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Time Will Tell

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“It's a year today, you know,” Krem says, and brings his sword down hard toward Fenris's head. Fenris dodges out of the way, then darts in, the dagger in his hand flashing in the brilliant light of the morning. Krem deflects the blow on one of his bracers, then brings his blade up. Fenris is unfortunately not fast enough to get clear this time, and takes the blow across his ribs, hard enough to feel the blunted edge of the blade, though Krem pulls the blow at the last second.

“Enough,” he gasps, panting. They've been sparring for almost an hour, and his dagger-work is rusty. He still vastly prefers the greatsword that he was gifted only two weeks ago. He's still adjusting to the weapon, but the Bull had suggested he diversify his training a little as he worked with the new blade, otherwise he'd end up over conditioned into one set of forms, and he'd lose everything else. “What?”

“A year,” Krem says, and flops down into the grass. Fenris follows him down, sliding into an easy spread-legged position so that he can start stretching out his sore muscles. His first bend down toward his left leg makes him groan, the ache in his back sharpening and then releasing all at once as the tension passes. “Since you joined the Chargers.”

“Really joined, or since you pulled me out of the dust at that magister's feet?” Fenris says, and casts his mind back. The year has passed so quickly. It's hard to think that if it has been a year since he joined the Chargers, it's surely been at least fourteen months since he last saw Hawke, and only a few days less since he last walked out of Kirkwall's gates. He remembers the city vividly, as if he had been there only yesterday. Then again, he'd spent more than five years living there, squatting in Danarius's mansion, following Hawke and loving her, and finding himself.

“Since we found you,” Krem says. He pulls himself up onto his knees with a grunt, then places his palms on Fenris's shoulderblades to push him down as he leans forward, extending his torso between his legs. He grits out his thanks, his forehead pressed to the dirt. It hurts, but it's the healthy burn of exertion and gently stressed flexibility, not the pain of torn muscle or bruised bone. He'll have a bruise on his side tomorrow, from Krem's last blow, but nothing to hinder him, even if they do find the company of rogue Templars they've been hunting through the woods. The fight is sure to be brutal, Fenris knows, especially since he'll be their target- they've hunted lyrium-deprived Templars before, more and more often as the mage rebellion becomes all-encompassing and the Circles dissolve. The brands in Fenris's skin are like a siren's call for the addicted men, and they tend to go straight for him.

“Hm,” Fenris says. “It seems like half that time. Less, even.”

“I know,” Krem says. “It was like yesterday, but I feel like I've known you ten years. You know?”

“Yes,” Fenris says, and rolls his shoulders to let Krem know to release the pressure. When he does, he leans over his other leg. “I'm happy to be here.”

“I'm happy you're here, too.”

“You saps done?” comes the Bull's voice from the edge of the clearing. He's returned with a huge armful of firewood for the night, and he's grinning broadly at them.

“With sparring, or with being sappy?” Krem replies, and gets up, grinning back.

“Well, when you put it that way,” the Bull says. “Come on, get back to the main camp. The others are gonna start wondering if you two are up to something.”

Krem and Fenris share a mutually exasperated look. The other Chargers have been teasing them about their ever-increasing closeness for months, largely on a “you two shifty 'Vints” tilt, but also because they are arguably the closest pair out of any of the Chargers. Fenris would challenge that with Skinner and Dalish, but no one listens when he points that out. They bear the ribbing with as much patience as they can muster, but teasing conversation occasionally devolves into wrestling, or Fenris chasing Dalish or Rocky around the camp with a laughing snarl on his face and his lyrium marks lit, and all the others cracking up in the background. Fortunately for Fenris's sanity, the Charger most willing to tease him is Krem, and Krem is as much a victim of this particular topic as Fenris himself.

“We're coming,” he says, and levers himself off the ground. He tucks his dagger into his belt, then follows Krem and the Iron Bull back into the midst of the Chargers, where tents have gone up and the beginnings of a fire pit constructed, and the feeling in the air is a little like home.

Chapter Text

Fenris has never been much of a timekeeper. He doesn't celebrate his nameday, mostly because he doesn't know when it is, and he's useless at keeping track of other people's. He's sure that the Iron Bull could tell him exactly how many days he's been with the Chargers; Krem could probably do the same, or Stitches. They have precise memories for detail, though for different reasons. Fenris has no real desire to ask. He doesn't want the sense of time slipping through his fingers. He knows it's been maybe a year and a half, and that's enough for him.

Still, there is something in him that is counting seconds, but to what or from what he does not know. For the moment, he is sitting at a bar, tapping his fingers on the smooth wood and nursing an ale, separate from the other Chargers and content to be so. There is something itching beneath his skin. He wants- he doesn't know what he wants, he only knows that he does want , and it eats at him, a gnawing monster inside him that is biting at his patience and his peace of mind. Why? he demands of himself, but no answers come; this is always how it is. When he has something to hate about himself he can formulate a thousand reasons, but when there is a less powerful emotion fuelling his unrest, there is nothing he can do.

A hand comes down on the back of his shoulder, and Fenris lashes out before he even fully registers the touch. His markings blaze, and he whirls, his elbow catching his mug as he does so and sending his ale to the ground in a graceful arch. He sees it in the corner of his eye, as if in slow motion; the rest of his attention is on shoving his hand through the chest of the person who as dared -

Then he freezes. The Iron Bull stands there, his hands held up in an open gesture of calming. Fenris withdraws his hand from the Bull's chest, and says, "Sorry."

"Me too," the Bull says. "I thought you'd heard me coming."

Fenris shakes his head. "I was lost in thought."

"You've been lost in thought a lot lately." The Bull leans up against the bar at Fenris's right and flags down the bartender, then orders Fenris a glass of wine. He doesn't drink it often when he's with the Chargers, but they all know he prefers wine to ale or beer of any other kind.

"Is it a problem?" Fenris asks, when his drink comes. He takes a cautious sip, and hums pleasure when he discovers that it's actually a red of decent quality, not the sour, gritty, watered-down shit that most taverns offer. "I will attempt to be more attentive."

