There and Back Again Ch. 073-074

byElyssaCousland©

"Darkspawn?"

She nodded. "But not just the usual. There was also some...thing. It sort of looked like a dwarf, at least the head did, but it had lots of breasts and tentacles and..."

I put my hand on her shoulder. "It's a broodmother. It's what happens to women who are captured. It's why you aren't going into the Deep Roads, nor are Leliana or Morrigan." I was selfishly sort of glad someone else had broodmother dreams, not just me.

She took a deep breath. "I'm suddenly not at all offended by that. So...you're really going into the Deep Roads?"

"I don't really have much choice. Every time that I've been separated from Aedan and Alistair, since I came, I ended up disappearing and landing in the middle of something. I don't want to be trapped alone in the Deep Roads. I just can't not go."

"You scared?"

"Terrified. Completely and utterly." I laughed bitterly.

We sat silently for a bit, Solona watching the fire, me watching the darkness and paying attention to my darkspawn sense. Leliana joined us, and I smiled as she sat near us.

"Did we wake you, Leli? Sorry."

"No, no, my friend. I just couldn't get comfortable."

"Don't like sleeping on the ground?"

She grimaced, and Solona groaned sympathetically. "Well, not all of us have a handsome warrior to use as a mattress."

I grinned and blushed; Solona rescued me from my embarrassment. "What's it like?" I must have looked confused, so she clarified. "Where you grew up. You said there's no mages?"

We spent a while talking about Earth. She couldn't seem to decide whether to be fascinated or perturbed by the lack of magic. "So if I was born there...would I just not have magic? Or would it just be impossible for me to be born there?"

"No idea. Before I came here I didn't know magic was an actual real thing. I always thought it was a fascinating - if highly unlikely - fantasy. Frankly, I didn't know there was somewhere else for people to be born to, either."

"So do you hate mages?"

"Maker, no! Why would you ask that?"

"People often seem to dislike what they don't understand, or at least, fear it."

"I think magic is marvellous. If it wasn't for the Chantry's idiocy - sorry Leli - for their short-sighted lack of tolerance, I'd love to be a mage."

Leliana looked scandalised, and Solona rubbed her nose to hide a grin. "But aren't you a templar? That's what Anders said."

"I'm...sort of. I have some templar skills, but I obviously wasn't trained. Alistair's been working with me, but I still can't smite. And my skills have nothing to do with faith or the Chantry. It's an inherent ability because I resist magic more than most. I think having the abilities you do would be wonderful."

"Oh, you'd like to be able to throw a few fireballs, would you?" Her grin was teasing.

I laughed. "Only when Aedan pisses me off." Leliana even chuckled at that. "No, mostly I'd love to be a healer. I've seen some pretty horrible illnesses and injuries that we just can't do anything for, there. To be able to heal...well, I'd do that, if I had a choice."

Solona glanced at Anders' tent. "Yeah, healers are something special." Her expression was hard to read.

To my chagrin, Leliana didn't listen to the obvious lack of desire to discuss a particular healer. "So what happened with you two, anyway?"

Solona sighed, and I threw Leli a dirty look. The bard just shrugged, unapologetic.

"If you don't want to talk about it, Solona, it's fine," I offered.

She smiled gratefully. "Thanks. But...it doesn't matter if I tell you, I suppose." She paused. "Anders and I, we grew up together in the tower. He was always the one who helped me, protected me...I fell in love with him. I thought...I thought he loved me too. But then, after we were together, he just...well, let's just say monogamy isn't in his vocabulary. And after a while, he started trying to escape. It felt personal. He'd usually run after we'd argue about his indiscretions. He was running from me, as much as from the Tower."

I thought about what I knew about Anders; as much as it was clear she thought she was telling the truth, something just didn't sit well with me. It didn't sound like the Anders I knew from Awakenings, or DA2. Not that he wouldn't sleep around, not that he didn't try to escape - because obviously he did - but...I couldn't put my finger on it. She was suffering from a misconception, somewhere, I just didn't know where.

"Did he ever say why?" I cringed at Leliana's ongoing insensitivity, which was so unlike her.

