Empty Space

Stray

When Jowan first arrived in Amaranthine Castle, he felt hollowed by the cold, empty spaces between the stone and statuary. He walked the halls and heard his footsteps rebounding off of the indifferent walls and floors that now constituted his home, and he despaired at the thought of spending the rest of his years floating unfettered in this place, this place that was so bleak and gutted that no number of people would ever be able to fill it. That had been his feeling when it was the three of them, so small and insignificant beneath the towering arches and vaulted ceilings. Now, there were dozens of them, and the space was still unfilled.

Not that he had been ungrateful, exactly, to be brought here. When the two Wardens swept into his room at the Tower, Irving and Greagoir behind them with faces of rock, and had plucked him -- once again -- from an inevitable death, his primary emotion certainly hadn't been one of forlornness. To go from an entropic existence, locked in a prison that it had once taken him twenty years to escape from, to one of absolute purpose -- even if that purpose would never have been one he would have chosen for himself -- was more than he could have and should have expected, he knew this.

Although the past two years had seen his life cut down and timed to an ever-encroaching deadline, they had also expanded his small world exponentially. For now Jowan was a Grey Warden -- a title that would probably never sit right in his mind, but one that meant the impossible to him: another chance. And there was life around him again. Being back in the Circle had pierced him with a loneliness that was so much more pronounced than it used to be, when he was a new initiate with knobbly knees and no friends, because the silence was no longer an insult directed at him, but something that permeated the entire tower; the deaths of his fellows. Now he was in a new cloister, and had new fellows to ignore and detest him, and there was something comforting in that.

"Jowan." At the muffled sound of his name, he placed the book he had been reading down, pages spread, removed the two pieces of cotton from his ears, and looked up into the frightful face of Elissa, his leader. "Where is Sebastian?"

"I haven't seen him," Jowan said, which wasn't precisely a lie.

Elissa's eyes flicked down to his makeshift earplugs and he could see her evaluating the evidence in her head. Without further word, she strode over to the door of the study, a tiny room tucked into the farthest corner of the library. She tried it, but the handle only rattled impotently.

"It's locked." Jowan got to his feet, discomfort swirling in his stomach.

Elissa didn't spare him a glance. "Indeed."

Her boot came up and slammed into the door with such violence that there was the sound of a shattering latch, and it swung open with a sheepish quickness. The undulating mass perched on the desk inside stilled, and slowly parted to reveal two separate entities -- one red with shame, the other red with the lack of it.

"Ah, my dear, yet again you prove to have abysmal timing," the elf chuckled, smoothing his tousled hair with his now-free hands.

There was no matching amusement to be found on Elissa's lips. "Zevran, you can't just-- steal my recruits whenever you get an itch in your trousers."

The other boy, Sebastian, who Jowan knew only as the newest addition to the castle, blushed even deeper and set about hurriedly fixing his unbuttoned shirt. Jowan flinched for him. Not the kindest words she could have chosen.

"Pull yourself together and then come join the rest of us for morning drill, if you'd be so kind, Sebastian," she said tersely, spinning on her heel and marching out towards the courtyard.

The poor boy couldn't even stutter a reply, setting after her immediately, wiping his lips dry as he struggled to put on his splintmail. Zevran emerged from the study at a much more languid pace, his sardonic mouth curved up on one side

Turning to Jowan, he let out a tut of irritation. "You had one job."

Heat

It wasn't just Elissa who was on edge. The entire group of Wardens, recruits, and miscellaneous tagalongs that called Amaranthine home was feeling the pressure of a sudden visit from the Orlesian order, four of the highest ranking members, all snooty noses and disapproving eyebrows. Back when Jowan had been the very first recruit of the new Ferelden arm of the Grey Wardens, when it had been only him and his two saviours walking into an abandoned castle and setting about making it fit to be a base of operations rather than an empty echo, some veterans from Orlais had come with a delivery of recruits. At that time, they had been nothing but gracious -- in awe, even -- as they congratulated the two war heroes on the timely slaying of the archdemon, before departing with only a bunch of untrained young men and women and their best wishes left behind them.

