Due to various reasons, this is the last time any of my stories will be updated on this site. I will continue to update on AO3, link below:

archiveofourown dot org / works / 223829 / chapters / 70408 (remove spaces)

I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to Haggardjax, Aynslesa and David9999 for their encouragement and support throughout, and to Shaina for her kindness, as well as to those of you who have left reviews.

~o~O~o~

The next few days' travel through the Deep Roads came as a pleasant surprise to the group after the hardships they'd recently endured. The going was relatively easy with only a few narrow tunnels and one small gully to negotiate; the remainder of their path took them through large, open chambers which were streaked with the 'new' lyrium they'd discovered. Sadly, though, there were very few places where Fletcher and Fenris could enjoy true privacy.

The twosome had recovered from their injuries and no longer slowed the group's progress; in fact, Fletcher reported a sense of physical well-being he hadn't felt since first entering the Deep Roads. He was still on the jittery side, however, and had occasionally snapped at Anders but quickly apologised; Anders took this in his stride and seemed to draw strength from his continued care of his fellow mage. On the third day of travel away from the lyrium tunnel, and, much to Fenris's pleasure, Fletcher's laughter – something that had not been heard for a while – once again filled the chambers they walked through; Fenris even endured some mild teasing with a full heart.

During private moments, Fletcher and Fenris had discussed the elf's recent memory of who they suspected was his father. Fletcher had continued to coax more details out of Fenris, but they'd reached an impasse: Fenris simply could not recall anything further than he'd already stated. Fletcher found it encouraging, however, that Fenris had been willing to discuss it at all, and had asked Fenris if he'd be interested in trying to remember other things, with Fletcher's help. Fenris had fallen quiet, then, and had promised to think about it, saying no more on the matter. Fletcher had not mentioned it since.

Anders and Fletcher had conducted several tests on the new lyrium, finding no discernible differences between it and the more familiar type of lyrium they'd found in the tunnel. Varric had followed their research with interest, finding their results encouraging. He stood over the two mages as they experimented with powdered and liquefied versions of their new discovery, leaping back as Fletcher set a small pile of powder alight, producing a burst of flame, before it settled and lowered.

"Hey! Watch the eyebrows, Hawke!" he protested.

Ignoring him, Fletcher gasped and nudged Anders, who was crushing some ingredients in a mortar. "Anders, look at this!" he exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the pale violet flame.

"Ah! I think we've found our difference," Anders said, shuffling closer for a better look. "Ordinary lyrium burns with a white flame," he explained for Varric's benefit.

"Are you saying this stuff's flammable?" asked Varric, glancing around nervously. "Are we safe to light fires in here?"

"Yes, of course," replied Fletcher, inviting Varric to sit next to them. "I added some other agents to the powder to make it combustible."

"Oh, I knew that," Varric claimed with an easy laugh as he sat next to the mages. "So, what does a purple flame mean?"

"I'm not sure," Fletcher answered, and Anders, also uncertain, shrugged. "We're going to have to break it down into its component parts and conduct further tests on each component. Isn't it exciting?"

"Sure," muttered Varric flatly, stifling a yawn. He then leaned closer to Fletcher and whispered, "Are we gonna be able to sell this stuff or not?"

This time, both mages shrugged. "So far, it appears to be identical to ordinary lyrium," Anders explained, "but something sets it apart, and we need to know what that something is. We can't sell it if it's unsafe."

"We're guessing that this particular lyrium is much older than the rest of it," Fletcher added. "Not one section we've examined has so much as a chip in it; it's perfectly smooth, like it's never been touched."

Anders produced his maps, pointing to the section they were in. "From the previously-uncharted section to the exit in the Planasene Forest is mapped, but look around; there's no old camping equipment here, no bits of wood for fires, no anything, in fact. In all preceding chambers, we've found some evidence that others have travelled through or camped there. I'd say this part of the Deep Roads hasn't been explored for a very long time, if ever, unless those that came down here were particularly tidy."

"Or didn't want anyone to know they were here," Varric supplied, raising his eyebrows.

Anders and Fletcher looked at each other, and Anders frowned. "The only ones who would have been down here at any time are the wardens or the darkspawn. I wonder if the wardens know about the 'new' lyrium as well?"

