A very brief note: It was brought to my attention that this story was listed as "complete" yesterday. I'm not sure how that happened (FFN also listed Carver and Cullen as the two primary characters, weird), but this is the last chapter of "That Which is Lost." So... now it really is complete. :)
It had been two weeks since Papa brought Mama home, sick. The day after he brought her, Uncle Carver had gone into town and brought back a healer to see to Mama's ankle, which Papa said she hurt in a fall. The healer was a kind, older woman who smelled faintly of wildflowers and elfroot; Mirae liked her well enough, for all that she didn't understand why her Mama needed a healer in the first place.
The healer—Miss Rinna—had said Mama needed rest. She needed to rest and stay off her ankle for a few weeks. While this seemed… reasonable to Mirae—she wanted her mother to get better—it was all so… strange.
What else was strange was how Mama was acting. Papa had been reluctant to let Mirae and her siblings visit with her, and it wasn't until they did that Mirae saw why. It wasn't the bruises on her face, though Arlyn cried a little when she saw the blood, or even how purple and yellow and swollen Mama's face was, and it wasn't her foot all bandaged and propped up on pillows.
It was her eyes. Something was wrong with Mama's eyes. They didn't laugh like they used to. She didn't look stern or sad anymore. She didn't look anything.
And even more strangely, Mama didn't say "no" anymore.
To anyone, ever.
Mirae helped Papa with breakfast in the mornings; he was getting better at finding things in the kitchen, but she still liked to help. Sometimes he looked so… lost, so sad, and it worried her; her papa had never looked that way before. So she helped. And sometimes, when she did, he smiled, and though it didn't make everything better, it helped.
She was just slathering Mama's toast with butter and honey when Papa set a mug of steaming tea down next to the plate.
"Do you want me to bring it upstairs?" she asked. Sometimes he preferred doing it himself. Today, however, Papa looked away and nodded. She took the plate and mug and began carrying it away from the table, when Papa's voice stopped her.
She turned to find him seated, as if he didn't have the energy to stand any more. His elbows rested on his knees and he was watching her with such… sad eyes that she almost wasn't sure she wanted to know what else he had to tell her.
She blinked, tilting her head. When he saw her confusion, he glanced down at his hands, and then up again. "You have been a very great help. I know it, and I am certain your mother knows it as well."
Mirae looked down at the toast and tea, not sure what to say, but certain of what she ought not to say: Mama didn't notice anything anymore.
"Summerday's almost here," she said finally, not quite able to bring her voice above a whisper. Mama's favorite holiday. Mirae's nameday was only three days after Summerday. She was going to be eleven. She wanted to know if Mama would be better by her nameday, but didn't dare ask. Papa didn't know—none of them did.
When will I be old enough to walk to town on my own, Mama?
"I know," he said.
She didn't know what else to say to that, because Summerday and her nameday were both so, so very unimportant right now, it seemed, and she could never remember a time when they'd seemed less important.
"I thought I could… pick some flowers for her," Mirae said, looking down into the teacup. She did not mention how unlikely it was Mama would be picking flowers with her this Summerday, or weaving daisies into flower-crowns. She had a feeling he already knew the answer to that.
"She would like that, I'm sure."
Neither of them mentioned her nameday, and Mirae turned before Papa could see the tears pricking her eyes. Slow, steady steps—she was very careful not to spill the tea—took her upstairs, where she heard Mama's voice floating out into the hallway. Mirae stopped, cocking her head and listening. When she gently pushed open the door to Mama and Papa's room, she found Arlyn, curled up on the bed with their mother, smiling drowsily as Mama read to her.
"You're s'posed to pat my head when you read to me, Mama."
"Yes, Arlyn." And, just like that, Mama's hand raised, and began petting Arlyn's wispy brown curls.
The sight itself wasn't odd—Mama frequently read to Arlyn, and often ran her fingers through her hair as she did—but the stiff way she did it… that was odd. It was also strange how hoarse Mama's voice sounded, almost as if…
Walking around the bed to set the tea and toast on the bedside table, Mirae found a stack of no fewer than ten books, already read and discarded.
Setting the food down, Mirae whirled around to glare at her sister. "Arlyn!"
Arlyn blinked sleepy green eyes back at her. "What?"
"Did you have Mama read all those books?" she asked, pointing down at the pile.
Arlyn crawled over their mother and peered down. "Yeah," she answered, scowling up at Mirae. "I asked her an' she said yes."
She felt her eyes go huge, and Mirae was suddenly blindly, overwhelmingly angry with her younger sister. "Mama's never read ten books in a row to you in your whole life!"
