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Binding the Balance

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     “If your door is open tonight, I will come to you. If not, I’ll know you took my warning at last.”

     His words kept tumbling around in my mind - over and over, like small, rounded rocks caught in the eddies of a stream. I’d been on edge all night. So much so, that everyone in the house had commented on it.

     “Everyone” being Bodahn and Mother, mind you. I had to wonder if Sandal didn’t pick up on something, too, though. He’d stopped me on my way up the stairs to my room, and had put one of his strange, rune-etched rocks into my hand. There were two runes engraved on the smooth granite, a binding that evoked the powers of justice and mercy.  To say that Sandal’s impromptu “gift” unsettled me, would have been putting it mildly. From the moment I met him, I had never been able to figure out if he was truly as he seemed...or if he was the way he was, because he was too smart to relate to the rest of the world in any other way.

     I lifted my eyes up to the fireplace mantle, where I had set the binding-stone. This was one of those times when I suspected the later about Sandal. He knew too much...and all too often, long before the rest of us did, it would seem.

     I had quoted that line from the Chant a thousand times to Anders, if I had quoted it once. “Act always with justice, but hold to mercy as to the Maker.” His response was always the same - our roles were well defined by the Chant. He was to walk with justice, and I was to love with mercy. Truth be told, we butted heads about those “roles” from time to time. Sometimes, I thought his justice tipped a little too close to vengeance; sometimes, he thought my mercy wavered far too closely to acquiescence. Yet in the end, yet always...we found balance with our two approaches. Somewhere in the middle of justice and mercy, there was an unexpected temperance of us both.

     We were bound, weren’t we? Anders and I? As surely as the runes on Sandal’s chunk of granite. The events of three and a half years had welded us together, as certainly as a rune enchanted to a blade. We fought together as if we were bound - my strength, his magic. We fought each other with the same tenacity - my persistence, his passion.

     In the end, it was my persistence that finally pulled his passion to the fore. I shifted in my brocade chair, rested an elbow on the armrest, and lifted fingers to my lips. I had not expected that kiss, had not ever anticipated the rush and fury of his emotions. He had kept the truth of his feelings hidden well for the last three years...though, afterwards, once I got home and thought back over our history, I finally saw the subtle fissures that had lead to his kiss, to this moment, to this unbearable anticipation.

     I glanced over at my open door for what had to be the thousandth time in just under an hour. My heart pounded in my throat, and pulled my chest tight, made my limbs weak. Would he come?

     I remembered the first day we met - the way he had poured his mana into me, to heal me after a bad brush with the Coterie in my very first foray into Darktown. His eyes were the first thing I saw when I opened mine and there had been such a strange look in them as he stared down at me. He had never explained what that look meant, but I had always felt as if he’d seen something in me, or  felt something that he hadn’t expected. In our very first encounter, I had taken him off-guard, without my even consciously knowing it. What I had never told him, was that he had taken me by surprise as well. I never forgot the feel of him inside of me; from the moment we met, I intrinsically knew something that all mages gifted in the healing arts kept unspoken - the more grave the wound, the more deeply they gave of their true selves to save another. In meeting each other, we knew each other - or, at least, I knew Anders, and had the strong suspicion that the knowing, the giving, the meeting went both ways. I knew, before I ever opened my eyes, who he truly was - kind, empathic to a fault, fierce in all his passions, deeply conflicted, furious ...and deep beneath the fury, a gravely wounded soul.

     A soul far more wounded, in fact, than my body would ever be by blade or blow.

     It was that knowledge of him that gave me patience, persistence. That was the first crack in his defenses...and I had spent three years leveraging the hell out of it. I laid siege to that hot-headed apostate; it was, perhaps, the most merciless thing I had ever done.

     And, I don’t think he ever really realized what I’d been doing. By Andraste...I don’t even think I had known what I’d been about, until he’d laid his claim to that smart mouth of mine.

     The clock above the mantle chimed eleven times. I’d had almost exactly ten hours to contemplate my actions, and his counter-actions, over the years. Four, in particular, came to mind.

