The problem with the Inquisition is the same problem festering away at the heart of every inept circus troupe and every band of organized and overzealous faithful armed to the back teeth with self-righteous fury and all the foolish fervor of fire and brimstone: they are a discordant melody of barely-contained internal conflicts, interpersonal melodrama, simmering resentments, jealousies, miseries, thieveries, ideological and cultural clashes always in constant motion, traveling together, fighting together, eating together, living and hating and loving and dying together. A perpetual Chantry congregation, each convinced they are standing on the side of the Good and the Holy, something bigger and far greater than themselves imbuing them with the courage to take up their swords and shields; if Morrigan were a charitable woman, or maybe if she just had a few glittering shards of idealism lurking in the flotsam of her hindbrain, she might find the sum of its parts inspiring, if not the whole thing. But Morrigan is really not a charitable woman, and, as such, it mostly gives her indigestion.
What makes it all bearable, she secretly knows—in a clinical sort of way, like knowing the cause of tooth decay and foot fungus—is the friendship and the tavern music and the late-night confessions traded like treasures in the dark, those brief, star-strung moments of joy and beauty when it doesn’t matter who lied about what or who slept with who or where all that coin really came from, because you are only breathing bodies and beating hearts and your home is here, where you have all built it with your working muscles and bones at the very ends of the world. It’s the same thing she used to crave sometimes, privately, viscerally, about the warmth of the central firelight on moonless nights spent wide awake, thrumming with the newness of the land; it’s the same thing, too, she felt with Kieran strapped to her back and at her hip, the same fierce blood in her that catches and flares hot like the serrated edges of summer when she tells him stories and heals his skinned knees and looks at him, her early-morning boy, to find that he is taller and wider and wiser than he was when she last looked on him only the day before.
It’s a simple enough concept that she assumes most other people understand in an abstract, innate manner they don’t have to analyze and critique the way Morrigan does, unless that person is Sister Leliana, Left Hand of the Divine, who is never quite anyone at all without someone else’s breathing body and beating heart tugging at her limbs like a broken marionette with expensive shoes. Morrigan tells her this late one afternoon when the shadows have just begun to lengthen, suspended in the rafters first as a crow and then as a spider, dropping down on silk spun finer than a heartstring to whisper in her ear.
“I’ve no idea what you mean,” says Leliana, not looking up from her letters, the backs of her hands stained with ink. Anyone else might have missed the ghostlike stutter of her fingers.
“Shall I name them for you? Very well: your Divine Justinia, our own dear, wandering Warden, and—who was it? The one with that horrid, sickly accent—ah, yes. Marjolaine.”
“What of them? I have neither the time nor the desire to wade through your riddles today,” says Leliana, her voice gone over rough like burnt wood and still not looking at her, though her hand has stilled completely over the parchment; this is power, Morrigan knows, these splinters that can only be administered by a lover or an insidious outsider: a breath of doubt, the skip of a blue pulse in a vein, thunderous with truth. “Either say what you mean or leave.”
“If you insist,” she mutters, uncrossing her arms and noticing, for the first time, how very brittle the cut of her jaw to her forehead looks in the candlelight, honed to a deceptively impassive knife’s-edge. “You are a stocking to be filled, a chapter to be written, clay to be sculpted in a potter’s hands. You give them an opening and let them inside to sway and shift and influence your every thought and every twitch of your muscles without a moment’s wonder for who is truly doing what in your head. I wonder—do you even know it?”
Leliana pushes her chair away from the desk without preamble so that Morrigan has to take a harried step backwards and then firmly back again just as Leliana turns to her, feeling strangely as though she is standing on disputed ground.
She pushes past Morrigan without allowing a single look between them, but, true to form, she does not leave without a word: “You need to stay out of my way.”
“’Tis only an observation,” says Morrigan, and folds it into her cowl as the last word and a point in her favor, even though Leliana is already stitched to the shadows—long out of sight.
The song that is Morrigan and the song that is Leliana do not harmonize. When Morrigan thinks on it, they never truly have, Leliana’s smooth arpeggio and her own out-of-tune chords always tangling and jerking awkwardly around each other, even all those years ago when Leliana was a freshly-scrubbed convert from the Chantry laundry and Morrigan looked upon the vastness of the world with an escaped prisoner’s eyes; she remembers slinking through ravaged temples and the deep summer-green bellies of forests with her, unsettled sometimes at the way Leliana would move without a sound or a breath and murmur, without turning around, Behind you, Morrigan like some cheap sleight of hand, how she would feel somehow slighted afterwards.
