He is the first to slink out of the Fade, back into the waking world.
They won't even know he was there. They do not recognize him in this form. A large black wolf, just a shadow in the periphery of their vision. Keeping the night terrors at bay. Sometimes he's but a soothing voice, a whisper they could almost mistake for their own thoughts. They both get nightmares. Cullen's are usually worse. Solas leads them to find each other, guides them to a safe space. He does not want to intrude too much. It's not his place. But he cannot just leave them at the mercy of their fears. So he watches and waits and guards them.
He leaves them in a pleasant dream. It's a familiar scene, a safe space of meadows and streams and slow-turning windmills. The tall trees at the edge of the field are Lavellan's influence, he knows. They are close to waking themselves so the world around them has already begun to shift and fade away. Solas slips through one of the cracks and opens his eyes.
Usually he dreads waking up. Leaving the Fade, returning to his restricting body, feels like loss. Like grieving what he had lost all over again. In his waking hours, he paints what he saw, what he remembers. Faces and figures from long ago. Guilt and shame and anger translated into color and brushstrokes. But it's not the same. It's never the same.
He has always dreaded waking up but ever since this means waking up in the Inquisitor's bed, he doesn't mind as much.
When he opens his eyes, he feels warm skin pressed against his naked body. His leg is draped over Cullen's and his face pressed against his shoulder. Solas takes a deep breath, taking in his scent. Sleep and sweat and warmth. Distinctively Cullen. He lifts his head to look at his face. In the absence of the nightmares, it's soft and innocent. All the doubt and all the worry wiped away by pleasant dreams.
On the other side of the bed, Solas spots the familiar heap of blankets. An explosion of black curls is all he sees of Lavellan who has hogged all the covers for herself, as usual. How she can even breathe under the weight of blankets meant for three is beyond him. The heap stirs slightly as she moves underneath and an small, slender hand creeps out from the folds. It wanders over Cullen's bare chest, searching. For him, he realizes, and after a second of hesitation, he reaches out to interlace his fingers with hers. He is still getting used to this kind of intimacy.
At his touch, she slowly lifts her head and peaks at him from behind her tussled curls. Her eyes are still half-closed, crusted with sleep, but she gives him a little smile before nuzzling against Cullen's shoulder and drifting off again. One look from her is enough to make his heart beat faster – a realization that almost makes him pull his hand back.
Perhaps Cullen has felt the little twitch or perhaps it's just a reflex, but he covers both their hands with his, holding them against his chest. Anchoring them in this warm bed, this quiet moment, for just a few minutes longer.
Had anyone told him he'd find himself in the Inquisitor's bed, and not for just one night either, he would have laughed. He assumed his attraction for her and for the Commander to be nothing but a fleeting fancy. An itch that needed to be scratched. A momentary diversion. Perhaps the long nights bent over ancient tomes, discussing the finer points of elven linguistics, were too much. Their interest impressed him – in Cullen's case even surprised him. But it was their honest admiration, the open unabashed affection they showed each and, in time, himself, that finally made him stumble in his conviction.
Only that the itch did not go away. If anything, it just got stronger after that first night. And to his own surprise, he found he craved more than that. He longed for their thoughts, their insights. The rumble of Cullen's laugh, the sound of Lavellan's voice. They were kind and thoughtful. Funny, in their way. So night after night, his feet carried him up the stairs. Outside of these chambers, nothing changed. He sees her hurt looks sometimes when he uses her formal title in public. And Cullen's disappointment when he hardly acknowledges him in front of the rest of the Inquisition. In here, every night, he belongs to them. But he is always gone in the morning.
Even now, with Cullen and Lavellan's hands covering his and his heart beating almost painfully in his chest, he knows he needs to leave. He has never stayed this long, with the sun already creeping over the mountain tops outside. For a moment, he thinks about what it must be like to watch them get up. To spend the morning with them. Lavellan brushing her long hair, eyes still half-closed. Cullen picking out a shirt, goosebumps traveling up his arms as he shivers in the brisk morning air that streams in from the open window. In his mind, it's a peaceful scene. Full of casual touches and quick kisses as they go about their routine. He knows he would fall right in. They would welcome him with open arms just like they would welcome him in every other part of their lives.
But no. He rips himself out of his own thoughts with an almost painful intensity and slowly but decisively pulls his hand from theirs. Careful not to wake them, he gets up and slips into his clothes that lie scattered across the room. One last look at them. He finds himself smiling at the sight but it feels bittersweet. When has this started to become to difficult?
He feels his smile fall away as he descends the stairs down to the main hall, back into a life without them.
He stops in his tracks, shoulders slightly hunched and turns. It's Josephine, one hand on the door to her office, the other holding a still-steaming cinnamon bun from the kitchens. She wears a dressed-down version of her usual attire, a soft silk robe in blue and gold. Her hair hangs over her shoulders in loose messy curls.
“Ambassador,” he says and tries his best to regain his composure by standing up straight and linking his hands behind his back. “Good Morning.”
She smiles and saunters over to him. “Good Morning indeed.” He eyes flick from his face to the door he just came out of and then back to him. “You're leaving rather late today.”
Just when he thought he managed to straighten his face, she makes him flinch.
She smiles so innocently, it's easy to miss the glint of mischief in her eyes. “Well, you usually leave the Inquisitor's chambers well before sunrise. I'm a little surprise, I must admit.”
He clears his throat, speechless for a second. Perhaps he could still deny it all. But when he studies her face, he finds her eyes alert and shrewd. Eyes that would see right through his lie. He cannot remember ever exchanging more than a few words with the Ambassador. Perhaps that was a mistake.
