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Don't Worry, I'll Protect You

Chapter Text

Inquisitor Dorian

art by xla-hainex, commissioned for this story



Dorian coughed, trying to get the cloud of dust and grime out of his lungs. Before he’d even managed to take his first shaking breath, however, he was struggling to his feet, uncaring that his staff had snapped in two or that something was wrong with his left ankle. All that mattered was the Inquisitor.

“Mailani!” he croaked as he forced his way closer to the cave-in. Behind him, he heard the others stirring, but he didn’t bother looking back. All that mattered was the Inquisitor. “Lavellan!” he tried again, a bit louder this time, and finally remembered that he was, in fact, a mage. The thought was followed by a sputtering wisp summoned from the Fade, whirling around his head to provide a feeble light.


Thank the Maker for that Dalish scarf she wore - it was like a beacon of green and gold in the darkness of cave around them. With faltering, fumbling steps, he moved towards it, ignoring the pain, the possibility of a further cave-in, of anything that got between him and his best friend. His only friend.

The sputter of green light almost made him cry - if the Anchor could light up, it meant she was alive. Closing the remaining space between them, he fell to his knees and took that glowing hand in his, trying to pour what little ability he had for healing into the Inquisitor. “Mailani,” he breathed, “I’m here. I’ll protect you.” 

At the sound of his voice, her head turned, and Dorian paled as he saw what had happened to her face. Blood covered the side of it, drenching her hair, and the top of her head was misshapen, crushed askew by an unseen force. “D-Dorian,” she mumbled. “C-can’t see you.”

No, no, no! The tears came to his eyes unbidden, and he squeezed her hand all the more tightly. “The others will come,” he promised. “Solas will be able to help, I know it, and Bull can--” He looked down her body, and began to tremble. Her body disappeared at about her waist, hidden under a pile of rubble made of stones large and small. She’d always been nimble, but never physically strong - not that even Bull would have held up well against a half ton of rock. “He... Bull can lift everything away, I’m sure of it.”

“Dorian,” she said, and the mage quieted. His hand squeezed hers so tightly now that his knuckles were white. “Dorian, I’m sorry.”

That... wasn’t what he’d expected to hear, and it wasn’t welcome - not at all. He shook his head. “No. You’ll be fine. The others will come.”

“Sorry,” she whispered. Her head shifted slightly, then relaxed, lolling limply on the ground, and the bright green of her hand flickered, then went out.

“No, no, no!” But he couldn’t deny it. No necromancer could deny the dimming of the eyes, or that last indrawn breath. Yet before he could even think of anything else, before he could cry or rage or attempt to bring her back, his world suddenly turned gold, then white, and then green before everything whirled away into a cloud of blackness.

His last thought was merely the hope that perhaps, this time, he would not awaken.

Dorian awoke to pain. He wasn’t even aware of the groan he made as he curled up on his side, or the fact that he was on a bed, or the hand that landed on his shoulder. All he knew was that his hand felt like large shards of crystal had been shoved into it and were being moved by someone for nefarious purposes of their own. Vaguely he was aware that someone was muttering nearby, that the words were what he’d come to recognize as elvish, but he could make no sense of either the speaker or the words which were spoken. 

When the hand moved from his shoulder to touch the source of his pain, he instinctively rolled away, crying out in protest. “Veshante kaffas!” he swore. “Go away!” It was like someone had gripped his head with a massive set of iron tongs and was slowly closing it, crushing him as they did so.

The muttering finally ceased, but Dorian almost didn’t even notice because the horrid pressure and pain abruptly switched off, as if he’d been removed from a fire. 

With a gasp, he rolled onto his back and panted heavily, trying to make sense of what was happening around him. Finally the fact that his name was being spoken, over and over again, penetrated his senses, and he forced his eyes to open.

“I see you have returned to us,” a familiar voice said in an equally familiar detached manner. “It is good to see you awake again.”

“So-Solas?” he breathed, eyes sagging shut once more. Dorian had no energy, nothing left but the barest amount he required to breathe and force out the elf’s name. Well, and perhaps one other elf’s name. “Mailani?”

He felt a hand land on his shoulder once more. “I’m afraid not, my friend,” Solas said softly, and the detachment was gone, replaced by something so subtle it was hard to call it simple sorrow. Whatever Solas felt at the loss of the Inquisitor, it was, like the man himself, complex and deeply felt. “Sleep. The Inquisition needs you now more than ever.”

Wha-- The darkness rose even before he could complete the thought.

The pain was less the next time he awoke, far less like crystals shifting under his skin and in his bones and more like simply being stabbed in his palm by a dagger. Again the hand claimed his, again elvish soothed the pain away, and again Dorian fell into dreamless slumber. It wasn’t until he awoke the third time that he was able to move, was able to open his eyes and see the world for more than a bleary second or two. He didn’t move, though, and simply lay limp on the bed as he struggled to reconcile what he remembered with his strange awakenings.

Again a hand fell on his shoulder, but when he turned his head to look, fully expecting Solas, he instead found a far more severe face awaiting him. “Lady Cassandra,” he murmured, then gasped as his hand twitched in pain.

“Just relax, Dorian,” Cassandra said in a hushed tone. “Solas said that it might hurt for a while yet.”

“What might hurt--” He grunted as another stab went through his hand, and this time he managed to lift his hand and look at it, expecting to see it ruined by the cave-in. Instead, he stared, dumbfounded, as his hand suddenly lit with a familiar green flame, and an itching arose in the back of his mind. “What-- No, no, no, this is Mailani’s mark, she--”

“--is dead,” Cassandra said, the finality in her tone brooking no argument. “Iron Bull and Solas managed to pull you out, but your hand was already like that when they found you.” 

Dorian shook his head, ignoring the way the movement made the room spin. “She’ll come back, just like she did before.” Anything seemed more likely than Mailani being dead. “Corypheus couldn’t kill her at Haven. I won’t accept that she’s gone!”

I’m sorry... 

He paused, looking around warily. “Did you hear that?” he whispered. 

Sorry...  An echo, a whisper, a sorrow, a memory... Or was it something more?

“I heard nothing, Dorian,” Cassandra said with a weary sigh. Her face was tight and drawn, the circles under her eyes deep and dark. “All I know is that somehow we now have an Inquisitor who is even less popular with the Chantry and the people of Thedas than a Dalish elf was. The Herald of Andraste is dead, and in her place we have a mage from the Tevinter Imperium. At this rate we’ll be lucky if even Leliana and Josephine can win us any support at all.”

“I could have sworn I heard-- Wait.” Dorian blinked and looked up at Cassandra. “New... new what?”

“You bear the mark now, Dorian. The Anchor is yours. You have... further to go to gain everyone’s trust, but you are the Inquisitor now. Or at least, you have the right to earn the title, just as Mailani did.” Cassandra patted him on the chest, then rose to her feet. “Sleep now. I’ll have some food and water brought up to you.”

Dorian would have objected, but the swaying of the world had been steadily increasing as Cassandra spoke, and his eyelids fluttered before falling shut.

The last thing he heard before he fell into slumber once more was, I’m sorry, Dorian.

Chapter Text

The voices filled the air like annoying insects, filling Cullen with the overwhelming urge to swat at them. He knew that a lot of things needed to be discussed and crucial decisions had to be made, but none of it seemed to be of any importance. Before him lay the expanse of Orlais and Ferelden, crucial points of interest meticulously marked by various bits of wood and horn and bone, and yet his eyes stared at it all without actually seeing any of it.

Something was missing.

The empty spot on the opposite side of the large table loomed in his mind, driving out all other concerns or cares. Someone should be there, someone with a shy smile and a lively gleam to her eyes, someone who had not even heard of Andraste before suddenly being declared Her Herald, someone whose long, thin fingers ending with archer’s callouses had had an innate ability to chase away the pain and sorrow when the cravings got to be too much. Someone who had never judged him, who had filled a place in his life, in his heart - in his very soul - with a gentleness and warmth he’d never known before.

Something was missing.

His hand worked at the empty place at his side where a sword hilt usually rested, and something flashed through his mind: a darkened tunnel, Inquisition soldiers everywhere, mad chaos reigning as each man frantically moved stone and earth and reality itself in a desperate attempt to find the Herald. A voice calling his name, the urgency of its tone pulling him down into the tunnel where most of the rock had fallen. She’s here, Commander! A desperate scramble through rock and dirt and clouds of dust, ignoring the choking lack of air and the pain in his lungs at the chance that perhaps, perhaps she could be saved.

Cullen’s eyelids fluttered shut, but he could not unsee it. Could not forget skidding to a halt as the crew of soldiers heaved away the last rock. Could not forget the sound of the groans of dismay echoing in the cavern. Could not turn away at the sight of her crushed, tiny body, blood everywhere, no life, no hope of life, no hope at all. Could not bear to leave without first kneeling down to place a kiss on the dried blood covering her forehead, or to hold back the tears, or forget the rage that had coursed through him as he’d realized that she was truly, utterly, completely gone.

Something was missing.


His eyes opened, and he turned to the red-haired woman who had spoken his name - most likely more than once - and stared at her silently for a few moments before finally nodding. “I’m sorry. Yes?”

There was sympathy on her face. It was an expression he'd become quite familiar with in the last few days. Everyone knew of his loss, and everyone was afraid to speak of it. In a way, that made the pain even worse, as if the silence simply amplified the agony. “If you need time, Commander--” she began, voice soft.

He shook his head. “Better to work,” he said. Distantly he heard the strain in his voice, the hoarseness from the hours of trying not to weep before succumbing in the wee hours of the night. Clearing his throat, ignoring the pain as he did so, he straightened and tried to force himself to look more alert. “What did you need?”

“I would like a report on our soldiers. I can’t help but notice that the number appears to have dwindled.” The concern didn’t leave her face, but at least she let them both pretend to dwell only upon business.

Cullen shrugged. “People are leaving. Without the Her-- With the In--” He stopped and took a steadying breath. “Many have lost their motivation to serve the Inquisition.” And I’m not really trying to stop them, he admitted with a distant guilt. It just… didn’t seem worth it, somehow. “Plus we’re running out of supplies as it is.”

“That is most certainly true,” Josephine noted, looking up from her clipboard. “Quite a bit of the financial support for the Inquisition has been withdrawn, either on a permanent basis or because they wish to see how we will deal with our current crisis of leadership. It becomes a spiral, then: we lose the ability to retain troops, and thus lose the ability to send them out to garner supplies, and then lose even more influence.” For a moment her pen stopped dancing on the paper, and Josephine sighed. “It is a difficult time.”

Cullen’s lips twisted. Crisis of leadership. “You mean no one wants to have anything to do with--”

“Thank you, Josephine,” Leliana said, hastily interrupting Cullen before he could finish his sentence. “We knew there would be challenges after… what happened.”

Before he knew that his hand was even in motion, Cullen’s fist slammed down on the table, sending a spike of pain shooting up his arm as he agitated the bruises on his knuckles. “After she died. After Mailani died. Why won’t you just say it?” he demanded. “No, instead you have to dance around it. Crisis of leadership.” He snorted, ignoring Josephine’s discomfort as she turned away. “The Inquisitor’s dead, and all of you just to pretend that things can go back to some farcical state of normalcy!”

“Cullen!” That voice came from the doorway, an edge of command in it that only Cullen himself could ever hope to match. Cassandra marched into the room, eyes flinty as they took in the trio and came to rest on Cullen. “What has happened has affected us all. None of us would deny your pain, but I will ask that you recall that we all held her in the highest regard.” Her gaze flicked to the empty place, the first person to look since the advisors had entered the room, and her expression softened. “No one would think less of you for needing time, Cullen,” she told him softly.

“I can work through it,” he insisted, looking everywhere but at that empty place. “I need to--” He stopped and cleared his throat. Her words had made an impact, as they usually did, and he took a moment to slowly breathe in and out before turning to Josephine. “I’m sorry, Ambassador. My words were… poorly chosen.”

“It is forgotten, Commander,” Josephine replied immediately. “These are difficult times for all of us.” She didn’t speak of why it was more difficult for him in particular, of course, but it hovered in the air around them, a weight they couldn’t ignore any more than they could ignore her death.

Cullen opened his mouth to respond, but a movement at the door caught his attention. His head snapped around, and a fierce scowl came to his face. “What is he doing here?”

Cassandra looked to where Dorian stood, obviously uncomfortable in a way no one present had ever seen before. “I asked him to come here, now that he’s the--”

“Don’t say it.” Cullen’s voice cracked through the air like a whip, halting whatever Cassandra had been about to say.

“He bears the mark, Cullen,” Cassandra pointed out with a frown. “That is irrefutable fact now. The Inquisition must--”

“Maker’s breath, her clan just collected her remains yesterday and already you’re replacing her!” Cullen stormed past Leliana and Cassandra,  and went to Dorian, shoving him into the hall leading to the war table room. “You don’t belong here!”

“Commander, I--” Dorian began.

Cullen didn’t relent, not even when Cassandra’s voice called his name sharply from behind him. He surged after the mage, all his impotent rage and directionless fury focusing on the man who would dare to take her place. His hands wrapped around the mage’s impossibly constructed shirt so that Cullen could shove him into the nearest wall. “You were the last one with her,” he grated, eyes narrowed in anger. “You were the last one who could have saved her, and you didn’t. You. Don’t. Belong.” He pushed the mage into the wall with each word for emphasis, never breaking eye contact.

Dorian’s pale eyes were wide with fear - fear, and a deep sorrow that Cullen refused to acknowledge because it wasn’t his. “I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m so sorry. I tried--”

“Well, obviously you weren’t good enough,” he snarled. “Pity it couldn’t have been you under those rocks.”

“Cullen!” Hands seized Cullen’s shoulders and ripped him away from Dorian, throwing the ex-Templar into the opposite wall with a metallic clatter. The impact was strong enough that he fell limply to the floor, the wind knocked out of him. “That is enough!”

Glaring up at Cassandra, Cullen slowly got to his feet and pointed to where Dorian had slumped down the wall. His rage hadn’t dimmed one whit. “Get him out of here. I won’t have the man who let her die remain in Skyhold.”

Cassandra’s slap caught him completely by surprise, rocking him back on his heels enough that he had to windmill his arms to remain on his feet. Her action had the intended effect, especially since she hadn’t pulled any of her strength, and snuffed his rage as effectively as if she’d used a bucket of water. A shocked silence reigned in the hallway as, still staring wordlessly at Cassandra, Cullen raised his hand to rub at his cheek, the pain and heat telling him that a bruise was already blossoming.

“I am going to assume that it was grief causing you to act in such a reprehensible fashion,” she told him in tight, clipped tones. “As such, I will not have you locked up in a cell for assault and slander against a valued member of the Inquisition. As it is, Commander, I suggest you return to your quarters and think of several different ways to apologize to Dorian for both your words and your deeds.”

His breathing grew faster as he stumbled back to lean against the wall. “Maker, Cassandra, I’m sorr--”

“Now, Cullen. And I am not the one from whom you should seek forgiveness.” She turned to look at Dorian, who was being helped to his feet by Leliana and Josephine.

Cullen automatically followed her gaze, wincing when he saw how badly askew he’d left the man’s clothes, though the marks of tears on the mage’s cheeks were somehow worse. As he made an attempt to move to Dorian, a half-formulated apology forming in his head, Cassandra reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Quarters, now.” Her voice was quiet, but firm. “Let him recover.”

Nodding slightly, Cullen turned and stumbled down the corridor, pausing only to look back over his shoulder once he reached the door to Josephine’s office. Cassandra stood in front of the door like a sentinel, arms crossed over her chest and expression stern, and no one else was in sight. Cullen fumbled with the door handle for a moment, then quickly shoved the door open, shutting it just as fast behind him.

Once inside, he leaned back, sliding down to the floor as his breath came in hard and fast pants and his eyes squeezed shut. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Even he didn’t know if he was apologizing to Cassandra, to Dorian, or to someone else entirely.

I’m sorry…

He gasped, eyes opening wide. “That voice… No.” Landing his elbows on his knees, he buried his face in his hands and leaned forward. “No, it can’t be. Mailani?”

I’m so sorry…

Of course, it wasn’t her. It couldn’t possibly be. It was a memory, an echo of the guilt he felt, a phantom lingering in his mind coming out to haunt him when he was at his most vulnerable. Maker knew that Cullen was familiar enough with actual demons doing the same thing, so why shouldn’t the memory of the dead love of his life do the same?

Somehow, he managed to get to his feet. Somehow, he found his way back to his quarters, barred the doors, shucked his armor and clothing onto the floor, and laboriously climbed up to his bed. Rolling onto his back, he stared at the sky overhead for a few moments, but that calm didn’t last. Curling onto his side, he let the tears come again, the sobs heaving his shoulders as he occasionally punched the headboard, bruising the knuckles even further.

After he’d exhausted himself, the claws of sleep wrapped around him and held tight. As his eyelids dragged shut, the ghost - real or imagined, it truly did not matter - returned one last  time, earning a final tear as he slipped into slumber.

I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

Cullen’s back slammed into the ground with enough force to empty his lungs as he struggled against the flame-wreathed figure above him. With a kick fueled by galvanized desperation, Cullen lashed out, pushing the rage demon back and rolling away. By the time he’d completed the roll, the demon had vanished. Just like always.

Nightmare. It’s just a nightmare, he reminded himself sternly as he lay on his back and closed his eyes, desperately trying to pull himself from the Fade. It’s why he’d turned to alcohol in the last few days to help him fall asleep, once the reality of Mailani’s death had finally sunk in. Drink made the dreams duller, more distant.

But I didn’t drink myself into a stupor this time, did I? No, it had been grief which pulled him down, and now all of his demons were trying to return home.

The ground beneath him shifted, changing into a bed - his bed, he suspected, though he did not open his eyes - and a hand slipped over his waist as a familiar sensation nuzzled his cheek. “Bad dreams again?” a voice asked softly.

Maker, no. No, not this again. “Go away,” he gritted between clenched teeth. “You’ve tried this before, and I won’t fall for it.” Again.

A hand reached up to stroke his hair in that peculiarly gentle fashion that sang of Mailani to him. “Do you really want me to leave? At least you can pretend for a while.”

“Go away!” Cullen made as if to strike at the desire demon, and ended up falling to the ground as the bed disappeared, leaving him surrounded by nothing but the slowly shifting grey and green landscape of the Fade and the lingering laughter of the demon.

Groaning, he pulled himself into a sitting position and buried his head in his hands. All he needed was a moment, a calm moment, to leave the nightmare and force himself awake, as he had countless times since Kirkwall.

“What do you think? White or red?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Inquisitor. Don’t you think pink would suit me rather well? My eyes do make certain colors pop so incredibly well.”

A light, familiar laugh. “Pink it is, then.”

“So long as it isn’t that Maker-be-damned plaideweave.”

Cullen frowned as he looked up at the sound of the two voices. That was… different. Struggling to his feet, he found himself on the ramparts of Skyhold, looking at the backs of two people leaning against the stones to take in the view. He recognized the one on the right immediately, would have known that slight form and constantly tousled hair anywhere.


“Flowers don’t come in plaideweave, Dorian,” the elf told the man beside her in an overly-serious voice.

“Oh, thank the Maker, or whichever gods to whom you sing your praises,” Dorian breathed in a suitably dramatic fashion. “I’m not sure my delicate sensibilities could handle that.”

“I only made that mistake once,” Mailani protested, then reached up to try to straighten her hair. It never worked - her hair was permanently mussed. “I’m not sure how we’ll get flowers to Skyhold,” the elf added as she looked at the mage with that achingly familiar smile on her face. “We’re a bit far away from flower dotted meadows now.”

Dorian turned to face her, his mustache twitching with amusement. “Oh, come, my dear. Don’t give up hope. Why, if you can grow that troll snot in the garden here, I’m sure we can arrange for a few flowers. Enough for at least two head wreaths, at any rate.”

Cullen’s brow wrinkled as he realized that this was no demon, no manipulation. It was Dorian, standing there on the ramparts with someone who… well… No, no, don’t think about it . Cullen looked around, taking in the fact that the ramparts weren’t connected to anything, and that the sky was as strange and hard to look at as it always was in the Fade. But Dorian was real.

And then it hit him: this was a dream. It just wasn’t Cullen’s dream.

“Ghoul’s beard, not troll snot!” Mailani insisted, though she was obviously trying not to laugh. “It has many medicinal purposes and can be made into a tincture for--”

Dorian waved a hand. “Yes, yes, you’ve told me all of that before. It still looks like troll snot.”

Cullen couldn’t help but stare as he realized he’d actually never seen the two of them banter like this.  A tiny part of him was even starting to feel a little bit jealous, especially when Mailani clapped both of her hands over her mouth to stifle a laugh.

The jealousy faded, however, when Dorian opened his mouth again. “So Cullen’s the one, hmm?” the mage asked, nudging Mailani with his elbow.

Mailani blushed, but didn’t look away. “Yes. Yes, I think so.”

“He’s handsome enough, I suppose - if you like the type,” Dorian mused, “but is that enough to make up for all that sass of his?”

Mailani laughed, that crystal clear laugh of hers which always sent shivers up Cullen’s spine. “Oh, you’re terrible! There’s a lot more to him than sass!”

Dorian smirked as he scrutinized Mailani, eyes twinkling with mirth. “Oh, he must be a fantastic kisser, then, to get that expression on your face.”

“Dorian!” Mailani and Cullen said together, but neither Mailani nor Dorian seemed to hear Cullen.

Ignoring her protest, Dorian continued, “A shem, Mailani! Oh, the shame! Why, you with a shem for a boyfriend would be like me having a… a…”

“A Dalish elf for a best friend?” she countered.

Dorian’s face softened. “Yes. Precisely. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if our ancestors were all rolling over in their mutual graves. Or they would be, if mine weren’t little piles of ash and yours weren’t… wait, how do the Dalish tend to their dead?”

Mailani waggled her finger at him. “Oh, no, you’re not distracting me this time. I want to know what you really think, Dorian. And… well, you know, if you have any advice on how to handle it properly...” Her voice trailed away as she looked up at him with an entreating look on her face.

Dorian faced her fully, mien more serious. “Well, you’re the Inquisitor and he’s the Commander. People will talk, though not nearly as much as if it were, for example, you and me. Evil Tevinter magister trumps everything in the South, as far as I can tell. So with him, the main concern will be controlling the gossip, since you won’t be able to avoid it. Be careful to avoid too many lingering looks and starry-eyed glances, but at the same time ensure that there is enough affection between you in public that they don’t think you’re hiding something or, worse, lying about something. Don’t change anything about his office, or his work duties, particularly in the beginning when you want to diminish rumors of favoritism, but don’t make it look like he’s a secret no one should know about, either. Private, but not a shame - that should be your guiding line on how to handle the court’s speculation.”

Mailani nodded slowly as Cullen raised his eyebrows, reluctantly impressed by the advice. He doubted Josephine could have added anything to it. “It’s so different back home,” Mailani sighed. “There, I would just make a wreath and put it on his head, and he’d do the same for me, and everyone would know where we stood. It’s so complicated here.”

Dorian patted her hand sympathetically. “Well, we shems are a bit misguided, aren’t we? Certainly I am.”

She gave him a wan smile. “You got better.”

“Because of you,” he reminded her, then reached out and lifted her chin so their eyes could meet. “He’s a good man, though I suspect you don’t need me to tell you that.”

Mailani blushed and shook her head. “No,” she said softly.

Dorain suddenly grinned. “Then I suppose I also don’t need to tell you that if he ever hurts you, I’ll freeze his sausage and nuggins until they fall clean off.”

“Dorian!” came the unacknowledged chorus again, and Mailani giggled. “That’s terrible!”

“Yes, well, men can be primal creatures,” Dorian pointed out airily as he tapped the end of Mailani’s nose with his finger. “Sometimes a threat is the only way to get our attention.”

Mailani laughed before turning to look out at the mountains around Skyhold. “I’ll let you tell him that, then.”

“Oh, fine, it’s all on me, then,” Dorian grumbled as he mimicked her posture, gaze sweeping over the landscape. After a moment, the mage glanced at Mailani once more. “I know this is a dream,” he said quietly, a depth of sadness in his voice which Cullen had never heard before. “I wouldn’t be much of a mage if I couldn’t tell the Fade from reality, but it’s been good to see you again, even if you’re just a… a memory.”

Mailani looked at him, and Cullen’s heart ached at the sight of the sorrow on her face. He watched as she reached out to touch Dorian’s clasped hands. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

And then something pushed Cullen, sending him stumbling backwards and off the ramparts.

Cullen’s eyes flew open, and he jerked himself up onto his elbows as he looked around the tower. The stars twinkled above, indicating he hadn’t quite managed to sleep through the night, but nothing seemed out of place or felt like the Fade, nightmare or otherwise.

Taking a deep breath, he let himself fall back into the blankets, pondering what, precisely, he had witnessed and trying to make sense of it. The longer he thought about it, the less he could recall of the details, yet the impact of what he’d seen continued to resonate deep within. When the sky above slowly began to lighten, he sighed and forced himself out of bed. He had work to do.

With any luck, maybe this time he could work hard enough to actually forget.

Chapter Text

The sad smile on Dorian’s face lingered after waking, the impression of a comforting, if poignant, dream difficult to dismiss. Granted, no smile ever lasted past his morning bath, and probably never would. It was a ritual by now, with water heated by magic and softened with an ever-diminishing supply of scented oils bought with the last of the money he’d gained from selling his heritage. The scarcity made each drop of water precious, a spur to ensure that he looked his best every day as a personal reminder of what he’d lost, what he’d given up, and what had been taken. He’d hoped to make the supply last until they defeated Corypheus and the Venatori, but he doubted that would now be true.

And that was assuming the Inquisition survived Mailani’s death.

I’m so sorry…

He paused in the act of drying himself with his towel. That… was not his thought. A whisper on the very edge of hearing, a memory of something borne anew on the winds of conscious… but it wasn’t his mind which had created those words. He glanced down at his left hand, glimmering a fitful green in the growing light of the rising sun, and frowned thoughtfully.

“I’d be a poor mage if I didn’t wonder how this came to be on my hand,” he said softly. “Even Corypheus could not unseat it with all the power of the orb.” He felt a pricking at the back of his eyes and quickly fought it down. “I’ll figure it out, I promise you. I never broke a promise to you, save one.”

The light on his palm flared once, then flickered out.

Hand clenching into a fist, he looked out of his narrow window, eyes burning with more than just the bright sun. “Maker, why did I have to fail that one?”

He blinked a few times, then looked away and finished his morning ablutions quietly. By the time he was done, the sun had risen high enough that it was out of view of his window, and he knew it was time to leave the dubious safety of his quarters.

The moment he was outside his chambers, Dorian felt them: the eyes. Expecting, weighing, judging, and, above all, everywhere. Even at home, he’d rarely felt this amount of scrutiny - he’d been a prominent Altus when he’d behaved, and a notorious one when he’d chosen not to do so, but it hadn’t been quite the same. In Skyhold, now and the last few days, he was caught in the limbo of ‘expected to fail but hadn’t quite managed it yet’.

At least I’m fairly sure I’ll meet their low expectations, he thought bitterly to himself. It seems to be my lot in life. Still, it wouldn’t do to show a surly exterior, particularly when the Inquisition was already treading on such thin ice, so he put on what he hoped was a pleasant expression while wending his way to the War Room to meet with the Iron Trio, as he was quickly learning to call them in his head. There was something implacable about the way Cassandra, Leliana, and Josephine kept trying to prepare him for a role he had no desire to fill, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell them to simply let him close rifts and nothing more.

Even worse were the rumors whipping around him as he made his way determinedly through Skyhold. Rumors had been a pervasive part of his youth, after all, so his ears were attuned to hearing their pernicious susurrations, especially the half-whispers that were supposedly secret, but not really meant to be.

...lying to keep us here. The mark died with the Herald…

...follow a magister from the Imperium? They must be mad! Best to start packing…

...heard he let her die under those rocks, just to take the mark…

...Commander said that? Really? Well, he would know, wouldn’t he?

The last comments made him cringe internally, though he didn’t let it show. Apparently there truly were no secrets in Skyhold, even when the so-called secrets were exaggerations or outright lies. Still, he listened carefully, noting each and every variation. Rumors he understood, and rumors could be countered - if one knew of them. He’d been the cause of so very many iterations of them back home that ferreting them out had become second nature. I’ll be comparing notes with Leliana later, I'm certain, he sighed. When he was just a Tevinter nobody, he hadn’t particularly cared. Now…

What does the Iron Trio expect of me? he wondered again. I’m dashing, but hardly a leader. Not like-- He stopped that thought before he could complete it. Well, I’m sure they’ll see reason soon enough.

As he walked through the main hall towards the war room, however, a commotion near the throne at the far end caught his eye. Though tempted to pass on by, he asked himself silently, What would the Inquisitor do? and kept moving towards it. In his mind, of course, always and forever, the Inquisitor would be Mailani.

As he approached, voices could be heard arguing, and he hovered long enough to get an idea of the situation. It became clear that a few of Cullen’s soldiers were standing in front of the Inquisitor’s throne, looking at each other nervously as their lieutenant argued with the man at the head of a group, presumably men and women who had come to join the cause - the Herald’s cause, that is. Dorian’s heart sank as he identified their leader as Horsemaster Dennet, but wasn’t particularly surprised. There were few in Skyhold who had been more staunch supporters of Mailani than Dennet.

“Seeker Cassandra has said no one is to touch the throne,” the lieutenant declared firmly, her arms crossed across her chest as she stared up at the man in front of her.

Dennet set his hands on his hips, jaw set. “Well, the people of Skyhold disagree with you,” he said, then pointed at the throne. “That is the Inquisition’s throne. And she’s gone.” Those words were spoken more quietly, and a number of the people gathered behind him bowed their head, a moment during which Dorian moved around the crowd to be closer to the front. The moment passed, however, when the man looked up with a stubborn expression. “I say we need to move it before the Vint sets his magister’s fat ass on it!”

Dorian glanced up to the heavens and gave an inward sigh. Honestly. Granted, as insults went, it was a fairly pathetic attempt, and for a moment he was tempted to simply turn around and walk away, as he always had before. He’d known from the moment he’d joined the Inquisition that he would never be able to win their hearts and minds. His friendship with Mailani had proven to be a rare and precious thing in a world of disdainful looks and caustic judgments. As a mere follower of the Herald, he’d had the luxury of turning his other cheeks and walking away. Now… he flexed his hand slightly as it flared, the pain and the burden of the Anchor forcing him to take a deep breath.

Very well. If I am to be her legacy, I shall do it properly. By going on the offensive, of course.

He’d learned long ago the value of fighting anger with a sharp wit and sharper tongue, and he saw no reason to spare any of the people gathered before the throne from either. After heaving a loud, melodramatic sigh, Dorian began to cluck his tongue. “Oh, my blushing buttcheeks! Please, my good man. Is that really any way to insult someone?”

The guards and the people in the small crowd whirled to face him, and a few in the crowd started to edge away as Dennet’s expression darkened further. Before the man could say anything in response, however, Dorian continued. “What a hodgepodge of vitriol! Why, I’m uncertain where to even begin. For one, I am no Magister. The proper term is Altus. And for another, your phrasing was absolutely atrocious.”

As the Horsemaster’s jaw dropped at this unexpected rejoinder, Dorian slowly walked to stand close to the lieutenant, tapping his lips thoughtfully with steepled fingers. “Perhaps you could have used ‘the fat ass of the magister’ or ‘fat Vint’s Magister ass’.” He paused and pretended to consider it, head tilted as if in deep contemplation. “No, no, that wouldn’t do. Perhaps you should stick with ‘move it before the Magister’s fat Tevinter ass breaks it’.” He beamed at Dennet. “That rolls off the tongue much more properly, don’t you think?”

Now more than a few people were staring at him, and, to his relief, he saw a few grins appear among the sea of furrowed brows and angry glares. Dennet kept staring at Dorian, even when Dorian took advantage of the fact to step forward and clap his hand on the man’s shoulder firmly.

“Now. Here, my horsey friend,” he said with a sweeping wave of his left hand, grateful for once for the pain as the green light flickered and glowed despite the bright sunlight streaming through the windows, “we have the throne of the Inquisition, as you said. Of the Herald of Andraste. Of my dear friend, Mailani Lavellan.” He looked at it, not bothering to disguise the choking of his voice. “And you’re right. I am neither Herald, nor Inquisition, and certainly not worthy of sitting upon it, whether my buttcheeks blush or not.” That earned him a few titters from the people gathered behind him as well as from one of the guards standing next to the throne. To lessen the tension even more, he leaned in towards Dennet and said in a loud whisper, “You don’t really think my ass is fat, do you? It fits in those saddles of yours quite well, I thought.”

That earned a snort even from Dennet, though he valiantly tried to pretend it wasn’t amusement by frowning sternly. Pressing ahead with the advantage, Dorian said in a hearty voice, “What say you we turn it to face the wall, hmm?” He made a twisting gesture with his glowing hand, noting with satisfaction as the man stared at the green light. “Hard to claim any authority that’s not yours when you’re staring at a wall of bricks, wouldn’t you say?”

When Dennet didn’t reply immediately, the lieutenant dared to step forward. “With respect, Ser, Seeker Cassandra said--”

Dorian flipped his hand in a dismissive gesture, knowing it again brought all eyes upon it. He knew how rumors worked. He’d heard the bits and pieces earlier, but saw the life of those rumors in their eyes as they widened whenever the Anchor blazed and crackled. Oh, it hurt like the blazes, but it was necessary to be seen, in this case, to counter the whispers that it was all a lie, that the Inquisition was doomed. Granted, there were the other rumors still to tackle, but only one step need be taken at a time.  “Come, come, lieutenant. Lay all the blame on me, if you like, and I shan’t say any differently to the Seeker herself.” Pointing a trifle dramatically at the throne, he again clapped his hand on the Horsemaster’s shoulder. “What say you?”

Abruptly Dennet nodded. “Aye. We’ll turn it around.” He waved the crowd forward, and Dorian surged forward with them, earning some startled glances and a few approving nods. With a great deal of effort, they all turned the heavy throne around until the owl calmly faced the wall.

Once the deed was done, Dorian turned to the people around him and smiled. “There we are. No usurpers allowed.”

He watched as the crowd - which now included a fair bit more than just those who had followed the Horsemaster in the first place - heard those words, and waited for the moment when listening turned to understanding, then beyond. What he was looking for was acceptance - either of him or the idea that he wasn’t trying to replace the Herald. As the nods he was looking for began to spread through the crowd, he turned to Dennet. “The Inquisition still needs us, even if she can no longer stand here and tell us herself.” He held out his right hand. “Will you stay, for her sake?”

The words hung there for a moment, and then Dennet reached out and took Dorian’s hand in a firm shake as he nodded. “Aye, that I will. For now. Who’s to say what tomorrow shall bring?”

“Hopefully no more rifts and no more Corypheus. I rather think that would make everyone happy, don’t you think?” Dorian asked with a smile.

“That’s the Maker’s own truth,” the man grunted. For a moment, Dennet’s gaze remained on Dorian, but then he nodded. “We’ll just be on our way then.”

And… that was that. Dennet looked at the crowd still gathered around them and said, “To work! The Inquisition needs us!”

As the people slowly started to disperse, Dorian couldn’t help but wave at them with his glowing left hand, using a smile to cover the grimace of pain as he wiggled his fingers at everyone. Then they were gone - except for one. The blond man stood directly in front of Dorian, arms crossed over his chest and a little smirk on his face as he inclined his head. “You handled that well,” Cullen said. “I was just coming to deal with them myself.”

Dorian’s heart sped up slightly, his bruises not so quick to forget the events of yesterday as Cullen’s smile was. “Commander,” he said with an easy smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Had I known you were already summoned, I wouldn’t have bothered to get involved.”

“Then I’m glad you didn’t know.” Cullen glanced back at the people in the hall, then stepped closer to Dorian so he could speak in a lower voice, though his brow furrowed as Dorian instinctively swayed back from him. He glanced at the guards, then gestured to the door to his left. “Might I have a word?”

Dorian swallowed, but knew he couldn’t refuse the man. He could, however, control the situation, at least a little bit. “Of course, Commander. I was just on my way to the War Room. Perhaps you could accompany me.” He gave Cullen a nod and hurried past him, using briskness to conceal what actually felt like a retreat as he headed for the door to Josie’s office. The sound of Cullen’s boots could be heard after a beat of hesitation, but he still managed to get past the second door into Josie’s office before Cullen could corner him in that small space between. His smile faltered when he saw that Josephine wasn’t at her desk, but he quickly repaired it as he pivoted to face Cullen. “And here we are. Josephine must be in the War Room waiting for me with the others.” I will be missed if I’m late.

Cullen sighed. “Yes, I know.” His brows furrowed. “They don’t want me to join you until I’ve offered my apology.”

Join us… Pushing past the discomfort that arose with that thought, he raised an idle eyebrow. “Apology, Commander? Oh, for that little scuffle we had yesterday? Pray give it no mind. Why, I’ve had far worse than that just wandering the countryside with--” His smile faltered, and he quickly amended what he had been about to say. “Just… wandering the countryside. Have you ever run across the length of the Hinterlands with a pack of demons on your tail? I think not. I’ll be perfectly all right.”

“No, I--” Distracted, Cullen looked at Dorian with a surprised look on his face. “Wait, have you?”

“A rather ignominious series of events, Commander.” Yes, repeating the word helped keep the distance, kept the person hidden behind the title. Absently he flexed his hand as it began to itch. “Not my finest moment, I’ll admit, but someone had to play bait to give the others time to--” He stopped, then, looking at his hand with a grimace as the itch flared into sudden, sharp pain.

“Is everything quite all right?” Cullen asked. “Is the mark giving you pain?”

Shaking his hand, Dorian chuckled and held it behind his back as he shook his head. “Oh, no. Just getting used to the glow. Let’s go to the War Room, shall we?” he asked, then began to head to the back door of Josephine’s office.

Cullen took a few large steps after him, his hand landing on Dorian’s arm. “Dorian,” he said in an urgent voice.

Stepping smoothly out of the grip, he turned to face Cullen with a brittle smile on his face. “I already told you, Commander--”

“Please, just… just hear me out.” Cullen reached up and rubbed at his forehead for a moment. “There are a lot of excuses I could try to claim for my behavior yesterday, but I won’t. The truth of the matter is that I treated you abhorrently. I forgot that you were a valued member of the Inquisition and…” He stopped, then shook his head. “That sounds… that’s… Let me try again.”

“Commander, I assure you, these measures are not necessary.” You’re still who you are, and I am still what I am, and what I always shall be. “We can work together as the Inquisition demands it. I belong to it now, after all. This little glowy thing just makes it more… official.” He tried for a smile as he waved his hand in front of his face. “Just try not to break any more walls with me, would you? Skyhold is an old, crumbling heap, after all. Who knows how much damage it can take from a sufficiently determined push?” He started to turn to the door.

Cullen’s groan of exasperation halted him, and Dorian glanced back in time to see Cullen bury his face in his hands. After a few moments, the man looked up, face still pale and a bit sweaty, but with a determined expression. "It won’t happen again. Just… please. Give me a chance. I promise there won’t be a next time.”

I’ll do better next time, Father. The words popped unbidden into Dorian’s mind, part and parcel of the way he’d arranged his thoughts since deciding that his departure from his family needed to be permanent. Please, give me another chance! Ruthlessly he pushed the memory of that vulnerable little boy away, refusing to think of why it had suddenly appeared in the first place.

Mouth inexplicably dry, Dorian inhaled sharply, left hand automatically rising to knead his brow. The very touch of that green light on his face made him flinch, and he hissed softly as he pulled his hand away quickly and stared at it. “Thank you, Commander. As you may have noticed, I am apparently not a very gracious man, but I appreciate the sincerity of your words. I accept your promise.” he said softly. Clearing his throat, he said in a slightly stronger tone, “Perhaps you’d like to accompany me to the War Room, hmm? The Iron Trio will be expecting us by now, I’m sure.”

Cullen’s shoulders dropped a good two inches as Dorian spoke, but the last phrase earned a tired chuckle as he followed Dorian. “Iron Trio? I don’t even need to ask who you mean.”

“They’d be insulted if you did,” Dorian quipped as he led the way.

The meeting in the War Room turned out to be every bit as long and tedious as Dorian had feared, made worse by the not-quite-lecture Cassandra gave him regarding his handling of the situation with the throne. Although fruit and bread was already waiting for them when they arrived, the meeting stretched on long enough that more food and chairs were brought in shortly after the sun passed its peak. A while after that, Cassandra looked at Cullen and frowned. “Are you all right, Cullen?”

Cullen blinked as he looked at her from his chair, and Dorian realized it had been quite a while since he had contributed to the discussion. Though the food had improved his color initially, now he was just as pale as he had been when he’d approached Dorian this morning. Despite that, his face was gleaming with sweat, and Dorian frowned. “You’d better go take care of that headache,” he told Cullen. “Give it another hour, and you won’t be able to shake it for days.”

“And how would you know that?” Cullen snapped, then sighed and raised his hand to rub at his forehead. “My apologies. Perhaps you’re right.” He sighed, then stood. “I think you know as much as you need to about our troops and their deployment, anyway, given how few remain.” He grimaced, though this time it was more at his words than his pain. “I shall leave you to your work.”

“Cullen,” Cassandra said as the man stood, waiting until she had his attention. “Take care of yourself.” There was an odd note of caution in her voice as she said it, and Cullen nodded.

“Understood, Lady Seeker,” Cullen said, the formality odd to Dorian until he saw the little smile on Cassandra’s face as she watched the Commander leave.

Private joke, most likely. “How much more of this must I endure myself?” he asked as the door closed behind Cullen.

Josephine smiled apologetically to him. “Perhaps we could take a quick break in an hour or two?”

Dorian groaned and buried his head in his hands. “Kaffas. And I thought lectures in the Circle were bad.” With a sigh, he leaned back in his seat and glared at the map. “But we’re done with Orlais at least. What about that letter from Anora? I’d like to see that again.”

By the time he emerged from the War Room - although blessedly they’d been allowed a few breaks in the meantime - the sky was indigo, his back was stiff, and his head and hand were throbbing in pain. All he really wanted to do was go to the tavern and get a drink, or perhaps sneak a wine bottle out of the cellar and go to his room. Maybe two bottles. It’s been that sort of a day.

So when he emerged from Josephine’s office, the immediate hush which fell didn’t really register. He felt their eyes upon him, of course, but that was more obvious, even with masks, and so common as to be insignificant. Instead he just nodded to the nearest Orlesian noble - their masks made them interchangeable, really - and began to work his way through the room, unconsciously moving to the main door and the tavern before he remembered that perhaps that wouldn’t be the best idea. After all, he’d gone from Tevinter pariah to even lower. Would they even let him in? Well, the Iron Bull would drink with him, he was certain of that - the man had little subtlety in some things. Tonight, Dorian was precisely in the kind of mood which would lead him to consider things he’d never pondered before, too.

As he stood on the threshold of the main hall, trying to decide if he was tired enough to go back to his bed or awake enough to contemplate seeking another’s, the hush swelled into a quiet symphony of words. A trick of the acoustics in the hall brought the distant whispers to him, caressing his ears with hints of rumors and secrets.

...declared no usurpers. What is his game?...

...Once a Vint, always a Vint…

...clearly has the mark. He doesn’t claim authority…

...worth watching, I think. Perhaps this isn’t the end…

A little smile came to his face, unseen by anyone behind him, and he held up his left hand long enough to glance at it, flexing the pain away as it flared. “I will be her legacy,” he said softly.


Blinking, Dorian turned and saw Varric waving him over. Curious, he moved to where the dwarf stood next to the fire, moving close enough to bask in its warmth as he replied, “Varric.”

“I’ve been waiting for them to let you escape for hours now,” Varric grunted. “What did you do, have to provide examples for the class? Forget to bring enough to share? You were in there an awfully long time.”

Dorian groaned. “Oh, please don’t remind me. I really just want some wine and my bed right now. So unless you’re willing to offer the former without intruding upon the latter, perhaps we could continue this conversation at a later time?”

“Keep your pants on, Sparkler.” Varric shifted from foot to foot, and Dorian frowned slightly as he realized for the first time that Varric’s forehead was beaded with sweat.

“Varric, are you quite all right?” he asked, voice dropping slightly.

Heaving a sigh, the dwarf looked up the hall, apparently equally aware of the eyes upon Dorian at the moment. Finally, he gave a little shrug. “Look, Sparkler, I’m just here to look pretty and tell people what they need to do. And you need to go to the study in the basement.”

Dorian’s eyes narrowed momentarily. The request was… odd, to say the least, and the timing put it into an even more questionable light. “I did pay you those sovereigns I owed you, didn’t I?” Dorian asked lightly. “If not, it would be easier to simply ask for them, you know.”

That brought a grin to Varric’s face. “Don’t worry, Sparkler. If I wanted all your money, I’d just challenge you to another round of Wicked Grace.”

“I am not that poor a player,” Dorian protested.

“No, but your wineglass is,” the dwarf retorted with a smirk. “Just get going, would you? It’s… kind of important.”

Dorian frowned, though he banished it after only a moment to put the smile back on his face, all too aware of the eyes watching them. Questions raced through his mind in quick succession, but he knew that it would, in the end, come down to whether or not he trusted Varric enough to take him strictly at his word. After a momentary struggle, and an internal reminder that Varric had always been the most forthright with him in praise or insult, Dorian chuckled. “All right, if it’s that important to you. We’re still on for Wicked Grace tomorrow, yes? I have some money I don’t need anymore, after all.”

Varric visibly relaxed and laughed. “Wouldn’t miss it, Sparkler. I need some more money for paper and ink, anyway.”

With a sly wink, Dorian nodded to the dwarf. “I’d better go get some wine for it, then.” For those watching, it would provide a perfectly good reason to explain why he backtracked and headed to the door leading to the lower levels of Skyhold.

When he reached the study, he found the door slightly ajar with a light glowing within. A reluctance abruptly seized him, partly because of the mystery, but also because this had been where Mailani went when she’d wanted time alone. Her quarters were a bit too easy to find, but most people still got lost trying to find the wine cellar, so it had been ideal for her.

Finally he took a deep breath, nodded to himself, and pushed his way in.

As he passed by the bookshelves to get to the desk, his fingers idly traced along their spines. His eyes darted around in the dim light, looking for a person, or a package, or anything which would indicate why it was so important for him to be down here. When he heard the door click shut behind him, however, he pivoted quickly, calling fire to his hand as he readied it for defense or attack as necessary. “Who’s there?”

“Calm yourself,” a deep male voice said from the doorway. “I mean you no harm.”

Dorian frowned. The voice was… familiar, but not enough he could match a face to it yet. When footsteps approached, he instinctively backed up and around the desk, even if it meant he ended up cornered. When the man finally entered the light, however, Dorian straightened from his combat crouch and let the fire dim away. “Your Excellency,” he said with a bow, buying himself some time to wipe the astonished look from his face.

“Please,” the man grunted as he crossed his arms across his chest. “I get enough of that in Kirkwall. I prefer Hawke.”

Dorian rounded the desk again, though he was still a trifle wary. “I thought you and the Warden had gone ahead to the Western Approach.”

“We got bored of waiting,” Hawke noted dryly. “So we found some merchants. You know how much they love to talk. Heard about the Inquisitor and decided to come out here. Quietly, of course. Aveline’s probably sent a bloody squad out looking for me by now without Bran knowing about it.”

Dorian glanced around reflexively, a slight frown on his face. “Is the Warden here?”

“In Skyhold, yes. Said he had to go see an old friend.” Hawke frowned. “But I really came here to see you. Are the rumors true? You’ve got the mark now?”

Holding up his left hand, Dorian looked at it as a green glow filled the study before fading away. “I have the mark, but no title or authority.”

“And the Inquisition is falling apart around you, I’d imagine,” Hawke said, shaking his head. “That whole ‘Herald of Andraste’ thing was a disaster waiting to happen anyway. If it’s one thing I learned in Kirkwall, it’s never mix religion with politics. However, Corypheus is still out there, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t feel partially responsible for that. So I’m here to help.”

Dorian’s eyebrows rose, and for a moment he just stared at the man. Then he cleared his throat. “I see. Well. This just got incredibly interesting.”

Chapter Text


Cabot glanced at the mug which had been slammed onto the counter in front of him, then back up at the man who had put it there. “Are you sure, Commander?” he asked, his normally implacable voice tinged with just a hint of doubt.

With a scowl, Cullen planted his hands on the flat plank of wood between them and leaned forward, glaring at the dwarf for good measure. “Did I stutter?” he growled. The headache was making it rather difficult to concentrate, but at least the ale made him not care - about the physical or emotional pain. “Another!”

The bartender gave a little shrug and reached for the mug. “If you insist.”

Abruptly another hand reached out and snatched the mug, pulling it out of reach. “He doesn’t, actually, thanks all the same,” said a man in an easygoing voice.

Cullen rounded on whoever had come between him and his next drink. “I don’t need your--” He stopped, eyes widening when he saw who had spoken. “You!” It was like meeting a ghost from the past - a past he really would have preferred to forget.

“In the flesh. Bruised and battered as it may be,” Alistair answered with a grin. He did appear to be a bit worse for wear - the hems of his clothes still bore the mix of snow and mud common to those recently arrived at Skyhold, and a healing bruise was evident on his cheek. A griffon was emblazoned across his chest on blue and silver armor, a detail which Cullen blinked at as Alistair leaned on the counter and remarked,  “I heard tell that you’re Commander of the Inquisition Forces now. I take it you got well away from Kirkwall after that whole business with Meredith?”

“Yes… Yes, Seeker Cassandra asked me to join the Inquisition,” Cullen answered almost automatically. His gaze dropped to the griffon, then moved back up to Alistair’s face. “So they took you back, then.”

Alistair glanced down, his hand rising for a moment to splay across the griffon. “Yes, they did. Anora insisted I not return to Denerim, or 'consort' with the Bannorn. As if I'd want to," he muttered under his breath. Then he shook his head. “Never mind that. It took me a while to track you down once I got here. I certainly never expected to find you trying to get falling down drunk. Especially not after all those lectures you gave me back in the Hanged Man.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Have a place we can talk in private?”

Cullen scowled fiercely at Alistair, but when he found himself catching the edge of the counter to save himself from swaying too much, his cheeks darkened in embarrassment. “My office,” he said shortly.

It wasn’t the easiest walk back to his office, knowing that Alistair was likely watching him exactly as he'd watched Alistair back in Kirkwall. He could imagine the pity in the Warden's gaze, remembering how he'd felt to see the companion of the Hero of Ferelden, one of the Wardens who had saved Thedas from the Fifth Blight, reduced to a joke of a drunkard in a lowly Kirkwall tavern.

What am I, then? A failed Templar, a man who had helped the Viscount of Kirkwall to end Meredith's reign, perhaps, but then deserted the city. Commander of the Inquisition Forces, but with no Inquisitor to lead them. Oh, yes, a great improvement, he thought bitterly. I just waited longer to make a fool of myself.

“Careful,” Alistair said in a singsong voice as he reached out to prevent Cullen from falling as he stumbled at the bottom of the stairs leading to the ramparts. “Wouldn’t want to make that nose of yours any more red than it is.”

Fighting the urge to rub his nose, Cullen paused a moment to get his bearings, turning to Alistair to cover his momentary unsteadiness under the guise of attempting conversation. Before a word came from his mouth, however, his attention was drawn to the conversation of two men standing nearby.

"He helped turn it around?" The man's voice was incredulous. "He never did."

"That's what Detton is saying. Helped, and then ordered the guards to make sure he got any blame for it."

"Could be a trick. He's a Tevinter." The first man didn't sound so certain, though.

"Detton doesn't think so, and he's telling people the same. Don't know what's going on, but... Shit. Maybe he's not so bad?" He grabbed the first man's arm and tugged him down to the courtyard. "Talk to him yourself, you'll see."

Cullen frowned as he considered the exchange. If one of those men isn't Leliana's agent, I'll eat my cloak.

"Everything all right, Rutherford?" Alistair asked, glancing after the two men.

"Hmm?" Cullen blinked, then nodded. "Yes. It's fine. We're almost there."

Almost there took them up the stairs and into Cullen’s office, where he went straight to his recently-installed sideboard and uncovered the brandy. “Drink?”

Again a hand reached past him and took the top of the decanter from his hand and replaced it, then tugged Cullen away from the drinks with an inexorable pull towards the ladder. “No, and neither will you. Come on, let’s get you in bed.”

“‘s too early-- Ah, it is too early,” Cullen said, hastily correcting himself.

“To drink? I agree, but here you are anyway.” Alistair was clearly brooking no arguments as he dragged Cullen to the ladder. “ Now climb, or I’ll throw you over my shoulder and heave you up like a Honnleath bride.”

Cullen’s cheeks darkened, and he hastily began to climb the ladder. “I should never have told you about that,” he said darkly.

“Well, you did, and now I get to tease you about it endlessly,” Alistair called up as Cullen climbed over the edge of the platform. A pile of papers caught his attention on his bed, and he picked them up to see if it was anything which required his immediate attention. The sound of the ladder creaking didn’t really register until he heard Alistair clear his throat.

Cullen, guilt plain on his face, looked up at Alistair, standing with arms crossed and eyes narrowed. “I was just--”

“That doesn’t look like you’re going to bed,” Alistair pointed out sternly. “That looks like you’re trying to sneak in some paperwork when you’re not in the mental state to do it justice.”

Cullen glared at him, partially for invading his privacy, and partially because Alistair was absolutely right and he knew it. Still, when the man leaned over and took the papers from his hands, he didn’t object. “Since when are you my keeper?” he groused instead.

“Since the moment when you pulled me out of the gutter in Kirkwall and at least got me into the Hanged Man,” Alistair told him, pulling Cullen’s fur mantle from around his shoulders. “Even if you didn’t recognize me at the time.”

“You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” Cullen said with a sigh. Still, getting the fur off felt… good. Like something had been lifted from his shoulders. “You hardly looked like the Warden I’d seen in Kinloch Hold.” Nor was I in the state of mind to really think beyond the demons, then, anyway, he thought with a shudder.

“No, but I can hardly blame you,” Alistair mused as he began to work at Cullen’s breastplate next. “I didn’t look like that Warden, or the Templar recruit you also might have recognized. ‘Drunk bum stuck on his ass’ is a far cry from either of those.” Hefting the breastplate up, he looked around for a place to put it. “Andraste’s flaming knickers, the stand is below, isn’t it?”

Cullen finally smiled, the first genuine one since Alistair had started taking his drinks away. “‘Fraid so.”

“Maker, you don’t have to be so smug about it,” Alistair complained as he set it down next to the bed, then patted the mattress. “Sit. I’ll get those boots off.”

“I am prefe--perfectly capable of doing that myself,” he protested, then yelped as Alistair poked a finger in the middle of his chest and forced him down onto the mattress.

“I thought so too, back in Kirkwall,” Alistair told him, then crouched to wrestle the heavy boots off. “And I was as wrong as you are.”

“You’re not playing fair.” Cullen would have added more, but a wave of dizziness washed over him and he quickly put his hands on the mattress behind him to compensate.

“I’m not going to ask how many drinks you had,” Alistair said quietly as he tugged the second boot off, “or when you started drinking today. I’m not going to ask how long it’s been since you’ve had a proper rest, or looked at yourself in the mirror. I don’t need to.” Setting the boot next to the other one, he settled back to sit on his heels and met Cullen’s gaze. “I heard what happened, and I heard the other rumors.” Reaching out, he squeezed Cullen’s knee with a sympathetic look on his face. “I’m sorry.”

Cullen’s eyes squeezed shut, and he took a deep breath. “So am I,” he said softly.

Rising to his feet, Alistair settled himself onto the bed next to Cullen. “Do you have anyone to talk about her with? Anyone at all?”

After a moment of forcing himself to consider the question, Cullen finally said, “I do, I just…” His voice trailed off.

“--haven’t actually talked to anyone. No, no, I get it,” Alistair said with a sigh. “After I left the Wardens and Ferelden, it took me a long time to find anyone to talk to. Well… to listen. All the way to Kirkwall, in fact.” He glanced at Cullen. “Some fool of a Knight-Captain, actually.”

Cullen shook his head. “Truer words were never spoken.” Blinking slowly, he pushed himself forward so that his forearms rested on his knees. “I remember how I pitied you,” he admitted. “I mean, you weren’t the best Templar recruit, but you were a solid one. But then you became a Warden and had the bad luck to be with Amell.” Cullen shuddered slightly. “That man...”

“The less said of the Hero, the better,” Alistair said in a neutral tone, then frowned. “Though… that reminds me. Leliana, is she… well?”

Pressing a hand to his forehead and trying to will the growing throbbing away, Cullen asked, “How do you mean? She serves the Inquisition with dedication, as we all do.”

“It’s just that the last time I saw her, she was--” Alistair paused, then shook his head. “Maybe I’ll just talk to her myself. We did travel together for quite a long time, after all. And besides, that’s not the point, is it? The point is that… Well, you listened to me when no one else would. If you need someone to talk to…”

Craning his neck to look at Alistair, Cullen asked, “Why are you here anyway?”

“I’m the Warden who’s been working with Viscount Hawke, remember?” Alistair asked. “Fine fellow. Knows all the jokes about drunks, you should hear him when he’s on a roll.” The sarcasm in Alistair’s voice was palpable, enough to make Cullen chuckle. “But, as I learned during the Blight, you learn to work with the people who want what you want no matter how much - or little - you like them personally. So… that’s why I’m here. Because the one thing I do have left in the world, the Grey Wardens, are… well… getting into more trouble than they really are prepared to handle, and the trouble leads back to Corypheus.” He sighed and stood, beginning to pace along the bottom of the bed. “I’m not sure what the leadership of the Inquisition is like right now, but Hawke and I decided you need to know what’s happening.”

“Where’s the Viscount now?” Cullen asked, tensing up. True, he’d fought alongside the man, but that hadn’t made their relationship an easy one.

“With that mage from the Imperium. The one with that green thingie in his hand now.” Alistair paused his pacing. “Dairren?”

“Dorian,” Cullen said, then started to stand. “Dorian of House Pavus. And please tell me you didn’t leave the two of them alone together.”

When he swayed and started to tip over, Alistair quickly stepped to his side and grabbed Cullen’s arms. “This is really one of the worst places you could fall from,” he said with a deep chuckle, “and I don’t want to explain how I let the Commander of the Inquisition Forces accidentally fall to his death, all right?”

Cullen chuckled weakly as he leaned into Alistair for balance. “Not my intention.”

“So perhaps you should go to bed?” Alistair said pointedly. At Cullen’s sigh, he reached past the man and tugged down the blankets, then pushed Cullen lightly. “In you go.” As Cullen grumbled and climbed onto the mattress, Alistair asked, “Why were you so panicked about Hawke and this Dorian fellow, anyway?”

Cullen collapsed onto his stomach, eyes closing as he tried to ease the growing pounding in his head. “The Viscount… hasn’t had the best luck with mages,” he said softly.

“Huh. I don’t recall anything in particular. I mean, the man’s got a sharp tongue, but--”

“It was after you left,” Cullen said curtly. And something I definitely don’t want to talk about. “Thanks for helping me get up here,” he said in a grateful tone of voice, both for distraction and because it was the truth. “I might have done something foolish, either at the tavern or here in the office.”

Alistair grunted, and Cullen rolled over to find Alistair with his hands on his hips and staring down at Cullen’s armor. “You would have. Trust me, I know. The only difference would have been that people would forgive you for your behavior. You have good friends, Commander,” Alistair added, giving Cullen a pointed look. “You should take advantage of the fact.”

Cullen flushed at the mild reprimand, a bit of belligerence finally working its way through. “Easy enough for you to say,” he snapped. “Easy enough for anyone else to say.”

“If you think you’re the only person in the history of Thedas to lose the one person that made life worth living,” Alistair said mildly as he bent down to pick up the breastplate, “you’d better think again, Commander.” Straightening, he headed to the ladder and awkwardly lowered himself over the edge, breastplate balanced on one shoulder. “We’ll talk tomorrow, Commander. There’s a lot you need to know, when you’re capable.”

The last stinging comment found no target, as Cullen was still dwelling on Alistair’s first sentence. You’d better think again. For some reason, those words stuck in his mind, and all he could think of was Mailani smiling up at Dorian on the battlements in that odd dream he’d had the night before, and the depth of sadness in Dorian’s voice just before Cullen had awoken. The one person that made life worth living. Did Dorian have any friends? Suddenly the question seemed important to ask, even if he had no answer.

The question followed him into his dreams, making them even more restless than usual.


(Part of Alistair's Character Codex extracted from game files)


Chapter Text

Dorian wasn’t sure how long he wandered in his slumber before he realized he was in the Fade. All mages knew they visited the Fade in their sleep, of course, and learned to ward their dreams as a result. This, though, this was… different. This wasn’t his mind recalling embarrassing moments of the past, or the lure of a demon, or a nightmare of his father from which he invariably woke to lying in a pool of his own sweat. No, this was a waking dream: he walked the Fade in his sleep, a state both intriguing and quite, quite dangerous.

And highly unusual, if his own experience and study was any indication.

The landscape shifted and changed around him as he walked, though he could not perceive the pattern of the changes. One moment he saw men in armor practicing their weapon and shield work in a large room with a wooden floor, the next he saw vague figures moving through gloomy corridors with walls of large, grey bricks. The clash of swords striking shields turned into wails of horror, and the sound of his footsteps suddenly carried little splashes as he walked through pools of a dark liquid, which Dorian realized with a grimace was blood.

Random events and visions were not unheard of in the Fade, of course, so Dorian simply noted what was going on around him without taking especial heed. The sight of a man kneeling, surrounded by demons and shouting at them to stop invading his mind made the mage pause only because there was a vague familiarity somewhere in the scene. Then they vanished, replaced by a horde of rampaging Qunari destroying everything in their path in some unknown city.

It was only when a familiar face suddenly appeared that Dorian paused, arrested by the sudden appearance of what seemed to be a younger version of Viscount Hawke - the man who had occupied much of Dorian’s attention the previous day. This Hawke was angry and defiant as he glared at the man to whom he flung the words, “Mages have been systematically abused by the Templars for a thousand years.”

Dorian’s eyebrow rose, resisting the urge to interject himself into the conversation with the comment of, “Only in the south.” Partially it was because he knew he was in the Fade, but it was also because he realized that Hawke wasn’t the only familiar face in this new tableau before him.

“Mages cannot be treated like people,” declared the man in Templar armor standing across from Hawke, in a temper and tone quite familiar Dorian. Cullen seemed even more severe here in the Fade than he was in life, but the words and the conviction behind them rang true. “They are not like you and me,” Cullen continued, “They are weapons. They have the ability to light a city on fire in a fit of pique.”

Ah. Well, that explains a great deal, Dorian thought sadly. Not that Cullen had ever truly hidden his past status as a Templar, but to hear him - or even a simulacrum of him - say what seemed to be such a common southern misconception about mages… Well, it reinforced that feeling of unease he’d felt around the man. As Dorian turned away, however, Cullen cried out and fell to his knees, one hand raised as if to ward off danger.

Hawke began to laugh and circle Cullen, with every step changing until he was someone else entirely: an older woman, elegant with hard-edged pride etched into a face framed by pale hair, dressed in Templar armor and carrying a large red blade which seemed to sing. “Look at all this,” the woman snarled, gesturing around them. Dorian couldn’t help but do so, and saw more bodies, more blood, and more death. “Magic is a cancer in the heart of our land, just as it was in the time of Andraste. And like her,” the woman paused her circle around Cullen, lowering her blade to rest on Cullen’s neck, “we are left with no choice but to purify it with fire and blood.”

“No, Knight-Commander,” Cullen gasped. “We are protectors, not murderers.”

“I will not allow insubordination! We must stay true to our path!” The woman hefted her sword, then drove it down - and both woman and weapon vanished just before the blade bit into Cullen’s neck.

Dorian stepped back as the Fade changed around him once more. Oddly, Cullen remained, but he also changed: the Templar armor shifted to more familiar fur and cloth over a standard breastplate, and his face grew pinched with pain and covered with a sheen of sweat. Shakily he pulled himself to his feet, every movement speaking of a torment whose cause was hidden. “I never meant for this to interfere,” he said in a hoarse voice.

As if the words were a trigger, agony suddenly flared into life in Dorian’s left arm, and he sank to the ground with a gasp as green light consumed his hand. A cold wind swept around him for a moment, then left, carrying the pain away but leaving him shuddering on the ground.

“I believe you,” a soft voice replied, and Dorian froze for a moment as the shock of recognition coursed through him. Slowly his eyes sought the source of those simple words, though he knew who it was before he found her standing next to him, framed by odd greenish sunlight which washed out the details. It didn’t matter, of course. He’d know the voice anywhere, even in a blizzard. The ache moved from his hand and head to his heart, and he pressed his hand over his mouth, trying to remind himself that it was not Mailani who even now crossed the room to approach Cullen.

“For whatever good it does,” Cullen said in a flat voice. “Promises mean nothing if I cannot keep them. You asked what happened to Ferelden’s Circle? It was taken over by abominations.”

Tearing his gaze from Mailani, Dorian instead stared at Cullen. The Commander had been in Ferelden during the Blight, Dorian knew that, but he had never heard the details. As Cullen continued talking about his past, as Mailani comforted his pain and his confusion, Dorian found himself frowning more and more, and not simply because of what he heard. His complex mind took those words, of course, those little bits of information about Cullen, and filed them away for later pondering. More importantly, though, he came to the realization that this wasn’t some shade, or a passing spirit, or even a random occurrence of the Fade. While that wasn’t - couldn’t possibly be - Mailani, the man with her was most definitely Cullen.

Yet… how could that be? Only a somniari could walk the dreams of another, particularly without an invitation, and Dorian knew he was not such a mage. Yet, as Cullen spoke, Dorian realized that he hadn’t been seeing random scenes pulled from the ether of the Fade: he had in fact borne witness to events in Cullen’s life as the Fade had shaped itself around the man’s dreams, a feat which should have been impossible without a great deal of ritual and magical expenditure.

A change in Cullen’s tone brought Dorian’s focus back to the two in front of him, but he found he could not ignore the pain in the man’s voice. “But these memories have always haunted me. If they become worse, if I - if I cannot endure this…”

If I cannot endure this… It was like an echo, an echo that fell on Dorian’s ears as well as his mind, and slowly he turned as again the Fade shifted around him. This time, however, it was not Cullen’s mind the Fade latched onto for inspiration. No Fereldan would ever have such intimate knowledge of the estates of House Pavus in Qarinus, after all, where Dorian had spent the better part of two years locked away from the world. This room he remembered all too well, sparse as it was. Only a chair and table, a single candle, and no windows, no comfort.

No hope.

His breath caught when he saw himself, seated at that table with his face buried in his hands, trying to ignore the stern-faced man who paced around him, to hold on to his sense of self even as the harsh words and harsher disapproval struck blows at every foundation of his soul. Two years he had been held there by his father, two years of browbeating and invective and guilt and self-doubt, two years where all he had had to cling to were memories and his own thoughts.

“You’re a disgrace to House Pavus, Dorian,” Halward grated, the disappointment evident in his voice. It was not the first time Dorian had heard it, of course - it had been a running theme in the privacy of their estates for many years. But hearing his father say it each and every day somehow did not make the words sting any less, and it was but a part of the lashing his father had heaped upon him during those two years.

Dorian forced himself to breathe slowly as he watched Halward lean onto the table, pressing in close so that the man seated there could not possibly ignore his words. “I raised you to be the next Archon, and instead you’ve become the laughingstock of the Imperium. Feckless, selfish, and thoughtless: that is what you are now.” He paused, as if waiting for a reaction. When he received none, he leaned even closer and growled, “Useless.”

Dorian remembered his thoughts in that moment. It had been days since he’d been allowed out from that room, a last push to try to get him to succumb to Halward’s will before resorting to more extreme measures. No sleep, little food, and no alcohol had left his thoughts scattered and dim. He remembered the warring urges to either blast his father with magic or to beg for forgiveness. Somehow, he had managed to simply do nothing, to endure.

“Very well, Dorian.” Moving to the door, Halward set his hand on the wood before stopping to look back at his son. “You leave me no choice.” Even now, the sense of finality in the words sent a shiver up Dorian’s spine, made that much worse as he recalled the precise nature of his father’s last resort, and what the man had been willing to do to force Dorian to obedience.

Halward left the room, slamming the door behind him, and Dorian watched as the man at the table lifted his head from his hands to reveal wet cheeks and reddened eyes. Unconsciously, Dorian reached up to wipe his own dry cheeks in a mirrored motion with his younger self as their lips moved in concert: “If I cannot endure this, I will cease to be.”

The room abruptly disappeared around him. His ears filled with the sound of the wind whistling over the battlements of Skyhold, while an odd green sunlight replaced the dimness of the single candle. He didn’t move, though, not sure what to think of what was happening, until he heard Mailani’s voice once more from behind him. “Is it always that bad?”

For the briefest of moments, Dorian thought she was talking to him, and the thought made Dorian smile despite the ache. When he turned around, however, it was to see Mailani settle her hand on Cullen’s arm, a little line of worry marring her forehead. She had worried about Cullen quite a bit, after all, a fact which Dorian had teased her about frequently.

“The pain comes and goes,” the Commander replied. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m back there. I should not have pushed myself so far that day.”

Mailani smiled and reached out to touch his cheek gently. “I’m just glad you’re all right.”

A smile came to Cullen’s face as he looked at her before turning to take in the vistas around Skyhold. “I am. I never told anyone what truly happened to me at Ferelden’s Circle. I was… not myself after that. I was angry. For years, that anger blinded me. I’m not proud of the man that made me. Now I can put some distance between myself and everything that happened.”

Dorian stared at the man as he heard words coming from Cullen’s mouth which could so very easily have come from his own. He’d escaped Qarinus, yes, but he’d never truly managed to escape his own past, both who he’d been and what he’d done. The decision to come to Ferelden, to seek out Alexius, had been an attempt to break the cycle he often lost himself to, the futility of seeking pleasure and finding only emptiness.

It had been Mailani who, gentle and encouraging, had pulled him from that cycle and given him a new focus, a new purpose: a worthy life. It could be argued that the Inquisition was his new purpose, but truly, all he had wanted was to ease Mailani’s burden. For all the reasons they should have hated each other, the Tevinter mage and the Dalish archer, she had found and cultivated the one reason for them not to: friendship.

His eyes stung as he watched her with Cullen, watched her smile and ease his pain as she had with Dorian, though he did avert his gaze when she leaned in to kiss the Commander tenderly. Watching such a tender moment seemed an invasion, even if only one of the people in front of him was real.

As he glanced away, the urge to leave the Fade settled over him. In all honesty, he should have departed long ago. He was a mage, after all, and there were techniques for leaving the Fade without resorting to brute force or waiting to wake up.

Drawing his wits about him, Dorian concentrated on getting out of the Fade, forcing his mind down the path which would put him back in his body in the waking world and out of the land of dreams. It wasn’t until he’d reached the clarity he needed to return to Thedas that the suspicion about the true nature of the mark on his hand, a suspicion which had sprung into being that morning in his bedroom, abruptly returned full force, and he whipped around to look at Mailani.

Cullen was still gazing at the world beyond Skyhold, but Mailani’s eyes were latched onto Dorian. Instinctively the mage reached out to her with his left hand, and her own lifted in response. For a moment, the green light in their palms pulsed and glowed with the same rhythm, the same heartbeat, and then her mouth moved in a whisper, the words terrifyingly audible even at this distance and despite the nature of the Fade itself.

I’m so sorry.

Then, without further ado, Dorian was plucked from the Fade and flung back to the waking world.

Chapter Text

Air rushed into Dorian's lungs as he woke from that push out of the Fade, eyes flying open even as his left hand flared with pain. Mailani?

"Does it always do that in the morning?" a deep voice asked from nearby. "Your hand, I mean, before you get any funny ideas."

Dorian started, then yelped as that little twitch made him to roll out of bed and onto the floor. Bare skin struck cold wood, and he quickly wrenched himself to his feet, eyes wide as he stared at the man lounging in his bed. The naked man lounging in his bed, a blanket pulled up in a semblance of modesty that seemed to ill fit him. "Hawke?"

