disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: lmao this was supposed to my christmas 2017 present to myself. it is now february.
notes: anyway this may be… the most self-indulgent thing i have ever written.
notes2: no lie, the title comes from my brother talking about doing shrooms in a forest
notes3: amaranthine — sizzlebird.

title: in a cathedral of stars
summary: King Alistair Theirin banishes the mage rebellion from Ferelden's borders. Senior Enchanter Bethany Hawke is not entirely impressed. — Alistair/Bethany.

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The sky tears open a Tuesday.

Senior Enchanter Bethany Hawke looks up and frowns. The sudden gaping tear in the sky is green as the Fade, a screaming wrongness that makes her want to be ill from the sheer weight of it. Her chest feels tight, leaden with a lack of air. Her students all duck down, shaking, and the littlest one presses her face into Beth's robes. Lake Calenhad ripples in the corner of her vision, blue then white then sick gold-green, a perfect mirror for the sky above.

Maker's breath, they can feel it, too.

(Bad things always happen on Tuesdays; of course, this is no different.)

"Alright, that's enough for today," Bethany says as she herds them back down to the docks. The trip back to Redcliffe isn't very long when she puts her magic behind it; magic is all about willpower, and right now she's quite set on getting them somewhere safe. "Let's go home."

They go without complaint, all quiet, all wide-eyed. They trust her. Bethany's knuckles are white around her staff, and maybe she should have known. Nothing is ever easy. They push off from the dock, the slick of old magic in the lake's water rising up to meet them—

Time bends, and it starts all over again.

"I'm sorry," Bethany echoes, faint with disbelief. "You want us what?"

Today is not going well.

(At least it's not a Tuesday. Maker, she hopes it's not a Tuesday; time hasn't really been alright since Magister Alexius showed up. If it's a Tuesday, Bethany is going to laugh herself to death.)

So, no, today is not going well at all. This definitely has more to do with the fact that she has not slept in too many days than the fact that the King of Ferelden is standing in Redcliffe Castle's hall and trying to throw them out. That has absolutely nothing to do with it, really.

The Grand Enchanter's eyes flash, dark and wild, lips pressed together so hard they've turned white. And Bethany was planning to stand behind her and say nothing at all, but this is—this is something else. She cannot even believe this man. He offered peace and quiet and now he wants—but it wasn't even—they didn't have—there was nothing—even the Herald!

Well. Andraste knows that Bethany never could keep her mouth shut when it mattered most.

(She thinks of her sister, and wonders if maybe they're more alike than she thought. She rather feels like Marian would be proud of her, for this.)

"I'm sorry, your Majesty, I don't mean to interrupt, but you want us to what?" Bethany says again. "I'm not quite sure I understand."

"I want you out," says King Alistair Theirin, again. "Out of Redcliffe, out of my kingdom. I'm sorry, Grand Enchanter, but I can't have Tevinter running wild through the Hinterlands, it's just not good precedent."

"We are not Tevinter," Bethany says, sharply, vicious over the quelling look the Grand Enchanter shoots in her direction. She's glaring, actually glaring, all her teeth aching furious in her mouth, her hands clenched at her sides, nothing but wild dark curls and the frothing seethe of magic low in her stomach.

"I would argue that," the king snaps, "seeing as it was a Tevinter Magister that threw my uncle out of this city!"

"But you—" Bethany starts to snap back, has to bite down on her tongue to keep from yelling. Yelling won't help anyone; nor, she suspects, will the urge to bare her teeth at him. She has to drag in all the sharp edges of her power to still the roiling inside of her. Think of the children, she tells herself, they need you, they need a home, they need somewhere safe. Calm, Bethy, be calm. The torches along the walls pulse with her every breath, and it's this golden expansion and contraction that cools her temper.

If she's accidentally pushing magic into the fire, she's far too emotionally involved.

(She thinks of her older sister, turning through the smoke and the flames as Kirkwall burned. Bethany had fueled those fires, too, and hadn't even meant to; baby sister to the Champion, locked away in the Gallows, Bethany's whole existence has always been about being far too emotionally involved. Maybe she ought not be so surprised.)

Bethany exhales, very slowly.

"Pardon me, Your Majesty, Lady Herald," Bethany says, soft. Oh, Andraste, she hopes she hasn't made this worse. "It seems I'm too close to this. You'll have to excuse me."

Every step feels like a hundred. But Redcliffe castle isn't a maze, and for all that her mind runs circles and the guards eye her warily while she fumbles her way back out, by the time Bethany makes out into the Hinterlands later autumn sun, she's started hissing remonstrations at herself. You behaved like a wild animal, she scolds. What if you've ruined everything? What if the Herald lets the King throw us out? What is wrong with you?!

Bethany has no answers. Maybe there aren't any; emotions, after all, aren't rational things.

By the time she makes it back to the village, the sun is sinking crimson beyond the horizon, and the twin moons are pale crescents in the darkening sky. The Gull and Lantern is lit from within, and despite herself, Bethany can feel the muscles in her back unknotting. There is comfort in the familiar, and Redcliffe's tavern is nothing if not familiar.

Bethany slips inside, and relaxes further as the din of voices laps over her. The clunk of tankard against table, the pop of burning wood in a hearth, someone playing cards in the corner for a meagre glinting pile of coins.

Andraste, if Bethany closes her eyes, she could almost be back in the Hanged Man.

But it's the little things that make it real. She knows the names of the people milling about, and no one in the Hanged Man would ever have the desire to argue about various methods of stave-making the way two girls in the corner are. There's a group of children half-asleep by the fire, minded by a Tranquil man who seems to be boring them to rest, and the Hanged Man never could have housed this many on-edge mages without burning down. It could barely handle her sister and her sister's friends on a good day, never mind four dozen separate people who have the ability to set things on fire with their minds.

Living in the past is going to be the death of her, Bethany thinks, and she's got to stop doing it.

She goes to find Petra and Kenan, and tries.

It goes about as well as Bethany had expected it would.

Which is to say not well at all, and when even Connor starts smiling sympathetically at her, Bethany decides that she's better off just going to wait for the Grand Enchanter to get back. She's in no mood to socialize, and certainly not about to be poked fun at.

Bethany doesn't want to offend her friends more than she already has.

She pretends not to notice when Linnea breaks from whatever she'd been doing with Lysas to follow her to the back rooms. Bethany thinks of freedom and kingdoms falling into the sea, and knows that if anyone understands her anxiety about where they're to head next, it is Linnea.

The Free Marches have never been very kind to their mages, and their Circles even less so. Old fear fizzes on Bethany's tongue.

"What happened?" Linnea asks, when they're finally out of earshot.

"I don't know," Bethany says.

Linnea scoffs dully, like somehow, she's not surprised. The Grand Enchanter's rooms are small, but they're clean, and there's a round table stacked with old magical tomes to sit at. The two women settle there, and without a word passed between them, silently agree to wait for Grand Enchanter Fiona to get back.

They don't have to wait long.

Night falls in full outside the window, the ink-dark swallowing Redcliffe up, and the Grand Enchanter pushes into the room.

She's a slim elven woman, the Grand Enchanter, ink-haired and dark-eyed, pale as snow. It always strikes Bethany how small she is, how strange that such a wild, powerful magic is housed in such a slight body. The Grand Enchanter is a Spirit Healer, the strongest in a generation, and here she is pulling her hood down in this filthy Redcliffe tavern like she belongs here.

She doesn't say a word to either Bethany or Linnea as she hangs her cloak on the hook on the back of the door. Grand Enchanter Fiona looks very old, dark hair brushed away from her face, and the lines around her eyes seem very deep. She sits with the kind of grace that only responsibility for many lives bestows, and takes a long drink from the goblet on the table. Bethany and Linnea glance nervously at one another, faces lit with worry and firelight. The flickering shadows stretch them unreal.

"Grand Enchanter…?" Bethany starts.

Grand Enchanter Fiona holds up a finger, and all of Bethany's words die gruesome in her throat.

Oh, Andraste, what's happened?

"That—could 'ave been worse," the Grand Enchanter says, at last, after she's drained the goblet and set it back down. The woman's voice is rough, the kind of over-used that comes from speaking far too much for far too long. "The Inquisition 'as offered us an alliance. We will go to 'Aven, and we will close the Breach."

"I'm sorry, Grand Enchanter," Bethany manages. The behaviour from earlier rises in her minds eye, and she feels sick with herself. She'd been so awful. What on the Maker's green earth had gotten into her? "I hope I didn't—"

The Grand Enchanter laughs, low and hoarse, and a shudder of relief goes through the room. Grand Enchanter Fiona only laughs when all is not lost. "You only said what I wished I could 'ave. The King is… not what I expected."

"And the Herald?" says Linnea. "What of her?"

"She is not what I expected, either," the Grand Enchanter chuckles dryly. She closes her eyes and shakes her head. "She is Dalish. Very young, but unafraid. I would not trust 'er, but it seems we 'ave little choice in the matter. The Inquisition is our only 'ope, now. We cannot stay in Redcliffe."

"When do we leave?" Bethany asks, into the hush that follows the Grand Enchanter's words. The fire pops so loudly.

"As soon as we are able," the Grand Enchanter says. Her eyes are black in the glow from the hearth, swallowing down all light. The Fade seems to spark around her, hiss and spit, and it ends any question that might have been asked further. Even Linnea looks loathe to press the subject. For all that they're still here, Redcliffe is behind them; the Mage Rebellion belongs here no longer. The Inquisition looms ahead, and Grand Enchanter Fiona stares that future full in the face unbent, unbowed, unbroken.

Here is the woman who killed the Circles, Bethany thinks, and shivers her quiet acceptance.

The journey to Haven is an ugly one. Some five hundred-odd mages, loaded into carts and on onto horses and packed all together every which way tight as sardines in a tin, struggling through Ferelden's wild places. The roads between Redcliffe and Haven are pockmarked all over, and the little ones have the most difficult time of it. The mage rebellion is not much of a mage rebellion like this—they are tired, and hungry, and cold, and losing people every single day.

But Haven is only twelve days travel, and Redcliffe is still bitter ash in Bethany's mouth. She hikes her pack higher on her shoulder, renews her grip on Ava's hand. Most of her charges are asleep in one of the wagons, sprawled all over one another as they're prone to, but Ava hasn't been sleeping these last few nights, and the girl's always been a little clingier than the others. Bethany doesn't begrudge the girl her fear; being forced to leave the way they have been is an acrid burn in the back of Bethany's throat, too.

And there's something very chest-hollowing about the long line of people, a parade of empty eyes and empty hands, that she can't quite put her finger on.

Bethany thinks of Ferelden's king, the hard line of his mouth, and has to wonder if he knows what it's like to lose a home.

She can't imagine that he does.

He is a king, after all.

(She doesn't think about all the rumours she's heard since leaving the Gallows. Wardens can't be kings, and neither can bastards be. The world hasn't gone that man, Bethany can't believe it. The sky tearing open and dumping demons on all their collective heads? Fine. But an ex-templar ex-Warden bastard alone on Ferelden's throne? That's too far-fetched.)

It takes them a week to get settled.

Bethany isn't sure what to expect from the little village where the Herald of Andraste has stationed the fledgling Inquisition. She expects templars, and there are, but fewer than she thought there would be. She expects Sisters and Mothers, and again, there are, but again, fewer than she thought. She expects a fortress, although she has no idea why she expects this. She expects to be overrun with demons, this close to the Breach, but mostly what she finds is a little town that's stretched to the very limits of its capacity with the sudden influx of mages. The people are kind, or at the very least, they don't sneer in her face the way sometimes people do when they realize she's a mage.

Bethany attributes this to the fact that the Herald herself is a mage, and Haven's populous loves the Herald like they love very little else. Haven is cold and Haven is sunny, but Bethany thinks, very secretly, that it could be so much worse.

However, of all the things she expected, the last thing she expects of it is to find an old friend among the mountains. The very last thing she expects, in fact, is to find her sister's oldest, best friend. The dwarf is muttering darkly by a fire, huddling in his coat with his crossbow over his shoulder, and for a long moment, Bethany just stares at him, unbelieving of her own eyes.

She can't help it.

Bethany bursts into tears.

"Varric," she gulps around a sob. "Oh, Varric."

"Aw, c'mere, sunshine, it's not so bad," Varric says, gentle, and Bethany drops down to wrap her arms around his neck, this solid old friend of hers who's seen her through the thick and thin, near as much a parent as her own parents had ever been. Moreso, in some ways; Varric has lines around his eyes, and he'd been there that last night in the Gallows when the whole world had caught fire.

And now they're here, together again. The only things missing are everyone else.

It feels like family in the worst possible way.

Bethany sniffs into Varric's collar.

"You alright, kid?"

"Yes," she says, wiping the beginnings of tears away. It's been three years, and she's far too old to cry about something like this. "It's good to see you."

"You, too, sunshine," he says, and he grins like an old photograph, sepia around the edges. Bethany remembers long rainy winter nights in front of the fire in the Hanged Man, rain tapping on the shutters, warm air and warm ale to keep the shivers away. "You heard from Hawke, recently?"

Bethany pushes her curls out of her face and nods. "Every two weeks, like clockwork. That's Marian for you, though."

"Might wanna keep that one quiet, sunshine," Varric says, steady and strangely quiet. His gaze flicks over her shoulder to the Haven barrier doors, closed for now but echoing with the faint ringing of steel against steel. "The Seeker's still out for blood."

"She kidnapped you, Varric!"

"And I'm concerned she might kidnap you, too. So, we're gonna keep that between us because I don't need to be worrying about you on top of our Lady Herald, sunshine. I'm too old for this shit."

"Yeah, of course," Bethany says. She nudges him a little, this old friend of hers, and she smiles. "You curmudgeon, you. If you're not careful, I'm going to start to think you care!"

"So, the Hawke bite is hereditary, huh? I'm gonna cry, Hawke's gonna be so proud, you definitely are related to her, sunshine! And they let you teach children with that mouth?"

"Oh, shut up, that's not funny," she laughs.

It's strange, how easy it is to feel normal here in this frozen wasteland. The Frostback mountains rise all around them, sunlight refracting golden off the snow, and Bethany lets Varric have his moment to poke fun. Redcliffe is behind her, behind all of them

"You should probably know, sunshine. Curly's here."

"…Curly?"

"Cullen," Varric says.

The sound Bethany makes is—not entirely human, perhaps. It's a brittle sharp intake of breath, wheezed out through the teeth and mangled with fresh coppery blood and old coppery dirt, the same colours that she'd learned early on to associate with fear and templars. The Gallows came later, those hallowed white marble halls and their giant bronze statues with their faces hidden in their chains. But the templars had remained that acrid dirty red wash in Bethany's mind always, whether they'd been hunters or jailors, and that's what she thinks of, now.

The Knight-Captain had been no different. He'd just been a little bit younger than the rest.

"Sunshine?" Varric asks, very quietly. "You okay?"

"Yes," Bethany says, even though she isn't. She isn't okay at all, in any sense of the word. Every single alarm in her head has suddenly gone off, all of her safety bells shrieking a raucous clang inside of her skull, and her magic—Andraste, her magic. It's fit to burn through the entire world, leave nothing behind but ash and salted fields.

Bethany decides that she needs to go find her class.

She needs to go find her class, right now.

"You don't need to panic. Last I checked, he's not running around stabbing people," Varric soothes. "I'm not gonna say he's reformed, I ain't that stupid, but the Seeker's got him on a leash."

"There are children here, Varric," Bethany says. Her voice cracks. "Mage children."

"I know," he says, and it's the heaviness that he looks at her with that finally calms her down. It's somber all the way down to the bones, because Varric had been there in the Gallows, too. He'd seen the piles of bodies. "I know, sunshine. I know."

Bethany closes her eyes for a second longer than a standard blink.

Twenty-seven dead children.

"I need to go find my class, Varric," she says. "I need to—"

"Breathe," Varric says, gentle, reaching up to clasp her arm into stillness. "Don't freak out, no one's gonna touch 'em. They're safe, Curly's got eyes on him."

She doesn't ask why Ser Cullen is allowed a nickname. The only person Varric didn't nickname was her older sister, and that was because Marian was too big for nicknames. Is too big for nicknames.

Andraste, Bethany's chest aches.

"Thank you for warning me," she exhales, shakily. Varric's face is so awfully kind, lit up golden in Haven's cold sunlight, and Bethany knows, suddenly, that he's absolutely terrified for her. And she can't blame him—if she'd come upon Ser Cullen unaware, there's no telling how it would have gone.

"Anytime, sunshine," he says. "Try not to kill him, okay? Nightingale would have my head."

Bethany laughs, the sound a little watery. She's not about to cry, but—

Well.

She does need to find her class.

Bethany pulls her robs tighter around her frame, hiding behind the dark brown fall of her curls. She tucks into herself, the snow crunching beneath her boots as she waves goodbye to her older sister's oldest friend, and loses herself in the rush and tumble of Haven's merchants. Laughter seems to echo off the mountains, the faint strains of the Chant twined through the air and the hawking of wares, and if not for the way the cold splinters through her, Bethany would almost think she was walking through Lowtown. It's been a decade, but Kirkwall still lingers.

She hurries. The mage rebellion's been crammed into every available space, half housed in the empty rooms below the Chantry and the rest scattered among the village's cottages. But the tavern houses the littlest ones, so small that it's easy to pack them all in together like sardines, and so this is where Bethany heads.

The Breach overhead pulls at her, the wound in the Veil like a living thing.

Escaping its sick green gaze into the tavern is a nearly-painful relief. Bethany ducks down—

"Beth!"

And just like that, she's nearly bowled over, laughing above the strum of lute strings and the sudden explosion of noise, a million questions layered over one another, where have you been and were you doing anything interesting and, softer, are we safe. They blend together, little hands and little eyes in little faces, and this is how Bethany finds herself looking down at her charges.

She has to smile. Bethany looks to Linnea, across the tavern; when one of them is off doing something, the other tends to pick up the slack, but Linnea doesn't have as much patience with the little ones' questions as Bethany herself does.

You owe me for this, Linnea telegraphs with her eyebrows, and Bethany only manages a smile before the children pull her attention away.

One question rises above the rest. Micah, Bethany thinks. "Can we go outside, now?! Enchanter Linnea said not until you got back, but you're 'ere now! Can we, Beth? Please?"

"Well," Bethany says, crooking an eyebrow down at them. She counts heads: ten of them, one and all, thank the Maker. Her breath comes a little easier. "If that's what she said, I suppose we must ask her. May I take them outside, Enchanter Linnea?"

All ten of them swivel to stare at Linnea as one. Bethany only barely manages to gulp the mirth. Children can be so single-minded when they want something, mage children especially so, because comparatively, they've had so little.

"They're your class," Linnea pinches the bridge of her nose. Oh, Bethany's going to owe her something huge for this. The woman's patience is clearly worn through. "Do what you like!"

"Coats and boots," Bethany reminds them as her class cheers. "It's cold out there."

They all grumble, but go to do as she bids. While they struggle, Bethany slips to Linnea's side. "I'm sorry, I hope they weren't too terrible."

"You spoil them too much," Linnea says, her mouth twisted sour.

"Someone should," Bethany returns, and she knows that Linnea will have no reply for that, because it's something all of the adults agree upon: someone should spoil the children a little, when they've had so little of it. Being on the run hasn't been easy for anyone, but the babies most of all. It's just that they don't understand. "And you certainly don't."

Linnea huffs. "Next time the Grand Enchanter wants help with night duty, you get to do it."

"That's fair," Bethany smiles, eyes crinkling, and bends to kiss Linnea's cheek. "Thank you for taking them, I know they can be a handful."

"Oh, go away, flattery doesn't work on me," Linnea sniffs, even as she looks pleased. "You heard me, shoo!"

And so Bethany herds the children outside, laughing all the while. Ava clings to her skirt while the others rush ahead into Haven's brilliant daylight, pushing and shoving and—when they're truly set on bothering one another—shocking each other, cackling and running and tripping, all of them so brightly alive.

It's easy to get caught up in it, in what life should be like.

Bethany doesn't realize that they've wandered close to the training grounds until she raises her eyes and finds herself locking eyes with someone who, despite all warnings, she'd hoped to never see again. The breath goes out of her lungs like someone's punched her in the gut.

Oh, Maker, Maker, what is—why is—who allowed—?

"Ser Cullen," Bethany says, stiff. She has to force herself not to shove Micah behind her. He's so small and vulnerable, and—and the last time Bethany had seen the man standing in front of her, he'd been helping to carry small bodies out of the Gallows. Twenty-seven apprentices died in the Annulment because the templars had gone there first, gone straight to where they knew the children would be, and they'd been his templars, his men, and how can he—how can he stand there like there's not innocent blood all over his hands?! Varric had told her that he'd be about, had warned her, but how can he be allowed, when—when

"Miss Hawke," he says.

