“This doesn’t bode well.”
The voice brought Aran’s head up with a snap. It couldn’t be. Not here. Not-
“Should have brought Varric-“
He blinked. Was that- He turned slowly, carefully… and there he was. All awkward angles and jovial frankness. Cocky brogue. Nervous courage.
This place… the tavern, the lake, the castle ahead… Redcliffe. It had to be. If it in any way mirrored his world then this was… and yet he’d been… Well, he’d been in a temple and then the sea. And before that, he’d been in fits and starts, snatches of memories, places, and faces. So this could be… anything. Anywhere. Anytime. Only. It had to be Redcliffe. That tavern. He was sure he recognized it. And the tower in the lake.
The monster of Lake Calenhad.
“All-Mother… I don’t know if you’re here, or if you can hear me, or if this is some kind of sick joke, but - ” Only the sounds of the laughing drunks near the shore answered him. “I am so very fucked.”
From the tents in the courtyard, I watched them. The litany of lies took light, smoldering in the snow. A hand on an arm. Quiet words. The pain pulls- sharp and dark, like daggers, spearing through the mage’s sparkling core and leaving shadows in its wake. Not the words turning to ash, but the person behind them. Fear, pain, horror, betrayal.
Dorian is supposed to be dashing and daring, dawn for the dawn that came. The Inquisitor is carefully balanced between light and dark, still too fragile from the fall and the fall that came after. We need him to be strong, to teach others to be strong. To light the way. He can. I know. I saw shining power gleaming gilded to guide. His flame is new now; it might be bright, but too much wind, winding, whispering might whistle him away.
What they don’t understand when they whisper, wondering, worried that I am not what I seem- I know him. Solas listened when I told him so, alas, nodded wisely, thinking and tinkering. But it doesn’t matter if they know or believe. What is... is. I know we have a purpose. People to help. And beyond these walls, more people will be helped if I am with Aran Trevelyan - the last and lost, the one who asks and listens - than without. We are the same and not. We take the pain into ourselves. Pain is not easy to carry. We solve riddles that harm and hamper. Riddles can be difficult, too.
So I am secret, then, and follow faintly, feeling the mage’s need for privacy. Aran always manages to pass through the boundaries others put up for their solitude; he doesn’t take space but donates room to breathe. And Dorian- flash, and gleam, warm and hesitant. Hesitating. Hiding hesitation behind color and spark. No darkness there, not like the Inquisitor, but dim. Dampened. That shouldn’t be. He has to be fire and sparkling things to keep the Inquisitor in the light with him. Doesn’t he?
The red cliffed town is ragged memories - Blights and banners and bindings. But it is soft, too, with hope. Laughter.
They linger in lamplight in front of the tavern - glitter and moongleam. I like watching them twist and test, but there… something else. Something - past the tavern’s entrance, beneath evening’s blanket of shadow between the trees, huddled against the bark, there are familiar unfamiliar eyes peering, leering, leaking, speaking. The creature is splinters and shards, blinding bright in endless infinite. Furs and borrowed armor over scars and horror. A face I have just seen mirrored in Dorian’s eyes. A face I haven’t seen for a decade. No- whispers whistling through the wreckage, but not the Whisperer. Not yet.
Is that him?
I know the sound of him, brogue and brash, but he is broken now - tangled thoughts tearing.
Gods, he looks the same, but memory lies- Time lies-
Piece by piece. Drip by dripping drop. Puzzles within puzzles. That lost and knowing gaze tracks, seeks, locks on to the lower story window and follows with form to watch and wait.
Beautiful. He’s fucking beautiful. And alive, viscerally. Alive and here - only twenty feet away, if that. Tangible. Touchable. Breathable. And that- can that be me? Was I ever that- no. Another broken mirror. Another not quite. Impossible-
Hateful harm. He shudders, seeking, seeing shadows. Hears the name that fuels him, fills him - Dorian - but it is darkness dropping. Similar not same yet the syrup drips, drips, drips like venom into his ears.