"Back to using family names already? Was last night such a terrible ordeal?" The man chuckled, his eyes roaming over Dorian's body. "I suppose Hawke is better than Viscount, at that." Before the mage could respond, though, Hawke’s eyes settled on the green glow at Dorian's side. "It wasn't doing that last night. Not when we were otherwise occupied, anyway."

"Didn't it?" Dorian asked, mind racing. The dream had been so thoroughly distracting that he had to force himself to recollect the night leading up to it. At first all he could remember was the drinking, but then he remembered the rest of it, and cleared his throat to cover the abrupt memory. "Ah, I wouldn't know." The words slipped out before he could stop them, though Hawke's boisterous laugh made him smile. "That…wasn't precisely what I meant to say."

Hawke snorted. "Trust me, if we're going to exchange tales of pathetic love lives, I would win the contest, title, and crown in the matter, especially when it comes to mages." For a moment, Hawke's face darkened, and he quickly looked away. "But I'm sure you don't want to hear about that."

Though tempted to let the matter lie, Dorian couldn't help but wonder - and the specification of mages had him a little concerned, based on what had happened last night. Slowly he settled down on the bed again, a little frown on his face. "You'll forgive me if I pry, but--"

Hawke waved the comment off, sighing heavily. "No, no, I'm used to people being curious. You simply have a better reason than most to ask." He turned back to Dorian, hazel eyes just as arresting now as they had been after they'd shared a few drinks in the secret study the day before. "Anders was my lover."

Dorian's brows rose. He wasn't as intimately aware of the details surrounding the conflict between the Southern mages and Templars as perhaps he should be, but even he knew of the explosion in Kirkwall, and the name of the man who had caused it. And his ultimate fate. "I--I never knew."

"I didn't want it to become part of his story. I don't think he would have appreciated it." Hawke frowned, his gaze growing distant as he continued, "I'm Viscount of Kirkwall, sometimes called Champion, and Anders traveled with me. That is common knowledge, but that’s not all we were. We were lovers, then more. Or so I thought - sometimes it was hard to tell. For every tender moment, there was a vicious argument to go with it. Mages were mistreated, yes, but his methods, his rhetoric…I could only go so far with him down that path. Justice..." Hawke's face twisted, and he fell silent for a long while. When Dorian opened his mouth to ask if Hawke would prefer to speak no further on the matter, Hawke reached out and set his finger on Dorian's lips, silencing the effort. "Never forget that justice can all too easily turn to vengeance," he said softly.

Sensing that Hawke was waiting for an answer, Dorian nodded slowly. Only then did Hawke lower his hand, a grim look on his face. "I had nothing to do with his actions against the Chantry. He refused to discuss his plans with me, because he knew what my response would be. And he was right." Hawke sighed. "I'm not proud of what I did, though I cannot say I truly regret my decision. But it seemed better, afterwards, for people not to know of what had been between the two of us. Let his legacy remain as a martyr against the Chantry, for the Circle. I don't need to be part of it."

Dorian remained silent for a long while, considering the other man carefully. Their nakedness leant a certain vulnerability to the situation, despite what Hawke had just confessed, and he felt a grudging sympathy where otherwise he might have felt none. Finally Dorian cleared his throat. "You'll understand if I don't condone your action, but I think you might be wrong about saying you do not regret it."

"Oh, I regret his death. I regret the need for it. But my decision? No." Hawke shook his head. "That I cannot regret, or I would be tacitly approving the deaths of hundreds of innocents. You weren't there, Pavus. You didn't see what he did, what he set into motion."

"Perhaps not, Hawke, but I have seen quite a bit of the conflict since arriving in the South," Dorian pointed out. "Certainly you can't expect me to accept that condemning a mage to eternal confinement is a reasonable response for them being born with the ability to light a candle with a flick of their fingers." He did so, a minute motion that set alight the candles spread throughout the room.

Hawke wrinkled his nose, then sighed. "Family names it is, then. Still, I suppose there are worse ways to end a long drought. For what it’s worth, it is not magic itself I fear. Having a father and a sister who were both mages will do that for you. I had my reasons, though, for all of it. Don't we all?" With a shrug, Hawke rolled out of bed. "So you'll set up a meeting with your Advisors, then? They'll want to hear what we discussed last night. You know." Hawke gestured around the room. "Before the wine came up with better ideas."

"Clever wine," Dorian murmured as he glanced at the haphazard scattering of clothing, empty bottles, and toppled furniture. Clever, perhaps, but not wise. "And yes, I'll set up a meeting. Where will I be able to find you?"

"That little underground study works as well as any other place," Hawke said with a shrug as he began to pick up his clothes. "Though I would appreciate it if you could set aside some quarters for me. I believe you even mentioned something along those lines before dragging me in here."

"Naturally. I'll arrange for them right away, Your Grace," he said in a teasing tone. He wanted to keep things friendly, so as to avoid antagonizing the man. Hawke was the Champion of Kirkwall, after all. Still, Dorian he couldn't deny he'd be happier to see the man gone from his room. What had seemed a brilliant idea while under the haze of alcohol seemed far less so in the bright light of a new morning, particularly after such an unsettling conversation.

"Good." As Hawke pulled on his clothes, he glanced up at Dorian. "And I'd appreciate it if you would keep that particular conversation to yourself. As I said, I'd prefer to keep my relationship with Anders out of his story. Even Varric respects that decision."

Even Varric? Odd way to put it. "I give you my word that none shall learn of it from me," he promised somberly. His next words were much lighter in tone. "Though I wouldn't recommend it for general morning after conversation material for you."

Hawke laughed loudly at that, then winked at Dorian. "I'll keep that in mind. You know, in case I have any other ill-advised one night stands." Hawke shifted to look in the mirror, running his fingers through his hair to attempt some semblance of order. "Not that I have anything against you, mind, but I think we both might have reconsidered had the wine not been flowing quite so freely."

"Enjoyable as it was, I tend to agree. I'm not really in a position for--" Dorian paused, unsure how to phrase it without offering possible insult.

"Compromise, political or otherwise. I understand." Hawke turned to face him, leaning back against the bureau with his arms folded in front of him. "I envy the man who ultimately ends up in your bed, but for now we should both avoid compromise of any sort. Which is why I hope you remember my request."

Dorian was impressed. There weren't many with enough authority in their tone in such a situation to turn a favor into an order without actually saying so. Ignoring the thinly veiled threat, he simply smiled and nodded in return. "Naturally. My memory is, after all, as perfect as the rest of me. Or not, when necessary." He put a finger to his lips to indicate his intent to remain silent on the matter, and offered a cheeky wink to Hawke.

Hawke's shoulders lowered just a small amount, and he nodded. "I'll see you later, then. Oh, and make sure Alistair is at the meeting, too. He's the Warden who's traveling with me, if you recall. He's not the most reliable fellow in the world, but he knows more about the Wardens and their problems than I do. Your Advisors will want to hear what he has to say."

"Noted," Dorian said with a nod.

"For now I'll leave you to your normal morning routine." Pushing himself away from the bureau, Hawke headed towards the door, then paused for a moment. "And keep in mind what I told you yesterday. Your position is precarious here. Wishes and rainbows aren't going solve your problems." He looked over his shoulder at Dorian. "You need me."

And with that lingering in the air behind him, Hawke left the room.

Dorian took a deep breath and collapsed back on the bed. It had been a long time since he'd had such an ill-advised liaison. "Fasta vass," he muttered under his breath. The headache he'd been ignoring since being pushed from his dream suddenly came raging to the fore, and he winced. "Maker preserve me, but I hope I don't come to regret this."

After another few seconds of fretting, Dorian's left hand began to throb, and reflexively Dorian groaned and began to move. "All right, all right, I'm getting up," he grunted. As he gained his feet, he idly wondered why he'd reacted in quite that manner. The change from horizontal to vertical made the pain in his head spike, however, so he dismissed the odd thought and stumbled to where he stored the elfroot tincture he kept for just such occasions.

Despite the ache in his head, though, he knew precisely who he was going to visit once he was ready. And it wasn't the Iron Trio. The very idea of discussing his rather unwise liaison with any of those three ladies filled him with dread, particularly Cassandra. No, no, best to seek out another expert first.

He found Varric standing in front of the fireplace in his little corner of the Hall that most now called the Storyteller's Corner. The dwarf seemed to be in a pensive mood, hands clasped behind his back as he watched the flames dance and flicker, and normally Dorian would have left the dwarf to his own devices. This morning, however, that simply was not an option.

Still, he had to be cautious: the eyes were on him once again. Watching, waiting, perhaps even hoping for Dorian to make that one mistake they could use against him. Hawke hadn't been wrong, unfortunately, about Dorian's precarious position, and Dorian kept that in mind as he entered the Hall and moved to Varric's side, each movement a study of a man at ease and quite cheerful. Normally, of course, he would have headed to the library, or, more recently, to the War Room, but Varric had enough visitors that his own presence shouldn't raise too many eyebrows. Or so he hoped.

As he came to a halt next to Varric, he mimicked the dwarf's posture and settled his hands behind his back. "A word?"

Varric grunted and glanced up at him. "I was wondering when I'd see you again."

Dorian reddened slightly, something about the twinkle in the dwarf's gaze making him wonder if perhaps the relocation to his room last night had, indeed, been observed by someone. "If you don't have time--"

"No, I have time, Sparkler. I have plenty of time." Varric casually glanced to the main door, then gave a little shrug. "I wouldn't mind stretching my legs. Why don't we go check out the ramparts? Isn't that one of your duties now? To make sure they're…I don't know, impregnable or something?"

"An excellent point, my dear Varric," Dorian said, knowing full well that Varric would never suggest such a thing unless he wanted to make sure they weren't overheard. "I'm not quite sure why I haven't thought of that all-important duty. Shall we?" He gestured to the door.

They chatted amicably about books and past bets as they strolled down into the courtyard and then up to the battlements. Dorian nodded and smiled at the guards they passed, more than a bit surprised when most of them smiled back. That certainly hadn't been the case before. Though curious, his time with Varric was important enough that he couldn't really stop to pursue the matter. He did, however, tuck it away into his complicated mind for later analysis.

Varric led him to a part of the battlements that was more a landing than a rampart, and moved to lean on the wall where it overlooked the courtyard. As Dorian settled in beside him, Varric said softly, "This is where Mailani met Hawke for the first time."

That got Dorian's immediate attention, of course, though he kept his reaction reserved. "Ah, yes, Hawke. Quite the fellow, isn't he?"

"That's one way to describe him, yeah." Varric drummed his fingers on the stone for a moment. "There are others, of course."

"Oh, certainly. Confident comes to mind." When Varric only snorted and shook his head, Dorian continued his list. "Knows how to handle authority. Intimidating. A bit…dangerous for mages, perhaps."

Varric didn't immediately respond to Dorian's fishing, but he did sigh and shift his footing. When he next spoke, Dorian recognized the caution in his voice. "One doesn't become Viscount of a city like Kirkwall easily. That business with the Chantry…It left shadows, you know?"

"I can well imagine," Dorian assured him. "It would be difficult to recover from something like that."

"Especially for Hawke." He frowned. "Except…not really. You have to know him as well as I do to know why, of course." He glanced up at Dorian, and his voice got softer. "Did he mention Blondie?" Then, before Dorian could ask him to clarify, he added, "The Chantry guy."

Dorian just dipped his head in a short, curt nod, and Varric heaved another sigh.

"That's what I thought. I saw you two together last night, and…” Varric gave Dorian a sidelong glance. “No offense, Sparkler, but you looked like you weren't really the one making the decisions."

Wincing, Dorian fought the urge to rub his neck. "The Viscount and I may have shared a bottle or two of some rather excellent wine, yes."

"Uh huh. Well…I'm not one to judge, and Hawke isn't a good target for that kind of thing anyhow. But you've been a good Wicked Grace partner--"

Dorian snorted. "Which means you've been able to fleece me out of enough money to pay for all your writing materials for a year."

That made Varric grin. "Maybe. The point is that you've been…well, a friend. And I don't have a lot of those." His eyes narrowed, and he muttered, almost too quiet for Dorian to hear, "Hawke made sure of that." Before Dorian could comment, he looked back up at Dorian. "I don't think it's a good idea to go into too much detail, but let's just say that you should be cautious around Hawke. Really cautious."

"The kind of cautious that avoids stumbling into my room with him in the wee hours of the morning?" Dorian guessed.

"Especially that kind of cautious, yeah." A grimace crossed Varric's face, though it faded back to a neutral expression quickly enough. "Look, he and I, we went through some serious shit in Kirkwall together, and he's saved my life a few times, but…" Varric looked guilty for a moment, then shook his head. "You're a mage. I'm just saying…be careful, okay? You're doing a pretty good job at getting a handle on the whole Inquisition thing. Don't make a mistake just because the Champion of Kirkwall has decided to grace us with his presence. Fair enough?"

Nodding slowly, Dorian puffed his cheeks full of air. "Quite." He paused, not entirely certain that his next question was wise. Finally, he gave in to the impulse and asked, "I rather think it important that I know more about the shit, as you called it. Can you--"

"Not yet," Varric said, cutting him off. "Later. When you're-- When the time is right, you know?"

Interesting answer. It was one Dorian had to accept, however, and he did so with a gracious inclination of his head. "Naturally. What better time could there possibly be?"

Varric chuckled as he pushed himself upright. "Right. Trust me, when that time arrives, we'll be talking again. Until then, we'll just talk about how much money you owe me." He offered a sly grin. "I'll even split a bottle of wine with you next time we play Wicked Grace, because I'm just that kind of guy."

"Oh, thank you, how generous of you," Dorian drawled as he, too, straightened. "I'll keep that in mind the next time I want to wake up with a hole in my coin purse."

"Any time, Sparkler. Any time," Varric said expansively.

As they turned and, by mutual unspoken agreement, headed back to the courtyard, Dorian said in a hushed whisper, "Thank you, Varric. I will be cautious."

"Good," the dwarf replied just as quietly.

They didn't speak again, though Varric gave him a friendly enough nod before he left Dorian in the courtyard to return to his normal spot in the Hall.

With a pensive sigh, Dorian glanced at the door of Cullen's office. The man had been in Kirkwall, after all - perhaps he would be able to offer yet another perspective on Hawke. As he mounted the steps to Cullen's office, however, the door opened and a vaguely familiar man stepped outside, blinking up at the bright sun for a moment.

That man... "Warden Alistair?" Dorian called, hurrying up the remaining steps.

"That's me," Alistair said cheerfully, then tilted his head. "Hang on, you're that mage, right? The one with the funny hand thing."

Dorian pressed his lips together in amusement, then chuckled and nodded. "In the flesh, even if it glows on occasion." Lifting his left hand, he flexed his fingers as the familiar green light emerged and swirled around him.

For a moment, he thought he heard a soft giggle, but the impression quickly passed as Alistair leaned closer and grunted. "Huh. And I thought I'd seen it all. Does it hurt?"

The question distracted him away from the momentary oddity, and he focused on Alistair, then his hand, as he considered his answer. "Hmm? Oh." Did it hurt? The better question would be, Did it ever not hurt? The first few days of agony aside, there was never a moment when he forgot about the mark. Even if the ache was dull and distant, he was still aware of it with every breath and pulse of blood through his body. Did it hurt? How could he answer that? "It can be a bit of an inconvenience, but on the other hand, I don't need a light spell to read in the dark anymore."

Alistair's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and Dorian knew the Warden had recognized the evasion. Rather than challenge it, though, Alistair just grunted. "That actually sounds familiar," he said cryptically, then turned as the office door opened behind him. "Ah, Cullen. I was beginning to think you'd gotten stuck to that desk again. I was ready to ask our friend here to help me pry you out."

Cullen chuckled as he shut the door behind him. "I don't think that will be necessary. Leliana and the Ambassador have taken to leaving little notes mixed in with the reports. Don't forget to take a walk. Or Time for some fresh air." As Alistair and Dorian laughed, Cullen shook his head. "I'm just waiting for Cassandra to catch on and start leaving me little reminders to eat."

"Are you sure you only have one sister, Commander?" Dorian asked with a teasing grin.

"Oh, Maker, don't remind me," Cullen groaned. "And I have two, actually, though only Mia is stubborn enough to track me down every time I forget to write her." He looked at Dorian curiously. "How did you know about my sister, anyway? I don't recall telling you about my family."

Dorian paused, mouth slightly open, as he tried to remember. "I'm not sure, actually. Perhaps I overheard it. I didn't always stay ensconced in my little niche of the library, after all."

"Perhaps not, but you emerge from it about as often as I leave my desk," Cullen said with a grin. "At least according to Mai--" The grin faded, and Cullen cleared his throat as he looked out over the mountains. "That's not important right now," he said quietly.

An awkward silence fell over the trio, during which Alistair reached over and wordlessly put his hand on Cullen's shoulder. When Dorian inhaled to say something, Alistair shook his head slightly, and Dorian subsided, waiting for Cullen or Alistair to speak.

After a few moments, Cullen took a deep breath and reached up to squeeze Alistair's hand before removing it from his shoulder. "Thank you."

"Remember what I told you," Alistair said. "Don't keep it bottled inside. Talk about her. Find someone who cared about her and let it out. It will help. I promise."

"It does help," Dorian offered. "I've talked with some of the others. It hurts," Maker, did it hurt, especially at first, "but I think she would prefer you not to hold it within." A sad smile settled on his face as he became wistful for the presence of his dearest friend. "She never was one for keeping her emotions hidden, remember?"

Cullen chuckled as he bowed his head. "No. No, in fact, I remember one time when she--"

When he paused, Alistair nodded encouragingly. "Go on."

"I..." Cullen reached up to rub the back of his neck, then smiled. "I was just thinking of that time she got angry at that merchant. Remember that?"

Dorian laughed. "The one who thought he could use one donkey instead of three to bring that overladen wagon of supplies to Skyhold? Oh, yes. I almost felt more sorry for the merchant than the donkey when she was done with him. Almost."

"After she finished yelling at him in front of everyone in Skyhold, I doubt anyone had sympathy for him. I was sorry for Josephine, though. She was the one who had to make sure the merchant’s displeasure didn’t leave the mountain." Cullen smiled, an expression overlaid with sadness, then looked at Dorian. "You were looking for me?"

"Ah, both of you, actually," Dorian said, pulling his mind back to the present. "Hawke wants to have a meeting with all of us. We three and the Iron Trio, at any rate."

"The Iron-- Oh, the three ladies?” Alistair ventured, then smiled when Dorian tapped his nose and pointed at him to indicate he had guessed correctly. “Right. So we’ll discuss the situation with the Wardens, then?"

"Among other things, yes. I thought perhaps we could meet in half an hour? That should give us time to gather everyone."

"Or sooner than that," Cullen said, then began issuing clipped orders. "Alistair, you can find Leliana in the top floor above the library - any servant can take you there. I'll fetch Cassandra. Josephine will, of course, be in her office - not difficult to find. Dorian, you find Hawke and bring him to the War Room. I think it better to discuss the matter as soon as may be, since we have already been delayed."

"Yes, Commander," Dorian said, then gave the man a cheeky salute.

Cullen feigned an impressive glower at Dorian. "Just get going, soldier. I'd better not be kept waiting!"

Dorian laughed as he turned. "I wouldn't dream of it," he called back over his shoulder as he descended the stairs.

Still, as he made his way through Skyhold - first to Josephine, so that she could arrange some quarters for Hawke, and then to the secret study to fetch the man himself - he had to wonder at his choice of phrasing. His dreams the night before… It was Cullen, I'm certain of it. But how?

The thought made his hand twitch, and he glanced down at it, brows beetling. He'd had a pressing thought when he'd woken up, a thought which had been abruptly overwhelmed by the discovery of a naked Hawke in his bed. As he rolled his fingers and the green light pulsed, the core idea returned to him, and again he had to ponder: how had he gotten the mark?

And again, he put the question aside. Later. He would ponder the matter later.

"So you're saying the Inquisition will do nothing about the Grey Wardens?" Alistair asked in a tight voice.

They had all gathered around the War Table, which was large enough to accommodate the additional numbers with ease. Refreshments had been brought but largely ignored as a discussion of the Wardens had quickly turned a bit more heated than Dorian had expected. Hawke stood with his arms across his chest, face impassive, as Alistair leaned against the table and glared at the Inquisition's Advisors, sparing not even Cullen.

"No, Warden Alistair," Josephine replied calmly in the face of the man's accusation. "I am saying we cannot. Our financial situation is poor, our troop numbers are diminished in size, and we have very few political favors upon which we can call to make up for that lack. The death of Inquisitor Lavellan dealt the Inquisition a serious blow, and it is one from which we are still recovering."

Hawke grunted and shook his head. "That's what you get for putting all your hopes on that little elf. Did you really not have a backup plan?" When that dismissive tone earned the Viscount a few icy stares from around the room, he put up his hands defensively. "All right, perhaps I could have worded that a little more nicely, but the fact remains that all of you pinned the hopes of Thedas on one person. That's always a bad idea, especially when you put religion into the mix. Believe me, I know." He nodded to Alistair, whose face was grim. "So does Warden Alistair and, I daresay, you, Lady Leliana. You don't have any coalition, you relied far too much on morale and religious fervor to inspire the troops, and now you're paying the consequences."

"Are you quite finished, Viscount?" Cassandra said in clipped tones.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think that the Inquisition is exactly what Thedas needs right now. Maker, as long as it's anyone but me, I'm all for it. And you had a promising start - there's nothing to say that you can't rebuild what's been lost.” Pausing, Hawke looked around the table at each person in turn. “You just have to figure out how to do that."

"And what, precisely, do you propose we do?" the Seeker demanded. "We have lost the support of the Chantry, our Templar allies are greatly weakened, and the mages have joined with the enemy. Our options are limited. Berating us about decisions we made in the past does little to aid us now."

Dorian had never heard Cassandra speak quite so coldly, save perhaps for the time he'd accidentally frozen her with a Winter's Grasp spell. Either Hawke's comments had really gotten under her skin, or he had already been there before the meeting had even started. Didn't Mailani mention something about Varric telling Cassandra all about the events in Kirkwall? If that were true, and the events were as unsavory as the dwarf had hinted…Well, that was definitely a matter for later consideration.

Pulling his thoughts back to the meeting at hand, he cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. When they had all turned to him, some with surprise on their faces, he smiled faintly, then tried to ease the chill in the room. "Is it really a surprise when I wish to contribute something to the discussion? I thought everyone knew how fond I am of the sound of my own voice." When that earned him some grudging smiles, he continued. "At any rate, it is an excellent question. What is the Inquisition to do? I am not the Inquisitor, nor do I wish to be. That title belongs to Mailani, to the Herald of Andraste. However, like Andraste herself, Mailani would not wish her works to fail simply because she has left this world."

Sensing he had everyone's undivided attention, Dorian turned to Leliana and Cassandra, who stood next to each other. "We must find a way to reinvigorate the faithful. Would it be possible to change our narrative from the Inquisitor being guided by Andraste's hand to the Inquisition? I don't think we'll ever convince anyone that I was chosen by Andraste, but perhaps we could persuade them to view the organization as such. We do have the writ of the last Divine, do we not?"

Cassandra nodded. "Justinia entrusted her Right and Left Hands with the writ, believing we would use it for the good of the Chantry - even if the Chantry, currently, does not hold the same belief."

"And it is something concrete, something physical, linking the Inquisition to the Divine, to the legitimate voice of the Chantry," Leliana said in a musing tone. "We were so focused on promoting the Herald of Andraste as the Inquisitor, we have perhaps neglected our task in establishing the authority of the Inquisition itself." Her long fingers tapped thoughtfully at her chin. "I have been distracted for too long in chasing rumors surrounding the Inquisitor's death. That is a message my agents can disperse." She looked at Josephine. "I will need your aid to craft it, of course, but he is right. That should be our task."

Josephine nodded thoughtfully, her pen tapping her clipboard. "For a message such as that, there may be one or two clerics whom I can contact. While they would never enthusiastically support a Tevinter," she smiled apologetically at Dorian, who gave her a little what can you do? shrug, "they might extend their names to bolster the Inquisition as a whole, particularly if we emphasize Divine Justinia's writ." Her face grew thoughtful. "And we must not let Mailani's name fail. As Dorian said, Andraste herself did not lose the war after her death. Perhaps we could extend that belief to encompass Her Herald."

Cullen grimaced. "That smacks of religious manipulation. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with Mailani’s memory being used in such a fashion."

"It does," Josephine replied with a sympathetic look on her face, "but if it helps us save Thedas, then we must not discount it as a possibility."

"I know, I just..." He sighed and shook his head.

Josephine's face softened. "Perhaps we could use it only if necessary?" she suggested, then turned to Dorian. "Do you have any more suggestions for us?"

Dorian, who had figuratively stepped back while they talked amongst themselves, nodded. "Commander," Dorian said, turning to Cullen. "You need to keep doing what you've been doing: promoting order in a world gone mad. The Hinterlands are free of mages and templars, but refugees in the Hinterlands still fill the Crossroads and Redcliffe both. As the Inquisition regains lost ground and the troops surge in number once more, I trust you to continue the task set on you by Inquisitor Lavellan. Keep the peace, and keep the populace safe."

Cullen straightened, splaying his hand on his chest as he bowed slightly. "Of course. I will not fail her memory."

Knowing that, to Cullen, those words were a stronger invocation than the name of the Maker himself, Dorian accepted the Commander's response with a nod, then moved on to the next person. "Viscount Hawke."

"Somehow I knew you'd think of me," Hawke said with a grin.

"How could I not?" Dorian said, winking in return. "You have said you wish to help the Inquisition, have you not? It seems the time has arrived for us to call in those favors which haven't yet been negotiated."

Hawke raised an eyebrow. "You're going to ask for an alliance, aren't you?"

"Actually, I'm going to suggest that you act in both your roles: as Viscount and as Champion."

"Oh, this ought to be good." Hawke settled his arms on his chest again. "All right, let's hear what you have to say."

Dorian nodded. "As Viscount, you could offer an alliance which would be to our distinct advantage, particularly given the strong connections we each have to the Templars, you in Kirkwall and the Inquisition in Orlais. As Champion, you are beloved by the people." He laughed when Hawke and Cullen snorted in unison. "Deny it all you like, but the general populace hears the term Champion, and they don’t stop to wonder why he's called that. The important thing is that you're a hero to them. If you were to endorse the Inquisition directly, and in a manner that our lovely Ambassador and cunning Spymaster can swiftly turn to our advantage, that would be of immeasurable value in lifting our sinking ship from the cold waters. Don't you agree?"

"I do. I just thought I would be the one who would have to suggest it." Hawke inclined his head. "You'll have your alliance, and your endorsement. I just don't want to be the only one doing all the heavy lifting."

"Perish the thought," Dorian said, putting his hand over his heart. Turning to Alistair, he added, "And you can help our Ambassador. You were in Ferelden in the Fifth Blight, after all. That was the last time the Grey Wardens called in those treaties of theirs, yes?"

Alistair blinked, obviously caught by surprise. "Yes, I was, but what does that have to do with the present situation? We're not in a Blight."

Dorian's eyebrows rose. "Hawke did tell you that the leader of this army we are up against is, in fact, one of the first darkspawn? One of the very magisters who dared to enter the Golden City and thus, according to your Chantry, brought the Blights to Thedas? A man, in fact, who may have an influence over the Grey Wardens not terribly unlike the influence the Archdemon has over the hordes in the Deep Roads?" He gestured to Alistair with a bow. "Perhaps you could explain to the class why the Treaties would not apply in this case?"

"It's not-- I mean, he's not--" Alistair paused, face turning thoughtful. "I'll admit I didn't view it in quite that light."

"We have already attempted to use the Treaties to garner support, but recent events halted my progress," Josephine added. "With Warden Alistair’s assistance - the same Grey Warden who fought at the side of the man who stopped the Fifth Blight - I am certain we could use the Treaties to the Inquisition's advantage."

Alistair's back straightened, and his expression grew determined. "As long as you're willing to protect me from the Grey Wardens who might come looking for me, I'll do that. It's better than waiting around doing nothing."

"You will have our full support in the interim," Josephine assured him. "And remember, all these efforts are to ensure the Inquisition has the wherewithal to help you investigate the Grey Wardens."

"I find it impossible to believe that Corypheus is not involved, considering what you told the Inquisitor," Dorian interjected. "We dare not be at anything less than our best when we return to the Western Approach to confront the Wardens."

That elicited a weary sigh from Alistair. "I don't like it, but I get it." His head bowed for a moment, and then he looked up at Dorian. "And when the Inquisition is back to full strength?"

Though Alistair likely didn't recognize the tension he'd just created, Dorian did, and the mage only had an instant to decide how to react. Dorian could either decide the Inquisition's role, consult with the Advisors, or give the matter over to them entirely. Each choice had a different nuance regarding his self-perceived role within in the Inquisition, in both the present and the future. Mailani, as much as he adored her, would simply not have realized the true nature of this inadvertent test.

And Dorian was not the only one who saw it.

In that moment before he responded, he knew why Josephine's fingers tightened around her quill, why Hawke smirked and Leliana frowned. He'd spent the last few days so carefully avoiding the idea of authority within the Inquisition that he'd managed to convince himself that a green glow in his palm meant little more than being turned into a glorified errand boy.

Yet he had been the one to step forward in this meeting, issuing orders and deciding how best to build the Inquisition's strength. Surely he couldn't deny that implied a bit of assumed authority on his part.

So what would he do?

A gentle smile came to his face. The answer was simple, really, though it was, itself, another question: what would Mailani do?

With a nod, he turned to the Iron Trio and Cullen. "I believe once the Inquisition has returned to its former strength that we should aid Warden Alistair. Thoughts?"

Josephine and Leliana exchanged a glance, and something subtle relaxed in the latter's stance. After a small nod from the others, the Ambassador turned back to Dorian. "I believe that would be the best course of action for the Inquisition, yes."

Dorian nodded, accepting his part of the now shared authority, and turned to Alistair. "There you have it. The Inquisition will stand with you."

"Thank you," Alistair told him sincerely.

Setting his hands on his hips, Hawke looked pointedly at Dorian. "And what will you be doing while we're all running around like nugs in a thunderstorm?"

"I rather think it's time I started pulling my own weight, don't you?" Raising his left hand, Dorian tilted his head as he regarded the fitful light which awoke. "This is an obligation I've been ignoring for far too long. There are quite a few rifts out there, and as many desperate cries for help." He set his hand down on the table, splaying it so that his fingers bridged both Ferelden and Orlais on the map. "It is time for me to venture forth."

There. That sounded bold enough. Hopefully he wouldn't come to regret the decision.

"Why on Thedas did I ever think this was a good idea?" Dorian shouted as he brought his staff around in a swift arc, blasting the approaching demons with a wave of fire. They’d stumbled upon this rift while exploring the ass-end of the Hinterlands in search of a place to rest following an ambush by three of the largest bears Dorian had ever seen in his life, and he was not in a good mood.

"Don't ask me, Sparkler!" Varric yelled back, even as he hurled some grenades at some nearby wraiths. "I was perfectly happy getting my ass warmed by the fire in Skyhold!"

"Well, you're absolutely no help!" Dorian snarled as he hastily danced out of the way of the ice sleeting from the despair demon they fought. "Kaffas! I'm getting slaughtered over here!"

Suddenly a huge axe appeared behind the demon, then slammed down into the thing's head. The demon gave a high pitched shriek, then collapsed to the ground. Taking no chances, Iron Bull chopped it once more, then grunted. "You're welcome, Vint."

Dorian quickly pointed his staff forward, sending a thin lance of fire into the shade that suddenly reared up behind the hulking Qunari. "Take that, you filth!"

"Hey!" Bull protested.

"Not you," Dorian snapped. He quickly formed a barrier around the warrior, then pointed towards where Cassandra stood, shield raised, before a towering rage demon. "Go help her. Varric and I will attend to the rest."

Iron Bull just nodded and ran towards the demon, bellowing "Next!" to attract its attention just before his axe swung into its torso.

Once the last demon was down and the rift sputtered into a semi-quiescent state once more, Dorian pressed his hand to his side and panted heavily. He couldn't quite remember when he'd been hit, but he could tell there was at least a broken rib and possibly worse. "Not the most impressive showing for my first rift," he groaned with a grimace.

Varric chuckled breathily as he walked up to pat Dorian on the arm. "It could have been worse. At least this time you didn't have to run halfway across the Hinterlands looking for reinforcements."

"True," Dorian admitted. "Maker, don't remind me."

Axe slung over his shoulder, Iron Bull strolled over. "Well? It isn't going to get any greener, and I personally don't want to see if a pride demon decides it wants to visit."

Dorian took a deep breath and nodded before stepping forward. As he approached the rift, the light in his hand awoke - which he'd expected - and then began to burn - which he had not. Every step took him closer to the dancing chaos in front of him, and every step made the heat intensify and spread.

Oh, Mailani, how did you stand this? He couldn't know if this is what she had felt when closing a rift, of course. Her entire bearing had always been full of determination, her slight frame displaying a strength that bespoke grim purpose seemingly at odds with her gentle smiles and enthusiastic hugs. She had always seemed a touch otherworldly when she'd wrestled with the rifts, and only now did Dorian understood why.

He lifted his hand as he'd seen the Inquisitor do at least a dozen times, yet nothing happened save for a sudden ache that surged down his arm. He kept his face as neutral as he could, trying to keep his uncertainty hidden as he desperately tried to find the mechanism. No matter what he tried, however, it refused to yield to him, and the torment grew without restraint. When the pain finally grew too great for his body to handle, the world began to dim.

The presence of the rift meant that the Veil was thin, a risk that mages were always told to avoid. As he was drawn inexorably to the Fade, his soul walked the line between the waking world and the other side of Veil with a delicacy that surprised even himself. It was only when he reached an equilibrium between the two, when the Veil wrapped around him like a snug blanket, that he felt a faint touch on his wrist, and a suggestion of breath against his ear. Like this.

And, just like that, it happened: a wrenching sensation which sent a burst of energy directly from the Anchor to the heart of the rift. He struggled to comprehend exactly how the rift worked, how the mark affected it, but in the end, it seemed to come down to just wiggling his fingers, which was followed shortly after by a boom as the rift exploded into plasmic debris.

Fascinating. He didn't notice his knees hitting the ground, or the sudden impact as his body tipped over to lie still in the grass. The world was a distant place, unknowable and untouchable for now, and his eyes fluttered shut as his mind tried to understand why it felt like a kiss had just been placed on his cheek.

The last thing he remembered before the remainder of his consciousness slipped away was a soft susurration, so soft he almost didn't hear the words hidden inside.

I'm so sorry.

Chapter Text

The sun beat down on the two men as they circled each other, watching for any sign of weakness. Above, the summer sun shone brightly, the heat weighing on Cullen more than the leather gambeson he wore. Sweat soaked through his armor and rendered his hair curly and damp, but his grip remained firm around the hilt of his sword as he watched his opponent carefully.

Too late he realized that he'd been maneuvered to face directly into the sun which, of course, was when Alistair chose to strike. Cullen barely raised his shield in time to ward off the sword whistling towards him, bashing it away with focused strength. In answer, his own blade thrust forward rather than swinging, causing the Warden to step back out of its reach. Pulling back before he could be caught in an over-extension, Cullen pivoted and bashed his shield hard into Alistair, using his leverage to push the man even more off balance. A final shove saw the man wavering on the edge of the practice ring before falling back with a startled yelp.

Cullen grinned as he sheathed his practice blade and moved forward, offering a hand to his sparring partner. "You're more than a bit rusty, Alistair," he said with a chuckle. "Not enough Darkspawn around to keep your skills sharp since the Fifth Blight ended?"

"Oh, hardy har har," Alistair muttered as accepted Cullen's offer. Their hands smacked together loudly before Cullen pulled him up, and for a few moments, they simply concentrated on getting their breath back. "Tell you what," Alistair finally said. "You go take on a couple of ogres and then come back and tell me how eager I should be to go forth and find new darkspawn to kill. Go on," he urged, gesturing towards the gate. "I'll be here, cozied up in your office. I'll take those reports you complain about over a pack of shrieks any day, believe you me."

"Are you sure about that?" Cullen panted as he waved Alistair to follow him to some nearby benches. There were others waiting to use the practice ring, after all. "You haven't seen Leliana's reports. They're each a small battle in and of themselves."

With a laugh, Alistair accepted a water skin from a young elf boy standing in the shade of the Herald's Rest, drinking deeply before he poured some on his head to cool down. "I can imagine," he said as he handed the water to Cullen to do the same. "From what I've heard, both of you have been rather busy of late."

Tugging off his gauntlets, Cullen tucked them into his belt and poured the last of the water over his head before raking his fingers through his hair. "That's one way of putting it." He looked out into the courtyard, noting the renewed bustling and activity, a sharp contrast to just a few short weeks ago. When Dorian had left, less than a score of people had gathered in the courtyard to see him off. Now...

Alistair followed his gaze. "There's more than when I first came here, by a fair margin. And morale is definitely improved a fair bit, as well." His lips pursed in thought. "I've also heard the mage's name on quite a few more lips. How long has he been running around, doing good deeds in the name of the Inquisition? Over a month, right?"

Cullen nodded, deep in thought. "Almost a month and a half, actually. He makes sure the others get to come back to Skyhold, but he hasn't done so himself."

"Smart move," Alistair observed. "They'll see it as dedication, keeping himself out like that, but also appreciate he didn't force the others. Little things like that get noticed, and remembered. He keeps saying he doesn't want to be Inquisitor, but..." Letting the thought trail into silence, Alistair shrugged and gestured the elf boy closer. "Another skin, please. The Commander used up the one I leant him."

"You mean the nearly empty one you gave me?" Cullen asked with a grin.

As Alistair chuckled and took the water, the boy looked up at Cullen. "Would you like another skin, Ser? Um, I mean Ser Commander!" he quickly corrected himself.

"I would indeed, thank you. What's your name, lad?"

The elf brightened. "My name's Taedor, Ser Commander. My mother and I just arrived last week, but my father has been serving the Inquisition since Haven! He works in the kitchen with Mother now, and I help here."

Cullen smiled. "You're doing good work. Keep it up."

"Thank you, Ser Commander!" Taedor said, attempting to give him a salute. "Father says we can't let the Herald or her Chosen down!" At that point, someone else came over to the benches, and Taedor hurried over to give him some water.

Swallowing harshly, Cullen sagged down to sit next to Alistair. His friend looked at him with a sympathetic expression as he patted Cullen's leg. "I hear that a lot, actually," he said softly. "I suspect Leliana's gently guiding hand."

"So do I," Cullen replied in hushed tones. He still wasn't sure how he felt about that, honestly. He knew Leliana would never want to replace Mailani in the hearts and minds of those who served the Inquisition, but he also knew that the Inquisition would do better to have a figurehead. It made him supremely uncomfortable, though.

"You know," Alistair said in a thoughtful voice, "it doesn't have to be."

"Have to be what?"

"Leliana's doing. I mean, it's not like Mailani burst out of the Fade saying she was the Herald, is it?" Alistair mused. "That came later, after she closed a couple of rifts. At least, that's what Leliana told me."

"That's true," Cullen said slowly, brow furrowing slightly as he considered the ramifications. "I'm not actually sure where the term Herald came from. I admit, I've always thought it was Leliana's work."

"Not a bad guess, but you might want to ask her at some point. Maybe it would make you feel better about the whole thing. Or at least not worse, if you already think she's started the rumor." Alistair patted his leg once more then gestured to the troops practicing in the courtyard. "To be honest, there are plenty of rumors flying around that aren't of her making that reflect well of the man. Rescuing the soldiers imprisoned by the Avvar in the Fallow Mire--"

Cullen had to snort a laugh at the mention of that particular mission. "You should have read the report Dorian sent back with Scout Harding about that mission. I've never read cold, miserable, and pathetic as a puppy so many times in an official report in my life."

"Did he mention his nose?" Alistair asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Hmm. No, actually. That was in Cassandra's report, not his." Now that he thought about it, the omission seemed odd.

"And yet that detail is running around Skyhold. For a man with a reputation for vanity, a broken nose acquired while saving Inquisition soldiers is seen as significant." Alistair nudged Cullen. "But you already knew that, I'm sure."

Nodding slowly, Cullen thought about the other things he'd heard them talking about. "Of course, the fact he can actually close rifts helps, too."

"And he's been very diligent about it. He's closed quite a few in only a month and a half."

Cullen knew that had also resonated with the troops at Skyhold. It was measurable, and it harkened back to…before. A small smile came to his lips. "Maybe the Inquisition can survive after all."

"More than survive," Alistair said. "I think we're looking at a force that has the power to help me. The Wardens, I mean."

Cullen grimaced. "You know we can't make a decision on that until Dorian gets back."

"But surely that will be soon?" Alistair ventured. "He's been gone for quite a long time, after all."

A missive had arrived the previous day, actually, stating that Dorian and those with him would be returning to Skyhold 'soon', but no exact date or time had been given or promised. As Cullen opened his mouth to answer, however, he caught sight of a familiar figure stalking towards them from the direction of the gate. Rising to his feet, he gestured Alistair to stand as well. "Hawke," he muttered in warning just as the man rounded the training circle and headed towards them.

"Commander," Hawke said as he approached. When Taedor offered the Viscount a water skin, as he'd been instructed, Hawke pushed him back with an annoyed sigh. "Not now, boy." Uncaring of the way the lad staggered back and fell to the ground, Hawke came to a halt in front of Cullen and crossed his arms, looking the man up and down as Alistair rushed to help Taedor to his feet. "You're looking better than when I saw you last. Not quite so pale and timid."

Cullen's jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth. He's important to the Inquisition, he reminded himself firmly. Or at least Kirkwall will be. When he could trust his voice, he inclined his head. "You're looking a bit dusty and road-weary yourself, Your Excellency. I trust your journey was not in vain?"

Hawke barked a laugh, then nodded towards the main keep door. "Why don't you gather the ladies and that handsome mage friend of yours to hear the results? Not right away, though." He brushed some dirt off of his shirt. "I'd prefer to wash up first. Dust really isn't the best uniform for an official presentation."

"Dorian hasn't returned as of yet, Excellency," Cullen told him. "Shall I gather the rest of them?"

"Oh? I would have thought he'd be back by now. Those rifts must be intensely entertaining to keep his attention so long." Hawke frowned, then shook his head. "No. I'd rather talk to all of them at once, honestly. Any idea when he is due to return?"

"The last report we received from the field team only said Soon, Your Excellency." Cullen gave an apologetic little shrug, albeit a stiff one. "I'm sorry."

With a snort, Hawke reached out and clapped Cullen on the shoulder, sparing none of his strength. "Don't give yourself a sprain trying to apologize, Commander. We both know apologies don't carry much weight when they come from your lips, anyway." Ignoring Cullen's seething and Alistair's glare, he stepped back. "Just send a messenger to my quarters when he arrives, would you?"

"Of course," Cullen said through grated teeth.

With a smirk, Hawke turned and walked away, shoving Taedor aside without looking as he headed to his suite.

When he was out of earshot, Cullen snorted. "Yes, ser," he muttered under his breath, then went to Taedor and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, Commander Ser, but..." Taedor sniffed, bravely putting on a strong face. "Did I do something wrong, Commander?"

"You did everything you were supposed to do," Cullen assured him. "The Champion is just, ah..." His mind, for some reason, was offering a series of less than flattering phrases, and it didn't seem like a good thing to say in front of an impressionable young lad.

"Not the nicest man sometimes," Alistair supplied.

"Oh. Like my granther?" Taedor offered. "He gets grumpy when his knee acts up."

"Yes." Except in Hawke's case it's his personality, not his knee. Still, it seemed better to leave the matter at that. "Why don't you go drop off the empty skins with the tavern and get some full ones? The second shift of training is about to start."

"Yes, Commander Ser!" He gave Cullen a salute. "I'm here for the Inquisition!" Quickly he trotted off towards the Herald's Rest to go about his duties.

Cullen sighed. "I'd better go back to my office and let the Iron Trio know that the Viscount has returned." That was one good thing about always having a scout or two hovering outside his office, at any rate.

"You do that," Alistair said. "By the whiff of things, I'm long overdue for a bath."

Clapping Alistair on the shoulder, Cullen told him with a straight face, "That's always true, my friend."

"Oh, hardy har har," Alistair said, shrugging off Cullen's hand with a rolling of his eyes. "I'll see you tomorrow morning, then?"

"Wouldn't miss it!" Cullen nodded to Alistair, then set his feet in motion towards his office. Along the way, he made sure to talk to any soldiers and scouts he encountered, as well as dealing with the inevitable arrival of Jim. Cullen suspected the man's sole purpose in life was to shove reports in his Commander's face, and he couldn't help but give a little sigh as Jim did so now.

"This morning's Skyhold patrol reports, Commander!" Jim said with a crisp salute.

"Thank you, Scout." Cullen scanned the papers, brows furrowing slightly as he looked for anything out of the ordinary. "Any more sightings of giants?"

"No, Commander! Just a few bronto that have been reported to the hunters for later retrieval!"

Cullen managed to not smile in the face of the man's earnestness and nodded. "Thank you, Scout. Dismissed."

Jim executed another quick salute before marching away, and Cullen let his chuckle emerge as he set into motion again, analysing the reports as he walked. Around him, the rumble of conversation filled his ears with a constant hum. He heard snippets of the usual gossip, speculation about the Chargers, who could take on who in a practice round, complaints about the food, and other topics typical of satisfied, if slightly restless, soldiers. It's time to rotate the companies between our major areas of influence again, he mused, and made a note to talk to the other Advisors about the matter.

"--but should we tell the Commander?"

Cullen's walk slowed, and he glanced up from his reports when those words struck his ears. As he tried to pinpoint the man he'd heard, a woman answered, "Isn't it just gossip, though? I mean...the Champion surely wouldn't do that, would he?"

"According to Baden, he would," the first man replied as Cullen located him and moved towards him. "I don't like it. The Chosen may be a Vint, but he's our Vint."

The woman with him, whose back was to Cullen as he approached, nodded her head. "The Champion needs to back off, he does. You..." Her voice lowered, and Cullen had to strain to hear it even as he got closer. "You don't think that's why the Chosen hasn't come back to Skyhold, do you?"

"How would I--Commander!" The man said, back stiffening as he gave Cullen a crisp salute. The woman started and quickly turned to face Cullen, mirroring the man's actions.

"At ease." Crossing his arms across his chest, Cullen put a stern, but not angry, look on his face as he looked them over. This close, he recognized them - two solid soldiers who'd been with the Inquisition since Haven, and not prone to idle gossip. "Now, Lisbeth, Conrad--what is it you aren't sure you should tell me?"

The two exchanged a glance before Conrad nudged Lisbeth's foot. "Lisbeth is worried about some of the rumors going around, Commander."

Cullen shifted his stare to the woman without a word, a raised eyebrow making his order to talk more than clear.

Swallowing hard, Lisbeth nodded. "It's just a rumor, Commander. That the Champion and Ser Pavus passed an evening together, if you take my meaning."

Though he'd heard the rumor and had it confirmed by Leliana, Cullen still didn't see why it was a cause for concern - for these two, at least. After all, very few people knew Hawke beyond the story of the Champion of Kirkwall from Varric's book, and certainly not as well as Cullen did. Though he himself had several concerns should Dorian pursue Hawke further, he needed to know why his soldiers were worried about it. "What of it?"

"It's just that…Well, you know His Excellency has spent quite a few days here in Skyhold between his trips elsewhere, Commander. And when he's here..." She glanced at Conrad, who nodded encouragingly, then looked at Cullen again. "There's some who've also spent an evening with the Chosen. You know, before…well, before, when he'd had a bit much to drink and such? The Champion, well, he went and had words with them. The men who'd been with Ser Pavus, I mean."

Cullen's brows drew together as he frowned. "Words?"

"Telling them to keep away from the Chosen from here on out," Conrad volunteered. "Spoke to one of them myself. Said the Champion smiled the whole time, but..." Giving a little shrug, Conrad shook his head. "There's smiles and then there's smiles, Commander."

Oh, Cullen knew that particular smile of Hawke's quite well, and his sense of unease increased. "So he's warning people away from Dorian?"

Both of them nodded, and Conrad added, "Not quite threatening, like, but making it plain that it would be best for them to keep their distance. And…Well, he's the Champion, so who's going to go up against him?"

Cullen pinched the bridge of his nose. Damn. "This is something you should tell the Commander," he told the two of them. "And you should expect a visitor from someone else later, as well." As both Conrad and Lisbeth glanced up nervously at the window through which the Nightingale's crows flew, Cullen looked at the troops around them, wondering just how far this concern ran. "How widespread is the rumor?"

Lisbeth tilted her head slightly as she considered the question. "Not everyone knows, I'd say, but the rumor is spreading. And we're worried, Ser. The Chosen, we know him better now. He went in and rescued our people from the Avvar, he's fighting against the Venatori even though they're both from Tevinter, and more stories keep coming back every day of things that she'd be proud of, Commander. And he's doing it all in her name, not his own, because it's the right thing to do. She said that about him before, that he was a right proper man even if he was a Vint, but…well, now we've all seen it for ourselves."

"He's carrying on the Herald's legacy without claiming it for his own," Conrad chimed in. "That's important, Commander. He knows the Inquisition is bigger than any of us. He's one of us now, and she chose him to continue her work. We want to take care of our own."

"And we will," Cullen told them firmly. "You have my word, and that of the Inquisition. Champion or no, Dorian is one of us now, and we will protect him as such."

The soldiers visibly relaxed, then gave Cullen a matched salute. "Thank you, Commander," Lisbeth said.

"Dismissed." After they had walked away, a deep frown settled onto his face as he considered what they'd told him. Though it had ended on a high note, the meat of the conversation left a bad taste in Cullen's mouth as he finished the journey to his office, and did nothing to lighten his mood. As he went through the motions of his ablutions using the cold basin of water awaiting him, then carefully set his hair to order and ate part of the cold breakfast left on his desk, his gaze grew more and more distant. By the time he sat at the chair behind his desk, he only had enough energy to lean back and let his head fall against the wall as he sighed heavily and closed his eyes.

For a moment, he allowed himself to feel the weight on his shoulders, the hole in his chest, and the emptiness at his side. He forced himself to take a deep, slow breath, then another, and yet another. Finally his eyes fluttered open as he looked up at the hole in the ceiling above. "I promise I won't let you down," he murmured softly.

As his head slowly rose, his eyes wandered to the small square of slate he'd left propped up on his desk, its surface covered with a series of hatch marks. He added a line whenever he dreamed of Mailani, though he seemed to dream as much about Mailani with Dorian as he did about Mailani and himself recently. At first it had seemed odd, but now he simply accepted it. It was still a chance to remember Mailani, to see her, if only in his dreams.

And sometimes, that little reminder was all he needed.

With a final deep breath, he lifted his hands and took up his quill, dipping it into the ink as he penned notes to Leliana, Josephine, and Cassandra regarding not only Hawke's return to Skyhold, but also Cullen's discussion with his soldiers. Hawke was never a man to take lightly on the best of days, but his behavior was enough to warrant a discussion, at least in Cullen's opinion.

It would keep them busy. Every moment of busy now meant one less moment of emptiness later, a lesson hard learned, and a habit hard earned. One step at a time, and eventually he wouldn't notice how many steps he took.


The day passed swiftly, interrupted in the mid-afternoon only by the return of Dorian and his team to Skyhold. The horn heralding their return rang out loud enough to break Cullen's concentration, and he quickly set his pen down so as to jog down the steps to greet them personally.

There were circles under Dorian's eyes as he slid out of his saddle with a wince, but he still managed a bright smile and clapped Dennet's back as the man came to grab the reins. "I think my hindquarters fit that saddle a little too well after this many days in it," he said cheerfully, earning a dry chuckle from the stoic Horse Master. "But the steeds served us well. You have my thanks."

"I'll see what I can do about improving your seat," Dennet observed. "After all, my stables have filled up quite nicely in the last few weeks." He handed the horse off to a stable boy. "I'll always do my best for the Inquisition."

Dorian smiled and thumped his fist on top Dennet's shoulder. "Good man."

With a nod, Dennet turned and moved on to the next mount, leaving Cullen to step forward and catch Dorian's elbow as the man swayed slightly. "Let's get you to your quarters, shall we?"

"And hello to you as well, Commander," Dorian said with a weary smile. Nodding to where the Iron Bull was plodding away from the stable, he said, "I appreciate the offer, but Bull needs someone right now. You read the report, I presume."

Cullen nodded. "And Harding told us more," he said softly as he let go of Dorian's arm. "Bull a Tal-vashoth…I never would have thought it of him."

"It was the Qun or the Chargers, and I knew Bull would never remain himself if he chose the Qun," Dorian said softly. Absently he reached up and thumped his fist onto Cullen's shoulder, much as he had done with Dennet. As he swayed again, that fist flattened into a hand that gripped Cullen's fur hard as Dorian took a deep breath to steady himself. "It won't take long to get him a bit more settled, I promise. I just want to finish a conversation we started while on the way here."

"But you will rest after that, won't you?" Cullen asked, concerned about the mage's health. "You've had quite the eventful month or so."

"I have, haven't I?" Dorian asked with a seemingly careless laugh. "Don't worry, Commander, I promise you that I am quite accomplished at pampering myself." His eyelid dropped in a slow wink as he took a careful step back. "After all, someone should take care of me in the manner I deserve, hmm?"

A grudging smile came to Cullen's lips. "Fine. Be that way. Just don't push yourself."

"Never happen, Ser Pot," Dorian said airily as he turned and headed after the Iron Bull. "This kettle is far too much a wastrel for that dire fate, after all."

"I am not--" Cullen began to protest, but Dorian was already out of earshot as he hurried to Bull's side. With a shake of his head, Cullen returned to his office. He still had a lot of work to do, after all.

Restlessness finally drove him out of the office a few hours after that as the sun slowly set over the mountains to the east. The wind chilled Cullen's face as he leaned on the ramparts, looking out across the lands surrounding Skyhold. The sight of the snow fields and the frozen river were always calming, and the cold of the wind and air eased the pain which had been gnawing and throbbing in the back of his mind since he'd returned to his work after the short interlude with Dorian.

He resolutely put aside the thought that perhaps he had fled his office to ensure he was far from a specific box with its tempting blue contents. Later, he would deal with that, but for now, he let himself simply exist and breathe, ignoring the longing for the lyrium as best as he could.

"He's cold inside, cold and hungry and desperate."

The sudden intrusion of that particular voice made Cullen clench his teeth together for a moment. Cole was difficult for him to deal with at the best of times, and he was hardly at his best in this particular moment. Slowly he turned to face the pale man standing next to him. "Cole. You've been difficult to track down of late." In fact, now that Cullen thought about it, he hadn't actually seen Cole since word had arrived of Mailani's death, though Harding's reports had placed him with Dorian for at least two of the weeks the mage had been away from Skyhold. He peered more closely at the boy, a frown coming to his face as he noticed that Cole was even more pale than usual, and his lips were tinged a pale blue. "Cole, are you all right?"

"He wants what he cannot have," Cole said urgently. "He needs to fill the hole left by his dagger, and he doesn't care what happens to whoever he pushes into it."

Cullen frowned, his momentary concern at Cole's absence wiped away by the words. "Who are you talking about?"

Cole took a deep breath, and when he next spoke, the words fell over themselves in a rush. "His wings are broken, but he continues to fly and fall, lashing out at whatever gets in his way without thinking of the pain he inflicts. He hunts now, a prowling predator seeking his prize, his prey, his pleasure."

"It's Hawke, isn't it?" A chill ran down Cullen's spine when he received a spare nod in response. "Where's Dorian?"

Cole's shoulders sagged in relief. "He hides amidst works of wine and words, wishing the world away. He's vulnerable, open, eager to trust. Easy to push into a hole, but not so easy to pull out."

Cullen put a hand on Cole's shoulder. "I'll take care of it," he promised, then hurried past him towards the nearest stairs.

A whisper followed him. "She says thank you."

Those words were enough to make Cullen come to a hard stop and turn around, but Cole was already gone.

Shaking his head, he took the stairs two at a time, deciphering Cole's riddle as he went. Works of wine and words...He must mean the secret study. There were books there, after all, and the small wine cellar not too far away. Certainly it was a more likely candidate than the main library or the storage room in the back of the Herald's Rest. His strides lengthened as he took the quickest route from his office to the study, yet even then it almost wasn't enough.

"Hawke!" Cullen called out, his urgency at seeing the man reaching towards the door handle enough to make him bypass normal courtesies.

The man's shoulders stiffened, but his hand fell away from the door as he turned around, a cold expression on his face as he said in a sarcastic tone, "Cullen. It's been so long since we've talked."

"As you say, Your Excellency." Cullen gave a belated bow as Hawke walked towards him. "I trust you've been well?"

"Tolerably." Hawke's eyes narrowed. "Odd to run into you down here."

Lifting his chin, Cullen gave a little shrug. "I don't see why. There are several important books down here that I refer to on occasion." It was a not-so-subtle message, that Cullen belonged to Skyhold, and Hawke did not.

"And I take it such an occasion has arisen now?" The skepticism in Hawke's voice cut through the air between them, and for a moment, Cullen feared that Hawke would pursue the matter. Finally, though, Hawke simply shrugged. "Fine. Have it your way, Commander. I'd best be on my way, then."

Stepping back to give Hawke plenty of room to pass by, Cullen breathed a purely internal sigh of relief. When Hawke was right next to him, however, he paused and met Cullen's gaze. "You wouldn't happen to have run down here because you heard something from one of your soldiers, would you?"

"What I say to my soldiers and what they say to me is the Inquisition's concern," Cullen said in a flat tone.

Hawke regarded him with tilted head for a moment, then stepped closer. "Odd, isn't it, how you've gone from never looking beyond the tip of your nose to sticking it where it doesn't belong?" Leaning in until his face was mere inches away from Cullen's, he said softly, "I was there, lest you forget. While Meredith slowly went insane and Kirkwall fell apart around her, you refused to pull your head out of your arse and do anything about it." His nostrils flared as his eyes narrowed even further. "And, as usual, I had to clean up the whole bloody mess. I don't know how you sleep at night with all that blood on your hands because you didn't dare question authority. Think on that before you start judging me based on a little rumor or decide that you'd be 'better' for him, hmm?"

Cullen forced himself not to back down and keep his breath even as Hawke gave him one final scornful look before stalking away. Damn the man. The headache which had been bothering him earlier began to throb painfully, and he sighed as he rubbed at his forehead. Worse, Hawke was right - at least about Kirkwall - and Cullen knew it. Did that make him right about Dorian? "No. Not this time," he murmured, then quickly entered the study.

Inside, Dorian had collapsed into the lone chair, face buried in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. As Cullen approached, he raised his head to blink blearily at Cullen. "Commander?" In the dim lighting, his eyes looked red rimmed and swollen and the circles beneath them were even more pronounced than before, but Cullen couldn't tell if that was more than mere abuse of alcohol. "Is that you?"

"It's me, Dorian," Cullen said in a soft voice, again worried about the mage. He knew only too well the impulse to dull pain with drink. "I've come to take you to your rest. You know," he added, trying for a slightly lighter tone, "the one you promised you'd get, hmm?"

Dorian snorted as he tried to rise to his feet. Halfway up, he lurched sideways, saved from cracking his head on the desk only through Cullen's swift step forward to pull him fully upright. With a chuckle, Dorian tapped Cullen's nose with a shaking hand. "Deja vu. You seem to be making a habit of catching me when I falter."

"That's not such a bad thing, is it?" Cullen asked as he held Dorian in place. When the man still swayed in spite of his help, Cullen shook his head and carefully helped the mage back into the chair. "Maybe we should just sit and talk for a while," he suggested as he hitched himself up onto the desk.

With an absent nod, Dorian closed his eyes and sighed, then let his head fall back into the chair. "Yes. Talk. One of the two best things to do with your lips and tongue. That would be nice." He took a deep breath, then raised the bottle he still held to his lips. Only a vague look of disappointment on his face told Cullen that it was empty before he opened his fingers and let it drop with a clatter to the ground. "About what, pray?"

The mage's first comment made him suddenly remember Hawke's parting jab, and Cullen swiftly cleared his throat, pushing the absurdity of the idea out of his mind. Instead, he cast about for a topic that would avoid both the weather and Dorian's reason for drinking so heavily - at least, for now. "You were away from Skyhold for a long time. Any particular reason? Do you have anything to report?"

"It was terrible, Commander. There were bears. Bandits. Brontos. Burned breakfasts. Bug bites. Bureaucrats." Dorian shuddered delicately. "Absolutely horrifying."

Cullen forced a chuckle. "That does sound terrible."

"Indeed," Dorian groaned. "I've rarely been more miserable in my life. But do you know the absolute worst part of the entire affair?" His eyes opened, gleaming wetly in the dim light. "She wasn't there. Maker, I'd have given every last breath in my body for her to be at my side."

The words came as a surprise, given that Dorian had never volunteered his own pain before, and hit Cullen almost like a blow. His hand rose to his chest as he gasped and bowed his head, an action that didn't go unnoticed.

"I'm sorry, Commander," Dorian said quickly, leaning forward and reaching out with his hand in a comforting gesture. "I should have considered your own--"

"No." The word came out softly, so Cullen shook his head more firmly and took Dorian's outstretched hand, speaking with a bit more authority as he repeated the word. "No. Please, tell me more. You were among those who fought at her side. Tell me what she was like out there." When Dorian seemed uncertain, he squeezed the man's hand and added, "It would mean a lot to me."

A sad, fleeting smile came to Dorian's face as he nodded. "As you wish. She was…utterly fearless on the field. It was odd to see sometimes, since she was such a kind soul anywhere but in battle, but if we came under attack, or if she saw someone in danger, the bow came out and her arrows flew true." Dorian reached up to wipe his tears away, though more fell mere moments later. "When it was all over, she was the first at everyone's side, making sure we were bandaged and tended to properly. She always made sure she was the last to drink any of the potions." The mage sighed, that tremulous smile again touching his lips. "She even lied about it a couple of times, the poor darling, just to make sure we'd all drink if we needed it. Iron Bull or Cassandra, and even Blackwall, had to carry her back to camp more than once because of it."

"That does sound like her," Cullen said with a wry chuckle. That selflessness had been one of the things he respected and adored the most. "Is that why she caught lung fever in the Storm Coast?"

"Precisely. Vivienne was most put out with her, as I recall," Dorian noted with a little shake of his head.

"As was Cassandra," Cullen noted. "That was after the Blades of Hessarian operation, wasn't it?"

As they talked, Dorian's tears eased, then ceased altogether, and both men started to smile as the act of remembering Mailani grew more fond and less painful. Their hands parted so that gestures could be made, and there were even moments when genuine laughter rang in the small room. Eventually the conversation found a natural lull, leaving both men in a pensive mood and lost in their own thoughts.

After a few moments, Dorian reached down to his belt and pulled away a small metal flask etched with runes. As his fingers traced the etchings, they glowed slightly, and Cullen raised an eyebrow. "What is that?"

"I found it on the body of a Venatori mage," Dorian replied thoughtfully. "I recognized its nature and have carried it ever since. Nevarran brandy, but of a very special sort."

"Intriguing. What makes it so special?"

"Its intended purpose," Dorian replied, tapping the glowing runes. "I mastered Nevarran magical arts, but I also studied their rituals. They treat their dead with as much respect as the living. More, in some cases." For a moment he fell silent, then continued in a heavy voice, "This brandy is what they drink when they wish to thank the departed for being a part of their lives."

Cullen's eyes were drawn to the intricately etched runes, their soft glow barely visible even in the dim light of the study. "And the runes?"

"Necromancy runes. According to the ritual, after drinking, there is a moment you can reach beyond the Veil and…feel them. For a moment only, of course, but..." Dorian sighed, a long, drawn-out sound. "A priceless treasure indeed, if true. Pity there is only enough for one use." Twisting off the cap, he offered the flask to Cullen. "But I think it should be yours to cherish."

"Are you certain?" Cullen's caution arose in part from not wishing to deprive Dorian of the experience, given his earlier state. The rest stemmed from his innate caution regarding any spell cast in his vicinity - magic was, after all, magic, and he had personal reasons to be wary.

"Quite certain," Dorian assured him quietly. "For all that it was one of the worst days of my life, at least I was with her in the end. You didn't even get that much."

Cullen winced as the vision of Mailani's crushed, dessicated body flashed in front of his eyes, the same image which had tortured him for weeks and could only be diminished with alcohol. Even now, it made his headache sharpen and his hands twitch, and he forced himself to close his eyes and take a deep, steadying breath.

Finally he reached out and took the flask from Dorian. "You're right." Even the chance of a farewell was enticing enough to override his reluctance, if only for a while. "How does it work?"

"Simply think of why you were grateful for her, and drink." Dorian tapped his temple. "According to my studies, the ritual raises a sort of spiritual beacon, and your thoughts determine what comes to investigate. So be careful, and be steadfast."

With a nod, Cullen stared at the flask for a moment before closing his eyes, determined not to let his mind wander. Mailani.

A welter of images and emotions from their time together ran through his mind and heart, an almost breathless reminder that as much as he had loved her, it had been her friendship which had sustained him for so long - and, in some ways, supported him even now. It was enough to push aside the last of his misgivings, and he raised the flask to his lips, quickly drinking its contents in one swift gulp. As the brandy burned down his throat, Cullen bowed his head in silence.

Perhaps it was the strength of the brandy, of perhaps the ritual truly did work as promised, but…it was almost as if she were right there beside him. When a hand settled on his shoulder and squeezed, Cullen grasped it without thinking, his thoughts wholly on Mailani.

Thank you. Simply that: no embellishment, no explanation, and no exception.

For an instant, there was a sensation of a gentle touch on his cheek. Then the feeling faded, leaving him alone again.

With a shuddering sigh, he buried his face in his hands as he let the emotions wash over him. It was the closest to peace he'd felt since her death, though he could not say for certain that it had, in fact, been her touch he had felt. In the end, it didn't matter. What had truly happened was acceptance, something which he'd been struggling with for weeks. Whether it was the ritual, or simply talking with someone else who had also loved her, even if in a different way, he finally felt for the first time as if he would be able to cherish what he'd had without howling about what he had lost.

His breath came easier, his shoulders felt lighter, and the pain was gone from his head. A weight was gone - only one of many - but at least his burden had been lessened. Thank you, he whispered in his mind one more time.

Tears standing in his eyes, he finally looked up at Dorian. Words seemed inadequate in that moment, so instead Cullen simply reached out to the mage. Dorian grasped it wordlessly, accepting Cullen's need for silence as easily as he accepted his hand.

There were worse things than being alone together.

Chapter Text


Cullen remembered this darkness, remembered the blistering cold and the freezing wind of the mountain blizzard. Remembered standing at the furthest edge of the firelight from the hastily constructed camp, his eyes searching the darkness for any sign of the Herald. Remembered waiting, praying more fervently than he had in years to see movement, to hear the shift of snow or a cry for help.

But mostly he remembered the darkness, inside and out, wondering if the endearing little elf whose smile seemed to warm him within had survived the avalanche which had covered Haven.

Why he stood there now, shivering in the cold despite his fur, heart racing with anxiety, he didn't know, or question. He only knew he must search the darkness, that someone needed to be saved. A vague memory came to him, of a cave full of dust and blood and despair, but it was fleeting. What was important was that he remain vigilant.

Whatever came, he would stand ready to meet it.

A light flickered in front of him, a burst of bright green that made his heart leap. Yes. That is the person I have to save. Blindly he stepped forward, pursuing that hint of green as his heart swelled with hope and fear.

When his foot landed, however, the darkness lifted, and he found himself in a tavern, of all places. An empty tavern, with sprawling tables and benches and not even a murmur of conversation. Confused, he turned to look behind him, and saw no tavern but a vast expanse of grim, grey rock and a flickering light that made him queasy. Only when he let his gaze move upwards and found the Black City floating above did he understand where he stood, but the realization registered in a vague, dreamlike fashion.

The sound of a door closing behind him caught his ear, tugging his attention away from the Black City, particularly when a familiar voice said, "Uh oh. Nobody's here. This doesn't bode well."

Dorian's comment pulled Cullen around, and as he turned, the world became a tavern once more. Accepting the oddity of the Fade, he focused on the two who had appeared, noting that both Dorian and Mailani appeared dusty and road-worn. He tried to step forward, but found his feet held to the ground as if his boots had grown into the stone beneath them. He looked down at them with a frown, just as another man spoke whose voice he didn't recognize.


The voice made Cullen's skin crawl, and he looked up from his frozen feet just as Dorian replied, "Father." Dorian paused a bit, long enough for Cullen to see uncertainty become anger as he turned to face the other man, still hidden in the shadows of a stairwell. "So the whole story about the 'family retainer' was just…what? A smoke screen?"

"Then you were told," the man said as he stepped forward, into the light that was all at once brightly lit by candles and lanterns and dimmed by the green darkness of the Fade. "I apologize for the deception, Inquisitor. I never intended for you to be involved."

When Cullen saw the man to whom Dorian spoke more clearly, his eyes widened. The man himself seemed unremarkable - middle-aged with a lined face in a mage's robe. Behind him, however - and large enough to block the view of the Fade on the other side of the tavern - crouched a spider-like creature of monstrous proportions shrouded in a spiky carapace of shadows and with more eyes than Cullen ever wanted to see clustered together. Despite its size, the thing was difficult to see, fading in and out of sight as if it weren't entirely there, and Cullen had to concentrate to see more than a vague outline.

Even more chilling than its mere presence, however, was the long, twisting line which stretched from the thing's mouth to gently coil around the man now talking to Dorian, a cord which pulsed with a sickly green darkness. Its presence sent a lance of cold down Cullen's back, as instinct shocked him with a recognition based more on his visceral reaction than on learned knowledge.

Demon. No other explanation made sense. And not just any demon, such as Cullen had encountered and fought before in Kinloch Hold and, later, Kirkwall and his nightmares. This was a creature of another order entirely, and its focus seemed to be entirely on the events within the tavern. Cullen's attention re-focused on the tavern as he realized that while he was not danger, the same might not hold true for Dorian.

Time had passed, and words exchanged, but it was Mailani's voice which made him truly pay attention to the conversation again. "I should leave you to work this out."

Dorian turned on her, his voice and stance softening slightly when talking to her rather than his father. "Oh, no you don't. I want a witness. I want someone to hear the truth."

"Dorian," his 'father' interjected, "there's no need for this--"

Continuing as if the man had not spoken, Dorian said, "I prefer the company of men. My father disapproves."

Mailani's eyebrows rose as she blinked. "That's…a big concern in Tevinter, is it?" Cullen recognized her tone immediately - it was a subtle jab at silly shemlen beliefs.

"Only if you're trying to live up to an impossible standard," Dorian replied bitterly, but as he continued, Cullen's attention was drawn to the huge demon once more as it shifted its pulsating bulk.

A shimmer of dark green ran down the cord between its mouth and the figure of Dorian's father, who flickered - a quick blink of there and not there. By the time Dorian turned on him, his anger built into a beautifully righteous wrath, the 'father' appeared completely human once more. His expression was a beautiful emulation of concerned sincerity as he pleaded, "Dorian, please, if you'll only listen to me."

Dorian cut the other man off with a gesture. "Why? So you can spout more convenient lies?" Taking a few steps closer, Dorian raised a hand to point an accusatory finger. "He taught me to hate blood magic. 'The resort of the weak mind.' Those are his words."

Cullen felt the blood drain from his face. Blood magic? Distracted for the moment from the hulking behemoth, he focused intently on Dorian. What blood magic?

Dorian hadn't so much as paused, though his face had darkened with ire. "But what was the first thing you did when your precious heir refused to play pretend for the rest of his life? You tried to... change me!"

The tone of those last few words told Cullen more than an entire conversation with Dorian could have. Blood magic, used to force Dorian to his father's will, either to agree to the marriage - or worse, to change him in an even more fundamental way… Those were no words of a demon, a nightmare conjured up to scare and terrify. The pain in Dorian's face and voice were all too raw and real. His father had, indeed, intended to do just that. Dorian must have escaped, but that level of betrayal…Cullen shuddered. "Thank the Maker you escaped that fate," he murmured fervently.

Dorian's 'father' shook his head, even as the coil around him began to glow. "I only wanted what was best for you!"

