“Should you not be in a meeting somewhere?”
Athesa looked up at Solas from where her head rested in his lap. “Do you want me to leave?”
“No,” his hand paused in her hair, “but you do not usually come here until after you’ve finished your work.”
It was true that she’d shown up earlier than usual. The Inquisitor had left for the rotunda almost immediately after waking up, wanting to tell him about the book on astronomy Dorian had lent her the evening before. He was sitting on his couch, a large tome open in his hands when she arrived. He continued to read as she sat next to him, and when she shifted to lay down he simply raised the book to make room for her head. There had been a moment of hesitation - not used to being quite so forward - but she found herself able to relax after seeing the smallest smile of his face.
That had been nearly an hour ago. Since then, she told him not only about the book but also that they’d be going to the Storm Coast with Iron Bull soon. Thankfully, he nodded when she asked if he would join them.
“I’ve spent the past two days in meetings,” she pointed out. “If I have to hear one more noble ask about mages, or Templars, or why there isn’t a Chantry in the garden, I’m going to tear my hair out.”
“Yes, it must be difficult to have so many awaiting your command, ready to serve.”
Despite his sarcasm, she continued to rant. “Why do we even need a Chantry? Do they not realize that I’m Dalish?”
“Perhaps you should consider making a shrine to one of the Gods you believe in, then.”
“Mythal, Sylaise, Fen’Harel.”
Athesa gave a short laugh, placing a hand over the one he had rested on her stomach. “Somehow I think doing that would only make things worse.”
“Joking aside, I would not want to distract you from your responsibilities.”
“You’re not, so don't worry.”
He only smiled and moved to brush some more hair out of her face.
Athesa bolted up at the title immediately. A runner who was clearly out of breath stood in the entrance of the rotunda. “Yes?”
“Your advisors would like to speak with you. Right away.”
“What’s going on?” Her mind tried to think of possibilities. Samson, red templars, Corypheus, Haven. Her fingers began to dig into Solas’ leg without meaning to, forcing him to jump slightly. She let go immediately and nodded to the scout, dismissing him. The moment he was gone she began to look for her hair elastic only for the apostate to hand it to her.
“Thank you,” she smiled softly, before letting him know that she'd speak with him later.
When she quietly entered Josephine’s office the Inquisitor was met with Cullen, Leliana, and the ambassador herself. The latter sat in her chair while the others stood around her desk, staring at it while none of them said a word. They all looked so… upset for some reason.
“Is something wrong?”
“Inquisitor,” Cullen nearly jumped when she spoke. “No. Well, yes.”
“What happened? Is it Corypheus?”
“No, not at all.” He reached around to rub the back of his neck. “Perhaps you should take a seat first.”
Her toes dug into her boots impatiently. “I’m fine, just tell me what’s going on.”
Josephine wasn’t even able to look at her, simply watched the letter on her desk as if it might disappear. “Inquisitor,” she finally spoke up, “I would like to apologize. I am… truly sorry. I contacted the Duke to assist with your clan just as suggested but…”
Athesa could feel her stomach drop. Suddenly she regretted everything - waking up, listening to the scout they sent, coming here so quickly. “But, what?” Her voice was low, already afraid of the answer.
“I am afraid he was too late. By the time our allies arrived there was little left.”
“They were killed.” Each advisor nodded slowly, looking pained for her. “Is that the report?”
Her hands shook when they passed it to her. Her heart was racing, but not in the way she had grown accustomed to over the past months.
“I’d like some time alone." They nodded and and apologized for what must have been the fourth time.
She could barely remember the walk from the office to her quarters. All she knew was that there were too many people around to be upset. So she did her best to remain composed, tried to push away the fear that threatened to take over. Even as she walked up the stairs and stood in the middle of her room, everything felt numb. It was a nightmare. She must have fallen asleep with her head on Solas’ lap, that was the only possible explanation.
But the letter folder in her hands was very, very real.
The parchment felt heavy and rough against her fingers. It begged to be opened, but at the same time she couldn’t bring herself to. The Inquisitor was desperately clinging to whatever composure she had left and knew that the moment she read the words everything would come crashing down. So instead, she quietly set it on her desk.
They weren’t gone. They couldn’t be. There were too many things to do for them to be dead. She still had to tell her mother how much she missed her, thank her Keeper for sending her to the Conclave. A voice told her no, she wouldn’t be able to do any of those things now. All of those nights spent homesick weighed down on her as she walked to her bed and sat on the edge.
