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Mornings on the road were always a quiet, slow affair. Reluctant, even. All the more so once the leaves began to fall and the morning dew turned to frost that gathered around the edges of their tents; now pitched on soft patches of grass where they could find them to help weather the cold. No one wanted to leave the comfort of their bedrolls in the fall. The air was crisp and fresh, and the days passed quickly but the last, precious, shreds of warmth could be found in whoever you’d doubled up with the night before and that was far more appealing.

This morning, like many others, Ellana woke beside Cassandra. Warriors slept sound and hard, she’d learned, particularly after a battle. They drove themselves to the brink of exhaustion by feats of strength and heavy use of their innate skills. Where she was careful and clever on the battlefield -- saving her stamina for quick exits, fast kills, and relying on her dexterity and wit to keep her safe -- her fighting brethren gave their all in every skirmish. Templars, Champions and Reavers ran to the front lines and wore their bodies down until they could not stand another moment. Once night fell they hit their pillows like a rock.

Rarely did Cassandra even shift or roll in her sleep, and Ellana liked that just fine: it was why she chose her as a bedmate. That, and the unbelievable amount of heat she produced. The woman was like an iron forge. She made an excellent cold-weather companion and was far less opposed to sharing a blanket than Blackwall. Iron Bull didn’t care either way but his immense size meant he took up most of the tent and she often found herself curled in an upper corner, half off the bedroll, vying for the last inches of unoccupied space.

Dawn had only just broken over the horizon. The warmth of the rising sun not quite high enough to chase away the night’s chill, and the last hour of the moon-set bathed the threadbare tents in cool, blue light. Ellana stretched and sighed contentedly to welcome the day, but the crisp smell of a winter morning gave her pause: there was no scent of cooking eggs or cured meat to greet her.

It was an unspoken rule that those who held watch over the long nights would keep the fire burning straight through. That way the embers were still hot, come sunrise. The last shift would take their final hour to start breakfast. Ensure it was ready to serve an hour past dawn once it was time to wake the others if they hadn’t roused themselves already. In the fall they usually hadn’t.

With a quiet sigh she slipped out from beneath the covers and quickly pulled her clothes on. Leather pants, belt, and a simple cotton shirt pulled over linen bindings, but skipped the shoes. She preferred not to wear them when she could get away with it.

She slipped out into the camp proper and surveyed the scene. No one was waiting, and no one else yet awake. The fire was still going but whoever had last watch had neglected to stay and tend it. A second glance found a cast-iron pan heating on a split log, and a dozen goose eggs beside it -- it was clear it hadn’t been abandoned for long, at least.

Cassandra, me, Sera, then Solas, she reminded herself as she wrapped her tangled hair into a messy bun, tying it in place with one of the thin leather strings she hung on her belt. He’d taken dawn’s watch. There was no sign of a fight and she’d not woken to any strange sounds so it was unlikely there’d been any sort of ambush… he’d probably just wandered off to forage for berries.

As if on queue, she heard an exclamation from beyond the hill to the North. A quiet ‘Hah!’ in the distance coming from a clearing not far from where they’d made camp. A few seconds later came another one, and it confirmed the theory of his absence: he wasn’t far.

Still struggling to tuck her hair into the tie -- why didn’t I braid it before bed? -- she made her way up the deer path and toward the clearing. Catching sight of Solas a moment later, dressed down to loose-fit breeches and a thin cotton undershirt to aid him moving in quick, practiced, lunges from pose to pose. Spinning his staff around his wrist, over his head, and across his shoulders before slamming it down into the ground with a grunt of effort.

It was the same exercises he’d performed a hundred mornings before, though she rarely witnessed them. He preferred privacy for whatever reason, and never accepted the offer of a partner to square with. Whether for pride or preference of solitude, she wasn’t sure.

His back was to her, no more than 40 paces away, but if she’d had any intent to sneak up on him it was lost when she tripped over a small stone and sent it skipping off to one side. She saw his ears twitch when it landed in the grass. In an instant he’d spun on one heel and turned to face her, staff outstretched over one arm and pointed in her direction. A threat on any other occasion, but the slightest curl of his lip showed he had no hostile intent.

