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Keeping Secrets

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You look around at the fortress, your new home, with no small amount of awe. No small amount of fear, either. There aren’t a lot of places to run from here. And you’re used to being able to run.

In the end, however, it’s the lesser of a whole lot of evils. Running around during a mage rebellion had made things difficult enough. Then this madness with the rifts started happening, demons fucking everywhere… Now there were red Templars, which were somehow worse than regular Templars, which shouldn’t have even been possible. And the worst of it was this damned Inquisition, which had swooped in and rescued what Templars weren’t corrupted.

But it was the safest shelter in a storm. Even if it was full of Templars. Everywhere else was getting burned to the ground.

You enlist the same way as everyone else, by showing up one day with nothing but the clothes on your back and a sack of food. Someone is going through the new “recruits,” called such only because it sounds nicer than “desperate refugees,” trying to help them figure out where they will be the most useful. And now they’re in front of you, asking what skills you can lend to the Inquisition.

“Um,” you say, shifting your feet awkwardly. A hood covers your pointed ears, but there’s no hiding your larger-than-human eyes. “I was a scribe, before… everything. I can read, I can write, several languages-“

Before you can even finish listing off your skills, the fellow is nodding. “Alright, another elf for the library. Head up into the main hall, first door on your right, up the stairs. Find the other kni… nice elf, he’ll sort you out. Maker knows he could use the help.”

It really shouldn’t be so easy… But you shrug, and take your measly bag up the stairs. And there are a lot of stairs.

Skyhold is huge. Uncomfortably huge. The walls don’t help; they make it feel like the whole place is looming over you. You have a distinct feeling of being watched that leaves your skin crawling. You keep your head down as you slip through what is clearly a training ground, a blonde human shouting orders at men with swords. You glimpse a man in Templar armor and frown inwardly. Dodging Templars has almost become second nature, and being so close to them willingly chafes on you as much as your ill-fitting trousers. Still, you know you need to get used to it. Acting skittish around them is basically turning yourself in.

You take the steps up to the giant building two at a time, eager to get away from the muscle-bound humans. You have to admit, the “Great Hall,” as it seems to be called, is rather impressive. Utilitarian, somehow, but attractive. A bit too much Chantry influence for something that the Chantry had spent a lot of effort decrying, really.

You’re a bit surprised to see a dwarf at a table near the door you supposedly need to go through, rather engrossed in writing something. He glances up, as if sensing your eyes lingering on him. He flashes you a grin.

“Another newbie? We’re getting a lot of you.” His voice is amicable, but you get a feeling he’s a bit sharper than he looks. Better watch yourself.

“Y-yeah,” you stammer. “I’m… supposed to go to the library?” You gesture towards the door, as if you’re already a bit lost.

“Through there, up the stairs. Don’t worry, Stutter, you’ll fit in.”

Great. You have a nickname. Rather than reply, you bow your head slightly in thanks and duck through the door.

You should just go up the stairs. You know that. Lingering has never brought you anything but pain, but the sight of what’s on the other side of that door steals your breath away. A giant, round room, with a half-finished mural ringing it. You step in despite the voice in your head screaming that there would be time to look around later, spinning around as you walk to stare at everything.

Voices are bouncing down from above… The library, most likely; they had said it was upstairs. Were those birds you heard screeching? Still, this mural. Wolves howling at a mysterious figure, beautiful browns and golds. Had it come with the place?

You hear the sound of a clearing throat and go rigid, spinning around towards the source of the sound. There is a man on the scaffolding; in your admiration, you utterly failed to notice him. Stupid. Stupid! He isn’t saying anything, and you begin to worry you walked in on someone particularly important, or into a private area.

“U-u-um, s-sorry,” you stammer, wincing at the nervous tick. “I… I was looking for the library?”

“You were admiring,” the voice short, low and mature, with an accent you didn’t recognize. “The library is up the stairs.”

Was everyone in this damn castle astute? You’d be pegged within the month if this kept up. “Thanks. Sorry. Thank you,” you wince as you make all haste towards where you know the stairs are. No more sightseeing for you!

You all but charge up the stairs, hoping that the librarian is a little bit more normal than the last two. At least he’ll be an elf, apparently. Hopefully he’s one of those kinship-and-togetherness elves, and he’ll cut you some slack.

You come up the top of the stairs, and are immediately absolutely sure that you are, in fact, hearing birds. The cawing and flapping is unmistakable. Was there a rookery in this bizarre tower, as well? For a fortress with so much space, there sure was a lot of things crammed into one place. You pause, catching your bearings. This is obviously the library, but there are quite a few people, and you’re tasked with finding a single elf. You immediately scan the crowd for someone short.

“New?” came a rather cultured voice. It takes a great deal of self-control not to let out a long groan. Is everyone in this stupid Inquisition perceptive? This will be no end of grief. Your eyes focus in on the person talking, a tanned human with an admittedly marvelous moustache.

“I’m looking for the librarian?” is all you say, wondering if any qunari will be shaking you down as well, by the time you find where you’re supposed to be.

“Just over there. Dark hair, mousy, you can’t miss him.” The man looks amused. You don’t care to guess as to why.

“Thank you, ser,” you say politely, and turn to find the librarian before he can question you further. Go figure, the Inquisition is Inquisitive. And clearly, you were a genius for deciding you were a good enough secret-keeper to sit right underneath their noses.

Finally, you do manage to find the librarian, or who you sincerely hope is the librarian. You don’t see any other elves, so… You take a deep breath, then address him.

“Um, hello? My name is Emma.” A lie so practiced it isn’t even a lie anymore. “I was sent up here… to help, ostensibly.”

The man glances up at you, seeming startled by your presence. “Oh… oh! Are you one of the new arrivals?”

“I am, yes,” you say gravely. Thank the Maker, finally someone who isn’t on top of everything.

“And they sent you up here, not to the maid’s quarters? You must be something interesting.”

You frown. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, no offense, they just tend to see pointed ears and automatically assign any kind of servant work they can think of. What did you do to get put up here?”

Great, so much for an Inquisition for everyone. You knew those posters with the elf girl were a load of druffalo shit. You try not to look offended, and probably fail. “I read and write several languages,” you say, managing to hold yourself back from going on a rant listing them. Humility gets you far in a life of keeping secrets.

“That would be why, then. Are you any good at organization? You might be more use upstairs.”

Upstairs again? Maker have mercy. You let out a long sigh. “Honestly, ser, I just want to find a place where I can be of some use. I don’t care if it’s translating ancient Tevinter manuscripts or shoveling horse shit, at this point.”

The elf snorts. “Be careful saying that, or they’ll send you to the stables, and frankly, you’ll be of more use up here. Oh, my name’s Mahvir, by the way. Emma, you said, right? Alright, Emma, for now, I’m going to hand you off to Thea. She can give you a tour and get you settled in. We’ll find some work for you before long, don’t worry.”

And thus, you’re bustled off once again, this time to a redhead of a human who shows you around the library. “It’s not organized in the least, and we’re getting new books in every day,” she comments with a scowl. She also shows you around a few of the important places in Skyhold, like the mess where most of the non-soldier workers eat, the privies, the bar (why Skyhold has a bar, you’re uncertain), and the quarters for general workers. You’re a little impressed despite yourself; the room is tiny, but it is a room, and it apparently all yours, having been set aside for the next library worker. Enough space for a bed, a trunk, and a tiny stand. But it’s a bit of privacy you weren’t expecting.

By the time the two of you circle back to the library, a whole new set of faces is in it. You decide to give up on remembering who’s who unless they’re introduced to you.

“Oh, there you are!” The elf… his name was, what, Mahvir? Mahvir, yeah. “Upstairs wants to know what languages you can read, altogether.”

You hesitate, then stall. “Upstairs? Another wing of the library?”

“Oh, no. Upstairs is where… information is gathered.”

Oh. The spies want to know about you. Grand. This whole day just keeps improving with every step.

“I specialize in ancient Tevene,” you say carefully.

“Look, just give me a list,” he says impatiently. “I don’t know what they’re looking to hear.”

You let out a pained sigh. No point in lying about this. Plenty of people know multiple languages, and you do want to be as much as help as you can be, despite your hesitations about being here. You really don’t want to end up in the maid’s quarters if you could be doing something interesting, instead. “Ancient Tevene and ancient Elvhen, within reason, are the only ones I can imagine being useful, but I’m fluent in Orlesian, Antivan, and Qunlat.”

The man blinked in surprise. “What, Qunlat? Really?”

All of that, and he fixates on fucking Qunlat. You hope you’re stationed with this moron. “You pick these things up,” you say dryly. “Is that any help?”

“Hmm… You might as well go on up. They’ll want you.”

You barely bite back a groan. You should have lied. You’d rather be down here, organizing or translating. But, if they can put you to use, you can just find a niche and stick in it. That’s what you’re good at. With a growing sense of doom, you climb yet another set of stairs.

Well, this was where the bird sounds were coming from.

You’re almost immediately accosted as you come up the stairs. “You the elf? Course you are. Come with me.” The man grips your arm, and you resist the urge to pull yourself away. He half leads, half drags you towards a hooded figure leaning over a desk. “Got the linguist, Spymaster.”

Fucking Spymaster. Of course.

“And? What does she know?” The woman looks irritated at being interrupted. She has a rather thick Orlesian accent, which is a small comfort. Orlesians are notoriously tricky, but they are tricky in a reliable, predictable manner.

“Um…” The man stammers under that glare. You don’t particularly want it turned on you, but you also don’t want her looking any more irritated than she already does.

“Ancient Tevene, ancient elvhen, Orlesian, Antivan, Qunlat,” you say shortly. “Honestly, I’m not sure what use I could possibly-“

“That’s quite a list.” Her eyes fix onto you, and you really wish you had just left the man to flounder uselessly.

“I was a scribe, before,” you say, trying to keep things as simple as possible.

“Mm. Clearly. Well, if you speak Qunlat, we could use you. For now, however… you said ancient Tevene?”

“Ahm… yes, ser?” you say, floundering for a title. What did one call a spymaster?

“Give her the manuscript and set her up at a desk,” she directs this to the man who brought you over. “The Inquisitor has been breathing down my neck about it.”

And then you’re whisked away again, and before you can say cheese, you’re at a desk in a quiet corner of the library, with what appears for all the world to be an ancient Tevinter manuscript on dragons.

“This has been such a weird day,” you mutter to yourself. But translation is something you know how to do. You begin flipping through it, impressed at the quality, when you are interrupted yet again.

“What’s this then? They finally found someone pathetic enough to dig through that thing?”

Your eyes snap up, setting the speaker in an icy glare before you can remember you’re supposed to be acting small here. It’s the human from earlier, the one with the dramatic moustache. He holds up his hands, probably a reaction to the glare, but his face is fixed in a smirk. You force yourself to calm down. It’s been a stressful day, and it will be difficult enough to switch from arrogant to meek without losing your temper.

“Yes, I suppose they did, ser.”

“None of that. My name’s Dorian.”

“Mmm.” You look back down at the manuscript, but a few moments later…

“So you know ancient Tevene?”

You grit your teeth together, but manage to keep yourself composed. “Yes, ser. I didn’t realize literacy was such a marketable skill within the Inquisition.”

The man snorts out a laugh, which surprises you. You were being rude, a little on purpose.

“You, I like. What’s your name, then?”

You shake your head slightly. Weird humans, dwarves, redheaded Orlesian spies… This place was a little odd. “Emma.”

“Well, Emma, the reason I’m so interested is because I am an illustrious Tevinter citizen, and therefore I am aware that there really aren’t that many experts in Ancient Tevene outside the empire. What’s your history?”

Maker’s balls, a Vint, here, really? What is wrong with this godforsaken place? The Chantry’s damnation is making more and more sense. And now you have to explain yourself. Grand.

You clear your throat. “Certainly nothing as dramatic as you imagine, ser. I have simply always had a knack with language.”

“Mmhmm. Sure. Escaped slave, maybe?” He reaches a hand out to clasp your chin, and it takes every ounce of your willpower not to strike him.

“If I was, ser, it would be no one’s business, let alone that of an altus.”

“Oooh, you’re good. You’ve given me chills.”

“My pleasure, ser. May I get back to work?”

“How’d you know?” he demands, and you almost roll your eyes.

“It’s not subtle, ser. You said you were Tevinter. You’re far too attractive and well-groomed to be anything but upper class, but if you were a Magister, you wouldn’t be allowed within twenty miles of this place.”

“Attractive and well-groomed, eh? I think I like you.”

“Glad to be of service, ser.”

“You might as well open up, Emma dearest. If our Leliana’s got our eye on you, she’ll know your history within the week.”

That sends a chill down your back, but you manage to ignore it. There is very little in your history that would cause any raised eyebrows. You have been very careful, for a very long time. “My life’s story is very boring, ser. I suspect it won’t take her even a week.”

The man snorts, but he seems content to let you be. Finally. Perhaps you can actually get some work done on this manuscript. It has been your life’s experience that if you are useful enough, no one really cares where you’re from.

You’ve managed to get a bearing on the book by the time Thea arrives to invite you to the mess with her. You consider declining, but decide that making friends isn’t a terrible idea. It isn’t as though you’re going to be found out by the librarian’s assistant, for pity’s sake.

You’ve arrived at the mess, gotten your food, sat down, and begun eating, when you hear a low voice.

“So, you speak Qunlat, eh?”

You clench your jaw, close your eyes, and take a long, deep breath. This place will be the death of you.

Forcing yourself calm, you turn to reply to the man, but your voice catches in your throat, coming out only as a squeak.

THAT. Is a QUNARI.

A huge one, muscular, shirtless and covered in scars. Your eyes trace up him, as you would have been addressing his stomach. You had not been expecting someone so tall. Or broad. Or horned. One eye and a shit-eating grin gleam down at you. You attempt to speak again, cough, and then clear your throat.

“Uh, yes, ser,” you manage, not having to force a meek sounding voice. Fucking hell, they have a Qunari? Why do they have a Qunari? What is wrong with this place?

“No way, no one calls me ‘ser’,” the giant of a man says, so firmly that you find yourself willing to consider an alternative. “You can call me Iron Bull.” He taps his chin thoughtfully. “Or ‘Boss,’ if you prefer.”

You barely suppress a shudder. The damned size of him… He could snap you in two by flexing. Is he a mercenary? What on earth is he doing here? To your horror, he plops down on the seat across from you. “Qunlat is a hell of a language. Where’d you pick that up?”

“Oh, you know,” you say with a weak smile. “Around.”

The look he gives you makes you seriously regret ever thinking the Inquisition was a good idea. It also makes you seriously regret trying to make a joke.

You clear your throat again, trying to calm yourself. You’ll be no good at lying if you get flustered. “You should ask the Tevinter in the library, I think he’s getting a racket going on my history,” you try again, smiling a bit.

“When I ask a question, kid, I expect an answer.”

You frown. You’d assumed he was a Vashoth, being all the way out here, probably a Sten run away from the rough life, but you’re now quite certain that’s not the case. If he is Tal-Vashoth, he sure as shit was no Sten. They didn’t think this hard.

“Sorry, ser, er, Boss, er, Iron Bull,” you stammer at the look he gives you. “I didn’t realize you were serious. I was a scribe, before. My job was translating texts.”

“Very interesting, but still not quite an answer. You translate Qunari texts?”

You glance over at Thea, desperate for some help from the unexpected interrogation, but she’s looking fixedly at her plate. Damn traitor.

You let out a long sigh. You have a story for this, might as well use it. That damned spymaster will find the trail before long, if she’s worth half a twig.

“Seheron,” you say shortly. The look on his face is a little bit priceless. It clearly was not the answer he was expecting.

“Seheron,” he repeats, slowly. You nod.

“I don’t like thinking about it,” you say, your voice quiet, a little shaky. Years of practice.

Iron Bull is quiet, but eyeing you up and down. You keep yourself small, all but folded into yourself “Well,” he says finally. “That explains why you looked like you were about to shit yourself when I came to say hi.”

“Sorry,” you say with a timid smile. “I wasn’t expecting… well…”

“You don’t look much like a native,” he says pointedly. Apparently the interrogation isn’t over yet. You manage to bite back a sound of frustration.

“No, I was… imported,” you make a face. “Tevinter goods. I guess that altus can win his bet after all.”

He speaks in Qunlat suddenly, a language rough on your ears. It’s been years since you heard it, but you manage to catch on.

“Asit tal-eb. Anaan esaam Qun.” Your pronunciation is likely rusty after so long. You really do mostly translate tomes, after all.

“Shokrakar?” he says, sharply. You shake your head quickly.

“Kabethari. I ran.”

“Not so fast as to avoid learning Qunlat,” he says pointedly.

You groan. “I’m sorry, s… Iron Bull. But I was a slave brought to Seheron, with a knack for languages. I believe you can guess why I know Qunlat, as well as why I was brought to Seheron in the first place.”

He grunts, seemingly satisfied. You let out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding, thinking the nerve-wrecking day finally winding down, when you find your chin caught in another grasp, your head forced up so that you make eye contact with the giant Qunari. Will people forever be grabbing at you? You want to take the stupid Vashoth’s last eye. You hope it doesn’t show in your face.

He stares at you for a moment, then drops your chin, stands up, and walks away without a word. You turn to Thea, only having to pretend a little bit in order to come across as shaken. “What was THAT?” you demand, gesturing in the direction Iron Bull had gone.

“Honestly, I dunno!” she says, seeming just as surprised. “He might be interested in you! He likes redheads, you know,” she adds with a mischievous grin. You eye her own fiery locks, redder by far than yours, and roll your eyes.

“A girl likes flowers, not an interview. Besides, he’d snap me in two like a twig.” Now that, you were certain was true.

“That’s half the fun. So what’s this Seheron you two were talkin’ about?” Thea asks, her mouth half full of stew.

“Mmm… Nasty place,” you say, starting in on your own stew. “The Tevinter Emperium and the Qunari have been fighting over it for ages. It’s in a constant state of chaos.”

“And you were a slave?”

“I’d appreciate if you didn’t go spreading that around,” you sigh.

“Alright, alright, mum’s the word. You don’t have to worry ‘bout that Dorian, though, he’s a nice sort.”

You glance out the door Iron Bull left by. “Right now, Dorian’s the least of my worries.”

-

Amazingly, the rest of the night passes peacefully, or relatively so. It’s become quite clear that you arrived with quite the batch of recruits, so most of the chaos can perhaps be attributed to everyone running around, attempting to get them settled. Despite the noise, you manage to get quite sucked in to your work on the manuscript, which is a VERY nice and VERY valuable ancient piece on dragons, one of the translations to which you will be keeping for personal use. You haven’t even noticed how quiet it’s gotten until a voice snaps you out of your translation fugue.

“Emma? You going to bed?”

You glance up. It’s Thea. You glance around the library, and realize that essentially everyone has left. It had gotten late without you noticing.

“Oh… yes, thank you, Thea. Let me just…” You glance down at the manuscript. You’re certainly not leaving it on a table! These people let anyone walk in out of the snow, and this is valuable. “Let me just take care of this, and I’ll head down.”

“D’you want me to wait for you?”

She’s clearly very tired. You shake your head. “I can find my way, thank you. You go on ahead.”

“Alright,” she says with a yawn, obviously eager to get into bed. “See you in the morning, Emma. Don’t get lost.”

As she leaves, you clean up your assorted papers, organizing them so that they will be easy to find in the morning, then stack them on top of the large manuscript, lift it with a grunt, and begin making your way up the stairs. The spy’s headquarters aren’t a pleasant place to be, but no one will be stealing anything from under their noses.

Voices from the top of the stairs make you pause.

“So, anyone suspicious?” That Orlesian voice could only be the redheaded Spymaster.

“A few obvious spies.” You freeze, blood chilling in your veins like ice. THAT voice belonged to the Qunari, Iron Bull. “In the maids and stablehands.” You relax slightly.

“Did you get a chance to look at that linguist?”

“Mmm, yeah. She’s jumpy.”

“A spy?”

Maker have mercy. You get ready to tiptoe back down the stairs, out the gates, and into the snow. You’d rather risk freezing.

“Not sure. If she’s a liar, she’s a good one. She says she’s a Tevinter slave who was in Seheron. You should see if it checks out.”

“Alright. Thanks, Iron Bull.”

Oh, shit. You quickly dart down the stairs, managing to get to the bottom and turn around just before you see the hulking shadow of Iron Bull dancing down the stairs. You grit your teeth, already regretting what you know is the best course of action, and head up the stairs, flipping through some of your papers.

He stops walking when you’re partway up, but you pretend not to notice until his shadow falls over the paper you’re looking at. You stop, midstep, and look up. You knew what to expect, but you’re still horrified at just how much he looms, looking larger than life in a stairwell clearly built for smaller men. You duck over to the side to allow him to squeeze past, avoiding eye contact. Despite this, when a hand hits the wall near your head, you startle, looking up.

The Qunari is indeed squeezing by, but he’s squeezing a little closer than he absolutely needs to, and he’s looking right at you. The glint in his eyes is challenging, and you stare into them a few heartbeats more than is wise, a fierce desire to answer that challenge rising in you. You force yourself to look down and away, as if flustered, but inside, you’re seething.

He finishes slipping past, and chuckles as he goes down the stairs. You glare after him, deciding that if the time comes that you need to cut and run, you really ought to set him on fire, first. You take a moment to compose yourself, than head back up the stairs.

Unlike the library, the top floor is still a bustle of activity, ravens coming and going. You spot the redheaded Orlesian by a desk, and avoid it to plop your book and papers down elsewhere. You set a nearby paperweight on top of them. Finally, you can head to bed, although with your luck, there will be some curious bastard sitting on it, ready to ask you leading questions about your past.

“Did you make any progress?”

You manage not to spin around, instead merely glancing over your shoulder. You don’t recognize the speaker, a rather average looking human, but assume that if he’s asking, there’s a reason.

“Yes, some.” You slide a piece of paper out from under the paperweight. “It’s quite the find, and certainly the most information on High Dragon biology I’ve ever heard of. Although,” you add with a self-deprecating chuckle. “That’s not really difficult.”

“How soon do you think you can have the whole thing finished?”

“Hmm…” You run a finger down the spine. “I’m not sure. I was told to translate it, and I’m assuming they want a finished tome in the common tongue. A simple translation I could have written in a week, but for a completed tome, I’ll need supplies and time. Is this time sensitive?”

“Well, no, not technically,” the man says with a laugh. “I’ve just got some very interested parties.”

You eye the man curiously. He’s tall, and broad, but speaks in a calm, easy voice. One of the spies, perhaps? He does look remarkably normal; he’d make a decent spy. “I’ll do my best to work swiftly. It’s not as though I’ve anything else to do with my time, and I did come to help.”

“I’m fortunate that so many think as you do. Welcome to the Inquisition, miss. If anyone gives you a hard time,” he taps his ears at this, likely indicating your own pointed ones, “Let Dorian or Solas know. They’ll straighten it out.”

You nod, despite having no idea who ‘Solas’ is. The only person you could possibly qualify as having given you a hard time is Iron Bull, and since he seems to work with the Spymaster, that’s hardly something you can report. The man wanders off to speak with the redheaded Orlesian, and you head back down the stairs.

You manage to get to your quarters unmolested, and there isn’t even anyone in your room. You do wish your door had a lock, but at this point, you’re just glad to have a door. You kick off your shoes and fall into the bed, rather uncomfortable compared to what you’re used to, but a bed is a bed. You’re asleep within minutes.

Chapter Text

You awaken to Thea’s face looming over you, and you can’t even summon up the energy to be surprised.

“Mornin’, sunshine!” she says cheerfully. You glance out the narrow window. Sunshine is one thing particularly lacking; it’s drearily overcast and it looks horribly cold. “Here, supplies for the new recruits are making their rounds. I guessed your size.” She plops down a small stack of clothing onto your bed. You smile, perhaps the first genuine one since you arrived at Skyhold.

“Thank you, Thea… I’ve been wearing these clothes for far too long. I appreciate it, truly.”

She waves her hand at you, dismissively. “It weren’t nothin’. ‘Ere, get dressed, we’ll head to the mess together.” She exits to give you a bit of privacy, and you shed your dirty clothes gleefully. The new outfits are nothing special, simple cotton and lambswool, but they are clean, and that in and of itself is a blessing. You’re elated to find even smalls and breastbands, as you’ve been without both for quite some time.

You dress yourself and exit the room, then head to the mess with Thea, letting her steady stream of prattling wash over you. It’s strangely soothing. Breakfast goes without interruption, despite your fears that Iron Bull will appear around every corner. You even manage to get quite a bit of work done on the manuscript before your first stupid interruption of the day.

“Hello, Emma darling! How are you this fine morning?”

You chew on your bottom lip, finish the sentence you were working on, and then look up at the painfully cheerful face of the human who had introduced himself as Dorian.

“I am fine, ser, thank you for asking. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I told you, call me Dorian.” He swipes a paper of your desk, examining it. “You have very neat handwriting.”

“I am a scribe, ser. That is, very literally, my job.”

“You’re fast at this, too,” he adds, ignoring you. “Leliana thought we were going to have to send this off.”

“Leliana?”

“Red hair, Orlesian accent, terrifying stare?”

“Oh, yes. We spoke only briefly. Well, I’m pleased to be of use. I was half convinced I’d be digging latrines and doing laundry.”

“If so, why did you come?” Dorian asks, and something in his voice makes you believe he’s genuinely curious. You smile thinly.

“I could ask you the same question, ser. But I suspect I’m here for the same reason as everyone else… to help, and to be safe.”

“Things are quite bad out there, aren’t they?” His voice is quiet.

You nod. “Things were already chaotic, with the Templars and mages going at it. Then the sky tore open. I avoided the worst of the fighting, thought I could bunker down somewhere and stay out of trouble’s way. Then Templars started growing crystals out of my neighbors, and I decided it was time to leave.”

“How did you escape?”

Irritation creeps back into you. “Ask your Qunari friend,” you say, cold but polite. “I believe he’s making a study on the subject.”

Dorian winces, then holds up his hand in surrender. “Alright, alright, I’ll let you get back to work, then. Try not to take it the wrong way, though. Leliana investigates everyone who walks through the gates, and Iron Bull has a thing for redheads.”

You don’t take it as an insult, not really, but it is a danger. And if that “Leliana” is interested in you for translating more sensitive material, which you suspect, she’ll be going through your past with a fine-toothed comb. You try to think of anything she might come across that could give you away as you continue your work with the dragon manuscript.

-

“Alright, Emma, let’s- Wait, have you been there all day?” Ah, it was Thea again. You glance up from your growing stack of papers.

“Hmm? More or less. Why?”

“Didn’t you eat lunch?”

There are no windows in the tower for you to glance out of. You stretch your fingers, stiff with writing and cold. “If you’re asking me, it must be suppertime, so I suppose the answer is no, I did not.”

Thea shakes her head, slowly. “I swear, Emma. You’re not on the road anymore, you can eat three square meals a day! It’s the best part about being here.”

“I think the walls are the best part,” you say dryly. “Are you heading to the mess?”

“Yes, and so are you! You’re certainly not skipping two meals!”

“Alright, alright… Let me just…”

“And put that book away for the night. Some of the other girls and me are going to the bar. You should come.”

You pause, considering. You would much prefer to stay in the library until late again, especially since there was at least one person waiting eagerly for the translation. But people trust you after you get drunk with them. Fitting in is more important than the manuscript, at least for now. You nod. “Alright, let me just put it away upstairs.”

-

Dinner passes, glorious and without interruption, and you’re beginning to think that you’re in the clear with regards to Iron Bull, at least for the day. You and Thea meet up with a few other women and head over to the pub. You still have no idea why Skyhold has a pub, but it seems like it does quite a lot for morale. It’s full of song and drink, drunken soldiers and cheerful handymen mingling together.

The girls pick out a table, and you all settle into your ale. In such a group, it’s easy to remain quiet without it being noticed, and you listen as the women around you trade stories with no small amount of enjoyment. It’s nice to be able to just sit back, relax with a mug of ale, and –

“Well, hello, ladies!” You had been leaning your chair back slightly, and you nearly lose your balance out of shock. You manage to tilt forward instead of backwards, the legs of the chair banging down onto tavern floor.

What was he doing here? You don’t care much for the cheerful tittering of the women at the table, particularly Thea. You try to allow them to draw Iron Bull’s attention and simply nurse your mug, but when you risk a glance, you find he’s looking at you. To your growing dread, he pulls up a chair and joins in chattering with the women. You run a hand over your forehead. This is what being social gets you! You could be in the library with an ancient dragon tome right now, damnit!

“So, Emma,” his voice inevitably comes. You manage to avoid wincing. “How’s life in Skyhold treating you?”

“She skipped lunch today, she was so engrossed in that book they’ve got her working on,” comments Thea, her voice scolding like a nagging mother.

“I’m doing quite well, s… Iron Bull.” It seems more awkward, calling him by name in mixed company. “Thea was nice enough to bring me new clothing this morning.” You grace her with a smile, and she gently pushes against your arm, bashfully.

The conversation continues naturally, for which you’re grateful. If Iron Bull is here for any reasons involving you, he’s at the very least not interrogating you. You’re almost startled when Thea asks you a question, rather than him.

“So, your accent. You’re Ferelden?” she says, red-faced and waist-deep into her fifth ale. With the company of Iron Bull and few of the other “Chargers,” it seems the ladies are staying later than they had intended.

“Hmm? Oh, yes, I am.” There’s an awkward pause as Thea and a few of the others look at you expectantly. You roll your eyes, knowing where this is going. “I was from an alienage in Denerim.” That was safe enough, and the almost the truth.

“Oh! Were you in Denerim for the Blight?” Thea said, a hand ghosting over her mouth.

“Not technically. Not for any of the fighting, or anything.”

“Wait, wasn’t the Hero from Denerim? Did you know her?”

You grimace. “Yeah. Sort of. I was pretty young, but I remember her ‘wedding day.’”

“The Hero was married?”

“No,” you say bluntly. “She was to be married. Her and her cousin. The Bann’s son broke up the wedding and kidnapped them both. Then she was back, cousin in tow, covered in blood. Some Grey Warden recruited her before she could get killed by the Bann’s men, but there was…” You sigh. “There was no way the crime would go unpunished. So we all paid.”

“How did you get out alive?” By this point, the entire table is watching you with wide eyes. It’s hardly a drinking story.

“I’d really rather not…” You begin, only to be interrupted unexpectedly.

“Yeah, let’s not make the little lady relive something like that! We’re supposed to be having a good night!” Iron Bull, of all people, swooping to your rescue? Well, swooping, at the very least. He places a mug of something foul smelling in front of you, to replace your empty mug of ale. You eye it suspiciously, then knock it back.

You’ll later remember that as the very moment the night went to hell.

Chapter Text

Confusion. Confusion and pain. Those are your only two companions. You groan as you begin to wake, seriously regretting every decision in your life. What… what happened last night? Wait, more important than that, where are you? You blink, blearily, and try to focus on your surroundings. This isn’t your tiny little room, and for a confused moment, you wonder if the whole “joining the Inquisition” thing was just a drug-induced nightmare.

You don’t recognize the bed you’re in. It’s a giant, four poster monstrosity of a bed. You can honestly say you’ve never woken up in a bed like this in your life. You rub your head and let out a little moan. Your entire face is throbbing. What… what happened last night?

“Oh, hey, you’re up.”

Oh no. Ooooooh no. Nonononono. No.

You stare at Iron Bull, utterly uncomprehending. Flashes from last night… a drink that burned like fire. Thea laughing and leaving the bar, but you were still there.

You stare at Iron Bull in abject horror, not particularly concerned about looking meek and small in the face of all this.

“Here, drink this, you’ll feel better.” You eye the cup he hands you cautiously, and give it a sniff, but it’s just water. You drink it slowly, staring at the giant Qunari over the rim. It’s ice cold, and it does help you feel a little better, but nothing was going to be particularly comforting after the realization that you’d woken up in the absolute worst place you could have. You eye yourself, and find that you are, praise Andraste, still fully clothed.

“Wh… what happened last night?” you manage to choke out, clutching your head, which feels as though it’s about to spin off your shoulders.

The giant of a man chuckles. “Don’t panic, you just had a little bit too much to drink. None of us had any idea where you slept, so I decided to be the gentleman.”

You groan into your hands. “I didn’t… did I do anything stupid?”

“Well, chugging that Dragon Piss was pretty stupid.”

“Nnnn. Yeah. Other than that?”

“You threw a mug at a Templar. Or you might have been throwing it somewhere else, but it hit a Templar.”

“Oh, Maker. I hit a Templar?”

“She had a good sense of humor about it.”

You groan again. “Please, if you see her, point her out so I can apologize. What was in that alcohol you gave me?”

“Alcohol.”

You let out a sound that could only be described as a whine, despite yourself. “Andraste’s breath… anything else?”

“You sat on Krem, for a bit, but I don’t think he minded.”

“Who the hell is ‘Krem’? Please don’t tell me he’s a priest or something.”

“Wow, you really don’t remember much, do you?” Bull says with a chuckle, running a thumb across his nose. “He’s one of the Chargers.”

Sitting on a mercenary’s lap. Alright. You’ve done weirder things. Like throwing a tankard at a fucking Templar! You want to be irritated at Iron Bull; he’s the one who handed you that damn drink. But at the end of the day, you’re the one who got out of control. You let a long sigh. “I am very sorry. I don’t normally drink very much at all.”

“Yeah, we kind of guessed that one.”

You wince. “Sorry. Thanks for…” The words turn like worms in your mouth, but you spit them out. “…taking care of me.” Ugh. Gross. You feel gross now. “I’ll avoid… what did you call it, Dragon Piss? I’ll avoid that, in the future. I think I have some apologies to make.”

“Hold on.” You freeze, halfway through standing up, just kind of awkwardly squatting over the bed. Iron Bull laughs. “You used to be military? You’re good at following orders.” You flush and finish standing up, but you don’t try to leave, instead turning to watch the giant Qunari. He’s less scary when he’s sitting and you’re standing, at least. “I wanted to ask some questions about a few things you said last night.”

Well, shit.

“It seems like private is the best place for them.”

Well, FUCK.

You manage to keep your face calm. “A-alright, what did else did I say?”

“Well, you got in a bit of a screaming match with Threnn, it was a little hard to make out the words.”

You lean back against a wall. “Okay, wait. Who’s Threnn, and why was I in a screaming match with them? God, she isn’t the Templar, is she?”

“Oh, no, just another servant of the Inquisition, like you.” His voice is casual, so is his body language, but you’re not fooled. In fact, you’re starting to have a nagging suspicion about what he was before he left the Qun. Not that you’ve ever heard about a Qunari re-educator ever leaving. “She used to work for Loghain. Still pretty loyal to him, even now.”

You stiffen. “Oh.”

“That name got thrown around a LOT during the fight, as I recall.”

You grunt, then sigh, rubbing your head. “I have no idea why you’re so curious about me, ser.” He gives you a look, but you ignore it. “Yes, I can see myself getting into a fight about that. But I’ll need to apologize to her nonetheless.” You grind a hand into your forehead, ignoring the pain and nausea it causes. “And I’ll need to avoid that tavern. It seems I cannot handle my… ‘Dragon Piss,’ you called it?”

“Eh, you had a good night. No one here’s going to hold much of a grudge about a drunken elf in a tavern. It’s expected. But I’m still curious about what has you irritated about Loghain. Sounded a bit more personal than ‘traitor to my country,’ and I’ve never known Alienage elves to give much of a shit about politics.”

You are too hungover for this bullshit. “How much do you know about Loghain, ser? Because there’s a factoid about him that gets left OUT of the stories when they’re busy praising him for slaying the archdemon! For example, did you know, to fund his stupid little petty civil war, he sold Fereldan citizens into slavery? Slavery is bad, apparently, only when it happens to human children. Elves, we’re basically free little money bags for the kingdom, running around the alleyways!”

Iron Bull’s look softens, almost imperceptibly. “I’d heard the Hero put a stop to it,” he comments. You’re too busy glowering.

“Oh, she did. After a good number of elves had already been shipped out.”

“So that’s how you wound up in Tevinter?”

You sink down onto the floor. “Yeah. That’s how I wound up in Tevinter. Are we done playing Twenty Questions now? Because I’m hungover and I have to go apologize to half of Skyhold for being a drunken prat.”

“Hey, calm down.” His voice is soft, or you would have bristled at the command. You’re still pretty out of it, and cold water only helps your hangover so much. You’re also irritated at having been pecked and prodded about your history for two solid days. No one has ever cared this much, and that’s made it easier. All these half-truths will wear on you, eventually. How long can you possibly hope to stay? He slides down onto the floor next to you, and this time, you do bristle, a bit.

“Don’t worry so much about what people think of you. Everyone’s seen behavior a lot worse than someone getting a little too much drink in them. You’ll see.”

You grumble something incoherent into your knees.

“So… when did you get away from Tevinter? In Seheron?”

You stand up abruptly, finally more irritated than you are cautious. “I really should be reporting into the library, ser. That manuscript won’t translate itself. Thank you for your assistance.” Your voice carries the ice you’d like to be throwing. You leave, somewhat surprised when no one tries to stop you.

-

You decide not to even bother trying to get to your room to change clothes and just head straight towards the library.

“Hey, Emma!” You turn, startled, to find a man you barely remember waving at you. Mildly confused, you wave back. “Hope I see you at the tavern again.” He winks. That’s a wink that carries a lot of meaning. You just sort of smile and then continue on, through the practice yard.

“Hey, elf, think fast!”

Having heard that line more than once in your life, you do, in fact, think fast, which means fast enough to turn towards the sound, see a mug barreling towards you face, and reach up. You don’t manage to catch it, but you do bat it away. Startled, you stare in the direction it came from, and see a group of laughing Templars.

“She’s got faster reflexes than you, Belinda!” One of them snorts, playfully shoving at another Templar.

“Aw, shut it,” ‘Belinda’ says, rolling her eyes. “You didn’t have to throw a mug at her.”

“It was hilarious! She smacked the damn thing out of the air. Isn’t she a librarian?”

You clear your throat, memory flashing backwards for an appropriate quip. “You should see the way Dorian throws books. You’d need fast reflexes, too.”

The Templars laugh even harder, and even Belinda, who you are fairly sure is the one you clocked with the mug, cracks a smile. “Eh, get out of here, elf,” she says, waving her hand carelessly. “Go wrestle your books.”

By the time you get to the Great Hall, your mood has improved. You even go through the rotunda, rather than around to the other set of stairs, as most of the library workers do. You glance around carefully, to see if the man from before is in here, but you don’t see him. You relax slightly, and make your away around the wall, admiring the mural. It seems more had been done since you were last here. Perhaps that fellow is a painter?

“Came back to admire some more?”

At the low voice, you damn near jump out of your skin, spinning around to see a man you would swear by the Chant had not been there before. The man from before, by the sound of his voice, but… an elf? You had been so flustered before, you hadn’t even noticed.

“Maker’s breath! I’m not going to survive here a week! My heart will give out!” you exclaim, clutching at your pounding chest.

The corner of the bald elf’s mouth quirks up, very slightly. “My apologies. It was not my intention to startle you.”

He stands with his hands locked behind his back, and you notice something else odd about him… He is tall. Taller than perhaps any elf you’ve seen, and broader as well, but too lithe looking for it to be said he looks like a human. You shake your head slowly. “I’ve intruded on you again. I’m sorry, ser.”

He shakes his head. “It’s no intrusion. This is hardly a private room. Although, I do note most library staff go up the other stairwell.” He tilts his head slightly, as if inquiring, despite the fact he asked no question.

You gesture lamely at the wall behind you. “It’s pretty,” you say dryly. “I wanted to get a better look at it. Last time I was in here, some strange man startled me.” His lip quirks again, and you find it strangely satisfying.

“So, I assume you’re new library staff?” he asks as you absentmindedly study the length of his ears.

“Huh? Oh. Well, yes, I suppose I am. They have me translating an old manuscript on High Dragons.”

He frowns then, his brow crinkling, and you remember that your goal was to be known to as few people as possible. Seems a little late for that, however, after making a spectacle of yourself at the tavern.

“The one in Ancient Tevene?”

You nod. “I was a linguist, before,” you say, for what seems like the thousandth time since you arrived at this damn fortress.

“Quite the linguist, it seems.” You don’t like the way he’s looking at you. Well, that’s not entirely true. Part of you likes it quite a bit, but that is the part you don’t listen to. That way lies disaster. “Leliana was having quite the time finding someone to translate it.”

“Yes, so I keep hearing. If I’d realized a growing military force was in such dire need of a linguist, I might have come sooner.”

You feel a light surge of mana brushing against you, and freeze, before forcing yourself to relax again. It’s not something you should be able to notice. His prodding is more subtle than most mages’, and you’re a bit surprised you noticed it all. But as long as he doesn’t cram that mana down your throat, you’re confident that your secret is safe.

“What made you come?” he inquires, as if to cover for his prodding.

“There were very well crafted posters featuring an elven lass with a bow,” you say dryly. He raises an eyebrow. “No, really, there were. They couldn’t have been complete nonsense, since I managed to trip into the library instead of into the maid’s quarters.”

“The Inquisition is very good at recognizing talent, regardless of who holds it.” His voice is polite, clipped.

Your mouth curves into a smile. “That was a very good answer, ser. Formal! Practiced, even. I like it. I bet a lot of the elves in the place would say that. Exactly in the manner you said it, even!” You grin at his raised eyebrow. “I’m not blind, ser, nor am I deaf. I’ve had half a dozen stammered words starting with ‘n-‘ since I arrived, and people ask me what I did to wind up in the library, but don’t ask Thea. But I wasn’t expecting heaven, I was expecting walls. These are very thick, and I find myself becoming fond of them.”

“Are you normally so casual with strangers?” The firmness in his voice makes you flush slightly.

“No, ser. Sorry if I’ve given offense.” You move to duck into a bow, but a hand snaps from behind his back to stop you, resting firmly on your shoulder.

“I am not someone to be bowed to.”

You frown. People not wanting you to call them ‘ser,’ not wanting you to bow, wanting to know all about you. “Pardon me for saying, ser, but this Skyhold is a very, very strange place.”

“I suppose it may be a little out of the ordinary,” he admits, and you smile despite yourself.

“I am sorry to have bothered you, ser.”

He shakes his head. “You were no bother. Just watch that waggling tongue doesn’t get you into trouble.”

“Yes, ser,” you say as you turn towards the stairs. “I will be very careful with the location of my tongue from now on.”

-

You settle in with your manuscript, determined to get a good day’s work in despite your delayed start. Unfortunately, fate is working against you in the form of more or less constant interruptions. Thea, of course, is eager to know what exactly happened with you and Iron Bull. You say you’ll tell her later, which only gets her more excited. Then the mustached human appears as well, blathering on even as you try to ignore him.

“Ser, do you honestly have nothing better to do?” you finally ask him, exasperated.

“Oh! My wounded heart! How could you be so cruel, Emma?”

“Melodramatic. You’re Tevinter alright,” you say with a scowl.

“Ah, yes, about that. I heard I was right in my guess.” He even looks smug. You will constantly be wanting to punch people, it seems. Such is your lot in life.

“Please tell me that Iron Bull told you, and it isn’t just common knowledge across the keep.”

“Iron Bull told me, but I suspect it’ll be common knowledge soon enough. These soldiers like their gossip.”

You let out a frustrated groan through clenched teeth. “You people have no concept for personal privacy.”

“Would you feel better if I told you my dark and sordid history?”

“Let me guess,” you say sharply. “You didn’t fit into the mold your parents wanted for you, and you left rather than be forced to conform.”

He actually looks taken aback, and is gloriously quiet. You turn your attention back to the manuscript.

“Alright, how did you guess?” he says, after a moment. You grind your teeth together. This man cannot take a hint. You rub the bridge of your nose.

“Honestly, ser, think about this. Maybe you’re a spy, and if you are, you’re either the best or worst spy in history. If you’re not a spy, you’re an attractive altus miles away from Tevinter, possibly working with their enemies. Tevinter nobles are all about the perfect fit. It’s not much of a jump.”

“Not for some, apparently.” You jolt at the sound, and turn guiltily to see Iron Bull coming out from behind a bookshelf, still looking into a book. You wouldn’t have figured him for a reader.

“Our delightful elven friend was just regaling me with tales of what an open book I am,” Dorian says sourly.

“Well, she’s not wrong,” Iron Bull says thoughtfully. Dorian huffs sourly. “Still, it’s not a layman’s observation.”

“I’m afraid it is,” you say bluntly. “I’ve had more than my share of experience with Tevinter. It was an educated guess, yes, but that’s all it is.” You glare between the two of them. “Do neither of you have any important work to be doing for the Inquisition? Because I believe I am supposed to translate this tome before next year.”

“Alright, alright, I’ll let you work,” Iron Bull said with a chuckle. As he turned, he added over his shoulder, “See you at dinner!”

You drop your face into the book you’re writing in to hide the look of murder that has to be plain on your face. You growl into the spine. These men will be the death of you!

Chapter Text

“Did… did you skip lunch again?” You glance up at Thea, who looks mildly pissed.

“…There is a distinct possibility,” you admit, glancing around at the nearly empty library.

“Alright, that’s it! Put that book away, I’m taking you to dinner. Honestly, you need a keeper!” You snort at the turn of phrase, but know she wouldn’t get it.

“Just let me finish up this sentence. Calligraphy is hard, you know.”

“If it’s so difficult, maybe you should take breaks.

“Alright, alright…” You finish up the sentence, but leave the page open to dry. “No one will bother this if I just leave it here, right? I’m certainly not going to the tavern again.”

“It should be fine. No one here but you could read the original, and no one’s going to steal a half-written book.”

You submit to her nagging as the two of you head across the courtyard to the mess. You are utterly unsurprised to see Iron Bull loitering outside. He lifts a hand to wave, and of course, Thea waves eagerly back.

“Looks like your new boyfriend came to keep you company,” she teases, and you groan.

“Don’t even say that. He’s not anything of the sort. And nothing like you’re thinking happened!” you snap.

“Oh, really? Because word round the keep is, he carried you out of that tavern over his shoulder-“

“He did WHAT?”

“Let me guess, you two are talking about me?” Iron Bull steps in next to you as you head through the door of the mess. You scowl at him.

“Apparently, someone carried me out of the tavern like a sack of potatoes.”

“Would you have preferred I carry you princess style? I’ll keep that in mind for next time you pass out.”

You press your hand firmly against your face, then rub your eyes and take a deep breath. “Alright. It’s a rumor mill. People will move on to the next interesting thing in a matter of minutes. They likely already have.”

“Well, the two of you eating dinner together isn’t going to stop rumors, but if it makes you feel any better, this stallion’s bedded half the girls in the keep and at least a quarter of the men,” Thea points out. “He’s a favorite for gossip.”

Well, there are worse ways to blend in, you suppose. You’re still not going to encourage it. You’re not even sure how people can possibly believe it. The man probably has two hundred pounds on you. You can’t even imagine how that would work.

The three of you get your food and settle down at one end of a long table. You turn your eyes upwards towards Iron Bull, who’s sitting across from you.

“Alright, let’s get the interview out of the way before I settle in to my meal. What would you like to know next? The name of my first pet, perhaps?”

“Don’t be so hostile,” he says with a chuckle.

“I’m unaccustomed to such prodding,” you say with a scowl. “Please try to understand my position, ser. I am an elf making a living as a linguist. I am used to being little more than background decoration. Machinery. Manuscript goes in, translation comes out. All this attention is… I’m not used to it. I hear that this Spymaster of yours investigates everyone. But you’re not asking everyone these questions.” You pause, considering. “Or maybe you are, and you’re just more discreet about it.”

“Whatever you are, elf, you’re not stupid,” Iron Bull says with a grunt. “But what if I told you that this has nothing to do with Leliana? What if I said I was just curious? Interested?”

Your throat goes dry. You take a quick gulp of water, struggle to swallow it. “That,” you manage, “would be even more confusing. Possibly even more alarming.”

“Oh, let the nice Qunari sweep you off your feet, Emma,” Thea says with a giggle. “Live a little!” You fix her with your best glare, but she doesn’t even flinch.

“I’m already living. I’d like to keep doing so, as a matter of fact,” you say with a scowl.

“And you think attention is counter to living? Interesting…”

“You stop that!” you snap at Iron Bull.

I think she’s intimidated by your…” Thea clears her throat delicately, counter to the wicked grin on her face. “Girth.

“So help me, Maker, I will-“

“You Andrastian?”

Iron Bull’s interjection seems so random that it actually startles you. “W… what?”

“Lot of elves I meet, they say ‘by the Creators,’ ‘Dread Wolf take you,’ that sort of thing.”

You snort. “Dalish and those who want to be like them. I don’t need special swears to remind me that I’m an elf, the rest of the world does that for me.”

“Oooh, someone’s a little bitter.”

You roll your eyes. “Were you not here for my tragic backstory?” you ask with an exaggerated flip of your spoon. “Elves kidnapped on their wedding day by evil shems? Sold into slavery by an entirely different yet equally evil shem?”

“Speaking of which, you never did tell me how you got out of that,” Iron Bull says mildly. You glare at him.

“Yes, imagine that, it’s almost as though it’s an unpleasant memory I don’t wish to revisit. Won’t your Spymaster dig it up before long?”

“Were you not here for me saying I was interested for my own reasons?”

“I-I’m repressing it,” you say with a scowl. “It’ll be hard if you keep repeating yourself.”

“Bet that’s not the only thing hard…”

“Thea, I swear to the Maker-“

“You guys having a party without me?”

You glance over, and so used to craning your neck to look up at Iron Bull, you almost miss noticing the speaker, who is significantly shorter, and also, on a related note, a dwarf. He’s easily recognizable, as well, as the beardless dwarf you had seen when you first arrived.

“Heard you’d been harassing the help, Tiny,” he says as he sits down on the bench next to Iron Bull.

“I’ve been doing nothing of the sort,” Iron Bull says, almost managing to successfully sound offended.

“Yes, he has,” you quip before you can get control of your tongue. It’s too easy to be a smart-ass around these people.

“See? You’re going to scare her off this way, Tiny. You have to move with more finesse!” Iron Bull rolls his eyes, but the dwarf turns to you. “Please to meet you, serah elf. The name is Varric Tethras.”

You blink. “Wait, Varric Tethras? As in Tales of the Champion by Varric Tethras?”

“I see my reputation precedes me,” he says, looking quite pleased about it.

You’re not exactly a fan, or anything, but you have read his book. Who hasn’t? Everyone was curious about what happened in Kirkwall. That you have a copy in your room that you’re seriously considering getting signed is pure coincidence. “Is the part about the Arishok true?”

“You’re gonna have to be a little more specific than that, Stutter,” he says with a chuckle.

“The part where Hawke defeats him in single combat to save Isabella,” you say excitedly, ignoring the amused expression on Iron Bull’s face.

“Absolutely true. I couldn’t make that up, no one would believe me.”

“What I wouldn’t give to have seen that,” you murmur to yourself. You’re no fan of Hawke; he and his dumb-ass friends are part of the reason the mage rebellion even got started. Anders would have had a field day with you, no doubt, but you never had an interest in saving mages, and you still don’t. Saving yourself is more important.

“We could reenact it with Tiny here, maybe?” Varric says with another laugh.

You find yourself joining in the laugh despite yourself, but shake your head. “Wouldn’t be the same. It was the Arishok. That’s what makes it so unbelievable.”

“You seem to know a lot about the Qun, kid.”

You brush away the moment’s irritation at Iron Bull’s comment. “Tevinter doesn’t like to think about it, but if you’ve got a slave who speaks three languages, guess what, that slave is smart. They don’t think you read, understand, and absorb the information they have you translate. Idiots.”

“So you learned all you know from translating Qunari documents?”

“More or less,” you say with a nod. “I was in Seheron for… for a while. Too long. You learn about the situation, or you die.”

“We should swap stories sometime.” He said it so casually, the meaning flew over your head for a moment.

“Swap? I would have thought you’d be more interested in… wait. You were in Seheron?”

“Mmmm.”

You shake your head in disbelief. That explains a lot. “No wonder you ran. That place is hell.”

Hey. I didn’t run. I’m no Tal-Vashoth.”

You normally have good control over your expression, but your jaw gapes open at this. “W-wait… What? …But the Chargers, the…” He’s just looking at you, but you don’t need him to explain. The gears are clicking in your head, coming to the inevitable conclusion. “It’s a station,” you marvel. You stare over at Varric. “You knew? Everyone knows?” How could they possibly be okay with this?

“Yeah, Tiny here was pretty forthcoming with it,” Varric said, looking nonplussed, maybe a little confused at how distraught you are.

“But that m-means…” You turn your eyes back to Bull, who’s still looking at you with that goddamn neutral expression. You push your bowl of half-eaten stew away from you, appetite immediately gone with an onrush of memories. Ben-Hassrath. You don’t even want to say it. Fear is gripping your stomach, threatening to expel its contents, tying your tongue into knots. Ben-Hassrath, and no runaway. Still a Ben-Hassrath, still an enforcer of the Qun. “I-I-I have to g-go,” you eke out, and even manage to walk, not run, out the door. Once it shuts behind you, however, you bolt.

“Emma?” you hear Thea’s voice shouting behind you, concerned, but you don’t stop. There has to be some kind of place in this goddamn fortress you can hide. You need to think, you just need ten minutes to fucking think! You run up stairs blindly, swing a door open and charge directly into… the rotunda. Goddamnit. This place is a maze.

The elf from before is looking at you, paused in his painting, seeming mildly alarmed at the force with which you thrust open the door. You look him firmly in the eye. “I’m not h-here. I w-was never here.” You turn to leave, but see Iron Bull in the courtyard. Fuck. You shut the door quickly, eyes sliding over the room. Can’t go into the Great Hall. Can’t go upstairs. Can’t go outside. Damnit.

Your eyes shift back over to the elf, who’s still just watching you. A neutral expression is honestly the last thing you want to see. “I m-mean it,” you say, trying to sound firm despite your stupid stutter. “J-just ignore me.” And with that, you duck under the desk in the middle of the room. It’s the closest thing to privacy you’re going to get.

You hear the elf go back to painting, and breathe a sigh of relief. There are a lot of things an elf could be running from in this fortress… Seems he’s content to live and let live. Thank the Maker.

You’ve been skipping about this goddamn place with a fucking Ben-Hassrath sniffing at your trail.

You know damn well they’re not all… re-educators. Most of them aren’t. There’s no way one of those would be here, right? Right?

A Ben-Hassrath of any kind had no right being here. The most obvious choice, since he claimed to still be under the Qun, was that he was Hissrad, a spy, but what kind of shitty spy just tells everyone he’s a spy? It couldn’t be that obvious. There’s something you’re missing, some piece… You want to believe he’s just an Asaad sent out here for reasons unknown, but there’s just no way. Tal-Vashoth are always bandits or mercenaries, like they don’t know how to do anything else. This was a deliberate disguise.

And worse, he said he had been in Seheron? When? If he had been there at the same time as you, that could pose several kinds of new, horrific danger. You didn’t recognize him, or you would never have stayed in this damned place, no matter how thick the walls are. But if he even knows of you, he could put two and two together, and… Damnit, the past should stay in the past.

Your thoughts are interrupted by the voice you want to hear least.

“Hey, Solas, you seen that new elf librarian around?”

Aaaah, fuck. You curl up smaller under the desk. Come on, Solas, just lie… Wait, Solas? That name is familiar… And a weird goddamn name for an elf. Who names their kid that? Some silly little Alienage elf who doesn’t even know what the elven words they spout mean, maybe. Still, unfortunate.

“I believe she’s hiding under the desk.”

You scramble out from under it to glare at the man. “Oh, come on! Not even a little solidarity?”

This ‘Solas’ just raises an eyebrow, crossing his arms. Your scowl deepens.

“Don’t bolt again,” Iron Bull says, as if he can see the tensing of your muscles from across the room. “I know I’m not the person you want to see right now, but running across Skyhold doesn’t really look good.”

“Oh, don’t come at me like I’m the spy!” you snap. “I’ve been dealing with your prodding for days, on behalf of a spymaster who might want me for some undisclosed job at some point in the future that I might not even want to do! I ran because I w-was f-fucking scared, okay?”

“Calm down. I believe you. But it also matters what everyone else believes.”

You grind your teeth. You really want him to stop being right; it’s annoying. “Just… just stay on the other side of the desk. And you, you… traitorous elf, you stay here too.”

“Come on, Emma, if I was going to try some Ben-Hassrath trick on you, don’t you think I would have by now?” Iron Bull cajoles gently. You glare at him.

“Would I even notice? What are you?” you demand.

“Hissrad.”

You relax slightly, some of the tension sliding out of your muscles. He could be lying, obviously, but it’s the answer that makes the most sense. “You’re the worst Hissrad I’ve ever met. What are you even doing out here?”

“Gathering intel on the Inquisition.”

“In the most obvious way possible!” you say with a nervous laugh. “They’re okay with this? Really?” You glance over at the elf, who has, annoyingly, gone back to painting.

“Honesty is a good policy.”

You snort. “For a spy? Seems counter-intuitive.” You wave your hand dismissively. “Guess I don’t know much about spying.”

“That’s a shame, you’d be good at it.”

You look at him sharply. Damn that face of his, it was impossible to read. “That’s not something I want on my resume,” you say bluntly.

“So, why’d you freak out?”

“Wh… why’d I…? Are you kidding me?” You look at him exasperatedly, then slump down into a the chair at the desk, not really caring that it probably belongs to the elf, Solas.

“Back when we first met, you said ‘Kabethari’… That you ran.”

“I don’t want to get into my sordid history with you, Bull,” you say shortly. It’s probably the most casual you’ve been with him, but you’re feeling too strained to be polite. “I want the opposite of that.”

“Then just give me an excuse. Why run?”

“Ben-Hassrath are scary,” you say bluntly. “Tell a twelve year old girl that there are big horned beasties out there, and they can turn you to their way of thinking, just by talking. Or drugging. It’s as scary as blood magic. I was in a war zone, Iron Bull, for years. The Tevinter weren’t my friends, the Qunari weren’t my friends, and the Fog Warriors weren’t my friends. Any one of them would kill me given a chance and half a reason.”

“So, I’m going to go with ‘trauma involving Qunari’ as an excuse.”

“Whatever works,” you say tiredly. “Tell your spymaster she can move me to latrine duty if she’s that worried about where my loyalties lie.”

Iron Bull seems to decide that he’s not getting much more out of you, and just leaves with a nod. You sink the whole top of half of your body over the desk, flopping down dramatically. Adrenaline with nowhere to go pulses through you. It’s only an obscene amount of discipline that kept you from losing control. You were close several times.

As the tension finally begins to unwind, you let out a torrent of curses in a multitude of languages. That makes you feel a little better.

“Your elven is terrible.”

You glare sharply at the painting elf. “Excuse me?”

“Your elven. The pronunciation is all wrong.”

“How could you possibly-“ You pause, then pale slightly. “You, uh… speak elven?”

“Yes. And those weren’t Dalish curses, either. How does a Tevinter slave come to know ancient elven?”

You close your eyes, and force yourself to take two deep breaths. “Ser. I appreciate your curiosity. Really. I’m sure it charms all the ladies. But I am very, very tired of answering questions about myself at the moment.”

“I believe the Iron Bull respects that. I, however, do not.” You don’t really care for the way he’s looking at you. Those blue eyes had gotten rather sharp.

“Do you work for Lady Spymaster, too?”

“No.”

You let out a long sigh, pulling yourself up to sit on the desk. “The short answer is books. Scrolls. Anything I could get my hands on. I’ve always had a knack for languages, and anyone would be curious about their heritage.” You rub the back of your neck sheepishly. “Never had anyone to speak it with… Is my pronunciation really that bad?”

“Abysmal.”

“Ugh. Alright then, Ser Curious, how is it that you know ancient elven so well?”

“I am a mage, an expert on all things of the Fade, as well as the ancient elves, in particular.”

You make sure to pretend to look surprised. “Seriously? An elven mage just sort of… hanging out, in the middle of the Inquisition? Are you one of those ‘last true’ Circle Mages?”

“No. I was with no Circle, even before they fell.”

You frown, this time in earnest. “What, you were an apostate?”

“Correct.”

“And now you’re here? An elven apostate. Here.”

“Is it so unbelievable?”

“Frankly, yes!”

“I was nearby when the Breach formed. It was I who discovered the Inquisitor’s mark could be used to seal the rifts. I will not pretend everyone has been wholly welcoming, but they appreciate anyone willing to help.”

“You… what?” you shake your head slowly, trying to absorb the shit-ton of information that had just been flung at you. “Wow. I… wow. Kinda feel bad about calling you a traitor earlier, now.”

“Why? Because I’m a mage? Because I speak elven?”

“Well, mom always taught me you should be nice to someone who can set you on fire with their mind,” you say with a smirk. Casual, even though your mind is racing with the implications. You’d known he was a mage, from the way he practically molested you with his mana the other day, but you’d just assumed he was with the First Enchanter. An apostate… That was really something else.

You’re curious, despite yourself. You hope this isn’t the feeling you inspire in others, because just then, you would give an awful lot to know more. You consider the man, eyes narrow. “Is your elven really any better?”

He rambles off several long sentences of elven. A… a poem? Was that a poem, goddamnit? Elven sounds better when he says it, fluid, like a lullaby. Damn, your pronunciation is off. It’s got a rhythm to it you had never learned from books.

You tap your chin, considering. “What will it take for you to teach me more elven?” you ask finally.

“I don’t believe you have anything that I want, da’len.”

Excuse me?” you say darkly. “I have a name.”

“Did you ever tell me? I must have missed it.”

You flush with embarrassment. Come to think of it, the two of you had never been properly introduced. You only knew his name because Iron Bull had used it. “Fair enough,” you grumble. “My name is Emma.”

His eyes meet yours sharply. “Emma. Who speaks elven.”

“That’s me,” you say warily. “And you’re Solas, right?”

“I am.”

“I know other languages. Ancient Tevene, Qunlat, Antivan, Orlesian. I’m sure there’s something I could do that you want,” you insist.

“You could stop sitting on my desk.”

“You ask too much of me, ser.”

“Did being mildly bratty get you far in life up until now?” he asks pointedly.

“I take my pleasures where they come, ser,” you say dramatically. “In fact, I-“

“Emma? Is that you down there? Are… are you bantering with the mage? I was worried!”

You look up. Thea is leaning over the railing, and she does look concerned.

“You ran off, so suddenly!”

“Sorry, Thea. Would you buy that the soup wasn’t going down right?”

“No.”

“Worth a shot.”

You stand up of Solas’ desk. “You, good ser, I will win over,” you say, pointing at him. “I’m a charmer.”

“I’m feeling positively enthralled.”

You snort. “You say that now, but just you wait. I know your type. Somewhere, there’s a tome you can’t translate. And when you find it, I’ll be the one you come to.”

You take the stairs two at a time, mind already filling with a good explanation for Thea. She meets you at the top of the stairs, her foot tapping impatiently.

“I can explain!”

“I told everyone it was a lover’s quarrel.”

“You… you what?”

“Next time, don’t run off without explaining, and it won’t happen.”

“You’re a little evil, Thea.” You rub the back of your neck. “You’ve noticed I’m a little skittish around Iron Bull, right?” You make sure your voice is loud enough to be heard by the several pairs of interested ears pretending not to be listening.

“I figured it was sexual.”

“Not everything is sexual,” you say with a roll of your eyes. “Not even with Bull. I had something of a… rough encounter with a Qunari. Back in Seheron. Hearing that he was there, and that he was… Well, it brought back a lot of bad memories. I’m sorry I freaked out on you.”

She looks you up and down, then nods. “Alright. I’m not mad; I was just worried. You’re easy to worry about, Emma.”

“Sorry, Thea,” you say with a lopsided grin. “If I’m done causing drama for the day, I’m going to get back to my tome.”

“Oh, go on,” she says with a wave of her hand, and you consider yourself dismissed.

You work on the tome until the candles run low. Thea comes and informs you that she’s going to bed, and you wave her off, saying you’re just going to do a bit more and then head to bed. She looks skeptical, but she leaves. Essentially everyone is gone. Eventually, you trudge up the stairs with your book in hand, intent on placing it down somewhere safe again. To your surprise, upstairs is still bustling. You suppose spies never get to sleep. You shrug and set the book down, when you hear an accented voice behind you.

“Emma. A word, please.”

You look around, confused… who up here even knows you? And realize with growing dread that there’s probably only one Orlesian up here, and certainly only one looking straight at you. Leliana.

You approach stiffly. You’re less scared of her than you are of Bull, but only because she’s more of a known quantity. Orlesian. Spymaster. Probably a master of the Game and a very, very smart woman. Hardly safe, but at least she’s no Ben-Hassrath.

“Seheron, hmm?” she asks, holding up a piece of paper that you can only imagine contains a chunk of your life history. She got that damn fast. Connections inside the Qun? Who was that lug honestly working for, anyway? She eyes the paper. “And then one day, you just vanish. Off of an island. No record of you on any shipping documents my men came across. If you stowed away, you did it well.” She eyes you over the paper. “Care to illuminate?”

“No, but I think I’ll have to,” you say, feigning a reluctant sigh. “There are some things a captain doesn’t leave records of, s…ser?” You still have no idea what her title is, but she doesn’t correct you. “At least none that would seem interesting. If you look at the records of a rather shady Antivan trade ship that landed in Seheron near the time of my disappearance, you will find the name of the cabin boy changes. A young Orlesian lad named Nikolas Le Coz.”

The woman’s eyebrows raise up. “You disguised yourself as an Orlesian boy?”

“I was still young, and my Orlesian was good. I pretended to be an escaped slave… well, a different kind of escaped slave, anyway, and…” You delicately clear your throat. “Convinced the captain that I was worth the risk.”

“Why disguise yourself as a boy?”

“The Captain didn’t want to share. It was a very shady ship, and I was safer as a young boy than a young girl.”

Understanding and a bit of anger glint in the woman’s steely eyes. Damn, but she is quite scary. Well, you suppose she never would have gotten his post if she weren’t. “I see. And from there?”

“I wound up in Antiva. You can probably find evidence of me under the name Nikolas there.”

“Do you change your name often, ‘Emma’?”

“It’s not wise for an escaped slave to go around leaving a trail,” you say pointedly. “I just wanted the girl I was in Seheron to disappear.” You frown. “It’s been an unpleasant couple of days, reliving all of this, but I suppose it’s necessary. I came here to be safe, and it wouldn’t be safe if you let everyone in without checking.”

“How’s the manuscript coming?” she gestures towards the table you set it and your papers on.

You blink for a moment, confused by the sudden topic change. You suppose the interview is over. “Well enough, considering all the distractions. If you’re wanting an actual Common tongue tome, however, I’ll need the proper materials.”

“You’ll have them. Get me an estimate of how long it will take as soon as you know.” You say nothing, simply nod. She looks at you again, a curiosity in her eyes that you’re becoming accustomed to. People look at you here like you’re a particularly interesting jigsaw puzzle. “You’re more interesting than you let on, Emma. But if you are honest in your intents, you’ll have nothing to fear here.” You say nothing, again, and she waves you off.

You leave your exaggerated eye-roll and under-your-breath grumbling until you’re down the stairwell and into the library. “Nothing to fear, yeah, right. There’s never nothing to fear…”

You take the long way down, avoiding the rotunda, but instead of heading towards your room, you go out to the courtyard. There’s some liveliness going on at the tavern—you suspect there is almost every night—but you’re looking for something else.

You finally find it in an empty archery practice field. Silence. Glorious, blissful silence. You want to take the dagger you carry out from its hiding place, practice throwing it at the target. Without practice, you might get rusty, be unable to defend yourself when you need to. But all it would take is one guard noticing and mentioning it to the wrong person, one set of eyes looking out a window at the wrong time… You’re under enough scrutiny. You can’t risk it. You can’t risk anything, not now.

You lean onto a fence post and stare up at the frozen grey sky. No sign of any stars… too cloudy. What a miserable place… it’s the middle of summer, but this place is bloody freezing.

It’s a sign of just how strained you are, or perhaps how out of practice you are, that a hand clamps around your mouth without you noticing its owner creeping up behind you. Instincts kick in and you swing around, the brunt of your arm smacking into some else’s as they block. You jump backwards to have a look at your assailant, and are quite surprised to see a grinning, blonde waif of an elf. A bow is on her back. She makes a rather striking figure, actually… kind of…

“Are you the girl off the poster?” you ask, bewildered, before you can think better of it.

She looks surprised. “What, did those things actually work? You saw those, decided to come here?”

You shrug. “Yeah, more or less. I was already considering it, but after seeing that kind of a thing plastered all over Val Royeaux, well, I kind of had to see what you were selling.”

“Huh… Guess I owe his Inquistorialness a drink,” she muses, tapping a finger against her chin. “Never thought that’d actually work.”

“I can’t help but notice that you don’t seem to be attacking me.”

“Wasn’t gonna. Just wanted to give you a start, fine lass sittin’ out here all alone.”

You snort. “That’s a terrible idea.”

“Have to admit, didn’t think you’d actually take a swing at me,” she said with a shrug.

“Next time, I hope you do that to a mage on accident,” you say with a smirk. “They’d do more than throw a punch.”

She shudders. “Ugh, now you’ve ruined it.”

“So, what do you do around here? Scare elven lasses professionally?”

“Not just the elven ones! I’m a menace to all women, equally.” The way she licks her lips is a little distracting.

You laugh, a bit despite yourself. It’s a bit nice to meet someone who isn’t immediately peppering you with invasive questions. Iron Bull would immediately want to know where you learned to knock a bitch out, this lady just sort of took it in stride.

“It’s nice to meet someone… normal,” you admit. “Most of the people I’ve met so far have been… ah…” You hunt for the right word. “Either very suspicious or very friendly. I’m honestly not sure.”

“Bit of both, pro’ly. Though I think you’re the first person callin’ me normal since I got here.” She gestures for you to follow her, and for some damn reason, you actually do. You don’t think it’s just because she’s a woman, or even just because she’s an elf, although that one might be closer to the truth. It’s probably just because she’s a friendly face who hasn’t asked any invasive personal questions. Still, you have to admit, that’s not a great reason to wander off with someone.

“So, wotcher name?” Her question snaps you out of your thoughts a little suddenly.

“Emma,” you say with a blink. “Where are we going?”

“Back to my place, of course! S’cold out here.”

“Your place?” you ask, bewildered. “What exactly is ‘your pl’- Is that the tavern?”

“Well, yeah!”

“The tavern is your place?”

“My place is in the tavern.”

“You live in the… never mind.” You stall near the door. “Look, I really should…”

“Aw, c’mon, elfy, don’t get shy now.” She grabs your wrist and you remind yourself that you’re a shy elven linguist who doesn’t like confrontation, not the kind of person that snaps someone’s fingers backwards for daring to touch them.

“Well, but, I was just there yesterday and I kind of made a scene…” you say, digging your heels into the ground as she attempts to pull you forward.

“Wait a minute,” she says, her grip on your wrist loosening. “Are you the one that beaned the Templar?”

“Uh… …maybe?”

“That was hilarious! Alright you’re definitely coming in now!” Her grip tightens and she yanks, throwing you off balance. You stumble, but manage to regain your footing, twisting your feet into the dirt.

“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I really can’t.” She lets your wrist go, pouting, and you almost feel a little bad. Not bad enough, though. “Do you have anywhere else you go? Some place not filled with loud drunks?” And Qunari. Some place one hundred percent Qunari-free would also be nice.

“Ugh, picky!” she says, sticking her tongue out. “What, you wanna go to the library or some place boring?”

“I work in the library,” you say dryly.

“Wot? Someone with a swing like that? What’re you doing in a library?”

“We’re an impressively athletic bunch. And I’m there because I’m a linguist.”

“Really? You good with your tongue, eh?”

“Oh my! In all of my long years, I have never heard that joke! You’re the first person to ever say it! I am in shock! Abash! Awe!”

“Alright, alright, smart-ass,” she says with a scowl. Then her face breaks out with a mischievous grin. “Wanna climb the roof?”

You pause. “You know, that sounds like a horrible idea, and yet I find that I really, really do.”

“There ya go, elfy!” she says cheerfully as she jumps onto a barrel by the side of the building and reaches for a windowsill.

You eye the building for a moment as Sera begins scrabbling up. You’re fairly sure climbing is a skill no one’s going to call you out for having. You’re an elf for the Maker’s sake, weren’t you supposed to be naturally graceful or something? So you kick off your shoes, grip onto the corner of the rough stone building and simply scramble your way up, fingers and toes digging into grooves and holes.

You and Sera reach the top at about the same time. It’s cold up there, with little to block the wind, but music is drifting cheerfully up from the tavern and you have to admit, the view is nice.

“There!” she says, sitting down with a satisfied thud. “This quiet enough for you, librarian lady?”

“Actually, it’s nice,” you say thoughtfully, sitting down. “Better than sulking in the archery range, anyway?”

“Whatchoo got to sulk about? Books givin’ you trouble?”

You snort. “The books are as easy as they’ve always been. I’m just… having trouble fitting in, I guess.”

“Well, coming here just ‘cause an elf on a poster told you to was pretty stupid.” You glare at her. “Wot? It was! Did you really think this’d be some kinda elfy haven?”

“It’s exactly what I thought it’d be. A very large stronghold with very thick walls. With a lot of humans trying very awkwardly to be polite, I might add.”

“That’s ‘cause of the grand ol’ Inquisitor. He told ‘em all to play nice. S’mostly talk.”

“I appreciate the effort, I suppose. It’s weird, but I appreciate it.”

“So, why ya havin’ trouble fittin’ in?”

“Mmm. I should expect it from something called the Inquisition, but people here are nosy. And I think Leliana’s eyeing me for something. It makes me nervous; I don’t really know what to expect from people like that.”

“Ooooh, Mistress Spymaster’s got her eye on you?”

“Saying it like that makes it even more terrifying, thank you.”

“Don’t worry too much about that one. She’s scary, yeah, but she’s a good eye for talent. If she pegs you for somethin’, it’ll be somethin’ you can do. If it’s somethin’ you can’t, she won’t peg you!”

That barely makes any sense, but it’s oddly comforting. Of course, you’re capable of quite a bit more than what you suspect Leliana has in mind for you.

“So, what do you do for the Inquisition?” you ask, as much to distract from yourself and your own thoughts as anything.

“I shoot things.”

“Well, you do have a bow. Is that why you were at the archery field?”

“Yeah, but I found somefin’ more interesting.”

“I’m flattered,” you say with a smirk. “If you shoot things for the Inquisition, you must be pretty good at it.”

She shrugs. “Maybe I just make it look good in shite company.”

You grin wickedly at her. “Show me.”

Chapter Text

Another long night, followed by a short sleep and an early morning. It’s a good thing you’re used to not getting much sleep, or you’d be wearing yourself pretty thin. As it is, you’re just glad to be waking up in an actual bed. Remembering the uncomfortable bedrolls stuffed between cracks in cold caves, you can almost think that the Inquisition is worth the risk for the bed and walls alone.

Your mind floats back to the night before, and you smile. Sera was nice, at least so far. There was always a chance she was working for Leliana, a second try after Iron Bull had blown getting closer to you. But that was a risk you were willing to accept for more of the elf girl’s company. If Leliana sent her, than the Orlesian could have credit for sending someone more pleasant than Iron Bull.

She is, as it turns out, a hell of an archer. She makes you a little jealous, but you’re better at throwing daggers than she is. That’s another nice thing about her… She didn’t care why you knew how to threw daggers, where you’d learned, why you carried a dagger, she just accepted it all as a given and got competitive with you. As far as you were concerned, if she was an information gatherer, she could have that one for free.

You walk to the mess hall for breakfast with cheerful images of blonde elf girls dancing about in your head. Thea seems to notice your unusually chipper mood… unusual for the few days she’s known you for, in any case.

“Awright, what’s god you so happy, then? You make up with your Qunari boyfriend?”

Aaaand, there goes your good mood. You scowl at her. “Actually, I met a very nice lady the other night.”

“Oooooh,” Thea says, eyes going wide. “So that’s why you didn’t go for Iron Bull.”

“What? I… no! Maker’s breath, Thea, get your head out of the latrine! She just… she was nice. We talked. Her accent’s Ferelden, and it was kind of like being back home, I guess.” A lie, but as good a lie as any other. You don’t want to get into the details of why you enjoyed Sera’s company. You couldn’t, not really.

“Mmhmm.” Maker, the smirk on her face. She’s lucky you like her so much. You can put up with a bit of teasing, but Iron Bull is a sore topic. Fortunately, he doesn’t show up at breakfast, and you think you’re in the clear… But there he is, when you leave the mess hall for the library. He just stands across the courtyard; he doesn’t walk towards you. But he’s watching you, and he has to want you to know that he is.

You manage to get to the library, mildly shaken, but more than mildly irritated. You try to focus in on your work, and push the encounter with Iron Bull from your mind. Unfortunately, not an hour into translation, Dorian comes to pester you once again.

“So, I hear someone had some bad Qunari experiences.”

The quill you’re holding shudders and creaks as your grip tightens, but you force your face placid. “It was Seheron. I had bad everyone experiences,” you say bluntly.

“Look, Emma…” you glance up, and are surprised to see he looks mildly insecure, slightly guilty. “If I have made you… uncomfortable… I apologize. I hadn’t quite… Well, slavery isn’t really something that one thinks about much, in Tevinter, it just… is. I hadn’t thought of the after-effects, the, er, trauma, an ex-slave might have…”

Oh.

You almost feel bad for what you’re about to do. Not bad enough.

“Oh, Dorian,” you say with a smile. “Don’t worry about that. I don’t think of you that way, no matter what Iron Bull says; you’re too-“

“Wait, what did Iron Bull say?” He snaps onto it immediately. You let your eyes widen slightly, then look down guiltily. You wouldn’t feel so badly about it if he was harder to manipulate. But you want Iron Bull off your back.

“Ah, um… I’ve, uh… I’ve misspoken. What I mean, is, um…”

As if divine providence wants this to work, you spot Thea heading towards the stairs, presumably for lunch, as her three square meals are the only time she’s ever not in the library. “Oh!” you say with a nervous laugh. “Look at that, Thea’s leaving for lunch without me. Bye!” You quickly scramble around the desk and dart to catch up with Thea, ignoring Dorian’s thunderous expression.

“Oh, are you actually having lunch today?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the occasion?”

“Just a desire to be out of the library for a bit,” you murmur, walking a little faster.

-

To your surprise, you’re joined at lunch by Varric, not Iron Bull. Considering the dwarf had gotten in only half a dozen sentences before you’d made a bolt for it, you hadn’t exactly been expecting to see him again.

“So, I hear you have an interesting history,” he says, out of nowhere.

You choke on your bread slightly, then clear your throat and manage to swallow. “W-what?”

“Your history. Your past. Your ‘dramatic backstory.’”

“I… Well, actually, it’s quite boring.”

“Oh, come on! Slave girl escapes war-torn island? That’s not boring.”

“It’s not as exciting as everyone thinks. I got lucky, made a break for it. Does everyone in Skyhold know this about me now?”

“Not everyone no. Just the Inquisitor and his friends.”

This time you choke in earnest, face flushing as you damn near suffocate on your own tongue. Thea tries to pound on your back, but you wave her off, and eventually catch your breath. Tears sting the corners of your eyes. Surely you misheard.

“E-excuse me? The Inquisitor?”

“Well, maybe not him, personally. I can’t think of any reason Leliana would have to tell him. But we of his little entourage. Although, really, I think it’s just me, Tiny, and Sparkler. Maybe a few others.”

Okay, Tiny was Iron Bull, you remembered that. Sparkler? That had to be Dorian. Plus Solas, and Thea. That… that was a steadily growing number. You clear your throat. “And you’re all… personal friends of the Inquisitor.”

“Guilty as charged.”

The sound you emit could only be described as a whimper. “Maker have mercy.” So much for keeping a low profile. You’ve blown that so completely out of the water that there’s no recovery from it.

“So I guess you won’t be wanting to give me an interview, then?”

You glare up at him. “What?”

“You know, tell me your sordid history, that sort of thing. I know good book material when I see it.”

You stare at him, dumbfounded. Slowly, you turn to Thea, who’s nodding thoughtfully. Maker.

“Escape From Seheron: Elf Against The World! Still working on the title, obviously…”

“You’re not writing a book about me!” you snap. “What in the Maker’s name would make you think I’d want that?”

“Well, a little bird told me that you borrowed Hard in Hightown from the library…”

The glare you level at Thea could have razed mountaintops, but she’s looking pointedly away, refusing to meet your eyes.

“And about that you have a copy of Tales of the Champion in your room…”

“Everyone has a copy of that book!” you snap.

“If that were true, I’d be a very wealthy man,” Varric says with a chuckle.

By now, a flush has grown to cover your entire face. You feel like you’re absolutely radiating heat. “I am not giving you an interview, and you are not writing a book about me! That’s the last thing I need!”

“Oh, come on! Don’t you want to be the next Hawke?”

“No! Half his family is dead and all of Thedas knows who he slept with, when, and why!”

“You know, I may have lost contact with Hawke and Anders, but I still know where a few of the others are,” he says slyly.

You try to feign disinterest. “Well, I imagine you would. You knew each other for years.”

“Mmhmm… Merrill’s been babysitting the elves left homeless from all the fighting. Isabela’s back with the Raiders. Fenris is off killing slavers…” He pauses. Damn. Something in your body language must have given you away. Bastard was fishing.

“Speaking of which, you know Fenris was in Seheron, right?”

You did know that, and it was something you found rather interesting. He was someone with a life experience not too different from yours, although he would likely absolutely hate you if the two of you met. You delicately clear your throat. “Yes. Before me. Although not by much. Seems like a lot of slaves get ‘lost’ in Seheron.”

“Maybe he’d be someone you’d be interested in meeting?”

You meet the dwarf’s eyes sharply. He can’t possibly know the little crush you developed, reading about the broody elf in his story. And besides, that was just a silly, childish fantasy you, uh, used to keep you warm on cold nights. “I’m not giving you an interview,” you say flatly. “Not even for that. Besides, he’d have no interest in me, I’m sure.”

“Well, my offer stands, if you change your mind,” Varric says with a smirk. You simply glare.

They say don’t meet your heroes, but meeting Varric has been interesting, and meeting Fenris is tempting. It’s stupid, one of the stupidest things you’ve ever considered, and more importantly, the price is steeper than you can pay. You couldn’t even give Varric a made-up story, because it might contradict with things you needed to lie about in the future. But to actually meet...

“Have you got a thing for elves?” Thea interjects curiously.

“It’s not a thing for elves if I’m an elf, Thea,” you say darkly.

“Oh, I guess not. I kinda forget, you’re not very elfy.”

You try not to scowl too darkly or look as insulted as you feel. There’s really no good way to take that, and you want to be sarcastic at her. Should you bend and scrape more? Whimper around the human men? Or did she want you to mark up your face and run off into the hills? But you bite your tongue. You need friends, and knowingly or not, Thea had actually helped you with some of the stupid rumors she helped spread. You still want her on your side.

“Maybe I can bribe you with some insider knowledge. You have any questions about the book?” Varric says. His prodding would be annoying if it wasn’t for the fact you have a genuine interest in him.

“If you can’t bribe me with meeting Fenris, you can’t bribe me with anything,” you say firmly. “My past is my past. And it wouldn’t make for a very interesting story, anyway.”

“So you are interested in meeting him!” the wicked dwarf says with a grin.

You sigh, a little too exhausted to be properly annoyed. “There’s no way it would live up to the fantasy. What would I even say? ‘Hey, you know the worst part of your life? I went through some of that same shit! Let’s bond over our horrific trauma’? Past that, I’m a fairly boring person.”

“Stutter, no one who goes through all of that comes out ‘boring’ on the other end. Tell you what, tell me a bit about your experiences in Seheron, and I’ll write him a letter about it. See if he expresses any interest.”

You bite your bottom lip, considering. The story of your slavery in Seheron is apparently yesterday’s news. A few tales, real or made up… For a chance to indulge in a bit of shameless fantasizing? Was it a fair trade? “I decide what I tell you?”

“You always decide what you tell me, Stutter.”

You snort. “Nothing about sharing my past has been my choice since I got here. But fine. Meet me in the tavern tomorrow evening. Just the two of us, and you buy all the drinks. And I better not see these stories circulating. This is for a letter.”

Varric seems to think about it for a minute. “Alright, you’ve got yourself a deal, Stutter.”

“He’s good at this,” comments Thea.

-

Dorian is gone when you return to the library. You can’t help smirking a little bit to yourself… that man is too easy to manipulate for his own good. No doubt you’ll get an earful about it later, but for now, you have some peace and quiet. And if you play your cards right, you might be able to distract Dorian and Iron Bull with each other in a more long term manner, giving you a break from both of their endless prodding.

You cheerfully set back to work on your tome, but before you can get too much further in, you see a rather huffy looking Dorian coming in one of the doors. He doesn’t make a beeline for you, but he looks annoyed. It’s only a matter of time; you’d hoped he and Iron Bull would distract each other for longer. Had he even gone to talk with the Qunari, or just sulked around Skyhold? With an irritated sigh, you consider your options.

You wait until he begins hunting for a book, which by now you know from experience is a long, convoluted process that involves a lot of throwing, much to Thea’s eternal consternation. He chucks a tome over his shoulder. Soon, Thea will swoop in and begin nagging. Taking your chance, you pile up your paper, quills, and ink, balance the tome carefully, and quickly exit down the stairs to the rotunda.

Solas only glances at you as you enter, but does a short double take when he sees you laden down with what is essentially the entire contents of your desk. You begin carefully setting things down on the floor under the wooden platform near the wall, then plop yourself down onto the ground as well. It’s not as ideal as a desk, but the rotunda is well lit and more importantly, it’s quiet.

Solas says nothing, so you’re quick to get to work, laying on your stomach and propping yourself up on your elbows, feet waving slowly back and forth in the air as you continue your translation. After a few minutes, you kick off your shoes, letting your toes stretch freely in the cool air. There are no sudden protests… delightful. People looked at your strange if you went barefoot in the library.

You don’t realize how much time is passing until you run out of paper. You frown, stretching stiff joints, and look around. Solas is now sitting at his desk, nose buried in a dusty tome that you rather like the look of. It’s a shame it’s rude to read over someone’s shoulder. You stand, stiffly, not bothering to put your shoes back on. Your back is sore from so long on the floor, but that paper isn’t going to fetch itself. You take the stairs slowly, and are treated to quite a surprise when you reach your desk.

Supplies have indeed been provided for you. Fine, book quality parchment, necessary tools for binding, and a very nice set of calligraphy quills as well as… ooh, is that a set of colored inks? You glance around, then pick up a good armful of supplies and begin to head back downstairs. No one is stopping you! This is somewhat amazing; it never occurred to you that you could just up and move your station.

You bring the quills, ink, and a stack of glorious parchment—as well as cheap paper for translation work—down to the rotunda. Solas doesn’t even look up at you as you enter. That’s all the encouragement you need. You settle back down under the wooden platform, cheerfully outlining for a title page. You still have to finish the complete translation, but you just can’t put off playing with your new toys. You resist the urge to sign your name as translator, but instead work a mark into the design. You’ve been using it as a way to sign your work for years now. Sometimes it’s not safe to sign a name, and you’ve never signed your real name to any of your work, but your pride prevents you from letting anything go unmarked.

By the time you move again, by any great margin, hours have likely passed. The only light in the rotunda now is being provided by candles and lanterns. The only reason you shift is because you feel the brush of magic against you. You glance up despite yourself, and find that Solas is doing… something in the middle of the room with some bizarre looking shard of rock. The brush was likely accidental. You’d like to know more about what he’s doing, but of course, you can’t. You chew on your lip, equal parts curious and frustrated. If you even started to look, you’ve no doubt a mage like Solas would spot you in an instant. He’s not someone you want to test, and you’re in no position to be taking more risks.

Feeling something akin to sexual frustration, you turn back to your books sourly. His magic occasionally brushes up against you, and it is very distracting. After a particularly curious wave of magic rubs against your ass, you decide that enough is enough. The man’s hands are lightly glowing, you can probably say something at this point. You can’t focus on your work while you’re being absentmindedly molested.

You shift back up onto your knees, wincing slightly. Soon your body will be hating you for maintaining that position for so long. Solas doesn’t react to your movement, so you stand, walking a few steps closer. You can’t examine what he’s doing, not really, but you can at least look. Eventually, Solas seems to notice that you’re literally on the other side of the desk, and ends his spell, lowering the shard to the table.

“May I help you?” he asks, and you flush lightly, on purpose.

“Oh, sorry, I was just… curious. You were glowing, a little,” you say sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.” You’re such a liar.

“Have you not seen much magic in your travels?”

Your travels? When did you mention traveling to him? “Erm… A bit, but more the, ah, horrific fire, ice and lightning kind of magic,” you say apologetically. “Were you, um… examining this?” You gesture towards the shard.

“Yes. It has some sort of magical property, but I’m having issue figuring out exactly what it is. It is a key, of a sort, but why and how remain a mystery.”

You run a finger along the edge of the shard, wanting very badly to investigate further. “I have to admit, I’m a little jealous,” you confess. “I’ve read stories telling of the magic of the ancient elves, and sometimes I feel a little less elven for my shortcomings in that area.”

He smiles, and your heart soars. Uh-oh. “The magic of the ancient elves was like nothing you might see today. Even were you a mage, you would still find yourself falling short.” OUCH. Oh, ouch! Arrow, right through the heart, and he hadn’t even meant it!

You smile through the pain, trying not to look wounded. “That sounds amazing.” You glance down at the shard, deciding a subject change is in order. “You said it’s a key? A key to what?”

“A temple, far to the west.”

You pucker your lips. There are more interesting things in this world than you will ever get to see.

“I notice you seem to have moved in,” Solas comments, interrupting the short silence and gesturing towards the little nest you’ve set up under the wooden platform. You grin sheepishly.

“I’m not sorry. It’s so much quieter in here. No one really bothers you, do they?”

Solas raises his eyebrows pointedly. True enough, you’re bothering him right now.

“Other than me,” you concede. “But that’s only fair. Everyone else is very concerned with bothering me.”

“They do seem a little preoccupied with you,” Solas says, but it doesn’t seem to be to you. He’s giving you that look again, like he’s on the edge of figuring something out. It involves a great deal of eye contact, and you get that same conflicted feeling: your brain going “NOPE better get out” and your body telling you the numerous reasons why it would be fantastic to just stay right there. “Iron Bull in particular. Do you two have some history?”

“Only in that we were both in Seheron. Not at the same time, I think.” Or you hope, anyway.

“And the other day, you commented on Leliana’s interest, as well,” he mused.

“She’s investigating me. I think she might want me for some more sensitive translations in the future.” You frown. “I understand her position, but it doesn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable.”

“Oh? Why is it uncomfortable?” Normally, this line of questioning would have you making an excuse and an exit, but in truth, you rather like the attention. Your stupid little childish crushes will get you in a world of trouble. They have in the past; it seems you still haven’t learned your lesson.

“I’m used to being a background fixture. It’s been my experience that when humans are giving me attention, it’s the direct precursor to something unfortunate. Plus, they have me thinking over memories from a very long time ago, things I don’t like to think about much.”

“I can certainly appreciate that,” Solas agrees, although you’re not sure what he’s referring to exactly. But surely an elven apostate knows all about the negative side effects of too much attention. His life can’t have been that much different from your own… and yet here he is, actively practicing magic essentially in the direct center what might as well be a Templar encampment.

“I still can’t believe the Inquisition… and the Templars, at that, just… leave you alone,” you say, shaking your head. “This whole war was about them wanting to chase down and capture or kill every mage in Thedas, but with one just sitting right under their noses, suddenly they don’t mind?”

“The Inquisition has shown them better ways to fill their time. Although I would be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with the situation. Are you not fond of Templars, then?” His question is casual, but you know that style of casual. It’s the kind that comes with a barbed hook.

“I was pretty neutral on them, up until the war. I thought I could approve of anything they did to keep the rest of Thedas from looking like Tevinter,” you lie, “But then all hell breaks loose and suddenly they’re mowing down innocent people and anyone who even looks at one of the rebel mages. They murdered one of my neighbors, just for taking in a pair of kids who happened to be mages. So, these days, no, I’m not fond.”

“But surely you had similarly poor run-ins with mages during the war,” Solas points out. “Yet you seem to bear us no ill will.”

“Mmm… where I lived, mages were mostly on the run. There wasn’t a lot of out and out fighting, just a lot of Templars hunting. If mages had been lobbing fireballs, I probably would have gotten out sooner.” You sigh, sitting yourself down on his desk again and pulling your feet up off the ground. “But you make a good point. Perhaps a bit of lingering sympathy clouds my judgment.”

“I wouldn’t think an escaped Tevinter slave would be particularly sympathetic to mages.”

“No? Perhaps most wouldn’t be,” you agree, thinking back to the stories of Fenris from Varric’s novel. “But… the propaganda used to justify slavery in Tevinter sounds eerily similar to that used here to justify the Circles. A slave is a slave, even if we wrap a bow on it and say it’s for their own good. I’ve seen some very nice circles in Orlais… but I couldn’t help notice they were full of the well-off and advantaged. I doubt the circles full of alienage elves were quite so permissive.”

You glance over at the other elf, and note with a chill that he’s looking at you quite strangely. Thoughtfully, even. You’ve been running at the mouth again. It would have been better to portray yourself as a silly girl who’d never given mages and Templars much thought until they started blowing each other up. But the idea of acting stupid around Solas makes you chafe.

Idiot, you think to yourself. It’s your own damn fault if you get caught at this point. You’ve never had this level of scrutiny aimed at you, and here you are blabbing away about mages. You sound like goddamn Anders! This is always your problem, every time. Dangle a bit of knowledge in front of your face, and suddenly you’re taking stupid risks. It doesn’t matter if he knows every damn word the elves ever spoke; you need to get a grip on yourself.

You clear your throat awkwardly. “I should probably get back to work. Sorry for disturbing your, erm… research.” You climb off the desk and brush yourself off, burningly aware of his eyes on you as you walk stiffly back to where you’ve been working. You try to get back to work, but it’s difficult. You really want to look over at Solas, to see if he’s still looking at you, but… what if he is? You can’t risk it. You try to focus on the paper in front of you, try to continue your translation. Eventually, you feel a flutter of magic against your bared legs and risk a look. He’s working on the shard again. You’re in the clear. For now, anyway.

With that in mind, you get back to work in earnest, throwing yourself at the translation as if to punish yourself for such a dumbfounding lapse in judgment. There are weirder things than an intellectual who sympathizes with mages; it’s practically a stereotype. But you’re becoming increasingly aware that you can’t treat the people of the Inquisition with the same lazy touch you’ve grown accustomed to.

You don’t lose focus from your work again until a shadow falls over your tome. You glare upwards, and are quite surprised to see Solas standing over you.

“It’s quite late,” he says mildly. “Do you sleep?”

You blink, unsurprised to find your eyes tired and a little crusty. How late had it gotten, without you noticing? You stifle a yawn and sit up. “I’m sorry, ser. I didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”

He surprises you by squatting down and picking up a few of your papers. He shuffles through them, looking mildly interested. “How long have you been working on this?”

“Since I arrived… a few days,” you reply, not quite sure what he’s getting at.

“Leave it here.” He says it so casually that you don’t even think to wonder why. Like the man upstairs, you just assume that if he’s asking, he’s got something to do with it.

“Alright.” You stand up and stretch. “Makes things easier on me. If you’re looking at it, don’t mix up the papers.” Your back pops, and you wince. Thank the Maker you’re about to climb into a bed. You’ll be stiff tomorrow as it is.

