When Therrin cracks her eyes open the world is blurred and dim, flicker-lights wavering along the inside of her skull in circling dizzy-sick trails, a red tide of pain hitting with staggering force as soon as consciousness pulls her in. At the same instant, magic leaks out through her skin, gathering formlessly in the absence of any ability to stop it. Panicked, Therrin tries to shut out the heavy press of the Fade and can't.
Anders frowns at her from above, escaped hairs from his disheveled ponytail hanging down around his face. How did you get here? she wants to demand, and make it stop, but she can't work her tongue. He reaches down a hand, glowing blue with magic, and the world goes dark.
"Let's try this again," he says and it draws her out of a terrible nightmare, the wisp-visions of tentacles and fire receding into the mists of memory even as she tries to scramble to catch up to reality. But being awake hurts. One side of her body is a tangled raw swath of pain from her ribs to her hip and when she breathes it grows a thousand times worse. "You'll thank me later for trying to fix your head first," Anders informs her grimly, and for some reason it's the trying to in all that that's most frightening, because if Anders thinks he's in over his head the situation is grim indeed.
Panic claws upward at her throat and mana flares like a bonfire inside her, spilling up and out beyond control and something is horribly wrong. "Contain it," Anders says, voice sharp and worried as he wavers and spins through her field of vision. "You've got to keep your magic contained or you risk undoing everything I've managed."
"I'm trying," Therrin croaks angrily, but anger just makes it worse. Unfocused magic buffets her from the inside out and crackles through the air around them like Fade-fires, too much to rein in and impossible to stop. Anders' eyebrows shoot up in alarm, and before she can tell him no he reaches down again, touches her forehead, and wrenches her away from the waking world.
"If you do that again I'm going to demote you," Therrin grits out the next time she comes awake. Irritation makes magic bubble up in hot messy eagerness but she doesn't hurt half as much. She can breathe again without feeling as though her lungs are trying to slice themselves open on her ribs and the relief of it is almost enough to make her anger bleed away.
"Nice. Sit up. Slowly," Anders orders, mouth quirked in a sardonic half-smile. That's a good sign, isn't it? He wouldn't be smiling if she was going to die.
Therrin elbows up as carefully as possible, dizziness making the simple motion a trial. The bed seems to drop out from beneath her and send her tumbling even though it doesn't move, and she clamps her teeth together and tries to breathe slowly, waiting for the sensation to pass.
It doesn't. It ebbs a little, but the room seems to spin, Anders with it, and Therrin squeezes her eyes shut tight so she doesn't have to look.
"Better," Anders says appraisingly, reaching out with fine tendrils of magic.
Therrin tries to sift through her own disorientation, looking for anything to hold onto amid the fragments of thoughts wheeling through her head. "Where's Cullen?"
"Upstairs, I think. And on the other side of a barred door, for the moment, and you're going to have to talk him out of strangling us both because I wash my hands of it. You're at Vigil," he informs her, and she cracks her eyes open long enough to take in the familiar deep-grey walls. An unexpected surge of emotion brings magic with it, spilling over out of control.
"Stop that!" Anders orders.
"How?" she demands in alarm, scrambling for deep breaths, for anything to rein in her magic.
"However you can. Think tranquil thoughts. Anything," he says, looking ruffled.
Therrin concentrates and tries to make herself a blank, reaching for old deeply-ingrained children's chants, the nonsense rhymes they used to teach the littlest apprentices to calm themselves down. "What's wrong with me?" she manages when she finally feels able to speak without bursting into unwilling spells, the effort of maintaining even this slim thread of control distressingly difficult.
"I'm not entirely sure," Anders confesses. Therrin's stomach heaves in response, a blistering fear exploding along her insides that she hurries to smother. "You took a blow… here," he says with a bare touch of his fingertips to a spot against her skull. "It's well on its way to healing. You're dizzy, aren't you?"
"What's wrong with my magic?"
Anders doesn't answer right away, sucking in a breath. "You know when a door isn't a door?"
Therrin scowls, in no mood for riddles. "What?"
"When it's ajar," Anders says sourly, and she opens her eyes enough to glare at him. "Your connection to the Fade has gone completely wrong, as best as I can tell."
