Dry lips clamped shut as Anders fixed his eyes on the imposing figure a few feet ahead of him.
Alistair of the Grey Wardens, once-templar, Alistair King of Ferelden was standing in the centre of Anders's darktown clinic. Alistair was a man the mage had only heard of in legend and through his friend's wistful accounts, but he was a man whose signature had once given Anders his life
a life that Anders had thrown back in his face in what he knew damn well was nothing less than an act of treason. The mage's dreamlike state could almost convince him that he was in the fade right now and that this was all some manifestation of his own fears, but Justice's own tentative probing of his memories convinced him otherwise. Anders himself hadn't felt the world of dreams since the spirit had occupied him. No, this was real. Alistair was as real as his retribution would be, should be.
The gentle, handsome features Elissa had painted so vividly were hard set. The soft, dancing eyes she had spoken of gleamed now with a frightening anger. The Hero of Ferelden had been describing a boy all those years ago; the figure in front of Anders now was a man. A King lead here by a Princely wolf in chantry sheep's clothing, in whom Anders had placed his fragile trust. The already frail thread of hope that the healer had been spinning in his mind was now taut and about ready to snap.
Anders looked at the bastard monarch and resolved himself to silence.
"You look good for a corpse. Elissa will be pleased."
The line was spoken with no humour, and it hit as hard as was no doubt intended. Alistair cocked his head to one side as he regarded the mage curiously with narrowed eyes, and Anders felt his stomach churn. This was going to hurt. It should hurt. He clamped his jaw shut tight, stared at the ground, and prepared for words that had haunted his thoughts for seven years
words that he deserved.
Alistair folded his arms, straightening his head so that his next line had full impact.
"At what point did you flee the battle for Vigil's Keep, Anders? Was it when you realised your comrades were utterly outnumbered, or did you even wait that long before you abandoned them to their fate?"
The voice was stone. Hard and cold. Not at all the warm honeyed tones that Elissa had dreamily spoken of by the crackle of the campfire. But then, when Alistair had spoken to her, he had not been speaking to a lying, backstabbing traitor. Anders looked at the tiny rocks on the ground near his feet and remained silent. His throat was dry and his fists clenched. Somewhere within him he felt Justice squirm.
"We held a funeral for you, you know; for all of the brave souls who gave their lives that day." Alistair's jaw visibly tightened at the memory, as if this was as painful for him to say as it was for Anders to hear. It wasn't.
"My wife sobbed as she cradled the charred and burned body of whatever poor wretch you had dressed in your robes before we laid him to rest."
That one hit like a punch to the gut. Anders's mouth opened and closed a few times, his eyes pricking with the promise of unspent tears, but the words just wouldn't come, couldn't come. There simply were no words for this. He swallowed and continued to watch the floor, scared to look into the face of the man opposite him. Justice waited.
"She often spoke of you afterwards. Of your loyalty and courage in the face of all you'd endured. Of your unsurpassed healing abilities and spirit-lifting wit."
There was a long pause, presumably as the once-templar allowed the words, and his disbelief of them, to sink in. They did. Then Anders heard the sound of movement. When he slowly raised his head, he saw that Alistair had turned. His head tilted back a little as he continued to speak.
"When I learned of your betrayal, I confess that the image I had of you in my mind was a little different to the one she painted. And when I learned that you rode with the Champion, it was warped into something I despised." Alistair's head dipped, and Anders saw the larger man's arms drop to his sides, his fists clenching and releasing rhythmically as he slowly continued. "Anders: the man from the Anderfels; the tearaway mage who will not be tied down or trapped, not even by friendship or loyalty. Who somehow, inexplicably, manages to make his way to the sides of the most influential people around him
For a brief moment, Anders considered protesting. He would not allow Hawke to be made a part of his own shame. He was the only thing that Anders had done right
at least for a little while. His mouth opened once more, but then closed. What good would it do him? His actions in Amaranthine had already spoken for him. He deserved to feel this wretched shame. Cortland's integrity shone out for all to see. He didn't need a traitorous abomination to defend his honour.
Alistair's voice picked up where it had left off, but the anger seemed to be replaced by something else now, something Anders couldn't quite place.