"No, don't worry about it," the Bull says, but he's still studying Fenris with that bright light in his eye that says that he's seeing something below the surface. Fenris isn't always grateful for the Bull's incisive intelligence, but for all that he's not fond of being manipulated, it's almost always for the better. "Something's wrong."

This is not exactly when Fenris had been expecting. It's a probing comment; a demand for an answer, rather than an answer in itself. “Yes,” he says. “I suppose.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

Fenris frowns. “I-” he stops, stares down into his wine. “I don't know,” he says. “I don't know what's wrong.”

“That's fine,” the Bull says. “We can still talk about it. Come upstairs.”

Fenris nods, drains the liquid in his glass, and follows the Bull up the stairs. He can feel eyes on his back, thinks that the Chargers are watching them go. It's not unusual for the Iron Bull to pull one of them aside for a private talk. They're all damaged people, in one way or another, and the Bull is good at smoothing their rough edges. Fenris has only gone aside with him once or twice in the time he's been with the Chargers, because he usually prefers to manage his hurts in private. When pain manifests as anger, though, the Bull will let him take it out on him. The first time, the Bull wasn't yet aware of the kind of damage Fenris could do when trapped in his own choking bitterness, and Fenris had lashed out at Krem- it had been brutal, and Fenris had resolved never to let his friend bear the brunt of his past that way ever again. Still, that's not the mood Fenris has been in these past few weeks, so this is unusual.

The Bull leads Fenris up to his room, and sits on the bed. Fenris hovers, standing in the middle of the room, and eventually tucks his hands behind his back. He's standing on the balls of his feet, he knows, flight position, and though he tries he can't quite relax. He'd been injured a week ago, a badly twisted ankle that had kept him from any sort of proper exercise in the intervening days, and it feels good even to stand without pain. So he doesn't force himself to sit, and the Bull respects that, just watching him with those narrow, piercing eyes.

“You're wound like a clock,” Bull says. Fenris startles, and then relaxes a little. The Bull's not wrong.

“Yes,” Fenris says again. “I feel restless. I don't know why, really. An anniversary I've forgotten, maybe. Or just the injury.”

“No,” Bull says. He's speaking slowly, chewing the words before they come out of his mouth. “Or yes, but it's more than that, I think. You're stuffed full of something-” he pauses, then laughs. “Or not stuffed full of something. That might be your problem. Come here.”

Fenris blinks at him. He thinks he understands what the Bull is getting at, but it seems a little odd. Still, he crosses the distance between them on sure feet, and doesn't recoil when the Bull places a hand on his hip. “It has been a while,” he says. “I'm not sure-”

“We can try it,” the Bull suggests, then he pauses. “Only if you want to, Fenris. Your choice. You could always find someone else, or work it out in the ring.”

Fenris takes a deep breath, considers. He hasn't been with anyone since the magister, more than a year ago, and he hasn't been with anyone of his own choice since Hawke, which may well have been two years, by now. His own hands are no substitute for another warm body, and he does miss it. He's sure he can keep an affair of this sort from making his relationship with the Bull complicated- he knows the Bull has plenty of casual sex, and has slept with several of the other Chargers in the past, sometimes more than once. And he does think that this would help. He's wound up, restless and tense, and the part of him that is skin-hungry and desperate for kind or pleasurable touch has not been fed properly in an age.

“Fenris?” the Bull asks, and starts to draw his hand away. Fenris is surprised how abruptly the desire to have that hand back blooms in him, and he grabs the Bull's wrist. His hand doesn't fit all the way around, and with the context of their closeness now established in his mind, the sight strikes a match in the core of him.

“I want this,” he says. “Take me to bed, Bull.”

The Iron Bull grins, wide, just a little smug around the edges. “Great,” he says, and drags Fenris in for a kiss.

 

Chapter Text

Missions in Tevinter - even on the borders of Tevinter - come to the Bull's ears from time to time, but after picking up Fenris, he's even more wary of them that he was before. Certainly the Imperium is fraught enough just for himself and for Krem, but the danger there for Fenris is even more exaggerated. He's still a slave by their laws, and he's told them that among the nobility he had something of a reputation as the bodyguard of his first master. Danarius, is the magister's name - not one the Iron Bull's heard of, but powerful enough if he had the wealth and the ability to create Fenris's brands. The Bull keeps an ear out for the man, just in case, but there's never been anything on the wind. Until now.

“Danarius's Little Wolf, crawling home at last,” the magister they're facing sneers. He's enclosed behind a magical barrier that they've not been able to make any serious dent in, not with their attention distracted by the shades the man has summoned. The Bull was hoping to avoid an open battle, because even one blood mage is too many blood mages, but it hadn't gone that way. Even having brought in a small unit of auxiliary Chargers who'd been working another operation on the border of the Imperium, consisting of three Throatcutters and two of Rocky's sappers, they'd not been able to take apart the manor's defences without taking out the man himself.

Still, the job was good, even if the money wasn't great. Krem had contacts in the slaves' underground in Tevinter, though he'd slowly been passing management of that part of their network over to Fenris, and it had been him who'd gotten word. One of the leaders of the underground had scraped together enough change to make an offer to them for the head of this particular magister, who had a reputation for torturing his slaves and a taste for young elven girls. Fenris in particular had been incensed when Krem had delivered the intel, and the Bull had been happy to take on the job, chump change or no.

Now, unfortunately, they were stuck taking the magister on in open combat. The wards on his manor were tied directly to him, and without killing him it would be impossible to get his slaves across the boundaries of his property without electrocuting them. They'd tried, and a young man had had to spend his life for them to figure it out - Fenris is still snarling, the Bull notes, glancing at him. He's absolutely spitting, of course, and none of the other core Chargers are best pleased, in their on right and on his behalf. The magister's taunting is only making it worse.

“I am not Danarius's anything,” Fenris replies to the magister, after phasing through a demon and whirling to bisect it. Krem steps in to crush the thing's head right after, the warhammer in his hands serving well for the task. Absently, the Bull notes that he should find Krem a better weapon - he's good with a sword and a warhammer, but he could probably use something bigger. “I will never be again.”

“Certainly not,” the magister chuckles. One of his hands comes up, blood dripping from his fingers from a cut on his wrist. Choking artificial dread settles into the Bull's bones, but he shakes it off, sees the Chargers doing the same around him. Fear spells fucking suck, but he's got a brave crew. “But you're up for grabs, wolf.”