"Don't you know, being a warden?" Fletcher asked, and was surprised at Anders's loud burst of laughter.

"Hawke, I'm the warden equivalent of that annoying acquaintance you haven't seen for years, who, when you bump into him, you nod politely and exchange pleasantries but all the time you're looking for an escape. And when you're finally rid of him, you go and slag him off to all your friends and have a good laugh at his expense. The bloody wardens wouldn't tell me what time it is."

"Don't mince your words, Blondie," joked Varric. "Listen, I don't care who, if anyone, knows about the lyrium. No one has attempted to mine it, or has laid claim to it. If the wardens know about it, they blew their chance. It's ours."

"It might be ours, but we still need to know if it's safe," Fletcher warned, laughing at the dwarf's disappointed expression. "Now toddle off and let us get on with our work," he said with a grin.

Varric huffed and pushed himself to his feet. "Fine. But if it's bad news, I don't wanna know. Tell it to Bartrand and lie to me, okay?"

"Through my teeth," Fletcher averred with a wave at the dwarf, who was walking away, shaking his head.

"Let's take a break from this," suggested Anders, and Fletcher stretched his arms, nodding his agreement. "How about we discuss Fenris? Although I don't really know where to start. Do you know much about the markings? How they got there?"

Fletcher sighed and leaned back on his hands, crossing his ankles. "The markings weren't supposed to be there; the lyrium procedure went wrong, and the markings were the result. Fenris was an experiment, as well, just like this lyrium."

Frowning, Anders nodded slowly and waited for Fletcher to continue, guessing it would not be easy for him to talk about.

"I don't know how he did it, but Danarius injected lyrium into Fenris's veins and then boiled it using magic. The aim was to burn it into Fenris's blood vessels," he recited with bitterness in his voice, seeing Anders's mouth fall open from the corner of his eye. "Fenris was conscious during this, by the way."

"W-what?" Anders gasped, his voice trailing to a whisper. Both men were silent for a moment before Fletcher continued.

"The trauma to his body caused several of his blood vessels to collapse or disintegrate, which in turn caused the boiling lyrium to break through to his skin."

"And that's what caused the markings?" Anders asked, receiving no response from Fletcher, who was staring into space. "Maker! I can't even…" Anders placed his hand over his coat above where the templars had branded him and touched Fletcher's arm, snapping him out of his thoughts.

"Yes, that's what caused the markings," replied Fletcher, noticing that Anders had placed his hand over his chest. "Maybe now you can see why Fenris was so distrustful of mages when we first met, just like you distrust – hate – the templars. Both of you were held against your will and both of you were abused, tortured, and made to feel like nothing. Now do you see, Anders?"

Anders's hand slowly moved away from his chest and he rested both hands in his lap, his brow creased. "These markings," he began quietly, "have you had a good look at them?"

"I haven't examinedthem, if that's what you mean. To be honest, I'm afraid to touch them for fear of hurting him. He's in constant pain because of them. He did tell me it wouldn't hurt if I touched them, but he might have said that to reassure me. I…have touched them, but only briefly."

"Do you think he'd consent to an examination, Hawke? From you, I mean; I doubt he'd want me gawking at him," Anders said airily, trying to lighten the mood.

"Yes, I think he'd let me," said Fletcher thoughtfully. "What do you want me to look for?"

"Anything; everything. What sets the markings apart from the unaffected skin? Are there any parts of him that don't have the markings? Not that I mean to be personal or anything."

"The soles of his feet are unmarked, but, because he went barefoot for so long, the skin there is incredibly tough. The upper part of his face, the nape of his neck, plus a few other areas are unmarked."

"Does he have markings on his shoulders?" Anders asked, and Fletcher nodded. "I'd concentrate on the nape of his neck, then; you'd have the marked skin and the unmarked skin close to each other."

Fletcher shook his head. "He wouldn't like me doing that."

Anders frowned a little, but decided not to ask why, suspecting the answer might not be a pleasant one. "What about the soles of his feet, then? Are there markings on his legs?"

"There are markings on the upper part of his feet, ankles and all the way up his legs."

"Well, could you remove the hard skin? Might make walking a bit more comfortable for him as well. Kill two birds with one stone."

