XXX

Malcolm pushed through the door holding his arm, which was bleeding freely. "Malcolm!" Leandra rushed to her husband from where she'd been pacing at the hearth. "You're bleeding." Leandra slowed, a mix of fear and confusion in her voice. She gently touching his arm where the giant gash still marred Malcolm's arm. "What happened?" Leandra didn't understand why Malcolm wouldn't have healed himself already. Such an injury was hardly fatal, especially for a mage.

Malcolm winced, though whether it was from pain or otherwise, she couldn't tell. "Are the kids home?"

Leandra shook her head, guiding Malcolm to the couch. She seated her husband, but went to fetch a towel from the kitchen with a poultice. Perhaps Malcolm was too exhausted to heal? Her husband was pale and sweating from the brow. "Malcolm, what happened? Did you find the Templars?"

Malcolm took the towel, but not the poultice. "Templar; there was only one and he was hunting Bethany." Leandra gasped, but Malcolm soothed her quickly. "He didn't know who she was, and he was working alone. A rogue." Malcolm grimaced.

"Why haven't you healed?" Leandra asked, worry doting her features as Malcolm pressed the cloth to wipe away blood from the edges of his wound.

"The Templar," Malcolm cleaned up the sides, then dropped the cloth. His hand hovered over the wound. "He was a renegade; he laced his blade with raw lyruim." Malcolm winced, closing his eyes as he directed a specific, telekinetic pull at the small shard that'd been embedded. The tiny piece moved through his cut until Malcolm could feel it protruding out. He gripped it between his fingers and wrenched it out the rest of the way, cringing.

Leandra gaped, trying to process that. "R-raw? But…"

"I had to stop him, Leandra." Malcolm countered weakly. "He couldn't arrive to tell the other Templars."

"Malcolm…" Leandra whispered, mortified.

Malcolm dropped the shard into the cloth and hugged his wife.

XXX

"Marian," Malcolm was so weak, he could barely sit up on his own anymore. Seeing his effort, Marian went to his side and helped her father into the position. In his degenerative condition, Malcolm physically looked older, way past his years. His hair had started to thin only three days after he'd told them about the lyruim, how he'd cut himself on a raw patch of it in a cave in the Wilds. Raw lyruim was an extremely rare source, and he'd been searching for some mushrooms when he saw the glistening mineral. Too unwary, he'd approached, touched it, and slit a gash into his skin, which had caused the onset of illness that would eventually lead to death. It was, after all, fatal to mages.

Marian didn't buy it, but she hadn't questioned her father's story. Such was not her place, if he didn't wish his children to know.

"Father?" Marian rubbed his back soothingly. It'd been a hard blow to all of them to learn that he was dying. Bethany still cried whenever she saw him, try as she might to hold it back. Carver was detached; Marian knew he hadn't come to terms with it, and mother mourned with Bethany, unable to hold her grief.

Marian was distraught. Malcolm had been more than a loving father. Through jokes and inappropriate humor, he'd always been the one to defend her when one of Mother's moods took her. He knew how to control Carver's outbursts, and he was Bethany's teacher and mentor in all her struggles with magic. The lifeblood of the family, he was the one that held them together throughout everything, and the only one who related to her with true understanding.

"You should be resting, Father."

"My girl," Malcolm croaked, fighting past the dryness that constantly plagued his throat. His chuckle was a rough, hoarse wheeze, nothing like the wonderful mirth Marian had gained from him. "I've spent too much time sleeping this past week. Your mother is a difficult woman to evade, when I've lost the use of legs." Marian gave a small smile; this was what she loved about her father most. They both conveyed themselves the same way. "And she poisons my food," Malcolm added. "I've skipped three meals to keep awake like this."

"Father!"

"You know your mother. Extremes are necessary!"

Marian bit her lip to keep from smiling outright, simply hugged her dad instead. "I'll make you some soup, if you like. Unseasoned with sleepweed."

"I would appreciate that, my girl." Malcolm smiled, weakly lifting a hand to ruffle her hair. "The last thing a dying man needs is more sleep, after all. I'll have plenty of time for that when you send me floating to the winds."