"I had a vision of you, but the stories and reactions I saw around me here in Kirkwall just didn't add up to the cowardly slime of a man in that vision. And so I came here to see for myself. I had expected to find you in satin sheets and fine robes, revelling in the freedom that you stole
" Alistair turned back toward Anders and took a few steps closer in a fluid, controlled movement that hinted at the raw power he contained even now, his eyes finding their target and locking onto the mage's own. Anders flinched but looked straight back, unable to break away. His face must have looked as desperate and as ashamed as he felt as he saw a hint of sympathy creeping into Alistair's eyes. The man's expression suddenly softened from anger into what Anders could now see was confusion. He gestured gently to the clinic with an armoured arm as he said "
But I found this."
The King shook his head slightly, breaking eye-contact and looking to the side, and Anders felt his heart slow ever so slightly.
"Is this where you've been hiding these seven years? This is what you abandoned us for? How many people
how many Fereldens have you saved down here?"
Anders realised that this time he wouldn't get away with silence as an answer. And he was suddenly aware that Alistair wasn't the only one asking the question. Justice had believed the battle for Vigil's Keep lost at the point when he and Anders had fled. He needed this answer as much as the King. The mage closed his eyes and let his lips form words that he had only ever said to himself until now.
"It doesn't matter. No matter how many lives I save here, it will never make up for those I abandoned in Amaranthine. No matter how many souls I help, it will never balance those broken and chained by the Circles of Thedas." His own voice sounded alien to him. It was as if Alistair's being here in front of him made him see just how much of a walking contradiction Anders of the Anderfels really was.
Alistair didn't respond, but gave a small nod and moved to a pile of wood that was about the right height to double as a bench. Seating himself, he indicated for Anders to do the same. The mage complied silently, taking shaking steps towards his fellow warden and sitting slowly next to him. He forced his hands deep into his lap, worrying the material of his robe with fidgeting and nervous fingers. He could already hear the axe falling over and over in his mind and was planning his goodbyes. Alistair spoke softly, the previous malice in his tone almost gone now.
"I'll be honest with you. Politically speaking, a dead man is very useful to me; a dead grey warden mage, doubly so."
Anders raised his eyebrows just a little, turning his head slowly to look at Alistair. The man appeared suddenly as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders
it was a look Anders knew all too well. Alistair seemed to be wrestling with something, and his lip curled as if he was literally chewing over the words he was about to say. Anders's brain whirred as he tried to imagine whether anything the King would say could possible make him feel worse than he did right now.
"I have something to ask of you, Anders. But before I ask it
I have to know why." Alistair's arms rested on his knees, and he looked blankly ahead as he spoke "Why did you abandon them? Why did you abandon Elissa? Why did you turn your back on those who saved you?"
Anders released the clumps of robe he had been twisting in his lap and let his hands settle on his knees. He had asked himself this question enough times to know the answer by now, and he delivered it quietly to the floor.
"I don't expect you to understand. You may not believe it, but I am grateful to you for allowing my conscription into the Grey Wardens, and I'm glad to be able to tell you that in person at last. Even the reduced lifespan that you and the Warden Commander offered me was infinitely better than the one I had before. If I had stayed with the wardens I could have continued to guard the people from blight and darkspawn. I could have protected the world alongside warriors and friends I respected and admired
"So then why?"
Anders looked at Alistair, the man who had possessed the courage to kill an archdemon, but whose eyes now looked somehow scared, and answered "Saving the world was never enough for me. I didn't want to save the world
I wanted to change it."
Alistair nodded, facing forward again. There was a pause in which Anders didn't even dare to take a breath. Then the King spoke.
"Then let's talk about changing the world."
Anders gaped as Alistair stood once more and glanced around the clinic. "Will they wake up any time soon?" The larger man gestured towards the sleeping patients. Anders shook himself and found an answer,
"No. No, they're under a sleep spell. They needed to rest and
" his words ran out. It was becoming impossible to form coherent thoughts with his mind in this state. Since Sebastian had woken him he felt as though someone had literally been dangling a death sentence in front of his face like a poisoned carrot to a starving horse who didn't even know whether he wanted to eat any more. He was utterly lost now. Was Alistair allowing him to get away with treason? And what could he possibly need of a man whose life is forfeit?
Alistair looked satisfied at the response and pulled up a box so that he could sit opposite the slumped mage.
"Warden to warden, Anders. War is coming and Ferelden will need her allies. I need Kirkwall to be stable."
Anders raised confused eyes to look at the other man as his mouth fell into a lopsided smirk "Kirkwall won't be stable as long as
"As long as Meredith remains Knight Commander, I know. I have no control over the circles of Thedas, but I'm not blind to them."
In all of Anders's fevered imaginings of this confrontation, he had never, ever predicted this from Alistair. He felt his mouth literally drop open as the King leaned even closer, his eyes darkening.
