dedication: to emily, like usual. also, to kauri, for kicking my ass back into gear. thanks, dude.
notes: hi my name is sara and i live in f!mage/morrigan hell
notes2: last of a kind — neighbours.
title: all that gold
summary: There is a new templar in Lothering. — Alistair/Bethany, peripheral f!Hawke/Isabela.
"Good morning," Alistair whispers.
"Are you real?" Bethany whispers back.
"I think so?"
It's so quiet that she doesn't dare breathe. The Amell estate hovers in the silence like something not entirely real. She doesn't expect that it'll last all that long, because this is Kirkwall and peace never does well in this city, but—
Alistair is watching her with a strange look on his face, not quite a smile but getting there, warmth affection in the lines of his bones. He reaches out to drag her closer into his chest, and they're all tangled up in one another, her curls and his long limbs absolutely everywhere.
Bethany blinks at Alistair blinks right back, both their cheeks against the pillows, eyes wide in the morning sunlight. It's a one of those perfectly still moments in the world that never seem to exist anymore, one where there's only Bethany and Alistair and the quiet between them. No one needs anything and no one wants anything. It's just the pair of them, alone together.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Bethany whispers.
"Looking at you like what? I'm not looking at you like anything," Alistair says, grinning, and keeps on looking at her exactly as he has been.
"Like that!" she laughs, so quietly. "Like I'm—"
"Magic?" Alistair finishes the sentence for her. His eyes have gone soft, the exact colour of well-aged Chasind mead in the sunlight, but he doesn't move. They aren't quite touching, is the thing, even tangled in the sheets as they are. "Aren't you, or has something changed in the last day? How did I manage to miss that? Was it the Qunari? I bet it was the Qunari."
"Oh, hush," she says, mouth quirked. "I'm not magic because I want to be, you know, I thought we'd been over this."
Alistair just looks at her for a very long moment, more seriously than he's ever looked at her in his life. There are a lot of things left unsaid in it, that kind of painful solemnity that doesn't really have a name. His hand comes up to hover above her cheek. "Still?"
Bethany breathes. "Yes."
He nods after a moment, and drops his thumb to trace the line of her jaw. "I wish you weren't."
"How could I not be?" she asks, because more than anything, she wants to know. She would love an answer, because being so terrified all the time is exhausting. Bethany knows how to hide. It's what she's good at. But with the children—
Andraste, the children.
There so much here between them. Bethany tilts her chin up to catch Alistair's lips.
"I love you," he says into her mouth, some strange heart-twisting helplessness in the words. His fingers snarl into her curls, and he holds her by the back of her head to keep her close enough to still the shaking. "Do you know that? Maker, Beth, I love you."
"I know," she says, so easy. "I love you, too."
Alistair huffs a laugh into her ear, teeth worrying at the pulse beneath her jaw, the heavy weight of him pressing down into the cradle of her hips. He's suddenly her entire world and she drops her head back, bares her throat as easy as breathing, as begging, as though he couldn't kill her entire.
An hour later, it's the little-girl laughter drifting up from the bowels of the estate that finally drags them from bed. Sleepy-slow and swaying, Alistair puts his arm around Bethany's shoulders, kisses her temple. "Do we have to be real, now?"
Bethany smiles up at him. "I don't know, do you want to see what kind of trouble the twins can get into if no one's around to stop them?"
"I try not to think about it," Alistair sighs.
"Looks like someone else is awake," Bethany laughs. Malcolm yawns, the pearly white of baby teeth bright around the gurgling laughter.
"You sleep more than either of your sisters ever did, did you know," Alistair says, conversationally. "It's nice, I didn't think I was ever going to make it through a whole night without someone crying."
"Oh, they weren't that bad—"
Malcolm wobbles as he stands in his bassinet, the soft little curl of his fists around the edge. He blinks big dark eyes up at them, that big gap-toothed smile wide and clapping, goes, "Da! Da! Buh!"
It's a good thing they're holding onto one another, Bethany thinks, extraordinarily amused, because Alistair half-staggers against her as the baby-babble goes through him. His eyes are wide. "Did he—did he just—?"
"I don't know, did he?"
"Da! Da!" Malcolm babbles, reaching his hands up for Alistair's face the way all beloved children reach up for their parents, the imperious demand to be held and the unconscious expectation of immediate acquiescence. He's got a brilliant grin on his face, does their son, stark as starlight in the dark of the night, and he doesn't at all expect to be denied. And there is something of the Maker in the way that Alistair scoops their son up, Bethany thinks. Some kind of holy, some kind of awe.
They cradle one another, the pair of them, a fraction of her family bleached pale in the morning light.
Bethany's breath catches, tears a sudden threat in her throat.
Bethany leans against him, smiling quiet over the absent way her husband folds her into the clutch of baby-babble and adoration. He does it so automatically, is the thing: Alistair doesn't even think about making space for her, because it's as second nature as drawing in air.
One arm slung around her hips and the other around their son, Alistair looks happier than he has done in a very long time.
(Bethany presses her mouth to his collarbone like a secret.)
"Breakfast?" she asks. "Or are we going to let Liana and Carina run my mother and Orana into the ground?'
Alistair has the gall to snicker. "You know, at this rate, they're going to give your sister a run for her sovereigns."
Bethany goes very pale at the thought. Her sister is already half a martyr—there's no telling what she'd get up to with the Fade at her disposal. "Sweet Andraste, I hope not. Can you imagine my sister with magic?!"
"She's probably try to murder the Divine," Alistair says, consideringly. "I mean, not that she might not do that, regardless, but—"
"We're not going to think about it," Bethany says, firm. Malcolm is chewing on his fist, which means that it is time for breakfast. Some days Bethany worries about him—the twins started talking early, or at least Lia did, and she speaks for the both of them, but Malcolm has been nearly the perfect opposite. Mother says not to worry about it, that Marian didn't start talking until she was well older than three, but there's no helping it.
There's nothing love doesn't make more difficult.
Besides, Malcolm might not be able to speak, but he always makes himself understood.
And it is breakfast time.
Alistair and Bethany make their way in meandering arcs through the estate hand in hand, following the sounds of family echoing through the halls. It's not a long journey, nor a particularly difficult one, and what's at the end is hardly a surprise at all. Liana and Carina are making a mess in the kitchen, chasing one another 'round the long table and screeching with laughter. Mother's watching them kind of amused, Orana looks on the verge of tears, and Sandal is clapping in the background; it's a whole mess of noise and life and family, tossed pell-mell into the air.
Dear Maker, this family.
"Girls, slow down," Bethany calls, exasperated mirth in the mouth. Andraste, was this how her mother always felt when she and Carver were causing trouble? "You're going to give Orana a heart attack!"
The twins freeze in place, turn their near-identical faces to blink near-identical brown eyes innocently at Alistair and Bethany, standing in the doorway. They sort of glance at one another, a conspiring little twitch that has Bethany thinking that they are going to be an absolute terror when they're older, and then Liana's face splits wide into a grin, and she goes, "Hi, Mummy! Hi, Dad! We're making Nan laugh!"