Shaking his head fiercely, Dorian said in a heated voice, "You wanted the best for you! For your fucking legacy! Anything for that!" With those words, Dorian turned and stormed to a nearby counter, planting his hands on it as he tried to regain control of himself. Mailani followed him silently, giving him a bit of space to gather his wits about him.

After a few moments, Dorian looked at Mailani, face tight with pain. "Why this?" he asked her, voice shaking with the strength of his emotion. "Why here? Of all the times we had together, why this meeting? Couldn't it have been something a bit more fanciful and beautiful with flowers and unicorns?"

And, just like that, Cullen realized that Dorian still thought this to be a normal dream, as all the others Cullen had seen before had been. Perhaps a bit more unpleasant, but a normal dream nonetheless. He didn't perceive the huge demon towering over the scene, or the fact that his father wasn't part of his own mind but rather an extension of a demon. After all, Cullen had learned as a Templar that the more powerful the demon, the more difficult it was to perceive it while dreaming - even for a mage as skilled as Dorian.

It was Mailani's voice which again drew his attention away from the demon. "I'm sorry," she said softly as she reached out to lay a gentle hand on Dorian's arm. In the next moment, however, she turned to face Cullen. No further words needed to leave her lips for him to understand the pleading in her expression.

Abruptly, he recalled standing in the darkness at the beginning of his time in the Fade, remembered the overpowering need to stand vigilant, to be ready to save someone. That feeling had returned, but he no longer stood in darkness.

It was time to act.

Even as he made the decision, he felt a weight on his left arm and in his right hand. As he lifted an arm newly adorned by his shield, his right hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, each band and twist of metal intimately familiar even in a dream. As he shifted his feet, the mysterious force holding him in place crackled and broke, and he nodded to her. Yes. He was ready.

With a grim expression on his face, he ran forward, each step gaining momentum and speed as he advanced on the puppet of the demon. Ignoring the surprise on Dorian's face as he raced past, he raised his sword and summoned long unused protections against demons and magic as he roared, "You shall not have him!" With the anger and frustration of years of fighting demons both within and without, he swung his sword and unleashed the Wrath of Heaven with a strength greater than he had ever summoned in the waking world.

Light flared from his sword and blasted into the human-seeming figure first, which gave out a cry so loud it echoed in Cullen's head. For a moment, it morphed into a demon with claws for fingers and multiple crab-like limbs emanating from its back before it vanished into a cloud of inky blackness. As it did so, a white-hot energy surged up the line connecting it to the monster above, and the huge creature reared with a shriek that shook the Fade around them.

The tavern disintegrated as wood and brick and stone flew apart, leaving them standing in an empty expanse of the Fade. Above floated the Black City and the other stray rocks which always seemed to be part of the dim landscape, though a thickening fog obscured most of the immediate ground around them.

Instinctively Dorian moved to Cullen's side. "What in the Fade was that...that thing? I've never seen anything like it."

"Nor I." Cullen shook his head as he sheathed his sword. "Are you... all right?" he asked, a bit hesitant since he wasn't sure what effect the destruction of the dream's construct would have on the man to whom the dream belonged.

"Hmm?" Dorian blinked, then looked at Cullen. "Hmm? Oh, you mean--" He gestured around them. "I've had dreams invaded before, though never on this scale. Usually just wisps and shades attracted to a mage's vivid dreams. Solas and I have discussed the matter frequently." The man's head tilted as his face grew thoughtful. "Did I imagine it, or was there some sort of string connecting the demon playing my father and the larger one?"

Cullen nodded. "I assume the monster was controlling the smaller one somehow, though I don't know why."

Dorian tapped his finger thoughtfully on the little triangle of hair decorating his chin. "I think I do." With a grimace, he added, "At least, if my theory about that monstrosity is true. I think I was its lunch. Or at least, my emotions were."

"It was... feeding off of you?" Cullen asked. Abruptly he recalled Alistair's tale of the sloth demon which had briefly entrapped him and the rest of his companions during the Blight. The thought of that happening to Dorian sent a chill through him. "Thank the Maker we put an end to that."

"We?" Dorian asked, amused. "I seem to recall it was you who ran past, sword swinging, and saved the day." He glanced around. "Dream, that is. For which I am most grateful. I'll have to think of some way to repay you."

Cullen shook his head. "I wouldn't worry about--" 

A sudden roar cut him off as it echoed around them, so loud the ground shivered beneath their feet. A staff appeared in Dorian's hands as a huge shadow suddenly loomed in the fog nearby. Cullen heard the whistle and shrieks of all manner of demons in that fog, sounds which hinted at the greatest fears in his worst nightmares. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword as he drew it and braced himself for battle.

"That doesn't bode well," Dorian said, perhaps unconsciously repeating himself from earlier. In the next moment, however, he shook his head. "This is not a battle we need to fight." With a flourish, Dorian sent a white burst of magic towards a startled Cullen, who instinctively raised his arm to cover his eyes against the blinding light.

For a moment, Cullen felt himself falling, the rush of wind and that bright white light overwhelming all of his senses. It ended with an abrupt jerk as he landed, and he clawed his way upright... the sound of birds chirping as the pale dawn light poured through the hole in the roof above his head. For a moment, Cullen simply sat there, chest heaving, as he tried to comprehend what had happened. Dorian's dream had been chilling, and left more than a few confused questions in its wake.

What was that demon? How had Dorian attracted its attention? Its presence must have been connected somehow with the Anchor, which made Cullen wonder uneasily if Mailani had ever been its target - and if so, how that attention had affected her. Her description of Envy and what it had planned for her had given him a few nightmares all on its own. Even worse, if Dorian, a highly skilled mage, hadn't been able to perceive it without aid, would Mailani have even known if her nightmares had been natural or provoked?

Throwing his legs over the edge of the bed, Cullen shivered, welcoming the chill of the early morning as a contrast to the leeching cold of the Fade. "Maker, give me strength," he murmured in a quiet plea. He would not let anyone fall prey to the designs of demons as he had, particularly not someone he was quickly coming to regard as a dear friend. At least Dorian was safe for now.

Cullen shook his head to clear his thoughts, knowing that the subject was better discussed directly with Dorian. Not today, though. A smile came to his face as he rose from his bed and began to perform his morning rituals. Today was a significant day for Dorian, though the mage didn't know it yet. Cullen had to make sure that he himself stood ready to support the man as necessary, as both the Commander of the Inquisition, and as a friend.

It was time, after all. More than time.

Chapter Text

This time when Dorian emerged from sleep, he found himself curled tightly around his hand, sweating and freezing all at once. Agony lanced up his left arm as the light flared brightly enough to light the entire room with a sickly green glow. His right hand latched onto his left wrist, instinctively trying to straighten it, but the muscles had seized into a tortured hook. The pain reminded him of when he had first awoken after being anointed with the mark - certainly not the happiest of memories. When he tried to move his fingers, agony shot up his arm and into his shoulder and neck.

"Fasta vass," he groaned. Pushing himself out of bed, he stumbled towards the basin of water he used for his morning ablutions. Once there, he shoved his rigid hand into it and fed heat into the water with magic. Soon the basin was hot enough that his skin gained a red tinge, and he diligently massaged his hand and wrist as best as he could with his right hand. After an agonizing eternity during which he forced himself to breathe slowly, the knots in his wrist and fingers slowly began to unwind. He patiently worked at them for a while longer, until suddenly they released with an audible crack.

Hissing in pain, he yanked his arm out of the water and lightly ran fingers chilled with frost over his skin until it returned to its customary hue. After that, it was a matter of slowly pacing at the foot of his bed as he flexed and shook his hand until the pain was at least tolerable. Though this particular episode of cramping remained by far the worst to which he'd awoken, it wasn't the first such occurrence - and, he suspected, it would not be the last.

It was only after he could rotate his left wrist without a sharp pain in his shoulder that he allowed himself to sag down onto his mattress. A glance to the window showed the faint light of early dawn, and Dorian sighed. He had a great deal of work ahead of him, and a restless night of sleep had done little to prepare him for it. He looked down at his hand, absently watching the mark flicker fitfully as he pondered the events in his dream.

"Is it the mark?" he mused in a hushed voice. "Is that why he was drawn to my dreams?" Any mage of the Imperium worth their weight in lyrium received training in how to deal with demons in a variety of settings, but this one... "Not a demon I'll forget about any time soon." It would mean a few extra precautionary measures before sleep, and a bit of extra wariness in places where the Veil was thin. Add to that the whole business of Dorian actively seeking out rifts, and it was a complicating factor that he would have preferred to live without. Still, it wasn't overwhelming.


With a small shake of his head, he stood and began to prepare for the day, knowing he shouldn't keep the Iron Ladies waiting for too much longer. Cassandra had let it be known that Leliana and Josephine wanted a meeting, and he assumed Cullen would be there, too. Despite his haste, however, he maintained his ritual of a bath with scented oil, a morning habit as yet unbroken while in Skyhold. The slowly lowering level of the oil in the bottle gave him a gauge, something to measure how time was pressing against him, and against the Inquisition.

As he scrubbed his arms, hoping the movement and friction would ease away the last of the ache to which he'd awoken, a light knock came to his door. Before he was able to do much more than mutter, "Kaffas," to himself and look around for his towel, however, the door opened.

"Well, now," Hawke murmured as he entered the room and closed the door behind him. "That's a rather enchanting view." Moving closer to Dorian, he settled his hands on his hips and canted his head, eyes freely wandering. “Not a bad way to start the day, I must say.”

"Be grateful I don't enchant some manners into you," Dorian said rather pointedly as he tried to subtly rearrange himself so as to keep the view to a minimum. Usually, such admiration wouldn't bother Dorian, particularly with someone with whom he'd passed a rather enjoyable vigorous evening, but there was something about the man's gaze which made Dorian more than a little discomfited. "And here I thought that even Fereldans knew enough about common courtesy to wait for an answer before barging in."

With a laugh, Hawke settled himself on the bed and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "You can blame Kirkwall for that. What rough edges I still had after leaving Ferelden were encouraged while I was there. A fascinating city, Kirkwall. You would probably like it."

Unsure how to deal with Hawke's invasion or odd conversational choice, and unwilling to insult the Viscount’s city to his face, Dorian affected a light chuckle. "Well, it used to be part of the Imperium, so that is likely true. I have a fondness for Tevinter history and architecture, after all, just not to the same extent as the Venatori. I prefer to leave the past in the past."

An odd smile came to Hawke's face then, warm but with a touch of sadness. "I'm glad to hear you say that."

"I can imagine. It would be a very bad thing if the mark somehow fell into the hands of Corypheus, hmm?" Dorian asked with a wink.

"That's one reason, yes." Hawke began to roll up his sleeves. "I didn't realize I would be interrupting your bath, but I may as well help." Making a circular motion with his finger, he said, "Your back. That's the usual place one offers to help scrub, isn't it?"

"Oh, there's no need to bother yourself," Dorian assured him. "I'm perfectly content as I am. Though I admit I'm rather curious as to what brought you to my room at such an early hour and with so little decorum." As careful as he was to keep the tone light and teasing, Dorian still tried to convey a hint of the disapproval he felt at the entire situation. "After all, the last time you were in my chambers, you spoke as if would be the last time."

Hawke's eyes narrowed slightly as he scrutinized Dorian. The answer obviously did not suit the man, and Dorian felt that edge of wariness inside grow sharper. "While that may be true, a man is entitled to change his opinion, isn't he? And you've presented some very compelling arguments."

"By not seeing you for weeks on end?" Dorian asked with a forced smile as he began going through the motions of cleaning once more.

"Temporary circumstance," Hawke dismissed with a wave of his hand. "It's become quite clear that you're a man of conviction, a man who wants to change the world. I admire that." His gaze softened as he added in a quiet voice, he said, "It reminds me of someone else, someone quite dear to me."

Dorian's mouth went dry at those words, his previous conversation with Hawke echoing in his mind. From anyone else, such a statement would have been flattering. From Hawke? Maker preserve me. Before he could figure out what on Thedas he could say in reply, however, another knock came at the door, crisp and precise, and Dorian knew who it would be even before he opened the door and entered.

"Dorian, Cassandra sent me to-- Oh." Cullen paused as he caught sight of Dorian in the bathtub, obviously a bit taken aback to find the mage thus. The glance he sent to Hawke, however, held no such surprise. "Ah, yes, Cassandra sent me to let you know they're waiting for you. I'm under strict orders to bring you back with me." He gave a shrug. "And you know Cassandra."

Considering that the Iron Trio weren't expecting him until mid-morning at the earliest, that explanation was... interesting. Incredibly so, in fact. Still, Dorian was all too happy at that precise moment to play along with the charade. "I do, indeed. Far be it from me to invite the wrath of Cassandra."

"And such convenient timing, too," Hawke mused in a flat tone.

"Varric could tell you a great deal about Cassandra, if you'd like," Cullen offered, expression neutral. "When she says jump, you don't pause to ask how high?"

Hawke stood smoothly from his position on the bed. "Oh, I'm sure. I'll just let myself out, then. Dorian and I can continue our conversation later." When he crossed in front of Cullen, he paused and leaned in slightly. "Good day, Commander."

Cullen lifted his chin slightly. "And to you as well, Your Grace."

With a snort, Hawke sauntered to the door. "Enjoy yourselves," he called back as he opened the door, then closed it with a firmness that wasn't quite a slam, but wasn't far off.

"That man," Cullen muttered as he shook his head. He looked at Dorian, holding his hand out as if to assure himself the mage was unharmed. "Are you all right?"

"Quite, Commander," Dorian replied. "Though my pride has taken a few more hits than I'm used to, particularly so early in the morning. It usually takes until midday at the earliest to reach this level of indignity."

Cullen laughed as he fetched Dorian's towel and held it out to him. "Indignity, or indignance?"

Dorian snatched the towel out of Cullen's hand as he stood. "Now, that level of sarcasm is simply unwarranted, Commander. Have some respect for--" He paused as he saw the door open and hastily wrapped the towel around himself as Varric's head poked through the door.

"We good?" the dwarf asked.

With a nod, Cullen said, "For now. Thanks for letting me know."

"Anytime, Curly. Now I have to go hide in the basement all day before Hawke puts it all together." Varric nodded towards Dorian. "Sparkler. Looks like you're almost ready to pay off your last bet."

Dorian had to chuckle at that. "I didn't literally mean the clothes off my back, Varric. You do realize It's rather unfair to hold a man to a drunken wager made in the arse-end of nowhere, don't you?"

"Maybe, but I might just hold you to it," Varric replied with a wink. "All those buckles you normally wear could be melted down and sold for a tidy profit."

"Casting aspersion upon my national dress, are we?" Dorian held the back of his hand to his forehead dramatically. "Oh, my poor, benighted Imperium!"

Varric snorted. "And you started it by asking if it was a natural curl or not. I happen to like my shirts."

"Did I ever say I didn't admire the view?" Dorian protested.

"Maybe you should ask Curly that right now," Varric told him with a grin. "See you later, Sparkler." And with that, he backed out of the room.

Dorian's brow furrowed, then looked at Cullen. "What did he-- Commander, are you blushing?"

"What? No," Cullen said immediately, then politely turned his back, presumably to allow Dorian some privacy. "You should get dressed, though. There is someone who wants to see you."

"Someone who isn't Cassandra, I take it." As he spoke, Dorian briskly wicked the water away with his towel and stepped from the tub. As he pulled his clothes on, he added, "And don't think I didn't notice that little conspiracy between you and Varric. What was that about?"

When Cullen didn't answer right away, Dorian paused in his buckling and turned to look at him. He immediately noticed the tension in the man's shoulders - something that not even all that fur could disguise - and the way his arms were crossed across his chest, hands locked around his elbows. Stepping closer, he reached out and gently touched Cullen's arm. "Cullen?" he asked softly.

Cullen's shoulders sagged, and he released a long, soft sigh before turning to look at Dorian. "I don't trust Hawke around mages. And if you knew about my past, you would understand why that statement is one of the more ironic things you will ever hear me say."

A frown came to Dorian's face, since he did know some of Cullen's past - if his odd dreams could be trusted, at any rate. "I know what happened to Anders," Dorian said quietly. "Word of that moved through the Imperium fairly quickly, and Hawke even told me his side. You are saying there were other mages in his life?"

For a moment, Cullen looked to the side as he took another long, slow breath. Finally he looked up at Dorian, a grim expression on his face. "There were."

"I see." That deliberate emphasis on were explained far too much, including a great deal of Varric's caution around the Viscount. "I will be cautious, I promise."

"That is all I can ask for," Cullen said with a nod. "And it still remains that someone is waiting for us."

"You are quite insistent upon this meeting, then?" Dorian chuckled and turned his attention back to his buckles, quickly latching them closed. "Then I ask you bear with me as I finish up." Moving to the vanity, he sat and attended to his hair, repairing the damage done to it after a night of restless sleep with deft fingers and a judicious mix of oil and magic. His face was given a similar treatment, and when he turned to Cullen it was with a bright smile. "There. Perfection achieved."

A crooked grin came to Cullen's face as he chuckled. "Ah, of course. That's what all that that was about."

"Now, now, Commander," Dorian chided him, "don't think I'm oblivious to just how much effort you put into your hair every day. We all have our vanities."

Cullen reddened and cleared his throat. "I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," he said, then pushed himself away from the door so he could open it. "Let's go. We've kept them waiting long enough."

"Them?" Dorian asked as they emerged. "You are certainly piquing my curiosity."

"Good," Cullen said as he led Dorian through Skyhold.

As they walked, Dorian noted that Cullen was taking quite a roundabout route to whatever part of Skyhold he was taking them. He was able to quickly rule out the library, war room, and forge as probable destinations, a fact which only fed his curiosity. He was in the midst of constructing a map of Skyhold in his head so he could pinpoint where, in fact, Cullen was leading him when the man gave him a sidelong glance.

"Do you know what my soldiers have started to call you?"

"Hmm?" Dorian glanced at some stairs going up into the Keep proper as they passed. Those go up to the main hall, if I recall. "I presume I am still ‘the Vint’? That's fairly common, after all." He had grown accustomed to it, in fact, ever since leaving the Imperium proper.

"Not exactly," Cullen said with a little smile. "They're starting to call you the Chosen, actually."

Those words stopped Dorian in his tracks, staring at Cullen as the man turned to face him. "The-- What?" For once, he felt at a loss for words.

"The Chosen of the Herald, specifically," Cullen added. "I'm still not convinced that Leliana had nothing to do with its origin, mind, but I'm hearing it more and more." A sad little smile came to face. "Just as with the Herald after she closed her first rift."

"I am not trying to replace Mailani." The response was almost instinctive. It wasn't that Dorian could claim he had no ambition, but his purpose here in the Inquisition was, to his mind, absolutely clear: to continue his friend's legacy, close the rifts, and defeat Corypheus. After that... His hand flexed unconsciously. After that, we'll just have to see. "I never knew."

Cullen laughed and clapped his hand on Dorian's shoulder. "When have you been back in Skyhold long enough to hear it, hmm?" he asked. "You've been so busy running around wearing yourself to a thread that you haven't stopped long enough to hear it." His fingers gripped hard for a moment as he added in a soft voice, "I think she would be proud of you."

Dorian's throat tightened as a smile came to his lips. "Nothing would please me more," he said in a hoarse voice, "save for her being here to do all of this in my stead."

For a moment, Cullen bowed his head and took a deep breath, just before Dorian found himself being pulled into tight embrace. The other man’s breath tickled Dorian's ear as Cullen whispered, "Thank you." Before Dorian could really react, Cullen pulled back abruptly and cleared his throat. "We should move along. We don't want to keep them waiting."

Dorian quickly followed after Cullen, swallowing several times to ease the tension in his throat. Unfortunately, that did little to address the pounding of his heart, or the odd flutter he felt in the pit of his stomach, neither of which made sense to him. It must be the emotion of the moment. There had been an instant, though, when Cullen's lips had brushed his ear...

No, no. No. No, Dorian scolded internally, thoughts shying away from considering any of the implications of those particular sensations. Out of habit and a sudden need to direct his thoughts elsewhere, he flexed his left hand and let the little spike of pain clear his mind as effectively as a shock of cold water. "So, ah, where precisely are we going?"

"What, tell you and spoil the surprise?" Cullen asked, turning to Dorian long enough to give him a broad smile. "Don't worry. It's not much farther."

"Don't worry, he says, as if there's nothing to worry about," Dorian shot back. When that earned him nothing more than a laugh in response, Dorian sighed and settled back into speculation.

As they emerged from Skyhold into the courtyard, Dorian's eyes widened when they found Horsemaster Dennet waiting with a... steed at his side, though Dorian used the word only generously. If nugs could grow to the size of horses and somehow acquire horns along the way, then that's what was standing calmly next to Dennet.

A faint memory from Val Royeaux stirred in his mind as they approached the Horsemaster and his charge. "Oh, sweet Maker," Dorian said as they got closer. "Is this the ware of that insipid merchant?"

Dennet chuckled and scratched it behind its horn. "Indeed she is. A right fearsome war mount, too. And good for climbing, if it comes to that." Dennet pointed at the paws, which looked disturbingly like hands . "Climb on, give her a try."

"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?" Dorian asked with a raised eyebrow. "What is this thing called, anyway?"

"A nuggalope," Dennet said with an absolutely straight face, even as Cullen crossed his arms with one hand conveniently raised to cover what had to be a smirk.

Dorian paused with his hand on the saddle. "Truly? Dare I ask why?"

"That tale involves a Chevalier, a Crow, a Warden, and a great deal of drinking, so probably not," Dennet replied in a deadpan. "There might even have been bards involved."

"I see." A suspicious sound which closely resembled laughter emerged from behind Cullen's hand, and Dorian looked at the warrior with narrowed eyes before finally sighing and giving in to the inevitable. He didn’t see anything wrong with humoring the man, after all. Dennet knew his mounts and, more importantly, his saddles - for which Dorian's hindquarters were eternally grateful. "Then I shall mount my majestic steed, which is in no way one of the most simultaneously adorable and terrifying creatures I've yet to behold, and... do what, precisely, hmm? Strike a pose? I am rather pretty to look at."

Dennet barked a laugh as Cullen bowed his head, shoulders shaking. "Up you go," he said. "They're waiting."

Dorian's eyes narrowed once more, but the look he sent towards Cullen found the Commander with a straight face. "You do realize this is quite suspicious, don't you?" Still, with a sigh, he moved to the nuggalope's side and smoothly mounted. Laying one hand on the saddlehorn, he set the other on his hip and turned his head to strike a dramatic pose. "Now, commemorate this moment - particularly my profile - in marble, and we'll have something truly majestic to display for the visitors to Skyhold, hmm?"

Cullen grinned and moved to grab the nuggalope's reins, smacking Dorian's thigh along the way. "I'm not sure the Inquisition could find that much marble."

Rubbing his leg to ease the sting, Dorian chuckled. "Why not? We've performed miracles before."

"Inquisition's got more important things to do," Dennet declared, just before his hand slapped the nuggalope on the rump.

The mount made an odd braying sound and then started forward in the direction it was facing - walking at Cullen's heels towards the stairs leading up to the main hall of Skyhold. "I say," Dorian said, "not quite the destination I had in mind for the ware's first mission."

"She's fine," Dennet told him with a shrug. "It's why we chose her, actually. Hands like that can't hurt the carpet."

"Carpet?" His suspicion increased sharply as he looked ahead and saw that the doors, open since they'd all trooped in from Haven, were rather mysteriously closed. Dorian's eyes narrowed as they crested the stairs. "Commander, what is this all about?"

Cullen paused with his hand on the door and looked back at Dorian, a smile on his face. "Making the Inquisition whole again." With a roll of his shoulders, he dropped the nuggalope's reins and pushed open the doors.

As he did so, the swelling sound of a cheer erupted from within, and Cullen stepped aside with a bow. "He's all yours, Horsemaster."

"Thank you, Commander." Dennet loosely wrapped the reins around his arm as he stepped forward and took hold of the cheek piece on the nuggalope's bridle. Then he led them inside.

Dorian simply stared around him as Dennet guided the nuggalope. As far as he could tell, everyone in Skyhold had gathered there, from the soldiers to the nobility to the companions, and they were…yes, they were cheering. For him. It wasn't to be believed, and yet, there they were, clapping and waving at him, and here he was, being led towards the other end of the hall. At first he simply stared, unable to stop the smile that crept onto his face, until finally he raised his left hand and waved, almost not feeling the pain as the green light flared into wakefulness. That was when he first heard the word Chosen, and once he heard it, he didn't stop hearing it. And the smile on his face remained as he found an answering one on so many faces.

Am I Chosen? He glanced at his left hand for a moment, a line of concern marring his forehead as he again wondered how, exactly, he had come to bear the mark. Solas and he had discussed it extensively when he'd called Solas to the field to assist with the exploration of several of the elvish ruins and landmarks in the Emerald Graves, but neither of them had been able to develop a conclusive theory that explained why. Perhaps once Dorian had a day to himself when he could truly investigate, he'd learn more. Until then...

The sound of the nuggalope's bray snapped him out of his thoughts, and he instinctively grabbed the saddle horn as it drew to a halt at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the throne, which was still turned to face the wall. The hall had grown silent behind him, and a glance around showed Dennet standing beside the nuggalope with his hand outstretched. "I think it's about time we set things to right."

Dorian glanced at the throne, still turned to face the wall, then back at Dennet's hand, then towards the Cullen and the Iron Trio, who stood prominently to the side. After receiving several smiles and nods, he took a breath and looked down at the waiting man. "I do believe you're correct, Horsemaster."

A cheer erupted as Dorian took Dennet's hand and slid from the saddle. As the two men approached the throne, footsteps followed them, so that by the time they had reached the throne and began to turn it, they had plenty of assistance. Soon enough the throne was turned, and Dennet stepped back and looked appraisingly at it as once again the hall fell silent.

"No usurpers allowed. That's what you said, all those weeks ago," Dennet said with a short nod. "And right enough, I don't see one here. Now, why don't you sit your Magister's fat Tevinter ass down, Inquisition? We've got work to do."

Dorian laughed and clapped the man on the back. "As long as the Advisors give their blessing." He spoke loud enough to be heard, but not so loud as to make it obvious . It wasn't precisely theatre, not as much as his last encounter with Dennet in this very room, but the legitimacy came from both the people and the leaders.

Cullen stepped forward and gestured towards the throne. "Take your seat, Inquisitor."

A hush fell over the room as Dorian approached the throne, a quiet which was quickly broken as he settled himself into the wooden seat. He accepted the cheers, though each flare of his hand reminded him all too readily of the price they'd all paid for him to sit there. It was heady, true, but he tried not to let it go to his head - there was still far too much work to be done, after all.

The next few minutes blurred into each other after that, since Dorian insisted on rising from the throne and heading back into the hall, taking his time to talk to as many of the people as he could, including the Advisors and all his companions. Even Warden Alistair was there for a congratulatory shake of the hand and an easy smile.

The only time Dorian's smile faltered was when he turned to find Hawke beside him, a broad grin on the man’s face and with his hand extended. "Congratulations, Inquisitor."

"Thank you, Your Grace," Dorian said demurely as he took the hand to shake - only to find himself pulled into a rather tight embrace.

Hawke's breath tickled at Dorian's ear. "Do let me know if you wish to celebrate later, hmm?" The words were followed by the press of lips to the shell of Dorian's ear, and then Hawke released him, a friendly smile on his face. "Until we meet again," he said with a little bow, then turned and walked away through the crowd, which gave the Champion a wide berth.

Dorian kept the frown off his face, but he did allow himself a sigh. That man... He was quickly coming to mean trouble.

Eventually the hall began to clear as people returned to their duties, leaving only the nobles, gossips, and perpetually curious remaining in the hall. Dorian found himself standing at the foot of the stairs leading up to the throne, left hand flexing in time to the pulse of green light coming from it. His mind whirled, grappling with the idea that Mailani wasn't here, and that he was the--


Clearing his throat, Dorian put a warm smile on his face as he turned to face Josephine. "Ambassador. A pleasure to see you, though I'll admit, a little warning for all this," he gestured around them, "would not have been amiss."

"It's more fun this way, Inquisitor," Josephine said with a little smile. "However, I also would appreciate it if you could please sit on the throne in a more official capacity. The need for judgment has not diminished in the last few weeks, and the Inquisition never rests. With your new acquisition the title of Inquisitor, it is even more important that you accept all the responsibilities of it, and show Thedas that you can hold those reins with competence and dignity."

"Ah. Yes, of course, Ambassador." He gave her a small bow, impressed all over again by her intelligence. "I'd quite forgotten about that aspect of being the..." His voice trailed off as his smile faded. It still didn't feel real. Perhaps it never would, and yet…he had to be her legacy.

Jospehine’s gaze softened as she smiled in understanding. "The Inquisitor?"

"Indeed. Yet, if that is what must be done, then you shall not find me wanting." Straightening, Dorian moved towards the throne and settled upon it, then inclined his head towards Josephine. "Let us begin."

She nodded and gestured to the waiting guards, who obligingly brought someone forward. "This was a surprise,” she began. “After you returned from the bogs, we discovered this man attacking the building. With a…goat."

Dorian quickly held up his hand. "I beg your pardon?"

"A goat, Inquisitor," Josephine repeated.

"The shaggy animal with horns that bleats? That kind of a goat?"

Josephine smiled. "Yes, Inquisitor."

Dorian pinched the bridge of his nose as he took a deep breath. Mailani, give me strength. "Very well, Ambassador." He gestured broadly to the man decorated with paint and horns. "Pray continue."

As Josephine laid out the details of the man's case, Dorian paid close attention. Unfortunately, he simply couldn't keep the smirk off his face, even when he sent the man and his clan packing off to the Imperium. Everyone needs a hobby, after all .

As the afternoon wore on, he caught himself more than once lightly stroking the palm of his left hand, pondering what Mailani would do. Somehow, it just felt right. Later, he would ponder the ramifications, both political and personal, for being thrust into the role he’d sworn he never wanted. For now, he would just do the best he could.

For her sake.

Chapter Text

Cullen’s breath puffed through his nose as he hurried to gather materials for the meeting in the war room. He was late - a rare event by anyone’s measure - but this time he was exceptionally late and didn’t wish to dally any more than he had to. A restless night followed by a headache had forced him to linger in bed longer than was his custom. After that, the morning had been whittled away by messengers and scouts and trying to ignore the box with the tempting blue liquid in it which he still had stashed away in a drawer of his desk, all coupled with a headache from the Void that just would not quit.

When a knock came at the door just as he reached for final batch of notes, he groaned before calling out irritably, “Come!”

The door opened to reveal Cassandra, a concerned look on her face as she entered. “Are you all right, Commander?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine, Seeker,” Cullen snapped, then paused and took a deep breath. “I apologize for my tardiness,” he said in a calmer voice as he straightened. “I presume that’s why you are here?”

“Your absence has been noticed, yes.” Her eyes flickered to the food tray on his desk, and she frowned. “You have not eaten your breakfast?”

He winced and rubbed the back of his neck. “This morning proved to be very busy,” he told her. “I believe I saw Jim no less than five times.”

“That’s no excuse to neglect yourself,” Cassandra said in a severe voice.

He gave her a keen look. “I seem to remember you skipping a few meals yourself around the time of the Conclave.”

Making a dismissive gesture with her hand, Cassandra gave him a stern glare. “That is entirely different and you know it.” Moving to the tray, she lifted the pitcher of juice, then made a disgusted noise when she saw a piece of paper still beneath it. Retrieving it, she held it out to Cullen. “Also, it defeats the purpose of trying to send you hidden messages if you do not even find them when necessary.”

His eyebrows rose as he took the paper. “Hidden messages?” Cullen repeated. When she simply nodded, he unfolded the paper and quickly read it through once, then twice. With a muttered oath, he folded it again. “Maker’s breath, that’s all I need on top of this headache.”

Cassandra’s face grew concerned again. “Is it the withdrawal again?”

“Perhaps,” Cullen said, reaching up to rub his forehead. “Or perhaps it’s the headache one would expect to get after a restless night, a busy morning, and a skipped breakfast.”

“True,” she conceded. “You do seem to be improving when it comes to the lyrium addiction.”

Cullen nodded, though he couldn’t quite stop the grimace from coming to his face. “In truth, sometimes it is only the memory of Inquisitor Lavellan which prevents my relapse,” he admitted quietly.

Putting a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, Cassandra said, “You are still performing your duties to the Inquisition, and you are still not using lyrium. That is worth a great deal, I think. I have faith in you.”

“I wish I had more faith in myself,” he admitted, then waved the folded note. “And I’ll admit, my first reaction to learning Hawke has returned to Skyhold and will be at the meeting was a temptation to use the stuff.”

A faint smile came to her face. “That is why we tried to warn you at breakfast,” she told him.

“Why a note, though?” he wondered. “You could have just come and told me.”

“We didn’t want to do anything unusual to attract his attention,” she told him. “He has been rather… odd of late.”

Cullen snorted. “That’s one way to put it. If he showed his interest in the Inquisitor any louder, they’d be able to hear it in Kirkwall.”

Cassandra gave him an odd look, but finally nodded. “Which would not be a problem if Dorian returned the interest.”

“No. It would be a worse problem if he did,” Cullen said grimly. “You didn’t see what Hawke did to Merrill.” And Fenris, he added in the vaults of his mind, but he assumed that Varric wouldn’t have told Cassandra the whole truth of that. Even Cullen only knew because he’d found Aveline deep in her cups the night after Hawke had been appointed Viscount as she debated whether to leave her post - and Hawke - behind, or stay despite a Viscount Hawke. Considering the woman never turned to alcohol to solve her problems, it had been a surprise to find her in such a state, and an even greater one when she’d launched into a lengthy, drunken confession. When Cassandra had approached him shortly thereafter to join the Inquisition, Cullen hadn’t even hesitated. Aveline’s words had simply solidified his alienation from the so-called Champion of Kirkwall.

“Merrill?” Cassandra blinked. “Varric only said she did not stand with Hawke at the end.”

“That is definitely true.” As the pounding in his head increased, he reached up and rubbed his forehead. “Perhaps it is simply best to say that I do not wish to expose the Inquisitor to certain… difficulties which Hawke represents.”

Cassandra’s face grew troubled. “I knew he made questionable decisions about the raider woman--”

“Questionable--” Cullen stopped his interruption and stared incredulously at Cassandra. “He handed her over to the Qunari. That’s beyond questionable, that’s--” Forcing himself to stop, he took a deep breath. “I suspect that Varric gave you the story he wrote in his book, Seeker,” he said quietly. “There are more details that I’m sure he’s never told anyone.”

As a frown came to her face, Cullen suspected that he’d unwittingly given her motivation to seek Varric out and ask further questions, but for the moment he was simply grateful she didn’t ask more of him. “I see. That explains why you and Varric seem so very eager to keep Hawke away from the Inquisitor.”

Cullen looked up at her sharply. “Is it that obvious?”

“Only to one who knows both of you well,” she admitted. “And I would presume Hawke does know Varric well. To those who do not know you, it might seem that you are pursuing the Inquisitor yourself.”

That comment made Cullen blink. “Pardon?”

“It is a rumor, Commander, though a faint one,” Cassandra said gravely, though the way she canted her head ever so slightly indicated something else entirely. “Leliana found it quite amusing.”

“She would,” Cullen muttered sourly.

Now Cassandra’s lips did twitch, but mercifully she moved on. “Hawke is starting to get irritated at the situation, if his mood in the war room today is any indication.”

Cullen rubbed his temple again, seeking to calm the pain. “Keeping him happy isn’t my concern. And as long as the Inquisitor is kept out of it, Hawke won’t get angry at him , just me and Varric.” A half-grin came to his face. “Just like old times in Kirkwall.”

“I am sure you know better in this matter,” Cassandra said with a small shrug. “I will, however, give the situation additional scrutiny when possible. It has only been a few weeks since Dorian became Inquisitor, after all. We are not strong enough to lose the Viscount’s support outright.”

“Which the Inquisitor and our Ambassador are keenly aware of, I’m sure.” Cullen grimaced and shook his head. “Politics. You can leave me out of it.”

“Except politics in this case means the difference between food and armor or nothing for your soldiers,” Cassandra pointed out. “Should Kirkwall distance itself from the Inquisition, it is likely others in the Free Marches will follow. The Lord of Starkhaven, for one. He has followed Hawke’s lead so far.”

Nodding slowly, Cullen grunted and retrieved his notes. “And standing around talking about it won’t make any of those problems go away.”

“Are you sure you can endure the meeting?” Cassandra asked.

“For the Inquisition’s sake, I will endure anything,” Cullen said firmly. “Even my worst nightmare can’t be worse than a world with Corypheus in charge.”

“From your lips to the Maker’s ears,” Cassandra agreed quietly, then turned to lead the way from Cullen’s office.

As they entered the war room, Dorian turned to greet them with a smile. “Ah, I see you found our wayward Commander, Seeker. I do hope nothing is amiss?”

“Sorry I’m late,” Cullen said brusquely as he took his customary place between Leliana and Josephine.

“Oh, don’t worry, Commander,” Dorian said with a wink. “We all need the sun to freeze once in a while when something impossible happens.”

Cullen mock-scowled at Dorian. “I’ve been late before. It’s not that rare.”

“On the contrary, Commander, I heard that you were on time for your birth,” Dorian said airily. “And probably saluted the healer when you came out. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.”

“That’s not how I--” He paused, noticing the smirks on the faces around him. “Maker, I’m not that bad, am I?”

“Of course not, Commander,” Leliana assured him. “Though there are stories about Cassandra’s birth.”

Cassandra’s eyebrows rose. “I did not salute anyone when I was born,” she protested.

“Perhaps not, but I’m sure you waited no later than your first birthday to do so,” Leliana told her in a teasing tone.

Though most of those around the table chuckled as Cassandra made a noise of disgust, one person simply folded his arms across his chest and frowned. “Don’t we have more important matters to discuss?” Hawke asked pointedly.

“Oh, I do beg your pardon, Your Grace,” Dorian said lightly, though the levity in the room faded noticeably. “I shall make certain to schedule such lighthearted matters to occur only at the appropriate time henceforth.”

Hawke smiled as he looked at Dorian directly. “Maybe after the meeting we could discuss that? Over a bottle of wine perhaps?”

As Dorian hesitated, obviously not wishing to reject the not-so-subtle invitation outright, Cullen stepped in. “I’m afraid that the Inquisitor won’t be available. There’s something which requires his attention.”

Eyes narrowing suspiciously, Hawke looked at Cullen. “I see. Well, far be it for me to get between the Inquisitor and his Commander.”

After a moment of awkward silence, Alistair stepped forward and tapped his finger on the map. “The Western Approach,” he said as he looked around the table. “We’ve been keeping an eye on Warden activities, and according to Leli’s agents,” he gave her a wink, “there’s quite a bit of Warden activity there.”

“And quite a few Venatori as well,” Leliana added. “It’s been building there since we’ve been driving them out of other areas around Thedas.”

Cullen leaned onto the table, setting one of his markers in the center of the Western Approach. “There’s an old Warden Keep there which would be a valuable addition to the Inquisition’s resources,” he noted. “Griffon Wing Keep. I’d suggest starting there so we can establish a presence in the region.”

“Or,” Hawke said with an edge in his voice, “we could go straight for the throat of the Wardens we’ve been tracking and not announce our presence in the Approach so that a blind and Blighted knife ear whore could spot it from one of the moons.” He gave Cullen a brittle smile. “But then, I’m not the tactical genius that you are, Commander. I’m only a Viscount, after all.”

Josephine shifted uneasily on her feet as the two men glared at each other. “I will point out,” she said in her time to be diplomatic voice, “that the Inquisition has had agents in the Western Approach for some time. We simply have limited it to scouts and Leliana’s agents. A small party consisting of the Inquisitor and a few select companions would, most likely, remain undetected for quite a while.”

“If we strike and take the Keep first,” Alistair said, nudging Cullen’s marker, “and then immediately head for the last known location of the Wardens in the Approach, there won’t be an opportunity to raise the alarm. We believe Corypheus is influencing the Wardens through manipulation of their taint, but we don’t have proof that they’re coordinating with the Venatori, do we?”

“They’re both serving Corypheus,” Hawke pointed out. “It would be tantamount to idiocy to assume they’re not.”

“Then let’s split the difference,” Dorian suggested, looking at the map thoughtfully. “The Commander can take Griffon Wing Keep with the help of the Inquisition Forces and Leliana’s agents, while I take a covert group to deal with the Wardens directly.”

“Perhaps we could add a wrinkle to the mix that the Venatori won’t expect,” Leliana suggested. “The Chargers would be a formidable addition to the Inquisition forces in a battle like that.”

“It has possibilities, Inquisitor,” Cullen mused. “If I send in Knight-Captain Rylen with a select group of Inquisition Forces and the Chargers with you, you should be able to claim the Keep very quickly. Then, while they’re making noises to make it seem that you, personally, remain at the Keep, Leliana’s agents could lead you to the Wardens’ last known location.”

“The Wardens might even take advantage of the Inquisition’s supposed distraction with the Keep to finally do that ritual they’ve been talking about in those messages Hawke and I intercepted,” Alistair mused.

Hawke’s angry stance softened as a calculating expression came to his face. “Yes, we need to make sure we see what they’re up to with that. Their correspondence made it sound like they were waiting for someone to arrive, someone who isn’t a Grey Warden.”

“And if that new ally is proven to be a Venatori, or allied with Corypheus, then we’ll have sufficient evidence to go to our allies and ask for further aid against the Wardens,” Josephine added.

“We don’t have enough already?” Dorian asked in surprise. “Even with Warden Alistair on our side?”

“I wouldn’t put too much weight on my name,” Alistair said sheepishly as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I mean, yes, I was one of the Wardens who fought in the Fifth Blight, but I also abandoned the fight before it was over and went off to become a drunkard in the gutters of Kirkwall. I don’t think my redemption story has circulated widely enough yet, or is… you know, exciting enough. About all you can say is that Anora graciously hasn’t asked for my head.”

“Don’t worry, old friend,” Cullen told him. “Some day the bards will sing your tale without quite so much ale being involved.”

“Thanks awfully, I feel so much better now,” Alistair told him sarcastically.

“That’s the plan, then,” Dorian said decisively as he straightened. “Cassandra, why don’t you go let the Iron Bull and Varric know we’ll be heading out to the Western Approach soon?”

As Cassandra nodded and moved to the door, Hawke grimaced. “The dwarf? Really?”

“That crossbow of his is positively lethal,” Dorian pointed out. “But then, you already knew that, I would imagine.”

Hawke’s jaw rippled slightly. “As you say. I’ll get ready for the journey, then. The Western Approach isn’t one of my favorite areas in Thedas, after all.”

“Nor is it for anyone in the Inquisition,” Cullen said softly, and a hush came over the room. They all remembered quite clearly the location of Mailani’s death, after all.

After a tense moment, Hawke inclined his head to Cullen. “Forgive me. I meant no disrespect to the memory of Inquisitor Lavellan. Until later, then.” With a curt nod to the room in general, he turned and left the room.

Alistair puffed his cheeks full of air. “He’s acting more and more like a grumpy bronto lately,” he observed. “I don’t suppose you know any magical unicorn sprinkles spells, do you, Inquisitor?”

Dorian laughed. “Ah, no. Though that would be a rather spectacular spell, wouldn’t it?”

"It would certainly get everyone's attention," Alistair said with a grin as he stretched his arms above his head. "Almost as effective as lightning. That's how Amell used to do it. The lightning, I mean, not magical unicorn sprinkles. Effective, mind, but Morrigan didn't speak to him for weeks after he zapped her hair straight out from her head. She had a lot of hair."

Leliana laughed, though the sound was cut short as she quickly closed her mouth. "I'd forgotten about that. She even refused to make potions for him. It's the only time he ever apologized for anything."

"Ser High and Mighty apologize? Not him," Alistair said with a snort, glancing at the door for a moment. "Reminds me of someone else I could mention..."

"Oh, hush, Alistair." Leliana gathered up some papers and headed towards the door. "Come with me. I want you to brief some of my agents about what to expect when tracking Wardens."

"Right," Alistair said as he followed after her. "We can be a tricky bunch, we Wardens."

When the door had closed behind them, Cullen tilted his head for a moment, then glanced at Josephine. "Do you think--?"

"They did travel together during the Blight," Josephine noted with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. "And it was a trying time for both of them, from what she has told me."

"Is there something i should know about?" Dorian asked, one eyebrow rising.

"No, Inquisitor," Josephine said as she tucked her ledger close to her body. "Nothing at all. I will go make the necessary arrangements with the local lords on the way to the Western Approach so that Knight-Captain Rylen and yourself can proceed without running into any odious officials blocking the way. We don't want a repeat of what happened in the Emerald Graves, after all."

"You do think of everything," Dorian said with a brilliant smile. "Thank you, Lady Josephine. You are the Inquisition's greatest treasure."

Josephine smiled and curtsied to Dorian. "You are kind, Inquisitor. Now if you will excuse me." With a nod to Cullen, she exited the room, humming softly to herself.

"We truly have some remarkable people in the Inquisition, don't we?" Dorian mused. "I don't know how she manages to keep everything straight. I have enough trouble keeping track of the Magisterium. She has to do that for so many countries it makes my head spin."

"Mine, too," Cullen said with a chuckle as he collected his notes and leaned over to move a couple of markers on the table to new locations. "A good thing I'm not in her position. I've been told tact is not one of my strong suits."

"You, Commander? Not tactful? Perish the thought!" Dorian laughed as he leaned against the table. "I'm sure that using Inquisition forces to march a Halla into a village as a sign of mourning is completely the diplomatic approach."

Cullen winced as he stood, hand rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. Admittedly, the momentary embarrassment was a good distraction from the dull pain of his headache. "I'll thank you not to remind me of that. Josephine wasn't too pleased with my suggestion, either."

"Thank me how?" Dorian teased him. "I can think of a few rather fascinating ways for that."

For a moment, Cullen stared at Dorian, then abruptly looked away, hand automatically rising to rub his forehead before he pulled it back down. Their friendship had grown stronger in the last few weeks, but Cullen preferred not to dwell on the rather fascinating ways that Dorian hinted at in his little remark. "Ah, there is something I wanted to show you," he said in a more brusque tone as he rounded the table and headed to the door. "If you'll follow me, Inquisitor."

Pushing away from the table, Dorian nodded. "Where are you taking me, Commander? It's not to another of those boring inspections, is it?"

"Your presence at those is very important for morale," Cullen responded automatically, then glared at Dorian as the man grinned at him. “What?”

Dorian chuckled and waved his hand, causing the door to the war room to open on its own. "Sometimes you are so dreadfully predictable, Commander."

Cullen raised a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I've asked you not to do that." Even he wasn't sure whether he referred to the magic Dorian had used to open the door, or the mage's teasing.

Grin widening, Dorian thumped his hand on Cullen's shoulder before walking past him into the hall and gesturing towards the far door with a flourish. "Oh, come now, Commander. Everyone's life could use a bit of magic in it, even a grumpy ex-Templar."

"I am not grumpy," Cullen groused, then grimaced as he realized that such a statement didn't do much to argue against the case. As Dorian's mouth opened to respond, he muttered, "And no comment from you."

"I wouldn't dream of it, Commander," Dorian said with a wink. "Now, where were you taking me, again?"

"Not an inspection, you'll be relieved to know," Cullen told him pointedly as he started to lead the way.

"In truth, I do not find those so very onerous, despite my complaints," Dorian admitted as he fell in beside Cullen. "I recall when Mailani would join you on those, and the smiles that always followed her. I may not have her gentle touch in such matters, but they seem to appreciate the gesture nevertheless. Who am I to put my creature comforts over theirs?"

Cullen gave him a sidelong glance. "I didn't realize you could see those before," he admitted.

"My little nook in the library has quite the view of Skyhold, Commander," Dorian reminded him. "Including the Courtyard. On occasion I would watch the display down there during training and such. Why, I even recall the time you removed that unsightly fur of yours to actually drill the men yourself. The scandal!"

"It is not unsi--" Cullen began, then stopped and glared at Dorian as the man's lips twitched. "Don't say that I’m predictable," he warned.

"I wouldn't dream of it, Commander," Dorian said smoothly. "I am a gentleman, after all. Even if some would argue that a Vint can never be a gentleman."

Unable to resist at least a smile at the sally, Cullen just shook his head and shoved the door to the Hall open. "Keep this up and I might take up that argument."

"I'm hurt, Commander, deeply hurt," Dorian protested, hand pressing to his chest.

Cullen rolled his eyes as he led them to the next door, one to the left and nearer the throne. "This way," he told Dorian, pushing his way into the Inquisitor's quarters.

When the footsteps didn't immediately follow, he turned to see Dorian lingering just outside the doorway. With a frown, Cullen moved back. "Are you all right?"

"I--" Dorian's eyes were a trifle wider than usual, and a line had appeared between his eyebrows as they pinched together. "I wasn't expecting you to bring us here."

"So it's true, then," Cullen said softly. "Bull was right. You never sleep here."

"Of course not," Dorian said, sounding aghast at the very notion. "Though Bull is hardly an authority on where I sleep."

Recognizing the deflection for what it was, Cullen remained on topic with a pointed reminder. "You are the Inquisitor."

"Yes, but... but these rooms aren't mine." His lips pressed together for a moment, but Cullen heard the unspoken words as clearly as if he'd spoken. They are hers.

Setting his hand on Dorian's shoulder, Cullen gave him a little smile. "This way," he said softly. "There's something I want to show you."

After another moment's hesitation, Dorian finally nodded and took a step forward. With his hand on the man's shoulder, Cullen could feel the moment when the tension left Dorian, at the same moment when his grey eyes gained more than a hint of moisture. "I suppose they've been... ah, tending to the cleaning and such? My eyes are so very susceptible to dust and such things."

"I'll try to keep in mind that you are a delicate desert bloom," Cullen noted blandly. Ignoring Dorian's answering glare, he nodded ahead. "This way."

As they walked along the wooden platform leading to the Inquisitor's quarters, Cullen had to take a few deep breaths of his own. Nothing had changed, and yet...

"It's strange, isn't it?" Dorian murmured as they moved upward. "It's the same as it ever was, but... everything has changed."

Startled to hear a mirror of his own thoughts, Cullen gave Dorian a sidelong glance. "I was thinking much the same," he admitted. "The first time I came here after... after she died, I was out of my mind with drink. The first few times, if I'm to be honest." He looked around them, focusing on trivial details like dust motes and cobwebs in hopes of keeping the words distant as he spoke. "I still remember the first time I came up here after her effects had been sent back to her clan. That was... difficult."

"I can empathize," Dorian said, a catch in his voice. Quickly clearing his throat, he added in a stronger tone, "I wonder what the reaction would be if we turned it into a shrine for the Herald of Andraste."

Cullen had to chuckle at the idea. "I don't think the Chantry would view it favorably if the Inquisition started designating sites as holy to Andraste," he pointed out. "Especially if a Vint is involved."

"True," Dorian said with a sigh. "Not even if that Vint is fabulously handsome." Though the words were light, the way he was looking around as they climbed the final set of stairs showed a tightness around his eyes which indicated anything but levity. Once they stood at the top, however, his gaze gravitated to the portrait above the fireplace. "Oh-- Oh. I see."

 Art by WhiskasGirl

(art of Mailani Lavellan by WhiskasGirl)

 Without another word, Dorian moved stand in front of it, his hand half-reaching towards it before he pulled it back. As Cullen moved to put his hand on Dorian's shoulder, Dorian exhaled suddenly. "It's perfect," he said in hushed tones. "It's... difficult to see, but comforting, as well."

Cullen nodded in agreement, looking at the portrait with a steady gaze. "I admit my initial reaction was a trifle wrought, but on the whole I agree. I don't know who Josephine hired to paint it, but they must have known her in real life."

"Agreed. Her eyes in particular... Mailani always had such endless patience," Dorian said, tone almost reverent. For a few moments, the men stood in silence as they contemplated the painting. After a few moments, Dorian cleared his throat and took a long, shuddering breath and reached up to wipe his eyes. "We will move this to the Hall, yes? Everyone will want to see it. Perhaps we could place it above the throne. That would be more than fitting, I would think. Oh, wait. Blast. The windows." He frowned for a moment, then suddenly smiled. "Ah, I almost forgot Dagna. I'm sure she can come up with something suitably magnificent to display Mailani without damaging the windows she loved."

Cullen again gave him a sidelong glance. "You remember that?" When he thought of Mailani and windows, it wasn't the ones in the main hall which came to mind, but the one in his bedroom in the tower. Though that was mostly because of the way she'd push him into it before pulling his trousers down to 'explore'. Best not to mention that. "I didn't think anyone else knew about that particular interest of hers."

"Oh, she was inordinately clever," Dorian commented, oblivious to Cullen's train of thought. "She let me look through her sketchbook once, and the windows were in there. The conversation turned to architecture of all sorts, and we went through the entire library looking for renditions of buildings all over Thedas. Maker, but she had such an inquisitive mind." Moisture welled up in his eyes once more, but this time they hovered above a smile. As a tear spilled out, he quickly dashed it away and offered Cullen a sheepish smile. "It's exquisite. I'll speak to Dagna straight away. The entire Inquisition will wish to see it."

"We wanted to give those who knew her best a more private viewing first," Cullen told him. "You're the last to see it." Hoping to lighten the mood a little, he nudged Dorian with an elbow. "For someone who likes to lecture me on the extreme nature of my work ethic, you're a hard man to pin down."

"Oh, I'm quite easy to pin down when I'm hard," Dorian quipped in an absent tone, most of his attention still on the painting.

Cullen blinked, ears burning a bit as he worked through what Dorian had said, particularly on the heels of the vivid memory with Mailani. "P-pardon?"

"What?" Dorian turned to look at him, giving Cullen a good view as the man's eyes widened and his ears pulled back. "I-- Oh! Ah, perhaps we should just pretend I didn't say that, hmm?"

"I'm willing if you are," Cullen said quickly. After a moment, though, he laughed and nodded to Mailani's picture. "She'd never let you forget it, though."

Dorian fought it, but finally he laughed as well, his gaze warming as he looked at Cullen. "No, she wouldn't, the minx. I'd give anything for her to tease me about it endlessly now."

Settling his hand on Dorian's shoulder, Cullen squeezed gently as he nodded. "As would I." After a final glance at the portrait, he took a deep breath and then turned away. "Come on. There's a bit more that I'd like to talk about."

"Oh?" As he tore his gaze from the canvas, Dorian turned it to Cullen with an eyebrow raised in inquiry. "What about?"

"Here," Cullen said, then pushed Dorian down onto the couch and settled down across from him. "This room. What should be your room. Josephine had it prepared for you the day of the ceremony, I'm sure of it. How long ago was that, hmm?"

Dorian quickly glanced away, leaning forward so that he could focus closely on his hands. "I'm perfectly content in my current quarters," he mumbled.

"You're the Inquisitor, Dorian." Cullen sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Look, it took Josephine and Leliana a while to convince me given... well, everything, but there are rumors."

"You think I haven't heard them, scuttling about and echoing off the walls of Skyhold like the blasted pests they are?" Dorian asked softly. "I'm only play-acting as Inquisitor, and am just a puppet for someone else. Hawke, perhaps, or the Imperium. That's one version. Oh, and then there's the guilt of murder. I can't sleep in the same place where she once slept for fear her spirit will find me and punish me." His voice took on a sing-song quality. "The evils of my past will find me in the room of the Herald, and I will pay for what I've done." He sighed and buried his face in his hands. "And others. Those are just the strains I've heard so often I could play them on a lute."

After a moment of staring, Cullen reached out and set a sympathetic hand on Dorian's arm. "What's the real reason?"

"Aside from the nagging feeling that I don't belong?" Dorian asked. "I suppose I simply feel like I'm intruding. On her memory." He finally turned to look at Cullen. "Or yours. Of being with her."

Now it was Cullen's turn to look away. "I am ashamed to admit that I did think that once," he admitted. "Particularly in those early weeks."

"And you had darker suspicions, too, as I recall," Dorian said, though he slid his hand up to rest on top of Cullen's, keeping it where it was. "I understand. I still blamed myself back then. It's taken me a long time to finally admit there was nothing I could do, save what I did."

“Being with her at the end,” Cullen said with a nod. “If I could not save her, that would be the next best thing. Making sure she didn’t die alone. To a soldier, the hand of a friend is sometimes the best you can hope for in the end.”

Dorian smiled at that. “Very poetic, Commander.”

“Oh, I can’t take credit for that,” Cullen said. “Ask any soldier and they’ll tell you the same thing. And you gave her that. It took me a while to accept that, but… I thank you for it.” He squeezed Dorian’s arm.

“And I did one more thing,” Dorian said softly, opening his left hand. The green light of the Anchor flickered uneasily, then faded. “Just as important, I hope. I’m continuing her legacy. I don’t know if I’m essential to bringing down Corypheus, but the Anchor is certainly necessary for other tasks.”

Cullen’s mouth curved in a smile. “There are many people who owe you a debt of gratitude for your actions, Anchor or no,” he told Dorian. “I’d accuse you of modesty, but that is beneath you.”

“Quite right,” Dorian said with a nod. “A marvel of perfection such as myself does not need such mundanity as a modest disposition. You have a keen eye for detail, Commander, so I’m sure you agree.”

Sitting back on the couch, Cullen pretended to study Dorian for a moment. The scrutiny took a bit longer than he originally intended, mainly because he realized he hadn’t really evaluated Dorian on the basis of his looks. He knew the mage was handsome, but only when he was deliberately searching for a flaw to tease him about did Cullen realize that the man was also attractive. And that came as an obscure surprise. To cover the length of his study, he hummed for a few moments before giving a little shrug. “Oh, I don’t know. Your clothing does seem to have a ridiculous number of buckles.”

Dorian’s eyebrows rose. “You’re not one to talk about fashion, Commander, unless we’re discussing the southern reaches of Thedas where the barbarians live.” Tweaking a bit of fur between his fingers, he added, “Fur? Really? That is so very Towers Age, after all. I’m surprised you let yourself be seen in public wearing the thing.”

With a snort, Cullen batted Dorian’s hand away. “At least I can finish disrobing before my bath water cools.”

“Ah, the advantage of being a mage,” Dorian fired back. “My bath is always the perfect temperature.”

“Fair point,” Cullen conceded with a laugh. “I don’t have that advantage, admittedly.”

“I could help you with that,” Dorian told him with a wink.

Cullen blinked a few times, then looked away. “Ah, thank you, but we needn’t share a bath.”

“Share a--” Dorian laughed aloud as Cullen felt his ears heat. “Forgive me, Commander. I did not expect your mind to go there. I only meant I could perform a magical feat on your behalf. A stone to keep the water warm, or perhaps an enchantment on the tub itself, if it were metal. Not sharing. We’re not in a barracks, after all.”

Ears now well and truly reddened, Cullen coughed. “Understood, Inquisitor.”

Dorian’s eyebrows drew together. “My apologies, Commander. I tease you too much, I know. I shall refrain in your presence.”

Cullen immediately shook his head. “No. It’s all right. In fact…” A smile came to Cullen’s face. “In fact, that’s something I wished to talk to you about. I’ve been thinking about the last few months, about the Inquisition, and… I wanted to tell you that… Well…”

“Yes, Commander? I’m positively tingling with anticipation,” Dorian said.

Now that it was time to trot out his little prepared speech, Cullen found himself suddenly uncertain. What if Dorian was offended? Or hurt? What if it was too cheesy, or self-serving? Suddenly his headache returned in full force, clouding his thoughts when he needed them to be focused. Clearing his throat to buy time, he said, “I… I wanted to tell you that she would be proud of you. Mailani, I mean. You could have gone back to the Imperium, or simply chosen to do the minimum expected of you here in Skyhold. But you didn’t. You've poured your heart and soul into the Inquisition, even without her here to inspire you directly.” Encouraged by Dorian’s widened eyes, he set his hand on Dorian’s forearm and leaned in a little to give emphasis to his words. “You have been more than simply Mailani’s legacy, Dorian, and more than her heir. You have truly earned the title Inquisitor, and I will offer my sword to your service in any way you see fit.” With a little squeeze, he added, “I just thought someone should tell you.”

Dorian’s face worked through several emotions as his eyebrows rose and fell before his lips trembled into an almost shy smile. “Commander, I--I don’t know what to say. Usually when men speak to me in such a fashion, it’s a prelude to the use of a vastly different sword.”

After a few seconds of a blank stare, Cullen’s eyes widened, and he buried his head in his hand. “Maker!”

“Don’t worry, Commander, I didn’t misunderstand you,” Dorian assured him with a tone full of earnest sincerity. “And… I thank you. Your words… I can easily say that no one has ever spoken to me in quite such a fashion. Errant moments of support, perhaps, but never wholehearted endorsement.”

Aware that his face was still red, Cullen nevertheless looked up at him. “Not even your father?” He instantly knew from the expression on Dorian’s face that it was the exact wrong thing to say. “I’m sorry, Inquisitor,” he offered quickly. “I should have known better, after--”

Waving the comment away, Dorian smiled, though it held a brightness that spoke of its brittle nature. “No matter. I thank you for the compliment. I know such words are not easily gleaned from the Commander of the Inquisition Forces.” Standing, he gave Cullen a bow. “And I’m sure that you don’t need me twittering away at you all afternoon,” he added in a cheerful voice.

With a wince, Cullen reached up to rub awkwardly his neck, grimacing as he found a taut tendon. “I don’t mind, truly, Inquisitor.”

Dorian frowned and rounded the couch to stand behind Cullen. “Is this what’s causing your headaches?” he asked, then set his hands on Cullen’s neck. “Maker, Commander, I could use your shoulders as an anvil! Your head must feel like Bull sat on it in all his horned glory.”

Cullen groaned softly as strong fingers kneaded his neck. “I wish I could say I slept on it wrong, but--”

“But you didn’t sleep, did you?” Dorian prompted, then clucked his tongue. “Commander, what have I told you about keeping impossible hours?”

“It requires impossible effort,” Cullen replied sheepishly, though lack of sleep was only an element of his pain. The other part was the lack of the blue ecstasy he had spent half the night staring at in passive aggressive resistance.

“And am I wrong?” Dorian prompted as he worked over the knotted muscle.

“No.” Cullen sighed, rolling his head slightly to give Dorian a better vantage. “And I did get some sleep.”

“Not nearly enough,” Dorian scolded him as his fingers smoothed up to work at Cullen’s scalp. “Drums would envy you right now.”

Cullen chuckled, but as Dorian continued to work on his tension, an eerie feeling began to settle over him. When it grew too acute to ignore, he abruptly reached up and grabbed Dorian’s wrists. “Did you ever have headaches?”

“Me? The paragon of perfection? Not really, why?” Dorian leaned around to study Cullen’s face. “Your headache must be worse than I thought. You’ve turned pale as a sheet.” He nodded to the bed. “And flat is better than sitting up. Come on, up you go. I can’t afford to have my Commander collapse from pained exhaustion during drills, can I?”

With a little shrug, Cullen released him. “No. No, of course not. It’s just that for a moment…” He stopped and shook his head. “It’s not important. If you’re willing to offer help, I am more than willing to accept it. This headache has lingered far longer than most of its kind.”

Again Dorian clucked his tongue, then heaved Cullen to his feet. “Go, go,” he said, making a shooing notion. “And be glad I mastered the grease trap spell as a child. Oh, and remove that… thing,” he added, gesturing to Cullen’s mantle. “It’s rather hard to give a proper massage when you’re not sure if someone’s poorly chosen fashion accessories will eat you or not.”

Cullen laughed even as he shrugged it off and laid it on the foot of the bed. “It’s not that bad,” he told Dorian.

“I’ll be the judge of that, thank you. The only thing you spend time on when it comes to your appearance is your hair.”

Pausing in the act of arranging himself face down on the bed, Cullen looked at Dorian with raised eyebrows. “What do you know about that?”

“If you think that Mailani didn’t tell her best friend about your meticulous hairstyling regime, then you are seriously mistaken,” Dorian told him as he pushed Cullen lightly.

Falling flat with an oof, Cullen chuckled wryly. “I should have known. She teased me about it often enough.”

“And rightfully so, Commander. Dragonthorn hair cream? Truly?” Dorian clucked his tongue, even as his hands settled again on Cullen’s neck. “That must take a fair amount of your salary. Or you had an in with someone whose job it was to wander around the countryside and gather random herbal components. I wonder which it is, hmm?”

“Is that why there’s always enough?” Cullen’s eyes fluttered closed as slowly but surely the pain began to recede.

“It is part of her legacy, albeit a minor part. Far be it for me to not live up to maintaining the dignity and grace of your hair. Would the troops respect you if it collapsed into a flat, horrid mess?” Dorian asked, briefly patting Cullen’s head for emphasis. “I think not.”

With a tired chuckle, Cullen felt his body relax. “Whatever you say, Inquisitor.” If Dorian had an answer, he didn’t hear it. Instead, he simply let the motions of the fingers chase away the pain and stress of his waking hours to be replaced by a peace which had been sorely missing from his life.

And if, deep down, he wondered why Dorian’s efforts reminded him so keenly of Mailani’s deft touch, well… he chose not to dwell on the matter. Sleep seemed a far more compelling option for contemplation.

Chapter Text

Dorian’s eyes slowly opened to find a dull, grey darkness. His fuzzy thoughts tried to recollect precisely where he was and how he had gotten there, but his mind rebelled against such trivial attempts to use it. With a groan, he blinked a few times and tried hard to focus, hoping for some hints. There were… grey blobs, greenish grey blobs, and - he squinted - yes, definitely some brownish grey blobs, all familiar enough to make him frown as he realized that he hadn’t awakened after all. The Fade was a tricky mistress at the best of times, but for some reason, it was particularly difficult to cudgel himself into action this time around.

Suddenly a distant pulse of pain swept up his left arm just as a woman’s giggle reached his ears. Sufficiently galvanized at last, he jerked himself upright and backed away from the sound, still trying to pierce the darkness with his gaze. When his back hit something solid, he blinked a few more times in an attempt to force his eyes to function. When the giggle was answered by a man’s indistinct rumble, Dorian looked around in a panic, wondering how much he’d had to drink to end up stumbling into some unsuspecting couple’s dream. It only slowly dawned on him that he actually couldn’t do that, as he was not a somniari. Only once that had settled in did he realize whose dream he must be visiting. Given that he hadn’t shared a dream with Cullen since before the coronation, Dorian had to admit to more than a little curiosity.

With the mystery of where he was solved, Dorian gradually moved towards the hum of conversation. Ahead of him, the light brightened, and the words shifted from blobs of sound to almost discernible words. The Fade teased him with a word here or there, but it wasn’t until he stubbed his toe that the scene in front of him abruptly coalesced into a coherent whole.

The toe-offending blunt object turned out to be the couch upon which he’d fallen asleep. His last waking moment came back to him all in a rush, lying on the couch in the Inquisitor’s quarters with a little smile on his face as he stared at a peacefully slumbering Cullen. Blinking to clear the image, he raised his gaze to look around the room, taking in the surroundings with a quick glance.

There were differences, of course, between the Inquisitor’s quarters in reality and where he found himself now. An archery stand now stood in the corner, the bow and arrows impeccably arranged in direct contrast to the haphazard piles of clothes around it. The desk spoke of chaos crowding in on order, and the windows were flung open to reveal what passed for a sunny day in the Fade. The bed was violently, incredibly unmade, with pillows and blankets flung hither and thither, and the two voices came from it.

As he focused on the two figures on the bed, the blobs of sound clarified into full words. “--and that’s when I threaded his trousers with an arrow,” Mailani said with another giggle. Her hair was down and loose around her shoulders, but thankfully for Dorian’s sanity she was fully clothed, albeit in a loose tunic and pants. More worryingly for that same sanity, she was sitting astride Cullen, who was lying face-down on the bed. A moment’s glance proved that Cullen was also fully clothed, and Dorian breathed a bit easier knowing there were some things he would not witness between the two of them. “Close enough to his bits for the arrow to kiss, as Sera would say.”

“Maker,” Cullen said with a chuckle. His head rested on his forearms, and the reason for Mailani’s position atop him became clear as her hands lowered from their demonstration of her shot to settle on his neck. As she began to knead that, he added, “I daresay Dorian and Bull suddenly developed hunchback disease.”

Mailani slapped her hand lightly on his back. “You’re awful. And yes, they did. But that man! Setting an ambush for us just to get at Red Jenny, and then having the gall to try and negotiate with me in favor of himself and his toadies. Ugh,” she said with a disgusted sound.

“I think you’ve been spending too much time with Cassandra,” Cullen noted. “You’re beginning to sound like her.”

“Oh, hush, you,” Mailani said affectionately. “Besides, I thought you said I was spending too much time with Dorian.”

“I didn’t say too much time,” Cullen protested. “I just noted you were spending quite a lot of time with him.”

“Well, he lets me put flowers in his hair,” Mailani said primly. “As long as it’s not plaideweave, he’s given me leave to adorn him as I wish.”

Cullen gave a mock shudder at the mention of plaideweave. “Leliana told me once that they use plaideweave as a punishment in some Val Royeaux bardic schools. Mess up on an assignment, and they force you to wear it for a week.”

“Thats awful!” Mailani said with a laugh.

“Leliana was sufficiently horrified by the notion,” Cullen noted with a warm chuckle. “Still, if anyone could pull it off and still look handsome, it would be Dorian.”

Mailani gave a little gasp, then leaned down so she could look into Cullen’s face. “Handsome, is he?” she asked in a teasing voice.

Cullen’s ears darkened, and he turned his head to the other side, obviously trying to avoid an answer. “Shouldn’t you be working on my shoulders by now?”

Mailani simply moved her head so she could grin at him. “I remember when I found you two playing chess that one afternoon,” she told him. “A very handsome pair of men, I thought.”

“Mailani,” Cullen groaned, burying his face in the pillow.

“Did you notice that when you first met him?” Mailani wondered, tone artless as she sat up and began to knead his neck. “You were very quick to catch him at Haven, after all.”

Dorian blinked, completely shocked that apparently, one of the things Mailani had once teased Cullen about was him. Shocked and far, far more enthralled by the notion than he had any right to be.

“He stumbled, and I caught him. There’s no great mystery to that,” Cullen groused. “Besides, he compared me to a blood mage later, remember?”

With a giggle, Mailani leaned down and nudged Cullen’s ear with her nose. “And you still played chess with him,” she reminded him. “Apparently even being called a blood mage wasn’t a bridge too far for you to want to spend time with him.”

“Mailani!” As she laughed, Cullen pushed himself to his elbows and looked over his shoulder at her. “Is this because I teased you about watching Bull practice with Krem?”

Mailani blushed instantly and looked away.

“Ah ha,” he said triumphantly. “I knew you enjoyed watching all those rippling muscles.”

Obviously wanting to give as good as she got, she shot back, “Well, who’s to say you don’t enjoy watching Dorian? You used to find excuses to go talk to Leliana more often, you know. More trips through the library, and all that. I wonder why?”

Dorian blinked. He had?

“How did you--” Cullen coughed, then let his head fall to rest on his forearms again. “Minx,” he muttered.

“Well, I admit, I was watching you a lot back then,” Mailani admitted, running her fingers through his hair. “Perhaps I’m a bit selfish, but I rather like how things turned out.”

“Me, too,” Cullen said with a smile. “Come here.”

Mailani complied, bending down to share a tender kiss with him, then frowned when Cullen winced in pain. “Your shoulder?”

He nodded and rolled it before settling back into position again. “This bed has done it no favors, sadly.”

Mailani’s fingers smoothed over his neck and shoulders. “It’s always seems to be this one muscle here,” she mused, running her fingers along the tightness that ran from one shoulder to his neck. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the lyrium withdrawal was hitting your sword-bearing side harder than your shield side.”

And again, Dorian’s brows shot up. Lyrium withdrawal? He knew that Cullen had once been a Templar, but had assumed the man had continued to take the lyrium supplement despite leaving the order. That explains why the scent doesn’t linger on him as it does the other Templars I’ve met, he mused. Perhaps there’s nothing left of it to smell.

“There might be something to that,” Cullen admitted. “Defensive techniques either use a lower amount of mana over a wider area or simply infuse it into a shield. Most Templar attacks are fed through the sword arm using short but powerful bursts. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s affected my muscles in that arm over the years, and now that I’m not using lyrium to replenish myself… Huh.” He hissed again as Mailani dug in with her fingers, then sagged beneath her. “Oh, yes. Right there.”