“Inquisitor,” he greeted.

She smiled, and ducked her head in greeting as she approached. “You heard me coming?”

He lowered the staff to the ground. “You were not quiet,” he replied, and glanced over her shoulder toward the camp to check for others. Only then did it seem to occur to him how much time had passed, and he noted how the sun had risen above the mountains. When he looked at her again his expression held a touch of regret. “My apologies, I lost track of time. I neglected to start breakfast at dawn.”

She shook her head, dismissing him with a gesture. “You’re off the hook: I woke early, no one else is up.”

It was hard not to notice the way the thin shirt he wore clung to his chest and sides; sweat-moist and streaked with dirt from his morning routine. With the sun rising behind them she could almost see the outline of his body beneath it. The dip of his waist wrapped in lean muscle.

Don’t let him catch you staring.

She coughed, and hoped that the seconds she’d spent leering hadn’t been too obvious. “There’s still time to practice. Do you need a partner?”

Fortunately, it seemed he hadn’t noticed. With a smile, “I do not normally spar with one,” he informed, but he didn’t dismiss her.

This was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up: a chance to challenge him.

The clearing was surrounded on all sides by fir trees and evergreens; recent storms had left broken branches and fallen leaves everywhere. Any direction would award her with an improvised weapon, so she picked one at random and quickly located a dried-out limb from an old tree. It took little more than a swift kick to break it free from the bush it was tangled in, and only a few modifications were needed to gift her with a capable bo staff that rivaled the curled mage one he favoured.

She spun it between her hands, testing its balance as she walked a slow circle around him. “Afraid you’ll lose?”

It was a cheap shot -- not one she thought would normally work on him, meant as a joke over challenge -- and so was pleasantly surprised to see the way he eyed her in reply. Gave quiet laugh as she moved behind him.

He tilted his head. A subtle movement that could have easily been mistaken as a gesture of acceptance, but instead was a tactic she recognized. He was listening to her steps. Half a second later he thrust his staff under his left arm to block her, spun, and took a step back to position himself to defend. But she’d anticipated the opening move before he’d made it and had already slid around to his unprotected right side, spinning her makeshift weapon over a wrist and striking him in the ribs with the thin end.

That stopped him in his tracks, momentarily stunned by her speed, and she took the opportunity to flash him a cheeky smile. “That doesn’t bode well for you.”

Now she’d gone and wounded his pride, too. Pity he’d left it vulnerable.

He spun his staff upward, driving hers up and away from his body, then lunged with it held in both hands. But she blocked him easily, then swept a leg beneath his to unbalance him; which he parried by turning the end of his staff downward to smack her in the ankle.

At this close range neither managed to score a solid hit on the other. Staves crossed overhead, underhand -- block and parry -- landing with loud clacks that echoed through the small clearing.

A different approach was necessary to present a proper challenge: Ellana leapt backward and flipped the staff over her shoulder, grabbed it in her right hand, and thrust it toward Solas like a sword. He blocked her first strike, and she missed her second, but the third attempt landed a solid blow against his calf.

It stung enough that he cried out. “Ah!”

“Got you,” she taunted. “Too slow!” And watched with careful interest as he took up a stance similar to hers and made to return the blow she’d given him.

He twirled his staff above his head, passed from hand to hand as he slid back to make space between them. It was a flourish she’d seen him use on the field before and it worked well to distract the eye. Made it hard to tell which side he’d ultimately choose to bring it down upon. So she watched his feet instead. Waited until he slid left so she could turn right and evade his attempt to strike her in the side. He followed it up with a quick, horizontal slice that she dodged with a nimble backflip… and he was so surprised by the move that he failed to guard his flank and she got in a solid hit on his hip before he’d moved to block the next.

“Impressive,” he praised, and spun his staff around his wrist as he circled her.