You leave him thumbing curiously through your papers and head towards your room. There’s a way to get there without leaving the building, you’re almost certain, but there seems to be a million ways to get anywhere in Skyhold. You brave the cold rather than risk getting lost.

Seems like the only people still up are guards and… whomever is in the tavern, which is as raucous as ever. Although even that is beginning to empty; there are a few people stumbling across the courtyard. You shiver as a fresh wind cuts through your clothing, and quickly bounce down the stairs, eyes focused in the direction of your bedroom.

Maybe because of the scare Sera gave you yesterday, your ears perk up at a sound to your left. On second thought, perhaps a blind elephant would have noticed the two drunken men lurching towards you.

“Heeeeey, knife ear!” one of them slurs. Great. It’s gonna be one of those nights. “Jus’ what I need right now!”

You roll your eyes and keep walking.

“Wha? You think you’re too good for us, knife-eared bitch?” The man throws so clumsily that stepping out of the way of the haphazardly thrown bottle is almost unnecessary. You hear stumbling steps after you, and your hand twitches down towards where your knife is hidden.

“Hey! What the hell are you doing?!” This voice is completely sober, and completely pissed off. You turn, surprised, to see a woman storming towards the men. You almost don’t recognize her out of her armor, but you’ve a knack for faces. It’s Belinda, the woman you smacked in the head with a mug, apparently taking exception to people continuing to throw things. “You little shits are in for a world of hurt!”

“Y… you ain’t got no authority over us, Templar!” the braver (or stupider) of the two slurs back at her. The other one is already beginning to back away.

“Oh don’t I? Then I guess I’d better report this to the Knight-Commander! Now do you want to scurry back to your pit, or should we go wake him together?”

They both dart away, nearly tripping over their own feet in the rush. You stare at the woman, mildly dumbfounded.

“Sorry about those louts,” she says, rubbing at her nose and not making eye contact with you. “They don’t represent us… And I’ll make sure the Commander hears of this.”

“Th… That’s not really necessary,” you begin, but she shakes her head.

“Maybe they would have done something, maybe not. But I can’t risk those idiots actually hurting someone. I’ll leave your name out of it.”

You’re a little awed, and more than a little shocked. This has to be the first time a Templar has actually come to your rescue, and there wasn’t even a mage involved. Go figure. “Um… thanks.” You could have handled the situation, no doubt, but she handled it with a lot less stabbing. You had to respect that. “I… really. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it. Really, don’t.”

You grin. “I’ll take it to the grave.”

You manage to get all the way to your room unmolested, and open the door with a relieved sigh. Another late night, but at least today was more productive. Just as well… tomorrow you have to spend your evening in the tavern. Perfect.

Chapter Text

“Hey, there you are!”

You recognize the voice as Thea’s even in your half-unconscious haze. You groggily force your mind into the waking world, blink to clear your sleep-filled eyes.

“Where’d you get off to yesterday? I was a li’l worried.”

“Nrrg,” you grumble, attempting to sit up. “Was downstairs,” you manage.

“Flirting with your apostate, were you?”

“Pff. Hardly.” You rub at your eyes, run your tongue around your mouth to get the taste of sleep out of it. “I managed to get a whole evening of work in without a single interruption.”

“I gotta ask,” she says, sitting down on the corner of your bed. “Have you talked to him? How’d you convince him to let you work down there?”

“Yes, we’ve talked, and I didn’t convince him, I just showed up and he didn’t tell me to leave.”

Thea gapes at you. Silence is a good look on her, but you know it’ll be short-lived.

“…Wow. I wish I had your bravery.”

“S’not bravery. What do you think he’d do, set me on fire? He already doesn’t care much for me, I couldn’t very well move down on his list.”

The red-headed woman shakes her head. “You’re frightened of Iron Bull, but the scary loner mage doesn’t even make you bat an eyelash. I’ll never figure you out, Emma.”

“Good. Clearly my appeal is all in the mystery,” you say sardonically. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“Nah, I had to make sure you hadn’t died first.”

“Alright, let me dress, and I’ll join you,” you say, stifling another yawn. You stretch slowly, wincing at the stiffness in your joints. You can hardly drag a desk into Solas’ room, and you don’t want to move back up to the library, so you’ll just have to deal with it. You frown somewhat sourly to yourself; the pressure of being around so many people is becoming palpable at almost a week in. Too many mages and Templars, too many people who might just notice if you slip. You can’t do things you’re accustomed to doing. It’s annoying, although you’ve certainly been in worse situations. It just… makes you tense.

You shrug into a new day’s clothes. Fresh clothing is much akin to a bed: something you don’t miss until it’s gone. You try to keep those positive aspects in mind as you head towards the mess. The situation here seems to be deteriorating quickly, but there’s just enough that makes you want to stay. The chance to meet someone you admire, pestering Varric and Solas for more knowledge… Even the random kindness of strangers. Not a bad place, you decide, but a dangerous one.

Varric joins you and Thea in the breakfast hall when you’re about halfway done with your meals. You’re a little bit surprised to see him there; staff like you and Thea tend to get up earlier than those you serve.

“Varric,” you say, surprising yourself and everyone around you by asking the first question of the meal. “What exactly is it that you ‘friends of the Inquisitor’ do exactly?”

“Well, some of us, like Madame Vivienne, have resources they’re adding to the Inquisition. The Bull’s Chargers, the last of the Circle Mages, that sort of thing. Mostly, though, we’re the ones who actually join him in the field, when he runs off to kill demons and seal rifts, that sort of thing.”

That’s… damn, that’s actually kind of impressive. So, essentially, you’ve managed to catch the interest of the people you should have avoided altogether. If they were traveling with the Inquisitor, that meant they had to be pretty strong by themselves, and it meant they had pull… they could ask for personal favors from the leader of the fastest growing power in Thedas.

Aaaaand you’ve just sicced two of them on each other. Heh. Oops. Still can’t bring yourself to feel bad about it, though.

You pepper Varric with a few questions about his life as you finish your breakfast… Was Bertrand really still alive, what had he ever done with that lyrium idol, did it REALLY turn Meredith to a statue, that sort of thing. He’s the one who turns the conversation to Fenris, and that’s the story you’ll stick to until your dying day.

“Did… did he really just… kill his sister?” you ask quietly as Thea is cleaning up her bowl.

Varric sighs. “Yeah… Yeah, he did. I thought for a second Hawke was going to stop him. But… well, he didn’t.”

It’s one of many moments in the book that have you convinced that despite your repeated fantasies to the contrary, Fenris would not actually enjoy your company very much. Forgiveness does not appear to be his strong point. Even in escaping, you’ve done some questionable things in your life. You clean up your own bowl, say your goodbyes to Varric, and head outside with Thea. This time, there is no Iron Bull across the courtyard.

-

Thea tries to convince you to come back up the library, but you politely (repeatedly) decline, citing the peace and quiet down in Solas’ rotunda. She pouts, but doesn’t even enter as you do, instead going the long way around to go up the other set of stairs. Does Solas really intimidate her so much? He seems rather amiable to you, even if he does appear to have an entire tree limb lodged firmly up his ass.

He’s sitting at his desk when you walk in, leaning back at his chair and reading off of some loose leaf paper. It isn’t until you sit down at your little station under the platform that you realize he must be reading some of your paper, because a rather large chunk of your translation is missing. You glance up at him, but either he hasn’t noticed your entry, or he’s ignoring you. Either way, the first quarter of your translation is here, as is your fancier paper, so you begin outlining for the next page of the actual book.

Part of the fun is going to be duplicating some of the complicated anatomical drawings in the original tome. Thankfully, you’ve done this sort of thing before. Never with dragons, but duplicating an existing piece doesn’t exactly require having actually seen a dragon. After penciling out an outline and lightly lining the page, you reach for your ink and quills, and set to work.

You’re only halfway done with the page when Solas interrupts you. It startles you; he was so quiet, and yesterday hadn’t interrupted you at all. Fortunately, you have the iron control of your hands that only someone who regularly writes entire books can have, so you don’t muss up the page you’re working on.

“Did you translate this part correctly?”

You scowl at him. “I would hardly have translated it incorrectly, ser. Are you asking me to look at it again?”

“I’m asking you to ensure your wording is correct.” You glance at the line that has him fussing.

“Oh. Yeah, that was weird. I’m certain I got it correct, however. Unless they’re trying to say that High Dragons are resistant to cataclysm, which I sincerely doubt.”

“This is very interesting. I don’t believe this is common knowledge.”

“I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to ask about that. I have only a layman’s knowledge of dragons. It’s not been a subject of particular study for me.” You snort to yourself. “In fact, I’m probably not the best person for this project, but I suppose the Inquisition doesn’t have many contacts who are both dragon experts and fluent in ancient Tevene. Essentially all of them must live in Tevinter.”

“Are you as fluent in all the languages you profess to know as you are in ancient Tevene?”

Does he intend to be rude, or does shit just come out of his mouth that way? “With the apparent exception of ancient Elven, apparently,” you say with a frown. “Why?”

“It is impressive.”

You flush from the tips of your ears down to your bared toes. Fortunately, you’ve never been one to blush darkly. “Thank you, Solas.” To cover for your embarrassment, you grin. “I feel I would be more impressive if my Elven were improved however. But where, oh where, could a little da’len like me find a scholar in the ancient elves?”

He glances at you over the top of the paper. “Focus on your tome. I’m sure the Inquisitor is eager to get his hands on the translation.”

You try not to get your hopes up at the lack of a definitive no. “Why is he so interested in it, anyway? All I’ve heard is that there are ‘interested parties.’”

“I believe he is attempting to bribe a draconologist.”

“Wow. He doesn’t bribe poorly; this tome is a treasure.”

Solas begins to wander back to his desk, but before he can get too far, you risk an interruption of your own. “Erm… Solas?” He turns back towards you. “Ah… I know you’re doing me a favor already, letting me stay down here, but I wonder if I might ask for another?”

“You may certainly ask.”

You clear your throat delicately. “This might be rude to ask, but I presume you specialize in more… subtle magic?”

“I suppose one could say that,” he says cautiously. You might as well just get to it.

“Would that happen to include healing?”

Solas frowns. “If you are ill or injured, we have medics-“

“I have read that such magic can be used to make bones and joints stronger… more flexible, more durable. I’m attempting to finish this as fast as I can, but I fear my body isn’t used to this cold.”

He’s coming back towards you. “Do you do much reading about magic?”

“It comes up. I’ve been translating documents since I was a child. Despite what people seem to think, I don’t simply translate them and immediately forget the information I was translating.”

“Stand up,” he orders, and you find your legs are already moving. He, like Iron Bull, has a good voice for orders. He reaches out and takes your right hand into his, and your heart skips a beat. Maker, get a grip on yourself! He grasps your wrist firmly, twisting it this way and that to get a good look at it, and then you feel the deep, warm throb of unfamiliar magic. Gentle tingling fills your hand and wrist, and you shudder a little despite yourself. It feels odd, but familiar, a spell you’ve felt a thousand times cast by a new hand.

He lets go, and you flex your hand, sighing in relief. “That’s amazing,” you say, not having to try to look impressed. It’s such a relief to feel that you could have kissed the man. “This is the real reason why I wish they didn’t keep all mages locked up except for wars. They’re too damn useful.”

He raises an eyebrow, challenging your train of thought instead of letting a joke sit as just that. It frustrates you as much as it interests you. “You would see the mages freed?”

“I’m not going to see anything,” you retort sharply. “I have as much say in the matter as a rock. But… some circles let mages leave, once they’ve proven themselves stable. More should. Every village could use the talents of a mage to help with everyday hurts and the fickleness of nature.”

“You have… unusual thoughts on the matter, da’len.”

“Don’t call me that,” you say with a scowl. “Um… Please,” you correct yourself. “Ser.” You clear your throat awkwardly. “Thank you for your assistance. I will get more work done today because of it.” You feel somewhat awkward, sitting down on the ground while he’s still standing there, but he seems to take the hint, and turns back to whatever it is he does all day.

With sturdy magic reinforcing once-stiff joints, you work like lightning. Your hand flicks over paper without so much as a tremble. Now this is more like it! Reveling in your stability, you craft page after page, deciding the translation can wait until the magic wears off. You note at one point that Solas has obtained food, somehow. The spell of spiced vegetables wafts over to you, but you wave it away and focus on your work; the spell on your wrist has yet to fade, and you want to do as much as possible before it does.

-

You are awed at how every part of you except for your wrist aches when you finally stop. A headache is beginning to throb behind your eyes, your back is threatening to revolt, and your stomach is tied in knots, but your wrist… Your wrist is fine! It’s almost ridiculous.

It’s the smell of food that does you in. The unmistakable smell of fresh bread and roast meat drifts over to you, and your stomach lets out a loud growl. You glance over at Solas, who is reading a tome while he eats, his plate sitting largely unguarded on the desk. A smirk on your face, you sneak towards his desk on hands and knees, staying close to the ground. His unwavering focus will be his undoing; he doesn’t appear to notice you at all. You slip against the far side of the desk, out of his line of sight, and dart a hand up. Your hand lands on something warm and soft, and you pull it back to you. A biscuit! Lucky grab. You don’t even bother to savor it, stuffing it down quickly but quietly, your stomach rejoicing at even a tidbit of food.

“You know,” Solas says, the sudden voice making you jump hard enough that you bang your head on the corner of the desk. OUCH. “The Inquisition does provide food. You don’t have to resort to petty theft.”

You poke your head guiltily over the desk, then grin sheepishly. “In my defense, they don’t deliver food to the help. And what we get in the mess doesn’t smell this good.”

Solas is giving you a look that Does Not Approve. You give your best pout, but cuteness has never been your strong point. “Ir abelas, hahren?”

“Abelas,” he says, seeming to automatically correct your poor pronunciation.

“Abelas,” you correct yourself, wrapping your mouth around it. “Ir abelas, hahren.”

He sighs. “You have a knack for being troublesome.”

“It’s a talent,” you admit. “Probably comes from growing up in an Alienage. Have you finished with those?” You gesture to a stack of your papers, still on his desk. He frowns at them.

“I wanted to ask you a question about the wording of a certain phrase, but you seemed rather… absorbed in your work.”

“Oh?” Your ears perk with interest. “Alright, but this is payment for the biscuit.”

He gestures vaguely towards the plate of food. “Finish it. I can always send for more.”

You don’t need any more encouragement than that, and fall upon the food with a vengeance. The roast rabbit is sinfully delicious after weeks of porridge, stew, and little else. As you eat, he questions you on a section that you found interesting as well, a rather in depth study of a specific high dragon that had been residing in a swamp. You answer his questions to the best of your ability.

“Well, the phrase used was ‘Draconis sub lutum,’ so I’m fairly sure that-“

“You remember the exact wording?” he interrupts.

You frown. You hate it when someone interrupts your chain of thought. “Of course I do. As I was saying-“

“Did this particular phrase stand out for some reason?”

“No, it’s actually a fairly straight-forward translation, as I was saying…” you say, the ire in your voice rising.

“This, over here,” he says, pointing to a completely different section of the book. “What was this in the original tome?”

“Propagines vescuntur -“ you begin, but he points to another part, expectantly. “Tace, spicaurisger!”

He snorts. “That is not what it said.”

“No, but I don’t appreciate the prodding! What’s this about?”

“I find it interesting that you seem to know the entire tome,” he says, looking amused.

“Of course I don’t. But if you point at a particular phrase, it isn’t difficult to remember how it was in the original.”

“There are a great many ways some of these could be translated.”

“Yes, therefore it’s my job to know which one is correct,” you scowl. “Which is why I remember.”

“Most people would remember the ones that gave them difficulty, or the ones that were pleasing to them.”

“Most people don’t professionally translate ancient tomes, now do they?” you say snippily. “Honestly. It’s just a combination of good memory and understanding the language. Don’t be such a…” You search for a proper word in the Common tongue, then give up. “Saputo.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Should I ask?”

“I wouldn’t tell.” You shove the last biscuit neatly into your mouth, barely bothering to chew before you swallow. “If you’re finished quizzing me, ser, I should get back to—ah, damn.”

Solas doesn’t have to ask the reason for your outburst; he simply follows your gaze over to the doorway, which is currently filled with the hulking mass that is Iron Bull.

“Hey, Solas. Think I can steal her for a minute?”

Solas makes some gesture between a shrug and a hand wave. You scowl. You’re not an item to be passed around, although being treated as such is hardly unfamiliar. Still, this isn’t a conversation you want to have in front of Solas, either, so you deign to follow Iron Bull outside onto the walkway.

“So, how far of a distance do I have to keep for you to call Dorian off?” he says once you’re both out on the walkway. He looks mildly amused, which is better than angry.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” you say with the blankest face you’ve ever produced.

“Uh-huh. I heard your background checked out with Leliana.”

“I think she might still be checking,” you admit. “Apparently when I disappeared off of Seheron, I did it a little too well.” You glare at him. “I don’t know whether to be proud of myself or worried.”

“You have a reason to be worried?”

You’re here, aren’t you?” you say with a scowl. Then, abruptly, “When were you in Seheron?” You don’t want to know. But you have to.

“I got moved away from Seheron about five years ago. I was there for seven years.” You look away sharply, knowing you’ve no hope of hiding your expression. Your heart pounds in your chest as you try to keep panic from overtaking you again. Tight cells, burning flesh, a fog thicker than darkness. You force yourself to breathe.

“Fuck,” you say out loud, forcing a bit of joviality into your shaking voice. “I was hoping…”

“Yeah,” he says softly. “I know.”

You force a half-smile onto your face and look back at him. “Guess I should be thanking you?”

“Oh?”

“Check in with Leliana. It was a Qunari raid on my master’s base of operations that gave me the chance to bolt.” Explosions only mean one thing; bloody screams, spear through the chest of your friend, idiot, idiot, why did you grab a sword. They don’t kill slaves, look small, look small. Run, don’t let them see you run. Your legs threaten to give out; more than emotion is swirling inside of you. Get your shit together!

“I have to get to the tavern,” you manage to eke out.

“The tavern?” he sounds incredulous.

“I’m meeting Varric for drinks,” you say, trying to focus on that.

“Ah. I think I’ll run some training exercises, then hit the hay early.”

You glance up, meeting his eye. “……Thanks.”

-

The fact that you manage to walk to the tavern without falling over is a small miracle. You spot Varric at the bar, and just sort of fall onto the stool next to him, letting your bones go limp as you melt across the counter.

“Bad day, Stutter?”

“I’ve had worse,” you announce directly into the wooden countertop. You manage to lift yourself up. “What do they have that straddles the line between ‘alcohol’ and ‘amnesiac’?”

He slides you a mug. “Why don’t you just start with some mead? Tell the nice dwarf all about it.”

You scowl at him, but you down about half of the drink to calm your shakes. “There’s nothing to tell. Besides, you’re interested in my history, not my day-to-day.”

“Those things aren’t that separate.”

You snort. “They should be. Alright. This is for a letter… Andraste's breath, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. ‘Hey, I’m a complete stranger but a big fan of your life story.’” You snort and take another drink. “This is ridiculous.”

“Why not start with how you got… caught?”

You think back with a shaky sigh. Any place you could trip up here? …Yeah, a lot. Keep it vague. “I was in Denerim during the Blight. Loghain was selling elves in the Alienage there into slavery to Tevinter to fund that stupid civil war of his.”

“Did your family get caught, too?”

You shake your head. “Orphan. I guess I should have mentioned that.”

“…Your life is kind of depressing, Stutter.”

You glare down at the dwarf. “I’m aware,” you say acidly. “Anyway, the Vints figured out I had a knack for languages, sold me as a linguist. Got picked up by a Magister by the name of Bruchus.” So far, just stuff Leliana already knew. Wicked grin, too many hands, too many other kids. Why are there only kids? “I was a good investment. He… I don’t want to go into how I learned Qunlat,” you decide, and Varric doesn’t press. Sweet stench of blood and poison; you see yourself reflected in black eyes. You take a deep breath, try to let the words keep flowing. “Eventually, I was off to Seheron, where I’d be the most use.” You pause. “You know, I don’t actually know why his ‘Danarius’ was in Seheron. Could you ask him?”

“Sure thing. Any fun Seheron stories for the audience?”

You laugh despite your quivering nerves. “I still get jumpy when a fog rolls in. Those fog warriors were the worst… Qunari, you see those coming. Fuck, you can’t miss them! But that goddamn fog rolls in and all you hear are screams.” You shudder, then down some more of the drink. The mug is almost empty. My slaves, where are my slaves? Where’s Falon oh god where’s Falon? “Make sure you tell him how I got away; it was apparently a good one. He… what, he got freaking left behind, didn’t he?” You snort into your mug. “Lucky asshole. Oh, don’t tell him I said that.” Cover yourself in the blood, hide in the bodies.

“You alright, Stutter? You’re looking a little worse for the wear.” He gestures towards your hand, which you’ve just noticed is shaking slightly. “You wanna talk about something else for a bit?”

“You’re the one who wanted to do this, Varric,” you say with a scowl. “I’m just trying to get it all out before my brain catches up and I realize I’m selling my history for a fan letter.” Get outside, once you’re outside, get to the docks, you have a plan, stick to the plan!

“You look like you’re about to faint,” he says, worry quite clear in his voice.

Air, fresh, warm, humid, sticky. Freedom? No. Fog. You open your mouth to talk, but are jolted out of your senses by arms around your shoulders and a loud voice. “’Ey, elfy!”

Your frayed nerves can barely handle it. “H-hey, Sera,” you manage.

“You look like shit! You bein’ mean to her, Varric?”

“I’ll have you know I’m buying her drinks,” Varric says, faking an exaggerated look of affront. “You know I am a perfect gentleman!”

You shake your head. Nooooo, no no no. This isn’t happening. Not nice, normal Sera. You knew, you knew she was probably from Leliana. “You… know each other?”

Varric turns back to look at you, and something in your face must betray how you’re feeling, because he looks alarmed. “Well… yes?”

“Is she one of your friends Varric? One of the Inquisitor’s friends?” Couldn’t you just have enjoyed a pretty face for a little longer? Pretend there weren’t any strings attached?

“’Ey! I’m right here!”

“It’s not like that, Stutter,” Varric is saying, but you’re already standing up, removing yourself from Sera’s arms as best as you can without shoving her. You don’t want to do something you’ll regret, but if you don’t get out of here right now you’ll make another stupid spectacle in the tavern.

“What’s wrong?” Sera is saying, but her voice sounds like it’s coming from far off. You push your way towards the door, heart fluttering, thudding, skipping beats.

“Just need some air,” you mutter. “Just some air.” You manage to get the door open, push it out, let in the cool night air, step out, but when you open your eyes…

A fog’s rolled in.

Chapter Text

The panic thrumming through you doesn’t leave much room for thought. You manage to keep the chaos inside; that’s about the most intelligent thing you can manage. It wants to come out, to burst out of you and swirl around, burn the mist away. Instead, you force it down, down, into the depths of your gut, and move swiftly along the side of building. Your mind is screaming at you to get to cover, but buildings aren’t viable; there are people inside of buildings.

The fog is so thick it feels like it’s choking you. Tight cells, burning flesh. You have a plan, don’t you? You always have a plan. You need to think, you just need ten minutes to fucking think!

“Screams from the fog, can’t see, can barely hear, thick and wet and muffles everything.”

Wait…

“That fog wasn’t real. This is. I can help.”

The voice isn’t coming from your own head. You panic when you first see a figure in the fog, the right size and shape to spell your death. You recoil backwards, hand flashing towards your dagger in a desperate attempt to defend yourself.

“I’m not them, and you’re not there.”

The man comes closer, and you pause. He’s certainly no Qunari, and he looks nothing like a Fog Warrior, pale skin and pale hair.

“I can help you,” he says again, and the panic gripping your heart seems to finally paralyze you, your legs giving out entirely. His hand outstretches as you sink to the ground, vision blurring.

“Eyes of the bluest skies, warm smile, she makes me feel alive, oh Maker.” Words like gentle waves wash over you, and you can feel Seheron slipping further away, banished back to bad memories. There’s no way this is just words. What’s he doing? “Four walls and a door with a lock, no one has any idea who I am.”

You don’t know how long you spend just listening to the soothing voice, but when you finally open your eyes, the fog doesn’t look nearly so thick. You glance over at the man, who you now realize is possibly more a boy. He’s tall, but his face betrays youth.

“Your mind got lost,” he says, as if explaining it to you. “I heard the hurt, came to help.”

“You… w-what?” You feel like you need to clean out your ears.

“You don’t glow like Solas, but you think like him,” the boy says, tilting his head, large-brimmed hat flopping to the side.

“Elfy! Elfy, you alright?” Sera. You don’t want to see her, don’t want to see anyone. You just want to curl up on that little bed of yours and shut the world away. But you suppose you need to do something resembling damage control.

“She likes you, not because she was told to, but because you’re you.” You stare at the boy incredulously for a few more moments before turning towards the growing sound of Sera’s voice. When you glance back, the boy is gone. Of course he is. Perhaps he was never there at all, and you’ve finally lost it.

“There you are! Wha’ happened?” Varric is behind her, looking equally worried.

“I… n-needed some air?”

-

After a few a few minutes of awkward explanation, the three of you adjourn to the second floor of the tavern. You hear someone ask one of the Chargers where Bull is, and shudder to think how much worse this could have been if Bull’d been around. You owe him for giving you space… And for other things you don’t want think about right now.

“So, I get the fog thing, but why’d you freak out about me knowin’ Varric?” Sera wants to know. You rub a hand against the back of your neck, not making eye contact.

“I’m sort of… I’m not used to attention from important people.” Sera makes a noise of protest, but you cut her off and keep going. “I’ve got Leliana asking me questions, and multiple ‘friends’ of the Inquisitor following me around and talking to me.”

“But it was all fine when you just thought we were some random people?” asks Varric, a little bit of incredulity creeping into his voice.

“Well… you were never just a random person, Varric, but, yes, more or less. There’s a difference, right, between when you talk to a noble and when you talk to a normal person. It’s like that, but scarier, like if you found you’d been talking to the Empress of Orlais in disguise.”

“We’re not like that, though!” Sera interjects. “Alright, sure, the Herald is all important and glowy, but we’re just people! People people!”

You smile weakly. “I know what you mean, what you think you mean, but… you’re not, not anymore. You’re all caught up in this swirling chaos. Like… Like a whirlpool, with the Inquisitor at the center. The closer you are to him, the closer you are to the madness in the middle of it all.”

The two of them are staring at you. “…W-what?” you ask, unnerved.

“You mind if I use that?” requests Varric, finally.

“Wh…” And then the laughter comes. You’re not sure where it’s coming from… You’re a little bit surprised every time you laugh genuinely, but this is a shock. It starts as a chuckle and grows out of control, until you’re roaring with it, cackling and gasping for breath as tears burn in the corner of your eye. Varric grins lopsidedly, and, kindly, he and Sera let you laugh yourself stupid.

“Too bad someone’s already got the nickname ‘Chuckles,’” Sera quips when you finally stop, tears in your eyes and gasping for breath.

“I… I’m sorry,” you choke out, unable to keep mirth from dancing on your lips. “Yeah, Varric. You can use it. But I expect you to sign my copy of Tale of the Champion.”

“You got it, Stutter.” He holds up a sheaf of paper. “You still wanna write this letter? We can do it later, if you still want to.”

You stare at the paper for a moment, a few conflicted thoughts running through your mind. Then you turn to Sera. “Hey, Sera. Ask me about my childhood.”

-

You get through it that way, haltingly telling Sera about your life in Seheron. Bits and pieces. You were the youngest slave that you ever saw there, and some of the others treated you kind of like a little sister. When you weren’t working, sometimes, late at night, you’d burn a stolen candle down to a nub as older faces eagerly watched you scratch out letters in chalk. A slave who could read was dangerous, because knowledge wants to spread, wants to grow.

Sera walks you back to your room, through the fog, close enough to you that sometimes her arm brushes against yours. Before she leaves, she turns to you and says, “We should see more of each other, elfy. Maybe we’ll make our own whirlpool.” At your speechlessness she adds, “You know… all… wet and… spinny… and… I’m jus’ gonna go now.”

You spend a lot of time that night thinking.

-

Sleep is starting to escape you. Not just because of late nights spent on roofs or in taverns, but the first sign of an inevitable decline. You recognize it when you wake before dawn after a few measly hours of rest. Soon, you’ll have to get out, get some proper exercise, or proper insomnia will set in. You shouldn’t have spent so much time in hiding before coming to Skyhold; now that you’re here, there’s no real way to leave and get out from under the prying eyes of the Inquisition without raising suspicion. You’ll just have to grin and bear it.

You stumble up out of bed… Thea probably isn’t even up yet. You get dressed as slowly as you can, putting off the inevitable step outside into the cold. When you finally do have to go outside, you rush across the courtyard as quickly as you can, and go into the rotunda from the side entrance.

You’re not surprised that Solas is still asleep, but you are surprised that he appears to have fallen asleep at his desk. You’re also surprised to notice that he’s placed wards… You don’t even notice until you nearly trip over them. In the condition that you’re in, you’d have to trigger them to have any chance of figuring out what they were. Even if you let yourself loose enough to examine them, that might set something off in and of itself, and then you’d be up a shit creek with no boat. You choke down your curiosity and stay close to the wall of the rotunda, skirting the far edge until you get to where your supplies are.

You wince as you lower yourself onto the floor to begin working again. Your back doesn’t appreciate spending all day every day in an awkward position on a stone floor, that much is certain.

You can’t help pausing before you actually start your work, eyes drifting over to Solas’ sleeping form. It’s kind of cute that he fell asleep at his desk, really. You wonder what on earth he was doing before he fell asleep that required him setting wards. You then realize you’ve been staring at a sleeping man for about five minutes, and decide now is really the time to start working on the manuscript.

Eventually, you’re going to have to take some of these pages back to your room to duplicate them. There’s no way you’re not keeping a copy of this tome for yourself (plus, won’t they want one for the library?) You’ll figure out that messy situation later, however. Might as well finish the first one before worrying about more.

Work is a little bit slower without the enchantment on your wrist. You have to move more slowly, more carefully. You let your eyes drift over to Solas, who is, amazingly, still sleeping, only for a moment before redoubling your concentration in on your work. Stiff shoulders and sleepy eyes make for slow going, however.

Time passes slowly as you meticulously sweat over each letter. Your back cramps and you have to change position. You’re almost tempted to move back up to the desk in the library, but stubbornness and the knowledge that silence is more important to your ability to work than a desk keeps you firmly on the stone floor, your back curled over your work as you attempt to stabilize yourself against the wall, bare toes curling against the ground.

You keep your focus on your work and off the steadily growing pain in your back and rear. When you notice Thea waving wildly from the doorway—around lunchtime if your growling stomach is any indicator—you pretend not to notice her, hoping she might come in and set off the damn wards herself. Instead, she just gives up after a bit and wanders off. Maybe you should get up and follow her to lunch? You wound up skipping breakfast just by getting up so early and getting straight to work. Your stomach is complaining almost as loudly as your back, at this point.

But you don’t, mostly because you haven’t gotten enough work done to satisfy yourself. This is what you get for spending your nights goofing off! You should be further along with the tome than you are. You silently berate yourself as you work until a woman comes in, startling you so badly that you damn near spill your ink. It’s just someone bringing Solas’ food, however. You do note that it’s been a different person every time. Do they draw lots or something? How is everyone so unnerved by someone who sleeps at his desk until lunch? You choose to ignore the fact that you were intimidated by him as well, when you first arrived.

You watch with interest as she enters, wondering what will happen when the wards are finally triggered… but the woman hesitates when she sees him asleep. She looks around, seeming mildly panicked, and then finally sets the tray of food down on a table by the couch before darting off. Oh for… Well, you suppose you could have said something, yourself, to help her out. Or to trick her into triggering the wards. There was no way they were set to explode or anything like that; this was inside a building for pity’s sake. You just haven’t survived this long by fucking around with unknown magic.

When Solas shows no sign of getting up (seriously, how long was he going to sleep?), you decide that if he gets hungry later, he can send for food himself. You stand, stretching and wincing at the complaining your body does. How spoiled have you become, that just lying on a floor 12 hours a day for a few days is enough to have your body whining like a spoiled princeling? Ridiculous.

You skirt the line of the ward again, then throw yourself down onto the couch. Maker, it’s a really nice couch. You sink down into it with a moan, delighting in how it sinks around you and offers you support at the same time. This couch is better than most lovers! You glance over at the food… some light brown broth that smells delightful, bread that’s still warm, and… Maker, is that dried fruit? Your mouth is salivating heavily. You make a promise to yourself, then and there, to try and steal from Solas’ plates regularly.

The soup is onion based, and sinfully delicious. You dip the bread in it and eat it slowly, savoring the taste. You hold no grudge towards porridge, but there’s no comparison. You eat the fruits similarly slowly, letting each sweet bite burst into your mouth. How long has it been since you had dried fruit? Ooooh, Maker. You should drop hints at Iron Bull and Varric that you can be easily bribed with food. If you’re going to be pestered, you should at least be able to enjoy it.

“I fear you’re picking up bad habits.”

Solas’ voice makes you jump, and you nearly choke on a dried grape. It’s too far for you to feel him lower the wards, but you assume he either already has, or will shortly. Almost a shame you won’t figure out what they were for.

“In my defense, you were asleep,” you manage, after swallowing with some difficulty.

“Indeed I was, and yet here you are, making yourself quite at home.” It’s hard to tell if he’s amused or annoyed. He doesn’t exactly broadcast his emotions. You glance guiltily at the couch, and stand quickly. He’s an elf, and a mage, so it’s quite easy to forget he’s of significantly higher station than you.

“My apologies, ser,” you say, not wanting to get yourself removed from your new station in the rotunda.

“Come here,” is all he says, and your nervousness grows. He’d been rather amused at your food stealing antics yesterday, but perhaps he is the type to wake up grumpy? You walk forward anxiously, bare feet silent on the stone. You feel the wards before you cross them. Is that what this is about? He wants you to trigger them? You have to force yourself not to pause, to step down directly on the magic without wincing. You can feel it surge underneath you, but keep walking. Nothing explodes and it doesn’t seem to be searching you in any way, but you’re still nervous.

You reach the desk, then search Solas’ face for some hint at what he’s thinking. “Go to the kitchens,” he instructs you. “Pick up another meal, and let them know to bring two dinners. Don’t make the serving girl make two trips. Do I need to tell you where the kitchens are?”

You really wish the answer was ‘no,’ but in truth, you have literally no idea where they’re located. Near the mess, you imagine. You nod, glad you don’t blush easily. This is not precisely a scolding, but you still feel embarrassed.

“Go out into the hall, and through the second door on your left,” he instructs, picking up a stack of papers (your translation, you realize) as he speaks. “Down the stairs, through the servant’s quarters, to the last door on the right.” He looks up at you, and you catch a glint of amusement in his eyes. “Do try not to get lost.”

You don’t trust yourself to speak just then, so you don’t risk it, instead simply turning and walking stiffly out of the room. A few minutes on a nice couch wasn’t enough to cure your soreness.

You don’t like being in the Great Hall. You avoid it during the day, whenever possible. There’s a great deal of coming and going involved, and nobles often loiter in the Hall. You pass Varric at his writing desk, and he flags you down before you can find the correct door.

“Hey, Stutter. I hope you know, Sera, Iron Bull and I all went to the mess for lunch. We probably all felt like right idiots when Thea showed up alone.”

You smirk. “I feel absolutely horrible for you, Varric. Honestly, my heart bleeds for your plight.”

“Yeah, yeah, have a good laugh at my expense,” he grumbles, but without any kind of earnest displeasure. “If you keep it up, people are going to start going to interrupt your alone time with Chuckles.”

You snort. “Iron Bull already has. I think Thea’s the only one silly enough not to just walk right in.” You smile, a bit to yourself. “Don’t expect me to leave more often. He’s started feeding me. You know what happens when you start feeding strays.”

“Oh, this is really a thing, isn’t it? I should have seen it coming.”

“It’s not a thing. At least not the definition of thing I think you’re using. Frankly, I think he’s more taking pity on me than anything.” You hum lightly to yourself, considering. “I want to pick his brain, but so far he’s mostly been picking mine.” You share your head to clear your thoughts. “Anyway, I need to get going.”

“Oh? Where you heading?”

“Kitchens,” you say shortly, really not wanting to go into why. Varric raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t press. “That door, down the stairs,” he points out.

“Yeah, yeah…” you mutter as you head to the door. The flight of stairs in question is quite long… going back up with a tray of food is really going to try your aching back. Ah well, can’t be helped. You bounce down them, then wander through the servant’s quarters. You actually take the wrong door at first, and find yourself in a really amazing looking library that you promise you’ll check out later. You do, eventually, find the kitchen, full of bustling staff and a red faced human man yelling at a lot of elves. Grand.

You approach someone at random who doesn’t seem too terribly busy. “I, uh… I need a plate of food,” you say awkwardly, not sure what the protocol is. “For, uh, for Solas?” A rather flustered looking woman overhears, and frowns.

“Celia! You said you’d taken his food up, girl!” she snaps at a woman you recognize from earlier.

“She did,” you say quickly. “He, uh… has someone else there. He wants another plate brought up, and sent me to get it. He said he’ll need two dinners brought up later, too.”

One wouldn’t think so, but pointed ears let you walk into any place with a large staff without much trouble. Everyone will just assume you’re the new so-and-so, so long as you cringe when you’re supposed to. The woman scowls at you, but snaps at a few other people. Soon, another plate is put together, much the same as the first, although with what appears to be a bit of roast duck as well. You’re hungry all over again, just smelling it. She hands you a board to carry it up with, and you’re off. It’s been awhile since you served food; the board is awkward in your hands. You manage to remember the feel of it by the time you navigate your way back through the servant’s quarters. You pause at the bottom of the stairs, glaring up at them. Ugh. You take them slowly, careful not to spill the sloshing soup, and your shoulders and back scream in protest. You’ve gotten out of shape, you decide. You really need to rectify that.

You manage to get back across the main hall without smashing into anyone, by some miracle, and the worst that happens is the sly look Varric gives you as you head back into the rotunda. You don’t even notice the wards before stepping on them this time. New ones? These do feel invasive, the magic curling up along your legs and prodding at you. Rude. And you can’t even call him on it without giving yourself away.

You’re relieved to finally be able to unload the tray. Automatically, you find yourself removing the dishes and setting them on a clear corner of the desk. You’ve set the silverware down (in proper Orlesian order, at that) before you even realize what you’re doing. Solas is watching you with a thoughtful look in his eyes, and you feel a flush coming on again. Well, it isn’t as though an elf knowing how to serve is particularly unusual.

You gaze uncertainly at the tray, not quite sure if you’re supposed to run it back down to the kitchen.

“Set it down,” Solas instructs, following your gaze. “You can return it later.”

My, he is used to giving commands, isn’t he? Simple apostate mage your ass; this is man who knows what it is to be obeyed. You try not to grumble as you wander stiffly over to the couch and set the tray down against the side table.

“Now, this section on the effects of elfroot on dragonlings…” he begins, then pauses to watch you limp back over to the desk. “You walk like an elderly woman,” he observes, and you glower at him.

“It’s nothing,” you say with a scowl. “I’ve just gotten lazy over the years.”

“Mmhmm. And I suppose it has nothing to do with laying yourself out on stone all day?” He gestures towards a stool, or possibly a stepstool, that’s sitting by the wall. “Bring that here, and sit.”

Goodness, he just cannot get enough of telling you what to do today, can he? Silently simmering, you pick up the stool up and drop it next to the desk. Stubbornly, you don’t sit until he raises an eyebrow, as if to say, well? You sit, pouting. He pulls his chair closer, then actually has the audacity to grasp your shoulders and spin you around!

You’re all but spluttering with indignation, until you feel warm magic tracing through you. You quickly shift the hiding place inside of you, tighter, down, out of the way, where he hopefully won’t find it. This is getting dicey. “Um, Solas, this really isn’t-“ you begin, but the warm, soothing tingle that spreads through your back has your sentence trailing off into a sigh. Maker, that feels good.

“Your posture is terrible,” he scolds. “How does a scribe not know to sit up properly?”

“Do you suggest I pull in a desk? Peace and quiet is more important to my work than comfortable positioning. I could be sitting on a throne upstairs, and the constant fuss and pester would still keep me from working.”

He sighs. “Move to the couch, then. I hardly ever give it any use.”

“Ooh, you’re accommodating. You’ll never get rid of me now,” you say with a grin that turns into a gasp as a rather painful knot in your shoulder dramatically undoes itself. “Maker, you could sell this talent, Solas.”

“I’ve long since given up on being rid of you,” he says, and without seeing his face, you can’t quite decide what he means by that. “Now, about this elfroot…”

Your conversation trails from there, Solas eating after he’s finished magically unkinking every muscle and soothing every swollen joint. Somehow, you get through it without him bumping into anything interesting inside you. Luck, or talent? You like to think it was the latter. The conversation progresses from the effect of elfroot on dragonlings, and onto its various uses.

“Honestly, Solas, I translated a fantastic Orlesian tome on herbalism, and it was quite clear that bitter elfroot was the better solution,” you say, not looking up from the page you’re transcribing on a small corner of his desk.

“You would trust Orlesians with your alchemy?” Solas asks, and the incredulity in his voice makes you laugh.

“I’m lacking in any ancient elven scrolls on the matter, unless you care to share some with me.”

“I’m sure we have something upstairs that could correct the gap in your education.”

Oh, it is ON. “Let’s have a look then,” you say, narrowing your eyes and setting down your quill. “It is a resource to better the Inquisition, after all.”

The two of you bicker all the way up the stairs. You’re too aware of your surroundings to not notice the looks the two of you get. My, are they varied. Now if only you could pinpoint who was reacting to what. To Solas? To you and Solas, talking? To the fact that you’re clearly bickering?

“If I remember correctly… ah, yes, here it is.” Solas pulls a small book out from one of the shelves—damn, he found that fast—and hands it to you.

“An Elven Guide to the Plants of Fereldan?” you exclaim. “Where did the Inquisition get this?”

“This library is a hodgepodge of donations. I believe that particular book was part of a collection donated as a slight aimed at Solas,” comes Dorian’s elegant voice. He looks quite amused. “Or more precisely, the Inquisition, for sheltering him.”

“I suppose now I know why I haven’t seen you in the library, Emma.” He tuts gently to himself. “To think, I can’t even compete for your affections with a man who dresses like… that!”

You snort, half-distracted by the contents of the book. “Can I borrow this?” you ask Mahvir, raising your voice to be heard.

“Well, this is a library!” He gets bonus points from you for being sarcastic about it.

“Excellent I… Oh.”

Solas smile grows as yours sinks into a frown. “When available, use gossamer elfroot. Damn Orlesians.”

“What were you two fighting over, anyway?” asks Dorian curiously, moving to read over your shoulder.

“We were debating,” you say, forcing your voice to come out haughty and snobby, rather like his. “And it was about regeneration potions. My tendency to learn primarily from books I’m in the process of translating backfires yet again.”

“Did you mistranslate it?” Dorian asks curiously.

“It was Orlesian! I didn’t mistranslate it!” you say with a deep scowl. “More likely all of Orlais has been making subpar regeneration potions for a century.”

“My! Someone has confidence in their skills!” Dorian looks amused. So does Solas. Thea is watching from a few bookshelves down, eyes slightly wide.

“I would very swiftly be out of a job were I not,” you say flatly. “Not everyone is so eager to hire on an elf. Besides, Orlesian is my best language.”

“Oh? Better than the common tongue?”

“À partir d’un moment d’une extrême simpilicité il ne faut plus espérer,” you reply. You enjoy the stunned reaction to your flawless accent—from Dorian and half of the library, though not Solas—as much as you enjoy speaking the language itself. Orlais. Whatever else you want to say about it, they have the prettiest everything, including language.

“From Hölderlin à la tour,” comes a familiarly accented voice from the stairs, and you freeze. “I was about to send someone to find you. It seems there is no need.”

You turn around, gazing slightly guiltily at Leliana. She could be inviting you to tea and you’d still feel as though you’d done something wrong. Likely, because you had. It was just trying to figure out which one she’d caught you at. You wordlessly bow your apology to Dorian and Solas, and follow Leliana back up the stairs. She’s silent until she sits back down at her desk.

“I’m not particularly surprised at your fluency in Orlesian, given your activities there,” she says, steepling her fingers together.

Alright. There is a lot she could mean by that. You remain quiet.

“Alix Gagnon. You have quite the list of names.”

You remain still, even though inside, you’re screaming in relief. Alix. Alix’s actions are easy to account for. Alix was a proper young lady who never once got up to mischief. Well, at least not anything the Orlesians considered dramatic enough to call ‘mischief,’ in any case.

“I could hardly be a Nikolas for the rest of my life,” you say with a thin smile. “I was a growing young woman, after all.”

“And you worked for Comte Pierre of Halamshiral, at that!”

“I eventually worked for the Comte,” you correct softly. “I didn’t particularly trip into the position.” You sigh to yourself. “He was a good man. Willing to look beyond my ears.” You stand up a little straighter and clear your throat. “I did good work for him. I have nothing to be ashamed of from my time in Orlais.”

“Indeed, you seemed to do well for yourself in Orlais, Alix,” Leliana agrees. “You even did a custom translated tome of Tragedia Divina for Duke Bastien de Ghislain. What I wonder is why you left, and why you no longer go by the name Alix Gagnon.”

You sigh. “Alix was a very respectable woman, but more of a pen name than anything. Half of the people who ordered from me didn’t even know I was an elf. It was a relief to just be Emma again. As for why I left, one can only stay in Orlais and work for nobles for so long before getting tangled up in the Game. That is a poor state of affairs for an elven ex-slave. I was sorry to leave my position, but I made enough on commissions, at that point, to live in moderate comfort in the countryside. It was much less dramatic.”

“Have you little interest in politics?”

“I have significant interest in staying alive, serah, and Orlesian politics run directly counter to that desire.”

Leliana is quiet for a time, and then rests a hand on a small stack of papers. “I believe this concludes my investigation into your background, Emma. Everything seems to be accounted for. I hope you continue to do good work for the Inquisition. Focus on your current project, but in the future, I may ask you to lay it aside shortly to translate more urgent documents.”

You swallow, hard. This was news, good and bad. She wouldn’t trust you with anything particularly sensitive, you were sure, but it seems she really is in dire need of… whatever it is she wants you to be. Qunlat came up several times when you first arrived. Perhaps she has delicate documents, ones that cannot be trusted to the hands of Iron Bull, a Ben-Hassrath still loyal to the Qun? You bow and take your leave, mind still racing as you head down the stairs. No one intercepts messages in Ancient Tevene, and no other language you speak could give a Spymaster difficulty. Solas’ Elven is superior to yours, Orlesians and Antivans are a bit apiece. It must be Qunlat. Qunlat that Iron Bull can’t see… And it’s urgent enough to have her off balance.

Interesting.

Thea intercepts you as you come down off the stairs. You don’t mind; you don’t want to head down to the smugness that’s no doubt waiting for you downstairs in the form of a recently-proven-correct elven apostate.

“You and that Solas really are getting on,huh?” she asks, genuine curiosity in her eyes. “I thought he’d chase you out of there in a day.”

“Honestly, so did I,” you say with an easy laugh. “Something in that dragon manuscript caught his eye. I think he’s keeping me around just so I can get it done all the more quickly.”

“Is it so hard to work up here?” Thea crosses her arms, looking sour.

“It’s nothing personal, Thea,” you promise. “It’s just quieter downstairs. The library always has people coming and going. And downstairs, no one throws tomes at me.”

“I don’t throw them at you,” comes Dorian’s voice from behind a bookshelf. “It’s not my fault if you get into the book trajectory.”

“What was all that fussin’, anyway?”

You sigh, not having to pretend to be flustered or embarrassed about that. “I was under the mistaken impression that Orlesians were an appropriate source to learn alchemy from. I said that bitter elfroot was the best herb for regeneration potions. Solas disagreed. And… he was right.”

“You look like you just sucked on a lemon.”

“I may have been very insistent about that bitter elfroot.”

Thea snorts. “This how elves flirt?”

“We’re not- I’m n… He’s… No!” You’re flushing slightly. The smug ass downstairs is starting to look like a better option. “I’m getting back to work,” you say firmly. “Don’t expect me at dinner, I’m using Solas as a meal ticket.”

“Lucky,” she sulks. “Bet he eats better than us common folk.”

“He does,” you confirm. “And I’m not even a little sorry for taking advantage.” You wave as you head down the stairs. “Promise to see you for breakfast tomorrow, though!”

Solas is looking at one of your finished pages when you return to the rotunda. You do wish he’d stop moving your things. “This looks very professional,” he comments as you gather up the paper you were working on.

“That’s good, seeing as how I am a professional,” you say sourly. “I have to actually get some proper work done now, although I enjoyed our… debate.”

“For a debate, you would have had to have a chance of winning.”

You scowl. “Alright, alright, don’t get prideful on me, Solas.” You gather up the last of your supplies, meaning to bring them over to the couch you’ve been given permission to work on, but Solas interrupts you.

“Do you want me to strengthen your wrist again?”

“Oh… if you don’t mind, yes,” you say, a little flustered. You hadn’t been planning on asking, after he’d gone to the trouble of fixing your entire back. You hand your wrist over, so to speak, and secretly revel in the warm feeling of his magic. You wanted to just latch onto it, to pull, but of course, you know better. It’s only going to get worse from here.

You thank him when he’s done, rubbing your newly enchanted wrist. Maker, it still feels marvelous. You suspect he’s doing it more for something to do than anything; mages get like that. If they don’t have an excuse to use their magic, they’ll find one. Well, you’re happy to be an excuse. The benefits are fantastic.

Seated on the gloriously comfortable couch, wrist strong and steady, you set yourself to perfectly duplicate a diagram of a dragon eye. The table by the couch is a little small, so you keep the original tome sprawled open on your lap as you work. The enchantment makes it easier, but it’s still meticulous work, as art doesn’t come to you as easily as language.

You work like that for a while, carefully inking the eye and labeling it, then beginning in on the text that will also be going on that page. You’re becoming quite proud of your work here. Three square meals, a warm bed, thick walls, intelligent company, and all the supplies you need to do some of your best work… Yes, it’s worth the risks.

You don’t allow yourself to become distracted until you hear the door open. It’s an elven woman, a single woman, attempting to balance a tray with two portions of food on it. She’s clearly struggling. You stand up quickly, scowling, and rush to aid her. Did these people want to avoid the apostate so badly that they’d let one lone, unlucky elf do all the work? Of course, she could have taken two trips… Ugh.

You help her to the table, help her unload the food off the tray as she murmurs thanks. You believe you’ll have a word with the kitchen staff, and you need to return the tray from lunch, anyway. You give your pardons to Solas and follow the woman as she leaves.

“Thank you for your assistance,” she says as the two of you cross the Great Hall. “Gaston says I need to work on my upper body strength.”

You roll your eyes. “’Gaston’ shouldn’t send one woman to do the job of two.” You deftly remove the second tray from her trembling arms, stacking it on top of the one you’re already carrying. “Give your arms a rest, or you’ll lose all dexterity in them.”

“Thank you, miss. Are you Ser Solas’ serving girl?”

It’s only years of practice that keep your face perfectly neutral. You’re used to unkind assumptions, and this one is honestly perfectly understandable, but it irritates you nonetheless. “I suppose I’m taking on a function similar to that,” you say politely as the two of you descend the stairs.

“Is he a…” she glances around furtively, then lowers her voice and whispers. “Is he a blood mage?”

You snort. “In a castle full of Templars?” In truth, you have no idea if he is or not, and don’t particularly care, but this can be treated like the idle gossip it is. “Don’t be silly.”

“Well, it’s just, he’s a maleficar, isn’t he?”

“He’s an apostate,” you correct. “Not all apostates are maleficar, especially now with the Circles fallen.”

The two of you enter the kitchen together, and you make your ways towards the red-faced man who had been shouting the first time you arrived in the kitchens. You can only guess he’s “Gaston.”

“Excuse me, ser,” you say politely. “My name is Emma. I will be fetching Ser Solas’ food for the foreseeable future.”

The man looks irritated the second you start talking, but then seems relieved when you finish. “Thank the Maker!” he booms. “Now you skittish women can stop flitting about trying to avoid being the one who takes it up!” His eyes fall back to you, then eyes you up and down. “I don’t care who you are,” he decides. “But you’re doing me a favor. Here, take some of these up to your master.” He tosses a cloth into your arms and drops half a dozen tarts into it. The warm smell of peaches they exude is almost enough to sooth your irritation. You thank him, bow your head slightly to the elven girl you were speaking with, and then exit the kitchen.

You did it out of irritation, but it will also serve you well. Kitchens are a hotbed of gossip and rumor, and you’ll also be assuring yourself as a consistent “second” tied onto Solas’ daily meals. Plus, long trips up and down the stairs with heavy trays will start beating your body back into proper condition.

“What was all that?” Solas asks curiously as you re-enter the room. He’s already started eating, and you pull up your stool to join him, dropping the bundle of tarts unceremoniously on his desk.

“I lost my temper,” you say blandly. “They send one tiny elf up when it’s clear she can’t carry that much, just because they don’t like serving an apostate.”

“You lose your temper, and they send you back with dessert?” he comments mildly, unwrapping the cloth bundle.

You sigh. “I… informed them I’d be retrieving your meals,” you say with a delicate cough. “They gave me tarts, so overjoyed were they,” you add sourly.

“You what?”

“I know, I know,” you say, wincing. “It’s not exactly my place to decide. But I was tired of seeing terrified, unlucky women trip over their feet trying to get in and out of here without being cursed or something similarly insipid.”

You risk a look at Solas’ expression, and are relieved to see he looks quite amused. “I suppose the fact that this means you’ll be able to bring back two meals each time is just a side benefit?”

“A delightful side benefit,” you agree, allowing yourself to smile now that you’re sure he’s not displeased with your rash decision.

“Did you tell them you’d be bringing all of my meals?” he says, still looking entertained.

“Well… yes,” you answer, not sure what he’s getting at.

“Tell me, have you ever seen me eat breakfast here? I normally take the meal in my quarters.”

...Oh.

You actually do blush this time, the heat in your cheeks enough that you suspect he can see. “I… Um. Well.” You clear your throat. “I’ll have to, uh… clarify. …Ugh, Maker, I put my foot in it, didn’t I?”

“Perhaps a bit,” Solas agrees, his obvious amusement embarrassing you further now that you know its cause. There is a pause in the conversation as you both eat. “Leliana is quite interested in you,” he comments after a moment’s silence.

“Yes,” you agree. “I doubt she calls every newcomer up there to comb over their life history. I wish I knew what she was after.”

“You don’t?” he says curiously.

“I assume she wants me to translate more delicate documents, but I can’t figure out why she needs me, specifically, to do it. My skillset is prominent, yes, but hardly unique.”

“Where did you work previously?” Solas asks. “There must be something else that’s caught her interest.”

Maker, you hope there’s nothing else. “Antiva, Orlais,” you say, waving your hand vaguely. “Ferelden. …A lot of places, honestly. I’ve never liked staying in one place. Even after I was fairly certain no slavers were chasing me.”

“Was that a worry?”

“I was hardly irreplaceable, but I was a valuable investment, and I was never sure if my master survived Seheron. Apparently I disappeared well, however. Perhaps I never needed to worry. In any case, I’m more interested in your travels than mine. How did you avoid the Templars?”

“I mostly stayed away from civilization,” is all he says on the matter, to your displeasure. You can’t blame him for being secretive, but that doesn’t help your curiosity on the matter. “Did you always work as a linguist?”

“No, although it’s the only marketable skill I really have,” you say with a sigh. “Once I started linguistic work, I settled down more, out of fear of having to wind up a maid again. Did you not have trouble with wild animals and the like, when you traveled? I always stuck with merchant caravans for that very reason.”

“I suspect a mage might have slightly less issue than the average individual.”

“Ah… yes, I suppose so,” you agree, although inside you’re screaming bullshit. The average mage gets eaten by a bear just as easily. Of course, it’s quite likely Solas is no average mage. His enchantments stay longer than that of any mage you’ve met, at least, although that list is admittedly very short.

The conversation continues like that, with both of you subtly and not-so-subtly attempting to pry into each other’s histories. He’s even more evasive than you are; when pressed, you’re willing to simply lie about something. He won’t even give you that. Still, the dinner is good (delicious), and even unsuccessfully fencing with someone as clever as Solas is entertainment.

The tarts are, unsurprisingly, absolutely delicious. You’re pleased to discover Solas appears to have something of a sweet tooth, but say absolutely nothing about the fact that he ate three of the tarts rather swiftly. You do grab the last one, however, and momentarily excuse yourself. You head up the stairs, and quickly spot Thea’s bright red hair in the library.

“Thea!” you say cheerfully, heading over to her. She looks shocked to see you.

“Trouble in paradise?” she asks. You snort.

“Keep teasing me and I won’t give you this.” You wave the tart at her. “Thought I’d share some of my benefits.”

“Maker, where did you get that?” she demands, snatching it out of your hands. She bites into it. “Mmm! Are those peaches?”

“Yep,” you say with a grin. “Won’t see that in the mess. They probably made them for some of the nobles here.”

“This what he’s feeding you? No wonder you like him.” You make a grab for the tart, and she skips back. “Alright, alright! Still, I’d fall for a man who gave me tarts.”

“I gave them to him actually, if you want to be technical. It’s a long story. Anyway, I just thought I’d apologize for never being around. I appreciate you helping me get settled around here.”

“Well, at least you apologize well,” she says through a mouth full of tart. “We still on for breakfast tomorrow?”

“Definitely,” you say with a nod. Breakfast… Why does that make you feel anxious? You brush it off, say your goodbyes, and head back downstairs to get some more work done. You gather up the dishes first, however, and make a quick run back downstairs with them. Running back and forth from the kitchen will get old, no doubt, but the gratitude in the eyes of the lady you hand the dishes to provides you some comfort. Their fear may be stupid, but you’re glad you can ameliorate it. The fact that someone sneaks you an apple helps, as well.

You jog back up the stairs, back into the rotunda, and settle back down onto the couch. Maker, this couch. It’s softer than your bed! You get back to work on the tome. The translation is still only three-fourths of the way done, thanks to Solas stealing your work, but you’ll have time for that after he’s finished pouring over it.

The enchantment on your wrist is still holding, and you feel quite comfortable, so you work well into the night. You have a poor internal clock, but you’re starting to get rather exhausted. Your lack of sleep last night isn’t helping you now. You’re a little tempted to just curl up on the couch and take a nap, but that’s unacceptable for a multitude of reasons. You push on, determined to finish one last page before you turn in for the night. You only stop to rest your eyes for a moment…

When you wake up, your tome and page have been moved onto the side table, likely to prevent you from drooling on them in your sleep. Maker’s balls, when did you nod off? How long have you been out? You rub your eyes and look around. The room is empty; Solas is gone. Probably off to bed, like all normal people. The tower is utterly silent, to the point where it almost sounds like its own kind of noise. You’re tempted to just roll over and sleep on the couch, but you’re embarrassed enough about falling asleep in the first place. You sit up, cap your inks, and head off towards your bedroom.

Of course, by the time you get there, all sleepiness is gone. You toss and turn for a while, but there’s no helping it. You’re in for another sleepless night.

Chapter Text

After too long spent tossing and turning, you give up and stand, changing back into something that could pass for clothing and exiting the building. You avoid the courtyard and the tavern, instead heading up long stairs to the ramparts. The guards look at you peculiarly, but no one moves to stop you, which is odd. Seems like it would be their job to stop this sort of thing. Perhaps they assume that because you’re coming from inside the keep, it’s fine? You shrug it off and begin walking the ramparts, eventually breaking into a jog, hoping to wear yourself out.

It’s a toss-up as to whether Iron Bull or Sera sees you and decides to interrupt you first, really. Iron Bull wins the coin flip. You don’t know if he saw you from below and decided to come up the stairs, or just happened to be heading up the stairs as you passed, but it does annoy you that he can keep up with your jog by taking long steps. Stupid tall people and their damn long legs.

“Can’t sleep?” he asks.

“That must have been very difficult for you to figure out. I bet it took every ounce of your Ben-Hassrath training.”

“Heard from Varric that you had a bit of trouble the other night.”

Your feet stop the second they touch stone, your body stilling as if you’d never been moving at all. Your own narrowed eyes catch his. “Of course you did.”

“He seems to be of the opinion I could help, seeing as how we went through some of the same shit.”

“Of course he did. Idiot.” You’re too tired for this kind of crap. “Let’s get one thing very straight. We didn’t go through the same shit.”

“Yeah.”

“You- …What?”

“I was a warrior in a war zone. You were a child in a war zone. Anyone can do the math. You were, what? Eleven? Twelve?”

“Eleven,” you say shortly. “I was eleven. When I arrived.”

“Right. And they probably tried to keep you out of harm’s way, but there’s no ‘out of harm’s way’ in Seheron.”

"My slaves, where are my slaves?"

“But I do know one thing. The walls close in and suddenly you’re back there, right?”

No, don’t touch me, don’t fucking touch me, NO.

“The tastes, the scents, the feeling, it’s like you never left.”

I swear to the Maker, you will never lay a hand on any of us, ever again.

“Hey. Come back.” Fingers snap in front of your dilated eyes; your mind focuses back in on reality. “I can help. If you want me to.”

He’s squatting down, a little. You want nothing more than to strike him, send a giant brute reeling off balance, for once. The hate has to burn in your eyes, but he doesn’t react to it.

“You can help by keeping your distance.” Your voice is a strangled snarl. You don’t like the weakness it betrays. “I need a way to burn off this stress, not lessons from the fucking Qun.”

“I could help with that, too.”

Your eyes narrow again. “Oh?”

“Yeah, sure. Maybe a bit of… friendly wrestling?”

“You’d snap me in half.” You run a hand through your hair, frustrated. You didn’t pull it back before leaving your room. You regret that. “Even if I was the type for a …spar, I’d be better suited for someone like Sera.”

Iron Bull snorts. “Sera? She wouldn’t know what to do with you. She’s all smooth with the bow, but get her into close quarters and she’s a mess.”

You feel the corner of your mouth twitch. “Tell you what, if you ever feel like you want to stand perfectly still while a noodle-armed elf girl breaks her knuckles on your chest, let me know. I’m sure I have a few not-so-repressed issues with the Qunari I could take out on you.”

“I find things are generally friendlier after a beating. Bet the sparring rings are all empty.”

He’s not supposed to actually take you up on it; it throws you slightly off-balance. But surely, he’s joking. You’re not sure if you want him to be joking, or not. “Oh no,” you say, a grin forming. “You don’t get off that easy. You want to do this, we do it when I want to, where I want to. And I want the Chargers there.”

It isn’t a bluff, but he calls it anyway. “Alright. It’ll be good for morale, see the boss get beat up by a little girl. Do it sooner than later, though. You look more unhinged every day.”

You leave the conversation wondering exactly how you wound up promising to beat up a Qunari, and more importantly, how you’re going to get away with it.

-

You manage to get a few hours of sleep in before you wake in abject horror. It’s barely dawn, if the scant pink light coming in the tiny window is any indicator. And the thing you forgot, the thing that escaped your tired, stressed brain has returned with a vengeance.

You never told anyone else to bring Solas’ breakfast!

Panic gets you dressed and propels you out the door into the morning chill. You’re at the kitchen before you’ve really decided what, exactly, to do. How do you explain that you need someone else to bring him his breakfast? What can you say that doesn’t sound suspicious?

Unfortunately, the second you enter the kitchen, someone grabs you. You recognize the woman, vaguely, although that seems unimportant as she quickly loads you with one of those heavy serving trays and begins piling food onto it.

“That companion of his companion enough that he needs a second breakfast?” the woman asks you sharply.

“What?” you say, still slightly dazed. “No! Maker, no!”

“Alright. Try to be on time next time.” She pushes you aside, and you definitely recognize the girl who comes to your aid.

“Sorry. Breakfast is always a bit hectic,” Celia says. “Are you okay?”

“I can’t… I’m not supposed to actually-” you hiss, but you’re interrupted by someone plopping down some sweet smelling bread onto the tray with a wink.

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

“We really do appreciate this,” Celia adds. “Used to be an event every day.”

“I don’t even know where he sleeps!” you snap. “I can’t bring him this!”

“Oh, you don’t? Go up the stairs like you’re heading to the library, but take that side door out above the Hall, straight through and out the other side. He’s the next to last door on the right.”

“I didn’t want instructions; I wanted someone else to take this!” you say desperately. This is going very poorly.

Celia blanches, then throws her hands up. “Don’t look at me!” You watch her in dread as she scurries off.

Alright. Okay. You’ve done weirder things than this. Just bring the man his damn breakfast, you can get this mess sorted out later. You still have to meet Thea at the mess. If you bring this sweet bread, she might even forgive you for being late.

You try to keep Celia’s directions in mind as you climb the stairs to the Great Hall, arms screaming in protest. Across the hall, up another flight of stairs, through a door, and… Wow, that’s a really nice dress—Maker! You know that hat!

You swear to yourself and duck back through the door to the stairwell. Unless the horned hat has become all the rage in Orlais, which is admittedly quite likely, that is, in all likelihood, Madame Vivienne de Fer. You knew she was here, but had been hoping that you wouldn’t run into her, at all, ever. An entire Inquisition, and you have to cross the path of the only one here you know you’ve met before.

You take a deep breath. If you don’t panic and slip by quickly, you’ll be one more serving elf. She’s Orlesian. They don’t even look twice. But Madame de Fer is a clever one. How many times have you walked by Orlesian mages? They never even glanced your way, except for her. She’d checked you. Still, it had been years ago, and you were just one elf. You’re being paranoid. Lack of sleep has you stupid enough to be carrying Solas’ breakfast to him rather than let him go hungry or risk the ire of the kitchen staff. It has you stupid enough to act skittish around the First Enchanter. You take a deep breath, and then move, pausing only to bend your legs slightly in a facsimile of a curtsy when Madame de Fer’s eyes fall across you. She doesn’t even seem to see you. Of course. Another elf. You’re more relieved than you are annoyed.

You slip out the door on the other side, onto a balcony of sorts, a walkway. Next to last door on the right… You wander uncertainly up to it, arms complaining at the heavy weight of the tray. You eye the door cautiously. Your hands are beyond full, so you sort of kick at it, hoping that it passes for a knock, then wait. No response.

You sigh. You’re being ridiculous. Serving girls don’t knock and wait at the door to be answered. You manage to maneuver one hand to twist the doorknob, then push the door open with your hip. You walk into the room backwards as you carefully slip the tray through the doorway, careful to avoid spilling. You almost drop the damn thing as you turn around, however.

Solas is waking up, likely due to the fact you were kicking his door. He rubs his head and yawns, not quite noticing you yet as he sits up, stretching, and you’re now free to tell all of the gossiping kitchen girls that their terrifying maleficar sleeps shirtless. You try to avert your eyes as the sheet falls, not wanting to find out if he wears pants to bed or not. You do see the surprise in his eyes as he notices you. He shifts his legs off the bed, and you see cloth out of the corner of your eye. Pants. Thank the Maker.

“You’re quite serious about this, aren’t you?” His voice is amused; you can hear the laughter just behind it.

“No one else would bring it,” you mutter sourly. You latch your eyes onto a table and walk over to it, feeling all knees and elbows. You begin laying out the food, and frown when you notice something. “Is this fresh juice? Maker, but they do spoil you.” You hear the floor creak and force yourself not to turn around.

“None for you?” Solas asks, and you go rigid. He is far too close for a shirtless man. Which, admittedly, isn’t all that close. You have a large personal bubble when it comes to half-naked people.

“I’m having breakfast in the mess, with Thea,” you say, glad that your voice sounds calmer than you feel. “And I’m taking this,” you add, grasping the sweet bread. “Maker knows I’m getting something out of this…”

You turn, and unfortunately, Solas is right there. Once you make eye contact, you try very hard to maintain it and look absolutely nowhere else. “I’ll… u-um.” Oh, no. Not now, stutter. Stay gone. “I-I’ll just l-leave you to eat your b-breakfast, then.” Damnit. The amusement is clear in his eyes. Bastard could at least put a shirt on.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay? I found a very interesting manuscript on Antivan dialects I thought might interest you.”

Is… is this man teasing you?!

“As I s-said, I have plans with Thea!” you snap, turning away quickly so that you can go straight from eye contact to facing the opposite direction. You stride out the door, with an amused “Thank you for breakfast!” from Solas following you out.

You’re flustered as you head back over the Great Hall, but not so flustered that you don’t notice Madame de Fer’s gaze lingering on you slightly. You walk a little faster, skip down the stairs, and head out to the mess as quickly as you can, cradling the sweet bread as if it’s a precious gem. It might as well be.

You’re late, of course, and Thea is halfway through her porridge by the time you find her with your own bowl.

“I’d accuse you of sleepin’ in, but I checked yer room. Where were you?” Thea wants to know.

“I will take that secret to my grave. But I brought a treat.” You wave the loaf in the air. “I think it’s some kind of sweet fruit bread. The kitchen’s still bribing me.”

Rather snatch at it, Thea stares at you for a moment. You can almost hear the effort in her mind. “You… You went and gave that Solas his breakfast, didn’t you? Then you came back here and ate with me instead o’ livin’ it up with him! Aww, Emma…”

“You caught me!” you say with a grin. “That’s how much I like you, Thea. I could be having fresh squeezed juice right now!” There is no amount of juice, fresh or otherwise, that could have kept you in that bedroom. But Thea doesn’t need to know about any of that.

“So. What’s going on with the two of you?” Seeing your frown, she clarifies. “An’ I don’t mean like that unless it is like that. I’m just curious. One day you just up and move down into the apostate’s work area, now you’re bringin’ him meals and debatin’ herbs.”

It’s a fair question. One you probably should have asked yourself prior to this. You think it over for a moment as you tear off a junk of the sweet bread… oh, there’s dried fruit in this!

“Well… I went down on a whim. I was tired of being pestered—no offense—and I wanted some peace and quiet. If he’d thrown me out then, I would have kept looking until I found a cranny I could work in undisturbed. But he didn’t, so I just… kept on with it. It’s quieter down there, and I really enjoy the murals.”

“There’s more to it than that, though, right? You two are all friendly now.”

“I’m not sure if friendly is the right word,” you say honestly. “I’m just trying to squeeze some knowledge out of that bald head of his. His elven is better than mine, and I wouldn’t be much of a linguist if I didn’t jump on an opportunity to improve myself like that. I think he… tolerates me? Or is amused. Bit of both, maybe.”

“I think you’re sellin’ yourself short, Emma! You’ve already got Iron Bull all over you. Clearly, you’ve got something the men like.”

You snort, choking slightly on your bread. “Oh please, Thea. It’s not like that with Iron Bull or Solas. And you know it.”

Iron Bull would, of course, take that exact moment to burst into the mess and swagger over to the two of you.

“Emma! You give any thought to my proposition? You don’t want to give me enough time to reconsider, do you?” His voice is loud, and several nearby tables turn to look.

Thea gestures between the two of you, as if to say, SEE? Are you SEEING this? You cover your face with your hands and groan.

“Bull. Are you attempting to goad me?” you ask into your palms, teeth gritting.

“Depends, is it working?”

“No!”

“Hmm… I might have to try harder, then.”

“Maker, how do I make this stop?” you groan.

“Don’t suggest it if you’re going to regret it afterwards! What happened to working out your issues?”

“You’re giving me new issues!” you snap. “Besides, there are… considerations. I can’t break a finger, or Maker forbid, a wrist.”

“Maybe I should show you how to punch first?”

“MAKER, what are you two talking about?” Thea bursts suddenly. She looks so excited that you fear she might explode.

“I… We’re… Nothing.”

“Bullshit!”

“Don’t take Iron Bull’s name in vain, Thea,” you say dryly. She glares at you. “Whatever your imagination can come up with is doubtless far more interesting than the reality. And actually… yes.” You turn back to Iron Bull. “You should. Teach me to punch without shattering my hand, I mean. It seems like a skill I should have picked up before now.”

Iron Bull grins like you just told him he’d won a lottery game. You fear, momentarily, that he might pick you up and spin you around, or something similarly terrifying.

“That’s the spirit, Emma! Ataas shokra saartoh!”

You snort.

“What? What did he say?” Thea demands.

“Um… The nearest translation would be, when you are given struggles, strike them down.”

“So, what… He’s going to teach you to fight? Is this a Qunari courting thing?” Emma demands.

“Qunari don’t ‘court’, Thea,” you say dryly. “Tamassran breed them like horses.”

“You’re having me on!”

“No, she’s right,” Iron Bull joins in.

“Ugh, now I’m thinking of Qunari going at it,” you say, making a face. “It’s putting me off my breakfast.”

“That’s a little cruel, don’t you think?” Iron Bull asks as he sits down. “Hey, sweet bread! Where’d you steal this from?”

“She’s playing serving girl with that Solas,” Thea says with a smirk. “She gets food from the kitchen when she goes to get his meal.”

“Really?” You don’t like the look Iron Bull is giving you. You’re getting really tired of seeing that curious expression, because nothing good ever follows it.

“You better act fast, Bull, or she’ll get snapped out from under you!”

“That’s quite enough, Thea,” you say darkly. “I’m not getting snapped anywhere, by anyone.” The opens her mouth to say something else, something wicked, judging by the look in her eyes, but your glare cuts her off.

“You’re too serious, Emma,” she says, finally, sounding grumpy.

“I’m just serious enough.”

-

Your somewhat pensive mood carries you across the courtyard and into the Great Hall. Thea is, possibly, not wrong about Iron Bull’s intentions. It’s hard to tell with him, thanks to that stupid Ben-Hassrath training. He’s claimed in the past that his interest in you is personal, and it seems, with Leliana’s interest somewhat satiated, that it could actually be the case. You would be flattered if you were fond of that sort of attention in the first place, let alone from a threat as big as the Iron Bull.

Your mind is so preoccupied with Iron Bull that you find yourself completely unprepared for what happens when you walk into the rotunda. Solas is already there, painting, which is a welcome sight. He turns as you enter, and the second his eyes meet yours, a cascade of images of him shirtless, sliding out of bed, flash through your mind, unwarranted and extremely unwanted.

You avert your eyes quickly and attempt to prevent yourself from blushing. You… what are you doing? Has it been so long since you saw an attractive elf half-naked that you’re swooning over it like a hormonal child? …Yes, apparently it has, since your mind is now adding embellishments. You’re fairly certain he was never standing as close as your mind is telling you he did, nor was his invitation to stay anywhere near that suggestive.

You shuffle silently over to your workspace, or what passes for it, considering you just work on a couch and a side table. If Solas has noticed your sudden, intense awkwardness, he doesn’t comment on it, praise the Maker. It really has been that long, you realize. You were rather flustered by Sera’s awkward come-on, as well. Well, you have a bedroom, with a door that closes. If it comes to that, you can deal with the situation yourself. It’s a little embarrassing, however, as you’re normally not one to get distracted by this kind of thing.

You turn your focus onto your work, banishing tantalizing images of naked elves away and focusing on wing development in adult female dragons. It’s not quite working, however, as you find yourself hyper aware of where Solas is in the room and what he’s doing at any given time. Normally, it’s easy to ignore him. You need to get a grip. Or excuse yourself for half an hour to take care of things.

“Sweaty, slippery, sinks into skin. Maker, it’s been so long; I think I might die.”

You jolt at the sudden voice, only instinct pulling your hand back from the paper and avoiding an unsightly blotch and ruined page.

It’s that goddamn boy again, this time sitting on top of the platform you used to work underneath. Before, you had given yourself pretty good odds that he had been a paranoia-induced hallucination, but now…

“Hello, Cole,” Solas says, looking up from his work at the desk.

“Cole?” you exclaim, a little too loudly. “I mean, um… You know him? He’s… real?” Maker, you sound like an idiot.

“Have you encountered him before?” Solas asks, seeming interested.

“I helped her, in the fog. She was scared.”

“And she remembers you,” Solas muses, seemingly to himself.

“Well, of course I do,” you say, confused. “Although, honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t imagined the whole thing. …Cole, was it?”

“Yes,” the young boy answers. You marvel at him. How did he get up there without you noticing? You have a tendency to get absorbed in your work, yes, but not so much as to ignore a stranger walking around. You set your book to the side and stand up, not taking your eyes off him, lest he vanish.

“Cole. How did you do that… thing, in the fog. You calmed me down. How?”

“I help people,” he says, largely unhelpfully. “I heal their hurts… Or I try. Your hurt is deep and dark, a pain that's become a part.”

Your eyes narrow. “What…”

“Cole is a spirit,” Solas interjects, and you wonder why he didn’t mention that sooner.

“What do you mean, he’s a spirit?” you ask, your eyes sliding from the lanky boy over to Solas. “An abomination?” Your voice is incredulous. The fact that the Inquisition allows an elven apostate to hang about is unbelievable enough, but now you’re expected to believe they just allow an abomination to roam about? Ludicrous.

“No, just a spirit.”

“Spirits don’t look like that! …Do they?” You turn back to look, somewhat surprised that the boy is still there. “The demons I’ve seen, from rifts, they’re all… monstrous.”

“Cole is something of a special case.”

“A marionette with strings of sorrow. Terrified, trapped in a body that moves on its own; how could you do this to me?”

You jump, alarmed. “What’s he doing?”

“Only an ally can betray you; betrayal is always worse. I trusted only you.”

“Cole, stop!” you shout. To your surprise, he does. You turn to Solas, voice shaky. “What… just… what?”

“Cole is a spirit of compassion. He sees people’s pain and feels compelled to help them. He has a tendency to… think out loud.” He doesn’t seem to be alarmed at your shouting, and his sense of calm almost irritates you.

“I’ve never heard of a spirit of compassion…” you muse to yourself. You eye the boy… the spirit, cautiously. This is a new kind of danger. But it’s also fascinating, as is a man who knows more elven and has lived a life like yours but better. All sorts of curious things at this Inquisition. “I’m sorry I yelled, Cole,” you apologize. “You just startled me.”

“It’s all right. I frighten a lot of people. I want to help, but I don’t always say it right.”

“I understand, I think. Thank you for finding me in the fog. You really helped. Things… things could have gone very badly for me there.”

Cole’s eyes light up a little. “I’m glad. You just needed to know you were safe.”

You are never safe, least of all here. You can almost feel Solas’ eyes burning into the back of your head as he watches you calmly interact with a spirit. A normal person would probably be running away at this point. Fear of spirits is so ingrained in the public thanks to the Chantry. You shake your head, not believing the situation you’ve found yourself in.

“I’ve never… I’ve never met a spirit before, never talked to one. I’m sorry if this offends you, but you’re so… so normal.

“No one’s ever called me that before,” he says, a little bit of awe in his voice.

“Well, you’re not exactly what I would expect, admittedly, but… What I expected was scarier. Cole, will you keep coming back to see me? I’d like to get to know you better.”

“Alright,” Cole agrees, then looks over at Solas. “Don’t worry; she’s still more curious about you. She wants to know what you know. Also, what you look like, without…” He pauses. “They come off?”

“Heh, um… Cole, why don’t you come with me to the kitchens? I need to pick up Solas’ lunch.” You glance furtively over at Solas, letting him believe your embarrassment at being sexually outed, twice, is leading you out the door. Well, that is pretty mortifying, actually, but you’ll have time to be humiliated after the immediate threat has passed.

Cole, to your surprise, actually does follow you, jumping down off of the platform and landing almost entirely silently. Being a spirit without a human body must be convenient in some ways. He comes with you out the door, across the Great Hall, and you wait until you’re at the base of the stairs to turn to him.

“Cole. I need you to listen to me. You look into my mind, you see my hurts, my memories. Right?”

Cole nods, meeting your eyes for only a second before glancing away again, staring off as if at something in the distance.“Yes. You’re scared, always scared. A terrified tension, constant and constraining. But if you told them, they wouldn’t-“

“I can’t, Cole. I can’t tell them. And neither can you. Listen!” you snap your fingers in front of his face, trying to pull his far-away eyes back into the moment. “If you do what you did in there, if you tell everyone my hurts, I could die. You don’t want to kill me, do you, Cole?”

“I, no, I… But…”

“Please, Cole,” you say, keeping your eyes locked onto his. “I need your help, but you can’t tell the others about me. I have to stay hidden. You understand that, don’t you? If everyone saw you, if everyone knew you, they would try to hurt you, right? They’ve done it before, haven’t they?”

Cole nods, silently.

“Just let me stay hidden,” you beg. “I’ll be safer.”

“You won’t be happy.”

“I’d rather be unhappy and alive, Cole,” you say firmly, trying to hold his attention, gain his understanding. You need to know he won’t go talking about marionettes all over Skyhold.

“Hey! Knife-ear, what are you doing?”

Your head snaps around, and in that instant, Cole is gone. Annoyed, your eyes fix onto the human whose shouting interrupted you. You’re all alone; you picked this place specifically because it was quiet, out of sight of the main passageways. The things you could do and get away with… It seems the man is thinking the same thing. Something, however, dissuades him. Possibly the look in your eye, begging him to give you an excuse.

“Get back to work! Damn lazy knife-ears…” He grumbles as he wanders off again. Your fingers twitch, and you have to take a moment to get yourself back in control. You can’t lose your temper over something petty like that. You’ve been taking worse insults your entire life. Iron Bull is right; you really need to find a way to burn off all this stress. A few deep breaths later, and you’re on your way again, into the kitchens.

The food isn’t quite ready for you when you arrive, not like this morning, where they were practically waiting for you. You decide to join in, helping Celia and one of the other workers put the plates together.

“Two again today?” one of them asks. “He’s the last one I would’ve guessed to have company.”

“Two again,” you say, nodding, as you spoon some sort of pale, green colored bean onto a plate.

“Is it a lover?” Celia asks. “I didn’t see anyone in there when I came up. Just... you.” Three pairs of eyes fall to you. You clear your throat delicately, but say nothing.

The plates of food are made quickly as kitchen staff share knowing looks. Rumors of Solas banging the help will no doubt be making their rounds. Well, a little bit of humanization will be good for him, and everyone already thinks you’ve been bedding Iron Bull. Anything you try to do to dissuade the rumors will only fuel them, at this point.

Celia stacks the plates carefully onto your tray, adding some extra fruit with a wink. The damn thing is heavy, but you manage to make it up the stairs. Solas eyes you as you enter. He hasn’t moved from his desk, but he has cleared a space on it, no doubt for you to place the food.

“Where is Cole?” he asks mildly.

“Huh? Oh… I’m not sure.” You frown. “I was talking to him, and I thought I was doing well, but I… I don’t remember where he went. Do you think he’ll come back?”

“He may,” Solas says, and his eyes betray nothing.

“You have to tell me about him,” you insist. “There’s… there’s just a spirit, wandering around Skyhold? What’s he doing here? How is he here? Does the Inquisitor know about this? Do the Templars?” You balance the tray, with some difficulty, with one arm and one hip as you place plates on the desk. A little bit of help would not be unwarranted, but it seems like Solas is more than willing to let you struggle with the heavy tray.

“I have to confess, I’m a little… surprised, by your reaction. Most people would be alarmed by the presence of a spirit, abomination or no.”

You stare at Solas incredulously. “Most people are alarmed in your presence, Solas, or around any mage. I’m hardly superstitious. According to you, he is a spirit, outside of the Fade, who looks like a human. He is easily the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I was a little shocked at first, but I defer to the judgments of mages and Templars on the subject of spirits. You seemed comfortable enough with his presence.”

“You seem to know quite a bit about it all.”

You smile a bit. “Have you read Nertomarus’ Exponit Illud Phasmus?”

“I have.”

“I translated it. And others, while I worked in Orlais. I was very popular with the Circle in Montsimmard… Imagine, an Orlesian fluent in Ancient Tevene, whose pointy ears mean she works for very little.” You finally finish unloading the plates, and set the tray down with a sigh of relief. “I’m no expert, but I know more about the Fade than the average person for the same reason I now know more about dragons than the average person.”

You pull up the tiny stool and sit down at the corner of Solas’ desk. You’re not even that hungry, but the food smells too good to ignore. “You say he’s a spirit of… compassion? I didn’t know there even was a such thing.”

“They are not particularly common. They rarely seek this world. When they do, their natures do not often survive exposure to the people they encounter.”

“And yet, here he is, in the world. How did he even get here? And how has no one run a sword through him yet?”

“The Templars don’t know of his nature. He saved the Inquisitor’s life, and so he’s allowed to stay,” Solas says shortly, and you’re surprised to hear poorly repressed irritation in his voice. What could be causing that? You decide that, perhaps, a delicate change of topic is due.

“You said before that you’re an expert in the Fade. Since we’re on the topic… would you mind if I asked you some questions? None of the mages I worked for previously were particularly open to discussing such things with a ‘rabbit.’”

“There are few hard facts, but I can share what I have learned,” he acquiesces, the irritation behind his eyes not really diminishing.

“What’s the difference between a spirit and a demon?”

“In all actuality, there is little difference. A demon is a spirit whose desires have become twisted, or who is reflecting an aspect of humanity that makes it dangerous.”

“Fear, hunger, pride,” you agree. “As opposed to compassion, joy, or wisdom?”

“Precisely. The Fade reflects the minds of the living. If you expect a spirit of wisdom to be a pride demon, it will adapt.”

“Couldn’t… couldn’t you wind up getting tricked, that way? Believing a spirit is of a better nature than it actually is?”

“Do you trust the nature of the humans around you?”

You pause, for a little longer than you should. “Ah… I see your point. I suppose people are no more inherently trustworthy than spirits.”

“People, as opposed to spirits?”

Oooh, you get a bad feeling that you may have just stepped in a bear trap. “Uhm… What I mean is…” You pause to consider. “…Fleshy people. The ones made of meat, running around, mucking things up.”

“And what separates them from spirits, precisely?”

“Well, bodies… No, I suppose spirits can possess corpses and have their own body that way. Being unable to be separated from a body, perhaps?” You tap your chin with a piece of bread thoughtfully. “Not without dying, anyway. I think. Perhaps a more concrete nature…? Although where would you draw the line?”

Solas is looking at you strangely. “What?” you say, mildly defensive. “You asked! And it’s not an easy question, when phrased that way. I can’t even say ‘which side of the Veil one calls home,’ now that I’ve met Cole. He… makes the line blurrier than I thought it was.”

“It’s interesting to meet someone who even acknowledges the difference may not be simple black and white.”

“Well, I honestly had never given it much thought,” you confess, untruly. “What makes a person people? I never really thought about it. Of course, I was fairly sure I’d never meet a spirit.”

“Anyone who dreams has the potential.”

That gives you pause. “…What, really? Not just mages?”

“With the exception of dwarves, we all dream in the Fade. Mages attract spirits the most easily, it is true, but anyone may do so.”

“I… I actually did not know that,” you say, stunned. “…Huh. Well, for now, maybe I’ll just try to befriend Cole. The way he keeps vanishing off, that will prove to be challenging enough.”

“Cole could use more friends, certainly, especially those who understand his nature,” Solas agrees. “As with all things, however, exert caution. Cole is still learning to understand this world.”

You’re a little surprised. “I think I’m in more danger from Iron Bull, honestly.”

“Do you still think he poses you a threat?” Solas’ voice is not judging, but curious. “Why?”

“I’m not hugely fond of Qunari on the best of days,” you admit. “And I don’t have good memories of Ben-Hassrath.”

“Those are reasons to dislike him, not reasons he may be a threat,” Solas points out.

You frown, not quite liking where this conversation is heading. “It’s… I don’t trust him. Or his intentions. I want to… He seems nice, not like other Qunari I’ve met. But I just… I can’t.”

“I don’t mean to challenge your decision. Only to question it.”

“You question everything,” you say with a weak smile. “It doesn’t bother me.” It should. But you find it really doesn’t.

Eye contact is maintained for about three seconds longer than you’re comfortable with, and you glance away. “I should get back to work… Let me take these dishes back, first.” You stand, gathering the empty dishes up, although you leave a small cloth napkin with fruit on it. “Don’t eat these, please. They’re for Thea.” Solas looks amused, but says nothing as you balance everything onto the serving tray and head back towards the kitchen.

Chapter Text

The afternoon is spent in peace, long hours working on your transcript. It’s relaxing, and quiet, interrupted by nothing but the occasional echoing crow. You manage to clear your mind of wandering thoughts about Iron Bull, Sera, Solas, or the fact that you actually sent what amounts to a fan letter to Fenris, through Varric. You’re so in the zone that when the door to the rotunda slams loudly open, you swear, and again barely manage to keep from making a mess. You glare upwards, but the man who slammed the door open isn’t even looking at you. His eyes are firmly locked on Solas.

He’s such an average looking man that you don’t recognize him, at first. It’s only your tendency to never, ever, forget a face that allows you to realize: he’s the fellow you talked to, upstairs, your first night here. A spy for Leliana, you had assumed. From the way he’s speaking to Solas, however, you suspect you assumed wrong.

“Solas. There’s a situation in the Fallow Mire, one of my patrols has been taken by Avaar. I need to ride out and deal with the situation immediately. I may need magical support, and I’ve no desire to drag Vivienne or Dorian through a swamp.”

“Of course, Inquisitor.”

In… In… Inquisitor?!

“Excellent. We ride as soon as we have light to see. Make preparations tonight.”

Your mind is reeling from the information, but you can’t allow yourself to be distracted by that just now. The way Solas and the …Inquisitor, apparently, are looking at each other is rather telling. It’s a sort of barely-suppressed hatred covered over poorly with a thin coat of manners. At least, on Solas’ end… From the Inquisitor, it’s more like a shining beacon of “you-are-beneath-me.” It’s rather unpleasant to look at directly.

After a few moments of somewhat irritating back-and-forth between the two, the Inquisitor’s gaze happens upon you. You were pretending to work while you observed the two posture like angry cats, but despite not looking directly at him, you recognize the expression. He does not recognize you. It’s the look you received from Vivienne, the one a person gives to a piece of furniture. His eyes just glaze right over you. But then his gaze comes back, fixes on you. Perhaps he’s recognized you; you spoke only a week prior, and you are, technically, his linguist.

“Solas, have you finally found a companion?” The Inquisitor says, sounding far too amused. “I’m amazed you found an elf good enough for you. And I see she’s made herself comfortable... on your couch.”

You stiffen, but say nothing, force your eyes to remain on your tome. Does he not see the ink? The quills? Yes, you are laying on a couch, shoes off, but you are also very clearly writing something, not simply reading a book for enjoyment.

“Do you not recognize her, Inquisitor? She is your new linguist. You hired her on not a week ago,” Solas says, his voice filled with ice and venom. At this, you’ve no choice but to look up and introduce yourself. You stand, making something of a show of placing aside your quill and capping your ink, and give a bow to the Inquisitor.

“Emma, your holiness. We met once prior.”

He has the good grace, at least, to look slightly embarrassed. “Ah, yes. I remember. I’m… pleased you’ve found a workplace that suits you better than the one provided.”

It’s all well and good for Solas to go pissing off the Inquisitor, but your tongue is going to get you in serious trouble at this rate.

“In any case, Solas, be on a horse and ready to go when the sun rises. I can’t leave this to my soldiers.” The Inquisitor turns and leaves the rotunda, and you close the door behind him with much more kindness than he had showed it upon entering.

You turn to Solas, eyes wide, and gesture wordlessly at the door behind you. Solas still looks angry, and he’s concealing it even more poorly now that the man has left. His knuckles are white from his clenched fists, his jaw is tight. The sight, combined with your new mental images of him shirtless, is doing uncomfortable things to you. Perhaps you should merely let the topic rest, and get back to work. It’s nearing dinner time; perhaps you can snatch something particularly sweet from the kitchen to help calm him.

But Solas sees your expression, and deigns to explain, albeit poorly. “The Inquisitor and I do not see things the same way,” he says, tight jaw making his voice hard.

You clear your throat, your growing embarrassment the only thing that keeps you from laughing at the colossal understatement. “And you are to accompany him on a journey of some kind?”

“Yes. It seems I ride for Fallow Mire in the morning. I will likely be gone for some time.”

A rock sinks to the pit of your stomach at the realization. “…Oh. How long, do you think…?”

“Weeks, likely. Perhaps longer, based on how the situation unfolds.”

Your own fists clench. You had just gotten comfortable, and now you’ll have to move again, up to the library with its constant distractions, or hunt for somewhere new. No Solas means no invisible shield to keep Thea and others away. It also means no fine meals, no excuses to go down to the kitchen to gather gossip. No enchantments on your wrist to steady sore and shaking hands. Your work will suffer for it. And so, you find, will you.

“…I see,” is all you manage to say. Fortunately, his own anger distracts from your distress. “I… I should go get dinner-“

“Miss Emma?”

You start, not expecting another voice, and certainly not expecting anyone to call you by name. You turn to see a man you don’t recognize.

“Message to you, from Mistress Lelianna. She says to get it back to her as soon as you can.”

A letter is pushed into your hands, and the man is gone. You frown down at it, then open it. It’s a missive, in Qunlat. You glance over it quickly, heart beginning to pound. Nothing jumps out at you right away, although it does seem to be a field report of some kind.

“Why me?” you murmur quietly to yourself, squinting at the message. You glance up to find Solas watching you carefully. You fold the message back up and tuck it away into your tunic. “I’ll get your dinner before seeing to this, ser.”

“Retrieving my meals is hardly as important as your duties, da’len,” Solas says pointedly.

“Quite the contrary, hahren,” you say sourly. “Neither of us can be expected to be productive on empty stomachs.” Sweets to charm your newly soured stomach would be welcomed, something to wash down the bad taste the Inquisitor has left in your mouth.

You head out through the Great Hall, down towards the kitchens. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked for an unpleasant man, and it won’t be the last. He’s hardly the worst, but you find yourself irritated nonetheless. You expect humans to be rude to you; it’s become like background noise. But seeing him disrespect Solas put a dangerous and unpleasant fury in you. You rarely look at a person and admit to yourself that they are likely more intelligent than you, but you feel comfortable admitting that about Solas. At the very least, he is older, more educated. Deserving of respect. The image of the sneer on the Inquisitor’s face as he attempted to get under the apostate’s skin, use you as a means of goading him…

You feel a tingle in your hand; the handrail you’re grasping heats up slightly. You pull your hand back, quickly, swearing under your breath, taking deep breaths until you regain control, pushing swirling chaos back inside. You can hardly afford to lose your temper now, let alone at the Inquisitor. Whether you like him or not, he’s the best hope for overcoming the chaos that envelops Thedas. Not to mention, he’s a powerful warrior, and rumor has him training to become a Templar, as well. You need to watch yourself around him, since there is no longer hope of remaining beneath his notice.

In the kitchens, you help with the preparation of the plates for your and Solas’ dinners, milking the women there for information about his preferred foods. None of them have ever spoken to him, and yet they have bits of knowledge they don’t understand the value of. He often requests soup. Any time he is given Antivan cabbage, the tiny cabbages remain, untouched, while the rest of the food is eaten. And you know he has a fondness for sweet things. You make a few assumptions on his sense of taste from there, and make two separate meals, one for him, one for you. If the ladies suspect you, they say nothing, although there are a few winks when you ask quietly where the sweets are hidden.

You’re in luck. A visiting noble is known for having a sweet tooth, and the Inquisition’s chief diplomat had requested more cakes than could possibly be eaten by one woman. You certainly hope so, for you snatch no small amount of them when Gaston, the head chef, isn’t looking. Your suspicions about rumors are confirmed when Celia gives you a pat on the shoulder as you leave, and wishes you “good luck.” Maker. They really do think you’re seducing the man.