She doesn't know any better, Mimi, she could almost hear Mama telling her. Don't be so angry with her; she doesn't understand.
That didn't help much; Mirae didn't understand either. She didn't understand how Mama could be gone for one day and come back and have her magic gone and everything different and all she really wanted right now was for Mama to scold her, to tell her that no, she couldn't walk to town by herself, or no, it was too early in the season to go swimming in the lake, or for her to say something like, For the Maker's sake, Mirae Hawke, no, I will not heat up the lake so you can swim in it. You can wait for the sun to warm the water like everybody else.
Arlyn, however, was still glaring at her sister, as if this somehow were all her fault. "I asked," she said again, stubbornly. "Didn't I, Mama?"
"Arlyn did ask if I would read to her, Mirae," Mama replied mildly. From behind their mother, Arlyn stuck her tongue out.
Mirae's jaw began to ache and her head began to throb when she suddenly realized she'd been gritting her teeth and grinding them. "You," she said, narrowing her eyes at her sister and enunciating every word as clearly as she could through clenched teeth, "are a brat. You're a selfish, hateful brat. And when Uncle comes back from town, I am telling him what you did." She would not tell Papa, she would not. Not when he looked so lost and tired and hurt all the time. Not when he sat hunched over at the kitchen table late at night, after everyone was supposed to have gone to bed, hands cradling his head, fingers clawing through his hair, shoulders rounded in defeat.
Arlyn's eyes went wide. "Tattle-tale," she breathed in horrified disgust.
But Mirae went on as if her sister hadn't spoken. "And then he will never ever teach you how to use a sword. And he'll tell Papa. And then nobody will let you use one. Ever. Because you are a hateful, selfish, greedy brat."
"I'm telling Papa you said that."
"Mimi's right," another voice said. Mirae startled and whirled to find Kynne, his wild thatch of impossibly red curls wind-tangled. "Papa didn't want us asking Mama for stuff."
"But she doesn't do anything anymore," Arlyn whined. "She's not like Mama at all."
Mirae and Kynne exchanged a look, and her brother sighed, scratching absently at one ear. "Come on, Lynnie. I still gotta feed the chickens. Come help."
This suggestion didn't please Arlyn in the least, and her scowl showed it. But when she opened her mouth to argue, Arlyn saw something in Mirae's face that silenced her. Huffing a little, she slid from Mama's bed, and once both feet hit the floor, stomped out with Kynne to go feed chickens. Mirae closed the door with a quiet click, and rested her forehead against the wood. She kept her eyes closed, but tears still burned behind the lids and her heart pounded with every ragged breath.
Mama's voice came from behind her. "I am sorry, Mirae. It wasn't my intent to get Arlyn in trouble. Please, don't be angry."
"It's okay," she whispered against the door. "It's okay, Mama." It wasn't okay. It was miles from okay. But she didn't want to upset her mother, because then Papa would get upset, and Papa was already so terribly upset all the time anyway—she didn't want to add to it. Pushing away from the door and using her sleeve to rub hard at her eyes, Mirae turned to face her mother. There was a lump in her throat that took several attempts to swallow away before she could speak. "Papa and I made you toast and tea. It's… it's wildflower honey."
Mama smiled and Mirae hated it, and then felt a flush of guilt for hating it. But it wasn't her smile. "Thank you. Wildflower honey is my favorite."
"Papa knows," she said quietly. She bit her lip hard, and then more tears formed. Mirae sniffled impatiently and knuckled the tears away as she took a few hesitant steps closer to the bed. "Mama?"
Her mother cradled the mug of tea between her hands and took a tiny sip. "Yes?"
"I miss you," she managed, her throat closing.
Mama tilted her head, confused. "I've been right here, Mirae."
No, you haven't, she wanted to say, but instead she nodded, forcing back the tears—she didn't want to cry in front of Mama, because she knew Mama wouldn't open her arms and say, Oh, none of that now. Things can't be that dire, can they? She wouldn't hug her and kiss the crown of her head and stroke her back, or pull Mirae onto her lap to watch while she spun tiny squares of frost latticework between her fingers. Swallowing down her disappointment, Mirae bent to pick up the books Mama had been reading to Arlyn.
And then, feeling foolish, she set the books at the foot of the bed, looking down at her feet, only peeking at her mother through the thick fall of her hair. "Mama?"
The question came out in a choked, reedy whisper. "Can I hug you?"
"Yes, you may, Mirae," she answered, setting down the mug.
