Actions

Work Header

Love & Orlesian Law: Falling Hurts

Chapter Text

If hitting the snooze button four times had been her only setback that morning, she still would have made it to work on time. As it was, waking up twenty minutes late set her whole schedule off-balance. By the time she was ready to shower, Dorian had already claimed the bathroom for himself. She couldn’t go to work with her hair looking the way it did, so she waited around outside the door until he finally came out with a twinkle in his eye and his hair damp.

She pulled into her parking space ten minutes after seven, and fumbled with the transcripts she’d typed up the night before. She shuffled the papers together and tucked them inside their proper folders, tempted to skim over them and make sure she hadn’t misplaced any pages. Knowing this would make her even later for work, she clutched the files to her chest and stepped out of the car. A bitter wind whipped her hair out of her face, and she pulled her coat more tightly around her. The winter cold was even more brutal than usual this morning. Leaning into the wind, she headed toward the front doors of her office building, worrying that she may have left a few pages of the transcripts at her apartment, and cursing her freezing, pointed ears as the wind picked up. She started to jog in her haste to get out of the cold, and slipped on a patch of black ice, landing on her back with a sickening swirl of gray sky and concrete.

For a second she felt only dizzy and confused. And then the impact of the fall hit her full force, and she gritted her teeth, her whole back stinging. Her mouth pulled open in a soundless shriek, her ears ringing with the shock of her sudden fall. She bit her lip and sucked in a deep breath. “Fuck,” she whispered, and started to sit up only to hiss and lay back down. It felt like someone had twisted her spine the way one wrings out a wet cloth. Taking a deep breath, she resigned herself to lying on the cold pavement for a moment so she could recover. In a minute or two she could try again. In a minute or two she would feel just fine.

“Miss?”

She grimaced and shut her eyes. Please go away.

“Are you alright?” The voice came closer, and she sighed. She opened her eyes and looked up at an elven man standing over her, dressed in khakis and a coat that looked much warmer than hers.

“I’m fine,” she said, knowing she struck quite a pathetic picture lying on her back in the middle of the parking lot. “Just give me a minute.” She tried to sound as dignified as possible, but her voice wavered with the pain of a muscle spasm. Not a good sign.

He crouched beside her, to her complete humiliation, and offered his hand. She looked at it regretfully for a moment, knowing she couldn’t conceivably lie on the ground for the next eight hours. She pushed herself up on her elbows, which only caused a mild tremor in the muscles of her lower back. Looking down at herself, she realized numbly that she was still holding onto the files she’d been clutching earlier. Thank the Creators for small favors.

She took his hand and wrapped one arm around his shoulder, bracing herself, expecting him to pull her up with little grace. Instead he wrapped one arm around her waist and slowly pulled her to her feet, seemingly aware of the pain she was in. Once she was upright she let go of his hand and tried to step away, but she felt a sudden twinge in her back that sent her stumbling and gasping. He gripped her by the waist and pulled her against his side, allowing her to rest her weight against him. “You took quite a tumble. I saw you fall flat on your back.”

She glared at him, and he raised his eyebrows at her. “Today is not my day,” she said, and started to pull away from him again, but he tightened his grip.

“Wait a moment, if you will. I don’t want to have to watch you fall again.” He smiled wryly.

She knew her cheeks were starting to go red, and struggled to contain her embarrassment. “I’m fine.”

“What would you have done if I hadn’t helped you up?”

“I would have gotten up eventually… or I would have called someone.”

“You should still call someone. You should go to the hospital.”

She laughed, and it only hurt a little. “I’m not going to the hospital, I’m fine. Besides, it’s my second Monday at this place, I can’t just not come to work today—“

“Not even if you’re injured?”

She rolled her eyes at him. Carefully, she took a step forward, and he let her go. She stood steadily on her feet, her back throbbing like it had a second heartbeat, but nothing was twitching uncontrollably. She raised her arms and stiffly turned to look at him, still careful not to make any sudden movements. “See? I think I’m good.”

He frowned at her, and she smiled in an attempt to appease him. His frown grew deeper.

“Thank you for your help. Um… I should really…” she pointed at the front doors and turned away from him, taking a few more steps.

He followed her briskly, “I’m headed in the same direction,” he said.

“Oh… right.” She had been looking forward to never seeing the man again, and now she’d probably have to ride the elevator with him. When they approached the front doors the man stepped forward and held one open for her. Ordinarily she would have found the gesture a little annoying, but she wasn’t going to turn down a favor with her back aching the way it did.

As they walked across the lobby together she caught him looking down at her feet. She looked at her boots and stopped before the elevator, pushing the button and watching it light up under her touch. “What is it?”

He looked up from her feet like he was surprised to find her still attached to them. “Oh. You’re wearing very impractical shoes.”

She pursed her lips. “Yeah, well… I don’t like your coat.”

He laughed, and seemed surprised at himself for doing so. “I only meant that I think that’s why you slipped. Those shoes aren’t meant for the winter.”

A cheery ding sounded above their heads, and the elevator doors slid open. She stepped inside and pressed the button for the fifteenth floor. “And how do you know what these boots are meant for? They could be hiking boots, you don’t know.”

He looked pointedly at the two inch heels on her feet. “I doubt it.”

“My point is you don’t know what my boots are meant for.”

The corner of his lip twitched, but he said nothing. She watched the screen above her head count the number of floors they climbed. They reached the fifth one before she realized he hadn’t pushed a button himself.

“What floor are you?”

“Same as you. Fifteen.” She must have grimaced without realizing it, because he laughed and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t bother you for much longer.”

“No, it’s not that. I mean, I just embarrassed myself in front of you. It’s just… um, embarrassing.”

He smiled at her. “How is your back feeling? Should I be prepared for you to swoon again?”

She bit the inside of her cheek, and tried to keep from smiling. She failed. “I didn’t swoon.”

“Oh, you did. There’s no other word for what that was.”

“I couldn’t help it! The muscles in my back just started to…” She trailed off when she realized she was about to discuss the details of her body with a stranger. She suddenly felt inordinately shy, and looked at the floor, feeling his eyes on her. A thin moment of silence followed, before the elevator doors opened, and she stepped gingerly into the office.

When she set her files on the reception desk and took a seat behind it, the man raised his eyebrows. Before he could say anything, Cassandra appeared in the doorway of one of the smaller offices. “Ellana,” she said, “I hope you won’t make a habit of being this late.”

If she hadn’t been blushing before, she certainly was now. “Of course not, I’m so sorry, I had a cra—“

“It’s my fault entirely.” The man offered his hand to Cassandra, who frowned as she took it in hers. “My name is Solas. I believe we spoke on the phone the other day, I made an appointment to come in—“

Cassandra’s eyes widened, “Oh. Yes, of course, please excuse me. You are not… what I was expecting.” She looked awkwardly from Solas to Ellana, and then smiled apologetically. “You know each other?”

Ellana struggled to form the appropriate words, and Solas quickly spoke up. “She was of some assistance to me downstairs. I’m horribly disorganized, I’m afraid I wasted much of her time.”

Ellana noticed how smoothly he lied, providing so few details that Cassandra was left to fill in the blanks for herself. Interesting.

“Ah.” Cassandra nodded, “Perhaps we should go back to my office to discuss your case.” She glanced at Ellana. “Would you come take notes, Ellana? There are a few logistical things we’ll need to keep straight. Names, dates…”

“Of course.” She checked to make sure the phone was set to transfer incoming calls to the automated directory, and gathered a legal pad and pen. She noticed Solas watching her intently as she stood and followed Cassandra, and had the feeling he might be expecting her to collapse in front of him. Admittedly, she did feel a little unsteady on her feet.

She tried not to contemplate how humiliating it would be to “swoon” twice in front of him.

The three of them entered Cassandra’s office, and Solas closed the door behind them. While Cassandra settled herself behind her desk Solas gestured toward the heavily cushioned chair. Only when Ellana accepted it did he seat himself in the narrow monstrosity beside her. If her boss hadn’t been in the room Ellana might have argued with him; she wasn’t sure if he was being so chivalrous because she was a woman or because he knew she was in pain. Either way, it was beginning to wear on her.

Cassandra didn’t bother with a preamble. “You said before that you had contacted the Templars to see if they could be of assistance.”

“Yes, and I didn’t do so lightly. I’m not a fan of their… methods, but I thought they could set some precedent for punishing those who corrupt spirits into demons. I was told quite colorfully that the Templar Order has no interest in protecting ‘demons’ from mages.”

“Before we prepare a case I’ll want to contact the Circles of Magi as well,” Cassandra said.

Solas smiled tightly. “I contacted the Circles myself, with similar results. Trust me, Ms. Pentaghast, I would not be taking legal action of this magnitude if I had not exhausted all other options.”

Ellana was taking notes frantically, trying to keep her face neutral so as not to betray her curiosity. Cassandra sighed and leaned back in her chair, considering Solas for a moment. “I want to be honest with you. Petitioning Empress Celene to enact justice on your… friend’s behalf will be very time-consuming. That’s true of any legal proceeding, but this case is unlikely to garner much… sympathy… with the public or with the Empress herself. I want you to know, even if we receive the approval of the lower courts and are able to plead our case in Halamshiral, chance of success is—“

“Slim. I know.”

Ellana wasn’t bothering to hide her curiosity anymore. Cassandra’s brows were furrowed, but she sounded almost sympathetic when she said, “Slim to none. Yes.”

For the next ten minutes Cassandra had Solas explain the basic details of the case: the names of the mages involved, the date he realized his friend was in danger, the date of his friend’s death, the location of the summoning circle where his friend was captured, etc. Ellana took notes in her neat script, hardly looking up from the paper, her mind reeling. Pentaghast & Montilyet was a well-established law firm, but it had never taken on something so ambitious. If they were successful in petitioning the Empress of Orlais to enact justice for this dead spirit—this spirit of Wisdom—they could change the course of history. If the Empress championed their cause it could have all kinds of legal and societal ramifications; most importantly, it would establish spirits as people, deserving of rights.

She felt giddy just thinking about it. This single case could impact all of Thedas. For the first time since beginning her job, she felt glad she’d accepted Josephine Montilyet’s offer.

“Ellana,” she nearly jumped at the sound of her name. “Could you compile a list of cases against the Empire, anything addressing the personhood of spirits? Also… the death of spirits, I suppose.”

Ellana nodded absently as she took notes. A silence followed, and she looked up from her legal pad to see Cassandra staring at her. “That’ll be all for now,” she said. “Thank you.”

Realizing she’d missed some social cue, she stood and went to the door. From the corner of her eye she saw Solas turn toward her, and she struggled to keep her back relaxed as she felt another wave of spasms grip her. She managed to close the door behind her before leaning against the wall and sucking in a breath. The muscles in her back twitched and strained erratically, forcing her to bend at the waist to relieve some pressure. After about thirty seconds, the spasms passed and she returned to her desk.

As soon as she sat down she rubbed at her lower back with one hand, and felt some of the tension loosen. She sighed. She would need a hot bath tonight, and probably plenty of painkillers. She began searching the imperial database for the types of cases Cassandra had mentioned, and as she scribbled some details in her notes, Cassandra’s door opened. Solas and Cassandra stood in the doorway speaking in low voices for a moment, before they walked down the hall together, disappearing into the break room. Ellana tried to focus on her work, but a few moments later the pair reemerged, both smiling. Solas was holding an ice pack to his left shoulder and shaking his head at Cassandra as she gestured vaguely toward the door. After a moment Solas shook her hand firmly, and although Cassandra hesitated in front of her office, she eventually retreated and closed the door behind her.

Solas walked up to Ellana and held out the ice pack toward her. She looked at him blankly, and Solas set the ice pack on her desk. “I thought this was the easiest way to help you without revealing your terrible, embarrassing secret.”

Ellana frowned, but took the ice pack immediately. She pressed it to her lower back, “So you just said you’d hurt yourself or something?”

“Yes. I got a peek at a first-aid kit as well. It’s almost as if reporting an injury to your employer is expected around here.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not that hurt. I’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

“You took the ice awfully quickly, for someone who isn’t hurt.”

She frowned. Knowing Cassandra couldn’t hear her, she said, “You know, I can’t tell if you’re trying to annoy me or nurture me to death.”

He smirked. “Probably a combination of both. I’ll get out of your way.” He turned from her and she felt immediately guilty. He’d helped her in the parking lot, lied for her when she came in late, and now he’d sneaked her an ice pack.

“Hey, wait!” He paused and turned around, his eyebrows raised. She felt suddenly silly for the urgency in her voice, but pressed on. “Um, thank you. You lied twice for me. And I’m sorry… about your friend. I can’t imagine… well, obviously I can’t. You’re doing a good thing, though. Petitioning the Empress and everything.”

Solas tilted his head and leaned against her desk, staring at her. “Thank you. That is… very kind of you.” He glanced at the placard on her desk that read: Reception. She got the feeling he was deciding whether or not to say something else. “Have you ever befriended a spirit?”

She raised her eyebrows, “Oh, no. I didn’t even know you could, really. I mean…” she floundered under the weight of his gaze, “I guess it makes sense. If you can summon a spirit you should be able to hold conversations with them… I guess I never tried… or thought to try.”

He nodded stiffly, but his expression wasn’t unkind. “Few ever do.”

“You could change a lot, if this thing works. I mean, I know Cassandra said some discouraging things but… if we did actually win… that could change how spirits are treated all over Thedas, not just in Orlais.”

He smiled, but there was no mirth in his eyes. “Yes, that’s what I hope for.”

“Me too.”

****

As soon as Ellana entered her apartment she dropped her purse on the floor and kicked her shoes off. Sighing, she stomped toward the bathroom, passing Dorian on the couch. “Bad day?” he said.

“I need a bath.” She pushed open the bathroom door and leaned over the tub, turning the faucet. She ran her hand under the hot water to make sure it wasn’t scalding.

“Well, that’s a first. Aren’t you that grumpy Dalish girl who’s always hounding me about how unhygienic baths are, as opposed to showers?”

“Yeah, well, I stand by what I said before. But I need to soak in some hot water, I hurt my back this morning and I’ve been getting these weird spasms. It’s like my muscles won’t relax, they keep tensing up randomly—“

“You hurt your back this morning, you’ve been in pain all day, and your solution right now at…” He glanced at the clock above the fireplace, “Six o’clock is to draw a hot bath? Why in all Thedas didn’t you go to the hospital?”

She sighed. “Shems will go to the hospital for anything. I’m fine, I’ll wake up with a horrible bruise tomorrow and get on with my life.”

“What if you fractured something? Or dislocated your tailbone? Or pulled a muscle? What if you’re bleeding internally? You don’t know!” Dorian stood up and rushed into the bathroom, shooing Ellana aside. Too tired to put up a fight, she let him turn off the faucet. “Put your shoes back on and grab your purse, I’m taking you to the hospital.”

Ellana pointed at the tub helplessly, “Damn it, Dorian, I’ve been looking forward to this bath all day.”

“You’ll get your bath after we’re sure you’re not on the brink of death. Go on.” He pushed her gently out of the bathroom, and she slunk toward her discarded shoes.

“You’re so dramatic,” she mumbled.

Dorian scoffed as he gathered his keys and wallet. “Honestly, I don’t know how you stayed alive before you met me.” He shrugged into his coat while Ellana slipped on her shoes and slung her purse over her shoulder.

“It’s not even that bad anymore, it hurts less than it did this morning. I don’t think it’s anything other than overtaxed—“

“We’ll see what the doctors say.” He held open the door for her and raised one eyebrow. She sighed and walked through it, and he quickly followed after her.

Dorian swore at a nurse in Tevene until she agreed to begin taking x-rays immediately. Ellana was poked, prodded, swabbed, and questioned about the nature of her injury and her pain. After spending hours in the hospital, Dorian by her side the whole time, she finally got some definitive results. The on-call doctor informed Ellana that her injury was minor, prescribed her five days’ worth of muscle relaxants, ordered her not to strain herself or lift anything heavy, and conspired with Dorian about getting her off work for a few days. He wrote a note ordering that Ellana be given the week off to recuperate, but after Ellana made it clear she didn’t plan to stay home, he entrusted the note to Dorian rather than his patient. She would have been more irritated if she wasn’t so exhausted.

By the time they got back to the apartment it was half-past ten. More out of stubbornness than anything else, Ellana went immediately to draw herself a bath. She pulled her long hair into a bun at the top of her head, pointedly closed and locked the door, and undressed. Slipping into the hot water did wonders for her mood, and she whiled away half an hour soaking in the bath. By the time she dried off and wrapped a robe around her, her body felt pleasantly pliant and she was ready to fall into a peaceful sleep. When she opened the door she saw Dorian sitting on the couch with his phone to his ear, facing away from her. He was in the middle of a sentence: “… stubborn than you give her credit for. Just be prepared to escort her back here if she shows up tomorrow.” A pause while he listened to the other person reply. “My dear Josephine, I do believe that qualifies as kidnapping.”

“Damn it, Dorian!” Ellana shouted, pointing a finger accusingly. He whipped around to face her, grimacing.

He spoke into the phone: “Yes, that would be her now.” He stood up and backed away as Ellana shuffled toward him. He held up one hand defensively, “Your boss has officially ordered you to stay home this week!” Ellana reached for the phone and he pulled it from his ear to hold it over his head. “No more shouting or frowning, you impossible woman! Get to bed!” She tried to stretch to reach the phone and he pushed her lightly on the shoulder. Giving in, she allowed him to shepherd her to her bedroom.

“I would slap you if I wasn’t so tired!”

“Fine way to talk to the man who saved your life today,” Dorian muttered, pushing her towards her bed. She sighed and collapsed atop it, still wearing her robe and nothing else. “Sleep.” He turned off her bedside lamp, plunging the room into darkness. She sighed and rolled onto her stomach, burying her face in her pillow. She felt his hand run through her hair gently, smoothing stray tendrils away from her face. He kissed the crown of her head, and after a long pause, she heard her bedroom door swing shut.

Distracted by the rare moment of tenderness and thoroughly exhausted, Ellana slipped into sleep within seconds.

Chapter Text

When Ellana woke her back felt so stiff she momentarily panicked in her daze, thinking she might be paralyzed. She proved this theory wrong by jerking upright in bed and sending a shooting pain down her spine. She cursed softly and rubbed her lower back, but doing so only made her cringe and hiss. Her doctor had told her she’d be sore and stiff in the morning, but she hadn’t counted on him being right. Trying to bend her back as little as possible, she slowly swung her legs over the edge of the bed and planted her feet on the floor. Gripping her nightstand, she pulled herself out of bed and hobbled into the kitchen.

She found a note sitting next to a prescription bottle on the kitchen table. Written in graceful cursive, it read:

Don’t forget to take your medicine! Delivering doctor’s note to Josie this morning, if you come into work she will simply send you home. Don’t drive today, you’ll get yourself killed.

Dorian

She picked up the prescription bottle and saw the cautionary label telling her not to drive or operate machinery while taking her medication. Although she’d never admit it to Dorian, she was secretly glad she’d been grounded. She couldn’t imagine going to work feeling the way she did, and staggering around the office in front of everyone would have been less than dignified. Bending over her desk to take notes would have been hell, crouching by the copier would have been hell, and trying all the while to pretend like she wasn’t in pain would have been hell. Doing all that as Cassandra hovered over her would have been… well, whatever was worse than hell.

Ellana swallowed her pill and chased it with a glass of water. She went to the bathroom and tried to wash her face, but bending over the sink made her flinch. She compromised by wiping her face with makeup remover and brushing her teeth thoroughly. She spent a solid thirty seconds trying to lower herself as gently as possible to the living room floor so she could retrieve her phone from her purse. After that mission was accomplished she didn’t feel confident enough to stand without aid, so she crawled to the couch and gripped the arm to pull herself onto her feet.

She went back to her bedroom and laid down, checking to see if she had any messages. Sera had sent several.

Sera 7:16 am

wat’s this i hear bout u breakin ur back

8:01 am

theyr makin me do ur job wile ur out

9:04 am

i hate this!! how do u type so fast

10:21 am

SUM1’s been askin bout u ;)))) lol

Ellana frowned. Surely Solas wouldn’t have any reason to stop by the firm so soon after his first meeting with Cassandra… but that was the only person she could think of who might show concern over her injury. Besides Josephine, of course, who avoided Sera as much as possible.

Ellana 10:32 am

who? a client?

Sera 10:32 am

UR ALIVE!!!

and ugh no

Ellana 10:33 am

?? are you gonna make me guess lol

Sera 10:33 am

cully wully

Odd. Cullen had barely spoken to her since she’d taken the job at the firm. Unless asking her to copy a contract or inquiring about the IT number, he hadn’t acknowledged her presence at all. Not that she minded; she was used to being treated like she was invisible.

Ellana 10:35 am

that’s unexpected

Sera 10:36 am

i think he liiiiiiiiiiikes u

8======D~~~

Ellana 10:37 am

what is that??

Sera 10:37 am

guess

Ellana 10:37 am

idk a shovel?

Sera 10:38 am

LOL NO

his dick

becuz he luvs u

with his dick

Ellana 10:39 am

goodbye now

Sera 10:40 am

u better cum back soon i hate ur job

i hate MY job

interning sux

Ellana let her phone drop to the covers, and rolled onto her side. Her room was clean and colorful; her dresser (which she’d found on the side of the road a year ago) was painted a bright blue, and her bedspread was the color of a freshly peeled orange. Even more eye-catching was the wall opposite her bed, which was completely covered in paintings and sketches, ranging greatly in subject matter but very little in style. All the paintings, even the portraits and nudes, were brightly colored, but the brushstrokes looked so soft and ephemeral that even the most boldly arranged compositions had an air of shyness and sweetness to them, like the artist was afraid to make a mistake or surprise the viewer. Against this wall a narrow desk and chair sat covered in loose papers, pencils, brushes, empty cups, paints, and canvas. Tucked away inside the desk’s top drawer were a series of sketches and paintings of sylvanwood branches.

The most prominent painting on the wall was that of a nude woman with her arms wrapped about her torso and her face turned away from the viewer. She was painted in hues of pink, orange, and yellow. Her skin looked soft as honey.

Feeling restless, Ellana grabbed her sketchbook and a pencil from her nightstand. Thankful that she didn’t have to get up again to reach them, she stretched out on her bed and turned to a fresh page. She let her mind wander as she drew a softly curving sylvanwood branch, with knots in the bark disrupting the flow of newly blossoming buds along its length. She drew the leaves and blossoms absentmindedly, having drawn similar branches a thousand times before. She came to the exercise easily, more out of habit than anything else. Like a meditation or prayer, it calmed her to sketch something so familiar.

She hesitated for a moment near the tip of the branch, and experimentally outlined an icicle hanging from it. Her nose twitched, and she erased it. She went back to detailing the leaves and drawing the swirls in the knots, but eventually came back again to the tip of the branch and drew another icicle; this one was daintier and looked like it belonged there. Satisfied that she’d done something slightly different with this sketch, she turned to a new page not knowing what she planned to draw next. Without thinking, she drew the figure of a man looking down at the viewer. She drew only the barest outlines of a head and face, but paid great attention to the crisp lines of his pants, and the way his coat hung loosely at his waist, unbuttoned. She wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, and tried putting them in his pockets. She didn’t like that pose at all; it made him look haughty, expectant. Instead she drew one arm hanging at his side while the other reached out hesitantly, as if to help someone.

It first occurred to her that she was drawing Solas as she began to flesh out the face, and for reasons she didn’t understand she felt vaguely embarrassed about drawing him. For a moment she considered tearing the page out and throwing it away, but the urge seemed juvenile, so she stopped herself. Instead she trained her eye on her sketch with the mind of an artist, studying her subject’s silhouette and adjusting lines here and there. She left the face unfinished, not because she was embarrassed (she told herself) but because she didn’t know what expression he should have.

She fell asleep with her sketchbook open in front of her, pencil still in her hand.

****

The muscle relaxants had a tendency to make her drowsy, so after two days she stopped taking them. She didn’t like falling asleep when she finally had an opportunity to devote some time to her painting, and she said as much to Dorian. “Kaffas,” he said, “you’re a worse workaholic than Josephine.”

“It doesn’t count as work if I actually enjoy it, Dorian.”

This sent her roommate on a rant about his work as a necromancer, and they said little else about her back injury after that. Her pain was almost completely gone by Sunday afternoon, and the muscle spasms had stopped completely. She tried not to show how proud she was when Dorian dropped his keys on the kitchen floor and she was able to pick them up without so much as a grimace. She also tried not to show how little she looked forward to returning to work.

Monday was bittersweet. When she finished her first transcript she caught herself doodling on her legal pad, and found she missed the smell of her watercolors, which she had used a lot the previous week. There was something vaguely gratifying, though, about Cassandra heaving a sigh of relief when Ellana handed her some copies she’d requested. “You have no idea how much we missed you,” she said with a deadpan expression, and Ellana grinned. At lunch Sera kept up a running commentary about how “piss-poor” everyone’s sense of humor was, and regaled her with tales of the pranks she’d pulled around the office while filling in for Ellana. Josephine had threatened to fire Sera after finding out she’d filled the water cooler with vodka on Thursday morning. Ellana suspected the only saving grace had been that no one had the chance to actually drink the vodka, because Sera had immediately given herself away in a fit of giggles.

Her first day back was as normal as could be expected, except for one incident. Ellana was proofreading something for Josephine when Cullen came to stand by her desk. She looked up distractedly and saw he didn’t have any papers in his hand, which meant he didn’t need her to copy something. She met his eyes and saw that he looked slightly nervous. “I’m glad you’re finally back,” he said, “it’s hard not to be relieved after what Sera put us through.”

Ellana smirked. “I heard about the water cooler. She’s more original than I gave her credit for.”

His shy smile faltered slightly. “How are you feeling? Josephine said you were practically on bedrest.”

She laughed. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Mostly I just watched a lot of TV.”

“Anything good?”

“Not unless you’re a fan of Thedas’ Next Hero.”

Cullen grimaced. “Ah. I suppose I’m not.”

“You and me b—“

A shrill scream cut Ellana short, and both she and Cullen turned toward the sound. They got up and rushed to the break room, with Cassandra and Sera in pursuit behind them. They all came to stand in the doorway of the break room and saw Josephine standing on a chair and pointing at a very dirty, very old nug on the floor in front of her. For a moment there was complete silence, except for the nug’s squeaks. And then Josephine shouted, “Don’t just stand there! Do something! Get it out!”

Cullen grabbed a broom and chased the nug into a corner with it. Sera yelled, “Fucking disgusting! We eat in here!” as Josephine hopped down from her chair and scurried into the hall to stand with the other women.

“Guys, it’s just a nug,” Ellana said. Josephine and Sera turned skeptical eyes to her, while Cassandra watched Cullen push the nug into a paper bag.

“You should meet Leliana…” Cassandra muttered.

“That thing probably took a shit where we eat!” Sera said.

“Ok, but it’s not gonna hurt you,” Ellana said. “We just need to give the place a good cleaning.”

Sera grunted in disgust and wrinkled her nose, while Josephine stared disbelievingly at Ellana. With the nug safely tucked inside the paper bag, Cullen gently rolled the edges of the bag shut and picked it up. The bag crinkled with the nervous nug’s movement. Paying his captive no mind, Cullen paused, staring into the open supply closet with a grave expression. He sighed and glanced toward them all. “I think we might have a problem. There’s a nest over here, and it seems like there’s more than one of them.”

Cassandra and Josephine sighed in unison, and Ellana frowned. “What’s wrong? We’ll just relocate them.”

“No,” Cassandra said. “If there’s more than one it qualifies as an infestation. We’re required to have the office fumigated.”

Josephine said to no one in particular, “This could destroy our reputation. I’ll need to come up with a cover story that doesn’t reflect poorly on us.”

“First things first,” Cullen said, approaching the doorway. “Let’s get this little guy outside.”

****

“You’re on the fifteenth floor,” Dorian said as he combed his hair in front of the bathroom mirror. “How in Thedas did a family of nugs get up there?”

“I don’t know,” Ellana called from the living room. “They were probably living there for a while.”

“And Val Royeaux is supposed to be a civilized place. Hmph. Civilized for southerners, perhaps.”

Ellana folded her legs underneath her and propped her laptop up on the couch beside her. A blank text document filled the screen. The cursor blinked at her from the page, and it was making her anxious. She’d been staring at her computer for the past fifteen minutes. “Nugs are harmless. They’re kind of cute, even.”

Dorian scoffed and went into his bedroom, leaving the door open so he could be heard. “Only you would find a couple of pests cute.” He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it in his hamper as he approached his closet. He pulled another shirt from its hanger and slipped it on. Smoothing the fabric with one hand, he came to stand in the doorway and gestured at his outfit. “Better?”

Ellana examined him, still feeling distracted. “Yes. Tighter is always better.”

“A woman after my own heart.” He crossed over to the bathroom and she heard something clatter against the sink.

She checked her phone again. No new messages. She reread the text Cassandra had sent her, explaining that they would need a notarized statement from Solas by the beginning of next week if they wished to continue with their case on time. There were a hundred moving parts in this legal proceeding, and Ellana was responsible for a fraction of a fragment. Since the office was being fumigated and therefore uninhabitable, Ellana had agreed to have Solas over at her apartment so she could transcribe his version of events. The session would likely take hours. The written statement itself would probably go through five drafts before Josephine and Cassandra finally approved it.

Cassandra had given her Solas’ number so Ellana could provide directions, and he was set to arrive in five minutes. It all felt very informal and strange, not at all the way business should be done. She was surprised Cassandra had allowed it, let alone suggested the unorthodox arrangement herself.

For half an hour Ellana had agonized over what to wear; she shouldn’t dress as formally as she did for work, of course. On the other hand, she shouldn’t look so casual that she came off as unprofessional. Eventually she’d settled on a pair of jeans without any rips or frays, along with a navy sweater. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and her ears stuck out slightly.

Dorian called from the bathroom: “Eyeliner? Yes or no?”

Ellana tried to ground herself in the present. She shoved her phone between the couch cushions, hoping to suppress the urge to check it again. “Were you wearing eyeliner when you met him?”

“No.”

“Then no.”

Dorian heaved a great sigh. “You’re no fun.”

A heavy, measured knock sounded at the front door. Ellana dug her phone out of the couch to check the time. If that was Solas he was three minutes early. Feeling her heartbeat in her throat, she rose and walked to the door. Her feet felt stupidly clumsy all of a sudden.

When she opened the door Solas was standing with his hands in his coat pockets. He looked surprised to see her. “Ah, I wasn’t sure that I had the right address. The sign on your building says ‘Blackwall Incorporated.’ It didn’t seem like an apartment complex from the outside.”

Ellana smiled, thrilled to have something to talk about. “Yeah, Blackwall still owns the building but he never changed the sign. Used to be a business place.”

Solas’ lips quirked at the ambiguity. “Business place?”

Ellana shrugged. “I’m actually not sure what he used to do here. Probably nothing illegal...”

He smiled. “A ringing endorsement.”

A silence fell, and Ellana realized she hadn’t invited him inside. She stepped aside and gestured vaguely towards the living room, “Come on in,” she said, feeling like an unskilled actress. She wasn’t used to having a home to invite people into, and having to acknowledge ownership of the apartment felt oddly dishonest. Like she was an impostor. If Solas noticed her awkwardness he didn’t acknowledge it. He stepped inside and took off his coat; she took it from him wordlessly and threw it over the couch. When she turned back toward him he was smiling secretively.

“What?”

He shook his head, “Nothing, excuse me.” He took a few steps toward her. “You lead an interesting life. You work at a law firm… and describe your landlord as a man who ‘probably’ hasn’t done anything illegal.”

“Not on this property anyway,” she said, and he laughed.

“And I thought you were a wide-eyed innocent. It appears I was mistaken.”

Ellana smiled, and she was about to say something else when Dorian called out from the bathroom: “I admit I have been a bad influence on her.”

