“Eagle to Raven. This is Eagle to Raven. Are you there?”
Teresa Andrada snapped out of the little reverie she’d drifted into, and forced herself to focus on the multiple screens in front of her that displayed the status of her teammates (friends, family really, but for now, in the middle of an op, they were her teammates) out on the field. “Raven to Eagle, I’m right here.”
A soft sigh that could have been exasperation or relief emanated through the comm unit she wore clipped to her left ear. “Right. Anyway: what’s our status?”
Teresa flicked through the screens, her fingers skating over glass as she swapped through various menus and displays, occasionally dropping her hands down to the projection keyboard gridded out in red laser lines on the only clear space of the table left in front of her. She had a brief memory of her sister, Serafina, being able to type with one hand while she moved screens with the other – but that memory had no place right now, in this moment. Not when the information she had to give could mean the difference between life or death for the team.
Finally, she pulled up the information she needed, and she tapped the earpiece to open the line. “Eagle, this is Raven. Surveillance cameras show no change as of the last ten minutes.”
“Then that means Magpie’s program took.”
Soft laughter over the comms. “Of course it did. I made it, didn’t I? Plus it’s not like their security was really all that hard to crack.”
“And thank the gods for that,” Teresa muttered.
A chorus of chuckles responded to her quip. “Well, if the surveillance cameras are as shot as they are, then we might as well get started. Good luck everyone, and keep safe.”
Everyone responded with their “Yes sirs” in the affirmative (with one lone “Ryokai”), and they began to move, per their individual objectives.
Teresa remembered what that was like. The taste of adrenaline in the back of her mouth when she got the go-signal. The flash of satisfaction when everything went as it should. The sickening twist of her stomach whenever something did not go as planned (which was always, since no plan ever survived contact with the enemy), followed soon after by the thrill of victory when she, or someone else, salvaged what had gone wrong. And then the rise of joy, of relief, when she saw the faces of her teammates again at the end of it all, knowing they had done another job well, and contributed to the betterment of the world in doing so. They were Nest, after all: the best bunch of do-gooder vigilantes in the world, who did what they could, oftentimes illegally, to make the world a better place.
Gods, but what she wouldn’t give to be out in the field again. It was where she belonged, damn it. She’d never intended – never wanted - to be the bird in the cage.
Teresa and Serafina were more or less matched in terms of their skills, but they had their preferences. Serafina had been Raven because she preferred being in the Aerie (their term for the mobile surveillance unit Nest set up in the vicinity of every op) handling surveillance, data, logistics, and tactics, looking over the team’s shoulders to make sure everyone was where they needed to be when they did what they needed to do at the best time to do it. Teresa had been Hummingbird because she preferred being out on the field, flitting in and out of the shadows to stealthily thieve what they needed, or take down those who needed to be taken down. Teresa could be Raven if she had to, and Serafina could be Hummingbird if she had to, but they both knew what they were best at.
And then Serafina had disappeared. “Nawala parang bula,” her grandmother said: gone like a soap bubble. She had evaporated – and that had been hard on all of them, because they were the ones who were supposed to disappear people, not the other way around. They’d made a great many dangerous enemies, to be sure, any one of who could have taken Serafina, but they turned every single stone and came up with nothing. Not even taking Edward off his leash and pointing him at those enemies had given them anything.
And so they’d gone back to what they usually did. There was so much wrong with the world, and so many people responsible for that wrongness that their little group couldn’t just stop and wait until one member of their little cobbled-together family came back – no matter how beloved said person was. Besides, Serafina wouldn’t have wanted them to stop and wait for her. They had a job to do, and she would have wanted them to keep on doing it.
So ten years went by after Serafina’s disappearance, and in the meantime they continued on. Teresa stepped off the field in the second year after her sister’s disappearance, left behind Hummingbird to become their team’s Raven – a decision she’d come to partially on her own, and partially on the recommendation of her cousin Raphael, and her sensei and field partner, Ichiro. Ichiro could easily do the things that Teresa had been doing, though it left their team with a little less flexibility having just one infiltration specialist (“Shinobi,” Teresa remembered Ichiro saying, with immense dignity) on the field. Still, it was a manageable problem. Not having someone in the Aerie running tactics and logistics for them was far less easily managed.
And so here Teresa was, watching her team do what they did best, and having nothing to do with it herself. Or at least, having nothing to do with it in the way she wanted to.
“Still miss it, don’t you.”
Teresa jolted out of her thoughts, and glanced over her shoulder at the speaker. She offered a wan smile. “Was I that obvious, Elie?”
Elinor Westhaven-Andrada (who otherwise went by Owl on the comms) gave Teresa a small smile in return as she rolled an office chair over to sit beside her, the wheels making no sound over the carpet that covered the floor of the nondescript office space they had rented for the duration of their operation. She leaned her head of (gorgeous, enviable) platinum blonde hair on Teresa’s shoulder, never mind that Teresa was shorter than her. But Elinor, once not given to casual touching and physical affection, had become significantly more touchy-feely in the wake of her marriage to Raphael two years ago, and Teresa liked it that she was. The Andrada family was a demonstrably affectionate one, with a marked preference for physical contact to convey that affection. Teresa loved Elinor, always had, but she loved it even more that the other woman had picked up on how the Andradas liked to convey that love to those they cared about.
“You are,” Elinor said, responding to Teresa’s question. “But that’s understandable. You’re a brilliant field agent. You know where you belong. And it’s not here.”
Teresa felt her shoulders sag, and she knew just how deeply they’d sagged when Elinor straightened a little before resettling again. “I know, but what can we do? They need me here more than they do out there.”
“True. And you are doing a good job here as well.”
“Not as good as Fina would’ve.”
Teresa thought she’d bitten back the bitterness in her tone, but Elinor seemed to pick it up anyway.
Her cousin-in-law’s arm wound around her shoulders, and Elinor said, in that firm tone of voice that no one argued against, not even their leader: “You’re what we need, here and now. Nest is still going because of that. I know you hate it when James says that every one of us is replaceable, and you know that James doesn’t believe that any more than you do, but he does have a point, in his own way.
“And besides,” Elinor added, her tone becoming softer, “I like the idea of you making sure that Rafe comes home to us. You or Fina, it wouldn’t matter; as long as one of his cousins is here in the Aerie, I can rest assured knowing that you’d do your utmost to bring him home.”
Teresa giggled, but nodded in agreement as she put an arm around Elinor. “Damn straight. Hook or crook, hell or high water.”
After Elinor’s affirming nod, the two of them fell silent, watching the progress of the field team through the building across the street. They were in the building to retrieve documents that, according to Lydia (Magpie, as she went on the comms), detailed a method for taking nuclear waste and refining it down into something useable. While there were interesting applications for the idea – not least being the recycling of nuclear waste into a useable form of energy – the stuff could still be made into weapons. Nowhere near as powerful as the radioactive materials that went into actual nuclear bombs, of course, but lethal enough to make all those nightmares of suitcase-sized dirty bombs into reality.
Count on humanity, she thought, to make something that could be beneficial and then turn it right around and use it as a weapon.
But that was why Nest existed. They did their work, unacknowledged and unheard-of except by a very select few, so that humanity could keep on going as it normally did for one day more. Now, if only certain portions humanity would stop being so stupid and voting potential dictators into power—
“Kestrel to Raven. This is Kestrel to Raven. Come in.”
Teresa snapped into action, tapping the comm unit in her head, before poising her hands in front of the touchscreens, ready to go at any moment. “Raven to Kestrel. What do you need?”
A soft grunt of effort, as if the person on the other end of the line were trying to move something and was failing miserably at it. “I can’t get this fucking door open. Can you see what’s on the other side? Maybe there’s a lock you or Magpie can open from there.”
“On it.” Teresa flicked through a few screens, pinpointing her cousin’s location, and then bringing up the appropriate camera feeds to get the information she needed. “Nope, sorry, the lock’s a standard one. Nothing I or Magpie can open from here.” She did a double take as she compared the location of the room to one of the maps open on another screen, and her eyes widened. “Shit, that’s the office where the documents are!”
“Fucking hell. So close yet so far.” Through the camera feeds, Teresa watched as her cousin contemplated the door, then took a few steps away, lowered his shoulder, and then rammed the door in an attempt to bring it down.
That didn’t work though, since the thing was apparently a lot sturdier than he’d anticipated, and as a result Teresa watched her cousin bounce right off the flat surface and yelp a pained “Ow!” over the comms, stumbling a few steps back as he clutched his shoulder.
Elinor stiffened at the sight of her husband bouncing off the door. She plucked Teresa’s comm unit from her ear, put it in her own, and tapped it. “Owl to Kestrel. This is Owl to Kestrel.”
“Kestrel to Owl. Yes dear?”
“If you try to do something that bloody stupid again, I will reset your shoulder without the benefit of painkillers. Understood?”
“Yes dear. Absolutely dear.”
“Good.” Elinor closed the connection, then gave the comm unit back to Teresa. She sniffed, shaking her head. “Men.”
Teresa snickered quietly, and mimed cracking a bullwhip towards the screen with one hand as with the other she put the piece of technology back in her ear. Elinor responded with a smug smile and a solemn nod.
Another voice came on the line. “I am already on it, Kestrel. Give me a moment.”
On the screen that showed the interior of the office, Teresa watched as a ceiling tile was lifted, and down dropped Takenaka Ichiro into the space below, landing neatly on his feet before he padded over to the door, unlocking it and letting Raphael in.
Just then, the door to their office burst open, and in strode Edward Hanover. His long, lanky frame vibrated with a barely restrained tension as he held his hand out wordlessly to Teresa. His pale blue eyes were enervated, almost glowing – if eyes could glow.
Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
Teresa immediately yanked her comm unit out of her ear, and put it into Edward’s hand.
The man threaded it into his ear, and tapped it. “Shrike to team. This is Shrike to team. The chick in my grasp finally squawked. There is a demolitions setup underneath the building. It will go off in five minutes. Find the documents and get out.”
Teresa felt the bottom of her stomach fall out as she got to her feet. Grabbing the comm unit from Edward, she fixed it back in her ear, even as her hands moved in quick swipes and jerks over the touchscreens in front of her. “Raven to team. This is Raven to team. Get your asses moving A-SAP. Your HUDs should tell you the fastest exit routes from your current locations.”
She glanced at Edward. “How much of the building is set to blow?”
“The entire building. The chick said they hired a demolitions firm to rig it up, but then they modified the setup so that they could trigger the detonations themselves.”
She relayed that information to the team, and over the storm of curses and swearing James Reeves (Eagle, on the comms) said: “You heard the Raven, everyone. Kestrel, Hayabusa, do you have the documents?” Upon hearing affirmatives from both men, he continued: “Magpie, are you ready with getaway?”
“Ready and waiting,” Lydia affirmed.
“Good. See you all on the other side. Over and out.”
Teresa glanced at Elinor, who immediately dashed out of the room to collect her things and get out. Edward, on the other hand, stayed and started helping her fold up the entire portable tech unit the Raven always operated from. Once everything was folded away, the taller man carried the heavier of the two suitcases, while Teresa took up the second one. As they stepped out of the office space they saw Elinor exit from another door a little further down the hall from them, suitcases dangling from both her hands. Teresa knew that inside those suitcases were the tools of Elinor’s trade as a trauma surgeon: everything she could possibly need to either take care of minor injuries, or stabilize major ones long enough until they could get to a discreet hospital.
Elinor shot them a look, and the three of them headed for the fire exit, jogging down the many flights of stairs as fast as their legs could carry them. They knew Lydia would be waiting at the bottom with the getaway van – likely with the rest of their team already inside. What mattered was whether or not there would be any nasty surprises waiting for them on their way down. Teresa sincerely hoped there were none, but kept herself loose and ready to act anyway.
Fortunately there weren’t any surprises waiting for them as they made their way down and out of the building, stepping out into the cold Chicago night as the fire exit door snapped closed behind them. The three of them looked right, then left, making sure that no one had seen them, then walked rapidly round the corner just as Lydia’s van pulled up next to the curb.
Teresa jumped and whirled around at the massive explosion, and when she turned to look she saw the building where everyone had been in collapsing in on itself. As it did so, it was clear that the people who’d rigged up the detonations were likely a professional demolitions crew, because the building came down without a single piece of it damaging any of its neighbors.
“Raven! C’mon, let’s go!”
Teresa spun back around and hopped into the van, grabbing her cousin’s hand as he yanked her in, while James slammed the van door closed behind her, then smacked the ceiling to signal to Lydia that everyone was in and to get moving.
For a few tense minutes, no one moved, as if half-expecting for their getaway to go wrong – and it still could, as close as they were to the site of the blast. But after a handful of turns, Lydia slid open the divider separating the driver’s seat from the back of the van, and grinned at them via the rearview mirror.
“Coast’s clear,” she announced cheerily. “Radio chatter indicates that folks are surprised about the building coming down, but besides that, there’s nothing else.”
As if on cue, everyone except Edward uttered a soft sigh of relief, and James smiled at them all, his teeth white in the gloom of the van and against his deep mahogany skin as he sank into his seat across from Teresa, with Ichiro next to him. “Great job everyone.”
Beside Teresa Raphael slumped back against the van’s side, his body almost sagging in relief. “And Nest saves the fucking world once again.”
“Indeed,” Elinor remarked as she moved so that she was sitting on Raphael’s other side. But though the tone of her voice was light, there was a barely concealed edge underneath it and in her expression as she poked Raphael’s shoulder – the one he’d used to try and bring down the door earlier.
