He couldn’t remember the last time he’d run so fast.
Not even the time he’d run across the frozen Calahad had he run this fast, Anders thought. He panted, feeling the panic rise further in his chest as he looked back, trying desperately to see through the thick sheets of snow that fell all around him. Big mistake. He couldn’t see them, really, but he could hear swearing, and someone shouting about some “damn paralysis glyphs”, which meant that they weren’t too far off.
Anders didn’t even know why they were chasing him in the first place.
Well, actually, he did know. It wasn’t so much that he’d done anything wrong, per se, just that he’d been born wrong. Or at least that’s what Anders was sure Rolan had convinced the others had been damming enough to send him back to the Circle. Maker, he thought he’d been rid of that place when Surana had conscripted him. Surana had promised that he’d be safe in the Wardens. That he wouldn’t have to go back anywhere or go through any rite.
Except the Joining. But he’d passed that. He’d passed it just like he’d passed his Harrowing. But now they wanted to send him back. Why him? Why had Rolan sought out him in particular? Surely Velanna was just as annoying and not only was she a mage, but she was Dalish! And Anders knew from listening to Rolan’s rather loud proclamations in the mess hall that he was as much of a racist bigot as he’d likely been when he’d been a Templar.
Maybe that was it. Anders was sure he would’ve remembered someone like Rolan if he’d come across him in the Circle. Though, maybe Rolan had known Ser Rylock, the Templar who’d had it out for Anders since before he’d even been conscripted. Anders hadn’t even been the one to kill her, but he doubted that Rolan would’ve stopped his crusade against him if he knew.
Anders’ heart thudded in his chest as he squeezed through a thick patch of spruce branches as fast as he could. The yelling was getting louder.
A sob escaped him. He didn’t want to die. Even though he’d said once that he’d rather die than go back to the Circle (or worse, be made Tranquil), he found that now, faced with death as a very real possibility, he wanted to live.
He wanted to live very badly. But, most of all, he wanted to stop running.
Anders cursed, as quietly as he could. Maybe, if he was lucky, the damn blizzard might be able to keep them from finding him for a few hours. The downside however, meant that he could hardly see more than a few feet in front of him. Eventually he came to a clearing that helped him gain a little bit of ground, but before he could cross it into the safety of the thicket, he heard a shout behind him and he felt hot tears run down his face.
Rolan. Rolan was here. No. No, he had to find Justice first. Justice would help.
“Anders! Stop right there!”
Anders whirled around, lips curled back in a snarl. The storm and calmed somewhat, and he could just make out Rolan’s bulky form and the bright shock of red the man dared to call hair. He felt a growl rip from his throat, and he backed up a little as the wind whipped his hair, obscuring his vision even more.
“Never!” he barked, throwing down another paralysis glyph before turning to run again –
– and then he tumbled headfirst straight down the side of the hill, the effects of a Smite sliding over him as he fell.
Alistair swore. Damn blizzard. Why’d he have to come report to Amaranthine in this mess? Andraste’s ass, of course he’d have this sort of luck.
And, because horses were in such short supply after the Blight, he’d had to make this trek on foot, blast it. Well, at least there weren’t any darkspawn about at the moment. Or... were there?
Alistair paused, standing very still as he wrapped his cloak around his to ward off the biting chill of the wind. He could sense something Blighted nearby... was it other Wardens, perhaps? A patrol of some kind? Perhaps, if he found them, they could give him directions to Vigil’s Keep. He only sort of knew the way with all this snow around. The tightly grown trees around here didn’t help either, though he could’ve sworn the guard in Amaranthine had mentioned something about a hill when he’d asked for directions...
For a brief moment, there was a lull in the storm, and Alistair could hear some distant shouting from up above. He was almost certain now that there was a patrol nearby, but... was that fighting? Why would there be fighting if there weren’t any darkspawn? Because now that he’d had time enough to focus, he knew he could only sense Wardens nearby, not darkspawn.
And then there was a louder shout up ahead, a sharp grunt of pain, and something landing hard in the thicket bushes.
Someone had fallen down the hill, and a Warden at that. He could sense them.
He ran, cursing when the storm picked up again and he had to feel around for the injured Warden. “Hey,” he called, hoping that maybe they could hear him over the howling of the wind. “Warden! I know you’re hurt, so stay where you are!” A whimper of pain sounded to his left, and Alistair bolted for it, eventually finding the fallen Warden.
