A/N: Okay, this is quite possibly the most absurd thing I’ve ever written. I apologize for the extreme ridiculousness that follows this sentence.
She could hear their voices from the other end of the hall, loud and raucous, Oghren throwing down challenge, Anders accepting with gusto. They were quiet only as they guzzled whatever it was in their cups, which then slammed down upon the tabletop as growls of appreciation echoed through the keep.
“Twenty-two, Mage! Top that!”
“Twenty-three, Dwarf, and I think you’re starting to slouch out of your chair. You’ll be on the floor soon and I’ll have to step over you to go to bed, just like always.”
“Shut up and drink!”
She arrived in the doorway, leaned against the frame and crossed her arms as she surveyed the interior of the dining hall. A deck of cards scattered across the table, some spilling onto the floor and disappearing beneath Anders’s chair.
“They’re quite loud, aren’t they?”
She nearly leapt out of her skin, hand immediately rising to clutch her breast in surprise. Arabelle took great pleasure in her ability to sneak up on others, she always had, but Nathaniel Howe was truly a master of the art.
“Are you sure you’re not a thief by trade?” Turning a glance back over her shoulder, he towered over her grinning smugly at having startled her. “The way you’re always sneaking up on me, I can’t help but wonder just what kind of gainful employment you endured during your time in the Free Marches.”
“The hunter must always be stealthy, my lady, lest he frighten off the doe.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, then turned her gaze back into the dining hall. “Are you hunting me, Nathaniel?”
Before he had chance to answer, Anders spied them in the doorway and raised an obnoxious arm, shouting, “Commander! You’re just in time to watch me drink Oghren under the table.”
Oghren’s response to that challenge was a string of slobbering grunts and protests she thought might have once been words, but she couldn’t exactly be sure. All she knew was that somewhere at the end of it she caught the word, “Cheater,” and Anders was distracted by the force of his own protest.
“It’s called endurance, you half-wit,” but Oghren never got to hear his insult. The dwarf tipped out of his chair, the raucous calamity of crashing armor echoing through the dining hall. “Something you clearly have no concept of. Come on, Commander Cousland. I saved you a seat and a cup.”
It was the first time he’d spoken to her since they returned from Blackmarsh early that morning. They all went their separate ways, the other wardens shuffling to their beds while Belle tended to her duties with Seneschal Varel. It was a small miracle she hadn’t fallen asleep while passing judgment and imprisoning nobles to keep them from causing further trouble, but even when she did attempt to lie down that afternoon, it was all she could do to keep her eyes closed. Her mind was a carousel of blame and guilt over things that hadn’t happened, and no matter how she tried to cut those thoughts away, they lingered.
She’d been over-tired, hovering at that dangerous and hallucinogenic point where her body refused to yield and submit. She read and reread Teagan’s letter, tried to write back several times, but wasn’t able to form coherent sentences. Finally, she took an early supper in her room and tried to read a book until she dozed off and found herself dreaming of lashing tentacles.
When she jerked awake with a gasp, the startling nature of her own dreams still sometimes catching her off guard, she thought to seek out Anders and apologize for whatever it was she’d done to make him so obviously mad at her.
“So you’re speaking to me now?”
Arabelle pushed off the doorframe and sauntered into the hall, her footsteps a quiet hush across the stone, carrying her away from the tension of the unanswered question she posed only moments before. Nathaniel didn’t follow right away. He lingered in the doorway, arms still crossed and head tilted in appreciate as he watched her cross the dining hall. She knew this because she glanced back over her shoulder just long enough to see if he was coming.
“I was never not speaking to you,” Anders declared, sliding an empty cup toward the chair at the head of the table and splashing alcohol into it from a half-empty bottle he and Oghren shared before the dwarf passed out. There were several other bottles, littering the floor and table, and while she rarely concerned herself with Oghren’s obvious drinking problem, she couldn’t help but wonder how many of those bottles Anders had emptied on his own.
His face was flushed, eyes watery and red and he was grinning stupidly as his shoulders swayed.
“You could have fooled me.” She dropped into the chair and reached for the cup. Glancing over at the doorway, Nathaniel still hovered there, arms crossed stoically. “Why don’t you join us, Nathaniel?”
“Yes, Nate, why don’t you? Full cups for everyone. We’ll play a drinking game.”
