The sun beat relentlessly against his heavy mail, heat trapped in layers of leather and metal and flesh. He could feel the sweat winding its way down his brow; when he squinted against the shard-bright glare, beads of it caught in his lashes.
Burned his eyes.
“Maker’s breath,” Blackwall muttered, blinking away the sting and rising unsteadily out of his crouch. A low wind stirred, as if in response, sending a fine mist of grit along the dune and spattering across his jerkin. He was going to be finding sand in the worst places for weeks.
…Sera would have something filthy to say about that. He found he was starting to miss the little shit when she wasn’t around.
“Remind me again why I thought this was a good idea?” the Inquisitor said, pausing at his side. She shot him one of her usual smiles, caught somewhere between wry and uncertain and determined and sweet, as if she were carefully feeling her way through unfamiliar steps of a dance. He always wanted to ask whether that uncertainty was a byproduct of being raised in the Circle; he never thought he had the right. “Next time I suggest a trek through the wastes, why don’t you remind me I could be doing literally anything else?”
She pushed back a strand of pale hair, caught out of its usual tight knot by the wind. No good: it slipped free on the next breath, unfurling before her delicate face like a silver banner. “Really,” she laughed. “Anything else.”
He chuffed a laugh of his own (never could resist at the sound of hers) and moved subtly to block the worst of the wind. If she noticed, she had the grace to pretend she didn’t. “You’re the one giving the orders, m’lady,” Blackwall said. “You could send us back to Skyhold and not a one would raise a voice to stop you.” Truth to be told, he’d be glad of it…and not just because of the sand. Their current objective was minor enough, but the wastes were filled with varghests and wyverns. Worse, each dune crested could bring them face to face with Venatori, and Blackwall wasn’t fool enough to deny that he’d feel more comfortable with a few more swords around.
Just, perhaps, not to any of the others’ faces.
He scratched the back of his neck, glancing over Inara’s shoulder toward the rest of their ragged party. Vivienne looked as cool and collected as ever, but he could read the subtle tells in her expression even at this distance: the faint frown between her brows, the tightness of her jaw, the way her fingers dug into the fine wood of her staff. She was a good deal slower than the rest of them because she refused to let the dunes defeat her; instead of sliding back with the sand before pressing on, accepting that it would take two steps for every one advanced, she deliberately paused before striding forward as if forcing the shifting grit to stay put beneath her fine-soled shoes.
Void. For all he knew, maybe she was doing it, too. Blackwall couldn’t put it past her.
But either way, it was slow going, and they’d spent the last two hours with the senior enchantress little more than a grimly determined fleck on the horizon. Cole, for his part, truly did seem to glide across the sand, but he hung back with Vivienne to keep her company. On the long trek, Blackwall’d caught snatches of the running commentary echoing across the dunes, undercut by the occasional, “My dear, silence is not only a virtue; sometimes, it is a necessity.” Inara called for a rest now and again, or diverted to collect materials to allow the rest of their party to catch up, but even now Cole and Vivienne were too far for comfort. It’d take precious time for either of them to catch up if push came to shove.
If Cassandra were here, or even the Bull, he would breathe easier. They understood the need to protect. Maker’s balls, he’d take Varric and Bianca while he was spinning wishes out of the sky. The more steel between danger and the Inquisitor, the better he would breathe.
A soft hand fell on his arm and Blackwall straightened, startled and instantly on high alert. Inara had turned to face him, eyes scanning his as if his features were points in one of those astrariums she took so much delight in piecing together. As if all she has to do was connect the dots and the puzzle would come clear, meaning true.
He hoped not. Maker, he hoped not.
“What troubles you, Blackwall?” she murmured. Her hand stayed where it was; he could feel it through layers of leather and mail.
He could feel her. Maker take my damaged hide. “No troubles to speak of, m’lady.”
“You were scowling back at Vivienne fairly intently.”
Blackwall made a quick, sharp shushing motion, saying, “I would never dream of scowling at Madame de Fer,” with an exaggerated glance back toward the two. He had to bite the inside of his mouth to swallow a pleased grin at Inara’s laugh. Maker, that sound could send him into the void and he’d go gladly. “And don’t you be forgetting it.”