When her husband yelped in pain, her face dropped into a stern scowl. “Let me have a look at that.”
“Dear, it’s nothing, probably just a brui—”
“Hush you, or I will sit on you, and you will not like it.”
At that, Raphael grinned, leering at his wife. “I like it when you sit on m—Ow! Shit!”
Elinor had gripped Raphael’s arm hard, and her eyes narrowed as she glared at him. “One more word out of you, and I will demote you to the couch. Just you see if I don’t, dear.”
James uttered a long-suffering sigh at the two of them, but he still smiled. Meanwhile, Ichiro chuckled quietly as he shook his head. “You should know better by now, Rafe-kun. Do not antagonize your wife – especially when she is the one tending to your injuries.”
Raphael grumbled something under his breath, and though Teresa didn’t catch the words she still chuckled to hear him. “Never poke the Owl” was a truism in Nest, and that went doubly so for her cousin, since he was married to Elinor.
On her other side, she felt Edward shift, and she glanced at him, a question springing to mind. “What did you do with the chick?” she asked, keeping her voice low. Edward referred to all his hostages as “chicks” - something to do with “keeping in theme with Nest”. Given Edward’s nature, though, the term was immensely creepy. Teresa suspected that was deliberate, too.
No one particularly liked talking to Edward. Though he was extremely intelligent (he’d had a brilliant career as a chemist working for a cutting-edge pharmaceutical company, before he’d come to Nest) he was also a psychopath. Given his intelligence and having had a good draw in the lottery of life, he’d managed to conceal his tendencies behind a façade of respectability – but that just made him even more dangerous. In another reality, he would have been a serial killer – the kind that came up only once every few generations: the kind that could not be caught.
But the thing about Edward was that he was surprisingly self-aware. He knew his failings and his weaknesses, understood his urges, and knew that if he did not do something, he would become a monster. And so, soon after joining Nest, he decided that in the absence of having a conscience, he would outsource that particular function to someone who did.
He chose the Andrada sisters for the job.
Serafina had tried, at first, to keep up with Edward and do her part in keeping him leashed, but she’d never particularly liked doing it, since she found him deeply creepy. Teresa, though, had kept up – more than kept up, in fact. She understood that having someone like Edward – someone unencumbered by the moral and ethical scruples the rest of them had – could be useful. And besides, it was better than him being out in society without a leash, where he could transform into the monster he knew he was capable of becoming.
“I left them there,” Edward replied, his tone even and casual.
“What did you do with them?” she asked.
“I injected them with that serum I made up. A swift, quiet death, to soothe the pain that came before. A mercy, I think you would call it.” Edward paused, then glanced at Teresa. “That was the right thing to do, was it not? I was inclined to leave them there and let the building crush them, but that was no guarantee they would die. Better a sure death than an uncertain one, no?”
Teresa nodded, meeting Edward’s cold, reptilian gaze. She’d had years to get used to it, but it never failed to unnerve her. She supposed that was a good thing. “Yes, Ed. It was the right thing to do.”
“You would not have chosen to just let them go? I supposed you might want to do that too.”
“No, I wouldn’t. I’d’ve done what you did.” Maybe not the way he’d done it, Teresa thought, but she’d’ve still killed the hostage. They were a bad person anyway, given what Lydia had managed to dig up about them. Anyone who made a dirty bomb and then tried to set it off in the middle of a city in some warped attempt to “jumpstart change” deserved to die. Not slowly and painfully, maybe, but they still deserved to die.
“Ah.” Seemingly satisfied (could he feel satisfaction?) Edward turned away, and closed his eyes – not to sleep, Teresa knew, but to meditate.
Did he find solace in meditation? Did he find it calming? Was he just closing his eyes, or was he actually meditating? Teresa had had those questions for about seven or eight years now, but she’d never thought to ask Edward why he meditated. She wasn't sure if she really wanted to know.
She looked away from him, and met Ichiro’s gaze. Her erstwhile field partner flicked a brief glance at Edward, then glanced back at Teresa. One eyebrow went up in an inquiring expression, asking her, without words, the same wordless questions he always did at the end of every mission: if she was all right, if Edward was well – if he would need to put the psychopath down.
Teresa offered him a small smile, and shook her head. All was well, she did not say out loud, both with her and with Edward. There was no need to put the resident psychopath down – not that night, at any rate.
Ichiro remained still for a moment, but at length offered her an equally small smile, nodding in acknowledgement before he looked away from her, and started conversing with James in tones soft enough that she could not quite understand what they were saying over the rumble of the engine.
In the quiet that always descended upon their team after an op, Teresa felt herself slipping into a doze. Before her awareness completely left her, she reached up to her chest, and stroked the pendant that hung on a leather cord around her neck, shielded by the fabric of her clothes: a little silver sword as long as her thumb. Everyone else on the team had one: a gift from Serafina just before she disappeared, given to them as a kind of good luck charm.
In these moments, Teresa liked to think that Serafina was still with them, in her own way, watching over them from wherever she was.
“Miss na kita sis,” she murmured as her hand dropped to her lap, her eyelids drooping finally over her eyes as she leaned her head on Raphael’s shoulder. “And thanks.”
They shone with a light they could not see. Even the one who did not feel, he shone, albeit his was the light of a dark star compared to the lambent brightness of his companions.
They were what she needed.
So she reached out through the gaps in the universes, stretching herself and her powers to reach out to them. It was fortunate that they bore her symbol around their throats: the sword of mercy, the tips pointing downwards, at rest, until taken up and pointed with purpose.
Like the swords they wore, she would take them and lift them up, and hold back the coming dark – the dark that was coming for Thedas, for the world she had left behind, but still loved, despite its flaws.
She wrapped the threads of her power around those brilliant souls in the other world, focusing on the swords they wore. Symbols had power, she knew, and though they did not know her, had no connection to her, the fact remained that the sword was one of her symbols, and through it she could pour her power between the worlds and take them.
A stab of guilt pricked at her briefly. She was what she was, now, but she’d never forgotten who she’d once been, had refused to let her Divine Husband remake her so completely that she forgot who she’d been before. Guilt was one of those things she didn’t want to let go, and she felt it because she knew what these people did for their world, knew that they, too, were holding back the darkness.
But they were just a few among many others. An effective few, true, but just a few among many. And Thedas needed them more.
Damn Fen’harel. Damn the Dread Wolf for his shortsightedness, for his inability to break away from the patterns that had set him on this path in the first place. She wondered how he could have failed to see the destruction that lay ahead, given how intelligent he was, how sharp and cunning, and yet, here they were.
To be fair, she could not see the future, even given who she was now. But one didn’t need divine foresight to see what lay at the end of the course Fen’harel had tracked for himself and his people.
It was time she acted. She saw what happened during the Blight, how narrowly disaster had been averted. And while that was going on, she watched the slow unfolding of events in Kirkwall, and knew that it was time to stop resting on her hands, stop simply pleading for mercy, and act.
Mercy, hope, the right to live, the right to freedom, to love – these were not things one waited for. They were things one fought for. She’d known that, a lifetime ago. She shouldn’t have forgotten.
She should have done something a long time ago.
Well, thought Andraste, Bride of the Maker, as with one almighty yank, she pulled the threads and those at their ends from one world into another, even as she felt Corypheus tap into the power of the sphere given to him by Fen’harel, even as the Veil shrieked and tore, even as voices rose in anguish and anger and death - perhaps it was not too late.
Ryokai - Japanese; "Roger that" or "Affirmative"
Nawala parang bula – Filipino phrase, with the translation and meaning already provided in the fic itself.
Miss na kita sis – Taglish for “Miss you sis.” Taglish is a portmanteau term for “Tagalog-English,” meaning the speaker mixes English words in while speaking Tagalog (the language on which Filipino is based). It’s used most frequently in Metro Manila, to the point that it can be considered the region’s local dialect. Fluency in its use is dependent upon relative fluency in English and Filipino/Tagalog.
Chapter 2: The Sphere Comes Through 600 Feet Above London
They’d been hit by a truck, or a tank – something big and powerful, anyway. Or there’d been a bomb under the van and it had blown up. Good thing they’d thought to install shielding, or she’d likely be in a lot more pain – and a lot more pieces – than she was right then.
Either way, those were the only explanations for why Teresa felt the way she did: pain singing from every nerve, a point of intense heat radiating from just beneath her collarbone. Broken sternum? Likely. The fact that the heat was dying down to a dull ache as she slowly returned to consciousness just confirmed that for her – though it might not have been that bad a break, because when she inhaled she—
“Ack!” She uttered a soft, involuntary wheezing sound as her throat got coated in dust. Dust? How the hell did that happen? Wasn’t she in a hospital?
She cracked her eyes open a little, and was greeted by darkness and the smell of damp. Not a hospital then, but…still on the street? Had she rolled out of the van somehow, when it had gotten hit or blown up? Gotten thrown out? No, that couldn’t be. The doors latched from the inside, and she’d taken the seat in the middle, between Edward who sat closest to the barrier between the back and the driver, and Raphael, who’d had Elinor on his other side. That would mean Elinor was the one closest to the door. And there were no windows to roll or get thrown out of.
She realized then that she was lying on her stomach, her left cheek pressed against the ground and her limbs sprawled around her in awkward angles. She shifted, tried to move her arms and legs under her so she could push herself up, but got nowhere as the pain brightened in intensity and she could do nothing but groan.
That must have gotten someone’s attention, because she heard a soft scuffing sound coming closer towards her. “Tessa?”
Raphael. She groaned again, a bit louder this time, and felt hands grip her and turn her over.
“Oh thank fuck,” her cousin murmured, his voice edged with worry and something else she can’t quite place. One hand let go of her and started to pat her on the cheek, bringing her closer to full consciousness. “C’mon cuz, we need you awake. Like, fucking now.”
“Tell that to the person who drove the godsdamn tank through our van because ow,” Teresa growled, but she finally opened her eyes to find her cousin staring down at her, his face streaked with grime and a shocky expression that told her something wasn’t quite right.
“What just happened?” she asked, eyes narrowing as she squinted at her cousin – then at the ceiling above him. It looked like rough-hewn rock, but it was hard to tell with so little light in the room. Where was the light coming from, anyway? She turned her head towards the source – and swore her eyes nearly popped out of her skull.
Torches. Torches. Torches in sconces like in Game of Thrones or any number of medieval fantasy or historical shows or films. As adrenaline cleared the last of the concussion fog (it was just a concussion, right? Gods, where was Elinor?) she realized that the room they were in was made of roughly dressed stone – and there were bars going the length of one side of the room they were in.
Correction: cell. They were in a prison – a dungeon.
“What in the actual ever-living godsdamned fuck is going on?” she demanded as she sat up slowly so that her brain could get used to the notion of gravity again and stop making the world spin.
In another cell across from her, she heard Edward speak up: “I can hear that Raven is awake. Excellent. I was wondering how quickly you would recover.”
“Where’re the others?” Teresa asked as she dragged herself over to the bars, grasping them and using them to haul herself up, her cousin supporting her as she tried to get back on her feet.
“Eagle is with me in this cell. He is breathing and he has a pulse, but he is still unconscious. Owl and Hayabusa are in that one over there.” Teresa’s eyes had adjusted to the light of the torches, so she saw how Edward waved his hand towards the cell next to his. There were two prone figures inside: one with a shock of blonde hair, the other dark. Neither was moving.
“Shit,” Teresa swore. She looked around again, and realized that one of them was missing. “Where’s Ly- Magpie?”
“She was in the cell with us,” Raphael replied, his voice low. “But they came and took her out for fucking questioning.”
“Shit on a hot stick.” She didn't think Lydia would spill all the beans about Nest – that wasn’t what she was worried about. No, she was worried about what they would do to her to get her to spill the beans. And if this dungeon were any indication, they’d resort to medieval methods – literally.
Which begged the question: what were they doing in a medieval dungeon anyway?
She turned to her cousin. “What the fuck is all this?” She waved a hand at their surroundings to indicate the entire situation they’d found themselves in.
“No fucking clue,” Raphael replied promptly, and from the tone of his voice and the frustration knotting his brow, that was the truth. “I just remember feeling like someone dropped me from the top of a fucking cliff, and when I woke up fully I was here, you were there, and they were pulling Magpie out for questioning.
“But here’s the thing: those people? Looked like fucking LARPers. Armor, swords, shields, the whole fucking shebang. And they were serious about it: not a single one of them broke character. Fucking Christ, some of them actually clanked when they moved.”
Teresa just frowned more deeply. “There’s no LARP event ongoing in or around Chicago, and definitely not one with a medieval setting. I know. I checked.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“And there’s no buildings with this kind of stonework in or around Chicago either.”
“Again: no shit, Sherlock.”
“So where the fuck are we?”
“No fucking clue, Sherlock.”
Teresa’s mind spun. “Okay, so: we got taken by LARPers—”
“Very dedicated LARPers,” Raphael interjected.
“—and we’re now in some medievally-looking building with an equally legit medievally dungeon and being held hostage. Any idea who took us, exactly?”
“They call themselves the Inquisition,” Edward said, having found his way to the bars of his own cell so he could talk to them better.
A smirk tugged unexpectedly at Teresa’s lips. “Inquisition, huh? Well, none of us expected them, that’s for sure.”
Edward flashed a tight, I’m-doing-this-only-because-it’s-expected smile at the joke, before his expression smoothed over into his usual serious expression. “As I was saying. They call themselves the Inquisition; though they are nothing like any Inquisition we are familiar with. According to what I overheard when they were pulling Magpie out of here, they found us in a field just outside their base, which they call Haven.”