These Orlesian Grey Wardens were not tempered by admiration of an event two years in the past, and so their scrutiny of Elissa's leadership was stark and unforgiving. They looked to the jovial relationship between her and her charges and saw disrespect, they looked to the horseplay over dinner and saw a lack of discipline, and they looked to the whispered words exchanged between Elissa and her second-in-command and saw only impropriety.

That evening, when the last meal of the day had been shared and everyone's time was their own, Jowan had the unfortunate luck of being trapped in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. As he traversed the grounds, collecting kindling for the fire in the common room, he caught sight of the Warden Alistair, slipping through the darkness behind a line of trees. At first he paused, his cheeks flushed at the thought of having to interrupt a moonlit tryst between his two superiors, but they soon drained of all warmth when he heard the voice that accompanied Alistair's in a hushed hiss of accented air. It was Corinne, one of the Orlesians.

"My hands are tied, Alistair. You need to speak to Isaac -- he is the one in charge, not me."

Jowan was rooted to the spot. He didn't know what he was overhearing, only that they were standing awfully close and this was something he absolutely shouldn't be witnessing, and why did he always have to get so involved in all the bedtime antics of these people anyhow, and why was it never in the fun way?

"Corrine, please!" Oh, and those were Alistair's hands on her shoulders. Jowan looked away. Even in the dim shadows of the night, the desperation was thick and clear as a beacon between the two figures. He really shouldn't be seeing this.

"Hush, my dear boy," Corrine purred, and it was the point at which Jowan heard the rustle of clothes pressing against clothes that he forgot to remain undetected and simply bolted.

The next morning, he couldn't quite manage to meet Elissa's eyes. And he was almost certain that it wasn't just his imagination -- she and Alistair were bumping around each other, awkward and prickled. If she didn't suspect him of sneaking off with pretty women from foreign countries in the night, she was certainly angry about something. However, before Jowan could properly work himself up into a state over it, he was distracted by a hand waving in front of his eyes.

"Good morning, Mister Daydream," sing-songed Violet, settling into the seat beside him at the dining table and tucking into an apple.

She was one of the only people that really talked to Jowan, or at least one of the only people that went out of their way to do it. Perhaps it had something to do with their connection -- they underwent the Joining together and were the only two of a group of three to come out with their hearts still beating -- although Jowan wished constantly for a less depressing thread to link them than that. He sat by her side, and smelled the ink from magical tomes on her fingertips, and tried not to stare too long at her crow-black hair. And, in return, she smiled at him, and discussed the latest spell that she had learnt, and treated him like a person to be interested in, rather than studied with mistrustful eyes. And, sometimes, it was all Jowan could do to push all of this down and just try his hardest not to hope...

Blood

Week three into the Orlesian Wardens' visit, and things took a dramatic dip for the worse. A team arrived back from a routine training exercise along the coast, battered and broken, and horribly silent. Elissa was at the rear, barely supporting a severely limping Zevran, her faithful dog sticking close to his wounded mistress. She lowered Zevran down onto the steps outside the castle's main entrance, where the rest of the injured also planted themselves, and called for Violet.

"Patch us up, would you?" She made it sound like someone had got themselves a nasty paper cut.

Jowan, who knew some basic healing magic at least, pitched in as best he could, but this was where Violet could really shine, light emanating from her palms, knitting skin, and bending bone to her will. She looked so gentle, so good, so much like Lily in that moment, that Jowan almost bit through his tongue trying to keep himself from rattling apart.

"What in the Maker's name happened?" Came an exclamation from the doorway as Isaac and Corrine came into view.

Alistair was not far behind them and his eyes immediately sought out Elissa. He rushed to her side and she brought up a blood-caked hand -- perhaps to push him away -- but let it rest on his chest, fingers clasping faintly at the material of his shirt. "Darkspawn. A lot of them. They were... waiting, perhaps. Or they just got incredibly lucky."

"Andraste's mercy, these roving bands are becoming more than a nuisance," Isaac rumbled, drawing a finger ponderously over his bearded chin.

Jowan couldn't help but let out a snort at that, and was mildly surprised to hear Elissa do the same.

