Anders arrived at Andoral's Reach to a mixed reception.
It was no less than he expected.
The ruins served as a dire backdrop to a dire situation, housing a group of mages larger than he'd ever seen. He recognized no one at first. The news he'd received a week earlier still had his mind spinning until faces and hair and robes became a bright wash of many colors framed by black.
Expressions were clear enough when he could pause to take them in. An old elf with her mouth set in a severe line, and a boy with a look of awe tugging his mouth open. A small group of both men and women letting out a seemingly held breath once they were certain he was there, certain he was real. They were all different, but he'd seen them all before in the time since the happenings in Kirkwall.
How a place could be teeming with life and humming with hundreds of low voices and still be so unnervingly wordless, he had no idea. He wanted nothing more than for someone to shout at him or to thank him, if only for an excuse to speak, to understand the climate of the group more clearly.
Most of them were strangers. Even those from the Circle in Ferelden were foreign to him now. In one fell swoop, he'd separated himself from everyone he'd ever known.
The fraternities and their leaders were real. They made decisions. They argued. They cried tears of frustration when the news was bad. Of joy when the news was good. But he was different. He was the man who forced that first step, and in doing so, became more than human. He became a day, an action, an idea.
Some of the mages were visibly disappointed. He'd expected this, too. Every person he met along the way was forced to replace the opinion they formed of him with the mortal shell he carried, tired and black-feathered, shorter than the average man and thinner than he should be. He understood the weight of heroism now, understood his former Warden-Commander to the word.
Competing with a larger than life image of yourself was more difficult than anything. Leaving that fight without being beaten blue and bloody and humble beyond measure was impossible.
So Anders let himself be led in the direction of the Grand Enchanter, and he kept his eyes on the blaze of red hair directly in front of him, on the elven woman's heavy black robes. Her step was lighter than his by far, but he kept pace, kept his chin down, and hoped he would be able to do these people some good.
After completely dissolving the Circle of Magi, they deserved no less.
"I never thought I would make it this far."
Leliana peered across at Anders, a brow raised in question. "I thought someone would find me while I was on the road, that someone might chase me down and cut my throat in my sleep or even before that if I wasn't lucky. I never thought I would live to see the Circle gone. Though I suppose many were only waiting for the right time."
"Or you forced their hand." She watched his face closely, eager to understand the man in front of her better than she did. Even her accusatory tone did not seem to surprise him. When she next spoke, she took care to make her words lighter. The last thing Anders needed was another dissenting voice. "You set into action a chain of events that gave hundreds of mages their freedom, a success that would be made even more incredible if not for the casualties."
"Don't you think the freedom of many and those to come is worth sacrifice?"
Leliana pursed her lips. "You mistake me. I believe what you did was wrong, but I support the people here with everything I have. And I mourn those unable to see this come to pass."
"An... interesting standpoint, given most people will say what I did in Kirkwall is what inspired them to act."
When Leliana laughed, it was a quiet, throaty chuckle, and the corners of Anders' mouth quirked upwards, only serving to brighten his eyes. "I am afraid I am not here for you to understand, Anders, though I appreciate the effort."
By the third day, Anders was convinced Fiona despised him. And as such, so did Adrian. All it took was a few poorly timed jokes for him to go crashing down in their esteem. The other Libertarians accepted him into the fold, but those he sought to impress were not. They liked him more as the mage behind the incident in Kirkwall, not as the anxious man with a loose tongue, the one who somehow managed to put his boots on the right way in the morning without assistance.
There were few figures at Andoral's Reach more important than the Grand Enchanter and leader of the Libertarian fraternity. Rhys enjoyed his company to an extent, though Evangeline was less willing to suffer him for much longer than necessary. The golem Shale reminded him once that she would crush his brittle bones easily if he made another quip about selling bits of her to fund the war effort.
That left Leliana, and while he was more than willing to spend his time with her, she was a puzzle. His fondness for puzzles waned over the past few years.
He sat down beside her, their backs pressed against old stone and their eyes on the room around them. Not speaking put him ill at ease, but he could tell the woman was accustomed to the quiet. They watched mages move this way and that. Some of them spoke in hushed tones. Some laughed. Others struggled in competition of who could speak louder than the other. It all came back to the realization that this calm before the storm would only last so long.
Tonight, Leliana spoke before Anders could even say a word.