“Lying in the dirt, unconscious. We fell out of something they called a ‘rift’. It is because of those circumstances that that they are keeping us down here.” Edward shrugged. “If this is a LARP, then I suppose Haven is a faction base of some kind, and these rifts are an element of the game setting – perhaps something that lets them integrate new participants with minimal effort. Though I do wonder why they would include a random group of strangers in their game. They cannot be so hard up for participants that they would resort to kidnapping.”
“You know how the fuck a LARP works?” Raphael asked, his voice tinged with surprise.
Edward shrugged, but said nothing to explain how he knew about LARPs.
Teresa opened her mouth to ask more questions about their situation – if Edward had heard anything at all that might give them a clue as to where they were, up to and including accents – but was cut short by the clattering sound of a heavy wooden door opening on somewhat-rusty hinges.
“—right now, because I don’t know if they’re actually okay.”
“Magpie?” Teresa called, and almost instantly Lydia was there, her elegant features creased with worry.
“Thank the gods you're awake,” Lydia murmured, reaching between the bars to clasp Teresa’s hands tightly. She looked over her shoulder, and snapped: “Let them out. You promised you would.”
“And we shall do so,” said a woman with a low, oddly accented voice. She was standing in front of the door to the dungeon, too far away from the light of the torches for Teresa to see her features. “Provided you ensure that you keep to your end of our bargain.”
“Bargain?” Alarmed, Teresa turned to Lydia. “Magpie, what—”
Lydia shook her head. “No more codenames, Tessa. We’re not going to need them here.”
“What do you mean we won’t need them here? What’s going on?”
“Just trust me. I’ll explain everything as soon as you're out.”
Teresa nodded, holding herself back just long enough for a man in leather armor to unlock the gate of the cell. As soon as it was open, she threw herself at Lydia, catching the other woman in a tight hug before looking her over for injuries. “They didn't torture you, did they?”
The woman by the door snorted in disgust as she stepped into the ring of light provided by the torches. She was tall, with black hair shorn short, but with a thin braid going around the crown of her head. Her features were sharp and fierce, made even fiercer by the scar that sliced its way down the left side of her face, just beside her mouth. Her dark eyes sparked with suspicion as she watched them. “We do not torture the cooperative.”
Well, Teresa thought, that was good to know. Sort of. But then, she saw that James was still lying on the floor of his cell, and then that became her priority. “Ly—”
“Here.” Lydia put something in Teresa’s hand, and when she opened it she realized it was a small vial of smelling salts from the medical supplies Elinor always took on missions. Good: it meant they still had their stuff, and – more importantly – had been granted access to said stuff. She snapped the vial and held it under James’ nose, and in no time at all James was conscious again, his head snapping up and away from the vial she’d yanked away from his face as soon as he was awake.
While James recovered, she glanced towards the other cell, watching as Raphael gave Elinor the same treatment, and as soon as she was awake, cradled his wife in his arms, holding her tight and murmuring something in her hair. Lydia took care of Ichiro, the man jerking back to consciousness with much more roughness, almost reaching out to grab Lydia by the throat before he realized who it was, and only then relaxing.
She immediately turned to James, who was slowly getting into a sitting position while holding his head. “Hey there boss.”
“Wha-“ James’ dark eyes squinted at her. “Wha’the fuck?”
“If you’re swearing that means you’re okay,” Teresa remarked, smirking wider at James’ exasperated eye-roll. “Listen: we’re in a situation right now that I have a really hard time making sense of, but if you can get on your feet, Ed and I’ll help you stand up and we can get out of this dungeon and sit somewhere with light and air.” She paused, frowning in consternation before turning to Lydia. “We are getting out of this place, right Ly?”
“We are.” Lydia stood, supporting Ichiro, who was mostly conscious but still somewhat dazed, on her shoulder. Fortunately, Lydia was a tall woman, and quite strong to boot, so she had very little trouble handling the somewhat bigger man. She faced down the fierce, scarred woman with the accent. “You said so.”
“I did,” the woman replied with a sharp nod. She turned away from them, heading towards the door. “If you are on your feet, I can guide you to a place where you will be safe.”
“Whozat?” James slurred as Edward and Teresa pulled him to his feet, holding him between them to support his weight – or rather, with Edward supporting most of his weight. Teresa, being short as she was, could only do so much. Still, she tried.
“Dunno,” Teresa replied as they all followed the scarred woman out of the dungeon. She exchanged a glance with Lydia, who nodded. “But we’re going to find out soon enough.”
“This is bullshit! Utter bullshit! What are we, the sphere shoved into the breach six hundred feet over London that leaves a hole in the fabric of reality?!”
“… Wow. I had no idea you watched Doctor Who. You been holding out on me, bossman? I’m hurt.”
To any other listener, Raphael’s tone might have been considered unnecessarily glib, given the circumstances, but Lydia knew it was just his way of dealing with pressure. When Raphael Andrada was trying to deal with things that he could only barely handle, he turned to two things: swearing (though to be fair, he swore even without any pressure on him), and being flippant even if the situation didn’t warrant it. Or rather, especially if the situation didn’t warrant it.
James’ reaction, at least, was well in keeping with their circumstances. “Still. Bullshit.”
Lydia sighed, and resisted the urge to press the heels of her hands into her eyes in an attempt to stave off the headache that was building behind them. It had been manageable earlier, but now was building up to what Raphael would term “oh motherfucker” proportions. And all because her friends were freaking out over their current situation in their own unique ways, instead of just accepting the way things stood and working towards a solution that would help them adjust to the New Normal.
Not that she could blame them, really – especially James. While they all knew that there was no way one could control every single variable in any given situation, James had been especially good at rolling with the punches as they came. It was why he was leader of their little group in the first place: when everything went to pieces and shit hit the fan, they could always count on James to keep a level head and see them through to a workable solution.
But that was in their world – and they were far from their world now.
She glanced out the window of the little room where they were granted privacy to talk over their options (more like where they were being held prisoner, albeit it was much better than the dungeons they’d previously been in). The great, swirling, sickly-green tornado in the sky – the Breach – hovered in the distance, occasionally dropping what she now knew were monsters onto the land below, to terrorize the innocent people of Thedas.
The Breach. Thedas.
Lydia was used to being an outsider. She’d grown up on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, had spent most of her life there before she’d gotten a scholarship to Arizona State University to study computer science. When she’d begun studying it had felt like stepping into a completely different world. Oh, she’d seen what it was like, but that was through screens and the Internet. Everything had felt completely surreal for maybe a month or so before she’d gotten used to it.
But this? This was completely different.
As Raphael had said earlier: “This is not fucking Kansas anymore Toto. This is so not fucking Kansas.”
“Guys,” she said, drawing everyone’s attention to her. “We’re getting nowhere.”
James glared at her briefly, before he finally sagged, and shook his head. “You’re right,” he said, dropping into the chair he’d been occupying earlier. “Goddammit. We can’t move forward like this.”
Lydia nodded, then continued, in a softer voice: “Listen: I know I took our options away from all of us when I told them that we’d work with the Inquisition. I know that wasn’t my call to make. But it was either that, or leave you guys in that dungeon, and with James, Elie, Ichi and Tessa still unconscious when they took me, I had to make the choices that’d get you out of that hole and somewhere someone could take care of you.”
A rock and a hard place. Lydia thought she’d been in that position often enough to know what it felt like, and she thought she’d always find a way out. In, over, under, around, through if she had to – it didn’t matter, there was always a way out. She was the Magpie: if she couldn’t bring her team, her friends, her family, safely out of a crisis, then what was the point?
But that was the point, wasn’t it? She was the Magpie: put her behind the wheel or a computer console, and she could work miracles. But put her in front of people and, well…
It should’ve been James who’d done the talking. James, or Teresa, or if she’d still been around, Serafina: the Eagle or the Raven would’ve been able to talk to these people, find a workable solution to their problem. But James and Teresa had been knocked out, and Serafina was long gone.
So it had fallen to her, and she’d tried her best, she really had, but the talk with the Inquisition’s leadership showed her that she hadn’t really understood what it meant to have absolutely no options left open to her.
She’d done the best she could. And that meant taking Maxwell Trevelyan’s offer: fold into the Inquisition’s ranks, and work with them to find a way to close the Breach. He’d also offered to let them go into the world to make their own way, but that wasn’t a choice; that was a death sentence. Even Maxwell knew it was, if the slight grimace on his face as he’d said it was any indication.
She snapped out of her thoughts when she felt a warm hand on her shoulder. She looked up, and then a little downwards, to meet Teresa’s warm brown eyes.
The shorter woman smiled, and squeezed her gently. “You did what you could, Ly. Don’t beat yourself up over it, okay?”
Lydia felt her breath catch in her throat, and then smiled tremulously. Count on Teresa to see right through the bullshit she was putting herself through, and say something to take it away or make it easier to bear.
She reached up, and put her hand on top of Teresa’s. “Thanks.”
Teresa smiled back, and closed in for a brief hug before letting Lydia go with one last, gentle stroke on her arm. It soothed Lydia, grounded her thoughts. Typical Andrada touchy-feeliness – and gods bless them for it.
Lydia looked back at James, and realized that he’d been watching her, his full lips quirked up in an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry, Ly,” he said, standing up to come over to her. He took her hand, and squeezed it gently. “You did what you could for us. I couldn’t ask for more, or better, from anyone, especially from my family.”
Lydia smiled up at him, and squeezed his hand in reassurance. “I forgive you. Just don’t forget: you have us. And no matter how crazy this whole situation is, we’re going to get through it together – like we always do.”
A soft laugh escaped James’ mouth, but he nodded, giving her hand one final squeeze before he let go, and turned to face them all. Lydia could see how he stood a little straighter now, his head a little higher.
The Eagle had come to a decision, and whatever it was, Nest would follow.
“Looks like we’re going to be working for this Inquisition, whoever they are,” James stated, his voice clear and even. “Let’s show them they didn’t make a mistake taking us onboard.”
“Are you certain this is the correct thing to do?”
“I am, actually.”
“They could be—”
“—Spies, yes I know. Or if not spies, then something else equally dangerous – more so, since Solas did say they are from another world, and they have confirmed that. If they do prove to be a danger, then Sister Night—”
“I mean, Leliana will ensure that they are dealt with. But I will not refuse anyone who wishes to help the Inquisition, not when we need all the help we can get. Who knows: perhaps their otherworldly nature will prove to be an asset to us.”
“While all of that is true, I would ask, as one of your advisors, and as the Commander of the Inquisition’s forces, that you be careful. Or at the very least, do not place such immense trust in such total strangers – at least, not until I or Sister Leliana have vetted them thoroughly.”
“I doubt there is much vetting to be done. Given that they are from another world, there are no documents that can be referenced to tell us anything about them, nor is there anything Leliana’s agents can uncover.”
“My agents and my networks are good, but we cannot find what does not exist in the first place.”
“I’m suggesting no such thing! I’m simply asking that we keep an eye on them and see if they are worthy of the trust the Herald appears to have placed in them.”
“And that is completely valid, and I agree. But…”
“But something in my gut tells me that trusting them is the right thing to do. I know, I know, intuition and gut feeling are not a good basis for judging people, there’s no need to give me that look. But the fact remains that they strike me as good people.”
“… Well, let us hope your gut feeling is right. Either way, Sister Leliana, Seeker Cassandra, and myself shall keep a close watch on them in the meantime.”
“I’d have it no other way, Commander Rutherford.”
Chapter 3: Coping Mechanisms
Cullen Rutherford was not entirely sure what to make of the latest additions to the Inquisition’s ranks – despite having observed them for one whole month since their arrival in Haven, and despite knowing they were, as far as he, Cassandra, and Leliana could see, not a danger to the Inquisition. On one hand, the Herald, Maxwell Trevelyan, had a point: more willing hands to help their cause was always a good thing. On the other hand, they were just plain strange.
Take their healer, the lady named Elinor. All his life, Cullen had been accustomed to healers being gentle, even-tempered folks, who could calm any sort of hysterics or tantrums, and who faced tiny cuts and life-threatening injuries with the same equanimity of temperament.
Elinor, on the other hand, took a vastly different approach.
“If you break anything while fooling around in the training yard,” Cullen overheard her threatening her husband, the man named Raphael, “I will set it, and then break your nose.”
“Ouch,” Raphael muttered, but he was grinning as he wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist. “I’ve broken it enough times already, don’t you think?”
Elinor narrowed her eyes at him, and this time Raphael laughed out loud before leaning forward a little to plant a loud kiss on her mouth.
“We’ll take care, I promise,” Raphael said, still grinning at his wife but with the cheekiness in his dark eyes tempered by the kind of softness that Cullen had last seen so very long ago, on his parents’ faces when they looked at each other across the supper table at the end of the day.
“You will, will you?” Elinor stared up at her husband, then stepped away and around him. “Well, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your word for it. I’ll get some supplies together and watch.”
Raphael just laughed as he watched his wife walk back into the cabin they were given (separate from the other cabin the rest of their team shared, Cullen noted – likely out of deference to their married state). Then, he must have noticed Cullen watching, because he sobered slightly, and nodded.
“Good morning, Commander Rutherford,” he greeted.
“Good morning to you as well, Ser Raphael.” Cullen glanced at the door through which Elinor had gone, then added, in a quieter voice, “Is Lady Elinor well?”
