"Are you out of your mind?"
Nicolas stared at the Commander as if doing so might change her words into something else, something not insane. A joke, perhaps. But the white-haired woman on the other side of the table never made jokes.
"Nicolas" she said in a patient, almost sad voice that he had never really heard her use before. It still had its edge though, harsh and hard. "I'm asking you this not as your Commander but as a friend. I will not force you to go with me on this mission, but neither will I let anyone force me to stay. And I know that I will need all the help I can get."
"Of course you will, and I doubt even that is enough! Venturing out into the Deep Roads is a suicide mission, isn't that why Bregan went in the first place?"
Genevieve's eyes flared and were suddenly as hard as steel. When she spoke, her words were sharp as ice crystals.
"My brother felt the Calling" she said, every word carefully balanced but bristling with hardly controlled emotion. "If he had only died in battle, I would not follow him until my time came. But he is not dead."
"I still think it's madness."
"Is it?" The Commander turned her gaze away from him and Nicolas all but breathed a sigh of relief as she did so. Instead, he watched her as she turned to look out the window. Beyond the gardens of the Grey Warden palace, across miles and miles of forest, one could discern the faint outline of a mountain range. "Is it madness, if doing it can save not only Ferelden and Orlais but all the known world from another Blight? Or would you rather see the world tainted by darkspawn, down to the last straw of grass? Men killed in battle? Women, children and elderly from sickness or murder?"
The woman's voice was as cool as always, but it held passion, a burning hot fire carefully molded into metal. Nicolas had known her, as well as anyone could ever truly know Genevieve, for many years now and still she surprised him with her steely resolve and iron will. He was about to answer her almost but not quite rhetorical question when she turned towards him again. It had only been a few moments, but in that time she had changed. Aged.
"I need your help, Nicolas. If there is to be even the slightest chance of success."
"I didn't think you would go so far as flattery to get me."
Genevieve did not answer, but there was the smallest, faintest trace of a smile. Nicolas sighed.
"Fine. But I have to talk to Julien about it."
This time, there actually was a smile. Almost warm, sad. Very unlike her.
"I expected nothing less" she said. "He said the same thing when I asked him."
While they should not, the Commander's words warmed Nicolas' heart. Until he realized what she had said.
"Why has he not told me about it then?"
"I asked him not to, and he accepted that. I wanted to ask you personally first."
Her voice was as usual now, to the point and matter-of-factly. The moment of emotion was gone.
Nicolas hummed a non-committing response, lacking words to actually say anything, and made towards the door. He had almost reached it when the Commander spoke again.
"If you should choose not to come with me…"
"Yes?" Nicolas made a half turn.
"I will appoint you as the new Commander of the Grey in Orlais. Just so you know. That was all."
"Got it" Nicolas said flatly, and left the room.
The training grounds were mostly empty, probably due to the fact that it was almost lunchtime, but the man practicing swings at a straw doll in the far end of the grounds did not seem to hear Nicolas' calls. As Nicolas made his way towards the man he could not help but study his movements. Unlike many other soldiers, Grey Wardens and others alike, Julien did not practice in his common clothes but in full plate armor. It was heavy – Nicolas knew because he had a set exactly like it – and with the warm and sunny weather it must be extremely hot and tiring. Still, Julien would never be convinced to practice in any other way. As a result, his endurance was far greater even than that of other Wardens – and that was no small feat. Even so, Julien, like any other man, must eat and drink – and he had probably done neither since Nicolas had left the training grounds an hour ago. Stopping only briefly by one of the small water fountains Nicolas filled the small water skin he always wore in his belt and left the relatively cool, shadowy sidewalk to enter the sunny yard.
As he walked the last few meters to where the warrior was he felt the usual clutch in his chest. It was a familiar sight: he had known Julien for many, many years and with all things considered they were lucky to still be alive.
"Don't you think you're being unfair to the doll?" he said in a raised voice as he came close enough to be heard above the swoops of the massive sword. "It can't fight back, you know."
There was no answer, but that was only to be expected. Instead, the warrior placed a few more blows at the assaulted straw man, finishing it off with a strike that sent its head flying through the air. Then he lowered his greatsword and turned to face Nicolas, who offered the water skin with a smile. Julien nodded as he accepted it and downed the water with a few long gulps. When he gave it back, it was with a scrutinizing look.
"She told you."
"She did. You already knew about it."
"You should have told me."
Julien did not answer the barely hidden accusation, but his eyes said more than enough. Even though he had wanted to, he had not opposed the order of a senior officer. Always the soldier, Nicolas thought.
"Let's go inside" Julien said and sheathed his sword.
They went to Julien's room, stopping first in the large mess hall to collect soup and bread to bring with them, Nicolas unwilling to sacrifice a meal just to talk about Genevieve's attempt at mass suicide. The room was just like Nicolas', but much better kept and therefore better suited for sitting down and talking by the fire. Nicolas had already flung himself down on one of the chairs to start wolfing down the soup when he noticed that Julien was still standing up.
"Would you mind giving me a hand?" he asked, removing his gauntlets.
"Would I ever say no to that?" Nicolas replied with a grin and rose from the chair to begin unbuckling the straps that held the armor together. Once Julien was out of the armor it was placed on its rack, soon followed by the gauntlets and boots and the sword. Underneath the armor Julien wore simple clothes like those Nicolas had, leather trousers and a white linen shirt, now drenched in sweat from the training. It was tempting to continue stripping the clothes off of Julien's body, but Julien, putting on his leather boots, noticed Nicolas' gaze and smiled, one of those small smiles that just barely played on his lips and was reserved for Nicolas only.
"I thought you were hungry" Julien said, no doubt fully aware of what Nicolas had been thinking.