"Wrong," Therrin echoes, tenuous control slipping dangerously.
"It's not a precise diagnosis," he grumbles, "no, don't get try and up. Honestly." He returns her dissatisfied glare, mouth tight. "Look, I've never seen anything quite like this, all right? You can't hiss and spit at me if you go jump off the odd edge of the map and come back wrong. It's…"
"Open," Therrin finishes miserably. It feels as if a gateway in her head has been propped open and she can't close it.
"Yes," Anders says quickly, "but it does look to be getting better. It's… less likely than I thought before that you'll be stuck this way forever."
But this on its own is bad enough, and worse when she thinks about it. She feels ready to fall even perfectly still, dizziness overpowering thought as she flounders to control what had been second nature since she was six years old. Small, she thinks, start small. She makes herself take one slow breath and then another, holding on to one moment and then the next. "Tell me," she begins, and fumbles for the right kind of distraction, "tell me what happened."
Anders sighs but launches into the tale without complaint, and Therrin curls on her side and squeezes her eyes closed, trying to be still inside and out and holding onto the thread of his voice to keep the bubbling panic at bay. He doesn't seem in much of a mood for details but sketches out what he'd heard in broad strokes: the Architect's death and then the Mother's, Nathaniel's predawn gallop with Therrin back to Vigil (that Therrin remembers not a single second of, even when she tries), something about a dragon.
"Nathaniel's not dead, then," she murmurs against the sheet. She had dreamed he was dead.
"No, though he had everyone fooled there for a while," Anders says, a grin coming through in his voice. "I didn't even get to the best part, you know. He's a hero in Amaranthine. It's true," he laughs at her expression. "He led some fifty people out of burning buildings to safety before he ran off after you lot."
Therrin cracks one eye open. "Nathaniel told you that."
"No, of course not. The constable sent men to Vigil after. They couldn't shut up about it. I think Nathaniel wishes they would." His smile dims a fraction as though he remembers belatedly that this is a sickroom and not a tavern-table chat. "Sleep," he says, pushing up from his chair. Therrin closes her eyes again quickly to dispel the sight of him teetering off-balance. "We've got some experiments to try once you've rested."
"Wonderful," Therrin mutters, wincing in anticipation of another press of magic to force her into unconsciousness, but Anders only leaves her in peace.
Emotional distress is a particularly nasty trigger for the loss of her magical control, Anders decides over the course of the next few days. From moment to moment Therrin is more or less able to keep her newly-wayward magic inside her own skin, though some moments are considerably to the less side of that spectrum, and Anders removes almost everything flammable in a hurry. But these first fragile days are crucial to healing, he says, and they require an absolute minimum of anything to cause a significant emotional response. No worrying. No more nightmares, as much as they can be avoided.
"Especially Cullen," Anders insists when she asks. "Do you want to burn down Vigil's Keep in some sort of feelings-induced arcane fit?"
"No," Therrin concedes, dampening her irritation. The title of Commander doesn't seem to matter one whit to Anders (had it ever?), and he mutters to himself as he goes, appalled that she'd asked.
He does relent a little, the next day.
Therrin sits at the mostly-bare table with a quill in one hand, gripping the table-edge with the other in a bid to stay upright. Vertigo threatens to send her keeling over to the floor but she's determined to get past this—Anders had said this would be getting better any time now—and very deliberately she continues scrawling out a letter. Her usual neat script slants and blotches across the vellum, the letters swirling and rearranging themselves before her eyes and making her sick.
An unobtrusive knock at the door startles her. It can't be Anders. He doesn't know how to knock. "Come in."
Varel appears in the wedge of the opening door a second before Dog pushes it open entirely and hurtles through, and the surge of joy at the sight of him sends her magic surging in kind. It manifests itself as a small hollow ball of fire she hurriedly puts out, tamping down the smoldering edge of the newly-scorched, completely hopeless letter, struggling for calm. "Dog," she manages as he plants himself at her feet and puts his head in her lap. He closes his eyes in quiet canine elation and she buries her fingers into his coarse warm fur. "Hello, Varel," she says belatedly, glancing up.
He offers a slight smile. "Commander. It's good to see you awake."