Raphael snickered, but nodded. “If Elie isn’t threatening me with pain and dismemberment for attempting something very stupid, then that isn’t my wife: that’s a pod person.” Cullen shot him a confused look, and Raphael amended: “She’d be an impostor if she acted any other way.”
“Ah.” Cullen contemplated whether it was safe to ask the question on the tip of his tongue, and in the end, decided it would do no harm. “Is she always like that, then?”
“S’why I fell in love with her. Perfect ‘no’ on her perfect mouth for everything she thinks is perfectly stupid.” Raphael uttered an unmistakably captivated sigh, which matched the equally captivated expression on his face. “And a mean right hook on top of all that. Like, damn. I knew I was in love when she punched me for trying to take down five thugs all by my lonesome and came back to her with cracked ribs and my left tibia broken in two places.”
Cullen stared. “Does she punch all her patients?”
“Nah. It was just me, and it was just the once, and to be fair, I kinda needled her into it. The others know better than to poke her. Me, I find it fun.” Raphael paused, and then leered. “Speaking of poking her, I am so fucking glad we got a cabin all to ourselves. Privacy is good for married life.”
Cullen felt his jaw fall slack at the casual way Raphael talked about his privileges as a married man, but fortunately was spared from having to say anything in response when a roll of bandages hit the other man on the side of the head.
“Not another word about our married lives, Rafe,” Elinor scolded, her gray eyes flashing in annoyance as she snatched the roll from her husband’s sheepishly outstretched hand. “Honestly, do you not know the meaning of ‘overshare’?”
She turned to Cullen, and gave him a small, apologetic smile. “Good morning to you, Commander Rutherford. Please forgive my impertinent boor of a husband. I love him very much, but the filter between his mouth and his brain is broken and he says whatever comes to mind.”
“It was no trouble, Lady Elinor,” Cullen replied automatically, bowing his head slightly at the pale-haired healer.
Elinor nodded, but then her eyes narrowed slightly at him – not in the same way they had narrowed at her husband, but in the way of a healer that had just noticed something about a patient. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Commander, but… Are you well?”
Cullen blinked. “Beg pardon?”
“Are you all right?” She moved a little closer to him, her head tilted to one side. “You look a little pale, and you’re sweating quite hard despite it being so cold.”
Maker’s breath, Cullen thought in a panic, how had she noticed? He thought he’d gotten quite adept at hiding the symptoms of the lyrium withdrawal – especially since his headaches weren’t that bad today, nor had the nightmares been that terrible. “I— I am quite well, Lady Elinor, I assure you. I just— I have a lot on my mind.”
Elinor did not seem to acknowledge his statement, continuing to stare at him for a few seconds, but at length she nodded, and backed off, her expression softening slightly even though her gaze remained sharp. “Of course. I’m sorry for being nosy.” She turned to Raphael, and nudged him to the side. “Come on then love. Won’t do for you to be late or James will make you run extra laps around the lake.”
Raphael groaned, but obeyed his wife as he got moving. “You can just tell him not to, if you said it was for medical reasons.”
“Love, you are not using me to get out of training. While I don’t approve of you lot whaling on each other with lethal weapons, I can get behind more cardiovascular exercise to help maintain your stamina and fitness.”
“My stamina and fitness, huh? You sure that’s for my benefit or for yo- Ow!”
Cullen couldn’t help the involuntary wince he gave when he saw the way Elinor’s elbow connected with Raphael’s side, but the sight of them together also made him smile. They were strange, that was true, and he could never fathom the idea of falling in love with a woman for the way she punched, but with those two… Well, it worked, and it worked well. And in some strange way, it was comforting to know that even in other worlds, people still fell in love and got married, just as they did in Thedas.
That kind of certainty was becoming increasingly difficult to find.
“I know they’re kind of weird, but they really love each other.”
Cullen snapped out of his observation of Raphael and Elinor to focus on this new speaker: the woman named Lydia Lacapa. He hadn’t spoken to her in a while, not since those confusing, head-spinning days when she and her companions dropped out of a rift right on Haven’s front steps, but he had a vague notion that Leliana had co-opted her for one reason or another.
“Lady Lydia,” he greeted, nodding his head at her, which she returned with one of her own. “It is not my place to say what is or is not strange, when it comes to a couple in love.”
Lydia smiled: a flash of brilliant white teeth in the smooth bronze of her elegantly chiseled face, her thick black hair trailing down her left shoulder in a plait that ended just above her waist. “Don’t worry; they know what they’ve got is a bit strange. But the bond’s strong, and that’s all that really matters.”
“Indeed.” He straightened as he regarded her. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Leliana wants you to join us for a moment? There’s something we’d like to discuss with you, about the new communication protocols we’re going to start using for the Inquisition. Since you’re the Commander of the military and will be using these protocols too when sending letters and messages, she said you needed to be brought up to speed on them.”
Ah. Leliana had told him this would be happening at some point. He nodded in acquiescence, and followed Lydia to Leliana’s tent in the chantry’s forecourt, where the two women proceeded to explain in great detail the new ciphers that Lydia wished the Inquisition to use in place of the standard Chantry ciphers they had been using up until then.
“No offense meant to your scholars,” Lydia said, “but with enough persistence, anyone could brute-force the ciphers you’re using right now. Fortunately, the ciphers I’m proposing to replace them with are far more durable.”
“But more durable means that the implementation will be more complex,” Leliana interjected. “This can be a problem for scouts in the field, or for the Commander here when he needs to issue orders.”
“We won’t need ciphers at all, on the battlefield,” Cullen stated. “In the middle of a battle I want speed and communicability over long distances, not secrecy and obscurity. I want to be able to tell my soldiers exactly what I need them to do, and they need to understand and execute those orders immediately and as perfectly as possible.”
Lydia smiled, and shook her head. “I think you’ll find that encrypting even your field orders is going to go a long way towards making sure the enemy doesn’t figure out what you’re doing. But I hear you: a complicated cipher isn’t practical in the heat of battle. We’ll get there, Commander, and when we do, I’m going to need your help to make a cipher that works for you and for your soldiers. I’d like to get the complicated ciphers out of the way first, and then we can work on the less complicated ones.”
This launched them into a discussion of the cipher they would use for correspondence between the Herald and his advisors, since Maxwell refused to sit idly in Haven while allowing his allies to do all the work for him. On one hand, Cullen knew this was a good thing, since the Herald taking an active part in the efforts of the nascent Inquisition would add to the prestige of the organization, to say nothing of the way his actions could alter opinions towards them. On the other hand, it also meant that he was in constant danger, but there was very little Cullen could do about that. Maxwell knew how to wield a sword, and he would not be going out alone. Cullen had to hope that that would be enough to keep him safe.
“Huh. No wonder we didn’t see you guys at lunch.”
Cullen turned to face the entrance of the tent, and found himself looking at the woman named Teresa: small and bright-eyed, with a dimpled smile that could turn the gloomiest day into a joyous spring.
Especially when it was directed at him, as it was now.
Cullen searched his memory for when, precisely, he had first seen that smile. It certainly could not have been when he first met Teresa, since that had been when she and her companions were first brought out of the dungeons, and a few of them were still recovering from whatever had rendered them unconscious in the first place. At the time, she had been grim, but efficient, her mouth set in a straight line and her eyes flinty-hard. It was clear her mind was on other, less happy things, but Cullen could hardly blame her for that, given the circumstances.
It had to have been in the weeks after, then, as she and her cohorts settled into their new place in the Inquisition, and as Cullen and Cassandra relaxed their initially-harsh stance against them. He recalled one afternoon, when he had been telling the Herald about how he had come to join the Inquisition, and she and James had walked by, observing the recruits as they trained. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but as he glanced briefly away from the Herald, she just so happened to turn her head away from James, and their gazes met.
For a brief moment, they stared at each other, and then, like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, she smiled at him: sweet and a little shy, eyes twinkling with good cheer, a dimple in each cheek, one hand lifted in a little gesture of greeting.
The sight of that smile punched Cullen in the gut. It was a smile made for better men than him, for better people than him, and she’d given it to him so freely, as if he deserved it. If she knew who he really was, if she knew what he’d done, she wouldn’t smile at him like that, for such beauty and goodness were not meant for those as dark and broken as himself.
And yet, Maker forgive him, he was a weak, greedy man, and since that moment he wanted that smile upon him as often as he could get it. He imagined that, so long as her smile continued to exist, the world was not as terrible or as bleak as it was.
He snapped back to the present when Teresa stepped into Leliana’s tent, approaching Lydia, who held one hand out to take the basket from her.
“Sorry we forgot,” Lydia said sheepishly as she put the basket down on the table, making sure not to cover any of the documents they had been working on. “We…kind of got caught up in our work.”
“Yeah, I figured. And Elie figured too, so she had me bring these over.” Teresa eyed them all. “I know I don’t need to tell you, Ly, but Sister Nightingale, Commander: you’d best eat. If Elie hears you’re not taking care of yourselves, she’s going to find you and tell you herself. And believe me, you won’t like it.”
Leliana uttered a charming little laugh, and reached for the basket. “I suppose you are right. And it is good to hear that Lady Elinor has found her place amongst the Inquisition’s healers. We shall need all the help we can get on that front.” She glanced at Teresa, then asked: “And how have you been settling in?”
Teresa shrugged. “Fine, for the most part. The cold here is unholy, but I always complain about the cold, so there’s nothing new about that.”
Cullen frowned. “If you need warmer clothing, you should ask the quartermaster for them. We cannot have anyone falling ill because of the cold.”
Teresa flashed him that bright smile again, and shook her head. “Thanks for the concern, Commander, but I’ll deal. There’re others who need the resources more than I do.” She blinked, and then snapped her fingers. “Right, now that I have you here, I wanted to ask: would it be all right if Ichiro and I set up some plum blossom poles on the training ground?”
“Plum blossom poles?”
“Round poles of varying heights and widths. We use them for balance training.” She nodded at Leliana. “As I understand it, Ichi and I are to be integrated with the other assassins and rogues under Sister Nightingale’s command. Ichi’s one of the best stealth fighters we know, but it’s been years since I had to be on the field myself. I’ll need to get my skills back up to snuff if I’m to be useful.”
Cullen frowned as he tried to imagine how such poles would be used for training. “I do not mind,” he said slowly, “but I would like to see how you use them.”
“As would I,” Leliana chimed.
Teresa nodded. “No problem. We’ll get them set up today and start using them tomorrow. You can come by in the morning and check it out, that’s when we’ll be using them.”
Leliana nodded. “We would appreciate that, thank you.”
“All right. Anyway, I’m gonna go back to Ichi and start setting things up.” She turned around, and started heading out of the tent. Just before she exited, however, she turned back around, and glanced at Cullen. “And Commander?”
“Please make sure you eat.” She pointed to the basket, from which Leliana and Lydia had taken their own meals. “Okay?”
“I— Yes, of course. Thank you for the concern.”
“No problem.” Then with one last, be-dimpled smile, she left, likely to seek out Ichiro and execute whatever plans they intended to implement.
Lydia sighed and shook her head. “That girl is going to burn out if she keeps on doing that.”
“What do you mean?” Cullen asked, reaching into the basket Teresa had brought for what turned out to be a sandwich – the same kind of meal that Leliana and Lydia were eating.
“Tessa has a really bad tendency to push herself to the back burner when she’s worried,” Lydia replied. “I’ve seen the others take the time to think about what’s happened to us – even James, and he’s not usually one for introspection. But Tessa’s just…picked up and kept moving. She’s not giving herself time to think, to really understand what’s happened to us. She’s in crisis mode, even when we’re not in a crisis.” She paused, and then snorted. “All right, that’s not true, but now that we’re settled in with the Inquisition, there’s no need for her to keep going full speed ahead the way she has.”
“Perhaps that is how she is dealing with your…altered circumstances,” Leliana said gently. “I know of several people who handle crises that way.” The look she shot Cullen as she said those words made it clear that he was amongst those people. “I also include myself in that statement.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not the healthiest coping mechanism in the world,” Lydia muttered. “She needs to slow down and think. She’s not going to be useful to anyone if she burns herself out.”
“I can make sure she slows down,” Cullen offered. “I see her most frequently on the training grounds with Ser Ichiro. If he isn’t able to convince her, I can try to help him.”
Lydia smiled, relieved. “That’d be a good idea, Commander. Thank you. And if she doesn’t listen, do what Ichi does: spar with her, then get her in a lock and sit on her until she listens to you. Don’t worry about hurting her; girl’s far from fragile.”
Cullen blinked at the suggestion, and then focused on his food, hoping the action would mask the embarrassed flush that crept up his neck at the idea of sitting on Teresa. It seemed like such a ridiculous notion: as if the woman were a child in need of punishment.
Eventually, thankfully, talk returned to the ciphers, and Cullen was able to finish his meal and focus on something else that was not the woman with the springtime smile who lingered now on the edges of his thoughts.
Keep moving. Keep going. Never stop. If Teresa stopped, she’d have time to think, and she didn’t want to think, didn’t want to consider what had just happened to her, to her family.
Except she had to stop at night. She had no choice on the matter; there just wasn’t anything to do in Haven after a certain point, and people tended to find their own beds and shoo her to hers if she still happened to be up. And besides, it was cold.
So instead of sleeping, she spent most of her time in her bedroll staring at the overhead beams of the cabin she shared with the team, her brain going so fast she could feel it buzzing, unable to relax. She dozed, from time to time, but she never really managed to fall into a proper, deep sleep.