“A good thing I use elfroot in my massage oil mix,” she told him. “You know, I could ask Vivienne if we can add lyrium to it. It might--”

“No,” Cullen said swiftly, then took a deep breath and added in a softer tone, “No. Nothing lyrium, love.”

A sympathetic look came to Mailani’s face. “Nothing lyrium,” she agreed, then leaned down and kissed his cheek. “Go on and relax while I go fetch some of the oil with a higher elfroot content. You can’t drill with your shoulder in this condition.”

“I most heartily agree. I can only ask Cassandra to take over those drills so many times.” As Mailani pushed herself off the bed and walked out of sight, Cullen buried his head in the pillow and stretched his arms up along the mattress. After a moment, he grasped the sleeves of his shirt and tugged it over his head, tossing it to the side before stretching once more. Dorian tilted his head, admitting privately to himself that he was quite enjoying the view.

Dorian was so taken with the play of muscles on Cullen’s back that he didn’t even notice when he took the first step forward. Drawn as a bee to honey - and given the capricious nature of the Fade in dreams - it seemed as if he merely blinked, and then suddenly he was standing next to the bed.

And next to temptation. Cullen remained blissfully unaware of his presence, and that bare, muscular back practically begged to be touched. Dorian licked his lips, then looked around, almost desperate for Mailani to reappear and remind Dorian that this wasn’t his place. When no such thing happened, he felt his gaze drawn inexorably back to the source of his temptation and bit his lip.

Finally he succumbed to the inevitable. A quick spurt of magic saw his fingers covered with grease, and he reached out to set his hands on Cullen’s shoulders. They were as tight as they’d been in the waking world, when Dorian had tried to chase away the headache plaguing Cullen, but this time… this time it was warm skin under his fingers, and nothing else.

And that sent a primal thrill through Dorian.

“Maker,” Cullen moaned softly. “Just like that.”

Dorian bit his lip again. Sweet Andraste, did he have to moan like that? The sound proved to be a strong encouragement, however, and in one of those odd Fade twitches, he suddenly found himself kneeling astride Cullen on the bed. Not sitting on the man, but with knees planted in the mattress on either side of his hips, and definitely far closer and far more intimate than before. Dimly Dorian noted, with raised eyebrows, that his own shirt had somehow vanished as well.

His hands glided over the man’s shoulders and ventured down his back, exploring the set of muscles and the sensation of grease-slicked fingers over hot skin. Slowly the massage shifted from therapy to sensual, despite Dorian’s struggle to remind himself that this wasn’t taking place in the privacy of his own mind, or in the loneliness of a true dream. This was different. This was actually Cullen, not some simulacrum of desire summoned forth from the Fade for its own amusement as had appeared in some of his other dreams.

He really shouldn’t be doing this, especially since Cullen obviously believed the hands belonged to someone else.

He really shouldn’t follow the line of Cullen’s spine with his thumbs, slowly drawing them all the way down to the tailbone, only to then draw them out and over the tight, curved musculature of one of the finest backsides in all of Skyhold.

Or push his hands up, fingers splayed wide so he could feel the entirety of Cullen’s broad back under them.

Or move his hands to run down Cullen’s sides to his hips, clasping them tight as his fingers found and traced down the line of muscle and tendon which poets called the lower love line.

Yet Dorian’s mouth still went dry as Cullen groaned and dug his hips down into the mattress. “Maker, please, just like that.”

Sweet blessed Andraste.

Tempting as it was to continue - and Maker knows, when the man made sounds like that and moved in that fashion, Dorian felt the temptation quite keenly - Dorian exerted a signal effort of will to pull his hands away. It took him a moment after that, and a long deep breath, before he trusted himself to set a hand on Cullen’s shoulder with a far more chaste intent. “Commander,” he said softly. “We’re in the Fade again.”

Cullen started at the sound of Dorian’s voice, his whole body jumping enough that his hips momentarily pushed up into Dorian’s aching groin. As Dorian fought a groan of his own in reaction, Cullen turned his head to look at Dorian, eyes half-lidded above flushed cheeks, and both beneath a crown of tousled golden curls. “Inquisitor,” he breathed. “So it was you.”

Dorian’s eyes widened as they took in the sight of Cullen in such a state. It was beyond tempting, it was alluring in a way which had his fingers twitching to run through that blond hair both above and below. The vision of Cullen in dishabille combined with those particular words to make Dorian stare for a good, long moment as he tried to remember precisely why he had tried to remain virtuous. Finally, he cleared his throat and licked his dry lips. “P-pardon?”

As Cullen answered, however, a thunderous sound echoed throughout the Fade and drowned out his voice. Dorian looked around them wildly, remembering the nightmarish demon from before, but Cullen seemed to take no note of the cacophony. Indeed, when Dorian didn't respond immediately, his mouth moved once more, but the return of the mysterious boom again filled Dorian’s ears so thoroughly that Cullen’s words were forever lost. Suddenly it felt as if Dorian’s limbs were encased in stone, and everything around him dimmed and became as indistinct as they had when he’d first opened his eyes.

With a muffled cry of frustration, Dorian struggled to move, but found himself immobilized. Vaguely he realized that he was losing the dream, but so desperate was he to hear Cullen’s response that he tried to force himself to stay in the state of slumber. What had Cullen meant?

In the end, it proved futile.

Chapter Text

Dorian’s eyes flew open as he jerked himself into an upright sitting position. The sound of pounding on a distant door finally penetrated awareness, a moment before the pounding of blood in his groin seized his attention with a vengeance. With a groan, he fell back into the soft mattress on which he lay and rubbed his hands over his face, pondering his options.

And stopped mid-ponder as something occurred to him. Wait. How did I get on the bed?

Instinctively he let his hands flop to the sides, trying to gauge his position. When one of them found a warm body, he yelped and jerked away, falling off the bed and landing on the floor in an all-too-familiar manner. Muttering curses, he rose to his feet, hoping desperately that this morning wouldn’t be a repeat of the last time he’d ended up ignominiously on his ass right after awakening. His eyes widened when he saw Cullen, tucked under the blanket and with his fur mantle carefully folded under his head, still quite asleep. He wasn’t sure what surprised him more, that Cullen was able to sleep through the persistent abuse of the poor door, or the surge that increased the ache between his legs at the mere sight of the man peacefully sleeping.

“Maker’s breath,” Dorian muttered softly. His own clothing was all still in place, if a bit rumpled, so obviously the night had been innocent enough. The dream, though… it lingered, in ways both subtle and not-so-subtle.

Yet the ingrate at the door could not be ignored, so Dorian sighed and set into motion towards it. A quick run of his hands through his hair told him that it was hopeless, but there was no choice but to answer the door as he was, warts and all.

When he reached it, he jerked the portal open and growled, “What?” to the person on the other side - who turned out to be the Iron Bull, as dressed as he ever got and ready for travel.

Bull looked Dorian up and down, taking in the man’s dishabille with a widening smirk. “I interrupt something?”

Dorian reached up to massage his forehead with long fingers. “No. You interrupted nothing.”

“Ah, so that’s why you’re grumpy.” Ignoring Dorian’s dire glare, Bull gave a little shrug and stepped back. “We’re supposed to be leaving soon to go to the Western Approach. I thought you’d prefer me to find you rather than Hawke, given who rumor says you disappeared with yesterday.”

“Oh, Maker. Just what I need,” Dorian groaned as he rubbed his forehead once more. “More rumors.”

“Yeah, well, maybe getting away for a while would be a good thing. The Commander can take care of himself.” Clapping his arm on Dorian’s shoulder, he added, “Let's go. I got your bath ready and everything, complete with that special oil of yours.”

Dorian blinked. “You know about that?”

“I’m hurt that you’re surprised I know your little secrets, Vint,” Bull said, pressing his hand to his chest. “Come on. We don’t have much time, and frankly, your hair's a mess.”

“Thank you, Bull,” Dorian said through gritted teeth. “Very well, let’s go.”

The journey through the hall meant, of course, the scrutiny of the masses. Dorian grew acutely aware of his mussed hair, his clothing all askew, and the man he'd left in the Inquisitor's chambers behind him after a night together. After this, he could deny until he was blue in the face that it was an entirely different part of his body which suffered from that hue, and the rumors would still be flying before the sun hit its zenith. The thought of it made his face settle into a scowl, and Bull, predictably, began to tease him.

"Look, I know you can wiggle your fingers and summon a thunderstorm, but I don't think your face can, can it?" he asked, giving Dorian a sly glance as they passed a group of whispering Orlesians.

"How will I know unless I try?" Dorian quipped. "Do let me know if any passing clouds zaps you, would you? That will let me know if pure wrath is sufficient."

"Will do, boss, will do," Bull said with a grin.

Dorian gave him a startled glance, though a muted one, since Bull had never referred to him that way before. Of course, they'd never been in the Hall together before, either. Bull tended to haunt the Herald's Rest since he was rather conspicuous in a crowd, so it was a rarity for the nobility to see him. Covering his surprise quickly, Dorian snorted. "Those horns of yours put you at particular risk, you know. Lightning always seeks the highest object."

Their banter continued until they reached his room, with what Dorian presumed to be Bull's intended result. Dorian was fully awake and feeling almost cheerful, returning each sally from Bull with one of his own, and the ache between his legs was nothing but an awkward memory. After sending Bull off to fetch him a quick breakfast, he stripped down and sank into the water, letting the heat melt away his cares.

The inappropriate thoughts lingered, however, as he struggled to reconcile the growing, and much desired, friendship with Cullen with the rising, palpable attraction he had for the man. He'd let a few things slip through in the past few weeks, though thankfully Cullen seemed to remain relatively oblivious to them. Cullen wasn't simply some handsome soldier with whom he could spend a pleasant evening, after all. Granted, he wasn't Hawke either, with the latter's ever-present hunger under a veneer of dangerous beauty, but the fact remained that Cullen was - should be - off the table as an option.

But the dream lingered. The feel of Cullen’s warm, oil-slicked skin under his fingers could not simply be dismissed, nor could Cullen’s reaction when he’d learned just who had given him that not-so-therapeutic massage.

Ultimately, his thoughts simply ended up chasing each other round and round, and he had to stomp on them rather firmly to avoid getting himself into the same condition he’d been when he’d woken up earlier. Forcing himself to concentrate on the task at hand, he conducted his daily bathing ritual with a meticulous care which spoke of long habit, then reached for his towel. As he did so, the floor outside his door creaked just before it opened to let the hulking form of Bull through.

"Breakfast," the man said cheerfully as kicked the door shut behind him. Setting the tray down on the desk, he glanced at Dorian and grinned. "Still naked, huh? Looks like I'm just in time for the best part."

Dorian groaned. "Honestly, Bull. Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"

"Yeah, someone tried to tell me about that shit once. A southern thing, right? Come on, we don't have much time left." He took the towel and tugged it wide, then shook it. "Out with you."

After a moment's hesitation, Dorian sighed and stood, using tendrils of magic to force water out of his hair and off his body. By the time he stepped into the towel, he was mostly dry. "Thank you," he said as he reached to take the towel.

Bull, however, didn't relinquish it. "Just stay still," Bull told him. Before Dorian could ask him what he was about, Bull knelt and started to rub the towel briskly over Dorian's body. When Dorian opened his mouth to protest, Bull shook his head. As he worked his way down Dorian's torso, Bull rumbled in a surprisingly quiet voice, "Remember that Wicked Grace game about a week after your coronation?"

"It was not a--" Dorian began.

"Coronation," Bull said firmly. "It was, even if the crown is invisible and the only reward is a hand that glows green. Anyway, do you remember it?"

Dorian frowned, memories slowly trickling back. It had been a busy few weeks, after all. "The only one I remember you in was the one Hawke-- Oh."

"Yeah. You and Varric started, and Hawke bullied his way in. So I bullied my way in." Bull chuckled. "And I'm pretty good at bullying. Get it? BULLying?"

Dorian grudgingly smiled at the terrible pun. "Yes, I recall, Bull."

"Remember what happened after the game?"

Now Dorian's smile faltered. "Not as clearly," he admitted. "The wine flowed quite freely during that game."

Bull grunted. "With the way Hawke was eyeing you and kept refilling your cup, I'm not surprised. I really didn't get myself on his good side when I declared the Inquisitor had had enough and hauled you out of there."

"Considering he was likely hoping to do the same, I can imagine," Dorian said with a sigh. "Thank you. I don't really recall that part."

"Yeah." By now the towel had reached Dorian's waist, wicking away what little water remained, but it slowed as Bull moved even lower. "You remember what happened when we got back here?"

Dorian froze as vague images arose in his mind. His mouth suddenly went dry as the distinct image of Bull's pants piled on the floor flashed through his mind. "Maker. Did we--?" He glanced down, not quite sure what to say without being terribly insulting. "I thought we agreed after last time that--"

Bull's face split into a grin. "Your expression is priceless right now. And yeah, we agreed the last one was a pity fuck after the whole ‘getting kicked out of the Qun’ assassination attempt thing."

"I wouldn't quite call it that," Dorian protested, but Bull's huge shoulders moved in an expansive shrug.

"I would. It's what I needed, and you were willing to provide. It was fun, we both got some stress relief, and learned a little more about each other. I'm still grateful, but that's all it was, and that's okay. This, though... if you still want to know, that is." At Dorian's nod, he resumed his toweling, brisk and efficient. "We barely got through the door before you'd pushed me up against it. I have to admit, I was impressed that you had all that wine in you and were still hot to trot."

Dorian's hand reached up to massage his forehead again, a headache rising. "So we did."

Bull shrugged. "Depends on your definition."

"Definition?" Dorian asked, glancing down at Bull.

"Yeah. I mean, we got to the 'naked on a bed' part, and the 'hey let's toss all the blankets on the floor' part, but after that?" Bull looked up at him, the towel coming to a halt a hip height. "That's as far as we got."

Dorian's eyebrows rose, then pinched together. "Was I so uncivil as to fall asleep?" Given the circumstances, it was the most likely scenario, he had to admit.

"Nah. I mean, I would have left you alone then, too, don't get me wrong. As long as I felt you were agreeing to it, I was fine with a good fuck. But that wasn't it. No, things were going pretty smoothly until you gave this nice, long groan and gasped a name." His gaze was shrewd as he looked up and added, "I'll give you two guesses whose it was."

It took more than a few seconds for the implication to sink in, and then Dorian felt the blood drain from his face. "Maker."

"No, definitely not the Maker," Bull said with a grin. "Second guess?"

Restraining himself from batting the man's horns, Dorian buried his face in his hand instead. "Cullen."

"There we go." Bull chuckled. "And that was it for me. I'm into a lot of different things when it comes to sex, but I could tell it wasn't my cock you wanted to play with."

Dorian's eyes narrowed slightly. "Is there a reason you waited to talk about this until your hand was on mine?" he asked pointedly.

Sighing heavily, Bull turned serious as he settled back on his haunches. "Look, boss, we're going to be together a lot over the next few weeks. Going to the Western Approach isn't an afternoon jaunt, and we're not quite sure what we're going to find there. I know you and I have had our differences and our fun in the past, but shit's about to get a bit more real. The idea of a fucking demon army scares the shit out of me, and this is our first real step to figuring out how to make sure that doesn't happen. And a lot of that rests on you."

"Oh. Wonderful. Well, that takes all the pressure right off," Dorian said sarcastically.

Bull rolled his eye. "Yeah, yeah. Now listen, I'm being serious here, and that doesn't happen often. Before I stopped getting the reports, the Ben-Hassrath were really concerned about the things they'd dug up about the Wardens, and it's bad. Like, worst-nightmare-inducing bad. Pretty sure Nightingale has told you some of the more lurid rumors running around."

Dorian nodded, now equally somber. Alistair had also managed to get some additional information, though only he, Leliana, and Dorian knew all the details. "Go on."

"I'm just saying that you're the Inquisitor, but more importantly, you're my boss," Bull told him. "I owe you a lot, probably more than you can really understand without being from the Qun yourself. I don't know what's going on between you and Cullen, but I do know it's something that might get a bit distracting, and we can't really afford that now." He squeezed Dorian intimately, making the man jump. "And that's where I come in."

Dorian frowned. "Are you offering--"

"Call it stress relief, and yeah, you got it, boss," Bull told him with a nod. "Something nice and simple so that you won't work yourself up in a knot while you try to figure out what the fuck is going on with Cullen."

"There's nothing going on with Cullen," Dorian said. "And there shouldn't be. He is Commander of the Inquisition Forces and mourning love of my predecessor. It would be inappropriate to say the least. Besides, I'm a--"

"Vint, and yeah, all that is true. Some of the troops won't like it, some of the nobles would gossip, and some of your enemies will try to use it to weaken your position. I got that, trust me. I'm horny, not stupid." Bull sighed. "That's why you need me. Everyone knows I don't do the romance shit, and the rumors about us are already around. It will distract everyone else from the whole you and Cullen thing - and that will be a thing after you both entered that room and didn't come out all night - and you'll have the bonus of not running around with a rod between your legs at the most inconvenient times."

"But Cullen--" Dorian began, then bit his lip.

"Has his own shit to work through," Bull pointed out. "But I will add that he did stay in there with you all night. Maybe he's still working out the details himself, but I'm pretty sure he would have retreated to his tower if he didn't like the position he was in. And we both know him well enough to know that."

Dorian frowned as he remembered Cullen's reaction from the dream the night before. So it was you. That was not what he would have expected the man to say if he had truly thought it was Mailani kneading his back, and the ramifications made him swallow harshly.

"Hey, whoa now," Bull said with a chuckle as he patted Dorian’s groin. "I didn't say you should start thinking about him again right this minute."

Dorian groaned and snatched the towel out of Bull's hands. "I can take it from here," he snapped.

"Right you are, boss. Just keep in mind what I said, all right?" Bull headed to the door, then paused and looked back over his shoulder. "We can't afford to have you distracted, and you're not going to see him again for a while." With a final nod, Bull tugged the door open, then paused before speaking to someone in the corridor. "Hawke. Fancy meeting you here."

"Is the Inquisitor ready yet?" Hawke asked, clearly irritated.

"The boss'll be down in a few minutes," Bull said as he stepped through the door in a fashion that blocked it entirely. "I was just getting some last minute instructions about the Chargers."

"Is that what you're calling it now?" Hawke asked in a sardonic tone as the door closed. After that, the voices continued for a few more exchanges before moving away from the room.

Only when the voices dimmed entirely did Dorian’s shoulders drop. Hawke wasn't the most relaxing person to be around in the first place, given his reputation and the presence the man possessed, but his interest in Dorian had long ago shifted from flattering to worrying. Still, one did not simply tell the Viscount of Kirkwall to take himself and his support away, not when the man's own reputation and history pointed to a poor reaction to rejection.

Still, that was a worry for another time. The sooner Dorian and the rest of his party got in the saddle and headed west, the better.

As he wolfed down his breakfast and tugged his clothes on, he privately admitted that he was grateful that Bull would be with him. Even if he never took the man up on his offer, at least there would be someone there who understood the pressures Dorian labored under.

Particularly the self-inflicted ones.

Dorian looked down at the outfit lying on his sleeping roll with a sigh. He'd done his best, but even magic could only do so much against the constant onslaught of dust and sand, and the Western Approach had plenty of both. The grit was everywhere - in the food, in his hair, in his smalls - despite all his efforts to rid himself of it entirely. With a sigh of resignation, he ran a damp cloth over his body one last time, then slowly began to dress.

"Hey, Hawke."

"That's Champion to you, Qunari," Hawke replied with a sneer in his voice.

Dorian jumped. The voices sounded so loud that it seemed they were standing right outside Dorian's tent, but a quick glance around showed no telltale shadow. Curious, Dorian opened the flap of his tent cautiously and peered out into the camp. Seeing nothing, he shrugged and retreated into his tent to continue his task.

"Not a Qunari any more. Didn't you hear?" Bull replied with a grunt. This time there was enough of an echo that Dorian realized what was going on. The two men were standing in the nearby ravine, and a trick of acoustics worked to bring their conversation up to Dorian as if he were standing next to them.

Quite aware of the tension between the two, Dorian quickly summoned a wisp between his curled fingers, then whispered to it for a moment before releasing it from the tent. Once that was done, he summoned another one and whispered to it as well, still listening with half an ear.

"I did, but I don't believe it, Hissrad." A creak of leather and the scrape of metal sounded, and Hawke's voice was a bit clearer when he next spoke, as if he'd turned around. "What is it?"

"That elf you spoke to back at the Keep, while the Inquisition Forces were running around setting things up. Who was that?"

"Maker. I can't even speak to servants now? What if I was just looking for a good fuck?" Hawke asked acidly.

"Never seen a servant carry as many weapons as that elf did," Bull pointed out. "Or speak with an Antivan accent when in western Orlais. And you didn't spend enough time with him for a bad fuck, much less a good one."

"It's none of your business, ox-man," Hawke shot back.

As they spoke, the other wisp moved to hover above them, and the spell linking the wisps mirrored what it saw to the one between Dorian's hands. He stared at it intently, able to at least pick up the gist of the scene.

Bull grunted, and the larger of the two shapes edged towards the smaller one. "My instincts say otherwise, and I trust them more than I trust you."

"Watch your tongue," Hawke warned him. "I am a valued ally of the Inquisition."

"A valued ally who travels a lot for no real reason and speaks with suspicious characters when everyone else is busy," Bull said in a musing tone. "Yeah. Totally trustworthy."

The smaller figure stepped forward, hand going to his waist. The sound of singing metal outside followed the motion as Hawke drew one of his serrated daggers. "Listen to me, you hulking buffoon," Hawke snarled. "Who I meet with and who I speak to is of no concern to you, or the Inquisition. You can rest assured that everything I do is to defeat Corypheus. He's the one mistake I will not let survive. Is that clear?"

Bull’s dark chuckle echoed up to Dorian, who was still staring intently into his wisp. "Clear as crystal. And I'm sure the Crow was just passing through on his way to somewhere more civilized."

"He's no longer a--" Hawke stopped, and a silence fell as Hawke stared up at Bull for a few moments. Finally he slammed his dagger back into his sheath. "This conversation is over, ox-man. This is not a matter that concerns the brutes of the Inquisition." With the sound of creaking leather, Hawke pivoted and stormed up the ravine, the effect slightly marred by his lack of solid footing on the sandy ravine floor.

Dismissing the wisps with a motion, Dorian quickly set about finishing the task of dressing in his newly de-sanded outfit. Just as he'd buckled the last part of his sleeve, a hand jerked the flap of his tent sharply upward to reveal Bull bending over awkwardly so he could look inside. "Wanna take a walk?"

Dorian raised an eyebrow, but nodded as he grabbed his staff. "As you wish."

"Varric said he spotted Alistair coming back," Bull said as he stepped away to give Dorian enough room to emerge. "Once he's back, everything starts, right? I thought you might want to go meet him."

"Thank the Maker," Dorian barked. "He said he'd only be gone an hour or so. He’s been gone all night."

"Tell me something I don't know," Bull said with a grunt as he started to lead the way through their camp. "Still, if he really does have a contact out there with newer information, it's worth the wait. I don't like going into situations blind." Reaching up to tap his eye patch, he said, "I'm already at a half-disadvantage there, ya know?"

With a chuckle, Dorian patted Bull on the arm. "And the horns don't help, either."

"Just point me in the right direction and I'll charge wherever you tell me to," Bull said with a chuckle. After a few moments, he glanced at Dorian. "You heard all that, right?" he asked in a quiet voice. "I picked where to pitch your tent for a reason."

Dorian raised an eyebrow. He supposed by now he shouldn't really be surprised when Bull showed exactly how smart he could be, but setting up a tent in a location precisely so that its occupant could clandestinely overhear a conversation? "Clever," he murmured. "And here I thought it was just so it was far enough away that no one could hear us if the need arose."

Bull snorted and shook his head. "If you haven't taken me up on my offer by now, you never will, boss. And that's fine. It's still on the table, though." A grin came to his face. "Just like you could be, if you wanted."

"Bull," Dorian said in a chiding tone.

"Yeah, yeah, all right. Focus. Got it." He glanced over to where Hawke stood at the edge of camp, staring out into the desert and presumably the tower where they'd tracked the Wardens the previous day. "Anyway, this elf. It doesn't feel right. He was armed like an assassin, dressed in rich leathers and silks, and he wore a hooded cloak that covered his face. If that doesn't scream Ignore me or die I don't know what does."

“You suspect he’s a Crow, then?” When Bull nodded, Dorian frowned in thought. "Why would he be talking with Hawke?"

Shoulders moving in an expansive shrug, Bull said, "You got me. I just thought you should know. The last thing we need is the Crows - or even a Crow - getting involved in a way we can’t track."

“As if this weren’t complicated enough,” Dorian said with a sigh.

"That's why you get paid the big sovereigns,” Bull told him with a grin. “I just hit people hard. Really hard."

"Thank you ever so much," Dorian drawled sarcastically, then looked forward as a movement caught his eye. “Ah. There’s our man. “ As Alistair crested the dune and closed the last few feet between them, Dorian bowed smoothly. “Good to see you again, Warden Alistair. We were worried you would be late to the party.”

Alistair laughed as he looked them up and down. "You don’t look like you're having a good time," the Warden noted.

"Oh, but we are. Swimming, actually," Dorian replied brightly.

Alistair ran a hand through his hair, causing a pattering of sand to fall from his hair onto his armor. "I wouldn't mind a swim," he said sourly. "I can't wait until we can get out of here."

"What did you learn?" Bull pressed. "I'm ready for some action. Is it time?"

Alistair nodded, face turning grim. "Sorry I took so long to get back here, but it was worth it. My contact is waiting for us at the tower now, keeping an eye on them to make sure they don't suddenly decide to leave like they did last time."

"Good. Let's get going," Dorian declared as he turned to head back into camp. And in the process, almost ran headlong into Hawke, who had approached them from behind.

"Inquisitor," Hawke greeted Dorian in a brittle voice. "A word, if you please?"

Putting a brilliant smile on his face, Dorian said, "But of course, Viscount. I live but to serve."

"In private," Hawke added, looking at Bull and Alistair with disdain. "There are matters of a delicate nature to discuss."

"Sounds like someone woke up on the grumpy side of bed this morning," Alistair muttered, ignoring Hawke's glare as he looked at Dorian. "I'll brief Cassandra on what to expect. No time to strike camp, though. We shouldn't dally too long." With a final glance at Hawke, Alistair clapped Bull on the back as they headed back to the camp.

Once they were out of earshot, Hawke stepped closer and set his hand on Dorian's shoulder. "I don't know what your pet ox has told you," he said quietly, "but I met with a trusted agent in Griffon Wing Keep.”

Feeling a little better that Hawke was telling him of his own volition, Dorian nodded. “I take it he brought you some important information?”

“He did: the name of the man the Wardens were waiting for.”

Dorian straightened. “The one who arrived yesterday?”

With a nod, Hawke replied, “The very same. He’s a Venatori, a venal Magister by the name of Livius Erimond.”

“Livius?” Dorian asked in disbelief. “That pillock serves Corypheus? Actually, no, that doesn’t surprise me.”

“I take it you’re familiar with him?” Hawke asked in an amused tone.

“Familiar? Enough to know that he’s an idiot of the first order. Just the sort to fall for Corypheus’ promise of the return of the Golden Age of the Imperium.” Dorian sighed and shook his head. “And a blood mage, at that. It is the last resort of the weak mind, after all.” It wasn’t until the words fell from his lips that he realized what he’d said, and he quickly looked down, trying to push through the bitter moment of recalling that last conversation with his father.

Hawke settled his hand on the back of Dorian's neck. “Is everything all right?” he asked in a low, intimate tone.

“What?” Dorian cleared his throat and looked up. Hawke was close, a bit too close for comfort, perhaps, but the genuine concern on his face was more than a bit disarming. “I’m perfectly fine, I assure you.”

After a few moments of searching Dorian’s face, Hawke finally nodded. “As you say. But if you need anyone to talk to, I am here. I know what it’s like to be weighed down by a burden you never asked for. Sometimes it’s comforting to have someone to talk to who understands the pressures you’re facing.”

"I’ll keep that in mind,” Dorian said in a deliberately lighter vein, though silently he realized that he did have someone like that - back at Skyhold. “Though I admit, I thought I was but a passing fancy for you.”

One side of Hawke's mouth lifted in an almost tender smile. "Oh, no, my dear Inquisitor. You're far too exquisite for that. But I am a patient man, and you are worth waiting for."

“And you’ll have to wait longer,” he reminded Hawke, grateful that the man hadn’t come to him last night when other excuses would have fallen flat and it would have been harder to turn the man away outright without risking a poor reaction. “We’re due to give a rather odious toad a very sound thrashing. Oh, and to figure out the whole demon army of Corypheus thing.”

Hawke chuckled softly as his thumb moved to stroke Dorian’s cheek. “Later, then. I like the sound of that.” Leaning in, he stole a gentle kiss from Dorian, then pressed in for something more passionate, if not lingering. When their lips parted, he murmured, “After we’ve dealt with these troublesome Wardens.”

Lips tingling oddly and heart racing, Dorian gave Hawke a smile. Something felt... off, but he couldn't quite place his finger on what. Whatever it was, however, it made his teeth tingle. “They are overdue for a lesson, yes,” he said a trifle breathlessly. It wasn’t a commitment, but it obviously sounded enough like one that Hawke smiled and leaned in, presumably for another kiss. “Ah, but… we should be going. We won’t get this opportunity again, I think.”

“You’re right.” After a moment’s further hesitation, Hawke took one of Dorian's hands so he could raise it and brush his lips across the knuckles. Then he straightened, a cruel sneer coming to his face as he said, "Now let's go attend to these Wardens, hmm? No one unleashes a demon army on my watch."

Dorian chuckled, trying not to show his unease. "That is a sentiment with which I can heartily agree. Let us sally forth, then. It's time to save the world."

They approached the tower with caution from the east side, using the natural placement and size of the dunes and the shadows cast by the sun to conceal as much of their movements as possible. Every once in a while they'd send Varric or Hawke ahead in stealth to find the best route, and adjust according to the lay of the land.

When they were close enough to see the pillars marking one side of the bridge leading to the tower, Alistair drew close to Dorian and pointed ahead. "Keep an eye on the pillar closest to us," he murmured. "I told him to use his shield to reflect the sun once Varric gives the signal. Four times if it's safe to proceed, three times if it's not."

Dorian held up his hand to signal everyone to halt, then looked to Varric and nodded. Varric lifted Bianca and sent a special bolt up into the sky. When it reached its zenith, Dorian activated the spell he'd enchanted it with. Unless someone were watching the sky south of the tower, the brief flash of light would go unnoticed - at least, that was their hope.

Alistair's expression was tense as he locked his gaze on the pillar, then let his breath out explosively as the first glint of light finally showed. Once, twice, then three times. They all held their breaths until a fourth flash was seen, and Alistair nodded. "It's safe. Let's go."

Whipping his hand over his head, Dorian signaled Bull and Alistair to take the lead, falling in behind them with Varric and Hawke, leaving Cassandra to take the flanking position. They moved quickly but quietly, only slowing when they found a man in Warden armor and helm standing beside the pillar.

The man gestured them closer, moving towards them as he did so. Alistair extended his arm wordlessly, which the other man clasped and held for a moment before he turned to Dorian. "Inquisitor. Alistair has told me a great deal about you." Reaching up to remove his helm, he tucked it under an arm as he offered a bow. The face beneath was lined with care and years of sun, but the hair was still black as night. "My name is Loghain Mac Tir. I daresay you have heard of me."

"Ah, the pariah of Ferelden," Dorian said with a light chuckle. "As the pariah of the Imperium, I greet you as a comrade in arms regardless of the reason we are here."

A faint smile touched Loghain's lips. "As you say."

Glancing at Alistair, Dorian added, "I admit, based on what I've heard in the tales, I'm a bit surprised to see you two working together."

Loghain and Alistair exchanged a glance. "That was a long time ago," Loghain said finally. Turning, he pointed towards the tower at the other end of the bridge. "Whatever’s happening has already started. I saw lights coming from the tower, but dared not approach alone. Whatever they're doing, it's holding their attention, at least. I counted no more than twenty Wardens who entered, half of them mages, and a single man in Tevinter garb."

"That would be Livius," Dorian mused.

Loghain raised an eyebrow. "You know who it is?"

"One of my agents was able to get the information,” Hawke said with a pointed look at Bull.

"Fair enough. What is this man’s nature, Inquisitor?" Loghain asked, turning back to Dorian. "Anything useful we should know?”

“He’s a lickspittle,” Dorian said with a snort. “A born toady. I’m not at all surprised he’s serving Corypheus. He is a Magister, though, so he does have magic at his beck. Not harmless, but no Corypheus, or even an Alexius, when it comes to that.”

“Then I suppose the time for action has come,” Loghain said as he settled his helm back onto his head.

"Yes!" Bull said, drawing his weapon.

"Now, now," Dorian cautioned. "Let’s observe for a bit first. The less information we have to drag out of them later, the better. If there’s an opportunity to observe undetected, we should take it rather than go in swords swinging."

"Maul," Bull said.

Dorian blinked. "Pardon?"

"This isn't a sword, it's a maul," Bull pointed out helpfully.

After glaring at the grinning Bull for a moment, Dorian shook his head. "Let's just get going, shall we?"

They kept the same formation, though Loghain fell in on the other side of Bull from Alistair to provide him another shield for the front. They encountered no scouts or resistance of any sort. In fact, they encountered no one at all until they reached the top of the stairs which led to a large open area at the top of the tower, and even then, their presence went unnoticed. Taking advantage of that, Loghain gestured towards some cover offered by a few stacked crates, and they moved to crouch behind them.

It soon became apparent why no one was watching them. All eyes were locked on a platform at the other side of the large open area at the top of the tower. On that platform stood a man Dorian did indeed recognize, and a sneer formed reflexively on his lip. “What a tool,” he murmured.

Hawke glanced at him. “So my agent was right,” he murmured.

“Evidently so,” Dorian replied, then frowned. “Wait. Something’s happening.”

Though they couldn’t quite hear the words being spoken, it was clear that there was an argument of some sort. Dorian’s eyes swept over the assemblage, though their view wasn’t the best, his eyes widening as he slowly put the pieces together concerning the mysterious ‘ritual’ mentioned in the notes. He rose with a shout on his lips just as one of the Wardens stepped forward and stabbed his dagger deep into another, and the cry died in his throat. It was too late to save the man, after all, and perhaps watching the ritual which was to inevitably follow would glean some further insight.

Dorian’s eyes narrowed as he watched the flow of magic around the Warden who had murdered his fellow while he wove a spell using the blood of the fallen. Once the spell settled into place and the demon was summoned, however, Dorian saw Erimond make his move, and made a soft, “Ah,” sound. “That’s it,” he said softly. “That’s their game.”

“What?” Hawke asked. It was clear from the way his jaw clenched and his nostrils flared that he found the whole proceedings reprehensible, but he still waited for the signal to advance.

“They don’t want to help the Wardens,” Dorian said. “They want to control them.” Abruptly he strode out of their concealment and moved to confront the Magister, deciding that enough was enough.

“Well, well, well, Dorian,” Erimond sneered as he approached. “So you’ve finally come for a visit? And how is the south treating you, altus?” The word was spoken with a biting sarcasm. Certainly the man meant it as an insult, given his own rank as Magister technically outranked Dorian as a mere Altus by Imperium standards.

“That’s Inquisitor,” Hawke snapped as he came to a halt next to Dorian. “And Inquisitor outranks worm by a fair bit, blood mage.”

A flicker of uncertainty crossed Erimond’s face, but he quickly recovered. “Your presence is not entirely expected, but it would be remiss of me not to offer greetings,” he continued as if Hawke hadn’t interrupted him. “We heard about the demise of your predecessor. So very sad.”

“You’re positively dripping with sincerity, Livius,” Dorian remarked coldly. “I suppose that’s suitable, since you’ve never dripped with talent. Perhaps you should use sarcasm as a weapon. It’s certainly stronger than your magic.”

Erimond took an involuntary step forward. “I was recovering from being sick that day,” he told Dorian in an insistent voice.

“You expect me to believe that I was able to beat you in a magical duel because you had a case of the sniffles?” Dorian asked in an amused voice. “I thought it was because I was the better mage than you, even as a youth. As I still am,” he added pointedly, then gestured to the Wardens around them. “This is the stuff of rank amateurs, Livius. You’re acting exactly like the sort of villainous cliche everyone expects us to be. It’s bad enough you’re forcing the Wardens to perform blood magic, but to then to also seal their souls to your Master? That’s directly out of every horrible two-copper lavatory novel back home. Is that really the highest level of sophistication you can garner with this new Master of yours?”

“We’re not forcing the Wardens to do anything,” Erimond told him in an angry voice, then stopped and took a deep breath. In a more controlled tone, he said, “We are merely helping them defeat their greatest enemy: the Blight itself. That, and their Calling had them terrified. They were looking everywhere for help.”

“And there you were, willing to help them,” Alistair drawled. “How convenient.”

Erimond’s eyes narrowed. “I know you. You’re one of the pair that Clarel let slip.” His gaze shifted to Loghain, whose face was still hidden under his helm. “And I presume you’re the other.” When Loghain didn’t answer, he flipped his hand in dismissal and continued. “It was hardly a coincidence, either, since it was my Master who put the Calling into your little heads. When they went looking for help, we Venatori were prepared.”

“So you cheated. Just like you did in the Circle to get your Enchanter’s stole,” Dorian remarked.

The Magister’s face darkened. “I did not cheat.”

“Oh, proclaim it all you want, we both know you only attained that position because of your father,” Dorian drawled. “Clearly you can only dream of greatness and must ride someone else’s robe hem to get there. Is that what you get out of it? While Corypheus contemplates eternity from the Golden City - though how he plans to restore it, I’ve no idea - you’ll be some sort of pathetic little god-king down here on Thedas?”

“Will you shut up?” Erimond snarled.

Dorian smiled privately. With only a little prodding, it seemed, Erimond was willing to tell them everything they needed to know. “Oh, please, do go on, Livius. Perhaps at some point what you say will actually have import.” He glanced around at the piled bodies of dead Wardens. “So that’s your game, is it? Teach them a ritual that binds the demons to them, and the mages to Corypheus? How very droll.”

Erimond’s hateful glare warmed the cockles of Dorian’s petty little heart, though his words had the opposite effect. “This was a test,” he said, gesturing around the platform at the pile of dead Wardens. “Once the rest of the Wardens complete the ritual, the army will conquer Thedas.”

“I don’t believe it,” Alistair said flatly. “No Warden would do this just for a promise to end the song of the Calling.”

Now Erimond’s expression grew smug. “Ah. But they think they’re raising the demon army to invade the Deep Roads and kill the Old Gods.”

“Clever bastard,” Alistair admitted grudgingly. “If it had the chance of a fire surviving in the Void, the Wardens might take that chance.”

“Am I missing something here?” Dorian asked.

“The Blights are caused by Archdemons,” Loghain started to explain, but Erimond cut him off.

“And an Archdemon is a corrupted Old God. No more Old Gods… Poof!” Erimond made, to Dorian’s eye, a rather silly gesture. “No more Blights.”

“And that’s why Clarel agreed at all,” Alistair said grimly.

“Indeed, Warden. All of you seemed to be so happy at finally being the ones to defeat the Blight completely that you went right along with my Master’s scheme like sheep into a fold.”

“A pity they don’t know that Corypheus is a Blight,” Hawke muttered.

Erimond’s eyes narrowed. “He commands the Blight,” he insisted. “He is not commanded by it, like the mindless darkspawn. The Blight is not unstoppable or uncontrollable. It is simply a tool.”

“No, Livius,” Dorian said in a resigned tone. “You’re the tool. And a fool.”

Erimond’s face darkened. “You know, my Master studied your predecessor at Haven quite closely when they met.” With a gesture, Erimond’s left hand came alive with red flames, and he pointed it at Dorian.

When his left forearm exploded with green flames in answer, a sharp pain shot up Dorian’s arm, forcing him to his knees with a sudden cry.

Somewhere, Erimond continued his prattling. “The Elder One showed me how to deal with you, in the event the Inquisition was foolish enough to interfere again,” Erimond said in a smug tone. “That mark you bear? The Anchor that lets you pass safely through the Veil? Your precious slant-eared Inquisitor stole that from my Master. He’s been forced to seek other ways to access the Fade.”

Through the fog of pain which wrapped around his mind, Dorian focused on those words. Pass safely through the Veil? Dagna had said something to that effect, but to hear Erimond refer to it so casually gave the idea more weight - and gave him a better idea of why Corypheus was so angry about losing the Anchor.

Forcing his mind away from speculation and ignoring the idiot’s blathering, Dorian concentrated instead on the spell Erimond had cast on the Anchor. Knowing Erimond’s abilities when it came to magic - or rather his lack thereof - Dorian had to assume that Erimond had learned the technique as a brute force concept rather than as something intelligently applied. Pushing through the pain, he delved deep, poking and prodding at the magical matrix of the spell surrounding the Anchor. Yes, it agitated the Anchor to cause the pain in the first place, but the nature of the spell was rooted in the nature of the Anchor itself. He felt the tension there, as if something was pulling at it deep within, and he narrowed his eyes as he mentally followed that tension.

There, a voice whispered, just on the edge of his consciousness, and he automatically followed the thought until he found his answer: the point where Erimond’s spell had tapped into the complexity that was the Anchor and yanked it askew. With a grim determination, he rose to his feet and extended his hand, seizing that weak point - and Erimond’s spell - with the same mental twist he used to close rifts. Once it was well-seated in his magical grasp, he shoved it back in Erimond's face - hard.

Erimond choked back a cry in the middle of his tiresome pontification and staggered back, the pain of his broken spell enough to make him fall flat on his ass - a lovely sight, as far as Dorian was concerned. Erimond scrambled to his feet, mouth agape, as Dorian clucked his tongue and laughed.

“There, there, Livius,” Dorian said as he raised his hand and summoned the flickering light of the Anchor. “Maybe someday you’ll be a match for me. Not while I’m alive, of course.” He gave Erimond a charming smile. “I’m far too good for that.” Then he pointed his hand at the man and unleashed a spell borne of both his necromancy arts and the Anchor itself.

The attack scored, and Erimond fell back, clutching his side as crimson flowed between his fingers. “Kill them!” he shouted, finally rousing his guard dogs from their stupor as he stumbled away from them.

“Coward!” Dorian shouted after him, surging forward in pursuit.

A hand landed on his shoulder and pulled him back. “Let him go. We’ve more pressing business,” Hawke grated.

“Now we go in mauls swinging,” Bull grunted with satisfaction, then roared as he raised his weapon over his head. “Time to have some fun!”

The fight was short and brutal, considering they had four warriors in the fray and the blood-controlled Warden mages tended to emphasize offense over defense. When the last Warden fell, Hawke shook his head and sneered, “Well, that went well.”

Alistair sighed and shook his head, sorrow on his face as he looked at the dead Wardens around them. “Our worst fears are realized. Thanks to that ritual, the Warden mages are enslaved to Corypheus.”

“Worse, the rest of the Wardens won’t know it until it’s too late,” Loghain said grimly as he tugged his helm off to examine a dent in one side. “Though now that we know Corypheus is indeed involved, I might be able to persuade a few away from this course of action. That name is known among Wardens.”

“I had a bad feeling about this business from the beginning, but this?” Hawke frowned fiercely. “I knew the Wardens would go too far.”

Dorian reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose for a moment. “Blood magic, human sacrifice, demon summoning… Honestly, who looks at this and thinks, ‘Maybe the Maker will forgive me just this once’?”

Hawke snorted. “The fearful and the foolish,” he declared, then looked at the two Wardens nearby.

Both men straightened, but it was Loghain who answered. “Despite their lack of wisdom, they acted out of necessity.”

“All blood mages do,” Hawke said, rounding on Loghain. “Everyone has a story to tell themselves to justify bad decisions, blood mages or not, but it never matters. In the end, you are always alone with your actions. Trust me. I know that intimately.”

Dorian looked at Hawke, considering those words coming from that particular man, and wondered if perhaps he had misjudged him after all.

Loghain snorted. “Don’t throw that at me, Champion. I’ve been regretting decisions longer than you’ve been alive, but that doesn’t make all of those decisions wrong. And it doesn’t make the decisions you don’t regret right.” Turning to Dorian, he said, “In the direction Erimond fled, the only structure of note is an abandoned Warden fortress. Adamant. I suspect we’ll find the Wardens there.”

“I guess they didn’t want to summon a demon army out in public,” Dorian noted. “Bad for their image, I suppose.”

“So what now?” Hawke asked, looking to Dorian.

Dorian sighed. “We split up,” he said grimly. “Loghain, you’ve been a valuable field agent for us thus far. Would you mind continuing that work?”

“For the sake of the Grey Wardens, I will do what is necessary,” the older man said with a nod. “I take it you want me to go ahead to Adamant?”

“Indeed. I’ll send along a few Inquisition agents from Griffon Wing Keep to aid you, but you can at least confirm that the Wardens are, in fact, there, and get a rough idea of the size and scope of the Fortress.” Dorian set his hand on Loghain’s shoulder. “It will be a dangerous business, but I’d prefer the eye of someone who’s been on more than a few battlefields and studied his fair share of fortresses to analyze the situation before we set the Inquisition Forces against it.”

Loghain nodded gravely. “That I can do, Inquisitor. It was going to be my suggestion regardless.”

“Good man,” Dorian said with a smile. “We pariahs have to help each other as much as we can.”

Loghain smiled faintly. “Not alone do we stand on the field of battle," he murmured. "I will journey to Skyhold once I've confirmed the numbers and deployment of the Wardens at Adamant Fortress. Until we meet again, Inquisitor.” Giving Dorian a formal bow, Loghain turned to Alistair and extended his hand.

Clasping it with his own, Alistair pulled the man into a bear hug. “Don’t you die on me, old man,” he said softly. “It took me far too long to figure out why that’s a bad idea.”

Loghain smiled, and when he was released, nodded to Alistair. “You’re sounding more and more like your father every time I see you.”

“Maker forbid I let down the Theirin line,” Alistair said with a grin.

“Never that, my friend, never that. Some would argue I’ve done enough of that for the both of us.” He patted Alistair’s arm one last time, then settled his helm into place and set off towards the stairs.

Dorian turned his attention to Alistair and Hawke. “I need you to return to Skyhold. They need to start mustering the Inquisition Forces for battle at Adamant.”

Hawke frowned, eyes narrowing. “Alistair could go on his own, or you could even send a message from Griffon Wing Keep, if you didn’t want to return to Skyhold right away,” he pointed out. “I’d rather to stay with you and have that private discussion we talked about earlier. Why aren’t you heading back now?”

“Because there are still too many Venatori running around this place, and the last thing we need is a contingent of them joining the Wardens at Adamant,” Dorian pointed out. It was a reason, of course, and a perfectly valid one, just not the reason - which was that he needed to be away from Hawke right now. He simply couldn’t trust himself to resist Hawke if the man pressed him again, but Dorian didn’t know why, and that worried him. “We’ll sweep up the last remnants of the Venatori and head back to Skyhold, so we shouldn’t be too far behind you.”

“Alistair and I could help you with that,” Hawke insisted. “Why send us ahead?”

“I need both of you to give an in-person brief to Leliana and Josephine about everything we've learned here,” he explained. “While you do that, I’ll go back to Griffon Wing Keep and check in with Knight-Captain Rylen. I really didn’t get to spend much time there after we captured it for the Inquisition, after all. After that, as I said, we’ll sweep away the last of the Venatori here. Don’t worry, Hawke,” he added with a wink. “You’ll see me again.”

A slow smile came to Hawke’s face. “Good. That’s the important part.” Before Dorian could step away, Hawke reached out and pulled Dorian close, claiming his lips in a lingering kiss. Again, Dorian felt that odd edge of wrong, a warning humming at the brink of his conscious mind, but the sensation was overwhelmed by a heady rush of pleasure that swept over him, and he felt his hands sinking into Hawke’s hair before he realized he’d raised them at all. When their lips parted, Hawke seemed quite pleased with himself. “Until later, Inquisitor,” Hawke murmured, then pulled back and looked at Alistair. “Let’s go,” he commanded as he turned and marched to the stairs.

“Yes, ser,” Alistair muttered under his breath. He did pause long enough to give Dorian a worried glance, then shook his head and trotted after Hawke.

“You’ve got a real strange sense of good ideas sometimes, boss,” Bull noted with a grunt once they well out of earshot.

“Thank you for that incredibly insightful comment, Bull,” Dorian said, squinting as he looked north. “Let’s be on our way, shall we? That Servis fellow who's been littering the Western Approach with notes and agents seems to have an overwhelming talent for causing trouble. It's past time we paid him a visit.” And hopefully doing so will take long enough for me to recall why kissing Hawke is a bad idea.

With a weary gesture for his companions to follow after him, he set into motion. Why does it have to be so complicated?

Chapter Text

Cullen frowned at the paper in his hand as he climbed the stairs to the Nightingale’s Roost, as most in Skyhold called it by now. "Leliana, have you seen this report from--" he asked as he looked up, then paused when he realized that Leliana wasn't in her usual spot. "And here I am speaking to thin air," he muttered, awkwardly reaching up to rub his neck.

"She's outside on the terrace, Commander."

Cullen jumped slightly, then looked to the elven woman on his right and smiled. "Thank you, Charter. Now I don't feel quite so foolish, knowing someone was here." Only somewhat foolish, he added privately.

Charter didn't smile in return, but then, she rarely did. "She's got company, ser."

"An agent?" Cullen guessed.

"No, ser." Charter's chin dipped down as she repeated with an odd emphasis, "Company."

Cullen blinked a few times, then looked over to the door leading outside. "Oh, company. Right. Well." Leliana and company was an odd concept to accept, honestly. He hesitated, glancing down at the paper in his hand, and finally sighed. "Then she'll have to arrange to meet them later," he said grimly and headed for the door.

As he approached, he realized that it had been left ajar, and hesitated at the threshold when hushed voices reached his ears. Deciding that a bit of eavesdropping was preferable to barging in on something else on a different tier of unforgivable, he paused and listened for a moment.

"--sure it was him?" Leliana was saying.

"It had to be," her company replied, and Cullen's eyebrows rose as he recognized the voice. "No one else has that tattoo or that scar."

"But what was he doing there?" Leliana asked, a faint and quite unexpected tremor in her voice.

Alistair sighed, and Cullen heard a sound much like a fist hitting stone in frustration. "I don't know. But we both know that he would never be allowed to wander around Thedas without a damned good reason. Maker knows we were all kept on a short leash."

"Until I was murdered," Leliana said in a soft voice.

Cullen's hand froze in the act of reaching out to push the door open, jaw dropping in disbelief. No. He must have misheard that.

"Maker, Leliana," Alistair breathed, and there was a creak of leather as someone moved. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to remind you of that."

"I still remember his face," Leliana said in an oddly toneless voice. "He enjoyed it. Enjoyed watching me lie there, burned and bleeding, knowing there was no way I would survive what he had done to me. The last thing I remember of him was the pressure of his lips on my forehead. And then--" Finally her voice cracked, and Alistair made some comforting noises.

Cullen's mind raced as he struggled with what he'd heard, torn between interrupting what was obviously a private moment and the need to learn more. His indecision kept him frozen long enough to hear Alistair speak again. “When I heard you were with the Inquisition, I could hardly believe it. It was like a sign from the Maker, that maybe… maybe what we went through during the Blight was truly over. I may not be the Nightingale, but maybe I could be the Warden who helps to save Thedas. You know. This time. I didn’t do such a smashing good job last time, I suppose.” After a pause, he chuckled, though the sound was a bit strained. “Oh, good. A smile. You had me worried there for a moment.”

“This isn’t the time for games, Alistair,” Leliana scolded him, though she did sound far more herself than a few moments before. “We need to find out what Amell is up to.”

At the mention of that name, Cullen’s expression turned grim, and he shoved the door open to step out onto the terrace. As he’d suspected, Alistair had his arms around Leliana, though they quickly separated after Cullen’s abrupt entrance. He would apologize for interrupting later, but something else was more important at the moment. “What’s this about Amell?” he demanded.

Alistair and Leliana exchanged a glance, and Alistair conceded the matter to Leliana with a gesture. Face grim, she said, “Alistair saw Zevran Arainai at Griffon Wing Keep.”

“You’re absolutely sure?” Cullen asked in a sharp tone.

“Trust me,” Alistair said with a grimace. “Amell made sure I knew Zev very well before the Blight was over.”

“Maker.” Cullen ran his fingers through his hair. “I thought Amell was sitting this one out.” It had seemed too good to be true...

“The last I heard of him, he was trying to find a cure for the Calling,” Leliana told him. “But you know what he’s like. He’ll do whatever suits him, no matter the consequences.”

“I remember.” Cullen could never forget the man, nor forgive him. Shaking his head, he looked to Leliana. “But until we know more, there’s not much we can do, is there?”

She shook her head mutely, a tension around her eyes that Cullen had never seen before, not even in the worst moments after the explosion at the Conclave. “No. But my agents will be looking for any signs of Amell or Zevran, that I promise you.”

Alistair's expression turned a bit wistful. “He wasn’t such a bad fellow, once. Zevran, I mean. Yes, he was an assassin, and yes, he tried to kill me the first time we met, but... You know. Water under the bridge and all that. Amell changed him, though. After Kinloch Hold, he--” He looked at Cullen as the man flinched. “Oh. Right. Sorry,” he said softly.

“A time best left in the past. For all of us.” Cullen scrubbed his face with his hand, then shook his head. “Regardless, there is nothing we can do now except watch and wait.” After a moment, he realized he still held the report in his hand, and raised it, desperate for a new topic. “Leliana, this came in. Have you seen it yet?” he asked, holding it out to her.

She took the paper and scanned it quickly, then more slowly as her eyes widened. “When did this arrive?”

“Jim brought it to me just a few minutes ago, fresh from the message bin.” Suddenly he snapped his fingers. “Charter.”

“Charter?” Leliana asked, confused.

“She’s in your roost, but was probably a bit more hesitant to, ah, interrupt,” he said, glancing at Alistair.

The faintest hint of color darkened Leliana’s cheeks, and she shoved the paper back into Cullen’s hands. “I need to speak with her,” she declared, then hastily pushed past Cullen and through the door.

“No comments, please,” Alistair said in a firm voice.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Cullen said, then smiled. “It sounds like you both could use a friend who understands.”

Alistair frowned, staring intently at the door through which Leliana had passed. “There’s not a single thing about the Blight that I don’t regret, save one. Knowing her. And Amell made sure he took even that away.” With a shake of his head, Alistair faced Cullen. “Or so I thought. Thank the Maker He had other plans. Or Andraste. I’d even sacrifice a boar to that wolf god of the Dalish if it turned out to be him.”

Cullen sighed and pinched his nose. “Alistair…”

“A little too blasphemous for the ex-Templar, am I?” Alistair said with a chuckle. “Don’t worry, I was joking. Mostly. I’ll let you know if I get accosted by any furry divinities.”

“Thank you, that’s exactly what I wanted to picture,” Cullen groaned.

Punching him lightly in the arm, Alistair said, “You weren’t always so uptight. I remember, you know.” He tapped the side of his nose. “You had a mischievous streak in you when we were young.”

“Young and stupid,” Cullen said with a reluctant grin.

Putting a stern look on his face, Alistair put his hands on his hips and posed. “No kitchen was safe from us, especially in the middle of the night.”

With a snort, Cullen looked him up and down. “That bottomless pit you call a stomach kept waking me up at night with its growling. Besides, an invasion of the kitchen was an excellent practical application of the tactical lessons we were taught.”

Alistair grinned. “And more suitable for nocturnal activities than some others I could name, according to you.”

“Alistair.” Reaching up to rub his forehead, Cullen sighed. “You’re certainly more forthright than when we were younger,” he finally observed dryly.

“I try,” Alistair said as his grin widened. “So, since we're talking about me being nosy--”

“Were we?” Cullen asked.

“We were. What was in that report you showed Lel?” He made as if to reach for it, but Cullen folded it and tucked it away.

“Not your concern, Warden Alistair,” he said, tone part-teasing but also part-serious.

Alistair made a face at him. “Inquisition business, eh? Fair enough. I’m an ally, not a member. I envy you, you know.”

“Oh?” Cullen tilted his head. “Whatever for this time?”

“What do you mean, this time?” Alistair protested.

“Just answer the question,” Cullen told him with a smirk. He had to admit that the banter with Alistair was a good distraction from the earlier conversation, and he hoped it was the same for Alistair. “You’re the one who brought it up, anyway.”

Crossing his arms across his chest in a way that reminded Cullen of their shared Templar training, Alistair said, “Fair enough. I just meant I envy you your part in this. I was forced to be a Templar, as you know, but I muddled my way through until Duncan took pity on me. I enjoyed being a Warden, at least, until I met Amell. Now, though? Now I’m looking in the teeth of the Wardens being as much a danger to Thedas as the very Magister that inflicted the Blight upon us in the first place.” His hand clenched in a fist as his shoulders grew tense. “At least you’re part of something that’s fighting him. My side? No, they’re plunging headlong into their own destruction and spitting on their own legacy all the while.”

Cullen’s hand shot out to grip Alistair’s shoulder tightly. “It won’t get that far,” he promised. “The Inquisition won’t let that happen.”

After a few tense moments, Alistair released his breath explosively. “But it won’t be the Wardens who save themselves,” he said. “And that hurts. More than I’d like to admit, it hurts.”

“I wouldn’t say that. That it won’t be the Wardens.” Cullen nudged Alistair with a little grin. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“True,” Alistair mused. “And it’s not like they’ve corrupted Weisshaupt. I suppose as long as we prevent the whole demon army business and trounce Corypheus like the blighter he is, the Wardens will still be around to fight the next Archdemon.”

“An ambitious man, I see,” Cullen said with a half-grin.

Giving Cullen a subtle wink, Alistair said, “Ambitious times, my friend. And ambitious times call for ambitious men.”

A little smile came to Cullen's face. “Or maybe just the right man,” he murmured.

His friend gave him a shrewd glance. “Anyone in particular on your mind, hmm?”

“What?” The question caught Cullen by surprise, and he felt his ears heat. There had been, but it certainly didn’t warrant that tone from Alistair… did it? “No. No, of course not.” He hastened towards the door. “I’m going to talk to Leliana about that report.”

“Right, no one at all. I totally believe you,” Alistair called after him. The door cut off his chuckle, and Cullen paused to lean against it and regain his composure as best he could. Finally he looked around the roost and spotted Leliana and Charter standing next to her map on the table and pushed himself forward to join them.

“You are certain it was he?” Leliana asked.

Charter nodded. “One of our agents was able to get close enough to listen to the servants gossip. That name was used several times to refer to someone in the retinue. Lord Pavus.”

Well, that got Cullen’s attention faster than almost anything else would have. “Not just any Magister, then,” he said. “My report didn’t have a name.”

“No, Commander,” Charter said with a nod. “We didn’t want to trust the name to paper, considering…”

“Considering who our Inquisitor is, yes,” Cullen said with a nod. “A good decision, that. So a group of Magisters is coming to Skyhold. When will they arrive?”

Leliana grabbed the measuring line next to her map, consulting the report as she worked her way from the position in there to Skyhold. “A month, at the absolute earliest, and that’s if they don’t run into weather or giants,” she said. “My agents can move much more quickly than a caravan of dignitaries, after all, and the ravens can move even faster than them.”

Cullen frowned, brow knotting in thought. “We’ll be in the Western Approach by then, laying siege to Adamant, or making our way back if it’s a short siege.”

“Josephine can greet them on behalf of the Inquisition,” Leliana told him. “That, at least, we do not have to worry about, though we will need to make sure there are plenty of mages here in Skyhold when they arrive.”

“It’s a fairly sizable retinue coming from the Imperium,” Cullen said with a frown. “I don’t know if we can spare enough soldiers or mages to leave here to create a proper impression of the Inquisition's force.”

"There are ways to give the semblance without needing the reality," Leliana assured him. "A few stable hands and servants in the right uniforms and livery, and it will appear we are at full strength regardless of how many actually know what to do with a sword."

Conceding the point, Cullen scrutinized the map and sighed. “Well, hopefully it will take longer than a month for them to arrive.”

“There are ways to delay them without tipping our hand," Charter said. "They might be able to recover from a broken wheel more quickly than most, but a well-timed avalanche in a mountain pass could hold them up for a week or two, or force them to find another way."

"And Josephine is not without resources, either," Leliana noted with a smile. “She could approach key allies in their path and suggest all sorts of ways to give the ambassadors from the Imperium a welcome worthy of their status. And a proper Orlesian fete can take up to a week, if not more.”

Cullen chuckled as he thought about that. “All excellent ideas. I knew the Inquisition could rely upon you. Let's plan on that. I would feel much better if they did not arrive while we were away.” And I likely won’t be the only one to feel that way. “When is the Inquisitor expected back, according to your birds?”

“Tomorrow,” Leliana said, still frowning at the map.

Tomorrow. For a brief instant, it felt like an eternity, and in the next instant, Cullen felt total confusion at that knee-jerk reaction. Forcing himself to nod briskly, he headed towards the stairs. “Then you go brief Josephine on the situation while I get back to readying the troops. The trebuchets needs to be calibrated.”

“Again?” Leliana asked in a bland voice.

“Yes, again,” he said irritably as he looked back at her. “One frayed rope could mean--” He paused when he saw the subtle twitch of her lips. “A siege is not a jaunt in the park,” he muttered as he stomped down the stairs. “I’ll send a report in the morning.”

“As long as you sleep before you send it,” she called after him.

He frowned as he moved through the library, since he’d hoped no one had noticed the sparseness of his sleeping hours. Most of it he blamed on lyrium withdrawal and the upcoming deployment to Adamant, but he had to admit that that wasn’t the only reason. His bed seemed awfully lonely of late, and that one morning of waking up in the Inquisitor's bed with the mattress still warm next to him hadn’t exactly helped - especially given the nature of the dream which had left him both aroused and bewildered and even a trifle guilty. He slowed as he passed the now empty niche where Dorian had once set up shop in the library, Mailani’s teasing once more echoing in his mind.

Little remained of Dorian in the niche now, of course. They’d moved everything but the chair to the Inquisitor’s quarters after Mailani’s portrait had been transferred to the hall. Yet just the mere sight of that plush, lonely chair tucked away in the corner of the library also reminded him of twinkling grey eyes and a curl of a mustache. He found himself smiling a bit wistfully at the thought, realizing just how much he’d missed Dorian’s presence in Skyhold over the past weeks. Though the loss of Mailani had left a hole in his life, it was no longer the aching wound it had once been, and his growing friendship with Dorian exemplified his return to normalcy in a fashion that felt… right. In addition to being a friend, Dorian had also become something more: a shoulder Cullen could lean on when needed, and Cullen had precious few of those.

And then, of course, there was that dream , still as vivid in his mind as when he had awakened with a warm emptiness in the bed next to him.

After a few moments, he realized he was just standing and staring while there was work to be done. When a quick, guilty look around him showed that thankfully no one seemed to have noticed, he straightened and set into motion again. He could let his mind wander when he was in bed. Now was not the time for woolgathering.

He had trebuchets to calibrate.

For the next few hours, Cullen traversed the expanse of Skyhold and the surrounding country several times over. Nothing was spared his attention, from the newest recruits to the grizzled veterans. The push to Adamant was going to be their first decisive blow against Corypheus since Haven's fall, and Cullen knew that more than a few of those in the Inquisition saw this as a way to get a bit of personal revenge against the mad Magister for the devastation he'd wrought.

As he worked his way through the ranks, sending scouts and soldiers alike scattering to get the last few pieces in place as he did so, he lost track of time. Even when the sun went down, he only paused long enough to get a lantern before setting back to work. It was only when everything was in place to his satisfaction that he headed back to his office, more than ready for his bed.

As he reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to his quarters, however, a voice whispered to him from a nearby shadowed niche. "Psst. Hey, Commander."

Cullen frowned and turned to the source of the sound, stepping towards it as he raised his lantern. "Bull? Is that you?"

"Yeah, yeah, keep it quiet, would ya?" The large man stepped out of the shadows, looming larger in the night than during the day. Reaching out, he took the lantern from Cullen and blew it out, leaving the area dark around them. "It's time to skulk."

Cullen's eyebrows rose. "Skulk? You want to skulk? You're starting to sound like Alistair."

Bull laughed softly. "He's an okay guy. Come on."

As Bull turned and headed towards a side door to the main building, Cullen hurried to catch up with him, his mind waking up from its pre-slumber stupor. "Wait, Bull. You were with Dor-- the Inquisitor. Is he here?"

Bull nodded as he held open the door and gestured Cullen through. "We got back a couple of hours ago. Josephine and Leliana pulled the boss into that fancy bedroom next to the throne for some sort of meeting right away. I tried to find you then, but couldn't track you down."

Muttering an oath, Cullen picked up his pace. "Where is he? The Inquisitor, I mean. Is he still there?"

"Josephine and Leliana left, but he didn't. Hawke went in for a while, but Varric lured him out when Cole started to panic."

"Maker," Cullen breathed.

"Yeah, it wasn't a pretty sight. I figure the boss needs a friend right now, and you came to mind, so I staked out your office."

"How long--"

"Was I waiting for you?" Bull finished for him, then shrugged. "Not long. Hopefully Varric's kept Hawke occupied, but the faster we move, the better."

"Agreed," Cullen said shortly. Despite his wariness concerning Cole, he remembered the last time the spirit-man had warned him about Hawke's predatory instincts when it came to Dorian, and knew he could trust Cole on that matter implicitly.

By that point, they'd reached one of the side doors for the main hall, and Bull eased it open to peek out. "Right," he said with a grunt. "I can see them arguing in front of the fire, but Varric's made sure Hawke's back is towards us. I'll stand and loom so it’s harder to see you, but I'd still move fast if I were you."

Cullen didn't need any further encouragement. As soon as Bull stepped into the hall, he did as well, moving to the Inquisitor's bedroom with a quick step. As he shut the door behind him, he opened his mouth to call out, but paused when a faint sound reached his ears. Pushing away from the door, he stepped further into the room, trying to discern the nature of what he heard.

His eyes widened when he recognized the faint strains of music drifting in the air, played upon a string instrument of some kind. It wasn’t, perhaps, as polished as some of the bards who had passed through Skyhold, but it was lovely nonetheless, and held a sense of heartache that woke an echo of pain in Cullen. He suddenly recalled the small mandolin which had sat in Dorian’s nook in the library, and his steps hurried as worry overcame him once more.

When he finally reached the top of the stairs, he had to strain to find Dorian amidst the shadows. There was no candle lit, so the only light to go by was the moonlight streaming in through the window. The first glint he saw proved to be a buckle from Dorian’s outfit, but it had been flung over the side of the couch near the stairs. It wasn’t until the music stopped and he heard the slosh of liquid in glass, then saw the moonlight dance on the bottle, that he saw Dorian sitting on the balcony. The same light also glowed on the sides of several other bottles littered on the ground around him, several tipped over on their sides.

“Dorian,” he breathed, then hurried over.

As he moved, Dorian set the bottle down and began to pluck at the mandolin once more. He sang as he played, so softly that Cullen couldn’t even hear it until he was very close. As he stepped out onto the balcony, the music stopped once more, but this time Dorian just stared blindly into the distance, face void of expression.

Hesitantly, Cullen laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder and whispered his name. Dorian started, nearly dropping his mandolin as he kicked one of the bottles off the balcony. “Oh dear,” he said. “I do hope that doesn’t ruin anyone’s evening.” When a curse rose from below, he tilted his head. “Ah. One more sin on my head. Or… well, I suppose my foot.” He turned to look up at Cullen, gaze bleary. “Is that you, Commander? How charming to see you. Would you--” He paused for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Would you care to join in my celebration?”

Cullen frowned. Dorian’s bright smile held the brittleness of a droplet of ice, and the dark circles under his eyes spoke of nothing to do with celebrating. “Are you all right?” he asked softly.

“I? Never better!” Dorian said brightly. “Why, I learned that I will be seeing my father soon. Isn’t that wonderful? He can finally put his arms on my shoulders and tell me how very proud of his son he is. I’m sure he’ll tell me… tell me how clever I was to infiltrate a powerful southern operation, or congratulate me on… on scheming my way to the top.” As Dorian spoke, his inebriation became more pronounced, his words slurring as he continued, “I guarantee you he’ll im--imply that power should never have been… been trusted to an elf anyway, and only a member of a House of the Magisterium will be able to deal appra--appro--appre--” He finally paused, staring at Cullen for a long moment before he closed his eyes and sighed heavily. “My father’s coming.”

“I gathered.” Gently Cullen reached down and extracted the mandolin from Dorian’s grasp, setting it to lean against the wall. Taking both of Dorian’s hands, he pulled the man to his feet. “Steady now,” he said as Dorian almost fell into him. “Let’s get you to bed.”

“Ha!” Dorian said, then laughed as if Cullen had said something uproariously funny. “Bed. Yes. Oh, yes, that’s expactly... ah, exactly what Father will say.” Reaching up to tap the side of his nose and missing, Dorian glared at his hand suspiciously for a moment, then tried to take a step towards the door.

When he stumbled and kicked another bottle off the balcony, Cullen quickly swooped in and tugged one of Dorian’s arms over his shoulders. Ignoring the shouted curse from below as the bottle landed, he steered Dorian inside. “I think someone needs some tea,” he said with a chuckle.

“Tea? No, no, no, not tea. I think I had one bottle left. Besides, it did tell me to serve myself. Or at least one of them did.” He tried to turn to look behind them, almost knocking Cullen over. They were saved by the desk, but for a moment, Cullen found himself pinned between wood and mage.

“You got into the Ritewine?” Cullen asked, straining to right them. He didn’t want to push too hard with Dorian in his current state, or he might inadvertently knock the man over. “I thought Alistair warned you it tasted worse than horse piss.”

“Which makes it the perfect...the perfect wine for a pissy mood,” Dorian said, letting out a groan as he let his head fall forward to land in the crook of Cullen’s neck and shoulder. “I don’t suppose we can make it all go away? My father coming, or me being the Inquisitor, or the whole… the whole Corypheus thing? That would be ever so lovely.”

The hot blast of Dorian’s breath on his neck made Cullen acutely aware of how very close they were. For a few moments he tried to get his hands situated in a way that wouldn't be scandalous, then finally gave up. “Ah… Can you perhaps push yourself up a bit?”

“When the world stops its in...infernal spinning,” Dorian replied in a dull tone.

Finally getting his feet under him, Cullen managed to lift Dorian enough that he could set himself under the man’s arm and get him moving forward again. “I think it might stop doing that when you’re in bed,” he said in a light tone. “Come on, let’s go.”

“It’s not even fair,” Dorian complained. “Father will simply assume I’ve claimed the most handsome man in Skyhold for my bed, and you’ve never even been near it. Well. Not in the way my father would think, I mean.”

Cullen swallowed, a bit surprised at how much it pleased him that Dorian considered him handsome, then eased Dorian down onto the mattress. “Can you sit there while I go get you some tea?”

Dorian peered at him owlishly, blinking slowly. “Sit? Sit. Sit! Yes, I can sit here and do nothing. That’s simple enough, I suppose, even for a failure like myself.”

“Don’t say that,” Cullen said, a knee-jerk response as soon as the words left Dorian’s lips.

“Oh, that scowl you’re wearing,” Dorian said with laugh as he reached up to tap the furrowed skin between Cullen’s eyebrows. “So very fierce, Commander. I would almost think you cared. But yes, a failure, at least as far as my father is concerned. I’m not Archon. I’m not a First Enchanter. I was caught fuck...fucking my way through the entire workforce of some of the seedier all-male brothels in Minrathous. Oh, and of course I had the audaci...the audacity to tell him no when he wanted to scramble my brain. What else can I… can I be?” His voice trailed away as he stared into Cullen’s eyes. “I tried so very hard, you see, but I was never good enough.”

Grateful that it was himself who had found Dorian in this state, and not a predator like Hawke, Cullen crouched in front of Dorian and took his hands. “Listen to me, Dorian,” he said in a firm tone. “You’re not a failure, and you are free to ignore your father as much as he ignored you.”

