried, face lighting momentarily with relief when he spotted the elf. He turned to his boss, quickly exchanging a few words with the man. The shopkeeper nodded, then disappeared into his store, the door closing behind him with a dull thud, echoed a moment later by the sound of the bar dropping to hold it shut against any common force.
"What's going on? What is this insanity?" Alistair asked, looking almost frightened as he looked up towards Hightown, where a vast cloud of dust and fire-lit smoke towered into the sky.
Fenris glanced around to make sure there was no one near before he spoke. "The mage did it... Anders," he said quietly. "He has some foolish idea of any change being better for the mages than none at all."
Alistair gaped at him for a moment, then looked back upwards again. "Anders did this! He's mad!" he exclaimed, voice horrified. "They'll kill them all!"
"Meredith already proclaimed the Right of Annulment. She's heading back for the Gallows as soon as she can round up whatever templars are available on this side of the harbour," Fenris said, then looked away for a moment, voice filled with pain. "Hawke's going there as well, to protect the mages. I... couldn't stay with her. Not after she helped Anders to do this."
"She helped..." Alistair exclaimed, then broke off. "No, don't tell me any more right now; there's no time. If we're going to help anyone, we'd best get moving."
"Aveline will be up there by now," Fenris said, nodding in the direction of where the chantry had once stood. "I plan to offer her my services, such as they are."
"Sounds good," Alistair agreed. "Let's go."
They saw looters already at work on their way to the foot of the stairs, taking advantage of the chaos to plunder the marketplace stalls. They passed a couple of bodies, as well; an old man in a robe who'd been beaten to death, mistaken for a mage. A shopkeeper who'd protested the theft of his goods. They only stopped once, Alistair pulling his sword and racing into an alley mouth to cut down a pair of men who had a young elven woman down on the ground.
"Can you make it back to the alienage on your own?" Fenris asked her. "If not, you'd be safer sticking with us – we're going up to Hightown, there'll be guards there. And they'll need the hands of anyone willing to dig in the rubble or carry a bucket," he added grimly.
"I can do that," she answered fearfully, quickly tugging her clothes straight. They picked up a few more frightened people on their way to the stairs, all of whom were grateful for an escort of well-armed men. They took the stairs are a near-run, reaching the top of find a squad of Aveline's guards blocking the top. Thankfully Guardsman Brennan was leading the squad, and on recognizing Fenris let their group through. "The Captain will be glad to see you," she told Fenris, then turned back to guarding the stairs.
They found Aveline near the smoking pile of rubble that had been the chantry, watching with a bleak expression on her paler-than-normal face as people struggled to dig among the ruins, looking for survivors, while others formed bucket-chains to get water to the several fires that the explosion had started. She quickly sent off the people they'd brought along to join the work crews, then gave Fenris a thin smile. "I'm glad you're here," she said, and glanced at Alistair. "Both of you. I'm short of capable leaders at the moment. If you're willing, I'd like to deputize both of you, and have you lead groups down to try and restore order in Lowtown. It must be a madhouse down there by now," she said unsteadily.
"Headed that way, yes," Fenris agreed, then looked around, frowning. "Have you seen Sebastian at all?"
"Yes. He's leading the digging crews, over there somewhere. I don't think you'll get him to leave off that short of hitting him over the head with a pry-bar; it's his friends under all that stone," she said, looking toward the pile again. "Maker guide and guard them... I doubt they'll find anyone alive under all that. At least it was quick. I hope it was quick."
Fenris nodded, relieved to know that the man had at least made it here safely. "All right. Give us some guards to command, and we'll be on our way."
She turned back to them. "Who stayed with her?" she asked first, not needing to specify whom she spoke of.
"Merrill, Varric, Anders. And Isabela," he added, a note of worry in his voice.
Aveline nodded, then turned away, already calling out orders. They were headed back down the stairs within ten minutes, two squads of guards at their heels.
They stopped for a moment at the bottom. "I'll head for the docks," Fenris said. "You handle the side over toward the alienage."
"Right," Alistair agreed with a nod, then suddenly threw his arms around Fenris' shoulders and hugged him tightly. "Don't so anything too heroically stupid," he cautioned the elf. "I'd prefer to see you still in one piece when all this is over."
