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Where the Red String Ends

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They called him Healer, Apostate, the Anders. Names given, never chosen. Badges worn with pride nonetheless. To the residents of Darktown, to the refugees of the Blight, the names had become whispered treasures, resources pooled together between themselves for survival. They were careful with the titles, secreting them away in alleyway corners, hiding them in shadows too stark and fathomless to catch templar light.

Healer was a name he never charged for. Still, many had tried to insist on payment. Countless times, a patient dragged from the brink of a fevered death, the mother of a fresh newborn, a child no longer hobbling off a broken ankle— they would force their last coin into his palm, marking his hand with a crescent dent as he pulled away. He would refuse their offer once more, fold their fingers over the coin, tell them a place where a copper could buy a sound dinner. It did no good to charge those with nothing for services meaning more than coin hoped to be worth.

Weaver was the name he made a living by.

-

The clinic lamp burned against the sky, replacing the fading rose-gold lights of sunset. Patients settling in for the night slid into their cots and drew their fabric curtains closed, their limbs lead-heavy with sleep. Anders busied himself with taking stock of inventory.

He had lost himself so completely in counting herbs and taking notes that he nearly missed the knocking coming from the front doors, the noise so soft he nearly mistook it for a stray bird caught in the rafters. In the space between the oak double doors and entryway, a small woman’s face, round and dusted with freckles, poked through.

He remembered the face well, a Weaving client referred to him little over a year back.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I-I don't mean to trouble you. I—” She opened her mouth and paused, then pursed it shut.

“Hiding a sword underneath that dress, are you?”

The woman blinked. “No?”

“Then you’re no trouble at all!” He grinned and pulled the double doors open for her. “Ella was it?”

“Yes!” she beamed, taking a few steps inside. In an afterthought, she added, “Th-thank you!” as if Anders had done her a great courtesy in just recalling her name.

From what he had gathered of her before, Ella seemed to treat all she met this way. She expected nothing of others, but was so entirely grateful for even the smallest of kind gestures. He was happy to see her again, remembering just how the curves of her cheeks flushed, vibrant with animation, as she spoke. The way her excitement caused her to stumble over sentences. The wrinkle of her forehead when she needed to ask for something, fussing over each individual word, ever so careful to be considerate.

Ridiculous she had once thought her love might not be returned.

In every client that came to Anders’ door, he always found something worth falling for. 

Ella glanced briefly over her shoulder. “Jonathan and Mae will be here shortly. We won’t take long, we promise. We… have a present for you.” She bit the corner of her lip. “A-and a question we’d like to ask, if that’s all right.”

“Of course,” Anders said.

He remembered Jonathan and Mae, too, though he had never met them in person. He had seen them first when he’d held Ella’s hand in his, both of them seated in wooden stools, one across from the other.

Certain things made it easier to Weave— physical touch with his client, close distance to the intended person of interest, the existing strength of connections. Ella ’s strings were countless. They bloomed out from her back like the web of a spider, her single destiny intertwined with a myriad of others, like sinew connecting muscle and bone. Fully immersed, he could see her family, her neighbors, her friends— each a thread with a different coarseness, a different color, a different material and sheen and weight.

The fingertips of his free hand glowed as if dipped in refined lyrium, diving down into the Fade where the tapestry waited. Carefully, he followed each string. Plucked his way through. Searched for a trace of red.

‘This man you fancy, Jonathan, he sells apples by the Docks?’ he had asked, already knowing the answer. He could see him. His face, full of a russet beard and shaggy curls, Ella’s red string wrapped around his finger. But Jonathan was not the only one he saw.

Ella swallowed, her expression a cocktail of fear and hope. She nodded.

‘Well, it looks like he’s already got a girlfriend,’ he said, doing his best to sound dour. It was difficult to keep the frown on his face.

‘Oh,’ Ella said, her expression faltering for only a moment, ‘Oh. I think I know who you mean. Her name is Mae. She’s wonderful, clever, absolutely beautiful. B-But I thought that maybe she was— Well, that’s all right.’ She flashed a dim smile, ‘I-I’m glad they’re both happy. I-’

‘-You’re in luck, is what you are,’ he clucked his tongue, ‘Some people were meant for just one person, and that’s great fortune in this world enough. But only one person was never what was meant for you. You have two.

He would always remember the recognition filling her face then, as she covered one hand over her heart, the other over her mouth. Her tears of joy wetting her eyelashes. Her laughter pealing through her fingers like wind chimes. 

Jonathan followed Ella into the clinic. He stood just at her back, his short arms engulfed by a gift basket of dried fruit. He remained quiet, but his kind blue eyes lingered on her, the sliver of cheekbones above his beard flushing with pride.

Mae followed after, her thick cloud of black hair floating behind her with each step. She presented Anders with a scroll edged in silver leaf, held together with a stamp of wax.

Between the three hung the same red string, only now it had grown into a strong scarlet cord that shone with all the light in their bright faces. It wrapped around their ring fingers— Ella’s tucked under a new, golden band.

“We were wondering— I-I mean if you have the time. We realize you’re very busy— Would you…” Ella paused, remembering to breathe, “Would you please come to our wedding?”

It was not the first invitation Anders had received. In his line of bringing people together, there were too many for him to recite in one breath. Still, the offer never grew stale, “I would love to.”

They talked for hours. Caught up on events, anniversaries, first dates. By the time they had left the clinic, Ella was apologizing profusely as dawn crept into the sky.

Inventory still needed to be finished.

Anders’ stocks were short on the usual, Spindleweed and Elfroot, but there were weeds that were harder to come by. Unlike the Crystal Grace he was now completely out of. He shook his head at himself, but without much shame. Lirene would yell at him tomorrow, he knew, but he could not keep himself from grinning.

Until the parchment he was writing on slipped from his hands, gliding onto the floor with a rustle that cut the air. His gaze dipped to his feet.

Near his ankle, a red rope straggled behind, caked white and gray with dirt. Once, it had been beautiful. A cord of vibrant satin, tightly woven, shimmering with promise. Now the ends puffed out in frayed tendrils, reaching out for its other half, for a wholeness that no longer existed.

The light in Anders’ eyes flickered weakly. His smile suddenly felt carved on his face, a wooden mannequin’s facade.

~*~

Anders was busy healing a patient when he felt that man, Hawke, enter again. He was in different company than the last time. No longer with the dwarf carrying an oversized crossbow, the red-headed battering ram brandishing sword and shield. Hawke himself, though attractive, was a rather rough looking bear of a man, his thick black beard and hard muscle more suited to warrior than mage. The first time he had walked through the double doors, Anders had thought the clinic under attack. It was only when Hawke had raised both hands above his head, lifting his mage’s staff between thumb and forefinger, that Anders had lowered his own weapon.

Hawke’s newest companions now walked ahead of him, leaving him to his business. They wandered the clinic, aimless as clouds, floating in the perimeters of Anders’ vision. One of the them carried an odd resemblance to Hawke. A vague thread in the Fade whispered of some relation. Cousin maybe, or, perhaps more likely, Younger Brother.

The other was a very strange-looking elf.

The elf was particularly distracting. Anders fought to keep his gaze from straying over to him, again and again, but his attention wandered back, compelled by a particular something, caught like a fish on a hook. Whatever that something was, however, Anders could not tell. Not when there was so much about the elf to wonder about.

Lyrium twisted over the elf’s skin in pale, naked branches, spilling down his chin, stretching over long fingers and bone knuckles. Hair fell over his face, grazing his pointed ears in a choppy shock of ghostly white. The heft of a dark connection hung over him that Anders could sense with his Weaving, even without touch. Not a thread, but more a rope, draped around his neck like a hangman’s noose. It preyed on his nape with all of its weight, pushed him into slouching. Bowed the elf over in a pose that reminded Anders sickeningly of a Gallows statue.

Eyes of gilded green darted among the sick in their cots. Guarded. Cautious. Anders wanted to ask Hawke if this particular party member had a problem with magic, but the elf kept looking between the two mages as if he himself could not decide.

Hawke stayed where he was, leaning back against the clinic doors without interfering. He seemed to be doing his best to hide a smirk, and not minding that he was failing at it. He bid his time as if time were meaningless, patiently waiting for Anders to finish up with his business.

Hawke seemed a good enough man. He carried an easy wit and charm that delightfully parried Anders’ own. Under very different circumstances, Anders might have even asked him out for drinks, sought out the comfort of his bed. A bed, no doubt, far warmer and less moth-eaten than his own.

But Anders had learned over the years that, at least for him, those sorts of things lost their joy in the morning. They made him ache with remembrance, whispered to him of a time where his heart had once had its fill of all it could hold. A time where he had never had to settle between the sharp thrills of sex and the familiar warmth of tender arms. Between kisses gentle or claiming. Where he never had to do without hands he knew better than his own, interlaced with his, joined together in a new creation. Without the mirror to his soul, the private conversations spoken words would have only ruined.

Anders pointedly refocused on his patient. However intriguing Hawke and his company were, he knew exactly why they had come. “I thought I told you I wasn’t interested in the Deep Roads.” 

Something crept in Hawke’s grin then as he nodded, an impish pinch of ‘Believe me, I heard you the first time.’

With exaggerated flare, Hawke propelled himself forward, his hands on each knob of the clinic’s double doors, swinging them open. They unfurled at his back like two towering wings. “And I told you I’d find a favor to trade for the help.”

A mew, shrill and familiar, caught Anders’ ear. His chin jerked upward. His amber eyes rounded.

Tiny claws clattered across the clinic’s threshold like hail on a tin roof. A small, furred form wound itself tightly into a spring, then leapt toward him, paws outstretched.

Nostalgia filled Anders with all the weight of the orange tabby settling in his arms. This same orange tabby who had chased birds up the branches of Sylvans in Wending Wood. Who had slept, curled in a ball, snug in the drawer of his desk in Vigil’s Keep. Who had traveled the desolation of Blackmarsh with him, his head poking out from inside his coat.

Ser Pounce had been returned to him.

Anders’ face fell slack. He turned towards Hawke, all words stolen from him, the air sucked from his lungs. Where could he even begin?

Hawke’s smile widened, grand but tender at the edges. “Your friend in Amaranthine practically begged for me to take him. Said he became an absolute terror the very moment you turned your back.”

Anders’ awe shifted into open laughter. “Oh, I believe every word of it.” He dipped his head, cooing mock admonishments into Pounce’s ear. The kitten closed his eyes and purred, shameless.

Anders tipped his face back toward Hawke. “You’re not at all worried he’ll make me soft?” he asked, his words echoing the Warden.

Hawke puffed his chest out, folding a fist over his heart. “Serah Pounce is a comrade in arms, as fit for battle as my mabari. Besides,” he tilted his head, sweeping his shoulders up in an exaggerated shrug, “Couldn’t we all use a little softness in this life?”

Anders nodded in agreement. His heart felt light, tethered to clouds. “All right. Consider me your new business partner.”

“Business partner?” Hawke scoffed. “Well, that’s incredibly formal, isn’t it?” His scowl, all pretend, broke into a low chuckle. “I prefer to think of us as two apostates looking out for each other. As the greatest of friends.”

Anders’ smile reached his eyes, crinkling them at the corners. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll be.”

As he spoke the words, they hung in the air with a certain strangeness to them, as if he had just recited an incantation. A magic that had already come true. He nearly stopped Hawke to investigate further with his Weaving, but the companion he had pegged for Younger Brother was tugging Hawke's sleeve, chattering in his ear with red-faced impatience. Anders thought he caught something about wills and estates.

“I’m afraid I will have to leave you to your healing for now.” Hawke said, some reluctance creeping into his grin. His hand made a flourish, his wide torso dipping into a bow. Then he and his relation were gone.

Only the strange elf lingered behind, his distrustful eyes still flitting about the room like a pair of buzzing gnats.

“Is there a problem?” Anders asked, unable to keep his silence about the odd behavior any longer.