"Are you, now," Alistair says, raising his eyebrows at them. "I don't know, Lia, it looks more like you're causing a ruckus—"
"Father!" Lia says, aghast, and the pair of them barrel into Bethany's middle to wrap thin arms around her. They hardly reach her waist, old gold heads covered over in long ocher ringlets, and they cling. Limpets, they are limpets! Liana's face scrunches up with righteous childhood scandal, the kind that's too big for a body. She announces, "Mummy, Father's being mean to us!"
"Oh, Father, is it, now—"
Bethany smiles, gathers them up so that she's got one twin on each hip. They're nearly getting too big for this and they both know it. They keep close all the same. "If you three are quite done, I think Malcolm's hungry."
"Mal's always hungry," Lia says, tossing her head. Carina nods solemnly on her other side.
"And you aren't?" Bethany asks, raising her eyebrows. "Why were you bothering Orana, then, hm? Was that just a bonus?"
"Mother," Liana says, and reproach is a very strange emotion to see on a five-year-old's face. "We wouldn't!"
"See, look, you're Mother now, too," Alistair says, rather cheerfully, hoisting Malcolm up a little higher. He hasn't the hips for baby-bustling, and he does it all the same. Bethany's heart gives an offensive little wibble. "No gratitude, these ones. C'mon, Mal, let's find you something to eat that isn't your hands."
"Alistair," Bethany says, and he laughs because he's ridiculous.
(The twins come by it honestly, at least.)
It takes a fair bit of help, but eventually, Alistair and Bethany get food into all three of their children's mouths. They settle in for a day of keeping the little ones out of trouble, or at least out of the templars' line of sight, which is what most noble parents seem to do with their time when they're not lounging around the Viscount's keep. There's gardening to do, and helping Bodahn figure out supper, and—
"Bethy, I need your templar!"
—and there's always Marian to consider, too.
"Not a templar," Alistair reminds Marian. He's concentrating on the unsuccessful venture of trying to convince Carina to eat porridge. It's not going well, given that Carina hates porridge and would much rather the bowl be on the floor. Bethany loves him absurdly.
"Yes, dear, you keep saying that. And then you go and be useful and ruin it completely! We're going slaver-hunting," Marian's lips pull up into a horrible smirk, all the edges so sharp. "Come help, I need help keeping Fenris from ripping hearts out."
"You need more help than that," Alistair mutters, too low for anyone except Bethany to hear.
He's not wrong, either.
(Bethany's sister needs so much help. Fenris and ripping hearts out is just one thing; there are all the other things that Marian seems to be keeping in her pocket, blood mages and thieves and murderers alike. It's half a wonder she's lived this long, honestly. It's half a wonder the rest of them have lived this long, besides!)
"Is that a yes?" Marian asks, fluttering her eyelashes. "If it is, we need to go now."
"Fine, that's a yes," Alistair sighs. He glances at Bethany out of the corner of his eye. This won't be the first time, nor will it be the last; her husband has taken to following Marian around when she's off adventuring, something about trying to head the Champion of Kirkwall off before she really builds up steam enough to do damage to the foundations of the society. It's a lovely sentiment, really, except that Marian has no regards for normal human decency, so it's sort of wasted on her.
"Excellent," Marian claps her hands, very well-pleased. "I'll meet you outside. Daylight's wasting, we've got Tevinter to corral!"
And then she's gone, just as quick as she appeared. She's like lightning, sometimes, is Marian; fast and blinding, and entirely capable of turning one's life upside-down in a thirty-second period, so long as it's the wrong thirty second. Alistair and Bethany sit still for a moment, surrounded by the mornmeal's detritus. The twins managed to wiggle out beneath Bethany's older sister's frightening ability to focus all attention on herself, and now only Malcolm is left.
For a moment, it's very silent. They just look at each other, the pair of them settled across the table from one another, not touching but both suddenly aware that there's a possibility that they might be separated.
But it's not the first time.
And it's certainly not the last.
"Try not to get killed," Bethany reminds Alistair.
"Or kidnapped," she continues. "Once was enough."
Alistair snorts. "I don't much remember having a say in that."
"No one ever does," Bethany smiles out of the corner of her mouth, but it's not a happy thing. She still can't—she still can't think about it, can't handle the thought of that sick red wash bound around his ribs, he'd had bruises for weeks and weeks and Andraste, if Bethany could raise the dead, she'd do it just so she could kill that bitch all over again. "Please be safe?"
"I'm not going to the Gallows, love."
"No. You're going with my sister," Bethany says. She reaches over the table to catch his fingers. "And she's worse."
Alistair doesn't reply.
This is, unfortunately, true.
After Alistair's gone and Dog is outside guarding the girls, Bethany goes to find her mother.
Finding Leandra Hawke, however, is not to be.
Because as Bethany heads through the purple-dusk estate, heavy velvet red and solid dark oak all around her, she finds someone else, instead.
Ser Cullen sits in the hall by the fire, hands clasped around what might be a cold cup of tea, looking like he hasn't moved in a century. It's the stiffness to his shoulders, the incredible discomfort of being somewhere that he's not at all sure he fits; Andraste, he's lucky that Mother is out in the gardens with the twins, because she would be clucking her tongue and flicking her fingers and finding ways to order him around the way she does to people who look like they could use a good teasing.
It is a strange thought.
Alistair's not here, after all.
(And Ser Cullen knows this. He's well aware that Alistair is off cleaning up Marian's messes—he's been all alone in the Gallows for nearly a season, now. Bethany can't imagine that that had been a fun conversation, if only because Ser Cullen has fewer friends among the templars than even Alistair does. Losing a friend like that must burn; Alistair has Varric and Fenris and Donnic and even Anders, on a good day. Ser Cullen has no one at all, anymore. It's not an easy thing.)
"Ser Cullen?" Bethany asks. "Are you alright?"
He jerks a little, milky tea slopping down the sides of the cup. Ser Cullen blinks a little blearily at her. "I—oh, hello, Lady Bethany. Yes, I'm—I'm fine."
"You don't look fine," Bethany says, smiling as gently as she can. Best not to spook him; he does look a little ill, the skin around his eyes gone tight and white, all the rest of the colour leached from his face. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Solona—Lady Amell, I should, her name, it's Lady Amell—she asked to see me, I didn't think—"
Bethany thinks of her cousin, the long sweeping bell-sleeves of her dresses and the lack of colour so unlike mage robes, the way she always seems just the slightest bit out of time. She's been even scarcer, of late, but perhaps it isn't such a strange thing that after all this time Solona wishes to see Ser Cullen. It's never been a question, in his case; Ser Cullen still staggers, sometimes, when Marian walks into a room. Bethany's older sister only shares a face with their cousin, not a personality.
Between Ser Cullen's existential angst and Solona's quiet falling apart, Bethany is sure that they have plenty to talk about.
Andraste, it's wrong to let him think that there's anything like hope.
(She can't do that to him.)
"Solona doesn't love you, Ser Cullen," Bethany says, softly, gently, as conciliatory as she can. "I don't mean to hurt you, but she's not… she's not capable of it. She wouldn't know how."