As he got closer, Alistair could feel the air charge sharply with magical energy before it flickered once, twice, fell still. The Warden was a young man, about his age Alistair supposed. He wore Warden mage armor, standard issue, though patches of it were soaked with blood. Messy blonde hair fell into his eyes, a kind of golden brown, he thought. The Warden looked up, eyes unfocused at first, though he inhaled sharply when he saw Alistair approach.
Mercifully, the storm began to let up again, and the wind stopped howling.
“Hey,” Alistair hushed, “It’s alright, I promise. You, ah... took quite a tumble didn’t you?” He offered the man a hand to help him up, but he edged away, wincing when he moved back against a nearby tree. His eyes narrowed at him, their pupils blown wide with residual fear. He seemed terrified of something. Alistair hoped it wasn’t him. He hadn’t had a proper bath in at least a week, so he imagined he wasn’t a pretty sight.
“I, you...” The man coughed, sweeping his blonde hair out of his eyes. “You’re a Warden? I’ve n-not seen you at the keep.”
Alistair nodded. “Vigil’s Keep? That’s where I’m trying to go.” He knelt next to the blonde, whose eyes were darting around, searching for something. “Hey, are you injured? You’re bleeding.” Another glance around the surrounding area revealed a staff lying in the snow, and Alistair leaned over to grab it and handed it back to the Warden. “If you can, you should heal yourself. Though... do you know any healing spells? Surana didn’t know any when we first met...”
“Surana?” The man groaned, a hint of surprise in his voice. “You knew Surana?”
Alistair nodded. “Yeah. Seriously though, you should heal that.” He frowned. Something... didn’t feel right. After a moment however, he realized what it was.
“Have you... been smited?”
The Warden nodded, gripping his staff lightly. Alistair swore.
“Who – no. Doesn’t matter. Here,” he said, digging through his pack and handing the man a potion, “drink that. And I’m Alistair by the way.” He gave the man a smile, and – finally! – his shoulders fell and relaxed slightly. He downed the potion, handing the empty vial back to Alistair.
“Hmm. Thank you for that. I’m... Anders.”
“Like... the country?” Anders scoffed. “Yeah. Sort of. It’s not actually my name, but–” Suddenly Anders’ eyes went wide and he scrambled to his feet, his story cutting off with a sharp yelp of terror.
Alistair turned, grasping Anders as he stumbled, still not quite steady on his feet. He glared at the large red-headed man that he assumed was Rolan.
“Sir,” addressed the man Alistair assumed was Rolan, “are you aware that man is a dangerous apostate? It would be wise for you to step away so that my companions and I may apprehend him and take him to a Circle where he belongs.” Rolan’s expression was haughty and smug. This was the sort of man who was used to others obeying his orders, whether he had the authority to give them or not.
Alistair’s scowl deepened.
“Sir,” Alistair spat, “this man is a Warden. All mages who are conscripted and survive their joinings are under absolutely no obligations to return to a Circle. Or didn’t the Warden Commander explain that to you?”
Rolan’s eyes sparked with anger, but he held it back and tried again as he noticed the other members of the patrol finally arrive behind him. His expression had lost its former jocularity however, and his second address was more serious than the first.
“I am aware that he is a Warden. However, my fellow Wardens and I agree that he has become increasingly unstable and suffers from a loss of control that only a Circle can correct. Please, step aside.”
Alistair’s answer was quick, and firm. Rolan, now done with diplomacy, broke away from the rest of the patrol and stalked towards them, shield and sword drawn. Anders gasped again as Alistair moved in front and slipped his shield over one arm, readying for whatever assault the man had planned.
“Who – who are you to question me?” Rolan hissed, stopping a few paces away from Alistair. “I’m that Warden’s commanding officer! I have full authority to discipline him as I see fit!”
Alistair breathed deeply and arched a single brow at him.
“I am Alistair Theirin, conscripted by Senior Warden Duncan in 9:29 Dragon. I fought with Warden Commander Surana during the Fifth Blight, and helped him slay the Archdemon. And, as I know for a fact that most of the Wardens in Vigil’s Keep were slain in a darkspawn attack during a residual incursion, it is unlikely that you have any authority over me. Unless you have a set of Senior Warden armor I don’t know about?”
