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Necessary Death

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She is not long for this world.

Eyes the color of the stormy sea snapped open. Visions of the Fade evaporated and disappeared. The gates of the Black City, Arlathan-that-was, had loomed large in front of him.

So close. He was so close to his goal.

She is not long for this world.

He knew. Of course he knew. They were tied together in ways that were frustratingly impossible to untangle. He closed his eyes again and willed the voice to quiet and be still. To him, it sounded like Mythal, though whether it was truly Mythal speaking to him or his own battered conscience, he could never decide. Either way, it refused to be ignored.

She is dying. Right now. While you lie here chasing a dream of the past, she’s at Skyhold counting the breaths left in her. There are only a handful; far too few for one so young.

“And what would you have me do, friend?”

You know what’s killing her. Is it a surprise that she, a mortal, doesn’t have the power needed to keep the anchor stable?

“I was never certain of what would happen. I only studied the anchor closely in Haven; she grew far more powerful in the years that followed.”

Excuses. You had a better idea than most. You always suspected… The anchor is yours, after all, Fen’harel. And now it’s eating her alive.

"I decided long ago to place restoring the People above everything - above myself and above her. It is… unfortunate, but turning back now would render everything meaningless.”

Unfortunate? She deserves the truth before she dies in the dark.

“I can’t.”

You can’t? You can’t what?

“I can’t.”

Coward.

“Where she is concerned… I do not deny it.”

Grey storm cloud eyes close again; tears flow like rivers rolling to the sea. He pushes the hurt below the waves and journeys once more into the Fade.

Standing before the gates, he takes a deep breath to clear his head. He can’t seem to stop the tears, but he has a job to do. As he’s done so many times before, he closes his eyes, opens his arms wide, and draws from the power of Mythal and Urthemiel to find a way to breach the walls.

“Solas?” A gentle voice calls to him, piercing his heart with its beauty and sadness. He catches only a glimpse of her as he turns. Red hair floating softly around a pale face, dancing like a flame. Suddenly, everything goes white, and she screams as she’s pulled from her Fade dream.

You can’t let her become another of your necessary deaths. She is more than that, the voice that was and wasn’t Mythal hissed in his mind.

————————————————————–

You are not long for this world, da'len.

Eyes the color of a cloudless day snap open as pain suddenly ricochets through her body. A scream of fear and agony erupts from her lips. For what seems like an eternity, the world is white-hot and hazy. Her mind tries to hold on to the dream, but for the moment everything is pain and the dream is forgotten.

Finally, slowly, the world refocuses and she is again Meria Lavellan. Breathing hard, cold sweat soaking through her bedclothes, she clutches her blankets tightly to her chest and sways gently.

“I am not long for this world,” she whispers to the cold moon looming large outside her window. “I’m dying. I’m going to die. Why do I have to die?”

“You really don’t,” a familiar voice called from the stairwell, steps growing louder as the Tevinter mage made his way up to her room. “We’ve kept it at bay so far, haven’t we?"

"Dorian, I’m so sorry. Did I wake you?” Meria breathed, embarrassed that her friend had heard.

“No matter, my dear,” he said with a grin and a wink, standing on the top step, “Strictly speaking, I haven’t actually gone to bed yet. Maker, but it’s freezing in here - your blasted fire’s gone out!”

He strode into the room to the fireplace and sheepishly looked around before igniting the fire with a spell.

“So lazy, Lord Pavus,” Meria chuckled weakly.

“Some call it ‘laziness,’ others 'genius.’ Me, I’m all for getting warm. Quickly.”

As he faced her, his smile fell and a ghost of fear clouded his face. A spark of panic flared in his eyes and was willfully extinguished. He tried to hide it from her, but she knew that he’d come to the same conclusion she had. Despite all his knowledge. Despite all the hours and hours he spent poring over old tomes and following leads to find a cure. Despite the healers from nearly every corner of Thedas he’d paraded up the steps to her quarters. Despite everything, he couldn’t save her. She knew he felt like he was failing her, and that knowledge cut deeper than the pain of the anchor.

The anchor. It was killing her. The change had started slowly, but had gathered fearful momentum in the past few years. When Corypheus had been defeated and the rifts all closed, the anchor began to grow. At first, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her, but when it extended past her palm to her forearm, she couldn’t deny that it was growing. And it wasn’t just getting physically bigger, it was also consuming her energy. It took her magic from her, leaving her empty and unable to cast even the simplest spell.

Dorian’s lyrium potions and healing poultices had helped to turn the tide for a bit, but the anchor was too… hungry now. From her left hand, it extended up her arm to her chest, neck and cheek in gracefully arching lines that glowed a faint green. She could feel tendrils of it wrapped around her heart and lungs, squeezing tighter each day.

No, there was no amount of lyrium that could stop it now. They were only delaying the inevitable at this point, and they both knew it.

The roar of the fire was the only sound as Dorian worked to wipe the pained look from his face. He coughed and moved stiffly to her side, sitting next to her on the bed and placing his hand on her forehead.

“Well, no wonder you weren’t cold. You’re burning up."

"I had the dream.” Dorian sighed heavily, “Just lie back. You need to rest.”

“… he was in it.”

“Please don’t do this to yourself.” He placed a cool compress on her forehead.

“He was there, in the Fade. Facing the Black City. Again. But this time, he was crying. I tried to call out to him, but when he looked up… that’s when the pain came and I woke up.”

Dorian mixed the lyrium draught in silence. He’d heard her describe this dream so many times, he felt like it was his own. The crying was new, but otherwise, it was always him. Solas, the bastard, standing before the Black City, searching for a way in.

“Do you think it was just a dream or really him?”

The same question. Always the same question. Was it really him? Do you think it was really him? Anger, raw and unexpected, bubbled up from the pit of Dorian’s stomach.

“Stop it!” he snapped, “Stop wasting the little bit of energy you have left pining for him.”

“Dorian, I only…”

“You only waste precious energy on the memory of kaffas who broke your heart years ago. Where is he now, Meria? Now that you can’t even walk, let alone cast? Where was he when it was finally too much to just get out of bed? He was gone, that’s where he was. Gone because he’d gotten what he wanted from you. Don’t spend your last days crying over him!”

The silence that fell between them was deafening. “I’m so sorry,” he choked out in a low growl. The lump in his throat made it hard to get the words out.

“I don’t know what to do any more. Fasta vass, this is really happening. What do I do?” Dorian’s voice cracked and dropped to a whisper as he hung his head. The Inquisitor reached out to her friend and drew him into a fever-warm embrace. She stroked his dark hair while he wrapped his arms around her small body and sobbed into her shoulder.

She whispered into his ear, “I don’t know what to do either. I’m so scared. But I’m so, so glad you stayed with me, da'len.”

The Dalish endearment made him smile, in spite of himself.

“Oh,” he said with a tearful chuckle as he straightened himself up and dried his eyes, “I’m a persistent bastard, if nothing else. You won’t be rid of me so easily.”

Smiling through the sadness, he went back to work preparing the medicine that would keep her alive for another day. Maker willing.

Chapter Text

Skyhold was clad in her best finery for the occasion. Elegant swags of rich velvet cloaked her walls and towers. Bouquets of crystal grace adorned her halls. Torches of veil fire were everywhere, lining the battlements and walkways like jewels strung on a necklace.

The fortress was beautiful, an exquisite flower against the picturesque backdrop of snowy mountaintops.  And why shouldn’t she be beautiful today? She was celebrating a singularly magnificent life, a flame that burned too intensely to last. Her mistress had set out for the last time, shaking the chains of this world from her weary soul and falling into that eternal sleep. 

Dorian’s eyes were dull, blind to the trappings of mourning around him as he walked slowly through the garden. His mind cast itself back over and over again to the moment she’d slipped away. It had only been two days. Two days that felt like a lifetime and an instant at once. He hurt, Maker, but he hurt. There was an echoing hollow place in his heart where she used to live. The place he’d made just for her. How many walls did he have to tear down to let her in? How many had she torn down herself before he’d known it? Excepting Felix, she was his first true friend. Because of her, there had been many more. She’d taught him how to abandon the ironic detachment that he’d armored himself with. She’d taught him how to be genuine. She’d taught him how to care.  

Despite the empty place in his heart, he couldn’t cry. They kept telling him to “let it out.” He didn’t know what it was he should be letting out. His hurt? His anger? Everything? To let that out would be to flood the world. There was so much love and rage and sorrow and confusion, he’d drown trying to let it out. No, outside the constant dull ache in his chest, he had become numb, it was safer that way. 

His feet carried him without any interference from his mind. He moved aimlessly past the main hall as he remembered his friend’s last night. He couldn’t believe it, but she’d opened her eyes for the first time in days. With horror, he realized the anchor had not only covered the left side of her face, it had taken her left eye as well. It pulsed with a sickly green light that shook him to the core and set his teeth on edge. Despite the anchor, however, she was clear and present, lucid in what were to be her final moments. She actually sat up, and he remembered how his heart had skipped a beat as he allowed hope some room to grow. She took a slow breath and reached for him, her one blue eye clear and focused. 

Her hands closed around his, impossibly hot, heartbreakingly thin. Hope receded as she opened her cracked lips.  

“The dream is real. The Black City is real. The wolf is real. It’s all real, Dorian.”

Her voice was the sound of the desert. Sand on sand on sand, breaking and grinding. But still hers. Still sweet to his ears.

“I don’t understand…” he began. 

“Ir abelas, Dorian. Ma serannas. For everything, ma serannas.” 

There was a moment of silence as she closed her eyes and leaned back against her pillows.

“Ar lath ma, lethallin,” she breathed out, almost too quiet to hear. 

And that was it. She was gone. The anchor marks that had covered her pale body burned with blinding intensity for a moment and then were gone. Both her eyes were blue. Both her eyes were empty. 

He sat alone with her in silence for a long time, even after the fire died and the candles burned down. He didn’t move, scared that if he did, scared that if he told someone, it would all be real. Instead, he’d gone over what she said to him over and over. He hadn’t understood it and he cursed himself for never bothering to learn her language in all the years they were friends. 

“Hey… Dorian? Are you ok?” a familiar voice called out, notes of concern clear over the layers of grief.

Dorian snapped out of his reflection and looked around, mildly surprised to see he’d made his way to the Commander’s office. The man himself stood next to the window behind his desk. His red face and bloodshot eyes painted a picture as plain as day. In his mind, Dorian saw the Commander gazing out that window as he did whenever he was troubled, trying to hold back the tears and failing. Despite what he’d have his enemies believe, Dorian knew that Cullen’s heart was huge and his emotions ran deep and strong. Meria had meant a lot to him, too, Dorian knew. She’d helped him break his addiction. She’d shown him that he was stronger for all his scars, a better man for the lessons learned from his mistakes. She’d taught him it was ok to love another in his own slow way. She’d helped him find that love.  

“As well as can be expected,” Dorian’s voice cracked and trembled. Just seeing Cullen’s tear-streaked face and the worry in his eyes was enough to bring on the storm. He felt the flood coming, and there was nothing he could do to turn the tide.

“Fuck that,” he said, somewhere between rage and sorrow, “This whole thing, the whole world, we’re all of us fucked. Proper fucked. What was the point of saving anything when everything is so wrong? How can people like Samson or Florianne still draw breath while she has none? How can I… how can I fill her spot in my heart? It hurts, Cullen. Maker, it hurts! I can’t…” Dorian’s rage became strangled sobs as the floodgates opened. His legs drained of strength as he lost balance and swayed dangerously. He was sure he’d fall and found that he didn’t care. Instead of the hitting cold stone floor, however, he found himself secure, caught in soft warmth. Strong arms pulled the mage in tightly against a warm chest. Hands calloused from years of living by the sword and shield ran fingers gently through dark hair. Scarred lips kissed the tears away with heartbreaking gentleness.   

The Commander didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. The Lion of Skyhold wasn’t great with words, but Dorian listened to the sound of Cullen’s heartbeat and finally, finally began to let it out. 

————————————

Across the mountains, Solas lifted his eyes to the horizon. Skyhold burned with splendor in her honor. 

“It is her fortress, after all,” he whispered, “It reflects her actions. The depths of its grief is a testament to her.”  

He smiled sadly as he began the last leg of his journey, one that had started as a quest to tell her the truth, but had become instead a trek to pay last respects. He’d been making his way to Skyhold since the night she appeared to him in the Fade. That was weeks ago now. He would have made better time, but the spring thaw made for treacherous terrain, so the going was painfully slow.  

Indeed, the trip was made all the more painful by the knowledge that every day she was falling further away. He felt her decline almost physically, since he was tied to her in more ways than one. The anchor itself originated from him, but the deepest connection was through Mythal. He remembered how frustrated he’d been when she chose to drink from the Well of Sorrows. He’d raised his voice at her for the first time in true anger. She took it in stride and calmed his anger with subtle grace and charm. 

She happily told him she’d make the world a better place with the power, vowing to try again and again if she failed. Her confidence. Her spirit. Her wonderful innocence. Everything about her filled him in that moment, and his frustration melted away. In that moment, there was only love. He was truly moved by her. Her words inspired him and showed him how cynical and bitter he’d become. The fire in her eyes called him to be better, and he desperately wanted to answer her. 