She turned toward the bathroom to see Dorian appear in the doorway, looking striking in his fitted t-shirt. From the corner of her eye she noticed Solas’ posture straighten. “Ah,” Solas said, and stepped forward. Dorian took a step as well; they met in the middle and shook hands. “I wasn’t aware Ellana lived with her boyfriend. Or… fiancé?”

Dorian laughed and shook his head, “Ah, no, neither. I’m Dorian Pavus, resident troublemaker.”

“Solas.”

Dorian glanced at Ellana. “I knew I should have worn eyeliner. Here I am being mistaken for a straight man. This is all your fault.”

Ellana shrugged, “I still say you should save it for the second date.”

“Second? Such an optimist.” Dorian smiled at Solas, who nodded curtly. “It was good to meet you.” He got his coat out of the front closet and slipped on his shoes.

“And you as well,” Solas said.

Dorian patted his coat pockets to be sure his wallet and keys were inside, and waved briefly at Ellana. “Wish me luck.”

“Good luck. Text me later so I know you’re ok.”

“I will!” Dorian called over his shoulder, stepping outside and shutting the door behind him.

Ellana turned back to Solas, and an awkward pause fell. “Um… sorry about him. He likes to make an entrance.”

Solas nodded, “I can tell.”

She looked around the room, at a loss for what to do to dispel the awkwardness. She struggled to remember what Dorian had done when he’d first invited her to his home. Ah, she should probably offer him something. A snack. Or a drink? “Uh…” she wandered into the kitchen, and he followed her at a distance. “So do you want juice?” She opened the fridge and peered inside. “Or water? Or… we have Tevinter ale.”

He shook his head, “No, I’m fine. Thank you.”

She shut the fridge door. “Right. Ale wouldn’t be professional, I guess.” She leaned uncomfortably against the counter for a moment. Solas smiled at her, but said nothing. “We should probably…” she gestured toward the living room and walked over to the couch. She picked up her laptop and sat down, and Solas settled himself about a foot away from her. A respectful distance. A professional distance?

“Ok, so I don’t know how much Cassandra explained about this statement thing—“

“She emphasized its importance, but little else.”

“Right. Basically you just have to take me through what happened in detail, and I’ll type up it all up for you so you don’t develop carpal tunnel or anything. This’ll just be the first draft though, so don’t worry too much about getting it absolutely perfect or being vague about something. Cassandra and Josephine will want to look at it themselves and do some editing… with your approval, of course.”

“Editing?”

She curled her legs underneath her. “Yeah. Flesh out certain things, leave others ambiguous.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Why would they want to leave certain things ambiguous?”

“Well, they’d leave out anything that hurts our case. And then they’ll want to coach you on what to say about anything that makes you or your friend look bad.”

“They expect me to lie in my testimony?”

Ellana bit her lip. “Uh, no, not exactly.”

Unexpectedly, he smiled. “I’m glad you won’t be taking the stand, Ellana.”

“What?”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

She flushed, and busied herself by adjusting the margins of her text document. Solas watched her intently, still smiling. “So, we should probably get started.”

Solas nodded, and they began. It was an uncomfortable, arduous process, and Ellana felt like a voyeur to his grief. She tried to be respectful in her questions, but asking for greater detail always felt like an intrusion. He was stoic in his descriptions, his face a neutral mask for two and a half hours while he recounted the nature of his friend’s death, up to and including the incompetence and entitlement of the mages who’d corrupted the spirit. By the time they finished Solas was cradling a glass of ale, and there were two dirty plates on the coffee table before them. She’d stopped him halfway through to insist he eat something, and he had humored her. She didn’t miss the way he’d chewed his food numbly, as if he couldn’t taste what he was eating.

“I think that’s all for now.” She looked at his drawn face from over her computer screen. He nodded, but didn’t meet her eyes. She shut her laptop and set it on the coffee table, and went to the kitchen. “Do you want dessert?” she called. “We have chocolate.” She opened the fridge and leaned over to peer inside. “Oh, and we have these pudding things! Dorian bought them down at that fancy market in the square. They were stupidly expensive.”

From the living room, nothing.

She grabbed two pudding cups and two spoons, and entered the living room as she spoke. “He’ll thank us if we eat some, he’s alw—“

Solas was slipping his coat on. “Thank you, that’s very kind. I’m afraid I must be going, I’ve put you out long enough.” He adjusted the collar of his coat without looking at her, and headed for the door.

Ellana held her arms out and blocked his exit as best she could, holding spoons in one hand and pudding in the other. “Wait! I can’t let you leave like this! You’re drained, you should stay for a while.” He kept walking toward the door, and she flattened herself against it, still holding her arms out. He frowned and came to tower over her. Somehow, she had not realized how tall he was until this moment.

“I appreciate the gesture, but—“

“Please? Help me eat this pudding?”

He looked down at the pudding cups in her hand, and sighed.

“You can make fun of my shoes if it’ll make you feel better,” she said, and it startled a laugh out of him. She smiled.

“I wasn’t making fun of your shoes.”

She pushed a pudding cup into his hand, and he accepted it. “Shut up and eat,” she said, and handed him a spoon. Still looking weary and pale, he took a step back with a sigh. She led him to the couch and curled up on the end, tearing her pudding cup open. He sat beside her and did the same, dipping his spoon into the pudding hesitantly, as if he was unsure of its contents.

For a moment they ate in comfortable silence. Ellana slipped off her shoes while she stirred her pudding absently, and this drew a wan smile from Solas. “How is your back feeling? You don’t seem to be in excruciating pain any longer.”

Ellana laughed. Under different circumstances she would have insisted that her injury wasn’t that painful, that his help had been unnecessary the day they met, that she had recovered quickly. Now, after hearing him recount the terrible details of a close friend’s untimely death, after witnessing his hollow attempt at humor, after watching him adjust the collar of his coat as he’d prepared to leave, she wanted to even the playing field between them. He was vulnerable, and she didn’t want him to feel alone in that.

“It got worse the day after you saw me. I was so stiff I could barely move.”

“Did your boss ever catch on?”

“Ugh, Dorian told Josephine about the whole thing. I got that week off because of it. And he made me go to the freaking hospital too.”

He smiled. “Good. I think I’m beginning to like this Dorian.”

She rolled her eyes, smirking but saying nothing.

“Did your doctor give you a clean bill of health?”

“Yep. He gave me muscle relaxants and told me the spasms would die down, and they did. I’m good as new now.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

She took another bite of her pudding, feeling self-conscious about the way her lips wrapped around the spoon. She looked away from Solas as she ate. “So did you hear about the nug infestation?”

He raised his eyebrows. “No, I didn’t. Cassandra mentioned something about remodeling...”

She scoffed. “Oh, right, that’s the PR version of events. We actually had a family of nugs nesting in the break room. The place is being fumigated now.”

“That couldn’t have been hygienic.”

She shrugged. “No, probably not. There are worse animals that could nest in there though.” She placed her pudding cup on the coffee table and stood up, heading into the kitchen. “I’m gonna get myself an ale. You want a refill?” she called.

“No, thank you.”

She took advantage of the privacy of the kitchen, and ran her hands under cold water for a moment. Shutting off the faucet, she pressed her chilled palms to the back of her neck, and took a deep breath. She should not feel nervous, or warm, or shaky, but she did. Solas was in her home on a strictly professional basis, she told herself. He was sitting on her couch because he was grieving, she told herself. Sighing, she picked up a glass and poured some Tevinter ale. She took a sip and relished the burn it left in the back of her throat; it seemed to steady her. As she entered the living room she saw the couch was empty. For a moment she thought he’d left without saying goodbye, until she caught a glimpse of him standing in front of her bedroom with his back to her.

She tilted her head and examined the relaxed slouch of his shoulders, and the way he was leaning against the doorjamb with such stillness. He seemed to be staring at her blue dresser. She came to stand by him and he startled at her approach, turning toward her with a contrite expression. “Forgive me, the bright colors drew my eye—“

“It’s no big deal.” She gestured behind him with her glass, sloshing the ale haphazardly. “Take a look.”

He looked uncertainly from her glass to her face, and went into her bedroom. She followed him, trying to figure out how to set him at ease again, when he paused in front of her wall of paintings and sketches. She felt heat creep up her neck when she realized she still had a handful of nudes tacked to the wall, and briefly considered faking an illness to get him out of her apartment.

That would be childish, she reasoned. They were both adults, and they had both seen naked bodies before. There was no reason to feel so embarrassed.

Solas stepped closer to the wall and briefly pressed his fingertips to the edge of one painting—the one of the nude woman with her arms wrapped around herself. He looked at each painting and sketch individually, and because his back was to her she couldn't tell what he thought of them. He was silent for so long she started to feel nervous that he was mocking her. “It’s just a hobby,” she said quietly, “sometimes when I’m bored…”

He looked over his shoulder at her, his eyes softer than she’d ever seen them. “They’re exceptional.”

Her grip on her glass felt suddenly very slippery. She set her ale down on her dresser and came to stand next to him. He continued to stare at the painting of the nude woman, and Ellana wondered nervously if he thought the woman was her. There was a certain resemblance. “Uh, I usually paint more landscapes, I swear.”

He half smiled but didn’t look at her, continuing to stare at her artwork. “You’re talented. And you’re very good at making them look… vulnerable.”

She laughed uneasily. “That’s easy to do when someone’s naked.”

He met her gaze, “I’m sure you’re right. But I meant that…” he glanced at her paintings again. “You make them look… childlike. Small.”

She swallowed a lump in her throat and turned to look at her paintings. “Is that a good thing?”

She didn’t see his expression, but he sounded surprised. “Does it matter?”

She tried to keep her face neutral, but her pulse was racing. “I… guess not.”

He turned toward her, and the weight of his gaze drew her eyes away from the wall. He smiled kindly, “I had no idea you were an artist.”

She scoffed and shook her head, “No, no, I’m not an artist.”

“Of course you are. Did you go to school for it?”

She raised her eyebrows, surprised at his sudden directness. “Yes. I mean, no. I mean… I didn’t finish.”

He nodded, still smiling. “Was there a reason you didn’t?”

“Oh, all the usual boring reasons,” she said, crossing her arms. Death. Poverty. Desperation.

Solas looked at her crossed arms as if he were decoding a message. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to pry.” He glanced at her paintings again, but this time it was not with a careful eye. He seemed focused on keeping his gaze averted from hers. “Somehow I always find myself invading your space. I apologize.”

“No, no, you’re fine. I’m not trying to…” she gestured helplessly at him, unsure of what she meant to say. “It’s just not fun to talk about. That’s all.”

“I understand.” They both paused. “Do you ever think of going back?”

“To art school? Not really. I’m too busy with work.”

“You should consider it, if it’s something you want.”

“Why do you say that?”

He shook his head with a self-deprecating sigh. “Nevermind, I believe I’ve trespassed on your free time long enough. I should be going.” He turned toward the open door, and without thinking she grabbed his elbow to stop him. He paused and stared at her, brows furrowed.

Her mouth hung open for a moment, and she quickly released his arm. She hadn’t known what she planned to say, she just knew she didn’t want him to leave feeling like an intruder. “Um… what do you do?”

He surprised her by smirking. “I’m an architect.”

Her eyes went wide. “An architect, living in Val Royeaux? That’s…”

His smirk grew. “A position of some distinction, yes.”

“Wow. Are you any good?” A silly question, and she knew it. If he was employed as an architect in the capital of Orlais, he was clearly very successful.

He chuckled. “I believe so.”

“Well… maybe you can teach me how to draw a straight line sometime,” she joked. She regretted it immediately, but then he tipped his head back and laughed deep in his belly. She couldn’t help answering that laugh with a smile. When he quieted she poked his foot with her toe. “So you’re an artist. You don’t seem the type.”

Solas shook his head, “Oh, no, I’m an architect. My profession is more math than art.”

“I’d say it’s equally both. That makes you an artist.” His laughter still echoed in her ears. It made her feel bold.

He stifled a laugh, his tone disbelieving, “You know much about architecture, do you?”

She shrugged shyly, “What, you’re not gonna give in? Let me win this argument?”

He gestured toward her paintings. “Not if it means I call myself an artist while you don’t.”

She ducked her head for a moment, flattered and disarmed at the same time. “I can’t say it first. It’s the principle of the thing.” When she looked back up at him she noticed he had the slightest flush in his cheeks.

“I won’t go first either. I don’t entirely trust you,” he teased, and she laughed. He watched her with a small smile. “It seems we’re at an impasse,” he said.

She took a step closer without knowing why. “Oh, I’m great at those.”

There was still laughter in his eyes, but there was something else as well. Something she wanted to see more often. “I didn’t know one could have a talent for them.”

She bit her lip. “Well, I do. I usually win. I’m one of the most stubborn people you’ll meet.”

His eyes lingered on her lips. “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

She didn’t tell Dorian about what happened, partly because she knew he would tease her mercilessly for flirting with a man ten years her senior, and partly because what she had with Solas felt so unbearably fragile. She did not know what exactly they shared; all she knew was that it was not strictly professional.

For a day and a half she agonized over whether or not she should text him—she had his number, and he had seemed to be flirting with her too, and she didn’t believe he would be offended if she asked him to go out for coffee. Overtaken with shyness and uncertainty, she talked herself out of asking him on a date. Flirting on the job was one thing, she told herself, but dating a client was something else altogether. Cassandra would lambaste her if she found out.

Even with all these rationalizations in mind, she took the opportunity to text him when Josephine and Cassandra approved the final draft of his written statement. She knew Cassandra would call him to officially inform him of the news, and to ask him to come down and sign the document with a notary present, but she got a tiny thrill out of having something safe to text him about. Something that wouldn’t result in humiliation or a quick firing.

As it was, the final draft was approved on a Friday morning.

Ellana 11:03 am

solas guess what!!

Solas 11:05 am

What is it?

Ellana 11:06 am

your written statement is finally good to go! cass will probably want you to come in monday

Solas 11:06 am

Ah, I’m glad you have that arduous task behind you. Was it very painful?

Ellana 11:07 am

only the way broken bones are painful

Solas 11:08 am

Haha, very funny. You shouldn’t be joking about broken bones.

Ellana 11:08 am

gasp! are you superstitious

Solas 11:09 am

Not usually. Perhaps I am where you are concerned.

Ellana 11:09 am

aaawwwww

actually wait! i don’t know if that’s flattering or not

Solas 11:10 am

I assure you it’s as flattering as you originally thought.

Ellana 11:10 am

aaawwwww

Solas 11:11 am

Either way you should start wearing more sensible shoes. Next time you could break something.

Ellana 11:11 am

youre never gonna shut up about my shoes are you?

Solas 11:12 am

I’ll “shut up” when you start wearing snow boots.

Ellana 11:13 am

you just put shut up in scare quotes. youre such a hahren

Solas 11:14 am

This hahren should just buy you some snow boots himself.

Ellana 11:14 am

don’t be ridiculous

Solas 11:15 am

When is your birthday? You would have to accept them if they were a birthday gift.

Ellana 11:16 am

lol! i’m never telling you my birthday now

Solas 11:17 am

I’ll find out one way or another.

Perhaps I’ll ask Ms. Pentaghast.

Ellana 11:17 am

what!?? that wouldn’t be fair and you know it!

Solas 11:19 am

I’m only joking, lethallan.

Or am I?

Ellana 11:20 am

from now on youre not allowed alone with cassandra

i’ll be around to chaperone you at all times

Solas 11:21 am

I would enjoy that. It seems either way I would get something I want.

Ellana 11:23 am

be a little less smooth! youre making me nervous

Solas 11:24 am

Apologies. I’ll try to be more awkward in the future.

Ellana 11:24 am

that’s all i ask

****

Ellana’s weekend was uneventful, but at three o’clock on Monday morning she woke and was unable to fall asleep again. She lay in bed for a while, imagining colorful brushstrokes against a pristine canvas, the way her wrist would feel upon each stroke, how the paint might smell as she uncapped it. It was a habit of hers to paint pictures in her head to soothe herself to sleep, but she conceded failure when she checked her phone and realized she had been lying awake for nearly forty five minutes. Knowing sleep would continue to elude her and still feeling inspired, she turned on her lights and spent the next two hours hunched over her desk with her acrylics. The manic energy of a sleep-deprived mind lent itself to the task; there was still a distinctive subtlety to her art even in this state, but without rest she didn’t censure herself as she usually did. She painted with more attention to feeling than to form, sometimes leaning so close to her canvas that she got paint on her nose. By the time her alarm went off she had created something that set itself apart from her other works. It was a painting of a man with his back to the viewer, painted mostly in blue tones, holding a broken sylvanwood branch in his hand. The sylvanwood branch itself was drained of color, except for faint traces of pink and orange. The brushstrokes of this painting were bolder, which lent a cohesion that her other work lacked. The sturdy sweep of the man’s shoulders, the jagged break in the branch, and the contrast in color all suggested a confidence that was otherwise missing in her art.

Feeling oddly energized, Ellana set her painting out to dry and got ready for work, all the while looking forward to seeing Solas. She wore her hair down and straightened, the way she had worn it when they first met.

By the time she entered the office she’d lost the buzz from painting, and was starting to regret having only a measly bowl of cereal for breakfast. She went through the motions well enough for the first hour or two, but when she entered the break room to grab some crackers to stave off fatigue, Sera glibly informed her of how “fucking shite” she looked. Apparently she wasn’t hiding her drowsiness well. Just as she was nibbling on her last cracker, her phone buzzed against her hip. She checked her messages and saw, to her surprise and delight, that Solas had texted her.

Solas 9:14 am

I assume you’re aware I’m coming in to have my statement notarized today.

Ellana frowned at the formality of the message. Checking to make sure she was indeed alone in the break room, she texted him back.

Ellana 9:15 am

i’m aware. i had to book your appt silly

Solas 9:15 am

Ah. Just making sure you’ll be there when I get in.

Ellana tried to still the fluttering in her stomach before she replied.

Ellana 9:16 am

yes, i will be here, where i work, when you come in.

in 15 mins

With dawning horror, she realized Solas might not have been joking about buying her sensible snow boots. Perhaps that was why he wanted to make sure he would see her.

9:17 am

if youre about to give me boots DONT

i will throw them at you

and have no remorse

Solas 9:18 am

I would never presume! I don’t even know your shoe size.

It’s more inconsequential and less intrusive than that.

Ellana 9:19 am

what is??

Solas 9:19 am

What I plan to give you when I come in.

She tried to stifle a grin, and failed miserably. Her smile was so wide it made her cheeks ache.

Ellana 9:20 am

gasp!! solas you cant give the receptionist at your firm a gift

what will people think?? :O

Solas 9:21 am

That you have terrible taste in men, of course.

Ellana tried to hide the glow in her cheeks as she returned to her desk, knowing that Cassandra would soon be eyeing her critically. Just as she was about to sit down, the elevator doors slid open, and Solas stepped forward. She smiled at him and remained standing, leaning her hip against her desk. He must have been texting her as he was coming into the building. “You’re early,” she said, and was surprised to hear how pleased she sounded.

He chuckled. “It’s a bad habit of mine.” He came to stand in front of her desk, effectively putting a barrier between Ellana and himself. Knowing he could have easily taken the opportunity to step a little closer, she tried not to show her disappointment. For the first time she noticed he was holding a small white box, tied with pink twine. She cocked her head at him.

“That doesn’t look inconsequential,” she said.

Solas set the box on her desk and shrugged stiffly. “Less intrusive than snow boots, I would hope.”

She eyed the box for a moment, and looked up to see he was watching her with his chin lowered, seeming almost bashful. Curious, she untied the twine and pulled off the lid. Half a dozen golden pastries sat nestled together, their frosting gleaming brightly, the powdered sugar sparkling like snow under sunlight. She was glad she’d eaten some crackers recently; otherwise, her stomach might have grumbled at her.

“You fed me so well the other night, I wanted to return the favor.”

There was something vaguely suggestive about the way he spoke, and it made her blush. She realized she was gaping at the pastries and quickly replaced the lid. “Thank you,” she said hurriedly, her mouth dry. “This is really nice… um... I don’t know what to say.”

His posture relaxed slightly. “If this is how you react to sweets, I am very glad I decided against the snow boots.”

She laughed tightly, trying to compose herself. “Creators, Solas, if this is how you pay back cheap ale and some pudding then…” She wasn’t sure how she’d planned to finish her thought, so she trailed off.

Solas seemed to interpret her awkward acceptance as a victory; he was grinning with ease now, faint lines appearing around his eyes. Somehow, those lines made him more handsome. “Think nothing of it.” She smiled back at him, forgetting where they were or what time it was. It was so easy to smile around him, and really mean it.

A sharp, Nevarran voice broke the spell: “Ellana.” She startled and turned to look at Cassandra, who was standing in the doorway to her office, staring at the two elves. Her tone softened slightly as she continued, turning her gaze to Solas. “I did not know you were here, Solas. My apologies.”

Before Ellana could try to formulate some excuse, Solas waved his hand dismissively. “Not at all, I tend to be early.”

Cassandra beckoned Solas into her office, and he shot Ellana a conspiratorial look before following her.

Ellana used her newfound privacy to peek at the pastries a second time; they were uncommonly decadent. She examined the box for a label or stamp, but found none. She wondered where he’d gotten them.

After a few minutes the notary exited Cassandra’s office, carrying a ledger loosely at his side. He nodded at Ellana as he approached her desk, “Hey, kid. Someone wants your notes on the Garmeaux v. Orlais case.” With a wry smile he went on to identify the person in question. “You may have met her. She’s the scary one, Nevarran.”

Ellana smiled as she started rifling through her notes from the previous week. “Thanks, Varric. Should I call you a ride or—“

“Nah, that’s alright. Got more work to do in the building anyway.” He headed toward the elevator as Ellana found the notes Cassandra had asked for. “See ya round,” Varric called.

“You too,” Ellana said. Along with her handwritten notes on the case, she dug up an old transcript of some of the key testimony, thinking Cassandra might find it helpful. Resting the thick stack of papers against her hip, she knocked softly on Cassandra’s door. After hearing a noise of acknowledgement, she stepped inside.

Solas and Cassandra were mid-conversation, and though they both turned to acknowledge her, neither paused for breath. “I’m most worried about the prejudice of the presiding judges,” Solas was saying. “I understand not much can be done about that, but the majority of them are human…”

Cassandra nodded stoically as Ellana placed the papers in front of her. “I know. Josephine will be instrumental in that arena, I assure you. I don’t know if she told you, but she was chief ambassador from Antiva to Orlais…”

“I was aware, yes.” Ellana knew she was beginning to be obvious in her eavesdropping, and slowly made her way to the door. She pretended to be distracted as she paused while gripping the doorknob, hoping to hear something more.

“And there are two elves presiding as judges. With—“

“I’m afraid that brings me little comfort. I can only thank whatever gods are living that there are no Dalish elves presiding.”

Ellana froze, her legs suddenly feeling like lead. Solas was sitting with his back toward her, so he didn’t see her reaction.

Cassandra glanced at Ellana surreptitiously, and she knew it was a kindness when her boss chose not to draw attention to her as she continued to hover by the door. “I beg your pardon?” Cassandra said evenly.

Ellana stared at the back of Solas’ head as he spoke. “However well-intentioned, any Dalish judge would make a mockery of such a legal proceeding.” She felt her stomach sink.

Cassandra opened her mouth to say something, but Ellana spoke before she could think better of it. Before she could lose her nerve. “Why is that?”

Solas turned in his chair to look at her with raised eyebrows. He glanced at her hand; she was still clutching the doorknob. “Because they would be blinded by their ignorance and superstition, just as all children are. In my experience, presenting anything to the Dalish that contradicts their narrow worldview tends to end badly. I’d rather avoid them as much as possible.”

Her voice wavered as she spoke, and she cursed herself for it. “I suppose you don’t know I’m Dalish then.”

His brows furrowed, and he glanced quickly at her neck and wrists, obviously looking for any trace of vallaslin. “I did not know.” Her bare face felt like it was burning; she’d pined for vallaslin for her entire childhood, feeling like she’d been orphaned from her people. Now this man searched for blood writing as confirmation of her identity, confirmation that she was less in his eyes, confirmation of his disappointment in her. It made her mouth taste sour. He had never thought she might be Dalish. And she had never thought he might be a bigot.

He didn’t even try to apologize. He just stared sorrowfully at her, like she was the most pitiful thing he’d ever seen.

Ellana cocked her hip, letting her anger flare more brightly than her hurt. Anger was easier, cleaner. “Well, perhaps you should know this: prejudice against the Dalish tends to narrow one’s worldview.”

Cassandra’s voice was severe: “Ellana.” Solas remained impassive, and that only made her angrier.

She didn’t bother to hide her bitterness as she continued, her voice steadily rising, “And I would think that someone who prides himself on being open-minded—someone of such intellect and wisdom—would at least consider the fact that—“

“Ellana.”

“Holding an entire ethnicity responsible for the crimes of a few is the same brand of prejudice that leads humans to call us ‘knife-ears’ behind our backs—“

“Ellana.”

“And the same prejudice dangerous enough to twist an entire history of slavery and oppression and genocide to make elves look like they deserved—“

“Ellana.”

“What they got. But I guess someone as arrogant as you only ever thinks about how wrong other elves are, without ever stopping to consider the possibility that you’re just as petty and small-minded and—“

“Ellana!” Cassandra shot to her feet, palms splayed on her desk. Ellana bit back her final words. She’d made her point, probably at the cost of her job. Solas was slightly flushed, but otherwise his expression was inscrutable as he stared at her, hands neatly folded in his lap. She swallowed the bile in her throat and left the room, taking care to shut the door gently behind her. She’d already thrown a public tantrum; no need to embarrass herself further by slamming it.

She stood numbly in the middle of the main office, feeling oddly dizzy. Cullen stared at her from beside the reception desk, his mouth hanging open. He approached her slowly, and she knew she should go back to her desk and at least pretend to do her job until she was inevitably fired. She couldn’t quite work up the will to move, however; it had been so long since she’d been rejected out of hand by another elf. It stung the way an old wound stings upon being reopened.

Cullen reached for her arm, but dropped his hand at the last second. That was for the best, she thought grimly. Sympathy would just make her more emotional. “That was… I only heard part of it, I’m sure there was something I missed, but…”

Ellana shook her head. “I know. That was bad.” She walked to her desk, hoping Cullen would go back to his office and leave her alone, but he followed her. She sat down and stared vacantly at her computer.

What an unspeakably stupid thing to do. She’d yelled at the firm’s most important client—the client whose case might shape the future of Orlesian law—because he’d hurt her feelings. Because he’d liked her paintings. Because he’d given her pastries. Because… she had a crush on him.

Childish, stupid, short-tempered—damn her. His opinion shouldn’t have mattered so much, and even if it did she should have been able to rein herself in. She’d been so overcome she hadn’t even thought of the consequences; she’d only known that she was in pain and it made her feel better to yell. It had hurt to know that her people disgusted him. It had hurt to know she disgusted him.

She pressed her hands to her face as she realized the gravity of the situation. No matter what favor Josephine owed Dorian, there was no way she could justify continuing to employ Ellana after this disaster. And once she was fired she’d be without income, and Dorian would offer to front her the money for rent, and she would be unable to accept because he’d given her too much already (strong hands on her bony shoulders, his soft lilting voice, food when she was hungry), and she might have to move to an alienage, and once she was living in an alienage it would be impossible to get decent work, and there was no way she could—

Her entire life would be in shambles by the end of the week.

Cassandra stepped out of her office, shutting the door behind her. She raised her eyebrows at Ellana. “We need to talk,” she said, and walked swiftly to the break room.

Feeling breathless, she stood, and Cullen gave her a smile he probably meant to be reassuring. It was not.

When Ellana entered the break room Cassandra was standing in front of the counter, hands on her hips. She was staring intensely at the wall. “I cannot let you speak to clients like that. I understand you were upset. What he said was wrong, but you are not—“

“I know, I’m so sorry.”

Cassandra turned to look at her. “Let me finish. You are not here to pass judgment. You are here to do your job. Sometimes you need to speak to clients to get your job done, but you are never at liberty to speak to them like that. I don’t care how offensive or upsetting they are. It was unprofessional, the way you spoke to him.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” She wondered if she would be spared the humiliation of having to see Josephine (sweet, kind Josephine) before packing up her stuff and leaving.

“How you speak with clients affects the firm’s relationship with them. Your stunt could have cost us the case. If you had offended him enough, he would have taken his business somewhere else, and we would have lost this opportunity over your hurt feelings.”

She hadn’t even thought of that. She nodded silently, shame burning her neck and the tips of her ears.

Cassandra sighed heavily. Crossing her arms, she muttered, “I should fire you.”

Ellana frowned, not daring to hope for mercy just yet. “I know…”

“Solas asked me not to.”

Her stomach twisted. More charity. Charity she could not turn down, not when she could be left unemployed with no experience or education to bolster her resume. Not when Dorian had pulled strings to get her this job. Not when everything would so quickly unravel without it. “Oh. So… does that mean—“

Cassandra shook her head as if she was already regretting what she was about to say. “If this ever happens again, I will not be able to keep you here. But… just this once, I can overlook this. What he said clearly disturbed you, and I understand that elves have been… mistreated.”

She bit her lip against any reply; talking was probably not a good idea right now. She nodded solemnly, hoping her gratitude showed.

“I just need you to do one thing. Please apologize to Solas.”

She nodded quickly, “Yes, of course. That’s more than fair,” she said, even as her arms broke out in goosebumps. She would have to prostrate herself in front of a man she’d been flirting with only half an hour ago, a man who had insulted her people and herself by extension. But if humiliation was the price of employment she would pay it.

Cassandra huffed and started to leave the break room before turning back toward Ellana with a questioning look on her face.

“Um, I’ll just be one minute.”

Cassandra nodded and left. Ellana went to the sink and ran her hands under cold water, trying to calm herself. In the heat of her rage she’d known exactly what to say and how to say it, but now she was exhausted, listless. Her tongue felt clumsy and her hands were shaking slightly. Knowing that her job depended on her apology did nothing to help her nerves.

Sighing, she pressed her chilled hands to her neck to cool herself down, and then dried them quickly on a towel. She poured a cup of coffee to bring to Solas as a peace offering. She had no idea whether or not he drank coffee, but hoped the gesture would count for something.

On her way to Cassandra’s she noticed Cullen was sitting in his office with his door propped open. He looked up expectantly as she passed by, but said nothing. She quickly thanked the Creators that Josephine was not around today.

Holding Solas’ coffee in a deceptively steady hand, she knocked on Cassandra’s door. The woman’s voice called out: “Please come in.”

Ellana pushed the door open, and Solas immediately turned to look at her, shoulders tense. She pretended not to notice the surprise on his face as she handed him the cup of coffee. He took the cup without looking at it, frowning at her in confusion. She glanced at Cassandra, wondering if her boss would give her some privacy, but the woman didn’t budge. Ellana drew a deep breath and turned to Solas again. “I’m sorry.”

Solas looked from her to Cassandra for a moment, still awkwardly holding the cup of coffee as if the thought of drinking it never occurred to him. He stood abruptly, and seemed surprised to see the coffee still in his hand. He set it on Cassandra’s desk and said, “This is unnecessary, truly. There’s nothing to apologize for, I hope I made that clear.” He looked pointedly at Cassandra, who flushed slightly.

If her job was riding on this apology, she was at least going to apologize with conviction. “No, it is necessary. I got way out of line, I went completely…” she fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve. “I made it personal, and you never meant it to be personal, you didn’t even know... I mean, you didn’t know I was Dalish, so… I was totally in the wrong. I yelled at you, and it was… childish. I’m really sorry.”