“It must seem that way,” the elf answered, more a mutter to himself than a reply. He did not say another word. Instead, he turned his back against Anders, finally following out where Hawke had gone, his bare feet soundless across the wooden floor as he disappeared.

“Lovely,” he sighed.

Ser Pounce’s tail kinked and twitched in his arms, signaling that his contentedness with being held had come to an end.

Anders set his old friend down, felt his warm, furred body curl around his ankle, purrs vibrating up his calf. As he did, he expected to be greeted by his torn red cord again. The reminder that every brightness he could find in life still held this shadow underneath.

But instead, the rope looked redder, cleaner.

Some of the fiber had even healed.

He spun toward the clinic doors, afterimages of Hawke echoing in his mind like rolling thunder after a lightning strike. The strange connection he had sensed between them now seized his chest with fingers of ice.

Was this fear? Excitement? Was this what hope felt like, after so long?

He had once had so great a love… he had never thought…

Did he dare have it again?

~*~

Anders fell into Hawke’s party easily. Among ex-pirates and fugitives, Dalish outcasts and dwarves with clandestine connections, a third apostate was hardly worth the lift of anyone’s brow, barely the bat of an eye. No, the true surprise came from how well they worked together. How Hawke had so unknowingly and easily picked them out of the outskirts of Kirkwall, like an artist choosing swatches of paint. And like an artist he had taken these hidden pigments, these unwanted shades of society, and blended them. Made their disparate colors into a complementary painting.

Hawke. He smelled of the stillness in the air before a storm began to rage, of a maelstrom as violent and blue as his eyes. He had them all swept under his tide, left them spinning around the vortex like grains of sand. He was their gravity. He was centripetal force.

Hawke was the reason they were here in The Hanged Man again, gathered together for their weekly game of cards. He had started the tradition to draw them all closer, but it had quickly become much more than that. It had become a welcome distraction from the theater of their inner lives, from the problems of Kirkwall’s citizens that rained down on them at every turn in their path, heavy and without pause.

This week it had been the Bone Pit. Another noble too busy peddling his wares to give a damn about the people who produced them, only that they continued to produce. And when Hawke and company arrived to assess the lack of new merchandise, funny that, the drop in productivity had not been due to any laziness.

No, it had been due to Blight-be-damned dragons.

It was because of this particular hardship that Hawke had risen to get them another round of beer. Whether it was the third or the fourth, who had honestly cared to keep count?

Isabela’s eyes followed Hawke over the brim of her hand of cards— no doubt appreciating certain merits of his visage from behind— then flitted over to Anders. She set her deck face down on the table in front of him, crowned it with a small satchel of coin, then smiled.

Anders sighed heavily. “I’m not reading them again, Isabela.”

“Have a care, love.” Her full lips blossomed into a pout.

“No,” he said, wiping tiredly at his stubbled face, “That’d make, what…” he recounted each instance on his fingertips, “…five times now? Maybe you should accept that you just aren't the one.”

Merrill cleared her throat, the gesture oddly loud for her diminutive frame. “Well, then…” Under the table, she set her own bag of coin on his knee, the weight of it steady. “Maybe you can tell us who is?” She smiled politely.

His eyes took on a dark gleam as they cut back to Isabela. “You’re really such a terrible influence on her.”

Isabela pushed herself from the table and leaned back, her heavy jewelry tinkling like bells as she crossed her arms. “Oh don't look at me like I’m Kitten’s keeper. She does as she likes.”

Merrill nodded curtly, the civil smile still on her face. “And you’re avoiding my question.”

From out of nowhere, Sebastian coughed. Drumming his blunt fingernails against the table, he added, “You know, it does seem to be a very pressing matter as of late.” 

Anders noticed the archer studying his cards without really looking at them. It was suspiciously casual.

“Well this game of Wicked Grace’s been abandoned long ago, hasn’t it?” Anders tossed his hands up. Cards spun out on their corners in the gust, revealing his hand. He could not bring himself to care. The true miracle would be if anyone had been paying attention to the game to begin with. “I can’t believe this nonsense has gotten into you too, Sebastian.”

“You are accusing me of unchaste intentions towards Hawke?” Sebastian’s jaw hung only half open, a poorly constructed display of shock. “Those days of mine are over. I—”

Anders snorted. “I didn’t mention sex at all, but if the unhealthily repressed shoe fits-”

“-I am a brother of the Chantry. I took an oath-”

“-Oh bugger me off with that!” Anders pinched the bridge of his nose as if to stave off a migraine. He drew in a very long, very patient breath. “Please enlighten me. Just how is Hawke’s love life a ‘very pressing matter’?”

Sebastian’s mouth wobbled open and shut. Anders could nearly see the gears turning behind his expression, the fight for an excuse that he himself could believe, in order to brush it off and pawn it over on everyone else. “I just see that the… ah… many interests… in Hawke… have created quite the rift among us. One that you may be able to clear up with your expertise.”

Anders nearly muttered a round of curses fit to make Andraste want a bath.

Luckily for all of them, or at least for Anders’ sanity, Hawke returned with their ale. The handles of each mug fit into his large fists with surprising ease as he set them all onto the table, then distributed them one by one.

Anders stood up from his chair, turning his drink away with a polite hand. “I think I’ve had my fun for tonight, Hawke.”

“Really? But the party’s only just begun.” Hawke’s face fell; he looked like a child called in for curfew. He sighed, “Well, I can’t keep you.” He paused as if in thought, then turned toward the end of the table. “Do me a favor, Fenris? Make sure our healer gets back to his clinic in one piece.”

Fenris? Oh. That was right. Anders had almost forgotten Fenris had even come. The elf had been so quiet the entire night, had not said a word or even coughed. He could have phased into the wall and no one else would have been the wiser.

Still, Hawke’s request chafed against his pride. “You know as well as I do I’m not a soft mage. I can take care of myself.”

“I know, I know,” Hawke shooed him with the back of his hand. “Just… go with him all right?” There was an odd glint in his eyes, electric blue. His smile was unreadable. “Trust me.”

Anders opened his mouth to argue more when, to his surprise, Fenris was at his side. The elf pulled his chair out from behind him like a gentleman, then stood motionless, patiently waiting.

He searched them both for some sort of explanation. Fenris only glanced away.

-

If Fenris had been quiet in The Hanged Man, he barely counted as a presence on their way back to Darktown. Anders nearly cracked a joke to ease the tension, but bit it back, a fear gnawing at the back of his mind that his humor might go unappreciated by the party member Varric had so aptly nicknamed ‘Broody’. It was not that Fenris had ever been hostile to him in the past, but then again, he had also never seemed keen on speaking much to Anders to begin with— to the point where Anders felt sure Fenris hated him, or at the very least, had been passively avoiding him since they had met. He had long given up trying to figure out the whys or whats, pinning the most likely reason on his being a mage. But then Hawke never had trouble pulling words out of him.

Right now, he did not know which he hated more, the elf’s preternatural silence or the time it gave him to think.

And when he thought, his mind always circled back to Hawke.

If what had happened in the clinic were any indication, Hawke was his second chance at something long thought lost. His broken string seemed to think so. Even now, just leaving the Hanged Man, it was no longer dragging itself in the dirt. Instead, it hovered proudly, nearly wagging behind him like a damned mabari’s tail.

He should have felt lucky, when Isabela, Merrill, and now even Sebastian circled Hawke, scraping whatever loot they could together to convince him to read their strings, again and again. As if, with time, something would change. Desperate to hear that they were the ones fated for a man who was more an act of nature than human. Still they tried and tried, as if they could pin the wind with their hands.

He should have felt lucky, that in the end he was the one fate had impossibly smiled on.

But instead of luck, something more complicated stirred, turning and twisting like brambles in his chest. This… was not love as he remembered.

There wassomething… there. Like the rest of the party, he had grown close to Hawke with the suddenness of a missed step, felt that same stomach clench of surprise, joy and fear all in the space of an instant. He found himself thanking Hawke on the road often, ‘You have been a good friend, better than I deserve.’

And Hawke would laugh, chiding him after, ‘You’ve a rather poor idea of what you deserve then, don’t you?’

But was that a feeling he could call love?

Maybe his feelings would grow. And maybe that was what Anders feared most. He still held Karl so close to memory, even in all this time. That fate could even seek to replace him… to replace all that they once… No.

Anders slammed the doors of his mind shut. He did not want to think anymore. He would read everyone’s ties with Hawke however many times they bribed him, but he would not touch Hawke’s string at all. He was not ready to find if that particular red cord reached for his own, not ready to see the extent of things, not ready to have that grave finality when uncertainty at least gave him space. 

For now, at least, he needed to stay broken.

It took him a moment to realize they had already arrived at the clinic. It took him another to realize Fenris had not left. Instead, the elf hovered outside of the double doors, weight shifting back and forth on the balls of his bare feet, the points of his gauntlets curling closed and then releasing. His silence was a living entity now, the air so heavy with it that it threatened to suffocate them both.

“Did you need something?” Anders asked finally.

Fenris seemed to consider him, then nodded. “I’d like to know more about your Weaving, mage.”

He sighed.

Anders entered the clinic, made his way to the back, pulled up the two stools he used with clients, sat himself down. He waved at Fenris to join him. He hoped his impatience did not show through, but this was the last thing he wanted right now— to be caught up in more of this, “So it's your turn to try your hand at Hawke now, is it?”

To his surprise, Fenris clenched his teeth with a tch and waived a hand. The gesture seemed to entirely dismiss all that had happened at the Hanged Man, “This is not about Hawke.”

“Oh?” his brows rose in twin arches. Now this was worth hearing about. He scooted his chair in closer, curiosity completely refreshing his appetite for his work. “Is one of the girls tickling your fancy, then? Or,” Anders puffed his chest up like a bird, “maybe some other dashing apostate has caught your eye?” He preened as he teased, fingers sweeping loose strands of hair away from his grinning face.

Fenris’ gaze followed the motion of the hand, but his pointed ears flattened against his head. He pivoted on a foot, “I will see myself out.”

“No no, come on now,” Anders half-laughed, stumbling as he practically lunged after him from his chair, “You have my full attention now. What would you like to know?”

Fenris stopped. He turned back, his teeth scoring over the downward curl of his lips. Under the frame of dark eyelashes, so mismatched with his white hair, he stared Anders down. “What I’d like to know is... Can they be broken? The strings...”

Broken strings. Well.

That question struck an odd chord in him.

Anders’ smile dimmed, but did not fade. He did not want to alarm Fenris with things he had trouble enough acknowledging on his own. “No. The strings can’t be broken or put back together, unless by fate. Guess that means Weaving isn’t the proper term for what I do, is it? I don’t create anything new.” He shrugged a little. “But if there are knots in a string— poisonous relationships, unrequited loves, failed romances— they can be untangled and eased. Enough for a person to live out their lives peacefully and form new, healthier connections.” He tilted his head. “Why do you ask?”

Fenris said nothing, head dipping. One foot rose to itch the back of the other. That odd habit. Lyrium or nerves, Anders could never tell.

Carefully, he probed the silence, “This is about Danarius, isn’t it?”

Fenris gave a slow nod. He kept his voice ever even, “…Does he have one on me?”

He was surprised to hear Fenris ask the question, but the answer was too obvious to hide. “Unfortunately.”

“And how does it appear to you?” Fenris’ gaze narrowed at the floor. From far off, the glare would have seemed intimidating, but Anders was close enough to see his pupils fidgeting, dancing wildly across the wood.

The truth? Anders had not sensed an uglier mess since his days at the Circle. He wagered that, upon actual inspection, he would find the matted knots dangling off of him like literal iron balls on a chain.

He felt guilty for never having brought it up before, but how was he even to approach the topic? If Fenris had never held any suspicion of the string, would it have been right to tell him, to make his already complicated freedom from Danarius seem nearly pointless? Would Anders have even been believed? Even now, he found himself reluctant to share the extent of things. What good would it do Fenris when he was already like this, his fist squeezing against his thigh as if bracing for impact, primed to retaliate? How would he feel about Anders being able to read so much about the intimacies of his pain, without so much as a touch? How was that knowledge supposed to instill any kind of hope or confidence?