"Enchanter Hawke," Bethany says, and her voice is so cold she might as well be breathing icicles.

Her staff is slung across her back, her magic hisses in her chest like bubbling oil, and it is in this moment that Bethany realizes that she wishes Marian had killed this man when she'd had the chance. It would have quieted the dragon snarling in her heart, at the very least. It would have kept every child in Bethany's care that much safer. It would have put one more nightmare to bed.

Sometimes, Bethany curses her sister for having so little forethought.

"Excuse me," she says, before he can get another word in edgewise. An apology, or a peace offering; it doesn't matter. If she has to hear him say one more word, she might very well scream. "I need to find the Grand Enchanter."

And Bethany turns on her heel, slow and graceful as a line of music, and herds her babies away.

But things don't get better from there.

Commander, they call him, but Bethany watches through narrowed eyes as he trains the recruits to hold their shields the way templars do, listens to him raging about the gall of the mage rebellion for wanting the templars kept away from them, clenches her fists every time she finds out that his first response to anything is to hit it harder. Her magic sits like a monster in her chest, dragon-fire hot, dragon-fire destructive, and oh, Maker, she could. She could.

She itches to reach for her staff and burn every single one of the helmeted murderers to ash.

But she doesn't, of course.

There will be no one to protect the little ones when the Commander—Andraste, she spits the word even in her own mind—decides that he's had more than enough of this mage freedom nonsense.

And Bethany can't allow for it.

But she also knows that the rebellion needs the alliance, and that she's not helping it.

And so after the hole in the sky has been closed, and they've struggled through a blizzard after losing Haven, after having found an ancient, forgotten castle and their Lady Herald is crowned Inquisitor in front of the Inquisition entire:

"I'm sorry, Your Ladyship," Bethany says.

The Inquisitor sighs. She's a slim blonde elven woman, green-eyed and inked over with Dalish vallaslin to the goddess Mythal. Her name is Ellana, and she's nothing like Merrill at all, but the memory of Bethany's friend still aches. Some days Bethany misses Kirkwall more than others; today is one of those days.

"Please," the Inquisitor says, softly. "I can't stand the fighting, and I don't want to send you away. They listen to you."

Only because I'm the Champion's sister, Bethany thinks. She flexes her hands, force-gold sparks around the knuckles. She doesn't heal anymore, and it's better that way. Only because there's no one else.

"I don't know if I can," Bethany says, and hates herself as the Inquisitor's shoulders slump.

The two mage women stare at each other across the war table in the sunlight through the windows, and it doesn't take a Fade scholar to know that this is the hill they both die upon. The Inquisitor needs her Commander to keep her templars in line. Enchanter Hawke needs to never see that self-same Commander ever again. Those two needs are inherently counter to one another, and Bethany can't keep herself to herself so long as there are mage children around. The wounds are still too fresh, and she's still too angry. It's not antagonism that she has any control over.

There are some things no person can forgive.

And for Bethany, twenty-seven dead children is one of those unforgiveable things.

(Frankly, for most people, it ought to be.)

"Can you try?" the Inquisitor asks.

"I have been," Bethany says. "That's the problem."

The Inquisitor sighs out something heavy through her nose. Bethany can't imagine what's weighing on this woman—Maker, girl, she's still hardly anything but a girl, hardly older than Bethany herself had been when she'd gone to the Gallows—but it ages her a hundred years. They regard each other for what feels like a long time; Inquisitor and Enchanter, elf and human, mage and mage.

"I—" the Inquisitor breaks off. "I may have something. A possibility. It would get you out of Skyhold, at the very least."

"I'm all ears," Bethany says.

"Terrible joke, we really are going to have to do some sensitivity training," the Inquisitor snips, and Bethany thinks that it's no wonder Varric gets along so well, here. That's exactly his type of humour. "How do you feel about Ferelden?"

Bethany blinks. Ferelden had been home, once.

But she doesn't say that.

"Not awful," Bethany says, cautious. "I grew up in Lothering."

(Well, really, she grew up a lot of places, but Lothering lasted the longest, and all of those places were in Ferelden, anyway. And abandoned homes aren't something Bethany really wants to dwell on; it just makes her think of Carver, and thinking about Carver always makes her want to cry. Always does make her cry. Andraste, now is not the time.)

"Good," the Inquisitor says. Something goes easy in her face, crystallized relief. "I'm sending you to Denerim, as the Inquisition's liaison to the crown."

"To Ferelden's crown," Bethany says, flat. "As in, the crown that just threw us out of Redcliffe. As in, the crown that I insulted, to his face. That crown."

"It's that, or I have to send you to Tevinter. We need eyes on the Venatori, and if King Alistair ends up blood-thralled…" the Inquisitor trails off, lets the thought dangle long enough that Bethany really has time to think about it. The Inquisition survives only on the grace of the fact that no one else is doing anything. If Ferelden's crown suddenly decides that they're no longer welcome…

Well, that's not good, Bethany reflects. We'll have to move the children again.

And moving the children again is the last thing she wants. She thinks of little Ava clinging so close, and Micah with fire crackling in his palms, and Jakob's wide all-seeing eyes. They're safe in Skyhold, but if Bethany stays here and keeps fighting with Ser Cullen, they might not be. The thought ties her guts up into knots, shame and sickness in equal measure.

And yes, the King of Ferelden threw them out, but that was never personal. It wasn't what Bethany would have done, but it wasn't the end of the world, and now, at the very least, the Grand Enchanter still has some political sway. The alliance with the Inquisition is more than Bethany could have asked for; her little ones are going to be alright.

Bethany takes a long, slow, steadying breath.

"Yes, Your Ladyship," she says. "I think I can do that. I do have a talent for picking out blood mages from a crowd."

"I thought you might," the Inquisitor says. She looks as old as Bethany feels. "I'm sorry, Enchanter Hawke."

"Don't be," Bethany murmurs. Smiles. "At least this way I'll have a chance to say goodbye. Thank you, Inquisitor."

The Inquisitor nods, and that's as good a dismissal as Bethany has ever seen. She slips from the war room without another word, but it's alright because the Inquisitor has already turned back to the maps laid out on the table, and Bethany thinks that the only other person she's ever seen carrying that kind of world-weight is her sister on a bad day. Champion Marian Hawke and Inquisitor Ellana Lavellan have next to nothing in common, but the way they carry the world is the same.

Heroes, Bethany thinks, very sadly, have it harder than anyone.

And so she makes her way out of Skyhold's inner sanctum, out into the sunshine on the battlements and around and up, into the mage tower. Already she can hear Linnea sniping about the templars, Enchanter Ellendra scolding her for it, Petra and Kinnon talking quietly as they weave magic. Bethany thinks her little ones might be with Lysas, or maybe Rion if Rion's back from whatever odd thing he's been sent out to hunt. Skyhold's mage tower is a comfortable place, full of old books and plenty of people always ready to help tackle a problem. There's no one watching, just other mages, all of the brilliant bright people that Bethany respects the most. It's going to be difficult to desert them here, her students and her teachers and her friends.

If the Circles had been something like this, maybe they wouldn't have been so terrible.

Or maybe they would have, regardless.

Locking people up generally isn't a good way to go, Bethany's found. Andraste, she's going to have to tell the Grand Enchanter what's going on. She's going to have to tell the Grand Enchanter that she's leaving.

Bethany knows that of all people, Fiona might be really the only one who understands why she can't stay. She thinks of Ser Cullen, and Kirkwall, and the cool blue stone of the Gallows at night.

She shivers, and has to quash the old fear down.

Skyhold isn't the Gallows. Skyhold isn't anywhere but Skyhold.

"Has anyone seen my class?" Bethany calls, voice bouncing up the tower, echoing back in on itself: has anyone seen my class, anyone my class, my class. She knows already that she'll get a garbled cacophony of noise in reply, but that kind of noise had never been allowed the Gallows, and she revels in it, now, in the way that there's suddenly fifteen separate Enchanters all shouting at once and not worried that they might catch the templars' ire for it.

It's different and it's good and Bethany knows she's going to miss it so much that it aches behind the ribs.

But she has to go.

And clearly Ava and Micah and the rest aren't here, because they'd have come barreling into her midsection the way they're prone to when she's been out of sight for a bit. It closes around her throat tight as a vice, and she might never breathe again.

Maybe she shouldn't say goodbye, after all—

But no. Bethany shakes her head, sharp and disappointed in herself. Disappearing without a goodbye is her older sister's hallmark, and if she hated it as a teenager, when she'd still had her twin and both of her parents, Bethany can't imagine how bad that would be for gaggle of six-year-olds who haven't anyone else.

They'd never forgive her, and they'd be right for it.

Bethany bites down the emotions churning in her stomach like a storm, and leaves the mage tower for maybe the last time to go to find her baby mages in the sunlight.

Denerim isn't as grey as Bethany had feared.

It isn't much like anything she'd ever heard about it at all, actually; it's a city of cobbled stone and solid wooden docks, ships with billowing white sails bobbing just beyond the horizon on the endless salty blue of the Amaranthine Ocean, a wide marketplace full of canvased tents where merchants hawk their wares in the open air. The River Drakon is a stench rancid to high heaven, but even from the bridge Bethany can see the curling leaves of a vhenadahl. It's nearing the end of summer, and there are little shoots of greenery growing up out of the cracks between the stones at the edge of the street where no one walks.

It's… not terrible, actually.

But Bethany keeps the hood of her travelling cloak up; it's safer, for all that one of Sister Nightingale's agents hovers at her side, steel flashing on the woman's hip. They're two women alone, and while they are both deadly—Inquisition-sanctioned witch and Inquisition-allied assassin, as they are—it's still not entirely a spectacular idea to draw attention unless they absolutely have to.

Bethany's never played at being a lady before. It comes easier than she'd expected it to.

(She determinedly does not think about the fact that in another life, this might have been the norm. She'd turned herself into the templars while Marian was down in the dark, and at the time, it had seemed like the right decision. Carver was dead. Bethany was tired. If she thinks about all the possibilities and all the lost freedoms, she thinks she might start to cry.)

"Not much farther, my lady," Broker murmurs.

"You can call me Bethany, you know," Bethany says, even though she knows this is a lost argument. They've travelled together for nearly a fortnight, and not once has Leliana's agent been anything but coolly detached. It's a coping mechanism, Bethany's sure of it, but it's rather a lonely one.

"I know," the elf girl says, puts a finger to grinning lips. Her accent is implacable. Her hair is mouse brown, just a shade darker than her skin. Bethany doesn't think she's ever seen a more forgettable person in her life, and she knows, without question, that Broker puts that fact to good use. "But Nightingale would kill me if I did. C'mon, then, the palace is this way."

Bethany and Broker slip into Denerim's Noble District like they belong there, and not one of the guards spare them a passing glance. Idiots, Bethany hears her older sister whisper in her ear. I could rob them blind and they'd never know what hit them.

Almost like she's heard what's going through Bethany's head, Broker grimaces. They're here to keep Ferelden's king alive, and to find the city guards so lax is… not encouraging. Broken clucks to their horses, nudging them inexorably forward.

And so, it's to the clop-clop of hooves against stone that Bethany first sets eyes on Denerim's Imperial Palace. She stops for a moment, stares upwards. It's nothing like Skyhold. It's nothing like any other castle Bethany's ever seen, but that's not a good thing.

"It's falling apart," Bethany says, half-horrified, half-awed.

"They rebuilt the rest of the city first," Broker says, and it's a good thing she insisted on keeping the horses on a line, else Bethany might turn 'round right now and go back to Skyhold, Commander Cullen or not. "Aren't you a Force mage?"

"I am, but I'm good at breaking things, not building them," Bethany mutters.

Broker snickers and clucks to the horses again.

They move forwards, and the Noble District swallows them up. Denerim's market's small squat buildings give way to sweeping arches and tall walls, the willow-thin branches of well-groomed trees. There's something of the occupation still here, in the odd Orlesian touches that aren't too overtly Orlesian: gilt doorways with the gilt ripped off, decorative shrubberies cut down to nothing, a pot of cerise-gold roses growing just out of sight and scenting the air. Bethany's never been to Val Royeaux, but it makes her think of Marian's stories of the Orlesian capital, and it causes an ache deep in her chest, hidden just behind her heart. Denerim hadn't been the capital, during the occupation. That honour had gone to Amaranthine, and that city has been better for it, but—

Denerim has the air of a city trying to make up for the slight, like an oft-forgotten second child.

Carver would have liked it here, Bethany thinks, a little wry, a little sad.

(It only hurts a little, anymore. Just a little.)

"How long are you staying here?" Bethany finds herself asking, mostly for wont of something to say. There's something of Lothering to Denerim, though she can't put her finger on exactly what it is. Might be something in the air, but it chases the words out of her throat before she can stop them.

"Only 'til the King greets you, mum," Broker says. "Sister Nightingale wants me back soon as I can be."

"That might be days?" Bethany says. She can't imagine that the King doesn't have better things to do than greet some random witch, even if she is an Inquisition witch. An Inquisition witch dressed as a noble lady, she reminds herself, shifts beneath the gifted finery. Her robes are all packed away with her stave and her books. Bethany sees the logic of passing as a noblewoman, but that doesn't mean she's comfortable with it.

Broker laughs, teeth flashing. "No, I don't think it will be."

Bethany's about to prod further, but just then, they come to the palace gates, and she has more immediate things to think about. Her fingers go tight about the reins as they pass through into the courtyard.

"Smile," Broker murmurs. "You're Inquisition, my lady. Act like it. I'll be right back."

Bethany straightens her spine, and smiles.

Broker slides down from her horse, the pale green of her hood obscuring her face but not the shine of steel, and she leads their horses further into the courtyard. No one must have sent word, because as Bethany watches, her guide exchanges a quiet word with a footman in royal livery, and the colour drains out of his face. He takes off at a dead sprint, and Broker swings herself back 'round to Bethany, reaches out a hand to help her down.

"Should only be a minute," Broker says, cheerful as anything.

"I see why Lady Nightingale sent you," Bethany's lips curl up into a smile. Broker reminds her of Isabela, and a little flare of affection roils through her stomach. "That was very efficient. I didn't know a person could turn that colour without dying, honestly."

"I live to serve," Broker dips into a bow with an exaggerated flourish. She straightens a flat second before the footman in livery comes scrambling back, and it's to a noblewoman and her dangerous elven bodyguard with smooth ivory faces that he returns.

"My—Lady Hawke, please, forgive us, we didn't expect you for another week at least," the man pants. "His Majesty only just informed us of your arrival—"

"Is there a room where my lady may rest?" Broker cuts in. "It has been a long journey."

Bethany notes the change in accent, but doesn't comment. Broker is as much a shapeshifter as she is a bodyguard, and if Bethany hadn't heard her speak without the educated lilt not two minutes previous, she might have thought that this was what the girl had always sounded like. It's very likely that the rough Ferelden cadence she'd spoken to Bethany in this whole trip is just as much as mask as the noble Marcher accent she adopts now.

When the man in livery turns away, babbling something about drawing a bath, Broker has the gall to break character and covertly wink at Bethany.

Shapeshifter, indeed.

They're led into the palace without further ado. Denerim's palace is a raucous mess of elven maids hurrying every which way and mabari braying and bored-looking guards trying very hard to look like they're not slacking off. Bethany counts the tapestries on the walls, counts the turns they take, counts the steps it takes to get back outside. She counts the hot breaths in and out, the pulses of her magic, the pulses of her heart.

Counting. She's always done it, and it saved her life in the Gallows more than once; simply knowing how many steps it took to get back to her rooms after the lights were long supposed to be out was a benediction when the templars came on their rounds. This is a different castle and a different set of rules, but Bethany doesn't see a reason to stop the habit, now.

The footman leads them deeper into the castle, up two flights and stairs and into what must be the least-damaged area there is. Guest wing, then, Bethany thinks, biting down on her lip. She's slept in worse places, that's for sure, but there's something about these low dark ceilings that give her the willies.

It's a place where nothing ought to grow, that's the problem.

"His Majesty will see you whenever you're ready, my lady."

Broker only stays long enough to see Bethany through a bath and the acquisition of new dress. After both those things have been sorted, she tips Bethany a cheeky grin and an irreverent salute, and then she disappears out the door like she'd never been.

(The hot water is welcome. The dress, less so, and Broker's absence least of all. There's nothing familiar here, left.)

"Never again," Bethany finds herself muttering, wet hair braided out of her face as she struggles to fumble her way through the dress's fastenings. She thinks that this is precisely why noble girls have maids—this dress is the origin of darkspawn itself, it must be—because she can't reach the back, and the stupid thing doesn't fit right. What's the point of dresses, anyway? What's the point of frivolous pretty things, when they just get ripped and torn and burned to bits by an impatient mage with fire magic?

Oh, yes, saving the King of Ferelden from his stupid self. That's why she's here, and not back in Skyhold looking after a gaggle of excitable children through the most formative years of their lives.

Bethany aches deep in her chest. Andraste's pyre, but she misses them.

Denerim's Imperial Palace is a maze. None of the corridors make any sense, Bethany finds; she wanders through them with an increasing sense of apprehension, frost creeping along her ankles in the trail of her shadow. Leaving a strange mage girl to her own devices was likely not in the Crown's plan, but Bethany gets the sense that very little is in the Crown's plan.

Bethany finds the throne room on her own, and is the tiniest bit pleased with herself.

Or at least, she would be, except that there's no one on the throne.

"Um," she calls into the empty throne room. "Hello?"

This is not incredible precedent, Bethany thinks, and, in all honestly, it really isn't. The throne room is a cold stone affair, a plain dais and the throne itself, an owl carved of bleached-out bone of some ancient creature. It's all very Fereldan, somehow, oddly rustic, oddly wild. She stares at it for a quiet minute, imagining the place lit up gold as honey wine and full of people laughing, during Satinalia.

Satinalia is a long way away, yet. She likely won't be here then—she's here for the Venatori, after all, for blood and cultists and keeping the peace. And there's still a hole in the sky. It's not really a year for celebration.

The image, dancing and all, fades and Bethany is left in the empty throne room feeling very cold and very alone.

She shivers, and turns just in time to catch sight of a familiar figure walking through the door. Recognition is bitter as ashes in her mouth, and everything inside of her turns still and silent. Because Bethany knows that gait, knows the sharp cut of the shoulders, knows even the line of the knows. She doesn't know anything about him, but here and now in this cold stone hall, she knows him all the same.

(It's a strange and terrible thing, being haunted by a man she hardly knows. Redcliffe Castle seems to hum along her bones, such a sordid magic. Broken time, and all its' foibles.)

"Hello," says Bethany, because she has a death wish.

"…I'm sorry, what are you doing in here?"

"Waiting for the King," she says, simply, because that is exactly what she's doing. She's waiting for the King, and waiting for him to recognize her, and waiting for the other shoe to drop—

Oh, she thinks, as a light flickers to life in his eyes. There it is.

Realization.

"Are you—wait, are you the—Inquisition? No one told me you were here," the man says, staring at her, mouth slightly open. Bethany has to smile a little as the whole thing dawns on him, but it's not a nice smile. "But it's—you, you were at the—and they didn't—why doesn't anyone ever tell me anything?!"

Probably because of exactly this, Bethany thinks but doesn't say. She knows who this man is, though the memory is blurry and layered over with a thin red film precisely the colour of hot mortal fury. She has no business wandering around his castle, but here she is.

"My apologies," he says, straightening. "I'm—I am King Alistair Theirin, and I've been a terrible host already. Welcome to Denerim."

Bethany blinks at him for a solid minute.

He's less infuriating than she remembers, but that might just be because she'd been so angry in Redcliffe Castle that it had bled over onto everything else. He's wearing a maroon-coloured doublet and dark breeches, which is oddly understated attire for a monarch. There are blue-violet smudges beneath his eyes, peeping violets of exhaustion sprouted up from his face, and in combination with the tired downturn to his mouth, he looks like someone who hasn't slept in a hundred years and maybe hasn't smiled in a hundred years more.

"Your Majesty," Bethany says, pulling into a graceful, practised curtsy. "Enchanter Bethany Hawke, at your service. The Inquisition sends its regards."

"Hawke?" the king says, sharply.

She can't really blame him for focusing on it. The Champion of Kirkwall casts a long shadow; her sister helped spark the war that's landed them here, after all. Marian Hawke disappeared into the sunset over the ocean, and no one's heard from her, since. But her shadow swallows up the world, and now that she's gone, it's more apparent than ever. Bethany wouldn't be surprised if most of the reason the Grand Enchanter decided to trust her isn't her relation to her older sister, but it is what it is. Marian Hawke is gone, and Kirkwall is gone, and Bethany is what is left. And she's not stupid enough to gamble away this momentary upper hand.