Solas’ lips parted slightly, and Ellana realized with a pang that she was still attracted to him. She glanced at Cassandra, who nodded briefly at her, and immediately fled the office. She went back to her desk feeling like a scolded child, and hid behind her computer screen. She glanced guiltily at the box of pastries on her desk, and hastily set a few files on top of it. She went back to work, and quickly found herself immersed in legal documents she could barely comprehend. Josephine had recently asked her to compile the legal records of every judge of the lower courts of Orlais, undoubtedly so she could use the information to their advantage. Ellana didn’t want to contemplate the implications of blackmailing a judge for very long, which left her to the task of searching, cataloging, sorting, and repeating the process many times over.

An hour passed before Solas exited Cassandra’s office. Ellana paused in her typing to look up at him, and saw he was standing a couple feet away from her desk, looking vaguely stunned. Her mouth went dry. Unsure what he expected of her after they’d insulted each other, she folded her hands on her desk. “Hi.”

Solas took a step closer. “Hello.” He gestured toward Cassandra’s door. “Thank you for the coffee, I… that was not necessary. I thought I made it clear that I did not want you to… feel obligated in any way… Cassandra and I miscommunicated.”

Ellana raised an eyebrow. “You’re finally calling her Cassandra.”

He gave her a hollow smile. “Yes. I believe we’re bonding.”

She smiled unconvincingly. She was drained from feeling hurt, then angry, then humiliated. It was hard to find much of anything funny.

“My apology, however, is the most necessary thing I will say today.” His voice went low as he spoke. “I had no idea you were Dalish. Still, that is no excuse. I… have not had many pleasant interactions with your people.” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked away. “I suppose I have let it affect my opinions of them. I never dreamed of offending you when I said what I did, but it was clear that it hurt you and that makes me think… I should be more discerning.”

“I didn’t mean to yell and everything. I just kind of… lost it.”

Solas nodded. “I know, but you made some excellent points. You were right about a few things, and it was wrong of me to assume…” He sighed. “I’m deeply sorry. Not only for what I said, but also for the way you were forced to apologize and make yourself… subservient… after I’d insulted you. That was the height of unfairness. I’m not sure what exactly Cassandra said to you, but I would never want you to feel… obligated to act…” He shook his head and looked at his feet. “Forgive me, I don’t believe this is a very good apology.”

Ellana’s smile was a little more genuine now, though she still felt tired. “Now you’re apologizing for your apology. When will it end?”

Solas shook his head, looking abashed. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but said nothing.

“Thank you. And it’s ok. This whole thing was just… really stupid. I feel stupid now.”

“You are not the only one, I assure you. I think even Cassandra is embarrassed.”

She smirked. “So… do we call an official truce?”

Solas smiled softly and nodded. “I can’t apologize enough. Perhaps in the future I’ll find the right way to make amends.”

She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “One apology is plenty, trust me.”

Solas nodded, his eyes scanning her face for a moment. He rested his hand uncertainly on her desk, and she felt absurdly tempted to reach forward and touch him. “Well then. Goodbye, Ellana.” He took a step away, still watching her intensely.

She nodded, leaning forward as he backed up. “Goodbye, Solas.”

He pursed his lips and finally turned away from her, walking toward the elevator doors. She watched him go.

Chapter Text

Ellana spent the next four days preparing for the preliminary hearing, which mostly entailed frantically relaying information to Cassandra and Josephine. The work was surprisingly demanding; she was forced to scan hard copies of transcripts that had never been digitized, hunt down obscure records in the imperial library’s basement, confirm expert testifiers’ salaries, field questions from the few journalists getting a jumpstart on the most ambitious case of the decade, and create a system to organize the massive amounts of data she’d collected. If the imperial attorney challenged the validity of their case during the preliminary hearing, Cassandra and Josephine would have to be ready with all their counterarguments. This meant every record had to be easily accessible in court, lest the judge grow tired of watching them scramble or the attorney use the lull against them.

With all the anxiety the week brought, it was nearly maddening to hear Cassandra describe the preliminary hearing as “merely a formality.” When Ellana went into Josephine’s office with a dead-eyed look and asked why they were preparing for a “formality” as if it were the next Thedosian war, Josephine kindly explained that the preliminary hearing was the least important part of the upcoming proceedings. If the judge decided there was sufficient cause to take legal action against Orlais, they would soon be presenting their case to the lower courts. That, Josephine said, was the real difficulty. The lower courts were comprised of fourteen judges, all with disparate backgrounds and political views, all very powerful in their own right. While the preliminary hearing was essential to reaching the lower courts, most of the paperwork Ellana had collected would not come into play until much later.

“Then… why have you been rushing me to get this all done in a week?” Ellana said.

Josephine smiled apologetically. “We have no way of knowing how the imperial attorney might challenge us. We have to be prepared for every contingency.” With that, she went back to typing on her laptop, and Ellana left the room feeling more exhausted than when she’d entered.

“You look terrible.”

Ellana turned to see Sera staring at her with a grim expression. She nodded at her, “Yeah. I just need a good night’s sleep.”

Sera raised her eyebrows and looked into the middle distance blankly. With a jolt, she took a step forward and gripped Ellana by the arm. “Or…” she grinned mischievously.

Ellana sighed. “Or?”

“Or… you need a night of drinking and partying. Loosen the stick that’s been shoved up your ass.”

“How thoughtful of you to offer.”

“Tell you what, tomorrow night we go out. I’ll get Varric or someone to come along, we can make it fun. Not boring like this place.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday. I need Saturday to rest.”

“No, what you need is to stop looking like that.” Sera pointed at her face, which left her wondering just how bad she must look. Even Sera wasn’t usually so rude.

“Listen, I know you’re trying to be nice but—“

“Pish! Damn right I’m trying to be nice, and you’re not gonna ruin it.” Even as she frowned she slung an arm around Ellana’s shoulders and pulled her closer. “So what do you say?”

If she wasn’t so exhausted she might have been charmed by the coarse display of concern. “Ok, sure.”

Sera whooped in celebration, and Cullen stared curiously at them from his office. She squeezed Ellana’s arm, “Good, we’ll make a night of it. Invite whoever you want; I’ll round up a couple people on my end. This is going to be grand.”

****

“Please be my buffer. Please?” Ellana sat on the floor in front of the coffee table, scribbling a hasty caricature of Dorian on the back of a torn envelope.

Dorian lay on the couch with his head tossed back, one hand splayed dramatically across his brow. He’d only gotten home from work five minutes ago, but Ellana knew how quickly he made weekend plans. She had to nab him before anyone else did. “Honestly, Ellana, you make it sound like you don’t even want to go. Just cancel on the poor girl.”

“I do want to go! I just don’t want to go without you.” Her phone buzzed against the coffee table, and she checked her messages. Sera had texted to say that Varric and the Iron Bull would be coming. “Aha!” She lifted her phone triumphantly above her head, and Dorian raised his eyebrows, a droll expression on his face. “She’s bringing two guys. Think of this as an opportunity!”

Dorian looked away quickly, and Ellana wondered if she’d crossed a line somehow. He’d never had an issue with her matchmaking before. “Actually…” he said slowly, “I’m not in the position to… date anyone at the moment.”

She frowned and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the coffee table, her caricature forgotten. “Oh… What is it? Is something wrong?”

Dorian laughed awkwardly, still refusing to meet her eyes. “Oh, no, nothing’s wrong. I’m just… seeing someone.”

She straightened in shock. “Dorian! Who is he? What’s his name?”

He shook his head, smirking. “His name’s Krem Aclassi; I’ve only been seeing him for a few weeks. Tevinter like me, the poor bastard.”

Ellana leapt up and bounded to Dorian’s side, swatting him on the arm. He cried out in mock-pain, pressing his hand to his chest. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!”

“I just did! Damn it, festis bei umo canavarum.” He sat up to face her, still pretending to be offended, but there was a mirth in his eyes that belied his words. She grinned and shoved his shoulder playfully before leaning down to hug him. He returned the embrace brusquely. “Honestly, this isn’t cause for a national celebration. It hasn’t been that long.”

Ellana snorted as she plopped onto the couch beside him. “It’s been long enough.” She leaned back and crossed her legs. “So, what are you thinking? June wedding?”

“I knew there was a reason I didn’t tell you.”

“You should invite him to come along. Get him to meet some of your friends.”

He shook his head, “They’re your friends, Ellana, not mine.”

“Well, whatever. I want to meet him.”

“How did you segue from begging me for a favor to twisting my arm like this?”

“Please? I swear I won’t embarrass you. I’ll have to meet him eventually, and it might as well be in a pub with Sera screaming at the top of her lungs.” She grinned. “Actually, this way Sera can be your buffer. How’s that for symmetry?”

Dorian sighed good-naturedly. “Very well. I’ll bring Krem along, with the understanding that I only do so to avoid any embarrassing displays in the future.”

“Good, it’s a deal.”

Ellana didn’t realize who else she wanted to invite until she was curled up in bed a few hours later, drifting aimlessly toward sleep. She was looking forward to drinking and dancing and possibly making a fool of herself, dreamily wondering what nickname Varric might give her, when she thought of how nice it would be to dance with Solas in a dimly lit, crowded pub. She envisioned how he might smile at her through the haze of pipe smoke, how he might lean in to whisper in her ear as the music blared around them, how he might brush his fingers against her waist when he pulled her close to him. How he might kiss her.

She was no longer on the edge of sleep.

Sighing, she rolled toward her nightstand and picked up her phone. She looked at the thread of messages between herself and Solas. They’d continued texting even after the fiasco on Monday, but the tone of the messages had changed. The easy flirtation from before had slipped through her fingers like water, and now they chatted cautiously about art and architecture and the confusing details of his case. As she scrolled through the last days’ messages, she felt a pang of regret. She didn’t know how to make things easy between them again; they’d already apologized to each other and agreed to move on, but the discomfort lingered.

Staring at the screen without really seeing it, she wondered at his motivations. He had found an excuse to text her nearly every day, and that fact alone indicated he had some personal interest in her. Why else would he ask her about the inane details of her life, like which type of paint she preferred or whether Dorian always filled their fridge with sweets? Why else endure the occasional awkwardness of talking to her, after everything?

If he wanted to be polite, he could extend the usual professional courtesies, but he went out of his way to do more than that.

Checking the time, she saw it was a quarter to midnight. He was probably already asleep; she might wake him if she texted now. But inviting him to a pub the night before looked less last-minute than inviting him the following morning, and she didn’t want him to think he was an afterthought.

Maybe it would be good to see him in a group; if the awkwardness was overwhelming she could distract herself with getting to know Krem and making sure Sera didn’t pass out under a table.

But would he want to be around a large group of people he didn’t know? Did he even like pubs? Did he even dance?

Sighing, she rolled onto her side and started typing a message to Solas before she could find more reasons to doubt herself. She wanted him to come, so she would invite him. This didn’t need to be complicated.

Ellana 11:48 pm

heeeeyyyy i was wondering if you wanna hang out with some people tomorrow night

11:49 pm

a few people i know from work plus my roommate and his bf

11:50 pm

going to a pub!

She dropped her phone on the bed before she could send anything more. Three texts in three minutes was a bit much, wasn’t it? Too eager.

Solas 11:52 pm

Sounds intriguing. Will you be there?

She covered her mouth reflexively, hiding her grin even though no one was around to see her. She burrowed under the sheets and curled up with her phone, the glow of the screen illuminating her face in the darkness.

Ellana 11:53 pm

of course!

Solas 11:53 pm

Then I would very much like to come.

****

Slim and long-limbed as she was, Ellana always felt awkward in dresses or skirts. She felt ungainly in her proportions, like a foal fumbling on its thin legs. On Saturday night Dorian convinced her to wear the black leather skirt that had been hanging untouched in her closet for over a year, and although she protested at first she was secretly curious to see how Solas might react to the sight of her wearing it. She said as much to Dorian, who feigned disapproval: “You mean to tell me you find that horribly unstylish man attractive?”

It was a quarter to nine by the time Ellana entered the pub to the sound of Sera’s raucous laughter and Iron Bull’s faint cursing. She squinted as she peered over at them, while Krem and Dorian did the same. Dorian muttered something in Tevene under his breath. Sera held a tankard of ale aloft triumphantly, gesturing at the dart board mounted on the wall, where a dart was buried perfectly in the center. Bull was gesturing insistently at the board, saying, “I want a rematch. No way you’re playing fair! You’ve got an in, and I’m going to find out what it is!”

“Either way you owe me five coppers!” Sera yelled, cheeks flushed and hair falling in her eyes. Varric sat at a nearby table observing the scene with a sly smile, looking more relaxed than Ellana had ever seen him at the office. He was also showing more chest hair than she’d ever seen on a man.

Smirking, she pressed through the crowd of patrons while gripping Dorian’s hand, calling over the din to her friends. Sera immediately looked up with a roguish smirk and shouted back, “Hey, it’s Lil Miss Uptight! I knew you’d show!”

“How could I not?” Ellana said, coming to stand beside Varric’s chair. Dorian and Krem seated themselves across from Varric, who grinned openly at the pair.

“So,” he said, leaning forward and placing his elbows on the edge of the table, “which one is the necromancer I’ve heard so much about?”

Dorian shot Ellana a wide-eyed look. “What have you been saying about me? Nothing incriminating, I hope.”

Varric waved his hand dismissively, “Ah, you’ve seen one blood mage, you’ve seen ‘em all. It’s hard to be shocked by anything at this point.”

Dorian frowned, “Whatever my tricky friend may have told you, I swear, I don’t practice blood magic—“

“Anymore,” Ellana quipped, and Dorian glared at her.

Krem laughed breathily before standing. “I think that’s my cue to get us some drinks. Ellana?”

She shrugged and smiled, “Just an ale! Thanks.” Krem nodded and pressed through the wall of bodies crowded around them, headed toward the bar.

Varric patted the chair beside him, “Have a seat, Legs.” Ellana snorted as she sat down next to him, cocking an eyebrow. He pursed his lips and looked thoughtfully toward the dart board, where Bull and Sera were still bickering and gesturing emphatically. “That’s not right is it?”

Ellana shrugged, “I’ll settle for anything so long as you don’t call me ‘Dalish.’”

Varric laughed and shook his head, “You think I’m that unoriginal? Come on, give me a little more credit.” He smiled slyly into his mug, lifting it to his mouth as he said, “Besides, I’m not really in the mood to be skinned alive today.”

She tried to look offended, but she couldn’t quite manage it. “When have I ever been anything but sweet to you, Varric?”

He raised his hands as if to placate her. “Oh, no, you’ve been great!” He paused dramatically. “But it’s always the quiet ones.”

Sera took a swig of ale and gestured shakily toward Ellana. “Got that right! You shoulda heard what she said to that elfy elf a few days ago—“

Ellana frowned, “What?” She tensed as Varric turned to look at her, but she tried to ignore his curious stare. “I didn’t know you heard anything!”

Sera grinned. “I got enough out of Cassandra to know what’s what. Wish I coulda heard it for myself, woulda cheered you on. Or thrown something heavy at his face.”

“You don’t like the Dalish either, Sera.”

“So? Doesn’t make him less of an ass biscuit.”

Ellana flushed. She’d invited Solas to join them thinking Sera had no strong opinions of him; this could quickly turn disastrous once he showed up. “Sera, I actually invited Solas along tonight—“

Sera choked on her ale, and Bull patted her harshly on the back. She spilled her drink all over the floor as she gasped and clutched at her chest. Dorian raised his eyebrows at Ellana and used the pause in conversation to needle her. “What’s this I’m hearing? I didn’t know you’d already had a lovers’ spat,” he said dryly, which sent Sera sputtering all over again:

“You’re sleeping with that asshole—“

“No! No, no, no!” Her face felt unbearably hot, and she hadn’t even had a drink yet. Dorian, Varric, Sera, and Bull all stared at her, some with expressions of amusement and some with concern. “Sera, please be nice to him, he’s gonna show up any minute—“

“Why’d you even invite him?” Sera asked.

Ellana frowned. “Because he’s…” telling the truth felt like a heroic feat with all her friends staring at her so earnestly. She was, resolutely, not a hero. “He’s… he’s… our client! We should get to know him better!”

Sera threw her head back and laughed, and both Dorian and Varric gave Ellana sympathetic looks.

Ellana doubled down. “What? You wanted me to come out and drink and dance, and I’m here! And I invited someone, which isn’t actually a big deal.” Krem appeared at her side and set an ale in front of her, sitting beside Dorian with his own drink. As he lifted his ale to his lips everyone stared at Ellana, who looked glumly into her glass. Krem paused and looked around at the group.

“Did I miss something?” he said.

“Only the obligatory awkward social encounter of the evening,” Dorian said lightly, and Varric smirked. Sera sighed and muttered something nonsensical to Bull. Krem leaned forward and asked Varric if he was the author of Swords and Shields, which earned a self-deprecating laugh.

Ellana’s phone buzzed in her jacket pocket, and she fished it out under the table, pretending not to notice Dorian staring at her. Solas had sent a message.

Solas 8:56 pm

I’m here, but still struggling to find you.

Ellana shot back a quick text:

Ellana 8:57 pm

this place gets crazy! i’ll come find you

She hopped off her seat and tugged her skirt down until it covered her to mid-thigh. Dorian gave her a questioning look and she shrugged wordlessly, not wanting to interrupt Varric’s conversation with Krem. She sidled past a few people before pushing directly into the crowd, glancing around for any sign of Solas. As she pressed past a drunk qunari woman on her way toward the bar, her phone buzzed in her hand.

Solas 8:59 pm

How will we find each other if neither of us is standing still?

She paused. He had an excellent point.

Ellana 8:59 pm

meet me at the bar!

i’ll be the elf in the mini skirt

She sent that last message quickly, before she could talk herself out of it, and slunk past a group of unshaven human men who smelled strongly of liquor and sweat. Someone elbowed her in the back, sending her stumbling forward against the polished wood of the bar. She caught herself just before she could bang her head against the wood, and grimaced. She leaned against it and looked around for Solas, squinting in the dim light. Her phone buzzed.

Solas 9:01 pm

I see you were telling the truth about the skirt.

She slowly turned in a circle, searching for his face in the crowd. A hand rested lightly on her upper back, and she spun around to see Solas smiling down at her, his face bathed in the warm lamplight of the pub. She grinned at him and nudged his arm, all awkwardness and apprehension suddenly melting away. “No fair! You snuck up on me!” she yelled.

He shrugged, his smile growing. “I apologize, I couldn’t help it.”

“I’m glad you came,” she said, raising her voice over the noise of the crowd, leaning closer so he could hear her clearly.

“So am I,” he said, and nodded in the direction of the bartender. “Would you like a drink?”

She looked at the bar uncertainly, thinking of the drink she’d left at the table. Not wanting to be wasteful, she shook her head, “No thanks, I’m good!”

“Ah.” He glanced toward the bar again and shrugged awkwardly as if at a loss for words. She realized telling him to meet her at the bar when she didn’t intend to order anything was a little stupid.

“Um… do you want anything?”

He shook his head, “I’d rather not.”

She fought back a grimace and said, “Sorry, I’m usually more fun than this.”

He looked bemused for a moment, and she worried that she’d been too forward. Then he shook his head and laughed. He looked at her fondly as he said, “You’re not here to entertain me, Ellana.”

She blushed and looked off to the side. “Says who?”

When she met his gaze again his eyebrows were raised, and he was smirking. She gripped his hand and pulled him toward the back of the pub, and he followed willingly. His hand was callused and warm against hers, and his grip was firm. Comforting. “Where are we going?” he called to her over the music and chatter.

“Dance floor’s toward the back!” she said. She thought she heard him laugh in response, though she couldn’t be sure whose laughter it was while surrounded by so many people.

They pressed through the crowd until they reached the back corner, where a band was playing on a small stage. The thrum of the melancholy music reverberated in Ellana’s ribcage as they neared the speakers, and she turned to see Solas shaking his head at her. She leaned in and screamed over the noise: “What?”

He leaned down until his mouth was against her ear, which brought a tremulous smile to her face. “It’s a bit loud!”

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, heart thundering in her throat. “Just one dance?” A string of red lights hung above them, and it limned their silhouettes crimson, leaving the rest of them in shadows. She could feel his muscles tensing beneath her hands, but he pulled her toward him without a word. She bit her lip to stop herself from grinning stupidly, and rested her head against his shoulder. He pressed his hands against the small of her back as they swayed to the disjointed melody, and Ellana found herself caught up in the small pleasures of being close to him. He smelled faintly of elfroot and chalk dust, and felt warm and solid through the thin cotton of his shirt. He moved languidly with her, easing one hand to her upper back to wind his fingers in her hair. She relaxed against him and wrapped her fingers around the back of his neck just so she could feel his skin against hers, and he pressed his nose to the top of her head. It made her feel hyperaware of how close their bodies were, of how they could smell each other, of how he could undoubtedly feel her breasts pressed to his chest.

She slowly leaned away so she could look at him, and saw his lips part when he met her gaze; his eyes were intense but slightly hooded. She felt his grip in her hair tighten. She swallowed thickly and watched his eyes follow the movement of her throat. Shaking slightly, she pressed her thumb to the edge of his jaw and watched his eyes soften slowly. He cradled her head in his hand and drew her to him, leaning down so they were eye-to-eye. Feeling strangely unsteady, she gripped the collar of his shirt for support and saw his mouth hint at a smirk. Slowly, he slipped one hand beneath the hem of her shirt to trace the naked skin of her lower back. She tugged on his collar and pulled him closer, and he kissed her.

Open-mouthed, soft, warm, but also sharp. The edge of his teeth grazed her lower lip as he explored her deeply, and she found herself angling her head back to give him further control. He took it.

He held her jaw gently in one hand while the other pressed into the small of her back, leaning her slightly backward, bending her body against him. She sighed into the kiss and scratched at the back of his neck, urging him on. The heat of the lights and his body and the blare of the music made her feel drunk and reckless, and she liked it. She curled her fingers in the fabric of his shirt and made a shy overture of her own, her tongue soft and eager, but he slowly broke the kiss, skimming his nose against hers as he gently righted her shirt with one hand. She clung to him, afraid that he would walk away now. He smiled kindly as if he could read the fear on her face, and brushed a few stray tendrils of hair out of her eyes.

Even under the glare of the red lights she could tell he was flushed, and she supposed she must look quite warm herself. She knew they should pull apart, or pretend to continue dancing at the very least. She pressed a hand to his warm bicep and didn’t care. Instead she buried her face in his chest and sighed as he wrapped an arm around her. It felt so natural to touch him. “Ellana, we should talk,” he said.

The heat of the cramped space was starting to make her feel lightheaded. “Too warm,” she said distractedly, and tugged on his hand as she pressed further back in the pub. “Come on,” she said over the noise, but she needn’t have bothered. He followed her eagerly to the far wall. She shoved open the back door and stumbled into the filthy alleyway behind the pub, Solas on her heels. The door slammed shut behind them, muting the music and shouting until she could hear nothing but the muffled staccato of the beat and low roar of voices. She pressed her warm hands to the chilled stone of the building, glad that she’d barely had anything to drink.

The heat of his body caged her in against the wall, and she grinned. “What was that about talking?” she muttered breathily as he pulled her hair over her shoulder and mouthed the nape of her neck.

“I’m interested in what you have to say,” he murmured, his lips brushing her skin. She laughed and pushed her ass firmly back against him, and found the evidence of his arousal hard and heavy and surprisingly thick. Thrilling at the knowledge that he was hard for her, she relaxed against the wall as he continued his ministrations on her neck. He slipped his hand up the front of her shirt, only to wrap an arm firmly around her naked waist and pull her tightly to him. Her breath hitched even as she yielded underneath him, and it was this willingness that seemed to give him pause. He stopped kissing her neck, breathing raggedly against her wild curls. She pressed insistently against him, and he gripped her shoulders, turning her gently in his arms and pressing her back to the wall.

She looked up at him with naked lust, forgetting modesty and even embarrassment. Her expression seemed to cause him some kind of pain; he looked away and inhaled deeply through his nose. He held her firmly and leaned back. “Ellana, we really should talk.”

“Yeah… about what?”

“I am… a client. A client of your firm.” He stared at her swollen lips.

“Mmhm.”

He shifted his weight unevenly. “I… have power over you.”

A secret thrill shot through her, and she stiffened against him. She thought of how confident his kiss had been, how fluidly he’d pressed her to the wall, how he held her by the shoulders now. When she focused on his eyes she saw guilt and hesitation, and knew he hadn’t meant this revelation to arouse her. He was very bad at this.

“Uh-huh.”

He frowned, sobering slightly. “That’s not the reaction I was looking for.”

“Well it’s the reaction you got,” she said, and tugged him closer by his collar. He leaned down and let her kiss him gently, slowly. When she let him go he drew back by only an inch, staring at her hungrily. She leaned up and placed a chaste peck on his mouth, and he gave her a sour look. Wrapping her arms around his neck, she whispered against his chin, “Let’s go to my apartment. It’s only a few blocks from here.”

“What about your friends?”

She hesitated for a moment. She felt guilty at the prospect of leaving Dorian and Sera, but she couldn’t muster the strength to do anything else. “They took me out to have fun. I’m having fun now,” she said quietly, and when he stayed silent she realized he might not want to come back to her place. He might be trying to find a polite way to excuse himself. She let go of him and busied herself by straightening her shirt, trying to think of a way to make her offer seem more casual. “Um… not that I expect you to—“

He caught her hands in his and she stilled, looking up at him. “The last thing I want is to take advantage of you. Because of the difference in our positions, I think this… perhaps this is not the best course of action.”

She looked away awkwardly, uncertain if he was trying to let her down easily or if he was genuinely that thoughtful. “Um, well, if you don’t want to that’s alright. If you want to just go back inside…” He placed a kiss on her temple, and she quieted.

“I want to come with you, but I don’t want you to feel… uncomfortable, or obligated in any way.”

She laughed breathily, and it drew a small smile from him. She gripped his hand and laced her fingers with his, leading him to the end of the alley on shaking legs. He followed her with some hesitation, but said nothing further to object.

****

“How does a Dalish elf end up rooming with a Tevinter magister in Val Royeaux? There must be a story there.” Solas’ cheeks were slightly flushed, and he was resting a glass of Tevinter ale against his knee. Ellana sat beside him with her legs tucked demurely underneath her. She was rapidly realizing her choice of skirt made it difficult to curl up on her couch.

“He’s not a magister, he’s an altus,” she said, rolling her eyes with a grin. He chuckled and set his ale on the coffee table, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She scooted closer to him, her face feeling hot. She looked away from him and saw that even her hands were flushed. Creators, she must look like a mess.

“You’re avoiding the question,” he said.

“He’s a misfit like me! We go well together.” She fidgeted with a belt loop on his pants, hooking one finger through it, feeling intensely giddy at the realization that she was close enough to do so. And that he was letting her.

He traced his fingertips gently along the bare skin of her arm, and she shivered slightly. He smiled, his eyes looking slightly unfocused. “You’re still avoiding the question,” he said lazily, and she giggled.

“Fine, fine,” she sighed in surrender and chanced a peek at him. He was watching her intently. “We met in college. He was there for necromancy.”

“And how does an art student befriend a necromancy student?”

“I actually… yelled at him.”

Solas threw his head back and laughed; it was coarse and warm like the ale he’d been drinking. The sound of it made heat blossom along the nape of her neck.

“What?” He shook his head wordlessly and continued to laugh. She tried to sound offended, but it was impossible when she couldn’t stop smiling. “What! What’s so funny?”

He put a hand over his mouth and struggled to rein himself in, shutting his eyes.

She tried her best to scold him while still beaming. “You’ve had too much to drink!”

He stifled another laugh and finally composed himself, though he was still wearing a grin. “Somehow I’m not surprised at all by that. I should have predicted it, in fact.”

“Are you saying I have a temper?”

He adopted a look of disbelief that was so fake it was comical. “You? No!” She swatted his shoulder halfheartedly and he chuckled low in his throat. She went back to fidgeting with his belt loop, and he watched her in easy silence for a time. She shifted and pulled her legs out from under her, laying them across his lap, careful to keep her skirt from sliding up too far. He rested one hand under her knees to keep her steady, and pulled her against him so she could lean on his shoulder. When she did, he kissed the crown of her head. Feeling oddly calm even while her heart raced, she slowly relaxed against him. He ran his fingertips beneath the sleeve of her shirt and caressed her idly.

It was confusing, how tender he was acting. Ellana had dated a handful of men and women, and even had a one night stand a couple years ago. None of them had been so gentle without sleeping with her first.

He wasn’t demanding anything of her. It was strange.

Her face still aching from smiling, she muttered, “You’re very unusual.”

Solas hummed in response, and tucked some of her hair behind one ear. After a moment he said, “You could be talking about a myriad of things.”

She sighed into his shirt as he traced the soft skin of her legs. “I just mean… you know. You’re very… kind.” She looked up at him, and he furrowed his brows slightly. She glanced away and fidgeted with his belt loop as she considered what she was about to do. She’d never initiated sex before. She’d never had to. “And you’re very… considerate,” she said absently. He watched her expressive eyes in silence, and she smiled shyly. Trembling slightly from nerves, she sat up and gripped his shoulders. Frowning but clearly curious, he held her by the waist as she slung one leg over his lap, and straddled him in her mini skirt. His eyes widened slightly, and she could see his breath hitch in his throat as she settled herself over him, his length pressing against her inner thigh. “You’re thoughtful too,” she muttered, and kissed him softly.

He wrapped his arms around her and tugged her forward until she was flush against him; she could feel her skirt ride up to her hips and didn’t care. She felt his hard length press against her core and whined, and felt immediately embarrassed at the sound. She waited for him to laugh or seem smug, but he only groaned in response and bit her lip, tangling his fingers in her hair. She smiled and rolled her hips against him, but he stilled her movement with steady hands. He broke the kiss and gently pushed her onto her back on the couch. Her skirt was hiked up to her waist now, leaving her long, slender legs naked. He paused and ghosted his hands along the soft, yielding flesh of her thighs, looking thoughtful. She squirmed and gripped his shoulders, and he crawled up to cover her body with his. She fumbled with his belt and he gently pushed her hands away. She gave him a questioning look and he said, “Ssshh. Soon, not yet.” He kissed her fiercely, pressing her lips open and coaxing her tongue to meet his.

She rolled her hips against him and he laughed with honest delight, trailing kisses down her jaw to the base of her throat. Ellana sighed and fisted her hands in his shirt, wrapping her legs snugly around his waist. “You’re beautiful,” he whispered against her collarbone, and she laughed breathily, elated. “I can’t stop thinking of you,” he muttered. “Or your hair, your ears, your breasts…” His hand trailed up the inside of her shirt, and pushed her bra up her chest. He palmed the soft skin of her breast and pinched her nipple, and she moaned as she rocked against him.

“Damn it Solas, stop being so amazing.”

He smiled and nipped her jaw playfully. “Poor naïve girl, you have no idea how little I deserve you.”

“You kidding?” She said breathlessly. “You saved my ass just this week.”

“I did nothing, it was your own merit…” he muttered, kissing the tip of her ear before taking it between his teeth.

She groaned and writhed beneath him. A wave of gratitude washed over her; after everything he’d done for her he was kissing her and biting her and insisting he didn’t deserve her. “You saved my job,” she breathed, and unbuckled his belt.

Solas froze. He shook his head absently, incredulous. “When was your job in danger?”

Ellana paused with her hands on his belt, her excitement stuttering at the genuine confusion in his voice. She frowned. Had Cassandra never explained anything to him? He pulled away to look her in the eye, and she immediately broke his gaze, still feeling breathless. She tried to collect her thoughts; her pulse was a flutter in her throat, she was feeling weak and shaky and warm. Everything felt a bit hazy and it was hard to tell whether or not he’d misunderstood her. Solas pursed his lips.

“Your job was in danger?” His tone was sharp.

So he didn’t know. “Uh… I guess so. It’s no big deal, really, it was stupid…”

He stared at her, his hands braced against the couch on either side of her head. “How did I ‘save’ your job?”

She shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant, trying to draw him back to the mood he’d been in before. “You know, after I yelled at you. It’s not—“

“Cassandra would have fired you over that?” He pulled away and sat up, pinching the bridge of his nose. His belt was still unbuckled and hanging loosely at his waist.

Feeling suddenly awkward and exposed, Ellana pulled herself into a sitting position and hastily adjusted her bra and skirt. Being half naked didn’t feel sexy anymore; just embarrassing. She smoothed her skirt nervously and crossed her legs, reeling at the sharpness of his tone when he’d been whispering such sweet words only moments earlier.

“I still don’t understand. I don’t know how I could have saved your job when I didn’t even know it was at risk.”

She sincerely wished she’d never brought this up, but there was no point in evading his questions now. “Cassandra said she was going to fire me, or whatever, and that you asked her not to.”

His eyes were wide with disbelief as he shook his head, “I asked her not to punish you. I thought she might reprimand you and I… I told her not to punish you on my behalf. I didn’t even know…” He pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead as if he was trying to banish a headache.

Ellana scooted towards him and laid a hand on his forearm; the tension she felt there should not have made her want him all over again, but it did. “Look, it’s ok, it’s not a huge deal. I mean, you defended me—“

“No, you don’t understand!” He stood and paced to the other side of the living room, stopping abruptly before the fireplace. He looked down at his unbuckled belt as if he’d only just noticed it, and buckled it clumsily as he spoke, “I altered the path of your career without even being aware of what I was doing,” he said, his voice low. “If I had said the wrong thing, you would have lost your job because of me.”

Ellana stood and stepped toward him, stifling the heat under her skin. “No, I would have lost my job because of me. I insulted a client in front of my boss, how could you think she would let that go? Honestly, I fully expected her to fire me.”

He considered her for a long moment, his jaw clenched. Sighing, he turned away from her and said, “This isn’t a good idea. We shouldn’t do this.”

“Come on, don’t say that.” She rushed toward him and gripped his hand, but he refused to look at her. “Everything’s still the same. This doesn’t change anything.”

He looked pensively at the fireplace, something sad and soft lingering behind his eyes. And then he slowly wiped his expression clean, and she found it impossible to read him. “Yes it does.” He gently pulled his hand out of her grasp and turned away from her, walking toward the front door. She followed him like a shadow, gripping his sleeve.

“Hey, hold on, this doesn’t have to be a big deal,” she said, trying to keep her tone light. “Come on, explain it to me. Explain why this changes things.”

He paused in front of the door and turned to look at her. His eyes were distant as he spoke, “This isn’t right. I thought perhaps I could counteract whatever imbalance there is here—“

“What imbalance?”

“The imbalance of power! You are beholden to me. If I wished it, I could call Cassandra right now and tell her you’re unprofessional, tell her to fire you, tell her I would take my business elsewhere unless—“

“You would never do that!”

“That’s not the point. I could.” He took a step away, and she stared blankly, blindly reaching for him. He retrieved his coat from the closet and her stomach twisted when she thought of how she’d hung it up for him only an hour ago—how hopeful she’d been that he’d stay the night and reach for his coat the following morning with a smile on his face.

He wasn’t supposed to leave like this.

She watched him pull on his coat and struggled to think of something to make him stay. She came up with nothing.

He adjusted his collar and fingered the buttons on his coat, hesitating in front of her. He moved as if to reach for her, but stopped. Looking at the floor, he said, “I’m sorry. I can’t take advantage of you like that.” He turned his back on her and opened the door.

She followed him as he stepped across the threshold. “Hold on,” she said. He turned to meet her eyes, looking resigned and guarded. She managed to keep her voice level. “We’re not strangers, right? I mean, we can still be friends?”

He clenched his jaw as if he was trying to restrain himself. His smile was sad. “Yes. Yes, we can still be friends.”

“So…” she leaned against the doorjamb and fidgeted with the hem of her skirt. “I can text you and it won’t be weird? You promise?”

He took a step back, nodding. “Yes. Yes, I promise.”

Knowing he was about to flee, she rushed forward and gripped his elbow. “Wait, just one second.” He frowned but remained still, and she padded back into the apartment and fished her phone out from between the couch cushions. She sent a quick message and came to stand on the threshold. He glanced at the phone in her hand and cocked his head at her. “Check your phone?” she said hopefully.

He took his phone out of his jacket pocket, and a new message popped up on his screen.

Ellana 11:14 pm

you really really promise? you’re my friend?

Solas met her gaze with a look of awe, and it made her wonder if anyone had ever pursued his friendship so earnestly. After a moment he laughed, tucking his chin down as if he could hide his smile. He nodded at her slowly, and sent a quick text of his own.

Solas 11:16 pm

I promise. How could I refuse?

Ellana’s phone buzzed, and she read his message. She looked up at him and shrugged awkwardly, trying to reconcile her sadness with her excitement. “Well, good,” she said, and he nodded silently. He kissed her on the forehead, and was gone.

Chapter Text

“That’s… offensive,” Ellana muttered, but bit the inside of her cheek when she saw Cassandra’s scowl. Sometimes she forgot how proud humans could be even as they stripped elves of their dignity.

Leliana nodded, her posture relaxed as she leaned against Cassandra’s desk. “I agree, and I am sorry to put you in this position. Regardless of my feelings on Val Royeaux’s treatment of elves, we must remember how prejudice will shape the public’s perspective. We cannot afford the spectacle Sera would make of herself.”

“I still don’t see why you need an elf on your team at all, if we’re such an embarrassment,” Ellana said lightly, and Cassandra gave her a sharp look. Ellana tried to control her temper, but it was difficult when she was being asked to replace Sera as if all elves were indistinguishable from one another. She wasn’t even sure that Sera liked her very much, but the indignity of Leliana’s request rankled.

Leliana smiled mischievously, the coldness of her stare giving way to a secretive glint. “It’s a matter of public record that an elf interns here, thanks to the Revas program. If no elf appears in court it might look like the firm is ashamed of her, which would—“

“Be the truth,” Ellana finished, and Cassandra pointed a finger at her.

“Do I need to reiterate how you should speak to her?”

Leliana grinned, her eyes twinkling. “Please don’t strain yourself Cassandra, it is no matter. She is right, after all.”

Cassandra waved her hand dismissively, “We are not ashamed of Sera, it is simply that she would not do well in that environment. She does not have the… tact.”

Leliana turned back to Ellana and continued as if she’d never been interrupted. “Of course, we wouldn’t ask you to lie outright about your identity. Everyone will simply assume you are the elven intern, and ask after your name. We can be truthful in this, since Revas keeps its grantees anonymous.”

Ellana looked uncertainly between the two women. “So I’m essentially window dressing?”

Leliana’s lips quirked. “For the most part. But even in a courthouse we will need to play the Game; every mannerism and idiosyncrasy will be analyzed in search of weakness.”

“That doesn’t sound fun at all.”

Leliana smiled. “Is this your first time playing the Game in Val Royeaux?”

Ellana nodded, “My first brush with politics of any kind. Can’t say I’m looking forward to it.”

“Well, on the bright side I’ll be relieving you of other burdens. Josephine told me reporters were already overwhelming you with calls; you no longer need to worry about that. The press will be entirely my responsibility.”

 Ellana knew she was already testing Cassandra’s patience, but she couldn’t help being openly curious about the new addition to their team. “So, how have I never met you before? I thought I was introduced to everyone at the firm.”

Leliana laughed, and for a moment she almost looked sweet. “Oh, I’m not a permanent fixture. I do freelance work as it suits me.”

Cassandra did not smile, but she did not glare either. “We rarely make use of Leliana’s services, but with a high profile case such as this, it was necessary to hire an expert on public relations.”

“’Expert’, you say? I’m flattered.”

Cassandra flushed and looked at the papers fanned across her desk, as if suddenly fascinated with the legal jargon that made Ellana’s head throb.

“You will be valuable to the team in other ways,” Leliana said smoothly. “I’ve been told you’re quite skilled at remembering which document contains which minor phrase or inconsistency. That will be useful in court, no doubt.” She smiled slyly in Cassandra’s direction, who was still avoiding her gaze. “Cassandra and Josephine have an eye for the big picture, but details sometimes escape them in all the excitement.”

“Oh, um… I’ve just read everything so many times… I have a vague memory of it all.”

Leliana raised her eyebrows at this, but said nothing. Cassandra straightened to her full height and turned toward Leliana. “Thank you again for explaining this yourself. I’m afraid sometimes I make a mess of these… things.”

Leliana waved a hand, “What good would I be if I couldn’t speak prettily?” She nodded at Ellana, “Thank you for being so patient, Ellana. It was nice to meet you.”

Cassandra began to escort Leliana to the door, and Ellana followed with a frown. “But who’s going to tell Sera?”

Leliana laughed. “You are sweet to worry about her, but she has already been told. She is as pleased as you are annoyed.”

****

When Josephine insisted on helping Ellana choose her outfit for the preliminary hearing, she was a little insulted at first. She wondered if she dressed poorly by Val Royeaux’s standards; she had always thought of her work attire as simple and neat, but the way Josephine fussed made her think otherwise. It wasn’t until they were rummaging through her closet that Ellana understood the severity of the situation. Josephine fretted over the shade and style of each dress they examined; one was too ashy, another was too shapeless, another was too Ferelden. She found fault with every article of Ellana’s clothing, before finally declaring that they would dress her at the firm’s expense. When Ellana apologized and tried to justify her taste, Josephine comforted her kindly: “No, this is not your failing. I’m afraid Val Royeaux’s preferences dictate our every move, up to and including our wardrobe. If I were to choose what I prefer, you would be wearing that beautiful green dress you showed me. Truly, it matches your eyes so nicely.”

Josephine took Ellana on the most efficient, cheerless shopping trip she’d ever been on, and they ended up purchasing a navy knee-length dress with a corset sewn into the bodice. Josephine helped tie her into the contraption the morning of the preliminary hearing. When Ellana ran her hands down her front and frowned thoughtfully, Josephine said, “I know it feels strange, but by the end of this hearing you may be glad to have something keeping your back from hunching.” Ellana wore her hair in a high ponytail to leave her pointed ears brazenly bare (at Josephine’s suggestion). She didn’t see Solas until they picked him up in front of his apartment, where he stood in a simple, finely tailored slate gray suit, his pale head gleaming under the sun. She tried to stay calm as he approached the car, but seeing him strained her nerves. After Saturday’s false start and abrupt stop she still felt awkward around him, like she was perpetually tripping over her own feet, but they had continued texting despite their discomfort. He had remained gracious and friendly as ever. He climbed into the backseat as soon as Josephine stopped the car, and raised his eyebrows at Ellana’s rigid posture.

“I’m wearing a corset and you’re barely dressed up. How is this fair?”

Solas smirked as he shut the door, ignoring Cassandra’s glare from the passenger seat. “I’m meant to play the role of the humble elven apostate, struck by tragedy. I can’t be too well-dressed, can I?”

“I feel ridiculous.”

“You look far from ridiculous,” he said, and swiftly changed the subject by extending his hand toward Leliana, who sat on the opposite side of Ellana. “I don’t believe we’ve properly met. I’m Solas.”

Leliana shook his hand, which Ellana watched awkwardly, feeling like an interloper sandwiched between them. “Leliana. A pleasure to meet you. You fill your role quite well.”

“I should hope so. The more I learn about this legal process, the less comfortable I feel being myself.”

Ellana was sorely tempted to ask why, but she knew she was out of her depth in such company. From the way Solas spoke to Leliana, he seemed to have an understanding of the Game she lacked, and she didn’t want to seem foolish in front of either of them.

“Speaking of which,” Leliana said, jolting Ellana out of her thoughts, “I know this will come across as presumptuous, Ellana, but I would not be doing my job if I failed to mention this…”

“Oh… alright,” Ellana said. This would be bracing.

“It is best if you refrain from talking unless absolutely necessary while we are within earshot of anyone in the courthouse.” Ellana felt heat creep up her neck and into her cheeks as Leliana’s words registered. She bit her tongue to keep from spitting at the woman beside her, staring resolutely at her own lap. “It is no reflection on you, but the press is already reporting that Pentaghast & Montilyet harbor a pro-elven bias. They will use anything you say against you, to make you seem uneducated and unqualified. You may have my word on that.”

She did not miss how Solas had gone still beside her. “I am uneducated and unqualified. I’m a receptionist, I’m not even supposed to be here,” she muttered.

“All the more reason not to give them ammunition.”

Ellana flinched, and very nearly said something about how she suspected she was chosen as the more “acceptable” elf for this event because she would sit down and shut up. How predictable; she’d been stuffed into a dress that doubled as a torture device to impress people, only to be told that the more she spoke the less they would think of her. It also seemed rather convenient that the only available methods of garnering the public’s approval involved exploiting her elvenness at every turn and treating her more like a doll than a person. She chewed the inside of her lip as she tried to calm herself. Solas asked Leliana for advice on how to carry himself in the courtroom, which led to a lengthy discussion she could barely hear, the thud of the blood in her ears nearly drowning out their voices. Even so, she knew he was trying to give her an opportunity to calm down, and she felt embarrassed that she was so easy to read. No, she was not a skilled player of the Game at all.

She’d passed by Val Royeaux’s northern courthouse many times since moving to the city, so she was used to the imposing façade and marble steps. She’d never actually entered the building, however, and that was something else entirely. She felt unsteady ascending the stairs in the heels Josephine had chosen for her, and Solas offered her his arm wordlessly. She almost refused, but she knew that if she fell flat on her face it would embarrass the entire firm as well as herself, so she took his arm with what she hoped was a pleasantly neutral expression.

Ellana had feared she was overdressed for a preliminary hearing; she needn’t have worried. Beside the pomp and frill of the nobility, journalists, and government officials she looked meek and unassuming in her high-collared, navy blue dress. She was beginning to understand why Josephine had fussed so much over her outfit; everyone in the courthouse was dressed so expensively that it made her a little nauseous. As they exited the lobby they each had to show their ID before being permitted into the hall. The guard who checked her driver’s license gave her an appreciative once-over before smirking and waving her on.  As they continued toward the courtroom Leliana whispered in her ear: “Don’t frown. You should steel yourself, especially with the guards.”

Had she been frowning? She really wasn’t good at this.

A pair of guards opened the double doors for the group, and they trailed down the aisle in a cluster. A dozen onlookers were already seated in the gallery, and watched with rapt attention as they approached the front of the courtroom. Ellana heard someone mutter something about “rabbits” as she set her large briefcase on their table and seated herself between Josephine and Cassandra. When she glanced at Solas she realized Leliana was no longer with them; she turned around to see that she was hovering near the back, looking inscrutable.

She deliberately avoided the eyes of the Orlesians seated behind her as she turned back around. She removed the neatly organized files from her briefcase and placed them in short stacks in front of herself and her bosses. Josephine raised a delicate eyebrow, “You color coded them,” she said with a smile. Solas leaned forward and examined the files, which ranged from violet to yellow and everywhere in between.

“It just makes it easier to remember which is which,” she whispered, very aware of the Orlesians sitting behind her.

When she glanced at Solas he was staring at her with a wistful smile on his face. She raised her eyebrows at him as if to ask what he was smiling at, and he shook his head in answer before looking away.

The foursome watched the imperial attorney and the rest of the onlookers filter into the courtroom; Solas and Ellana held themselves rigidly in their seats, but Josephine and Cassandra seemed at ease. Cassandra glanced at the imperial attorney before whispering to Ellana, “That is the former High Chancellor Roderick. He is stubborn but not very inventive.”

Ellana eyed the man as he opened his briefcase, trying to keep her face expressionless. The people of Orlais were accusing Pentaghast & Montilyet of pro-elven bias for representing an elf, while the Empress had appointed a former Chantry official as her imperial attorney. Ridiculous.

“All rise…” Ellana jolted and turned toward the front of the courtroom, where an imperial guard stood beside the judge’s empty bench. Cassandra gripped her elbow and pulled her to her feet as everyone else shuffled to stand. The guard went on, “for the honorable Judge Bisset, now presiding.” A withered, pale human approached the bench. He sat down with little ceremony, and everyone sank to their seats.

The judge knocked his gavel lightly against his desk. “Court now in session.” He gestured vaguely toward Cassandra and Josephine. “Present your case.” The court clerk, who sat to the side of the judge’s bench, began typing. Ellana struggled not to frown; the judge’s casual demeanor made her wonder if they’d been doomed from the start. Perhaps he had no intention of hearing them out.

Josephine rose gracefully and Ellana handed her the blue folder, which contained everything she needed to make her opening remarks. Josephine stepped into the center of the courtroom and said placidly, “Your honor, I present the case of Nanin v. Orlais. My client seeks to petition the Empress for justice on behalf of his fallen friend, a spirit of Wisdom, who was brutally tortured and cut down through no fault of their own.” She took a few steps toward the judge’s bench as she opened the folder, and placed a set of documents in front of Judge Bisset. “Here you may see my client’s notarized statement, detailing the injurious treatment of the spirit in question, the Templars’ failure to act on his behalf, the Circles’ refusal to discipline the rogue mages, and the physical, emotional, and spiritual results of the spirit’s death. We also have statements attesting to my client’s discretion, intelligence, and integrity. His strength of character is uncontested.” The judge looked over the documents while Josephine glanced at Roderick, who was frowning at her. “We acknowledge that the law doesn’t recognize the personhood of spirits, and intend to impress upon the court that this is a grave mistake.”

Roderick rose then, his cheeks red. “This is a farce, your honor. I request that you dismiss this case on the grounds that Solas Nanin is an uneducated apostate. His understanding of magic is severely limited, as he’s received no official training nor undergone his Harrowing.” The onlookers in the gallery erupted in murmurs, and Judge Bisset knocked his gavel against his desk absently, the way a man might swat at a fly with his newspaper. After a moment the spectators quieted, and Roderick continued. “Further, I suggest that without the assistance of the Kirkwall mages Nanin might have become an abomination. He put himself and those around him at risk by conversing with the spirit at all.” Ellana saw Solas clench his jaw, but he gave no other reaction. “I request that he be given to the Circle for the protection of the citizens of Orlais.”

Ellana dove for the green folder to her left and passed it quickly to Josephine, who began speaking before even reaching the table where Ellana sat. “I have here the notarized statement of Altus Dorian Pavus, who met my client after we took on his case.” She quickly placed the open folder in front of the judge, who leaned over it with narrowed eyes. Ellana thanked the Creators that Dorian had such a good reputation in Val Royeaux, otherwise their use of his statement would have seemed ridiculous. “He says—quite colorfully—that my client’s magical expertise rivals that of the Grand Enchanter Fiona. This, coming from a man who personally knows—“

“Will we trust the word of a Tevinter Magister—“

“Altus!” Cassandra shot back.

“Dorian Pavus has lived in Orlais for the past seven years,” Josephine said, “and runs a respectable business as a necromancer here in the city. I trust more Orlesians have heard of his skills than those who have not. He is also one of the most talented mages of his nation, and speaks highly of my client, as you can—“

“Your honor,” Roderick began, shaking his head vehemently, “would we entrust the safety of Orlesian citizens to the so-called ‘promise’ of a Tevinter, whose own people—“

“As it is, my client is under no one’s custody but his own,” Josephine said curtly. “Apostate or not, he has the right to petition the Empress for justice on his friend’s behalf. As an imperial attorney you have no right to demand anything of the Circle. Your request is untenable.” She faced the judge with a deceptively sweet look on her face. “Your honor, we ask only to be given the chance to present our case to the lower courts. Denying us the opportunity because my client is an apostate would undermine the tenets of the Orlesian justice system—“

“Enough,” Judge Bisset said, waving his hand with a bored look on his face. His interruption sent the onlookers into a low murmur, and he pounded his gavel against his desk impatiently. “I see no reason to reject your request.” He glanced at the papers on his desk. “I don’t know how in the Maker’s name you plan to make a case that this Pride demon was a person, but that’s your business. Your client has the right to petition. The lower courts will hear your case. Court adjourned.”

The court immediately descended into chaos as the Orlesian spectators rose and spoke to one another with an urgency Ellana couldn’t comprehend. Josephine scurried to retrieve the documents she’d shown to the judge, while Ellana turned to Solas and saw he was struggling to keep his expression neutral. His eyes passively scanned the courtroom as nobles and journalists buzzed behind him, but the corners of his mouth consistently tugged upward. When he caught her looking, she grinned, and his composure shattered. He smiled broadly, before Cassandra caught his eye, and he quickly looked away as he tried to school his expression again.

Josephine helped Ellana gather up their folders, and the group stood in unison. As Ellana followed Cassandra into the aisle to exit the courtroom, the journalists in the gallery crowded them and shouted so loudly their words were indistinguishable, proffering tape recorders and elbowing each other out of the way. Leliana caught Solas by the elbow as they exited the courtroom and spoke firmly to the journalists shadowing them. Ellana could hear that she was spelling everyone’s names so there would be no mistakes.

As soon as the double doors opened, bursts of white light flooded Ellana’s vision, temporarily blinding her. She felt Cassandra loop their arms together as they walked, and tried to blink away the swirling colors in her vision. She squeezed Cassandra’s arm gratefully as her sight slowly cleared, trying not to stumble as the crowd surged around them. Camera operators shoved lenses in Solas’ face, but he remained impassive and surefooted as they strode toward the exit; Leliana spoke for him, but Ellana couldn’t quite catch what she said. As they hurried down the front steps, several reporters pushed tape recorders toward Ellana as well, and she regretted that she could actually hear their questions this time. “Do you feel your race plays a part in your employment at Pentaghast & Montilyet?”

“Does your firm give Solas Nanin special treatment?”

“Can we take your involvement in this case as a statement of the Revas program’s stance on apostasy?”

“Do you share your client’s views on demons?”

“Do you live in an alienage? Which district?”

“Do you resent the Revas program’s prioritization of the Dalish?”

That question made her flinch when she realized they all assumed she was a city elf. Having been bare-faced all her life, she was used to the assumption, but knowing the misinformation would be spread as fact roiled her gut. She knew that correcting them would likely result in some public relations disaster she couldn’t foresee, and so stayed silent.

As soon as the valet pulled the car up to the curb, Cassandra and Josephine slipped into the front, leaving Ellana to push through the crowd of journalists and photographers without a steadying hand. Small and slight as she was, it was difficult to push past so many humans at once, and the flash of the cameras made her look like a blank-eyed halla. Solas noticed her distress and gripped her by the elbow, shepherding her into the backseat before bowing his head to Leliana, who swiftly followed Ellana into the car.

As soon as Solas shut the door behind him, Josephine flicked on her turn signal and began talking. “This is a very good sign; I could never in my wildest dreams have expected such a success! What a wonder! Roderick only truly contested one detail; if what we saw today is any indication, he is sorely lacking in resources. And the hearing was so brief! I’d expected to spend seven hours in that room! Here I thought the entire empire was against us, but to hear the journalists speak…”

Ellana frowned, heart still racing from the excitement of the victory and the swarm of reporters. “They didn’t seem like they were on our side. They kept calling Wisdom a demon! And they were asking about Revas and apostates and alienages!”

“Reporters will flock to any controversy they can find,” Leliana said quietly. “It is their job. The fact that they took an interest in your opinions speaks highly of what they think of us; some of them surely see an opportunity to cast Solas and yourself as victims of circumstance. Most readers love to hear about an underdog, especially elves, so long as they don’t have to scrutinize their own prejudice. A few of them sounded as if they wanted to write a human interest story…” Leliana smiled wryly, “if you will forgive the phrasing.”

Ellana realized she didn’t like the woman at all.

“In any case,” Cassandra said, “today was a triumph. I never expected Bisset to be so accommodating.” She glanced at Josephine. “Your doing, I suppose?”

Josephine colored a little, but kept her eyes on the road as she drove. “I did what I could.”

“So he was in your pocket the whole time? This was decided already, basically?” Ellana said, trying not to sound judgmental. She could tell she had failed from the way Leliana stared at her.

“Not precisely,” Josephine said. “I cleared the way for a few of his business endeavors and helped him cover up an… indiscretion. I had no idea whether or not he would appreciate my help until today, and even then… I was worried Counselor Roderick might have offered something better.”

“So this is all a game of blackmail and bribery?” Ellana said. “Does this have anything to do with justice at all? With the law?”

Leliana raised an eyebrow at her. “This is Val Royeaux, Miss Lavellan. There is no such thing as justice here; there is only the Game.”

She fully understood now why they had neglected to bring Sera; she would have had no patience for any of this. Hell, she would have purposely flouted decorum and brought shame to the firm if it meant she could defy this mockery of a legal system. Internship or no internship, Sera was a rebel more than anything else.

Ellana felt a little ashamed knowing that she wouldn’t do the same.

“I take no pleasure in it either,” Cassandra said. “It is not right, how Orlais has twisted itself into this… monstrosity. I thought to change things once but…” She trailed off and shrugged. “We should all be grateful Josephine works with us and not as an imperial attorney.” She turned toward her with a playful smile. “I shudder to think what havoc you could wreak with their resources.”

“I will try to take that as a compliment,” Josephine said, smiling shyly.

“I meant it as such,” Cassandra said earnestly.

“It’s a shame you’re busy with your own practice, Josie,” Leliana said. “If I thought you would accept, I’d have offered you a partnership years ago.”

“You are too much!” Josephine said, stifling a giggle.

Ellana glanced at Solas and saw that he was turned away from her, staring out the window as they passed by a young elven woman walking along the sidewalk, carrying a baby on one hip and holding the hand of a child on her opposite side. The woman’s hair fell down her back in greasy, separated strands, and she was breathing through her mouth, presumably due to the strain of her burden. Although the child holding her hand followed along eagerly, he was flushed and crying. As Josephine drove on, the little family quickly faded out of sight. Solas must have felt Ellana’s stare, because he turned toward her as the human women continued to congratulate each other. He looked at her with silent understanding and, fleetingly, pity. He hadn’t said a word since the hearing had ended, but she didn’t have to ask him what he thought of their victory; she could see it in his furrowed brow and the tension around his mouth.

She knew no one in the car would ask him what he thought. Worse, he clearly had no interest in telling anyone.

****

“We should all celebrate!” Sera said, resting her elbows on Ellana’s desk. Ellana was still wearing the terrible corseted dress she’d worn to the hearing, and it was starting to grate on her. “Go get drinks after. You can even invite Solas,” she said, speaking his name in a deep imitation of the man’s own voice.

“That would not be appropriate,” Cassandra said as she passed them by, and Sera smirked but said nothing about how Ellana had taken him to a pub. Ellana felt suddenly, unspeakably grateful that Sera hated authority.

“Ok, fine,” Sera said, straightening up and following Cassandra to her office. “But you and Frillypants should come. Let me loosen you up a little. I know the ambassador’s got something fun underneath all those ‘please and thank you’s.”

“That would not be appropriate either,” Cassandra said, but Ellana couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation because Cullen appeared in front of her desk, startling her.

He looked immediately apologetic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I only wanted to offer congratulations. Josephine said you did very well in court.”

She laughed and shook her head. “I didn’t trip, and that’s all I can hope for. It’s not exactly my greatest achievement.”

He smiled, and gestured hesitantly at her dress. “You look very nice. Very… um… professional.”

She shocked herself by laughing, and his cheeks went pink.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I… I’m sorry, I’m not very good with compliments.”

She shrugged, still smiling. It had been a while since she’d flustered a man; it was flattering to know she could have that effect on him. “It’s alright, you did pretty well.” She hesitated for a moment before saying, “I needed that today, actually.”

He raised his eyebrows and leaned a little closer. “Really? Did things not go smoothly?”

She bit her lip and glanced down at her notepad, where she’d drawn a comically short elven woman being trampled by photographers. “Uh, well… I guess technically everything went well. Josephine and Cassandra are really happy; apparently the hearing was so short we broke some kind of record. They think Counselor Roderick was underprepared or something.”

“But?”

She met his eyes, expecting him to look bored. He didn’t. “It was just… overwhelming, I guess. Being surrounded by so many people, being watched so closely. Being photographed. It was all a little surreal and… intrusive. I’m not used to people looking at me.”

He looked surprised at that. “Oh. I…” he shook his head as if he was rethinking what to say. “I’m not fond of crowds myself. I can’t imagine having to endure all that with a smile.”

She smirked. “I don’t think I even managed a smile, actually.”

His gaze softened slightly. “That’s a shame… I like your smile.”

She would have been annoyed if any other human man had responded that way, but he looked so sincere and bashful when he said it; she found she couldn’t fault him for being a little clumsy. She may have even liked it.

“Oy, what’re you two chatting about?” Sera approached Ellana’s desk, looking distracted. She leaned against it, heedless of how Cullen stiffened beside her. “I tried to convince Josephine to come along and she wouldn’t. She was all polite about it.”

“You realize you didn’t even ask me if I would go, right?” Ellana said, biting back a smirk. “That’s one of the first steps to planning a night out. You ask the person, otherwise it’s kidnapping.”

Sera raised an eyebrow. “You’re getting cheekier. I like it.” She turned toward Cullen. “What about you, Cully Wully? You in?”

“Uh…” he looked uncertainly between Ellana and Sera.

Ellana realized if he agreed she’d have to go along with them; leaving Cullen alone with Sera would just be cruel.

“I’m not sure… Ellana? Are you going?” He looked so expectant she began to wonder if he was genuinely interested in her, and that brought on a wave of panic. Then, guilt; not at leading him on, but at the prospect of cheating on Solas—

That thought brought her up short. It was impossible to cheat on Solas, she told herself. He’d made it clear their relationship could only ever be platonic, and she had thought she’d accepted that. Apparently she’d been mistaken.

Cullen was still waiting for an answer, and Sera was looking at her curiously. “Uh… um… yes. Yes, I’ll go. Let’s… celebrate.” She realized she was frowning at Cullen, and tried to smile.

Cullen looked suddenly uncertain, but Sera shrugged and straightened. “Alright, weirdy. Soon as work’s done we’re gonna get plastered.” She turned away, headed toward her desk on the other side of the room.

Cullen frowned, and seemed hesitant to look her in the eyes. “I’m sorry, I never meant to… interrupt or anything. If you’d rather just…”

Ellana shook her head vehemently. “No, no! I swear that’s not it! The night’ll be better with you there, in fact!” Some of the tension in his shoulders eased, but he still looked confused. “I just… I realized I have to check something. I’ll be right back.” She grabbed her cell phone and hopped out of her chair, flashing what she hoped was a reassuring smile. He smiled back bemusedly as she hurried to the break room, already typing a text to Solas.

She wasn’t asking his permission, of course. That would be ridiculous. She just knew it would feel wrong to continue without telling him about it. She’d appreciate the same courtesy, wouldn’t she?

Ellana 1:19 pm

hey this is gonna be weird….. i’m sorry if you don’t want me to bring it up but…

i just wanted to make sure you and i are really not gonna do that thing we talked about

She leaned against the counter and waited anxiously for his reply. He didn’t waste much time.

Solas 1:21 pm

You may have to be more specific.

She sighed. After Cassandra’s comment that inviting Solas to a pub wouldn’t be “appropriate,” she was feeling self-conscious about texting him. Not enough to stop texting him, of course, but spelling out the details of their intimacy, even on a private phone, felt like tempting fate.

Ellana 1:21 pm

saturday night! when you set certain boundaries… which is cool!! nbd

Ellana 1:22 pm

theres a guy who doesnt want those boundaries if you know what i mean

Ellana 1:23 pm

and before i changed MY boundaries i wanted to make sure your boundaries were still the same

because if your boundaries changed then i wouldnt be interested in his boundaries

…….. do you know what i mean?

Solas 1:24 pm

Someone asked you on a date?

She glanced nervously out the open door, frowning. Couldn’t he tell she was trying to be sneaky?