As if you could manage that with pilfered sweets.

The tray is distractingly heavy, which is good, as you need the distraction from your still-present irritation at the Inquisitor and your worry about Solas’ sudden trip. You’re not so distracted that you fail to notice the Inquisitor is in the Great Hall as you go through it, speaking with some Orlesian nobles, nor do you fail to notice him notice you, excuse himself, and head towards you. Uh-oh.

“Inquisitor.” You manage a curtsy despite the fact your arms shudder at the weight of the tray as you do. Thank goodness you had the foresight to put a cover over the stolen cakes. The Inquisitor directs you off to the side, behind a pillar, and, you note, out of sight of the nobles.

“What is this?” he says with a frown, gesturing towards the heavy tray. “Does Solas have you running errands for him? We have servants for this.”

Years of experience with this sort of thing keep your face perfectly placid. The Inquisitor is no grand player of the Game. “Not at all, your holiness. Ser Solas allows me to share his work space.” The way the Inquisitor stiffens at the title pleases you, and you continue. “He even allows me to take my meals there, so that I may focus on translating the draconic tome more swiftly. It was my idea that I fetch it myself, to avoid taxing the kitchen staff unnecessarily with my presence.”

“I… see.”

“I am, after all, making myself comfortable on his couch,” you add, unnecessarily. “It seems the least I can do. If I may, your holiness? This tray is rather heavier than it looks.” You smile pleasantly, and he shrugs you away, turning his attention back towards the nobles, likely glad they had missed the exchange. You turn yourself, and see Varric staring at you, wide-eyed. You shake your head gently and mouth “I’ll explain later” towards him, and then head through the rotunda doors.

“That’s quite the tray,” Solas comments, although he doesn’t rise to help you, Maker forbid. He seems to have taken your absence as a chance to calm himself down. You’re certain the tingles of magic still floating through the air, brushing against you, have something to do with it. If only you had the freedom to express your anger so vividly.

“I needed something to cleanse my palate of the bad taste,” you say with forced joviality. You carefully balance the tray with one trembling arm, sore after too long spend carrying too much weight. You need to start doing push-ups or something. You manage to unload Solas’ meal in front of him, and the surprised and mildly pleased expression on his face does wonders for your mood. Clearly, your guesses at his tastes were close to their mark. You set down your meal on the corner of the desk, taking up as little space as possible, and then lay out the tray of sweets.

“More pilfered goods for your friend?” he asks, already beginning to eat as you pull up your stool.

“Pilfered goods for a friend, at least,” you manage to say, although your voice catches. Are you being too forward? Yes. You are. You clear your throat awkwardly. “I, um… They made a lot of them, for some visiting noble, and I thought you might… That is…Well, I mean, since you’re leaving tomorrow, you should have a good meal, right?” You take the lid off the poncy Orlesian cakes, wondering how horrifyingly awkward this will be if it turns out he hates chocolate.

Solas stares at the cakes for a moment, and doesn’t say anything. Your nerves skyrocket, and you shift uncomfortably on the stool. Then he smiles. “And you just happened to think I would enjoy these?”

“Well… I may have noticed you have a slight sweet tooth,” you mutter.

He laughs. It’s short, but it seems to fill the room, echoing around the circular walls and bouncing around you.

Maker, what a sound.

You’re so distracted by him that you almost forget the missive you’re supposed to be translating. You pull it out of your shirt, opening it back up again and reading over it. It’s a simple translation, really. And a simple document… You can’t quite determine why Iron Bull couldn’t see this. Perhaps it’s just a test run, to see if you’re trustworthy, or if your Qunlat is good enough. You nab some of Solas’ parchment, ink, and a quill, too lazy to stand and retrieve your own. You pop some meat into your mouth and eat as you get to work, scribbling down a translation quickly but neatly.

You’re almost finished with it when something hits you… If this Ben-Hassrath report had come from Iron Bull, would it not be translated already? Surely he isn’t just handing them literal pieces of paper, still in Qunlat. Did this come from elsewhere? It’s just a report on movements of a Tevinter cult, but... You chew lightly on the edge of the quill.

“Something interesting?” Solas inquires lightly. Clearly, your deliberating has distracted him from his normal dinner reading.

“Hmm… Perhaps,” you say, returning to scribbling down the translation. “Perhaps not. Something to think about, at least.”

You’re glad that Solas doesn’t question you further, because ‘I think our spies might be spying on our spy’ is not, when phrased that way, particularly tantalizing. Still, there may indeed be something there. It’s worth considering.

You finish the translation before you finish dinner. You cram the last of the food into your mouth--ignoring Solas’ judging look--before standing, intending fully to enjoy some of those ridiculously frilly cakes when you return. You chew quickly as you jog up the stairs, clutching both the original missive and the translation. You head up to the top floor… The man had said to give it to Leliana as soon as you had finished. Surely this was not so important as to need to be placed directly into her hands? Nonetheless, you spot her, talking to a few other people, and approach cautiously.

“And do it quickly, we can’t afford- Ah, Emma. I appreciate your swiftness on this matter.” Leliana holds her hand out, and you place both sheets of paper, folded, into her hand.

“It’s no issue, serah,” you say, allowing your confusion to show through a little. “I’m glad I could be of assistance.”

And that’s all there is to it. She waves you off, and you head back down in the rotunda, still uncertain as to what it was all about. But interesting possibilities are there. You suspect that Leliana may be getting her hands on Ben-Hassrath reports that aren’t coming directly from Iron Bull. Perhaps her setting him on you was deliberate, to alienate the two of you? Bards are tricky, and she certainly hadn’t gotten to be Spymaster of the Inquisition by playing a poor Game. It’s the sort of thing an Orlesian would do.

You come back to the rotunda to a beautiful sight: Solas is eating one of the little cakes… with a fork. They’re so tiny, one could simply eat it whole, but there he is, working his way through one, cheerfully. With a fork. Oh, this is just delightful.

You know you’re doing a poor job of hiding your mirth as you head back to his desk, but you at least manage not to laugh out loud. If the serving girls could see this, surely they would understand they have nothing to fear from Solas. You, personally, at least, cannot be afraid of a man who eats tiny Orlesian cakes with a fork.

You sit back down on your stool, pull a tiny cake over, and grab a fork, utterly failing to keep a straight face. Solas notices your quivering lips and looks at you, questioningly.

“I’m… g-glad you’re enjoying your cake, ser,” you manage, eyes beginning to water slightly from the effort of not laughing. It’s just so absurd. The cake is so tiny and… You stick your fork in your own cake dramatically, and bring the whole thing up, stuffing it into your mouth. His slightly disgruntled look as you chew and swallow nearly pushes you over the edge, but you manage to choke the cake down.

“Din'samahlen,” Solas says, with the tone of someone scolding. You work through the word quickly, then pout.

“…Did you just call me a brat? In Elven?”

“One should not protest being called childish while pouting,” Solas says mildly, which only makes you pout more, of course.

“Alright, just see if you get your breakf… oh.” You cut yourself off, expression falling. Right. Tomorrow, he’ll be gone, and quite possibly several others with him. An icy hand grips your heart as you imagine Sera, Varric, and Solas out in some godforsaken swamp, fighting barbarians and Maker knows what else.

Solas is not speaking, but he is watching you. His eyes on you cause your heart to tense, its beating becoming painful in your chest. You force a smile. “I don’t know what I’ll do without your wrist enchantment, Solas. My work will suffer.” If he notices the shallowness of your defense, he doesn’t comment upon it. You clear your throat. “Speaking of work, I should get back to it.” You stand, and begin gathering the used and empty dishes back onto the tray, leaving only the cakes and Solas’ fork, so that he can work his way through them at his leisure.

You make a point, upon leaving, to stop by Varric’s desk.

“There you are!” he whispers, pulling you close. “What was that? You know that was the Inquisitor, don’t you?”

“He was being an ass,” you whisper back, furiously. “You could have warned me the Inquisitor and Solas hate each other!”

“The Inquisitor was being an ass, so you decide to get catty with him? Are you insane?”

“Clearly!” you snap. “Now listen to me! I heard about the Inquisitor’s little outing to Fallow Mire. Who’s going with him? You said his ‘friends’ often go with him. All of you?”

“No, not all of us, not normally. Chuckles is going, I’m going, and I think the kid and the Seeker…”

“I have no idea who those people are, Varric,” you say through gritted teeth. “Is Sera going? What about Iron Bull? Dorian?”

“No, pretty sure they’re staying behind, this time. Iron Bull’s expecting… something, he wouldn’t say what, and even the Inquisitor knows better than to drag Dorian or Vivienne through a swamp.”

You let out a little sigh of relief. Sera, at least, will be staying… Although you could use the break from Iron Bull, frankly.

“What’s got you so worked up, Stutter?” Varric asks, curiously. “I can understand you being upset your boyfriend is leaving, but-“

“Don’t you start too!” you snap, and Varric even looks slightly taken aback. You sigh. “I’m sorry, Varric, it’s just… It’s easy to forget the people I’m meeting here are soldiers. Fighters. You… you go out, you kill people, you might get killed.”

Varric seems to understand the panic burning behind your eyes, then. He gives you an awkward pat on the arm. “Hey, Stutter, don’t worry. I’ll make sure Chuckles gets back in one piece!”

“I’m not… I just…” You sigh. “I need to return these dishes. And don’t worry, Varric; I’ll try to avoid the Inquisitor. I’ve no desire to be strung up or thrown out.”

Your mind is dark on the trip to the kitchen and back. The women there misread your mood; Celia gives you a comforting pat and says something insipid about men being fickle. You know she’s just trying to help, though, so you force a smile. Back in the rotunda, you have trouble concentrating on your transcript, mind racing like a prized horse through thoughts of Solas’ and Varric’s imminent departure. Where will you work? Will their absence give you an opportunity to slip out of Skyhold? If Iron Bull was only going as well, you could truly take advantage, but he’ll no doubt be keeping an even closer eye on you.

For the first time since you began working in the rotunda, you consider leaving before Solas, putting the page you’re working on down with a frustrated sigh. But you need to squeeze out a little bit more work while you still have peace and quiet. You glare at frustration at the complicated depiction of a high dragon’s bottom jaw. There are half a dozen of these, comparing multiple skulls and their differences. It’s fantastic, beautiful, informative, and a huge pain in your ass. You should pester Leliana for a magnifying glass stand. How she expects you to get all of these details down while lounging on a couch… Although, you suppose, technically the couch part is your doing.

You glance over at Solas, and notice with a sinking heart that he’s packing things into a satchel… preparing to leave early the next morning. Perhaps you can go towards the exit, with the pretense of seeing them off, and slip out behind them? No, Iron Bull will certainly be there as well. You set the book down again, giving up on getting any more work done.

“Going to bed, da’len?” Solas asks as you stand. “I was beginning to wonder if you slept at all.”

“I just lay in bed for four hours and stare at the ceiling,” you say dryly. “No sleep required. I… I am normally up before dawn. Perhaps I will… will see you leave.” You clear your throat. “If not… Well… Be safe.”

Embarrassed, you leave quickly, heading out the Great Hall and across the courtyard. You pause there, for a moment, attempting to calm yourself. You’re not looking forward to tomorrow. Back to meals in the mess, back to constant interruptions from curious humans, back to sore wrists and tight muscles. You had enjoyed the last few days more than you realized.

“He will come back,” comes a reassuring voice from behind you. You startle, but relax when you recognize it.

“Cole!” you say, surprised, as you turn. “After you disappeared, I wasn’t sure…”

“Terror gripping tight, fear, flashes of fighting. Battlefields are dangerous. You know. But we’ll be okay.”

“…We?” Horror grips you. “Cole… Cole, are you going too? Are they taking you?”

“I’m good at not being seen.”

Shit. They drag a spirit into the middle of a battle? A spirit of compassion? Of course they do; what care do they have for him? …SHIT. He’ll be out there, with Solas, for weeks! Gently, you place a hand on each of his shoulders, gripping firmly, but not enough to hurt.

“Cole. This is important. I need you to promise not to talk about me to Solas. Don’t tell him anything. Do you understand me?”

“Solas would understand, if you-“

“Cole, please,” you beg, voice breaking slightly. “Maybe… Maybe he would. But I can’t… I’d have to be sure. It would have to be on my own time. Please. Promise me. Swear it.”

“A-alright…”

Your shoulders sag in relief. “Thank you, Cole. I’m sorry, I truly am. But I have to be safe.”

“Solas is similar, somehow. He sounds the same. Tell him. Trust him,” Cole urges, but you shake your head.

“I can’t.

Chapter Text

Your night is spent, ironically, staring at the ceiling. You manage to drift off a few times, but it doesn’t stick; the sleep just slides right off you. Twice, you wake with your hand between your legs, the ghost of imaginary lips on yours. The second time, you decide to just get up. It will be dawn soon enough, and that’s when Solas and the others are riding off. If you head out now, you can look for a possible way to sneak out after them, or another way to get in and out of Skyhold undetected.

You dress and exit, quickly made miserable by the cold outdoors. There’s an ungodly freezing wind whipping through Skyhold. You hope Solas is at least bundled up for his impromptu trip to the marshes. At least it’ll be warm there. You walk the ramparts, and once again you’re largely ignored by the guards. They would probably quickly spring to action if you started to scale the wall, but it’s good to know that you can at least get this far. Unfortunately, the more you look, the more it seems that the only way out of Skyhold is across the main bridge.

Discouraged, you head down to the courtyard, and mill about there for a while. Eventually, you find an out-of-the-way, out-of-the-wind corner to huddle up in, near the main portcullis. At least you’ll have a good view of the Inquisitor, savior of Thedas, as he rides to… do whatever it is he plans on doing in Fallow Mire. Save a lost patrol, if what you overheard is correct.

You must doze off a little, although you don’t feel any more rested for it, just stiff, sore, and frozen solid. But the sun is beginning to peek over the horizon, and the bustle of another day of work is beginning. It was shouting that awoke you, and you soon see why… Sure enough, the Inquisition was riding out. Disorganized groups lined either side of the pathway as the progression headed out through the open portcullis… how were you not awoken by that opening? You could have, perhaps, slipped out before them, although you sincerely doubt it. Nor can you slip out with them; everyone is on horseback.

You’re left to play the onlooker, searching the line of horses for familiar faces. You spot Varric, sitting on a mount that straddles the line between horse and pony. He doesn’t look any more pleased about the situation than his “horse” does. Against your better judgment, you wave, arms high in the air. He spots you, smiles, and waves back. He has to come back alive, you think to yourself. He still has to sign your book, and he promised that. The unhappy tension that’s been with you since the day before climaxes in an icy stab through the chest as you spot Solas. He’s mounted on a rather beautiful palomino, although you’ve not much an eye for horses. He looks… striking. And watching him ride past is more of an agony than you’d thought it would be.

You’re shocked when his eyes glance over you, more shocked when they come back again, this time focusing on you. You see the smallest of smiles ghost his lips, and he raises a hand in a tentative, almost half-hidden acknowledgement. You raise your own, waving slightly, not the dramatic, full-bodied motion you had given to Varric.

Please, Maker, let him make it back in one piece.

When you can no longer see him from where you stand near the portcullis, you spin about, push your way through the crowds, and charge up onto the ramparts, watching from the tall walls until the progression of horses is out of sight. The stabbing in your chest intensifies, until you fear you might be overcome with it.

“Hey, kid.”

Ugh.

“I knew you’d be here,” you grumble, more to yourself.

“C’mon, let’s get some food. You know that girl of yours will be waiting there, like a lost puppy. You should see her face when you skip meals.”

You glare up at Iron Bull. You’re exhausted, sleep-deprived, worried, and reaching critical levels of sexual frustration. You’re a little concerned that if Iron Bull pushes too hard, you’ll wind up punching him before you have a chance to pretend to learn how to do it.

“Try not to worry,” he says, voice a little softer. “They know what they’re doing, all of them. They’ll come back alive.”

You’re really quite transparent, aren’t you? You let out a sigh. “Let’s get breakfast.”

-

The mess is as busy as ever, with an extra rush of people who’d been watching the progression. You do manage to spot Thea, however, and the two of you join her. She eyes the two of you, clearly wanting to say something, but also just as clearly able to read your mood. There’s a nigh-tangible wall of gloom around you.

“You’re, uh… developin’ some bags under your eyes there, Emma. Dramatic ones. Not sleepin’ well?” Thea finally asks.

“No, I’m not,” you say shortly.

“You know what’s a good cure for that? Vigorous physical exercise!” Iron Bull interjects. Thea snorts, then covers it by coughing. You glare at her, but it lacks vigor. You are rather tired, and coming to terms with the fact you’ll probably be sleeping with half of the Inquisition via rumor before you leave this place.

“Well, you know what I think ya need?” Thea says, and you cringe a little.

“Oh, Maker…”

“A day off!” You blink. That went somewhere perfectly reasonable. Had Thea been possessed, perhaps? “All the serving girls get one. Hell, even I get one, though I take it once a tenday. Why shouldn’t you? You’ve been here o’er a week now!”

“What would I do with a day off?” you ask with a frown. “Loiter?”

“I bet you ‘aven’t even seen most o’ Skyhold!” Thea says pointedly.

“So, loiter, then.”

“I think Thea’s right on this one,” Iron Bull says. He looks thoughtful, which probably isn’t a good sign. “You could use a day off. You’re looking worse every day.”

You scowl at him in lieu of a response.

“Tell you what, give me an hour. If I can’t find something to hold your interest, you can crawl back to that rotunda of yours and bury yourself in work.”

The rotunda.

The thought of moving out of that empty place sends another sharp lance through your chest. “Alright,” you agree, just to postpone the inevitable.

Both Iron Bull and Thea look a little surprised that you agreed so readily. You merely return to sullenly downing your gruel. It’s pretty good gruel, as that sort of thing goes, but you know that, by lunch, you’ll be missing the fresh meat and warm bread that proximity to Solas had been providing.

After eating, you follow Iron Bull out through the courtyard. An hour of whatever passes for entertainment in Skyhold… Too early for drinks, so perhaps some sort of card or dice game? A relaxing stroll through the gardens that you’ve yet to see, but keep hearing about, perhaps? You’re surprised and a little confused when Iron Bull brings you to a series of large barns and a large, paddocked field. Horses? He’s brought you to see horses? Well, you suppose the stereotype of women and horses is a popular one. You, however, have never ridden a horse in your life.

He takes you into one of the barns, and you have to admit to some curiosity as to what, exactly, he’s up to. Perhaps he intends to show off a mount of his own? You amuse yourself by trying to imagine the giant of a horse that would be able to carry such a mountain of a Qunari.

“Hello, Bull. Who’s your new friend?” Your eyes glance away from the stable boxes and the horses therein to fix on the source of the voice, a grizzled looking older man with a rather impressive beard. Your eyes dance over him, picking up details. He moves a little stiffly, steps forward on his right foot. Old soldier, perhaps? Then, your eyes fix onto the symbol on his shoulder.

Grey Warden.

You’re a little in awe, despite yourself. You’ve only ever met Grey Wardens in passing, unless you count knowing the Hero of Ferelden before she was a Grey Warden, which you don’t. The Warden follows your gaze to his shoulder as Iron Bull answers.

“This is Emma, the Inquisition’s new linguist. Emma, this is Blackwall.”

“What’s a linguist going to do in a barn?” Blackwall says with a snort. You’d be irritated, but frankly, you don’t know either.

“It’s her first day off! Thought I’d show her around a bit.” Iron Bull keeps walking, past Blackwall, and you follow him. You and the old soldier share a look as you pass him. Suspicion is plain on his features, but you’re more curious than suspicious. Grey Wardens wind up in a lot of odd places. A barn is hardly the strangest.

You idly check out the horses as you walk. Each one seems grander than the last, and you pass both smaller horses, verging on ponies, and giant horses that must be eighteen hands high. And then, you see what you now suspect Iron Bull has brought you here for.

You have seen halla. You have even seen, in fleeting glances, harts, normally at quite a distance. This is your first time being so close. Your breath catches a little in your throat at the beauty of him. He’s a deep, reddish brown, with not a mane, but a thick coat of white fur on his head and chest. Gorgeous. Iron Bull steps close, careful not entangle their horns—wouldn’t that be a sight—and you step closer as well, marveling at the size and the strength of the creature in front of you.

“And this,” Iron Bull says, sounding smug, “is Revas. Solas named him.”

You step up, better judgment utterly forgotten. You open a soft palm under the hart’s nose, giggle slightly as he breathes in and out on you heavily, then butts his soft, warm nose against your hand.

“…Did you just giggle?” Iron Bull’s voice comes from behind you, mildly incredulous. “I didn’t know you could actually make that kind of a sound.”

You ignore him, running your other hand gently along the hart’s face, then, carefully, down his neck, not wanting to spook him. He seems content, however, and leans forward to butt against your chest, very nearly clocking you with one of his massive antlers.

“He normally prefers elves,” Iron Bull says, and you can hear the amusement in his voice. “He seems to really like you, though.”

“Why didn’t Solas take him when he left?” you manage, although you cut yourself off a bit with a laughing gasp as Revas tongues at your hand, likely searching for a treat.

“The Inquisitor prefers that they match when they ride out. If Solas rode a hart, the Inquisitor would feel compelled to as well, and none of them much care for him.” The voice that speaks is unfamiliar, and you crane your neck around as best you can to see who speaks. It’s another human man, dark skinned and very nearly bald. “He likes you,” the man observes dryly.

“Well, I like him,” you say, grinning stupidly. You run a hand through Revas’ thick fur, and the hart grunts his approval. “I had no idea the Inquisition… where did you even find him?”

“He was a gift, likely from a group of Dalish, although I’m not entirely sure. We’ve managed to procure a few others, as well.”

“Horsemaster Dennet, this is Emma, the Inquisition’s new linguist,” Iron Bull introduces, since it’s quite clear you’re too distracted to do it yourself.

“Do you have any experience with harts, Miss Emma?” Dennet asks curiously.

“Essentially none,” you manage to say as you lean backwards to avoid being struck with an antler as Revas gets a little too curious about what might be in your pockets. “I used to own a mule.”

“A mule.”

“Yes. Her name was Bella, and she was the only animal I’ve ever owned,” you say, somewhat wistfully. “I tried to bring her with me, but Templars decided they wanted her. I only they hope they kept her as a beast of burden and didn’t have her for dinner.”

“That’s…”

“So, you wanna ride him?” Iron Bull asks.

“What?” you and Dennet say in unison.

“I can count the number of times I’ve been on a horse on one hand!” you protest. Technically true, as you can count to zero using only one hand with ease. You’re uncertain if mules and ponies count.

“No better time to learn!”

“A hart is hardly a creature to learn to ride on,” points out Dennet.

“Aw, c’mon, that thing loves her!” Iron Bull points out. As if on cue, Revas attempts to stick his nose into your pocket, nearly dragging your pants down. You grasp at them desperately.

“Fine,” Dennet says grumpily. “But first, you show her how to saddle it, and if she gets trampled, you explain it to the Inquisitor.”

Somehow, you manage to secure your trousers, and Iron Bull leads you over to where the tack is. You listen intently as he explains what each piece is—if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it correctly and without dying. Normally, this is exactly the kind of tomfoolery you prefer to avoid, but… come on, when are you next going to have a chance to ride a hart? Probably never! You’re not going to pass this one up for fear of standing out or breaking a limb. Limbs heal, and you already stand out. Falling off of a hart repeatedly will probably help you blend in.

Still, as you struggle around an uncooperative Revas, attempting to get his bridle on while he repeatedly spits out his bit, you can’t help but wish you had gone for a more cooperative fellow for your first time. You somehow manage to get him properly saddled and bridled after several tries and a lot of dodging as he attempts to “accidentally” stomp one of your feet or brain you with his antlers. You desperately bribe him with carrots until he holds still long enough for you to show him to Iron Bull for tentative approval.

When you finally get the all clear, you come to the conclusion that you have literally no idea how to mount a hart. Riding a donkey was easy. You just got on it. But you’re short, and Revas is tall, and it’s difficult to even get your foot in the stirrup from a standing position. Eventually, you lead him over to the fence, climb the fence, and use the advantage of height to crawl your way onto the hart’s back.

Fortunately, Revas is used to being ridden, and doesn’t prove to be too terribly difficult, although you suspect he can sense your uncertainty. With helpful (and not so helpful) shouted instructions from Iron Bull, you manage to successfully navigate your way around the enclosure several times. Although at one point, something causes Revas to begin to gallop, and you only manage to last about ten seconds before flying off.

You fall off several times before you decide that your aching back and legs are unable to keep you in the saddle at all anymore. Following Iron Bull’s instructions, you manage to get the saddle and bridle off of Revas, and even brush him down, which is something you might pay to do again.

You reluctantly say goodbye to Revas as Iron Bull drags you off, declaring it time for lunch. You’ll definitely be coming by again, although you doubt Dennet will allow you to ride the hart without supervision. It’s just as well; you’d probably kill yourself. It’s a miracle you haven’t been trampled already, and you can feel bruises forming as you waddle to the mess behind Bull.

“So,” he says as the two of you sit down with your meals. “Do I know how to show a lady a good time, or what?”

The fact that you laugh shows how much your mood has improved from that morning. “Alright, alright. I had a good time. Thanks. I never thought I’d try something like that… and I’m sore, everywhere. But it was amazing.”

“Oh, Maker, there’s no way this is as good as it sounds,” comes Thea’s voice from behind you. You roll your eyes as she sits down beside you.

“Iron Bull took me to the stables-“

“Yeeeeesss?”

You scowl at her. “And taught me to ride!”

At this, Thea explodes with laughter as you rapidly redden. “A hart! He taught me to ride a hart! Get ahold of yourself!”

“I’m sorry! Maker! I even knew what you meant, but you should have heard yourself…” She’s leaning on the table for support, nearly crying from laughing so hard.

“Must everything be perversion with you, Thea?” you say tiredly.

“Life’s more fun that way,” she says, a few giggles interrupting her as she catches her breath. “You should try it.”

“My life is plenty of fun, thank you,” you say snippily.

“Yeah, sure. What are you planning on doing this afternoon?”

“Getting some work done, of… stop giving me that look! I took the whole morning off!”

“Mmhmm.”

“Baby steps, Thea,” Iron Bull says mildly. “You should have seen her on that hart. I didn’t she could smile that much without breaking. She giggled.”

“Wha’, really?”

“I don’t know why I’m friends with you two…” you mutter to yourself sullenly.

It isn’t until you’ve left and are heading for the rotunda that you realize your slip. Friends? Well, it’s the kind of thing you would say on purpose, especially to Thea, but the fact that you said it without thinking worries you. You’re not the sort of person who keeps friends well.

You’re not particularly happy to be heading into the rotunda, either. You haven’t even decided on whether to head back up to the library, or go investigate the suspicious, half-hidden library you’d found down in the basement. You want to be convenient enough for Leliana to reach easily, but you also want to be left alone by essentially everyone else. It’s a difficult balance.

There is no Varric near the entrance, and no one to chide you over your hesitation. Eventually, however, you open the door and step inside. You frown at the emptiness of it, until you notice something you hadn’t before... No, it wasn’t that you hadn’t noticed it; it was that it had not been there. A desk. You walk towards it, frowning lightly. It’s an old thing, and fits poorly against the curved wall of the rotunda, but it has in front of it a comfortable, cushioned chair. And… your papers and tome have been moved from their station near the couch and placed here.

One paper in particular stands out, resting as it is on the center of the desk. Hands hesitant, you pick it up slowly. It’s written in a hand you do not recognize, and… in Elven.

Your heart pounds in your chest as you read, grasping for context at the few words you do not recognize (there is an Elven word for ‘desk’, who knew). The signed name at the bottom confirms it… a note from Solas. In beautifully written Elven script, the letter informs you that he had a desk brought in so that you would not feel tempted to use his while he was away.

You sink into the chair, legs threatening to give away at the unfamiliar sensation in your chest… stabbing, like before, but very different. He had simply assumed you’d stay in his rotunda, when good manners dictated you vacate. He’d had a desk brought in. He’d written you a note. You’re not quite sure this is something you can handle. You flip the letter over, senselessly checking for more. To your surprise, there is more. Written on the back is a…

It’s a pronunciation guide.

The butterflies die as your eye twitches slightly. You can just see the smug look on that ass’ face. Biting your lip and taking a deep breath to calm yourself, you gently set the letter to the side, not wanting to crumple or toss it despite your irritation. It’s still a very kind gesture, even if it is tinted with assholery. And it means that you can just… stay down here, doing your work where you’d grown comfortable. Without Solas, it’s likely that people will find their way down to interrupt you, but surely with less frequency than if you stayed in the library.

Since you spoiled yourself by taking the morning off, you set to work quickly, making use of the smooth, even surface of your new desk, the perfect height of your new chair. Solas has returned the entirety of your translation, so you take to that, deciding to finish the translation before scribing any new pages. Your body aches the longer you spent arched over your work, bruises developing in places you didn’t know you had from falling repeatedly from Revas. You idly imagine Solas’ warm hands and magic soothing your aches and pains as you whip through page after page of Tevene text.

You work straight through dinner and into the night, marveling at the lack of interruptions. The rotunda feels empty, without the constant presence of Solas hovering in the background, but it’s very quiet, and you get a great deal of work done. By the time your eyes are threatening to mutiny from staring at a book for so long, you feel that you will be able to complete the translation with a few more days’ solid work.

Without Solas there to chide you, you work until your body gives out from under you, eyes blurring with exhaustion until they can no longer focus on the page. Finally, you give up. You have no real recollection of crossing the cold courtyard and collapsing into your bed, but you must have, as you spend the night drifting in and out of dreamless sleep, staring blandly up at the dark ceiling above your bed.

-

You’re out before dawn again the next morning, having caught perhaps a few hours of restless sleep. It’s going to catch up with you; you know it is. But you can’t figure out how to leave Skyhold, can’t find a corner of it that isn’t filled with people at all times. If only the Inquisitor had deigned to take Dorian or Vivienne, or both, with him. They and Solas were the only mages of enough talent to have you particularly concerned. Well, that and all the bloody Templars, you suppose.

You’re heading towards the Great Hall, figuring to get an early start on your translation, when Iron Bull ambushes you.

“Falling off a hart a few dozen times not enough to put you to sleep?”

You sigh. “I’m just an early riser.”

“Well, early riser, how about we get started on punching?”

“Wh-“

“C’mon, you had a good time yesterday with the hart, right? Let me show you how to throw a punch, maybe you’ll get worn out enough to actually sleep.”

You sincerely doubt that, but you do need to start dedicating some time to “learning to fight” if you want to be able to hand him a proper beating in the future. And you had wanted to start exercising more. You sigh again, rub your brow. “Alright, fine. You don’t get to beat me up as badly as Revas did, though.”

“I’ll be gentle,” he promises teasingly, and you just roll your eyes. A week ago, such flirtation would have left you irritated, perhaps a little frightened. Now, you’re too tired to care. You’ll lose your edge the more exhausted you become… This is a problem that needs a solution, and soon.

You follow Iron Bull out into an unsurprisingly empty sparring ring. It’s a little too close to where the Templars practice for you to be very comfortable with it, however.

“Alright, let’s see what we’re working with. Make a fist,” he instructs. You can do that, at least, and curl your hand into a fist, thumb on the outside, avoiding the stupidest mistake one could make. When he asks you to throw a punch, however, you do so a little awkwardly, not shaky, but without any real force behind it. You do this a few times before he’s satisfied.

“Alright, first lesson,” he says. He catches your hand with his much larger one and your chest tightens.

Tight cell, see yourself reflected in black eyes.

You take a few deep breaths as he rearranges your fingers slightly. “You always want to punch with your middle knuckle here. It’s the strongest one. If you lead with your ring or pinky finger, you’ll find up with broken fingers.” You readjust accordingly, throw a few more weak punches at the air, waiting for the next tidbit you can add.

He corrects you a few times, teaching you how to twist your arm to avoid straining your elbow, how to throw more force into without hurting your shoulder. You spend most of the morning punching at a dummy, allegedly to get used to the sensation. A lot of people have a sort of block against striking others, which is why soldiers have to train. You don’t want to find out if you have what it takes to drive a sword through someone’s gut in the heat of the moment, if you can avoid it. You, of course, have no difficulty striking people, with a punch or otherwise. If anything, lately it’s been difficult to avoid it. But it’s better that you play the inexperienced woman with this sort of thing. There aren’t a lot of savory places where an elf can learn to fight.

You’re sweaty despite the chill by the time Iron Bull declares that you’re finished for the morning. The sun is resting low in the sky, but is definitely above the horizon, and your stomach is letting you know on no uncertain terms that it wants food, right now. You head towards the mess, and Iron Bull, of course, tags along. After you sit and begin to eat, the rest of your body begins complaining. Loudly.

“Ugh… Sweaty and sore,” you grumble to yourself. “Why did I think any of this was a good idea?”

“Ah, working up a sweat is good for you! There’s always the bath house.” You make a face. Public bath houses are not your favorite thing in the universe. People never comment on the crisscrossing scars on your hands and fingers—they look like the kind one could get from a simple housecat. But you’ve got a few other, more dramatic scars that always lead to questions, sometimes even from complete (nosy) strangers.

Iron Bull correctly reads your expression and leans in slightly. “Well, you know… I’ve got a private bath.”

“Are you two at it again?” comes Thea’s voice from behind you. “If you’re like this in the mess, I wonder what you’re like in private?”

“Lots of sweating, groaning, and swearing,” you say, your voice dripping sarcasm. “We’re probably lovers by Fereldan standards.”

“You’re actually not that bad,” Iron Bull points out. “You learn quick.”

“Okay, there’s no way this is as good as it sounds. What is it this time? More harts? Taken up nug wreslin’, maybe?”

“Punching, remember?” you say, gesturing with your fork towards Iron Bull. “Soon I’ll be able to break someone’s jaw without breaking my hand in the process.” Your mind is on that private bath as the banter continues, however. If you can figure out where it is, maybe you can sneak in when Iron Bull is out training with the Chargers? The idea of a nice, luxurious, possibly warm private bath is worth a few risks.

After breakfast, you head back to the rotunda, still thinking about baths. Did Solas have a private bath, hidden somewhere? More importantly, could you find it, break in, and use it while he was gone? You sit down at your new desk and re-read the note from Solas. Who writes a note about a desk in Elven, anyway? Who’s that fluent in an ancient language? Well, you, obviously, but even you wouldn’t leave someone a note in ancient Tevene. Well… Maybe Dorian. Alright, so you’re both kind of dorks.

You glance over the pronunciation on the back, cringing to note that your pronunciation really is awful.

“Nuvenin,” you mutter out loud to yourself. “NUvenin. NuVENin. NuvenIN. Nuvenin.” You wrap your tongue around a few of the other words. This isn’t exactly the way you wanted to learn Elven from Solas, but if you can use these to improve your overall pronunciation, you’ll at least have something to be smug about when he comes back.

If he comes back.

You push down the throb of painful panic in your chest, set down the note, and pull your translation towards you. Time to bury yourself in work until you suffocate the anxiety. It’s not the best strategy for dealing with stress, in fact, it might actually be the worst, but it’s always worked for you in the past. That and running. You’re really fond of running, but that won’t help this burning sensation of loss. There’s still too much here you want to stay for.

You blast your way through the translation, stopping occasionally only to stretch your hands and fingers or rest your strained eyes. You fully intend to work through lunch, but ultimately the choice isn’t yours. Iron Bull shows up around lunch time, and you hear him enter. You finish a line of translation with a sigh, and are surprised that he actually waits for you to finish. You turn, and are even more surprised to find that he’s already brought food.

It’s not a serving girl’s platter, by any stretch of the imagination, but you can smell fresh bread and a some kind of spiced meat coming from the large, open-topped basket he’s carrying.

“Figured you were missing your fancy meals,” he says with a grin. You have been missing them, as a matter of fact, but this is starting to look dangerously like courting. Better make this clear now.

“Look, Iron Bull, I appreciate you… whatever it is you’re doing. The hart, the training, the food. But, I mean… You know, what Thea says, it’s not really…” You flounder a bit, not quite sure how one does this. Turning down suits is not something you’ve done a lot of, in your life. “I’m not…”

“Hey, it’s alright,” he says, in that softer voice you’re coming to appreciate. “I’m not going to lie and say you’re not attractive to me, or anything like that, but if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. I’m just hoping I can give you some better memories with Qunari than whatever you’ve got banging around in there. Can’t hurt, right?”

You smile, and surprise yourself with the fact that it feels slightly genuine. Not entirely; the practice of smiling when it’s socially appropriate is so ingrained into you that you’d have a hard time calling most of your expressions truly “genuine,” but… You felt like smiling, a little, before you did. That’s something.

 

“Alright, let’s, uh…” You look around the rotunda. Your desk is covered with work, and touching Solas’ desk feels anathema to you. “…Perhaps outside?”

Iron Bull has followed your gaze towards Solas’ desk and nods, heading out the way he came in, the courtyard entrance. You follow, and the two of you sit on the half-wall that serves to keep drunkards and the clumsy from toppling down into the courtyard. You feel like kicking off your shoes, a little, letting bare feet hang over the courtyard, but instead, you reach into Iron Bull’s basket, exploring what he’s managed to pilfer… although you suppose it’s not pilfering when he does it.

Meat between slices of bread… you’re used to the concept from Orlesian parties, but when they do it, the bread is light and fluffy, delicately cut, and, as is the case with most things Orlesian, tiny. This is something else, a large slab of meat between two equally rough cuts of bread. Well, you eat meat and bread all the time, this is just doing both at the same time.

As the two of you eat, you watch soldiers and Templars sparring and training in the rings below. Iron Bull makes some very interesting comments on Templar fighting stances that you hadn’t noticed, and could perhaps exploit in the future, if you ever found yourself fighting a Templar.

“That’s the problem with Templars,” you say absent-mindedly. “They expect a mage or a skirmisher, never both. During the war, I saw one fighting a mage who could turn her mana into a blade; he got sliced to ribbons.”

“You see a lot of fighting?”

“During this war? Mostly Templars really invested in killing anyone who looked at them cross. Most of the rebel mages were in Redcliffe, all the ones in Orlais were mostly hiding, trying to avoid the Templars and the civil war. But there were a few…” You take a drink of the sweet wine Iron Bull had brought, and sigh. “I stayed bundled up tight in my house, avoided strangers and gave anyone wearing a Templar uniform anything he asked for… until the Red Templars showed up. Then I ran.” You glance around at the sturdy walls, the army of armed soldiers that would, hopefully, be standing between you and any attacking force. “I could have done worse, I suppose.”

“How’d you make it through all that fightin’, elfy?” comes a familiar voice. You crane your head around Iron Bull’s bulk, and see Sera, standing where she had been previously blocked from your view.

“Poorly,” you say with a sigh. “Essentially none of my supplies… or my mule, for that matter, survived the trip.”

“Yer what?

“Supplies?”

“Don’t be catty, I meant the donkey!” She sits down next to you, feet dangling down beside yours.

“I had a mule,” you say with a sigh. “Her name was Bella.”

“Maker, I’m imaginin’ you with a donkey…”

“She was a good companion! Until she wasn’t.” If there hadn’t been so many damn Templars… If you hadn’t been alone. Things could have been different. You really are quite unhappy about losing Bella. She had been your companion for over a year at that point.

“So, you two buddies now?” she asks, gesturing between you and Iron Bull.

“Eeeeh…” you say, waving your hand vaguely.

“Hey! Is that anyway to talk about your new trainer?” Iron Bull protests.

“Psssh. You’re teaching me how to throw a punch. You’re hardly a mentor,” you say with a snort.

“Really? But you-“

“It’s high time I learned,” you say, cutting her off with a pointed glance. “Even if I’m not entirely comfortable with Qunari, he was the first to offer.” You shove the last of your bread into your mouth, chewing as you stand. You wash it down with a last swig of sweet wine, then stretch. “Alright. Back to the grind for me… Thanks for the meal, Bull.”

Iron Bull has a more innate understanding of one’s personal boundaries than Sera, it seems, as he accepts the cue to leave, whereas Sera follows you into the rotunda. Seeing her in there jars you slightly, but you head to your desk, certain she’ll get the hint eventually. She walks the walls in a long, slow circle, much as you had when you first entered, as you begin your translation again.

“Never been in here,” she says suddenly, jarring you out of your focus. “Stupid Solas is normally here, his head so far up the past… Oh,” she adds, seeing your glare. “Guess you like ‘im.”

“I respect his knowledge,” you say darkly. You try to get back to work, but in a matter of minutes, she’s prattling again, and when you turn around, she’s sat down on the corner of Solas’ desk. You clench your jaw a little, take a deep breath.

“Between Iron Bull and Solas, you sure got yer plate full, huh?” she’s saying, but you’re barely paying attention to the actual words.

“Sera…” you begin, your patience wearing quickly as she thumbs through one of Solas (likely old, likely valuable) tomes.

“Y’know, I could train ya! I got all kinds of interestin’ knowledge.”

“Perhaps,” you say, gritting your teeth together and standing. “It helps me to have scheduled time with which to socialize, so that I can focus on my work for the Inquisition.” You cross the rotunda in quick strides, gently closing the tome and removing it from her grasp.

“Ugh, you’re even startin’ to sound like him, a little!”

You want to say something catty, like what, you mean educated, but bite your tongue. So the two elves in your life aren’t fond of each other. You won’t be getting together for any elf parties, so sad. You can still enjoy her company.

“I should get you in the evening! Bet I could teach you tons.”

You sigh. “If I agree to meet you after dinner, will you let me work?”

“Yep! Meet me in the archery field, the one where we met!” she says cheerfully, and you’re starting to suspect she was annoying you on purpose. That doesn’t stop you from watching her rear sway as she exits, though.

-

You skip dinner, focusing instead on getting as much work done as you can. As more and more people realize Solas isn’t here to be grumpy at them, more people, much like Sera, will be walking right in. You suspect your work these next few weeks won’t be your best, or your quickest. If you can at least finish the translation, you can give a progress report to Leliana. You’d like to at least prove that they’re not wasting their resources on you.

Finally, a time that is inevitably “after dinner” comes along, and you can’t put off setting down your work any longer. You’re not happy about it, however, and grumble under your breath as you trudge out to the archery range. Sera isn’t the only person there, but she does have a second bow. Maker. On top of pretending to learn things you already know, it seems you’ll also be learning genuinely new things.

“Sera. You do know I’ve never picked up a bow, right?” you ask her as you walk over.

“Like it’s hard! C’mon!” she tosses the bow to you. You at least manage to catch it.

“I can’t help noticing that you’ve brought me, literally, just a bow and arrows. No vambrace? No chest guard?”

She snorts. “Y’don’t need one!”

You glance down at your chest a little dejectedly. It’s perhaps a little flatter than hers, but that’s just cruel.

“Besides, brought you a tab! See how considerate I am?”

You take the tab with a sigh. At least the little piece of leather will keep you from shredding your fingers with this tomfoolery. She points towards the target, and you scowl at her. “Are you even going to show me how to do it?”

“You need me to? You’ve seen me do it before. Here, watch.” Effortlessly, she notches an arrow, draws back, and releases, one smooth motion that lodges the arrow in the center of the target. “See?”

“…You’ve never taught anyone before, have you?”

“Wassat supposed to mean?”

“Alright… alright…” You try to mimic her stance as best as you can, manage to grasp an arrow and notch it. It’s not as though you’ve never seen a bow work before… But she tsks you as you begin drawing the string back.

“Yer holdin’ it all wrong!”

“Show me how to hold it, then!” you snap. “One of the key parts of showing me how to do something is actually showing me.”

“Alright, grumpy. Here.” And then her hand is on yours, fingers calloused, hand small, delicate looking… much like yours. She adjusts your grip, both on the bow and on the string, then stands behind you to raise your arms up into the correct position. Your breath catches in your throat as you feel the soft swell of her breasts against your back. It’s a small miracle you don’t accidentally release the arrow right then, but you manage to hold on to the string.

“Pull back further; I know ya got more strength than that,” she says, batting at your arm. “You’re stronger than ya let on, right? Can’t throw a punch, but you can climb a wall?”

You scowl at her. “Those are two very different skill sets.” You release the arrow, and cringe as it misses the target entirely.

“Wow, you suck.”

“Thanks, Sera.”

-

You continue until it’s well into the night. When it becomes too dark for you to shoot at (and miss) targets, you show her a few tricks for throwing daggers. It’s all in the wrist, and you’re amused by her lack of talent at it.

“I’m good with my fingers, not my wrist!” she protests when you point this out, and you shut your mouth quickly, lest you say something untoward. Sera is easy to relax around, easy to flirt with. She’s a bit like Iron Bull in that regard, except with one major difference: you’re actually attracted to her. But you know better than to let your libido get away from you. Oh, sure, it’s fun when you start out, but that way lies disaster, and you know it.

“Ugh, we’re all sweaty,” Sera says, wrinkling her nose. “We should go to the bath house.”

“We?” you say, raising an eyebrow. “That’s rather forward.”

“Oh, pshaw. S’more interestin’ than private baths! C’mon!” she says, grabbing your wrist.

“Alright,” you agree, consenting to be dragged along. “But I’m wearing a towel. Got to protect my girlish virginity.”

The shared bath is warm, steam rising from the waters, and you wonder why until you see the glowing sigils of a fire rune. Brilliant… They’ve got the place crawling with Templars, but still enough mages to give them basic comforts! Bloody hypocrites…

Sera all but throws her clothes off, sinking into the water with a long, loud moan that leaves you a little distracted. There are a few other women in there, as well, both human, and both staring at the two of you like you’ve grown second heads. This also isn’t the bath house you were instructed to go to, which is rather lacking in the fire rune department. Hmph. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the situation.

You step out of your clothes, covering yourself with a towel until the very instant you sink into the warm, dark water. Maker, that feels amazing.

“Whoa! Nice scar!” Sera exclaims as you slide deeper into the water. “How’d you get that?”

You scowl at her, running a hand across your abdomen self-consciously. “It happened while I was escaping from Seheron,” you lie shortly. “I don’t like thinking about it.”

Sera nods in understanding, seeming content to let it drop, which is a little impressive, for her. Polite decorum is not exactly her strong point. But she saw your hands shake while you recounted some of your time in Seheron, including some details from your escape. Maybe even she knew when not to pry.

You soak in silence for all of 30 seconds before she chimes in again, chattering a mile a minute about this and that. It provides somewhat soothing background noise, and all you really have to say is “mmm” and “aaah” at appropriate intervals. All in all, there are worse ways to spend an evening, helped by the occasional lingering side-glance at Sera’s naked body. You can’t get involved, but no one said anything about not looking, right? And you’re glad to know about the nicer bathhouse. If you were willing to give the Inquisition the benefit of the doubt, you’d say that this one was for the soldiers and Templars, and the one you’d been directed to, for the help, but after meeting the Inquisitor, you’re a little less likely to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone here.

You say your goodbyes to Sera, promising you’ll have another “training night” at some point, though you can’t afford to do them every day (you’re losing enough working hours as it is). You head back to your room, not even trying not to think about Sera naked. Solas shirtless, Sera naked… If nothing else, you’ll have new fantasies besides Fenris to keep you warm on cold nights after you leave this place.

Chapter Text

You spend the night tossing and turning, a combination of libido and insomnia keeping you up through the night. You’re certain you look like a mess by the time you roll out of bed, but you can’t bring yourself to care. You’re catching at least glimpses of sleep, and you’re confident that you can survive for a while like this. You’re just not happy about it.

You dress as lightly as you can, knowing you’ll just want to change out of whatever you’re wearing after spending the pre-dawn hours pretending to learn to throw a decent punch. All of the clothing is a size too big for you and fits poorly, the consequences of having an elven body in a human-driven Inquisition, but it doesn’t particularly bother you. It’s clean clothing. Anything short of being literally made of rashvine and you’d still wear it.

You head out to the practice fields, and are unsurprised to see Iron Bull already there, stretching. And damn is he stretching. You’re not even attracted to Qunari, but a muscled body stretching is a muscled body stretching, even if it’s unlucky enough to have horns on top. You likely wouldn’t have even noticed if you weren’t so pent up, but as it is… At least you’ll be able to work out some frustration punching things.

Iron Bull looks pleased when he spots you walking over. “Wasn’t sure you were going to show,” he says, straightening out with a grunt.

You shrug noncommittally. “It’s something to do before breakfast.”

He leads you through a few stretches, all of which burn fantastically. You’re tired, but pushing your aching body through its paces does feel good. After you finish stretching, you begin the “learning” proper, throwing a few punches at air, and then at a dummy, to make sure you’ve retained the information from yesterday. You have, of course. Let him think you’re a natural at this; you haven’t weeks or months to waste acting like you’re useless.

You spend the morning learning where to punch, Iron Bull demonstrating both on himself, and on the training dummy. He mentions differences between the races of Thedas in passing, since you’ve only a human-sized dummy and a Qunari to practice on. It’s mostly practical reach issues… It would be tricky for someone of your height to punch a grown Qunari male square in the throat, after all. You start putting a little more force into your punches, acting a little more confident in your ability to strike. Iron Bull seems pretty pleased with your “progress,” or perhaps with his own teaching abilities. What he should be pleased about is the fact you can be this close to him without hissing like an infuriated cat.

You stop when the sun rests contentedly on the horizon, fully risen. You feel like curling up into bed again, but know you wouldn’t be able to sleep. Once more, you’re sweaty despite the chill, and this time, you decide to get a bath.

“I’ll meet you at the mess later, Bull. I’m getting a bath, even if I freeze half to death in the process.”

“You sure you don’t want to use that private bath?” Iron Bull says with a wicked grin. You roll your eyes.

“Yours?” you ask with a snort. “No thanks; I’d probably drown in it.” You head towards the bathhouse you and Sera used before reconsidering. There are probably a lot of people in there right now, and you don’t want a scene. Best go to the one you’d been told about, even if it means a cold bath. All you really want is to rinse the sweat off and change clothes, anyway.

You do note that you only see pointed ears as you enter the bathhouse. It is as you suspected… whether intended by the Inquisition or not, there is, effectively, a separate, shittier bathhouse for elves. Pathetic, but hardly unexpected. You strip, again using a towel to cover yourself right up until the instant you sink into the chilly water. Without the fire rune, it’s much less pleasant, but water is water.

“Miss Emma?”

You start, covering yourself instinctively as you glance around the waters for the person who spoke. You’re surprised when your eyes fall on a familiar face. It’s Celia, the rather unlucky woman from the kitchen.

“Celia!” you say, not having to force the surprise in your voice. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I thought you might have traveled out with your ser!” she says, seemingly equally surprised.

You snort. “Me? I’d be dead within a week.”

“Well, we miss you in the kitchens. I do, at least. It’s nice to meet someone who doesn’t mind pitching in.”

You smile, the same practiced smile you’ve been using for years. “In truth, I hate standing around. If I’m not busy, I go mad.”

“You must be losing it, then, with your apostate gone,” she says, and there’s a slight teasing sound to her voice. Ah, yes… She likely thinks you’ve been sleeping with him.

“I… I try to stay occupied,” you say, letting your smile grow strained. “But I worry.”

“He’s lucky to have someone so… devoted.” She clears her throat politely. At least she has more decorum than Thea. “I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated by you at first, just because you seemed so… confident. Have you worked with mages in the past?”

“A little,” you say with the tone of an admission. “I was nervous at first, but in the end, a master is a master. They’re either cruel or they’re not; I find the magic has little impact in either direction.”

Celia shudders. “I would be so frightened! I get nervous enough when I have to bring food to Madame de Fer, and she’s a proper Circle mage!”

Your ear twitches with idle interest. “Have you waited on Madame de Fer in the past?”

“A few times… I have a tendency to lose at straws.”

You lower your voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “To be honest, she does scare me… The way she carries herself gives me chills.”

Celia nods vigorously. “She’s terrifying!” she whispers back. “And I just know she notices every little flaw… If I never saw her again, it would be too soon!”

By the time you leave the bath to head to breakfast, you’ve gathered a bit of interesting gossip on a number of subjects. It’s good to know that your connections in the kitchen aren’t entirely gone with the loss of Solas. It seems public perception of Solas hasn’t improved much, but that’s too be expected. That sort of project will take time. In the meantime, it seems like the mages with Vivienne’s so called “Circle” are a bit more respected and less feared than apostates like Solas or Dorian. Dorian’s easy-going personality and flirtatious charm make things a little smoother for him. Solas, frankly, has neither.

Luckily, Thea and Iron Bull are both still in the mess when you arrive, and you join them after you’ve gathered your food.

“Look at you, on time for breakfast again!” Thea teases as you sit. “Be careful! If you keep eating properly, you might stop looking like you’re starving to death.”

You make a face at her. A little meat on your bones wouldn’t be a terrible thing, you suppose, but you know it will go straight to your hips; it always does.

“We need to get a layer of muscle on you!” Iron Bull declares. “Make sure you eat plenty of meat!”

You snort. “There’s never ‘plenty of meat’ in here.” You gesture at your gruel to prove your point.

“I bet Bull could bring you mea-“

“Don’t start, Thea.”

“You never let me have any fun,” she says with a pout.

“If anything, I let you have too much fun,” you point out. “Don’t just live vicariously through me! You’re a redhead, too, you know.”

Thea grins wickedly. “Oh, I’ve already been on that horse, love!” she says, confirming your suspicions for you. “Why do you think it comes so highly recommended?”

You act appropriately flustered, then busy yourself with your gruel. It’s apparent Iron Bull is watching for your reaction as much as you’re watching for his, however. You feel a little bit sorry for Thea… involved in a game she has no idea she’s even a piece in. It’s pity, however, not sympathy. In truth, you’re glad to have someone largely guileless around. She gives you a nice break, if nothing else.

Thea continues to tease you as you walk towards the Great Hall together. You react as you should, but your mind is on other things. Hopefully she’s not perceptive enough to notice that your heart isn’t fully in your embarrassment, that your snaps lack force. You do note, however, that she breaks off before you enter the rotunda to go up the other set of stairs. Superstition? Habit?

You enter the rotunda, a genuine smile ghosting across your lips as you admire your desk. It still looks a bit out of place, to you, but you’re glad to have it. It... It almost makes you feel like you belong. Like you’ve been here longer than a scant tenday. You move to Solas’ desk, frowning as you straighten it slightly from where it had been mussed when Sera sat on it, playing with books and papers. It still feels a little empty in here, but at least it’s quieter. And there won’t be any distracting magic pestering you, unless Dorian decides to get frisky in the library.

You settle into your translation. You’re not making as much headway as you would if you weren’t being constantly distracted by your “friends,” and it bothers you. Arguably, laying down lines of communication and information-gathering is significantly more important than the tome, but it’s hard to convince yourself of that. It’s such a very nice tome, and you’re too prideful to let your work seem subpar, although that admission makes you cringe.

Perhaps halfway between breakfast and lunch, another missive comes down from Leliana. Honestly, she’s right upstairs, she could practically drop it on your head. Perhaps fold it up and let it fly down like a note passed in a classroom. You accept it from the man who delivers it and unfold it with interest. Another missive in Qunlat… Surely she has other people for this? Or perhaps not. This is clearly more Ben-Hassrath documents, but this… This isn’t detailing the movements of an enemy or a cult. Your eyes widen slightly. This is the movements of Ben-Hassrath agents themselves! How did she get her tricky Orlesian paws on this?

You’re surprised she’s letting you see this… There are no dates or numbers on it, nothing to indicate if this information is current. Perhaps it’s old information, sent your way as a test? If she’s spying on the Ben-Hassrath, has some connection other than Iron Bull… She needs to know you’re trustworthy, and absolutely needs to know you won’t go running off to Iron Bull about it, especially now that you two are being seen together with regularity.

You put aside your tome and immediately begin scribing a translation. If it’s a test, you intend to pass. If not, this is likely vital information for the Inquisition. Either way, it deserves your full attention. You do, however, make particular effort to remember each word written. You can’t risk scribing off your own copy; if someone was to catch you with it, you would be dead in the water. But one thing no one can take from you is your own good memory.

As soon as the ink is dry and you’ve given the missive one last glance over to be sure you’ll remember it, you fold up both pieces of paper and head up the stairs. This time, when you move to hand the documents to Leliana, she dismisses the person she was speaking to, and turns her focus on you.

“Another swift response. Thank you,” she says. Her smile is a pretty one. You can practically see the poison behind it, however. Bards smile the way you do, muscle memory. “I saw you and Iron Bull in the practice court this morning.”

You sincerely doubt that she did, but a spy is a spymaster’s eyes, after all.

“He’s teaching me to punch,” you say, semi-honestly. “In the process, attempting to get me more comfortable with Qunari.”

“Is it working?”

“I’m learning how to punch.”

“I’m glad to see the two of you getting along,” she says, and then unfolds the missive, turning to read it and effectively dismissing you. You give a slight bow and exit down the stairs.

Is she concerned about the seeming friendship between you and Iron Bull? She ought to be, if there’s anything to these missives she’s having you translate. Still, if she wants to know you’re more loyal to the Inquisition than you are the fucking Qun… The only thing you’re less loyal to than the Qun are the bloody Templars. The Inquisitor may not be your favorite person, but, for now at least, the Inquisition is doing important work. You wouldn’t sell them out to the Qunari… Not unless there was something very, very good in it for you.

Back in the rotunda, you work more on your translation. How long will it take you to complete… a few more days, perhaps? Depending on how many distractions come your way, both in the form of missives from Leliana and in elf- and Qunari-shaped packages. You try to get as much done as quickly as possible for the inevitable next distraction.

The inevitable next distraction comes in the form of Sera, unsurprisingly. What’s a little more unexpected is that she’s apparently decided to copy Iron Bull and bring you lunch. She doesn’t bother waiting for you to finish translating the current sentence to interrupt you. You sigh as you set your quill down. One of these days, you and she are going to have to have a talk about boundaries.

“C’mon! Let’s go eat up on the balcony!” she says, pulling at your arm when you don’t stand up immediately.

“You’re just worried that- Oh,” you say with a smirk, looking behind her. “Hello, Iron Bull.”

The scowl on Sera’s face is priceless. She was clearly hoping to get you clear of the rotunda before he showed up. And he has food, too! You’re starting to feel like the prettiest girl in the village. Iron Bull’s smirk mirrors your own; he sees the humor in the situation, too.

“Alright, ladies, I’m sure there’s enough of me to go around,” you say amusedly. “The balcony sounds like a lovely idea, Sera.” She loops an arm possessively through yours as you head up the stairs, taking advantage of your shared small frames to walk side by side while Iron Bull tags along behind. As if this couldn’t get any more surreal, Dorian spots you as you’re walking through the library.

“Oh, are you having a picnic?” he says delightedly, noticing the baskets. “And you didn’t even think to invite me?”

“I’m willing to bet we have enough food for four,” you say, eyes glancing between Iron Bull and Dorian. Hmm… “You should tag along.”

He does just that, and somehow you find yourself eating on a balcony with three of the Inquisitor’s companions. Leliana looked amused as the four of you passed through, but said nothing.

It’s the exact kind of situation that you would never have seen yourself in, and yet somehow, you can’t quite place where everything went weird enough for you to wind up here. Sera doesn’t look particularly pleased about the situation, but before long, she’s distracted, bickering with Dorian about magic. It’s a conversation you’re content to stay out of, until she starts talking about “proper tools” and then it’s all you can do to keep a straight face.

“And the rebel mages?” she asks, clearly frustrated. “How many proper tools have they raised?”

You and Iron Bull have some practice in controlling your expressions. Dorian does not, and it’s clearly everything he can do not to burst out laughing. “That's not...” he covers his hand with his mouth, lips trembling with suppressed glee. “I don't think I can continue.”

“Right. Well. I don't care how gifted you are. Don't cram it where it's not wanted!”

“Oh, Maker,” you squeak out loud, then cover your mouth to keep from laughing.

She turns to look at you. “Wot?”

“N-nothing,” you choke out. “Just impressed with your… assessment.”

She narrows her eyes at you. She likely knows you’re having a good bit of amusement at her expense, but isn’t sure what joke she’s the butt of.

“What about you, Emma? You work with Solas. Surely you don’t share our friends contempt for the arcane?” Dorian asks, putting you rather uncomfortably on the spot.

You clear your throat to remove the last of the giggles. “I don’t work with Solas, Dorian. I work in his vicinity.

“That’s not an answer.”

“I just don’t want you overestimating me,” you say simply. “As for magic…” You glance around at the company you’re in. A mage, a Qunari spy, and a very cute young lady who despises magic. There is no good answer. “When I was in Tevinter, it was just another terrifying weapon that other people had that I didn’t. After Seheron… I didn’t have any run-ins with mages until I began doing translations for a Circle. And they seemed like ordinary people. I… I don’t know. I never gave it too much thought, until this war started.”

Dorian blinks at you. “I think that’s the most words I’ve heard you string together in a row.”

“It wasn’t the sort of question that gets a one word answer,” you say pointedly, then bite into your loaf of bread. Wherever these people get their constant supply of warm, fresh-baked bread, you want a line directly to it.

“So, the elephant in the room,” Dorian says, swiftly changing gears. This man is as much of a chatterbug as Sera is. “What are you all doing together? Especially you two,” he adds, gesturing between you and Bull.

“Bull’s teachin’ her how to punch! An’ I’m teachin’ her how to… how to…”

“How to be a more well-rounded person,” you supply. “Considering I’ll never be an archer.”

“So, the new fad is Teach the Elf? A shame you’re not a mage, Emma, or I could join in, too.”

“It’s just as well,” you say, chasing the bread with some of the chilled cider Iron Bull had brought. “My days are filling up terribly fast.”

-

It turns into a long lunch before you finally manage to escape back to the rotunda. At least you have something interesting to think about… Iron Bull and Dorian. Despite the fact that Sera and Dorian were both talking a mile a minute, Dorian and Iron Bull essentially said nothing to each other. Have you done any lasting damage, or are they normally like this? And more importantly, is there something there you can take advantage of? Dorian isn’t a hassle to you now that you’re out of the library, but Iron Bull… He’s the very definition of a hassle. A distraction for him would be good news for you.

You churn through more of your translation, working as quickly as you can without sacrificing quality. Most of the translations are fairly straightforward, and you have a good feel for the piece by now. You feel as if you’re on the homestretch, but it will still be a while before you can actually call yourself finished. Then it will be nothing but scribing new pages… joy. Your hand will be hating you for weeks… Unless Solas arrives back before then. The thought of his hands on your arm as warm, supportive magic fills you…

Maker, you miss that. No more shaking fingers, no need to stop and stretch every half-hour lest you cramp and ruin a page. You imagine warm hands massaging yours as you stretch your hand. Once, you had someone who would rub your hand like that, kneading stiffness out one finger at a time. It had ended poorly, of course, as all things do, but you do miss the massages.

You intend, of course, to work straight through dinner again. You have no guarantee you won’t be interrupted again, that Sera won’t come and try to steal you away (although if it involves seeing her nude again, you would probably go). When the door opens around dinner time, you cringe, expecting another attempt to get you alone from… Maker, someone. Anyone. At this point you wouldn’t be surprised to see the Horsemaster come through the bloody door.

You are surprised, however. It’s not Iron Bull, not Sera, not even Horsemaster Dennet… But Celia. And she’s carrying a serving platter.

“Celia?” you ask, confused, as you stand to help her. She seems fine, however, likely because it’s only a single serving. “What are you…”

“Oh, no one really cares where you take a plate of food, if it’s just one plate,” she says with a smile. “It wasn’t ‘til after I left that I realized you might not even be here… But you mentioned doing work in the rotunda, so I thought…”

“You brought that for me?” you interrupt, gesturing towards the food. Celia smiles.

“I thought you could use a little pick me up, with Ser Solas gone. Consider it a thank you from the kitchen staff. Especially me,” she adds with a laugh.

You’re a little taken aback. You honestly hadn’t expected something like this. In as many ways as this place lives up to expectations, with suspicious people and segregated bath houses, it circumvents them, with genuinely kind people like Celia or Belinda, helping you with, for all appearances, no ulterior motives.

“Celia, I…” you say, somewhat at a loss for words.

“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” she says, getting a little flustered. “It’s just a bit of extra food.” She lays the plates out on the side table by the couch, perhaps remembering you reclining there the first time she entered. “I hope your Solas comes back, Miss Emma, so we can start seeing you in the kitchen again.”

And with that, she’s gone, leaving you more than a little dumbfounded by the whole situation. You take a moment to be stunned, and then move to examine the food. It’s the typical fare that Solas would be brought. You smile slightly as you move the food to your desk, intending fully to enjoy the meal slowly while you work. The scent of warm broth and delicately sautéed vegetables reminds you strongly of Solas and shared meals. Isn’t it a little soon for you to be feeling nostalgic?

You delight in dunking bread in the broth and eating it slowly, maneuvering yourself awkwardly to be able to write while eating, without risking dripping on your papers. It’s something of an art.

You continue working long after you’ve finished eating and stacked the dishes on the side table. You burn a candle down to a stub before realizing how late it is. You’ll strain your eyes, working like this much longer, but you know you won’t be able to sleep, and a walk through the cold night air will only make your self-induced insomnia worse.

That’s when your eyes fall on the couch. The gloriously, comfortable couch that’s only a few feet from your work area. And something miraculous dawns on you… There is literally nothing stopping you from sleeping on Solas’ couch. You stretch out on it immediately, reveling in how much softer it is than your bed. Perhaps there will be some benefits to having Solas gone, after all.

-

You have the barest ghost of a dream while you rest on Solas’ couch. It’s a warm dream, despite the chill in the rotunda, and while you can’t quite make out any figures, rhyme, or reason, you wake feeling… heated, in several senses of the word. The sweat sticking to your skin gives you a chill in the early, pre-dawn air, and your hair is a disheveled mess, the result of falling asleep without letting your hair down. Your comb is, of course, in your room. As are your clean clothes. You really didn’t think this “sleeping in the rotunda” thing all the way through.

You attempt to fix yourself as best as possible, smoothing out wrinkled clothing, letting your hair down and combing it with your fingers before pulling it back up in a haphazard bun. You change clothing after your mornings with Iron Bull anyway; going in dirty clothes is, if anything, saving the laundry workers some trouble.

The doors to the Great Hall likely won’t be open this early, so you exit directly through the rotunda. There’s an unpleasant chill in the air and a blast of icy wind hits you straight away as you step outside. Ugh. This place is going to be hell in the winter. The wind is somewhat broken up by the walls as you head down into the rotunda, fortunately. You have a moment of sympathy for guards stationed on the outer ramparts.

Iron Bull likely notices that you’re coming from the direction of the rotunda, not your bedroom, which is in the opposite direction. If he does, however, he keeps any remarks on the matter to himself. You notice he has his own differences this morning, namely the fact that there’s a somewhat short, but stocky human man in the ring with him.

You were drunk out of your mind when you met some of the Chargers, but you still manage to peg him as one of them… Which one, and his name, utterly escapes you, however, despite the fact you know for a fact you’ve seen him wave to you at least once.

Iron Bull directs you straight into some stretches, which don’t burn nearly as badly after your night on what must be the most comfortable couch in all of Thedas. You keep eyeing the man, however, uncertain as to why he’s there, as well as if you should recognize him. You’re not often at a loss for people’s names, so the sensation is awkwardly chafing at you.

Eventually, Iron Bull deems you’ve stretched enough, and actually explains what the hell is going on. “So, now that you’ve got the basics of throwing a punch down, I thought I’d bring Krem in to demonstrate how to be a tiny little guy in a fight.”

“Gee, thanks, chief,” the man says sarcastically.

Krem. Alright. You have a… Oh, damnit, that’s the fellow whose lap you drunkenly sat in, isn’t it? Krem. That was his name. Fantastic.

He is a little on the shorter side, but he’s still several inches taller than you, and that’s where the physical similarities end. He’s thick, firmly muscled under his tunic, whereas you look like a stiff wind could pick you up and carry you off. Still, he’s closer to your size than Iron Bull is by a large measure.

“I thought I was just learning to punch,” you say to Iron Bull, playing the reluctant house elf despite the fact you’re eager for the excuse. Maker bless Iron Bull, he’s basically handing you legitimate places to point when someone asks you, “where did you learn that?”

“Part of learning to punch is learning when to punch, and how to get the opportunity. If your arms are pinned, it won’t matter how well you can break a jaw,” Iron Bull explains.

“Wait… are you going to be pinning me?” you say with a frown. “You’re twice my size!”

“You can use that to your advantage… as Krem will be happy to demonstrate.”

“Oh, I’ll demonstrate, but I won’t be happy,” Krem says darkly. His eyes are laughing, however. You nod and take a few steps back. It’s more than a little alarming to see the strength in Iron Bull’s body as he grabs Krem, locking the man’s arms behind his back. You do not like the idea of being grabbed like that, especially not by a Qunari. You can only tamp down instincts so much; even seeing it happen to another person has you wanting to bolt.

You force yourself to observe carefully, however, as Krem smashes and slithers his way out of holds and grabs. What he does limits what you can do; you only have excuses to mimic him. Fortunately, when it becomes time for you to be involved, Iron Bull has you practice with Krem, first. Being grabbed at by a human man is something any city elf has experience with, and it’s such a familiar situation for you that the hardest part of the morning’s training is only dislodging Krem in the ways you’re being told to, as well as not letting muscle memory take over and sending him flipping over the fence.

By the time the sun rests on the horizon, you’ve worked up a sweat, and Krem’s probably worked up a new set of bruises from where your boot connected with his shin a little too passionately. You even caught your heel against his crotch, once, felt the sole of your foot connect with something squishy, but the man took it like a champ, only wincing and readjusting himself as you apologized profusely. All in all, it was a good morning’s practice, even if your whole body hurts from twisting and being grabbed at. You do have one complaint, however.

“I was hoping our little training sessions would be more of a secret,” you say with a scowl. You know they won’t stay that way for long, but you’d like to at least put on the spectacle of spontaneity when you get to punch the crap out of Iron Bull.

“My lips are sealed,” Krem promises. “After all, if every serving girl thought she could get ‘private lessons’ with the chief, he’d never have a chance to sleep.”

You ignore the implications. It’s just as well. You sat on this man’s lap at some point; him thinking you’re interested in another man is, if anything, a blessing. And you’ve long since come to terms with the idea that half the keep assumes you’ve been shacking up with the freaking Qunari. Maker only knows what the kitchen staff think of you, with the clashing rumors of your sleeping partners.

“I appreciate your help, Krem, and your discretion,” you say. If anything, a few hours of grabbing and punching at each other removed any lingering awkwardness about your seating choices.

He and Iron Bull head off towards the mess together. You make your excuses and head towards the (elven) bathhouse again. The water is cool and doesn’t do anything to soothe your aching muscles, but it rinses sweat off as good as any water, and you’re relieved to change into fresh clothes. By the time you get to the mess to eat, it seems Thea has already come and left, and if Iron Bull and Krem ate here, they have as well. You eat alone, a few stolen moments of blissful peace, although not silence. No mess is ever silent.

The rotunda is where the real quiet is, and you’re happy to get back to work in your translation. Perhaps today will be the day you finally complete it, if you can get through without too many interruptions. The idea of informing Leliana that you had finished your translation was an appealing one… Technically speaking, aside from the two Qunlat documents you’d translated, and the information she found on “Alix Gagnon,” she had no real evidence you could handle this kind of translation. You could show her some of the pages you had already finished, as well, give her some kind of idea as to what the finished tome would be…

Your fantasies came to an abrupt halt, however, when your eyes traced across a completely bewildering sentence. “Pervigilem superest spicaherbis sopire draconem, qui crista linguisque tribus praesignis et uncis dentibus custos erat arboris aureae?” What the… And it just keeps going like that… “Parbarrum”? You’ve never come across that before… It happens, when dealing with ancient or dead languages. Perhaps something to do with dragons, specifically? You hunt the surrounding sentences for context, and fine none, largely because many of the surrounding sentences are things you need context to translate, as well. “Dura mater” could be telling you about a thick, helmet-like skull, or it could be describing more of the mothering habits of High Dragons. And this part is talking about wolves for some Maker forsaken reason… a comparison or metaphor, most likely. The most confusing thing of all is the sudden change in tone. Perhaps this paragraph is quoting another work?

You click your tongue against your teeth, frowning. This is going to require a bit more effort. Unfortunately, you’re not exactly in Val Royeaux. You cannot make a trip to the University of Orlais, lie or sneak your way into their library. There’s little chance the Inquisition will have anything of use. But… you suppose there’s no harm in looking. You yank your shoes back on and trudge sullenly up the stairs. This kind of a setback could really hurt your progress, and if you tell Leliana she needs to send off to Orlais for a tome on Ancient Tevene… how embarrassing.

You begin looking through the books, trying to get a feel for the layout of the library. There doesn’t appear to be much of a layout, however. It’s no organizational method you recognize, in any case. No wonder Dorian is constantly throwing books around in frustration.

Speak of a demon, it seems, and one shall appear.

“Looking for something, dear?” Dorian asks, stepping up to glance over your shoulder at the shelf you’re currently glaring at.

“I doubt I’ll find it,” you say with a scowl. “Do we have anything on ancient Tevene?”

“In this library? If we did, someone would have already been translating that tome of yours.”

You let out a groan of frustration.

“Troubles?”

“Do you know what parbarrum means?”

Dorian frowns, thoughtfully. “Not off the top of my head… I have a few books from my private collection here… perhaps they may be of assistance?”

The two of you eventually settle in the little corner of the library he’s claimed as his own, him sitting on his grand chair and you perched on the armrest, so that you can frown your way through the same tone. The sounds of your hushed bickering soon fill the library, conversations half in the common tongue and half in Tevene as you snap back and forth.

“Terrigenam Pythona? Are you trying to make a fool of me, Dorian? There’s just as much a chance they’re speaking of a blighted snake!”

“Yes, I’m sure every giant lizard in legend is just a blighted snake. They don’t all have wings, you know!”

“What idiot would describe a dragon as Pythona?”

“Have you been to Tevinter?”

You ignore the obvious comeback—the look of dawning horror in Dorian’s eyes tells you he’s realized it as well. “We’re going about this the wrong way,” you grumble, pulling the draconic tome, which you had fetched from downstairs, into your lap. “As best as I can understand, this line is about this thing being… either an enemy or a rival, or… a hated foe? Of dragons. Perhaps modern knowledge of dragons can help us narrow it down?”

“How much do you think I know about dragons?”

The two of continue for longer than you realize, digging through tomes and bickering. You realize that you lost track of time only when a serving girl comes with a plate of food. “Oh for… Do all of you have your own private catering?” you say, irritated, as the women quickly sets the food down and scurries off. You grab a piece of bread before he can even reach towards the plate, tucking it into your mouth and chewing as you continue reading.

Dorian watches, a look of mild offense turning into amusement as you continue to pull more bread into your mouth as you chew. “You eat like a nug.

You glare at him, but your mouth is too full for you to respond.

You steal bits of food off his plate as the two of you work. You’re certain Thea sees you, but for whatever reason, she leaves you alone, and after hours of pouring over books, and scribing notes, you have something resembling an answer.

“Okay, so we’re in agreement that they were probably a food source, more than a rival, and this guy is just being poetic, right?” you say, sitting at the base of Dorian’s chair. He’s still sitting in it; he’s only gotten up to get more tomes from his room. You’re nestled between his legs as he leans over to watch you write over your shoulder. With another person, it might have been awkward. Iron Bull would have sexualized it, and with Solas, you would have sexualized it. But Dorian reminds you more of your old assistant back in Orlais in more ways than one.

“Yes, and it’s definitely a quote from an older book,” Dorian adds, thumbing through a rather tattered book. “Here they use drakon, meaning “dragon” in a completely different dialect of ancient Tevene, much older.”

You scowl and your notes. “I think we’ve accounted for everything… even that ridiculous line about wolves biting wolves… except what ‘parbarrum’ means. I-“ You pause, squinting down at the book you were idly flipping through in between writing. It’s an old bestiary.

“Look! Look at this! Parbarrus!” you exclaim, pointing to a label under a small drawing. “What… what on earth is that… Is that a trunk?”

“Looks kind of like a snoufleur…”

You meet eyes with Dorian, trading a look of shared horror.

“Nooooo…” you groan, covering your mouth in horror.

“Dragonlings,” he says grimly. “Hiding in bushes to ambush their hated foe… snoufleurs.”

“Oh, Maker, why… Such a stupid answer!” You curse under your breath in a few choice languages. “We spent hours on this, and it’s a thrice-cursed snoufleur?!”

-

You settle your things back onto your desk, glaring daggers at the messy page of notes that contains your translation for the stupid bloody paragraph, which contained, among other tidbits of useful information hidden in overly articulate metaphors, the knowledge that dragonlings ate the crap out of snoufleurs.

It takes you a while to resettle, and you’ll be sullen over snoufleurs for a while to come. You won’t finish the translation tonight, not after you spent half a day on one sodding paragraph. You fume as you begin working your way through the book once more, regaining your rhythm once the tome fails to throw anymore obstacles in the way. Normal declension and words you recognize soothe you as you churn out page after page.

Your stomach lets you know when it becomes closer to dinnertime. You intend to skip it and work—stomach be damned—but after a lunch of only stolen bits of food, your body isn’t particularly happy with your decision. You stand to stretch, taking a few steps away from your desk, bare feet chilled but comfortable on the smooth stone.

You have an instinct, so well developed you suspect it to be ingrained in your very bones, to look when someone shouts “think fast,” which is what causes you to suddenly look up and see something falling directly at you. You snatch it out of the air; it was falling slowly, dropped, not tossed. …An apple? You look up, bewildered, and see Dorian upstairs waving at you. Then he drops a few more, a pear, a plum. You stare up at him incredulously.

“A little birdy told me you tend to skip meals,” he calls down with a wicked grin. “You can’t afford to get any thinner!”

You scowl your way back to your desk, fruit in tow, but in truth, you’re glad that you’ll have something to calm your growling stomach. Thea could have run the fruit down herself… And she hadn’t come to talk to you while you were upstairs, either. Is she upset with you, for skipping breakfast? If Iron Bull and Krem hadn’t eaten there, she would have had no way of knowing why you weren’t there. Perhaps that’s it… if that’s the case, you’ll have to make sure you get to the mess at a reasonable time tomorrow.

You devour the fruit at an alarming pace and keep working. There’s no way you’ll finish the translation today, but if you make a lot of progress before you sleep, perhaps-

“Heeeey, elfy!”

Oh, Maker, why.

“Hope you didn’t forget about practice!”

You choke back a sound… whether it would have been a growl or a whimper, you don’t know. Sera. Of course it’s Sera. You couldn’t possibly escape her for long. This explains her absence at lunch, at least. You sigh. “I don’t suppose there’s any way to get out of this?”

“Not a chance!”

You sigh and finish up your sentence, capping your ink and standing with a wince. The day’s events have left you a little stiff despite your regular pauses to stretch. “Archery again?”

“Not this time! I thought of somethin’ more fun!”

“Oh, Maker…”

Sera leads you eagerly out into the courtyard, to a rather empty corner. You glance around, trying to figure out what she has planned. After she determines you’ve been confused long enough, she pats the wall of Skyhold with a grin. “We’re gonna climb!”

“…The wall?”

“Yeah! S’harder than a building.”

“…Yes. In fact, I would even say that fortress walls are designed to be as difficult to climb as possible.”

“See? S’perfect!”

You stare blankly at her. She’s serious, alright. “Did you at least let the guards know, so they don’t see two elves climbing the walls and panic?”

“Ah, you’re overthinkin’ it! Just climb the wall!” Sera says with a snort. With a reluctant sigh, you kick your shoes off. If you’re to have any chance of doing this without falling and breaking a limb, you’ll need your feet free and not crammed into even your comfortable leather boots.

You’re not sure how good you should pretend to be at this. You’re decent at climbing, but this is just… solid wall. There are places to grab, you can see them, but…

You start your way up the wall, carefully, wedging toes and fingers into what crevices you can find. “Sera,” you grunt after getting a few feet up, “I am not climbing this wall alone.”
Sera starts up after you while you slowly work your way up the wall. As soon as she starts catching up with you, you find yourself moving faster, wanting to stay in the lead. It’s something that you feel comfortable enough with her to be competitive, but it’s not a good idea. You let her get further ahead, and focus on making sure your grip is strong and sturdy. You don’t want to fall and risk hurting yourself… Will Sera never suggest you do something safe?

At some point, you realize, partway up the ridiculous climb you have no chance of making, people have started stopping to watch. You hadn’t even noticed until you lost your grip slightly, sliding down the wall until your foot catches on a crack. You regain your balance quickly, but a sharp collection of gasps informs you that there are, in fact, people watching. You risk a glance behind you and see a gathering crowd of off-duty servants and guards. Maker’s breath, now you’ve got an audience.

You glance up. There’s no way you could possibly climb to the top of this thing, right? It’s not the tallest part of the wall, but it’s still the wall of Skyhold. Even if you can climb it, you probably shouldn’t demonstrate that in front of a bunch of people. You’re about to call out to Sera, let her know you’re heading back down before you break your leg, when you hear a loud voice from behind (and underneath) you.

“Filthy knife-ears… How completely unsurprising. Only women of that kind would act like that. Somebody should put them in their place.”

Oh, for fuck’s…

“Must be Dalish, they do nothing but climb their whole lives,” another voice chimes in, quieter.

Sera definitely heard that one; you see her stiffen from where she is above you.

“Sera, I’m heading back down,” you call up to her. “I don’t want to break my leg; let’s break that guy’s instead.”

“If that redhead wants to climb, I have a much nicer oak for her.”

At this point, you notice a few of the other people moving away from the two shouting men. Even humans are often uncomfortable with this kind of blatant bigotry, and the sexual innuendo can’t be helping things. You’re just sort of staying where you are on the wall, waiting for some kind of sign for what to do from Sera. After a moment’s pause, she keeps climbing, and you wince. Maybe she can get to the top of this wall, but…

You start heading down. You can stand an embarrassing encounter with a couple of racists much more than you can handle falling off of a wall. You grit your teeth as the rather loud gentleman comments on your “filthy Dalish ass.” What are your chances of getting away if you simply stab the man? Probably zero.

You’re almost to the bottom when you hear another voice, louder, and angry cut through the racial slurs.

What is going on here?!”

Your body goes rigid and you thud down the last meter or two, bare feet slamming onto the ground. You spin around quickly, mildly horrified by how authoritative that voice sounds, and are surprised to see a furious man heading not towards you, but to the small crowd. The few people who hadn’t already left bolt, leaving only one man who doesn’t seem to realize that everyone else has run.

“Th-these knife-ears are climbing the walls, Commander!” You recognize the voice as the one who spoke first.

Commander?

The man glances over towards you, eyes glancing over you and then up, probably to Sera. You see him shake his head, almost imperceptibly, and arch your neck to see what he’s looking at. You can’t see where Sera has gone. When he speaks, his voice is low, and threatening. “You know damn well that language is unacceptable, recruit.”

“Sir? I mean, um, yessir,” the man flounders, the wind suddenly taken out of his sails.

“To my office, recruit. Now.” The man salutes and scurries off, and to your horror, the Commander turns to look at you. You should have bolted when you had the chance, no matter how guilty that might have made you look. You glance around wildly. Where the fuck is Sera?

“Climbing walls?” he says mildly, the irritation gone from his voice, but not the hardness. “What’s your name?”

“E-emma, ser!” Your voice comes out a bit too high pitched. You clear your throat. “I’m the new linguist.” You’re willing to bet a name-drop might help you get out of this, if Sera is in any kind of good graces with the Inquisitor. “I was, ah… I was with Sera, and…”

“Say no more,” the man says, and your shoulders relax slightly as he chuckles. “That’s an explanation in itself.” He clears his throat, and then says, a bit more authoritatively, “My apologies for the soldier, Miss Emma. I guarantee you won’t hear anything like that from him again.”

“Ah, no, it’s… I… Th-thank you, ser,” you stammer awkwardly. It doesn’t seem as though you’re going to get in trouble, but your heart is still pounding in your chest from the adrenaline. The man turns and leaves, likely heading back to his office to deal with that asshole. Once he’s out of sight, you allow your strained legs to collapse under you. You hadn’t been that nervous when you were being catty towards the Inquisitor himself! It’s much easier to be courageous when you’re angry.

“Sera!” you call out. “Sera, are you up there?”

There’s a pause, and then, “Yeah, I’m here. Why’d you go back down?”

“Because I can’t climb an entire wall, Sera!” you say, a little more dramatically than you had intended.

“I figured you could!”

“You over-estimated me. What… What the hell was all that?”

“Well, I was gonna shoot that prat, but Cullen showed up first.”

“You were going to… WHAT?” Maker, and you thought YOU were the one with a violent temper!

“Maybe just a little!” she says, sounding defensive. “He was being a right ass!”

“Oh, Maker… Why don’t we do something that’s not climbing walls?” you suggest. “And not archery. How about horses, Sera? Everyone likes horses.”

Eventually, you talk Sera down off the wall, so to speak, and the two of you head towards the stables. You likely won’t get any kind of permission to take the animals out for a ride, but you steal some oat treats as you enter the stable, planning on bribing Revas with them.

“Ugh, a hart? Kinda… elfy, don’t you think?” Sera says, wrinkling her nose slightly as you stop by Revas’ stall.

“Well, I don’t know if you noticed my ears, Sera,” you say dryly, “but I am actually an elf, not just an oddly proportioned human.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean you’re all…” she waves her hand vaguely. Your feet twitch inside their boots, knowing exactly what she means despite her lack of communication skills.

“I just like the hart, Sera,” you say flatly. As if to emphasize your point, he headbutts you in the chest, then mouths at your hand, hungry for the treats hidden in your fist. Sera laughs, despite her seeming hesitation about the hart. “His name is Revas,” you tell her, and she rolls her eyes.

“Alright, alright, so you’re elfy with your little halla. I guess I can overlook it,” she says. Her tone is teasing, but it still annoys you somewhat. To Thea, you’re not elf enough. To Sera, you’re apparently a little too much elf. Neither seem particularly content to understand that while it not be your only identifying factor, it’s certainly one of them.

You let your anger simmer down while you feed Revas. It’s impossible to be mad around the lighthearted hart for long, and eventually, you even talk Sera into approaching him, running a hand through his thick fur. She even, after a lot of coaxing, feeds him a treat. The two of you manage to have a pleasant evening, despite the bumpy start (and middle), but when you finally retire to your bed, you find you’re not relaxed at all.

Chapter Text

You spend the night angry. At first you’re angry at the men who ruined Sera’s little outing. Even if it was a terrible idea to begin with, you have no doubt that without the crowd and the slurs, it would have been an enjoyable evening of stealthily looking at Sera’s butt while she climbed. You even pass through being angry at Sera for her reaction to your perceived “elfiness.” What the hell was that about? In general, however, you’re just… angry. Frustrated. Sleep-deprived, relief-deprived, with more pent-up chaos than you know what to do with, and no end in sight. You get very little rest, and when you finally give up and rise, you’re greeted to a fog that’s rolled in overnight.

Immediately, you’re on edge, frayed nerves coming undone a little further. Logically, you know that Skyhold gets foggy sometimes, especially at night, and that this is normal fog, not the magical or alchemical thickness summoned up by Fog Warriors. But some things go deeper than logic.

You consider, briefly, skipping training with Iron Bull. You could head straight to the rotunda, bury yourself in work, and refuse to go out until sunlight burns away the fog. At the same time, however, you really want the stress relief that comes with physical exertion, and Iron Bull always seems to know just how you need to stretch. You head towards the training yard, and nearly jump out of your skin when you see a horned outline through the fog. It’s obviously just Iron Bull—he has a very distinct outline—but the sight still jars you. It’s too familiar. You’ll feel better once he’s closer, once you can see his face.

And you do, a little. Iron Bull is becoming disparate, separated from other Qunari in your mind, which was no doubt his goal with spending all this quality time together. Ben-Hassrath tricks. You’re not sure how you feel about it. It’s no doubt good to not be panicked every time you see a Qunari that lives in the same fort as you, but you dislike the idea of Iron Bull inserting himself into your mind as someone you can trust. You need to keep in mind, that however kind he appears to be, all Qunari are loyal to the Qun first. And you and the Qun have never gotten along.

If Iron Bull notices that you’re more on edge than normal, he doesn’t comment on it, instead starting you on some stretches. You feel like you’re hyper-focused in the silence, so you talk, just to create noise.

“Is Krem not joining us today?” you ask, voice strained with effort.

“Nah. He’s already going to be black and blue from the beating you gave him yesterday.”

You snort. “If he bruises that easily, he shouldn’t be a mercenary.”

“You hit harder than you think, Emma. Which is one of the reasons that, from today, you’ll be practicing on me. I don’t bruise easily.”

You pause mid-stretch and stare blankly at him. “What?”

“You can only get so good punching at air and dummies. You need to practice on a real person, and I can’t really ask Krem to come out here and get beat up by you every morning… besides, he said no.”

“Well… I suppose punching you was the end goal, to begin with,” you say hesitantly. You’re not too confident about the idea of actually hitting Iron Bull, when it comes right down to it. You can’t quite convince yourself that he isn’t going to punch you back, and a single right hook from him would probably knock you unconscious.

“It’ll also do you good to practice grappling with a larger opponent.”

Oh, Maker. If you had thought you might freak out when Krem grabbed you… Your horror must show on your face, because he quickly adds, “Don’t worry. We’ll take it slow. We can take breaks when you need to, and if you get to stressed out, you can calm down by pounding me in the stomach a few times.” That is kind of tempting.

You finish up stretching, then, with Iron Bull walking you through every step, you line up to punch a Qunari in the gut. You’ve had dreams like this, often somewhat unpleasant ones; it feels surreal, and the fog isn’t helping the dreamlike sensation. When you take a deep breath and strike, you’re surprised by how thick and tough his skin is. It isn’t like punching a human. Humans have more give. It helps you feel like you’re punching a statue, a bit, as you swing into a second strike.

If Iron Bull feels the strikes, he certainly doesn’t react to them, he just corrects your posture, and you continue much in the same way you would if you were fighting a practice dummy. You find you’re getting a bit more into it, however. You do have a bit of a violent streak in you, and the sounds and sensations of violence are pouring adrenaline into your body. Iron Bull seems to be reacting in a similar manner… Or perhaps his increased breathing is more of a side-effect of being punched repeatedly. He does seem to need a break after a while, and suggest that you practice the same hold escapes as you did the morning before, only with him. Without even stopping to think if it’s a good idea, you nod in agreement, perhaps a little eager for the chance to do more than just punch.

At first, you’re doing fine, although Iron Bull’s sheer size throws you, a little. You wouldn’t say you failed to notice how large he was before—you were always acutely aware of that. But it’s different when that bulk is coming at you. You find yourself relying more on your small posture to twist out of the way than striking at sensitive places to escape. You don’t know when it switches from training to fighting, in your mind. You don’t even realize it happening until Iron Bull moves into the next grapple, pinning your arms behind your back, and your adrenaline-filled mind and body both go insane. You snap away automatically, but of course the grapple holds.

Thick fog, choking. This isn’t supposed to happen. Wrong place, wrong time.

With a strangled cry, you writhe desperately, smashing the back of your head uselessly against your captor’s chest. It serves only to disorient you.

War horn, too close, sounds of flesh being torn in the fog, bursts of sickly red all around you. “My slaves, where are my slaves?”

And then, a miracle… the grip loosens. You hear the Qunari say something, behind you, but the second you have even an instant of slack, you wrench yourself free, nearly dislocating your shoulder in the process.

Oh, Maker, where’s Falon? Spear through his chest, bleeding out on the ground.

The second you gain traction, you kick off, intending fully to run, though you don’t know where to go. Anywhere but here. Then an arm wraps around you again, and you scream.

Strong arms grip you, wooden bar of a spear tight against your neck. Fuck, this is it, this is how you fucking die.

You thrash uselessly as a larger body wraps you up, one arm successfully pinning both of yours. You scream again, terror and rage and righteous fury, and feel power starting to leak out of your skin. No, you have to keep it under control, if the Qunari sees…

Dragged off, where are they taking me, oh god.

At a third scream, a hand presses over your mouth, not cutting off your air, but silencing you. You can barely thrash at this point; every time you find a new muscle to wrench, it’s forced still. Panic screaming behind wild eyes, you sink your teeth into the hand over your mouth, feeling the Qunari tense behind you.

”Don’t struggle, child,” in the common tongue. “We’ll take her to Salit,” in Qunlat, they don’t know you understand.

You bite as hard as you can, shaking your head in a useless attempt to tear skin as thick as leather. You chew, you gnaw, but the hand holds fast. Unable to break free, you slowly begin to recognize the sounds from the Qunari as speech. His voice is gentle, such a sharp contrast to the strength of his body that it confuses you.

“Hey, it’s alright. Breathe. Breathe.” Instincts are all you have at the moment, and you find yourself breathing deeper automatically. “Good. Focus on where you are.” All you see is fog. “You’re in Skyhold. See the walls?” …Yes. Walls. Walls keep enemies out, so why is there a Qunari here? As your desperate struggle stops, your muscle slacking as you attempt to make sense of your situation, the Qunari’s grip loosens. When you don’t immediately bolt, he releases you further. As soon as you can, you break up away, but instead of running, you twist to see your captor. He doesn’t look the same as you remember.

Grey skin and sweeping horns. Tight cells, burning flesh.

“Emma.” It knows your name. “Do you remember me?”

And you find you do.

“…Bull?”

“That’s right. Come on, Emma, deep breaths. We’re gonna work through this.”

“Th… The fog…” your voice doesn’t sound like yours, too high pitched, strained.

“Don’t focus on the fog. Look straight ahead. Focus on me.”

You don’t want to. Something, someone, could come behind you, a spear through your back, just like Falon. He was fifteen, just a boy and just a slave, but what would those Qunari savages care?

“Come on, look at me.” He steps backwards. Unbidden, you follow him, feet silent on the damp ground. It’s a strange sensation; you feel like you’re chasing him. He continues to back up, and you continue to advance, not actually closing any of the distance between the two of you, but keeping up. The panic isn’t gone, and you feel no more connected to your body, but you’re starting to remember that you had been striking him not long ago. You want to be doing it again. Your eyes narrow slightly, watching his movements intently. You stalk after him, matching each of his longer strides backwards with several small, light steps of your own. Waiting for him to start running, or to lunge. But he does neither.

You’re not sure when he reaches the wooden lean-to, pushed up against the side of Skyhold’s outer wall, but when he enters the open building, you follow him in. When you realize there are walls around you, you panic, slightly, but the open doorway soothes you. The fog is out there. You’re in here. And there’s an open door if you need to escape. You turn your focus back to the Qunari… Bull. Iron Bull. It seems important that you remember that.

“Emma. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

You narrow your eyes, looking for the trick. You shift your body so that you’re between him and the exit, in case he intends to bolt.

“Talk to me, Emma.”

You reach for your voice, but find your throat muscles so tense and tight that your voice comes out as a strangled gasp. You try again. “You’re… not them.” Are you trying to ask? Trying to convince yourself? You aren’t even sure what the words leaving your mouth mean. “But you’re like them,” you add, eyes narrowing.

“How am I like them?”

Qunari.” You spit the word out like venom. “Ben-Hassrath.”

“I am both those things. Does that make me like them?”

“Yes!” you snarl. Then, quieter. “No… I don’t know. Maybe.” Your fists clench and unclench by your waist. Memories, unbidden, and flashing through your mind.

They told you about them, the Ben-Hassrath. They can change your mind, with words and drugs. Make you a slave, make you not-you.