It's a testament to how far Fenris has come, the Bull thinks, that he doesn't demand answers immediately from the magister. Fenris has told him of his days in Kirkwall, how desperately he'd searched for information. “If Danarius has put me on the market, there is a reason,” he says lowly, and then goes straight for the magister. The man recoils, forgetting momentarily about his barrier, and then remembers it and laughs shrilly.

“Oh no, wolf, he chased you right to the ends of the earth- and then the Champion of Kirkwall did him in,” the magister says, taunting. “You're free to a good home.”

Fenris stops. Just for a split second, and the Bull cuts through a demon with a roar, pushing forward to the elf's side. “Now's not the time,” he grunts, and Fenris shakes his head viciously.

“No, sir,” he says, and the lyrium lights like a flare. He slams his full weight against the magister's barrier, the lyrium enhancing his strength, and the Bull guards his back while Fenris breaks the magic down, sheer will and fury fuelling him. The battle, Bull sees, is drawing to a close. Krem has a growing pile of demon corpses around him, and Skinner and her Throatcutters are cleaning up after Dalish and Grim, who are fighting close together. Her magic is bright in the air, trailing ice and lightning, the crystal at the end of her staff glowing, and he is defending her back with a quick blade. They're keeping the skeletons and shades distracted so that the Throatcutters can dart in and stab at eyes or joints, or, well, cut throats. Rocky's taken the sappers to work on the walls of the estate, and Stitches has gone somewhere- Bull looks, and finds him slugging a shade in the face, bare-fisted. Where his sword has gone Bull isn't sure, but he's still got a shield, so he'll probably be fine. They're cleaning up, and a shrill scream from behind him tells the Bull that Fenris has gotten to the magister. He's good at fighting mages, so Bull wades back into the fray rather than turning to assist.

By the time they've wiped up the last few demons, Fenris is well finished with the magister. He's covered in blood up to his elbows, a few drops spattered on his face, and the moment the fight is done Stitches is on him, wiping mess away from the few cuts in his skin, muttering about infection.

“I'm fine,” Fenris snaps, shoving Stitches away, but when he catches the Bull's stern eye he submits once more to his ministrations. He's not badly injured, fortunately, and Stitches moves on, going to wrap a burn on Grim's leg. The Bull steps into his place, and Krem flops down into the dust beside Fenris, then places a tentative hand on his shoulder.

“You okay?” Krem asks, and Fenris nods, then shakes his head.

“I don't know,” he says. “I didn't - I didn't know. About Danarius.”

“Nor did I,” the Bull says. “Must've been kept quiet, otherwise I'm sure I'd've heard. How you feeling?”

Fenris shrugs, says, “I don't know,” again. He turns just the slightest bit toward Krem, and that's enough for the Bull's lieutenant to lean into Fenris completely. They're developing their own silent language, the Bull thinks, and he's real proud of them. It's good.

“You'll be okay,” the Bull says.

Fenris nods. “I will,” he says, and then chuffs a quiet laugh, letting his weight rest on Krem. “I'll be fine. My master is dead. Every man who has ever called himself my master is dead. I'm free.”

“You've been free for a long time,” Krem says, and Fenris laughs again, just a tiny bit more shattered than the first time. The Iron Bull grins at them both, and leaves them to it, going to check on the rest of his Chargers. They've won the day. First round on him tonight, he thinks, and his grin widens.

 

 

Chapter Text

Krem's nameday is on the ninth of Haring. For it, he gets several dead bandits, a nest of dragonlings, and a new weapon. The thing is kind of hilarious, really, Fenris thinks. Exactly the sort of thing he'd have expected the Iron Bull to find Krem for his nameday - it's as tall as Krem is and possibly as heavy, with the huge stone head shaped vaguely like the head of a dragon, lashed to the smooth wood handle, which itself is wrapped in leather to keep it from leaving splinters in Krem's hands. It's really quite a thing, and the bandit whose body the Iron Bull pulls it off of clearly had not known how to use it. Where in the Maker's name said bandit had gotten it, Fenris has not even a guess. Still, the Bull had pulled it from the man's dead hands, hefted it once, and then tossed it toward Krem as if it weighed nothing. Krem barely caught it, but when he himself hefted it, it was with a grin.

“This for me, Chief?” he'd asked.

“Happy nameday, my lovely Krem Puff,” the Bull had responded, and dodged the clumsy swipe Krem had made with his new weapon.

Now Fenris is dodging more of those swipes, each more practised than the last. Krem is clearly tired, sweating, his face flushed with exertion, but he's well in his form, and Fenris is hard pressed to avoid his strikes. Krem is pulling his blows as much as he can, but the weapon is so heavy that even a glancing blow would break Fenris's ribs. So it's practice for both of them: Fenris is working on his agility, with Skinner calling tips from the side of their dusty ring, and Krem is exercising himself with his new maul. It's admittedly kind of fun.

“Feet tighter on the jump!” Skinner calls, as Fenris leaps over a low swipe of the maul. Krem is starting to slow down, his breathing laboured, and Fenris waves a hand at the other elf, acknowledging his own mistake. Even with his opponent far more exhausted than he himself is, he cannot afford to get sloppy. Krem repeats the swipe for Fenris's benefit, and this time his feet are neatly pointed, and he lands easily on the balls of his feet, rather than risking landing flat-footed. He's ready for Krem's spinning strike, ducks and pivots out of the way, and then, seeing an opening, darts in. He's at Krem's throat the next moment, one hand pressed to the skin of his neck and the other a loose claw against his chest. Krem freezes, and Fenris lets his lyrium flare just the tiniest bit, a tease. Krem's lips part, and Fenris cannot help but look there. The moment grows taught between them, and Fenris is abruptly aware that he can feel the movement of Krem's breath beneath his fingertips; can feel his pulse in his throat. It's fast, racing.

“Hey,” Krem says, a little breathless. Fenris swallows, leans back, lets the tension dissipate.

“Well fought,” he says, for lack of other words. There is no heaviness in the air any longer, no tantalizing closeness, but he cannot forget. “You are improving.”