He decided to tell her everything. He let himself hope that he could build a life with her. As they journeyed to Crestwood together that day, he saw it all. He’d give up on his quest. They’d be bonded together. He’d do his best to recreate the ancient elvhen bonding ceremony, and though it would surely be a poor subsitute, it would be perfect because she’d be there, shining, beside him. He saw their life together, journeying through the world and through the Fade, together as one. He looked forward to the nights they’d spend talking and telling stories or simply reading, comfortable in each other’s company. He thought of the ancient elvhen secrets he could teach her and the temples they could explore. With a blush, he thought of making love to her and then holding her as she drifted off to sleep each and every night. He felt the warmth of her breath, steady on his chest, and the beating of her heart in the dark of night. He dared to dream of their children, and all the things he could teach them. Saw them grow into compassionate and kind adults, defying expectations of elves at every turn. 

He then saw her, growing old and frail and lesser. Finally dying while he never aged. He saw his children spat upon and beaten in the streets for the shape of their ears. He saw the pain and confusion in their big, tear-filled eyes as he tried to explain why the world was so full of hate. “We didn’t do anything to them, we promise, daddy. Why did they hurt us, mommy? We just wanted to play with the other children. It looked like fun.”    

The words of his not-children pierced his mind and the happy future he crafted evaporated. He saw the faces of the downtrodden elves, sad and abused in their alienages. He saw the arrogant fumbling of the Dalish, forever homeless and in danger from all sides. He saw his people reduced to animals. 

As if she knew his heart was troubled, Meria reached out and grabbed Solas’s hand as they walked into the grotto he’d taken them to. His heart only grew more pained as he realized he could never tell her the truth. Worse, he could never be with her. Not the way she wanted or the way he’d daydreamed as they walked together. Until the world was safe for the people, his heart was not his to give away. 

He knew she expected something from him. The look in her eye was expectant, exited. He braced himself and followed the course of action he knew was right. 

Afterwards, he didn’t turn when he heard her sorrow and confusion rising into the warm night air. As she crumbled to the ground behind him, his stride remained the same as it ever was - calm and purposeful. There was no hitch in his gait, no hint of hesitation, even when she called out that she loved him, calling him vhenan. Even when, finally angry, she called him cruel, cold as the stone.

Her words were daggers, but he had pressed on. He needed her to believe that it was over. He couldn’t let her see the weakness in his resolve. Couldn’t let her see the loneliness that already washed over him. Couldn’t let her see his face twisted with the bitterness of regret. Couldn’t let her see the tears that burned down his cheeks as he mourned the life that could have been. 

Deep in memory, Solas crested the last mountaintop between Haven and Skyhold, his hot breath forming clouds around his head. The first time he had stood in this spot, gazing out at Skyhold, she was beside him, bright and full of life and hope. Her face was full of wonder as she examined her new home. She laughed with delight and bounded down the mountainside. 

Standing there now, in the cold dark of loneliness, it all became suddenly too real. Her light was gone from this world. The anguish he felt at leaving her in Crestwood was a trifle compared to this. The hole in his heart was ragged, ripped and bleeding for the loss of her. 

He feel to his knees, grasping his staff at the last moment to keep from falling completely. The rush of emotion threatened to overtake him, but he kept it at bay with an iron will. He was, after all, very good at keeping his mask of detached composure up. The years of sacrificing personal needs for the greater good made him an old hand at pushing emotion and heartache back into the recesses of his mind. 

He’d only dropped that mask once since waking from the long slumber of Uthenera. Once in a crazy fever dream when she made him believe he could be happy.

Jaw clenched and eyes dry, he rose and made his was slowly down the mountain towards her fortress. 

“She will know why.”

For the first time in weeks, he heard the other voice, that might-be-Mythal, speak up.

It will not be that simple. It never is where love is concerned… even in the face of death.

Chapter Text

“Kid, you’re gonna have to get some sleep sometime. Why don’t you come with me back to the Rest to get some… well, rest? She’ll understand." 

Varric sighed. His voice didn’t sound right, even to him. It was too tired by far, and he knew he should take some of his own medicine. Still, he couldn’t rest knowing that Cole continued his constant vigil over Meria’s body. Over the years, others had warmed to Cole around Skyhold, but it was Varric who truly felt responsible for him. Every time he visited Skyhold, he made a point of spending time with Cole. He even convinced the kid to come along with him a few times.

Varric had something of a soft spot when it came to outcasts and misfits.  

Time had changed Cole. He was still fair, but his skin now carried a healthy glow. He’d stopped hiding his face and had even cut his hair. His eyes, though - his eyes were the same, soulful and piercing. Others found it hard to meet his gaze. It was unsettling to most.

"Cole…” Varric prodded when he didn’t respond.

The young man shrugged softly. His ice-blue eyes never left the Inquisitor’s pale face as he replied. 

“I can’t help her wake up. I’ve been trying and trying, but there’s nothing I can do. Why won’t she wake up, Varric?” his voice was shaking. Varric could hear the panic at the edges. 

“Listen, you know she’s not just asleep, right? There’s nothing you can do for her now except to keep living and being you, because she loved you.” Varric rested his hand on Cole’s shoulder, squeezing slightly in what he hoped was comfort.

“She’s not just asleep, but she is, and I can’t help. Weary and wounded, she walks alone. Passage winding away, dangerous and dark. Wishing to wake, waking to dream. The dream is real. The Black City is real. The wolf is real. It’s all real, Dorian." 

"Dorian?… Who do you think you’re you talking to?”

Cole jerked, as if he’d been nodding off and had just caught himself. 

“I’m sorry, Varric. I can’t leave.”

Varric nodded wearily. “Suit yourself, Kid, but you really should find some time to sleep. I’ll get someone to bring you something to eat, too.”

Cole didn’t respond as Varric turned and made his way out of the main hall where they’d laid her body. Varric hadn’t heard Cole slip into his Spirit-Cole speech pattern in years. Ever since he’d convinced Meria to let him help Cole become more human, Cole had slowly stopped that poetic, but damned upsetting, way of speaking. Once, he told Varric that he still thought like that. He still received thoughts like that from those who needed help, but he’d learned to filter what he said to be more palatable. 

“More like everyone else,” he’d said casually. 

Varric remembered feeling a pain in his heart at those words. He remembered that he’d wondered again if he shouldn’t have just let Solas have his way regarding Cole’s nature.   

Varric didn’t stop to wonder until much later just whose thoughts Cole was receiving as he sat next to Meria in the main hall.

—————————————————

“The viewing is in the main hall if you’d like to pay your respects in person before the ceremony tonight,” Josephine’s voice was soft and sure and appropriately solemn, though her red eyes and disheveled appearance betrayed her emotional state. She’d repeated this statement over and over throughout this horrible day. The words had long since lost their meaning. Most visitors were lost in their own thoughts and only nodded as they pushed past her into the courtyard. 

“Frig that!”

The exclamation caught Josephine off guard, and she looked up just in time to see Sera walking stiffly to the Herald’s Rest, a bag of cookies inexplicably tied to the tip of her bow. 

“So it begins.” Josephine thought. She’d intended to stand there, greeting visitors, until all of Meria’s “inner circle” came home. 

The Iron Bull and his Chargers were next.

“A damn shame… ” Bull managed before his deep voice cracked. He stared off into the distance for a while, brow furrowed and jaw clenching until he regained control. “A damn shame.” He shook his great, horned head and walked into the courtyard. 

“What he means is of course we’ll pay our respects. The Inquisitor meant a lot to us. As far as we’re concerned, she’s a Charger, through and through. Family…. we’ll miss her.” Krem added apologetically and hurried after his boss. 

Not long after that, Grand Enchanter Vivienne arrived with her retinue.

“Josephine, darling, how is everyone holding up?”

“As well as can be expected. It’s been a challenging year, to say the least. Everyone’s just a little lost right now.”

“I’m just so sorry we couldn’t find anything to help her. Especially after all she’s done for us… for me. I… I can’t believe she’s gone." 

The Grand Enchanter nodded tersely, biting her lip, and made her way toward the main hall. 

"She won’t care for Cole being in there…” Josephine thought. 

Some time later, a nervous cough caught her attention. 

“Josephine,” a robed figure hissed in an exaggerated whisper, “Josephine, it’s me. I had to sneak away to come, but I had to come." 

Josephine’s eyes narrowed, then widened as she recognized the accent.

"Cassandra?! Have you lost your mind? When you said you were coming, I thought… The Divine, travelling unprotected… oh, this is bad… ”

Cassandra scoffed, “Please calm yourself, Lady Montilyet. I am hardly unprotected. I am, after all, armed and armored.”

“… and the Divine comes to us bearing arms. Can this day become any stranger?” Josephine smiled, in spite of herself. “You are, of course, welcome. Skyhold remains ever your home.”

“And she was my friend. I have a few things to say to her before… before she’s gone.”  

Josephine chuckled at the thought of Divine Victoria skulking about Skyhold in hooded robes. “That makes everyone, then.” She thought sadly to herself. A raven from Weisshaupt had come earlier in the day, carrying a letter from Blackwall. 

“My dearest Josephine, 

My heart mourns the passing of the Inquisitor. She was a great woman, and I have no words that could properly honor her. They all pale and prove insignificant as I write them. 

I am sorry to say that I cannot get away in time for her farewell, but I intend to visit as soon as my assignment at Weisshaupt is complete. 

I hope you are doing well, my lady. Please take some time to rest and take care of yourself during this time. 

With great respect, 
Warden Thom Blackwall”

She felt guilt at how disappointed she was that he wouldn’t make it to Skyhold. She didn’t even know that she’d been hoping he would come. Josephine had never been able to explain why her heart had decided on the gruff warrior, and it pained her when Meria had turned him over to the Wardens. She knew deep down they had no future - a future with him meant releasing her tenuous grip on the trade agreements that had brought her family’s recent good fortune - but she hadn’t admitted that to herself at that point. 

As Josephine thought about wardens and trade agreements, the stream of visitors slowed to a trickle. 

“Lady Montilyet, should we close the gates?” a guard interrupted her thoughts. 
She looked up and scanned the road leading to Skyhold. The sun rested on the horizon, setting fire to the snow with its dying light. It would soon be dark. It would soon be time for final farewells and trying to pick up the pieces. 

“I think it’s about time… wait." 

Across the chasm, a man stepped onto the bridge that led to Skyhold’s gate. He walked briskly, a staff in his hand. The man was robed, but his hood was down and his head was high. Josephine made out the familiar silhouette of pointed ears and bald head against the fiery red snow. 

"No. It can’t be,” she whispered. 

“My lady?” The guard asked. 

“I have to tell them,” she breathed as she ran to the keep. 

—————————————–

Everyone gathered in the main hall for one final goodbye before the Inquisitor was to be laid upon the pyre in the lower courtyard. Meria had asked to be sent off in flames and have her ashes scattered wherever the winds outside Skyhold would take her. She loved her home and her people, she’d said, and wanted to be with them always. Dorian had laughed and called her sappy when she’d told him that long ago; he never told her that he really thought it was beautiful.

He’d also laughed at the ragtag collection of people she’d gathered once, but she just gave him an exasperated look and squared her shoulders as she replied. “Ser Dorian Pavus, I am an elf… and a Dalish elf to boot. Literally all I know is my clan, my aravel in the Marches, and how my clan thinks of the world. If you need one hundred reasons Tevinter is evil, I’m your girl. If you need one reason it isn’t… well, I had to meet you to figure that one out. Now that everyone looks to me to ‘make things right,’ I need all of you in my inner circle. You all have to help me make the decisions that will 'make things right’ for everyone in Thedas, not just elves or mages. Everyone deserves to be happy.”

Now he was surrounded by what Meria had considered her “inner circle.” With the exception of Cole, they’d spent much of the day in the Rest, catching up and remembering that they were all friends. There were tears and there were laughs as everyone, even Vivienne, shared stories of Meria. Dorian looked around at his one-time companions. They were a motley crew, to be sure, but they had once stood together against demons and the dark forces of the world… and triumphed. 

And now, here they were. Standing together again. Not in triumph this time, but in sorrow. 

In the main hall, everything was somber and grey. Meria’s body was up on the platform where her throne normally stood. Cullen and Leliana stood next to her, and Dorian wondered briefly where Josephine was.  He allowed his eyes to slide over to Meria’s body. She looked as she did the night she passed. Pale, thin. Empty. Hurt rumbled through him like thunder and he closed his eyes until it quieted.

Important people were speaking, Nobles and clerics addressing the crowd with platitudes as if they knew her. He wasn’t listening. As far as he was concerned, the only people whose thoughts mattered when it came to Meria were either standing right next to him or right next to her on that platform. Well, one of them was sitting next to her, in the same spot he’d occupied for the past two days. Dorian winced and made a mental note to sit with Cole for a bit once the… fire died down.

The door to the main hall opened and a rush of cool air entered the room, but Dorian paid it no mind. What did catch his attention was the sight of Lady Montilyet rushing to Leliana’s side on the platform. Under other circumstances, the self-conscious way she was scuttling, trying to run without running, would have been side-splitting. 

Today, however, it was disconcerting. What was she whispering to Leliana? Why did her eyes stop searching the crowd when they landed on him? Why was Leliana now whispering to Cullen? What was that look in his eyes? 

Once again, the door opened and closed behind the crowd. Silence fell over the hall, punctuated by the sound of a staff striking the floor with each of the interloper’s steps. 

Cole looked up from Meria’s face for the first time in days and smiled warmly. Why would he smile? 

The staccato beat grew louder and closer. Dorian’s heart beat faster as the rest of the inner circle turned and reacted as one. 

“Why now, you arse?!” he heard Sera hiss as she spat on the floor.

“The unmitigated gall…” Vivienne sneered. 

“Vashedan…” Bull’s voice came from above him.

Cassandra’s derisive scoff was clear, even from under her hood. 