‘Grasping at what belongs to your betters.’
His nails dig into the windowsill, wood splintering. Splinters into splinters.
Aran and not Aran. Not like when the shadow rode him. Not a creature inside breaking out. He is the creature breaking in. Parts and patchwork, fickle Fade fractals fragmenting. Time. It bends around and through him, making up the silk threads that snake and seize. Godbound and lyrium-lit, eyes lost to impossible mountains. Aran and not Aran. He creeps, creaking.
My name! That’s my name! My heart! Mine! Can’t let them take it. Quicksilver. No, Hale. No. Aran. Aran. Brother, son, heralded- fuck. Names have power. Names are- what-what-what-
He can’t focus on the room inside. Can only focus on his skin and scars and the memory of the hard table and the unfamiliar ceiling: those sights behind his eyes are pulling, prying, and he can’t drag his gaze away from them.
Past or future. Neither? Never. Never again. Trick of the Fade, wasn’t it always?
He presses his face to the rough-hewn exterior of the tavern like a lover. Touch. He always touches things to think. But thinking makes him scream now, the screeching scratching sound echoing down into his throat as he swallows the sandpaper like brandy, burning. Clinging to the windowsill like the spider and the fly. His muscles ache from tension.
Tanning the leather just a few days ago. Swimming that morning in the seas of his homeland.‘You’re a long way from home, Free Marcher,’ venomous liquid lilting in his mind. The scent of baked copper filling his mouth, throat, nose- ‘To think they’d arrest someone like you for buggery, of all things.’
He coils beneath the window, folding into his fractals.
Shit, shit, shit.
Bound, brittle, breaking- He wants to scream; he can’t draw breath. His muscles seize - stone. Pins and needles. The agony of stillness.
The smile is a dragon- hateful, self-satisfied, too thin. ‘Be a good lad and swallow.’
-cold, sold, thick gold. ‘For your trouble,’ Dorian in the dark. A kiss. A closing door.
-he feels the steel stealing, sliding, gliding, in and out, sticky with the shifting, drifting dregs of the Fade.
You think you want to drown and dive, I tell his muddled mind. Regret the remembered darkness.
More cold, more fucking pain.
“Enough,” he snarls.
T hat vile smile-
he dips and weaves-
pure lightning pours liquified down his throat.
“Enough,” whispers, weaker, strapped and wrapped in rings of wrong. He can move now, can’t he? Well-used blades at his thighs and waist. The friendly feel of steel.
The same and not at all, I see him. Know. He is neither Inquisitor nor Whisperer. New. Nicked and naked nerve-endings. All raw. Ahead. You think you’re lost, but I can find you.
“Fuck off,” my fractal friend hisses.
Crystalline bells singing, stringing, stinging. Power in his veins. Opening.
slip, slide, and slice,
peeling his flesh like the skin of an orange, bearable and terrible.
Blood like ripe juice sluices, smeared with silvery threads.
‘This is the work of His hands.’
He can feel the pleasure build, expand, lapping like growing tides.
Gentle, until it tears at him, teeth and heat and nails rending him fleshless.
His snow-capped head lowers slowly, shoulders dropping down and back, blades in his hands. Cold, hard, welcome weight. Sharp to the touch. Clean steel. He has to make it stop. All of it. Fucking Tevinter. Fucking Halward. Fucking Danarius- He gags, gasps, heaves bile even as he thinks the name.
The slide of a stool’s legs against the wood floor, boots coming towards the window. Can’t- I am there in thought, form, standing between the past and future, “There are lights.”
The Inquisitor pauses mid-step, half-laughing. “Cole? What are you doing here?”
“By the water, there are lights and laughter.” I am only half-there. I listen to the shadow in the shadows.
The lilting voice from inside his head only moments before. Cole. He knows that voice. That name. Knew?
Guiding him through the frozen tunnels, moving through him like a breeze to warm and ward.
Wanted. Watched. Haunted.