He had never expected Fenris to come to him— a mage other than Hawke— for help. But here Fenris was.

If he lessened the blow, maybe Fenris would let him help. Maybe he would not run away.

He swallowed and forced a little laugh. “It’s nothing too terrible.”

That damned permeating silence followed.

Fenris finally looked up at him, his mouth thinning into a line. “It must be worse than I’d imagined for you to lie to me, mage.”

And before Anders could say another word, Fenris turned against him like a whip and fled, just as he had feared.

~*~

In the days that followed, Fenris did not give Anders any opportunity to explain himself. He would not put himself in the same spaces, turning down missions that involved Anders and forgoing their weekly games at the Hanged Man. If his silences pricked of some inexplicable dislike before, his active evasion now pierced like claws, digging into Anders, tearing at the numb guilt that had burrowed, like a blood-sucking insect, underneath his skin since that night.

It was not until Fenris rushed into the clinic, dragging an injured and barely conscious Hawke, that he spoke to Anders again. One single, harsh word:

Templars.

At any other time, Anders would have celebrated a small victory over Fenris hissing the word, like burning embers on his tongue. But as it was, his joy was muted, completely overwhelmed by the sight of Hawke’s blood pooling in his dark hair, streaming down a face too pale.

“I’m fine,” Hawke’s voice came out in a muffled gurgle. “Just got a little… wind knocked out of me.”

Fenris scoffed. “Pay no heed to anything he says.”

Hawke flailed his trembling arms at them as if batting off a host of gnats, a motion more helplessly weak than anything substantial. “It's not as bad as it looks.” He peered up at Anders. “You're a healer. You know the face… just… bleeds more.” The vivid blues of his irises were rapidly losing sheen, the blinking of his eyelids slowing to a blur.

Anders shook his head sharply and looked to Fenris. “Get him on a cot.”

-

Hours later, Anders watched over Hawke as he slept. Under the threadbare cover of the cot’s canvas blanket, he appeared as steady and solid as he always did, his muscles mounds of firm mountain rock. Unshakable, not the same man who had been rushed in just hours ago struggling to catch his breath— a breath that now rose and fell so easily, as if he had been through nothing brisker than a few jumping jacks. Nothing more than a long jog up the Wounded Coast.

Not assaulted by Maker-take-them-all templars.

‘Not as bad as it looks,’” Anders parroted to the dreaming figure in a murmur, “Trashed your ribs for one, you bloody idiot.”

Anders found himself shaking, and, on the outside, there were many reasons to blame. Physically, his mana had been badly depleted. Even before Hawke had come in, there had been a small outbreak of nug flu that had busied him with a full day’s work, leaving him weak, a bit double-visioned. But that was a shakiness he did not mind, was used to. This was something else. Another trembling in him he could not pinpoint, deep like thunder in his bones.

It could not be that Hawke had been hurt. Hawke, with his penchant for believing himself an invincible dragon, practically invited injuries to his doorstep for tea. Their companions getting hurt, while unfortunate, was another thing Anders was accustomed to. Part of why Hawke had taken him on was to act as a healer— it was his occupation, his place in the party. Before them, he had helped many patients. And the simplest truth in his profession was this: people were born and died every day.

Yes, even though he tried his damnedest to save them all, people still died.

Fenris’ voice edged closer to panic than Anders had ever thought possible, ‘I found him near his uncle’s house in Lowtown. They had fenced him in. Silenced him. They were shouting. Accusing him of interfering with things in Kirkwall. They promised they would put it to an end.’ The knob of Fenris’ throat bobbed as he swallowed,They meant to turn him tranquil, Anders.

Anders had heard himself laugh then, dry, almost a bark, ‘All you’ve overheard Hawke and I say about templars, and still, you’re surprised?’

Still, the image of a Tranquil Hawke rose unbidden in his mind. It flipped like a picture book between him and another. Between blue eyes and gray. The two blurring together. A bright sunburst blazing on the forehead. Broken red string. The images pierced his chest like stiletto daggers, twisting deep, emptying him like a cored apple. He wrapped his arms around himself and willed the shaking to go away.

Mercifully, the creak of the clinic doors swinging open snapped him from his thoughts. Fenris entered. “How is he?”

Anders nodded over to the cot. Ser Pounce, finding Hawke’s large physique an agreeable perch, scaled him and curled into a ball on his side. Sensing an audience, the smug tabby twitched his ears back adorably, stretching his paws out and kneading them against Hawke’s ribs. Hawke did not stir at the motion, but a brief snore pulled through his nostrils.

Fenris snickered softly at the display, covering his mouth as he did, masking away the relief lighting up his face. It was if he feared being caught with too much hope.

In that moment, a great affection for each of them— for Hawke, for Fenris, for the vain Ser Pounce— flooded Anders. It swaddled him in a blanket of warmth and security. It was enough to soothe his troubled mind, to still his shuddering frame.

“I thank you,” Fenris said, still watching Hawke rest.

“It's what a healer does,” Anders answered, “and a friend.”

“I thank you, nonetheless,” Fenris returned. Anders noticed a small difference in his face, a missing crease above the bridge of his nose. It caught Anders that he had never seen Fenris without it there before, always worrying its way between his brows, hovering above his nose like a portentous storm cloud. Anders found he liked the absence of it.

Then he noticed Fenris’ ear. A small lightning crack wound where a sword had grazed him, crusted over in dried blood. “Why didn't you tell me that they’d gotten you, too?” he said, reaching out to touch.

“This?” Fenris tilted his head away from Anders’ fingers, shifting his silver hair over the mark. “Hardly an injury in comparison. Hawke was in need of your aid far more than I, and you,” his eyes dimmed into shadows, “You need your rest.” The crease above his nose had curiously returned.

Anders frowned. “Oh don't tell me what I do and do not need.” He reached out again, coaxing gently. “Come here. This will be easy.”

Fenris took a step back almost reflexively. He sneered gently. “Do I appear to be a mabari, mage? Don't presume to call me to your side like one.”

Anders groaned. “Andraste’s tits, you know that wasn’t my intention.”

Fenris’ eyes narrowed but, like his sneer, the gesture was weak, venomless. “Heed my suggestion instead, Anders. Your face is worn thin. Rest.”

“Why must you always be so defensive? Stubborn elf.” His hand remained in the air, still coaxing. “I’m only trying to help you! Just what are you so afraid of? What bad will come out of me healing a damned scratch?”

Instead of arguing any further, Fenris fell silent. His mouth pressed into a bloodless line, his jaw clenching, his chest tightening around a breath held hostage.

It then occurred to him that Fenris never asked for healing on the battlefield. That he was very careful never to need it. Any time a blow looked unavoidable, he threw himself into the Fade where he could not be touched, leaving only the electric blue echoes of his Lyrium Ghost behind. If anything ever escaped his cautious guard, which was rare, he was the first to down an Elfroot potion. He kept them well stocked.

Anders eyed the minced ear again. How many other injuries had Fenris hidden from him? He knew Fenris’ troubled past with mages, but that it extended to even healing magic… he could not deny just how sharply the knowledge stung.

He sighed. “Please, Fenris. Just allow me to do this for you. It would be easy enough for me.” He extended his hand again, this time with his palm facing upward, an invitation instead of an intrusion, an offering of peace. He ventured a little smile. “You can trust me. After all, you trusted me with Hawke.”

Fenris let his gaze fall over the resting Hawke, quietly observing the peace that seemed to exist behind the rhythm of his closed eyes. His gaze then swept over curtain partitions, where children who had been scarcely able to breathe earlier from the flu now chatted and laughed idly with their parents. His attention returned to Anders’ outstretched hand. He studied every contour and dip, every line of his palm, every pale finger, from bony wrist to blunted nails, until the scrutiny made Anders’ skin practically buzz beneath the surface. Then he nodded.

Anders fetched a fresh cloth from a small basin filled with hot water, pristine white and lightly brimming with wisps of steam, even after being wrung out. He waited for it to cool enough for comfort, then dabbed the dried blood from Fenris’ ear until the area was clear. Then, just as carefully, he took the ear between thumb and forefinger.

Before even the first whisper of magic, Anders felt the hitch in Fenris’ breath, the tensing of his jaw as he willed himself not to flinch away. But as the stream of Anders’ magic flowed— a force that soothed like warm honey, tinged with the vitality of mint— Fenris’ jaw slackened, his breathing slowed, the bunched muscles of his shoulders eased back into place.

“Now did that hurt?” Anders teased gently, finally pulling away.

“No,” Fenris answered, unable to hide the glimmer of wonder in his voice. He raised his fingertips to his ear. Gingerly, he touched the now smooth skin where Anders had tended to him.

His widened eyes reminded Anders so much of his younger patients in that moment. The thought brought a wistful grin to his lips.

“Anders,” Fenris began after a while, clearing his throat. His words were deliberate, nearly apologetic, “I’ve been meaning to speak to you about my string.”

Anders quirked a brow at that. “Really? Because, other than about Hawke, you’ve never done much speaking to me. And lately you’ve been practically ducking in alleyways just to escape seeing my face. Maker forbid I turn a corner too fast, you might bolt like a spooked halla.”

Fenris stared down at his bare feet, shifting his weight on them. “I am not… I have never been angry with you, Anders. It is… quite the opposite. Though I realize that, especially right now, that must be difficult to believe.”

“A little,” Anders quipped, a touch bitter, but he waited for Fenris to continue.

Fenris inhaled, even and slow. “I am… still working on the realization that things in the Free Marches are not always as they are in Tevinter. I am aware that sounds awful, but I need you to understand: I had lived my life as a slave to a magister. I had known magic only as a means to abuse power or to torment. But then I arrived in Kirkwall and suddenly a mage came rushing to my aid, who then brought me to another mage who healed the sick and destitute, and for no charge? What was I to make of that? All of Thedas seemed turned upside down. For a time, I even searched for ulterior motives, but when there were none to find, I had to accept…” The corners of his lips dug into a grimace. “It is still odd to me to be in the company of mages, to find myself trusting them. To not berate myself over that trust. And at times, what I feel…” he glanced at Anders briefly and then away, “…it…” He shifted uneasily again, cutting himself off. “But that isn’t entirely the reason I have avoided the situation.”

Anders still wanted to ask Fenris why he seemed to have an easier time talking to Hawke, but he decided, at least for now, not to poke at an obvious drake’s nest of mage issues. It made him happy enough to hear that Fenris was challenging his assumptions. “What is it, then?”

Fenris’ grimace dug in deeper. “Hawke had pressured me to talk to you that night, but… I… did not know then if I truly even wanted help. I was almost afraid of it. What would become of me without this hate? Would I be strong enough to face Danarius without it?” He peered upward at Anders, “Have you ever been in a situation where… it may be best to let go of something, but you are not sure? Or maybe you find you are not ready?”

“Yes,” Anders answered without thinking, surprising himself. But the more he thought on it, the truer it rang; it was the exact situation he found himself facing. A second chance at love had appeared on his doorstep and he had nearly lost it today— had nearly lost Hawke— in the same way as he had lost Karl, in an easy snap of string. They meant to turn him tranquil. He wrapped his arms around himself to hide the return of his trembling, but he could no longer deny why it came. All this deliberation over if he loved Hawke, if he was ready to move on, and the decision could have been snatched from his hands. Hawke could have been worse than dead.

“And what did you do?” Fenris asked.

“I… still don’t know,” he admitted. 

Fenris nodded, not dissatisfied with the answer.

“Have you decided?” Anders asked, pushing himself safely away from the brink of his own dark thoughts.

Instead of answering, Fenris cocked his head. “Do you remember that first time I arrived here with Hawke?”

Could he ever forget? “It was… rather awkward, to be sure. But what does that have to do with anything?”

“There was something about you.”

“Something about me, you say?” Anders repeated, a dash of scandal in his voice.

Fenris’ expression flattened, a flash of red under his skin, “I…” he coughed, “…Is it so beyond you to be serious for a moment?”