Ellana 1:24 pm

SOLAS i was trying to be smooth in case cass ever confiscated my phone or something

Solas 1:24 pm

Why would she ever confiscate your phone? You’re not a child.

And speaking in code would do nothing to ease her suspicions.

Ellana 1:25 pm

ok i was just asking because i wanted to be sure. he asked me sort of and idk?? i felt guilty

Solas 1:25 pm

Why would you feel guilty?

She wouldn’t say it felt like cheating; she’d already shown too much of herself by texting him in the first place about this. Instead she said:

Ellana 1:25 pm

because i wanted to say yes and it felt wrong… like i was lying to you

Solas 1:25 pm

I shouldn’t be surprised. You have more integrity than most, perhaps more than is healthy in this city. Please don’t feel guilty, you are free to do as you wish. I’m sorry I’ve confused you...

She knew she shouldn’t feel hurt, but she did. She had hoped, foolishly…

Ellana 1:26 pm

sorry. im not usually this dramatic

Solas 1:26 pm

You’re hardly being dramatic. I appreciate you being so open with me. Thank you.

Truly.

Ellana 1:26 pm

thanks for being cool

Solas 1:27 pm

I hope your date goes well.

Ellana 1:27 pm

i’m not even sure if it’s officially a date

Solas 1:27 pm

Even so. You should enjoy yourself.

She sighed and set her phone down on the counter, still feeling oddly uneasy. She knew she was being a fool, pining over a man who refused to even entertain the idea of dating her. She knew it wasn’t fair to use Cullen as a rebound, but he was so warm and non-threatening. She knew she should focus more on her work, instead of getting distracted over petty personal problems most women of her background would be grateful to have. She knew, most importantly, that she couldn’t sustain this kind of inner turmoil without the rest of her life suffering.

Her phone buzzed against the counter, and she unlocked it to read a new message.

Solas 1:29 pm

Remember to wear sensible shoes, lethallan.

She stifled a laugh and leaned against the counter. After a moment of thought, she began to type her reply.

Chapter Text

She didn’t usually get drunk. From a young age she’d known she was at a disadvantage when it came to drinking; she was lean and light and had a very low tolerance for alcohol. Usually she had a few sips of whatever ale was being served, and over the years she’d noticed that most bars watered down their ale shamelessly.

Ellana was not drinking ale. She was drinking a shot of something very warm and bitter that Sera had thrust into her hand. No, “drinking” was the wrong word. She was choking it down as she gripped the table, as Sera patted her on the back and yelled something lewd, as Cullen smiled good-naturedly and lifted his glass in mock-salute. This was her third strong drink and she couldn’t stop giggling, couldn’t stop wobbling on her too-thin, too-long legs, couldn’t stop nudging Cullen and smiling at him. Her mouth felt sloppy, she could feel sweat accumulating on the nape of her neck, and usually she hated feeling like this. Usually she hated being unable to stand tall, unable to stifle her laughter, unable to see straight.

But not tonight. It felt good to be clumsy now, after being so restrained in the courthouse and so polite—so damn polite—with Solas.

No, she didn’t want to think about him. She’d had a shitty day and it was time to make it not shitty. To un-shittify? To de-shit?

Grammar. Words. Words were hard sometimes.

“The worst part of the whole damn thing,” Ellana said thickly, to a grinning Sera and bright-eyed Cullen, “was that Leliana… told me not to talk.” She laughed, and Sera laughed with her. “She said, ‘you’re unqualified to be here. So the more you talk, the worse we look.’ That’s what she said.” She was slouching against the table as she spoke, trying not to get her hair in her glass. When she’d switched her dress for a t-shirt and jeans she’d taken her hair out of its ponytail. Though she wouldn’t have said so, she wanted to cover her ears rather than leave them visible. It made her feel safer.

Cullen seemed to be the most sober of the three, and he wore an odd expression: his brow was furrowed but his mouth was smiling. “She said that? She didn’t say that!”

“She did! Didn’t even want to go. They made me go and then they told me to shut up.” She lifted a finger to her lips to illustrate as she spoke, slurring her words, “Be a good little elf. Wear a corset. Show your ears. I was so good, too. Did exactly what they said.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there,” Cullen said. “I’m stuck working on all the other cases. I would have…” he shook his head helplessly, “done something.” Ellana laughed, but it sounded strangely brittle. He looked at her imploringly. “I would have! It’s ridiculous, what they did! Insulting! I can’t believe…”

“Sssshhhhh.” She pressed her finger to his lips to shush him and he flushed. She laughed again, more heartily this time. Touching him felt good, and she liked seeing him turn pink. It was oddly satisfying. “It’s ok. Just be a good man and shut up.” She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, partly because she needed the support and partly because she wanted to touch him more intimately. He looked down at her with an expression she couldn’t read.

“Well now we know she’s really drunk. She’s hitting on you.” Right, she’d forgotten Sera was here. Why was Sera here? Didn’t she know she should leave?

“Sera, no!” Ellana said, with the tone of voice usually reserved for scolding a dog. The absurdity of it sent both women into fits of giggles, and Ellana leaned on Cullen some more, wrapping one arm around his waist.

Cullen looked at Sera with a vaguely concerned expression. “I think you might be right. We should switch to water…” As he spoke, Ellana brought his glass of brandy to her lips. She tilted her head back and guzzled it. When he realized what she was doing he snatched it from her, “No, no, Ellana!” In his haste to pull it away he spilled the rest of the alcohol down the front of her shirt.

Both women cackled and Ellana wiped absently at the wet spot on her shirt. She made a halfhearted attempt to reach for the nearly empty glass in his hand. “I wanna stay drunk,” she said brightly. It felt pleasant, being unable to think clearly. A welcome reprieve from the day’s anxieties.

“That’s not how drinking works,” Cullen said, setting the glass on the table and holding her around the waist. “If you drink all my brandy it’ll just make you pass out.”

“I don’t want it to wear off,” she said, sounding absentminded even to her own ears.

“I know,” Cullen said, and she sighed, resting her head on his shoulder. She didn’t like that he was keeping her from drinking, but he was very comfortable and she liked touching him.

Sera harrumphed and pushed away from the table. “You two are making me wanna gag,” she said, and waddled over to the bar.

Ellana pressed her nose to his throat and inhaled, and Cullen momentarily stiffened. He smelled good, and not like Solas at all. Solas smelled crisp and medicinal: like cool, clean things. Cullen was the opposite, he was warmth and earth and something sharp she couldn’t place. She sighed as she took shelter in the heat of the underside of his jaw, and wrapped her hand around the nape of his neck, running her fingers through his curls. “You have hair,” she whispered, and he chuckled.

She could feel the vibrations of his throat when he spoke. “We should get you some water, Ellana.” He shifted under her weight as if he meant to move, but seemed to think better of it.

“No! I don’t wanna be sober!” She clutched at him, not realizing that he was making no attempt to pull away.

“Don’t worry, you won’t be sober for quite a while. But you need to have some water.”

“I hate water,” she muttered.

“I doubt that.”

She was tired and she didn’t want to argue. All she wanted to do was lean against him. “Take me home. I’ll have water there.”

“Ellana…” She could feel his warm breath against her hair when he exhaled, and she shivered a little.

“What?”

“Do you really want to go home?”

“Yes. Only if you take me though.”

He sighed and called over her head to Sera. “Ellana wants to go home!”

“Ugh!” Sera approached them with another drink in her hand, and Ellana watched her with unfocused eyes. “You shoulda paced yourself!” She said to Ellana, and took a swig of her drink.

“I’ll be a better drunk next time,” Ellana said, and reached toward Sera while still leaning on Cullen. She pulled her into a hug, and Sera laughed, returning the embrace with one arm.

“Look at you being all flirty! Didn’t know you swung my way.” She was on the verge of spilling her drink but didn’t seem to care. She made a show of looking Ellana up and down, her smile growing lopsided.

“I swing all the ways,” Ellana said gravely, and Cullen cleared his throat behind her.

****

Breathing the fresh air helped clear her head a little, but it did nothing for her coordination. Cullen helped her hobble to her apartment with one hand pressed to her waist and the other gripping her elbow to steady her. Someone (probably a human man, she wasn’t paying attention) shouted something at them from across the street. Cullen called back in an even, confident voice: “Keep walking if you know what’s good for you,” and that made her smile. She didn’t know what the person had said, but it was probably rude, and she was glad she didn’t have to think about it. She was glad she didn’t have to walk home alone. She was glad she didn’t have to look both ways before using the crosswalk.

Cullen looked for her.

By the time they exited the elevator she was the most glad she’d been all night. He trailed behind her cautiously, one broad, human hand placed lightly on her hip as she fiddled with her keys in her pocket. She looked over her shoulder at him and grinned, “You’re such a gentleman,” she said, her voice lilting teasingly. Her words were a little less slurred than before; that was good. She stopped in front of her door and turned to face him.

He looked behind her uncertainly, and she leaned back against the door, smirking at him. “How am I ever gonna pay you back?” She grabbed him by the belt and tugged until he stumbled forward, bracing himself against the door with his hands.

“You don’t need to pay me back,” he said quietly, his eyes wide. She smiled at the shocked look on his face, and knew she must look a little feral.

She shook her head languidly, feeling pleasantly warm and loose-limbed. “A joke, Cullen.” She ran her hands up his chest and along his shoulders, suddenly greedy. No, starving—she was starving. He was so broad, and she wanted to feel all of him at once. “I want you to kiss me,” she whispered.

His lips were suddenly very close to hers, his breath fanning gently against her face. She nudged her nose against his and opened her mouth slightly in invitation, but she didn’t kiss him. She wanted him to make the first move, to take control, to master her. She wanted to be swept up in something more powerful than herself. Surrender would feel so sweet right now. “Ellana, you’re drunk,” he said. He cupped her jaw gently, but didn’t pull away.

“Don’t care. Do you want me to beg? Do you want me on my knees?” She tugged on his hair and whispered against his lips, and he exhaled sharply. She draped her arms around his neck and bit her lip. “Kiss me, please.” She didn’t have the presence of mind to be embarrassed, she just knew she wanted. She wanted so badly that it hurt. “Please, please, kiss me. Kiss me hard.”

He kissed her, and it was everything she needed in that moment. He pressed her against the door and splayed one hand across the small of her back, the other cupping her ass roughly. His stubble rasped against her soft skin and she knew she’d be red around the mouth when he was through. She softened against him and whined, and she heard his breath hitch.

She heard a soft, metallic thunk from behind the door and knew that specific sound should mean something to her. She didn’t care enough to try to remember what she should be remembering, and she didn’t have the strength of will to pull away, and Cullen was opening her mouth with his and she was clinging to him, and her belly felt like it was full of fire. Then, the door at her back opened and she fell suddenly and inexorably backward with a shriek, knocking into someone behind her. Dully, she felt her skull collide with what must have been a person’s jaw, and then Dorian was swearing in her ear: “Kaffas, Lana! Damn it!” His arms wrapped around her and held her up, and she reached for Cullen dumbly, trying to find the words to explain to both men at once what was going on: Dorian was not her boyfriend, and Cullen was her coworker, not some random creep.

“Roommate,” was all she managed.

“Should I freeze him?” Dorian asked casually.

Both Cullen and Ellana cried “No!” at the same time. She found her feet and stood up straight, and Dorian loosened his hold on her. She turned around to look at him properly, and saw his hair was mussed and he was wearing his silk pajamas. “Fuck, Dorian! What are you doing?”

“What am I doing? What are you doing? I thought you were being attacked!” He leveled Cullen with a disparaging look. “Was I wrong?”

“Easy, easy,” she said absently, and Dorian let her go grudgingly. She turned toward Cullen and grimaced as she tried to think of something to say that would make the situation any less awkward. She still felt disconcerted from her sudden tumble into the apartment, and she hadn’t been clear-headed to begin with.

Cullen looked from Ellana to Dorian and back again, before saying, “Um… I should go. I apologize for…” he glanced at Dorian’s pajamas, “waking you.” He turned away and started walking down the hallway, and Ellana stumbled after him as Dorian swore softly in Tevene and shut the door.

“Wait!”

He stopped and sighed, turning toward her. “I’m so sorry, Ellana. I don’t know what came over me.”

She frowned and took a few steps closer, still feeling unsteady. She was very glad she was wearing sneakers at the moment. Hesitantly, she took him by the shoulders and pulled him down to her level, and he obliged without hesitation. She kissed him softly. When she drew away, he smiled and shook his head at her. She grinned back, and said the first thing that came to mind. “I’ve never kissed a human man before.”

He raised his eyebrows and stammered a little. “I… uh… oh.”

She pressed the back of her hand to the stubble on his jaw, and he frowned curiously but didn’t pull away. She drew her knuckles slowly across his face, delighting in the friction. “I like this,” she said, and leaned in closer. “When you kiss me it hurts, but just a little.” She kissed him more deeply this time, and he sighed against her.

He broke the kiss hesitantly. “Maker’s breath. Ellana…”

She started speaking before she knew what she meant to say. “You don’t think I’m stupid, do you?”

He frowned, and looked a little shocked. “What? No, of course not! Why would you ask that?”

She shrugged. The elation of their first kiss was wearing off, and she could feel the sad desperation from before creeping up on her. She didn’t know what she was desperate for, but she knew that she felt incomplete and it made her ache. “I don’t know. I’m drunk and I’m all over you and I’ve been all gross and I probably look like shit…” She trailed off. She was being nonsensical and she knew it.

He shook his head and held her face in his hands. He kissed the tip of her nose, and she pouted, refusing to meet his eyes. He smiled sadly, “You look beautiful. You always do.” He kissed her quickly on the lips, and when she tried to deepen it he shook his head and pulled away. “You should go to bed,” he said. “We have work in the morning.”

She sighed and nodded. She wondered numbly if she would regret this in the morning. He leaned down and pecked her on the cheek, and she walked back to her apartment.

****

She regretted many things the following morning, but the most prominent regret was that she didn’t drink enough water before falling asleep. She woke up with a pounding headache and a throat so sore and dry she wondered if she’d caught the flu, before suddenly remembering that she was hungover. She readied herself for the day with no grace and very little patience, crashing into Dorian in the kitchen more than once. She arrived at the office with only two minutes to spare. As soon as she sat down at her desk, Josephine appeared in the doorway to her office, which was next to Cassandra’s. “Ellana!” she called eagerly, waving at her as if she was afraid she wouldn’t be seen. “Will you come here please?”

Ellana grudgingly pulled herself to her feet and shuffled toward Josephine, glancing around to see that Cullen hadn’t arrived for work yet. He was probably struggling similarly this morning. That was for the best; she still hadn’t decided how embarrassed she should be. She’d literally begged him to kiss her last night, and she would have begged for more if they hadn’t been interrupted.

Josephine steered Ellana into her office and shut the door behind them. Ellana perched hesitantly on the armchair opposite Josephine’s desk while her boss sat down and, without a word, pulled out her checkbook. Ellana immediately panicked. Was she being fired? Had she performed so terribly that Josephine had no choice but to pay her for the week and get rid of her as soon as possible? She tried desperately to think of something to say to sway her—she could try harder, work longer hours, spend less time doodling in the damn margins of her notes—

“You did very well at the preliminary hearing yesterday. You helped us more than you know.” She signed the check before sliding it across the desk toward Ellana, who picked it up and stared at it. “You deserve a bonus.”

It took a moment for her to realize that she was being offered an extra week’s pay for sitting in a courtroom and handing folders to Josephine. It had been less than a day’s work. It had been a farce. “Wow…” she cleared her throat and struggled to sound grateful, but instead sounded stunned. “Thank you. Really, thank you, Josephine.” She frowned and stood up even as her body protested, hoping to flee before her boss could realize she was hungover.

“Wait, sit down please.”

Ellana grimaced and sat down again. Josephine took a sheet of paper and wrote something on it as she spoke, “We would like you to attend all the events Sera would have attended if she’d been… well… if she’d been suitable to the task. That includes assisting us when we present our case to the lower courts, coming to the press conferences we’ll hold, attending any galas we might need to visit…”

Her temples were pounding. She couldn’t have heard Josephine correctly. “Galas? Would anyone really invite us to parties? Here? In Val Royeaux?”

Josephine smiled indulgently. “Some people might be interested in the controversy it would stir to invite us to such events, yes. And if we could twist circumstances to our advantage, we would go.”

She frowned, thinking hazily that when Josephine spoke of “twisting circumstances” she referred to blackmail and bribery. She hoped she wouldn’t be expected to participate in that, but she didn’t want to ask. She was afraid of what the answer might be. “So you want me to go to court and… go to galas? You want me to dress up and walk around under painted ceilings and carved staircases and… act like I belong there?”

“Not without compensation, of course.” Josephine slid the piece of paper across the desk, so Ellana could read it easily. “If you were to accept these responsibilities, you would be taking on a portion of what would have been Sera’s workload. It seems only right to increase your pay. Would this amount be alright with you?”

The numbers stood out black and stark against the paper. Ellana stared at it for a moment, aghast. That was quite a pay increase. “Um…” she floundered, trying to imagine what a responsible adult was supposed to do in this situation. “Can I do some calculations?”

Josephine looked surprised, but nodded. “Of course.”

Ellana took out her phone and used its calculator to do some quick arithmetic. The calculator told her what she’d already suspected. “This is a thirty percent increase. That’s… that’s a big increase.” Her words sounded hollow, but what was she supposed to say? How could she accept such a ridiculous amount of money graciously?

“You’d be taking on a lot of responsibility.”

“But… thirty percent. That’s… that’s a lot. Most people are happy to get a ten percent raise. And thirty percent is ten times three. That’s three times…” She shut her mouth when she realized she was babbling.

“You’ve earned it, Ellana. And I know you don’t enjoy playing the Game, so it seemed appropriate to offer some incentive.”

Ellana stared blankly at Josephine, before finally nodding. She tried to think clearly through the pain of her hangover. “I mean… you realize I would have said yes even if you hadn’t given me a raise, right? You didn’t have to do this.”

Josephine shook her head and stifled a laugh. “Never tell your employer that, Ellana. And always accept a pay raise.”

Ellana smiled sheepishly, wishing that she’d said something even vaguely intelligent or appreciative. It was hard to know what to say; she’d never received a raise in her life. This was the first job she’d had where she wasn’t paid by the hour. “Right, sorry. I just meant… thank you. Thank you, you didn’t need to do this. I mean, you could have just taken advantage and you didn’t. I don’t know what Dorian told you about me when he talked to you about this job but—“

“He told me you were a hardworking, capable young woman and I would be lucky to have you. He was right.” Josephine stood, and Ellana followed suit slowly, struggling against dizziness. They shook hands. “I’ll have a new contract ready for you to sign this afternoon.”

****

Cullen spent the better part of the day texting Ellana from his office, and she found it oddly endearing. He mentioned several times that he was glad they’d gone out together for drinks, and that he’d like to see her again outside of work.

Ellana turned down Sera’s offer of another night of drinking, and instead celebrated her raise by spending a quiet evening curled up on her couch with Dorian. They watched a ridiculously offensive movie called The Last Elf, both occasionally distracting themselves with their phones. Ellana couldn’t resist taking pictures of the human actor wearing fake elf ears and sending them to Solas. He was the only person she knew who’d appreciate just how deplorable it was.

Ellana 8:22 pm

[3 Image Attachments]

i’d be insulted if this wasn’t so funny

Solas 8:23 pm

What are you watching? Is that a human wearing artificial ears?

Ellana 8:23 pm

movie magic!! also racism

it’s called the last elf lol. the last elf in all of thedas… played by a human with fake pointed ears

Solas 8:23 pm

Why are you subjecting yourself to this torture?

Ellana 8:24 pm

i’m a masochist?? also its funny in an awful way

haven’t you ever enjoyed something because it was sooo bad it was good

Solas 8:24 pm

I believe that’s called being ironic.

Ellana 8:25 pm

i don’t have the energy to be ironic. its hard enough just being ronic

There was a pause in the conversation then, and Ellana tried to devote her attention to the movie. She caught Dorian smirking at her and rolled her eyes at him. “What?”

His smirk grew. “Are you texting that man you were gyrating against last night?”

She clutched her phone to her chest guiltily. “Shut up!”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

She managed to watch a few solid minutes of the movie before Solas texted her again.

Solas 8:30 pm

If you’re going to watch something deeply offensive, you should try Stone Hero.

Ellana 8:30 pm

aha!! so you DO like things ironically

Solas 8:30 pm

We all have our guilty pleasures.

I also have terrible taste in music, or so I’m told.

Ellana 8:30 pm

oh no!! whats your fave band?

Solas 8:31 pm

On Hedge

Ellana struggled to contain her laughter; if she started giggling she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop, and Dorian would grow too curious to let it go. She didn’t want to explain to him that Solas was a fan of the most universally mocked band in Orlais.

Ellana 8:31 pm

NO LETHALLIN!! NO NO!!!

OMG THAT’S AWFUL

Solas 8:31 pm

Ah. That is the first time you’ve called me that.

Ellana 8:31 pm

what lethallin? really?

Solas 8:31 pm

I believe so.

Ellana 8:31 pm

lethallin lethallin lethallin lethallin

Solas 8:31 pm

I look forward to hearing you say it in person some time.

Was he flirting with her? That wasn’t fair.

Ellana 8:32 pm

lol to do that we’d have to actually hang out

Solas 8:32 pm

Are you suggesting we “hang out,” Ellana?

Ellana 8:32 pm

maybe……

if you can keep your hands to yourself!!

Solas 8:32 pm

Me? What about you? I was not the only guilty party on Saturday.

Ellana 8:33 pm

smh

Solas 8:33 pm

?

Ellana 8:33 pm

Shaking My Head

Solas 8:33 pm

Shake your head all you like. I’ll behave, I assure you.

She tried not to be disappointed. She really needed to get over this bizarre crush.

Ellana 8:33 pm

well good so will i!! so there

i’ll show you how platonic i can be

friendly. downright neighborly

Solas 8:33 pm

Are you actually feeling competitive over this? That’s adorable.

Alright, now he was just being a smug asshole.

Ellana 8:34 pm

i wish we were talking on the phone so i could hang up on you

it’s more dramatic than just not texting

Solas 8:34 pm

I apologize. How about this: we agree to “hang out” and I show you some of my work?

You were kind enough to show me yours when you took my statement. I know that was difficult for you.

She frowned, her thumbs hovering over her phone’s keyboard. Had it really been so obvious that she was anxious letting him see her paintings?

Ellana 8:34 pm

hhhmm i AM curious to actually see your stuff

Still feeling vengeful over his teasing, she added:

it could help me understand why youre so arrogant!! if youre an architectural genius it would all make more sense

Solas 8:35 pm

How long are you going to punish me for calling you adorable?

At least he was perceptive.

Ellana 8:35 pm

three days

Solas 8:35 pm

Fair enough! I’ll talk to you in three days.

Ellana 8:35 pm

hey!!!!

Solas 8:35 pm

Only joking, lethallan. I’ll gladly endure your punishment.

“Do you want me to pause the movie?”

Ellana looked up to see Dorian holding the remote and staring at her. “No, I’m paying attention!”

He arched an eyebrow. “Just invite him over if you’re so enraptured.”

“I’m just talking to a friend! Not everything is about sex, Dorian.”

He made an amused noise in the back of his throat, not quite a laugh, and returned his attention to the screen.

Ellana 8:36 pm

i should go dorian wants me to pay attention!

Solas 8:36 pm

You’re willingly watching that terrible movie with a man from Tevinter? Doesn’t his family own elven slaves?

Ellana 8:36 pm

careful, solas. i might get the idea you don’t like my roommate

Solas 8:36 pm

We wouldn’t want that.

Ellana 8:36 pm

he did help you with your case you know. so he cant be THAT bad, can he?

think about that

Solas 8:36 pm

He helped his roommate with her work. He seems like a decent friend, at least.

Ellana 8:37 pm

hey, that was almost charitable of you!

Solas 8:37 pm

It’s obvious he admires you, which means he has at least one redeeming quality. He recognizes an extraordinary person when he meets one.

She couldn’t help grinning at that. She knew—she knew, damn it—that she shouldn’t find him charming. He was insulting her best friend while complimenting her. He was being an ass. Worse, he seemed to realize he was being an ass and expected her to put up with it. Still… she preened a little.

Eventually Dorian threatened to encase her phone in ice if she didn’t stop texting, and she agreed to finish the movie without distractions. Once the film had ended Solas messaged her a final time, telling her to sleep well. For about an hour Ellana and Dorian lounged on the couch and ate pudding, while she filled him in on everything that had happened at the preliminary hearing and how she’d ended up pressed against their front door, kissing Cullen. He continued to be judgmental about her taste in men: “What is it with you and dullards? Is it a Dalish thing?”

“How can you call him dull? Pretty sure he said a total of five words to you,” she said as she rolled her eyes.

“Yes, and I must say I was not impressed.”

****

For once, she took her time getting ready for bed. She washed her face, brushed her teeth, combed and braided her hair, and shut herself in her bedroom. Cullen texted her as she changed into her pajamas at a leisurely pace, asking if they could see a movie together that Saturday. She accepted absently before getting into bed and opening her laptop. She went through her usual nighttime routine of checking social media, before logging into her email account. Sera had recently been signing her up for memberships to porn sites as a prank, and Ellana was beginning to make it a habit to check her inbox so she could report the spam she received.

She wasn’t prepared for what she saw.

She had received a single email during the day, from Magister Halward Pavus.

Her stomach dropped. She opened the email.

Dear Miss Lavellan,

I apologize for the unorthodox nature of our first correspondence. Please forgive the invasion of privacy, I would not have intruded on your life if it was not important. I don’t know how much Dorian has confided in you, but my son has not spoken to me since he moved to Orlais. Contacting you was the only chance I had of getting my message across to him. He has gone to great lengths to cut me out of his life and sever all means of contact. I understand his reasons, and I know I cannot blame him for this.

I have attempted to respect his wishes for as long as possible, but I’m afraid that his pride is blinding him. He has duties in Tevinter that he must acknowledge, though I know he will try to pretend his legacy has nothing to do with him. If our family is to survive once I am gone, he must begin to accept his role here. He will be a magister someday. Dorian’s mother is at her wit’s end; her health has deteriorated greatly in the past few years and she worries about the house’s future, as I do. Please, show this message to Dorian. He has a responsibility to his family.

Most importantly, we miss him and love him dearly.

Graciously Yours,

Magister Halward of House Pavus

Ellana leaned back against her headboard and took a deep breath, trying to calm the uneven rhythm of her heart. After the initial fear for Dorian subsided, rage ate away at her. How dare he?

She didn’t know what had happened between Dorian and his father before he fled Tevinter, but she knew he wanted nothing to do with him. She knew he hid behind sarcasm and false cheer whenever the subject of his family came up. She knew he was wary of his own countrymen. She knew he mistrusted his father, and perhaps even feared him. She knew he didn’t plan to return to Tevinter. She knew, she knew, she knew.

His father knew too. And he had still contacted her. He had still assumed he could order her around, order his son around, and rearrange their lives to his liking.

For a brief moment she considered ignoring the email’s existence, to spite Halward and protect her friend. She could delete it and go to bed and pretend she’d never seen it. Dorian would never have to know. She wouldn’t have to see that look in his eyes, that hunted, haunted look.

Before Ellana even realized what she’d decided, she was getting out of bed and opening her door. She called Dorian’s name as she crossed the living room.

Chapter Text

“Don’t you think this is all a bit terrifying? Even a little? I never told him where I live or that I had a roommate in the first place. The fact that he managed to track you down at all should scare you, you know.” Dorian stood in front of Ellana with his arms crossed over his chest, looking restless and worried.

“Scared?” she scoffed. “No. Am I unnerved? Yes. But I don’t think emailing him back would result in some evil magister murder plot.”

He rolled his eyes as he started to pace. His tone was lightly mocking with a sinister edge just beneath the surface: “Yes, let’s laugh at Dorian for trying to protect his friend! Let’s poke our nose where it doesn’t belong! Let’s act as if we know—“

“Ok.”

“How to fix a relationship that was never—“

“Dorian, ok!”

He stopped in his tracks and glared at her, clearly ready for an argument. She’d never seen him so tense, in all the years she’d known him. The look of desperation in his eyes alone was enough to make her back down.

“Ok. You’re right,” she said, and he relaxed his posture slightly. “I won’t email him. You’re right, I guess I don’t know what I’m talking about. I just…” she faltered, struggling to find a way to articulate what she’d wanted to say since he’d finished reading the email for himself. “I just don’t want you to be… afraid. I don’t want you to feel like you have to hide from him, or protect me from him, or run away again.” He looked away, his frown softening. She raised her hands in a placating gesture. “If you think ignoring him is the best way to go, I’m with you. You should just know… if you ever needed me to do anything for you, like give him a message, tell him to fuck off… I would. I’d do anything you wanted.” He looked away and she leaned forward, trying to catch his eye. “Seriously,” she said, “I mean it.”

Dorian sighed and let his arms fall to his sides. Slowly, he sat down next to her on the couch, and put his head in his hands. “I know,” he said softly. “Thank you.”

****

Ellana quickly spent about half of her bonus settling old debts she owed in the city, and she would have been left with no extra money at all if Dorian had accepted her offer of repaying the sovereigns he’d lent her years ago. He stubbornly insisted the money he’d given her before she moved in with him had been a gift he didn’t wish to see repaid. As a result, Ellana found herself with surplus cash for the first time in… well, her whole life. Out of habit, she stowed it (as she would anything precious to her) in the bottom drawer of her dresser beneath her clothes. She had an idea of how she wanted to spend it, but she didn’t want to part with the money just yet. It felt good to have a little something extra for once.

Leliana wasted neither time nor pleasantries before beginning Ellana’s instruction. As Pentaghast & Montilyet’s public relations consultant, she was deemed most suitable for the task of teaching Ellana how to play the Game. After the firm had closed for the day and most people went home, the two women met and went over the basics: how to smile without revealing one’s true feelings, how to walk with false confidence, how to answer a question without truly answering it, and most importantly, how to appear poised and educated. Every time Leliana met with her, it felt like she was carving time out of her day with a knife, but Ellana tried to bear it graciously. These lessons were one of her new responsibilities, now that she’d accepted her role as political leverage for the firm. She resolved to use her budding skills in duplicity to hide her annoyance with the arrangement from Leliana and her bosses.

She came home exhausted that Friday night after a particularly trying lesson in maintaining eye contact in uncomfortable situations, and mentioned offhandedly to Dorian that she wanted to cancel her date with Cullen. She was beginning to think she might sleep through the whole weekend after enduring her sessions with Leliana for several days in a row. It wasn’t just physical exhaustion that plagued her, either. Her thoughts felt scattered and incoherent now that she was being forced to study dishonesty as if it were an art. Knowing how much she would be expected to lie for her job unsettled her, and there was a steadily growing knot in the pit of her stomach. She also wasn’t used to being in the public eye, and she grew more tired the more she thought of how much scrutiny she’d be under in the coming months. When she explained this to Dorian he scoffed, though the look in his eyes wasn’t unkind. They hadn’t spoken of his father or the email since the night she’d promised to ignore all attempts to contact her.

“You do realize you have almost a full day between then and now? Sounds to me like you’re making excuses not to see the poor fellow.”

Ellana sighed and sank into the couch cushions. She let her head loll against the armrest but said nothing.

“What’s wrong? Rethinking your decision to date someone as dry as dirt?”

She waved her hand absently. “Be more blunt. I’m not sure I can tell how you feel about him.”

Dorian sighed as he turned a page in his magazine. “I confess it might have something to do with the way he was manhandling you when I met him.”

“He wasn’t manhandling me. I kissed him.” That wasn’t strictly true, but she didn’t want to explain that she’d begged Cullen to kiss her. She wasn’t sure Dorian would ever stop laughing if he heard about that.