“I haven’t thanked you yet, have I?” the Inquisitor asks, gilded and guileless.
“You hurt,” I am distracted. “I stopped it.”
“You did,” the doppelganger laughs. “You really did.”
“I know better than to ignore you, but Dorian’s upstairs. I’m not going to leave him.”
“Leave with him. Learn and live.”
“You’re becoming my fairy godmother, you know that, right?”
The fractal fractures. I feel it- shards splintering, wintering cold and frozen. Feral features loom up and through the window. Fade-eyes wild beneath the fox fur hood. Unkempt white hair curling past gaunt cheeks. Too slow, the Inquisitor sees his moonlit shadow and reaches for his blade.
The wild one presses his advantage, covering his doppelganger’s mouth, pressing the sharp line of his curved dagger to that unmarred throat. He holds himself hostage.
“I’ll stop you.” I reach, wringing outrage. He knows me. He’s forgotten that he’s the one who remembers.
Skin prickles, flesh tightens. ‘I’ll take you.’
He holds his breath, waiting, wondering, wishing. 'Let me in.' A hand like gentle lightning.
Warm wind filling him, lifting him, carrying him forward.
I am comfort and desire. I am… lost as he is lost. I have a mind for misery, called by my calling. And this is… different. New. To him, I am not the comfort of compassion or desire for deliverance. I am not what I do, I… am. Fog and incomprehensible fervor, fever…
“You don’t know-” he hisses - seawind through sawgrass - “You haven’t seen. This is better. This can save us.”
“No.” He knew my name. He remembered. I heard him hurting, herded him, halting, hating… he knew me without knowing me. We are the same. We are not the same at all.
The Inquisitor struggles in his shadow’s grip, his shouts muffled by leather and pressure. “Shut up,” he snarls against the familiar ear. “You don’t understand, but I’m doing you a favor. I can end this here. Keep us here. I can let us die happy. I can end everything- ”
He gasps when I clasp, grasp him from the side, unseen. I spill his shards on the floor, collect them to me like the precious things that they are. Keys. Puzzle pieces. “Remember-” I tell him, and he does.
Sliding through him, warm wind sweeping through his organs, his muscles, his skin;
he feels like a kite, so much cloth stretched on an endless summer wind.
A low moan as he feels fluttering lungs shifting beside and inside his own,
a second heartbeat beating too fast… or was that his own?
Possession? If it’s like this, I don’t care-
“Cole-” the Inquisitor glanced back towards the stairs at the sound of footsteps. “What-”
“Forget,” I tell him and I don’t look back. In front of me, there is a wild storm of Fade and finding, feeling, ferreting out the memories of me from those fractured halls. They resonate between gold and moonlight; the same mind, one cracked and one complete.
The Inquisitor, soon gone, blond and blue and bashful. He blinks at the blade in his hand in surprise, wandering back to the stool he had perched on to idly dance the dagger on the back of his hand.
“We can go now,” Dorian tells him, lost in thought, walking to and through the door. The leader sheaths his blade and follows.
Surreal, one leaving without their shadow. I kneel, peer and prod.
Overlapping, shifting and imperfect. Summer breeze hands. Eyes like the midday sky.
Surreal, this shadow that has been shadowing me. He wheezes, his gaze traveling to the stairs, the ceiling. He still has his daggers. He won’t let them go.
“No.” I peel the fur away to find the face. Furious. Fadeswept. “Let me in.” I open his collar and he is stung, still, humming like a strummed string. I trace the scar-dark handprint at his throat, flickers of fear and fire. Warmth. Touch. Acceptance. Forgiveness. It presses into and through him, and there isn’t space within for the cold any longer.
Heat, though. Heat he still has plenty of. “You know what he did,” breathless, unbound, the fire fixates him; he points the tip of his blade to the ceiling.
“To Dorian,” he is the tide he is afraid of. “What he would have, might have, didn't. Not here. Not to him. Not to you. Not- Teeth chattering with energy- heart racing- melting, melding with darkness- the lights lead you astray- ‘This is the work of His hands.’ She is more beautiful than you could imagine- freezing heat and molten ice- You think wrong again.”