And she knew it was bad. She knew it was doing a nasty number on her health, and if she didn’t watch it Elinor would come and find her and dose her with sleeping pills. But she couldn’t help it. There was too much going on in her head, too many worries whirling around and chasing each other like restless cats.
Sighing, she sat up, looking around the dimly lit cabin at the others. They were all fast asleep: James in one corner, snoring like a chainsaw; Edward in another, lying on his back and with the blankets pulled up over his head so he looked, rather disturbingly, like a corpse; Lydia not too far away from the little length of wall Teresa called her own, wrapped up in a blanket burrito with her hair spilling out from the top. Even Ichiro, who’d maintained much the same sleeping habits she had when they first arrived in this world called Thedas, was sleeping as he usually did back home: on his stomach, arms wrapped around his pillow, his breathing deep and even and soundless.
She envied them, she really did. They hadn’t adjusted to their new reality all at once, but they’d managed it.
How did they do it? How could they just accept that this was how things were now, that this was how their life was going to be from now on? Didn’t they think about going back? Didn’t they want to know if they could go back? Surely whatever had brought them here to this place – whether it was the Breach, or something else they didn’t know about yet – could send them back, once it was solved.
But what if there was nothing, at the end of all this? What if they really were stuck here? What if they had no choice but to stay here and make a go at living in this world where magic was real, and there was no technology, and they were still practicing the humoral theory in medicine, for crying out loud, and—
Growling in frustration, she got to her feet, stepping over Lydia and Ichiro to get to the door. She wrapped herself in the thick cloak that had been given to her against the cold, making sure it was tied securely around her neck before she opened the door, and slid out into the biting cold.
Teresa hissed as a cold wind greeted her, scraping against her cheeks like a million tiny needles. She stayed there for a while, stomping and quietly grumbling as she adjusted the cloak to make sure there weren’t any stray drafts trying to sneak in under the (inadequate, as far as she was concerned) warmth of the garment. She looked back behind her at the door. Maybe she could go back inside and grab her blanket, wrap that around herself underneath the cloak. No: if she did that she’d wake Ichiro up, and he’d want to know why she was still awake.
Sighing, she turned away, and walked away from the cabin, taking the looping path that led around the grounds of Haven. Thanks to the Breach’s eldritch glow it was easy to follow the walls of the small town that, according to Ambassador Montilyet, was a major stopover for pilgrims visiting the Temple of Sacred Ashes – an important site to the Andrastian faith, which was administered and spread by the Chantry, the major religious power of Thedas. That temple, incidentally, was where something called a Conclave was being held, to bring resolution to what was called the Mage-Templar War, but then the Breach exploded into life, killing everyone present at the peace talks.
All except for Maxwell Trevelyan: the sole survivor whom everyone (well, almost everyone) called the Herald of Andraste, who bore a mark on his palm that could close rifts – and, it was hoped, the Breach as well, once he’d gained enough strength to handle it.
But that was still some ways away. Maxwell needed support for his endeavor, but the Inquisition was still too young, too new to the political landscape. It had no support at all, save what it could win for itself – and that was going to be an uphill battle.
History had always been one of Teresa’s favorite subjects, which overlapped very well with her original training as a literary scholar. She loved stories, and history was just another kind of story. She enjoyed reading about events from long ago, seeing how they pieced together the story of humanity as a whole, and how those events shaped the present – both for good and for ill. She especially enjoyed drawing parallels between events, eventually concluding that one of her favorite childhood authors, James Gurney, had been right when he’d written in Dinotopia: “Time moves on, but history repeats itself.”
What she hadn’t expected was to find parallels in Thedas: a world that was completely different from the one she knew. She’d taken to reading the history books in the chantry’s library when she had free time on her hands during the day, and she’d been astounded by the broad similarities. Empires rose and fell; wars were fought and won or lost or brought to inconclusive ends. And people were still people – for better and for worse. The details, though, she took with a grain of salt; she knew how even the most rigorous author or scholar could not help but weave their own prejudices into the text. She wondered if there were any texts written by the elves that she could look at; her professors had always taught her the value of multiple perspectives and listening to marginalized voices, and—
Movement out of the corner of her eye snapped her out of her thoughts, and Teresa looked up towards its source. She caught a glimpse of someone in pale clothing stepping around a corner, heading in the direction of the well that stood to one side of the chantry. Curious, she decided to follow, her footsteps automatically going quiet the way they did on a mission.
It was a man, as it turned out: tall and broad-shouldered, with a head of blond hair in unruly curls, dressed in light trousers and a tunic. She couldn’t tell who it was, because his back was turned to her, but she could tell something wasn’t quite right because he was leaning over the lip of the well with all the look of a man who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders. And when he started to move to pull the bucket up from the well, she could tell that he was in pain.
Teresa stepped forward, forgetting that she hadn’t done or said anything to indicate she was there. “You all right?”
“Maker’s breath!” The man whirled, moving with a speed his bulk belied, and Teresa realized who it was.
“Sorry Commander!” Teresa held her hands up to show she was unarmed, stepping back to give the man some breathing room – well, more room in general, since there were several feet between them still. “Didn’t know it was you.”
The Commander squinted at her for a moment, and then his eyes widened in recognition. “Lady Teresa! I— Forgive me. I did not realize you were there.”
“I didn’t make myself known, so it’s all right.” She gave him an apologetic smile. “It’s the training. I’m so used to walking silently, I forget to stop doing it when I’m not on a mission. James has threatened to put a bell on me more times than I can count.”
The Commander gave her a confused look. “A bell? On you?”
“Y’know, like on a pet cat? So I can’t sneak up on him by accident.”
The Commander blinked, considering the image, and then he huffed a small laugh. “That…would be a solution, I suppose.”
Teresa shrugged, knowing that putting a bell on her wouldn’t really prevent her from learning how to move in such a way that it kept the thing mostly quiet, but that wasn't really her concern at the moment. She stepped closer, making sure to shuffle her feet so that the Commander knew she was coming closer. “Are you okay?”
“What?” the Commander had looked away from her, but when she asked her question he turned back to look at her again. “Did you say something?”
Oh, now she knew something was wrong. Straightening her spine, she came towards him. “I asked if you were okay, and I think it’s pretty clear you’re not.” She tilted her head at him. “Are you hurting? Sick?” She reached up for his forehead, thinking to check for a fever—
The Commander flinched away from her, and Teresa grimaced at that, remembering herself. “Sorry. Andrada touchy-feeliness. I forget not everyone’s used to it.” She drew away a few steps, looking up at him, still concerned. “But seriously: are you okay? You look like you’re hurting.”
“I’m all right,” the Commander replied, far too quickly, in Teresa’s opinion, to be true. “I— I just came out for some water.”
“I’ll get it for you then.”
“That won’t be necessary—”
“I know it’s not, but I’m offering.” She glanced around the space they were in, and spotted a bench not too far away. “Sit down, Commander. It’s obvious you’re not feeling well, and I’d feel better if you were sitting down and not standing over the well, where you could fall over. Wouldn’t be a good look on the Commander of the Inquisition, would it? Falling into the well in the middle of the night while looking to get a drink of water.”
The Commander opened his mouth, likely to protest, but then he shut it, and sighed. “You have a very good point.”
“I have my moments.” She waited for him to be seated, and once he was, she turned to the well. There was a winch on the side, so she reached for it, turning it until the bucket was again visible over the lip. Holding the winch in place, she reached out with her other hand and snatched the rope, bringing the bucket in closer so that she could stand it on the edge of the well.
That done, she looked into the bucket, glad to note that the water in it was clear, not murky as it could sometimes be. She picked up one of the many clay cups that were lined up on a shelf nearby expressly for the use of people coming to the well to drink (a holdover from when Haven was a pilgrimage stopover, she figured), and after making sure that was clean too, she dipped it into the water, hissing quietly at how cold it was, then turned around to go to the Commander.
He’d seated himself on the bench Teresa had seen earlier, but he was bent forward, his elbows braced on his knees, his hands on his face. She could see his thumbs rubbing slow circles at his temples, and she figured he must have a monstrous headache.
“Here,” she said, stopping in front of him and holding out the cup. It took a few seconds, but at length the Commander lifted his head, and reached a trembling hand for the cup. She noticed that, so she didn’t let go even when the Commander took the cup. He gave her a look, and she returned it with a tilt of her head and one raised eyebrow, challenging him to defy her when she could so easily feel his fingers shaking against hers. In the end, he gave in, and pulled the cup towards him, her hand trapped underneath his against the cold clay.
“Drink slowly,” she murmured as he tipped the cup towards his mouth. “The water’s cold, and if you drink too fast you’ll make your headache worse.”
He did as she asked, tipping the cup slowly as he drank its contents down. She waited patiently, ignoring the draft that had worked its way through her cloak until the Commander pushed the cup away from his mouth, breathing a sigh of relief. His gaze flicked up to meet hers.
“Thank you,” he whispered. “You are too kind.”
She grinned, and shook her head. “There’s no such thing as ‘too kind’. And you’re welcome.” She drew away from him then, pulling her hand with the cup still in it out of his grasp, and ignored the little frisson of warmth that traveled through her at the drag of his fingers against hers, like he was reluctant to let her go. But that was just her imagination, of course. The Commander was a very handsome man, so it wasn’t surprising she found him attractive. And he was nice too: tough but fair, and always willing to lend a hand or offer advice when it was asked of him.
But men like him never went for girls like her. They never looked in her direction, never wanted to be with her. She was always too much of something: too smart, too strong-willed, too idealistic – the list went on. And besides, the last time she’d been in a relationship she couldn’t even call it that, because—
She shoved the memories aside as far and as fast as she could. That was years ago, she reminded herself as she put the cup back on the shelf and went back to the Commander, before her sister had even disappeared. But the wound went deep, and wounds like that were not exactly easy to recover from. All she could do was not think about it too much, and move on.
She sat down beside the Commander, eyeing him with concern. He wasn’t massaging his head anymore, but it was clear he was still in pain: the furrow on his brow, the way his eyebrows were drawn together, the way he stared into the middle distance as if he could set it on fire with sheer force of will were all clear signs that he still wasn’t feeling well.
“Do you want me to get you something for the pain?” she asked softly, drawing his attention to her again. His eyes were dark in the dim light, but she knew they were actually bright, golden amber: one of the rarest eye colors, right up there with green eyes.
She briefly wished she had green eyes, or blue eyes, or maybe something like Elinor’s gray eyes: just, something prettier than her plain dark brown ones.
“Thank you, but no,” the Commander replied softly, responding to her question. “The pain is not as bad as it was earlier, now that I have drunk something.” He paused, then frowned – well, frowned more than he was already. “What are you doing up so late?”
Teresa shrugged. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“Is it the cold that’s keeping you up? If it really bothers you—”
“It’s not the cold,” Teresa interrupted. “We’ve got two braziers in the cabin, and we’ve got blankets. Plus with everyone in there sleeping together, we’re warm enough.”
“Then what is wrong?” When she didn’t reply, the Commander turned more fully to her, and said: “Lady Teresa, if there is anything at all that is troubling you, you must say something about it. I know you and your companions have done your best to adjust to your new circumstances, but it would surprise no one if you had a hard time settling in. If there is anything I or my colleagues can do to make that transition easier, you should know we would be glad to offer our assistance.”
Teresa sighed, and closed her eyes. “Thanks for the offer, Commander, and yeah, I know you, Sister Nightingale, and Ambassador Montilyet would do – are doing – all you can to help us. The Herald’s done the same. But this— This isn’t something anyone can actually help with.”
Which was true enough. There was no way any of them could tell the future, after all. And Maxwell still wasn’t strong enough to even close the Breach, let alone figure a way out for them to go back to their world.
“Then tell me about it.”
Teresa glanced at the Commander, blinking in surprise. “What?”
The man shrugged. “Perhaps if you talked about it, it might ease the burden somewhat. I am willing to listen, if you do not mind.”
She frowned. “Don’t you have a headache?”
“I do, but it’s bearable at the moment.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I don’t, but I’m offering.”
Teresa blinked when the Commander threw her own words back at her, but then she huffed out a laugh. “Okay, fine.”
She sighed then, quietly, and rubbed a hand over her face. “I just— It’s this whole situation. Being in this new world. I mean, we had stories about traveling to other realities, back where we’re from, and there’re theories that our scholars have posited that suggest there are other realities, but none of us ever imagined we’d find our way into one. Who sent us here? How’d they do it? And for that matter, why? I know we made lots of enemies back home because of what we do, but there’s nothing in our world that allows people to toss other people into entirely new worlds. So it’s gotta be someone from here, but who the hell was it?
“And the why of this whole thing bugs me too. Because it hasn’t escaped me that we arrived here just when you people are facing an apocalyptic scenario, so I have to wonder: did whoever sent us here expect us to help? I mean, sure, we would, of course, but why us? Is it the skillset? Okay, I’ll concede that we’ve got the skills to help you out, but most of what we know, most of what we do, relies on technology and knowledge of our world, not yours. There’re some skills that translate, yes, but for the most part, we’re in the dark about how Thedas operates.
“That’s what bugs me about this whole thing. There’s so much I need to learn, so much information I need to get into my head, because if I don’t, then we’re in trouble. Back home, it was reasonably easy to predict what would happen in any given situation. I mean, yeah, sure, you can’t predict everything, but at least I knew how my world worked. I could plan, think of contingencies, backups, prepare for failure. There were ways and means of making sure that if something fell apart, it wasn’t a total loss.