"Father…"

"But save that for a moment." Malcolm brushed back. "I've been meaning to find you alone." Malcolm squeezed her meekly at his side. "It's about the family, Marian." Marian swallowed hard. "You're the eldest, and you've always had a solid grasp on how our family works. I need you to keep them when I'm gone."

"It works because of you, Dad." Marian spoke softly. "Mother loves you, and Carver strives to prove himself. Even with Bethany, when she loses control… I'm always running to you." Marian swallowed another lump. "I'm… not you, Dad."

"No," Malcolm allowed. "You're stronger than me." Marian gave her father an incredulous look. "Truly, Marian. It wasn't I who ran Bethany across half the city to safety, or who'd cleared a road full of slavers on the whim of helping a stranger. Even Carver, you handle admirably; he looks up to you more than you know. Tries to be like you, you know?" Malcolm gave her a small smile. "And if Leandra loves me, Marian, you must know she loves you as well. You're a reflection of me in spirit, and Leandra will come to lean on that when I am gone."

Marian already knew what her father asked. "What if I can't? What if- What if Carver runs away, or Mother disowns me, or Bethany's magic goes awry in public and I don't have you to stop her? Or all three? I'm not ready, Dad."

Malcolm chuckled wheezingly. "Then you should kick them in the head, collect them up, and run away."

"Dad…"

"What? It worked well last time." Malcolm was smiling, but Marian's heart was too troubled to enjoy his humor now. Malcolm reached up and brushed aside a few strands of her short hair. "Marian, you're the only one ready to lead this family when I'm gone. You even left love to hold us together, which is more than I could ever do." Marian's eyes burned. "I know you'll make me proud. You always have."

At the door, Carver balled his fists. It was a lie! Tears streamed down his cheeks. He should be the one to protect and lead the family. It was his right as male of the household; he had been training for years for his father's divine approval. Yet Father favored Marian, the way he always had, even in keeping them together beyond his death.

"I don't want this, Dad."

Malcolm cradled his daughter to him. "Life's not fair, Marian, elsewise your sister wouldn't have to run, your brother would be an undefeatable warrior, and your mother, a noblewoman." He kissed the top of her head gently. "And you, with your love. But we must make the best of what we're dealt, and I've lived a life without regret. I've been lucky to have been blessed with all of you."

Marian bowed her head under his chin.

"Take care of your mother," Malcolm urged. "And… watch out for Bethany. The Templars are still out there; it'd break my heart to see her taken."

"Can a heart be broken in heaven?"

Malcolm kissed her atop the head again. "I'll let you know."

Marian was quiet, held by her father. "Dad? How'd you really get poisoned with the lyrium?"

"It was an accident, Marian."

"With the Templars?" Marian prodded. "Templars from Redcliffe?"

Malcolm was quiet a moment too long, then: "It's not fit to be angry, Marian." Malcolm soothed. "We all have our roles in this world. He was merely filling his."

A trickle of a tear rolled down Marian's cheek.

Templars! Carver had heard enough. He wished he didn't know. Templars from Redcliffe had snuffed the life of his father to the cracked shell he'd become, all to defend Bethany from being discovered. His father had sacrificed his life for his twin and now gave control of the family to Marian when it should fall to him. Where was his love for him? His father spoke nothing of him but how unready he was to lead.

Carver had lived his life in Marian's shadow, and now she was to be the head of the family.

Carver stalked off, cursing the day his siblings had been born.

XXX

Marian sat quietly, sheath of parchment rolled out before her. Heartbreaking words of recent news scribbled out before her, but Marian shielded herself to the emotion of it, even penning in a couple untimely jokes to keep her spirit from sinking into the grief of it all.

Behind her, the soft scrape of bare feet on a wooden floor was her first hint to another's presence, followed by the creak of a door opening behind her. "Marian?" Little Bethany swallowed, pale in the dim light, she clutched the stuffed wolf tightly in a fist, limp at her side. "I didn't think you'd still be awake."

"Can't sleep." Marian admitted. "You? I thought you'd finally got some shut eye, sleeping next to Mom."

"I had a nightmare."