“Well, shit.” Varric sighed. “You’re… not going to be happy about this, Sparkler." 

Dorian glanced up at Cullen to see that the Commander was already watching him with a worried look on his face. His shoulders fell as he gestured for Dorian to look. 

But he didn’t have to. The staccato beat of staff on stone had drawn even with him. He couldn’t ignore the man striding confidently towards Meria if he wanted to. It took a moment to gain his bearings, and then it snapped into place. 

"Solas, you son of a bitch!” The words were out of him before he knew it, more reflex than conscious thought. He’d spent too many nights watching his bright and beautiful friend break over and over again after Solas disappeared without even a goodbye. That he should return to say goodbye to her now set Dorian’s blood to boiling. 

Solas paused for a moment, and then continued up the steps to Meria. 

Varric grabbed Dorian’s arm before the reflex insult could become something more. 

“It’s ok, Dorian, he’s here for the same reason we are. He loved her, too." 

"I… fine. He can say goodbye and then get the fuck out.” Dorian growled under his breath. 

He watched as Solas bent over Meria and bristled as he kissed her forehead. Tenderly, Solas stroked her cheek, and Dorian could tell that he was speaking to her under his breath. Suddenly, his lips stopped moving and his head tilted swiftly to the side. He looked as if he was trying to hear a faint sound more clearly. 

“She won’t wake. The wolf is real, but she won’t wake,” Cole stated. 

The quiet hall exploded with Solas’s laughter. He laughed. And laughed. And laughed. He was bent over, clutching his sides, laughing. 

Suddenly, Dorian’s world went red. Flames rose around him as he lost himself in the depths of his anger and sorrow. His staff found its way to his hand, aimed at the man laughing at his dead friend.  

Chapter Text

He saw the Ambassador scrambling through the gates, no doubt running to alert the rest of the Inquisition – the prodigal apostate had returned. Solas didn’t break his stride, however, until he reached the entrance himself. He sighed heavily and allowed himself a moment to lean against his staff. The journey had been hard, but the hardest part was still to come. His tired eyes followed the path from where he stood to the stairway that would lead to her.

It was suddenly very difficult to breathe. His throat tightened and closed in on itself. His chest burned, emotions boiling and churning where his heart had been. It was all he could do not to scream his wordless pain into the dusky sky until his throat bled and his body gave out. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, willing the turbulence in his soul to calm.

There were nights after he left when he’d felt a little like this. There were nights when the connection he shared with Meria brought her thoughts and emotions painfully close. Oh, she was always present in his mind, usually a pleasant buzz around the edges of his consciousness, but there were some nights her loneliness was as intense as his own. Head in his hands, he’d sit alone in the dark and make himself feel every bit of her sadness, adding to his own, wishing that he could just take it all from her. Those were nights so painfully lonely and dark that he considered simply turning around and going back to Skyhold – backhome – to apologize and come clean. He’d close his eyes then, too, and remember a happy scene from once upon a time, when she would come running down the very stairs he now faced to greet him, copper hair streaming behind her, all smiles and laughter and light. All for him.

And now she’s fallen to darkness and ruin. You’re too late, friend.

“Stop it,” he hissed under his breath.

“S-ser? I’m sorry?”

Solas jumped at the unexpected sound of another person. He hadn’t even noticed the guard standing there.

“No, I’m sorry. I am lost in my own thoughts this evening. Did you say something?”

“Ah, I understand, ser. Very sad business, all this. The Lady Inquisitor was the best of us. Now she’s laid low, too young” the guard trailed off for a moment, took a ragged breath, and then continued, “she’s up in the main hall, ser, for the memorial service. That’s where the Ambassador was sending all the people.”

“Thank you, guardsman,” Solas pressed a comforting hand against the guard’s shoulder as he entered the courtyard.

He tried not to look around as he made his way to the main hall. He was afraid of the ghosts of his own memories. Still, try as he might, he couldn’t help but to resurrect a few…

… the time she’d welcomed him back, comforting him after his friend has passed, wanting only to heal his hurt.

… the time they’d argued about what to do with Cole. He’d been so relieved when she stood up for the young man against Cassandra and Vivienne. “He wants to help,” she’d said. “Let’s let him.”

… when she dragged him down to the stables to see the Dracolisk she’d been given. He thought it a rather hideous creature, but she decided it was the best thing she’d ever seen, so of course she assumed everyone else would love it, too.

… the many times she coaxed him away from his studies to the Herald’s Rest for a drink and a game of Wicked Grace.

He remembered how she’d once tried to get him to sing an old elven song with her. She was so pleased that the bard actually knew it, she was practically hopping in place with excitement. He’d adamantly refused, however. He recognized the song, of course. What she was calling a joyful song of praise had been merely an old nursery rhyme that the Dalish had mistranslated and bastardized with each new generation. She’d been laughing as she tried to get him to stand with her, tugging his arm playfully. He remembered that she’d mockingly said, “Dread Wolf take you, Solas, if you don’t get up here!”

Her voice invoking him as a curse. Her lips forming the words.

No matter how playful the tone, the old anger had risen quickly. His voice was steel and ice as he snapped, telling her exactly what her ridiculous “song of praise” was. Blue eyes widened in shock as her face reddened and crumpled. She mumbled an apology and excused herself for the evening. He didn’t find out until much later that she’d lost her entire clan only days before. They’d called on her for help, but the decision she’d made had destroyed them. He couldn’t imagine how devastated she must have felt - tasked with saving the world, she’d caused the destruction of her own family. As far as she knew, she was the only Lavellan left in Thedas. Songs and memories were all she had left of her old home now, and she just wanted to share them with him. Why didn’t he just sing the damn song with her? Why didn’t he see that she was in pain? Bitter regret added itself to the mix of emotions threatening to overtake him.

There were so many memories of her in this place, triggers like traps hungrily waiting for him to fall into them.

Are you going in? She’s waiting for you.

The voice again. He realized he’d made it to the hall. He placed his hand on the solid door that opened into the main hall, brushing it almost lovingly as he wondered again who it was leading him on. Was it Mythal or Fen’harel that had brought them here?

“It doesn’t matter. I’m here.”

Solas took a deep breath and pushed the heavy door open. A gust of wind caught it and flung it open violently. Silence fell over the hall as the mourners turned to see who’d broken their grieving so rudely.

Go. She’s there. Just go. They don’t matter.

“Indeed,” he thought, as he looked up to the bed of flowers and furs they’d laid her on.

“Preserve me, she’s really up there. This is really happening. This is all real,” his mind raced.

He felt weakness threaten to take him, but he was determined to finally face her. He wouldn’t fall apart now, not when he was so close. He swallowed hard, took a breath to steady himself and began the long walk to say goodbye to the woman he still loved… would always love.

Familiar faces stood out in the crowd now. He could read the shock and anger in their expressions. Sera spat at him. Fine. Vivienne sneered. Fine. Bull cursed. Fine. Cassandra made a noise of disgust as he walked past. Fine. Varric just sounded tired and disappointed. Fine. It was all fine. They could hate him. He didn’t mind. They had every right.

He wasn’t ready for violent emotion in the voice that echoed off the walls of the hall.

“Solas, you son of a bitch!”

Dorian’s words were a strangled cry that mixed anger and sorrow and regret and loss and loneliness and insignificance and futility and disappointment and love all at the same time.

Solas paused for a moment. “Ah, that’s what it would sound like if I let it out,” he thought, and started back up the steps. He heard Varric talking Dorian down and nodded at Cole as he reached her.

He didn’t know what to expect, but he wasn’t prepared. She was so, so impossibly thin. He held his breath for a moment, foolishly afraid that she’d be carried away with the slightest breeze. He tried not to think about how awful her last days must have been, fighting the painful hunger of the anchor with no strength in her body. How brave she was to even have tried.

In spite of the bones visible through her skin, however, she was still his Meria. Even in death, her skin was clear and smooth. Candle light danced through her burnt gold hair. He swore her pink lips curled up at the edges in that softly irreverent smile he loved. She could have been pretending to be asleep. If only she was.

He bent low to kiss her forehead, tears building and finally spilling over his lashes, landing on her cheek. He stared at them for a moment, transfixed. They were beautiful against her porcelain face, set on fire by the candles. Little jewels of his sorrow to decorate her lovely face in place of the vallaslin he’d taken from her years ago.

“Ar lasa mala revas.” His voice was thick and husky as he tenderly wiped the tears from her face with a soft stroke of his thumb. Her skin was still soft. Somehow, that made everything worse.

He knelt down and brought his face close to hers, trying to find the right way to start his confession.

“Aneth ara, Vhenan,” he managed before choking. In his long life, no one had worked themselves so far into his heart. In his long life, he’d never had to say a goodbye as painful as this. He grabbed her small hand, clutching it as he let the wave of grief wash over him.

He cleared his throat and continued in elvish. Those nearest could hear his grief pouring out in his melodic native tongue, clear and heartbreaking.  

“I should have come sooner. I should have returned when you first fell ill. I should have been by your side through all of this. I should have… I should have sung that damn song with you… I should have stayed. I should have stayed. I am so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m…”

He broke again. This wasn’t right. He had to tell her properly, but all he could do was stumble over his words and regret. He knew on some level why he’d made the choice to leave. It had seemed so damn important and right at the time, even if it was hard. He was secure in the knowledge that he was doing The Right Thing. Saving the people was The Right Thing. Doing it alone was The Right Thing. Keeping her in the dark was The Right Thing.

He shook his head and opened his mouth to continue.

Look at her.

“What?” he thought as he cocked his head to the side.

Look at her. No blemishes. Soft skin. Shining hair. Pink lips. Look at her.

“What are you saying?” he asked the voice in his head.

Somewhere from his left, a voice spoke. Cole?

“She won’t wake. The wolf is real, but she won’t wake.”

Look at her. Use that ridiculous intellect you’re so proud of.

“I can’t believe it… It’s not… It’s not possible,” he muttered out loud.

Soft skin. Pink lips. The hand he still held was pliant, joints and ligaments moving easily in his grip.

Uthenera.

Blue-grey eyes rimmed red with grief snapped wide in sudden realization. The long sleep of the ancients. She’d somehow fallen into Uthenera.

“Can you wake her up?” Cole whispered from his spot at her head.

The weight of the sadness and guilt and loss melted away. Solas’ heart exploded with hope and joy and relief. It was too strong, too sudden. He hadn’t felt any of these emotions, not strongly, in years. He didn’t know what to do with him. He could only laugh, and so he did. He laughed and laughed, breaking the terrible silence in the hall with his happiness.

“She’s not dead. She’s not dead!” he thought and tears of joy squeezed from his eyes as he gripped his sides. When was the last time he’d laughed like this? The thought made him laugh harder. How ridiculous he must look up there! He didn’t care. He’d laugh until he couldn’t anymore.

Cole grabbed his arm, “You have to stop. You’re hurting him more. He’ll let it in. Burning and bright, his hurt is great. His rage is greater.” Cole pointed out into the hall. Solas’ eyes followed his finger.

The people in attendance had scattered, pressing against the walls or scrambling to get out. Screams of terror filled his ears. How had he not heard them when he was cackling like an idiot up there?

A small group in the center of the hall remained. His one-time companions. They were fighting what looked like living fire. Solas squinted into the flames.

“Dorian!” he heard the Commander yell as he ran past, “Maker, no. Maker, please don’t let this be happening.”

Dorian?

“His rage is greater.”

His Rage.

Rage.

Solas gasped as he finally understood. The fire looked alive because it was alive. In the center of that writhing mass of flames, Dorian raged against his companions as they tried to subdue him before he allowed it to take over.

Before he became an abomination.

————————————————-

“Maker, no. Maker, please no. Please.”

Cullen was aware he’d been repeating these broken phrases as he ran towards the inferno that had swallowed Dorian.

Abomination!

Templar, you know what to do to protect us from them. Don’t think, just act. Instinct and faith will save you, son. This is your duty. This is what you were made to do. This is all you are. Don’t think of them as people. That makes it easier. They’re not people. Not like us. They’re not people. Not like us. Not people.

Voices from the past echoed in his mind. Some of them were old trainers, some were fellow Templars, but the worst was his own.

They’re not people.

Maker, had he really thought that? Who had he been all those years ago?

With effort, he pushed the voices down. There was no time for this. The situation was dire. He could see that Vivienne was trying to contain the flames with her ice spells and barriers, while Cassandra and Iron Bull had bound Dorian in chains. Varric was helping the frightened people find their way outside, Bianca in one hand with a bolt in the chamber, just in case. Sera stood back, arrow steady and aimed at Dorian.

He knew Leliana had an arrow similarly notched behind him. He also knew that the way he felt about the mage was the only reason she hadn’t already loosed her arrow, ending this before it could begin. He thanked the Maker that the Inquisitor had helped Leliana find her humanity and compassion again. It gave him a chance.

“Solaaaaaaaaaaaaassssssssssssss!” Dorian sang out in a voice that wasn’t really his. It was deeper and crackled around the edges. His eyes glowed red, open far too wide. His grin, too, was just a little too broad to be believed. Flames erupted from him in bursts and fits, patchy blackened skin visible beneath the fire. The hair on his head, his eyebrows, his mustache, it had all burned away. “You’re dead and you don’t even know it yet.”

That insane voice drove fear into Cullen’s heart. Was he too far gone now to save?

Suddenly, the chains that were holding Dorian snapped, heated to their melting points, and the warriors who’d been holding them fell backwards to the stone floor.

“Cullen!” Cassandra cried, “We need a Templar!”