The Inquisitor didn’t bother to try to keep track of how long she stayed there - it could have been days for all she cared. At one point her stomach began to protest, but she selfishly ignored it. She felt too nauseous to even think about eating.
Eventually, there was a soft knock at the door. Athesa didn’t move. She couldn’t handle another person trying to check in on her, didn’t want them to see the Inquisitor locking herself away. It was just like when they first arrived at Skyhold - she was isolating herself, just as homesick and afraid as she’d always been. Just the memory of all of those nights sleeping on her balcony made her feel ashamed, and ultimately that was what made her call for whoever continued to knock to come in. Soon enough she heard quiet footsteps, and then a voice.
“Solas.” Her voice was steady and even - numb, just like her. She looked up to see him frowning. “Did they tell you?”
“Vaguely, yes.” Slowly, he walked over and sat down beside her. “Would you like to discuss it?”
“No.” Athesa continued to stare at the floor in silence. Her thoughts began to wander quickly - going over what could have only been five minutes in Josephine's office. It played in her mind over and over like a broken record. “... I lied.”
She felt fragile, as if she was made of glass and it would only take a few of the wrong words for her to shatter. It was an awful feeling - one that made her want to curl up in shame. She told him this quietly.
“I shouldn’t be the Inquisitor. Everyone at the Winter Palace was right.” She stared at her hands as she spoke. “I’m not the Herald.”
“It’s not a statement that’s up for debate,” she snapped. A new wave of guilt threatened to crush her immediately, forcing her to squeeze her eyes shut. “That was uncalled for.”
He wrapped an arm around her waist and Athesa leaned into his side, holding the front of his tunic tightly while she stared at the ground a few feet away.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now,” she whispered.
“That is alright. You have time.”
“They’re all just… gone.” She watched the wolf jaw as it rose and fell with his breaths. After a few seconds of silence she looked up to meet his eyes. “I love you.”
He looked so troubled when she said it, and she felt her heart sink yet again. Something inside her broke and she pulled away, sitting up to properly speak.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, eyes watering despite how hard she tried to stay calm. “Whenever you watch me you always look so sad.”
He frowned, but stayed quiet while she wiped away tears and continued.
“Do I make you sad?” The question came out without thinking, voicing the fear she never acknowledged. Solas opened his mouth, but paused, obviously torn over something.
“Please, just tell me.” A part of her was yelling at herself to just shut up already. She wasn’t thinking straight, was taking all of her dread and misery out on him.
His arm tightened around her waist just slightly. “I am sorry if I hurt you. I didn’t mean to.”
“I’m not hurt.” It was a lie. A terrible, awful lie but that wasn’t the point. “I’m asking if I hurt you.”
“No.” His answer was immediate. “It is just that there are times when I worry about the future.”
“All anyone has done since the Conclave is worry about the future,” she choked out, “but right now everyone I love is gone. Everyone except for you, and I’m right here, and I care about you, and I love you.” Athesa felt herself begin to panic as she spoke - the reality of her situation finally sinking in. Of course she still had her companions, but this was different. Solas was different. He was more than a friend who she visited the Fade with. He was someone who was so important to her that it was downright terrifying.
She didn’t realize that she was shaking until he was huggingher, holding her together as she felt herself finally fall apart. She wrapped her own around him without any hesitation.
“I don’t want to be someone who makes you upset,” she said into his shoulder.
“You aren’t. You are incredibly important - more than you realize.”
“I don’t want to be important. I want to be home, with my family.” My dead family, she thought, and felt a sob escape.
“But you cannot. And for that I am sorry.” He sounded sorry, too - seemed to be incredibly pained from seeing her like this.
“Why?” She muttered almost bitterly. “You hate the Dalish.”
“I am frustrated with the Dalish, and I do not hate you. In fact, you’ve made it very clear that you are far from what I know of them.”
She didn’t respond, and instead tried to focus on her breathing. Every so often it would pick up again and she would have to force herself to count in her head with each exhale. It was difficult, but better than thinking about the current circumstances. Eventually, Athesa let go of him to wipe her eyes with the backs of her hands again. “Could you get the letter for me? It’s on my desk.”
“Are you sure?”
While he got up to retrieve it for her, the Inquisitor moved onto her bed so that she was leaning against the headboard. Solas stretched out beside her before giving her the letter. Her hands shook as she opened it, suddenly unsure of herself. Was this really necessary? After all, she already knew what it said. But the way her heart began to race told her it was, and she tore it open with more force than needed.