"Yes," Bethany says, simply. "Hawke."

"You wouldn't happen to be related to…?"

"She's my sister," Bethany smiles, and watches as things click into place for him the way they always do when a person realizes that the Champion of Kirkwall has a mage for a baby sister, and she's standing right in front of them.

She started a war for me, Bethany doesn't say. She doesn't need to.

The colour has leached from the King of Ferelden's face, turned him ashen as dead embers. "Maker's breath," he says, awed. "That explains so much."

"Somehow, I don't think that's a compliment," Bethany says wryly. No, he's not as irritating as he was by half; like this, the king almost seems reasonable, because going chalky at the mention of Bethany's older sister is absolutely a reasonable response. The king has the added benefit of having to deal with Bethany herself, a Hawke through and through, but quieter about it.

"No, it's just—you're—" he sort of gestures at her, and Bethany isn't sure quite what he's gesturing at, because it seems rather like he's gesturing at her everything. "You just—well. In Redcliffe. I thought you were going to set me on fire?"

Bethany doesn't tell him that she had, in fact, been thinking about it. That would have been at least in line with the conversation, and he was the one who'd brought it up. Telling him that she'd thought about it likely wouldn't have even got her in trouble.

But no.

What tumbles out of her mouth is, in fact, much worse.

"You're not very good at this being-noble thing, are you," Bethany says, blinking at him once more, a little flabbergasted this time. He's—well, he's not, is the thing. She doesn't think other courts are run like this! If any random person had been allowed to wander through the Viscount's Keep, Kirkwall would have been more of a madhouse than it already was. Denerim isn't as grey as she'd expected, and Ferelden is kind, inasmuch as any country can be when only travelled through, but—"I mean no offense, but I just walked in here. No one said a word."

(That's a terrible thing to say, her mother would be mortified. I taught you better than this!)

"No," the king says, quite cheerfully for someone who's confessing he's terrible at his only job. There's something lambent behind his eyes, though, that makes Bethany think he's a little more aware than he lets on. "I'm really not. Is that a problem?"

"Not for me, no," Bethany says, slowly, even as she looks him over again. She'd thought he'd be—more put together than this. Or maybe just a little less casual, because he is so casual, as casual as anyone she's ever met in her entire life, in fact. King Alistair stands with the restless air of someone used to carrying a weapon but forced to go without it; Bethany remembers Fenris standing the same way in the Hanged Man before Marian would get him drunk enough to relax a little.

She doesn't know why she thinks of it, now, but there's a strange kind of parallel in the smeary lines beneath the king's eyes that run along the edges of her memory, pinging clear as a Chantry bell. Old hurts, maybe. Fenris was exactly like that, too.

"For someone else, then?" the king asks, crooking an eyebrow.

"For foreign dignitaries," Bethany says, voice cool. Something about him makes her skin itch. "But I'm just a rebel mage. What would I know?"

He colours a little, just the faintest pinking at his ears. Bethany would think it delightful, except for the fact that everything that he is is irritating. She crosses her arms over her chest, shifts her weight to her other leg, and crooks her eyebrow right back. Let him deal with it, see how he likes it.

"Er," the King of Ferelden says. Coughs awkwardly, clears his throat. Bethany catalogues each movement, gaze keeping careful track of the way he sort of—shuffles, almost, shifts his weight back and forth like he's nervous. "I'm—I'm sorry, about that. I didn't really want to."

"What, that I'm a mage, or that you threw a bunch of mages out of Redcliffe, and I happened to be one of them?"

"Both," he says, wincing just a little. She doesn't think he really wanted to say it much at all. "I'm surprised you wanted to come, honestly?"

"I didn't really have a choice," says Bethany, and leaves it at that.

"Right," King Alistair says, after the moment has hung unbroken for too long, and muddled its way into painful awkwardness. The throne room around them suddenly seems very empty and very vast, wide as the whole sky and just about as cold. "What now?"

"I—don't know," Bethany says. She pushes her curls out of her face, and tries to think of anything, anything at all. Nothing comes, except things that are going to get her in trouble. She goes with the least offensive. "I try not to set you on fire?"

"Please don't," the king says. He grins, still nervous, still awkward, all faintly gold, and Bethany is horrified to find that she's a little bit charmed. "It would be a pain to deal with, and I rather like not being on fire."

Bethany thinks: Oh, Maker.

The first few days in Denerim are quiet.

Bethany hadn't been expecting that, but then, she isn't sure what she'd been expecting. Maybe she'd thought that she'd have gone right into ferreting out the Venatori. At the very least, she'd assumed there would be something for her to do.

But there isn't, and so Bethany spends the first few days wandering the palace and getting very lost every time she tries to find her way back to her bedroom. Fereldan fare is filling, the heavy warm stews meant to stick to the ribs, and Bethany finds herself remembering her father, and how he'd always complain about the lack of salt. Her mother had never said a word about it, but then, Leandra Amell had given up more precious things to marry Malcolm Hawke than salt.

In retrospect, Bethany thinks it's almost funny, how sad it is.

She's settling in for a long winter.

And then, of course, Lady Anora Mac Tir finds her.

Lady Anora Mac Tir is a tall, slender blonde woman nearly a decade Bethany's senior, who wears the unfortunate designation of heir apparent with a delicate kind of grace. She wears pale blue, the same colour as her eyes, and when she smiles, there's something sharp and shark-like in her gaze that doesn't miss a single thing. The dichotomy of that gaze in such a fine-boned face is a start; in a truly disturbing turn of events, Bethany is reminded of her dead mother, who had held herself precisely as Lady Anora does now, with her hands folded in front of her to highlight the breaking bones of the wrist.

Lady Anora Mac Tir is, without question, the most terrifying person that Bethany has ever encountered.

(And this includes Bethany's older sister, which is saying something. Her older sister started a war.)

Bethany has to fight not to squeak.

"Oh, Lady Anora—!"

"Don't stand on my account," Lady Anora says, a sly little smile curling up the corner of her mouth. "It's lovely to finally meet you, Lady Hawke."

"Enchanter Hawke," Bethany can't help the correction. It's as engrained into her now as anything is. Enchanter Hawke. "Or Bethany. Please, sit down."

The lady sits in a whisper of silk against stone. She looks at Bethany for another long moment before opening her mouth. The slim circlet of silver on her brow glints. "You know, you're not quite what I expected."

"Oh? What were you expecting?" Bethany asks, cautious. She steps lightly with her words, aware that there are lines here with this woman that she can't see. To cross one this early on would be disastrous, and possibly deadly.

"Nightingale and I are—old friends," Lady Anora says. She tips her head, blue eyes shrewd in an unlined face as she looks Bethany over. "I was expecting one of hers, if I'm honest."

"And you got a witch, instead."

Lady Anora laughs. "Oh, no, do not think me ungrateful. A witch is far more useful than a spy, Enchanter Hawke. It's just that you're not her usual fare."

"The Inquisitor sent me," Bethany says, halting. She thinks about the Grand Enchanter and about Lady Lavellan, two such different women, with such different powers, and still both such shaping forces on the world. "Skyhold didn't suit me."

"Oh?"

"Lady Lavellan's Commander and I have—history, of a sort," Bethany allows. She maybe should have known that this would come up eventually, because of course someone would want to know why she'd left the rebellion to be go play Ambassador. Lady Anora, at the very least, has a very good reason for wanting to know. It is her kingdom that the Inquisition is operating in, even if she's not ruling.

"You loved him?"

"Andraste, no. He was Knight-Captain of the Gallows, and I can't stand the sight of him," Bethany tells her simply, because it's the truth, and she thinks it's probably not a wonderful idea to lie to this woman. She doesn't need to know the whole ugly story; this is enough. "It was better that I left."

Lady Anora nods, eyes shadowed and turned thoughtful. "I'd heard the Right of Annulment had been called in Kirkwall, but I didn't believe it. Perhaps I should have."

Bethany's mouth is edged hard as diamond, jagged as broken glass, dangerous as an unshackled mage ever can be. She thinks about the long nights in the Gallows' halls, the walls black and blue and the apprentices not much better, every room rank with fear and self-loathing, skin crawling every time there was the shuffle of greave-booted footstep outside her door and being so bitterly, painfully thankful for the deadbolt. Checking the little ones over in the mornings, covertly healing the bruises, unable to heal the trauma, and glancing at the other Enchanters out of the corner of her eye, wondering, has it always been like this? Has it always, always been like this? What have we ever done for it to be like this?

She doesn't know how to explain it to someone who hadn't been part and parcel of it. Bethany drops her gaze. "The Champion of Kirkwall started a war over it. It wasn't exactly a wonderful time."

"Your sister," Lady Anora says. "She is your sister, isn't she? Hawke isn't a common name, not even in Ferelden."

"Yes," says Bethany. "She is."

Lady Anora sits back, a pleased little shake-out to her shoulders. It's the look of someone who's found exactly what they're looking for, all relaxed muscles and unclenched jaw, and it's in this moment that Bethany realizes that Lady Anora had been entirely on edge when she'd come through the door. It had been hidden very well, and likely she'd not have seen it all if Lady Anora hadn't wanted her to see it, but here they are.

Again, Bethany thinks that Ferelden's nobles are very strange.

"How long do you think you'll be here, Enchanter Hawke?"

"I don't know," Bethany says, blinking at the abrupt change of subject. "Until we find the Venatori, I suppose."

"That's alright, then. Please be kind to Alistair, Enchanter Hawke," Lady Anora says, at last, voice turning soft. "He's not good for much, but I don't want him to throw himself into the river. He's—much like a younger brother to me. Be gentle with him."

"I'm trying," Bethany says. "He's just very—he doesn't seem to think things through?"

Lady Anora laughs, but it's not a happy sound. "No, he really doesn't, and I can't seem to break him of the habit. He forgets he has a kingdom to care for."

"I don't know how you expect me to keep him out of trouble," Bethany bites down on her lip so hard she tastes blood. "He's—"

"He's too much like Cailan," Lady Anora finishes the sentence for her, and although Bethany had never met the previous King, Marian had never minced her words. Good and kind and so idealistic it's painful. He'll be dead within six months, Bethany's sister had pronounced before the darkspawn had come, but there had been a strange kind of pride in it.

Like she'd liked him, despite it all.

"Yes," Bethany says, because she does think King Alistair is very much like that.

Good and kind and so idealistic it's painful. He'll be dead within six months.

Except that it's Bethany's job to make sure that Alistair doesn't die, because if he does, they'll all have bigger problems on their hands. A hole in the sky is one thing, but a country lost in chaos from the aftermath of a murdered monarch is quite another.

And the Bannorn feeds half of Thedas.

Bethany is very aware of the toll the loss of it would take.

She looks at Lady Anora in the soft afternoon light spilling in from the window to the courtyard, the library very still around them both. The books here are old enough that the air smells of vanilla and leather, ancient bindings and cloth and oil for the lamps. Bethany wonders just what on the Maker's green earth this woman wants from her.

(Other than being kind to the King, it seems. Bethany isn't sure how she's going to manage that, given that mostly what she wants to do to the King is ignore him entirely.)

"Is there anything else, my lady?" Bethany asks.

"No," Lady Anora says. "Only—Alistair was looking for you. He wanted to show you something, I think."

"Thank you, Lady Anora," Bethany says, halfways to excitement and halfways to dread. She might have something to do at last, but between Lady Anora's deliberate vagueness—and it is deliberate, Bethany can tell just from the slight curl to the lady's lips—and the way her own stomach drops to her toes, Bethany suddenly isn't sure she wants to know what's going on. "I'll go find him. Do you know where he is?"

"He was in the stables, last I checked," Lady Anora says. She favours Bethany with a pleased little smile, and Bethany gets the distinct sense that she may have just played herself into a trap. Either that, or she's just displayed slightly-above-average intelligence, and managed to impress someone with far more clout than previously acknowledged.

"Off with you, then," the lady continues. She moves towards one of the squishy chairs set 'round the fireplace, banked now, and settles there with a book. She doesn't say another word; it's like Bethany's not there at all.

Bethany blinks owlishly.

Ferelden's nobility is very strange, she thinks.

Still.

Keeping the King of Ferelden alive and well is why she's here.

And so Bethany gets up from her little window nook, and puts herself together enough to find the courage to venture out into the palace to find the King, where-so-ever he may be. Lady Anora doesn't deign to spare her another second, and that's probably for the best; Bethany needs the seconds of privacy that the other woman's feigned ignorance affords her.

Bravery is hard, sometimes, and if Bethany is to be kind…

It's just a building thing, that's all.

She slips out of the library on silent feet, magic churning in her wake. Bethany thinks she must leave a trail of icicles or maybe ash, every one of her footsteps behind her glowing like coals, delicate arcs of light to trace her tracks in the dust. A map, to find her way home.

(Bethany shakes her head, curls everywhere. Now isn't really the time to mourn lost homes.)

The stables are solid wood, built into the lowest rings of Denerim's palace. Bethany doesn't hurry, content to wander a little; if the king needed her urgently, she's quite sure that he'd have sent someone to find her. It's just past brisk out, a crisp early-winter chill in the air—not quite cold enough to see her breath, but getting there, and Bethany huddles close in her robes until she slips past the oak doors and into the animal heat of the stables.

And there is King Alistair, murmuring to a horse with a carrot in his palm.

"Your Majesty?" Bethany calls, softly, so as not to startle him. He's not entirely the most aware person Bethany's ever come across. She shoves the unappreciated flicker of worry away. Not the time. "You wanted me?"

"I—oh, yes, there you are, Lady Hawke—"

"Enchanter Hawke," Bethany cuts him off. "I'm no Lady, Your Majesty."

The King looks at her for a long, measuring moment, and Bethany finds herself trapped in a strange, honey-gold stare. She fidgets beneath it, very aware of the way his gaze rakes her up and down. Don't glare at him, Bethany tells herself. It's not his fault, he doesn't know.

"Enchanter Hawke," King Alistair starts again. "I have something I think you should see."

It's going to be blood magic, she just knows it. Bethany stomach turns over, suddenly solid as if an iron fist had closed around it and frozen it all the way to its core. The King moves ahead of her and she follows him, tries not to be surprised when he keeps looking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure that she's still there. Bethany frowns at his back, after the next time he does it; she doesn't think Kings are supposed to expect disobedience, even from people who aren't sworn to them. Bethany is a guest, and she is very aware of this.

But they turn another corner and he looks over his shoulder at her again, and Bethany decides to think about it later, because they stop rather abruptly in an empty stretch of hallway that she hasn't been down before.

And, well—

At least she wasn't wrong.

Because what the king wanted her to see are runes drawn in blood, painted onto the wall.

"Oh, that's just unnecessary," Bethany says, wrinkling her nose.

"That's what I said," the king agrees with her. "Very Tevinter of them."

Bethany hums her acknowledgement. It is very Tevinter of them, but there's also something—Bethany recognizes Kirkwall in it, somehow. The lines are Kirkwaller dragons all over again, the old City of Chains built like a giant blood rune that was never quite finished. She recognizes the Gallows in it. She recognizes a thousand years of murdered slaves, and kneels down next to them to press her fingers against the cold stone.

After a long pause, when she's too absorbed to answer him, the king says, "I met her, you know."

"Pardon?" Bethany blinks up from where she's been examining the streak of old blood dried along the wall. That's a binding rune, if Bethany's ever seen one. It doesn't have amazing implications, but it's made worse by the fact that the rune's clearly been drained of power; the rust-brown smear flakes away beneath her fingertips like time. She'd be annoyed by the interruption if it wasn't such a welcome distraction from how terrifying this all is. Blood magic? In Ferelden? In the King's palace? What in the Maker's name is the world coming to?!

"Your sister," King Alistair coughs, a little awkwardly. His cheeks flush. "In Kirkwall."

"That would have been after I'd gone to the Gallows," Bethany murmurs. She doesn't like to remember that time, for all it was a near-decade of her life. Turning herself into the templars may have been the very worst decision she'd ever made, and that includes being unable to control her fury at everything that had happened after. That last night when the world had finally imploded still burns in Bethany's mind's eye, all of the Gallows white stone gone pale blue and gentle even as the Knight-Commander had lost the last little bit of humanity that she'd had left.

Bethany shudders at the thought.

(Meredith, turned into shining red lyrium. The last Bethany had heard, the statue had disappeared one night and no one was quite sure where it had gone. Every time Varric talks about it, he looks a little ill. Bethany doesn't blame him at all. It really hadn't been a good night.)

King Alistair is still talking. "—I don't think I would have forgotten you."

Bethany makes a little noise of amusement, a funny little laugh. It seems to echo through the library's empty shelves. "I was quieter. Not nearly as confrontational as I am, now, but less in control, so I was always hiding. I doubt you'd have remembered me."

The fire in the hearth seems to respond: it crackles, merry as a Satinalia log, popping so loud that both Bethany and the king look over at is askance.

"…You're sure about that control bit?"

"Most of the time," Bethany says, flushing. She has to will the fire down. It goes mutinously, crackling and sullen. "I don't need to hide the magic, anymore."

"You were an apostate, then?"

"Do you have a problem with apostates?"

"No, it's—oh, Maker, I'm buggering this up," he says, shaking his head. "I've just never met any who've—"

There's a crash and a rattle, far in the distance. Bethany whips around to cover the king's mouth, thoughtless, only needing to quiet the sound. Someone's listening, or at the very least, someone's getting into something they ought not to be.

"Shh," Bethany puts a finger to his lips, glances over her shoulder. She doesn't have her staff, damn it all. The shadows stretch out unreal, and she thinks she can hear the faint thready edges of chanting, that odd slick edge of magic fueled by blood. When she turns her attention back to the king, his eyes have gone wide. "Do you hear that?"

King Alistair nods against her palm. Bethany takes another moment to impress the importance of silence into him before she removes her hands from his person. Kirkwall and the Gallows seem very close, all of a sudden; sneaking through the halls late at night, keeping to the shadows to avoid the templar patrols because if they catch her out of bed after hours, it's a lifetime of Tranquility, Champion's sister or not.

Bethany channels it, now, all the fear roaring back until she can hardly breathe, her magic flaring just beneath the surface of her skin, so bright that it hurts.

"Breathe, Hawke," the king murmurs. "You're no good to me unconscious."

"Enchanter Hawke," Bethany whispers at him, neck still craned to look around behind her. Now that they've gone so quiet, the chanting echoes. Whoever it is isn't being particularly secretive. "Or Bethany. Hawke's my sister."

"Beth, then," he says, quiet into her ear. He doesn't touch her. "What do we do?"

"Have you ever fought blood mages, before?" Bethany asks him.

"Once or twice," the king says. His hands flex like he's trying to put his hand on an absent sword, shoulder up to brace a missing shield. It's all muscle memory, Bethany knows, because she finds herself searching for her stave the same way.

"Good," she nods, because it's better than nothing. "I'll try to keep the magic off you, blood-thralls can be tricky—"

"Oh," he says. "That's not a problem."

"I'm… pretty sure it is, Your Majesty. That is why I'm here?"

"No, I mean," and the king actually sort of looks ashamed, ducking down into his shoulders and mouth twisted uncertain as he breaks off. It's strange, for such a tall man to seem so small. "I mean. I—I was trained as a templar? I grew up in the Chantry."

"Oh," says Bethany, blankly. It takes her a minute to gather herself back up. There's a far-away part of herself that's laughing, hysteric with it, because the Maker knows that it would be just her luck to run from one templar and stumble straight into another. The Inquisitor hadn't warned her, but maybe Lady Lavellan hadn't known, either. "Um. Well, that's…"

"We can talk about it later?" King Alistair offers. He sounds oddly hopeful, staring down at her with clear brown eyes. "When we aren't surrounded by people who want to kill you and enslave me for their own nefarious purposes?"

"Yes," Bethany says, relieved for the distraction. "Let's."

It's easy not to think of it as they sneak silent down the hall together, the king at Bethany's back like a shadow, before it occurs to her that he does not, in fact, have anything to defend himself with. If they come across what she thinks they're going to come across, he's going to need it.

"We need to find you a sword," Bethany breathes, tugging him into an alcove. "I'm going to be in so much trouble if you get killed."

"I'm not going to get killed," King Alistair says, offended. "I do know how to take care of myself!"

Bethany glances dubiously down at his attire, which says all she needs to say without words. "A sword, Your Majesty. We need to find you one."

"The armoury's not far from here," he murmurs. Bethany blinks. She didn't quite realize how small this alcove was when she pulled him into it, and now it's all she can think about. The king is very tall, and with the way he's bent to speak into her ear, some long-dormant instinct flares, and Bethany wants to tip her head back to let him see her throat.