Rolan’s spluttering ceased when the names of Duncan and Surana were mentioned, and he went very still as the color drained from his face.
“I – you –”
“Enough, Warden. Take me to Surana, and maybe he’ll be able to talk some sense into that thick skull of yours. You’re not a Templar anymore, you’re a Warden. And so’s he.” Alistair gestured to Anders with one hand. “So treat him like one!” His words were sharp, and they tasted like acid on his tongue. Or perhaps that was just because he hadn’t eaten in a while.
Behind him, Anders cleared his throat quietly.
“Ah, Alistair. Surana had to leave a couple months ago to report to Wiesshaupt. Jean-Marc Stroud is the standing commander until he returns.”
Alistair noted that his voice was steady now, though it was tinged with a vitriol that Alistair knew all too well.
“I see,” he murmured, turning back to Rolan and fixing him with his best glower. “Well, perhaps he can remind you of your place then, and how we’re to conduct ourselves around our fellow Wardens.” Rolan, despite being at least a good foot taller than Alistair, had hunched over like a scolded child. He even seemed a bit afraid at the mention of the Stroud, like he knew there would be more trouble for him later, worse than whatever Alistair could possibly dish out.
Good, Alistair thought. Let him be afraid. Maybe the man might actually consider the consequences the next time he decided he wanted to excommunicate one of their mages.
Alistair stepped aside and addressed the small collection of Wardens clustered a few more paces down the path.
“Any of you remember where your camp is? Your healer needs some patching up and I want something to eat.” They fluttered a bit as they whispered amongst themselves until one of them was sort of pushed ahead of the rest, head bowed in shame.
“I, ah... yes sir.” The Warden answered meekly. “We can take you there. Do you need a tent? Or extra supplies?”
Alistair just sighed.
Behind him, Anders cleared his throat again, softer this time. “I have a tent we can share... or at least, I did.” The group of Wardens shuffled uneasily, trying to look anywhere else but at either of them. Turning around, Alistair could still see the echo of abandonment in his eyes, though now they were mostly filled with anger and bitterness as his lips curled back in a wounded snarl.
“Here,” Alistair offered, holding out an arm for support. “We’ll find your tent and we’ll get the rest of you patched up, yeah?” After a moment of consideration, Anders finally relented and let Alistair support him.
When he had Anders firmly supported over one arm and ascertained that the mage had a good grasp on his staff with his other hand, Alistair looked up and fixed his gaze on Rolan.
“Back to camp with you. You’ll walk ahead where I can see you, understand?”
He could see another flash of anger in the warrior’s eyes – Rolan did not like being mistrusted, but as far as Alistair could see, the man had earned it. For a moment, Rolan did nothing, obviously chafing at the command. After a moment more, he turned, beginning to lead, but he could not help but glance back at Alistair and the young mage – perhaps he was still full of trepidation. As they walked back to camp, there was little resistance, which boded well for the others, Alistair thought. Without Rolan leading the rest of the group and stirring them into a frenzy, the patrol seemed to regret their actions towards Anders, though none of them wanted to go near him or meet his eyes.
Eventually the group arrived at their camp in the woods above the hilltop where they were to rest for the night before heading back to the Vigil. Upon entering the clearing, Anders dragged Alistair to one of the tents, his brows knit and lips pursed with distaste. “I’m surprised it’s still intact. Miracle of miracles.”
“Why don’t you get in and I’ll be right with you. I could just about eat a bronto right now and I need a bowl of that stew or... whatever it is.” Anders nodded and gripped his staff tighter and leaned more on his better leg. “I think it’s rabbit with some potatoes and carrots. D’you mind getting some for me? All that running and then the casting and being smited, it tends to wear out a person.”
“Yeah, will do.” Alistair replied. “Oh, can you set this up for me? I think I’d rather room with you than any of the asshat sheep we currently happen to be on patrol with.” He handed Anders the bedroll he’d had attached to his back, and the blonde took it, snickering.
“Sure, will do.”
Alistair went in search of some bowls and a set of spoons for them both.
After twisting the arm of the cook a little, Alistair finally managed it and hurried back to Anders’ tent, gently pushing the flap aside with his foot. The inside was lit up with a tiny oil lantern poised on a small crate between the heads of the bedrolls on the ground, Anders sitting on one and wrapping his bad leg in a decent brace.