     First: after the fight in the Deep Roads, when the rock wraith took down both Fenris and Varric, and only Anders and I were left to defeat it. I remembered the weary, yet triumphant, grin Anders had flashed me from across the rock-bone littered cavern...right before his legs buckled and he finally succumbed to the pain he’d fought with for almost fifteen whole minutes. After giving Varric a good tongue-lashing about friendly fire, and after bullying Fenris into touching a mage long enough to move him, I’d taken a boot-knife to the only pair of decent clothes Anders owned. Cut him right out of his ridiculous coat of leather, feathers, buckles, and cloth, to get to the arrow embedded in the fleshy, and blessedly non-vital, part of his upper chest, just where it met the bone and tendons of his shoulder. He couldn’t heal himself with an arrow lodged in his flesh, so I’d had to cut the damn thing out - both of us cursing Varric quite loudly and creatively while I did. Several lyrium potions and about an hour later, and Anders was finally strong enough to knit his torn flesh back together.

     I had never before, nor since, wished so badly to be a mage myself. It was a bit harder to heal oneself, he explained; as a result, he’d spent the next few days sore, the site of the wound tender to even the lightest touch. Yet, after sealing up the wound, Anders let me place my hand over it. I had been compelled to touch him, to let my fingers press ever so softly against warm muscle and flesh. I hadn’t been able to help myself...my fingertips brushed over his wound, but they hadn’t stayed there for long. I’d moved my hand a few inches to the left and as my palm passed over his sternum, I pressed my skin against his. I felt the swell of his pectoral, the rise and fall of his breath, the surprisingly soft hair that covered the span of his broad chest, and then, finally, the steady beat of his heart.

     My hand had lingered there, pressed far too intimately above his heart. But, I’d needed the reassurance, and for the first time, he didn’t shy away from my touch. He did not touch me back...but it was a beginning, a second breach of his defenses. Without me speaking a word, he knew from that moment on just how much he meant to me. It had been a revelation to me, too - I cared for him. Deeply .

     Second: it had been about six months since reclaiming Mother’s childhood estate, and she and I were finally ready to invite guests over (it had fallen into some state of disrepair in the intervening years and changes of family fortunes). News finally came to us of the wedding of King Alistair and the Hero of Fereldan; with the house finally done up the way Mother and I wanted, I figured the timing was perfect for a party. Nothing lavish...just good food, good wine, and the motley company of people I had come to call friends.

     A pirate, a captain of the guard, a storytelling dwarf, an escaped Tevinter slave, a self-exiled Dalish mage, and a possessed apostate…”motley” was quite possibly the most gracious term I could use to describe them as a group. This was the first time all of us were in the same place at the same time, much less sitting around the same table. Yet...everyone came together and two years later, the evening was still remembered fondly by all (insomuch as I could ascertain - Fenris’ emotions were still practically an enigma, even after three bloody years of acquaintance).

     Isabela, Varric, Merrill, and myself were the liveliest of the group, as always. Mother, Bodahn, and Sandal took their leave shortly after dinner; of our little band, Fenris and Aveline were the first to disappear, around midnight, and then at half-past midnight respectively. Then, with each hour past that, the mansion got more and more quiet, as first Merrill, then Varric, and finally Isabela, staggered off to their assigned guest rooms to sleep off the copious amounts of wine they’d imbibed. That left Anders and me alone, sitting on opposite ends of the couch in front of the down-stairs fire.

     He and I were quiet for a time; there was a storm outside and I, at least, enjoyed the opportunity to listen to the rain drum on the roof above, and to watch the lightning illuminate the tall windows around and above us. The only other light was the fire; the only other flashes came from the bottle in Anders’ hand, when the fire glinted off of the green-tinted glass each time he lifted it to his lips. In a moment of impulsive mischievousness, I half-scooted, half-leaned across the space between us and deftly nabbed the bottle out of the mage’s hand just as he was lifting it up off of the knee where he’d been resting it in-between swigs.

