A/N: I'd like to apologize for the lack of updates. I have a half-finished chapter of Mercy to work on and the final chapter of The Beacon waiting in the wings. Honestly, the slow updating for The Beacon has a lot to do with the fact that I don't actually want to finish it. I'm going to miss them far, far too much. But until then, here's some Justice/Ilona to whet the appetites of those who... like... them? I dunno!
"Are you... sure you want to do this?"
Anders' brows dipped closer together as he watched Justice's face to gauge his reaction. The spirit lifted his eyes, looking at him with that milky, unwavering stare. He'd grown used to sitting under that gaze. Justice hardly blinked, something that highlighted the fact that he was no man. It took some time to grow accustomed to the factors that separated him from everyone else – from the lack of blinking to the stillness of his chest.
Thin lips spread to speak. "Yes, I am sure." He meant the statement to ease Anders' worry, but the sound only succeeded in pitching his nerves even higher.
"Are you sure? You're used to Ilona; this won't feel the same."
"I trust you," he replied, his voice firm, "as long as she trusts you."
They both looked to Ilona at that. The mage flushed, her head ducking down as she gave a small smile. "Yes, I trust Anders. He's an even stronger mage than I when it comes to these spells." Reaching out a hand, she rested it on Justice's forearm. "Everything will be fine. I'm sure of it."
"And you have the draught?" Anders asked her, his eyebrows lifting with the question.
"I do. Velanna claims the recipe will keep me asleep for a few hours, depending on how potent I decided to make it." Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her fingers around the throat of the vial in her palm. "It'll be an hour for me. Maybe two. No more than that."
"An hour, maybe two," Anders repeated, "I can keep him asleep for an hour at most."
Ilona looked towards him, still smiling softly. An hour; what could she do with an hour? Would that be enough time? She took a shallow breath, moving the vial around in her palm. What was she thinking? This was a chance to spend time with Justice outside of Kristoff's body, to actually be close to him in ways the mortal world could not permit. Five minutes would be enough time. "That's fine."
"Well, then, let's get started, shall we?"
Everything in the Fade was green and grey. Color bled from each object, leaving it lifeless and dull. Even the familiar things – the wooded area outside of the Keep, the cloudless sky, her own skin – appeared foreign. It was a sensation she could not get used to no matter how many times she visited this place. She felt out of place, as if her skin didn't fit the same way it did when she was awake, as if there was something intrinsically wrong with what surrounded her.
No matter how false everything looked, that did not change the feeling that washed over her at the very same time. The feeling was one of familiarity. The cool water in the pond lapped against her calves, and she felt like she'd done this a thousand times despite being sure she'd never ventured this close to the edge.
This sensation of familiarity was disconcerting. She knew that this place was not real; nothing felt the way something told her it should. But even still, she could see how someone might visit and never wish to return. Even completely alone, she felt the warmth of companionship, as if she was flanked by some of her closest friends. She could practically hear Zevran in one ear, murmuring for her to stay, while Leliana tugged faintly at her elbow.
Even without the Sloth Demon spinning tales of her desires, offering her what she could not have, she felt compelled to rest backwards, to lie upon the dewy grass that really wasn't there and stare up at the unnaturally clear sky.
Just as her eyes began to drift downward, she heard something rustle the lowest branches of the nearby trees.
Looking towards the sound, she found herself looking at someone both familiar and strange at the very same time. She hadn't known what to expect. Before now, she hadn't been in the Fade with Justice since their first meeting. Part of her expected to see a corpse. After so many months of living and fighting alongside the slowly degrading body, she'd grown used to it. Conversely, she also told herself that he may be the specter she'd met at the very beginning, clad from head to toe in armor not unlike that of the Templars.
But she was wrong on both accounts. Her gaze settled upon Kristoff, but he was no longer the man whose face she knew by heart. His leahtery skin had softened visibly; his purplish and bruised cheeks were no longer emaciated, but full. The milky white film of death was gone from his eyes, replaced by a bright, intelligent shade of hazel.
Maker bless him. He looked exactly like the tiny portrait she'd first discovered within Kristoff's locket.
Ilona remembered the day she was finally able to open the locket after finding the tiny key in the bottom of the chest. Justice had been wary at first, sure that some ill would come of stepping on the lovers' toes in such a way. His tune changed and quickly when he saw her eyes widen at the sight of Kristoff, a smile twisting at her mouth for a moment before she looked to him.
"He's handsome," she said, a quiet chuckle threaded through her words. When Justice opened his mouth to say something, she interrupted him with an, "I always figured that was the case, all things considered."
Standing up from beside the pool, she didn't even bother wiping her feet dry before hurrying over to him, robes twisted in her fists, lifted so as not to trip on them. While this had not been expected, she couldn't help but wonder if he'd gone through this change for her sake, if he'd taken on this appearance because he knew she would be here. Still, her surprise would not stop her from taking advantage of their time together.