“You look like you want to be hitting something, Emma.” The quiet voice makes your ears twitch. You do. You want to be burning this pathetic hut to the ground with him inside it. With both of you inside. You want to just burn the whole fucking world down. But you know all of that is unwise.

“Me and the boys back in Seheron had an exercise for dealing with stuff like this.” He begins to move, and your muscles tighten, preparing to run, or to pounce, depending on what he does. He moves slowly, deliberately, and you watch him through dilated eyes. Only the looseness in his own muscles keeps you rooted where you are, uncertain whether the situation calls for fight or flight. Slowly, he nudges a stick towards you. It can’t even be called a staff… more like a broom handle. You stare down at it, then up at him, uncomprehending.

“Better than bloodying up your fists,” he suggests. “Can’t have you breaking a hand.”

You eye it, and him, for a moment longer, before snapping it up in the same smooth motion as you charge him. He drops into a defensive stance, and you crack the stick down, across his raised arms. A hiss of satisfaction escapes you at the sound.

“I didn’t want to be there!” you shout, uncertain as to why. “I didn’t ask for any of this bullshit! None of us did!” You strike with the stick, blindly, as rising tears burn in your eyes, blurring your vision. “And then you! You stupid fucking Qunari! You thought we were all just goddamn Vints, couldn’t tell the slaves from the soldiers!” Wham! Another strike emphasizes your screaming. “You only fucking picked me up because I was a kid! No little girls in the army!” Smash. “Even you stupid, motherless Qunari know that!” Crack. “And you stick me in a cell with some fucking monster and I didn’t fucking ask for this!

Another crack, louder this time, as the useless stick shatters, breaking into shards against Iron Bull’s side. With a strangled cry, you launch yourself at him, all flailing limbs and old hatred. You bloody your knuckles on him after all, striking at his chest and arms until you lose sensation, until you’re not sure if you’re seeing his blood or yours. At some point, he falls backwards, and you follow him down, kneeling on his stomach as you burn your energy, rage, and panic against the wall of his body.

Eventually, your arms are too heavy to move. They hang uselessly, resting against Iron Bull’s body. And you’re aware, once again, that this is Iron Bull, and that he’s let you beat him, as promised. But the realization comes through a fog, and your body, suddenly as heavy as your arms and mind, collapses against him, breath coming in gasps and wracking sobs.

You’re aware of arms wrapping around you, of the world shifting as you’re lifted up, but you’ve no strength to fight, and no desire to. You’re halfway to unconsciousness already, your wretched, sleep-deprived mind sinking towards the Fade.

Chapter Text

You dream. It’s such a welcome, soothing sensation, that as you slip in and out of consciousness, it feels like you’re dreaming the whole time. It has to be a dream, because you remember Iron Bull carrying you to his room, bundling you up in warm, soft blankets. Then all is lost in a hazy field of soft voices and warmth, none of which you believe is real.

When you wake, it’s not with a start, but the slow, easy waking of someone coming out of a genuine sleep. The first thing you notice is a sense of comfort and warmth. The second thing is a distinct lack of tension inside you. Your eyes snap open; when you passed out, you must have lost control over yourself, or perhaps you’d lost it earlier. Either way, you’re exposed. You swear, gathering the dancing chaos back inside of you with some difficulty—after so long inside, it wants to be free, burns with the desire. If Bull had been a mage, you would never have woken up at all. He would certainly have killed you in your sleep.

Speaking of Bull… You’re in his room, again. It alarms you that you’ve been in his bedroom enough to recognize it. The man himself, however, is nowhere to be seen. How long have you been here? The bright sunlight streaming in from the window informs you that it’s been hours, at least. You’re nervous about having been discovered, but fairly certain that the fact you’re still alive and not in chains proves that your secret remains intact.

You spot your hands, then, and realize with mild horror that they’re bandaged, from your fingers up over your wrist. Suddenly, and all at once, memories from the morning come crashing down on you as if dropped from a great height. They crash through your mind in waves, leaving you reeling. Oh, Maker. You fucked up. You really fucked up. Against all odds, somehow, you lost your mind and survived to have to deal with the aftermath.

Panic begins clawing at your chest all over again as you remember quietly stalking Iron Bull across the courtyard. You completely lost it! It’s a miracle you didn’t burn the damned shed down. And Iron Bull… had you dealt him any serious injury? Thank the Maker your ridiculous flailing likely didn’t give away any combat training. Ugh… Alongside the growing panic is no small amount of mortification. You’re supposed to have a better grip on yourself than this! Did years spent in the Orlesian court imprint nothing onto you? You feel like the rash child you were in Rivain.

You hear the door open, and twist yourself quickly towards it, tangling yourself in the thick woolen blankets. It’s Iron Bull, of course, carrying a tray of something with one hand. Your panic must show on your face, because as soon as he sees you, he stops, raising one hand up as if to indicate he’ll come no further.

“Hey. How you feeling?” The kindness in his voice just makes you feel more guilty. Had you really beaten him with a fucking stick? Maker… You had covered the man in your blood, possibly covered yourself in his, and he’s talking to you like you had an accident. You bury your head into the thick blankets tangled around your knees, wrapping your arms around the back of your head and groaning. You want to be on the next merchant cart out of here, just to escape the embarrassment, but as soon as you think of it, the image of Solas flashes into your mind. You can’t leave. Not while he’s gone. Not while you don’t know what’s happened to him.

“Emma. Talk to me. What are you feeling?” Iron Bull says again. You can tell from his voice that he hasn’t moved… The nicer he is, the worse you feel.

“Mortified,” you whine into the blankets.

“You don’t need to be. Everyone who was in Seheron has episodes like that.”

You look up, hesitantly. “Really?”

“Sure. How do you think I knew what to do?”

“I… Bull, I… don’t think I can apologize enough,” you say, trying to function through the acute humiliation. “It was… the fog, and the fighting, and I…” You run a hand through your hair, mortification intensifying to find it loose rather than pulled back as you normally keep it.

“It’s alright,” he says, with so much emphasis that you can almost believe it. He’s approaching now, and you don’t stop him. Rather than sitting down on the bed, he kneels next to it, and the motion brings another surge of guilt through you. He looks… battered. Despite his claims about not bruising easily, his silver skin is beginning to mottle dark blues and purples along his arms and chest.

His eyes follow your horrified gaze. “Oh, please,” he says mildly. “I’ve looked worse than this after sex.”

His words are so absurd that you can’t help but laugh, a short bark that alarms you as it escapes your throat.

“I’d be less confused if you were cross with me,” you confess.

“Be confused, then. Be disoriented. It’s normal; you’ve had a hell of a day.”

I’ve had a hell of a day? Look in the mirror!”

“You’ve had that coming a long time, Emma. I’ve known ever since you bolted out of the mess hall. I’m just glad I was there when it happened.”

You shake your head, slowly, only to be taken by a surge of dizziness, the chaos in your chest surging in irritation at being imprisoned after so short a freedom.

“Drink,” Iron Bull instructs in a tone that allows no argument. You find a mug has been placed in your bandaged hands, and you drink the fresh juice with some difficulty. It isn’t until you start drinking that you realize your thirst, and you quickly drain the whole cup, the juice soothing your twisting stomach. “You’ve had episodes like this before?”

You shake your head. “Not often. And never that much… that.” You’ve panicked, in the past, flashed back to Seheron and thought you were there, but you had always ridden it out. As years continued to pass, the attacks became less and less frequent. Until Skyhold, with its curious faces and their probing questions. And, of course, the presence of Iron Bull, the first Qunari you had seen in years.

“No wonder you’re freaking out. It happens, to people who have been in wars, or any kind of traumatic bullshit. Most of the boys in Seheron got them at least once.”

“I… I’m really sorry,” you say weakly. With your panic receding, and without the energy that had previously escaped to buoy you, you’re beginning to become aware that you hurt. A lot. Especially your hands, which feel like you got in a fight with a cheese grater. How are you going to write like this?

“It’s fine. I kinda expected that to happen when we fought. I’m just as glad it happened in private instead in front of the guys.”

“…Oh, Maker, that would have been a nightmare.”

“Yeah. So. You wanna talk about it, or are you good?”

You find yourself actually pausing to consider his question, which once would have automatically had you scurrying for the nearest door. That alone has you rigid with horror as you realize it. You’ve come to trust Iron Bull more, or perhaps you’re in a vulnerable position. Either way, it could be another Ben-Hassrath trick. He could have… could have fought you in the fog, knowing, the whole thing could have…

You shake your head slowly, heart pounding in your chest. You don’t know what to think, right now. “I don’t know if I can trust you, Bull,” you say, and to your surprise, it has the cadence of an apology. “I don’t know if I ever can.”

“When you can, I’ll be here,” is all he says. You find you can’t say anything in response.

Instead, you gesture uselessly at your hands. “What am I going to do?” You’ve mauled yourself on him, and you someone who depends on their hands for their livelihood.

“Go to the healers,” he suggests.

“And tell them what?” you hiss quietly. “That I got in a fight with a wall?”

“Well, they’ll know you were hitting something, just from the injuries,” Iron Bull points out, and you curse. He’s right.

“I doubt they ask questions when the men come in with injuries from fighting, Bull, but they’ll wonder when the linguist does!” You take a few deep breaths, trying to calm yourself. You’ve gotten yourself out of stranger situations. Alright. The Commander already knows there have been some less-than-kind soldiers hovering around you. It would be easy to blame the injuries on needing to fend off a more-than-amorous would-be-suitor. It would likely never even reach his ears. These things happened every day with no Commander any the wiser.

“Alright,” you say out loud. “I know what to do.”

“It’s something to watch your mind work,” Iron Bull says, sounding amused. His eyes had stayed on you as you went from panicked to determined, and it had been a fun thing to watch, from the grin on his lips. You frown at him.

“You’re… you’ll be discreet about this, yes?”

“Do you mean, will I go blabbing around Skyhold that you get jumpy in the fog? Or bragging that I had a pretty lady sit on my chest and try to break my face?”

“Bull!”

“I’ll keep it to myself,” he says with a cheeky grin. “I’m a spy. We’re good at that.”

-

Amazingly, your thrown-together plan goes off nearly without a hitch. You make a wilting flower of yourself before you enter the healer’s tent, a long thing pitched in the courtyard, near the training yard. You’re already a mess, it’s only a matter of removing the bloody bandages from your hands. You wince to see the state of yourself. It doesn’t seem like you’ve broken any fingers, but your knuckles are all a bloody mess. Only one other thing…

It hurts, wrenching your own ankle out of place, and it hurts worse limping across the courtyard on it, but it gives you a believable limp. The rest will be covered by the bruises Iron Bull unwittingly gave you around your chest, arm, and shoulders when he wrestled the flight out of you.

You make your way slowly into the tent, and seize upon the most likely man you see, a stern looking man with a holy symbol of Andraste hanging around his neck. He takes one look at you and frowns.

“Maker’s breath, child, what happened to you?” The alarm in his voice makes you fear you won’t have the apathy towards your “situation” that you need.

“I, um… had an accident,” you lie, poorly and purposefully. The skepticism in his eyes is clear.

“I see. An accident has wrenched your ankle and bloodied your hands?”

“Can… Can you heal me?” you say, cringing. As much as you loathe playing the cringing elf, this practiced victimhood has served you well your entire life. A tiny slave girl, a doe-eyed young lad, dirty and starving, a simple maid, one rabbit among many… You have always excelled at being small and forgotten. Pitiable, but in the same tired way that all weak are pitiable. “I work with my hands, I… I can’t…”

The man sighs. “I will have the truth out of you. Have you been fighting with another servant? The Inquisition will find you out eventually, if you go starting trouble!”

His scorn soothes your worries. Blessed are the self-righteous, hateful of the weak, for in their ineptitude, your safety is ensured. “N-no! It… There was a man…”

You watch with suppressed glee as the man’s eyes go flat. A story told throughout time. “I see. Let me have a look at you, girl.”

His rough examination no doubt confirms his suspicions. A long, painful bruise wraps its way around both your arms, you have a torn lip (from your own savage gnashing at Iron Bull’s hand, no doubt), your ankle is brutally twisted and swelling, and your knuckles are the bloodied, fleshy mess of punching injuries.

“I take it by the look of you that the man escaped in worse shape than you,” the healer says with no small amount of disapproval.

“Y…yes. I fought him off.”

“Then there will be no need for you to take this further. Be still, child, and I will fix your hands and heal your bruises.” The man is as good as his word. He fixes your hands, reduces the swelling and color of your bruising, although the pain remains. You gaze down at your ankle, hopefully, but his scorn only intensifies. Ugh. You picked one a little too pious. You thank him with a wince, and limp your way out of the tent. That’s what you get for injuring yourself to make your story more believable. He likely only healed your bruises to avoid trouble if another saw the state of you. A woman bloodied up with defensive injuries and bruises on her arms means only one thing, but a woman with a twisted ankle could merely be clumsy. Your bruises are no longer as visible, but they ache as if he hadn’t touched them. No matter, a badly twisted ankle will not impede your work. Climbing the stairs up the Great Hall is a misery, however.

When you finally limp your way into the rotunda, it’s a relief to flop down at your desk. You don’t even notice the missive sitting on it right away, and when you see it, you emit what could only be called a whimper.

All those stairs…

With a groan, you open it. A note is affixed to it, declaring that it is not urgent, but to do it at your earliest convenience. Ugh. You glance over it. More Ben-Hassrath reports, this a post-mission report. It details the personal affairs of some Fereldan noble… What on earth are the Ben-Hassrath doing in Denerim? Hmm… You make a point to memorize it as you translate, in case this turns out to be important as well. You still don’t know what Leliana’s game is, but you know that there IS a Game. There always is, with Orlesians. Even the commoners wish they could play.

You translate the note quickly, a little sour about the situation, but also furious with yourself for not being in your designated spot when you were needed. What if it had been urgent? You could not have a reputation for being flighty. Worse, what if Leliana’s messenger had hunted you down, found you bloody and battered in Iron Bull’s bed? You could not have devised a fictional assaulter to save you from humiliation then. Perhaps you could have played it off as sexual perversion, although you’ve no reason to believe Iron Bull would go along with that. Sex was one thing, but a reputation for violence in bed could genuinely sully his name.

It was no matter. Several times today, you had narrowly dodged situations that could have left you compromised or dead. If you dwell on it now, you’ll throw yourself off balance. There will be time for self-flagellation when less is at stake. You scribe off a translation, triple check it for accuracy—this is the sort of thing where accuracy can save lives—and then stand with a shuddering gasp. Your fist clenches around the missive as weight falls on your injured ankle. That quickly, you had forgotten. The stairs will be agony.

It’s only your pride that keeps you from dropping to hands and knees and crawling up the stairs. As it is, when you’re certain no one is looking, you sort of hop one-leggedly up them, clutching onto the railing for balance. You are, of course, spotted as you limp through the library and towards the second flight of stairs. You spot alarm in the eyes of both Thea and Dorian, but only Dorian rushes towards you.

“What happened?” he demands.

“Hello to you too, Dorian,” you say dryly, continuing to limp towards the stairs. He steps in front of you and crosses his arms, pointedly. You sigh. “I fell. I wasn’t expecting our mistress to call me upstairs, or I would have wrapped it.”

“You fell? What, down the stairs? Maker, take that boot off; let it breathe. Don’t you know where the healer’s tent is?”

You roll your eyes. “The ones who deal with wounded soldiers? I’m not wasting their time with this. If it will make Mother Tevinter happy, however, I’ll elevate it whilst I work. Honestly, it’s not broken, Dorian. I just twisted it.”

Dorian’s clearly unhappy, but you move around him to get to the stairs. “You should go to the healers,” he says firmly as you try to walk up the second flight of stairs as normally as possible. “It’s what they’re there for, and you’re not helping anyone by limping around like a martyr.”

You continue up the stairs with much difficulty. Dorian’s concern, while misplaced, is a little flattering. It’s nice to know that he would be concerned if you injured yourself. You try very hard not to think about what Solas’ reaction to your injury would be. You’re starving for a mage’s attentions enough without thinking about Solas’ soothing magic filling you. If you imagine his warm hands on your bared ankle, you’ll… Ah, and there you go. You have no self-control at all.

You force your mind back into reality as you crest the top of the stairs. Thank the Maker that Leliana is always easily found. You force yourself to step down normally despite the screaming agony in your ankle, not wanting a curious spymaster investigating what you’d been up to all morning. You simply drop both messages off on her desk. She pauses in her reading, and glances up at you.

“Ah, Emma. I’m glad you found time for it.”

It was the kind of comment that might carry barbs, but you refuse to let something so obvious get to you. The note had said it wasn’t urgent. “Of course, serah. I am, as always, at your disposal,” you say politely. She eyes you curiously, but says no more, and when she goes back to her reading, you take that as your leave.

Heading down the stairs is less of an agony than going up was, but it still strains your poor ankle. You ignore the stink eye Dorian gives you as you go through the library, and sink down to your desk. As soon as you’re seated, you yank your cursed boot off, swearing as your ankle throbs and flames anew as it’s released. It’s turning an unpleasant purple and is very clearly swollen. Your punishment for being a little too determined to get out of the mess you made with your reputation intact.

You prop the leg on the stool you sometimes sit on, and pull your tome into your lap so you can work on your translation half-sideways. It’s a little awkward, but you manage to get the hang of it, and continue work on your translation. Again, no hope of finishing it today… You spend too much time playing around Skyhold like a child. The old you could have this done in a week, perhaps a week and a half tops. Look at you, faffing about like a child when there’s work to be done…

When dinner time rolls around, there is no question that you’ll be staying to work through it, even though your stomach screams for having eaten nothing all day. Self-loathing keeps you rooted in your chair, however, until you hear uncertain boots entering your rotunda. You glance up, half-expecting to see Celia, Iron Bull, Sera, Dorian… any number of people chase after you these days. You’re quite shocked to see Thea, however. You’ve never once seen her step foot inside this rotunda, even after Solas left.

“Thea?” you say, surprise no doubt showing on your face.

“Well… you ‘aven’t been ‘round lately, and… well, I see you with Dorian, but you been away from the mess…” She’s mumbling; you can barely make out what she’s saying, but you get the gist of it. You realize, belatedly, that you’ve not been to the mess in two long days.

“Were you worried, or are you mad at me?” you jest with a practiced grin. You’ve neglected human friends in the past in your distraction. Neediness is annoying, but expected. You know how to deal with it.

“If you got hurt, I was worried. If you were jus’ bein’ an ass, I was mad,” she says sourly.

“I’m fine,” you say, gesturing down towards your miserable looking ankle. “It’s just twisted; I fell on the steps because of the stupid fog. And I was being a bit of an ass. I was late to breakfast yesterday, and skipped it altogether today.” Her scowl shows her opinion of you skipping meals hasn’t changed any.

“An’ I bet you skipped dinner, too!”

“Nooo… How long could I possibly go without food?” you say with a laugh. The look she gives you is highly skeptical. “I’m sorry, Thea. I wasn’t avoiding you, I promise.”

She sighs. “Alright. But stop skipping meals! And get that ankle to a healer. S’what they’re for. I’m gettin’ out o’ this spooky place. Dunno how you work in here, all alone. Even more so when that mage of yours is home.”

“It’s peaceful,” you say with a slight eye roll. “Solas has yet to throw anything at me.”

“Give ‘im time!”

She heads back up the stairs, and you turn your focus back to your work. You do manage to get a goodly amount of work done, despite the steady ache of your ankle and the painful twisting of your stomach. How you manage to get through the day without anyone else checking on you is something you may never figure out. It isn’t until the night chill has your fingers stiff and your ankle throbbing with agony that you finally decide to rest.

It’s extra cold tonight, and you find you really don’t want to go outside. It would be a cold night on the couch, with no blankets to warm you. You think with fondness at the comfortable woolen blankets Iron Bull had wrapped you in, much softer than your own scratchy cotton throw. With a sigh, you throw yourself down on the couch anyway. Perhaps you’ll be frozen over by morning, but at least this way, you don’t have to walk across the courtyard on your swollen ankle.

Chapter Text

Was it insomnia or cold that kept you up through the night? It hardly matters now. The angry swelling in your ankle has reduced only slightly, despite the elevation, and aches brutally in the bitter cold. You give up on sleeping some time before dawn, struggle with your boot until you manage to wedge your swollen foot into it. The pain only intensifies. You limp your way out of the rotunda, and moan pitifully at the frigid wind outside. It’s still Solace for the Maker’s sake! Curse these mountains to the Void!

You remove yourself from the worst of the wind when you go down into the courtyard, but it’s still colder than you’re comfortable with, and your ankle is in absolute agony. You spot Iron Bull in the training ring and limp over to him automatically, even though training is the last thing on your mind.

He spots your limp. “Okay, you didn’t have that when you left my room,” he says, pointing down at your leg.

“Sssssh!” you hiss, despite the fact there’s really no one out there to hear him. “I twisted it. I didn’t want to go back to the healer right after I got bloody knuckles healed.”

“Well, you can’t learn anything on that. Let’s go get it healed,” he says, standing up out of his stretch with a grunt. “I’m a little surprised you showed, actually. Thought you might need some time off after yesterday.”

“When I woke up, I came out without thinking,” you say honestly. “I’m not keen on going back to the healer’s tent, however. Particularly not with you. After the story I told last time, they might think you twisted my ankle yourself.” You pause. “Or killed the man who did.”

Iron Bull raises an eyebrow. “Oh, I gotta hear that story sometime. I’m not worried about my reputation, though. Come on. Walk there, or I’ll carry you again.”

The idea of being picked up and tossed over someone’s shoulder while actually conscious is even worse than the knowledge it happened when you were black-out drunk. You quickly begin shuffling towards the healer’s tent. You glance over at Iron Bull. Where is the pang of fear you normally get when you see him? After yesterday, you would have thought you’d be petrified to be near him, but all you real feel is residual embarrassment whenever you think about how you lost your mind.

The lingering doubt about Ben-Hassrath mind tricks comes back to you, sending tingling fear shooting through your body. You’re afraid, because you’re suddenly not afraid of Iron Bull. It seems foolish, when phrased that way, but you’ve seen what a Ben-Hassrath can do to a person.

“Bull,” you say suddenly. “What did you do in Seheron?”

He eyes you cautiously. “You sure you want to know that, kid?”

“It’s like it was with knowing when you were there… I don’t want to know, but I think I need to,” you say, uncomfortable with the amount of honesty you have on display. It’s an unfamiliar feeling.

“I would say… I was similar to what Leliana is, here.”

“A spymaster?”

“I suppose. I handled the information, commanded squads of men…”

Just what you didn’t want to hear, of course. You sigh, and shake your head. Iron Bull was likely the cause of the deaths of many of your good friends, and it’s entirely likely he has heard of you, just hasn’t connected the memories from Seheron to the you in the present. You’d like to keep it from him.

“You don’t look too happy,” he comments.

“I’m not. I don’t know how to balance the fact you seem like an alright guy with the knowledge that you’re likely indirectly responsible for the deaths of most of my friends… or the knowledge that you’re likely directly responsible for the raid that allowed me to escape slavery.” It’s such a bitter lie that it almost burns your tongue coming out. You had all but forgotten what guilt feels like. Iron Bull’s decisions may have put you through hell in Seheron, but no one’s responsible for the deaths of your fellow slaves but you.

You manage to look at Iron Bull’s face, but it does you no good. You can’t read his expression. You sigh again. “Come on… let’s get me fixed up so I can work out my issues with violence like a normal person.”

-

“Harder! You’re couldn’t disorient a squirrel with a hit like that!”

You slam your fist into Iron Bull’s stomach harder, wincing and trying to ignore the jarring, trembling pain it sends up your arm. When he tightens his muscles, it’s like punching a goddamn wall. No wonder you bloodied yourself on him yesterday.

You were hesitant, at first, nervous that striking him again might send you back into the foggy hell of Seheron. Not to mention your guilt at the bruising he still displays... But Iron Bull found a good way of motivating you without reminding you of Qunari long past: pissing you off. Every insult he hurls your way has you striking harder and faster. You’re not thinking about Seheron. You’re not thinking about anything, other than how much you want to wipe the smirk off that damn face of his.

It’s a rogue swing that does it, after a particularly galling insult towards the stature of elven women burns your pointed ears. Aimed up, instead of across, catching the man off guard. Most Qunari would not begin to guess that a slight elven woman could strike them in the face, and, in truth, you have to jump into your uppercut to manage it. But the swearing--Qunlat is a language that lends itself well to curses--and flow of blood from Bull’s nose is worth the effort.

“Oh my!” you say, faking surprise. “What’s this?” You’re unable to keep from shaking your hand from the force of the impact… it feels like you damn near broke a finger. “It seems as though my delicate elven hands have done you harm!”

“Ow, you little shit,” he says, but the glint in his eyes is more amused than angry. “I think you broke my nose!”

You pause. “What, really?” You lean in, curiously, to his doubled-over form. “Let me see.” He moves his hand, as if to let you see his bloodied nose, but in your distraction, you don’t see his mischievous look until it’s too late. An arm wraps around your chest as Bull drags you over in a headlock. With a shriek, you lose your balance, knocking the both of you into the grass. He rubs the top of your head with the knuckles of his other hand as you squeal, writhing in his grasp, alarmed, but not panicked.

“Ow! Son of a bitch!” you swear, but there’s laughter in your voice. “You’re getting blood in my hair! Ow! OW! Faccia di stronzo! Salaud! Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo!

“Wow, you swear attractively,” Iron Bull says, laughing.

“Fuck! Ow!”

“Call me a fucker in Tevene, it’s hot.”

“Get off me you horned bastard!”

Iron Bull, still laughing, consents to release you, and you collapse into the grass, shoulders trembling with suppressed laughter. You can’t hide the grin on your face, though, especially when you see the state of his face. “Ow, wow, I might have broken your nose!”

“Sure as hell feels like it!” he says, wiping off his bloody hands on the grass. “So, what’s all that Tevene you said mean?”

“You should ask Dorian.”

-

The healer gives you a look that could cripple as the two of you stand before her once again, both covered in Iron Bull’s blood.

“Technically, ser, he’s the only one who needs healing. I’m fit as a fiddle.”

“And how did your… friend… get injured so quickly?” the older lady says, eyeing the shirtless Qunari. “So soon after he takes you in for healing, at that?”

You take a deep breath. “Well, you see, serah, we were walking along, innocent as you like, when my tall friend here spotted something glinting upon one of Skyhold’s many rooftops. Well, when he pointed it out to me, I thought, for the betterment of the Inquisition, we ought to see what it is! But even my Qunari partner, tall as he is, could not quite reach is. So, of course, he gave me a boost up, but I’m afraid that in the process of reaching for the alien object, I struck him quite violently in the face with my shoe.”

“Oh, Maker…”

“And, of course, startled, he fell, and in the tumble, we both got quite bloody! I’m fine, though. If you could be so benevolent, however, as to repair my friend’s… face…”

Thank the Maker for Iron Bull’s perfectly neutral face. The healer rolls her eyes exaggeratedly, mutters a prayer up to the heavens, but deigns to heal poor Iron Bull.

-

The two of you manage to get away from the healer’s tent before laughter overtakes you again. Iron Bull slaps you on the back as he thunders with glee.

“Where’d you learn to lie like that, you little snake?”

“There isn’t an alienage rat alive who doesn’t know when to lie to a hahren,” you say with a snort. “Besides, my story was more believable than me breaking your nose.”

“No wonder you and Varric get along,” he says with a snort. “That sounds just like something he’d say.”

The comment sobers you, slightly, bringing your mind back to Varric’s and Solas’ absence.

“So, it’s a bit late, but do you wanna get some breakfast?” he asks after you’re quiet for a moment.

“Oh, no I’m-“

You’re rudely interrupted by a loud, long, and extremely audible roar from your stomach, reminding you that you’ve not eaten since the day before last.

“Ah… perhaps some breakfast, before work…”

-

You do, finally, get to your rotunda, and as soon as you do, you settle down for a long day of working, hopefully without interruption. You really need to get this work done. Weeks of nonsense have delayed you enough. You tear through the translation, willing your sore body to obey you. When hunger makes your hands shake, late in the evening, sheer force of will stills them. You don’t stop, other than to stretch tight muscles to prevent cramps, until the sun has sunk over the horizon. Not to eat, not to rest, not even to relieve yourself. Not until you throw your quill down in brutal satisfaction, and cry, aloud, “Finished!

Part of you wants to take the papers right up to Leliana, but you know you need time yet. They must be organized, then tied together, at least loosely, and you also need to decide which finished pages to take, to show off what the finished product will look like. You can do it in the morning. For now, it’s time to reward yourself. You had taken a day off, previously, at your friends’ insistence, but now you exit the rotunda to take rest time out of your own desire. A huge, ancient Tevinter tome, translated in two weeks. You are still, unquestionably, the god of linguistics.

You find yourself heading to the stable with quick steps. You don’t see the horsemaster as you enter, although you do spot Blackwall, sitting under a lantern and carving some piece of wood with a knife. You give him a slight bow as you pass. “Ser Warden,” you say politely. He only grunts in response, but doesn’t move to stop your entry.

Deft fingers pocket snacks for Revas as you move through the stables. It’s quite a shock for you when you find him already attended, more of a shock when you see by whom. Jealousy fills your heart at the way the elf is stroking your beloved Revas, although you know quite well that you’re being silly. He’s a friendly hart, and he likes elves, in particular. But to see him butting his nose gently into the hand that belongs to a Dalish? It fills you with distaste as much as the sight of the man himself.

The vallaslin is, however, faded. It’s likely this man is no Dalish, even if he was raised that way. You urge yourself to stave off judgment, even with distaste churning in your stomach. You wait for the man to notice you, which doesn’t take long, as Revas quickly swings his head towards you, whuffing his excitement. Despite the fact that you don’t want to be overly close to the Dalish, you walk towards Revas as the hart strains against the wall of his stall in an attempt to get closer to you.

“He likes you,” the Dalish man says, sounding pleased. The marks on his face dedicate him to Ghilain’nain; you find yourself unsurprised.

“Thank you.” You feign politeness. “I was lucky enough to ride with him earlier this week.”

“Oh! You must be the linguist. Dennet told me about you. I should have recognized you; I saw you falling off Revas from the upper levels of the barns.”

It’s lucky that your default expression is severe, or the man might have noticed how displeased you were by his statement.

“You did very well for your first time!” The man is cheerful, and seems completely unaware of the burning passion of your scorn. Only Revas butting you in the chest can break your glare, and you move to gently stroke the playful hart.

“You should visit to ride him more,” the Dalish continues. “The harts here never get enough socialization or riding. The Inquisition keeps them, but rarely takes them into the field. If you’d like, I could give you lessons?”

“My plate is quite full up of lessons,” you say, keeping the acid from dripping into your voice. Even your dislike for this man can’t keep you from wanting onto Revas again, however. “…I believe Sundays are my rest day, however,” you admit. “And I would like to ride him again.”

The man positively beams. “Excellent! My name is Belassan, by the way. What’s yours?”

“Emma,” you say shortly, paying the majority of your attention to Revas and his wandering lips and nose. He’s searching for the treats he knows you have hidden away, and you have to be careful not to get knocked into by one of his horns. Even Belassan steps away as they swing this way and that.

“Where are you from, Emma?” the man asks. You wish he’d stop trying to make small talk.

“Ferelden,” you say, dodging your head backwards to avoid a rogue horn as Revas attempts to fit his snout into your pocket. You finally relent to slip him a treat, if only to save yourself from getting a busted nose to match Bull’s.

“Oh, really? Me too!”

You eye him. “I was unaware that Dalish were really ‘from’ anywhere. Was your clan in Fereldan your whole life?”

“More or less. I was from Clan Sahlinan.”

“Ah.” That explains a lot. “Was?”

“Yeah, I, um… Left. A while ago. Anyway, I was young when all that craziness with the Blight was going on.”

“As was I.” This is turning into the opposite of relaxing. You give Revas a last fond pat, determined to come back when this man is somewhere else. “I should be going,” you say, not bothering to say it politely. You could punch this man in the face and he would probably still be smiling. Sera would delight in your hostility towards the other elf, no doubt, and the thought chafes you slightly, but it’s no use. You simply don’t like him. Clan Sahlinan didn’t have your hostility in particular. They had done well in the fifth Blight. But Dalish always chafe at you. Perhaps if you can get over yourself long enough to get his story out of him, you’ll find he left for a good reason. Perhaps he found his kin as insufferably smug as you did.

You’ll find out another time. You bid the man farewell and stalk out of the barn, not bothering to acknowledge the unfriendly Blackwall. You’re actually relieved when you see Iron Bull in the courtyard. Ugh. What are you now, to go from hating a man to being happy to see him in a single day? Despite your fresh self-loathing, you walk towards him, cheered slightly when he sees you and waves you over.

“Your face looks more sour than usual, kid! What were you doing in the barn?”

“Visiting Revas,” you say shortly. “I finished my translation of the tome; thought I’d take some time off for the rest of the evening-“

He cuts you off. “All I’m hearing is celebration. You should come to the tavern!”

“Oh no. Ooooh no,” you say, waving your hands in front of you. “No way. Not after what happened last time.”

“What if I promise not to give you any more Dragon Piss?”

“No way!”

“Awww, c’mon. You broke my nose; you owe me!”

“I most certainly do not!” you snap, despite the fact that his joking jabs remind that you do, actually, owe the Qunari quite a bit.

“Me and the guys are gonna be playing Wicked Grace. You could join in, maybe have a few drinks…”

Hmm… You do enjoy a chance to swindle drunk mercenaries out of their pay. It’s practically a hobby. “…Maybe just a few hands,” you relent.

“That’s the spirit!” Iron Bull exclaims, clapping you around the shoulders and leading you towards the bar. Ah, well… What’s the worst that could happen?

-

A goodly number of drinks and a large pile of gold later, and you’re beginning to question your self-control. Oh, the Chargers and, in fact, the whole tavern, are having a good time, drunk and laughing at the luck on display from the bookish elven lass. Which is good, as you’ve accumulated the majority of their coin. You’re getting a bit deep into the drink yourself, however. People keep handing you things. Mugs, mostly. There has been more than one joke about you possibly throwing them at a Templar. You threw a mug at the last fellow to make one.

Despite your attempts at remaining more sober than last time, as your mood improves, you become freer with the drink, and as you drink, your mood improves. It spirals out of control rapidly, until you find yourself largely unable to walk.

The men have all gotten up to return to their quarters, the night’s celebrations largely done. There’s a lot of jovial back-slapping and laughter. When you stand up to leave, however, you suddenly and dramatically notice you’re even more intoxicated than you thought, and promptly fall over. Luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you look at it, Iron Bull is there to catch you.

“Aaaah, yooouuu,” you slur at him as you drape your weight effortlessly over him. “Lookit you, catchin’ me. I think you like it.”

“What happened to ‘one or two drinks,’ kid?” he says, with a smile that’s much more handsome than you remember.

“Was havin’ a good time. Wanted a distraction. S’not like I’m gonna get any sleep, ‘n’ soberin’ up awake s’a bitch.”

Iron Bull frowns, trying to steady you on your feet. You don’t cooperate, flopping loosely against him. “Still can’t sleep?”

“S’no helpin’ it,” you say with a wave of your hand. “S’just a pro’lem I have.”

“Can you seriously not walk, or are you just being a brat?” asks Iron Bull, and his words remind you of Solas with a sharp, bitter pang. “Did being mildly bratty get you far in life up until now? Din'samahlen.” You say nothing, just continue to flop uselessly.

“If you don’t walk, I’ll pick you up,” he threatens, likely expecting your pride to carry you onto your feet and out the door. Instead, you stick your tongue out.

“Well, do it then! E’ryone knows you wanna!”

With a grunt, he sweeps you up, one arm on your back and the other under your knees. You whoop like a child being tossed into the air; your head spinning the way it is, that’s certainly how it feels.

“Wow! So this’s what the climate’s like so high up!”

“If you’re pleased with yourself, tell me where your damn room is,” Iron Bull growls, though if there’s vitriol in his voice, you’re too far gone to notice it. You wrap an arm around his neck, pulling your face next to his and pointing dramatically forwards.

“Onwards, towards adventure!” You then collapse back into his arms in a fit of giggles.

“Oh for…”

“Forward, mighty steed!”

“I’m going to drop you.”

“Bidonista!” you exclaim, wrapping your arms around his neck in preparation.

“If you’re going to swear at me, at least have the courtesy to use Tevene. I can close my eyes and pretend you’re some Tevinter lady I’m sweeping off to bed.”

“I could be a Vint,” you say with a scoff. “Speak it better than most ‘em.” You raise yourself up again to hiss into his ear, “Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?

“Oooookay, we are getting you to a bed, any bed. If Krem hears you talking like that, poor man might not be able to control himself.”

“Onwards and upwards!”

You cling to him in the chill of the night, uncertain as to where you’re going and largely unconcerned. You rather enjoy the sensation of being carried, and if you close your eyes, you can almost forget about the disconcerting horns.

You recognize the room he carries you into. “Thank the Maker,” you slur. “You’ve got blankets.

“The Inquisition didn’t give you any?” The concern in his voice, banked slightly by irritation, makes you smile.

“One; an itchy mess of a thing. I hate the cold.” You’re moving about on your own volition now, so Bull sets you down. All you do, however, is stumble over to his bed and flop into it.

“I’ve only got one of those, you know,” he points out sourly. You’re already cocooning yourself in the warm, soft blankets you missed so sorely last night. “Alright, I’ll take the floor,” he says, walking over. “At least give me one of my own blankets, e-“

You attempt to grab him by the wrist and pull him off balance. It probably would have worked on Sera. Iron Bull is, however, significantly larger than you, so your mighty tug does little more than make him look at you funny.

“S’a big bed, stupid,” you mumble, already feeling half-asleep. “Yer not gonna try anything.” You stifle a yawn against your shoulder.

“I’m not sure that’s-“

“Y’ain’t got nothin’ I haven’t felt pressed against my ass in the mornin’. M’not gonna put you out on the floor, but I’m not sleepin’ on it either. S’too cold fer that bullshit.”

He sits down on the edge of the bed, seeming hesitant. You toss a blanket at him, clobbering him right in the face, tiredly delighting in how it tangles in his horns. “I like you, Bull,” you admit. “I don’t like that I like you. Can’t stop worryin’ the fact I like you is some fuckin’ Ben-Hassrath trick. But… Yer fun to be around, and you got my back. Can’t say that ‘bout most people. So I’m gonna try to stop worrying about you bein’ Hissrad, and try to enjoy you bein’ Bull.”

“…Thanks, kid.”

You have a vague recollection of the way the bed creaks as he gets in, before your world fades to blissful, dreamless black.

Chapter Text

You wake up in a haze of confusion and pain. Your head is pounding, a sure sign that you fucked up the night before. You hadn’t drunk as much as the first time; you at least have memories. You kind of wish you didn’t, however.

You’re not even surprised to realize that you’re using Iron Bull’s outstretched arm as a pillow. It seems like “brutal mortification” is your new normal. Mercifully, the giant Qunari appears to still be asleep. He appears to have gone to sleep in his clothes—fair enough, so had you—but you DO note that both his leg and shoulder braces have been removed. A brutally nasty scar on his shoulder, not too different from the one on your abdomen, reveals part of why he wears that brace.

Watching him sleep feels like watching a sleeping dragon. How is possible that someone can look more dangerous when asleep? His default, sleeping expression is not a kind one. You sit up slowly, your head spinning and throbbing violently despite the gentleness of your movements. You were trying not to disturb him, but it seems the absence of your weight on his arm is enough to stir Iron Bull from his sleep.

As he begins to shift, you quickly give yourself a once-over. Your clothing is all still on. You rather suspected it would be... But it never hurts to be sure. Remembering your words from last night, you have to smirk to yourself a little bit. Didn’t even wake up with a cock against your ass… You’ve woken up in more compromising positions than this. You’ve even woken up in more pain, although the waves of nausea beg to differ.

As Iron Bull wakes, it’s like watching walls fall away. The look on his face actually sends a bolt of fear through you, at first, but as he recognizes you, and his surroundings, both his face and his body relax. He shifts to glance out the window. “Up before dawn. You really are an early riser.”

Ugh, every sound is like being punched in the side of the head. You wince and try to stabilize your spinning head. It doesn’t help.

“Morning after regrets?” he asks with a smirk.

“Sooo many of them,” you groan. “Why do I feel the need to drink everything people hand to me?” You rub your forehead. It doesn’t help, either. “How many apologies do I owe you now? Half a dozen? I’m losing count.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get it out of you in sweat and tears in practice today.”

“…Practice? …Today?”

“What, did you think you were getting a day off? You already got time off from your real job.”

“C-c’mon!” you protest. “You’re joking, right? It was your idea to go to the tavern!”

“Yeah, and you’ll notice I’m going to be right out there with you. You wanna trade places? I could punch you instead.”

“No! And… I mean, I don’t have to go,” you point out. “You can’t make me.”

“Nope. Sure can’t.”

There’s a moment of silence while you wait for him to say something else. He doesn’t. “W…well, then…” Well, then, what? Are you going to go nap on Solas’ couch? Pretend like you’re not just flaking out of something you suggested because you don’t feel like it?

“...Alright,” you sigh. “Get me some water and a bucket, or the puke’s going on you.

“That’a girl!” Iron Bull says, blessedly refraining from giving you a slap on the back—it would no doubt cause the contents of your stomach to become the contents of his bed.

-

“Come on! Is that all you’ve got?”

“Maker, not so loud,” you whine, wanting to clutch at your aching head.

“Hit me hard enough to shut me up, then!” Iron Bull bellows. Weakly, you swing into another punch, which he, of course, blocks. He had picked today, for some gods-forsaken reason, to start teaching you about blocks. As if you’d be absorbing any of this information. The movement jars the contents of your stomach, and you rush away from Iron Bull to retch into what you’ve affectionately titled the “Death Bucket.” You kind of want to keep it; it seems a shame to waste something that could be used so well for so many terrible things.

When you’ve finished emptying your stomach and dry heaving, you down some of the juice Iron Bull had brought out, just to wash the awful taste out of your mouth. Your stomach churns with displeasure, but frankly, throwing up the juice in ten minutes is better than dry heaving. You turn miserably back towards Iron Bull.

After he’s proven his point and you’ve vomited more times than you care to count, Iron Bull calls training a little early. Thank the Maker.

“Good hustle out there, kid!” he says, opting to tousle your hair instead of smacking you on the back. He’s managed to get this far without being puked on, no need to change it now. Just the gentle back and forth of his hand on your head causes more hair to fall lose from your haphazard bun. You shrug away from him and pause to recollect your hair. It always falls about, especially when you’re moving around a great deal.

“Good hustle? I didn’t land a single blow,” you say with a scowl as you yank your hair back into proper order.

“In your condition, I would be amazed if you had. I was watching for another rogue uppercut, though.”

“Ugh, just the thought of jumping that high makes me sick…”

“Tell you what, we’ve got some time before breakfast… Why don’t you get a bath?”

You’re not sure why he’s suggesting it, but the idea is appealing. You’re no doubt a disgusting, smelly mess after marinating yourself in alcohol, snuggling up to a Qunari--who don’t smell phenomenal on the best of days--and then running around sweating and vomiting everywhere. The thought of the cold bathwater is unappealing, but it’s better than being disgusting.

“And then meet up for breakfast? I should probably at least try to make the meal on time; I think Thea’s getting sour with me.”

“Well, I can walk you there, at least.”

You roll your eyes. “To the women’s baths? I’m surprised you’re allowed within fifty paces.”

“Nah. I said I have a private bath? Why not use it.”

“W… No, that’s fine, I…”

“It’s enchanted. The water comes out hot. Some kinda… fire magic, I guess. I wouldn’t offer, but I figure if you’re comfortable enough to share my bed…”

“Sssshhh!” you hiss sharply, glancing around, although few people are up and about, with the sun barely beginning to peek above the horizon. “Fine! But if I catch you taking a peek, I’ll take one of your damn horns as a trophy.”

“I’ll be the picture of chivalry,” he promises. You snort.

“Don’t say that. I’ve met chevaliers.”

-

The bath is, as promised, magnificent.

“How did you get this?” you call into the other room. The bath is large… probably, two elves could share it rather handily, although you suspect it gets crowded quickly with a Qunari in it.

“It came with the place! Skyhold actually has a couple of them. Dunno how old that enchantment is… gives me the creeps, a little.” Iron Bull’s voice is coming from the other room, where he’s staying, rather politely, while you take a bath. Oh, he’s probably thinking about you naked and soapy, but you don’t really mind that sort of behavior as long as it stays in his head. You’ve certainly envisioned Sera in much more compromising positions since you bathed with her.

“Gives you the creeps?” you ask, running a hand along the bath cautiously, searching for enchantment. Just because Iron Bull’s the only one around doesn’t mean you can be careless. You find it on the spout, and examine it in wordless wonder as Iron Bull grumbles about mysterious ancient magic from the next room. It’s a modified fire rune… How has it lasted this long? Remarkable. The steam coming off of the water speaks for how well the old enchantment still works.

“Where does the water come from?”

“Look, if you want to study the damn thing, you should have asked Solas if you could have a look at his. Just get in the tub!”

“Solas has one?”

Iron Bull lets out a frustrated groan.

“Alright, alright…” You quickly strip out of your dirty clothes. A hiss of satisfaction escapes between your teeth as you step into the tub, sinking your leg in nearly up to the knee. That water is delightfully hot. You pause, a slightly disturbing thought just now occurring to you. “…Bull?”

“Yeah, kid?”

“How many times have you had sex in this thing?”

“Sooooo many times, Emma.”

“Oh, Maker.”

“Hey, just think about how many people have had sex in the public bathhouses. At least that water is fresh.”

Oh, MAKER!” you groan. “Now I’ll never be comfortable in that damn bath again!” You sink into the water sullenly, but even the disturbing mental image of Iron Bull and some redheaded maid rutting against the side doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the steaming water. You can feel muscles relaxing that you hadn’t even realized were tense.

“You might as well go get breakfast, Bull, because I’m going to live in here from now on.”

-

You do eventually leave the water, around the time it starts cooling off. You change into clean clothes and head towards the mess with Bull in a daze. Despite the soak, your head is still throbbing, and the concept of food fills your stomach with renewed dread. The now-risen sun isn’t doing you any favors, either… each sunbeam feels like an angry dagger stabbing you in the eyes.

You sit miserably in the mess, each loud conversation making your head pound more. How you long to just soak in that bathtub for the rest of the day. Thea is pleased to see you, which is nice, but her loud, teasing conversation is not. Still, you don’t want to alienate her further, so you try to smile along and talk when absolutely necessary.

By the time you get to your desk in the rotunda, your stomach is in an unpleasant knot and your head is still throbbing. You just sort of… lay your head on the desk, for a moment, staring sideways at the tome whose translation you finished the day before. You’re in no condition to ink anything… Instead, you work on ensuring the translation papers are in correct order, and then loosely binding them together, a task which takes you most of the morning.

When it’s getting towards lunch, and your translation is in order and tied neatly together, you grab it and a few choice pages, including the one with the eye diagram you’re so proud of, and climb the long steps up to what you’ve come to think of as Leliana’s lair. Her face when she sees you is amused, which is mildly disconcerting. It’s no wonder, however… If she’s a spymaster worth any salt, she already knows you and Iron Bull have been… growing closer. Likely, it looks like even more than that, from the outside looking in.

“I’ve finished the initial translation, serah,” you say politely, placing the transcript on her desk. “If you wish to look over it. I also have a few initial pages to show you what the final tome may look like.”

The surprise on Leliana’s face is priceless. “That was very fast. Perhaps the praise of Alix Gagnon was not high enough.” She thumbs through the translation, eyes the pages with satisfaction. “Your work seems excellent, Emma. You are ahead of schedule. I believe I may feel more comfortable distracting you from the tome with other duties.” She glances up at you, eyes sharp, but your face is a polite mask.

“Whatever you need, serah. I’m pleased that my skills are being put to good use.”

“You seem to be adjusting to life here, as well. That’s good. I’m certain you’ll come to be an asset to the Inquisition, Emma.”

You thank her with a bow, and she hands back your papers, dismissing you. Seems as though you might be seeing more Ben-Hassrath reports… or perhaps something else entirely. You’re still not sure what she’s playing at.

You’re feeling better, your stomach less twisted and your head no longer feeling as though there is a spike being driven through it, so you head to the mess for lunch. Skipping meals will only serve to make your queasy body worse, at this point. Iron Bull sees you as you’re heading towards the building. You spot him, as well; he’s running the Chargers through some sort of drills. Krem sees him spots you, and ribs the Qunari in the stomach as Iron Bull shouts that they’ll break for lunch.

Several of the Chargers eat with you and Iron Bull in the mess. They reek of sweat, and it twists your delicate stomach slightly, but you still manage to down a bit of gruel.

“You know what I miss?” you say, to no one in particular, although Krem, whose seated next to you, perks up. “Escabeche. It’s an Orlesian dish, and the perfect hangover cure.”

“Orlesian?” Krem questions, wrinkling his nose.

“I think it may have come out of Rivain, originally… But the Orlesians have done wonderful things with it.” You sigh wistfully. “It’s this… fried fish, marinated in a spicy, acidic mix, normally with peppers and pickled vegetables.”

The entire table has paused in their eating to stare at you in horror.

“What?” you say defensively. “It’s good! And it’d knock me right back onto my feet and out of this miserable hangover.”

“Sounds like it’d knock me straight on my ass,” Krem says, looking disgusted.

“Like it’s hard, Krem?” Iron Bull says with a snort. “You still can’t block a shield bash!”

The conversation continues on, but you’re still thinking about escabeche. You’ve never been more nostalgic for your mother’s cooking.

-

You feel much better when you get back to your desk. The gruel sits in your stomach like a stone, but your headache is gone. You’re well enough to get back to outlining pages, at the very least. You remind yourself to ask Leliana for a magnifying stand as you squint at a nightmare of a jaw diagram that you’re going to have to duplicate at least once. You say at least once, but there’s no way you’re doing it twice. The Inquisition has to have a mage who knows duplication spells. At the very least, Varric has to know a mage with duplication spells. He hardly wrote every single circulating copy of Hard in Hightown.

You find yourself mildly lonely as the day turns towards evening and dinnertime looms. The room feels empty. The peace and quiet is nice, certainly, but you had just as much silence when Solas was around, with the added comfort that having another elf nearby granted you. As much as you’re coming to appreciate Iron Bull, and the understanding that your somewhat-shared experiences grant, it’s not quite the same. You can’t engage with Sera, Iron Bull, or Thea in a debate about… Well, anything much at all. And where you can get in a grand old row with Dorian about, the two of you lack shared experience that draw you towards Sera and Bull.

Solas… Well, you and Solas have a lot in common. By now, he’s been gone longer than you knew him, but you still find it stings to think about his absence.

You sigh and place your quill down. It’s time to get dinner. Your sensitive stomach won’t abide by you skipping meals today, and you need to clear your mind.

You’re alarmed by how chilly it’s getting. You realize, with no small amount of horror, that tomorrow is the first day of August. You’re beginning the slow descent into winter, and in the mountains, at that… and you with no fireplace or means of heating your tiny room. You sigh miserably as you quickly cross the courtyard. Perhaps this is just a cold snap, and not indicative of the normal August weather in this area, but… you doubt it. It’s probably going to be awful. In Orlais, you had a rose garden. Here, you’d be lucky to grow arctic moss! You’ll certainly never forgive the Templars for this one.

You sulk more as you sit alone in the mess, sullenly eating whatever stew the Inquisition is feeding its masses. You suppose you should be grateful you’re somewhere safe, being fed, but you had safety and food in Orlais, before this mess started. Although what’s really amazing is that it took the mages of Thedas this long to rebel. The red Templars were a surprise, though.

“Hey, elfy!”

The sound jars you out of your sullen thoughts.

“Yer cute when you sulk, anyone ever told you that?”

“Hey, Sera,” you say, not having to force a smile. She really did light up a room. “Let me guess, you’ve figured out another lesson?”

“Sure have! And this one’s good! Finish up your soup and let’s go!”

You are a little trepidatious… Her last “lesson” had gone very poorly, and you would really like to avoid going to the healer’s tent again. But she avoids walls and archery ranges today, and instead takes you down to a part of Skyhold you’d never seen before and hoped never to see again: the prison.

“Uhm, Sera… why are we here?” you ask nervously. Prisons have always made you skittish. You’ve spent your entire life avoiding prisons of one kind of another, and the only thing you fear more than imprisonment is death.

“Don’t worry! S’mostly empty. We’re here cause this is where all the best locks are.”

“...The best… locks?”

“Tha’s right! S’not a person in this world who can’t benefit from learnin’ how to pick locks! Look!” She pulls out a little leather pouch. “I gotcha your own set!”

You’re… you’re actually quite touched. This is a useful lesson… you’ve no doubt your skills have gotten quite rusty, and you were never particularly talented at picking locks in the first place.

“Sera, that’s actually quite brilliant,” you say as you accept the lockpicks.

“Hey! Don’t sound so surprised about it!”

The two of you find a likely candidate, a cell door for a cell that has a large hole in the back wall. The lock on the door still functions, and that's all you really need. Sera begins walking you through it as you fumble with your tools, trying to remember skills you haven’t used in years.

“Y’done this before?” Sera asks curiously as you swear at the lock in Tevene.

“I grew up in the alienage in Denerim… all the kids tried to learn how to pick locks. None of us were much good at it.”

“You grew up in Denerim?” Sera sounds shocked. You’re not sure why.

“Yeah, I… Fais chier!” you curse as you fumble with the lock. “I’m worse at this than I thought…”

“...I grew up in Denerim, too.” Sera’s voice is quiet, but what she says jars you so much that you drop the pick altogether.

“You what?”

“I was in the orphanage for… a while. Didn’t stick around.”

You stare at her. “...I was in the orphanage too.”

There’s an awkward moment where you just stare at each other, both at a loss for words. Finally, you break the silence.

“I don’t remember a Sera, off the top of my head, but…”

“I was only there til I was like ten!” she says with a huff. “I was outta there before the Blight hit!”

You shift awkwardly. “It was actually Denerim where I was sold into slavery,” you confess. “I was there until then.”

“Aw, piss, this is awkward. How did we not realize this before?”

You have to laugh. “Neither of us talk about this shit, Sera!”

And it’s true. One of the things you like about Sera is her complete lack of interest in the past, both the short term past, i.e. yours, and the long term past. It’s not a take you necessarily share; someone who studies ancient languages is, by nature, curious about the past. But it’s a very nice trait to have in a friend when there are things in the past you’d rather not discuss.

“Maker’s breath,” you say with a chuckle. “You must’ve been out before the whole thing turned to shit, then.”

“You mean the riots? I kinda heard about them.” She looks guilty, but you don’t press. However she got out of the Alienage, she did it at a good time. You didn’t and nearly died in the ensuing “riots,” then got sold into slavery by a deranged teryn. You don’t care if she had to prostitute herself to get out; she did well.

“Yeah… It was ugly. Y...Y’know everyone’s dead, Sera. The orphans who made it out were the first ones rounded up by Loghain’s men.”

“Wot, everyone?” she exclaims, face contorting in horror. “Even little Dirth’len?”

You swallow, hard. So she remembers after all. Your life with the Inquisition is one ridiculous “almost but not quite” after another.

“....Yeah,” you say, after pausing for too long. “Even Dirth’len.”

“Fuckin’ shits!” she exclaims hotly. “Those bloody pissbags! I can’t believe…”

“Hey, at least I made it out, right?” you say with a joking air. “And you made it out. Maybe some of the others did, too.”

The look of guilt on her face is clear, now. “And… you went through all that shite, first. Seheron and piss. Shit, Em, I’m sorry.” It takes skill to shorten the name “Emma” but it seems that Sera was up for that particular challenge.

“Hey, you had nothing to do with it,” you say gently, reaching over to pat her on the shoulder. “It was bad luck and stupid shems, right?”

She makes a face. “Don’t go thinkin’ just cause we grew up inna same place means you can go all elfy on me.”

You make a face right back. “You don’t wanna start our own little Alienage? We already have a separate bath. We can start calling Solas ‘hahren’ and raiding the Inquisitor’s kitchen.”

Sera shudders and glares. “Tha’s horrible. You should feel bad.”

“I don’t. Not even a little.” You pick your picks back up and turn towards the lock, trying to remember a little blonde elfkit named Sera. You were in the orphanage for years, and you were the exact kind of brat that other little brats flocked to. You could hardly be expected to remember all of them. But you were the first one whose livelihood she’d asked after… Little Dirth’len, a name long dead. If you were the first one she asked about, the two of you must have been close, or perhaps you were merely someone she admired. The sort of ridiculous nonsense Sera got up to now was not that different from the foolishness you’d get the other orphans to do in the streets of the Denerim alienage.

You do, eventually, manage to pick a few locks, and thank Sera profusely when she says you can keep the little kit of lockpicks. You do intend to keep practicing with them. Like Sera says, you never know when you’re going to need to pick a lock. She invites you back to her room in the tavern, but you turn her down, citing the need to get some more work done. The reality of the situation is threefold: you don’t want to go into that damn tavern again; you do have something you want to do; and you don’t trust yourself to keep it professional if you’re alone in a pretty elf girl’s bedroom. It takes very little for you to get carried away… your silly little one-day infatuation with Solas after seeing him shirtless was proof enough of that.

But that little incident had given you one thing… the knowledge of where you could likely find warm, soft blankets and, possibly, an enchanted bath that absolutely no one would be using until Solas came back. You smirk to yourself as you steal off towards Solas’ room. No more scratchy cotton blanket or cold, segregated bath for you! And Sera had given you the last little piece, a set of lockpicks and a refresher course. It seems that the world had decided you’d had a bad enough time lately that it was going to hand you this one for free.

The best way to sneak anywhere, is, of course, to march right in. You know maids must regularly come and go from the chambers nearby, so you simply adopt the unassuming but confident gait of housestaff and stroll right past Madame de Fer, whose regular presence on the balcony seems to serve largely to make you uncomfortable. She seems content enough to leave you alone, however. After you get out onto the walkway, you listen carefully for any sign of movement from within the other doors. The last thing you need is someone stepping out to you picking a lock. It seems relatively quiet inside, however--perhaps no one wants to room near the elven apostate--so you quickly get to work on Solas’ lock.

Cleverly, you check for magic first, but sense none. With a last check around to make sure no one’s approaching, you kneel down to work on his lock. It’s a simple thing, much more straightforward than the locks down in the prison, and you make short work of it. You ghost into his room with a wicked smirk on your face--an apostate should know better, but you suspect he simply has little of value that he would leave behind in his room. In any case, you’re not here to snoop; it’s quite possible he would enchant a chest containing his actual valuables with any number of unpleasant things. Instead, you make a beeline for the wardrobe near his bed, running a hand over it to check for spells or wards, then upon finding none, opening it. Inside is a small but beautiful stack of blankets. You run your hand over the one on top and find it suitably soft and thick. You yank it into your arms, careful to preserve the delicate folds, then close the wardrobe and exit the bedroom, locking it behind you.

-

The stolen blanket is a treasure. You drape it over yourself as you sit at your desk, working, and it keeps the chill off, allowing you to work longer into the night. You burn a candle down to a stub and light another before your eyes are finally too heavy. It isn’t until you sink onto the couch with your stolen treasure that you begin to feel a little strange about it. This very blanket had likely once been wrapped around Solas’ half-nude body. It had probably been cleaned since then, but the thought still makes you feel like a stalker. Still, Solas’ blanket is very warm, and with its help, you drift off to sleep, finally warm and comfortable, on Solas’ couch.

-

You awake hours later, brutally confused. Had you… dreamed? In your state, it shouldn’t be possible, and you couldn’t quite remember. You did feel significantly more well-rested than you normally did upon waking up, however, and you’d barely tossed and turned at all during the night. You’re surrounded by the gentle smell of elfroot and old books. The smell, you realize with a sudden jolt of horror, of Solas.

You positively ricochet off of the couch, staring at both it and the blanket in horror. The best sleep you’ve had with the chaos locked inside you, and the cause might well be the comfort of a man’s blanket?! You had rested warm and content in Iron Bull’s bed, knocked into unconsciousness with the help of copious amounts of alcohol, and had not slept this well. The difference… the blanket? That it was Solas’? You shudder. No, there will be absolutely none of that. You’ll be back to your own bed and own horribly scratchy blanket tonight.

You realize, when you step out of the rotunda, that you’ve slept in. That’s… not a thing you do. It’s still before dawn, but barely. You can almost feel the presence of the blanket and it’s implications looming over you. You quickly jog down the steps and head towards the sparring rings. Iron Bull is there, working through some practice routines of his own on a practice dummy. You approach guiltily.

“You finally get some sleep?” he asks, sounding genuinely curious.

“...Yeah, I guess,” you mutter. It’s the last thing you want to talk about. “I slept in. Sorry.”

“Eh, it works out. You getting some actual sleep is more important; you’re practically unhinged as it is. And I was planning on giving you the morning off anyway.”

You blink in shock. “You were? This from the man who wouldn’t let me take a day off yesterday when I needed it?”

“You didn’t need it yesterday, you wanted it,” he says. It’s so pedantic that you want to punch him recreationally.

“Besides, it’s Sunday. I thought maybe we could go to the stables.”

Oh. It is Sunday, isn’t it? The idea of riding Revas again fills you with excitement. Then, the idea of tolerating Belassan and his Dalish nonsense fills you with dread. Well, perhaps the two will cancel each other out. And if Iron Bull is there, you can pretend like you’re not being taught by a Dalish… your pride couldn’t handle it, otherwise. Either way, you can’t resist the desire to be on Revas again. You nod eagerly, and the two of you head off towards the stables.

Blackwall is there, of course, and does his normal glowering as you enter. Is that, perhaps, his default expression? Is he just a suspicious person? Perhaps it’s a Grey Warden thing.

“Back to visit with your hart again?” he asks as you pass by.

“Revas is hardly my hart, ser Warden,” you say politely.

“Oh? And here I thought one of your... friends must have purchased him for you by now.”

You’re bristling internally, but your face remains placid. “Of course not, serah. It’s not a matter of ownership. We merely enjoy each other’s company.” The subtext here is thick enough to cut with a knife. Does he believe you sleeping your way up the ranks of the Inquisition? Well, he likely won’t be the first or the only.

You sweep past him and head towards Revas’ stall. You notice Iron Bull glancing between you and Blackwall, but you pointedly ignore it. There’s no way Bull hadn’t realized the consequences that rumors of your promiscuity might have. Perhaps he just didn’t think the Grey Warden the kind of person to buy into it.

The sight of Revas cheers you immensely. You sweep up to the hart, cooing happily as he seems just as pleased to see you, nuzzling the side of his head against yours.

“Oh, good, you came!” Even the sound of Belassan approaching can’t kill your good mood. You happily bury your face in Revas’ fluff, breathing in his woodsy scent to kill the remnants of Solas’.

“Hey, boy,” you say softly into his ear. “Want to knock me into the dirt a few more times?”

“The two of you really get along. An outsider would swear you were Dalish, you know!” This time, you’re unable to ignore Belassan. You stiffen, bite back a sharp retort. You have a dozen of them. Revas notes the change in your posture, tilts his head slightly and snorts. You give him what you hope is a comforting pat.

“They would be wrong,” you say, as politely as you can, not wanting to give away your distaste to Bull, if not Belassan. “Would you mind if Revas and I went out into the pasture?”

“By all means! His tack is over here. It’s always good for the harts to have practice with carrying someone. I try to ride them myself, but I don’t have time for all of them.”

You manage to get Revas saddled and bridled, noting for the second time his distaste for the bit. You doubt that Dalish use them, in all honesty, and the saddle appears to be little more than a modified horse saddle. Knowing the Dalish, however, they probably ride bareback and bemoan any saddling as “caging the wilderness” or some such ridiculous nonsense. You never see a halla with a saddle, just a lot of bruised Dalish from falling off repeatedly.

Not that you have a lot of room to throw stones in that direction… You manage an undignified crawl onto Revas’ back, utilizing the fence again, and the awkward process begins again. You can stay on him easily enough when he’s walking around, but the second Belassan urges you to move him into a run, you’re bouncing around like a moron. You do manage to stay on, however, only falling off when Revas stops unexpectedly, sending you soaring over his horns and into the dirt.

You’re still riding around in circles when you see Blackwall approach Iron Bull. You can’t really eavesdrop from a moving hart, but the Warden’s posture is relaxed, casual… nothing like the way he looks at you. He’s gesturing towards the gates, Iron Bull is nodding… What are those two up to? Then Iron Bull points at you and Blackwall frowns. You definitely see a “no way” gesture thrown around, but Iron Bull is arguing back. Now you’re really curious. Then you see Sera approaching… No, scratch that, Sera and Dorian.

Sera listens to Blackwall for a moment, then laughs. The Warden only looks more irritated. You begin to worry… is there word from the Inquisitor? Are the rest of your “inner circle” friends to run off to war as well, now? Despite your better judgment, you bring Revas around to the gate to see if you can find out what’s happening.

“Like she ever wasn’t coming, beardy! Get real,” Sera is saying with a scoff. “M’not goin’ into the woods with three stinky guys for an hour.” She notices you and waves, then lifts up a basket. “So, I had a great idea, right-“

We had an idea, I think you mean,” Dorian says pointedly.

“Shut it! Remember eatin’ on the balcony? That was fun, right? Well why don’t we do it again, except instead of the balcony, we find a nice place outside Skyhold? You like ridin’ horses, so we can all go for a ride and have a big meal and a good time!”

You’re at a loss for words, for a moment. “…You want me to go… on a picnic?”

“Yeah!”

“With you and Dorian?”

“Wif all of us! Blackwall’s a riot; you’ll love him!”

“Blackwall’s a… riot. I see.” You clear your throat delicately. “Well, I would love to join you, Sera. It sounds like you’re putting more thoughts into ideas since ‘climbing a wall.’”

“’Ey! That could’ve been golden, yeah?”

“If you like healer’s tents visits from falling injuries,” Dorian quips, causing you and Iron Bull to glance at each other momentarily. Healer’s tents visits. Sure would be silly to do something like that. Ha. Ha.

“Alright, you just keep ridin’ around like an elf princess! I’m gonna go get a normal horse,” Sera declares, sending a pointed glare at Belassan. You’re a little impressed at his placid smile. Perhaps it’s not that he’s stupid, and more that he’s just used to barbed comments.

In either case, you’re a bit more eager to hear his advice while the others amble off to the stables to get mounts. This will be your first time out of the pasture on Revas. The hart isn’t prone to bolting, according to Belassan, but you’ll have to watch him to ensure he doesn’t headbutt the horse in front of him. You nod along as he describes the mechanics of staying in your saddle on steep upwards and downwards climbs. You just hope you don’t fall off a cliff, at this point.

The other start coming out the stable on their mounts, and it’s almost humorous how well suited each horse is. The question of what kind of a horse could carry Iron Bull is quickly settled... a mountain of a horse, easily eighteen hands, thick and broad and a beautiful cream color with dark mane and tail. Dorian, in turn, is riding a horse that could only be described as coifed, all streaming mane and tail with a delicate gait. Blackwall is on a beast of a horse, solid black and powerful looking. And Sera is riding about on a slight, spirited brown and white painted horse.

Well, you have a hart, so yours is automatically better. Solas would have ridden a hart, probably. You are nervous the second the gate was opened, but Revas doesn’t suddenly bolt or anything. You fall in next to Sera fairly effortlessly, and breathe a sigh of relief.

“You ride a lot of harts, elfy?” She asks, eyeing you and your mount up and down. You laugh.

“Oh, please. This my second time, ever. And before you ask, no, I’ve not ridden a horse before, either. If I live to see the inside of that barn again, I’ll do better than I expect to.”

“Well, we’re not going far. I got a nice place out of the wind, near a hot spring!”

“There’s a hot spring?” It’s really a shame the two of you aren’t going alone. No one’s going to be up for co-ed bathing, you least of all, but there are worse things than another hot bath with Sera for company.

“Don’t get any ideas! If Blackwall gets in, he’d clog it.”

“I heard that,” calls Blackwall from further on ahead. “As if any of us would be interested in bathing with two scrawny elves.” The teasing in his voice shocks you… Apparently he is less of a stick in the mud around people who aren’t you. What a joy.

“Speak for yourself,” says Iron Bull. “I have a hard time thinking of something I’d want more.”

Sera makes an exaggerated, disgusted face and a few gagging noises, and you can’t help but smile.

“Do the Inquisitor’s loyal inner circle often go on picnics together?” you ask Sera coyly.

“Well, not if you say it like that!” she says with a scoff. “But we do stuff together, yeah? Why not? We wind up together more often than not, so might as well not hate each other.”

You can’t argue that… It’s essentially the same logic you used with Iron Bull. If you can’t avoid someone, try to at least get to a point where you’re not actively stabbing each other in the face. The thought causes you to eye Blackwall, who’s having a rather animated conversation with Iron Bull. Perhaps the source of the strange look Iron Bull had given him earlier was that his behavior towards you was out of character? You had, in all honesty, assumed him either a suspicious individual or a racist. Perhaps it was something else.

Unfortunately, for most of the journey, you’re too busy trying not to slide off Revas’ back to give Blackwall’s sullen distaste towards you much thought. You do manage to stay on, and it is a miracle… or certainly feels like one, in any case.

The place Sera picked out is as pleasant as promised. The soothing sound of a babbling stream fills the background, and it’s far enough down the mountain that there’s essentially no snow. You wouldn’t call it warm, exactly, but it’s comfortable enough that you don’t hate yourself for coming.

The five of you dismount and tie up your horses, or, in your case, hart. Revas doesn’t seem too keen about being tied to a tree, but you soothe him with gentle whispers and pats, and compromise by sitting close enough that he can headbutt and nuzzle at your back. The others settle around into the clearing as well, and you find yourself in a rough sort of circle with four of the Inquisitor’s most trusted companions. Life is a strange thing.

Iron Bull and Blackwall are having a rather amusing and lively debate on the pros and cons of axes versus swords. Perhaps dismemberment is not the most traditional light dinner conversation, but the two of them seem to be enjoying themselves. It’s not something you can really join in on, having never used either weapon. You’re more of a “single dagger where it needs to go and then get the fuck out” kind of person, but you don’t share that tidbit.

“You know, Blackwall, I’ve been teaching Emma here how to fight,” Iron Bull says, and you find yourself suddenly the center of attention.

“Oh, really? The linguist needs to fight?” Blackwall asks, his voice dripping sarcasm. “I suppose you’ll take to training the maids next?”

“If anyone needs to know how to fight, it’s the maids,” you say with a slight scowl. “Or do you think every man in the Inquisition to be a gentleman as kind-hearted as you?”

Blackwall stiffens visibly, and his visage darkens. “I’m certain that if anything like that were to happen within the Inquisition, our Commander would ensure the men responsible punished enough to discourage further… ungentlemanly behavior.”

“He kept that one guy from gettin’ an arrow in the face, though,” Sera points out through a mouthful of pheasant.

“I still can’t believe you were going to shoot him,” you say with a smile. “He was just running at the mouth!”

“What’s all this, then?” Dorian inquires curiously.

“Oh, just a run-in with some of the ungentlemen Emma was talkin’ about,” Sera says with an eyeroll. “Cullen showed up before I could solve it the fun way.”

“See? The Commander puts a stop to that sort of ridiculousness,” Blackwall says, vaguely gesturing with a fork.

“I can’t argue,” you admit. “He was very… Wait, his name’s Cullen?”

“Huh? Well, yeah. D’you think his name was Commander?” asks Sera with a snort.

“It’s such an ordinary name!” you laugh. “He’s such a tall, intimidating fellow, but his name’s Cullen.” You snort to yourself.

“Intimidating? Cullen?” Iron Bull says with a laugh. “Alright, I can see you being scared of me at first, I’m a big guy with horns. But you have met Cullen, right? He has no fangs around a pretty girl.”

“Seeing as how I’m hardly a pretty girl, Iron Bull, I’ll continue with my skittish nature. I’ve no desire to see whether our Commander has fangs or not.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Emma,” Dorian says casually. “Maybe let your hair down, dress in something that isn’t oversized cotton…”

“You should come to morning practice sometime,” Iron Bull says with a smirk. “She can’t keep that hair up to save her life.”

You scowl at Iron Bull, absentmindedly checking the state of your hair. “My hair is quite fine up, thank-you-very-much.”

“If y’don’t like it blowin’ around, cut it short, like mine!” suggests Sera.

“Maker, no, not like yours,” says Dorian, sounding horrified. “What did you cut it with, a rusty dagger? Besides, if anyone here needs a haircut, it’s Blackwall. A bath wouldn’t hurt, either.”

You withdraw from the conversation as they bicker around in circles, concentrating on eating as much of the packed bread and fruits as you can. Let the men of the Inquisition feast on deer meat until they’re gorged. You’re more concerned with not getting scurvy. Focus turns back to you, however, as you pull a certain fruit out of one of the baskets.

“Hey, a banana! Man, they’re so much smaller here than they are in Par Vollen!” exclaims Iron Bull. You pause mid-bite. “They’re just plain bigger there. Firmer. You really have to stretch your mouth around them.” You close your mouth with distaste as Blackwall snickers.

“Wot? You not gonna eat it?” asks Sera curiously as Dorian rubs a hand over his face.

“I’ve lost my appetite,” you say dryly, glaring up at Iron Bull.

“Well, I’ll eat it!” Sera says, reaching for the already peeled banana.

“Don’t give it to her, she’ll have no idea what to do with it!” chortles Dorian.

“Wot are you talking about? S’a banana!” Sera says with a scowl.

“We can’t all be experts at bananas, Dorian,” you say darkly. “Perhaps you and Iron Bull could give us a demonstration?”

Iron Bull roars with laughter, but Dorian looks flustered. You bite into the banana with satisfaction while they’re distracted.

“I don’t get what all the fuss is over one stinkin’ banana,” Sera grumbles.

“Oh, that reminds me, Dorian. You speak some Tevene, right? What’s “pedicabo” mean?” Iron Bull asks curiously, causing you to nearly choke.

Dorian does choke, coughing and clearing his throat as you quickly avoid making eye contact with either of them.

“WHAT?! Why would you ask me that?”

“Well, I suppose I could tie down one of the Venatori and ask them, but this seemed easier.”

“It… Never mind what it means!” Dorian snaps. “Where did you even hear that?!”
Iron Bull gestures over towards you, and you blink as innocently as you can.

“Emma!” Dorian says, sounding shocked. “Did you put him up to this?”

“I have no idea what either of you are talking about,” you say, taking another bite out of your banana. “Keep me out of your pillow talk.”

“Seriously, someone tell me what it means,” interjects Iron Bull.

“Ask your filthy-mouthed paramour!” Dorian snaps.

Four sets of eyes turn expectedly towards you. “Hmm, I seem to be lacking in any sort of ancient Tevinter dictionary,” you say, exaggeratedly patting at your pockets. “Perhaps you can catch my near my workplace, and ask then?”

“Was it really that bad?” Iron Bull asks Dorian.

Filthy. And I find myself simultaneously curious about the context and suspecting I’m happier not knowing,” he adds, glaring towards you.

“You lot are weird,” chimes in Sera.

-

The ride back from the picnic is just as difficult, and you continue to nearly slide off Revas’ rump, but you’re in a good mood nonetheless. Blackwall certainly hasn’t warmed up to you any, but it was enjoyable (and informative) to see how the Inquisitor’s companions interacted. Dorian gets along with Sera, and likes Iron Bull more than he lets on, but honestly and genuinely dislikes Blackwall. Iron Bull and Sera, it seems, get on fine with anyone. Now if you only knew how each one genuinely felt about the Inquisitor, you could have some actually valuable information on your hands.

You give Revas a thorough brushing and a lot of praise when you finally make it back to the barn, although you notice that you and Blackwall are the only ones who don’t simply hand your mounts off to the stablehands. You give the hart a final, loving stroke on the nose, and turn to head towards the rotunda.

“Wait, are you headin’ up to work?” Sera exclaims when she sees where you’re heading.

“I thought Sundays were your day off,” comments Iron Bull. It seems as though Sunday is a lot of people’s day off, considering that the four of them are more or less loitering, seemingly not having anything better to do.

“I spend a great deal of time during the week with you lot, rather than working,” you point out.

“Don’t lump me into this!” says Dorian. “You never come visit me.”

You ignore him. “I spend mornings with you, Bull, and some evenings with Sera. Every week so far you’ve managed to even drag me off to the tavern.”

“He has?!” fumes Sera. “You wouldn’t go with me!”

“My point,” you say slowly. “Is that I’m perpetually behind on work because of you very charming fellows. I need to play catch-up.”

“Yer full of it!” snorts Sera. “I heard Leliana sayin’ that you work fast, real fast.”

“Because I have dedicated myself so fully to the Inquisition,” you say dryly. “On that note, I’m going to go work now.”

You do, eventually, make to the rotunda, despite your friends protests. You like them well enough, but a full day in such rambunctious company would leave you exhausted. You enter the rotunda to a note on your desk, likely another missive from Leliana. You open it with a sigh, and are surprised to see it’s a handwritten note requesting your presence in the library, of all things. Confused, you head up the spiral stairs, wondering what on earth this could be about.

You head towards Thea, but the moment she sees you, she calls over Mahvir.

“Oh, there you are!” the elf says. “Thank goodness. I hate the first of the month… I keep thinking I’m going to get mugged,” he says with a shudder. “Here, take this.” He thrusts a small satchel towards you. You accept it, confused.

“Um… What is this?” you ask, shaking it slightly. It jingles.

“Your pay, of course, although I suspect you’ll eventually be paid through upstairs instead of the library,” the distracted man says with a slight frown.

“They pay the first of the month, every month,” Thea explains as Mahvir rushes off. “S’pro’ly a little short, since you came in halfway through Solace.”

You barely hear her; you’ve opened up the bag and are staring inside at quite a good bit of silver. “Wait. Three meals, clothes, shelter… and they’re paying me this much?”

Thea peeks into the bag as well and whistles. “Maker! Linguists are rollin’ in it, huh?”

“More than I thought, apparently,” you murmur. It’s nothing compared to what you made translating tomes for the court, but it’s significantly more than you had thought. You had expected to make barely anything, serving the Inquisition as best you could in return for a safe place to lay your head and walls to keep the Red Templars outside. This is Leliana’s doing, no doubt. Between this and the coin you’d won from the mercenaries, you could buy… Well, something. Perhaps you can procure yourself some better clothing, or a better blanket, somehow.

You make your way back down to your desk in the rotunda, and somehow do manage to get some work done. You skip dinner, not out of any devotion to your work, but because you had eaten way too much at lunch. No one stopped you, so you had wound up eating two small loaves of bread, the majority of a pheasant, and no small amount of fruit. If you ate dinner on top of that, you’d likely explode.

It’s around sunset that Sera bursts into the rotunda. Even if you hadn’t already had an iron will and steady control of your hands, you would have obtained them since coming to the Inquisition… it seems people will constantly be making loud, sudden noises while you’re working on delicate things.

“I had the best idea for training, Em!” Sera exclaims excitedly. You try not to sigh.

“Not more lockpicking, I take it?”

“So much cooler than that! Iron Bull was telling me about those Fog Whatevers…”

“Fog Warriors,” you say cautiously. “And I don’t like where this is going.”

“And he says they were good at urban combat or whatever…”

“There are a lot of whatevers happening here, Sera.”

“Shut it! And it reminded me of stuff me and my friends used to do, running along rooftops and that sort of thing! We should do that! Here!”

“You want me to… to RUN… on roofs,” you say, slightly dumbfounded. “After what happened with the climbing?”

“Well, we’ll be moving! No time for dipshits to make commentary! And besides, you were doin’ fine before you pussied out!”

“This… this sounds like a recipe for disaster, honestly,” you say, rubbing your head. “I fall off of horses. I’m not exactly the most graceful, athletic person, Sera.”

“We’ll go slow, then! Come on, it’ll be fun!” She grabs your hand with both of hers, and in that moment, you realize you’re a very weak person.

“Well… Alright… But let’s try not to go anywhere too dangerous.”

Sera’s idea of not too dangerous turns out to be along the ramparts. That’s all well and good, at first. You’ve run along the ramparts before. Well… jogged. Sera runs, and you wind up running along after her, trying to keep up. It feels good, in an absolutely terrifying way. Then things start getting interesting. She jumps up onto the half-wall that serves to keep drunken guardsmen from falling off the wall into the courtyard and begins running along that. You stay on the ramparts, until she jumps onto the tavern roof, at which point you’re forced to jump up on the divider and then over onto the roof. You scramble after her as she whoops with joy and slides down the side of the building, catching windowsills to slow her descent. You’re not up to jumping off of buildings, so you just dangle yourself off the edge of the roof from the tips of your fingers until your feet are close enough to the ground to warrant letting go.

Off she tears through the training yard, leaping over fences and spinning around training dummies. Now that you have two feet solidly on the ground, you start getting more into it, enjoying the sensation of throwing yourself over a rope fence with one hand on a post and the rest of your body in the air. Before too long, the two of you are whooping and hollering your way across the courtyard, bouncing off of anything that will hold still long enough. The rush is similar to what you get when sparring with Bull, but different. The excitement is there, but instead of aggression, the feeling is freedom.

The two of you dart back up onto the ramparts, and this time, when she jumps up onto the half-wall, you jump after her, racing across the stone. You come to a break where a set of stairs leads down into the courtyard, and Sera leaps dramatically across the gap, flying beautifully through the air. You move to mimic her, but as you kick off the stone, part chips away, sending you sprawling out into the air much, much less gracefully. Where she landed safely on the stone half-wall, you go soaring out over the stairs.

You twist yourself in midair like a cat. You catch yourself with one foot on a step, but your momentum is just too much. You hear a crunch in your leg and continue moving, smashing into the stone steps repeatedly as you fall. You thrust your leg out desperately to catch yourself, and manage to twist it into a corner, wrenching yourself still before you smash your skull on the steps. You can feel the twisting wrench shoot up your leg, slamming bones out of the proper place. You feel, more than hear, the loud pop! and collapse onto the stone.

“Emma! Emma are you okay?” Sera is shouting, darting down the steps after you.

“I’m fine!” you say through clenched teeth. You can’t move your leg. “Okay, not fine, but not dead! Andraste’s tits, that was stupid!”

Sera rushes over to you. “Are you o- Ooooh, your leg… your leg don’t look right.”

“Fenedhis, merda, qulaba, figlio di puttana-”

“Stop saying things and tell me what to do!” Sera exclaims. “The tent, the healer’s tent, I should get you…”

“Ugh, I think they’re going to ban me from there,” you say with a groan. “How bad does the leg look?”

“Well... I’ve seen worse,” she says, which isn’t very comforting.

“Alright. Alright. I’m just going to drag myself to the healing tent and come up with a perfectly good reason for this on the way.”

“Why would they care?”

“Because I’ve been there three times in three days, Sera, and this will make four,” you say sourly. “Even I would start denying myself service.” You start to drag yourself forward and nearly pass out from the sudden explosion of pain in your leg. The world does go black for a moment.

You must have screamed, or made some kind of unhappy sound, because Sera is on you in an instant. “Em? Maybe I should carry you. I… can pro’ly carry you, yeah.”

“You would drop me, Sera, and we both know it.”

“I would no-”

“Maker’s breath, what is going on out here?” Both you and Sera freeze like spooked halla, looking up the stairs.

“U...um… nothin’?” Sera says, sounding the least convincing anyone has ever sounded.

“Are you getting the linguist into trouble again? Why is she… Maker, what happened to your leg?!”

You twist around to face the man who you’ve recently learned is “Commander Cullen.”

“I may have had a… slight accident...ser. It’s no issue. I’ll just… be out of your way…” Pure adrenaline and the power of your desire to be literally anywhere but right there powers you halfway into a standing position. Unfortunately, as you straighten, your damaged leg flops uselessly and sends agonizing pain shooting through you, causing your vision to go dim. You thump back down against the steps.

“Stop moving!” the Commander says in, frankly, a commanding voice. You freeze. “You, soldier, get this woman to the healing tent! Now!” The authority in his voice allows for no questions or excuses, but you still try.

“Oh, no, ser, that’s really not-” you try to say, but the tall human man has already turned on Sera. He looks pretty pissed, and you’re just as glad he’s yelling at her and not you.

You’re distracted from what he’s saying as you’re suddenly, but carefully, lifted up onto someone’s back. “Don’t worry miss, I’ll get you there in one piece,” promises a light, female voice.

“This is all very unnecessary,” you wheeze. “I just fell, is all…”

The soldier snorts. “From where, the sky? Hold on tight now, we’re going down the stairs…”

You’re a little amazed at how the soldier prevents you from jarring much as she heads down the stairs. But then, you suppose a soldier would have experience with carrying the wounded. Not that you’re wounded… You’re probably not even injured that badly. It’s shock, surely. You twist your head around to try and look at your uselessly dangling leg… It’s hanging all wrong. Maker, what did you do to yourself?

“Shit,” you say out loud.

“What?” asks the soldier. “You okay back there?”

“Just realizing that I make abysmal life choices when attractive women are involved.”

She snorts. “Don’t we all, miss. Alright, here we are… let’s get you in.”

The healer’s tent bustles into action the second you’re dragged in. They get you laid out on a bedroll, both a surgeon and a mage looking you over, if their clothes are any indicator. Then you realize, with horror, that you know that mage, the old lady who you keep running into in here. She healed your ankle, and Bull’s busted nose. Her face is serious as she looks you over, however.

“The hip is dislocated,” the surgeon says finally. “We’re going to have to put it back in.”

You begin swearing in a multitude of languages. You don’t plan on stopping until this is over.

“Where’s that Qunari of hers?” the older lady says. “We need someone with more muscle than I’ve got.” She scowls down at you. “Honey, I see the appeal, but you should really give your anatomy more consideration. Your body can only take so much.”

Oh for… “Bull didn’t do this!” you nearly shout through gritted teeth. “I fell!”

“Didn’t you fall on your ankle, and your man’s face, not that long ago?” she says pointedly.

“He’s not my… Oh, Maker. Ask the Commander! I fell.

The woman looks largely unconvinced, but you won’t have the chance to try and persuade her further, because another surgeon is approaching, this one a man, and stronger looking. You know where this is going. You can’t say you’ve ever dislocated your hip before, but your shoulder, certainly. This is going to hurt. As if in confirmation of your fears, the first surgeon slips a piece of leather between your teeth. You bite down, hard, swearing between clenched teeth.

The man grabs your thigh, and twists. You feel the warm spread of magic in your leg, likely healing what other damage there is, or perhaps attempting to lessen your pain. It doesn’t distract from the agony, and you scream through the leather. You suspect the Inquisitor can hear you, all the way in the Fallow Mire.

You may have blacked out a little, because the next thing you can make out is Sera looming over you. She looks close to tears. “Em? Em, you okay? Talk to me, elfy!”

“M’okay,” you croak. “Oh, Maker. That was stupid, Sera. We’re stupid. We’re really, really stupid.”

“Yeah, maybe we make each other a little dumb,” she admits. “You really okay, Em?”

“I think so…” You twist, slightly, and your leg moves, thank the Maker, although it aches. “Maker… Sera, you tell everyone who’ll listen I fell off a freaking wall while being an ass. That lady thinks Bull fucked me into the healer’s tent!”

“Wot? Really?” Sera says, grinning wildly. “That’s hilarious!”

“It is not hilarious!” you snap. “It’s mortifying!”

And hilarious!” she chortles. “I’ve been sayin’ for ages, how would him ‘n’ elves even work?” She eyes you, a bit of caution in her amused eyes. “So, you two ain’t…?”

“What? Oh, Maker, not you too!” you exclaim. “No! We’re not… no! We’re just friends. Not even friends, we’re just… we’re whatever!”

“You goin’ around sayin’ you’re ‘whatever’ s’why people think what they do,” Sera points out.

“Fine! Then we’re just friends! He’s just… He’s teaching me how to fight. You’re teaching me how to get horribly injured, no one thinks we’re involved.”

“They might think it, a bit!” Sera protests. You flop your head back onto the mattress and groan.

Chapter Text

You refuse to spend the night in the healing tent. There are too many people around, and too many of them think that you fucked yourself into serious injury. This is a rumor that actually needs to be counteracted, but it’s the sort of thing that picks up steam the more you deny it. A spicier rumor to distract would work, but you’re not sure what you can come up with that’s spicier than “that oxman, I hear he plowed that knife-eared linguist into the healer’s tent!”

The healers advise you to stay off your leg, but you limp stubbornly across the courtyard, towards your room. According to the spirit healer, you hadn’t torn any muscles, just wrenched your stupid hip right out of its socket. In other words, you’re fine, at least by your standards. Life would continue as normal, with another irritating rumor floating around Skyhold about you and your perceived sex life.

“Can’t even so much as talk to a man without them pairing us,” you mutter sullenly to yourself as you stumble into your room. “Who’s next? Dorian?” You scoff and fall onto your bed. “Perhaps he, Bull and I will become involved in a ménage a trois? Ugh.”

Your hip aches in the cold, and your scratchy blanket offers little comfort through the night. You find yourself thinking longingly of Solas’ soft, giant couch, seemingly designed to be slept upon. And that soft, brown blanket, and the inviting scent that still lingered on it…

Stop.

You really need to end this childishness. These pathetic crushes will be the death of you… They’ve gotten you into trouble before. Remember Aimée. Remember how that ended, you think furiously to yourself.

Solas is no Aimée, your mind whispers back, traitorous as ever. You angrily roll over as if you can give your own thoughts the silent treatment. It’s a long, miserable, uncomfortable night. You doubt you sleep even a single wink.

You rise long before dawn, finally unwilling to spend even another minute tossing and turning in bed. You dress, sullen and stiff, before wandering out into the courtyard. Your hip is more unwieldy than painful now, and you make a beeline towards the training yards. You really need to hit something, after the evening and night you had. Your hip can take another one for the team.

You’re relieved to see Iron Bull in your regular training circle. Alone, no prying eyes to spread creatively altered tales of what the two of you got up to in the wee hours of the morning. The ache in your chest only intensifies when you see him, however. You almost immediately throw yourself into beginning to stretch, but it seems Iron Bull isn’t going to let you stretch in contented silence.

“I hear you damn near broke your hip yesterday. Is your hair faded because you’re going grey?” Iron Bull quips at you.

“Don’t make me punch you before I’ve stretched,” you say with a grunt. “I fell down the goddamn stairs, if you must know.”

“That’s not the version I heard.”

“Oh, no…”

“I heard you and some Qunari were fooling around, and-“

You let out a long, loud, frustrated groan. “How popular is the story?”

“The whole tavern heard it. There was cheering.”

Your groan turns into a bit of a whimper. “Oh, Maker. How long before it goes away?”

“I give it a couple weeks, as long as you don’t do anything else hilarious,” says Iron Bull with a shrug. “Don’t worry too much; I’ve been involved in colorful rumors before.”

You glare up at him. “Rumors like this can have bad side effects for elves, especially elven women.” You sigh, then begin stretching again. “I’d best learn how to punch better, then.”

Your finish your stretches in peace, and then the sparring begins. When did it become sparring? Once, this had just been you striking at a dummy, or at Iron Bull. Now he blocks, and intermittently he’ll try and place you in a hold. What was once simple training is now a dance of striking and dodging, trying to land a hit and avoid being grabbed. If you stop to think about it, you might freeze at the thought of fighting a Qunari, but in the moment, it feels joyous, especially when you manage to twist around and land a strike on Iron Bull’s unguarded stomach.

It’s not all easy, however. Soon, Iron Bull’s blocks turn into block-and-shoves, and you wind up with your ass in the dirt more than once. By the end of it, you’re dirty and exhausted, although you’ve no hope of catching some sleep.

“Wasn’t this supposed to be about me beating you up?” you pant, leaning on a fence post. “I feel like we’ve lost sight of that.”

“We can still do that whenever you want,” he says with a grin. “You know I won’t deny you a chance to turn some of that inner rage into outer rage.”

“Fine, then. Let the Chargers know and find us a reasonably private place this afternoon,” you say with a smirk. “Maybe I can put these rumors to rest if I knock you down enough.”

He snorts. “Little thing like you? You won’t even be able to knock me over once.”

“Oh? You didn’t seem that tall when I broke your nose.”

The two of you continue to banter at each other as you walk to the mess, get your meals, and sit down next to Thea. Her eyes dart between the two of you.

“I just worry about you losing face in front of your men, Bull,” you’re saying when you catch a glimpse of the look on her face. “…What?”

“Well, you know, Emma, I’ve known you long enough to think twice when I hear a weird rumor…” Thea says, haltingly. “But…”

You place your head in your hands and lean against the table. Not this again.

“’S just… Hard to tell, with you two!” she protests. “I mean, the way you’re goin’ on right now…”

“Fighting, Thea,” you say through gritted teeth. “We’re talking about fighting.”

“We’re talking about a lot of things,” interjects Iron Bull with a smirk.

You shut up,” you hiss. You turn to Thea, trying to remain even-voiced. “Whatever you heard, Thea, is obviously not true.”

“Well, you are walkin’ pretty good for someone with a messed up hip,” she muses.

“I did injure myself yesterday, but it was from falling down the stairs,” you say tensely.

“What, really?” she asks, looking concerned. “Are you alright?”

“I am. The rumors hurt worse than the injury, honestly,” you say with a sigh. “I suspect they’ll last longer, as well.”

She gives you a comforting pat on the arm. “Don’t worry too much about it, love. I suspect the worst you’ll get are snickers. It’ll pass.”

In truth, you don’t notice even that as you make your way up the stairs and through the Great Hall. You’re still as invisible as always. Whatever rumors may be floating around Skyhold, they’re still not enough to make you recognizable. You’ve often thanked the Maker for the pointed ears that make you beneath notice, and you find yourself doing so once again. Being an elf can be a curse, but you’ve long since found that it can be a blessing, as well, if one knows how to use it.

You never make it to the rotunda, however. Your pointed ears cause you delay once more, as none other than Madame de Fer snaps her fingers as you pass her.

“You… elf.”

Your blood freezes in your veins as you halt, and it feels like it takes you an eternity to turn on your heels to face her, the blank expression of servant on your face. “Yes, my lady?” you ask with a submissive bow of the head.

“I require assistance with my wardrobe. You don’t look busy. Come with me.” Her imperious tone is one you’re used to hearing, and you curtsy in deference and follow her brisk pace up the far stairs, avoiding the rotunda.

Her room is near Solas’, you note with some amusement. That must positively steam her, though in truth her quarters are much grander than his, if only due to her effort in decorating them. You wonder if she, too, has one of the enchanted baths. There is a human woman waiting for her, Orlesian by her accent. As bundles of fabric are shoved into your arms, it becomes apparent that she is a seamstress.

You have never once in your life been to a seamstress, as customer or helper, but you don’t find the role difficult to grasp. You’re more or less a prop, holding things that need to be held and following orders to grasp this or buckle that. All the while, Enchanter Vivienne yammers on about this function and that Marquis. You keep your pointed ears perked to every word as you help the seamstress with measurements, every inch of you hanging with royal sea silk and fustian velvet.

At the very least, this puts to rest your fears that Madame de Fer might recognize you. If she has not by now, she’s not going to. You utter only “yes, serah” and “at once, my lady” as you focus both on completing tasks competently enough to remain nearly unnoticed, and on hunting through Vivienne’s words for something of use.