She remembers that they did talk sometimes, if not the specific words—remembers the surreal flutter of her hands plucking at her bowstring like a harp and then reaching out to play with Denerim street urchins hours later, the shapes of her own sneers matched to Leliana’s starlit laughter. Morrigan can see her still, gliding along beside her in the city streets, speaking to strangers with birdsong bubbling out of her throat while Morrigan’s own tree-root nerves twisted inside her like the jangle of metal in the foundries; she remembers, too, what it felt like to know Leliana was watching her, how she would sometimes pretend to ignorance and stretch her long limbs out slowly, or roll her head back to the moon, and look over at her again to find her head cocked sideways with a brave hunger in her eyes—once or twice, even, a pomegranate blush like first fruit.
But she suspects—knows, really, because who else would have been looking—that she is the only one who knew the undercurrents of suspicion and brutality grafted beneath her new skin, flashing like thundercloud violence in the dark whenever old ghosts drew too near. Ten years later, it’s burned to the surface and peeled her raw in a way that Morrigan, the world’s longest living sacrifice, knows as well as she knows anything that matters.
Once raised, the question of their deadly symmetry will not leave her alone. In the evenings she leaves Kieran to his studying and perches on the railing, the one crow who doesn’t belong: she asks invasive questions; she meets glares in meetings with diplomatic apathy; she makes terse and occasionally insulting remarks when they pass each other in the halls like cold gusts of wind, never stopping or slowing. Leliana retreats to haunt the cobwebbed corners while Morrigan takes up too much space in a perverse mimicry of themselves from ten years younger.
Her reasons for being here for the fight in the first place are her own, as they always are and well they should be, but Morrigan has long taken comfort in the formulaic resolution of conflict and the decrepit language of rubble and ruin, the moon with a bright gold stillness filling out its haggard face—the knowledge that something jagged and brittle can be made soft again. It disturbs her—it frightens her, if she’s honest—that what she sees in Leliana is the opposite.
A single person contains within their insignificant, burdensome body the capacity to be their very own scientist, cartographer, historian, theologian, god, tormenter, savior, master, servant, seamstress, and any host of other things that can be ascribed to the frauds known as “professionals” but really come down to you and the things only you know; she tells Kieran this on nights when the stars are hidden and keeps it tucked away in her chest like a religion, and it’s through that same line of reasoning that she begins to conduct her great interpersonal experiment, which consists mostly of shadelit observations and indelicate proddings of Sister Leliana, Left Hand of the Divine. When Leliana begins to respond—sometimes with amused indulgence, sometimes with fork-tongued animosity—Morrigan considers the whole endeavor a grand success and congratulates herself on a job well done, perfectly ready to get on with her life and her duty, until Leliana turns up in the gardens one afternoon, paperwork forgotten, and returns the gesture in a move so completely underhanded it almost makes Morrigan furious with envy—and, distressingly, with admiration.
“He has his father’s nose,” says Leliana, long legs crossed on the stone bench beside Morrigan early on an autumn-grey evening; Morrigan doesn’t need to turn from her book to see the smile pulling at her lips as she watches Kieran play with a dog someone brought back from the coast. It chafes.
“If you think you are the first to note such, let me assure you: you are not. Nor will you be the last.”
“A very chiseled nose, I always thought. Oh, just wait—he’ll be asking you about lampposts and laughing at his own jokes by his next birthday.”
The lamentable fact that Kieran already does that second thing is a source of both eternal exasperation and an impossible, illogical, singular joy for Morrigan by turns; Leliana doesn’t need to know any of it. She’d probably say the Maker willed it, as if the Maker birthed him and not Morrigan. “I assume there is a point to this line of inane conversation?”
“I always said, too,” Leliana continues as if she hasn’t heard her, wicked, wicked woman, “that you would look stunning in red—and I was right, wasn’t I? So right, in fact, that you wore just that to the ball. It’s a shame we weren’t in contact sooner, because I have a necklace that would have gone with it perfectly.”
“Stolen right from another woman’s neck, I assume?”
Leliana only smiles.
“Mother!” Kieran, scrambling over with a brown bundle of dog at his heels, sits in the grass and rolls over; the dog lies on her belly and does the same before getting back to her feet and licking Kieran in the face while he laughs and writhes in the milkweed, looking to Morrigan to share his child-silly delight.