The voice of the Divine was commanding him to act, but he found it impossible to move. This was all wrong. 

Faster than he could believe, Dorian shot past him toward Solas, a red-hot blur in the corner of his eye. Arrows flew. None hit their mark.

“You’re deeeeeeaaaaad,” Dorian tittered dangerously.

Cullen finally turned and drew his sword, but dread was making his limbs heavy and slowing his movement.

Still burning, Dorian lept up the stairs at once, crying out in anger and triumph as he brought his staff level with Solas’ head. The two faced each other silently for a moment, each on one side of the woman they both loved. Magic crackled as Dorian sneered, “Killing you won’t nearly be payment enough for what you put her through, but it’s one hell of a start.”

“You think giving yourself to a demon to kill me will make her happy?” Solas raised an eyebrow.

“Fuck you,” Dorian growled in a demon’s voice.

“Will this make her happy?” Solas’ voice was calm and slow.

“Fuck you,” the demon inside repeated.

“Think about what you’re doing. You still have control of this.”

“Fuck you, you self-righteous, smug piece of shit! What do you know?! What do you know about her?! You used her to get what you wanted and you left. And then you dared to laugh at her now that she’s this, now that that thing killed her?! She cried out for you every night, did you know? In tears. In pain. Burning with fever. Lips cracking at every word. She still called for you. Every night. She was sure you’d come. Up until sleeping was all she could do. She loved you until the moment she died. And you laughed. You fucking laughed.”

Dorian’s voice built into a hysteric crescendo. Cullen could see that Solas’ attempt to talk him down was failing. Of course it was. To Dorian, Solas was the root of all of Meria’s pain. Solas was exactly the wrong person to try and talk sense into the stubborn Tevinter mage.

“She wouldn’t want this for you. However you feel about me, you have to think of her. She loves you, Dorian. It would hurt her to see you like this.”

Dorian stiffened suddenly and dropped his staff to the ground. Screaming and clutching his head, he doubled over. Cullen watched in horror as the flames around Dorian exploded and his body began to twist. It was happening. He’d seen all this before.

Sword in hand, the ex-Templar equipped the shield from his back, angling it down from years of habit. His face twisted in pain, he rushed the platform where the man he loved – the first person he’d truly been able to love since the Circle in Ferelden left him broken and hollow –  was losing the battle against a demon.  

“Steel your heart,” the song flickered, unbidden, through Cullen’s mind, “The dawn will come.”

Chapter Text

Cullen exhaled heavily as he pushed the reports away from him, eyes burning from hours of intense study. The stacks of parchment brought by Leliana’s people slid across his desk with a whisper.

Some brought good news. An arl donating equipment here, a comtesse pledging use of her lands to the Inquisition there. Every now and then, a letter from one of his soldiers’ families found itself amongst the reports. Those were always heartening. So many loved ones were full of pride that their people were part of the Inquisition, part of something that mattered. He’d pass the letter off to its intended recipient each time with a sheepish grin and a tiny prick of guilt at having read it. Leliana could just as easily have given those letters to the soldiers themselves. He knew she did it for him. She handpicked the ones she wanted him to read to keep his spirits up.

Most of the reports, however, were bad or worse. The vast majority simply confirmed where Corypheus wasn't - page after page of nothing. For the past year, they’d been searching nonstop for the magister who would become god. For the past year, all they found were corrupted Gray Wardens and Venatori and Red Templars. Never the man himself. Corypheus was a phantom. Every trail that led to him ran cold. Every lead proved false. Cullen almost believed that they must have all imagined him.

Well, he would if it weren’t for the scarred earth and ruins that had once been Haven, of course.

The pain he’d been trying to ignore all morning coursed through his head, dull throbbing behind honey-gold eyes that pulsed with each heartbeat. He leaned forward, elbows on his desk, and rested his head in both hands. Out of habit, he began to massage his temples with his thumbs. It wouldn’t help, but it was something.

He felt the wave of nausea rising, almost on cue, as lights began exploding in the darkness behind his closed eyelids.

“Maker, again?” he pleaded with the cold stone walls of his office. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. It had been months since he last took the lyrium. Months of headaches so bad they left him curled up on the floor in the darkness under his desk, whimpering and clutching a bucket for the vomit that typically came along with them. Even after the storm passed, it left him weak and tender for hours, sometimes days, afterwards. 

The Lion of Skyhold, they called him. He didn’t feel like a lion. He didn’t feel like a commander. He felt broken and bruised. He felt like he was drowning, just gasping for air when the waves tossed him to the surface.

Still, Cassandra wouldn’t accept his resignation. Neither, for that matter, would the Inquisitor, damn her. So, there were appearances he had to keep up. Doors that had to be locked, lest his men walk in on him during one of these squalls and found that their commander was just a man, weak and fallible.

He’d almost waited too long. He rose from his chair and staggered around his desk, holding onto it for support with one hand and shielding his eyes from the dim light of his office with the other. For some reason, he’d held out the silly hope that this headache would pass as some did, but the nausea continued to rise and he knew he’d have to weather this storm. Still shielding his eyes, he stood up and made his way to the first of three doors he’d have to lock before he could collapse into a quivering mess on the floor.

He’d locked the two doors that opened out onto the battlements and was nearing the final one, the door that led to Skyhold proper, when it suddenly opened. Sunlight poured into Cullen’s office and bathed him in brightness. The world tilted dangerously as stars exploded across Cullen’s field of vision. An inarticulate moan of pain escaped his lips as white-hot misery shrieked through his head. He fell to his knees, one hand grasping at his stomach, fighting to keep its contents in place

“Shit! Commander? Cullen?! Are you all right?”

Distantly, he heard a deep voice calling him. Who?

Dorian, he thought dimly. He wanted to keep the list of people who knew what he was going through as short as possible. Right now, it included himself, Cassandra and the Inquisitor. And, if he was being honest, Leliana. There was little she didn’t know.

And now, it seemed, it included his friend from Tevinter.

Dorian closed the door quickly. Worry clouded his expression as he knelt with Cullen.

“Fasta vass,” he hissed softly, “I should’ve knocked first. I’m an idiot.”

“…. ‘s ok, Dorian,” Cullen managed weakly, still fighting the battle against nausea.

“It’s not ok, but thanks for trying,” he said as he helped Cullen sit down, “Let’s make you a bit more comfortable, now. How can I help?”

“…my head. It’s my head. It’s with… withdrawal. Lyrium.”

“Maker’s blood, Cullen, do you have a death wish? This could kill you. I’m getting a healer…”

Dorian tried to rise, but Cullen grasped his arm to keep him in place.

“No,” Cullen’s voice was broken but firm.

“No?” Dorian stared at the commander wide-eyed.

“No. One. Else.” It was undeniably a command.

Dorian narrowed his eyes and glared at Cullen. He was in pain. Weak. But he was still the commander.

“Well, aren't you just infuriatingly stubborn? Have it your way. I can’t help much, but I can do this….”

With a small movement, he coated his hands with ice.

“I know just this one ice spell. No good in combat, but… well, my mother gets these sorts of headaches. This used to help her.”

He placed one hand over Cullen’s eyes and the other over the base of his skull.

Heaven. His hands felt like heaven. The thunderstorm in his head stopped its torturous rotation. The waves of nausea calmed. Muscles started to relax as he leaned into the mage for support.

“There, now, commander. Is that better?” Dorian’s voice was low and soothing.

“Mmmmm”

“I suppose that’s a ‘yes,’ then.” There was a smile in Dorian’s voice.

Cullen knew the mage would have to dispel the effect soon or risk losing his hands to frostbite, but he would take every second of this relief that he was willing to give him.

They stayed like that in silence for a while. The commander leaning into Dorian, wrapping an arm around his waist and clutching his tunic to steady himself. Dorian kneeling on the stone floor cradling the commander’s head in his icy hands, heart pounding, trying not to think about how close he was. He was so close.

As the pain slowly released its grip and the nausea receded, Cullen became more aware of… everything. The smooth silk tunic that Dorian wore was cool in his hand. It smelled like him. Cullen inhaled slowly and just breathed him in. His scent was calming somehow. The commander felt his heartbeat steady and slow. Warmth radiated from his chest as the stress and tension in his muscles just finally…. released.

Peace. A port in the storm. That’s how Dorian felt to him right now. 

“Ahhhhhh. Damn!” Dorian muttered in pain as he pulled his hands away from Cullen’s face, shaking them to get the circulation moving again. “Unfortunately for you, that’s all I can do for now. How are you feeling? You seem a little more relaxed…”

Cullen felt the mage pull away, and he looked up. Golden eyes met gray-green flecked with amber and locked for an instant. Even in his semi-conscious state, Cullen could plainly see the longing in Dorian’s eyes. He allowed himself to wonder how often Dorian looked at him like that. How many times he missed it. 

Dorian coughed and looked away, jaw muscles working beneath smooth mocha skin.

“A bit. Better. Still dizzy, though. Think you can help me to my chair?”

“What, and quit this perfectly comfortable stone floor?” Dorian chuckled as he helped Cullen to his feet.

Too late, Cullen realized he wasn’t ready to be upright. He swayed dangerously, sure he would fall. He braced himself for the impact, but Dorian caught him and he found himself once again using the mage for support. That intoxicating scent. That warmth. He knew he shouldn’t, but he was still groggy enough from the pain not to care….

“Whoa, easy there, Commander. Seems like that was too much excitement for y….”

Dorian stopped short in shock as the commander’s arms wrapped tightly around him. Cullen buried his face in the graceful curve between Dorian’s shoulder and his neck. He took deep breaths and let that peaceful warmth wash over him. The man’s smell was better than lyrium, it seemed.

“Cullen,” Dorian whispered, hot breath on Cullen’s neck sending chills down his spine, “Cullen, what are you doing?”

Cullen didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know what any of this meant. He’d been lonely, and Dorian had been his friend. He’d been hurting, and Dorian had soothed it away. He’d been sick with anxiety and fear, and Dorian had made that all melt into nothing. His mind began to clear, and he realized he didn’t know what any of it meant. 

He pulled away quickly.

“Maker’s breath, Dorian, I don’t know what that was. I just. I didn’t think. I wasn’t thinking. After the pain let go, I was just so out of it and, just…so damned relieved. It’s been so long since I’ve had any relief.” The commander's voice was weary. He looked down at the ground, scratching the back of his neck. He knew by now his face was likely an alarming shade of red. “I don’t know what I was doing.”

Dorian studied him for a while with one eyebrow raised. Cullen grew increasingly uncomfortable under his silent scrutiny. Finally, when he didn’t think he could take it any longer, Dorian sighed heavily and shook his head.

“I suppose the real question, then, is this…” he began.

“Yes?”

“How about a game of chess in the garden? It’s a lovely day, if you’re up for it.”

“Of…. Of course. Let’s go.”

---------------------------------------------------------

Cullen didn’t realize he actually loved Dorian until much later.

Surprisingly, the witty man from Tevinter, the man who had a quip ready for everything, also had the patience of a saint, despite his many protests otherwise. Cullen realized, looking back, that the mage let him move and grow into their love at his own pace, never forcing it. The commander had always kept all his strongest emotions locked deeply within himself, so it took an agonizing amount of time for him to realize that the peaceful warmth he felt, the soothing pleasure when Dorian was near, was actually love.

And Dorian was somehow always there when Cullen needed him. He’d learned the signs of an oncoming lyrium storm and helped Cullen get through them in secret. Always, in those moments, the same feeling of relief and peace would wash over him when the pain finally lost its grip. Each time, he found himself grasping the mage tightly. Each time, Dorian waited until Cullen was fully himself again and, each time, he’d ask, “What are you doing?”

Each time, Cullen responded that he didn’t know.

Slowly, so slowly, Cullen realized he wanted Dorian close to him all the time, not just when he was hurting, but when he was happy, when he was exhausted, when he was angry, when he was sad. He just wanted the man near him, always within arm's reach.

“Sounds like love to me,” the Inquisitor said cheerfully when he finally decided to tell someone about it. She'd listened to his entire stammering story, from the first time Dorian found him struggling with the lyrium headache up until this morning when he'd caught himself wondering what it would feel like to run his fingers through that dark hair. 

“I’m sorry… what?”

Meria’s face wore a soft smirk as she sat on his desk, “Love, commander. It sounds like love.”

“Love?! That’s not. I mean. It can’t be… he’s…” Cullen barely managed to get the words out.

“He’s perfect and wonderful? I know. He knows. You know. We ALL know,” Meria laughed.

“No. Yes. Exactly. I’m just…” he sighed and dropped his gaze, “I mean, even if I did… he’s, as you put it, ‘perfect and wonderful.’”

“He’s not perfect. That was, very clearly, a joke.”

“What I mean is… I’m just broken. Maker, I’ve spent so much time hating myself. The things I’ve done...”

“You’re just a man, Cullen. He’s just a man. You make mistakes. You learn from them and pick up the pieces and you push forward.” She stood in front of him now, all seriousness, and held his face in her hands, forcing him to make eye contact with her, “We’re all broken. We all deserve love. You deserve love.”

He sighed as she crossed her arms and grinned.

“I also may or may not know a few things about his feelings…”

“Do you now… “

“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought we decided you didn’t care?”

“I… I never actually said that, you know.”

“I know. Tell him. You’ll feel better.”

“One day.”

--------------------------------------------------------

“One day,” Cullen thought, “will I forgive myself for what I’m about to do?”

On the platform at the head of the main hall, the man he fell in love with was burning. The man who soothed his pain away was a screaming, twisting horror. The man who’d helped him find his heart again was being consumed by his own rage and sorrow.