"I could, couldn't I?" Fletcher said, a smile slowly forming. He searched his pack and produced a small knife and a couple of pots of ointment. "Great idea, Anders. I'll be back a bit later."

Fletcher stood up, and Anders picked up his mortar and pestle. "I'll carry on with this, then." Fletcher nodded and turned away. "I…might have been wrong," Anders admitted quietly, and Fletcher turned around. "…About Fenris, I mean." He shrugged casually and started to pound the ingredients.

"We all make mistakes, Anders," Fletcher said warmly, and squeezed his friend's shoulder before leaving him to his work.

After much searching, he found Fenris in a secluded niche off the main chamber, where he was feeding stale biscuits to Tufty and Sprinkles, Bethany's book on Ferelden lying next to him.

"Having fun?" Fletcher grinned, and Fenris, startled by the mage's appearance, sat up straight and shooed the nugs away.

"You have had enough for today," he told them sternly. "Be off."

"Fenris," Fletcher said lightly as he sat next to the elf. "Drop the meanie act. You're not fooling anyone."

Fenris's eyes slowly moved to Fletcher's, and Fenris attempted his most menacing expression, but in truth he was so relieved that Fletcher was more himself, he couldn't maintain it, and his mask slipped. "It is no act," he claimed, tossing the rest of the scraps onto the ground, and the nugs wasted no time in devouring them. "I am as mean as they come."

"Riiiight," Fletcher drawled with a wink. Fenris shook his head, smiling with his eyes, and he pushed himself up a little more, stretching his back.

"I made a discovery this morning," Fenris declared, and pointed at Sprinkles. "Call to him."

"Sprinkles!" Fletcher called in a sing-song voice, but as usual, the nug ignored him, as he ignored everyone. Fletcher tried again in a more commanding voice, but to no avail.

"Watch this," said Fenris, and he tapped the ground next to his leg several times. To Fletcher's astonishment, Sprinkles turned around and looked in their direction. Fenris tapped the ground a few more times, and Sprinkles walked over to him and sniffed his hand.

"How did you do that?" asked Fletcher, laughing in amazement.

"I trained him."

"When?" Fletcher asked sceptically.

"I did not really train him," Fenris smiled. "No, I have suspected for some time that he cannot hear me."

"What, you think he's deaf?"

"I believe so." Fenris then tapped the ground on his opposite side, and Sprinkles leapt over his legs and started sniffing his other hand. "See? He feels the vibrations when I strike the ground."

"What a clever little elf you are!" Fletcher exclaimed, ruffling Fenris's hair, and was surprised at the strength of the shove that sent him onto his side.

"Cute, as well," he added, slowly sitting back up with a glance at the two nugs who were now snuggling next to Fenris's legs.

"I am not cute," insisted Fenris, unable to keep the amusement from his voice as he smoothed his hair into place. He was so delighted to see the smiling, teasing Fletcher again that he found it difficult to maintain his cool façade for long, at least in front of Fletcher.

"No, not much." Fletcher flashed a cheeky grin at the elf and took his hand, placing it on his lap. "Fen? Anders and I have been talking…about your markings. I'd like to examine them, if you'd be comfortable with that."

Fenris grunted quietly and nodded. "What are you looking for?"

"I'm not sure. To be honest, Anders and I don't know what we're dealing with. You're a non-mage who is somehow connected to the Fade in a way that other non-mages aren't, if that makes sense. Neither of us has heard of such a thing; it shouldn't even be possible. We need as much information at our disposal as possible; an examination is the first and most basic step. A beginning."

"I will co-operate in any way I can; after all, you are doing this for my benefit. Where would you like to examine me?"

"Fen, before we start, I want you to know that I can't make any promises. I don't want to give you false hope."

Fenris cocked his head and smiled in the lopsided way that Fletcher loved. "The fact that you are even willing to help me is heartening. I do not expect miracles. I will do whatever I can to assist. Both of you."

Fletcher's hand brushed Fenris's cheek and he gently kissed the elf's lips. "If it's within our power, we'll help you, as well. Now…let's have a look at those feet of yours."

"Ever the romantic, I see," remarked Fenris dryly, wiggling his toes as Fletcher shuffled towards his feet. "How can I resist a request like that?"

