"Fenris. Wake up."

Alistair's voice, strained with a hint of false cheer, dragged Fenris slowly out of a murky doze. He blinked over and over before realizing that the blurriness marring everything was there to stay. Squinting, he closed his fingers over the arms holding him upright. He felt cloth and muscle, and caught a whiff of familiar soap under the stench of sweat and darkspawn gore. Alistair. He'd taken off his armor and was holding Fenris's dead weight up. Fenris blinked again, tried to speak, and gave up. His tongue felt like wool, and there was a foul taste in his mouth. Everything ached distantly, and his blood felt as if it were on fire. The Taint, he remembered numbly, trying to get his feet to take his weight. He had vague, scattered recollections of the tail-end of the fight, his meeting with Brosca, and staggering to his feet to follow her and Alistair towards some trees. He must have passed out again briefly; overhead were the bare dead branches of the long-dead orchard trees. Squinting, he could finally make out a bit of the features of those with him.

Alistair, of course, holding him up; Brosca, waiting patiently nearby; and a third man he didn't recognize. Their faces were too fuzzy to make out their expressions, but he could feel a faint constant tremor in Alistair's arms under his fingertips. He couldn't decide if it was the effort of holding Fenris up, or something else.

"Fenris, you've agreed to the Joining," Brosca said quietly, holding forth a dented chalice. "Are you ready?"

"Wait," Alistair said, the word strangled, as if he'd tried and failed to hold it back.

Fenris tightened his grip on the man's arms in reassurance, mustering up the last vestiges of his strength. He straightened, wobbling but upright without aid. His tongue was still uncooperative, so he nodded.

Brosca's voice was quiet and solemn. "Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn." She handed Fenris the chalice and took a step back. "And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten... and that one day, we shall join you."

Fenris hesitated with the chalice halfway to his mouth. He couldn't make out what the contents were by sight, but the smell was unmistakable; he'd been wallowing in the stench for hours. His stomach lurched in disapproval. Blood. Darkspawn blood. He was supposed to drink this?

It was the only chance at living that he had left. Not just surviving, but maybe actually feeling like it was worth being alive. A Warden's life was hard, he'd seen that much. But if he had to choose between being a runaway slave and a force for good, well...

He took a gulp of the blood before his stomach or nerve could fail him. Brosca took the chalice away, and for a few tense moments, nothing happened.

Then Fenris's stomach gave a violent cramp, followed quickly by a blinding headache. Fenris doubled over, taking a painful gasp of air. He staggered and fell to his knees, grabbing desperately for a firm grasp of the soil, rocks, grass, anything- the world was spinning, and it was going to throw him right off. Dimly he thought he heard Alistair's voice, frightened and desperate.

A flashbomb went off in his head, bringing with it a flurry of horrific images he didn't understand, there and gone too fast to process. Then darkness replaced everything, and he slipped away into it, grateful for the escape.

xxxxxxxxxx

"Fenris!"

"Alistair-" Nate stepped forward quickly to grab the man. "Wait. I'm sorry-"

"Quiet," Brosca interrupted sharply. She was squatting by the elf's inert form, studying him intently. "He's still breathing." She glanced up at the two men with a quirked brow. "I didn't have a good reaction to the Joining either, Alistair, in case you forgot. He should come around soon." Her grim expression softened into a smile. "Looks like we've got another Warden."

Fenris stirred, eyelashes fluttering, and Alistair shoved Nate away roughly, hurrying over to assist his friend. He took the elf's shoulders in a careful grip and helped him sit upright. "Are you okay?"

Fenris blinked slowly, twice, but when he finally shifted his gaze towards Alistair, his eyes were clear once more. Tired, but no longer murky with darkspawn poison. Alistair lifted one of the man's arms to inspect it nervously. The dark threads that had been standing out on his skin, proof of his diseased blood, were fading by the moment, leaving only the now-familiar lyrium tattoos. Alistair gave an involuntary little bark of relieved laughter.

Fenris swallowed and cleared his throat, but his voice was still as raspy as a rusted gate. "It worked?"

"Yes." Brosca took his hand in a short but firm handshake. "You are now a Grey Warden, Fenris. Welcome."

"Welcome to our brotherhood," Nate said grandly. Then, with a glance towards Brosca, "Or... family, anyway."

Fenris stared at him, at a loss for words.

"Can you stand?" Alistair asked anxiously.

"I think so." Fenris rose slowly, carefully, and resisted the automatic impulse to shrug off Alistair's hand when it landed on his shoulder to steady him.

Brosca pushed herself up from her crouch, dusting off her gauntleted hands briskly. "As soon as we're sure the area is safe, we're going to set up a more permanent camp. There are wounds that need to be tended to, and prayers for the dead to be said. Then we're off for Ferelden."

"You're coming back to Vigil's Keep?" Nate asked in surprise.

"Temporarily. I'll stay there just long enough to speak with the Seneschal and see how things are going there, and then I'm needed at Weisshaupt."

Alistair frowned. "Wait, what about Antiva? We still have to-" he hesitated out of habit before remembering that there would be no Grey Warden secrets from Fenris anymore. "There are still the rumors of rogue Wardens in the capital. You said yourself that it was important that we get to the bottom of it."

"Rogue Wardens?" Fenris repeated.

"A dozen or so Wardens, previously thought dead, have been stirring up political problems in Antiva," Brosca explained. "The first thing you must learn is that politics are not our area. Period. Leave the political bullshit to the Chantry and the monarchs. Our job is to protect the people from darkspawn. But there have been troubling rumors that the newest royal bully boys in Antiva are ex-Wardens. This cannot stand."