She lowered her own to draw a line in the dirt, keeping pace with him but just far enough apart that neither could reach the other. Waiting for him to show his hand. His next attempt was much more aggressive, and in a flurry of spins and weaves he managed to get two light strikes against her side -- though still failed to top the four she gave him in return.

Over the next ten minutes she had doubled her hit count, while he’d only managed to add a few to his own. The talent for staff-wielding was there but he was not as dextrous as she, and it was quickly becoming apparent she had him beat in terms of both evasiveness and speed. He had to work smarter, not harder, if he wanted to catch up.

But before he’d decided on the next attack her eye caught the ruched edge of his shirt stuck to his side. Now positively drenched with sweat (and she was in no better state), one corner had caught on the hem of his pants and created a loop that offered her a new opportunity.

She baited him: lunged forward and forced him to counter a hit by thrusting his staff toward her and then quickly pulling it back to tuck under one arm. But the butt end got tangled in his shirt, and his grip slipped just enough to give her an chance to flip the other end up into his face. He blocked it with barely a half inch to spare before it knocked him in the nose.

It took one more tangle, and one near-miss, before he realized out she was doing it on purpose.

“Hold,” Solas chuckled, and held up a hand to stop her advance. Then he pulled his shirt up over his head, wiped his brow with it, and threw it to one side of the clearing.

She’d seen him dressed down before but not ever in this state.

He never bathed with company when he could avoid it and was notoriously private. Even when they’d made their way across the Hissing Wastes and had down-time in areas safe to doff their armour, he never joined his teammates; citing pale skin too easily burned. The times he’d been injured in her presence the situation was too dire to take note of anything other than the amount of blood, the depth of the wounds, and how many potions they had between them. Beyond that the closest she’d come to seeing him shirtless was lifting up the side of his chemise to help mend a tear in it.

Mythal enaste, ma halani.

He was as pale as he’d said, but with a generous dusting of freckles along his chest and shoulders. Down his arms. The only places bare of them were his stomach and lower back, though she found herself too lost in the curve of his rear end and how his pants fit to it to spend much time confirming that. Broad and lithe, he stood a head taller than any other Elven man she knew; and though that was a trait she’d been aware of since the day they’d met she’d never really considered it at length until just now. Standing before him as he turned back around to face her, staff in hand. Suddenly realizing how easily he could wrap his arms around her entire body. She would disappear entirely against him.

Beneath him.

She stood no taller than his collarbone, and was now absolutely consumed with the desire to lean her head there and breathe him in. Run her hands along every sweat-slick inch of him.

If he didn’t notice her indulgent staring when she first came upon him in the clearing, he certainly had now.

Before she even realized he’d started moving he already had his staff flying toward her neck, stopping it a hair's breadth from striking her. She jerked her head to one side a second too late -- he already had her pinned -- and so she conceded the hit to him with a subtle nod.

He grinned. “Got you.”

This is playing dirty , she thought. But, “I wasn’t prepared,” she said instead, and he laughed. There was no way he didn’t see through the excuse, though he seemed amused at her for trying to make it all the same.

After that, the trial swung entirely in his favour. Every spin and twirl confused her eye, every dodge and parry was successful, and every time she’d almost got a hit on him he managed to evade it. He’d improved his technique since they’d begun, certainly, but more to the point it was clear that it was her own poor form throwing the match.

Over the next few minutes he achieved three hits on her flank, two on her leg and one -- infuriatingly -- on her ear. He pulled the punch but it still hit hard enough to set it ringing, and she cursed him for the insult it gave her.

“Dread Wolf take you!”

He gave the oddest, startled laugh in response -- and she had to remind herself the phrase meant little to him as an elf outside of the clans. More so as one who saw himself above their worship. She grit her teeth and, “That fucking hurt, you ass,” she corrected.

He raised a brow. “Then block it.”

If it wasn’t the plane of his muscled chest that kept drawing her eye away from his staff, it was the slope of his shoulders, or the dip of his spine, or the way his hands moved when he twirled it around his wrists. How had she never noticed how long his fingers were before now? Long fingers on a healer’s soft hands, running along her jaw, tangling into her hair and--

Solas scored another hit. This time on her waist.