     For a while afterwards, I told myself it was the lightning reflecting in Anders’ amber-colored eyes; a mere coincidence of nature as my lips wrapped around the very place his had been a few moments before, and would have been again if I hadn’t appropriated his drink. I knew the truth in my bones, though, the instant I saw the spark of blue crackle through his pupils - for just a second, in the very moment his gaze fell hard on my mouth, he had lost control. Usually, when Justice surfaced, Anders would squeeze his eyes shut for several long moments, while he wrestled back his body from the spirit’s use; in this particular instance, the slip was so slight, that he just blinked several times in rapid succession. He lifted his eyes to mine and I had just enough time to see that they were dark, and heavy, and intent, before I tipped my head back and let the sweet-tart wine slide cool against my tongue.

     He was still watching me when I pulled the bottle away from my lips. Gathering up a bluster and courage I didn’t feel at all, I offered him a crooked little smile, along with the wine. Those brown eyes narrowed ever so slightly and for a long second, I thought he’d spurn me. But, then a large, calloused hand brushed against mine and we traded possession of the bottle. The mage’s gaze dropped from my eyes, to my lips, to the mouth of the bottle, then back to my eyes, as he seemed to be measuring something, weighing some consequence in his mind.

     Then he lifted the bottle to his mouth, pulled his lips back, bared his teeth, and tossed back a long swig of the wine. I saw a lingering glimpse of tongue against the rim of the bottle for just a second or two, before he closed his mouth and swallowed. He knew what he was doing, too - I’d seen it in the intensity of his gaze as he lowered the bottle back down to rest on top of his thigh. It was the first time I’d seen his hunger ...and it had stolen the breath right out of my lungs.

     In retrospect, I think it was the first time he realized the truth of his desires. That realization had dawned almost immediately; as soon as that glass bottom touched the cloth of his trousers, his gaze shuttered and he turned his head away from me to contemplate the fire. And yet...it wasn’t awkward between us. Or, at least, it only remained awkward for a minute or two. For the first time that night, Anders started to talk - to really talk, of his own volition and not because he was asked a question, or because he seemed to sense that it was polite for him to do so. I fell asleep curled up around a pillow on the far end of that couch, to stories of the Hero of Fereldan and to a faint sense of envy that such a woman could inspire such obvious respect (and, honestly, no small amount of hero-worship) from the apostate Warden I, too, longed to save from the Templars and the Circle.

     Third: my third year of living in Kirkwall, my second year of calling Anders “friend”, my first full year of calling the Amell estate “home”... I was down in Darktown, running a little “errand” on Aveline’s behalf, and decided to stop by the clinic. It was a sultry summer evening, an hour or two until sunset; Darktown was so named for good reason, however, and twilight was already gathering thickly in the cracks and corners of the filthy streets. Chances were good that the clinic was closed, but that wasn’t something a few short knocks on one of the front doors wouldn’t sort out. I was decidedly puckish by nature, however, so when I came up to the closed doors (as I suspected they would be), I put a hand to one of the iron handles and pushed experimentally.

     They weren’t locked, and grinning like an idiot to myself, I slipped inside. There were beds in the clinic, but usually only the most gravely ill stayed overnight; it took all of two seconds for me to ascertain that there were no patients present and that all the beds and crudely-made partitions had been pushed against the walls on either side. The room was fully open in front of me and Anders was dancing.

     Well...I jokingly called it “dancing”. It was the sort of dancing I did every morning, with a practice greatsword and the pell in the small courtyard behind the mansion. Except here, there was no pell and no sword - just a dressed-down mage and his staff. A staff that had a focusing crystal on one end, and a blade on the other; it was the sort of staff that battle-mages across the ages had wielded, and for all his gifts in healing, Anders was an ardent student of the martial magics as well. Unlike my gentle sister, or even Merrill, I had never seen him carry a staff that couldn’t cut as surely as it could channel.

