AN: This fanfic makes no claims of accurate characterization of game personae or portrayal of game events. Dragon Age II and all characters except Iain are owned by BioWare. Iain is on loan... kind of. Where direct quotations are used in place of paraphrases or original dialogue, the intent is to be as faithful as possible to the original work. In no way should the inclusion of direct quotations be construed as an attempt to claim credit for the work and talent of another. Later chapters will feature exclusively original dialogue, but I thought it was important to take less liberties with the early material. Also, I'm trying to get back into writing after a long, long break. If you're bored by a rehash of what's been covered a thousand times, feel free to skip ahead to Chapter 4. Reviews welcome, of course, even the ones that say "This sucks."

9:31 Dragon, 2 Guardian: The Hanged Man, Lowtown

I had to admit it. I was lost. Eventually, I would learn the twists and turns of the Undercity, but it was not going to be today. If it was still day. Very little light reached the tunnels through the decrepit ventilation shafts, and the little that made it down that far served only to brighten the chokedamp swirling lazily around our ankles.

"You know what I like about the Undercity?" Varric's voice cut through the dimness, along with the welcome snick of steel on flint. "Absolutely nothing."

The spark caught, and a moment later, we were bathed in the cheery orange glow of torchlight. Varric raised the torch a bit, then passed it off to Carver.

"Here, Junior," he said. "I'll just singe your nose-hairs if I keep it."

"I don't want it!" Carver protested. "I'm not the one moaning about the dark. Besides, I might have to fight something."

"Oh, just give it to Iain, Carver," Aveline said wearily. "We might as well get this over with."

"Hey, Junior," Varric interrupted, "if you're done complaining, you can put your shoulder to this door. It's rusted since the last time I was down here."

"Are you sure you know where you're going?" Carver asked, as if on cue. He had repeated that question every time we came to a crossroads, a doorway, or any other landmark that made Varric pause to get his bearings."

"Not exactly, no," the dwarf admitted casually, "but Darktown isn't that big. And besides, these are old mining tunnels. They all join up somewhere."

I braced myself for the inevitable bickering that was bound follow Varric's statement. From the moment they met, two days ago now, my brother and Varric seemed determined to annoy each other. More precisely, Varric seemed intent on needling Carver. He did it well, too. Carver's pride was a delicate thing in spiky armor, but Varric always managed to find the gaps. I would have put a stop to it at once if there were any malice in Varric's teasing, but all the dwarf did was play on Carver's vanity... and his wounded indignation at being a younger brother. If Varric set Carver up and left him sputtering once or twice, it was probably for his own good. I did feel a bit disloyal for enjoying Carver's embarrassment as much as I did, but not much.

The expected volley of barbs and counter-barbs never came.

"Is that it up ahead?" Aveline interrupted. "I think there's a lantern on the left, up the stairs."

"See!" Varric said smugly. "I told you I knew where I was."

"You did not!" Carver countered. "You wanted me to open that door. It's probably to someone's house, too. Wouldn't that have been wonderful, us walking in on some old biddy sitting down to tea?"

"That's enough," Aveline barked, cutting their argument short. She had less patience with their antics than I did, I guess. "Let's do what we came here to do and get out."

The lantern Aveline saw turned out to be a pair of cheap, smoky lamps, one on either side of a wooden door. Without thinking, I went in. I probably should have knocked.

The space behind the door was frugally lit, but after the darkness of the passage, it looked like a chantry, blazing with light. A tall blond man leaned over the bloody body of a child, his glowing hands outstretched. Lirene did say that the healer was a mage. The glow faded and the child on the table sat up, gulping air as if he were taking his first breath. The healer barely knew it. He turned away, obviously sagging with the exhaustion of a spell that was more demanding than he could handle comfortably.

Abruptly, the mage tensed and turned to face us, his hand raised in a warding-off gesture.

"I have made this place a sanctum of healing and salvation," he said, his voice stern. "Why do you threaten it?"

"I'm just here to talk -" I began, but Varric interrupted me.

"We're interested in getting into the Deep Roads. Rumor has it that you were a Warden. Do you know a way?"

This did nothing to decrease the healer's apprehension.

"Did the Wardens send you to bring me back?" he asked a question, but it was more of an accusation. "I'm not going. Those bastards made me get rid of my cat."

The healer paused while the rest of us just blinked at him.

"Poor Ser Pounce-a-lot," the mage said. "He hated the Deep Roads."

I recovered first.