“You too,” Krem says, and clears his throat. The maul thumps into the dust beside him, and he reaches out to clap Fenris's shoulder in a firm, friendly grip. “I didn't even get close to touching you.”

“You weren't moving at full speed,” Fenris points out, and then Skinner is joining the conversation, and they devolve into talk of training and fighting, and the moment is fully gone.

Still, Fenris doesn't forget.

 

Chapter Text

There's a low, familiar voice coming from nowhere and everywhere. Krem cracks his eyes open, stares at the brown ceiling, and says, “Fenris?”

It comes out as a dry, raspy croak, but it's enough to make the voice stop its litany of pleas and promises. “Krem?” Fenris says, and leans into his field of vision. “You're awake.”

“Yup,” Krem says, and then groans. “Whose cart horse ran me over?”

“It was that mage,” Fenris says, his voice low and pained. “He- I-”

“Hey,” Krem says, and turns to look at him. Memory is filtering back, now, along with the pain of his injuries. Stitches clearly has him on the good drugs, because it's not quite as terrible as the long, deep slashes along his ribs and torso should be; he can barely feel the broken wrist and twisted knee. He remembers, too, Fenris's boot knife held to his throat, and registers bandages around his neck, protecting the cut that had been left there.

“It wasn't your fault,” Krem says. Yes, Fenris had caused his wounds in the literal sense, but he hadn't been in control, and Krem had seen the agony and anger twisting his face all through their struggle.

“If Dalish had been a moment slower, I would have killed you,” Fenris says. He sounds so guilty, so hurt, that Krem cannot help trying to reach out. It tugs at the highest of the cuts, one that crosses his left shoulder from the top of his breast to his collarbone, but he doesn't mind the small pain so that he can grasp one of Fenris's hands with his own.

“He was controlling you,” Krem says. He puts every ounce of comfort he can muster into his voice, and it seems to work at least a little - Fenris relaxes the tiniest bit, and squeezes Krem's hand. “Plus, now I know I need to work on my stance. I shouldn't have been that easy to disarm.”

“What you need is a secondary weapon,” Fenris says. “I got that maul out of your hands and you were near defenceless. As soon as you're well, I'm teaching you to grapple properly, not that Tevinter army bullshit, and we're finding you a good longknife to keep strapped to your leg.” He leans forward, looks into Krem's eyes. “I won't even let anyone hurt you like that again, Krem. Not even me. Especially not me.”

“I know,” Krem says. “It's not your fault.”

“This isn't the first time,” Fenris insists. “I've hurt you before - with words, only, but that is more than enough. That was one time too many; this is unforgivable.”

“Don't say that,” Krem says, a little pleading. “Don't. You were forgiven the moment it happened, both that time and for this. Don't blame yourself, and don't think I don't forgive you. It was not your fault.”

Fenris only shakes his head. Krem knows what he is seeing; what plays behind his eyes. The blood mage slashing his own arm, tendrils of red turning to mist in the air. And then Fenris's lyrium had flared, and his movements had gone jerky. The look of horror on his face as he'd turned on Krem had stricken Krem to the bone, and he'd hardly been prepared when Fenris slipped under his guard and wrenched his arm so hard his wrist had broken. His maul had fallen from his hands, and though he'd managed to pull back, that had only given Fenris the room he needed to take several long swipes with his greatsword. He'd avoided the worst; Fenris had been fighting his own limbs the entire time, slowing his attacks just enough, preventing him from scoring a truly mortal blow. Eventually, Krem had stumbled and fallen, his ankle twisting in a crack in the cobblestone, and then Fenris had been on him, the blade from his boot drawn and pressed to Krem's throat. There'd been a single moment of stillness. Krem had watched, hazy with pain and bloodloss, as Fenris's expression crumbled into preemptive anguish. And then the crackle of lighting had filled the air, and Fenris's markings had stopped glowing, and he'd thrown his knife aside and applied desperate pressure to Krem's wounds, tears welling in his eyes. He'd been begging then, telling Krem he was sorry, praying out loud that the Maker might spare him. Krem remembers thinking that he'd never heard Fenris pray before, and then he'd fallen unconscious.

“Fenris,” Krem says, and squeezes Fenris's hand, dragging him back to the present. “We're going to be okay.”

“Yes, you will,” Fenris murmurs, and bows his head, pressing his forehead to Krem's arm. “You will heal.”

“You'll be okay too,” Krem says. It's nearly a command; he knows Fenris will only ignore a question, and probably even a request. He'll beat himself up over this forever if Krem lets him; he has to put a stop to it now. “We're going to be fine; I will heal and you're not going to blame yourself, got it?”

Fenris shifts, presses his lips to Krem's pulse. It's an achingly intimate touch, and makes Krem draw a sharp breath.

“I do not know what I would have done if I had killed you.” Fenris presses the words into Krem's skin, his breath a physical touch, hot and damp. “I do not know that I could have gone on. I would have left the Changers; I could never have faced the Iron Bull. I could not have faced myself.”

“You'd have survived,” Krem replies quietly. He curls his hand so that he can brush his fingers against Fenris's throat. He can feel the lyrium lines there, just a little cooler than the rest of Fenris's skin and very smooth. They're nice to touch; he's not sure he's ever laid his hands on any but those on Fenris's hands before, and those are covered partially by calluses. “You'd have gone on. It's what you do, Fenris; you live, no matter what.”

“So should you,” Fenris says, and finally looks up. His eyes are red, Krem realizes, and wonders if he cried, sitting at Krem's bedside, or if it's only from lack of sleep. He realizes he has no idea how long he's been unconscious. “You must live, Krem. I- I care for you, and you must live.”

Krem draws another breath, this one deep, long, heavy. The rise of his chest pulls again at his wounds; he doesn't care. “You've come to mean very much to me,” he says. “I-”

Fenris shakes his head, then he sits up and leans forward to brush a kiss against Krem's temple, then another at the very corner of his mouth. “Not now,” he says, quiet. “I need time. But- soon.”

Krem nods. “Call the Chief, will you?” he asks when Fenris rises, his hand slipping reluctantly from Krem's. “I'd like to talk to him.”