He had been there when Nathaniel had brought her in, probably; Therrin doesn't remember. "It's…" Terrifying. Maddening. "Better," she says at last, settling for the most optimistic of truths. Dog licks her hands, looking as though he could wriggle out of his skin but won't. Someone must have told him firmly to behave.
"Anders indicated you might do for a little company," Varel says easily, glancing at the wreck of her letter. "Unless you're busy—"
"No," Therrin says, too quickly. "I was just…" She gestures at the vellum in distaste. "Nothing important."
Desperately important. If there is any precedent in the Tower's records she needs to know and the sooner the better, but she can't even properly write a letter.
Varel nods slowly, thinking for a moment before he retrieves a chair from the far wall. "May I?" he asks, indicating the quill and ink. Therrin nods, holding Dog tighter. He sighs against her arm, tail wagging like the world's fastest pendulum but every other inch of him still.
"To… Dop—" Varel begins uncertainly, pulling still-fresh vellum from the bottom of the stack.
"Dagna," Therrin corrects roughly, forcing down another wild upswell of feeling before it can carry her away. "To Dagna," she says, steadier, as Varel begins to write for her. "At the Circle Tower."
"You know, I think I've almost got this," Anders says a few days later, shuffling a few pages of notes and pausing to scribble something in a margin. "Or at least it's all completely strange, but an internally consistent sort of strange. No lyrium," he says meaningfully, glancing over the edge of the vellum.
Therrin blinks, not understanding. "Sorry?"
"No lyrium exposure. And nothing enchanted. Nothing that might augment your mana pool."
"Until when?" Therrin asks, startled. Not that she wants any lyrium just now, but she already feels naked enough without her robes and staff.
"Until I say so," Anders says, his eyebrows drawing together as he frowns. "Weeks, at least, if everything goes well. And don't tell me you need it because you don't. If you weren't the first person in the world I hear ought to know better I'd say you were flirting with an addiction to the stuff." He gives her a cagey look as though he suspects it anyway. "Not a drop."
"Not a grain."
"Anders," she chides, but he only raises his eyebrows expectantly. "Fine. No lyrium. I understand."
"Good." He skims his notes, biting the inside of his cheek as he thinks. "We've been over the nightmares."
"Yes." A drop of potion to discourage dreaming, every night, she already knows.
"Hmm." He comes to the end of his notes. There has to be more to it than that; he's got pages of scribbles and it's got to be more than just no lyrium. He gives her a gauging look, not entirely satisfied. "How are you feeling?"
"Now, specifically." She tries to peek over the edge of his notes but he snatches them away. "Cheating. You couldn't make sense of them anyway. If you're that nosy, we can assume you're steady enough for the moment?"
"I'm not—" He smirks faintly and she realizes a second too late that she's being baited. "I'm fine. Now, specifically."
"Good," he says, putting aside his papers and leaning in his chair, balancing it on its back two legs. "I came across a little tidbit of information the other day you might be interested in knowing. Fascinating, the things you learn when you're mucking around someone's insides trying to put them back together."
It's a full day after that before Therrin is steady enough to give the order. "I'm not asking," she warns Anders, cutting across his protests. "Get them. Now. Please," she remembers at the last second.
Anders' mouth gets tight and before he goes he mumbles something under his breath that Therrin suspects she wouldn't have wanted to hear anyway, but he does go. Ser Pounce-a-lot glares balefully at her from his place on Anders' shoulder.
Not quite five minutes later, the door swings open near-silently, and at the sight of Cullen Therrin's feelings explode almost beyond what her magic can bear. She clenches her hands together until her fingers hurt, trying to clamp down on her magic and emotions both. "I'm not going to be able to talk much," she cautions, her throat unexpectedly raw as she tries to level out the peaks and trenches of emotion into something less dangerous. Control, control, it was never this hard even as a child.
Cullen gives a grave, small nod. "Anders said as much." He crosses the distance and sits beside her on the edge of the bed with utmost care, as though one wrong breath could break her. He doesn't try to talk any more than that, and it's a mercy. She can hardly look at him and yet at the same time can't stop. Though his eyes seem to devour the sight of her he sits perfectly still, the picture of self-contained discipline with his hands resting on top of his thighs. She pulls one of them over, holding it between her hands, tightening her fingers around his.