Solona shook her head. "No. He'd claim he was doing it for me. Like laying with someone else was something that could, in any way, benefit me. But I was weak, and I just let him. Finally, before the last time he escaped, I broke it off with him. He was hurt, and I was so angry. I hadn't seen him since. I'd heard he was in the dungeon, but even if I could have visited, I don't know if I would have."

I put my hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Solona. That's a despicable thing he did; no one deserves that."

She forced a smile. "The part that bothers me the most is how much I want to just forgive him, to just fall into his arms and pretend like it never happened."

"I know that feeling." I sighed. "I doubt there's anything as bad for us as handsome men."

"I can't see you complaining...I've seen the way you look at Alistair."

I laughed. "Yeah, but you should have seen us a week ago. Not that dissimilar a situation, actually...we were in love, and he did something phenomenally stupid. It took me a long time to forgive him. I know, after everything, he won't hurt me like that again."

"I don't see that kind of happy ending for us."

"Neither did we, a week ago. Give it time." I squeezed her shoulder.

She turned away, hiding her face; I wondered if there were tears flowing down it. "Anyway, I'd better get back to sleep."

"Goodnight, Solona. And if you ever need to talk...well, you know where to find us."

Chapter Seventy-Four: Love is a Weakness

The next day, Solona was quite withdrawn; I walked with her, quietly, just trying to be supportive. She seemed to appreciate the effort, even if she didn't want to talk. Jowan walked with us silently as well; when I thought about it, we'd hardly heard a peep from Jowan the entire trip.

When I asked Solona about it, she told me he was terrified that one of us with something against blood magic would change our minds and go after him, so he was doing his best to be unobtrusive. I resolved to try to be nicer to him; I wasn't sure how I felt about him, really, but he was a Grey Warden now and what he'd done in the past wasn't supposed to matter anymore.

Alistair and I made good use of our enchanted canvas tent; with now seven wardens, we could split the night into three or four watches and each of us get to sleep uninterrupted every second night. Alistair and I arranged for our watches to be on different nights, so we weren't too tired to enjoy some alone time. Aedan and Zev seemed to do the same, but either they were masters of quiet sex, or they were leaving camp to do it, because I never heard them. Not that I'm disappointed by that - ugh! Thank goodness for that enchanted tent.

When my time of the month came, we spent a miserable few nights lying side by side, frustrated and horny, but it was light and painless, for which I was eternally grateful.

The non-Wardens, Sten, Shale, Gorim, Leliana, Zevran, Morrigan, and Prince, also took turns keeping watch with us. I enjoyed the chats with Morrigan, and hearing Leli's and Zev's stories, but it was a bit awkward sitting quietly for two or three hours with Sten or Shale. For their sakes, we tried to avoid putting Sten on watch with the mages; he scared them all senseless. It meant that the rest of the Wardens got more than our fair share of watches with the giant, which was always weird. I couldn't complain though - at least he openly seemed to respect the four of us.

Sten refused to comment on the differences between Earth and Thedas we'd been discussing as a group. I tried using that topic as small talk, and the stoic giant just grunted. When I tried again the second night, he shut me down, pointing out that since I was no longer on Earth, it was time for me to learn my place in Thedas and let my past life go.

I disagreed, but didn't think I'd get anywhere with the Qunari given their narrowly-defined roles within the Qun. Anyone who converted was expected to conform, not question.

No one asked why I was on watch without a Grey Warden; we'd decided to just claim it was something about my unique situation where the darkspawn ignored me, if asked. Having to hide this forever is...not going to be easy.

Aedan had slowly come to accept Alistair and me, and the two were soon back to bickering and making fun of each other. Periodically Anders would join them, and the three of them would have the rest of us in stitches for hours, eavesdropping. Alistair had stopped being jealous, again, so I didn't have to worry about him if Anders came over to talk or Zevran pretended to flirt. Overall, I found happiness almost overwhelming as I walked along with my chosen family.

One day at camp, after using a nearby stream to clean up, I came back in time to hear Anders and Alistair talking as they gathered firewood. Everyone else was off doing their own thing, so no one else could overhear. The two men hadn't heard me approach, and I stopped behind a large tree to listen.

"So you and Sierra..." Anders began.

Alistair's reply was curt and irritable. "What about us?" Or perhaps I was premature in thinking Alistair wasn't jealous of Anders.

"When I met you, you two were...not together."