"You have made it this far for a reason," she told him, fingers curling around her one bent knee. Her other leg stretched out in front of her, too far away from the others to cause anyone to trip. She was cautious even at rest, even with every new word she chose. Her soft, deliberate voice spoke volumes about her character, and he found himself grateful for it. At least she wasn't shouting or muttering or even half-growling for him to leave her be. "I accept what you have done because there was also a reason for that."
This time, Anders arched a brow in her direction. "Are you telling me you accept what I've done because I was meant to do it?"
"Which you will no doubt think less of me for. It would not be the first time."
Resting his head back against the wall, Anders' shoulders rose and fell. "I've heard odder things. I spent seven years with Hawke. Try talking to her about mage rights; you never know whether she'll yell at you or give a brief, impassioned speech."
"She did seem... erratic," Leliana murmured. "A woman as sharp as that sword she carried around, in more ways than one. Just as quick to draw blood with her words as her blade."
Anders exhaled a quiet laugh. "Sounds about right."
"Your fate was already decided, long before you took the lives of those people into your own hands. Elthina – Andraste guide her – knew her time would come when it was meant to come, as do all His faithful. Their deaths were already written, and the ink was dry on the page."
"And what of this war?" Anders asked without a moment's hesitation. He felt his posture change, his position on the floor shift until he was sitting taller than before, a flood of warmth rushing beneath his skin. "Is the outcome of this war written in His holy book of life and death, or is that up to us? Are we making these decisions of our own free will, or are we being guided by this divine, ink-stained hand? Because if this is all someone's idea of a compelling story, He's a bit of a prat."
Leliana's jaw twitched, but she did not lash out. She simply laced her fingers tighter together, palms pressed against her calf to keep them still. "You may think so, but these outcomes are for the best. We may influence what comes to pass, but we are only capable of so much."
"You say that like I don't know you helped the mages escape the White Spire, like I don't know you're an agent of the Divine."
"Everyone knows where my allegiance lies. It has not been an issue yet."
"But might it?" Anders leaned forward, his own hands twisting in the fabric of his robes. "If the Divine wrote to you saying she aligned with the templars, what would your help be worth?"
Leliana's nostrils flared, and she shook her head. "I will do what I feel is right, as I have always done. If the Divine believed that she was mistaken, I would hear her out, and I would make my own decision from there."
"So... you would carve your own path."
"Instead of taking the one meant for you."
The woman made a frustrated noise low in her throat, though she still sat as still as before. "Whatever path I take is the one I am meant to take, Anders. I would not seek to understand His meaning beyond the fact that I will walk the steps chosen for me."
Anders lifted his hands, offering her his palms in defeat, though that alone did not seem to sate her. "Your beliefs mean more to you than mine ever did me. I'm only interested in seeing what the Maker has to offer you that you cannot find yourself."
Whatever annoyance flushed Leliana's cheeks ebbed away at Anders' explanation. Her frown shifted and changed into an enigmatic smile. Another puzzle.
"He has given me more than you will ever know."
"And so we are left to wonder when the templar force will strike."
Leliana nodded slowly, her hands smoothing over shoulders draped with cream-colored velvet. "The mages do not know when to expect them. I offered my help, though it was not the only reason I left the Reach."
Dorothea's chuckle was no less than a song, a familiar one Leliana soaked up eagerly as her arms slid around the woman's waist.
"I was surprised to see you," she murmured. Her soft fingers curled around Leliana's, the tips pressing into the warm calluses she loved so much. "I should have expected no less. You're a restless soul, always running off in one direction or another when you have the chance."
"This restless soul only leaves because she knows she has somewhere to come back to," Leliana said, giggling until she silenced herself with a kiss to the woman's shoulder. "I would be less willing to leave if I did not know I would return just as quickly."
Dorothea gave a quiet mm of understanding. "This time, you're meant to stick your nose into not only templar business, but Seeker business, as well." Her hands gave Leliana's a gentle squeeze. "I think I might keep you here with me. Even in the throes of a civil war, you would be safer here than among them. I wouldn't see you killed."
"I have to do this." Leliana sighed. She planted a slew of tiny kisses up the curve of the woman's neck until she reached the back of her jaw. There, she breathed her in, and there she sighed. "I'm the only one who can."
Even without saying so, she could feel Dorothea's mood shift from idle worry to dread, but this she had no control over.
"I know," the Divine said with a deliberate nod. "In all the world, there is only one I trust more."
Leliana arrived at Andoral's Reach to hundreds of men and women fraught with anticipation.
And she delivered them a date.
Her path was never clearer than the one she walked now.