"I'll have you know I'm very romantic," Fletcher grinned, removing Fenris's slippers and giving one of them a long, deep sniff. "Aah…shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"

"I stand corrected," Fenris choked out between peals of laughter. Fletcher placed the slipper down and watched, his heart singing, until Fenris had regained control. "Fletcher," Fenris murmured, wiping his eyes. "I have missed you. Sorely."

"I know." Fletcher clasped one of Fenris's feet and stared down at it, sighing heavily. "I want you to know how sorry I am-"

"No." Fenris leaned forward and reached out, brushing a stray curl off Fletcher's cheek. "None of that. Life is too short, dear Fletcher."

"Dear Fletcher. I like that." A halting smile quickly bloomed into a fully-fledged simper, and Fletcher hung his head, feeling heat rise into his cheeks.

"Then henceforth that is how I will address you," Fenris said softly. "Dear Fletcher."

"In company, as well?" Fletcher asked cheekily, his head snapping up.

"When the sun and the moon rise together, perhaps. Until then, not a chance."

"Fair enough. And henceforth I will call you Fen-Fe-"

"Not if you value your life, you won't."

"Huh." Fletcher pouted and again stared down at Fenris's unclad foot. "I take back what I said earlier. You are mean. As mean as a dragon who's just lost his job, his wife has run off with the dragon next door, and he's just got really, really drunk and is itching for a scrap. And he's got really bad piles, as well."

"Then all is well in the world," Fenris drawled, his eyes alight with mirth.

"I see," sniffed Fletcher, feigning hurt. "All professional. I get it." He reached for his small knife and held it next to Fenris's foot, clearing his throat dramatically. "Messere Elf, I am going to give you a foot job. Let's see how professional you are after that."

"A foot job? What does that mean?" asked Fenris, frowning warily at the knife.

"Oh, it's purely for research purposes. But I can't promise that you won't be a drooling, babbling mess by the end of it."

"Why?" Fenris asked suspiciously.

"Have you never had a foot job and foot massage before?"

"Obviously not. Wait…foot massage?"

Nodding, Fletcher held one of Fenris's feet still, holding the knife in his other hand. "A drooling, babbling mess," he repeated with a disconcerting smile.

"Wait-" Fenris began hastily.

"Hold still," Fletcher reprimanded sternly. "Or I won't be held responsible for missing toes."

"Sadist," Fenris grumped.

"You won't be calling me that when I get to the foot massage. Oh, no, ser. Now stay still."

Fenris watched with a doubtful sneer as Fletcher started chipping away at the tough skin on the soles of his feet, ensuring he did indeed keep them very still. After a while, the constant ache he'd felt in his feet – which had almost become like background noise over the years – eased, as did his sneer, and he stopped Fletcher a few times so he could flex his feet, his eyes lighting up when doing so didn't induce shooting pain in his heels.

"Better?" Fletcher asked.

"Yes…" Fenris sat up again as he'd started to slouch, and curled his toes first up, then down. "I feel the air on them. It's very pleasant." Fletcher laughed as a toothy grin lit up Fenris's face.

"The air on them? Like this?" Fletcher leaned down and gently blew on the arch of Fenris's foot, causing the elf to sharply retract his leg and squirm.

"Do not-do not do that!"

"Are you sure?"

Fenris slowly lined his feet back up, watching Fletcher carefully, and scratched his arch with the big toe of his other foot. "Not so…sudden," he uttered.

Grinning, Fletcher brought one of Fenris's feet close to his mouth. "Well, how about something like this, then?" Fletcher then licked his lips and softly pressed them against the inner arch of Fenris's foot, feeling a fine tremor travel down the elf's leg. Looking up, he noticed with satisfaction that Fenris's eyes were wide, his mouth slightly open.

"Again?" Fletcher whispered. His expression unchanged, Fenris's eyes fluttered closed as Fletcher once again lowered his lips.

"A-aren't you supposed to be examining-ah!" Fenris bit his lip to stifle a moan and reluctantly drew his foot away from Fletcher.

"And I thought you were enjoying that," said Fletcher with a mock pout.

"I-I was," Fenris answered breathlessly, his stomach fluttering. "Just…not here."