She came to a sudden stop in front of him, letting her robes fall back down around her ankles, her chin tilting upwards to look directly into his face. His eyes fell to her mouth as she bit down on her bottom lip, shifting to her eyes the moment her brows furrowed in thought. But his sight faded altogether the moment he felt the weight of her palm on his cheek, his eyes falling shut at the sensation, heightened as it was in this place.
He could recall the very first time she'd touched him as if it'd been no more than a few moments prior. She was a curious woman, and she'd taken the job of healing him while Anders tended to Oghren. After his wounds had been healed, she didn't return to the head of the group as she usually did. Instead, she looked him right in the eyes and asked him if she could touch his face. Uncertain of how to respond, he merely nodded, allowing her to pass her smooth hands over his forehead and cheeks, ignoring the almost scrutinizing look on her face as she did so.
Over and over, he told himself that she meant nothing by it. She'd often assured him that the state of the body he inhabited did not matter so much as the soul that inhabited the body. None of that changed the feeling of being judged that nearly clawed at him, muscles tensing until she realized how uncomfortable she was making him. Parting with a small nod, she left him there to contemplate the questions that often plagued him.
Why? Why did she bother? What? What did her opinion matter? How? How would he tell her of the odd, churning sensation that bubbled inside his chest the moment she entered the room?
When her fingers finally trailed down to rest along his jaw, her eyes met his. Her eyes always looked wet, something he attributed to their clear blue color, but now they practically shimmered with tears. The sight of them sent a sinking feeling into his gut. "You look like Kristoff..."
"Does this bother you?"
Her lips parted to say something, but she paused, shaking her head. "No. Not at all. I only remember the first time we met. You wore a helmet; I wasn't able to see your face."
The moment her fingertips touched his mouth, he took a quavering breath. She was so close. On an instinct he hadn't realized lay dormant within him, he reached out to her, his hands settling awkwardly high on her waist. This awkwardness was not born of discomfort, but of utter confusion. Even after being cast into the land of the living, he'd never felt so thoroughly out of his depth.
"I did not have one."
"Oh..." Wetting her lips, she averted her eyes, nodding. She should have known this, should have expected it. Before Kristoff, he was no more than the spirit of justice, a faceless specter upholding a virtue whose existence she'd often doubted. It took being cast out of the Fade and into the form of another for him to take shape. "Oh, I see. But leaving the Fade, living within Kristoff, gave you some semblance of... identity? Is that it?"
When she looked up to gauge his reaction, she saw that he was smiling. It wasn't much; even on her worst days, she wore more of a smile. But on his face that little slip of a grin was more touching than anything she'd ever seen. So many times she'd caught him schooling his face into little more than an expressionless mask, sure that his countenance wasn't fit to show even the slightest bit of happiness. How wrong he was.
Goosebumps rose on her arms when she felt his thumb pass absently over a seam on her robes. It was high on her ribs, and it was clear his intentions were pure. That did not stop her from just barely staving off a chill that only intensified when she looked up to see him staring down at her. "It is. But I also have you to thank."
Ilona tried to dust off the comment with a quiet laugh only to feel his grip tighten, the tips of his fingers digging just barely into the soft layer of flesh beneath his hands. His features turned stern, almost stony, and she ducked her head down for a moment. "Sorry," she murmured, a barely noticeable dip forming in her cheek, "Words just happen to be escaping me at the moment, for which I have you to thank."
"Why is that? You've always been talkative." Pensiveness creased his brow again, and his lifted his hands away from her waist, pulling them closer to his chest. "I'm not... making you uncomfortable, am I?"
"No," she breathed, "No, that's not it at all."
Sighing, Ilona took a step forward to which Justice took an unconscious step back, still not sure she was being truthful with him. It wasn't until she grabbed his forearms and force him to stay in one place that he stopped moving. He was about to protest when she forced his arms around her instead of pushing his hands high on her waist, and he suddenly understood her statement.
To lose all of one's words was a strange phenomenon. Despite the urge to tell her that this wasn't necessary, that he understood if she didn't wish to be so close to him, he couldn't seem to make the words come. They were there, forming soundless syllables on his tongue, but all he could do is stare down at her.
Even in the Fade, she stood out amongst everything else. In a realm where everything was perfect – mockingly perfect – he found that he could not take his eyes off of her. No matter how foreign this place felt to him now, that sensation of being out of place disappeared entirely when he took in the sight of her full cheeks, her wide blue eyes, her stubbed nose. She was the familiar. She was an anchor.
"You'll be returning here soon, won't you?"
The question surprised him. Ever since he'd mentioned it to Nathaniel during their travels, Ilona had narrowly avoided the topic on all occasions. While he didn't understand why at first, denial was explained to him soon after. While he had learned much in his time with Ilona, this "explanation" only led to more questions, none of which Nathaniel wished to answer.