That was enough. Now she was angry. Angry and frustrated and getting more bruised by the second. Flushed with exertion and an unbelievably inappropriate amount of sexual tension, she felt like she was drowning in her clothes.

“Hold,” she ground out, and dropped her staff. Pitched forward and tore off her shirt, throwing it to the ground in an angry huff along with the utility belt she’d kept clasped on her breeches. She unbuckled the dagger strap, throwing it away, then rolled the hem of her pants legs up to her thighs. Once she was done stripping off everything that might even slightly hinder her movement she freed her hair of the leather tie so she might gather up the little wisps and fly-aways that had fallen from the messy bun.

She piled the tangled, sweaty mop of curls into a folded top knot and re-secured it with the thong; shaking her head side to side to ensure it would stay before she straightened up. Tugged at the sweaty, linen binding around her breasts and squared her shoulders.

And just barely caught the tail end of a quick recovery: Solas tensed his jaw, eyes hastily flicking up to meet hers.

If she had to endure the embarrassment of being caught leering, so would he .

So she narrowed her eyes, and flashed him a wry smile. Watching, satisfied, as his ears turned pink.

The match was much fairer after that. Now they were both terrible, and fought all the harder for it. For what they’d lost in accuracy and form over the course of their spar, they made up for in power. Focusing all their strength on clashes and blocks at close-range with hard, aggressive strikes made with the full brunt of their staves. Two-handed shoves designed to push an opponent and unbalance them. It wasn’t just about getting in another hit anymore, now they were fighting to win.

And in the end, Solas was stronger.

Her fate was sealed when she misjudged the weight he threw into a stunning blow and it hit her in the chest much harder than she’d braced for. The blow almost downed her, but it was raising her right arm for counterbalance that proved to be the final, fatal, mistake. One she recognized as soon as she made it. She’d exposed her midsection, and Solas was quick to take advantage of the vulnerability.

Had she the time to, she would have cursed him again.

Another quick blow landed on her side -- this one purposefully timed to hit her the same instant she sucked in a breath. The tactic was cheap, but it worked; this time she was properly winded, forced to take a clumsy step backward to keep herself on both feet. Stunned, she dropped her staff.

It was clear that he would win this, now there was no doubt, but the moment presented Solas with several different options to collect.

He could sweep her legs out from beneath her and send her sprawling to the ground -- but that might come off as grandstanding.

He could step back and allow her to concede without humiliation -- but that didn’t appeal to him either.

This sparring match had set his blood pumping, and in the end he didn’t simply want to earn a victory, he wanted to claim it. And so, against his better judgement, he took a third option: twisted his staff up and out, caught it in both hands, then thrust it against her chest with a final, powerful, shove.

The tree caught her before she fell and she was left with her back up against the rough bark, pinned and stunned, with Solas almost upon her and his staff held tight across her throat.

Breathing hard, and sporting a boyish grin she’d never have thought him capable of, he whispered, “Got you.”

It was disarming. Alluring . And he unbelievably gorgeous; so near that she could smell the musk and dirt on his skin. Feel the warmth radiating off him. Her mouth went dry -- so very, painfully , aware of how close they pressed. Not quite touching but not quite not touching either. His breath was a soft caress upon her jaw and the sweat dripping from his temples a sinful lure. The apples of his cheeks were flushed red, highlighting another patch of freckles she’d never noticed before. These ones blossomed across nose and up into his hairline -- or where his hairline would be if he did not keep it so closely shaved.

A moment passed in that space, pushed too close, before the full implication of their position dawned upon him and Solas abruptly straightened. Braced a foot between hers and used it to push himself back, averting his eyes. She could see the apology in his gaze and on his lips before he spoke it aloud for this step over the line of propriety he had not meant to take.

Oh no you don’t.