She laughs, and laughs, and laughs, bloomed into life like a flame.
“You’ve gotten yourself filthy again, little man,” she tells him, brushing a twig from his hair that is her hair, exactly. “Go—wash your face. He’ll still be here when you get back.”
The dog—smaller by far than a Ferelden mabari, but with a familiar agelessness in her eyes, a familiar strength—nudges her knees until she lets a hand stray behind her ears, sagging against her feet. Morrigan remembers wandering outside the camp sometimes late at night, far from the burst of warmth and voices at the fire, and feeling the inhuman wetness of breath at her wrist, shuffling closer in the dark, a silent, perfect friend. She smiles, and flushes the sentimentality out of her system with a wry twist of her lips.
From the corner of her eye, she can feel Leliana’s level look set against the line of her neck to her chest, her shadowed mouth, her haunted—hunted—eyes; Morrigan leans back against the stone and stretches, feeling it burn in the dip of the necklace between her breasts until she turns to her and meets the shock of her stare, knowing that Leliana has let herself be caught, just as Morrigan has let herself be found out.
“Morrigan, Arcane Advisor, witch of the wilds, friend to dogs and children,” says Leliana, teeth glinting over her pale bottom lip.
Leliana throws her head back slightly in a move that looks like a greeting but Morrigan knows is really only to get the hair out of her face. “It’s only an observation,” she says, and only blinks when Morrigan turns to glare.
She considers scoffing, mocking, firing off accusations, but she feels that would all rather too effectively prove Leliana’s point—a point which has been made with the improbable softness of the years spent spinning bedtime stories and building homes of her own and wishing, and hoping, and dreaming, and—unfathomably—missing people with that unbidden, unquenchable ache humming just beneath the surface of her skin in the deepest and darkest of her nights, the thing she learned to name, reluctantly, as longing. Leliana watches her, patient, expecting something.
“He’s changed you,” says Leliana when Morrigan does nothing in recompense. “Just like the Warden. Just like your mother.”
“You’ve come here just to state the obvious as you always have, I see. You are a truly meddlesome woman without even the foresight to wear sensible shoes.”
“And you are a devious witch who thinks the sun shines out of her own bottom.” Leliana uncrosses her legs, and, ridiculously, she smiles. “I’m not sure why, but it’s good, somehow. Seeing you again.”
Most of the things flitting about her throat feel too much like defeat to be spoken aloud, but Leliana is smiling at her, a kind, dusky-warm tilt of her head, and the sunlight is catching like arson on her brow, and it just seems fitting enough that she lets her own smile reach her eyes for once when she says, “Yes. It is.”
There are times, late at night or very early in the morning, when Morrigan will shed her humanity for a coalstone expanse of crow feathers and flit from rafter to rafter, darkness into darkness, watching Leliana with her single candle and her ink-stained fingers with knifeblade eyes, drawn like a moth to the glimmer of copper-red beneath her hood and the shared history held tight in her throat. No matter where she hides, Leliana always picks her out from the rest, the unnatural stillness giving her away even where Leliana cannot see. Sometimes, she talks to Morrigan, knowing full well she can’t answer; sometimes, Morrigan comes to her as a woman, a steal of charcoal curiosity, and answers from the spider-veined corners.
It occurs to her on one such morning that she has seen Leliana exactly this way before, bent over parchment as if in prayer with the same expression; even the candlelight paints her face the same watercolor patterns as before, though Morrigan can’t place the memory.
And then, as if by way of a logical conclusion to her grand experiment, it comes to her: Leliana is a shapeshifter the same as she is, one born out of necessity rather than inborn practice and heritage. Where Morrigan grew claws and took flight from fenland and forests, Leliana sharpened her voice and smoothed the creases from a murderous mouth; where Morrigan untethered her own heart and grew between the cracks in mountains and coastlands and Val Royeaux, Leliana cultivated kindness and mercy inside her like a sword and a shield. In the reflection of the dirty windowpane, she can see the shadowplay of the reflection she would not have if it weren’t for the influence of a handful of interlopers. At the desk, Leliana reaches for her inkwell, grief-quiet, a woman who has spent every last cent of her generosity on a world that swallowed it whole, free now to reinvent herself at will again, and again, and again.
Morrigan leaves through the window in an inky clatter of wings and congratulates herself again on her superior insights into the sentient psyche, pleased, proud, thrilled with the sudden clamor of her heart in her ears.