“It's difficult for me.”

“So it seems,” Fenris half-rolled his eyes. But then his expression turned thoughtful, almost nostalgic. “… Before you, I had never seen magic used for healing instead of pain. And this…” He brought his hand up to his ear, touching it gingerly again. He did not need to explain more. Everything the gesture had meant to him was written there, in that small, tender touch. “I need you to know that I trust your professional opinion Anders. No, it is more than that, I…” his mouth worked, then stopped. For a moment, that curious flush returned, creeping up his neck. He peered up at Anders. “What do you see when you look at me, when it comes to my string? Do not lie to me this time.”

Anders bowed his head and shook it slowly, hand rising to rub the back of his neck. “Are you sure you don’t need more time to think this over? It’s not my place to make this kind of choice for you.”

“No, it is not your place,” Fenris agreed. “But, as you would with any patient in a difficult position, you can give me the information I need to make my decision. And it is my right to know.”

Anders looked up again at that. Leveled his amber eyes with green. He would not look away, would not try to lighten things with laughter, would not swallow to ease his own nervousness. It was past time for the truth. “You are suffocating, Fenris. Even without touching you I can see it.”

Fenris took a deep breath, the weight of it filling his chest. His solemn nod was nearly imperceptible. “Then it’s time that I faced this.” He seemed to take comfort in the finality of his decision. “And this is where I properly ask for your help.” The look that swept across his face then, it was as if he feared Anders might say no. As if, in having tried to navigate the torrid sea of his emotions alone, he had done too much damage to the healer to deserve any of his kindness.

Anders decided to put an end to that look as soon as possible, shining him a gentle but unwavering smile. “These knots won’t be free in just one session, I’m afraid.”

Fenris smiled back in turn— a wry, sad sliver. “I had not expected them to be.”

-

Anders pulled the customary two wooden stools out, one across another. But while Fenris settled into a chair, he remained standing. Pooling his concentration, he studied the press of weight around Fenris’ neck from above, feeling the searching presence of green eyes chasing after his own. He said nothing as he laid a hand on Fenris’ bare arm, finding it warm and smooth under his touch, his fingertips grazing the lines of lyrium as they crossed into the Fade, the room lighting up in a haze of blue.

The string finally revealed itself in all its matted knots, heavy as shackles.

Anders had not expected it to be the color of blood. Dried, dead blood. Blood haunted by the thrum of forbidden magic. Blood caked and congealed in each tangle. Flakes of sickly, hardened blood that gleamed and hooked like thorns on a vine.

His free hand took a knot between thumb and forefinger. A slick thorn grazed its tooth against his skin in retaliation. Three nearby knots retreated away from him, tightening against each other.

Anders shuddered to think of following the trail of this thread, that he might see Danarius’ face at its end. He had unraveled abusive strings before, but—

Fenris’ voice was rough, “That was… not encouraging.”

“You can see them?”

“I saw only a flash. Perhaps by the lyrium embedded in my skin.” Fenris licked at his lips, as if they had suddenly gone dry. “I could always feel that there was something there, but…” To his credit, he remained seated in his chair. The sharp edges of his face hardened, his bare feet planting themselves into the ground.

“It's not exactly pastel yarn for kittens here, no.”

Fenris’ answering snort held more bite than joy. Still, some of the tension seemed to leave him with the joke. He remained staring where the flash of string had been, obstinate, like a child refusing to turn away from an injection. True to his decision, he seemed resolved not to flee, and Anders found himself deeply admiring that newfound bravery.

Long moments of Anders working passed before Fenris asked finally, “You do not wish to know?”

“I only want to know what you’re willing to tell me, Fenris.”

Anders could feel a held breath release from the cage of his lungs, the taut-elastic stress between his shoulder blades letting go. Fenris did not thank him out loud, but the entrusting whisper of a smile on his lips made that unnecessary.

It was all the gratitude Anders had ever needed.

~*~

The wedding invitation of Jonathan, Mae, and Ella had been written with the inclusion of a plus one. Before having met Hawke, Anders had given it no thought. After meeting Hawke, he had given it too much— enough to drive a simpler man running off into the Frostback Mountains somewhere, foaming at the mouth, raving feverishly into the cold, empty mists.

With the nuptial date now right around the corner— and with the recent threat of having nearly lost Hawke— the issue had finally been forced to come to its ugly, puss-filled head. And yet Anders found himself oddly motivated, spurred on from a completely unexpected direction: from working on Fenris’ string.

He could not believe he had ever been so blind to Fenris’ strength. That he had not always known that the elf was indeed a warrior, through and through, and not only in the way he swirled through bandits with his blade, a deadly leaf in the blowing wind. Despite Fenris having seen the ugliness of his own string, despite intimately knowing the sordid history of each tangle, he had kept his word with Anders and had not run away. He did so even having doubts, even having admitted that he was afraid.

It was Fenris’ commitment to keep fighting in spite of that fear that had sparked a light in Anders. If Fenris could face his demons head on, then what stopped him from doing the same?

When Hawke came to thank him for treating his wounds, Anders decided it was time. He would take the first step forward in his own journey of healing. He would follow the winding road, at Hawke’s side, until he found out where it led. He would trust that it would not leave him lost.

-

All was fine until the outdoor reception in the private gardens. Until Anders dipped his pen to sign his name in the guest book, glancing at the date written above in bold, large letters. It did not register with him immediately, as it had failed to do so in the times he had skimmed the wedding invitation, reading only the dreaded addendum about the plus one over and over again. But then, all too quickly—

‘So impatient, my Anders. Do not worry so much,’ Karl’s reassurances whispered into the ear of his memory, ‘As surely as there are those who believe in our cause, there is someone marrying off apostates in Kirkwall. We’ll not have to wait too long. You’ll see.’

Gray eyes. Empty. Sunburst burning. On his forehead. Broken. Red. String.

Anders shut his eyes. He willed the heavy images to sink in the lake of darkness there, to sputter in that brackish water. To drown before he opened his eyelids and the sunlight hit him again.

As he and Hawke sat at their reserved table, he wished the blessed Blight would take him. It had to be some cruel trick of the Maker, for it to be this day. How could he have forgotten? It had been years, yes, but how could he have ever forgotten?

And now there were suddenly too many people here. Ella’s family alone was large. With the addition of Jonathan and Mae’s, he found himself fighting for air in a crowd of strange faces, all pressing in much too closely, the heat of their bodies too warm and chafing. Too many eyes witnessing him and Hawke together.

Misconceptions came in rapid fire. ‘Seems the Weaver’s found his other half,’ he heard them whisper. ‘Glad to see you’ve found some romance for yourself,’ they congratulated. ‘So how long have you too been a couple?’ they asked.

Hawke basked in the gossip jovially, soaking in the attention like a cat sunning in an open window. “Now now now, I know we must make the most enticing of pictures together,” in true feline form, he nearly purred at each guest from their table, “but we aren't dating.” Despite this, he would scoot his chair ever closer to Anders’, his wide hand reaching into his ponytail and ruffling it, just as playfully as he would pet his mabari. His smirking blue eyes glittered like the sea. 

Anders kept on smiling, smiling, smiling.

He wanted to vomit long before the champagne touched his stomach.

But this was a wedding. He had to get a hold of himself. Selfishness and sorrow had no place here, and Anders would swallow down another goblet of Darkspawn blood before letting an ounce of his show. Marriage was a celebration of the rarest of loves— and even if he had lost his— he could not let those memories seep like poison into the well of others. His friends here deserved to be happy. They did not need to see the sting in his eyes, the weight he carried in his smile.

And so he drank until they disappeared.

Below the table, he found his string hiding. Pinned underneath the legs of his chair, it sank into the grass in a dirty, unraveling mess. Laughing to stave off a fresh wave of panic, the thought finally struck him: His string was no less a disaster than Fenris’. Grief was just a different kind of tangle, keeping him from being whole.

And maybe it was that thought that had him banging at the elf’s door just after. After imparting blessings to the wedding party he prayed his own troubled mood would never taint. After he had said his final goodbyes to Hawke, promising through fingers crossed behind his back that he would make it home safe and sound. Just as the buzz was starting to fade and he was fearing having to remember again.

The sky of Hightown spun out above him, black and full of swinging stars.

Fenris opened the door.

-

Words filled Anders’ mouth like marbles, coming out clumsy and slurred. “Have any Aggregio Pavali left?”

Fenris’ nostrils pinched at the liquor on his breath. His gaze swept over Anders, taking in the ragged strands of gold loose from his ponytail, the blurred eyes, the swimmingly lopsided grin.

What came across Fenris’ face was not pity. Anders had come to know that Fenris had a great aversion to pity; he hated it when applied to others and especially to himself. Instead, he wore something that tried hard to appear like exasperation. Tried, but didn't quite pass. Something flickered underneath the cracks. Something strangely like concern.

Fenris looked over Anders’ shoulder, searching the darkness, seemingly on watch for figures that might have shadowed the drunken mage to his home. He then left the door open and turned inside, leaving Anders to close it behind them and follow, speaking evenly to him all the while, “I believed you attending a wedding with Hawke today. Did something happen?”

“No, no, nothing happened with Hawke!” His word-marbles spilled out in a rush, hitting the floor with a clatter, “Hawke and I are… Great! Just wonderful. In fact, Hawke isn't to ever know I was here tonight, you understand? As far as he’s concerned, I was never this much of a mess.”

Fenris led him to the dining room table, pushed out a chair for him. “Does it content you that I know you are this much of a mess?”

He practically fell into the seat, hunched over, pressed his flushed face against the cool table. “You’re a different case, Fenris. Why should I put up a front with you? Even if we see the worst of each other, it can’t ever be that bad. Why, Varric says we’re practically two sides of the same copper.”

He could make out a faint snort as Fenris disappeared into the kitchen. Fenris returned with a pitcher, set a glass down in front of him. The liquid he poured was clear, odorless. Water.

“This isn’t wine,” he complained petulantly.

“Ah,” Fenris picked up the glass with the dullest of feigned surprise, tilting his head to study its contents as if they were foreign, “And so it isn’t.” He pushed the cup to Anders once more, “Drink.”

“You of all people want to patronize me for getting a bit sloshed?” Anders chuckled to himself, his breath pooling clouds of condensation on the table, “Maybe I learned it from watching you!”

“Drink.”

Anders sluggishly pushed himself back and, finally, off of the table. A bit of wiggling with his hips and he was almost in a proper sitting position. He brought the cup to his lips and sipped, resigned. Quiet.

All previous sarcasm and good mood had been swept off Fenris’ face, replaced again by that flicker of something. “I would know what troubles you, Anders.” The fine line that had always creased between his brows deepened.

“Oh, you would, would you?” he sipped some more.

“You are not usually… this out of sorts,” Fenris waved his hand to the door as if to demonstrate, “Stumbling your way into Hightown, alone and drunk. You could have been caught by templars, you do realize that? It would have been easy. It could have been a repeat of Hawke, and so soon after—”

Anders laughed to himself again, but weaker, “—Why are you making this much of a fuss?”

Fenris narrowed his eyes, “Is there any reason I should not be?”

“Are you really that worried about me?”

“What kind of question is that?” Fenris nearly hissed.

“A drunken one that you didn’t answer.” Before he could stop himself, “The way you didn’t speak to me before, but would to Hawke— not before I started work on your string. Do you really even care?”

Every muscle in Fenris froze. His eyes widened. Then his eyelashes lowered, his gaze sweeping inward, as if turning all the ways he could answer around in his mind. Finally he said, “Yes. Of course I do.” Softer, “I cared the moment I saw you heal.”

With only a moment’s pause more, Fenris moved into the kitchen again, his expression carefully guarded in spots the lamplight failed to shine. Still somehow, Anders already knew the look he would find on his face, could recognize the reasoning for his hesitation before answering.