He kept his eyes trained on the page in front of him, but from the tone of his voice she could tell he wasn’t actually reading anymore. “You were obviously drunk, and he was decidedly not.”

“It’s not like he was totally sober. He was drinking too!”

“How nice for him,” he said dismissively as he turned another page.

“You know, you and Solas might actually get along. You’re both self-righteous and overly protective of me.”

Dorian raised his eyebrow at that. He leaned forward slightly, looking up from his magazine for the first time. He eyed her mischievously. “’Protective’, is he? Very interesting.”

Ellana covered her face with her hand and groaned. She was letting her fatigue get the better of her, she should never have said anything. “That’s not what I meant. He’s just overly concerned. Paternal, even.”

He stared at her for a long moment before suddenly leaning back in his chair as if he’d come to a conclusion about something. He looked deeply amused as he smiled at her. “Well, at least you recognize he’s far too old for you.”

Even as she began speaking she knew she shouldn’t rise to the bait, “He’s not that much older than me!” Her voice sounded far shriller than she would have liked.

He laughed brightly, “Which is it, then? Is he a father figure or not?”

She crossed her arms as she curled further in on herself. “I never said he was old enough to be my father, I just mean that…”

“Yes?” He prompted, cocking his head.

“I just meant…”

“Mm?”

“Ugh, shut up.”

Dorian laughed and, mercifully, let her slink to her bedroom without further comment.

****

Ellana was in the middle of painting when Solas texted her on Saturday morning. She’d woken just after dawn with the urge to set brush to canvas. She was using acrylic, which was not her preferred medium, but something had struck her while she’d been dreaming and she couldn’t be unstruck: an insatiable need to grasp at something intangible and bring it into being. With each brushstroke her vision became more real, and that in itself satisfied her in a way that nothing else in her life did.

The subject demanded acrylic. Watercolor was too flimsy and insubstantial; she needed opaque colors and bold brushstrokes that didn’t bleed.

She usually ignored any texts as she painted, but when Solas’ name flashed across her screen she unlocked her phone with only a minor hesitation. She got paint on her screen when she touched it, and cursed under her breath. She wiped her hands on a towel as she read his message.

Solas 7:08 am

I’m not sure if you’re awake yet, but you may want to look at something when you get the chance.

Ellana 7:08 am

don’t be mysterious you’re making me nervous

Solas 7:08 am

[1 Web Link Attachment]

It’s good news, I promise you.

Ellana paused at that, and clicked on the link he’d sent her. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t to be redirected to a blog with a picture of artfully smeared and shattered cosmetics serving as the backdrop. In rose gold lettering, the blog was titled Fashion of the Famous: Capital Taste. She scrolled down to see a photo from the day of the preliminary hearing, showing a group of photographers and journalists crowded around her in front of the courthouse. She was frozen mid-step on her way to the car, pouting and looking into the middle distance. Despite looking miserable, it was actually a flattering photo of her. The headline read Nanin v. Orlais: How Do the Elves Fare?

According to the article, she fared quite well. The anonymous blogger described her as skittish and meek on the day of the hearing, which suggested they’d been there to witness her squint at the paparazzi in person. They went on to say that although Ellana Lavellan lacked poise, she made up for her shortcomings with her intelligence, good looks, and impeccable fashion sense. Ellana doubted the writer knew anything about her so-called “intelligence,” but she was oddly pleased with the compliment anyway. They gave a detailed explanation of her outfit, which had been photographed from several different angles, explaining how the dress complemented her figure while remaining demure and professional for the setting. They gave a brief lesson on the dress’ designer before moving on to the shoes, which were deemed flattering and suitably Orlesian without being gaudy. The writer spoke highly of her subtle makeup and praised her choice to put her hair in a ponytail, leaving her “beautiful, delicately curved” ears bare. They wondered idly whether or not her ears were pierced, as she’d worn no earrings on that day and the resolution of the photos made it impossible to tell whether or not the lack of jewelry had been an oversight.

Growing uncomfortable at the blogger’s fascination with her elven features, Ellana scrolled further down to see a photo of Solas in his gray suit. The author paid him less attention, which was probably for the best; they had less complimentary things to say about him. Although they appreciated his attire and the confidence with which he carried himself, his severe expression and “superior attitude” did little to charm the author, and his apostasy only seemed to worsen their opinion of him. In their concluding paragraph they declared him too dour and homely to be of much interest to anyone in the Orlesian court. Ellana snorted at that; there was no accounting for taste, obviously.

She glanced at the canvas in front of her and knew if she stopped painting now she’d never finish the piece. She couldn’t text and paint at the same time, but she didn’t want to leave Solas hanging, so she put her phone on speaker and called him. He answered after two rings.

His voice was muffled at first. “Hello?”

“Hey,” Ellana said, picking up her brush again. She wiped it clean before dipping it in blue paint. “I wanted to talk but I didn’t want to stop painting. It’s ok that I called you, right?”

She could hear that he was smiling. “Of course. What are you painting?”

She smiled as she resumed her delicate brushstrokes. “None of your business,” she teased. It was a simple painting of a man’s hands clutching a blanket; she liked to think of it as a faceless portrait.

“You intend to leave me with nothing? How cruel,” he said lightly.

“Ok, fine. Hands.”

“Whose hands?”

“I don’t know, actually. It doesn’t really matter.”

He made a low sound in his throat before he spoke. “I’d like to see it when you’re finished.”

She paused in her painting, suddenly realizing that the image of two hands clutching at a blanket, all veins and tendons and muscles, looked vaguely suggestive. Sexual, even. “Uh… no, I don’t think so. You haven’t shown me your stuff yet!”

“Ah, fair enough. What did you think of the blog post?”

“Very weird. I’m not really sure how any of that was good news? I mean, I guess they said some nice stuff about me. But did you read what they said about you? That was just offensive. And they were wrong, obviously. Couldn’t be more wrong.”

“It’s not important what they said about me,” he said dismissively. “They complimented you to the point of vulgarity.” He sounded proud, which made Ellana frown.

She fought to keep from sounding embarrassed. “Yeah, my ‘beautiful curving ears’ or whatever. How is that a good thing?”

“Ah. I’m sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Josephine will probably talk to you about all this on Monday, but I couldn’t contain my excitement.”

“Excitement for what, Solas? You realize how creepy it is—“

“Of course!” His tone was strident; he sounded so determined and sure of what he said that it surprised her. “It’s infuriating and offensive, the way they described you! But they flattered you when they could have written something scathing. As ridiculous as it is, the whims of a blogger this popular hold weight in Val Royeaux; by endorsing you, they’ve endeared you to a good deal of the Orlesian nobility. Anyone who has even a minor interest in politics and prides themselves on being fashionable will be interested in you now.”

Ellana sighed. “Well, that’s nice, I guess. I mean, I’m glad I wasn’t publicly humiliated.”

“Earning the support of Orlesian nobility is no small task, and you’re already halfway there. Do you know what you could accomplish if you set your mind to it? If you used this to your advantage?”

Something inside her sank when she realized he was talking about her role as the firm’s pawn; it would undoubtedly help their cause if she had some sway, however frivolous, with the resident nobles. He was talking about the case. “You mean ‘we.’”

“Beg pardon?”

“We, as in Josephine and Cassandra and me. And Leliana, I guess.”

He sounded genuinely confused. “Are you alright?”

She sighed. “I mean, I guess it’s good. This’ll help the firm somehow, which will help your case, so it’s a victory.”

He let out a frustrated breath, “Yes, I suppose,” he said quickly, as if the mention of his case annoyed him, “but that’s not what I find so promising! Think of what you could achieve!”

She paused in her painting. “What do you mean?”

“If you were to win over a few nobles and climb the social ladder, you could use your status to help yourself. Many Orlesians might be interested in being a patron of sorts, if they were to see your art. You would have a wealth of choices if you chose your patron wisely: do you want to return to university, find a job that better suits you, or strike out on your own and live independently?” He paused and for a moment there was shuffling in the background. When he spoke again his voice was calmer, “You should think about what an opportunity this could be.”

Something hopeful and fragile fluttered inside her, but she barely noticed it. Instead she thought of Solas: how he’d read that ridiculous blog post and his first reaction had been to search for ways the publicity could benefit her—not the firm and not his case. She set her brush down and leaned back in her chair, touching her earlobe absently and leaving a smudge of paint behind.

She took a moment to appreciate the knowledge that he’d seen her ears described as “beautiful.” She took another moment to think about how he must have frowned over the blatant fetishization, and it made her smile.

“Ellana?”

When she spoke her voice sounded dreamy and distant. “I never even thought of it that way. Thank you, Solas.”

“For what?”

She wanted to say for caring about me, but that was too naked, too raw. “For just… for being you.” Damn, she was useless at being coy.

“Yes, well… of course.” He sighed, and she heard something clang in the background; probably some pots and pans. Her smile widened until it stung. She wrapped her arms around herself, staining her t-shirt with blue paint and not caring. She closed her eyes so she could appreciate the sound of his voice. “I only think… it’s important to remember your part in this. Whatever comes of the case, you could use this to change your life for the better. You could give yourself more options and find work as an artist, if that’s what you want.”

Her stomach twisted, and she couldn’t tell if the thought terrified or thrilled her. “Hhmm,” she said, mostly to fill the silence. “How do you know… I mean, how could you tell that I…”

He let her trail off before finishing her sentence. “That you don’t like working there?”

She sat up a little straighter. “It’s not that I don’t like working there! There are a lot of good things about it! Josephine is great, and she’s fair, and I’m getting used to how everything works now. I just…” She nervously twisted her towel into a knot, the truth searing her stomach like a sickness. She didn’t even have the courage to say it out loud: I want more.

His voice was quiet and understanding. “I know.”

She looked down at the hands she’d painted and knew who they belonged to.

****

The movie was terrible. Ellana didn’t want to admit it at first; it had gotten rave reviews and Sera had insisted (with plenty of profanity) that it was the best film she’d seen in years. About half an hour after sitting down, Ellana snuck a peek at Cullen and saw he was staring at the screen with a grimace on his face, as if he was in physical pain. She startled herself by laughing, and a few people behind them shushed her harshly. Cullen gave her an apologetic look and said, “I had no idea there would be so many dwarves robbing banks.” She covered her mouth as she shook with silent laughter.

They sat there for another ten minutes before finally getting up and scurrying down their row of seats, hunched in front of the screen so as not to block the audience’s view.

Cullen offered to take her to dinner to “make up for that movie—I’m so sorry, what a complete disaster” but Ellana convinced him to get ice cream with her instead. They ended up walking to her apartment hand-in-hand, each clutching a waffle cone. They spent so much time talking and laughing that even in the chill night air their ice cream began to melt and dribble down onto their hands. Ellana licked her knuckles to try to catch the remnants before they could drip onto her wrist, too giddy from the sugar and laughter to think of how she must look: rosy-cheeked and decadent. When she looked up she caught Cullen staring at her with a mix of desire and embarrassment. She laughed and he swiftly looked away.

She tugged on his hand and he met her gaze reluctantly, though he was smiling. “I think my ice cream is…” she looked down at the melting monstrosity and giggled. She pulled him down the sidewalk toward a trash can, and threw the cone away. He followed suit wordlessly, and she raised her messy hand awkwardly, unsure how to rectify the increasingly sticky situation. His smile broadened as he watched her, and she said, “Well, we’re only a block away from my kitchen sink.”

They walked on briskly, and when they came to her door she fumbled with her keys, accidentally coating them in melted ice cream. She could feel his amusement radiating off of him, but he was kind enough not to make fun of her.

She shut the door behind her with a kick and hurried into the kitchen as Cullen trailed behind her, dropping her keys on the counter. She leaned against the sink and turned on the faucet, and he pressed himself gently against her back, circling his arms around hers. She smiled as she lathered the soap in her hands, and he wrapped his hands around hers, rubbing her palms gently and coating her fingers with soap. She returned the gesture, washing and massaging his hands before guiding them under the warm stream of water. She let the suds swirl away and disappear down the drain, and picked up a dishtowel, drying her hands. He held out his large, wet hands over the sink, and she dried them for him as he watched over her shoulder. She set the dishtowel down and glanced back at him. She tried to turn to face him fully, but he kept her pinned to the counter with his hips. She could feel the weight of his cock resting against the curve of her ass, and smirked. Gently, he placed one hand on her hip and used the other to turn her face toward his. He cupped her jaw and kissed her softly, and his lips were cold and tasted like sugar. She squirmed against him and grinned into the kiss when she felt him hardening further against her.

After a moment of hesitation he spun her around and pressed his lips to hers, hard: a demand, a plea, a promise. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his body flush to hers. The warmth of his embrace and the chill of his lips made her sigh and melt against him. He wrapped a fist in her hair and she shivered, palming his cock through the front of his pants. He let out a hot, ragged breath against her cheek and pulled away to look her in the eye. “Maker’s breath,” he whispered.

She grinned. “You say that a lot when I kiss you,” she said, and he tightened his grip in her hair, pulling her head back to expose the slender length of her neck. Her heartbeat fluttered in her throat as he pressed rough kisses against soft skin; she could feel the heat between her legs growing, thrumming, and knew she wanted this as badly as he did. “Bedroom?” she said eagerly, and he paused with his stubble rasping against her throat, as if he was trying to gather his thoughts. She laughed and rolled her hips against him, “Or do you want to bend me over the counter?”

He sucked in a breath and stiffened slightly, and for a moment she thought he would pull away. Instead he trailed kisses down her neck until he reached her collarbone, and sucked at the thin, delicate skin there. “Yes,” he whispered, “bedroom.” He slowly eased away so she could stand upright, and she held onto the sink for stability. She realized she was trembling slightly and hoped he wouldn’t notice.

They staggered to her bedroom together, and she slammed the door clumsily in her haste. She locked it and turned around, ready to pull him to her, but she saw he was standing in front of her sketches and paintings, looking surprised. “Oh, um, those are just… sometimes I paint. It’s a hobby,” she muttered.

He turned toward her and smiled. “They’re very nice,” he said, taking a step toward her. He was looking at her throat hungrily, and she realized he’d probably left marks behind.

She clasped her hands together to try to calm herself, but she let them fall to her sides when she thought of how awkward that must look. “Oh. Really?”

“Yes, really.” He closed the distance between them and kissed her forcefully, and she staggered back slightly before he wrapped his arms around her waist to steady her. She had expected him to say more about her art, to ask her how long she had been painting, if she ever wanted to go to art school, whether or not she considered herself an artist. She pushed those thoughts away when he guided her to the bed; it was selfish to expect him to read her mind.

Cullen pressed her to the mattress with his weight, bracing his arms on either side of her head. She hooked a leg around his hip and writhed against him, and he groaned against her parted lips. She briefly fumbled with his belt before unbuckling it, and pressed her hand down the front of his pants. She grasped at the thick, hot length of his cock and moaned quietly; she could feel his precum, slick under her fingers. He shut his eyes for a moment and pressed his face to her shoulder. “Ellana,” he whispered, and she withdrew her hand to yank her jeans and underwear down haphazardly. His eyes widened as he watched her tug off her clothing and kick it away and onto the floor, but when she reached for him again he stilled her hand. “Wait,” he said quietly, “I want to…” He reached for the hem of her shirt and raised an eyebrow questioningly. “May I?”

She nodded breathlessly, and he lifted her shirt over her head. He watched with rapt attention as Ellana unhooked her bra and tossed it aside. When she reached for his cock again he surprised her with a kiss: slow, confident, tender. He parted her lips and slipped his tongue deep inside her mouth, until it was difficult to breathe, and it felt like one of the most obscene things she’d ever experienced. She was very aware of how naked she was under a fully clothed man; the rough fabric of his pants and soft cotton of his shirt pressed against her bare skin, and it felt delightfully perverse. When he pulled back to look her in the eye, kneading her breast and grinding his clothed cock against her, she wondered dimly why it was so erotic to feel this vulnerable. He interrupted her thoughts when he kissed her breasts and took one pink, stiff nipple into his mouth and sucked. His stubble was rough and unrelenting against the softest of her skin, and he left faint red marks in his wake as he lavished attention on her breasts. He kissed down her belly until he reached her hip, and she arched her back, trying to lure him between her thighs. His stuttering breath ghosted along the folds of her cunt, making her moan, and he spread her legs gently. He pressed his fingers to her clit and she jerked impatiently, reaching blindly for him. He laughed under his breath as he took his wet fingers away, and buried his face between her legs.

She actually whimpered when she felt his tongue on her, so sure and swift, and when he wrapped his lips around her clit she fisted the blankets and tried not to buck. He devoured her like she was the rarest, most sinful thing he’d ever tasted; she was growing unbearably, embarrassingly wet. As he laved her cunt and worked her with his fingers, she squirmed underneath him, sometimes to escape his mouth and sometimes to draw him closer, overwhelmed with sensation and unsure whether or not she wanted to drown in it. When her writhing became too frantic he pulled away, and for a terrible, thrilling moment she thought he meant to punish her for refusing to hold still. Instead he clambered away from her and stood at the foot of the bed; he grabbed her ankles and pulled her easily to the edge of the mattress, where he pinned her hips and knelt in front of her. He began again, and this time he hardly allowed her to move.

He pushed her until she grew frenzied; he was persistent and merciless and that alone excited her until she could hardly think under the onslaught of his ministrations. She came underneath him with a jolt and a high-pitched shriek, but he continued to lick and suck as her orgasm crashed through her in waves. She gripped the blankets as her ecstasy stretched out for so long it was nearly unbearable, and then she came again, and tugged on his hair in a wordless plea to stop. His tongue slowed against her as she fell into a deep, euphoric bliss, feeling weightless and sated. She was languid and helpless underneath him, and she loved it.

Slowly, he lifted his head from between her thighs and looked at her. His chin and mouth were coated with her wetness, which would have made her vaguely self-conscious if she wasn’t feeling so mindlessly satisfied. He smiled indulgently at her, like she was a wild thing he’d tamed, and crawled onto the bed. He pulled her toward the headboard so she could rest her head against the pillows, and as she lay limp and silent, he tangled his fingers in her hair and pulled her to his chest. She could smell his sweat and his arousal as he stroked her hair; she pressed her tongue to his skin and tasted him lazily. He sighed and tightened his hold on her. She smiled into his shoulder and said absently, “You still have all your clothes on.”

He stifled a laugh. “Are you suggesting I take them off?”

She hummed affirmatively and tugged his shirt up his stomach, before giving up and slouching against him. “I’m too tired to take it off for you.”

This time he did laugh. “If you’re playing this up for my benefit, I promise you don’t need to.”

“I’m not. I feel like I’m made of water,” she murmured, and he kissed her forehead. She watched him sit up and pull his shirt over his head before discarding it beside the bed. He slipped his shoes and pants off as well, but left his underwear on. He settled back down beside her, his arousal evidenced by the significant bulge between his legs. She curled up beside him and let her hand wander down his stomach to palm his hard cock, and sighed at the feel of it. She was tired and sated, but she felt eager to satisfy him; most importantly, she was curious to know how deeply he would fill her. She pressed her thighs together to relieve some of the pressure steadily building between her legs, and he watched her movements with open fascination. She slid his underwear down his hips and freed his stiff member, which had turned an angry shade of red. He sighed as she wrapped her hand around it and tugged impatiently. “Are you… sure you’re ready again?” he said.

She nodded wordlessly, her pupils blown wide. He gave her an appraising look, enjoying the sight of her guileless, pleading eyes. She was still flushed in the cheeks and her lips were plumper and pinker than usual, probably because she couldn’t stop biting them. She looked beautiful, so eager and naked with her hand wrapped around his cock. Slowly, he rolled on top of her and parted her legs with his knees. “Sorry,” she muttered, staring up at him, “you might have to do most of the work here.”

He chuckled and kissed her deeply, and she turned to shimmering, shivering heat beneath him. She ran her fingers gently over his muscled shoulder and gripped him as if to steady herself. He guided himself to her slick cunt and groaned when he felt just how warm and wet she really was. She made a nervous, breathless sound and rolled her hips slightly; he pushed inside her with one smooth, slow stroke, and her mouth fell open in a wordless gasp as he filled her. She kneaded his shoulder as her cunt stretched to accommodate him, her breathing growing rough and hoarse. She was glad she was so relaxed for this first time with Cullen. He was larger than she was used to, and her body would have clenched and fought the intrusion if she wasn’t so damn exhausted.

She wrapped her arms around his back and tried to push herself through her fatigue, sweat collecting on her brow as she struggled to meet each thrust. He groaned low in her ear and she twitched around him, moving against his hips at a slow, rhythmic pace, but even with all her efforts her muscles were trembling under the strain, and she was quickly losing strength. He pressed open-mouthed kisses to her neck and jaw, and nipped at the sharp edge of her ear. She rewarded him with a long, wanton moan and he increased his pace, rocking the bed with each thrust so that the headboard clattered against the wall. As he fucked her harder and faster she felt another orgasm approaching, and clung to him tightly. There was a desperation in the way she whined and dug her nails into his back that seemed to draw him into a frantic pace. Soon he was pounding her so ferociously it made her thrash under his weight, and she knew she’d be sore for days afterward if she didn’t take a healing potion when they were finished. Relishing both the pain and pleasure, she begged him in a high, honeyed voice, her breath catching with every thrust, “Please, please, more, more, more…”

With a grunt he squeezed her ass and hitched one of her legs up around his hip for better leverage; she keened when he dragged his nails across her thigh, and when his thrusts grew so wild she thought she might start to sob, she came in a senseless shudder. She tried to say something as she cried out, she wasn’t sure what, but it all burst forth in a useless jumble of vowels and sighs. She tightened around him so snugly he stilled suddenly and cursed under his breath, coming with a shout soon after. He leaned his considerable weight on her, burying his face in her hair as he tried to collect himself. Ellana wrapped one shaking arm around his waist, panting and murmuring soothing noises into the crook of his neck. They laid together for a while as their sweat dried on their skin and their breathing slowly returned to normal.

Ellana couldn’t stop shaking, and that was a relief. This was exactly what she needed: to be pinned underneath someone stronger than herself, to feel a little weak, and finally relax.

Eventually Cullen pulled out and rolled onto his side to face her; she stayed on her back and let herself drowse in her blissful haze. Cullen watched her blink slowly in the dim light, paying him no mind, and gently caressed the soft skin of her belly and breasts. She looked up at him and smiled lazily, and rolled onto her side to face him. He pulled her to his chest easily and rubbed her back as she let her eyes fall shut. She sighed and her breathing slowed as he wrapped his arms around her, feeling both safe and spent. She shivered slightly, and he kissed her shoulder.

She was content in that single, small moment. Feeling his hands on her back and in her hair lulled and calmed her, and she began to slip into dreams effortlessly. Before she fell asleep she told herself there was nothing wrong with a man who wasn’t interested in her paintings. He didn’t care for art, and that was alright.

That was alright.

Chapter Text

About a week after Halward Pavus first reached out to Ellana, he sent her another email begging her again to relay his message and to convince Dorian to meet him at a neutral, public location. Ellana did as Dorian had asked: she ignored it, and tried to put the magister out of her mind. Brushing off a man of such wealth and power made her anxious, but she didn’t bring her concerns to Dorian. He was spending so much time at Krem’s apartment there were days when she didn’t see him at all, and she was happy for him. She really was.

But sometimes the apartment grew eerily quiet. She wasn’t used to having so much empty space to herself, so she started inviting Cullen to sleep over more often. He was very good at taking up space and just being there. When he stayed overnight she rarely got any painting done; she was too busy kissing him, and that was alright.

That was alright.

Every day, when she had a moment alone, she fished out the money she’d hidden in the bottom drawer of her dresser and counted it again. She never planned to check on it, but sometimes she would be in the middle of changing into her pajamas or putting away her paints and she’d have the urge—no, the compulsion—to reassure herself that what was left of her bonus was still safely tucked away. On the fifth day this happened, she realized hoarding the money was only making her afraid she would lose it. She’d lived without a spare copper to her name for years now, and she didn’t want to be paralyzed with fear at the thought of poverty; that wasn’t her. So she stopped putting off the inevitable and took out her many drawings of sylvanwood branches. She spent a few hours on the internet, researching the tattoo shops in the city and flipping through artists’ portfolios to get an understanding of their style.

Soon her skin would no longer be bare.

The next time she saw Solas was immediately after making the deposit for her tattoo; the shop she’d chosen was only a few blocks north of his apartment building, and she was on her way to the bus stop with her receipt folded away inside her purse when she walked past a café and saw him in the window. He was sitting at a small table and scowling as he sipped at a cup of coffee; when she paused to wonder if she should say hello, he looked up and saw her. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, his drink forgotten on the table. She waved and flashed him a grin with greater ease than she would have even an hour earlier. He smiled and stood up to make his way toward the door, but she rushed inside before he could meet her. A bell chimed brightly as the door swung shut behind her. He halted in front of her, his lips turned up ever so slightly. “I didn’t expect to see you here,” he said, and the warmth in his voice made it clear he was glad he had.

She laughed, still thinking of the receipt in her purse even as she took in the sight of him. He was dressed more casually than she’d ever seen him: wearing tattered jeans and loafers, and a sweater that was too big for him. “Me neither,” she said breathlessly.

He cocked his head and gave her an amused, curious look. “You seem to be in high spirits.” She tried to smother the smile on her face, but couldn’t. Abruptly, he gestured toward the table where he’d been sitting. “Will you join me?”

“Oh! Yeah, yeah, of course.”

They sat down across from each other, their knees knocking together, and she watched him take a quick sip of his coffee; this time he didn’t frown at the taste of it. They sat for a moment in comfortable silence as he eyed her, as if she were a puzzle he was trying to solve. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can contain my curiosity. Have you won the lottery? Discovered the secret to immortality?”

She laughed and shook her head, feeling giddy. “I just… I just did something I’ve been putting off for a long time. Or, I guess I wasn’t putting it off, but I had been wanting to do this for so long and now I finally have and…” she trailed off, and he leaned forward.

“Now I’m very intrigued,” he said quietly, and she knew that was his way of asking for more information without pushing her.

For a moment, she hesitated. She wasn’t sure whether she should tell him the true nature of her tattoo—it was so personal and precious to her, and she didn’t want him to spoil her excitement with his prejudice. He had said terrible things about the Dalish, called them closed-minded children. She remembered how he’d searched her skin for vallaslin when she’d revealed her heritage, looking disappointed and confused. As an elf living in Val Royeaux, leaving her skin bare would be the safest, most practical option. Choosing to get a tattoo would set her apart from most city elves, regardless of its placement or significance, and standing out could make her a target for harassment and assault. She wondered briefly if he would think less of her if she explained what she planned to do.

“Is something wrong?”

She looked up at him and shrugged, her smile having faded from her face. “Not really, I just don’t think you’d approve.”

His eyes widened at that. He leaned back in his chair and considered her thoughtfully. “I can’t say for sure without knowing what it is, but I think you’re mistaken.”

She smirked and rolled her eyes, not surprised at his response. “You sound pretty confident.”

He shrugged as his thumb traced the rim of his cup. “You came in here grinning like a schoolgirl. Anything that makes you that happy must have some merit.”

“Ew, don’t compare me to a schoolgirl!” she suppressed a laugh and kicked his foot lightly.

He smiled, “Apologies. You came in here grinning like a grown woman. A very dignified, grown woman.”

“That’s better,” she said, trying to sound mock-stern. He inclined his head and took another sip of his coffee. She tangled her fingers in a loose thread on her shirt and fidgeted. He watched her for a moment calmly, as if he was waiting out a skittish animal.

After a moment she sighed and shrugged. If they were going to be friends, she might as well be honest with him. “I just made an appointment.”

He looked taken aback for a moment. After a pause he prompted her, “Oh?”

She bit her lip. “Yeah, I’m… I’m getting a tattoo in two weeks.”

“A tattoo? Why would I disapprove of…” he trailed off, but then understanding lit his eyes. “Ah. You’re getting your vallaslin?” His voice was decidedly neutral. That was something, at least.

“Well, no. I’m not technically part of a clan anymore and I… the vallaslin isn’t for clanless elves. And even if I felt comfortable getting my vallaslin, I’m not sure I would now. I mean, I’m an adult, I’m past the age when…” she waved her hand, trying to clear her thoughts. She should not have told him she was without a clan, and hoped he wouldn’t ask her further about it. “I’m getting a tattoo to commemorate June. On my arm.” She extended her right hand and showed him the pale expanse of skin of her inner forearm, tracing where she imagined the sylvanwood branches would soon twist toward her wrist. He watched her movements intently, his expression unreadable. “I would have chosen his vallaslin if I’d had the chance. I guess it’ll be like… my reinterpretation of what a vallaslin is supposed to be.” And something comforting to look at when she felt disconnected from her past: a reassurance that she was still Dalish. Still strong. Still capable.

He raised his eyebrows, considering her for a moment. “This clearly means a lot to you. You looked weightless when you walked in here.”

She smiled shyly. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. I’ve just never had the money before. I guess that’s one good thing that’s come out of all this elf stuff at my job.”

“I’m glad. You deserve that money and more.”

Her smile turned wry. “I never would have thought I’d get a bonus for having pointy ears.” She relaxed slightly in her seat; banter was familiar territory with them.

He smirked. “Strange that one of our people would benefit from human prejudice. It is a nice change of pace, however.”

“So, I don’t sense any condescension. You sure you’re not annoyed that I’m following a Dalish custom?” She kept her tone light, but she could feel her stomach clench without her permission.

His voice was mild, but he was looking at her intently, as if he could see past all her artifice. “You’re reinventing a Dalish custom to suit yourself. Adapting a tradition you hold sacred seems the perfect way to honor your unique spirit.” He glanced at her bare forearm where she would soon have a tattoo of a sylvanwood branch. “The Dalish must be proud to have you as one of their own.”

She let out a nervous, flustered laugh and looked away, trying to hide how delighted she was at the compliment. When she looked up again he seemed inordinately pleased with himself.

****

Although the firm’s press conference about Solas’ case would be perfunctory and dull, Josephine calmly explained that they would benefit from Ellana’s presence there. The blog post praising Ellana’s looks and fashion choices (none of which had been hers) had bolstered Leliana’s confidence in their choice to use her as a replacement for Sera. Although her services weren’t strictly necessary, appearing in a fashionable dress and smiling at the cameras would help their publicity. Now that she had the attention of the media, Pentaghast & Montilyet couldn’t afford to squander her potential. With a case as ambitious and controversial as theirs, they needed to garner as much attention and good will as possible; in the city of Val Royeaux, a pretty elven face rarely hurt so long as its owner spoke very little.

The press conference took place on a Saturday morning, when she normally would have woken late and painted until her arm ached, so she was painfully aware of every second she spent as a living doll. She felt strangely numb in her green dress and matte lipstick; although she had a certain grudging respect for the artistry of makeup, every time Leliana put a brush to her face she retreated further inside herself. On the drive to the press conference Josephine and Cassandra seemed oblivious to her darkening mood, and she did nothing to draw their attention to her. If she was expected to act as decoration, that’s what she would do. Solas caught her eye, looking concerned, and she quickly looked away. Tenderness made her emotional, and she did not want to be emotional when she was about to step in front of dozens of flashing cameras. He reached for her hand as if he meant to comfort her, but he seemed to doubt himself at the last moment and let his hand drop to the seat. He settled for brushing his pinkie against hers; she stiffened at the contact, but didn’t have the heart to pull her hand away.

When they exited the car and made their way to the conference room, a small set of photographers and journalists flanked them. She felt oddly exposed when she realized the author of Fashion of the Famous could be among them, but she made sure her smile looked serene, even though it felt brittle as ice.

When they reached the conference room they all stood at the front to face the press, and Leliana took her place at a podium. She gave a well-composed speech about their case, citing Wisdom’s torture and subsequent death as an act of cruelty that should have sparked national outrage. She described spirits’ treatment as an ethical and legal dilemma, and called upon the people of Orlais to examine their own interactions with spirits, and prejudices against them. She went on to give a detailed explanation of the difference between demons and spirits; Ellana noticed Solas shifting his weight restlessly from foot to foot when Leliana maintained that there was a stark divide between the two. Otherwise, he wore his mask well.