You learn little that you didn’t already know. Dear old Duke Bastien is ill, an honest shame. Grand Duke Gaspard is still up to his tomfoolery… You bear no love for that man, or his foolish war. You’re not as stupid as your city-dwelling brethren—you know things had been improving for elves in Orlais, in small steps, before Gaspard decided to make elves the center point of his idiotic, ill-conceived dance for power. Empress Celene had, in fact, been oh-so-slightly soft on the elves—and you suspect you know why. Not that she could be forgiven for using elves as a political pawn any more than Gaspard. If the both of them died tomorrow, your only grievance would be that it would send Orlais into chaos at the worst possible time.

After the first few hours, your hip begins to ache fiercely… too long on your legs after an admittedly severe injury, though you would never confess that aloud. The burning ache reminds you of your first year in Orlais, however, and combined with the barked orders from the seamstress and cold arrogance from Madame de Fer, you find yourself feeling nostalgic. Vivienne is tight-lipped in comparison to many of the nobles of Orlais—an elf was furniture, and no one cared what the hat rack overheard. You still have enough dirt on Comtesse d'Argent to ruin her life if it ever strikes your fancy. To do that, and with so many elven boys! At once! Sympathetic to the plight of the elves, indeed. She made the Empress’ questionable trysts look chaste in comparison.

It’s around lunch when you’re sent out to fetch something, but you get no further than the hall outside the door. Dorian is there, looking around with the air of a man hunting for something. His eyes latch onto you.

“There you are, Emma!” he exclaims. “What on earth are you doing here? I’ve been looking ev…” He pauses. “Is that sea silk?”

“You’re not paid to chat, rabbit!” comes the seamstress’ voice out of the door, and Dorian puts two and two together. He all but shoves you aside to stride into the room.

“Vivienne!” he snaps. “Did you honestly just grab the first elf you saw, and assume she was a servant?”

Ah, Maker’s balls. You come in after him. “Dorian, it’s fine, I-“

“It’s not fine!” Dorian says with a scowl, crossing his arms. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“If you could explain yourself, Dorian, I’d be ever so grateful,” Vivienne interjects, glancing between the two of you. “Is this elf yours?”

“She’s not mine! She’s a linguist for the Inquisition! She’s not a handmaid!” Dorian exclaims, throwing his hands up in frustration. “You, of all people, should know better than to make assumptions based on appearance!”

“My dear!” Vivienne says, with all the unconvincing horror of any Orlesian noble having been called out on a purposeful slight. Perhaps she had recognized you after all. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“You seemed to need assistance, my lady,” you say with a curtsy. “And it was an educational way to spend my morning.”

Dorian looks between the two of you, eyes narrowing. “Is this some sort of Orlesian nonsense?”

“Only in the sense that I was, once, a handmaiden, Dorian, and I know when a lady is in need of assistance,” you say politely. “Good help is so hard to find, is it not, Madame de Fer?”

“Indeed, my dear!” the older woman says with a smile. “Let me know if you ever tire of… linguistics, was it?”

You respond with a full bow, and then make your exit with Dorian, who looks bewildered. “What did I just witness?” he demands.

“Orlesian nonsense, Dorian,” you say, a faint smile ghosting across your lips. “It can be found across Thedas.”

-

As it turns out, Dorian had been looking for you because he’d fetched lunch again. By some miracle, neither Iron Bull nor Sera shows up, so the Tevinter has you more or less to himself. You pretend not to notice when he clumsily tries to be sly about inquiring after the nature of the relationship between you and Iron Bull. It’s hard to believe how different Tevinter nobles are from Orlesian nobles. The arrogance is there, and the taste for needlessly expensive things that all nobles across Thedas share… But you suppose Tevinter politics are more brute force and blood magic rather than clever political machinations. Bruchus had certainly not been particularly clever, and he was a damned Magister. Danarius, as well, sounded like a fucking fool from what little you knew of him.

Perhaps you and Fenris could compare notes…

You brush the idle thought out of your mind and focus on what Dorian is saying. Waxing poetic about Minrathous. You suspect you remember it rather differently than he does. You would go to visit if it weren’t the damn stupidest thing you could possibly do.

“Orlesian sweets really don’t compare,” he’s saying, picking at a pastry with exaggerated sadness.

“If you’re so nostalgic, you should arrange a visit,” you say dryly, idly chewing on a piece of hard crust. “I’m sure they’d be overjoyed to see you.”

Dorian snorts. “Nearly as pleased as they would be to see you, I expect. Perhaps we should visit together.”

The thought makes you snort. What a pair the two of you would make—some exiled noble and an escaped, knife-eared slave. In truth, he would be an excellent cover if you ever did need to return to Tevinter for whatever Maker-forsaken reason. An elf alone is an oddity. An elf accompanying a Tevinter countryman is invisible. You file that thought away; it might be useful later.

After lunch, you finally make your way down to the rotunda. Your hip is one giant ache, and you suspect even Solas’ healing could do little for it. Your spar with Iron Bull will be interesting, both because of your hip, and because everyone there will have heard about your hip. Iron Bull will be expecting you to favor it. But not favoring could result in another injury, and you’re not sure getting a sucker punch in on him would be worth it. You’ll have to see how it goes.

In truth, you get little accomplished before it’s time to head out to the training yards. You’re too busy thinking over every little detail of your encounter with Vivienne. Did she know you as Alix Gagnon? And how much did she know about dear old Alix, exactly? Amusingly, the first person she might go to with such information, Leliana, already knows. She likely doesn’t have as much over you as she thinks she does.

You set your quill down with a sigh. Time to amuse yourself and a gaggle of mercenaries by going toe-to-toe with a Qunari. Fortunately, you trust Iron Bull, at least with this, or your paranoia that he would strike you back would prevent you from ever getting in the ring. You enjoy your morning sessions with him, but all they really do is reinforce just how much stronger he is than you. In a fair fight, you would be unconscious in less than a minute.

You try to psych yourself up a little bit as you head towards the training yard, but it isn’t until you see Iron Bull’s horns sticking out the top of a crowd of the Chargers that you start feeling a little burst of adrenaline. Krem grins when he spots you and waves you over. True to his word, Iron Bull has found a fairly isolated training yard and cleared even the surrounding area. The group is just the Chargers.

“Emma! I thought you might chicken out!” Iron Bull says with a grin.

“Chicken out?” you snort. “Of me beating you back into the healer’s tent? Or did you forget your broken nose that quickly?”

A cheerful round of “oooos” rise from the assembled Chargers, more to humor you than anything else, you’re sure. It’s bravado, on your part, since your nerves are starting to play up. As much as you like the idea of taking out your frustrations on a Qunari, Iron Bull looks a little too into this, and the nagging fear that he might just lay you out on the grass returns to nag at the back of your mind.

“Alright, boys!” Iron Bull calls out, and his booming voice actually makes you jump a little. You had thought he’d raised his voice to you in the past. You were wrong. “Here’s the rules! Our little elf lady here is going to try to lay me out! I can dodge and block, but I can’t hit back, or this would be a pretty short fight, right?”

There’s a chorus of chuckles from the group. You cross your arms, but say nothing. He’s right, and your pride isn’t so great that you’d take a punch from a Qunari to preserve it.

“Can she even throw a punch, boss?” Krem calls out, despite the fact that you know he knows damn well that you can… possibly to egg you on, or just to keep things rolling.

“Well, you’re about to find out, aren’t you?” you interject loudly, although your voice simply doesn’t have the same ability to carry as Iron Bull’s, or even Krem’s. You make something of a show of stretching, flowing easily into some of the exercises you’ve been doing before morning practice with Bull. The crowd seems to like the confidence, if only due to the humor of that kind of arrogance coming from a knife-eared librarian.

Krem counts the two of you off, and you launch towards Bull, catching him off guard immediately by spinning into a kick instead of starting with your fists. He grunts in surprise, barely catching your shin before it collides with his side. He grabs it and holds tight, a grin forming on his face, but this isn’t the first time someone’s grabbed at you. You let the momentum from the first kick carry you into a second one, lifting your weight onto the grappled leg. It would never work if he weren’t so strong, and you weren’t so light, but you’ve been fighting larger men your entire life. The second kick is higher as you twist around, aimed just under his left horn, but your sore hip carries less momentum. He doesn’t drop you so much as he throws you forward, away from him, and you hit the dirt palms-first with a grunt before hopping back up and turning to face him again.

The crowd is whistling and whooping, but they fade into the background as you and Iron Bull take sights of each other again. He looks a little surprised, but also excited, and you’re not sure you like what you see. Perhaps some women relish it when a man looks at them with hunger, but you’ve never enjoyed it, yourself. You tell yourself that mercenaries, that Qunari, just enjoy fights, and pray that’s all it is as you fling yourself into a simple punch routine that Bull himself “taught” you. There’s no way he’ll fail to block them, but you’re just stalling. After a few blocked strikes, you aim high again, but Bull jerks his head back out of the way. Looks like you won’t be bloodying his nose the same way twice. You ignore shouts of advice from the Chargers (although “kick him in the balls!” tempts you, admittedly) and push closer towards Bull, using the knowledge he isn’t allowed to just knee you in the stomach to press for space. When he steps backwards, you sweep your leg in an attempt to trip him. In reality, however, what you wind up doing is kicking him painfully in the back of the calf, catching that stupid leg brace of his.

“Ow, fuck!” you exclaim, detangling your leg.

“That might have worked on someone a hundred pounds lighter, kid,” Bull says with a laugh, and you scowl. He’s right… You’re normally pretty good at knocking people over, but Bull just has too much weight. No wonder he specified that your goal was to knock him down… It would be incredibly difficult to do without seriously injuring him.

Well, that was his goal for you. Your goal didn’t necessarily have to be the same. You just want to hurt him a little, work out some frustrations, and enjoy the sensation of beating up a Qunari. You let yourself think back to the Qunari in Seheron, and all the things you’d do to them if you got the chance now. Payback for every dead slave, every night spent in shaking terror. Revenge for every elf, dead-eyed with qamek, laboring in their fields. The thought sends you into a powerful left hook that nails Iron Bull right in the gut. You hope it hurts him as much as it jars your arm.

You let yourself speed up as the “fight” continues, although you never move as fast as you can. Some things are just beyond believable for a scrappy little elf. You want to make a spectacle, but not too much of a spectacle. You stick to tricks taught to you by Bull or Krem, throwing in a few things you can blame on Sera when you want to catch the Qunari off guard. You are favoring your hip, however. You can tell, and so can Iron Bull. If you can just force it into action… You swing into another spinning kick with your right leg, this one aimed high. Unfortunately, Bull sees this one coming and raises his arm, only to snap it down, pinning your shin.

With a grunt, you wrench your leg, but he’s got it good, trapped between his arm and his side, locked in his armpit. You spin yourself up again, as you had at the beginning of the fight, but instead of kicking at his head, you wrap your leg around his neck, squeezing only tight enough to grip, rather than tight enough to choke him out. It’s an uncomfortable position, your knee locked around the back of his neck, and your hip screams, but he releases your leg to grab at you. The second he does, you pull yourself upwards (by his neck, poor bastard) and grab onto his horns, using them to pull yourself up. He grabs you by the other ankle, but by then you’ve got your arms wrapped around his horns. When he yanks on you, he’s jerking his own head and neck.

“Ow! Fuck, you’re like a rabid squirrel!” he swears as you twist yourself around, using his horns like the giant handlebars they are. You always keep at least one arm or leg wrapped around a horn as you spin out of the way of his half-blind grab attempts.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to hit me?” you point out with a grin.

“I thought you were supposed to try and knock me down,” he counters. There’s a lull in the fight, which leaves you with your knees locked on either side of his head, a horn in the crook of each knee.

“Hey elf!” a voice shouts from the crowd. “You’re pretty good at bull riding! Ever been to Antiva?”

You can’t help but laugh, throwing your head back. In a certain city an Antiva, they ride wild, horned bulls that you suspect are the inspiration for Iron Bull’s name. “Parlo Antivan! Io giro il toro!”

The uproar that causes effectively ends the fight, with some of the Chargers doubling over in laughter. You suppose the two of you must make quite a sight, with your legs locked on either side of his head. Quite the view from up here, though. So this is what it’s like to be tall. Deciding to push your luck, you unlock your knees, supporting yourself on Bull’s horns as you shift downwards to sit on his shoulders.

“Maker, why did I never think to do this before?” you marvel. “I think I can see my house in Orlais from here!”

“Har, har,” Iron Bull grumbles. “Get down from there, or I’ll really take you for a ride.”

“What if I want to move in? The air is so fresh and clear up here!”

Off.

Fortunately, Krem comes to help you get down. Your legs are shakier than you care to admit after all of the shit you just pulled to put on a good show. You really don’t recommend clinging to a flailing man’s head using nothing but a recently-dislocated hip, horns or no horns. Krem supports you as you lean against him, however, effectively hiding your poor, trembling limbs.

“Thanks,” you mutter to him under your breath.

“No problem. The men will be talking about this one for years.”

-

You’ve no chance to recover or calm down from the spar; you’re immediately swept off to the mess by the Chargers. You find yourself eating with the lot of them at a single, long table. You’re frequently smacked cheerfully on the back, to the point where you suspect you’ll have a bruise. But the sheer sense of glee and camaraderie has you smiling nonetheless… or maybe that’s the endorphins. Either way, you don’t even argue when the party moves from the mess into the tavern, drinking and cheering with the rest of them (although significantly less than the others).

“Right in the back of the head! And then… and then… She sat on his lap!” Dalish is animatedly telling the story of the first time you got pants-pissingly drunk in Skyhold. Krem has the dignity to look embarrassed, at least, since his lap was your second victim, right after the back of Belinda’s head fell prey to your mug.

“I thought he was a chair,” you say with a smirk, downing the last of your drink. You’ve avoided getting too sloshed this time… you hope. “S’not my fault if he’s so… brown and wooden lookin’.”

“Wooden?” Krem says, sounding slightly injured.

“Brutal, Da’nan!” says Dalish with a grin. “Can’t you tell when a man has a crush?”

“Dalish!” Krem protests. “I do n… Shut it!”

“What’s that you keep callin’ her?” interjects another Charger… Stitches, you think his name was. Maybe.

“Da’nan,” Dalish answers. “Little vengeance! Think it suits her, don’t you?”

“An elven nickname,” you say with a snort. “I’ll never hear the end of it from Sera.”

“With ears like that, you’re the elfiest elf I’ve ever seen,” comments Stitches. “You should join the Chargers, I bet those things could pick up enemy movements from leagues away!”

“I would make a very poor mercenary,” you laugh. “First combat and I’d be hiding behind Bull, crying, mark my words.”

“You’re not a bad fighter though,” Dalish interjects. “Where’d you learn to spin around like that?”

“In truth,” you say with a sheepish grin. “Both Iron Bull and Sera have been teaching me.”

“Boss! So that’s where you’ve been getting off to in the mornings!” says Dalish, grinning wickedly.

“We all thought you were having a torrid affair!” adds Krem with a cheeky smile.

“Maybe by my definition,” Iron Bull grins. “But not by hers.”

You don’t flush easily, but you decide to bury your face in your drink momentarily just in case, as the Chargers hoot and holler. The rumors will be put to rest with them, at least. They’ll understand how a mentor/student relationship could be misinterpreted. As for the rest of Skyhold… Well, baby steps.

Around the time the Chargers are getting belligerently drunk, you stealthily make your exit. You’re certain Iron Bull sees you go, but he doesn’t stop you. You stumble across the Courtyard, the cold August chill not enough to sober you, and make your way to the side entrance of Solas’ rotunda. You stagger through the door and collapse on the couch, yanking the soft, woolen blanket over your chilled body. It smells of Solas, reminds you of the warm tingle of his magic.

You hate yourself. You hate yourself for coming here, you hate yourself for being unable to leave. Most of all, you hate yourself for curling up on Solas’ couch, hate yourself for burying your nose in a blanket that smells of him. When you drift off into rare, blissful sleep, you do so with utter self-loathing. You know where this leads. You just can’t convince yourself to care.

Chapter Text

You catch half-wisps of dreams again that night. You can’t remember any of them upon waking, but when you do wake, wrapped up in sweet-smelling warmth, you genuinely consider just rolling over and going back to sleep, something you almost never do. When you do roll over, however, a throbbing pain shoots up your hip. Ow. OW. OW!

You sit up, telling yourself your watering eyes are due to the fact you just woke up and not the pain you’re suddenly in. You twist your hip experimentally, and it aches, but you can move it. You doubt you injured yourself in your sleep… You’re just sore, probably from over-exerting yourself yesterday. You stood for hours, then fought a Qunari, twisting your hip this way and that… It’s your own stupidity and bull-headedness (har har) doing you harm again. You’ll be fine after a bit of stretching, surely.

You slowly make your way out into the courtyard. It’s pre-dawn, but you only have an hour, at best, before the sun comes up. A goodly amount of sleep for you, especially in the state you’ve been in as of late. Your hip isn’t the only thing that needs a good stretch, but the only time you’ve been outside of Skyhold has been with an entourage of the Inquisitor’s closest companions… including a mage. Perhaps now that you’ve been seen leaving on Revas, however, you can sneak out with him… Or even alone, on foot.

All of that will have to wait, however. Right now, you know Iron Bull will be waiting for you in that practice field. Despite the fact that you sparring with him was supposed to be the end point of training, you find that you want to continue. You’re learning new techniques and every day getting more excuses for where your existing skills could have come from. Also, you’re just… You’re enjoying his company, lately. Maybe you’ll find another excuse to climb onto his horns. That was a blast.

Unfortunately, that kind of an opportunity doesn’t present itself. The day is alarmingly dreary-- not foggy, but so overcast that you can’t see a single star--with a chill wind whipping around the walls of Skyhold. Iron Bull picks today, of all days, to decide that you need to learn defense as well, since you “clearly have a firm grasp on offense.” Your punishment for riding him like the bull he is, you suppose. Still worth it.

You have to remind yourself how “worth it” it was as you’re repeatedly knocked into the dirt. Iron Bull is faster than he has any right to be and has something like two hundred pounds on you. When you can’t dodge out of the way fast enough, you find yourself sprawled out on the grass pretty quickly. There’s no hope of “blocking” someone over twice your size.

“I don’t feel like I’m learning at my full potential, here,” you say from the dirt, staring up at the stormy sky.

“Maybe you’d like Krem to come out here and hold your tea for you?” the Qunari mocks. “Get up.”

You sit up with a groan. “No one holds my tea for me anymore… what has my life become?” You stand back up and stiffly move into the defensive stance Iron Bull showed you, only to wind up in the dirt not two minutes later.

That’s when it starts to rain.

You just sort of lay there as the drops start falling on you, until you get a nudge in your side from Iron Bull’s foot. You normally dislike the rain—it makes for miserable travel—but this time, you’re happy to see it. Anything you can use as an excuse to stop getting knocked into the dirt is a godsend. Unfortunately, Iron Bull doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

“You planning on getting up, or are you just going to lay there and wait for me to start kicking you?” Iron Bull asks pointedly. “We’re not done.”

You stare at him, dumbfounded. “I… What? In the rain?” you protest, gesturing vaguely upward.

“What, were you under the impression that all fights take place on nice, sunny days?” Iron Bull says with a scoff. “Be glad it’s happening now, while you’re still learning. Makes it easier on down the road.”

If you thought your hip was unhappy with you before, once the damp and the chill begins to set in, you know true misery. Your hip aches, and you can dodge around Iron Bull’s shoves and trips even less once the dirt starts turning into mud. The repeated falls onto the slippery, cold ground leaves you sore and frozen, and it’s so overcast that you can’t even tell when the sun is going to come up, or if it already has. You certainly feel as though you’ve been out there for hours.

By the time Iron Bull decides he’s beaten on you enough, your hair has fallen from its bun completely, and your entire backside is utterly caked in mud. The cheerful slap on the back he gives you does nothing to soothe your bad mood, or your pain. As many times as you had been knocked in the mud, you’d managed to trip him only once.

You detour only long enough to grab a change of clothes from your bedroom, and then head immediately to the limited comforts of the cold elven bathhouse. There are few people there—most are still at breakfast—which is just as well, because you’re disgustingly dirty. The cold water does nothing to soothe your chilled bones or your aching hip, but you can at least work the mud out of your hair.

When you leave the bath, it’s still rainy, still cold, and still miserable. You dart to the mess as quickly as you can, but you’re still wet by the time you get there. Ugh. You hate days like this. You’re going to eat breakfast and then lock yourself in the rotunda for the rest of the day.

Bull is still there, and when you get your meal you sink into the seat across from him despite the fact that you’re still a little sullen about getting knocked around so badly. You don’t see Thea, unfortunately… she’s probably already eaten. It’s difficult for you to tell time with the sun is covered like this.

“You look clean,” Iron Bull says with a grin. “Didn’t want to use my tub this time?”

You glare at him. “Please. I’m going to get enough sideways looks since I’m walking funny. I don’t need to make it any worse.”

“Ah, don’t worry too much about it. The Chargers like you, and they’re the only ones who really matter.”

You snort, but you are glad to have endeared yourself to a group of mercenaries. There are worse allies to have. Worth the sore hip, you remind yourself. If you keep telling yourself that, maybe it’ll hurt less. “Speaking of which, how are the boys recovering from last night’s adventures? When I left, Krem had just cracked open a keg of… of something, Maker. Smelled like shoe polish.”

“Most of them are sleeping it off,” Iron Bull says with a smirk. “For now. Krem’s got it the worst, though. He hit that Black Scythe hard. If I know him, he’ll be sick most of the day.”

“Poor bastard,” you say, although you’re grinning. “I’m telling you, if he had some escabeche he’d be right in no time at all. I wonder if the kitchens here can even make it?”

“Maybe you should make it for him,” Iron Bull urges. “Pretty girl bringing him horrible fish? That would definitely be confusing enough to get him out of bed.”

You laugh, but the idea does have some appeal. Krem is Bull’s second in command, and probably knows the most about the Qunari of anyone in Skyhold. Being second in command also makes him a good person to butter up if you want the Charger’s further in your pocket. Should you cash in the respect you’ve been growing in the kitchen to make Krem a meal?

“I might not be able to make him Escabeche,” you muse out loud. “But I could get him something…

“Wait, are you serious?” asks Iron Bull with a grin. “Oh man. You’ve gotta let me come with you. I need to see this.”

“I have no idea where he bunks, so I think you’ll have to,” you say with a shrug. “You can’t come with me to the kitchen, though. You’d either terrorize or seduce the staff. Not sure which would be worse, but either way…”

-

The two of you make your way to the kitchens. You leave Iron Bull outside, and head into the kitchen to wheedle and charm your way into a meal.

There’s not really a way you can get Krem proper escabeche… As you feared, there’s none already prepared, and it’s the sort of thing that takes time. But they do have pickled herring—there’s no other way to eat a herring, in your personal opinion—and from there it’s only a matter of convincing the chef to let you have the few ingredients you want.

You’ve never been to the Anderfels, personally, but you’ve had katerfrühstück before… on a dare. It’s no escabeche, but it will do. Pickled herring wrapped around pieces of gherkin and onion… enough to wake the dead, and certainly enough to cure a hangover. You wrap it up, pleased, and make sure to thoroughly thank the chef before you exit the kitchen.

Iron Bull is waiting for you outside, and eyes the covered plate expectantly. “Come on, you’ve got to tell me what’s under there.”

“My Ander is not nearly good enough for me to try and pronounce it,” you say with a roll of your eyes as you lift the lid. Bull wrinkles his nose.

“Ugh! It seems like someone died in a pickling vat!”

“Don’t be dramatic,” you say with a sigh. “This is a fantastic hangover remedy, and the closest thing to escabeche I could put together on such short notice. It’ll get Krem back up on his feet.”

Iron Bull leads you to where Krem and, in fact, most of the mercenaries and no small number of the soldiers are housed: the barracks. You find it hard to believe your own accommodations are superior to the Chargers’, but there it is. You, at least, have four walls and a door.

Krem is still in bed, and shifts to cover his head with his pillow when he hears you approaching. “’M not getting’ up, boss. Can’t make me,” he grumbles into his mattress.

You clear your throat and adopt your best bedside voice. “Krem?” you ask, squatting down next to his bunk. “It’s Emma. I heard you weren’t feeling well, so I brought you-“

Krem sits up as if struck by lightning, nearly striking his head on the bunk above his. “Boss!” he protests. “You… I…” He stops, then presses a hand to his temple, his headache seeming to catch up with him. “Cruel joke to play on a sick man.”

“You’re not sick, you’re hungover,” Bull says pointedly.

“It was my idea,” you confess. “We were talking about hangover cures the other day, and, well, I thought…”

“I appreciate the, um… Thanks. I… wait.” He eyes the plate with apprehension. “Is that… that… thing, you were talking about before? Eswhatever?”

“Oh, no,” you say, a little dejectedly. “It takes forever to make.”

The man seems to sag in relief. “Oh, okay. Well, thank you. I’m sure whatever you made is, um… is great… Stop looking at me like that, boss!”

You glance back at Iron Bull, who has one hand over his mouth in a poor attempt to hide his mirth.

“You should be kinder to your men, Iron Bull,” you say with a smirk. “Some things require a more gentle touch.”

Bull laughs, and Krem blushes, and you’re beginning to think this was a fantastic idea after all. It seems mercenaries are the same the world over. Easier to win over than a handmaid, and less discerning to boot. The idea of having an entire mercenary company in your pocket is a very appealing one, and it seems it might not be too far off after all. At the very least, they’re growing fond of you.

“I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying to pronounce it,” you say, turning back to Krem. “But I met a Grey Warden once who swore up and down this could cure any hangover. He was staying at an estate in Orlais where I used to work.” You uncover the plate, and Krem pales visibly as the scent hits him.

“W…what…”

“Pickled herring, wrapped around gherkin and onion,” you explain. “I know it sounds awful, but it does the trick.” Krem looks positively ill, and you scramble to salvage the situation. “Just try one,” you urge. “I brought some chilled wine to wash it down.”

“U… umm…” Krem seems a little green, although you know it’s just the acidic smell.

“Come on, Krem, you don’t want to hurt her feelings, do you?” Iron Bull eggs him on.

“Oh, shush, Bull,” you say with a scowl. “He doesn’t have to have one if he doesn’t-“ Before you can finish, however, Krem’s grabs one of the little wraps and crams half of it into his mouth. He chews and swallows quickly.

“Oh Maker,” he swears. “That tastes foul. Quick, quick, give me the wine.” You thrust the wineskin into his hands, and he pounds back a few swallows before stopping. The three of you wait, apprehensive, and then his stomach makes a loud, long gurgling sound.

“How are you feeling?” you ask cautiously.

“Well, he’s not vomiting everywhere; that’s a good sign,” interjects Iron Bull.

Krem finishes the wrap and washes it down with more wine, making faces the whole time. “Is this the sort of thing they eat in the Anderfels? I’m never visiting,” he says with a groan.

“I’ve never been,” you confess. “But they made Pumpernickel, so they can’t be all bad.”

“I feel… a little better,” Krem says.

“You don’t have to humor me,” you say with a frown.

“No, really!” he insists. “Although I’m not sure I’m willing to have more.”

“They grow on you,” you comment as you take a bite out of one, since there’s no chance he’ll eat the whole plate. Krem and Iron Bull watch as you eat it, faces a mix of horror and awe. “What?” you say around a full mouth. “It’s really not as bad as it smells. If you think this is something, ask me to make a Dales oyster next time.”

-

Your antics with Krem leave you late to start work. You snack on the last of the katerfrühstück as you start outlining the next page of the manuscript. Despite shorter work hours than you might prefer and constant distractions, the book really is proceeding nicely. You can’t help but notice, as the hours roll by, that even though Solas has been gone for some time, people still rarely disturb you in the rotunda. Perhaps it’s simply habit for most folks to avoid the area? Whatever that says for Solas’ reputation, you enjoy the privacy.

As you shift papers around while working, a sheet out of place catches your eye. You grasp it, intending to sort it into its proper place—no book was ever made by a disorganized scribe—only to realize it’s the note Solas left you on the desk. Idly, you read over the note again, enjoying the crisp perfection in Solas’ Elven script. You hunt for tiny errors in his handwriting, when two letters flow together, decreasing legibility. You’re pleased to know that your handwriting is neater, but a little more sullen than the informal, familiar hand he uses when writing Elven. Another reminder how much more familiar the language is to him, when compared with you.

Your tome lays forgotten as you begin to read the note out loud. “Ir annal… Ir… Ir annala…” you mutter to yourself, then, without thinking, flip the paper to gaze at the pronunciation guide. “Ir annala ena. Ena… Enas…”

That’s how you lose your morning, work set aside to muse over your lackluster Elven pronunciation. When you master the words in the letter, you begin to extrapolate, correcting decades of poor word usage into what you hope is the correct pronunciation, or at least closer. The few words you had correct are words your mother taught you when you were very, very young. Ir abelas you can say, but you stumble to learn enasal. You wonder sourly if your emphasis has been off your entire life based on the way Solas has instructed the word enansal be pronounced. Harel and din’an come naturally to you at the same time your lips twist to guess at samahl.

By the end of it, you feel you’ve learned the correct way to say a few choice phrases that you wish to repeat to Solas. Perhaps if he sees how much you can learn from a simple note, he’ll finally relent to teach you more. You amuse yourself with the thought of his expression when he returns… If he returns.

That thought sobers you, and quickly. The vapid, dreamy little smile on your face evaporates, and you tuck the note away under a stack of paper. You need to get back to work, anyway, not wonder at questions you have no answers for.

You work your way through lunch, stopping only when a missive comes for you. Again, you have to roll your eyes at her use of a messenger… you are literally down the stairs. She could tie a rock to it and drop it and it would get to you just as effectively. You thank the man and accept the papers. As expected, the main part is recognizably Qunlat. You glance over it quickly, then frown. It’s nigh incomprehensible, a jumble of words and syllables that are clearly Qunlat, but disorganized and messy.

There’s a note in the common tongue attached, identifying the scrambled letter as a ciphered letter, asking if you’re at all good with ciphers. If not, the letter continues, she has a man upstairs whose skilled with ciphers but knows not a single word of Qunlat; perhaps the two of you together could translate it? You scowl and toss the note down onto your desk. As if you’d waste your time. Asking a man who cannot read, write, or speak the language to translate a cipher… You might ask well ask an illiterate nug. The cipher seems simple enough. You’ll translate it yourself.

You spend the next few hours on it, slowly narrowing it down. At first you think it’s a full-word code, due to the fact that the words look like Qunlat, but that falls through quickly. Eventually, you struggle through it… It turns out to be a very clever dual substitution, a polygraphic cipher over top of a keyword cipher. You’ve seen more complicated codes in Seheron, but only just. Whoever wrote this not only didn’t want non-Qunari to read it, they likely didn’t want to risk it falling into the hands of someone who knew Qunlat, either. Tal-Vashoth, perhaps? Or is this a report out of Seheron or Rivain, where Qunlat is somewhat more common?

The answer becomes apparent as you translate the note into Qunlat, and then into Common. It seems as though the Qunari have been taking children out of Llomerryn. You can hardly blame them; Llomerryn is a shithole. You can’t honestly say that the children are better off, however. You have too many reservations about the Qun. It’s more interesting that it’s a breach of the peace treaty, although Rivain has never taken those treaties particularly seriously.

Translation finished, you pick up the attached note again to see if there’s anything else Leliana needs from you. A scowl forms on your face as you read, then deepens. “Please scribe several copies and deliver them to the following…” What are you, a messenger?! She has people for this, goddamnit! Ugh… She’s likely trying to reduce the number of eyes who see this. She’s putting trust in you, you remind yourself. You need to show her that she can do so safely. Sullenly, you begin scribing additional copies of the translation.

Your disapproval deepens when you glance over the names and vague instructions on where to find the people you’re looking for. Bringing a copy to Leliana is easy enough, but you’re not sure which is worse: trying to find this “Crassius Servis” fellow—a Tevinter name, just fantastic—or delivering a copy of this stupid message to none other than Commander Cullen Rutherford.

You opt for finding “Servis” first. It will be harder than finding the Commander, almost certainly, but anything that puts that off for a little longer is worth it. The note instructs you to begin your search near the mage’s quarters, but you doubt you’ll find him there. He’s presumably a mage (or else that bunking decision was the poorest in history), but Circle mages from Tevinter are very much not like Circle mages from Orlais, Ferelden, or the Free Marches. You go anyway, although the thought of being so close to that many mages makes your skin crawl. She might as well have asked you to deliver to the Templar barracks.

He’s not there, as you suspect, but after asking around a little, you manage to hunt him down to the dusty library you’d found near the kitchen. He’s got a Templar breathing down his neck, looking equal parts frustrated and bored, and you feel a slight pang of sympathy. You’d loathe being watched like that, by anyone.

“Servis?” you ask politely. “Crassius Servis?”

The man looks up from the book he’s idly flipping through, gives you a bored, up-and-down glance. “I suppose you’re one of the Nightengale’s then? Does she finally have something interesting for me to do, or am I to continue skipping about with an armed escort?”

Ah, Vints. They come in two flavors: sardonic and “MAD they called me, MAD! I’ll show them MAD!”

“I don’t presume to know, ser. I was only told to give you this.” You place the translation down in front of him, and his eyebrows raise.

“Oh… so that’s what she was talking about. Hmm…” he picks it up, glances it over, and you suspect you’ve done your part, even though you’re more than a little curious as to his connection to Leliana. What’s a Tevinter mage doing here? Your questions will have to wait, however… It seems you have nothing to use as an excuse to keep you from delivering your message to the Commander.

You leave Servis muttering to himself as he reads over the note and head towards the Commander’s office. You know where it is; you fell down the stairs right next to it not that long ago, after all. You head towards the exit, only to find that it’s still raining outside… in fact, it’s pouring. You frown at the long walk across the ramparts, knowing you’ll be well and truly soaked by the time you get there. With a long, drawn out sigh, you tuck the message down your shirt, then you double over and bolt through the rain.

You dart across the walkway, up to the Commander’s door, and then, stupidly, stop to knock. You can’t just… just charge in. You spend a good ten seconds getting absolutely drenched before you hear a voice call, “Come in.” You probably would have just walked in… But you would rather get drenched or have to scribe a second copy on the spot than make a rude faux pas in front of the Commander.

There’s a guard speaking to him when you enter, but they seem to have just finished. The guard nods to you as he walks by you to exit, and you’re left alone, nervously eyeing the Commander at his desk. He finishes reading whatever it is the guard gave to him and you just sort of… stand there, waiting for him to be done. Maker, you haven’t felt this awkward in a while. Meeting the Commander of the Inquisition’s forces would have been nerve wracking under any situation, but you’re keenly aware that he knows you from two rather embarrassing incidents… Both of them Sera’s fault, come to think of it. At least you have someone to blame.

He finishes reading and looks up, and you find some small comfort in the fact that he looks startled by your presence. Or perhaps he’s just amazed to see you when you’re vertical, uninjured, and not being actively threatened by racists. You clear your throat softly.

“A message from …” you stumble momentarily over Leliana’s title. “Mistress Leliana.” Your strides up to his desk are even. If you can walk towards Solas over unknown wards, you can approach an ex-Knight Commander. You place it in front of him with a slight bow, then turn to leave, but he holds up a hand. You freeze in place as he glances over the missive.

“Ah. So this is what she meant.” He turns his gaze onto you, and it’s a testament to your willpower that you don’t shift uncomfortably, or, in fact, make any kind of expression at all. “Why are you delivering this? I thought you were our linguist.”

“Our” linguist. Well, you suppose that he’s high enough in rank to use such phrasing. “I am. I was the one who translated the missive. Leliana requested I scribe extra copies and deliver them myself.”

“Getting you drenched in the process, I see,” he says with a light smile. Ah… You are sort of dripping all over his floor, aren’t you? He sets the missive down, turning his full attention onto you, although you really wish he wouldn’t. “Have you recovered fully? I’m surprised to see you up and about so quickly.”

You frown slightly. “Of course, Commander. I was injured two days ago and, thanks to you, given immediate attention by the healers. I would be an embarrassment if I wasn’t back to work by now.”

The Commander chuckles—actually chuckles, to your shock—and comments, “I wish my soldiers had that kind of work ethic.” You want to comment that your work is hardly as intensive as a soldiers, but the day after your injury, you wrestled a Qunari, so you keep your mouth shut. “Well good, I… Oh, I don’t believe I ever caught your name.”

You had, in fact, told him your name the first time you met, but it’s something of a relief that he doesn’t recall. “I’m Emma, ser,” you say with a bow.

“Just Emma?” His voice isn’t sharp. He doesn’t have the tone Solas, Leliana, or even Iron Bull would, asking that question. But his casual tone and expression don’t fool you. He’s as much searching you for information as anyone else since you’ve arrived. You shove aside the rush of panic and answer smoothly.

“Just Emma, ser.”

He seems satisfied by that, and for a moment, you think you’ll finally be able to exit what’s rapidly turning into an interrogation. No such luck, however.

“I was informed this was in cipher. Do you know who managed to decode it?”

Oh, Maker’s balls. No point in lying; he’ll just hear it from Leliana later. “It was I, in fact, ser.” You rush on, trying to ignore the surprise in his eyes. “I’m unsure if you know, ser, but I was… stationed… in Seheron for some time. I’ve seen similar codes from Ben-Hassrath reports there.”

“I see. Well, Leliana certainly wasn’t overstating your usefulness. Thank you, ‘Just Emma.’” He says the last words with a smile, and you feel a flush coming on. You bow quickly and make your exit before he can think of any other questions to ask you. You never thought you’d be relieved to be outside in the rain again, but compared to staring down a Knight-Commander… Even if he is “retired.” Do Templars ever truly retire? You can’t unlearn those talents. A Templar can no more retire than a mage.

You realize, upon darting back into the rotunda, that you were holding your breath. You breathe in big, gasping gulps, heart pounding. Not embarrassment or fluster, but fear. You’d thought you were done with this kind of mortal terror after the incident with Iron Bull, but it seems the Inquisition has no shortage of truly terrifying people to throw into your path. Leliana may be the truly dangerous one, between the two, but the Commander fills you with mortal dread nonetheless. Leliana or Solas may be the most likely to discover you, but the Commander is the one most likely to bring down the blade.

-

It takes you some time to calm down enough to feel comfortable walking up the long steps to Leliana’s perch atop the tower. You can’t be shaken when facing her down; she’ll no doubt have questions about your ability to translate the code, as well. There’s nothing suspicious about your skill with codes, when you come right down to it—your whole existence as a slave was translating intercepted missives from the Qunari. That required an in-depth knowledge of the language, yes, but also the ability to crack a code.

And yet, everyone here has the tendency to react to each new fact learned about you with barely-repressed glee, as if any glimpse of knowledge is a victory. You suppose it’s just the nature of curious folks. It doesn’t help that you’re constantly paranoid that each concession of knowledge will be the one that spells your undoing.

Eventually, you find the courage to climb the stairs. You can’t really put it off. When you reach the top, you wait until Leliana is absolutely free—you know this isn’t something you’ll get away with dropping on her desk.

“Serah? I translated the missive you sent me,” you say when the Spymaster has a moment. “I scribed the additional copies as requested and delivered them to Crassius Servis and the Commander.”

Leliana smiles, almost smugly. “Somehow, I imagined you might be able to do it yourself.”

“Indeed… I saw similar codes used in Seheron. If you would like, serah, I can write down an explanation of the code, in case your codebreakers need to translate the same or similar codes in the future,” you offer.

She taps a finger against the side of her face, considering. “Yes, actually, I believe that would be most useful. I will spare you attempting to instruct my men to their face, however… A written explanation will do. Excellent job.”

“Thank you, serah. Ah… If I may? You said before to inform you if I had need of anything…”

“Of course, Emma. What do you need?” she asks, steepling her fingers. You wish she wouldn’t.

“A magnifying stand, to duplicate some of the finer work of the original tome. They can be… difficult… to obtain and transport. Mine stood no chance of surviving the trip here.”

“Of course,” she says with a nod. “Our arcanist has something similar. I will see that one is obtained for you. Is that all?”

“Yes, serah,” you say with a quick bow. “Thank you.”

You can’t help thinking that it went better than expected as you head back to your desk. Perhaps you over-reacted to the Commander’s curiosity? You suspect you may have been doing the same with Iron Bull, frankly. Solas had you blathering about magic like a damned moron just by being attractive and intelligent. You revealed worse to him in the course of a single day than you ever had with Bull. You chock it up to paranoia and get back to work on the tome.

You work through dinner, despite the discomfort of damp clothing. You intend fully to work late into the evening, given how much of your day you flitted away with missives and mercenaries. Of course, it’s never that easy; not anymore. Sera appears sometime after dark, popping into the rotunda dripping wet. You have to laugh when you notice her forming a puddle on the stone.

“No practice today, surely?” you say with an amused smirk, setting down your quill. “I’ve been drenched twice already today, and by the looks of it, you’ve fared badly as well.”

“I was gonna have us explore outside of Skyhold some, but look at this weather!” Sera says with a scowl.

“Oh, Maker, I’m heartbroken! I’ve lost another opportunity to horrifically maim myself for your pleasure!” you say dramatically, pressing the back of your hand against your forehead and pretending to swoon.

“Oh, shut up, you. S’miserable out. Everyone’s all locked away in their quarters, workin’ late so they don’t hafta go through the rain. The whole place is a depressin’ mess!” She crosses her arms. “We gotta do somethin’.”

“Must we?”

“Yeah! And I’ve got just the thing, too…” You already know this is going to lead someplace unfortunate.

-

It does, in fact. It leads to the corridor where Solas’ and Vivienne’s rooms are. Somehow, Sera’s convinced you that what this miserable, rainy day needs is a few good pranks. You’re not entirely sure how she did it, either. Your last clear memory is of her placing a hand on your shoulder, almost on your neck, batting her eyelashes, and saying “please.” Everything after that is something of a blur. You really need to get your libido under control.

“I’m really, really not sure this is a good idea, Sera,” you whisper as the two of you crouch by the door to Madame de Fer’s quarters. “And the last time you insisted it would be fine, I wound up in the healer’s tent with my leg halfway off.”

“That probably won’t happen again, though!” Sera whispers back. It does not inspire confidence. “Besides, this was your idea!”

“No, pranks were your idea. All I said was-“

“You came up with the whole plan!”

“Yes, but the concept of pranking, that’s completely on you.”

Sera rolls her eyes exaggeratedly, and you can’t resist sticking out a tongue. “If I go down for this one, Sera,” you say, “I’m taking you with me.” You place a hand gently on the First Enchanter’s doorknob, but feel no magic. Ridiculous. Don’t any of these people believe in security? The door is locked, of course, which you demonstrate by wiggling the knob. A few moments with Sera’s picks, however, fixes that problem, and then two of you sneak into the room.

“Have you ever done this to Madame de Fer before?” you whisper to cover for your slow pace and you check for wards.

“Vivienne? Naw, couldn’t think of a really good one. This should be golden!”

You make your way to the desk, where you snatch up the little bottle of clear liquid you’d seen when you were here catering to the “leader of the last loyal mages,” as she liked to fancy herself.

“Bet you that crap costs as much as fifty dinners! What an arse,” Sera grumbles, glaring at the tiny bottle. You’re inclined to agree with her. Fashion is fashion, you can understand that, but clear nail polish? It just doesn’t seem worth it.

The question of whether or not Vivienne has one of the fancy tubs is quickly answered: she does, of course, and her soap is resting nearby on a tiny little pedestal. Fancy, expensive soap, no doubt. You certainly hope so, anyway.

“So we just coat it?” Sera asks, delicately picking up the bar of soap.

“Yeah,” you say with a nod. “When she… or her servants, I suppose, go to lather it up, nothing at all will happen.” You frown. “You don’t suppose she actually has servants wash her, do you? I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. Except you, maybe.”

“Not unless she brought them from Orlais,” Sera says, wrinkling her nose as she opens the bottle of polish. “Servants are at a premium here.”

You snort. “That explains a lot, actually. No, no, not like that.” You grab her hand—she was about to overturn the whole bottle onto the bar of soap. “See the brush? Just… Here, like this.” You brush some of the polish onto the bar. “We just have to make sure we get the whole thing.”

It’s a painstaking process, intermittently interrupted by giggles, but the two of you manage to cover Vivienne’s expensive soap with her expensive nail polish. A victory all around. You quickly put the bottle and the soap back where they were, then quickly exit the premises, locking the door behind you. You breathe a sigh of relief when it’s all over. Hopefully, if there’s any blame to be given, it’ll go directly to Sera. At least now, you can—

“Alright, who’s next?” Sera asks excitedly.

“…What?”

-

It’s a miracle you don’t get caught, honestly. You manage to rein Sera in somewhat, convincing her there’s no point in pranking any of the people who are gone (this madwoman wanted to prank the Inquisitor!), but she still runs about Skyhold leaving delayed-blast havoc in her wake. You sincerely hope the stone underneath the Commander’s desk doesn’t irritate him too badly, and you very much regret showing Sera where the kitchen throws their waste. Lady Montilyet will likely never be the same.

When she talks about pranking Leliana, however, you know it’s time to get out.

“She’s not that scary!” Sera protests.

“Yes, Sera, she is. So is the Commander. So is Madame de Fer. And Lady Montilyet could probably destroy me in any number of creative ways, as well. But this? No way, Sera. There’s no way,” you say firmly. “She’s the Inquisition’s spymaster, and also my boss. I don’t want to die.”

Sera rolls her eyes dramatically. “Yer a pansy! There’s no harm in havin’ a little fun!”

“If only that were true… I hate to play the “horribly mangled leg” card again so soon, Sera, but…”

“Awright!” she says, throwing her hands up in the air. “I guess we got enough people today anyway. You think about what I said ‘bout Dorian, though! Prissy pants needs a good prank, and he’s always ditherin’ around with those books…”

“I’ll certainly think about it,” you say dryly. Think about what a terrible idea it is, anyway. As if you’d take a book apart and put it together again just for a petty prank. That’s just too much work, and you’re in a state of perpetually not having enough hours in the day, despite essentially never sleeping.

You return to the rotunda, after finally convincing Sera you’ve no more entertainment to offer her, and continue work on your poor, patient tome. In your quiet cottage back in Orlais, you’d know doubt have made twice the progress. You have no magical back-up with Solas gone, and the distractions are becoming more frequent every day. You hope that Draconologist—and the Inquisitor—is patient.

When it gets late, there’s no question of returning to your room. It’s still raining outside, and you’re a filthy little addict. The thought of a cold, wet, restless night is so unappealing compared to a cozy, soothing night in Solas’ domain. Plus, your hip is still slightly sore, likely due to the cold and damp. When your eyes can no longer focus on the work in front of you, you stumble the few steps onto the couch, wrap yourself up in Solas’ warm, sweet-smelling blanket (how, oh how, does it still seem to smell of him after so many nights?), and, miraculously, drift off into sleep almost immediately.

You dream, that night. Not vividly… not even whatever perversion has enabled you to sleep in the first place could make your dreams clear and bright in the condition you’re in. But you do dream, and you dream of Solas. It’s no surprise, really. You’re in his rotunda, on his couch, under his blanket. You dream of warm hands, of soothing, tingling magic. You dream of rain and thunder, a memory from a childhood long past. In the hazy reverie, you huddle, frozen, in a cave as a thunderstorm much like the one outside rattles and shakes the skies. Within the desire-tinted fog of the Fade, however, you’re not alone in that cave. Solas is there, lighting a magical fire to warm you both. That’s how you know it’s a dream—in reality, you had sat in that frigid cave all night, shaking and slowly losing feeling in your feet, too cold to sleep. Now, Solas wraps that stupid, warm, perfect blanket around your trembling shoulders, wipes away tears that threaten to freeze solid on your cheeks. He runs a thumb across your cheekbone idly, and you close your eyes momentarily, wondering how much different your life would have been with a companion…

His fingers continue their idle explorations, running along the length of your long, pointed ear. You feel breath on your neck, and—

You force yourself awake with a jolt, bursting through the restraints of sleep to sit bolt upright on the couch. You have a moment of panic when you can’t move your arms, but quickly realize it’s only because you’ve rolled yourself up in the blanket. With some difficulty, you toss it off, then yank on your boots as quickly as you can.

You thrust yourself into the frigid, pre-dawn air, eyes wide with shock and embarrassment. All the danger posed to you by an ex-Templar, a Ben-Hassrath, a wicked Orlesian spymaster… And yet you’re beginning to think one elven apostate is more of a threat to you than the lot of them combined.

Chapter Text

The rain has stopped, you realize, but the courtyard and the training areas are something of a mess. Large puddles are everywhere, the damp grass is easily being pulled up by the trampling boots of soldiers and merchants, and the training areas are exceedingly muddy. After getting beaten up in the rain, however, you’re quite certain Bull won’t call off the training due to the less than stellar state of the training yard.

Sure enough, he’s there in the same training yard you always use, despite the fact that parts of it are entirely mud. You gaze forlornly down at your leather boots—you own only one pair of shoes, and you’re not looking forward to wrecking them with mud. Perhaps if you clean them off right away…

Your first fall into the mud happens before you even start sparring… The ground is so damn slippery that you lose your footing while stretching and slide into the mud. You let out a groan while Iron Bull laughs, but a swift kick to the shin sends his feet slipping out from under him as well. Finally, a situation in which you can use his bulk against him.

Stretching is more or less over after that, as the two of you start in on fighting routines. Your footing is terrible; it’s clear that Iron Bull has much more experience fighting in these sorts of conditions. Frustrated after too many falls into mud, you decide to compensate by getting off the ground. The next time you slip, you use the force of your fall to slide through the mud between Bull’s legs, then grab onto that shoulder brace of his to yank yourself up onto his back.

“Oh, not this squirrel shit again!” he swears as he bats at you. “I will fall on you, I promise!”

“What’s one more trip to the healer’s den?” you ask as you dart up his back, yanking one of his horns to pull yourself up. “Oh, fuck!” you swear as he actually starts to tip backwards. You start wrapping around his shoulders to avoid being crushed, but it was a bluff. He grabs one of your legs and you swear again, wrapping your arms around his horns and locking them into the crook of your arms. This has the unfortunate effect of plastering you to his face as he yanks at your legs in an attempt to dislodge you.

“You can’t tell me this has never happened to you before, Bull!” you call out as he tries to remove you without re-dislocating your hip, no doubt.

“Yeah, but anyone else tries it and I can just stab them,” he growls. “Which I’m CONSIDERING. Although the view is nice.”

It’s a testament to your self-control that your grip doesn’t loosen—your chest IS kind of directly in his face… He gives you a last good yank, but your mud-covered boot slips right off. The lower half of your body swings back down, colliding with Bull and sending both of you careening down into the mud. You’re on top, for a moment, but you take too long untangling your arms from his horns and he twists you into a headlock. As it turns out, however, you’re slippery when wet. As coated in mud as you are from your repeated falls, you slither out of his grip.

The morning practice turns into grapple escapes, with the amusing twist of you both being ridiculously coated in mud. Despite his superior strength and size, Iron Bull just can’t keep a grip on you, whereas his leather braces and horns give you something you can grip, and your smaller size lets you bounce up from falls more quickly. All in all, it’s a riot, and you wish the Chargers had been there to see it. By the time the sun is up, you’re more mud than woman, and Iron Bull is similarly filthy.

“Maybe we should go bathe off?” he asks, his wicked grin confirming your suspicions about his meaning. “It’s such a large tub after all…”

“Oh, shut up.” You roll your eyes to emphasize your point. “You don’t take sexy baths when you’re actually dirty; that ruins the point entirely.”

“Oh? Does that mean you’d be interested in a sexy bath if I was clean?”

“I… Y… Shut up!” You flush slightly, but it’s likely covered up by all the mud. Small blessings. “I’m going to get clean! Good luck—there’s nothing in this world that could get you clean.”

“No cure for a filthy mind!” he agrees cheerfully as the two of you part ways. You begin heading towards the elven baths, but pause. You’ve got a mercenary group pretty firmly behind you, and you’ve endeared yourself to no small number of the higher-ups at Skyhold… Perhaps now is the time to cause a stir? You shouldn’t. You know you shouldn’t. Just like you shouldn’t have pranked half of the Inner Circle with Sera last night. Just like you arguably should have left weeks ago. But you’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak in you, and the thought of those cold baths is just so unappealing when you’re caked in mud.

If you’re going to be an elf in a human bathhouse, you might as well be a disgusting, filthy little elvhen'alas in a human bathhouse.

You get a change of clothes (stuffed in a bag to keep them from getting muddy) and positively strut into the “human” bathhouse that you had gone to with Sera. Without her alongside you, the stares and even glares you get are much more obvious, but you’re willing to bet not a soul will say a word to you. It isn’t as though this is officially a humans-only bathhouse. Any repercussions will come later.

You manage to peel out of your horrifically muddy clothes and shake and scrape the worst of the dirt off of you before getting into the bath. You soak luxuriously as a few bathers move to shift away from you, looking away and pretending not to see your pointed ears. You smirk to yourself. You might lose points of favor with the human staff for acting out, but the warm bath is worth it. As is the indignant looks on human faces… It reminds you fondly of your youth, before you were scraping and simpering your way through Orlais.

After your political statement of a bath, you head to the mess. You spot Thea and sit down with her, and she seems pleased to see you. You’ll be happier when you can start fetching meals from the kitchen and bribing her with stolen morsels. Of course, that means you’ll be back to eating every meal, more or less. Skipping meals is such a regular thing with you that you suspect the regularity with which you’re eating (and bathing, come to think of it) will have you gaining weight. Too bad you never gain it where it’s sorely needed... For instance, your less-than-ample chest. You glance towards Thea’s more… generous endowments despite yourself. Even Sera has a nicer bust than you. There’s small-because-you’re-an-elf and then small-for-an-elf. You’re the latter.

You and Thea walk together to the Great Hall, but part ways when you enter Solas’ rotunda, as per usual. She had come in there once… Perhaps it was just a sign of how worried she’d been about you, because she hadn’t set foot in the place since. One of these days, you really need to ask her why. Solas isn’t there anymore, and if most of the staff have some kind of persistent paranoia about him that goes so deep as to seep into the very rocks of Skyhold… Well, it’s something you need to know about. You had assumed all the paranoia about Solas stemmed simply from him being a mysterious, quiet elven apostate, but if there’s more going on, you need to know it before you can combat it.

You begin work on the tome, but before even an hour is up, you’re beginning to sag. Despite a few night’s rest thanks to Solas’ blanket, or couch, or whatever ridiculous obsession was allowing you to sleep, your exhaustion is starting to catch up with you. If anything, it’s almost making it harder to stay in control, even as it helps slightly with the physical effects of your insomnia. You need to get out of Skyhold. Not in a month, not next week, now. But how can you get in and out without suspicion? Perhaps you can talk Belassan into allowing you to ride out on Revas. The man seems nice enough (perhaps he left the Dalish for a reason), and is actively encouraging the growing fondness between you and the hart. You just need a few hours… Perhaps this afternoon.

For now, you try to redouble your focus onto your work. It only helps so much, and you spend hours frustrated at your own inability to focus both your mind and your eyes. You light up your desk with candles despite the daylight streaming in, hoping more light will help you to see clearly. There’s nothing you can do for the shakiness in your hands other than write slowly and take frequent breaks.

During one of those breaks, someone enters the rotunda. Immediately, you expect another missive from Leliana. Maker, please let it not be another code… You’re in no state. However, not only is it not a code, it’s not even a messenger. To your surprise, Krem walks through the door of the rotunda. He’s carrying a basket and looks mildly annoyed, which is explained quickly by the other Chargers that pile in after him.

“Krem?” you say, clearly confused. “And… Dalish, and Rocky, AND Skinner? What’s the occasion?”

“I wanted to thank you for, uh… Well, you know,” Krem says, throwing a side-glance full of venom at the rest of the Chargers. “These asses saw me walking across the courtyard and had nothing better to do.”

“I wanted to know where he was going with all that food,” says Dalish with a grin.

“And I was hungry,” adds Skinner.

Krem looks annoyed—it’s likely he was intending this to be more of a private event—but you’re quite pleased. You want as many of the Chargers to like you as possible, and these are a few of the ones you know best. You’re especially fond of Skinner, although you’d never tell her that to her face, no more than you’d try to debate the ridiculous Dalish standards of dealing with mages with Dalish.

“Did you bring enough for everyone, Krem?” you say with a grin.

“No,” he says pointedly.

“Well then, we better pop back down to the kitchens and get more, eh?”

-

The five of you wind up eating on the floor of Solas’ rotunda, the food spread out on a blanket between you. Krem gets over his sourness relatively quickly, and you work to endear yourself to everyone present. You ask questions to Rocky about the explosive powder he’s working on (you know more than you care to admit about Gaatlok), jokingly ask Dalish for “archery tips,” and while the others are distracted jesting and joking, share a quiet moment with Skinner in which you talk about the events leading up to the Hero of Fereldan slaying the Bann’s son. Despite your focus on Krem due to his position of second-in-command, if you had to pick a Charger to spend any amount of personal time with, it would be Skinner. She… understands.

The meal is over too soon. All five of you linger shamelessly, but duty can only be ignored for so long. You see the Chargers off, wait a good ten, fifteen minutes, and then head towards the barn as quickly as you can. You see Blackwall—is he ever anywhere else?—but ignore him, instead hunting down Belassan. It’s not hard; he’s with one of the other harts, a beautiful white and brown creature.

“Belassan, hello,” you say with as charming a smile as you can muster. “Who’s this handsome fellow?”

“Ah, he doesn’t have a name, not technically,” Belassan says, patting the hart affectionately on the neck. “But I’ve been calling him Sulevin.”

You make small talk about the harts, not letting your eagerness get the better of you. You wait for the conversation to turn to Belassan complaining about the hart’s lack of proper exercise (it was only a matter of time, really), and only then do you get to the point.

“Perhaps I could take Revas out for a little? He seems a bit restless—“ Of course he does, you’re paying attention to another hart and not him. “And I could use a bit of fresh air myself.”

“By yourself?” Belassan says, looking concerned. “Ah… Meaning no offense, your riding isn’t exactly…”

“I’ll go slow, and carefully,” you promise. “Revas is a sweetie. He won’t take off unless I ask him too.”

Belassan nods, slowly. “Alright. Don’t go far, however. Mythal only knows what all is out in those woods, and I’d hate to be responsible for anything happening to you. I’d go with you myself, only…”

“You’re very busy,” you finish for him with a smile. “Taking care of all of these harts singlehandedly. I understand. Perhaps another time? For now, Revas and I could both use the exercise.”

Belassan watches as you saddle Revas up, making sure you do it correctly (you do), and sees you off before getting back to his duties. You’re elated… You can’t believe you actually managed to talk the Dalish man into letting you take off with Revas. Is he an idiot? You could charge off now with an incredibly valuable creature. But you suppose that’s unlikely—where would you go with just a hart, after all? Still, it seems overly trusting to you. You are, however, more than willing to take advantage of that kind of an honest nature, and you quickly head out across the bridge of Skyhold.

You actually make it a little ways out into the forest before realizing you’re being followed. Not subtly, either… A glance behind you and you see Iron Bull on his wall of a horse, riding to catch up. When he sees you spot him, he waves cordially. Fuming, you wave back. Son of a horned bitch… He must have seen you leaving the stables. Damnit, goddamnit, stramaledetto, fils de pute

“Where you off to, kid?” Iron Bull says once he’s within shouting distance. His cheerful expression doesn’t lighten your mood one bit. Just because you’ve been getting all friendly with him and some of the other residents of Skyhold doesn’t suddenly mean they’re not a threat to you, and this is an unpleasant reminder of just how tricky the Ben-Hassrath is.

“Just going for a ride,” you say, not letting your dark mood show through in your voice. It had to be Bull, too… Anyone else you could hope to lose or overpower. Well, he’s not a mage, or a Templar, so you can at least relax your grip on the chaos. You had slept exposed around him once before, when you’d had that “episode.” If he hadn’t found you out then, he wasn’t likely to do so now. But it still kept you from doing anything visible.

“By yourself? Not the smartest thing you’ve ever done,” he chides.

“I’ve traveled alone my entire life, Bull,” you say with a sigh. “Worst case scenario, I can climb a tree.” You turn Revas and head into the woods, with Bull following along behind. Cautiously, you let your control loosen, let the swirling chaos out a little at a time. The slow release is difficult—it’s been locked up a very long time—but you manage it. And, of course, Bull utterly fails to notice. Small blessing, considering it’s now whipping around and begging to be used. That’s something you certainly can’t do in front of Bull. If he wasn’t here…

You sigh.

“Bull, I’ll be honest with you.” Haha. Sure. “I sleep better outdoors. A life of traveling, you know? You know I’ve been having trouble sleeping… I came out here to try and catch a few hours of rest.”

“So, you came outside of Skyhold… to sleep in the woods?” Iron Bull says incredulously. “The woods. Where there could be bears and bandits.”

You could have perfectly well handled that if he wasn’t here. But instead of saying that, you just sort of shrug. “We’re still close to Skyhold. How likely am I to run into either of those things, really? I know the Inquisition sends out patrols… One of them spotted the group I was with and escorted us in. I doubt they’re just out there keeping an eye out for refugees, right?”

“Still seems like a stupid risk just to get some sleep.”

You level an acidic stare at him. “Spoken like a man whose only sleep-deprivation has been out of fear or need. When you genuinely cannot sleep, it’s not something you can brush aside that casually. Either way, unless leaving Skyhold for a nap has suddenly become a punishable offense, I still intend to do it.”

Iron Bull rolls his eye dramatically, no doubt mocking your tendency to do the same. “Fine. But I’m keeping an eye on you. Can you imagine what Leliana would do to me if you did get eaten by a bear?”

He has a point, one you can’t argue with. Even if you could, it would look strange if you did. You merely give him an appreciative smile and continue along until you get to an appropriate looking clearing. It’s close enough to Skyhold that you can justify it being safe. Not exactly the kind of place you’d go were you alone, but it’ll do for your purposes. The Inquisition doesn’t seem to use Templars or mages for things so routine as patrols… With just Iron Bull here, you should be safe to sleep, at least.

It will help your exhaustion. It won’t help you be rid of the ever-growing chaos. But you still won’t say no to the prospect of a few hours of genuine sleep. You tie Revas to a tree and sink down into the grass.

“Are you seriously just going to sleep in the middle of a meadow?” Iron Bull interjects. “Pff… elves.”

“Well, with you watching out for me, nothing bad could possibly happen,” you say with a scowl. “So I might as well be comfortable. Otherwise, I could sleep in a tree.”

You dislike sleeping in front of people. You always have. Who doesn’t? Even Solas put wards down when he fell asleep in his study that one time. Despite that, however, and despite the whipping of your power around you, finally loose from its containment, you drift into sleep almost instantly. Your dreams are strained and stressful; you have nightmares of your time in Seheron. Despite horrific imagery that might jolt you awake on another night, you remain unconscious. That’s just how tired you are, how much you’ve been lacking for proper sleep.

When you finally do awake, the sun is beginning to set over the horizon. Your body feels fantastic… Even a few hours of sleep has helped your physical exhaustion immensely. On the intangible side of things, however, you’re even worse. The chaos is so desperate to be spent that your fingertips are actually hot to the touch. It takes several long minutes to lasso it all back together and wrap it up neatly inside you for the journey back to Skyhold. You can feel it in there, red-hot and angry. This can’t go on much longer.

Once it’s secure, you sit up. Iron Bull is leaning against a tree, sharpening a long greatsword that gives you chills just to look at. A giant weapon for a giant man… If you saw Bull coming at you with that on a battlefield, you’d turn tail and run, no question. You suppose that’s the point.

“You’re a damn lively sleeper,” Iron Bull reports. “Also, you snore.”

“I do not!” you protest.

“Well, it’s more of a… whine-snort than a proper, manly snore, I suppose, but-“

“Oh, shut up. We should get back to Skyhold before it gets dark. I… appreciate you taking the afternoon off just to babysit me, Bull, even if it was unnecessary.”

“Anything to keep you from going off the edge again,” Iron Bull says with a grin. “I finally healed up from last time.”

It’s a joke, but the reminder makes you cringe a little bit. In the state you’re in now, losing it in that manner would end much, much badly for both you and Bull.

-

After the two of you put your mounts back in the stables, and you’ve attended to Revas to your satisfaction, you and Iron Bull head to the mess together. You try to eat, you really do… But the chaos is tight in your stomach, raging and twisting. You’ve no appetite—in fact, you feel slightly nauseous. You pick at your food, and when Bull comments, use the large meal with the Chargers as an excuse for your lack of hunger. It should work… you skip meals often enough for people to think you don’t eat much, although in fact, given access to a constant supply of food, you’d probably never stop eating.

Thea frets over you, telling you that overworking, but your brush her concerns off as best you can without coming across as rude. You head with her back towards the library, parting ways in front of the rotunda despite her obvious displeasure that you’re just heading back to work. You sit down at your desk, frustration growing. There has to be some place in this castle where you can be alone enough to get rid of this… But you suspect your window for a controlled burn has passed. Now, the slightest spark will likely result in a wildfire, metaphorically speaking. This can’t be within the walls of Skyhold. You have to get out. But you’ve no chance of sneaking across that long bridge at night… Even if you managed to get out, getting in would be an impossibility.

It will have to wait until tomorrow.

With that in mind, you do your best to focus on your work. The long nap allows you to work long into the night, which helps cope for the fact you’re working more slowly. You manage to get a decent amount done before your eyes grow tired enough that you flop down on the couch. You don’t drag the blanket on, however… at this point, sleeping will only make things worse.

Chapter Text

You spend the night hopping back and forth between the desk and the couch, working when you’re too restless to even attempt resting. By the time you head out into the courtyard for your morning session with Bull, you’re damn near a nervous wreck, about to explode from the inside. But there’s no question of skipping training to attempt to escape Skyhold… not only is it still too early to make it out without suspicion, if you miss your training, Iron Bull will know something is up.

Fortunately, the proper sleep from yesterday has your body, at least, in better condition. You’re able to strike and dodge with more accuracy and control than you have been as of late. That’s not the problem, however… the tangled mess of chaotic power you have locked up inside you is the problem. It responds eagerly to violence, struggling to break free of your control. You’re so distracted trying to keep it from bursting free that the physical benefits of getting some proper sleep might as well not even be there—you trip and stumble due to your lack of focus.

You’re so distracted trying to stay in control, in fact, that Iron Bull manages to pin your arms behind your back, something he hasn’t done since the day you had your meltdown. Perhaps you should be angry with him, or proud that he has more faith in your self-control than you do, but you have no time to think. Your mind soars with panic at the sensation, and the hold you have breaks. You can feel the seething, raging chaos, ready to crack across Bull like a whip.

You don’t know how you manage to get a hold on it... luck, skill, perhaps a combination of the two combined with panic and adrenaline. But you do. You grapple with it much the way Iron Bull grapples you, fighting its every movement, struggling with it until it submits.

Iron Bull lets you go when you stop fighting, but you can’t do the same with the chaos. You just flop down into the grass, panting and trying to regain your calm. Iron Bull may never know how close he came to death. As for you, you’ve got a terrible case of the cold sweats at just how close you came.

You have to get out of here.

The panic has to show in your eyes, because as you turn back towards Bull, fingers digging into the dirt, you see he has his hands up, much like he did when you had broken down before. The idiot thinks this is another episode about Seheron. Of course he does; why would he think otherwise? But you have to think, use this to your advantage. You can’t have him babying over you again today.

“I’m fine,” you choke out through a tight throat. “Just, need to breathe.” Graciously, Bull lets you gasp for air, and just stays back. You manage to get the raging, rolling power just underneath your skin under control, and take a moment to glance around. There’s no one… no mages, no Templars, no one to recognize how close you came to losing it.

“You’re really not good at dealing with that pin,” he says, by way of apology.

“I’m okay,” you repeat, to yourself more than to Iron Bull.

“You’re making a lot of progress, Emma. I wouldn’t have tried if I was sure you would panic again.”

“I’m very proud of us both,” you choke. “Believe me. I’ll be glowing with it in a moment.”

“Sarcasm is good! Means you’re feeling yourself. It’s when you stop being a brat that I’ll worry.”

Din’samahlen.

Another surge of emotion, but not anger. You’re still in control. “Do you mind if we stop here for today? It’s almost breakfast time anyway.”

“Sure thing, kid. You wanna go to the mess…?”

“No, I’m gonna… Just gonna walk around for a little.”

Iron Bull gives you an understanding nod and heads towards the mess. You walk in the opposite direction, towards the tavern and some of the other training yards. Now’s your chance… if you play your cards right. You can’t take the time to get Revas, there’s too much of a chance of Bull or someone else noticing. But you can’t just walk out of the gate, either…

As you approach the gate and the long bridge out of Skyhold, you see your opportunity, as clear and beautiful as if it was surrounded in glowing light. There’s a merchant’s cart beginning to pack up. You give yourself a once over… You’ve been around Skyhold too long to depend on no one knowing your face or your faded red hair. How many redheaded elves could there possibly be in Skyhold, for all the guards to mistake you for a stranger? No need taking the risk. You walk quickly to your room and drag the bundle you’d brought with you to Skyhold out from under the bed.

No time to change properly; you just throw the dress on over your dirty clothes. You yank your hair out of its trademark bun, run a comb through it a few times to get the worst of the dirt off. Off come your prized leather boots, on go some sensible but cheap flats. Finally, your thick traveling cloak wraps around it all, a hood ready to be pulled up to help you avoid detection. You wish you had a mirror to look into, wish you had some way to mark up your face. But it’ll have to do.

By the time you get back to the merchant’s cart, they’re finishing packing it up. You grab a few boxes and begin helping the workers load, listening closely for any shouted names. Bernard. Mistress LaVey, likely the merchant. Donald. You commit them to memory, just in case, as you finish loading the last crate into the back of the cart. Red hair frames your face, and as the carts begin to pull out, you hop onto the back of one and pull your hood up. Men and women alike scramble to do the same as the trail of carts begins to move out, a man shouting orders from the front. You keep your eyes down, not wanting your face nor your over-large elven eyes to give you away. You needn’t bother… as you had suspected, not too many guards are interested in what’s going out of Skyhold.

You don’t breathe, don’t relax, until the caravan clears the long bridge and you feel the comforting rattle of wheels over rough dirt. You glance back towards Skyhold. It’s such a striking thing to see from outside, but you’re happy to see it shrinking into the distance. You stay on the cart for maybe twenty minutes before hopping off. When a man glances at you questioningly, you make a somewhat obscene gesture, indicating your need to relieve yourself. The man flushes and glances away… Fereldans, bless them.

You walk calmly into the woods, but once you’re out of eyeshot, you bolt. Out comes the chaos, and this time, you sing with it. Soon, soon, soon, you promise yourself. You just need to find… ah! As perfect as a picture, a frozen pond. The ice doesn’t look very thick; you’d never attempt to walk on it. But it serves your purpose as well as anything else. You force yourself to wait a few more minutes, to be sure you’re absolutely alone, not even a raven flying overhead. Then, with the power singing loudly in your mind, you thrust your hands against the ice and let loose.

If you weren’t so full to the bursting with mana, you would have more control, but as it is, you just let it pour through you into what comes naturally to you—fire. Burning heat rushes from your hands, arcing through the ice like lightning. You control it just enough to give it some carrying power, creating a rippling blaze that shoots out across the surface of the lake in an arc. Ice hisses and melts in a giant cloud of steam; the water near your hands starts to bubble. You send a silent prayer skywards for any fish you’re boiling, but continue pouring raging, screaming power out of you and into the water until the writhing calms, until your aura is less a raging beast of chaos and more the sedate glow most mages would be used to seeing. Then a bit more… draining yourself is unpleasant, but if this incident has taught you anything, it’s that opportunities to spend yourself will come less often than sleep. You drain yourself down to nearly nothing… Enough that you’re not completely spent, enough to last you in an emergency, but not much further. You’ve no doubt you’ll be resting before you have the chance to do this again.

The chaos spent and back to normal, albeit tired, swirling magic, you flump backwards, intending to fall into the snow, only to find you’ve melted all the snow within a meter of you in every direction. Instead, you flop into a puddle. Ugh. Thank the Maker for your cloak. You stand up and brush yourself off as best you can, then take notice of your surroundings. You don’t know exactly where you are, but your footprints are plain in the snow. It would be an easy thing to retrace them back to the road, but it’s too soon to head back to Skyhold. You do head a little closer to the road, however, not wanting to risk a new coat of snow coming down, or a sudden thaw, either of which could ruin your little trail back.

You climb a tree perhaps twenty paces back from the road, enough that you can see it, but caravans or guards on the road would be hard-pressed to see you. You feel better than you have in weeks… months. Most mages hate the sensation of being low on mana, but after so long of trying to wrangle your bucking aura into obedience, the sensation is fantastic. Plus, most mages don’t have your skills in self-defense to fall back on, depending on their magic to do everything for them. You lean back in the tree and stretch, a grin spreading across your face. Freedom. Short-lived… But you’d forgotten what even that felt like. You idly amuse yourself by creating sparks and little bursts of light, fire, and electricity in colorful patterns. A parlor trick, but the ability to use your power as you please is a rare one when you live in a stronghold of goddamned Templars.

Eventually, even that begins to bore you, and you shift to the sturdiest, thickest branch you can find, and lean against the trunk. A nap won’t kill you… you have to figure out how to get back into Skyhold, yes, although if Bull or Leliana notices your absence, they might send out a search and save you the trouble. If they find you asleep in a tree, well, Bull already has an explanation for that. You drift off into a blissful sleep, aura out and free to dream.

-

Your dreams are pleasant, filled with memories of other times you spent your mana so well and truly. Most would perhaps not thinking a burning ship a pleasant dream, but the smell of burning pirates, like so much cooking pork, brings a smile to your lips even in a dream.

It’s the sound of crying children that rouses you from your deep slumber. The shouting of adults, you could have ignored, but screaming children invade your dreams, the memory of guards rushing the orphanage. You couldn’t burn them then; you didn’t know you could, didn’t have the power. You jar awake, hand already on your dagger as sleep fades from your dream. The source of the sound isn’t a fade-tossed nightmare, but a huge caravan heading down the road… refugees. You spot flat wagons of injured, bare feet turned bloody on the rocks and snow. All the gods must be smiling on you today, for such luck. You scramble down the tree, wait at the tree line for a chance, and then--hood up, and aura wrapped neatly inside of you--join the refugees.

What you see makes you cringe. Where they’re from, you don’t know, nor what caused the extent of their injuries. There are burns, yes, but mostly weapon wounds... swords and arrows. Then your eyes fix upon a group towards the back of the progression, the source of some of the crying that had roused you from your sleep. A crowd of children with only a few grown men and women watching them… Pointed ears betray why they’re walking while most children are on what few wagons there are, or being carried by exhausted parents.

You keep with the main progression, but your eyes stay on the elves. You pass inside Skyhold with no one the wiser. You’re almost impressed by their lack of ability to recognize you, considering the Commander is on the scene, shouting orders to scrambling soldiers. You slip away to the side almost as soon as you’re within the walls, stripping out of your cloak and dress and tucking them into a safe, hidden corner to be retrieved later. The wrap tied around your wrist goes back around your hair, a tight, practical bun. Just like that, you’re Emma again.

On light feet, you travel back towards the refugees. The Commander and a woman you don’t recognize are alternatively poring over a sheet of parchment and shouting orders at soldiers and guards. You head towards them.

“We don’t have enough space—“ the woman is saying, but Commander Rutherford cuts her off.

“We’ll make space. Empty the nobles out of the Great Hall; send them to their quarters. We’ll bring out bedrolls and line the place.”

“There’s still only so much-“

“Use the tables,” you interject. “Bedrolls underneath, bedrolls on top. Double your space that way.” Before they can react, you’re moving with purpose towards the huddled refugees. Sure enough, the elves are huddled off to themselves, being largely ignored. You grab the arm of a passing soldier who’s directing the wounded towards the healing tent. He glares at you, but the look you give him is long practiced and has cowed better men than him.

“Are you blind, soldier?” you say acidly, gesturing to the group of elves, several of whom are injured. “Get them to the tent. Now.” You wait only long enough to ensure it’s being done, to give encouraging nods to the few elves who are nervous about going off with an armed shem. People are rapidly being sorted into areas. The Great Hall’s spaces are filling up, as are the remaining barracks and servant’s quarters. You hiss under your breath in frustration. Must the Inquisition be so disgustingly transparent? The Commander is an idiot; he’s not specifying which groups should go where other than “men,” “women,” “children,” and “injured.” If he doesn’t specify “elves,” they will be left with nowhere to go. You eye the remaining elves, mostly children with only a spattering of adults. Fuck it. You raise your voice to a shout, trying to echo as loudly as the soldiers barking orders all around you.

“You lot! Yes, you! You little runts! Come on, with me.” You march them directly past the Commander, herding them like deer into a tiny pack to avoid getting them run over or separated. “Commander, I’m taking these into the rotunda,” you inform him. He blinks, and it’s anyone’s guess whether he’s more shocked by what you’re saying or by the fact that it’s you saying it.

“The rotunda? But…”

“But? Have you already stationed another group there, ser?”

“Erm,” he glances down at the parchment. “No.”

“Then we’ll be in there. They’re cold and frightened, but not severely injured enough for the healers.”

“Very good,” says the woman, scribbling something onto a rather phenomenal device that could only be described as a portable desk; candle and wax included. You want one, but now’s not the time. “Thank you, Miss…?”

“Emma,” the Commander interjects, the expression on his face chilling you to your core. Curious. They’re always curious. But excuses can come later. You know humans, and you know them very well. If you don’t bring these elves to warmth and food, they will be left to freeze and starve in the stables. You herd them up the steps and into the Great Hall, then into the rotunda. They stay bundled up, staring around with wild, terrified eyes. You pull aside the few adults you have… Just three plus you to watch over two dozen children of varying ages.

“Keep them on this floor and away from the doors,” you order. “Don’t touch the items on either desk; I’ll clear them off when I get the chance. Have those with hurt feet sit on that couch, or any chairs you can pull together, and I’ll be back with bandages and blankets.” They nod, eyes wide and still in some amount of shock, no doubt, but they move to obey you, checking the children for less severe injuries.

It’s easier said than done, really… Everyone’s looking for bandages and blankets. You have to throw your weight around more than you’d like, and at one point you simply corner a maid and “relieve” her of her delivery of blankets to the Great Hall. You dart around the castle, intimidating, begging, lying, and even flat-out stealing when nothing else works. You bring everything you can use that isn’t nailed down into the rotunda in small bursts.

In the end, you don’t have as many supplies as you’d like, but you have enough to scrimp by. A final stolen pile of bandages in your arms, you re-enter the rotunda. One of the adults and two of the teenagers have already begun bandaging swollen wrists and bloody feet. You drop the bandages off with them, glad you’re not the only one who knows when action is necessary. You quickly clear off your desk, piling everything up as best you can, and then, cringing, you do the same for Solas’. It’s in the middle of the room; there’s literally no way the children won’t climb on it. You pile his things onto your desk and beg the Maker for forgiveness; you’ll beg Solas for it later when he inevitably notices his things are out of place. You have no idea how he’d feel about you filling his rotunda with elven refugees, but fortunately, he’s not here to object.

Once the desks are clear, you begin laying down the bedrolls and blankets you managed to procure. Still short… That’s when a thought strikes you like lightning. Where had you pilfered your blanket? Solas’ room, from a cupboard full of blankets, towels, linens… You’re off again like an arrow, darting your way through the crowded halls of Skyhold. You don’t even particularly mind when a maid sees you as you finish picking the lock on Solas’ door. If she needs excuses, you have dozens. You quickly stride through the room, stripping even the blanket and pillow off his bed. It’s not as though he’s using them. Arms full to the bursting with stolen blankets and sheets, you lock the door behind you as you leave and totter unevenly back towards the rotunda. As you’re exiting back into the Great Hall, you pass Madame de Fer, the last person you want to see right then, but you only have to suffer through lingering eye contact—she says nothing.

With the addition of the stolen blankets and pillows from Solas’ room, you manage to cover over half the floor in bedrolls and pillows, with enough sheets and blankets left over to keep the children warm, hopefully. There are some bandages left over after patching up all the children, so you dart to deliver them into the hands of someone who can bring them to the healer’s tent or wherever they’re needed.

By the time you have everything settled, you’re exhausted, and some of the more frantic running about in Skyhold—by the refugees, at least—has settled. Food is now beginning to make its rounds… Maker, another thing you’re going to have to bully for… Or perhaps not. You have some pull in the kitchens. Gaston is an ass, but you know enough of the serving ladies, particularly Celia, to at least get some food brought to the rotunda. It’s worth a try.

You curse your overcompensation—was it really necessary for you to change your shoes?—as you head down the stairs to the kitchen. It is, of course, a frantic bustle, but you manage to pull aside Celia.

“What do I have to do to make sure my people are fed, Celia?” you ask her seriously. “I’ve got maybe thirty mouths that need food, mostly children.”

“I’m sure they’ll be gotten to-“

“They’re elves, Celia, probably orphans. They wouldn’t even have a roof or blankets if I wasn’t doing it myself. How do I get them food?

Celia’s mouth forms a firm, serious line. “I’ll spread the word… tell the other girls.” She taps her ear to indicate she means the other elven girls. “Where are they?”

“The rotunda. I’ll grab some now… Gaston will have to throw me out by the tail. But we will need more.”

“I’ll do what I can, Emma. We’ll see that those children have something to eat.” You don’t like the desperation with which she says ‘something,’ but you’ll take whatever she can give. She heads out the door and you dart further into the kitchen, grabbing a large basket directly off someone’s arm. You ignore the cry of protest and begin rapidly filling it with anything that holds still long enough; loaves of bread; bottles of cheap, thinned wine; entire cans of pickled vegetables; any single fruit you can snatch. You’re finally chased out of the kitchen by a shouting Gaston, around the time you grabbed an entire roasted chicken, burning your hands in the process. Into the basket it goes as you flee the kitchen, the Orlesian man’s screams about pilfering little knife-ears following you out.

You charge up the steps and across the Great Hall with the large basket, then into the rotunda. The elves are settling in, with children perched upon every conceivable surface, including, as you suspected, all over Solas’ desk. You shoo a few of them off of it so you have a place to set down your basket. The smell of bread and chicken is beginning to waft through the rotunda, and children are staring at you with the kind of unbridled hope that breaks your heart.

“There will be more coming,” you promise. “So make sure you share this, okay?” You plop the chicken directly onto the desk, cringing slightly. Oh, Solas… You’re so sorry. You yank your knife out of its hiding place in the small of your back, causing no small number of gasps, but you use it only to cut through the thick bread and begin sheering off chunks of chicken. The food goes quickly, but you suspect it’s more than the children have had for a while.

True to her word, Celia somehow organizes a small train of elven serving girls, one after another sneaking you food and simple wooden bowls on their rounds. Between a pot of porridge, pilfered loaves and biscuits, even some of the less favored supplies such as pickled meats, you manage to get all the elves fed. After they’ve all eaten their fill, you stuff yourself with any leftover scraps. You skipped breakfast, slept through lunch, and after all that running about, you are starving. Not so much as you imagine the children were, however.

The elves are avoiding you somewhat, and in all honesty, you can’t blame them. You’re a mysterious figure who swooped in out of nowhere, shouting at shems until they submitted. If you were in their position, you wouldn’t be comfortable with you either. You manage to strike up a conversation with one of the older elves, however, and work to pry information out of her. They had come from an Orlesian village closer to the base of the mountains… It had been sacked by bandits after the noble overseeing the land had fled to the capitol, likely due to the war. They had been left with no defenses. It was really only a matter of time before this sort of thing happened.

You’re not sure what starts the first child crying. Perhaps a tummy ache, from eating so much after too long without good food. Perhaps the trials of the day catching up with them. A woman rushes to comfort the little girl, but soon, other children are joining in, the young ones wailing openly, those slightly older crying the silent tears of those who have learned it’s safer not to make noise. It shreds at your heart like nothing else. Sometimes it seems that you’ve been surrounded by crying orphans for much of your life… From the orphanage in Denerim, to the slaves of Seheron, and even in Antiva, Rivain, and Fereldan… You always find yourself surrounded by the lowest of your people.

But it means you know how to comfort them. You reach over to your desk, grab your long, tapered candle and its holder, and place it on the floor in front of where you sit on Solas’ couch. You light it with a match, and the flash of fire gets the attention of a few of the children.

You tuck your feet up under your knees, and smile broadly. “Come gather by the fire, and let me tell you tales of our ancestors!” Such a cheesy line, but you’re rewarded by slightly less crying and a few confused hiccups. “Who here has heard of the Emerald Knights?” There’s a long pause, and then one of the teenagers hesitantly speaks up.

“Th… they were the guardians of the elves, back when we had the Dales… right?”

“That’s right! Tonight, I’m going to tell you about Mathalin and his brave squire Sulan.” Tentative feet move towards your makeshift “campfire.” As you continue your tale, more children, and even the adults, move to listen.

“And after Sulan and his brave wolf saved Mathalin’s life, the old knight handed his precious sword, Evanura, forged in the heart of Halamshiral, to his bold squire. This began the tradition of passing down the ancient sword, all the way down to brave Lindiranae. And rumor has it that Evanura is still out there, and always finds its way into the hands of courageous elves, to this very day.”

“But hahren, aren’t wolves scary?” asks a young voice. Your heart aches. Hahren? Really? Do you carry your years so poorly? You hide your displeasure, however, to answer the child’s question.

“Elves have long been friends to the wolves as much as they’ve been friends to the halla,” you inform her gravely. “That doesn’t mean you should run out and pet one, though! Wolves are wild creatures, proud and strong. But so are we Elvhen. Some Dalish still practice the path of the ranger, and befriend animals such as wolves and bears to fight alongside them… Like the Fereldans and their over-large Mabari.”

“Tell us another story, hahren!”

“I want to hear one that has a girl in it!”

“Okay, okay, settle down,” you say with a smile. “Why don’t I tell you the story of Tanaleth, the brilliant smith of Halamshiral who worked to rediscover the lost arts of Arlathan?”

Children begin drifting off as you tell as many stories as are requested of you—you certainly won’t run out anytime soon. Not only are you a linguist with a desperate thirst for knowledge, you’ve been that way your entire life. Many of these stories were told to you by your own mother. As the children fall asleep, the adults tuck them into bedrolls and cover them in large, warm blankets. Finally, there’s only a handful left, sitting around you on the couch, huddled close with Solas’ warm, brown blanket wrapped around the lot of you. You’re reminded of late nights hidden in Seheron, and you teach the children a few words of ancient elven as their eyes grow heavy. Ma lath, da’len. You are loved.

They’re the last to drift off, and you don’t have the heart to move them. You shift only enough to lean back, and try to rest as well, the frantic events of the day finally catching up with you.

Chapter Text

You wake up in only mild confusion. You didn’t sleep through the night, because of course you didn’t. With children to distract you, your disgusting little crush on Solas couldn’t lull you to sleep. The kids slept like rocks, however, likely due to their exhaustion and newly full bellies. But it’s just as well… You haven’t time to sleep. You slip out from between the children, tuck them into Solas’ blanket a little more completely.

Bull will understand you missing today’s training, you’re sure. All of Skyhold will be a chaotic mess with all of these empty mouths to feed and injured to tend to. Not to mention the fortress can’t hold them for long… No doubt the Inquisition’s diplomats are working out a place to send them as soon as possible. But for now, these elves are your responsibility, and if you don’t go kick some teeth in, they won’t have breakfast.

Gaston isn’t happy to see you when you walk in, but you use the fact dinner was stolen away to you by the kitchen elves to your advantage.

Thirty mouths, ser, and I had a chicken to split between them!” you lecture. Your stance is aggressive, your tone that of an angry mother; it throws the man, who has likely never been spoken down to by an elf in his life. “I will have porridge for them this morning, and food to give them every meal until they leave.”

“I barely have enough to go around! They’ll get food when everyone else-”

“Clearly they won’t, ser, or I wouldn’t have had to swipe their measly dinner last night!” you interrupt. “Porridge for thirty, delivered to the rotunda… You know… Ser Solas’ rotunda. When are the Inquisitor and his companions due back, by the way?”

“I… you… they…”

“Don’t forget the bowls, ser,” you say icily. “If it’s not there by an hour after sun-up, I’ll be back, and I’ll be far less cheerful about it.”

You hear him swearing in Orlesian as you leave. ”Fucking rabbits, she’s as bad as her master.” You smirk as you head towards the stairs. You’ll take that as a compliment.

-

It doesn’t take you long in the courtyard to figure out the Commander’s plans. Work is already started on wagons and an armed escort to get the refugees… somewhere. That doesn’t seem clear yet. But the Commander does seem to want them out fast. Even this early, the whole of Skyhold is alive with work being done. You chew on your lip for a moment as you watch soldiers and servants alike rushing to and fro. It would be easy to go back to the rotunda, keep an eye on the children. But you don’t think that’s where you’ll be the most useful. Your heart doesn’t melt for the human refugees. Not the way it does for the elves... but you can hardly see the orphans out to safety by themselves. For them to be safe, the whole caravan will need to be able to move swiftly.

So you interject yourself where you’re not wanted. A requisition agent is determining what number of wagons will need to be constructed; you ensure there will be room for the orphans. They will not walk down the mountain on bare feet. Work is being done to give all the refugees warm clothes for the journey; you’re rather insistent that you need two dozen warm outfits for children. Those extra wagons need extra horses. You go directly to Belassan and Dennet; you wheedle, whine, and beg your way into four strong horses to pull the elves’ wagons. You find who you need to in order to muscle dried meat and grains for the road, to ensure the elves will be fed.

“By whose order?” they all want to know.

“By mine, and delivered to Ser Solas’ rotunda,” is what you tell every single one.

You’ll really have to apologize for dragging his name into this when Solas returns. It might be that this is you finally overstepping and overreaching. If he returns while this mess is still ongoing, you’ll be in quite a fix, and if not, it may be too much for you to brush under the rug when he does return. You’ll likely be out of that rotunda on your ass. But nearly thirty elven lives are more important than your thirst for knowledge and your foolish little crush combined. It took you most of your life for your mother’s teachings on the value inherent to an elven child to sink in. It’s not something you’ll forget easily now.

When you’ve made all the preparations you can for the elves, you begin working in a more general manner, running messages and items from place to place, holding nails, even, at one point, running about a pen catching chickens for the slaughter. You do whatever tasks Skyhold requires of you until the sun is high in the sky, and stop only then because one of your friends tracks you down. It’s Sera who finds you covered in feathers, standing in the Undercroft where you’re delivering no small amount of iron to be turned into nails and axles.

“I’ve been seein’ you all day, runnin’ around like a chicken with yer head cut off… You’ve even got the feathers,” Sera points out.

“Plenty of work to do,” you say tiredly.

“For those elves, right?”

You stiffen a bit at her tone.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, what you’re doing… You’re focused just on them, though. 'Cause they’re orphans?”

“Because they’re elves! Because they’re elves and I’m an elf!” you snap. “Where did you live after the orphanage that you forget how much that matters, Sera?!”

She looks taken aback, likely because she’s dragged you through petty pranks and broken limbs and you’d never once taken that tone with her. You shake your head. “Sorry, I’m just… I have work to do.”

She takes a moment, seemingly to compose herself, or remember why she came in the first place. “You need to eat, Em. You do still need food to live, right?”

“Only because I’ve yet to reach the next level of elfiness,” you say with a grin, and she seems as willing as you to take it as a joke and let the moment pass. You let her take you to the mess and stuff you with food, although you eat quickly to get back to work sooner. If she notices, she doesn’t comment on it, and she parts ways with you when she realizes you’re heading back to the rotunda.

When you enter Solas’ workspace, you find it’s still populated with your elves--thank the Maker--and that you'd successfully intimidated Gaston… Not only had they had breakfast, they're now eating lunch. Not the best food, but probably more or less what the other refugees were getting. The children are antsy, being locked up in one room all day, but you insist with the adults that they stay indoors and on this level. You’re overextending what little pull you have in Skyhold as it is.

After ensuring that the elves are fed and sheltered, with clothing coming in, you head back out to see what use you can be. Before long you find yourself in the stables, simply because you’re not much use at assembling wagons and there are no more chickens to be chased. You set to work preparing horses for a long journey; the Inquisition got prime horses for a cavalry from Dennet, but the horses they were using before (IE, walking flea machines who you personally would be uncomfortable tying to a plow) are still around. Those are the ones the refugees are getting, and they need some help. You don’t know how to shoe a horse, but you know how to groom and kill ticks, and you consider yourself something of an expert in the art of scooping poop. You find things to do.

And so you work. There are worse ways to spend your evening than ankle deep in horse shit (not many, but still), and you feel like you’re helping. You only break when you realize you need to ensure that the children have gotten dinner, and then you’re right back in the stables. The sun has set by the time someone interrupts you with anything other than a new task. To your surprise, it’s the Grey Warden, Blackwall. If that startles you, his reason for being there absolutely floors you.

“You’ve been here all afternoon and evening. You’re no good to these refugees dead. Eat.” The bearded man thrusts what appears to be the leg of a turkey into your hands. It’s not exactly what you’re used to being handed, and the fact that it’s him doing it has you off balance. You’re caught between the polite little linguist and the woman who has two dozen orphans to protect, and your brain stalls like an overweight donkey.

“I… I don’t… The… What?”

Eloquent.

“Eat,” he says again, pantomiming as if you’re a Maker-damned idiot. Perhaps you seem that way. But you do take a bite of the turkey leg--you hadn’t realized how hungry you had gotten until you got food in your mouth. You tear into it like a beast, both out of hunger and out of a desire to get back to work. Those horses (although you use the term loosely) won’t clean themselves.

“I was under the impression you were a linguist, not a stablehand,” the Warden comments off-handedly as he watches you absolutely destroy the turkey leg.

You bite back a sharp retort and swallow a mouthful of food before replying. “Are these refugees in dire need of having something translated, ser Warden?”

“Still, you must be out of your comfort zone here.” He gestures vaguely around the barn.

“It needs to be done,” you say with a shrug.

“As simple as that?”

“Should it be complicated?” you exclaim, tossing your hands into the air in frustration. What is it with people today? Between Sera’s obliviousness and Blackwall’s… whatever the hell this is, you’re going to wind up punching someone. This is what happens when you skip practice with Iron Bull, clearly… too much punching energy built up. “There are refugees in our halls! There is a long list of things they need, ser Warden, and ‘linguist’ is not on there!”

“You’re doing good work, with those elves. Sera told me.”

You search for the barb, for the catch, but can’t find it. “It… needed to be done. That’s all.”

“Is it? Elf or no, there aren’t a lot of people who would do what you’re doing.”

“I know. That’s why I’m doing it. If I thought someone else would, I needn’t have bothered,” you say shortly.

Blackwall is silent for a moment, then nods and reaches out, resting a large hand on your tired shoulder. “The Inquisition will always need people like you, linguist.”

You’re not sure what he means, exactly, but he chooses that moment to turn and leave, so you decide to just shrug it off and finish the turkey leg. If you’ve given him cause to dislike you less, than that can be a side benefit to the work you’re doing. You would never have guessed it, but with a mercenary group and a growing list of the Inquisitor’s Inner Circle coming to enjoy your company, you’re getting into a good position here in Skyhold. You’re willing to blow that to help these elves, but perhaps that won’t be necessary. Now if only you can think of a good excuse for Solas.

After you do everything you can in the stables, you find yourself working with some of the requisition agents. You’ve always been an organized individual, so secretarial work and making order out of chaos come naturally to you. Plus, working to assign purposes to the wagons rapidly being constructed in the courtyard means you can ensure that the ones you bullied into use for the elves remain theirs to use.