"True." Alistair grunted and dropped his armload of firewood. I could picture him looking at Anders expectantly.

"But you were before that?"

"Yes."

"And now you are again?"

"Yes. I love her. And don't even think about-"

Anders interrupted. "No, no. I'm not interested in her like that. I'm just curious about what happened."

"I was stupid, and eventually she forgave me. That's all you need to know."

"How do you apologise for doing something stupid? How did you even get her talking to you again?"

Alistair sighed. "I take it this is about Solona."

There was a pause, and I assumed Anders nodded.

Alistair muttered, "I can't believe someone came to me for relationship advice." I almost broke out laughing. "Look, Anders, you'd do better talking to Zevran. Or Leliana. Or even Sierra. I'm not exactly a font of information, here. I've had precisely one relationship, and I almost ruined it. I'm just lucky Sierra's been forgiving."

"But..."

"Seriously. Go ask Sierra. For some reason, she seems to like you."

I chuckled to myself, and tried to circle around silently. I was intensely curious about Anders' side of the story, and Alistair had sent him straight to me.

It was another few days before Anders approached me. We'd finally met up with Bodahn and Sandal, and they turned their cart around to head back towards Orzammar. We figured we were maybe a week away. It was nice to be able to stow our gear again, and I sighed as I dropped my second pack onto the cart.

"Sierra?"

"Hi Anders." I smiled. "Did you get your stuff packed away?"

"Yeah, I did. Um...could I talk to you?"

"Sure. What do you need?" I wonder if I'm any good at acting. Mind you, he's so nervous right now he probably won't notice.

"Somewhere private?"

I looked around, and then gestured off towards the woods nearby. I made sure Aedan saw us, and he nodded in my direction. Once we were out of sight of the camp, I sat on a rock and considered the tall lanky mage. He'd steadily been putting on weight since we'd recruited him, and he wasn't looking quite as gaunt anymore; his hair and skin looked better, he'd acquired a bit of a sunburn making his cheeks and nose ruddy, and his eyes weren't so sunken. It looked good on him.

"Alright, so, what's up?"

He looked up, and I giggled. "I mean, what would you like to talk about?"

He sighed and sank down on a tree root. "I'm guessing Solona's told you a bit about what happened. Between her and I." I went to deny it, but he waved his hand. "I've seen you glaring at me. And it's fine; she should have someone to talk to."

I nodded. "She told me her perspective. That you two were together, that you were repeatedly unfaithful, and that every time she attempted to confront you about the infidelity, you ran away and escaped the tower."

He looked at me, mouth agape, expression dumbfounded. After a moment, he shook his head. "She said that? She thinks I was running away from her?" His voice was pained, and I felt sorry for him. I'd guessed there was more to the story, and it seemed I was right.

"So tell me, then, what did happen? Was she wrong? Did you not lay with other people?"

He tried a bad joke to lighten the mood. "I wouldn't say there was much laying involved. Mostly standing, at the tower, to be honest."

Now that's a mental image I didn't need...

I scowled at him. "Anders..."

"Okay, I know. Yes, I did have sex with others. But it wasn't...like that. And my escapes had nothing to do with Solona. I had to; I..."

"Why don't you start at the beginning?"

He sighed. "I hated the tower. From the very first day, I hated it. I hated the cold stone, the stairs, the tiny windows. I hated the templars, watching...always watching. When I first came to the tower, they assigned me to a mentor. They do that for all new acquisitions." I flinched. "Her name was Danielle. She was probably ten years older than me, and had just been made an enchanter, after passing her harrowing.

"She was beautiful, and I had a bad case of puppy love. She was kind to me, always helping me; I'd not seen kindness since being taken away, and the journey from the Anderfels had been a long one, accompanied only by faceless, nameless templars." He shuddered. "They hadn't been intentionally cruel, but they wouldn't take off their helms, wouldn't talk to me...I was terrified, and they just let me cry, and carried me if I refused to walk.

"Anyway, Danielle tried to make it better. She would give me little gifts, write me encouraging notes and leave them in my books, that sort of thing. She sat with me at meals so the bigger apprentices wouldn't pick on me. She was like a big sister. Everyone liked her; I don't even think she knew she was beautiful, but all the boys had crushes on her, and the templars watched her...