"Yes, they certainly are a pain in the neck," she laughed almost wildly. "Nothing but a damned bother, those Darkspawn."

"Elissa," Alistair said softly, placing a wide hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently.

This seemed to settle her and, for a moment, Jowan thought that he must have imagined that night in the garden, with Alistair's hands on another woman's body, because the love that spread in the space between these two was palpable. Enough so that it made the Orlesians uncomfortable, and Corrine cleared her throat to bring attention back to the current crisis.

"I take it you managed to kill them all in the end?" she asked.

Elissa flashed her a smile of sharp edges and grim humour. "Naturally."

Sebastian was now in the fray, rushing to Zevran and fussing over him as the Antivan groaned and swatted him away. As others stepped forward with bandages and poultices, Jowan withdrew and, for the first time, really noticed the blood. Blood, for him, was something that held a different significance than for everyone else. For him, it was a resource, to be calculated and measured. Sometimes he wished for nothing more than to be able to stop this, to go back to thinking of it as something that you tried to keep inside your body at all cost, something that signified danger, rather than something that he worked with, like a tool or a weapon.

Those first days after his recruitment, he had tried bringing up the subject, and it had been made explicitly clear to him that his blood magic was not to be used.

"It'll be hard," Alistair had said, frowning, not looking like he held much sympathy, "But you'll have to fall back to your basics and work up from there."

The prospect had been terrifying. Blood magic was all that Jowan could do. Even before he had harnessed it, his "acceptable" pool of talents had been sub par and neglected. How could they expect him to be a Grey Warden when he was being stripped of the only thing that offered him any protection? The following years were ones of painstaking rehabilitation, and by the time the Darkspawn started reappearing as raiding parties, he was able to face them with the skills and spells that he had once thought abandoned forever.

However, if he was honest, Jowan thought it almost certainly a mere matter of time before the blood magic was drawn out of him once more. With the Darkspawn growing bolder and the uncertainty amongst the Wardens growing stronger, he could feel not only himself -- but Elissa too -- slipping further into the camp of "needs must". But, as she had said to him that one time he had cornered her in the corridor, they weren't there yet.

Splinter

Apart from Zevran, who knew everything about everything to do with carnal pleasures and who was willing to do what with whom, Jowan was the person who knew the most about the... connection between the two senior Grey Wardens of Amaranthine. Just as he had been apart from the others in the Circle Tower, because of his lack of desirable traits a person might seek in a friend, he was apart from the other Wardens, because he had been the first. He had been the only one to see those initial, unsure steps into a new era for the Ferelden order, the only one to hear the hushed conversations between Elissa and Alistair as they both tried to convince each other that it was possible to rebuild, that it was possible to lead when they were both so young and unprepared.

So, for better or for worse, he was attuned to them, somewhat. Uncomfortable breakfasts meant that Alistair had spent the night in a room other than Elissa's, hopefully alone. Sparring matches that stretched so long the spectators would grow bored and shuffle away before the end meant that there were a million words being left unspoken between them. These unpleasant things were a relatively new development, older than Corrine, but remained unfathomable to Jowan, who had once looked at the pair and seen love so blinding that it was shocking to him that most of the other inhabitants of the castle only talked about the relationship as if it were a rumour.

Perhaps he had been the only person to feel it, but it was certainly clear that the tension grew more day by day, and by the time it was finally ready to explode, Jowan recognised it a fraction of a second before the moment came. He was helping Elissa carry some shoddily-made dummies to the training grounds -- one of which he remembered as his own handiwork, from back when there had been no better uses of his time as a recruit -- when they came across Alistair facing down the implacable wall of Isaac and Corrine.

"I know that we're all limited right now, what with the Darkspawn doing... whatever it is they're doing now, but if you could post just a couple of people, that would be such a help."

Isaac sighed impatiently. "Who would you have us send, hm? If we sent you some of our boys, you'd what? Lump them in with the rest of your lot? How would that help?"

Alistair started forward. "No, I don't mean--. I don't want your boys. We need a senior Grey Warden. Perhaps Corrine?" He looked at her hopefully.