With a rush of boldness she was quite sure she’d never be able to muster again, she grasped his staff in both hands as he began to lower it, knocking it out of his his grip. It took no effort at all to send it flying in the air and up over his head. She watched his eyes widen in shock as it came back down behind him, grasped tightly, then held against the small of his back when she gave a hard jerk forward.

This time it was his turn to stumble. Successfully taken by surprise, he only had the wherewithal to catch himself with a single hand braced upon the tree above her as as their hips slammed together (and nearly their faces). He was pinned.

There was barely an inch between them now. Barely a breath. She could feel his heart pounding like a drum against her body. Feel the sweat; the heat of his skin, and the hard line of his thigh against hers.

Gods above and below but he did smell amazing, too.

If she died tomorrow she’d be at peace knowing she’d had shared this one moment with her breasts crushed against his chest and his mouth so close to hers she could almost kiss him.

I want to kiss him.

Yet...

She loosened her grip on the staff, giving him the opportunity to step back. Let him go not quite quickly enough for her to get away with not embarrassing herself.

But he didn’t take the offer... And when she looked again she saw his eyes were heavy, pupils blown, watching her. His gaze lowered to her mouth and his lips parted.

He wants to kiss me.

She swallowed hard. The air was heavy and thick, they were not far from camp full of their companions, and this was in no way an appropriate exchange between two people of rank within a pseudo-religious military organization… But still he’d made no move to back away. And neither did he lean closer. Holding himself in terrible stillness, mouth poised just over hers. Waiting.

It was agony, the way his breath danced across her mouth. The way his heart beat in time with hers. They way she felt it . They were trapped: caught in this moment between desire and action. Caught up in each other. She wanted nothing more than to lose herself in it.

Slowly -- so slowly -- his lips touched hers. A soft brush so feather-light it could not possibly be called a kiss any more than the shuddering sigh he let out following it. Her eyes fluttered closed. Time slowed to a halt, and the world around them faded away. She saw nothing, heard nothing but for the thundering of her pulse in her ears, felt nothing but this.

This press of his mouth: the sweetest torment she had ever known.

The kiss was chaste in its hesitancy: soft and delicate with too much breath and not enough skin. A mothwing touch that asked far more than it could ever possibly take. A tease, a question, a plea. One she found herself chasing once he pulled away, wordlessly begging forgiveness for the sin he could not help but commit against her. A trespass on all the careful boundaries of order and propriety -- all for the theft of this one, simple, embrace.

And oh, she thought, I would take so much more, as she captured his mouth with her own.

The sharp, sudden breath he took as her tongue touched his lip was enough to make her weak in the knees. The staff was dropped on the ground with a clatter, instantly forgotten, to give herself the freedom to clutch at his bare back. Sweat-licked, flushed, and far hotter than he had any right to be on such a chilled morning. He slid his own hand around behind her and pressed his fingers against her spine, urging her closer. Willing her to bend for him. And for the sweetest second she tasted his kiss: his teeth and tongue closing around her bottom lip, pulling her in for more.

She’d all but forgotten where they were or that anyone else even existed.

When she heard her title called in the distance it shocked her back into reality with the power of a bucket of cold water thrown over her head.

“--quisitor?”

It was Cassandra, coming up the hill.

Solas pulled back, stunned and wide-eyed like a startled animal, but he didn’t quite summon the sense to disengage with her completely. Fortunately, she was quick on her feet and accustomed to acting under pressure. It took her less than a second to come up with her next move.

She locked eyes with him, hoping the look might appropriately convey an apology for what came next. In one quick motion she swept a leg beneath both of his and then hit him square in the chest with the palm of her hand.

It worked perfectly.

He was flipped absolutely horizontal, and hit the ground hard. Landing with a grunt, flat on his back in the dirt; dazed, and winded. A cloud of dust rising with him.

She slammed a bare heel against the butt of his mage staff, dropped unceremoniously to the ground behind them a moment ago, and flipped it into the air, deftly catching it. Then lunged. Twirling it over her arm and around her back as she moved. One half-spin on her toes to avoid his hand as it darted out to grasp an ankle, a quick pop of her elbow to bounce the weapon down into her palm, and she had it pointed at the apple of his throat.