Something that sounds like her sister screeches in the back of her head. Have you lost your mind, Beth? That's the King! He threw us out, and we wouldn't even be here if he hadn't! We'd be safe back in Skyhold with the children! Get it together, child!

But all Bethany can think of is Lady Anora, and the fond, desperate twist to her mouth when she'd spoken of the King.

Be gentle with him, as though kings needed that kind of compassion.

It sticks to the insides of her ribs.

"Armoury first," Bethany breathes. "And then we follow this, Your Majesty. Wherever it goes."

"And here I was," says King Alistair, rather grimly, "hoping we were wrong."

Wherever this goes turns out to be down through the bowels of the castle and up again, the thick pull of blood leads them out into the open air of a courtyard, cool and pale grey in the watery sunshine. There had been mages chanting when they'd got here, but they're all quite dead, now. It's rather an improvement, if a profoundly morbid one.

"I think everyone hopes they're wrong when there're cultists involved," Bethany sighs. There's blood smeared over a crude summoning circle, ash from magical flame and creeping frost from magical ice up the walls. She's going to need to change her robes, these ones are spattered red up to the knee; Andraste, but it feels like being in Kirkwall all over again. "Your servants deserve hazard pay, I wouldn't want to be the one cleaning this up."

"It's… a lot of dead Venatori."

"Not just Venatori," Bethany murmurs, grimacing. There are… body parts all over the place. This doesn't even look like blood magic; she has no idea what this looks like. Her stomach churns as she wipes the blood on her skirt, and thanks the Maker that she'd had the forethought to wear the darkest robes she owns, today. "It's a lot of dead people."

"Thanks for that," the king says dryly, but the funny thing is that Bethany thinks he actually means it.

"You're welcome," she says. "Clearly you need the help. I don't think I've ever seen someone charge a blood mage like that, before. We're lucky they didn't have time to summon more than a shade. But—"

"But?"

"This can't be all of them," she exhales. Three blood mages does not an infestation make, and if there is one thing Bethany has learned in all of her years in the Circle, it's that where there's one blood mage (or three, in this case), there are always more. She worries at her bottom lip, casting her gaze over the bodies. They'd slit their own wrists to drink up the extra power, and she'd been able to feel that blood-fueled power in their magic, but it hadn't been as strong as it ought to have been. "It feels… I don't know. Almost like a test? This was too obvious, somehow."

The king blinks at her. "What d'you mean?"

"Look at it! They're in the middle of the courtyard, it's like they wanted to be caught," Bethany shakes her head at him. She's not sure how to explain it, because what it feels like is how the Gallows felt in the early days, every single person she knew just pushing at the templars to see how far they would go before they'd snap.

Bethany had lost friends to the feeling, and she doesn't know how to put that into words.

The king frowns, the lines of his face pulling down. There's something of the golden sun in it, some strange, oddly inhuman thing. All of his shadows warp out to turn him unreal, and here, she thinks, here is the templar behind the crown, here is the Chantry boy set on a throne. Here is a king who'd never wanted a kingdom.

"You think?" he asks.

Bethany tilts her head at him. She wouldn't have said it if she didn't think so, but maybe he doesn't understand that about her, yet. "I do."

King Alistair's shoulders collapse, a great slow sigh that sounds a blend of exhaustion and regret escaping his chest. She watches his face for a long moment. They're both out of place here, in the palace courtyard, even covered in blood as it is, but the emotions that flicker across his face are too fast to parse apart, and too complicated to name.

"Well," he says, at last. "That's not entirely wonderful, is it."

Again, Bethany has the thought that he's really, really not good at this ruling thing.

But now isn't the time to feel bad for it, for the poor man who had the gall to throw her people to the wolves. Bethany has to harden her heart, has to build a rock well around it made of brick and mortar to keep out the cold. If she allows herself a moment of sorrow for the situation they both find themselves in, she may very well crumble.

(Andraste, but it's one of the days where she misses Kirkwall. The City of Chains only ever broke her family—it broke Carver, and Mother, and even Marian. It broke them all, but Bethany had survived it. Given half the chance, Denerim might break her heart. And that? That would be worse.)

The air is cold against her skin, slipping down the collar of her robes to leave goose pimples all over. Bethany wraps her arms around herself like a shield, and shivers even in the lee of the wind. The sunlight is winter-pale, and there are shards of ice in her bones.

"No," Bethany says. "Not really."

"So… what now?"

"I'm going to change my robes," she says, and she can still taste the blood magic between in her teeth, shining copper-metal grit. The cloth tacks sticky to her calves, and Maker, but she needs to be clean now, now, now. Bethany will never understand how Marian managed it, wearing blood on her face the way she used to. "You—should probably find someone to start cleaning this up."

"You're not going to help?" King Alistair raises his eyebrows at her. There's a smear of red from his ear to his eyebrow, brilliant against his skin. The sight of it, the brutal understanding, makes her sick inside.

"It's not my castle," Bethany cracks out, and it's unfair, maybe, but her chest aches and it's easier to be angry than sad. Anger is a familiar, comforting fizz beneath her skin. Anger pops and spits, and it never makes her think about things she doesn't want to think about, like dead children and witch spies and Kings who have no idea how to rule their kingdoms.

Anger doesn't let the blood seep through.

"It's not my castle, either, technically—"

"What sort of king are you?!"

"Not a fantastic one," King Alistair says. "Come on, then, let's go get cleaned up. I'll have Chamberlain do… something… about all this."

A half-hysteric little laugh escaped Bethany's throat. It's just so underwhelming, is the thing, because they're both covered in blood and ash and the last remnants of sick magic, and he's grinning at her. Who on the Maker's green earth grins about something like this? And it's worse, it's made so much worse, because all she wants to do now is go have a cup of tea and talk about it with him, because he's—

She swallows.

The king might actually understand. He might actually understand all of it, all of Bethany's strange and broken pieces, and isn't that a terrifying prospect. And the anger still sings along her bones, shadows of itself, now, old memories that don't really belong where they are.

But.

Reddcliffe Castle seems to hover around her shoulders, the dank dark walls, the dripping cold stone. Bethany thinks she can feel the torches in her hands, the breathing air, and time, because time itself had had a feel, in Redcliffe, heavy and metal-red like blood between the teeth.

And Bethany had hated him, then. She'd hated him.

"I'm going to lie down," Bethany says, very simply.

"I'll walk you," the king says, and she wants to hate him still, wants to hold on to that bright, bitterly sharp emotion. But he's straightened up and offered her his elbow like one of the fairy tale lords Mother used to be so fond of, and Bethany looks at him for a very long moment that hangs between them.

"Please don't do that," she tells him, so quiet and holding her expression to careful neutrality. Bethany remembers being capable of it, because her life had depended on her ability to keep herself in check, but it's been three years and a whole war in between now and then, and she doesn't know if she wants to do it anymore.

King Alistair blinks at her, mystified. "Do what?"

"Pretend that we're friends," Bethany says. Magic sits like a vice around her throat. She remembers the templars and their shackles. "Or that I'm here for anything that isn't rooting Tevene cultists out of your castle."

"I haven't forgotten," King Alistair says. Something catches behind the Veil and tears, and maybe that's what feelings are like. Spirits pressing on either side, reflecting back what is and what isn't.

"Haven't you?"

"Beth—!"

Bethany bares her teeth at him in a mockery of a smile, suddenly incensed at his hand wrapped around her wrist. She doesn't bother to shake him off, fit to spit fire. "Yes, Your Majesty? Do you have something to say to me?"

Something hot and ugly flashes across his face, only there for half a blink before it's gone, too fast for Bethany to give it a name. She thinks: possession. She thinks: She thinks: fury. She thinks: abomination.

"Don't tell me we're not in this together," King Alistair snaps, flushed red all the way down to his collar. "Not right now. Not when we've just discovered half a dozen magisters working in my kitchens!"

"Should I wait 'til tomorrow, then?" Bethany says, because she has a death wish. Or maybe it's just that she wants to watch him lose what little composure he has left, wants him to sting with salt and silt in the wound, wants him furious beneath her hands—

(Oh, a distant part of Bethany thinks, surprised, I want him.)

The king clenches his jaw, a vein pulsing at his temple, the rage so close to his skin that Bethany can almost taste it. It hisses inside of her, bitter bright-red anger and hot throbbing need all twisted up terrible. They circle like trapped animals in the dank stone hallway, just trying to keep their distance.

But Bethany gets his back up against the wall, force magic twitching at her fingers, and her hands wind into his shirt. They stand like that, pressed against one another, all the fight and the fury and the fearlessness blaring between them like a fog siren.

"If you're going to set me on fire, Lady Hawke, you'd best do it fast," the king sneers.

"Oh?" Bethany can't help it. She wants to tear him apart. "Why's that?"

"Templar training," he says. "Remember?"

The breath goes out of her lungs as white-hot lust consumes her. Bethany scrabbles at him, hand around the back of his neck to yank him down and slam their mouths together, just the thought of it enough to set all of her nerves alight. He groans against her, hands dropping to her hips to hike her up and she's fuming and shaking and hungry, Andraste, she wants to kiss him until she dies, bite him 'til he bleeds, wants to rip and tear and shred

There's a crash, the ringing sound of a circular metal tray against solid stone.

Oh, Bethany thinks. Oh.

A maid stands in the doorway, colour drained entirely from her face. Bethany blinks, dazed, her hands buried in the King of Ferelden's hair and the ties of her robe loose enough that he's somehow managed to yank it down her shoulders, teeth digging into bare skin, tender flesh, breath caught in her throat.

Oh, Maker.

"I—" the maid says, staring at them wide-eyed. "I—um, I'll just, I'll just tell the others to—to not come through this way? I—uh—I'm—please excuse me!"

And then she's gone, run off, and the king drags his tongue up the column Bethany's throat so that all other thoughts leave her head.

"I—I think we've scandalized your servants," Bethany manages. He bites down on her earlobe, hands still curled around her hips, one of his legs pressed between her thighs so close and she whines. "Nnghn, Your Majesty—"

"Alistair," he mutters in her ear, palms flexing into her skin, "it's Alistair, that's my name, use my name, I want to hear it, no one ever says it anymore—"

"Oh, I—" she says, gasps. "Alistair—"

"Maker," he moans into her shoulder. "Bed, bed now, I'll carry you if I have to—"

It's a hot violent flight up to the closest unused room with a bed in it, Bethany's nails digging into the king's wrists and having to stop every second step to breathe against one another, biting down hard enough to bruise. Her mouth feels puffy from being kissed too much and kissed not nearly enough, and her robe is all out of sorts. The king's hands shake while he tries to get the door open, and this is when it hits Bethany precisely what's going on here.

Holy Andraste, forget about her robes, he's already got her knickers halfway down her thighs.

Worse, she wants him to have her knickers halfway down her thighs.

The king gets the door open, a sharp tremble to his frame and she wants, oh Maker, she wants to take him apart like she's never wanted anything in her whole entire life. And that, that's a problem, that's the problem, she can't do this because he'd said templar and she'd only lost her mind entire, had put her hands all over him like he belonged to her.

"I'm—I'm so sorry," Bethany says, very faintly.

Force magic always does come so easy, and it all happens very fast. It's just a glimmer, a bright sparkle of gold at her fingertips, but it's enough to shove the king forward into the bedroom and slam the door closed with a bang that's going to echo in her head for a week. She thinks she hears the lock click.

For a moment, Bethany just stands there in front of the shut door, stunned at her own audacity.

And then she runs for it.

Well, Bethany thinks, half hysteric as she hitches her robe closed, somewhere between hurrying back to her own room and doing everything she can to ignore the dark little blooms of pleasure everywhere the king's mouth has left marks. That was certainly one of the worst decisions I've yet made!

Bethany dodges the king for the next couple of days.

It has nothing to do with not wanting to talk about what had happened between them, and it's not even that Bethany's embarrassed, really. It's just… easier, not to. That's it. They're both busy people, after all, with busy lives and busy schedules and she is not avoiding him, no matter what the horrible little voice in the back of her mind is singing.

Bethany banishes the nagging thoughts, and goes back to her book.

"There you are," comes from a voice from the doorway, low and familiar.

Oh, shite, Bethany thinks, suddenly searching desperately for an escape route. "Hello, Your Majesty."

"You've been avoiding me," Alistair says. His face is entirely neutral, no inflection, but she thinks that if she squints, it might just look like pain. Standing in the stone archway that serves as a door to the small circular room she's claimed as a study, the king's dressed down today in muted red and faded browns, comfortable clothes that look well-worn enough to have had holes in the elbows. In the cold white light in through the window, he's bleached out unreal, some ghost-pale fade-walker wraith in the sun. Bethany's heart slams into her throat.

"Have I?" she asks. Throwing herself out the window would end the conversation, but probably also her life. Bethany isn't her sister; she'd have no cushion for the fall.

"You have been, Beth, you know you have," he says, and that's honest-to-the-Maker disappointment in his face. Disappointment but something else, something else like hauntings, like hunger, like hurt. "Why?"

"I never said I wasn't," she says. Her stomach churns like warm oil, all of her insides turned to dark molten glass, and Bethany rises from her window nook because if this goes where she thinks it's going, she's not going to be wearing clothing for much longer. "I needed to think."

"About what?"

"You know," Bethany tells him, inhaling slowly, exhaling slowly.

And Alistair does know, of course he knows, there's no way he doesn't know.

"Do I? Thinking doesn't tend to get me anywhere except in trouble, I've found," he says, crooking an eyebrow at her. The sunlight in through the window slips over his shoulders, down his arms. Like the inverse of a silhouette, the rest of the room seems to darken, and only the long lines of the king himself are illuminated. "What did you come up with?"

"That you're infuriating," Bethany says, because it's true.

"I try," he grins, but it's not a nice grin. "What else?"

Bethany feels some hot dark thing stir furious in her abdomen—everything about him, everything, it all makes her want to shake him until he stops it all, until he stops everything, everything, everything—and Andraste, she hates him. Andraste, she wants to drag her tongue along the slick edges of his teeth.

There'll be no more reading, today, Bethany realizes, and carefully sets her book aside.

(Idly, she thinks that the apothecary ought to stock up on elfroot. At this rate, she and Alistair are going to tear one another to pieces, and Bethany doesn't think it's all that dignified, for someone to die of sex. Or all that sanitary, for that matter.)

"That if we do this, we probably shouldn't tell the entire castle," Bethany says, lightly as she can. She unravels herself from the window seat into standing. The king is a full head taller than she is, but it makes little difference: Bethany looks him in the eye, regardless. "That we probably shouldn't tell anyone, actually."

"What, we don't want half the kingdom talking about us?"

"No," Bethany says, brutal and bitter. She remembers the whispers in the Gallows. "What we don't want half the continent talking about Ferelden's king and the mage whore who's got him blood-thralled. It'll ruin us both."

"Beth—" Alistair starts.

"Just—shut up," she says. Bethany winds her hands into the front of his shirt, and doesn't think about how he got so close that she could. It's vicious like lightning, purple-white magic crackling behind her teeth and of all the things that she ever wanted, this sick twisting thing in her chest.

She shoves him backwards, half-reckless and violent, knocking him into the desk and then they're on one another, her mouth slanted over his. The king balls her hair in his fist and yanks her down so that she's splayed across his lap, one of his knees pressed up against her cunt.

Alistair makes a dark approving sound low in his throat.

"Wet already, love?" he asks, rumbling with satisfaction when she rolls her hips against him, unconsciously seeking friction, her smalls soaked through. "Maker, have you been like this all day?"

"Not just me," she says, breathless with it, and drops her palm to the bulge in his breeches. The heat from his skin is a visceral thing even though the fabric and he curses, strains up against her hand. Bethany laughs. "You were saying?"

"Dreamt about this," Alistair murmurs, low and close, half-delirious with it. His gaze is fervent as it tracks its way from her mouth to her throat to her breasts through the gap in her robes; the hunger of it sends shivers down her spine. "About what you sound like, Andraste's blood, Beth, I want to hear you—"

"Shut up," is all Bethany manages, already close to the tipping edge past coherency, when the world blurs away and the only thing that matters is his hands on her skin. "Just—just shut up, touch me, please—"

"I want to put my mouth on you," Alistair rasps into the dark. "Up, get up on the desk, it'll be—"

"Andraste, you talk too much," she says. They both scramble to get her up, papers scattering everywhere, and it's the hard-splintery wood beneath her hands and the heat of his body as he slings her knees over his shoulders. His fingers bite into her thighs.

"Here, my lady?" he asks, looking up at her, wild red-gold eyes and wild red-gold hair.

"You're terrible," Bethany breathes, and Alistair laughs as she pushes him down.

Bethany stares at the ceiling for a while after he's gone, so angry with herself.

You should know better, she says. Fool girl. What would Mother say? What would Carver say?!

But Mother is dead and Carver is deader, and there are no answers for Bethany but the ones she can find for herself. She's in Ferelden, and she's in Denerim, and she's in a palace, and really, she has no business being in any of these places. The only place she ought to be is out in some dilapidated forgotten wild place with her students—Andraste, she's hardly thought about the little ones at all. She's thought about her sister even less.

What is this place doing to me?

The ceiling has even fewer answers than Bethany does.

And there's work to be done, because there's always work to be done.

Bethany lifts slabs of hewn stone with willpower alone. The autumn air is cool, but not cool enough. No wind, is the thing, nothing off the harbour to whip away the warmth in the air. The sun shines weak and watery through patchy cloud-cover, only wisps of blue sky managing to peek through.

It would be a beautiful day, any other day.

The masons on the walls cheer as a slab of stone slides where it belongs, but the magic is hard work. Bethany swears beneath her breath to all of her father's gods, the golden thrill of force magic crackling between her knuckles as she shoves the limestone into place, sweat-sticky with the effort, tugging at the neck of her robes to try to keep it off her skin.

Oh, sod it.

Stripping off her outer robes is as heady a relief as a Winter's Grasp in the depths of summertime, a crisp breath of fresh air. And no one pays her an iota of attention, far too consumed with their own work that Bethany hardly pings their radar.

Under the sick sheen of the Breach and the sun, they work through the day, trying to keep Denerim's shoddy stonework from crumbling.

Dwarves are wonderful. They don't give a toss about her tits or her hips, because she's far too knobbly for their tastes. The only thing they are interested in is the fact that she works and works hard, and that she can chase the late-autumn's drippy wet heat away with the snap of her fingers.

It's something of a novelty, magic for magic's. Bethany marvels.

(Because this is what it could be like. It could be this easy, magic for use and not locked away behind high tower walls. All she's ever wanted, her whole entire life, is to be useful—and here she is. Useful. Bethany breathes out slow, and tries not to miss the children.)

The next time she looks up, it's to meet the King's wide eyes.

Bethany glares at him.

She likes to think she has some integrity.

But it's the glaring that really ought to have prepared her for the way he finds her later, after the sun's gone down and she's just beginning to unwind from the day, curled up with a book in the window nook of her solar.

The King of Ferelden doesn't even have the decency to knock. He just closes the door quietly behind him without a word, turns the lock with a solid click.

Somehow, she can't say she's surprised.

"Hello," Bethany says. In the firelight, she's as shifting as the Breach is above them, all shadows and golden light, flickers of ink-dark lace on her robes. The Imperial Palace is quiet around them, the high walls meant to keep strangers out, and the man standing in the doorway is nothing if not a stranger. The fury from earlier in the day hazes through her only an echo, and it's not easy to push it away. It takes work to keep her voice level. "Your Majesty."

"Come here," Alistair says. His voice is as dark as she feels, shivery tender behind the ribs, blackwater dripping sweet ice down the spine.

Well, fine then, if that's the way he wants to be.

"Say please," Bethany says, looking up at him from the settee, lips curling up.

Alistair is across the room in a flash, halfway to picking her up and crushing her into his chest, mouth slanted hot and possessive over hers. Bethany arches into it, breath caught in her throat, chasing the spark of pleasure like a flame. He hovers above her, one hand knotted into her hair and the other down at the lush swell of her hip, pulling her up and into him.

"You," he mutters, voice ragged, pupils nearly swallowing up his face, eyes almost mirror-black, "are going to be the death of me. Do you know—Maker, do you know—"

Bethany doesn't bother trying to answer him, just hooks her legs around his waist and locks them at the ankle, a tiny little moan slipping out of her throat like droplet of perfect, honey-coloured light. He yanks her head back and the moan turns into a sob, needing and needy, and Bethany rolls her hips up.

Alistair actually snarls.

"Clothes off," Bethany manages. She feels too big for her skin, beyond all thought. His hands burn at her hips. "Your shirt—off, Alistair, get it off, I need—"

"You don't even know," he's saying, over and over again, pitched in disbelief, pitched in hunger, teeth digging into her shoulder. "You don't even know, do you, you don't know what you do to me—"

"What do I—what did I do—?"