Everything had slowed down. It should have taken only a few steps to reach the platform, he should have reached it in seconds. Why wasn’t he there yet? He could see the look on Dorian’s poor burnt face. Hurt. He was hurting. He needed someone to soothe his pain.

Cullen didn’t have a magic touch to quench this inferno. All he had was a sword. The only tool he had to end Dorian’s pain was death.

"No," he thought, "No forgiveness." This would be thing that will finally break him for good. He couldn't see a way back from this. 

“I love you,” Cullen whispered fiercely through clenched teeth as he finally reached the top of the steps and began to swing his sword.

Golden eyes, streaming with tears, met eyes burning red with rage and locked for an instant. “I love you,” Cullen repeated as he let his skilled hands go about their grim work. He closed his eyes at the last moment, dreading the feeling of the final contact. Dreading the sound. Dreading what would happen after. All sound died and his world grew darker as that moment drew closer. Closer. 

“STOP!” a voice cried out. A surprisingly strong hand pushed against his sword arm, stopping it before the blow was delivered. “STOP IT, YOU CAN’T! He’s still in there, twisting and burning, fighting the demon though it hurts him.”

Cullen looked down and saw pale yellow hair and ice blue eyes.

“Cole,” he breathed, “We can’t save him now…  I can’t…”

Cole’s other hand rested against Dorian’s chest, blue light surrounding and protecting his arm from the flames. Dorian had… calmed. The fire still burned, but the twisting and screaming had stopped.

“We can,” Cole beamed up at Cullen, “He sees you. He wants to win. We can help from the other side.”

“Solas?”

“What he says is technically possible, but has only the slightest chance of working. You must know that there is little hope of saving him, even from the Fade.”

Once, not too long ago, he’d have laughed at the idea of saving someone already in the process of becoming an abomination. He’d have laughed at the idea of “hope.”

He found he was a different man today. 

“Please, Solas. Please try.”

Solas simply nodded and sat down with his back against the wall, as if to meditate. The speed with which he fell into the trance was eerie. One second he was there, and the next he was just gone. For a while, all was silent, save for moans of pain from the fire-thing that Dorian had become.

Without warning, the flames that had been dying shot out, throwing Cole and Cullen to the bottom of the steps. The demon’s wailing was earsplitting.

“NO!” it screamed, “He’s mine. This one is mine, damn you. I won’t go. HE’S MINE!”

A moment's silence.

"You have no power over me, wolf. I will exist. You will NOT DENY ME!"

"The demon is talking to Solas. He's very stubborn," Cole said in that offputtingly matter-of-fact way he had. 

"You CAN'T... it's... NOT.... IT'S NOT POSSIBLE!!"

The words reduced themselves into feral screams of rage.

And then they were gone. The screams, the fire, everything. Gone. Only Dorian remained.

Cullen flung his sword and shield down to catch Dorian’s damaged body before it could fall down the steps. They crumpled to the floor, the mage gathered up in the commander's arms. His heart broke at the sight of Dorian's burned skin. How much that must have hurt!

“Oh, please. Please don’t be dead!” Cullen desperately searched for signs of life. A breath. A pulse. Anything. “Don’t leave me. Maker, I can’t do this without you…”

Vivienne was suddenly by his side, hands glowing golden as she placed one over Dorian's forehead and the other over his heart. 

"I'm no healer, darling," she said softly, "but I can make what's there a little stronger."

Seconds felt like years before he heard it. A cough. So small Cullen thought he was hearing things. Cullen studied Dorian’s burnt face and then there it was again. He coughed… he was breathing… he was alive.

Vivienne pulled away with a satisfied sigh and motioned for someone to go get a healer.

He was barely there... but he was alive.

Dorian opened his eyes. They were their usual beautiful shade of amber-flecked grey-green. Cullen held the mage tightly as he let waves of relief wash over him.

“….. sorry….. so….. sorry,” Dorian’s voice was scratchy and soft.

“Shhhhh. Not now. I’ll make sure I yell at you later, ok?”

Dry wheezing as Dorian tried to laugh.

“….. sure….. “

“Dorian. Dorian, I love you.”

That laugh wheeze again.

“I… love… you… amatus.”

Chapter Text

Noise and light were the only things Solas could register as he lifted himself from sleep. It was easy to go under, but so much harder to come back. Consciousness began to fill him as words focused and resolved into phrases.

“The healer’s here! Curly, give him some room to breathe…“

“How do we know the demon’s not still in there, yeah? Could be he’s just waitin’ on us to, I dunno, relax and then catch us with our knickers down…”

“I don’t know, Sera. When we saved Arl Eamon’s son from possession, it took 4 of us going into the Fade to stop it... in addition to powerful magic on this side. I can't help but wonder at how Solas could do it alone…”

“No, the demon is gone. Balm for the pain, silence now instead of rage.”

“Cole, darling, you’ll forgive me if I find your assertions less than comforting…”

“Viv, give him a break. He knows this weird demon shit better than us.”

“Yer damn right, Bull! It’s cuz he is one, innit?!”

“Sera, you are not helping.”

“Stuff it, yer holiness big hat.”

“Sera! That is the Divine you’re insulting.”

“… and you too, queen high mage of… of… dumb... mage-y… things.”

Solas groaned as he opened his eyes, brows knit together in frustration. There were a great many things he missed about Skyhold. The frequency with which Meria’s “inner circle” fell into arguments was not one of them.

She loved them all. Somehow, they all loved her. They did not, however, always love each other. He knew that they’d die protecting one another if it came to that… they just never quite got along.

A small breath escaped his lips as he slowly rose, steadying himself with his staff. He’d used quite a bit of energy in the Fade.

Surprisingly, Dorian had been present and aware, fighting back even as the demon consumed his Fade body, twisting around him. Merging with him. Becoming him.  

“It seems I am in need of some assistance,” Dorian had called through clenched teeth when Solas entered the Fade, “If you’d be so kind…”

“Of course. I will need to focus my power through you to get to it, though. Try to relax and allow it freedom to flow.”

“Relax? Relax?! Andraste’s tits, Have you lost your mind, man?”

“I'm impressed you have the energy to be incredulous. There is, however, no time for this. The demon will fight harder once we begin. For a time, it will gain ground, so to speak. Prepare yourself. Pulling the two of you apart… will not be pleasant.”

Dorian had simply nodded grimly and set his jaw.

In the end, Solas had to begrudgingly tap into his own hidden well of power. It was just a small amount, but the demon sensed him. The demon knew him, and cried out against him.

“You have no power over me, wolf,” it spat, “I will exist. You will NOT DENY ME!”

“Wolf?” Solas’s eyes narrowed, “You have no idea. I have walked the paths of the forgotten and confronted true, ageless terror. You are but a spark compared to the infernos I’ve faced in the deep.”

Solas’s voice was the low growl of dread, menacing and powerful. Using even this small fraction of his true power had stirred the wolf, awakening the side of him he’d struggled to control all his life. His temper. His impulsiveness. His aggression. The traits that had earned him the name Dread Wolf.

A cruel smile curled the ends of the Wolf’s lips into a sneer. His eyes glowed with malice.

The demon hesitated.

The Wolf wanted to rip and tear. The Wolf wanted to be free. He licked his lips in anticipation of the kill. 

Calm yourself, Fen’Harel.

His true name. The other voice, the one he thought might be Mythal, called him by his true name and he was in control of himself again. Disappointment settled over him as he realized how little it took to bring that side of him out. Just a bit of goading from this baby of a demon and he'd been burning for destruction. How much had Dorian noticed? He didn't miss the fact that the man's head had inclined and turned ever so slightly, dark eyes cut toward him, one eyebrow arched with curiousity.  

You have to end this now before the boy catches on.

“Indeed,” Solas answered Mythal silently. 

He may know too much already. It may be wise to just let him die with the demon... 

"No. For her, I have to try."

You've changed.

"I know."

He braced himself for one more surge. He hoped Dorian could handle the level of rift magic he was about to send coursing through his frail human body. If his presence in the Fade didn’t survive this, Dorian would be free of the demon… but he’d end up cut off from the Fade forever as a Tranquil.  

Either way, there was no other recourse. Tranquility or death was preferable to possession.

Solas felt the power building deep in the pit of his stomach. He could feel it burning and pulsing as he shaped it with his mind, urging it to flow up from his core. His heart raced as the warmth passed through his chest, rolling into his arms, and finally pooling in his palms. His hands buzzed, arcs of green electricity shooting from fingertip to fingertip as the last bits of magic collected. With a final, violent snap of his hands, the power flowed from him, through Dorian, and into the demon itself.

Dorian’s eyes widened as a rift formed at the boundary between his body and the demon’s. Tearing, consuming.     

“You CAN’T…. it’s… NOT… IT’S NOT POSSIBLE!” the demon roared.

Solas placed a firm hand on Dorian’s shoulder as the mage screamed out in pain, demon flesh separating from his own in violent waves.

“This will pass,” Solas’s voice was low and soothing in Dorian’s ear, “Just hold on a little longer, and this will be nothing but a memory in the Fade.”

Finally, the demon shrieked one last time and then was just… gone. Rifted out of existence by magic that the world hadn’t seen in an age.

Dorian fell to his knees, stopping the fall with outstretched arms. On all fours, sweat dripped from him as he shivered uncontrollably. Chest heaving, he gulped down air as if he’d been drowning.

“What…” he gasped, “what was that power?”

Before Solas could consider an answer to Dorian's question, an impossibly bright light erupted on the western horizon. It undulated over the two men in waves, powerful at first but dying into gentle ripples. It carried a familiar presence. A feeling. It brought with it... Meria.

Dread Wolf, You know where that explosion came from.

“Yes,” he answered the voice in his head.

You know where she is.

“The Black City. Arlathan that was,” he whispered out loud.

Dorian’s eyes were wide as he sat back on his heels.

“Solas, was that…” but his words were cut short as his presence in the Fade began to shimmer and disappear.

“Ah, they’re waking you. We will speak on the other side.”

-------------------------

And now, here they were. On the other side, surrounded by bickering children. Solas sighed again and turned his attention to Dorian’s physical body. The elf’s mouth fell open in soundless horror. The damage was… extensive. Much of the young man’s body was badly burned, bits blackened and cracked. Nausea washed over Solas as he tried not to see that the leathers the mage normally wore had somehow merged with his skin in places. The healer could hardly touch him without causing more damage.  

It was a wonder he made it back from the Fade at all. It will be a wonder if he survives this.

“He’s dying anyway. The demon’ll die when he goes, right?”

“Enough, Sera! He’s not dying. He can’t die. Maker, he can’t.”

“Just because you’re ruttin’ him…”

“You miserable bitch!”

“Commander! Back off!”

“I've got her. You hold him, Bull!”

Faces flashing anger. Emotions, pure and raw, exposed and laid bare. This is what they’d been reduced to. Meria’s circle was breaking against itself before him.

“They’d die protecting each other,” Solas thought bitterly as he crossed the platform to Dorian’s side, “or kill each other like savages.”

He knelt beside the man from Tevinter and lowered his mouth to his ear.

“Are you there?” he whispered.

A groan. The slightest of nods in response.

“In the Fade, when the light exploded. Did you feel it? Did you feel her?”

Another small nod. Cracked lips parted to allow a cracked voice escape, “Alive.”

“Yes,” Solas murmured, “She is alive, but likely to be in danger. I know where she is.”

“Good…” a beat of silence passed, and then he continued, “... are you… the… wolf?”

Solas’s eyes widened. That Dorian was hurt so severely, but still wanted to understand what had happened in the Fade boggled the mind. He felt a surge of guilt at never having really taken the man seriously. Clearly, he was made of sterner stuff than Solas had credited him.

“You shouldn’t listen to demons, Dorian. Rest and let the healer do his work.”

Impossibly, Dorian opened his eyes. Solas cringed as the delicate skin around his eyelids cracked.

“Meria… said…” his voiced cracked and he couldn’t continue.

From Solas’s side, a soft voice spoke.

“The dream is real. The Black City is real. The wolf is real. It’s all real, Dorian.”

“Cole?!” Solas started. How long had he been next to them?

Dorian nodded and closed his eyes again.

The wolf is real.

The wolf.

Solas turned his wondering eyes to the Inquisitor, lying still on her funeral platform.

What does she know?

The argument that still raged through the hall was suddenly too much for Solas. He needed to think. He needed solitude. He desperately needed these people to calm down and help.

Clenching his fists into tight balls, the tall elf rose and inhaled deeply.

“STOP!” he bellowed, “YOU DISRESPECT THEM WITH YOUR INCESSANT SNIPING!”

Silence, beautiful silence, descended upon the hall.

“They yet live, but you’d make their struggle harder by spitting hate at one another?”

Half a breath ago, they’d been at each other’s throats. Now, stunned faces looked up at him as one. It was all he could do not to laugh again.

A moment passed as the meaning of his words washed over them.

Cassandra took a hesitant step forward. “What do you mean ‘they,’ Solas?”

Nine pairs of eyes studied him as his face softened. His tone was gentle as he replied, “The Inquisitor is alive. We can get her back.”

Solas’s voice broke ever so slightly as he added, “We will get her back.”

Chapter Text

Cole smiled in the light of dawn and took a deep breath of crisp, mountain air. Humming one of Maryden’s upbeat tunes (he believed it was the one she’d hoped would earn Sera’s attention) he went about the happy work of dismantling the funeral pyre that had been meant to send Meria on her final exodus from Skyhold. His favorite barn cat, a tiny calico scrapper he’d named Pawsly, rose from the top of the pyre and stretched luxuriously in the morning sun. Cole laughed and scratched the cat’s chin.