“But here, in Thedas? I got nothing. Nada. Zero. Bupkis. And I hate it. I’m living day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and I hate it. Can’t plan for the next week, the next month, can’t guess at what’s coming around the corner— And it’s a dangerous world, with magic and demons and darkspawn and dragons apparently? I just learned that today, that giant scaly fire-breathing lizards with wings are a legitimate threat to me and mine.
“And I am not prepared for any of that. None of us is prepared for any of that. And if something happens - if some disaster comes and strikes us out of the blue-- I won’t be able to help protect them.”
Her breath caught in her throat, and the world went a little blurry. “I won’t— I won’t be able to give them the answers they need, help them plot out a plan to get us out of trouble, to make sure we survive. I have no contingencies here, no failsafes, no backups. And that scares the living daylights out of me, because if something happens and I lose them, I—I—”
Teresa blew out a breath, and buried her face in her hands, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes in an attempt to keep the tears at bay. She didn’t want the Commander to see her crying: not him, not anyone.
She jerked her head up when she felt a touch on her shoulder. She turned to look, and met the Commander’s eyes, which were gazing back at her with concern – and sympathy.
“I imagined that being in a world that is not your own would be difficult,” he murmured, “but I did not think the lack of knowledge would have such impact. And yet, after what you’ve just said, I realize I am wrong. Of course it would: you cannot act as easily as you would in your own world, where you are familiar with most conventions and customs, and know who and what to turn to when you are in trouble. You have no such security here.
“I’m sorry that this is the case, Lady Teresa. But let me assure you now: I – we – will do all we can to make sure that you and your friends are not left vulnerable. And if that means supplying you with information, then you shall have it. I know you have accessed the chantry’s library, but if there is anything at all you wish to learn about, come and find me, and I shall see to it you have what you need.” He gave her a lopsided smile, the scar cutting across his lips twitching a little. “Or, if it is within my capacity to explain, I shall give you the answer myself.”
Teresa stared at him. Sister Nightingale and Ambassador Montilyet had promised her more or less the same thing, but to hear the Commander tell her that… It was the last offer she expected, from the last person she expected it to come from.
“You don’t have to,” she said, glancing away, unable to bear the weight of his sincerity. “I mean— Sister Nightingale and Ambassador Montilyet already said they’d help us with whatever information we need to get settled in. I’m just— It’s just whining, really.”
“I did not hear a woman whining just now,” the Commander said. “I heard a woman who is afraid she will be unable to protect those she cares for, when she is needed most. And that is valid. All of it is.”
The response wasn’t what Teresa expected. She turned back to look at the Commander, meeting his gaze. He looked back at her, his hand still on her shoulder, and there was something about the openness of his expression, how he seemed to see her concerns, but not dismiss them, that made something uncoil in her chest: a tightness that had been there from the moment she found out there was no way they could go back to their world.
“Thank you,” she murmured at last, feeling her shoulders sag as the weight of her worries fell away a little. “I didn’t want anyone to see how scared I was. It seems stupid to be.”
“There is nothing stupid about what you just told me, nor is there anything stupid about being afraid,” the Commander assured. “And know that I will do what I can to see you need not fear this way anymore.”
Teresa couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her. “You’ve said that in a couple different variations now.”
The Commander smiled then, and wow, it was a good look on him. “It’s the truth, Lady Teresa.”
Teresa snorted. “I’m not a lady, Commander. There’s no need to call me that.”
His smile broadened. “Teresa, then. And…feel free to call me Cullen.”
“All right.” Teresa knew she wouldn’t be able to call him that during the regular schedule they ran in Haven, that she’d wind up calling him by his title more often than not, but…it was nice to know she had first-name privileges.
She straightened, and looked out onto Haven. The moons (two of them: another thing she had to get used to) had set, and the sky was so filled by the Breach’s eerie light she couldn’t see the stars. “Maybe we should head back to bed.”
“… Yes. I suppose we should.” The Comman-- Cullen stood slowly, and Teresa frowned.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” she asked.
He sighed. “Yes, Teresa, I am well.”
“Have you been to the healers? It sounds like you have a chronic illness of some kind.”
“I am aware. And do not worry: the healers supply me with the potions and elixirs I need for my…condition.”
“So what were you doing out there then?”
“I was thirsty. And I had run out of the potion that I take for the headaches. The cold helps ease it somewhat.”
Teresa nodded slowly, believing him to an extent, but certain he was leaving something out – the fever, most likely. But if he didn’t want to tell her about that, it was fine. She’d pried enough as it was. The most she could do was ease what he did tell her about, and since he seemed determined not to tell her any more, she decided that she’d done what she could.
“Well,” she said as she stood up, shivering as she pulled the cloak tighter around her. “I’m going to go back to bed and see if I can grab a few hours of sleep before Ichi pulls me out of my bed for training.” She looked over her shoulder at Cullen. “Maybe you should do the same.”
Cullen tilted his head at her, one eyebrow going up as he smirked (and Teresa forced herself to ignore the way her stomach fluttered at the look). “Are you ordering me to my bed, Lady Teresa?”
“Me? Order the Commander of the Inquisition? I’d never! It’s a suggestion – a strong one.”
Cullen chuckled. “Consider that suggestion taken – with the injunction that you do the same.”
“I was on my way, wasn’t I?” She nodded at him then, smiling. “Good night, Commander.”
“Cullen,” he reminded her.
Teresa snorted, and amended, still smiling: “Good night, Cullen.”
“Thank you. And good night to you, La— Teresa.”
Teresa responded to that with one bob of her head, and then she turned, making her way back to the cabin where the rest of the team was sleeping – and all along the way, she fought down the high-pitched, squealing voice in her head that told her she should be thrilled by the attention Cullen had given her.
What was the point, she asked herself, as she had every time that voice reared up in the back of her head. It wasn’t as if he liked her that way. He was just being nice. That’s all men like him were like with her: nice.
Still, she mused as she slipped through the door, draped her cloak on its hook, and then tiptoed back to her bedroll, it couldn’t hurt to daydream a bit sometimes. As long as he never found out about what was going on in her head when it came to him, it’d be all right.
The morning air was clear and bitingly crisp, similar to the winter mornings that had sometimes greeted Ichiro when he was a child. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine himself as he had been when he was ten years old, eagerly sliding open the windows of his bedroom to look down on the family mansion’s snow-covered garden, his eyes taking in the dazzling spectacle of bright sunlight on glittering frost.
He had been so optimistic then. So filled with joy and eagerness for the life that lay ahead of him.
But then everything changed, and when he thought of those winters he could only think of them through the bitterness that veiled all his memories of his family.
He shook himself then, clearing away the memories as he walked away from the cabin. He was not home now. He had not visited the family mansion deep in the mountains of Shikoku since he had left it, not once looking behind him. Now, he was even further away from it all. There was no point thinking of the past. What mattered was the now, and the future he would have here in Thedas with his friends.
A small smile curved his lips. He was not particularly religious (nor were most Japanese, for that matter), but he was not above giving thanks to the gods for letting him have at least his found family with him here. They were all he needed. Everything else would come eventually.
Kishi kaisei. “Wake from death and return to life.” In a way, what had happened to him and his friends when they arrived here in Thedas was a literal instance of the old proverb. For all intents and purposes, they were dead in their world, but they were alive here. And while it had taken him a while to grasp that reality, to come to terms with it, he was now determined to make the most of this new life.
And that included getting himself and Teresa shot by a mage.
The first time Ichiro had seen a mage perform magic, he had been unable to cover up his reaction to the sight. To be sure, he was accustomed to illusionists and stage magicians, to say nothing of the special effects in visual entertainment and VR gaming (a recent guilty pleasure of his), but this was entirely new.
It also reminded him that it was a rather large vulnerability for himself and his friends. He was used to being attacked by people shooting guns at him, as well as people using throwing knives, throwing stars, crossbow bolts, arrows, and all manner of proper and makeshift handheld weaponry, to say nothing of unarmed martial artists, but mages hurling magic at him was far beyond his usual experience.
He had tried it on himself first, of course. He had asked Commander Rutherford if he knew of any mages who were experts in combat magic, and though the Commander had hesitated briefly before inquiring into why he wanted to speak to such a person, he was eventually directed to Solas, the elven apostate (which Ichiro took to mean “non-believer,” though some spoke the word with more venomous undertones that suggested something deeper) who was studying the Breach and the mark on the Herald’s hand. And though Solas had been skeptical at first, he soon proved amenable to Ichiro’s request to blast him with all the offensive spells he knew.
Of course, Ichiro had gotten an earful from Elinor, after she learned about the experiment, and had insisted she be there during his second session with Solas. The elf had been amused to see Elinor there, but fortunately he did not needle her about her concern. Instead, he politely acknowledged that it was good for her to be there, and apologized for acquiescing to Ichiro’s request without informing her. He then proceeded to explain the effects of combat magic to Elinor, assuring her that he was in perfect control of his abilities and that he was careful not to do anything that would seriously hurt Ichiro while they were training. While Elinor had not been entirely happy about Ichiro getting frozen, singed, and electrocuted, she seemed somewhat mollified by Solas’ explanation.
In the end, she had reluctantly given Ichiro permission to keep on training, and to extend that training to Teresa.
Which was what Ichiro intended to do that day: start training Teresa on how to deal with magic. He knew his own training was far from complete, but he needed Teresa to at least be familiar with how combat magic worked, so that together, they could begin to learn how to defend themselves – and their friends – from magical assault.
He slipped into the Singing Maiden, Haven’s tavern, intending to get some breakfast. Fortunately, it was still early enough in the day that it was relatively vacant, and he had no trouble finding Solas, who was sitting quietly in a far corner of the tavern. Ichiro often found him there at this time, since they apparently shared the same preference for a quiet meal to start the day. It was why the elf did not mind sharing a table with him, especially after Ichiro made that request for training.
Solas must have seen him come in, because he nodded at Ichiro in greeting while Ichiro picked up his meal from Flissa at the bar: oatmeal with honey and a few slices of buttered bread, along with a mug of tea.
Ichiro sighed quietly as he sat across from Solas. While the bread was good and the tea and porridge satisfactory, he deeply missed his own preferred breakfast of yudofu, miso soup, and green tea.
Suddenly, it occurred to him that, given where he was, he would never taste tofu, or miso, ever again. His heart sank at the thought, at the idea that he was completely severed even from the tastes he was accustomed to, never mind the sights and sounds of his world: the high-spirited chaos of Osaka in full summer-festival swing, the quiet optimism of the shrines and temples of Kyoto in spring-blossom splendor, the mystical serenity of the slopes of Mount Kurama in autumn-leaf brocade.
“Is something the matter, Ichiro?”
Ichiro glanced at Solas, and managed a small smile before shaking his head. “It is nothing, Solas-san. I simply realized that I will no longer be able to eat the food I used to eat, back in my world.”
“I see.” Solas leaned back, resting against the backrest of his chair. “Food is a touchstone for many people, a source of comfort. I am sorry you are deprived of that here in Thedas.”
Ichiro nodded, acknowledging that it was indeed a sad thing, cradling the emotion like a sake cup filled to the brim. “So am I. But there is nothing I can do.” He exhaled, letting the emotion pass. “Sugitaru wa nao oyabazaru ga gotoshi.”
“It is a saying that I was taught when I was a child. It means: ‘Let what is past, flow away downstream.’ I have been living by that tenet since we arrived, though it has been difficult.”
Solas nodded, not speaking for a while, but at length, he said: “Whoever told you that was wise.”
Ichiro finished his meal in silence, speaking up only when he was done. “Shall you help me again today, Solas-san? Tessa-chan and I have prepared the plum blossom poles, so it will be a good time for you to test her.”
“I would be glad to help you. Lead the way.”
Ichiro returned his utensils to Flissa at the bar, smiling briefly when she stammered her gratitude, her cheeks tinted with a blush. As he faced the door, he watched Teresa step in, a hand over her mouth as she yawned hugely.
“Good morning, Tessa-chan,” he said, smiling warmly at the woman who was both his apprentice and one of his closest friends. He loved everyone in Nest, to be sure, but he was especially fond of Teresa. He never had sisters growing up, older or younger, so to have her near was a treat to him.
“Good,” a yawn, “morning, Ichi,” Teresa replied. She scrubbed at her face with one slightly curled fist, reminding Ichiro of a cat washing its face with a paw. He found it endearing, how she could do something so childlike despite being in her early thirties. “Plum blossom poles today? Oh, good morning Solas.”
“Good morning, Lady Teresa,” Solas greeted, nodding his head.
Teresa smiled at him, then glanced back Ichiro, who replied: “Yes, plum blossom poles today. And Solas-san will help us as well.”
Teresa blinked, alertness flashing into her gaze as Ichiro’s statement penetrated the fading sleep-fog in her brain. “Oh. So: magic?”
Teresa groaned, but nodded. “I’m gonna need to fortify myself then. I’ll see you at the training grounds once I’m done.” She waved at Solas and squeezed Ichiro briefly around the waist in a one-armed half-hug as she walked past, calling out to Flissa to give her the strongest tea she had with her breakfast.
“You are quite fond of her,” Solas remarked as he and Ichiro stepped out of the Singing Maiden and made their leisurely way to the training grounds.
Ichiro nodded. “I am. Tessa-chan is as a sister to me.”
“A sister? Ah. I had thought there was something more between you two, considering that she seems so physically affectionate.”
Ichiro chuckled. “That is just how Tessa-chan is. The Andradas show how they care through touch. If you see her with the others, you will note that she is quite free with her touches, for those whom she chooses to bestow them and who choose to welcome the privilege. Rafe-kun is the same, though he is more reserved about it than Tessa-chan.”