Jowan actually felt the snap of Elissa's shoulders as she squared them in irritation. So far, the others hadn't noticed the two of them.

"You want me to leave Corrine with you? I don't--. Alistair, exactly what is going on here?" Isaac leant forward. "Are you calling Elissa's ability to command into question?"

"I-- I wouldn't say that, exactly." Alistair stumbled. "Or, well--"

The three of them stopped and turned in unison at the sound of Elissa clearing her throat. Alistair, in particular, looked grey with fear.

"Perhaps I should be present for this conversation?" She bit out. "And in future, Alistair, if you have concerns over my leadership, perhaps you should bring them directly to me. And in a more timely fashion."

With that, she deposited her supplies on the ground and headed back inside, her steps clipped and ferocious. The others followed, Alistair the slowest, and Jowan was left standing alone, still making a show of averting his eyes, even though there was no one left to fool.

That evening, Violet made an achingly sweet and clumsy overture, inviting Jowan to her room for a "talk". Whether or not it was indeed to be just a talk, or something more, Jowan was humming with anticipation. Even if she invited him there to organise her book collection, he would have been thrilled for the attention. It was on his way to this -- possible -- midnight dalliance, that he heard the crash, followed by frantic, worried whispering from Elissa's room. Knowing he would regret it, but forging ahead anyway, Jowan crept closer to the door. Part of him rationalised that she might be under attack, but the majority of him recognised that he was in fact just developing an enormous appetite for drama.

"--not normal, Alistair, so don't you dare try and tell me that it was just a bad dream." Elissa's voice was low and angry. "What is it? Come on, I can take it. Are the Darkspawn getting stronger? There's a new archdemon? What?"

The itching quiet that followed lasted so long that Jowan almost gave up and left, but just before he could take a step, he heard a shuddering breath and... "I think I'm being called."

Jowan couldn't stop the gasp from escaping his mouth and clapped a hand over it right away, but too late. However, no one inside the room had heard him. For a bizarre moment, the smell of damp wood surged into his nostrils and filled his head, making him brace himself against the wall. Shaking it out, he strained to hear the rest of the conversation.

Elissa was so muted, he could barely make out what she was saying. "How... how is that even possible? You haven't even--. It's only been three years."

"I know." Nothing but pain and desperation in Alistair's words. "But it's happening."

Decay

Castle Amaranthine was swiftly becoming the place to be for the broken-hearted. Sebastian had been moping from dawn until dusk every day for the past week, and he had chosen Jowan's corner of the library in which to do it. He never spoke up about the source of his anguish, but it wasn't difficult to deduce, what with Zevran being conspicuously absent from the study of late. Sympathy plucked at Jowan's heart -- and wasn't that a bad sign, when he could find someone to pity -- for he didn't think that the wide-eyed Sebastian even had it in him to understand the concept of a fling.

Normally, this constant companionship would be annoying but perhaps the slightest bit welcome. However, lately Jowan had many things on his mind, and had thrown himself into research with such fervour that, more than once, one of the other Wardens had been sent to fetch him for meals. It was necessary, though, for he might possibly have something of incredible importance to tell Elissa, and he wasn't prepared to risk being wrong in this, of all things.

"What're you doing?" Sebastian had asked, only once, taking a break from the constant huffing and puffing to hang over the back of Jowan's chair, trying to read the text over his shoulder.

"Trying to find a smell." Jowan snapped the book shut.

"...Did you say spell?"

Jowan sighed and reached for the next book on the pile.

The Orlesians departed that afternoon, and the castle let out a collective sigh of relief. Alistair left only a few hours later, and the commotion of it drew almost everyone to watch.

"You're just going to run away, like a child? Well, that's simply marvellous, Alistair, truly!" Ellisa was barely on the right side of 'shrill', panic poking through the degrading facade of authority.

"Don't you dare." Alistair rounded on her. "You couldn't possibly understand how this feels."

