He vanishes without a trace – one day he is there, joking and laughing at their victories over the terrifying new darkspawn, and the next it is as if he was never there, his few possessions gone and his cat no longer stalking the mess hall for scraps. Nobody says a word aloud, but all eyes fall to the commander. The elven woman says nothing of it, eating her breakfast and discussing the days reports with the seneschal in murmured tones. Likewise, Varel does not appear to have acknowledged the absence of one of their number. The silence around them almost presses in on the pair, but finally Sigrun turns to Velanna, asking about her tattoos more out of nervousness than anything, and the spell is broken.
Nathaniel is nominated to ask – after all, reasons Sigrun, she and Oghren cannot be trusted not to shoot their mouths off should the situation be awkward, and Velanna and Justice simply do not care. She smiles up at him -
- and then he is stood outside the Commander's office, having knocked. He curses under his breath as she beckons her guest in with a shout. That dwarf! He could kill her, but she would be far too cheery about it, he suspects, pushing the door open.
"Nathaniel." She smiles, and he cannot help but mirror her. Others may have found ways to shorten his name, but the way she pronounced it always reminded him of his times abroad – good times, with good people, and not all of them Marchers. He offers a short bow, as ever.
"What can I help you with? I am sure you have already told me that you had plans today." Her eyes twinkle with that statement, and he recalls that he had mentioned a rigorous training schedule for all the men who had come to the Vigil in the wake of their victories, wanting to be Wardens. He would weed out the best of them, and those falling short would be handed over to Garavel for the rebuilding of the army of Amaranthine.
"Ah, yes. Velanna has sent some of them on a hunt for herbs – until they satisfy her request, I am left short on numbers. I actually wanted to... ask you something, if I might."
She looks up from the paperwork, her smile broadening. "Always. Is this about our recent fugitif, perhaps?"
"You read me like a book." He approaches the desk, relaxing into a seat. She sighs, leaning back – the smile already faded.
"I believe he has gone back to the Circle, but I cannot be certain."
"Can he do that? Turn his back on the Wardens just like that?" Nathaniel wonders if he could ever walk away from this life.
She shrugs. "It is his choice. Eventually, he will feel the call of the blood. Until then, I am of no mind to force him to stay." There is a strange look on her face at this, not quite sad but not particularly happy.
"But... you wanted him to stay."
"Perhaps." The wry smile is back. "Am I that obvious, monsieur?"
He laughs. "Well, you did make quite the scene on our return to the Keep after..." He shakes his head. They are still unable to speak of the horrors of the Architect and the Mother. "Not surprising, given how you flirted before the battle. As I recall, you knocked him over." She laughs outright, the rich sound filling the room. "You almost crushed him," he adds, and she shakes her head.
"That was not my fault!"
"If you're going to start with that pitiful excuse of being tripped up by Justice..."
She waves a hand dismissively. "You were in front of us. You did not see a thing. And he was fine, so this is pointless."
"Yes, I didn't hear a single complaint from him. Must be a first," he says archly, and she smiles, a slight blush as her eyes turn back to the window. They share a companionable silence for a moment before Nathaniel speaks again. "Do you think he'll come back?"
The smile fades. "I... do not know. It is my hope, oui, but..."
Time passes, and seasons fade.
It is cold outside, but he has a thick travelling cloak that disguises him from the guard surprisingly well. As the silver-plated men pass by, he sweeps over the wall silently, landing awkwardly. He bites back a curse. Pacing through the courtyard shadows quickly, he catches his breath in the doorway, a smile breaking as the first delicate snowflakes begin to fall.
The Keep has not changed much – the bulk of the repairwork is done now, and the light frosting of snow makes it look almost homely, a fact that does not escape the mage as he takes a deep breath, turning back to the door. Home. It sounds about right.
From somewhere in the building, a squeal erupts. He moves out of the way just in time – the door almost comes off its hinges as Sigrun barrels out, laughing loudly.
"Snow! Real, actual snow from the sky!"
"Must we?" The exasperation of Velanna's voice does not quite ring true, as she and the other wardens follow the dwarf outside.
"You have often complained of your stone lodgings," points out the commander, adjusting her cloak with care. Even from this dark corner, he can see her smile as she lets the snow dust her pale hair. It looks longer, almost drowning her small elven features. "Are you not content to be outside at any hour?"
"That is... not the point," she retorts, and Nate chuckles, a low gruff sort of sound.
"We are not all privileged enough to have spent winter in the snow," he points out. "The dwarves in particular have not shared our experiences. Let them enjoy what they can." It is the right tone to take with the haughty elf, and it works. She seems to relax slightly at his words, nodding, before leaning into him. The mage in the shadows smirks. Now that was an interesting development.
"Perhaps it would be wise to get some training done, now that we are all awake," adds the commander, an impish look on her face as she nods at Oghren who laughs with a snort and nudges his fellow dwarf.
"What do you mean? Our weapons are insi- ARGH!" Nate is silenced with a snowball to the side of his face, Sigrun's laughter echoing around the courtyard as she starts running. "Very well. War it is." He grins, gathering up a retort from around his feet and giving chase. Oghren and Velanna exchange a glare before he ducks and rolls away, her hands already plunging into the quickly-piling snowfall to arm herself.
The commander remains. Without turning around, she laughs softly.
"I am glad you are back, monsieur," she says. "I have missed you and your cat."
Emerging from his shadowy spot, Anders stands next to her, watching the others run circles around a very confused Justice. "Pounce missed you terribly. Kept mewling for you. I had to come back." He throws an arm over her shoulders casually. "Besides, those fools at the Circle wouldn't listen to me. I know a lost cause when I see it."
She turns her head to look at him properly, smile bright. "Oh? That is a shame. Perhaps you will find another way to help, non?"
"Maybe." He reaches up, tucking a strand of her hair behind a slender ear. "Maybe I should just stay at home, where I'll be of some use to somebody, at least."
Her smile turns wry. "Ready to be a Warden again?"
"I was actually thinking of offering my services as a bedwarmer. But only for authority figures, of course." He winks, and she laughs.
"Excellent, I shall let our guest know." At the look of surprise on his face, she elaborates. "There is a representative here from Weisshaupt, you see, so he is the highest in the chain of command. He will welcome your services."
"You're kidding." She wrestles a smile before laughing again with a nod, and he sags against her. "Oh thank the Maker. Never threaten me like that again!"
"It was worth it for the look on your face, truly." Still giggling slightly, she rests a gloved palm against his cheek. "I have missed you, Anders."
"And I you, Commander." He ducks to kiss her – their first, he thinks with a skip of his heart, though it feels completely natural. Their song and dance had gone on long enough, and he was claiming his prize. Arms wrap around his neck as she leans into the embrace, and for a long beautiful moment in the winterscape of the Keep, there is nothing else.
Until someone throws a snowball and receives a surprisingly accurate frost spell to the feet, of course..
It is a scant few months later when he opens his door to the spirit.
"I have considered your offer," he rumbles. "Perhaps it is time."
He vanishes without a trace – but this time is different. Kristoph's body lies in a pile outside the man's room. His possessions are all still in place, and when the alarm is raised and the Commander arrives, his precious cat leaps out from under the bed to shiver in her arms. Nathaniel inspects the room himself as she stares out of the window into the stormy morning, her face pale and the cat mewling.
"Qu'as-tu fait, mon amour?" she whispers repeatedly.