“Anything,” Fenris says, and then he turns, and goes from the room. Krem lies in the quiet he leaves behind, and wonders at how this will change things, if it truly changes anything at all. After all, they are both men who live true to themselves above all else; their relationship is no half-measure. It has always been exactly right for the both of them, exactly as it seemed to have been meant to be. Perhaps this is an inevitable conclusion, if he thinks that way; perhaps they have been building to this all along. He hums to himself, shuffles a little to get more comfortable, and waits for the Iron Bull to appear. He'll have some sort of answer, Krem is sure.

 

Chapter Text

Orlesian ports are extravagant places, used for the trafficking of the many luxuries that Orlais demands. Isabela loves them. They're always full of silk and gold and incense, and even more full of idiots just asking to have their valuables liberated. She avoids them most of the time, because unfortunately the Orlesians are also particularly unforgiving of thieves, but she's been lying low for a while and she's glad to be back. The air smells like spices, exotic and mixed with the scent of sea air, and she stands on the deck of the Call with her hands on the banister and breathes it in. There are gulls crying, making harmony with the shouts of hawkers and hands on the piers, and though she loves the open sea more than anything else in the world, the first few hours after coming into port are a close second.

Her first mate taps her shoulder. He's a handsome man, and he grins broadly when she turns to him. “Men are disembarked, cap'n,” he says. “I've told 'em three days' leave, then we'll be off again. Good?”

She nods. “Sounds good, Mr. Shepherd. I'll be going aground myself. Mind the Call, and swap out with whoever you figure'll do best by her when you're ready for a day on shore yourself.”

When he acknowledges her orders, she trails her fingers across his shoulder, and then she's whisking away down the side of the ship and leaping over to the dock. Dockhands scatter as she lands, and she checks briefly that she's got her knives and that her purse is still tucked safely into her cleavage before she sets off, ready for a drink and a warm bed. It's early in the evening, but she's been at sea for a few too many weeks. She doesn't sleep with her crew once they're out of port, mostly because the men tend to take that as an excuse to take liberties, and then she has to have them keelhauled. They tend to smarten up after that, but it's really a very annoying business all around. Mr. Shepherd is always good if she's really hard up, and he knows his place quite well after a few years with her, but it does get boring after a while, sharing a bed with the same person all the time. So: a taste of something new tonight. Maybe she'll find a pretty Orlesian who'll ask her to keep her boots on.

Isabela scouts the town, picks a few bulging pockets, and then settles on an inn called The Dancing Dove, which has a well-carved image of a woman in long skirts, her hands thrown above her head in dance, hanging above the door. She's made herself patron to this particular inn before, and it's a good one, home to some of the more honourable rogues she's met, and always full of interesting talk. Also, often full of attractive folk who are more than willing to take her up on whatever she chooses to offer. Tonight, the place is bustling, a bard in the corner playing a raunchy song that Isabela thinks might be about the King of Ferelden, though it's loud enough that she can't quite distinguish the lyrics.

There's a particularly large group of people huddled around a table in one of the back corners, the crowd thick enough that Isabela can't tell what's going on. She decides she's not all that curious, and gets herself a drink instead of going to investigate right away. The bar is full of prospects for bed partners, and she likes the look of a pretty woman with hair that is Nevarran black and eyes just as dark, who flushes prettily when Isabela gives her a come-hither smile. Isabela knocks back a few drinks, and is nursing an ale, flirting with the woman across the room, when a roar goes up from the crowd. Her quarry turns to look, and Isabela sighs and turns her own attention. The people gathered around the table are excited, a few people waving coins, while others jostle closer. Curiosity sparks in Isabela, and she drains her ale, then makes her way across the tavern.

She gets shoved here and there a bit as she sidles into the crowd, trying to get close enough to see, and she gives as good as she gets, elbowing people out of her way. She gets a few dirty looks and a few lascivious ones as her breasts brush against people, but she ignores them, and finds herself peering over a tall man's shoulder at the people occupying the table.

One of them is a huge Qunari – probably the largest she's ever seen, and the Arishok wasn't exactly unimpressive. His horns are very broad, sticking straight out from his head like a bull's, and they come to sharp upturned points. He's got a pointed face and an eyepatch, his expression twisted with exertion. One of his elbows is braced on the table, and he's armwrestling with someone whose hand is slender and tanned and blazing with white light. Isabela narrows her eyes, follows that dark-skinned arm, up to a shoulder and a chest covered in leather armour, and though the man's back is turned to her she would know that head of mussed white hair anywhere. It's longer than she remembers, tied back in short, low tail, and his armour isn't the same, but that hair and those broad shoulders definitely belong to Fenris.

Isabela considers calling out to him, and then decides to pull out a gold sovereign instead. She shoves past the tall man, ignoring his offended shout, and reaches over Fenris's shoulder to place the coin on the table in front of him. She meets the Qunari's eyes, pressed to Fenris's back, and says, “My money's on the broody elf.”

Fenris grunts in surprise, his arm shaking briefly as he almost gives ground and is forced to regain himself. Then he says, “Get off, Isabela.”

She obliges, laughing, and settles back to watch Fenris and the Qunari go at it. They're both focused, though the Qunari is now looking at her instead of his opponent. “Friend of yours?” he asks, and Fenris huffs an amused breath.

“More or less,” he says, and then the marking blaze brighter, and he shoves the Qunari's hand to the table.

“Fuck!” the Qunari shouts, and pulls his hand from beneath Fenris's to shake it out. “I'm gonna have bruises on my knuckles.”

“You deserve it,” Fenris says, shaking out his own hand. “You challenged me.”

“I let you win.”

A man to Isabela's left scoffs and comes forward to lean over Fenris, placing on elbow on his shoulder. “Sure, Chief. You just don't want to admit that you got your ass kicked by a skinny elf.”

The Qunari glares at the auburn-haired man. “Shut it, Krem,” he grumbles, but his indignation doesn't last long. Instead, he turns his attention once more onto Isabela. Around them, the crowd is dispersing, people exchanging money, a few stopping to slap Fenris on the shoulder. Some give Isabela irritated glances, presumably for distracting the Qunari, though she doesn't really think she influenced the outcome of the match. Fenris, she remembers, is really quite unnaturally strong for how small he is, and though he probably couldn't have outlasted the Qunari, with the right leverage and at just the right moment, she's not surprised he could overpower him.