“Sorry to disturb, Mistress Pawsly, but I’m afraid I have to take your bed from you,” Cole grinned. Pawsly closed her eyes and purred her response back, contented sounds causing small vibrations on the pads of his fingers. He gathered Pawsly up and placed her on his shoulder – her preferred perch when she wasn’t napping in the sun or mousing. Content that his feline friend was secure, he went back to work.

It was early yet, so the cat was his only company. That didn’t bother him. It gave him time to consider the current mood at Skyhold, and decide how he should behave. He found that sometimes his natural reactions to things upset others, which was something he’d never even considered before Varric had helped him grow. So, because he cared about his friends, he worked hard at finding a way that allowed him be himself without causing any upset. He thought carefully about things like forming the right facial expressions or when it was appropriate to laugh or how to respond to small talk. It was exhausting work, he found, but if it helped others, he’d do it.

On days like today, however, he found it almost impossible to strike a balance and know the right thing to say or do with his face.

As he pulled the pyre apart, he thought about how much he’d experienced since the day he rushed into Haven to warn the Inquisition about the oncoming army of red Templars. Over the past five years, he’d learned much of the intricacies of human behavior. Cole understood that humans often saw things in shades of grey – things were never wholly good or bad. Happiness was often bittersweet. There was sometimes nobility in sadness. He found that complexity inherently fascinating, and felt himself subscribing more and more to that way of thinking as he became more like them.

Still, that didn’t mean he always understood it.

Dorian had made it through the night and, so far, had reacted well to the healer’s treatment. To Cole, this seemed like a very good thing.

Solas had returned to Skyhold. To Cole, this also seemed like a very good thing.

Meria wasn’t dead; she was walking the Fade while her body was in deep slumber. To Cole, this seemed like the best thing of all.

But despite all of these very good things, everyone was sad or angry or both. He understood that Dorian was very hurt. He knew that Solas didn’t command the same level of trust he once did. He knew that it would be very difficult to find Meria and bring her home.

But still, he wondered at how everyone managed to always overlook the things that could heal them. Dorian could be dead, killed by Cullen’s own sword. Solas could have stayed where he was, abandoning his heart for the sake whatever it was he was trying to achieve. Meria could have been placed on this very pyre and set alight, reduced to smoke and ash forever.

“I can’t be sad today, Pawsly, even if it means upsetting them,” his hands paused, gripping the piece of wood he’d wrenched free tightly as realization dawned on his pale face, “I think… I think I’m just going to be me from now on. Meria likes me. Varric likes me. You like me. Why can’t I just be myself? No reason at all not to be. Yes… Yes, I think that would be nice.”

The cat yawned, the magnitude of his decision lost on her. He felt a weight lift, a burden he didn’t know he’d been carrying, and the day seemed brighter.

“Talking to the cat, again, Kid?” the dwarf’s deep voice came from behind him. Cole turned, beaming at the storyteller.

“Varric! I’ve decided. I’m going to be happy today. I want you to be happy, too.”

“That’s a tall order around here these days. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am awfully low to the ground.”

Cole blinked clear blue eyes as his mind registered the play on words. Varric waited patiently and was rewarded with Cole’s clear laughter.

“Come on, Kid, that was a spectacularly bad joke. Stop it.”

“It’s funny because you’re short!”

“Yes, I know. Now come on, someone else will finish that up, thank the Maker. You still need to get some breakfast in you.”

Still laughing, Cole placed Pawsly gently on the ground and turned to follow the dwarf to the Rest.

“It’s a tall order… but you’re not tall at all!”

“Let it go, Kid,” Varric said gruffly… but he was smiling all the same. Varric found that the young man’s laughter was infectious and things didn’t seem as horrible in the clear light of morning.

------------------------------

Standing alone on the battlements overlooking the lower courtyard, Solas watched wearily as Varric led Cole up the stairs to the Rest for their morning meal. He found that he still bristled when he thought of how Cole, spirit of compassion, had to die so that Cole, compassionate human, could live. It was the one time Meria really stood up to him. He remembered that glint in her eye as she stood next to Varric, urging Cole to learn from the pain rather than forgive and forget. It had angered him so much… but hadn’t it also excited him?

Yes, he knew it had. Her fire was catching, even when he felt it burned for the wrong reasons.

And it seemed Cole hadn’t lost his gift of knowing. That much was made clear last night when…

He saw Dorian’s face twisted in hatred. He saw the wide-eyed terror and pain as the demon took over. He saw the glib bravado the man affected in the Fade, even while he shook in fear as the demon merged with him. Finally, he saw the result of the rage demon’s work, burns that left the man charred and close to death.

Shaking his head to clear away the visions of last night, he turned and made his way into the rotunda. He’d been given quarters for the night, but he found he still preferred the circular walls of the rotunda. His domain. Or at least it had been for a time.

He stood in the center of the room, marveling at how little had changed since he left. He heard the cacophony of Leliana’s ravens above him. How he’d hated their incessant squawking! Now, the noise was oddly comforting in its familiarity. Being here was like jumping back in time. He closed his eyes and wished that were the case. How many things would he change if he could just go back? 

“It is of no consequence,” he muttered as he opened his eyes once more. The film of nostalgia removed, he took the room in again. The furniture was the same, that much was true, but there was something about the murals. That last panel… was that how he left it?

“No,” he said, “No, it’s not.” 

Taking a closer look, he could see evidence that someone had painted over his original sketch and then painstakingly replicated it on top of the cover up. Whoever it was had done a decent job, but he could tell by the strokes that it wasn’t his work – the technique was too modern. His eyes widened in sudden understanding as he noticed the addition of one word near the bottom of the piece. 

“Vehnan” it said.

He knelt and ran his fingers over the familiar handwriting. “Meria,” he whispered softly as he imagined the scene that must have played out here. 

She’d always been impulsive when angered. He’d instantly felt a kinship with her once he recognized it. It was, after all, a trait they shared, though he was far better at controlling it. “Most of the time, at least,” he thought as he flushed, remembering how he’d let that side of him free in the Fade just the night before.

"To be fair," he thought, “I have had centuries to work on impulse control. When I was her age…” he shuddered as memories of the many times his emotions got the better of him came to mind.

He turned his attention back to the mural. She must have been very angry to be pushed to this.  He examined the panels to the right and left of the unfinished painting and saw discolored splotches and patches scattered randomly on both. The floor, too, was peppered in similarly random patterns.  

“No," he thought, "she must have been furious."

She hadn’t calmly painted over that unfinished panel; she’d flung buckets of paint at it until it was covered. The fallout marred the completed works around it and the floor under it. He saw her clearly in his mind, hair whipping wildly, framing a face wet with sweat and tears, as she let her anger take control. How long had it taken her to calm down after the damage was done?

Solas closed his eyes. After everything that happened yesterday, he was surprised that he still had the capacity to feel more. He thought the tidal wave of conflicting emotions from last night was surely his limit. But here he was, picturing his Meria, repairing the damage she’d done alone, and felt miserable for the pain he’d caused. 

The door opened and a voice, husky in the early morning, called his name. 

“Solas?” 

“Commander. Do you know how Dorian is?”

“For now he’s stable, thank the Maker. He refuses to take the sleeping draught, though. Stubborn, that one,” Cullen laughed weakly. 

“Be easy, Commander. If you’d been where he was, you wouldn’t find yourself keen to chance another experience in the Fade any time soon.” Solas’s tone was soft but firm. 

The commander’s face flushed red as he replied, “Right. As you say.”

Silence fell. Solas observed Cullen, his face a mask of politeness as he waited for the man to tell him why he was there. Cullen fidgeted under the elf’s extended gaze.

“… in any case, we’re gathering in the War Room. We need to talk.”

“Agreed. Lead the way, commander.”

Solas followed the commander into the main hall. The previous night’s activities had been cleared away in the early morning hours, it seemed. The Inquisitor’s throne stood in its usual place, a happy change from the funerary display that had been there only yesterday.

“Where…” Solas started.

“She’s in the infirmary with Dorian,” the commander explained, “not that they can do anything for her, but it’s more convenient than her quarters… if something happens.”

The two men entered the privacy of Josephine’s empty office when Cullen turned on his heel to face Solas. The former Knight-Commander was larger than the elf, both in height and build, but his posture now made him seem so much smaller. The sudden change in demeanor caught Solas entirely off guard. The commander’s strides through the hall had been slow but still full of the same confidence they always exuded. The man before him now was exhausted and drained, like everyone at Skyhold, but there was something else there, too. Some other level of fresh pain played around the edges of Cullen’s bloodshot eyes.

“Solas, you have to tell me before we go in there. They’re going to ask. They want to know what they should “do” with him now. Tell me, please. Is Dorian… still Dorian? Maker, please tell me he’s alone in his head. Tell me that thing is really gone.”

Without warning, something Sera said the night before struck Solas.

“Just because you’re ruttin’ him…”

“Ah,” Solas thought as he remembered the crude remark, “that’s it.” 

The elf didn’t miss the commander’s reaction when Dorian was in danger, he just hadn’t understood the meaning at the time. Five years ago, there would have been no hesitation from the headstrong commander when faced with such danger, only action. Last night, however, was an entirely different matter. Solas remembered how long it took Cullen to act, how his face had lit with dim hope when Cole suggested Dorian wasn’t beyond help.

Looking at the man now, it seemed to Solas that Sera’s assessment of their relationship was a long way from the mark. They weren’t just “rutting,” as she’d so delicately put it. At least Cullen wasn’t. There was love there, Solas could tell, and suddenly the commander’s pleading eyes and the desperation in his voice made sense.

“Commander,” Solas continued in a gentle voice, “I cannot presume to know what is in his head, but I assure you that whatever it is… it’s all him. With his help, the demon was defeated. Completely.”

The big man’s body swayed as tense muscles released in relief. He grabbed Solas’s shoulders tightly and lowered his head.

“Thank you,” he whispered fiercely, “Thank you for saving him. He is… everything... to me…”

For a moment, Solas remembered Meria, lying as if dead on that platform. The feeling of his heart torn to shreds was still fresh in his mind.

Solas grasped the commander’s arm back as he stopped the man short, “I understand, Commander. No further explanation is necessary.”

The commander flashed the elf a grateful look as he straightened himself out with a small cough.

“They’re waiting for you in there. Just… give me a moment, please. I need a second to myself.”

Solas nodded and made his way to the War Room on his own. Part of him, and it was the majority, was pleased that he helped Dorian and the commander. The other part, the ever cold and calculating Wolf, however, was relieved that he’d secured the commander’s trust. It would be helpful in the battle ahead of him.

Yes, it was nice to have the commander’s trust, but it was really the spymaster he had to contend with now.

You’ll have to be crafty with her. You need their help….

“I know,” he muttered into the empty hall as he opened the door to the War Room.

There she stood, hard eyes flitting over his face, drinking in his every move. Suspicion and distrust in the shape of a woman.

Leliana.

--------------------------------

“Solas,” she started before he was even with the table, “You will begin with what happened in the Fade with Dorian. Then, we will move on to your supposed history.”

As the elf began his tale, Leliana heard Cullen enter the room. She noticed that he had put up the same façade he affected when the Lyrium storms used to weaken him. He was trying to project his air of self-assured ease, he was trying to walk with his usual slow swagger, but he didn’t fool her. It was all empty pantomime hiding some deeper emotion. She marked the observation for later reflection. In case.

For his part, Solas relayed the story of how he found Dorian and, together, they defeated the rage demon that was trying to overtake the Tevinter mage’s mind and body. He spoke with the same reserved calmness they all expected of him, but Leliana could see the gears turning in his head as he evaluated each turn of phrase and tonal shift.

For every detail he shared, she knew there was something he held back. She played that game herself. She listened as he spoke of Dorian’s strength of mind and casual bravado in the face of death. She knew that was for the commander’s benefit. He stood beside her, trying to appear objective. His eyes betrayed him, though. He was eating it up, every word of it.

It wasn’t that she doubted Dorian could manage himself in a tough situation. She knew his history. She knew it better than Cullen or even the Inquisitor did. It was fraught with hardship and abuse, but he’d miraculously come out of it fairly well adjusted. He had more steel in him than he let on.

She doubted whether Cullen could separate his feelings for the mage from his duty. She doubted whether he could see that the rest of the elf’s story was missing pieces.

She pursed her lips and tapped her foot before finally cutting him off.

“Enough, Solas. How did you defeat the demon? It had already claimed Dorian by the time you entered the Fade,” the spymaster’s voice was hard. She saw Solas’s eyes narrow by the smallest fraction. An expression less experienced interrogators would have missed.

“It was a matter of funneling my power through Dorian, essentially using him as a foci, concentrating and strengthening my magic to the point where it could destroy the demon.”

“You say that as if it was a simple task,” Leliana goaded.

“The concept is simple. The execution was not.”

“I assisted an exorcism once, you know. It was 15 years ago now, when I travelled with the Hero of Ferelden.”

“Truly?” the elf’s eyebrows raised in curiousity.

“Yes. It took four of us and the assistance of Ferelden’s First Enchanter to release a boy from the influence of a demon. And it very nearly killed all of us.”

“I suppose you want to know why the four of you barely managed what Dorian and I did alone?”

“That is exactly what I want to know.”

She strained to see everything. Every shift in his weight, every movement of his eyes, every time his fingers twitched. He was clever, but she wouldn’t let him get the upper hand.