Fenris found himself unexpectedly touched by the other man's show of affection. "I'll do my best," he said. "You do the same, all right?"
Alistair nodded as he released Fenris and stepped back. "I promise. See you back up top when all this is over."
Fenris nodded as well, reaching out to touch Alistair's arm for a moment, then the two turned and hurried off in their separate directions.
It was a very long night; in addition to looters and rioters, they also found themselves having to deal with abominations. The guards had been hesitant when they encountered the first one; Fenris waded in and dispatched it with ease, thankful that it was a fairly weak one. "Abominations die just like anything else, if you stick your sword in enough places," he told the guards following him. They performed better on their second encounter with one of the horrific creatures, and with confidence after that.
It was nearly dawn by the time Fenris had his side of Lowtown secure. He stood on the end of one of the docks, leaning on his sword as he caught his breath, looking out toward the Gallows and wondering how the battle there was going, or had gone. No telling from here if it was over yet or not.
For a moment he considered finding a boat, gathering some of his guardsman, and going over there himself, to see how things stood and try to end it himself if need be... then he remembered Alistair's parting words.
"No stupid heroics," he muttered softly to himself, and turned his back on the Gallows.
He was halfway up the stairs when he heard a familiar voice call his name. Leaning over the railing to look down at the lower turn of the stair, he saw a tired-looking Alistair leading his own group of equally-tired-looking guards up the stairs. He smiled, feeling a surge of the relief that the other man had also survived the night unharmed. Or at least, largely unharmed, he corrected himself, noticing the way Alistair was limping, his right arm draped over a guard's shoulder, unable to put his full weight on that leg.
"What happened to your leg?" he called down.
Alistair grimaced, then called up his answer. "Pride demon. Damn thing grabbed me by the leg and shook me like a rag-doll before we managed to get the sharp end in the right bit of it. I think some muscles are torn; nothing worse, thankfully, though it was a close thing; it was about to try slamming me into the side of a building when it suddenly grew a sword in the spine and lost all will to live."
Fenris snorted softly. Trust Alistair to make light of something potentially quite serious. "I'll see you up top," he called back.
Alistair nodded, raising one hand in acknowledgement, then bent his attention back to his footing and resumed his slow climb up the stairs. Fenris hurried the rest of the way up, gladdened that the other warrior was all right, and turning his thoughts to his other friends.
Guardsman Brennan was still controlling the top of the stairs, looking tired but uninjured. "No relief for you yet?" Fenris asked her.
She shook her head. "Soon," she said. "Captain Aveline thought it was more important to relieve the people doing the heavy work first," she explained, nodding to the tired guards at Fenris' back, then waved Fenris and his men through. The guardsmen headed off to their barracks in the Keep for some well-earned rest, while he made his way to the chantry in search of Aveline and Sebastian. Aveline was still there, sitting on a block of stone at the foot of the rubble-covered front steps. By the state of her hands, she'd spent some time digging among the ruins herself. By the marks on her dust-covered face, she's also spent some time crying.
"Any word of Hawke and the others yet?" Fenris asked her.
"I've heard nothing," she said tiredly. "I don't know whether that's a good sign or a bad one. How's your friend Alistair?"
"Slightly injured but still mobile; he should be at the top of the stairs by now. How's Sebastian?"
Aveline looked grim for a moment. "Not good. We found bodies. And a lot of bits. He's in shock, I think, but he won't stop digging."
"Any sign of the Grand Cleric?"
"No. It might be days until we recover her, if we even find anything... recognizable. A woman who'd left the chantry just before the explosion says that when she left, Elthina was in the nave, somewhere near Andraste's statue."
Fenris looked at the huge pile of rubble, judging where that would be. Nothing more needed to be said; there was some tiny chance they might find someone living among the ruins, but in that area of them... impossible, short of a miracle. Both towers had toppled together there, a towering mass of fractured stone and small rubble. Even from here he could see the smoke-stains that marked where fires had burned within the pile, as oil lamps, candles, and fireplaces had been jumbled together with flammable materials in the building's collapse.