Inara quirked a brow, grin still spread across her face. Dressed in worn leathers, hair a bedraggled mess, sand dotting her skin and red clay from the flats she’d been mucking about in earlier smudging her brow, she looked as beautiful as stained glass. Andraste shining gold and fuck, he had it something terrible. “She’s quite some distance back, Blackwall. She can’t hear you.”
“So says you. But you’re not the one she’ll be pinning to the wall with those cold eyes of hers.” He effected a shiver, just to hear that laugh again. In the end, he couldn’t help laughing with her. “Why did you pick this particular party, m’lady?” Blackwall added after another beat. “Two mages, Cole, and me…it isn’t much like you to go so unbalanced.”
She glanced back again—Vivienne and Cole were closer, but still not caught up—then tilted her head toward a sliver of shade created by an ancient jut of rock. Blackwall reached out to grasp it first, giving it a shove. When it didn’t budge in the sand, he followed her down into an easy, if sweaty, sprawl. And if he was angled to keep more of the sun off all that fair skin? Well…she couldn’t prove anything.
Inana didn’t seem in the mood to argue over something so small, anyway. She sprawled back with a low sigh, staff rolling forgotten at her side. There was a faint dusting of freckles beginning on the bridge of her nose and the smooth expanse of her cheeks. Or was it just flecks of golden sand? He refused to let himself reach out to see.
“We had a disagreement,” Inara said quietly. She looked down, lashes a dark smudge against her cheeks, as if ashamed of the admission. “And I wanted to apologize to her by bringing her with me.” She looked up, a flash of a dimple there and gone again on one smooth cheek. “Some apology this is, though. I have a feeling Vivienne would have preferred something a little less sweaty.”
“Books,” he said, voice unaccountably gruff. “Smelling of dust and age.”
“Aye,” Inara said. “I suppose you’re right. Instead…this.” She gestured wide.
“This,” he said slowly, “is gift enough for anyone.” It is, after all, by your side. But no, it’d be madness to confess that. He was old and addled, and she was so… So…
He cleared his throat; Inara dropped her gaze, cheeks flaming pink, as if she could hear the words he never dared say. The seconds marched on, uncontested. Gradually, almost absently, her fingers began threading through the sand. Blackwall watched her under the guise of checking his weapons—the way she dug her hand deep, loose golden streams falling between her fingers to float away on the light breeze, glittering grit collecting at her knuckles. She had the hands of a lady, still. The sight of those slender fingers made him want to do stupid, impossible things, like turn her hand over and kiss the palm. Run his tongue along the thunder of her pulse. Bite the bend of her elbow.
Push her down until silver-pale hair fanned across the shifting dunes and slide his work-rough fingers inside the silken grasp of her body. Maker.
“What was the, ah, disagreement about, m’lady?” he grumbled, sounding gruffer than he intended. The phantom sound of her hitching breaths was eroding his common sense. He needed to focus. “This time, that is?”
She sighed and thunked her head back against the rock. “Oh, the same as usual. The Circle. Mages. Magic serving man and… And whether mages should be free. You never really said,” Inara added, turning her head to look at him. “What do you think of all of it?”
“I may be a simple Warden,” Blackwall pointed out, “but I’m seasoned enough to know a trap when I see one. I have no wish to fight with you.”
“I’m not— I wouldn’t—” Inara began, straightening. Then she sighed and dusted her hands off on her thighs; her pale brows were drawn together as she stared down at her feet. “No, I suppose you’re right. I’m only looking to move from one argument to the next. It isn’t that I don’t respect your opinions,” she added, glancing up through her lashes. The look was so sweetly earnest he could feel his heart constrict in response. “It’s only that… I just…”
He had to clear his throat before he could speak. “It means a great deal to you,” he said simply.
“It means the world to me,” Inara countered. “The days I used to sit alone in that tower, watching the world spin on below me and knowing I would never be a part of it… I used to feel so trapped. I used to wish I could…” She bit her bottom lip.
Maker damn a world that’d keep someone like you penned like some animal.