"I—" he swallows. "I know. I didn't think—I didn't dare think she did. Not after—"
Not after the Aeonar, he doesn't say, but Bethany hears it all the same. He's never spoken about what happened at Kinloch Hold, and for that matter, neither has Solona, but Bethany knows as unhealed wound when she sees one. What little she's been able to piece together goes like this: Solona and Neria grew up together. Solona was always terrified and Ser Cullen fell in love with her because he has no idea what love is, and when things went sideways, the Chantry sent them both away. Neria followed Solona. If Bethany had to guess, she'd guess that Neria probably blew Ferelden's Circle up on the way out.
Kirkwall isn't the Aeonar, though.
It's not hard to say who got the better end of that deal.
Bethany sighs, and presses her arm into his side. It's a little bit like forgiveness and a lot like solidarity. Ser Cullen makes a wounded noise in the back of his throat.
"She doesn't hate you, you know," Bethany says.
"She should," Ser Cullen mutters.
"That's not usually the way people work," she smiles out of the corner of her mouth, hair curling darkly around her face. Bethany tilts her head, rolls it all around. "At least, not when they don't want to kill you, and I don't think Sonny could hurt a fly."
"She still should," he says. Ser Cullen's shoulders slump, but he does seem to breathe a little easier. Some of the awful nothing in his face has eased, and the lines around his mouth are a little softer.
"Why? You haven't ever said."
"She didn't tell you?" Ser Cullen blinks, surprised.
"No," Bethany says.
"I—supervised her Harrowing," Ser Cullen says. There's anxiety in his voice, a rag wrung absolutely dry, something twisted so tight it almost rips apart. "Maker's breath, don't look at me like that, it's not as—" and he stops to wince at the look she gives him, "—alright, fine, I take it back, it is as bad as it sounds."
Bethany continues to stare at him, lips pursed.
"Lady Amell, she's better than anyone," Ser Cullen says, a little helplessly. "She always was. And I was—I was very young."
"You're still very young now," Bethany reminds him. "We all are."
"You have children, Lady Hawke."
"And you are Knight-Captain of the templars, Ser."
Ser Cullen can't argue that.
It's not a question of love. Bethany knows that, because in most cases, it is never a question of love. She loves Alistair, loves him so much that sometimes she hurts with it. Bethany loves Alistair because she knows him, knows him down to his marrow, knows his fears and his wants and his dreams and even after learning all of those things about him, she still wants him. Even after children, even after a decade, even after they've both nearly died. There will never be anyone else. But Ser Cullen didn't love Solona, because Bethany doesn't think Ser Cullen ever really knew her cousin at all.
This is the problem of love, its great equalizer: to love someone is to know someone, and if one does not know someone, one cannot love them.
Bethany thinks that Ser Cullen is realizing that, even as they sit here right now. She can see it sinking into him, the knowing. And knowing does that, especially self-knowing, because knowing is one of those things that comes in waves, and once a person is overcome, there is no going back to before.
Like water into sand.
(Worse: like lost homes. Bethany thinks that Ser Cullen knows all about those. She certainly does.)
Ser Cullen exhales.
His shoulders go down.
"Are you going to be alright?" Bethany asks.
"I—I think so, yes," he says, inhaling deep. "Thank you, Lady Hawke."
"What are friends for?" she grins at him, nudging his arm again. Ser Cullen manages a rather pained grimace that could almost be misconstrued for a smile, but Bethany counts it as a win. Ser Cullen often looks like he hasn't smiled in half an Ade, and it's not an easy thing, getting some amusement out of him.
"Your family has been better to me than I deserve," Ser Cullen says, very quietly. "I do mean that."
"I know," Bethany says. She shifts, drops her head back to soak in the sun filtering in through the open window. The whole hallway is golden mahogany in the light, dust motes shimmering in the quiet air. "That you mean it, anyway. We're just people, Ser Cullen."
"Good people," he says.
Ser Cullen nods as though he's not quite sure what else he's to do. "Everyone tries."
"They do," she says. "Are you really going to be alright?"
"I'm fine," he says. "Thank you."
"You're a terrible liar, Ser Cullen," Bethany reaches over to pat his hand, not unkindly. Her mother would be much better at this, because Mother has always been very good at sorting people out when they don't want to be sorted, but Bethany is what there is and so she's what's going to have to do. Ser Cullen needs someone in his corner, and Alistair isn't here right now.
Even if Alistair was here, Bethany doesn't think her husband would be much help. She loves him, but he can be a bit useless when he doesn't think there's a point, and Alistair has never seen a point in letting Ser Cullen make puppy eyes in Solona's direction. He's always been very firmly in Bethany's cousin's camp on this one.
Not that Bethany blames him.
The Gallows weren't kind, to Alistair.
They aren't kind to anyone, to be sure, but they were particularly unkind to her husband, and neither Bethany nor Alistair has forgiven them yet.
Bethany suspects, however, that they've been just as terrible to Ser Cullen.
(The lyrium sings beneath his skin just the way her own magic does. It pours out of the crags in his skin, a brilliant poisoned light flavoured glowing magic blue. Bethany is so, so, so fervently glad that Alistair never took a drop more than he absolutely had to. The addiction addles a person, takes away their own self entire. It hasn't happened yet to Ser Cullen, but the beginnings of it are starting to slip through the cracks. Pity is bitter as ashes in her mouth.)
"Do you want me to go find her?" Bethany asks, what seems like a long time later.
"Yes, please," Ser Cullen says. He's suffered enough, and they both know it.
Bethany stands up, spine cracking loudly. None of her bones seem to fit right, in this moment: she's not sure what she's waiting for, but she is waiting for something. Ser Cullen stares up at her for a long moment with a quiet death in his face.
I could have been him or he could have been me, she remembers Alistair saying, again.
Andraste's blood, but she's glad they're not. Andraste's blood, but she's glad that Alistair is Alistair, and not someone else.
And after everything, Solona isn't that hard to find.
The library is easily one of the most beautiful places in the entire estate. The air here is drenched in vanilla and leather, the musk of old paper layered over ink and sunlight thick in the nose. There's no other scent quite like it, and no other stillness quite like the stillness of an empty place full of books. Solona spends most of her time here, with Neria or without, and here is where Bethany finds her.
"Ser Cullen's here," Bethany says, simply.
"I'm not surprised," Solona murmurs. She looks up from the tome spread open across her lap, blinking. Again, Bethany is struck just by how very much her cousin resembles her older sister. The Amell blood breeds true, it seems. "Has he been waiting long?"
"A little while," Bethany says, and that's all.
Amell and Hawke stare at one another for a long, unbroken moment, and then Bethany reaches out a hand.
Solona takes it. Pulls herself into standing.
The two women don't bother to talk on the way back. Ser Cullen is precisely where Bethany left him, and what little colour he's gained back in his cheeks drains away as soon as Solona steps through the doorway.
"Hello, Cullen," says Solona.
"Lady Amell," says Ser Cullen, inclining his head gravely. "You wanted to see me?"
There's an indefinable change to the air. This mirrors another day that Bethany lived, where Ser Cullen walked in to find Solona sitting in the kitchen, teacup in hand, and nearly died of her. Solona walks in, and Ser Cullen nearly dies of her all over again.
It's a shame, but he's really terrible at this getting over her thing.
Bethany looks between them. Solona is still and beautiful as a statue. Ser Cullen wears the grim flatness of a man about to go to his death. "Do you want me to stay?" she asks, though she isn't entirely sure who's she's talking to. It might be neither of them. It might be both.