It said everything that her advisors had told her: the Duke’s forces arrived too late to help, with no survivors in the area. Overall, it was surprisingly short and only confirmed her thoughts, leaving her with a lump in her throat. When she was finished, Athesa folded it up carefully before setting it down between them. She swallowed hard, sinking down until her head was on the pillow. That damned ceiling pressed down on her like so many times before while she stared at it.
“I want you to tell me about Ferelden before the last Blight,” she told him quietly. “Please.”
The mattress shifted as he moved to lay down beside her. He kept his voice low when he spoke - describing the scenery, explaining the kind of spirits who still lingered there in the Fade. It proved to be a good distraction and for just a bit it was easier to breathe. She could pretend that the entire day hadn’t happened, that she had just spent the after happily speaking to him in his study rather than her own room.
Every so often she would doze off only to jerk awake, and after what must have been the fourth time Solas rolled over, quietly running a hand through her hair and telling her to go back to sleep. That heavy weight on her chest was coming back quickly so she nodded and let her eyes slide shut, feeling him watch her slip into the Fade.
* * *
Her entire body jerked as she woke up. Hot air filled her lungs, burning with each breath. It was too hot. Sweat covered her neck while she laid there on her back - too terrified to move. The sheets felt cool in her sticky grip and the only light seemed to be coming from the moon as it shone through the windows. Still, it felt too dark. The shadows threatened to swallow her up while the ceiling pressed down on her limbs.
She thought that it would be okay, that for at least a few hours she might be able to escape, that the fact her clan was gone would act as a shield against any dreams in the Fade. After all, what could be worse than the harsh reality she would wake up to?
It turned out that it couldbe worse, and it was. Because nothing could rival the fact that her family was dead except for the visions of them still being alive. Hazy dreams of her Keeper lecturing her for wandering off, echoes of her mother’s laughter, her younger brother’s vague noises of disgust.
A hand covered one of her own, gently prying the blanket out from her iron grip. When she turned her head, Athesa found herself face to face with Solas. His eyes were closed but she could tell that he was awake. His eyebrows were drawn together, a small frown replacing his usually peaceful face. By the time she was able to let go of the fabric he was pulling her towards him. Her forehead pressed against his chest as it slowly rose and fell with his breaths. In and out, in and out. Arms rested around her, holding her loosely - a reminder that she was free to ask him to leave.
She let her own shaking arms wrap around his torso clumsily - practically clinging to him. Still gasping for air, a broken sob choked out. The hand that was on her lower back started to move in small, soothing circles. Eventually, words began to spill out of her mouth. They were fragments of sentences and pieces of elvish that hurt to say out loud but she had to. She had to get the words out into the air instead of keeping them caught in her throat - where they would burn and corrode until she couldn’t say anything anymore. He seemed to understand because all she got in response was a quiet hum; an indication that he was still listening to her babble on through the tears that streamed down her face.
She wasn’t sure how long they were like that: her face buried in his shirt until all that was left was her sniffling every so often. Her eyes were red and sore so she let them slide shut - not going to sleep, but just lying there. She noticed that he smelled like elfroot and pine and it reminded her of home to a less severe degree - soothing her rather than bringing back the piercing pain in her gut.
When her eyes opened again hours later neither of them had moved. Her face felt gross, sticky with dried tears. She didn’t get up, though. The hands on her back had stopped moving, and while a chin rested on the top of her head the Inquisitor had the growing suspicion that he had fallen asleep. When Athesa felt the circles on her back begin again was when she knew he had woken up.
“Ma serannas,” she whispered, the phrase raw in her throat.
He shifted until Athesa could feel a pair of lips kiss the top of her head. “Ir abelas, ma vhenan.”
Everyone was gone. All of the history she had learned about her clan as First might as well have been for nothing; everything she had planned to return to after the Inquisition had just disappeared. The realization made her chest heavy and she could suddenly feel the broken sobs returning. What was she supposed to do now?
Solas’ hand ran through her hair and quietly reminded her to breathe.
“I didn’t even get to tell him that I was sorry.”
“I am sure he knew.”
“I ruined it all,” she continued. “Nothing of our clan’s past will be remembered and it’s my fault. Everything is my fault. I should have sent Leliana, or Cullen, or gone myself. It was stupid to trust the nobles to help.”
“You could not have known, lethallan.” His voice was full of regret - the sadness she often saw behind his composed mask shining through brightly. “I can empathize more than you realize.”
“Can you, though?”
"... Thank you," she told him again quietly.
* * *
The next day Athesa took Solas, Cole, Iron Bull, and the Chargers with her to secure the alliance with the Qun just as planned. She needed to get out of her quarters, a determination to not let this be like the last time driving her. Everything seemed to be normal as they travelled and ate during the day - none of her companions bringing up what had happened, which she was more than thankful for.