"I will, yes," Justice replied, though the words cracked in his throat. His hands gathered between the blades of her shoulders, and he found himself compelled to stroke at the soft fabric of her robes. When out of the Fade, sensations were less sharp. His sense of smell was dulled, rendering his sense of taste nonexistent. He was near-blind, relying on shadows and lights as if looking at the world through a screen. And his sense of touch was dulled to the point of scarcely feeling a thing. At first, when he'd only just been thrust out of the Fade, these senses were clearer, more intense, but as Kristoff's body deteriorated, so did they.
The ability to look upon her as if with new eyes, to touch her and feel every warmth, every strand of fur on her robes, was beyond anything he had expected. The thought of waking and leaving this place... "But only for a short time." He watched her face for a reaction to find that she seemed more pensive than delighted. "I have spoken to Nathaniel. He... has business in the Free Marches. He would like me to help. Would... that be alright?"
Ilona's brows knitted together. "You don't have to ask for my permission. You'll do as you want to do, as will Nathaniel. This isn't my choice to make."
"I was hoping that you would travel with me."
A pang rang out in her chest, the utter sincerity in his voice bringing tears to her eyes. She lifted her hands to his face, first smoothing her fingertips over his brow and then stroking them through his short, dark hair. When Justice shut his eyes and took a quavering breath, her thumb ran gently just beneath the short curl of his lashes. "Justice," she murmured, going up onto the balls of her feet to press a kiss onto the bridge of his nose, "if it meant spending more time with you, I would head into the Deep Roads in nothing but my smallclothes."
His eye cracked open at that. "I would not lead you into that sort of danger without the proper equipment, Ilona. Your safety–"
"It was a joke," Ilona said, laughing wetly as the spirit brushed the dampness into her cheeks. "And a poorly timed one, at that. But... the sentiment remains."
No sooner had the words left him and a smile spread across his lips when the hand cradling the back of his head drifted downward, her palm covering the back of his neck. In that one sudden movement, she pulled him closer and bridged the gap between them, sealing her lips over his.
At first, she could feel his body tense against hers, but his hesitance lasted all of a heartbeat before his arms slid even tighter around her. She'd never been held so tightly, clung to as if you were the only thing keeping them from falling into the sky. If they were anywhere else, she might have feared the intensity, wondered if he would rob her of her breath, but she couldn't be afraid of that here. Here, this could be nothing but perfect.
If Ilona were any other woman, he'd have rejected such an advance. But any of his confusion and inexperience meant little when it came to her. She was the woman who'd shown him that the world of the living held true, physical beauty. She'd shown him friendship, companionship, and finally led him to understand the heart's working until he discovered that, should Kristoff's heart not lie dormant within him, filling him with thoughts of Aura, his would beat for her and her alone.
But she was unwilling to push any farther. No matter how much her body yearned for more contact, she knew that he would only be asleep for a while longer. Drawing away from him, she managed the smallest of smiles, her hands roaming over his neck and jaw, his cheeks, his brow. "We'll talk to Nate later," she said, her voice quiet. "We'll find him the justice he wants."
"He is only doing this for you," Justice murmured, his hold on her still just tight enough to keep her close. She nodded, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip. Sliding one arm from around her, his fingers sought out her hair, burying themselves deep into it. "So am I."
Her bottom lip shook, but it was stilled by another kiss, gentler than the first. When Justice withdrew, he pressed his forehead against hers. She took one more lingering look at him before shutting her eyes and drawing a deep breath. He did the same, his fingertips digging just barely into her back. They were both intent on remembering every single feeling. He memorized the taste that lingered on his lips. She sought to retain the feeling of his arm circled around her, the slight roughness of his palms. Most of all, she strove to never forget the smile he'd given her in every detail.
Before she was able to open her eyes again, she felt something shift. There was a warmth and then a flood of sudden, almost painful absence. Her brow furrowed when she took a step back and found that she looked upon nothing. He was gone; woken by Anders, the sleeping spell finally worn off.
Ilona sighed, rubbing absently at her cheek as she moved back over to the pond and settled down in front of it. She pulled her robes back up to her knees, a chill running through her as she slipped her feet back into the water.
When Justice woke, the room had not changed. A candle still burned on the bedside table, wax dripping over the sides of the silver tray. No more than half an hour had passed. Ilona was still asleep at his side, her lips parted with each quiet breath she took.
The only difference in the state of them both was the weight of her hand in his.
Glancing towards the mage, he saw that Anders was grinning at them both as he ran his hands over his robes. "Don't thank me," he chuckled, keeping his voice low despite knowing Ilona would not rouse until the potion had worn off. "You don't get to see something like that every day. And Maker knows it's never because of one of my spells."
Justice watched as Anders grabbed for the blanket at the foot of the bed and tossed it at him. "It gets cold in here at night." He shrugged a little, starting for the door. "I'd tell you to keep an eye on her, but I think that's a given."
A few footsteps later and they were alone again. Unfolding the blanket as carefully as he could, he placed it over Ilona, smoothing the wool over her stomach. She fidgeted beneath it, and he felt the same hand pawing at the floor beside his leg. Resting back against the blankets thrown down to cushion the stones, he placed his hand atop hers, and she slept.