"No," Solona says. "We're fine, thank you."
"I—" Ser Cullen breaks off, "—what she said."
Bethany isn't about to argue. What's here is old, deep and dark, and it puts all the petty little resents that Bethany lives with on a daily basis—that all people live with on a daily basis—to shame. Kinloch Hold is not the Gallows, and Solona is not the same girl that Ser Cullen thinks he fell in love with.
Maybe they ought to have dealt with this a very long time ago.
But they didn't.
And so here they are.
Bethany leaves them in the foyer without saying much more. She doesn't have the fortitude to coach them both throught it; maybe if she were Marian she'd be able to do it, but she's not her older sister, she's not, and right now all Bethany wants is her mother and her children and for the world to make sense again.
"Oh, there you are," says Mother. "What kept you, darling? Alistair's been gone an hour!"
"Solona and Ser Cullen," Bethany sighs, flops down in the wrought-iron seat next to her mother and tries not to wince. "It's—you know how they are. He's being very silly about it, she clearly doesn't want anything to do with him."
Bethany's mother laughs, golden in the open air.
"Oh, darling, don't you know? Your cousin prefers women," Mother says, and it's horrible because she's sort of laughing about it, as though her eldest daughter isn't exactly the same. "That boy never stood a chance!"
"Has anyone seen Nerry?!"
Three days after Ser Cullen leaves the estate with a strange, clean emptiness in his face, Solona comes blowing into Bethany's sun-room, eyes wild. It's so unlike her that for a moment, Bethany thinks that it's actually Marian in a wig, but no—this is Solona, and she is terrified.
"No, I haven't," Bethany says. She's got her legs thrown over Alistair's lap, and he's idly stoking circles into her bare ankle. "Not since yesterday. Why?"
"I just—I haven't seen her today, and she's been—" Solona takes a sharp breath that sounds like self-recrimination before she forges ahead, regardless, "—she's been less present than usual, and I'm worried about her!"
Both Bethany and Alistair straighten up all at once. It's not unusual for either of them to go days without seeing the little elven mage. Neria's always been prone to wandering off; it's certainly only gotten worse as she's discovered how apparently fascinating Anders and Darktown are, especially in conjunction, and so the lack is not exactly alarming.
But for Solona to go a day without seeing her…
Oh, Andraste, what's happened?
"That's not good," Alistair says, rather unnecessarily.
"Help me find her," Solona says, swallowing an awful sound. "Please."
Alistair's up quick as a whip and already moving, pressing a fleeting kiss to Bethany's hair and moving into Solona's orbit. It's funny—in some ways, the thing that makes people stop and stare at Marian is reflected in Solona, too. It's that same brilliant edge that makes a person sit up and take notice, but it's never been so evident as it is now: Solona carries herself like something wild, and she is difficult to look away from. Lovely and lonely, in equal measure.
"Where was she last?"
"Anders," Solona says, and her voice is steady despite the fine tremble to her. "She was with Anders last, but that was yesterday, and I haven't—I haven't—"
"Hush, Sonny, it's alright, we're going to find her," Bethany soothes, but she shoots Alistair a look over her cousin's shoulder and finds her own stomach-twisting worry refracted over his face. Neria has no phylactery, and neither does Anders.
But magic leaves traces, and Neria's magic, in particular, is a unique flavour. Marian said once that she could always find Bethany once she'd magicked something, and Carver did always have a knack for finding what he was looking for, even if it didn't want to be want.
And Alistair has the benefit of a templar's training.
If anyone can find a missing elven mage girl in Kirkwall, it is Bethany's husband.
"Right," he says, breathing out slowly. "We'll have to split up. She can't have gone far. Take the Darktown tunnel, Solona, that'll get you down to Anders faster than anything else. Beth—"
"I'm staying with you," Bethany says, firmly.
Alistair smiles faintly, all the lines of his face creasing around the gold of his eyes. "That was the plan."
"Good," she says. "We can start with the Chantry—"
The words snap off as the floor rolls. Outside there's a flash of crimson-flower light, acid fuchsia that blinds everyone for a quarter-league. Oddly, Bethany thinks of fresh blood.
And then the world explodes.
"Down!" shouts Alistair. Plaster shakes loose from the eaves, windows rattling, the groan of wood just beginning to break. Force magic takes hold of Bethany faster than she can think, furious goldenrod flickering into barrier white to hold off the rain of debris.
For one creeping, paralyzed moment in the aftershock, everything is perfectly still.
"The children," Bethany says. It trembles in the dusty air.
"Go," Alistair curses something fierce and Bethany takes off, following the thin rising wail of three voices twining through the shaking walls.
She takes the stairs two at a time. "Liana! Carina! Malcolm!"
There is a terrible silence.
"Oh, thank the Maker," Bethany exhales relief so intense it colours the air pale blue with frost. "Lia, where are you?!"
"With Mal! We can't—Mummy!"
There's a fallen beam across the doorway, and it is thoughtless terror that fuels the force magic. Bethany near breaks the door to pieces, and finds Carina, her arms shaking, holding the barest flickering of a barrier around her siblings.
Bethany's heart breaks in her chest.
Carina is her mother's daughter, through and through.
"I'm here, darling, I'm here, it's safe now, hush, you don't need to hold it anymore," Bethany whispers into Rina's hair, arms sweeping around the twins and pulling them close. Malcolm clambers over the edge of his bassinet to curl his little hands in Bethany's skirt, and stares upwards for a long time. There is a faint red wash of light in through the window that throws all of her son's features into sick definition.
"Buh," he says.
"Buh," Bethany agrees, throat tight.
"Beth, are the—?!"
"We're okay, Daddy," Lia says, from between the gaps in Bethany's arms. "Mummy found us!"
"Yes, she did," Alistair says. But his shoulders are still tense, and when he looks at Bethany, there's something hard in the lines of his mouth. "Your mother is worried about your sister."
"Of course she is," Bethany murmurs. Figuring out standing takes one moment and then another, but she finally gets Mal settled on her hip and Lia and Rina in some semblance of order, and sighs out slow. "But we promised we'd help find Nerry."
"I somehow don't think those two things are mutually exclusive," Alistair says, grim.
"You don't think—?"
"You know that I do," he nods.
"Oh, Andraste," Bethany breathes. That horrible vermillion flash of light and the rumbling that had followed—of course it had to do with her sister, how could it not? Of course it had to be part of this; of course it wasn't something else, something halfways to sane.
The world refuses to move without Marian Hawke pushing it forwards.
Bethany has always known this.
She gathers herself slowly, putting all the pieces of her broken heart back into place. Bandages will do for now. Alistair can glue her back together when it doesn't seem like the world is about to shatter, or at least when there isn't a very good likelihood that Kirkwall may explode like the powder keg that it is. And oh, Maker, what Bethany wouldn't give for just one day where she didn't have to worry that her family wasn't going to come out of this alright.
Or maybe just one day where she didn't have to choose between her children and her older sister.
(As though it's even really a choice at all. Malcolm buries his face in her shoulder. Bethany can feel the Fade shimmering around him, the same way it shimmered around Carina before she came into her magic, the same way it shimmers around Solona, around Merrill, around every other mage that Bethany has ever met in her entire life. The same way it shimmers around Bethany herself, probably.)