“I wasn't aware that my... nightly excursions were public knowledge, Ambassador,” he says after a short pause, choosing his words carefully and hoping she won't notice the color creeping up his ears.
She gives him a small conspiratorial smile. “Don't worry. They are not. Only to those who know how to spot them.”
“Leliana?” he guesses and she almost looks a offended for a moment.
“Why do people always give her the credit for finding out secrets?” She lifts her hands in an exasperated gesture, crumbs from the bun in her hand scattering around her. “I have eyes and ears as well, you know. And my office is right underneath the Inquisitor's room.”
He cocks an eyebrow and watches in amusement as the realization of what she just said drives a hint of pink into her cheeks.
“That's not what I meant,” she mutters, brushing an errant curl behind her ear, more annoyed than embarrassed. “I meant to say that I've seen you leave her chambers on most morning for the last three weeks. I notice things.”
He doesn't like to admit it but he is impressed. People don't usually manage to watch or sneak up on him without him noticing. Perhaps he underestimated her.
“I meant no offense,” he says. “I'm just surprised.”
She laughs dryly. “It's alright. Most people are. Perhaps it is better they think me less capable than I actually am.”
“It can be an advantage,” he agrees, not able to fully hide his smirk. “Now, if there isn't anything else...”
“Actually...” She stops herself, clearly uncomfortable. “While we are talking about it. I was wondering if you three intend to continue this... affair.” She speaks the last word almost gingerly. “I am right to assume the Commander is part of it, am I not?”
He feels defensiveness crawling up inside him like a barrier. “You are,” he says hesitantly.
“Don't get me wrong. These kinds of, uh, arrangements are actually quite common in Antiva. But here in the South, people might not look too kindly on it.” She sighs and nervously straightens out creases in her robe that aren't there. “Let me speak frankly. The Inquisitor's reputation is a tricky issue as it is. If this thing between you three is not serious...”
“It is,” he hears himself say before he can stop the words from falling out of his mouth. There is it. The truth that has been looming over his head like a sword, waiting for him to look up and acknowledge it.
Josephine's eyes widen, just slightly. “Oh,” she says before she catches herself and straightens up. She has learned to hide her surprise behind a smile and a nod. “Alright then. I will speak to the Inquisitor about it.”
His hand darts forward and he stops himself just in time before he touches her arm. “Could you wait?” He flexes his hand and slowly pulls back. “Just until I have spoken with them.”
She searches his face, brow furrowed, but then she gives him a curt nod. “Of course. I will not interfere.” The tension breaks when she breaks out into one of her wide smiles. “You know, if you run to the kitchens now, I'm sure you'll be able to snatch one of these magnificent buns before they get cold. I'd offer you mine, but...” She winks and bites into the pastry.
Before he has a chance to answer, she whirls around and vanishes through the door of her office, leaving behind the faint scent of cinnamon and sandalwood. He finds himself smiling despite the nervous knot inside his belly. He has underestimated her.
He makes his way to his rotunda, the smell of paint welcoming him back. It's always too dark in here to see properly, even for an elf, so he lights the candles with a flick of his wrist – bathing the room in soft golden light. Shadows dance across the high walls, mixing with his murals until they too seem to move and sway. He has painted all his secrets here. His plans, his dreams, his fears. All the things he wishes he could say. All the things for which there are no words.
He presses his hand against the wall. Long fingers stroking the black fur of a wolf. He feels nothing but cold dry mortar underneath his skin. From up close the pictures are not moving. From up close they are nothing but paint and stupid hope. He steps back with a bitter taste in his mouth.
A wave of exhaustion washes over him. He can feel it, like invisible strings pulling him back. Gently tugging at his clothes, his skin. If he let them, his feet would carry him back through the hall, up the stairs and back into bed. Back to warm skin and soft sighs and bright eyes looking at him with pure, unadulterated affection. He covers his eyes with his hand, shaking.
This is dangerous, he knows. How much further can he wade in before he is too far gone to swim back to shore? But the thought of stopping, the thought of starting to sleep in his own cold bed again, it hurts too much. Perhaps he is already in too deep.
And he knows that once he commits, there is so turning back. With a sigh, he picks up his brush and runs his thumb over the bristles. Maybe it is time for a different picture.
He steps out of the darkness into the bright main hall and squints as his eyes get used to the light. He has lost all sense of time while working, as usual. Paint splatters coat his clothes and he picks dried paint chips off his fingers as he moves out of the hallway.
He can hear Lavellan's laugh, bright and pearly, echoing through the hall and lifts his head to find her and Cullen next to Varric's desk in the corner. She is talking with her hands again. Rapid movements and lively expressions that have Varric stare at her in wonder. She must like the dwarf, he thinks. She is usually more reserved than this. Cullen stands next to her like a rock, steadfast and unmoving. But there is a smile on his lips when he looks at her. The same expression he has when he looks at Solas sometimes. What a silly little thought but it makes his heart leap.
As soon as he sees them, he knows what he must do. He walks over to them, his legs a bit shaky. And then, as if it was nothing, he steps between them, slipping his hand into Cullen's and snaking his other arm around Lavellan's waist. He can feel them stiffen underneath his touch, just for a short surprised second. He holds his breath. But then Cullen gently squeezes his hand and Lavellan angles her body towards him, ever so slightly. It's nothing. A tiny gesture. The smallest change. But Solas feels the world shift.