"You had a cat named Ser Pounce-a-lot?" I asked. "In the Deep Roads?"

It was not the most intelligent question I have ever asked, but the healer's words had startled me. I don't know what I expected Anders to be like, but a kitten-toting Deep Roads delver was not it.

"He was a gift," Anders replied defensively, "a noble beast. Almost got ripped in half by a genlock once."

A hint of a smile appeared on the healer's lips in recollection of his pet's heroics. "Swatted the bugger on the nose. Drew blood, too!" The smile vanished. "The blighted Wardens said he made me too soft. I had to give him to a friend in Amaranthine."

Presumably, this friend would not feel threatened by owning a cat who had once attacked darkspawn. Not that I was one to talk. My mabari, Peaches, follows me into battle all the time. Then again, Peaches is a war dog, not a tabby mouser. One of these days, I will have to get Carver to tell me why he bursts out laughing whenever I call the dog. It may not be the most ferocious-sounding name for a dog, but it is far from the most ridiculous name I've heard, and Peaches is usually very friendly. Aggressively so, in fact.

But enough about Peaches. We still needed information from the Warden. Since he seemed chatty, I decided to try to win him over with conversation.

"I always thought that joining the Wardens was for life," I ventured.

"That's only partly true," he answered. "The hopelessly tainted by the darkspawn and the plagued by nightmares about the archdemon parts don't go away. But it turns out that if you hide well, you don't have to wear the uniform or go to the parties."

I don't know if it was intended or not, but that put an end to the conversational approach. What could I say after that?

"I'm part of an expedition into the Deep Roads," I said at last. "Any information you have could save people's lives."

"I will die a happy man if I never think about the blighted Deep Roads again," Anders said, frowning. "You can't imagine what I've come through to get here. I'm not interested -"

I was almost resigned to going away empty-handed, but once more, Anders changed tack.

"Although..." he began again. "A favor for a favor. Does that sound like a fair deal? You help me, I'll help you."

Those were terms I could accept. After all, I had served a year in Meeran's miserable Red Iron, and if that was not selling my integrity, what would be? Some of the jobs Carver and I did for them made me wish I had sold myself to the Blooming Rose instead, but Carver was quick to point out that I was not handsome enough for that, the one time I complained about the Red Iron in his presence. Carver had some kind of sick admiration for Meeran. I tried not to think about it. Or the Blooming Rose. Carver went there all the time, I knew, but I could not bring myself to do it. As a mage, I had learned from an early age not to trust others. The idea of letting my guard down enough to disrobe in front of another person terrified me. I was a coward. And a virgin. Carver mocked me mercilessly.

"Help my expedition reach the Deep Roads and I'll do whatever you need." As I said. I had already done worse for less.

"You don't ask my terms?" Anders asked incredulously. "What if I were asking for the Knight-Commander's head on a spike?"

"Is that what you ask?" I replied, surprised once more.

"You decide," he said coldly. "I have a Warden map of the depths in this area, but there's a price."

He turned away from me and ran his clean, long-fingered hands over the table where the boy had lain before, as if considering how much to tell me.

"I came to Kirkwall to aid a friend," he said, turning to face me again. "A mage. A prisoner in the wretched Gallows. The templars learned of my plans to free him. Help me bring him safely past them and you shall have your maps."

The full weight of what he was asking sank in. I was fortunate to have had a Circle-trained father who knew how to live as an apostate. Bethany and I learned how to control our magic, true, but we also learned when to run. If Anders's friend had been imprisoned in the Gallows his entire life, he might not be prepared for the world outside it.

"You want to make your friend an apostate?" I asked. I intended only to ask if Anders had thoroughly considered what this might mean for his friend, but Anders seemed to misunderstand.

"That's such a weighted term," Anders protested."Yes. Andraste said that magic should serve man, not rule him, but I've yet to find a mage that wants to rule anything. It goes against no will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men."

"Forcing mages into servitude is not the way to prevent the rise of another Imperium," I agreed. We could discuss whether Anders's friend could survive as a fugitive later. For now, it was important that Anders understand that I was not arguing with him.

"That's not usually the response I get," Anders said with a slow, tentative smile. "Perhaps we will work together better than I expected."

Now that I had more of his trust, I decided to try for more information. "Tell me about your friend."

"His name is Karl Thekla," Anders said softly. "He was sent here from Ferelden when Kirkwall's Circle required new talent. His last letter said the Knight-Commander was turning the Circle into a prison. Mages are locked in their cells, refused appearances at court, made Tranquil for the slightest crimes. I told him I would come."