Dorian shook his head. “We’re far too much alike to be able to ignore each other. I’ve seen his best and I’ve seen his worst, and I know we’re not done with each other, not entirely.” He fell silent for a long moment. “And apparently there’s a woman with him. I fear that, too.”

“Your mother, perhaps?” Cullen asked.

“Or worse. Fianceé.” Dorian shuddered violently. “Just the thought of it makes me ill.”

Fianceé. Cullen remembered Dorian’s previous references to the marriage his family had arranged for him, and frowned. He wanted to ask more about that possibility, about what Dorian being Inquisitor meant to the Imperium, but knew this was not the best time to pursue the matter. So he kept his fretting silent. “Let me get you some tea,” Cullen offered. “Then we’ll talk, all right? I don’t want you to go to sleep like this. Maker knows what size your head would be.”

Dorian stared at him for a few long moments, then nodded. “Tea. Yes, I suppose that’s better than joining juice.”

“Good man,” Cullen said with a chuckle as he rose to his feet. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”

“Promises, promises, Commander,” Dorian said, giving Cullen a nonchalant wave of his hand. “We’ll just see, won’t we?”

With a quick step, Cullen raced down to the hall and hailed the nearest servant. He gave the orders quietly, trying not to let his concern for the Inquisitor show, but inevitably wondered if he was successful as he turned to head back to Dorian. In the end, it didn’t matter - only the welfare of his friend mattered.

When he reached the bed again, he found that Dorian had slumped to his side on the mattress in an incredibly uncomfortable-looking position. Gently tugging the man upright, Cullen sat down next to him and set his arm around the man’s shoulders to steady him. “Tea’s on it’s way,” he told Dorian. “Now. Maybe we could get you ready for bed in the meantime.”

“All the buckles are off already,” Dorian told him. “Hawke helped with that. Offered to take off more. Helpful fellow, Hawke.”

Cullen didn't like the sound of that at all, or the way an almost haunted look came to Dorian's face as he spoke. "He didn't... hurt you, did he?"

"Hurt me?" Dorian blinked and turned to look at Cullen. "No, no. No. No, he didn't hurt me. He kissed me, touched me, told me... told me I was beautiful." His brow furrowed as his gaze went blank for a moment. "I felt… I felt something when he touched me, like someone telling me what to feel, telling me that it should feel good. Telling me to enjoy it when he… when his hands…” His voice trailed off, and he closed his eyes as his face took on an almost pained expression. For a moment, one of his hands settled on his groin before quickly moving away, and Cullen felt his teeth grind together when he saw that the laces on his trousers had been yanked askew. “Like I had no… no choice but to enjoy it. That's not right, is it?"

"No." Cullen swallowed harshly, a whisper of anger awakening deep inside. "No, it's not right at all."

“I thought as... thought as much." For a long moment, Dorian kept staring past Cullen into the darkness. Abruptly a shudder ran through his body, and green light flickered in his left palm as Dorian's eyes suddenly focused on Cullen. "Commander. It is good to see you. Did I… did I tell you that yet?"

Resisting the urge to take Dorian’s hand and squeeze it, Cullen said, "No. But I am glad to see you, if a bit worried as well."

"Oh, this? Tut tut, Commander," Dorian said. "I'll be fine. It was simply that kind of-- kind of day which needed to end with some drinking." He stared into Cullen's eyes for a long moment, and Cullen felt heat slowly rise in his ears as he found he could not look away. When Dorian shifted towards him, Cullen's gaze dropped to consider Dorian's lips for a moment, biting the inside of his lip when Dorian’s tongue emerged to moisten them.

When a knock came at the door, Cullen found himself gasping for the air he'd forgotten to breathe, and stunned at what he'd been contemplating. Besides, whatever might have happened, the moment had passed, and Dorian slumped down once more. "That would be the tea," Cullen said as he stood, feeling oddly helpless. "I'll, ah, I'll go-- I shall return." When Dorian only sighed in response, Cullen quickly moved to the door.

When he opened the door, the tea was waiting for him, and so was Bull. As the horned man thrust the tray at him, he muttered, "Varric and Hawke went downstairs to that little library when they started shouting at each other, so you're still good. How's the boss?"

"Toiling under the auspices of several bottles of Ritewine," Cullen said with a sigh.

"Ouch. That shit is brutal." Bull grimaced and shook his head. "Got it. I'll let the redhead know, at least. Good luck." He gently pushed Cullen back, then reached in to pull the door closed, leaving Cullen blinking.

After a moment, he gave a mental shrug and headed back to the bed. Dorian still needed the tea, after all. Setting the tray on the desk, he quickly poured a cup, added a bit of sugar to sweeten it, and pressed it into Dorian's hands. "There we are. Drink it down," he said in a gentle voice.

As Dorian sipped slowly at the tea, Cullen walked to the balcony and collected the mandolin to bring inside. It was a beautiful instrument, with silver inlaid in the wood in a pattern he could only surmise was Tevinter in nature, but as he turned it over to follow the silver along the back, he came across a surprise. “Felix?" he read, his finger tracing along the detailed filigree engraved on the body.

“Hmm? Oh, the mandolin? Yes.” Dorian smiled at what was obviously a fond memory. “He gifted it to me when I separated from his father’s mentoring. It was his way to let me know that he was still my friend, you see, regardless of what words Alexius and I had exchanged.”

“You miss him, don’t you?” Cullen asked as he gently set the mandolin on Dorian’s bureau.

“Every day. He and I used to have the most fascinating conversations. Why, I remember once when we argued all night about whether or not someone could be made into a mage if they were not born with the ability. As a mage of lesser talent than might be expected of his heritage, it weighed heavily on him.” Dorian’s face grew sad for a moment. “Where another Magister might have disowned him or adopted another heir from a close bloodline, Alexius never held it against Felix. He loved his son so very much, it didn’t matter to him that Felix wanted to be a scholar rather than a First Enchanter. I… envied that, once upon a time.”

Cullen nodded as he carefully set the mandolin on the desk where it would be safe. “Did Leliana’s agents ever track him down?”

“They found the body of Alexius, after the Venatori were done with him,” Dorian said softly, a vast sorrow on his face. “I wish… I wish it hadn’t ended where it did between us.”

Wincing at the man’s sudden melancholy, Cullen moved to the bed and sat down. Taking one of Dorian’s hands into his own, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“As am I.” Dorian’s eyebrows peaked together. “Whatever he became at the… at the end, he saved me from my… from myself. He found me in a brothel, you know.” A faint smile touched Dorian’s lips. “I propositioned him, actually. I was… I was drunk at the time. Not on Ritewine, of course. And he politely declined, and then gently… ah, gently bullied me into his carriage and took me far away. To somewhere safe.” Dorian’s gaze grew distant. “That was a good time, with him. Until…”

“Until the darkspawn,” Cullen guessed softly.

“Yes. They ruin all they… all they touch, do they not?” A gleam came to Dorian’s eyes, and he took a deep breath and closed them. “As for Felix, no. Leli--Leliana says they found nothing. He must be dead. If even Alexius couldn’t sustain him, there is… there is no hope.”

Wrapping an arm around Dorian, Cullen pulled him into an awkward embrace. Dorian’s head fell onto his be-furred shoulder, so Cullen found his other hand rising naturally to stroke the man’s head. The feel of the silken strands under his fingers made him wonder if the man’s mustache would be as soft to the touch - and then he wondered why his thoughts had even wandered in that direction.

“At least I’m not alone,” Dorian murmured. Raising his head, his grey eyes met Cullen’s gaze as a winsome little smile came to his lips. “You’re a good friend, Commander, staying with me even when I’m… when I’m so dreadfully maudlin.”

The combination of that smile and those eyes left Cullen speechless for a moment, and he cleared his throat to buy some time to think up a response. “You’re not so dreadful,” he finally said with a dry chuckle. “Though I think your perception of my virtues is a bit clouded at the moment.”

“Are you implying that I am drunk?” Dorian demanded. “I’ll have you know, ser, that I am not so easily drunk as that miscreant of a furry-chested storyteller in the hall.”

“Perhaps not,” Cullen said, amused, “but few could drink seven bottles of Ritewine--”

“Joining juice,” Dorian corrected, waggling his finger at Cullen. “Very important detail.”

“Of 'joining juice' strong enough to knock a Grey Warden on their ass and not be sozzled at the end of it,” Cullen finished, then firmly patted the mattress. “So why don’t you lie down and sleep, hmm?”

“Sleep. Yes.” Dorian glanced at the pillow. “That does sound marvelous.”

“Then get under the covers while I get you a glass of water. Hopefully that will help with the headache.” Rising to his feet, Cullen moved to the ever-present water pitcher next to the wardrobe and poured out a glass. Of course, by this point, it might be as effective as pouring a cup of hot water on a snowbank in terms of any effect it would have on the hangover, but at least it would be something. By the time he brought the glass back, Dorian had managed to lie flat on the bed, but the covers were proving to be a challenge. “Here you are,” Cullen said, holding out the glass.

Dorian took it with a look of distaste. “Are you sure wine wouldn’t be better?”

“Water,” Cullen said firmly.

“You truly are an unpleasant person when I'm drunk,” Dorian complained, yet gulped the liquid down nonetheless as Cullen drew the blanket over him.  

When he was done, Cullen took the glass. “Now sleep,” he told Dorian. “And I’ll see you tomorrow.”

As he turned to leave, however, a hand reached out and caught his. “Wait, Commander.”

Eyebrow raised, Cullen turned back. “What is it?”

“Will you stay yet a while? I… I need a friend tonight.” Dorian’s voice was soft, but the look in his eyes was so vulnerable that Cullen was doubly grateful he was here rather than Hawke. The thought of how Hawke would take advantage of Dorian as he had those in Kirkwall made his stomach churn, and he nodded.

“Of course I’ll stay,” he said. “Let me bar the door, though.”

The grateful smile that came to Dorian's face could only be described as poignant. “Of course. I’ll be here, I promise.” He squeezed Cullen’s hand before releasing it. “Not sure I could stumble to the desk right now, honestly.”

Cullen chuckled. “Then perhaps it is better not to try.” As he made his way to the door, a moment of uncertainty came over him. He’d heard the rumors, naturally, about the Inquisitor and himself, but they’d dissipated quickly during Dorian's absence. If Cullen were to spend the Inquisitor’s first night back with Dorian, no matter how chaste, the rumors would start again. His hand paused on the bar, pondering if he was creating a problem where none should exist, then remembered Dorian’s pleading look. He knew Bull was right - if Hawke got wind of Dorian in this state, he would try to take advantage of it. With that in mind, he quietly slid the bar home, then turned to go back to the bed.  

As he did so, he heard footsteps approach the door, and a creak as someone tried to push the door open. A soft curse reached his ears when the way was found to be barred, and he stiffened as he recognized the voice. Hawke. Standing absolutely still and almost forgetting to breathe, his ears strained as he heard a muttered epithet of “Idiotic dwarf" before the footsteps retreated.  

Shaking his head and frowning, Cullen set into motion again. Hawke was clearly going to present more of a problem than they’d realized. Still, for the moment, at least, they could both rest easy.

Quietly he returned to the bed and stripped off his outer layers. Gauntlets, a breastplate, and vambraces made poor bed companions for everyone, himself included. Settling down on top of the covers on the empty side of the bed, he lay on his back and glanced at Dorian.

When he saw a gleam of wetness on the man’s cheeks, he frowned and sat up again. “Dorian?” he ventured.

“It’s always too late, isn’t it?” Dorian replied in a whisper, his eyes still closed. “I can never do anything right. Not back home, not here. Not for Father, not for my friends. I’m always too late.”

Cullen closed his eyes for a moment, wondering how he could have ever thought that Dorian was culpable in Mailani’s death. Without a word, he shifted until he could pull Dorian into a tight embrace, since it was the best comfort he had to offer at the moment. “You’re not too late,” he said softly. “We need you, Inquisitor, because of who you are and what you’ve done, not in spite of it.”

“Kind words, ser,” Dorian mumbled. “You’re too kind.” Cullen felt him relax, though, and forced himself to relax further, hoping it would help the man.

“It’s not too late for the Inquisition,” he told Dorian. “You’ll see that more clearly tomorrow.”

“Will I?” Dorian asked, but it was clear that he was falling asleep even as he spoke.

Cullen smiled, patting Dorian on the back. “Go to sleep, Dorian,” he said quietly. “Things will be better in the morning.”

His only answer was a soft snore, and Cullen suppressed a chuckle. After a few more snores, he eased Dorian slowly onto his back, hand resting on the man’s chest until Cullen was certain Dorian would remain asleep. Only then did he start to pull back, then froze as Dorian’s hand rose and grasped Cullen’s tightly.

“Don’t worry,” Dorian murmured, eyes still closed. “I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

Cullen blinked, confused by the non sequitur. Unsure exactly what to say, he finally said, “Thank you.”

For another long moment, Dorian’s hand retained its grip. Abruptly it loosened, and Dorian’s hand slipped down to rest on the blanket. “I’m sorry, Mailani,” he whispered, clearly speaking from the throes of sleep. “I’m sorry.”

Cullen’s brow furrowed as sudden tears came to his eyes. He had no words to comfort Dorian, since the man clearly felt the same guilt as Cullen himself did. Instead, he watched as Dorian’s breathing slowed and deepened, then lay back on the covers and slipped his hands beneath his head.

Thoughts whirling, he stared at the ceiling with an unblinking gaze as sleep eluded him for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

It seemed that he only blinked, but the ceiling of the Inquisitor's room suddenly shifted into the greyish green, ever changing sky of the Fade in that split second. Cullen blinked again, hoping in his dreamer's logic to make himself return to the waking world, but instead it simply turned into a different sky, the Fade's attempt at twilight. He felt something tickle his ear, and turned his head to find that he was lying in a bed of mixed grass and flowers. Pushing himself up slowly, he looked around as a lush forest formed around him, deep emerald green mixed with the occasional flair of flowers.

As he brushed some stray seeds and petals from his hair, he heard a familiar voice behind him and turned to find Dorian standing in front of a large pair of stone doors inscribed with runes. Dorian's hands were raised, holding his staff aloft as he intoned mystical words in a deep, sonorous voice. When he finished, he brought his staff down in an abrupt motion, and a shimmering field of energy settled over the doors. As Cullen watched, the runes on them faded from sight, and Dorian set the butt of his staff on the ground. “And that, as they say, is that,” he said with a weary nod.

From his right two elves formed out of the Fade mist, one of whom was Mailani and the other an older elf with white hair and a cluster of wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. The tattoo on his face showed that he was a Dalish elf, with the staff in his hands indicating that he was a mage as well. "Thank you, my friend," he said, then looked to Mailani. "I feared the worst when Taven did not return from his search for Din'an Hanin. Though you could not save him, I thank you for cleansing the Tomb and bringing me the scroll. Too much Dalish history has been lost to Chantry lies. "

"To think that such an evil had invaded this place," Mailani said with a shudder. "Thank the Creators it is now gone."

“Due in no small part to your efforts, da’len,” Hawen said, then smiled. “My trust in you is well placed.”

“Then you will return to the Plains now?” Mailani asked him.

The older elf nodded. “My clan needs me, though I do not regret the journey. Taven and those with him deserved a true Dalish burial for their efforts to restore our past.” He looked at the now obscured doors of the Knight’s Tomb, a sad expression coming to his face. “Besides, this is the Emerald Graves, and that tomb was built to hold our honored dead. Those of my clan who have fallen will find good company here with the heroes of our past.”

"These doors shall not open again, Keeper Hawen," Dorian promised. "The runes would need to be re-inscribed, and even I would not know how to do so."

Hawen smiled, though the sorrow lingered in his expression. "There are none living who do. Still, there is one more thing I can do." Hawen turned to the doors and raised his own staff, brow furrowing in concentration. The plants and vines around the doors seemed to shift into life, but Cullen quickly saw that they were, in fact, growing, extending and swelling until they covered the doors so thoroughly that it was difficult to imagine it had ever been anything but another wall of flowering vines.

"Clever," Dorian murmured. "I don't suppose you could teach me that trick, could you?"

Hawen chuckled. "Perhaps, after we all survive the trials that are to come."

Mailani nudged Dorian with her elbow as he opened his mouth - presumably to press the issue - and the mage quickly shut it again at her glare. "May we meet again when that has come to pass," Mailani said, bowing to the elf.

"Your way is dark, daughter of clan Lavellan," Hawen said gravely. "Know that you go with my blessing."

"Ma serannas, Keeper Hawen," Mailani said, her voice trembling slightly. "Dareth shiral."

"Dareth shiral, Inquisitor," the Keeper said gravely, then turned and left.

"That's it, isn't it?" Dorian asked. "We're done here?"

Mailani shook her head as she drew her bow and turned to where the door had been. Kneeling with the bow in her hands, she said, "I will keep a vigil tonight, as a final gift to the spirits of the fallen." She glanced up at Dorian. "You may return to camp. This is my choice."

Dorian paused, then gave her a smile. "And if a giant came along and squished you into Inquisitor paste? I would never forgive myself." Kneeling next to her, he held his staff between his hands and shifted a bit until he was comfortable. "There."

She gave him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Dorian."

"Well, what in Thedas are friends for if not to commune silently with long-dead spirits now and again?" he replied. "Besides, I am a necromancer. This is practically in my job description, isn't it?"

With a little laugh, Mailani said, "That's one way to look at it." Turning to face the door, her face grew somber. "We should think of them, though. This is their night." Her eyes closed, and she bowed her head to fall into the stillness of the vigil.

"And yours," Dorian said softly. It was clear from the sorrow on his face that this was the moment when the dreaming Dorian overrode the Fade’s script to speak his own mind, and that moment made Cullen's heart ache. An odd longing came to Dorian’s face as he reached out to her, though his hand drew back before he made contact. Finally he took a deep, silent breath and wrapped his hand firmly around the shaft of his staff before bowing his own head.

Cullen didn't know how long he stood there watching them before he silently moved to kneel next to Mailani. A vigil was something he could understand, and paying his respects to the dead was also a familiar concept, though the exact circumstances of this vigil remained a bit of a mystery to him. He was touched at how readily Dorian acquiesced to the solemnity of the occasion, and couldn't help but feel as if their actions demanded a like response from him, even if it was only a dream.

As he knelt and bowed his head, however, everything changed. The gentle sounds of the forest around them abruptly altered to distant shrieks and a howling wind, and suddenly his body felt weighed down by a prison of metal. With a gasp, he raised his hand to his chest, his face turning pale as he found the Sword of Mercy on his breastplate. He looked around, eyes wild, and saw piles of bodies clad in Templar armor and Circle mage robes, blood pooling grotesquely underneath them. In the next breath, the red haze of a containment spell formed around him as two demons, Desire and Rage, pushed their way up from the ground and began to circle him, whispering and taunting him with hissing laughs.

"Get away from me!" he cried, hands rising to grasp the sides of his head. Dredging up the will from deep inside, he sent a smite out in a burst of energy, shoving the demons away to collapse in stunned heaps. With a roar he rose to his feet, a sword appearing his hand, and charged them in a mixture of fear and fury. Helpless as they were, it didn’t take long to destroy them, and he whirled in a circle for a moment as he looked for other demons to appear. When none emerged, he collapsed to the ground, shaking from the jolt of adrenaline, and fought to clear his mind. Of all places, Kinloch Hold during the Blight was never a place to which he would wish to return, and it wasn't only the demons that were the reason why.

As if the thought had summoned him, a flicker of movement caught his attention, and Cullen looked up to see him standing on the other side of the confinement spell. A sneer twisted the massive burn scar which covered the left side of his face, and his crimson eyes seemed to glow with a cruelty which had only grown after joining the Grey Wardens, but there was no mistaking Jorath Amell. Those eyes had haunted his nightmares as often as any demon had in the years since he'd left Ferelden, and Cullen felt a shiver of helpless fear crawl down his spine as the man came to a halt on the other side of the containment spell.

"Amell," he grated.

"Cullen." The red hue of the confinement spell accentuated the man's already odd coloring, making his red hair and fiery eyes that much more sinister. After a moment where the man seemed to enjoy Cullen’s discomfiture, Amell added, "You seem to have gotten yourself into some difficulty. Are your demons hounding you more than usual today?"

"I don't need your help," he said, voice cracking as he said help. It was hard to remember that this was a dream,  that he wasn't truly back in the past, but he managed. Barely. He fought to push the fear away through sheer force of will, and his anger helped to remind him that this wasn’t real, that this Amell was just a demon playacting one of his memories.

"Stubborn, stubborn Templar. I wonder if you will say the same when next we meet." Amell flicked his eyes over Cullen's kneeling form with a smirk. Cullen had to admit that whatever demon was portraying Amell even had his mannerisms down perfectly. "You look good on your knees, Cullen. Maybe when I've dealt with Uldred, you can demonstrate your thanks to me from down there. I’m sure I needn’t elaborate, hmm?"

Cullen swallowed, but didn't deign to reply, and Jorath laughed softly, again clearly taking pleasure in a Templar’s unease. Cullen remembered all too well what had happened when he'd pleaded for the mage's help before. The part of him which yearned for the oblivion of lyrium still wondered whether death itself would truly have been worse than the price he’d paid for the man’s ‘help.’

"Nothing to say? Pity." Amell blew him a kiss, then gestured to those with him to follow him up the stairs. Only the blond elf glanced at Cullen with anything approaching interest as the party passed him. The others had the blank look that Cullen had come to associate with the control of blood magic, including Alistair, though he hadn’t recognized the man at the time. "Do give your captors my regards, Cullen. I look forward to killing them later."

As he disappeared, Cullen forced himself to his feet and took a deep breath. New demons - real or simply part of the dream, it didn't matter - were already prowling the space behind him, and he had to get out of there, out of both the confinement circle and the dream entirely. Squaring his shoulders, he tightened his grip around his sword and raised it high in preparation for a strike. It hadn’t worked in the real world, but maybe in a dream...

Even as he swung, an arc of energy hit the confinement spell from outside, and it collapsed in a shower of sparks. As Cullen stumbled forward when his sword encountered no resistance, someone swooped in and caught him, drawing him upright. "Commander?"

Cullen gasped in relief as he dropped the sword to lean against Dorian. "Inquisitor." Letting the man lead him away, he concentrated on releasing the memory, hoping that the Fade would banish Kinloch Hold to where it belonged: the vaults of his mind.

"Who was that?" Dorian asked as the landscape melted around them and became neutral once more. "The red-haired fellow."

"Jorath Amell." Cullen shuddered as he fought to catch his breath.

"That was the Hero of Ferelden?" Dorian frowned, brow contracting in concern.

With a grunt, Cullen forced himself straight and nodded. "A demon pretending to be him, at any rate."

"I hate to tell you this, Commander, but that was no demon," Dorian told him.

Cullen's eyes narrowed, then widened as he realized exactly what Dorian meant. "Amell was here? In the Fade? How?"

"Oh, not in the flesh, of course," Dorian quickly assured him. "That hasn't been done since Corypheus and his fellow priests trampled over several rules of reality to walk the Fade. No, he was here as we are here. But that doesn't make it any less dangerous, if he's as... charming as he seemed to be."

Gut instinct told Cullen to run, but his first attempt left him swaying and wobbling like a fish out of water. "We must leave," he gasped. "Can't let him find us."

"Now, now," Dorian said, arm wrapping around Cullen to steady him, "I'm not entirely helpless here, you know. Don't worry. I'm here. I'll protect you."

Cullen stared at Dorian for a moment, then sagged into him and let his head fall into the crook of Dorian's neck. "Thank you." It wasn't so much the promise itself for which he was grateful as much as it was for the reassurance that he wasn't alone. Not this time.

"That's it," Dorian said in a soothing tone as his arm pulled Cullen closer. "Just relax. That will make this easier."

Thus assured, Cullen closed his eyes. For a moment, he dimly wondered if perhaps this was yet another demon pretending to be Dorian, then dismissed the thought immediately. This was Dorian, from the clicking of his silly number of buckles to the musky scent that always seemed to linger in his hair. This was his friend, as unlikely as that friendship might seem to others, and Cullen knew, deep down, that he could trust him.

The thought brought a smile to his face, even as a tickle of magic wreathed around them and Dorian's lips touched his ear.

"Wake up."

Chapter Text

As Dorian's eyelids fluttered open, the first thing he noticed was bright sunlight streaming in through the stained glass windows. Of course, as soon as the light hit his eyes, he squeezed them shut immediately, wincing slightly as a hideous pain started to throb in his head. Whatever had transpired the previous night had definitely involved a large quantity of alcohol, and he could only pray that there hadn’t been a commensurate amount of embarrassment to go along with it.

The second thing he noticed, however, was the feel of another body next to him and the sensation of something tickling his ear. Slowly he opened one eye and cocked his head so he could investigate, and thus found a wavy nest of dark blond hair tucked into his neck. Further down, he saw an arm flung over his waist, and a fully clothed Cullen pressed against him. Opening both eyes and striving to push the pain of his hangover aside, Dorian shifted slightly so that he could get a better view of the sleeping beauty on his arm.

Slowly it dawned on him that his own arm was wholly asleep under Cullen's weight, indicating that Cullen had taken this position some time ago. Still, it seemed a small enough price to pay to see Cullen so utterly relaxed in sleep, an image completed by the small smile on the man's face. Dorian found an answering one on his own as he watched Cullen, though his memory of the previous evening wasn't quite clear on how Cullen had ended up in bed with him.

Even if the man was tragically, and chastely, fully clothed.

Still, it seemed peaceful contemplation had a limited lifespan in the Inquisition, as Cullen’s eyes suddenly flew open and he jerked upright with a gasp. After a few bleary-eyed blinks, he turned his head and focused on Dorian, who gave him a little wave with his left hand. "Good morning, Commander," he said cheerfully.

Cullen blinked again, then squinted at the sun for a moment until he finally ran his hand through his hair. "Maker's breath," he muttered.

Afraid that this was about to go the way of almost every time he'd woken up with someone in his bed, Dorian gave a light laugh. "Oh, don't worry, your virtue is perfectly intact. Even in my inebriation, I was a model of a gentleman."

"What? No, that's not the problem," Cullen told him, dismissing the notion out of hand. "It's past dawn, and I'm well beyond late for the morning patrol reports."

A little relieved at such a pedestrian explanation rather than the outright rejection he'd half-feared, Dorian chuckled and said, "The world won't end because of you’re late, Commander, not when there are so many more juicy reasons available. A little problem called Corypheus comes to mind."

Cullen gave him a withering glance, then frowned as he scrutinized Dorian a bit more closely. "Your head hurts, doesn't it?"

"Not nearly as much as my arm will when it wakes up," Dorian admitted, glancing down at the offending limb. He still couldn’t even lift a finger, much less move the arm. The tingle was just beginning to hit him, and it promised to be quite the pain when it finally roared into wakefulness. "A sacrifice I was glad to make to fulfill the all-important role of your bolster."

A rueful smile came to Cullen's face as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "I was a log for that long?" he asked. "You have my apologies." Shifting on the mattress, he took Dorian's arm between his hands and started to rub it vigorously. "Best to get the worst of it out of the way then."

Dorian winced as the tingling surged into a wave of prickles, but endured it. It was a distraction from the headache, at least. "So... what was I like last night?"

Cullen glanced up at him, expression pensive. "You mean before you slept? Not in a good place. You needed a friend, and I was glad to be here."

"That's why you stayed, then?" Dorian ventured. "Because I needed a friend?" At Cullen's nod, he let his head fall back in the pillows. "I must have been feeling fairly pathetic, then."

"I'll admit, the image of a kicked Mabari did cross my mind once or twice," Cullen teased him.

"I protest, Commander," Dorian said, aghast. "I would never resemble a Mabaaaaah-- Kaffas!" He cut off with a gasp as suddenly the prickling turned into a raging fire. Clenching and unclenching his hand even though he could barely feel anything but a multitude of tiny little daggers stabbing it, he groaned, “Vishante kaffas. Festis bei umo canavarum.”

"I’m not sure what you just said, but the pain is a good sign," Cullen told him, his lips twitching a bit too obviously. "It will be over soon."

Writhing in agony, Dorian gasped, "You just--quiet, you," he gasped. "This is all your fault."

"My fault?" Cullen asked with a grin.

"You slept on it," Dorian reminded him. "And after I saved you from that little trap you were in, too. Very uncouth."

Cullen's levity faded, and his hands stilled on Dorian's arm. "Then it was real," he murmured. "And Amell... You still think he wasn't a demon?"

"I'm afraid not." Dorian tensed his hand in a claw for a moment, breath hissing through his teeth, then relaxed it and tried to concentrate on something else. At least the sensation was slowly starting to fade. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say he was a somniari. Legends say that they could walk in the dreams of others."

"Are you one?" Cullen asked.

"Me?" Dorian gave a little laugh. "Oh, how my Father would love that. He'd view it as practically a guarantee to be considered for Archon. Of course, he also would have been far less likely to let me out of my breeding obligations to House Pavus if that were the case."

"But we've been sharing dreams for months now. Ever since--" He paused, obviously still finding it difficult to actually speak the words.

Dorian nodded, understanding both Cullen's point and his reluctance. "Honestly, I blame this." He wiggled his left hand at Cullen, sparking an obliging green glow. "Dagna described it as a key, and in many ways, the dreams of the sleeping are little locked rooms in the Fade. I'm still not entirely sure of the mechanism, mind, but that's my working theory. We both had very strong emotional connections to the previous owner of the Anchor."

"But Amell didn't."

"Amell certainly didn't, no. Thus my theory on what he may be." After a last shake of his other hand, Dorian patted Cullen's arm. "Thank you. It is sufficiently roused now."

"But why would Amell be in my dream at all?" The thought made Cullen visibly distraught, though based on what Dorian had witnessed, he couldn’t blame the man.

"That is the far more disturbing question, to my mind." Dorian tapped his lip with a finger, sifting through the information at his disposal. "This is not the first time we've encountered a third party in these odd little dreams of ours, if you will recall."

Cullen shuddered and shook his head. "That monstrous spider-thing, yes. I remember it quite well. But that at least was a demon. Amell is..." His voice trailed off as he shifted uncomfortably before continuing. "Amell is unscrupulous and unsettling, even evil, but I wouldn't go so far as to call him a demon."

"No, but a man might ally with a powerful demon for nefarious purposes," Dorian pointed out. “Such a practice has an unsavory precedent in the Imperium.”

"That is not reassuring," Cullen groaned, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose tightly.

With a sigh, Dorian pushed the blankets back and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "No. It isn't. Perhaps Solas will have some advice on how to ward your dreams from such visitations again. My own I can protect, but you'd need to be sleeping in the room with me if I were to apply the same protections to you. And while that has a certain direct charm, I daresay the gossipmongers of Val Royeaux would be quite happy to turn it into something far more sordid than is necessary."

Cullen winced as he followed suit, rolling out of the bed to reach for his discarded armor and mantle. "What is it about Orlesians that makes them so obnoxious?" he asked sourly, all too clearly remembering how the tongues had wagged about himself and Mailani.

Dorian chuckled as he moved to the washbasin to rinse the foul taste from his mouth. "That, I could not tell you, though I think it has as much to do with the Game as with idle minds. The Game in Minrathous is a bit more direct, in my experience. Magic and such is far more a part of the machinations there than the subtleties of rumor and malice."

As Cullen opened his mouth to retort, a loud pounding came at the door. "And there's our reminder that the real world awaits," he said with a sigh.

"I'll go see who it is," Dorian told him. "Perhaps it's someone with a headache remedy. I could certainly use one."

Idly grabbing his tunic as he walked by the couch, he slipped it over his head and let habit of magic snap all the buckles into place as he walked. He did pause a moment to let the same magic settle his hair into place, since he was sure it looked horrific and he had a reputation for impeccability to maintain. Only then did he pull the bar back and tug the door open.

"Ah. Viscount. What a pleasant surprise," he said with a bright smile to the man glowering on the other side. "I was just about to fetch some breakfast. It's deucedly early for me, I'll admit, but the sun is so very bright today."

Hawke's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "You're quite chipper this morning," he noted.

"Well, I spent a wonderful night of falling down drunk and passed out in bed. Thankfully I didn't make a complete fool of myself, but I am more than a bit hungry as a result." Dorian smoothed a finger over his mustache with a slow wink. “For food, before you ask.”

“I wasn’t going to,” Hawke said a bit sourly, though the edge of flirtation seemed to relax his shoulders a bit. “I came by last night to see if you needed any more help, but you’d already barred your door.”

“A better alternative than making a fool of myself in the tavern,” Dorian pointed out with a laugh. “A pariah from the Imperium has that luxury. The Inquisitor does not.”

“True.” Hawke’s gaze warmed as he looked Dorian up and down. “And as much as I’d like to discuss a bit of private fool-making, I didn’t come here for that.”

“No?” Dorian asked in mock surprise, using it to cover the relief he felt. “Then whyfor are you here?”

Hawke grunted and gestured down the hall. “Council’s been summoned,” he said drily. “Loghain is here. Apparently the Wardens are planning something rather significant at Adamant Fortress, and he thinks it’s the final push to summoning the demon army.”

Dorian stiffened. “I’ll be right there,” he said. “I just need to get my boots.”

As he hurried away, Hawke said in a tone with extra bite, “And tell Cullen he’s expected to attend.”

Dorian hid his wince as he turned and gave Hawke a grin and a wave. “That I shall.”

With a final glower, Hawke disappeared from sight, and Dorian hurried the rest of the way back to Cullen. Kaffas, why does it have to be so complicated?

"So we just gather the trebuchets, march the troops up to the walls, and begin firing?" Alistair said. "Sounds simple enough."

Cullen sighed and rubbed his forehead. "No, Alistair, it's not that simple," he muttered. “Maker, this is why you needed my help to raid the kitchens when we were training together."

Alistair grinned at him. "You do the strategy, I'll do the tactics. And my tactic is to tell you to formulate the strategy."

Dorian joined in on the general chuckle as Cullen glared at Alistair. "Perhaps we should start from the beginning?" Dorian suggested. "I thought the Inquisition didn’t have a sufficient number of trebuchets to try such a tactic. Did you go digging in the snow around Haven while I was gallivanting about the wilderness?"

"Not quite, Inquisitor," Josephine said. "I was able to procure a promise from Lady Seryl of Jader for the use of her sappers in this matter. The additional trebuchets have been on their way to us for some time now, and the information you garnered in the Western Approach has ensured they will arrive at Adamant shortly before Inquisition Forces reach the area."

"Clever," Dorian said with a smile. "Even in Minrathous we've heard stories about her sappers. Dwarf-trained, aren't they? Jader's not that far from Orzammar, if my recollection suffices."

"Indeed, Inquisitor," Cullen said. "And they will be especially useful against Adamant Fortress."

"The Commander is correct," Loghain said, leaning over the table to spread out some large pieces of paper. While he set some markers on it, he continued, "Adamant is a formidable example of a Fortress from its Age, but it was not built to withstand modern siege equipment. With the help of the trebuchets, we will be able to overcome some rather severe disadvantages."

"Oh, I don't like the sound of that," Dorian noted. "What exactly are we looking at, then?"

Cullen and Loghain exchanged a glance before Cullen conceded to the older man with a nod. "The battle won't be easy," Loghain said grimly as he straightened. "The Wardens outnumber us by a fair margin, and even without the demons in the mix, they make formidable foes. The nature of their training, among other factors, makes each of them an elite in their own right." His face turned grim. "The Inquisition forces are well trained, but if we faced the Wardens on a standard battlefield, I would advise retreat. Thankfully, they have holed up in Adamant."

"Thankfully?" Dorian's eyebrow rose. “I thought the side who had their own fortress usually has the advantage.”

"It means that we have more control over the encounter than we would on a straight out head-to-head battle in the open," Cullen explained. "It will be tough, but with sappers and trebuchets, we have a chance to use the capabilities of our own specialized forces to counter their advantage of numbers. Especially given these." He tapped the papers Loghain had spread out.

Dorian bent over the table, grabbing one corner as his eyes scanned the paper, eyebrows rising as he realized what he was looking at. "These are plans for Adamant, aren't they? Where did you find these?"

"I prefer to think of them as maps, Inquisitor," Loghain told him with a slight smile. "Although your Spymaster did aid me in acquiring them." He looked to Leliana. "You have my thanks."

Leliana inclined her head. "All for a good cause, Teyrn."

Loghain made a curt gesture with his hand. "I no longer have any claim to that title," he said. "I am a Warden, and I will be a Warden until the day I die, whenever that day may be." He surveyed those around the table with narrowed eyes, the weight of his gaze sufficient to stiffen their spines. "And I will not stand by while my fellow Wardens kill each other at the behest of the cause of the very Blight we are tasked to fight against."

"Damn right," Alistair said with a firm nod. "If this Coryphilus thinks he can use the Wardens as his pawns, then it's time to show him why darkspawn fear to show their faces above ground."

A silence fell around the table before Dorian finally asked, "You've been spending time with Sera, haven't you, Warden Alistair?"

Alistair coughed and rubbed his neck as the mood in the room lightened. "Oh. Ah. Sorry. That sort of ruined the moment, didn't it?"

Loghain smiled and chuckled. "Actually, you reminded me of someone else for a moment, though he was quite a bit younger than you at the time."

A sorrowful expression came to Alistair's face. "Yes, Maker keep his soul." Shaking his head, he laid his hand on the map of Adamant. "You know, Loghain, you really should see someone about this little obsession of yours. Your quarters are simply festooned with maps of all sorts. I swear there's even one for the Deep Roads down there, with each cluster of darkspawn carefully marked in varying shades of ick."

"I like to be prepared," Loghain said.

"Prepared, he calls it," Alistair said with a grin, though he subsided as Loghain gave him a look. "Right. Sorry. What were we talking about?"

"You were explaining how even with sappers and trebuchets and maps, we still have a chance against a superior force in their own territory," Dorian said helpfully.

Leliana leaned down to tap one of the markers Loghain had set into place. "With the help of Warden Loghain, we've located areas within Adamant Fortress which will serve as perfect chokepoints."

"Meaning?" Dorian asked. "Sadly my education on military matters is mostly through rather pompous asses pontificating upon their own past glory."

A faint smile came to Loghain's face, though it was Cullen who answered. "Meaning that while our troops draw the attention of the greater part of their forces, a small, mobile force can infiltrate the castle and move to confront Warden-Commander Clarel. The choke points mean that the small force can control the battles as they move through Adamant, and not get overwhelmed by superior numbers."

"And by a small, mobile force, I assume you mean me?" Dorian asked in a resigned tone, though he made sure to add a grin to the words to let them know it was humor. "Lovely. I get to be dangled in front of the enemy again. I suppose I am an attractive little dish for demons."

"Not just you, of course," Hawke said, speaking for the first time. "You'll have my daggers, and that's no small aid."

"And I'll be with you," Alistair added. "We know that the mages are all creatures of Corypheus, but Loghain and I hope that a fellow Warden will be able to persuade some of the other Wardens to lay down their arms, even if they won't join our side. The goal is to save the Wardens, after all, not obliterate them."

"The goal is to prevent a demon army from sweeping across the whole of Thedas," Hawke said harshly. "Let's not forget that. Saving the Wardens is all well and good, but if it comes down to a choice between them and Thedas, I'm afraid you'll find me no longer a supporter."

Alistair's face darkened as he opened his mouth to respond, but Loghain reached over and set his hand on Alistair's arm. Gaze set on Hawke, Loghain said quietly, "I was once in a situation where I had to choose the good of Ferelden over the good of those who I thought could not be saved. There will never be a day in which I do not regret my decision, yet I cannot say that I would change it, based on what I knew at the time. Take care to ensure that you know everything about a situation before you condemn people to their deaths, or your sleep will be as restless as mine for the remainder of your life."

Hawke stiffened, but didn't respond directly to Loghain's words. Instead, he turned to look at Dorian, head canted at an angry angle as he said, "We've gotten a bit off topic here. Who are you going to take with you into Adamant?"

Dorian pondered that for a few moments. “I think taking Solas with us would be ideal,” he mused. “For all that he has an absolutely deplorable sense of fashion, his knowledge where demons are concerned is formidable. Surely that expertise can be of use to us on this mission. Of course, I’d still like to have a wall of muscle between my poor, delicate body and the demons, so Bull seems to be an obvious choice as well. Other than those two...” He tapped his chin thoughtfully, pondering the matter.

“Perhaps Blackwall?” Josephine suggested. “He is a Grey Warden, after all.”

Loghain and Alistair exchanged an odd little glance before Loghain said, “I think it better he remain with the Inquisition troops. I’d prefer that someone with his knowledge of Warden tactics be available behind the lines for referral.”

“But won’t you be with us?” Cullen asked, taken aback.

“For the initial part of the attack, yes, but I intend to also enter Adamant, though not with the Inquisitor. My hope is that if I am alone and not with Inquisition forces, more of my brethren will be willing to listen to me and lay down their arms.”

“Or kill you outright, since you’ll be alone,” Dorian pointed out. “They did try to kill Alistair, after all.”

“That is a risk,” Loghain said with a grim nod. “But it is one I choose to take upon myself. Having Blackwall remain with the troops will at least leave someone in Warden armor with the main body of troops.”

An odd way to phrase it, Dorian noted, but shrugged and tapped his chin thoughtfully once more. “I should probably bring someone sneaky. Perhaps--”

“Oh, Maker, you’re going to suggest the dwarf, aren’t you?” Hawke groaned.

“What is wrong with Varric?” Dorian asked. “Besides, I owe him money. He’ll take extra care to ensure I emerge from the whole thing unscathed.”

"What about the knife-ear girl, or the ghost?" Hawke suggested. "Anyone but Varric."

Dorian felt the others bristle, but kept the hint of a smile on his face as he kept his attention on Hawke. "While I adore Sera to little pieces, I don't think taking her into a situation which may require diplomacy is best suited to her nature," Dorian said delicately. "And Cole, well..." A little sigh escaped Dorian. "He's having a difficult time with this business. Wardens are supposed to help people, and yet they aren't. It's a bit too confusing for him. Besides, we already have you if we need death dealt by dagger. Best stick with Varric for death from afar, I think."

Hawke glowered at Dorian, but it was clear he didn’t really have an objection beyond personal preference. “Fine. Have it your way. And when he writes the story about how we saved the world from the perils of a demon army, don’t come crying to me when he gets all the details wrong and makes you look like an arse.”

Now that was truly a fascinating remark, and Dorian considered Hawke silently as several thoughts ran through his head in quick succession.

“That crossbow of his will come in handy, though,” Alistair noted. “And if we’re going to have good control of the choke points, having an archer there with a lot of grenades at the ready is never a bad idea.”

“Very well, then. Bull, Varric, and Solas, along with Hawke and Alistair.” Dorian nodded. ”Any more than that, and we’ll end up tripping over each other when it matters the most.” He looked around the table, then down at the maps of Adamant again. “Commander, work with Loghain and Leliana on a final strategy and path through Adamant.”

“Yes, Inquisitor,” Cullen said. “We’ll need to pick the path that ensures you don’t end up too exposed to our activities from the walls, either. It wouldn’t do for you to get brained by one our own boulders.”

“Excellent point, Commander. I’d rather like to keep my mind where it is at present.” He tapped his temple with a wink at Cullen, then turned to Josephine. “I presume you’ve already arranged a lovely thank you of some sort for Lady Seryl, but do let me know if you need anything from me in particular.”

Josephine smiled at him. “Of course, Inquisitor. I shall consider the matter.”

“Leliana, you… well, I certainly don’t need to tell you what to do,” Dorian said with a florid bow.

“Actually, I’d like to steal her away for a while, if I could,” Alistair interjected. “A question came up about Wardens and stamina.”

Dorian, to his credit, didn’t bat an eye. “As you wish, though of course, Leliana is a better person to ask than I am concerning her time.”

“Inquisitor,” Hawke said, “might I have a word?”

Though he’d been half-dreading that Hawke would want a moment alone, Dorian knew he should not refuse the man a simple meeting. “Naturally, Viscount.” With a casual wave, he gestured for Hawke to follow him from the war room. As they walked down the corridor, Dorian paused at the still broken wall, ostensibly to admire the view outside Skyhold. “This truly is a beautiful place, isn’t it?”

Hawke came up to stand next to him, close enough for their bodies to touch. “I’ve found the view quite pleasant in some parts of Skyhold, yes,” he murmured.

“The gardens, I presume?”

Hawke grunted. “Let’s keep moving. I’d rather discuss this in private.”

Dorian’s brow furrowed, but he nodded. His quarters were closer, so it made sense to lead the man there, but he had to admit, privately at least, to more than a bit of discomfiture. As they entered the main part of his room, he headed to the side table. “Brandy, Viscount? It’s from Antiva, a gift from one of Josephine’s many friends there.”

“I’d prefer it if you called me Hawke,” Hawke said softly as he came to stand behind Dorian. “Or even Garrett.”

Dorian paused, then poured two stiff measures of brandy. Taking one for himself, he turned and offered the other to Hawke. “The story doesn’t really highlight your given name,” he noted.

Hawke half-smiled as he took the brandy. “No. But then, Varric’s little tale is an exercise in masterful storytelling.” As he sipped the brandy, he studied Dorian’s face. “I’d have to be blind not to notice that you’ve been avoiding me,” he finally said. “You must realize how very clumsy your accomplices are. Varric, Bull… Cullen.” The last name was said with a bit of an edge, but then he exhaled slowly. “Is it wrong to admit my thoughts stray to you often of late?”

“How could it be wrong to contemplate perfection?” Dorian asked, trying to keep the tone light.

That made Hawke chuckle, and he reached up to lightly stroke Dorian’s cheek. When Dorian flinched and turned away, Hawke's hand balled up and fell away as his expression turned darker. “What have they told you about me? Last night you were willing enough before we were interrupted. Whatever they said must have been pretty damned convincing to drive you into Cullen’s embrace.”

Last night I was drunk, Dorian noted silently. “Well, you did tell me that you killed your last lover,” Dorian reminded him. “That’s--”

“Hard, I know,” Hawke said, pinching the bridge of his nose. “And not something I’m proud of, which I also told you, necessary or not.” With a sigh, he drained the brandy, then again met Dorian’s gaze. “Though I admit I’m a bit surprised you would go from me to Cullen. The man doesn’t have a good history with mages himself, you know. Head for head, he’s probably killed more than I have.”

Dorian’s jaw tightened, even if he couldn’t deny the facts. “He doesn’t view mages in that fashion anymore,” he said softly.

“Are you sure?” Hawke reached past Dorian to set the glass down, though he didn’t retreat after the motion. “He was a Templar that served under a Knight-Commander that called for a Right of Annulment. Do you know what that is? It means that she asked the Chantry for the legal right to kill every. Single. Mage in Kirkwall’s Circle. And Cullen went right along with it until he finally got some sense through his thick skull.”

Dorian’s eyes narrowed slightly, trying not to flinch as the ugly truth was thrown at him. “You helped the Templars yourself, or they would not have supported your bid to become Viscount,” he pointed out. “Surely that’s not a detail Varric made out of whole cloth.”

“After I saw my lover destroy the Chantry and kill hundreds of people, yes, I helped the Templars,” he said. “They were the only part of Kirkwall’s power structure left that could possibly bring peace to the city after something like that. But Knight-Commander Meredith? You can damn well bet that I made sure to get rid of her as soon as I could. And to do that, I had to convince Cullen to come over to my side.” Putting his hand on Dorian’s shoulder, he said in an earnest tone, “You’re from the Imperium. You know that men of power are often called upon to do things which are distasteful but necessary. I killed Anders, yes. Reluctantly, but the crime merited it. I used the Templars, yes. The city was reeling from what had happened to the Chantry, and the Circle certainly couldn’t be trusted. For all I knew, they helped Anders.”

Hawke’s tone was oddly soothing, almost hypnotizing - enough so that Dorian found himself wanting to believe. This side of Hawke was more than a bit disarming, and, he had to admit, more than a bit compelling as well. Had his relationship with Cullen still been stuck where it had been after Mailani’s death, he knew he would have been tempted to accept Hawke’s interpretation of events, including the evaluation of Cullen’s character, with few qualms.

But he knew better now.

“I do think that Cullen no longer hates mages,” Dorian said. Though not the strongest of return sallies, it was the easiest to say to Hawke’s face. The truth of the matter was that most of the reasons why Dorian trusted Cullen boiled down to experiences and conversations that he felt were rather private. “And I also think that none of us have any right to lob stones at another’s past.”

Hawke snorted. “He certainly doesn’t seem to hate your cock, at least. But then, I can understand that on a personal level.”

“No, you misunderstand,” Dorian said hastily. “We’re friends.” Good friends, who can sleep in the same bed all night and dream the same dream, but who have never gone further than a more-than-friendly massage. Yes. Friends. Certainly that’s how Cullen viewed him, and Dorian preferred to treasure that than throw it away on some foolish fantasy chasing unicorns.

“You expect me to believe that?” Hawke asked skeptically.

“You should, for it is the truth,” Dorian told him.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Hawke murmured, then leaned in and seized Dorian’s lips in a kiss.

Though he’d been half-expecting it, the suddenness of the move still caught Dorian by surprise. For an instant, a heat filled him, the same heat he remembered from that admittedly glorious night of raw, hot sex the first time he’d met Hawke. At the same time, though, something rang oddly false, and his instincts rebelled. Pressing his hand on Hawke’s chest, he tried to push Hawke away, but the man’s arm wrapped around him and drew him closer. Raising both hands to grab Hawke’s face, Dorian finally managed to separate them, but the man’s strength was formidable.

Hawke stared at him intently for a few moments, pupils dilated and lips parted slightly. Then he laughed and unwrapped his arm from around Dorian. “Too much?”

Dorian just nodded, heart racing and mouth dry. Too much was not wholly accurate, but it was easier than saying that for a moment, he had simply been afraid that Hawke wouldn’t stop. And it was far, far better than admitting that, deep down, a small voice inside had whispered that it would be better if Hawke hadn’t pulled back. That thought still tingled, nebulous and frightening, in the back of his mind, and he tried desperately to push the notion away.

“My apologies.” Hawke again stroked Dorian’s face. “You’re far too handsome for your own good, you know.”

“And you’re very pushy,” Dorian noted.

“With you, apparently, I have to be.” Still, Hawke did step back at that point. “And as much as I’d love to pursue the matter, you do have Inquisition matters to attend to, I’m sure. We’ll be leaving in the morning, I presume? Cullen will see to that, I’m sure. He’s very efficient.” Hawke’s words dripped with biting sarcasm.

“He is, isn’t he?” Dorian said with a light tone. “And yes, there are several people I need to see.”

“I wish you farewell, then. For now.” Hawke took Dorian’s hand and pressed a sensuous kiss to each knuckle, then gave Dorian a slow wink before heading towards the door.

Only when the door closed did Dorian release his breath in an explosive gasp. His drink clattered onto the side table, unnoticed as he brought a shaking hand up to wipe away the sweat on his forehead, not sure why his reaction was so very strong, and so very negative. Hawke was a handsome man, after all, and a powerful one - two traits Dorian had found quite attractive in the past.

So what was different this time?

Shaking his head, he walked to the window, absently rubbing his bare arm. “Well, for one,” he muttered under his breath, “the others weren’t murderers.” He had to admit, though, that Hawke had brought up an uncomfortable, and true, point. If he could forgive Cullen for his past - as he most certainly had, no questions asked - why couldn’t he forgive Hawke for similar sins?

His feet set to pacing back and forth as he tried to reconcile his thoughts, hands occasionally rising to press against his temples as he struggled with it. “Their past… I don’t care about their past. Yes, they’re neither of them saints, but then, neither am I. I could not throw a stone of condemnation in their direction without getting pummeled in return.” With a groan, he moved to the side table and poured himself another brandy. As he raised it to his lips, he paused, then shook his head and set it back down. “Then it’s not the past, is it? It’s the present.”

Yes. That was it, wasn’t it? That felt right. It was the present that presented a problem. His hands clenched and unclenched a few times before he reached out and grabbed the glass again, bringing it to his lips for a long drink.

“What’s the present, boss?”

It was truly unfortunate that Bull chose just that moment to intrude on Dorian’s thoughts, since it meant a mist of fine brandy was sprayed all over the nearest windows. As Dorian coughed and futilely tried to wipe the brandy off his clothes before it stained them, Bull came over and pounded him a couple of times on the back.

“Sorry,” Bull said with a grin. “I thought you could hear me coming a mile away.”

“Outside I can, you lummox! Not on carpet!” Dorian snapped, then forced himself to take a deep breath. “Why are you here, Bull?”

“Cullen sent word you wanted to talk to me,” Bull told him. “Thought I’d come right away. I was a little surprised to see Hawke strolling through the hall with a smirk on his face as I came over, though. And let me tell you, the man knows how to smirk, too.”

Dorian groaned again and turned to head to the bed, where he collapsed. “Of course he is. He probably waited until everyone noticed him in the doorway before leaving the room.” He sighed and buried his face in his hands. “Maker.”

“Pretty much what I figured, yeah. He’s a preener.” Bull crossed his arms over his chest as he gave Dorian a pointed look. “So what were you talking about when I came in? What’s not the past, but the present? Aside from, you know, the present.”

“Everything,” Dorian said with a groan as he ran a hand through his hair.

“Thanks, that really narrows it down,” Bull said sarcastically. “Come on, what’s going on?”

“Hawke is… pressing his case,” Dorian explained. “And he’s not quite someone I can say no to at this point. We need him for Adamant.”

“We need Kirkwall not to fuck off after, either, you mean,” Bull said with a nod. “Times like this make strange bedfellows. Or is that part of the problem? He wants to be a different kind of bedfellow, and you don’t?”

The question forced Dorian to pull himself back from the unease into which he had spiraled while speaking with Hawke and fully focus. “Hawke has decided that he wants me,” Dorian said slowly. “And it seems my feelings on the matter have little influence over it.”

Bull grunted and nodded. “He strikes me as that type. Met a lot of those kind in Val Royeaux, though usually it was human lords and elf servants.”

Dorian’s eyes narrowed as he thought of that, the reason for his unease becoming more clear. “And in the Imperium,” he said softly.

“Well, I wasn’t going to come right out and say it,” Bull said, “but yeah. There, too. Not that you haven’t been influenced on that whole bronto in the room since coming south.”

“Yes. Mailani saw to that.” Dorian felt a wave of sweet melancholy sweep over him as the memories rose. “She could put up with me being an arrogant shem and a vain peacock, but when I tried to tell her that slavery had a purpose…” He chuckled and shook his head. “Maker. I miss her, even when her tongue was sharper than any assassin’s blade.”

Settling down on the bed next to him with a loud creak, Bull laughed. “Yeah, we had a few of those tiffs, too. She didn’t like some things she heard about the Qun at all. I wouldn’t have expected her to stay silent when you started spewing the Imperium line about that shit.”

“And she didn’t.” In fact, all of those conversations they’d had together had gained new focus and new impetus in the months following her death.

“Is that why you told Morris to make sure we pay good wages to those escaped slaves who keep trickling into Skyhold?” Bull asked shrewdly.

“I pay you good wages, don’t I?” Dorian sallied back.

“Ouch, boss. That hurts,” Bull said with a laugh. “I wasn’t a slave, though. I was a Qunari. Damn, that still feels weird to say, you know? Thinking of it in the past tense, I mean.”

“Just because you thought the shackles were what you needed doesn’t mean you didn’t have them,” Dorian pointed out. “Everyone has shackles, though the ones we put on ourselves are harder to break.”

With a nudge, Bull said, “Just now figuring that out? And what does this have to do with Hawke, anyway?”

Dorian sobered again, trying to trace his thought patterns back. “I’m not… absolutely sure,” he admitted. “Aside from the fact that he keeps pressing his case to have me.”

“You mean possess you,” Bull said seriously. “That’s what he wants to do. I see the way he watches you, and the way he went after anyone who might have enticed you away.”

“What’s this?” Dorian asked, brow furrowing.

“What, Cullen never tell you about that?” Bull asked, then grunted thoughtfully. “Wonder why. But yeah, not long after you and Hawke had your little romp, Hawke went around Skyhold and found anyone who’d spent a night with you and told them to back off. Even tried to threaten me, and we hadn't even had sex yet.”

Dorian’s ears heated a bit at the reminder of that night, but quickly cooled as he considered what Bull had told him. “No. No, Cullen didn’t tell me that. He probably didn’t want me to worry. And he’s hardly the only one who’s been warning me to stay away from Hawke when it came to the bedroom.”

“Good advice,” Bull noted.

“It’s more than that, though,” Dorian said slowly. “Just now, when I was alone with him, I felt as if there was… something more.”

“Not following you.” Bull craned his neck so he could give Dorian a straight look. “More than what?”

“More at play than just an obsession,” Dorian said. “The difference between pushing yourself, and being pushed, if that makes any sense. It’s a… feeling, but a strong one, and I can’t shake it.”

“Yeah, well, that sounds way above my pay grade,” Bull said with an expansive shrug.

“I wish it were above mine,” Dorian complained, then sighed. “At least I don’t have to worry about it for a while. It’s not like Hawke and I will be alone for any length of time in the near future.”

“That what you wanted to talk to me about?” Bull asked. “The near future?”

Dorian nodded. “The battle is planned, and it’s time for the pieces to be set.”

“Adamant, then?” A grin came to Bull’s face. “Good. A demon’s head makes a real pretty sight when I bash it open with my maul.” He smacked a fist into his open palm for emphasis. “Can’t wait to beat the bastards back into the Fade.”

“Be careful how hard you hit them,” Dorian said with a laugh. “You might accidentally follow after.”

“Oh, fuck, no,” Bull said vehemently, shuddering as he rose to his feet. “Just the thought of the Fade gives me the creeps. Show me a demon and I’ll kill it, but ask me to follow it home and I’ll find something else to bash instead.”

“I’m sure there’s a wall you could hit with your head somewhere,” Dorian said, amused by Bull’s reaction.

“Very funny, boss,” Bull drawled. “Very funny.” With a final grin, Bull turned and headed out of the room, leaving Dorian with his own thoughts.

When those proved too difficult to wrangle, Dorian sighed and stood. Perhaps a long, scholarly discussion with Solas about the nature of demons and dreams would help drive those thoughts away.

Then maybe he could forget the feel of Hawke's lips on his own.

Chapter Text

Twas the night before the attack on Adamant, and all through the camp, not a creature was stirring... save for the Commander, it seemed. Though the ladders were hung on the siege towers with care, if there was a problem, Cullen soon would be there. While soldiers and Templars nestled snug in their bedrolls, with a decisive victory their ultimate goal, the Commander in his armor, with Jim in tow, stalked through the night, restless to strike the first blow. At last Cullen admitted all was in place, and he dismissed Jim to his sleep with a sigh of ill grace.

His steps slowed as he neared his tent, weariness finally setting in now that he'd assured himself that the Inquisition forces were as ready as he could make them. Pushing through the flaps with a sigh, he slowly took off his mantle and set to work on removing his armor, placing it one piece at a time on his armor stand to be donned in the morning. As he unbuckled his breastplate, he heard a rustle as someone entered the tent, and sighed. "Report," he said as he turned, then straightened in surprise when he recognized his visitor. "Your Grace."

Hawke gave a deep chuckle as he stepped further into the tent. The laces at the throat of his tunic hung loose as if he’d dressed with haste, exposing a good portion of his upper chest. That, coupled with the studied balance in his movements and the small flask of something probably much stronger than wine, gave Cullen a hint of Hawke’s state. "Commander. I see you haven't turned in for the night quite yet."

"Nor have you," Cullen observed as he heaved his breastplate over to hang on his armor stand before turning to face Hawke fully. Whatever reason had brought Hawke here, it definitely merited Cullen’s full focus. Besides, Kirkwall was full of stories of Hawke in his cups, and few of them ended happily for all involved. "Is there something you needed?"

Hawke nodded and took a long drink as he moved to consult Cullen's miniature war table. "I had some thoughts on the fight at Adamant," he said as he shoved the flask into an inner pocket. "I take it we're still following Loghain's suggestion to attack at night?"

"Yes, Your Grace." Cullen moved to Hawke’s side and tapped a marker resting on the hand-drawn additions to the map of the Western Approach, updated with their latest reports. "Here's our current position. The dunes keep us out of sight of those in Adamant. So far they seem ignorant of our proximity and the nature of our forces."

Reaching out, Hawke traced the distance from the first marker to the one denoting Adamant. "At the pace these trebuchets move, that means we'll need at least an hour or two to get them and the siege towers into position, won't it?"

"About that, yes. Moving them during the day would make it a bit too obvious what we're doing, so we'll use the cover of night as best we can. Vivienne and some of the Inquisition mages will use magic to obscure them further. Once they're in place..." Cullen flicked Adamant's marker onto its side. "The siege begins."

A calculating expression came to Hawke's face as he slowly righted the fallen marker. "And the Inquisitor will lead his group through the gate when it's breached?"

"That was the plan, Your Grace, yes." Cullen settled back on his heels. "I take it you have another idea?"

"The first attempt to breach the walls with ladders will be brutal, you know that," Hawke said as he straightened with care. "You'll need someone up there to lead the assault on the battlements and be the heavy hitter, but there aren’t many up to the task." Tapping his chest, he said, "I nominate myself."

Cullen's eyebrows rose. "You want to go up the ladders?" He had to admit a grudging respect for the man to even suggest it, though he wondered how much was alcohol-fueled bravado. "It's a dangerous job, and you well know it."

"I can take care of myself," Hawke said with a careless shrug. "And once I'm up there, I can tackle the worst of the dangers while I wait for the Inquisitor to catch up with me."

"If it were anyone but you saying that, I'd call them foolishly arrogant," Cullen admitted.

"But it is me saying that, so you can just call me arrogant," Hawke said with a grin.

"Perhaps not even that. I have seen you fight, Your Grace. We may have our disagreements--"

"Oh, that's putting it mildly," Hawke said with a snort.

Scratching his forehead for a moment, Cullen said, "Fair enough. I don't think we'll ever be friends, Your Grace, but we've proven in the past that we can work together effectively regardless of personal prejudice."

"Precisely, Commander." Hawke offered his hand to Cullen. "For the good of this mission, to end the threat of the demon army, and to stick it to that bastard Corypheus, I hope to do so again."

For a moment, Cullen hesitated as he searched Hawke's face, half-wondering if this were some sort of trick. Finally he nodded and grasped Hawke's forearm. "We will, Your Grace."

Abruptly Hawke pulled Cullen towards him until their faces were mere inches apart. This close, Cullen could tell just how heavily Hawke had been hitting the bottle before coming to Cullen’s tent, and wondered if that was the only reason Hawke had come here at all. "Promise me,” Hawke said intently, “that no matter what happens come tomorrow, you will ensure the Inquisitor stays safe."

"Such is my duty, Your Grace," Cullen said a trifle stiffly.

"I'm not asking you to do this as his Commander, Cullen," Hawke told him with an edge to his voice. "I'm asking you to do this as his friend."

The ferocious intensity of Hawke's gaze and the tightness of his grip made Cullen shift uncomfortably. "Why does that matter to you?"

"I don't need to tell you that," Hawke said, nostrils flaring ever so slightly. "I just want you to promise."

"But why?" Cullen asked. "You've never been--" He paused, unsure how to continue without insulting the man.

"Sentimental?" Hawke suggested dryly. Releasing Cullen's arm, he stepped back and crossed his arms across his chest. "Perhaps. I had little time for frivolity in Kirkwall. If it wasn't a blood mage causing trouble, then it was a power hungry noble, or the Qunari running amok, or a dwarf begging for help, or the Knight-Commander slowly going insane. I didn't have time for nice."

"That was abundantly clear, yes," Cullen muttered.

"Not that you were much help," Hawke pointed out. "To you, everything was blood magic and the only good mage was either dead or in chains. I wonder what you would have made of the Inquisitor back then."

Caught off-guard by the attack, Cullen flushed and reached up to rub the back of his neck. "Knight-Commander Meredith--"

"--was not you," Hawke interrupted. "Forget her. Own your mistakes, man. Maker knows we both committed far too many of them."

That comment gave Cullen pause, and he regarded Hawke with narrowed eyes. "You don't often admit you made any."

"I'd be a fool to believe it, though. Oh, I might swan about Kirkwall without seeming to have a care in the world, but I know what I did. I know precisely whose blood is on my hands." As he spoke, Hawke removed his gloves and tucked them into his belt, then studied his scarred hands with a glare as if he intended to cut them off. "Friends, foes, even family. It's all here, mixed together in one huge crimson stain that will never go away." With a sound of frustration, he balled them into fists and stepped closer, meeting Cullen's gaze without flinching. "And you're blind if you don't see the same thing on yours."

Cullen felt the words like a blow on his chest, almost gasping as their weight hit him hard. After a moment of silence, he wrenched his gaze away from Hawke, finding it difficult to maintain the link. "You always know precisely where to strike, don't you?"

A sneer came to Hawke’s face a moment before he barked a laugh. "They don’t call me the Champion because I excel at macramé and fart unicorn dust."

Crude as the comment was, it did lessen the tension between them as Cullen gave him a reluctant chuckle. "True. But what does any of that have to do with the Inquisitor?"

"Don't you see? No. No, you don't, I suppose." Hawke sighed and rubbed his jaw with one hand. "Tell me, when you exchanged your vows of love with Inquisitor Lavellan, did it help to put some of your old ghosts to rest? Knowing that someone like her saw something worthwhile in someone like you?"

Again caught by surprise, Cullen instinctively leaned back. He never would have framed his relationship with Mailani in such a way, but once Hawke had voiced it... Again, the words hit hard and true. Finally he said, "Mailani was a remarkable person." It was all he could manage given the circumstances.

"As I thought of Anders, once upon a time," Hawke said. "A man of principle, a man of honor, or so I believed. He wore his fingers to the bone in that Darktown clinic of his, helping the poor and the lost abandoned by those in power. He saw the farce of the Wardens, the hypocrisy of the Templars, and the injustice of the Circles, and he rejected them all." Hawke's gaze grew distant as he spoke. "Yet he had a darkness within, one which grew stronger as the years went by, and in the end I barely recognized him."

Cullen simply stared, struck by the stark contrast between the Hawke he thought he knew and the man standing before him. It didn't excuse Hawke's actions--he doubted the man could say anything that would justify what he had done to Fenris or, worse, his own sister--but Cullen had to admit to a certain sympathy. Not enough to forgive him, perhaps, but then, had Cullen himself earned forgiveness, or simply been gifted it?

"Was I wrong, Cullen?" Hawke abruptly asked in a choked whisper, a haunted expression coming to his face. "Was I wrong to kill Anders?"

Cullen swallowed harshly. He couldn’t deny that, at the time, he’d thought Anders’ death was more than justified given the nature of his actions. Yet Cullen was no longer the man he had been in Kirkwall, and he’d also found a love of his own, however briefly they’d been together. To even think of taking her life with his own hand, no matter the justification… After struggling with his answer for a few moments, he finally said, "Perhaps it might have been more prudent to stay your hand until--"

"--until I knew more about the situation?” Hawke’s jaw rippled. “Therein lies the rub. Loghain was right, damn him." Hawke stared at the lantern light as it guttered for a moment, then shook his head. "Be that as it may... For a time I hoped that Dorian might come to view me as your Mailani saw you, as I had seen Anders, but I would have needed to be a man worthy of him, wouldn't I? Instead, it’s been made abundantly clear that I am not. I may not like it, but even I can see the runes writ large eventually."

And again, Cullen did not know how to respond to that - at least, not without a direct insult. He kept his silence, unsure where Hawke was going with this conversation.

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since we left Skyhold, a lot of fighting with… with myself, you might say. And I realized there is some blood I don’t want on my hands after tomorrow if--” Hawke’s voice faded as he stared at his hands again, his fingers curling and relaxing. Finally he looked up and met Cullen’s gaze as he reached out and grasped the other man’s shoulder, squeezing almost to the point of pain. "This is me stepping aside, Cullen," he said, an expression coming to his face that Cullen would have considered vulnerable on anyone else. "Promise me that no harm will come to the Inquisitor, either tomorrow, or thereafter."

Cullen studied Hawke's face for a long moment, almost hypnotized by Hawke's stare, and finally nodded. "I promise."

Hawke's eyes closed and he let his head fall back for a moment before he abruptly released Cullen and turned away. "I'll hold you to that, Commander."

"Good," was all Cullen could say. As Hawke moved to leave, however, Cullen abruptly called out, "Hawke!"

The man paused, then half-turned to look at Cullen over his shoulder. "Yes?"

"Maybe after this is all over we could get a drink," Cullen said. "It sounds like you've never told anyone your side of the story."

"No, I haven't." For a moment, that odd sense of vulnerability flashed across his face once more, but the impression quickly faded when he shook his head and grinned at Cullen. "And there's a damned good reason for that." In the next moment, even the smile vanished as he barked, "Now get some sleep, soldier! We have a battle to fight."

"Yes, Your Grace," Cullen replied automatically, saluting Hawke as he left the tent. When he was gone, Cullen collapsed onto his sleeping cot and stared at the ceiling of his tent for a long, long time. Sleep, it seemed, would not be an easy pursuit.


The next morning, his conversation with Hawke seemed almost to be a dream. He was half-convinced it had been a dream, save for the fact that Hawke seemed different somehow, a difference large enough for others to notice.

“Something’s wrong with Hawke,” Varric muttered at one point as he stood next to Cullen near the trebuchets, which were in the process of getting muffled with cloth so that those in Adamant wouldn’t see glinting metal or hear creaking wood. “He’s acting almost… nice to me.”

“I take it that’s unusual?” Cullen asked with a chuckle.

“Damn right it is,” Varric grunted. “You may not have noticed, but Hawke and I had a falling out about, oh, an hour after we met.”

Cullen’s eyebrow rose. “But you were friends with him for years, I thought.”

“We had our ups and downs, sure,” Varric said. “With Hawke, the ups are really up. He helped me with my brother, didn’t ask questions when I needed something done that was a little on the shady side, and he did save Kirkwall. I might not like how he did it, but I’ll give him that.” With a frown, Varric looked across to where Hawke was talking quietly with Loghain. “But the downs? You talked with Aveline. You know how bad he could get when they happened.”

“I think I saw it a time or two myself. Remember when I first met him,” Cullen reminded him.

“Oh. Yeah.” Varric grimaced. “I left out most of that argument in the book.”

“Can’t have the hero look too much like a villain,” Cullen muttered.

Varric shrugged. “Something like that. Cassandra really wanted Hawke to be a hero, but… well, he’s the Champion, not a nice guy.”

“Trust me, heroes aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, either,” Cullen said darkly.

Varric glanced at Cullen for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah. I got that impression after listening to Alistair talk about the Hero of Ferelden a few times. And I thought I had it rough when Hawke was in a bad mood.” He shuddered.

Looking down at Varric in surprise, Cullen said, “I didn’t realize you’d spent much time with him. Alistair, I mean.”

“Oh, not in Skyhold. Not more than a few games here and there, anyway. He’s smart enough not to gamble money with me.” Giving Cullen a subtle nudge, he said, “He’s too busy coaxing the Nightingale into song.”

A smile came to Cullen’s face. “I’m glad, honestly. They both deserve someone to be with, I think, after all they’ve been through.”

“Tell me about it,” Varric grunted.

“So how do you know Alistair so well, if not Skyhold?” Cullen asked curiously. "You never spent much time with him in Kirkwall that I ever saw."

Varric’s brows drew together for a moment. “Isabela hired me for a caper a year or two after Hawke and I parted ways,” he said in a quiet voice, glancing around as if to make sure no one was listening. “She had a couple of passengers who were on a daring mission, and thought I’d be up for an adventure. Guess who one of her passengers was?”

Cullen blinked. “Alistair?”

“The very same.” Varric looked around once more before he went on. “He’d gotten some interesting information and wanted to investigate. I gathered that the Wardens weren’t too happy with him at the time, but let him go as long as he brought a chaperone with him.”

After a moment’s consideration, Cullen’s eyes widened. “Loghain?”

“Precisely. It turned out to be a bit more exciting than we anticipated, but… well, the details are kind of private. Suffice it to say that the two Wardens were a lot closer at the end of the caper than they were at the beginning, and a lot more somber. It was something they both needed to experience, even if it didn’t make them happy. Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen, but there you have it.” Varric shrugged. “At any rate, by the time we got back to Orlais, they were almost acting like father and son. Not that I was surprised, considering what happened.”