Scrambling onto the bed she fairly launched herself at her mother, wrapping her arms tight around her neck, trying so hard—so very hard—not to cry, but it was difficult. When she didn't have to see Mama's face or hear her voice, Mirae could almost forget how different she was now. Her hug wasn't quite the same, but she still smelled of Mama, and as to the rest, Mirae could close her eyes and pretend for a moment all was as it ought to have been.
Resting her head against her mother's shoulder, Mirae frowned, running a finger across the metal collar around Mama's neck. The skin above and below the metal was red and scaly now, and looked as if it were uncomfortably itchy. Dried blood lined the bottom of the collar and Mirae winced as she imagined how many teeth were sunk into her mother's neck at that moment.
"Does it hurt, Mama?" she asked softly.
"Yes," came the mild, honest answer, spoken just as softly.
Summerday came, and with it came Knight-Commander Cullen. Uncle had written to him a number of times after Papa brought Mama home, asking for help with the thing around her neck, but nothing seemed to work. Some of the things they tried wound up hurting her more, until finally Papa said "no more."
Today Ser Cullen arrived with a heavy leather trunk full of books and scrolls. Arlyn was nowhere to be had—she'd been giving Mirae a very wide berth every day since the incident in Mama's room—but Kynne stood next to the case as Ser Cullen opened it, eyes going wide at the sight of all the books.
"You look as if you've got a potential scholar in the family," he observed with a smile.
Mirae knew, because her mother had said so often enough, that Kynne's reading habits reminded her of Papa, and that when they lived in Kirkwall, a long time ago, before the chantry fell—that was how she always put it, "before the chantry fell," and it always conjured the strangest images in Mirae's head, like a chantry tumbling off a shelf and breaking into a hundred thousand pieces—that she could often find Papa in her library, his nose in a book. And if Papa were anywhere nearby, he would roll his eyes and snort and accuse her of not telling the story in its entirety. And Mama would grin and say, "No, I'm just telling the best parts."
This time, no one said any of that. Kynne just flushed his pleasure and mumbled "Thank you" up at the tall templar. Uncle and Ser Cullen settled at the little table in the kitchen, dozens of scrolls and books between them.
"Some of these are Tevinter texts, Fenris," said Ser Cullen. "In the original Arcanum." He grimaced, adding, "Which I am the furthest thing from fluent in."
Papa frowned—he frowned a lot lately, but this was his thoughtful frown, as opposed to his upset or worried frown—and looked at the books. "I cannot promise to be very much assistance, but I will help in any way I possibly can."
But before he could set down and join Uncle Carver and Ser Cullen, Mirae slipped up to his side, tugging hesitantly at his sleeve. "Papa?" she whispered. He looked down at her, brows twitching together before arching one of them at her.
Mirae bit her lip. She knew what she wanted to ask, and yet she still feared asking it. Not because she thought her father would be angry, but because she hated asking anything of him these days. "Papa," she said again, "do you think… do you think you could bring Mama downstairs so we can sit outside? I have… I picked flowers." She looked down at her hands, the way her fingers worried and plucked at each other. Then Papa's hand, bigger than hers and rough with calluses, closed over both of hers, stilling her fingers. "We always… we always sit outside on Summerday," she said, staring at the white lines that danced across his knuckles.
"I know," her father replied, then sighed. "I imagine it might do her good to be outside for a time. It isn't the same, keeping the windows open."
"Do you want me to take out a chair for her?" Papa nodded once and started upstairs, and Mirae dragged one of the chairs away from the kitchen table.
Uncle Carver looked up from a particularly dusty scroll. "Need any help, Mimi?" But Mirae shook her head and dragged the chair outside, settling it on a bit of even earth. Kynne came out behind her, clutching a cushion to his chest, and placed it very carefully on the chair.
"So her bum doesn't fall asleep," he said quietly, kicking at the ground. "My bum always falls asleep in that one."
There was a scraping sound behind them, and both Mirae and Kynne turned around to spy Arlyn trying to drag a footstool out the front door. She stopped suddenly, upon realizing her brother and sister were watching her. When Arlyn looked at Mirae, she flushed pink to the tips of her ears and looked away.
"She needs something for her foot," she mumbled. "'S still broken."
Sending Mirae a meaningful look—she's trying, his eyes said—Kynne went over to help their sister with the little footstool, carrying it over to where they'd set the chair.
Not long after, their father came through the front door, carrying Mama, her foot and ankle still tightly bandaged. Mirae tried not to look too closely at her face; it was easier if you didn't look too closely at her. He set her in the chair and Kynne and Arlyn helped situate Mama's foot on the stool's red cushion. Then, pressing a kiss to Mama's hair, he looked at the three of them.