‘Do you really even care?’ What a dangerous, loaded question. And one he had blurted so dumbly. He might have flat out asked, ‘And how would you feel if anything did happen to me?And while the answer was a thoughtless one for most ordinary people, the way Fenris had answered reminded him how it wasn’t so simple for them. To care about someone was to have collateral to lose; to admit it, to give someone power. And yet Fenris had given him a confession that sounded like, ‘I do care, Anders. I have cared, more than you ever knew. Do with that what you will.

And what would Anders do? He had not come here for candid admissions, to be that honest. He had come to keep being drunk, to keep running away from his past with the only man he thought could best him at it. And now Fenris had disappointed him in that respect, returning with a loaf of bread, splitting a piece for him in an unspoken command to get something in his stomach that was not booze.

He ate the bite without complaint. The bread was sticky on his fingers, lightly drizzled in honey, speckled with raisins. Not freshly baked, but its sweetness still warmed his sluggish muscles. He felt his eyes begin to prickle, and he allowed it for the first time that day. “I am really sorry about that. That was uncalled for, even in my state.”

Fenris nodded. “It was not right, but it is forgiven.”

Anders inhaled deeply. “You want to know what troubles me, do you?”

Fenris sat down across from him. He tilted his head towards him, saying nothing, letting him speak.

“A… good friend of mine… was made Tranquil… a few years ago on this day.”

It was all Anders had planned to say. All he thought he could force out of himself. All that was necessary for anyone to know. The fundamental basics of the thing.

But now that he had started, he found himself splitting open like a river dam.

“No, not just a friend, my lover. He didn’t deserve it. It was my fault, and I…” The prickle in his eyes began to burn. “Do you remember our conversation in the clinic? Where you asked me if I’d been in a situation where it’d be best to let go of something? I thought I would take Hawke to this wedding and that things would be all right now, but they’re not… And…” He could hear the tremors in his own voice. “I-I don’t know if they ever will be. I don’t even know if I ever want them to be. All I know is I'm not ready for this. Everything is still all wrong and I’m not ready.”

Fenris tore another piece of bread for him. “Breathe, Anders. Take some time for another bite. Your words are all muddled.”

“Let them be muddled, then.” His teeth ached as they clamped down, his face turning away from the offering. No appetite anymore. How could he have forgotten why he never talked about such things, even for a moment? There was simply too much pain. His throat throbbed like a scab ripped open. “Please… I don’t want to say any more.” 

“Then hush,” Fenris said. “Do not press yourself. You have respected my privacy; I owe you the same in turn.” He rose out of his chair, put the bread away. “Come, Anders. You need rest.”

-

Alcohol and grief never made for a seamless night of sleep, even on a bed that felt like an airless embrace. Anders slid his eyes open to walls warmed by the glow of a fireplace, his limbs stretching between sheets so sleek they felt like the morning-dew petals of a rose— undoubtedly some rare silk imported from Orlais. In an entire mansion, there had to be several of these guest beds. He considered asking Fenris if he could steal a few away for the clinic. They were wasted here, where only one person lived.

But if there was more than one bed, why then, was there a head of white leaning against his thigh at the side of the mattress? Had Fenris really been that concerned over the amount of alcohol Anders had had to drink?

Sluggishly, he pushed himself to sitting and took account of the situation. There was Fenris, eyelids closed and the knit of his brows smoothed over. His mouth was set in a soft line with his chin tilted back, exposing the lyrium lines that branched his neck like long, pale fingers. His knees were languidly bent, his arms fallen open. In one of his hands, a book laid forgotten, one Anders knew Hawke had found for him on the road, full of simple words and scrawled ink drawings. Seeing him so relaxed, so unguarded for once— something warmer than the firelight filled Anders’ chest.

Fenris’ blade rested next to the bed, a sentinel standing guard over them both. Beside that was a wooden pail. The pail seemed to confirm Anders’ earlier suspicion, no doubt set there in case he woke up needing to vomit. So Fenris really had been worried. A pang twisted in Anders’ chest. He would have to make this up to Fenris later somehow. He had misunderstood so much about the elf, had taken so much about him for granted.  

In the small touch of Fenris’ head, Anders could see his blood-matted string striped across the covers. He was surprised to find his own there too, still frayed, but less worse for wear than earlier at the wedding. The two damaged strings rested there, side by side. He found himself smiling at them, imagining them both as good friends, the two of them sitting together in companionable silence.

~*~

Each time Anders set to unraveling Fenris’ knots, he kept the old adage about meddling with fire at the back of his mind. His fingers moved along the threads with meticulous swiftness, his eyes keeping vigil over any subtle change. When he inhaled, he allowed the Fade-carried scent of blood and dark magic to linger in his lungs, to serve as a reminder of the danger waiting for him at the other end. The flame that could singe him was not a simple man, but a magister.

Still, it surprised him how long it had taken Danarius to act.

Varania appeared in Kirkwall with the subtlety of a pawn scraped across the face of a chess board. An actress pushed onto the stage, front and center, for his notice. 

“Do the strings give any truth to her claim?” Fenris asked from his seat on the wooden stool. In his hands, he kept the letter Hawke had read to him announcing her presence, asking for them to meet. Anders doubted Fenris even noticed just how tightly he was holding it, the parchment long bent and creased to fit the points of his gauntleted fingers.

“She’s your sister all right,” he answered with some hesitance, knowing it was the answer Danarius wanted him to give.

It was a hesitance Fenris shared with him. The news did nothing to soothe the ever-present worry line above his nose. His jaw worked back and forth, warring with what he wanted to say next.  

Anders answered the question before it could be asked, “It’s a trap.”

Fenris nodded. The gesture seemed both a confirmation to himself and a personal rebuke— how could he have expected any other outcome? His expression clouded like a window pane in a storm, his string pulling tighter against Anders’ fingers. “I am truly alone then.”

If Anders had not come to know Fenris so well, he might have been pulled under the tides of his dark moods, becoming truly offended. Instead he laughed a little, pushing back against the thread and its seemingly fatalistic will to tangle. “And what am I, Fenris? What are your friends? Spoiled nug meat?”

“You know of which alone I speak.” Fenris frowned. 

Anders shook his head gently. His voice softened, “The strongest ties are not always family, Fenris. Believe me, I’ve seen.” His face turned toward him with an encouraging smile. “In fact, the more I undo these knots, the more some interesting connections are coming to light, getting stronger. It seems you’ve really been busy making Kirkwall your home.”

At the news, at the mention of a ‘home,’ the dark clouds of Fenris’ expression rolled away, revealing something vulnerable in their place. His cord stopped struggling, suddenly limp and pliable in Anders’ fingers. A ferocity took over his green eyes, and as he spoke, the velvet baritone of his voice came as both a plea and a command:

“Come with me.”

Anders’ breath hitched. He could not explain why. He blinked away an odd dizziness, taking a moment to right his head, to ponder what Fenris had said instead of his own strange reaction to it. “Even with what you know about your sister, you are still going to go?”

“I must,” Fenris said, no uncertainty in his tone. “If I do not turn and face Danarius here and now, he will never let me go. Like a hound, he will keep my neck teetering between his jaws, forever threatening to bite down. And if I am to be perfectly honest,” he inhaled with heavy lungs, a weariness trailing his breath, “I am tired of running.”

Anders nodded. He was overwhelmed by the urge to touch Fenris then, to comfort, unsatisfied with just the single hand on Fenris’ shoulder that allowed him to Weave. He wanted to gather Fenris in his arms, to pull him close against his chest, to feel the brush of silver hair catch against his stubbled cheek— but then what? Would such an act of gentleness even be allowed? 

To his surprise, Fenris seemed to read him, taking Anders’ hand off from his shoulder and squeezing it gingerly between both of his gauntlets. “I want you and Hawke there.” The sincerity in his voice was painful in its nakedness. “I need you.”

Anders was numbly aware of his pulse hammering in his wrist. “We’d have come even if you hadn’t asked.”

-

Danarius appeared behind Varania in the Hanged Man, manifesting in all his haggard, cruel flesh. No longer a concept, a boogieman. An invisible force twisting Fenris’ string like a leash.

Anders understood now, more than ever before. Every lost look Fenris had given him. Their odd first conversation in the clinic. Fenris’ tense silences, his swift disappearance after the Hanged Man, his hesitance to be healed. All those damned glances. As if he were caged and backed into a corner, his fight or flight response.

Anders did not like the congenial smile Danarius stretched out to him and Hawke, the flash in his cold eyes that equated them both with his kind. He did not like the way he asked Fenris, pointedly, ‘Are these your new masters, then?’ or the way he claimed Fenris was ‘skilled.’ The smug, saccharine tone in his voice as he crooned, reminiscing, ‘Once upon a time you had affection for me.’

‘Once upon a time you had affection for me.’ Anders felt the snare of Fenris’ string writhe like an agitated viper, as if it were a noose choking his own neck. 

At once, The Hanged Man crackled and burned with magic. Mind Blasts sent Danarius’ men rocketing into the edges of tables. Prisms and glyphs alighted in geometric configurations and then shattered. The ground shuddered with artificial quakes, plates and bottles sweeping onto the floor, splintering into daggered shards, into dust clouds of ceramic and glass.

In the end, not even a small army could not stand against the fury of the Champion of Kirkwall, against the retribution of a healer pushed far past his point of compassion.

Anders and Hawke felled them all with the force of lightning striking trees.

The last of Danarius had been left to Fenris. In a flash of lyrium, he swept the magister up by the neck and hoisted him high in the air, leaving his feet cycling uselessly under his robes. Another flash, and Fenris ripped the pulse from his throat. A shower of blood poured over his face like cleansing rain.

Anders swore he heard the snapping of string.

In the chaos, Varania had stowed away into the darkness of a corner. Fenris found her there after, cowering, her hands hovered above her face against him, above sharp bone lines of cheek and jaw and chin that ever so closely resembled his own. “I had no choice,” she said. “He was going to make me his apprentice. I would have become a magister.”

“You sold out your own brother to become a magister?” 

Anders feared Fenris might lose control. By the shaking of his bloodied gauntlets, still consumed by licks of blue lyrium flame, it seemed unavoidable, a certainty. Something Anders would remember later as a disaster in slow motion. A horror show he should have turned away from, but could not bring himself to, paralyzed by the spectacle. 

But at the moment Anders most expected violence, Fenris turned to look at him. At Hawke. Mages who had fought by his side without thought for themselves, who asked nothing of him in turn. His green eyes went round, carrying their reflections steadily in their black centers. Then his gaze narrowed softly. 

Fenris let Varania go.

-

Hawke had ordered the party to allow Fenris his time, his silence, and his space after, and Anders could not have agreed more. Even as the lack of Weaving visits left his clinic with an odd emptiness, echoes of pleasant conversations haunting the walls with their absence, he did not make any moves, waiting patiently. He trusted Fenris would return when he felt ready.

He did not have to wait for very long. At Fenris’ arrival, Anders swung open the double doors, his smile flashing out to him like a beacon in the night. “I got you a little something.”

Fenris tilted his head like an owl. “You… what?”

Anders nodded with a wink. Before any more questions could be asked, he took Fenris by the wrist and pulled him inside, leading him to the back.

There, the two wooden stools stood one across from the other, as always, but Fenris’ usual seat had been overtaken by a large woven basket. The basket was sparse in its design, no bows or ribbons, no wood stains or shines, marked with only the simple charms of natural grain and a practical handle for carrying. A large white scarf swaddled the contents inside. Fenris peeled the scarf away, revealing a bundle of healthy apples, gleaming golden in the lamplight, flushed with patches of pink like the cheeks of a newborn babe.

As Anders watched him, his smile grew softer, more thoughtful. “A certain trio at the docks gave me a discount.”

“These are… my favorite,” Fenris said, his voice catching. It was as if he were trying to piece together not just that Anders had known, but that he had gone through the trouble for him, and why? Fenris took an apple in a hand and studied it, eyes lowering over the shine of its skin before flickering back up to Anders. He took a bite out of the apple, chewing slowly, eyelids closing as he savored it. Something so bittersweet swept over his face it made Anders ache.

“Fenris, what’s wrong?”

