You remember a bright smile in the darkness.
Not that memory, not now, when the shadows that press against you are bitter and unfriendly and endless. That memory is cutting in its perfection. It pierces somewhere deep inside and you bleed with it.
It hurts to remember him.
You feel adrift and hopelessly young (and you're an adult now, you keep telling yourself, even if your vallaslin is new enough to still sting) away from your clan and all those you would have turned to for guidance and company. That's why you are sitting alone, away from the three shemlen and the qunari that make up your new clan-that-is-not-quite-a-clan.
You are the guide now, the leader, the one who is supposed to know what to do. And you have no idea how blades and arrows are supposed to stop the terrible thing you see in your dreams. You feel lost in a way you have not done for years, in the inhabited lands your people would normally avoid, even without the presence of the darkspawn.
Is it any wonder you think of happier things, alone aside from the crackle of the campfire and the snuffles of the mabari that refuses (the one good thing to happen since you and Tamlen found that - no. Don't think of that either) to leave you?
You remember - a warm campfire, a green canopy, halla, fresh fletching, roasting meat, laughter, music, dancing -
- the warmth of another's shoulders pressing against your own, listening to the hahren -
Thinking of Tamlen leaves you feeling warm and lonely at once. So, in the deep watches of the night, while your new companions sleep, you remember home instead, the people and places that you left to protect.
You keep these memories close. Armour. They are what you are fighting for. They are what you will return to, when this is over (even though you can see no ending in sight).
(You are always fighting for him. You have never believed that he is dead).
There are three things that you have always been sure of, your own personal Vir Tanadahl, which govern the way you live your life.
Firstly, that you are Dalish. You are proud of it, of your heritage, of the fact that your people have struggled and survived and will always endure.
Secondly, that you are a hunter. You will protect the clan, even as you nurture it, cut down anything that threatens it and provide for its needs all at once.
Thirdly, that Tamlen is your (friend, playmate, companion, brother, hunting partner, lover, bonds-mate) lethallin. He is the centre of your world, your tether and guiding light.
All you know is that Tamlen is always there, a crooked grin away from playing a prank on Hahren Paivel, a raised eyebrow from sneaking away into the woods and practising (pretending at) being hunters, uncaring of the trouble you always seemed to get into together. Tamlen is with you the first time you learned to draw a bow, skin a wolf, track a deer. He shares plans during the day and whispers confidences in the night (even after Ashalle decides that you are too old, not old enough, to be sharing blankets.) You learn how to communicate in near silence, hand-sign and birdcalls.
(The first time Tamlen kills a shem, he is protecting you from a rusty knife and treacherous words of peace. Neither of you tell the Keeper about that. You would never be allowed out of the camp alone again).
You move together almost as one person, easy and in sync, and the elders smile knowingly to see it.
Tamlen has always been there, will always be there, as you are for him. It's a certainty you live your whole life by, that you will always be together.
(You are so young, and despite your parents' fate, have no reason to expect pain).
You've never believed Tamlen is dead. Never. If he were dead, then you would know. You would feel it somehow, your heart would beat slower, your hands would tremble on your bowstring, there would be something. There is no way that you couldn't know.
Tamlen is merely… lost. You have been rescued. He must have been too. You can't think otherwise.
You call for him, your special sign, a high whistle and then a low one, in any place that seems like a good hunting ground, safe places to stay. He must be looking for you, too. Sometimes, you are sure you hear his response, you are certain of it - until after a moment there is nothing but silence, and you know it must have been nothing more than a birdcall (or wishful thinking. You don't think that. You don't.).
Tamlen would never ignore that call - the whistle that means find me and help me and I'm lost. Together, you have used it to outwit the wolves hunting the halla. You have tracked Tamlen down with nothing more to go on, that time he hurt his ankle and could not move (he is a Dalish hunter, the same as you; he leaves no tracks unless he wants to. You still search for them. He must want you to find him). Hours spent in the woods around their campsite, just playing, trying to outwit each other, always finding each other in the end.
Tamlen would not ignore you. He must just be somewhere where he cannot hear.
(As the weeks turn into months, you know that this is unlikely to be true, but it doesn't stop you from believing it. He must be alive, it is the only way you are still whole).
So walking through the Gauntlet comes as such as shock. You have spent so much time looking for him, so long believing that you will find him again, that when you do, a spirit lingering in a temple of a god not his own, you can barely believe it.
It cannot be Tamlen, but the way he looks at you, that smile, his eyes -
(You have forgotten what he looks like, just a little. It hurts).