"Half of—" Alistair bites the word off on a curse, a garbled breaking thing, a sharply stifled breath. "Gods, Beth, you feel so good, half the men on the walls couldn't—you were just in a shift—they'd kill to see you like this, I can't—"

His hands burn against her hips. For a single second, Bethany has to wonder which one of them is the mage. The shower of purple-white sparks doesn't help, blurs in her vision and Alistair kisses her again, hot and wet and panting into her throat as they finally get her robes out of the way and he drops to his knees.

"I want—" she manages. "I want—oh, Maker—"

Alistair's fingers inside of her, tongue against her clit and she can't, can't think

Bethany's vision goes white as she comes apart at the seams.

When she finds her way back to herself, Alistair's pulled himself back up and begun

murmuring quiet nothings into her ear, soft nonsense words that don't mean anything. Bethany wraps her arms around his neck, languid with the shocky after-echoes of pleasure still thrumming through her veins.

"Beth, I—"

Andraste, but he sounds like something feral.

"Hush," Bethany says. She slips out from under him to shuck off her robe. She's bare in the firelight, breastband discarded, still slick between the thighs, and Alistair looks at her like he'll never be able to look enough. Cracked open, maybe that's the phrase.

She pushes him down to the settee's cushions, curls a leg over his hip, and sinks down onto his cock with a low, sweet sigh.

It's—almost too much.

For both of them. Alistair's knuckles are white at her hips, fingers digging in hard enough to bruise. Bethany's still oversensitive, the stretch of his cock in her cunt just on the other side of tender, but he shakes beneath her and she shifts just enough to hear him groan.

"Are you alright?" she breathes.

"Yes," Alistair swallows, eyes closed. "Beth, move."

She does.

They fuck slow and hard and that is the word, isn't it, fucking, all the hard edges and the violent bloom of blood from a bitten lip. They push and pull and Bethany breaks like shattering glass around him, ground down and full up and—

Alistair half-drags-half-carries her to the bed, and then they fuck again.

"Were you jealous?" Bethany whispers, long after he's fallen asleep. There's a possessive twitch to his arm beneath the covers, a slow tightening that makes her think he answered the question, even if he didn't mean to. "Was that what that was?"

She has to duck her face into the pillow to trap the laughter in her throat. It's something to think about, even if it is a silly notion; as though the King of Ferelden even could get jealous, especially about a random mage girl with whom he's spent more time arguing than anything else.

Ridiculous, Bethany thinks. Utterly ridiculous.

"So," Bethany says, glancing at Alistair out of the corner of her eye. "How did a templar end up King of Ferelden?"

They've walked down to the docks. It's a brilliant clear, bitterly cold kind of day; the sun sparkles off the Amaranthine, tiny diamonds cresting with every wave. Denerim is often thick with fog in the early winter, Bethany's discovered. Storms roll in off the ocean and lock up the harbour for days, trapping the city and all its' inhabitants inside for fear of being frozen all the way down to the soul. But every so often, they get a day like today, and the whole city comes alive with it. The Satinalia market was already in full swing when she and Alistair had made their way through it, buyers and sellers alike shouting through the streets. They might even have snow for Satinalia, if this cold snap continues. It's a nice thought, the whole city covered in white, but it doesn't distract Bethany from the conversation at hand—it's been a long time coming, ugly as it may be.

Templars and Wardens and kings. Old secrets, Bethany thinks.

Alistair hunches his shoulders up around his ears, pink from the cold. "I was never really a templar, I never took the vows, I was—how much do you know about the Fifth Blight?"

"A little," says Bethany, more honestly than she means to. She doesn't like to lie, and she especially doesn't like to lie to Alistair. Mostly what she does know is filtered through Kirkwall refugees and her older sister, neither of which are particularly knowledgeable sources about the darkspawn. There had been Anders, but Bethany thinks that he'd been far too hurt to talk about Ferelden at all.

A little just about covers it, and Bethany's going to leave it at that.

"Warden-Commander Duncan recruited me," he says. Old pain flickers behind his eyes. "He died at Ostagar."

"A lot of people died at Ostagar," Bethany murmurs. "Or right afterwards."

"You lost someone?"

"My twin," she says. "His name was Carver, but it doesn't matter anymore. Warden-Commander Duncan recruited you?"

"Right before the beginning of the Blight," Alistair nods, blowing the breath out of his lungs. He kind of leans into Bethany's space, hovering for a moment before he seems to dredge up the courage to put an arm around her shoulders. "Right before I took my vows, actually. And yes, I have wondered about the timing of it."

"Why?"

"It never made much sense. Why he'd want me?" he sort of shrugs, huddling closer into her space. It is bitterly cold, the wind having whipped all the clouds away; there's no cover from the salt and the sun, and Bethany rubs her nose into the crook of his neck just to watch him squirm. "Hey, quit that!"

"No, you quit it. Don't be silly, Alistair," Bethany says. It's easier to call him by his name when they're not in the palace, though she isn't quite sure why.

"How am I being silly?"

"I doubt you'd have made a very good templar, that's all."

"Well," he says, wincing a little. She almost wishes she knew what he was remembering, because it doesn't look like a good memory but it also doesn't look like a bad memory, either. Just a memory, part and parcel of a life. "I never was any good at locking people up without reason. It always seemed so… uncivilized. Spend all my time hacking through darkspawn? Easy. Lyrium consumption, however, is a different story! So you're probably right."

Bethany laughs into the cold, breath coming out in solid white puffs of air. "I usually am."

"I'm not going to argue with that, I don't think," Alistair says, grinning down at her. There's something very soft in his eyes as he looks at her, all warm dark liquid gold in that long handsome face, and Bethany blinks.

"Alistair?" she asks. "Is everything alright?"

"I—" he startles, like he'd not been quite cognizant of his staring. "Yes, sorry, everything's fine. I was just thinking you looked cold."

"We are by the ocean? It is winter?"

"I'm aware," he says, but the softness doesn't leave his face. His thumb presses into one of her dimples, skin chapped from the sea air. Bethany smiles into it, just a little bit helpless, her curls everywhere and soft against her cheeks.

What a picture they must cut, standing out here when all the sailors have gone and the world seems to have frozen over, flush with colour and life against a brilliantly cold sky. The king dips his head down towards her, stops only a hairsbreadth away.

"We really ought to go back to the castle," Alistair says, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "You're going to get sick, and no one's going to let me forget that it'll have been my fault."

"I don't get sick very easily," Bethany smiles at him.

"That's what you say now. Just wait."

"You know, I can't tell if that's a threat or not? Are you threatening me with sickness, Your Majesty? Or…?"

"More like threatening myself," King Alistair sighs. "If you get sick because I couldn't keep my hands to myself, Chamberlain will never let me forget it."

"Does Chamberlain ever let anyone forget anything?" Bethany asks, honestly curious.

"Not usually, no," he says darkly.

It's far funnier than it should be.

Bethany tucks her mirth into the corners of her mouth, sways a little against him. The air smells cold, but above that she can smell leather, soap and skin and something strange and smoky, like a forest on fire. She wants to bury her face into it and breathe in deep, let the burning-ember scent of it soak bottomless into her skin until she can't smell anything else.

Alistair still has his arm around her shoulders, and it is only severe self-restraint that keeps Bethany from returning the affection. She knows she shouldn't. She knows she shouldn't even want to.

But Andraste, she wants to.

"You're right," Bethany says. The ocean eats up the sound. The ocean eats up the sorrow. The ocean eats up, and does not give back. "We should probably get back."

She's just finished up reading a letter from the Grand Enchanter when someone knocks.

(Skyhold's mage tower is growing, apparently. Micah's apprenticed to a necromancer; he seems to be doing well, has taken to the Nevarran tradition like a duck to water. Ava misses her, wants to know when she's going to come back. Grand Enchanter Fiona thinks that the girl might end up a shapeshifter, if only so that she's got a way to hide. The rest of her brood is doing alright, too, Trista and Elenn still bickering without end about everything under the sun. Bethany smiles a little sadly. She misses them, too.)

Bethany blinks, startled out of her reverie. "Yes? Come in?"

"It's just me," Alistair says. He's leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over his chest, and very nearly frowning. "Can I talk to you?"

"Oh, um, of course, Your Majesty, come in—"

"Beth," he says, exasperated. They've been over this; they've had their mouths all over one another, Maker preserve us, he thinks she can call him by his name. It's not that he's wrong, exactly, but Bethany sometimes thinks that they're going to get in so much trouble if they keep this up. Somehow, she already likes him, and Andraste knows there's nothing more dangerous than honestly liking someone.

Bethany makes a face. "Fine. Alistair. You can come in, now."

A little flicker of a grin crosses his face, but it only lasts half a second before it's gone. He spots the letter sitting on her desk, creamy white paper over well-oiled dark wood, and goes tight in the shoulders. "Word from the Inquisition?"

"Mmm, no, just the Grand Enchanter. It's about the children. They miss me," Bethany smiles down at the letter, the ache in her chest very raw, and wonders who her little ones are going to grow up to be. It hurts that she's not there to see it, but she doesn't know how to put that into words. "Don't worry about it, it's nothing. Did you need something?"

Alistair looks at her. "Do you ever think about going back?"

"No," Bethany says, and is surprised by how quickly the answer comes. No, she doesn't ever think about going back, not so long as the Inquisitor keeps ex-Knight-Commanders as advisors. It's just not—what she wants, anymore.

(Bethany isn't sure what she wants, but she knows it isn't to be in the middle of the Chantry's Inquisition. That's—no, that's not what she wants at all.)

"Right," Alistair says, nodding tightly. "Right."

"Is… something wrong, Alistair?" Bethany asks, hesitant, trying to reign in the urge to make concerned eyebrows at him. She has no idea what her face is doing, but she forces her hands to keep from reaching out to touch his elbow. That's too much, and he probably doesn't want it, anyway.

"I just—" Alistair sucks in a sharp breath, golden eyes gone dark, the shutters behind them closed. He blows the air out through his teeth. "I have to go to Redcliffe."

"Why?" Bethany asks. She tries not to think about Redcliffe very much.

"The Bannorn," he says. Alistair presses his fingers to his temples, jaw clenched. "They want something, but I don't know what. I can't skip it, my uncle's expecting me."

"I didn't know you had any family," Bethany says. "Other than Lady Anora, I mean."

Alistair makes a gurgling sound like he might have both tried to laugh and cry at once. "He's—Teagan's only sort of my uncle. He was my brother's—he was Cailan's uncle. So he's sort of my uncle, too."

"What's he like?" Bethany asks. She's not sure why she wants to know, but maybe it's shame. The Arl of Redcliffe had been thrown out of the city when Magister Alexius had come, and while Bethany had never thought the alliance with Tevinter was a good idea, she'd still been part of the rebellion, and not an insignificant part, at that.

"He's—he used to be kinder," Alistair says, quietly. "When I was—before I was crowned, he was Bann of Rainesfaire. I think it suited him better. Redcliffe has a history of being… difficult."

Difficult puts it light, Bethany thinks, dryly. Calling Redcliffe difficult is like calling Kirkwall difficult; what a person really means when they say a place is difficult is: this place should be on fire and I don't know why I'm here.

(At least in Bethany's experience, anyway.)

"You don't want to go at all, do you," Bethany asks, but it's not really a question.

"It's like people conveniently forget I helped end a Blight," Alistair sighs. "A few walking dead, and they lose their tiny minds. We all have better things to do."

Bethany fiddles with the edge of the letter. There are words stuck in her throat, and they're going to get out whether she wants them to or not. She bites down on her lip, caught somewhere between a smile at the teasing and worry at how this might come across. "Do you want me to come with you?"

"No," he says, too fast. "I want you to stay here."

"I'm—hold on, what?"

"Just—" he breaks off, and Bethany thinks she can hear him curse under his breath. "Stay here, Beth. Please. Stay here 'til I get back."

"If you're worried about the Venatori, that's—"

"It's not the castle I'm worried about," he says, firm. "I won't be gone long. Stay, alright?"

Where would I go? Bethany wants to tease, but there's something in his face that keeps her from it. Alistair's mouth has pulled down, brow furrowed, and she can't help but wonder if what he's really worried about is her. It would be silly; she's a mage, and certainly more than capable of taking care of herself. Bethany doesn't need saving, has never needed saving, but…

Well, maybe it might be nice to pretend.

"Alright," Bethany says, and stands up from her desk to leave the letter behind.

On the way out, her hand brushes his, and Bethany and Alistair very definitely do not look at each other.

Supper that night is a quiet, intimate affair. They take it in a little room off the kitchen, far away from the fanfare and the pageantry of the dining hall, just the two of them. Bethany's halfway through putting well-cooked chicken in her mouth—Andraste, she doesn't want to think about what the Venatori would have done to it, if they'd had the chance—when she thinks to ask about when on earth Alistair's actually going to be leaving.

"I'm supposed to be in Redcliffe in three days," he says. "I should have left this morning."

She stares at him, aghast. "Alistair, have you lost your mind? If they're expecting you—!"

He laughs. "I'll go at dawn, Beth, don't worry. Teagan won't be too upset, it's only a day, and I'll ride through the night if I have to."

There's something off about that, but Bethany's not about to call him on it.

He's leaving, anyway.

(It's cold in the pit of her stomach, and Bethany refuses to think about why. Leaving is easy. She's done it enough, herself: Lothering, Lowtown, Kirkwall entire, then Redcliffe, then Skyhold. Leaving is the easiest thing of all.)

"Be careful," Bethany says into her supper, although she has no idea why she's saying it. "Do you even have a healer in your guard?"

"That would be far too sensible of me," Alistair says, as somber as any one person can be while talking about the fact that they don't have a healer in their personal guard. He crooks at eyebrow at the way she's goggling at him. "What?"

"Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?" Bethany stresses. Worry pulls at her. "You really should have someone with basic healing skills, Alistair, what if—?"

"I've lived through worse, Beth," he says, goes strange and gentle. He sort of—reaches for her, a weird faltering movement like he's about to try to tuck her curls behind her ear. It's far too affectionate for the way they barely tolerate each other when they're not sucking bruises into one another's skin, and while Bethany doesn't shrink from the touch, it's a close thing. Alistair's hand hovers in the air for another moment before he lets it fall. "I'll be fine."

"You say that now," she mutters mutinously, but it's a losing fight and they both know that.

"I do," Alistair says, and grins. "But when I end up dead in a ditch, I give you my full permission to say I told you so."

Bethany takes another delicate bite of well-boiled chicken instead of dignifying that with an answer. There's no point. He's as ridiculous as Marian is when she's got a terrible idea in her head, and possibly twice as stubborn, and nearly three-times more likely to die. For all that Bethany's sister has a fully-regrettable habit of throwing herself at whatever danger as comes her way, the Champion of Kirkwall does have some sense of self-preservation. Alistair, on the other hand…

Does not.

(He is objectively better-looking, though how he's lived this long is circumspect. Bethany doesn't want to dissect the fact that she's attracted to him. That's just going to cause problems for everyone involved, especially her.)

"What," Alistair says, "you're aren't going to poison me, are you?"

"There are so many ways to make a person suffer that have nothing to do with killing them," Bethany smiles at him, lips curling up. "I wouldn't even have to try very hard."

"Well," he says, frankly. "That's frightening."

Bethany laughs, really laughs, because that's maybe the biggest understatement she's ever heard. As though there are days when she doesn't channel her older sister just to hold everything together, and as though today isn't one of those days. "Not as frightening as going without a healer."

"You're not going to let this go, are you?"

"Probably not."

The king heaves a sigh. "If I promise not to die, will that satisfy you?"

Bethany just pulls a face at him in reply.

"If I promise to back alive and well? With no bruises? I'll even try not to get thrown off my horse, and if I do get thrown off my horse, I won't even complain."

"I'd feel better if I was coming with you," she says. "You can't be sure—"

"I'm going to Redcliffe, Beth," Alistair says, gently. "Redcliffe."

"Oh," Bethany says, suddenly, remembering just who and what she is. She looks at him across the table, and has to fight not to suddenly stop eating. Her appetite is all but gone. She sets her cutlery down with hardly a sound, swallows hard. "I'd—"

Forgotten. The word hangs between them.

"Is that why you don't want me to…?"

"Yes," Alistair says. He closes his eyes for a second longer than a standard blink. "I just don't—I don't think it's a good idea."

"I wouldn't be safe, would I," Bethany says, because that's the real concern, here, isn't it? That's really what's bothering him. Redcliffe in swirls of sick broken Fade yellow-green, the whole world twisting in on itself as the magic bent time and space. The leaves on the trees starting to turn, some brilliant fire-lit thing as the world began its' long descent into winter, and the horrible spiked Tevinter hoods weaving insidious through so many of the people that Bethany loves.

"No," he says. "You wouldn't."

"You have a funny way of showing you care, Your Majesty," Bethany says, very softly.

"Yes," the king says, discomfort in the lines of his face. "Well."

They sit in awkward silence for a minute, neither of them quite sure where to go from here. It's the detent, the strange fragile lack of animosity, and Bethany finds herself eating for something to do with her hands. The air is indigo and every single good intention crackles inside of her, all of her magic and all her sunlight and all of her fires burned out.

Andraste, but she wants to touch him.

They finish their meal in silence, tension brewing up to boil. Bethany's about to go sod it, get up from the table and settle herself in his space, because it's easier to let that endlessly hungry part of herself to the surface and give it what it wants than it is to really think about the fact that she wants it at all. She's half up and out of her chair when Alistair seems to realize that something's going on, and he's up, too, in some misguided sense of chivalry that shows up at the worst possible times.

"Here, let me—"

"You don't have to—"

"Beth," Alistair says, strange and gentle. "Let me."

Bethany falls quiet beneath his hands, and lets him help her up. They stand there together, the scant inches between them heavy with it.

"Thank you for supper," Bethany says. "I suppose I… ought to go to bed."

"I'll walk you," Alistair says, instantly.

(She has to duck her head to keep him from seeing the smile.)

They don't talk at all, the whole way back. The Imperial Palace is quiet around them, the tapestries on the walls muting the sound of their steps. Bethany thinks she can hear a few of the maids giggling from behind them, whispering back and forth as they work their way through cleaning up evemeal's detritus.

Andraste, but they're so young.

She doesn't think she's ever been that young in her whole entire life.

"Well…" Bethany trails off, exhaling slow. The door to her bedroom is down the hall from this little room bend; here is where they split, most nights—when they're not attached at the mouth and furious with each other, Andraste's flaming knickers, but that's a trip—she to her space and he to his. "I suppose this is it. Goodnight, Your Majesty."

Alistair cocks his head at her. "Do you really think you're going to bed alone tonight, Beth? After everything?"

"I didn't want to presume," Bethany murmurs, ducking her head as she tucks a stray curl behind her ear. She can feel a delicate flush crawling up from below the neck of her robe, red heat that seems to wash away beneath Alistair's regard. "And it's not like we haven't—we've spent most of our time insulting each other, you realize."

"And kissing," he says, a horribly mischievous little grin lighting up his face. He chucks her under the chin, tips her face up so that she's looking at him, wide-eyed in the half-light of the torches along the walls. It's funny how much she suddenly feels like she's eighteen all over again, trembling and unsure with the way his hands feel on her skin. "We've done quite a lot of that, too."

"I don't think angry kissing counts, Alistair."

"I think it does," he says, bending close. His eyes flick back and forth, skittering across her face like he's looking for something to push him away. He won't find it. "Will it be angry kissing if I kiss you now?"

"No," Bethany murmurs, because it's true. She winds her hand into his shirt to keep him close. "It'll be…"

"Just kissing," Alistair murmurs back. He cups her cheek. His fingers are callused, and so infinitely gentle; it's such a foreign thing between them, gentleness. The torches on the walls seem to expand with the breath in her lungs, caught in the tempo of magic but unaware of it. In and out, like the tide. "May I just kiss you, Beth?"

"Will it really be just kissing?" she asks. Her bedroom is just down the hall.

Alistair thinks about this for a moment. Again, her bedroom is just down the hall, and he's never had a particularly good stone face; it's written all over him, the pale cream of her sheets, the way the sun slips in quiet in the morning, bare skin and soft mouths and heat, always heat. "Probably not?"

"I didn't think so," Bethany says, and she can't believe that she's going to do this, she can't believe that she's going to—

"So. Is that a yes, or…?"

Bethany wordlessly takes Alistair by the hand, calluses and bad decisions and kingly clothing, all, and takes him to her bedroom. The door is solid oak, heavy, and it hits her that if she does this, there might not be any going back.

Fury-fueled lust is one thing.