She watched him saunter through the door, arms dropping at his sides as he took precise and careful steps into the hall. His boots moved soundlessly toward them, and when he arrived he circled around to the other side of the table and took the seat opposite Anders.
“Drinking games are juvenile,” he noted.
“Do you know how to have fun at all, Howe?”
“Of course I know how to have fun,” he sneered. “Getting sloppy pissed because I failed to bounce a silver into a cup just isn’t my idea of a good time.”
“That wasn’t the game I had in mind. We used to play this game in the Circle, sip or strip…”
“No stripping games,” Arabelle interjected. “I’m not taking my clothes off for you ever, Anders.”
“Well, you’re no fun,” he winked over at her. “How about question-question.”
“How is that played?”
“You really have lived a rather sheltered life, haven’t you? All those months you spent traveling with an elven assassin and he never talked you into playing question-question?”
“We mostly played Diamondback. Or Wicked Grace.”
“Where’s the fun in that?”
“Those words never produce anything of value.” Nathaniel shook his head.
He swaggered a little as he drew his head back, but she suspected he was perfectly in control of all his faculties. She didn’t know what he was up to, but she didn’t trust it. She liked Anders, but she also knew he was about as manipulative as they came. He was crafty and sly, often hiding his questionable agenda behind a pair of puppy eyes. Someday those eyes were going to ensnare some poor woman like a well-placed trap; Maker bless her soul.
“We’ll start with me. I’ll ask you a question and you have to answer with a question. You can direct the question at me, or you can direct it at Little Nate over there, and we have to answer your question with a question. The first person to answer with a statement has to drink.”
“There was this crazy old mage in the Brecilien forest once who made me play this game for so long, I had serious doubts about my own personal agenda by the time I’d finally said ENOUGH!”
“Sounds rather childish,” Nathaniel noted.
“Come on, Howe. Let down your hair, have a little childish fun. I’ll start.” Anders leaned into the back of the chair, rolled his head along his shoulders and turned his gaze on Arabelle as he came back down. “What color are your undergarments, Commander?”
“Why are you asking me?”
“Should I ask Nathaniel instead?”
“Do you think I should ask Nathaniel?”
“Do you think he’d tell us?”
“Probably not…” she chuckled.
“Ha!” Anders slapped his hand down atop the table triumphantly. “Drink!”
“This is ridiculous,” Nathaniel narrowed his steely gaze across the table at Anders. “What’s the point?”
“Does it have to have a point?”
“You say it’s a game, but it seems utterly inane.”
“Drink? What are you talking about?”
“You answered my question with a statement.”
“I didn’t realize we were…”
“Drink, Nathaniel,” Arabelle urged, edging her elbow across the table to nudge him a little. “It’s just pointless fun. Not everything has to have a point, does it?”
“You nobles are so uptight. And here I always thought you were the height of debauchery, hosting elaborate orgies and…”
“And here I thought the same of mages,” Nathaniel countered, “though I believe since I’ve made your acquaintance, you’ve confirmed my suspicions about the Circle of Magi in Ferelden several times over.”
“Oh, the Circle of Magi is a den of iniquity, let me tell you.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Just drink, Nathaniel,” she coaxed again.
“Fine,” he gave in with a sigh and tipped his cup back, swallowing once then lowering it to the table again. “Why are you always so base, Anders?”
“Can I blame the Templars?”
“Do you really think the Templars are responsible for your depravity?”
“Would I be a lesser man if I said yes?”
“Could you be any less of a man than you already are?”
Silence, growing tension and then Belle watched the corners of the mage’s mouth stretch toward his ears, “Would you like to talk about my manhood?”
“I’d rather drink.” Nathaniel lifted the cup in salute and took a drink.
“Isn’t this fun?” Anders beamed over at her.
“Are you trying to trick me?”
“Is it working?”
“Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
“May I refuse to answer that question?”
“Do you think you’ll get into trouble if you answer truthfully?”
“Would you make me run laps around the keep?”
“Isn’t that what you’d deserve?”
“Aren’t you being a bit harsh?”
Nathaniel cleared his throat, leaned into the table and asked, “Does anyone else think this is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever done?”
“If you think it’s so ridiculous why are you still playing?”
“Did either of you give me a choice?”
“Don’t you want to think for yourself?”