"Tell me, Anders. Just how much are you willing to give up to change the world?"
The intensity of those eyes chilled Anders to the core. There was something beneath the surface of Alistair's features that Anders had only ever seen in mirrors. Conflicting emotions were bubbling beneath the blond's stoic exterior and some fear of whatever he was about to ask was eating away at him
Alistair didn't like the position the world had put him in any more than Anders did. In a very odd way, they were similar.
Flashes of Cortland's face, Cortland's smile danced before the mage's eyes as he considered the question. Then he pictured how tired Hawke had looked recently, how sad he had become as their relationship had dwindled. He thought about what he was doing to the rogue, what he had almost done
and he knew his answer.
Isabela's private room was nicer than Sebastian had expected. His ability to make rash judgements of character based on the superficial continued to shame him, and he chided himself silently as he followed the leggy pirate into what he now saw was a haven. Tasteful furnishings and small touches, obviously added by Isabela herself, made what was essentially a threadbare room above an inn into something homely and safe. Isabela herself seemed to change somehow once the door was closed behind them. She removed her headscarf and placed it on a dresser, next to a drawing of herself with a man Sebastian didn't know, and allowed her long hair to fall naturally around her shoulders. She gestured to Sebastian to take a seat on a chair by the window, which he did silently. As he idly picked up a book from a table next to where he sat, Isabela pulled a pair of loose trousers from a chest and slipped them over shapely thighs, pulling the bottom of her corseted top so that it sat neatly over the waistband. Sebastian raised an eyebrow, unable to stop himself from commenting,
"Normally people get dressed to leave their room."
Isabela winked at him and flopped onto the edge of a surprisingly humble looking bed. "Wouldn't want a priest being made to feel all uncomfortable while I try to ease his weary brow now, would I?"
"Most thoughtful, my lady."
Sebastian's eyes absorbed a few lines of the book in his hands before he choked politely, and hurriedly placed it back on the table's surface, eliciting a chuckle from the pirate.
"I can't guarantee that my choice in literature will be as thoughtful as I am." She smirked.
"Is it a coincidence that the heroine's name is
"No. Varric and I have been penning an ode. You like it?"
A pause fell between the two unlikely companions.
Isabela lay on the bed and watched the man by the window and the tension in his shoulders. What she wouldn't give to walk over there and massage the strain away, but Sebastian was not like other men. The relationship between them had been made clear long ago; look, tease, but don't touch. That suited Isabela just fine. He was a good man, and she had a tendency to spoil what she touched.
"I-I don't think I am any more
" He said quietly "
a priest, I mean."
Isabela sat up at that, leaning against a bedpost to get a good look at him. This was something bigger than she had imagined. Play it safe, play it slow. He's a good man.
"What makes you say that?"
"I spent a good deal of time speaking with King Alistair. He
"And the Maker doesn't?"
It had been the wrong thing to say. She knew as soon as his blue eyes shot up, and she bit her lip in annoyance at her joke. He sighed, long and deep, and broke eye contact again.
"I've tried to be worthy in the Maker's eyes. I've tried to live the life I thought He would want me to. But the guidance He offers only brings me closer to Kings and pirates and those who would tear down the structures His beloved gave us. I hear their words and I believe them
I see so many things that are wrong with the world He offers, and I don't know any more whether I am worthy of being His messenger; or whether His true messages are those views being thrust upon me by others, and I am just another lost sheep. Even Elthina looks at me as if she thinks I'm doing the wrong thing. She, of all people
" his head dipped low and Isabela's heart caught in her throat. If this was the peace the chantry could offer, she'd stick with ships and deckhands, thank you very much. "
And now I've betrayed the trust of someone who needed me. Maker, the look in his eyes when I
I have no right to call myself a priest. I am a Prince and a warrior. I wear armour, not robes. My hands feel more at peace when they draw a bow than when they're in prayer. King Alistair's words have made me see this, and the clarity of it scares me so much that I "
Isabela had moved without him knowing it. She saw the shock on his face as she knelt in front of his chair and clasped his shaking hands in hers. He could only stare back at her, his beautiful face a muddle of confusion. "So, you're a Prince. So, you're a warrior. Sweet thing, you could be the viscount of Kirkwall and it wouldn't change your foundations. You're a good man. You care too much, you think too much, but you're a good man. If you weren't, you'd have run off to nab that crown the moment it became available, preferably nabbing yourself a good Queen or two on the way for which I'd gladly offer my services, by the way." This brought a small smile to the corners of Sebastian's lips and Isabela felt encouraged to continue "I think you put too much pressure on your Maker and don't give yourself enough credit. We all see it in you, and we all see your potential to be something amazing. Whether it was a priest or a Prince, we'd support you as long as we knew it was what you wanted. For what it's worth, I was rooting for Prince."