The nights were more difficult, even with Solas sleeping next to her. The time between when he fell asleep and she did was short but still very much there. She would lay there on her back and remember moments from her childhood until they threatened to consume her - leaving her feeling alone with shaky breaths and stinging eyes. Whenever it got to be too much she would reach to intertwine their fingers like he had done so many times when they were awake. Doing it didn’t make everything better, not that she had expected it to, but it did help to ground her. In the morning she would wake up to find that she was still holding onto him. While Solas didn’t bring it up, she noticed that he would give her hand a small squeeze before letting go to get up.
The Storm Coast was just as cold and wet as Athesa had remembered it to be. It was raining when they arrived and continued to even as Iron Bull gave Krem his orders. When they saw the Venatori approaching the Chargers, she could practically feel the Qunari’s ease slip away.
“Your men need to hold that position, Bull.”
“They do that, they’re dead.”
He turned to Bull, frowning - telling him that if they didn’t the Venatori would retake it. “You’d be throwing away an alliance between the Inquisition and the Qunari! You’d be declaring yourself Tal-Vashoth. With all you’ve given the Inquisition, half the Ben-Hassrath think you’ve betrayed us already.”
She stood there quietly, the humid air heavy in her lungs.
“I stood up for you, Hissrad! I told them you would never become Tal-Vashoth.”
“They’re my men.”
“I know, but you need to do what’s right, Hissrad… For this alliance, and for the Qun.”
Bull turned towards her questioningly. It took a moment for her to realize that he was waiting for orders - her orders. She glanced to where the Chargers were. An alliance with the Qun could help the Inquisition, she knew that. However, she knew the Chargers as well, knew how important each one of Bull’s men was to him. They were like his family - similar to how the Seekers were Cassandra’s, and Clan Lavellan had been hers.
Her grip tightened on her staff at the comparison. This was it: a chance to stop history from repeating itself and she wasn’t going to take it for granted.
“Call the retreat.”
So Bull blew the horn, despite the other elf’s protests.
“We can make this up to your people,” she tried to reassure him.
“No, you can’t.”
They were left out on the cliff, forced to walk back to their camp with wet armor and soaked boots in silence. Bull seemed quiet as they ate dinner, and she couldn’t blame him, but knew that it would have been worse to lose the Chargers. She wondered if it was selfish to throw away the alliance because of personal interests, but quickly put the thought out of her mind. What was done was done.
That night Athesa sat cross-legged on her bedroll, staring at her lap while she thought over the day’s events. Solas sat next to her, quietly reading one of the books he had brought with him from his study. The heels of her hands rubbed her eyes irritably when she felt them begin to water. She was tired of crying, tired of that sick feeling in her stomach, and the knot in her throat that never seemed to go away. Most of all, though, she was tired of feeling so sad.
After running her hands down her face, she looked over at Solas. His book had been put down, although she wasn’t sure when he had done that, and he glanced at her.
“Do you regret it?”
“No.” Shaking her head, she turned so that she was sitting in front of him. “It was the right thing to do. The Chargers are safe.” At least she was able to save something this time.
“You had to make a difficult decision, and it is good that you are able to stand behind it.” He leaned in to press their foreheads together. “I am impressed.”
Stomach fluttering, Athesa moved forward until she was sitting in his lap, legs loosely wrapped around his waist and arms around his neck. “How impressed?”
“Very.” His mouth trailed along the vallaslin on one of her cheeks, pressing chaste kisses until he reached her hair. A small laugh bubbled up, to her own surprise. Creators, it felt like years since she had last laughed.
Thoughts of her clan still lingered in the back of her mind but she did her best not to think about it. The entire trip to the coast had been spent digging herself out of that rut that left her with tears and guilt, and the thought that she could easily be stuck in that vicious cycle again was worrying. Instead, she focussed on the rain that fell outside, what it was like to be sitting so close to Solas, what it felt like to laugh - the Inquisitor tried to memorize all of it. She buried her face in his neck, still smiling as she felt him fold his hands behind her back.
“What are you thinking about?” he eventually asked.
“... Months ago I couldn’t even sit next to you on your couch without shoving a blanket between us,” she answered quietly. “Now I’m sitting in your lap, in my tent, while you kiss me.”
His tone grew serious. “And what do you think about that?”
“Good things.” She brought her face up to meet his. His eyes were bright and blue and she couldn’t bring herself to look away.
“I am pleased to hear it.”