“So, who's your friend?” the Qunari asks, and settles back in his chair. It creaks under his weight. “One of Hawke's gang?”

Fenris nods and turns to look at Isabela. He looks a little older, she thinks, but also very content. Some of the lines around his eyes have eased, and there's a hint of laughter in the tilt of his mouth. “This is Isabela,” he says. “You've heard of her, I'm sure.”

Abruptly Isabela remembers that the Qunari aren't her biggest fans. In the rush from seeing Fenris again, she'd forgotten, and now she goes tense, ready to run. For a moment, she thinks she's going to have to – and then the Qunari laughs. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I've heard of her. No one told me she was pretty.”

Isabela grins, confidence sliding over anxiety like a comfortable coat. “No one tells me that either,” she says, “but they say plenty of other things.”

“I don't doubt it,” the Qunari says. “Pleasure.”

“Oh, all mine,” Isabela purrs, and the Qunari laughs.

Fenris heaves a long-suffering sigh. “Isabela, this is the Iron Bull. He's the leader of the Chargers, my - the company I'm travelling with.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Varric mentioned him,” she says. She glances around, taking the measure of the people who have remained. Two elven women, both very beautiful and stunning foils to each other in looks; the auburn-haired man who is stunning in his own right, but is leaning on Fenris is a way that suggests to Isabela that he wouldn't be receptive to her advances; a human man with skin dark enough to suggest an ancestry that matches her own and a sword at his belt; another human, this one blond and quite handsome, but also quite unfortunately uninterested-looking; and a dwarf who grins and winks. The Iron Bull observes her observing his people, and when she looks back at him, he tips his horns at her, a flirty gesture that gives the same impression as a wink might, if not for the fact that he only has one eye. “Good-looking company you've found,” Isabela tells Fenris. “Any chance you want to share?”

The arm that Fenris had had on the table is withdrawn, and he tucks his fingers into the hem of the auburn-haired man's shirt. Still, he meets Isabela's eyes squarely. “All yours,” he says, and she gives him a small, genuine smile. He'd never been very demonstrative with Hawke, either.

 

 

Chapter Text

The first time is terrifying. Always, that's the way of these things, but Fenris has never been more glad for anything in his life. He's never celebrated fear before, but it this is its result, he will endure it a thousand times more. It's been some weeks since his and Krem's half-a-conversation at Krem's bedside, and a few days since their run-in with Isabela. It had been good to see her again; of all their companions, she'd been the one he'd gotten along with best, after Hawke. Her easy, off-colour humour had never offended him, and she'd always been an opponent of slavery, which is appreciable. Still, seeing her had brought back memories of days both easier and more difficult, and Fenris isn't able to wait any more.

“Krem,” he says, one evening. The Chargers are seated around their campfire, winding down after supper. Rocky and Dalish have already gone to bed; Skinner's not long for it. Fenris has first watch. “Stay up with me for a while?”

Krem nods easily. He's not on watch tonight, and surely doesn't mind losing the sleep. “'Course,” he says, and they don't talk about it again until all the others are gone, the Iron Bull the last to retire, giving them a fond look before he goes. Krem ducks briefly into his tent to fetch a warm woollen blanket, which he wraps around his shoulders. Fenris shuffles close to his warmth, but doesn't ask for an edge of the blanket; he'll only fall asleep.

“Why did you want me to stay up?” Krem asks, curious, just a hint of caution at the edges of the question.

Fenris is quiet for a long time, considering the question. There are a number of answers: he wanted the company, he wanted to talk, he wanted something that he cannot put into words. He stares into the dying embers of the fire, and finally he says, “Could you love me?”

Krem starts, and then clears his throat. “As in now? Or – or ever?”

“Ever.”

Krem takes a slow breath, and shifts. Fenris turns to look at him, and their eyes catch and hold. “I could,” Krem says. “Easy. Pulchrum es, Fenris.”

Et tu, Krem,” Fenris replies, and leans forward. Just slightly, just enough. He doesn't want to push, to ask for something that Krem is not willing to give. He hasn't forgotten how it felt to kneel above Krem's body with a blade at his throat and know that Krem will be dead in moments if no one stops him. He hasn't forgotten tearing into Krem in a mangled mix of Tevene and Trade when the other man had made a joke in their shared mother tongue that Fenris had last heard sneered by a magister standing over the body of a slave; he certainly had not forgotten the look on Krem's face by the end of Fenris's tirade. He has so much potential to hurt his friend. He knows all the best places to place his blade, all of Krem's open wounds, and he doesn't trust himself not to use that knowledge. It would be better if he stayed away.

And yet, when Krem leans forward and presses his lips to Fenris's, nothing has ever felt so right. So safe. Fenris's romance with Hawke had been volatile and passionate, and he'd loved her desperately, but she'd never been home the way Krem is. She had none of the dry warmth of his homeland in her, and a little too much of the compelling, electric power of the mage – the magister. Krem is, though perhaps not better, at least different, and Fenris needs different. He cannot bear more of the same, not after a life of it.

“Oh, good,” Krem says, when he pulls away, and then laughs a little breathlessly and swipes a hand over his face. “Sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.”

Fenris shakes his head. “It is how I feel, as well. I wasn't sure if my advances would be welcome.”

“More than,” Krem admits quietly. “Maker, I – I want this, Fenris. You have to be sure, though. You know what I am. What I'm not. And I believe you when you say that you see me as a man, I believe you, but sometimes I don't believe myself. Sometimes it's hard.” He laughs a little choked. “Who am I kidding – it's always hard. I've never really done this before, not with all of who I am out in the open, and so much invested. You understand that, right? That this isn't going to be easy?”

“I understand,” Fenris says. He's intent, his eyes fixed on Krem's face as he speaks, and he reaches up to cup his face, to run his thumb over one of those cheekbones that have become so familiar. All of Krem's face is familiar, every line, every expression – except that he doesn't think he's ever seen Krem look so insecure before. “This goes at your pace, Krem.”