"Only my potential to be something amazing? I like to think I'm pretty amazing already." Sebastian chuckled, obviously not believing the joke himself, and Isabela fought back a sudden urge to fall forwards and into his arms. She wanted so badly to hear that voice speak her name softly. She wanted to hear it cry out huskily in the throes of
What was happening to her? Abruptly, she let go of his hands and stood, running a hand through her loose hair as she forced her heartbeat to steady.
"So, you took Alistair to see our renegade mage?"
Sebastian's head snapped up "How did you?..."
Isabela relaxed back onto the bed again, her legs crossed above her as her head rested on the pillow. "Oh, it wasn't the hardest deduction to make. A posh thing like you on his knees in darktown after a night with hunky King Alistair? Sadly, I know you well enough to assume that my preferred guess would have been a mile off, so that only left the reunion option. I take it they didn't leap into each other's arms."
"They did not." Sebastian's face was grim suddenly. He stood and turned, looking out of the window. Isabela admired the curve of his back, the breadth of his shoulders, as she twisted a finger in her hair.
"It's almost funny to think that the two had never met, what with their connected pasts. But you did just fine, sweet thing. Alistair is a dear, dear man
not unlike you. The years have hardened him, but he still leaks honour wherever he goes. He won't hurt Anders
any more than that fool hurts himself."
"How well do you know Anders?" Sebastian glanced over his shoulder, and Isabela couldn't help her eyes absorbing the way the light framed his face.
"Well enough to feel sorry for him. Well enough to like him. How Hawke handles him, I have no idea. He came to me one night, years ago. He was frustrated, longing for Cortland but scared witless of any closeness
wanted some advice." She gave a snort "Like I could offer it."
Sebastian's brogue reached her ear and she closed her eyes and smiled as she listened. "Don't undervalue yourself. He was wise to talk to you."
"We did more than talk, as it turned out. Isabela strikes again." Still with closed eyes, Isabela raised her right arm and mimed the crack of a whip in the air. "I'll tell you one thing about Anders
He knows how to use that staff of his." Outwardly she grinned, but she could remember so well the mage's face when they had finished. His regret and mumbled apologies. His narrow, toned back as he had gathered his robes in shaking arms. How she had envied Cortland, to have another human being desire him so badly. She let the arm fall back onto the bed and had her own moment of shock when she felt the mattress beneath her dip. She opened her eyes to see Sebastian sat on the bed, his back to her.
"You and he
"Well, we had sex. It wasn't anything romantic. His heart was always Cortland's."
"Did he tell you about his time in the circle?"
Isabela propped herself up on an elbow and breathed in his closeness. "Only that he hated it. Whatever happened to him before, it made him fear getting close to Cortland. That's all I know."
Sebastian nodded as if something had been confirmed for him. Isabela could only guess at his new friendship with Anders, but she knew that her faith in Alistair would be rewarded. He, like Sebastian, was a good man. The Starkhaven Prince now shifted, sitting side-on to her, and his hand reached for hers. The silent voice inside her wanted to melt into that comfort, but she was Isabela.
"Thank you, Isabela. You're a good woman."
"I could be a bad woman for you, if you play your cards right." Stupid, stupid.
He smiled at her, and shook his head sweetly. Raising her hand to his full lips, he kissed it gently before returning it to her and standing. He offered a small bow and spoke sincerely.
"Thank you for listening to me and for being a friend."
She wanted to lunge out of the bed and bury herself in his chest. She wanted to ask him to take her to Starkhaven, whisk her away from her loneliness. But a ship could do the same thing, and a ship was less complicated. So instead she winked. "You're welcome. Donations are accepted."
He laughed and turned to leave, stopping at the door.
you look good in clothes. You should wear them more often."
"From anyone else I'd take that as an insult."
"It's not meant to be."
They smiled at each other and he was gone.
Isabela stared at the ceiling and frowned. No, she thought. No, Sebastian wasn't the storm. He was calm waters, maybe a wind moving the dark clouds together, but not the storm. Alistair was a powerful force, for sure, but his sweet nature that she remembered so well still shone through. He was a King now, but one who would act in the best interests of everyone, she knew that
that only left Anders.
Anders was the storm.