“You think wrong,” he snarls. “You heard them. He’s a fucking blood mage. He deserves to die. They all deserve to die.”
“Forget,” if it is the only way. My fingers find his forehead.
“No!” He buzzes like a flurry of bees, his mind a humming hive of hate.
Memory, light and sound, flashes of color and seizing, sickening pain- need- free. Release. Out.
The walls are splashed with flickering green light; his palm buckles. Power presses, pushes me away.
“Forget.” The pain inside him is heavy and dense- molasses mud molding. He wants free of it. I feel that he needs to be free- but he fights me. Flees.
“I’ll protect them. All of them. Him. Even if it makes him hate me, I will.” He struggles- first to his knees, then his feet, ignoring the jarring pain in his bones, in his head, as he runs for the stairs.
“Forget!” I demand this time instead of asking. “Aran, let me in. Let me-”
I wanted him to face me, feel me, forget and soothe the storm. But he looks with Fadelight shining, fading to blue out of true silver. “You let me in,” he tells me. Fells me.
I do. Possible impossible. He is there, thick and quick, filling and spilling through thoroughly- You knew my name. You- Pleading, pressure- prying light out of the darkness. I came when he called, crying, caught. I couldn’t help. I tried. I couldn’t- wasting, wishing, why why-why- Innocent. He was innocent and I couldn’t help. They hurt him. They tried to hurt me. You took me, shook me, and I wanted to help you. There was light there: hope - the rarest - warming everything around you. I wanted to help. Be bright. Bring brightness with me. I felt it from the tower, from the storms, and I followed, fueled, had to find- there. You. I was forgotten and you remembered. You saw and sought. Looked upon with longing. So many little hurts. So many terrible ones. They blur and blend. Different. Different then. Different than, in the dark, in blood and battle, bruised battered broken. Different now, close and far; I can see the path. You’re not alone. You’re here. You’re with me. I can help, if you let me. Let me. I hear your pain and I will answer it, but you have to let me. Trapped. Trapped like the boy Cole. Trapped by the man I was trying to protect. Trapped inside me, inside the world of edges and walls. Almost like the Fade, feeling through the fabric, far and fickle. And it is… anathema. Impossible and horrifying. I am not free or me, and I cannot look from the mirror of those eyes- not Fade, not nearly, and not nice or neat, but wild, weary. You said you wouldn’t hurt me. You said you might forget.
We wind surrounded, drowned by bindings and betrayal. Terror trips between us, resonating and rebounding. Memories melding, blending in a slow, awful storm. Turbulent and torturous, but there is… light… there too. Light in us both. Warmth where there should be none.
“Well, well, what have we here?” Halward’s voice slides through our mixed mind, restless fury spiraling in its wake.
He tears himself from me, tries, tangled, and I, all unbound, attend; Fadelight flashing from him to blind and balk, green and gleaming. He pours forward; Halward Pavus’ back cracks against the stairs. Growling, he knocks the staff aside, pinning both the mage’s arms to the floor. “Was it fun?” Spiteful. “Having him at your mercy?” Sneering.
“Who- I didn’t- I never-” he lies, lying prone, baffled.
“He trusted you and you betrayed him. Did you practice on your servants? On prisoners?” Agony. Rust. “Or were you just going to wing it, tear his mind apart with your fucking lyrium ritual and see- what- happened?” He smashes his forehead into the other man’s face, crushing, blood smearing their faces. Painted pain.
“I didn’t want to-”
“Didn’t you,” he pulls his collar back to show the flow of pulsing lyrium within his flesh. It glows like starlight, moves like liquor, stings like venom. He is becoming it and doesn’t know. “Didn’t you want to see what you could do? Another little Void-damned experiment. Didn’t you want to fill him with poison so that it spilled, spoiled, and made him the monster you yearned for?”