Green eyes opened into slits at first, staring at some faraway place. “It is nothing to do with you. You are… This is among the kindest things anyone has ever done for me. And yet…” He gathered the basket with his free hand and set it down next to the stool, sitting in the chair with his legs curled inward, the hunch of his back slumping a bit deeper than usual. “My string… I feel it is still tangled.”

Anders knelt down before him, ignoring the other stool in favor of closeness. He took Fenris by the arm and checked, though he had a good guess at what he would find, even before the Fade surfaced the string into vision. “Yes, unfortunately, it is.” He did not soften the blow; it felt like ages had passed since he had understood Fenris so poorly. “Your tie to Danarius is finally severed, but as for the knots… You’ve… actually regressed.” Quickly, he added, “Not as bad as you could’ve, though.” As if that were any consolation prize. 

Fenris made a noise between a snort and a curt hum.

Anders squeezed his arm, hoping to share a bit of courage. “It’s not all that unexpected. Stress can do that, and what, with what you just went through…”

“‘What I just went through.’” Fenris took another bite of the apple, swallowing abruptly before speaking again. “He is dead and yet… I still carry all this hate. I thought it would all be over…” He narrowed his eyes at where he had just bitten, at the indents and scrapes of teeth. “…But when you slay a corrupted animal, does it understand why? Can you convince the poison spider to renounce its venom? I could tear the heart from Danarius’ chest a thousand times and it would never be enough. I could never make him truly know the wrong that was done. How can that be justice?”

Anders moved before he could stop himself. His palm rose from Fenris’ arm to brush the line of his jaw, gingerly pulling his chin down until they were face to face. He imagined his touch felt far gentler than the look Fenris would find in his eyes, the fire and the fury that had slain Danarius’ men. “But he will never do those things again, Fenris. Not to you or anyone else.”

In that touch, Fenris’ anger pulled away like the tide. What was left behind was something only for Anders, a small, timid hope that spun thin glass into the air as he spoke. “Am I a fool in that… I truly believe that what we do here means something? That I might one day be free?”

“No,” Anders said firmly. “You’ve taken this life and made it your own. By that account, you already have a freedom no one can take from you. And now that Danarius is gone, we can move forward in your progress without fear. Freedom is not a question. As for the knots…” He hissed air into his lungs, steeling himself to speak more truth than he allowed even himself most times. “Unfortunately, some memories are too stubborn and painful to be forgotten forever. I’m not going to lie and say that you may never need work on your string again, though time will make the need for that work less and less, will teach you how to better deal with each knot yourself as they appear. But I believe in your strength, Fenris.” 

To Anders’ surprise, instead of saying a word, Fenris pressed against his palm, his face smooth except for the ridges of lyrium etching his chin, his long eyelashes tickling against Anders’ fingertips, the brush of his thick brow. He felt so warm there, the steady rhythm of his breath even warmer, heat pooling and creeping into Anders’ fingers until it felt like a candle flame burning under his skin.

Anders continued, ignoring an odd tightening in his throat, “When those knots come, you have friends that won’t let you tangle forever, Fenris. I will be here how many times you need. You will never have to deal with this alone.”

Fenris’ eyes dipped down at the apple in his hand, his thumb grazing over it as he smiled, his voice solid as earthen stone again. “I know.”

~*~

Plumes of flint smoke filled the afternoon sky of the Wounded Coast, drifting up from the signal fire that had been kindled only moments ago. Anders kept himself crouched behind a large rock formation, nestled a tad too snugly between Hawke and Fenris, while Isabela and Varric had used their roguish stealth to blend into a nearby thicket of trees.

Aveline and Donnic were talking just up ahead.

“A blade for every purpose. What do you think? About blades?”

“I’m sorry, captain. I drifted off a bit.”

“Let’s…” Hawke stopped to grimace, his voice only just loud enough to reach them all, “…Let’s just give them some privacy and go on ahead.” He glanced back at Aveline briefly, his grimace deepening. “Quickly.”

None of them argued. They crept away, squatting and crawling, then rising, turning to follow the path to the next fire. 

When they had covered enough distance to speak in more than whispers, Anders felt Varric sidle up beside him. “You sure those two will work, Blondie?” The scrunch of his bulbous nose exaggerated the scar marring its bridge. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t she try offering three goats and a sheaf of wheat for him?”

Anders’ answer was a long, resigned sigh, “So the string says…”

After the catastrophe with Donnic in the Hanged Man, Hawke had brought Aveline into the clinic and practically forced him to Weave. Any time her resolve wavered, Hawke reminded her that she had made this problem his and he was now only trying to help. He kept recounting the night’s events: Donnic looking over his shoulder for rescue. Both of them finishing off another pint of beer. Their fingers tapping on the table just to fill the deadlock silence. Until finally, in the climactic disaster of the evening, Donnic insinuated that Hawke was the one interested in him.

‘Donnic says he likes a woman with backbone,’ Hawke had told her, ‘Now, usually, not a woman in Thedas fits that description more than you, Aveline.

Hawke believed that the string’s confirmation would bring Aveline the confidence she needed. Anders had seen enough clients to know differently. Even if the heart sat in perfect alignment with fate and with the planets and with certain passing stars, love itself was not always so simple. Sometimes it was more a play that unfolded in acts rather than a clean and speedy resolution.

Varric prodded him again, “And there’s no way your Weaving thing could be off? Not even a little?”

“No. But as for how this all is going to actually work out…” The feathered pauldrons of Anders’ jacket magnified his weary shrug. He lifted both hands toward the sky, as if he could whisk his part in this kudzu-like mess away, far away, off with the billowing wind…

At the front of their line, the back of Hawke’s head shook. “None of you are giving Aveline enough credit.”

“Hah! Can you blame us?” Varric asked. “This story seems like a tough cookie to crumble.”

The nape of Hawke’s neck dipped as he shook his head again, slower, almost disdainfully. “Aveline told me what she loved about Donnic. And do you know what she said? ‘Not a thing. He’s not rich, not skilled, and not the best looking. But he’s… something. Not like the others.’ And do you know what? I believe her. It’s good enough reason for me.” He sighed. “Maker, she’s waited long enough. She deserves to have a little happiness again.”

Anders thought the way Hawke looked back and stared at him as he said that was… not subtle. Fangs of guilt sunk into him. He had not tried at all to progress things between them since his panic at the wedding. He had gotten so caught up in trying to help Fenris that, as usual, he had pushed his own feelings and problems aside. The guilt only gnawed deeper as he knew, had always known— he preferred things this way.   

Varric half-rolled his smirking eyes. “If you say so, Hawke.” He fell behind Isabela, jutting a grin out toward her. “You ask me, I see the pages of another story beginning to turn.”

“A saucy one at that,” Isabella agreed. She stretched her arms out languidly and yawned. “How much longer until our hero finally notices the puppy eyes?”

Varric’s hearty laugh shook his stomach. “If those puppy eyes turn into a wall he can smack into, maybe. Do you want to take bets, Rivaini? Or do you want to trade tales?”

Before Anders could ask what secret language they were even speaking, Hawke interrupted. “Oh please, leave them be. Don’t gamble on the lives of real people or write friend fiction unless you’re ready to encounter it yourselves.”

Isabela scoffed, nearly offended. “Are you suggesting we wouldn’t enjoy friend fiction?”

Hawke did not miss a beat. “Open scene: The Hanged Man.” He spread his hands out, thumbs and index fingers at right angles, framing the imaginary painting. “A dwarf sits at a table, shirt open, exposing a pair of pecks pulsing so heavily with muscle that each peck, individually, sports its own six pack of hairy pecks. His multitudinous chest hairs heave and quiver with every breath.”

Anders picked up right after, deciding he enjoyed this little game. “A woman walks in, her face completely hidden by her heavily decorated chest. In fact, she’s hardly more than jewels, gold, and breasts. Breasts over long, oddly pants-less legs.”

To the surprise of them all, Fenris, who had been silent up until now, took up the mantle as if on cue. “Presently, the bosom-legs-woman asks the dwarf, ‘So what color are your underclothes?’ Never before has he heard such a finely tuned line of seduction. They bed each other with the ferocity of tigers.”

Isabela’s feverish giggling filled the air in a jubilant staccato. “I see your point now.” 

Fenris turned his face away from the party, then. He hid it in the shadow of his shoulder in the setting sun, covering his mouth carefully with a hand. But Anders had caught it— that small upturn of his lips, the mirroring curves in the corners of his eyes. Unsure, but present. A small but brave defiance.

But then Fenris’ whole body began to tremble. Small sounds leaked past his fingers. In a decision weighing so much heavier than the tiny gesture betrayed, Fenris let his hand fall away from his mouth.

He was laughing.

Maker, Fenris was openly laughing.

The Weaving had to be working. Anders had been noticing these small victories more and more. Fenris no longer hunched as he walked, and when he spoke to the party, his tone was more relaxed, his words freer with them. He was becoming something more than the fear and anger that had plagued him before, so much ugliness hidden behind his pride and his warrior’s facade. Now instead, he was smiling. He was allowing himself to just be.

In that freedom, Anders felt himself untangle a bit. He found Fenris’ same grin on his own face. He was only idly aware of his own string circling his fingers, its friction soft against his skin, shimmering warm in the waning sunlight.

Then Hawke caught his eye.

Guilt bit into him again, freezing him over like Winter’s Grasp.

But why? What reason did he have to feel guilty? It was not as if he had been caught lying to Hawke somehow. He did not think he was deceiving anyone. …Was he? Thoughts circled and circled in his mind, whirring and blurring until he could not make sense of them.

And so, he decided not to make sense of them.

With the bark of mabaris just up ahead and the rallying cry of bandits to clear before the next fire signal, it was easy.

~*~

“So…” Fenris began slowly during their session— perhaps the last one, from what Anders could tell; the knots were falling loose from his fingers like poured sand— “…Does the Weaver have someone his string is connected to?”

Though that particular question always seemed to rattle something off-kilter in his chest, especially now that Hawke had complicated things, Anders found himself grinning. “And just why are you asking? Do I detect some jealousy?”

The tips of Fenris’ ears flashed pink. “No, no…” he coughed, “…I was only just…” he emboldened his voice to compensate for his stuttering, “…curious.”

The little spectacle was so endearing, Anders could not help but chuckle softly into his fist. He thought to answer Hawke, but with so much confusion and dread still wound at the back of his mind, like a bear trap ready to spring, was that really the most truthful answer he could give? Instead, his smile turned wistful, his eyes dimming as he admitted, “I had someone once.”

Fenris asked carefully, minding the past tense, “‘Had?’”

“I knew him in the Circle,” Anders answered.

A wave of shadow flooded Fenris’ expression. Anders could imagine the pieces linking together behind it, memories unfolding so plainly the images nearly crystallized before him: His slumped form knocking at Fenris’ door in the black of night, his disheveled golden hair, the reddened whites of his blurred eyes, his breath rank with ale…

Fenris’ voice was even, certain of itself, “The lover you grieved that day… He was not only a lover; he was the one.”

Yes.

Fenris’ mouth pressed into a cautious line. “You are ready to speak of this now?”

Anders considered. Just confessing what Karl had meant to him had lifted a weight off his chest, a large stone that had anchored him to the bottom of a years-long lake of silence. He allowed Karl’s face to fill the spaces of his memory, and this time he did not recoil from the image as if his mind had been torched by a flame. “I think… it might do me some good to finally tell someone.”

With a nod, Fenris tilted his head toward him in attention. 

Anders closed his eyes and began to speak:

-

“When I was young, my father hated me for my magic and, unfortunately, I had no idea how to control it, which made him hate me even more. It was a lovely little cycle. Ended in me burning down the family barn, which he didn’t entirely appreciate. He sent me away in the friendly arms of templars at the ripe old age of twelve.

(Anders was grateful that, if Fenris either felt the need to comment on magic or to curse his family, he seemed to hold his tongue.)