“An adventure with you, Isabela, Alistair, and Loghain?” Cullen said in a musing tone. “And it hasn’t made its way into a book? They must be holding something over you.”[1]

Varric chuckled and patted Cullen’s arm. “And if they are, I’m certainly not telling you about it. Anyway, that’s how I know Alistair. And why he’s learned not to bet money in a card game against me. Mostly because he doesn’t have any after the last time we played cards together on Isabela’s ship.”

Cullen laughed. “An excellent reason, Varric.”

“Oh, Varric never has excellent reasons, just extraordinary excuses,” a new voice said from behind them.

Turning, Cullen smiled at the newcomer. “Inquisitor.”

“Sparkler,” Varric said, looking him up and down. “I see you’re well muffled.”

Dorian looked down in distaste at the cloth covering his usually bright and sparkly armor. “Loghain insisted. I feel like an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. I hope I don’t have to run while like this. I fear I’d fall over after a few steps, and then how would I protect the dignity of the Inquisition?”

“Like you always do, Sparkler: badly,” Varric said with a grin.

With a gasp, Dorian pressed his hand to his padded chest. “Are you casting aspersions upon my person, my good dwarf?”

“Hey, as long as you owe me those five sovereigns, I get to say whatever I want about you. You should have thought of that before you lost big to a writer, you know,” Varric added. “It’s a good thing you’ve got Nightingale on your side, or tales of your card woes would be told from coast to coast.”

“You’re a cruel, cruel man, Varric,” Dorian complained. “I was wondering, though, if I might borrow your conversational companion for a moment?”

“Curly? Sure.” Varric nodded to Cullen and then to Dorian once more. “You should help him cover up his armor. Or at least the part his rug doesn’t reach.”

‘It’s not a rug!” Cullen insisted as Dorian laughed merrily.

“Whatever you say, Curly, whatever you say,” Varric said with a wink, then turned and strolled away.

Cullen turned to find Dorian looking at him critically. “You are a bit shiny,” he noted. “We should get all your armored bits covered, don’t you think? Before Loghain comes over and scowls at you, too.”

“That does seem to be a particular talent of his,” Cullen noted as he looked at the sky to gauge the time, and found that sunset was almost upon them. “Let’s go to my tent. It will be getting taken down soon, I’d imagine.” Gesturing Dorian to follow, he led them there, giving a few orders here and there as they went. Once they were inside, he began rummaging through his storage chest. “What did you need, Inquisitor?”

“Hawke came and talked to me this morning,” Dorian said in a subdued tone.

Cullen’s hands froze in the act of pulling out a roll of dark cloth meant to cover his table for eating. “What did he say?”

“It was a deucedly odd conversation,” Dorian mused. “He apologized, for one. Hawke never apologizes. Said he’d pushed too hard and too fast, and wanted to let me know that he could, in fact, take no for an answer.”

“That does sound unlike him,” Cullen said as stood with the cloth in hand. “But not wholly unexpected. We had a talk last night, he and I.”

Dorian’s brows rose. “I thought you two never got along.”

“Not that you’d notice, no,” Cullen admitted. “But last night was an exception. It was almost like he was expecting something to happen during the battle.”

“To him?” Dorian asked.

Cullen paused. He hadn’t meant it in that way, but now that Dorian mentioned it… “I… Perhaps. Mostly he just wanted to emphasize my duties to me.” At Dorian’s quizzical look, Cullen explained, “He made me promise to make sure that nothing would happen to you during the battle or after.”

Dorian’s eyebrows rose. “Well, of course you wouldn’t. You’re my Commander. That’s against your job description, or some such.”

“Which I told him, but he wanted something a bit more emphatic than that.” Cullen gave a little shrug as he began to wrap the cloth around his armor. “Besides, I’d protect you regardless. I’ve broken too many promises to those I care about. I won’t break a promise to you.”

Dorian canted his head slightly as he smiled at Cullen. “Those you care about?”

“Yes,” Cullen said, a bit distracted as he tucked the cloth in on itself and tugged it here and there to muffle any sounds.

“So you care about me, then.”

Cullen glanced up at him. “You’re my friend,” Cullen said, surprised it needed to be said. “Of course I care about you.”

“I suppose I just never heard anyone say it aside from Mailani. When she wasn’t twitting me about my mustache, at least,” he added, reaching up to lightly brush his finger along said offending facial hair.

Cullen’s eyes followed the motion, then dropped to consider Dorian’s lips for a moment before he jerked them up to meet the other man’s gaze. “Why would she tease you about that?”

“Most likely she teased me about that the way she teased you about your hair,” Dorian said with a wink. “Something about the vanity of shems, or some such.”

“Ah. Right,” Cullen said with a laugh. “That does sound like her.” He pointed to his table. “Those cloths there. We can put those over my vambraces, I think.”

With a nod, Dorian retrieved one and shook it out. “Hold up your arms,” he told Cullen. “I’ll do the wrapping.”

Obediently Cullen raised his arms and waited, watching as Dorian worked at concealing the vambrace from any errant light. This close, he was able to smell the subtle musky scent of Dorian’s hair, and instinctively leaned closer. “I wonder what she would make of our friendship,” he said after a few moments. “She always was fond of calling us her new clan.”

“Yes, the Inquisition clan, I remember.” Dorian looked up at him with a twinkle in his eyes. “I wager she’d be quite pleased, if a bit surprised. I’m not the best at making new friends, in case you didn’t notice.”

“We have had some rough spots, didn’t we?” Cullen said with chuckle.

“Well, Commander, most people usually don’t shove others into walls quite as hard as you did if they’re friendly.”

Cullen ducked his head in shame at the memory. “I’m sorry for that.”

“I won’t deny I would have preferred an entirely different reason for you to press me into the nearest wall,” Dorian admitted. “But we’re certainly beyond you threatening to throw me out on my blushing buttcheeks, so I’d say we’ve progressed.”

“Cassandra would have kicked me to Val Royeaux and back,” Cullen groaned. “And I don’t even want to think about what Bull would have done.”

“Bull? Why Bull?” Dorian asked as he retrieved the second cloth and moved to work on Cullen’s other arm.

“Ah,” Cullen paused as a fresh whiff of scent caught his nose, and forcibly cleared his throat. “Because of how close you are.”

“Ah. There are rumors about he and I, I take it?” Dorian sighed and shook his head. “He is a good friend, though.”

“So you’re not…” Cullen started, then let his voice trail off.

“No. Or rather, only insofar as I’ve also been with Hawke. Thankfully Bull is a trifle more laid back about the whole affair,” Dorian mused as he performed his task. “He’s vigorous, certainly, but he’s also just a friend.” He smiled at Cullen. “Like you.”

Cullen swallowed, trying very hard to avoid thinking about what Dorian meant by vigorous. “Right. Like me.” The words sounded strained, and he fell silent as Dorian tucked the edge of the cloth under the end of his vambrace.

“There we are,” Dorian said with a pat of his hand. “All muffled and covered.” Stepping back, he frowned as he looked Cullen up and down. “What about your greaves? Those are still exposed.”

The thought of Dorian kneeling in front of him to wrap something around his legs made a shiver run down Cullen’s spine, and he quickly moved back to his cot. “That will be easier to do myself, I think,” he said as he tugged the wraps from around his pillows and sat down to put them on.

“Well, at least the rug won’t need to be muffled,” Dorian noted. “It’s like having a built-in muffler.”

“It’s not a rug,” Cullen repeated between grated teeth.

“Ah. Pardon me, then.” Dorian reached out to touch the fur, twining his fingers through it as he played with it. As he did so a flicker of green awoke in his palm. “Oh, stop that,” he told it absently. “It is softer than I expected, actually. What animal is it from again?”

Cullen stared at Dorian’s hand as it toyed with the fur, struck by how familiar the motion seemed. “Ah, animal? Yes, um, bear. Great bear, actually.”

“Oh, good. I’ve never met a great bear I’d invite home to meet the family, and if you knew my family, you’d know what a deadly insult that was,” Dorian said with a chuckle. “I suppose there’s some sort of heroic tale to go along with the acquisition of this fur?”

Lips curving in a half-smile, Cullen said, “I was cold.”

Eyebrow rising skeptically, Dorian asked, “That’s it? You were cold?”

“Isn’t that enough?” he asked innocently.

“Oh, I see, Commander. You’re trying to tease me.” Pulling his hand away, Dorian waggled his finger at Cullen. “That won’t work, you see. I’m far too wise to your ways.”

“Are my ways so very devious?” Cullen asked with a raised eyebrow.

Dorian tilted his head as he considered Cullen. “Perhaps not, Commander. This time, at least. Who knows what the future will bring, hmm?”

Cullen’s brows drew together, the words triggering something in him. Perhaps it was because they were on the cusp of a battle, perhaps it was Hawke’s visit the previous night, or perhaps it was something else entirely. Regardless, he suddenly stood and set his hands on Dorian’s shoulders. “Promise me you won’t do anything foolish,” he said softly.

“Foolish? Me?” Dorian asked, blinking a few times. “I didn’t realize there were alternatives.”

“Please, Inquisitor,” Cullen said earnestly. “Be cautious. The Inquisition can’t afford to lose another Inquisitor.” He hesitated, then added softly, “I can’t lose another Inquisitor.”

“Is your sense of duty so very stern, Commander?” Dorian asked mock-seriously.

“You’re my friend, Dorian,” Cullen said, using the name deliberately. “I don’t want to lose you.”

Dorian swallowed visibly, the bump of his throat dancing up and down. When he spoke, there was a slight tremor in his voice. “Ah. Well. I shall strive not to disappoint you, then.”

“Good.” Cullen squeezed Dorian’s shoulders, searching for something else to say and failing to find anything. “Good,” he repeated, then stepped back, suddenly feeling a trifle awkward.

Clearing his throat, Dorian looked around the tent. “Ah, well, I’m sure there are all sorts of little pre-battle rituals you need to attend to. I didn’t mean to take up quite so much of your time.”

Cullen chuckled as he sat down to wrap his legs tight. “You’re always welcome in my tent, Inquisitor,” Cullen told him. The moment the words left his lips and Dorian’s eyebrows shot up to his hairline, Cullen groaned and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I meant-- I didn’t mean--”

“Don’t worry, Commander,” Dorian assured him. “I won’t presume too much from those fascinating words. I should probably go myself. I promised Vivienne my aid with maintaining the illusion spells to hide us from sharp eyes in Adamant. It will be good to speak with her. She is an erudite woman, after all, and a most stimulating conversationalist.”

“As opposed to me,” Cullen asked with a grin, the blush mostly gone.

“Oh, it’s not your conversation I value the most, Commander,” Dorian said with a grin which could only be called wicked.

“Maker’s breath,” Cullen groaned as the heat returned to his cheeks.

Laughing lightly, Dorian bowed elegantly to Cullen. “Until later, my friend. I look forward to comparing notes about the battle. I may not be as strategically sound as you, but I like to think my tactical knowledge is less abysmal.”

Cullen smiled at that, remembering some of their conversations over the last few months. “I’d rate it quite a bit above abysmal, but we can discuss that later.” He met Dorian’s gaze as he turned serious. “Take care, Inquisitor.”

“And you, Commander,” Dorian said softly. Without another word, he turned and left the tent.

With a sigh, Cullen finished wrapping his legs, then stood. He still had a battle to fight - and win.


The moment between his first shouted order and when the first barrage of stone hit the walls of Adamant seemed almost silent in Cullen's head. The rush of blood and the beating of his heart: those far outweighed the whistling of the wind and the creak of the trebuchets. He craned his head to watch the boulders fly through the air with lethal grace, lips parted as he waited for the planning of the last few weeks to finally make the move from markers on a table to boots on the ground.

Once those stones hit the walls of Adamant, however, his senses woke with a vengeance. Even as the cheer from his soldiers rose into the air at the first real blow struck at the enemy, he barked orders, goading the troops into motion. “We haven’t won the battle yet! Get moving or you won’t get to celebrate!” As they quickly fell into place and started their advance on Adamant, Cullen paced through the ranks to make sure all parts of the Inquisition Forces were in place as needed, using his own shield when necessary to defend against the missiles of the foes within the fortress.

As the ladders began to rise and the rams closed in on the ancient gates, he finally fell back and studied the distribution of his troops from a more distant vantage point. He winced when he saw the first of his troops knocked from the top of the walls, but knew it was only to be expected.

“No commander likes to watch his troops perish,” a quiet voice said from one side, and Cullen turned to find Warden Loghain standing nearby. “I’ve been in my share of battles, and I’ve my share of regrets, yet it’s still a punch in the gut to see a soldier fall, never to rise."

Cullen gave Loghain a measuring glance. Loghain's reputation, at its most charitable, could best be described as mixed, with the source of information being a large determinant of whether it was good or bad. For the moment, he reserved his judgment, since Cullen knew he was the last man who should judge another for questionable decisions in his former life. "That's a good way to describe it."

Loghain's face was pensive as his gaze swept the battle. "I daresay neither of us are the sort to sit at our ease under a pavilion on a hill during battle. We were trained to fight, to feel the rhythm of the battle in our swords, not through messengers." He glanced at Cullen, grey eyes keen. "And we've both overcome our fair share of personally treasured prejudice, haven't we? You command on behalf of a mage, and I fight to save as many as I can amongst my Orlesian brethren. Fate has an odd way about her sometimes."

"That she does, Warden," Cullen said with a dry chuckle, then turned to look ahead as the first sound of the ram striking the gate echoed across the battlefield. "I should go."

"As should I," Loghain said with a nod, then secured his helm into place. "Each one of those demons means a brother or sister of mine has been murdered. I can think of no greater reason to strike them down with a vengeance. Good luck, Commander Cullen."

"And you, Warden Loghain," Cullen responded, already setting into motion towards the gate with his shield held high to deflect the stones of the defenders above. He wanted to be there when Dorian and the others passed through to begin their targeted infiltration.

When the gates finally burst open, he heard the shout from above ordering the Wardens to fall back. Rushing through the remnants of the gate, he sought out Dorian, easy to spot by now that his buckles had been freed to shine in the torchlight, and hurried towards him. “All right, Inquisitor, you have your way in. Best make use of it. We’ll keep the main host of demons occupied for as long as we can.”

Dorian gave him a wry grin. “There’s a worrying lack of specificity there, Commander. I do hope you’re not trying to get me worried, are you?”

Cullen flushed slightly. “There are more of them than I was hoping, Inquisitor. Loghain’s numbers don’t quite match up, so either there are more mage Wardens than we suspected, or they learned how to summon more demons than one per dead Warden. Either way, it’s not good.”

“You don’t say?” Dorian drawled. “I’ll keep that in mind for when I need more blindingly obvious information.” Face growing serious, he said, “Do what you can, Commander. I trust you to keep me as safe as you can. That’s what friends are for, yes?”

“Yes.” Friends. Yes, one of his true, dear friends. After a moment, he realized he was staring at Dorian and quickly straightened. “Alistair will ward you as best he can. Keep to the plan, and look for Hawke with our soldiers on the battlements. He’s assisting them until you arrive.”

His words were interrupted by a scream from above, and they both turned in time to see an Inquisition soldier get tossed from the heights above by a demon. Cullen made a sound of frustration. “There’s too much resistance on the walls. Our men on the ladders can’t get a foothold. If you can clear up the enemies--”

“I plan to,” Dorian said with uncommon sobriety. The earlier levity seemed to have vanished with the sight of the soldier falling to his doom, and Dorian’s face was now a mask of concentration. “You do what is necessary here, Commander, and I assure you it won’t be in vain.” Turning, he barked orders to those with him and moved forward, staff already moving with a deadly purpose.

Cullen watched Dorian head deeper into Adamant with a frown, then sighed. He had his own work to do. Returning to his troops, he lost himself in the rhythm of the battle. The demons added an inhuman factor which required faster, more risky tactics, but he was not Templar-trained for nothing, and made sure to employ the Inquisition's Templar allies with pinpoint precision.

After one particularly nasty sortie against a cluster of Pride demons, he found himself panting in recovery next to a familiar face. "Ser Barris," he said with a short nod. "Your Templars are proving their worth today."

Barris chuckled breathlessly as he gave Cullen a salute. "Tell us where you need us, and we will be there, Commander. The Templars support the Inquisition."

Cullen grasped one of the Templar's arms and nodded. "Keep watch on this quadrant. There seem to be more Pride demons here than the others."

"Yes, Commander." Barris turned and began barking orders, leaving Cullen free to go to another part of the battle.

As Cullen headed back to the gates, since that was where visibility of all the activity around Adamant was clearest, he saw a familiar figure ahead of him and increased his speed. A couple of rocks bounced off his shield, but nothing too exciting, and he reached Loghain without incident.

“Commander,” Loghain greeted him. “The number of assailants on the battlements has lessened.”

Cullen nodded. “Yes, I noticed that our towers and ladders aren’t getting pushed off as frequently now. It appears as if the Inquisitor is as good as his word.” At Loghain’s questioning eyebrow, he added, “I asked him to deal with some of the forces up there once he joined up with Hawke.”

With a grunt of acknowledgment, Loghain said, “Whatever my opinion of Hawke, he has proven himself a formidable fighter.” Before Cullen had a chance to ask about that peculiar way of phrasing it, he said, “This would be an excellent time for me to go into Adamant, then. There may be some Wardens I could convince to lay down their arms, especially if the tide of battle is turning against them.”

Glancing towards the shattered gates, Cullen nodded slowly. A nagging feeling of danger kept prodding him, as well as the odd encounter with Hawke in his tent the night before. Take care of the Inquisitor in case of what? The question had been nagging him ever since, deep in the recesses of his mind, and as Loghain turned to leave, Cullen abruptly reached out to set his hand on Loghain’s arm. “I’m coming with you.”

Loghain turned in surprise. “I thought--”

“They don’t need me out here,” Cullen pointed out, as much for his own benefit as Loghain’s. “Cassandra and Blackwall are here for the Inquisition forces, Knight-Commander Barris leads the Templars, and all the plans now depend on what happens inside. And…” He frowned. “I have a bad feeling about this. Call it instinct if you like, or my bump of trouble, but I just feel like something is going to happen to them.” And losing him is not an option.

For a long moment, Loghain simply stared at him, then sighed and shook his head. “Very well, Commander. But if we run into any Wardens, let me do the talking, hmm?”

“Agreed, Warden Loghain,” Cullen said quickly.

“I’ll take the lead. I studied those maps longer than you did,” Loghain added before pivoting and moving towards the gates once more.

Cullen followed after him, ducking through the gate from the inner bailey to avoid the fire burning along the top of its frame. Within, they found plenty of evidence of fighting in the wake of the Inquisitor and those with him: piles of ashes, scorch marks on the walls, and crossbow bolts, among other things. “It looks like they came through this way,” he called.

“It appears so, Commander.” As they moved through the fortress, Loghain's turns were quick and decisive, up until they reached a closed door. Loghain frowned and pointed to a broken door leading to a staircase. “This door is the quickest way to the inner courtyard, but it appears they went to the battlements instead."

“Perhaps the door was barred?” Cullen suggested, just as Loghain tried to push it.

“It would appear you are correct. Still, something hit it hard.”

“Bull,” Cullen said without hesitation. “He hits everything hard.”

Loghain smiled at that. “Very true. Perhaps we can force it open. It would save us a good few minutes.”

“I’m willing to try if you are,” Cullen agreed, getting into place next to Loghain.

The man proved to be stronger than Cullen had anticipated, and after a few grunts of effort and strong kicks and shoves, the door suddenly popped open. “There we are,” Loghain said in satisfaction. Pointing ahead, he said, “And there’s the a door leading to the inner courtyard, where Warden-Commander Clarel will gather everyone for the ritual they think will save them.” His face grew hard. "I'd rather make sure it doesn't happen."

Cullen nodded, face grim as he settled his sword back in his hand. “Then let’s go.”

The door emerged not into the courtyard proper, as it turned out, but to a balcony overlooking it. Cullen raced forward, taking in the scene below as he strained his eyes to look for the Inquisitor. “There,” he said, pointing down to where Dorian was standing at the edge of a group of Wardens.

“And there’s Erimond, Corypheus' sycophant,” Loghain said, pointing to another place above the other Wardens. “And Warden-Commander Clarel. So he hasn’t killed her, at least.”

“There is a dead Warden up there, though,” Cullen said grimly, pointing to the body lying ceremoniously on a trestle table. “Can you tell if Erimond’s taken control of Clarel yet?”

“It does not appear so,” Loghain said as he surveyed the scene. “It seems the Inquisitor is still trying to sway her, which he would not be able to do if the Magister had done so.”

“Then we’re not too late,” Cullen breathed.

Loghain laid a hand on Cullen’s arm and pointed to a group of Wardens gathering in a circle in the center of the courtyard. “Be cautious of an early celebration, Commander. Those Warden mages do not move as I remember. I daresay they belong to Corypheus already.”

Cullen’s face darkened. “How do we get down there?” he asked. “I don’t see any stairs.”

“Let me consider.” Loghain’s steely gaze swept over the courtyard, then grunted. “We’ll have to go back and find another way. Perhaps--”

“Wait! Something’s happening,” Cullen said, pointing towards the Warden mages.

Loghain sighed and shook his head. “And so it begins,” he said sadly.

Cullen nodded, but kept his eyes locked on what the mages were doing. The bright green light of a rift caught him off guard before he saw movement through the opening. “Maker. They’re trying to pull a demon through the rift!” Cullen fixed his gaze on the roiling green energy and the demon lurking beyond, mind whirling. It wasn't a large opening, and the view was distorted by his vantage, but he would know that demon anywhere. “Hessarian’s Blade of Mercy. I’ve seen that demon before.”

Loghain’s eyebrows rose. “The one they wish to summon?” He squinted, obviously trying to see it more clearly. “It’s quite… large, whatever it is.”

“I saw it in a dream,” Cullen told him. “Well. Nightmare, really, and yes, it’s every bit as monstrous as you can imagine. If they manage to bring it through… Wait. They’re talking again.”

Both men fell silent as they strained to hear what was being said below.

“I don’t want to kill you,” Dorian was telling the Wardens. “But you’re being used. Surely some of you must suspect something!”

One of the Wardens, dressed in rogue leathers and with a dagger at each hip, suddenly stepped forward. “The mages who’ve done the ritual? They’re not right. They were my friends, but now…” He turned to look at the Wardens behind him, particularly the mages, who simply stood there. “They’re like… puppets on a string.”

Clarel stepped to the edge of her platform. “You cannot let fear sway your mind, Warden Chernoff!” she called down.

Hawke’s voice rose above all others as he stepped forward, a grim look on his face. “He’s not afraid, Warden-Commander. You are. You’re afraid that you ordered all these brave men and women to die for nothing. Why else would you hesitate?”

“Listen to me!” Alistair said, stepping forward. “You all know who I am. You all know that I was there, in Ferelden, during the Fifth Blight, and you all know that I failed my duty. I have been trying regain my honor as a Warden ever since, and you all know how hard I have fought to live up to my mentor Duncan’s example.” Cullen saw a wave of nodding heads and even expressions of sympathy as Alistair continued. “More than that, you know who is aiding me. Loghain Mac Tir stood where I could not, facing down the Archdemon at the very end of the Blight. Perhaps he didn’t strike the final blow, but he was there when the Archdemon fell. He was there when I was not. And he agrees with me, you all know this.”

When a few of the Wardens nodded thoughtfully - though none of the mages did - Alistair stepped further forward. “So I ask you: can we both be lying to you? Is it so impossible to think that we are being used?” Pointing at Erimond, he thundered, “That man serves Corypheus, one of the very Magisters who brought the curse of the Blight upon the world! Grey Wardens fight the Blight! We do. Not. Serve it!

“Good lad,” Loghain said, a proud smile coming to his lips.

A silence settled on the courtyard, and all those Wardens who were not mages turned to Clarel, obviously waiting to see what her response would be to Alistair’s speech.

It was clear from the way she looked back and forth between Erimond and Alistair that his words had had an impact. Erimond took a step towards her. “Clarel, we have come so far. You’re the only one who can do this!”

Still Clarel seemed uncertain, rubbing her forehead as she shifted on her feet. “Perhaps we could test the truth of these charges to avoid more bloodshed.”

Cullen was watching Erimond, and saw the exact moment when the Magister decided that Clarel was a lost cause. “Be ready,” he told Loghain softly, and the man nodded.

“Or perhaps,” Erimond said, turning from Clarel and lifting his hands to the sky, “I should bring in a more reliable ally. My Master thought you might come here, Inquisitor! He sent me this to welcome you!”

Suddenly a familiar roar echoed from the sky above, and a pitch black shadow with ragged wings appeared from the inky darkness. As Corypheus’ dragon arced down and sent a blast towards Clarel, Cullen watched in astonishment. “Did that idiot just summon an Archdemon into a Keep full of Wardens?”

“It would appear so,” Loghain said with a derisive snort. “Apparently he’s given up on trying to convert the remaining Wardens to his side. It won’t be hard to persuade those who remain to fight with us after this.”

“If we survive long enough to talk with-- Look out!” Cullen shoved Loghain to the ground just as the lyrium dragon settled onto the battlements above them and roared once more. The ledge upon which they stood trembled, then collapsed, and he wrapped his shield arm more tightly around Loghain as they began to slide down. “Brace yourself!” he yelled.

Their controlled tumble did get them down into the courtyard - and landed them right at the feet of a Pride demon. As they rose to their feet, Loghain barked orders to some nearby Wardens. After giving Loghain a startled glance after his abrupt appearance, a bulky Reaver and a dancing duelist ran to aid Cullen and Loghain against the monster, even as more demons appeared in the courtyard around them. By the time they’d dealt with that threat and a few shades and wraiths along with it, Dorian and the others had left in hot pursuit of Clarel and Erimond.

“Loghain!” one of the Wardens called as he ran over. “Is it true? Was that Magister in service to Corypheus all along?”

With a nod, Loghain made a sweeping gesture to the rift with his sword. “Look at what you wished to summon into this world,” he said. “We are Wardens, sworn to protect Thedas! These may not be darkspawn, but that demon might as well be an archdemon. Stand against the Magister and his demons, and save those who you can!”

“Yes, Warden Loghain!” The warriors all gave Loghain a quick salute, even as Cullen chafed at the delay. “What do you want us to do?”

“Set a sentry here on the rift and make sure none tamper with it,” Loghain ordered. “Then send the rogues out into Adamant to spread the word: we side with the Inquisition.”

“Yes, Loghain!” the warrior said, and quickly they began to organize themselves.

Loghain turned to Cullen. “Let us proceed. You are right. I have a bad feeling about this, as well.”

Cullen sent one last glance to the monstrosity on the other side of the rift, hackles rising. Erimond had clearly been hoping to use a mage of Clarel’s calibre to summon whatever it was through the rift. Just because the ritual was interrupted didn’t mean it couldn’t be completed, should circumstances turn to favor Erimond. Perhaps all he needed was for Clarel to have a moment of vulnerability. On top of that, Erimond had Corypheus’ pet dragon flying around the fortress, a danger that the Inquisition had no direct defense against.

And Dorian was in hot pursuit of both of Erimond and Clarel. If Erimond succeeded, Dorian would be in grave danger. And if the dragon decided to get up close and personal with the Inquisitor?

He turned to Loghain, face grim. His friend needed him. "Let's go."

He burst into a run as he surged up the stairs in pursuit of Dorian. Time, and that persistent nagging feeling of something is going to happen, pressed down on him relentlessly. Ignoring the hitch in his side and the growing fatigue in his limbs, Cullen pushed on, only dimly aware that Loghain matched him stride for stride.

As they ran, their surroundings blurred. The demons they fought, the way the very stones of the fortress trembled, and even the shadow of the dragon as it passed overhead - they weren’t nearly as important as the distant figures ahead of them. Fate seemed to tease him, letting the group almost come within reach before throwing demons or Wardens at them. Even though the two men cut through their foes easily - or in the case of the Wardens on some occasions, avoided combat altogether when Loghain snapped them to attention - each delay increased Cullen’s frustration until he could feel his teeth grinding as they raced up what he desperately hoped were the last stairs.

And skidded to a halt as he found himself contemplating the haunches of a dragon from an uncomfortably close distance.

His heart raced and his hand tightened around the grip of his sword as Cullen took in the situation. The dragon stood between himself and the others, wings beating slowly as it roared and gathered itself for an attack. Cullen cast about for any way around the dragon, but found none as it slithered forward. Setting his jaw, he raised his shield and charged at it from behind, hoping to distract it if nothing else.

A movement under the dragon caught his eye just before the sudden lightning burst which followed it. After that, things happened fairly quickly. The dragon screeched and thrashed as the attack shoved it upwards and over the edge of the battlements. The pit of Cullen’s stomach dropped as he watched the thrashing leviathan drop off the precipice, claws dragging on the stone blocks before it disappeared from sight. Its actions tore at the foundations of the already ancient structure, and Cullen lurched once more into a run as the damage the dragon caused the ramparts to shift enough to send those upon it sliding towards the precipice.

Ignoring the groaning Magister and Clarel’s still form, Cullen fixed his gaze on the people in immediate danger. They were doing their best to run away from the worst of the damage, but his heart skipped a beat when he saw Dorian stop and run back to pull Alistair from the brink. A noble gesture, to be sure, but it was enough to seal his fate, since the motion to heave Alistair forward was enough to make Dorian’s foot slip beneath him.

As Dorian flailed for a handhold, Cullen broke into a run, dead-end drop at the end or not. Abandoning his shield completely, he held on to his sword only so that he could use it to halt his precipitous plunge. He jammed it between two stones just before reaching the edge, holding onto the hilt with one hand while his other reached out to latch onto Dorian’s wrist just before the man plummeted to his doom. The desperate act left Cullen half hanging off a jagged line of rock with Dorian dangling below, but--at least for the moment--they were stable, if not safe. The ramparts shifted a little more beneath them, then subsided into stillness once more. 

Dorian’s eyes widened as he looked up. “Cullen! What are you doing here?”

Dimly, Cullen realized it was the first time the mage had called him by his name, but the thought was quickly pushed away. “Trying to… rescue you, of course,” he grated through clenched teeth as he yanked himself fully onto the stone surface, then pulled Dorian higher with all his strength. He was dimly aware that the others were engaged in their own scramble for safety, but his only priority at the moment was the man holding his hand.

When he felt Dorian’s free arm snake around his neck, Cullen released an explosive breath and quickly shifted his arm down to snag the other man’s waist for better leverage. As he pushed himself slowly to his knees, he craned his neck to look at Dorian, whose face was now inches away, and smiled. "There you are."

“Quite the daring rescue, Commander,” Dorian said a trifle breathlessly.

“I made a promise, remember?” Cullen told him, though his own voice was a bit strained. This close, he could feel Dorian’s fast, shallow breaths against his lips, and found himself licking his own in reaction. Forcing his mind to the task at hand, Cullen kept his fingers tightly clenched around his sword’s hilt, using it for stability as he heaved them back from the edge. They ended up in a tangled heap of limbs with Dorian on top, and Cullen let his head fall back onto the stones of the rampart with an explosive sigh of relief. Releasing the hilt at last, he embraced Dorian with both arms and held him close. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you.”

Dorian, arm still wrapped around Cullen’s neck, gripped Cullen’s fur mantle as he took a shuddering breath and buried his face in Cullen’s other shoulder. “Thank you. Just… give me a moment. My heart is still pounding.”

“Take all the time you need,” Cullen told him, fighting the urge to bury his nose in the musky scent lingering in Dorian’s hair. Instead, he turned his head to look for the others, praying that they were all safe.

What he saw made his eyes widen. Bull hung from the edge of the ramparts, held in place both by his death grip on some flagstones and the aid of Alistair and Loghain, who had each grabbed a hold of one of Bull’s arms to keep him from sliding further. Varric had somehow managed to grab Bull by the horns before falling, but he dangled down Bull’s back without any leverage available to pull himself up in a way that wouldn’t risk them all. Shifting his gaze down, Cullen saw Solas clinging to one of Bull’s calves and Hawke’s arms wrapped firmly around the thigh of Bull’s other leg. All in all, it looked more than a bit precarious.

“Sweet Maker,” Cullen breathed.

“A little help, please?” Alistair grunted in a strained voice.

“Be right there,” Cullen said as he scrambled to pull himself and Dorian to their feet. Even as they rushed towards the others, however, a sharp crack reverberated through the stone beneath them.

“Well, shit,” Varric and Hawke groaned in an unforced chorus.

The rampart upon which their lives depended broke away with a ponderous slowness from the rest of Adamant, a fall which accelerated with every second. Bull struggled to maintain his hold, but the stones were breaking apart faster than he could find a new one. As the remnants of the ramparts toppled towards the ground far below, Cullen and Dorian lost their footing and succumbed to the forces of nature along with the others. Though Cullen tried to hold on to Dorian as long as he could, the rough motion and abrupt free fall drove the two men apart.

Yet even as Cullen reached towards Dorian in desperation, he saw a calmness fall over the mage which differed from that of a man who had accepted death. Face a mask of concentration, Dorian extended his left hand with fingers spread wide. A flash of green light burst forth, heralding the awakening of the Anchor as Dorian swept his hand in a wide circular motion.

When the large expanse of a green rift not unlike the Breach flickered into being just below them, Cullen had just enough time to gasp in wonder before he entered it.

After that, there was only darkness.

Chapter Text

Dorian felt the moment when he passed through the rift and into the Fade, since it hit him like a blow to the chest. His act of opening the rift had been one of desperation, his promise to Cullen ringing through his mind as he used the Anchor to open the way to a place no mortal had stepped in the flesh for over a thousand years. Yet breaking the laws of reality was, to him, a small price to pay to avoid breaking the same promise twice.

As he tumbled through the air, the nature of the Fade at least proved to work in his favor, saving him from a painful fall by electing to ignore silly little things like up and down. Instead he floated towards what he had thought was the ground, then hovered a few inches above it. Not until he dared to reach out and touch the nearest surface with his fingertip did his weight suddenly decide to assert itself, and he fell with an ignominious oof.

Rising to his feet, he absently dusted himself off as he surveyed his surroundings. Peripherally, he was dimly aware of the others nearby, but most of his attention was on the floating rocks, the vague landscape, and the swirling mists obscuring the distance. As a mage, he would have guessed where they were in a matter of moments regardless, but the way that the Anchor pulsed and burned in his palm seemed to be a rather strong confirmation of his surmise.

“Well, this is unexpected.”

Dorian blinked and looked up, then tilted his head as he contemplated the man standing sideways on a floating boulder. “You look a little off, Warden,” he noted with a grin.

“Thanks,” Alistair drawled, tapping his foot on the rock upon which he stood. It wobbled, but didn’t straighten, leaving the Warden situated where he was. “I take it we’re not in Thedas anymore.”

“No,” Solas said softly. Dorian turned to watch the elf mage take a few steps deeper into the Fade, a look of awe on his face as he slowly turned in a circle. “This is the Fade. The Inquisitor opened a rift. We came through… and survived.” Solas sounded surprised, but also eager. “I never thought I would find myself here physically. Look!” He pointed upwards. “The Black City, almost close enough to touch.”

“Well, this certainly looks nothing like the Maker's bosom, so we can’t be dead," a sardonic voice noted. Dorian whipped his head around again, blinking in surprise as he saw Hawke standing above him - upside down. The man looked down - or, given his vantage, up - at Dorian, then suddenly grinned. “That’s a new look for you.”

Dorian chuckled as he glanced around to make sure the rest of his companions were all well and accounted for. “The first time I entered the Fade, it looked like a lovely castle filled with gold and silks. I met a marvelous desire demon, as I recall. We chatted and ate grapes before he attempted to possess me.” He gave a little sigh, nodding to Bull and Varric as they drew near. “Perhaps the difference is that we are here physically. This is no one’s dream.” If it were a dream, I would see Cullen, he added silently, trying not to panic. A tiny little voice inside also had to add, And he’d be naked, if this were a true dream.

“I’ve seen my father in the Fade, I’ve seen a demon pretending to be my sister in the Fade,” Alistair observed as he craned his neck to study their surroundings. “But I’ve never seen this.”

“The stories say Inquisitor Lavellan walked out of the Fade at Haven,” Hawke mused. “So it’s not completely unprecedented. I would wager it’s tied to that mark on your hand, Inquisitor.”

Realizing that he'd been rubbing at the green light in his palm as it flickered and sputtered fitfully, Dorian nodded, still searching the Fade around him for one more familiar face. “That would be a logical conclusion.”

“Well, whatever happened at Haven,” Hawke noted, crossing his arms over his chest, “we can’t assume we’re safe now.”

“An excellent assumption,” a rough voice said as its owner emerged from the green mist around them.

Dorian’s eyebrows rose, even as a bit of hope leapt in his heart. Surely if he were here... “Loghain? I see you survived our rather precipitous journey here. I do have to ask, though, why are you here?”

“I followed your Commander as he chased after you and Clarel,” Loghain explained. “He said he had a bad feeling about all this.” Loghain looked around, his eyes lingering on Hawke and Alistair and their odd perches. “And it would seem he was right.”

When Cullen failed to appear from the same mist, Dorian frowned. “Have you seen the Commander?”

Loghain shook his head. “Not here, no. I saw him go through the rift, and I wasn’t that far behind him. Once I landed, I began my search for you.”

Dorian fought to keep his reaction to that from his face and instead turned to examine the area around them again. “We’ll need to look for him on our way out, then,” he declared.

“Which brings up that oh so important question,” Varric pointed out. “Which way is out?” He nodded to Hawke and Alistair. “The Fade apparently doesn’t give a shit about up and down.”

“The mark is the key,” Solas said. “You unlocked the rift to grant us entrance to the Fade, and here we are. If we continue with that logic, then that means you should be able to use the same mechanism to take us back to the waking world.”

“What about that rift the Warden mages opened in the main hall?” Loghain asked. “That could be our way out, if you can open it enough to let us pass through from this side.”

“We’ll encounter resistance,” Hawke pointed out. “We are in the Fade, after all. There are bound to be demons.”

“Well, this is shitty,” Bull said, speaking for the first time. “I’ll fight whatever you give me, boss, but nobody said nothing about getting dragged through the ass end of demon town.”

“I’ll make sure to pay you a bonus,” Dorian quipped.

“I’ll hold you to that, boss,” Bull shot back, then sighed and pulled out his maul. “Well, I'm ready, at least. Who knows? Maybe killing some demons will make me feel better.”

Dorian chuckled. “At least it’s better than waiting for the demons to find us, isn’t it?” he suggested, then pointed to the large rift swirling in the distance. “And there’s our exit. Let’s go.”

With Bull in the lead, Alistair and Loghain quickly fell in to flank him, and the rest arranged themselves behind. As they began to move forward, Solas spoke once more, his neck craning while he looked at the Fade around them. “This is fascinating. It is not the area I would have chosen, of course. But to physically walk within the Fade…” He sighed, sounding almost content.

Varric gave him an incredulous look. “Right. You like it here. Isn’t that wonderful.” Shaking his head, Varric glanced at Hawke. “Remember last time we ended up in the Fade together?”

Hawke rolled his eyes. “Oh, how could I forget,” he drawled. “My closest friends showed such loyalty in the face of a demon’s temptations.”

Varric grimaced. “Well, we got better. Sort of.”

“Yes, you all went back to stabbing me from the front instead of from the other side,” Hawke said sardonically.

“That still sounds better than a certain Vint I could name right now,” Bull muttered darkly. Before Dorian could protest, Bull started to speak in a higher voice, obviously imitating someone else. “Hey, chief. Let’s join the Inquisition! Good fights for a good cause!” Dropping back to his normal register, he continued, “I don’t know, Krem. I hear there are demons.” Switching back to the other voice, he said, “Ah, don’t worry about the demons, chief! I’m sure we won’t see many!” He muttered a few choice oaths under his breath in a mixture of Trade and Qunlat, then finished with, “Asshole!” He nudged Loghain, who happened to be on his left. “Hey, if I get possessed, feint on my blind side, then go low. Cullen says I leave myself open.”

“I shall bear that in mind,” Loghain said in an amused tone.

“Solas, you’re the expert on the Fade, despite your deplorable sense of fashion. Even I’ll admit that,” Dorian noted. “Any useful little tidbits you might want to share with the rest of us?”

Apparently being in the Fade put Solas in a good enough mood to ignore Dorian’s little jab, or he recognized it for what it was: Dorian’s attempt to calm his own nerves. “The Fade is shaped by intent and emotion,” the elf noted. “Remain focused, and it will lead you to where you wish to go.”

Dorian again felt a little thrill of hope. And if my focus is to find Cullen? “That sounds important to know.”

“The demon that controls this area is extremely powerful,” Solas cautioned. “I suggest you remain wary of its manipulations and prepare for what is certain to be a fascinating experience.”

“Fascinating,” Alistair echoed. “You certainly like to be fascinated, Solas.”

“Life can only be experienced once, Warden Alistair,” Solas replied. “Thus I have found it beneficial to open myself to all that it has to offer. Fascination is but a logical extension of truly opening yourself to new ideas.”

“Riiight,” Alistair said slowly.

Solas gave a little sigh, but fell silent after that.

As they moved through the Fade, Varric dropped back to talk to Dorian. “So Curly’s here somewhere, right?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“Somewhere, yes,” Dorian answered back in kind, rubbing his glowing palm again. “Alive.” I hope.

“We’ll find him, Sparkler--I mean Inquisitor,” Varric told him.

“Oh, don’t you start getting formal on me,” Dorian complained. “I have enough to worry about as it is.”

Varric chuckled. “Noted. So I can still remind you about the five sovereigns you owe me?”

As the vague burning sensation in his hand turned into a more demanding itch, Dorian started to scratch it. To distract himself from the oddity, he focused on Varric. “I'll tell you what. Help us all get out of here, Cullen included, and I’ll triple it. And find a publisher for your books in the Imperium. That’s a very large market waiting to be tapped, you know.”

“Huh.” Varric’s eyebrows rose. “You do know how to negotiate, though I might be able to get a better deal from my cousin’s widow. Still, she’s not here right now and you are, so I accept.” His eyes narrowed as Dorian muttered a strong oath and clenched his hand in a fist as the green flame suddenly flared and spread up his arm. "You all right, Sparkler?" he asked warily, taking a step back from the fitful glow.

"Venhedis!" Dorian gasped. "I'm… not sure." The light hadn't hurt this badly since he'd first acquired it, but right now it felt like someone was shoving several crystal shards through his palm.

"Inquisitor!" Solas said, urgency in his voice as he moved to Dorian's side. "Let me help!" His hands closed around Dorian's, face a mask of concentration as he tried to weave a spell.

The green glow died for a moment, then sputtered back into life as a wave of magical energy burst from Dorian's hand, knocking them all to the ground as Dorian screamed in pain. He curled into a fetal position as, for a moment, his world turned into nothing but agony.

And, from the center of that torment, came a whisper: I'm sorry.

Before he could wrap his mind around the meaning and origin of those two simple words, the agony centered in his palm spread to encompass his entire hand and then… pushed. A yell gargled and died in the back of his throat as the pressure built from within, clawing and scraping its way out from his palm with a desperation that would not be denied. His breaths came in shallow pants as he tried to push the pain away, tried to pretend he didn’t hear a dull cracking of bones breaking deep within his hand, tried to think of anything except his hand as it swelled like a waterskin being filled far beyond its capacity.

And then, all at once, the building pressure burst. As the skin of his palm split open like that of a ripe plum, a sharp pain lanced through his arm--then just as abruptly vanished. A sphere of pale golden light emerged from his hand and expanded to encompass him, so blindingly bright that tears sprang to his eyes even as he squeezed them shut. In the midst of his disorientation, hands lifted and cradled him, and a cloth gently eased the sweat from his brow. Once that was done, he felt a hand cup his cheek, and a whisper tickle his ears. "I'm sorry."

Swiftly he reached up with his battered hand and grasped the one on his cheek, willing to endure the pain the motion sparked. When he felt a familiar surge of magical energy as their palms met, he sagged in relief. A thousand little questions and mysteries and hints and fears all suddenly coalesced into a final answer, and he smiled with bittersweet happiness. "Mailani," he breathed.

"I'm sorry, Dorian," that oh-so-familiar voice replied. "It was the only way."

Opening his eyes, he stared up at her, swallowing as he saw the worry on her familiar face. With a trembling hand, he reached up and touched her face in wonder. "You're here. You're truly here."

"Be cautious, Inquisitor," Loghain said in a wary voice. "Remember where we are. That is most likely a demon."

"Or it could be a spirit that identifies so strongly as Inquisitor Lavellan that it believes it is her," Solas noted from where he stood nearby. When Dorian glanced at him, he found a thoughtful expression on the man's face.

Dorian swallowed, then looked up at Mailani. "Is it really you?"

A sad smile came to her face. "Proving my existence either way would require time we do not have," she said. "Can you stand?"

He nodded, but before she could help him rise, Hawke strode forward and lifted Dorian to his feet. The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously as he looked at Mailani, and it was clear from the way he put himself between Dorian and Mailani that he considered her a danger. "How hard is it to answer the question, really?" he said, an edge in his tone. "Especially given the circumstances. Let's try it this way: I'm a human, and you are--?"

Mailani met Hawke's gaze as she rose to her own feet. "I am here to help you. Everything is not as it seems."

Hawke snorted, arm still steadying Dorian as he pointed out, "We're in the Fade. I would assume that is a given in this place."

"The danger before you has more faces than you know," Mailani said, then looked past Hawke to Dorian. "And there are things you need to remember about my death."

Dorian shuddered, then gently pushed Hawke aside and stepped towards her. "What things? Why don't I remember them?"

"Because they were taken from you by the demon that serves Corypheus," she told him.

"Tell me, lethallan: what is the nature of the spirit who commands this place?" Solas asked as he stepped forward once more. "It is clear that it is shaped for a purpose, but I have never seen anything like it."

Mailani's face grew solemn. "I know it only as the Nightmare. I have only seen it in dreams, but I have seen enough to know that it deliberately inspires terror. It feeds off of fear and darkness, and uses its minions to enact a dreamer’s darker memories that it then consumes and hoards.” She paused, glancing at Loghain and Alistair as she added, “And it is the one, as far as I can tell, that is responsible for the false Calling which drove the Wardens to their folly.”

Logahin frowned as he exchanged a glance with Alistair. "Then perhaps we owe this Nightmare a visit," Loghain noted in a grim tone.

"You will have your chance," Mailani promised him, "for you cannot leave here without confronting him."

"Wait. The big demon that Erimond guy was trying to bring through?" Varric asked.

"Yes," Mailani confirmed.

"It's waiting for us at the exit?"

Mailani nodded gravely. "Yes."

"Well... shit," Varric muttered, then sighed as he pulled out Bianca. "You bring me to all the fun places, Sparkler."

Bull groaned and let the head of his maul drop onto the ground with a loud thud, then leaned on it almost casually. Almost. "So you're telling me that not only do we have to fight our way through the ass end of demon town, we have to fight their boss, too?"

There was a definite twitch of Mailani's lips as she repeated, "Yes."

"Well, that's just great," Bull grumbled as he heaved his weapon up to rest on his shoulder again. "You always were trouble, boss. Little boss. Dead boss?" He shook his head. "Damn it, now I'm really getting confused. I guess that means I get to blame both of you."

Taking a deep breath, Dorian braced himself as he met Mailani’s gaze. “This demon… I’ve seen him before, haven’t I?”

Mailani confirmed his guess with a nod. “He has been watching the dreams of the one who bears the Anchor since I first stepped from the Fade at Haven.”

Dorian swallowed. “That… that explains much.”

Solas frowned and looked to Dorian. “Then you’ve seen the Nightmare in your dreams?”

At Dorian’s nod, Loghain grunted. “Odd. The Commander said much the same about the Nightmare.”

Solas frowned. “That is indeed most curious. A mage perceiving a demon in the Fade is always a possibility, but the Commander is no mage.”

“Demons have haunted Cullen’s sleep for years,” Mailani said, tone tinged with sorrow. “And the Nightmare found his dreams most satisfying.”

“I see.” Solas' frown deepened. “Unusual, but not completely unheard of, in that case. I shall think on this.”

"You said that this Nightmare serves Corypheus," Dorian noted. "Is that why Corypheus has so many demons at his disposal? Because of the Nightmare?"

"I don't know how it works exactly," Mailani admitted. "But the Nightmare is drawn to those who inspire terror in the waking world."

"And Corypheus helped to unleash the Blight upon the world," Hawke said grimly. "It doesn't get more horrific than that."

"Then it must be a fear demon, as I suspected," Solas said. "Fear is a very old, very strong feeling. It predates love, pride, compassion... Every emotion save, perhaps, desire."

"Is it wrong to say that I preferred the desire demon?" Dorian asked with a sigh.

Solas smiled faintly, though the expression quickly slipped away. "Be wary, Inquisitor. The Nightmare will do anything in its power to weaken our resolve."

“Stealing people’s memories,” Varric said with a shudder. “That’s low, even for a demon. Memories make us what we are. A monster that takes them away? I don’t want to think about that.”

"After what it did to the Wardens, it's going to learn to fear for itself," Alistair declared in a grim tone.

"Will you help us, Mailani?" Dorian asked softly. "Will you help us escape its clutches?"

"I will, falon. But first you must see the truth." She raised her left hand, and the familiar green light awoke and flickered fitfully. "Come. I will show you."

All eyes turned to Dorian to see what he would do, but he moved without hesitation. Stepping forward, he raised his own glowing hand, dimly aware of the blood that poured from the open wound in his palm caused by Mailani’s unexpected appearance. He didn’t feel the pain, though--or perhaps he simply chose not to feel it. Even as Hawke cried out and stepped forward, Dorian clasped his hand tightly with hers, and the light of their palms mingled and flared into an even brighter conflagration.

And around them, the Fade… faded away.

Dorian opened his eyes and found himself staring out over a vast expanse of sandy dunes lit a dull orange by the sun above. Raising his hand, he tried to block the glare of the sun, but the motion proved futile. With a sigh, he turned to the woman next to him and pouted. “You hate me, don’t you?”

Mailani raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask that?”

“Because you keep dragging me out to the ass-end of nowhere, as Bull would say,” he told her. “Couldn’t we do this in more civilized places? Places with wine and peeled grapes and cheese?”

Her lips twitched in a smile. “I don’t think we could find quillback guts in Val Royeaux, Dorian.”

“How do you know? I’m sure the markets there are quite extensive.” He sighed and tried to brush some sand off of his armor, which of course resulted in a smear of dirt. “Oh, lovely.”

With a laugh, Mailani looked ahead and pointed. “Look, there’s the cave on that map I found. Maybe we’ll find something useful in there.”

“Only you would find a scrap of paper with vague references to landmarks and a scribbled X and think it means hidden treasure,” he teased her.

“And when have I been wrong?” she asked him smugly.

“Well… never,” he admitted, then harrumphed as she stuck her tongue out at him. “Oh, fine, be that way. Someday you’ll be wrong, and I hope I’m there to see it.”

As they approached the cave, a familiar honking sound came from behind them. Dorian turned to see the approach of a flurry of varghests, and sighed. “Oh, Maker, they really are looking for death, aren’t they?”

“You go on ahead, boss,” Bull told Mailani as he swung his maul in an impressive circle. “Me and Baldy got this.”

Solas pulled his staff from his back. “Need I remind you that I am not the only one here with no hair?”

“Yeah, but I’m bald with style,” Bull told him. “You just look like an egg.”

“Bull,” Mailani chided him.

“A good egg,” Bull amended. “C’mon. Let’s chase these things back to the gas pits.” With a roar, he charged forward, the shimmer of a barrier surrounding him just before he hit the varghests--literally.

“Let them have their fun,” Dorian suggested with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t mind getting out of the sun for a little while. Besides, if we find what we’re looking for, we’ll be able to leave all this sand behind us for a while.”

Mailani, who had half-drawn her bow, smiled and set it back in place. “All right. Let’s go.”

The two of them pressed into the cave. The light from outside, as well as the zaps of Solas’ spells and the splats of Bull’s hammer, dimmed quickly, and Dorian frowned as they moved further into the depths. “The Veil is thin here,” he told Mailani. “Very thin. Be wary. I wouldn’t be surprised if a demon or two slipped through.”

She nodded and pulled out her bow, nocking an arrow as they moved forward. “Like the Orlesian camps in the Exalted Plains?”

“Precisely.” His staff twirled in his hands as he readied himself, just in case. They moved forward slowly, keeping an eye out for both enemies and evidence of treasure.

In the end, it didn’t do them any good.

At first, the earthquake seemed to be only a momentary inconvenience. As the walls shook and the rocks fell from above, Dorian quickly summoned a shield around them and pulled Mailani close to make sure they were both protected. The rocks bounced off his spell and fell to the side, and they exchanged a nervous smile. “That was close,” he admitted. “But don’t worry. I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

She smiled at him, then turned when Bull’s voice echoed down the tunnel. “Hey, boss! Everything all right in there?”

“We’re fine, Bull!” she called back.

“We’re coming in anyway,” he boomed back, and Dorian saw shadows block the light at the entrance as the two headed into the cave

“I’ll go get them,” he told Mailani. “Don’t move. That barrier will hold while I’m gone, and I don’t want to risk a boulder landing on your pretty little head.”

With a laugh, she pushed him down the tunnel. “Just get going.”

He gave her a wink and started towards Bull and Solas. Before he’d gotten far, he heard her gasp and cry, “Dorian!”

His head whipped around, eyes widening as he saw movement beyond her. The man who stepped from the shadows was clad in a hooded robe so black that it was difficult to see him within the darkness of the cave, but his eyes glowed crimson beneath his hood. Raising a staff crowned with a red lyrium skull, the unknown mage sent an arc of energy towards Mailani, one which shattered Dorian’s spell seemingly without effort and dropped her to the floor, bound in a crushing prison of magic. As she struggled and Dorian started to run - too slowly, always too slowly - the red skull rose and whipped around in a circle, then slammed into the ground.

As the cave collapsed around them, Dorian lost himself in a cloud of dust and crushed stone.

The memory released him abruptly, and he collapsed with a gasp as his knees gave way. Mailani fell with him, her hand still tangled with his, and helped to steady him as he struggled to regain his breath. For a moment, all he could taste was the dust of stone, and all he could see was darkness, but eventually the sensations faded and he remembered that he was no longer in that fateful cave in the Western Approach. “That man, the mage,” he whispered, still haunted by the oddly familiar glowing red eyes. “That was--”

“Jorath Amell.”

Surprised at the source of the words as much as by the venomous tone which delivered them, Dorian turned to look at Alistair. “You saw that?”

“We all did, Inquisitor,” Loghain said, expression grim even for him.

“That was the Hero of Ferelden?” Varric asked, eyebrows rising. “What a charming fellow.”

“Hero?” Alistair shuddered. “Maker save us from heroes like him. He killed the Archdemon and ended the Fifth Blight, yes, but…” His mouth twisted, and he looked away. “He’s no hero,” he said finally. “And if Amell had anything to do with the death of your predecessor, I would be checking under my pillow every night before going to sleep if I were you, Inquisitor.”

Varric’s eyebrows rose. “Is he truly that bad?”

“He is,” Loghain said softly. “When my daughter Anora ascended the throne of Ferelden as sole ruler following the Fifth Blight, she appointed him her Chancellor – against my advice. When last I saw her…” His voice trailed off for a moment as he shook his head. “She did as he bid her without question. My daughter was a strong-willed and intelligent woman, quite capable of ruling on her own. The change in her was not natural. When I left, the Chancellor made sure to let me know that my presence in Denerim henceforth would be unwise.” His jaw rippled as he gritted his teeth. “He took her from me in a way no parent should ever have to endure.”

“That sounds all too familiar,” Dorian whispered as his eyes squeezed shut. Blood magic, then. With a sigh, he opened his eyes and gave Loghain a sympathetic look. “I have seen such changes in personality back home, though I’m surprised he managed to get away with it considering she is Queen. I am sorry.”

“As am I,” Loghain said in a voice full of quiet regret.

Finally Dorian turned to look to the one person who might have anything else to say about Amell, and found Hawke staring intently at him. “Hawke?” he ventured. “He’s your cousin, is he not?”

Tilting his head, Hawke scrutinized Dorian closely for a moment or two before he finally said, “I never met the man. According to Mother, he came from the side of the family that the Amells in Kirkwall shunned. Far too many mages in a line already infamous for them in polite society.” His eyes narrowed, and he moved to kneel next to Dorian and Mailani. His finger lightly traced the back of Dorian’s hand as he looked at Mailani. “You’ve been in the mark the whole time, haven’t you? With Dorian.”

“It was the only way,” Mailani said softly.

“You’ve said that before,” Hawke noted.

“I don’t understand,” Dorian said with a frown. “How could I not know you were with me? I am skilled in the necromantic arts, after all. Surely I would have felt you in such a situation.”

Mailani ducked her head slightly, her drawn eyebrows and averted gaze demonstrating her guilt. “I… encouraged you not to notice. I didn’t want to give any of you false hope that I could return, but I had to be close to you. Sometimes, of course, our souls still touched.”

After a moment of puzzling over that revelation, Dorian’s eyes widened. “The dreams.”

“The dreams,” she said with a nod.

Dorian’s face softened in a smile, even as his eyes gleamed with unshed tears. “Thank you,” he murmured. “They were a true gift.” He couldn’t adequately articulate how, precisely, particularly with an avid audience nearby, but he suspected he didn’t particularly need to, given the link which still connected him to Mailani. Inhaling sharply, he cleared his throat. “And all those times that I started to suspect something and found myself distracted away from the thought? That was also you?”

Mailani nodded, eyes dancing with mischief. “It was. You’re far too clever for your own good, Dorian. You kept speculating about this and that, and I had to keep turning all those ideas into nothing more than a memory or a passing thought whenever your mind wandered too close.”

Dorian mulled over that for a while, then finally nodded reluctantly. “I… think I understand, but… why?”

“I had to make sure you were as closely linked to the Anchor as I was, so that it could not be taken from you by Corypheus… or anyone else.” Her eyes dropped to look at their linked hands. “And once done, I found I could not unlink myself. Either from you or the mark.”

“That rings true, Inquisitor,” Solas offered. “The strength of spirits and souls in the waking world is diminished, for they require a channel through which to work. Absent your awareness of her presence, she would have been compelled to remain with you, held by the Anchor’s power.”

“So once we came to the Fade…” Dorian began.

“I was able to assert myself,” Mailani said with a nod.

“Is that why his hand was broken and split like a ripe tomato?” Hawke asked harshly. For answer, Mailani lifted her hand away from Dorian and presented it to Hawke, who glanced at it with a frown. “Ah. I see,” he said in a tight voice.

Dorian, on the other hand, gasped as he saw the savage cut that split her hand. “Where did that come from?”

“She took it from you, I imagine,” Hawke told him, turning over Dorian’s hand to reveal a shiny new scar that was a mirror for the wound on Mailani’s hand. “The cut, at least.” His thumb smoothed over Dorian’s hand, causing the mage to wince as he felt broken bones grind together under the skin. “What about the rest of it?”

“Not yet,” she said softly.

Hawke frowned, obviously not liking that answer. “What does that--”

“Inquisitor!” Loghain called, drawing his sword. “It appears that we’ve been discovered.”

Dorian looked up and saw the approaching spider-like creepy-crawlies. Quickly rising to his feet, he called, “Time to earn your pay, Bull!”

“On it, boss,” Bull grunted, then charged forward with his maul raised over his head so he could bring it down and splatter the first demon with a giant squish. “Let’s have a little fun!”

“I like his enthusiasm,” Varric said with a chuckle as he raised Bianca and took aim.

It was a short, dirty fight, though not an easy one. When the last misshapen creature collapsed in a pile of rather squishy goo, Bull gave a loud shout of satisfaction. “Guess this Nightmare wasn’t such hot shit after all.”

“These are likely but servants of the true foe,” Solas pointed out.

Bull shot the elf an irritated glance. “Just let me have this moment to hope, all right?”

Dorian frowned as he looked around and noticed an absence. “Mailani?” When there was no answer, he sighed in regret, the brief reunion reminding him all too keenly of the pain of her loss. “Where did she go?”

“I believe we shall see her again,” Solas said. “Though it is time that we made our way forward rather than looking back.”

“And find Curly,” Varric said. “The Inquisition doesn’t leave anyone behind.”

“Don’t,” Hawke said with a growl as he stalked past Varric.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” Varric protested, but Hawke was already moving ahead towards the distant rift. “Touchy,” the dwarf muttered as he hefted Bianca to sit on his shoulder.

Dorian moved with them, occasionally looking at his hand with a grimace as the green light flickered and caused flashes of pain. Still, they had no alternative but to find the way out.

As they moved through the Fade, Dorian came to understand what Solas had meant when he said that this part of the Fade had been crafted for a purpose. They found snippets of notes, some of them from the point of view of the worst that humanity had to offer, and others from the perspective of their victims. There were remnants of those lost to the Blight, and of those who simply wished to understand why the Blight had destroyed their lives. Haunting horrors of innocence lost rested alongside the dark glee of evil embraced freely, and the combination was sufficient to make Dorian’s skin crawl.

Not that the graveyard made him feel any better, of course. When they found the tombstones engraved with the names and fears of all those Dorian held dear, Dorian paused and considered them for a long while. His eyes lingered specifically on the one emblazoned with Cullen’s name, pondering the intersection between the Commander’s fear and his own.  They certainly had parallels, some of them quite tantalizing if he were completely honest with himself. For one, just like temptation, fear of surrender held a different connotation and consequence between surrender to lyrium, and surrender to desire. After a few moments, he sighed and moved on. It seemed better to find Cullen than to dally and maunder over what was obviously a trap of the fear demon, obscure though it may be.

Grimly they pressed forward after that, with only the occasional banter providing any relief from their host’s attempts to instill fear so that it might feed. As they progressed, the weighty feeling of anticipation grew from a nagging feeling to an almost oppressive burden. Something was going to happen, and soon.

And then the demon spoke.

“Ah, we have a visitor.”

Dorian’s head whipped around, trying to find the source of the sonorous tone. It tickled on the edge of familiarity, but he couldn’t quite place it. Instead, he simply turned in a slow circle as he said, “It appears our host has decided to greet us.”

“Some foolish little boy comes to steal the fear I have kindly lifted from his shoulders,” the deep voice continued. “You should have thanked me and left your fear where it lay, forgotten. You think that pain will make you stronger? What fool filled your mind with such drivel? The only one who grows stronger from your fears is me.”

“Well, we certainly aren’t growing stronger from its blathering,” Varric muttered under his breath.

The demon ignored the dwarf, if it even heard him. “But you are a guest here in my home, and not the only one.” At that comment, Dorian’s eyes narrowed, but he remained silent as the demon added, “I believe you know him, since he arrived at the same time as you. I knew him from before, as both frequent feast and annoying sting. Perhaps you should come visit him, since it seems he does not appreciate the nature of my hospitality.”

Dorian swallowed harshly. There was only one person who fit that description, and the implications of the demon’s words made his blood run cold. Cullen.

“Perhaps your fear for him will make you stronger, perhaps not. Even so, by all means, let me return more of what you have forgotten.”

From the walls and stone around them, a veritable horde of demons suddenly burst forth and charged them with earsplitting shrieks and howls. “Here they come!” Bull roared, even as he wound up his body in preparation for his favorite whirlwind blow.

Before the first demon got close enough to attack, however, it screeched and fell to the ground, grabbing desperately as it was pulled out of sight by an unseen hand. The other demons likewise followed, each one scrabbling for purchase before being sucked from sight, leaving no one standing in front of them save for a familiar figure. For a moment more Mailani stood straight and true, glowing green hand stretched in front of her, before her eyes rolled up in her head and she slowly crumpled to the ground.

“Mailani!” Dorian rushed towards her, barely catching her before her head hit the ground. As he pulled her into his lap, his brow furrowed as he realized that she looked different. Her hair was dulled, with patches of stark white intertwined with the black, and an extensive pattern of lines and wrinkles now wreathed her face. As she looked up at him, he saw the clouds of age in her eyes, and a gauntness in her cheeks which had not before been present. “Mailani,” he breathed. “What’s happening?”

Her glowing hand reached out weakly towards him, and he clasped it tightly with his own. He felt the bones grind in his palm as he did so, but he ignored the pain as he kept his eyes on her face. “It is my time, Dorian,” she whispered. “And long past my time. I can help you, but first, you have to see all of it.”

“All of it? All of what?”

“The truth,” she whispered, even as darkness closed in around them.

Dorian coughed, trying to get the cloud of dust and grime out of his lungs. Before he’d even managed to take his first shaking breath, however, he was struggling to his feet, uncaring that his staff had snapped in two or that something was wrong with his left ankle. All that mattered was the Inquisitor.

“Mailani!” he croaked as he forced his way closer to the cave-in. Behind him, he heard the others stirring, but he didn’t bother looking back. All that mattered was the Inquisitor. “Lavellan!” he tried again, a bit louder this time, and finally remembered that he was, in fact, a mage. The thought was followed by a sputtering wisp summoned from the Fade, whirling around his head to provide a feeble light.


Thank the Maker for that Dalish scarf she wore - it was like a beacon of green and gold in the darkness of the cave around them. With faltering, fumbling steps, he moved towards it, ignoring the pain, the possibility of a further cave-in, of anything that got between him and his best friend. His only friend.

The sputter of green light almost made him cry - if the Anchor could light up, it meant she was alive. Closing the remaining space between them, he fell to his knees and took that glowing hand in his, trying to pour what little ability he had for healing into the Inquisitor. “Mailani,” he breathed, “I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

At the sound of his voice, her head turned, and Dorian paled as he saw what had happened to her face. Blood covered the side of it, drenching her hair, and the top of her head was misshapen, crushed askew by an unseen force. “D-Dorian,” she mumbled. “C-can’t see you.”

No, no, no! The tears came to his eyes unbidden, and he squeezed her hand all the more tightly. “The others will come,” he promised. “Solas will be able to help, I know it, and Bull can--” He looked down her body, and began to tremble. Her body disappeared at about her waist, hidden under a pile of rubble made of stones large and small. She’d always been nimble, but never physically strong - not that even Bull would have held up well against a half ton of rock. “He... Bull can lift everything away, I’m sure of it.”

“Dorian,” she said, and the mage quieted. His hand squeezed hers so tightly now that his knuckles were white. “Dorian, I’m sorry.”

That... wasn’t what he’d expected to hear, and it wasn’t welcome - not at all. He shook his head. “No. You’ll be fine. The others will come.”

“Sorry,” she whispered. Her head shifted slightly, then relaxed, lolling limply on the ground, and the bright green of her hand flickered, then went out.

“No, no, no!” But he couldn’t deny it. No necromancer could deny the dimming of the eyes, or that last indrawn breath. Yet before he could even think of anything else, before he could cry or rage or attempt to bring her back, his world suddenly turned gold, then white, and then green.

This time, however, unlike when it had happened in the waking world, he actually saw what happened next. An unseen hand settled on his shoulder and pulled him back, allowing him to witness what followed from the safety of the darkness.

He saw the sudden flare of the Anchor, the green glow roaring like a raging wildfire as it grew to encapsulate both of them. He saw the glowing gold form rise from Mailani’s body and hover above it, a line of green keeping it tethered below. Saw the green light flex and explode once more, drawing the soul back down - into him. Saw his body collapse, limp, next to Mailani, their hands still joined even when he was unconscious.

He saw Jorath Amell approach them, saw him prod their hands with the bottom of his staff before he reached down and grabbed them in his own. Saw the resulting explosion throw the mage into the wall with enough force to bury him in a cascade of new stones.

He saw Bull and Solas appear, saw Solas bid Mailani a good journey to her final rest, and saw Bull roar and hit a boulder hard enough to break the bones in his hand. Saw them try to remove Mailani and give up when the boulders proved intractable, and saw them carry his own limp body from the tunnel.

He saw someone emerge from the shadows to pull Amell from his temporary tomb and awaken him. Saw the mask of rage on Amell’s face as he slapped his rescuer hard enough make them stagger, then in the next moment pull them close for a searing kiss. Saw the two of them depart, unnoticed by any member of the Inquisition.

All that, Dorian saw before the invisible hand on his shoulder tugged him away once more, shoving him out of the past and back into the Fade.

With another gasp, his eyes popped open, and he leaned heavily into Mailani. Her face was even more wizened than before, her eyes almost sunken holes on her face. As his hand tightened around hers, he noticed that while his bones were whole, hers now ground together in a way that made her wince. “Mailani…”

“I’m sorry, Dorian,” she said. “I had to give it to you. If I hadn’t…”

“I understand,” Dorian assured. “The Anchor in the hands of a man like that? It does not bear thinking about. What I don’t understand is why a man like Amell would desire it in the first place.”

“Who knows?” That was Alistair, who stood nearby with a grimace on his face. “I never really could understand his thinking. But if I were to try to guess, I’d say it was because he saw it as power, and that’s all the bastard ever seemed to care about.”

“What good would its power do for him, though?” Dorian asked, glancing down at the fitfully glowing mark with a furrowed brow.

“Do not discount the Anchor, Inquisitor,” Solas cautioned. “You have used it to open and close rifts, but that does not mean that its powers begin and end there. Behold the manner in which the Herald was able to drive the demons into another part of the Fade. I think that control of the rifts is but a small portion of the power at your disposal. It would appear that Amell covets that power for his own use.”

Bull crossed his arms over his chest. “So he’d be willing to fuck over the whole world so long as he got more power?”

Alistair snorted. “You don’t know the man. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t think he could take Coryphilus down himself. He managed to kill the archdemon and live. No one’s ever done that before, either, and Amell is as arrogant as arrogant bastards can get.”

“Or perhaps we are overlooking a much simpler answer,” Solas suggested, expression turning thoughtful.

“And what is that?” Dorian asked.

“Amell is a Grey Warden.” Solas looked around at the group. “A Grey Warden mage.”

For a moment, they all stared at the elf in confusion, and then Alistair muttered a violent oath. “No. Andraste’s flaming knickers, the thought makes my blood run cold.”

“Well, shit,” Dorian breathed. “That puts an entirely new horrible perspective on it, doesn’t it?”

“If Corypheus has the ability to control the Blight as well as Erimond claimed, who is to say he did not corrupt Amell as well?” Leaning on his staff, Solas continued, “What if, during all this time, Corypheus has had one of the most powerful mages in Thedas working for him, out of sight and out of mind?”

“Is he really that clever?” Hawke asked skeptically.

“Coryphilus? I’m not sure. But Amell is,” Alistair said decisively. “I’d bet my life on it.”

“And if Amell was already looking for power,” Varric added, “Corypheus would have been a pretty damned convenient cart to hitch his horse on.”

Dorian shook his head and groaned. “We need to get out of here.” And we need to find Cullen.

“Yes,” Mailani agreed in a soft voice. “You do.” The way her eyes bored into his made Dorian wonder if Mailani was speaking more to the words left unspoken than those he had uttered. Rising painfully to her feet, she lifted her hands high, feet leaving the ground as she rose to hover a few feet in the air. As she leaned her head back and took a deep breath, she began to glow with a pure golden light. In a few moments, the Mailani they had all known was gone, replaced by the glowing gold figure from the memory they had just witnessed.

When her transformation was complete, she dropped her chin to meet Dorian’s gaze, and held up her left hand. A long green thread appeared, a pulsing band of energy which stretched between them and joined their marks. At both ends of the thread, the green glow of the Anchor flickered and danced, and for a moment, Dorian felt a tugging in his hand. In the next, the thread shattered into a thousand pieces of light, and the green light of her hand flickered and died for the last time. Floating down to hover in front of him, she touched two golden fingers to his forehead. “My time is past, Inquisitor. It is up to you to do what must be done.”

Settling his hand over his heart, Dorian nodded as his eyes brimmed with tears. “I promise to live up to your legacy.”

It was hard to see any details in the golden glow of her face, but he thought he saw a faint smile come to her face. “No. You need to make your own legacy now, and your own life.” Pointing towards the rift, she said, “I will prepare the way ahead. Follow, and I shall see you one last time.”

And in the next moment, she was gone.