Once more he cocked his head a little, lifted his cup and said, “I’d rather drink.”
“Nathaniel’s right,” Arabelle decided. “This is a bit ridiculous. Silly fun, but ridiculous. I don’t know how long I could keep something like this up.”
“That’s the point. The more you drink, the more you mess up. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with being a bit ridiculous. Ridiculousness is the spice of life,” he sneered across the table at them both, then leveled a pointed glare at her. “You know, Howe sucks the fun right out of you, Commander. What do you suggest we do for fun?”
“We could just talk,” she suggested.
“What a very grownup and sophisticated thing to do,” he rolled his eyes. “Fine, we’ll talk. What would you like to talk about?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “We spend every day together, throw our lives on the line for each other all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to know who you might be dying for?”
“You know everything there is to know about me. Rage-filled mage runs from Templars. What else is there to know?”
“I don’t know. What about your family? Your life before the circle?”
“I’d rather not,” he shrugged. “I was twelve when I was taken to the Circle. Everything before that is a distant dream.”
“Twelve?” Nathaniel tipped his head in thoughtful curiosity. “That must have been very hard for you, to be taken away from your family. I, too, was taken from my family when I was sixteen. Squired in the Free Marches.”
“Are you suggesting we actually have something in common, Howe? I tried that once, you told me to shut my mouth.”
“I just… I know how difficult it is to be taken from all you know.”
“There were some in the Circle who knew nothing else. They were oblivious to the world beyond the tower walls, didn’t know their families, couldn’t remember anything before the Circle at all. Sometimes I think they were the lucky ones. Who laments something they never knew could have been theirs.”
Arabelle shifted uncomfortably in her chair, feeling rather guilty at having spent her life in the comfort of her parents’ affections. She could have stayed there forever, basking in the radiant glow of parental love. “Did they let you have contact with your family?”
“My mother, sometimes. Rarely. She would send me letters at important times of the year, for a while anyway. After I started trying to run away the letters stopped. I don’t know if she gave up on me and stopped writing, or if the Templars kept her letters from me as punishment. They took great pleasure in tormenting me.”
“That’s so very sad,” she lamented.
“Now you see why I’d rather play inane drinking games? My life until this point has been one depressing hardship after another, and it’s all because of the Templars. No one deserves to live under these conditions. All because I was born different, with power…”
“The Chantry says…”
“Don’t, Howe,” he warned. “Don’t spew Chantry garbage at me.”
“I’m sorry, Anders. Let’s talk about something else.”
“I think I’m done talking, actually. And drinking.” Pushing his chair away from the table, he started to rise and she felt a sense of hopelessness wash over her again.
“You’re upset with me again… I came looking for you, to apologize for whatever it was I did that made you so mad at me in Blackmarsh and…”
“I’m not upset with you,” he insisted. “I’m upset with the state of the world, and I’m suddenly very tired. Goodnight, Commander,” he nodded across the table. “Howe.”
His leaving wrought uncomfortable silence that lingered in the air for several minutes before Oghren started snoring under the table again. Nathaniel took a drink, and lowering his cup to the table, he said, “He’s very touchy, that Anders.”
“He’s been through a lot.”
“Haven’t we all?”
“I suppose we have, but I can’t imagine what it’s been like for him. Taken away from his family when he was still a boy, spending all those years escaping the tower, running from the Templars, enduring their punishment… He must feel like he doesn’t belong anywhere. Displaced and… so alone.”
“And suddenly I feel guilty for ever having goaded him,” he shook his head and took another drink. “Still, forgive me for saying so, but he rubs me the wrong way most times. He’s flippant, cocksure. He carries himself as if he’s invincible, with no regard to anyone else around him. He’s the kind of person who’s like to get his comrades in arms killed because he doesn’t think.”
“He saved my life the day I went into the crypts to search for your bow,” she pointed out. “In fact, it was his quick thinking that got us out of there in one piece.”
“That is something worth noting.” He held his cup toward her, tipping it forward and saying, “To Anders then.”
Arabelle felt the tugging of a soft grin playing at her lips. Lifting her cup, she touched it to his and said, “To Anders.”