Later, you assist in packing wagons tight with supplies, food, blankets, and bandages, ensuring every single one is crammed as tight as it can be. You throw your weight around less in a crowd full of stubborn, serious, mostly Fereldan men, phrasing your commands and orders to be seen as suggestions, even tricking the occasional officer into thinking that it was absolutely his brilliant idea to tie a spare wheel onto the bottom of each wagon. Whatever needs to be done to ensure the safety of these refugees. Even cowtowing to some fragile male egos.

It’s late in the night by the time you collapse. You do so literally. One second, you’re carrying a box of canned food to a wagon, calling back to the man shouting orders, and the next, your legs give out from under you and you find yourself in the dirt. You clutch the box against your chest as you fall, to prevent it from breaking, but find yourself unable to stand. Your legs are useless, crumpled beneath you. Someone takes the box from your arms; they almost have to pry your fingers off of it.

You attempt to stand again, but your body just isn’t cooperating. It feels as if someone’s severed your spine and your legs can no longer respond. Someone comes to help, bless them, wrapping one of your arms around their shoulders and helping you stand. They lean you up against a wall, and you see that it’s a rather jovial-faced man as he pats you somewhat condescendingly on the cheek. “You’re overworking, rabbit. Get some rest; the world will keep moving without you.”

You have no desire to rest, and are certain the world WILL continue to move without you… and without the elven orphans you’re attempting to assist. But your body is making a stand--after working hard all day with minimal food, it’s done. Somehow, you manage to crawl up the stairs (nearly on hands and knees) and make your way shakily into the rotunda. The children are all already asleep, although a few stir as you pass. The couch is packed with sleeping elves, so you climb onto Solas’ desk and pass out almost immediately into a dreamless sleep.

-

You awake before dawn, as is your tendency. Awareness comes to you slowly as you attempt to remember why, exactly, you are curled into a ball on Solas’ desk, surrounded on all sides by sleeping children. The memories return to you in a rush… the refugees, yesterday’s work, the work still left to be done today. Your body doesn’t feel much better than it did when you collapsed; the sleep you got was a poor facsimile of the real thing, and being immobile on a hard wooden surface for a few hours did nothing for your soreness. Every muscle in your body burns as you slide off the desk and slip out the rotunda door, but you know forcing yourself to work is your best option.

Work on the caravan is still ongoing in the courtyard; it likely never stopped. How long were you out for? Three hours? Four? You spare only a few moments to stretch before diving back into the thick of things. The wagons are all completed now, and most are packed. The Commander is up (had he slept?) and in the thick of it; soldiers and requisition officers swarm around him like bees. It makes him easy to avoid as you check on the status of the elves’ wagons.

Miraculously, people are still operating with the knowledge that those are wagons for the elven children, and even more miraculously, the supplies you bullied your way into getting are being delivered to the rotunda. You manage to requisition a few people to assist you in packing the supplies into your wagons, making sure you leave enough space for all of the orphans to sit. Even if no one else in the caravan is willing to share supplies with the elves, they’ll have enough to get them to where they’re going.

And you do learn where they’re going, eventually… To your delight, House d’Argent is taking the refugees onto their land. There may be more your “specialized talents” can do to help these refugees after all. But first, you need to ensure everything is set for their departure. Commander Rutherford is sending soldiers as guards to ensure the caravan’s safe passageway to d’Argent’s lands.

First, you ensure that the two elves’ wagons were assigned guards. They were. The real trouble is when you see the two men who were assigned to your people. You recognize one of them, in the worst possible way--he was a man you first met when he was shouting about the things he’d like to do to your “filthy Dalish ass.” He was not, in fact, the one that the Commander had caught and punished… He had been smart enough to run. You would not, you could not leave the protection of your people to this man. Your girls would be in more danger from him than from bandits.

The lieutenant you try to speak to about switching guards is having none of it, however; diplomacy quickly falls through.

“You’ve got two damn wagons just for the elves, woman, just how much special treatment do you want them to get?”

“Two wagons for the elves and two dozen for the humans!” you snap. “I’m fighting for every scrap they get, and I’m telling you, all I need is a different guard! Put him up front on the opposite end of the progression and give me someone else.”

“I don’t take orders from you, you-” His hand raises as if to backhand you and you take a quick step backwards--a strike from an iron gauntlet can do quite a lot of harm. The blow never lands, however--another gauntleted hand wraps tight around the man’s wrist, causing him to shout in pain.

“Lieutenant, go oversee the workers near the kitchen.” The Commander’s voice is, as always, one that demands obedience. The lieutenant practically runs off towards the kitchens, and Commander Cullen turns his attention to you. Just where you didn’t want it. “You have a knack for getting into trouble, Miss.”

“My apologies, Commander,” you say with a full bow. You had hoped to avoid this for a while longer. At least until the elves were safely on their way.

“Let me guess… You were asking something for the elves, and my Lieutenant didn’t want to bother?”

He has taken notice of your actions then. No surprise; how could he miss them? You only procured two entire wagons full of supplies. “It’s that guard, my Lord.”

“I’m no Lord-” he interjects, but you press on.

“His name is Lawrence Underhill, according to the roster. He… Ah…” You clear your throat. “He and I met just before you and I did, ser.”

“I don’t s… Oh.” You can feel the relief flood through you as understanding dawns on the Commander’s face. It’s cut off by the fact understanding is quickly followed by anger, however, as he turns towards the man in question. You step in front of him quickly, half expecting to be shoved out of the way or struck, despite the fact the anger is arguably on your behalf.

“I don’t want trouble, ser. I only want him moved, perhaps traded to guard another wagon?” you begin desperately.

The Commander’s face is still an angry storm when he turns his gaze back to you, and you can feel yourself shrink under it. “How can you-”

“Very e-easily, ser. I don’t care what he s-says to me--I just d-don’t want him near my girls. Ser.” It’s taking much of your willpower to maintain eye contact, although you’re starting to shake a little. Angry Templars are up past “angry Qunari” on the list of things you run when you see. You watch carefully as the Commander’s fist clenches and unclenches. Then he sighs, and you remember to breathe. He grabs a passing soldier--literally, he just grasps the man’s arm.

“Corporal, move Underhill off the job. Put Wille in instead,” he says, voice tight with irritation.

“Yes, Commander,” the unfortunate corporal says before scurrying off.

“Th-thank you, ser,” you say meekly. “I’ll, ah… I’ll just be…”

“Emma.” You freeze. “Don’t think your work with the elves has gone unnoticed.” You swallow, hard. You rather doubted it would be, but couldn’t he let you hope for a few more days? “I… That is, the Inquisition… appreciates it. Your work.”

You blink at him, as confused by what he’s saying as the awkward manner in which he’s saying it.

“It’s easy for the smallest people to get swept under the rug in a rush like this. You’ve made sure they didn’t, when your job had nothing to do with it.” He clears his throat. “You made sure they got what they needed. I’ll take care of the rest.”

A dismissal you can understand, so you bow and wander off, dazed. You can’t shake the feeling like there’s a sword looming over your head, but it has yet to drop. There has to be some consequence for the shit you’ve been pulling. You’d feel better if people would stop reacting positively and react in the “uppity elf, I’ll show you!” fashion of the lieutenant. Someone will feel the need to put you in your place, and you’d like to get it over with.

But it looks like the preparations for the caravan are winding down, and you’ve got a few more things to do before you send your little elflings on their way. You head back into the rotunda, and enter to a crowd of sleepy-eyed orphans downing porridge. It’s a good sight, but you head to your desk rather than basking in it, and immediately begin drafting a note. You write quickly but professionally, and then fold it up and drip some wax from your candle to seal it. Then you find the oldest elf there, a woman likely only a few years older than you.

“Your caravan is traveling to House d’Argent,” you inform her. “After you arrive, go to the castle and find a serving man by the name of Onfroi. Give him this letter, do not open it. Tell him this, exactly this… Banal’ras is calling in their favors.”

The woman nods, eyes wide.

“Say it back to me.”

“B...Banal’ras is calling in their favors,” she says nervously. You nod.

“Good. He will deliver it to the Comtesse. She will see the lot of you taken care of. Do not leave the castle until Onfroi returns.”

You drill the woman on her task until you’re certain she knows what to do. The Comtesse will, in fact, take care of these elves. They’ll likely fare better than the humans. How well they’re treated will inform of you of whether or not you need to make certain indiscretions on her part public knowledge. You had been saving those favors in the off-chance that you needed them in the future--House d’Argent owes “Banal’ras” quite a bit--but this is worth the expenditure of that particular debt.

As you see the elves loaded into their wagons--wagons you procured--and sent off to a better life because of you, you find yourself practically glowing with pride. It’s not often that you can say you’ve done good. Most of your life has been a series of sacrificing others to ensure your own survival. But this… This is good. This time, this one time, you can be proud of your actions.

Iron Bull finds you on the ramparts, watching as the caravan fades into the distance.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” he comments. “I heard you adopted some kids.”

You smile, genuinely. “A little bit, maybe.”

“I also heard you collapsed from exhaustion not six hours ago, and yet here you are.”

You wave him off vaguely. “A few hours rest and I was right as rain, obviously.”

“Uh-huh. So tell me, how much have you eaten in the last twenty-four hours?”

“...A turkey leg and… and… Well, I had lunch of some sort yesterday, I don’t remember what.”

“Yeah. Okay. I’m dragging you to the mess now, and you’re going to eat until I’m satisfied you won’t be collapsing again,” Iron Bull tells you flatly.

“I really should get back to the rotunda, I have to-”

“You know how this works, Emma. You can walk, or I can carry you.”

“I can escape most of your grapples now,” you say with a scowl.

“And you really want everyone to see us wrestling our way across the courtyard?”

“Alright, alright… I’ll go eat,” you say with a sigh, raising your hands in surrender. “No need to get physical.”

-

Breakfast does make you feel a little less shaky. You did everything but eat, sleep, and work on your manuscript yesterday. You can’t exactly sleep the day away, and you have work to do before you can sit down to the manuscript, but at least you can eat.

The thought of the work you have to do makes you antsy, however. The rotunda is a mess, and the only thing worse than the thought of Solas returning to a rotunda full of baby elves is the thought of Solas returning to a rotunda that is a mess and sorely lacking in baby elves to use for evidence as to why. Iron Bull seems to understand that getting you to sit still and eat a meal is a miracle in and of itself, and doesn’t try to hold you up any further when you make your excuses and head towards the rotunda.

The rotunda IS a mess, but it isn’t as bad as it could be, all things considered. Perhaps out of gratitude or just a sense of cleanliness, the elven refugees had straightened up a bit before leaving, but there’s still a lot to be done. You take a deep breath and then get to work, beginning by gathering up all the wooden bowls and plates the elves had been using and bringing them back to the kitchens. Then the blankets and bedrolls… Most are easy, you simply gather them up and take them to the laundry. But Solas’... you can’t risk the laundry losing even a single one; you would never forgive yourself. Perhaps they’re all simple blankets provided by the Inquisition… but what if they’re not?! That’s not a risk you’re willing to take.

Instead, you borrow a bucket of water, a washboard, and some soap. Dragging the bucket up the steps outside Solas’ rotunda is a task, but you manage it, somehow. Then it’s simply a matter of washing the half-dozen blankets and sheets you “borrowed” from his linen closet. You wash all except the brown one you’d been using… You could make any number of excuses, but the reality of the situation is that you don’t want it to lose that Solas-y scent. That realization causes no small amount of self-loathing… You really are pathetic.

You also air out the pillows, and finally, string it all up outside to dry. If people find it comical to see blankets flapping the wind over the ramparts near the entrance to Solas’ rotunda, no one says a word to you. Only Solas’ brown blanket remains (how is it so easy for you to recognize it out of so many?), strewn over the back of the couch.

After the worst of the clutter is gone, there’s still a matter of the floor and furniture. The thought of pestering the maids to do it barely flitters through your mind--it’s your mess, after all, and you’d called in more favors than you’d earned just taking care of the refugees. You simply steal a brush, then use the soapy water from the laundry to scrub the floors.

It’s tiring work, and it fills your mind with less-than-fond memories of your childhood. There’s nothing glamorous about cleaning a floor… but everyone had to start somewhere, you suppose. You scrub the damn floors until you suspect it’s cleaner than it’s been since before the Inquisition moved into Skyhold. Then you take advantage of the fact that Solas’ desk is clear to give it a thorough scrub down as well.

Somewhere in there you wind up skipping lunch, and you only notice when your stomach begins to growl. Well, it can wait a little longer. You clean every exposed inch of the rotunda before you’re satisfied, and you only refrain from cleaning the walls because you’re paranoid you’ll damage the murals. You put all of Solas’ belongings back on his desk and attempt to arrange them something like he had them. Somehow you still feel like he’ll be able to tell you slept on it just by glancing.

You pace around the room a few times before deciding that you really have cleaned everything that can possibly be cleaned. The only thing left to do is attempt to get back to the actual work you’re supposed to be doing here… the tome. Another loud grumble from your stomach changes your plans however… It’s almost evening. An early dinner won’t hurt you, and you did skip lunch.

Heading out early allows you to avoid most of the people who might seek you out at dinner, such as Thea or Iron Bull, but as you exit, a familiar arm loops around yours.

“All done playin’ house, elfy?”

It says something about how attractive Sera is that your earlier irritation at her melts away almost instantaneously at the sight of her smile. How many sticky situations has that pretty face gotten her out of? You can certainly relate.

“Finally,” you say with a smile of your own. “I’ve cleaned that rotunda top to bottom, and yet I still feel like Solas will know the second he walks in.”

She chuckles. “Yeah, I kinda like that you up and housed them right in his place. I bet they got sticky fingers all over his dumb books.”

You shudder. “Maker, I hope not. I’m still amazed I’ve gotten away with everything I did, so far. If there’s a single page out of place, he might just light me up on the spot.”

Sera snorts. “I don’t like that Solas much, but if he had tha’ kind of a temper, you never would have been able to set up in his place to begin with. He’ll like that you were takin’ care of the elves,” she adds, although she wrinkles her nose. “He’s all about elves, that one.”

“Ma serannas, lethallan,” you say dryly.

“Don’t you start!” she exclaims, batting you on the back of the head. “I can’t lose you to that nonsense!”

“Che dire di Antivan?”

“Wot?”

“Fortasse Tevene?”

“Alright, you’re just fuckin’ with me. How many languages do you even know?”

“Tel’abelas, lethallan. I know six,” you say with a smirk.

“Stoppit! Just speak normal!”

“Alas… all of my knowledge of languages, but I’ve never learned ‘normal,’” you say forlornly. “Perhaps you could teach me?”

“Oh, I’ll teach you something, alright,” she says with a scowl. “Prat. Why do you even know six languages?”

“Because the more languages you know, the more books you can read,” you say with a shrug. “I wish it was more complicated than that, but it’s really not.”

“I guess you’re what Solas’d be if he didn’t have his head stuck so far up his ass,” she says, still frowning. “Don’t you get all… all “elvhen glory” on me.”

“Not much risk of that. No one wants ancient elvhen documents translated, and there aren’t many to translate to begin with. I’m more likely to wax poetic about Tevinter history than elven.”

“Don’t do that, either! S’boring!”

You roll your eyes, but with a smile. “So, where are we going? I can’t help but notice you’ve been leading me towards the tavern.”

“We’re not goin’ in, so don’t start fussin’. Did you know that the Commander’s been workin’ almost non-stop with these refugees in?”

“I’m not surprised,” you say with a shrug, not adding that you’ve been doing the same.

“Mmhmm. So I have it on good authority that right now… he’s takin’ a nap.”

Her wicked look makes you stop mid-stride. “...Oh Maker, but… Sera, it’s not even dark!”

“Tha’s why it’s so perfect! There’ll be more guards out at night, there always are! Specially ‘round where important people sleep. But the guards here are like clockwork, just like their Commander… They’ll be at all their normal stations.”

“And he’ll be in that loft of his, alone,” you say, shaking your head as you realize what she’s thinking. “But how are we even gonna get out the front door?”

“Well, the way I see it, we’re gonna either sneak out an’ then hope that no one wonders why we’ve got a ladder, or we’re gonna run like hell.”

-

“Why am I at the top of this thing?” you hiss down at Sera as you desperately unhook the ladder from its connections to the floor of Commander Cullen’s loft. You keep staring up at his bed, where a shape that can only be the Commander of the Inquisition tosses and turns. Your realization that you successfully unhooked the ladder connecting the loft to the Commander’s office comes when it begins to sway backwards. Fortunately, Sera has been waiting for just that, and stabilizes the ladder long enough for you to scramble down.

“You know, Sera,” you whisper. “Just because you can’t get in trouble for this shit doesn’t mean I can’t.”

“Shush and help me lean this over!”

The two of you fumble momentarily with the ladder until you get it horizontal, with her carrying one end and you and the other. She checks at the door, then gives you a quick nod before throwing the door open. The two of you dart out, then down the stairs, before any guards show up. Once you’re at the bottom of the stairs, the two of you go more slowly, trying to look casual.

“It really bothers me that we haven’t been caught yet,” you comment to Sera as the two of you walk, unchallenged, across the courtyard--just two elves with a ladder. “What if we were… assassins or something?”

“Ladder assassins?”

“You know what I mean! Shouldn’t he have guards?”

Sera shrugs. “Takes more than some McKnifey with a bit o’ poison to take out someone like Cullen. Besides, they’re pretty careful about who gets in.”

You’re not sure how much you believe that… you got in, after all. Of course, you’re also not the kind of person who could successfully assassinate a knight-commander, either.

Sera leads you across the courtyard, back to the tavern, and then around behind it, before stopping. “Alright! Here we are!”

“What, we’re just hiding it behind the tavern? Here I thought you’d have us drop it out of the Undercroft.”

“Nah. We don’t want him stuck up there forever! Besides, I wanna go back on the roof, and you don’t have the best track record with climbin’,” Sera says, beginning to lean the ladder against the side of the building.

There are worse ways to spend your time than up on the roof with Sera, watching the sun finish setting over the horizon. The two of you sit side-by-side, idly chattering back and forth. Sera supports herself on her arms while you sprawl backwards across the dark roof still warm from the sun’s heat.

“Y’know, it was Dirth’len who taught me to climb buildings,” Sera says with a sigh. “Can’t believe it… I mean, I guess I kinda knew but… I thought if anyone woulda gotten out, it woulda been her.”

Gloomy subject, and not one you really want to think about. Hearing Sera reminisce about you in third person might be good for your ego, but really, Denerim isn’t a place you like thinking about.

“I’m better at climbing trees,” you lie.

“Pff, I’ll believe that when I see it. We really should get outta Skyhold one o’ these days, get some priv-”

“There it is!” a male voice echoes from below. “By the tavern!”

“Oh, shit!” exclaims Sera. “No, no, stay down,” she adds as you jolt upwards.

“Is someone up there?” the same voices calls.

“Cheese it!” Sera exclaims, grabbing your hand and pulling you along the roof, staying low enough to avoid being seen. You think for a moment she’s diving off the side, and begin to expect another dangerous run across Skyhold, but instead of jumping, she hangs down, dragging you along with her, and swings into an open window in the tavern.

You land with a grunt, tangled up and on something soft... in darkness, at that. It takes you a moment to realize, but you’re on a bed, of sorts, your legs all tangled up in Sera’s. You’re practically sitting in her lap. She’s looking out the window, waiting, and pulls you down onto the bed when two men carrying Commander Cullen’s ladder pass by. Your heart is pounding, both at nearly being caught and at being on a bed in a dark room with Sera pushing you down against the mattress. If you were in any condition to dream, you’d wonder if you were asleep.

“I think they’re gone,” she whispers, turning her head from the window back to you. It’s then that she seems to realize how close the two of you are, just how much of your bodies are touching. Your hair has come loose from its bun and strews across the bed underneath you. You feel as much as you see the breath hitch in her throat. “I, uh… I…”

She leans closer, slightly, and your own breath speeds up. Large elven eyes reflect your own as you lift yourself up towards her-

“The Inquisitor’s party is here! The Inquisitor has returned from Fallow Mire!”

The voice bounces in from outside, repeatedly shouting the news through the courtyard, interrupting your little ill-thought-out moment and causing you both to draw back slightly and glance towards the window. It’s only then that the news properly registers.

The Inquisitor.

Solas.

Chapter Text

You all but shove Sera off of you in your rush to the door. Down the stairs, out the door. Your hair streams behind you as you dart across the courtyard; your hairband lays forgotten on Sera’s bed.

There’s already a large crowd by the gates. You push your way through, twisting between people until you get up to the front. The Inquisition’s away team is dismounting; there are people taking their tired-looking mounts towards the stables. You quickly scan the crowd of soldiers--there are healers taking the wounded towards the tent, and you stare at that crowd especially hard. You spot the Inquisitor as he removes his helm, but your gaze skips right over him and the woman beside him to settle on the person half-hidden behind them, removing some things from his horse’s saddlebags. They move away, and your eyes stay fixed on the man their movement reveals.

Solas.

Alive. Uninjured. Looking kind of bored, actually.

You take three quick steps out of the crowd, towards him, before you realize that you don’t actually know Solas well enough to embrace him in relief, as was your first instinct. Instead, you freeze awkwardly in place. You spot Varric as the dwarf sees you, as well, and he raises a hand to wave. Hugging him would probably be inappropriate too, so you… wave. It feels lackluster. You just sort of stand there, hand hanging in the air, uncertain what to do with the surge of emotions inside of you.

That’s when you see Cole.

Appearing out of nowhere really seems to be his speciality; you only notice him a few moments before he sweeps you into a warm hug. It’s stiff, a little awkward, as if he understands the concept but not exactly the reality of how to embrace another person. The little control you had over your emotions vanishes and you throw your arms around the spirit, burying your head in his shoulder to hide your shuddering breath and tear-brimmed eyes.

You had been so worried. Perhaps you hadn’t even consciously realized the extent of it. Part of you had been quite certain you’d never see your friends alive again. And they were your friends, you realize, if only now. You’ve never been this relieved over the survival of contacts, or even allies. Only friends. Seeing everyone, alive and unharmed… You could collapse from the sudden surge of relief, and Cole helps to support you while you recover from the unexpected swell of emotion.

When you’re ready, you pull back from the hug, sigh in relief, and even smile a bit. Then, remembering where you are, you glance around in mild horror. The eyes of the crowd are glazing over you as if you’re not even there--Cole’s effect, no doubt--but there are four sets of eyes glued straight on you: Varric’s, Solas’, the Inquisitor’s, and his companion’s.

“She wanted a hug,” Cole explains, a bit lamely in your opinion. You clear your throat. As relieved as you are to see Cole and Varric, your eyes keep coming back to Solas, as if you need to be reassured he’s actually standing there. “She wanted a kiss, too, but I think she only kisses elves.”

Thank you, Cole,” you say through slightly gritted teeth. He really has no filter between his head and his mouth. Fortunately, Solas doesn’t seem to be paying attention; he’s already removed his bags from his horse and is beginning to heads towards the--

SHIT.

THE ROTUNDA.

“I’ll, um… I need to… I’ll see you guys later,” you say in a rush as you turn to chase after Solas. You hear Varric’s amused chuckle as you dash off, as well as a Nevarran-accented voice ask, “who was that?” You have no time to deal with either.

Fortunately, you catch up with Solas just on the other side of the crowd. How are you going to explain the fact his blankets are all strung up outside his workplace? Oooh, Maker, no no no… You don’t think you can lie your way out of this one.

“I thought your reunion would take longer,” Solas comments as you fall into step beside him.

“I can talk to them later,” you say, fidgeting nervously as he begins to climb the stairs in front of the Great Hall. “I, um…”

He seems distracted. He’s not looking at you, and he doesn’t appear to have noticed the nervousness in your voice. “Did the rotunda serve you well while I was gone?”

If the Maker would strike you down right now, you’d call it a favor. “W...well… I… Maker, Solas, I have to tell you something.”

He had been half-ignoring you before, but at this, he focuses on you immediately. You wish he wouldn’t. When he sees your expression, which is probably guilt-riddled, he stops, just outside the doors to the Great Hall. He crosses his arms as he faces you.

“Alright,” is all he says. You could kill yourself on the spot, you really could. Perhaps you should give up and self-immolate.

“I… Um… Well... “ You wish he’d interject, but he doesn’t, just fixes you with a level stare while you trip and fumble over your words. “I’m s-sure they’re telling the Inq-Inquisitor, b-b-but we had some r-refugees while you were gone,” you stammer uselessly.

“We received word of that, yes.” His words help you find your own, and you push on.

“W-well, um, th-there were some elves… o-orphans, j-just kids, really, a-and, I noticed they were, ah… B-being ignored. S-so I, um… put them in your rotunda,” you say with a wince.

“Ah.” He seems a bit disappointed, perhaps frustrated. You wish he was easier to read... You’re considering simply jumping over the railing. He turns and heads into the Great Hall, going straight for the rotunda. You dart after him and keep talking, wanting to get it all out and then get to the fallout.

“And, well, there w-weren’t enough blankets so-I-kind-of-took-some-of-yours,” you say all in one breath. “And I may have dropped your name a little m-more than I necessarily sh-should have while… convincing people to give them f-food and supplies for the road,” you add.

At this point he’s reached the rotunda, he’s opening the door and… well, at least it’s clean. He seems to have been expecting a mess. His eyes trace over the room, as if surveying the walls for damage, the he turns to you. “And? Is that all you have to confess?”

Oh, fuck. You can tell by the tone of his voice. He knows, he knows, by some wicked magic he knows. You clasp your hands together, wringing them, as words catch in your throat. “A...ah… W-w-well… I… I-slept-on-your-desk! Ir abelas! I’m sorry! I-I was exhausted and the couch had ch-ch-children on it and, I… Emma ir abelas; I have no excuse, Solas.”

You stare straight down at your feet, too scared to look up and see his expression.

You hear him sigh and you flinch. “So, your confession is that you housed orphans, provided them with blankets and food, and then, by the looks of it, cleaned the room from top to bottom? And yet you look as though you expect me to strike you.”

Well, when he says it like that, it sounds stupid.

“You left out the parts where I broke into your room, stole your linens, and used your name about Skyhold as if it was mine to use,” you say with chagrin, risking a slight glance upwards. You can’t read the expression he’s viewing you with, but he doesn’t seem too angry.

“If my name could feed children, you used it better than I have,” he says, breaking his level gaze to turn and walk towards his desk. He runs a hand over the surface, newly smoothed by your frantic scrubbing. Your eyes follow his long fingers. “You expect me to be angry. I’m not. Although I would like to know how it was you entered my room.”

“I expected to be electrocuted, a little,” you confess. You reach down the front of your pants and he has the courtesy to at least look startled, but you simply pull from your waistband one of the lockpicks Sera gave you. “Sera has been giving me lessons. I’m sorry; I just... remembered seeing a linen closet when I was there before, and, well… You weren’t using them,” you say sheepishly.

“I never warded my rooms; I didn’t expect anyone would actually wish to break into them,” he says, and now he sounds amused. “Perhaps I should correct that.”

“Ir abelas, Solas,” you begin, but he cuts you off by raising a hand.

“You can stop apologizing.” He drops his bag onto his newly cleaned desk. “One of the first things I ever saw you do was steal food straight off of my plate. If anything, you’re moving up in the world.”

You wince again, but resist the urge to apologize. He’s taking it as well as you could hope… better than you could hope, in some ways.

“Is that all you have to tell me?” he asks again as he begins to unpack the bag.

You take a deep breath. Now’s as good a time as any. “...Emma enasal ma garas arla, hahren.”

He pauses, then glances up from his desk. He looks surprised, for just a moment, and then you see the slightest smile flash across his lips. Your heart soars; you don’t even try to stop it. “I take it you got my note.”

“Did… did I say it right?”

“You did, as a matter of fact,” he says, and you grin broadly. “Although you still have an accent. I suspect that will go away with practice.”

“I’m sure if I had the right teacher...” you say, trailing off hopefully.

“How’s that tome of yours coming?”

You grimace, both at the reminder and the fact he changed the subject. “The translation is finished, but I’m not as far on the actual Common tongue copy as I’d like to be. I’ve become very popular as of late.”

“Oh? You did mention Sera had been showing you how to get into even more trouble.”

Now that was the understatement of the century. If Solas hadn’t returned the second he had, you and Sera might be getting into all kinds of trouble right now in that dark bedroom. You need to watch yourself around her; your libido has the tendency to do all the thinking whenever you’re with her.

“It would take me the rest of the evening to list all the trouble she’s gotten me into these last few weeks,” you say with a sigh. Angry racists, dislocated joints, childish pranks, and no small amount of flirtation… Yeah. The two of you got into trouble, alright. “What about you, Solas? How was the Fallow Mire?”

“Damp, unpleasant, and absolutely full of the undead.”

You shudder. “The undead? Maker. Sounds like I had a much better few weeks... I m… The rotunda was empty without you. And people come to bother me when you’re not around.”

He chuckles, and you become sharply aware of how fast your heart is beating. Leftover butterflies from the close encounter with Sera, you tell yourself. You know you’re lying. Leftover butterflies from that little smile earlier, more like.

“As we returned from the swamp, we passed through Redcliffe,” Solas says. “While there, I found a rather surly dwarf attempting to pawn all manner of books in a village that no longer contained any mages.” That explains the books he’s unpacking onto his desk. “Most of it was uninteresting, but I found one or two worth purchasing.”

One or two? Looks more like a dozen. You step closer, hesitant but curious.

“Mostly, it simply served to remind me of how woefully under-equipped the library here is,” he adds as you inch towards the growing pile of books on his desk.

“Is that…” You slide a little closer. “Is that The Botanical Compendium?”

“Volumes one, four, and seven,” he says with a frown. “All the man had in stock. I remembered you mentioning the author during one of our… conversations.”

“Ines Arancia,” you say, fingers twitching towards the books. “Much better than Bouchard, as it turns out,” you add with a scowl, remembering how incorrect you’d been on the subject of elfroot thanks to him.

“That’s not the most interesting thing, however,” Solas says, and gives your hand, which is slowly reaching out towards the books a sharp rap with a small, black tome.

“Ouch!” As you flinch your hand away, however, he presses the black tome into it. Surprised, you look at the cover. It’s unmarked… simply black. There’s no author, either. Curious, you flip to the first page. Your eyes go wide. “An Introduction to Rare and Elusive Spirits. Somehow, I doubt this is about alcohol.”

“I thought you might find this particularly interesting,” he says, flipping through the book until he comes to a certain page.

“Compassion!” you gasp, running a finger across the words. “A shy spirit, drawn to those who are hurt… You don’t say. Maker, Solas, this is fantastic!”

“I thought you might enjoy it,” he says, and when you glance up, you see his lips are stretched into a wry smile. “Your education on the matter is rather lackluster, after all. Consider it a gift.”

Your eyes widen further. “A gift! Solas, I can’t… I… I just got finished telling you how I broke into your room!”

“Yes, please refrain from that in the future,” he says, still smiling. “But it seems as though it was for a good cause. If you had meant to put my belongings back, however, I’m afraid you missed one.” He points over your shoulder, and you turn to look.

Oh.

The blanket on the couch.

“W-well… To be honest, I haven’t actually gotten any of them back in your room,” you say sheepishly. “The refugees just left this morning, and I spent the day cleaning… They’re still hung up outside.”

“That one isn’t,” he points out.

You swallow, hard. “I, um… Well… I…” You grasp desperately for an excuse, any excuse. “That was the one I was using. I, erm… slept in the rotunda, while the children were here.”

“And you left it because…?”

“I… thought I might sleep in the rotunda again,” you say with a delicate cough. “I didn’t know you’d be returning, and your couch is more comfortable than my bed, to be entirely honest.”

“Tell me,” he says, sweeping past you towards the couch. “Why this blanket, in particular?”

“I… it was just the one I happened to use,” you say, wondering with growing apprehension if you’d grabbed something important on accident, that first time you snuck into his room.

“You have odd luck,” he says, picking the blanket up off of the back of the couch. “Of every blanket in my closet, you elected to use the one with the sleeping enchantment.”

Your brain splutters and stalls out entirely. “The… the…”

“Sleeping enchantment. Sometimes my journeys into the Fade require a very deep sleep. Sometimes in less than ideal conditions. I’ve enchanted this blanket to help me sleep deeper, be less easily woken, even travel into the Fade more easily.”

....Oh… Oh for fuck’s sake…

“I… I see…” is all you manage to say. You need to sit down. All this time you’d thought it was a ridiculous, stupid crush on Solas that had been easing you into the Fade against all possibility. A sleep enchantment! Why hadn’t you noticed it? But you’d never bothered to examine a blanket for magic! Who would? And with your aura bundled up tightly inside of you, you would never pick up on something like that idly. You drag a hand down across your face.

“That… explains a lot, actually. I thought the children slept more deeply than a child had any right to… And I…”

“Children?” Solas says sharply. “I thought you used this blanket?”

You flush slightly, and not because you were caught in a lie, but rather because you were caught in an embarrassing truth. “There were a lot of children. Some of them fell asleep as I was telling them stories, under the blanket, and I didn’t have the heart to move them.”

Solas has an odd expression on his face… Perhaps wondering the effect of a sleeping enchantment on tiny children; it’s what you find yourself wondering, in any case. “I, um… Well, if that’s the worst thing that happens out of stealing from a mage’s bedroom, I’ll count myself lucky, I suppose,” you say with a guilty grin.

“Indeed,” Solas agrees. “I suspect if you had broken into Enchanter Vivienne’s room, you wouldn’t be so lucky.”

“...Haha… Yeah, that would be… pretty stupid.”

Solas gives you quite the look, but you manage to keep your expression neutral. It takes a lot of effort. “Have you and she met?” he asks.

“Heh… Yes, actually. She mistook me for one of the maids. I spent a very interesting morning assisting her seamstress. It didn’t seem worth the trouble to correct her.”

Solas shakes his head slowly. “It seems you have had quite the time while I was away.”

Oh, he has no idea. “It could probably fill a book,” you admit. “I should gather the blankets from outside and return them to your room… Or have them returned, if you prefer,” you add. It would be quite reasonable for him not to want you anywhere near his room after you admitted to picking the lock.

“You know better than to bother the maids with your antics,” he chides. “I’ll accompany you, if only to spare my lock from being picked again.”

You’ll never live it down, for certain, but you were expecting far less than gentle scolding. You’ll take any verbal lashes he wants to give you gladly, out of relief at the lack of any real ones. You’re not quite sure what the Inquisition’s punishment for theft is, but you imagine it’s not overly kind, especially not for elves.

Solas waits inside, thumbing through the first volume of The Botanical Compendium, while you dart outside to pull down and fold all of his blankets. You pull down the rope you used as well; it isn’t as though you intend to regularly dry clothing here.

It’s in the middle of folding that a lock of hair falls down into your face and you realize that your hair had fallen down and you’d never put it back up. You flush with embarrassment, then quickly grab a short piece of rope to tie it back with. It will do until you have time to get a proper hair tie… For now, you need to focus on folding these blankets.

After you finish, you totter into the rotunda with a stack of blankets tall enough that you can barely see over it. Perhaps you shouldn’t have folded them so much? You can’t quite see Solas’ reaction, but you hope he looks amused when he places the last blanket and the pillows you swiped from his room on top of the pile, effectively blocking your view entirely. You make a sour face into the tower of blankets, then crane your neck around in an attempt to see.

“Are you going to say something like ‘follow the sound of my voice’?” you ask dryly.

“I thought perhaps by now, you could even find my room blindfolded.”

Alright, you deserved that. “If you think I can climb stairs blind, I’m flattered by your faith in me.”

“Oh? Is it misplaced?”

“It absolutely is. But I can climb stairs backwards,” you quip with a smile you know he can’t see.

You crab-walk towards the stairs so that you can see where you’re going, then head up them backwards, twisting your neck around so that you can see where you’re going. Fortunately, no one’s heading down the stairs. You’re not surprised; the stairs from the library to Solas’ rotunda seem to be used almost exclusively by you and Solas. You’ve only ever seen Leliana’s messengers come down this way. Navigating your way through the library without dropping anything proves slightly more difficult, and you see Dorian looking intensely amused at your awkward tottering. You manage to find the door, however, and head out across the balcony above the Great Hall. Fortunately, Madame de Fer is nowhere to be seen. Thank the Maker for small blessings.

On the pathway leading to his room, Solas slips by you to open his door. It’s funny, somehow, to see him using something as mundane as a key in a lock. Dorian probably magics his door open, every single time. Vivienne probably has a Designated Door Opener who handles all her keys.

You try very much to ignore Solas’ room and focus on getting his linens tucked away safely into the closet you stole them out of. You even make sure that the brown blanket you pilfered first is on top, easily accessible for when he needs it. Maker… You still can’t believe it was enchanted. You’ll be embarrassed by that for the rest of your goddamned life. Still, it’s something of a relief, in some ways. It wasn’t a crush, the fact the blanket smelled like him, or even sleeping in his rotunda that lulled you into sleep. It was magic. Simply that.

“Did… Did you actually take the sheets from my bed?” Solas’ voice breaks you out of your reverie. You pause in loading the blankets into the closet to glance over. Solas is standing next to his bare mattress, and, fortunately, looks amused.

“...You weren’t using them…” you mutter, more to yourself than to him. You finish loading the closet, keeping a few sheets and blankets with which to make his bed. Maker, it would have been so much nicer to do this when he wasn’t here. It’s your own fault, however, running off with Sera the way you had. Still, if all he wants from you is a bit of accute humiliation, you’re more than willing to put up with it. He’s not angry when he has every right to be. That’s enough for you.

Even so, you try to make his bed quickly. He does you the favor of not simply watching you work, instead stacking a few of his newly purchased books onto his desk, and unloading some of his packed clothing.

“Were you a maid for much of your life?” Solas asks from his desk just as you’re tucking in the corners on the last blanket on top of his bed.

The question startles you, but you suppose it must be somewhat obvious to him by now that you’re used to serving. Perhaps as obvious as it is to you that he’s used to being served.

“On and off, I suppose,” you say with a shrug as you finish making the bed. “I was a maid for a few years in Orlais. That was the first I had any real, formal training with it, but I took to it well. I probably would have wound up doing that for the rest of my life if Comte Pierre hadn’t noted my skills with linguistics and decided to give me a chance,” you add with a sigh.

“What a waste that would have been,” Solas comments, and you can’t help but smile.

“I appreciate you saying that… I rather think so myself, but it’s considered arrogant if I bring it up.” You glance around the room. “I believe things are as they were before I pilfered your linens, ser. I… That is, you’ve been… Um.” You clear your throat. “I should… get some actual work done.” You step sideways towards the door.

“I believe I’ll turn in for the night. The journey from the Fallow Mire was… tiring.”

Atisha’hamin, Solas,” you say after a moment’s consideration.

He looks a little surprised. Perhaps because you said it correctly. But you heard your mother say it enough times to know that, at least.

Atisha’hamin,” he echoes after a moment. “Whenever you decide to rest.”

You almost give a bow as you exit Solas’ room, before you remember his dislike of being bowed to and stop yourself. It’s something of a reflex… so easy to fall back into your old Orlesian habits.

-

It’s only when you return to the rotunda that you see the black book set on the corner of your desk, and realize that he successfully distracted you from refusing his “gift.” Sly bastard… You ran a hand across it with a sigh… Well, it can’t hurt to read it. But not just now, you have work to do.

And you do manage to get a little bit of work done. You don’t really want to go back to your room, but sleeping on the couch is out of the question now. It’s unlikely Solas would rise earlier than you and catch you at it, but the risk of that is enough to propel you out of the door and to your own, assigned bedroom when you finally find you can work no longer.

You sink into your bed with a hurricane of emotions still spinning in your mind. Neither your brain nor your heart have any idea how to start processing the events of the day. The refugees, on their way to safety. Solas, Varric, and Cole all safely returned from Fallow Mire. And Sera… Maker, she almost kissed you! What would you have done if she had, exactly? Or perhaps you were reading too much into it? And Solas, he hadn’t been angry at all, even if he had teased you somewhat. Commander Cullen hadn’t been irritated either. Someone should be be upset at you, damnit. These people never act normally.

You spend most of the night thinking, and very little of it resting.

Chapter Text

You know, on some level, that the lack of sleep will get to you after a while. The immediate concern is passed thanks to your lucky little escape into the woods, but the physical effects of being unable to properly rest will weigh you down over time. A few hours of blessed rest in the woods, stolen glimpses of the Fade thanks to Solas’ enchanted blanket… It’s not enough to compensate for over a month of self-inflicted insomnia.

You try to remember the longest you’ve gone with your aura wrapped up inside of you all day and all night. Surely you’ve gone for months before… Yes, when you had to stay at the Circle in Montsimmard to finish translating that Tevinter tome on obscure magical techniques. That was what… two months… ten weeks… Something like that? Admittedly, the last half of that book was kind of a blur.

Either way, it was longer than now, and you hadn’t gotten any relief for the entire time. And you had been surrounded by mages and Templars all day and all night. That was a hellish situation. You never would have put yourself in it if you hadn’t needed to get your hands on that damn book. Compared to that, life in Skyhold is a vacation. At least that’s what you tell yourself while you get repeatedly knocked around by a Qunari.

“Distracted fantasizing about your long-lost lover, returned from the war?” Iron Bull says with a smirk around the sixteenth time you fall over.

“Oh, shut up,” you groan into the dirt, allowing yourself to lie still for a moment longer before pushing yourself off of the ground. “You’ll start another rumor. I can’t even keep track with all the people I’m supposed to be sleeping with, at this point.”

“Well, I heard one of the kitchen girls refer to Solas as your ‘Master’; that was pretty interesting.”

“They think I’m his servant… A handmaiden of sorts,” you explain as you dust yourself off a bit before quickly darting forward to strike at Bull, hoping to catch him off guard. You fail, of course, but you feel like it was a good effort.

“I think if I asked four people what you actually do for the Inquisition, I’d get four different answers,” Bull says as he blocks your strikes; you barely manage to get your hand out fast enough to avoid being grabbed.

“And none of them would have ever asked me,” you reply as you try to circle around him. “It’s not my fault people have a tendency to make erroneous assumptions about me. They see an elf carrying food; they think maid. They see an elf delivering messages; they think messenger. Doesn’t matter if I’m eating the food or if I wrote the message.”

“See, that kind of attitude is exactly why you’d make a good spy.” You jump backwards to avoid a lunge, then resist the temptation to scramble up his over-extended arm like… what was it? A rabid squirrel. Instead, you duck under it to deliver a jab to Bull’s armpit; one of your few successful hits of the morning.

“Being unremarkable I get, but surely it takes more than that to be a spy,” you say with a snort, skipping back away from him. “Otherwise everyone would be signing up.”

“Well, you’re not a bad liar,” Iron Bull muses, hooking a foot out in an attempt to trip you. You jump over it.

“If I said ‘I’m a terrible liar,’ convincingly, that wouldn’t do much good, would it?” You shake your head. “I’m not a good liar, though. I’m good at keeping my mouth shut. There’s a difference.”

“You’re right. Both are important for a spy, though.”

“Are you trying to recruit me, Bull?” you ask sardonically. “I’ve had quite enough of that for one lifetime, thanks.”

“To the Qun? Nah. Although if you’re interested in joining the Chargers, I bet Krem would be overjoyed.”

That makes you laugh, right in the middle of a punch. He takes advantage of your momentary distraction to grab your arm. “Ugh… Cheating,” you grunt as you try to twist your arm away. “Krem would disapprove.”

You’re split between trying to get your arm free and keeping him from grappling you any further. “It works on him, too,” Bull comments. “Yesterday, Dalish brought you up in training and he got so flustered she managed to trip him.”

You stomp on Bull’s foot, hard. It’s more of a full-bodied jump, but it does the trick. His grip loosens just enough for you to wrench your arm out of his grip. “Good job with those orphans, by the way,” he adds.

He hadn’t mentioned your missed practices, which you appreciate. Some things just take priority. “Someone had to do it,” is all you really have to say on the matter.

After a few more minutes of sparring punctuated with only grunts and the brutal thud of fists striking flesh, Iron Bull strikes up conversation yet again. If he’s trying to distract you, it’s working.

“Now that Solas is back, looks like I’ll have some competition.”

You don’t even try to read the meaning of that one; that’s what he wants you to do. Instead, you aim a blow just below his sternum. He knocks your arm to the side at the last moment. Damn, so close.

“I mean, he’s got his own magical bath tub and everything. Now you can just go to his room when you want a hot bath.”

There's a delayed reaction caused by your train of thought skipping to Solas' room, then to Solas' bath, then to Solas in the bath. Your mind stutters and then stops functioning entirely for a moment, and you trip, nearly falling straight into Bull. He steps out of the way and you wind up flat on the ground instead. You’re almost grateful; a face smashed into the ground is preferable to a face smashed into a person, particularly a shirtless person.

“I’d say you’ve fallen down enough for one day,” he says with a laugh as you push yourself out of the dirt. “Breakfast?”

“You go on ahead,” you say, wiping off your face. “I’ve got something I need to take care of first.”

-

You aren’t bringing Solas his breakfast every day. That is just… just not a thing you’re going to do. So rather than putting a dish together in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, you pull Celia to the side.

“Oh, here to get your master’s breakfast?” she asks. “We haven’t put it together quite yet…”

“Say, Celia… How much do they pay you for a month’s work here? A few silver? I can’t imagine it’s much… after all, you live here, eat here.” You ignore the confusion on her face and slip two silvers into her hand. Her eyes widen; she opens her mouth to protest, but you cut her off. “Two silver for every week you deliver Solas’ breakfast to him.”

“How can y-“

“One is for delivering it, the other one is for not asking why and not telling anyone,” you say pointedly.

“This is kind of-“

“How much could you do with an extra eight silver every month, Celia?”

You can almost see the calculations behind her eyes. “Well… But… How can you afford…?”

“I’m really good at Wicked Grace.”

“I… I suppose…

“Consider it a favor, Celia,” you say, giving her a pat on the shoulder. “I like to have my mornings free.”

A bit of understanding dawns on her face, her mouth forms into an “o” shape. Whatever she thinks she’s figured out, you’re more than willing to let her assume it’s correct. She already thinks you’re in love with your boss; it’s not as if her opinion of you can get much lower.

“I’ll still be getting his lunches and dinners,” you assure her. “This is just for breakfast. Thanks, Celia.”

-

With one of the things you’d been most worried about off your chest, you head towards the mess. It will be good to have at least one meal a day with your friends; they’d no doubt gotten used to your presence at meals over the past few weeks.

Friends… You were acquiring quite a few of those. You don’t trust most of them as far as you can throw them, of course, but that’s hardly a requirement for friendship. Sera, Solas, Cole, Varric, even Iron Bull… if any one of them died, you’d be devastated. It’s not something you like to think about, given that this is war and every last one of them is something akin to a soldier. Even Sera, apparently. Even Cole. Although, admittedly, Cole should be very difficult to kill. Can he be killed? What would happen if he got stabbed? Would he just… go back to the Fade?

You make a mental note to ask Solas as you sit down to breakfast. Despite your attempts to put Solas and Cole out of your mind, Thea brings one of them up almost immediately.

“So, your ‘special friend’ is back from the Mire, eh?”

“Who, Cole?” you ask, startled.

“What? I meant that Solas! Jus’ how many men d’you consider special? Who’s this Cole, then?” Thea asks, looking joyfully scandalized.

“Well, he’s certainly special,” Iron Bull says with a snort. “But if she’s doing anything like that with him, I’d be amazed. Although if anyone could manage it…”

“Oh, shut up, Bull,” you say through gritted teeth. “My reputation doesn’t need any help. Cole is just an… agent, Thea. Solas introduced us; he’s a very unique person; certainly deserving of the descriptor ‘special.’”

“Mmhmm,” she hums, with a world of meaning behind that little sound. She turns to Iron Bull and pats him rather sympathetically on the hand. “I’m still rootin’ for ya, Iron Bull.”

You find that you can’t roll your eyes with the force required for such a ridiculous sentiment. “Don’t let Krem hear you say that, poor guy might cry,” Bull says with a smirk. You decide it’s time to just focus on your oatmeal and ignore your two “friends.”

-

Nothing can dampen your mood on Sunday mornings, not even Thea and Bull teaming up to tease you. You feel light as air as soon as you step into the stables, free as a bird when you climb up onto Revas, despite the fact you’re still riding in a fairly small area.

You’re even starting to learn to tolerate Belassan better… The idea of learning from a Dalish will never stop chafing you, but Belassan himself is friendly to a level that’s almost frightening in its determination. Thinking about it, being an ex-Dalish elf has to have some serious drawbacks. Those vallaslin don’t exactly wash off, after all, and humans hate the Dalish more than they hate regular elves.

You’re curious about what caused him to leave the Dalish, but you don’t pry; it would be hypocritical if you did, really. You certainly aren’t jumping to fill him in on your history, with the Dalish or otherwise. Instead, both of you focus on your riding.

“Harts don’t run like horses,” Belassan is informing you as Revas trots around the corral. You’ve gotten comfortable enough with his gait that you aren’t in danger of falling off, at least. “See how high he’s lifting his front legs? Harts will walk, trot, and gallop, but it doesn’t feel like a horse.”

“I wouldn’t know,” you say, voice shaking from how Revas’ trot is bouncing you. “I’ve never ridden a horse.”

“Really? You’re a bit of a natural at this, then,” Belassan says, sounding pleased.

“I’ve been on a mule,” you mutter to yourself. You suppose there’s not honestly much overlap between a mule and a hart, though.

“Now, we’re going to try getting him to gallop for you, but watch out. Once Revas gets going, he has a tendency to want to bound.”

Bound?” you repeat nervously.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fourth gait that harts have that you’ll definitely never see a horse doing.”

“Oh, Maker…”

“Alright, just give him a bit of a smack on the rump, there you go.”

You really don’t have anything with which to compare Revas’ energetic gallop, but every time your ass leaves the saddle, the whipping wind leaves a taste like freedom in your mouth. Belassan must see something familiar sparkling in your eyes when you finally slow Revas down, because when you meet his gaze, he grins.

“You’ve got a taste for it now,” he says with a cheeky grin. “The library’ll never see hide nor hair of you again.”

You laugh, an excited, genuine sound that almost surprises you. “I’ve still got a job to do, Belassan. Even if I am tempted to start taking more mornings off. You know… We really should go for a ride sometime, you and me. Whenever I ride with others, they take horses.” You’re surprised to find that you honestly mean it. Belassan seems a little surprised, too.

“Yeah, I… I’d like that. I mean, it would be good. For the harts. They never get to go out together.”

You grin as you slide off of Revas—another thing you’re getting better at. “Two elves riding through the forest on harts? Let’s not invite Sera… she might explode.” You both laugh, and although you suspect you should feel bad for having a laugh at Sera’s expense, you really don’t. You’re sure she’s had a few at yours.

“By the way,” Belassan comments while you’re dragging off Revas’ saddle and hanging it up where it belongs. “I wanted to thank you for all your help here, with the horses for the refugees. It was pretty chaotic; we needed all the help we could get.”

“Those horses needed all the help they could get,” you say with a snort. “It’s funny to think of the Inquisition riding around on some of those farm horses, now that you’ve got Horsemaster Dennet’s finest.”

“And… for helping out the orphans,” he adds, quietly.

You pause. “That’s really gotten around, huh…” You grab a brush and begin to rub Revas down, Belassan is nice enough to give you some quiet to think in. You knew your antics with the elven children would make its rounds, but you’re surprised it’s gotten you more gratitude than trouble, so far. But honestly, between the feathers you ruffled there and your repeated trips to the “human” baths, there has to be some resentment brewing, somewhere.

When was it, exactly, that you’d gone from “keeping your head down” to “purposefully starting trouble?” Well, you’re known now; there’s no taking that back. All you can really do is keep building up your connections… But perhaps you should focus more on the little people… More names and faces amongst the maids and kitchen staff, maybe. If you’re becoming known for helping elven orphans, perhaps you can leverage that with the elves amongst Skyhold’s workers, and…

Your train of thought is interrupted by Revas licking at your ear. It tickles, and you shake your head away from him with a grin. “I’ll stop by sometime for that ride, Belassan,” you say as you give Revas a final pat. It’s getting to be time to leave. “Don’t forget.”

-

You change tunics before swinging by the kitchen to pick up Solas’ (and your) lunch. It seems the polite thing to do; the tunic you had been wearing was covered in dirt, fur, and hart slobber. Celia avoids eye contact with you when you come to pick up lunch. You wonder if it’s lingering awkwardness from the bribe you gave her, or guilt. She had delivered Solas’ breakfast, hadn’t she? You were in for a world of scorn if he’d gone unfed.

“Ah, there you are,” Solas says when you enter the rotunda with a heavy tray of food. “Getting into trouble again?”

“Something like that,” you say with some effort as you balance the tray on one hand while unloading it. “On Sunday mornings, Belassan… you might know him, he’s the Dalish—or ex-Dalish, I suppose—who handles the harts in the stables… He’s teaching me how to ride.”

“You’re certainly picking up teachers quickly,” Solas quips as you finish unloading the tray and sit down on a conveniently placed stool—had he left it there for you?

“I really am,” you agree. But not the one you really want, unfortunately. It’s a shame he’s not more vulnerable to peer pressure; you’re the hot new thing, apparently.

“So you were off riding harts all morning? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised… You certainly smell like you’ve been rolling in hay.”

You flush bright red, judging from the sensation of heat radiating from your face. It seems as though simply changing your tunic was insufficient. You scoot a little bit further away from Solas, not wanting to spoil his appetite. “Ah… Y-yes.” You clear your throat. “In all honesty, I’m curious as to where and how the Inquisition picked up a Dalish, or even ex-Dalish elf.”

“He took note of a hart while some of Leliana’s men were bringing it in,” Solas says, glancing up as if to help him remember. “As I recall, he more or less followed it back to Skyhold, then offered his services. The Inquisition isn’t in the practice of turning away help, no matter what the form it takes.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” you say between bites of biscuit.

“Is there a particular reason you’ve taken to riding harts?” Solas asks, looking genuinely curious. You swallow with some difficulty. You’ll be thinking about that face, eyes slightly narrowed, head tilted minutely to the side, for quite a while, you suspect. Curiosity is a very good look on Solas.

You clear your throat and attempt to regulate your thudding heartbeat. “It was Bull’s idea, honestly… Well, sort of. He took me to the stables, and, well… Revas and I hit it off. That’s the hart,” you add, unnecessarily. After all, Solas was the one who named Revas, according to Belassan. “One thing just sort of led to another.”

Solas lets out a short chuckle. You’re suddenly aware of how dry your throat is; you down some wine to try and moisten it… and distract yourself. “That seems to happen to you quite a lot.”

“Blame Iron Bull and Sera,” you say with a sigh. “It always comes back to one of those two, eventually.”

“Oh? Which one of them persuaded you to adopt two dozen orphans?” Solas asks, eyeing you over the rim of his cup as he sips his own wine.

“Fair enough,” you say with a wince. “I suppose I make enough trouble for myself without any assistance.”

“I’ve noticed,” Solas begins, pausing as he sets down his glass, “that you seem to think your charity is something to be punished.”

“I’ve noticed that you have a tendency to ask questions without actually asking any questions,” you quip back smartly. Solas just raises an eyebrow. You sigh. “I stepped on no small amount of toes in a very short period of time. I bullied, I begged, I lied, I stole. I housed nearly thirty strangers directly underneath the Spymaster, in a space that’s not even mine to use. To say I over-reached would be a ridiculous understatement. And the longer I go without any backlash, the more convinced I am it’s going to be ugly when it happens.”

“Is that experience talking?”

“Yes,” you say bluntly. “Taking care of the lowest dregs of society is only something people consider admirable for as long as it doesn’t actually affect them.”

Solas quiets after you say that, and you hope that the discussion is over. You hardly want to get into “charity” you’ve given in the past. If the orphans get to where they’re going and your blackmail works without backfiring, this will doubtless be your most successful endeavor in the name of others.

After the two of you finish lunch, you gather up the dishes and bring them back to the kitchen. Before returning to the rotunda, however, you swing by the baths—the human baths. If you’re going to be making a nuisance of yourself, might as well do it in a way that benefits you, as well. Despite Bull’s opinion on the matter, you have no desire to use anyone’s private bath. That doesn’t mean you enjoy a cold bath either, however. The “human” bathhouse is a good compromise. Plus, you love the smell of indignant shemlen in the morning.

You return the rotunda, hair still damp and in fresh clothes, but if Solas notices that you took a bath, he doesn’t comment on it. You just hope you’re a little less offensive to the nose now. You’ll have to make a point of bathing after your morning excursions with Bull. It didn’t matter as much when you were working alone, but you certainly don’t want to fill Solas’ rotunda with the smell of your sweat while he’s trying to work.

You get right to work on your tome, but, ridiculously, after two weeks missing his presence in the rotunda, now that he’s here you find you’re having trouble focusing on your work. Part of that is because he’s not just holding still at his desk; he’s walking around the room. A quick glance behind you has you thinking that he’s probably laying down wards or runes of some kind, but you can’t tell any more without going up and examining it, which is possibly the single stupidest thing you could do. So you try to focus on your work. And you fail.

Every time he walks by you, you can practically taste his aura, likely because he’s actively casting. You’re reminded sharply of your repeated fantasies about how nice his magic felt on your sore back, or strengthening your wrist. You can’t help thinking about how much you spent yourself… Drained yourself nearly dry, as a matter of fact, and you’re reacting to the tingle of Solas’ magic in the air like a hungry Mabari. You do manage to refrain from literally drooling, at least. And you keep your aura firmly in its place. It’s not easy; every time Solas’ energy brushes up against your skin, your aura surges in that direction, and you have to wrestle it back down into your core.

All in all, it’s not a very conducive work environment.

Eventually he gets whatever wards or runes he was working on completed and starts doing something in the middle of the room. You can’t tell from here, and you do your best to ignore it… At least, possibly thanks to the wards, his aura is no longer poking you in the back. You manage to get some work done, but you quickly become frustrated again, and this has nothing to do with Solas. You need more resources. With a sigh, you set down your book and head up to the library.

You wave a greeting to Dorian, but you make a beeline for Thea. She looks a little surprised.

“Thea, does the library have any resources on dragons?” you ask with a distracted frown.

“For your work, huh? Well, sorry to say we haven’t got much… I think I’ve got a bestiary where dragonlings are mentioned. That’s about it,” she says apologetically.

You sigh. “I suppose that’s why the Inquisitor is trying to obtain a Draconologist. Damn.”

“Problems?”

“Minor frustrations, really. I’m not the best person for this job; I’d like to supplement my translation with other works, just to make sure I’ve got the details right. I know I’ve seen some Nevaran and Orlesian tomes that would be of use, but I’ve no way of getting them, out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“You could always put in a requisition order?” Thea suggests. “It can take them a while to actually fill, since books are pretty low on the priority list, but…”

“I suppose,” you say with a sigh. “It’s better than doing nothing. Thank you, Thea.”

Of course, that does nothing to help you now. With no small amount of frustration, you head back downstairs and try to work on the pages you’re most confident in. You can organize them later.

-

Dinner time comes too soon, but in a way, you’re almost relieved for the break. Solas has been working on whatever spell he’s doing for hours. He looks like he’s asleep in his chair, although you suspect he’s actually meditating… Who could fall asleep sitting up like that? You’re not sure if you should disturb him by fetching dinner, but surely that would happen when the kitchen workers brought his meals? In any case, if you bring him an evening meal and he starts letting it get cold, you’ll be more than happy to eat it for him.

Solas stirs from his… meditation, or sleep, or whatever, when you return with dinner. Almost a pity; seems you won’t be getting to eat two meals after all. It would be worth it for the look on his face upon realizing what you’d done. Ah well. You stop short of the wards he placed; you have an excuse for noticing them this time. They glow. Solas does… something… with his hands and the floor ceases its runic glowing. You step forward, cautiously, your aura just beneath the skin of your feet. You don’t feel anything… whatever magic he was using is gone, or at least suppressed. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say he was taunting your curiosity.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything important,” you say as you step up next to his desk. “But you seem to appreciate timely meals.”

“I wasn’t getting anywhere,” Solas says, and he sounds mildly frustrated. Whatever he was doing, then, didn’t go as planned.

“I’d ask what you were doing, but I doubt I’d understand,” you say with forced modesty. Although it might be as much honesty as modesty… It’s not as though you’ve had a formal education. Or any kind of education, really.

“Oh? You know more about magic than the average person, certainly.”

You snort as you walk away from his desk. This time you place your own plates on the table near the couch. Let him think it superstition at being so near recently cast magic, if he wishes. In reality, you just want a bit of space. “How difficult is that, really? What the average person knows about magic could fill a thimble. Less if you strained out the blatant falsehoods.”

“Admittedly, this is true,” Solas agrees. “But you do seem to have a thirst for learning.”

“I always have,” you say with a nod. “Since I was a child. That’s why I wound up translating Qunlat instead of… Maker, whatever they normally use child slaves for in Tevinter. I don’t really like thinking about it.” Not that your intelligence spared you from all of the unpleasantries of being a young girl who happens to be a slave in a war zone. Just… enough of them.

“Even now,” Solas continues, and you realize he’s going somewhere specific with this. “You learn lockpicking from Sera, riding from Belassan… and likely more. You and Iron Bull, for instance, seem rather more friendly than when I left.”

When had he seen…? This morning? It had to be, during practice or breakfast. But, no, surely he was still abed at that hour? You realize, belatedly, that you’ve been quiet for too long. “Um…” Oh… Maker, no, surely he hadn’t heard any of the rumors?! Your dignity can’t take it if he thinks you’ve been… That you and Iron Bull are… You clear your throat. “The Iron Bull has been teaching me as well,” you say, a little stiffly. “How to defend myself should the need arise. This is a war… it seems it will come up sooner than later.”

“It seems,” Solas says with a thin smile. “That there is nothing you’re uninterested in learning. Where do you find time for it all?”

“The Iron Bull and I practice in the mornings, before breakfast. I ride Revas on Sunday mornings. Sera… Sera kidnaps me on an irregular basis.” You pause. “…Solas, if you’re concerned that this is interfering with my work, I believe you’ll find I’m still moving forward at a –“

“I’m not concerned. Merely impressed.”

He’s probably lying, but you still feel a rush of heat and a twinge of pride.

“I believe the Inquisition will be good for you, Emma. There are many people here who can teach you many things.”

“Mmm… It can be difficult to convince people to part with their hard-earned knowledge,” you say pointedly.

“True. Fortunately, you don’t give up easily.”

Chapter Text

It takes you a while to get your head back on straight after that very interesting conversation with Solas. You’re still half-dazed as you wander back towards the rotunda after dropping off your dinner dishes to be cleaned. Fortunately, perhaps, Varric offers you a bit of a distraction, catching your arm just outside of the rotunda.

“There you are. I have something I think you’ll be interested in, Stutter,” he says, and his shit-eating grin has you suspecting it’s trouble.

“Oh?” you say warily. “Well, as long as it doesn’t dislocate my hip.”

“What…?”

“Never mind. What is it, Varric?”

“I got a letter in the mail,” Varric says, holding up a piece of parchment with a flourish. When you don’t immediately react, he continues. “From a certain broody elf.”

Your heart leaps into your throat. “N… no way…”

“Aww, so little faith in me? Fenris loves getting letters. A little less fond about writing them, admittedly, but he’s working on it.”

You lunge forward, grabbing at the letter, but Varric skips backwards out of your reach. He’s spry for a dwarf.

“Uh-uh, this isn’t all for you. He does reply to you, however. I take it you want to hear it?”

“Maker’s balls, Varric, either read it or hand it to me!” you exclaim, reaching for it again.

“Alright, alright, settle down. I can’t read it with you jumping at me.” He clears his throat and you back off slightly, wringing your hands together nervously. Short. It’ll be short. Maybe a sentence acknowledging you. Still, it’s incredible that he even knows you exist.

“As for the woman, Emma, tell her that it’s pleasant to find someone else who escaped from Tevinter’s clutches. She sounds quite charming. I’d like to know more about how she escaped and what she did afterwards. Perhaps you can introduce us while I’m at Skyhold?”

You can’t breathe. You can’t breathe. All your blood has rushed to your face; you must be bright crimson. You let out a strangled noise, perhaps a squeak or a whimper, then open your mouth to speak. No words come out.

You must catch Varric off-guard, because he doesn’t dodge out of the way when you drop down onto your knees and yank him into a tight hug. “W-whoa, there, Stutter,” he says, sounding shocked, before relaxing slightly and giving you a somewhat awkward pat on the back. While he does, you steal a quick glance at the letter in his other hand. The lettering is large and perfectly spaced and the paper is marked repeatedly with crossed out words--it reminds you sharply of secret lessons in Seheron. One word in particular catches your eye… Hawke. But you don’t see much else before Varric gently pries you off of him.

“Maker, I’m sorry, Varric, but… Thank you. Thank you. I can’t believe… I mean, he’s kind of a hero of mine, and I just, I… Thank you,” you blather.

“It’s alright, Stutter. The look on your face alone is worth it. Not to mention his.” He gestures to his right, towards the doorway, and you turn to see a rather nonplussed looking Solas. If it was possible for you to blush any brighter… You scramble to your feet.

“I, um… He… That is… How long have you been standing there?” you ask nervously.

“Long enough for it to be hilarious,” Varric quips. “So, Stutter, do you want to write him back?”

“Write him back? I… Erm…” You glance nervously at Solas. “I’d like to, yes. Some… other time?”

“Meet me in the tavern after you finish working tomorrow,” he says with a grin. “We’ll get your letter written.” Varric gives you a last pat on the arm before absolutely sauntering off, leaving you deal with Solas.

“I, um… He… Well, that is…”

“It seems you weren’t exaggerating when you stated you were becoming more popular,” Solas interjects with a faint smile.

You clear your throat and will your face to cool down. “Yes, well. I should… I should get back to work.”

Solas steps to the side and gestures for you walk by him. You quickly scurry past him into the room and sit down at your desk. You check the door to ensure he hasn’t followed you in, then lay your face down flat on the desk, covering your head with your arms. You’re just going… just going to sit like this, for a minute.

-

You spend most of the evening wiggling, rather than working. As Solas is now just sitting at his desk reading, you’re probably distracting him as much as he was distracting you earlier. Unfortunately, you simply can’t sit still. You sold your history for a fan letter. And you are seriously happy that you made that stupid, stupid decision.

Never in a hundred years did you suspect you’d actually ever meet any of the “characters” from The Tale of the Champion. You knew they were real… Honestly, you picked up the book specifically because you wanted to know what the hell had happened in Kirkwall. But it was really easy to forget those people actually existed in the world, and were still wandering around Thedas… even though “casually running into Fenris” was one of your most repeated late night fantasies.

But now that fantasy was actually coming true, albeit slowly. Fenris is coming here… here. Why? What business does he have with the Inquisition? And you saw Hawke’s name in that letter… You chew on your lip as you think, leaning yourself against the back of the chair and resting your head back to stare up the tower. There’s something going on here, certainly. But you’re having trouble thinking it through, because every five seconds your brain floods with SWEET ANDRASTE I’M MEETING FENRIS and you lose your train of thought.

“Are you a fan of his, then?” Solas says finally, interrupting the flood of hormones that’s passing for your thoughts.

You start, nearly tilting the chair over backwards, but you manage to lean forwards in time. Thank the Maker for small blessings. “Huh?” you say distractedly, trying to get your mind back in the present.

“This Fenris. I take it the two of you haven’t actually met, but you seem… exuberant,” Solas says pointedly. You likely had been distracting him, then. You flush slightly.

“Something like that. I read about him in Varric’s book, and… the two of us have similar histories. He was a Tevinter slave who escaped in Seheron. Although his prior owner bothered to chase him down. I had no such difficulties after I escaped. In any case, he’s… Someone I admire. I know that’s foolish, as I’ve never met him.”

“And now he’s coming here.” Solas sounds like his mind is going down similar paths to yours… minus the vibrating excitement, anyway. Varric was kind enough to let you know Fenris was coming, but not kind enough to tell you when or why. Both were nagging at you.

“I assume he has some business with the Inquisition, and this is all a happy coincidence,” you say, giving some voice to your thoughts.

“Maybe he’s coming just to see you?” Solas says, and you stare at him for a long moment.

“Are… are you teasing me?”

“Would I do that?” Solas says, but the corner of his mouth quirks upwards in a slight smile.

“Apparently,” you say with an exaggerated pout, crossing your arms. The sight of you seems to amuse Solas even further, as he covers his mouth lightly with his hand. He can’t hide the way his eyes wrinkle at the corners, however. “Yes, yes, have a good laugh at the da’len,” you scoff, although it’s getting difficult not to smile, yourself. “Maker knows Varric’s having a good chortle at my expense about now, as well.”

Solas manages to compose himself. You suppose that’s what passes for him losing control… a smile and a joke. Still, it’s… satisfying, somehow. “Perhaps you should go wrestle a Qunari until you’ve burned off the excess energy?” he suggests.

You throw your hands into the air. “If I wanted to be sassed, I’d still be working next to Dorian!” you exclaim.

“I heard that!” Dorian’s voice echoes down from the library. “Don’t drag me into your lover’s quarrels, elf.”

You groan, dragging a hand down over your face. “This is bullying, Dorian,” you call up to him. “You’re bullying me.”

“I’m Tevinter; it’s what we do. If I start pretending to be nice, that’s when you get worried.”

Not much you can say to that… It’s true. Instead, you glare vaguely upwards and turn back to your work.

-

You do manage to get some work done, after Solas incidentally clears your head with his light teasing. There’s a deeper meaning hidden behind Fenris’ trip to Skyhold, you’re certain of it. But you’re also certain you’re missing pieces of the puzzle. Hawke is part of it, to be sure, but you just don’t have enough information or knowledge about the people involved, or even the Inquisition itself and its goals. And you’re sure as hell not going to go compare notes with Leliana.

Instead, you do your damn job until Solas leaves for the night, only pausing to remind you to blow out the candles before you leave. You stay for perhaps another hour, working on the dull but soothing task of writing word after word in a neat, even hand. It lets your mind wander.

Eventually, however, you can’t fight off exhaustion any more, and you head for bed for another sleepless night. You don’t actually make it all the way there, however… a few steps into the courtyard has a familiar face at your side.

“I didn’t talk to Solas about you, but I talked to him about not talking to him about you,” Cole says, the words coming out all in one rush.

You rub your tired eyes as you attempt to parse his meaning. In the meantime, he looks mildly panicked. “Calm down, Cole. It’s alright.”

“You’re not upset?”

“No, no, of course not. It was kind of you to agree not to talk to him about me in the first place. But I should probably… I should explain. I was scared, but that doesn’t justify just giving you that kind of a blanket order. Do… Do you have time? I can try to… Try to clarify.” Of course, you’re exhausted and kind of want to just... lay down for a few hours. But it isn’t as though you’d actually sleep even if you did, and this is important. Especially if Cole actually told Solas he wasn’t supposed to talk about you. Might as well hand him a glowing, lyrium-runed sign that reads “SHE HAS A SECRET.”

You take Cole up on the roof of the inn. You’re not sure why, exactly, but it’s a good place to have some privacy and it relaxes you... likely due to your fond memories of Sera and that roof. You kick your shoes off before you climb. Cole doesn’t so much climb as he appears by the time you reach the top.

“Wish I could do that,” you say with a smile.

“You probably could. Solas can do something like it. He could show you. If you told him,” Cole says, a little pointedly.

You sigh. “Right. About that. Could you just maybe not tell anyone anything about my magic?”

“You don’t glow,” Cole says, frustrated. “Not all the time. But you can. Can they all turn it off? Why don’t they?”

“They could probably learn, if I showed them,” you say with a shrug. “Or maybe it’s just something I can do. I don’t know. Most mages are already caught by the Circle before they can learn control of their magic. The Circle wouldn’t teach them how to hide. And Tevinter mages, like Dorian, why would they ever want to? I bet witches can do it, and I’d be willing to bet Solas can too. How else could he have stayed hidden from the Templars his whole life?”

“Solas always glows,” Cole says firmly.

“Well, his secret’s out now. If I could, I’d walk around free as a bird, too.” Cole opens his mouth to interject. “But I’d rather have my personal freedom. You’ve heard the Inquisitor, haven’t you? He’s said, publicly, that he thinks the Circles should be reformed. And he’s rebuilding the Templars. I’m not going to be locked up in a Circle, Cole. I’m not. You… you can see what I’ve done to avoid it... can’t you?”

Cole is silent for a moment, then nods. “Stench of charred flesh, blood boils when burned, who knew? They can’t hurt me anymore.”

“Yes. That’s… probably another thing you shouldn’t tell anyone.”

“They’re not all like that, you know,” Cole adds softly.

“I know, Cole, don’t worry,” you say with a forced smile. “I’m just more careful now, that’s all. I trust you.”

“You should trust Solas,” Cole insists. “He would understand.”

“Cole, no offense, but I don’t even like that you know. The more who know, the more likely it is that something goes wrong. And we’ve both seen the only way I know how to get out of a situation like that.”

“If you tried that here, they’d kill you,” Cole says solemnly. You wince.

“Yeah… Trying to avoid that, tesoro.”

Tesoro, tesorina, because if I say her name, that makes her real.”

You sigh. “That’s the sort of thing you can say. Just nothing about my magic, or anything tangentially related to it.”

“You are your magic. You gather the glow, gilded with glamour. Pluck the power like you’re playing, but a scheme or a song?”

“And we’re back into things you shouldn’t talk about territory,” you say dryly.

“I understand what you want; I think I understand why. I don’t like it.”

“Will you do it anyway?”

“…Yes.”

-

You must have been up there for hours, making sure Cole understood what not to say. You’re exhausted by the time you sink into bed, but you know sleep won’t come. At least Cole is taken care of. You’re confident he won’t say anything to accidentally expose you, although Maker knows he’ll probably say plenty of other interesting things you’d rather keep private. But, as you well know, if you let people know a few grudging secrets, they get so distracted with the sense of accomplishment that they don’t keep prying. Like Leliana. She thinks she has you pegged well enough because she discovered a few paltry secrets you’d rather no one knew. A technique an Orlesian will always fall for; they hoard secrets the way a magpie hoards shiny baubles.

You stare blankly up at the ceiling for a long while before giving up on sleep entirely. With a sigh, you open the tiny chest by the foot of your bed and pull out the unmarked book on spirits that Solas gave to you. If you can’t sleep, at least you can learn a little something about your new friend.

-

Just because the effects of your lack of sleep are purely physical now doesn’t mean they aren’t still a fucking pain. Sometime before dawn, you stumble into leggings and a loose shirt before staggering outside and towards the fighting ring. Iron Bull is there and waiting for you, more than willing to knock you into the ground until you wake up.

His training doesn’t help you sleep better, which was arguably his original intention, but the little adrenaline burst it gives you every morning can normally keep you going until lunch, at the very least. You are getting awfully tired of hitting the ground, however. Thanks to your overly pale skin, you tend to bruise easily and dramatically. Your back is probably just one giant blue and black splotch at this point, and it’ll be trouble if anyone sees it.

Your opportunity for revenge comes so quickly that you almost miss it; the chance to move fast enough (but not too fast) to get a drop on Iron Bull. He lunges just a little too hard, likely because your normal means of escape is jumping backwards. If you did that, he’d still have you. Instead, you dive to under one of his extended arms, rolling over your shoulder and coming quickly back onto your feet. You slide a little as your feet hit the ground and you reach your hand out to catch the training area’s fence, to prevent yourself from crashing into it. That’s when you see your chance.

Without pause, you grasp both hands onto the fence behind you, letting your momentum swing you into the air. Then, with every ounce of strength you have, you throw yourself back towards Bull, legs straight out. Two boot-clad feet connect firmly with Iron Bull’s spine and he topples, still slightly off balance from lunging forward. Down he goes with you on top of him, and you try desperately to maintain some balance. You manage to keep your legs underneath you as he falls, but stumble when he hits the ground. You windmill your arms dramatically but are unable to keep your balance, and fall forwards as well. An ankle tangles on one his large horns and you trip, smashing your face into the ground.

Well. You still made him fall over.

“Oof,” you hear him say as he reaches up to unhook your foot from his horn. “What did you hit me with?”

“One hundred pounds of pure flying elf,” you groan into the dirt. “Using myself as a projectile… not my most inspired moment.” You roll over onto your back, but you decide against getting up for the moment. Your legs feel like rubber.

“You know, I think the point of fighting is to incapacitate the other person more than yourself,” Iron Bull says as he stands. You note with no small amount of satisfaction that he’s wincing slightly.

“Oh please, Bull. If I ever got in a real fight with you I’d be dead in under ten seconds,” you say with a snort. “This is just me seeing how much I can kick a tame dog before it bites me.”

“…Did you just call me a dog? A tame dog?” He actually looks offended.

You sit up with a groan. “You’ve got teeth, but I’ve yet to see you use them,” you say with a cheeky grin.

“You asking for a demonstration?” Bull asks, crossing his arms.

“On me? Fuck no. I like having an unbroken spine.”

“You sure? It’s been days since you were last in the healing tent. They’re probably worried about you.”

You laugh, and find that laughing hurts a little. You run a hand over your ribcage and wince. Some new bruises for your growing collection, no doubt.

That’s when your eyes latch onto something out of place. Behind Bull, up on the walkway between the rotunda and outer walls of Skyhold. Seeing someone up there at all is something of an oddity… No one goes between the rotunda and Cullen’s office except for you and, on rare occasion, one of Leliana’s messengers. Everyone else avoids Solas’ rotunda like it’s got the Blight. That’s one of the reasons you like this practice area; it’s only visible from that walkway and, possibly, Cullen’s bedroom. Two very unpopulated areas.

How odd, then, that there should be someone up there. Someone watching the two of you spar, perhaps? A tiny little elf girl fighting a Qunari in the pre-dawn hours is something that would make anyone stop and look. But you have sharp eyes, and you recognize the man on the walkway. He’s dressed like a messenger, carrying papers; no doubt you’re intended to assume him one of Leliana’s men. And he is, yes. But you’ve never seen him delivering messages. Only up in Leliana’s little bird cage, taking orders and, possibly, delivering reports.

One of Leliana’s spies is watching you when you’re with the Iron Bull, possibly other times as well. The thought isn’t surprising, but it sours your stomach. Bull follows your glare upward and sees the man walking towards the rotunda with the fumbling urgency of Skyhold’s many messengers. If he mirrors any of your suspicions, he doesn’t voice them.

You stand and brush yourself off, unable to summon back your joviality from a moment earlier. No one enjoys being spied on, even if you would be concerned if Leliana didn’t have someone keeping an eye on Bull. Or yourself, you admit grudgingly. Especially both of you together, considering the nature of the documents she has you translating. But just because you can respect it from a professional standpoint doesn’t mean that you have to like it.

“Come on,” you say with a sigh. “Let’s get breakfast before I manage to break myself in half trying to knock you down again.”

-

Any thoughts you might have had about mentioning your suspicions about the man on the bridge are washed away by the time you sit down for breakfast. Both Thea and Varric are there, to your pleasant surprise.

“Thought you might need a reminder about our date this evening,” Varric says with a laugh when you express your surprise at seeing him up so early. “So. What’s up with this?” He gestures between you and Iron Bull with his fork. “I leave for two weeks, come back and everyone in the Herald’s Rest thinks you two are playing hide the happy. Then you show up for breakfast together?”

You choke into your oatmeal. “Maker’s breath, Varric! Hide the… He’s just teaching me how to throw a punch! We practice before breakfast!” You wipe your mouth off and cough a few times to get out the last of the inhaled oatmeal, trying to ignore the way Bull is chortling and Thea is grinning. You glare around the table.

“I’m just saying, you seem to have made quite the impact all of a sudden,” Varric says with a shit-eating grin. You regret that Bull is the only one you’re allowed to punch. “Even the kid was talking about you in the tavern last night. Mind you, when he does it’s more like mumbling creepily to himself and less like actual talking, and I’m only mostly sure that he was talking about you.”

“The kid?” you say with a frown. You don’t really want to know how much your so-called sex life is discussed by drunken humans in a bar… That’s a whirlwind of trouble whipping up right there.

“Cole,” Iron Bull supplements.

Cole was talking about you in the tavern? Of course he was.

“I didn’t even know the two of you were acquainted before he decided to give you a hug,” Varric says. “Most people don’t remember him.”

“I have a very good memory for faces,” you say into your oatmeal, although you’re quite certain that Cole could make you forget him if he really wanted to.

“You on the run from anything in particular? He was talking about hiding and secrets.”

“I doubt he was talking about me, Varric,” you say with a sigh. “It could have been anyone.” He opens his mouth to speak again, but you interrupt. “Why do you call him a kid?”

“Well, he is, y’know. He hasn’t been here for very long. He gets confused easily.”

You want to snap that he’s not a child, he’s a spirit. That Cole sees and understands things that would have a dwarf’s head exploding. That you don’t want to hear about Cole “confusing easily” from someone who’s never even seen how different the Fade is from the world of mortals. But that’s a rant better saved for Solas, who at the very least won’t look at you like you’re a lunatic. Or, better yet, no one, because there’s no better way to out yourself than rambling about spirits and the Fade.

Instead, all you say is, “You certainly like your nicknames, Varric.”

“I have a natural talent! Like with you, Stutter. Had you pegged from day one, didn’t I?”

“I don’t actually stutter that much,” you say with a scowl.

“Just when you’re nervous,” Varric says with a chuckle.

“No, just when she’s scared,” Iron Bull chips in. You glare at him. “What? C’mon, Ben-Hassrath, remember?”

“I try regularly to forget,” you say with a scowl.

“See, she didn’t start stuttering when you were talking about the two of us…”

“Hiding the happy?” Varric interjects.

“Yeah, that. But watch.”

You should have been expecting something. You really should have. The topic at hand, combined with your little barbed insult and you knocking him down during training… Of course he’d try something. Still, you’re caught off guard when he reaches across the table and snatches your jaw into his hand, angling your head upwards and, you can’t help but notice, exposing your neck. Blood rushes to your face as your eyes latch on to face and horns, you see yourself reflected in dark eyes. Let me go.

You react automatically, jabbing your fork into his arm, hard. He snaps his hand back with a laugh, rubbing where you stabbed him.

“Wh-wh-what th-the fuck, Bull!” you exclaim, hand rushing to your neck. You’re fine, of course… he hadn’t even grabbed hard enough to hurt. Still, your heart is pounding heart enough that you think it might break your bruised ribcage. Having your eyes dragged onto his like that…

“See?” Bull says to Varric with a grin.

Varric puts his hands up. “Don’t drag me into this! I didn’t ask for a demonstration, and I’m definitely not asking to be part of whatever she subjects you to in revenge.”

You didn’t ask for a demonstration, but she did,” Bull says with something of a smirk.

“I believe that I specified not on me,” you say with a scowl. “For a Qunari, you’re shit at following instructions.”

“I’ll visit you when she puts you in the healing tent,” Varric interjects.

“That’s like foreplay for them, though,” Thea comments through a spoonful of oatmeal. With a sigh, you stand, your own food not even half finished.

“I think that’s my cue to go start my workday. I’ll see you at the bar tonight, Varric.” You begin to walk away, forcing yourself to ignore Thea’s “aw, now you scared her away” and Bull’s indignant “me?” Your heart is still pounding and you can still feel Bull’s hand firm on your chin. Right now, what you need is peace and quiet.

-

Knowing that subjecting yourself to Solas will do the absolute opposite of calming you down, you instead opt for soaking in the bathhouse. Too tired for judging glares, you sink into the cool waters of the elven baths rather than soaking your sore muscles in the hotter human bathhouse. Unfortunately, today, that doesn’t spare you from stares. It takes you a moment to realize why, but once you give yourself a once-over, you figure it out. Your arms, torso, and from the feel of it, your back, are all a mess of black and blue bruising. Looks like you’ll be wearing long sleeves to the rotunda today.

You cut your bath short and dress quickly. Between the knowledge that both Cole and, apparently, half the tavern were gossiping about you, and the memory of the spy on the walkway, you’re feeling hyper-exposed as you walk to the rotunda. Iron Bull’s little show of teeth isn’t helping things either… You can’t shake the feeling of being followed. Ghosts of the many people you’ve run from in your life glint at the edges of your vision.

You almost slam the rotunda door closed behind you. Only the sight of Solas at his desk keeps you from sinking onto the ground. Here, at least, you can feel a little more safe. No one comes in here. Not when Solas is here. Yes, the library and the spymaster are right up the stairs, but here, at least, you can have the illusion of privacy.

“You look fraught,” Solas comments as you slide into your desk chair.

“It’s been a fraught morning,” you say, and find your voice is shaking slightly.

“I admit, I’m pleasantly surprised to see you before lunch.”

In ordinary circumstances, you know you’d latch onto that ‘pleasantly’ and get a nice little rush of warmth, but you’re too jarred to focus on it. “Sundays are my day off,” you say distractedly, glancing at your papers and trying to remember what you’d been doing the night before.

“Off? You spent the majority of the day here, working,” Solas points out.

“No one’s stolen my Sunday afternoons yet. Might as well get some work done.”

“You have quite the work ethic,” Solas says, and you hear a “but” coming. You sigh.

“Perhaps, but in all honesty, it stems from my line of work. I’m accustomed to a few weeks of twelve to eighteen hour workdays as I rush to finish a project for a client, then months of a lot of nothing while I wait for someone else to hire me.” You shuffle a few more papers idly as you try to figure out what work you can do. More lettering, no doubt. Mm… You should try to figure out how requisition requests actually work.

“What did you do when you weren’t working, then?”

You glance over at Solas. He isn’t looking at you… He’s flipping idly through the first volume of The Botanical Compendium. Light conversation? That strikes you as odd; he was more than content to sit in silence in the past. Still, you could use a bit of a distraction.

“Any number of things. That much spare time let me indulge in several hobbies… once I was making enough to support myself, anyway. I even had an herb garden.” You sigh. “I miss my mule the most, but that garden is a close second.” You glance back towards Solas again. “What about you? What do you do for fun?”

“I enjoy exploring ancient ruins and battlefields. Places where the Veil is thin. In some places, spirits press so closely against the Veil that I can slip through with but a thought.”

Maker help you, his voice is like melted butter. Perhaps that’s why, somehow, you spend most of the morning talking with him, about everything and nothing. Idle conversation. Background noise, almost. But… Talking to Solas is actually a pleasant distraction in a way. Even an hour after Bull grabbed your face, you can still feel the imprint on your skin. His skin is rough, thick. Not like a human’s. You thought you had gotten used to it, but... Your hands are still shaking, only slightly, but still too much to get much accomplished when the number one skill required for your job is “really steady penmanship.”

It’s easy to relax around Solas, to forget that he’s prying more and more information out of you. He’d make an excellent spy… Which inclines you to believe he’s something similar. Aimée was like that, easy to talk to… And look how that ended.

Still, you find yourself continuing the conversation even as you begin lettering. It’s a dull, repetitive task, and as long as you’re careful, you can talk and listen while you write.

“And honestly, I appreciate the pay, but being unable to just make a trip into town to pick up the supplies I need is a bit of a chore,” you say with a sigh as you finish a sentence with a flourish. “Of course, I could hardly do that back home right now,” you add darkly. “It was quite on fire when I left.”

“You mentioned the conflict was what caused you to seek out Skyhold,” Solas comments. He’s reading while the two of you talk, something you’ve never quite mastered. “And that you saw more of the Templars than you did rogue mages. Was it they who set fire to your home?”

“Their crimson counterparts,” you say with a sigh. “Even Templars wouldn’t burn down a whole village of innocents… a house here and there, absolutely, if they thought there were mages hiding inside.”

“Speaking from experience?”

You make a face. “I lost a few neighbors that way, yes. I just kept my head down and gave the Templars any supplies they asked me for.” Including no small amount of poisoned goods. They can’t go around robbing people and not expect a few deathroot laced loaves of bread, honestly.

“Did no mages go to you for help?”

“I…” You’re quiet for a few beats too long. “No. Lucky, I suppose…” Luckier still that you had endeared yourself to the villagers so well that none of them had taken the opportunity to share the rumors that you were a “witch” with the Templars. Your hand had been on your dagger the whole time those Templars had been in your house. “Perhaps I’m just not very approachable,” you say with a forced chuckle.

“Says the woman who’s made friends with half of Skyhold in two weeks?”

Three weeks and hardly all of Skyhold, but I acknowledge your point.” A low grumble in your stomach reminds you that you barely ate any breakfast. It must be getting on towards lunch. “I miss my water clock,” you say with a sigh. “I hate having to guess the time based on how much candle I’ve burned through.”

“Wondering if it’s time for lunch?” Solas asks, still not looking up from his book. “I was wondering that myself.”

That’s your cue. You finish the line you’re working on and stand up, stretching stiff muscles. Your back and ass are absolutely killing you from the combination of bruises and sitting. It’ll do you good to walk around some.

The Great Hall is bustling when you make your way through it… no doubt in response to the return of the Inquisitor. You’re content to ignore it, although you do walk a bit more slowly than usual, ears pricked for any interesting gossip. Skyhold is never without gossiping nobles of one kind or another.

“I’m surprised the Inquisition has such a right.”
“It’s not the first time he’s passed judgment.”
“I was here for the first… he recruited some Tevinter thug. Hardly justice.”

Oh ho, what’s this now?

“All of these people are gathering just to watch? That seems… morbid.”
“Wait until you see the crowd if he actually decides on public execution.”
“But the Inquisitor isn’t even here yet!”

Oh, now this is something. You dart down the stairs and gather Solas’ food leisurely while you gather more gossip in the kitchens. Sure enough, they’re abuzz with the news as well.

“It’s about time. He’s been rotting down there long enough, taking up good food that could be going to our soldiers.”
“Oh please, nothing about what we send to the prisons could be called ‘good.’”
“Still food, innit? We haven’t so much to spare.”
“I heard the Inquisitor’s going to execute him.”
“How could you possibly know that? The trial hasn’t even started.”

Maker, how did you miss hearing about this in the baths? Well, you suppose you might have been the more interesting gossip there, considering how bruised up you’d been. Since you’re taking your time anyway, you make extra sure to tailor Solas’ meal to what you know of his preferences and grab some extra fruit tarts for good measure. If anyone will know what the Inquisitor is up to, it’s Solas. Perhaps you can lure some gossip out of him, for once, since you spent the whole morning idly gabbing about yourself.

Coming up through the busy Great Hall with a tray loaded to the tipping point with food makes you begin considering mapping alternative routes to the rotunda, but you manage to get there without dropping anything. The tray is pushing painfully into a bruised part of your arm, however. You quickly unload the food onto Solas’ desk, your left arm trembling as weight pushes into your bruise. Ouch. That you manage to unload it all without dropping anything is a testament to your Orlesian trainers. Although if they had seen the tremor in your arm, you would have gotten a lash across the knuckles to be sure.

“Solas, there’s something going on in the Great Hall,” you say, pulling up a stool to dine with him at his desk. The fact that he doesn’t seem to mind you doing so gives you a slight flush of pride. You may not have gotten his knowledge out of him yet, but you’ve done a fine job endearing yourself to the prickly elf. “Do you know anything about it?”

“Mm, the Inquisitor will be publically sentencing Knight-Captain Denam this afternoon,” Solas says, sounding patently disinterested. “Have you had much opportunity to read the book I gave you?”

“A Knight-Captain?” you exclaim. A little rudely, in retrospect. Solas raises an eyebrow, and you clear your throat. “Erm, I mean… Yes, Solas, I was reading it just last night. But, um… He’s judging a Templar? I thought they were the Inquisition’s allies.”

“This particular Templar is somewhat responsible for the state of the Templar Order,” Solas says with a sigh. “Knight-Captain Denam helped indoctrinate the Templars with red lyrium. He was captured some time ago… I believe the Inquisitor’s intent was to let him stew.”

You shudder. You saw a little bit of that red lyrium, in your travels, and got too many close looks at what it did to the Templars. You may not feel pity for them, but you do feel fear. Regular lyrium has a delicious glow to it that you can barely ever resist, but the red stuff… Now that was scary. What it did to the Templars was scarier.

“Are you planning on watching the proceedings?” you inquire after taking moment to get over your sudden-onset heebie-jeebies.

“Not particularly, no. But I judge from your curiosity that you are?”

“Maybe from the balcony… It’s getting awfully crowded in there, and the Inquisitor isn’t even present yet. It would be something to see that throne in use… it’s awfully gaudy. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say that about the Herald of Andraste’s throne?” you add with a chuckle.

“You seem Andrastian. Do you believe him to be the Herald?” Solas asks. You have to refrain from glaring at him; the man is always turning the conversation back onto you.

“I believe that’s the sort of question that could get me into trouble, Solas. Didn’t you once tell me to keep my clever tongue out of mischief?”

“You didn’t take my advice then. Why start now?” Solas says with the smallest of smirks, half-hidden behind his cup.

“Perhaps I’ve only now begun to appreciate your wisdom, hahren,” you snort. “After all the trouble I’ve dragged myself into, it seems wise to try and avoid the obvious traps.”

“Now you accuse me of attempting to trap you?” Solas asks, fake hurt dripping from his voice, so over the top that your snort turns into full-fledged laughter, echoing up the tower and back down again.

“Yes, clearly your motives in asking all these questions are completely pure,” you say after you regain the ability to talk. “You’re as transparent as swamp water, Solas. But… No, I don’t believe the Inquisitor is divine. Not in the way some people think. I don’t know what that mark on his hand is, or how he can seal rifts, but I don’t think he’s a god. Besides,” you cast your eyes towards the door to ensure you don’t have one of Leliana’s spies watching you again. “Men with power affect the world more than gods do, these days.”

Chapter Text

Solas does, eventually, steer the conversation back towards his gift, although not after prodding at you for more information on your religious beliefs of all things. After having presented him with more than enough information regarding the intersection of your beliefs and the Inquisitor, you politely dodge the next few questions until he brings it back around to the book. You’re willing to be more open about a lot of things with Solas. Religion isn’t one of them.

“Last night, after you went to bed?” Solas is saying in that mildly curious tone of his.

“Yes. I’m keeping it in my room, lest it be mistaken for a library book,” you reply.

“I’m beginning to wonder if you do ever sleep.” The comment seems innocent enough, but the look in his eyes is anything but. You repress a shudder… Does he know something, already? Has he perhaps been talking to Iron Bull? Or worse, has his magic granted him some insight? When you start walking down that road, there are a seemingly infinite number of ways for you to accidentally out yourself, ways you have no way of even knowing about.

“I sleep,” you say with a laugh. “Perhaps not as much as you, ser Early-to-Bed-Late-to-Rise. But I do sleep.”

He doesn’t seem to believe you, but he at least lets the matter drop. Maker… you’re going to have to have some excuse for your insomnia for him, before your evading becomes too obvious. It’s at times like these you really wish you had a mage you could trust. That would make fooling everyone else (particularly other mages) a lot more straightforward.

“I can’t imagine you managed to read much of it before sleep took you, then,” Solas says, eyes still far from the playful look he had when teasing you.

“Only a little,” you admit. It’s a bald-faced lie; you’d read for hours, right up until you rolled out of bed for your daily beating. “I started with the section on Compassion. It’s informative, but… Cole is different… at least, he seems to be. Admittedly, I’m hardly an expert.”

“Cole is unique. Normally, spirits cannot take a physical form or exist solidly outside the Fade without a host. Cole defies both of these facts.”

“Are all spirits…” you tap your head, unable to find the proper word. “…Odd, like Cole is? The way he talks and thinks is different.” It’s frustrating to hold a conversation in which you genuinely want to learn while lying about the knowledge you already possess. Much like your early training with Iron Bull, it’s more about pretending to learn things you already know. Annoying when it’s fighting, but when it’s something you have a genuine curiosity about? It’s agonizing.