"Get him out of here, Fenris... he might listen to you. It's doing him no good to be here," Aveline said quietly, a tremor in her voice.
Fenris nodded. "I'll do what I can. Where is he?"
"Over there around to that side of the pile," she said, pointing. "There was a delivery entrance to the cellars there, he says, though it's under some rubble now. I suppose he hopes the groining of the undercroft was strong enough to hold up all that weight, and that there might be survivors down there."
Fenris nodded again. "Have Alistair wait here for me, if he comes to report to you instead of going straight home," he said, eyeing the rubble with some misgivings. "I don't want him trying to walk over that with a bad leg."
Aveline nodded, then went back to contemplating the rubble as Fenris moved away. Not that she was able to so for very long; even as Fenris moved away, glancing back at her as he left, he saw Donnic entering the square, looking every bit as tired as Fenris felt. Doubtless he, too, had been busy maintaining order somewhere in the city and was now back to report.
He almost didn't recognize Sebastian at first. At some point since they'd parted the night before, the Prince had stripped off most of his armour, leaving him clad in just his leggings, and a pair of well-worn leather boots a size too big that he must have borrowed from someone. He was streaked in dust and sweat, skin darkening with bruises, marked here and there with bloody scrapes from the rough stone. His hands were a mess; nails and skin torn, knuckles bruised and scraped, roughly bandaged with strips of cloth.
He didn't even notice at first when Fenris called his name; not until the elf got close enough to grip his shoulder and shake it. He looked around, eyes dazed, a look of torment on his face.
"Fenris," he croaked out. "Have you come to help? Good – we can use all the hands we can get..."
"Sebastian... enough. You need to stop and rest," Fenris told him.
"I can't... we're so close! Just a little further," Sebastian insisted, already turning back to resume shifting rubble away from the area where he and his crew were digging.
He would not be persuaded to leave. They were close to the doors, he insisted, pointing out a darker flagstone underfoot in the area that had already been cleared, and insisting it was one that he knew was just a few paces away from the door. Finally Fenris gave in, cursed, and began helping to shift rocks as well. "Only to the door," he told Sebastian. "Once we've uncovered it, that's it – you're done."
"All right. To the door. Once it's opened..."
They worked side by side in silence for some time. Suddenly one of the diggers gave a shout. "The door! Look, over here..."
Everyone scrambled over to see. A slab of wood was visible, studded with nail heads in a decorative pattern. "That's it!" Sebastian exclaimed joyfully. "Quick, clear around it..."
His joy was short-lived. It didn't take very much digging to realize they hadn't found the door, but instead just the shattered remains of one leaf of it, shoved outwards from its frame as rubble had filled in the undercroft behind it. The groins had not held.
"Come away, Sebastian," Fenris said quietly. "There's nothing more to be done here."
Sebastian nodded, and just stood there for a long moment, face turned up to look at the rubble pile, arms hanging limply at his sides, shoulders slumped, his face a mask of grief. After a while his lips started moving; the words too quiet to make out at first. His back slowly straightened, his voice firming.
"Maker, though the darkness comes upon me, I shall embrace the light. I shall weather the storm.
I shall endure. What you have created, no one can tear asunder. "
The diggers all stopped, bowing their heads. First one, then another, began to speak the words along with him, softly at first, then a growing chorus of voices.
"Though all before me is shadow, yet shall the Maker be my guide. I shall not be left to wander the drifting roads of the Beyond. For there is no darkness in the Maker's Light, and nothing that He has wrought shall be lost."
The prayer was spreading outwards from where they were, like ripples crossing a still pond, voices rising all around the ruins of the chantry as people stopped their digging to pray.
"Draw your last breath, my friends," Sebastian began the final stanza, but his voice broke on the word 'friends' and he covered his face, unable to continue, weeping bitterly. But the prayer did not stop; the Canticle of Trials was well known by all; the chorus of voices continued, falling silent only at the end.
"Cross the Veil and the Fade and all the stars in the sky. Rest at the Maker's right hand, and be Forgiven."
Fenris touched Sebastian's arm, gently. "Come away," he said, voice low and soft. "You've done what you could here."