He paused, then amended: “Unless he is with his wife. That is different.”
“I see.” Solas uttered a quiet sigh. “It must be a delight, to have such close, fond companionship with someone – to say nothing of your friendship with the rest of your friends. Affection so freely given is rare – and a privilege.”
Ichiro nodded, all too aware of what Solas meant. His family had been rather cold, so it had been something of a shock when he’d first encountered the Andradas and their openness with each other when it came to affection and touch. But he’d quickly gotten used to it, and even came to enjoy it. He learned that it was possible for family members to be warm with each other, to freely laugh and hug one another, to be vocal in their approval and wholehearted in their support.
It was why he could do without his blood family, but absolutely could not do without his found family.
He and Solas arrived at the training grounds then, where the plum blossom poles he and Teresa had set up the day before were now waiting, covered in a coat of frost. Ichiro wiped the frost off, and then pushed at one of the poles with his foot as hard as he could. It did not budge: a good sign, since it meant that it was not likely to wobble underneath his or Teresa’s weight when they started using it. He was not eager to be the focus of Elinor’s ire, after all, simply because he neglected to take proper safety precautions.
Soon enough, Teresa came towards him and Solas, carrying two quarterstaffs with her, with one end balanced on her shoulder. They were not proper bō, but they would do for training purposes.
“Hey,” she called, waving a hand in greeting when she was close enough. “I got the staves, like you told me to yesterday. Oh, and the Commander and Sister Nightingale are gonna come over and watch in a little bit. And Elie’s gonna be around too, I’m sure.”
“The Commander and Sister Nightingale did mention they would watch,” Ichiro said with a nod. “And Elinor-san’s presence is not surprising.”
“Betcha Rafe’s gonna be here too so he can laugh at me when I get zapped with a lightning bolt.” Teresa turned to Solas. “That’s…pretty much what you’re going to do, right? Fry me, freeze me, zap me? I got that right?”
Solas chuckled. “That is one way of putting it, yes. I can wield Inferno, Winter, and Storm magic offensively, but I can wield Spirit magic as well. So I may indeed fry, freeze, and zap you, but I can heal you as well.
“Still, rest assured that I will not put the full force of my power behind my attacks. This is only training, after all. I do not wish to hurt you. Overmuch.”
Teresa smirked, and wagged a finger at Solas. “I heard that. Still, you’re right: you can’t not expect some pain during training. How else would you know what you’re doing right? Or wrong, for that matter.” She put the quarterstaffs down on top of the second-tallest plum blossom pole (which stood three feet off the ground), and turned to Ichiro. “Stretching?”
Ichiro nodded, and proceeded to go through the cycle of stretches that he had taught Teresa, the two of them working in tandem to get their muscles warmed up and stretched out to prevent further injury while they sparred. Solas, for his part, merely sat down on one of the plum blossom poles, watching them with interest.
“I find it interesting that you seem to be focusing on flexibility,” he remarked as he watched Ichiro and Teresa bend themselves over to touch their toes, repeating the movement a few times before they kicked their right legs up behind them, catching the foot in their hands, and pulling.
“Flexibility is more useful than strength, in the way we fight,” Ichiro replied, measuring his breaths as he stretched his right leg, Teresa doing the same, but pulling higher so that her leg pointed almost straight up into the air. With her back arched like that, she reminded Ichiro of a drawn hankyū. “Speed as well. We are— What was the term Sister Nightingale used, Tessa-chan?”
“Rogues,” Teresa replied, grunting slightly as she dropped her torso all the way forward in a controlled fashion so that she clutched the ankle of the leg she was standing on, and held, keeping herself steady with her breathing and by clenching various muscles in her core – which was the point of the whole exercise. Ichiro could do the same pose, but he had to brace his hands on the ground instead of holding onto his ankle.
Ichiro nodded, and replied to Solas: “Yes. Rogues. But where we are from, where I am from, we are called shinobi: spies, saboteurs, thieves when necessary – and assassins. We do not fight on the frontlines, but from the shadows. It is considered a most dishonorable profession, amongst my people, but we accept that stain of dishonor because we are still necessary. Honor is a useful shield, but one that cannot be put down, for to do so would be to undermine the virtue itself. Shinobi do not think of what is honorable; we do what must be done.”
“Intriguing,” Solas murmured, his eyes narrowed in thought as he contemplated Ichiro’s response. In the meantime, Ichiro went back to stretching, doing splits like Teresa had started doing, stretching out his hamstrings and calves.
“You said ‘your people’,” Solas said after a moment. “I take this to mean that you do not consider yourself of the same race as, perhaps, Lady Teresa? But you are both human.”
“That’s true,” Teresa replied as she straightened, “but there’s no dwarves or elves where we’re from, so ‘race’ is usually determined using factors, like the color of your skin and the region your birth country’s located in. With some of us, like Ichi, Elie, Ed and Ly, it’s relatively easy to explain what their race is because the background’s not too complicated. But when you’re talking about me, Rafe, and James, that’s a lot more complicated, because there’s a long, long history of migration, colonization, and slavery behind our ancestry.”
“Slavery? Slavery is practiced in your world?”
Ichiro sat up at that, his attention drawn to the tone of Solas’ voice. He heard indignation in the elf’s tone, yes, but also something darker, something that went deeper than Ichiro could tell at the moment. If he did not know any better, he would almost say that the elf was angry at him and Teresa.
“Was,” Teresa said firmly. “Was practiced. We don’t anymore. No one does. But,” here she winced, and shook her head, “there’s many other ways you can define slavery, and in some places, people are forced to suffer living conditions that render them no better than slaves, even though no one actually uses the term.”
“But we fought against that,” Ichiro said, getting onto his feet, and helping Teresa onto her own. “It was one of the things our team did, before we were brought here. We have seen slavery, yes, and whenever we did, we freed the enslaved and punished their slavers.”
He glanced at Teresa, and put an arm around her shoulders, holding her to him. “We saw injustice in the world, and sought to correct it. We did so with no support from anyone, without acknowledgement for the good we did save for the gratitude of those we aided. We need nothing more than to know we have done the right thing.”
Solas stared at them, his jaw set in a hard line as if he was angry. At length, however, he relaxed, and sighed, shaking his head.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I was simply caught off-guard when you had said that there was slavery in your world. I had imagined your world to be more enlightened than this one, far above the cruelties so often perpetrated here, so to learn that slavery did exist in your world, that it continues to exist though it is not called that… Well. What matters, is you fought against it. You saw it, and you fought it, even without acknowledgement or promise of reward.”
He paused, his eyes growing dark, and then intense. “Would you do that here?” he asked softly. “If you saw such injustice here, would you do all you could to fight against it? To right the wrong, to redress the hurt?”
Ichiro and Teresa exchanged a look. Neither of them knew where this was coming from, or where it was going, but it was clear from Solas’ expression that their response was important to him, and Ichiro was not sure what to say.
But that was why he was Hayabusa, and Teresa was Raven. In the end, it was she who turned to Solas, and replied, softly: “We would try. It would depend on circumstances, but we would try.”
Solas continued to stare at them both for a moment, but in the end, he sighed, and it seemed like whatever turbulent emotion had taken over him in that moment had passed. “Yes. That is— Yes. To know you would try is more than could ever be expected from strangers to Thedas. This is not your world, but to know you would try to fight against any wrongdoing regardless is…reassuring.”
He paused again, and then seemed to shake himself, getting to his feet as he did so. “But I have distracted you. I apologize for that.” He glanced at Teresa. “Are you ready to see how you will fare against magic? I must admit, I am rather curious to see how you would handle it, as compared to Ichiro.”
Teresa offered the elf a smile, and a shrug. “Same-same but different too, probably. He’s got his style, and I’ve got mine.”
“Indeed,” Ichiro agreed, letting Teresa go and stepping away from her to pick up the quarterstaffs. He took one, and tossed the other to his friend, who caught it with ease.
“We shall spar for a moment, Solas-san,” he said. “I think we both need a more thorough warming-up before Tessa-chan tries to dodge fireballs.”
He grinned at Teresa. “Is the Hummingbird ready?”
Teresa’s answering grin was bright and eager. “More than ready, Hayabusa.”
“Excellent.” Ichiro climbed onto the plum blossom poles, choosing two poles to stand on while Teresa did the same across from him. She held her quarterstaff at the ready, her body relaxed and loose, prepared for anything that might come her way.
Ichiro nodded in approval, and readied his own quarterstaff. He counted one heartbeat, then two, before finally yelling the word that would start their sparring match.
Cullen could already hear the sound of wood striking wood as he, Cassandra, Leliana, and Elinor walked to the training grounds to see what sort of training Ichiro and Teresa were doing. Leliana and Elinor were behind him and Cassandra, talking quietly about something to do with a report from Josephine that had come in yesterday.
“They appear to have started already,” Cassandra remarked, and then frowned. “As well as gathered an audience.”
Cullen followed the Seeker’s gaze to the training grounds, and indeed, a small crowd of new recruits, as well as a few Templars, had gathered on the edge of the training ground where Teresa and Ichiro had set up their plum blossom poles yesterday. He frowned, and picked up his pace, intending to break the crowd up so they could go on with the rest of their own training—
Only to stop, and stare, when he finally saw just what it was Ichiro and Teresa were doing.
Quarterstaffs were not favored as weapons because of their low prestige. It was the weapon of vagabonds, of refugees: people who were too poor to afford something better, and so armed themselves with what essentially amounted to a big stick. And though the quarterstaff bore only a superficial resemblance to the magical staffs mages used, apostates sometimes disguised their magical staffs as quarterstaffs, and so anyone who wielded the weapon was looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility.
But watching Teresa and Ichiro as they swung, spun, and thrust their quarterstaffs at each other, occasionally throwing seemingly acrobatic kicks into the mix, swirling and whirling between and around their weapons and each other, Cullen began to see how his opinion regarding the quarterstaff might have been wrong. Wielded in the manner that Ichiro and Teresa did, a quarterstaff was an excellent weapon. It was easy to switch between offense and defense with a change of grip and an alteration of stance, and without the added encumbrance that would come from a shield or a heavy weapon, it was possible to move with near-blinding speed, allowing for evasive movements instead of head-on parries if such was necessary. And while a strike from a quarterstaff would not pierce through flesh, let alone armor, it could cause far worse damage: broken bones, for example, or dents in armor that could restrict movement and breathing.
It was only then that he noticed something: Ichiro and Teresa appeared to standing at a higher level than the ground, and appeared to be moving up and down as well as around each other. He glanced down, and realized that they were fighting on top of the plum blossom poles they had set up the day before. It was then he remembered: balance training. Ichiro and Teresa taught themselves how to balance well by fighting on top of the poles, which varied in width and height for additional unpredictability. It forced them to be nimble, he saw, to learn how to adjust at the last minute while also thinking of their opponent’s moves.
He wasn’t sure if it would work for warriors such as himself, or the regular recruits for the Inquisition army, but it would certainly work brilliantly for rogues.
“This is incredible,” Leliana murmured, and when Cullen glanced at her he saw her watching the two otherworlders with avid interest. “And I should perhaps consider adding quarterstaffs to our agents’ repertoire. It is easy to disguise as a walking stick; trained agents could masquerade as pilgrims or tinkers. Would you mind if we built more of these plum blossom poles on the training grounds, Commander?”
“Not at all,” Cullen replied. “Feel free to take some of the off-duty men and have them construct more. There should be sufficient space on this side of the training grounds.”
A shout drew their attention back to Ichiro and Teresa, and Cullen noted their poses: Teresa balanced one leg on the tallest pole, the other pulled up and tucked neatly underneath her as she held her quarterstaff to the side. Her head was turned away to one side, though her gaze was fixed on her opponent. Ichiro, for his part, had one foot planted firmly on one pole while the other was balanced on the edge of the pole Teresa was standing on, so that he was lunged forward and the tip of his quarterstaff pressed lightly against the side of Teresa’s neck, just under the curve of her jaw.
For a moment, the two of them stared at each other, breathing hard as evidenced by the mist that puffed out from their partially open mouths. At length, however, Teresa grinned, and tapped her free hand twice on Ichiro’s outstretched arm. “I yield.”
Ichiro’s expression changed from intense to pleased, and he pulled away from Teresa to stand on both feet on two separate poles. Teresa, for her part, relaxed and put both feet on the pole she was standing on. “You did well, Tessa-chan. Slower than I remember, but we can correct that.”
Teresa grimaced as she stepped down from the poles, following Ichiro’s lead. “Yeah, I know. But like you said, we can correct that.”
She glanced up then, and when their gazes met Cullen blushed when she returned his gaze with a grin. She glowed with her exertions, her cheeks pink despite the cold weather, and the little strands of hair that escaped the severe braid she pulled her hair back into during the daytime gave her a delightfully rumpled look. She looked happy, and Maker, but seeing her that way made Cullen want to be the reason behind that smile.
“Good morning,” she called, waving to them and causing the crowd to look at them – a crowd that instantly dispersed with frantic hisses of “It’s the Commander!” and “Shit, the Lady Seeker!” when its constituents realized that their Commander and the Seeker were among them.
Cassandra uttered a snort as the recruits scattered, but her expression changed to something appreciative and approving when Ichiro and Teresa approached. “That was an interesting display, Ser Ichiro, Lady Teresa. It is immensely comforting to know that such skilled rogues will be a part of the Inquisition.”