Dorian took a long, shuddering breath as he reached up to rub his forehead. So much had happened so quickly that his mind was left whirling in response. In addition, he felt an odd emptiness inside, and wondered if it was simply the absence of Mailani, or something else entirely. He supposed only time would tell when it came to that.

In the meantime, he had work to do--and a promise to keep.

“Let’s go,” he said in a determined voice. “There’s a demon waiting for us.”

As they started towards the rift once more, each lost in their own thoughts, Hawke fell into step besides Dorian. “Do you really think the Nightmare has Cullen?”

“I don’t see why it would lie about that,” Dorian replied. “It must know that in this case, the truth is far more effective for feeding it our fears.”

Reaching out to put his hand on Dorian’s shoulder, Hawke said, “It will not have him. I promise you that, Dorian.”

Startled, Dorian looked over at the man beside him. “I thought you and Cullen--”

“--weren’t on the best of terms?” Hawke finished with a chuckle. “That is definitely true. But he’s gone through enough in his life and… Well, let’s just say I have my reasons.”

At a loss for what to say, Dorian reached up and put his hand on top of the one resting on his shoulder. “Thank you, Hawke. I admit, I worry.”

“I would be worried, too. Being in the hands of a demon is never pleasant.” Hawke looked forward for a moment, jaws rippling. “Or the hands of someone equally dark.”

When Hawke lapsed into silence, Dorian’s brow furrowed. “Hawke?”

Hawke coughed and pulled his hand away. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll find Cullen and kick that demon’s ass so far back into the Fade that even the wisps won’t be able to find it.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Dorian told him. “You are a formidable man, Hawke.”

“Yes, well.” Hawke gave a shrug. “They don’t call me the Champion because I knit booties for orphans and write bad poetry.”

“Pity,” Dorian said with a smile. “Bad poetry is sometimes the best kind.”

“Oh? Then you should read some of the stuff Varric writes.”

“I heard that,” Varric called ahead.

“Good. I meant you to,” Hawke shouted back, then yanked his daggers from the sheaths at his hips. “I’ll go scout ahead a bit. Don’t worry, I won’t lose sight of you. The last thing we need is for the Nightmare to get more hostages.”

“From your mouth to the Maker’s ears,” Dorian murmured, looking around the Fade with a haunted look. Why does it have to be so complicated?

And where is Cullen?

Chapter Text

Cullen’s eyelids fluttered as consciousness slowly returned. Odd sounds reached his ears: distant screams, disturbing squelching noises, and the disconcerting clack of chitin that reminded him of some of the more unsavory creatures in the depths of the caverns of Thedas. He lay on a hard surface, one with far too many pointy bits and grooves to be in any fashion comfortable, and a weight across his body limited his movement as he fidgeted.

Of more immediate concern, however, was his vision - or lack thereof. He blinked to try to clear his eyes, but that only seemed to make it worse. There was a strange sensation on his face, as if someone had poured honey on it, and whatever it was had also oozed into his eyes. When he shook his head in an attempt to get rid of it, pain lanced through him, and he gasped.

“Ah. you awaken.” The voice hit his ears, but also seemed to reverberate in the depths of his mind, sonorous and deep… and chilling, so much so that an instinctive shiver arced through Cullen’s spine.

“Who’s there?” Cullen demanded as he tried to sit up. It was only then he realized that he was bound tightly at both ankle and wrist. With a growl he struggled against his bonds. “Release me!”

“I am your host,” the voice said, just before a slow, malicious laugh echoed in Cullen’s head. “You fell into my realm and to your doom. I recognized you as the gnat who bit me in another dream, interrupting my repast with your ineffectual swatting, but also as a feast most succulent from times before. Thus I sent my minions to pluck you from the ether and bring you hither. Are you not enjoying my hospitality?”

His mind raced as Cullen tried to figure out what the voice meant by calling him a gnat and, more worrying, succulent. That was not a term he ever wanted a demon to call him. “I remember falling, and Dorian using the mark to--” His blood suddenly turned to ice in his veins as the meaning of the former reference suddenly became clear. “You’re the demon from his dream. The one I drove back.”

“Not just any demon, little bug,” the demon snarled. “I am the Nightmare. I am the one you forget upon waking. I feed off memories of fear and darkness, and grow fat upon the terror of mortals. You are here because I am the veiled hand of Corypheus himself! The demon army you fear? I command it. They are bound all through me!”

As the words roiled and echoed in his mind, Cullen fought against his restraints until he finally had to give up. As he lay panting, he focused more on the demon and locked onto the part which mattered most to the Commander of the Inquisition. “Bound through you?” he asked, poking and prodding the idea to see if he could gain any tactical advantage from it. “Then all we have to do is get rid of you, and the demon army will vanish as well? Consider it done, foul beast. The Inquisition will stop you!”

A caustic laugh crawled along Cullen’s spine as the sense of the demon’s presence overwhelmed his consciousness. “You think I should be afraid of the power of Inquisition. How very droll.” Its sarcasm was biting, and Cullen realized that whatever the demon felt about the Inquisition, it was not fear. “I think not. And even if they have sent their best and brightest against me, you are still my own personal guest right now.”

“You mean prisoner,” Cullen shot back.

A dry chuckle was his only answer for that sally. Abruptly something thick and supple wrapped around his wrists, and he was jerked up to dangle loosely, the bindings around his ankles mysteriously gone. “The words matter not, little bug. You are mine now. The paltry curse which shadowed you before is as nothing compared to what I shall inflict upon you. Fear haunted your dreams, but now I will fill your mind with terror unending.”  

The words twitched and throbbed inside Cullen’s head, making him groan in pain. The meaning of the words, though, eluded him. Paltry curse? What does he mean? “You speak nonsense, demon,” he growled.

“So you would like to believe. You mortals cling to the fragile tendrils of your hope with delightful tenacity. But my masters understand that, and know that fear is older even than hope. After all, one must feel fear before one can hope for it to end.”

Cullen swallowed, but the words echoed in his mind over and over, with one holding his attention more than any other. “Masters?” he gasped. “What masters do you serve?”

A gusty chuckle pricked Cullen’s mind, and he reflexively shook his head to be rid of it despite the pain the motion caused. “Mortals have many fears, and fears have many masters. Some are more powerful than others, little bug. His hands are upon you, and have been for years. Night after night after night, you have felt me deep within your mind, feeding off of the terrors you have endured, terrors borne of him. You think that to be but chance?”

Even as Cullen struggled to make sense of those words, something warm and slimy dragged along Cullen’s body before settling around his neck, a familiar scent flooding his nostrils as he opened his mouth to gasp for air. Lyrium. He shuddered, his struggles increasing as the scent grew stronger. “Release me!” he said through gritted teeth.

“Not until I feed,” the demon whispered--in his ears, in his mind, in his very soul.

Sweet Andraste. Trying not to show his fear, Cullen again tried to blink away whatever was obscuring his vision. “I fear not the likes of you,” he sneered.

The voice boomed with laughter, the sound grating to Cullen's ears. “I will make you fear.”

You lash out at the demons whispering in your mind, but the effort proves futile. They cannot be driven away. Minute by minute, hour after hour, the whispering continues, parading each and every one of your thoughts before you and mocking them. You watch as the others succumb; watch as comrades in arms slice open their wrists with an edge of their own armor, or run into the wall head first until they fall to lie on the floor silent and unmoving, or even claw their own eyes out in desperation to stop the visions. You see some turn into the very monsters you are sworn to kill, an irony too painful to dwell upon for long. You resist, but your strength weakens, your throat burns, your stomach empties of all but bile and fear, and your core deep inside yearns for the soothing song borne in blue liquid.

As time passes behind the confinement of the red light, you lose the ability to discern between reality and vision, between what the demons want you to believe and what is real. You start to forget life outside that red circle, start to believe the lies the demons whisper, and start to wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, it would be better to simply surrender.

Yes, the voices whisper. Give in to the madness and despair, the rage and the fear. Give in to us, Templar, and all the pain will go away.

Yet you refuse, you continue to stand steadfast against them, brute force of will serving you where even reason and passion fail. You will not give in, you tell yourself. You will not surrender.

When the whispers reach their peak, when you think that nothing could possibly get worse, the barrier suddenly falls. You look up into the face of your saviour, your rescuer, into red eyes and a comforting smile. When the blue liquid is offered, you reach for it, desperate for the sharp bite of its harsh taste, but the vial is snatched back, and the comforting smile turns cruel.

“You think it will be that easy?” the man asks with a sneer. “I think not. You owe me, Templar, as few of your Order have ever owed a mage.” As he lets the vial swing loosely between his fingers, you stare hungrily at it. "What will you do for this bounty, Templar?"

You lick your lips in longing, then look up to meet his gaze. "Anything," you whisper.

His lips curve, and he reaches out to settle his hand on the back of your neck, stroking your cheek as he dangles the lyrium in front of you all the while. "Anything?" he murmurs.

You swallow, throat dry as your gaze locks onto the vial once more. "Anything."

"Such a good little Templar,” the man croons as he drags you closer. "Then let us start with the lyrium." He tilts your head back as he pops open the vial of lyrium, and you open your mouth eagerly in anticipation. "And end with you." Slowly he pours a few drops into your mouth, and, uncaring of the consequences, you surrender.

Cullen fought his way out of the vision with a yell, the struggles of his body a reaction to the hopelessness in the dream. “Out of my head, demon!” he groaned, struggling to push the nightmare away. The scent of lyrium remained strong, too strong, as something moist settled near his lips.

“Such a familiar scene, isn’t it? Played out in the theatre of your slumbering mind over and over for so many years, it has provided a sumptuous feast for me.” The demon’s voice, after a memory like that, crawled through Cullen’s mind like a snail inching across his eyeball. “Not to consume so that you would forget, no, but a repast served to me by a generous Master as a fine vintage to enjoy when I wish.”

A frown came to Cullen’s face. “Why would Corypheus--” he began, but stopped as a chill ran up his arms and to his head. “Gah! Enough!”

That dark laughter filled his head again. “Then perhaps it is time for my next meal.”

Renewing his efforts to escape the tendrils holding his wrists and neck, Cullen roared in mindless fury even as the chill grew and encompassed the entirety of his body.

You thrust your sword strong and true, piercing the heart of the Champion without hesitation. His wide eyes stare at you as the life slowly drains from them, and you feel his weight fall off your arm as his body slumps to the ground.

Staring down at his still form, you pant heavily and wonder how it came to this: the death of the Champion of Kirkwall at your hand. But you were given the order, and you learned in Kinloch Hold that obedience is paramount over all else.

But his sister… your mind whispers, and your brow furrows as you strive to recall the fate of the Champion’s sister, and why it matters now.

“Well done, Knight-Captain,” a crisp voice says from behind you, and you turn to face her as the fate of any Hawke fades from your concerns.

“Knight-Commander.” You give her a quick salute, striking your gauntleted hand to your breastplate for emphasis. “Kirkwall is safe once more. Hawke is dead, and all those who dared defy us are laid low. The city is ours.”

You watch as Meredith’s eyes scan the courtyard of the Gallows, and turn to do so yourself. Tilting your head, you admire the beauty of the sun reflecting off of the bloodstained stones before you. Such a marvelous color, red. It remains a wonder to you that you did not appreciate its luster more before Meredith set your feet once more upon the righteous path. It strikes you as a shame that some of those below could not be saved, and your eyes linger on a still form with red hair held back by a braided headband. Still, Hawke’s defiance of the Templars could not be borne, and so you acted.

When a familiar, tantalizing scent fills your nostrils, you pivot towards your leader, licking your lips in anticipation. “You have earned your reward, Knight-Captain,” Meredith says as she holds out a small vial. “You have my gratitude, and the gratitude of the one we serve.”

Dismissing all thoughts of the dead in the courtyard from your mind, you snatch your prize from her hand. Opening the vial, you gulp down the searing red liquid, shivering when its power surges through your body. The lingering grittiness of the crystal grates against your teeth, but soon you have sucked every last bit of the crimson lyrium down.

As the warmth floods through your body, you meet Meredith’s gaze with a smile on your face and a red gleam in your eyes. “Thank you, Knight-Commander.” You are glad you chose to obey.

You are grateful you surrendered.

This time when Cullen emerged from the grip of the nightmare, he heard the harsh scream before he realized that it was his own, and snapped his jaw shut. “No!” he gasped. “No! That never happened!” His head twisted from side to side as he tried to avoid the slippery length that smelled of lyrium, desperate not to need it, and even more desperate not to surrender to that need.

“Your fears provide an exotic field of dread, little bug,” Nightmare said with a dark chuckle. “Who is not to say that you were but one choice away from such a fate? Perhaps that is what truly happened, and everything you believe to be real is but the hopeless, helpless nightmare of one buried in a body lost to corruption?”

A whimper echoed in the back of Cullen’s throat as he thrashed against his bonds. The demon’s words hit too close to home, echoing a fear which had lingered ever since he’d escaped the clutches of the demons during the Blight. What if it had all been a dream? What if it were all an elaborate hoax, like all the other perfect worlds they’d offered and then snatched away from him during his days of torment? What if Mailani were but a sop for his loneliness, Cassandra a reaction to his desperate need for a friend, and even the Inquisition itself an echo of his craving for purpose?

And what would that make Dorian?

Oddly, it was that last thought which drew him back from the spiral of despair. Certainly there was no way that a Tevinter mage with such innumerable buckles, excessive vanity, and enticing scent was an answer to anything Cullen had ever yearned for in the past. He was simply… Dorian, an unexpected gift in a world gone mad, a chaos inserted into Cullen’s order that, impossibly, fit perfectly into a niche Cullen hadn’t known existed. No demon could have possibly conjured up something so unlikely and so wonderful. And that, more than anything else, convinced him that his memories of Dorian were real and true and precious, and that meant that it was all real and no demon’s trick.

Swallowing harshly, he took a deep breath. “You shall not conquer me, demon,” he snarled.

“Then I shall devour you, little bug.” This time, it was not cold, but heat which gripped him, and Cullen struggled not to yell as it suddenly felt like he’d caught fire. “Slowly and with exquisite care.”

You fight your way through the crackling flames, careless of your own injuries. Around you only chaos reigns as the dragon above makes yet another pass, loosing more searing flame to render Skyhold to ash and ruin. Around you lie the motionless and charred bodies of your soldiers, killed by the combined might of Venatori and those who serve the new God of Thedas. Once the order was given to destroy the heretics of the Inquisition, you knew your days were numbered, yet the brutality of the assault still caught you all by surprise.

Stumbling over the broken stones of the great hall, you duck below the broken doors, desperately hoping against hope that you are not too late, that he might yet be saved. You emerge at the top of stairs now reduced to rubble, leaving you a difficult climb down to reach the courtyard, but climb you do, clambering and tumbling over the broken stone as you desperately try to reach the gates of Skyhold and the fierce struggle of the Inquisition's last stand.

As you fight your way towards them, you realize that only four still live to fight, clustered under the arched entrance to Skyhold as the forces of the new God close around them. The dwarf is the first to fall, followed by the Qunari. This leaves only two mages, fighting back to back, one cursing in Tevene while the other yells in elvish. When a lance pierces Solas through the torso and lifts him high, he raises his hands and cries out to the heavens, which flicker in response. Yet whatever magic he might have hoped to weave is halted when a thrown axe removes his head, leaving the lone Tevinter mage to face the might of his enemies.

You cry out as the horde overwhelms Dorian, but it is too late--for him and for you. As the gathered enemy descends upon the Inquisitor, a similar wave washes over you, overwhelming your senses as the light fails around you. Both of you are dragged, kicking and screaming, to be thrown before the feet of their adored leader and are there subject to his crimson gaze.

"And so the mighty fall before me," the new God says, his voice crawling over your spine and crackling through your brain, leaving a blaze of agony in its wake. "You who conquered the Grey Wardens and dictated the future of Orlais, you who brought down Corypheus and withstood the perfidy of the Imperium, are now defeated yourself." As he speaks, the God reaches down and grabs Dorian's left hand, pulling him high. "A pity you have proven to be outside my control, Inquisitor. You would have made a lovely pet. At least your death will end your petty resistance."

You scream as Dorian's body bursts into flame, struggling helplessly against those who hold you as the man whose life you hold more dear than your own dissolves into a pile of ash at the feet of the God. Dimly you are aware of the green light left scintillating in the God's hand, but that matters little. Dorian is gone, and your life no longer has meaning.

“And you, my good little Templar,” the God who was once Amell croons as he turns to you. “You will now take your rightful place.”

What else is there left for you but to surrender?

When Cullen emerged from that nightmare, he thrashed violently against his bonds, for the moment uncaring whether or not the lyrium trickled into his mouth. The fear and rage inspired by the nightmare burned with equal fervor as he fought against both what he had seen and what it implied about what was to come. His heart raced as the image of Dorian engulfed in fire played over and over in his mind, so much so that he didn't notice as the tendrils around his wrists tightened.

When one of his wrists broke with a sharp crack, he screamed and spasmed, dangling limply as his mind struggled to push the demon away. It proved distraction enough for something slippery and drenched with lyrium to slip into his mouth, though he twisted his head in a vain attempt to escape it. Cullen shuddered as the slow tingle of its seductive song spread through him, dismayed by how wonderful he felt in that moment, and fought not to reach for the source when it pulled itself away. “No,” he mumbled as he felt the familiar ache of despair grip his heart. “Never again. I… I promised.” He’d made that oath to Cassandra, to Mailani, and yet now… now he simply wanted more, regardless of the strength of his oaths, and the realization hurt him bone-deep.

"Do you find your fear to be more than you expected, more than you can endure?" the demon taunted him. "I have found your fear, and I will break you with it. I will make you beg for mercy, and then I will make you beg for more."

As the demon’s ghastly chuckle echoed in his head, Cullen stirred. “No,” he said, then clenched his eyes shut beneath the viscous liquid that blinded him and reached deep down to find the one, quiet truth that no amount of demonic manipulation could unseat: Dorian would never abandon him. “Never!” Cullen roared, trying to channel his fear and pain into wrath. “I will never surrender to the likes of you!”

“You are disciplined,” the demon noted. As it spoke, Cullen’s bonds shifted once more, releasing his wrists to instead wrap firmly around his torso where they slowly began to squeeze. “But it is not enough. Against me, it is never enough. Even now, your mind is seething with fear. It is beautiful.”

Cullen shook his head, ignoring the pain as he fought against the pressure of the demon’s grip. “It is not... fear, but hate!” he grated, struggling to draw each breath.

“And what can you do against me, little bug?” the demon asked with a dark chuckle.

Without his sword and shield, Cullen found himself wondering the same thing. Still, he could not do nothing, either. With a desperate cry, he kicked out at whatever was holding him in its clutches, connecting solidly with something large and heavy, but which still yielded slightly.

Laughter boomed around him as the Nightmare said in a mocking voice, “Puny mortal. You are a fool if you think that there is anything you can do against me. This is my realm, and all within it must inevitably bow to me, and be prey.”

“Not… today. Not... ever!” Cullen managed through gritted teeth, and struggled to take a deep breath as he concentrated. It had been a long time since he’d attempted this particular maneuver outside of a dream, especially without a sword or a shield to help buttress and focus the attack. Yet in forcing Cullen to consume the lyrium in an attempt to toy with his fears, the demon had inadvertently given the ex-Templar a chance to fight back even when in such dire straits.

When the smite finally burst forth, it boiled up from within and swept over his surroundings with all the fury he could manage. A shriek pierced his ears as the hold around him loosened, an opportunity he quickly seized by flailing wildly against what gripped him. His attempts paid off as he slipped from the demon’s grasp, dropping to the ground like a lead weight. Dumb luck plagued him, however, as he landed on one foot at an awkward angle and felt his knee twist beneath him. Still, he had more pressing concerns. Quickly he raised his hand and scrubbed at his face, then stared at what he found on his hand, repulsed by the ichor and wondering what had placed it there.

A movement in front of him seized his attention and his gaze rose, eyes widening as he took in the full size of the demon in front of him. His dim memory from Dorian’s dream about his father was nothing before the sheer size and monstrosity of the thing when it loomed over him. Blocking out the pain of his leg and wrist as best as he could, he scrambled to his feet and lurched away from the beast, knowing there was no hope of defeating it.

Suddenly another demon blocked his path, smaller than the Nightmare but no less fearful in its aspect. It had no eyes, but simply a bony plate that covered the upper half of its face, and a mouth full of sharp teeth. When it spoke, it was with the voice which had plagued him before. “Oh, no, little bug. You shall not escape me so easily.”

When the spikes of its many arms shot forward to wrap around him, Cullen screamed and tried to push them aside. “You shall not have me!”

“Wrong, little bug. You are the bait I dangle in my trap. Your friends will not leave without you, and I will make sure they never take you.” The mouth spread in a wide, fang-filled grin as it forced him to turn around to face the larger demon once more.

Cullen’s heart leapt. “Then they’re here? They’re safe?” he blurted aloud before he could stop himself.

The bulk of the gargantuan demon lowered as it approached Cullen. The voice sounded in his ears, in his mind, everywhere, and he couldn’t turn away from the hypnotizing stare of the huge eyes now inches from his face. “They are in my realm. I would not use the word safe to describe them,” the voice told him with a snarl. “And you are in my clutches. I would most certainly not use the word to describe you. You are mine, little bug, and I will feed well upon you.”

Cullen swallowed harshly, then lifted his chin in defiance. “Do your worst, demon,”

That gusty, dark chuckle echoed around him and within him as something slowly began to leak into his eyes once more. “I have not yet begun to show you my worst.”

After that, Cullen knew only darkness and pain… and, deep inside, a flickering pulse of hope.

Dorian would come for him. His friend would never break that promise.

Chapter Text

After Mailani left them, the attacks came more frequently, both in the form of demons and little snarly things which kept shifting form. Solas identified them as Fearlings, and noted that they reflected the fears of those who fought them. "An unusual form of demon, certainly," he observed, "but not necessarily a surprising one given the nature of our surroundings."

Bull's nose wrinkled as he shoved the disintegrating carcass of one away with his foot. "I wish they'd leave us alone," he noted. "The squirmy little things leave a mess on my maul when I smash them."

"We could lodge a complaint if you'd like," Varric told Bull. "I'm sure the Nightmare would be interested to know if any improvements could be made. 'Not scary enough?'" Varric said in a deep voice, obviously trying to sound like the demon they'd heard earlier. "'Maybe I could find something worse for you.'"

"Don't give it any smart ideas," Bull muttered as he stomped to one side to swing his maul in a wide circle.

"And here you all are," the deep voice said with a dry chuckle.

Bull stiffened. "Dammit, Varric, tell me that was you."

"Sorry, Tiny," Varric said, Bianca shifting in his hands as he looked around anxiously. "I'm not that good."

"So this is who the Inquisition has sent to defeat me," the demon said dryly. "And somehow, with this motley collection, you presume that you will defeat fear itself?"

"It would appear our host has a fondness for its own voice," Loghain observed from where he sat inspecting his sword for damage. "Its words have no meaning otherwise."

"Ah, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir, the brilliant commander," the voice noted in a sardonic tone. "Pity the one time you tried to rule, you failed so miserably. You had to be beaten, humiliated, lest you destroy your own country. You even doomed the Wardens by bringing the Inquisitor down on them. You destroy everything you touch, including your own children."

Loghain grunted as he sheathed his weapon and stood. "Is that all you've got? It's nothing I've not said to myself." When no reply came from the demon, Loghain shook his head and looked at Dorian. "Shall we move on, Inquisitor? I have an appointment to keep with our host."

Dorian nodded. "Capital idea. Let's go."

As they continued, their path twisted and turned while the meaning of time melted away. They could always see their goal, since the rift never quite disappeared from their sight, but the way towards it meandered, running back over itself before ducking through gullies designed to confuse the mind. Around every corner, yet another batch of foes lurked in waiting, until it seemed as if their progress forward became nothing more than a constant fight to gain their next measure of steps.

And, as a counterpart between each bloody skirmish, the Nightmare taunted them mercilessly, goading them in a manner similar to the way it had treated Loghain. It settled into a pattern as it sought to provoke fear and uncertainty: a battle, then a barb, fearingly crafted for each of them.

"The Qunari will make a lovely host for one of my minions. Or maybe I will ride his body myself."

Bull grunted as he led the way through a pile of bodies. "I'd like to see you try. Besides, looks like your 'minions' can't handle me anyway."

"Did the king's bastard think he could prove himself? It's far too late for that. Your whole life, you've left everything to more capable hands. The Archdemon, the throne of Ferelden, even that pathetic attempt of a rescue of your father... Who will you hide behind now?"

"Oh, please, is that all it's got?" Alistair sneered. "I've heard worse than that from Morrigan. Now there's a sharp tongue."

"Once again, you are in danger because of Hawke, Varric. Do you ever wonder when that danger will be him?"

Varric just rolled his eyes and went back to examining Bianca. "Just keep talking, Smiley."

"Dirth ma, harellan. Ma banal enasalin. Mar solas ena mar din."

Solas straightened, his face showing only a faint amusement as he replied. "Banal nadas."

"Any clues for the peanut gallery what that was about?" Varric asked hopefully.

"A philosophical discussion on the nature of inevitability," Solas told him.

Varric shook his head and sighed. "Right. Whatever you say, Chuckles."

"Greetings, Dorian... It is Dorian, isn't it? For a moment, I mistook you for your father."

Dorian sniffed when the demon finally targeted him. "Rather uncalled for," he muttered.

"It got tiresome rather quickly, didn't it?" Hawke noted with a growl.

Dorian frowned and looked at Hawke. As they'd progressed through the Fade, Dorian had quietly kept an eye on his companions. Some of them seemed almost unaffected by the circumstances. Loghain, not surprisingly, was one of those - the man seemed unflappable - as was Solas. Alistair and Varric both took a couple of opportunities while the group recovered after a fight to simply stand to one side and stare out into the Fade, lost in their own thoughts. Bull was a trifle worrying, given that he kept moving with a restless energy even when they paused to regroup or use potions. Dorian suspected that Bull would be paying for the constant adrenaline rush later, once they were finally out of the Fade and away from any possibility of encountering another demon.

Hawke, however... The first few battles he'd seemed to shrug off with ease. Once the Fearlings had appeared, though, something had changed. Each battle left him a little more agitated, a little more angry, and more prone to snapping at the others and going ahead for 'scouting'. It fed into his fighting and made his attacks that much more ferocious, but it was worrying, and Dorian found himself not looking forward to when the Nightmare finally decided to nudge Hawke directly.

Even as Dorian pondered the matter, another group of Fearlings burst forth from the area ahead of them. Hawke surged forward, using that odd, headache-inducing maneuver where he seemed to blur through the enemy so he could turn and pierce them from behind. He seemed almost reckless, striking at their foes without care for his own safety, and by the time the others had caught up with him, he'd paid for it with a deep slash across his face.

He didn't seem to notice, though, carrying the battle forward until a cliff stopped them and more demons joined in. His actions simply became more agitated, his blades a constant blur as they sought out any foe who dared draw near. When the last one finally fell, it was Hawke who dealt the final blow which ripped off its head.

Even then, the man didn't slow. He moved to the cliff, serrated daggers still in his hands, and stared down at the formless lands below, chest heaving from his exertions. Uncertain what was running through the man’s mind, Dorian kept a close eye on Hawke as the man paced restlessly along the precipice. Every aspect of Hawke's mien spoke of agitation, from his narrowed eyes to his jerky movements to the way his lips moved silently as if he were arguing with himself. He’d witnessed Hawke’s anger before, of course, but this was closer to incandescent. He’d never seen the man in such a condition and, based on the expression on Varric’s face, neither had he.

And then, to make matters worse, the demon spoke once more.

"Do you think you mattered, Hawke? Did you think anything you ever did mattered? You couldn’t even protect yourself. How could you expect to strike down a god?"

Hawke stilled, his shoulders so tense that Dorian's ached just looking them. His head twitched, but he didn't acknowledge Nightmare in any other way.

"You're a failure," the demon told Hawke with an insouciant sneer in its voice, "and your family died knowing it."

Suddenly Hawke whirled in a complete circle, slicing the air around him, then raised his daggers high and roared, “I’m going to enjoy killing this thing!”

The demon’s dry laugh was Hawke’s only answer, the sound fading even as Hawke blindly stabbed the air in front of him. After a few more volleys, he finally collapsed to his knees and drove one of his daggers into the ground, then the other, his shoulders trembling with what Dorian had to presume was rage. Eventually, Hawke simply started slamming his fist into the ground over and over.

Dorian exchanged a pointed glance with Varric, and they hurried over to Hawke. Bracing himself against the possible reaction, Dorian laid his hand carefully on Hawke’s shoulder. “Viscount?”

Releasing an explosive breath, Hawke’s shoulders released all their tension at once. “Inquisitor,” he gasped as he sagged. “My apologies. This… thing certainly knows how to find sore points, doesn’t he?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Varric volunteered, obviously trying to calm Hawke. “It’s still not as bad as listening to Acting Provisional Viscount Bran when he starts talking about himself.”

Hawke barked a laugh, though it was short. “Maker. That puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? And people call me arrogant.” Taking a long, deep breath, he shot Varric a glance. “Thank you.”

“No charge,” Varric said as a nervous smile came to his face. “You were, ah, pretty intense there for a moment. I’ve never seen you like that before.”

Hawke’s jaw rippled for a moment. “No. No, you wouldn’t have.” He reached up to rub his eyes, then winced. “Ow. What happened to my face?” he asked as he gingerly prodded at the cut over his nose.

“Honestly?” Varric asked. “Looks like one of the demons read my book.”

“Andraste’s flaming tits,” Hawke groaned. “A blood streak across my nose?”

Varric grinned. “About right, yeah.”

“Just like your damned book’s cover?”

“You got it, Hawke.” Varric’s grin widened. “Who knew I had fans in the Fade?”

“Shut up, dwarf,” Hawke muttered as he dabbed at the injury. He succeeded only in smearing the blood a bit, and finally sighed. “It doesn’t matter, does it? Just like everything else I do.” Yanking his blades from the ground, he pushed himself to his feet. “Dorian,” he said softly as he sheathed his weapons in a measured motion. “Might I have a word?”

Taken aback by the abrupt change from title to name, Dorian nodded. “As you wish, Hawke. Are you… all right?”

Hawke met Dorian’s gaze for a long moment, then looked away without answering as he moved away from the cliff. After a moment, he paused and glanced back. “You too, Varric. Get over here.”

Snapping to attention at the sound of his name, Varric grunted in surprise. “Well, how can I turn down such a gracious invitation?” he asked as he moved to join them. His face grew more puzzled as Hawke just set his hand on the dwarf’s shoulder and pulled him along until all three of them were as far as he could get them from the others and still remain within sight. “Uh, is this a good idea?” Varric asked, glancing around a bit nervously. “Those things are still out there, you know.”

“It won’t take long,” Hawke said softly.

“You’re really starting to creep me out, Hawke,” Varric admitted.

“Just… give me a moment. You can do that, can’t you?” Hawke pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “You know how I’ve always said you didn’t know enough to tell the whole story?”

Varric snorted. “All the damn time. And I was with you pretty much everywhere except when you snuck off to be alone with--” His voice faltered for a moment as he clearly backed away from finishing that particular thought. Finally he simply nodded. “Yeah. I remember.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why I asked you to tag along?” Hawke asked, staring intently at Varric. “Even though our relationship can be termed, at best, friendly rivals?”

“The thought crossed my mind a time or two, yeah.” Varric frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “What are you getting at?”

Hawke’s head fell back as he stared upwards for a while. “I needed a witness,” he said after a while. “Someone good at noticing things, someone who wouldn’t easily forgive me.”

Shifting on his feet, Varric exchanged an uneasy glance with Dorian. “All right, Hawke, now that you’ve really weirded me out, would you mind telling us why you’ve called this little meeting?”

Hawke frowned at a rock formation as it floated past above them. “Because I lied about something. Something important.”

“Oh, like that’s anything new,” Varric muttered.

“Ouch, but fair,” Hawke said with a breathy chuckle, but the mirth quickly passed. “Dorian,” he said, turning his eyes towards the man as he spoke, “I lied to you as well. When you asked me about Jorath Amell.”

A frisson shivered over Dorian’s skin as Varric inhaled sharply. “So you have met him,” Dorian said, trying to keep his tone neutral.

“Not in the flesh, no,” Hawke admitted. “And long, long before Corypheus was even a name on anyone’s lips who wasn’t a Warden.”

“In your dreams, then?” Dorian guessed.

Hawke nodded. “I think he’s a somniari.”

Taken aback by hearing his own surmise echoed by Hawke, he canted his head slightly. “I’m impressed someone not of the Imperium has even heard the word.”

“I first heard it from an elf, actually. One of Merrill’s Dalish friends, her Keeper or some such, used the word when we were dealing with a half-blood back in Kirkwall.” Hawke glanced to the dwarf near them. “Varric, you remember. It was when you all betrayed me in the Fade.”

“Yeah, Hawke, I remember. Not that it ended well for the poor guy in question,” Varric reminded him. “Some of us didn’t follow the advice we were given.”

Hawke’s nostrils flared. “By that point I already knew how dangerous someone so powerful in the dream realm could be,” he said acidly. “You’ll forgive me if I didn’t want to give Feynriel the benefit of the doubt. The point is that Amell found me after I came back from the Deep Roads. Apparently once I got famous enough for him to care, he went looking for me. Told me blood calls to blood.

“Maker,” Dorian breathed. “Not something you want to hear from a blood mage.”

“Back then, I didn’t know he was one,” Hawke said in a flat voice. “We talked a few times. At first, it was flattering. He was the Hero of Ferelden, after all, and I hadn’t heard the horror stories about him. I mean, Isabela always went quiet when the name came up in a song or tale, but it didn’t really mean anything at the time.”

Varric’s eyebrows rose. “And the fact that Blondie never mentioned him wasn’t a clue either? He was only a Warden because of Amell.”

“Later he talked about Amell,” Hawke said, eyes closing. “After it was too late.”

When Hawke fell silent, Dorian reached out and gently touched Hawke’s arm. “I take it eventually Amell did more than simply talk?”

Hawke nodded. “At first, I didn’t really notice. I just knew that I started to hear stories and rumors about things I’d done that I couldn’t remember doing.”

“Sweet Andraste’s ass, Hawke,” Varric breathed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“And say what?” Hawke snapped. “Oh, by the way, those things you saw me do and say? Not me. Blame the scary man in my dreams.” He leveled a look at Varric. “Would you really have bought that as an excuse?”

Varric looked uncomfortable as he looked down. “I… guess not,” he finally admitted.

“At first, it seemed fairly trivial, and usually happened after some of my worst nights at the Hanged Man,” Hawke said. “After that it began to get a bit more sinister, and I thought perhaps I was simply going mad. After all, the world was going mad around me, or so it felt like. The truth didn’t really occur to me until…” Hawke’s jaw rippled. “Something happened with Anders. And afterwards, he started talking about some of the things Amell had done to him, to the people of Amaranthine, and… I realized what was going on.”

“Did you tell Blondie?" Varric asked. "He had that… friend of his, maybe he could have helped.”

“I couldn’t.” Hawke grimaced and ran his fingers through his hair. “Literally couldn’t. Whatever Amell had done to me, my tongue was sealed.”

“So… giving Fenris back to Danarius?” Varric asked. "That was one of the top three for me."

Hawke's eyes squeezed shut. “I didn’t even know until I received a letter from the Magister, aside from the cold shoulders you lot gave me and the fact that Fenris wasn't at home anymore. Not that Fenris and I were chums, of course. He was still a knife ear and drank all the good wine without me, but… No. No, I would never have done that.” A haunted look came to his face. “Believe me, I would never give someone over to a blood mage. Not willingly.”

Varric reached out and patted Hawke’s back awkwardly. “I never knew. I never even suspected. I mean… well…”

Batting Varric’s hand away, Hawke frowned. “I was always a bit of a todger, I know. When I started getting nastier, it wasn’t as if it were a sudden change from sweetness and butterflies to abomination. Some of the things you couldn’t stomach probably were me, if we sat down and compared notes. I call elves knife-ears. I have no problem getting a little rough with the gents at the Blooming Rose. And I did kill Feynriel. And Anders.”

“Yeah, but…” Varric subsided when Hawke gave him a glare. “All right. So why tell us this now?”

“Because of where we are, and what we’ve been doing.” Hawke gave a long, drawn-out sigh. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but with each and every little Fearling we’ve killed, I'm actually starting to remember what he did through me.”

Dorian’s eyes widened as he caught the implication immediately. “That must mean the Nightmare stole your memories,” he breathed.

Hawke nodded, face grim. “And I’ve been getting more and more of myself back with each and every horde we've faced.”

“Well, shit,” Varric grunted. “No wonder you’re so angry. What did you remember this time? I thought you were going to turn into a rage demon for a moment there.”

“Bethany,” Hawke said curtly.

Varric paled and looked away. “Oh. Yeah, that was… that was pretty bad.”

Hawke nodded, but didn’t say anything more on the matter. “It got me to thinking, if my memories were coming back, and since it's become so clear that Amell is not just my own personal demon anymore, that perhaps I could actually talk about him, and should. It seems his influence on me is diminished while I'm here.”

“So you think he can’t affect you here?” Dorian frowned, puzzled. “But the Fade was how he found you.”

“My dreams were how he found me,” Hawke corrected. “This isn’t one of my dreams, we're here physically. That has to be the difference that keeps him at bay. And by the Maker, I’m going to take advantage of that.”

Raising an eyebrow, Dorian asked, “How, precisely?”

“That part I’m still working out,” Hawke admitted. “But at least now you both know not to trust me once we get out of here. I have to assume he’ll get his hooks in me again as soon as circumstances change. For now, though, I am wholly your man, Inquisitor.”

“There must be a way to fight him in the waking world,” Dorian argued.

“Maybe, but we might not find out in time.” Hawke gave a shrug. “Either way, we need to get back to finding our way out. We certainly won’t reach the exit by standing still.”

“There’s one thing I don’t understand, though,” Dorian mused. “You said he approached you before you’d ever freed Corypheus.”

Hawke nodded. “Yes.”

“And you said that you’ve been recovering memories as we’ve been merrily slaughtering our way through the Fade,” Dorian continued.

With another nod, Hawke repeated, “Yes.”

“But isn’t the Nightmare a servant of Corypheus?” Dorian asked. “If it is, and Corypheus wasn’t free yet when you began forgetting things, what does that mean for the tie between the Nightmare and Amell?”

Hawke’s expression grew troubled. “Well… shit. I didn’t think of that.”

“Maybe the Nightmare thinks Corypheus is a better bet right now?” Varric guessed. “I mean, who would you pick for an ally? The Hero of Ferelden who, although a bastard, is still just a Grey Warden with some ability at magic, or one of the Magisters who started the Blight in the first place? Maybe the demon just switched allies when he found something higher on the level of fear.”

“True,” Dorian mused. “And a very good point, actually.”

“And it’s probably the closest we’ll get to answer right now,” Hawke said. “We should go.”

As Varric nodded and walked towards the others, Dorian reached out and set his hand on Hawke’s shoulder to pull him back. "We should do something about that wound on your face."

Hawke made a dismissive gesture. "’Tis but a scratch." When Dorian gave him a look, he sighed and folded his arms over his chest. "Oh, all right. If you insist, Inquisitor."

As Dorian pulled a kerchief from one of his many pouches and cleaned the cut, he murmured, "Thank you for telling us. It can't have been easy."

With a little shrug, Hawke said, "What did I have to lose? You both hate me already."

Dorian smiled slightly. "I wouldn't go that far. You made me uncomfortable, perhaps, but I won't deny that our first night together was quite enjoyable."

Hawke smiled at him, the expression oddly gentle in a way Dorian had never seen before. “I'm glad to hear it. I don’t want to hurt you, Dorian." He paused as Dorian pulled the cloth away and probed his nose, then met Dorian's gaze intently. "I never did.”

Dorian frowned slightly at the odd emphasis, then recalled the strange tension in Hawke the last few times they’d been alone together, and the odd feeling of being pushed. “Then Amell--”

“Thought he could work through me to get to you. But I'm not using that as an excuse. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want it to happen, though for a different reason than he did. In that case, I let him use me, and I shouldn't have. I fooled myself into thinking that if I did what he wanted willingly, it would make it better somehow, that if you wanted me, it would not be the same as what he did to me.” Hawke grimaced. “Pure sophistry, I know.”

Unsure how to respond that, Dorian turned his thoughts instead to remembering those attempts. “It wasn’t just you, though, was it?”

“Not lately. He was getting impatient, you see. So he sent a little gift to help, a charm I was supposed to wear when I was with you.” Hawke looked down for a moment. “And to my shame, I did.”

“That agent you met at Griffon Wing Keep,” Dorian said as the timing suddenly fell into place. “He was the one who gave it to you, wasn’t he?”

Hawke gave a short nod. “It was supposed to make it harder for you to say no, to resist. I’m no mage, so I don’t know the words or anything for what he did, but it has to involve blood magic. I should have thrown the damned thing away without using it, and I didn’t. And that’s on me. I wish I could say I was afraid of what he’d do to me if I did toss it, but the truth is I wanted you to fill the void inside of me, and I saw it as the best way to sway you.” A sad smile came to his face. “Anders would have had my guts for garters by now, and I’d deserve it. He always was the best of me. Maybe that’s why I failed him so badly when he was no longer the best of himself.”

Dorian’s heart ached in sympathy, even despite Hawke’s earlier confessions. “Blood magic does things to people,” he told Hawke. “I’m from the Imperium, so I know of what I speak. It’s why I’ve always sworn never to use it myself.”

“No. No excuses. I don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt here.” Putting his hands on Dorian’s shoulders, he said, “I’ve wronged you, Dorian, and for that I am sorry. I’m just grateful that it didn’t succeed. But don’t let me fool myself or you into thinking that just because it didn’t work doesn’t mean I didn’t intend evil. I may be an arrogant asshole, but I know right from wrong, and I chose wrong. I don’t want an easy out. There are some things a man should have to earn, and your trust is definitely one of them, if ever I can regain it. If ever I had it,” he added. “I don’t really have a lot to recommend me beyond being the Champion of Kirkwall, and as I told your predecessor, I don’t use that title much anymore.”

Touched, Dorian nodded and put one of his hands on top of Hawke’s. “I… I will think on it, though I do wish to offer forgiveness, even if the trust may be delayed a while.”

Hawke snorted and shook his head. “Not that I’m ungrateful, but your forgiveness won’t mean much until I forgive myself, and I’m still working on that for other things I’ve done. No offense, but… what I did to you isn’t exactly the worst sin I’ve committed.”

“I understand. There are a lot of things I’m still working on myself,” Dorian said quietly. After a moment of silent contemplation, he asked, “You’re, ah, not still wearing the charm, are you?”

Hawke chuckled with a rueful grimace. “A fair question, but no. I threw it into the sands of the Western Approach last night after the first or second bottle of Antivan brandy.”

Dorian’s eyebrows rose. “We had Antivan brandy on the march?”

“I brought it with me, for… fortitude, you might say. To remind myself how I’d stomped right over the line I’d sworn I would never cross. There’s a difference between a bit of rough sex and forcing myself on a man who doesn’t want it, even if it is only a kiss.” With a little shrug, he added, “And you didn’t want it. At least, not from me. Not that I blame you, of course.”

Uncertain how to respond, Dorian simply asked, “Why Antivan brandy?”

A haunted expression captured his face as Hawke looked away and swallowed harshly.  “That’s… personal. Maybe after we kill Amell, I’ll tell you.”

“All right,” Dorian said in a hushed tone, recognizing deeply buried pain readily enough. It was why he’d tried to find the bottom of so many bottles himself, after all.

Squeezing Dorian’s shoulders one last time, Hawke lowered his arms. “What I’m really afraid of is that once I stop being a willing accomplice in the matter, Amell might do more than a simple charm--which is why you should stay away from me once we get back. I don’t want to hurt you, I swear it." A grin suddenly came to his face, easing his stern expression. “But don’t think for a moment that I wouldn’t hop back into bed with you given a proper opportunity. I just know I can’t trust myself, and neither should you.”

Dorian chuckled. “It was a rather poorly thought-out decision on both our parts that first night, wasn’t it?”

A cocky smirk came to Hawke’s face. “Oh, that night I’ll own entirely. Especially the bits where you screamed my name. Amell had nothing to do with that. His influence came later.” Hawke reached up to cup Dorian’s cheek, and for the first time since that first night, Dorian smiled at the touch. Hawke’s face, however, grew serious. “Promise me you won’t let anyone treat you the way I did after that night,” he said softly. “Politics or not, alliance or not, feelings or not. You deserve better from me, or anyone. You always have.”

Dorian’s eyes widened as the words hit home and resonated deep inside. “I…I don’t know what to say.”

“Then just agree with me and give me that promise,” Hawke told him.

“I promise,” Dorian said with a little laugh. “No one’s ever told me that before.”

“Shame on them, then,” Hawke said as his thumb lightly stroked Dorian’s cheek.

Before Dorian realized the other man had shifted closer, he felt Hawke’s lips on his, a soft caress with uncharacteristic tenderness. Letting his eyes flutter shut, Dorian accepted the tenderness as it was offered, with nothing expected or required other than the kiss itself. Only when Hawke drew away did he open his eyes to meet Hawke’s gaze. “What was that for?”

“A lot of things,” Hawke said softly. “Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll even tell you.”

Dorian wrinkled his nose at the man. “Beast.”

“Oh, that only begins to describe me,” Hawke said with a chuckle as he stepped back. “Come on, Inquisitor. We have a demon whose ass needs some serious boot damage dealt to it.”

“Just what I was thinking,” Dorian said as they walked back to the others.

The demons didn’t stop coming, though it seemed that the Nightmare had tired of taunting them personally. There did seem to be an escalation in the fights as the foes grew in both numbers and strength, but they simply bore down and pressed on regardless.

At long last, they turned the corner in yet another twisting canyon, and saw, closer than ever before and directly ahead, a beacon of shifting green energy. “The rift!” Hawke yelled, pointing at it. “We’re almost there!”

“Great, Hawke,” Varric said with a bite of sarcasm. “Why not just dare the Old Gods to try and stop you?”

“Let them try,” Hawke declared as he started forward. Started, but then stopped when a barrier suddenly sprang up in front of them, blocking the way. “Well, shit.”

“Good job, Hawke. You pissed off the gods,” Varric sighed. “I suppose I should be used to that around you.”

“Shut it, dwarf,” Hawke groused, but the glare he sent to Varric nevertheless had a fair mix of humor in it as well.

And for a wonder, Varric grinned back at Hawke. “Bite me.”

“Don’t tempt me,” Hawke quipped. With a frustrated grunt, he jabbed the barrier with one of his daggers, then yelped when it flared and zapped him. “Well, that didn’t work.”

“Anything else obvious you’d like to point out to the class?” Varric asked with a roll of his eyes.

“Perhaps we could try a magical solution?” Dorian suggested. “I’d recommend stepping away from the barrier, Viscount.”

“With pleasure,” Hawke said as he trotted back to the others. “It didn’t seem to like me, anyway.”

Varric snorted. “I should welcome it to the club.”

Whatever response Hawke made was lost in the sound of Dorian’s magical assault on the barrier. After a few moments, he frowned and set his staff on the ground, looking at the still-intact barrier. “Hmph. Well, that didn’t work either.” Glancing at Solas, he gestured the elf forward. “Perhaps you could use that teeth-tingling magic of yours?”

“I do not think that magic will be very helpful in this case, Inquisitor,” Solas told him as he reached Dorian’s side. His eyes scanned the green barrier for a long moment, and then he nodded. “I suspect, however, that the key to this barrier is in your hands.” When Dorian raised an eyebrow, Solas dipped his head slightly. “Or should I say, in your hand.”

Dorian blinked, then laughed a bit sheepishly. “Ah. Yes, well. That did slip my mind. Perhaps I should have tried that first.” Flexing his left hand, he held it up as it burst into green flame, and his eyes widened slightly. “Odd. It feels more powerful than before.”

“That could be attributed to the absence of Inquisitor Lavellan,” Solas surmised. “Or even your time spent here in the Fade. You will likely find that the Anchor will undergo subtle changes as time passes, particularly now that it is wholly yours.”

“Oh, that sounds thrilling,” Dorian drawled, then wove his will around the green energy and what he had come to think of as the Anchor’s magic. After taking a moment to center himself, he unleashed the energy with pinpoint precision at the barrier.

The green wall of energy jumped, then shimmered. Under the pressure of the Anchor’s magic, it slowly began to ripple and warp. Encouraged, Dorian called deeper into the Anchor and funneled even more magic into it, pushing harder and harder until the barrier suddenly burst into a cloud of shimmering motes of energy. Cutting off the Anchor’s magic, he smiled and tilted his head. “Well, that’s pretty.”

“Well done, Inquisitor,” Solas told him, sounding grudgingly impressed. “Your control of the Anchor is admirable. Perhaps we could speak further, mage to mage, of the possibilities with its usage once we are back in Skyhold.”

“I think that’s an excellent idea, Solas,” Dorian agreed. “I should have done so as soon as I—Mailani?” He blinked at the golden figure which appeared in the archway where the barrier had stood.

“The Nightmare is close, and it knows you seek escape. With each moment, it grows stronger,” Mailani declared. “When it is strong enough, it will not need a mage to unleash itself upon the world. As long as the rift is open, it is a danger to Thedas.”

Dorian took a deep breath, then nodded. “Then it is time, gentlemen,” he said as he raised his staff. Already he could see the demons and Fearlings ahead, but he did not falter. “For Thedas!”

They surged up the final set of stairs towards the rift, cutting their way through their foes with practiced ease. The previous fights in the Fade had only honed their skills and their ability to fight together, and they moved in a violent dance that mowed down the enemy. When they emerged at the top of the stairs, however, their steps faltered for the first time.

“Maker’s breath,” Alistair gasped. “Look at the size of that thing!”

“Finally, something that won’t fall apart with one good hit! Let’s go!” Bull roared.

Dorian, however, found his eyes dropping from the hulking monstrosity in front of them to something hidden in its shadow. It took a moment for his eyes to pierce the darkness and parse the various elements into a cohesive whole, but once his eyes recognized the wavy blond hair for what it was, a pang of desperate hope ran through him. When he saw the blood covering Cullen’s face, anger joined in with it, and he felt his face turn into a mask of rage.

Before any of them could take another step, however, Mailani was in front of them, her golden light bright and growing moreso with every second. She paused long enough to look back at Dorian. “Farewell, Dorian. Take care of Cullen for me.”

“Mailani!” Dorian cried, reaching out, but it was too late. She was already moving up and forward, directly for the core of the gargantuan spider which lay between them and the rift. The light intensified until all of them had to turn away or be blinded, and when the light disappeared, she was gone.

As was the spidery terror of the Nightmare.

That didn’t mean they were without a foe, however. An aspect of the Nightmare remained, with no eyes, a mouth full of fangs, and several spider-like arms protruding from its torso. With a roar, Bull charged, maul already swinging. “Let me out of here!”

Loghain and Alistair followed after, coordinating their attacks with that of Bull’s in a deadly ballet of blades. As Dorian and Solas quickly buttressed them with protective spells, movement caught his attention, and he saw more demons converge on them from all directions. “Hawke!” he cried, then quickly wove a spell he’d created while working with Alexius on time magic. Hawke, already lethal, became a literal blur as he stepped outside time temporarily and moved faster than the eye could follow.

Varric, meanwhile, had worked his way over to stand next to Cullen. A clever mix of his caltrops and grenades, combined with the deadly accuracy of Bianca, worked to make the area around them unapproachable. He met Dorian’s gaze and gave him a subtle wink, clearly telling Dorian, I got this.

With a twitch of his eyebrow, Dorian turned his head to exchange a glance with Solas. “I’ll take defense,” Dorian told him, and Solas accepted that with a nod before blurring to the other side of the other fight’s arena, leaving demons screeching with pain in his wake.

After that, Dorian’s focus narrowed down to supporting the others with every fiber of his being. Oh, he got hit a few times, and had to down a few potions of various colors to keep going, but the stakes were too high to care about such things as blood in his clothes or cuts in his skin. All that really mattered was the defeat of their foes.

The demon with no eyes was the last to fall, unsurprisingly, though it was in doubt as to whether it was Bull’s maul to its head or Hawke’s daggers in its back which felled it at last. As it screamed and collapsed to the ground to curl up into a ball, Bull kept hitting it, over and over, long past when it had stopped moving. “How do you like that, huh?” Bull yelled at it. “Who’s afraid now?”

Finally Loghain reached out and grabbed the handle of Bull’s maul, effectively halting it with surprising strength. “Enough,” he said in a firm voice. “It’s dead.”

Chest heaving, Bull stared at the demon as it slowly dissolved, then nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s dead.” He spat at the ground as he slung his weapon across his back. “And good riddance.”

As Loghain and Alistair both chuckled and patted Bull on the back, Solas said, “I would not celebrate yet. That was but an aspect of the demon, not its entirety. We have conquered its current form, but it could return at any moment. We’d best make haste through the rift.”

“What about the demon army?” Hawke demanded.

“Closing the rift should prevent them from coming through as well,” Solas said.

“But you don’t know for sure,” Hawke noted.

Solas shook his head. “No. I do not.”

“So there’s a possibility that it could still come through?” Hawke persisted.

“Can we just get out of here?” Bull asked as he rolled his shoulders. “I really don’t want to tackle another version of that thing, you know? What if the that spider thing comes back?”

“Soon, Bull, I promise,” Dorian said, then ran past all of them to where Cullen was bound. Ruthlessly he used bursts of magic to break through the red, glowing tendrils of the spell which held the man in an unnatural position and pulled him into his arms. “Commander,” he said as he scrubbed the blood away as best as he could. “Commander!”

Cullen’s eyes fluttered open. “In-Inquisitor?”

Dorian nearly cried with relief, but managed to contain himself to a harsh swallow and a strained voice when he said, “Don’t worry, I’m here.” Cradling the man’s head with one hand, he whispered, “I’ll protect you.”

“Kn-knew you’d come,” Cullen gasped, a little smile curling his lips. “Knew you wouldn’t… leave me behind.”

Without thinking, Dorian pressed a kiss to Cullen’s forehead, then quickly cleared his throat as he drew back hastily. “Of course I wouldn’t,” he scolded the man. “I don’t have so many friends that I can afford to leave any behind.“ Evading Varric’s knowing look, Dorian beckoned Bull over with an urgent gesture. “Bull will carry you out. Somehow the lummox only has a few scratches on him.”

“Hey, now, that’s not fair. It’s called talent,” Bull said as he knelt next to Dorian and spread his arms wide. “I can’t help it if I’m just that good.”

As Dorian transferred Cullen to Bull’s arms, he was able to take a quick survey of the damage, and winced in sympathy. “You’ll be all right, Commander,” he repeated, desperately hoping it would prove to be true.

Before Bull rose to his feet, Cullen's hand landed on Dorian’s arm. “The Nightmare,” he said, fighting for each word, looking intently into Dorian’s eyes. “It’s the one in control of the demon army. It’s not… just part of it, or the leader. It’s how the army... happens at all.”

Dorian’s eyes widened. “What?”

“They’re bound to it. To Nightmare,” Cullen said. “It told me so while it was… holding me. So if you… banish it, keep it out of Thedas…”

“We stop the whole bloody army,” Dorian finished for him, the pieces which had evaded him on how, precisely, to do exactly that falling into place. “Marvelous.”

“Yes,” Cullen said, obviously relieved that Dorian understood, though the words were clearly getting more difficult to get out. Dorian couldn’t help but take one of Cullen’s hands between his own as the man struggled to continue despite the pain. “Once you... get through the rift, close it behind you with… all you have. NIghtmare will be… cut off and that will… banish the demons who already…” Suddenly his eyes rolled up in his head as he sagged, limp, in Bull’s arms.

“I think Curly’s down for the count, Sparkler,” Varric said with a frown. “Look at his wrist and that knee. That’s not how they’re supposed to bend.”

Bull stood, taking care not to exacerbate Cullen’s injuries. “I’ll take it from here, boss. He’ll make it, don’t worry.”

Dorian took a deep breath, then nodded. “You’re right, Bull.” Cullen had to make it. Dorian refused to believe any other outcome. He finally relinquished his grasp on Cullen’s hand and let Bull take him towards the rift, holding Cullen as gently as he would a child. Suddenly full of nervous energy, Dorian sprang to his feet and limped to stand in front of the rift. Ignoring his own wounds, he held out his left hand and commanded the damned rift to open. “Take him through,” he ordered Bull. “Varric, Solas, go with them. We’ll watch your back and make sure nothing follows.”

Varric nodded and led the way to the rift. “Come on, Tiny. I never want to see the Fade again. It’s unnatural.”

“That makes two of us,” Bull said fervently.

Solas followed after them, though he did linger to look behind him for a few moments. His eyes moved over the Fade, as if drinking the sight in one last time, and then he smiled. “Fascinating,” he said softly, then turned and walked through the rift.

Once they were through and he knew Cullen was safe, Dorian returned to Hawke and the Wardens. As he approached, he saw that Hawke’s armor was dark with blood in his right side. “Can you make it, Hawke?”

“What, this?” Hawke asked, dismissing the wound with a snort. “I’ve had worse.”

“Good.” And he meant it. Despite the tension which had grown between them, their time in the Fade had given him another perspective of the man. He hoped they would be able to find a way to help Hawke escape his cousin’s nefarious clutches, and perhaps even learn more about Amell once that hold was broken. Certainly the Inquisition knew far more about Amell now than they had before Dorian had inadvertently broken several rules in every major religion of Thedas. “Then let’s go. The sooner you’re in the hands of a healer, the better.”

“Inquisitor,” Hawke said, “remember what I told you.”

Dorian set a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I remember,” he said, “and I will not forget.”

“Then let’s get out of here,” Hawke grunted. Though his first few steps had a hitch in them, he quickly evened his stride as he led them to the exit. “I’ve had enough of the Fade for a lifetime. At least no one betrayed me this time.”

“And at least I didn’t find a hitherto unknown family member,” Alistair said with a chuckle as Dorian and the Wardens fell in behind Hawke.

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Dorian asked with affected surprise, feeling a bit whimsical now that the end of their little adventure was in sight.

Alistair gave him a confused look. “Tell me what?”

“That somewhere in the dank nethers of my family tree, your ancestors and my ancestors share a common person?” Dorian shrugged. “I could have sworn I told you.”

“You’re… We’re… related?” Alistair asked, blinking a few times.

“Oh, not very closely, mind. But bloodlines are very serious business in Tevinter. You’re taught lessons and tested,” Dorian explained.

A grin came to Alistair’s face. “Is that so?”

Dorian nodded, face quite serious. “Oh, yes. By very strict nannies.”

“Riiiight.” Alistair squinted at Dorian. “This is a joke, right? You’re just having me on?”

“Would I do that to you, Warden Alistair?” Dorian said, though one corner of his mustache did begin to twitch. He couldn’t quite suppress it entirely.

Before Alistair could respond, however, a large, segmented leg descended from above. They all looked up in surprise as the monstrosity from before slowly lowered itself through the mists of the Fade. “Oh, come on!” Alistair protested. “I thought that thing was gone!”

“Apparently not,” Hawke said grimly, dashing to push Dorian back as another leg lowered to land in the place where the mage had been. “Quick, get out of its reach!”

“We need to clear a path,” Loghain declared as he readied his own sword and shield.

“All well and good, but how?” Alistair asked.

Hawke’s face turned grim as he spun his daggers in his hands. “We need a distraction.” Glancing at Dorian, he gestured towards the exit. “Go. I’ll cover you.”

“This isn’t the time to argue over who gets to stay behind,” Loghain said. “I’ve had my time. I’ll go.” He took a step forward, but Alistair grabbed his shield.

“No. The Wardens need you, need your experience, now more than ever,” Alistair told him. “You stood down the archdemon. You’ve fought more battles than I’ve even heard about. They need you to help them rebuild.”

Hawke rolled his eyes. “The Wardens need both of you. They lack a Commander, and they need to know what Amell is capable of. That means both of you need to go back. Besides, you need to make sure the Inquisitor survives long enough to close the damned rift. If he doesn’t, all that we’ve gone through will be for naught.”

“But the Wardens caused this mess in the first place,” Alistair shot back. “A Warden must--”

“Oh, stuff it, Alistair,” Hawke snapped as he glared at the younger Warden. “Go back to Thedas. Save your reputation. Get a pretty girl. Be the bloody hero. For me, there are more important things.” Hawke stared up at the beast as it shifted its bulk. “Like making sure this damned demon never sees the light of day.” Twirling his daggers once more, he looked at Dorian for a moment. “Take care of Varric for me, Inquisitor.”

And then, before any of them had a chance to respond, Hawke charged forward with a yell, slicing deep into the underbelly of the beast. It reared up with a loud scream, opening up enough room for them to get by.

“That’s our cue,” Loghain grunted, then surged forward, batting an errant leg of the monster out of the way with his shield when it got too close.

Dorian followed hot on his heels, though when Loghain paused at the rift itself, he did as well. It was only then that he realized that the two of them were alone, and he turned to see Alistair buckling his shield onto his arm. “Alistair! What are you doing?”

Glancing up from his task, Alistair shook his head. “I’m sorry, Inquisitor, but I need to see this all the way through. This thing cannot be allowed to control the Wardens again.” He took a deep breath, then turned back towards the Nightmare with an expression of grim determination. “Tell Leliana I’m sorry.” Only then did he roar and charge towards the Nightmare with sword raised, hitting it with a smite that knocked it off its balance just before its leg would have crushed Hawke like a bug. “For the Wardens! For Thedas!”

Instinctively Dorian took a step towards Alistair, only half-aware that he moved at all. He was halted by Loghain's firm grip on his arm as the Warden said in a rough voice, “We should go, Inquisitor!” As Loghain hauled him through the rift, Dorian kept his gaze locked on the two seemingly tiny figures battling the monstrous bulk of the Nightmare, knowing why he had to leave, and wishing he could remain.

After that, there was only light.

Chapter Text

Dorian managed not to stumble as he crossed from one side of the rift to the other, though the abrupt return to the real world fell like a hammer of renewed reality. Acting on pure instinct, he turned and held up his left hand, slamming the rift shut with a stern command sent through the Anchor. In doing so, he sealed not only the rift, but any possibility of a rift back to that part of the Fade to be made again. Once that was done, every demon still in the main courtyard screeched and melted into the floor as they returned to the Fade, unable to maintain their presence in the waking world without the strength of the Nightmare to draw upon.

When the last one disappeared, a cheer arose from the assembled soldiers and Wardens, and Loghain limped towards him. “Without the Nightmare, Corypheus loses both his Warden Mages and his demon army,” the Warden observed. “But in the eyes of your soldiers, their Inquisitor broke the spell with the power given him by the Herald of Andraste.”

Dorian gave a nervous laugh. “Ah, but surely a Vint couldn’t possibly be blessed by Andraste, even indirectly?”

Loghain canted his head to one side. “I think you underestimate yourself, Inquisitor,” he said softly. “But also remember that sometimes, people just want to believe the legend.”

Before Dorian could think of an adequate response, a familiar face hurried up and gave a sharp salute. “Inquisitor!” After Dorian's nod of acknowledgement, Jim launched into his report. “The archdemon flew off as soon as you disappeared. The Venatori Magister is unconscious but alive. Seeker Cassandra thought you might wish to deal with him yourself. The Commander has been taken to the healers outside the gates. As for the Wardens, those who weren’t corrupted helped us fight the demons.”

Next to Jim, a Grey Warden in heavy armor straightened and gave Dorian a salute of his own, banging his hand across his chest. “We stand ready to help make up for Clarel’s tragic mistake.”

As Dorian considered the Warden’s statement, Varric moved closer, a puzzled frown on his face. “Sparkler, wait. What about Hawke?”

Yes, what about Hawke? The man had once more surprised him with his actions, and Dorian was still reeling with them himself. That last kiss he’d shared with Hawke… Dorian couldn’t help but wonder if the man had intended that to be his final farewell all along.

Putting his hand over his heart in a gesture of respect, Dorian spoke so that those gathered around him could hear his words. “Hawke sacrificed himself to save us and strike a decisive blow against Corypheus.”

“Are we talking about the same Hawke?” Varric asked incredulously. “Tall, dark hair, good looking, kind of an asshole?”

A sad smile came to Dorian’s face as he set a hand on Varric’s shoulder and said in a quiet voice, “I think he wanted to remain true to himself. Perhaps he feared he could not do so if he returned.”

“Oh. Right.” Varric looked down for a moment, then reluctantly nodded. “Yeah. That sounds like Hawke on his good days. When he wasn’t… you know.” He looked at the space where the rift had been, a pensive expression on his face, then shook his head. “I’m heading back to camp, Sparkler. Why don’t you come see me when you’ve got a moment?”

“I will,” Dorian promised, then turned his attention to where the Wardens stood speaking with Loghain. When they asked about Alistair, Loghain hesitated for a moment before looking around at the gathered Wardens and Inquisition soldiers. “Warden Alistair died striking a blow against the servant of the Blight. We will honor his sacrifice, and remember how he exemplified the ideals of the Grey Wardens.” Turning slowly so he could catch the eyes of each Warden as he spoke, Loghain added, “Do not forget the wiles of those who serve the Blight. We are better than what we have done and what we have shown to the world of late. It is our task to ensure that we live up to the honor of the Grey Wardens in the name of those who have fallen against the Blight.” Drawing his sword, Loghain lifted it above his head. “To Warden Alistair!”

Around him, the Grey Wardens lifted their own weapons in response. “To Warden Alistair!”

“May the Grey Wardens keep his name alive forever,” Loghain declared, then sheathed his weapon and turned to Dorian. While the Wardens followed suit, he said, “As the senior surviving Grey Warden in Orlais, I place our fate into your hands, Inquisitor. What would you have of us?”

After a long moment’s consideration, Dorian straightened. “You stay and do what you can to assist the Inquisition, just as the Templars have. Alistair sacrificed himself with the fate and duty of the Wardens forefront in his mind. You can now honor his memory by saving the world from the very enemy who misused you so. It is in your motto, is it not? In war, victory?”

As heads nodded, Dorian continued. “And we are still at war with Corypheus. Loghain believes the Wardens are worth saving, or he would not have fought so hard on your behalf. And I trust him. Be alert, though,” he added, raising a warning finger, “for you are still vulnerable to Corypheus, and possibly even his Venatori, so you can’t just go running off on your own. You can, however, kill demons. That’s usually a bit of fun.” His tone conveyed his sarcasm, since, of course, fighting demons generally proved to be the opposite of fun.

A chuckle did roll through the Wardens, but dimmed quickly as Loghain called for their attention with a raised hand. “I give all of you to the care of the Inquisition, then, until Corypheus is defeated. I can think of no greater enemy for the Grey Wardens than he who inflicted the Blight upon our world. Obey the Inquisitor as you would obey me.”

“But… but where are you going, Warden Loghain?” one of the Grey Wardens called to him.

“I have to report this to Weisshaupt, and make sure that Corypheus doesn’t catch the rest of the Order by surprise.” He lay his hand on his breastplate. “Until my return, remember your oath! In war!”

“Victory!” the Wardens shouted.

“In peace!”


Loghain raised his hand and turned it into a fist. “And in death?”

“Sacrifice!” they roared as one, then fell silent as Loghain turned back to Dorian.

Giving a pained bow to Dorian, Loghain said, “The Grey Wardens now serve the Inquisition.” For a long moment, Loghain considered Dorian closely. “You have the makings of a great army, Inquisitor. Use it well.”

“I shall, Warden Loghain,” Dorian assured him. “Corypheus doesn’t stand a chance, I promise you that.”

“Good man.” Loghain stepped closer and put his hand on Dorian’s shoulder. “Take care, Inquisitor. Another good man gave his life so that you might live today.”

Dorian swallowed and nodded. “The Inquisition will honor his sacrifice. He will not be forgotten.”

Loghain exhaled, for a moment sounding far older than he ever had before. “Then that shall be sufficient. And now,” he added, in a voice quiet enough so that only Dorian could hear it, “I go to the heart of the Grey Wardens to ensure that Amell’s influence hasn’t reached there.”

“Amell-- Oh. Oh.” Dorian’s eyes widened. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I traveled with the man. I saw what he did to my daughter,” Loghain said, face grim. “He would find a strange sort of satisfaction in bending the First Warden to his will, or to that of Corypheus if that is where his allegiance now lies. The world can ill afford to lose the Grey Wardens, even if there is no Blight at the moment.” With a heavy sigh, he squeezed Dorian’s shoulder and let his hand fall away. “Until we meet again, Inquisitor.”

As he moved to step away, Dorian reached out to stop him. “Loghain,” he said softly, “I’m sorry. It was never my intention to--”

“--leave a man behind?” Loghain asked. For a moment, he simply stood and stared at the spot where the rift had been only a short time ago. “No leader ever wants to leave their troops behind, Inquisitor, even when the circumstances demand it. Perhaps especially then.”

For a moment his gaze grew distant. “Had I known Alistair intended to remain, I would have taken his place without hesitation. If there is any blame to be assigned here, it belongs rightfully to me. He was right, and he was brave, and now… Now he is gone.” On that last word, Loghain’s voice broke, and he quickly looked down as he took a steadying breath.

After a moment, Loghain lifted his face to show reddened eyes but dry cheeks, and when he continued, his voice shook only slightly. “It was hard enough to lose his father, not once but twice. Now…” His words trailed off as his eyes closed for a moment. “Now I feel as if I have lost our son. I have much to answer for when I next see Maric. I doubt I will ever be able to wash the blood of both his sons from my conscience.”

Dorian’s brow contracted. “I don’t know what to say, Warden, save that you have my sympathy and my gratitude. The Inquisition will always have a place for you.”

Loghain barked a short laugh, and his voice grew stronger as he replied, “Depending on how matters proceed in Weisshaupt, I may just take you up on that offer.” With a shake of his head, he gave Dorian another awkward bow. “Regardless, it is time to take my leave, though I do believe I shall seek the services of your healers before I go.”

“An excellent idea after what we’ve endured,” Dorian agreed, but the words had already distracted him. The healers. That’s where Cullen was, wasn’t it?

Without another word, Dorian headed towards the gates, and to the tents of the healers beyond them. There would always be work for the Inquisitor. For now, though, he had something more important in mind.

Or rather, someone.

As Dorian passed through the gates of Adamant, a short, lonely figure standing next to a trebuchet on a hill overlooking the empty sands of the Approach caught his attention. The tightness of Varric’s shoulders and the way his hands were clenched as they clutched each other behind his back spoke volumes of the dwarf’s mood. With a little sigh and an internal reminder that Cullen would likely be in the hands of the healers for a while yet, Dorian turned his feet so that his path led him to Varric’s side.

Without looking up at Dorian, Varric said, “Did I ever tell you about the time Hawke was on a Merchant Guild hit list?”

Dorian raised an eyebrow. “Only once? Are we talking about the same Hawke?”

Varric chuckled, though it sounded a bit forced. “Once was enough for them. You see, Hawke’s uncle got into an investment scheme with a couple of Merchant Caste businessmen. They took a lot of people’s coin in order to arrange the import of wandering hills from the Anderfels. A delicacy, I’m told.”

“Wandering… hills.” Dorian shook his head. “Let me guess. After they got to Kirkwall, they wandered off on their own.”

“One of them did, at least.” Varric snorted. “The Guild traced the shipment back to Hawke’s uncle, but as usual, he was so far in debt he couldn’t see daylight. So they went after Hawke instead.”

“That sounds like a very poor series of decisions on their part,” Dorian mused.

“The Guild hadn’t quite caught on to what Hawke was really like, so they sent the guys from the local Carta to Hawke’s estate one night. Five big dusters, all armed to the teeth. They kick in the door, ready to make their demands, and find Hawke just standing there, fully armed, with me and the Guard-Captain on either side. Nobody said a word. The poor sods just looked at Hawke, looked at the Captain, and dropped their weapons. They never came back.”

Dorian gave a little sigh. “He did have an effect on people, didn’t he?”

“That he did,” Varric said softly. “A few days later when the Guild suddenly told Gamlen that all his debt to them was cleared, I got suspicious and investigated. Turns out that over the last few nights, someone had infiltrated the local Carta’s headquarters and left a few presents for them. You could say Hawke had gotten ahead of the game.”