The thought was sudden and vicious. Near-painful in its intensity. Blackwall could feel the spike of battle-rage at that image of Inara—ghost-pale from lack of sunlight, trapped like a sparrow beating its breast against the bars of its cage, taunted by the freedom that could never be hers—taking shape behind his eyes. He hated himself, suddenly, for never pausing to consider mages locked in their tower. He hated himself for never thinking of how this remarkable woman must feel every day she woke free to sweep across the land like the wind.
Maker’s balls, no wonder she was so obsessed with sleeping beneath the stars.
“You’re never going back there, m’lady,” Blackwall said gruffly, eyes fixed on the horizon. Vivienne and Cole were finally nearing, twin shapes drawing closer with each minute that whispered past. “I’d fight anyone who tried to make you.” To the bloody end.
It was a confession of love of sorts, said in his own simple way. A courtly vow made by a man who wore another’s honor like a shield. And yet Maker take him if he didn’t mean every word. He would rip all of Thedas apart to keep this woman safe. Free.
Blackwall stiffened at the feel of her hand on his arm, and damned if his heart wasn’t racing in his chest. He wanted to close his fingers over hers. He wanted to cup her pointed chin and kiss her slow and deep and hot, so she could taste the vow fervent on his tongue.
He wanted, he wanted, he wanted so much.
And he stayed perfectly still, gaze deliberately turned away. Andraste only knew what foolishness he’d give himself over to if he met those blue eyes now. “You don’t have to do that, Blackwall,” Inara murmured.
Blackwall swallowed, then forced himself to stand. His long shadow cast the Inquisitor in shades of grey. “I know,” he said, hand on his hilt. He could hear Cole’s voice now, high and bright as it floated over the vast dunes. “Don’t mean I won’t anyway. Inquisitor,” he added, tipping his head in something reminiscent of a courtly bow before moving to intercept the rest of their party.
He could feel her eyes on him as he walked away, making the skin shiver along his spine. Then he heard her soft sigh and the tred of her soft leather-soled feet behind him.
“Ho there,” Blackwall called to Vivienne and Cole, lifting one hand. The slowly descending sun caught off a jewel at Vivienne’s throat, winking slyly back at him. “The next ridge should bring us back to the canyons. Just a couple more miles, and we’ll reach oasis camp.”
“So soon?” Vivienne said with arch dryness, taking a careful step, then another. She offered Blackwall a cool smile when he held out his hand to help her over a jutting rock. “But we were only just finding our stride.”
“You hate the desert,” Cole said, blinking owlishly. “It refuses to stay put beneath your feet, like any reasonable land should. And all he can think about is running out of water, food, stumbling dry and desperate through the heat with no hope, no way to protect her.”
Blackwall refused to look at Inara as all four of them fell into step together, though he could feel the heat creeping up his cheeks anyway. “Err, right,” he said. He tried to throw up mental walls—like erecting shields around himself—but he knew it was already too late. His heart was too raw to hide behind a false front, the churning emotion Inara stirred in him (stronger and stronger as each day passed; some day it would be so strong it would burn him alive) too complex. He could only trust that Cole would hold his tongue.
Which was naturally Cole’s cue to reach into his chest and pull.
“He forgets, sometimes, she’s made of steel,” Cole said wistfully, glancing between Blackwall and Inara. “Wants to forget, because it feels better inside when he protects her; guarding like a wall, even against himself. Stone, cool against her back, hair spread around him as he drives into her heat. He’s lost in it, in her, but this is wrong, wrong, wrong. His hands are rough and her skin is silk. The callouses will catch, rend tears in the delicate fabric; he can’t hurt her, he won’t, his lady—but he wants to make her cry out, too, wants to shake some of that gold from her skin and remind her there’s a real woman hidden there within the idol they all worship.”
Cole blinked and cocked his head at him. “But she already knows that, even when you forget.”
“My dear, what did we say about dipping into the hearts of your friends?” Vivienne interrupted the stunned silence coolly. She shook out the skirts of her robes, sending fine cascades of sand from the heavy velvet and tooled leather. “We are not your fingerpaints to play with, hmm?”
