"Sister, do you remember?" Bethany's voice rang out from her place atop a crate on one of the wagons.
Hawke looked up at her. "Remember what?"
"Back in Lothering," Bethany said quietly. "In those first years, when my magic had just started appearing."
Anders curled his fingers around his staff and tried to stifle the feeling that he didn't belong near enough to hear this conversation. He wanted to know.
Hawke said nothing for a moment; she just looked at her sister's feet on the crate. "I remember," she said. "When the templars came through..."
"I always hid with the traders' wagons, if I could," Bethany said. "Like that, I could pretend I was a princess about to escape the castle on an adventure. Like in the stories."
"You made me be your knight," Hawke said, her gaze far away.
"It must have been hard on you, pretending it was a game like that," Bethany said. "But I wanted my knight."
"Carver always wanted to be the knight," Hawke said softly, her mind somewhere in a place Anders had never been.
"We really are going on an adventure this time, sister," Bethany said. "Together. If only Carver..." She shook her head.
Hawke pulled herself back to the present and to Kirkwall. "It's different, Bethany. This time you know it's for real."
"I always knew it was for real," Bethany said, smiling sadly. "But it was nice to pretend. Come on, let's get back to work." She crouched to help pull another crate into place.
Anders looked out at the street behind them. Leandra sat nearby, gazing up wistfully at her daughters; she'd insisted on coming to see them off. But the others, their companions over the months that had led up to the expedition...they were still waiting further down the road. Isabela was pointing something out to a scandalized-looking Merrill; Aveline was pacing the breadth of the street steadily as if on patrol, still a guard even off-duty. And behind the three of them, Fenris waited in silent stillness, a hateful shadow that wouldn't go away. Anders scowled at the thought and the stirrings of bitterness it drew up in him and looked back to Hawke.
She caught his gaze. "Is something wrong, Anders? Everything's gone fine so far."
He grimaced. "You say that now. Wait till all the rock closes in above us and then say that it's fine. Oh, and the darkspawn. Those are fine, too."
Hawke smiled. "We'll have a nice lunch with the darkspawn and be back before dinner."
"I'm serious, Hawke," Anders said. "Listen, I know she wants this, but...are you sure you want to bring your sister on this expedition? There's real danger down there."
"There's real danger up here, too," Hawke said. "At least she can face the darkspawn and whatever else lurks down there at my side."
Anders shook his head. "If I can't talk you out of it..." He trailed off, keeping the rest of the thought to himself. If he couldn't convince Hawke to spare her sister what lay below, he'd have to take on the task of protecting her himself. He was a Grey Warden, even if he'd run from it. It was his task to protect the innocent from the darkspawn hordes—and he couldn't think of anyone more innocent than Bethany Hawke.
Well, there was Marian Hawke, of course, but she could protect herself. He had no doubt of that.
"I'm going to speak with Varric," Hawke said. "I think we're almost ready to go."
Anders looked back down the street. Leandra had gotten up to speak with Bethany. Aveline, Isabela, and Merrill had left. Fenris was still there, though—watching them. It was about the least auspicious sign to begin a journey like this on that Anders could think of.
When Hawke had named those she'd take with her into the Deep Roads, Fenris had nodded and accepted her choice. He had no desire to go down amongst the darkspawn, after all. He'd already been exposed to more than enough dark magics for a lifetime, and he didn't see the need to start a collection for the few he remained untouched by.
Unlike some. The thought of Anders down there in the dark with Hawke and her sister preyed on his mind, but he told himself he had no reason to worry. True, the mage was a potential threat, but he knew Hawke capable of handling threats. No, that wasn't what troubled him. What troubled him was that if all had gone according to plan, Hawke, Varric, and the others should have been back in Kirkwall the better part of a week ago. They weren't, so it hadn't gone according to plan. Hawke was in danger somewhere far beneath his feet, where he could not turn his sword to her aid.
Fenris stalked the cobwebbed halls of the mansion that he'd claimed, which still wasn't really his, and he waited uselessly. Pacing only took him so far. In the end, he sat by a window he'd carefully neglected to clean, and he stared out at the expanse of Hightown before him. A great multitude of estates and businesses closed for the night sprawled over the heights of Kirkwall, each of them harboring the elites who would rise in the morning to reestablish as always their control over the poorer, lesser people below them. Normally it would have pleased him to know that he was ensconced in their midst like the worm waiting in a too-red apple, but such thoughts slid away from him tonight. Hawke was still gone, and who could know what had happened to her?
A stirring of movement in the square below caught his attention, and he realized a moment later that someone was heading for the door of his mansion. Fenris tensed, trying to make out the identity of the trespasser in the darkness. He was spared the trouble a moment later, as dim moonlight flashed off a staff and the feathery glimmer of Tevinter robes.