“Got some grub,” he grunted, handing Anders one of the bowls as he knelt, then sat cross-legged on his bedroll. He watched Anders sigh in relief as he sipped at the soup just by holding the bowl in his hands, his eyes closed as he hummed in what Alistair assumed was appreciation. Then the blonde took his spoon and joined Alistair in shoveling the rest of it in as fast as he could.
“Ugh, it’s just never enough,” Anders lamented when the entire bowl was drained. “At least not when we’re rationing out on patrol.”
Alistair set down his bowl and raised an eyebrow at him. “Rations? There was plenty of stew when I left the fire. What, do they not let you eat your fill?”
Anders just gave him a sad, knowing look.
“Oh, they let me eat. When Rolan’s not looking, anyway.”
“Give me your bowl. I’m going to get you some more. I’ve also got some cheese in my pack–”
“–not Orlesian, I hope?” Anders interjected.
“Maker, never! I’d sooner dance the Remigold!”
“And... can you?”
Alistair blinked, flushed, then ducked out of the tent quickly before Anders could ask again. After another bowl of soup and a good chunk of cheese, the two Wardens were sated at last. Anders undid the straps on his pack, pulling out a beautifully embroidered pillow from it and held it close, slowly rocking back forth.
“That’s... some beautiful handiwork,” Alistair commented in a low voice. “Where did you come by it?”
Anders sighed, his rocking stilling for a moment. “It... my mother made it when I was little. She... it’s the only thing I was allowed to bring with me when I was dragged off to Kinloch.” Alistair’s heart ached for the man. After hearing Surana talk about his own experience in the Circle and seeing how the Templars had acted during Uldred’s uprising, he just couldn’t see their treatment of their charges as anything good, whether or not they cared. And then his words sunk in as a bell of recognition jingled in his mind.
“Kinloch? Were you there during the Blight?”
Anders shook his head. “No, I was probably halfway to Amaranthine at that point. But they caught me again just before Surana arrived at the Vigil. They were actually holding me in the cells when that darkspawn incursion surprised all the Wardens and killed them. Killed the Templars holding me too, and that was how Surana found me, throwing fire at a darkspawn.”
Alistair burst out laughing at the image that had conjured up.
“That was almost Surana’s reaction too, when I recognized that he’d been from the Circle,” Anders teased, grinning briefly before growing somber.
“Surana hasn’t abandoned you, you know,” Alistair soothed. “If he was summoned away to Wiesshaupt, he probably didn’t have a choice but to leave. In my experience, he’s never once abandoned his friends.” Alistair caught Anders’ eyes and held them, and after a while Anders’ eyes started to fill with unshed tears.
Andraste’s ass, he was crying again. And he had a witness this time!
At least this one was handsome, and actually gave a damn about his well-being. Not like it should’ve been hard to find someone who actually saw him as a person. He shouldn’t be complaining he supposed.
“You–” he coughed wetly, sniffling. “You have no idea how good it feels to hear that.”
He’d tried to ignore how he felt when Surana had left. They’d become good friends since he’d been conscripted, bonding over their shared love of cats and their experiences in the Circle. And when he left and was replaced by a man who let a judgmental former Templar take the joining and take away everything... he’d tried not to feel abandoned, really.
“Hey, come here,” Alistair consoled, crawling over to his side and pulling him close. Anders just let himself be held as something in the other man’s comforting tone flipped a switch and got his tears properly flowing. He couldn’t imagine he looked all that great.
But Maker, did it feel good. A proper cry was like that. Cathartic.
And when was the last time he’d cried? A month, a year? He didn’t know.
After a while he noticed the soft purring that rumbled from Alistair’s chest, like a cat’s. He blinked in surprise, clearing his throat. “I thought... I thought only elves purred like that.” Alistair chuckled.
“Only elves do,” he confirmed. “And elf-blooded children. I’m guessing it was my mother, me being a royal bastard an’ all. I’m not sure quite how it works, just that it helps people relax.”
Anders sighed happily as he leaned further on Alistair.
“It reminds me of my cat, Ser Pounce-a-lot. Surana found him in the rain one morning and gifted him to me for safekeeping. I miss that cat.”
Alistair’s purring stuttered a moment. “What happened to him?”