WIth a wince, Dorian asked, “The five poor sods?”

“Yeah, the five poor sods.” Varric sighed. “Word was sent back to the Guild, and Hawke--and his family--was put on the list of people you don’t mess with.”

“I imagine that came in handy for you a few times, given your association with him,” Dorian mused.

“Well… it did,” Varric admitted. “They sometimes cut me special rates they wouldn’t give to anyone else, just to curry favor. But…” Varric shook his head. “I still didn’t like that he’d killed them. When I asked him about it, he just gave me an odd look and then laughed it off. Now, I just wonder if it was even him that did it--and if he wanted to tell me the truth, and couldn’t.” He glanced up at Dorian. “I always wanted to tell that story, but… well…”

Dorian sighed. “It would have been a nicer story if it ended with the poor sods simply leaving his estate, yes.”

“Yeah.” Varric gave a heavy sigh. “I guess I’ve got some letters to write. Acting Provisional Viscount Bran will need to know that Kirkwall needs a new Viscount.”

Settling his hand on Varric’s shoulder, Dorian said softly, “Hawke told me to take care of you.”

Varric’s shoulders sagged as he reached up to rub his forehead. “Dammit. I don’t know what’s worse. Him dying without telling me the whole story, or wondering if maybe I could have helped him if I’d… I don’t know. Paid more attention. Something. Anything.”

“Don’t do that to yourself,” Dorian told him softly. “It sounds like Amell took care to make sure that no one would notice. If even his victim couldn’t figure it out at first, and then couldn’t say anything about it after he did, how could you have known?”

“I suppose.” Gaze lifting to the stars, Varric said, “I guess I’ll never know. I will say this, though: I’m going to compose the worst poem ever written in his honor. Bastard. Dying on me before I could get the full story.” Turning to look up at Dorian, Varric added, “Thanks. I mean it.”

“Enough that I don’t owe you those five sovereigns anymore?” Dorian asked, hoping to lift the dwarf’s mood a little.

“Hey, now, let’s not get crazy,” Varric said, though the sadness lingered even in his smile. “Besides, I got Curly out of the Fade safely, didn’t I? You owe me an introduction to a book publisher in the Imperium, at the very least.”

Refraining himself from reminding Varric that the deal was supposed to cover all of them, Dorian just chuckled lightly. “I’ll send the letter as soon as we get back to Skyhold.”

“You do that, Sparkler,” Varric said, then faced the sands once more. “I think I’d like to be alone with my memories for a while,” he said softly, then muttered under his breath, “What I’ll do with them, I have no idea.”

“I quite understand.” Dorian patted Varric on the shoulder and then left quietly. He wished Varric luck in dealing with the complex ramifications of Hawke’s confession and subsequent sacrifice, but suspected it would take Varric a while to fully wrap his head around all of them.

As for himself, Dorian’s task at the moment was far more straightforward. A moment’s pause to orient himself was all he needed to locate the tents for the wounded, and in the next moment he was in motion towards them.

When Dorian arrived at his destination, he found the area bustling with activity. After a few moments of peering through the crowds, he finally managed to find a familiar face--or horns, in this case. Hoping that Cullen would be near him, Dorian worked his way through the crowd towards Bull, using those wide set horns as a guide.

"There you are," Bull grunted as Dorian approached him. His wounds had been dressed, and though he looked a bit odd sporting bandages over his torso, he still looked fit enough to fight a gurn. "Thought you'd swing by here." Jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the tent behind him, Bull said, "They took him in there when I first arrived. Lots of people coming and going, but he's getting help, probably the best help there is to get. He is the Commander, you know."

Dorian peered at the tent, noting the number of silhouettes moving around within, and swallowed. "So I should... leave them to their work?"

Bull put a sympathetic hand on Dorian's shoulder. "Give them a bit more time, yeah." He glanced around the area, then gently turned Dorian back to face it. "There's a lot of people out there who could use a word of encouragement after a big battle like that. And they all saw their Commander get brought here, so they know he’s pretty badly hurt. Now, normally Cullen would be the one going from bed to bed and giving them a good word, but he can't."

After mulling that over for a moment, Dorian ventured, "So... you think I should do that in his stead? Give them a bit of encouragement, and all that?"

"It can't hurt," Bull told him. "It'll be a good distraction, and that way Cullen won't fret about it after he wakes up."

"He would, wouldn't he?" Dorian mused, realizing that Bull had come up with both a distraction for himself and a gift for Cullen all in one suggestion. "I'd better get started then. Thank you, Bull."

"No charge, boss," Bull rumbled.

Time passed more quickly than Dorian thought it would, but then, his focus on his task aided with that. After all, the wounded had earned more than simple gratitude. There were some here who had been with the Inquisition since Haven, and those who had joined only the month before. It didn't matter, of course: they were all Inquisition soldiers, and they'd all put their lives on the line. They'd earned more than a pretty speech or a perfunctory handshake.

So Dorian gave them all he had. He shook hands, yes, but that was only the beginning. He used techniques garnered from the tedious recitation of the Pavus family line through the Ages to recall names he'd heard during inspections and in passing at Skyhold. For those temporarily bound to their bed, he settled in and expounded upon the Inquisition’s victory over Corypheus at Adamant, reinforcing the idea that their injuries had not been in vain. He brought meals to those who had been overlooked, told bawdy tales to those who needed a good laugh, and reassured them, over and over, that their Commander would indeed recover and be back to form before they knew it.

And, in a few cases, he simply sat by their side and held their hand as they slipped into the beyond.

The deaths shook him more than he cared to admit. It reminded him keenly not only of his responsibilities to them, but of the consequences should he fail. Raised a pampered noble, Dorian knew that he had been sheltered from quite a few of life's ugly truths, but death itself was not something which he dreaded. After all, as a necromantic mage, he had more than a passing familiarity with the soul's journey from flesh to Fade. But seeing a woman's final breath, knowing that it was his decision at the war table which had brought her to this end, was sobering.

As he rose from the chair beside her cot with a sigh of regret, a voice behind him said, "Thank you."

Dorian quickly turned towards Cole, eyebrows rising in surprise. Cole looked... different, somehow, his features more defined and his gaze more intense. Ever since Dorian had acquired the Anchor, Cole had seemed to keep his distance when not actually fighting at Dorian’s side. Dorian had given the spirit the distance he seemed to desire, presuming that perhaps Cole, as a spirit of compassion, might not appreciate the finer points of associating with a necromancer. After a moment and a blink, Dorian replied, "Pardon?"

Cole’s gaze darted to look behind Dorian as the attendant healer drew a sheet up to cover the woman’s body. "The demon fell from the ramparts above so quickly they had no time to think," Cole said in his pale voice. "She had only one chance to save the sons who fought at her side, to ensure the life she’d brought into the world lived on after her time ended. She remembered them when they were young and innocent, straw still in their hair and stars in their eyes, but after the demons had poured from the rift over their home and killed all the others, they joined her to put on the uniform of the Inquisition and march at her side, to fight back. She was their mother, and she knew they would fight in her place if she fell. So she took that chance and gave them time, time to escape and fight the battles she would never see. Her only fear was that no one would know of her sacrifice, or that it might have been in vain." Cole reached out and hesitantly touched Dorian's arm. "But you came back, Inquisitor. You sat by her side and held her hand, and she knew you would not let the demons win, and that she helped. You made her happy before she left. Thank you."

Throat tightening, Dorian gave Cole a little smile. "I'm glad for that, at least," he said softly. "She deserved better than to die at the hands of a demon."

"I know," Cole said, and Dorian had to smile at the matter-of-fact way Cole said it, though Dorian hadn't meant his words to be taken literally. "But it is good you know that. The Inquisitor should know that."

"And the Inquisitor does," Dorian assured him. "Though I haven't seen you often of late. I was worried you didn't like me anymore."

Cole swallowed. "She asked me not to tell you," he whispered. "She said you couldn't know, that you would try to bring her back. I didn't want to stay away, but I was afraid I would say something and you would know what I was saying."

After puzzling through all that, comprehension finally dawned on Dorian. "You mean you knew Mailani was lurking?"

"She was so bright, bright as the last flash of sunlight before it sets. How could I not see her?" Cole asked. "I wanted to tell you, but I gave her my word."

"That's quite all right, Cole," Dorian assured him with a pat on his shoulder. "It worked out in the end, never you fear."

Cole's eyes widened as an awed expression came to his face. "I believe you. You went to the land where fear dwelt and and then returned, barring the path back against all who might use it."

Dorian's smile faltered, and he looked down to study his left hand as the now-familiar green light flickered in his palm. “I only wish the price had not been so very high,” Dorian said with a regretful sigh. “We lost two good men there.” Or at least, one good man and one man who deserved a chance to aspire for more.

"Dark, darker, darkest their path leads, Inquisitor," Cole breathed. "Their sacrifice is not what you believe."

With a start, Dorian jerked his head. "What do you--" He stopped as he realized that the spirit was already gone. With a frown, Dorian looked down at his hand again, trying to solve the enigma of Cole's last words. In the end, he had to simply shake his head and hope that he could track down Cole later for a lengthier explanation.

Now that his thoughts were no longer focused on others, however, Dorian realized that his wounds, minor as they were in his own eyes, hadn’t yet been cleaned. Even as he turned his arm to see just how far one particular cut ran, a hand landed on his other arm. "All right, come with me, then."

Startled, Dorian turned to find a woman with the white linen armband of a healer looking up at him with a determined expression. "Ah... I take it, dear lady, that any answer other than yes will be met with a firm scolding?"

Her face relaxed into a smile as she laughed. "Well, at least you've still got your wits about you. Good on you. This way, Inquisitor."

Letting himself be dragged to a small canopy near where Bull had stood, Dorian took the offered seat and held out his left arm wordlessly. Her sharp eyes found far more wounds than that, of course, and he ended up sitting patiently on the low stool as she cleaned each and every one of his wounds, smiling as she muttered darkly about taking care of him properly. After a while, he finally allowed himself to ask the question which had never truly left his thoughts since his departure from the Fade. "How fares the Commander?"

The healer gave him a smile as she cleaned what he hoped was the last injury. "Still asleep, poor love," she said with a distinct accent Dorian had come to associate with the more remote areas of Ferelden. "He'll be in bed for a while yet. Not that that's a bad thing, mind," she added with a sniff. "Tends to work himself far too hard, does the Commander. Some time off will do him good, that's what I say."

A faint smile came to his face. "I heartily agree with you."

"Mind, I could say the same about you, Inquisitor," the woman added with a raised eyebrow. "You've worn yourself to the bone a fair few times yourself. What would the Herald, Andraste bless her, say if she saw the hours you kept? Send you straight off to your bed with a bowl of porridge is what she'd do, I reckon."

Dorian couldn't help but chuckle at the woman's remonstration. "I daresay you are correct. Though does it really have to be porridge? I would much prefer something with more taste, such as, oh, an old boiled shoe."

The healer laughed as she wrapped a bandage tightly around the clean wound. "Keep that smile on, then, there’s a dear. The Commander could use a bit of cheer after all he’s been through.” After a bit more fussing with the dressing, she finally nodded and jerked her chin towards the tent where Cullen lay recuperating. "Go on, then. There's a chair for visitors."

"Thank you, dear lady," Dorian breathed, even as he headed for the indicated tent. Once he reached it, he paused for a moment to brace himself, then pulled the entrance flap aside.

Cullen lay within, looking quite small in the midst of an expanse of blankets and linen bandages. Almost every part of him, it seemed, had been treated, leaving only one of his hands and most of his face uncovered, if still showing bruises. Dorian swallowed harshly as his eyes moved over the man slowly, trying not to imagine the damage under those bandages and failing rather miserably.

Stepping inside, he let the flap close behind him and settled into the chair. He reached out tentatively, his touch gentle as his fingers ran down the side of Cullen's face. A burst of relief flared within when Cullen's mouth twitched in response, and he took the bared hand between his own and squeezed lightly.

When that same hand weakly squeezed him back, his eyes widened and he leaned forward. "Commander?"

"Tingles," Cullen mumbled, and Dorian looked down to find that his hand had begun to glow.

"My apologies," Dorian said with a throaty chuckle.

"'S fine." Cullen said. "Best way to know it's you." His eyes opened slowly, showing deep bloodshot around the warm brown. "How bad do I look?"

Dorian gave him a smile. "You look wonderful."

With a snort, Cullen looked away, but a smile pulled at his lips. "I meant the injuries. How bad are they?"

"They look fairly terrifying, yes." Dorian kept the tone light, not wanting to chase that smile away. "I wouldn't recommend a round of calibrations any time soon."

"Nothing's missing?"

"No, nothing's missing." Dorian patted Cullen’s hand companionably. "Granted, I haven't done a full inspection myself, but I think they would have told me if my Commander had left anything behind in his jaunt to the Fade."

"A full inspection, hmm?" Cullen asked as his half-smile trended towards a smirk.

"Oh, definitely. I am quite the hands-on Inquisitor. Hadn't you noticed?" Dorian sallied back with a grin of his own.

Though the reply made Cullen laugh, the laugh in turn made him wince with obvious pain. "Ouch. Perhaps... perhaps a bit less humor would be well-advised," he gasped.

Immediately contrite, Dorian patted Cullen's hand. "My apologies, Commander. Ask me anything, and we'll discuss that instead."

Cullen nodded, eyes closing as he caught his breath. "Did Alistair make it out in one piece?" When Dorian didn't answer immediately, he opened his eyes again. "No. Maker, not Alistair."

"A lot has happened." Bowing his head, Dorian started to speak softly, beginning with the moment they’d fallen into the Fade. He paused once or twice when the healers came in to check on Cullen and and administer more potions as necessary, then continued when they were alone again. He held nothing back, including what he had learned about Hawke, and when he finished, Cullen simply stared at him in shock for a few moments before he finally let his head fall back onto the pillow.

"Mailani was with us all this time. I… I can’t believe it.” His brows twitched as Cullen considered that for a few moments of silence. “I wish I could have seen her.”

A wistful smile came to Dorian’s face. “I wish you could have, too. Not that it was easy, seeing her as I knew her, and seeing that… diminish. And knowing she could never come back.”

“And all because of Amell.” Eyes narrowing in anger, Cullen growled, “Even more reason to hate the bastard.”

“It does seem that way, yes. Certainly we can’t afford ourselves the illusion that he's not involved in this business,” Dorian noted. “But finding him will likely prove to be a tricky business.”

“Leliana will find him,” Cullen whispered. “I’m sure of it.” His eyelids fluttered shut as he swallowed. “And Hawke… If he told you the truth, he suffered more than the rest of us at Amell’s hands.”

Dorian nodded. ”So he claims. For what it's worth, I believe him. I felt a hint of magic around him a few times, so subtle I didn't realize that's what it was, but in hindsight, I think it could easily have been that charm Hawke mentioned."

"Oh, I can definitely believe Amell made him do things," Cullen said in a hollow voice. "That bastard seemed to delight in forcing people to do as he commanded."

Dorian frowned and reached up to lightly touch Cullen's cheek, trying to pull him back from wherever that particular memory had taken him. "What I saw in your dream... there's more to it, isn't there?"

Swallowing harshly, Cullen nodded. "He had no love for Templars. I was alone, and vulnerable, and needed his aid to escape the demons. He took advantage of that, and then took it further. I... I'm sorry." He turned to look at Dorian. "I'd rather not go into details. Suffice it to say, he was a large part of my distrust of mages, particularly blood mages, in my time at Kirkwall."

"Commander," Dorian breathed, surprised at how difficult it was to see the man's emotional pain. "You need never speak of that time again, I assure you. I will not inquire further.”

Cullen relaxed visibly. "Thank you. Though I do wonder if Amell’s influence had anything to do with the way Hawke treated Alistair. He told me once that Amell seemed to delight in tormenting his fellow Wardens."

"We'll never know now, I suppose." When the silence dragged on too long, Dorian cleared his throat and continued, "But the great mystery of our shared dreams is solved, at least."

Cullen's eyes closed as he took a deep breath, obviously forcing himself away from unpleasant memories. After a while, a little smile returned to his face. "Leave it to Mailani to figure out a way to speak to us from the beyond," he murmured. "Given that the first dream didn't happen until after I shoved you into a wall, perhaps that was even her way to try to make me come around about you."

Dorian's eyebrows rose, then fell as he considered the remark. "She always was our little peace-maker here in Skyhold," he mused. "I... Yes, actually, I could easily see her do that given the opportunity. Certainly our first few dreams were almost designed to make us sympathise with the other's plight. Almost suspiciously so, now that I think of it."

Cullen's lips curved in a fond smile. "They must have been. Minx."

"Is it wrong to admit that I am glad for every bit of interference from her?" Dorian said a bit wistfully. "Being Inquisitor has been much easier knowing I had a friend nearby."

Hand squeezing Dorian's tightly, Cullen said, "I am glad. That I help you, and that we have grown so close."

Dorian smiled. "Why, you're making me blush, Commander," he teased.

"Even your buttcheeks?" Cullen said with a grin

Dorian's eyebrows rose to his hairline. "Are those on your mind of late?"

"What? No!" Cullen's cheeks darkened precipitously. "I was just quoting--I didn't mean-- Maker's breath," he groaned, reaching up to cover his face.

Quickly taking pity on the man, Dorian chuckled lightly. "I know, Commander. I do believe I have mentioned my penchant for teasing before, and you are not at your best. I offer my apologies for taking advantage."

"No, no, don't apologize." Cullen's hand rubbed awkwardly at his neck for a moment. "Though I'm still not used to you sassing me."

Tilting his head, Dorian asked, "Instead of the reverse?"

"Only during chess," Cullen said firmly, his attempt to be serious betrayed by the twinkle in his eyes. "I reserve my best sass for when I need to distract an opponent."

With a laugh, Dorian shook his head. "Just how many potions have the healers stuffed down your gullet?"

"Enough to make me wonder if I should stop talking," Cullen admitted wryly.

"Don't worry, Commander, my lips are sealed no matter what you say," Dorian told him with a wink.

"Thank the Maker for small favors," Cullen said, then closed his eyes and let his head fall back into the pillow. After a moment, he opened them again and stared up at the ceiling of the tent. "I almost can't believe it's over. All that planning and preparation..." He sniffed and turned his gaze to Dorian. "And instead of appreciating what we've accomplished, all I can think about is what is to come and what needs to be done."

Dorian's expression turned thoughtful as Cullen's words sparked thoughts which had been swimming in his mind beneath the leviathan of dealing with the demon army. "I admit to similar thoughts myself. This is the first decisive blow we've dealt Corypheus since he attacked Haven, that is certain, but it is still only the first of many. A victory here doesn't assure a victory elsewhere, after all."

Cullen sighed heavily and passed his hand over his face. "And here I am lying broken and useless on a healer's cot."

"Hardly useless, Commander," Dorian said, quickly trying to break that depressing line of thought. "Impressive as your body is, I believe what we need right now is that mind of yours."

"What do you mean, impressive as my--" Cullen stopped, then looked away from Dorian and cleared his throat. "Ah. Yes. My mind. You mean strategy."

"Among other things. I hope you don't think that just because you can't walk, you're going to be excused from going to Halamshiral with me," Dorian warned him. "I am certainly not going into that Orlesian lion's den without the Inquisition’s lion at my side, I assure you."

The comment made Cullen chuckle and relax enough to look back at Dorian with a grin. "I don't suppose Josephine will let me wear my mantle, will she?"

"No, but even if she would, I would ask the Inquisitor to expressly forbid it. And since I’m the Inquisitor… Well, consider the matter closed," Dorian told him mock-sternly. "This is a ball, after all, not some Fereldan country fair."

"And knowing Josephine, she already has some sort of Inquisition outfit we're all supposed to wear," Cullen said in resignation.

Dorian's brow furrowed. "Ah. True. Hmm. Do remind me to have a word with her about that when we get back to Skyhold, would you? I'd rather be certain that we are stylish as well as functional. Uniformity is all well and good, but I refuse to be boring for the sake of politics."

"Wouldn't that be the safer path?" Cullen asked with amusement.

"I do have standards, Commander," Dorian declared with a sniff.

"Plus I wouldn't want to be there if you tried to force First Enchanter Vivienne to wear something that isn't the height of fashion to an Orlesian ball," Cullen pointed out.

"That thought had crossed my mind, yes." Shaking his head, Dorian steepled his hands in front of his face. "So. Halamshiral. If Adamant has taught us anything, it's that those threats Mailani uncovered in Therinfal Redoubt are exactly, if not more, dangerous than we expected. The Nightmare was no mean foe, and the sacrifice to be rid of it proved far too dear. And if my gallivanting about the Exalted Plains taught me anything, it’s that Orlesians are perfectly happy to smile in your face just before they stab you in the back. Not very different from home, really.”

“You make the Imperium sound so lovely,” Cullen noted.

“It is extraordinarily lovely,” Dorian protested. “The people, however, can leave a bit to be desired at times. At any rate, we can’t possibly know what Corypheus has in store for us at Halamshiral, but we must do everything in our power to ensure that it does not come to outright battle."

"Agreed. We lost far too many in Adamant for my taste." Cullen glanced to the tent flaps. "And I haven't been able to make the rounds with the wounded. Hopefully Cassandra will have some time to see to them."

Dorian reached out and patted Cullen's hand. "I attended to that," he assured Cullen. "You needn't fret." When Cullen's eyebrows rose, Dorian added, "You don’t have to look so very surprised. They serve the Inquisition, and that makes them my responsibility. Granted, responsibility is something I’ve quite often fled from with alacrity, but it is not something which I will deny or defer now.”

Cullen blinked, then smiled slowly. “I… couldn’t have put it better myself. Or… or differently, actually.”

“You know,” Dorian mused, leaning in so that he could speak in a more intimate tone, “I told Mailani that I would serve her legacy. For so long, I did what I thought she would do as Inquisitor. Yet when I told her that, she said I should walk my own path and not hers.”

“That sounds like her,” Cullen murmured. His hand curled around Dorian’s and gave it a gentle squeeze. “How did that make you feel?”

“Honestly?” Dorian’s brow furrowed as he considered their clasped hands, and slowly he put his other hand on top of them, twining their fingers together idly. “I felt a bit empty. Or perhaps bereft is a better word, as if I’d lost her again, except… I’d lost more than her this time, I’d lost her guidance, her support, her… her friendship. I hadn’t felt that before, possibly because I’d been so focused on only doing what she would have done, or possibly because she was, in fact, still with me.” The green light flickered into being in his hand, and he sighed heavily. “Though I knew it not.”

Cullen’s fingers ran over the green light pulsing restlessly in Dorian’s palm. “You may no longer have Mailani with you,” he said in a low voice, meeting Dorian’s gaze with a sober intensity, “but you have me, broken and worn as I am. I may not be able to guide you, but I can and will support you, and be your friend regardless of what lies ahead, if you will have me.” A faint smile came to his face. “Even when things were darkest, even when the Nightmare found and exposed the fears I had thought long gone and buried, there was one certainty to which I held: your promise. I knew you would come for me. That’s why I never lost hope.”

Dorian opened his mouth, then shut it again as he blinked rapidly a few times against the sudden pricking in his eyes. He couldn’t help but think of Hawke’s admonition in the Fade, that Dorian deserved better. Was this what Hawke had meant? Not some fanciful ideal of unicorns and impossibilities, but the lasting, firm foundation of unshakable friendship? Oh, he’d had friends before, naturally, and quite lovely ones: Felix, in his time with House Alexius and, of course, Mailani. Yet this felt… different, somehow. Stronger, deeper, a bond such as he’d never shared with another person before, man or woman. His hands shifted so that they could clasp Cullen’s hands between them as a tremulous smile came to his face, yet no sound emerged from his mouth.

“You’re speechless,” Cullen observed, his tone somewhere between disbelief and amusement.

“It doesn’t happen often.” A breathy little chuckle escaped Dorian’s lips. “You’ve managed to catch me unprepared with such a strident declaration, Commander.”

“My strategy worked, then,” Cullen quipped with a subtle wink.

Dorian squeezed Cullen’s hand gently, still mindful of the man’s injuries. “Always the master of the field, even when broken and worn, is that it? I should find something for you to calibrate while you’re recuperating just to make sure you do not fall out of practice.”

“Just… not a trebuchet. Please,” Cullen said hurriedly. “I’ve seen enough of those to last me at least a month.”

“An entire month? Really? Hmm. Perhaps I could indulge in more teasing?” When Cullen just gave him a flat stare in return, Dorian had to laugh. “Definitely a no, then. You know, I’ll have to find something we can do that doesn’t involve teasing. Soon, ideally, before you wither away from all this boring healing business.”

A smirk formed on Cullen’s lips. “Something simple, perhaps? Like defeating you in chess again?”

Pressing a hand to his chest in mock indignation, Dorian drew himself upright. “You dare, my good ser! I believe I shall take that as an insult to my honor and challenge you to a daily duel. Of chess,” he added hastily. “You’re not quite in the right condition for any other sort of duel.”

“No,” Cullen said with a grimace, again glancing down at the bandages and splints and other evidence of his wounds. “And the pain is starting to creep back in.”

Dorian immediately rose to his feet. “I’ll go fetch the healer.”

“No, no, stay. Please,” Cullen said hastily, almost desperately, reaching out to grab Dorian’s hand. “Just… give me a potion or two and I’ll drift away. I should sleep anyway. Or try to.” Squeezing Dorian’s hand, he added in a whisper, “And… stay, if you would. Please”

When a haunted look stole over Cullen’s face, Dorian quickly sat down and leaned forward once more, squeezing the man’s hand between his. “Of course. After what you endured while in the clutches of that monstrosity, and what you’ve been through before… Sleep is no simple surcease for you now, is it?”

Swallowing harshly, Cullen’s eyes squeezed shut as he shook his head. “I... don’t want to be alone tonight,” he whispered. “What if the Nightmare is still there? If I go to the Fade… if he finds me…” Suddenly his eyes sprang open, gleaming with unshed tears. “And when I close my eyes, I see… I see more than darkness, more than dreams filled with demons. I see flame, and blood, and… and…” His face scrunched up in a grimace of both pain and fear as his breathing came hard and fast, and the hand wrapped around Dorian’s suddenly turned into a rigid claw of fear. “And him. You once said he was in my dreams, before even we went to the Fade.”

Amell. Abruptly Dorian understood exactly what Cullen feared. Dorian pressed a quick kiss to the back of Cullen’s hand, then reached out and cradled the side of the man’s face. “I understand,” he said in hushed tones. “They will not have you, not while I live.” Kissing Cullen’s hand again for emphasis, Dorian added, “I made you a promise, Cullen. I will protect you, even against the very source of fear. You trusted me before, remember? You can trust me now.”

Cullen’s gaze rose to look at Dorian, who gave him an encouraging smile in response. Gradually his breathing returned to normal, until finally his hand relaxed all at once. “You said my name,” he said softly.

Dorian blinked, surprised that that was what Cullen had latched onto. “Oh. I did, didn’t I?”

A faint smile touched Cullen’s lips. “I just hadn’t realized how little you’ve used it before.”

“Then perhaps I should use it more often,” Dorian suggested in a soft voice, grateful that the panic seemed to have passed--for now. “But it’s true. You are my dearest friend, Cullen, and as long as I have breath, I will do what I can to protect you.”

Cullen drew Dorian’s hand up to rest on his chest, though the eye contact between them remained unbroken. “And I promise to do the same for you… Dorian.”

The sheer sincerity of the comment, so very outside the stilted and restricted formal dance of words with which he’d been reared, made a tender smile come to Dorian’s face. “I know.”

“So very certain,” Cullen said with a chuckle, then frowned in obvious discomfort. “I could do with those potions now,” he admitted.

“Yes, yes, of course.” Giving Cullen’s hand one final squeeze before releasing it, Dorian rummaged through the potions sitting in a basket next to the cot until he finally found two he knew to be particularly efficacious. “I may not be able to heal a papercut--which, considering the amount of time I prefer to spend in libraries, is rather tragic--but I do understand the arts of the chirurgeon.” Leaning forward once more, Dorian popped the cork off of one bottle and gently lifted Cullen’s head so that he could swallow more easily. “Here we go. The numbing draught first.”

“Thank the Maker,” Cullen breathed, then quickly gulped the mixture down.

As Cullen relaxed into the mattress, Dorian prepared the other one and held it to his lips. “And the sleeping draught.”

Once he’d downed that as well, Cullen made a face. “Bitter,” he said. “Is that a requirement, do you think, that medicine is supposed to taste so bad?” Before Dorian could respond, Cullen suddenly broke into a jaw-cracking yawn, and laughed a bit sheepishly. "At least it works."

"Just what the healer ordered, if I recall," Dorian said with a little smile. "Sleep well, Cullen. I shall make sure your slumber is quite safe."

"Thank you." Cullen’s eyelids sagged shut. After a minute or so, his breathing slowed and evened, and his hand went limp in Dorian’s grasp. Just when Dorian thought he was asleep, Cullen mumbled, "You’re a… a true friend, Dorian."

"And I always will be," Dorian whispered, though he suspected Cullen wouldn’t even hear it. For a time he contemplated the sleeping man, searching for any sign of discomfort, then leaned in and pressed a kiss to Cullen's forehead. When he found himself considering the man's lips for a long moment, he forced himself to sit back and settle deeper into the chair. He'd made a promise to protect Cullen's dreams, after all, and that meant he could allow no distractions.

Closing his eyes, he gathered his magic and wove a defensive ward around the tent, one which would bar any attempts to invade whether by land or by Fade. With a bit of inspiration, he enhanced the ward with the magic of the Anchor, reinforcing his standard spells with magic few would recognize or be able to counter. Only then did he let himself take a long breath and seek his own rest.

It would be a long journey back to Skyhold, but at least he had the best of company.

Chapter Text

Alistair never knew who dealt the final blow to their gargantuan foe. His own sword bit deep into the beast’s belly from below even as Hawke launched a savage flurry of attacks into the center of its hideous collection of eyes. Perhaps each strike would have been insufficient on their own to end the monstrosity of the Nightmare, but combined, their blows against the swaying, staggering hulk of their enemy ultimately proved to be just enough.

Both of them still had to scramble out of the way when it fell, with Alistair needing a little extra help from Hawke given his position under the thing. Once they’d retreated to a safe distance, they leaned on each other, panting heavily, as they watched the monstrous demon topple onto its side and collapse into a pile of limbs, blood, goo, and general ick.

For a good long moment, they simply chased their breath and stared at the corpse, making sure it wouldn’t move again. It had pulled the trick of playing dead twice already, nearly killing Hawke the first time. Finally, after enough time had passed for their breathing to return to normal, Hawke said, “I think… I think it’s really dead this time.”

“Maker, I hope so.” Alistair worked his tongue around in his mouth in a desperate search for moisture, then finally gave up.“Feel like collapsing?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Hawke groaned. “Spiders. Always the Maker-damned spiders…”

Knees buckling, they slowly slid down in a tangle of limbs and weapons until finally they separated with a loud clang as they hit the ground. Time seemed to float in the distance, unimportant, as Alistair tried to ignore the many signals his body sent to his brain about everything that was wrong with it. The pain from his wounds blurred into a large, single ache, but at least nothing seemed to be missing--except possibly a lot of blood. After a few deep breaths, he gave a loud roar and raised the sword tightly clenched in his fist up high.

“What was that for?” Hawke asked with a startled glance.

Alistair grinned. “I don’t know. Just… felt good, I suppose.”

“Oh? Let me try.” Hawke raised both of his daggers, though one of them had broken in half during his final volley, and let loose a booming shout that ended up turning into a full-bodied laugh. “We’re alive! I never thought we’d survive that beast.”

“Wardens aren’t supposed to survive killing the Archdemon,” Alistair said with a chuckle.

“Well, that wasn’t an Archdemon, and I’m no Warden,” Hawke looked at his broken dagger with distaste. “That’s going to be expensive to fix. There’s only one smith in the world I trust with these things.”

“And you will see him again.” Alistair let his arm fall back to the ground with a clatter. "Maker, we're alive."

Hawke grunted as he pushed himself into a sitting position. “I appreciate the sentiment, Warden, but I’m going to go ahead and ruin the mood here by asking What now? We don’t have the Inquisitor and his handy dandy little rift maker anymore.”

As the high of survival slowly waned, Alistair frowned. “Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I didn’t think you had,” Hawke said. “And our prospects aren’t very hopeful.”

Alistair groaned and stared upwards without really seeing anything for a moment. “You’re no fun,” he complained.

“I’m a realist. Being a politician does that to you,” Hawke noted wryly.

Hearing a series of grunts, Alistair turned his head to watch as Hawke slowly pushed himself to his feet. When he saw that blood still seeped from a large rent in the side of Hawke’s armor, he frowned. “We should do something about that cut.”

“Just a flesh wound,” Hawke said with a dismissive shrug. "Anyway, we've got more important concerns right now." Looking at his weapons with another grimace, he shoved them into their sheaths without bothering to clean them and walked over to Alistair. With a quick motion, he reached down and hauled Alistair to his feet. “Let's go. The Fade’s not getting any smaller.”

“Does the Fade even have a size?” As a wave of dizziness overwhelmed him for a moment, Alistair quickly stowed his sword and shield and put his hands on his knees until the world stabilized. As he did so, he glanced at the carcass of their foe. “Maker,” he breathed, gesturing to the demon. “Look."

One of Hawke's eyebrows rose as he surveyed the quickly decomposing demon, then suddenly frowned. "Come on. We don't have much time."

"Time for--"

"No questions!" Hawke barked, hooking his arm around Alistair's as he dragged him back towards the stairs.

Still confused, Alistair let himself be propelled forward. When the ground rumbled under his feet, though, he picked up the pace into a half-hopping, half limping trot. The rumble turned into a sharp grinding, and as they ran up the short incline leading away from where they'd fought the Nightmare, a sharp crack echoed beneath their feet.

"Run!" Hawke yelled, even as he accelerated.

Not wasting time or breath on a reply, Alistair pushed himself forward, uncaring of the effort or the pain of the motion. Even so, they barely made it onto higher ground before the entire section of the Fade upon which the Nightmare had perished broke away with a sound almost too loud to comprehend, tilting and turning as it fell away from their new vantage.

They both paused long enough to catch their breath once more, Hawke's hand falling on Alistair's shoulder as he panted, "Well, that was exciting. I guess the Nightmare is truly dead."

"Dead enough for its realm to change," Alistair guessed. "Lucky for us."

Hawke gave a sardonic chuckle. "I suppose that means we're in the normal Fade now. Whatever that means."

Alistair glanced around them. "It does look different," he conceded. "Less terrifying. More creepy, though.."

"I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to fully appreciate its nature," Hawke said dourly. For a moment, he turned and looked at the receding platform they'd come from, face unreadable. Finally he shook his head. "Well. Standing around isn't going to solve anything. Here.” He tugged a couple of potions from his belt with a clink and offered one to Alistair. “Let's drink a draught for luck."

Alistair grabbed the bottle and popped the cork out with a practiced flick of his thumbnail, then held it up for the toast. “To luck.”

“To luck,” Hawke said, tapping his bottle gently against Alistair’s before raising it to his lips. Once it was empty, he heaved it up into the sky. As it kept moving without falling back down, he tilted his head. “I wonder how far it will go.”

“In this place?” Alistair asked as he followed suit, then watched the bottles until they both disappeared from sight. The potion helped him feel better, even if their future was still uncertain, and an ember of hope flared to life deep within as he straightened and took a deep breath. “Maybe they’ll reach the Black City and become poor little blighted bottles, haunting the dreams of mage apprentices for Ages to come.”

With a snort, Hawke gave Alistair a curt signal and set into motion. “Let’s get going.”

Time - or what passed for time - slowed to a crawl as they wandered the Fade, but Alistair stubbornly refused to stop putting one foot in front of the other. Not surprisingly, their surroundings changed significantly following their former host’s fall. The horrors and graveyards and eerie twisted statues of torment were gone, replaced by an empty stretch of formless land and a dim, dreary sky. Rocks of varying sizes floated above them, and if he squinted hard enough he could make out the dark remains of a great city. There was nothing around them, though. No hill or valley or rock or tree or ruin. There was simply... nothing. Eventually, he just stopped looking, concentrating only on moving forward.

After a while, the person he was following slowed and came to a halt. He followed suit, staring dumbly at the back in front of him and struggling to remember why the large wet stain was bad. When the one in front of him turned to stare at him, he blinked dully in return. "Alistair. That's your name," the man said.

"Alistair," he repeated, then nodded slowly. "Yes. Yes, I think so."

The man's eyes narrowed. "I have a name. Don't I?"

Alistair thought about it for a long time before a word suggested itself. "Eagle?"

“Almost.” WIth a frown, the other man ground his teeth together as his face creased with concentration. "Hawke. Viscount Hawke. No." He shook his head. "No. Garrett Hawke. And Alistair... Alistair Theirin."

For a long moment, Alistair considered that. "Garrett Hawke. Alistair Theirin. Yes. That's who we are."

Hawke reached forward and set his hand on the back of Alistair's neck, meeting his gaze so intensely that some of the grey fog which had settled over Alistair's mind shifted and receded. "They're trying to take us away from ourselves," he said softly. "Focus on the names, Alistair Theirin. Don't forget them."

"Right. Don't forget us. Them. The names." Alistair nodded as an odd feeling fluttered in his stomach, a hint of nausea. "We're... we're in the Fade."

"Right. The Fade." Hawke took a deep breath. "And we need to get out." Taking a deep breath, he let his hand fall away. "Let's get moving, Alistair Theirin."

Alistair nodded, falling into step behind Hawke once more. He tried to wonder for a moment who the they were that Hawke had referred to, but the curiosity quickly dulled as he began to simply concentrate on moving one foot in front of another.

My boots are wet. Why are they wet? he wondered idly. He lifted a hand to stare at it, trying to make sense of the red splotches that covered the gauntlet, or the red drippy bits that dribbled along his arm and dropped off onto the featureless ground. With a mental shrug, he focused on the man ahead of him, matching his pace with every limp and stagger.

Not man, he reminded himself. Hawke. Garrett Hawke. And I'm... I'm... Alistair Theirin.

The words only helped for so long, though. Soon his existence became little more than setting one foot in front of the other, one plodding step at a time, with no thought of why he was even doing so. A vague notion entered his mind that he should want something, or be looking for something, but the only thing that came to his mind was an image of a woman with vibrant red hair and beautiful blue eyes. He struggled to figure out what it meant, or who she was, until finally even that faded away.

Where am I going?

Step after step, each slower and more laborious than the last, he struggled to answer that question. Whispers started to echo in his ears, and he absently reached up to scratch them, hoping to get rid of the insidious sounds. At first he couldn't understand the words, so he concentrated harder on them. Slowly they became more audible, but the more he listened, the slower he walked. After all what did it matter?

I'm... I'm me. His brow furrowed as he stumbled. What does that mean?

One foot in front of another. Yes. That's what he had to do, even though he'd forgotten why. When the not-him man in front of him groaned and slowly toppled to the ground, he kept moving until he tripped over the body and fell on his face. For a long time, he simply lay there, unmoving and uncaring, wholly indifferent to his fate.

Silence settled over him for a long time, and he let his eyes close. This is... this is fine. "This is fine," he repeated out loud, with a voice dry and dusty with disuse.


His eyes opened in surprise, and he turned his head just enough to find a keen pair of eyes staring at him. Blinking slowly, he croaked, "What?"

"I said no," the other repeated. "You're... you're Alistair Theirin."

And again, the words and the intensity shoved hard against the apathy which had wrapped around his mind, and Alistair gasped, "Hawke." He struggled for a moment, then added, "Garrett Hawke."

"Champion of... of..." Hawke's eyes closed as his brow furrowed.

A word whispered through Alistair's mind. "Kirkwall."

"Yes," Hawke breathed."Kirkwall." He pushed himself laboriously into a sitting position, then thumped Alistair on the arm. "Get up," he ordered.

"But--" Alistair began, defeated for no reason he could name.

"Get up," Hawke repeated, hitting Alistair with a bit more strength.

Grumbling to himself, Alistair pushed himself up, first to his knees, and then to his feet. "What about you?" he asked Hawke.

"I'll need help," Hawke said curtly, holding up his hand. "And we need more than to just keep walking. We need a plan."

"A plan to... to what?" Alistair asked as he hauled Hawke to his feet.

Hawke's hand whipped around and slapped Alistair across the face, sending him sprawling on the ground. Angrily Alistair turned on him. "What was that for?"

"Andraste's flaming tits, Alistair," Hawke snarled. "You're giving up! You're letting them win! I won't have it, not from you. Not again."

The words sparked something deep within Alistair, and he rose to his feet much more quickly than even moments ago. "I will not give up!" he growled through gritted teeth, then charged Hawke and slammed his shoulder into the man's chest, knocking him down.

As Hawke lay there struggling for breath, Alistair straddled his chest, then struck a blow across his face. Rage burned deep within him now, and he couldn't seem to control his hand as it reversed course and struck Hawke again. "You know nothing of what I went through!" he roared, emphasizing his words with repeated blows. "No one does! Not you, not Amell, not Morrigan! Not even Lel--Leliana..." The fact that he remembered her name gave him pause, and the thought of those steady blue eyes made the rage dim a bit. He shook his head, trying to keep the anger at bay as he stared down at the bloodied, battered face beneath him. "H-Hawke?"

"Do you see them yet?" Hawke growled, though his words were a bit slurred now due to his cut lips and swollen jaw.

Alistair blinked, then slowly raised his eyes. Within the mist around them, shapes had formed: misshapen, twisted figures that stared at the two men with a palpable greed. One of them, a hulking, red thing made of living fire, raised its hands and roared, and Alistair felt an echoing surge of rage that made him look down at Hawke with a sneer of anger.

This time when his fist flew towards Hawke, however, the man's hand caught his wrist. "Fight, Alistair. Fight against it."

Alistair struggled against Hawke's grip for a moment, then looked up at the red thing again. Demon. That was a demon. With the realization came an awareness, knowledge borne from his time training as a Templar, and he forced himself to pause and take a deep breath. The fury still roiled in the pit of his stomach, but with every passing moment the emotion felt more and more foreign, as if it were being imposed on him. "They're demons," he whispered. "Rage, sloth, and..."

"Despair," Hawke grated. "Sloth and despair found us first. Tried to make us give up. It's why I hit you. Rage is weaker than they are. Easier to break you free from its grasp."

Looking down at Hawke, Alistair nodded slowly as his arm finally relaxed. "Good plan. Crazy, though."

Hawke snorted. "They don't call me the Champion because I frolic in fields of flowers and have a sound retirement plan," he told the other man. "Now that I have your attention... do something about it."

"Do what?" Alistair asked, puzzled.

"You were a Templar. You figure it out," Hawke quipped, even as the demons around them started to converge on them.

"Oh. Right." Alistair felt a bit sheepish, then frowned as the rage demon again raised its arm and pulled on the tenuous connection between them, trying to capture Alistair once more. "Not this time, demon," he snarled.

He used the remnant of the demon-fueled rage to buttress his smite, giving it enough force to stagger all of the demons for a moment. As they reeled from the unexpected attack, Alistair rose to his feet and drew sword and shield, then charged into their midst. Hawke vanished as he struggled upright, only to appear soon after behind a despair demon as his blades sunk into its back.

One by one their foes fell, though each slash of his sword cost Alistair in terms of pain and energy, until finally all of them lay still on the ground around the two men. Alistair and Hawke stood back to back, each using the other for support as they struggled to remain upright.

"I can't do that again," Alistair admitted in a strained voice. His arms felt like lead, and he knew he had nothing left to give, not to a fight, and not to resist a demon.

"Neither can I, not right away," Hawke admitted. “Maybe we should… rest a bit.”

“Good idea,” Alistair said with a groan as he collapsed into a sitting position.

After a few moments of mutual gasping for breath, Hawke looked over his shoulder towards Alistair. "Not that I want to appear ungrateful or anything," he said, "but why in the Void did you stay here? I just needed to make sure the Inquisitor escaped and slammed the rift shut behind him. You weren't needed for that."

Alistair chuckled breathily. "You're welcome."

Rolling his eyes, Hawke said, "I'm serious, Alistair. You had a lot more to go back to than I did. I saw the way you were cozying up to Leliana at Skyhold. That, and you'd finally be the hero you've always wanted to be."

The last words dripped with a bitterness that made Alistair's eyebrows rise as he stared at Hawke. "I didn't realize you hated heroes so much."

"I despise the entire concept of them," Hawke said with a sneer. "There aren't heroes, there are just people who get forced into positions where they have to choose between what's popular and what's necessary. Sometimes they're even the same thing, and then the bards write a song about them and their name lives on forever, even if they were an utter, gutless bastard who liked to burn down women and rape houses."

Alistair blinked at the man's vehemence, then blinked again as the order of the words as they were actually spoken settled in his mind. "Did you reverse--?"

"Never mind," Hawke said, flicking his hand dismissively. "The point is that staying here to be a hero isn't worth it, so I hope that isn't why you stayed."

"And it wasn't," Alistair said. "Believe me, traveling with Amell and then hearing him called a hero once the Blight was over pretty much took any shine off the word for me. I didn't do it because I wanted to be remembered as a hero, or to be one. I did it because it was the right thing to do."

"How so?" Hawke challenged him. "I was already taking care of the problem."

"And what if it wasn't enough?" Alistair shot back. "No one can save the world alone, Hawke, not even the Champion of Kirkwall."

Hawke grunted. "I've been trying to convince people of that for years," he noted in a sardonic tone. "You're the first one to believe that I can’t, I think. Be that as it may, being bait for a monster isn't anything new. That, I knew I could do. I would have preferred you to go with the Inquisitor."

“And what if that thing got out after it squished you beneath its… its… paw? Claw? Talon?” Alistair shook his head. “Whatever a mountain-sized spider calls its foot. Besides, even if the Inquisitor closed the rift so tightly it couldn’t pry it back open, what was to stop it from controlling the Grey Wardens again? There was no rift in Adamant when all of my fellow Wardens suddenly started to hear the Calling in their bones.” Sighing heavily, he added in a softer voice, “Anyway, I couldn’t leave without seeing it through. Not again.”

“If you’d seen it through in the Blight, you would have been a puppet King instead of a pathetic Warden,” Hawke pointed out acidly. “Not much of an improvement.”

"What does it matter to you, anyway?" Pushing himself to face Hawke more directly, he met Hawke’s gaze with hard eyes. "Why does any of this matter to you? Sometimes I forget why you even offered to help the Inquisition at all."

Hawke glared at him. “Because Corypheus is my responsibility.”

“Oh, riiiight. Because you failed to kill him properly the last time, now I remember,” Alistair drawled, then winced as Hawke flinched and looked away. “I--Look, I didn’t mean that, not really.”

“Yes, you did,” Hawke growled, then suddenly sagged where he sat. “And you’re right. I failed. As I have so many times before.”

Alistair coughed and rubbed his neck a bit self-consciously, not really knowing what to say to that. Finally, he asked in a quiet voice, “Why do you hate me? When Loghain brought me to that first meeting with you, you looked like you’d swallowed a lemon. You didn’t even want my help, despite the fact that I was willing and able. Why?”

Nostrils flaring, Hawke stared into the depths of the Fade for a moment. "That isn't a subject up for discussion."

The answer quite suddenly made Alistair angry, though he couldn't pinpoint why. He just knew that he was tired, frustrated, and in pain, and Hawke still wouldn't give him an inch. "Why?" he demanded, not letting Hawke wiggle out of it this time. "Why have you always treated me like I'm not even worth the air to curse my name? Did I offend you somehow by singing off-key in the Hanged Man? Did you have to step too far out of your way one morning to get around me as I lay sleeping in the gutters of Lowtown? Why, Hawke?"

Hawke didn't answer him immediately, didn't even turn to look at him for a long, silent moment. When he did, a rage burned in his face that made Alistair instinctively pull back from the man. "After you left Kirkwall, I met a knife ear, a former Crow called Zevran Arainai,” Hawke said in a voice that was too controlled, too steady. “Perhaps you've heard of him?"

Alistair swallowed harshly as a faint echo of the elf's cruel laughter rang in his mind. Over ten years had passed since he'd been in the elf's clutches, but some memories, it seemed, didn't fade. "More than heard of him," he said quietly.

"He told everyone he was in Kirkwall for some random business of sorts. I worked with some Crows to find him. They thought they were playing me, the local errand boy, into helping them find an escaped Crow. It turns out we were all the fools, dancing to Zevran's tune so that he could meet me without raising any suspicions about why." Hawke took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "He offered a special Antivan massage. I accepted and sent everyone away so as to enjoy it in private. Nothing wrong with a bit of fun, after all."

"Hawke," Alistair breathed as he squeezed his eyes shut. He remembered those special massages, all right. He still bore scars from them, in fact. He'd also never told anyone the truth about them, not even Leliana. Some things were better kept deep, deep inside.

"Towards the end, when I struggled for breath and simply wanted the pain to end, he patted my head and called me almost as good as Alistair. Later, that's what stuck with me the most. And when we met again?" He gave Alistair a glance. "That's all I could remember about you. His voice. His touch. His heated dagger."

"The brand below your navel?" Alistair asked in a hushed whisper.

Hawke’s jaw rippled as he nodded. "Even Anders couldn't heal it entirely. Once I let him touch me again."

"Arainai wasn't always like that," Alistair whispered. "I actually liked him at first, after we got over the whole you tried to kill me part of our first meeting. But then he started to share Amell's tent, and... I don't know." Alistair bowed his head. "Amell warped anything he touched, or killed it if he couldn't." Like Leliana. The thought still made him boil inside. "He only didn't kill me because he thought he could use a bastard Prince to rule Ferelden. Then I balked when he wouldn't kill Loghain--or found my spine, I'm still not sure which--and left to become a bastard drunkard. Not that it helped Ferelden, of course. He still got a Queen." Shaking his head, Alistair looked off into the distance. "I never told anyone about what Zevran did to me, not in detail. I would always just... wave it away."

"Yes, well. It's not something you bring up in polite conversation, is it?" Hawke noted bitterly. "Anders scolded me for not paying attention to his warning, of course, but he didn't press the matter beyond that. He'd been a healer in Darktown long enough to recognize it for what it was. I got in over my damned head, but I moved on from it. Or so I thought."

"Until we had to work together," Alistair said with a sigh. "Fair enough. Too bad you didn’t tell me until now."

"I couldn’t tell you before now," Hawke told him seriously. "Amell sealed my tongue on the matter when he walked my dreams. But now that I’m here in the Fade outside of my dreams, that seal seems to have been broken."

Alistair turned his head sharply. "Amell?" he asked, a bit more harshly than he'd originally intended.

Hawke closed his eyes for a moment. "It's a long story," he said at last.

"Well, so is mine," Alistair reminded him. After a long moment of staring at his hands, Alistair tugged off his gauntlets and dropped them to the ground. Holding up one hand, he pointed to a long scar on the back of it. "First one," he said. "Not even a week after Duncan died. It was only him, me, and Morrigan. I don't even remember why he needed my blood, or why he left the scar except to claim me. But it was the first."

Hawke stared at it for a long moment, then raked his gaze over the rest of Alistair, or at least the parts that showed. There were other scars, of course. Most would simply assume that a Grey Warden with a sword and shield had earned those scars in battle. Most would, anyway. When Hawke's eyes rose to meet Alistair's, though, he knew that Hawke did not.

Pulling off his thick leather gloves, Hawke traced a similar scar on the back of his right hand. "I woke up with this one day not long after he first appeared in my dreams," he said quietly. "Before I was sharing a bed with Anders but after I moved into my estate. At the time, I didn't know why it was there and figured I'd gotten into a brawl at the Hanged Man the night before. Now I know better."

Alistair nodded. “That sounds familiar, too,” he said grimly. “Poor Isabela never could look me in the eye after a night I don’t even remember, though she helped me willingly enough when I approached her later.”

Hawke winced. “So that explains her reaction to the bard singing about Amell in the taverns. She would just… shut down, or leave, even if Fenris were there.” Eyes narrowing, Hawke straightened and met Alistair’s eyes with unflinching strength. “We can’t stop. Not now. Besides, we won’t get another chance to talk about this.”

Slowly, haltingly, the two men shared more of their past with each other, their common experience with Arainai and Amell giving them a foundation they both had thought deeply buried. It wasn’t easy to unhook those barbs, sunk into their souls as they were, and try to release the poison that was Jorath Amell, but since time didn’t seem to matter in the Fade, and there was no way of knowing if they would even survive, they never really found a reason to stop. Dry throats were eased by the last of the potions tucked into the belts around their waist as they each revealed what both had formerly resolved to leave as secrets they would take to their graves. The longer they spoke, the more they came to understand the nature of the burden which had been placed on them, a combination of guilt and shame which they never could have faced alone.

“I have to admit,” Alistair said after they’d both finally run out of stories and had sat alone in their own thoughts for a few minutes, “that if I ever had to pick a confidant, you would be the last man on that list. Or… almost the last. Third from the bottom.”

“Above  Arainai and Amell?” Hawke asked with dark humor.

Alistair nodded. “So at least you’re not the worst person I’ve ever met.”

“Thank you,” Hawke said dryly, then pushed himself to his feet. A sizable pool of dried blood darkened the ground where he’d sat, but he ignored it as he swayed a bit before bending over to retrieve his daggers. "But sitting here talking won't get us out of the Fade. Let's go."

"Hawke," Alistair said, even as he rose to his feet.


For a moment Alistair hesitated, but only a moment. He truly wanted to know. "Would you want to leave if I wasn't here?"

Puffing some air into his cheeks, Hawke gave a little shrug. “I have a lot of sins to pay for. Staying here would at least be sufficient punishment.”

“You could try to fix some of them if we get out,” Alistair pointed out.

“Or risk getting controlled by Amell again,” Hawke sneered. “Not a pleasant thought, that.”

Alistair looked down, unable to really answer that honestly. “The Inquisitor would help you, I’m sure of it.”

“If anyone could, yes. But he’s a little busy saving the world from Corypheus.” Suddenly Hawke’s expression hardened. “Corypheus. Now there’s a reason to return. Sending that thing to his permanent rest… Yes.” He nodded. “That’s worth returning for.”

“That’s the spirit,” Alistair said weakly.

WIth a snort, Hawke looked at Alistair. “Hoping I’d value redemption over revenge, were you?”

“The thought did cross my mind,” Alistair admitted.

“Who knows?” Hawke twirled one of his daggers, then sheathed both of them with a flourish. “Maybe Andraste will let me find both.”

“Or maybe you just need a friend to slap you when you start to get all revenge-y,” Alistair suggested.

Hawke hesitated, then looked at Alistair. “You’re not volunteering, I hope. Either to slap me or to be my friend. Bad things happen to my friends, and worse to my family. The Nightmare was right about that, at least. I am a failure.”

Reaching out to rest his hand on Hawke’s shoulder, Alistair said, “Never let a demon do your thinking for you. I’m an ex-Templar, after all. I can say that with some authority.”

“I think I already knew that, but thanks for the advice,” Hawke said sardonically.

“Fine. I guess you don’t need me, then,” Alistair sighed as he tugged his hand away.

“I didn’t say that.” When Alistair gave him a sharp glance, however, Hawke had already turned away and was surveying the Fade around him. “We need a plan, though, like I said before."

"Right." Alistair frowned in concentration. "How do we do the impossible? Seems simple enough."

"Don't give up," Hawke said, an edge to his voice. “We’ve come too far for that.”

Alistair nodded, then gave Hawke a stern look. "Promise me that whatever we come up with won't make me hit you again. You're starting to look like chopped meat."

"So that's what I feel like," Hawke said sardonically. "Focus, Alistair. Remember what Solas said? How the Fade shapes itself around what we want? That's probably why we couldn't make any progress. The demons took our resolve and will away."

"Effective tactic, you have to admit," Alistair pointed out.

"Not good enough, though," Hawke said with more than a hint of smugness. "But I think that if we both concentrate on nothing except finding a way out, the Fade will provide."

Alistair reached up to rub his neck, then winced and looked at the new blood he found there. "And hope we don't run into any more demons," he said with a sigh.

"That goes without saying." Eyes narrowing, Hawke looked at the featureless plain around them, then shrugged and started forward again. "Any direction will do, I suppose. As long as we remain focused, we’ll find our way out."

With a sigh, Alistair nodded and fell in beside him. "All right. Focus, then."

Their progress was slow, hampered by their fatigue and the injuries they’d sustained in their most recent fights, thought their potions had helped a bit. It quickly became apparent to Alistair that his greatest enemy would be himself in a race against his remaining strength. Between his pain and the situation and his yearning for the real world, he had to keep tugging his thoughts back to the task at hand.

A way out. A way back. Not what he yearned to see once they had escaped, but an actual path out of the Fade back to where they came from. Eventually his head started to ache along with the rest of him, and inevitably his thoughts began to wander back to what he most wanted to see on the other side.

Ahead of them the mists roiled, then pulled back, and Hawke’s arm shot out to stop Alistair in his tracks before reaching for his daggers. When he spoke, his tone was icy. “I said a way out, Warden,” he snapped as he started forward. “Not your next fuck.”

Alistair, meanwhile, could only stare at the beautiful red-haired, blue-eyed woman standing in their path, clad in such a manner that he had to blink and clear his throat ferociously. “Leliana?” he asked, then shook his head. Of course it isn’t Leliana, he scolded himself. It had to be a desire demon, acting on his confused, inchoate longing rather than what he should have been concentrating on.

As Hawke moved towards the demon, however, she tilted her head. “Do you think your own thoughts had no effect, Champion?” she asked in that lilting Orlesian accent. “Perhaps my appearance at the moment is due to his thoughts, but my purpose is something else entirely.”

Hawke’s eyes narrowed as he came to a halt. “Explain yourself, demon.”

“What if I could show you a way out?” she asked with a smile.

“I don’t believe you,” he said bluntly.

“Ah, but did your thoughts ever waver?” she pointed out. “Follow me, Champion, and I promise to show you a way out. And if I do not, you can kill me where I stand.” Her hands wrapped around herself, cupping her breasts as she leaned forward. “Or you could have some fun with me, and then kill me, hmm?”

Hawke gave a tired sigh. “Take that up with the Warden,” he said acidly. “But fine. We’ll play it your way for now. You have two hundred steps to lead us to the way out, and then my daggers drive home.”

“That will be more than enough, Champion,” the demon assured him, With a little twirl, she turned and led them off in a different direction from where they’d been heading, sending them a come hither look over her shoulder as she did so.

Alistair hurried to reach Hawke, then kept pace with him as they moved forward once more. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Hawke grunted. “I’ll forgive you if this works. Only if this works, mind. In the meantime,” he added, tilting his head, “at least the view is nice.”

Alistair had to admit that his eyes had locked onto something rather curvaceous in front of them. “She is beautiful.”

“She?” Hawke chuckled. “Oh. Right. Leliana. I suppose he still looks like her to you, hmm?”

With a blink, Alistair squinted at the swaying hips in front of them. “Um… Yes?”

“Good. Then I can pretend to enjoy his ass all on my own.” For all his salacious comments, however, the skin around Hawke’s eyes remained tight, and his gaze darted around them. “One hundred,” he muttered to himself.

“Right,” Alistair said with a nod, trying to pretend he’d been counting. “And we’re only letting her--him--it have up until two hundred?”

“That was the deal,” Hawke said, then added sharply, “And for Maker’s sake, keep thinking about a way out and not what you want to do to whatever it is you’re seeing.”

Snapping to attention, Alistair forced his thoughts from boudoirs and white petals and flushed skin to where they should have stayed. It was difficult, but knowing that Hawke clearly saw someone different helped to remind him that it was just a demon trying to entice him. Rather successfully, he had to admit, but at least he was able to keep that firmly in mind.

Just as Hawke murmured, “Two hundred,” under his breath and tightened his grip on his daggers, something loomed out of the mist ahead.

“Hawke,” Alistair whispered urgently, but the man simply nodded and moved towards the demon as she turned to face them with a smile of satisfaction on her face.

“And here you are: your way out,” she purred.

Alistair frowned as he looked at the object to which they had been brought. At first glance it seemed to be a mirror which showed only a mist of blue and grey light which swirled in the depths of the glass. It was over twice as tall as they were, and a bit wider than Alistair could reach with his arms straight out to his sides. All in all, simply looking at it made the hackles on Alistair’s neck rise, and he frowned. “What is it?”

“That looks… uncomfortably familiar,” Hawke noted with a grimace, then nodded and looked at the demon. “You’re right. This could be a way out.”

She smiled seductively and moved in close to him. “I kept my promise,” she murmured. “Do I get a reward?”

A half-grin came to Hawke’s lips. “Well. I suppose I could give you a little something.” He grasped the back of the demon’s head with one hand and hauled it into a searing kiss. The demon melted into him with a moan, seemingly fully enjoying the kiss - right up until Hawke sank the blade held in his other hand deep into her back.

With a screech, the demon pulled back, trying to reach over her shoulder to grab the dagger, but found it to be just out of her reach. As she writhed and twisted, Leliana’s likeness faded away to reveal a sight with which Alistair was much more familiar: the horns and lavender skin of a desire demon.

“Put it out of its misery, would you?” Hawke said casually as he turned away.

Alistair nodded, his sword swinging even before Hawke finished speaking. The demon’s head flew into the mist, and the decapitated body collapsed face down on the ground. It twitched a few times, then lay still.

“An ugly business,” Alistair muttered as he prodded the body with his foot.

Kneeling next to the body, Hawke wrapped his hand around the hilt of his dagger. “It always is,” he said softly. “And honestly, that’s one reminder I could have done without.” Alistair gave him a puzzled look, but Hawke ignored it as he yanked the dagger out before moving to stand in front of the mirror. The way he sheathed his dagger with a bit more force than warranted showed that something was wrong, but Alistair knew better than to ask.

“You said this looked familiar,” Alistair reminded him. “What is it?

“I think it’s an eluvian. They’re some sort of magic portal to another place, or something like that. I knew someone in Kirkwall who tried to repair one once. I told her not to, but she kept at it anyway.” Hawke rubbed his face for a moment, absently picking off a newly formed scab and dabbing away the blood that seeped through beneath. “Let’s just say it didn’t end well for anyone involved.”

Alistair frowned as he looked at the eluvian. “Well. Whatever it is, it seems to be our only option. It has to lead somewhere better than here.” He paused, then looked at Hawke. “Doesn’t it?”

“I’d say we’d be fools not to find out.” Hawke stepped forward and reached out to touch it. A frown came to his face as his fingers found only glass to touch. “Damn. I’m not sure how they work, exactly. I’ve only ever seen mages use them.”

“Wouldn’t that be just my luck,” Alistair muttered as he stepped forward, but a quick jab at the eluvian only confirmed Hawke’s finding. With a sigh of frustration, he banged his fist against the surface, causing a sharp ringing sound to echo around them.

“Careful!” Hawke told him. “This may be the only chance we get. There must be a trick to it or something. Keep prodding it, but don’t hit it again.”

“All right, all right.” Alistair grumbled as he began to work his way along the surface of the eluvian.

Just as he reached the frame and was starting to wonder if maybe his sword might get better results, the mirror suddenly made another sharp ringing sound. Both men jumped back warily, and Alistair’s eyes widened as a hand emerged from the blue and grey swirling mist. It was an unremarkable hand, clad in a scarred, worn leather glove. Once through, a single finger curled to beckon them closer before it turned to face palm up and opened.


“Well. If that’s not an open invitation, then I’ve really abused the hospitality of the gentlemen at the Blooming Rose,” Hawke noted thoughtfully.

Alistair couldn’t help but laugh, albeit nervously, at the remark. “Though I notice you’re not moving.”

“Neither are you.” Hawke pointed out, then sighed. “There’s only one hand. We need to both take it at the same time. I’d rather that than have one of us get dragged through and the other left behind.”

“And here I thought you didn’t like me,” Alistair said with a chuckle.

“At first? No, I didn’t.” Hawke turned to look at Alistair. “You were a drunken fool who wasted a good portion of his life lamenting that fact that he couldn’t kill a man. It took you a while to convince me that wasn’t still true. Besides, I know you don’t like me.” With a shrug, he grabbed Alistair’s elbow and dragged him forward. “Regardless. My blade needs repair, and there’s a certain redhead you’re missing. And the longer we wait, the more chance there is that we won’t get back at all.”

Alistair shuddered. “Stay here for the rest of my life? No, thank you.”

“See? Not such a hard choice after all.” His hand slid down to take Alistair’s, then raised both of them to hover above the waiting hand. “I’m not a religious man,” he told Alistair quietly, “so I’d appreciate it if you could pray for both of us.”

“I’ll do that,” Alistair quipped, though a sweat had broken out on his forehead. He’d had hope turn into despair before, after all. Still, it can’t possibly be worse than the Fade, can it?

Hawke inhaled sharply and held his breath for a moment, then brought their hands down in a swift, sure motion.

The leather-bound fingers wrapped around their own firmly--almost a bit too firmly--and yanked them with surprising strength through the mirror. Unable to fight the sudden tug, both men stumbled forward and fell to their knees once they reached the other side.

When Alistair's hands hit the floor with a wooden thunk, he stared at it incredulously for a few long moments. After a bit, he poked it with one bare finger, only dimly realizing that the weight of his armor and weapons were gone, and his injuries were but a fading dream. Slowly he rose to his feet, looking around him with wide eyes at the homey comfort of the wood, brick, and smoke which all small town taverns seemed to possess.

"What'll it be?" a rough voice asked from his right, and Alistair turned in a daze to look at its source. A stout man with a weather-beaten face stood behind a worn counter of old but well-polished oak planks, absently running his cloth over it as he awaited an answer. His clothes spoke of no country, yet no one would mistake the simple homespun as anything noble or fancy, and he looked like the barkeep of many a town Alistair had passed through in his travels throughout Thedas, whether in Orlais, Ferelden, or Nevarra. The only notable aspect of him seemed to be a tattoo of a pair of curved lines swooping down the left side of his face, but Alistair couldn’t quite recall what that meant.

"Ah... Fereldan whiskey?" Alistair finally managed.

"And I'll have an Ander stout," Hawke said with rather more certainty.

The man behind the counter nodded and turned to pour their drinks. "You can wait out there on the patio," he said, nodding towards a door leading outside. "Someone'll bring the drinks out."

Suddenly desperate to see the sky again, Alistair nodded. "Thank you, my good barkeep," he declared, then strode to the door, followed closely by Hawke who, he noticed, also seemed to lack armor and weapons. In the next breath, he wondered why Hawke would ever need them, safe as they were in this place.

Wherever this place was.

As they stepped outside, Alistair took a deep breath to catch the scent of the sea they saw in the near distance. Both men moved to lean against the railing, eyes shining in wonder at the beauty the vista offered. The sun was setting on the opposite side of the building, causing long shadows to fall over the land even as they watched. A flock of cormorants took advantage of the shift in light to dive for fish in the water, coming away with beaks full of thrashing bounty.

Hawke was the first to turn as footsteps approached from behind, smiling as he reached out for the mug of stout carried by a man in a more than familiar uniform. "My thanks, guardsman," he said as he took the drink.

"It's just Donnen these days," the man said with a chuckle as he offered the smaller glass of whiskey out to Alistair. "Kept the clothes because they're well-made and sturdy, but my time in the Kirkwall guard is over."

Donnen... Alistair paused with the glass halfway to his lips, brow wrinkling in confusion. I've seen that name before...

Hawke laughed as he turned and looked out over the lake again, mug held loosely in his hand. The light of the setting sun had dimmed enough that the sea in front of them now shone a deep sapphire. "It's never really gone, Donnen," he mused. "Kirkwall finds its way into your soul, and once it’s there, you carry it always."

"Maybe so," Donnen conceded as he stepped in between Hawke and Alistair to lean on the railing with them. In the air above, seabirds soared through the last remnants of light to return to their nest, and above them the stars were just beginning to emerge from the indigo of twilight. "But the world could always use a Champion or a Warden wherever they happen to go."

Alistair looked sharply at Donnen, glass hovering at his lips. "How do you know--" he started to ask, but Hawke simply laughed and raised his mug.

"I'll drink to that," Hawke said, though he paused with the mug an inch from his lips to gaze up at the stars and the beautiful, full moon before he did so. "This really is a peaceful place, isn't it?"

"That it is," Donnen said with a contented sigh. "That it is."

"Pity." Without any other warning--or even a change in expression--Hawke backhanded his mug directly into Donnen’s face. As the man went down, spitting stout and curses, Hawke grabbed him by the neck of his tunic and hauled him over the railing, putting steady pressure on the man’s neck as he bent over him. “Now that I have your attention, tell me what’s really going on, Donnen.”

The man hocked out a mouth full of blood, then looked up at Hawke. As he did so, the left side of his face seemed to melt into burn scars, which marred the smirk on his suddenly pale face. “You should have finished your drink, cousin.”

Hawke’s eyes widened as he jerked away from the man, but that was all the time he had before a ring of red magic surrounded him, yanking him up to dangle in the air a few feet above the mage. With a yell, Alistair surged towards Amell’s back as he prepared a smite, but something thin and tight suddenly wrapped around his neck, and a well-placed knee in his back drove him to his own knees. A silky voice tinged with the spice of Antiva whispered, “Hello, my little prince. I’ve missed you.”

Suddenly the tavern was gone, the ocean was gone, everything was gone except for the four of them gathered in a featureless cavern with nothing but a tall mirror to one side which seemed an exact copy of the one through which he and Hawke had passed. His armor and weapons--never truly gone, it seemed--dragged Alistair down as he abruptly noticed them again, and he gasped when the agony of his wounds returned with a vengeance heightened by its brief surcease. The stout barkeep shrank down into a handsome blond elf with a now-familiar tattoo, and the guardsmen swelled into the familiar tall, thin form shrouded in a dark cloak.

As Jorath reached up to pull his hood into place, Alistair stared at the patches of bare scalp showing through the bright red hair on Amell’s scalp. That’s new. Pushing the curiosity aside, he heaved against the one holding him, hoping to catch Zevran by surprise, but earned only a hard cuff to one ear and a tightening of the cord around his throat.

While Alistair struggled to breathe until Zevran decided to relent, Amell circled Hawke as the man slowly floated down to the ground. A staff with a skull of red lyrium surmounting it glided through the air to Jorath’s outstretched hand as he chuckled in that spine-curdling way Alistair remembered all too well from the years of the Blight. “Did you think you could escape me, cousin?” he drawled. “I’m hurt that you think so very little of my abilities. I will say, you didn’t have to kill the little pet demon I sent to fetch you. He would have been perfectly happy to make you happy… for a while.”

Hawke shuddered and closed his eyes. “Not… not with that face,” he whispered.

As Jorath laughed mockingly in response, Alistair pulled his gaze away from the glowing red eyes, an old habit he’d sworn he’d left behind, and forced himself to look at Hawke. He wasn’t sure what he’d been hoping to see, but the utter despair--emphasized as Hawke simply fell to his knees at Amell’s feet when the red barrier was dismissed--hurt more than he cared to admit. “Fight, Hawke. Fight against him,” he pleaded in a whisper, not even realizing he’d said it aloud until the choker tightened ever so slightly around his neck--a reminder of just who had control.

Amell sent his fellow Warden an amused glance, then dipped his fingers under Hawke’s chin and lifted it up so that he could examine the man’s bruised and battered face. “Hmm. Not so handsome anymore, are you? I can fix that. Just as I have fixed so many others.” A cruel smile came to his lips as he stroked Hawke’s cheek. “Don’t worry, little bird. I’ll perfect you.”

When Jorath’s hand lit with magic and Hawke screamed, Alistair once again tried to break free, only to be brought up short by the loop wound around his neck. “Ah, ah, ah,” Zevran purred. “You’re mine, and I will not let you escape again. I have so many plans for you.”

Alistair’s breathing turned ragged as each breath grew more difficult than the last. Desperately he tried to cling to the light he’d found since leaving Amell behind: the friendship he’d forged with Cullen, the peace he’d made with Loghain, and the purpose he’d found once more with the Wardens. His mind yearned towards the memory of silken red hair scented with Andraste’s Grace, and the laughter captured in a pair of bright blue eyes.

Yet in the end, bereft of breath and hollow of hope, his strength failed, and the light slipped away with the last gasp of air from his lungs. In its place yawned an empty chasm of despair, and Alistair had no choice but to plunge headlong into the waiting darkness.