     It was also one of the rare occasions when I had seen Anders without his coat. His usual sturdy boots, trousers tucked into them, a worn tunic that had once been white belted around his waist, sleeves of said tunic rolled up above his forearms, tunic laces hanging loose below his neck…it was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him dress. I found the look... alluring , for lack of a better term. Without the bulk of feathers around his shoulders, or the slightly-armored padding of his coat, I finally got to see him , his body in motion and truer to its given form.

     Anders was tall, that much was an obvious fact. Even in his bare feet (which I had actually never seen), he would still stand a good head-and-shoulders over me. The rest of his body was proportionate to his height. His broad chest and shoulders I had seen up close and personal in the thaig; his torso was more of a rectangle than “V”, though, as his waist only tucked in slightly above his hips. He was muscular - again, a fact I had known from our intimate moment in roads below - but, he wasn’t muscle- bound , like a Templar or a soldier. He had a firm chest and a firm stomach, but no deeply-defined ridges to intimidate lesser mortals. Anders’ arms, however, were another matter…

     From the looks of it, he couldn’t roll his sleeves up over his biceps. As he swung his arms and thrust with his staff, I could see the muscles between his elbows and shoulders constrict and then loosen beneath the thin fabric that was stretched taut over them. His movements flowed , his upper body in perfect sync with his slightly-bent legs and swiftly-moving feet. That sort of smooth martial movement only came with considerable training and carefully cultivated strength. Veins stood out thickly on his forearms as well and for the first time, I found myself wondering what sort of grip he had. This was not the first time I’d found myself admiring his hands - large, like the rest of him, his fingers much thicker than one would have expected, for as long as they were. Those fingers were nimble , that much I knew, and gentle. But, as I considered the way he held his staff in his right hand with casual confidence, my mind began to wonder what it would be like to have my wrists held tight in that warrior’s grip.

     His hands, really, were a good representation of Anders as a physical whole. Large and long, yet surprisingly sturdy. Again, not thick, as one would expect of someone who wore plate armor and hefted around a sword and shield - but not slender, or lean, like most mages. Anders’ build was somewhere between Fenris’ sinuous dexterity, and Varric’s compact bulk.

     The end result was that he was a devastatingly handsome man. Especially when he was moving in a warrior’s deadly dance, in a way and in a language that my own body could understand and speak. The sight of him that evening awoke in me a want so visceral, that I finally understood the potency and danger of desire demons.

     I don’t know if he ever knew I was there; I slipped back out the door only a few minutes after I had entered. I hadn’t wanted Anders to see me; I didn’t need a looking glass to know I was flushed, that every crease and wrinkle of my face was etched with wanton need . That was the first night I touched myself to thoughts of him, that I brought myself to a decidedly unsatisfying orgasm to the memory of how his body moved, to the yearning desire to feel his body moving over...against ... in mine. That was the night when I finally began to wonder, with something bordering on obsession, about what else lay hidden beneath his clothes, beneath that ever-present and infernal coat...about how much of a measure his hands were for his cock .

     Fourth: just nine months earlier, after we had witnessed a very distressing proclamation that anyone in Kirkwall caught harboring a mage would be publicly hanged. Fenris had made the very tactless and ill-timed observation that “at least no one was calling for tying and quartering, or burnings at the stake” and it took everything Varric, Aveline, and I had to pull Anders off of the elf. I alone stopped Fenris from putting his fist through the mage's chest - a fact I don't think Anders ever caught, as preoccupied as he was with scuffling around with Varric and Justice.

     After he managed to break Varric's nose and then (finally) get Justice under control, Aveline physically tossed Anders out Fenris’ front door. I gave the former Warden a few hours to cool down, before I started tracking him through the city and then out past the docks. He had found some crates, stacked a bit haphazardly on a small bit of city-enclosed beach, a short distance from Kirkwall's last loading pier. The setting sun had turned his hair a brilliant copper, his skin a warm gold, and he was strangely beautiful in his sorrow.