Although photographers flashed their cameras and journalists took notes, they seemed vaguely bored with Leliana’s speech. When she prompted the press for questions the crowd seemed to surge to life, and everyone clamored for her attention. She fielded questions with an easy grace that left Ellana feeling stunned; several reporters were purposely inflammatory, but she remained calm and well-mannered while quashing all the insinuations directed at her: that the firm was understaffed, that they were giving special discounts to elven clients, that an apostate was in their employ, that the renowned author Varric Tethras worked for them as a consultant, and even that they hired elven interns to the exclusion of all other races in an attempt to appear “progressive.” The obvious dig at her own unworthiness ordinarily would have bothered her, but she observed the goings-on as if from a great distance, feeling detached from the proceedings.

The truth of her situation had begun to settle inside her, leaving Ellana heavy and listless. She was only an object in this political game, and nothing more. She knew that any insult directed at her wasn’t personal; it was directed at all elves, and especially those who sought to rise above their station. She was a symbol to these people.

A pretty symbol they could ogle as they tore her apart.

She noticed Solas glance at her a few times as Leliana spoke, but she let her eyes slide over him as she maintained the neutral, guarded expression she’d been taught to adopt while playing the Game. Her legs were beginning to ache from standing in one position for so long, but she didn’t dare fidget and bring unwanted attention to herself.

“I have a question for your client, Solas Nanin!” A grim-faced reporter shouted over the chatter, but Leliana shook her head.

“No one but myself will be answering any questions at this time. If you like, you can direct your question to me and I will answer to the best of my ability.”

“I was wondering,” the reporter said, as the crowd around him began to hush, “how close your client was to the spirit in question? Can we assume their relationship was… intimate?” Several people in the crowd began to murmur to each other, and a few photographers ambled closer to Solas to take more photos of him. Ellana felt her anger, cold and impotent, settle in her belly. She looked at him out of the corner of her eye and saw he was standing unnaturally still.

“No,” Leliana said evenly, “you may not assume that. Solas Nanin’s relationship with Wisdom was strictly platonic. He has always been responsible and forthright; he would never engage in such activities with a spirit in the fade. Such antics would attract the attention of demons, and our client has always been vigilant against them.”

Solas stiffened slightly, but otherwise gave no reaction. Several reporters, including the man who’d asked the controversial question, began scribbling notes.

A human woman in the middle of the crowd raised her pen in the air, and Leliana pointed to her. The woman’s voice was deep and resonant. “And the intern, Ellana Lavellan? Where did she receive her education?”

Ellana tried to remain impassive as she slowly fell into a panic. Of course, they would want to know where she’d gone to school. It was such a simple, innocuous question, but if answered honestly it would only lead to further confusion. She’d attended a liberal arts college that never would have prepared her for an internship at a law firm, and the press would realize that. How quickly would this charade unravel now that they were focusing on things she couldn’t fake?

Leliana lied smoothly, “She attended the University of Ostwick.” She paused and smiled, “But please, do not hold that against her.”

A few journalists laughed, and Ellana inhaled slowly, trying to steady herself. She had indeed spent her entire childhood in the Free Marches, mostly near Ostwick and Markham. That Leliana chose to joke at the expense of that region felt like a subtle jab at her homeland. Surely the woman must have known where she came from; it was her job to know everyone’s sordid history so she could be prepared to manipulate the press if something unsavory surfaced.

She harbored no great love for the city of Ostwick, but it stung to stand in front of a gathering of Orlesians while they leered and laughed at her roots. She struggled to look like she was in on the joke as several photographers snapped photos of her, leaving her dizzy in the aftermath of the white camera flashes. Before her vision cleared another journalist began shouting over the crowd.

“And her birthplace?”

“She was born in the Ostwick alienage,” Leliana said, and Ellana felt a chill, cold as ice water, run down her spine. That was a disgraceful lie. She was born free in a Dalish camp north of Markham, surrounded by her clan. She was born under a black, moonless sky in the summertime. She was born miles away from any human settlement, safe under the care of her people.

She was not born into servitude and squalor.

And yet here she was, being paraded in front of humans who laughed at her heritage and pitied her for her upbringing.

With sudden, unnerving clarity she realized these people and their readers didn’t simply see her as a symbol or as a thing to ridicule; they saw her as a source of entertainment, the same way they might view a new TV show. Leliana had known this from the beginning and neglected to tell her. Worse, Leliana was complicit in their objectification of her. She was packaging Ellana into a more consumable, appealing version of herself to please these Orlesians, because she knew their tastes. Ellana was being paid to let them slice her into bite sized pieces and sample her. It made her feel ill.

She glanced at Solas and saw he was staring ahead at Leliana, his jaw clenched and eyes blazing. Ellana tried to swallow her shame and smile at the press as another journalist raised his hand and asked, “From what I’ve seen, Revas prefers to bestow grants to the Dalish, not city elves. Is there something… special about Miss Lavellan that earned her extra consideration?”

A few journalists behind him tittered like he’d just told a crude joke, and Ellana realized he was making a veiled accusation.

He thought she’d slept with someone important to get an internship with Pentaghast & Montilyet.

She discreetly held her hands behind her back and squeezed her wrist in an attempt to steady herself. She could feel her mask slipping, and if she broke down at this press conference it would be worse than everything that had come before it.

“Ellana Lavellan is a well-educated, hardworking young woman and Pentaghast & Montilyet is lucky to have her as an intern. If you wanted to know Revas’ reasoning for sponsoring her, I’m afraid I can only speculate.” The crowd seemed to deflate for a moment, but she smiled mischievously and went on: “But she is very pretty, no?” She gestured at Ellana dismissively, the way someone might gesture at a painting.

She had never felt so bare in her life, as everyone turned their eyes on her.

Several journalists laughed and wrote hastily in their notes. As a sob welled in her throat, Ellana numbly watched Solas curl his hand into a fist at his side. She wondered if anyone noticed his discomfort; the press was focused on Leliana and herself at the moment. She blinked a few times and inhaled slowly, managing to keep her tears from overflowing. She kept squeezing her wrist behind her back.

Leliana answered a couple more questions before ending the press conference, to Ellana’s relief. Photographers weren’t as overzealous as they’d been after the preliminary hearing, but they did trail behind their group as they exited the building, taking a few final photos.

Ellana climbed into the backseat of the car with a vacant expression, feeling dazed after realizing just how much she was sacrificing for her job. She had known her pride would be tested during these events, but she’d never anticipated just how small she would feel. She couldn’t even bring herself to be angry with Leliana or her bosses; this was the natural order of things in Val Royeaux. She’d been naïve to enter into this arrangement expecting to be treated with any semblance of respect.

She’d been naïve to think they would treat her like a person.

For a brief moment, as Leliana fiddled with her seatbelt and Cassandra frowned down at her phone, Ellana thought she might cry.

As soon as the car door shut, Solas began speaking. His voice was darkly sarcastic, “Such pageantry! And to think, people always assume lawyers are the underhanded liars. I’m glad you could set the record straight, Leliana.”

Leliana turned to him with a cold glare. “Is there something wrong, Solas? If you have a specific complaint, I’d like to hear it.”

“Oh, no.” He sounded absolutely venomous, but Ellana didn’t turn to look at him. Instead she stared ahead at the windshield, settling into a despairing complacency. “I should congratulate you on a job well done; after all, lesser minds might have hesitated to humiliate their coworkers in front of a crowd. It’s refreshing to see someone with no such compunctions.”

Cassandra turned toward them in the passenger seat, frowning. “I know it is… less than honorable. I’ll never grow accustomed to how much we must lie in this city. But—“

“Did you know I grew up in the Free Marches? Near Ostwick?” Ellana said blankly, still ruminating on what Leliana had said at the press conference.

“Yes. I thought it best to leave a kernel of truth in the lie.”

“Then why say I was born in an alienage? Wouldn’t it be simpler to tell them I’m Dalish?” Her voice sounded hollow and small even to her own ears, like that of a confused child.

Leliana raised her eyebrows and glanced toward Solas. “Telling them you were born Dalish would simply raise more questions. They would want to know why you have no vallaslin, why you are living in the city away from your clan. Is that a story you would like to tell people?”

So Leliana knew why she’d been unable to take her vallaslin. She couldn’t find it in her to be surprised. “So you know everything about me. You’ve done all your research on all of us.”

“Of course. It’s part of my job.”

Ellana said nothing, only turned to stare out the window.

“I lied as much to protect you as to simplify my job, Ellana,” Leliana said gently. “I doubt you would want your personal history on display for everyone to see; most people don’t.”

“Perhaps instead of playing puppeteer,” Solas said, “you could have consulted her first. You clearly gave her no warning—“

“Of course, next time I speak to the press I’ll take a moment to confer with all of you before answering a single question. That would certainly be an efficient use of our time.”

A stiff silence followed, but Ellana didn’t turn to observe the deadly look Cassandra gave Leliana. Instead she fished her phone out of her purse and texted Cullen. Her hands only shook slightly.

Ellana 11:08 am

can you come over soon?? press conference was weird

not fun… i need to see you

“For what it’s worth, Ellana, I never intended to offend you. I was only trying to protect your privacy, as well as the firm’s.”

Ellana nodded, feeling drained. “I understand, it’s alright,” she said quietly. Her phone vibrated in her hand, and she saw Solas squint at it momentarily before averting his gaze.

Cullen 11:09 am

Of course! Are you alright?

Omw

She smiled wearily and tucked her phone away. “Josie, is it alright if you drop me off first? I really just wanna get home.”

“Of course, Ellana. Are you sure you don’t want to go to brunch with us? I’m famished.”

“Thanks, but no. I’m too tired.”

****

As soon as she got home she scrubbed the makeup from her face and watched the water in her sink turn beige with a dark satisfaction, before it disappeared down the drain. She peeled off her dress and slipped into an oversized t-shirt that left her long legs bare. Cullen knocked on her door just as she was pulling her hair into a ponytail. Almost as soon as she invited him inside, they fell into bed together. He was gentle when slipped inside her, and gentler still when he came. When she was breathless and sated he rolled onto his back, holding her to his chest and murmuring soothing words. She pressed her face into the crook of his neck and wished she could hide there forever. It was a relief, being held.

She hadn’t known how starved for affection she’d been, but when his touches made her feel drunk and lazy she realized she’d been aching for companionship for quite some time.

He said nothing about her green dress lying on the floor of her bedroom. They spent the day half-clothed together, only emerging from her room to get food and go to the bathroom. That afternoon she told him about how small she’d felt standing in front of flashing cameras and leering journalists, and he stroked her hair and comforted her. They spent a lot of time kissing. Late that night she knelt in front of him and took his cock in her mouth. She sucked him eagerly, sloppily, starved for something she couldn’t name. He pulled her hair and voiced his worry that she would strain herself, but she only took him deeper. She pressed her nose to his groin and gazed up at him with shining eyes, and he unraveled at the sight.

She slept peacefully that night.

****

Solas texted her the day after the press conference, asking if she still wanted to “hang out” sometime, and she took him up on the offer immediately.

She had seen his apartment building before when Josephine drove them to the hearing and then to the press conference, but she’d never been inside. The lobby was painted the color of sand, and the floors were a rich mahogany that looked historic. The elevator took her to the top floor, and when she entered the hall she saw there was only one apartment for the entire story: his. She knocked on his door, and after a brief pause he answered.

He was barefoot in a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. He smiled when he opened the door to her, and she laughed nervously. “You didn’t tell me you lived in a freaking penthouse,” she said, and nudged him playfully as she slipped inside.

He snorted lightly as he closed the door behind her. “Apologies, I didn’t know it mattered.”

She glanced around his sprawling apartment, taking in the view of the luxurious furniture and what she realized dimly was a rooftop balcony. “You really are a bigshot, aren’t you? I had no idea.”

“I told you I was an architect,” he said evenly, seeming unbothered by her surprise.

“Yeah, but…” she gestured vaguely at her surroundings, but she thought better of continuing. She was getting perilously close to talking about money. Better to switch topics. She shrugged and tilted her head. “So, do you have a fancy architect’s studio where you draw all your fancy blueprints?”

She could see him resisting the urge to roll his eyes. He shoved his hands in his pockets and nodded toward the kitchen; she could see the gleam of stainless steel even from the entryway. She followed him into the kitchen, which was clean and orderly except for the table in the middle of the room. It was covered in sketches and blueprints and calculations; a protractor and ruler sat atop a stack of unmarked paper. A gray calculator lay askew in the center of the mess. It was the sort of chaos that looked logical; even as scattered as everything was, she sensed he had a system for organizing everything. Solas quickly started to gather up his papers. “I’m sorry about this, somehow I always find myself in such disarray.”

The most surprising, beautiful thing about his workspace was the wall opposite the table. The wall had been converted into a chalkboard, and a stick of white chalk and an eraser lay in a tin on the counter closest to it. There was something delightfully, paradoxically beautiful about the sketches on the wall: tall, sweeping buildings stood side by side to form a skyline unlike any she’d seen before. Every structure consisted of straight lines and harsh angles, modern without being spare, grand without being imposing, artistic without being gaudy. The chalk blurred in places where he’d clearly rubbed up against the wall by accident, and she faintly remembered the night they’d danced together in the pub when she’d noticed that he smelled of chalk dust. Even with stacks of paper and instruments to make the work easier and sturdier, he chose to sketch buildings on this chalkboard where it could so easily be erased.

When she looked at Solas again he was holding a stack of sketches in his hands, watching her curiously. She realized she’d been staring at his wall. “That’s… that’s beautiful,” she said, pointing at the chalkboard.

Not her most eloquent moment.

He glanced away and shuffled the papers in his hands for a moment. “Thank you. They’re not… well, they are only vague ideas I have. I use the wall to brainstorm, mostly.”

She took a step closer to the chalk drawings and looked at them with a keen interest. It was clear he had an eye for composition from the way he’d arranged the buildings beside each other. He contrasted the brilliant with the subtle, but every building had its place as if it had always belonged there. The skyline told a story.

Solas stood next to her, straight-backed and stiff. She turned to face him with a grin, unable to hide her enthusiasm. And why should she? “It’s like I said. You’re an artist.”

He shook his head with a self-deprecating laugh. “These are all half-baked ideas. At least take a look at something I’ve actually finished,” he said, and handed her his sketches.

She took them eagerly, and leaned against the counter as she pored over them. His designs were simple and elegant with a hint of something sentimental; he seemed to leave a flourish on every project as if he was signing a painting. He often added subtle ornamentation reminiscent of art deco and, for his grander projects, art nouveau. But these ornamentations weren’t ostentatious or self-indulgent, they served instead as a reminder of his restraint and vision. The intricacy of a few select elements contrasted with the simplicity of stark lines. Looking at his designs was like tasting something both salty and sweet.

When she looked up at him again his eyes were guarded, and with a pang she realized he was nervous about how she would react to his work. She ran her thumb lovingly along the edge of one sketch and said, “They’re beautiful, Solas. You’re… ridiculously talented. And you're..." she felt like she might be crossing a line, saying something only a lover would say, but she remembered how much it had mattered to her that he’d truly seen her paintings and understood them on some level. She wanted to try to give him that back to him, if she could. “You’re so humble. The way you design everything, it’s like… you’re hiding beautiful things in plain sight. Almost like you hope no one will notice it, because it seems ordinary.” She looked down at the sketches in her hands briefly, to gather her courage. “It’s sort of the way you hide yourself. So polite all the time, until something draws you out.”

The look in his eyes was briefly surprised, and then tender. He opened his mouth as if he meant to say something, but he only stared at her, like he was committing her face to memory.

She was suddenly very aware of how close they were standing.

Ellana glanced down, shrinking under the weight of the moment. He touched her shoulder lightly and for a second she was both afraid and excited at the idea that he might kiss her. But he pulled his hand away immediately, and took a step back.

She wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved.

“Well, now that you’ve thoroughly embarrassed me…” he said dryly, and she interrupted him with a laugh. “Are you hungry? I can make us lunch.”

The offer startled her into meeting his gaze, and although she noticed his cheeks were slightly flushed, he seemed to have regained his composure. “Oh, uh, sure. Thanks.”

He smiled and made his way to the tall refrigerator behind her. She turned around, still holding his sketches, and watched him rummage through the brightly lit, immaculate fridge. “Can I help?” she asked automatically, setting the sketches on the table.

“Of course,” he said as he arranged his ingredients on the counter. “Just wash your hands.”

She rolled her eyes and let out an exaggerated huff of annoyance as she went to the sink. They settled into companionable silence for a while, as he set her to chopping vegetables while he prepared the meat for the stew. The routine of preparing a meal made her feel at ease, and she let her mind wander as her hands did most of her work without much thought. Solas was fiddling with some spices when he spoke up again. “You never mentioned how your date went. I hope all is well?”

She tried to hide her surprise that he’d brought it up as she continued to chop vegetables. “Oh, uh…” she thought of how she’d given Cullen a blowjob the night before and colored a little, “yeah, it went good. Things are going good.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

She tried to detect any hint of jealousy or wariness in his voice, but he sounded genuine. A sure sign he was moving on from the brief attraction they’d shared. She should work harder to quell her lingering feelings for him.

They worked alongside each other for a time; she helped him stir the stew as he cleared his papers off the table. He was setting spoons and bowls down when she spoke again. “I’m surprised you don’t have a whole room dedicated to your work. Doesn’t it get annoying doing everything in the kitchen?”

He shrugged as he set the table. “I’ve tried to work in the study, but I find myself always drawn here instead. I get a bit restless, I suppose.”

She laughed lightly as she stirred. “The study?” She shook her head. “Nevermind, of course you have a ‘study.’ Do you call your balcony a ‘veranda’ too?”

He came to stand next to her as he watched her work, and leaned his hip against the counter, seemingly content to let the stew cook a little longer. “Of course not,” he said dryly, “a veranda is roofed, and always level with the ground floor. The word you’re looking for is ‘terrace.’” She paused her movements to give him a droll look, and he smiled mischievously. “I am an architect.”

She smirked and shook her head, “Ok, you win this round. I guess I’ll have to find something else to laugh at.”

He was leaning closer now, but she hadn’t noticed him move. “Such as?”

She cast about for something innocuous before saying, “Your place is too clean.”

He laughed. “Too clean? That’s your complaint?”

She shrugged. “I don’t do well under pressure. I’ll come up with something more embarrassing if you give me a minute.”

“I’d rather not,” he said, but there was a teasing lilt to his voice as he turned off the stove and took the pot from her. She followed him to the table, where he spooned the stew into two separate bowls. She noticed that while she’d been preoccupied at the stove he’d set out bread, butter, two wineglasses, and a bottle of wine. After he served their food and set the pot in the sink, they sat down to eat.

They discussed the annoyances and humiliations of the press conference while they ate, and although Solas remained composed his eyes grew hard when he spoke of Leliana’s choice to lie about Ellana’s personal history and comment on her looks. After a while they became distracted with the topic of Josephine’s attention to detail, and her insistence that she plan everyone’s wardrobe for all public events. Ellana confessed she was secretly relieved that she didn’t have to choose her own outfits, even though it was embarrassing to be dressed up like a doll. Solas asked about her painting, which eventually brought them back around to the topic of his work.

“You never showed me your study!” she said, lowering her second glass of wine from her lips at the revelation. “Come on, show me,” she said, and scrambled out of her seat. She rushed into the entryway, glass still in hand, and Solas followed her with a chuckle.

She paused uncertainly when he didn’t point the way, and he said, “You don’t know where the study is, remember?”

She hid her embarrassment by taking a sip of wine, and followed him through the living room and into a small office. A neatly arranged desk sat beneath his framed diplomas, and a set of chairs were clustered beside a large bookcase, which was stuffed to overflowing. Although the room was cozy, there were no windows due to its insular location in the apartment, and the lighting was a soft, buttery yellow that made her want to curl up and take a nap, not set to work. “I think I see what the problem is,” she said as she hovered in front of his desk.

“Oh?”

“You have no windows. I could never paint in a room with no windows.”

He raised his eyebrows and put his hands in his pockets. “Hm. I had not considered that, but you might be right.”

“I have to say I’m… surprised you live the way you do. I mean, even for a successful architect, this place is…” she should not have had the wine, she realized. There was a reason she usually stuck to ale.

He shrugged and stepped closer to her. “You are right. This apartment is… an inheritance, of sorts.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Oh. Your family used to live here?”

He smiled ruefully and shook his head. “Not precisely. I was born to a certain amount of wealth and privilege, and… when my mother died I was able to do what I pleased with it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said automatically, but as soon as the words left her mouth she realized she meant them.

“Don’t be. She lived a long life.” He glanced around the room and out the doorway, as if he was surveying the space with new eyes. “She wouldn’t approve of what I did with her money. It’s probably a mercy that she will never know about that.”

She frowned. “You seriously think she’d disapprove of you buying a home?”

His lips quirked. “She would disapprove of my decision not to let my inheritance define me. My mother was a brilliant woman but… a bit of a snob.” She must have looked surprised at his candor, because he laughed and said, “There’s no harm in admitting it.”

“Most people can’t be so honest about their parents, even after they’ve died.”

He nodded. “Perhaps it’s because I came to the conclusion so long ago. For her, excess was a way of life.”

“But not for you?”

His smile was small and subtle. “Not anymore.” He took another step closer, and she found herself leaning toward him as he approached. “That kind of life comes with certain vices.”

“You mean like… drugs?”

His laugh was low and quiet, but he looked at her fondly. “More like arrogance. Arrogance and self-indulgence.”

“So… growing up, how privileged were you exactly?”

He surprised her by breaking her gaze and flushing.

She laughed and shoved him playfully. “Privileged enough to be embarrassed about it! Wow, that’s pretty impressive.”

His flush deepened, and he cleared his throat. “You do realize you’re being rude, don’t you?”

She bit her lip as she smiled and looked down at her feet. “Sorry, I just never get to see you all flustered. It’s more fun than I would have thought.”

He looked like he was struggling to keep from smiling. “You should not have had that second glass of wine, I think.”

She gasped and held her glass away from him, though he made no move to take it from her. She took a few steps back, holding her wine protectively, and stumbled over her own feet. He reached out quickly and grabbed her elbows to steady her, and she giggled as a tingling warmth settled in her belly. “Sorry, sorry,” she muttered as she straightened, but he didn’t let her go. When she looked up he was staring at her with barely concealed heat, still gripping her arms. She shuddered under the intensity of his gaze, and that seemed to pull him from his reverie.

He let her go and sidestepped her, “Come, I’ll get you some water.”

She took a moment to gather her fraying wits, trying to quash her lust and embarrassment all at once. When she entered the living room he was setting a glass of water down on his coffee table. He looked up as she approached and smiled mildly, wearing a mask of polite indifference.

She sat beside him and took a sip of water. She fumbled for something to say, feeling suddenly guilty about teasing him over his wealth. “You know, for what it’s worth,” she said, setting her glass down, “you never struck me as… super privileged or entitled. I never would have guessed you grew up the way you did.”

His tension seemed to seep out of him as he slowly leaned back and spread his arms, unfurling like he’d been holding himself too tightly. He looked at her thoughtfully. “You have no idea what a relief it is to hear you say that,” he said quietly. The sincerity in his voice startled her, and she turned to face him fully, curling up on his couch the way she would on her own.

“Why? Did you really hate that life so much?”

“No, no,” he said absently, but he was frowning. “I hated what it could turn me into. I hated the way people…” he looked at her sharply like he was deciding whether or not to continue. Something in her expression must have encouraged him, because he said, “The way people debased themselves, because they thought it was what I wanted.”

She sensed he was avoiding specifics deliberately. “People sucked up to you,” she said testingly, and he shrugged.

“You might put it that way. It was difficult to tell, growing up, who was my friend and who was my… servant.”

Realization struck her like a fist to the gut. Suddenly, everything about Solas made sense. His hesitance to continue any relationship with her given their difference in positions seemed downright logical when she thought of how often he must have wondered whether someone gave him what he wanted because they were his friend or because his mother had paid them to do so. His quiet confidence coupled with a strange lack of social awareness also fit; he’d grown up with people treating him like a little lordling, but none of his friendships had been wholly sincere, if his suspicions were correct. As a child he’d probably only interacted with people who wanted to please him, so he’d never had to learn how to gauge someone’s mood before speaking his mind.

She even saw his apostasy in a new light: she had wondered how he’d avoided the Circle his whole life, but if he’d been part of a wealthy, well-liked family it would have been relatively simple to escape detection. His mother would have probably kept him isolated and bribed anyone who asked too many questions. She would have likely hired an apostate to tutor him to safely control his magic, which was a luxury only rich people could afford.

It all made sense.

She realized he was looking at her uncertainly, and she knew she must have been staring at him for longer than was normal. “I’m sorry, I just… I feel like I understand you so much better now.”

He gave her a confused smile and shook his head. “I don’t know why. It was a long time ago.” He reached for her wineglass and took a sip, steadily avoiding her gaze.

Such a casual gesture, so simple in its intimacy.

It made her want to kiss him.

Chapter Text

During the next week, Cullen and Ellana spent most of their free time together. Although she was usually the one to initiate sex, he always reacted with such reverence and enthusiasm it was beginning to allay most of the teenage fears that still clung to her. She was starting to realize she was actually, genuinely desirable.

Even with her reservations about her involvement in Solas’ case, she fell into an easy rhythm at the firm. She saw to her duties as receptionist with the same vigor she’d always shown, learned what she could of the Game during her sessions with Leliana, and regularly sneaked into Cullen’s office for a quick kiss while Cassandra and Josephine were distracted.

She hadn’t expected a routine visit to Cullen’s office to escalate the way it did. Josephine and Cassandra were both out of the office for the day, attending to some complicated blackmail of a noble whom Ellana hoped never to meet. This left Sera to her own devices; knowing Cullen would never report her to their bosses, she flashed Ellana a crude gesture and slipped out just before lunch.

Ellana didn’t plan to leave. She still had a lot of mindless work left to do, but with only herself and Cullen remaining in the office she knew she could sneak more than just one or two kisses. A half hour after Sera disappeared, she knocked on his door. He called for her to come in, and she shut the door behind her with a grin. He looked bemused but pleased to see her. “What are you smiling about?” he said.

She padded over to his desk and leaned against it. He pushed his chair back a little, as if to get a better view of her. “Guess who just left.”

He frowned in confusion, then realization. “Ugh, Maker’s breath,” he pressed a hand to the back of his neck, “I’m terrible at being in charge, aren’t I?”

She laughed and stepped closer, placing herself between Cullen and his desk. He tilted his head back to look up at her, going very still. She smirked and climbed onto his lap, hiking up her skirt so she could straddle him. He inhaled sharply and held her by the hips. “I think you’re excellent at being in charge,” she whispered, and kissed him. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer, slipping his tongue past her lips teasingly. She moaned and rocked against him, and felt his length stiffen against the silky skin of her thigh.

She hadn’t come into his office with a plan, but she was rapidly forming one.

She rolled her hips sinuously, and he groaned into her mouth. He trailed one hand up her back and grabbed a fistful of hair. He tugged lightly and she gasped, warmth flooding her lower belly. His rough stubble was making her red around the mouth, and her chin already ached from the contact. She leaned to the side and kissed and bit his neck; his grip in her hair grew painful, and she moaned. “I like it when you’re in charge of me,” she said, unbuckling his belt and pulling open his zipper. “You know, with the others gone, you’re technically my boss for the day.” She stroked him through his underwear, and he hissed.

He pulled her away from his neck and nipped the edge of her ear. She whined and fisted a hand in his shirt, feeling herself grow slick with want. “You like that?” he murmured huskily, and she nodded. He bit and sucked the point of her ear and she writhed on top of him, slipping her hand down the front of his underwear and wrapping her hand around his cock. The heat of his arousal burned her, and her movements grew suddenly desperate as she stroked him clumsily. “Don’t go too fast, I don’t know if I can control myself,” he laughed into her hair.

She placed openmouthed kisses on his jaw as she worked him over, and he gripped her by the ass as she clenched her thighs awkwardly around his legs, trying to find some relief. He must have noticed her discomfort, because a moment later he slipped a hand up her skirt and tugged her underwear to the side roughly. When he pushed his fingers to her clit, the wet, slippery sound seemed to shock him even more than the feel of her. “Maker, you’re soaked,” he sighed. The awe in his voice made heat rush between her legs. She leaned back carefully and pulled her blouse over her head and tossed it on the floor. He buried his face between her breasts and yanked her bra straps down her shoulders, and pulled her bra until it fell to her waist, nipping and sucking at the sensitive skin of her breasts. She took his cock in her hand and tugged harshly, and he slipped two thick fingers inside her in retaliation. She gasped and squirmed briefly, before settling around him and sighing with satisfaction at being filled. “You’re amazing, Ellana. I can hardly keep up with you.”

“Tell me what to do,” she said breathily, running her thumb along the head of his cock. He clenched his jaw and groaned as she spread his precum over the reddened tip. His fingers twisted inside her and she bucked instinctively. “Do you want me on my knees under your desk, hmm? Do you want me on top of you in this chair? Or do you want to bend me over—“

“Oh, Maker.” He used his free hand to pull her to him in a brutal kiss, and she opened for him immediately, still stroking and gently squeezing him.

“Which way do you want me?” she said shakily.

He slowly withdrew his fingers from her, and she shivered, burying her face in his shoulder. He pushed her hand away from his member and gripped her hips. “On your knees.”

She smiled and slowly pulled herself off his lap, sinking to her knees between his spread legs. He looked at her with razor sharp focus as she took his cock in her hand and licked the tip lazily. He sighed and gently twined his fingers in her hair, his thumb brushing the tip of her ear. That felt surprisingly nice. She took him slowly and steadily in her soft, wet mouth, pressing her thighs together in an effort to relieve the ache between her legs. She took his free hand and guided it to her tangled hair, pressing it firmly against her head and giving him an expectant look. He took the hint and began to guide her movements with his hands. She followed diligently, but pulled her skirt up clumsily with one hand and pressed her fingers to her clit. He bit his lip harshly when he saw she was touching herself with his cock in her mouth, and for a perilous moment he thought he might come just at the sight of her.

She hollowed her cheeks around him and leaned into her hand as he pulled her farther up his length. The feel of his cock pressing against the back of her throat made her eyes water, but the discomfort only drove her into a deeper lust, and she whimpered wantonly around him as she pressed her fingers against her clit in a rhythmic motion, rocking forward and swallowing around him. Saliva started to gather along her mouth as she sucked him eagerly, dribbling down her chin. Her eyes went glassy while she continued to writhe on his cock, giving her a half-starved, wild look. She stroked herself with such single-minded ease that the movements of her mouth and throat became automatic: she took what he gave her without hesitation, focused on the steady approach of her own orgasm. He grunted and watched her eyes roll into the back of her head as she came, and he tried in vain to hold her head steady as she shook with her release. As she fell into a senseless stupor he gripped her jaw roughly to prevent Ellana from clamping down. He dragged her off his length as she gagged and twisted, and when her mouth was finally free she whined hoarsely, his precum and her saliva wetting her lips and chin.

It took a moment for her to come to her senses. He swiped his thumb along her slick bottom lip, and she rested her cheek against his thigh in a daze, her skin buzzing. She began to come down from the high of orgasm as his fingers gently stroked her hair. She sat up and gave him an apologetic look, her eyes wide and unfocused. “Sorry, I got, um… distracted.” She licked her lips and reached for his member, but he stopped her.

“No,” he said, and she looked up at him nervously. Had she ruined it? “I want you to bend over the desk,” he said quietly, his eyes lingering on her messy mouth. She smiled and stood.