Fletcher glanced behind him, where conversation could be heard from the main chamber. "Well, at least let me massage your feet." He picked up one of his small pots and Fenris leaned forward, snatching it away with a smile.

"I will apply the ointment. Thank you."

Fletcher lunged for Fenris's hand and a small grappling match ensued with possession of the massage balm as the prize. "Look, Messere Elf. I'm the healer and I am going to massage your feet."

"No, you're…not!" Fenris's slim, nimble fingers plucked the balm from Fletcher's hands and the elf pulled it tightly against his chest, still clutching it for dear life as Fletcher pounced on him, sending Fenris onto his back.

"Yes-I-am! Give it to me!" Fletcher laughed, leaning over Fenris and unsuccessfully grabbing at his hands. "Wait…" Fletcher looked down at Fenris's feet and grinned impishly. "Your feet are undefended, Messere Elf."

"No…have pity on me," Fenris chuckled quietly. "Not here. Please."

Fletcher's eyes moved back and forth between Fenris's feet and eyes, appearing to consider the elf's entreaty. "All right, you can keep the balm. But it'll cost you," he whispered, his eyes sparkling. "A kiss for the prize, Messere Elf."

Fenris's body relaxed but he did not relinquish his grip on the precious balm. "I would appear to be at your mercy, Messere Mage," he murmured as Fletcher's mouth hovered over his, but then Fletcher noticed his eyes dart toward the main chamber before settling back on him.

Exhaling quietly, Fletcher sat up and offered his hand to Fenris, who frowned as he let himself be pulled up.

"Fletcher?" he asked anxiously.

"I would forego even one of your sweet kisses for your comfort, dear Fenris."

Realising that Fletcher had noticed his reaction, Fenris felt a pang of guilt, which immediately showed in his eyes. "I'm sorry Fletcher," he began.

"Don't be." Fletcher took Fenris's hands, which were still wrapped around the balm, and brought them to his lips. "The balm is yours, love. The foot massage will have to be postponed. But you will have one, and that's a promise. No guilt. We know each other now, remember?"

"Yes, we do." With a faint smile, Fenris opened his hands, revealing the balm, and looked at Fletcher. "I would have foregone my comfort for your sweet kiss."

"But then it wouldn't have been sweet, Fen." Fletcher placed his hands over Fenris's and closed them around the balm. "It's yours." He released the elf's hands and stole a quick peck on the cheek before gesturing toward Fenris's feet.

"Thank you." Smiling, Fenris bent one leg, placing his foot over his knee, and slathered his foot with the mint-scented concoction.

"Sensitive feet," Fletcher muttered just loudly enough for Fenris to hear. "Duly noted…for research purposes." He passed Fenris a small cloth to remove the excess ointment and their eyes met briefly. "When we're out of here, Fen, and when we're truly alone, I'm going to give you the night of your life."

Fenris looked away, and distracted himself by scratching Tufty's ear. "I…look forward to that."

"That makes two of us."

A lull took the conversation while Fletcher watched Fenris massage the balm into his feet. When he'd finished, he returned the pot to Fletcher, who pocketed it and moved down to Fenris's feet.

"If it helps with your research…I also have sensitive ears," Fenris murmured, and Fletcher grinned broadly.

"I did notice that before. It's all tucked away up here." He tapped his temple. "Any other sensitive areas I should know about? Besides the obvious?"

Fenris snorted softly and held one foot up while Fletcher began a proper examination. "Until you and I had been together, I did not know of any sensitive areas. Perhaps…we will discover more in time?"

Fletcher smiled and kissed the top of Fenris's big toe. "You can count on that. Now stop talking smutty and let me examine your foot. Honestly, some elves have one-track minds."

"But you were the one…" Fletcher burst out laughing at Fenris's look of annoyance and the elf shook his head, smiling as he rolled his eyes.

"Now, let's see…" Fletcher's expression grew serious and he gently trailed his fingers along Fenris's heel and ankle. "May I?" he asked when he reached the markings.

"Of course."

Fletcher ran one finger lightly over one of the silver-white scars, watching Fenris's expression at all times. "Is this uncomfortable for you? Does it hurt when I touch them?"

"Not exactly. It is more…tender than painful."

Nodding, Fletcher slowly continued his examination and asked Fenris several questions pertaining to the markings, but did not mention the actual lyrium procedure; he knew all he ever wanted to know about that.