- its undeniably Tamlen. You cannot breathe. Something is broken in your chest, catching in your throat, stinging your eyes.
All this time. You were so sure. You are in agony.
The world falls away from you. You hear your companions (friends? Tamlen would never believe, will never have a chance to believe, that you name several shemlen as friends) try to comfort you, but their words mean nothing, leaves rustling in the wind, unimportant.
Tamlen has left you with nothing but a shadow to say goodbye.
There are so many things you've wanted to tell him. Goodbye was never one of them.
I've wished, you say in the end, that I could have told you that I tried to find you.
(You want to ask how he died. You don't know whether it is wisdom or cowardice that holds you back).
Tamlen forgives you. He forgives you for leaving him behind, for moving on, for finding comfort in another's smile, for living when he does not.
It is unbearable. And yet you walk on, leaving him behind, again. Grey Wardens have no good choices. This one hurts more than the Joining.
We will not meet again the spirit tells you.
(This is the worst lie of all).
Tamlen is older than you, just barely. It means you have to watch, your face still unmarked, as he receives his vallaslin.
You will him quiet, watch the beads of sweat roll down his face, see his hands clench into fists. You hate to see him in pain, but this is necessary.
Afterwards, he comes to you, and you are almost shy. He is an adult now, has proven his worth to the clan as you have yet to do.
But he looks at you, eyes gleaming underneath the unfamiliar pattern on his forehead, and you see that he is still Tamlen, and that he is waiting for you.
He has not left you behind.
You run your fingers gently over his new tattoo and he sighs and closes his eyes, instead of flinching away from your cold fingers, as he usually does.
Not long to wait, he murmurs, and you agree with a twist in your heart that is anticipation or nerves or both, you can't decide.
You have no doubt to what he means.
It takes another month, a long, long month and your first successful solo hunt before the elders declare you an adult, too. Your vallaslin feels like it has been applied to your skin by fire, but you do not cry out, barely even flinch.
You watch Tamlen watch you, and take strength from what you know is coming.
The day does not go as planned. First, you get in trouble for fighting (it would have been a poor start for your first day as an adult, if Tamlen had not taken the blame for you), and then you discover the ruins the shemlen were fleeing from.
But then Tamlen looks at you, as you stand together in the cave, his smile so bright in the darkness, his face so well known and yet new all at once, like being lost in a familiar place, as he bends down and kisses you gently, and says we'll talk to the Keeper when we get back.
You have never been happier.
(You would give anything to go back to that moment. You would change nothing but the direction in which the two of you walk).
You are asleep when the attack comes.
It's an annoyance, but nothing more. Your companions fight well together (more like a clan as time goes on, each knowing the strengths they bring to the group and acting accordingly. You wonder if the Keeper would be proud of you) and the threat is eliminated, with nothing worse than grumbling as a result.
You turn back towards your tent before you hear it. Two whistles, one high and long, the other quick and low.
You turn, disbelieving.
His eyes. You'd know them anywhere, even in that ruined face. Tamlen. Alive, but not.
It's worse than death, a thousand time worse than being missing. It's corruption, you can feel it in him even across the camp.
No. Please, no.
Because you know what needs to be done - what Tamlen needs you to do.
(He would do it for you in a heartbeat).
You have killed tainted people before and know it to be a mercy. But you can't. Not to your Tamlen, not to your lethallin. Anything but that.
He knows, even now, half-crazy with pain and archdemon-song, he knows you better than anyone else ever will.
(He is your heart and it is already broken).
He smiles at you, in the darkness, like he has once before -
- your blade is still in your hand. He simply steps forward.
You've lost him three times, now. It's more than you can bear. Once was hard enough, the not-knowing, but being so sure that he must be alive. Finding his shade was worse, so much worse, but at least you got to bid him farewell, to say some of the things (none of them, there are no words for what he is to you and what you have lost) that you wished you could.
You were not happy, never that, but you had found peace. Finding that you were right all along, that Tamlen is not dead is the worse thing you can possibly have imagined.
(I always loved you, he said. You had no chance to say it back before he attacked you, because he loved you).
You kneel beside him. Goodbye, lethallin. You can barely say it, cannot stand to see what he became, cannot cope with the idea of leaving him behind again.
You grasp at your memories, desperate to stay within them, to remember him how he was - friend, playmate, companion, brother, hunting partner, lover, bonds-mate - to avoid looking the black blood on your blade.
(There is no getting away from that.)
For InyriAscending as partof the rare pair fest over on livejournal and AO3.
I honestly, honestly intended this to be fluff, and then somehow this happened. Also, I am never writing anything in the second person ever again.