“When I got to the Circle, I was a wet-eyed mess clutching my one prize possession: a pillow my mother had stitched on in red. Other boys my age rushed out to greet me, curious to see who was the new black sheep to join their guarded flock. They asked me my name… but I wouldn't tell them. I was so upset I wouldn't speak. 

“And so, since I was from the Anderfels, I earned the clever name of Anders.

(He huffed a small laugh at that, the memory much more amusing to him now than it had been then.)

“They could have called me a nug for all I cared. I let them do whatever they wanted. I wasn’t much about making friends at that moment. I just wanted to be left alone. And as soon as I was left alone, I went off. I didn’t even know where I had planned to go.

“Not until I saw the red string.

(His wistful smile returned.)

“No one had ever heard of a Weaver then, and I’d never seen such a thing before; I couldn’t guess just what this thick red string was doing wrapped around my finger like a wedding band. All I knew was that it was the same color as the embroidery in my mother’s pillow, and I just… I felt with everything in me that I should follow it. It led me to the older boys’ rooms, led me to a light…

(He opened his eyes finally, and they seemed to twinkle with the memory.)

“Karl was there… He was… just there… reading a book. Handsome all right, but not doing anything particularly special. Still… there was something about him I immediately trusted. And my string, it ended in his, wrapped around his finger just like mine— that had to count for something important.

“And so, before I was even aware of what I was doing, and without even knowing why, I ran to him and collapsed in his arms. Right then and there, I… I started sobbing. He didn’t ask any questions. We both just… understood then. I had lost my home, but… in him, I’d gained a new one.

(The twinkling in his eyes dulled a little.)

“If I never wanted to escape the Circle, it was only because he was there.

(He took a heavy breath before starting again.)

“As my self-taught gift for Weaving grew over the years, it became quite popular among the templars. Like anyone given to romance, they wanted to know who they were meant to love, or if their significant other was the one, or they needed my help mending a broken heart. My talents kept me well fed and cared for, much like a prized pet.

(He allowed himself a knowing grin, only a little surprised to find Fenris mirroring it in miniature.)

“I didn't mind at the time. I saw it as having leverage. I was a bit of a troublemaker, as I’m sure is hard to believe.

(He stopped to fully appreciate the hike in Fenris’ eyebrows before continuing.) 

“But they would turn a blind eye to anything I did. Or else I’d remind them how easy it would be to expose certain ties to their charges.

(His smile lingered for only a moment more before fading, then finally growing flat.)

“But… the time eventually came where I couldn’t bargain for what I wanted.

“Kirkwall Circle needed new talent and they’d decided that the talent they needed was Karl. Just Karl. Not me. And… well… why wouldn’t they have wanted him? What did they care if it tore him away from the other half of his soul? Karl was smart, clean cut, excelled in his studies, seemed to keep to the rules…

(A grin graced his face again, but it was distant, the crescent hint of it wicked and wry.)

“They had no idea that the fire raging in him was far worse than the little matchstick crackling in me. Karl was the one to suggest we find our phylacteries, that we dash as many into the ground as we could and run. And so, we did, up until…

(Just as he realized what he was about to say, about what came after, his tongue went stiff, felt numb and rubber. His jaws worked uselessly.)

“But then…

“And so…

“We…

(He licked the walls of his mouth where they had suddenly gone dry. He swallowed thickly, trying somehow to numb the aching knot that had formed inside his throat.

Finally, he managed, in barely a breath:) 

“…We almost made it.”

-

Long moments went by. Anders found he could not say a word more. He stared at the lamp-lit walls, his eyes then following the patterns of wood grain in the floor. He looked everywhere he could that was not Fenris.

“But you did not,” Fenris said finally. He placed a hand on Anders’ shoulder, firm but gentle. It was as if to give him permission, ‘You may end this tale here if you wish, Anders. If it is too painful, you can rest.’

“No… We didn’t,” Anders said, gratefully taking up the offer. He laid a palm on Fenris’ hand and smiled weakly. “That’s… enough for tonight.” He set himself back to work on Fenris’ string, though there was not much left for him to do.

“Did…” Fenris’ charmingly awkward cough returned, “…Did talking help?”

Anders asked himself the same question. He had thought talking about Karl would bring up more pain in him, as it always had each time he had tried before, even with Hawke. And there was pain there, yes, but it was not unmanageable. It did not leave him wrecked and tattered as a raft in a storm. Did not leave his lungs like sacks of heavy grain, each breath a small miracle.

What had been done to Karl had been wrong, had deserved justice, but it was done. When he thought of Karl now, he found himself remembering fondness more than the pain. He remembered Karl’s kindness, his fire, his laughter. He remembered a love so beautiful and bright that it warmed his entire body, a love that outshone the light of summer’s sun.

“Yes, it helped,” he admitted, to himself as much as to Fenris. And in that, a great hope rose in him. Something right clicked into place. He felt Karl’s sun still shine in his summer sky, even if he could no longer see it, even if it was sometimes buried in the cover of night. “Thank you.”

Fenris’ smile stretched across his face.

And with that, Anders loosened the last knot. He could barely believe it. He ran the string between his fingers, smoothing it out. It straightened easily in his touch. “There.” He patted Fenris on the arm, trying to keep excited trembles out of his hand as he broke the news, “It’s been a long, winding road, but here we are— you’re finally done.” The widest of grins blossomed on his lips, showing off all of his white teeth. “If it ever worsens again, you will come back and let me know, right?”

There was silence. 

Fenris stood from his chair and the air seemed to fill with prickling electricity. He turned his gaze on Anders, staring with a mix of gratitude and something deeper, something more weighted than gravity, ever-searching eyes of golden green somehow reaching into Anders’ soul and threatening to seize it whole. In that moment, in that small but seemingly eternal moment, those eyes made Anders think of the sun again, made him think a strange but thrilling thing— that there might be different ways to burn.

But before either of them could whisper a word, a hail of knocks shook the doubled doors and startled them both.

Hawke’s voice rang like thunder, calling out to them, barely muffled in its panic, “It’s my mother— please— it’s Leandra!”

~*~

Leandra’s death had been a horror. A spectacle. An ugly thing. Those who stood at Hawke’s side and witnessed it left with no shortages of images to pierce their dreams, to shake their shoulders in the dead of night. They woke cold and trembling, gasping under sweat-drenched sheets, their robes clinging to their skin like wet, rotting leaves.

They remembered flesh as pale as the wedding dress Leandra wore, as clammy and cold as the scales of a fish. They remembered a bridal veil trimmed in faded gold, and Leandra’s eyes, seeing into nothing, dulled and scuffed marbles of glass. They dreamed of her movements, hobbled and stiff, a marionette on Gaspard’s invisible string.

Anders had seen the way her body parts had been sewn together— each stitch redoubled in red.

Red string. That was what haunted Anders most. It frayed at the ends in all too familiar patterns, caked near white with dirt and cobwebs, reaching— not for Leandra— but toward the portrait of a woman that held her face. The string knew the truth between the two, the one that Gaspard would not accept, even as he spoke, ‘I’ve searched far and wide to find you again, beloved.’

But no, Anders knew. No forbidden magic or clever stitch of string could ever bring back the dead.

He felt guilty at how glad he was, after the entire ordeal was over, that Hawke had fled for his mansion in Hightown, not wanting to see or speak to anyone with a pulse still beating in their chest.

Until the day Hawke finally did, and sent Fenris straight for him.

-

“You understand,” Fenris said, stepping in through the doorway of the clinic, “it is no wonder he needs you. I may be a good listener, but I fear I am no good in actually comforting people in these situations. I had tried, but—” Fenris stopped as soon as he looked up. “Anders, you look terrible.” 

Anders laughed, a sound more like gasping for air. He imagined that he did.

Over the past two weeks, he had poured every muscle and bone he had into taking care of his patients. He busied his hands with them until he could not think, until their problems and praises replaced the roaring storm between his ears, threatening to drown him in torrential rain. He drained himself of mana until his knees could barely hold him upright, until there was no doubt that when his withered body finally hit the bed, he could sleep without a single dream to trouble him.

Lirene had noticed. It was under her orders that the clinic was closed for the day, despite his protests.

He felt the pull of heavy shadows under his eyes, the chafe of overgrown stubble itching on his face. His hair hung limp, bent in the places his ponytail usually held it, oily and stiff.

Still he managed, in a voice gutted, barely above a whisper, “I’ll be over there in a moment.”

The stare Fenris pinned him with was flat as a blunt knife. He took a step forward, putting himself between Anders and his path to the door. “You surely do not mean to go to Hawke like this.”

“He needs me,” Anders heard himself reply. His flat tone spoke of it being the only necessary thing, the only thing that mattered.

Fenris’ lips pulled back in a soft sneer. “He needs you to come to him like this,” he gestured with his hand to all of Anders, “the way he needs his mabari to take a shit in his boots.” The sneer slipped into a steep frown. “You cannot just simply wedge yourself into everyone else’s troubles and completely ignore your own. You do a disservice to everyone involved.”

Anders’ answering smile was stretched thin, feeble. “Is it that obvious that I’m troubled?”

Fenris crossed his arms and let his silence speak for him. 

Anders chuckled breathlessly again. “You never dance around feelings, do you? I can only imagine what you said to Hawke.”

A flash of red blazed over Fenris’ face. “It is… best not repeated,” he admitted. His silver hair shifted as he dipped his head and rubbed the back of his neck. Bare toes scratched at his heel. “I like to imagine that trying to console a friend is better than standing by and doing nothing.” He peered back up at Anders. “And I must be the fool, because here I find myself attempting to do so again.” Despite his words, he smiled a little, a smile like a hand offered after a fall. “Anders, I have trusted you with all that I am. It is no burden if you lend some of your pain to me.”

Anders’ eyes burned in the warmth of Fenris’ expression. Could he have imagined, when they had first met, that he would ever see such a beautiful smile? It was always Fenris’ courage that made him seem to find his own. “Do you want to hear the ending to the story I told you?”

“I am ready to hear whatever you are willing to tell.” Fenris tilted his head, ever-listening.

The attention on Anders was painfully physical. It forced him to acknowledge being the only other presence in the empty clinic, no haze of noise or blessed distractions to tear himself away. For a moment, the scrutiny made him doubt his own ability to speak.

But then the words— as they had that drunken night on Fenris’ doorstep— poured from him as if from a faulty flour bag, sliced open and gouged with holes. “I survived Tranquility only because the First Enchanter was fond of me. Only because my talents were invaluable to my oppressors. Only because seeing Karl turned Tranquil was punishment enough. They never let me forget all these ‘onlies’.”

Anders breathed in and the air pained his lungs, wound tight in his throat. He smiled desperately. “Do you know that I tried? To fix them, our strings— I tried to tie them together. Wasn’t that stupid of me? What a childish thing to think, that if I could just loop the bunny ears, everything would all be better. That, if only our one string wasn’t broken, maybe Karl would be okay.” His burning eyes prickled, and distantly, he realized that his eyelashes were now wet. “I was so mad with grief. I still am. How much better am I than Gaspard, really?”

A glower sparked on Fenris’ face like flint striking steel. “Gaspard was a madman. You are not.”

Anders sniffled and laughed again in minor, broken tones. “Aren’t I? If I’d thought I could’ve done something then, do you know how far I would have gone…?” His grin was distant, as lost as his stare. “And now for the Grand Finale:” He swept up a limp hand and dipped in the least energetic of bows. “Without Karl I had no home anymore, and so I ran… from The Circle to the Warden… from the Warden to Kirkwall… and even now I’m still running.” He heard himself choke down on a sob. “Maker, I thought I was over this.”

Fenris’ expression was still stone. “You are not as weak a mage as Gaspard was.”

“Well it’s a relief to hear you say that,” Anders returned, more bitterly than he meant to.

Fenris shook his head as if brushing the slight off from his shoulders, as if Anders were missing something essential that Fenris needed him to understand. “This tragedy does not have to be the ending to your tale.”

Anders looked up from his pitiful bow, the beginning of so many questions filling the lines of his eyebrows, the corners of his faded smirk.