"How's the book going, Fen?" he asked, gently setting Fenris's foot down, and he scribbled down a few notes before examining the foot again. "I see you've been reading Beth's book a lot."

"As you suggested, I have been reading one sentence at a time, breaking up any difficult words into sections, and enunciating them aloud. I have found this method to be very useful. I have reached page four."

"That's great! Would you like to read to me a bit later on?"

"I would be happy to, although you may find my reading style somewhat halting at first."

"Well, that's only natural; your confidence will grow with more practise. The fact that you already have the vocabulary is a huge help. When you reach one of those difficult words and pronounce each syllable, you already known the word and what it means, and it'll stay in your head because of that. Even so, you've progressed so much more quickly than I ever expected. You should give yourself a huge pat on the head."

Fenris looked at one of his hands and then moved it to the top of his head, where he patted it twice.

"There you go! And now that your reading's improving, we can work more on your writing," Fletcher enthused.

"I am grateful," said Fenris, "but I am not certain why I would need to write. Reading, I can understand, but…"

"There are several reasons why you should learn to write." Fletcher grinned, and Fenris knew that this was not going to be an entirely serious answer. "Firstly, you could write love letters to me…or cheeky little notes telling me exactly what you plan to do to me at day's end. Because I have plenty of those in store for you, now that you can read." He glanced at Fenris, who was doing his best not to smile. "You could write papers, stories…anything you like. I used to write stories back in Lothering. Just silly ones, you know, for the little kids in the village."

A kind smile warmed Fenris's features. "I can imagine you doing that. The children must have been very fond of you."

"Beth and I used to babysit them once a fortnight when their parents went to the village dance. I'd regale them with heroic tales of derring-do and Beth would bake biscuits and make lemonade. I think Beth and I loved it even more than the kids did."

"That sounds quite wonderful," Fenris said, his eyes misting over. "I…wish I could have known you when you resided in Lothering."

"So do I, Fen." A look of sadness befell Fletcher as it occurred to him what Fenris must have been going through while he was telling silly stories to the local children.

"I have also devised stories, in a fashion," Fenris confided, noticing the change in Fletcher's demeanour. "But instead of writing them down, I have kept them here." Fenris again tapped the top of his head, and Fletcher halted his examination, fascinated.

"Really? What sort of stories?"

"You might think me a fool," Fenris began with a diffident shrug.

"Never." Fletcher set down Fenris's foot and crawled over to him, sitting beside him. "Please tell me," he encouraged.

A nervous laugh stuttered out of Fenris's mouth, and he grimaced slightly as Fletcher clasped his hand. "When I was a slave, I had very little time to myself. After receiving my markings, and when I was alone at night, I invented stories in my head and placed myself into them. I suppose it was a means of escape…I also invented a whole other life for myself." Fenris glanced anxiously at Fletcher then, and, seeing that Fletcher was not laughing as he'd expected, he continued. "I had a companion and a house of my own, with a small garden. I…would retreat there when things became…too much. Foolish, I know."

"No…" Fletcher clutched Fenris's hand tighter, exhaling heavily.

"I am sorry; I did not mean to cause you anguish," said Fenris softly.

"No, you didn't…I-I'm glad you had somewhere to escape to. That's not foolish at all. It makes complete sense. It probably kept you sane."

Fenris nodded slowly and released Fletcher's hand, snaking his arm around Fletcher's back, and Fletcher wrapped his own arm around the elf's shoulders, pulling him close. "It did. It was a place Danarius and Hadriana could not enter; a place where I was in complete control. Nothing went wrong there and nothing unpleasant ever occurred. It was a complete fantasy, but…I needed it."

"Would you tell me about it?" Fletcher asked, "If it's not too private to talk about?"

Fenris hesitated, worried that Fletcher would make light of his story, but he dismissed that thought when he saw the sincerity in Fletcher's eyes. "I have never spoken of this with anyone, but I will share it with you, if you wish. What would you ask of me?"

Fletcher considered this for a moment, and then he smiled faintly. "Tell me about your companion. What was he, or she, like?"