And Alistair knows what she's thinking, because Alistair always knows what she's thinking, and they stare at one another like an open wound.
"Mummy, listen," Lia says, tugging on Bethany's arm. Andraste, but she's so small. They are all so small, and they are all so young, and it makes every one of her teeth ache. "We'll be good for Gran, 'kay? Auntie Mary's bad at stuff."
Bad at stuff is certainly one way of putting it, Bethany thinks, wry. "Auntie Nerry isn't much better. Will you look after Mal?"
"Mal looks after us, Mummy, obviously," Lia says, as exasperatedly fond as a five-year-old can be. "See?"
Malcolm stuffs his fist in his mouth and grins, all pearly white baby teeth, which is incredibly concerning. These children, Maker help her.
But outside the window, the howling's already started.
This is Kirkwall, and perhaps Bethany ought not be so surprised.
Leaving the babies with her mother, however, is going to be an ordeal in and of itself. Mother won't make it difficult, she never does, and it's her idea to slip down into the tunnels to Darktown.
"We'll meet you at the docks," Mother says, firmly, without room for negotiation nor for argument. She shepherds Lia and Rina towards the basement vault with imperious little finger-flicks that cast long shadows over the walls. Leandra hitches Malcolm up, and sometimes Bethany sees her own inflections in the way that her mother moves. "Find your sister and hit her over the head for me, darling. And do try not to get killed?"
That's easier said than done, but—
Well, what isn't easier said than done?
Hightown is a mess. The roads are rubble, and that awful crimson light seems to linger in the air, sunk corrupted into the white stone. Alistair keeps one hand on his sword and the other twined through Bethany's, and they slip careful out of the estate and into the night. The rest of Hightown's inhabitants poke their heads out of their palaces, startling back inside when they feel the ground roll with the aftershocks.
But Alistair and Bethany have lived through darkspawn, and Qunari, and the templars.
They are made of sterner stuff.
The destruction gets worse as the force of the blast becomes clear. The estates further towards the Viscounts' Keep have lost walls, windows shattered, halfways to obliterated entirely. The trees have all lost their leaves and Bethany is suddenly fervently glad they're as far from the highest parts of the city as they are.
"What happened?" Bethany murmurs, bending down to examine a rosebush blown clean, only the last stubborn petals left clinging to the stems. She pricks herself, blood on the fingertips.
"Do we really want to know?" Alistair asks, voice low.
"We might not have a choice," she says, straightening up. There is glittering grit made of broken glass everywhere, leading up like a shining ribbon of refracted light to follow, and something about it strikes Bethany still with memory. Lothering, the same fragile silence as the darkspawn came.
She's about to bring it up, murmur something about old homes because Alistair always understands that, understands old homes—
But then they turn the corner, and find the center of it all.
Oh, Andraste, but the Chantry is a smoking hole in the ground.
"I think we found where Nerry got to," Alistair says.
Bethany doesn't disagree. This glints with Neria's periwinkle sparkle, the precise line where the blast radius went off, the odd bulbous protection of the rest of the city: the trees in Hightown are stripped bare of bark, but here they've been burnt away entire, nothing left but blackened crisps of charcoal. She shivers in the wet summer heat.
Keeping promises is important.
Now they just need to find Marian.
But Hightown is empty of Solona's elven shadow, emptier still of Bethany's sister and her friends, and there's nothing but the smoke and the ruins of the Chantry left to hide in. The bones of the scorched dead are brittle chalky things cracked all the way through. The rubble reeks bitter, of blood and marrow and the burnt holes through Andraste's sunburst.
It feels like the end of the world. With the Chantry gone, and at a mage's hands—
"The Knight-Commander is going to have a field day," Alistair breathes, their thoughts running along the same lines. Knight-Commander Meredith had wanted the Right of Annulment after the Qunari invasion. She's wanted the Right of Annulment for a long time, and this will only be justification for the innocent hundreds left dead. Blood magic infects every person it touches, mages as well as templars alike. "Stay behind me."
Bethany's staff is heavy on her back. Her magic is thick on her tongue.
Perhaps it was always going to come to this.
It's a brutally ugly run back through Hightown to the steps down into Lowtown, dodging around clumps of templars with their swords out, a mad rush to the water and the Gallows, because where else would Marian be?
"Alistair? Is that you?"
Bethany and Alistair stop short, somewhere just beyond the crackling flames that eat up the Hanged Man. They blink at one another, turn in tandem to where the call had come from.
Oh, Bethany thinks. Oh, Ser Cullen, no.
But here they are.
Here they are.
The colour drains out of Ser Cullen's face as he stares at the pair of them in the burning half-dark.
"Why didn't—why didn't anyone tell me?" he croaks, looking from Alistair to Bethany like he might find the answers in the space between them, in the slick of light off of Bethany's stave, in the magic crackling through the air. "Is it—is it just you?"
"No," Bethany says, because it's not the time for more lies, and Ser Cullen has been gutted enough. There is no satisfaction in it. But the old dread rises, and she keeps the feeling tethered sharp in her teeth. No more lies, but no truths, either; Liana, Carina, Malcolm. The omission fizzles. "Not just me."
"You know why we didn't," and it is Alistair who says this, and it's important that it's Alistair who says this. His forehead is creased, the lines around his mouth pulled down deep. He takes a half-step in front of her, wind in his hair, and for a moment Bethany remembers him in Lothering with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, mouth soft around the words what can I do, Beth? What do you need me to do?
She'd fallen in love with him then, and she falls in love with him again now.
(They're both older and better and worse. Bethany's heart bleeds in her chest.)
Ser Cullen swallows hard. "Are they safe? The twins?"
"They're with my mother," Bethany says, and isn't surprised when some of the tension in Ser Cullen's face seeps away. He loves the twins more than anyone not family, perhaps. He would want them safe, even if their mother is mage. Even if they themselves, little as they are, have magic in their veins.
That's the problem with family.
You end up caring.
"Alright," Ser Cullen finally says, and Bethany can feel the minute relaxation in Alistair's shoulders, and she reaches out to press her palm to the small of his back. He won't be able to feel the warmth through his armour, but it's the thought that counts.
"Are you coming with us or not?" her husband asks. "We don't have a lot of time."
The words crackle through the indigo night like the embers in the air, winking in and out faster than the stars. Bethany thinks: lightning, flame, force. Her stomach knots into sickness, because all of a sudden, standing here staring across the gulf of Hightown's white stone burning—
It's a clumsy thing, the death of a friendship.
And Ser Cullen doesn't say anything at all, too shell-shocked to move.
"…Fine," Alistair says, calm as calm can be. The muscles in his jaw clench for a split second before they smooth out, and Bethany finds herself quietly reaching out to twine their fingers. He clings painful tight all the way down. "Doesn't matter."
He tugs Bethany past their old friend, keeping her tucked safe on his other side. He does it so fast that if she'd not been looking for it, she would have thought the movement was natural.
Alistair always did have a habit of placing himself firmly between Bethany and anything pointy as might come her way, and now is no different. There's a grim determination to the set of his mouth. It makes her breathless for one endless moment, how much he is willing to set himself up against for her.