“Demon-” Halward whispers, and he is not wrong. He is not right. He is human. Flawed. They both are. Mostly.
“I am Hale Mythal’enaste Eolas’esayelan, you piece of shit,” blue mist seeps from Aran’s skin, soaking, startling, stolen from his starlight gaze, “I am the guardian of guardians, shield of the protector, fox and finder, and you are the rat whose neck I’ll break first.”
His blade arcs like the moon, but it is my hand that brings it down - into the wood of the stair just beside Halward’s face. “Go now. Don't come back. Forget. ”
Halward hears me, heeds me, and hurries from the haunted tavern.
It isn’t possible to keep Aran still, so I run with him, within him. Away. An empty room. A closed door. His rage resonating through us both.
It is tempting - that deep well of darkness, that ancient ruthless yearning for reprisal - but I can’t. Cast my body boldly against the door, blades free, wary. “You told me revenge wouldn’t save me. It won’t save you either.”
“Hate makes the monster in you.”
Aran stutters, stumbles, stares.
“You said you wouldn’t bind me. ‘Stay, say you will, you don’t know me but I need you. We all do.’ I was forgotten but you remembered. You knew his name. You knew mine. Now you’ve forgotten both.”
“Cole…” he whispers, wishing. Wants. But he is in his own tide, biding time, and what is remembered must surface like driftwood. He can’t think. He sinks.
Her touch is gossamer. Thrilling. Killing. A warm pulse through his blood bones body- reassembled.
Tight and aching. Ah, Void and damnation, his skin starves.
‘Close your eyes, don’t you trust me?’
Pleasure drags ragged nails across him, peeling purifying- glory wonder awe sweat heat yearning learning craving touch-
he wants so much- it laps more of him with every singing wave-
gentle, gentle as it tears- teeth and heat and nails rending him fleshless-
He is too hot, too hard - Fade-etched -
he is cloth billowing, a kite in flight-
he fumbles, aching.
Not enough. Never. Need. Greed.
He stretches, skin shivering,
his hand on himself hot, and good, and not enough.
His muscles burn, mind churns-
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck-”
His torment is tenderness. I take the shaking hand and grasp fast, past the doubt. It is calloused, damp and cramped, flexing. It is… fine. Astonishing. He whines in his throat, clutching my fingers to keep afloat.
It is a hand, only a hand, but brand new. Now. Needed. Necessary. He is shivering sand and stars in the mirrored sea. Seeing me. You are with me, I tell him when his eyes fade, frost, falter. I touch the sunlight in his memory, summon the songs and subtle contentment. And because he is a kite stretched thin, I phase again, what he thinks of as wind. Fill. Still. Reprise the rising summer breezes on the modest dinghy, the silvery fish beneath the shivering surface, the salt spray and scent of simple solitude.
I have walked within him before, waded waiting. But this Aran is a prism of dynamism, making solid what should be insubstantial, and I can feel his muscles untense, tended, one by one, wondrous and wondering, verging and merging with my signified form. Simmering.
He is breathless again, lungs fluttering alongside mine. Full and firming. He thinks my name, the name of the boy. His toes flex alongside mine.
It is… elasticity and equity. Edges that mean endlessness. Sore muscles- hungering flesh- the groan of an unfilled belly- the flex of lungs filling with air, sudden and marvelous. Need. Every inch and segment starving for something. Food. Water. Air. Touch. Earth. Sea. Sky. And to each of these, I am the answer.
Startled, I step when he stands, emerging as the gasp he draws.
“Cole...” I do not need to look to know he reaches, fingers like reeds.
He doesn’t want me to alleviate the aches in his heart, his mind, his scars within and without. He just… wants.
It is… possible impossible?
“Can you take me away from here?” he asks, fearing that he has done too much for forgiveness. "I- Cole, I'm- not-"
I stretch my hand back, not daring to look at him, and find the reeds resting in the restless waters between us. Tangle. Twist.
He exhales, and it is his wind that moves me forward, stretched like a kite, into the night.