Fenris sighed, a wistful look in his eyes. "She was always there, at the house. I do not know where she came from…I conjured her from my imagination. She was an elf, of course; young, with dark hair. There was nothing…sexual between us – at the time, I had no interest in that - but there was affection, and mutual respect. When I retreated into this world, I would pretend that I had just arrived home after a day's work." He snorted and glanced at Fletcher, who lowered his eyes and tightened his grip on the elf's shoulder.

"She kept the house and cooked for me," Fenris continued. "There was always a sumptuous meal waiting when I 'arrived home'. We talked about many things; I enjoyed her company, and she mine. After we had eaten and cleared away, I went outside and tended my herb garden, and I would bring her a posy of flowers before we locked up for the night. We slept in the same bed, but only for warmth. We would hold each other and watch the moon rise in the sky until we fell asleep. Her name was Amica, meaning friend."

"She sounds like a very special friend, indeed," said Fletcher, his voice thick and hushed. "Do you still visit her?"

"I have not visited her for quite some time," he replied, stroking Fletcher's chest with his free hand, "but I will never forget her. She helped me a great deal."

The men shared a thoughtful silence while Fletcher pondered the significance of a female elf who cooked for Fenris and tended house; a mother figure, perhaps?

"Thank you for sharing that with me, Fenris," he said at length. "I feel like I've really got to know you while we've been in the Deep Roads. The real Fenris; the side of yourself that you keep hidden. I feel quite privileged."

"Thank you for listening," replied Fenris. "I have also learned much during our journey; about the kind of man you are, what it means to trust, and what it is to have a true companion. A real one."

Fletcher kissed Fenris's nose and patted the elf's knee before sitting up straight. "You know something, Fen? I think we're really good together. Really good."

"I agree," Fenris replied, kissing Fletcher's cheek in return, before the mage sat up and moved back down to Fenris's feet.

"And now, if you've quite finished with the romantic pap, I have an examination to conclude."

"If I have finished. I see," teased the elf. "Are you aware, Fletcher, that you always end romantic conversations with a joke – despite the fact that you, more often than not, instigate them?"

"Ah, I have to, really," Fletcher explained with a sigh, full of longing, as he made further notes. "So that I don't get too carried away." He looked up, then, his gaze penetrating, his words spoken deliberately. "When we're out of here, you're going to see a different side to Fletcher Hawke."

"Is that a promise?"

"No, it's not a promise; it's a fact." They smiled at each other, and Fletcher lifted Fenris's foot, resuming his examination. "Now hold still. This won't hurt a bit."

~o~O~o~

"Just slow down, Merrill!" Aveline shouted, exasperated, as the Dalish elf almost disappeared out of sight. "Merrill! I'm wearing armour! I can't move as quickly as you!"

A small head peered around a tree and Merrill stepped out, and waited for Aveline, Donnic and the others to catch her up. "I-I'm just worried that they'll all be gone when we get there, that's all."

"I doubt very much that dead bodies would get up and walk, Merrill," Aveline said, struggling to catch her breath.

"Merrill," Donnic interjected, hoping to distract the elf long enough for her to slow down. "Why don't you tell us again what you were doing out here? You just barged into the office, screaming, "Murder!" To be honest, you didn't make much sense after that."

"Oh, right," she muttered. "I just panicked, you see. When I found them…oh, it was horrible!"

"Merrill!" barked Aveline, before sighing. "What were you doing here in the first place?"

"Oh. Well, I came looking for Hawke. He showed me the site not long before they all set off. I remembered roughly where it was…I hoped that maybe they hadn't gone too far in, or that they hadn't started yet."

"But it's been over a month, Merrill."

"I-I know. I'm daffy, all right? I know that. But it doesn't matter why I came here. The fact is, there are five dead bodies lying outside. The cave. You know, where they went in?"

"Yes, Merrill," sighed Aveline as they got underway, more slowly this time. "Was there anyone there that we know?"

"Oh, no. They were all dwarves. They all had big bushy beards and little legs. Oh, and big axes, too. That's how I know they were dwarves, you see."

"Thank you, Merrill," replied Aveline with a morose look at Donnic, whose lips twitched. "Right. Lead the way, then. No running!"

"A-all right. It's this way."

She led them through the woods on the outskirts of Kirkwall until they arrived at a wide clearing, where two empty wagons, some small carts and several pieces of mining equipment were scattered about.