Fenris realized he'd unconsciously been leaning against Alistair for support and held himself upright. "Are they still pretending to be Wardens, or posing as everyday mercenaries?"

"You are a Warden for life. It's a calling, not a job. Even if they haven't told anyone where they got their training- which is doubtful, since they've managed to get employed by the crown -this cannot stand."

"Which is why it's important that we take care of this," Alistair pressed.

"Alistair." Brosca's voice was quiet, somber. "I hate to point out the painful truth, but you just lost most of your men back there. You've got a powerful mage, yes, but Matwog's in bad shape over the loss of his brother. And Fenris is a newcomer. That leaves only you as the most experienced Warden in a very small troop. I'm not sending the four of you into the Antivan capital to ruffle feathers. You need to come back to Vigil's Keep to resupply and get a new team together. And leave Matwog there to grieve."

"But-"

"But nothing. You know I'm right. The rogue Wardens in Antiva have been fairly quiet so far. They can wait another few weeks until you have your new team."

Alistair sighed heavily, but gave a short nod. "Yeah. I know."

"I'll go," Fenris volunteered, the words blurting past his lips before he knew he was going to say them. He pressed his lips tight together and fought back a blush with all of his willpower when Brosca's knowing gaze twitched his way.

"You're still green, newblood," she said, not unkindly. The shadow of a smile played at the corners of her lips. "You can obviously look out for yourself, but we like to give our new recruits at least some training."

"I've been fighting all my life," Fenris retorted.

"I'll train him," Alistair said quickly. "I mean, we're already used to fighting together."

Brosca shrugged, turning to hide her smile. "If you wish. Come, Nate. We've still got to set up camp. Alistair, stay here a moment with your friend and make sure he's steady on his feet."

"I'm fine," Fenris started to argue, and realized belatedly she was trying to give the two of them a bit of privacy in the secluded orchard. There was an awkward pause as they stood together watching the two Wardens stride off.

"Interesting woman," Fenris finally said, because he had to say something. "I think I can see how she was able to gather an army and stop a Blight."

Alistair's dirty face cracked in a grin. "She takes a little getting used to, but she's good people."

"I find her forthrightness refreshing," Fenris admitted. He held up a hand, studying the palm as if seeking the same darkspawn taint Alistair had so anxiously checked for earlier. "So the taint's gone now?"

"Er... no. That's not how it works. You've still got the taint, but it won't kill you. Yet."

"Yet?"

Alistair took a deep breath like a man about to deliver the news of a death in the family. "Wardens- assuming they aren't killed in battle -generally only last about thirty years. The taint will eventually seep into every part of you, quite probably drive you mad, and eventually kill you. Before this happens, Wardens who can sense it coming have a habit of taking off into the Deep Roads, since by then the darkspawn can't sense them. They spend the rest of their days killing as many darkspawn as possible. It's a grim future, but it's still a better chance than you had ten minutes ago."

Fenris nodded slowly. He started to lower his hand, then remembered something. Unclasping the thin chain from around his neck, he held out the locket to his friend. "Here. I promised to return this to you."

Alistair hesitated, then reached out and closed the elf's fingers back over the locket. "You can keep it. It's kept you safe once already."

"I thought you said it was your mother's."

"Yes, well..." Alistair floundered, staring down at their hands rather than meet Fenris's unwavering stare. "It's not like it's going very far, right? I mean... you're a Warden now. And you said you wanted me to train you, that you'll be going with me to Antiva later. So... just stay close and I'll know it's safe. And that you're safe as well."

Fenris's own gaze dropped, and another long tense silence reigned.

"Maker's breath!" came an explosive huff from behind one of the trees, causing them both to start violently. "Will somebody get with the snogging already?"

"Bethany!" Alistair protested, his face a brilliant shade of scarlet.

Bethany stepped out from behind the tree, looking more put-upon than guilty. "I was just checking on Fenris. But seriously, you two. Can we please end this horrible day on a pleasant, more hopeful note? The way you two flail about with emotions would put a drowning cat to shame."

"Go away," Fenris suggested darkly, trying to hide his humiliation.

Bethany ignored the unspoken threat, coming over to envelop the startled elf in a brief hug. "I'm glad you're all right. Welcome to the Wardens." She smiled at him. "I know you'll make us proud." She held up her hands defensively when Alistair gave her a meaningful Look. "I'm going, I'm going. Just don't dawdle too long. I want to check you both for injuries later."

Alistair shook his head at her retreating back, and offered Fenris a weak lopsided smile. "Sorry. Er, maybe we should get back."

Fenris opened his hand to look at the locket in his palm and, after a moment's hesitation, slipped the chain back over his head.

Alistair watched, an almost pitiful glint of hope in his eyes. "Does that mean you'll stay?"

"I'm a Warden now. Kind of have to."

"Oh. I meant- Well, I meant with-"

Fenris reached up and wrapped strong fingers around the other man's shoulders, bringing his head forward to bump their foreheads together lightly. "Besides, someone's got to watch your back," he muttered. "You big mabari."

A wide grin split Alistair's face, a laugh bubbling in his throat. "Is this going to be a thing now? Are you going to insist on calling me that in front of my men as well?"

"I'll call you what I want," Fenris declared loftily, the words half-muffled by the mouth suddenly pressing against his own.