“And at yours,” Krem says, and reaches up with his own hand, but he doesn't touch Fenris's face, only his shoulder in a firm clasp. It's warrior's touch, one between equals, and Fenris finds himself disgustingly grateful for it. Yet another way that Krem sets himself apart, Fenris thinks.

“Yes,” Fenris says. “Neither of us is undamaged. But we'll find a way.”

“Together.”

In reply, Fenris places another kiss on Krem's lips, then pulls away, his hand still on Krem's face, his fingers tucked under Krem's jaw in a tender curl. Krem's eyes are lit by the firelight, and he looks terrified, and beneath that there is a welling joy that is echoed in Fenris himself. “Sleep,” Fenris says. “I will keep watch.”

Krem nods, and Fenris expects him to go to his tent, but he doesn't. Instead, he lays his head on Fenris's shoulder, and Fenris wraps an arm around him, and he goes to sleep right there, his breathing a quiet counterpart of the dying crackle of the fire. When Dalish comes to relieve Fenris on the watch a few hours later, Fenris only nods in response to her broad smile, and then scoops Krem up into his arms and carries him into his tent. They sleep curled together, and Fenris wakes rested, warm, and calm enough that he doesn't even scowl in response to the snickers of the other Chargers when they emerge in the morning.

“What?” Krem asks, exasperated, in the face of their compatriots' grins.

“Oh, nothing,” says the Bull, and tilts his horns in the way that Fenris recognizes as his substitute for the wink he lost. “Just thinking it's about time, is all.”

“Piss off,” Krem tells him, but he's smiling when he and Fenris sit down together, their shoulders pressed together. It's a good day, Fenris thinks. The sun is bright, and he is among the people he has come to love. What better could there be?

 

Chapter Text

The world is a red haze, fury mixed with pain mixed with despair. He remembers this. He is intimately familiar with the way his voice catches on his screams, the loudness of them making his ears ring. Louder still is the humming, tangled melody that has become so familiar to him these past years that he only rarely notices it any more. Now, it fills his head; it drives him half-mad. Someone is holding him down, hands on wrists and ankles, an arm like a band around his chest as he thrashes. Where is he, where is he, there is no stone tablet beneath his back so he cannot be back there, there is no murmur in Tevene, someone making mark of the time as his life and his mind burn away. Everything is fire. Red like blood fills his vision, tainted with ancient death and anger, jangling through discordance in unsteady time; back then the pain was a pure light, white and cutting like a heated blade, leaving nothing but scars and music behind. This is different. This is some eternal torment; unconsciousness refuses to take him, no matter how he grasps for it, he does not slip in and out as he might. He is too strong, every part of him made bold by the agony, the anger - he is possessed by it.

No demon could do this. How he even knows that when everything is nothing he cannot know, but he is sure that this is not the kind of possession that a blood mage courts. Instead, it is a creeping sickness, worming along the veins that are part of him and yet not, infecting, trapped. It fills his head with song and with fire. He does not remember falling, but knows he must have. In what battle? To what foe? He cannot remember. He cannot even remember his own name. He fights his bonds for a day, for a year; time means nothing.

Behind closed eyes, white is subsumed by red, and with it his soul is tainted. Everything he is is being burned away, stolen by the corruption. Whatever will he has, he cannot muster it, not until the white is only a glimmer, almost gone. The song is fading, near to forgotten. And then it lights like a brand and power, familiar, faultless and pure, pulses through him. His will is his own. His will is his own, and he will not submit.

Then comes the struggle, after the burning. Something like healing, like battle; exhausting and determination twined until they are inseparable. He cannot sleep, not with music in his ears and ice-cold fire in his veins. He will sleep when he is dead, and if he sleeps he is dead, so he feeds his own will with the red fury and shuts out all else until he feels strong once more, and then he grasps the part of his soul that is white and he pushes.

The world is a red haze. Blinding white cuts through, pierces, purges. All turns to darkness in its wake.

 

For a moment, he remembers nothing but his name: he is Fenris. Then he opens his eyes and sees the blue of the sky, the first thing he has known in forever that is not red or white, and the world expands behind his eyes like water returning to a pond after a eon behind a dam. He is lying on a bedroll, there is a rock forming a lump under his back beneath the blankets, the air smells like pine and damp earth, and someone is speaking quietly.

"- never done me many favours, Maker, but I hope that means you owe me one. Just let him wake up. Just one more time, and I'll never ask anything again as long as -"

"Krem."

A sharp gasp. Fenris turns his head incrementally, and it makes the lyrium marking on his throat ache. It's a sensation he remembers from years ago, the aftermath of the procedure that placed them into his skin in the first place. They've not felt like that since, and he has to shake the spectre of Tevinter away like a veil before he can focus on the man who has knelt up and grasped his hand.

"Fenris! You're awake, thank the Maker."

Fenris blinks slowly. "What happened?" he asks carefully, trying not to move too much. Krem's eyes are red and ringed by dark bruises. His lips are chapped. He looks nearly as tired as Fenris feels, and about three times as relieved.

"We found those red crystals - red lyrium, you said, and we were being careful, and you slipped, and you just - it was awful. Fenris, it was awful, you were so sick. It's been days. I thought you were going to die," Krem says, his voice shaking. "We were sure you were going to die. You have to stop doing this to me, my heart can't take it."

"Neither can mine," Fenris rasps, because if he has to live through agony like that ever again it will be too soon. Red lyrium, the substance that that idol that had corrupted Varric's brother had been made of. He remembers it vividly, remembers the way it caused his markings to react, the overwhelming, mesmerizing hum of lyrium song in his ears. He can't always hear it (he did, once, before he adjusted; now his mind shuts it out automatically) and when he does it's always in the heat of battle, his markings burning bright and his body turned ghostly, and it's the song of victory and power. The red lyrium song is a malignant thing, filled with notes gone off, turned to a cancer. He'd been afraid, in an animal, visceral way. He remembers stumbling across the growth of it with the other Chargers, now, and warning them away from it so several that the Bull had decided to detour up a ridge to avoid it. Fenris had slipped, distracted by the loudness of the lyrium in his head, its singing beneath his skin, and he had sliced himself on one of the growths. Just the contact had been enough to begin the corruption of his own markings.