"Alistair," Bethany says, after they've turned the corner and left Ser Cullen behind in the fire and flames. She ignores the faint, high-pitched wailing that echoes up from the Gallows. The world is ending. What's one more minute, if it could save them both the heartache later? "Alistair, slow down, stop, you need to breathe."
"We have to—Beth, love, Malcolm and the twins—"
"Are with my mother," Bethany reminds him. Lowtown's winding cobbled streets are empty, but still she pulls him into the lee of a burned-out doorway, reaches up to cup his face. "Look at me. Are you alright?"
Alistair exhales. "No."
"I'm sorry," she says, nearly lost in the pop and hiss of Kirkwall's burning. The acridity of magic mingles with sorrow on Bethany's tongue. I am so sorry that you've lost someone you cared about.
"Don't be," Alistair says. "I'll survive."
There's something final in it, and when he brushes his thumb along her cheek, it is infinitely gentle, achingly soft, adoration gleaming off the metal shards. Bethany leans into it, trying so hard to pretend that they're going to have a home to return to, after all of this. Surviving is only one part of the equation.
(Bethany thinks of the foundries, of sunshine breaking over the Wounded Coast, of the nearly-endless number of ways she and Alistair have nearly lost one another. To death or magic or clanging metal weaponry, to darkspawn or drowning or drink. There are a hundred terrible ways that they could have broken. The loss of a friendship is relatively mild, in comparison. It's awful, but it's true. The templars and their vicious Silences are as much a threat as they ever were. Ser Cullen, at least, is not cruel.)
The dull roar of the sea brings them both home.
Alistair holds on for one more moment; Bethany watches him allow himself the luxury of one more second of physical comfort before he straightens, shaking all the anxiety out. He's made of shattered glass, and it near kills her not to be able to drag him home and solder him back together.
"Come on," Alistair says. He cranes his head down towards her. "Let's go save our family."
"Let's," Bethany agrees. "Please don't die on me."
Alistair grins, teeth a vicious glint in the carmine light. "I'll try," he says, and dips his head to kiss her quiet.
"You have an hour to ready your people, Champion. Don't disappoint me."
The courtyard is startlingly empty, once the Knight-Commander is gone.
Worse, it's startlingly quiet.
The screams of the fleeing mages have faded in the cooling night air. There's a tremble to Bethany's muscles, a ripple in a still pool, the kind of thing that comes with too little sleep and too much exertion. She slumps into Alistair's side, the exhaustion draping over her shoulders velvet-soft, and tries to figure out how to breathe.
"Alright?" he asks. There's blood speckled across his cheek. Bethany's stomach turns.
"Alright," she says.
Alistair snorts. He's always been able to see right through her, and a decade lost to grey dreams and white stone hasn't changed that. "You know, that was almost as convincing as that time you tried to tell me you weren't a mage."
"Oh, shush," Bethany says, without any real heat to the words. She leans her head against his chest plate, and it's not as good as being skin-to-skin because she can't hear his heart, but it's something. It gives her a moment to gather her thoughts, a sharp intake of smoke-choke air to be held in the lungs before the inevitable return to violence. It's a moment suspended in midair, the shiver as the magic takes hold, the tension humming just before a kiss.
Bethany's sister is wrapping her knee tight across the courtyard, resisting the decay.
But so is everyone else, and Bethany makes a decision.
"I'm going to make sure that my sister's alright," she murmurs, turning just a little so that she can press her mouth fleeting to his cheek. Alistair blinks at her, gets a look on his face that Bethany hasn't seen before—a crystalized heartache, something shivery-tender that hides a helplessness that that she doesn't want to name. It's not the way he looks at Carina and Liana, near beside himself with love, nor is it the way he looks at Malcolm, glowing with pride. It's nothing in-between, either.
It's the way he's always looked at her, but Bethany doesn't think he's ever been so obvious about it, before.
(It is need, that hideous thing.)
The real trouble, Bethany thinks, is that there's no guarantee that any of them are going to make it out of tonight alive. There's no promise that they'll see the sun rise together in the morning, for all that that was all either of them had ever wanted to do. There's no for sure. Bethany lingers in his arms for a moment longer, and a moment longer, and a moment longer because—Andraste, she needs him, too.
And it's enough.
Alistair lets her go.
Nighttime presses cool and calm against Bethany's shoulders, slipping down the collar of her dress as she weaves her way to her older sister's side. Things haven't been easy since… well, maybe they were never easy, and maybe Bethany's only now realizing that. Marian's face is pale in the spill of half-light from the Gallows' spires, her face scrubbed bare of paint and blood. There's no finery left: there is only Marian Hawke, and the death that hovers just over her shoulders.
Bethany settles down next to her older sister, extends her hands glittering blue-green. "Let me?"
"Maker, yes, why did I ever let you stop coming out with us," Marian says, sagging forwards into the healing with a weary sigh. Her hair is matted with sweat and other worse things, and a wave of fierce affection rolls through Bethany that's too big for words. "That's marvelous."
"You grew up, Mari," Bethany says. Healing magic comes easier than it used to. It spills out of her palms like dry sand through an hourglass. "And I got married."
"That was a terrible idea on both our parts," says Marian. An awful, queer little smile flickers across her face. "I am sorry, you know."
"Sorry? What for?"
"Oh," says Bethany. She blinks down at the soft-focus smudges of her hands, glittering pale against the dark metal spikes of the Champion of Kirkwall's armour. The gouged-out wound that the Deep Roads expedition had carved into the Hawke family is healed, now, mostly—not perfectly, not evenly, simply more scar tissue stitched into Bethany's soul—but then, Carver isn't down in the dark. He's just across the courtyard, speaking quietly to Alistair and Varric, and for all that he's wearing Warden silver-and-blue, he's still here. Her twin, brooding and too tall and always in their older sister's shadow. "That."
"Mari, I—you know it's not—"
"I know," Marian says, mouth quirking gentle around the words, but the cut-off still so sharp. "But I should have said it a long time ago, and I never did. I'm sorry, Bethy. I'm sorry I didn't bring him home."
"I don't blame you, and I'm not angry anymore," Bethany says, because truthfully, she doesn't. Mother did enough blaming for the both of them. Skin and musculature finishes knitting itself back together beneath her palms, and Bethany pulls her hands back into her space to fold them neatly in her lap. "Sometimes things just… happen, I suppose."
"This one shouldn't have," says Marian. "And you were."
For a moment, the Hawke sisters sit next to one another and breathe, and it's like they're children again in Ferelden's wild Hinterlands; Marian with rings of blood crusted beneath her nose and a viciously triumphant grin, and Bethany glowing with the crackling remnants of used-up magic, trying to patch her up but not get caught in the doing.
Twenty years, and hardly anything has changed.
All they're missing is Carver.
The awful thing is that this is nothing new.
"Have you told him that?" Bethany asks. They don't have much time, especially not now that Marian's begun to stand, stretching herself up and out. Building herself up for a war. She cracks her neck, and it's the worst sound.
"Carver?" Marian says. "No."
"…Are you going to?"
It comes like a wave. Bethany's older sister's knee cracks sickly as she stands, and she looms in the darkness, bigger than the whole world. With eyes like ice and limbs like daggers, she rakes her hands through her hair, and the shift happens so easily that it's almost possible to miss. Marian Hawke slips behind the mask and disappears into the darkness of her own soul.