     He didn't turn his head, or move in any way to acknowledge me, as I hopped up on the edge of the crate next to him. He didn't move away either, though; as I settled in next to him, my leg pressed against his from knee to hip, our shoulders and arms on that side brushed as well. My attention was arrested by the tabby cat purring in his lap and I watched silently for a few minutes as his long, graceful fingers idly scratched the stray animal behind its ears.

     He broke the silence first, his gaze still fixed to some distant point at sea, as he hotly insisted that he wouldn't apologize to Fenris. I opened my mouth to ask if apologizing to Varric was at least an option...but just as I was forming the first words with my tongue, the cat turned its attention to me and butted its head against my nearby arm. I ended up asking him why he liked cats so much.

     He told me about Mr. Wiggums, then...about his year in solitary confinement, about how a cat was the only thing that kept him sane that entire time. When I expressed outrage at the severity of his punishment, Anders had laughed - a mirthless sound I never wanted to hear come out of him again.

     The next thing I knew, I had a cat dumped in my lap and I watched, wide-eyed as the mage started unbuckling and opening his coat. He nearly knocked me off of the crate, when he shrugged the coat off of his shoulders and then lifted his arms to pull the hem of his under-tunic over his head. I stared uncomprehendingly at the scars on the ball of his shoulder and upper arm...and then he pulled my attention to his back.

     They had whipped him. More than once. It was a common punishment, he then told me, for mage runaways. The severity had increased with each forced return to the Circle, until after his fifth attempt, when the commander had beaten him unconscious and First Enchanter Irving had finally put his foot down and insisted that the Templars find some other way to punish him, should he ever escape again.

     There wasn't a single patch of skin on his back that was free of scars. From his neck to the bottom curve of his back just above the waistband of his trousers, Anders was a patchwork of raised and mangled flesh. On the order of the Templars commander, the mages in the Circle hadn't been allowed to use magic to heal him after each flogging, either. He'd been made to heal 'naturally’...his suffering prolonged and his body subsequently forced to carry permanent reminders of Templar 'correction’.

     I learned about Anders that evening and walked back to the clinic with him afterwards with a deeper understanding of why he believed so passionately in the right of mages to be free. I had seen his wounds - both physical and spiritual - and all I wanted was for him to be healed.

     We lingered a moment in the dark in front of the clinic doors. I had thought, at the time, that he would kiss me then. He had hugged me - gathered me in his arms without a word of warning and held me close. His breath had been hot and heavy on my cheek, accompanied by a single “thank you” whispered against the shell of my ear. I had felt the barest brush of lips against the side of my throat as he briefly nuzzled the underside of my jaw. But, as soon as I turned my face in the hope of pressing my mouth to his, Anders let go of me and stepped away. I tried my best not to show my frustration as we said our goodnights...but it took every ounce of self control that I possessed to not push him up against the door and pull his face down to mine.

     He wanted me. We both knew that by now. But...he was the one who had insisted for three full years that I find someone - anyone - else to involve myself with. It never seemed to occur to him that I was the daughter of an apostate. I knew the likes of us could work and thanks to the example of my parents, I was unafraid. Anders had to come around, though, and in his own time. I couldn't push the issue any further than I usually did, with my teasing and falsely casual flirting. He had to make that final step, pull down that final defense. I couldn't do it for him, and I couldn’t force him to it, either.

     Then today happened. I wasn't entirely sure what had happened, exactly, to push him over the edge. I had teased him, sure...but no more than I usually did. Was it because I continued to express interest in him, and desire for him, even after such a close brush with Justice's fury? Was it because, yet again, I went back to him, to check up on him? I suspected it was both of those reasons...and others that I hoped he would confess in time.

     If he ever showed up, that was…

     I lifted my gaze from the fire and glanced toward the open door. The view was conspicuously lacking in an Anders...but then I heard the front door downstairs open and the low rumble of Bodahn's voice as he greeted the guest that surely had to be the mage I'd been waiting for.