“But I was only—” Cole began. At Vivienne’s low noise, he looked between Blackwall and Inara; no, Maker, the Inquisitor. It didn’t do to think of her on familiar terms when well-meaning spirits were traipsing about ready to pluck the wishes from his mind at a whim. “Oh. That did not help. You’re upset with me.”
“Come on, then, lad,” Blackwall said, adjusting his sword and hefting his shield squarely onto his back. He clapped the boy on the shoulder, broad palm spreading across bird-sharp shoulder blades as he firmly led him away. “No harm done, but we’ll be smarting later unless we chase the sun to the valley and back to camp.”
Cole trotted lightly to keep up, leaving Inara to keep Vivienne company. The boy twisted his head around once to look at them as he and Blackwall headed down the face of the far dune, getting further and further ahead. “You want to race away because you’re embarrassed she doesn’t like to hear your thoughts,” he mused. “But you don’t want to leave her side. Please.” Cole caught Blackwall’s arm, eyes beseeching. “She doesn’t want you to leave it either.”
Blackwall closed his eyes and let out a heavy breath. He felt… He didn’t have the words to describe what he felt. “I know, damn it,” he said gruffly. “I know all that.”
“But.” Cole’s frown grew. “If you know…then why do you keep away? You shouldn’t. You make her feel real.”
He wouldn’t turn back to look at the Inquisitor. He couldn’t let himself. But he could imagine her walking some paces back—at the crest of the last dune, framed by fire from the setting sun. Red and gold and pink and lavender haloed about the pale silk of her hair, the soft curve of her cheeks, the graceful line of her body and those eyes…lifting at the rough weight of his need, meeting his gaze. Stealing the air from his lungs.
So fucking beautiful and kind that each lie of omission he made was like another strip of flesh torn from too-old bones. Maker, he would die for her. Gladly. Happier than he’d ever lived for anything else. What had she done to him to make him feel so much?
“Blackwall?” Cole whispered, a thread of alarm wending through his voice.
Blackwall closed his eyes and sucked in a steadying breath, then squeezed the boy’s shoulder. Stop scaring the kid, he told himself fiercely, locking his eyes on the far horizon. There were miles to go before they could rest. “Isn’t for me to make her feel anything,” he said with gruff finality, then let his hand drop. “Come on, lad—the faster we go, the sooner we’ll have food in our bellies.”
“But,” Cole began, trying to catch his arm.
“No.” The word was a whip-crack, but he softened it immediately with a crooked smile. The kid couldn’t help it. He was what he was. They all were. “How about this, aye: I’ll teach you that song Sera’s been humming all about the place instead. That sound good to you?”
The spirit tipped his head, blond hair falling across his eyes. “Varric said the lyrics were filthy,” he mused.
“Varric would know, wouldn’t he? Want to learn them anyway?”
Cole was already grinning, crooked and sweet. He bumped their shoulders together happily. “Okay,” he said. Then, “I like the way you talk.”
“Yeah, well,” Blackwall said, pleased despite himself. The simple acceptance of someone like Cole—someone who knew, who had to know even if neither of them had ever said the words—was better than anything. Was nearly as good as the feel of the Inquisitor’s small hand on his arm, the warm scent of sugared violets that rose from the graceful fall of her hair. “I suppose I could say the same.”
“Even if I treat you like fingerpaints?” Cole frowned. “I don’t mean to. You just want her so much. I can’t help it.”
He scratched his beard, losing the fight not to look over his shoulder. Inara looked up at the same moment in some cruel twist of fate, lips parted on whatever she had been saying to Vivienne, and the sight of her—silver-pale against the fiery sunset, fierce, strong, free—nearly shattered his heart in his chest. Andraste take him, it hurt. It hurt so much sometimes, to watch her burning bright enough to beat back the darkness even in his own heart, and yet not be hers.
I love you. I will always fucking love you.
“Blackwall,” Cole whispered.
“We move on,” Blackwall said, wrenching his gaze away and forcing his strides to lengthen. He couldn’t look back again. If he did—if he dared—he’d be lost in her.
He’d be lost and never again want to be free.