"Oh, of course not. I certainly can't imagine the hurt or anger or absolute damned terror--." She cut off with a sharp, jagged laugh. "If only I were Corrine, perhaps then I--"

In an instant Alistair was looming directly over her, hands outstretching then retreating, muscles flexing in anger and indecision. "I had almost convinced her. If you had just been nicer to her, she might've stayed." He accused. "Who's going to look after you now, when I'm--."

Both fell suddenly silent.

Elissa started: "Is that what you were--"

"I'm not running away," Alistair said, quiet and hard. "I'm doing the only thing I can."

And then he left. And Elissa let him. And everyone watched him go, and watched her just about manage not to break down before heading for privacy at a hurried pace. Jowan wanted to follow her, or follow him, and tell them what he thought he might know. But he didn't, and the little black ball of self-loathing that had been slowly melting away resolidified in his chest.

Penance

Alistair was going to the Deep Roads, Elissa had told him. To die. She had muttered it, hoarse and cracking open, sitting beside him on the courtyard steps one evening when he had gone out to breath air that wasn't stale and heavy with dust and the smell of books. Jowan hadn't said a word in reply, and eventually she had gathered up all the feelings she had almost spilled onto him, pressed them back into herself, and gone back inside. The little black ball was growing.

When she had left, to distract himself, he considered the concept of sacrifice, and marvelled at how much of his life was now tied into it. To be a Grey Warden was to give the entirety of yourself to a cause that was so simple, yet so ill-defined, that he couldn't understand how a person could find meaning in it. By undertaking the Joining, he had poisoned himself, sworn himself to a life of servitude and an early death. And in that death, he would also be bound. He would die the way the Grey Wardens wished him to die. All he could really hope for was that, by the time he needed to make the final journey, the reasons for it would be clearer to him.

Not that this overly concerned him. Being a Grey Warden, primarily, meant that he had a chance to atone for his past mistakes. And those mistakes would take a lifetime to atone for, without question. When he had been cowering from reanimated corpses in Redcliffe Castle's dungeon, he had thought that would be his execution. Then, later, he assumed that it had been postponed until Arl Eamon had him brought before him. But then he was being carted back to the Circle Tower, where Irving had received him with such an old, sad stare that it was almost funny -- that he still had the ability to disappoint the Senior Enchanter after everything he had already done was the most hilarious, disgusting thing he could have ever imagined. Time and time again, he had prepared himself for death, only to be granted reprieves at every last minute, each additional mercy a new piece of glass beneath his skin.

He had thought the Joining would be it for certain. If other potential Wardens had fallen at this hurdle, he saw no possible way that he might be able to survive. Yet he had. He was left leaning on a table, legs caving under him, the crumpled body of the man who wasn't fortunate enough to make it on the floor, Violet huddled over it, screaming--

"It worries me when you think so hard." Maker's breath, as if summoned, there she was. "Makes me think you must be sick or something."

She sat with him for a while, and they tripped around the conversation as best they could, her all shy flirtation and him all... whatever it was that he was doing. Finally, her face hardened into something akin to pure determination and she hesitantly asked him back to her room. "Not to talk," she specified.

And Jowan had to say no. He had to say no, because he was busy. And she was amazing and so, so pretty, and so nice, but he had important things to do, vital things, and she was kissing him, and he was kissing her, and it was wonderful, Maker, he was full of her, her mouth tasting of cherries, her hair smelling of-- of damp wood. Something clicked in Jowan's mind and he pulled back -- they panted together, mouths open and lips swollen.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, let's go to your room."

After hustling him inside, Violet grinned and backed towards the door. "Let me just... go and get clean."

"Hurry back," he said, and she winked as she slipped away.

As soon as she was gone, her footfalls fading into nothingness, Jowan was on his feet and rifling through drawers, frantic and so scared he could hear nothing over his own pulse, echoing in his ears. It didn't take long to find the signs he was searching for, the traces of blood on the underside of the pillow, the kinds of books that he had turned to once so very long ago. Violet returned, her face twisting in confusion, and in an instant, he had her tackled the the ground, holding her arms so tight he might've been breaking them, and he was yelling, yelling for anyone to come, because he had no idea exactly how powerful she was, exactly what she could do.