Cullen doesn't make a sound. She wishes fervently that she could trust herself to speak without erupting into uncontrolled magic—Maker knows they need to talk—but she can't risk it, infinitely tempting as it is to blurt out everything in her heart. She settles for shifting, for leaning back into bed and pulling him along, resting comfortably along the length of his side when he puts an arm around her carefully.
It's almost too much. Therrin squeezes her eyes shut against his shirt and holds on, restraining errant surges of magic. The silence seems full—of rebellious flares of feeling, of all the words she wants to say—and she keeps quiet, buoyed by the thought that this is progress, lulled by the feel of his hand rubbing her arm in soothing lines, by the drum of his heartbeat beneath her ear.
She hardly notices the minutes trickling past, but when enough time has gone by and nothing ignites Cullen makes some small gesture, and Therrin raises her head to see Stephen, lip bitten red, slinking in from the doorway and across the floor. The bed dips only a little when he crawls over Cullen and Therrin both, settling onto the blankets on her other side. She slips an arm around him and he curls like a vine against her, winding his arms around her tight, and he doesn't say a word but his shoulders shake, and the side of her robes goes damp where his face presses into them.
Therrin runs her fingers through his hair, catching on tiny invisible tangles. Stephen rubs his face against her side and then too late remembers that she isn't a handkerchief, and tries to wipe his runny nose on the back of his arm without getting caught. But their eyes meet and he looks so sheepish and miserable that a laugh bubbles up in her throat all unexpected. "We're a mess," Therrin says, half-despairing, and at that Stephen bursts into hiccupping giggles he can't quite stifle, shaking them all.
They're contagious; Therrin grins back at him.
"Hush, you two," Cullen chides, sounding far too relieved to be reprimanding anyone. "We're under orders." There's a strain in his face, the marks of old worries, new worries, of too much care and too little sleep. Therrin stretches to plant a quick apologetic kiss on his cheek before settling back down against him, and Stephen crawls up her side and rests his head against her cheek, his curls tickling her nose, and for a moment there doesn't feel like anything wrong in the world.
"Two hundred eleven," Cullen says, not even breathing hard. "Two hundred twelve."
"Can we stop?" Therrin gasps. Sweat rolls down her spine in the heat of the day, making her dress cling to her back.
"We're almost there." But Cullen stops in the stairwell anyway, waiting for her to catch her breath. She could strangle Anders just now. It had been his idea to climb steps to regain her strength once she could. Though perhaps he hadn't meant go count all the stairs in Vigil's Keep. That had been Cullen's whim, and it's a good thing he's keeping count because she's lost track three times already. "Are you dizzy?" he asks, and she nods, leaning against the wall as though she could leech coolness from the Keep itself.
"We could head back down."
"No. I could… use the air, up at the top. I just need a minute," she admits, knees trembling and the left side of her ribs stinging fiercely with every breath.
It is two hundred and fifty stairs to the top of Vigil's highest tower. She sinks to the floor of the overlook when they make it, trying to press herself into the stone. From here it's difficult to avoid the brand-new feeling of unsteadiness, of being ready to fall—into the open air, into the Fade that waits only scarcely on the other side of a thought—like a bird perched high in an open aerie, on the cusp of falling into flight. "Promise me," she manages, holding a shaking hand over her eyes to keep off the glare of the sun. "Promise me someday we'll live in a place with no stairs."
He laughs softly. "I'll see what I can do."
"Good enough." She heaves a sigh that only reminds her of the ache at her side and sits cross-legged, well away from the edge. Not that she's afraid of heights, exactly. But with her balance still off, the edge of the tower is newly forbidding.
Cullen doesn't show any such hesitation. "I think I can make out the Turnoble place from here," he says, standing at the half-wall barrier with the breeze ruffling his hair.
"Oh, so that's why you wanted to come up here," she teases, a little faintly. "To survey your new domain."
His answering smile is faintly wry. "Not exactly." He retreats from the edge and joins her sitting by the doorway, elbows propped on his knees. "This still feels incredibly strange, you know."