Open-eyed want is something else, entire.

"Beth?" Alistair asks, very quietly.

She looks over her shoulder at him. Alistair's tall, and there are lines around his eyes that mirror her own. He's only a year her elder, maybe two, and she wonders if he was ever as clumsy as she used to be. She wonders if he ever wanted the throne at all. She wonders a lot of things.

"I don't really want to sleep alone tonight, either," Bethany says, pushes open the door, and pulls him inside.

Bethany wakes to the creeping fingers of late-morning winter sunlight in through the window and an empty bed.

She's honestly surprised.

He did say he was leaving at dawn, but she's always been a light sleeper. Maybe it's just a holdover from the Gallows, or from the slums, or even from before that, in Lothering when sleeping light had been a necessity, not a choice. There'd never been any telling when the templars might come. It had just been the way things were.

Which is why it is so strange that she is waking up alone. The King of Ferelden has clearly been gone half an age, because the sheets are cold. Good long sleep isn't something Bethany is acquainted with, and she'd thought for sure she'd wake up before he did.

But—

Bethany knows she's slept better, inside the Imperial Palace. Gone deeper into the Fade, slept longer, been restored in a way she doesn't really ever remember being. The Gallows were a lot of things, dead and dying among them, but they hadn't ever been a good night's rest. Any creak of door or shuffle of foot or templar speech pulled her away from it, and it had been like that for so long that it had become normal. Even after the Circles fell, and it had been Bethany with Marian and her merry crew slowly splintering. Even after she'd left them for the rebellion. Even after Redcliffe.

(Andraste, if Bethany's honest, she hasn't slept well since Carver died. Maybe that's the real marker.)

Bethany didn't think she could sleep so deep that she wouldn't notice a whole person getting up and getting dressed, kissing her cheek and going away. Especially a person that part of her didn't actually want to say goodbye to!

Oh, Maker.

She scrubs sleep out of her eyes, and decides that she's going to have to think about this later. The day's getting on, and there's reading to do. Denerim's Imperial Palace's library has books that Bethany's only ever heard of, old things from before the occupation, some so ancient they make the Tevinter Imperium look new.

It won't be a trial to spend the days wandering between the shelves, finding nooks and crannies to fold herself into, and swallowing the knowledge down.

And it's with this plan in mind that Bethany struggles into her robes and goes in the search for food.

The Imperial Palace is a busy hum of activity, even without the King in residence. The mabari kennels are a distant braying sound layered over the clatter and clang of the kitchens, the silent army of servants going about their duties in the interim. It's strange how things don't just—stop, Bethany thinks. A person can forget a place, but that place still goes on, and things still happen there.

Nothing ever really stops. Bethany never really understood that, before.

And so this is how she spends the first couple of days on her own: reading a lot, writing letters that she's likely never going to send, and mopping up the last of the Venatori mess on her own, it seems.

"Oh, for the love of—!"

Bethany throws up a barrier just barely in time. The blood magic pounds against it, seeking entry as blood magic always does, and she's too irritated that they ruined her breakfast to be angry that they exist at all. The King of Ferelden isn't here right now for her to worried about, and so she throws every single part of herself into the magic, the sizzle-hiss of fire, the cool quiet interior of the barrier, the thud of the Maker's fist in her palms.

She breaks the Venatori's nose so hard it sends shards of bone into his brain, and then Bethany has to be sick.

"I hate killing," she whispers to Anora, when the heir apparent finds her. The older woman seems to have a knack for cleaning up messes, and Bethany aches in her chest at how little any of this death seems to matter to her.

Bethany thinks that Anora and Marian would get along well.

It makes her heart squeeze in the worst possible way.

"We all do," Anora murmurs. There's something brusque and businesslike in the way she gets Bethany off the floor, but her hands are gentle. Callused, for a noble. They stagger together against the wall, smearing away the remainders of a summoning circle drawn in blood. Bethany doesn't want to know who had to die to fuel it.

"Ow," says Bethany.

"You should probably go to bed," Anora says.

"It's not even noon," Bethany says. Her ribs hurt.

Anora crooks an eyebrow. The expression is so highly reminiscent of King Alistair at his most ridiculous that Bethany has to laugh, choking down on the mirth of it, because everything hurts and right now all she wants is to go home.

But Bethany hasn't had a home in a very long time.

The saddest thing is that Denerim is just as much home as Lothering ever was, and plenty more than Kirkwall. Freedom has been hard for some mages, but Bethany knows what the salted wind through her hair feels like, standing atop the deck of a pirate ship, and how many know what that feels like? How many know that kind of stomach-dropping, throat-twisting emptiness, the kind that might drop a person into the sky?

Andraste, but she misses Marian and Isabela.

And it's this thought that has Bethany slumping back against Anora and letting her lead.

Homes are what you make them.

"This isn't my bedroom?"

"Neither is the room you've been sleeping in," Anora says. She dumps Bethany on the bed, dusts her hands. "Get some rest, please, I don't need Chamberlain deciding that you've not had enough sleep, he'll ever leave it alone."

"Lady Anora, I—"

"Hm?"

"Thank you," Bethany says, and means it.

Lady Anora smiles faintly, ice in the eyes, and dips into the most graceful curtsy Bethany has ever seen before she slips away, and closes the door behind her.

Bethany's left alone in King of Ferelden's chambers like she belongs there.

The King's room is small, for a king's room. The curtains are thrown wide to let in the warped winter light, trickling cool over the burgundy of the coverlet. The sky outside is grey, but it's always grey in winter, Bethany's found; Denerim is a dreary city, but from this high up, it looks kind of nice. The slush looks like grainy sugar this far away, a pale dusting that turns the entire world into a storybook fairy tale. It's nothing like anywhere she's ever seen before and Bethany sits there for a while in the window nook with her knees up to her chest, just watching the world go by.

(She has a horrible feeling in the pit of her stomach that says that if she leaves, Lady Anora will know. Bethany wonders if this is how Alistair feels all the time, and makes a face in sympathy. Lady Anora is terrifying. Bethany hadn't known Alistair was a window-nook kind of person.)

There are books piled by the bedside table, thick old volumes that look as though they've been filched from the library when no one was looking, and a fresh candle with the wick untouched. Bethany stares at it for a long time without really seeing it—something about it throws her into a tailspin of memories. Suddenly she's in the Lothering with her farther, trying to call fire to her palms. Suddenly she's in Lowtown, the tiny glint of flame in Uncle Gamlen's hearth. Suddenly she's in the Gallows, reading by the very dregs of her last candle, turned away so that the templars don't catch sigh of light spilling out from underneath the door.

Andraste, it's just a candle.

But this whole adventure has been a build-up of little things, prickly thorns and blood magic smears, and it's all too much, suddenly. It's too much.

Bethany thinks she's going to be sick.

And so with her heart in her throat and her stomach in her hands, Bethany crawls into the King of Ferelden's bed, and she closes her eyes.

Wakefulness comes in strange, wispy fingers. The dream clings; Bethany has to claw her way into consciousness. Carver, she'd been dreaming of Carver, the surly set to his shoulders at eighteen, shoving Mother out of the way, the snap of his spine breaking—

Bethany blinks drowsily up at the man standing beside the bed.

"Oh," she murmurs, a slow, soft exhale of sleepy-sweet pleasure, and the dream recedes. Alistair. "You're back."

Something flashes across his's face, shadowed in the hearth's embers, but Bethany is too close to unconsciousness to catch it. The Void hovers at the edges of her vision, dark as molasses and just as saccharine, open and filthy palms to drag her back under. She doesn't want to move, far too content and far too warm to even consider it. She's still so tired.

"Hi," Alistair says, quiet and rather unnecessary, Bethany thinks.

Still.

"Hi," she says, struggling with the mess of quilts and blankets for a moment before giving up entirely to withdraw back into the warmth. He'll figure it out, he's smart when he wants to be.

"Comfortable, are you?"

"Mmm," she hums. "Get in here, it's too cold to keep the covers open for long."

"Dressed like this?" Alistair asks, mouth twisting up wryly. He waves his hands at his person, the burgundy cloak over his shoulders thick with slowly-melting sheaves of ice, frost still spider-webbed over the mabari emblazoned on the face of his chest plate in long creeping fingers. "Armour and all?"

"If you must, but I can't imagine that's comfortable," Bethany murmurs, a little burble of laughter in the words. "And you'll have to find your own blanket. If you're cold and covered in metal, I don't want to share."

"Oh, well, then," he says, like this is the biggest imposition he's ever encountered, ever, in his entirely life as he begins the long process of undressing. "If that's the way you're going to be about it, I suppose I must, then."

"You are very silly," Bethany informs him. She snuggles down deeper into the bed, covers up to her chin, looks up at him through droopy eyelids. The embers of the fire throw long stretching shadows and something niggles unnervingly at the back of her mind; they've not done this, before, not this strange, comfortable, sleepy slide into nighttime rest. If Bethany were more awake, she thinks it might bother her. If Bethany were more awake, a lot of things might bother her.

But as it stands, she is not more awake, and Alistair is already down to naught but thin breeches and slipping into bed beside her. He sort of—hovers, for a moment, unsure of his welcome.

Bethany makes a little sound, and scoots just a little closer to his chest.

"You're in my bed," Alistair says.

It is still a little unnecessary. Yes, she is very obviously in his bed, but where else would she be? Lady Anora had dumped her here, and he'd asked her to stay until he got back. And, frankly, his bed is much more comfortable than hers is.

(Not to mention that the maids seem rather like they would prefer to remain unscandalized, especially given what happened last time. As you were, Your Majesty.)

"Yes?" Bethany hazards, breaking the word into two syllables around a yawn. Andraste, she's too tired for this, she wants him to stop talking so that they can sleep. "Should I be somewhere else?"

"No," he murmurs, haltingly putting his arms around her. "No, you should be here."

"Mmmnm," she agrees. He smells like skin and metal and that acrid winter-ice scent that only comes from being outside in the cold for too long. Bethany burrows down against him, her nose buried into the crook of his neck. It's nice.

"Beth," Alistair says. His arms tighten around her for a fraction of a second, just enough to drag her that littlest bit closer, until they're caved into one another, curled like closed parenthesis. Bethany goes easy. He's so warm.

"Hm?"

"Sleep well, dear."

She does.

Bethany wakes to grey skies and a thin layer of snow on the sill, all tangled up in sheets and blankets and warm, sleep-heavy limbs. Alistair's wrapped himself around her like a limpet, tucked so close that she's not sure where one of them ends and the other begins.

She moves just a little, and he makes a low sound in her ear.

"Good morning," Bethany whispers, smiles against his jaw.

"No, stop that, I'm not ready to be awake yet," Alistair mutters. He buries his face into her curls and manages to somehow pull her even closer, his arms tightening around her waist. Pale light slips in through the window, wintery and cold. "Go back to sleep."

It would be so easy to let herself have this, Bethany thinks. Just this morning, just this minute, just this space to quietly breathe, the two of them without limits. No country, no war, nothing beyond the window except the creeping dawn. It would be so easy. It would.

But it wouldn't really get them anywhere, and she's had enough of pretending for a lifetime. She shifts a little, stretch of muscle over bone, the crick-crack of joints popping.

"No, no, no, what are you doing, don't get up," Alistair mutters, and has the gall to roll on top of her. "It took me forever to get you here, Beth, don't take this away from me."

"You're the one always complaining you don't get enough sleep," Bethany reminds him.

"I don't get enough sleep," he says, and crooks a half-sleepy eyebrow at her. He looks a bit like someone clocked him over the head and he's still reeling from it. Bethany giggles. "If you keep laughing at me, love, I'm going to have to do something drastic,"

"Alistair—"

"See, there, that's it. You've done it now, I'm awake," he sighs.

"What?"

"Shh, stay quiet, someone'll hear," Alistair murmurs, hiking her leg up over his shoulder. On his knees between her hips, Bethany can't think beyond the easy press of his lips to the thin skin of her thigh, has to cover her mouth to keep from hiccupping with pleasure. Her nightdress is rucked up to her waist, the ties at the shoulders nearly come undone. All of her skin feels alive, on fire and star-crossed and only a breath away from bursting into flame.

"Alistair, you can't—"

"Can, actually," he says, eyes alight with mischief, before it stutters, goes dark. "Unless you don't want me to."

"No, I—you shouldn't—we—"

"Use your words, Beth," Alistair grins slowly. "What do you want?"

"I—I want—Alistair!"

He waits, still grinning. His thumb rubs slow, dizzying circles into her hipbone. There's a mad, wild part of her that wants to pull him down and strip him bare in the cradle of her body, take away all the kingliness and leave only Alistair in the morning late autumn sun, bleached out white and unreal. His hand skates along her side, over the curve of her breast, up her throat, all so soft.

Bethany arches into it, just a little, breath coming short. "This is—this is so unfair—are you going to kiss me or not?"

"Are you going to ask me to?"

"Nnghnn," she says, which is not helpful to anyone.

"I didn't get that, sorry love," Alistair grins up at her. Bethany flushes all the way down her chest, has to cover her face so that she doesn't spontaneously combust. He touches her like electricity, all the crackling nerves shooting pleasure to the tips of her being; his hands, her bones.

She rocks against him to the quiet endless murmur of yes and please and there, there, there, his breath hot on her throat, her nails dug deep into his back.

Bethany bites down hard, bites down, and breaks apart with salt and skin on her tongue.

Afterwards, as they lie there in the quiet, Bethany can't help herself.

She starts to giggle.

"We are ridiculous, did you know that?"

"I'm aware. I heard you had a run-in with the Venatori," Alistair says, voice forced into lightness. He's idly drawing something against her shoulder with the tips of his fingers, though Bethany can't say exactly what. It feels nice. "How was that, then?"

"Just about as good as it sounds," Bethany sighs. "There was blood everywhere."

"That's not good," he says, making a face.

"No, not really," she tells him, a slip of laughter in the words. "But I think—I think that's all of them. Maybe. If we're lucky."

"Thanks for that," Alistair says, very quietly. "Getting rid of Venatori idiots seems more useful than what I did."

"What happened?" Bethany asks, shifting just so that she's laying on her side, hand curled on the pillow by her cheek so that she can look him in the eyes. The line of his mouth is crooked.

"They want an heir," he says. "Nothing new."

"It's not really all that surprising, is it?"

"No," Alistair shakes his head. "Doesn't mean I have to like it, though."

"I didn't say you had to," says Bethany. She traces the line of his nose, very careful. When he kisses her fingers, she smiles. It's funny, given what they're talking about. "That's the way nobles are, I guess."

"How do you know?"

"My sister is one," Bethany grins. "Which, technically, I suppose that makes me one, too. But—mage. Gallows. We all know how well that went."

Alistair stares at her in the half-light for a long time, gaze flicking restlessly over her face. "What was it like?"

Bethany doesn't insult him by pretending not to know what he's talking about. She takes a slow, deep breath, trying to fortify herself. Because the thing is that no one outside of the Circle can really understand what it's like, what the constant feeling of eyes on the back of a neck does to a person. And it hadn't just been that, either; the Gallows had been a brutal education in all the ways it was possible to make another human being suffer.

There's a reason Bethany doesn't talk about it much.

"You've been to Kirkwall, haven't you?" she asks, even though she knows he has. It's a stupid rhetorical question, meant to give her just one second to get her head together. "Did you ever see the Gallows?"

"That's where we docked," Alistair says, ducks his head a little awkwardly so that their foreheads brush.

"Did you stay there?"

"No."

"Once you pass your Harrowing, you can't be made Tranquil," Bethany says, very quietly. "That's the rule, that's the way it's supposed to work. But it's… the Gallows weren't like that. Knight-Commander Meredith set Kirkwall on fire, and—"

"And?"

"And none of the templars did what they were supposed to do," she whispers, hiding behind a curtain of dark curls. "And I couldn't—I couldn't stand it, I couldn't—it's why I left the Inquisition in the first place, Kirkwall's Knight-Captain is their military commander and—"

"I see," Alistair murmurs. He tucks her head beneath his chin and just holds her there, holds on until the shaking in her limbs goes still and she's left slumped against him, quaking in the aftermath.

"It's not good, Alistair," Bethany says. "People get hurt."

Bethany doesn't tell him about the inner working guts of the Gallows. She doesn't tell him about dead children and dead old friends. She doesn't tell him that there were nights she didn't sleep, breath held tightly in her chest, too nervous to sleep. She doesn't tell him about the light underneath the door.

Because she doesn't need to.

And she doesn't know how long they lie there together. It's long enough that the sun rises fully, sunglow spilling in through the window brilliant white-gold, the world outside glittering with snow.

All of life, wrapped up in today.

"Come on," Alistair says, at last. "Let's go find something to eat."

"I'm going down to the docks. Do you want to come?"

Alistair looks up at her, blinking owlishly. He's bent over a sheaf of papers at his desk, writing furiously. It's late afternoon, and the winter sun pours in through the window pale gold, lighting softly on his shoulders and on the dust motes that swirl up from the floor with every movement, catching the sun and glowing like fireflies in the night.

"I have to finish this," he says, but he's still staring at her.

Bethany settles down on the edge of his desk, smiling. "Really? It can't wait?"

"It shouldn't," Alistair mutters. He glares down at the papers. "Lady Anora will do that thing she does with her face."

"Lady Anora was the one who sent me in here, Alistair. I don't think she wants you to work yourself to death."

"Did she really?"

"Mhmm," Bethany hums, and turns very soft. She plucks the pen out of his suddenly-slack fingers, gentle. "Haven't you done enough work for one day?"

Alistair makes a very pathetic sound and reaches out to drag her into him. He hesitates at the last second and only catches the fabric of the robe at her hip instead, dark blue against his skin. One day, Bethany thinks, he's going to do that and he's not going to hesitate, will just bodily move her into his lap without thinking about it.

That day may very well be the best day of her life.

Bethany shifts over enough that her knees press into his thigh. You can, she tries to say without words, if you want.

(It seems like she's always telling him that.)

"Come sit?" he asks, so quiet.

Bethany does, and thinks that maybe sometimes a person just needs to say things aloud. She slides into the space between his chest and the desk like it was made for her, her hair curling around her shoulders, perfect whorls of ink that coil around them both as she twists to look at him. This close, Bethany can count his lashes.

She smiles. "Hi."

"Hello," Alistair says, simply. He brushes her curls out of her eyes.

"So, is that a yes to coming down to the docks with me?" Bethany asks him, a little teasing, a little fighting down the flush that's threatening just beneath her cheeks at the intensity in his gaze. "Or are we just going to sit here together and get nothing done?"

"I like getting nothing done," he says. He puts his arms around her, props his chin against her shoulder. "Getting nothing done means that I can stay like this all day, and who doesn't want that?"

"Well, that's a lie," Bethany laughs softly into the sunlight. She tugs on his shirt, and absently wonders how they got here: it feels like only weeks ago that they were howling at one another, both so furious that they couldn't even speak, fit to spit acid and fire. They've come a long way, the both of them, and even though Bethany thinks she might still set the Inquisition's Commander alight if she ever has to spend any time with him, Alistair…

King of Ferelden or not, Alistair is different story.

"It's cold out?" he tries, weakly.

"Only a little," Bethany says. It is cold out, but it's not snowing, at the very least, and the Amaranthine is a million shades of teal and cerise and gold glinting in the daylight. The docks won't be the same as they are in the summer, little crests of ice frozen along the quay instead of the lapping of waves against wood, but they'll be lovely to walk down. It's the first sunny day Denerim's had in what feels like weeks. "Please? Come outside with me? For a little while?"

"One of these days, you're going to get me in trouble," Alistair says. His nose brushes along her jawline.

"Pot, meet kettle," she says, wry. Bethany pulls back a little, and he gets a mouthful of hair. Ha. "I've been saying that since I first met you, Alistair."

"You just have to be difficult, don't you," the king sighs.

"Yes," Bethany says, and beams.

Alistair's arms tighten around her waist as he blows his breath out through his teeth. They're twined together in the same chair in the winter-bright morning sunlight, and they might have stayed like that all day were it not for the sudden knock-knock on the door.

Bethany's up and off of him fast as a burn.

(The maids might know, and thus the whole castle might know, but there are still some things. Bethany has to remind herself that this violin crescendo of softness is not love. They are not in love.)

The boy who peeks in at Alistair's call is more carrot-coloured hair and carrot-coloured freckle than he is anything else. There's something distinctly gangly about him; he's all elbows and knees, and he turns beet red when Bethany smiles at him.

"Hello there," she says, with no regard to royal propriety because King Alistair Theirin wouldn't know royal propriety if it danced naked in front of him, "Is there something you need?"

"I—I have a letter for Lady Hawke?" the boy says, glancing nervously between them.