Sebastian nodded, and followed him away.
Alistair was seated on the lump of stone that Aveline had been previously occupying, staring at the pile with an expression every bit as bleak as hers had been.
"Where's Aveline?" Fenris asked as he guided Sebastian down the slope of loose rubble toward the other warrior.
"Gone down to the docks," Alistair said, sounding exhausted and numb. "Word came a little while ago... it's all over. Most of the mages are dead. It's a mess over there; Orsino went all blood-mage-abomination in a big way, after the templars slaughtered half the mages. Hawke had to kill him herself, from what the messenger was saying. The templars went over to Hawke's side eventually; Meredith went totally insane before the end of things, to the point there wasn't anyone who would follow her orders any longer. She may well have been a mage herself; it sounds like she doing some kind of magicbefore it was all over. Animating statues to attack everyone in sight, and stuff like that."
"Maker," Fenris swore softly.
"What about Anders? Does the abomination still live?" Sebastian asked harshly.
"I don't know; the messenger didn't say," Alistair told him. "Only about Hawke and Orsino and Meredith."
"Come on... let's go home," Fenris said tiredly. It took both him and Sebastian to get Alistair there, his leg having stiffened up while he sat. But with one of them to either side of him, they made slow but steady progress to Fenris' mansion.
They came to an abrupt stop, just inside the door. Alistair began to laugh weakly; Fenris and Sebastian just stared. An enormous chunk of masonry had scored a direct hit on the mansion, taking out what was left of the roof of the entry hall. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting the mass of stone and rubble that lay between the arms of the paired staircases as if on intentional display there, the bright light revealing the carving of chained, grieving slaves on the face closest to the door.
Fenris sighed. "If I needed any further sign that now would be a good time to move out of here, that would be it," he said dryly. "Come on. Let's go get some sleep."
They got Alistair out of his armour and into bed first, Sebastian sponging off the worst of the stone-dust and dried blood from his own skin while Fenris raided the pantry, piling bread, cheese, and dried fruit and meat on the plate. They ate in bed, Alistair with his usual phenomenal hunger, Fenris eating because he knew he should regardless of his lack of appetite, and Sebastian listlessly, nibbling on the same ring of dried apple for several minutes before dropping it back on the plate, only half-eaten.
Alistair picked it up, and put it back in his hand. "Eat," he commanded the other man. "You need to, whether you feel hungry or not."
"I can't," Sebastian said, making a move to drop the fruit again.
"You can, and you will," Alistair said sternly. "No giving up. No turning your face to the wall and stopping eating and letting yourself grieve until you fall completely apart. Now eat."
Sebastian snorted. "Voice of experience?" he asked.
"Yes. Very painful experience. Don't be as big a fool as I was, Sebastian. Eat. Sleep. Grieve if you have to, but don't let it become all that's left of you, the grief or the anger," he said softly.
Sebastian nodded, tiredly, and resumed nibbling half-heartedly at the fruit. When he finished it, Alistair offered him a strip of the dried meat, but at Sebastian's grimace and shake of head, put it aside and offered him a wedge of cheese instead. That the man was able to stomach, and finished most of it, before he suddenly, between one bite and the next, started crying again. Silently this time, the tears just sliding slowly down his cheeks. Alistair took the bit of cheese from his hand, returned it to the plate, and handed it off to Fenris. "Let's get him to bed," he said quietly, tugging Sebastian down beside him.
Fenris nodded, clearing away the remains of their meal and then stretching out of the other side of Sebastian from Alistair. It reminded him of Zevran's stay here, and how he and the assassin had slept with Alistair between them, both giving him comfort by their presence. With that thought in mind he found it easy to move closer, to drape one arm over his friend. Sebastian gave a single audible sob, and rolled over, burying his face against Fenris' shoulder as he cried. Fenris found himself rubbing Sebastian's back soothingly, as Zevran had Alistair's. After a long while Sebastian fell silent, and a little while after that, went limp in sleep.
The two warrior's rearranged themselves into more comfortable positions, moving carefully so as not to disturb the sleeping man, and soon all three were dead to the world.