"There was one templar in particular who was taken with her. I never knew his name - he was just a bucket-head, to me - but he wouldn't leave her alone. She never told me, or I'd have...I don't know. I found out later he'd been harassing her. Following her to the bath, watching her when she changed, that sort of thing. She complained to Irving, and he was reprimanded, but of course, he wasn't removed or punished. He was right back to work the next day, and then he was angry because she'd gotten him in trouble.

"He knew anything he did to her would be scrutinised, so he found a different way to get back at her: me. He knew she cared for me like a little brother, and he took advantage of that. He would smite me, and claim he had caught me doing forbidden magic. He'd convince the older apprentices to pick on me, and shelter them from the blame. I didn't know why, and I went to Danielle. She tried to intervene, but he hadn't done anything to me that could get him in trouble. He'd make my life miserable, and there was nothing to be done about it.

"But then he told her - submit to him, and he'd protect me. At first she refused, but things got worse and worse until she relented. I can only imagine the things he made her do to buy my protection. I didn't know - I would have put a stop to it, somehow, if I did - but she never told me. She put up with rape, and beatings, and Maker knows what else, without complaint, and for the first time, I was safe in the tower.

"That's when I met Solona. We became friends, and eventually so much more. But Danielle was still suffering for me.

"I only found out later, when he finally went too far. After having silenced her so she couldn't heal herself, he accidentally beat her hard enough to put her in the infirmary. She was battered, bleeding internally from the rapes, and pregnant. When it all came to light, I had to help heal her, and almost wasn't successful. She nearly died in my arms. I was in a coma from mana depletion, and she was transferred to the circle in Val Royeaux. I never saw her again, but I can guess what happened to that baby. The templar responsible was reprimanded again, but instead of being punished, or excommunicated, they transferred him and covered up his sins."

"Oh, let me guess - to Kirkwall."

Anders nodded, looking surprised. I just shook my head.

"When I found out what had happened, what he'd been doing to her, what she'd agreed to do for me...I lost my mind. I realised that love was too risky, in the tower. I decided to escape. I wanted Solona to come with me, but I wanted to be somewhere established first. I wanted to be able to protect her. But I was caught, and punished; they punished the entire apprentice class, trying to determine who had helped me. I realised that if they knew I loved Solona..."

"They'd use her against you, the way he used you against Danielle."

He nodded, miserable. "Love is a weakness, in the tower. If you love something, it's just something they can take away, something they can threaten. The only way to protect Solona was for no one to know how special she was. So I started working my way through the apprentices, even a couple of the templars. I tried to stay away from Solona, but I couldn't. I loved her, and was drawn to her. So instead of protecting her, I hurt her, over and over."

"And the escapes?" I asked softly.

"Especially before an escape, I'd make sure to be seen with multiple different people so no one would suspect how I felt about Solona. I didn't want them to punish her for my escaping again. We'd fight about it, but we were fighting because I planned to escape. I didn't escape because we fought."

"Does she know? About Danielle?"

"No. I didn't want to burden her with that. She was always afraid in the tower, and I didn't want to make it worse."

"And you wonder why she's angry?"

He slumped. "Not really. I just...I don't know what to do. I love her. We are both finally out of the tower. We have a chance, and she won't even talk to me. I'd explain, now, if she'd let me. It might not be enough - Maker knows I don't deserve her - but I'd like the chance to try."

"So what do you want from me? Do you want me to tell her?"

"No! Maker's balls, no. I need to. But I was hoping you'd have some ideas, some insight as to how I get her to listen."

"What makes you think I'd have any idea?"

"Well, after Alistair...did whatever, how did he get back in your good graces?"

I thought. "I don't entirely know. Apologising helped, and not trying to make excuses. He was annoyingly...there. Not creepy, or anything, just...every time I turned around, he was there. He didn't expect anything from me, just protected me and took care of me every way he could. He'd put up my tent, carry my bags, do my chores for me...It drove me crazy, actually, but it was sort of sweet. I'd lose my temper and he'd just take it, just let me be angry...After a while, it was exhausting trying to stay mad at him. And then I wasn't anymore.

"I'm not suggesting this is the path for you to take. One difference between Solona and I is that she can light you on fire. Plus, he never slept with anyone else. No matter how good your intentions, that's not going to be easy to get past."

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