"Chamberlain sent you, didn't he," Alistair says flatly.

The boy ducks his head, and holds the letter out gingerly. "Sorry, Your Majesty, 'e did. Said sommat 'bout Lady Hawke always bein' round, if you was. 'E sent me up 'ere."

"How does he always know," the king mutters under his breath.

"Later, Your Majesty. There's a letter?" Bethany asks, frowning. Because that doesn't make sense. Not really. She'd only just replied to the last letter she'd got from Marian—there'd be no time for a reply, not yet, and this is more immediate than questioning Chamberlain's knack for always knowing everything. "For me?"

"Yes, milady," the boy says, and offers the letter again. "'E said it were 'mportant."

"Thank you," Bethany murmurs, and reaches for it. The envelope is thick, but not half thick enough to warrant a runner, and there's a strange gravity to it that she doesn't expect. She casts another glance at the boy; he looks haggard, like he's been on a horse for that last three days and hasn't stopped, not even to sleep. Her face creases. "Go get something to eat from the kitchens, you can tell them I sent you."

"I—I should get back to Skyhold, Lady Nightingale's—"

"Food, first," Bethany says, firmly. "And sleep. Off you go."

The boy flushes haplessly when she smiles at him, and Bethany remembers that she is lovely. She remembers that her face is as much a weapon as her magic.

It's hard, sometimes, when no part of her isn't deadly.

Alistair waits until after the door is closed to say, "I'm going to kill Chamberlain. That poor boy's heading for a heart attack, I thought his head was about to explode. Do you have any idea what you do to people, hm?"

"Oh, hush, you're no help," Bethany tells him, primly, trying to keep her face from falling as solemn as she suddenly feels. "Do you have a knife? I need to open this."

"Here," Alistair says, quiet.

She takes it from him, slides it beneath the bright red seal. Kirkwall's dragon grins up at her for a moment before it shatters, and she's left holding an open envelope and a very sharp knife.

(The blade catches the light.)

"Oh," Bethany says.

"What is it?"

"It's—it's my sister," she says. Everything is shrieking inside of her, magic blaring, and it takes a conscious effort on her own part not to accidentally set the letter alight. "It's from Varric, it's—"

"Beth, love, breathe," Alistair says. His palm curls steady around her knee. "What happened?"

"My sister," Bethany says. "My stupid, stupid sister. She's—she's going to Weisshaupt, oh, Andraste, has she lost her mind?"

"May I?" Alistair asks.

When she nods, he plucks the pages from her slack fingers to scan them for himself, and Bethany watches the way his eyes go wide the further he gets into it. Varric's thickly flowing script spins a tale of sorrow and broken knuckles, eye-cut teeth and blood in the mouth. Demons and things and spiders with far too many eyes.

Bethany's sister had walked physically in the Fade, because of course she did.

"Maker's breath," Alistair whispers.

"I know. What do I do?" Bethany asks, a little shaky.

"You need to go," he says, like it's obvious. Maybe it is. Alistair straightens up and looks her straight in the eye, and by blood and by breath, Bethany has never seen him so serious in her entire life. Alistair reaches out to cup his hand around her cheek in a gesture to terribly tender that it shocks the words out of her mouth, and says, "You need to go right now, Beth. Right now. Today."

"But I—what about you?"

"What about me?"

"The Venatori—"

"Haven't had a foothold here for months, Beth, and you know it," Alistair tells her, and there's such a strange, hollow bent to the words, like he's known them forever and just hasn't wanted to say them. "You don't need to be here, anymore."

Bethany has to take a breath to dull the dagger of pain that buries itself between her ribs.

The worst thing is that he's not wrong.

She doesn't need to be here anymore. And for all of Varric's struggling reassurances, the letter had reeked of desperation, the kind of worry that can rend a person in two if not kept in check, every word shatter-shard broken glass jagged. Bethany bites down on her lip, and thinks that if Alistair asked to her stay, she would.

But he won't ask her to stay, and Maker knows, if there's one constant in Bethany's life, it's that her sister always comes to find her. Through smoke and flame and Kirkwall burning, Marian had always come to find her. Through darkspawn and templars and Lothering. Through dead and dying and drowning all the time.

Sometimes, family comes first.

"I guess you're right," Bethany says. She bites down on her lip and just looks at him for a moment. It shocks her, how all the air seems to go from the room, turned sharp and breathless and hurting. Oh, Maker.

This is all they have, now.

And things move very quickly, after that.

It's half a whirlwind to get her things gathered up, find passage on a ship, fend off Chamberlain's angry croaking and Lady Anora's raised eyebrows. It is incredible, Bethany reflects, the lengths to which a person will go to ignore what's happening right under their nose. Alistair helps her pack like he's not aware that she's going to be leaving at all; acerbic little jokes at his own expense when he manages to tack on his head of guard as an escort, self-deprecating nonsense about warm hands and cold hearts.

It makes Bethany think that maybe he won't miss her at all.

It—hurts.

More than she'd like to admit.

You little idiot, Bethany tells herself, right before she's all set to leave. It's just past dawn, pale grey rising in the east with the beginning of the day, the leavening of the night a dreaded thing. Varric's letter sits on the night-table of the bedroom that isn't hers anymore, and she looks at it every minute or so to remind herself why she's doing this.

Marian. You're going to find Marian.

She doesn't sleep at all, and when there's finally a knock at the door, Bethany doesn't startle.

She answers the door with careful, steady fingers.

"Well," Alistair says, standing in the doorframe, mouth tight. "C'mon, then. Let's go."

They don't speak to one another the entire carriage ride down to the docks. They don't touch, either, and Bethany can feel her heart aching between her teeth. She feels every bump and jolt of the carriage like a bruise. I'm sorry, she wants to say, but she has no idea how to apologize for this fragile, broken thing between them.

It's just a tiny spark.

And then they're at the docks, and they're out of time.

The ship looms up into the sky, sails a puffy-cloudy billow stark white against robin's egg blue, and the Amaranthine beneath it stretching into eternity silver-grey and freezing. She hasn't been on many ships in her life, Bethany, but they've all been awful experiences. She gets sea-sick. It's terrible.

But sea-sickness might be better than this.

"I'll—see you later, I guess," Bethany says. She kind of shrugs at him, kind of smiles. The air bites cold and salted through her hair, and the lines around Alistair's eyes are very tight. He watches her like a man about to go to his own death.

"Your Majesty," Bethany says, dipping into a curtsy just the precise level of respectful.

"Enchanter Hawke," Alistair says, bowing over her hand.

But there's no time to linger.

She slips through his hands like sand through the fingers. Bethany smiles over her shoulder at him only once, shouldering her pack and carrying her staff. She's witch and wild and weird, death, wind, and fire. The vessel is headed first to Highever, and then to Cumberland. She'll likely be gone nearly a season.

By the time Alistair thinks to say goodbye, she's disappeared into the ship's bowels entire.

And the King of Ferelden is left watching, left wanting, left missing her already.

"Get up."

Alistair grumbles, and yanks the covers further over his head. It's not morning yet, it can't be. If it's not morning, then Beth's not gone, and he can go back to sleep because all is right in the world and Anora is not in his bedroom making threats to his person.

"Alistair, I swear to the Maker, if you don't get out of bed, I will have to strip the covers off you, and that will be terrible because neither of us wants me to see your naked arse. Up!"

"No," Alistair says, feeling very much like a petulant child. He takes fistfuls of the sheets and ducks beneath his pillow. The light from outside goes dark, and for a moment the world becomes silent bliss. The probably that Anora's left is—

"If you don't get up, I will set Chamberlain on you."

—not large.

"You wouldn't," Alistair says, sitting up very abruptly.

As it turns out, Lady Anora Mac Tir is in his bedroom with her arms crossed over his chest and staring down her nose at him, making threats to his person. Bethany's gone to Weisshaupt. If this is a dream, it's not a very good one, Alistair decides.

"I would, and you know it," she says. "Stop moping, it's not the end of the world."

"Feels like it," Alistair mutters, even though it doesn't, really.

Being made King had felt like the end of the world. The first friends he'd ever really had scattered to the wind had felt like the end of the world. Arl Eamon, too ill to move, that had felt like the end of the world. Maker's breath, if anything had felt like the end of the world, it had been the darkspawn. But Beth's leaving is a different kind of wound. It is the end of the world, but on a much smaller scale—it's only Alistair's world that's ending, not everyone else's. He's not sure how to explain that, though.

And even if he could explain it, he's highly skeptical of Anora being willing to expend the energy to care. Honestly, Alistair can't really blame her. He knows he's being rather pathetic.

He would be wrong, though, because the bed sinks beneath his sister-in-law's weight.

"I know it does," Anora sighs. "I know it feels like you're never going to see her again, and I know it feels like the sun's gone away. But you're not helping anyone by moping, Alistair. Come on. Up."

"How do you know what that's like?"

Anora just stares at him, expression very flat. "I'm here, aren't I?"

"Is there somewhere else you're supposed to be?"

"Josephine Montilyet's bed, last I checked," Anora says airily, folding her hands in her lap. She looks at Alistair steadily for a long moment, without artifice. She's just a beautiful golden woman, and he loves her like an older sister. "We've always had to sacrifice the things we want. You know that."

Alistair glances at her out of the corner of his eye. "You wouldn't really set Chamberlain on me, would you?"

Anora thinks about this for another long moment, before at last, she sighs. "No, I suppose I wouldn't. That really is too cruel."

"Hah," Alistair says, but it doesn't sound victorious. Mostly, it just sounds sad. He flops down back to the bedpillows to stare at the canopy of his bed, and Anora doesn't tell him to get up again. Moping about it really isn't going to help in the long run, but she understands that sometimes a person just needs to wallow.

It's very quiet between them. And then:

"I miss her. I didn't think I would miss her this much," Alistair tells the ceiling, quiet like a secret but miserable in the execution. "I didn't think—"

"I know," Anora says. "Alistair, why do you think I'm here?

"To torment me and convince me to throw myself off a cliff so you can be queen and I never have to face Beth again?"

"Don't be an idiot."

"Sorry."

"No, you're not," Anora sighs out through her nose. She yanks the covers away from his head, and stares down her nose at him again, imperious and truly frightening, now. "I'm here so that you don't go and throw yourself off a cliff, at least until Enchanter Hawke gets back, and then she can deal with you."

And she doesn't bring up Alistair's issues with abandonment, and she doesn't bring up Cailan, and she doesn't bring up a lot of things that she could bring up, a lot of things that may very well destroy them both. Anora knows the art of war, and she knows that now is not the time to wound. Alistair's bled enough, these last days; cruelty now would kill him, and Anora is not cruel when she doesn't have to be.

"I miss her," Alistair says, again, blankly. "Why do I miss her so much?"

"Because she left, and you let her go. Did you even ask her to stay?"

"What, I—no, why would I have done that? I told her to go in the first place?"

"Oh, Alistair, you didn't," Anora says, and when she doesn't receive a reply, pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs again, deeper this time. "You did. Andraste's pyre, you asked for this!"

"I didn't, really," he says, because he didn't ask for it. It just sort of… happened.

"You did," Anora repeats, something pitying and empathetic in her face. Anora is a sharp person, Alistair's learned; there are no soft edges inside of her, no things done easy. It's been a decade, and they're as close to siblings as any two people not really related can be, but—

But still.

No one wants to be pitied.

"I did," Alistair says, defeated, and isn't actually surprised when she reaches over to pat his elbow. He slumps back down to the pillows. "Alright, what do I do now?"

"I don't know what being an idiot is like, so I'm not help to you," Anora says coolly. Whatever empathy had escaped her slips back behind the delicate moulding of her face, and Alistair watches, bemused, as Anora puts her armour back on. "But you can start by getting out of bed and being a King, again. We do have things to do.

It's a very long day ahead of him, Alistair knows.

But Anora's not about to go deal with his subjects on her own. She's made that very clear more than once.

And so he grumbles, and finally goes about getting out of bed.

Here is something that no one ever tells anyone about being a king: it is a lot of work

It is a lot of work, and it is thankless work, and it means a lot of sitting around listening to people complain about things that Alistair doesn't have the means to change even if he wanted to. It's a lot of brown-nosing and a lot of trying not to throttle the Bannorn lordlings who haven't a clue what a darkspawn looks like and a lot of always feelings like he's just one step behind everyone else.

It's a lot of words to say that by the end of most days, Alistair is very tired, and very thankful for the privacy of his room. His head aches and his heart aches, and he's got ink-stains all over the tips of his fingers. The sun's gone down and it's dark out, and he's still expected to go socialize. Maker's breath, how do people do it? How do they have the energy to… do that? How do they not all explode in a shower of tiny sparks, over-exposed and over-stimulated and over-tired? How does it—?

Alistair's got so many questions, but they all fly right out of his head when he pushes through the door to his chambers.

"I—Kal, what are you doing here?!"

Kallian Tabris is sitting on Alistair's bed with her legs crossed with a tiny wooden pick between her teeth, wearing her own weight in daggers—every time she shifts there's the tinny clink-clink sound of sharp edges knocking against one another just slightly—and grinning like the deranged blonde chipmunk she is. She's small, is Kally, small as she was a decade ago when she'd spent a good deal of her time ducking through Denerim's streets and causing all sorts of ruckus, laughing like a loon as they tromped all across the country trying to stop a Blight.

(First there had been Alistair, and then there had been Sereda, and then there had been Morrigan—yeurgh, Morrigan—then Leliana and Sten and Wynne and Zevran and Shale and Ohgren, and then there had been Kally. It had been a vicious, violent little family, and even now, Alistair loves them all so much it makes him a little ill. The Blight had been many things, but at the very least, it had given him that.)

Alistair stares at her, mouth just the slightest bit open, entirely wordless.

"Hello t'you, too," she shakes her hair out and narrows stormy-sea-colour eyes at him. "Heard you've been up to some nonsense with a mage. Is she here?"

For a very, very, very long moment, Alistair continues to have nothing to say at all.

This is Anora's fault somehow, he's absolutely sure of it.

"How did you get in here?" Alistair manages, at last.

"Through the window, like a normal person," Kally says carelessly. She waves in the general direction of the window, where the lock's broken clean through. Maker's breath. "Zev would say hello but he's sleeping, so I came on my own."

"I thought you were in Tevinter," Alistair says, a little helplessly. Nothing good ever comes from Kallian Tabris being home in Ferelden. She's as much his sister as Anora is, these days. And he does love her, but she's wild as an open-ocean Amaranthine storm, and not even Sereda can control her when she gets an idea into her head.

"I was," Kally says. "And now I'm back. Because I heard you've been running around with a mage! What's she like? Is she anything like Morrigan? If she's like Morrigan—"

"How do you even know that?! And no, she's nothing like Morrigan, why would you even think that—"

"Oh, good, because if she was like Morrigan, I was going to have to knock some sense into you. And besides, Lady Mac Tir talks to Lady Montilyet, Lady Montilyet talks to Nightingale, Nightingale talks to Ahni, Ahni talks to me," Kally says, all in very quick succession, a lightning-fast rundown of one, two, three, four, five of the most dangerous women he knows. "Obviously."

All of a sudden, Alistair misses Bethany very desperately. She would probably press her face into his throat, shoulders shaking with laughter, a bundle of sweet warm curls and sweet warm skin. Or maybe she'd get that sour little twist to her mouth like she does when she's annoyed, mouth pinching up and eyebrows drawing together, her hands on her hips. Or maybe—

"Holy tits, Ahni wasn't lying, was she?" Kallian says, interrupting the half-finished aching train of thought. "You're really into it with this girl. Look at you, you're mooning!"

"I am not mooning," Alistair says, affronted.

"You are, though," she says, placating. Kally rolls into standing, the crack of all her bones loud enough to echo. Alistair thinks of the Landsmeet half a lifetime ago, when she'd stuck her pointed chin out and bared her teeth and all the nobles watching had shrunk back, had suddenly felt a little trickle of fear down their collective spines at the wild-eyed rage that had cloaked her slim shoulders. That wild violent girl isn't the woman standing in front of him now, but she's close, and she's still really the only family he has.

He swallows down the sigh in his throat. "I am not—"

"Shut up, you're mooning about her and you know it. Could be worse, though," she mutters, consideringly, as she squints up at him. "You could've picked that Orlesian bint. Good job on having decent taste, I guess?"

"What sort of compliment is that?"

"Isn't," Kally says. She's quiet for a long minute, still squinting. "She alright?"

"Yeah," Alistair says. "She's alright."

She's like honey-coloured morning sunlight, he doesn't say. She's like lilacs in springtime, and blue sky, and clean salted ocean breeze. She's like laughter spilling out of a window and splashing into golden puddles of sound, like the tiny prickle of lightning that goes up his back every time he touches her, like walking fast through the wind all the way down to the docks. She's like sleep-warm sheets. Like fresh parchment. Like home.

Yeah, he thinks, goofy with it, she's alright.

When Alistair comes back to himself, Kally's squint has bloomed into a tiny, real smile. It lights up her whole face, from pointed chin to clear blue-grey eyes, the faint freckles across her nose winking. He has no idea what she's thinking, but it's not often he's seen Kallian Tabris really, truly smile.

"Where is she, then?" Kally asks. "Need t'put the fear of the Maker in her, you know."

"She's—" and Alistair has to pause, has to close his eyes for a little longer than a standard blink, and he pictures Beth's face to help him through. "Weisshaupt, Kal. She's going to Weisshaupt."

"Who in their right bloody mind would want to go there?"

Not even Reda wants to go there, he can practically hear Kally saying the words, even though she doesn't. And, very well, that's true. Not even Warden-Commander Sereda Aeducan wants anything to do with Weisshaupt's politicking, and she's from Orzammar. And that should say something, given that mostly what Alistair remembers of Orzammar is the Commons' pervasive smell of dwarven vomit and molten rock, and the very rapid narrowing of Reda's eyes every time someone mentioned her brother. It hadn't really been an amazing experience.

"Her sister is—it's complicated?" Alistair offers.

"Try me," Kally says, folding her arms.

"Her sister is the Champion of Kirkwall," he says. Half-hesitating and glancing out of the corner of his eye at Kally, the whole story comes tumbling out. "There was—the Inquisition just—Adamant, you know how that place is, you know how Weisshaupt is! Beth said something about the Fade, I'm not sure I understood, but she had to go and I—miss her, alright, I miss her! It's awful and I miss her! And I can't just tell her that, because then the Champion of Kirkwall might come and murder me, and who wants to be murdered by the Champion of Kirkwall? She only started a war, Kal, that's not good precedent!"

"…You know, sometimes I think you've got a death wish?"

Alistair doesn't disagree. Sometimes he thinks he has a death wish, too.

After a minute or so of silence, Kally sighs and shakes her head at him. "Hopeless."

"Thanks, Kal," Alistair says, flat. "You always know just what to say to make a man feel better."

"You're welcome," she says graciously, tosses her head. "So, you going to write to her or not?"

Alistair thinks he should probably set her on the Bannorn lords, if only because they'd likely never bother him again. They would understand what he was dealing with, maybe cut him a little slack to hang himself proper. It's a nice dream, anyway. "Somehow, I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not? What did letters ever hurt?"

"Do you or do you not recall that you never wrote me back?"

"I was killing Tevinter magisters," Kally sticks her tongue out at him. She looks about five years old. It is absurd. This whole conversation is absurd. Alistair's life is absurd. "When was I supposed to have time t'write you back?"

"That's my point," Alistair stresses. "She won't have time, either."

"You won't know until you try," she sing-songs at him, a horrible little smirk crawling across her face. Kally prods him in the shoulder, cackles when he bats her away. "Tits, you're gone on her, there's no hope for you. Write her a letter, already!"

"I hate you," Alistair says, and hugs her tight enough that she tries to elbow him in the kidneys.

Dearest Beth

"Shit, no, that doesn't work."

To Enchanter Bethany Hawke, as dictated by His Majesty, King Alistair Theirin

"Shit, not that, either."

Beth, love, I miss you. Come home.

"Oh, come on, that's just pathetic."

I didn't mean what I said the way it sounded, I just wanted you to smile again but maybe I should have said that, I'm sorry I'm not very good at this, I'm trying

"Maker's breath, get it together, man!"

Dear Beth,

It's bloody well cold here, winter's come early. I'm glad you made it out of port before the first storm blew in, it seems like we haven't seen the sun in weeks. Chamberlain's been fussing, without you here he's got no one to help force me out of bed except for Lady Anora, and she's not halfway interested if it means she can spend her time writing bad poetry about Lady Montilyet's eyes without anyone to tease her for it.

Everyone misses you. The foreman was complaining that they don't get nearly as much work done without you, something about the threat of you setting them on fire with your mind? Honestly, I don't think I want to know. It seems like one of those things that's going to get me in trouble for asking about. What's Weisshaupt like? Are you there, yet?