He set his laptop on his chair and pushed his papers and pens to the side. She leaned against the desk and slowly pulled her skirt up to her waist, baring her legs and her sodden underwear. She pushed her ass out a little to tempt him, and he smacked it firmly across one cheek. She jumped and giggled. He pressed his hand between her shoulder blades until she bent at the waist, and flattened her against his desk. She turned her face to the side and bit her lip as she felt him pull off her underwear, her arousal quickly sparking up again like errant embers from a dying fire. She spread her legs and arched her back for him. “You know, I’m starting to wish you really were my boss.”

He laughed as he swirled his fingers around her clit, and her moans almost drowned out what he said: “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

She pushed back against his hand, curling her fingers around the edge of his desk. Her voice sounded ragged. “Please fuck me. I’m ready,” she whispered, and he drew in a harsh breath.

“I thought I was the one in charge,” he said, but by the tone of his voice she could tell he was smiling. She felt the tip of his cock nudge her clit and tried to rock back against him, but he held her still.

She frowned and squirmed, knowing it turned him on. “Do you want me to beg? I will.”

She was met with silence as he brushed her hair to the side and kissed the nape of her neck tenderly. The sensation of his lips on her skin made her twitch.

“Please fuck me. Use me. Take me on top of your desk—“

He aligned himself with her cunt and pushed inside her slowly and expertly, and she cried out, swaying back against him. His hot breath fanned across her bare shoulders and neck as he bottomed out suddenly, and they both moaned at the feeling of completion inherent in the act: he had filled her to capacity. They both paused and panted for a moment, adjusting to being wholly joined. It felt overwhelmingly erotic to be bent over in front of him, her remaining clothes crumpled and gathered at her waist, knowing she was taking as much of his length as her body would allow. She gripped the edge of the desk with both hands and tilted her hips, trying to fuck herself on his cock, but in this position she didn’t have the leverage to move much without his help.

He took the hint and steadied her hips, pulling out slowly, and the aching, insistent friction made her groan. She didn’t bother to try to be quiet; no one was in the office, they were completely alone. His grip on her hips was firm but gentle as he thrust inside her with a gasp. “Maker, you’re so beautiful like this, Ellana,” he whispered.

The depth and power of his thrusts was driving her wild, but he was going so slowly she thought he might be teasing her on purpose. She pushed back against him and he rewarded her with a slow, steady touch to her clit. She wriggled underneath him and pressed her forehead to the smooth surface of his desk in frustration. “Please, Cullen, go faster. Be rougher, please, I want it.”

For a moment he was silent as he continued at a leisurely pace, twisting her hair around his fist and tugging sharply. Her breath caught, and he pulled even harder. “Are you sure? We’re at work. If I were to hurt you…”

“You won’t hurt me,” she whispered, clenching around him enticingly.

He groaned and stilled inside her, pulling her hair so that she was forced to turn her head to the side. He leaned down and kissed the corner of her mouth, his other hand toying with her clit. She made a breathy, wordless sound that might have been a plea for more, and she felt him shudder against her. “Tell me if you need to slow down,” he said quietly, and pulled back only to drive into her violently, making the desk shake and rattle beneath her as she clawed at its smooth surface. She gasped and squealed as he plunged inside her rapidly, overwhelmed with pleasure as well as pain. The ferocity of his movements forced her into a frenzy, sending her thrashing and hissing in an instinctual reaction to the onslaught of sensations. He seemed to understand what she needed from him, because when she tried to raise her head he tightened his hold on her hair and held her face down against the desk. The pressure of his hand in her hair and the weight of his body pushing her into the sharp edges of the desk tamed her, and she was finally able to relax underneath him. She reveled in how powerless she felt.

She twitched and whined as he fucked her, but she was no longer wild as she’d been before he pinned her down. As his fingers teased her clit, the ecstasy and pain blended together the way colors sometimes do: to create something with more nuance and depth than what came before. It was one particularly savage thrust that unraveled everything; he slammed into her so hard she actually saw white, and her body tensed in reaction to the pain, and then it tensed again for an entirely different reason, and she came hard. She would have cried out but she was left momentarily mute in the swirling chaos of her orgasm, her entire body stiff and shaking as she tightened around Cullen. He stilled suddenly and grunted, coming inside her swiftly, leaning his weight against her battered body, and it felt good.

They stayed like that for several minutes, both panting and shivering as they slowly recovered from the intensity of the moment. As her climax faded and died, she began to truly feel the raw ache inside her without pleasure twisting her senses. He slowly pulled out of her, and she hissed. She wondered hazily whether she should take something for the pain just as he bent down and kissed her shoulders and neck, running his hands slowly down the length of her arms and massaging her tired muscles. She sighed and arched into his touch like a satisfied cat, and he laughed quietly. He rubbed her shoulders and back as she twitched drowsily against his desk.

“Are you alright?” He sounded worried, and it made her smile. The sharp pain from before had dulled to a low throb.

“Of course. Just a little sore.”

He straightened and sighed, and she heard him open a drawer to her right but didn’t have the will to turn her head and look. After a moment he presented her with a small, plastic bottle. She read the label and saw it was a generic brand of elfroot potion. She smirked and downed all of it, still lying across his desk with her bare ass exposed and not caring. She heard the clink of his belt buckle as he righted himself, and remembered he’d been fully clothed the entire time. This was rapidly becoming a habit of theirs.

His hand was gentle on her back. “I’m sorry if I was too rough. When you were squirming so much I started to get worried, but you kept saying ‘more’ and I…”

She laughed. “I said that?”

He sounded confused. “Yes. You don’t remember?”

She looked over her shoulder at him, still holding the empty bottle. “I guess I was focused on other things.”

He blushed, which made her laugh. She set the bottle down and pushed off the desk, standing on shaky legs. He started to pull her skirt down, but she stopped him and sat on the edge of the desk, her bra still hanging loosely around her waist. In the quiet, domestic moment she tugged him by the shoulders until he leaned down to let her steal a kiss. He pressed his tongue and teeth to the hollow of her throat, and leaned down to take her breast into his mouth. She sighed and held onto him tightly as he trailed rough, thick fingers up her thigh. His touch slowly receded and she made a wordless, questioning sound, clamping her thighs around his hand in an effort to trap it. He laughed and pulled his hand away easily, standing up straight and giving her a chaste kiss on the lips. When he pulled away there was such fondness in his eyes she felt momentarily guilty, but they were both distracted by the electric ping! that signaled the elevator doors had just opened.

They froze.

And then they both erupted into action. Ellana leapt off the desk and pulled her skirt down to cover herself, and Cullen hastily pulled up her bra and righted the straps. She dove for her blouse and paused only to be sure it wasn’t inside out before pulling it on. She searched in vain for her underwear, which were nowhere to be found, as Cullen threw the potion bottle in the trash and hastily righted his desk. Slow, measured footsteps sounded through the office lobby, and Ellana fell into a blind panic as she set Cullen’s laptop in its usual spot. She could feel the evidence of their coupling beginning to trickle out of her, and she still hadn’t found her underwear. She ran her hands through her hair in an attempt to straighten her wild, tangled curls and stepped toward the door. Cullen clutched her by the elbow and turned her to face him. He wiped at her lips and chin quickly, and she blanched when she realized she’d almost opened the door with traces of his seed still on her face.

He must have seen how much this disturbed her, because he rubbed her arms in gentle, sweeping motions and said, “It’s alright. You’re fine now.” He gave her a reassuring smile even as he tried to smooth the wrinkles out of her skirt.

“Who—“

“Hello?” Solas’ voice was muffled, but she could tell it was him. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved that it wasn’t her bosses, or humiliated that Solas would inevitably put the pieces together when he saw the state of her clothes and hair.

She’d never told him who she’d begun to date, only keeping him updated in the most nebulous of terms.

Well, he was about to find out now.

She opened the door quickly, knowing the longer she hid, the guiltier they would look. She stepped out of Cullen’s office on trembling legs, feeling his cum dribble lazily down her inner thigh. She kept her knees together and prayed to the Creators Solas wouldn’t notice her dishevelment.

Solas looked pleased to see her, and then confused, and then coldly calculating. He directed a look of icy rage over her shoulder, and she turned to see Cullen had followed her out of his office and was standing there with an open, curious expression.

Wrong move. Her meager experience in the Game told her he should have stayed in his office if they wanted to escape detection, but here he was, standing beside her like he belonged there, like they were a couple. And she knew she was looking decidedly worse for wear, no matter what Cullen said.

Nervously, she smoothed her hair and smiled. “Hi,” she said, “what’s up?”

He raised a brow as his eyes raked over her, and for the first time she got a clear mental image of how she must look: hair voluminous but tousled, makeup smudged, skirt wrinkled, legs trembling, skin flushed.

After a brief pause he said, “I was just stopping by. Do you think you could schedule an appointment with Josephine for me?”

Relieved to be given something to do, she nodded rapidly. “Of course, of course, no problem.” She walked stiffly to her desk and Solas followed her. When she sat down in front of her computer she glanced towards Cullen’s office, hoping he wasn’t still hovering. He was not.

As she opened Josephine’s schedule Solas leaned across the desk and said quietly, “Should I call someone?”

She looked up at him in confusion. “What? Why would I…” She trailed off when she realized that her breath must smell like sex, and leaned away from him.

He looked impatiently at Cullen’s open office door. “You’ve clearly been taken advantage of. Should I call Cassandra or Josephine? Or… the city guard. I could—“

“You think he…” she lowered her voice abruptly to a whisper so Cullen wouldn’t hear. “You think he hurt me? Are you joking?”

The disbelief in her voice seemed to chip away at his worry; he relaxed slightly. “I think you’re in a very precarious position, regardless of the nature of your relationship.”

She narrowed her eyes. “What are you saying?”

He glanced again at Cullen’s door. “Can we have this discussion somewhere else?”

“No. No, we’re having it right here.”

He shifted his weight from foot to foot before settling his hands on her desk. “Where is Sera? And Josephine, Cassandra?”

“Josephine and Cassandra are out on business. Sera sort of… ditched.”

“Which leaves you alone with a man you’re expected to obey—“

“Obey? I’m not a dog, Solas.”

“He may not be your boss but you are not on equal footing. You’re expected to do as he says, yes?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’m the receptionist, so yeah, if you’re asking whether or not I’m supposed to make him copies—“

“Please tell me this was a momentary distraction. I sincerely hope you’re not dating—“

“Of course I’m dating him! I don’t have sex with random people in their offices!”

He looked simultaneously disappointed and furious. “Then he’s done you a great disservice. He may not see it, but eventually the difference in your positions will give him the power to hurt you. He’s already crossed a line. If I were you, I would—“

“I never asked for you to tell me how to live my life! I’m not a child, Solas, don’t speak to me like one.”

“You are a child if you think this relationship exists without context or consequences!”

She flushed and looked away abruptly. “I’m guessing you didn’t really want to make a stupid appointment.”

She saw his posture slacken from the corner of her eye. His voice was gentler now. “Please, think about this. What kind of man has sex with his subordinate in their workplace, during office hours, when he is supposed to be acting as your superior—“

“Not everything is a hierarchy! Why do you see the world in black and white like that?”

His cheeks had gone slightly pink, but his voice only grew more venomous. “It is his responsibility to treat you as a professional. He outranks you. If things grew ugly, he could pull rank and tell Cassandra whatever he liked—“

“He wouldn’t do that! Why do you always expect the worst of people!”

He let out a shuddering breath. “I don’t! That’s not the point, the point is—“

“He could. Yeah, people could do a lot of things. I could, for example, stand up and walk out of this room because I don’t want to hear any more of what you have to say.”

He sighed and took a step back, pinching the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. He heaved a long sigh, and she found herself shivering as she watched him. Shivering, not with anger, but mortification.

He was not supposed to see her like this.

He seemed to gather his thoughts and smoothed his palm over his chin as if he was wiping a slate clean, erasing all the words that had fallen out of his mouth. “Please understand, I am not trying to tell you what to do.” She cut her gaze away abruptly when he reached across the desk and gripped her hand gently. The brief show of affection should not have nearly undone her, but it did. She wondered vaguely if that was a calculated move. “I urge you to use caution, Ellana. Please, for your own sake, be careful. Thanks to your involvement in politics lately, you know how ruthless people can be. Most people in Val Royeaux are constantly searching for ways to exploit the vulnerable and disenfranchised.”

She cleared her throat and hid her trembling hands beneath her desk. She knew what he was leaving unspoken: Cullen was human. She was not. “People, yeah. But not him.”

He gave her such a pitying, patronizing look that she was left speechless at the realization that he actually looked down on her for dating Cullen. And then she got angry. Her rage slowly fed on itself as he regarded her with such focused superiority, such unchecked sympathy and concern, that she felt her heartbeat thudding in her ears. And then he said: “You are naïve to think so.”

She clenched her jaw and drew breath into her lungs, because for a moment that was all she could do. Breathe, and shudder at the indignity of the way he spoke to her. Who was he, really? What gave him the right to shame her? What gave him the right to worry about her like she was an errant, foolish child?

“Get out. Now.”

He took a step back and regarded her thoughtfully for the briefest of moments. He bowed his head and turned toward the elevator, and she got up and walked briskly into Cullen’s office, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t want to wait around for the elevator to heed his call before he finally left, and she really did need to find her damn underwear.

Chapter Text

Cullen had heard snippets of Ellana’s and Solas’ conversation, so she explained how they’d struck up a friendship over their shared interest in art and distaste for the Game. She also confided that it was nice to have an elven friend in a city as racist and elitist as Val Royeaux, and Cullen agreed that there was strength in numbers. He seemed a little hurt, however, by what Solas seemed to think of him. She tried to explain that he often saw the worst in everyone (except herself, she reflected privately) and that his suspicions would have been aimed at anyone in Cullen’s position. He seemed mollified, but not entirely convinced.

When she got home that night she was more exhausted than usual. After her argument with Solas and appeasement of Cullen, she’d still had to finish her work and follow Leliana’s daily instruction. When she closed the door to her apartment behind her, she kicked off her shoes and dropped her purse on the floor. She was about to go to her bedroom, but when she glanced toward the kitchen she saw Dorian at the table with two glasses of ale and a platter of Tevinter cuisine he knew she liked. It was covered in fogged plastic wrap to keep it warm, and two empty plates were set on the table, ready to be piled high with food. She frowned and lurched into the kitchen. “Dorian. Were you waiting for me?”

He waved a hand grandly. “Only for a little while,” he said, smiling. Ellana knew that charming, hollow smile. Something was wrong.

“What’s all this?”

“I thought we could eat. Are you hungry?”

She nodded and sat down across from him, pulling the wrapping away from the platter and spooning her meal onto her plate. He watched her with a strange attentiveness, as if he was measuring her movements for something she couldn’t see. When she started to eat, he served himself. For the first few minutes she didn’t speak at all, too busy stuffing her mouth to get a word in between bites. “Charming habit, that,” he said cheerfully, and she knew he was speaking to fill the silence.

When she was no longer ravenous she slowed her eating to a more dignified pace. “I’ve had enough critique for today, thank you,” she said tiredly, and he raised his eyebrows.

“Oh no. What did Leliana do this time? Make you balance a book on your head?”

“I wish.” She took a sip of ale and shook her head. “Anyway, it wasn’t her, it was…” she sighed and swirled her food with her spoon. “Just… nothing.”

He frowned and leaned back in his chair, tapping his napkin against his mouth. He was still watching her with unnerving intensity.

She set her spoon down and looked at him. “What is it, Dorian? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, me?” He pressed a hand to his chest and smiled. “Nothing, enjoy your dinner.”

She pursed her lips and pushed her plate away. “I’m done. What is it?”

His smile fell, and he sighed. “I was going to ask you for a favor. It’s terribly embarrassing, I’m not used to asking for much of anything.”

She leaned her elbows on the table, her unease rapidly dissolving into worry. “You can ask me whatever you want. You know that, right?”

He crossed his arms and looked down at the table, “I know, my friend. This is… I hate doing this. I thought making dinner was the least I could do.”

“You’re really making me nervous, you know.”

He smiled sadly. “Right, I should know better.” He paused and shifted in his seat. “Something rather unpleasant happened today.”

She bit her lip. “Well, you’re from Tevinter, so ‘unpleasant’ could mean a lot of things,” she said dryly, hoping he would laugh. He didn’t.

He nodded. “You don’t know how right you are.”

Her mouth felt dry. “Dorian. What’s wrong?”

He sighed. “I’m trying to decide how to explain all this, where to begin. Something has happened.”

“What is it?”

“I tried to pay for lunch down the street and they rejected my card. Luckily I had a few sovereigns on me.” He fiddled with his spoon before setting it down on his plate. He stared diligently at the table as he continued. “At first I thought it was just a mistake, but when I called the bank they told me my inheritance—and all the stock and bonds I’d bought with it—had been seized by the Imperium.”

She felt her jaw go slack. She’d expected him to confess to a gambling problem, or explain how someone had scammed him, but this… this was sinister. Tevinter shouldn’t have the authority to do this to a citizen of Orlais.

Her fear must have shown on her face, because he raised his hand in a placating gesture. “Now, please understand, the Imperium isn’t after me. It’s not as if I’ve made an enemy of the Archon.”

“Then why would they say that Tevinter—“

His lip curled to one side as he shook his head, “My father.”

“But how—“

“When I left Tevinter I was led to believe that I was able to claim my… inheritance. I wouldn’t say I was outright lied to, but…” he shrugged. “I requested for my trust to be opened early, and the bank made a big show of calling my father before transferring the money to my account and saying the money was mine, in that complicated, technical way bankers have.”

She frowned, but said nothing. She could already tell where this was heading, and it was nowhere good.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, I only wanted to get out as quickly as possible. Since then, there have been no problems. I’ve been able to support myself perfectly fine. You know how the necromancy business can be; oftentimes I don’t make much of a profit, but I’ve budgeted and invested and…” He looked away, and for the first time she realized he was ashamed. “I did everything I could to be smart, so that nothing like this would ever happen.”

For a moment there was only silence. Ellana looked down at her cooling dinner and half full glass of ale, and felt indescribably small. Her friend was being targeted by his own father—a powerful, corrupt Tevinter magister—and she could do nothing of value to help him. What was she, compared to the thousands of minions Halward Pavus must have at his disposal? She had no power or resources to protect him.

She had never wanted power or resources until that moment, but feeling so keenly helpless made her want to crumble. She had nothing to offer him but words of comfort.

Words were worth little to a beggar. She knew that better than most.

He stood abruptly, clearly agitated, and began to pace through the kitchen. “I frightened the manager; it was rather funny, actually. I insisted on speaking with him in private and I summoned—well—“ he cut himself off abruptly and waved his hand. “I scared the hair off that man’s head, and he admitted that my father used his pull as Magister to bend a few rules and break a few more. Apparently the money was never legally mine. He just let me believe it was, so he could pull the rug out from under me if he ever got desperate.” He stopped his pacing and turned toward her with a grim expression. “He’s always had this trick up his sleeve. For eight years, he’s been waiting to do this.”

She drew a long breath and pushed the hair out of her eyes in one slow, sweeping motion, trying to clear her thoughts. “But you transferred it to a different bank account, in a different country, it can’t be legal for him to have access to it. We should report this. Void, we should get the fucking Empress herself involved.”

“I’ve been told I’m lucky not to be facing criminal charges for stealing from my own trust,” he said caustically. “What my father did was illegal, but apparently by falling for the ruse I look equally guilty.”

Ellana rose to her feet and approached him, laying her hand on his forearm. “Creators, Dorian. I can’t believe… this is such a mess.”

He covered her hand with his briefly, and then sighed. “There’s more.”

She smiled nervously and tried to joke. “Are you hiring a hitman?”

That surprised a laugh out of him, and he shook his head. “I’m beginning to think my father will outlive all of us. No. I’m afraid this whole disaster has caused some… financial difficulties.”

She nodded quickly. “Of course. What do you need? I mean, I don’t have much, but anything I have is yours—“

He cut her off with a self-deprecating, humorous lilt, but his expression was serious. “You’re too trusting, Lana. You shouldn’t say things like that to people. Especially not a Magister’s son.”

She rolled her eyes, annoyed that he was demurring. “What is with everyone saying I’m too trusting or too naïve? Hasn’t anyone considered I might just be a good judge of character?”

“Naïve? Did someone call you naïve?”

She sighed and shook her head, waving her hand as if to clear the air. “No, no, nevermind. The point is I’m here for you. You don’t have to keep dancing around whatever it is you need to say.”

“Ah. Just out with it then, hmm?”

She nodded.

He looked away awkwardly. “I can’t pay rent this month. I was hoping you could… loan me the money for my half. I haven’t been left with nothing, so if I shuffle a few things around I should be fine, but for now I don’t have many options because—“

“Dorian, of course I’ll pay.” She stopped short and thought of how little money she actually had to her name. “Wait, hold on, I have some cash. Let me check something.”

Dorian nodded rapidly, looking nervous and apologetic. She went to her bedroom and fished her remaining cash out of her dresser drawer, and began counting.

She counted a second time.

And a third time.

She had just enough extra money to cover Dorian’s half of the rent, which would leave her with nothing to pay the tattoo artist.

Feeling suddenly anxious, she folded up the bills without a moment’s hesitation, and met Dorian in the kitchen. She held the wad of sovereigns out to him and he balked, taking a step back. “Ellana, I know this is a lot—“

She scoffed. “Please. Take it.” She grasped his hand and forced him to take the cash, closing his fist around it. He looked at her with a slightly stunned expression, and she patted his hand. “How many times have you fed me when I couldn’t feed myself?”

He frowned. “You know that was different.”

She scoffed and shoved his shoulder. “Yeah. You always made me eat your gross Tevinter food.”

****

She considered asking Josephine for an advance on her next paycheck, but she already felt like the firm’s charity case, being a Dalish elf they only hired because of Dorian’s connections and glowing recommendation.

She also considered trying to sell some of her paintings, but she had no idea how to go about doing that. She feared no one would even be interested; if she was both a nobody and talentless, she wanted to remain ignorant of it for as long as possible.

Several days passed as she tried to scrape together whatever money she didn’t need to spend on food, but as she struggled to find spare sovereigns that simply weren’t there, her remaining time dwindled. When she finally conceded that she couldn’t pay for her tattoo, the appointment was only a day away. She called the shop and asked if they would refund her deposit if she canceled, and was told they couldn’t afford to do so, having already blocked out the time for the tattoo.

Feeling guilty and disappointed, she was on her way to the shop to apologize in person, when she passed the café where she’d previously run into Solas.

As she trudged up the street she felt as if she was being watched, and when she turned to look in the café window she saw Solas sitting at a table with a half-eaten pastry and a cup of coffee, frowning at her. She paused on the sidewalk, and they stared at each other.

They hadn’t spoken since he’d walked in on her and Cullen.

She began to turn away, and he rose abruptly and rushed out the door, pushing it open hastily and striding out onto the sidewalk. He looked her over carefully, as if reassuring himself of her wholeness, and nodded sharply at her. She waited for him to speak, but he didn’t.

He stood motionless, staring at her.

Annoyed, she turned to continue walking, and he called after her. “Wait,” he said. “Please, will you come inside with me?”

She sighed and looked over her shoulder. He wasn’t frowning overtly, but there was a tension about his brows and mouth that told her he was struggling to look impassive. His eyes were bright and somber. She paused for a moment, and he took half a step closer, as if unaware that he was moving. She gestured toward the door and he reluctantly led her to the café. He glanced back at her before opening the door, and the bell rang cheerily at their entrance. She sat down across from him. He paused and made an abortive gesture with his pastry, as if he meant to offer it to her, but he set it aside and stared at his coffee instead.

Her irritation quickly withered when he looked her in the eye and said, “I’m terribly sorry, Ellana. I should never have called you a child.”

Of all the things he’d said to her in the office, that had hurt the most. She wondered how he knew that.

She hadn’t even known it herself, until just now.

She fiddled with the seam of her shirtsleeve, slouching in her seat without meeting his eye. Shrugging, she said quietly, “No, you shouldn’t have said that.”

“I never meant to hurt your feelings. And I never meant to overstep. It was especially inappropriate to say that to you, considering our… previous relationship.”

She looked up at him then, and found he’d regained some of his confidence. His gaze was unwavering and sincere. “’Previous relationship?’ You mean how you’ve had your tongue in my mouth?”

He pursed his lips at her, and she smiled timidly. “I only meant that it was wrong to condescend to you.”

Her smile grew, and she relaxed a little. “Thank you. It’s alright.”

“But—“

She rolled her eyes. “’But?’ You were doing so good, Solas!”

“But I don’t apologize for what I said about him. I still believe his behavior—“

“I never asked!”

“And I won’t bring it up again.”

She raised her eyebrows, struck silent. That was an unexpected twist.

“I just want you to know I meant what I said about Cullen, and I will always be willing to intercede on your behalf if you begin to feel uncomfortable. But I understand this upsets you, so I will leave it at that. You won’t hear about it again from me.”

No matter how much his concern irked her, she felt herself softening. The matter-of-fact tone of his voice stood so starkly against the compassion of his offer that it awed her. “Damn, Solas. Do you talk this way to everyone?”

He quirked a brow. “What do you mean?”

“You just—you just say things like that all the time, don’t you?”

He sipped at his coffee, ostensibly to have something to do. He seemed suddenly uncomfortable again. “I have been thinking about this quite a lot.”

“So have I.”

She shifted in her seat, and he looked at her searchingly. “Thank you for hearing me out. I know you were very upset with me.”

“Yeah, but it’s hard to stay mad at you. You get this look on your face, like you’re in physical pain.”

“I’m not sure if you’re joking or not.”

“Maybe half joking.”

He chuckled, and gestured at the pastry between them. She tore off a piece and popped it in her mouth. She sucked stray icing off her thumb, and caught him watching her. They both looked away.

An awkward silence fell, and Solas cleared his throat. “What brings you to this part of the city? Are you getting your tattoo today?”

Her face fell, and she shrugged quickly. “No, not today.” She felt suddenly struck by the inevitability of her plans falling through. She should have known better than to expect a chance to reclaim a piece of her lost history, however small and incomplete that piece might be. It was silly, really: an elven receptionist, earning just enough to eat and clothe and house herself, spending her only extra money to have ink buried under her skin. And for what? For the symbolism of June’s branches arching along her inner forearm? For the secret knowledge that she’d taken back a fragment of her heritage? Was that worth the sovereigns she’d wasted on the deposit? Was that worth the judgment of her bosses?

“Ellana.”

She looked up, and saw he was frowning with such intense focus and sincerity she blushed. She fidgeted with her sleeve, trying to shutter her face to seal away her secrets, but that was the hardest part of the Game for her. And she couldn’t play the Game with Solas.

“You look upset,” he said quietly, and she shrugged.

It was impossible to pretend to be alright in that moment; her self-control had worn down to the breadth of a thread. She didn’t want to tell him the embarrassing truth of her disappointment and disgust over a silly tattoo. It seemed so childish. She cast about for something easier. “Something’s happening with Dorian. His father cut him off—he didn’t even know he was on and now he’s cut off—and he doesn’t have much money because suddenly it’s all disappeared. It’s like a Tevinter conspiracy, it’s ridiculous, this whole thing is ridiculous. I’m so used to knowing he can take care of himself, he just throws money at whoever needs it and now he’s almost broke and he says it’ll be fine but I’m not sure, and his father keeps trying to contact him through me and I don’t want to get in the middle of it but I’m afraid things will escalate if he keeps ignoring him but Dorian won’t even talk about why he won’t speak to him and I’d never tell him what to do but if his father has this much power what is he going to pull a month from now…” She realized she was babbling without drawing breath, and trailed off. She inhaled deeply and slouched forward, her hair spilling onto the surface of the table. She rested her face in her hands.

She hadn’t thought much about Dorian’s situation, being so wrapped up in her own selfishness, but she realized everything she’d said was true. She was deeply worried about him.

Solas gently pulled her hands away from her face and held them against the table. His eyes were solemn and determined. “Listen to me,” he said, and she felt his thumb tracing small, soothing circles along the back of her hand. It was pleasantly distracting. “Your friend is resilient. If what you say about his father is true, he’s already overcome insurmountable odds. He’s made a life for himself here, and he has the strength of character to realize he doesn’t need his father to keep him afloat.” He glanced briefly at her hands, which were curled beneath his, “And he has you.”

She sighed and closed her eyes, nodding slowly. She could feel her anxiety beginning to slowly dissolve, leaving only melancholy in its wake.

“What else is bothering you?”

She opened her eyes and shook her head. He was always observant at the most inconvenient of times. “It’s nothing. Stupid, really.”

“I highly doubt that.” He was still holding her hands, and she knew she should pull away; they were crossing a line. Friends didn’t hold hands like this.

“I told you, it’s stupid. I can’t get my tattoo. Don’t have the money. Something came up, and—“

“You lent the money to Dorian.”

She pulled her hands out of his grasp and clutched them in her lap. She shouldn’t have told him. “It’s not like it sounds. He’s done a lot for me, more than I could ever repay.”

He nodded, but his gaze was distant. “When is your appointment?”

“What, for the tattoo? Why?”

“When is it?”

“Tomorrow. At two o’clock.”

He leaned forward, his expression suddenly intense. “Let me pay for it.”

She laughed, startled. “Are you kidding? No, that’s ridiculous.”

“Please consider it.”

“Solas—“

“I never properly apologized. Or, at least, I never apologized to my satisfaction.” He paused when he saw she was confused, and clarified. “For what I said about the Dalish, so soon after we’d met. Let me make amends by helping you get the tattoo that commemorates who you really are, who you’re proud to be. Doesn’t it strike you as a perfect way to atone for how I insulted your people?”

“That’s ridiculous and you know it. You already apologized, and I forgave you. You’re just using this as an excuse to pay for me, which is sweet, but I can’t let you do that.”

“Then think of it as a gift.”

She scoffed and leaned back in her chair. “For what? What’s the occasion?”

He didn’t miss a beat. “You never did tell me your birthday.”

That shocked a laugh out of her. “So, what are you saying? This is a pre-emptive birthday gift now?”

He raised his eyebrows, the ghost of a smile gracing his lips. “Ah. So your birthday has yet to arrive. I haven’t missed it.”

She couldn’t think of anything to say, so she just said his name. “Solas.”

“You were kind to your friend, you lent him money. Let someone else show you some kindness.”

“So far you’ve offered it as an apology, as a birthday gift, and now as a random act of kindness. By the Creators, why is this so important to you?”

He went still. “I was sincere before, about this being an apology for what I said about the Dalish. But…” He studied her warmly, like he was memorizing the way she looked. “After Leliana’s humiliations, you deserve to have something of your own, something you take pride in. Before this case is resolved, I’m afraid the press and the nobles will drain you of that pride.” He paused delicately, as if he was measuring his words. What he said next was barely more than a whisper. “Friends help each other, don’t they? Allow me to help you.”

She watched him closely, frowning. “I think… you and Dorian believe helping me with these things will solve all my problems. You know that’s not true, right?”

Solas smiled and shook his head. “That’s not what this is about. I want to help you, just as you wanted to help Dorian.”

She drew in a ragged breath and crossed her arms. That impulse, she understood. “Ok. But I need you to know I’m gonna pay you back. This isn’t a gift, it’s a loan.”

“Whatever makes you feel most comfortable,” he said impassively, but his mouth hinted at a smile.

“And you don’t get to be smug.”

He was visibly biting back a grin now. “I would never.”

“And I want you to try to be nice to Cullen.”

His expression soured. “I’ve been nothing but civil to him, and I will continue to show him that courtesy.”

She rolled her eyes and tore off another piece of his pastry.

“Any other requests?” he said, watching her intently.

She ate the piece as she thought. “Stop trying to figure out when my birthday is.”

“Out of the question. That’s non-negotiable.”

She kicked his foot under the table, and he smiled from behind his cup of coffee.