"Somehow you fought it off, though," Krem is saying. "You'd gone almost all red, glowing all the time. And then those markings on your forehead flared white, and it all started going white again. It took forever, and it had been so long. Stitches said your body was so exhausted that you might die even if you survived that red stuff."

Fenris nods. "I was tired."

Krem huffs a soft laugh, and reaches out. He waits for Fenris to close his eyes in acceptance before he runs his hand through Fenris's hair, and then along his face. "You're still tired now, love. Sleep. I'll be here when you wake."

"Mm," Fenris says. "Sleep with me, amatus."

Krem draws a sharp breath at the endearment. Fenris uses them only rarely, and never in Tevene; he's well aware of the significance. Still, a near-death experience is worthy of it, and it gets Krem to lie down beside Fenris, tucked close to his side so that they both fit on the bedroll, and Fenris slips into sleep with the sound of his lover's breathing filling his ears.

 

Chapter Text

There's a stranger in Haven. This is not unusual: every person in Haven is a stranger, basically. Varric has neither time nor inclination to get to know them all, and even if he wanted to, more people pour in every day. Also, Varric spends a lot of time out and about in the Hinterlands with the Herald, so by the time he actually gets back the town has usually accumulated a ridiculous number of brand new strangers for him to not recognize.

Still, this is a persistently strange stranger. He spends most of the day loitering around outside the Chantry, looking at the doors like he wants to go in (and probably speak to the Herald) and not actually going in. It's a bit absurd, and also very entertaining. Still, he's got nice armour, and it's really a shame to see the guy standing around looking like a lost puppy, so Varric decides to take pity on him.

He starts simple, and sidles up to the guy partway through a warm (or, well, as warm as Ferelden every gets) afternoon. "So," he says.

The guy startles a little. He'd been staring into space, contemplating the sky, or whatever it is that strangers in shining plate do while they're waiting around. "What?" he says.

"So," Varric says again, "do you find the front doors of the Chantry particularly, eh, enchanting , or are you just standing around for no reason?"

The man shrugs, his mail clinking. "I'm waiting to speak with the Herald. I've a proposal for him, but - well. I've yet to get his attention." The guy has a Tevinter accent, but faded, like he hasn't spoken the language in some years. Which is interesting, really. Not a lot of 'Vints around these parts. In fact, no 'Vints around these parts, unless you count the occasional nutter that's popped up and tried to kill the Herald and his party.

"You could have stopped him any of the dozen times I've seen him walk by you," Varric points out, and nearly laughs at the guy's awkward shrug.

"If he hadn't stopped today, I'd've caught his attention. The Chief - that is, the leader of my company - told me not to be pushy. The time for boldness is later, Krem, " he says, clearly mimicking someone with a low, gravelly voice at the end.

"Fair," Varric says. "So, you're a mercenary?"

The guy draws himself up, not too much, but enough that his pride shines through. "Not just a mercenary," he says. "I'm a Charger. Lieutenant Cremisius - Krem, please - Aclassi, of the Bull's Chargers mercenary company."

"Huh," says Varric. Huh.

"What?" Krem says again. "Are you familiar with us?"

"If by 'familiar' you mean 'I've been tracking your movements for the last three and a half years on behalf of a friend of mine', then, yeah, I'm familiar," Varric says, and grins at Krem's astonishment. Varric sticks out a hand to shake. "Varric Tethras, at your service. A mutual friend of ours might have mentioned me."

Comprehension dawns, and Krem takes his hand, shaking it firmly. "Fenris has always been good at describing people. I'm honestly surprised I didn't recognize you right away, but I wasn't expecting to meet you here of all places."

Krem's handshake is firm and confident, and Varric's grin lingers as he withdraws his hand. "I wasn't exactly expecting you, either." He pauses, then says, "How is our elven friend? I've been tracking rumours, but it's not exactly reliable or complete information, even at the best of times."

Krem smiles, soft and fond. "Fenris was well, the last time I saw him. We're - ah, close. I do my best to look after him, so you can take that as an assurance, if you'd like. Not that I succeed all the time, but he's a good fighter, and for the things he can't handle, well, I try to be there."

Huh , thinks Varric again. That was a remarkably telling answer, but a reassuring one, in its own way. "Good to know," he says. "You're looking to join up with the Inquisition?"

"If the Herald will have us on," Krem confirms. "For a job like this, the Chargers don't come cheap, but the Chief decided you probably had enough resources by now to hire us on, and we're tired of fighting off all the assholes who've crawled out of the woodwork in the wake of the Conclave going to shit without any backup. We're a pretty small core group, after all, and there's only so many auxiliaries we can pull from others missions to help us out without crippling the company."

Varric nods. "Well, I'll send the Herald your way if I see him. He's always run off his feet in Haven, probably because he's incapable of saying no to anyone who asks for his help. Not unlike Hawke, really," he says, a bit wistful.

"You seem to attract heroes," Krem says.

"Nah," Varric says, and rocks back on his heels. He turns his gaze to the vast rift in the sky, ominous and swirling with black and green among grey clouds. "More like I'm attracted by heroes. I'm a storyteller, you know."

"I know," Krem says. He's quiet for a moment, and then says, his tone solemn, "We picked up a copy of Tale of the Champion a few years after it came out. I don't think Fenris will tell you himself, but he was - grateful, I suppose. He told me that you didn't have to represent him as well as you had. I don't know if I believe him - he's kinder than he believes himself to be, and wiser. But I do know that you did him justice, and it struck him to read about how Hawke was after he was gone."

"I wasn't sure he'd read it," Varric replies, just as serious. "If he'd ever get to. But I considered - still consider - Fenris my friend, and I wanted to do right by him. I'm glad you think I managed it."

Krem reaches out and places a hand on Varric's shoulder, drawing his attention away from the sky. Varric meets the other man's eyes, and it doesn't matter at all that he has to crane his neck to do so. "You did," Krem says. "Thank you, Master Tethras, for everything you've done for him over the years. He'll be glad to see you again."

"And I him," Varric replies, and then pulls away from Krem's hand and goes to find the Herald. Someone's got a proposition for him, and it looks like it's going to be an interesting one.