He raised his hands in defeat, choking on a cough. Between the dust and the impact he had yet to get a proper breath, and was reduced to shallow, dry, panting. They were both panting -- not just from exertion.

Skin much lighter than her own showcased a flush that ran from from ears to chest. A tell he was clearly aware of, as he dropped both hands to his chest as if to hide it. Then smiled, a little sheepishly, when he saw her eyes follow the movement.

She returned it, whispering a quiet and triumphant, “Got you.”

“Inquisitor?”

Cassandra reached the treeline and had stepped into the glade with them. All of three seconds was spent surveying the scene: a cloud of dust hanging in the air over a sandy clearing marred by the wild footprints of a training spar and the two half-dressed players still locked in a stand-off. The Inquisitor clutching Solas’ staff, trained on his neck.

She laughed. “It looks like you’ve been bested, Solas.”

A raspy chuckle and, “So I have,” he replied from the ground, in a voice that was equally -- delightfully -- rough.

With a smirk, Ellana threw him the staff. He caught it in one hand and dug it into the dirt; using it as a crutch to help himself sit up so he could lean over his knees and finally take that deep breath he’d been struggling to.

Though far from unskilled, if this fight had taught her anything it was that he was better accustomed to moving about the battlefield at a distance. His strengths did not lie in martial combat. Future spars were best left to those who specialized in hand-to-hand fighting. Those morning exercises he performed were for strength and form, not practicality.

But she had wounded his pride now, and for him that would not do.

Cassandra gave the two of them a meaningful look, one which lingered on Ellana long enough to turn into an approving smile. “If you’re done showing off... breakfast is ready,” she informed, cooly, and turned to leave. Heading back the way she came.

Once she was out of sight Ellana crossed the clearing to retrieve both Solas’ shirt and her own. As she passed him by again he held up a hand expectantly, waiting for her to toss it down.

But, “Oh no,” she teased, and gave him a smile. She made a show of tucking his clothes over her arm for safe-keeping. “I think I’ll take this as a prize. You can come get it from camp when you’ve caught your breath.”

It took only six steps with her back turned before she sensed the crackle in the air she was waiting for. A subtle shift -- a smell, like the sky just before a storm rends it. On any other afternoon she’d trust him to humbly accept a loss to her -- but not after a kiss. Not after she’d very literally swept him off his feet.

A glyph lit up the ground beneath her, but she was ready for it. Pushed with her right leg and tucked up her left to avoid triggering it, leaping sideways…

… straight into the side of a rock pillar he’d pulled from the ground.

That she had not expected.

The impact left her momentarily stunned. She stumbled, catching herself just before she walked back into the ice trap he’d conveniently left nearby.

Solas was at her side by the time she stopped seeing stars. Sporting a grin that looked as smug as she’d ever seen. As irritated as she was for his foul play, it was hard to stay mad at him when he looked so unguarded; there was no trace of that cold mask he always wore. Just a smile, wide and genuine, as he quickly snatched his shirt back from her and pulled it on.

She narrowed her eyes. “How did you anticipate that?”

He threw the branch she’d used as a staff back to her, and she caught it expertly in a raised palm. He gestured with his chin. “You are right-handed,” he said simply. “And you always move left to dodge an attack.”

“Been studying me, have you?” teased Ellana in return.

“It is always prudent to learn the tactics of your friends as well as your enemies.” He made the answer sound like any other common-sense battle strategy. The logic was sound enough to take at face value until he added a coy, “But yes, since you asked.”

Damn him , she thought, and felt a blush rise on her cheeks. Small mercy it was hidden by her deeper complexion, because It was terrible how easily she melted to his charm. So much so that she completely forgot about the trap still primed behind her. Right up until she took a step into it and was immediately frozen in place by a cocoon of ice around her leg.

The shock of cold drew a loud gasp, then a curse, and an evil eye she trained on Solas as his grin turned crooked and satisfied.

“Got you,” he said.