     For several vital seconds, I forgot to breath. I flashed back to the last time I had been rendered completely breathless - ten hours earlier, when my mouth fell open in surprise against Anders’ lips and his tongue slid over mine. He had tasted like a good dark tea - the kind one drank in the morning to perk the senses, my favorite kind. There had been traces of honey on his tongue, too, a passing sweetness to balance the almost smokey taste of steeped leaves. He’d been rough, and almost a little desperate, as if he’d thrown all of his courage into that one act and yet still feared rebuke.

     Turning him away had been a non-existent thought, so far as I was concerned. He’d framed my face with his hands for the first kiss, then wrapped his arms around me and pulled me flush against him for the second. I had felt him then, hard and no doubt aching, hot even through the layers of cloth between us. All I had wanted was for a third, a fourth, a fifth kiss to follow that second one; my deepest, darkest desire was that he would back me up against the nearby wall and finally make me his . I had forgotten all about the clinic, about Justice, about Templars and mages and apostates and maleficar… All of my thoughts, the entire scope of my world, had narrowed down to the taste of his tongue, the feel of his rough stubble scraping against the soft corners of my mouth, the smell of sweat on his skin, the sound of his heavy breath laboring against my neck as he resisted that third kiss, the predatory look in his eyes when he finally put distance between us.

     It was the same look he gave me now, as he closed my bedroom door behind him. In spite of my quivering knees, I stood up to greet him, my fingers twisting together nervously in front of me as I watched him move with a confidence and surety I’d only ever seen in him during battle.

     His shoulders were back, his chest out, his back straight - his body moved across my bedroom floor like it had when I’d watched him “dancing” with his staff two years before in the secrecy of his clinic. I clasped my fingers together, as if in prayer, when he drew abreast of me - it was the only way I could think to keep my hands from visibly shaking, short of reaching for him.

     “I...was starting to think you wouldn’t come,” I said softly by way of greeting.

     “Justice doesn’t approve of my...obsession...with you,” he replied in that even-toned tenor of his.

     “‘Obsession’?” when in doubt, I always fell back on my wit; I lifted an eyebrow and a corner of my mouth in a way that could only be construed as teasing.

     “He thinks you’re a distraction,” Anders shrugged slightly, as if to convey the triviality of Justice’s opinions.

     “Am I?” I watched him stop just within arm’s reach; it took everything I had not to fling myself at him.

     “It is one of the few things on which he and I disagree,” Anders offered me a wry twist of his lips and I watched uncertainty creep slowly through his eyes. “Are...you sure you want me here?” his question was hesitant, almost unwilling.

     “Don’t,” I shook my head firmly and resolutely closed the distance between us.

     I still didn’t know what to do with my hands, so I reached up and put my palms flat on the front of his coat. I could feel his heart beat, as I had so long ago. The thaig, the rock wraith, the Deep Roads...it all seemed like another lifetime, now. But, there had been one constant in all the changes of fortune and circumstances between then and now - the loyalty and friendship of a mage who had followed me into the Below once already, and surely would again, without even being asked.

     “Don’t question your place here,” my unbound hair brushed against my cheeks as I shook my head firmly. “I’ve been waiting for you, all this time…” my voice caught in my throat and I had to pause a moment to keep ahold of my composure; I had to glance away from his eyes, too, though I didn’t get any further than his mouth before my gaze was arrested again. “You’re here tonight, Anders, because you chose this. You chose…” I tilted my head to one side and glanced up at him shyly through my lashes. “You chose me . There’s no need to run.”

     Something like awe crossed his face and what little space left between us disappeared as he raised his hand, cupped my cheek, and drew my lips up toward his. My fingers curled in anticipation and I clung to the front of his coat like a storm-tossed sailor to her salvation.

     “When I was in the Circle, love was only a game. It gave the Templars too much power if there was something you couldn’t stand to lose,” he hesitated and turned his head away from me. “It would kill me to lose you.”

     He almost let me go and stepped back, but I hastily moved a hand from his chest to cover his against my cheek. I knew what he was thinking. I flash-backed myself to nine months earlier, out by the docks, on the crate we shared together...the day Knight Commander Meredith decreed that the penalty for harboring, aiding, or abetting a mage was death . I could be hung a hundred times over for just knowing about Anders, much less for anything else we had done together in the last three years.