Hoping you're well,

Alistair

It's not the worst letter he's ever written. It's not the best, either, and it doesn't say even a quarter of the things he wants it to say, but Alistair thinks that it might be a little early to write all those things down.

(Writing them down will make them real, and he's not sure he's ready for that. He doesn't think she's ready for that, either, and maybe that's the real thing holding him back. Her eyes flash through his mind's eye, warm brown like sleep and dark and safety, and how they'd gone shuttered when he told her that she ought to go.)

Still.

Alistair blows his breath out as he ties the letter to a messenger bird's leg and sends it off. He does it fast, faster than he thought he could, fast enough that he doesn't have time to really think about it. He does it fast enough that he doesn't have time to change his mind.

After all, the worst thing she could do is not write him back.

Alistair tries not to think about how much it might hurt, if she doesn't.

A day goes by, and then two, and then three. Anora takes one look at the way he's moping, and sticks her nose in the air. Alistair thinks that's her way of saying she's not going to talk to him until he pulls himself out of it, but he doesn't want to pull himself out of it, what he wants is for Bethany to not hate him and to write him back and Maker, he wants to tell her that he misses her because he does miss her and—

Thank the Maker, he doesn't have to wait too long.

It's hardly been a week, and then he gets a reply.

Bethany writes like she's having a conversation, like she's sitting in the room right next to him with her head on his shoulder instead of being somewhere that's nearly all the way across the world. It's the most comforting thing Alistair can think of. Somehow, knowing that Beth is always the way she is, even in letters, is immeasurably reassuring.

Alistair,

Shit, Alistair thinks, has to pause so that he doesn't crumple the letter to bits and pieces while he berates himself. I've mucked this up. He swallows it down, and reads on.

We're made port in Cumberland. Ser Soris has arranged a carriage to take us up through Nevarra and Tevinter, but we're not leaving until the day after tomorrow. Cumberland is the strangest city I've ever been in, and I lived in Kirkwall, so that's saying something. Everything's—I don't know how to explain it. The colours are all brighter, here. If I have time, I might go see where the old Circle used to be. The Grand Enchanter used to talk about it, before… well, before everything happened.

I've never been this far north, before. My robes are too heavy for this weather, I'm going to have to find something else to wear. I didn't realize how wet it was going to be! I miss the Hinterlands, this doesn't feel like winter, at all. Oh, if you get any letters from Skyhold for me, could you send them along? Ser Soris said this bird is one of Lady Shianni's, and that we should be able to use it to write back and forth. I don't know how long it'll be until you get this, but tell the foreman I said I had nothing to do with any of it, and that he's going to have to talk to Dworkin if he wants real answers.

My sister's been through here. I don't know how I can tell, but I can. It's maybe something in the air? She always did leave a trail of carnage, no matter where she went. I hope you're doing well, too.

I miss you.

Bethany

Alistair has to read through it twice, gaze hungry on the slanted handwriting and specifically on the last three words before her name, I miss you, even with a line crossed through them as they are. It's only one line, after all—if she'd not wanted him to see it, Alistair thinks she likely would have started over. And, well, she'd written it there in the first place, so it must be true.

I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.

(He savours the words like fine Antivan brandy. She misses him.)

Eventually, though, Alistair manages to tear himself away to pen a reply.

Beth,

I miss you, too. Come home. Please.

Alistair

That's a terrible reply, he's pretty sure. Again, not half the things he really wants to say, and only one thing that he does, and it doesn't even go half so far as he wants it to. The missing is one part of it, but the rest…

Alistair sighs, crumples and bins it, and starts again.

Dear Beth,

I'm assuming you're taking the Imperial Highway up to Weisshaupt. That's the way I'd go, not that I've ever had the chance. Are the Silent Plains really so… silent? Chamberlain wants me to send you something, but all he talks about is trying to make sure someone feeds you while you're gone. I don't know what to make of it.

Tell Soris I say hello, and that when he gets back, he's going to have to give Kally a talking to. She's home, and she's being a menace.

Maker's breath, I'm terrible at this. I miss you, too.

Alistair

Time turns strange, in between the letters. Denerim after Satinalia is a dreary sort of place, and he's not been much in the mood for celebration, regardless. Lady Anora just tuts every time she sees him, like she's offended entirely by what he's wearing. She might be. If Alistair weren't so terrified of her, he'd probably say something about it, but as it stands, he is terrified of her, and so he doesn't. He expects that she's writing to Lady Montilyet every second day and insulting him within an inch of his life. He can't blame her, honestly.

And so he waits for Bethany to write him back like he's waited for everything else in his life, always unsure that he's wanted, and so he's still pleasantly surprised every time she does.

Dear Alistair,

I hate Weisshaupt. I want to leave. I don't know how long we're going to stay—Ser Soris said he's not going anywhere without me—but I hope it won't be long. These Wardens are the dourest group of people I've ever met, they're grim beyond belief. It's like they never learned how to smile?

My sister seems to be having the time of her life antagonizing the First Warden. I can't believe she's lived this long, honestly. But they held a vigil for Warden Stroud—I'll tell you what happened when I get back, but the whole thing was very quiet. I felt like I was intruding.

Here, a griffon feather. For good luck.

Bethany

The griffon feather is tied to a long length of soft dark leather meant to be hung around the neck. Alistair stares at it unseeingly for a long time; there are a few teal-blue beads strung along it, the precise colour that he's always associated with her. When he rubs his thumb over one of the beads, it shines, and he absently puts the necklace on. He's going to need to find her something. Maybe a book? No, that would be too heavy, the bird would get lost over the Waking Sea, and then where would he be? It'll have to be something else, something small that she wouldn't expect—

Alistair seizes on it all at once, and starts to write.

Dear Beth,

Thank you for the feather. How did you know? Am I really that transparent? Perhaps I should work on that, but—it doesn't matter, does it. Maker, I really am terrible at this, Chamberlain's going to have a field day when I send this without letting him read it first. He's been croaking about feeding me again, I thought we'd managed to get past it but it doesn't seem to have taken. At this rate, I'm going to choke on turnips and fatty cuts of meat. I'm beginning to think that's his plan, and then he'll crown Lady Anora again when no one's looking. She says she misses you, by the way. Apparently, my existence in general is less painful to deal with when you're around. Satinalia was exhausting.

I don't know if I ever told you, but during the Blight, I found a rose in Lothering. Everything had already gone Tainted, the bush was gnarled and mostly dead but there was—there was a single rose, growing on it. I couldn't leave it there. It was something… special. Unique. Absolutely impossible, given the whole Blight business. I carried that rose around for a year. Don't have it anymore, of course.

But yesterday, I saw this and thought about it. And then I thought about you.

Pretty flowers for pretty girls.

Love, Alistair

He folds the bright purple sea-flower into the letter, praying that it won't dry out and crumble away into dust on the trip, and sends the bird off. It's the last thing he ought to have been able to get his hands on, because it's the dead of winter and nothing ought to grow, but Chamberlain's greenhouse is a strange place. There are purple sea-flowers growing behind the glass away from the snow, and Alistair watches the bird fly away until it's nothing more than a speck in the sky. It's funny how much it feels like he's twenty again, tucking soft perfect petals away into his pack before the darkspawn came.

Maker's breath, but Alistair hopes she understands.

And not three days later, he gets his reply:

Dear Alistair,

I'll see you soon. We're coming home.

Love, Beth

"Anora!" Alistair shouts at the top of his lungs. It feels like the whole castle shakes with it, giddy with excitement, half out of his mind with euphoria, and Alistair goes vaulting over the settee to stumble down to the hall to Anora's solar. "Anora, she's coming back! She called it home! She called Denerim home, do you know what this means—!"

"I don't know you," Anora rolls her eyes, and closes her door in his face.

Half a fortnight of breathless waiting later, Bethany comes back.

The docks are full of people; it's the first wave of merchant ships into the Denerim harbour since Wintersend, and that's already half a season ago. There had been an ice storm off the Amaranthine that had closed the city out to sea travel, and while Alistair had plenty enough to think about with the docks shut down, he'd not been able to concentrate on anything that wasn't directly related to Bethany and home.

She's got a bright red scarf knotted around her curls, and Alistair's breath leaves his lungs.

"Enchanter Hawke," he manages. "Hello."

"Hello, Alistair," she says. She smiles shyly, and it feels like springtime all over again, like pale green grass growing up through cracks in stone. "I'm back."

"Maker's breath, it's good to see you," he says, soft and wondering. There's a kind of awe in his face, and his fingers tangle along the cuffs of her robes at her wrists, so close to skin on skin that he can hardly stand it.

"It's good to see you, too," murmurs Bethany in reply, eyes bright. She smiles up at him, something brilliant in the early-morning chill, cheeks pink and chapped from the ocean wind. She looks alive, vibrantly, vividly alive. Alistair nearly stumbles into her from how much he wants, except that they're in public, and he's already been getting curious stares from the dockworkers hauling cargo out of the ships moored along the quay.

Andraste, it's odd enough that the King of Ferelden is down here at all.

But Bethany is all dark curls and dimples and that shy, happy smile in the sunlight, and Alistair finds that he's having difficulty actually dredging up the will to care what anyone thinks. Let them think; they don't get to have that smile, and Alistair does.

"We should—" he says, swallows down the urge to curl his hand around her cheek. Not yet, not here, not safe. "We should get you up to the castle, get you warmed up, you look like you could use—"

Bethany catches his arm. "Alistair, when was the last time you slept?"

Alistair actually has to think about this. "Yesterday?" he hazards. "The day before? Maybe?"

Bethany makes a sound like a mouse being trop on, and sets her jaw, eyebrows pulled down. It might be worry in her face, but Alistair is too far gone to tell, because she's here, and she's home, and he's missed her so much that he might be sick with it.

"Alright, come on," Bethany says. "You're going to bed."

"What?" he says, blinking owlishly at her.

"You're going to bed," Bethany repeats, a little firmer. She tucks her hand into the crook of his arm, and determinedly marches forwards. "Clearly I can't go anywhere because if I do, you'll end up drowning in the Drakon. Why didn't Lady Anora stop you? Why didn't Chamberlain stop you?"

"Beth! Beth, love, stop, I'm fine," he laughs, and only laughs harder when she turns to glare at him. "Shouldn't we get your things?"

"Ser Soris said he'd send them up," Bethany says. "And I've got my staff. I don't need anything else, and you need to sleep."

"I really am fine—"

"You're wobbling, Alistair," Bethany says. She steadies him just a little, hands lingering until she's sure that he can stand on his own. People are staring, but neither of them seem to much care. She frowns up at him, wide dark eyes in a solemn teardrop of a face. "Please?"

Maker, as though he has the willpower to tell her no after that.

Bethany tucks her arm into the crook of his elbow again, and half-drags-half-carries him back to the carriage. There's the faint golden gleam of Force magic between her fingers, and this is what he concentrates on in the rattle and shake of the ride home. Market District is a blur of orange-and-yellow hex flags and the pale green shadows of the vhenadahl in the alienage; they pass through the city faster than Alistair knew possible, and he takes slow, deep breaths in through his nose because everything smells like spring lilac and summer sun.

"Alistair," Bethany whispers. "Wake up, we're here."

He startles into wakefulness. Bethany nudges him just a little, smiling from where he's somehow managed to bury his face into her hair. It's half a miracle he even managed that, Bethany thinks—the noonday sun isn't forgiving—and waits for him to come out of the grogginess. Alistair blinks owlishly, a little bit out of time, and it's not funny but it is funny, and she finds herself affectionately brushing a sandy golden fringe out of his eyes.

Andraste, he really is hopeless on his own.

"I thought you said you weren't tired," Bethany teases, mouth curling soft and sweet.

"I didn't fall asleep, I've no idea what you're talking about," Alistair says, but he's still halfways to wrapped around her and mostly slurring his way through it. The Imperial Palace leaks in through the heavy velvet curtains over the carriage window: mabari barking, footmen in livery shouting, and over it all, the weak pour of spring sunlight and the oddly endearing scent of mud.

Home, in all its forms.

"If you say so," Bethany smiles against his cheek. "Are you going to get off me?"

"No," Alistair says, around a mouthful of Bethany's curls. "I'm good, thanks."

"We can't just sit here for the rest of the afternoon, you know," Bethany says, still smiling. "People are going to be looking for you, you can't just skivvy off of being king."

"I do what I want," says Alistair.

Bethany snorts at him. "Well, that's a lie."

"Yes, I'm a bad, bad liar," he says, grinning, and for a moment his teeth press against her earlobe. Bethany shivers against him, because he hasn't slept and she hasn't been on hard ground and they've both missed one another, even though neither of them have said it aloud. That's something for later, when the entire city isn't staring at the carriage they still haven't absconded from, yet, and when Alistair isn't entirely intent sucking a bruise behind her ear.

"Alistair," Bethany says.

"Yes, my dear?"

"We have a bedroom for this, you know," she says softly teasing, a little thread of laughter in the words.

"I'm aware," he replies, as cheerfully as a man only half paying attention can. "But I'm still good, thanks."

"Alistair," Bethany says, again, because even though he's warm and solid, they both really ought to move. He's somehow manhandled her into his lap, and Bethany is struck by a long-forgotten echo from a time before she'd left, when she'd thought that one day he was going to bodily move her without thinking about it and how it was going to be the best day of her life. She wasn't wrong, exactly, but she'd not thought it would be like this. The window dressings hang heavy around them, an ocean of crushed maroon velvet to close out the rest of the world. Bethany allows herself to revel in his nearness.

"Do we have to?"

"Do you want to explain to Chamberlain why we spent the afternoon in a carriage?"

He winces. "You know, maybe you're right."

There are still dark purple shadow-blooms beneath his eyes, and Bethany doesn't think he's slept nearly as much as he should have. She reaches up to run sparkling fingers along the lines there, the healing just a little thing.

Alistair drops his forehead to rest against Bethany's and closes his eyes, arms winding tight around her waist. They sit there in the carmine-tinted darkness, quietly breathing the same air.

"We should go," he says, after long moments where no one says anything at all.

Bethany will never be quite sure how they end up getting back into the castle. It will be one of the long mysteries of her life, along with how she ever survived the Gallows and why it is that socks always seem to disappear in the wash no matter where she is in the world. She knows that it takes jostling and coaxing and she knows that Alistair's hands never leave her person entirely, not even when the servants hurry past in currents, not even when Lady Anora eyes the pair of them over the bannister and doesn't deign to say a word, not even when Chamberlain croaks at them about desecrating the sanctity of the castle's halls.

What she does know is that as soon as they're alone behind a closed door, Alistair's mouth is on hers and she's up against the wall with her arms around his neck, pressed close enough that its difficult to tell where she ends and where he begins. The awful edges blur away with time and the homecomings and his fingers biting into her thighs.

And oh, Bethany had missed him.

"What happened to sleeping?" she asks him, half-breathless, still aware that he'd only dozed all the way home. There's something in the air here, something that makes all reason fly from her head. Bethany doesn't worry about it, because it's very hard to worry when the King of Ferelden is currently the extent of her entire universe.

"What happened to being worried about Chamberlain?" Alistair snickers, because Alistair is terrible.

"He's only bothered about his castle halls," Bethany says, and Alistair chokes out laughter against her throat.

"You're not wrong," he says into her skin, and then he falls quiet, all wrapped up around her. "How was Weisshaupt?"

"Grim," says Bethany, because it was. For a moment the tall cold mountains loom in her mind's eye, peaks so high they were dusted with snow despite the burning heat of the sand shifting beneath her feet. The Wardens hidden away in their freezing stone castle, all those faces burnt clean of happiness with nothing but duty left in their eyes. It had been the beginnings of a nightmare.

"That bad?" he asks.

"In some ways, it made the Gallows look cheerful," Bethany tells him.

Something flickers behind his eyes.

"What?" she asks.

"You—" and just like that, Alistair lets her go, shaking his head. "You make me crazy, you know that? Being around you makes me crazy, but not being around you is worse! I'm not—I have—" he breaks off, pacing the length of the room, agitated with it, twitchy and jerky and half-mad in the pale light through the window. He runs his hands through his hair. "I have no idea what to do about you, Bethany Hawke."

"Why do you have to do anything with me? You're the one who wanted me to come home," Bethany says, shoulders drawing up around her ears. She feels all of ten years old, struggling to come up with reasons for the hurt.

You wrote me first! Bethany wants to snap at him. You wanted me here, didn't you?

She doesn't manage it, but only because Alistair gets there first.

"I missed you," he says, the kind of quiet that's so raw even a cool breeze smarts. There's a skein of nervousness to it, some anxious distorted edge that has Bethany curling her fingers against his collarbone. "Maker's breath, I missed you."

"I missed you, too," she says. "But you were alright without me."

"No," he says, shakes his head just a little. There are little hauntings in his eyes. "I wasn't."

It might be the most honest thing Alistair has ever said in his entire life. Bethany looks up, and knows all of sudden that this kind of honesty is hard for him—this gut-wrenching, serious, swordhand-to-the-Maker honesty—it's sliced him open and peeled his skin away from his soft squishy innards, and the fact that he's trying at all is more than enough. She stays close, naked heart a glowing thing in her chest.

"Are you going to be alright?"

"You're back, aren't you? As long as you don't plan on going anywhere, I don't think Anora will have reason to kill me—"

"Don't say that, you know she wouldn't," Bethany murmurs.

"She might," Alistair says, voice dry. "I was profoundly useless without you, did you know? She set Kally on me, it was terrible."

"Your life is so difficult, whatever shall you do?"

"You tease, but it's true."

"Mmm," Bethany hums, carefully herding Alistair towards his bed. He's still looking so out of it, she's going to have to spend so much time putting him back together. She has no idea how he's lived this long; she can hardly keep track of herself on a good day, but Alistair is worse. The dark smudges beneath his eyes have leavened to muted greys.

Andraste, they could both use so much more sleep.

Sleep is something for later, though.

Alistair kisses her shoulder, clumsy like an afterthought, and then Bethany is struggling with her clothes, and then they're both struggling with her clothes, and laughing with it, and laughing with each other, and—

"Marry me," Alistair says.

"Yes," Bethany says.

"What?" Alistair chuckles, raises an eyebrow as he looks down at her. He's propped up against the bed's headboard, covered all over in mouth-shaped red marks that are likely going to bruise. Something in Bethany's chest purrs. "I'm sorry, did I hear that correctly? Did you just say yes?"

"I did," she says, smiling up at him. "Yes, I'll marry you."

"You—how is this going to work, then? I thought you didn't want to be Queen of anything."

"I don't," Bethany tells him. The covers are pulled up to her chin, and she knows she doesn't need to tell him that the Bannorn would never accept a mage on the throne, even a mage related to the Champion of Kirkwall. He knows that already—they both do. "But I do want to marry you."

"It would have to be a secret," Alistair says. He reaches down to move a curl out of her face, so painfully gentle. He watches the way the moonlight scatters across her cheeks, freckling up silver and shadowed. He thinks of the brilliant white sparkle of her magic in the dark, healing and clean, like being in a cathedral of stars. Levels of light. "We'd always be a secret."

"I like secrets," Bethany murmurs. "There are worse things to be, you know."

"Like what?"

"Like not together," she says, softly. "That would be worse."

"That would be worse," Alistair agrees very quietly, and they just stare at one another for a long moment that hangs unbroken, a shimmering golden skein of light wound around both of the tips of their fingers.

"Are you going to come back down here, or are you just going to keep staring at me?" Bethany asks, the corner of her mouth pulling up.

"Could I do both?"

"No, I don't think so, this is a staring-free bed," she tells him, quite reasonably, and pretending not to laugh at all.

"Oh, if that's how it is—"

Bethany makes a sound like a mouse being trod on when Alistair promptly flops down on top of her, a high-pitched squeak that paints the air over the way he's crowing into the side of her throat.

"Andraste, Alistair, you're crushing me!"

Alistair cackles and turns dead weight on top of her, and for a while Bethany struggles beneath him. But she's not strong enough to dislodge him without magic, and maybe she doesn't really want him off, anyway. Bethany goes still as a glass pool, and curls her hands against his shoulders.

"Beth?" Alistair asks. "Should I move?"

She looks up at Alistair, at the crooked line of his mouth and the sharp line of his nose, the gold of his eyes and the kindness in his bones. He's blinking at her like he's not sure of his welcome, suddenly, and this is what does it: there should never be a time when Alistair is unsure of his welcome, not here, not with her. Bethany thinks of all the things that had to happen to get them here, Venatori and templars and blood rituals, all.

Inhales.

Exhales.

"No," Bethany says. "Stay."

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fin.

notes4: holy shit it's done editing what's editing we die like men