"Over there." Merrill pointed eastward, and the small group followed the trail of equipment and detritus that led to a system of caves. As they approached the largest of the caves, Merrill stopped, refusing to go any further.

Aveline, Donnic and two of their fellow guards strode over to the cave mouth while Merrill stayed back, anxiously twisting her fingers, watching as Donnic bent over a prone dwarf who lay outside the cave.

"No, Donnic! Don't touch him!" Aveline commanded abruptly, and Donnic stood up, shooting a questioning glance at Aveline as she rushed to his side.

"Shit. Shit. Shit!" she cursed, and Donnic, seeing something in his captain's eyes he hadn't believed possible – panic – steered her away from the others, first telling them to investigate inside the cave, but not to touch the bodies.

"Captain? What is it?" he asked, guessing she was concerned for Hawke and his group.

"Nothing," she answered shortly. "Come on." With grim determination, she quickly moved to the cave, her features hardening as she surveyed the four other bodies that lay inside, noting their pallid, translucent skin, the blackened veins beneath and the liver-coloured lesions that peppered their bodies.

"It's the taint," she declared confidently, and Donnic suspected he caught a hitch in Aveline's voice. "Donnic, I want you to go back to town and round up as many guards as we can spare. I want all of our scouts; wake them if necessary. Hunter, Ryan, get yourselves around the pubs. I want as many able-bodied men as possible; they can arm themselves but make it clear that we won't tolerate any trouble. They'll be paid something out of the Keep's coffers. No templars. Get to it. Bring back torches, food, fresh water, rope, the works."

"Right, Captain," answered Hunter, and he and Ryan headed away from the clearing.

"Don't mention the taint at this stage," Aveline called after them. "No point in causing a panic. We'll tell the civilians when they get here, and they can choose whether they want to help or not."

"Captain," Donnic said quietly, noticing that Aveline hadn't paused for breath. "Is it wise to expose so many people to the taint?"

"They can't catch it unless they come into contact with darkspawn or tainted blood, Donnic!" she exclaimed impatiently.

"Are you certain?" he questioned sceptically. "How can you be so sure? How do we know it isn't in the air?"

"Don't be ridiculous!" she snapped, and Donnic frowned fiercely at her. "And don't give me that look, guardsman! I've seen someone die of the taint, all right? Do you really think I'd be so reckless with people's lives?"

"All right," he said defensively. "I only asked, you know. I didn't know you were experienced with this kind of thing."

"Well I am, so unless you intend to stand here questioning my orders all day long, those guards aren't going to round themselves up, are they?"

Only the rustle of trees could be heard as the wind picked up, and the two guards stared at each other, their hair whipping around their faces. After a minute, Donnic sighed.

"Aveline…are you all right? This isn't like you."

Her mouth opened a little and she drew a sharp breath, Donnic's concern almost undoing her, and then, for a split second, his features arranged themselves into those of her dead husband and she blinked, finding herself gawking at Donnic once again.

"Aveline?"

Releasing her breath in a burst, she screwed her eyes closed and pressed her lips together in a hard line. "I gave you an order, guardsman," she said quietly, but there was no mistaking the steel in her voice.

Donnic nodded, his expression turning dour. "Fine, Captain. Forgive me for caring. I won't make that mistake again."

He turned on his heel and marched out of the clearing, catching up with his counterparts. Aveline squeezed her eyes even tighter and then opened them wide, the image of Wesley not leaving her even as she stared down at the bodies.

"It can't happen again. It can't. It just can't." She envisioned knocking on the door of Leandra Hawke and informing her that she'd had to kill her son.

"Merrill!" she shouted, and the elf, despite standing a hundred or so metres away, almost jumped out of her skin. "Help me find some kindling. These bodies need to be burned. Don't worry; you won't have to touch them."

Quickly nodding, Merrill scampered over to the trees and began searching for fallen branches. Aveline watched her for a moment and released a deep sigh, her heart pounding.

"I won't let it happen again," she vowed, and slowly walked over to Merrill, placing a hand on the elf's shoulder. "You did the right thing, Merrill," she said, her voice softer. "Come on; I'll give you a hand."

With worries of her own, Merrill threw herself into her task and the two women worked in silence.