A voice woke Fenris. Female, and somewhere near, and sounding more than a little scared.
"Fenris? Are you here?"
He blinked as he sat up, head pounding. Still daylight... only a few hours since they'd arrived home, judging by the angle of the light streaming in. Alistair and Sebastian were already stirring as well, disturbed by the noise. No sense in trying to be quite.
"Varania?" he called back, slipping out of bed and rising to his feet.
"Oh, thank the Maker! I was beginning to think you weren't here," she exclaimed, and came into view, picking her way through the bits of roofing material scattered on the landing outside the door.
"I'm glad to see you're safe," he said. "How are things in the alienage?"
She made a face as she entered the room. "A mess," she said. "But that's not what I'm here about," she said, and paused, looking startled as she took in the other two men waking up in the bed behind Fenris. She flushed slightly, then turned her eyes back to Fenris and continued. "I've come to say good-bye," she said, voice a little unsteady. "I'm leaving Kirkwall."
"Leaving? For where? Not back to Tevinter I hope?" Fenris asked worriedly.
"No. Not there. Merrill is going to Ferelden; that pirate friend of hers is taking her. It's better for elves there than here, she says. And I'm going with her," she said, almost defiantly, and drew herself up a little straighter. "I didn't want to leave without at least trying to find and tell you. I don't... I didn't want to just vanish, with you never knowing what happened to me. I've lived through that from the other side myself," she finished, a little unsteadily. She paused, glanced worriedly at the other two men. "Isabela said to tell you there's room on the boat for you and a friend, if you want to leave too. But she also said she suspected you'd be charting separate courses for a while."
Fenris nodded slowly, understanding what Isabela wasn't saying as much as what she was. "She's taking Hawke too."
"Yes," Varania admitted. "Though she's not going to Ferelden; that's just our first stop. That dwarf is staying behind though; says he has too much unfinished business to take care of here in Kirkwall."
"And the mage?" Sebastian piped up, voice surprisingly calm.
"With Hawke," Varania said, sounding nervous again. "Will you come?" she asked Fenris, almost pleadingly.
"No. Hawke and I have parted ways. I have no wish to ever encounter her again. But I'll write to you, when I can... though I'm not sure where to write," he added, frowning in perplexity.
"Write to her care of the hahren of the Denerim alienage," Alistair spoke up. "He – or she, the one I knew might have passed on by now – can see the letter gets to Varania, if she leaves word with him of where she can be found."
Fenris nodded, and turned back to Varania. "Do you need anything?" he asked anxiously. "Money, or...?"
She smiled. "No. I've enough for now."
A brief silence fell, the two looking uneasily at each other. One or the other of them moved, just slightly, and then they stepped together and were hugging each other tightly. "Be careful," Fenris told her. "Look out for yourself, Varania."
"I will," she said, voice unsteady, and managed a smile at him as they separated. "Be well... Fenris," she said, reaching up to touch his cheek lightly, and then she turned and was gone, hurrying away to get back down to the docks.
Fenris stood there, unsure how he felt. A curious mix of sadness that she was gone from his life again, relief that she was safe, and hope that in Ferelden she might make a decent life for herself.
"Well. If we're leaving here too – and you did say it was time to move on, earlier – where should we go?" Alistair spoke up again after a while.
Fenris turned, and looked at his two friends. He found himself smiling warmly at the two of them. "I don't know. Not Ferelden though; I can't abide the cold."
"I've no interest in going there either. Too many bad memories and people I'd rather not encounter again."
"Orlais?" Fenris suggested, lifting an eyebrow.
Alistair made a face. "Too Orlesian."
"Too many Crows, and never the right one. Somewhere that he can actually drop in and visit sometime without assassins popping out of the woodwork to take a shot at him would be nice."
"There's always Starkhaven," Sebastian said, more than a little hesitantly.
"And a throne to be recovered?" Alistair asked, smiling.
Fenris smiled too. "Maybe Varric will start writing about us, in that case," he said, and laughed at the identically puzzled looks the two gave him. "I asked him once why he wasn't more interested in you, Alistair – his reply was..."