“I’ve studied magic in the Fade all my life. Can any of your Circle mages claim that? Is it so difficult to believe that perhaps the magic your group chose was the wrong kind? With the right tool, many difficult tasks become simple.”

Damn him, he wasn’t giving her much to work with.

“I’ll concede that perhaps you are correct for now. Tell us what happened after the demon was defeated.”

“Nothing much. Dorian was exhausted and he fell to his knees. I believe he asked me something, but I didn’t have time to answer before a blinding light exploded in the distance. The light carried with it the feeling of the Inquisitor’s presence, which is how I know where she is. It is quite remarkable when you think about how vast the Fade really is.”

“Is that it?” Leliana prodded when it was clear the elf was done speaking.

“That is everything. After that, you woke him from this side and I left the Fade myself. The rest occurred as you witnessed.”

“Then, in your opinion, do you believe the demon is completely gone? Is Dorian a threat to us?” There was an edge to her tone and she felt Cullen’s gaze on her.

“No, spymaster. He’s not a threat. The demon was torn from him and thoroughly destroyed. There is no fragment left; he won’t wake one day as an abomination to slay you all as you sleep.”

A tense silence filled the room.

“As you say, Solas. We’ll consider the matter closed for now.”

“Then can we speak of how we can retrieve the Inquisitor?”

“Not yet. Before that, I want discuss who you really are.”

“Ah, there! He’s finally uncomfortable,” She thought to herself as he fidgeted with his tunic.

“I am who you see before you. No less.”

“That is no answer. My people tracked down your village. We know it fell to ruin hundreds of years ago. We know you’ve lied to us from the start.”

“I admit I omitted some details and fabricated others to protect myself, yes. At the time, I was offering my aid to the Left and Right Hands of the Divine, not to mention the former Templar they’d conscripted as a commander. Can you blame me for being cautious?”

She gave him a long, hard look, letting it linger beyond what would normally be considered comfortable.

“No,” she finally spat, “I don’t blame you for lying to a Seeker or a Templar to protect your hide. I blame you for lying to the Inquisitor. For taking her trust and using it to serve your own purposes, whatever they may have been. I blame you for using her and walking away.”

She’d allowed more emotion into her voice than she wanted, but the diatribe had served its purpose. She knew he actually cared for the Inquisitor, he may have even loved her. She knew using her would be the quickest way to break him.

The muscles in his jaws flexed as he ground his teeth together.

“She knows you lied to her the whole time. I told her as soon as I got the report. Do you know what she did when she found out? She hauled bucket after bucket of paint into that rotunda and she…”

“Leliana!” she heard Cullen call her name, but she couldn’t stop. She knew she was losing control, she could tell her voice was off-kilter, but she didn’t care. The Inquisitor… no, Meria… had seen value in Leliana beyond her skills or her talent. She’d turned the bard back into a person.

“She covered it up, splashing wave on wave of paint to hide any evidence that you were ever there at all. She laughed as she did it. She cried. She screamed your name.”

“Leliana, calm yourself!” Josie this time, but again, she was too far gone.

“And then do you know what happened? She saw what...”

But Solas cut her off.

“She saw what she had done, and she felt regret. She took the time to redraw the panel she’d destroyed and try to repair the ones she’d damaged. She probably did it alone, even when someone else offered to help her. That’s the kind of person she is. She probably did it through tears at times,” his voice, flat at first, cracked and stumbled over the last phrase.

Leliana deflated when she heard his voice break.

“Yes, just so,” she replied softly, “When she came to me later, she told me to stop tracking you. I asked her why, and she just said she’d decided that she didn’t care where you were from or what your name was.”

Leliana paused to let her words sink in.

“And then she smiled, Solas, she actually smiled and called those frivolous details. ‘Names are just words. Villages are just places. I know his heart,’ she said, ‘He’s a good man, despite the lies, and I won’t hound him to the ends of Thedas. I love him, so I have to let him be.’”

Solas couldn’t suppress the moan that escaped his lips as he bowed his head to hide the raw emotion Leliana could so plainly see. The mask had slipped for just a moment, but she found she took small pleasure knowing she’d been the one to do it.

Her tone was still soft when she continued, “The Inquisitor saw something worthy in you, something that deserved her trust. I’m honoring her wishes now. Tell us your plan, Solas, and we’ll aid you in whatever way we can.” 

Chapter Text

“What’re you grinnin’ at, weirdo?”

Sera’s nose wrinkled as she frowned at Cole. She’d never cared for him, even after the Inquisitor had claimed he was somehow more human. She didn’t understand how that was even possible.  They’d hightailed it off to Redcliffe one day, got into it with some washed-up ex-Templar, and suddenly she was supposed to believe the demon wasn’t a demon anymore.

“It’s fricked up nug shite, is what it is!” she’d told Meria one evening after Cole’s so-called transformation. “He’s got demon writ all over him, doesn’t he? Just because Varric helped him find some arsehole Templar…”

“Sera, really?” Meria cut her blue eyes over at her friend, shaking her head as she spoke. “Is there nothing he can do to…”

“Nope. Nothing’s ever gonna change my mind. He’s bleedin’ creepy!" 

Everything he did just made her… uncomfortable. Oddly enough, it got worse after Meria declared him “human.” The way he could still somehow see into a person. The way he took too long to respond when he was part of conversations. The way his face seemed to will itself into expression, piecing together bits at a time until the emotion was there. It was all so strange, like he was some hollow thing pretending to be human. It sent chills down her spine to think of what might be going on behind those pale eyes.

And now here he was, sitting in the chair opposite her and grinning like some fool idiot. Cole was the last thing she wanted to deal with this morning. Well, except perhaps Cullen. He was… awfully mad at her. Thinking back, even she had to admit that maybe she’d gone too far. Maybe she should go and make some sort of peace offering. She did like Dorian, after all…

She was just so damned scared. Scared of how lonely she’d be knowing that Skyhold was without her Inquisitor. Scared of what Dorian’s anger did to him. Scared of the demon he’d almost become.

But those were all just on the surface – the latest fears on top of a giant pile of them. She had deeper fears that had always driven her; they’d made her the person she’d become.

“That man hates you because you’re an elf.”

“You’re no elf. We Dalish are the only true elves. Dirty flat-ear – you might as well be a shem.”

“Knife-eared bitch. I’ll teach you to remain silent in the presence of your betters.”

Tough as nails and twice as crude, she had become. Her rough exterior was her armor that served double duty. It protected her from getting too close to others and keeping her fears locked inside, hidden from the world. Meria had been the first to really try to understand her, and even her attempt made Sera so uncomfortable that she left Skyhold not long after Corypheus was defeated. Meria had told her Skyhold could be her home, and she did think of it that way, but it was a home she only ever visited. It was too much to stay and completely abandon her armor.

“Seriously, freak, what d’you want?” The long night she spent drinking and gambling (and losing) had depleted her painfully short supply of patience. Her eyes flashed dangerously at the smiling young man.

“Just to sit. To sit and see and maybe speak. And… and to eat. Varric wants me to eat.”

There was something odd about him today. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but she knew something was different.

“Sittin’ and seein’… fine,” she replied, cradling her head in her hands. The hangover was just over the horizon. She could feel it pounding around her temples. “You can do that over there. Away from me. Talkin’s all out, sorry.”

“He knows you didn’t mean it. That you didn’t really want Dorian to die.”

Her head snapped up as she grimaced. “Oh, and how do you even know that? Pick it from ‘is great golden head, did you? You wonder why people don’t like you around…”

Cole’s smile dropped into an expression of concern.

“No, no, no. I didn’t hear him. The commander’s a good person. He was just scared. That’s why he…”

“The commander? Scared? You are off your rocker, aren’t you? That man’s never been scared a day in ‘is life, I bet.” Sera scoffed at the very idea of the great Cullen, just a scared prat like her.

Cole’s voice dropped low as he leaned forward, almost conspiratorially.

“He’s scared every day. So many people everywhere depend on him. Cullen, courage and calm, silent and strong. That’s what he wants you to see. His fear makes him stronger, but sometimes it backfires. Sometimes it makes him…”

“Angry?” Sera added, in spite of herself.

“Yes!” Cole leaned back in his chair comfortably. “Fear can turn into anger. And anger can hurt others. You have to know. You have to see that it’s really just fear you’re angry at.” He met Sera’s eyes, brows knit together in thought, “Then, you can’t be angry anymore and it’s better. Right?”

“I’m really just angry at the fear?” she said softly.

“Yes. No. Wait. We were talking about the commander, I thought?”

Her eyes widened, eyebrows raised in realization. His quizzical expression was too much for her, and she snorted with laughter.

“Yeah, you. The commander,” she replied through her laughter, “I need to get out of here. I’m gonna hurl if I have to watch anyone eat.”

Sera rose. The conversation had her reeling, even as she laughed her way down the stairs and through the door of the Rest. She took a deep breath and raised her face to the morning sun, shielding her eyes. Inexplicably, she felt better than she had in a long time, lighter somehow, despite the headache that loomed large.  

“Oh!” she said out loud as she finally realized what was different about Cole. He still spoke like a crazy-wise child, but the disturbing pauses were gone. The waiting until he processed how he should respond was missing. The expressions were genuine, immediate. He was natural, comfortable. Comforting, even.

“Huh,” she muttered as she made her way toward the keep. There was a man inside she needed to see. She had no idea how to apologize to him, but she’d muddle through it somehow. She needed him to know that she didn’t hate him or Dorian. She was just…

Scared.

--------------------------------------------

“Names are just words. Villages are just places. I know his heart.”

Leliana was lost in emotion. Using Meria against Solas was the most obvious and weakest of tactics. That should have meant he was winning this particular battle of wills. He should have been pleased that she was breaking before him.

He found, however, that Meria’s words burned through his heart as he fought to keep his mask up. Leliana's desperate ploy was working. Was this deliberate or a happy accident for her? He’d lectured her earlier about how he’d used the right type of magic to dissolve Dorian’s possession, admonishing her for not realizing her group had needed the right tool for the job when they tried the same thing years before. Had he been foolishly telling her what she already knew? He was prepared for subtlety and cunning. This clumsy assault, however… it had never occurred to him she’d take this path. He was reeling, caught off guard.

The right tool for the job, indeed.

No one was more surprised than he when she finally relented, saying that since the Inquisitor had trusted him, she would follow suit. 

She asked him for his plan. The advisors looked at him with curiosity, but he only asked for a little time to think. Leliana’s eyes narrowed again as she regarded him for a moment in silence. Finally, she sighed and allowed him leave to go do his thinking.

“But, Solas, if she’s in danger…” she called.

He didn’t turn as he replied, “I will be quick, spymaster.”

Solas took a moment to gather himself in the cold silence of the hallway. He fell back against the closed door, hands dropping to his side in exhaustion, heavy and numb. He looked up at the ceiling blankly, breathing slowly and allowing his mind time to clear. The meeting had somehow gone his way, but he didn’t feel like he’d won anything. He got the promise of help he wanted, but he still felt so defeated.

Yet still there was an itch in the back of his mind.

“You don’t have time for this!” It cried, “You have to help the people. She’s one person – they are many! This doesn’t make sense…”

It was his own voice. The voice of cold reason. The same voice that had spurred him to steel his heart and leave Meria alone in Crestwood in the first place. She was only one person. And, regardless of his age or power, he was only one person. Neither of them should matter.

But, oh, she does. She matters.

“Hello, Mythal,” he murmured, eyes closed, “I’m sure you appreciated that spectacle…”

You’ve decided I am Mythal, then?

“I’ve decided to call you that, yes.”

Then, old friend, you are aware she is already at the Black City. With the anchor?

“I am aware…”

She could be the key to open it…

“No. I can’t ask that of her.”

You may have to.

“No.”

Have it your way for now.

When he was sure the voice had receded back into the depths of his mind, he opened his eyes and made his way through the hall with renewed purpose. He already knew what he needed to do to save Meria. Hadn’t he stayed up all night, pacing the rotunda, deciding the best course of action?

Yes, yes he had. His plan would work. He’d thought about it from every conceivable angle, scrutinized the details in his mind over and over again, and in the end, he knew it was the only way.

But before he would share it with the advisors, there was someone he needed to talk to.

Dorian.

--------------------------------------

“Holy FUCK.”

That was it. The only thought that ran through his head over and over as the numbing potion began to wear off. His own mantra of pain.

And oh, there was pain. Pain beyond anything he’d ever imagined. His body was a shivering inferno. He didn’t know where he was or what he’d done to get himself there. All he knew was that intense, searing pain. Every breath was agonizing. Every twitch brought on fresh waves of torture. The wisp of fabric they’d laid over him to help him regulate his body heat grated against his bare skin. Chills ran up his body and he shivered. More pain. Bright lights exploded in his mind and he cried out wordlessly between clenched teeth.

The room brightened as he heard a door open. He could make out a dark figure approaching and prayed it was the healer coming with more numbing potion. He felt pressure as the figure placed its hand behind the pillow supporting his head to lift it just a bit. Even this small movement stretched the burned flesh on the back of his neck, drawing a moan from his throat. And then, the heavenly touch of cool on his lips as his visitor slowly poured the potion into his mouth. He swallowed as the pillow was slowly lowered back onto the bed.

The figure then sat in the chair next to Dorian’s bed and patiently waited for the potion to take effect.

As he finally felt the soothing nothingness wash over him, Dorian’s mind stopped its repetitive cursing and allowed him some freedom to finally think. He closed his eyes and, in his mind, he examined the facts in an effort to help him understand just what had happened.

I am Dorian Pavus.

Yes, that’s right. I am Dorian Pavus.

I am at Skyhold.