Marian didn't have to ask about what. Father's death weighed on them all. The only one of them that seemed to be getting any sleep lately was Carver, and even he became especially moody upon waking. "Well, come here." Marian urged. Bethany hastened to enter, sitting beside Marian on the indicated bench. Marian wrapped an arm around her. Bethany situated the wolf in her lap. "I'm writing to Bella." Marian explained, rubbing Bethany's arm.

"How is she?" Bethany asked, just as anxious for distraction.

"Good," Marian soothed. "She's paying Lloyd her tips, trying to buy her way out. News at the castle's been well; Lord Teagan's building a small port off the lake, which has brought better business…"

Bethany snuggled against her sister, content to listen to Marian's comforting voice as she relayed news of a living lover she cared about.

It almost dried her tears.

XXX

"I don't have much luck with these places…" Bethany warily glanced around the bar. At sixteen, she was still afraid of walking into such a place, with her last memory dying before she'd done something horrible.

"Don't I know it?" Carver grumbled coldly. "We'll just be here a minute. I need to check the back."

"You're leaving me?"

"Just don't accept drinks from anyone," Carver groused. "You'll be fine. I'll be right back."

Bethany twitched, about to call after him, but stopped. She huddled in, determined not to draw attention to herself. When the bartender stopped by her, Bethany waved him off. He glared at her with an aggravated grunt, mumbling something about mid-day, unpaying customers.

Bethany chewed her tongue. She glanced down the bar for the door Carver disappeared into, but there was no sign of him. Instead, a fine, fit gentleman at the end of the bar lifted an eyebrow. Bethany glanced the other way to see what other girl he could be looking at, but there was no one down the row from her, aside from a middle-aged man speaking to his wife. She glanced back, half-terrified as the man lifted his glass to her.

Bethany smiled meekly back and sat back into her stool, eyes training downward nervously.

"If I were a Templar, I'd call you out for a mage," Bethany's heart skipped a beat as the older man who cheers'ed her leaned against the bar casually. "For no one's that beautiful without a touch of magic."

In the back of her mind, it registered that she'd just been hit on. Bethany swallowed the lump of fear in her throat that'd gathered at the initial line. She inhaled, nervous, remembering the last time a man had taken interest in her. "Hey."

"Hey, girl," the man winked, suave grin sending a twinkle all the way up to his eyes. "How was the Maker when you left His side?"

Bethany flushed, not sure if she ought to be more embarrassed or flattered. The man was quite older… at a guess, Bethany would put him around 35, but he wasn't all that unfortunate.

Still, it wasn't exactly a situation Bethany would willingly put herself in. She fidgeted, offering another meek smile. "So tell me, Princess." The man prompted, easy grin taking his features as he stood. "Has Andraste changed her name?"

"It's Bethany," Bethany mumbled, red-faced at his flattery.

"Ahh, Bethany," his green eyes twinkled. "Orlesian in its beauty, Antivan for your wiles, and I adopt it now, translating 'our only gem' of Fereldan."

Bethany could barely contain the warmth in her cheeks. "Oh, stop." She requested genuinely, not sure her face could take any more flushing.

"Of course, Madam. Bold as I may be, I cannot refuse the order of Divinity."

Marian hopped down the last steps, fast tracking for the door, but pulled up short at a most horrible sight.

Bethany was at the bar. With a man. She was blushing. Next to a man. Who was touching her hand.

Marian almost hemorrhaged on the spot.

Crossing directly to the bar, she sharply elbowed the first man she saw in the back. "Wave out to 'Bethany' in two seconds, or die."

The man turned on her, expression angry, but at the sight of her receding, man-length sword, he reconsidered.

"Bethany!"

Bethany glanced up at the sound of her name and looked over the bar to the strange older man who waved at her enthusiastically.

Marian crossed behind her sister and tapped the man on the shoulder. "Hey Nugface!" The guy turned from his conquest in confusion- in just enough time to be knuckled in the face. He cried out in pain, grabbing his nose as the force of Marian's punch threw him back into another customer, knocking them both to the floor.

"Hey!" The other man yelped, lifting a fist to Nugface.