The edges of Fenris’ eyes remained firm, fierce. “Was it not you who told me that some wounds would inevitably reappear, that time would teach us how to better survive them? You believed in my strength then. I believe in yours now; I have believed in it. I know no other man who has given so much of himself to others, who has transformed this world into a better place for so many, including myself.”

Fenris finally softened, the near-religious fervor of his sincerity easing, tempered with that warm, reaching smile of affection. “If your Karl were with us now, I know he could not help but beam down on you with pride; his heart would surely swell with it to bursting.”

Anders did not deny the tears rolling down his stubbled cheeks then. He embraced them, allowed himself to feel fully their wetness, their heat, the crisp way they cooled once they touched the air. “You know, Fenris…” he tasted salt on his own bright smile, “…you’re not half as bad at cheering others as you think.”

~*~

Hawke sat at the center of his mattress as if a castaway on an island, hedged by waves of disheveled sheets and his wrinkled canopy, wine red robes slipping off the broad planes of his body. He looked as if he had not left the bed or changed into proper clothes in all this time. He looked as if, for all the power of his magic, he could not summon the energy to care. It made Anders ache to see him so stranded, made something in him cave and twist in a way he thought might be love.

Anders spoke gently, his words renewed by his most recent pass with grief, “I know nothing I say will change it. I’m just— I’m sorry. You were lucky to have her as long as you did. When the pain fades, that’s what will matter.”

“I appreciate it Anders.” Hawke’s smile was not as grand, not as blindingly radiant as usual— but it was there. That was a good sign.

Anders moved to fill the space next to him on the bed. “I’m here for you. Whatever you need.”

For the next long moments, the two sat there, one next to another. Hawke staring at nothing in particular, his small grin barely stuck on his face. Anders just… there. He was beginning to see Fenris’ predicament. What did one do in this situation? What other comforts could he give? Everything in him shouted to do something, to ease the injury in Hawke that wounded him as well.

And so, Anders did what he thought he should do, what he thought he was meant to do…

He leaned in and pressed his lips on top of Hawke’s. 

Hawke stiffened like a pond freezing over. He placed a halting palm on Anders’ chest and pushed away. “I’m-” He cleared his throat firmly. “-I’m sorry. I— I can’t return your affections.”

Anders found himself blinking.

He waited for the rejection to hit. He waited, but… there was no pang in his chest, no shortness of breath. Perhaps he was in shock? These things were supposed to hurt, right?

But… there was no pain, no fissure of unrequited love splitting open his heart.

He had just kissed Hawke and he had felt… nothing. 

Instead, Anders fought to suppress an odd bubbling of laughter, both awkward and joyful, from springing to his lips.

Hawke’s thick black brows quirked strangely. “Anders, are you all right?”

“Yes. Actually, I’m…” he laughed more, rubbing away a wetness that sprung to his eyes, “…relieved.”

So Hawke was not the one. His certainty was iron solid and absolute now.

“I’m so sorry for doing that, I really am,” Anders said, pulling himself back to a respectable distance. “I shouldn’t have. I was just under this stupid impression that it was something we both wanted. And now,” his laughter softened, “I’m just so strangely happy to know that I was wrong.”

Hawke cleared his throat again, his tiny smile returning. “Well, can’t say I’ve had that kind of reaction before, but I’ll take it.” He shrugged. “In any case, I appreciate the attempt at distraction.” His head tilted, expression thoughtful as he admitted, “You know, I’ve just never cared for the idea of romance.”

Anders’ eyes widened, wrinkles popping up his forehead, “Really? But I’ve seen you flirt with anything on two legs. Four, if they happen to be a dragon!”

Hawke chuckled weakly. “A little harmless flirting is fun. It keeps your wits sharp. Makes people think you’re charming.” He jut his chin out and grinned widely now, flashing rows of perfect white teeth, and despite how grizzled and unkempt his beard had grown, he still managed to prove some of that charm.

“I see.” Anders could feel the corners of his eyes crinkle upward. “Well don’t be giving all your secrets away on my account.”

Hawke hummed. The careful thought in his expression returned. “You know, I’m no expert, no Weaver,” his gaze flitted about as if searching for the string that bound them, “But I don't think romance or passion are required for some soulmates, do you?”

Anders nearly forgot what air was in his excitement.

“Do you— Do you mind if I look? I… I understand if now is not the time.”

Hawke waved a hand between them. “I called you here because it’s past time. I need my friends. I need to talk. I need to laugh. I need…” He paused, a rare cloud of solemnity casting darkness over his blue eyes, “I need to remember what still remains.” He shrugged then, the dark cloud dissipating in the movement of his broad shoulders. “Besides, I think it might be fun to see what our strings hold.” He smiled a bit. “We could be like two teenagers at a sleepover: No Templars Allowed.”

Anders chuckled brightly at the mental image, nodding. Finally, he took Hawke’s large hand between both of his, plunging himself deep into the Fade.

Maker, but he should have done this a long time ago.

Why had he been so afraid?

True love was a cord of bright red. Family ties were braids of blue. What he and Hawke shared was a shining combination, a thick purple plait illuminated with their combined magic, a jubilant harmony of their history woven into the thread, adorned with soft down feathers of black and gold. It was the perfect mirror of two apostates running together in the same direction, their two souls as free and winding as a song soaring on the wind.

A large grin overtook Anders’ face. “It's exactly as you say. We are best friends; the most platonic of soulmates.”

Hawke reflected his expression, though something about him seemed to say that he had always known, or at least always held a suspicion. “I’m glad.”

Anders found himself chuckling again, soft and wistful. “Andraste’s tits, I spent so much time being so confused…”

Hawke’s eyes lit up with a fiendish glimmer. “Oh, I think you’re still very much confused.”

“What do you mean?”

Hawke took his hand from Anders’, then wrapped his arm around pauldroned shoulders, squeezing. “As your newly confirmed platonic soulmate unto eternity, allow me to be honest: You lose yourself in others’ feelings to the point where you’re just pants at seeing your own. Even as a Weaver— perhaps even because of it— you are pants, just pants. No, worse than pants— torn trousers!”

Anders was laughing openly now, “What, you think there’s someone else I fancy?”

His heart twinged as he said the words, his voice trembling. His laughter faded and then stopped. Sheepishly, he rubbed the back of his neck, slowly dragging his fingers down to press against the rhythm of his pulse. It was racing, fluttering harder than the mad wings of a hummingbird.

There was someone. He had known all this time, in all his fretting over Hawke. And yet this knowledge still felt new and fragile. It was a knowledge that bloomed inside of him like unfurling flower petals. It took root there in him, rising, growing, thriving, coexisting alongside his grief. It was a fear, a hope, a wonderfully complex mess of the two— less of the anxiety he had felt forcing himself towards Hawke and more of an… excitement.

It was as if he had been standing in the frame of a doorway for a long time, waiting expectantly for someone he knew would return home soon. But the shape of who he waited for remained a silhouette in shadow, remained a blurred face he could almost see clearly, if only his eyes would adjust to the lack of light.

All the while, Hawke watched him. The knowing smirk on his bearded face rubbed Anders like a cat pet the wrong way.

Anders tried to frown with all his indignation, but he could tell, from Hawke’s amusement, that it came off more as a pout. “All right, then. If you’re able to see so much more about my own feelings than I can, why not just tell me who it is?”

“And spoil the surprise for you?” Hawke dropped his jaw in mock offense, then collected it into a wide grin, his eyebrows waggling. “Never.”

~*~

A part of Anders believed Fenris would never come to his clinic anymore. A part of him feared that all they had together could be reduced to a simple business transaction, and now that it was over, now that Fenris had gotten what he needed from him, he would hear nothing from the elf except for familiar stretches of silence. He had returned from finally visiting Hawke expecting another night of an empty clinic, and the expectation of that emptiness hurt like something inside of himself had been misplaced, had slipped off a crooked shelf and rolled into some crevice where it could not be reached.

But as he stepped through the double doors, he found the clinic was not empty. Instead, he caught Fenris crouched down on the floor with Ser Pounce, letting the orange tabby cautiously sniff his fingers.

Whatever had been knocked astray inside of him righted itself back into place.

“Did you need something?” Anders asked, staying back, careful not to intrude on the small moment.

“I wished to see how you were after visiting Hawke,” Fenris began, smiling a little as Ser Pounce seemed to approve of his scent, tiny furred head and whiskers pushing against the knuckles of his fingers, “And I wished to speak with you about my string.”

Anders felt a dull glaze slide over his eyes. The small fear at the back of his mind whispered that of course, of course it was this. Still he would help, would run to Fenris’ side as many times as he was called. “Having tangles again already?”

“No, quite the opposite.” Fenris scratched behind the kitten’s ears, though the small upturn of his mouth had disappeared, had thinned into a line. ” And that is my worry; you never mentioned payment.”

Payment? Fenris was worried about payment? He laughed a little. “There’s no need for it.”

Fenris finally looked up at him. Ser Pounce skittered off, as if sensing the change in his demeanor, the iron weight in his expression. “You would charge anyone else. I would not use your friendship to my advantage.”

Anders waved a hand. “It was nothing.”

It had been the wrong thing to do.

Fenris stood up from the floor, his back straightening into a steel column. He strode over toward Anders and took the offending hand by the wrist, firm but careful, thinning the space between them until Anders could see nothing but his simmering green eyes, until neither of them could look away. His voice was soft, crushed velvet, “Do not dare say it was nothing. It has been everything to me.”

Anders did not know what to say. Fenris’ proximity, his intensity, was stealing the oxygen from his lungs, leaving him dizzy in a way that made him feel giddy, made him feel as if at any moment, his feet could float off of the ground.

Fenris eyes danced between both of his. “Listen to me, Anders, for I have put a great deal of thought into this, have been able to think of little else: There is a passageway Hawke found that leads from here to Hightown. You could use my mansion as your own, get better rest than on these threadbare cots. I would keep you safe-”

“-You… Are you asking me to move in with you?” He needed to hear himself ask, to make sense of the impossible words. His knees threatened to buckle, and he could imagine it happening, could see Fenris as the only force keeping him from falling, from being swallowed up by gravity itself. “That's too much. That's far more than I deserve.”

“You’ve a rather poor gage of what you do and do not deserve.” The grip on Anders’ wrist held him tenderly, a thumb rubbing hypnotic circles into his palm. Fenris pressed his face ever closer, their noses grazing, those green eyes dipping, nearly closing. “You’ve given me the courage to face what I once thought I could not.” His voice nearly ached in a sigh, his warm breath ghosting across Anders’ lips, “If I could only free you as you have freed me.

Whoever started the kiss was a mystery, and one that Anders did not care to unravel. He let himself fall, felt Fenris take the weight of him in his arms, kissed him harder, tasted the heat of his lips with the tip of his tongue, kissed him again, again, again. It was instinct to kiss Fenris, to bury his hands into his silver hair, to chase after his bottom lip when he pulled away briefly for air. He was drawn to the curves of his mouth like to the polar opposite of a magnet.

Maker, but did he ever think he would feel this way again, lips on his as if they were his own? As if Fenris were another part of him, another limb, his pulse beating as if from his own heart?

He understood it all now.

He had tried to put love into a predestined box as if it were a rational thing, had been too afraid to feel with his own battered heart. The things he loved in Fenris were not the things that others loved in Hawke, were not the same things that he had loved— that he still and forever would love— in Karl.

Anders bit down on Fenris’ lip and lyrium lit up the room in silver blue, startling them apart. Red hung between them. Even as the flash of light faded, the thread remained pulled from the Fade, visible to them both.

Their old strings had joined into a new genesis. The frays of Anders’ string had grafted themselves onto Fenris’; the dark blood of Fenris’ lightened and gleamed where it touched Anders’. Together, their string held the promise of a bright red cord. Even as they watched, it was building strength, cleansing itself, tightening into a seamless thread, into something more singular and whole. 

Fenris took Anders’ hand in his and smiled, their fingers folding over one another's, and their red string spun against itself in a joyous embrace.

Together, both free men pulled each other close and laughed.