In the rookery, just at the very edge of the flooding season when the gales and the rain get up in the mornings and last into the starless nights, she crawls into Leliana’s shadow and blooms out like a cloudburst until she’s standing right at her shoulder, looking at the narrow scrawl of her handwriting, every crisp and deadly letter; Leliana, for her part, doesn’t even blink, but she does sigh as she finishes her sentence and puts her pen down on the desk, blowing the parchment dry.
“Someday, you’re going to turn yourself into a spider too small to be safe and someone’s going to squash you, or else the crows will find you, and who am I to come between nature and its hungry, bloody course? No one at all, that’s who.”
“Is that concern I hear in your dulcet reprobation? How droll. Certainly, it is the warmest thing in this cold hovel—my feet are practically tingling.”
Leliana makes a sound that Morrigan knows to be a laugh, lower and throatier than it used to come and, strangely, something she could never pull out of her before—not that she tried. “Grown soft from the tawdry comforts of Val Royeaux, Morrigan, renowned swamp witch, pines away for the Winter Palace and her long underwear—can she survive in the untamed wilderness of this vast, well-lit, well-fed castle? Only time will tell.”
“You should stick to the ones about wronged chevaliers. They suit you much better.”
“I always knew you were listening,” says Leliana, turning at last and tugging down her hood. Morrigan is not as surprised as perhaps she should be to find that she’s already smiling. “Have you told it to Kieran? It seems like the sort of story he might like. Full of trials and injustices and justices come full circle, he’s a clever boy that way.”
“Perhaps you could tell him,” says Morrigan. “He’s fond of your stories, you are fond of telling them. The solution seems obvious.”
“So it seems,” says Leliana, and gives Morrigan a look through the rainlight slicing in at the window that makes her eyes look like the broken shards of a mirror; she shivers, involuntarily. “Morrigan. Why are you still here?”
A fair enough question, she supposes, even if the answer is much the same as it was ten years ago, which is terribly dull and unoriginal and, possibly, something even approaching noble. The thought of it makes her stomach twist in a final nauseous recognition of the gradual settling of convictions that comes with age: the desire to finish what you started, to do The Right Thing, to have something to fight for, even if it’s as selfish as the voracious hunger for the lost and forgotten and the power to be found in the scavenged remains, even if it’s as small a thing as wanting to see your son make a fool of himself in the dirt with his dog every single day for as long as you have left.
So, Morrigan answers honestly: “Because I will see this through to its end, no matter where it goes.”
When Leliana stands, Morrigan does not take a step backwards, all the burn of the years and all the different women they’ve been staring out from the hollows of their faces. “You mean that,” she says, though it isn’t a question. For the first, agonizing time, Morrigan thinks they understand each other.
They come together softly, slowly, so that afterwards, she will never quite be able to say with certainty which one of them moved first: Leliana’s palm curves towards her like an offering, and Morrigan’s hips yearn for her, straining until Leliana finally, blessedly puts her hands around them and pulls her in. The second time, their teeth knock together and reverberate sweetly through their skulls, Morrigan’s fingers twining around her waist and harshly up her ribs until Leliana gasps and she bites down on it, holds it between her molars until they pull apart.
It would be a very bad idea, she concludes, to be involved with Leliana—Leliana who is beautiful and sometimes ruthless, Leliana who is still a little lost in the dark, Leliana who can be spectacularly kind and spectacularly cruel, Leliana who is always changing her shape the way Morrigan is always changing hers. But it would be a very bad idea, strictly speaking, to be involved with anything or anyone other than your own flesh and bone and the host of other versions of yourself that live in your head, because life is a vessel of pain simultaneously made worse and made worth living at all by the addition of other breathing bodies and beating hearts.
Morrigan pushes Leliana into the firelight and slots their hips and chests together where she can feel Leliana’s heart beating against her breasts, her lungs swelling and deflating out of tune with her own.
“Keen, aren’t you,” Leliana mutters, fingers splayed across the necklace between her breasts, pressing down. “This is the end of your ten-year dry spell, is it?”
“You are insufferable,” says Morrigan. She doesn’t move to avoid the teeth that sink into her neck, dragging a blunt dampness across the skin there that cools in the draughty air and a hot dissolve of electricity spreading wild deep in her belly. “Utterly,” she breathes, almost as an afterthought with Leliana’s head bowed to the crook of her neck and her lips pressed to the skip of Morrigan’s pulse like a pathfinder, like something to hope for.