The Champion of Kirkwall grins with Bethany's older sister's mouth, grins with all of her teeth brilliant in the dark, grins like a demon might and doesn't look back.
"No," she says. "Never."
And then the templars come.
"Why don't they just drown us as infants?" the First Enchanter asks, bitterly. Not every First Enchanter is a Spirit Healer, but every First Enchanter knows basic healing, and First Enchanter Orsino's hands gleam with green-gold Creation, glimmering faintly though the dark. He bends over a prone body. "Why even bother with the illusion of hope?"
"You know why," Bethany says, very simply. She casts her gaze to where Anders and Neria are hiding in the shadows, cats' eyes blinking in the dark. Solona is somewhere in between, putting people back together, and that makes Bethany think of Ser Cullen. She still doesn't know what her cousin said to him, that day, but maybe it doesn't matter, now.
They're on opposite sides of this war, as perhaps they always have been.
First Enchanter Orsino cocks his head just a little, pausing to survey her up and down. "Really? Do I?"
"They need us," Bethany says. "Or they'd have nothing to control."
And she's right, and she knows she's right by the look on the First Enchanter's face. There is such a grief there, barely restrained by time and tide. Perhaps not restrained at all, and yet—
The First Enchanter looks to Anders and Neria, and breathes out slow.
(It is hard to ignore the stark resemblance between the two elves, when they are this close to one another. The shared cloud-white hair, the shared pale-green eyes, the shared sharp-cut line of the jaw. It is hard to pretend that there is no relation, when there so obviously is. When even the magic is the same, bruised purple-black and haunting. Hex magic, for the both of them.)
"I suppose you're right," the First Enchanter says, still staring at Neria through the night. Something passes between the two elves that Bethany can't name; family, or loss, or acceptance. "We must fight this."
The First Enchanter turns stiffly from the cluster of the Hawke family, sparks scattering like stars in his wake. Every footstep leaves a glowing impression, a path to follow, tracing tracks through the dust.
"Well, that was bracing," says Marian, lips pulling away from her teeth. "That one's going to get himself in trouble, if he's not careful."
"He's the First Enchanter for the Gallows, Hawke, he's in trouble by default."
"Unfortunate, truly," the Champion says, a faint thread of distaste colouring the words. She looks down at the dwarf at her elbow, crooks an eyebrow. "He won't be First Enchanter long, Varric, I don't think the Gallows are surviving this!"
"We always knew Kirkwall was gonna explode, eventually," Varric says solemnly. He puts his hand over his heart. "Farewell, Champion, we hardly knew ye."
Marian laughs like an orange burst of citrus, bright and clear, surprisingly sweet. She bumps Varric with her hip. "Where would I do without you?"
"Beating up templars in dark alleys?"
There is old familiarity in the banter. Bethany watches the way they jostle one another, Varric and Marian, the former all elbows and knees and violence in the mouth and the latter a carefully-constructed fallacy of wild tales and arrows out of dust. It feels like family, but not a family she's a part of. Her family is the babies and Mother and Alistair, and the truth of it aches between her teeth.
Bethany hadn't been lying, before: they've all grown up.
(Andraste, but she misses Carver. Andraste, but the missing is only an echo.)
She doesn't startle when an arm cold with heavy metal curls around her waist. Alistair settles himself around her, drops his chin to the top of her head.
"This is madness, isn't it," he observes, very casual. "This is what being mad is like."
Bethany makes a little sound, a choked-off gurgle halfways between mirth and hysteria. She turns just enough that she can look up at him and finds that he has the audacity to grin at her about it.
Her husband is ridiculous.
"I think that's putting it lightly, Alistair," Bethany says, faintly. "My sister is involved."
"Your sister is always involved," he agrees, grave.
"Excuse me, I'm right here," Marian says, sour. She spares them both a look-over, sharp blue eyes cataloguing the way Alistair clings a little too close, and the way that Bethany lets him. The Champion of Kirkwall shakes her head. "We do have a job to do, if you two would like to quit getting your feelings everywhere and come join the rest of us?"
No one snaps anything back about feelings, if only because they'd all seen the desperation in the way that Marian had near thrown herself at Isabela, earlier.
Alistair grins into Bethany's hair. "D'you think we've touched a nerve?"
(It's such a little thing, a light in the dark. Oh, love.)
Bethany bites down on the smile, because it's not really the time. "Shush," she says. "The world's ending, don't you know?"
She thinks, idly, that they really are disgusting.
But it's not terrible to have one moment to breathe.
The world is ending, after all.
"—so we're gonna lie about that, right," Varric says, over the way First Enchanter Orsino helps one of the Circle mages into standing. The First Enchanter speaks fast and brutal and too low to hear, but Bethany recognizes the fervent intensity that comes from trying to save everything as can possibly be saved. "We're gonna lie our little faces off."
"Don't be outrageous, Varric," Marian says, tossing her head. "We're not lying, exactly, we're just… stretching the truth. He is going to disappear."
"I could make him a Harvester. That could be cool," Varric replies.
"Who would believe that? First Enchanter Orsino, a Harvester?" The Champion of Kirkwall pops her hip out, jerks her chin in Orsino's general direction. "Maker, look at him, he's going 'round helping people stand up. That's a creampuff, not a blood mage. How're you going to sell that?"
"Who's gonna believe any of this shit, Hawke? Honestly, who?"
"…You know, you make a good point."
Varric snickers, because he is terrible. "Exactly. So. Harvester, it is?"
"Harvester, it is."
"Isn't that a bit unnecessary?" Bethany asks. She wrinkles her face up, staring between her sister and her sister's dwarf. "It just seems—"
"Unrealistic," Alistair supplies, and doesn't much need to indicate the way that the First Enchanter is still carefully putting his Circle mages back together. They are all weary, to a one, and the carnage that surrounds them is hard to bear. His arm tightens around Bethany's shoulders, and she is painfully glad that Mother had the sense to hurry the children out of the estate and towards the relative safety of Lirene's shop in Lowtown. That place got their family through one invasion. What's another?
And Malcolm and Liana and Carina don't need to see this.
They're only children.
"Better unrealistic and alive than realistic and hunted for it," Marian flutters her eyelashes. "Now, templar—"
"You can't call me that, I'm not a templar anymore," Alistair reminds her, very cheerfully for someone covered entirely in blood and running on fumes. A ripple of disquiet rolls across the courtyard; they all forget, sometimes, that Bethany's golden love
"You're the closest thing we've got, so get it together," Marian says. "Listen. Keep Bethy out of trouble. And kill anything that tries to kill her before it manages to do the job. And if—" she stops, exhales slowly. "And if, Maker forbid, if it comes down to it, you know what I expect you to do."
Maker forbid, if it comes down to it, get her out of here.
"Hawke, you're breaking my heart," Varric says. "What about me? Do I, too, not deserve a rugged handsome templar to protect me?"
"Oh, darling, you have no idea," she laughs, but it doesn't reach her eyes, and Bethany watches the way her older sister leans down to drape herself all over Varric, the same half-despairing, half-fond quirk to her mouth that always manifests around the people she loves the most. Marian loops her arm around Varric's neck and holds on.