“Spirits mimic aspects of life that they see through the Veil. They’re not always accurate, and they don’t always see nuance or… ‘shades of grey,’ as it were. None act quite like the humans they seek to mimic. Cole is, again, unique. He is here. He is learning.”

You’re quiet for a little, simply eating as you process Solas’ words. Cole certainly is a treasure… both in his rarity and in the simple fact that he’s a kind-hearted individual who seems to genuinely care about you. That’s some bitter poetry… You always hoped that one day you’d meet someone willing to look past your flaws and failures, and genuinely care about you. It just took you meeting a spirit whose sole purpose is caring about people.

“He must be popular,” you muse out loud.

“Quite the contrary. Most cannot even remember they ever saw him, and of those who can, most fear or dislike him for his ability to see even their deepest secrets.” Was it just you, or did that comment seem barbed? Well, Cole did say he’d mentioned to Solas that you’d requested Cole’s silence. Under the same circumstances, you would be positively erupting with suspicion.

“I wish I could say that sounds anything but typical,” you say with a sigh. You gnaw idly on a particularly chewy piece of crust. “I wonder why I remember him? And I wonder if I’m actually remembering all of my encounters with him. Maker, that’s a weird thought.”

“You may not be,” Solas says with a chuckle. “I’ve witnessed him make a mistake while trying to comfort someone, only to make them forget and then immediately try again.”

“That’s… alright, I guess that’s a little frightening,” you admit. “But as long as he doesn’t have me forgetting anything important, I suppose it’s worth the risk.”

“What’s worth the risk?”

“Cole. Getting to know him. He’s… I mean, yes, admittedly, he’s unique and fascinating and an anomaly and all of that. I doubt I’ll ever get another chance to talk with a spirit like this. But he’s also… genuine. Kind-hearted.” You pause for a moment as you chew and think. “I find myself thinking more about what you said before… about spirits being people,” you confess.

“Oh? Have you come to any new conclusions?” Solas has long since finished eating, and you’re only gnawing on hard-to-chew scraps at this point, but he’s yet to go back to reading.

“Cole is the only spirit I’ve met. I’m not sure if I can really make any conclusion just based on him, but… If anyone tried to tell me he wasn’t a person, I think I’d be offended. I’d think them an idiot, certainly.”

Solas smiles, and your eyes latch onto it. Such a broad smile from Solas feels like a summer sunrise. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to; you can practically feel the approval. To cover for the sudden spread of heat to your face, you quickly begin fumbling with the dishes. “I… better take these back to the kitchen, then,” you mutter pointlessly, gathering them all up in a heap and skedaddling out the rotunda door.

The crowd has been moved evenly to either side of the Great Hall when you exit the rotunda. You quickly see why… there’s a man being brought up the middle of the hall in chains, with armed guards on either side. Seems like you spent a little too long conversing with Solas.

You’re hardly going to dart across, so you just sort of stand there, awkwardly holding a stack of dirty dishes and tableware. The crowd doesn’t even move out of your way, but instead pushes and bumps you around. You wind up nowhere near Solas’ door by the time you hear the Commander’s voice ring through the hall.

“Knight-Captain Denam, Inquisitor. He awaits judgment for serving the Lord Seeker at Therinfal Redoubt. I knew some of the knights who died there… I asked to oversee his sentencing.” You barely repress a shudder… you’re quite glad you can’t see Commander Cullen from your place in the crowd, although with the rate you’re being shoved around, that may change. His voice is cold, hard, and angry… everything you’ve learned to fear in Templars.

“Denam knew the dangers of red lyrium,” Cullen continues. “He murdered the knight-vigilant and corrupted his brothers and sisters.

You hear the Inquisitor’s voice then, just as cold, but slightly bored-sounding, as if he has better things to do. “We'll find a suitable punishment for the good captain.” You can’t help remember that the Inquisitor has been training as a Templar as well. You have no sympathy for the man in chains, but you are very glad you’re not in his position. If you’re not very careful, it’s quite possible you will be one day.

A voice cries out, cutting through the murmurs of the crowd. “I only did as I was told!” That must be Knight-Captain Denam, then, mounting the classical “not my fault” defense. You suppose there’s not much else he can say, in these circumstances.

The fury in the Commander’s voice as he cuts Denam off sends a chill through you. “We found everything! The corpse of the knight-vigilant, even papers proving you knew red lyrium was poison!”

Ah… so that’s what the man had gotten up to. No wonder rumors are circulating that the Inquisitor will sentence him to death.

“There is a greater power walking this world!” the Knight-Captain explodes. “I wasn't fool enough to deny it. None of you would have. I demand justice!” A greater power…? Is he talking about that… thing, that they were saying destroyed Haven? You’d thought that to be no more than rumor. Red Templars would be enough to blow through a small town’s petty defenses. Are the Templars perhaps delusional, or is there really more going on here?

The Inquisitor waits for the murmuring to die down before speaking in a clear, clipped voice. “I didn't suffer at your hands. That was your knights in the Templar Order. Let the remaining Templars judge the man who failed them.”

Poetic, you suppose. The penalty will most certainly be death, or at least, that’s what the screaming Knight-Captain seems to think. You watch as he’d dragged back through the hall. Interesting… will the Templar put on a show of their own, or merely run the man through? It will probably be a more private affair than this, in any case. After Denam’s screaming fades away, you push your way through the crowds as best you can. They’re not dispersing quickly, although they are spacing out a bit, which enables you to get to the door that leads to the servant’s quarters and kitchen.

As you enter the door, not only Celia but several others workers suddenly swarm you.

“Emma!” says a woman you don’t even recognize. “Did you see what happened? Has the Inquisitor judged him yet? We heard a fuss in the courtyard!”

You blink in surprise as the dishes are quickly unloaded from your arms. “Um… Yeah, I got caught in the Great Hall while it all happened…”

“I knew it!” exclaims Celia, then clears her throat awkwardly as you stare at her. “Well, I just figured, you know, since you work up in the rotunda, you’d be able to see…”

“What happened?” demands someone else.

“The Inquisitor handed the Knight-Captain over to the Templars. It seems to be expected that they’ll execute him for treason against the Order,” you explain. There are gasps around the kitchen. You note with some amusement that even Gaston is listening in, although he’s pretending to sharpen a knife and ignore his surroundings.

“That’ll make the Templars happy…”
“I wonder if there’ll be a public execution?”
“What is it with you and executions?”

It’s actually quite a while before you manage to escape the kitchens. The girls want to know every last detail of the trial, since they couldn’t see it themselves. You find yourself a little swept up in it, but as long as the Commander never knows you had a pot placed on your head while you acted out his role in the trial, you should be fine.

“Aaargh! Noooo!” you exclaim dramatically as you pretend to be dragged out of the kitchen by two cooks playing the role of the guards. “You can’t do thiiiiiis!”

“Was he really so dramatic?” wonders one of the serving girls who's enjoying your impromptu re-enactment.

“Justice has been served!” you shout out, throwing your voice across the room and speaking in a poor facsimile of the Inquisitor’s voice, deep baritone and very manly. “Nooooooooo-“ you cry out, switching back to the voice you’re using for Denam as you’re dragged out the door and around the corner.

The applause surprises you a bit, but you dart back into the doorway to take a quick bow before Gaston yells out, “Oh, alright, get out of here, malin lapin!” and waves his knife vaguely at you. You give a little Orlesian curtsy to him before darting off. The laughter of the kitchen staff follows you, echoing through the hallway.

“You’re the oddest messenger I’ve ever seen.”

You’ve never run into anyone other than servants on your way to and from the kitchen, so the voice, with it’s clear Tevinter accent, makes you jump. You stare into the somewhat shadowed archway where the voice came from… it’s the Tevinter mage you delivered a missive to, once, complete with his Templar escort. …Servis, his name had been. Crassius Servis.

“Can I help you, ser?” you ask after you’ve composed yourself.

“Oh, no; I’m just attracted to the sounds of merriment,” he says dryly. “I take it the next fellow didn’t fare so well as I under the Inquisitor’s judgment.”

“You’re… Oh.” You clear your throat delicately. “That explains the Templar, then.” The Templar merely glares.

The Tevinter mage snorts. “Did you think all mages of the Inquisition were leashed like this?”

“This is the South, ser,” you say wryly. “All the mages have leashes.”

“Not anymore,” he says, his eyes glinting. “Not since the rebellion. Even here, in the stronghold of the Southern Templars, I see mages running around without a Templar guard following them. Why, even one of my countrymen, free as a lark.”

“Did you want a second showing of my performance, ser, or can I get back to my work?” you ask as politely as you can manage. You may prefer mages to Templars, but Vints will never be your favorite people, despite the best efforts of both Dorian and Krem. Even if you do enjoy their sarcastic nature sometimes.

“I can think of a great number of performances I’d like to see you do,” the man says with the sly grin of a snake. “But far be it from me to keep a woman from her duties! …Whatever those may be.”

You give the man a bow in the Tevinter style, one a servant might give to an Altus. The look of surprise on Servis’ face when you rise from it is worth it. You grin your own serpentine smile at him before you head back towards the rotunda.

-

“That took you quite a while,” Solas comments as you (finally) make it back to the rotunda.

“Maker, tell me about it,” you grumble. “I got caught in the Great Hall for the proceedings, then the girls in the kitchen wanted to know what happened, then I got quizzed by a Vint mage. Mondays…”

“Can you not even make across Skyhold without trouble?” asks Solas, sounding amused. “I shudder to think what happened while I was gone.”

“If you can imagine it, it probably happened,” you say, sinking down into your desk chair. “Well, at least now I can finally-“

“Hey! Psssst! Elfy! Hey!”

Fuck.

You glance over to the door, where Sera is utterly failing at being subtle.

“Elfy! Over here!”

“Sera, you know you can come in,” Solas says mildly.

She glares over at him before opening the door the rest of the way. “I’m just here for Emma,” she says stubbornly, crossing her arms. “She’s got trainin’.”

“So I hear,” Solas says, leveling you with a long, pointed look.

You sigh. This is so not the elf sandwich you’d like to be involved in with these two. “You’re a bit earlier than usual, Sera.”

“Thought I might have trouble pryin’ you two apart. Might be obsessin’ over some old book or sommit.”

You don’t know what hurts more, the derision or the accuracy. “My job is obsessing over old books, Sera,” you say with a sigh as you stand.

“Don’t you have work to do?” interjects Solas.

“Hey! This is work!” Sera protests. You raise your eyebrows; Solas must do something similar because Sera makes a face at the both of you. “Too much elf in this room! C’mon, Em.”

You give Solas an apologetic look as you follow Sera out of the door onto the walkway above the courtyard.

“Ugh,” she says as the two of you walk towards the outer walls. “I dunno why you work with him, Em. Such an ass.”

“I don’t work with him, I work near him,” you correct. “And I doubt you’re actually curious about my reasons.”

“Ugh, definitely not,” she says with a gagging noise. “Watchin’ that old perv flirt with you just-“

Maker, Sera, what is your problem?” you snap.

“It’s that Solas!” she snaps right back. “He’s too elfy! He-“

“I don’t know if you missed this, Sera,” you exclaim, pointing at one of your pointed ears, “But I’m an elf!” You shout this perhaps a little more loudly than intended… a passing guard looks over, startled.

“So am I! But we’re not weird about it like he is! S’not all we are!” she protests right back.

“Solas and I share an interest in Elven history,” you say through gritted teeth. “As well as many other forms of history, as my job is translating ancient texts. I like that you see past my ears, Sera. Really. It’s one of many things that I love about you. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world doesn’t see them! I-“

“Wait, love?”

You flush, a combination of embarrassment and anger. “I… don’t get semantic on me! I just… I mean… You know, the rest of the world treats us differently because we’re elves. You have to know this! You were on those posters!”

“What the hell was on those posters that has anythin’ to do with this?”

“You know, ‘An Inquisition for All?’”

“It is! For the little people, you know! Not just the big, stupid ones.”

You pause, eyes widening in mild horror as you realize the implications. She doesn’t know. “…Sera… The Inquisition only hung those up in alienages and stores that elves frequented, from what I saw.”

“They… wot?” She looks confused, then shocked, then angry. “They wot?! Those little shits! They told me that was to get the little people more comfortable with the Inquisition! I thought they were full of it, but then you showed up, and… Maker, and you’re an elf! I’m going to kill them. Oooooh, that Eugene prat is history; I’m going to cram an arrow right up his-“

You cut off her rant, catching her shoulder as she turns to leave, probably to shove an arrow someplace unpleasant. “Sera, I’m sorry. I, um… thought you knew.”

“Well, I didn’t! I never would’ve agreed if I knew they were turning into some weird, stupid elf thing!” she snaps.

“Yeah, that’s shit… Although you probably shouldn’t actually shoot anyone…?”

“Ugh!” She throws her arms up into the air in frustration. “Stupid bloody pissbag nobles think they just…” You follow after her as she storms across the ramparts. She doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in particular, but you do want to make sure she doesn’t try to shoot the Inquisitor. Especially not because of something you said. You just let her rant as she paces, try to keep up, and offer occasional platitudes.

Eventually, near the tavern, she slows. “I didn’t bring ya out here to argue, y’know,” she says with a sigh.

“I know… And I am sorry. I really didn’t know that you… didn’t know,” you say lamely.

“Eh, I’m sorry too. I’ll deal with his Inquisitorialness later,” she says with a scowl. “I actually thought of somethin’ fun to show you, and I’m not letting a bunch of assholes ruin it.”

“What did you think of?” you ask, relieved to have something to distract her with. It’s not like you to lose your temper… Okay, yes, it is. But you’d rather not lose it at Sera.

“Well, you’re good at throwin’ knives, yeah? So I was thinkin’ about neat stuff I’ve seen people do with knives, and that made me think of this!” She reaches into a nearby barrel—that’s why she was going towards the tavern, presumably--and pulls out a potato.

“…Knives made you think of potatoes?”

“Not potatoes! Jugglin’!” she says cheerfully.

“Oh… That makes much more sense.”

“Oh, shut it, you.”

-

Despite its rocky start, your afternoon with Sera passes pleasantly. You actually really don’t know how to juggle, although it seems like the kind of thing you would have picked up somewhere. Sera is right; your natural dexterity lends itself well to this sort of thing, although by the end you’ve probably dropped more potatoes than you caught. Sera even tries to show you two-person juggling, where you use six potatoes and toss them back and forth. She gets hit in the face with a potato for her trouble. You only stop when the sun begins to get low in the sky, and you remember you still have duties. You don’t want to see how sour Solas will be if you’re late with his dinner because you were fooling around with Sera.

You don’t tell Sera that’s where you’re going, however. Whatever her issue with Solas is, you don’t want to exacerbate it. “Hey, sorry, but I have to go play house-elf to that person you hate” would probably exacerbate. Instead, you make your normal work-related excuses, and head towards the kitchen. You’re expecting any number of things when you arrive, but Cole determinedly carrying an entire sack of turnips out the back door is not one of them. You hold the door open for him and watch as literally no one appears to take notice of the young man carrying the giant turnip bag. You watch as he crosses the courtyard, then slowly shake your head. He has a good reason… probably.

You pull together a dinner for you and Solas, and find that the kitchen has returned to being happy to see you after a few days of sourness over how you procured food for the orphans. If you’d known it was as simple as making a fool of yourself for their amusement, you might have tried it earlier. Either way, you’re certainly not complaining when one of the chefs points out a tray of chocolates for one of the Orlesian dignitaries.

They won’t miss half a dozen, surely. You put them on a plate and tuck it under a cover for good measure. No point in advertising your theft.

“I was beginning to worry I would be missing dinner,” Solas comments as you enter the rotunda.

“Sorry if I’m a bit late,” you apologize. “But I’ve got something to make up for it.” You place the covered plate down on the desk, but hold it closed when he reaches for it. “Uh-uh. After dinner. Haven’t you ever heard to eat your vegetables?”

“Desert then, I take it? More cakes, pilfered from the decadent Orlesians?” Solas says wryly.

“Clean your plate first,” you say with a wink, placing the rest of his food in front of him. You unload your food as well, and sit down on your little stool at the corner of his desk. Interestingly, it always seems to be there when you arrive with Solas’ food, but you never notice it while you’re working. Is he honestly moving it so you have a place to sit? The thought makes your heart beat a little harder.

“So,” Solas says after a moment of just eating. You note that he appears to be skipping over the turnips in his salad… One more thing to remember for future meals. “What sorts of things is Sera ‘training’ you in?”

“Whatever she happens to think of,” you say with a laugh. “She tried teaching me to shoot a bow, but I’m useless at it. Climbing walls, picking locks, acrobatics… Typical roguish talents, I suppose.”

“Climbing walls?”

He would latch on to that one.

“Mmhmm. Amazingly, I didn’t actually get injured that time.”

That time?” His eyebrows shoot up.

“Aha… Yes, well, you know. Accidents happen.”

He looks remarkably unconvinced, but you’re definitely not going into any of the details. “Today, she was showing me how to juggle.” You pause, waiting for him to take a drink, then add “I’m terrible at it, of course, but I got to hit her in the face with a potato.”

Solas chokes on his drink at that. You feel quite satisfied. You smile as he coughs to clear his throat, patting himself on the chest. “It’s a shame you two can’t stand each other, really.”

“I promise you,” Solas says as he wipes off his mouth delicately with a napkin. “The distaste is purely one-way. I have no particular issue with our… friend.”

The way he pauses before he says “friend” catches your ear, but it has so many possible meanings that you don’t dwell on it. He may suspect you and Sera of being more than friends--not an entirely baseless assumption--or it could be any other number of things, ranging from harmless to telling.

“In the end, it still means the only one I have to ride harts with is Belassan,” you say with a laugh.

Solas quirks an eyebrow upward. “Is that an invitation?”

“Do you want it to be?” Two can play the “answer everything with a question” game, damn it.

Solas doesn’t answer, merely looks at you, and the silence stretches out as the two of you maintain eye contact for far longer than you’re comfortable with. You’re the one who chickens out first, glancing down to your plate and deciding to stare at it for a while, instead. So much for beating him at his own game… or even successfully playing it for longer than two minutes. Thank the Maker you never ran into anyone like Solas in Orlais.

It’s ridiculous, honestly, and you find yourself filling with self-loathing as you glare pointlessly at your turnips. You’ve been able to stare down men and women far more attractive than Solas. This is just… objectively stupid. You’re a fully grown woman, goddamnit, not a bitch in heat! You have self-control!

You take a deep breath and look back up from your plate. Solas is resting his chin against the back of one hand, leaning against the desk, fork dangling from his hand. More importantly, however, he’s still looking at you. You feel a bolt of heat straight through your body. Self-control, damnit!

“Did you honestly get that tome from a dealer in Redcliffe?” you say, opting for changing the subject entirely. Solas gazes at you for a moment longer before going back to eating like nothing had happened.

“That is what I said, is it not?”

“It is. I suppose he was hoping to sell it to the mages there… That book has to be black market. There’s no way the Chantry wouldn’t ban it.” You pause to chew for a moment. “Of course, I’m in possession of a children’s book that’s been banned by the Chantry. Hard to take them very seriously when they ban children’s books, honestly.”

“I thought you were Andrastian?”

“I am. That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything the Chantry says. The Divines are human. Amara III is a person who existed and was likely completely insane, as much as the Chantry likes to forget about such things… as was Theodosia II, well known for her divinely ironic statements on the importance of chastity among the servants of the Maker. I suspect that if you took a poll, the majority of the Chantry would say that an elf can’t be Andrastian. Renata I declared via divine writ that elves had strayed further from the Maker than mankind, and therefore have no place in the Chantry, or, indeed, in the faith at all. Paradoxically, if I were to restrict myself and live by everything that the Chantry said, I would have to cease to be Andrastian… therefore I would find myself no longer needing to listen to the Chantry, and would be free to be Andrastian.”

Solas is smiling again, ever so slightly, and you’re really not sure why. “So if not loyalty or faith in the Chantry, what fuels your belief?”

You tsk gently at Solas, wagging your finger. “I believe now is when I distract you from the topic at hand before my tongue pulls me into trouble.”

“Oh? And how do you intend to distract me?”

Another rush of heat from your core to the tips of your ears. Purely accidental, you’re sure, but Maker did that sound suggestive. You simply reach over and pull the cover off the small plate of chocolates. Solas’ eyebrows rise with the lid.

“How did you pilfer these, da'ahlras?”

“By being my charming self, of course. I’d love to know where the Inquisition got the cocoa. Can’t afford enough blankets to go around to refugees, but they can import delicacies from Par Vollen for spoiled Orlesians,” you say bitterly.

Solas takes one of the elaborate chocolates from the plate and bites into it… You would be once again amused by his tendency to take small bites out of tiny things were you not so enamored by the face he makes. His eyes slide shut as he savors the taste, seemingly letting it melt in his mouth before popping in the rest of the chocolate. You stare at the melted chocolate on his fingers for entirely longer than is appropriate. Fortunately, he’s still savoring, so you have time to wrestle your filthy mind back into control… Just in time for him to lick the bit of melted chocolate off his fingers.

Maker’s breath.

You had originally been planning on eating half of the chocolates yourself. Now you’re considering just sitting back and watching him eat them all. The sight has you drooling more than the smell of the cocoa.

“Delicious,” he says after having sufficiently savored the flavor of a single small chunk of chocolate. You hang onto every syllable before attempting to shake some sense back into yourself. You probably would look like a buffoon if Solas was bothering to pay you any mind at all.

“Well,” you say, a little weakly. “Consider yourself distracted.”

-

You wind up eating only one of the six chocolates, and that only because Solas noticed that you hadn’t eaten any and invited you to have the last one. It was nearly as sweet as Solas simply saying the word “delicious,” and it had nothing on the sight of him licking chocolate off of his fingers. That will fuel your imagination for years to come, no doubt.

Fortunately, you remember your tavern date with Varric before you can make any more of a tit out of yourself, and rush the dishes back to the kitchen before heading to the Herald’s Rest. Varric has secured the two of you a little table off in a corner, and as it’s still early, the tavern isn’t very crowded. He slides you a mug of ale as you sit down across from him.

“Maker, this has been a long Monday, Varric,” you say after taking a long drink from the mug.

“You certainly look… flustered. Been thinking about Fenris?” he teases gently.

You roll your eyes, but his words making you think about Fenris licking chocolate, and you find you really need to submerge yourself in cold water and possibly say a few prayers.

“Past the description in your book, I have no idea what he even looks like,” you point out. Not that it’d stopped you from fantasizing in the past, of course. “Now… what was it he said he wanted to know, again?”

“I thought you might have trouble remembering,” Varric says with a grin. “So I had one of the mages copy this for you.” He slides a small piece of parchment across the table towards you. Your face begins flushing red the second you lay eyes on it… It’s a magical copy of the part of Fenris’ letter that Varric had read to you… the part about you.

Your fingers curl gently around the paper as you read Fenris calling you “charming” in his own handwriting. Maker’s breath… “My life is good,” you mutter aloud, face now quite pink. Then you clear your throat. “Alright. How I escaped. Hmm… I suppose it’s only fair. I know the story of his escape, as does most of Thedas.”

You glance around the bar. No one of particular note is in here, and no one you recognize as one of Leliana’s. You still wind up lowering your voice and leaning in to talk quietly with Varric, however. “This is just for Fenris, Varric… I don’t want to hear this around Skyhold. And under no circumstances are you allowed to share any of this with Iron Bull, do you understand?”

Now he just looks more interested, but he holds up a hand. “Dwarf’s honor.”

“That’s an oxymoron,” you say dryly. “Especially for you Merchant’s Guild types.”

“I’m hurt, Stutter!”

“You will be, if Iron Bull gets wind of this,” you say with a scowl. “Now, listen closely, because I’m only going to tell this story once.”

-

Emma was only twelve when she escaped slavery in Seheron. Does that seem young? She says she only knows that because when she hit the mainland, she learned that it was her thirteenth birthday. But more on that later.

She worked in a Tevinter stronghold, built partially into the side of a mountain. She was kept away from the action, but apparently her few encounters with Qunari and Fog Warriors in skirmishes while traveling across the island were enough to put fear into her. She was convinced she'd be run through by Qunari immediately if she tried to escape the stronghold.

Perhaps it's ironic, then, that it's the same Qunari she feared so much that gave her a chance to escape. To hear her tell it, it was all luck, but to me, it sounds like quite a bit of quick thinking and no small amount of bravery... especially for a twelve year old girl. I think you'll agree.

There was a raid on the stronghold. Somehow, the Qunari had learned of its existence and of its relative lack of armed soldiers. They hit it, and hard. It was chaos from the word go. The screaming woke her, but her door wouldn't open. She slammed into it until it eventually opened, and by then, the screaming had passed. It was a dead body that had been blocking the door... and the hall was full of them. She was covered in blood in short order. She says she thinks that's what saved her. She started running. Whenever she heard Qunari coming, she would play dead, even hide among the dead bodies... some of which she recognized. Covered in blood the way she was, they assumed her one more casualty.

She managed to make it outside, although she had no idea what to do... Everyone she knew on the island was back in that stronghold, probably dead. And to make things worse... a fog was rolling in. Somehow, the Fog Warriors had learned of the location at the same time, probably through the same leak, and Emma realized it was about to be a threeway massacre.

She's convinced some of the Fog Warriors must have seen her out there. But, well… she was a twelve year old girl covered in blood. They left her alone. She made it to the docks, somehow, and convinced some rather unsavory Antivan pirates to take her aboard. She neglected to give me the details of how; she was pretty deep in the drink by that point. I suspect the whole “twelve year old girl covered in blood” thing played into it again.

I hope that sates your curiosity some, friend. It took her a lot of ale to get through the whole story. But trust me, she’s looking forward to meeting you. Speaking of which…

-

You’re already drunk by the time the Chargers enter the bar, around when you were purposefully leaving out the “and then I set them on fire HA” part of your life story. That effectively ends the interview with Varric. You even manage to escape the bar after sharing another drink or two with the Chargers... You suspect Iron Bull can tell that you’re not exactly in the mood for a party.

You stumble out the door to the tavern and into the cold air, determined to make it to bed and pass out, whether you can properly sleep or not. Unfortunately, well… “lone elf woman drunkenly staggers across courtyard” is the sort of thing that a certain kind of man takes note of.

“Hey there, knife-ear,” a slimy voice leaks into your ear.

Maker, this day never ends.

You turn around slowly, eyeing the man up and down, as well as taking as much stock of your surroundings as you can in your inebriated condition.

“Where you heading? Seems like you could use a bit of company,” he says, complete with accompanying leer.

You sigh. He’s taken care to do this when you’re almost to your quarters. You’re too close to the wall for a passing guard to notice you, unless he happens to be directly above when you scream. It’s late. There aren’t a lot of people around. And you’re drunk. This man might have terrible taste in victims in this particular case, but it’s clear he has at least a passing notion of what he’s doing.

That’s when you recognize him. One of your first nights here in Skyhold… One of two drunken men who’d propositioned you, the one who ran off when the Templar showed up. No Templar around right now, though. You eye him up and down… are you too drunk to incapacitate without killing? Do you even care? Your hand slips around to your back, where your knife is hidden. If you miss and hit an artery, well… No real loss.

“Friend of yours, Emma?”

Your hand freezes a few inches from the hilt of your dagger. The man freezes as well, his sleazy grin melting into surprise. Iron Bull walks a bit closer, then leans casually against the fortress wall.

“Not at all, Bull,” you say, eyeing the man coldly. “I believe he was just leaving.”

The man takes the escape you give him quickly, not running, but walking as quickly as he can in the opposite direction. You watch him leave, then sigh.

“I’d scold you for following me if you hadn’t just saved my ass,” you grumble.

“Eh, you probably could have taken him,” Bull says with a grin.

“Sober, maybe… which I’m decidedly not. Although I feel a lot more sober than I did five minutes ago.” You run a hand across your head, absent-mindedly checking your hair. “Maybe I should hire the Chargers. Apparently I need an escort just to get into bed intact.”

“Most of the guys around here are all talk,” Bull says, giving you a comforting pat on the shoulder. “Tell ‘em to fuck off. And if that doesn’t work, break his nose.”

You grin. “If I punch him as hard as I’m used to punching you, I’d probably break something important, huh?”

“That’s the spirit! Now let’s get you to bed before anyone else notices the pretty, drunk elf girl,” he says, gripping you by both shoulders and steering you towards the door.

Chapter Text

Passing out from alcohol doesn’t actually help you get real sleep. It just lets you be unconscious for a while. It’s just as well, you suppose… if it did let you sleep, you’d probably be a proper alcoholic by now, instead of someone who consistently makes bad decisions around large quantities of hops. Fortunately, though you were drinking to numb the pain of old memories--the escape from Seheron is rather high on the list of things you might consider asking Cole to make you forget--you didn’t actually overdo it too much. You feel a little dried out and dizzy upon waking, but not significantly hung over.

It’s just as well, since you have to go get knocked over by a Qunari now. Maker, your daily rituals are absurd. When you get there, however, you’re pleased to note that the Chargers must have taken it light on the alcohol as well, since Iron Bull is standing next to a much smaller figure… Krem.

You’re pleased to see him, although admittedly that’s mostly because if he’s here, that means you probably won’t be sparring with Iron Bull. Thank the Maker… You’ve come a long way from the days where you would simply practice punching him. Admittedly, this is better; you’re actually learning new things now, but… Your sore body is hating you for it lately.

“Hey, Krem!” you say with a grin as you jump the fence into the ring. “Iron Bull finally get so tired of brutalizing me that he had to call in help?”

“Wow, so many innuendos to make… I can’t pick,” Bull muses to himself, tapping his chin as if deep in thought. You and Krem roll your eyes, nearly in unison.

“The boss wanted to see your progress on someone closer to your own size, so…” he gestures vaguely to himself. “Here I am.”

He’s dressed similarly to you, trousers and a casual shirt, although his pants actually fit. You note that he has leather greaves and bracers, however, likely because he’s expecting to have to take blows repeatedly. He’ll try to redirect you onto his forearms, then, to avoid the kind of painful bruises you’re covered in. You size him up while the three of you stretch. Bull has been sticking to grapples and trips, but with Krem here, he might take this opportunity to teach you how to block or avoid actual blows. Krem doesn’t run the risk of rupturing your insides with a misplaced punch, after all. And if Bull does decide that? That means you have to take a bunch of punches to demonstrate that you don’t already know how to do this. Ugh.

Krem isn’t even half a foot taller than you. You’re average for an elf, making Krem a good bit shorter than the average human man. You know from your grappling session (and a few drunken sit-upons) that he’s solid, however. You resolve not to underestimate his strength, and to expect him to be faster than Bull due to his smaller size.

Bull doesn’t give you any instructions, just tells you to go for it, so you assume he briefed Krem ahead of time. Well… No point in dragging this out. After a few seconds of shifting your weight from one foot to another, watching Krem to see if he plans on taking a swing at you, you dart forward. He blocks your basic one-two punch with ease, and you bounce backwards onto the heels of your feet as he makes a grab for your collar. He almost gets you; damn this loose clothing. The outstretched arm gives you an idea, however.

You dart in for another punch, not giving him anything new yet. When he goes for another grapple, you swerve to the side, reaching up and twisting your right arm around his as he lunges forward with it. You see the beginnings of surprise on his face as you hook your arm around his, but you allow his own momentum to carry him a bit further past you. Then you place your arm on his shoulder and jump, carrying his grappled arm up with you as you hook one leg under his right armpit and throw the other up over his left shoulder. You’re effectively riding him the way you had Bull, although it’s a bit less dramatic since he’s close to your own size. You’re using his arm--now twisted back and up uncomfortably--for leverage, since Krem is inconveniently lacking in the “giant handlebar horns” department. Despite that, however, the general concept is the same, as well as the effectiveness.

Unfortunately, Krem is stronger than you. You have him off guard and in a compromised position, but he reaches up blindly with his left arm and grabs a handful of your shirt, yanking you forward. You cling as tight as you can; your shirt tears slightly, but more importantly, the sudden jerk forward sends him off balance as well. The two of you topple forwards; he goes to roll on his left shoulder and you follow the momentum, ducking your head to avoid smashing it against the ground. Both of you roll over, eventually coming to a stop on your backs, your legs still around his chest.

The two of you just sort of lay there for a moment/.. Krem, likely because you’re clinging to him like a desperate flea. You, because you just slammed your bruised back into the ground with 150 pounds of solid muscle on top of you, and you… you just need a minute. You’re not crying; your eyes are just watering from the shock, that’s all. Ow.

After a few seconds you have the common sense to stop clinging, and Krem, mercifully, rolls off of you. You stay on the ground for a little longer.

“Geez, she really took that squirrel thing and ran with it, huh?” Krem says, wincing as he rubs his shoulder.

“Seems so. I don’t think she’s quite mastered the art of hurting her opponent more than herself, though,” Bull says, walking over and nudging you in the side with a booted foot. You make a vague, whining noise.

“Oh, shit,” Krem says, kneeling down next to you. “I landed on top of you! Are you alright?”

“Totally fine,” you wheeze. “Absolutely. Just enjoying the dirt.”

“Don’t look guilty Krem, for fuck’s sake,” Bull says, sounding exasperated. “She just spun you like a top!”

Krem offers you his arm and you latch onto it, letting him help pull you up. Your torn shirt is gaping open somewhat, and you catch both men looking down it. Krem at least has the courtesy to look away quickly, staring upwards as if suddenly fascinated by the pre-dawn sky. You tug at the shirt and sigh. “Barely fit me anyway… I have to get some better clothes.”

“You can always put in a request with the--” Krem begins.

“The requisition agents, yeah, I know. I’m going to have to drop a stack of requests on their desk at this point. I’d prefer to just buy my own, since I doubt they’ll get anything that even begins to fit me properly. But I can’t exactly run into town from here.”

“Yeah, that’s kind of the downside to the whole ‘isolated fortress in the mountains’ thing. But hey, less Venatori knocking down our front door, right?” Bull says with a chuckle. “You wanna get another shirt or something?”

“Nah,” you say with a shrug. “No point. It’s not like any of the others fit me any better.” In truth, if the way Krem’s eyes flitting about are any measure, this will give you a bit of an advantage. You doubt he’ll underestimate you twice after getting climbed on like that.

And indeed he does not. Even with the advantage of him trying not to stare down your shirt, Krem is just plain stronger than you. You might be a little faster, maybe, if you felt comfortable moving as fast as you know you can… But there’s no way you can do that and get away with it, so you have to content yourself with moving more slowly and getting your ass kicked.

Fortunately, the Iron Bull doesn’t decide to introduce being punched into your daily routine, thank the Maker. You manage to get the drop on Krem a few more times, once by saying something rather off-color about “grappling” in Tevene to startle him, quiet and close enough to his ear that Bull can’t hear it. The morning practice ends when Krem manages to not only lock both your arms behind your back, but hooks both arms with one of his, leaving his other free to get you in a headlock.

You’re never good with the sensation of someone pinning you from behind, and the second that arm goes up against your neck… Strong arms grip you, wooden bar of a spear tight against your neck. Blood and fog flash before your eyes, and you give one violent thrash, but Bull quickly intervenes before you have the chance to completely flip or start screaming. He gives some kind of hand gesture to Krem, something you don’t even begin to recognize, and Krem immediately releases you. You collapse into the dirt, hand desperately clasping your neck despite the fact Krem didn’t put any pressure against it. The tears in your eyes are most certainly not from exertion this time, but both Iron Bull and Krem give you a moment to compose yourself. You can hear the Vint panting behind you, nearly as out of breath as you are.

You don’t give yourself time to fully recover, not wanting to lose face in front of Krem or have an awkward explanation on your hands. You make a show of wiping off your face to hide removing the tears; you get up while your limbs are still shaking. Fortunately, Bull declares it time for breakfast. It’s just as well… you and Krem are looking a bit worse for the wear. Both of you are sweaty, covered in dirt, and just generally disgusting. That doesn’t stop all three of you from heading straight to the breakfast hall, however.

The walk over gives you a little bit of time to clear your head, but when the Iron Bull rests a friendly hand on your shoulder at the end of one of his jokes, you flinch. To his credit, Bull doesn’t make a fuss or jerk away, just removes his hand normally and walks a little bit further away to give you your space. If he weren’t a Qunari, you could kiss him for his skill at handling you when you’re panicked. Of course, that would be a terrible idea for any number of reasons.

Krem seems concerned, but he’s doing a decent job of hiding it. The normal teasing back and forth between him and Iron Bull soothes you. By the time you’ve all gotten your breakfast and grabbed a seat, you’re feeling a bit less shell-shocked. You sit directly next to Krem--across from Bull--and the solidity of Krem’s hip against yours helps keep you in the present. Technically, he should freak you out more than Bull, being Tevinter, but humans just don’t have the same dramatical physical differences as Qunari. You can’t tell a Vint from a Fereldan until they open their mouths. Plus, if Krem was a soldier there’s a very good chance he was only a few rings above you on the Tevinter social ladder.

“I’m surprised how good she’s gotten in a few weeks,” Krem is saying to Iron Bull. “I bet she’s black and blue under those clothes, though.”

“Oh? You wanting to see under her clothes, Krem?” Iron Bull asks with a smirk.

“I… what? No! I mean… That’s not what I said!” Krem protests, and his uncomfortable squirming makes you laugh, nearly the first sound you’ve made since your near-miss in the ring.

“Right, like you weren’t both looking down my shirt. Bull still is,” you say with a grin. “I’m not blind. What you were looking at, I’ll never know,” you add, patting yourself on your rather flat chest.

Krem’s ears start turning bright pink, and you laugh again, joined by Iron Bull’s jovial chortle.

“I just… I just meant that Iron Bull’s pretty rough-”

“Yes. Yes I am,” Bull supplements, and you collapse into laughter again.

It feels good to be able to joke about this sort of thing. The Chargers understand there’s no relationship between you and Bull (at least, you’re pretty sure they do), which really takes the pressure off. The teasing makes everything seem a lot less serious, less dire. You can forget that there might be serious side effects to the rumors of your promiscuity, at least for a little while.

“I’m pretty banged up,” you admit to Krem. “I think I scared the ladies in the bathhouse yesterday.”

“If it gets too painful, you can stop by the healer’s tent-” Krem begins, but stops, confused, when you and Bull start laughing again.

“Oh, Maker, can you imagine?” you say through your giggles. “I can just tell them I fell down the stairs again, they’ll definitely believe that three times, right?”

Three times?” Krem says, sounding dumbfounded.

“I actually did fall down the stairs, that’s the worst part,” you say, managing to catch your breath. “Well, I fell, and there were stairs involved, anyway.”

“Is this about the time you dislocated your hip? Bull said you fell down the stairs, but we all thought he was just being an ass.”

“I really did! No one believes me,” you say, still giggling slightly. “Anyway, not only do the healer’s have more important things to do than repeatedly fix me up, I’m terrified of what they think of me at this point.”

“You know, you should come to training with the Chargers,” Krem says. At the look on your face, he rushes onwards. “No, really! You could train with more people your size there, and it’s not uncommon for us to have to drop by the healer’s tent afterwards now and then… especially if Skinner gets too excited.”

“Thank you, Krem, but I’m no mercenary,” you say with a laugh. “Despite Bull’s best attempts at recruitment, of course.”

You have a million excuses, but in reality, it’s quite tempting. It would provide you face time with more of the Chargers, and practice with more people means more ways to make excuses for things you know. Plus, you might actually learn something. In the end, however, you can’t justify it. You really shouldn’t show that much interest in violence, and you do actually still have a job to do here.

And so, after breakfast, you bathe and change your clothes quickly, then head immediately to the rotunda. You’re determined to get some actual work done, perhaps find out how to fill out those requisitions you need. Perhaps Solas can help you? If not, surely Dorian or someone in the library will know--

You never get the chance, unfortunately. When you enter the rotunda, you’re shocked to see that Solas isn’t alone. Oh, he’s there, yes, working at his desk and politely ignoring the other person in the room, whom, you note, is standing by your desk. A messenger from Leliana? But Maker, why is he just loitering in Solas’ rotunda?!

Horrified, you walk over quickly. “What are you doing?” you hiss to the messenger. “You can’t just--”

“Leliana requests your assistance with a matter of extreme importance,” the messenger interrupts. “I was told to wait here until you arrived.” You let out a groan of frustration.

“She could have just left a note… I’ve always given her work the utmost…” You turn to Solas. “I apologize for the intrusion, Solas. I’ll get this taken care of.” You glare back at the messenger. “Well? Let’s go. Clearly, this is very important.”

You’re quite irritated as the messenger leads you up the stairs. You’ve always done Leliana’s work promptly, even when she used you as a glorified sending pigeon. Whether Solas was bothered by the intrusion or not, you were. You’ve tried very hard to make yourself as convenient and unobtrusive as possible, especially since he returned and learned of your little stint with breaking, entering, and stealing. Now he has messengers lingering in his workspace because of you.

Therefore, you’re not at your most compliant when you crest the stairs to Leliana’s little bird nest. The spymaster’s nest is even more busy with activity than usual, but to your surprise, she shoos everyone she was talking to away when she sees you, and stands from her desk. The messenger even leaves as soon as Leliana walks up.

“Good, I was afraid I’d have to send someone after you,” she says, and her tone is serious enough that you decide your irritation can wait. “I won’t lie to you; this is very important. I need this translated as quickly as possible, and then immediately delivered--orally, do not write any additional copies--to myself and a few others.” She hands you a small, folded up piece of paper. “It’s not the same code as before. I’m hoping you’re familiar with it and can save us valuable time.”

Your eyes must be wide as saucers by now. “I… This seems rather important for someone of my… station, serah,” you manage to say.

“It is,” Leliana confirms. “However, it may be time sensitive, and you are the one who can get it done. Emma,” she says firmly, locking her eyes onto yours. You’d rather be staring down a bear. “Translate it privately. Tell no one its contents. Not even Solas.”

You swallow, hard. “Yes, serah. W… would Iron Bull not be a better person for this task?” you ask, wincing deliberately as you say it, but keeping your voice quiet enough that no one else can hear. After all, you and Bull only have one thing in common: Qunlat. “He speaks the language; he’s more likely to be familiar with the--”

“I know the two of you have become… close,” Leliana says pointedly. “But the Iron Bull is first and foremost a Qunari. He gives me his reports before he sends them off to the Ben-Hassrath, yes, but I’m under no delusion that he gives me all of them. For this, I need you.”

Back in Orlais, you would have positively jumped at a chance like this. Trust, practically handed to you on a silver platter. It’s important or it’s a test. Either way, if you complete it quickly and quietly, you win. But there’s a reason you retired to the Orlesian countryside. This sets your hackles to rising. There’s trouble here, trouble you’d rather avoid. But duty summons, it would seem.

“I will begin work at once, serah. Who will I be delivering it to?”

“Myself first. If it is as significant as I expect, then you will deliver an oral report to Commander Cullen, Lady Josephine Montiliyet, and the Inquisitor.”

Ah. There’s the trouble.

“Yes, serah,” you say with a bow, quickly tucking the paper into your breastband and heading down the stairs. You can feel her eyes on your back as you go.

You pause at the base of the stairs to Solas’ rotunda, lining up your lies in your mind. How much are you allowed to tell him? She merely said not to tell anyone what you were working on. Solas had been gone for long enough that he likely would not know you’d been working for Leliana regularly. You take a deep breath, then imagine some less-than-pleasant scenarios with Iron Bull until your limbs have a convincing tremble. One last imaginary flash of Bull holding you down, hand around your neck, sets terror into your eyes enough for you to convince anyone.

Shaking limbs carry you to your desk, your breathing coming in the quick, sharp inhalations of someone mid-panic. You’ve no doubt Solas notices.

“What did Leliana want?” he asks mildly, as you knew he would.

You’re silent for a time. “The Inquisitor’s spymaster is very good at digging up information,” you say finally. “She... Forgive me, Solas, I… I would like to simply work.”

“Of course,” Solas says, the picture of politeness. He’s likely curious--when isn’t he--but he won’t pry. Not now, anyway. You’ve seen him press you quite rudely when he knows you’re withholding something he wants to know, but it seems he’s grown fond enough of you lately to not actively intimidate you when you’re already frightened. You’d been counting on it, since it seems very little stops Solas when he’s curious enough. He'll pry later, when you've calmed down, and you can have a nice heart-to-heart if you'd like, or simply lie out your ass.

More interestingly, whatever source Leliana has for getting these Ben-Hassrath reports, it has nothing to do with the Iron Bull. And, as you suspected, she does not trust him. Not fully. Of course, she doubtlessly doesn’t trust you, either; you’re just her only option.

You slip the message quietly out of your breast band as you shuffle papers on your desk, unfolding it quickly. This is Ben-Hassrath, to be sure. A similar code to last time, but different. To your glee, however, you recognize it after only a few minutes of examination. While you’ve not seen this precise cipher, you’ve seen ones like it, used for compressing information. It’s informal, used between Ben-Hassrath agents in the field, not a formal report back to superiors.

You can translate this.

You write with the careful brushstrokes of a scribe, just in case Solas is observant enough to be suspicious of frantic scribbling when you had previously been doing nothing but lettering. You dislike deceiving him, but should you need to come clean, you can lay the blame squarely on Leliana’s feet while still being able to justify your apparent fear. He doesn’t need to know how skilled a liar you are.

You work as quickly as you are able, but it still takes you most of the morning to work out the details of the cipher, translate it into plain Qunlat, and then translate the Qunlat into Common. The whole thing is made slightly more tricky because you’re attempting to write as little as possible due to Leliana’s emphasis on secrecy.

The end result is… interesting. The Qunari are, for reasons not made clear in this missive, investigating five individuals connected to a Nevarran Duke. This one has information on a supposed dragon hunter. It seems rather inconsequential to you, but you weren’t told to judge the information, only to translate and deliver it.

You tuck the parchment you’d been working on into a stack of pages from your translation, then grab the lot. To Leliana, then. With any luck, this will turn out to be a dud, and you won’t need to face the Inquisitor. Solas doesn’t challenge you as you exit the rotunda, your entire translation tucked into your arms. You take the long way up to the library and then head up the steps to Leliana’s lair.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t appear to be there. You pause, uncertain of what exactly to do. You were told to report to her first… Should you simply wait here? You’re significantly uncomfortable with that.

“Emma?” you turn to see an unfamiliar woman.

“...Yes?”

“The Nightingale asks for you to bring your report to the war room,” the woman says.

“The… the what?” you say, a bit stupidly.

She gives you directions, so rapidly that all you can do is commit them to memory. “You can deliver the report there.” Then the woman simply… turns and walks away.

Trouble. You knew this was going to be trouble. You head down the stairs, once more avoiding Solas’ rotunda, and head in the direction you were told. Whatever the “war room” is, you’re quite certain you won’t like it. But hopefully, she’ll be there and you can deliver the report quickly and be done with it. The report is obviously a fragment of a much larger whole. You doubt it will be significant enough to deliver directly to the Inquisitor, of all people.

“The war room” is through a rather impressive office, down a hallway (a hallway containing several guards, all of whom ignore you) that’s missing part of a wall and then, presumably, through the intimidating doors in front of you. You hesitate in front of them, then nervously rap your knuckles against the wood.

You stand there, feeling a fool, for a few moments, before a smaller door within the giant oak ones swings open. You recognize the woman who opens it only because you never forget a face; she was the one with Commander Cullen when the refugees arrived. The one with the jealousy-inducing portable-desk device.

“Leliana?” the woman calls out behind her.

Leliana’s head pokes into view. “Ah, yes. Emma, come in.”

You do so with extreme reluctance now that you know Leliana isn’t alone. Sure enough, you appear to be interrupting something important. The room itself is as large as the doors would imply, and the centerpiece appears to be a large, thick table dominated by a large, detailed map. It is, in fact, a war room. Around the table stand Commander Cullen, Leliana, and the Inquisitor. Maker damn you straight to the Void. She intends for you to simply give the report to them all at once. Here, where they doubtlessly make all the important decisions that resonate throughout Thedas.

You stare desperately at Leliana as the woman who opened the door for you walks back towards the table, but the spymistress merely says, "What do you have for me?"

You clear your throat to soothe your nerves, shuffle to the page you'd written on to ensure you don't forget anything due to nervousness, and then begin. "Ah… yes… It read: 'Information on the hunter, brothers. Although dragons were rare until quite recently, she has slain four. Those who have seen her fight say that seldom does one see anyone so tall as she move so quickly.' I’m uncertain of the context. However, the language used to refer to the woman makes me believe they're speaking of a Tal-Vashoth. They imply she's female, but they refer to her the way one might refer to an object or an animal. Qunari usually have more respect for a dragon slayer." You clear your throat nervously. There are too many important eyes on you right now. "The next part is written in a different hand. 'When I asked why the apostate had not joined the circle, I was told she declared the Chant was for humans and meant nothing to her.' I doubt this one is a Vashoth, as they're more concerned with bucking against the Qun than the Chant. I suspect an elf."

You take a deep breath and risk another glance around. All four look as if they’re deep in thought. Whatever that report was about, it clearly has some impact, despite its relative pointlessness to you.

“I think she’s right about the apostate,” the Commander says, breaking the silence. “No one would ask a Qunari why they weren’t in the Circle. I believe we can safely assume the Tal-Vashoth is the dragon hunter.”

“Does that do us much good?” asks the Inquisitor, rather grumpily. “We still don’t know who the spy is. Leliana, why is this information coming from the linguist?”

“It needed to be translated,” Leliana says smoothly.

The Inquisitor eyes you, and you try not to look petrified while also trying not to look disdainful, as you’re a bit of both. You give him a bow for good measure.

“She certainly does a great many tasks,” the Inquisitor says. Sounds like you’re not the only one feeling a bit disdainful. Commander Cullen looks somewhat confused, perhaps because he knows well that you’ve been translating stolen Qunari messages for a while now. He likely wonders, as you do, why Leliana isn’t being a bit more forthcoming about your duties. Well, Orlesians will never cease to be tricky, and you’re just as happy with the Inquisitor thinking you’re less important than you are.

“Could I have your papers, Emma?” Leliana requests. You immediately hand the one you’d written on over to her. She eyes it for a moment, likely taking in the fact you’d clearly done most of the translation in your head, then tucks it away. “Thank you for your assistance, Emma. Please, return to your regular work,” Leliana says, and you bow again and immediately scurry out of the war room. You’re in such a hurry to get out of there and back to the Great Hall that you nearly slam straight into the person standing only a few feet from the door. You skid to a stop and look up from your papers to apologize.

Ah fuck.

It’s Solas.

Chapter Text

Solas is giving you quite the look. You feel somewhat like a dog that’s been caught peeing on the carpet, despite the fact you’ve done nothing wrong. You also can’t help but feel a surge of panic. It would be easy enough to tell Solas the truth were it your call, but will Leliana be cross if you do? Tell no one… Why, for the love of the Maker? The information seemed pointless. Did she suspect spies inside Skyhold? Did she not want news reaching the Iron Bull? Why couldn’t you even tell Solas?

You shuffle a bit to the side, hoping against hope that Solas has business in the war room. His eyes merely follow you. Despite the fact he’s hardly blocking the entire hallway, his crossed arms feel like a barrier you’ve no hope of crossing. You cast a nervous glance behind you at the closed door. Even if you were going to tell him the truth; you sure as hell weren’t doing it here.

“I, um… I’m late with your lunch, aren’t I? Let me… Let me get that for you. And then we can… talk?” you say hopefully.

“Certainly. I do hope you’re not taking on too many tasks, da’len,” Solas says. His voice is mild, but the way he says da’len carries several pounds of meaning.

Ir abelas, emma shem’garas,” you say, slipping into Elven without thinking due to his use of da’len and your own nervousness. You slip past him and practically run back to the Great Hall, slipping quickly by nobles to dart into the rotunda. You drop your papers on a heap in your desk and then scurry back across the hall and down towards the kitchens.

Maker bless Celia, she has his lunch ready. You don’t bother pausing to make your own; you simply grab it and charge back up the stairs. You have to walk more carefully to avoid the risk of spilling, but you still move with the kind of speed and grace Iron Bull could only wish you’d demonstrate during your spars. Even so, Solas is seated at his desk by the time you return, as if he’d never left. Fortunately, as fast as you ran to the kitchen and back, it gave you enough time to come up with a plan.

Breathing through your nose to avoid panting--although your chest is heaving--you place his food down in front of him.

“None for you?” Solas asks.

”I’m not hungry,” you reply, in Elven and to the best of your ability. You’re aware your pronunciation needs work, but hopefully he’ll at least be able to understand you. ”Only you and I speak Elven?”

It’s surprise that forms on Solas’ face, pretty as a picture. ”You are correct,” he replies, also in Elven. Even such short words hold a grace that make you feel like you’re butchering the language. Perhaps you are.

You struggle for the words to communicate your meaning. ”Lady of the shadows gave me a task. She did not give me an option to refuse,” you say, plainly struggling, although Solas doesn’t look confused. Hopefully he understands. ”I was ordered to be silent.”

”This required your presence in the--?” he says something you don’t understand. You assume he means the war room.

”Yes. She wanted me to speak it… No writing.” You resist the urge to pantomime to help bring your meaning across. He seems to be able to understand your awkward phrasing, and you don’t want to help anyone who might be listening in.

Solas seems to be considering this, then gets a look on his face that you’ve seen on Sera’s all too frequently… mischief is on his mind. The way he smirks makes your legs go a little weaker. Mischievous is a good look on him… you’d pull pranks with him any day. ”You remember the words,” he says. Uh-oh. At your silence, he continues. ”You never forget. You remember it all.” Ahahaha… fuck.

”N… not… all?” you stammer.

He speaks rapidly in Elven then, quickly losing you among long syllables and words that flow like a smooth river. You stare, more than a little panicked.

”S… slowly?” you request, desperately.

Solas leans his chin onto his knuckles, considering you again. That spark of mischief hasn’t left his eyes. You get the dreaded feeling it will be the death of you… But my, it’s an attractive death. ”Go get yourself food. When you return, we will resume speaking the human tongue. Then, we will go somewhere private, where we may speak plainly.”

You nod, then turn quickly to leave. You doubt you could keep anything down; your stomach is full of butterflies. But an order is an order.

”I appreciate your clever tongue,” Solas comments as you leave. It sends a shiver down your spine. Maker, that sounds equal parts delightful and filthy in Elven. You wish you were better at understanding, so that you could parse his meaning a little more precisely. You simply have too little practical experience with speaking Elven.

You get a few strange looks for showing up in the kitchen again so soon, but no one questions you as you quickly grab a bowl of broth and a loaf of bread. You take your time returning to the rotunda, if only to calm your nerves. You feel like you’re walking a very narrow, very high cliff. Leliana is not someone you want to displease, but then, neither is Solas. You don’t really appreciate her putting you in this kind of position. It’s not your fault if she doesn’t trust her allies, damnit.

True to his word, Solas resumes speaking the Common tongue when you enter the rotunda. If anyone was listening to you speak Elven, they might be suspicious... At the very least, they’ll have no idea what the hell you’d said. As for you and your “clever tongue” accompanying Solas somewhere “private,” well… You believe the word is “ambivalence.”

Solas quizzes you about your progress on the Tevinter tome while you struggle to get your food down--and keep it down. You suspect that Solas would be less than amused if you got sick in his rotunda… or anywhere near him, for that matter. Unfortunately, anxiety and fear have a tendency to make you ill, and right now you have both in spades. You applaud him for his calm; you would never guess that he was planning something clever while casually chatting about your progress on your work versus your newly discovered social life. You attempt to emulate his casual demeanor, but every now and then you see a glint in his eye that sends a chill straight down your spine… followed, of course, by a rush of heat. Because nothing in your life is allowed to be simple.

Solas, in that slow way of his, turns the conversation towards magic. It’s not a conversation you’re comfortable with having on your best of days. You’re not sure what he’s playing at, but you suspect that it spells bad news for you. You just play along as best you can while trying not to regurgitate your soup back into the bowl.

“You mentioned once prior that most of the magic you’d seen had been destructive,” Solas comments as you focus on eating your bread without becoming ill.

“Yes,” you agree. “Although technically, as I recall, you were asking specifically about magic seen during my travels. I saw slightly more benign magic while living in Orlais, on a few occasions. Although there was still a bit too much fire for my personal tastes.”

“Oh? What did you see?” Solas asks, his faked curiosity indistinguishable from the real thing… or perhaps he is genuinely curious, considering your general reticence on the subject of magic.

“As I’ve mentioned, I did work for Circles in Orlais several times. In one particular case, the tome involved was so volatile that I was required to stay in the Circle for the time it took me to write a translation. It was there that I obtained nearly all of my ‘experience’ with magic, if you could call it that.”

“You stayed in a Circle? I had no idea the Templars allowed non-mages to do such a thing.”

“I believe the Circle in Montsimmard, where I stayed, is rather… liberal… with regards to the containment of mages. I sincerely doubt I could have done something similar in Kirkwall… nor would I have particularly wanted to. As it was, I was more restricted than most of the mages there. They had a Templar watching me all day and all night… It was… unpleasant.”

“Perhaps that’s why you tend towards the sympathetic when dealing with mages,” Solas suggests. “You’ve felt their plight first hand.”

You snort. “Please. I was guarded by a scary man for two months in one of the most luxurious Circle in Thedas. That’s hardly experiencing the mage plight. If I made a mistake, or they caught me sneaking around, I would have merely been fired. I ran no risk of possession, death, or Tranquility. The Templar could not do as he wished with me, safe in the knowledge that his word would be taken over mine. I didn’t have to fear a mysterious, deadly test as the apprentices in the Circle feared their Harrowing.” You eye the remains of your soup sourly. “I didn’t experience any plight in Montsimmard. Admittedly, however, being watched by an armed man while I slept did nothing to enamour me with the Templar Order.”

Solas is watching you silently, eyes slightly widened in surprise. You clear your throat, a little awkwardly. You had gotten off on a bit of a rant there, hadn’t you? “To answer your original question… I saw some of the more entertaining aspects of magic there, despite the fact that I wasn’t allowed to attend any of the formal lessons or practices. There was a man there… An Antivan, thrilled by my knowledge of the language. He had been in Circles his entire life. Despite the ability of mages in Montsimmard to apply for a secondary place of living, he never had because he knew no one outside of the Circle. He took a fondness to me and often snuck into my room while the Templar guarded outside. He showed me some of the more gentle, delicate sides to magic, although hardly anything practical.” You smile to yourself, a little, the memory soothing your nerves slightly. “He could make colored sparks and fire dance through the air. Silly, I know, but it was beautiful. Before that, magic had always been something destructive, to me.”

You glance up from your soup at Solas, only to see him smiling. The sight sends your heart thudding again, your momentary calm quickly lost. “If you enjoy demonstrations, perhaps there’s something I can show you. Come with me.”

An excuse to go “somewhere private.” You know that’s what he’s doing. You tell yourself that repeatedly as both of you stand and he leads you out of the rotunda. It’s no use; your libido has taken over and simply isn’t listening to your brain at the moment. Solas is leading you off somewhere, perhaps to show you magic. You’re not helped by your memories of some of the less clandestine activities you and the Antivan had gotten up to while the Templar stood guard outside. He hadn’t been sneaking into your bedroom just to show you magic tricks, after all.

Your heart nearly stops when you realize where Solas is taking you. By the time the two of you pass Enchanter Vivienne, who’s lounging out on the balcony, you fear your heart may actually burst out of your chest. Is he taking you to his bedroom? Surely enough, he leads you straight to the door… and then keeps walking, one door further. You blink in surprise as he unlocks the door that is--disappointingly enough--not to his bedroom, and gestures for you to go inside.

The room in question mimics the general shape of his bedroom, as well as Vivienne’s, but a giant hole in the roof explains why there’s no bed. Instead, it’s been largely cleared out. A cabinet rests against the far wall. Your eyes, however, latch onto a small box resting on a shelf. Whether it’s full or not, that is a box specially designed to safely carry lyrium.

You hear the door close behind you, and then a latch slide shut. Your mouth goes dry.

“I imagine the Circle mages have their own space, but since I am hardly welcome among them, I’ve repurposed this space for myself,” Solas says, his voice a little too close behind you. You swallow hard, then again harder when he grips you by your shoulders and pushes you gently into the middle of the room. You follow compliantly, mind too spinning with adrenaline to do anything else.

“Stand here,” he says, and you stand where he leaves you as if you’re a statue. “I need to place wards.”

You’re so off balance that you don’t even notice what he’s doing… until you suddenly realize that you can no longer hear the sounds that had been echoing down from the hole in the roof. There’s only silence. Solas finishes his spell, then turns to you, and you can’t keep the awe from your face.

“Is that… does that work both ways?” you ask, reaching up as if you could touch the ward. Your aura surges beneath the surface of your skin, pushes against the inside of your palm. It’s desperate to run up against the surface of the spell, to explore its mystery.

“You catch on quickly,” Solas says with a pleased little smile. “Yes. The spell blocks magic, but also sound. No one outside this room can hear us. Or see us, for that matter, if someone happened to be climbing along the roof.”

“Amazing,” you murmur, pacing over towards the door.

“Careful,” Solas warns, but you keep your hand out in front of you. It hits an invisible yet solid surface a few inches from the door. You run your hand along it, although you don’t risk prodding it with your magic. It’s too complicated for you to understand without proper study, but the power thrumming through the ward thrills you. “We may now speak plainly,” Solas informs you, and your mind snaps back to the real reason he brought you here. He no doubt wants an explanation. How much can you tell him?

“This is brilliant, Solas,” you say, before sighing and delving into a bit of uncomfortable honesty. “While you were gone, Leliana had me translate several documents. In this particular case, however, she was rather... insistent. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to speak to anyone of what I was doing. I would have preferred not to deceive you, but she gave me very little say in the matter. She even specified ‘not even Solas.’”

“Interesting…” Solas muses. “I can’t imagine she has much she wishes to hide from me. The document couldn’t have contained Elven.” He glances over at you, but you say nothing. It seems your face says enough, because he continues. “More likely she thought me the one you were most likely to tell.” Well, considering you told him in like, two hours… She certainly wasn’t wrong. “The Nightingale surely has others who can translate most languages,” Solas continues. “Not Elven. You speak only ancient Tevene, and I doubt she’s intercepting many messages in a dead language. No… Qunlat.”

You wince. “I believe that’s exactly why she didn’t wish me to say anything. It’s not difficult to come to certain conclusions.”

“And she has you give an oral report to minimize the evidence.” Solas laughs then, and the sound startles you, echoing loud inside the soundproofed room. “Little does she know, you have an excellent memory. Well, then... What do you intend to do?”

“Do?” you ask, genuinely surprised. “I don’t intend to do anything. I did what she asked of me. Except for the part where I immediately turned around and told you. But I’m hoping she never learns of that.”

“Going to try to keep secrets from an organization called the Inquisition?” Solas says, clearly amused.

What, like it’s hard? is what you want to say. You resist. Technically, you haven’t even kept your secrets for a month, and you’ve had several near misses. There’s still a lot of room for things to go badly. “Honestly isn’t always the best policy,” you say dryly. “In any case… the information was… To me, it seemed useless. It clearly had great meaning to the Inquisitor and his advisors, but I can’t even imagine what it would be.” You sigh. “I was not expecting this kind of nonsense when I came to work for the Inquisition. I retired to the countryside for a reason. I’ve no desire to get pulled back into this… courtly intrigue nonsense.”

“Back into?” Solas says with a smile. You scream internally, a little. This is what happens when you go into a situation nervous. You say something stupid. Fortunately, Solas doesn’t press. “I suspect you’ll have little say in the matter. Leliana is clearly grooming you for something.”

You make a face. “I don’t want to hear that. ...Um, Solas?”

“Mm?”

“...Thanks for not being cross with me. Again.”

“The deception was not your choice, and it was short lived,” Solas says with a fluid shrug. Maker, he has nice shoulders. Which reminds you, you’re locked into a soundproofed room with him. “In truth, I’m flattered that you trust me enough not to inform Leliana you broke your word.”

Technically,” you say with a wince. “She told me not to tell anyone what I was working on. I didn’t… you figured it out on your own.”

Solas smiles. “Semantics, Emma?” he says, a little patronizingly.

“Whatever keeps me out of the dungeons,” you reply with a nervous laugh. “In any case, again, the choice for whether or not to be honest was removed from me. I was between a rock and a hard place the second you caught me coming out from the war room.”

“There were many lies you could have told to explain that,” Solas points out.

“Would you have believed any of them?” you counter. “And how many lies would I need to make later, to cover for that one? No… I had the opportunity to be honest without too much risk, thanks to our shared languages, so I took it. Thank you for tolerating my apparently terrible Elven, by the way.”

“You have an amusing combination of a larger-than-average vocabulary and a complete lack of proper pronunciation.”

“...Yes. Well, I’m glad I can at least be amusing,” you say sourly. “Have I satisfied your curiosity on the matter?”

“Ah, yes,” Solas says, beginning to move towards the edge of the ward. “I imagine you’re eager to get back to work-”

“Solas, wait,” you say quickly. He turns to look at you, expression rather neutral considering all that had transpired. “While we’re here… Well… I understand if offering to demonstrate some magic for me was simply a cover, but… Um… If you wouldn’t mind…?”

Solas smiles, and your heart soars. Yes, yes! He reaches a hand in front of him, and without so much as a snap of his fingers, a bluish-green flame erupts in his palm. You jump back slightly before regaining some composure. You’re used to conjured fire being much more… explosive. You wish you had the kind of control he’s demonstrating.

“It’s not burning you,” you marvel. You reach your hand out towards it, slowly. It is generating heat; it’s not simply an illusion. “Why is it that color?”

“This is veilfire. It is a form of sympathetic magic mastered by the ancient elvhen. It is not true flame, but the memory of it.”

You wave your hand over it, mildly enthralled. It doesn’t give off as much heat as a fire of that size should. You still suspect you might burn if you stuck your hand into it, however. “Incredible. What did the elves use it for?”

“Many things. Most mages these days use it for little more than a showy form of lighting, but at the height of the Elvhen empire, it was used for writing complex runes, woven into spells… I have a book, if you are interested.”

“Of course you do,” you say in an awed tone, still playing your fingers close to the flame. “And yes, of course I am. I wish…” You sigh. You wish you could have him show you how to summon it. You wish you could have such control. You wish a great many things.

Solas lowers his hand, and the flame peters out. “I have distracted you enough. You lost your morning to Leliana’s request. You should attempt to complete at least some of your work.”

You don’t even try to hide your disappointment. “You’re a tease,” you say accusatorily.

Solas merely smiles. “Before I lower the wards, is there anything else you wish to tell me?”

That gives you pause. You look into Solas’ eyes for a few beats too long. Embarrassingly, you find yourself honestly and genuinely considering just… just giving it up. Breaking down right there on the spot, telling him… if not everything, just enough. You feel as if a long path opens up before you, a path to a different world. A world where you trust Solas enough, a world where you can trust anyone that much. A world where you confess your magic to him, where he keeps your secret as well as you do. Where he teaches you his own secret, how he remained safe from discovery all these years. A world a little larger than the one you lived in before. You remember your dream of Solas in the freezing cave with you. How different would your life have been with a companion?

You break eye contact, look away. The path winks out of existence, your world is back to the safe, familiar, small world of one. “I don’t believe so, Solas.”

He pauses for a moment longer, but you continue staring determinedly at one of the walls. “Very well, then,” he says, and the sounds of Skyhold come rushing back in.

-

Your eyes keep trailing back to the tome as you try to work.

Solas had handed it to you without a word when the two of you arrived back in the rotunda. You can't stop looking at it, even as you try to focus on lettering yet another page.

Veilfire: A Beginner's Primer with Numerous Teachings, Exercises, and Applications. You could probably actually learn to summon the stuff with this. If you got a moment alone, away from all the bloody mages and Templars, you could copy the book magically. As it was, you'd likely have to spend your sleepless nights copying it by hand. You won't be able to learn this sort of thing around Skyhold, obviously, but you'll be damned if you won't figure it out when you have the freedom to do so.

But all of that is off in the future. You really wish you could stop your eyes from dragging away from the page you're working on and back to the tantalizing tome. Perhaps you wouldn’t be so distracted could you do something other than endless lettering. But you need a magnifying stand for the remainder of the art pieces, and a few sources on dragons to help check your work before you can do the more interesting sections.

Still, you’re bored and having trouble focusing. That normally means it’s time to do something else for a little while. You’re capable of forcing yourself to simply work through, of course, but the quality of your work--as well as the speed--tends to diminish. With a sigh, you stand and head towards the stairs.

“Emma.” Solas’ voice freezes you to the ground as surely as if he’d used magic. “If you’re heading up to the library, might you bring something to Dorian for me?”

What? Is hahren too old to climb the stairs? You think it, but you most certainly don’t say it. You really, really want to, though. Instead, you walk over to his desk compliantly. “Certainly, Solas.”

He eyes you as if he can somehow sense your derision, but simply hands you a rather dramatically large and heavy tome. It has the symbol of the Imperial Chantry embossed on the front. You imagine Solas was likely borrowing this from Dorian. The damned thing is heavy, but you head up the stairs with it in any case. It’s been too long since you stopped by the library to visit with Dorian and Thea. Since Solas returned and you now take your meals with him, Thea only ever sees you at breakfast, and Dorian less than that.

You give Thea your friendliest nod--your hands are full of giant tome at the moment--as you come up the stairs, and then head over to Dorian. The Tevinter looks up from his book and eyes you. Come to think of it, did he pull that armchair into the library just so he could have some place comfortable to sit and read? He’s a Vint noble, alright.

“You really must learn not to play servant with everyone who asks, Emma,” he scolds teasingly.

“Yes ser. I’ll just let all the mages know that I, the tiny elf wench, am too important to cater to their whims,” you say dryly.

“You could at least try. The way you run around for mages, I’d think I was back in Tevinter.”

“Old habits die hard,” you say pointedly. Dorian cringes a little at that. It’s probably rude for you to bring up the whole “Tevinter mages enslaved me” thing so frequently with Dorian, but what’s the point of a life of tragedy if you can’t use it to make other people uncomfortable?

“Well… Thank you for returning this so promptly. I would thank Solas, but,” He raises his voice to shout over the balcony. “That would require him actually coming up himself instead of sending his adopted elf.” He places the tome onto a rather dramatically growing stack of books. The book he placed it on top of catches your eye, however, and you move the returned book in order to pick up the one underneath. There’s no title on the front or side, but there is a rather telling image of a skull of some sort. Curious, you open the book.

“Dorian…” you say with a sigh. “Please tell the scribe responsible for this nonsense that there’s no point in leaving a tome untitled if you put a skull on the front.” It’s a book on necromancy. Because of course it is.

“Subtlety has never been the strongest trait for my countrymen,” Dorian says dryly.

“Tevinter, then, not Nevaran?” you ask, flicking through the pages. You’ve only passing interest in necromancy, and that only because you have a passing interest in all forms of magic.

“The Mortalitasi are not the only practitioners of necromancy in Thedas, as it turns out,” Dorian points out. You’re barely listening; you’ve already gotten absorbed into a description of the practice of using fear spirits to terrify enemies. “You can borrow that, if you want.”

You glance up from the book. “Are you kidding me? Walk around with a tome with a giant skull on the front? There are rumors about me enough in Skyhold.” With a reluctant sigh, you close the book.

“Oh, just tell anyone who asks it’s a dragon skull or something,” Dorian says with a careless wave of his hand. “It isn’t as though you can make any practical use of anything in there.”

You run a finger along the front of the tome, considering. Perhaps if you cover it with something… It might have interesting information about spirits, and if you get the book to yourself, you can make some notes. “Oh, and if you’re going back downstairs,” Dorian adds, fishing around in the pile of books to his left. “Might as well give this back to Solas.” He holds a small, leather-bound tome out to you. You stare at him incredulously, but he doesn’t seem to notice. With a sigh, you take the book.

“Dorian, do you know of any tomes on dragons here in Skyhold? Even in a personal collection.” You did actually come up here for a purpose other than running errands for lazy mages.

“Hmm… You might consider asking Cassandra. She’s a Pentaghast, you know, and enjoys reading more than she lets on,” Dorian suggests.

“I should just walk up to a Pentaghast, introduce myself, and ask to borrow any books she has on dragons?” you say dryly.

“You asked if anyone had a tome on dragons, not for practical life advice.”

You sigh. Looks like you’re sticking with the requisition plan. You know the name Cassandra Pentaghast… that’s the Right Hand of the Divine, or was, anyway. She’s not known for her approachability. You had heard in Orlais that this whole Inquisition business was her doing, and yet you hadn’t actually seen her in Skyhold. And you certainly haven’t lacked in meeting the important people… you’ve even met the Inquisitor on several occasions. Perhaps she’s elsewhere? In any case, you certainly won’t be getting any dragon books from her.

You glance around for Thea, but she seems to have disappeared… Peculiar. Perhaps she’s avoiding you again? No, you had just seen her at breakfast. More likely she’s just busy. A little dejected, you head down the stairs and return to Solas’ rotunda. You set the leather-bound book from Dorian down on the corner of Solas’ desk. “I’ll never understand those upstairs bothering with messengers for these sorts of things,” you comment. “There’s a giant hole through the middle of this tower. Has no one ever simply dropped something down to you?”

Solas looks up at you with a strange expression on his face.

“What?” you say, a little defensively. “Dorian dropped fruit to me last week.”

“Somehow,” Solas says, sounding amused, “I doubt you’re joking.”

“He did! Maybe I’ll have Thea drop something down; you’ll see how convenient it is,” you insist as you meander back towards your desk. You’re not looking forward to more long hours of lettering. “Mm… Solas?” you say, running a hand along the paper you were working on.

“Yes?”

“Do you think you could do that… thing, again. To my wrist?”

“Ah… Certainly,” Solas says, pushing his chair back as he stands. You would have gone to him. He walks over, gestures for you to sit in your chair. Your mind had honestly been on your work, on how much faster the lettering would go with Solas near-miraculous enchantment on your wrist. But then Solas grasps your wrist, pulls it upwards for a better grasp, and your pure intentions fly out the window. He rolls up your sleeve slightly and you feel the warm, tingling sensation of his magic. Thank the Maker that you have as much control over your aura as you do. With it as depleted as it is thanks to your trip to the frozen lake, it jumps at the place where Solas’ magic permeates your skin like a starving wolf. You wrestle it back under control with little effort; if it were that easy for you to lose control, you would have been found out years ago.

Solas releases your arm, and you flex your hand, twisting your wrist this way and that, relishing in the sturdy feel of it. “Thank you, Solas… I had forgotten how much I missed this. Perhaps I can make up for lost time.” You shoot a disparaging look towards your papers. “Lettering. Then more lettering. And tomorrow? I suspect more lettering.” You sigh. “This is the bulk of my work, but always the dullest.”

“I have no doubt you will persevere,” Solas replies. He seems to be turning to leave, when his eyes fall onto the book on the corner of your desk, the one Dorian had lent you. His eyebrows raise, and he gets an amused look on his face. “You’re certainly taking an interest in the arcane.”

“Hmm? Oh, that. I don’t actually know that it’ll be of much interest to me, but I’ve never seen a Tevinter tome on necromancy… and I thought it might have a different take on spirits,” you admit. “Why do you look so amused?”

“Ah, forgive me. It’s just… You strike me as someone very concerned with appearance, yet I doubt you could have selected a more suspicious book if you had tried.”

“...Yeah, admittedly,” you agree begrudgingly. “I’m thinking I should get some sort of cover for it if I plan on taking it out of this room. Or perhaps I should leave it as is, to brandish at Sera the next time she frustrates me.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

You glare at him, but without any ardor. “We have… differing views on certain things. She’s delightful, really, but sometimes I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake.”

Solas chuckles. “Yes, I believe I’ve experienced that particular sensation around Sera myself. She can be… stubborn.”

“Right, whereas you’re just the perfect image of pliability,” you say with a snort. Solas gives you quite the look and you raise your hands in surrender. “Yes ser, I’ll shut up and get to work, ser.” You twist your chair back around to face your desk and set in to work on your papers. You hear Solas’ chair legs scrape against the ground as he sits down and pulls it back to his desk, but you resist the urge to look over your shoulder. Now is the time to focus.

As it had been before Solas left, you find his wrist enchantment almost ridiculously useful. Any tremor or shake you had before is gone, even the bruises on that arm seem to hurt less. The lettering is still monotonous, but the letters come more quickly and more smoothly than they had been. You settle into a steady pace and focus on the beauty inherent in each perfect letter.

That’s how you spend the remainder of your afternoon. Solas refrains from casting any magic directly behind you, so you manage to churn through over half a dozen pages before you’re interrupted by a delicate clearing of the throat from behind you. You glance over your shoulder, and Solas is still sitting at his desk, reading. You’re momentarily confused before you take a moment to actually consider how long you’ve been writing. It must be past time for dinner. Your tendency to forget meals yourself is doing you no favors here.

Wordlessly, you finish up the line you were working on, cap your ink, and then stand to head towards the kitchens. You’re almost impressed with yourself when you reach the kitchen without incident. These days it seems you can barely walk ten meters without something happening. You take your time in the kitchen, fishing a bit more blatantly with the chefs and serving girls for Solas’ likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, most of what you learn is that he isn’t particular except with his tea. You’ve seen him leave food on a plate because it wasn’t to his tastes, however. You know he has preferences. It seems you’ll just have to discover them through trial and error.

You snatch a loaf of sweet bread, freshly out of the oven, although that’s as much for you as it is for Solas. Thin strips of mutton, a thin broth because you know Solas prefers that to heavy stews… Bit by bit, you put together two meals. As you work, you notice that Celia seems to be tired, or perhaps worried. It could be nothing, but after the orphans, you’re feeling a little hypersensitive. You’re paying Celia and you obtain information from her… She’s one of yours now. If someone has been bothering her, it’s your business.

You resolve to simply keep an eye open and an ear to the ground. There are plenty of men in Skyhold who would hurt an elven serving girl, as you’ve already experienced. Most women, like you, know how to brush off the more mundane frustrations, but if something serious has happened… Well, you’ve no evidence of that. She might simply be feeling unwell.

You head back up to Solas with the meals. Between your training with Iron Bull and the constant running back and forth with Solas’ meals, your arms no longer tremble quite so badly under the weight of a heavy tray. You still feel some moderate scorn for yourself for ever becoming so weak in the first place. You’ve survived decades based purely on savvy and strength. You became too complacent during the time you spent in the Orlesian countryside.

You re-enter the rotunda to find that the stool has once again been pulled up near Solas’ desk. He really has been pulling it up to the desk for you to sit on… Between that and the little magic demonstration earlier, you’re starting to feel like you’re really making progress. At this rate, perhaps you’ll be learning Elven from him within the next few months. You’re fully capable of being patient if it gets you what you want in the end.

You place Solas’ meal down in front of him, watching his face carefully as he glances over the food. He would never be so convenient as to simply tell you if he didn’t like something. You had a master like that in Orlais. He was a notoriously picky eater, but rather than simply tell new chefs and servants his likes and dislikes, he simply refused to eat anything that wasn’t to his tastes. Solas, at the very least, wasn’t that picky.

“Are you making better progress on your tome?” Solas inquires after you’ve set down your own food and settled down to eat.

“Yes, thanks to you,” you say with a smile, flexing your still-painless wrist cheerfully. “It would be something if I could do this myself. I could probably charge double.”

“If you were a mage, you would still be a scribe?”

“Well… I suppose I have no way of knowing what life would be like as a mage,” you lie handily. “I suppose I would have been locked up in a tower somewhere… or, if I had been in Tevinter at the time, I suppose I may have been freed--a Liberati--in which case, yes, I’d almost certainly be a scribe,” you say with a frown. “My old master would have just loved that. I would never have gotten away, if...” You shudder, then glance down at your food, appetite suddenly gone. You’ve gone down that line of thought far too many times before. “On second thought, I take it back. I’ll just keep begging you for enchantments and demonstrations.”

“Oh? You wouldn’t learn magic, were it possible?”

“I…” You sigh. “That’s a very loaded question, Solas. I believe everyone wishes they could do magic. Except maybe Sera, I suppose. But who wants the burden that comes with it? The increased risk of possession, the lack of freedom, the small-but-significant chance that you’ll just accidentally light yourself on fire if you don’t learn how to handle yourself properly?”

Solas’ expression gives nothing away, which frustrates you. You’re probably displeasing him with this line of thought, but you’re hardly going to say you wish you were a mage. In truth, you’d never give up your magic, even if it did nearly kill you or others on occasion.

“In any case, it’s a moot point. I can no more become a mage than a mage could un-magic themselves. My wrist and I will just have to be dependant on your good graces,” you say with a winning smile. Hopefully you haven’t soured him too much. It can be a bit hard to tell, with Solas. The term “microexpression” was made for a man like him. It’s what makes it so blindingly delightful when he smiles or laughs fully.

Dinner passes without much more incident, Solas smoothly allowing the topic to change back to your work. You take the dishes back to the kitchen before getting back to work on your tome, but it seems Solas’ quota for leaving you in peace has been used up for the day. Not long after you settle back in to work, Solas begins to watch over your shoulder.

It’s his right, of course. You are in his rotunda, at a desk he was kind enough to provide, working thanks to a spell he placed on your wrist. You tell yourself that repeatedly, because someone watching over your shoulder is one of the sensations you absolutely hate the most. It drives you insane. You just want to take your quill and jab him in the fucking eye… But you refrain. Fortunately, after a few minutes of watching you meticulously shape letter after letter, he seems to bore of it and wander off. You breathe a small sigh of relief. Hopefully he doesn’t make a habit of that.

What he does do, however, is retrieve his paints and begin work on the rotunda wall again. You’re rather pleased; the small bit of the rotunda that is painted is absolutely gorgeous. Does he paint other things? You’d love to see them… One more thing to beg him for later, you suppose. With Solas no longer looming over you, you’re free to get back to work, and the two of you fritter the evening away with your respective tasks.

Solas, as always, leaves for the evening before you do. The spell on your wrist is still going strong, so you continue working… That is, until you remember that you had wanted to look into filling out requisition requests. You frown, looking at the candle you use to help you keep track of time. It’s late, but perhaps Dorian is still awake? The requisition requests almost feel like a waste of time, but you suppose that the sooner you get them in, the sooner you might actually get some of the things you need to do your job. With a sigh, you climb the stairs to the library.

It seems you’re shit out of luck, however. The library is all but deserted; Dorian’s fancy armchair is empty. You frown and pace the wide circle of the library. Perhaps there’s something here that can help you? You eye a stack of papers on a desk, but you’re not quite sure ruffling through them for information about requisitions is the wisest idea.

“Do you require assistance?”

The voice sends a horrified chill down your spine. You turn slowly, and your eyes confirm what your ears heard… You’re being addressed by a Tranquil. The brand on her forehead proves it.

You had seen a few, carrying messages across Skyhold or doing… whatever it is the Inquisition uses Tranquil for. And you had avoided them like the plague. You would rather be speaking to literally anyone, anything else. The Tranquil unnerve you the way you suspect they unnerve many mages: for what they signify. They barely even qualify as human anymore, just an empty husk to be… used. Like the viddath-bas. The only thing you fear more than death.

“I… no,” you reply quickly, taking a step back away from the blank eyes of the Tranquil woman. “I was only looking for in-information on filling out a re-requisition. I sh-should have r-realized no one would b-be here so late. I’ll… I’ll l-leave. Right away.”

“If it’s information on requisitions you seek, I can assist you,” she says, her monotone voice making you feel slightly ill. Who was she before the Templars savaged her? Just someone too scared to face down a demon for their Harrowing? A blood mage? Or just someone who was a little too forthcoming with radical thoughts? “I was in fact just completing some requests. I have extra forms you can use if you wish.”

You hesitate. Well… It can’t hurt to accept forms from the woman. It’s not as if she’s contagious, and although you know she couldn’t care less, you don’t want to be overly rude. “Um… S-sure. I m-mean, yes. Please. Th-thank you.”

She turns to the desk you’d just been eyeing--Maker, was it hers?--and pulls a small stack of papers out from the rest. She holds them out to you and you take a few nervous steps closer to take them from her. That brand on her forehead keeps you from pretending she’s just a very bored-looking individual. You glance down at the papers and… Wow, Maker, these are complicated. You frown at them. Well, you have all night to try and figure it out, and you can always ask Dorian in the morning if you can’t--

“Would you like me to assist you?”

Every word the Tranquil says is like dripping poison. You swallow, hard. “Oh, n-no, I wouldn’t w-w-want to int-interrupt,” you stammer uselessly. “I’m s-s-s-sure--”

“It is no bother. I will be bringing my own to the Quartermaster tonight. If you would like, I can drop off your own as well.”

You hesitate yet again. You know Threnn, while not the Quartermaster, works with requisitions. You’d like to avoid seeing her, or her knowing these belong to you. They’ll likely wind up in the trash if she learns they’re from you. “I… w-well. If y-you don’t mind,” you manage. Now if you can just keep your hands from shaking enough to write.

She pulls a chair out for you at the desk, and you sit down with a cringe. She pulls up a chair beside you--you scoot over a little. You suspect she’s not so far gone that she doesn’t notice your abject terror of her. But as a Tranquil, she’s not capable of caring. Somehow, that makes it even worse.

You manage to focus as she walks you through the admittedly complicated process of correctly filling out the requisition form. She even makes some suggestions when you mention what you need.

“Do you have m-much knowledge of dragons?” you ask curiously as you write. You hate to use a Tranquil as a resource, but…

“Not specifically, but I research many animals for the Inquisition,” she says in that horrifyingly dull voice of hers. “I do have some dragonling scales that the Inquisitor brought in, however. Would you like to see them?”

“I… Yes, actually,” you say. “If you d-don’t mind.”

She shuffles off to retrieve them… Maker, you hope you didn’t just accidentally send her across Skyhold. You focus back on the task of filling out the requisition requests until she returns with a small, gilded box in her hand. You accept it from her with thanks and open it. Sure enough, several glistening dragonling scales.

“I have requested the Inquisitor bring me scales from a fully grown high dragon. So far, he has been unable to comply.”

Amazingly, you find yourself laughing. “No, I imagine not! You know, I’m translating the tome he plans to give to a Draconologist. Perhaps afterwards, he’ll go off dragon hunting to bring you your supplies.”

“One can only hope. You have filled out this part incorrectly,” the woman says, pointing to a section of your paper.

“What? Oh, shit… How do I…?” She sits back down next to you and begins to assist you again. The two of you actually have a somewhat pleasant conversation, if awkward and a little stilted. Between her dull monotone and your nervous stuttering, were there anyone else in the library, they’d likely be throwing things at the two of you. Eventually, however, you finish requisitions for several books as well as one for better-fitting clothing. You sign your name to the paper reluctantly, worried that the work you and the Tranquil put into them might be all for naught if Threnn gets ahold of them and recognizes your name. Not that the two of you had a formal introduction while you were screaming at her for her loyalty to the monstrous Loghain.

“I will bring them along with mine,” the woman says as you finish and stand.

“You’ve been so m-much help. Thank you…” You pause. “Umm… I suppose we never properly introduced ourselves. My name is Emma.”

“I am Helisma Derington.”

“Well… Th-thank you, Helisma. I appreciate y-your help. I hope that they m-manage to find both of our books.”

“You are welcome. I appreciate your associating with me despite your fear.”

You cringe. “Heh… P-pretty o-obvious, I guess. Sorry.”

“It is fine,” she intones. “Many mages share your distaste.”

“Oh, I’m n-not a mage,” you assure her. “J-just a scribe.”

“Ah. I had assumed that your fear stemmed from magehood.”

“No, j-just… r-regular, old-fashioned, irrational f-fear,” you say with a forced smile. “Sorry, again. And, thank you. A-again. I’m just… I’ll g-get out of your way now.” You don’t sprint out of the library, but you do walk quickly. Your ears are flushed with embarrassment. You know Tranquil can’t actually feel hurt or offense, but you’re slightly ashamed of yourself despite that. You’re even ashamed that you feel the need to get completely out of the tower, away from Helisma and the things that the brand on her forehead represents.

You head for your room, slightly shaken and more than a little embarrassed. You just want to get to your room and blockade your door, as if that could keep the concept of Tranquility out. You never get there, however. Halfway across your frantic bolt across the courtyard, a familiar shape steps out of the shadows.

“No one knows. Your secret’s still safe.”

“Cole,” you breathe with a sigh of relief. “I… I know. I’m just…” You glance over your shoulder, as if you’re being chased. Ridiculous. This isn’t even a reasonable fear, like your skittishness around Qunari. Qunari can kill you. Templars can kill you. Mages can kill you. Tranquil? They’re utterly harmless, yet their presence unnerves you as much as that of Qunari. “Would you mind keeping me company for a little?”

“I don’t mind,” Cole replies, and you lead him back up onto the roof of the inn. The raucous sounds from inside help soothe you, remind you that the world isn’t the terrifying grey existence you fear the Tranquil live.

You talk… at Cole, more or less, because he doesn’t respond. “I can’t stand seeing them,” you say with a shudder. “They’re just so… empty. You look into their eyes and there’s nothing there. What do you hear when you listen to them?”

“...Nothing. You’re right; they’re empty inside.”

You choke back a bit of a sob and pull your knees flush against your chest, wrapping your arms around your legs until you feel less vulnerable. “They’re wretched. And I know it’s not their fault. Every one of them is a victim. But I look at them and I see… I can see…” Cole places a hand on your shoulder, hesitantly.

It’s as if a dam breaks. You lean up against him, body wracked with withheld sobs. “I c-can’t… I can’t,” you whisper. “This is why no one can know, Cole. I can’t risk… They’ll…”

“‘Why are we even bothering?’ The man snaps it, sharp, angry. He brandishes words like his sword, both deadly. You can hear them, but they act like you’re not even there.”

“Shut up, Cole,” you whimper, but there’s no acid in it. “Just shut up.”

Mercifully, Cole is quiet, and lets you rest against him until the crying stops. You don’t know how you’ll climb back into that library tomorrow, knowing she’ll be there. But you fight with a Qunari every day. Maybe it’s just a matter of the same thing… forcing yourself to face your fears until you become numb to them. But even the thought of one day being able to stare into that placid face with an expression just as neutral fills you with horror.

As you did the first time you met Cole, you feel your anxiety slowly melting away, soothing down into calmness as he brings you down out of panic through whatever ridiculous spirit power he possesses. How specific… Perhaps your book on spirits has something written about it?

You’re not sure when you go from laying against Cole to laying down on the roof of the inn, but the spirit is still beside you, and that’s enough to keep you calm. You focus on the brim of his ludicrous hat to keep from slipping back into panic. Then you let your eyes wander upwards. There’s a clear night sky above Skyhold, marred only by a few dark, passing clouds. The stars look so bright, so large… You would believe you could reach up and touch them.

You don’t know when you drifted to sleep. But there are Templars, now, surrounding you. One holds your arms pinned behind your back. You struggle against him, desperate, but you don’t have the strength to break free. Your body feels beaten, battered, heavy. Out of the ring of Templars surrounding you, one steps forward.

“Might as well do the Rite now.”

This never happened. This never happened. A nightmare, a nightmare, a nightmare. You tell yourself over and over. Time stretches thin as the woman steps slowly closer. No, no, no anything but this, it’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare.

You’re underwater, thick, viscous liquid pushing you downwards, threatening to drown you. You swim desperately upwards, lungs burning, until you break the surface. The world twists around you and you feel ground beneath your hands; you choke and cough up the thick liquid, wipe your burning eyes so that you can see--

You’re drenched in blood, and the room around you is filled with it, pools and puddles, inches deep on the floor. Mutilated body parts are scattered about, bodies destroyed so thoroughly you can’t even tell if they’re man or woman, human or elf. You wretch, but all that comes out of your throat is more blood. A nightmare, a nightmare.

Blood begins dripping from the walls, pouring from the ceilings. You try to cover yourself, but it’s no use; you can feel it filling the room. A nightmare.

With sheer will you wrench yourself awake, forcing your mind back into your body and out of the Fade. But when you open your eyes, you’re still drenched. Blood still falls from the sky.

Chapter Text

You shouldn’t have been able to sleep. You shouldn’t have been able to dream. Perhaps that’s what makes it so real when you awaken to find yourself still drenched, sticky, wet. Blood still clinging to every inch of your skin. Perhaps that’s why it takes you so long to understand what’s happening.

It’s dark. You flail for your bedstand, desperate to light a candle, but you’re not on your bed. Where are you? Fuck, where are you, what’s happening? Why are you wet? Confusion gives way as you see covered flames in the distance and realize where you are… Skyhold. You’re in Skyhold. You recognize the walls. Where in Skyhold? You’re… you’re on the roof of the tavern. A brief check reveals that all of your limbs are intact. Your aura is clenched down inside of you in a tight little ball, compressed as if you’d been pressing it inwards forcefully in your sleep. Likely you had. And you are wet because it is raining. Not blood. Just water.

You take a deep, soggy breath.

You fell asleep on the roof. It began to rain. The sensation of being wet, being rained on, perhaps even being mildly drowned, influenced your nightmares.

That’s all.

It was a nightmare.

Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of how you were able to dream in the first place. It’s not impossible for you in this state, just difficult. And your dreams are rarely even that coherent. You suspect Cole has something to do with it. But you can ask him later. Right now, you’re sitting on the roof of the tavern in a thunderstorm.

You slide down off the roof, hanging from bricks and window sills until your feet thud against the ground with effortless grace. It’s so easy when no one is watching you. If only things could always be that way.

Despite your realization that there is no blood, just water, your mind is still a spinning, chaotic mess. If you were on your own, you’d punch a tree until you felt better. The side of your house in Orlais had a dent because of your tried and true “punch the feelings away” technique. But this isn’t Orlais, and you don’t have a wall. But dawn is coming, and you have the next best thing.

The Iron Bull doesn’t comment on the wretched state you’re in when you climb into the practice ring. Wearing your work clothes, hair a drenched, tangled mess... You must be quite the sight. He’s already stretching when you arrive, and you join in wordlessly. You push yourself further into the stretches than you normally do, chasing after that painful burn to remind you that you exist. It’s the same theory as punching trees, really. Violence gives you adrenaline, helps you wake up. Pain brings you back into the present, gives you something to focus on.

Your long sleeved tunic wasn’t meant for this kind of thing. With the addition of a few gallons of water, it clings to your skin, pinching and making it hard to move. You can barely stretch in it, let alone actually spar. Plus, you don’t want to ruin any more of your clothing, especially not the ones you use for work. With a frustrated snort, you stop stretching and just peel the damned thing off of you. This leaves you just in your breastband and admittedly underwhelming undershirt. It’s one of the few things you had on you when you left home, and it has seen better days. It was sleeveless to begin with, and over the years the sleeve holes wore out until they basically left half of your side revealed. But it means you’re not training in nothing but your breastband, and without your tunic, you can actually move.

Your apparel would probably have poor Krem bursting at the seams, but the Iron Bull is a bit more… well, professional really isn’t the word. Restrained, maybe. You hang your tunic on the fence. You can’t keep it from being soaked, but you can at least keep it out of the mud. You turn back to Iron Bull, who’s stopped stretching as well. The two of you still haven’t said anything… Perhaps he can tell your mood simply from your tense body language. He is Ben-Hassrath, after all.

It’s been a week since that bothered you, but the reminder shoots a flair of hot, indignant fury through you. You don’t have a Templar to beat; you never will. But a Ben-Hassrath makes a good substitute.