"Are these accusations true?" I have no idea why I asked him this. It was an unnecessary question about conditions Anders could not verify. Of course, Anders believed what he was telling me, but faith was not the same as corroboration.

"Ask any mage in Kirkwall," he insisted. "Over a dozen were made Tranquil just this year. The more people you ask, the worse the rumors become."

Yes, Anders, I thought, though I did not say it. That is the nature of rumors. Still, I admired his conviction.

"I would help any mage in such circumstances," I reassured him, "map or no."

"Better make this good," Carver muttered. "We're risking a lot if we anger the templars."

I often found myself wishing that I had left Carver at home. He resented my leadership, he questioned orders, and he disapproved of just about everything I did. But, despite... or perhaps because of... his tendency to irritate me, I preferred to have him with me. Family is family. Besides, every once in a while, he was right.

"I welcome your aid," Anders said, shyly extending his hand. "I have already sent word for Karl to meet me in the Chantry tonight. Join us there and we'll ensure that no matter who is with him, we all walk away free."

I could feel Carver's eyes on my back all the way back to the Hanged Man. He did not approve of this plan, and I would probably hear why at great length once we were safely back in Varric's suite, but he would not oppose me. He knew we needed those maps.

As expected, Carver started in on me immediately, almost before the first round of drinks arrived.

"You were quick enough to agree to that mage's terms," he complained. "I'm surprised you didn't hop into bed with him to sweeten the deal."

"And here I thought I was too repulsive for that kind of thing," I countered. "They're probably looking for new talent at the Blooming Rose, if you think that's a better way for me to raise the coin."

"Oh, that'd be good," Carver laughed. "Iain with a sack over his head and his ass -"

"That's enough, Carver," Aveline scolded. "Your brother is fine."

"Ah, let him go," I said affably. "His form always improves after a good row, and I need him at his best tonight, if there's any trouble."

"Is this all a joke to you, Iain?" Carver all but spat.

"No, Carver," I sighed. "I know what's at stake as well as you. There's nothing we can do about it, though, so getting all excited won't help."

"So, you're just going to walk in blindly and say 'Excuse me, Ser Templar, but we're -'" Carver never got to finish his sentence. Varric put a hand on his arm.

"Not that I mind the entertainment," he said quietly, "but we do get templars in here sometimes. The walls are a lot thinner than you think. Besides, we'll be making it up as we go anyway. This thing can go wrong so many ways, even my cousin Vidar wouldn't take odds on it."

At that moment, the pretty barmaid, Norah, walked in with our dinner. I always get a case of the stupids when she turns up, and my growing friendship with Varric means that I see her frequently. It amuses Varric. The four of us probably could have gone our separate ways and met up later, but we would be leaving for the Chantry as soon as the sun went down. I offered to treat everyone to a meal at the Hanged Man, a decision I regretted as soon as I took my first bite. Varric, Carver and Aveline tucked in with some enthusiasm, so it might just have been me. The others have resistances to bad food that I lack. Varric takes all his meals here, and unlike my brother and Aveline, I have never eaten army food. I pushed the grease around on my plate, thought about the events of the afternoon, and penned this in my journal.

Anders. I do not know how to read him. He can be sarcastic, he showed us that much, but that does not bother me. He obviously believes in freedom for mages. As a life-long apostate, I can hardly argue with him there. Either his voice betrays everything he feels or he is very good at lying. The former seems more likely. He does not trust us. I can not fault him for that. If I were alone and exhausted in a room full of innocents when a group of heavily armed people walked in, I would not have reacted much differently. He could not have known that I am an apostate like him. I carry a staff, true, but others do, as well. Mages were not the first to discover that big, heavy sticks make effective weapons. As for the more superficial aspects of the man, there is not much to say. He is better-looking than me. Most people are. Just ask my brother. He is taller than me, and thinner. Lanky. He has a kind face. And he is Fereldan, like me. None of that says much about him, though. He is the first mage I have met who is not a blood relative. I am curious.

"How long before the streets empty out?" I asked Varric.

"I'd give it a couple more hours, at least," the dwarf said around a mouthful of bread. "You in a hurry?"

"I want it over with," I said.

"Nervous, Hawke?" he asked with a grin.

"Nah," I lied. "Religious types give me a rash."

Varric just laughed and passed me the pitcher of ale. I sent it on to Carver. It was probably just nerves, but even the ale tasted wrong. Whatever is going to happen, it is going to be big.