"I am" Nicolas readily admitted, "I just never specified what I was hungry for, did I?"
His words acknowledged only by a pair of slightly raised eyebrows, Nicolas decided to sit down and enjoy his meal. While other things might hold greater temptation for him, he was hungry and the food was still warm and tasty. No point in discussing anything on an empty stomach, really.
"So…" Nicolas started when they had both finished their meals and sat back in their chairs. "I guess you've had some time to think about it."
"I have" Julien offered, his eyes on the empty hearth.
"What do you think about it then?"
"I think the Commander is right." Julien's voice was heavy, as if the thought was more of a burden than his armor had ever been. As he spoke the words, the weight of them pressed down on Nicolas as well.
"You think she's right?" he repeated. "You think we should set off into the Deep Roads in search of a man who is almost certainly dead or very soon will be, all because Genevieve has had a few dreams? It's suicide!"
"I never said that." The words were spoken in a low, almost inaudible tone, but they carried serenity. He had been considering this for a long time. Just how long had he known? His face was solemn as he looked up to meet Nicolas' gaze. "But we must do it."
"Why, for Maker's sake?"
"Because that is what Grey Wardens do."
"We are supposed to protect people, Julien. Not rescue our own, not when they've had their Calling and said their farewells. He left to die."
"And there's no changing that he will."
"He would rather kill himself than let the darkspawn get any information from him."
"I mean, he was the Commander!"
"We could die, Julien!"
It was as if all the air had left Nicolas. He felt depleted, empty, and yet he could see his own despair in the other man's eyes. Only Julien had accepted it.
"It is our duty, Nicolas."
"A duty we have already fulfilled, several times over."
"Being what we are is a lifelong commitment. We cannot quit."
Those words struck hard; harder than Nicolas would want to admit. They were like razor blades that had suddenly cut the skin, leaving not a peck but a wound, long and ragged, and he was in the moment of perfect horror before that wound would start gushing blood.
He rose and made for the door, hand at the handle and halfway through turning it when he felt Julien's hand on his. Rough, dry skin, a hand calloused from a lifetime of wielding a sword. A single touch, but firm, and Nicolas stayed, Julien's words still echoing in his mind and keeping him from turning towards the other man.
"Was it all pretend then?" His voice broke, but he was unsure if it was really anger that caused it. In his mind, their talks of many nights echoed like a second heartbeat. A last few years together, without duties to anyone but each other. A brief repose between a lifetime of fighting and the inevitable death, a hope that would have become reality – at least during those talks. Now the vision faded, replaced by something gruesome and horrible.
"What was it then?" The shout was an explosion: he slapped Julien's hand away and turned against him, glaring even as he felt the burning sensation of tears. "What was it then?"
Julien met his glare, his hand still in mid-air, rejected.
A shiver ran through Nicolas' body.
"Don't say that" he whispered, "Please don't say that."
"I wanted it to be true." Julien looked as broken as Nicolas felt. Or maybe that was just the tears that blurred his vision? "Maker knows I wanted it to be true."
"Then why won't you let it become so?" Nicolas asked. "We can still make it happen. We still have time. We can leave tonight and make it true."
He felt shaky, wiping furiously at the tears that trickled down his face. Maybe if he rubbed his eyes hard enough they would show him a different world.
"Because I could not forgive myself if there was something I could do to prevent a new Blight, but did not do. And neither could you."
Nicolas looked into Julien's eyes. There was no different world, just Julien – like he was and always had been. Dutiful, ready to shoulder any responsibility given to him. So desperately loyal. Nicolas could not disapprove of that. No matter how much it hurt.
He closed his eyes and leaned back on the door, sighing. It was only a matter of seconds before he felt a hand on his cheek. This time, he did not fight it off, but opened his eyes again. There was Julien, right in front of him, like he had always been. The very image of a proper Orlesian noble, but nobler than any part of the nobility. There was an unspoken question in his eyes.
"Are you sure?" Nicolas asked after a few moments. "Does it have to be this way?"
"I'm not forcing you to come along."
"Yes, you are, and you damned well know it" Nicolas grumbled. "If you're planning on going into that Maker-forsaken place I have to make sure that you come back out of it. And I can't very well do that from Montsimmard, can I? No, we go together, as we always have."
There was a trace of a smile on Julien's lips as he stroke Nicolas' chin with his thumb.
"I suppose so" he said. "And I don't wish to go without you. Even if we might be walking into our death."
"As long as it's ours" Nicolas began, but was silenced by a finger on his lips. Don't, Julien's eyes said, and Nicolas said nothing more but leaned into the touch. Not much, just enough to feel the other man's hand cup his cheek again.
"Even if we stayed here it wouldn't do any good" Nicolas mumbled. Julien tensed immediately.
"Oh, she didn't tell you that part? Genevieve has threatened to make me the new Commander, should I not comply with her request."
"I see." Julien chuckled and Nicolas shot him a curious glance.
"Why would she do that? Kell would be the first choice but he already agreed to go with her. Even so, she would be better off appointing you."
"Not at all."
"Why not? You're a far better strategist than I am, and far better at giving orders."
"Perhaps" Julien agreed, "but you are humble, a greater warrior than you admit to be, and you have one gift that is vital to good leadership which Genevieve knows that I do not possess."
"And what might that rare quality be?"
"A leader must be able to feel compassion for and love all the men under his command. I love only one."
For several long seconds, Nicolas could do nothing but stare at the man in front of him. Then he felt his cheeks flush with red and he drew the other man closer for a deep, tender kiss, which gradually deepened and grew more fervent. He could hear Julien twist the doorknob, locking it, and then he lost himself to the kiss. It was not a secluded mountain cottage, but Nicolas did not mind. As long as they were together, he did not mind.