"I know," she reassures him. "It probably will for a while. Did it feel strange for you when I first became the arlessa?"
"At first." Cullen shifts closer and she leans into his side gratefully. Now and again the sky above threatens to wheel around in slow circles, but Cullen is steady.
At first, Therrin echoes silently. Maybe it's just this at-first stage that makes it all feels so paralyzingly foreign. Maybe she'll get used to letting go, to thinking of the roles behind her only as skins shed along the way—enchanter of the Circle, Arlessa of Amaranthine—and not as orphaned pieces of herself she couldn't hold onto.
The newly-tenuous barrier in her mind seems to ripple at her momentary distress. Cullen glances over at the feel of it and she clamps down firmly on her wayward feelings before they can spiral out of control again. A half-dozen focusing exercises volunteer themselves from memory, the last of them in Irving's even voice, and the remembered figure of his instruction seems to give shape to the formless effort of her control.
He watches, patient. "Better?"
"Better," she confirms, not trying to nod. A little better every day, when she's lucky, and not usually worse even when she's not. It will take time, is all. "You?"
"I'm fine," he assures her. She can't keep asking, out of some bizarre habit. Everyone keeps asking how she is and it's a reflex to ask in return. "It's cooler up here, at least."
They sit in quiet for long minutes, listening to the wind, content with only that. "Voldrick's working on an estimate," Cullen says at last, "of how much it'll take to repair Vigil."
Therrin makes a face. "Let me guess. It's going to be expensive."
Cullen doesn't quite grimace. "It's Voldrick."
Which says everything, really. But it's a step in the right direction, even if it is a step that will have to be filled with gold. The city is already rebuilding, farmers returning to their lands in the total absence of darkspawn. Vigil's Keep seems to be coming back to life slowly, hiring on refugees, scraping itself back together under Cullen's and Varel's watchful eyes.
As for the Wardens… perhaps it's for the best to be less active than most, just for now. Nathaniel had sent a few of the new recruits to Amaranthine, and when he returns from Highever next month there'll be training, proper mapping of the Deep Roads beneath the keep and city, possibly recruitment.
It's strange to have plans that have little to do with war.
By then she'll be able to spar, she expects. Any eagerness at the thought is only natural boredom talking, she thinks, not any real desire to knock out any misconceptions about mages that might be rattling around the skulls of her new brothers.
Maybe a little, she concedes privately, grinning briefly at the thought.
"You're smiling," Cullen tells her.
"I am, aren't I? Don't tell Anders."
"Don't worry," he grumbles, half to himself, and Therrin only grins wider.
Better. A little better every day.
"Are you ready to go back down?" he asks, not moving to get up yet. The sunlight glints off his hair and she just looks at him a moment, unwilling to let go of the moment's contentment.
"Actually," she says, the lightness just the tiniest bit forced, "I was hoping to get the chance to talk to you in private." Not that Anders' news hadn't been a shock—twins, still healthy from what I can tell; have you ever considered trying to do something by half-measures just to see if it sticks?—but there hadn't been a good opportunity since he had told her. There have been too many people willing to help, or in Anders' case, interfere in the name of medical research, and the news has been sitting like lead on the tip of her tongue ready to fall off for what feels like ages.
No need to dwell on how she'd counted back in her head, trying to piece it together—to Kal'Hirol, the lyrium and its aftermath—and no need to dwell on her own aggravated worries over what the lyrium had done to the darkspawn birthed in its presence, or to worry just now that the same will hold true for her. Those worries—all of them—will keep.
It does something, Oghren had told her at the temple of Andraste. Bends reality around. Makes things different.
Or it could be lucky chance. Their luck has already changed for the better, hasn't it?
Cullen settles back to listen with a genial shrug. "We've got time. What's on your mind?"
Time, Therrin thinks, listening to the wind whistle around Vigil's tower, wondering how best to say it.
The darkspawn are gone, the arling at peace.
Time seems like the most precious of all the Maker's gifts, and Therrin doesn't intend to waste a moment.
And a year and two days after the first chapter was posted, "What We Choose" is done. My deepest thanks to everyone who read, everyone who reviewed, and absolutely everyone whose support made this possible. You've been a lovely crowd. And did I mention you were awesome? You are.