Yes, again.

I am in pain.

That is very fucking correct.

I am in pain because I lost control.

It’s happened before.

I lost control because I was angry.

I do have a temper.

I was angry because someone was laughing at something.

Strange thing to cause me to lose my shit, but please continue.

The laughter came from someone I don’t like. It was aimed at someone I love.

It’s making more sense now. Keep thinking, Dorian.

Meria. She died. And it was Solas laughing at her.

Ah, right. My friend. There we go. That would do it.

I lost my mind and a demon took advantage.

I'd kind of hoped that was a dream.

Solas entered the Fade and saved me.

Kaffas. Now I owe him.

His power was… strange.

He is strange.

The demon called him “the wolf.”

That sounds familiar.

Meria told you the wolf was real.

Meria. Didn’t something happen in the Fade after? Something to do with her?

You felt her presence in the Fade.

She’s alive.

 Grey-green eyes snapped open.

“She’s alive,” he husked aloud.

“She is,” the figure said calmly, “And I have a way to get her back.”

“Solas?” Dorian managed a rough whisper, “Damnit, move where I can see you. Andraste’s blood, It hurts too much to move, even with the potion.”

“You seem to be able to move your mouth just fine,” the elf chuckled as he adjusted his chair to match Dorian’s eyeline.

“This wit cannot be contained. At least not while that potion is in me,” his words were flippant, but Dorian’s voice was low and strained. It sounded wrong to his ears. His mouth couldn’t quite form the right words. Burned skin stretched tight over the muscles, constricting them and causing pain with each movement. He suddenly thought about asking for a mirror and then, just as quickly, decided that was a bad idea. He’d satisfy his curiosity later. Preferably alone.

“Good. As I said, I have a way to get her back, but we need to talk. You must be coherent enough to understand and, more importantly, agree to what we need to do,” Solas paused for a moment, “You will have to convince Cullen to allow what I’m about to propose. He will not care for it.”

Cullen, Maker, the look on his face when… and he’d almost…

No, Dorian thought as he firmly pushed that line of thought down, that’s another thing I’ll process later… when I’m alone.

“Alright, Solas, I’ll hear it. But first,” Dorian did his best to make his voice as clear and strong as possible, “Thank you. For what you did. You didn’t have to, but you did.”

“Think nothing of it,” came the smooth reply.

“Right now, I can think of nothing but it,” Dorian let out a weak chuckle, “Things would be… so much worse if you hadn’t stepped in. I’m not often wrong, but… I may have been about you. I am sorry,” a beat of silence passed, and then he added, ”I won’t repeat that, so I hope you heard it.”

Dorian could only smile from his eyes, edges crinkling in amusement at the elf’s surprised expression.

“Now, how about that plan, Solas?”

Chapter Text

The sun was high in the sky by the time the commander pulled himself up the ladder to the loft above his office. The bright midday light glinted off his armor as he slowly peeled it off, layer by cumbersome layer.

With each discarded piece, he was less the Commander and more just a man – just Cullen, alone and exhausted. That was alright, though. The trappings of his command felt like a lie today. It was a relief to be rid of them.

It was also a relief to finally have quiet. The walk from the war room to his office had been riddled with stares and questions. It didn’t help that Skyhold was still filled to the brim with dignitaries and nobles who’d come to attend the Inquisitor’s funeral service. They stopped him, demanding information. Demanding assurances.

Just…. demanding.

“What was that yesterday, commander?”

“Did you dispose of that abomination, commander?”

“What are you doing to protect us, commander?”

“How could you allow such a thing in your own keep, commander?”

“How will you answer for my mental state after that affront to Andraste, commander?”

“Is it true that abomination was a filthy blood mage from Tevinter, commander?”

“Commander?”

“Commander!”

Commander, commander. All I hear all day is just “commander.” There are times when I wish I’d turned Cassandra down. Not many. But, Maker, this is one of them.

As bad as the guests were, his own people were worse. They didn’t ask questions – they didn’t have to. Their pained looks and stolen glances said it all.

“Is the commander going to break?”

With a heavy sigh, Cullen fell back onto his bed, arm slung over his eyes to shield them from the sunlight pouring through the holes in his roof.  For a moment, he allowed his mind to empty, to still. The past 24 hours had been trying, so he relished the soothing warmth kissing his skin and the crisp air filling his lungs.

He loved those Maker-forsaken holes in his roof. Sometimes, they were the only things that kept him sane. When he felt the walls closing in, when he felt the pull of the lyrium song, he looked up and saw… freedom. He knew clarity. He felt at peace. The expanse of the sky through the cracks in this prison of duty and honor kept him centered. At times, the view of that clear sky was what kept him from forgetting himself, from giving in to the darkness that was always, always eating around the edges of his soul. No one, not even the Inquisitor had understood that.

Until Dorian. He’d known almost instinctively why the holes in the commander’s roof were never patched. Cullen’s mind raced back to the first time Dorian had seen the night sky the same way he himself did – through those ragged holes.

“It’s beautiful,” he’d rasped in a low voice as they lay wrapped up in each other’s arms, “I can see why you like it.”

“What’s that?” Cullen had murmured, already half asleep in the afterglow.

“That roof,” Dorian answered, “and why you don’t fix the damned thing.”

Fully awake now, Cullen had raised his head from the comfort of Dorian’s chest to look the man in the eyes, a quizzical expression on his flushed face. Dorian’s gaze was trained on the stars.

“Oh?” Cullen had asked, urging the mage to explain himself. He remembered that his heart had started pounding and his stomach fluttered with anxiety. He remembered that he was shocked and overwhelmed by just how important he suddenly thought Dorian’s next words would be.

He remembered thinking, Does he really know me?

“It’s what you need,” Dorian said, suddenly hesitant, “Space to stretch out in, a place to remember who you are when the walls close in.”

He looked down at Cullen sheepishly, the ghost of a smile playing at his lips.

“I had a skylight in my quarters back in Minrathous. Same… general concept, less exposure to the elements,” he’d admitted.

Cullen remembered that he’d been at a loss for words, so he pulled Dorian in closer and claimed his mouth in a kiss that surprised both of them with its forceful need. There had been no other way to communicate the complex tidal wave of joy and relief and love he’d felt in that moment under those stars.

“Dorian,” Cullen groaned as the memory of that night years ago faded away. He turned onto his side, pulling his knees up to his chest.

How can I face him now after what I almost did? How?

Flashes of the night before sped through his mind. Harrowing images and sensations that were unwanted and uninvited, but he could little to stop them from flooding his thoughts.

… the image of Dorian’s face, twisting in fury and pain.

… the demon’s hateful voice coming howling past his lips.

… the grim knowledge that the only way to save him from becoming an abomination was to kill him.

… the weight of Cullen’s sword as he finally swung it.

The familiar, hateful grip of panic and guilt squeezed him tight. His heart raced and his breath came shallow and fast. The knots forming in his gut were agony, twisting and angry, as he curled into a tighter ball on his bed.

I can’t do this. They’re right, I am going to break. This is too much – I can’t take it. I can’t fix it. How can I fix it? If he hates me now… If we never see those stars together again…

“He doesn’t. And you will.”

The unexpectedly cheery voice pierced the bubble of panic that had engulfed the commander, deflating it and leaving Cullen panting in sweat-drenched clothes on his bed. He sat up quickly, eyes seeking out the owner of that soft voice.

And there he was. He hadn’t made it to the top of the ladder, so he stood on a lower rung, arms crossed on the loft floor, supporting his head of straw-gold hair. Ice-blue eyes, kind and bright, studied the commander intently.

“Cole?” he hadn’t heard the young man enter, but then again, who ever did? “Cole, what are you doing here?”

“I had a feeling that maybe you needed a little help,” he said with a small smile.

“Help? I don’t need any…” but Cullen’s denial was cut short by a raised eyebrow and a dubious expression on the young man’s face. There was no use in lying to Cole.

There was no use in lying to himself, for that matter.

“How do you know he doesn’t hate me?” Cullen finally managed.

“He just doesn’t,” Cole replied, tone assured.  

“Did you read him, then?”

“Nope. Don’t have to.” The finality in Cole's voice was maddening.

“How, then? How do you know?” Cullen snapped, more forcefully than he’d intended.

Cole’s expression grew sharp as he held the commander in his gaze for a moment. When he spoke, his tone was cool, almost disappointed.

“You should give him more credit. His will beats strong and steely under the silks and softness. His heart beats stronger still.”

Cullen’s shoulders slumped as he realized Cole was right. Of course he was right. Cullen had been so wrapped up in his own guilt, so stuck in his own head, that he’d dismissed the idea of forgiveness… or any other outcome that wasn’t outright and fervent hatred. In his own miserable imagination, he’d made Dorian’s mind up for him.

“Go talk to him. Hear what he has to say. You can do that, right?” Cole’s voice was softer now.

“I will,” Cullen nodded and looked up in time to see a wide grin and yellow hair disappear below his floor.

“I owe him that much,” he muttered and rose from his bed, mussed, golden curls catching the sunshine flooding in from his own little skylights.

------------------------------

Ar lath ma, lethallin

Eyes set in a pale, porcelain face snapped open, one the color of the clear blue sky, the other the same sickly shade of green as the rifts that had once peppered the landscape of Thedas.

“Dorian?!” Meria cried breathlessly as she bolted upright, chest heaving and bare in the cold dark.

“Dorian?” She called again, “Anyone?”

Frantic eyes zigzagged across the landscape. This wasn’t her bedroom back at Skyhold. There was no cozy fire or clever Tevinter mage to comfort her. There was only barren terrain in the biting cold. Rocks everywhere. Broken statues. Fragments of ruins from peoples long forgotten. Mountains floating, black and foreboding against the brilliant green sky.

The Black City, looming large and ominously over it all in the distance.

“The Fade,” she gasped, one hand covering her mouth, “I’m in the Fade.”

I was just in my quarters, I swear. And Dorian…. Dorian was there. Did I fall asleep again?

“No,” she answered herself, “This isn’t the Fade you enter when you dream. This is…”

The physical Fade.

Which means… what exactly?

Shivering, Meria rose on wobbling legs. She swayed dangerously, barely managing to take hold of a nearby outcropping of rock to steady herself. Her left arm was glowing with the anchor. She stood for some time, transfixed by the looping swirls and arcs it had made as it cut its way up her arm. She couldn’t see it, but she could feel where it had spread across her chest and back and up her neck, finally stopping at her face. Her fingers traced the delicate patterns it created on her cheek.

My new vallaslin. Bare-face no more, I suppose.

She chuckled bitterly and forced the knot in her throat back as she turned her attention back to the glowing lines that crisscrossed her pale skin.  

Still, it would be pretty if it weren’t so painful.

The elf grimaced as she remembered the pain she felt when the tendrils finally reached her heart and lungs. Breathing, even shallowly, was like drowning in fire. Her chest ached when she so much as rolled over in bed. Walking was out of the question…

Wait. No. It’s not painful. It doesn’t hurt at all. And I’m standing. I haven’t stood on my own in… weeks? Months? I honestly can’t remember.

She wrapped her arms around her naked body, a vain attempt to warm herself.

And where are my clothes? How did I even get here?!

Struggling against the panic rising in her chest, Meria took slow and measured breaths. She had to keep the fear at bay. Strong emotions were dangerous in this place – Fear especially.  

But keeping the fear at arm’s length was easier said than done. She was alone and small in this large and dark place. The last time she was here, she’d had her friends to watch her back. They had been afraid, but they had been together. They were united against the horrors of the physical Fade, and that unity made them strong.

But now she had no one. She was just one tiny elf in the expanse, weak and exposed.

She sat back down on the hard ground, bringing her knees to her chest as she fought against the despair. She missed them. All of them. She missed…

Him.

“Solas,” she whispered.  

And now, her chest did ache, but it wasn’t because of the anchor.

Vhenan, he’d called her. Ar lath ma, he’d said.

It had been years since she last saw him, but still, this same heartache. Still, these burning tears when she thought of his face, drawn and full of sorrow, as he swore he’d never distract her from her duty again.

I can’t, he’d whispered, voice breaking as he stepped away from her. I’m sorry, he’d added, hands up to keep her away.

Still, his last words haunted her.

What we had was real.

She’d wanted to scream at him.

What did we have, Solas?! What did it amount to, here in the end?

She’d wanted to hate him.

You used me to get to the orb. I was never anything but a tool to you. A means to an end.

She could do neither.

Ar lath ma, vhenan.

“Ar lath ma, Solas,” she whispered into the frigid air, her words forming little clouds that floated and broke above her head, “Always.”

At least I see you in my dreams.

In my dreams.

In my dreams, you’re always here in the Fade…. You’re always… at the…

“The Black City!” Meria cried, head snapping up so quickly the tears that had been threatening to fall ran down her cheeks. She wiped them away absent mindedly and stood again.

There was no wobble in her legs, no sway in her stance this time. She set her jaw as she regarded the Black City, dark turrets thrusting into the sky like claws tearing into flesh.

She found she was afraid to go, her feet reluctant to start the journey that would end at that horrible place. The city terrified her in the same way the rabbit is afraid of the wolf. Will it pass by harmlessly… or is it hungry? Will it feed?

The Black City looked very hungry to her, but she felt it pulling at her. Or maybe it was something inside her that urged her to take the first tentative step forward.

Either way, she had to know.

She had to know if he was here. She had to know why. She had to know if he was really the wolf and she the prey.

“But, first,” she groused as she walked, arms crossed over her bare chest, “Fenedhis lasa! Creators, guide me to some clothes.”