You hurl yourself at him without warning, but he is, of course, prepared. He blocks your strikes as if this were mere training… and maybe it is. It might as well be; he refrains from striking back. He lets you burn yourself out on him, and you have to admit, it’s much, much more satisfying than punching a tree ever had been. After you’ve managed to land one or two decent blows, he begins fighting back, moving to trip and grapple as you’ve become accustomed to. It doesn’t bother you. Perhaps it should, given the state you’re in, but if anything, it makes you enjoy yourself even more.

As you jump over a swept leg, he simply shoves you in midair, a hand pushing against your chest to send you hurtling backwards. You hit the mud with a satisfying thud. The pain that shoots through you reminds you of where you are. It proves your existence. In dreams, hurt doesn’t feel like it does when you’re awake. Your body will never ache like this in the Fade.

The bulk of Iron Bull looms over you as you gasp for breathe in the mud. “How you feeling?” he rumbles, the first words spoken by either of you.

You stare up at him. “Like climbing back onto those ridiculous horns,” you say after a moment’s pause.

He grins and offers you a hand, which you use to help you stand. It’s raining hard enough that the mud immediately begins rinsing off of you. “I’d like to see you try.”

You spend the rest of the morning alternating between trying to land a punch and trying to grapple Bull well enough to scramble back up onto his shoulders. You get as far as a hand on one of his horns, but trying to grapple him from the front was a bad idea. He grabs you around the waist with both hands, and you’re quite alarmed to find that his hands can go all the way around your waist. His grip is tight enough that it hurts, although in your bruised-up state, that might not be saying much. He doesn’t even have to yank or twist or whatever he’d been planning; in your alarm you immediately release his horn. Even more alarmingly, he doesn’t drop you as the entirety of your weight drops into his hands. He holds you like you weigh little more than a feather, then sets you down onto your feet delicately.

Merde!” you swear out loud, clutching the front of your shirt as if you could grasp your own pounding heart. “I know I’m not that large, but seriously, Bull!”

“Pfff, little thing like you? I could lift you with one hand, easy,” he says with a snort.

“Don’t try,” you say warningly. “I finally calmed down.”

“What was eating you, anyway?” Bull asks. “Haven’t seen you looking that bad in a while.”

“Bad dreams,” is all you have to say on the matter. You tilt your head to look upwards, and the force of the rain immediately pushes your hair back out of your face. “Maker, it’s really coming down. Do you mind if we go ahead and call it a morning? I’d like to get some breakfast before I drown, and I have to clean up and change before I start working.”

Bull has no objections, so the two of you head off together towards the mess. You almost forget your tunic entirely; fortunately, you see Bull grab it off of the fence. He can drop it off to be cleaned as easily as you can, honestly. You have no intention of putting it back on for breakfast, even if you are closer to “indecent” than you’d like to be. No one but servants will be in the mess this early, anyway. At this point, the rumors about you won’t be severely worsened by a single meal in a skimpy shirt.

Unfortunately, you get no further than sitting down with your meals before a woman--clearly a maid--bursts into the mess, glances around, and then immediately makes a beeline for you. Oh, Maker, what now? She had better not be one of Leliana’s messengers. You and that damned spymaster are going to need to have words at this rate. She is, as it turns out, a messenger… but not one of Leliana’s.

“Miss Emma? Are you Miss Emma?” the woman says anxiously, wringing her hands together.

“I am, yes. Can I help you?” you say cautiously.

“I almost didn’t recognize you, miss! I’ve got a message, from Celia. From the kitchens? She’s taken ill; she can’t leave bed.” Now that alarms you. Was it illness you had noticed yesterday? Or was something more sinister happening? Why would she call for you? “She said you’d want to know.” Your mind flashes to a dozen different reasons before settling on the obvious. “She paid me a whole ten bits to tell y-”

You stand bolt upright, color draining from your cheeks. Solas’ breakfast. What time is it now? Still early enough to get to the kitchens and have a meal prepared, surely. If you hurry. Without thinking, you reach into your pocket and pull out a few coppers for the woman. You press them into her hand absent-mindedly.

“Bull, I have to go,” you say quickly. “I’ll catch up with you later.”

You quickly dart back out into the rain and towards the kitchens. You shake off as best you can by the outer door to the kitchen before going in. Once inside, you stand as close to the ovens as possible to dry off while calling for Solas’ meal to be prepared. You let the kitchen workers prepare it for you rather than take the time to do it yourself. You’re in a rush, and you need to dry at least a bit before charging up to Solas’ room. You wring out your clothing and focus on drying your pants as much as possible. If you drip water through the Great Hall, you will hear about it from someone.

You manage to beg a hair band off one of the kitchen workers and pull your hair back as best you can. This is what you get for thinking you can ignore presentability for even a minute. If you showed up wet to deliver food to an Orlesian, any Orlesian, you probably would have been strung up. You grab the tray of food as soon as it’s finished being prepared, pray that you’re dry enough, and then dart out to begin the climb up to Solas’ room.

You get quite a few stares as you walk quickly through the servant’s quarters, the Great Hall, and up the stairs to Solas’ room. Fortunately, the little outdoors walkway to his room is covered, so you run no risk of being drenched again. You take a deep breath in front of his room before giving the polite, short rap on the door reserved for any sort of servant. Then you simply open the door and step in.

The Maker has blessed you, because Solas is just now getting out of bed. He’ll have a hot breakfast, and you’ll keep some respect. You can check on Celia later, to make sure she’s fine. For now, you’ve averted your first small crisis of the day.

From the look on Solas’ face, however, he was very much not expecting you. His eyes widen as he takes the sight of you in, his jaw even slacks slightly. You must have caught him off guard. He’s wearing naught but trousers, and that’s the most genuine look of shock you’ve ever seen on his face.

“Emma?” he even sounds shocked, although regardless of tone, your name formed by his lips send a slight chill through you.

“Yes, ser… Sorry, the other girl got sick unexpectedly. But I have your breakfast.”

“Um… yes.” You swear you’ve never seen him so off-guard, not even the first time you walked in on him with his breakfast. You shakes his head, as if to clear it. “Thank you. However, wouldn’t the kitchens simply send one of their own workers?”

You freeze next to his desk, hand on one of his plates. How to explain that little detail? Your eyes slide to his desk, and you decide to take the third option: ignore the question entirely. “Ah! You’ve been reading The Botanical Compendium!” you say cheerfully. You smile down at the page. “Arbor blessing. Notoriously difficult to cultivate. Do you know, I’d finally gotten some to grow on the side of my house when red Templars decided the whole place would look better on fire.”

“...Yes,” Solas says, standing and approaching the desk. Would it kill the man to put a shirt on?! The sight Celia must receive every day… Either you should be paying her more, or she should be paying you. You can’t quite decide. “I’m impressed with the tome’s thoroughness.”

“Arancia doesn’t fuck around,” you say with a chuckle. Solas moves the book to the side so that you have a place to set his food, so you begin unloading your tray. “I’m glad she has your approval, however. I was afraid all of my botanical knowledge would prove to be inaccurate.”

“What need did you have of arbor blessing?” Solas asks as he sits down to start his meal.

“Oh, it was mostly a point of pride… To prove I could make it grow,” you admit. “I’m not exactly an alchemist, although admittedly, I did dabble. The villagers didn’t mind a rabbit on the edge of town nearly so much once it turned out I could give them a little something to help their aching back or urge the cow to provide milk.”

“What other sorts of things did you grow?”

Solas just so happen to stumble upon one topic you’re more than happy to talk about. It should come as no surprise; your first debate had been about elfroot, of all things. Before you know it, you’re leaning up against his wall, nibbling a biscuit while the two of you go back and forth on the uses of crystal grace.

“I swear to the very Maker,” you say with a chuckle. “I saw her lob one! It smashed open and it made the stickiest mess you’ve ever seen. Then she started putting blood lotus in. Ugh, the smell! It was almost caustic, and the effect it had on metal... It never would wash out of clothes, either. They made us stop when the clothing we burned started producing this awful, thick smoke. I still think we were on to something. Could load it into… I dunno, catapults or something.”

Solas doesn’t seem as uncomfortable as he had been when you first entered, and admittedly, you’re less uncomfortable than you could be, given that he’s not wearing a shirt. You just spend a lot of time looking at the wall. In all honestly, you almost forget about it… Until he stands up, that is. When you’re at face level with his bare chest, it’s much harder to ignore his nudity. It isn’t until he stands that you even realize that he’s done eating. You flush slightly.

“Ah… I’ve overstayed my welcome. Let me at least get those plates out of your way…” You say it like an apology.

“When has overstaying your welcome ever deterred you?” Solas says with a chuckle. “Regardless, you have not. I enjoyed our conversation.” His eyes slide over you and you see a twinge of something on his face, almost like he’s wincing. Perhaps you’re muddy… You haven’t had much of a chance to look yourself over, honestly. You gather up his dishes quickly.

“You’re too kind,” you say with a quick smile. “I’ll see you in the rotunda. I should… wash up, first.” You remember not to bow as you leave, although you get part-way into one before stopping and just sort of awkwardly straightening yourself. You’re relieved to shut the door behind you, and carry the dishes back down to the kitchen. Perhaps now you can get a bath and actually…

Oh.

Oh, Maker.

Suddenly the awkward stares and shock on Solas’ face makes a bit more sense.

You never put your tunic back on. You’re just wearing this stupid, ratty undershirt. You nearly drop the dishes when you realize, but you manage to get them near a sink before shock overtakes you. You’d just stood in Solas’ bedroom, arrogant as you please, and damn near half-naked yourself! You run a hand over your face. You need to get a bath and a chance of clothes. Now.

-

You’ve never been so relieved to be clothed in your life. Well, that’s probably not entirely true, but you’re certainly overjoyed when you pull fresh clothes over your newly cleaned body. In the process of bathing, you discovered another thing that may have alarmed some of the people who saw you… You’re still rather bruised up. You don’t think they could see your sides or back well enough, but your arms still have splotches of dull browns and yellows from being grappled and yanked around. Fortunately, your arms don’t look as bad as they had the day before. You don’t look too terribly beaten, although if your back’s tenderness is any indication, your entire backside is probably a red and purple mess. Too many falls, and your hard mattress isn’t doing you any favors. You’re the kind of person who can wake up with a bruise from sleeping on a rock wrong, honestly.

You’re hesitant to meet with Solas again… should you apologize for your attire? Explain, perhaps? You decide to only do so if he brings it up. After all, you weren’t very professional looking, yes, but you aren’t actually a maid. It’s not your job to look good. You take a few deep breaths before pushing open the door to the rotunda.

Solas glances up at you as you enter, and you half-expect some sort of quip about it being nice to see you clothed--although you could say the same right back to him, considering he didn’t seem to believe in wearing shirts between midnight and eight. He says nothing, however, simply goes back to reading. You head for your desk and try to get straight to work. You decide against asking Solas for a wrist enchantment, out of sheer embarrassment. Your wrist can take one for the team today.

You hope those stupid requisitions go through. You’re used to being able to simply walk or ride into town to pick up supplies you need. But if your trip here was any representation, there are no cities reasonably close that you can go to. Relying on Leliana or this shaky requisition system to get what you need displeases you quite a bit. You’re running low on some of your colored inks, you still need that magnifying stand, and what kind of Inquisition doesn’t have any tomes on dragons, anyway? It’s only a matter of time before someone starts asking the Inquisitor to kill a dragon. You read Tale of the Champion. Dragon slaying seems inevitable.

Despite your frustration about the lack of convenience, you do manage to get a good bit of work done. Even without Solas’ wrist enchantment. Maker, for a world where you could just do that yourself without immediately signing your own death warrant. Not for the first time and doubtlessly not for the last, you’re bitterly jealous of Solas and his superior situation. How the fuck had he managed it? You would, quite literally, kill to know how he’d pranced through life without so much as a single incident with Templars. It’s possible he’s just lying, but the fact of the matter is, he’s here, openly practicing magic and even somewhat respected--feared, at the very least--by the people around him. Meanwhile, you spend your days in exhaustion from the effort to keep yourself concealed, and your nights in terror from the fear of failing. It’s extremely clear who has the superior position.

You try not to be too bitter. It won’t do you any good to envy the success of other mages. Of course, swing too far in the other direction, and suddenly you’re Anders. “For one of us to be free, we must all be free.” That stupid manifesto. Who writes manifestos?

For all your enjoyment of Tales of the Champion, for all your hero worship, the fact of the matter is that damn near all of Varric’s friends would have freaking hated you.

You sulk your way through the morning, lettering aggressively, if such a thing is even possible. You flip-flop between hating other mages for being better off than you and hating yourself for being better off than other mages. You pout your way through four pages before you feel that irritating twinge at your shoulder. Someone is watching you work. You take a deep breath before looking up, knowing that you can’t risk snapping at Solas.

“Your dedication to your work is admirable, Emma, but some of us like to eat,” Solas comments when you look up at him. You glance at the candle on the wall guiltily. You really miss your water clock. Or even working in a room with windows. Not that windows would help today; you can still hear the storm raging outside.

“Ir abelas,” you say with a sigh. “I wasn’t paying attention. I’ll get it right away.”

“You could always allow the kitchen workers to bring them,” Solas points out.

“Of course not. I’ve spoiled them now. Do you know how hard it was to even find someone to bring you breakfast?” you say with a strained laugh. “I’ll do better in the future.”

You quickly cap your ink and stand. A light meal for you today… You want to eat quickly and get back to work. You successfully worked out your stress on your friend/portable wall, but after exerting yourself so much so early, you’re left feeling a little drained. You suspect that you have a limited amount of time to work before exhaustion sets in.

While you’re in the kitchen putting together your meals, you poke around for a bit of gossip about Celia. Is she seeing anyone? Has anyone been giving her a hard time? It seems, however, that Celia is by and large a person who keeps her head down. The kind of person you had tried and utterly failed to be. She speaks rarely, and even then only to the other elves. You can appreciate that, but if she’s been having any difficulties, no one in the kitchen knows about them. You can’t help smiling to yourself a bit as you work. Shy, a bit isolated, easily overlooked. She’s exactly the kind of person you would have pounced on in Orlais. It seems your senses haven’t failed you entirely.

You bring the food back up to the rotunda. If Solas notices that your meal consists only of a bowl of stew and small loaf of bread, he doesn’t comment. You had planned on eating at your own desk, but you can’t resist the sight of that little stool, sitting so innocently by his desk. No matter how tired you get, the knowledge that he bothers to pull up a stool so you can eat with him will always thrill you. Instead, you bring the page you were working on over to his desk and continue lettering while you eat and talk. Slow going is better than no going at all.

You contort yourself carefully to avoid spilling on the page. It’s almost second nature to you. Scribes have to eat, but nothing’s saying they have to stop working in order to do so. This sort of thing is how you got a reputation for being one of the fastest, after all.

“Your ink pot is getting quite low,” Solas comments and you let out a soft grunt of frustration.

“I know,” you say around the piece of bread half-hanging from your mouth, squinting to at your translation as you write. “I’m going to wind up robbing someone, at this rate. I put in requisitions like everyone told me, but I have no idea how long it will take to get anything.”

“It depends on what you have requested,” Solas informs you. “There are tomes I requested months ago that they’ve yet to obtain.”

You let your head fall back and groan upwards towards the uncaring sky. “Maker. If there weren’t a war on, I’d grab a mule and ride to the nearest city myself.”

“If it’s something like ink, you should receive it relatively quickly,” Solas says, possibly attempting to comfort or placate you.

“Ink, yes… Also a magnifying stand, tomes so that I can double-check my work, new quills, and, if they want to spoil me, clothing that isn’t designed to fit a human man,” you say with a sigh. “All of which I’d be willing to buy out of my salary, if I only had a place to spent it.” You think of the growing purse of coins hidden in your room with some sourness. Between your largely-than-expected pay and a few nights of Wicked Grace, you’re starting to accumulate enough coin for your own private shopping spree. What you wouldn’t do for an Orlesian bookstore! Or hell, even Ferelden. You’ll take used books that smell of dogs. You’ll take anything.

“Are used to having these sorts of things provided?” Solas asks curiously.

“Maker, no,” you say with a sigh. “But I’m used to being in a location in which such things are easy to obtain myself. I’ve never worked for an army before. And the last time I worked in a fortress was… Well, it was a very long time ago.” You glare down at your work. “Damned Templars, getting themselves… all… red…” you grumble under your breath.

Solas lets you grumble and work, the two of you talking only intermittently. It isn’t until you’ve finished your own slow work on your stew that you realize his own plate is lying empty. You finish the word you were working on with a soft sigh, then stand to take the dishes back to the kitchen. Your overworked arms don’t particularly want to lift the heavy tray again, but you make them. It’s your own fault for overdoing it during morning practice.

By the time you get back to Solas’ rotunda from the kitchen, your arms have a slight but pronounced tremble to them. It’s not enough to keep you from writing entirely, but you’ll have to go very slowly. When you return to the rotunda, you notice that the stool has been placed back by the wall, and your documents moved back to your desk. Rather nice of him, honestly. You enjoy your little mealtime conversations with Solas, but working on a tiny corner of his desk is a bit difficult. You run a hand over the corner of your desk as you sit down, remembering the flood of emotions you experienced when you first saw it. Three weeks ago, if someone had told you Solas would give you a desk in his workroom, you would have laughed them out of Skyhold.

Perhaps it’s because you just ate, perhaps it’s because of your overexertion in the rain, but for whatever reason, in the hour following lunch, you begin to sag more and more. Your whole body feels heavy, keeping your eyes open and focused on your papers is a struggle. You have to write more and more slowly to ensure you don’t make any mistakes. About the third time your tired limbs cause you to nearly tip over your ink pot, it apparently becomes too much for even Solas to overlook.

“Are you alright, Emma?”

He sounds genuinely concerned. It feels like a jolt of electricity directly to your chest.

“I’m… fine,” you lie. “I may have overdone it a little in practice this morning, that’s all.”

“Practice… this morning? With the Iron Bull?” Solas sounds surprised. “It was pouring rain when I awoke.”

“It was pouring rain when I did, too,” you say grumpily. “Bull’s yet to take that as a good excuse to cancel, however. It hardly matters… as hard as it was raining, I was going to be drenched just walking to the mess.”

Solas is silent, and you don’t want to see his expression. You continue to slowly agonize over each letter of your work. The going is slow that you might as well not be working at all.

“Perhaps you should rest?” Solas suggests after being quiet for some time.

“It occurred to me,” you admit. “But I’d rather not walk back across the courtyard in this rain. It would take me an hour just to get dry again.”

“Feel free to use the couch,” Solas offers, and you go rigid. He knows that you slept on it at least once. Is he mocking you? You glance over your shoulder towards him, but he’s not looking at you. It’s hard to tell his expression from here. “That is, after all, what’s it for… More or less,” he continues.

“It is?” you ask, a bit confused. You had thought the couch was ridiculously comfortable. Maker, if you find out he put some kind of freaking sleeping enchantment on it, you’re going to-

“When I need to enter the Fade for short periods of time and don’t wish to leave the room, I use the couch,” he informs you.

“There’s not magic on it, is there?” you ask warily.

“No. It is simply comfortable.”

You eye the couch. There’s no risk of you actually falling asleep, you don’t think. And you’ve slept around mages before, in any case. They never noticed anything odd. The idea of resting on that gloriously soft couch again is almost too much to resist. In fact, it is too much to resist.

“Well,” you murmur, to yourself as much as to Solas. “I suppose a short rest can’t hurt.” You kick off your boots before plopping down onto the couch. As tired as you are, it feels like you’re sitting on a freaking cloud. With a soft groan, you lay down and stretch out across it. Maker. You’d missed this.

You don’t sleep. You just lay down and rest your eyes, but in any case, it feels fantastic. You find yourself sorely missing Solas’ blanket, for its warmth and softness more than for its magical sleeping properties.

In any case, you do feel better when you sit up, maybe about an hour later or so. The sound of rain still pounds outside… You really hope it lets up before nightfall. Although a mad dash through the rain certainly ensures no one will bother you in the courtyard.

“Feeling better?” Solas asks as you rub the exhaustion from your eyes.

“Yes, much. Thank you,” you say, and it’s only a slight exaggeration. You do feel better, but you still feel like you could stand to hibernate for about three months. You don’t really feel like jumping straight back to work… you feel like you might be at risk for dozing off at your desk. “I’m going to just… walk around for a bit,” you say, stretching luxuriously. Aaah, your back feels great after just laying on that couch for an hour. Solas should rent that thing out.

You’re not lying, not really. You are walking around. You’re just walking directly to the servant’s quarters to hunt down Celia. Hopefully she really is just ill… You’re not in much of a position to help her here, not yet. You don’t have enough favors or enough pull, since you only decided to start making an effort here like… a week and a half ago. But she’s yours, so you’ll have to do something.

You manage to track her down, although it takes a bit of doing. She really doesn’t socialize with the humans much at all--it took you finding another elf to figure out which room was hers. You knock, but there’s no response. You open the door cautiously. The room is dark, and, you note, nowhere near as nice as yours. Your room is essentially a closet someone put a bed in, but it’s yours. It looks like Celia shares this room with three other people, judging by the number of beds.

You hear a cough come from a lump on one of them. She must really be sick, then…

“Celia?” you ask out loud. “Do I have the right room?” The lump flails a bit.

“Emma? Is that you?” a hoarse voice asks. You see Celia’s hand fumble for the candle on her nightstand.

“Yes, I wanted to-”

“I’m so sorry! I tried really hard not to get sick but I-” A painful sounding, wracking cough rips through her, cutting her off. “If you want your money b-” Another long series of coughs.

“Maker, stop trying to talk!” you exclaim, walking closer so that you can help her shaking hands light the candle. “I don’t want my money back. I just came to check on you. Thanks for sending the message, by the way… I got Solas his breakfast without any incident.” Well, without much incident, anyway. “Have you been to a healer?”

“I’ll be fine,” she rasps, reminding you very much of yourself. Well, she knows her own limits better than you. “Just need a day or so to sweat it out… Oh! You shouldn’t be here. You might get sick!”

“I’ll be fine,” you echo with a quiet chuckle at your own humor. No one else is going to laugh--you might as well.

“Are you sure you don’t want the mo-” Again she’s cut off by a painful sounding cough. You wince.

“No, no. It’s not like the Inquisition stops paying you when you get sick. Surely I can afford the same luxuries. I’m just as glad you weren’t coughing on Solas’ food. Rest. I won’t die from bringing him breakfast for a few days.” Although, you add to yourself, I’ll be clothed next time.

“Ugh, you’re so nice,” Celia says with a pronounced wheeze.

“Don’t say it like I just admitted to eating babies,” you laugh. “It’s not like anyone else in Skyhold would take the offer, anyway.”

“Why do you want your mornings free so badly? I mean, I know you said not to ask, but…”

You sigh. “It’s… complicated. Just focus on getting better, okay?”

“Alright. ...Thanks for coming to see me, Emma,” she says. You just smile in response.

“Get some rest. Just let me know when you’re feeling better.”

You hear her blow out the candle as you leave. You can’t help but be a little relieved. She is just sick. You don’t have to call in any favors or… threaten to shank someone, or something like that. The money really isn’t an issue… you’d rather have her paid, happy, and silent. You’re not particularly looking forward to missing your breakfasts in the mess, though.

-

Maybe it’s all in your head, but you do feel a bit better, after having rested on Solas’ couch for a bit. You’re still exhausted, mind, and after an hour of writing, the shake in your arms comes back. You don’t want to admit it to Solas long enough to get that spell of his… He’s glancing over at you enough as it is. You spoil yourself a little by playing with the idea that he’s concerned about you, but in all reality, he’s probably more concerned that you’re going to spill ink and wreck the desk or your work. Not to mention that concern, while nice, gets you into a lot of trouble.

You spend the afternoon hunched over your desk, left hand steadying your right as you eek out one letter at a time. Tomorrow will be better. You won’t have any nightmares tonight because you won’t have any sleep. One hour of laying down had you feeling better for two, so six hours of laying down will have you feeling better for twelve. Simple math.

You can get through this. You’ve gotten through a hell of a lot worse.

It’s thanks to your struggling that you’re perfectly on time with Solas’ dinner. You were practically jumping at the chance to get up and do something else for a little. You grab another light meal for yourself… your stomach still feels queasy: the nausea of the sleep-deprived. In the tower, it had gotten to the point where all you could stomach was bread or crackers and juice. But you’d gotten that done, hadn’t you? And a copy of that delightful little tome had made it back to your private collection, at that. Perseverance always has its rewards.

You don’t even try to work on your tome over dinner; you just sit down on the stool Solas always seems to provide by his desk. He engages you in light conversation about Arancia and her Botanical Compendium. You’re more than happy to answer questions about someone else’s life for once. However, your “he only cares if I spill the ink” theory takes a hit when you see Solas watching the way you pick at your food. You force down every drop of soup and even manage to eat half a fruit tart before your stomach cramps painfully. Well, you’ve proved your point. If Solas is concerned about your well-being, for whatever reason, hopefully you can assuage his fears by doing better tomorrow.

After returning the dishes to the kitchen, you take a trip up to the library. You see Helisma working diligently at her desk. She doesn’t look up. You don’t draw attention to yourself. Instead, you glance around the rest of the library. Dorian is nowhere to be seen, but you’re on the hunt for someone else entirely. You see her and then make a beeline straight for Thea. She looks mildly unimpressed to see you.

“Skipping meals again?” she asks sourly. “I see you rarely enough as it is.”

“Well, you know how it is with the boss back in town,” you say cheekily. “But that means my benefits are back.” You hold out one of the fruit tarts. “Unless you like my company at breakfast more than my treats.”

“I do,” she says as she snatches the tart from your hand. “But that don’t mean I’m turnin’ down the benefits, neither.”

“I love a woman who’s easy to bribe,” you say with a grin. You hold your hands up when she glares. “I mean, a woman who has a relaxed and forgiving nature, of course!”

She snorts. “You can turn a phrase, I’ll give ya that. Turn that charm on one of the boys in your life, eh? I’m thinkin’ about gettin’ a bettin’ racket goin’.”

“Oh, please,” you say with a snort. “There’s nothing to bet on.”

“The Void there isn’t! I’m losin’ track. ‘Course, smart money’s on Bull, but long odds for the big money is on his little friend.”

“Pretty sure Bull and his ‘little friend’ would be the same bet,” you say, rolling your eyes towards the heavens. The stupidity you have to put up with…

“Nah, that second in command of his. Short one! No one thinks he has a chance, wot with Bull bein’ all… Bull. Course, I won’t darken yer ears with wot some of the more creative types are sayin’...”

You flush, part embarassment, part indignation. “Leave Krem out of those stupid rumors!” you hiss, and Thea looks a little taken aback. “I get it, rumor has me pegged as the newest entertainment in Skyhold. I can shoulder that. But Krem deserves better than hearsay saying he’s some sort of… consolation prize! He’s a nice guy!”

“Oh? Maybe his odds aren’t so long after all…” Thea says. Her tone is teasing, but you feel like smacking the sly grin off of her face.

“Oh shut up, Thea,” you snap, far too loudly. This is a library. You run a hand through the hair that’s fallen loose from your bun.

“I was jus’ jokin’...” Thea says, looking a little abashed. “You norm’ly jus’ fluster a bit, then we have a laugh. No one’s really bettin’, I promise.”

“I know, Thea. I know. I’m just…” You let out a long sigh. “I didn’t get much sleep last night. Sorry.”

“S’fine. But… What’s this with Bull’s second, now?”

“He’s a friend. A really good one. And he strikes me as the kind of person who would actually be hurt by the kind of rumors that might be circulating around me right now.” You rub a head against your burning forehead. You’re developing a headache. “Just… enjoy the fruit tart, Thea. I’ve got… I need to get back to work.”

You head quickly towards the stairs, shouldering past Dorian--who’s just come up the stairs--before he can stop you for another exhausting chat.

Bull has already shown his willingness to shrug off rumor. Solas is too disconnected from the rest of Skyhold to even know if rumors are circulating about him. And besides, next to the whispers of blood magic, a rumor that he’s banging the help is almost a positive. But Krem? You like Krem. Even though he’s a Vint, he’s a good guy. And unless your ability to read people has left you completely, he’s not only got a crush on you, but he might be a virgin, to boot. Just the kind of young man who deserves better than to get involved with you.

You storm back down to the rotunda, throw yourself into your chair, and furiously begin working on your tome again. Friends. People whose well-being you care about beyond what they can do for you. That’s what got you into trouble in Orlais.

No, Aimée is what got you into trouble in Orlais.

Same fucking thing.

First Solas is Aimée, now Krem? You’re jumping at shadows. Why not the Iron Bull, too?

Bull is different.

Why? No feelings for an oxman? Not like he’s had your back since you got here. Oh, but you can’t have someone who actually treats you well, can you?

You bang your hand down on the desk. Ink pots clatter, the sound echoes up through the tower.

“Emma?” Solas sounds shocked.

“Sorry. I… slipped. I think I’m falling asleep at my desk,” you lie. You don’t even care if it’s a good lie.

“Pardon my saying, but you look terrible,” he says bluntly.

You laugh, but it sounds like you’re in pain. “Yeah. I probably do.” Your eyes slide over the couch. Maybe after he leaves. “Life goes on, though. I think I can get a few more pages out of tonight, yet.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to rest?”

When Bull is prodding at you too much, it’s okay to punch him. You wouldn’t mind being able to do that with Solas. You sigh. “No. I’d prefer to keep working.”

Blissfully, Solas has nothing more to say on the matter. You shove the nagging little doubts to the back of your mind and pour your concentration on the work at hand. You can apologize to Thea later. There’s nothing immediate you can do about the rumors, and there’s no reason to believe they’d do any damage to your connections with the Chargers. Fretting over it won’t do you any good. You soothe yourself as your write. This is nothing you can’t handle. This has just been a shitty day all around. But there’s always tomorrow. You’ll do better tomorrow.

Chapter Text

You leave the rotunda before Solas does this time, more to appease him than anything. You simply curl up in bed with Solas’ Veilfire book, however. You can sneak some supplies into your room sometime when Solas isn’t breathing down your neck, and begin copying down some of the more interesting parts of the tome. You won’t always be stuck in Skyhold, after all, and you’ve never been one to let knowledge slip through your fingers.

You do, eventually, try to sleep. Perhaps it’s the exhaustion, but you manage to slip into unconsciousness. You wake in the morning with the profoundly uneasy feeling that you’d had nightmares, but no ability to remember them. Well… you’re still off to a better start than yesterday. The vague, unsettling feeling of being watched is preferable to waking up half-drowned and terrified.

The rainstorm from yesterday has finally passed, thank the Maker. But the shining puddles on the ground give you something to look at that you haven’t seen in a while… your reflection. It’s too dark for any accuracy, but you… you look rough. You’ve probably gained a few pounds since you’ve been in Skyhold, but you’ve got dark bags around your eyes dramatic enough that you can see them in a puddle reflection.

You kick the puddle to disrupt the reflection and sigh. There’s simply no helping it. You’re getting enough sleep to stay alive; you can still function and do your job. Sulking over it will do you no good. Sleep is, quite bluntly, a luxury you cannot afford.

You’re not surprised when morning practice with the Iron Bull turns into muddy wrestling. Frankly, the advantage turns to you once you’re slippery. You repeatedly wriggle and slide out of Bull’s holds, but the rough texture of his horns gives you a place to grab where your hand doesn’t simply slip off. You spend more of the morning than not with a hand around at least one of his horns. It’s a little amazing to you that he tolerates it. Surely this is demeaning for a Qunari?

Your suspicions that what you’re doing is a bit on the degrading side is confirmed when Iron Bull reaches up yet again to try and dislodge you from his back, only to grasp one of your long, pointed ears, and yank.

The cry you let out could pass for one of pain, and nothing else--if no one was paying particularly close attention. You release Bull’s horns to slap your hands over your mouth, as if you can pull the groan back in and prevent anyone from hearing it.

Elf ears are sensitive. Bull has to know that; he’s fucked dozens of elves and, unless the Ben-Hassrath got nicer when you weren’t looking, probably tortured dozens more (now there’s an unpleasant thought). Not everyone responds positively to them being touched, in any situation. It takes a very specific kind of elf to make a sound like that when one was roughly yanked. You flush a deep red under the mud, humiliation and indignation both.

Bull’s turned to face you, but you find you can’t just take this one as a lesson learned. He’ll smirk that stupid grin at you to let you know he’s come out on top again. This time, you want to end on top. As he turns, you jump, latching on to the place where one of his broad horns turns upwards. You use it to wrench yourself upwards, yanking Bull’s head down and sideways in the process.

Iron Bull is sturdy enough not to fall down into the mud, but you have him off balance. Your other hand grabs his other horn, pulling yourself further up and continuing to wrench his head. He acts fast; his hands wrap around your waist, but with a twist and a wiggle, your muddy hips slip from his grasp. Your leg goes around his neck and you jerk, using his horns to twist his head down again.

You feel his balance fail, the muddy, slippery mess of the ground allowing to do what you never could on an ordinary day. Of course, now there’s a Qunari three times your size falling... towards you. You twist out of the way as best as you can, but your legs will certainly be caught underneath him. You pray for soft ground.

You needn’t have wasted the prayer; Bull catches himself on his arms a few inches above the ground, preventing the entirety of his weight from crushing you. You release his horns and move to wriggle out from underneath him, but he shifts his weight, capturing your arms and pinning both your legs into the mud with one knee.

“Nice try,” he says with a grin.

“Knocked you down, didn’t I?” you say with a scowl.

“Yeah, with you underneath. You still don’t have the ‘hurt them worse than yourself’ part down.”

“It’s a work in progress,” you admit.

Bull keeps you pinned for a moment longer, then releases your arms, allowing you to slide out from under him. He rolls to sit down in the mud with a grunt; you don’t bother getting up either. It’s only after he releases you that you realize the full implications of what just happened. You’d been pinned… underneath a Qunari, arms and legs both held down, and you hadn’t panicked. If anything, your reaction had been a bit in the opposite direction. You’re more than willing to blame that on his ill-advised earplay, however. Your ear is still smarting, and the last time someone had touched you there… Well, it’s been a long time. None of your past lovers particularly utilized your sensitive ears; there’s a reason it features so heavily in your more… questionable dreams.

Either way… not panicking is progress. Progress towards what, you’re not entirely sure. You’re not sure what Bull’s endgame is here. You’re not even sure what yours is. You want the Chargers in your pocket, and they’re not going to get in there without Bull. And there are worse things than practicing your fighting skills. This is a war, and you’re locked in a fortress with Templars and soldiers alike. It’s going to be necessary, sooner than later. Past that, however, you have no idea where either of you are going with this.

“You been sleeping?” Bull asks. When you look at him questioningly, he gestures towards one of your eyes. “Those get any darker and it’ll look like you’ve got two black eyes to match the rest of you.”

You shrug. “More of the same. Nothing unusual.”

“You slept like a rock outside the walls. You want to ride out again, get some rest?”

The thought is… tempting. But with the Inquisitor and Solas back in residence, the risk is just too high. When Solas was gone, there was no one to particularly miss your presence in the rotunda. Now, if you vanish for a day, it will certainly be noticed, and you don’t want to have to explain. Not to mention the risk of being found out, whether by one of Leliana’s ever-present spies, or simply by someone (like the ever-curious Solas) happening across you.

“No, but thanks, Bull. If I don’t make myself get used to sleeping in Skyhold, I’ll be perpetually exhausted.”

“You’re already perpetually exhausted,” Bull points out. You shoot him a tired glare. “But, I take your point. Breakfast, then? Or do you have another emergency?”

“Not an emergency, but something that’ll have me skipping breakfast nonetheless,” you say with a sigh. Iron Bull looks curious, but you decline to elucidate any further. You’ve got a breakfast to make. Of course, now you’re completely freaking covered in mud. Fortunately, you have enough time for a (very) fast bath to rinse yourself off.

-

Solas looks slightly relieved when you walk in, likely because you actually wore a shirt this time. Your hair is still wet, but it’s pulled back properly. You are, at the very least, presentable.

“The ‘other girl’ is still sick?” Solas asks pointedly. He’s putting a shirt on, Maker bless. Although that does make you wonder if you’re perhaps a bit late with his breakfast. You try to focus on setting his food on his table and not on watching him dress. Somehow, it makes you as embarrassed as if he was stripping.

“She is, yes,” you answer, a little belatedly.

“And without her, there’s no one willing to bring my meals?” he sounds a little amused.

“Oh, I’m sure they would if I made a fuss or insisted… It’s their job,” you say with a sigh. “But it’s much easier to simply do it myself. Celia won’t be sick forever.”

“You’re seem to enjoy keeping busy,” he says mildly. You step away from the desk quickly as he steps towards it. He hasn’t put on that woolen tunic he tends to wear… somehow, seeing him in his undershirt is almost as embarrassing as seeing him shirtless. Turn about is fair play, however; you’d subjected him to the sight of your underclothes the morning prior. “As if Leliana weren’t giving you enough to do, you make time for kitchen work and… training with Iron Bull.”

There’s a slight hitch in his voice when he says “training.” You dearly hope none of the rumors have gotten back to him. He hasn’t said anything outright, but… “When did the two of you begin that?”

Oh, Maker, he totally has heard some of the rumors, hasn’t he? You fight not to flush, since that would only seem to confirm them. “Shortly after you left, ser. I believe it started as more of a joke than anything, but… Well, there is a war on. I was helpless when the red Templars destroyed my home. If I run into them again, I’d like to be on better footing.”

“That seems wise. Do you have similar motivations for your training with Sera?” He’s already sat down at his desk and begun to eat, but he doesn’t seem ready to let you leave. You withhold a sigh and fold the heavy tray under one arm; you don’t feel comfortable setting it on his floor.

“That was more to humor her, although I think I’ve used the tricks she taught me more than the ones Bull has,” you admit. Indeed, you picked his lock not a day after Sera had given you the lockpicks.

“And you’ve several books you wish to read…”

“I’m a fast reader.”

“Not to mention the harts…”

“Bull’s idea.”

“At this point I’m surprised you haven’t taken to cultivating a garden in the courtyard.”

“Oh, is there a place for that?” you say, surprised. “I haven’t seen-”

Solas stops eating to give you a very pointed look.

“Ah… yes, well. I take your meaning,” you say with a sheepish grin. “I suppose I do prefer to keep occupied.”

“When do you find time to eat or sleep?” Solas asks, and you realize that the question isn't rhetorical.

“Well, I eat with you,” you point out.

“You certainly don’t sleep with me.”

Solas seems to realize the implications of what he just said at the same time as you do. To his credit, he just seems momentarily embarrassed, whereas you can feel a crimson blush race across your cheeks.

“I, uh… No, I don’t. I, um…” You fumble for a way to make the conversation change to another topic, any other topic. “I make do,” you say lamely. “I, um… I should… go get my own breakfast. If that’s alright with you?”

“Of course,” Solas says with a nod. You manage to leave politely and close the door gently behind you before sinking down against the stone wall and letting out a quiet whimper. Maker’s breath. Between Iron Bull’s rough handling and Solas’ unfortunate implications, it’s seems you're destined to spend today as wet as you were yesterday… if in a different way altogether.

-

You don’t actually go to get breakfast… You couldn’t make eye contact with Iron Bull in this condition, let alone Thea. You also resist the urge to make a beeline for your room to relieve yourself. At this point, you’re frightened of what fantasies might pop into your mind. And you’ve just had a bath, so that’s out of the question. In the end, you find yourself sitting at your desk in the rotunda, idly lettering the next page of the tome. If nothing else, it serves to drag your mind out of the bedroom.

After perhaps half an hour, Solas still hasn’t entered the rotunda. You had been hoping to get a wrist enchantment today, although in retrospect, that might not be the best idea. In the end, you decide to just take a walk. Perhaps Solas will be here by the time you get back. He’d mentioned a garden here in Skyhold… might as well explore and try to find it.

In the end, it doesn’t actually take you long to find it; Solas was speaking of the area his balcony overlooked. You hadn’t really been paying particularly close attention despite how many times you walked by that area. That’s a little out of character for you, but in your defense, Solas and his bedroom are both very distracting to you.

The area is surprisingly green here… and somehow it feels warmer, more humid, when compared to the rest of Skyhold. That could be because it’s completely surrounded by walls, but you suspect there might be a magical component to it as well. It wouldn’t surprise you… This place is old, and has old magic. The mysterious bathtubs are evidence enough of that.

You slip out of your shoes, if only to feel your bare feet in the grass. It’s soothing, although you can almost hear Sera’s derision of your elfiness in the back of your head. Still, there are few enough people out here, so early in the morning, that you feel comfortable enough to walk barefoot through the garden. You idly identify plants as you pass them, pausing only when you see a particularly unusual specimen. And there are several of them. How, pray tell, had they gotten vandal aria to grow this high up? It should be impossible. Magic, then, almost certainly.

Your relaxing stroll through the garden is interrupted when you hear familiar voices echoing out of what appears to be a gazebo of some kind. Intrigued, you sneak a bit closer. Sure enough, the Commander of the Inquisition is talking to the Spymaster. Oh, Maker, this could be interesting. You ease a little closer, largely out of sight. You squat down, pretending to admire a flower in bloom, as you strain your ears to pick up the details of their conversation.

“That piece wasn’t there a moment ago.”

“Such accusations, Commander!”

You pause. Not exactly a conversation on foreign diplomats, then. You suppose you shouldn’t be surprised; no spymaster would have that sort of conversation in a public garden.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ll win any--Emma?”

You jump straight up, from squatting to bolt upright in half a second. He’d seen you that fast--and recognized you. Now that’s alarming.

“Y-yes, ser?” you stammer quickly.

“It is you,” he says, sounding surprised. “I’m amazed you take enough time off to enjoy the gardens.”

“So am I,” adds Leliana, turning in her chair to eye you.

“S-sorry, I’ll get back to work immediately,” you assure them both with a cringe. “I had just heard about the gardens and wanted to see-”

“That wasn’t a chastisement,” Leliana assures you. “After all, the Commander and I are doing the same.”

“Speaking of which,” the Commander says, “I believe that’s checkmate.” You hear the familiar clink of stone hitting marble.

Leliana turns to face Commander Rutherford again. “...Well played. I expect a rematch.” She stands to leave, and you risk taking a small step closer. Sure enough, as Leliana steps out of the way, you see the familiar sight of a chess table. You can’t help but smile… the leaders of one of the new world powers, playing chess together.

“Do you play, Emma?”

It takes you a moment to register what you’re hearing. You stare blankly at the Commander, and he gestures towards the board. Is he…?

“I… I’m familiar with the game,” you admit, if only because your fingers are twitching to grasp the pieces. It’s been years since you last played. “I didn’t realize Skyhold was so well-equipped.”

“It was a pleasant surprise for me, as well… I believe the Inquisitor had it installed.” You watch as the Commander runs a gloved hand fondly across the edge of the stone table. This is the first time you’ve seen him without gauntlets, although he’s still wearing some light armor. “Would you like a game?”

He is. Time to cut and run; you can sneak back to play with the board yourself, later. “Oh, I couldn’t-” you begin, but he cuts you off.

“Do me the favor,” he insists. “It would give me an excuse to put off work a bit longer.”

That’s dangerously close to an order, although you doubt he realizes it. Either way, you’re not going to be refusing. You’ve spent most of your life learning exactly when you can get away with saying ‘no,’ and when you shouldn’t push it. With a man as powerful as the Commander, you prefer to “push” as little as possible. Wordlessly, you yank your shoes on and then climb into the rotunda.

Without the entirety of his armor, or perhaps due to the fact he’s sitting down, the Commander seems a bit smaller than usual. At the very least, he’s not looming the way you’re accustomed to. He’s still rather broad… Solas is broad at the shoulders as well, particularly for an elf. Perhaps it’s just your lot in life to be surrounded by men with nice shoulders. What’s attractive in Solas, however, is intimidating in the Commander.

You sit across from him and move to set the board, but you only get as far as picking up a pawn. It feels so natural in your hand… you can’t help but smiling down at it. “A marble set. I learned to play on one like this,” you confess, feeling more than a little nostalgic. Positive nostalgia is an unusual sensation for you.

“When did you learn?” Cullen asks, and you realize that this is a conversation fraught with potential pitfalls. That makes your smile fade quickly.

“When I was a child,” you say, as shortly as you can without being rude. “What about you, Commander?”

“I learned as a child. My sister was fond of it; she enjoyed repeatedly trouncing my brother and I. The look on her face when I finally got good enough to beat her, though…”

So the Commander has siblings. No surprise there… If he’s from a noble family, the only reason he’d be a Templar would be because he had a handful of siblings between him and the holdings. And if he’s not a noble, well... you don’t meet a lot of human commoners who only ever had one child.

“Did you play with your siblings, as well?” the Commander is asking as you finish setting the board. You’re almost amazed to find that there’s someone in Skyhold who doesn’t know the details of your history.

“Oh, no, I was an orphan,” you say, almost without thinking. The Commander makes a face like he’s just walked in on someone completely nude.

“Oh, I, um… At the… orphanage, then?”

A nice attempt to regain his footing, but he’d caught himself from tripping only to fall off a cliff.

“No, in Seheron,” you say with a thin smile as you begin the game by moving a pawn forward.

“Oh… OH.”

You have to keep yourself from laughing… Perhaps it’s because you’re seeing him out of uniform, but he looks less like the Commander of the Inquisition and more like the sort of awkward person you’d imagine being named “Cullen.”

“Did you play with the other… um, the others?” he asks nervously.

“No,” you say with a sigh. “With my master.”

The awkwardness was almost palpable, and the game continues in silence for a while. The clink of the pieces on the marble board brings you right back to Seheron, not in the horrific way you’re used to.

“It’s one of my few fond memories from there,” you admit quietly. “My master often complained of being surrounded by simpletons… I suspect he played with me simply because I had to do as he told me. Who else would have time for chess in an active war zone?”

“Were you, um… fond of your master, then?” Cullen says with increasing awkwardness. You almost feel sorry for him.

“Oh, no, I hated him,” you say matter-of-factly. “Maker, how I hated him.” You move your knight into a more aggressive position and then take a moment to stare off into the gardens, momentarily lost in memories. “But he was clever. Brilliant, to a child of ten scant years.” You drum your fingers gently on the table. The clink of stone on marble informs you that the game is still going. “He found some entertainment in teaching me… I think he was a little charmed by my sharp mind, or perhaps I was simply the only thing there amusing to him at all,” you continue as your move to block Cullen’s bishop. Despite his embarrassment, he’s playing well. That’s good; it will make losing easier. “He often complained of being surrounded by dullards. He’d tell me I was special, clever.”

Cullen seems to have given up on changing the subject. “I’m surprised there was time for chess.”

You chuckle. “We made time for whatever the master wanted to do, really. But my primary duty was translation, and that could never have taken up all of my time. I was used for miscellaneous duties, yes, but my master wasn’t above simply using me for… companionship. I think he favored me, but I hated it. He had a painful way of showing his ‘favor,’ sometimes, and the other slaves resented me. …But I enjoyed the chess.”

You look up, and Cullen is staring at you an abject horror. This time, you can’t help it, and burst out laughing.

“Are… are you having me on?” he demands as you attempt to cover your laughs with one arm.

“No, no, it’s all true!” you assure him, still laughing. “Just… the look on your face. Are you regretting asking me for a game, Commander?”

“You’re picking on me,” he complains, and you laugh even harder. He’s grinning, thank the Maker. He has a sense of humor… Good, or else you’d likely be in a world of hurt.

“I am sorry if I’ve brought up unpleasant memories, however,” he says, a little more seriously.

“Oh, no… If anything, chess is one of my few pleasant memories from Seheron,” you say as the giggles finally subside. “I missed playing.”

“As did I… I’ve not seen my sister in many years. I wonder if she still plays…?”

You let the conversation stay on his family as the game progresses. You suspect the Commander is attempting to allow you to win, or at the very least, going easy on you. He plays averagely, but will occasionally make a brilliant move. It’s an interesting game, with both of you attempting to lose. In the end, however, you win at losing… Perhaps you were simply more dedicated to it.

“I believe I have this one,” the Commander says as he moves into checkmate.

“I suspect you could have had it ten moves ago,” you say with a chuckle. “But thanks for humoring me.”

“Not at all,” Cullen says with a smile. “You gave me an excellent excuse to be a bit lazy.”

“This is what passes for lazy with you? And they say I work too much.” You begin to set the board again, although you’ve no intent to play another game. It just seems rude to leave it a mess.

“You do have an… admirable work ethic,” the Commander says. Something in his tone makes you look up. He’s rubbing the back of his neck; he looks a bit awkward. Again, you’re sure it’s just because you’re seeing him about of full armor. Easy to forget Templars once they’re out of armor, but that’s not wise. You can never forget, not if you want to stay alive.

“I’ll have to actually get to work if I want to keep that reputation,” you say, sitting up from the chess table.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the Commander says, standing as well. “I, um--”

“Thanks for the game, Commander,” you say with a smile, cutting him off before he can do something stupid like ask you to play again sometime. You exit quickly, making a beeline for the Great Hall rather than stopping to admire more of the garden. Today, you’ve been reminded of the dangers of exploring.

-

It’s a relief to get back to the rotunda. Sitting at your desk working is as simple as your life gets these days, even with a mysterious elven mage futzing about in the background. Speaking of whom, Solas has indeed come to the rotunda while you were absent. You’ve had time to forget his morning faux paus, hopefully he has too… Although the sight of him, bent over one of those odd shards, hands glowing slightly, is enough to put you right back in that moment.

No, you certainly aren’t sleeping with him. And your life is complicated enough without that.

He looks so busy that you don’t want to interrupt him, but he looks up when you enter, in any case. If he’s wondering where you’ve been, he doesn’t ask… a nice change from the interrogation of the morning. He simply goes back to whatever it is he’s doing with the shard.

You had been wanting that wrist enchantment, but you can’t bring yourself to disturb him any further. Instead, you simply head to your desk. You can do without, for now… you can always ask him after he’s done with whatever magic he’s working.

Magic with no protective wards turns out to mean that you’ll be spending your morning being lightly molested by stray bits of magic, however. The sensation isn’t unpleasant, per se, but it is distracting. Every time you taste a bit of magic whisping by you, you practically salivate at it. Your aura stays locked obediently inside of you, however. It’s still small enough to be controlled easily, thanks to your expenditure at the pond. You’ll be fine unless you actually need magic to defend yourself any time in the near future.

You grit your teeth as a slip of mana brushes against your back. What in the Maker’s name is he even doing back there? Something with one of those shards, again… You’d love to get a good look at one yourself, as well as seeing that temple in the desert that they’re apparently for. You try to redouble your focus on your writing, and you do manage to get some work done.

You manage to stay on top of things, today, and get up at a reasonable hour to fetch Solas’ lunch… in part, this is just because you skipped breakfast and you’re kind of hungry. You’ve spent your entire life ignoring the cramping sensations of hunger. It’s hard for you to really associate the sensation with needing to go and get something to eat… But you’re not an old dog just yet. You can still learn new tricks.

Celia is still absent from the kitchens. You resolve to check on her again that evening, make sure her illness is getting better, not worse. You’ve no desire to force someone to the healer against their will--it would be massively hypocritical of you. But you’re certain you could guilt her into it if you needed to… Or even just threaten to have Solas take a look at her. That would almost certainly frighten her to the healing tent.

You fetch a normal meal for Solas and another light meal for yourself… You’re feeling better than yesterday, certainly, but the flushed feeling won’t leave your face and your stomach is still a bit queasy. You privately suspect the heat in your face might be thanks to Iron Bull and Solas, but you’d almost rather be ill.

Your pleased to see your stool by Solas’ desk when you re-enter with his food. It’s the little things that make you so content here at Skyhold. You can sit at the desk of an elven mage and have stimulating conversation over a delicious meal. It’s enough to almost make you forget you’d played chess with a Templar Knight-Commander that morning. Almost. Not quite.

“So,” you begin, deciding to steer the conversation yourself rather than waiting for another interrogation. “I was reading the book you gave me, the one on veilfire. I have a few questions…”

The conversation is exactly as delightful as you’d hoped. Solas seems happy to answer your questions about veilfire, although you have to stick more to practical questions and stay away from instructions on how to summon it. There’s only so much you can explain away with idle curiosity, after all. It’s only a shuffling sound at the door to the rotunda combined with Solas glancing at something behind you that distracts you away from the conversation at hand.

You turn around to look as well, and see a familiar dwarven face poking around the corner of the door. Rocky quickly darts back out of sight, and then you hear a bit of muttering from behind the door. There’s a pause, and then the door opens, with Krem more or less being shoved through.

“Hi, um, Emma! And Solas,” he says awkwardly, leaning backwards against the hands pushing against him. “I, that is, we were wondering if you’d like to have lunch, but, uh, you seem… busy…”

You cover your smile with a hand, trying hard not to laugh. That’s Dalish behind him, shoving, and you think you can see Skinner standing off behind them, looking rather put-upon. You turn back to Solas, a voiceless question in your eyes. He holds up his hands, looking as bemused as you feel. “I hardly have a claim on her.”

You grin your thanks before gathering the rest of your food up and heading towards Krem. He looks surprised, and very relieved. Sure enough, a few of the Chargers are there with him: Rocky, Dalish, and Skinner.

“Look at that, you won her over, Krem!” Dalish says with a wicked grin. “You don’t have to worry about the extra competition.”

“Oh, shut up,” Krem grumbles. You can’t help grinning as you follow them outside. The five of you settle under a tree in the courtyard to eat, chatting idly. They’re as playfully cheerful as ever--except Skinner, of course. But the day she starts cracking jokes is the day you run for the hills. You can’t even imagine it.

“I can’t believe you four were scared to go into the rotunda,” you laugh around a piece of bread. “Why on earth would you be superstitious? I mean, Dalish is a m… elf,” you correct yourself at the look she gives you. Dalish is the worst kept secret in all of Skyhold, honestly. Her joking nature about her magic makes you almost wish you could sign up with the Chargers. They’ve certainly got her back.

“It’s not that,” Skinner points out. “It’s the way the two of you were talking.”

Dalish nods in agreement. “Yeah, like there was a wall between you ‘n’ the rest of the world.” She elbows Krem teasingly. “But we knew you’d make time for Krem here. Who wouldn’t? He’s such a charmer.”

You’re glad for their joking; it helps to cover your embarrassment. Is that how the two of you look to an outside eye? No wonder there are rumors. Still, the thought pleases you somewhat.

“Oi, look at your face!” Dalish says, grinning widely. “You got a crush of your own, don'tcha?”

You try to keep your face neutral, but your cheeks flush against your will.

“She does!” chimes in Rocky. “Better watch out, Krem! You can’t lose out to an old man like that; what would the boss say?”

You and Krem share a pained look as their teasing continues. Unrequited crushes might be painful, but they have nothing on the Chargers’ brutal puns, it would seem.

Chapter Text

Lunch with the Chargers is fun, but their endless joviality distracts you so much from eating that you feel you may have eaten too much. Your stomach twists uncomfortably, and your face is hot despite the lack of stimulus. You’re also getting tired… the tremble in your arms is coming back. Well, you’re not going to let it affect your work today. You try to steady your shaking as you walk into the rotunda and head straight for Solas’ desk.

He’s busy at work, or what passes for work with him… reading some dusty old tome. You envy him more than a little; he seems to spend his days doing research and little else. People leave him more or less alone; you get more visitors to the rotunda than he does. The people who do come in--Sera, the Inquisitor--mostly serve only to antagonize him, rather than offer any form of friendship.

“Solas?”

“Mm?” He barely even glances up from his tome. You shift uncomfortably. Are you interrupting something important?

“Would you mind enchanting my wrist again?”

He glances up again, and for a moment, you almost expect a curt refusal. It is perhaps somewhat presumptuous for you to ask, but he’s never refused before. He leans back with a sigh and sets the tome, still open, onto his desk. You shift nervously, wondering if you’re about to get a lecture, but instead, he simply waves you over. He doesn’t offer you a place to sit, so you just stand awkwardly by his chair. He grasps your wrist with one hand and pulls your arm out somewhat, probably for a better grip.

He must see something he doesn’t like, because he frowns. The sight chills the very blood in your veins. What have you done now? Perhaps he notes the way your arm is trembling, although you’re fighting with it to be still. With a single swift movement, Solas grabs your sleeve with his other hand and yanks it up, revealing your forearm. You’ve a nice, fresh bruise there that you hadn’t even really noticed. Courtesy of Iron Bull resting his weight on your arms that morning, no doubt; it’s almost a handprint. The looks Solas gives you manages to be simultaneously judging and concerned. You received similar looks from the hahren in the Denerim alienage when you were younger.

“I get a bit bruised up in morning training,” you explain. At least Solas knows Bull’s teaching you to fight. It means you don’t have to come up with a creative lie to explain the bruise. Solas isn’t frowning any less, however. “It’s nothing, Solas.”

“Bruises, new and old,” Solas grumbles, twisting your arm a bit to look at it. You wince. “You want me to enchant your arm because it’s shaking… perhaps for the same reason as those circles under your eyes.” His mouth twists into a scowl, and your legs begin shaking as if they no longer want to hold your weight. You struggle to command them to behave. “Ironic you should borrow a tome of necromancy from Dorian; you’re beginning to look like the undead.”

You flush slightly. “It all looks worse than it is, I assure you,” you say. You delicately try to shift your arm away, but his grip is firm. Not firm enough to bruise, you note.

“Why not go to a healer?”

“They’ve more important things to do. I’d have new ones every other day anyway; I bruise easily.”

“You bruise easily, but your solution is to simply be battered, rather than find a healer or cease the training?”

Now your flush is deepening, but out of frustration, or perhaps indignation. It doesn’t help that he’s still got a grip on your arm. Has he forgotten he’s holding it? And what business is it of his, exactly, even if you were being beaten stupid each morning? You want very much to snap at him the way you would at Bull if he was prying or prodding too much. You don’t, however; you’re still trying to coax some of Solas’ knowledge out of him, after all. It won’t serve to antagonize him, even if he’s being an ass.

“It’s just a bruise, Solas. If I was seriously injured, I would go to a healer.” You have several times already, as a matter of fact, although you don’t tell him that.

Solas doesn’t seem very placated by this, but he runs the hand not gripping you over your wrist, and you feel the warm, soothing tingle of magic. It takes you unawares; your legs very nearly give out. Maker, had it always felt this good, or are you just oversensitive today? No, you realize, he’s being tricky. You watch in mild awe as the bruises fade under a rush of tingling blue magic. You bite your lip to cut off any sounds growing in your throat.

Then comes the familiar rush, the strengthening sensation as Solas’ bolsters your weakening muscles with delightful magic. He releases you, finally, and you flex. You’ll never get used to it… just like that, the pain gone. The bruises too, although you know you’ll simply have new ones there tomorrow.

“Thank you, Solas,” you say quietly, uncertain what else there is you can say. Your irritation at his prodding was washed away by the pleasing flood of magic. All you can seem to remember now is how well he treats you, when he’s no reason to do that, either. Your eyes linger on him, but he’s already picking up his tome, seemingly unaware of your sudden rush of emotion. Just as well. You take a few steps back, then turn and walk quickly to your desk. Work. You got your enchantment, so now you need to make the most of it.

Before you can get so much as a word onto the paper, however, a familiar voice softly echoes through the rotunda.

“She sleeps, but she doesn’t rest.”

You turn to glare around the room, eyes coming to rest on Cole, sitting up on the wooden platform where he enjoys perching. Not something that you asked him to keep secret, true, but he doesn’t need to be giving Solas any hints.

“Hello, Cole,” Solas says, setting his book back down. It seems like life is going to keep interrupting him.

“She’s mad at me, but I’m helping,” Cole says reproachfully, and you run a hand over your hot forehead, sighing. Solas’ lingering gaze on you seems to say that he can relate to what Cole’s saying. Both of them likely have your best interests in mind. Damn meddling types, the both of them.

“I won’t lie and say I don’t need your help,” you say finally. You could never do anything to send the spirit away from you. “But for right now, I’m fine. I just want to work.”

“You should let more people help you,” Cole chides. You must have glanced away for a second, because suddenly, he’s not there. You blink.

“That’s disorienting,” you complain to no one in particular.

“He gives good advice,” Solas comments before going back to reading his tome. You can’t help sighing again. You’re being double teamed here. You turn your focus back to your work, determined to get as many pages done as possible before dinner.

-

You work steadily through the afternoon, pausing only to stretch slightly to take the pressure off your bruised backside. The heat in your face doesn’t subside, nor does the ache in your body, and it’s almost amusing to see the shakiness of your left hand when compared to your right. But thanks to Solas’ enchantment, you tear through lettering, completing several pages before the candle on the wall informs you that it’s time for Solas’ dinner. You complete the line you were working on, and set your quill down regretfully. You hate stopping when you’re on a roll; if it were not for your duty to Solas, you likely would have skipped dinner to continue working.

No helping it… Hopefully today, he eats quickly, so you can get back to work.

Stopping by the kitchens reminds you that you’d intended to check in on Celia. You don’t see her in the kitchen, so she’s likely still ill. You’ll need to take some time away from your work to check on her, as much as you itch to get back to the rotunda and put more words to paper. You’re almost tempted to simply drop of Solas’ food and see to her while he eats, but you have a nagging suspicion that he would be displeased to see you skipping a meal. Besides, he always pulls that stool out for you… the idea of shunning that small invitation is too much for you to bear.

Wary of the way your stomach twisted into knots at lunch, you grab nothing but broth and bread for your dinner, although the roast pork you fetch for Solas makes your mouth water. You hunt through the kitchen for something special to bring Solas as thanks for enchanting your wrist... and maybe as apology, too. Although apology for what, you’re not quite sure. Being you, you suppose.

You manage to nab some fresh fruit. Maybe you’ll even be able to stomach some yourself if the broth goes down fine. The fact that Skyhold even has fresh fruit, all the way up here, is somewhat mind boggling. You’re certain that it’s thanks to that diplomat, Miss Montiliyet, attempting to appease what nobles dragged themselves out here to the middle of nowhere. Well, thank the Maker for spoiled nobles, if it means you get to eat an Orlesian apple.

You return to Solas’ rotunda and present him with his food as well as the fruit. He seems pleased, starting with an apple rather than his actual meal. You wish you could join him, but you force yourself to focus on the broth. Your stomach groans in protest, threatening at once to return the broth upwards, but you manage to keep it down.

Solas, blissfully, keeps the conversation off your small meal and questionable health. You manage to have a somewhat pleasant conversation about how much work you’ve gotten done--thanks to him.

“You finished four pages in that time?” Solas says, sounding surprised. “That is remarkable.”

Mmm, compliments. When it comes to your scribing capabilities, you’re more than capable of taking them. “I’m good at what I do,” you say as modestly as you can. “There is a reason an elf was able to make a name for herself in Orlais. I did so by being the best… and by having a suitable pen name.”

“Oh?”

“Mm, yes. Alix Gagnon. Orlesian enough to have its own wine.” You sip idly on your juice. You’d tried a light wine at lunch, but even that small amount of alcohol had threatened to make you ill. “A nice, respectable name to put on their documents. By the end, I did so much of my work at a distance that I suspect many of my clients never even knew they were hiring an elf.”

“Why didn’t you continue to use that name here?” Solas inquires.

“Because it’s not my name,” you say with a grin. “Outside of Orlais, I’ve little use for it. And besides… I read the posters. ‘An Inquisition for All!’ Surely they would find little problem with an elven scribe.” You sigh gently. “I was right about that, at least. I have a good position here. Better than I could have hoped.”

You glance around the half-painted rotuna and smile. A good position indeed… and a great view.

-

You check on Celia after dropping the dishes off at the kitchen. She tries to assure you that she’ll be feeling better tomorrow, but you’re not really having any of it. She looks damn near as bad as you feel; the only difference is that you’re vertical.

“Really, Emma, I’ll be back to work tomorrow,” she informs you, voice still hoarse and occasionally breaking.

“I’m not saying I don’t believe you, exactly…” you say delicately, trying to think of how someone could successfully convince you to stay in bed. “Just that it won’t be an issue for me to retrieve Solas’ breakfast tomorrow. Think of it as… one less thing you’ll have to do, if-”

“When!”

When you go into work tomorrow.”

Celia sits up on her elbows, scowling at you from the bed. Her eyes are puffy and swollen, but she does look slightly better than yesterday. “You’re not fooling me.”

You grin at her. “And you’re not fooling me. Get some more rest, okay?”

She thumps back on the pillow and groans. “Elgar’nan, I hate this.”

Her useage of the Elven deity gives you a start. You carefully mask the shock on your face despite the fact she isn’t looking at you. Does Miss Celia have more background than she lets on? No wonder she keeps her head down. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be fighting fit in no time,” you say dryly. “But for now, I’m sure the nobles all prefer not to have a sick elf handling their food.”

She grumbles something nonsensical into her pillow and waves you vaguely away. You take that as your cue to leave. You like her when she’s sick, honestly… Either she’s too busy feeling shitty to bother with the bend-and-scrape routine, or she’s becoming more comfortable with you. You’ll take either.

-

Solas notices you as you return, and does a double-take. You try your damndest to walk normally… had he noticed the awkward gait your bruised back has given you? You're simply sore, but you’ll never hear the end of it if he thinks you’ve injured yourself again. Or… more. You see annoyance flicker across his face and your heart damn near stops. You shuffle quickly to your desk and sit down as quietly as possible. If you’re annoying him, you really, really need to watch your step. No more requests for arm enchantments for a while, then, and you’ll have to try to work as quietly as possible.

You immediately set back to work writing, back hunched over to try and make yourself as small as possible, as if you can physically shrink the amount of space you take up in his life. You hear Solas exhale slowly out through his nose… The sound only serves to make you tenser. The feeling of his magic supporting your wrist now only gives you guilt as you try to focus on putting word after word onto paper. What had you done, exactly? Your mind races through your actions at dinner, picking apart every word you said for something that could have given offense. Or was it earlier?

Solas clears his throat, and you abruptly straighten as if someone had shoved an iron rod up your spine. “Emma.”

“Y-y-y-yes?” Maker damn you and your stupid fucking stutter.

“You’ll be bringing my breakfast tomorrow.”

You honestly can’t tell if that was a question or a statement, but your reaction wouldn’t change either way. “Y-yes, ser.”

He falls silent after that, and you go back to sweating and stewing over your work, wondering what in the Maker’s name you’d done wrong. You’re still not good at predicting Solas’ moods or emotions, and it frustrates you. You hadn’t predicted he’d be cross with you for being bruised up. You wore long sleeves to cover the bruises, yes, but that was purely for the sake of presentability. You weren’t ashamed of what you and Bull got up to in the mornings--Maker, that made it sound bad.

It’s no use… You can’t think of why he’s cross with you. Well, that’s not entirely true, you can think of a dozen reasons, but you have no way of knowing which one’s correct. It’s doing you no good to fume. You simply attempt to focus on your work and on being as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

You leave early again, just to get out of Solas’ way. This time, you swipe some materials to bring with you, a single quill, some parchment, and a small pot of ink. You suspect Solas notices, if only because he comments for you to “actually sleep” as you leave the rotunda. You cringe a little, but simply bid him a good night. As soon as the door to the rotunda closes behind you, you sprint towards your room like a spooked rabbit.

You spend the rest of the evening frantically transcribing bits of the borrowed Veilfire tome. The sooner you can return this, the better. Perhaps, at some point, you’d crossed a line into overstaying your welcome. If you can skip backwards back over that line again, you might be able to avoid gaining any more of the man’s ire.

You sleep that night, a little. You have flashes of dreams, none pleasant. Still, you’re glad you managed to get a bit of rest. You crawl out of bed regretfully during the pre-dawn hours. You wouldn’t mind staying in bed for a few more hours, but you have things to do.

You only become aware of how uncomfortably cold you feel when you step outside. Well, it’s August in the mountains… Cold is to be expected. Still, you regret the fact that you have to wear light clothing to practice with Iron Bull. By the time you jump over the fence into the practice yard, you’re freezing. Hopefully, the training will warm you.

You expect Bull to be warm or even hot to the touch given how cold you feel, but if anything, he feels cool. You suppose that the wind is mostly to blame for that. He’s got more mass to him, yes, but that doesn’t mean he can magically keep warm when it’s cold out.

You start training feeling already weary, but eventually the endorphins catch up with you. It’s what makes getting repeatedly knocked to the ground worth it… after fifteen minutes or so, you start actually feeling alive and awake again. It’s like a fog lifting from around your head. You’re just starting to get into the swing of things when you see the absolute last person you want to see: the Inquisitor.

What is he doing here? Bull mercifully doesn’t take advantage of the fact that you freeze in spot. Instead, he follows the path of your gaze to the steadily approaching Inquisitor.

“Hey, boss!” he says, his tone casual and his body relaxed. Go figure. Everyone you know seems to be on a goddamn first name basis with the Inquisitor. You knew Iron Bull was part of his Inner Circle, but seeing it kind of stings. You’re trying to get the Chargers in your pocket, which means you are, in a sense, trying to get them out of the Inquisitor’s.

“You’re up early, Bull,” the Inquisitor comments lightly, but his gaze is going straight past Bull and right to you. Thanks the Maker for Ben-Hassrath training; Bull seems to pick up on the tension right away, but doesn’t react to it.

“You know me, Boss. Late to bed, early to rise. What about you? You hate mornings.”

“I received word that the soldiers we saved in Fallow Mire are coming up the mountain. They should be here in a few hours,” the Inquisitor says with a long sigh. “Seemed pointless to go to bed after that.” He gestures towards you. “I see you’ve met our ever-popular linguist.”

You try not to bristle visably.

“Oh, Emma? Yeah, she’s real friendly,” Bull says, placing a too-familiar hand on the back of your neck. You don’t know whether you want to kiss him or kill him. Half of Skyhold already thinks you’re a whore, the Inquisitor included. It’s the perfect way to assuage his obvious suspicions. It’s just also a bit humiliating.

“So I’m learning,” the Inquisitor says dryly. His eyes draw slowly down your body, as if he’s just now taking in the relatively scant clothing you’re wearing. You want to slap him, but instead, you avert your eyes to stare determinedly at a pole. Let him draw as many false conclusions as he wants. Better he simply continue thinking you’re banging your way through Skyhold than start wondering why you’re learning how to fight from a Ben-Hassrath.

“Do try not to break her, Bull,” the Inquisitor says, and you can hear the smirk. “I still need her to finish that translation.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Bull says with a grin, and the Inquisitor turns to continue his early morning stalking about the grounds of Skyhold. You let out a light sigh of relief.

“The boss doesn’t think much of you, does he?” Bull asks when the Inquisitor is out of earshot. He sounds amused.

“No, he doesn’t,” you agree. “His first… well, second, technically… introduction to me involved Solas.”

“Ah, say no more,” Bull says with a chuckle. “You’d think Solas giving him a castle would help to soften things between the two of them, but I think those two will hate each other until the day they die.”

“Mm… Bull?”

“Yeah?”

“Get your hand off my neck.”

-

You call off training early yet again in order to bathe, change, and still have time to bring Solas his breakfast in a timely manner. You’re nervous thanks to his clear irritation the night before, and you take time to make sure as many of his favorites as possible are involved with his breakfast. Perhaps a good meal to start the day will soften his mood.

Vivienne is already awake and enjoying a disgustingly fancy looking breakfast on the balcony. You amuse yourself by imagining simply walking up to her and pushing her over the railing. The way she’s positioning herself for power, throwing other mages gleefully under the boots of the Templars to gain it… Ugh. You can take some small comfort in the fact that she, at least, is a worse person than you.

You take a few deep breaths outside of Solas’ door before rapping the polite knock of a servant. You enter as quietly as you can, expecting Solas to perhaps still be in bed.

You don’t know whether he’s up early or you’re just running late, but Solas is already awake. Vigorously awake, as a matter of fact. You open the door to the sight of him pushing himself off the ground and back up onto his feet. He’d been doing some kind of… stretch, although you’ve never quite seen someone bend that way on purpose. He’s shirtless, because of course he is, but you can’t seem to make yourself avert your eyes.

“Good morning, Emma.” You find you can’t find the words to respond. You stare for longer than is technically appropriate as Solas stretches his shoulders before turning to fetch a shirt. That snaps you out of it; Maker, you can’t just stand here and watch the man dress.

“Good morning, ser,” you say, extremely belatedly, as you quickly move to begin placing his food on his table. You’d just been telling yourself you’d be less of a nuisance, and here you are, practically drooling on him. Maker, get a grip!

You finish unloading his food around the time he gets a shirt on. You turn to leave, but Solas, somewhat predictably, stops you. You’ve not been able to simply deposit his food and leave yet, after all. But the manner in which he stops you is something of a shock.

“Emma, remove your tunic.”

You freeze mid-step. ...Clearly, you misheard.

“P-p-pardon?”

“Your tunic,” Solas says, his matter-of-fact voice now suddenly chilling to you. “Remove it.”

You turn slowly to stare at him, still not quite believing that your ears are correct. “My… tunic?”

“Yes.”

“I… you… the… what?” Eloquent. Highly eloquent.

Solas lets out another slow exhalation through his nose, and you feel a bolt of fear jolt through you. He’s irritated. Why is he irritated? Why does he want you to strip? You stand rooted to the spot as your mind rushes through possibilities. There’s the obvious, of course, but Solas… Surely, Solas isn’t the type to… And he’d just gotten dressed...

“I… I can’t…”

“It wasn’t a request, nor a suggestion,” Solas says curtly, and you bite your lip, fighting against churning panic. There’s something here you’re not understanding. It’s as simple as that. Hands shaking with nerves, you undo the ties on your tunic and slip it off over your head. You clutch the crumpled cloth in front of you like a shield.

Solas waves you towards him--towards the bed--and you go with halting steps. Should you run? You didn’t lock the door behind you. But what would be the point? You work in his rotunda. If you piss him off, any chance of gaining his knowledge will be gone. He gestures for you to sit on his bed and you do so, shoulders slumping in surrender. You can deal with this. You’ve dealt with it before.

He sighs and sits down next to you. You don’t move, don’t look at him. You’re already staring off into space, prepared to go to another place until it’s over. “--even worse than I thought.” You realize, belatedly, that Solas is talking, but you can’t seem to make yourself listen, because he’s lifting your shirt up.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to take this off,” Solas says, and he sounds… apologetic? You lift your arms obediently to let him peel your undershirt off of you. You hear a sharp intake of breath; it’s not yours.

“Fenedhis,” Solas swears under his breath. He places a hand on you and you flinch. “Be still,” he says, and you obey. There’s nothing else for you to do.

Imagine your sudden surprise--and alarm--when you feel the familiar, tingling warmth of magic seep through your skin. You whip your head over to stare, disbelieving, at Solas. He merely glares in response. “I said, be still.” You turn your head back to stare blankly at the wall. You turn your focus inward, to grasp control of your aura and yank it down out of the way as his magic seeps into you.

“You’re a wretched mess.” Solas is scolding you, but you still haven’t quite caught up to what the fuck is happening. “I thought your arms were bad, but this... What exactly were you hoping to accomplish?” He runs hands gently infused with magic down your bare back and understanding finally dawns on you. He’s healing you. And he’s... taking objection to the number of bruises you’ve obtained over the weeks?

“I..” you say, trying to get your mind back into a state where it can form sentences. “I’m… fine?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Solas snaps. “Any sane person would have gone to a healer days ago.”

“I’d have gone if it was serious!” you protest. “It’s just bruises, that’s all.”

“Your 'just bruises' are quite serious.” Solas raps a knuckle against your back; you cry out in surprised pain. “You have too much blood built up under the skin here. It’s making you ill. Unable to eat or sleep properly, dizzy, feverish. I believe you have the beginnings of an infection, as well. If that had seeped back into the rest of your blood, you would have been in serious trouble.”

You stare blankly at him, uncomprehending.

“How long have you let Iron Bull brutalize you, only to forego healing entirely?” Solas scolds. “I can appreciate your desire to learn from the best, but your distaste for healers is pure stupidity.”

Solas continues to lecture you as soothing hands cure the deep ache in your back. You try to pay attention to what he’s saying, but you’re still in shock. The fact that you’re in naught but your breastband doesn’t help. The words “dressing down” were no doubt designed for this exact scenario.

Eventually, he seems to have healed you enough for his own satisfaction. He lets out another long, irritated sigh. “I’ve done what I can. You’ll be tired after so much healing, and hungry. Get breakfast--actually get breakfast.” He pulls your shirt on back over your head; you quickly move to get your arms through the sleeve holes. “I hope this frankly embarrassing encounter sticks with you,” he continues to scold. “Take proper care of yourself, and we won’t have to repeat this.”

“Yes, ser,” you say meekly as you yank your tunic back on. You’ve barely spoken throughout the whole ordeal. “Sorry, ser.”

“Don’t apologize,” Solas sighs. “Do better.”

He shoos you out of the room and closes the door behind you. You just sort of stand blankly outside for a moment.

What…

What the fuck just happened?

Chapter Text

You take a few more moments to compose yourself and attempt to process. You’re not quite sure what to think at first. You walk dazedly towards the door to the Great Hall. Solas had been irritated, that much was clear. But it was at your own lack of interest in your own health. That was… confusing. Of course, the idea that mere bruising, when repeated enough, could turn into something so serious was also confusing. You’d honestly had no idea. You will have to figure something out about that, because you definitely don’t want a repeat of this.

You’re fairly certain that if you stop long enough to process the fact you’d been sitting half-naked on his bed--half-naked on his bed-- you’ll stop functioning entirely. You stumble past Madame de Fer without really seeing her until she speaks up.

“My goodness, dear, you look wretched!”

You turn to stare at her, unable to comprehend this on top of everything else that’s happened.

“Dear, you know you don’t have to put up with that sort of thing,” she says with a properly Orlesian pout. “The Commander has been very firm on the subject of men taking… liberties… with the staff.”

You’re not a master of self-control on the best of days. You can admit this about yourself. And right now, your nerves are absolutely fried. Between the Inquisitor and Solas, you have absolutely put up with your maximum amount of shit for one day. That’s your excuse for the red that flashes in front of your eyes, as well as for the words that fly unbidden from your mouth.

“Liberties?” you say slowly, your voice low and dangerous. The corner of Madame de Fer’s lips curl upwards; she knows she’s touched a nerve. “Ah… yes. Well, Madame de Fer, as you know, I worked in Orlais for some time. I’m quite accustomed to men taking liberties.” Her smile flickers somewhat, and you press on. “I even worked for Duke Bastien for a time. He was quite fond of liberties, as I recall. But then… you know all about his liberties, I’m sure.”

Her smile is gone now, and the steely look in her eyes reminds you of why she was nicknamed the Iron Lady. But you have fire in your own eyes, and you know when iron melts. You smile thinly. “Thank you for your concern, Madame de Fer.”

You stalk off, and this time, the enchantress doesn’t move to stop you.

-

You steal a quick breakfast from the mess, utterly unwilling to disobey Solas’ orders after the little show he’d put on. Afterwards, you head out into the courtyard. You aren’t going to the rotunda. That much is obvious. You were stressed and strained by the Inquisitor, driven slightly mad by Solas’... whatever the fuck that was, and Vivienne de Fer had put you in a frightfully foul mood. You decide that now is the perfect time to take Belassan up on his offer for a ride outside of the walls. You need to clear your head, and Belassan is nothing if not an excellent Dalish punching bag. If you need to sharpen your tongue on someone, he’ll likely tolerate it.

He seems surprised to see you when you storm into the barn. “Emma! It’s not Sunday!” You note immediately that he’s shirtless, because today is just your fucking day for half-naked elven men, apparently. He’s shorter, and slighter than Solas in build and shoulders, although he has a thicker layer of muscles. His dark skin would make a phenomenal contrast to Solas’ pale white; you get distracted for a moment imagining them standing next to each other, both shirtless. Maker, you’re such a mess. What had Solas called you? Wretched. Yes, that sounds about right. s

“Forgotten about your promise already?” you say. You attempt to make your voice light and playful, but it comes out strained. You’re feeling the effects of all that healing magic now; your limbs are heavy and you desperately want to crawl into bed. But you can’t actually sleep it off, so you might as well try to ride a hart. That’s technically sitting down.

“Oh!” says Belassan, looking shocked. “You actually… Well, um… If you don’t mind waiting me to finish up my morning chores…”

“I’ll help,” you say, in a tone that brokers no argument. Belassan, being Belassan, tries anyway.

“Oh, that’s really not-”

I’ll. Help.

“Yes, um… serah?” Your sudden voice of authority no doubt confused him, but you can’t bring yourself to care. Your cover isn’t going to be blown by speaking authoritatively to one stable elf. Besides, thanks to your various stunts with Madame de Fer, amongst others, that ship has long sailed.

You pick up a pitchfork and immediately begin going to town on the barn. Your entire body screams in protest, and if Solas caught you, he’d probably tan your hide (now there’s a mental image), but the movement feels almost as good as the thrill of rebellion.

Belassan doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with you. You throw off your tabard within the first few minutes of working, almost as if defying the world with the bared flesh that had terrified you not an hour earlier. You attack the dirtied hay as if each individual straw has insulted your mother.

“...Needing a day off?” he asks after a while, somewhat hesitantly.

Maker, yes,” you say emphatically. Something about the way you say it makes him laugh.

“Well, I’m happy to assist. With two of us, we’ll be done in no time, and then we can ride out. You’ll feel better once you’re on Revas.”

You can’t help but think he’s right. It’s hard to feel caged in with freedom between your knees.

-

The two of you finish the chores quickly and saddle up just as fast. You’re riding Revas; there’s no question about that. Belassan mounts--bareback, of course--a beautiful white hart with dark grey fur on its head and down its chest. You have to admit that the two of them are very striking together, and as you ride out into the mountains, you can't help but notice Belassan moves as if the hart were simply an extension of his body. You really shouldn’t be staring, even if you have the excuse of studying the way he rides. Ugh, that sounds just as bad. Well, at least he put on a shirt.

“Keep your balance with the hart,” he advises as the two of you ride. You’re clumsily attempting to mimic the natural way he holds himself. “Always keep your body upright, no matter whether he’s climbing up or down.” You shift awkwardly; he makes it look so damn easy. Still, just in mimicking him you feel like you’re quickly picking up tricks he might not think to actually tell you.

The two of you ride out decently far into the woods, and the conversation inevitably turns to the druffalo in the room, so to speak… the Dalish.

“You’re so natural on a hart,” Belassan compliments you, despite the fact that next to him, you feel about as natural as a hurlock with four knees. “You said you grew up in Denerim… but did you ever consider running away to join the Dalish?”

“Oh, not really… By the time I was old enough to think about running away, I’d already done it once, from Tevinter,” you lie with a thin smile. “And there aren’t a lot of Dalish in Antiva.”

“Tevinter?” Belassan says, sounding shocked. You’re just as surprised.

“I just assumed everyone knew… I’m too used to being friends with nosy people. Yes, I was a slave. Loghain sold a good number of us to fund his civil war. I escaped when I was still young and caught a ship to Antiva.”

Belassan whistles. “You’ve had an interesting life.”

“I’m not the one with face tattoos,” you say with a snort. “I think I’m probably fairly average, by elven standards.”

“You seem far from average to me,” Belassan comments slyly, and you grin.

“Keep complimenting me; it’s working,” you say with a laugh. “I feel better already.”

“That’s thanks to Revas, not me,” Belassan says with a chuckle of his own. “Still, I’m glad I could help.”

-

By the time the two of you arrive back to Skyhold, you’re feeling a great deal more relaxed. Belassan is a pleasant person, once you get past the whole “Dalish” thing. He brings it up a bit too much for your comfort, admittedly, but what Dalish doesn’t? He’s not so obnoxious about it that you wind up wanting to deck him. That’s your standard reaction to the Dalish, honestly. The fact that you can tolerate him is impressive; the fact that you’re beginning to enjoy his company is flat-out incredible.

You still have trouble climbing back up to the rotunda, however. Will Solas be able to tell you haven’t rested? Will he scold you again? You try to look suitably chipper and un-injured as you walk through the doors.

Solas does give you a once-over as you walk in, but you seem to pass inspection. “One of Leliana’s messengers left something on your desk,” he informs you.

Ah. It’s going to just be one of those days.

You head to your desk and unfold the note and missive from Leliana. This one isn’t as dire, it seems, but she still wants it translated and delivered by the end of the day. You grind your teeth in frustration; you are not a messenger. But apparently you are, because you’re certainly not telling Leliana you won’t do it. You eye the missive idly. Qunlat and a cipher you recognize. Time consuming, but not impossible. You would love to know how she’s getting her hands on these. Ben-Hassrath reports are notoriously hard to intercept, largely because traitors to the Qun are such a rarity. If a Qunari goes rogue, they run into the hills and become Tal-Vashoth. They don’t stick around as an aid to the enemy.

And, of course, if she didn’t have you, chances are all her efforts on intercepting the messages would be in vain. You’re a very specific resource for someone who wants to spy on the Qunari… something Tevinter and your master knew very well. You saw his dead and mangled body with your own eyes, and even then you sometimes still have trouble believing that Tevinter isn’t still after you.

You hear the sound of shuffling from behind you, which brings your mind back to the present.

“You smell of hay,” Solas says, and you’re immediately mortified. You had bathed before breakfast, so the idea of bathing again after going riding hadn’t even occurred to you. You turn to look at Solas so that you can judge whether he’s offended by your stench. But, of course, his expression is neutral. Why couldn’t Dorian be the one with all the secret knowledge? He couldn’t hide an expression if his life depended on it.

“I… went to the barn…” you say hesitantly. “After breakfast,” you add quickly.

Solas sighs. “So much for resting. I suppose if you started actually obeying, I’d have even more cause to wonder about your health.”

Your mouth twitches into a half-smile. Is he cracking jokes? Please, Maker, let him be cracking jokes. You can’t take another lecture just now. “I just had so much boundless energy after eating such a large, hearty breakfast,” you say sarcastically. “I simply had no other option.”

Solas snorts. “Mouthy brat. I suppose that means you’re feeling better. Best get to work, then.”

You flash him a grateful smile and turn back to your desk. His humor does wonders to calm you down. He’s no longer cross with you, and you can practice a bit of civil disobedience without getting another lecture. What a relief, on both counts… You turn your focus to the missive and the attached instructions. The list of names on it has you quite sour. Cullen Rutherford isn’t a surprise, but Cassandra Pentaghast? You could go your whole life without ever meeting a Seeker. You’re not even entirely certain as to what they are. Pentaghast may be an “ex” Seeker, but in the same vein as Cullen is an “ex” Templar. You’re not convinced there’s a such thing.

Nonetheless, you work on deciphering and then translating the missive. It’s a multi-step process, and you half-expect you’ll be required to burn your notes afterwards, so you simply write down as little as you can. Unfortunately, Solas hadn’t been joking about your tendency to take on a lot of responsibilities, and you’d flitted about most of the morning riding with Belassan. It’s lunch time before you finish the translation.

You jot down a few notes so that you don’t forget what you were in the middle of, and then rise to get Solas’ lunch.

“Is that not important?” Solas asks as you rise, clearly aware of where you’re going.

“It says ‘by the end of the day,’” you explain. Plus, you have priorities. As much as you want to endear yourself to the Spymaster, you want to endear yourself to Solas more, especially after the fright you’d had that morning. You feel terrible, in retrospect. Honestly, how could you have thought he’d be one to take advantage of you? And in the end, all he’d been trying to do is help. You’d be actively beating yourself up over it if he seemed at all cross. Fortunately, it seems he got out all his irritation in the morning’s lecture.

Won’t hurt to make sure you get him a good lunch, though…

At the kitchens, you snatch and steal bits and pieces of delicacies for his plate. There aren’t any confectionary chocolates for you to steal today, but you snatch some candied fruit. You make sure all of Solas’ food is piping hot and fresh, and grab a loaf of bread so fresh from the oven it burns your fingers. For some reason, you’re ravenous… must be the healing magic, like Solas said. You’ll need to try not to overdo it though. You don’t want to make yourself sick.

Nonetheless, between the food for you and Solas, the tray is extremely heavy, and you have no small amount of difficulty with it. Hadn’t you only begun doing this because you’d seen Celia struggling under the weight of two meals? You are, above all else, a massive hypocrite.

Fortunately for you, Celia is seemingly just as much of a stubborn workaholic as you are… You see her as you’re leaving the kitchen. She seems to note the way your arms are shaking under the weight of the tray, and grabs a few of the plates off of it.

“Let me help,” she says. Perhaps she’s feeling better, but her body language is demure once more. “It’s the least I can do, honestly…”

“I won’t say no, if you’re willing to brave the drake den,” you say with a chuckle. “Maybe after seeing Solas shirtless so often, you’re willing to overlook him being an apostate?”

She flushes bright red, not the slight pink tinge your cheeks get when you’re embarrassed. “I’m not… I never… It’s not my fault the man doesn’t believe in shirts!”

That makes you laugh aloud, your shoulders trembling from both mirth and the heavy tray. “Maker, don’t I know it! Alright, let’s get Messere Solas his food before he becomes cross with us!”

Solas looks quite surprised when Celia walks in the door with you. She’s half-hiding behind you, and her bravado seems to stall out quickly as you approach his desk. She stands firmly by the door, as if she can’t force herself any closer to Solas’ desk. Ah well, she’s done you a great favor just in helping you get everything up the stairs. You unload the plates on your tray, and then retrieve the plates she’s carrying and place them on Solas’ desk as well. As you’re doing so, Solas strikes up light conversation… poor Celia.

“I see your friend is feeling better,” he comments, his eyes flicking over Celia. She looks like she’s about to jump out of her skin. How difficult breakfast must be for her! At least you’re paying her well.

“Much to my infinite relief,” you say, your lips curling into a smirk. “If you scold me again, I can simply run upstairs and cry to Dorian.”

Celia is staring down at the ground, but you get the sense she’s listening carefully. That sobers you slightly; anything you say in front of her may well be part of Skyhold’s newest rumor. “Thank you for your help, Celia,” you say to her, unwilling to sit at Solas’ desk while she’s still there. Not that there’s anyone else here for him to be sharing this meal with, and the stool at his desk is… telling.

“Not at all, serah,” she murmurs, and quickly flits out the door to the Great Hall, shutting it gently behind her.

“If Dorian saw the state of you, he’d scold as well,” Solas says, sounding amused, and you realize he’s probably right… Dorian had been cross with you when you’d been limping up the stairs to Leliana. Iron Bull had practically forced you to heal that same sprain, and Sera had been in a panic when you’d been injured. Cole always showed up whenever you needed him most.

You have… people who care about you here. Arguably, they wouldn’t if they knew anything at all about you. But still… the thought is both heartening and terrifying. You’d had people who cared about you before, and it never ended very well for them.

“I’ll endeavor to give you all less to fret about in the future,” you say finally. You sit down on the stool to enjoy a leisurely meal with Solas. The damn missive can wait.

-

You manage to avoid gorging yourself at lunch, but only out of a sense of dignity… you’re starving. Solas must notice you eyeing his leftovers, because after a moment he simply dumps them onto your plate. You want to protest or be embarrassed, but instead, you just eat. Perhaps if you give your body enough fuel, you won’t suffer any ill effects of being unable to rest after so much healing.

After you’re done eating every scrap of food available to you--in between talking to Solas about herbs in general and your garden back home in specific--you gather up all the dishes and cart them back to the kitchen. That was a wonderful little break, but now you really do need to finish translating that missive for Leliana. You get right back to it as soon as you return to the rotunda, and don’t stop until you have a viable translation in front of you. Leliana requested an oral report again, so at least you don’t have to scribe off a bunch of copies.

Normally, you would save Commander Rutherford for last, but you’re dreading meeting Cassandra Pentaghast even more than seeing him again. The Commander is, at least, a known quantity.

However, your trip to his office proves fruitless… to your surprise, he’s not there. You ask a nearby guard where you might find him, and they direct you back towards the gardens. Is he perhaps giving Leliana that rematch she requested? Seems odd he’d be doing it in the middle of the afternoon, though…

Your questions are quickly answered when you get to the gardens. He is indeed at the chess table… But not with Leliana. Your stomach seems to drop to your feet when you see the Inquisitor sitting across from the Commander. You immediately step backwards away from the Inquisitor’s line of sight. The Inquisitor wasn’t on the list of people you needed to deliver the report to, so you have every reason to wait until he’s gone. Perhaps you should try to seek out Pentaghast first, after all?

The Commander and his sharp senses get the best of you once again, however. “Ah, Emma! Excellent timing once again. I believe that,” the Commander says, and you hear the clink of stone on marble. “Is checkmate, Inquisitor.”

Oh, goodie, you arrived just in time to see the Inquisitor bested at chess. You’re certain he won’t hold that against you at all.

“I’ll win next time,” the Inquisitor says, and to your relief, his voice is relaxed, not angry. “The Trevelyans will have their revenge!”

The Commander waves you over and you reluctantly approach the gazebo. The Inquisitor eyes you quite sourly. You’ve never seen a face so plainly say “you again?” before.

“Somehow, I’m not surprised to see Skyhold’s favorite pet,” the Inquisitor says lightly. You keep your face neutral as you bow, but note that the Commander seems surprised by the Inquisitor’s words.

“I’m here to deliver a missive to the Commander, your holiness,” you say as politely as you possibly can.

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of the working man!” the Inquisitor says gaily, rising from the chess table. “I hope to see you tonight, Commander.”

You try not to be visibly relieved as the Inquisitor leaves. You also try not to be visibly scared when he swoops by you. He passes so close to you that his cloak momentarily batters against your leg before sliding off. You take a quick second to compose yourself before stepping up onto the gazebo.

“Good afternoon, Commander. I have a missive from Leliana. She requested I deliver it to you orally,” you say to him as neutrally as possible.

“Of course,” the Commander says with a nod, gesturing for you to sit across from him. You would prefer to remain standing, but you fear that would be taken as rude, so you sit. You deliver the report in a quiet voice, uncertain if you should be doing this in such a public place. The Commander seems to be fine with it, however, so you just recite the whole thing. It’s about Templar movements, although you’re honestly uncertain whether they mean Templars or red Templars, and say as much to the Commander.

“Red,” he says, resting his chin onto his hand, clearly thinking. “It doesn’t match the movements of any of ours, and we have nearly all the Templars united with us now.”

They do?

Great.

You neatly fold the missive and tuck it back away, but of course, it’s never so easy as simply standing and walking away.

“Do you have time for another game?” Cullen gestures to the chess board.

“I… I should deliver this to Serah Pentaghast,” you say hesitantly. It’s getting close enough to dinner as it is. You won’t be late with one of Solas’ meals.

“You won’t have much luck,” the Commander says. “She’s out on training exercises with the men. She won’t be back until the evening.”

Goddamnit, Spymaster, get your shit together. Had she meant to send you on a wild goose chase? And now you have no convenient excuse to turn down the Commander, who’s looking at you expectantly.

“Al… alright then,” you say, trying not to look like you regret it. You want to appease Solas. The Commander is someone you must appease. You set the board quickly. You’ll have to try to lose quickly, but not look like you’re attempting to lose. It’ll be an entertaining enough challenge, at least.

“Are you getting used to delivering these reports?” Cullen asks as you move your first pawn forward. He moves his own pawn out directly in front of it.

“I’m just glad this one wasn’t delivered to the entire war room,” you say with a chuckle, as you move another pawn up in position to be taken by his. The Commander takes it almost without a second thought.

“Oh? Not fond of public speaking?”

“Not when it’s to a room full of some of the most powerful people in Thedas, no.” You move another pawn up to be taken; he takes it, paying more attention to what you’re saying than the board.

“I suppose it must seem like that, to most people,” he says with a rueful laugh.

“To us normal fol