Bethany turned back at the sound of a crash, eyes widening as New Guy punched Nugface on the ground. "What- " Bethany had barely a flash of her sister before a shoulder pushed into her stomach, completely lifting her off the seat. "Marian!" Bethany squeaked, kicking automatically as Marian's arm wrapped around her waist. Shouldering her like a log, Marian turned towards the door. "What're you doing?"

"Time to go home." Marian announced, kicking the door open as something behind them went flying.

"Marian! Put me down!" Bethany squirmed. "I'm not a little kid anymore! You can't just- "

"I'm assuming that was your barfight?" Carver asked, pulling up beside them.

"He touched Bethany."

Bethany sighed, slumping on her shoulder. "I can walk now, Marian." Bethany grumbled, kicking her once more.

"Warrior! Wait up!" Marian and Carver turned, leaving Bethany blind as she hung down Marian's backside. A pretty, petite blonde with flowing locks and dazzling blue eyes halted the both of them. Carver's eyes, like Marian's, did a quick, breathy scan of the very blessed woman. "Hey there," the girl greeted, becoming more sure of herself as both their eyes zipped up. "You're the girl that started the fight, aren't you?"

"Oh, for the love of ass!" Carver threw up his hands. "Another one!"

"What?" Bethany squeaked, trying to lift herself enough to look over her shoulder. "What's going on?"

"Hey…" Marian greeted back, breath bated. "I mean- yeah… that was me."

The girl smiled, stepping closer to Marian so that her breasts bunched against Marian's chest. "You were awfully impressive in there." Marian's grip on Bethany's legs loosened.

"I was?" Marian caught herself. "…wasn't I?"

The girl's mouth inched closer. Marian could almost taste her breath; a soft mix of peppermint and blueberry vodka on her tongue. "You were." The girl breathed. "You made me quite wet."

"Ahhh!" Bethany screamed, crashing to the ground. She cradled her sore, unexpecting head. "Marian!" She groaned.

"Fuck this!" Carver groused. "I'm going home." He kicked some dirt back at Marian moodily.

Marian couldn't hear, for another moment, the girl's lips pressed to hers and Marian found herself bodily pulled against the lovely, gifted girl, who skipped right past pleasantries, and snaked into her mouth. Marian groaned. She could feel the tug of the woman's fingers on her shorts.

"Marian, no!" Bethany grabbed her shoulder and yanked her back, following close after with a harsh, stinging slap. Marian blinked, Bethany coming into view. "Come on." Bethany urged. "We're going home."

Marian glanced back at her new friend, who clung to her arm needily. "Don't go." The girl urged. "Stayyy. I'll make it worth your while."

"Marian! She's a whore!"

Marian whimpered, clearly wanting to stay. "But- "

"No." Bethany stood firm. "Now take me home."

Marian sagged, able to breathe a little easier without the girl molesting her throat. "I have to go."

"Noooooo-"

"I'm sorry," Marian apologized, extracting herself. Bethany was right. She couldn't sleep with her. Not with her sister right there, drawing from her example! Besides… alluring as she was, Bethany was probably right about the other thing too. The girl was dressed with half her boobs hanging out. Then again, Bethany dressed that way too… Though more for lack of clothing choices that covered her than anything else. Bethany tugged her away. "It was nice meeting you…!" Marian called after her.

"Peaches." The girl supplied, wistful sigh taking her.

"I'm Marian!" Marian called after her.

Bethany smacked herself. "And you're supposed to take care of me?"

"I saved you from 40-year-old Nugface!" Marian protested. "Which- why were you talking to him in the first place?"

"He approached me." Bethany countered. "What? You're the only one who can have people lining up to kiss you?"

"I'll show you lining up." Marian threatened. "Those lips of yours better be chaste. You follow Carver's example in this, not mine."

Bethany giggled. "Double standards, Sister?"

"You can bet on it." Marian shook her head. "No one's gonna touch your boobs like that 'till you're thirty."

"She was caressing your boobs?"

Marian cleared her throat. "Right. Home. Where Mom's waiting. With Carver."

Bethany shook her head. "What would I do without you, Sister?"