His mouth curled into a sneer. So they had waited until Hawke was gone to come for him. It didn't matter. He had evaded and defeated the hunters for three years on his own, and there was no reason it should be different now, was there? He turned away from the window, strode across the room, picked up his sword, and paced toward the door. Almost without his bidding, the power of the lyrium beneath his skin crawled across his body, spreading its poisonous luminosity all over him. He waited as the door rattled, and he lifted his sword as it opened—
—and he checked himself, barely, at the last moment.
"Oh," Anders said. "It always warms my heart when I'm welcomed."
Fenris did not lower his sword, but he did let the magic crawling under his flesh fade. "Tell me where Hawke is," he said evenly.
"You almost sound like you care," Anders said.
Fenris considered lowering his sword solely so he could free one hand and put it through Anders's chest. "It isn't your business what I care about, mage." Despite that urge, he kept both hands on the sword. If Anders had returned from the Deep Roads alone, he would die here and now.
"She's in Lowtown," Anders said. "Did you really think I'd walk out of the Deep Roads without her?" He stared hard at Fenris. "You did, didn't you?"
Fenris let the sword fall to his side and land heavily point-first in the floor. "I would not put it past you." He stayed just inside the threshold of the door, deliberately not inviting Anders inside. "Why are you here?"
From the glint in the mage's eyes, it was clear he knew he wasn't welcome. But he stepped inside anyway, letting the door close behind him. "Telling you that Hawke is safe isn't reason enough?"
"No," Fenris said.
"You almost sound like you don't care," Anders said.
Fenris contemplated how it would feel to rip Anders's throat into a bloody pulp, secure in the knowledge that Anders was probably wondering how it would feel to envelop him in a fireball as well. "Varric could have come to tell me that instead."
"Believe me," Anders said, "Varric has his own problems."
"Continue dodging my question," Fenris said, "and you'll be lucky if I merely throw you out the door."
"I was supposed to send Isabela to tell you," Anders allowed. "But I'm feeling generous. I thought I'd do it myself." He was smiling now, with a strangely bitter edge to the expression.
"That is no answer at all," Fenris said. But, cursing himself silently for allowing the distraction to capture him, he asked, "What do you mean, Varric has his own problems?"
"The short story," Anders said, "is that Bartrand tried to abandon us in the Deep Roads to die, and we barely made it out."
Fenris arched a brow. "Couldn't convince the others to become abominations to solve all their problems?"
"I was against dealing with the demon, thank you very much," Anders snapped. Then he stopped, his awareness of what he'd just said painfully clear on his face, for all that he was aware of so little else.
"What's that called?" Fenris said. He'd meant for it to come out sounding sarcastically thoughtful, but instead he just sounded angry. The mage did that to him. "Buyer's remorse?"
"I've never bargained with a demon," Anders said. "You're thinking of someone else. What you'd do for power in that situation, maybe. That sounds about right."
"You come into my home and you speak of demons," Fenris said. Something was out of place here, something that went deeper than Anders's presence, as hard as it was to believe. But he couldn't put his finger on just what it was. "I hope you have a fitting reason." The hand he'd taken off his sword twitched.
"This isn't even your home," Anders said. "You're too busy running away to have one." He must have seen some gleam of retaliation in Fenris's eyes, because he hurried on before he could get any answer to that. "We didn't listen to the demon. Did you really think we would?"
"Not at all," Fenris said coolly. "Hawke and Varric are sensible people, and Bethany appreciates her peril and the danger she could pose. She—" He stopped there, because Anders had abruptly lowered his head. One missing piece of the puzzle fell heavily into place. "What happened to Bethany Hawke in the Deep Roads?"
Anders jerked his gaze back up to meet Fenris's. "Why do you care? If Hawke had left her behind, the first thing you would have done is drag her to the Gallows."
Anger threatened to tear the lid off something buried between his ribs. "You presume to know anything about my choices?" The lid stayed on, precariously, perhaps held down by the uncomfortable weight borne by the thought of Bethany trapped under the gaze of those agonized statues. He could find a realization in that weight, Fenris thought, if he dug hard enough, and he very much did not want to. It was easier to keep glaring at Anders.
"I think I can make some pretty good guesses," Anders said. "About some of your choices, anyway. If you even think long enough to choose. Was I wrong? Was I not going far enough? Would you have asked the templars to make her Tranquil instead?"
The rage slipped sideways, and some of it escaped before Fenris could indeed think long enough to choose, which made it worse, because it meant Anders was right. "No, but I might consider it for you."