"...that a bastard prince that valiantly overcomes all odds to regain his father's throne would sell. But who would want to read about a drunken failure?" Varric said, stepping into the room, a tired smile on his face, Bianca resting on his shoulder. "By the Stone but that was a nice entrance line, broody. Couldn't have planned that better if I was writing it myself," he said, then looked at the three men in turn. "You boys moving on, I take it?"
The three exchanged looks, then tiny nods. "Yes," Fenris said, turning back to Varric. "You're staying?"
"Yeah. About time I made some show of earning the money I get as the merchants guild leader. There's going to be an awful lot of rebuilding needed here. Nothing like a little major disaster to present untold opportunity for profit," he said, grinning in the way that said even he didn't believe his own words. He turned and looked questioningly at Sebastian. "Going to go retake your father's throne? Are you going to... what were those words again... oh yes, 'bring such an army with me on my return, there'll be nothing left of Kirkwall for these maleficarum to rule', I believe you said?" he asked, seemingly casually, but Fenris didn't miss noticing how tense the dwarf was.
"Take back the throne, yes. March on Kirkwall... no," Sebastian said tiredly. "That was my anger and grief speaking. Elthina loved this city, and its people. She would return from beyond death to box my ears if I did any such thing."
"And what about Anders? Or Hawke?" Varric asked, already relaxing.
"I'll not pursue them. Though if either ever crosses my path again..." Sebastian broke off, and shook his head. "I still can't believe Hawke did that. Siding with that... that abomination in such a thing! Helping him to kill so many innocent people! I trusted her with my life, yet it's only blind chance that I, too, was not in the chantry when it fell," he said bitterly.
Varric sighed, slouching visibly. "I still don't want to believe it either. She's changed, since Leandra died... and not for the better. Well, I'd better get back to work. Sorting out this mess is going to be the work of months, if not years. Drop me a line sometime, let me know how things are going for you three. Who knows, maybe I'll end up writing a book of your adventures after all," he said, and grinned at them. "Have to think up a nice snappy title. Makes it complicated, there being three of you; two works better for a title. Needs a good rhythm to it, and maybe a little alliteration, like 'Hard in Hightown'. I can't think of any easy way to shorten down 'Two throneless princes and a broody elf' though – and I'm too blighted tired to think straight right now. I'm sure it'll come to me eventually. Anyway. Good luck to all of you. I'll be seeing you. Or not."
"Good-bye, Varric," Fenris called out as the dwarf turned away. Varric raised a hand, not looking back, and then he, too, was gone.
The three men looked at each other. "When should we leave?" Alistair asked.
"I'd think as soon as possible," Sebastian said, frowning. "The longer we wait, the harder it will be to obtain supplies for the road," he pointed out. "Can you even travel yet, Alistair? Your leg..."
Alistair smiled crookedly. "Grey Warden, remember. It's healing already. As long as we take it easy the first day or two I should be fine. Just don't ask me to be doing any long-distance running, or jumping down cliffs, or clambering up a dragon's neck or anything like that, okay?"
Sebastian grinned. "I can't guarantee anything, that rather depends on whether or not we encounter any bandits, giant spiders, tal'vashoth..."
"...slavers, darkspawn, blood mages..." Fenris chimed in.
Alistair grinned. "...lunatic dwarves, bloodthirsty cultists, or Crow assassins."
"Barring those, we should have an easy trip," Sebastian said, blue eyes sparkling with momentary good humour, then he sighed. "As many times as I've considered returning to Starkhaven... I never thought it would be like this."
"At least you've got friends to help you through the tough parts," Alistair said, and smiled, looking at Fenris. "It makes a huge difference."
"Yes, it does," Fenris agreed, smiling back. "All right. Supplies. We'll need hard tack, cheese, dried meat, dried fruit, more cheese, grain..."
"And extra cheese," Alistair chimed in, rising to his feet with a grimace. "Ow. Dibs on a bath before we go. I have bruises on my bruises and I smell like a Lowtown gutter."
"And extra cheese," Sebastian agreed, as he climbed out of bed too. "Enough to sate this bottomless pit and leave at least a little for us."
"That would take an awful lot of cheese," Fenris pointed out. And smiled.