"Watch over your mother."
"Yes, Papa," they all chorused as one.
There wasn't anything particularly unique about sitting outside on Summerday night. Every other year they'd gone into town for the festivals and Mirae had got flowers wound all through her hair, and once they came back from town, the five of them settled upon the soft grassy hill. Mama drank wine with Papa while she and Mirae wove long chains of flowers until the fireflies came out.
They hadn't gone into town this year, but maybe at least they could stay up and wait for the fireflies.
By the time the first gentle flickers of green-gold lights showed themselves, Mirae had made enough daisy crowns for Arlyn, Kynne, herself, and Mama. And though she knew she wasn't supposed to, to say nothing of the fact that she was getting far too old for it, after settling the crown on Mama's head, she tipped her head to her mother's ear and whispered, "May I sit in your lap, please?"
"Yes, Mirae," she replied.
But as Mirae scrambled into her mother's lap, she could not help but think about all the things her mother would have said. She would have acted put-upon first, and the very moment Mirae started to turn away, Mama would have grabbed her wrist and pulled her bodily up into her lap, tickling her until she squealed. She thought about these things instead, as she climbed up and settled herself against her mother.
"Mama?" Kynne asked, his voice soft enough that it nearly blended in with the lengthening dusk. "Can I come too?"
And then little Arlyn, who eyed Mirae warily in the dark, piped up, "Can I too?"
And as Arlyn scrambled to sit on Mama's knee, she squished against Mirae, who sighed a little in annoyance at Arlyn's bony elbow poking her in the side, but rested her head on Mama's shoulder. It was dark enough she could almost pretend Mama wasn't sick. That she was normal and this was just another Summerday.
She wondered if Mama would ever get better.
Frowning a little, Mirae ran her fingertip along the metal band's smooth surface. A faint tingle tickled the pads of her fingers and she drew back, then leaned closer, frowning at the collar in the dark. There were words carved into it, but Mirae had never asked what they meant, and Papa didn't seem to want to talk about it. She wondered for what wasn't the first time what kind of words someone would put on something like this. Something that couldn't ever be taken off. Something that stole away the best parts of you. With a sigh, she ran her thumb across the front of the band. It tingled again.
Then her thumbnail caught on something.
That had never happened before. It had always been impossibly smooth before. There'd been no… where was it? Holding her breath, Mirae dragged her fingers across the collar again, her eyes straining in the dim light to see where her thumbnail had snagged.
It happened again. There. There it was. Right there.
Biting down hard on her lower lip, Mirae scraped and scratched at the tiny latch. It felt as if it were hardly coming away from the metal at all—she pried it upward, and it came slowly, like a single scale coming off the back of a snake. Up and up and up, until something snapped. It wasn't something she heard, but rather something she felt, like the crack of a bough snapping off a tree in a storm, except she was the tree and she felt that crack down to her toes.
Suddenly, and with a rush of hot, foul-smelling air, the collar sprung open. The sudden, metallic snap of it was enough to startle the children into scattering from their mother's lap, but then Mama buckled forward, both hands to her neck, and let out a sharp, broken cry. She slid from her chair and tumbled to the grass, landing on her knees and bracing herself with one hand, the other pressed against her bleeding throat, gasping for air.
"Papa!" Mirae called, then she drew in a breath and screamed. "Papa!"
Whether it was Mama's cry or Mirae's own that he'd heard, the door swung open and he, Uncle Carver, and Ser Cullen came charging out.
"What happened?" Papa demanded, crouching down, preparatory to picking Mama up again. "What's wrong?"
"Fenris," Mama rasped.
That was all she said. His name. Papa went perfectly still at the sound.
"Amelle?" he managed, his voice breaking as he said Mama's name, tilting her head back to see her face.
"It's off," she managed, coughing. "It's off."
"So it is," Ser Cullen murmured, crouching down to pick up the broken metal band. Bloody teeth lined the inside of the collar, glistening evilly in the half light. "How did you manage that, Hawke?"
"I'm very nearly certain I don't know," Mama said, her voice ragged but right, "and you'll forgive me if I don't give a bloody damn either, Knight-Commander, ser."
Silence settled around them, lasting barely a second or two before Papa scooped Mama up and carried her inside. Mirae ran after them, fairly pushing past Uncle Carver to get through the door next. But what she saw when she charged into the little sitting room made Mirae wish she'd waited outside.