Once more, silence save for the grizzle of Oghren’s continued snores. Arabelle traced her finger along the side of her cup absently, staring at the table and catching a similar movement of his hand on her left. She raised her almost absently stare to his long, slender fingers and found herself captivated by their movement. She hadn’t even had that much to drink, but the wear of the day was finally catching up to her, the exhaustion of a long trip back to the keep and very sleep toying with her mind.
He had beautiful hands. Manly and strong, but surprisingly delicate. Long fingers made for plucking bowstrings or musical instruments, for coaxing delicate lock tumblers and tiny buttons trailing from the collar downward. She blinked, the subtlety of that action shifting her perspective and forcing her to lean guiltily back in her chair.
The quiet was stifling, claustrophobic in its effect, though try as she might she couldn’t bring herself to speak. She hadn’t had enough to drink. Didn’t know what to say…
“How have you been, Arabelle? Since we were last here sharing a bottle of wine? We haven’t spoken intimately since that night.”
“I… I don’t know. Fine, I suppose.”
“You don’t sound altogether certain about that,” he noted.
“I don’t know, I guess I’m not. Not really. I’m confused and scared. When we were in the Fade I was terrified of myself, of what I might do if presented with the right opportunity by the right demon.”
“What do you mean?”
“I feel… so alone, you know? Sometimes I ask myself what kind of temptations I would yield to if they were presented to me, and that terrifies me because even though I know it wouldn’t be what I really want, at times I think it would be enough to fill the emptiness I feel inside.”
“You’re not alone,” he told her, “and the fact that you are afraid speaks volumes, I think. It says you’re not really so tempted as you might believe because you know well enough to be scared. Fear is a powerful thing, capable of holding us back from doing things we might otherwise regret.”
“I just keep thinking about it. What would I do if I had that kind of chance? Would I be able to resist?”
“I think you would. That the way you cared for him would be enough to deter you from making that kind of mistake. He certainly sounds like the kind of man who would linger in your thoughts like a voice of reason, drawing you back from the edge and talking you out of such things.”
“He would never forgive me for making that kind of mistake,” she snorted a laugh into her cup and drank. The ale was warm and bitter, but the numbness it brought on warmed her.
“There you go,” he shrugged and took a drink. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. And you did well when we were in the Fade. The temptation of it wasn’t strong enough to ensnare you. You got us all out in one piece. I never had any doubt.”
“Not for a moment. You’re a strong leader. I’d even go so far as to say you were born for this kind of thing. Leading men. Saving the world and all that.”
“I didn’t save the world,” she laughed again. “I told you how that all went, and it wasn’t me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he said. “I think you played a rather significant role in the saving of Thedas. You inspire people, Belle. You inspire me.”
“Well, that’s something, at least.”
She lifted her gaze to meet his, her insides trembling unstably as their eyes locked. Looking into him sometimes made her feel like she was lost at sea, riding a host of tumultuous waves that carried her further and further from the firm shore of her resolve.
It’s all right, you know? To feel again.
“You don’t seem a man all that easy to impress, much less inspire.”
“Not easy at all,” he assured her. “And yet you’ve managed to do both.”
“I can’t imagine what I’ve done, but… thank you, Nathaniel.”
“You’re welcome.” He took another drink, quietly gulping several swallows of the liquid in his cup, then lowering his cup to the table. He began to yawn, turning into his shoulder to hide it and lifting his hand to fully cover it, but it caught on and suddenly she felt every bit of exhaustion she felt. She hid her own yawn behind her upstretched forearm, her body rigid, yet so soft as she succumbed to it.
“I should go to bed,” she decided. “I came looking for Anders originally. I wanted to see if he was still angry with me. I never meant to sit down and start drinking, but now I am so tired I don’t even know what’s up or down anymore.”
“Might I ask you a personal question before you go?”
“You may, though I might not answer.”
“Fair enough. You and Anders… Is there something…”
She was pushing her chair away from the table, a nervous laugh catching in her chest, lodging in her throat until she felt like she was choking. “Me and Anders? There is no Anders and me. We’re friends. That’s all.”
“Good to know,” he nodded. “Goodnight, Commander.”
Once again, she swore she could feel him watching her, but she didn’t dare look back to confirm it. She delighted, with guilt, in the feel of his eyes on her and tried desperately to ignore the voice murmuring in the back of her mind, telling her it was all right to feel again. To set herself free from the prison she’d built around herself.