     Much less for taking him as my lover, for welcoming him into my home, for hoping to change my bed to ours .

     “I had to wait for you to get here,” I said softly and tugged lightly on his coat with the hand still fisted there against his chest. “But, now that you are, I’m not letting you run,” I tugged again and he turned his face back toward me, though he didn’t look me in the eye just yet. “Damn the consequences, Anders,” I stuck my chin out stubbornly and he glanced up at me, though he kept his chin tucked down. “I. Don’t. Care.”

     I was too practical to say something meaningless like “you won’t lose me”. We both knew that could turn me into a liar. But, I could acknowledge what we were up against...and I could make it clear to him that he was worth every second of my rebellion, every act of my defiance. I didn’t say it out loud, but I did think it:

     If it comes to hanging...if it comes to that...then at least we’ll face it together.

     It was no less than what my parents had pledged to each other. Taking after my mother, I was no mage myself...but that didn’t cheapen the price of my resolution. I could still die for Anders. But first, at least, he would know that there was one person in his life who accepted him for what he was, who shared in his beliefs (if not his application of them), who shielded him the best she could, who gave him a place, a hearth, a heart to call “home”. I had not lived the experience of an apostate life, but I’d been born to a front-row view of what it was for my father and for my sister. I knew the weight, the worth, of my silent vows. I knew their cost. I didn’t think twice about paying the due, should the Templars ever come calling.

     “I’m the daughter of an apostate. My best friend is an apostate, who also doubles as my sister,” I felt the corner of my lips lifting ever so slightly as I let go of his coat and put my free hand up against his cheek. “I...would have an apostate for…” I hesitated and the next words came out softly, almost like a prayer to Andraste herself. “My lover. I was born for this life, Anders. It is my destiny, to be tied to the fate of mages who dare to be as free as I am by sheer lack of talent,” I lifted myself up on my tiptoes and playfully bumped my nose against the tip of his. “You can choose a good thing, you know. And you can be safe in the promise that I choose to protect this goodness for you.”

     “No mage I know has ever dared to fall in love,” his voice was husky and there was a brightness to his eyes that the reflection of the fire beside us couldn’t account for.

     “Lucky for you, I knew one once,” I titled my head and let my lips brush against his as I spoke; I could feel him shudder from the subtle, sensual contact.

     My words did draw the corners of his mouth upward in the briefest of smiles. He huffed slightly, as if to concede my point, but my brief pass at humor faded as fast as it had arose. Anders would not be dissuaded from the seriousness of the moment...and I loved him all the more for his single-minded focus. It was one of the chief traits that made him exactly who he was.

     “This is the one rule I will most cherish breaking.”

     His words were a benediction, a conclusion to the conversation we’d had to have before allowing our last defenses to fall. He’d needed to be reassured that he was truly wanted. I’d needed to hear myself say that the consequences be damned. We’d both needed to know the rules of the game we would start to play the instant our lips pressed together. We had both needed to know the name of the game: love.

     Love. He was a mage who had fallen in love, and I was a warrior who had found something worth fighting for, before she had even opened her eyes on that raised pallet in the Darktown clinic. The last three years had only cemented my feelings for Anders, had only cultivated, nourished, and grown the seed that he had sown by pulling me back from the Brink. It had taken my siege three bloody long years ...but he was finally willing to surrender to what I knew had been inevitable from the very beginning.

     He was mine. I was his. I did not exaggerate - I had been born from a mage’s love, for a mage’s love.

     And we were both finally embodying what the rest of Thedas still struggled to realize: that magic and steel were not opposing forces, but intrinsic halves of a whole. The staff to strengthen the blade; the shield to protect the arcane.

     Justice and mercy. One should never exist without the other.

     Balance.

     Binding.

     Intertwining - like lips, and teeth, and tongues, and breath ...