Papa was sat on the sofa, as if he'd simply dropped there with Mama in his arms, her legs draped across his. His head was bowed, resting against hers, and his shoulders shook with fine tremors. Though her neck was bleeding, neither of them seemed to notice or care; Mama's arms were tight around him, her hands carding through his hair, rubbing soothingly at his back as she whispered to him.
"I thought I'd lost you," her father—her brave, solemn Papa said, in a voice that quavered in a way she'd never heard from him before. "I thought I'd failed you."
"Never," Mama whispered, pressing gentle kisses against his forehead, his closed eyes, either cheek, and, finally, his lips.
Suddenly Uncle Carver's hand was on her shoulder, and he was gently pulling her back into the kitchen.
"Best give them a minute, Mimi."
Neither Carver nor Cullen asked how the collar came off. Amelle was certain they both wanted to know, but she was just as certain that they realized they did not need to know, because with that particular brand of knowledge came difficult choices, and they'd all been faced with far, far more than their fair share of difficult choices over the years to willingly invite more. Of course Carver and Cullen were both perfectly aware of what it meant. When there is something that will only respond to a mage's touch, and it has responded, it only makes sense that a mage was around to touch it.
But they didn't need to know. And by the time they both left for Amaranthine (primarily because Carver, the well-meaning idiot, nearly got himself blasted into the next Age by being stiflingly solicitous), both men were perfectly aware there were things they'd not been told. Carver was family; he'd figure it out eventually. Cullen, however, knew who on the Maker's earth he wanted as an ally, and who he absolutely did not want as an enemy.
So all was quiet again, but a different sort of quiet than it had been in the weeks leading up to now. It was the sort of quiet made up of the normal daily chores, leading to lazy, sun-soaked afternoons spent sprawled in tall, soft grass, Fenris' hand clasping hers, as they watched clouds move across the sky, listening to the children play, argue, and then slide back into play again.
"At least she had a better first showing than I did," Amelle murmured, running her thumb along the ridge of Fenris' knuckles. She let out a mournful, embarrassed sigh. "So much inappropriate fire."
"No matter her 'first showing,'" Fenris said, rolling onto one elbow and looking down at her, "I am thankful it happened at all."
"It's a sad day when a pair of templars can't scare up a single apostate in the whole bloody—"
She sighed. Despite having healed herself, there remained a thin mark around her neck that wasn't quite a scar. Residue from the dark magic, perhaps. "You aren't ready for me to make light of it."
"I doubt I will ever be ready for you to make light of it." He fixed her with a solemn gaze. "I thought you were gone. I had no reason to believe you might return to yourself even after the collar was removed."
A hundred smart retorts hovered in her chest, but she let them melt away, instead pushing herself up onto her own elbow and smiling at Fenris. He did not quite return her smile, but he seldom did. The look he did give her, however, was warm and welcoming, and more than enough to make her heart thump hard against her ribs, even after so many years. "I'd always come back to you," she said, pressing a kiss to his lips, and then lying back on the grass, curling against him. "Never doubt that."
Silence passed between them and Amelle had nearly drifted into a doze when Fenris spoke again.
"You will have to teach her."
"I will," she sighed. "Maker, is this how my father felt?" She turned her head to look at him through the blades of grass. "It's slightly terrifying."
"More terrifying than facing down a High Dragon?"
He considered this. "More terrifying than the Varterral?"
"Absolutely," she replied without hesitation.
Then Fenris arched an eyebrow and shot her a smirk. "…Twice?"
Amelle made a face. "All right. Maybe not quite that terrifying. Still. I've never… taught anyone anything. Maker's breath, witness my brother; he spent most of his childhood—and a not-small portion of his adulthood—accusing me of being controlling."
"Your brother is not your daughter. Mirae will put her mind to whatever you teach her."
"She's growing up—and with this little wrinkle, she's already grown up more than I'm okay with," Amelle replied, frowning up at the clouds. "It was one thing when she was telling me she wanted to walk to town by herself—"
"She asked such a thing?" he asked sharply, lifting his head to look at her. "At her age?"
"Fenris, she's eleven." Amelle grinned. "And it won't be long before she's conjuring fireballs or Andraste only knows what else. Walking to town alone would have been easy to parent our way through."
"Hmph," he grumbled. "Fireballs or no, she is not old enough to walk to town alone."
With a soft chuckle, Amelle leaned over, pressing a kiss against her husband's sun-warmed cheek.
"What's so funny?"
"She knew you'd say no. Now I don't have to." She kissed him again, letting her lips linger against his skin. "Good thing, too," she murmured, resting her forehead against his temple as the sun beat down upon her back and Fenris' hair tickled her face. "I have a feeling I'm going to have my hands full with all the fireballs."