“Rolan convinced Stroud that he made me “too soft” of a Warden. I had to give him to a friend in Amaranthine.”
Alistair swore quietly. “Flaming bastard. That’s a piss poor reason to take a pet from someone, especially if it was a gift from the bloody Hero of Ferelden.” He sighed and began to stroke Anders’ hair idly. “You’ll get your cat back, I promise you. Ser... Pounce-a-lot, wasn’t it?”
“What? It’s a good name!” Anders protested. “Ser Pounce is a noble beast!”
“Oh no, I quite agree! He must be very noble indeed.”
“Swatted a genlock on the nose once. Drew blood, too.”
“Huh. I didn’t think cats were all that adventurous. Perhaps I should rethink my assessment of them.”
More time passed and Alistair had yet to let go of Anders, even when he’d finally stopped crying and he wasn’t covered in crusted tears and snot. There was only a rumbling chuckle when he stopped, then more purring. It made Anders curious. And his shoulders ached a little from hunching over, being as tall as he was. So, of course he had to ask.
“Why are you doing this?” he inquired, craning his neck so he could get a proper look at Alistair’s face. The other man quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Standing up for me. Comforting me. Consoling me. It’s not just cause I’m a pretty face, surely.”
“I mean, it doesn’t hurt. You do have a rather pretty face.” Alistair replied cheekily, winking at him. Anders couldn’t help the flush that crept into his cheeks. “But... really, I’m just doing what any of those dipshits out there should be doing for you, and that’s looking out for another Warden.”
There was silence for a few moments before Anders spoke again.
“I doubt that any of them would devote so much cuddle time to me, though. Not that I’m complaining.”
“Yeah, probably not. But they’d be missing out. You’re like a furnace.”
Anders laughed. “So I’ve been told.” And then a thought occurred to him. It was sneaky, and a little underhanded, but Alistair had been rather accommodating thus far. He’d even exchanged little flirts with him since they’d entered his tent, perhaps a little bit of playing coy wouldn’t go amiss.
“You know, it’s very cold outside,” he drawled slyly.
“Really now?” Alistair replied, and the warm sound of fake surprise made Anders’ toes curl in his boots. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Didn’t you? You must be so very unprepared. Let me warm you up?”
“I don’t have anything to pay you with serrah.” Alistair’s bedroom voice was husky and smooth all at once. Anders loved it. “Well, perhaps some cuddles and a kiss goodnight?”
And there was that same curious look, one brow raised, scrutiny in his eyes.
Had he gone too far?
“Are you asking because you think that’s what you have to do for people that are nice to you, or because you actually like me and you really want it?”
Anders offered a tentative, tender smile. No one had ever really asked him that before. “A little bit of both, to be honest. I might be pretty, but you sir, are very handsome.” Alistair smiled at him and tugged him down onto the bedroll, simultaneously reaching for the other blankets to cover them. Anders found himself lying on his right side, nearly chest to chest with the other man, feeling very warm and toasty indeed.
“And... I’m not saying that ‘cause you saved me from having to run off and become an apostate again. Even in the Wardens, I know I’m not entirely free, but...”
“...it’s better than what you had,” Alistair finished, nodding.
“I can’t say that I know it to the extent that you and all mages do, but I know something of how it feels not to have a say in where you go, what you do, who you’re meant to become. I was a bastard, and when I was no longer useful, the people who raised me threw me at the Chantry and the Templars and didn’t look back. Duncan saved me from that. Gave me a place to stay.”
He offered Anders a sad, wistful grin.
“You should stay, Anders. Surana will be back before you know it.”
“And... you’ll be here, won’t you?” He knew he sounded like he was pleading, whining. But it appeared that Alistair didn’t think so.
“Of course. I promised you a cat, didn’t I?”
“And a kiss,” Anders prompted. Alistair blinked in surprise before his expression softened. “Oh, right. Thanks for the reminder.” And then he reached up with his right hand and brought Anders’ lips to his.
Alistair tasted like rabbit stew, cheese, and –strangely– the promise of freedom.
It was soft, sweet, and Anders wanted more. But for now, his body wanted sleep. He was only just recovering from the effects of the smite and his mana was trickling in ever so slowly as his connection to the Fade repaired itself. There would be time in the morning for more kisses, he told himself.
And he would most definitely stay for those.