They may all die tonight, and even the Champion of Kirkwall knows it.
Bethany will not remember this fight, later.
She will not remember the way that Knight-Commander Meredith's eyes burn. She will not remember what it is like to worry about dying, because there will never be time to worry about dying. She will not remember leaving the Gallows. She will not remember the mad rush through that scorched white stone, nor the faces on the bodies left behind. She will not be able to recall the look on Ser Cullen's face, horror and broken-glass pain in equal measure.
She will not remember the gleam of the red lyrium.
Perhaps everything that came later would have been simpler if she could have. Perhaps the death would have been sacrament, all the pain like holy fire. But memory is an imperfect art. And fear is nothing but an exacerbation.
Linear memories do not settle, when one is afraid.
And so: Bethany will remember things in flashes, instead.
She will remember the fast panting press of Alistair's mouth to hers, the tiny prayer to the Maker that leaves him an unbidden thing. She will remember ash in the air. She will remember the hard line of her older sister's shoulders, the flash of dagger into skin, the explosion of crimson light. She will remember the solid wood of her stave beneath her fingertips. She will remember the shake of mana depletion.
She will remember the fear.
"We have to go," Alistair says. He catches her up in the rubble and the ruin of the Gallows courtyard, the giant weeping statues shattered around their feet to shining bits of bronze nothing. His gauntlets bite hard against her cheek. "Beth, love, come on, we have to go, we have to go now—"
"I know," he says. There is desperation clenched tight between his teeth. He touches her like a dying thing. "I know."
Bethany takes one, slow, long breath of air in to fortify herself, just in case. It's the last moment of clarity she'll have, and she loves him so much that it burns. She almost tips her head up to be kissed.
It's a shame. She can't quite reach.
And then they're running, and running, and running—
The aftermath is very quiet.
Isabela's ship sails out of the harbour soundless, just another oil slick on dark water. The black smear of smoke that rises from the Gallows blends into the sky, chiaroscuro over the brilliant pin-prickle of stars. The only sound is the slop of wave against hull and the quiet far-away cry of seabirds over the horizon; everyone is silent in the wake of the perpetrated violence, and Bethany's heart hasn't yet left her throat, all her knotted guts twisted gruesome.
But for the first time in half a decade, the entire extended Amell-Hawke clan is together.
The twins are boxed between Solona and Mother, the pair of them slumped over sideways in the silver-shadow splash of nighttime, the steady rise and fall of their little shoulders a painful comfort. Carver's at the prow with Fenris and Varric, his Warden armour glinting, and Bethany knows that he's going to have to leave because he was always going to leave, but her twin is here right now and she doesn't know how to ask him not to go.
Marian is with Isabela at the helm, and there's something fierce about the way that they touch one another, their hands entwined.
Bethany tucks herself into her husband's side with their son in her arms, and watches as Kirkwall burns.
"Well," Alistair says at last, blowing all the breath out of his lungs. "That was exceptionally terrible."
There's a streak of ash on his cheek. Bethany reaches up to wipe it away, lips twitching. Only Alistair. "I think that's a bit of an understatement, don't you?"
"Oh, I don't know, I do think it could have been much worse," Alistair murmurs, thoughtful. He shifts her just enough that she's pressed a little more securely into the cave of his chest, and Bethany can feel the panic that's stifled to silence there. It's in the too-fast beat of his heart, the way he clutches her just a smidge too hard. "Your sister could have decided the Knight-Commander had a point. Or we could have died!"
"But she didn't," Bethany says, gentle. "And we're fine."
"Mostly," says Alistair. In tandem they glance to the shadowed lee of the doorway down to the hold where Anders and Neria half-hide, the former hollow-eyed and quiet and the latter so fierce that the very air seems to tremble around her slim shoulders.
There is still something of the smoke and the burning to the pair of them.
(There is still some of the fear.)
"Mostly," Bethany agrees. She sets her face into the crook of his neck, exhales a hot puff of air shaky-soft into his skin.
Alistair, ever mindful of the small child tucked between them, leans down and presses his lips to her hair. "I'm very glad we didn't die."
"Me, too. I'm tired of running. We've done enough of that—didn't we leave Lothering?"
"Kirkwall. Less darkspawn, more religious madness," Alistair says very solemnly.
"That's not funny," Bethany says, but it is funny in the worst way, and she can't help the little roil of helplessly horrified laughter. Half-mindful of Malcolm in her arms, she presses her face into her husband's throat. "Alistair, stop, that's not funny!"
"It's a little funny," he says.
Unbidden, Bethany's gaze slides back to her daughters. The twins are quiet now, washed out in the leavening greys of fake dawn, shadow-shard and silver in turn with every dip of the ship into the water. Bethany stares at the pair of them for what feels like forever. Something goes tight and hot in her throat like tears or hysteria or the horrible aching loss of everything she's ever loved. Lothering, Kirkwall, the end of the world.
Here are her daughters, and they're still so young.
Malcolm makes a sleepy-baby noise, his downy dark head tucked beneath Bethany's chin.
She swallows, and it feels like dying. Maker. Bethany doesn't have to say that the only thing that matters anymore is keeping their children safe. The chill of templar steel is as threatening as it ever was; Alistair's expression is wiped briefly clean in the half-light.
The templars had been his friends, and they'd still followed the Knight-Commander.
Maker knows, it is strange coming out of the end of the world in one piece.
"So… what now?" Bethany asks, a long time later. It's said so softly that Alistair has to crane his head down towards her to catch the words. She wonders what they look like.
Two halves of a strange, melancholy whole, perhaps.
"What now," Alistair echoes, less a question than something contemplated, held softly in his mouth. He cups his hand around her cheek, so achingly gentle. "We start over, I suppose."
"How?" she wants to know.
"I dunno," he says. He brushes wild curls away from her face. He's glass all the way down to the core of him, kindness and shaking in equal measure, and she knows, all of a sudden, that he's not wrong—they're going to have to start all over again, from the beginning. The faint glow of dawn on the horizon does nothing to mute the blaze in the harbour behind them.
Here is what is left:
The sun rising. of The Amell-Hawkes, sailing way. Alistair's arms around Bethany's waist, the acrid pollutant burn of saltrime, the shiver of wind off water. A family half-asleep in the rubble.
And Kirkwall, burning.
Morning breaks across the horizon in pale pinks and golds, streaking the Waking Sea sparkling.
"Alistair, look," Bethany murmurs. "The sun."
"Maker's breath, we survived," he breathes.
She looks up at him. Alistair is soft-lit in the wash of morning light, all crooked-brittle grin and golden hair, as lovely as he'd been that first day in the Chantry when he'd stopped to pet Dog and ruined every rule she'd ever set for herself. It feels so long ago, but she's looking at him and he's looking at her, and it's the only thing that matters. She moves in close to his side, thinking about all the places that they might go. And Maker knows that there's still a hundred things to talk about: Ser Cullen, Anders, the Chantry explosion. But Bethany's mother owns half the Wounded Coast, and the worst of the night is over now. All that gold, force-magic glittering. It's over.
"Yes," Bethany smiles. Takes his hand. "We did."
notes3: vomits. leandra's gonna fight the divine, y'all. it's coming. thanks for sticking around.