Ichiro smiled. “It is no trouble, Lady Seeker.” He glanced at the dispersing crowd, his handsome face pulling downwards in a slight grimace. “I had not intended to disrupt the recruits, however. Perhaps we should have chosen to situate ourselves in a more secluded area.”
“No, there is no need. They shall simply have to learn to be more focused on their own training,” Cullen said. “I have seen the benefits of these plum blossom poles, and while I do not know if they can be used by those with warrior training, Leliana has already expressed a wish to have more built, so the rogues under her command can train on them.”
“I would be gratified if you would assist them as well,” Leliana said then, smiling charmingly at Ichiro. “Such a simple tool, but with such extraordinary benefits, should not be restricted to just your use, when more could gain from them. Do you not think so?”
Ichiro nodded. “I would be honored to help, Sister Nightingale.”
“I’ll help out too, if you need me,” Teresa offered.
Leliana smiled. “I would appreciate that, yes.”
Ichiro, however, clicked his tongue. “Not yet, Tessa-chan. Not until you learn how to handle magic.”
“So that’s today then?” Elinor said all of a sudden, gliding up towards them with a frown on her face. She glanced at Teresa. “Are you sure you can handle it?”
Teresa shrugged. “If not now, when? Might as well start as early as possible.”
“I suppose,” Elinor said with a resigned sigh. After a moment, she turned a sharp, assessing gaze on Teresa. “Any injuries?”
“Um…there were a few strikes to my back and hip, and some hits to my shins and calves, but it feels more like bruises. Nothing broken.”
“I see. Well, just make sure you don’t push yourself too hard.” Elinor turned to Ichiro then, and snapped her fingers. “Come here, Ichi. Let me look you over.”
Ichiro’s brows went up in alarm. “There is no need, Elinor-sa—”
“Don’t even start. You lie like my husband does about your injuries, so no excuses.”
“You know very well I am immune to any and all pleas and protests, Takenaka Ichiro. Now stow it and come here, because shinobi or no, I can and will sit on you if it’s my only recourse.”
Throughout this exchange, Teresa had a hand pressed to her mouth to stifle her giggles, even as Elinor all but dragged Ichiro to the side so she could inspect him better. “And that right there is why I never bother trying to cover up any injuries I get when Elie asks about them.”
“Lady Elinor is a strong woman,” Cassandra said, an appreciative smile curving her lips, “and she has little patience for foolishness. Those are good traits in a healer.”
“That’s true.” Teresa stretched, then tilted a glance at Cullen. “So, you don’t mind us taking over this part of the training yard, Commander?”
Cullen opened his mouth to remind her of their agreement the night before, but closed it when he remembered that Cassandra and Leliana were around. He doubted it would be professional for someone who was technically a subordinate to call him by his first name, no matter how much he might want to hear her say it. “I do not mind. You will make good use of it, I’m sure – though I will have to tighten discipline on the recruits a little, if that’s how you will spar with each other. It was almost like watching acrobats, or dancers.”
Now Teresa laughed. “Thanks for that, Commander. Incidentally I did take some dance lessons when I was younger, and then when I started training in self-defense I found that my dance skills translated pretty well to the footwork and the balancing.”
At that, an image flitted through Cullen’s mind: of Teresa dressed in a light, embroidered linen dress, a ring of bright summer flowers crowning her dark head as she laughed and traipsed a dance with other women and girls during Honnleath’s Summerday festival.
He glanced away; willing the image out his mind, knowing it was impossible. Honnleath was gone, and after everything that had happened to him, after all the things he had done, what he had become… There would be no more Summerday festival dances, no more lovely dark-haired girls with flowers in their hair. Not for him, at any rate.
Oblivious to his mood, Teresa turned to Solas, who was standing quietly on the sidelines, taking them all in. “Solas, we can start now, I think.”
The elf glanced at her, and nodded. “If you say so. Shall you be using your plum blossom poles?”
“No, let’s try this on even ground for now. Later on Ichi’s gonna push me to try on the poles, but right now I want to just get an idea of what to expect.”
“Very well. Come this way, and we shall begin.”
Teresa followed Solas, and Cullen followed her with his gaze. He was a little worried about how she would handle the combat magic Solas was going to sling her way, but it was also true that she needed to learn how to deal with magical assault.
“She’s quite a lovely woman, wouldn’t you say?”
Cullen glanced at Leliana. “Beg pardon?”
Leliana’s mouth curled in a knowing smile. “Lady Teresa.”
Cullen stared at the spymaster, wondering where this line of questioning was going. “I— Yes. She is.”
“Intelligent, witty, with a unique charm – and have you ever seen such a smile? I envy her dimples.” Leliana sighed theatrically. “Josie thinks we should send her with diplomatic delegations to Orlais. She is certain Lady Teresa would have them eating from the palm of her hand – to say nothing of the line of admirers and would-be suitors that would stretch from here to Val Royeaux. Imagine the kind of support she could raise for our cause.”
Cullen frowned, remembering the talk he had with Teresa the previous night. She was still so uncertain about Thedas and her place in it, and now Leliana wanted to throw her into the wolf’s den that was Val Royeaux – land of masks and secrets and that maddening Game they were so fond of? He had to protect her from that. “Be it far from me to tell you what to do with your agents, but I do not think that’s a good idea.”
“Lady Teresa is still uncertain about her place in our world. She feels she isn’t prepared enough to face it, that she knows too little about it to protect her friends. Val Royeaux – or anywhere near any Orlesians, for that matter - is the last place she ought to be. She’d get eaten alive.”
The smirk on Leliana’s face was like a trap springing shut – and Cullen was too late in spotting it. “And how would you know this information, Commander? I’ve not had the time to truly sit down and speak with her, so I find it interesting that she has confided something so personal to you. How did you manage to earn her trust so quickly?”
“I—I do not know. She simply confided in me, that’s all.”
“Is it, really?” Leliana peered more closely at him. “Or are you actively trying to get closer to her?”
“Maker’s breath Leliana,” Cullen growled at last. “I’d never take advantage of the lady’s vulnerability – and she is that, make no mistake. If she chooses to speak to me and trust me with secrets, I consider it an honor and would not betray that trust for any reason at all.”
At that, Leliana smiled brightly, dropping the coy façade she’d adopted earlier. “Well, that is good to hear.” She patted him on his vambrace, looking incredibly cheerful. “It pleases me to know you are capable of focusing on other things than just your work, Cullen. Your work is invaluable to us, but it is not the only thing in life worth thinking about.”
That statement caught Cullen on the wrong foot – not least because Leliana addressed him so informally. “Wait, I—”
Oh that was so not fair, Teresa thought as she rubbed her backside. She tried to peer at her butt to see what kind of damage had been done, but since it was impossible to turn her head that far, she then turned to glare at Solas.
“You spanked me with a lightning bolt!” she exclaimed indignantly.
Solas merely smirked, and shrugged, the smug ass. “That is the nature of Storm magic, Teresa. It can strike unexpectedly, and from any angle. If you don’t wish to get struck again you will need to ensure you protect your rear as well as your front and sides.”
“Pain is a good teacher.”
Teresa snorted. “You and Ichi have the exact same approach to training, I swear.” She sighed, then took up another defensive stance. Still, Solas was right: if Storm magic could strike her from unexpected angles, she’d have to prepare for that. “Right, let’s try that again.”
“Very well.” Solas swung his staff, launching several bolts at her. This time, Teresa made sure to guard her back as well, and managed to get through the next series of attacks without being struck too often – though she had a suspicion that Solas was deliberately aiming for her rear, given where most of those strikes landed.
At length, Elinor called a halt to the proceedings, which was just as well as Teresa was getting tired trying to swing her quarterstaff around far enough and fast enough to block those godsdamned lightning bolts Solas was hurling at her.
“You can try and zap her another time, Solas,” Elinor stated as she approached to check Teresa over for injuries. “She’s had more than enough for one day.”
Solas smiled, and did a kind of half-bow. “As the Lady Healer wishes.”
He glanced at Teresa, and beckoned to her. “Come here a moment.”
Teresa frowned, wondering what he was going to do, but then a soft green light emanated from him as he waved something towards her. Almost instantly, all her aches and pains were gone – well, mostly gone, as there were still a few twinges here and there when she moved, and she still felt tired from her exertions.
He’d healed her. With magic. Just as he said he could.
“Goodness,” Elinor murmured as she turned to Solas, eyes wide. “I think I would cheerfully murder someone to be able to do that.”
Solas chuckled, and shook his head. “A mage is not made, I’m afraid. One is either born able to wield magic, or not.”
He paused, and sighed. “But the life of a mage is not one I would wish on anyone. Not the way the world stands, at any rate.”
Teresa grimaced, knowing what he meant. She’d seen the prejudice mages faced every day in and around Haven, to say nothing of what the elves had to deal with. She and the others had done their best to counter it whenever they could, each in their own way (she was convinced that Seggrit had a hate-on for them all, given the number of times they’d shut him down), but it was difficult combating what appeared to be hundreds of years of deep-seated prejudice. It wasn’t easy, but if they didn’t at least try, then who else would?
She went over, and gently nudged Solas in the side. When the elf looked at her, she grinned brightly. “Thanks for healing me up,” she said. “Especially after you kept on smacking my ass with the lightning.”
Solas blinked at her, and then offered her a tentative smile. “Where the lightning goes has nothing to do with me, Teresa. Defend yourself better, and your rear will not be as much of a target.”
“Oh boo,” Teresa pouted, causing the elf to chuckle before he turned away from them, approaching Ichiro and speaking to him briefly before he walked over to Cassandra, speaking to her about something as the two of them walked back through the gates of Haven.
“It’s incredible what he’s done,” Elinor remarked as they, too made their way back towards Haven. “It would make my job infinitely easier if I could just wave a hand, or wiggle my fingers, and have you back in shape.”
“I can imagine,” Teresa agreed. Elinor might be a brilliant trauma surgeon, especially since she was incredibly adaptable and capable of working near-miracles on limited resources, but she could understand why the idea of healing someone in the blink of an eye was appealing. “But it’s not perfect. I can still feel a few twinges in my hamstrings and calves, and a couple of the deeper bruises from the sparring session with Ichi and then the magic from Solas. The healing didn’t get rid of the fatigue, either.”
“Didn’t it? That’s good information to know. I’ve been trying to observe when the mage healers do their work, but it’s hard to figure out what they’re doing because everyone is just so used to the idea of magic working.” Elinor sniffed. “At least I understand the potions. Those make so much more sense.”
Teresa grinned. “Next time I get magically healed I could report back to you?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t need to be healed, but if that were to happen… I would appreciate it.” Elinor smiled, and reached over, drawing Teresa close against her side so she could press a kiss on the other woman’s temple. “Thank you for offering to guinea-pig for me.”
Teresa laughed, and shrugged, giving Elinor a quick hug. “Only because I know you’d hunt down anyone who didn’t treat me properly, and do horrible, horrible things to them.”
“Too bloody right,” Elinor agreed. With that, she let go of Teresa and went over to Ichiro – likely to pester him some more on whatever injuries he was still hiding.
“You are well, Lady Teresa?”
Teresa turned, and nodded at Sister Nightingale, who was coming towards her with Cullen just behind. “A bit tingly, but otherwise fine. Solas took the time to cast a healing spell on me so I don’t hurt so much now. I’m just a little tired.”
Sister Nightingale nodded in understanding. “A good meal should fix that. But afterwards, I would like you and your friends to come to the War Room. Josie and I have something important to discuss with you all, since I have received word that Chancellor Roderick and his coterie will be returning soon from Val Royeaux.”
Teresa frowned. “Chancellor Roderick?”
“A Chantry bureaucrat,” Cullen replied, his tone indicating that he didn’t particularly like this person they were talking about. “He has been calling for the dissolution of the Inquisition, and the imprisonment of the Herald for destroying the Conclave. It’s fortunate he and his lackeys were not here when you arrived; he might have demanded your immediate execution simply because you fell out of a rift.”
“Yikes,” Teresa muttered with a wince. “What are we gonna tell him when he gets here and suddenly there’s new people around?”
“That is precisely what I wished to discuss with you all,” Sister Nightingale said. “Josie and I have been thinking on this for a while, and I think we have a solution that will benefit not only yourselves, but the Inquisition as well.”
Teresa raised an eyebrow. “Well, color me curious.”
Sister Nightingale smiled. “I’d hoped you would be. Lady Elinor already knows, as I mentioned it to her earlier, but please inform the rest of your friends to come as soon as they have finished with the midday meal. I do not know how long this will take to explain, so we may be in the War Room for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Understood,” Teresa replied with a nod. She glanced at Haven’s gate, then turned to them. “I’m gonna go on ahead. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure we’re all at the War Room as soon as everyone’s done eating.”
At Sister Nightingale’s nod of acquiescence, she turned away and went on ahead, not seeing the soft look Cullen threw her way as she departed.
bō – Japanese; the East Asian version of the Western quarterstaff and used in East Asian martial arts
hankyū – Japanese; a shorter variation on the Japanese bow, or yumi
Hajime! – Japanese; in the context of Japanese martial arts, it is used as a verbal command to signal the start of a sparring match
Aray! – Filipino; exclamation of pain equivalent to the English “ow!” or “ouch!”
The Japanese proverbs I used early in this chapter were lifted wholesale from various parts of the Internet. I have based their translation and meaning on those sites. If, however, you have a better translation or a more appropriate proverb that I could use, please feel free to comment with any suggestions you might have.