The Wardens did come, with weapons drawn, some of them with armour hastily fastened. Elissa arrived with her sword and, furiously, demanded an explanation.

"She's a blood mage!" Jowan stared right at Elissa as he said this. Suddenly, he was very aware of his tenuous position within the order, the absurdity of his accusation, him of all people. If he saw disbelief in her eyes now, he didn't know what he would do. He was shaking so hard. He'd probably shake apart.

Loss

But Elissa didn't discard this. "Hold her," she instructed, and two of the Wardens -- ones who, unlike Jowan, actually possessed upper body strength -- grabbed Violet by the arms and dragged her to her feet.

She was trembling, her face smashed wide open with fear, and Jowan was praying that he was doing the right thing here, throwing this timid little mouse to the wolves. He showed Elissa the books he had found.

"She has more in her room. There's blood. And-- and she smells of damp wood!"

Elissa raised her eyebrow at the last part.

"I remember it," Jowan explained, "From when I was-- when I started practising blood magic. I would speak to demons and-- and after, there would always be that scent." Elissa was beginning to look dubious, so he finished on his strongest note. "I could smell the same thing coming from your room, the night that-- I mean, I've smelt it. Around your room."

It was like dying and being revived, seeing understanding bloom across Elissa's face. She turned on Violet, snarling. "What did you do?"

And suddenly Violet wasn't Violet anymore, but whatever was beneath Violet, inside her. The darkest part. "You bitch!" She was screaming. "You bitch, how dare you! You killed him! Think you're hurting? Think you're hurting without your precious lover? I haven't even given you half of my pain yet, you murdering whore!"

Elissa paused, and Jowan knew she was remembering that first Joining, with one man dead, and Violet prostrate over his cold body. She swallowed.

"He only wanted to get away from the Chantry! He said we could live free, but you-- you killed him!" Violet was wild, no longer within the confines of this room, taken entirely by grief and fury.

"And you turned to this to... what?" Elissa asked, calm like the prelude to a battle. "How did you do this?"

"I just gave him a nudge." Violet returned to the here and now to spit the words, her teeth bared. "A little push every night, got him thinking about the Darkspawn, about the Deep Roads. He's an idiot -- much more suggestible than I thought he would be. He's going to die down there, and you are going to know how it feels."

Elissa barked out a laugh. "What, you're not going to try and kill me as well?"

"Just give me the chance," Violet growled.

Jowan shifted on his feet, wanting to interject. Violet was dangerous -- possibly more so than any of them could fathom, if she had been able to hide this for so long. He looked to Elissa, trying to gauge the situation.

"Let her go."

Jowan cried out, weakly. "What? No! She'll--"

But the two men holding her by the arms obeyed their commander and relaxed their grasp. In a flash, Violet was lurching forward and Jowan felt the vibrations of blood magic in the air. It called to him and he felt himself preparing his own spell, the buried but unforgotten knowledge surging to the surface. He didn't know what he was going to do, but he was going to stop her--

Elissa brought her sword down in an arc -- so fast, he hadn't even seen her raise it -- and the magic at his fingertips stalled and faded. The silence in the hallway thrummed, stretched for long, long moments, until the thud of Violet hitting the floor broke it. Her head rolled from the rest of her body and Jowan couldn't even look away.

Suddenly there was a bustle of activity. Some Wardens collecting her -- the parts of her -- and taking her away. Jowan didn't move, still staring at where she had been on the stone, at the red stain that marked her as having been lying right there. Sinking to his knees, he wondered if he would ever run out of mistakes to make.

Close

It had been a long time since he had been expected to walk for such extended periods with so little rest between bursts. In fact, the last time had been when he was being brought to Amaranthine. Now, travelling in the opposite direction, Jowan could only laugh at his truly remarkable fortune. Elissa had insisted that it would only be the two of them to make the journey, eager as she was to travel lightly and quickly, hopefully gaining some time on Alistair. He had a few days' head start, and that was far too large a gap.

They passed through any settlements they came across with ruthless efficiency, taking time only to trade and eat, before setting off again to cover more distance before nightfall forced them to camp. And the nights were certainly nostalgic. Jowan remembered those days after his conscription, him inside his tent, startling at every noise, straining to hear any reassuring sound from Elissa or Alistair, who pitched two tents but only shared the one, the one farthest away from him.