Bitter fear flashed in Anders's eyes, but there was precious little time to exult in the victory before the mage was speaking again. "Well, that doesn't encourage me to walk out of here and find the nearest slaver to tip off to this location at all, now does it?"
And Fenris really wasn't thinking now, not after that, and he knew it because he didn't consciously decide to reach out, grab Anders's shoulder, and slam him against the wall next to the door until his teeth rattled. It just sort of happened. "You would see your heart in my hand before that happened, mage."
They stared at each other in what would have been perfect silence except for how quick and heavy their breaths came, Anders pressed up against the wall with one hand at his side and the other clenched white-knuckled around his staff, Fenris at arm's length with his gauntleted fingers buried in the feathery Tevinter stylings of Anders's robes. In the sudden space for thought, they both fumbled with the embarrassing realization that neither of them could ever go through with any of those threats, and each man knew it of the other as much as of himself. That kind of betrayal of the one they both followed was beyond them.
Fenris finally spoke. "Tell me what happened to Bethany."
"She contracted the darkspawn taint," Anders said quietly.
Another bit of information locking into place, this one bitter. Fenris dug his fingers into Anders's shoulder until he could see the other man trying not to show the pain on his face. "Then her death is on you," he said, "and so is the way Hawke will blame herself."
"You can't think I don't know that," Anders said, his voice rising suddenly. He grabbed his staff with both hands and violently shrugged off the hand on his shoulder. "But you're wrong! She may not be dead."
"What are you talking about?"
Anders stared at him, and finally, that peculiarly bitter smile was back. "I found the Grey Wardens for her. That's the one cure. They might be able to save her. If she's strong enough. But she is strong. She'll make it."
Fenris had no counterpoint to that, so he just drew up a disgusted sneer. "You made her a Grey Warden?"
"That's right," Anders said, pulling himself up from the wall. "If she lives...when she lives, it'll be because of me. Do you know what that means?"
"She'll be tainted forever, because of you?" But Fenris did know what it meant. It was dawning on him now.
"That's not how Hawke will see it," Anders said. "Hawke will only see that I saved her only remaining sibling. And you can never say that."
"Get out," Fenris said. The last of it made sense, finally. "Get out now."
"Fine," Anders said. "That's all I came to say." He gave another slight shake of his shoulder; Fenris hoped it was injured. Then he turned, pulled open the door, and walked out into the night.
Fenris shoved the door heavily closed after him and stared at it for a long moment. He knew what Anders hadn't been saying, what the mage had been too cowardly to speak out loud. If there had ever been any question of who between them Hawke would trust more, need more, love more if she were bold and reckless enough to let it run that way—it was resolved now.
It was for the better, wasn't it? As wretched and dangerous a man as Anders was, he could offer Hawke more than Fenris ever would. And yet...
Fenris paced back to the center of the empty mansion, where there stood a table he'd finally thought to pick up from the floor the other day, and waited until he was certain Anders had left the vicinity outside. Then he gave in to the despair inside, let the lyrium do its vicious dance across his skin, and tore into the wood of the table, feeling the splintering wood brush harmless and ghost-like against his fingers as he ripped it in two and flipped both halves over onto the floor.
It didn't really make him feel a whole lot better.
Anders waited outside in the barely moonlit darkness, his ear pressed to the cold stone wall of the mansion. He let the seconds tick by into a minute, then two, and for a moment he almost considered leaving. Maybe his expectations were off. But he had a feeling they wouldn't be.
Finally, his patience was rewarded: the sound of a violent crash, of something breaking, came from within the building. Something flew against a nearby window, crazing it with fractures.
He ducked away and hurried out into the night. His shoulder hurt. "Worth it," he muttered. He'd thought the words would come out with tones of triumph, but something sounded a little off about them. Almost petulant. That wasn't right at all.
Anders knew why, though. He knew why this wasn't a victory, even though he could pretend it was for the time he stood in Fenris's miserable presence. Fenris didn't understand, like he didn't understand so many things. It felt good and safe knowing that he wouldn't understand, like knowing that the mad dog that lurked down the rickety steps in Darktown wouldn't understand that he was trying to heal it if he got too close. In that man's presence, he could forget for a minute how unworthy he was.
He could forget that he'd just proven it, down there in the Deep Roads. That he'd consigned Hawke's sister to a short and cruel life of nightmares and strife, that he'd once again tainted what had been innocent and pure.
But now that he walked out into the darkness alone, he remembered it all. The way Justice had turned and corrupted inside his mind, and the way they'd walked away from Stroud and his group and left Bethany to her fate there. If there was any question of whether he could ever deserve Hawke's trust and love, it was resolved now. She just didn't know it.
That didn't really make him feel a whole lot better.