The distance was different now. Elissa was grave, and Jowan was fairly certain that he knew what she was contemplating. He wanted to apologise, to explain why it had taken him so long to tell her of his suspicions. He knew that she was wondering whether Alistair had already reached Orzammar, had already entered the Deep Roads, was already dead. He wanted her to voice what must be on her mind -- if he had told her sooner, she could have stopped Alistair before he ever left. He wanted to tell her that it was simply the only way for him. He had to have been certain. Bringing up the subject of forbidden magic would have felt like tightening the noose around his own neck, and he hadn't wanted to give her false hope, and he was a horrible coward. But Elissa never asked. She barely spoke at all.

Orzammar itself was... overwhelming. Walking into the city was like walking into the core of the earth, and the feeling of suffocation that scratched at Jowan's throat was absolutely apt. Now, Elissa spoke. She spoke to everyone she passed. Eventually, she was pointed in the direction of a seedy little inn in the Merchant Quarter that -- Jowan had to bite his tongue not to articulate -- had more in common with a brothel than anything else. He assumed. It turned out they were mere hours too late. That morning, a human man had paid for his room and left, without saying a single word.

"We're going to catch him," Elissa said to Jowan, and her eyes were glinting with such possessed keenness that he didn't have the strength in him to disagree.

As it turned out, she was right. In fact, they found him barely ten steps away from the city gates, standing motionless, staring into the endless stretch of the Deep Roads. Jowan hung back instinctively. He neither wanted to be a part of the reunion or the possible Darkspawn attack. Elissa approached him with no sound to give away her presence. She tapped his shoulder and, as Alistair turned, she punched him in the face.

Jowan grimaced. Alistair did a fair bit more than that -- staggering back and bringing his hands up to cover his nose. Elissa didn't give him a chance to respond at all, rushing him, bringing him down to the ground, then scrambling to kiss his lips, desperate and so very angry.

"Elissa--" Alistair tried, but to not avail.

"Shut up and listen to me. You have to believe me -- it's not your time. I'm not just saying that. Don't-- argue. Just-- just--" Words ceased to serve their purpose, and Elissa clung to his neck, holding on so hard it might have been bringing up bruises.

But Alistair was grasping at her too, and as he held her chin in his palms he said, "I know. I-- I mean, I believe you. Maybe. This-- this doesn't feel right. I stepped in here and it-- didn't feel right."

When they left Orzammar, Jowan did his best sustained impression of a person that wasn't there, trying to give the two of them the chance to be together, be open with each other for a short time. And they seemed to understand what he was doing. They weren't touching, or kissing, or even walking particularly close to each other, but the chasm between them was shining and beautiful once more.

After Jowan helped Elissa explain things to Alistair, his face unravelled and he laughed disbelievingly. "I feel like I turned up to a party five hours early."

"You'll never live it down," Elissa shot back over her shoulder, not slowing the pace for a moment.

Alistair grinned at her back and Jowan found himself doing the same. What else was there to do?

That night, when they retired to their tents -- no pretence of the two lovebirds not sharing this time -- Jowan was struck by how close they seem to be pitched. Anticipating unsavoury sounds coming from his neighbours, he actually had to relocate his to a more distant spot. Before he turned in, Elissa approached him, and he wondered if they were finally going to have the big talk where he got to admit what a gutless wretch he was. Instead, she hushed him before there was a chance to begin and pulled him into a hug, breathing out into his shoulder. When she stepped back, he was breathless and on the verge of a mental implosion, and she didn't look much better held together.

"Thank you," was all that she said.

In the morning the three of them ate breakfast together, and Alistair stole one of Jowan's sausages, and later on while they were walking and he began to slow down, Elissa kicked his rear end and laughed at him to pick up the pace. And Jowan tried -- he really tried not to -- but couldn't help starting to hope that when they finally returned, and he stepped into the giant halls of Amaranthine Castle once more, the space would not feel quite as empty as before.

END.